Russia Direct https://russia-direct.org Russia Direct features articles, white papers and monthly memos that provide the kind of nuanced understanding required by those with a deep involvement and interest in U.S. and Russian foreign policy. en-us Russia Direct announces important changes for subscribers https://russia-direct.org/company-news/russia-direct-announces-important-changes-subscribers
Russia Direct Team

Starting January 1, 2017 Russia Direct will be moving to a new paid content model that includes a paywall for daily articles and content and a suspension of monthly reports. 

Founded in 2013, Russia Direct released more than 40 analytical reports on Russia. Photo: Russia Direct

Dear subscribers,

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Wed, 14 Dec 2016 13:53:31 +0000 5234 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/company-news/russia-direct-announces-important-changes-subscribers#comments Russia Direct announces important changes for subscribers

Starting January 1, 2017 Russia Direct will be moving to a new paid content model that includes a paywall for daily articles and content and a suspension of monthly reports

Starting January 1, 2017 Russia Direct will be moving to a new paid content model that includes a paywall for daily articles and content and a suspension of monthly reports. 

Founded in 2013, Russia Direct released more than 40 analytical reports on Russia. Photo: Russia Direct

Dear subscribers,

In 2015, when we first launched our new subscription-based offering, we viewed it as an experiment to see what was possible within a very narrow publishing niche. We gave it a chance to work, but regret to inform you that, starting January 1, 2017 Russia Direct will be moving to a new paid content model that includes a paywall for our daily articles and content and a suspension of our monthly reports.

This obviously impacts you as subscribers, and so we wanted to explain exactly what will happen to your subscription in 2017. As a paid subscriber, you will automatically be given free access to all content on the Russia Direct website for the remaining period of your subscription. You will also still be able to access all archive reports on the RD website free of charge.

As an alternative, you will also have the option to receive a refund for your subscription. However, if you choose this option, you will not then be able to access any free content on the Russia Direct site.

Of course, we hope that you will remain as subscribers in 2017. In an effort to be as transparent as possible, we are going to add a FAQ page to our website that completely explains what the new subscription model will mean for you. You can also contact us with your questions at: contact@russia-direct.org.

Thank you for your support and for being part of our dedicated group of readers. It has always been our privilege to serve you, and have you as part of our RD community.

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Editor's note: Russia Direct stops updating its website https://russia-direct.org/company-news/editors-note-russia-direct-stops-updating-its-website
Pavel Koshkin

Russia Direct has stopped updating its website following the failure of negotiations between an independent party to take over Russia Direct from its owner, Russian newspaper Rossisykaya Gazeta.

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Sun, 26 Mar 2017 19:13:39 +0000 5534 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/company-news/editors-note-russia-direct-stops-updating-its-website#comments Editor's note: Russia Direct stops updating its website

Russia Direct has stopped updating its website following the failure of negotiations between an independent party to take over Russia Direct from its owner, Russian newspaper Rossisykaya Gazeta

Russia Direct has stopped updating its website following the failure of negotiations between an independent party to take over Russia Direct from its owner, Russian newspaper Rossisykaya Gazeta.

The cover of Russia Direct's report "Brexit: Is Europe Unraveling?". Photo: Russia Direct 

Last weekend, unsanctioned opposition protests brought throngs of people into the streets in both Russia and Belarus, resulting in the arrest of dozens — or even hundreds of protestors (according to different estimates, about 1,000 people were detained in Moscow on Mar. 26).

In Belarus, protesters demanded the repeal of a controversial law that imposes taxes on the unemployed, while in Russia, crowds called for the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, who was accused of corruption by opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Mar. 2. Navalny (who was also taken into custody) backed the protests in Russia, which took place in cities across the country.

Almost 800 people were detained in Moscow as a result of the March 26 protest. Photo: Russia Direct

Under usual circumstances, Russia Direct would have closely followed these events and provided its readers both well-balanced analysis and a diverse range of opinions on them. As of March 23, however, Russia Direct is no longer able to offer such coverage. Russia Direct has stopped updating its website following the failure of negotiations between an independent party to take over Russia Direct from its owner, Russian newspaper Rossisykaya Gazeta.

In January 2017, Rossiyskaya Gazeta ended its financial support of Russia Direct, and it suspended its monthly reports, but we have struggled to maintain the website while searching for sponsors and other means of funding. Since March 1, the website has been maintained on a purely volunteer basis.

Also read: "Editor's note: Well-balanced approach is crucial for US-Russia relations"

Among options we considered for maintaining the site were crowdfunding and applying for grants. We also hoped to move to a new paid content model that would include a paywall. Such options would have required the publication be moved to independent ownership, however, and after a number of letters and conversations with Rossiyskaya Gazeta management, the parent company refused to hand over the rights to the publication to an independent third party.

When asked why Rossiyskaya Gazeta could not hand over the media outlet to a third party, a representative of the newspaper made it clear that the fact that Russia Direct was financially supported by Rossiyskaya Gazeta in 2013-2016 prevents any independent individual or organization from taking it over.

At the same time, the newspaper regrets that it could no longer maintain and financially support the publication. However, the good news is that the audience will still have access to Russia Direct’s articles as well as its archive, which comprises the analytical reports (they are available only to paid subscribers who didn’t request a full refund for their paid annual subscription). A representative of Rossiyskaya Gazetа claims that it has been trying to resume the funding of the project, albeit unsuccessfully.

The rise and fall of Russia Direct

Russia Direct began almost four years ago, when U.S.-Russia relations had not yet reached their current state, although there were signs of discord, including the case of whistleblower Edward Snowden and differences over the civil war in Syria. These differences erupted into full-blown hostility in the winter of 2013-2014, when protests in Ukraine led to the conflict in the Donbass and the annexation of Crimea.

How Russia Direct got started in 2013. Video by Pavel Inzhelevsky and Chris McMorrow.

Despite these inauspicious times, the young journalists and experts who joined together Russia Direct believed there was a place for an analytical publication that could build bridges between Russian and American expert communities, a place that could convert these two monologues into one dialogue.

It is clear that this ambitious goal remains relevant today, especially as Russia plays an ever-larger role in the U.S. media narrative due to ongoing investigations of what role the Kremlin might have played in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Throughout its short history, Russia Direct always sought to produce well-balanced content from a diverse array of experts, analysts and newsmakers from Russia and abroad on the most relevant topics.

One of our guiding principles was to showcase contrasting opinions — sometimes, extremely divergent ones — so that our readers would have the information they needed to reach their own conclusions. We have avoided imposing any agenda of our own, and have never cherry-picked perspectives that favored one side or another.

Russia Direct never shied away from covering the most controversial and pressing problems relevant to our audience. We published articles, debates, interviews and opinions on the downing of flight MH17, the assassination of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and the murky relations between the Kremlin and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Mostly recently, Russia Direct run several articles on Navalny’s investigation into Medvedev’s corruption schemes — a topic that was taboo for some Russian media outlets.

Recommended: "Video: Time for a real dialogue between Russia and the United States"

Nevertheless, despite our independent editorial policy, guidelines, goals, and audience, we have been persistently accused of being both the Kremlin’s mouthpiece and “a bunch of CIA agents” or a “fifth column.” Of course, neither was true.

As The Washington Post wrote in December 2016, Russia Direct “has nothing like the Moscow-centric slant of the outlets usually associated with Kremlin propaganda, such as the Duran, Sputnik or RT. And every Russia Direct story comes with a box directing the reader to another story that presents an alternative — if not always opposing — point of view.”

Indeed, creating an honest dialogue was top priority for Russia Direct. We have not been the Kremlin’s propaganda and never received funding from CIA. We simply tried to find a balance between these two extremes while maintaining our journalistic integrity. Perhaps being accused of propaganda by both sides is the best evidence that we achieved our goal.

The website will no longer be updated, but our web-only content as well as the archive of our analytical reports will remain accessible online for the time being.

Dear readers, thank you for your interest, support and loyalty to our project. It has always been our privilege to serve you, and have you as part of our Russia Direct community! And, of course, thanks to Rossiyskaya Gazeta that helped to launch this project.

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How Russia is preparing for the 2018 presidential elections https://russia-direct.org/opinion/how-russia-preparing-2018-presidential-elections
Ekaterina Grobman

The Kremlin is hesitant about allowing Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to run for president in 2018. However, he might be seen as both a tool of attracting voters to the polling stations and a troublemaker.

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Tue, 21 Mar 2017 21:18:09 +0000 5524 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/how-russia-preparing-2018-presidential-elections#comments How Russia is preparing for the 2018 presidential elections

The Kremlin is hesitant about allowing Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to run for presidency. However, he might be seen as both a tool of attracting voters to the polling stations and a troublemaker

The Kremlin is hesitant about allowing Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to run for president in 2018. However, he might be seen as both a tool of attracting voters to the polling stations and a troublemaker.

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny during an interview to the Associated Press in Moscow. Photo: AP

Before Russia staged the Crimean referendum to take over the peninsula from Ukraine in March 2017, the rumors about “little green men” without insignia, who seized key administrative buildings in Crimea, circulated in the media. They were reported to have come from Russia to conduct a secret operation to foster Crimea’s “return”. The rumors were eventually confirmed.  

Three years later and one year ahead of the 2018 presidential election in Russia, the “little green men” came back — this time in the incarnation of Alexei Navalny, the Russian anti-corruption whistleblower, a charismatic opposition leader and probable presidential candidate. On Monday, Mar. 20, an unknown individual splashed bright green liquid into the face of the opposition politician in the Siberian city of Barnaul, where Navalny planned to open his election headquarters.

Video by Alexei Navalny

Whether one likes it or not, this incident looks like a part of the Russian presidential campaign that seems to be in a full swing. Navalny announced his presidential bid in November, 2016 regardless of criminal charges against him for the alleged embezzlement in a state company. But the resumption of a four-year-old criminal conviction hampered his odds.  

In early March, he released a documentary — the investigation, in which he accused Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of large-scale corruption. While some observers saw the probe as persuasive and relevant, others (primarily, politicians and the authorities) describe the documentary as a start of Navalny’s political campaign to bolster his publicity.

Nevertheless, Navalny got the media's attention and even more supporters. And it seems that he is not going to give up. He is going to organize an anti-corruption rally on Mar. 26 in defiance of the authorities' attempts to stop him. His early campaign is based on revealing corruption schemes of those at the helm and holding them accountable. In his early video blog, he called on his supporters to defend "the real presidential election" in 2018 and make it more democratic and competitive. According to him, all elections in Russia have been rigged since 1996.

Recommended: "Whistleblower accuses Prime Minister of corruption. Why Russians ignore it"

However, Navalny’s key goal is to be officially registered as a presidential candidate. He believes that the Russian Constitution cannot stop him from becoming a presidential candidate despite pending criminal charges against him. He argues that the Constitution prevents only prisoners from participating in the elections.

Yet, according to political experts, Navalny is aware of his low odds of becoming the official presidential candidate. He understands that it is not going to be easy, given the fact that he will have to collect at least 300,000 signatures (as any other independent candidate who runs for presidency). 

Navalny has already opened his election headhunters in at least six Russian cities, but he seeks to launch about 70 headquarters. This looks like an audacious plan, taking into account the fact that the pro-Kremlin activists have been relentlessly trying to undermine his campaign. Once he gets off the plane or the train in a Russian city, they throw raw eggs at him or splash bright green liquid into his face, as evidenced by a recent incident.

With Navalny’s campaign in full swing, Russian current President Vladimir Putin remains suspiciously reticent and ostensibly hesitant about his plans to run for presidency. This means that officially, the presidential campaign has not yet started. At the same time, other opposition political parties have been preparing their candidates since the end of 2016.

For example, Grigory Yavlinsky, one of the most experienced opposition politicians, officially announced his presidential bid last year. He participates in the race every time and persistently fails. So do other politicians like Vladimir Zhirinovksy, the flamboyant leader of the Russian Liberal-Democratic Party, and Gennady Zyuganov from the Communist Party. All of them look like “fake” candidates who are supposed to fall behind in the race.

Currently, the Kremlin doesn’t seem to have decided whether or not it should grant Navalny the opportunity to register as an official presidential candidate. The agenda of picking rivals for Putin remains open. On the one hand, his competitors should meet the demands of diverse constituencies to prevent them from gathering protest votes. On the other hand, they should not pose a threat to Putin’s future presidency.

Can Navalny be a real rival for Putin in this regard? Hardly likely: Nobody doubts that Putin will be the winner. Quite naturally for Russia, there is no intrigue in the upcoming election at all. Experts ironically describe it as “a credibility referendum for the acting president.”

Also read: "Will Navalny be the candidate the Russian opposition is looking for?"

But if Navalny finally participates in the election, he might score additional political points after the campaign and, most importantly, reinvigorate the protest movement. That might be the reason why the Kremlin is hesitant about allowing him to run for presidency. Thus, Navalny might be seen as both a tool of attracting voters to the polling stations and a troublemaker.

Moreover, the Kremlin is concerned with the possibility of the low turnout during the presidential elections. As indicated by the 2016 parliamentary election with its low turnout (less than 50 percent of Russians came to the polling stations), the lack of interest toward the presidential election among the population is a serious challenge for Putin. After all, it implies that Russia’s “silent majority” doesn’t support him. That's why the authorities will do their best to reinvigorate the people’s interest towards politics.      

Amidst such a background, they pin hopes on the First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian Presidential Administration, Sergei Kiriyenko, a systemic liberal, who was picked by Putin to increase the turnout in the presidential elections. Will he succeed? It remains to be seen.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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The 'Crimean question' in Canada-Russia relations https://russia-direct.org/opinion/crimean-question-canada-russia-relations
Mikhail Molchanov

Even though cherry-picking might be natural for media and politicians who seek to promote their own agenda, such approach could be counterproductive in resolving the Ukrainian standoff, an indicated by the debates over Crimea.

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Mon, 20 Mar 2017 16:14:34 +0000 5522 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/crimean-question-canada-russia-relations#comments The 'Crimean question' in Canada-Russia relations

Even though cherry-picking might be natural for media and politicians who seek to promote their own agenda, such approach could be counterproductive in resolving the Ukrainian standoff, an indicated by the debates over Crimea

Even though cherry-picking might be natural for media and politicians who seek to promote their own agenda, such approach could be counterproductive in resolving the Ukrainian standoff, an indicated by the debates over Crimea.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 8, 2017. Photo: U.S. State Department

On Mar. 16, Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland issued a statement expressing concern over human rights violations in Crimea, specifically mentioning “the persecution of Crimean Tatars and other minorities.” In response, the Russian Embassy in Canada accused Freeland of making “politicized statements with unfounded claims.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner declared that "our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine," adding that Washington does not recognize Crimea’s 2014 referendum. "Residents of Crimea were compelled to vote while heavily armed foreign forces occupied their land," said Toner.

While servicemen in uniforms without insignia indeed backed up the pro-Russian forces in Crimea at the time, calling them occupiers is technically incorrect. Those forces were not shipped in Crimea from Russia on the eve of the referendum: They were stationed in Sevastopol in accordance with the international agreement signed by then-President Viktor Yanukovych, which gave Russia the basing rights until 2042.

For a Ukranian view on Crimea read: "Controversial anniversary: Two years after Crimea's 'return' to Russia"

That president was dislodged in a violent coup d’etat that saw the antigovernment forces firing on their own to blame the loss of innocent lives on the sitting president. Fleeing for his life, Yanukovych abandoned the country, while Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, rubberstamped his ouster and replaced him with unelected revolutionaries. Each and every appointee had to get reconfirmed by rioters in the Maidan, and was either endorsed or rejected by the street. People in Ukraine’s east and south, who gave Yanukovych millions of their votes only a few years before, saw how the regime changed in the blink of an eye.

At the time Freeland characterized Ukraine’s revolution as “openly a battle about democratic values,” offered the Maidan her moral support and rejoiced at prospects of a “powerful demonstration effect in Russia.” Judging by Foreign Minister’s statement on Thursday, her position remained consistent over the years.

On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov pointed out that the decision to conduct the Crimean referendum was made by a body established in accordance with the Ukrainian law.

“We hope that sooner or later Kiev will show respect for the decision made by the Crimean people and recognize the outcome of the plebiscite as it was caused by events taking place in Kiev which had created serious threats for the Crimeans," Peskov said.

The events in question, apart from beating of the Communists, the members of Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions and the pro-Russian sympathizers by the “revolutionaries,” included open demonstration of the Nazi insignia by the Right Sector and Svoboda — the controversial political groups, deemed as racist and anti-Semitic. Their militaries spearheaded the Maidan revolution.

Also read: "Three years after Russia retook Crimea, are the locals really satisfied?"

As a result, mass protests erupted in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. In Crimea, the protesters received a firm, yet bloodless support of the Russian troops (also known as “little green men” and “polite people”) stationed there. On March 16, 2014, 80 percent of eligible voters participated in Crimea’s referendum to join Russia, and over 96 percent of them supported the accession.

Russia moved on to swiftly reincorporate the peninsula, which it ceded to Ukraine in 1954. This was done in contravention of its previously accepted obligation to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Crimea’s "annexation" has not been acknowledged as legitimate by the UN, and Russia’s arguments so far have received no traction with the international community.

And yet, Crimea's takeover might have helped to save lives. Russia’s refusal to extend similar protection to the pro-Russian citizens of Ukraine in the breakaway Donbas led to a protracted civil war that has claimed 10,000 lives so far. Kiev used aerial bombardment, mortar fire and heavy artillery to destroy some of the most densely populated areas in what can only be described as a massive human rights violation. Recognizing it as such seems to elude the western powers, including Canada.

Globe and Mail, a Canadian media outlet, claims that 20,000 Crimean Tatars have left Crimea. In fact, the Ukrainian sources put the total number of migrants from Crimea at 22,862, of which no more than half are reported to be the Crimean Tatars. At the same time, Crimea accepted about 30,000 of refugees from the Donbas war. More than a million of refugees and migrants from Ukraine arrived in Russia. About one third of those received temporary residence permits.

By the start of World War II, Crimean Tatars constituted 19 percent of the population of the peninsula. According to the last Ukrainian survey, 12 percent of the Crimean population were Crimean Tatars. The survey undertaken by Russia in 2014 gives the figure of 10.6 percent of the Crimean Tatars and 2 percent of self-reported “Tatars” — that is, basically the same share as before the annexation. Altogether, 277,300 Crimean Tatars chose to live in Russia, and 99 percent of them applied and received Russian passports.

Crimea’s Constitution gives the Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean-Tatar languages equal rights as the state languages of the Republic of Crimea. Under Ukraine’s rule, only the Ukrainian language enjoyed such rights. Ukraine’s current authorities reportedly discourage the use of the Russian language even in the areas with the majority Russian-speaking population. The January 2017 resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) expressed concerns about the plight of national minorities in Ukraine in light of the proposed language bills aimed at further restriction of their rights.

Russian is a native language for 84 percent, Crimean Tatar — 8 percent, and Ukrainian — 3.3 percent of the Crimean population. It is the native tongue for 80 percent of local Ukrainians, 25 percent of Tatars and 5.6 percent of the Crimean Tatars. Even so, 53 schools offer classes in the Crimean Tatar language. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 decree had fully rehabilitated the Crimean Tatar population as victims of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s forced deportation campaign. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed to the human rights monitoring in Crimea after the meeting with Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe. However, part of the problem, according to Amnesty International, a human rights watchdog, is Ukraine’s own prohibitions and obstruction of visits to Crimea from the Russian territory.

For a very different take on Crimean Tatars read: "The plight of the Crimean Tatars"

While the Majlis, the parliament of the Crimean Tatars, was banned for instigation of disruptive activities, including food and energy blockade of Crimea by Ukraine, a host of other Crimean Tatar organizations has been flourishing in its place. Crimean Tatars are not discriminated against by the Russian authorities.

It is noteworthy that the winner of the Eurovision tournament, the Crimean Tatar singer Jamala, is a frequent guest in Russia, while her parents categorically refuse to relocate to Ukraine from the “occupied” peninsula, where they have received Russian citizenship and run a successful hotel business.

Against the background of these facts, Canada’s Foreign Minister remains intrasigent, as indicated by her statement: One could say that she sticks to her principles. So do the mainstream media in the West, including in Canada. However, the problem is that they seem to ignore other facts that contradict their narrative [this problem is also common for their Russian counterparts — Editor's note]. Even though cherry-picking might be natural for media and politicians (because they are used to promoting their own agenda), such approach could be counterproductive in resolving the Ukrainian standoff. Eventually, this will only result in delaying the much-needed implementation of the Minsk agreements.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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Three years after Russia retook Crimea, are the locals really satisfied? https://russia-direct.org/analysis/three-years-after-russia-retook-crimea-locals-are-disappointed
Pavel Koshkin

Russia’s third celebration of Crimea's takeover got the media attention once again, with some experts warning that the euphoria over Crimea might end sooner and later.

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Mon, 20 Mar 2017 13:46:00 +0000 5520 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/three-years-after-russia-retook-crimea-locals-are-disappointed#comments Three years after Russia retook Crimea, are the locals really satisfied?

Russia’s third celebration of Crimea's takeover got the media attention once again, with some experts warning that the euphoria over Crimea might end sooner and later

Russia’s third celebration of Crimea's takeover got the media attention once again, with some experts warning that the euphoria over Crimea might end sooner and later.

Unidentified gunmen wearing camouflage uniforms blocked the entrance of the Crimean Parliament building, with a poster reading "Crimea Russia" in Simferopol, Crimea, on March 1, 2014. Photo: AP

Last week Russia celebrated the third anniversary of Crimea's takeover, while the EU condemned the Kremlin’s “annexation” of the Black Sea territory as a “direct challenge to international security.” The statement came from EU Foreign Affairs Chief Federica Mogherini one day before the official celebration of the anniversary.

“The European Union remains firmly committed to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Mogherini said. "It does not recognize and continues to condemn this violation of international law.”

Likewise, despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s plans to improve relations with Moscow, Washington made it clear that it won’t lift sanctions on Russia unless the Kremlin returns the peninsula back to Ukraine, according to AFP, a news agency.

Also read: "Two years after Crimea's takeover, no signs of reconciliation"

“Crimea is a part of Ukraine,” U.S. State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said in the Mar. 16 statement. “The United States again condemns the Russian occupation of Crimea and calls for its immediate end. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine.”

The takeover of the peninsula resulted in the sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union and the U.S. In fact, this incident exacerbated the dormant problems in Russia-West relations and turned into harsh confrontation. Moscow’s role in the Ukranian civil war aggravated the problem. Although the opposing sides reached the so-called Minsk Agreements under the mediating role of Germany and France (the agreements were supposed to resolve the conflict diplomatically), they failed to come up with a compromise and alleviate the tensions.  

Before retaking Crimea, in the early March of 2014, Russia orchestrated a referendum shortly after seizing the key government building, launching large-scale media campaign and secretly deploying its troops on the peninsula (also known as “little green men” and “polite people”). In fact, the Kremlin conducted the poll to legitimize “the incorporation”, even though Ukraine and the West saw the referendum as illegitimate in its nature, because it contradicted the Ukrainian constitution.

Furthermore, the Kremlin is reported to have neglected the opinion of Crimean Tatars, a national minority on the peninsula. Regardless of this fact, Moscow confidently said that the referendum represented the will of the people and was peaceful in its nature.

Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly highlighted that Russia's operation in Crimea didn't lead to bloodshed. But, at the same time, he passed over in silence the fact that Crimea's takeover finally led to the Donbas war, which claimed thousands of lives. To quote the 2016 UN report on the human rights situation in Ukraine, almost 10,000 people had been killed between April 2014 and December 2016, with about 23,000 people injured.

Is the accession to Russia a game-changer for Crimea? 

However, Moscow's official position is crystal clear. "Sooner or later Kiev will start to treat the will expressed by the several million Crimean residents with respect and will accept the results [of the 2014 referendum],” the Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters during the anniversary, as quoted by Radio Free Europe/Liberty.

Recommended: "Why the Kremlin has faced troubles to integrate the Crimean Tatars"

Even though there is no unanimity in Crimea about the impact of the peninsula's accession to Russia, the locals seem to be happy despite the persisting economic challenges. "We've returned home, we're again in Russia. Our children are growing up without war," a resident of Simferopol, the city in Crimea, told Russia Beyond The Headlines (RBTH), an English-language media outlet.

Nevertheless, according to an alternative narrative, far from improving, the life on the Crimean peninsula gets even worse, with the Kremlin-backed authorities have been reportedly violating the rights of the ethnic minorities — Crimean Tatars, who don’t support Moscow.  

According to Vladimir Garnachuk, the former aid to the peninsula’s vice-premier, the Crimean people fought against the system imposed by Ukraine, but today this system is coming back in a much tougher edition, with persisting corruption and human rights abuses. Crimean people have not enjoyed better living standards since they became the citizens of Russia. Instead of developing, Crimea is falling behind, he said.

“One should clearly understand that Crimea in 2014 and Crimea in 2017 are different,” he told Dozhd TV, an independent television channel. “The problem is that those ideals that were defended in March 2014 have been betrayed.”

Likewise, some people in Crimea seem to have been disappointed. "Ukraine never took care of it, but Russia is also not taking caring of it," said Russian language teacher Yulia Minaeva in an interview to RBTH. "At least, they started repairing the road that connects the airport with the city."

Is Crimea still a source of national pride for Russians?

However, ordinary Russians are still feelling a sort of euphoria over Crimea’s annexation. According to a recent public opinion poll of the Levada Center, Crimea’s takeover is the second most important event in the Russian history, following the victory in the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War. While 43 percent of respondents believe that “Crimea’s return to Russia” inspires the feeling of national pride, 83 percent vote for the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Moreover, Crimea outpaced Russia’s achievements in the space exploration, with 41 percent voted for the latter. This is a remarkable shift, given the fact that "the space exploration" has been second, at least until 2017.

According to some Russian sociologists, Crimea is the manifestation of a surge of Russian nationalism, with the flavor of imperial renaissance. “Russians boasted that they finally returned to the status of a great power and forced the rest of the world to respect us,” Lev Gudkov, the director of the Moscow-based Levada Center, told Russia Direct in an August interview in 2016.

On Mar. 18, the Russian authorities organized the large-scale rally and concert, dedicated to the third anniversary of Crimea’s "incorporation" near Lomonosov Moscow State University. According to the police, it brought together 150 thousand people. At first glance, it indicates that most Russians are indeed supporting Crimea’s takeover. However, if one pays closer attention to the nuances and details, which the authorities pass over, the situation will be more complicated, with Russians (at least those living in Moscow and St. Petersburg) being not unanimous in their support of the Kremlin’s moves in Crimea.

The Riga-based Meduza, a Russian-language independent media outlet, published a reportage from the Mar. 18 rally and found out that the authorities paid 300 rubles (about $5) to volunteers for participating in the meeting, implying that many attendees came to celebrate “the return of Crimea” not because of their patriotism. Meduza’s undercover correspondent received the money from the rally's organizers after she spent several hours at the meeting.

Also read: "Understanding the context of the Kremlin's post-Crimean ideology"

As indicated by the interviews with the participants, they attended the rally because they needed money, not because of politics or their national pride for Crimea. In fact, many of them made no bones about their political apathy, indifference toward Crimea and mercantile interests.

“I came here not to defend ideas, but to get money,” one of the participants told Meduza. “I see it as a job.”

The situation is complicated by the fact that Lomonosov Moscow State University’s leadership and its students were against organizing the rally on the territory of the University. They tried to protest and, moreover, signed an online petition to the authorities to return the territory of the University under its legitimate control. The initiators of the petition, which has brought together more than 3, 500 signatures by Mar. 20, made it clear that “the University should stay out of politics.” However, the authorities seems to have ignored their demand and staged the rally.

Expert commentary
Alexey Levinson, social research director at Levada Center:

The number of Russians who support Crimea’s accession has not changed [since Russia retook the peninsula in 2014]. And this figure — 82-84 percent — turns out to have been more stable than the ranking of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, which also depends on Crimea (now the president’s ranking is about 81 percent, yet previously it reached 89 percent). … And this is despite the fact that the living standards have been decreased for the last two years.

And everybody is ready accept this as a matter of fact, yet the mantra “Crimea is Ours” is still a very important factor. Some [experts] express fears that sooner or later the Crimea effect will come to an end and the authorities will have to offer an alternative that could mobilize the nation. It seems to me that such logic is dangerous and fallacious. The population got a high — yet what’s next, what is to be done with those who united [under to the Crimea agenda] to maintain their euphoria? It is not going to be easy.

That’s why today it is necessary to think over of how to live without such doping. And this question should be addressed not only to the authorities [the Kremlin] that don’t know how to respond to it, but also to the country’s [political and intellectual] elites to offer new ideas to the society — what is to be done?     

In this regard, Russia would better build the national state with all its attributes. This is the state that lives for its own sake, but not for the sake of foreign policy goals. And we are not accustomed to it. We need to learn of how to care about ourselves first and foremost.  

This commentary is based on a video interview with Levinson to Vedomosti newspaper. It has been edited and condensed by Russia Direct’s editorial team. Watch the original video here.

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The democratic Russia we lost https://russia-direct.org/opinion/democratic-russia-we-lost
Viktor Katona

It would be erroneous to think that appetite for democracy in Russia will inevitably come in the course of time – it will come only if its citizens feel that their voices do matter. This is the lesson modern Russia should learn from the historic phenomenon of democracies in medieval Novgorod and Pskov.

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Fri, 17 Mar 2017 14:26:10 +0000 5518 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/democratic-russia-we-lost#comments The democratic Russia we lost

It would be erroneous to think that appetite for democracy in Russia will inevitably come in the course of time – it will come only if its citizens feel that their voices do matter. This is the lesson modern Russia should learn from the historic phenomenon of democracies in medieval Novgorod and Pskov

It would be erroneous to think that appetite for democracy in Russia will inevitably come in the course of time – it will come only if its citizens feel that their voices do matter. This is the lesson modern Russia should learn from the historic phenomenon of democracies in medieval Novgorod and Pskov.

 

Russian Painting of 19th century (oil on canvas): Martha the Mayoress at the Destruction of the Novgorod Veche by Klavdi Lebedev (1852 - 1916), Russia, 1889. Photo: State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow / Wikipedia

With Russia marking the 100th anniversary of the 1917 revolution, there is a debatable opinion that between February and October 1917 Russia enjoyed democratic freedoms, which it lost afterwards because it was not well prepared for liberties and freedoms. However, historically, it is not the first time when Russia experienced democracy with its effective institutions.

Imagine a place where people get to directly choose political and religious authorities, have an obligation to keep their cities tidy and are aspiring to iron out hierarchical differences. Now situate the imagined place in the 12th century Russia and there will be the tale of Novgorod and Pskov. These are two booming merchant cities in northwest Russia that are rarely mentioned when pundits of every stripe and color canvass the dour history of Russia, a country, according to most, doomed to autocracy and minimal rule of law.

The tale of democracy in Novgorod and Pskov

Upon analyzing Novgorod’s and Pskov’s political organization of the 12th century, implying wide and representative participation of its citizens in politics, its urban organization, entailing a deliberate and sustained provision of urban amenities for the people and by the people, one cannot but ask: How could Russia have been so democratic at that time?

The Novgorod Republic was by no means a tiny entity, its territory covered the whole northern part of current European Russia. However, most large cities were along main trade routes uniting the Viking North to the Byzantine North, the rest of the state was very sparsely inhabited.

Also read: "100 years after February Revolution: Remembering the end of the Empire"

Pskov was smaller in scope, yet very similar in organization, partly due to the fact that after a period of principality, the Republic became part of the Novgorod Republic, only to become independent in mid-1300s and be swallowed by the Grand Duchy of Moscow again.

Both republics were at the frontier of the Russian world and fought numerous wars against Sweden, the Livonian Order and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – only between Novgorod and the Swedes there were 26 of them within the timeframe of three centuries. Both Republics’ ruling body was the popular assembly called veche, the highest legislature and judicial authority. Novgorod held its veche regularly from 1016 until 1478 — and anyone in Novgorod and nearby villages was able to participate in the assembly and vote.

Novgorod Princes had been invited by the veche to reign since 1136 — very much like the 21st century technocrats. The Princes were constrained by the provisions of the “pact” they concluded with the population and were even barred from living in the center of the city, having to inhabit the so-called Ryurikovo Gorodishe, a settlement outside the city.

Although formally it was the Prince who ruled the Novgorod Republic, essentially all the executive powers were in the hands of the Council of Lords, headed by the Novgorod archbishop. De jure the Novgorod archbishops were not the highest-ranking religious authorities within Ancient Rus, but they managed to free themselves of operational dependence from the Kiev Metropolitan See and could pursue a fairly independent course.

Most importantly, the Novgorod archbishop was elected by the veche — by the people themselves. And it was by no means a fait accompli approval, first the archbishop was elected by the urban and rural population, only then was he sent to Kiev to undergo formal vesting. The veche did not only vest the clergy with religious authority, it also stripped them of their powers, including a curious case from 1228, when the people of Novgorod banished archbishop Arseniy, accusing him of being responsible for a bout of rainy weather.

Thus, in the area of religious independence (the possibilities of the population to influence religious matters), Novgorod went even further than anyone else. However, the nobility could influence people’s opinions or pull the strings leaving the people in complete ignorance. Novgorod archbishops were not necessarily modest and boyars could push for their own agenda.

According to Dmitry Likhachev, a Russian medievalist and linguist, even the construction of churches reflects the then-occurring democratization of life. While churches built prior to the 12th century had special choir aisles dedicated to representatives of the nobility, “new” churches built under the guidance of guildsmen or the townsfolk assembled everyone in one joint space, disregarding any noble prerogatives.

However, democracy in Novgorod and Pskov came with several caveats. Serfdom was a problem, although only in the 1570s, Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible imposed it in the northern part of Russia to its fullest extent. On the other hand, Novgorod and Pskov had a highly literate population, as indicated by the thousands of birch-back texts found around the two cities. Moreover, literacy was not exclusively a male domain, with several texts (most likely the earliest Russian documents) written by women.

Recommended: "Eight women of the Russian Revolution"

Among them is an early 15th century manuscript written by a certain Maria Ivanova for the monks of the Solovetsky Monastery, asking them to pray for her deceased relatives. Women also wrote manu propria testaments, one dating from the late 14th century written by a certain Marfa who bequeathed a church dedicated to St. Nicholas, three villages with adjacent fishing ponds to her brother-in-law, Fyodor Grigorievich.

By implication, most of the traits of the Novgorod Republic apply to Pskov, which was also divided into ends with similar rules of governance. Yet in certain aspects of democratic administration of affairs, Pskov managed to do even better than Novgorod. For instance, due to the fact that Pskov had no all-powerful landowners and most estates were relatively small in size, including the Church’s possessions, its veche was less influenced by boyar infighting and behind-the-scenes struggle.

The Pskov Republic existed between 1348 and 1510, when Grand Duke of Muscovy Vassiliy III conquered the city state, dissolved the veche and distributed estates previously belonging to local noblemen to his service people.

How democracy failed in Novgorod and Pskov

As with most medieval states, Novgorod eventually began to flounder under its internal complexities. By the 15th century the Novgorod aristocracy came to dominate political life, turning a blind eye to the population’s needs and wishes. By that time the Grand Duchy of Muscovy made tremendous progress in uniting Russian lands and established its own religious center, the Moscow Metropolitan See.

The Novgorod boyars tried to resist the surge of Moscow, concluding an alliance with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish Kingdom or by threatening to take an oath of loyalty to the Catholic Pope in case its independence was maintained to its maximum possible extent, further antagonizing the population. Therefore, when in 1471 the Duke of Moscow Ivan III defeated the Novgorod army, unwilling to wage a war against their kin, at the battle of Shelon, it became clear that ethnic affiliation matters more than parochial interests.

Once incorporated by Muscovy, certain strata of Novgorod and Pskov did not abandon their aspirations to regain previously held freedoms, to no avail.

As late as 1570, Ivan the Terrible removed from Novgorod an eight-ton church bell that was said to have been “founded by the prayers of local saints” — the measure was thoroughly symbolic as it meant an end to Novgorod’s chances of attaining self-government again. However, overcoming Russia’s then-actual challenges required a great concentration of power in order to evade getting bogged down in intestine strife, therefore Moscow was bound to gain the upper hand.

The Grand Duchy of Moscow unified the country, and unity within such immense latitudes come at a cost – that cost were the democratic structures and principles of many swallowed-up city states.

Understanding Russia’s modern politics

However, to understand how politics works in Russia, one should keep in mind that the country was disintegrated for an extended period of time, some of its parts would be much more democratic than others. Historically, Moscow or Saint Petersburg were much more exposed to democratic ideas, which is reflected in the mindsets of the natives, while other regions demonstrate only superficial receptivity to democratic ideas.

This phenomenon is neither right, nor wrong, but it is a key factor in understanding the way political power functions in today's Russia. Novgorod and Pskov were fascinating democratic phenomena in the history of Russia, yet the challenges Russia still strives to overcome came under a different set of conditions. For instance, average life expectancy has barely changed between 1300 and 1913, at 30-34 years.

Also read: "The Kremlin's difficult balancing act in preserving the political status quo"

A country, labeled “a Land of Cities” by the Vikings, witnessed a shocking rate of urbanization in the last pre-Soviet years, at 14-15 percent, which corresponds to Russia’s urbanization rate in the early 13th century. Finger-pointing (in order to answer the truly Russian question “Who is to blame for this?”) will only lead to ceaseless squabbling. However, five centuries after the demise of the Novgorod and Pskov Republics, there is a specific lesson to be learned.

It would be erroneous to think that appetite for democracy in Russia will inevitably come in the course of time — it will come only in case of an across-the-board leveling of social inequalities, so that its citizens feel that their voices do matter. Only then will Russia truly cease to be a nation of “slaves and masters”.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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The Dutch election: Relief for Europe — disappointment for the Kremlin? https://russia-direct.org/analysis/dutch-election-relief-europe-disappointment-kremlin
Pavel Koshkin

The defeat of the populist candidate at the Mar. 15 Dutch election doesn’t necessarily mean that the rise of populism is over in Europe. With the immigration crisis in full swing, the trend will persist and the Kremlin might benefit from it. Yet this won’t bring Moscow and Brussels closer.

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Thu, 16 Mar 2017 21:26:03 +0000 5516 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/dutch-election-relief-europe-disappointment-kremlin#comments The Dutch election: Relief for Europe — disappointment for the Kremlin?

The defeat of the populist candidate at the Mar. 15 Dutch election doesn’t necessarily mean that the rise of populism is over in Europe. With the immigration crisis in full swing, the trend will persist and the Kremlin might benefit from it

The defeat of the populist candidate at the Mar. 15 Dutch election doesn’t necessarily mean that the rise of populism is over in Europe. With the immigration crisis in full swing, the trend will persist and the Kremlin might benefit from it. Yet this won’t bring Moscow and Brussels closer.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (pictured) warded off a challenge from islamophobic Geert Wilders, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party (PVV). Rutte at the opening of of an Islamic manuscript exhibition in December 2016. Photo: Mark Rutte's official facebook page

The Mar.15 parliamentary elections in the Netherlands seem to have allayed the fears of the West that another populist candidate would come to power in one of the most liberal countries of the European Union. The current Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, warded off a challenge from Geert Wilders, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party (PVV).

“The Netherlands said ‘Stop’ to the wrong sort of populism,” said Rutte shortly after his victory.

Likewise, other European leaders welcomed the results of the Dutch election. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said it was victory of “free and tolerant societies in a prosperous Europe,” while German Chancellor Angela Merkel saw it as a “very pro-European result” and a “good day for democracy.” Rutte’s victory brought a great deal of relief in France, where xenophobic and anti-EU candidate Marine Le Pen from the National Front might win, according to the pre-election presidential polls. French President François Hollande said the Dutch election was a “clear victory against extremism”.

Also read: "Is the Dutch referendum on Ukraine really a game-changer?"

The very fact the European political elites responded to Rutte’s reelection emotionally indicates that they were unconfident and discouraged by a series of the events that manifested the resurgence of nationalism and populism. The UK exit from the European Union and the victory of flamboyant Republican Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election sent a warning signal to them.

In fact, Wilders was seen as the Dutch incarnation of Trump, with his Euroscepticism, Islamophobia and anti-immigration rhetoric. He promised to “de-Islamize” the Netherlands and exit from the European Union during the pre-election campaign, so that many European experts and politicians saw him as a threat to the EU core values and, most importantly, its unity.

According to the preliminary results of the elections, Rutte’s center-right and liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) is expected to take 33 seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament, with Wilders’ PVV finishing second and taking about 20 seats. However, Rutte’s party will have to earn the support of at least three more parties to get 76 seats to rule the country, which, according to some expert, won’t be an easy task because of the lack of unanimity with his potential coalition partners — Christian Democrats and Democrats 66, each with 19 seats in the parliament.

All this indicates that populism is still a common trend for the Netherland despite the defeat of Wilders. Unlike the representatives of the European establishment, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian Federation Council, doesn’t seem to have been excited by Rutte’s victory. He argues that the Dutch election proves that the political situation in Europe is still unstable.

“Prosperous and stable Holland that, nevertheless, frightened the entire Europe with a possible success of the Freedom Party is a symbol of an intellectual crisis and the persisting divide in the European politics,” Kosachev wrote on his facebook page. “Europe is still in the thick of the storm.”

Likewise, some Russian and Dutch experts argue that the victory of the liberal party in the Dutch elections doesn’t necessarily mean that the rise of populism is over. This trend is likely to persist, unless the West is able to cope with the refugee crisis, terrorism threat and other challenges.

Also read: "Understanding the rise of political populism in the US and Russia"

For example, Tony van der Togt, a senior research fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael, argues that the EU should prove its economic and political viability to keep populists at bay.

“Wilders has not been defeated,” he told Russia Direct. “He failed to become the biggest party in parliament and will play no role in the next government. But some of the reasons for populism, like weak integration of migrants and the migration crisis as a whole are not solved. They will remain a big challenge both for national governments and for the EU as a whole.”

The phenomenon of Wilders is a vidid manifestation of the identity crisis in the Netherland and the EU, in general. It is a challenge for the European Union to be a more effective external player, to quote some pundits, who participated in the Mar. 16 discussion at the Valdai Club.

At the same time, they admit that the rise of populism in the Netherlands might be a temporary phenomenon, because the country's political elites might use some populist mottos to maintain its popularity among undecided voters, who balance between radicals and the establishment.

For example, Steven Derix, a Moscow correspondent for NRC Handelsblad, a Dutch newspaper, and Fyodor Lykyanov, the head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, agree that Wilders is just a political phenomenon. They don’t think that he and his party have enough political heft and power to rule the country and create a viable coalition.

The popularity of Wilders is just a response of the society to the increasing problem of immigration in the Netherland and this challenge will persist, Lykyanov and Derix concluded during the discussion at the Valdai Club. That’s why the Dutch establishment will have to "borrow" some populist slogans to win the hearts and minds of ordinary people, tired of those immigrants who failed to assimilate into the Dutch culture.

Also read: "Russia is still searching for a new normal in its relationship with Europe"

As long as the trend persists, there will be the divide in the European politics. And Russia is likely to benefit from it.

“In a way Russia could benefit from divisions inside the EU on European integration and how to handle the migration crisis,” said van der Togt. “This could mean a weakening of EU as an international player.”

On the other hand, the most important factor will be Russia's future relations with Germany, because it is Berlin (not Brussels) that takes the lead and keeps the EU united.

“If populists would win in Germany, that would be serious, but Alternative for Germany (AfD), the extreme right-wing party in Germany, will not receive a boost from the results of Geert Wilders' party in yesterday's Dutch elections,” added van der Togt.

By the same token, the Dutch election won’t be a game-changer for the Russian-Dutch relations. But what does matter for their cooperation is the Kremlin’s capability to restore ties with the entire European Union, contribute to resolving the Ukrainian standoff in accordance with the Minsk Agreements and cooperate on bringing those responsible for downing the MH17 Malaysia Boeing to justice, according to van der Togt.

“Any new Dutch government is not expected to be 'softer on Russia'. After MH17 there is a widespread consensus here that there will be no early return to business as usual,” the experts added.

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Libya to test the Kremlin's readiness to cooperate with the West https://russia-direct.org/analysis/libya-test-kremlins-readiness-cooperate-west
Eugene Bai

Russia is reported to have deployed its special forces on the Libyan borders — a move that might lead to both confrontation and collaboration with the West.

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Wed, 15 Mar 2017 21:53:48 +0000 5514 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/libya-test-kremlins-readiness-cooperate-west#comments Libya to test the Kremlin's readiness to cooperate with the West

Russia is reported to have deployed its special forces on the Libyan borders — a move that might lead to both confrontation and collaboration with the West

Russia is reported to have deployed its special forces on the Libyan borders — a move that might lead to both confrontation and collaboration with the West.

A Libyan soldier stands guard at the entrance of a town, 110 kilometers from Sirte, Libya. Photo: AP

Russia seems to have deployed a 22-member special forces unit in western Egypt — not far from Libya, said an anonymous diplomatic source from the U.S., as quoted by Reuters, a news agency. This could fuel concerns in the West about the Kremlin’s ambitions to expand its clout in the Middle East and bolster political prestige.

According to the U.S. and some diplomatic officials, such Russian deployment might be part of a campaign in support of Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar, who visited Moscow two times in 2016 to meet with the Russian foreign minister and military top brass.

However, Russian and Egyptian officials deny the fact that Moscow sent special forces on the border of Libya, another turbulent country in the Middle East, which has been entangled in a civil war since 2011. But some experts don’t rule out this possibility given the Kremlin’s geopolitical aspirations. For example, Alexei Malashenko, an expert from Carnegie Moscow Center and the research director at the Dialogue of Civilizations Institute, believes that the Russian presence in Libya is “quite possible.”

The Kremlin will support and might have already supported Libyan military leader Haftar and there is no reason to be surprised by this fact, Malashenko said in an interview to Meduza, an independent media outlet, based in Riga. 

Also read: "Could Russia join the fight against ISIS by arming Libya?"

“Russia has made it clear long ago that it is returning to the Middle East and, in fact, it has already returned,” he said. “So, I don’t see something extraordinary [in this] — whether it inspires admiration or terror. This is quite a predictable event.”

Russia might have a direct interest in supporting Haftar, at least because he is fighting against terrorists, and today Moscow is directly or indirectly meddling in the Libyan domestic confrontation (if not in the civil war per se). And this could be risky strategically, according to Malashenko. 

The problem is that the war-torn Lybia brings together diverse political groups and regions and Russia should be mindful of this. However, it tries to straddle between several opposing groups — Haftar and Libya’s Government of National Accord that brings together Islamists supported by Turkey, Sudan and Qatar as well. Nevertheless, Libyan high-profile politicians and top brass pin hopes on Russia and its capability to alleviate the six-year conflict, as indicated by their recent statements.

“Russia maintains good relations with some political forces in Libya and could play a positive role in the future settlement of the Libyan conflict,” said Fayez Sarraj, the prime minister of Libya’s Government of National Accord, during his March visit to Moscow.

In fact, Sarraj assumes that Russia can contribute to resolving the conflict because it communicates with the representatives of Libya’s competing political and military groups. Thus, the Kremlin might play a mediating role in the country’s civil war. However, this won’t be an easy task, according to experts.   

According to Grigory Lukyanov, a professor at Higher School of Economics, the key problem for the Kremlin is what Libyan political groups Russia should choose to negotiate with and what groups are the most legitimate to talk with. The experts highlight that the sophisticated nature of the conflict makes it more unpredictable: The war has been going on for six years, with the conflict transforming and involving more regional and global players.   

There are three key stakeholders in the Libyan conflict. The first one is the Sarraj-led Government of National Accord, which brings together Islamists. The second group is Libya’s House of Representatives, supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Haftar’s military group that controls Libya’s eastern part. The third force is the terrorist organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) as well as other undecided militia forces that change their allies sporadically.

Primarily, Russia pins hopes on Haftar, at least because the latter has a Russian background. He studied in the Soviet Union in 1977-1978 and in 1983. No wonder, the Kremlin sees him as a convenient and prospective ally. Yet there are other political reasons for the Kremlin’s pick.

First, Haftar controls a significant part of the Libyan territory, which is bigger than the one controlled by his rival Sarraj. Second, he has the biggest army in the country and, third, he controls its key oil fields and ports to export oil. Finally, Haftar is ready to provide his territory for Russian troops to fight against ISIS. He made this quite clear during his January visit to the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov cruiser, which returned from Syria.

Russia’s interests in Libya are crystal clear. Geopolitically, the Kremlin seeks to strengthen its position in North Africa by increasing its presence in the Mediterranean. Economically, Russia plans to resume oil and infrastructure contracts in Libya, once the civil war in the country comes to an end. In addition, some European countries like Italy might be interested in cooperation with Russia on Libya to alleviate the refugee crisis and maintain security. This is what the Kremlin needs now — in a time of its confrontation with the West.

Also read: "Will Trump and Putin be able to cooperate in the Middle East?"

At the same time, the anti-terrorism agenda might encourage Moscow to team up with Washington in Libya. According to Alexei Makarkin, the first vice president of the Center for Political Technologies, Russian president Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart Donald Trump could support Haftar in the fight against jihadists and Islamic radicals. Moreover, Libya might become a testing ground for U.S.-Russia anti-terrorism cooperation, according to some pundits.

Yet such expectations might be just wishful thinking, because Russia and the West are competing in Libya, as indicated by the statement of British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon. He warns Russia against interfering in Libya. Russia was “testing” the military alliance with a Libyan strongman and, thus, competes with the West-backed Tripoli government, Fallon said.

“We don’t need the bear sticking his paws in,” he said during the 2017 Munich Security Conference.

Thus, Russia’s interference in the complicated conflict might exacerbate the tensions with the West and Libya could become another thorny issue for Russia-West relations — like Syria. Given the fact that Trump has started to backtrack on his initial Russia policy under the pressure of the Washington establishment, the cooperation between two countries might become an unattainable goal in the current political environment.

That’s why, during increasing unpredictability, Moscow is preparing for both confrontation and collaboration with the U.S. Which scenario will come true remains to be seen.

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Why Trump backtracks on his Russia policy https://russia-direct.org/opinion/why-trump-backtracks-his-russia-policy
Andrei Korobkov

Trump’s picks for a new national security advisors and Russia ambassador — Herbert Raymond McMaster and John Huntsman, who cannot be seen as “doves” — indicate that the U.S. president is trying to find common ground with the establishment and legitimize his presidency.

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Tue, 14 Mar 2017 12:09:53 +0000 5512 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/why-trump-backtracks-his-russia-policy#comments Why Trump backtracks on his Russia policy

Trump’s picks for a new national security advisors and Russia ambassador — Herbert Raymond McMaster and John Huntsman, who cannot be seen as “doves” — indicate that the U.S. president is trying to find common ground with the establishment and legitimize his presidency

Trump’s picks for a new national security advisors and Russia ambassador — Herbert Raymond McMaster and John Huntsman, who cannot be seen as “doves” — indicate that the U.S. president is trying to find common ground with the establishment and legitimize his presidency.

Trump's refusal to mention Russia during his address to Congress indicates that he might be consistent in his attempts to see eye-to-eye with the Kremlin. Photo: Donald Trump's official facebook page 

As it could be expected, not a single day of Trump’s presidency has been quiet since his Jan. 20 inauguration. The American political establishment continues to perceive him as a real threat to its power and privileges and thus keeps scrutinizing his policymaking and almost every move, probably, to delegitimize his actions and find a loophole for his impeachment.

The latest example of Trump’s uneasy relations with the establishment is the case of U.S. Attorney General, a former Senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions. The current campaign against the government officials and the Kremlin in the media is unprecedented since the times when U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy launched the Witch Hunt to eradicate "hostile" foreign agents in the late 1940s and the early 1950s. However,  McCarthysm, while being cruel and mean spirited, at least had some real political foundations — the desire to root out the political left and those sympathetic to the Soviet Union in the beginning of the Cold War.

Also read: "Moscow raises eyebrows over Trump's pick for Russia ambassador"

But the problem is that the current attempts to find Russia’s trace in U.S. policymaking are based on allegations and exaggerated claims, created an unrealistic picture of the world, in which Russia, not China, is the main U.S. rival. At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen as an almighty and omnipresent politician with God-like powers. Such a narrative seems to target the U.S. President himself.

This might result from Trump’s attempts to introduce a systemic change not only in the U.S. domestic policy, but also in its foreign policy. In contrast to his immediate predecessors in the White House and many of his current opponents, Trump is an advocate of the classical realist approach, emphasizing national interests over ideology.

In addition, he believes that the center of the world power is quickly moving from the North Atlantic, where it was located for the last five centuries, to the North Pacific — the area between the United States and China. Thus Europe and NATO are quickly losing their strategic significance while a new, tripolar configuration is emerging, with Russia becoming a wild card that the U.S. can play now against China — exactly the way former President Richard Nixon played China against the Soviet Union after 1972.

Within this paradigm, there are essentially only two options — either Russia will be with the U.S. against China, or with China — against the U.S. This approach is further reinforced by Trump’s desire to cooperate with Russia in solving the problem of Islamic fundamentalist extremism and the fact that he and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as successful businessmen, are very skeptical in regard to what they see as wasting money on the political regimes in Ukraine and Georgia.   

Also read: "Is new US National Security Advisor McMaster good or bad for Moscow?"

And here come two serious problems for the current administration. First, the lambasting criticism of the Kremlin and Trump’s associates for their alleged contacts with Russia in reality can be seen as the attacks against Trump himself.

Second, there is also a substantive basis for these attacks, which could add up to their opposition to Trump’s intentions to improve relations with Russia and to cooperate with it in a number of important security areas. In fact, the anti-Trump coalition is the widest ever and it includes the absolute majority of the Democrats and a significant number of the right-wing Republicans. These unexpected bedfellows, on the one hand, are united by their antipathy toward Trump.

On the other hand, they have different substantive reasons for their opposition to his Russia policy. The Clinton and Obama-style Democrats, who have recently accepted the neoliberal messianic political approach, believe that the tension between the U.S. and Russia represents a real struggle of good and evil; they claim that the U.S. has to spread democratic and liberal values in the world and the post-Soviet space, specifically.

In their turn, the neocon Republicans, while accepting the realistic approach, do not accept the reality of the ongoing geopolitical changes, and continue to view Russia as the major opponent, threatening the U.S. geopolitical hegemony. For them, time has frozen, and nothing has changed in the world after the end of the Cold War.

Also read: "US suspicion of Russia: Witch hunt or legitimate distrust?"

The existence of this strange alliance makes Trump especially vulnerable on the Russian policy direction, and creates serious stimuli for him to come up with tactical compromises, including raising the level of criticism of Russia and appointing those figures to key political and diplomatic positions that may satisfy his opponents. For example, Trump’s picks for a new national security advisors and Russia ambassador — Herbert Raymond McMaster and John Huntsman, who cannot be seen as doves — indicate that the U.S. president is trying to find common ground with the establishment and legitimize his presidency.  

However, Trump's refusal to mention Russia during his address to Congress indicates that his strategic plans in this regard remain the same — he might be consistent in his attempts to see eye-to-eye with the Kremlin. This seems to have slipped the attention of the Russian media and political elites, who demonstrate skepticism and misunderstanding of his latest moves on the Russian direction, demanding the immediate removal of sanctions and other radical steps on the part of the Trump administration.

This All or Nothing approach could further hamper both Trump’s positions in the White House and U.S.-Russian relations.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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Moscow raises eyebrows over Trump's pick for Russia ambassador https://russia-direct.org/russian-media/moscow-raises-eyebrows-over-trumps-pick-russia-ambassador
Igor Rozin

Russian media roundup: John Huntsman, Utah’s former governor and the head of the American council, accepted U.S. President Donald Trump’s offer to be the American ambassador to Russia. This move caused a mixed response within Russian media, expert community and among politicians.

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Mon, 13 Mar 2017 21:06:43 +0000 5510 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/russian-media/moscow-raises-eyebrows-over-trumps-pick-russia-ambassador#comments Moscow raises eyebrows over Trump's pick for Russia ambassador

John Huntsman, Utah’s former governor and the head of the American council, accepted U.S. President Donald Trump’s offer to be the American ambassador to Russia. This move caused a mixed response within Russian media

Russian media roundup: John Huntsman, Utah’s former governor and the head of the American council, accepted U.S. President Donald Trump’s offer to be the American ambassador to Russia. This move caused a mixed response within Russian media, expert community and among politicians.

John Huntsman (pictured), the former Utah Governor and the head of the American Council, will be America's next Ambassador to Russia. Photo: The White House

Last week American media announced about U.S. President Donald Trump’s pick for Russia ambassador — former Utah Governor John Huntsman, a Mormon, who also heads the American Council, a think tank that is well-known for its tough position toward the Kremlin. Although there is no official confirmation that he will be U.S. Ambassador to Russia, the politician has already accepted the offer from Trump. Huntsman will have to get through the Senate confirmation hearings to become America’s next Ambassador to Russia.   

His record indicates that he has enough experience to head the U.S. diplomatic mission in Russia. He was the U.S. top diplomat to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush and, afterwards, became Ambassador to China under President Barack Obama.  Moreover, Huntsman participated in the 2012 American presidential race and was among the candidates to be Trump’s secretary of state.

Even though the U.S. President and the U.S. next ambassador to Russia had an uneasy relationship during the 2016 presidential campaign, they seem to have forgotten their differences. The appointment of Huntsman might be very symbolic, especially, after the allegations that Russia meddled in the U.S. electoral process and contributed to Trump’s victory.

Also read: "Is new US National Security Advisor McMaster good or bad for Moscow?"

The President’s pick for Huntsman is also important amidst the scandals around former National Security Advisor’s Michael Flynn and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. While the former had to resign because he covered up important details of his phone talk with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the latter has to withstand numerous accusations in misinformation. Sessions said that he didn’t have contacts with Russians despite the fact he did have during the electoral camping. What brings about suspicion is the fact that Sessions lied under oath during his confirmation hearing.

That’s why the Huntsman appointment might be seen as a concession to those who scrutinize Trump’s policymaking. That might be the reason why many Russian media raised eyebrows at the U.S. next ambassador to Moscow. For example, Kommersant Daily focused on the details from Huntsman’s biography that reveal his connections to Russia.

It quoted the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper and highlighted that Huntsman’s family has business in Russian. At the same time, Kommersant pointed out to the fact that the candidate to be the U.S. top diplomat is very skeptical about a new reset between two countries, implying that he is hardly likely to have a big impact on U.S.-Russia relations. The publication highlights that during his 2012 presidential campaign he harshly criticized Obama’s reset with Russia.

Specifically, he compared the Obama administration’s effort to improve relations with Moscow with a "Potemkin village in which we pretend the Kremlin is more of a partner than it is, more of a democracy than it is, more respectful of human rights than it is, and less threatening to its neighbors than it is." He called for working with Russia for arms control but said the U.S.-Russian relationship should be seen "with more objective eyes."

Gazeta.ru, an online media outlet, focuses on the fact that, during his diplomatic tenure in China, Huntsman attended the 2011 pro-democracy protests in Beijing, which demanded greater accountability and transparency from the government. This incident gave a reason to China to accuse the U.S. of provoking “color revolutions.”

Meanwhile, Rossiskiya Gazeta, a Russian official newspaper, published the response of outspoken Russian Senator Alexey Pushkov to Trump’s pick of Huntsman. “The candidacy of the U.S. ambassador to Moscow reveals a lot,” Pushkov wrote in his Twitter. “Huntsman is the head of the Atlantic Council, where tough criticism toward Russia is normal. He is obviously not a dove.”

At the same time, Pushkov added that Trump’s environment brings together those politicians that are reluctant to improve relations with Russia and establish cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). This, according to Pushkov, could hamper any attempts “to find crossing points.”

Moskovsliy Komsomolets, a Russian tabloid, argues that Trump’s pick of Huntsman is logical, at least because he has business connections with Russia, with Huntsman Corporation having close ties with Russian business. At the same time, the publication points out to fact that Huntsman cannot be seen as an expert on Russia.

Finally, RBC Daily gives voice to Areg Galstyan, who identifies himself as an expert in American Studies. The pundit describes Huntsman as a “hawk” with a religious background. He pays a lot of attention to his Mormon origins and concludes that the representatives of this religion are consistent ideologically, pragmatic and at the same time flexible. This might be a good sign for Russia, given the fact there are seven Mormon missions on Russia.

Also read: "US suspicion of Russia: Witch hunt or legitimate distrust?"

However, Huntsman is a s strong supporter of the ideas of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who was also well-know for his tough approaches toward Moscow and, furthermore, described the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”. After all, Huntsman started his career as an assistant of the Reagan White House, Galstyan point added.

“As a tough and consistent critic of Russia, Huntsman is supposed to pacify the [American] society and elites, which are alarmed after the scandal that led to the resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn,” the expert concluded. “However, for the Russian side, such pick for ambassador indicates that Washington is reluctant to drastically change its policy toward Russia.”

Expert commentary
Victoria I. Zhuravleva, the professor of American History and International Relations at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH), about the Huntsman appointment:

First, the pick of Huntsman for Russia ambassador might indicate U.S. President Donald Trump seeks to deal with the accusations that he is too sympathetic toward Moscow amidst anti-Russian consensus in the United States. After all, Huntsman cannot be described as a representative of the pro-Russian lobby (he was one of the opponents of Obama’s reset with Russia and, moreover, he heads the Atlantic Council that is well-known for its tough criticism toward Russia).

Second, Trump tries to find common ground with the U.S. political elites and the Republican Party, specifically: Huntsman is a member of the American conservative establishment; in 2012, he run for U.S. presidency from the Republican party.

Third, the Trump administration attaches a great deal of importance to the U.S.-Russia-China geopolitical triangle, views Beijing as the key economic rival for the U.S. and might see Russia as a possible counterbalance to China’s increasing clout (Huntsman was the U.S. Ambassador to China during the Obama presidency). His American colleagues argue that Huntsman's analysis about China is reasonable and balanced, and although he lacks expertise in Russia, his approach to Moscow might be reasonable as well despite his criticism of Russia.

Huntsman is hardly likely to be driven by values in international relations. He is rather a realist, which means that he might make Moscow-Washington relations more pragmatic. Huntsman is an advocate of commercial diplomacy, as indicated by his experience in Singapore. But commercial diplomacy is what U.S-Russia relations need now. After all, export of capitals and technologies as well as trade and economic cooperation, in general, has always been a stabilizing factor and it will be the case in the future. The entire history of U.S.-Russia or Soviet-American relations proves this.

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Will Russia and the US compete in Cuba? https://russia-direct.org/opinion/will-russia-and-us-compete-cuba
Alexander Rodriguez
Andrey Berezin
Bruno Sergi

Just as the United States has been exerting its influence with Russia’s neighbors in the East, Russia has been following China’s lead into the Americas by fostering partnerships with Latin American countries.

 

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Fri, 10 Mar 2017 23:22:35 +0000 5496 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/will-russia-and-us-compete-cuba#comments Will Russia and the US compete in Cuba?

Just as the United States has been exerting its influence with Russia’s neighbors in the East, Russia has been following China’s lead into the Americas by fostering partnerships with Latin American countries

Just as the United States has been exerting its influence with Russia’s neighbors in the East, Russia has been following China’s lead into the Americas by fostering partnerships with Latin American countries.

 

A soldier is silhouetted against the early morning sky during the funeral of Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba, Nov. 30, 2016. Photo: AP

As the U.S. begins establishing diplomatic relationships with Cuba, public attention has been focused on whether the true benefactors are the Cuban people or the government of its leader Raúl Castro. However, there has been little attention given to the geopolitical drivers of the U.S. controversial attempt to lift an embargo against the Latin American country that has been actively engaging in human rights violations for over 50 year. The U.S. newfound interest in Cuba comes at a time of increased political tensions with Russia, layered with a resurgence of Russian-Cuban diplomacy, which leaves Washington in a particularly unattractive geopolitical position.

The United States and Russia have been experiencing heightened political and economic tension over the last decade. Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin assumed presidency in 1999, the Kremlin has become more assertive in international affairs, taking a strong geopolitical stance to protect and promote its position as the ambitious heir of the Soviet Union. This mission has led to a volatile relationship with the United States, which has spent the last decade redefining its post-hegemonic position in the new geopolitical arena.

Also read: "What Obama's historic visit to Cuba means for Russia"

In the process of achieving a dominant role in this new world order, Russia has grown weary of the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, which asserts America's interests in the region while encroaching on Russia’s sphere of influence. A recent example of Russia’s assertive policy was manifested in the conflict over Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin’s involvement in Syria, a highly publicized international affair, has provided Russia with a much coveted seat in the decision making table throughout the conflict. Both of these extreme and unprecedented cases has forced the United States to develop a cautious attitude towards its geopolitical relationship with Russia.

Just as the United States has been exerting its influence with Russia’s neighbors in the East, Russia has been following China’s lead into the Americas by fostering partnerships with Latin American countries. Since 2008, Russia has been systematically building relationships with Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, among other Latin American countries, with the goal of establishing geopolitical and economic ties with the U.S. neighbors. Although this can be chalked up to simple politics, it becomes a potential threat for the United States when Russia is trying to strengthen its relationship with Cuba, a country with over 50 years of well documented conflict with the United States.

The partnership between Cuba and the Soviet Union kept Cuba afloat throughout most of the twentieth century. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Kremlin stopped providing economic support for the island. This led Cuba into the well known “special period”, which left it without access to imports, capital, or even basic necessities.

Since then, Putin has been trying to repair the strained relationship with Cuba in hopes of forming an alliance with the island. In 2008, Russia was the first country to provide Cuba with aid after three hurricanes left the country in shambles.

In 2009, Cuba signed a deal that allowed Russia to engage in oil exploration across the Gulf of Mexico. Russia also agreed to loan Cuba $150 million to buy construction and agriculture equipment to help rebuild struggling sectors. More recently, in 2014, Russia wrote off the majority of Cuba’s $32 billion debt to Russia. On the eve of Obama’s visit to Cuba, Russia agreed to loan Cuba another $1.4 billion to help them upgrade two massive power plants.

Outside of financial assistance, the two countries also support each other culturally and militarily. Russia has invested into building museums in Cuba, expanding Russian influence in the island, while Cuba celebrated Russian airstrikes in Syria, displaying a sense of comrade between the two nations. Both Cuba and Russia have been negatively affected by the U.S. economic sanctions against their countries, which has helped establish common cultural and patriotic ground between both countries.

As tensions between Russia and the United States begin to escalate, and Russia begins to establish a partnership with Cuba, the United States has begun taking preemptive actions to prevent a potential opponent from asserting influence in its own backyard.

Even though the United States has maintained an embargo against Cuba for over 50 years, Washington has been taking systematic steps to reestablish diplomatic relations with the island since 2014. Initially, the embargo was part of the U.S. fight to limit the influence of communism across the world, a reason that has become a non-issue after the fall of both the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall over 25 years ago.

Also read: "Did Russia lose Cuba to the Americans?"

Although other arguments exist for why the United States has maintained an embargo against Havana (mostly centered around perennial human rights violations), not much has changed in the island, which could prompt a resurgence of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

Washington has been leading the path to restore its relationship with Havana, without requiring Cuba to make any changes to its economic or political model, or even asking for its commitment to cease its human rights abuse, which was the underlying reason for the embargo in the first place. According to the White House, the U.S. is simply trying something different in hopes that Cuba changes towards a better path.

Although this makes good for headlines and garners support from both the United States and Cuba’s population, pointing to altruism without considering the geopolitical drivers behind diplomatic decisions limits our appreciation for the United States’ geopolitical strategy.

Cuba’s newfound relationship with Russia, along with the heightened level of conflict between Russia and the United States, however, could point to a major incentive for the United States seeking diplomatic relationships with Cuba, without requiring major concessions on Cuba’s end.

By establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, the United States is preventing Russia from becoming Cuba’s new trading partner, and incidentally asserting influence in a country that is only 90 miles away from U.S. soil. Cuba’s need for new trading partners was made obvious after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s death in 2013. As Russia was beginning to take lead in filling Venezuela’s role in Cuba, the United States has boldly stepped in to assure that Russian influence is limited in the island.

Officially, the Kremlin has applauded this move towards US-Cuba diplomacy. The majority of the United States also agrees that establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba is the right thing to do, specifically for the betterment of the Cuban population. But in this case, the real winner is the United States, who prevented Russian influence in a neighboring country and, potentially, another repeat of the Cuban missile crisis.

Also read: "Cuba still matters for Russia (but not for the reason you think)"

The United States and Russia are both competing to gain a foothold in Cuba, and the United States is using its proximity and cultural alliances to ensure that the U.S. maintains the lead, or at the very minimum a presence, in this geopolitical race. At the very least, Washington's presence is sufficient to protect the U.S. from any potential, yet preventable, Russian aggression, and justifies the American decisiveness in reestablishing relations with Cuba, regardless of their lack of concessions.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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US suspicion of Russia: Witch hunt or legitimate distrust? https://russia-direct.org/debates/us-suspicion-toward-russia-witch-hunt-or-just-distrust
Pavel Koshkin

Debates: Russia Direct interviewed a number of experts to find out to what extent the suspicion surrounding U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak is legitimate and justified.

 

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Thu, 09 Mar 2017 16:56:58 +0000 5502 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/debates/us-suspicion-toward-russia-witch-hunt-or-just-distrust#comments US suspicion of Russia: Witch hunt or legitimate distrust?

Debates: Russia Direct interviewed a number of experts to find out to what extent the suspicion surrounding U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak is legitimate and justified

Debates: Russia Direct interviewed a number of experts to find out to what extent the suspicion surrounding U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak is legitimate and justified.

 

Pictured: Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump's choice for Attorney General, being sworn in at his confirmation hearing on January 10, 2017. Photo: Office of the President-elect

Also read: "Is new US National Security Advisor McMaster good or bad for Moscow?"

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper does not find anything to suggest that Russia successfully interfered with the 2016 American election or recruited any of U.S. President Donald Trump’s advisers – at least as of Jan. 20, when Clapper left office.

"There was no evidence whatsoever, at the time, of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians," he told ABC News in an interview on Monday.

With a lot of speculations about Trump’s collusion with the Kremlin, the Clapper comments might not be the music to the ears of many American politicians and journalists who made Russia a number one topic in an attempt to find Moscow's trace behind Trump’s policymaking.

Ex-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions saw for themselves how polarized the political environment has become in Washington since Trump’s inauguration. While the former had to resign because he covered up important details of his phone talk with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the latter has to withstand numerous accusations in misinformation.

Sessions said that he had “never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the [electoral] campaign,” but U.S. intelligence officials claim that he did communicate with Kislyak. This brought about suspicions toward the attorney general, nominated by Trump. Most Americans want Sessions to resign, according the Mar. 8 Quinnipiac University survey.

Ironically, Kislyak, who is supposed to build bridges between two nations, became a sort of a scapegoat for American journalists and politicians — a source of distrust. Oddly enough, but having a phone talk with him became a reason to raise eyebrows. As Bloomberg’s columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote, “the most obvious problem with meeting Kislyak ... is that he is perceived as toxic in Washington as Putin's representative."

While many Russian pundits describe the campaign against Sessions as “hysteria,” "the witch hunt" or the obsession with conspiracy theories, their Western counterparts highlight that the meeting with Kislyak is not the reason to launch a probe.  What brings about their suspicion is the fact that Sessions lied under oath during his confirmation hearing about his contacts with the Russians.

Recommended: "After Flynn's dismissal, Russia starts to doubt Trump"

But Clapper’s statement about the lack of evidence of Russia meddling in U.S. domestic policy might put both America's politicians and mainstream media in a vulnerable position, as a Matt Taibbi, an author of Rolling Stones, argues.

“Both the Democratic Party and many leading media outlets are making a dangerous gamble, betting their professional and political capital on the promise of future disclosures that may not come," he wrote, adding that the manner in which the stories about Russia are covered “is becoming a story in its own right. Russia has become an obsession, cultural shorthand for a vast range of suspicions about Donald Trump.”

Russia Direct interviewed a number of Russian and foreign experts to find out to what extent the suspicion toward Sessions and Kyslyak is legitimate and justified — and what the scandal reveals about U.S.-Russia relations today.

Mark Kramer, a professor and director of the Cold War Studies Program at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies

There are many reasons to oppose Sessions as attorney general — he has a long record of contempt for civil liberties, civil rights, and private property rights — but his contacts with Ambassador Kislyak are not at the top of the list. The controversy about this matter arises mainly because Sessions lied about it during his congressional testimony.

He was asked, both during his oral testimony and in the written follow-up questions, whether he had had contacts with Russian diplomats or officials in recent months. In both cases, Session responded that he had not, which we now know is untrue. Lying to Congress is a serious crime, punishable by a jail sentence. The reason Sessions should resign is not that he had contacts with Kislyak, but that he twice lied to Congress.

Andrei Tsygankov, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at San Francisco State University

U.S.-Russia relations have become a hostage of partisan domestic politics. Democrats are trying their best to challenge Trump by discrediting his appointees. Sessions is the next selected target after Flynn.

Sessions’ only “fault” seems to have been that holds a prominent position in Trump’s cabinet and that he couldn’t recall about his meeting with Kysluak. The latter was simply doing his job of an Ambassador meeting the U.S. politicians, clarifying Russia’s position, and asking relevant questions.

The scandal is symptomatic of the current poisonous state of bilateral relations. Few Democrats care about improving ties with Russia, but they use it as convenient tool for derailing Trump. Russia remains a convenient scapegoat because, first, the Kremlin has challenged the U.S. worldview and possibly meddled in the US elections; second, Trump advocates normalization with the Kremlin; and, third, there are no pro-Russian constituencies to confront Democrats’ conspiracies.

James Carden, a contributing editor to The Nation and former advisor to the U.S.-Russia Presidential Commission at the U.S. State Department

The latest in the long line of seemingly never-ending scandals with regard to the Trump administration and Russia is the current controversy over Sessions' meetings with Ambassador Kislyak. It seems to me that if there is any scandal at all it is that Sessions provided sloppy testimony during his confirmation hearing. The idea that it is somehow scandalous for U.S. officials — current, former or soon-to-be, to meet with the diplomatic corps of a foreign country is silly and should be dismissed out of hand.

And if we were operating within a normal political environment and not this neo-McCarthyte hothouse that is Trump's Washington, it would be. But, alas: the Democratic party and the U.S. mainstream media didn't get the result it so badly wanted in the early morning hours of Nov. 9, and so they have decided to embark on what amounts to a witch hunt for subversives instead of governing. That's their choice to make, I guess. History will judge if was the right one.

Gregory Feifer, a former correspondent of National Public Radio (NPR) and Radio Free Europe (RFE), the author of The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan and Russians: the People behind the Power

Meetings between U.S. campaign or transition officials and foreign ambassadors shouldn’t usually raise an eyebrow. The fact that Sessions and other close Trump advisers were holding them with Russian officials while an alleged Russian espionage plot was blowing up in public — and then sought to conceal the meetings — has raised justifiably serious questions about their nature.

Especially because Trump is seeking to capitalize on a bizarre bromance with Putin, implying a moral equivalence between the two governments when the Kremlin is openly attacking the Western liberal order by murdering innocent civilians in Syria and Ukraine, backing radical right-wing politicians across Europe and conducting propaganda and espionage campaigns aimed at undermining Western institutions and unity. And helping to get Trump elected — one of the many warnings that voting for him was utter madness.

What’s going on is evidence of a second cold war, with different nuances under different circumstances, shaped by the sensibilities of two leaders who use propaganda and fear to shape false and dangerous realities for their voters. By helping throw an American election in favor of a greedy, narcissistic, gaudy madman who will happily destroy the world along with his country in order to see his ratings rise, Moscow has deployed a political nuclear weapon.

Jack F. Matlock, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union (1987 – 1991)

Our press seems to be in a feeding frenzy regarding contacts that President Trump’s supporters had with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak and with other Russian diplomats. The assumption seems to be that there was something sinister about these contacts, just because they were with Russian diplomats.

As one who spent a 35-year diplomatic career working to open up the Soviet Union and to make communication between our diplomats and ordinary citizens a normal practice, I find the attitude of much of our political establishment and of some of our once respected media outlets quite incomprehensible. What in the world is wrong with consulting a foreign embassy about ways to improve relations? Anyone who aspires to advise an American president should do just that.

Also read: "Steve Bannon, the Grey Cardinal in the White House: Good or bad for Russia?"

Ambassador Kislyak is a distinguished and very able diplomat. Anyone interested in improving relations with Russia and avoiding another nuclear arms race — which is a vital interest of the United States — should discuss current issues with him and members of his staff. To consider him “toxic” is ridiculous.  I don’t know whether Attorney General Sessions will resign or not. It would seem that his recusal from any investigation on the subject would be adequate. Nevertheless, I have no problem with the fact that he occasionally exchanged words with Ambassador Kislyak.

The whole brou-ha-ha over contacts with Russian diplomats has taken on all the earmarks of a witch hunt. I have been taught that in a democracy with the rule of law, the accused are entitled to a presumption of innocence until convicted. But we have leaks that imply that any conversation with a Russian embassy official is suspect. That is the attitude of a police state, and leaking such allegations violates every normal rule regarding FBI investigations. President Trump is right to be upset, though it is not helpful for him to lash out at the media in general.

The commentary was originally published at Jack Matlock’s blog. Read the full version here.

UPDATE: The debates were updated on Mar. 10 to include comments from Gregory Feifer, a former correspondent of National Public Radio (NPR) and Radio Free Europe (RFE), the author of The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan and Russians: the People behind the Power. 

 

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Eight women of the Russian Revolution https://russia-direct.org/analysis/eight-women-russian-revolution
Alina Safronova

The Russian February Revolution started on Mar. 8, according to the New Style calendar, and ironically coincided with International Women’s Day. Russia Direct presents eight female revolutionaries who left their mark in history.

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Wed, 08 Mar 2017 11:43:50 +0000 5498 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/eight-women-russian-revolution#comments Eight women of the Russian Revolution

The Russian February Revolution started on Mar. 8, according to the New Style calendar, and ironically coincided with International Women’s Day. Russia Direct presents eight female revolutionaries who left their mark in history

The Russian February Revolution started on Mar. 8, according to the New Style calendar, and ironically coincided with International Women’s Day. Russia Direct presents eight female revolutionaries who left their mark in history.

Pictured: Inessa Armand, a feminist and communist, a figure of the Revolution movement, Moscow, 1904. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Also read: "100 years after February Revolution: Remembering the end of the Empire"

The start of the Russian Revolution one hundred years ago coincided with International Women’s Day, March 8, according to New Style. Women played an important part in many revolutionary events. Here is a brief look at some of the most famous characters of the revolutionary period.

1. Nadezhda Krupskaya was a committed Marxist and politician, she is mostly known as revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s wife.  She was born in a noble family of a military officer in St. Petersburg. During her studies in the Female Gymnasium she joined several discussion clubs, where she later met Lenin. Impressed by his ideas she decided to join him in his exile in Siberia in 1896.

Lenin and Krupskaya married shortly after their arrival to Siberia, remaining lifelong professional partners rather than a wife and a husband in its traditional understanding. After their release the couple moved to Geneva, where Krupskaya participated in the publication of a revolutionary newspaper Iskra, as an editor. 

In April 1917, she and Lenin returned to Russia. After the Bolsheviks took control of the country, she was appointed to work under Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet People’s Commissar for Education, who was responsible for the campaign against adult illiteracy. She served as the Soviet Union's Deputy Minister of Education for over ten years.

Krupskaya inspired the foundation of Komsomol and the Pioneer movement. Details of her life with Lenin can be found in her memoirs, “Reminiscences of Lenin”.

2. Inessa Armand was a feminist and communist, an important figure of the Revolution movement, and the love of Lenin’s life. Inessa Armand was born in an artistic family in Paris. She was brought up in Moscow by her aunt and grandmother. At the age of nineteen she got married to a son of a wealthy textile manufacturer. Armand and her husband shared revolutionary ideas, and opened a school for peasant children in Moscow.

After being arrested for her political activity in 1907, she spent a year in exile in northern Russia. She managed to successfully escape from her exile in 1908 and flee to Paris, where she met with Lenin. Charming, musically gifted, fluent in many languages and truly passionate about Bolshevism, she quickly became his right hand.

It was Armand whom Lenin sent to organize the Bolsheviks campaign to get its supporters elected to the Duma. After the October Revolution Armand served as the director of Zhenotdel, an organization that fought for female equality in the Communist Party and the trade unions. She also chaired the First International Conference of Communist Women. In 1920, Armand died of cholera at the age of forty-six.

3. Natalia Sedova was a revolutionary, mostly known for being the second wife of Leon Trotsky, a Marxist revolutionary and a Soviet politician who conducted the transfer of all political power to the Soviets with the October Revolution of 1917, and the founding leader of the Red Army.

She came from a family of a wealthy merchant and was educated in Russia. She met Trotsky in her early twenties in Paris at an art exhibit. She was a supporter of Iskra newspaper and Trotsky was Iskra’s representative in London. Both took part in the Revolution of 1905.

During the World War I the Trotsky family have traveled around Europe from Vienna to Paris and Zurich. Sedova and Trotsky returned to Russia in May, 1917.

After the October Revolution, she received a position in the Commissariat of Education and was placed in charge of museums and ancient monuments. In 1929, Trotsky and his family were expelled from the Soviet Union and fled to Mexico City.

After her husband's death in 1940, Sedova moved to Paris and maintained contact with many exiled revolutionaries. Her best-known work in these last years was a biography of Trotsky.

4. Alexandra Kollontai was a Russian revolutionary, statesman and diplomat, and the first woman to take the minister's position in the history of the country. Thanks to her political activity women in Russia acquired rights de jure.

She was born in Ukraine, but was brought up in St. Petersburg. After early marriage and a following separation with her husband she worked for a number of educational charities. She acquired historical education in Zurich and lived in Finland for several years. In 1915 Kollontai joined the Bolsheviks and returned to Russia, where she quickly got appointed as Commissar for Social Welfare.

She conducted important studies on the state of women's rights in Russia and initiated reforms promoting equality of men and women.  During Stalin's times Kollantai was a Soviet diplomat in Norway, Mexico and Sweden.

5. Larisa Reisner was described by some contemporaries as the "Valkyrie of the Russian Revolution". She served the prototype of the typical image of female revolutionary in art.

Born in Poland, she descended from a family of a law professor. After acquiring higher education in St. Petersburg, Reisner started her literary career. She was published in an anti-war literary journal “Rudin”, and after the February Revolution, worked for Russian writer Maxim Gorky's paper Novaya Zhizn. 

In 1917, during her work in Smolny Institute as Lunacharsky’s secretary she participated in the preservation of artistic monuments. After joining the Bolshevik party Reisner made a one-of-a-kind career for a woman – she became a military politician. In 1919 served as the Commissar at the Naval Staff Headquarters in Moscow.

In October 1923 she traveled to Germany to be a first-hand witness of the Revolution and write collections of articles, which were later got published under the names “Berlin, October 1923” and “Hamburg at the Barricades”. During her stay in Germany she had become international revolutionary Karl Radek's mistress. Three years later Reisner died in Moscow in 1926. She was only 30 years old.

6. Sofia Panina was the daughter of a rich industrialist and one of the first feminists in Russia. She was the first woman to serve in the Cabinet of Ministers when she became deputy minister of State Charity of the Provisional Government, then — the deputy minister of public education. She is famous for her participation in the liberal movement and for her charity initiatives.

Panina was born and educated in Moscow. In her early twenties she established a free canteen for poor schoolchildren in a working-class district of Saint Petersburg. Panina also established the Ligovsky People's House for working-class residents.

Only after the Revolution she started her political career in St. Peterburg’s Duma. She did not admire autocracy, and was even called the "Red Countess". As a member of the Provisional Government she refused to transmit the legacy of the Cultural Education Ministry to Bolsheviks.

Panina was put on trial by the Revolutionary Tribunal of the Petrograd Soviet, but received a merciful punishment — just a public censure. In 1918 she joined General Anton Denikin in South Russia, but after several years had to flee to America, where she played a prominent role in organizing Russian classic writer Leo Tolstoy’s foundation.

7. Vera Zasulich was a Russian Menshevik writer and revolutionary. Zasulich was born near Smolensk in a family of an impoverished noble man. After finishing high school she moved to St. Petersburg, where she started literacy classes for factory workers.

In the 1870's she joined Bakunin and his anarchist movement. It was the time when Zasulich and a group of anarchists planned the assassination of Colonel Fyodor Trepov, the governor of St. Petersburg. Zasulich seriously wounded Trepov and managed to escape to Europe before she was arrested. She returned to Russia after the 1905 Revolution to join  Russian revolutionary Georgy Plekhanov and his Yedinstvo movement.

Zasulich participated in the October Revolution of 1917, but supported the side opposing to Lenin, whom she knew from the times spent with Iskra newspaper. Zasulich died soon after the Revolution, in 1919.

8. Rosalia Zemlyachka was a Russian revolutionary of Jewish origin, a Soviet politician and stateswoman. Some called her the "Demon" and the “Fury of the Red Terror." She was also the first woman to have ever been awarded with the Order of the Red Banner.

Born in a family of a wealthy merchant she spent her early years in Kiev, where she acquired excellent medical education. During her studies she got involved in revolutionary activities.

She was also involved in the organization of the First Russian Revolution and the February Revolution. In 1917 Zemlyachka even commanded an armed demonstration of workers in Moscow.

Recommended: "80 years later, the perpetrators of Stalin's 'Great Terror' revealed"

After the Revolution she served as the secretary of the Crimean Regional Committee. Along with Bela Kun, Zemlyachka became famous as one of the organizers of the Red Terror in the Crimea against former soldiers of the White Army in 1920-1921. She died in 1947 and was buried in the Kremlin wall Necropolis on the Red Square.

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What lessons Trump, Putin can learn from the 1986 US-Soviet summit https://russia-direct.org/opinion/what-lessons-trump-putin-can-learn-1986-us-soviet-summit
Vladimir Dvorkin

As Russian President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart Donald Trump prepare for their first meeting, they should keep in mind lessons from the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Iceland.

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Tue, 07 Mar 2017 09:08:32 +0000 5492 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/what-lessons-trump-putin-can-learn-1986-us-soviet-summit#comments What lessons Trump, Putin can learn from the 1986 US-Soviet summit

As Russian President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart Donald Trump prepare for their first meeting, they should keep in mind lessons from the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Iceland

As Russian President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart Donald Trump prepare for their first meeting, they should keep in mind lessons from the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Iceland.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan, right, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev exchange pens during the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signing ceremony in the White House East Room in Washington, D.C on December 8, 1987. Photo: AP

This article first appeared at the website of Carnegie Moscow Center. It has been edited and condensed by Russia Direct’s editorial team. Read the original article here.

Over thirty years ago, in October 1986, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union met for a historic summit in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. The meeting was initiated by then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who believed that “the collapse of mutual trust” between the two countries could be stopped by resuming dialogue with U.S. president Ronald Reagan on key problems, including the question of nuclear weapons.

Three decades on, as the leaders of Russia and the United States prepare for their first meeting since the 2016 U.S. election, the summit of 1986 still resonates. (American President Donald Trump’s team has denied press reports that the meeting might even be held in Reykjavik.) Although not a single agreement was signed by Gorbachev and Reagan, the historic significance of their meeting was immense. Despite the ostensible failure of their meeting, it opened a new path in relations between the nuclear superpowers.

The START I success

In Reykjavik, the leaders of the two superpowers set out their positions in detail and, by doing so, they were able to take a remarkable step forward on nuclear challenges. Just a year later, in December 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a treaty on eliminating intermediate- and shorter-range missiles. In 1991, they signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I).

Also read: "Russia might be the first casualty if nuclear terrorism becomes reality"

The efforts that went into drafting these treaties were immense. I participated in preparing the text for these treaties at all stages of heated discussions, in the so-called Small Five and Big Five formats — shorthand for the different Soviet agencies tasked with coming up with policy. START I took at least five years of painstaking work. Every page of this lengthy document was accompanied by dozens of footnotes that reflected the contradictory views of the two sides. A compromise had to be found on every point. Naturally, it would have been impossible to reach these compromises without political will at the highest levels.

In the end, an unprecedented agreement was coordinated and signed, something that can still be viewed as a model for relations between two adversaries. It was based on Gorbachev’s initial proposal of a 50 percent reduction in strategic arms: the parties agreed to reduce their almost 12,000 nuclear warheads each to 6,000.

The system for verifying the treaty was revolutionary. It still boggles the imagination. It involved about one hundred various updates on the status of strategic offensive arms, dozens of on-site inspections, and exchanges of telemetry data after every launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). This kind of transparency in a secretive sector was surprising for former adversaries, or even for close allies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.

There is no doubt that without START I, there would be no New START, which was signed by then U.S. president Barack Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 in Prague. START I served as the basis for New START and offered the necessary experience for the treaty, even though that document envisaged only eighteen on-site inspections (ICBM bases, submarine bases, and air bases), forty-two status updates, and five telemetry data exchanges for ICBMs and SLBMs per year.

According to the latest data exchange under New START, Russia currently has 508 deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers with 1,796 warheads, and the United States has 681 ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers with 1,367 warheads. In 2018, the two sides are supposed to have no more than 700 deployed launchers and bombers and no more than 1,550 warheads. The treaty will remain in force until 2021.

The START I legacy erodes

However, these numbers do not accurately reflect the real state of relations between Russia and the United States.

The crisis and lack of progress in nuclear arms control cannot be separated from the more general breakdown in the relationship between Russia and the West caused by events in Ukraine and Syria. However, in the nuclear field, the crisis started even before that, almost immediately after 2011, and has been unprecedented in the fifty years since the two countries started working together on these problems.

In the past, immediately after signing a new treaty, the parties involved would have initiated new consultations on strategic arms reduction. However, since 2011, there have been no consultations. And the more time passes, the more often senior officials employ nuclear terminology in their public statements.

In June 2013, while in Berlin, Obama invited Russia to sign a new treaty aimed at reducing the parties’ strategic arms further by one-third. Under these proposals, Russian and U.S. strategic offensive arms would be limited to 1,000 warheads and 500 deployed nuclear delivery vehicles.

Another suggestion by Washington for further strategic arms reduction was made in January 2016. It followed the appeal to the two countries’ leaders by well-known politicians and scientists from the United States, Russia, and Europe. The appeal was organized at the joint conference of the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe and the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington at the beginning of December 2015 and was presented immediately to the senior leaders of both countries.

This suggestion provoked a harsh response from Moscow. The Russian government listed several reasons why it deemed negotiations with the United States to be impossible. They included, first of all, the need to make multilateral agreements with other nuclear states; second, the continued deployment of European and U.S. global missile defenses; third, the existence of the potential threat of a disarming strike by strategic conventional high-precision weapons against Russian nuclear forces; and fourth, the threat of the militarization of space.

Finally, the West, led by the United States, was accused of enforcing an overtly hostile sanctions policy toward Russia because of the situation in Ukraine.

Also read: "After the Nuclear Security Summit, Washington awaits Moscow's move"

Following this setback, a new suggestion was put forward by the United States to extend New START for five years, a move that could be interpreted as a backup plan if no new treaty was agreed. This option is included in the text of New START. An extension is highly appropriate given the circumstances.

The main argument for an extension is that the lack of an agreement removes START I from the legal framework, which has allowed the parties to reliably control implementation of agreements for decades. This framework encompasses control of the states’ strategic weapons, the type and composition of those weapons, the features of the missile fields, the number of delivery vehicles deployed and the warheads on them, and the number of nondeployed vehicles. This legal framework also allows the parties to set a short-term agenda.

As mentioned above, there have been up to eighteen mutual on-sight inspections a year since 2011 of each party’s ground, sea, and air bases of their nuclear triads and forty-two notifications on the nature of their strategic nuclear forces. Lack of information about the military forces of the other side generally results in an overestimation of both the quantitative and qualitative strengths of one’s opponent, and in a decision to enhance one’s own capabilities in order to build up the appropriate capability to respond.

This path leads directly to an uncontrolled arms race. It is especially dangerous when it involves strategic nuclear arms, since that leads to the undermining of strategic stability as it was originally understood. That is why it is appropriate to extend New START for an additional five years to 2026.

However, it would be even better to sign a new treaty. That would allow the parties to maintain a steady strategic balance while spending much less money than would be required to keep the levels of arms defined by New START. This arrangement would be much more beneficial for Russia because the next treaty signed, just like START I and the current treaty, would basically entail only a reduction in the U.S. nuclear forces and allow Russia to lower the cost of maintaining the current treaty levels as well as to develop and modernize additional types of missiles.

It is up to the leaders of Russia and the United States to take these feasible, necessary, and reasonable steps. The Reykjavik summit from thirty years ago shows what can be done when two leaders, whose states are supposedly implacable enemies, take responsibility and act to enhance the world’s strategic stability and safety.

Decisions of this nature can be taken by the kind of truly great leaders who, sadly, are in short supply in the contemporary world. But, to paraphrase Austrian psychiatrist Wilhelm Stekel, a leader standing on the shoulders of a giant can see further than the giant himself. They do not have to, but they could. Our goal must be to make sure the modern leaders who sit on the shoulders of giants take care to look into the distance.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

This article first appeared at the website of Carnegie Moscow Center. It has been edited and condensed by Russia Direct’s editorial team. More on the post-Soviet space read here.

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Whistleblower accuses Prime Minister of corruption. Why Russians ignore it https://russia-direct.org/opinion/navalny-accuses-prime-minister-corruption-why-russians-ignore-it
Ivan Tsvetkov

Here is why a new investigation by Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny will likely strengthen the positions of the Kremlin and the prime minister.

 

Pictured: Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Photo: Kremlin.ru

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Fri, 03 Mar 2017 21:26:12 +0000 5488 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/navalny-accuses-prime-minister-corruption-why-russians-ignore-it#comments Whistleblower accuses Prime Minister of corruption. Why Russians ignore it

Here is why a new investigation by Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny will likely strengthen the positions of the Kremlin and the prime minister

Here is why a new investigation by Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny will likely strengthen the positions of the Kremlin and the prime minister.

 

Pictured: Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Photo: Kremlin.ru

For more views about Navalny's probe read the media roundup: "Navalny vs. Medvedev: Prime Minister accused of corruption"

This week the Russian anti-corruption whistleblower and a presidential candidate, Alexey Navalny, published a scandalous investigation targeting the country’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

According to the probe, Medvedev and his family have several luxurious residences built in several Russian regions and abroad. Moreover, he is reported to possess expensive yachts, mansions and vineyards inside and outside the country, with his real estate registered under offshore and charity companies.

Video by Foundation for Countering Corruption

The Moscow-based Foundation for Countering Corruption (FBK), headed by Navalny, gives arguments that the Russian prime minister possesses all these amenities by providing the photos from Medvedev’s Instagram and the drone footages of his mansions. The documents that Navalny’s colleagues obtained indicate Medvedev's entire "empire" is allegedly funded through the networks of the charity foundations, which receive billions of rubles from businessmen and bank loans.

Thus, the head of the Russian government was accused of large-scale corruption. The cost of all mentioned assets is about 70 billion rubles (around $1 billion), according to the estimates of the Navalny team. Summing up, the whistleblower claims that “the entire system of power is entirely rotten” and called Russian voters to support him during the 2018 presidential elections.

Also read: "Slain Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov brings together Russian opposition"

The presidential candidate seems to have made a very strong political move and his opponents from the Kremlin have to work hard to respond adequately to the serious accusations. However, as indicated by their responses to Navalny’s previous investigations, the Russian authorities don’t need something extraordinary to refute the accusations from the anti-corruption campaigner. Nor does Medvedev have to deal with the charges against him.    

The first reaction from the Russian government and the Kremlin clearly indicates that the country’s leadership uses the same well-elaborated approach — those at the helm just point fingers to the fact that Navalny is himself facing criminal charges for alleged embezzlement. They just describe his probe as “anti-government propaganda” and suggest ignoring it. And for ordinary Russians, this rhetoric looks like a persuasive argument, so that they don’t take Navalny’s investigation seriously — such a scenario is almost impossible in most European countries and the United States. 

In part, the problem stems from the way Russians understand relations between the authorities and business. They look at it from a totally different angle, which is not common for the West. Russia’s perception of what an official can or cannot do is based on its painful post-Soviet experience and a sophisticated system of traditional views on the nature of power and private property (that goes back almost to the medieval times).

Throughout Russian history, private property has always been under meticulous government control, while the officials affiliated with the authorities had tacit and wide opportunities for self-enrichment. During the Soviet times private property was forbidden, however this step failed to root out rampant corruption. In the post-Soviet times, Russian society went through the privatization of the government assets and this reform was supposed to have built the foundation for “civilized” relations between the authorities and business, based on the rule of law.  

However, in reality, the 1990s privatization turned out to have been only the first step in this direction, which failed eventually. The problem is that many government officials who carried out the transfer of the Soviet multi-billion state wealth into the hands of resourceful businessmen, believed that they also had a right to the wealth.

One can say that the entire epoch of Russian President Vladimir Putin is the period when the Kremlin dealt with a misbalance in distributing “government assets” between businessmen and officials.

And, according to this logic, Navalny is fairly distressed with the rampant corruption in Putin’s Russia. From the moral point of view, it is important and even necessary to be a muckraker in the current situation. Yet it is quite naive to belive that the people’s anger will foster a sound and robust institute of private property — it looks especially naive coming from a presidential candidate.

Many commentators argue that Navalny’s anti-corruption exposés isolated him from the Russian political mainstream as well as other centers of power. After all, he accused liberals (Medvedev), centrists and conservatives (Russia’s Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika).

Recommended: "Scandal with high-profile official reveals flaws in Russian 'sistema'"

At the same time, Navalny and his supporters are sensitive to criticism from other Russian opposition groups — from those who rebuke Navalny for his tough moralism. They believe that such an approach is counterproductive as a tool of political rivalry in modern Russia, boggled down in cynicism. The inevitable schism within the Russian opposition will only hamper his electoral chances in 2018.

As a result, Navalny’s new investigation is highly likely to strengthen Putin’s positions as well as the positions of Medvedev himself: It is well-known that the Russian president supports the members of his team more rigorously (and with greater tenacity) if they are faced with external pressure or under attack.

Ironically, Navalny won’t be able to persuade ordinary Russian people with his moralism. They just might come up with the conclusion that the authorities, at least, can control oligarchs and force them to contribute to their prosperity and growth. But Navalny’s attempts to hold the authorities accountable will play only against him. So will the fact that the Russian opposition cannot unite and create a politically viable and competitive coalition.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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100 years after February Revolution: Remembering the end of the Empire https://russia-direct.org/analysis/100-years-after-february-revolution-russia-remembers-end-empire
Dimitri Elkin

 A century ago, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, one week after the start of the February Revolution. Here is how Russia remembers those events.

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Thu, 02 Mar 2017 13:10:39 +0000 5486 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/100-years-after-february-revolution-russia-remembers-end-empire#comments 100 years after February Revolution: Remembering the end of the Empire

A century ago, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, one week after the start of the February Revolution. Here is how Russia remembers those events

 A century ago, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, one week after the start of the February Revolution. Here is how Russia remembers those events.

Rebellious soldiers driving a car during the 1917 February revolution in Petrograd. Photo: State Museum of Political History of Russia

For Petrograd society, exhausted by two and a half years of war, the week of Monday, February 20, 1917 was billed to be memorable. A big artistic event was scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 25: a grand opening of the prominent theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold’s new production of Masquerade in the Alexandrinsky Theater. The massive performance with a cast of more than one hundred actors, lavish decorations and elaborate costumes, Meyerhold’s new interpretation of Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov’s classic love story had been keenly anticipated by the public, both as an artistic masterpiece, and as an escape from the bleak economic and political realities. 

That last week of February of 1917 did turn out to be rather memorable; not for cultural reasons but as the beginning of the Russian Revolution.

The tectonic upheaval started on Feb. 23 Old Style (Mar. 8, according to the New Style calendar) with an innocuous women’s march to mark the International Women’s Day. The demonstration quickly turned angry, and after several missteps by the Tsar’s government, people’s discontent had boiled over. By the beginning of the following week, Russia’s capital was gripped by revolutionary chaos. Under pressure from his ministers, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on Thursday, March 2, 1917.  The chain of events that brought down the Romanov dynasty took only a week to unfold.

Blizzards and Bread Lines

Perhaps the most remarkable fact about the February Revolution was its spontaneous nature. It was like a bolt of lightning, which no one had predicted.

The American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan observed in Russia Leaves the War that the February Revolution was “not a contrived revolution. No one planned it. No one organized it. Even the Bolsheviki, who for years had dreamed of such a day and had conceived of themselves as professionals in the art of producing revolutions, were taken wholly by surprise.”

Also read: "The Kremlin's difficult balancing act in preserving the political status quo"

To be sure, adverse changes had been accumulating for a while. In early 1917, the situation in Russia increasingly met Vladimir Lenin’s famous criteria of “the three signs of a revolutionary situation:” a crisis of the upper classes, suffering of the oppressed classes, and a significant rise in the level of political activity among the masses. But such dialectic analysis only helps to confirm that revolutionary clouds had been gathering. It does not answer why the Russian Revolution began at that particular moment.

So, why did lightning strike on Thursday, February 23, 1917?

According to many historians, the immediate trigger was a bout of cold weather. A spell of frosts and blizzards in early February had disrupted life in Russia’s capital and brought the railways to a standstill.  This led to the closure of many factories. Thousands of desperate unemployed workers were growing increasingly angry, and that anger was looking for an outlet. When the weather suddenly became warmer, people took to the streets.

The other component in the revolutionary mix was bread, or rather, rumors of bread shortages. By and large, those were just rumors. The Russian capital never ran out of provisions. It is true that some stores ran out of stock as the cold disrupted logistics. But the authorities had enough flour to feed the city for at least two weeks.

The cold weather and bread problems alone were not enough for a revolution. Mild bread riots happened in Petrograd before. When suppliers were restored, the situation always calmed down. There was no obvious reason why it would have been different this time. Russia’s Interior Ministry led by Alexander Protopopov had been effective in arresting most socialist leaders. Those who escaped arrests, like Lenin and Leon Trotsky, had emigrated. Nobody expected a revolution to occur any time soon.

It seems that the final straw was a series of missteps by Tsar Nicholas II. The last Russian Tsar had never been a wise ruler. Nicholas’s order to fire upon peaceful protesters contributed to the outbreak of the First Russian Revolution in 1905. Twelve years later, Nicholas did it again.

The Tsar received the news of the demonstrations in the capital some time on Friday, Feb. 24. Nicholas and his entourage were eight hundred kilometers away, in the military headquarters at Mogilev. The Russian army was getting ready for a spring offensive.  The 160,000 strong Petrograd garrison was deemed reliable. The mood was resolute, and the Tsar was confident in the strength of his Power Vertical.

On the evening of the following day, the Tsar telegraphed General Sergei Khabalov, the Chief of Petrograd Military District, the following message: “I command you tomorrow to stop the disorders in the capital.” On Sunday, the center of Petrograd had turned into a military camp. 

The troops fired on the demonstrators, and 200 were killed. But the revolutionary virus had already infected the troops. The army mutinied and soldiers joined the revolt. Policemen were killed, shops were looted, and the government's authority had quickly collapsed. Three days later, the Tsar abdicated and Russia welcomed a Provisional Government headed by Prince Georgy Lvov with Alexander Kerensky as the justice minister.

Also read: "The results of the Duma elections send the wrong signal to the Kremlin"

During the Soviet era, the February Revolution was reduced to a footnote, a precursor to the much bigger event of the Great October Socialist Revolution. But many scholars, both in Russia and abroad, now hold a very different view, interpreting the February Revolution as a political change of outmost importance that, for the first time ever, gave Russia a democratic system of government.

Remembering Through the Eyes of the People

During the 20th century, Russia viewed its history largely through ideological lenses. Ideology brings clarity. But it also discards many details, including, above all, the human experience. It is, therefore, refreshing to see that 100 years later after the February Revolution, Russia has developed the ability to look at its History in a subjective way.

One example of this effort to humanize the past is Mikhail Zygar’s Project 1917 that uses the modern format of short posts to bring together collective memories of those revolutionary days, both from those who played active roles like Lenin, Trotsky and Kerensky, and from those who simply observed, like Russian writers and poets Ivan Bunin, Anna Akhmatova or journalists from the New York Times. The stream of personal recollections written at a time when nobody knew how it would all end makes it a fascinating reading.

A traditional historian may say that this focus of subjective memories may be entertaining but not terribly useful. Analyzing the diaries written, for example, by Russian and Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev is no more illuminating than looking at dinner menus in the salon of Titanic on the night when she sank. It is certainly interesting to see how Titanic’s passengers spent their last hours, but it does not help to explain why the unsinkable ship sank.

Read the interview with Mikhail Zygar: "Understanding Russian politics, without the conspiracy theories"

However, a personal, anecdotal and occasionally frivolous approach used by Project1917 seems like a good way to mark the centennial anniversary of the February Revolution. After all, the best way to prevent a repetition of a similar tragedy is to remind ourselves how little control people had over the events. The citizens of Petrograd protested because they wanted a parliamentary republic; instead they would soon get Red Terror.

But in February and March of 1917, the Bolshevik coup was still several months away. The February Revolution did not entirely interrupt the normal course of life in Russia’s capital.

On Saturday, Feb. 25, the Masquerade performance opened to a full house, despite the fact that many patrons had to literally dodge the bullets that were already flying on Nevsky Prospect. Meyerhold’s treatment of the Lermontov classic turned out to be so successful that it ran in the Alexandrinsky Theater all the way until 1940, when Meyerhold was shot on Stalin’s orders. The 1917 production of Masquerade is now considered an important achievement of Russia’s theatrical art, and some of the decorations and costumes from that lavish performance have survived in several Russian theaters to this day.

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The next century: Realpolitik vs. liberalism https://russia-direct.org/analysis/next-century-realpolitik-vs-liberalism
Pavel Koshkin

Squeezed between networked citizens and assertive non-state actors, states will have to balance between liberalism and realpolitik to adjust to the new geopolitical reality of the 21st century.

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Wed, 01 Mar 2017 21:11:00 +0000 5484 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/next-century-realpolitik-vs-liberalism#comments The next century: Realpolitik vs. liberalism

Squeezed between networked citizens and assertive non-state actors, states will have to balance between liberalism and realpolitik to adjust to the new geopolitical reality of the 21st century

Squeezed between networked citizens and assertive non-state actors, states will have to balance between liberalism and realpolitik to adjust to the new geopolitical reality of the 21st century.

U.S. President Donald Trump [pictured left] seeks to modernize America’s nuclear arsenal and increase its military budget by $54 billion. Photo: Donald Trump's official Facebook page  

Numerous mantras and truisms about “predictable unpredictability” have become commonplace among pundits and politicians today. Paradoxically, quite predictable moves from global and regional stakeholders make the world less predictable and more vulnerable today. Here are three examples to illustrate the trend, from the United States, Russia and China.  

U.S. President Donald Trump seeks to modernize America’s nuclear arsenal and increase its military budget by $54 billion (which is about 80 percent of Russia’s entire military budget in 2015). The White House announced this plan on Feb. 27 and the Kremlin might have seen it as a warning signal. Yet, in fact, Trump makes no bones about his desire to negotiate with partners from a position of strength. And this move should surprise neither politicians nor experts.

Likewise, Russia’s policy in Eastern Ukraine seems to be no more astounding. Following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 18 decree to recognize Donbas passports, Eastern Ukraine’s separatist republics — probably, with the tacit approval of the Kremlin — announced that they would adopt the Russian ruble as their official currency. By the same token, the West and Ukraine might first see the stance as a warning and only later as a predictable signal.

Raed the interview with Carnegie Moscow Center's Dmitri Trenin: "What kind of Russia should the West fear?"

Finally, China’s ongoing maneuvers in the South China Sea fuel tensions with its neighbors and the U.S. in another part of the world — the Asia-Pacific, as Beijing has recently spurred its military buildup in the region by deploying new missile systems and facilities on the Spratly and Parcel Islands. Again, it sends the U.S. an unwelcome message: Washington will likely see it as a direct challenge to America’s leadership in the region.

However, oddly enough, in such a turbulent and unpredictable environment, some experts cannot resist the temptation to forecast what the world will look like in 100 years. By looking ahead to the long-term future, they try to escape the comfort zone of conventional analysis and come up with relevant solutions in a chaotic world, no matter whether their forecasts will ever come true or not. On the other hand, other pundits choose another, more straightforward, tactic — they simply label the traditional chessboard view of geopolitics as outdated to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

The world in 100 years

The futuristic approach is vividly conveyed in a new book released by the Russia International Affairs Council (RIAC), “The World in 100 Years,” which was presented in a Moscow library in mid-February. Written by 55 Russian pundits, it brings together forecasts about the world in the 2100s and its different aspects, including politics, economies and social life. Its initiators, RIAC’s Ivan Timofeev and Timur Makhmutov, describe the book as “an intellectual provocation” or a “collective brainstorming.”

“The authors of the book describe 55 different scenarios, which outline a general picture of the future,” Makhmutov said.

The problem is that many experts have a narrow planning horizon — three or four years due to the need to deal with the current agenda and the lack of certainty in general. Today, planning even within the 10-20 year timespan is challenging, not to mention 100 years. That’s why a futuristic approach might seem like a breath of fresh air. The goal is to push experts to expand the planning horizon of pundits and decision-makers and, thus, “foster imagination, reassess their views and look into the future,” said Makhmutov.

Timofeev calls such an approach “out-of-the-box thinking.” Even though it is not based on rigorous research and analysis, it could be helpful in dealing with future global challenges, at least as long as the traditional technologies — brick-and-mortar infrastructure, energy facilities, conventional weapons and military equipment — persist (and they will, according to Timofeev).

“The high speed of technological changes always co-exists with their rigidity,” Timofeev said, pointing out that this aspect creates demand for futuristic analysis.

The old and the new in turbulent co-existence

The co-existence of the old and the new is commonplace for today’s geopolitics and expertise. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, a foreign policy analyst as well as the president of the think tank New America, implies in a recent article for Foreign Affairs magazine, attempts to look at the world only through the traditional chessboard view (which is common for realpolitik, with its adherence to national interests) might create problems in the 21st century networked world.

Also read: "What threats will Russia and the world face in 2017?"

“Think of a standard map of the world, showing the borders and capitals of the world’s 190-odd countries. That is the chessboard view,” Slaughter writes. “Now think of a map of the world at night, with the lit-up bursts of cities and the dark swaths of wilderness. <…> . That is the web view. It is a map not of separation, marking off boundaries of sovereign power, but of connection.”

In fact, seeing the international system as a web prioritizes not the states and their interests, but rather, their networks. To a certain extent, such an approach shies away from realpolitik as a tool of dealing with other countries, non-state actors and global challenges, including the terrorism threat; drugs, arms, and human trafficking; climate change; pandemic disease carried by air, sea, and land.

“In this world, problems and threats arise because people are too connected, not connected enough, or connected in the wrong ways to the wrong people or things,” Slaughter argues, pointing out that today most politicians act as chess players, and see the world “as if they lived in the seventeenth century” and fail to navigate in the networked world.

According to such logic, the national leaders will have to build and maintain a transparent international order to succeed in the 21st century. Open societies, open governments and an open international system are supposed to be three essential elements of the networked world, the cornerstones of liberalism.

Such a concept seems to relegate realpolitik to something secondary. Sergey Medvedev, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, echoes this view. According to him, the mantra about the need to defend national interests oversimplifies the complicated nature of the globalized and networked world. It cannot meet the challenges of the 21century, he said during the Feb. 14 discussion held at the Moscow-based DI Telegraph center, as part of the Inliberty educational project.

According to him, Russia and other countries “should think beyond the box of traditional and realistic thinking.” He describes the focus on national interests as “the Russian backward game, a parochial response to the complexity of the globalized world.” Attempts to stick blindly to national interest lead to autocracy and the domination of the state. And prioritizing the interests of a state (or rather a separate ruler and his clique) over the interests of an individual might be flawed and dangerous, Medvedev warns. He gives an example: Russia.

By controlling the media consumption of the Russian people, the Kremlin tries to impose an idea on the population that there is “a Russia that has a certain national interest and projects this interest onto the external world. This is the geopolitics that ‘zombies out’ the population,” concluded Medvedev.

In contrast, Sergey Markedonov, an associate professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities based in Moscow, doesn’t believe that the concept of national interest is outdated. On the contrary, recent events in the 21st century — including civil wars in Libya, Syria and Ukraine as well as Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. — indicate that realpolitik is in demand as an effective tool.

“The national interest will still be dominant,” he told Russia Direct during the Feb. 17-18 Meeting Russia event, a public diplomacy program for young leaders. “High expectations [for a new open and liberal global order] are also dangerous, because they might lead to high disappointment.”

Recommended: "Conventional arms race draws the world closer to state of brinkmanship"

It remains to be seen if the chessboard view will be viable and overshadow the liberal concept of the world within the next 100 years. But one thing is certain: states will have to balance between two concepts and adjust to a new reality. They might find themselves squeezed between active citizens and assertive non-state actors.

The state might be not above, but rather in between, while playing a mediating role, predicts Makhmutov. This means that those national leaders, who place their bets on innovation, emerging new technologies and human capital, are likely to be more viable in a networked world.

Most importantly, in such an environment, policymakers should combine two approaches to navigate successfully in the 21st century. They need to be a blue sky visionary, capable of looking ahead 50 to 100 years, and they need to be a down-to-earth pragmatist, dealing with the day-to-day routine. Only by combining both approaches will they be able to respond to the inevitable “black swan” events in the world.

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Why does the Nagorno-Karabakh referendum matter for Russia? https://russia-direct.org/qa/why-does-nagorno-karabakh-referendum-matter-russia-west
Morgane Fert-Malka

Russia Direct sat down with Alexander Skakov, an expert from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), to discuss the implications of the Feb. 20 referendum in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic for Russia and the West.

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Tue, 28 Feb 2017 15:17:26 +0000 5482 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/qa/why-does-nagorno-karabakh-referendum-matter-russia-west#comments Why does the Nagorno-Karabakh referendum matter for Russia?

Russia Direct sat down with Alexander Skakov from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, to discuss the implications of the Feb. 20 referendum in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic for Russia

Russia Direct sat down with Alexander Skakov, an expert from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), to discuss the implications of the Feb. 20 referendum in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic for Russia and the West.

Empty gun shells near the village of Madagis in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. Photo: RIA Novosti

On Feb. 20, the authorities of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic held a constitutional referendum. According to the Central Electoral Commission of Nagorno-Karabakh, over 90 percent of the registered electorate voted for the proposed constitutional reforms, with a turnout of 76,51 percent. As a result, the self-proclaimed republic increases the powers of its President and does away with the position of Prime Minister.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a territory in the South Caucasus that has become the source of one of the thorniest disputes in the post-Soviet space, involving both Azerbaijan and Armenia in a long-standing conflict since the late 1980s.

The South Caucasus, bridging Europe and Asia, has an ancient and complex history. The three South Caucasian republics – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – have intricate relations to each other and a central position in regional and global politics, squeezed as they are between the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, Russia, Iran and Turkey.

The region's breakaway territories — Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh — are both catalysts and manifestations of the complex games of influence that have traditionally shaped South Caucasian politics at the local, regional and geopolitical levels. Thus, even though the Feb. 20 referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh went relatively unnoticed, it was not unimportant for the world.

Also read: "Nagorno-Karabakh may become another headache for Russia, the West"

Nagorno-Karabakh's regional parliament voted to secede from the Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan and unite with the Socialist Republic of Armenia in 1988, as the unravelling of the Soviet Union was prompting a reconsideration of the prevailing political principles of territorial delimitation in favor of resurgent ethnic-national identities.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 precipitated the events: While Azerbaijan asserted its independence from Moscow, Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azerbaijani region with a majority of ethnic Armenian inhabitants, attempted to assert its independence from Baku with Erevan's support. The effort turned into a bloody ethnic conflict in 1992.

Since 1994, a ceasefire, brokered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, keeps the region in a fragile equilibrium. Nagorno-Karabakh remains the main thorn in Armenian-Azeri relations, a major factor of instability and uncertainty at Russia's and Europe's doorstep, and a driver for militarization in a geopolitically critical region.

Alexander Skakov, an expert on the South Caucasus at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) and the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), was in Nagorno-Karabakh during the referendum. Russia Direct sat down with him to discuss why Russia and the West should keep a close eye on the tensions in the South Caucasus.

Russia Direct: Why does this referendum matter?

Alexander Skakov: First and foremost, it matters for the relations between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Armenia recently carried out a constitutional reform [a successful referendum was held in December 2015 — Editor's note] abandoning its presidential system for a parliamentary system. The President loses his functions and the Prime Minister becomes the most important person in the country.

One motivation for the reform were general concerns of governance, in part by the desire of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to stay in power — as Prime Minister or leader of the ruling party — after his current and last mandate. Now this is not unlike what Mikheil Saakashvili did during his time as President of Georgia, although he did not succeed in reaping the benefits of the constitutional reform he initiated.

With its February 2017 constitutional reform, Nagorno-Karabakh is moving in the opposite direction from Armenia. Nagorno-Karabakh's constitutional system becomes more incompatible, less easy to integrate with Armenia's in case of unification.

RD: Not everyone supports the integration of Nagorno-Karabakh into Armenia, though.

A.S.: It is a complex question. First, note that officially Armenia never recognized the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan. Ironically, Armenia takes offence that Russia — its strategic ally — has not recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as a state, but it has not even done so itself. De jure, then, Armenia recognizes the integrity of Azerbaijani borders as defined by Azerbaijan, that is to say including Nagorno-Karabakh as a region of Azerbaijan.

RD: Now, de facto the situation is different. Armenia militarily supports Nagorno-Karabakh's secessionist aspirations from Azerbaijan. It hosts Nagorno-Karabakh's diplomatic delegations within its embassies in Russia, the U.S., France, Australia, Lebanon and Germany. Does Armenia want to integrate Nagorno-Karabakh or not?

A.S.: In Armenia there are two approaches. According to one approach, Nagorno-Karabakh shall become an integral part of Armenia in the future. According to the second approach, it shall become completely independent from Azerbaijan, of course, but also from Armenia. In Nagorno-Karabakh itself, a majority of the population supports independence.

In Azerbaijan there is this bizarre narrative, according to which there cannot be two Armenian-speaking states in the region. Of course this makes no sense, there is no principle excluding such a situation. But the narrative helps counter the idea of an independent Nagorno-Karabakh.

Recommended: "How to prevent new escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh"

In Armenia, unofficially, the approach according to which Nagorno-Karabakh should become part of a "reunited" Armenia tends to prevail although these are not the kinds of themes that are discussed publicly. This is why the Armenian leadership was not too happy with the referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh, as it takes the two political systems further apart from each other. It is not a huge problem for the moment, but it is one small step by Nagorno-Karabakh away from Armenia.

Armenia is transitioning from a presidential to a parliamentary system. It expected Nagorno-Karabakh to follow, and at first the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities considered this option, but eventually they did the opposite and reinforced the powers of their President instead.

Alexander SkakovRD: Why did the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership seek to reinforce the President's powers in the first place?

A.S.: Well, in the state of de facto and de jure war in which Nagorno-Karabakh is embroiled, it is difficult to give up a presidential system. A regime where the President is strong and can take strategic decisions quickly, without too many hurdles, seems to be the most suited for a small breakaway region that lives under the bombshells. All the more so as the situation is currently deteriorating, and the likeliness of full-blown conflict is increasing.

RD: How did the international community react to the referendum?

A.S.: More than 100 observers attended the referendum, from various countries including European ones, but no official delegations from states. Of course, the international community has not recognized this referendum, like all previous normative acts of Nagorno-Karabakh, and there have been a few statements to declare it illegal. But in general it has not attracted much attention. Russia has made no statement.

By the way, there were no official observers from Russia, which was a little bit unusual. In fact, a few Russian parliamentarians wanted to attend notably, Konstantin Zatulin but someone in the State Duma decided not to allow them. Apparently, they did not want to antagonize Azerbaijan, especially after the recent tensions caused by the extradition of Russian blogger Aleksandr Lapshin.

RD: Do you see any substantial evolution in the bilateral relations between Russia and Azerbaijan on the one hand, and Russia and Armenia on the other hand?

A.S.: I don't see any strong trends. Russia and Armenia are strategic allies, while Russia and Azerbaijan are strategic partners. This is an uneasy position. Russia strives to maintain cordial relations with both countries. At the same time, it must assist Armenia militarily in case of aggression, which is most likely to come from Azerbaijan.

This, in part, explains why Russia has traditionally remained silent on the Nagorno-Karabakh problem: If Russia recognized that Nagorno-Karabakh was of legitimate and vital interest to Armenia, then by virtue of its strategic alliance, it would have to intervene in case of Azerbaijani aggression on the breakaway territory which is less unlikely to happen than an Azerbaijani agression against Armenia itself.

Not taking a clear position on Nagorno-Karabakh gives Russia more margin of maneuver. In case of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia gets involved not as a strategic ally but as an international negotiator within the OSCE Minsk Group, together with France and the U.S.

Recommended: "Three ways for peaceful resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict"

Yet… During its most recent annual press conference [that took place on Jan. 17], Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov made an unusual answer to an Azerbaijani journalist: Nagorno-Karabakh “is not a matter of internal affairs for Azerbaijan”, he said. In diplomatic terms, he meant that Russia would not exclude intervening militarily in case of an armed conflict in the breakaway region. This was the first official statement of this kind in Russia, and certainly not the answer the journalist was looking for!

Now Russia has substantial economic ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan but more substantial ties with the latter. Azerbaijan is an important energy player, an important transportation route between Russia and Iran, and important actor in Caspian Sea politics. Ties with Armenia are still important much of Armenia's infrastructure is sustained by Russian investors but there are even stronger and more influential business ties and capital integration between Azerbaijan and Russia. The Azeri diaspora in Russia is also more influential than the Armenian diaspora.

Geographically, Armenia is disadvantaged. It does not directly Russia's neighbor and is bypassed by the most important Eurasian transportation routes.

RD: Does the referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh change anything to the configuration of regional politics?

A.S.: To Azerbaijan, any referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh is problematic but this particular instance does not substantially affect Azeri interests. In general, the referendum was not a big issue for any player in the region besides Nagorno-Karabakh itself. Azerbaijan would only be concerned if there was a substantial change in the balance of forces and the stability of the conflict.

Armenia is currently concerned with its upcoming parliamentary election, which will be interesting as the party in power has historically low approval ratings and will be struggling not to lose seats. Georgia – which would not recognise such a referendum in any case has other fish to fry, embroiled as it is in a massive scandal following an alleged murder attempt against the Church's Patriarch by one of his priests.

RD: Do you consider that the resolution of South Caucasian problems could be a chance to build bridges between Russia and the West?

A.S.: Yes, definitely, and the Nagorno-Karabakh standoff has already been the occasion for Russia, France and the U.S. to participate together in conflict resolution within the OSCE Minsk Group. However, until now little has been achieved.

The current tensions between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic community do not help. The question of Georgia's accession to NATO, as well as the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the issuance of visa and passports to their populations, are sensitive issues that impede a meaningful dialogue between Russia and the European Union.

In addition, insofar as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not deemed to be of vital interest to either Brussels, Moscow or Washington, it will take extraordinary circumstances to force any of them to serious action.

Azerbaijan has been the strongest obstacle to the work of the OSCE Minsk Group. It is very clear that 90 percent of the provocations in the conflict come from Azeri forces, and Azerbaijan is doing its best to impede the work of observers on the front line. Azerbaijani provocations worsen whenever the political and economic situation worsens domestically as the leadership looks for an external enemy in a "rally around the flag" move.

Recommended: "Why Russia, the West should pay attention to what happens in Armenia"

However, Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenian forces are also hampering the OSCE's work and its ability to report on retaliation measures against Azerbaijan. It will take serious political pressure from all sides to overturn the current trend of militarization and escalation.

Since the April 2016 clashes, the situation has been consistently deteriorating, and it is no longer possible to speak of a “frozen conflict”. If the parties continue their provocations, if foreign countries continue to supply arms to the belligerents, and if mediation remains as ineffective, there will be a war. It could be a massive war, not necessarily restricted to the Nagorno-Karabakh.

RD: Some Western and South Caucasian commentators share the opinion that Russia intentionally fuels the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, by accommodating all sides, in order to nurture a form of controlled instability or “controlled chaos” in the region and maintain Yerevan and Baku in a state of strategic dependence on Moscow. What do you make of it?

A.S.: The “controlled chaos” that exists today in and around Nagorno-Karabakh has its source in local political processes that started in the 1980s, without Moscow's participation. The region did not need Russia to be unstable and it does not need Russia to maintain itself in a state of instability. Now the question is can Russia create order out of this chaos? No, it cannot. If it could, it would have done so a long time ago.

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Slain Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov brings together Russian opposition https://russia-direct.org/analysis/slain-kremlin-critic-boris-nemtsov-brings-together-russian-opposition
Igor Rozin

Two years after the murder of Russian opposition activist Boris Nemtsov, Russians took to the streets to commemorate him and remind the world that the real perpetrators are still not punished.

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Mon, 27 Feb 2017 00:13:26 +0000 5478 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/slain-kremlin-critic-boris-nemtsov-brings-together-russian-opposition#comments Slain Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov brings together Russian opposition

Two years after the murder of Russian opposition activist Boris Nemtsov, Russians took to the streets to commemorate him and remind the nation that the real perpetrators are not still punished

Two years after the murder of Russian opposition activist Boris Nemtsov, Russians took to the streets to commemorate him and remind the world that the real perpetrators are still not punished.

The Feb. 26 march in memory of Boris Nemtsov brought together about 15,000 people. Photo: the Boris Nemtsov March's facebook page 

Regardless of the fact that the protest movement in Russia is in decline, the figure of opposition activist Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered in central Moscow two years ago, brings together the country's disintegrated opposition.

On Feb. 26 liberal and democratic activists took to the streets to commemorate harsh Kremlin critic Nemtsov during the rally that has become the largest protest event in 2017 so far. According to the organizers of the march, it brought together about 15,000 people. However, police claim that only five thousand people participated in the protests. By comparison, last year almost 25,000 people took to the streets, to quote the opposition. In 2015, up to 70,000 people attended the march to commemorate Nemtsov. Most importantly, the rallies in his memory took place also in other Russian cities, including St. Petersburg, Kazan, Kirov, Novosibirsk, Perm, Ulyanovsk and others.

Also read: "The Kremlin's difficult balancing act in preserving the political status quo"

With the probe into the Nemtsov murder incomplete, the protesters demanded to hold the perpetrators accountable, chanted anti-Kremlin and anti-corruption slogans and called for political freedoms. At the same time, the participants of the rally demanded to withdraw Russian troops from Syria and resolve the Ukrainian standoff.

“Syria is the Second Afghanistan,” “Stop Repressions in Crimea!” “Russia Without Putin,” “Freedom to political prisoners,” "War with Ukraine is a Crime of Putin," read some of the black-lined papers. According to the organizers of the march, police officers took off one of the most provocative placards “Putin is War,” yet the protesters started chanting the slogan.

The Feb. 26 march in memory of Boris Nemtsov brought together about 15,000 people. Photo: the Boris Nemtsov March's facebook page 

Many of Russia’s prominent opposition campaigners attended the Boris Nemtsov March in Moscow, including anti-corruption whistleblower and presidential candidate Alexey Navalny, former parliamentarian Gennady Gudkov, Yabloko Party leader Grigory Yavlinsky as well as Mikhail Kasyanov, the leader of the People’s Freedom Party and a former Russian prime minister. In the beginning of the demonstration the latter was attacked by an unknown individual and splashed with a bright green liquid.

The plight of the Russian opposition

Even though the Feb. 26 protests were peaceful in general and took place without large-scale arrests (only those who tried to instigate public unrest were taken into custody), the incident with Kasyanov indicates that the Russian opposition has been facing even more challenges and pressure since the start of the civil war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. After the Nemtsov murder, the plight of the Russian opposition was only exacerbated, with the authorities discrediting and marginalizing its representatives.

In fact, many Russians started using the words “opposition” and “liberal” in a derogatory context due to their distrust toward democracy, according to many experts. This is the result in part from informational campaigns against the opposition by Russian media and in part from the general disappointment with the 1990s liberal reforms, as well as the intellectual gap between some opposition leaders and ordinary people and the lack of unity within the opposition itself, as Leonid Gozman, a democratic activist, said during an event in Carnegie Moscow Center in the late October in 2016.

Also read the debates: "What does the Nemtsov murder mean for Russia's political future?"

“The authoritarian regime in Russia will prevent the emergence of new powerful liberal forces in Russia,” Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert from Carnegie Moscow Center, told in a 2016 interview to Russia Direct. “If such a party emerges and poses a serious challenge to the authorities like opposition leader Alexei Navalny did, it will be either destroyed or discredited and marginalized.”

Nemtsov, Kasyanov and the Chechen trace

Actually, Kasyanov became one of the key targets of the pro-government protesters. He is a well-known figure within the Russia opposition. He was the co-chairman of the People’s Freedom Party with Nemtsov and also marked himself as a harsh Kremlin critic. However, the authorities marginalized him as well. For example, last year before the 2016 anniversary of the Nemtsov murder, a campaign against Kasyanov started: on February 9, 2016, an unknown individual described Kasyanov as an “American agent” and threw a cake in his face in a Moscow restaurant.

The attacks persisted in the city of Vladimir, when some pro-Kremlin activists threw eggs at him and were chanting “Kasyanov is a traitor”. Finally, notorious Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov posted a video in February 2016 showing Kasyanov in the crosshairs of a gun — a move that was seen by many as overt intimidation.

Because the Kremlin didn’t complete the investigation into the Nemtsov murder, many Russian political experts and observers, including Nemtsov’s supporters and members of his family, speculated that Kadyrov might have been behind the incident.

“To be sure, no direct evidence has so far emerged tying Kadyrov to Nemtsov’s killing. And despite tensions and differences with Kadyrov, Nemtsov didn’t appear to pose a threat to the Chechen leader. The killing remains, to a large extent, a mystery,” wrote Yuri Korgunyuk in his Russia Direct column last year, adding, “The Chechen version of the Nemtsov murder remains a sort of taboo for investigators.”

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Is new US National Security Advisor McMaster good or bad for Moscow? https://russia-direct.org/debates/new-us-national-security-advisor-mcmaster-good-or-bad-kremlin
Pavel Koshkin

Debates: Flynn is seen as a lobbyist of Russia’s interests and an advocate of lifting the anti-Kremlin sanctions, but McMaster has an image of a pragmatic realist who has no illusions about Russia. What does it mean for the Kremlin?

 

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Fri, 24 Feb 2017 18:33:42 +0000 5476 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/debates/new-us-national-security-advisor-mcmaster-good-or-bad-kremlin#comments Is new US National Security Advisor McMaster good or bad for Moscow?

Debates: Flynn is seen as a lobbyist of Russia’s interests and an advocate of lifting the anti-Kremlin sanctions, but McMaster has an image of a pragmatic realist who has no illusions about Russia. What does it mean for the Kremlin?

Debates: Flynn is seen as a lobbyist of Russia’s interests and an advocate of lifting the anti-Kremlin sanctions, but McMaster has an image of a pragmatic realist who has no illusions about Russia. What does it mean for the Kremlin?

 

Pictured: The U.S. President's National Security Advisor Herbert Raymond McMaster, a lieutenant general, at at the National Infantry Museum. Photo: Patrick Albright /U.S. Army

The scandalous resignation of the U.S. President’s outgoing National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was accused of covering up the details of his phone talks with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, puzzled Russia.

So did the appointment of Herbert Raymond McMaster, a lieutenant general, on this important position. U.S. President Donald Trump announced about his pick this week, with the Kremlin taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We are waiting for further development of the events,” said the Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov while expressing his keen interest in Washington’s future policy toward Moscow.

Recommended: "After Flynn's dismissal, Russia starts to doubt Trump"

With Flynn being seen in the U.S. as a lobbyist of Russia’s interests and an advocate of lifting the anti-Kremlin sanctions, McMaster has an image of a tough and pragmatic realist who has no illusions about Russia.

Russia Direct interviewed prominent experts to understand the implications of McMaster’s appointment for Washington and Moscow.

Mikhail Troitskiy, an associate professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University)

Arrival of General McMaster to the White House as the national security adviser to President Trump does not increase the odds of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow.

Unlike his predecessor, General McMaster is known for his skeptical and even hawkish views of Russia. He has stressed the need to push back against Russia in cyberspace and in Ukraine. However, it is clear that any expectations for the cooling of tensions between the U.S. and Russia hinge on the personal perspective of President Trump himself, and he has repeatedly suggested that a "deal" with Russia should not be ruled out in principle.

For the time being, President Trump does not appear to be taking advice from the White House national security staff, so opportunities for political entrepreneurship in U.S.-Russia relations are still there. That said, even if Presidents Putin and Trump are able to hammer out a blueprint for a "deal" — for example, in their first face-to-face meeting — pulling it through the bureaucracy, including General McMaster's people, and filling it with substance is going to be very difficult.

Robert Legvold, professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science and the Harriman Institute of Columbia University

In a sea of confusion, McMaster's arrival in place of Flynn should be a stabilizing factor for U.S. foreign policy. It means that several of the dominant players in Trump's foreign and security policy team are very accomplished military leaders, all capable of serious strategic thinking, and comrades in arms who have known and worked with one another over years of service.

True, the strategic thinking they have done has been almost entirely in terms of military operations, particularly, counter-insurgency warfare, but they are intelligent and capable of enlarging their focus to the broader challenges in contemporary international politics.

They are likely to work well with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, and the question will be the degree to which they can contain the role of the White House’s Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and limit his influence on the president.

Together they, in their thinking, represent a strong continuation of the long-standing mainstream U.S. attitude toward allies, concepts of national security, and the role of the United States in international politics.

Jack Goldstone, an American sociologist, political expert and a professor at George Mason University

The Trump National Security team and outlook continue to evolve.  But it remains schizophrenic.  On the one hand there is in the White House a Steve Bannon view of the world in which the biggest threat to Western peace and prosperity is aggressive and violent Islamist extremism.

In this view, partnership with Russia is a natural means to combine the strength of Western Christian societies to repel Islamist aggression, and America should seek to reduce conflicts with Russia and expand areas of cooperation.

On the other hand, the major Cabinet officials – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis – view Russia as an aggressive actor whose intervention in Ukraine violated agreements to respect sovereign borders.  They share a concern that Russia’s desire to increase its influence in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia is in conflict with America’s goals of building a strong alliance of democratic and free-market states to uphold a liberal-leaning global order.

Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was strongly in the Bannon camp, while his replacement, McMaster, seems more aligned with Tillerson and Mattis.

This would seem to tilt policy in a direction strongly supportive of NATO and less eager to seek compromise with Russia.  Yet we will not know for certain until we see further actions.

Bannon seems to be Trump’s most trusted advisor and to have the President’s ear. McMaster is brand-new to Trump’s circle and may be less influential.  Secretary Tillerson, for example, has had a quiet first month and has not shown that he will have a major role in shaping America’s global strategy.

Also read: "Russia's euphoria about Donald Trump already fading"

We will likely get the first clear picture of which view will prevail when the Trump administration develops its policy for Syria, or perhaps when President Trump makes a major speech on foreign policy.  Until then, as in much else, the Trump administration will keep observers guessing what will come next.

James Carden, contributing editor to The Nation and former advisor to the U.S.-Russia Presidential Commission at the U.S. State Department

The appointment of McMaster to the position of National Security Adviser should be greatly welcome if only because he is not Michael Flynn who quite clearly possessed neither the temperament nor skill to successful lead the National Security Council.

McMaster is reputed to be a truth teller and is said to unafraid to speak truth to power and is known to have impeccable battlefield and academic credentials, which is all to the good given that Trump has not a single one of these qualities.

It is impossible to know right now how McMaster's appointment will affect U.S.-Russian relations, or really the relations with any other nation.

It seems to me the principle challenge McMaster will face will be gaining control of the bureaucracy and fashioning out a coherent global strategy out of the President's often times incoherent, contradictory and nonsensical musings on a world about which he knows rather little.

In other words he will have to make something out of nothing, which is, to put it mildly, never easy. All Americans, regardless of party, should wish McMaster well in his new job.

Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and a professor at Stanford University

The resignation of Flynn and the appointment of McMaster to the position of the head at the White House’s National Security Council should destroy all dreams about a great union between the U.S. and Russia during the Trump-Putin era. Three of the National Security Council's policymakers (McMaster, Tillerson and Mattis) have realistic perception about Russia and foreign affairs in general. They are not the dreamers, who hope that common ideology — a Judeo-Christian Union against Islam and China — will bring two nations together. They are the realists.          

McMaster is a confident expert, thinking strategically. He won’t make concessions even to the President of the United States. Moreover, he is a well-experienced bureaucrat, who knows how to work within the system and its environment (the press and Congress) to achieve his goals. And Trump cannot dismiss him, at least in the near future. Such move would reveal the President’s weakness.       

Michael McFaul’s comment is based on his blogpost at Echo of Moscow’s website, which was originally published in Russian. 

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Could Russia and the US prevent nuclear and environmental doomsday? https://russia-direct.org/opinion/could-russia-and-us-prevent-nuclear-and-environmental-doomsday
Artem Kureev

Today politicians relegate the nuclear threat and environmental challenges to the secondary agenda. This could have grave implications for Russia, the United States and the world. 

 

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Thu, 23 Feb 2017 23:18:42 +0000 5474 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/could-russia-and-us-prevent-nuclear-and-environmental-doomsday#comments Could Russia and the US prevent nuclear and environmental doomsday?

Today politicians relegate the nuclear threat and environmental challenges to the secondary agenda. This could have grave implications for Russia, the United States and the world

Today politicians relegate the nuclear threat and environmental challenges to the secondary agenda. This could have grave implications for Russia, the United States and the world. 

 

It remains to be seen if the U.S. and Russia will be able to alleviate the nuclear threats in a time of confrontation. Photo: Missile Defense Agency / U.S. Department of Defense

Last week the U.S.-based Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Moscow-based Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS) launched a new joint report on the future of U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation. It includes 51 recommendations for mutually beneficial cooperation in different fields, including nuclear science, nuclear energy, nuclear safety, nuclear security, and nuclear environmental remediation.

“If implemented, these projects could result in safer nuclear reactors, stronger defenses against nuclear and radiological terrorism, and cleaner approaches to nuclear environmental remediation,” Sam Nunn, the co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and Igor Ivanov, the president of the Russian International Affairs Council and Russia’s former Foreign Minister (1998–2004), wrote in the foreword to the report.

Also read: "For Russia, nuclear security is not the same as nuclear disarmament"

Their recommendations might become even more relevant in 2017, given the fact that numerous nonproliferation endeavors of Russia and the U.S. fell short because of their current confrontation. And with the presidency of Donald Trump, who plans to modernize U.S. nuclear arsenal, the risks are increasing.

Two minutes and 30 seconds until the disaster

About a month ago, on Jan. 25, U.S. atomic scientists released the 2017 Doomsday Clock Bulletin within the project, founded by University of Chicago in 1945. They created the Doomsday Clock to convey the threats to humanity and the entire world. Eventually, it has become a good indicator of the world’s vulnerability to an apocalypse from the possible nuclear arms race, climate change and disruptive technologies in other fields. The authors of the Bulletin moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to a hypothetical disaster: “It is now two minutes and 30 seconds to midnight,” it reads.

The idea to create the Doomsday Clock came shortly after the 1945 U.S. atomic bombing of two Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when American physicists understood that nuclear weapons could pose the existential threat to the entire humanity. In 1947, Chicago’s scientists set up the Clock at 11:53 p.m., which meant seven minutes left to midnight and the apocalypse.

Since the 1940s, the clock time has been changed more than 20 times. For example, in 1953, after the first testing of thermonuclear bombs, humanity came much closer to the catastrophe, according to atomic scientists: two minutes left until the disaster. Today, the indicators are also alarming — two minutes and 30 seconds to midnight. During the Cold War doomsday might happen only in the case of direct confrontation of the U.S. and the Soviet Union — if they would dare to start the warfare through the nuclear exchange.

Amidst the increasing global instability, climate change and environmental problems, is modern civilization really facing an existential threat? Is the world becoming more dangerous and unstable? Or might American atomic scientists just be exaggerating their pessimism?

 Also read: Interview with Carnegie's Alexey Arbatov "Russia might be the first casualty if nuclear terrorism becomes reality"

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Doomsday Clock had 17 minutes left until the apocalypses. It was partly because the U.S. and Russia have closely cooperated since that time and signed the Strategic Arms-Reduction Treaty (START-1). Yet with India and Pakistan testing their nuclear potential, terrorists keeping an eye on nuclear arsenal and Iran and North Korea launching their own nuclear initiatives, doomsday seems to have been brought closer and closer. The last straw became the victory of the flamboyant Trump in the U.S. 2016 presidential elections: He expressed his readiness to use nuclear weapons in the Middle East (to fight terrorists) and denied the threat of global warming.  

Nuclear weapons and non-state actors

Could all these factors lead to disaster? The nuclear apocalypse won’t necessarily mean doomsday for humanity (the civilization might survive, with large-scale panic, epidemics, total collapse of many societies and countries, increasing crime rate becoming routine). Yet if Trump could really dare to use nuclear weapons to deal with local conflicts in the Middle East, it could indeed pose an existential threat to the entire world.       

Historically, America used nuclear weapons to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki to showcase its potential to its main adversary — the Soviet Union. However, afterwards, some representatives of America’s top brass proposed to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam and North Korea during the Indochina wars (fortunately, they didn't). Today, some militaries might yield to temptation to fight efficiently with Islamic radicals. After all, one nuclear missile could wipe out a distant and inaccessible terrorist base. It could create a chilling effect and undermine the efforts of terrorists psychologically.

Moreover, there is a legal loophole to bypass the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty: Those countries that signed it, cannot use nuclear weapons against any other countries, especially, those that don’t possess nuclear weapons. Yet the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) is a non-state actor, which is seen by the global community as a terrorist organization, forbidden in civilized countries.

This means that Washington might showcase its nuclear arsenal to deal with ISIS. Hopefully, Trump won't dare to use nuclear weapons, given the fact that his team includes many professionals, who would not allow this scenario to come true. After all, the U.S. has other less risky and quite efficient options to fight terrorists. Nevertheless, the worst-case scenario should not be ruled out and the world should keep a close eye on it to prevent such a precedent. If a country with a nuclear arsenal uses it to resolve a local military conflict, the implications will be grave.

Downplaying climate change

However, the fact that Trump downplays the impact of climate change might also mean that the Doomsday Clock is a good and reliable indicator for predicting a global catastrophe. Many people underestimate the implications of climate change or other natural disasters — be it melting ice in the Arctic, the large-scale eruption of a volcano elsewhere and the following exposure to volcanic ash.

For example, 200 years ago, in 1816, the eruptions of Indonesia’s volcanoes led to the emission of a large amount of volcanic ash in the atmosphere and it had an impact on Europe. This year was labeled as “the year without a summer” or “the poverty year.” It had been the coldest year for 550 years because of severe climate abnormalities that caused average global temperature to drop significantly.

Also read: "Nonproliferation or nuclear buildup: What path will Trump follow?"

Naturally, this led to famine with all its unpleasant implications. Today such an incident could be a disaster given the fact that the planet is overcrowded, with its population exceeding 7 billion people. The first casualty could become the third world countries, which don’t have modern technologies and resources to withstand such incidents. Food crises might become common and develop in accordance with the domino effect scenario, leading to a global economic crisis.       

Humanity is currently disintegrating and cannot cope with such natural disasters. Unfortunately, the problem is aggravated by the fact that objective and reliable research on environmental and nuclear risks remains in the shadow of politics. Politicians are reluctant to invest in the long-term environmental and nuculear security projects. And this is not a good sign.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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Scapegoating Russia https://russia-direct.org/opinion/scapegoating-russia
Archil Sikharulidze

For the West, Russia is the best candidate to criticize and blame for all its woes.

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Wed, 22 Feb 2017 20:13:01 +0000 5472 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/scapegoating-russia#comments Scapegoating Russia

The West needs to criticize Russia to find explanations for its geopolitical recession and woes. At the same time, this tactic is quite safe, at least because the West’s strategic partners won’t be disappointed, with little or no threat posed to their own national interests

For the West, Russia is the best candidate to criticize and blame for all its woes.

A fragment of the cover of Russia Direct's report "The Year in Review: What Changed in 2016 and What to Expect in 2017." Photo: Christopher Michel / Flickr

Twenty years ago, when the Russian economy was in tatters during the turbulent presidency of Boris Yeltsin, few could imagine that within a period of just two decades, Russia would be in the media spotlight as one of the West's key troublemakers. Today, many opponents criticize Russia for its perennial human right abuses, assertive foreign policy and authoritarian regime. It is natural, at least because they can score political points: Russia has become a global player that is worthwhile and politically expedient to lambast.   

Without doubt, Russia’s domestic and foreign policy is very controversial, but this is not the only reason why the West has seemingly launched a crusade against the Kremlin. Some experts and politicians tend to point their fingers at Russia no matter what has happened: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hidden machinations are everywhere, his influence is omnipresent.

It remains to be seen whether it is true or not, yet this should be addressed via thorough and competent investigation and the court, not through allegations. No matter what, but one thing is clear: behind this campaign against Russia is the West’s natural need to find a real adversary who might pose an existential threat.

For a very different take read: "Russia's inferiority complex continues to block its future development"

It is no secret that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Western free and liberal world came up with the idea of “the end of history,” promoted by Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama. NATO members started believing that they were invincible, with their values and views becoming more viable with every passing day. Thus, the West rigorously encouraged other countries to accept its system of values and sometimes tried to impose its rules.

The military operation in Afghanistan was only the beginning; when that was completed, it turned into another campaign – in Iraq. The West’s attempt to expand its influence in the post-Soviet space was interpreted by the Kremlin and its like-minded supporters as attempts to orchestrate a “color revolution,” be it in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) or Kyrgyzstan (2005). The Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen in 2011 was another stage of the West’s endeavor to spread its values abroad. Finally, the apex of the Western crusade became the attempts to overthrow the political regimes in Syria and Libya, both of which turned into bloody and never-ending civil wars.

Ironically, the West didn’t achieve its results and plans in most cases, and all its noble attempts to “export” democracy abroad only backfired. Far from becoming more democratic and stable, the countries and the region was faced with a severe crisis. It became obvious that the Western scenario could not keep up with the harsh reality. Naturally, this discredited democratic values and democracy itself (as a tool of foreign policy).

When Barack Obama came into the Oval Office, the image of the United States had been already tainted and the new president had to shoulder this burden. Yet he was not able to deal with it — he didn’t fulfill his pre-election pledges to close the notorious prison in Guantanamo or withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Moreover, regardless of his plan to shy away from an assertive foreign policy, he didn’t stop U.S. attempts to interfere into the domestic policy of other countries. This also hampered America’s reputation as well as the image of Obama’s Democratic Party in general. This created a fertile ground for the emergence of populist forces and the rise of flamboyant billionaire Donald Trump, who finally won the U.S. presidency. He promised to stop the democratic crusade abroad and focus more on domestic problems.

In this situation, oddly enough, Russia might play a very important role in returning the Western liberal forces back to power. Paradoxically, Russia has already started bringing the West’s politicians together — but not as a positive factor, but rather, as a threat. As indicated by the 2017 Munich Security Conference, the West does understand the need to unite and refute anti-democratic and populist forces.

For a different take read: "Is a post-West world order viable?"

The mainstream narrative, which is actively circulated in America, is crystal clear: Putin and, specifically, Russia’s hackers, contributed to Trump’s victory in the presidential election and Brexit; Russia’s intelligence rigged the 2012 parliamentary elections in Georgia to bring to power pro-Russian parties. This narrative is consistent even in the context of the upcoming elections in France and Germany: the media and pundits are mulling over a possible victory of pro-Russian candidates Francois Fillon or Marine Le Pen; they speculate about the possible failure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, well-known for her tough and intransigent approach toward the Kremlin.

However, one relevant question comes to one’s mind: Did Russia really have such an impact on all these political processes? Why Russia, not China or some other country, let's say? If Russia is so powerful and omnipresent that means that the U.S. is no longer a superpower — it has been replaced by Russia, as Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Derek Averre of the University of Birmingham ironically implied during one of the 2016 meetings with Georgian pundits, who warned about Russia’s increasing influence.

To follow such logic, only a country that is economically, politically and militarily equal to the U.S. might have an impact on America’s domestic policy. But Russia is far from this level at the moment. The hacking attacks were commonplace, they have been undertaken and they will be carried out from both sides in future. And this is natural.

Regarding Brexit and the 2012 parliamentary elections in Georgia, these events indicated that the local political elites and their strategic partners were not able to recognize the indignation of voters as reality. In the case of Georgia, the authorities were reluctant to admit that its former President was authoritarian in his nature.       

Likewise, if the liberal and politically correct forces in France and Germany fail, their defeat will be a result of the domestic political processes in these countries. For example, the refugee crisis might play a significant role: Merkel’s noble, if utopian, plan to shelter many refugees in Germany and immediately integrate them into society might backfire.

Naturally, in such an environment it is politically beneficial to lambast and point fingers at Russia. By the same token, the Kremlin is the best candidate to blame for all Western woes. The choice is rational for a good reason: It fell on Russia because the Kremlin annexed Crimea, intervened in Georgia and now is reported to be conducting subversive activity against the Western world.

Moreover, historical memory of why the West scapegoated Moscow is also important: Everybody remembers the Red Scare. Thus, it is quite easy to nurture mistrust toward Russia in such an environment by dredging up old memories. Furthermore, the West can criticize Russia without expecting serious implications for its long-term interests, because the list of its key strategic partners includes Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, Israel and Turkey — but not Russia.

Also read: "Russia and the West offer very different views of the world in Munich"

In other words, criticizing the Kremlin doesn’t necessarily undermine the West’s strategic interests. That might be the reason why Riyadh and Doha can keep bombing civilians in Yemen without expecting sanctions from the West. That might be why Israel continued to build settlements in Palestine despite the large-scale Muslim protests. That might be why Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan feels impunity when he lawlessly imprisons thousands of Turkish citizens throughout the entire country.

Finally, Russia is powerful enough to be a bogeyman. It can pose a threat to the West, yet it is possible to deal with. That’s why the West chooses the Kremlin, not Qatar or Saudi Arabia (which allegedly finances terrorists and has been implicated in the 9/11 attacks against America), not Hungary with Victor Orban, not Ukraine with its political disorder, not even China with its global economic clout. However, Russia is big enough and, at first glance, very strong. With its weak economy and oil addiction, it is a good target to contain.   

Summing up, the West needs to criticize Russia to find explanations for its geopolitical recession and woes. At the same time, this tactic is quite safe, at least because the West’s strategic partners won’t be disappointed, with little or no threat posed to their own national interests.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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Is a post-West world order viable? https://russia-direct.org/opinion/post-west-world-order-really-viable
Dimitri Elkin

Russia is trying to promote its post-West narrative that challenges the future of the U.S.-led global order. However, it remains to be seen if Moscow succeeds in its efforts to frame the meaning of a new historic era.

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Tue, 21 Feb 2017 21:58:33 +0000 5470 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/post-west-world-order-really-viable#comments Is a post-West world order viable?

Russia is trying to promote its post-West narrative that challenges the future of the U.S.-led global order. However, it remains to be seen if Moscow succeeds in its efforts to frame the meaning of a new historic era

Russia is trying to promote its post-West narrative that challenges the future of the U.S.-led global order. However, it remains to be seen if Moscow succeeds in its efforts to frame the meaning of a new historic era.

“Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?” read the title of the Munich Security Report. Its authors describe the current situation as “a geopolitical recession.” Pictured: the participants of the 2017 Munich Security Conference. Photo: MSC

The post-Soviet period ended in the same way that it began, suddenly, and against Russia’s will. It left the country in a state of ontological shock, fearful of what may come next. The initial glimpses of the new future hardly looked comforting. Instead of a shining city, it has been a dark maze of hybrid wars, virtual realities, alternative facts, fake news and false prophets.

Could the post-Cold War period end differently? Probably. But only if the West had developed a plausible plan on what to do with Russia.

How the former Soviet Union would fit into the post-Cold war realities was debated from the start. The initial plan was for a grand arrangement, along the lines of the 1815 Congress of Vienna.  In November 1990, the Charter of Paris for a New Europe was approved, proclaiming that common values would now rule from Vancouver to Vladivostok. However, that concept did not survive the post-Soviet disintegration and the subsequent challenges of the European integration.

For a very different take read: "Russia's inferiority complex continues to block its future development"

Without a grand solution at hand, Russia’s integration with the West was put on hold. For smaller countries like Poland or Estonia, the existing structures of the European Union were sufficient. But Russia was too big and too ambitious to be treated in a similar way by either the European Union or by NATO. For twenty-five years, from 1989 to 2014, Russia remained stuck in limbo: neither an enemy of the West nor a friend.

Western experts mulled over the ways of how to resolve this unstable conundrum. There were three main scenarios. The most optimistic was that Russia would make such political and economic improvements that it would become a self-evident candidate for the European Union, a stronger candidate than, for example, Turkey.

The most contentious option was that the West and Russia would face another confrontation, as a result of which the U.S. would welcome a new power into the Kremlin, along the lines of what happened in 1991.

But the most common expectation was that Russia would simply wither away and become so irrelevant politically and economically, that the West would need not worry about it. This was the main assumption, or hope, of many politicians in the West, who were certain that the globalization train would continue to roll forward, with or without Russia.

Instead, something entirely unexpected happened. Within just a couple of years after the Crimea annexation, for reasons that will probably remain forever debatable, a wave of anti-globalization sentiment swept the world. In countries ranging from Moldova and Bulgaria to France, Britain, and even the United States, populist politicians with considerable disdain for the post-Cold War liberal ways gained power.

As the new world leaders looked around for allies, many eyes were suddenly fixed on Russia, and her geopolitical presence in the heart of Eurasia. And even in countries where the leadership did not change, such as in Turkey, political elites understood the benefit of using Russia as a counterbalance to the West. With Russia’s never-ending maneuvers around Ukraine and Moscow’s military campaign in Syria, the Kremlin’s opportunistic foreign policy suddenly looked well-suited to the new uncertain era. Russia had never succeeded in becoming part of the American order, and Russian political elites had come to believe that Russia had not lost much, since the Western world order started coming apart at the seams.

The tragedy is that Russia never desired this outcome. During the entire post-Cold War period, Russia was planning to become part of the West. The common ground was near. The political schism between Russia and the U.S., which started with America’s military campaign in Iraq, and escalated further with Libya, had started to narrow, as both NATO gambits went awry by 2015. The regime change ideology had lost its popularity in Washington, and just about everywhere else.

Eastern European countries like Poland that for so long had an oversized influence on America’s foreign policy, too, had lost their post-Cold War romantic charm. Lech Walesa, the hero of the Velvet Revolution, had been exposed as a communist-era informer, and Poland’s anti-democratic reforms enacted after 2014 had drawn the condemnation of both Washington and Brussels.

And above all, the common security threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) appeared. In more rational times, a security challenge of such magnitude would have surely forced the West and Russia find common geopolitical ground.

But that did not happen. The sanctions designed to punish Russia for Crimea exacerbated the East-West confrontation. By the time the need for closer cooperation between Russia and NATO had become obvious in Syria, it was too late. The Kremlin developed an alternative plan: since the West would refuse to accept Russia, Russia would destroy the West, not physically, but conceptually, by denying the future relevance to the U.S.-led global order. 

The Kremlin focused its subversive plans on the idea of the “Historic West,” the allegedly outdated alliance of the U.S. and Western Europe that had entered a state of inevitable decline. Russia’s real challenge, therefore, was not so much the United States, but the post-World War II tradition of Atlanticism that linked the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Continental Western Europe, and America-leaning nations of Eastern Europe.

In addition to undermining the U.S. political and moral authority in Europe and around the world, Russia has promoted itself as part of the European civilization — not Western, but European: the geographic and cultural space that includes Russia, France and Germany, but not America. The project has developed a spiritual dimension. In February 2016, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, met with Pope Francis, the 226th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. This was the first meeting of the heads of the two Churches since 1054 A.D.

 Q&A: Levada Center's Lev Gudkov talks on Russia's national identity through the lens of the Kremlin's foreign policy

In the long term, the integration of Russia and Europe is probably inevitable for the simple reason of geography, especially in an interconnected world where new technologies continue to reduce distances and erase borders. Thus, Russia’s integration with a more developed part of the world has not been cancelled, but merely postponed. In a sign of changing times and growing ambitions, a 60-foot statue of St. Vladimir was recently mounted outside of the Kremlin. The pagan prince integrated Russia into the Christian civilization a millennium earlier, but did so on Russia’s own terms.

Russia will continue to advance its post-West narrative and offer a vision of how the new world, bereft of America’s leadership, ought to be governed. It remains to be seen if this effort succeeds.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

This column is based on the Afterward of Dimitri Elkin’s book “Russia Turns the Page: A History of New Russia.” It covers the period of Russian history after 2007. It provides an original interpretation of the main events that altered Russia’s course in the closing years of the post-Soviet period: the Russo-Georgian War, the global financial crisis, the modernization attempts by Russia's then-President Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin’s return, the defeat of pro-Western liberal ideas in Russia, and the civil war in Ukraine. The digital version of this book will be available on Amazon after March 11, 2017.

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The indirect impact of Germany's presidential election on Russia https://russia-direct.org/opinion/indirect-impact-germanys-presidential-election-russia
Jan Svoboda

Germany’s new president won’t immediately improve German-Russian relations, but he might foster a shift in the composition of the political elites. This could have an indirect impact on Moscow-Berlin relations.

 

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Tue, 21 Feb 2017 19:04:37 +0000 5466 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/indirect-impact-germanys-presidential-election-russia#comments The indirect impact of Germany's presidential election on Russia

Germany’s new president won’t immediately improve German-Russian relations, but he might foster a shift in the composition of the political elites. This could have an indirect impact on Moscow-Berlin relations

Germany’s new president won’t immediately improve German-Russian relations, but he might foster a shift in the composition of the political elites. This could have an indirect impact on Moscow-Berlin relations.

 

Former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier during his visit to Russia in 2016. Photo: Kremlin.ru

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, former Foreign Minister and the candidate of Germany’s grand coalition, was elected President on Feb. 12. Even though Steinmeier is considered to follow a Russian-friendly approach, this won’t be an immediate game-changer for Russian-German relations. There are several good reasons for this assumption.

First, even though the President is the head of state, his political power is significantly limited and confined to mainly domestic issues. Second, in order to maintain his integrity and functional independency, the President steers clear of day-to-day politics, which means he doesn’t interfere with governmental decisions. Third, despite the fact that he represents the country according to international law, he must stay out of foreign policy, which is solely the government’s responsibility and, therefore, the Foreign Minister’s duty.

On the other hand, the President can affect the long-term orientation of the country. Especially given the uncertainty about the future of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) due to U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy, there is room for a strategic realignment.

It is crucial for Germany to rethink its policy towards its neighbors. Stabilizing the country and the European Union by counteracting the centrifugal forces and the shift to the right-nationalist spectrum in domestic and European politics as well as retaining a peaceful order should be at the heart of Germany’s national strategy.

This certainly includes having a good relationship with Russia. Steinmeier has been working towards this direction as Foreign Minister and although his scope of responsibility has changed, he should continue to do so as the German President.

Also read: "German elections won't be game-changer for US or Russia"

In contrast to his predecessor, Joachim Gauck, Steinmeier is not a newcomer in the political arena and has always been drawn to international politics. As Foreign Minister he followed a moderate approach; for instance, he stood firm against critics from overseas, Europe and even from inside the administration asking for stricter sanctions against Russia following the civil war in Ukraine and the Russian intervention in Syria.

In consideration of the national interests of Eastern Europe’s EU member states and their imagined fear of Russian aggression, he made clear that closing the door on Russia is not an option. His conception of international politics is mainly relying on diplomacy whereas military force can only be seen as a last resort.

This becomes apparent regarding his criticism of the NATO military exercises in the states neighboring Russia, which he referred to as “warmongering” and “sabre-rattling,” adding that it would be "fatal to search only for military solutions and a policy of deterrence."

He has always seen himself in the tradition of former German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s “New Eastern Policy,” which aimed at "change through rapprochement" rather than isolationism and protectionism. Considered to be a “Realpolitik advocate,” he prefers pragmatism to ideological notions. This is a real asset when engaged in balancing diverse interests, but it also led to criticism due to his apparent lack of moral standards concerning his relationship with Russia and China.

In contrast to his predecessor, Steinmeier as a specialist on foreign policy could bring public debates to a more realistic approach by concentrating on matter-of-fact analysis and addressing significant interests as a driving factor of international politics. This could shape the public’s ability for a better understanding of international relations – a crucial point during a period of fake news.

Starting point of a domestic power shift

A closer examination of the election reveals the race to become Chancellor has already begun. The election of Steinmeier, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), was no surprise but rather a tool to showcase the unity and harmony within the German government. There was no real alternative candidate. However, even though he was elected by the broad majority, about a hundred of the electoral delegates sent by the grand coalition - presumably from Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU) - did not vote for him.

Furthermore, the fact that the center-right CDU, the largest party in the German parliament under Chancellor Angela Merkel, was not capable of nominating a candidate but went with the SPD candidate, could be seen as weakness, especially when one takes into account the upcoming federal government elections later this year.

A few months ago, nobody would have expected a serious chance of winning for the SPD, but times are changing. The nomination of Steinmeier for the German presidency came at the same time as further position changes inside the SPD’s leadership.

Former Chairman and Minister of Economic Affairs Sigmar Gabriel became Foreign Affairs Minister, but most importantly, Martin Schulz, the former President of the European Parliament and a candidate for the chancellery, took over the party’s leadership.

Schulz is well respected by German society and managed to improve the party’s poll ratings by about 10 percent in one month, resulting in the highest results in the current legislative period. Public opinion was even more significant: 50 percent of respondents said they would approve Schulz as the Chancellor while only 34 percent would support the fourth term of Merkel.

Also read: "The shift in US-Germany relations has implications for Russia"

Both the SPD and CDU announced they would end the “grand coalition” after the 2017 elections and interestingly there have been talks between the left party “Die Linke,” the Green Party and the SPD to foster a possible coalition. This could be in the interests of Russia because “Die Linke” is considered to be sympathetic towards Russia and has always been skeptical about NATO’s engagement in regional conflicts.

While in the current political situation Merkel certainly is a counterbalance to Steinmeier and his moderate approach towards Russia, the next administration could take a different path.

Definitely, there are obstacles to overcome, like the Russian annexation of Crimea. And Germany has to stand with its neighboring states in Eastern Europe that fear Russian aggression. But, in hindsight, Russian-German relations have come a long way since the end of the Cold War and both countries should have a major interest in continuing this commitment to maintain a peaceful order in Europe. Steinmeier cited Egon Bahr, the architect of the “New Eastern Policy” under Willy Brandt, at the German-Russian Forum last year as a sign of Germany’s tough choices ahead: “America is indispensable, Russia is immovable.”

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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Russia's UN envoy, Munich and Putin's decree on Donbas passports https://russia-direct.org/russian-media/death-russias-un-envoy-munich-and-putins-decree-donbas-passports
Igor Rozin

Russian media roundup: The death of Russia’s UN ambassador, the Munich International Security Conference and President Vladimir Putin’s decree on the acceptance of Donbas passports made headlines.

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Mon, 20 Feb 2017 22:59:56 +0000 5464 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/russian-media/death-russias-un-envoy-munich-and-putins-decree-donbas-passports#comments Russia's UN envoy, Munich and Putin's decree on Donbas passports

Russian media roundup: The death of Russia’s UN ambassador, the Munich International Security Conference and President Vladimir Putin’s decree on the acceptance of Donbas passports made headlines

Russian media roundup: The death of Russia’s UN ambassador, the Munich International Security Conference and President Vladimir Putin’s decree on the acceptance of Donbas passports made headlines.

Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, center, listens during a news conference after a private UN Security Council meeting in February, 2014. Photo: AP

The Feb. 17-19 Munich International Security Conference was the most talked about event of the past week in the Russian media. At nearly the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a controversial decree to recognize Donbas passports. This move further complicates the decision of what to do about Eastern Ukraine and attracted media attention. Finally, on Feb. 20, the Russian journalists covered the unexpected death of Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, who died at age 64 in a hospital in New York after suddenly falling ill.

Russia's UN ambassador passes away

Vitaly Churkin was a veteran diplomat known for his tenacity and rigor in defending his country’s national interests. The event shocked Russia, at least because his legendary figure was associated with the entire epoch of a new, more confident Russia on the world stage.

He had been Russia's UN envoy since 2006 and was seen as a great and highly respected advocate of Moscow’s national interests. He was respected by all for his integrity and strong will. Churkin was the longest-serving member of the UN Security Council. As the Associated Press reported, his diplomatic colleagues from around the world “mourned Churkin as a powerful and passionate voice for his nation, with both a deep knowledge of diplomacy and a large and colorful personality.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Churkin's professionalism and diplomacy, according to the state news agency TASS. "The president was grieved to learn about the death of Vitaly Churkin," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Many Russian mainstream media included a quote from Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who described Churkin as an outstanding diplomat, “an extraordinary person” and “a bright man.”

His death — the day before his 65th birthday — astounded UN officials, including former U.S. Ambassador to UN Samantha Power. She described him as a "diplomatic maestro and deeply caring man" on her Twitter page. Churkin had done his utmost to alleviate the tensions between the U.S. and Russia, according to her.

Likewise, the current U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, characterized him as a "gracious colleague." "We did not always see things the same way, but he unquestionably advocated his country's positions with great skill," she said.

Meanwhile, business daily Kommersant published a column by Sergei Strokan, who describes Churkin as “one of the brightest and the most charismatic” Russian diplomats. To quote Strokan, Russia’s UN envoy had never failed to convincingly tell Russia’s side of the story during the debates at the UN Security Council. The fact that legendary diplomat Henry Kissinger sent birthday wishes to Churkin shortly before his death indicates that the Russian envoy to the U.S. was highly respected among his foreign colleagues.  

“He was among the few people who did understand,” wrote Strokan. “He did understand what has to be done to prevent the world from going crazy. And we — not only diplomats — should follow his example for the sake of the survival of our world.”

At the same time, RBC, a daily newspaper, published Churkin’s most remarkable and toughest quotes about Crimea, Syria, Ukraine, the MH17 tragedy, the U.S. and other foreign policy events. In a nutshell, all these quotes reflect the official position of the Russian authorities. In one of his statements, he denounced the U.S. for its attempts to lecture other countries, because, according to him, Washington doesn’t have the moral right to preach and teach other nations.

Meduza, an independent media outlet, gives voice to Carnegie Moscow Center’s experts Alexander Baunov. He compares Churkin with a speaker from the Russian party in the global parliament — the United Nations. According to Baunov, Russia’s UN envoy had a way with rhetoric and Russia lost a unique and gifted man. At the same time, Churkin was a diplomat of the Boris Yeltsin era, when Russia tried to establish close ties with the West.

“Churkin worked well both for Boris Yeltsin’s democratic Russia and the Russia that subsequently became authoritarian,” Baunov concluded. “He would work well in the same manner for the Russia that would decide to restore freedoms and relations with the West”

Munich conference

With increasing tensions in Eastern Ukraine, Russia’s attempts to reclaim its regional influence, the aftermath of Brexit, Donald Trump’s uncertain foreign policy moves and ongoing turbulence in the Middle East, participants of the Feb. 17-19 Munich International Security Conference were discussing global challenges. “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?” read the title of the Munich Security Report. The authors of this report describe the current situation as “a geopolitical recession,” implying that the Western-centric world order might come to an end unless immediate measures are undertaken.  

As part of its coverage, the Russian media tried to assess the results of the conference and convey the moods that were prevailing during the conference. RBC, a daily business newspaper, published the opinion of Russian political expert Mikhail Troitskiy, who implies that it is too early to talk about the end of Western dominance in the world regardless of the overriding theme of the Munich conference.

“There are no signs of drastic shifts in the configuration of the interests of the largest global powers and centers,” he wrote in his column. “The U.S., the EU countries, China and India are generally interested in the stable development of the global economy — without this it is impossible to foster the growth of their national economies. In this environment, a new wave of protectionism, which the Trump administration’s economic policy may bring about, might lead to a pause in the further liberalization of international trade.”

Read Russia Direct's debates: "Russia and the West offer very different views of the world in Munich"

“The U.S. and Russia have been transformed into the key ‘suspects’ who might play the role of global ‘revisionists.’ But, in reality, they are hardly likely to be ready to destroy the current world order with their own hands,” Troitskiy concluded.

At the same time, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russia’s official newspaper, published the opinion of Fyodor Lukyanov, the head of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP). He believes there are increasing differences among the members of the Euro-Atlantic world, as indicated by their lack of confidence and understanding of what is going on in the world.

“Although all participants tried to highlight that the unity of Europe is much more important than any differences, the Brexit-produced effect is impossible to hide,” added Lukyanov.  

According to him, the Munich Conference indicates that the uncertain and unconfident West is focusing on its internal problems, with the domestic agenda overshadowing Russia’s foreign policy and its moves in Ukraine. The Kremlin is mentioned primarily in the context of Western domestic policy, with Washington and Brussels pointing fingers at Russia’s alleged involvement in the hacking scandal and its interference in the U.S. electoral system. Lukyanov bluntly describes this environment as “a large-scale panic.”    

“This reveals the surprising lack of confidence of the West in its own powers, which looks like a far cry from the over-confidence that had been dominating at such forums for the last decade.”

At the same time, Kommersant, a daily business newspaper, paid a lot of attention to the speech of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, which was met more favorably in comparison with last year, when Lavrov was ridiculed and even heckled while taking the floor. Lavrov described the new world order as “post-West,” which means the concept of realpolitik that prioritizes national interests will replace the liberal system of international relations. However, according to the participants of the Munich conference and key stakeholders, “this is just the wishful thinking of Moscow,” Kommersant reported.  

According to Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian media outlet, Russia “was rather an object at the Munich Conference than the subject.” Most of the participants discussed Russia in the context of geopolitical threats for the West and the liberal world order. The West made it clear that it sees the Kremlin as a troublemaker. But at the same time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her readiness to cooperate with Moscow to resolve the Ukrainian conundrum.     

Putin’s decree on Donbas passports

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decree on the recognition of passports from the self-proclaimed republics in Luhansk and Donetsk made headlines in the Russian media. During the 2017 Munich Security Conference, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described this move as an overt violation of international law.

However, the pro-government media and news agencies quoted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who claims that this move results from humanitarian considerations and doesn’t violate international law. Peskov highlighted that this situation was triggered by Kiev’s blockade of the region, with hundreds of thousands of people having no possibility to receive passports, travel documents or driver’s licenses.

"I would like to stress once again: the entire region is living in conditions of a rigid blockade, a rigid embargo from its capital, from Kiev," he said on Feb. 20 as quoted by the TASS news agency.

Also read the debates: "Who is behind the recent military flare-up in Ukraine?"

At the same time, Nikolai Epple, a columnist from Vedomosti, a business media outlet, describes Putin’s decree as “an effective move, intended to exert pressure on Kiev and the Western countries.” Meanwhile, another Vedomosti columnist, Petr Kozlov, warns that the Kremlin’s recognition of the Donbas passports is “a signal to Kiev that it might lose these territories.” 

Expert commentary
Sergey Markedonov, an associate professor at Russian State University for the Humanities, about the death of Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin:

For the first time, I first found out about him in the 1990s, when he took the position of deputy foreign minister. At that time, I was impressed by the accuracy and the pithiness of his assessments. I personally know many ambassadors to the United Nations (from the U.S., Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan). All of them worked with Churkin and highly appreciated his activity and professionalism despite numerous disagreements with him. It is a big loss for Russian diplomacy.

Aurel Braun, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto, about Putin’s decree on Donbas passports:

Putin’s decision to sign an executive order that temporarily recognizes travel identity documents issued by separatists in the Donbas, indirectly recognizes the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. As OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier noted this will not only hurt chances of a the ceasefire taking hold, but raises questions about the long-term intent of the Kremlin.

Read the full commentary here.

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Russia and the West offer very different views of the world in Munich https://russia-direct.org/debates/russia-and-us-offer-very-different-views-world-munich
Pavel Koshkin

Debates: Russia Direct interviewed prominent experts to figure out how they assess the results of the 2017 Munich International Security Conference.

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Mon, 20 Feb 2017 21:58:34 +0000 5462 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/debates/russia-and-us-offer-very-different-views-world-munich#comments Russia and the West offer very different views of the world in Munich

Debates: Russia Direct interviewed prominent experts to figure out how they assess the results of the 2017 Munich International Security Conference

Debates: Russia Direct interviewed prominent experts to figure out how they assess the results of the 2017 Munich International Security Conference.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during the 2017 Munich Security Conference. Photo: MSC 

The 53rd Munich International Security Conference, which took place on Feb. 17-19, assumed special significance this year amidst growing instability in the world. With increasing tensions in Eastern Ukraine, Russia’s attempts to reclaim its regional influence, the aftermath of Brexit, Donald Trump’s uncertain foreign policy moves and ongoing turbulence in the Middle East, participants in Munich were facing a multitude of global challenges.

“Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?” read the title of the Munich Security Report. The authors of this report describe the current situation as “a geopolitical recession,” implying that the Western-centric world order might come to an end unless immediate measures are undertaken. 

Despite the attempts of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to persuade the participants of the conference that Washington is not going to backtrack and withdraw from its commitments to NATO and the EU, his European counterparts met his speech with skepticism, in part because of their distrust of Trump and the whimsical nature of his policy.

“Humanity is at a crossroads,” Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during the conference, as quoted by Kommersant. “An entire historical era – the post-Cold War order – has come to an end. Its key result became the failure of adjusting Cold War institutions to the new reality. The world became neither Western-centric nor safer and more stable.”

Also read: "Russia's euphoria about Donald Trump already fading"

Lavrov described the new world order as “post-West,” which means the concept of realpolitik that prioritizes national interests will replace the liberal system of international relations. However, according to the participants of the Munich conference and key stakeholders, “this is just the wishful thinking of Moscow,” Kommersant reported. According to Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian media outlet, most of the participants discussed Russia in the context of geopolitical threats for the West and the liberal world order. The West made it clear that it sees the Kremlin as a troublemaker.

Keeping this in mind, Russia Direct interviewed experts to figure out how they assess the results of the 2017 Munich conference.

Andrei Kortunov, the General Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC):

The Munich Security Conference reflected the overall mood of uncertainty and even confusion that is more than common in the West today. The U.S. delegation from both the executive and the legislative branch of the government tried hard to convince everybody that America under President Trump would continue to carry its burden of the responsible global leadership provided that American partners are committed to a fair burden-sharing. U.S.-European allies welcomed this rhetoric, but appeared to remain concerned.

The future of the European Union after Brexit was another elephant in the room; the modalities of Brexit procedure itself was a subject of intense debates between proponents of a “hard Brexit” and supporters of softer approaches to the defecting United Kingdom. The new balance of powers in Syria as well as potential implications of the U.S. — Iranian confrontation added some spice to the Conference deliberations.

The Ukraine-related discussion did not generate any innovative ideas. Neither had it demonstrated any visible progress on the ground. Russia reconfirmed its previous positions on major international matters clearly indicating that it is in no mood for any concessions or innovative proposals at this stage.

The big question looming on the horizon was about whether the world had already entered a post-West stage or it would be still premature to make a final judgment on this question. 

James Carden, contributing editor to The Nation and former advisor to the U.S.-Russia Presidential Commission at the U.S. State Department

The Munich Security Conference, not for the first time, nor for the last, showed itself both incapable and unwilling to seriously address the underlying problems that have bedeviled European security for the past two decades. It functions more as a showcase for aspiring politicians in search of national security credentials and, perhaps worse, for politicos seeking continuing relevance in their home countries.

Recommended: "Why the 2016 Munich Security Conference was a disappointment"

No better example of the latter can possibly be found than U.S. Senator John McCain, who came equipped to deal with the seemingly intractable challenges of intra-European security with threats and bluster – and little else.

Like Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), everyone else was playing to type: the Americans (McCain, Vice President Pence, Secretary of Defense James Mattis) pledged eternal fidelity to NATO, the Europeans meekly followed along, while it was left to Russia, in the person of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, to argue for a new global security order, an argument that no doubt fell on deaf ears.

On a more positive note, Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany pledged to renew their efforts in implementing the Minsk ceasefire agreement, but no one should be deluded by the prospects for success, particularly in light of Kiev's refusal to hold a vote on decentralization for the breakaway regions and President Putin's move toward de facto recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics through his decision to recognize rebel-issued civil registration documents.

Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Brookings Senior Fellow at Center on the United States and Europe

In their meetings and public remarks at the Munich Security Conference, Vice President Pence and Secretary of Defense Mattis sought to reassure America's European allies about the continued U.S. commitment to NATO in face of its current security challenges — a more aggressive Russia in particular.  They also made the point, however, that allies need to devote more resources to the Alliance and their own defense.

Also read: "After Flynn's dismissal, Russia starts to doubt Trump"

The vice president and secretary of defense provided a degree of reassurance to allies uneasy about the Trump administration's foreign policy, but some nervousness undoubtedly remains.  Allied officials — as do many in Washington — wonder how closely Pence and Mattis match the views of President Trump. He has raised questions about NATO and its relevance, even during his Feb. 18 rally in Florida.

So the Munich Security Conference helped, but it was probably not enough. Allies will continue to watch Washington and the specifics of the Trump administration's European security policy as they emerge for clues as to whether that policy reflects the thinking of Pence and Mattis, or the campaign utterances of the president.

Aurel Braun, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto, and an Associate of the Davis Center at Harvard University

Few international gatherings offer the potential of the Munich Security Conference (MSC), which has emerged as the premier international forum for international security decision-makers. Moreover, what happens on the sidelines at times may possibly be even more important than deliberations at the MSC itself. In 2011, for instance, it was during a ceremony on the sidelines that American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov exchanged the instruments that were necessary for ratifying the New START Treaty.

This month’s MSC again offered great scope, with discussion and exchanges both within the conference and on the sidelines. From the future of NATO to the prospects for the European Union, key policy-makers had an opportunity to express their hopes and fears that also provided a context for better understanding relations with Russia. Shared concerns by many Western leaders focused on the dispute in Ukraine.

Following a meeting of the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France, Lavrov offered new hope when he announced a ceasefire to start on Feb. 20 which would also involve implementing key elements of the Minsk agreement, including the withdrawal of heavy arms. Perhaps the ceasefire signals the beginning of a major positive change in Russia-West relations, yet it is premature to suggest that a grand bargain is in the making.

Still, as the fighting in Eastern Ukraine has resulted in a great loss of lives, a ceasefire is certainly welcome, even if it may be merely a “band-aid”. Of course, a “band-aid” may allow for healing, but unfortunately at times, the wound underneath dangerously festers. The mixed signals from Russia have made it difficult to discern which might be more likely.

On the one hand, a successful ceasefire could create the right preconditions to change relations between Russia and the West, and lead to a resolution of the problem in Ukraine. The cacophony emanating from the Trump administration currently leaves it unclear which way that administration will move, but the possible absence of a set American policy may well afford Russia an opportunity to reset relations through meaningful reassurance.

On the other hand, President Putin’s decision on the same day to sign an executive order that temporarily recognizes travel identity documents issued by separatists in the Donbas, indirectly recognizes the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. As OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier noted this will not only hurt chances of a the ceasefire taking hold, but raises questions about the long-term intent of the Kremlin. There seems to be a rather small window where true reassurance can change attitudes on both sides.

It will behoove everyone then to reduce contradictions and to appreciate how vital confidence-building measures are to resolving the conflict in Ukraine and rebuilding Russia-West relations.

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After Flynn's dismissal, Russia starts to doubt Trump https://russia-direct.org/opinion/after-flynns-dismissal-russia-starts-doubt-trump
Ivan Tsvetkov

After National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s scandalous resignation and Donald Trump’s tough new rhetoric toward the Kremlin, Russia has started to back away from the U.S. president. That could be dangerous.

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Fri, 17 Feb 2017 21:17:13 +0000 5460 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/after-flynns-dismissal-russia-starts-doubt-trump#comments After Flynn's dismissal, Russia starts to doubt Trump

After National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s scandalous resignation and Donald Trump’s tough new rhetoric toward the Kremlin, Russia has started to back away from the U.S. president. That could be dangerous

After National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s scandalous resignation and Donald Trump’s tough new rhetoric toward the Kremlin, Russia has started to back away from the U.S. president. That could be dangerous.

The resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (pictured) took place in accordance with the best traditions of American political scandal, based on accusing an official of lying and purposeful misinforming the leadership and voters. Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

This week has not been easy for U.S.-Russia relations, especially with the scandalous resignation of President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Russia is now back on the agenda of the U.S. media after a brief period in which U.S. President Donald Trump’s early presidential moves overshadowed any talk of foreign policy.

The image of Flynn is controversial in the U.S., at least because journalists, experts and politicians see him as the Kremlin’s key lobbyist within the Trump administration. Flynn’s image was tainted after his sudden appearance at the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the RT TV channel (which is seen by the media community as the Kremlin’s propaganda arm). On December 10, 2015, he was among the high-ranking guests and took the floor during the anniversary celebration, while sitting close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Also read: "Russia's euphoria about Donald Trump already fading"

The fact that Flynn had been continuing to actively communicate with the representatives of Russia was not a big secret. This information had been circulated in the media long before Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration. However, this didn’t prevent the American president from nominating Flynn to one of the key positions in his cabinet, which was previously occupied by such heavyweights as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger.

Nevertheless, Flynn kept maintaining contacts with Russian diplomats and officials in the period between the 2016 November elections and the presidential inauguration and afterwards. And Trump might have known about it. Probably, the U.S. president saw Flynn as a key figure that could help to implement Trump’s pragmatic plan to normalize U.S.-Russia relations. Yet, unpredictable circumstances hampered these intentions.

Flynn resigned very quickly – less than a month since he assumed his role as the President’s National Security Advisor. His resignation took place in accordance with the best traditions of American political scandal, based on accusing an official of lying and purposeful misinforming the leadership and voters.

Flynn is reported to have passed over in silence the details of his phone conversations with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak (according to officials, they discussed the Western sanctions on Russia and Flynn didn't reveal it). This situation created problems for U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and put him in an awkward position. After all, he publicly denied that Flynn and Kislyak talked about sanctions.

But, according to the leaks to the media, the sanctions were among the topics of the Flynn-Kislyak discussion. Most importantly, their conversation reportedly took place shortly before Putin’s decision not to expel American diplomats from Russia (in response to the Obama administration's move to deport 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S.)

Also read: "Steve Bannon, the Grey Cardinal in the White House: Good or bad for Russia?"

The logical question emerges: to what extent could Flynn’s promises to lift the anti-Kremlin sanctions have been the reason why Putin refused to respond reciprocally to Barack Obama’s stance? As a result, Flynn played the role of the sacrificial lamb in the hand of Trump who had to whitewash the reputation of the U.S. Vice-President.

Anyway, the publication of the transcript of the Flynn-Kislyak conversation will clarify the situation. Given the highly polarized political environment amidst Russia’s alleged interference into the U.S. electoral system and new details about the contacts of the Trump administration with Russia (which is seen as an adversary) might create a big headache for Trump himself. Moreover, it might have grave political implications, including the possibility of impeachment.

No wonder Trump is trying to distance himself from Russia and is trying to be tough toward Moscow (specifically, he expects the Kremlin to return Crimea to Ukraine and describes Moscow’s policy on the peninsula as the “taking” of Crimea). It is a matter of his political survival. In his domestic policy, Trump might be consistent with his mantra “America First,” but he will be inevitably forced to reassess his approaches toward Russia or, at least, to make a pause. Otherwise, his opponents might undermine his positions and even accuse him of state treason. 

This might be the reason why Trump suddenly changed his rhetoric toward Russia. He made it clear he expects the Kremlin to return Crimea to Ukraine and reduce violence in Donbas, as White House spokesman Sean Spicer said on Feb. 14. At the same time, Pentagon head James Mattis pledged that the Trump administration would negotiate with Putin from a position of strength. Trump himself admitted that his predecessor Obama was too soft with Putin after the “taking” of Crimea.

So, it’s best for the Kremlin to shy away from reckless conclusions and keep in mind all these details and the political environment in the U.S. to understand the motivations behind Trump’s tough rhetoric. However, the Putin-Trump “bromance” and Russia’s obsession with the American president seem to be over. The news about Flynn’s resignation and following criticism of Russia by the Trump administration were met with an outcry and indignation in Russia. Some representatives of Russia’s political elites responded like an offended child who could not put up with an insult.

Moreover, according to rumors circulated in the media, the Putin administration tacitly ordered journalists and officials to stop kowtowing to Trump. If Russian television channels indeed change their tone about the American president and stop paying much attention to him, it might indicate that the Kremlin sees its high expectations on Trump as a failure. This means the Russian political elites will distance themselves from their “American partner.” And such a move might have serious implications.

First and foremost, the disappointment in Trump creates a highly undesirable political and informational vacuum in Russia: The Kremlin will badly need to find a new agenda — a topic that would replace Trump, distract Russians from current day-to-day and economic problems and bring more drama into their lives.

Recommended: "Russia is still wary of Trump's turbulent presidency"

Crimea, the war in Eastern Ukraine, and the fight with international terrorism in Syria have been pacifying Russian audiences since 2013. Later, they were replaced by the 2016 U.S. elections, the personality of Trump and the hopes for his friendly policy. What could replace these unjustified hopes? Some experts are concerned with the possibly of a new short victorious war elsewhere or the escalation of tensions with NATO. This agenda is vitally important for the Kremlin to reinvigorate the “besieged fortress” narrative before the 2018 presidential election.

All these circumstances might create a very dangerous situation: The severe political crisis in the U.S. will persist because of Trump’s alleged ties with Russia, while the Kremlin may fuel tensions and look for an enemy or relevant topic to distract audiences at home and resolve the current domestic political challenges.

And Trump’s dubious intentions to strengthen ties the Russian leadership as well as the Kremlin’s naive hopes for his capability to resolve the long-standing Russian-American conflict triggered this dangerous process. It might be extremely dangerous for the entire international security system.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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The rise of 'counter-elite' can take Russia in a new direction https://russia-direct.org/opinion/rise-counter-elite-can-take-russia-new-direction
Tatyana Stanovaya

Political changes in Russia might eventually come from a "counter-elite" — from those who already hold high-ranking positions in the current regime and are well integrated into the ruling class.

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Fri, 17 Feb 2017 17:59:20 +0000 5456 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/rise-counter-elite-can-take-russia-new-direction#comments The rise of 'counter-elite' can take Russia in a new direction

Political changes in Russia might eventually come from a "counter-elite" — from those who already hold high-ranking positions in the current regime and are well integrated into the ruling class

Political changes in Russia might eventually come from a "counter-elite" — from those who already hold high-ranking positions in the current regime and are well integrated into the ruling class.

Pictured left-right: Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin's former Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Photo: RIA Novosti

This article first appeared at the website of Carnegie Moscow Center. It has been edited and condensed by Russia Direct’s editorial team. Read the original article here.

Observers of the Russian political scene are constantly looking for clues as to where political change will come from. At a time when Russia’s “systemic” opposition, which is represented in parliament, is widely perceived as compromised, there is a common belief that the only viable alternative to the current ruling class will come from the “non-systemic” opposition, which does not play by the rules set by the Kremlin and does its politics on the street.

However, there is good reason to believe that the observers are looking in the wrong place, and that real political change in Russia will eventually come from a "counter-elite" that forms within the current regime.
In the post-Soviet world, existing elites have rarely been replaced by outside forces. Instead, the pattern is for disgruntled members of the ruling elites to break away and counterpose themselves to the existing regime.

A classic example of this phenomenon is Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, in which Viktor Yushchenko, who had been a prime minister under President Leonid Kuchma, called for the overthrow of the ruling elite. This type of transition is only possible, however, with the backing of major business interests, regional officials, or prominent political groups.

Also read: "The Kremlin's difficult balancing act in preserving the political status quo"

By this logic, it is likely that those who will come to power in an elite rotation in Russia are people who already hold high-ranking positions in the current regime and are well integrated into the ruling class. Yet it does not necessarily mean the collapse or overthrow of the Putin regime. For a "counter-elite" to crystallize, it is only necessary for the regime to weaken considerably.

A key role in any future transition will be played by those in government whom we can call technocrats. These are individuals, ranging from middle-ranking bureaucrats to ministers and to the heads of parliamentary committees, who are competent professionals and display no conspicuous political ambitions of their own. This description fits most members of the current government — in contrast to those who served in the governments up until 2012.

The neutrality of these bureaucrats could allow them to swiftly and seamlessly transition into the "counter-elite" when the time comes.

Internal conflicts and disputes within the government are getting more frequent. That brings back memories of the Yeltsin era and the 1990s, when Russia’s ruling elite was in an almost permanent state of crisis and riven by disputes between different powerful groups. Based on that experience, one should not be surprised if those who express their loyalty to Putin today become the Kremlin’s opponents tomorrow.

Another way of describing this phenomenon is to say that a large number of those who serve in the current Russian establishment are “decorators” who help keep up the appearance of Russia’s “decorative democracy.” Increasingly, many of these individuals feel neglected by the Kremlin and feel that it shows no appreciation for their efforts. For example, when the Kremlin decided that it needed to revamp the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, more than half of its members from the United Russia ruling party ended up with no party support or financing for the election.

Those who were denied electoral victory in order to clear a path for new Kremlin favorites have not lost their political ambitions and are still looking for alternative paths of career promotion. One of the main problems United Russia faced last year was that its own members had jumped ship to join the systemic opposition. A new section of the elite is forming, which believes that “traditional values” may be more important than loyalty to the president and might in the future advocate “Putinism without Putin.”

Recommended: "Movers and shakers in Russian politics in 2016"

The loyalty of business elites to the Kremlin is also provisional. One has gotten used to the notion that Russian business is fully loyal ever since 2003–2004, when it took Putin just one year to convert the country’s politically powerful oligarchs into mere businessmen who put their money only where the authorities allow them to.

Yet large sections of Russia’s top businessmen made their fortunes in the 1990s and feel no obligation to Putin. Businessmen are pragmatic and unsentimental. Corporate decision-makers adjust to national trends and prepare for all possible scenarios, given their intense interest toward opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2011–2012, during the large-scale protests. One can expect that if the rules set by the current regime begin to cost business billions in lost profits and hundreds of unimplemented projects, then those who are currently pragmatic will begin to dream about regime change.

Another headache for the Kremlin is presented by the diverse leaders of Russia’s far-flung regions. While the current regime has full control of federal politics, it is not just difficult but even dangerous to find a strong leader for each region. After all, a strong politician with high levels of electoral support will be harder to control. What Moscow needs is hard to deliver: effective regional managers who can be painlessly removed if things go wrong.

Recently, the Kremlin has been appointing not strong managers for gubernatorial positions, but men associated with the security services and conspicuous only by their loyalty. This attempt to simplify and strengthen governors’ subordination to Moscow will only result in more flawed and dangerous decisions at the regional level.

If federal power gets weaker, the overwhelming majority of the regional political establishment will end up in opposition to Moscow. Literally the whole of the regional elite, with the exception of those with personal ties to the president, can potentially turn into a "counter-elite."

Read the interview with Leonid Gozman: "What do the Kremlin and the Russian opposition have in common?"

Where do these trends leave Russia’s long-suffering non-systemic opposition, which still harbors ambitions of dislodging Putin? Paradoxically, despite their capacity to effect political change, it is them who are least likely to form a new "counter-elite." The kind of leaders who can generate street protests are too dangerous and unpredictable, and those who possess money and power will do everything to keep them at bay.

And yet despite all its problems and its miserable showing in the last parliamentary elections, the non-systemic opposition can also contribute to creating the future ruling class in Russia. That will occur not through electoral victory but through the growing personal prominence of certain individuals — something that exiled oligarch and opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky has acknowledged. A new era will begin when the non-systemic opposition becomes systemic and the Kremlin is no longer able to bar it from elections because it fears a political explosion.

This is not a matter of ideology. As a change of regime gets closer, ideological labels will take second place to pragmatic considerations and connections to the man who constructed the system, the president. Many observers fall into the trap of identifying liberal members of the elite such as former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin or Russian politician Anatoly Chubais (he was responsible for privatization in the country in the 1990s) as a potential "counter-elite" and alternatives to Putin. Yet even the opponent of Putin who has the strongest ideological objections to the current president may at the critical moment end up being more pro-Putin than Putin’s inner circle.

Ultimately, in political systems that block change through elections, the main guarantee of a regime’s stability is its capacity for renewal from within. That capacity depends on how well the system can absorb a potential "counter-elite." At the moment, the regime itself is cracking down and preventing any such renewal from occurring. Yet a "counter-elite" is in the process of formation nonetheless — one that can eventually take Russia in a new direction, whether that be toward liberalization or a tougher form of authoritarian rule.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

This article first appeared at the website of Carnegie Moscow Center. It has been edited and condensed by Russia Direct’s editorial team. More on the post-Soviet space read here.

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Will Serbia be able to balance between Russia and the West? https://russia-direct.org/analysis/will-serbia-be-able-balance-between-russia-and-west
Anna Nadibaidze

It remains to be seen how the EU will respond to Serbia’s plans to sign a free trade agreement with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, given the current geopolitical context and the Kremlin’s differences with the West over Ukraine.

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Fri, 17 Feb 2017 16:46:38 +0000 5454 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/will-serbia-be-able-balance-between-russia-and-west#comments Will Serbia be able to balance between Russia and the West?

It remains to be seen how the EU will respond to Serbia’s plans to sign a free trade agreement with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, given the current geopolitical context and the Kremlin’s differences with the West over Ukraine

It remains to be seen how the EU will respond to Serbia’s plans to sign a free trade agreement with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, given the current geopolitical context and the Kremlin’s differences with the West over Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, center, along with his Serbian counterpart, Tomislav Nikolic, 2nd right, watch the Serbian air force display during a military parade in Belgrade, October 16, 2014. Photo: AP

The idea of developing free trade zones between the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and other countries has provided a topic of debate for both Russian and international experts. The Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) has recently contributed to the discussion with the publication of an analytical report (in Russian) about the perspectives of a free trade zone agreement between Serbia and the EEU, an initiative that has been put forward by Belgrade and approved by the EEU in 2016.

The analysis weighs the pros and cons of a Eurasian vector in Serbian economic and foreign policy. On Feb. 14, the Eurasian Development Bank's Chief Economist Yaroslav Lissovolik presented the report.

Balancing between the West and the East

Serbia, like many Eurasian countries, has to deal with a geographic obstacle that has an impact on its economic growth: the lack of access to the sea. As numerous experts, including Lissovolik, argue, this challenge can be dealt with by integrating with other states. While Serbia has already set the wheels in motion towards integrating with the European Union and is fairly advanced in this process, it has also expressed an interest in developing a free trade zone with the EEU, in addition to its bilateral agreements with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

As Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić mentioned last November, an agreement with the EEU would be a “certain unification of all these [bilateral] agreements.” Therefore, Belgrade is not trading one integration process for another, but rather is pursuing a multi-vectored foreign policy and balancing between the West and the East. President Tomislav Nikolić stated that the Serbian government does not see an inconsistency between the accession process to the EU and support for other integration processes, such as the EEU. Thus, this initiative is part of Serbia’s efforts to conduct a diverse foreign policy.

Also read: "Debunking myths about the Eurasian Economic Union"

Despite the existing bilateral agreements, trade between Serbia and Russia has not been developed to its full potential. Belgrade seeks to export more products to the Russian market, and trends in Serbian public opinion seem to be supporting greater economic interactions with Russia. The report states that over the past years, the proportion of the Serbian population that believes that their country has an interest in exporting to Russia and receiving investment from Russia has increased.

There is also political will to develop closer trade ties with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and to combine all of these efforts into the proposed free trade zone agreement with the EEU. Within this framework, Serbia particularly seeks to export meat, cheese, sugar, tobacco products, and “Fiat” cars from the factory located in Kragujevac, the fourth largest city of Serbia.

The positives of such a free trade zone would include new markets for Serbian products in Eurasia and the diversification of Serbia’s trade. For the EEU, it might be a step towards a more developed interaction with the Western Balkans and a more active dialogue with Europe in general. The authors of the report argue that there is a possibility that Serbia could act as a "bridge" between the European and Eurasian integration processes - if it develops a proper strategy for managing both.

Weighing the pros and cons

However, as in any trade agreement, there are many potential risks, and for Serbia this means that it must take into consideration the most fragile sectors of its economy, mainly agriculture. Belgrade also needs to pay greater attention to the quality of its products and services, which remains a challenge to overcome in order to be successful on the Eurasian market. Furthermore, as Lissovolik pointed out, the dialogue needs to be shifted towards investment flows and services, as currently the focus is on goods.

It would also be beneficial to consider greater interaction within the IT sphere and in scientific research. If this initiative is to be supported actively by both sides, then Belgrade and the EEU must make an effort to address the gaps that currently exist in Serbia’s bilateral agreements with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. If Serbia wants to go ahead with this initiative, it must have a strategy in order to enter the EEU, and potentially some Asian markets.

Recommended: "Can Russia realistically integrate with China and Europe at the same time?"

There are many ways in which this project could develop in the next few years, which leaves experts debating and guessing, especially given the EEU’s limited experience in concluding agreements with third parties. The authors of the report predict a rather optimistic scenario for the next few years, where Serbia would act as a “bridge” between Europe and Asia, and where the EEU could finally prove its ability to conduct a dialogue on the international arena.

Yet, one cannot ignore the geopolitical contradictions and implications of this type of scenario. Would the benefits of this agreement outweigh the costs? In terms of the economic aspect, the EU and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) remain Serbia’s main trading partners, and expanding to Armenia’s and Kyrgyzstan’s markets is unlikely to change much. Even Russia’s role in the Serbian economy in terms of both exports and imports is not very important compared to the EU’s, and is mostly focused on energy resources. In the short-term, Serbia’s future economic interests lie in Europe.

On the political side, the accession process to the EU remains a priority in Serbian domestic and foreign policy. Serbian political elites have clearly expressed their preference for the European vector and their commitment to the accession process. There is also considerable public support for this direction particularly from the younger generations.

It is still unclear what the EU’s reaction would be to Belgrade’s EEU plans, which in the current geopolitical context could be seen as further rapprochement with Russia, especially given the fact that Serbia refused to implement sanctions on Russia. Furthermore, in Europe, the EEU is currently perceived as the Kremlin’s political project, and this may imply that the free trade zone agreement will not be regarded favorably in Brussels.

Also read: "Why post-Soviet integration will be a lot harder than the Kremlin thought"

It would also be the first case of a candidate country concluding a free trade agreement with the EEU, and experts are still debating the EU’s possible response. The agreement is unlikely to succeed if Belgrade faces considerable, explicit or implicit, constraints from the EU.  Within the context of Brexit and other European crises, some might find it rational for Belgrade to pursue multiple vectors of economic integration, especially in the Eurasian/Asian direction.

However, at the moment, both Brussels and Belgrade remain committed to the negotiation. It is not yet clear whether Serbia will be able to convince the EU that this agreement with the EEU is not “anti-European”. It will be Belgrade’s responsibility to prove that that managing both integration processes is not a zero-sum game.

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German elections won't be game-changer for US or Russia https://russia-direct.org/analysis/german-elections-wont-be-game-changer-us-or-russia
Pavel Koshkin

Germany's new president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is a well-known critic of U.S. President Donald Trump. But that doesn't mean that Berlin will opt to turn its back on America in favor of Russia.

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Thu, 16 Feb 2017 17:55:55 +0000 5452 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/german-elections-wont-be-game-changer-us-or-russia#comments German elections won't be game-changer for US or Russia

Germany's new president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is a well-known critic of U.S. President Donald Trump. But that doesn't mean that Berlin will opt to turn its back on America in favor of Russia

Germany's new president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is a well-known critic of U.S. President Donald Trump. But that doesn't mean that Berlin will opt to turn its back on America in favor of Russia.

Former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier during his visit to Russia in 2016. Photo: Kremlin.ru

The victory of former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the Feb. 12 German presidential elections didn't create a media sensation. Yet the Kremlin is now hoping for better relations between Russia and Germany. Shortly after the announcement of the results, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Steinmeier on his victory and invited him to visit Russia.

Indeed, at first glance, there are some reasons to believe that with Steinmeier’s presidency, Moscow and Berlin might alleviate their tensions and come up with a compromise. After all, the new German president is well known for his harsh criticism of Trump during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Moreover, some media outlets labeled Steinmeier “the anti-Trump president.”

Also read: "The shift in US-Germany relations has implications for Russia"

In response to a question about the growth of right-wing populism in Germany and throughout the world, Steinmeier denounced those who "make politics with fear." He referred to the nationalist Alternative For Germany party, supporters of Great Britain's exit from the European Union, and "the hate preachers, like Donald Trump at the moment in the United States." Furthermore, shortly after the U.S. presidential election, Steinmeier overtly expressed disappointment with the result.

"The result is not what most Germans would have wished," he said, as quoted by Bloomberg. "I don't want to sugarcoat anything. Nothing will be easier, many things will become more difficult."

However, ironically, Steinmeier has less power now as Germany’s president than during his tenure as the country’s foreign minister, primarily because the president of Germany holds very little executive power. Yet he is a well-experienced politician with a great deal of influence. The German president is seen as a moral authority with the responsibility of hosting foreign high-ranking officials and leaders. Legally, Steinmeier, not Merkel with her executive power, will be Trump’s and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s counterpart. That’s why this might benefit Russia more than the United States.

But Merkel, with her skepticism toward the Kremlin and the Trump administration, might be a sort of counterbalance in this delicate situation. She seems to be ready to be as tough as possible both with Trump and Putin if their policies will contradict the European values that Germany shares. For example, Merkel raised her eyebrows at Trump’s controversial ban on Muslims. According to her, this move contradicts the fundamental philosophy of international refugee assistance and international cooperation.

“Merkel has indicated that she will not play the patsy,” Foreign Policy wrote. “Upon learning on election night that Donald Trump would become the next U.S. president, she insisted that Germany’s relationship with the United States continue within the traditional parameters of the North Atlantic alliance, based on their common values of democracy, freedom and human rights.”

Thus, the situation around the Germany-Russia-U.S. triangle is more complicated, with everything depending on the specific moves of either Trump or Putin and the development of the civil war in Ukraine. In this environment, there is also no reason to underestimate (or overestimate) the role of the German president, given his political influence both inside and outside of Germany.

Although the German Constitution does not attribute particular executive powers to the country’s president, “the political weight of the office depends largely on the weight of the personality who occupies this position,” Dieter Boden, a former German diplomat and an adjunct professor of International Relations at the University of Potsdam, told Russia Direct.

“When Steinmeier takes over as Federal President in mid-March after his victory in the Feb. 12 election he can build on a [good] reputation of eight years of activity as German Foreign Minister,” Boden added.

Also read: "Why German-Russian relations could be on the mend"

“The international community will remember him particularly in his roles as one of the key negotiators on the Iran nuclear deal, as a very resolute mediator in the Ukraine conflict and as an untiring OSCE Chairman in 2016. His prime fields of interest include relations with Russia and the post-Soviet states, where he is known to have had well-balanced views including also on the political feasibility of sanctions.”

Despite the fact that Steinmeier won’t have as much power as he had during his tenure as Germany’s Foreign Minister, he is expected to remain closely connected to foreign policy matters, given his expertise and background.

"His predecessor Joachim Gauck established a guiding philosophy — "Germany is ready to be more active in world affairs" — and this might challenge Steinmeier also in his new job to interfere whenever he considers it necessary,” clarified Boden. “And he can do it with all the moral authority which his new office gives to him. Maybe, even this will encourage him to embark on a project, which his predecessor has not been able to accomplish — the project of a state visit to Russia.”

At the same time, Nikolay Vlasov, an associate professor of History and International Relations at St. Petersburg State University, argues the German president is rather a symbolic figure, much like the British Queen. He doesn’t rule the country but brings people together under his moral authority, which means he is not a decision-maker or a game changer.

“In fact, he doesn’t have opportunities to influence domestic and foreign policy,” Vlasov told Russia Direct. “Basically, the victory in the German presidential election is an honorary end of one’s political career. There were specific cases when the President contributed to Germany’s ties with other countries through official visits. Yet, again, he doesn’t determine the foreign policy agenda.”

All this means that Steinmeier won’t have any impact on Moscow-Berlin relations. All the same, the fact that he left his position of Foreign Minister might have limited impact on Russian-German relations, concluded Vlasov. However, one should not expect sweeping changes, because Germany’s foreign policy is based on the principle of succession.

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The shift in US-Germany relations has implications for Russia https://russia-direct.org/opinion/shift-us-germany-relations-has-implications-russia
Natalia Klimenko

After decades, the transatlantic partnership between the U.S. and Germany finally shows signs of weakening. That could open the door for Russia to become an important German partner.

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Wed, 15 Feb 2017 15:44:39 +0000 5448 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/shift-us-germany-relations-has-implications-russia#comments The shift in US-Germany relations has implications for Russia

After decades, the transatlantic partnership between the U.S. and Germany finally shows signs of weakening. That could open the door for Russia to become an important German partner

After decades, the transatlantic partnership between the U.S. and Germany finally shows signs of weakening. That could open the door for Russia to become an important German partner.

 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, stands behind Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel and talks to former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier prior to the weekly cabinet meeting of the German government in Berlin, March 16, 2016. Photo: AP

A decade ago, Russia-Germany relations were characterized by such profound mutual understanding that a Moscow-Berlin axis did not seem improbable. However, since the start of the civil war in Ukraine in 2014, there has been growing alienation between Russia and Germany, with Berlin showing a clear preference for a partnership with the U.S.

However, all relationships are inevitably cyclical. With Donald Trump’s presidency in the U.S., Germany might turn back to Russia to improve relations, provided Moscow makes certain concessions.

On Feb. 12, Germany elected a new president and former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier won the election. Steinmeier is well-known in Russia for his attempts to find common ground with the Kremlin over Ukraine. However, he prefers to stand with NATO and the U.S., even though he understands that improving relations with Russia is essential.

Yet no matter what stance toward Russia he will choose, his victory in the presidential race is hardly likely to have an impact on Germany’s foreign policy, because his figure is rather symbolic and doesn’t determine the state’s political agenda. Ironically, Steinmeier now has less power and heft than he had when he was Germany’s Foreign Minister.

In fact, his role is mostly restricted to keeping the country united in case of the government’s instability, which might occur after the 2017 parliamentary elections in September. This scenario is possible if the political parties fail to create a governing coalition — a scenario that is hardly likely to happen.

That’s why there is no reason to believe that Steinmeier will represent a fundamental change for Russian-German relations. All this means that the differences between Moscow and Berlin will persist and their different approaches toward Trump will only increase this gap.

In fact, Russia and Germany see Trump’s ascent to power differently. While Germans would prefer Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office, Russians are among the few people who seem to be happier with the Republican Trump. While Germany raises eyebrows at Trump and all his moves and expects the worsening of relations with the U.S., many Russians hail the new U.S. president and expect to improve relations under Trump. At the same time, the Kremlin might be interested in worsening relations between Germany and the U.S. In this scenario, disappointed with Trump, Berlin could turn back to Moscow.

However, no matter what the Kremlin expects, U.S.-German relations might indeed deteriorate in 2017, especially if German Chancellor Angela Merkel is re-elected during the national election this year. There are several reasons for this.

First, Trump’s negligent attitude toward Western institutions and specifically NATO (he has described the Alliance as “obsolete” and unnecessary for the U.S.) is not music to the ears of the German political elites. Germany, after all, doesn’t have a very strong army.

Also read: "Why German-Russian relations could be on the mend"

Second, Trump is not a big fan of free trade agreements (FTAs). His decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) sends a warning signal to Europe and Germany, which planned to sign the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Moreover, Trump’s top trade adviser, Peter Navarro, has accused Germany of “exploiting other countries” through gaining an unfair trade advantage from what he calls the “grossly undervalued” euro.

Third, Trump has sharply criticized the immigration policy of Germany, which has been sheltering refuges from the Middle East. According to his logic, such a policy creates the risk for terrorist attacks by Islamist radicals who might come to Europe disguised as refugees. Finally, the 2017 German parliamentary elections should play a certain role given the fact that many German parliamentarians are not happy about Trump’s presidency.

Amidst such an environment, Russia could benefit. It is expected to fill America’s shoes in terms of projecting influence in Europe. No wonder the Kremlin pins hopes on Germany, taking into account Russia’s firm belief that Berlin has been dependent on the U.S. for too long and can no longer conduct an independent foreign policy without looking at the U.S. for instruction. However, given Merkel’s tough stance toward the Kremlin and her reluctance to lift Western sanctions on Russia, Moscow’s hopes might be premature.

Despite numerous challenges, Germany and the U.S. still might find common ground even under Trump and there are some reasons to believe in this scenario.

Yes, Trump called NATO “obsolete,” yet it doesn’t mean that he will maintain the U.S. leadership with NATO countries and relegate this organization to the secondary agenda.

Yes, Trump promised to lift the sanctions on Russia, yet now he has changed his rhetoric and he is not ready even to alleviate the sanctions.

Yes, he talked about the recognition of Crimea as part of Russia, yet recently he made it clear that the U.S. may ask Russia to return the peninsula to Ukraine.

Yet Russian pundits still believe that Trump’s backing away from TTIP could definitely benefit the Kremlin, which found itself in a state of confrontation with Europe. However, Trump’s hypothetical withdrawal from TTIP is a matter of concern for Merkel, who expressed her misgivings about the possibility of trade wars launched by Trump.

But if Trump weakens America’s ties with Germany, Russia could only benefit if it had a clear view of what it could offer Germany other than oil and gas. The Nord Stream-2 gas project, the pipeline that is laid under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, seems to be another proof of the absence of alternative strategies. But as Germany is reducing dependence on Russian oil and gas, its interest toward the pipeline might soon decrease.

Summing up, if Russia seeks to improve its relations with Germany, it should not rely on the scenario under which U.S.-Germany ties will worsen, at least because, despite ups and downs throughout the last 70 years, the long-established German-American alliance is powerful enough and may survive even under Trump. After all, he seems to be pragmatic and won’t destroy the achievements of his predecessors. In this regard, good relations with Germany are an important achievement to preserve.

Second, Russia’s foreign policy seems to be based on a zero-sum strategy: where the U.S. loses, Russia wins. However, the reality is more complicated: the deterioration in U.S.-Germany relations will not necessarily push Berlin closer to Moscow, unless Russia finds new ways to attract Germany.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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Russia's euphoria about Donald Trump already fading https://russia-direct.org/analysis/russias-euphoria-about-donald-trump-already-fading
Eugene Bai

Less than one month since Donald Trump’s inauguration, Moscow has already become less delusional about the odds of improving relations with Washington. With Trump expecting Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine and reduce violence in Donbas, it’s now time to prepare for reality.

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Tue, 14 Feb 2017 16:24:34 +0000 5446 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/russias-euphoria-about-donald-trump-already-fading#comments Russia's euphoria about Donald Trump already fading

Less than one month since Donald Trump’s inauguration, Moscow has already become less delusional about the odds of improving relations with Washington. With Trump expecting Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine and reduce violence in Donbas, it’s now time to prepare for reality

Less than one month since Donald Trump’s inauguration, Moscow has already become less delusional about the odds of improving relations with Washington. With Trump expecting Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine and reduce violence in Donbas, it’s now time to prepare for reality.

There is increasing skepticism in Russia about U.S. President Donald Trump’s capability to improve relations with the Kremlin. Photo: Donald Trump's official Facebook page  

The political uncertainty in the United States surrounding the Trump presidency is now leading to alarmist commentary by some Russian experts and politicians. If U.S. President Donald Trump was able to split his country within the first weeks of his administration and put himself into direct opposition with the Washington establishment (and, probably, the entire democratic world), what will be his next steps?

Why Trump’s initiatives might hurt Russia

Russian media outlets are still keeping a close watch on Trump’s first presidential moves, with experts and society divided in their assessment of the U.S. president’s policy. Trump’s Russian supporters hail his first stances – the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the building of the Mexico wall and the “ban” on Muslims – as attempts to fulfill his pre-election promises. From this perspective, Trump’s goals are to create jobs in the U.S., stop illegal immigration from a southern neighbor and alleviate the terrorism threat. They see him as a pragmatic politician who wants to match his words with his deeds.

However, Trump’s opponents within the Russia media argue that, far from resolving any immigration problems, the Mexico wall will exacerbate the problem, destroy the achievements of globalization and send the wrong signal to the U.S.’s neighbor – Latin America. Likewise, Trump’s decision to withdraw from TPP was met with criticism by some pundits.

“TPP is a very important international project, which had been developed by the U.S. for a long period of time, and Washington abruptly withdrew from it,” Alexei Portansky, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, told Russia Direct. “Such precedent has never occurred in the history of the United States. A respected state with a well-developed governance system doesn’t behave in this way. Today, Trump creates an illusion that it is easy to take a political decision for the sake of America’s prosperity. However, in the globalized and interconnected era, political decisions cannot be taken so easily by definition.”

Similarly, Russia should be concerned with Trump’s apparently unyielding campaign against the Muslim world and his controversial immigration ban. Even though the U.S. is ready to cooperate with Russia to fight international terrorism, the very fact that Trump sees Islam and the entire Islamic civilization as a threat should be seen as a warning signal, according to political expert Lilia Shevtsova. Taking into account that more than 16 million Muslims are Russian citizens (approximately 11 percent of the population), Trump’s campaign against Islam might turn out to be a headache for the Kremlin.

If Moscow won’t express a note of indignation about the controversial U.S. immigration ban on Muslims and similar stances, many Russian Muslims are hardly likely to approve such an approach. The Kremlin should take this seriously given the separatist sentiment that has historically existed within Russia’s Muslim community.

Also read: "Steve Bannon, the Grey Cardinal in the White House: Good or bad for Russia?"

Likewise, Trump’s policy toward Iran and his threats to overhaul the Iranian nuclear deal might put Moscow in a vulnerable and awkward position. If the Trump administration indeed seeks to bring discord between Moscow and Tehran, Russia is hardly likely to meet the expectation of the U.S. in this regard.

The Kremlin is not interested in spoiling its relations with Iran, because Russia sees Tehran as a neighbor, a trade partner and a key stakeholder in the Middle East. Moreover, Russia is involved in numerous construction projects with Tehran, including the building of Russian nuclear facilities in Iran. Finally, Russia and Iran have found common ground in Syria and have been supporting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad since the beginning of the civil war in the country.

The Kremlin’s wishful thinking

There is also increasing skepticism in Russia about Trump’s capability to improve relations with the Kremlin. For now, there is no unanimity on this question.

“Trump oversimplifies a great deal,” Maksim Yusin, a foreign policy columnist for Kommersant daily, told Russia Direct. However, there is one advantage. "At least, we have a window for opportunity, which we would  never have had if Hillary Clinton had won the election.”

Like many other of his Russian colleagues, Yusin describes Trump as “a pragmatist, not an ideologue.” That’s why Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is also seen as a pragmatic, might see eye-to-eye with Trump and successfully cooperate. However, in order to achieve this goal, the U.S. should respect Russia’s strategic interests in the post-Soviet space (including Ukraine), according to the expert.

Some Russian pundits are also paying a lot of attention to the Trump administration’s critical stances toward Russia. At times, it seems like members of Trump’s team have not settled on one unified Russia policy.

For example, during a session of the United Nations, new U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley condemned the “aggressive actions of Russia” in Ukraine and denounced the Kremlin for the annexation of Crimea. Trump himself admits that he is no longer sure if he will be able to get along with the Kremlin, something that he has repeatedly told journalists. Moreover, he made it clear he expects Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine and reduce violence in Donbas, as White House spokesman Sean Spicer said on Tuesday.

Despite the wishful forecasts that Trump would normalize relations with Russia, the current reality proves otherwise, according to Leonid Gusev, an expert at the Moscow Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University).

“His [Trump’s] appointees, which include the [new] representative at the UN Security Council and the [new] defense minister, talk in the same way as [Barack] Obama’s appointees.”

Recommended: "Russia is still wary of Trump's turbulent presidency"

Moreover, the divide within the American political elites aggravates the problem and hampers any attempts to improve relations with Russia. That’s probably why no signs about alleviating the sanctions on Russia have emerged since Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration. The topic of sanctions was not even included in the Putin-Trump telephone conversation on Jan. 30. Finally, Trump himself said that it is too early to talk about the cancelation of the sanctions.

“Trump is rather a standalone outlier and his relations with the leadership of the Republican Party are not in good shape,” said Nikolai Toporin, a professor of MGIMO University. “The most serious sanctions became law. This means that the president himself won’t be able to cancel them. He might abolish only those sanctions that were imposed in accordance with a presidential executive order. Basically, these sanctions add up to measures against legal entities and private individuals. However, [economic] sectorial sanctions cannot be abolished without the go-ahead from Congress.”

Why Russia should prepare for the worst-case scenario

In fact, Russia’s obsession with the Trump presidency reveals the inferiority complex of the Kremlin and society in general, according to Shevtsova. She describes the situation as both “humiliating and comic”: Russians keep a close watch on Trump and the U.S. in an attempt to forget about their own plight and disorientation.

In fact, pinning a great deal of hope on Trump’s presidency creates a dangerous situation. The more hopes and emotions Russians express toward Trump, the deeper their disappointment will be if the flamboyant U.S. president fails to justify their expectations. The problem might be aggravated by the Trump administration’s hostility toward Russia. And this is not an impossible scenario.

As Leon Aron, the director of Russian Studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, warns, the key danger is Trump’s penchant for self-persuasion and his willingness to ignore reality. He might persuade himself that he found common ground with Putin during a summit, but the reality might contradict his beliefs. And this is the chilling and “creeping” moment when the over-confident “Trump finds himself offended and defeated,” warns Aron.

“He doesn’t have the professional political ability to withstand a punch,” the expert added. “It is difficult to predict what he will undertake, but I think it will be a very dramatic response.;

Also read: "Russia braces itself for a Trump presidency"

“Trump is likely to see Russia as an ally in his rebellion against the current world order,” said Shevtsova. “But America’s unpredictability will be a blow to Russia, because the Kremlin can afford unpredictable [foreign policy] somersaults only if it can predict the Western response. Yet if Trump might do anything, this will mean the end of the Russian game.”

One cannot rule out such a dramatic scenario. And, unfortunately, it is more realistic than the improvement in U.S.-Russia relations at a time when Washington is increasingly distrustful of Moscow. As a result, the Russian political elites should prepare for this scenario.

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What are the implications of the conflict between Belarus and Russia? https://russia-direct.org/opinion/what-are-implications-belaruss-conflict-russia
Artyom Shraibman

The conflict between Moscow and Minsk could mark the beginning of one of the most important stages in the country’s movement away from Russia.

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Mon, 13 Feb 2017 15:50:21 +0000 5442 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/what-are-implications-belaruss-conflict-russia#comments What are the implications of the conflict between Belarus and Russia?

The conflict between Moscow and Minsk could mark the beginning of one of the most important stages in the country’s movement away from Russia

The conflict between Moscow and Minsk could mark the beginning of one of the most important stages in the country’s movement away from Russia.

Pictured: Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko during his Feb. 3 press conference. Photo: Official website of the Belarusian President

This article first appeared at the website of Carnegie Moscow Center. It has been edited and condensed by Russia Direct’s editorial team. Read the original article here.

Even if Minsk and Moscow are able to resolve their current dispute, the standoff will go down in history, at least in Belarus. After Belarus’s declaration of independence and the creation of its state infrastructure — its bureaucracy, currency, and armed forces — this conflict will be one of the most important stages in the country’s movement away from Russia.

Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko’s scandalous press conference in the early February was all over Russian media. Over the course of a seven-and-a-half-hour address, Lukashenko slammed Russia over a variety of grievances that have accumulated recently: What may have seemed like a sudden burst of anger was, perhaps, the logical next step in spiraling Belarusian-Russian relations.

Also read: "Why post-Soviet integration will be a lot harder than the Kremlin thought"

The dispute between Minsk and Moscow is multifaceted, and new tensions are drawn out each month — from oil and gas to borders and foodstuffs. The crisis nourishes itself: Negative news stories and mutual frustration give rise to new, unnecessary scandals — the arrest of pro-Russian publicists, Lukashenko’s refusal to attend the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) summits in St. Petersburg, and Minsk’s decision to extradite Russian-Israeli blogger Alexander Lapshin to Azerbaijan, for example.

The most recent source of tension is the decision of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) to establish border controls between Russia and Belarus. This step indicates the de facto introduction of passport controls between the two countries for the first time ever. Had the FSB not announced its decision a few days before Lukashenko’s press conference, the Belarusian president’s address might not have been so emotional, but it would have been every bit as withering. And indeed, Lukashenko’s speech was more emotion than politics: It was a way for him to get out his frustration.

At the beginning of his record-length address, Lukashenko avoided using the word “Russia” in much the same way Russian President Vladimir Putin avoids using the last name of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. But when he received a direct question about relations with Moscow, Lukashenko spoke for nearly an hour and a half, beginning with “the situation has gotten to the point where I can’t conceal things anymore.” And Lukashenko returned to this topic later, even when responding to a question about a different topic.

Lukashenko accused Moscow of violating international agreements on oil, gas, and shared borders. He said that a suit had already been filed against Russia as a result of an oil and gas dispute, and that Belarusian representatives from the EAEU customs authorities had been recalled. Speaking about the drawn-out signing of the Customs Code of the EAEU, Lukashenko announced that he wouldn’t touch the document until the oil and gas dispute was resolved. Lukashenko seemed to be reproaching Russia for not treating Belarus like an independent state.

He was unapologetically expressive: “We’ve been flying with one wing — and you know where we flew to,” said Lukashenko, referring to Belarus’s need to develop relationships with neighboring countries besides Russia. And then there were the details of high-level, closed-door meetings.

Still, Lukashenko didn’t lose complete control over himself. Between dozens of scandalous declarations that became media headlines the following day, Lukashenko did make several measured statements: In the wake of the FSB’s announcement about setting up border controls, Lukashenko promised not to tighten security on the Belarusian side of the border in order to avoid creating problems for Russians.

In a modern-day version of “good tsar, bad boyars,” Lukashenko laid the blame not on Putin but on his advisors: “Unfortunately, now there are different [powers] leading the country. And it’s very bad, a few things differ from the views and decisions of the president himself.”

Also read: "Will Lukashenko's reelection lead to changes in Moscow-Minsk alliance?"

Lukashenko is an experienced negotiator, and the meaning of this rhetorical move is clear. He is giving Putin the opportunity, if he wants it, to save face by blaming existing problems on his subordinates. This is how the sides have proceeded for the last fifteen to twenty years: When arguments build up at the state corporation and ministerial level, the presidents intervene in the name of a centuries-old brotherhood, and everything is resolved amicably.

That’s not what is happening right now. And this brings us to another reason for Lukashenko’s anger: He wants to get back to negotiating with Putin directly rather than having to deal with the many hostile interlocutors that Minsk has had to engage with over the past several months. Certainly, there is a personal dislike and psychological incompatibility between the two leaders. But in recent years, only Putin himself has had enough power to improve relations between the two countries.

Traditionally, there have been three approaches to the conduct of relations with Belarus among the Russian elite, two extreme and one moderate. The first of the extreme approaches is supported by the pragmatist free-marketers within the government. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his deputy Arkady Dvorkovich are the spokesmen of this faction — before them, it was the country's former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Anatoly Chubais, a prominent Russian politician and businessman who was responsible for privatization in the country in the 1990s. The pragmatist bloc, revered by some Russian intellectuals, has been the most unpleasant faction for Belarus to negotiate with, as officials and experts in this cohort have actively promoted the idea that Minsk is a freeloader and should no longer be supported.

The second extreme bloc is composed of imperial nationalists, and is popular among security hardliners in the Kremlin and adherents of “Russian world” and Eurasian ideologies. Their agenda is simple: The game of independence on Russia’s northwestern border is fun, but sooner or later it will have to end. As long as Lukashenko follows the path of integration, he’s OK; but when he starts to flirt with the West, he needs to be reminded that Belarus is Russia’s younger brother. Lukashenko, naturally, does not like this bloc, because on their map of the world, he’s at best a regional governor.

Recommended: "The real reason for stationing Russian fighter jets in Belarus"

Putin plays the role of centrist arbiter between these two blocs. The Russian president has always had the same approach to Minsk, which suits Lukashenko: On the one hand, Putin’s integrationist ideas have always been palatable because he isn’t obsessed with pan-Eurasian ideologies. On the other hand, Putin has periodically reined in his government’s use of oil and gas levers to influence Belarus, as he is not deaf to notions of a “Slavic brotherhood.”

In the past, conflicts between Minsk and Moscow have arisen when the Kremlin’s line has moved toward one of the extremes. Today, the problem for Lukashenko is that the middle ground is beginning to disappear. The extremes, which had been marginalized, have become independent and equal forces in Russian foreign policy: Putin seems to have become caught up in global politics and forgotten to pay attention to the little things — like disputes with Minsk, which have been delegated to hard-liner imperialists and pragmatist technocrats.

Lukashenko wants Putin to make decisions himself rather than shift problems onto his subordinates. And this is why Lukashenko took such a scandalous tone in the press conference: The Belarusian president wanted to draw the attention of his Russian counterpart to the poor state of relations. As in a lover’s spat, one side sometimes needs to cry it out, and Minsk is doing just that. But soon, the spat should calm down. The oil and gas dispute, for example, if it is not decided at Lukashenko’s meeting with Putin, will be heard by the Court of the EAEU.

But the conflict won’t be gone forever. Returning to the nuptial analogy, the romance between Russia and Belarus, which began twenty years ago, is finally dead. The marriage of two emotional partners with authoritarian tempers and a tendency to engage in blackmail has become a scam. Sooner or later, they’ll have to settle on a new living arrangement.

Are we moving toward a formal divorce? In the foreseeable future — no, that’s not the Slavic way. Elites in Moscow and Minsk will likely cling to multiple types of integration, including the Union State of Russia and Belarus, CSTO, EAEU and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Still, this won’t change the core fact that the relationship is deadlocked. Any attempt by Moscow to convert Russia’s long-term investments in Belarus into expanded influence on Minsk will be met with opposition. Just as Belarus itself has become used to independence, its permanent president has become unable to share power with anyone. Attempts by Minsk to return to the previous model of support, which Belarusians called “gas for kisses,” will also be fruitless; the Kremlin isn’t interested in this kind of relationship anymore.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

This article first appeared at the website of Carnegie Moscow Center. It has been edited and condensed by Russia Direct’s editorial team. . More on the post-Soviet space read here.

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The curious case of a Russian blogger that shook the post-Soviet space https://russia-direct.org/analysis/curious-case-russian-blogger-shook-post-soviet-space
Pietro Shakarian

The case of Aleksandr Lapshin, a travel blogger based in Moscow with dual Russian-Israeli citizenship, shows how the barriers that were established as a result of the 1991 Soviet break-up create new possibilities for conflict.

Pictured: Aleksander Lapshin. Photo: Personal Archive 

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Fri, 10 Feb 2017 23:24:49 +0000 5440 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/curious-case-russian-blogger-shook-post-soviet-space#comments The curious case of a Russian blogger that shook the post-Soviet space

The case of Aleksandr Lapshin, a travel blogger based in Moscow with dual Russian-Israeli citizenship, shows how the barriers that were established as a result of the 1991 Soviet break-up create new possibilities for conflict

The case of Aleksandr Lapshin, a travel blogger based in Moscow with dual Russian-Israeli citizenship, shows how the barriers that were established as a result of the 1991 Soviet break-up create new possibilities for conflict.

Pictured: Aleksander Lapshin. Photo: Personal Archive 

One of the more fascinating stories to emerge from the former Soviet space in recent years is the recent case of 40-year-old Aleksander Lapshin, a travel blogger based in Moscow with dual Russian-Israeli citizenship.

The Lapshin case is a quintessential post-Soviet story. It is a drama that directly involves three former Soviet republics (Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Russia) and indirectly involves two others (Armenia and Ukraine). It also involves at least one self-proclaimed yet unrecognized post-Soviet entity (Nagorno-Karabakh) and a country (Israel) that, while never part of the Soviet Union, nonetheless has a large population of post-Soviet immigrants.

Overall, the Lapshin case highlights the connections that continue to exist among the peoples and countries across the former Soviet space. It also illustrates how the barriers that were established as a result of the 1991 Soviet break-up create new possibilities for conflict. At one time, the major cities in this drama (Baku, Moscow, and Minsk) were all part of a single state. Today, as capitals of separate states, they have become enmeshed in a complex international political dispute that touches on significant geopolitical, humanitarian, foreign policy, and identity questions.

The blogger, Baku, and Belarus

Lapshin visited 122 different countries. His popular blog Life Adventures recounts these various journeys, exhibiting Lapshin’s passion for off-beat sites and beautiful women. Nagorno-Karabakh was not the only unrecognized republic on former Soviet territory that he visited (he also traveled to Abkhazia and Transnistria). However, his visits there would prove to be among his most fateful.

Also read: "Why post-Soviet integration will be a lot harder than the Kremlin thought"

Lapshin visited the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh republic twice – once in 2011 and again in 2012. He subsequently wrote about his experiences on his blog. Because Azerbaijan views Nagorno-Karabakh as part of its internationally recognized territory, it argued that Lapshin entered Azerbaijan illegally and thus banned him from entering Azerbaijan.

Moreover, Azerbaijani authorities assert that Lapshin called for the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh in his blog posts. The relevant posts have been removed from the Lapshin blog, but, according to the BBC, one entry from April 2016 was reposted elsewhere online. In it, Lapshin asserted his neutrality in the dispute on Nagorno-Karabakh, but was nonetheless harshly critical of Azerbaijan’s government and media.

Despite the travel ban imposed by Baku, the intrepid Lapshin was not deterred. In 2016, he entered the territory of Azerbaijan anyway. In addition to his Russian and Israeli passports, Lapshin also had a Ukrainian passport, in which his name was spelled in a slightly different manner, thus allowing him to circumvent the new Azerbaijani travel restriction.

Incensed, Baku put out an international warrant for Lapshin’s arrest in December 2016. While on a visit to Minsk, the beleaguered blogger was arrested by Belarusian authorities. Azerbaijan asked Belarus to extradite him to Baku to face trial for improperly entering the country. Against strong objections from Russia, Minsk eventually did comply with Baku’s request and extradited Lapshin to Azerbaijan on Feb. 7.

“We detained him in accordance with Interpol’s decision and must hand him over to Azerbaijan in accordance with all laws and regulations,” asserted Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. 

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev personally thanked Lukashenko for extraditing the blogger. However, contrary to Lukashenko’s statement, the Belarusian Prosecutor General’s Office admitted that there was no Interpol warrant for Lapshin. If convicted on all charges, Lapshin could face up to eight years in an Azerbaijani prison.

International outcry

The Lapshin case has raised considerable protest from different quarters. His followers on Russian-language social media have organized in his support. His wife, Ekaterina, who now runs his blog, has remained vigil, expressing deep concern about her husband’s condition throughout the ordeal. Various human rights and activist groups in Armenia and throughout the Armenian diaspora have widely condemned Belarus, and have called for Lapshin’s freedom.

The government of Nagorno-Karabakh has likewise harshly condemned Belarus. A statement issued by the self-proclaimed republic’s Foreign Ministry criticized the extradition as “not only an expression of outright support for the policy of intimidating foreign citizens pursued by the Azerbaijani authorities, but also a flagrant violation of the fundamental rights to the freedom of movement and freedom of speech.” 

The extradition was likewise criticized by Armenian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Tigran Balayan who called the extradition a “severe violation” of human rights “that once again shows the deep gap between a dictatorship and a democracy.”

Political figures in Israel have also raised objections about the Lapshin case, most notably Israeli Member of Parliament Ksenia Svetlova of the center-left Zionist Union. She has personally been working for Lapshin’s release and even persuaded him to write a letter of apology to the Azerbaijani government, although this did little to change the situation. 

Svetlova has been especially critical of the silence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the matter. She contends that he and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman could be doing more on Lapshin’s behalf, given their close ties to Azerbaijan. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has reportedly been attempting to negotiate the release of Lapshin behind-the-scenes.

Protests from Moscow

Perhaps the most vocal objections to the Lapshin case were those from his mother country, Russia. In January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov slammed the arrest Lapshin by Belarus. 

“Russia is opposed to the criminalization of visits by journalists or other people to this territory or other territories in different regions,” he emphasized.  “Moscow disagrees with the extradition to a third country of Russians detained abroad.”

Russia’s concern for the Lapshin case is not without good reason. First and foremost, there is the matter of Lapshin’s citizenship. Due to the fact that the case concerns a Russian citizen, it consequently concerns the Russian state. Secondly, there is the geopolitical dimension to the Lapshin situation. The case is related to a major conflict in the former Soviet Union (Nagorno-Karabakh) that Moscow ultimately wants to see resolved. Moscow feels that the extradition of Lapshin to Baku and any criminal proceedings against him will only increase the potential for conflict and instability in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Caucasus generally.  Given Moscow’s own security concerns in the Caucasus neighborhood, it seeks to avoid such a scenario at all costs.

Also read an opinion from Andrey Kortunov: "Why Putin is not planning to restore the Soviet Union"

“The extradition of Lapshin will not promote a peaceful resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh, if we understand the resolution as one built by negotiations and compromise,” noted Caucasus analyst Sergey Markedonov.  “Russia ultimately wants to see such a resolution.”

Another geopolitical aspect of the Lapshin case from the Russian vantage point is what it reveals about the state of relations between Russia and Belarus. 

“Russia and Belarus are the closest allies in the post-Soviet space as seen in the Eurasian Economic Union and the Union State,” noted Markedonov.  “However, this case provoked a crisis in relations between Moscow and Minsk. Of course, this issue is not restricted to the Lapshin case, but the Lapshin case adds some additional intrigues to this problem. Moreover, it demonstrates that integration in the post-Soviet space is limited. It is stronger on paper than in reality because, in reality, all countries of the post-Soviet space prefer to pursue their own interests.”

When Lapshin was finally extradited by Belarus, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement expressing its “deep disappointment with this decision, which runs counter to the spirit of allied relations between Russia and Belarus.” 

However, it also stressed that “we are determined to take all necessary steps in the future to protect the legitimate rights and interests of the Russian national with a view to securing his speedy return to his family.” Today, Russian Embassy diplomat Denis Apashkin has already met with Lapshin in Baku. According to Apashkin, Lapshin has “no complaints about detention conditions and has already provided with a lawyer.”

“Moscow would prefer informal contacts and ties to resolve this situation,” argues Markedonov. “Of course, there is also the problem of Lapshin and the Russian state because Lapshin as a blogger was very critical of the Russian government. He said that Russian officials are completely corrupt and so on and so on. However, now, given the new circumstances, I think he will likely modify his perception a bit. The Russian Foreign Ministry declared its willingness to help him, though ultimately I think that informal ties or informal agreements will be used by Russia to change this situation.”

A troubling precedent

The Lapshin case is part of a broader trend by the Azerbaijani government in recent years to discourage travel to Nagorno-Karabakh and to declare that those who have traveled to the self-proclaimed republic as personae non gratae. In 2013, the disputed region saw two high-profile visitors. First of these was Spanish operatic soprano Montserrat Caballé. The second was the red-headed bombshell and former Russian spy Anna Chapman who visited Nagorno-Karabakh as part of a delegation of Russian journalists and public figures. 

Caballé was declared a persona non grata while Chapman was threatened with being labeled as such. The Lapshin case represents a shift in this policy. Instead of simply declaring individuals who visit Nagorno-Karabakh as personae non gratae, the Azerbaijani government now appears interested in prosecuting them as well.

Also read: "What the 1897 Russian census has to do with post-Soviet politics"

“Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has this infamous blacklist,” noted Markedonov, “In fact, even I am a member of this list. However, the Lapshin case represents a troubling precedent. I visited Belarus a couple of times previously and I have good contacts there. Maybe again I will be invited back to Minsk. However, if the Azerbaijani government decides to follow all suspected persons on their blacklist, I don’t know. Will they try to prosecute anybody who has visited Nagorno-Karabakh? Of course, Caballé is a celebrity and for Azerbaijan to go after her would be more risky than to go after Lapshin. For instance, I can’t imagine that Caballé will be arrested or transferred to the Azerbaijani government or prison. They can say that Lapshin is a very particular case. However, there is a precedent. I am not sure that a tougher policy wouldn’t be implemented.”

Markedonov also noted that such a precedent could pose a major problem to journalists, scholars, and human rights activists who are required to visit conflict zones as part of their work. 

“If this territory is disputed and you cannot go and see it, then it is a problem,” he maintained.  “Journalists, human rights activists, and scholars have a lot of interests in these territories. They travel to places like Donbas, Palestine, Northern Cyprus, and so on. We should strive for objective information about all these places.  Two, three, five opinions can give us a chance to make a more or less adequate portrait of the situation on-the-ground. It is absolutely necessary for peace-building. This is why this case concerning a specific person raises a lot of questions.”

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When will Russia finally break its 'resource curse'? https://russia-direct.org/analysis/when-will-russia-finally-break-its-resource-curse
Pavel Koshkin

Despite constant talk about plans to boost the nation’s economic growth, experts remain skeptical about any efforts to wean the Russian economy off its dependence on oil.

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Fri, 10 Feb 2017 21:38:27 +0000 5438 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/when-will-russia-finally-break-its-resource-curse#comments When will Russia finally break its 'resource curse'?

Despite constant talk about plans to boost the nation’s economic growth, experts remain skeptical about any efforts to wean the Russian economy off its dependence on oil

Despite constant talk about plans to boost the nation’s economic growth, experts remain skeptical about any efforts to wean the Russian economy off its dependence on oil.

“Risks differ because they are possible to measure, while unpredictability is impossible to assess. And this bring about a sort of torpor among investors.” Photo: RIA Novosti

 As Russia’s top economic leaders prepare for the upcoming Russian Investment Forum in Sochi, scheduled on Feb. 27-28, there has been increased discussion among experts about what steps need to be taken this year to propel the Russian economy forward. For now, the focus seems to be on new investment projects for economic growth.

Yet, as Russian and foreign experts discussed at a Feb. 8 event at the Carnegie Moscow Center, it will take more than just new investment to jump-start the economy. As long as the Russian economy depends on oil and the “gray market” remains commonplace in the country, it will be challenging to carry out effective structural reforms, attract investors and boost economic growth.

This is the key message of the discussion that brought together the director of Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics Torbjorn Becker, the head of the Moscow-based Economic Expert Group Evsei Gurvich and Carnegie Moscow Center expert Andrei Movchan.

The oil curse as an obstacle for foreign investment

Gurvich argues that Russia’s key problem is the resource curse, which results from the cyclical nature of oil prices (with alternating cycles every 15 years or so). When prices rise, oil revenues also increase, which increases the rivalry among political elites for the control of the oil rent. In this situation, the authorities think not about the efficiency of the economy, but about grabbing a bigger slice of the pie. This is how the state assumes a greater control over the economy, in general.

“Russian economic dependence is very deep on the macroeconomic level,” Becker continues, adding that volatile changes in oil prices could have either negative or positive effects on Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) and other economic indicators.

According to him, about 80-90 percent of forecast mistakes come from the fact the pundits and politicians cannot predict oil prices properly. For Russia’s policymakers, it means that they cannot control the economic situation in the country and this a big challenge for the authorities, said Becker.

Even though Russia’s sovereign wealth funds — the Reserve Fund and the National Welfare Fund — are good tools for rainy days, they primarily deal with short-term management of oil volatility. Thus, they cannot resolve the problem of unpredictability.   

As Andrei Yakovlev, the director of the Institute for Industrial and Market Studies at the Higher School of Economics, told Russia Direct in a 2016 interview, investing in an unpredictable environment “is highly difficult, because business is used to assessing risks.”

“Risks differ because they are possible to measure, while unpredictability is impossible to assess,” he clarified. “And this bring about a sort of torpor among investors.”

Moreover, the unpredictability that stems from the volatility of oil prices is narrowing the planning horizon among those at the helm, said Gurvich. Thus, the Kremlin relegates any strategic thinking to the secondary agenda and prefers to think even shorter term. This cannot help affecting the country’s economic growth; it does create favorable environment for the budget deficit.

Not only does the oil-dependent economy create a great deal of uncertainty and make the authorities helpless during abrupt changes in oil prices, but also it affects the structure of Russia’s trade with its European partners by making it one-sided.

To illustrate this trend, Becker gives an example of the trade between Russia and Sweden, with oil exports comprising about 80 percent of the products from Russia and Swedish exports being more diversified. Russia should be careful about “the danger of one-sided oil dependence.” After all, it could affect the country’s economic growth and efficiency, said Becker.

Political dimension of the resource curse

However, Movchan looks at the resource curse from a different angle. He prefers to focus on the advantages that the commodity-based economy creates for the authorities and the population. Even though he sees oil dependence as a challenge for Russia’s economic and political future, Movchan admits that those who work for the government – about 38 percent — get their salaries from the state budget that depends on oil revenues. In other words, the Russian population itself is “the key consumer of the resource curse,” because its income is determined to a larger extent by oil prices.

Also read: "How the economic crisis hampers Russia's investment climate"

Second, significant oil resources yield another advantage: very cheap energy. Movchan gives an example from day-to-day life: the average temperature in Russian houses is 23 degrees Celsius (73.4 degrees Fahrenheit), while American houses are heated to just 16-17 degrees Celsius (62 degrees Fahrenheit). In fact, the energy consumption (and economy) in Russia is adjusted to lower prices on hydrocarbons and it defines the key habit of Russians, which they are reluctant to change.

Moreover, the Russian army depends on low energy prices in the country and nobody even cares about the amount of money to maintain the country’s military forces. Given the fact that Russians sees these forces as a guarantor of political stability, territorial integrity and geopolitical influence, oil in this regard mobilizes people around the leader and creates a sort of stability, even if illusionary and ephemeral. 

However, it doesn’t necessary mean that oil is good for the nation per se. According to Movchan, the oil dependence is a curse, an evil for the long-term development of the country, but it is necessary to understand the short-term oil benefits for the Kremlin and the population to avoid many pitfalls on the path to structural reforms. It is also essential not to turn into another oil-dependent Venezuela, which is now on the verge of political collapse because of ill-thought-out economic initiatives.

Today, the Russian authorities are looking for political and economic stability. And if one looks at the situation from their perspective, they naturally shy away from any reforms, which could endanger their positions and this is a normal behavior, says Movchan. In order to foster the sweeping changes, they should stop being policymakers and turn into reformers who are ready to destroy the old system and build the new one. Obviously, this is not what the current Russian political elites are looking for now.

That’s why any forecast about higher oil prices is music to the ears of those in the Kremlin. After all, high oil prices (which translate into economic prosperity) boosted the approval ratings of Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev during their tenures. Meanwhile low prices on hydrocarbons (which led to economic woes) ruined the reputations of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and his successor Boris Yeltsin, in part, because their presidencies coincided with a period of low oil prices. Gurvich pointed out the correlation between their popularity and the oil cycles during his speech.

The expert believe that Russia will become a magnet for investors only when the oil dependence era will end, when oil revenues won’t be relevant for the authorities anymore, when oil prices will drastically plummet. If it happens Russia will be forced to produce the goods that it imports now.

Thus, the Russian political elites will be ready to conduct the sweeping structural reforms, only if they will be faced with the existential threat for their stability and well being, Gurvich concluded.

Russia’s infatuation with economic forums

The only problem is that when the Russian authorities have to deal with economic challenges, they aren’t ready to take the difficult next steps. Instead, they have a penchant for organizing lavishly funded economic forums that bring together top economists, politicians and diplomats from Russia and abroad.

Recommended: "How can the Kremlin institute effective economic reforms?"

There are at least five major economic forums that take place in Russia each year — the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, the Gaidar Economic Forum, the Yalta International Economic Forum, and the Russian Investment Forum in Sochi. In a nutshell, their major goal is to create an intellectual and business platform for boosting the country’s economic growth and raising Russia’s global profile.

There is no unanimity about the efficiency and viability of such forums among experts and independent economists. While some see them as an opportunity to attract foreign investors and discuss the most urgent challenges while cutting important deals, others describe such forums as a convenient photo-op, a sort of “party” or “talk show” for pundits and politicians. Such platforms may be splashy, but are often inefficient. In short, they may promise more than they actually deliver.

For example, Oleg Buklemishev, an associate professor of Economics at Lomonosov Moscow State University, is skeptical about the impact of investment forums.

“Do these many economic gatherings pay off? I’m not sure,” he told Russia Direct. “But inertia and the benefits for organizers and the local communities in general outweigh the costs, which are usually spread between many — and some of them can’t vocally speak out (for example, the taxpayers).”

At the same time, Buklemishev admits that these investment forums “do perform some useful functions” no matter how “strange it may seem.”

Also read: "Fulfilling Eastern Economic Forum pledges: Easier said than done"

“First, there are very few places where politicians have to address businesses and their everyday needs, explain their position, speculate about intentions and even logically justify them. Sometimes this is the easiest way to access the views of top government leaders and themselves personally,” he clarified.

“Second, these are platforms for communication between business leaders, to share news and challenges, forge practical contacts and relationships and get a feel for the atmosphere of the marketplace,” he notes.

“Third, this is a mechanism for the general audience to know something about the authorities’ views and economic perspective,” Buklemishev concluded. “Fourth, sometimes the discussions put forward some helpful ideas, which experts share with the bureaucrats and the business community. Fifth, this is a powerful way to support local hospitality industries – hotels, restaurants, transportation and entertainment.”

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80 years later, the perpetrators of Stalin's 'Great Terror' revealed https://russia-direct.org/analysis/80-years-later-perpetrators-stalins-great-terror-revealed
Shaun Walker

A new historical project is the first comprehensive effort to identify every single one of the 40,000 NKVD secret police officers responsible for one of the darkest periods in the history of the Soviet Union.

 

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Thu, 09 Feb 2017 22:24:30 +0000 5434 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/80-years-later-perpetrators-stalins-great-terror-revealed#comments 80 years later, the perpetrators of Stalin's 'Great Terror' revealed

A new historical project is the first comprehensive effort to identify every single one of the 40,000 NKVD secret police officers responsible for one of the darkest periods in the history of the Soviet Union

A new historical project is the first comprehensive effort to identify every single one of the 40,000 NKVD secret police officers responsible for one of the darkest periods in the history of the Soviet Union.

 

A women holds a portrait of the Soviet leader Josef Stalin, during a communists rally in Moscow. Photo: AP

The article is first published at The Guardian's The New East network, which includes Russia Direct. The New East network is a collaboration between the Guardian and a series of specialist sites writing about the 15 countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.

For two decades, starting in 1993, Andrei Zhukov went down into a Moscow archive at least three days a week, spending hour after hour leafing through thousands of orders issued by the NKVD, Joseph Stalin’s secret police, searching for the names and ranks of the organisation’s officers.

The result is the first comprehensive survey of the NKVD men responsible for carrying out Stalin’s “Great Terror” of 1937 and 1938, in which about 1.5 million people were arrested and 700,000 shot. While it is not the first study into the senior leadership of the NKVD, this is the first time that everyone – from the investigators to the executioners – has been identified. There are just over 40,000 names on the list.

Zhukov, a jovial eccentric who lives in the countryside outside Moscow, said that although he was no fan of Stalin, there was no real political motivation to his work. Now 64, he has always enjoyed collecting things and was an avid stamp collector during the Soviet period.

“I’ve always been interested in things that were secret, or hard to find. I started this off purely from a collector’s instinct,” he said.

Historians, however, soon realized the importance of Zhukov’s work. The Memorial organisation, which documents Stalin-era crimes, released a CD last summer containing his database of names. In November, the database was released online.

“This is the sort of work that would usually be done by a group of researchers, or by a whole institute, but he’s done it all on his own,” said Yan Rachinsky, co-chairman of Memorial.

It is not permitted to take photographs of the archive documents, so Zhukov copied the names and details from the papers into large ledgers and then recopied them on to a series of filing cards he kept at home, adding information to the cards when he discovered details about NKVD officers he had already logged.

Also read: "Russia honors the victims of Stalin's repressions"

It took years of meticulous work. Because the NKVD was responsible for a range of functions in addition to arrests and executions, Zhukov limited his search to those involved in state security.

“Not everyone in this list is a butcher: There are a few who were killed for not carrying out their orders. But the vast majority were in some way linked to the terror,” said Rachinsky.

Nikita Petrov, another Memorial historian, said: “There were enthusiasts and there were careerists among these men. Working in the NKVD was prestigious. At the start of the 1930s, when there was poverty and famine, you got a nice uniform and were fed well. People didn’t know that within five years they’d be sentencing thousands of people to death.”

Memorial has previously focused more on documenting the victims of the Soviet-era repressions than the perpetrators. Their database of the victims contains about 2,700,000 names and a further 600,000 should be added this year.

Rachinsky said this was about a quarter of the approximately 12 million who should make up the full list – those who were internally deported or sentenced for political reasons. In some regions, the local security services have never published lists of the victims; in many places, the archives remain closed.

Another project, Final Address, was launched in 2013 to commemorate victims of the terror. Relatives or other interested parties can apply to have a plaque installed at houses where victims lived.

Sergey Parkhomenko, a journalist and activist who set up the project, said there had been 1,500 applications and 300 plaques installed.

While there have been some cautious attempts to pay tribute to the victims of Soviet-era repression, less attention has been paid to the perpetrators until now.

Of the 40,000 names on Zhukov’s list, about 10 percent were either executed or jailed, though some of those who were sent to the gulags were given an amnesty before the USSR joined the second world war, and went on to win medals.

Zhukov recounted his discussion on an online history forum with a man who proudly recounted how his grandfather had won prestigious medals during the war. It turned out, said Zhukov, that the grandfather had run firing squads during the Terror. He was sent to the gulag, but was later released and again organized executions during the war.

Stories such as this reveal the complexity of the Stalin era, something largely glossed over in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where victory in the World War II has become a national rallying point.

While there have been some attempts to talk about the dark pages of the 1930s, and a gulag museum opened in Moscow last year, the official narrative tends to sideline the purges and killings. Petrov said there was not one Russian school textbook that referred to “crimes” during the Stalin period, only “mistakes”. So while there are plans to build a memorial to the victims of political repression in Moscow in the near future, they are treated as if they were victims of a tsunami or an earthquake – a narrative of victims but no crime or criminals.

Recommended: "The real reason why a resurgence of conservatism in Russia is dangerous"

“The problem is not that Putin supports Stalin: He doesn’t. He’s even condemned the crimes on occasion,” said Rachinsky. “The problem is Putin can’t admit that the state could be a criminal state.”

Although there is a chance that a few people from Zhukov’s list could be alive and approaching 100 years old, the point is not to open criminal cases or blame individuals.

“We don’t need to call them all criminals but we need to recognize the criminal nature of the organization and the criminal nature of the state at that time,” said Petrov.

Not everyone is impressed with Zhukov’s work. In November, some of the descendants of those featured in the database appealed to Russian authorities to take the lists offline. A nationalist member of parliament has asked prosecutors to verify whether the publication of the names violated a law against provoking social enmity.

The article is first published at The Guardian's The New East network, which includes Russia Direct. The New East network is a collaboration between the Guardian and a series of specialist sites writing about the 15 countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.

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Why post-Soviet integration will be a lot harder than the Kremlin thought https://russia-direct.org/analysis/why-post-soviet-integration-will-be-lot-harder-kremlin-thought
Pavel Koshkin

25 years after the official collapse of the Soviet Union, the forces of disintegration in the post-Soviet space appear to be stronger than those of integration.

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Thu, 09 Feb 2017 19:10:41 +0000 5432 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/why-post-soviet-integration-will-be-lot-harder-kremlin-thought#comments Why post-Soviet integration will be a lot harder than the Kremlin thought

25 years after the official collapse of the Soviet Union, the forces of disintegration in the post-Soviet space appear to be stronger than those of integration

25 years after the official collapse of the Soviet Union, the forces of disintegration in the post-Soviet space appear to be stronger than those of integration.

One should not overestimate the significance of common cultural and social ties among the post-Soviet countries: The Soviet generation is passing away, with the new generation thinking differently. Photo: AP

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko made headlines in early February during a marathon seven-hour press conference, when he overtly questioned the future of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and implied that Moscow-Minsk relations could no longer be taken for granted.

In fact, he made it clear that the Kremlin won’t be able to impose its will and dominance in order to prevent Belarus from diversifying its list of foreign partners in the West. Moreover, Lukashenko implied that Russia’s oil would not be able to save Minsk’s loyalty to the Kremlin, because “freedom cannot be measured with money” and “we will find a way out anyway.” Such defiance puzzled Moscow, which, according to some experts, seeks to maintain its influence in the post-Soviet space (also known as the Near Abroad).  

Although Russia and Belarus alleviated the tensions, Lukashenko’s comments during the marathon press conference indicate that both sides have very different views on their relationship. It might turn out to be one of Minsk’s most significant moves away from Russia. This, in turn, might put into question any attempts at post-Soviet integration, 25 years after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

‘A patchwork quilt with hybrid regimes’

Today, there is no unanimity within the expert community whether the process of disintegration is still continuing or not. Ostensibly, the Soviet Union ended its existence on Dec. 25, 1991, yet its enduring legacy persists to this day. It has resulted in numerous conflicts in the post-Soviet space, reaching its apex during the military conflict in Ukraine in 2014.

With Russia marking the 100th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution, the protracted conflicts in the post-Soviet space are still among the most discussed problems by Russian and foreign experts. In early February, at least two events took place in central Moscow on this topic and coincided with Lukashenko’s defiant comments.

Also read an opinion from Andrey Kortunov: "Why Putin is not planning to restore the Soviet Union"

“Today the post-Soviet space is like a patchwork quilt with hybrid regimes,” said Carnegie Moscow Center’s Andrei Kolesnikov at a Feb. 2 discussion, while pointing out that none of the former Soviet republics can be seen as purely democratic states (except the Baltic States). “Russia is building an imagined empire, yet this empire doesn’t exist anymore.”

According to Kolesnikov, this is one of the reasons why the conflict in Ukraine emerged. Together with a number of unrecognized states in the post-Soviet space, it is a vivid indication that the post-Soviet empire is still in disintegration and this is a painful process both for Russia and its neighbors.

“What we are witnessing today is the protracted breakup of the Soviet Union,” Andrei Kortunov, general director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), said during the Feb. 9 discussion "The post-Soviet space, 25 year later: the past, the present, the future" in a media center in central Moscow.

The collapse of the Soviet Union didn’t end in 1991, it is continuing today, as indicated by the drama in Ukraine, Kortunov added. He pointed out that Moscow failed to reach its two goals — maintaining friendly relations with its neighbors and saving the united economic and cultural post-Soviet space.

In part, it is because some international stakeholders were against the Kremlin’s dominance in the region and supported geopolitical pluralism. In part, it is because some post-Soviet states like Ukraine tried to create their new national identity by putting themselves into overt opposition to Russia. In part, the Kremlin itself made a lot of political mistakes, concluded Kortunov.

Arkady Dubnov, an independent veteran journalist, further develops these ideas. A search for a new national identity together with the Kremlin’s assertive stances and initiatives, its negligent attitude toward Ukraine and other neighbors played a significant role in the ongoing collapse of the post-Soviet space. The disintegration process and the redrawing of the post-Soviet map is “a danger that comes from Moscow,” as indicated by the military conflict in Donbas and Crimea’s annexation, said Dubnov during the Feb. 2 event at the Carnegie Moscow Center. 

‘Sweepingly’ disintegrating integration

Meanwhile, Alexander Iskandaryan, the director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, argues that the concept of the post-Soviet space “is sweepingly losing or has already lost its value.” He describes it as “fake” because the post-Soviet countries don’t have relevant and actual commonalities regardless of their shared historical and cultural past.

Iskandaryan believes that today one should not overestimate the significance of common cultural ties and social narratives, at least because the Soviet generation is passing away, with the new generation thinking differently. The problem is that those who were born after 1991 are not aware of such a phenomenon as “the post-Soviet space” and prefer to speak with the citizens of their neighbor countries not in Russian, but in English. In other words, they prefer Europe and the U.S. to Russia. 

The longer the disintegration will take place, the more cultural differences will be, and the faster the post-Soviet identity will disappear… What unites us is the fact that we are incomplete, [we are] hydrides,” Iskandaryan said during the Feb. 2 discussion at Carnegie Moscow Center, adding that even common geography is not a binding element.

However, Yaroslav Lissovolik, the Eurasian Development Bank’s chief economist, doesn’t agree. During a Feb. 9 round table at a media center in Moscow, he highlighted the importance of geography and its integration potential. To quote him, “geography is destiny” and Russian should jump at the opportunity to foster economic integration processes in the post-Soviet space, because it could accelerate growth and investment, an essential factor of better relations with neighbors. And the stronger the crises in the post-Soviet space, the more efforts should be undertaken, the more important any achievements will be.

In contrast, Kolesnikov, Iskandaryan and Dubnov are rather skeptical about the vitality and efficiency of the integration projects and institutions in the post-Soviet space. They are inclined to see it as an incoherent attempt by Moscow to maintain its influence and mythical attractiveness in the region.

In a nutshell, the more eagerly Moscow tries to save its clout in the Near Abroad, the more frustration comes from the Kremlin. Yet this is the direct result of Russia’s policy in Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014. It grabbed one slice (South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Crimea), but lost the entire pie (Georgia and Ukraine), to quote Iskandaryan, who describes the Kremlin-led integration projects as “a wheel with different spokes.”

Also read: "Understanding the context of the Kremlin's post-Crimean ideology"

Thus, he implies that Russia just doesn’t have enough resources to unite its neighbors under one integration project. More bluntly, he sees the Eurasian Economic Union as “a way of expressing loyalty” toward Moscow.

United by conflicts

In contrast, Sergey Markedonov, associate professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities, firmly believes that Russia doesn’t seek to maintain its dominance in the post-Soviet space. “It just tries to defend its specific national interests in the Near Abroad,” he told Russia Direct.

“When we are talking about the post-Soviet space, we usually mean a group of countries united by shared history, culture, and common borders, but not necessarily by common national interests,” he added. “And this leads to misperceptions: We should not equate the commonalities between former Soviet countries (including Russia) in their bilateral relations with all their contradictions and conflicts. I mean, the fact that former Soviet countries are not always united in their outlook doesn’t mean that they don’t have something that can bring them together.”

However, Iskandaryan admits that the post-Soviet countries indeed have some ties with Moscow and should take into account its clout. Yet these ties are ambiguous in their nature and often result in their bluntly expressed attitude toward Russia, be it favorable or unfavorable. Naturally, this creates many conflicts.

Yet the very fact that all these conflicts “go back to the Soviet past and in this regard the post-Soviet space does really exist and it will exist as long the conflicts persist,” said Markedonov. 

Paradoxically, this unity is based on the presence of conflicts and contradictions,” he added. “The post-Soviet space will disappear only when normal and sustainable countries with a well-established national identity will emerge in this region. So far, it is a long way to go.”

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Moscow and Kiev: Testing the US in Ukraine https://russia-direct.org/opinion/moscow-and-kiev-testing-us-ukraine
Daniel Kozin

Whatever the cause for the recent flare-up in Eastern Ukraine, the signs indicate that the U.S. position will be instrumental in any future resolution of the conflict, one way or the other.

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Wed, 08 Feb 2017 16:09:45 +0000 5430 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/moscow-and-kiev-testing-us-ukraine#comments Moscow and Kiev: Testing the US in Ukraine

Whatever the cause for the recent flare-up in Eastern Ukraine, the signs indicate that the U.S. position will be instrumental in any future resolution of the conflict, one way or the other

Whatever the cause for the recent flare-up in Eastern Ukraine, the signs indicate that the U.S. position will be instrumental in any future resolution of the conflict, one way or the other.

The rebels of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) on the territory of the market in the town of Trudovski in Petrovsky district, Donetsk Region destroyed by shelling. Photo: RIA Novosti

In his first two weeks as U.S. president, Donald Trump has followed up on most of his more controversial pre-election promises: the wall with Mexico, restrictions on Muslim immigration, toughening up on Iran, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

One move that was conspicuously absent from this feather-rustling list was the proposed rapprochement with Russia. This might mean that Trump was faced with serious opposition from establishment Republicans and Democrats alike.

Apart from a relatively inconspicuous phone call between the presidents of the U.S. and Russia last Saturday, there has not been a breakthrough in bilateral relations, neither in the lifting of sanctions nor in increased cooperation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East.

Whether this represents a tactical pause by Trump’s team, waiting for the dust to settle in Washington, or that Russia is not as high on the list of the new administration's foreign policy priorities as it would like, remains to be seen. All of this can change in the coming weeks, however, with the troubling situation in Ukraine again calling for the U.S. to take a stand, one way or the other.

What happened?

One thing is certain: the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine has again exploded in the past weeks. Heavy fighting in the areas of government-held Avdiivka and rebel-held Yasynuvata have led to large military and civilian casualties, a humanitarian catastrophe, and mutual violations of the Minsk-2 agreement.

The escalation has carried on into the diplomatic arena all the way up to the UN Security Council. The fact that a violation of the ceasefire has occurred is accepted unanimously. Less clear is who is responsible or what the implications will be for the future peace process.

Who is to blame?

Reports about which side is responsible for the hostilities have been mixed. Radio Free Europe reports on a Ukrainian “creeping offensive” in the Donbas area since mid-December, sparking “bloody clashes with their enemy, which has reportedly made advances of its own – or tried to – in recent weeks.”

Meanwhile, other reports argue that “the separatists fired first on Ukrainian positions and then went on the offensive, but lost ground again later.” At the same time, the mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observed "weapons in violation of withdrawal lines on the move on both sides of the contact line,” in addition to “civilian casualties and […] damage caused by shelling.”

Naturally, no one will know with certainty about who was responsible for the flare-up. More indicative is how the different actors responded to the event, and what lay behind their responses.

Another episode in the information war

The first responses to the escalation were predictable. Russia accused Ukraine of trying to find a “military solution to the conflict” rather than abiding by the peace agreement. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko countered, stating that “Russia and its proxies are fully responsible for the deterioration in Avdiivka.”

Apart from the mutual recriminations, a more interesting twist to the story was provided by both countries suggesting that the other aggravated the conflict as a result of events in Washington D.C. or Berlin.

Russia officially accused Ukraine of goading the conflict with the aim of forcing waning international support, as a backdrop to Poroshenko’s Jan. 30 official visit to Berlin. The Ukrainian president cut his visit short in dramatic fashion, citing the emergency situation in Avdiivka.

Read the debates: "Who is behind the recent military flare-up in Ukraine?"

“Strangely enough, every escalation of the situation in Donbas comes at a time when the Ukrainian leadership is away on a foreign trip,” reads the official statement of Russia's Foreign Ministry. “Clearly, this is an attempt to keep the crisis, provoked by Kiev, on the international agenda.”

Putin's foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov followed up by saying that “Kiev is trying to use the fighting it provoked itself as a pretext to refuse to observe the Minsk agreement and blame Russia.” The Berlin connection was hastily picked up and widely transmitted in coverage by the Russian media.

The opposite narrative came from Kiev. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin called the Russian claims “absurd and completely untrue.”

“It is Russia and not Ukraine that is responsible for the most recent illegal and inhumane escalation of aggression in Donbas,” he said.

Ukrainian officials linked the escalation with Trump’s Jan. 30 phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the day of Poroshenko’s visit to Berlin, as well as to rumors of a possible lifting of sanctions imposed on Russia by Washington.

“Rumors about the possibility of lifting sanctions increase [the] Kremlin’s appetite. The sanctions must be prolonged and reinforced,” said Konstiantyn Yelisieiev, deputy head of the Ukrainian Presidential Administration.

In the midst of the fierce fighting on Jan. 31, Poroshenko asked: “Who would dare talk about lifting the sanctions in such circumstances?”

What is the US response?

The mystery surrounding Trump’s future policy towards Eastern Europe seems to be forcing the hand of both sides in the Ukrainian conflict. Recent statements from members of the U.S. administration have been controversial, further fueling the uncertainty in the region. After the recent flare-up, the new U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley delivered a “clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions” in Ukraine, adding that “Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.”

However, earlier, on Jan. 26, Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said that lifting sanctions against Russia was “under consideration” by the administration, amidst rumors that a draft executive order on the issue was circulating in the White House. Trump added to the uncertainty during a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May on Jan. 27.

“As far as the sanctions, [it’s] very early to be talking about that, but we look to have a great relationship with all countries, ideally,” he said.

In an interview released on Feb. 7, Trump expressed doubts about Russia’s responsibility for the escalation in Ukraine and rejected the claim that the escalation — which came within 24 hours after his conversation with Putin — was an insult.

Recommended: "In 2017, stopping hostilities in Ukraine is now a matter of political will"

“No, I didn't [take it as an insult] because we don't really know exactly what that is. They're pro-forces. We don't know if they're uncontrollable? Are they uncontrollable? That happens also.”

Whatever the cause for the recent flare-up in eastern Ukraine, the signs indicate that the U.S. position will be instrumental in any future resolution of the conflict, one way or the other.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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How can the Kremlin institute effective economic reforms? https://russia-direct.org/analysis/how-can-kremlin-institute-effective-economic-reforms
Andrey Movchan

A strong new commitment to the rule of law, both domestically and internationally, is fundamental if Russia genuinely wants to halt economic decline and achieve prosperity in the future, argues Andrey Movchan from the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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Tue, 07 Feb 2017 20:12:52 +0000 5426 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/how-can-kremlin-institute-effective-economic-reforms#comments How can the Kremlin institute effective economic reforms?

A strong new commitment to the rule of law, both domestically and internationally, is fundamental if Russia genuinely wants to halt economic decline and achieve prosperity in the future, argues Andrey Movchan from the Carnegie Moscow Center

A strong new commitment to the rule of law, both domestically and internationally, is fundamental if Russia genuinely wants to halt economic decline and achieve prosperity in the future, argues Andrey Movchan from the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"Once one sector collapses, it could lead to a domino effect, leaving 5 to 10 million people unemployed. Neither the government nor the private sector has anything to offer these laid-off people if this contraction takes place." Photo: RIA Novosti 

This is the abridged version of the analysis that first appeared at the website of Carnegie Moscow Center. The article has been edited and condensed by Russia Direct’s editorial team. Read the original article here.

Russia faces bleak economic prospects for the next few years. It may be a case of managed decline in which the government appeases social and political demands by tapping the big reserves it accumulated during the boom years with oil and gas exports. But there is also a smaller possibility of a more serious economic breakdown or collapse. A proper analysis requires consideration of a number of key and often overlooked features of Russia’s post-Soviet economy.

Misleading indicators

Any quantitative analysis of the state of Russia’s economy is limited by the unreliability of measurement methods and the accuracy of available data. Pre-1991 economic indicators are hardly any use as statistical methods employed in that era were completely different from modern ones. They measured an artificially valued currency and operated within a price-controlled economy. Statistics did improve after 1991, but there are still serious question marks about their validity.

An additional complication is the problem of how much Russia’s large shadow economy contributes to its gross domestic product (GDP). Shadow business comprised 10 percent of the Russian economy in 2013-2014 — a significant drop from the 1990s, when, according to some estimates, unofficial businesses actually outnumbered officially registered ones. It is far from clear, however, how official statistics measure numbers for the shadow sector.

Secrecy is another factor. It is difficult to give accurate figures on Russia’s budget spending when more than 30 percent of it is classified as secret. It is generally believed that the classified items in the budget are used to finance the military-industrial complex and security agencies, but there is indirect evidence suggesting that these funds have many other uses as well. They may range from financing the “friends of Russia” abroad to closing gaps in the balances of state controlled companies and allowing top officials to make personal purchases.

Russia’s economy after 2000

In the last fifteen to sixteen years, the Russian economy has undergone a classic resource cycle and Dutch disease caused by a big influx of oil and gas revenues.

Russia’s political system, lacking strong checks and balances, exacerbated these economic distortions. By the time Russian President Vladimir Putin took power in 2000, the majority of key assets were owned either by the state or by a small group of private individuals, who had obtained these assets from the state in return for political loyalty. After the constitutional crisis and violence of 1993, the president and Kremlin administration had appropriated almost all power to themselves. Parliament played an advisory role at best, while parliamentary parties swore loyalty to the president in exchange for economic rewards.

At the same time, the ruling regime aimed and succeeded at gaining back full control of the oil exploration and trading business, after it arrested the rebellious oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003, nationalized his Yukos oil company, and ensured all other oligarchs got the message and would obey. The regime gradually consolidated its indirect control over the hydrocarbon industry and banking, and, by extension, over the country’s entire economic sphere.

By 2008, 65 to 70 percent of the Russian budget effectively either directly or indirectly consisted of hydrocarbon export revenues. The massive influx of petrodollars into the Russian economy also led to a strong overvaluation of the ruble. In 2006–2007, its real exchange rate exceeded the inflation-adjusted rate by over 35 percent.

A Ministry of Finance report suggests that foreign trade accounted for 38 percent of budget revenues in 2014.Only up to 8 percent of this came from non-natural-resource exports, with hydrocarbon exports accounting directly for 35.4 percent of the federal budget. When one takes into account natural resource-related taxes, fees and payments (20 percent), as well as value-added tax (VAT) paid on imported goods — which are primarily bought with petrodollars (17 percent) and custom duties and excises on imports (13 percent) — the overall contribution of oil and gas in the federal budget appears to be much higher and comprises at least 83.4 percent of the total.

That is not even the end of it. Businesses involved in oil-and-gas production pay taxes on their revenues, and so do workers employed in this sector. Forty percent of individual income taxes are collected from federal and public-sector employees. So it’s not surprising that oil prices and federal budget revenues correlate with over 98 percent accuracy. Nowadays, as Russia faces a decline in oil prices, it has an undiversified and quasi-monopolized economy that lacks the capability and resources for growth.

The impact of external factors

Since the Ukraine crisis blew up in 2014, Russia has been subject to economic sanctions from the United States and a few other countries, as well as the EU. It has responded by launching counter-sanctions against the same countries. Although this is a major political topic, its significance for the Russian economy is almost certainly exaggerated — at least in the short term.

Western sanctions effectively prohibit a limited number of Russian commercial organizations from borrowing in international markets. They also prohibit Russian businesses from owning assets in several countries and block a small group of Russians to enter them. Finally, the sanctions forbid the transfer to Russia of a limited list of technologies, mainly connected with mining and the military.

Restrictions on borrowing can only have a limited impact on a country that has been consistently reducing its external debt for several years now — and besides, the list of entities affected by the ban is quite short. If financial sanctions are expanded to include more borrowers (or the state itself), they will have a devastating effect on the Russian economy in three to five years’ time, when the country’s capital reserves are exhausted and it is forced to borrow large sums. But for now, sanctions are limited in scope. Meanwhile, restrictions on technology transfers will have a negative impact on the Russian economy in the long run.

Also read the interview with Kendrick White: "Can Russia's economy finally turn the corner in 2017?"

Perhaps the greatest harm being inflicted on the Russian economy by the political row with the West comes from Russia’s unpredictable, inconsistent, and hostile behavior toward international economic institutions. As a result of efficient lobbying efforts from domestic companies, there have been several attempts to make the country autonomous in spheres such as telecommunications, payment and transportation systems, IT, and navigation. Domestically produced alternatives are generally inferior and costly for the budget and end-use customers. This policy did not result in making a few businessmen close to the Kremlin much richer. Its end result is that Russia’s national security is threatened not from abroad but from the home front.

In 2017, the trend continues

The year 2016 surprised even seasoned experts on the Russian economy. Sharp variations in the oil price from below $30 a barrel to $50 a barrel did not greatly alter the country’s economic indicators, except for the ruble exchange rate. Despite consistent declines in both oil and non-oil exports, the foreign trade balance remained on the plus side, and the year-end balance is expected to be over $80 billion. In 2016, the economy continued a slow, gradual contraction, but without any major upheavals.

Not much is likely to change for the Russian economy in 2017. The commodities market promises to be more stable. Conservative forecasts predict oil price fluctuations between $40 and $60 a barrel, which will ensure sufficient stability for the budget. One of the major risks in the coming year will be the return of pent-up demand to consumer and industrial markets. In 2014 and 2015, a combination of negative expectations and declining personal incomes made consumers substantially reduce their purchases of durable goods.

One can expect a gradual and gentle decline in all Russia’s economic indicators in 2017. Inflation will probably be higher than the government projection of 4 percent, but it is not likely to exceed 6–7 percent due to the depressed state of the economy. The strength of its reserves and relatively high oil prices will allow the Russian government to maintain a strict monetary policy. As before, the dollar exchange rate will track oil prices and inflation.

But GDP will continue to stagnate or even fall because of the absence of growth drivers and declining entrepreneurial activity. Modest budget subsidies cannot really replace private-sector investments, which are likely to decline 10–20 percent more. Long-term investment, including capital construction, is headed for a steeper decline. According to some estimates, capital and especially housing construction may decrease in 2017 by as much as 50 percent, compared to 2014.

As in 2016, Russia’s budget deficit will be manageable. The government believes that it will not exceed 3 percent of GDP thanks to “additional budget revenues,” mostly from privatization of the state companies. Most likely, the deficit will be around 4 percent of GDP ($50 billion), and this will be covered by reserves. However, the government has discussed its plans to start active domestic borrowing, so we will see how the market assesses debt risks and costs in 2017.

Russia’s budget — resilient, but for how long?

The Russian economy is contracting and gradually losing its global competitive edge, even in the sectors in which it can still create competitive products. Lately it has developed a serious monetary imbalance. The country has run budget deficits for the past three years. Yet the problems of the state budget, which previously derived almost all its revenues from natural resources and was over-inflated during the years of high oil prices, seem neither catastrophic not insoluble.

In the near term, the budget deficit can be covered by additional taxes on the oil-and-gas industry, as well as by using remaining government reserves, state borrowing of various forms, and cutting budget spending in a number of areas in defiance of lobbyists, including the untouchable defense and security sectors.

The state will be able to maintain an initial budget deficit of approximately 3 trillion rubles ($50 billion, 4 percent of GDP per year) for three to four years. Domestic debt increases at the rate of 1.5–2 trillion rubles per year will not burden the budget with excessive interest charges for at least five to six years. The rest of the deficit can be covered by the Reserve Fund and the liquid part of the National Wealth Fund. These funds will last for less than three years, and from about 2020 the government will have to replenish them through a combination of budget cuts, tax hikes, and currency emission by the Central Bank.

It is hard to forecast how long the current budget construction will endure. If oil prices start rising again, every $10 price increase will add $20–$40 billion to the budget. In other words, oil prices of $65–$70 a barrel will virtually eliminate the budget deficit for the time being. Likewise, an oil price of $30–$35 a barrel would seriously exacerbate the deficit problem and could trigger a serious budget crisis as early as 2019–2020.

In any event, Russia will have to completely review its current model of budget spending. This can basically be done in two ways. The government could somewhat reduce social welfare spending, drastically reduce defense spending, and attempt to return to its former status of being a client on the global stage by opening its markets again, asking for loans, and asking for International Monetary Fund assistance. Alternatively, it could opt to drastically reduce social spending, maintain the current level of defense and security spending, and drift toward complete economic and political isolation.

At the moment, the Kremlin looks much more likely to adopt the second option which will allow it to keep political control for some time. However, the government’s draft budget in 2016 for the next three years did not make any attempt to lower social spending.That is a good sign, showing that the Kremlin is afraid of a public reaction and maybe will force major budget consumers in the defense, industrial, and bureaucratic lobbies to agree on a reasonable reduction in their shares of the pie.

Economic black swans

Although most indicators promise a soft landing for the Russian economy and several calm years ahead, one cannot rule out some extreme scenarios or black swan events, which could potentially lead to economic breakdown in Russia, the loss of control over the ruble, a devastating decline in budget revenues, big shortages of goods, and destitution for a large percentage of Russia’s population.

This economic shock could in turn trigger new disasters: a sharp increase in crime rates, greater autonomy for most donor and dependent regions (the former will no longer want to share their wealth, while the latter will look for ways to survive without federal government subsidies), active and perhaps even successful attempts by some regions to secede from Russia, local armed conflicts (primarily in the North Caucasus), and perhaps attempted coup d’états.

These events will be followed by a long period of political instability and possibly even the breakup of the country, as happened with the Soviet Union but with even greater bloodshed. No one event could trigger this catastrophic chain of events in the next few years. But, a combination of two to three factors could indeed set them off.

 Also read: "Why the Russian economic crisis is far from over"

First, it could be a major banking crisis that is not efficiently neutralized by government subsidies and capital injections.

Second, economic havoc could be caused by the disruptions at a large number of infrastructure facilities due to amortization or interruptions in energy supplies. This scenario looks more plausible if authorities move forward with reductions in overall budget allocations and suspend investment in modern technology.

Third, a sharp decline in hydrocarbon production, combined with continued low global energy prices, also poses a threat. It is even possible that outputs will start falling significantly in three to four years, and Russia’s lack of advanced exploration technology (partly due to sanctions) will keep them low. Venezuela is a good example here. The country has lost two-thirds of its possible output and is already buying oil from overseas. The unlikely but possible scenario of an EU embargo against Russian oil-and-gas exports could have a similar effect.

Fourth, crises in major industries could also be destabilizing. As purchasing power in Russia falls over the next few years, the demand for goods and services — particularly durable ones — will fall significantly. As a result, an entire range of industries will be under threat, from the personal care sector to the construction industry. At a worst-case scenario, one can assume that it will contract sharply, causing 1 million people to lose their jobs. Banking, shipping, tourism, hotels and restaurants, and import retail are also vulnerable. Crucially, once one sector collapses, it could lead to a domino effect, leaving 5 to 10 million people unemployed. Neither the government nor the private sector has anything to offer these laid-off people if this contraction takes place.

Fifth, internal elite conflicts are unlikely but possible. They are unlikely because the interests of various groups are well defined and all the key players understand that keeping the peace is in everyone’s best interests. Even if elite infighting does not erupt into all-out war, it might have a significant destabilizing effect on the economy. Stable and well-organized elites could face the same situation if a key person who balances differing interests becomes dysfunctional or is eliminated. Only one person now plays this role in Russia, and while the chances of him suddenly becoming dysfunctional are low, the possibility exists.

Finally, Russia lacks strong governmental institutions, political competition, and a system of critical decision analysis. Propaganda distorts public opinion and distracts it with false agendas. In this context, there is a very high risk of very costly, irreversible, and irrational decisions being made that will drastically change the situation. It is hard to predict what kind of decision this would be. The government could decide to impose crippling tax burdens on businesses, which would result in a catastrophic decline in business activity. It could escalate or initiate new military or hybrid operations that undermine the economy or draw a new round of much tougher sanctions. It could introduce new harsh price, currency, capital controls.

How to institute effective reforms

The Russian economy currently suffers from two fundamental problems: excessive regulation and high risks that discourage doing business. Present-day Russia with declining demand, a shrinking workforce, and a lack of resources does not have sectors where excessive profits can be made—with the exception of criminal activities, corruption schemes, and state-related and/or state-subsidized businesses (which are often a combination of the former two).

Russia is tightly insulated from international cooperation and has a fairly small population (2 percent of the world’s) for such an insulated market, which is not big enough to compete in prices and quality on the global market. Russia is a country of quasi-monopolist conglomerates that provide essential services like energy and transportation to businesses at inflated prices. Russia is greatly dependent on imports, meaning that its companies buy supplies at high prices and are taxed at high rates.

Also read: "What can Russia offer foreign investors during a time of crisis?"

That means that the only way to increase the country’s economic potential under these circumstances is to reduce risks. Certain basic risks have to be addressed for Russia to get back on the path to prosperity. The first risk relates to property rights, which are little respected in today’s Russia (even the mayor of Moscow condescendingly refers to certificates of ownership as “fraudulent papers”). There is also a high risk factor and uncertainty in the application of local legislation, both in disputes between businesses and the state and in disagreements between businesses themselves.

However, Russia could minimize risks in the pursuit of economic growth. It needs a comprehensive change of legislation directed at protecting investors’ and entrepreneurs’ rights. It has to guarantee the primacy of international law and courts, presumption of innocence of businessmen in cases where the government plays a plaintiff role. All these changes would lower the risks for investors and entrepreneurs and transform the country’s current feudal and corrupt legal system into one based on the rule of law.

Finally, a very important way of reducing risk is to strengthen the body of legislation that protects investors and entrepreneurs from adverse legislative changes and government acts, both those that conform to government legislation and illegal acts. This legislative ambiguity has caused business losses or missed opportunities, in cases when businesses were started or managed with a reasonable belief that things would be otherwise. This has an international dimension: it is important that the Russian government in no way impedes class-action lawsuits and other cases in international courts.

A strong new commitment to the rule of law, both domestically and internationally, is fundamental if Russia genuinely wants to halt economic decline and achieve prosperity in the future.

This is the abridged version of the analysis that first appeared at the website of Carnegie Moscow Center. The article has been edited and condensed by Russia Direct’s editorial team. More about Russia's economic challenges read here.

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Making sense of Putin's visit to Hungary https://russia-direct.org/analysis/making-sense-putins-visit-hungary
Danielle Ryan

Russian President Vladimir Putin has seen Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban as a useful partner within the EU and finds himself in a better position now than he did when he was last in Budapest two years ago. The geopolitical cookie has crumbled in his favor, at least for now.

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Tue, 07 Feb 2017 18:48:06 +0000 5422 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/making-sense-putins-visit-hungary#comments Making sense of Putin's visit to Hungary

Russian President Vladimir Putin has seen Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban as a useful partner within the EU and finds himself in a better position now than he did when he was last in Budapest two years ago

Russian President Vladimir Putin has seen Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban as a useful partner within the EU and finds himself in a better position now than he did when he was last in Budapest two years ago. The geopolitical cookie has crumbled in his favor, at least for now.

Pictured: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban before the negotiations. Photo: Kremlin.ru

It’s not often that Russian President Vladimir Putin is welcomed onto EU soil with open arms and warm gestures, but that was the case with his flying visit last week to the Hungarian capital to talk trade, sanctions and energy. Putin was received in Budapest by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban who he has cultivated a strong relationship with since the latter returned to power in 2014. The two leaders were meeting for the third time in three years.

Orban has taken a starkly different approach to Russia than his European counterparts. He has repeatedly criticized economic sanctions placed on Russia over the civil war in Ukraine and reintegration of Crimea and publicly denounced the United States for putting “great pressure” on Hungary over its energy deals and relations with Moscow. He has taken reprimands from Brussels over his "pro-Putin" stances, but hasn’t changed tack.

On Thursday he condemned what he calls “anti-Russian politics” in Western Europe and expressed hope for improved relations. Just ahead of Putin’s visit, a new monument was unveiled on the burial site of Russian soldiers from the two World Wars. This also stands in contrast to other central and Eastern European nations that have been tearing down monuments that tie their history to Russia’s, not erecting them.

Putin has seen Orban as a useful partner within the EU and finds himself in a better position now than he did when he was last in Budapest two years ago. The geopolitical cookie has crumbled in his favor, at least for now. Russia has managed to weather sanctions and conduct a relatively successful military campaign in Syria, shifting the balance to become a major power broker in the conflict and in the wider region.

What’s more, Putin’s many Western opponents are preoccupied with so many of their own problems, that he no longer appears to be their top priority or target for ire. The visit came as Brussels tries to come to terms with a Donald Trump presidency in the U.S. — while at the same time faces worries about the UK’s "Brexit" plan and the rise of what some might call Trump-like figures within major EU nations.

During a joint press conference after talks in the Hungarian parliament, Orban criticized economic sanctions on Russia, arguing that non-economic problems “cannot be solved” with economic means. “Everyone stands to lose from such solutions,” he said.

Also read: "Hungary negotiates its migration problem with the EU, not with Russia"

Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto told Kommersant recently that his country had lost $6.5 billion in trade with Russia due to sanctions. Meanwhile, Orban also told reporters he was hoping for “open and transparent” relations with Russia. In other words, he’s looking to conduct relations with Moscow without having to worry about interference or pressure from Brussels and Washington.

With Trump now in the White House, Orban seems to believe he’ll get his wish. As with Russia, Trump has also promised improved relations with Hungary. Both leaders have expressed admiration for one another. Trump was particularly impressed with Orban’s controversial stance on Europe’s migrant crisis. He has already suggested that the Hungarian prime minister visit him in Washington.

To a “certain extent” it is true that Orban may face less pressure from the U.S. now that Trump is president, according to András Deák, senior research fellow at Institute of World Economics at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

“The Hungarian cabinet can go further without being retaliated. Merkel seems to be the only constraint in the current situation, and she is less threatening,” Deák said.

According to Dániel Bartha, the executive director of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy (CEID), the Hungarian government “miscalculates” the effect Trump’s presidency can have on Hungary mainly because the U.S. relationship with Russia isn’t likely to change all that much. While Trump might want a détente, the same can’t automatically be said for Congress, the Department of Defense or State Department.

This will be especially true, Bartha says, if Hungary decides to increase its industrial cooperation with Russia, procuring helicopters from Russian defense companies rather than procuring them from the U.S., for example.

“If cooperation like this happens, this is where Orban’s government can expect the most criticism [from the U.S.],” Bartha says.

Many analysts argue that Putin has deliberately fostered the relationship with Orban, using him cleverly to sow division within the EU, with the hopes that it could lead to the removal of sanctions. But despite Orban’s rhetoric, each time Hungary has had the chance to vote against the EU’s sanctions, it has instead voted to keep them in place.

“Orban plays more than two sides," Deák said. "He would like to collect all benefits from non-Western relations, even at the expense of Western relations. But if there are certain disincentives on the road, potential punishments from the U.S., Germany, EU, he will stop. Until now he has not crossed any red lines.”

If indeed less pressure does come from Washington under Trump, it could also encourage other sanctions-skeptic EU nations to speak up on the issue. With loud criticism Orban could encourage other countries to join him against sanctions, but, Bartha says, Hungary will likely maintain its support of them as long as Washington does.

Energy was another focus of the talks. Two years ago, Hungary cut off gas supplies to Ukraine after Russia threatened to cut off countries re-exporting to Kiev. Hungary, which receives 85 percent of its gas from Russia could not risk losing its own supplies.

Russia is hugely involved in Hungary’s energy projects and the leaders said they had discussed gas supply contracts to 2021 and beyond.

Recommended: "Russia's new 'Trojan horse' strategy for breaking European unity"

They also discussed a controversial $12.5 billion nuclear energy deal, Paks II, which has faced regulatory probes from the European Commission. The project is 80 percent financed by Russia. Putin and Orban confirmed construction on the reactors would begin in 2018 with much work on the project being conducted by Russian scientists.

Orban critics cite efforts to reign in independent media and curb judicial powers to argue that the prime minister is learning illiberal policies from Putin. Now Trump’s own war against the media in the U.S. may embolden Orban further.

One small opposition party, Együtt (‘Together’), organized a protest to express their concerns over Putin’s visit. About 500 people gathered on a corner near the Hungarian parliament as Putin prepared to leave.

While protesters may be louder and more inclined to take to the streets, the most recent polls have shown that in fact 75 percent of Hungarians favor pragmatic and good relations with Russia. The polls also show that Putin is seen generally more favorably than Trump or Germany’s Angela Merkel.

Együtt’s protest was more an opportunity to gain some media attention than a reflection of the general feeling in Hungary, according to Pál Tamás, a sociologist and expert on Hungary-Russia relations at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Nonetheless, Tamás said, “historical phobias are deep” and most Hungarians have a “very uncertain feeling towards Russia’s presence in the national history”. Feelings towards Russia, he said, are “very emotional” and not pragmatic in the way they are where the economic relationship is concerned.

Orban sees Hungary as having the ability to be a bridge between Russia and the EU, but given the rapidly changing global political landscape, we can’t say for sure that it will even need to be. With important elections coming up in the Netherlands, France and Germany this year, it’s impossible to tell what the EU could look like just a few years from now.

More than anything, the Russia-Hungary relationship is one of mutual convenience for two leaders that see themselves as pragmatic above all else. But Washington still holds many of the cards.

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Donald Trump's plans for Russia, French elections and the Syrian crisis https://russia-direct.org/analysis/donald-trumps-plans-russia-french-elections-and-syrian-crisis
Anastasia Borik

Think tank review: Top Russian experts continue to look for clues as to Donald Trump’s future foreign policy moves. In addition, they began turning their attention to the 2017 French presidential elections.

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Mon, 06 Feb 2017 18:40:20 +0000 5420 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/donald-trumps-plans-russia-french-elections-and-syrian-crisis#comments Donald Trump's plans for Russia, French elections and the Syrian crisis

Think tank review: Top Russian experts continue to look for clues as to Donald Trump’s future foreign policy moves. In addition, they began turning their attention to the 2017 French presidential elections

Think tank review: Top Russian experts continue to look for clues as to Donald Trump’s future foreign policy moves. In addition, they began turning their attention to the 2017 French presidential elections.

U.S. President Donald Trump talking to a FOX journalist. Photo: Donald Trump's official Facebook page 

In January, Russian think tanks primarily focused on the moves of new U.S. President Donald Trump and the future of U.S.-Russia relations. In addition, Russian experts paid a lot of attention to France’s 2017 presidential campaign and the ongoing civil war in Syria, especially a new round of peace talks in Kazakhstan that involved both the Syrian government and the opposition.

Trump and U.S.-Russia relations

When Republican Donald Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, his personality immediately became the most discussed event within the Russian expert community. Pundits are unanimous that the next four years in the Oval Office won’t be easy for the new president, with the future of U.S.-Russia relations still in limbo despite Trump’s friendly attitude toward Russia.  

Ivan Timofeev, the program director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), argues that there is no reason to believe that U.S.-Russia relations will improve in the short term. Moreover, in a worst-case scenario, the confrontation might actually intensify under Trump.

However, there is still a glimmer of hope for alleviating the tensions, according to Timofeev. While the previous presidential administration of the United States was very critical of the Kremlin, the current one sees Russian President Vladimir Putin as a partner, at least within the anti-terrorism coalition. And this is a good sign to overcome the crisis in bilateral relations, Timofeev concludes.  

Also read: "Steve Bannon, the Grey Cardinal in the White House: Good or bad for Russia?"

Meanwhile, Georgy Bovt, an expert from the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), gives his take on the composition of the Trump cabinet. He is hesitant to give any forecasts about the future foreign policy of the new presidential administration, because there is no unanimity within it. In fact, the heads of different U.S. government departments and agencies appear to be divided in their approaches toward China, Russia, the Middle East, the future of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other questions. The only forecast Bovt gives is this: There won’t be anything boring about Trump’s presidency.   

At the same time, Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin describes the U.S. under Trump as “an unpredictable state.” In fact, Trump’s populist “America First” ideology is not compatible with the American idea about its exceptionality and global leadership, which inevitable will change Washington’s foreign policy strategy and the entire geopolitical environment. Trenin argues that it is too early to say about the decline of U.S. global leadership. Instead, the U.S. will just change its global role; but, according to the expert, it is impossible to predict how this role will be modified.    

In contrast, Elena Ponomaryova, an expert from the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University), says that speculative comments about Trump’s unpredictability are exaggerated. Although the flamboyant president is indeed facing a stiff challenge ahead with some representatives of the political elites, some establishment officials actually support him.

And those who comprise the environment around Trump have certain interests and plans in domestic and foreign policy.  At the same time, Trump’s victory won’t automatically translate into the improvement of U.S.-Russia relations. The path will be tough, with Moscow having to play “a crafty and multifaceted game” with  the “tough negotiator Trump,”  Ponomaryova concludes.

The 2017 presidential campaign in France

Russia sees France as an important European partner, yet bilateral relations between the countries are in steep decline. The standoff was impossible to overcome under current French President Francois Hollande. That’s why Russian pundits are keeping a close eye on the 2017 French presidential campaign: Moscow pins its hopes on a new French president to find common ground with the Kremlin.

Alexei Chikhachev, an expert from RIAC, argues that the current presidential race is difficult to predict. However, no matter who will win the election this May, the country’s foreign policy might be the same in general, because it is not uncommon for France’s political culture to respect and take into account the foreign policy course of its predecessors, according to the pundit.

Also read: "France is closer to the election of the pro-Russian president"

Meanwhile, Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center looks at the French election in the context of the increasing terrorist threat facing the country. Social instability, the influx of refugees and security challenges create opportunities for right-wing populists. From a political perspective, the Kremlin may favor their victory.

Kolesnikov argues that the populists represented by the National Front’s Marine Le Pen have a high probability of being elected after Brexit and Trump’s presidency both became a reality (initially, nobody believed either could be possible). And, indeed, on Feb. 5, Marine Le Pen suggested in a speech to her supporters that France under her leadership could contemplate its own exit from the EU.

The average French voter easily understands Le Pen’s program and might follow this program after the experience of multiple terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice: Such voters are afraid of external extremists to a greater extent than internal ones. However, it is too early to predict Le Pen’s victory, because the candidates from liberal and democratic camp have many chances to be elected. 

The Syrian peace talks in Kazakhstan

In late January, peace talks between the representatives of the Syrian opposition and government took place in Astana, Kazakhstan. The negotiations were conducted within the Geneva peace process, with the active involvement of Iran, Russia and Turkey. Russian experts describe the Astana talks as important, but still express skepticism — a lot needs to be done to reach a breakthrough to end the civil war in Syria. 

CFDP head Fyodor Lukyanov highlights that the negotiations were conducted in a new format, which was hard to imagine several months ago. And it is not only a matter of the opposition and the government starting to negotiate directly. It is also a matter of involving new stakeholders — Russia, Iran and Turkey replaced the U.S. and the EU, with new hopes to influence the sides of the Syrian conflict.

However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are ignoring the Geneva format — the Astana talks just create another opportunity to reach a coherent and binding agreement, because all those involved in the negotiations are pragmatic and seek to reach peace in Syria. This could allow them to forget about their difference and work hard toward a common goal.

At the same time, Alexander Aksenenok, a former diplomat and an expert at RIAC, believes that the expert community placed unrealistically high hopes on the Astana negotiations. However, the talks didn’t meet these expectations. The stakeholders just outlined the additional challenges and problems and revealed even more differences within the Syrian opposition, which is disunited. During the Astana talks, Russia and Turkey tried to play the key role and apply pressure on Damascus – an approach that didn’t quite satisfy Syria and Iran. Thus, the key result of the negotiations is the very fact that they happened within a new format.

Also read: "Will the new round of Syria talks in Kazakhstan lead to anything different?"

Meanwhile, Nikolai Kozhanov, an expert at Carnegie Moscow Center, points out that the Astana talks failed to reach any tangible results. However, the good sign is that during these negotiations, the terrorist organizations — the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and Al-Nusra — were clearly labeled by both the Syrian opposition and official Damascus as pariah organizations. Most importantly, the Astana talks produced an important publicity effect for the organizers: Russia, Iran and Turkey strengthened their positions as the facilitators of the peace process in Syria.

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Will Trump and Putin be able to cooperate in the Middle East? https://russia-direct.org/opinion/will-trump-and-putin-be-able-cooperate-middle-east
Rich Berdan

Both Russia and the U.S. might gain if they see eye-to-eye in the Middle East. However, there are no guarantees that they will.

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Mon, 06 Feb 2017 17:46:42 +0000 5416 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/will-trump-and-putin-be-able-cooperate-middle-east#comments Will Trump and Putin be able to cooperate in the Middle East?

Both Russia and the U.S. might gain if they see eye-to-eye in the Middle East. However, there are no guarantees that they will

Both Russia and the U.S. might gain if they see eye-to-eye in the Middle East. However, there are no guarantees that they will.

Syrian Army soldiers and military equipment seen near a main highway interchange in the area of Ramouseh district in the southwest of Aleppo, Syria. Photo: RIA Novosti

This is the abridged version of the article that first appeared at the website of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). The article was edited and adjusted to Russia Direct’s editorial standards. Read the original article here.

It is clear in the early weeks of Donald Trump's presidency that it is no longer political business as usual. The approach will not and cannot be the same course as past endeavors to peace. Rather, it will add up to a hybrid all-inclusive regional methods from a position of coordinated Russian-American strength.

The Middle East players will quickly discover the Trump-Putin era brings forth new processes that are far different from the one of the previous presidential administration of the U.S. The Russians now hold a strategic foothold as the main power broker in Syria following a win against the opposition rebels. The absence of a solid U.S. foreign policy doctrine as a counterbalance to the Russian offensive strategy diminished the fear of American military reprisal and was understood as a sign of weakness to the Putin-type bravado leaders who only respond to those who project positions of strength.

Also read: "What threats will Russia and the world face in 2017?"

Trump has indicated during his campaign and after becoming President that he hopes to get along with Russia, stating “that would be a good thing for America.” Trump’s praise for Putin’s operational skills as he marched towards his election victory was a political win for the Russian President as well.

Likewise, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has expressed the desire to normalize relations with the U.S. "Following the difficult relations we had under Barack Obama, President Putin is ready to meet in the interests of global security and stability. We share the position expressed by President Trump for re-establishing normal relations. This means we need to work in a business-like way," he said.

Business-like is Trump’s language in setting up the art of the deal. Russia and the U.S., while at odds in the balance of global power, now have an opportunity to move the world forward in the Middle East on a common thread of mutual respect and beneficial national security. In short, they can eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and the Gretaer Syria (ISIS) and place the debacle in Syria, the attachment of Crimea, and the removal of economic sanctions on Russia in the rear-view mirror. There will be some give and take here but in the end, Trump will have built trust with Putin that allows them to move past these achievements or bygones and onto the next stage in the Middle East process.

Specifically, America might exert pressure on Saudi Arabia, with Putin grinding the corners in Iran. If the world cannot get past these two entities finding common ground like Russia and U.S., then any Middle East peace effort will not filter downward and throughout the Arab world. They need to understand their well-being and stability hinges on getting behind the plan.

Also read: "Will the new round of Syria talks in Kazakhstan lead to anything different?"

In the business-like matter, these side-bar discussions are much the same as senior executives of major corporations and multiple labor union presidents negotiating a contract. One must understand that the parties will each take back the positives and benefits in the contract that demonstrates they are working on behalf of their constituents trying to reach a deal that all can live with. The outlining countries or benefactors of the regional powers will look for gains as well. For the most part, they will fall in line.

Syria and Iraq, which may have postured in the past, are in no position to create demands other than surviving as a country. The Gulf States simply fall in line to preserve their well-being. Iran will be the hardest nut to crack. If Russia walks away with a less threatening NATO, the removal of sanctions over Ukraine and increased oil revenues, Putin may just figure it all out.

The one question for Trump will be whether he can persuade Russia to turn away from Iran and cooperate with U.S. policy to counter Iranian aggression in the region. It is important to determine what the limits of Russia’s willingness to work together regarding Iran are. Those conversations must take place. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is known to have gained much respect from Putin through his days with Exxon, will be the man to lead such a discussion.

Putin must decide if he really seeks to become an ideal partner in defeating radical Islam, then Iran must be defeated in its current state that permits sponsored terrorism and a roadmap to a nuclear weapon that is as much a threat to Moscow as a hemisphere away in Washington.

Recommended: "Why the loss of Palmyra should worry Russia"

Just as Barack Obama’s Russian playbook scrapped the missile defense deployment in Eastern Europe in hopes of greater Russian cooperation on Iran’s nuclear program, it is now Trump showcasing a new playbook that offers a great deal in return for in as much as reversal to Obama’s American foreign policy on Iran.

There may be too much on the table for Russia to walk away but it might also be too much for Trump to venture against Putin who could stick it to Trump as he did to Obama. That said, Trump must champion American fortitude in the resurgence of America’s military might and a willingness to use it without equivocation.

What assurances does America have that Russia will cooperate? None. But what does the U.S. lose that it hasn’t already lost? Crimea, Syria, Iran’s nuclear track and influence in the Middle East. What does America have to gain? Resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a mitigated Iranian nuclear threat and a turning point where the world moves on to the next era in civilization.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

This is the abridged version of the article that first appeared at the website of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). The article was edited and adjusted to Russia Direct’s editorial standards. Read the original article here.

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Steve Bannon, the Grey Cardinal in the White House: Good or bad for Russia? https://russia-direct.org/opinion/steve-bannon-grey-cardinal-white-house-good-or-bad-russia
Michael McFaul

The ideas and power of President Donald Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon might be good for Russian government interests in the short run, but complicated if not downright detrimental in the long run.

 

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Sat, 04 Feb 2017 22:26:31 +0000 5412 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/steve-bannon-grey-cardinal-white-house-good-or-bad-russia#comments Steve Bannon, the Grey Cardinal in the White House: Good or bad for Russia?

The ideas and power of President Donald Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon might be good for Russian government interests in the short run, but complicated if not downright detrimental in the long run

The ideas and power of President Donald Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon might be good for Russian government interests in the short run, but complicated if not downright detrimental in the long run.

 

Steve Bannon (pictured right) sees ideological affinities with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as other Russian nationalists outside of the government. Photo: Donald Trump's Official Facebook page  

This article is revised and updated version of a blogpost that originally appeared on the Echo of Moscow website in Russian. Russia Direct republishes the article with the permission of Michael McFaul and Echo of Moscow. You can find the Russian version here.

Six months ago, most Americans and almost no one else in the world had ever even heard of the name Steve Bannon. Today, he is one of the most powerful men in the world. Mr. Bannon has the ideological convictions and now the power to carry out tremendous changes in America and the world. His ideas and power might be good for Russian government interests in the short run, but complicated if not downright detrimental in the long run.

We don't need to guess at what Bannon believes or desires. The former publisher of Breitbart News has been very open about the positions he supports. Many Russian analysts oversimplify the divide in American political life as between Republican “pragmatists” and Democratic “idealists.”  But Bannon is different. As many establishment Republicans have pointed out, his ideas have little to do with Republican Party traditions. He threatens Republican Party officialdom and ideas. Bannon frequently espouses nationalist ideas, shaded heavily with ethnic tones. In response to charges of racism, Bannon said, "I'm not a white nationalist, I'm a nationalist. I'm an economic nationalist." But earlier statements, as well as many articles published by his website, contain ethnic nationalist and not purely civic nationalist themes.

Bannon and his allies call their ideology “alt-right,” a phrase to distinguish their brand of conservative nationalism from more traditional right-of-center ideas. He believes that America needs to battle ethnic challenges, first and foremost from Muslims, both outside of the United States and even from within. He told USA Today that Muslims in the U.S. have formed a “fifth column” of Islamic sympathizers now allegedly growing in power within the American government and press. He frames the ideological struggle between the American nation and its enemies in stark, Manichean terms. He also fears another non-Christian, non-European nation — the Chinese.

Recommended: "Russia is still wary of Trump's turbulent presidency"

In addition, Bannon does not seek to restore conservatism, but rather wants to overthrow the existing regime, and create, in his words, “a new political order.” He has spoken fondly about communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. As he said in November 2013, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too … I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Bannon now sits just a few doors down from the Oval office. On January 31, 2017, The New York Times editorial board titled their analysis of his mercurial rise “President Bannon?Time magazine put Bannon on its cover, asking in the accompanying story  “Is Steve Bannon the Second Most Powerful Man in the World?” His rise to power within the Trump inner circle is striking. Bannon’s ideological influence was crystal clear in Trump’s inaugural speech, which had almost nothing in common with the ideas of George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan. The so-called “Muslim ban” also was a Bannon idea, executed as a presidential decree without consulting other newly appointed cabinet officials.

And those watching Trump’s inner circle — “ White House-ologists” — will note that Bannon attended the luncheon with Prime Minister Theresa May, while National Security Advisor Michael Flynn did not. When Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bannon was listening in, sitting in the Oval office. Most amazingly, Trump named Bannon as a member of the National Security Council (NSC), while at the same time downgrading the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as participants in NSC meetings with the president to only when their expertise is needed.  (This is the rough equivalent of Putin naming someone like Alexander Dugin to his Security Council while telling General Alexander Bortnikov, the director of FSB, and General Valery Gerasimov, the current chief of the General Staff of Russia's Armed Forces, that they need only show up when needed.)

In English, we have a saying, “If there’s a will there’s a way.”  Bannon has a strong will; and now sitting in the West Wing, he has a way.

Also read: "Russia braces itself for a Trump presidency"

In the short run, Bannon’s ascent to power might benefit the Kremlin. The internal conflict, chaos and disunity that his ideas have already sparked within American society undermines our role in the world. We are divided, distracted, and inward looking. Putin benefits from a weaker American international presence.

Second, Bannon seeks to support like-minded anti-systematic nationalists in Europe. His English friends already won a major victory with the Brexit referendum vote. If his ideological allies win upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany, European institutions such as the European Union and NATO will be weakened. That's good for the Kremlin as well. The alt-right’s intense disdain for German Chancellor Angela Merkel is particularly striking. That helps Putin and hurts American national interests.

Third, Bannon sees ideological affinities with Putin, as well as other Russian nationalists outside of the government. As Bannon reflected in 2014,  “[W]e the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he’s [Putin] talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism — and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing.” For those espousing alt-right ideas, Putin is revered as a world leader and is celebrated as the anchor of the “illiberal international.” You have to go back to the 1970s to remember a time when the Kremlin enjoyed such worldwide ideological appeal.

In the long run, however, Bannon and his brand of nationalism could pose problems for Putin and Russian national interests.

First, an unpredictable, ideological, anti-status-quo Trump administration could make the United States a difficult partner for Russia on global affairs, and maybe even a reckless actor abroad. Historically, ideological nationalists need enemies abroad; they often fight wars to rally their electoral bases at home. It’s way too early to suggest such a trajectory for the Trump administration. I am still counting on my former colleague at the Hoover Institution, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, to add ballast, pragmatism, and strategic thinking to the Trump team once he begins to sit down across the table from Bannon at NSC meetings in the White House Situation Room. I hope the same from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. But Trump’s first few weeks have been very volatile for domestic politics. What happens when Trump and Bannon are challenged with their first international crisis?

Second, as we witnessed on the eve of World War I, the rise of nationalism everywhere eventually produces clashes between states. Bannon believes strongly in America First. By definition, that means that Russia has to be second. Bannon wants to lead a “pro-American movement,” which will sometimes clash with a pro-Russian movement.

Moreover, alt-right thinkers define the world in ethnic, religious terms, not geopolitical balance of power terms. They are hoping that Trump can peel Putin away from his close relations with Iran and China. That aspiration — the idea of Judeo-Christian alliance against the rest — misreads Putin’s foreign policy priorities. Why would Putin want to disrupt very effective Russian partnerships with China and Iran to join the United States? What Russia security or economic interest would be served from such a pivot? Putin is too pragmatic for that.

Also read: "Why US policy toward Russia will not take a U-turn under Trump"

Third, Bannon’s brand of nationalism, not unlike some Russian nationalists who dislike Putin and Kremlin policies, echoes ethnic themes and anti-establishment notes that are at odds with Putin’s brand of conservatism. For instance, Bannon has warned: “We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.” Yet, Putin consciously tries to distinguish between terrorists and Muslims, saying last December “I would prefer Islam not be to be mentioned in vain alongside terrorism.” Governing a multiethnic country with a substantial Muslim population, Putin understands the risks of defining friends and enemies in religious terms. More fundamentally, after seventeen years in power, Putin is the establishment. He is not a Leninist. Bannon seeks to destroy the establishment everywhere and upend the status quo. Russian nationalists attracted to Bannon’s worldview do not always support the current order in Russia. Just like Bannon’s tense relationship with the Republican Party, some Russian nationalists are downright hostile to the party of power and the status quo.

But let’s not rush to sweeping judgments and forecasts. We are only a few weeks into the Trump administration. Bannon has accumulated tremendous power to advance his ideas so far, but it’s too early to predict his long-term success. He already has clashed with cabinet officials, including most recently Homeland Security Secretary (and former general) John Kelly. If he butts heads with Mattis and Tillerson in the future, Trump will face some hard decisions about which side to support. And all of Bannon’s recent notoriety, in fact, may begin to annoy his boss, who rarely likes to share the limelight. I can’t imagine President Trump liked seeing Bannon on Time’s cover. That’s Trump’s place! So maybe sometime soon, President Trump will turn to Bannon and utter his most famous phrase, “you’re fired.”

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

This article is revised and updated version of a blogpost that originally appeared on the Echo of Moscow website in Russian. Russia Direct republishes the article with the permission of Michael McFaul and Echo of Moscow. You can find the Russian version here.

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Russia is still wary of Trump's turbulent presidency https://russia-direct.org/opinion/russia-still-wary-trumps-turbulent-presidency
Ivan Tsvetkov

Once the Trump administration shifts its attention from domestic policy to foreign policy, it will raise awkward questions about just how deeply the U.S. and Russia can really partner on complex geopolitical issues.

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Fri, 03 Feb 2017 22:06:04 +0000 5410 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/russia-still-wary-trumps-turbulent-presidency#comments Russia is still wary of Trump's turbulent presidency

Once the Trump administration shifts its attention from domestic policy to foreign policy, it will raise awkward questions about just how deeply the U.S. and Russia can really partner on complex geopolitical issues

Once the Trump administration shifts its attention from domestic policy to foreign policy, it will raise awkward questions about just how deeply the U.S. and Russia can really partner on complex geopolitical issues.

No matter what plans Trump has regarding Russia, his first presidential moves have already created a new political context for the Kremlin. And this context adds up to a bizarre mix of challenges and opportunities. Photo: Donald Trump's Official facebook page 

The first steps of new U.S. President Donald Trump shocked many in the United States. The first two weeks were a decision-making marathon, filled with executive order after executive order. The world is closely watching the unfolding of events in Washington, with most foreign commentaries thus far overtly critical of Trump and his new administration. A new American isolationism doesn’t inspire even those who criticized the U.S. and accused it of being a global hegemon.

However, Russia is an exception: Moscow still has hopes for the Trump presidency and the first two weeks only strengthened this belief. A series of extravagant orders, which helped Trump to fulfill most of his campaign promises, don’t bring about concerns among Russians. Instead, they continue to harbor hopes for the improvement of U.S.-Russia relations under Trump.

At the same time, the beginning of Trump’s presidency clearly demonstrated that the Russian agenda (Russian hackers, Putin-Trump “bromance,” Russia’s threat to Eastern Europe) was overshadowed by the American domestic agenda, including the confrontation of pro-Trump forces and anti-Trump forces.

Trump himself made it clear that Russia and ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin are not among his top priorities, as indicated by the first executive orders of the new American president. Even the first Putin-Trump telephone conversation, which Russia had been looking forward to since the inauguration of the American president, was relegated to the secondary agenda of the American president and overshadowed by Trump’s meetings with other global leaders. It didn’t become a game-changer. In fact, it just turned into another exchange of mutual kudos between Trump and Putin.

Also read: "Why US policy toward Russia will not take a U-turn under Trump"

Nevertheless, Russian pundits and media kept a close eye on the limited news updates from Russian and American presidential press services in an attempt to find some hints of a positive shift in U.S.-Russia relations. Specifically, the fact that two presidents talked about the necessity to restore trade and economic ties gave experts and journalists a reason to conclude that Trump is going to lift the sanctions imposed on Russia during Barack Obama’s presidency.

However, no matter what plans Trump has regarding Russia (and even though he might not have any specific plans), his first presidential moves have already created a new political context for the Kremlin. And this context adds up to a bizarre mix of challenges and opportunities, with nobody being able to predict if the latter outweigh the former or vice versa.  

Oddly enough, the future of U.S.-Russia relations will depend not on Trump’s moves and decisions, but rather on Russia’s foreign policy strategy during the transition period. In fact, this period is also a momentous time for Putin as well, not only for his American counterpart. A lot will depend on the Kremlin’s priorities: What foreign policy challenges that will emerge during a Trump presidency will Moscow view as the most important and pivotal?

Will the Russian authorities see Trump’s extravagant initiatives as the U.S.’s own business within its domestic policy, while being satisfied with the fact that the U.S. — faced with its internal problems — will leave Russia alone? Or will the Kremlin come to the conclusion that Trump’s foreign policy might destabilize the entire system of international relations and pose a serious threat to Russia itself? It remains to be seen.

If Trump will persistently follow a neo-isolationism policy, the Kremlin might undertake new steps in an attempt to increase its control over what it sees as “a natural sphere of influence” in the post-Soviet space. Putin is hardly likely to resist the temptation to muddy the water while Washington finds itself in a state of crisis and uncertainty.

Yet if Trump’s moves threaten international financial stability, dampen oil prices or exacerbate the conflict with China, the Kremlin will be cautious about acting forcefully and call for saving the current status quo instead. Despite Putin’s anti-American rhetoric, never did the Russian leader deny the fundamental role of the U.S. in the modern international system.

The ideal scenario for the Kremlin is if the U.S. is strong enough to maintain robust economic and political systems, but not strong enough to impose its will on Russia and be the global leader.

Also read: "Russia braces itself for a Trump presidency"

That’s why Russia might take very cautious initiatives in foreign and domestic policy to test the waters and understand how the new presidential administration of the U.S. might respond. Specifically, how will Trump react and will he respond to the Kremlin’s moves at all?

The military escalation in Eastern Ukraine, which might have resulted from the simultaneous moves of both Moscow and Kiev, is one way that the Kremlin might try to test the White House. It looks as if Russia is trying to understand the patience threshold of the White House when it comes to the question of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s leadership seems to be raising the stakes to put Trump into a situation, where he has to respond to another flare-up of “Russian aggression.”

The same motivation might be behind the renewal of criminal charges against Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who last year announced his presidential bid for 2018. It appears that, in such an unsettled international environment, the Kremlin is eager for the opportunity to imprison Navalny or disqualify him from the presidential race without risking criticism from the U.S.

After all, the world is currently focusing on Washington. The Navalny case is a domestic problem of Russia and is hardly likely to attract global attention and create publicity at a time when much bigger changes appear to be happening.

Interestingly, even the prospect for cooperation in Syria hasn’t so far created opportunities for an expanded U.S.-Russia partnership, despite a much-touted belief within the expert community. At first glance, ostensibly, everything is fine, with the new American president repeating Putin’s mantra about creation of a joint powerful anti-terrorism coalition.

However, the problem is that to strengthen U.S.-Russia cooperation in Syria, Putin has to move from words to deeds to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). And this requires a great deal of resources and might include a large-scale boots-on-the-ground operation, which is not interesting to Putin one year before the presidential election in Russia.

Recommended: "Here is why the Kremlin's big bet on Trump might be risky"

However, Trump will wait for Russia’s active involvement in the fight against terrorism. He might seek to make a tradeoff with Russia: his respect for Moscow’s global ambitions in exchange for the participation of Russian soldiers in bringing peace to the Middle East. Bluntly speaking, Trump may believe that Russia has to pay with blood to earn its right to impose its will on its close neighbors without taking into account Washington.   

Does Russia really need such a Trumpian deal? Putin will have to respond to this question in the near future.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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Who is behind the recent military flare-up in Ukraine? https://russia-direct.org/debates/who-behind-recent-military-flare-ukraine
Pavel Koshkin

Debates: Experts discuss the renewed military escalation in Eastern Ukraine, trying to determine the possible motivations for both sides.

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Fri, 03 Feb 2017 13:02:12 +0000 5408 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/debates/who-behind-recent-military-flare-ukraine#comments Who is behind the recent military flare-up in Ukraine?

Debates: Experts discuss the renewed military escalation in Eastern Ukraine, trying to determine the possible motivations for both sides

Debates: Experts discuss the renewed military escalation in Eastern Ukraine, trying to determine the possible motivations for both sides.

OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine during a patrol in the town of Shchastia, Eastern Ukraine. Photo: OSCE / Evgeniy Maloletka

The media has already characterized the battle near the city of Avdiivka in Eastern Ukraine as “the worst escalation in violence in two years.” The flare-up of violence shook the small city despite an attempt to renew a ceasefire last month.

Some Western media blamed Russia for the renewed violence, as further proof that the Kremlin cannot become a trusted partner for the U.S. during the Trump administration. And new U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley recently condemned the “aggressive actions of Russia.” However, a number of experts suggest that Kiev might be behind the violence, as a provocation to keep Western sanctions on Russia in place.

In an effort to clarify the situation, Russia Direct interviewed several well-known experts, who share their views on the current situation in the war-torn Donbas.  

Aurel Braun, professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto, and a center associate for the Davis Center at Harvard University

As the Trump administration took office and pushed to confirm its cabinet appointments, the sharp escalation of fighting in Eastern Ukraine, especially around the city of Avdiivka, was particularly inopportune. Small skirmishes that were more part of a latent conflict suddenly became virulent and international ceasefire monitors assigned responsibility for the new attacks (that resulted in the deaths of several Ukrainian soldiers) to combined Russian-separatist forces. If this is correct, it is a very dangerous development.

There are two possibilities in terms of who made the decision to escalate, neither of which is reassuring. First, it may be that the Kremlin decided to test the tolerance level of the Trump administration, one that has taken a much more positive attitude towards Moscow than its predecessor. Certainly, much of the Western media from The Economist to The New York Times speculated that this was indeed a probe and a test by the Kremlin.

Second, it is conceivable that the separatist forces acted independently of Russian control and if this unlikely scenario is correct, it would represent a highly problematic breakdown in the command structure and Moscow's ability to readily freeze or unfreeze the conflict.

Though the U.S. State Department's response has been relatively muted, declaring that it was "deeply concerned" (but without naming Russia), it is far too early and way too imprudent for Moscow to celebrate. Despite the American technical review of sanctions, there is no indication that these will be lifted by the Trump administration or that the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, would advocate for any significant diminution. Such escalation of fighting can only complicate Russian-American relations.

Recommended: "In 2017, stopping hostilities in Ukraine is now a matter of political will"

Further, the killing of numerous Ukrainian soldiers has caused tremendous anger in Ukraine. It is rallying support for the current government and certainly is boosting its advocacy efforts for continuing and strengthening sanctions.

Lastly, it seems unwise for Moscow to support any actions that can seem to humiliate or diminish President Trump. He has shown repeatedly that he reacts sharply to any such steps, real or imagined, and can turn quickly on those who he felt slighted him. Both American and Russia will benefit from improved relations but any hard change in President Trump's attitude will be particularly deleterious for Moscow.

Sergey Markedonov, associate professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities

Today, many media sources are speculating who is behind the escalation in Eastern Ukraine, but such an approach is counterproductive because it doesn’t resolve the problem, which is complicated in its nature. It requires a comprehensive approach toward the Minsk-2 Agreements, which are supposed to resolve the conflict, but failed to do so.

In fact, military escalation results from the fact that the Minsk Agreements don’t work. With most of the responsibilities addressed to Ukraine, Kiev seems to be reluctant to observe them. However, it doesn’t mean that Russia is not responsible for the conflict at all. Moreover, violence didn’t stop after the Minsk Agreements came into force and shootings have been commonplace since then.

Nevertheless, the sides will keep sticking to the Minsk Agreements, at least because there are no effective alternatives or mechanisms that could deal with the standoff. Even if there is some de-escalation in Donbas, it won’t resolve the systemic problem.  

Regarding Russia-West relations, when Trump assumed the presidency, the U.S. shifted its focus to domestic problems and is dragging its feet about resolving the problem. Likewise, Europe is more reticent and passive in this regard.

The EU countries seem to be ready to admit the possibility that Ukraine is behind the recent escalations in Donbas, because Kiev might want to attract attention to the conflict. At the same time, the West finds itself in a sort of dilemma, where it cannot place pressure on Kiev, because this would mean the victory of the Kremlin. And the West is not ready to admit it.  

James Carden, contributing editor to The Nation and former advisor to the U.S.-Russia Presidential Commission at the U.S. State Department

Who is behind it [the escalation in Avdiivka]? Even according to the U.S.-government funded Radio Free Europe, it is Kiev that is responsible for what is being described as a "creeping offensive" in the Donbas.

Who is most interested in it? We need to think about whose interests are served by the continual frustration - and in this case, outright subversion -  of the Minsk peace process.

Why has Kiev refused to hold a parliamentary vote on decentralization, which, according to the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), was meant “to be the precursor to a series of steps toward peace"? The answer is straightforward: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko cannot implement Minsk without risking a fight with - and possible coup orchestrated by – the country's far right, which the U.S. and EU (perhaps inadvertently, though perhaps not) has empowered over the past three years.

Does it mean that we should expect the conflict to see a new momentum? Since the goal of the new offensive seems to be the subversion of the peace process with an eye towards provoking the separatists in order to pressure the West to maintain sanctions on Russia, my best guess is "yes."

What are the implications for Russia-West relations, given the fact that the Trump administration is going to normalize the relations with Russia? It all depends on both how far Kiev is prepared to go in its provocations and on how willfully credulous the West is prepared to be in response. If recent history is any guide, there is very little (if anything) that post-Maidan Ukraine can do that will earn the censure of the West.

Alexey Fenenko, an associate professor at the Faculty of World Politics of Lomonosov Moscow State University

There might be two reasons behind the current military confrontation in Donbas. The first is on the surface: It might be Ukraine’s aspirations to test whether the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is ready to support Kiev against Russia. That is why the Ukrainian authorities might have orchestrated a “manageable” crisis in Avdiivka — just to understand what statements and moves came from the White House.

At the same time, the Kremlin’s reluctance to respond reciprocally to the December sanctions from the U.S. was a signal to Kiev that Russia seeks to reconcile with the Trump administration and would be reticent in its response to the provocations in Avdiivka. This is what might be behind Kiev’s calculations. However, the results are uncertain for Ukraine: the Trump administration supported the idea of a ceasefire, but at the same time, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley made it clear the sanctions imposed on Russia for Crimea’s reintegration would remain in force unless Moscow returns the peninsula back to Ukraine. So, there might be two interpretations.

The second reason has to do what’s happening behind the scenes: It adds up to the inability of the Minsk-2 agreements to resolve the standoff. In fact, since the agreement came into force, not one day has gone peacefully in Donbas. The implementation of Minsk-2 is impossible for both Ukraine and the separatist republics. For Ukraine, the observation of the agreements will mean federalization within the country, which could provoke the same process in other regions. Such a scenario might lead to the overthrow of Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko.

For the rebels, the partial federalization would force them to reconcile with Kiev and return to Ukraine without getting any guarantees for their security. The rebels see such a scenario as a failure. So far, neither Kiev, nor Donbas see themselves as losers. At the same time, they are not satisfied with the current status quo. Ukraine and its leadership pin their hopes on revanche for its failure in the winter 2015. Meanwhile, the Donbas rebel republics are too small and vulnerable to become robust, if unrecognized, states. Most importantly, the conflicting sides didn’t clarify who was the winner and who was the loser. Thus, the resumption of military activity is a matter of time.

Paul Robinson, a professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences of University of Ottawa:

The ancient Greeks regarded war as a God - Ares. This reflected an understanding that war was an elemental force which controlled the lives of men, rather than vice versa. In the rationalistic world of modern times, we have rather lost sight of this. This week, commentators have been seeking to determine what logic may have driven Ukraine, Russia, or the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic to escalate the war in Donbas.

Some analysts have suggested that Ukraine initiated recent battles in order to encourage its Western allies to support it against "Russian aggression". Others have suggested that Moscow is emboldened by the election of Donald Trump and is testing the waters to see what it can get away with. Either way, recent events are seen as the product of deliberate strategy. This is probably the wrong way of looking at things.

A more likely explanation of events is that an attempt to seize a small piece of territory for local tactical advantage went wrong and provoked a fierce reaction. The two sides then found themselves engaged in battle, and in order to win the battle began escalating the level of violence. Matters spiralled out of hand, not by design, but for reason of local tactical necessity. Extracting oneself from such situations is possible, but requires will.

Unfortunately, the will is lacking. Neither the Ukrainian government nor the rebels ever liked the Minsk agreements, which both of them signed under duress. External pressures and the relative military balance serve to prevent matters escalating too far out of control. But at the same time, both sides lack strong internal political constraints to prevent events such as we have seen this week. It is likely, therefore, that the war will continue for some time to come, and that similar flare-ups will occur again.

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Trump's first days in office aggravate political crisis in the US https://russia-direct.org/opinion/trumps-first-days-office-aggravate-political-crisis-us
Andrei Korobkov

The election of a new president has done little to reduce the high level of political polarization in the country. If President Trump was expecting a “honeymoon period” after his inauguration, he was very much mistaken.

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Thu, 02 Feb 2017 21:02:44 +0000 5404 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/trumps-first-days-office-aggravate-political-crisis-us#comments Trump's first days in office aggravate political crisis in the US

The election of a new president has done little to reduce the high level of political polarization in the country. If President Trump was expecting a “honeymoon period” after his inauguration, he was very much mistaken

The election of a new president has done little to reduce the high level of political polarization in the country. If President Trump was expecting a “honeymoon period” after his inauguration, he was very much mistaken.

U.S. President Donald Trump nominates Judge Neil Gorsuch to the United States Supreme Court. Photo: Donald Trump's Official facebook page 

Less than two weeks have passed since Donald Trump's inauguration. According to tradition, a new U.S. president has 100 days to start the implementation of his electoral promises before opponents can start criticizing his actions. This year, however, the political establishment and mainstream media launched a campaign against him almost immediately.

In part, this is the result of Trump himself, who continues to violate traditional rules and overtly puts himself into opposition with the Washington establishment. Moreover, the new American president is trying to implement large-scale reforms that pose a potential threat to the existing status quo and entrenched special interests.

The uniqueness of the current situation was underlined by the unprecedented participation of former President Barack Obama in Hillary Clinton’s election campaign against Trump. In January, Obama once again made news with his public comments about the “Muslim ban.” While Obama did not mention Trump by name, it was clear that he had his controversial immigration policies in mind.

Also highly unusual is the fact that the former president is back in the nation’s capital even after his term has expired. This indicates that Obama could be willing to play a new, expanded role if the Trump administration continues to push ahead with its policies.

Recommended: "Here is why the Kremlin's big bet on Trump might be risky"

The intense attacks against the new president so soon after coming into office from the supporters of Obama and Clinton are essentially unprecedented in American politics. Even more surprising were the attempts to use the U.S. intelligence services as part of the opposition against Trump. It all started with Clinton’s claim that the intelligence services had proof of Russian meddling in the U.S. elections.

Unfortunately, this controversial practice of politicizing the intelligence services already had precedents in recent U.S. history – for example, former U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration reportedly pressured the intelligence community to give false reports on the Iraqi nuclear program and Saddam Hussein’s alleged link to Al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization.

Still, exercising pressure on the intelligence services in order to discredit one’s political opponent and influence national public opinion and, thus, change the domestic policies of the incoming administration, represents an entirely new direction in American politics.

In addition to the domestic political implications, this phenomenon has serious implications for U.S. foreign and security policy. First, reports on “Russian hacking” have not offered up any reliable facts. Second, the previous presidential administration created a distorted picture of the world, while exaggerating the role and importance of Russia, which was seen as one of the primary national security threats to the U.S.

However, all these steps only hampered any possibility of effective U.S. cooperation with Russia in the security sphere (including the exchange of intelligence information on the activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and other Islamic fundamentalist groups as well as the personal interaction between U.S. and Russian security officials.

However, Trump is reluctant to worsen U.S-Russia relations. Indeed, he has already promised to depoliticize the intelligence services, introducing both personnel and structural reforms, cutting down or completely eliminating a highly politicized Office of National Intelligence (all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies report to its Director, who is a political appointee), cutting the central staff of other agencies and expanding their field offices, and in general, ending the political pressure on intelligence experts.

Also read: "Russia braces itself for a Trump presidency"

Moreover, Trump aims at the drastic revision of the priorities and strategy of U.S. foreign policy. In contrast to his opponents, he seems to adhere to a firm belief that the current international Eurocentric system is in crisis now and needs to be reformed, with the shift of the center of world power from the North Atlantic to the North Pacific.

As a result, Trump sees China as the main U.S. rival and a threat to American strategic interests while seeing declining Europe (and especially the weaker and less stable former Communist states of Eastern Europe and most of the former Soviet republics) as a liability requiring huge expenditures and strategic guarantees on the part of the U.S.

In addition, Trump as both a political realist and a businessman is much less than the conventional politicians inclined to believe in abstract political slogans and is very skeptical about giving large amounts of money to corrupt and unstable political regimes.

Under these circumstances, Trump might seek to repeat the Nixon-Kissinger political experiment of the 1970s, when the U.S. started to play the “Chinese card” against Russia, this time playing Russia against China. In addition, Trump considers the active interaction and exchange of intelligence information between the U.S. and Russia as a necessary precondition for success in fighting ISIS and Islamic fundamentalism in general.

These are the changes that require some drastic revisions of the U.S. foreign policy and security strategy and tactics as well as significant personnel changes. All this represents a real threat to the interests of the establishment and very influential political groups.

Thus, one can expect the further expansion of harsh criticism of Trump. The list of his opponents comprises two main groups. The first one brings together the leftist populist politicians who might try to question Trump’s policies and create a general feeling of instability in American society.

Also read: "What Obama's foreign policy legacy means for Trump"

The second group includes most of the conventional elites, including the political establishment, the mainstream media, the entertainment industry, and most of academia. They will also keep criticizing Trump’s policies, presenting them as illegal and unconstitutional, in order to block the passage of his legislative initiatives through the Congress.

It can not be ruled out that members of this second group are looking for a legal reason to start the impeachment process, accusing President Trump of violating the Constitution. However, all this political polarization fuels instability in the country. This is a very dangerous phenomenon in American political life. Thus, not a single day of Trump’s presidency will be a quiet one.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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Why Russia should liberalize its gas market https://russia-direct.org/opinion/why-russia-should-liberalize-its-gas-market
Viktor Katona

The liberalization of Russia’s gas market would almost certainly entail the downsizing of Gazprom and the rise of new “independent” producers competing on a level playing field.

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Wed, 01 Feb 2017 14:17:30 +0000 5402 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/why-russia-should-liberalize-its-gas-market#comments Why Russia should liberalize its gas market

The liberalization of Russia’s gas market would almost certainly entail the downsizing of Gazprom and the rise of new “independent” producers competing on a level playing field

The liberalization of Russia’s gas market would almost certainly entail the downsizing of Gazprom and the rise of new “independent” producers competing on a level playing field.

The head of Russia's largest oil company Rosneft, Igor Sechin (left), and the head of Russia's state-controlled gas company Gazprom, Alexei Miller (right), during a ceremony of the Nord Stream gas pipeline in Portovaya Bay in 2011. Photo: AP / TASS

As the cold temperatures of January 2017 resulted in an unprecedented surge in demand for Russian gas, Gazprom’s daily exports reached an all-time high. This comes at a time when the company’s share in supplying aggregate European demand is now up to 34 percent. Yet, despite the company’s recent successes, there could be a significant change in the pipeline.

Over the last few years, various energy analysts have examined virtually all aspects of Gazprom’s relations with Europe, ranging from its standoff with the Ukrainian authorities and its drive to wean itself off Ukrainian transit dependence to the prospects of its Baltic liquefied natural gas (LNG) project. Yet there still remains one more problem to consider: What do other gas-producing companies of Russia think of Gazprom’s market sway?

It has been more than 25 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, yet the mechanisms within Russia’s gas sector have barely changed. Has the time come to enact radical reforms? On the surface, the case for liberalizing Russia’s gas market is quite convincing.

The rise of the independents

The underlying cause behind recent initiatives to liberalize Russia’s gas market is a notable uptick in the production of other producers (often referred to as the “independents”). In 2000, Gazprom constituted 90 percent of aggregate Russian gas production. However, as of 2016, its share had fallen to 65 percent. Although Gazprom’s production did indeed fell between 2000 and 2016 by almost 100 billion cubic meters (to 419 billion cubic meters), there is more to it - contenders in the form of Rosneft, NOVATEK and Lukoil have been cranking up production capacity.

Also read: "What you need to know about Rosneft"

With a total gas output of 220 billion cubic meters (equivalent of Canada’s and Algeria’s production), the independents are now calling into question Gazprom’s pipeline export monopoly. In 2014, in fact, Rosneft and NOVATEK were granted rights to export LNG.

Gazprom reacted in an irritated manner, linking any change in Russia’s current gas export legislation with an expanded ability to supply gas to domestic customers at market prices. Here’s why it would be ideal to implement both radical measures, simultaneously and without any distinction.

Unimpeded access for all

As the gas output of the “independents” grew over the last decade, their concerns about the unfairness of Russia’s gas export regime were voiced on numerous occasions. Foremost among them is Rosneft, which, technically, hardly qualifies for the “independent” status, given the state’s majority stake in the company. The company’s CEO, Igor Sechin, reiterated in mid-January the company’s desire to see the export ban modified.

Rosneft’s latest argument in favor of lifting the export ban is a 16-year supply contract to be concluded with British Petroleum, stipulating the export of 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year via the Nord Stream pipeline. As the gas would be sold from Greifswald, Germany (the city next to which Nord Stream reaches the European mainland), such a deal would most likely bypass the European Union’s stringent Third Energy Package policies. Much like Rosneft’s arguments prior to the Bashneft privatization, it pledges to augment the state’s budget revenues if this initiative were to materialize.

Rosneft became the leading “independent” gas producer in Russia by increasing its gas production to 67 billion cubic meters in 2016, outpacing NOVATEK. Rosneft’s target production volume of 100 billion cubic meters by 2020 might prove too difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, the company’s gas output will almost surely continue to grow, thus rendering the issue of export liberalization increasingly vital and pressing.

Moreover, Rosneft concluded another supply deal with the Chinese company Beijing Gas Group in November 2016, meaning that the Chinese factor in the export schemes of the company could lead to a multi-vector development course. It should be noted that for now Rosneft, despite its massive lobbying clout, does not want to supplant Gazprom from the gas export mechanisms – it envisions an agent contract, under which Gazprom Export would be the factual supplier. Thus, at this point, Rosneft is shying away from a direct encroachment on Gazprom’s monopolist status.

Yet, in the long run, Rosneft is hoping for a gradual dismantling of Gazprom’s gas export monopoly. It has even suggested that Gazprom be split up into two separate entities – one dealing with gas production, the other dedicated solely to transportation issues.

Many might deem this measure long overdue, as Russia’s oil sector has already undergone the same process, dating back to the first years of the newly-formed democratic Russia. In 1993, Transneft was formed, a state-owned transportation company with no interest whatsoever in oil production, dedicated solely to pipeline oil transportation.

Yet Gazprom, which even in its name retains the traces of its Gas Ministry past, is profoundly linked to the Russian state authorities and will do its utmost to retain its preferential status. Although the Russian state, controlling 50.2 percent of Gazprom, is technically entitled to initiate the unbundling procedure, it will not propose any radical reforms under the current distribution of power.

Gazprom’s travails

Rosneft is not alone in its quest to earn a place in the sun, as NOVATEK is also stepping up its efforts to liberalize Russia’s gas exports. Leonid Mikhelson, NOVATEK’s owner, has sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin in which he advocated granting access to gas export routes with respect to “independent” companies, much like Sechin proposed.

Also read: "What US energy exports to Europe mean for Russia"

Other gas producers, such as LUKOIL, which currently sells its natural gas to Gazprom directly on the premises of the field, would also derive benefit from such a move. Gazprom’s argument tended to be straightforward – there is no need for additional exporters as everything has been working fine, especially now, when each week has seen a new all-time daily supply record. Moreover, Gazprom argues, the influx of new producers would depress prices on European markets and thus lead to a reduction in state budget revenues. Yet, there might be some potential for an all-encompassing deal.

Gazprom has exclusive rights to export Russian gas, but on the domestic market it is confined by its state-mandated responsibilities. The domestic gas market is its largest outlet, with annual volumes reaching 221 billion cubic meters in 2016. The bottom line, however, is that Gazprom supplies this gas by means of state-regulated contracts, by which the domestic price for gas is significantly lower than that of export-bound gas.

On average, domestic market-supplied gas is three times as cheap as the Europe-bound one, whilst the regional allocation of prices does not differ greatly. Almost all federal regions of Russia pay 3,000-4,000 rubles per 1000 cubic meters, with the highest prices being in Altai and Arkhangelsk regions (4,354 rubles and 4,185 rubles per 1000 cubic meters). [This corresponds to a low of $50 per 1000 cubic meters and a high of $72.5 per 1000 cubic meters – Editor’s note].

Wholesale prices are just a shade more expensive than for the public. In this respect, it is telling that the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service (FAS) is concurrently pursuing the liberalization of both domestic and export regimes. To implement one without the other would only cause harm.

“Independents” oppose the liberalization of the domestic Russian gas market in its current form. Currently, Russian authorities set the upper and lower limits of the pricing range for Gazprom, and the company is obliged to stick to this range. Were FAS to implement three pilot initiatives in the Tyumen, Yamalo-Nenets and Khanty-Mansiysk regions with the aim of liberalizing domestic pricing (as it planned to do in 2017), Gazprom would be given a covert boost, since without control over gas transportation, which remains firmly in the hands of Gazprom, “independents” would surely be discriminated against.

And, perhaps even more troubling, they would face the prospect of Gazprom offering massive price discounts to sideline the “independents.” So far, the decision has been to delay any action on both fronts, and it is becoming increasingly unlikely that in the lead-up to the Presidential election in 2018 the current course will be altered. It remains to be seen whether this course can be sustained henceforth.

Double utility

Unbundling Gazprom’s production and transportation activities would be the soundest decision from an economic point of view. Under the current distribution of rights, Gazprom concentrates too much power in its hands, thus squelching competitiveness. Rosneft and NOVATEK should have the opportunity to trade freely, even without the involvement of a state-owned intermediary, yet they should also assume new responsibilities.

Also read: Gazprom: Three key challenges facing Russia's energy giant

For instance, the fact that Gazprom would see its lobbying clout diminished does not mean that Rosneft should be given even more space to influence government decisions. The dual liberalization of Russia’s gas market should level the playing field for all actors, no matter if they are big, medium-sized or small. It should also transform the state’s role into that of a facilitator, instead of the final controlling owner. All the more so as the government budget already receives hefty sums from share auctions or when the government levies an export duty.

If a separate gas transportation company would be established, it would still reap its profits. Moreover, it would substantially aid Russian negotiators vis-à-vis the European Commission, which, despite its manifest intent to wean itself off Russian dependence, could not implement discriminatory regulations and would have to deal with Russian companies using solely market instruments.

Gazprom finds itself in a difficult position vis-à-vis the increasingly emphatic demands to liberalize Russia’s gas exports. Additional export volumes would translate into additional transportation service fees. Moreover, it could raise its revenues by means of price hikes on the domestic market. However, what if the contenders use the liberalization of gas exports to seek further concessions?

Were the dual liberalization to be seen through the end (i.e. the unbundling of production and transportation), Gazprom would be resoundingly downsized. Yet it is a worthy objective. It should be remembered and reiterated that Gazprom is only an instrument of state policy.

Putting the company’s interests ahead of those of Russia’s population is tantamount to acquiescing that Russia is effectively an oligarchy. After all, it is not Gazprom that is Russia’s “national heritage” (as the company’s advertisements claimed until the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service banned it from doing so), but its people and its vast hydrocarbon resources.

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Russia reacts to Trump's first days in the Oval Office https://russia-direct.org/russian-media/russia-reacts-trumps-first-days-oval-office
Igor Rozin

Russian media roundup: The first week of Donald Trump’s presidency attracted a great deal of attention from the Russian media, as journalists tried to understand the implications of Trump’s moves for Russia and the world.

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Tue, 31 Jan 2017 20:16:03 +0000 5400 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/russian-media/russia-reacts-trumps-first-days-oval-office#comments Russia reacts to Trump's first days in the Oval Office

Russian media roundup: The first week of Donald Trump’s presidency attracted a great deal of attention from the Russian media, as journalists tried to understand the implications of Trump’s moves for Russia and the world

Russian media roundup: The first week of Donald Trump’s presidency attracted a great deal of attention from the Russian media, as journalists tried to understand the implications of Trump’s moves for Russia and the world.

Pictured: U.S. President Donald Trump (center) together with his wife Melania Trump (right). Photo: Donald Trump's Official facebook page  

After Donald Trump assumed the U.S. presidency on Jan. 20, Russian journalists and experts started paying even greater attention to his every move in an attempt to understand his governing style, as well as the implications of his new administration for Russia and the world.

Over the past week, the Russian media discussed Trump’s controversial initiatives on immigration and the strong counter-response from the U.S. establishment. Journalists also covered Trump’s economic initiatives, his telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Jan. 28, and the resignation of some high-profile American officials who protested Trump’s immigration moves.

During the first days of his tenure, Trump signed 17 executive orders, including ones on withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), reforming the healthcare system and building the wall on the Mexican border.

Also read: "Russia braces itself for a Trump presidency"

However, one of his most controversial moves involves immigration: It bans Muslim refugees from seven different nations from entering the United States. Trump’s executive order on “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorists” imposes a 90-day ban on the citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries (Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Somali and Sudan) from entering the U.S.  It also suspends the provision of shelter to refugees, including ones from Syria. 

The move brought about a public outcry, with some states overturning Trump’s immigration order. For several days, people have taken to the streets to protest the decision of the U.S. president. 

Russian media responded almost immediately to these events in America. RBC Daily published the opinion of a Russian expert, Pavel Demidov, an expert at the Center for Strategic Developments, which is headed by former Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. The expert argues that Trump sees the political crisis in American as an opportunity, not as a liability or a burden.

Demidov concludes that Trump’s presidential style seeks to maintain or “reproduce” the feeling of a political crisis within the country to mobilize his supporters. If fact, by fueling the crisis, he targets those who voted for him, first and foremost, to justify their expectations. This is what might keep him afloat during the next four years, according to Trump himself.

Demidov argues that the new American president violated all well-established traditions of communication with the Washington establishment and, specifically, the U.S. Congress. All these moves indicate that Trump is going to be aggressive and adopt a no-holds-barred approach. His leadership style is crystal clear and simple: Those who don’t agree with me are against me. And his political overtures mean that he will easily use political influence to impose his point of view on dissenters and seek revenge against his opponents.

Such an approach is very risky, warns Demidov. It provokes the creation of a strong anti-Trump coalition within the establishment, which might restrict him in his political maneuvers.

Meanwhile, business newspaper Kommersant focuses on Trump’s decision to dismiss a number of high-profile government officials — U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates and Daniel Ragsdale, the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who reportedly stood up to his immigration moves. At the same time, the newspaper analyzes cables by U.S. diplomats — known as the Dissent Channel — that overtly disapprove of Trump’s immigration moves.     

Vedomosti, a Russian business newspaper, focuses on the economic aspects of Trump’s first presidential moves and raises the question of a possible trade war between the U.S. and Mexico. With the Trump administration ready to impose a 20 percent tax on all imported goods from Mexico and use the proceeds to pay for the construction of a wall along the Mexican border, this move might lead to a trade war.

Konstantin Sonin, a contributor to Vedomosti and a professor at the University of Chicago, warns that Trump’s move might backfire economically while bringing no political results. He points to the entire experience of Russia in launching trade wars with its neighbors in the post-Soviet space. Trump’s threats to Mexico to impose a 20 percent tax might turn into a long and protracted trade war that is easy to start, but very difficult to stop, Sonin points out in his column for Vedomosti.

Likewise, Sekret Firmy, a Russian analytical magazine, focuses on the macroeconomic aspects of Trump’s presidency and, in particular, the implications of his plans to turn the U.S. into an energy superpower. The headline of the article is indicative: “Will Donald Trump Dampen Oil Prices?” it reads.

The publication brings together a number of top economists and energy experts to share their forecasts. All of them agree that Trump’s presidency won’t play a critical role in determining the path of global oil prices. For example, Andrei Movchan from Carnegie Moscow Center is hesitant about the likelihood of Trump being able to impact the prices regardless of his plans to increase U.S. oil production and exports. What matters are new and effective technologies and alternative sources of energy, which could produce an impact on oil prices over the long term, not necessarily during Trump’s presidency.

“While the U.S. is increasing its output, there are countries, which will have seen a decrease in oil production by 2022,” Movchan told Sekret Firmy, adding that the share of Russia and other northern countries in producing oil will decline. At the same time, a lot depends on China — whether it will increase consumption or constrain it, said Movchan.

Recommended: "Here is why the Kremlin's big bet on Trump might be risky"

Many members of the Russian media also paid attention to the telephone call between Trump and Putin. Most of them published the comments of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who revealed some details of the conversation. He described the telephone call as “good from the political and personal points of view.” The call proves that communication between Russian and American leaders is possible without lecturing.

“They [Putin and Trump] agreed to keep working at the level of the expert community, within their further talks,” he said, as quoted by RBC Daily. He also pointed out that Moscow and Washington will have to understand to what extent “joint interests” might be translated into “joint mechanisms for resolving problems.”

Expert commentary

Sergey Markedonov, an associate professor at Russian State University for the Humanities, who recently returned from Washington, on the political environment in the U.S. after Trump assumed the presidency:

The political environment in Washington is very interesting. It looks like a case of déjà vu to me - it resembles the environment in the Soviet Union during its political decline and crisis. Experts [and establishment politicians] are frustrated and lost, because the political order and the rules that they are accustomed to have been violated. The new rules of the game are unclear and, therefore, frightening.

The communication between experts is more emotional in its nature rather than driven by robust expertise and detached analysis. Instead of taking to the streets, one should understand one’s own mistakes and learn lessons from the failure to figure out why a populist such as Donald Trump came to power. Unfortunately, emotions so far overshadow hard analysis.

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Why Venezuela might become a burden for the Kremlin https://russia-direct.org/opinion/why-venezuela-might-become-burden-kremlin
Eugene Bai

Sooner than expected, the Kremlin could be forced to reassess its economic cooperation with crisis-torn Venezuela as the situation there rapidly deteriorates.

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Sun, 29 Jan 2017 17:24:42 +0000 5398 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/why-venezuela-might-become-burden-kremlin#comments Why Venezuela might become a burden for the Kremlin

Sooner than expected, the Kremlin could be forced to reassess its economic cooperation with crisis-torn Venezuela as the situation there rapidly deteriorates

Sooner than expected, the Kremlin could be forced to reassess its economic cooperation with crisis-torn Venezuela as the situation there rapidly deteriorates.

A mural of Venezuelan's late President Hugo Chavez decorates a wall outside a polling station where voters wait to enter during congressional elections in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015. Photo: AP

An escalating political crisis in Venezuela at the same time as the nation is experiencing a profound economic crisis raises the question of whether Russia should continue to prop up this Latin American country. In the beginning of 2017, the country’s opposition-minded parliament, the National Assembly, announced the impeachment of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and called for snap presidential elections.

According to Julio Borges, the new leader of the Venezuelan parliament, President Maduro “almost resigned his position” because he was not able to cope with the very severe social and economic crisis in the country. However, Venezuela’s constitution doesn’t allow impeaching the president based only on the fact that the nation’s leader failed to tackle the economic crisis. That’s why the country’s Supreme Court didn’t approve Maduro’s resignation.

However, the very fact that the parliament tried to impeach the president indicates that the political and economic crises are severe, with more than three-quarters of Venezuelans disapproving of Maduro's tenure and 93.6 percent viewing the country's situation negatively. At the same time, about 22 percent believe that Maduro should leave.

As a well-known proverb suggests, when it rains, it pours. Likewise, Venezuela is faced with a series of problems at once, including a food deficit, skyrocketing inflation of 720 percent, freefalling GDP and a severe cut in production.

For instance, in November 2016 Venezuela - a country with a population of 30 million - sold only 236 cars. Yet, ten years earlier, it produced 12,000 cars per month, according to Jose Manuel Puente, an economist from the Institute of Advanced Studies in Administration in Caracas.

Also read: "Does regime change in Venezuela threaten Russia's interests?"

Venezuela’s key economic sector — oil production, which accounts for 96 percent of the country’s exports — is also facing a great number of challenges during the current downturn in oil prices. Amidst the crisis, the country decreased its output in an attempt to influence the falling prices, but this move only affected the county’s budget even more.

In the beginning of 2014, Venezuela produced 2.9 million barrels per day, but by November 2016, it had decreased oil output to 2.3 million barrels. But even that may be taking an optimistic view of things - some independent pundits speculate that the country produced less than two million barrels per day.

Venezuela’s old oil field in the western part of the country has been depleted, while the richest oil region, known as the Orinoco belt in the eastern part of the country, consists of extra heavy crude oil. Refining this oil requires millions of dollars, which the crisis-torn country badly needs. As a result, Venezuela has to import light oil from Algeria to mix with its extra heavy oil and then export the resulting hybrid oil.

And the inability of the authorities to resolve the challenges has resulted in a lot of skepticism among Russian experts as well, because the crisis in Venezuela poses a threat to Russian business interests.

Emil Dabagyan, a senior fellow at the Institute of Latin America at the Russian Academy of Sciences, compares Venezuela’s economy with the sinking of the Titanic. According to him, the country needs sweeping reforms and a new economic model. The task is monumental for Venezuela - it has “to decrease pressure on business,” encourage small and medium-sized entrepreneurs, alleviate the dominance of the state in the economy and restore the dialogue with the opposition.   

Russia’s business interests might be affected not only by the incompetence of the Venezuelan authorities, but also by the trial initiated by U.S. company ConocoPhillips against Rosneft Trading S.A., a Swiss company that belongs to Russia’s biggest oil giant, Rosneft. The company was accused of fraudulent transfer of assets owned by Venezuela’s state-run company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).

Last year Rosneft supported PDVSA financially by cutting a deal worth $20 billion and investing in Venezuela’s energy facilities despite a great deal of risks. And only now Russia starts understanding that the prospects of investment in the country, faced with a severe economic and political crisis and seen as a pariah in the world, are murky at best.

Today Venezuela, once one of the richest oil countries, is on the verge of default. Even China, with its insatiable hunger for energy, seems to be shying away from investing in Venezuela’s weakening economy, even though it has made $60 billion in loans since 2008.   

However, the economic and political plight of Venezuela is not the only reason that can hamper the joint projects of Moscow and Caracas. Despite the fact that Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled that the National Assembly’s impeachment proceedings against Maduro were unlawful, the sword of Damocles is hanging over the current Venezuelan president. This means that Maduro might resign before the end of his presidential term, at least because of obvious reasons – he cannot deal with the crisis in a proper and timely manner. This seems obvious to Venezuela’s parliament and citizens.

Recommended: "Russia keeps a wary eye on Venezuela"

If this happens, it would lead to the change of power in the country, with Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami becoming the successor to Maduro. But the problem is that the U.S. authorities view El Aissami as one of the major players in Venezuela’s drug trafficking, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Moreover, in 2009 U.S. authorities accused El Aissami, then Venezuela’a Interior Minister, of issuing passports to members of Hamas and Hezbollah, which are seen as terrorist organizations. El Aissami allegedly recruited young Venezuelan Arabs to train in Hezbollah camps in southern Lebanon, as indicated by the investigation of the Center to Secure Free Society’s Joseph Humire.

Thus, experts are concerned that El Aissami might be even worse than Maduro – he might turn Venezuela into a narco-state supporting international terrorism. This would have grave implications not only for Russia-Venezuela ties and the oil market, but also for the world.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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Can Russia's economy finally turn the corner in 2017? https://russia-direct.org/qa/can-russias-economy-finally-turn-corner-2017
Pavel Koshkin

RD Interview: Kendrick White of Marchmont Capital Partners discusses the potential obstacles ahead for Russia’s economic growth, including factors that might weaken global energy prices

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Thu, 26 Jan 2017 22:17:22 +0000 5394 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/qa/can-russias-economy-finally-turn-corner-2017#comments Can Russia's economy finally turn the corner in 2017?

RD Interview: Kendrick White of Marchmont Capital Partners discusses the potential obstacles ahead for Russia’s economic growth, including factors that might weaken global energy prices

RD Interview: Kendrick White of Marchmont Capital Partners discusses the potential obstacles ahead for Russia’s economic growth, including factors that might weaken global energy prices

The view on the Kremlin and Moscow International Business Center. Photo: RIA Novosti

During the first weeks of 2017, economists continue to have mixed reactions about the fundamental health of Russia’s economy. On the one hand, some economists point to the upward trend in oil prices and Russia’s successful monetary policy — especially polices carried out by the Central Bank to stabilize the ruble. On the other hand, skeptics continue to fret about the lack of diversification in the Russian economy and the continued drawdown of the nation’s reserve funds.

To make sense of Russia’s economic direction in the months ahead, Russia Direct recently sat down with Kendrick White, the director of Marchmont Capital Partners, a U.S.-Russian investment advisory firm, as well as an advisor to the Rector of Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod (UNN), to discuss Russia’s economic challenges.

As White points out, Western-led sanctions have done little thus far to change the Kremlin’s policy calculus. Instead, it is the short-term outlook for oil prices that matter. And it’s here that U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to turn the U.S. into an energy superpower — a move that could put downward pressure on global energy prices — might most directly impact Russia.

 Also read: "Why the Russian economic crisis is far from over"

Russia Direct: A number of economists and politicians argue that Russia successfully overcame the recession in 2016 and hope for further economic growth. Could this just be wishful thinking? What is your take?

Kendrick White: The sanctions certainly have had a negative effect, but the falling oil prices have had a far more detrimental effect on Russia’s economy – and in spite of this, I think that Russia actually did a very good job of adjusting its budget to these various economic shocks.

Many people think that Elvira Nabiullina [head of the Central Bank of Russia] is one of the best central bankers in the world, because they’ve managed the complex situation much more effectively than many other commodity-driven economies. You can easily compare Russia, for example, to Venezuela – another oil-based country, and see the dramatic mistakes made in its macroeconomic and political policies and see the difference.

Other countries have severe budget problems because they are over-reliant on oil. Actually, Russia, in spite of its reliance on oil and gas, has done relatively well by slashing its budgets, cutting its expenses and adjusting its strategy. And putting up barriers to the sanctions on European food imports has actually increased food and agricultural output here in Russia. And so, domestic investors have ultimately supported that segment.

Pictured: Kendrick White, the director of Marchmont Capital Partners. Source: Personal archive

So, there are some real results. I mean I am not overly optimistic that Russia is going to return quickly to very fast growth. As Mr. [Alexei] Kudrin pointed out here at the Gaidar Economic Forum, there is going to be a long process required of serious structural reforms, which are required to return the economy to 3-4 percent annual growth in GDP [Alexei Kudrin is Russia’s former Finance Minister – Editor’s note]. 

Right now Russia has actually done much better than many people expected. And it should be applauded that Russia is not in a desperate situation despite the U.S. sanctions. Many people have concluded that U.S. sanctions were a failure. They really didn’t have the impact on Russia that the Obama administration wanted. In this case, Russia succeeded in surviving through the sanctions and is now expected to grow positively during the next 2-3 years.

RD: Are there any reasons to believe that this trend will persist in 2017?

K.W.: There are reasons. I hope the sanctions will be loosened and I hope the Europeans will loosen sanctions as well. I honestly hope that the Trump administration will find some common ground with the Putin administration. I think the tensions will be lessened between Russia and the European Union as well as between Russia and the U.S. And this will certainly help. Most importantly, it will free up imports of Western technologies that Russia would need, and it will free up the ability for Russian banks to tap into European and American financial markets.

And I think this is critical because Russia does suffer from a lack of global liquidity for its banks and large corporations. Being able to access international financial markets is the single most important thing that Russia needs right now. It is surviving without that, but I think that these tensions will go down and this will certainly bring a lot of liquidity to Russia’s small business and entrepreneurial sector, which has actually suffered the worst under the sanctions.

Also read: "What can Russia offer foreign investors during a time of crisis?"

My position on sanctions is that they were wrong-headed from the beginning, because the most important segment of the society to support the country’s long-run development consists of small and medium-size businesses and entrepreneurs — and they require liquidity to get their businesses started and to keep them growing.  And the people that have been most negatively impacted by all of these sanctions have been small businesses, the private entrepreneurs, the innovation entrepreneurs, and the students.

You know, the private sector people have been hurt by sanctions more than anyone else. So, it didn’t have a really desired effect on the top oligarchy or the Presidential administration. But it certainly had a devastating effect on private sector business in Russia, which is the most keen to reach out and work with international partners.

RD: What are the odds of Trump being able to lift the sanctions imposed on the Kremlin, given his tensions with the Washington establishment, which remains intransigent toward Russia?

K.W.: I think that President Trump is going to find common ground with President Putin by finding some compromise position regarding Syria, Ukraine and other areas including fighting international terrorism. He will use that and he will use the majority of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives and the Senate to begin to reduce pressure on Russia, because it will show that Russia will be supporting the U.S. in some important areas.

I think there will be serious and thoughtful negotiations between the Trump administration and the Putin administration. They might come up with some agreements. Trump is a dealmaker and he is going to find the way out with Russia as he promised his supporters. Many in the GOP [the Republican Party] may or may not like this, but thus far, if nothing else, President Trump does seem to be keeping his campaign promises and one of his most consistent promises was to return the U.S. to a more friendly relationship with Russia.

RD: Russia spent half of its National Reserve Fund in December 2016. How can you account for this? Does it mean that something is fundamentally wrong in the Kremlin's response to the crisis? Did this huge spending contribute to the ruble rebound?

K.W.: There are a lot of factors in the ruble rebound. It was expected that Russia was going to use its National Reserve Fund in 2016. This was obvious. It still has the other welfare reserve funds. This drawdown was more or less expected. At the end of the year, Russian authorities finally sold the shares of the country’s largest state-run oil company Rosneft.  And this sale — the privatization of Rosneft — really helped the Russian government. I think that the possible privatization of other assets in Russia, such as perhaps Sberbank, in 2017 will be key events for the year for the Russian budget, which is obviously under pressure.

But this current crisis is exactly the sort of crisis for which Mr. Kudrin had been saving funds – a time when oil prices would fall and put the federal budget under pressure. What is most important to know is that commodity prices are always cyclical — they rise and they fall. The time to enact saving policies is when oil prices are high, that’s when the government needs to establish savings funds. Then when oil prices eventually fall again, that’s when you need the stabilizing funds the most. This is all Macroeconomics 101.

RD: Yet the authorities spent half of the budget in just one month (December 2016).

K.W.: This country has always had a huge amount of expenditures exactly in the fourth quarter — right at the end of the year. There is cyclicality if you look at that over 30 years of Russia’s budget spending habits.  Now the question is at what point will the sanctions be rolled back from the European Union and the United States, regarding Russia’s access to international financial markets.

I would like to see the sanctions lifted as soon as possible, because they will bring more liquidity back into Russian banks and put less pressure on the Russian budget. And it will mean that the national savings funds would be drawn down not as fast, although it is probably still going to have to run out in 2017. And the authorities might tap into other welfare funds for Russia.

Actually, the key issue in solving this question for Russia is what happens with oil prices. Right now there are expectations that oil prices will be strengthening. Russia has already reduced its output. It is already exceeding the expectations on the agreement with the Saudi Arabia-led OPEC regarding how much oil Russia will reduce its output by. And this is going to have a positive effect on the price of oil. I don’t think it will have a great impact — oil prices are not going to go back to some $80-90 per barrel but we could see oil stabilize in the $50- $60 range for some time. 

 

Also read: "What the Rosneft deal might change for Russia"

RD: Yet Trump makes no bones about his intentions to make the U.S. the number one energy superpower of the world. This means that he is going to export even more oil to external markets and this, in turn, could lead to another decline in oil prices.

K.W.: In fact, as a dealmaker, he might be very interested to partner with Russia in that sphere. If you look at all the people that Mr. Trump has picked, that makes sense. You know, he has picked people that are going to reduce environmental protection legislation; they are going to expand licensing for oil and LNG exports; they are going to expand the oil and gas pipeline and distribution network.

Trump has picked a surprisingly interesting choice in the Department of Energy, with Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, because he is actually interested in wind power and alternative energy power. This might mean that the U.S. is going to continue to pursue a policy of developing alternative energy for domestic consumption, so that it could expand its exports of oil and gas. That might be why Trump might seek to form a more friendly partnership with Russia, because it is going to emphasize oil and gas partners in exploration, storage and distribution.

RD: So, you don’t believe that Trump’s attempt to turn the U.S. into a new energy superpower will dampen oil prices, do you?

K.W.: I don’t really think that Trump is going to push the oil prices down. I think he wants to see a compromise at about $70 per barrel. After all, he is interested in big profits from oil exports and low oil prices won’t be in his interests. Likewise, he is not going to support alternative energies so much by allowing oil to go back up above $80 per barrel.

In fact, by having higher oil process, he could help alternative energy development.  So, I do believe that he is going to find a compromise with Russia and Saudi Arabia, but at the same time he is going to emphasize that the U.S. will be a strong competitor or partner to OPEC and with Russia.

He wants the U.S. to play a leading role in setting that oil price. This means that if the United States wants, it would be in a position to rapidly increase output and sales. And that will give the United States better negotiating leverage – that’s what President Trump will always be looking for in his international political and economic dealings. What he wants is he wants to put the United States into having a greater leverage on international oil markets by expanding oil production, LNG exports, storage and access pipelines.

Recommended: "OPEC deal: What does it mean for Russia?"

RD: As many pundits assume, there might a sort of trade war or economic confrontation between China and the U.S. under Trump, given the fact that he overly puts himself into opposition with Beijing. Could Russia be interested in such a confrontation and actually profit from it?

K.W.: Trump’s thinking is that he is going to create conflicts with China and, therefore, he needs allies and Russia would be a very good ally. I don’t think that Russia is going to lose from that and, moreover, Russia could gain from that by developing more normal, business-like relations with the United States. Russia very much needs Western technologies to modernize and access global markets for its commodity products as well as markets for its emerging technology-driven businesses. Russia cannot possibly be against globalization and international economic development, but what’s important for Russia is respect and the formation of equal partnerships.

RD: What is the key challenge for Russia in 2017?

K.W.: I think that Russia should use low oil prices as a chance to modernize its economy and promote the development of innovation-driven universities. Russia need to encourage small entrepreneurship and drive Russian large-scale state enterprises to buy Russian technology and innovation in order to support the development of regional innovation ecosystems and technology clusters, and this is critical. Once oil prices head back up, then the pressure to support these modernization programs will fall.  

So, as long as oil prices are still relatively low, Russian reformers need to continue to use this time to press forward with modernization and specific structural reforms that will encourage entrepreneurship and the development of the innovation-driven economy. That will be Russia’s key challenge in the coming two years.  

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What policy will Trump pursue in Central Asia? https://russia-direct.org/opinion/what-policy-will-trump-pursue-central-asia
Galiya Ibragimova

While the U.S. has announced intentions to pull back from the world scene, any sign that Russia or China is gaining too much influence in Central Asia could force the hand of the Trump administration.

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Wed, 25 Jan 2017 20:40:12 +0000 5392 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/what-policy-will-trump-pursue-central-asia#comments What policy will Trump pursue in Central Asia?

While the U.S. has announced intentions to pull back from the world scene, any sign that Russia or China is gaining too much influence in Central Asia could force the hand of the Trump administration

While the U.S. has announced intentions to pull back from the world scene, any sign that Russia or China is gaining too much influence in Central Asia could force the hand of the Trump administration.

Pictured: Lanzhou, a town in China along the ancient Silk Road. Photo: AP

New American President Donald Trump, who plans to reassess U.S. foreign policy, will pay even less attention to Central Asia than his predecessor Barack Obama, according to some experts. However, one should not underestimate Trump, who, after all, had business partners in the former Soviet republics and some Central Asian countries.

Given this experience and background, the new American president might pursue a realistic and pragmatic policy that won’t roll back or undo the achievements of the previous presidential administration in the region. After all, Trump repeatedly declared during his presidential campaign that his foreign policy would be based on pragmatism and rationalism.

That’s why Washington might strengthen its ties with Central Asia both bilaterally and multilaterally despite numerous expert opinions that Trump would pay less attention to the Central Asia than Obama. Moreover, Trump is said to personally know many important entrepreneurs in Central Asia, given his background and links in the region. This gives him an advantage in comparison with the Obama administration.

The Afghanistan issue

One of the key challenges in the region for the Trump administration is Afghanistan. This agenda has been haunting not only Washington, but also the Central Asian countries. The leaders of these countries offered their mediation help to the world, including Russia and the U.S., to contribute to resolving the problem of Afghanistan. However, the geopolitical heavyweights didn’t take seriously the peacekeeping efforts of the Central Asian countries, because of their inability to resolve their own domestic economic, social and political challenges.

Yet Trump, who seeks to reduce the American military presence in Third World countries, might take seriously the offer from his Central Asian counterparts. After all, it could allow him to partially shift the financial burden and peacekeeping responsibility for stability in Afghanistan to Kabul’s neighbors.

Such equal cooperation on Afghanistan would allow Trump to kill two birds with one stone. First, he would decrease the budgetary spending on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan – this what he promised during his pre-election campaign. Second, such a move would demonstrate that his policy in Central Asia is not heavy-handed and he is not going to reverse the achievements of his predecessors in the region.

The fight against radical terrorism

Another field for cooperation between the U.S. and Central Asia is the fight against international terrorism and, specifically, the coordination of intelligence efforts, technical assistance and tight border controls to prevent the citizens of the Central Asian countries from joining terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).

Also read: "Will Central Asia become a field of rivalry or cooperation?"

The Central Asia countries might be interested in such cooperation with the U.S. in order to decrease their military and political dependence on Russia and China. This means that Washington’s closer cooperation with its Central Asia partners might be an effective counterbalance to Beijing’s ambitions in the region. In fact, it echoes Trump’s pre-election pledges and intentions to contain China.

At the same time, it should not be in the interests of Trump to compete with Russia in the region, given Trump’s intention to improve relations with Russia and cut the American presence abroad: Washington is hardly likely to violate the existing political status quo.

Moreover, Russia and the U.S. might team up and the region might be another field of U.S.–Russia cooperation in terms of global security (if Trump and Putin succeed in establishing personal chemistry). Another factor that might unite Russia and the U.S. could be the growth of China and the necessity to counterbalance Beijing in the region. At least, this might be the pragmatic logic of the Trump administration. It remains to be seen if the Kremlin will be ready to team up with Washington against China.

Trump and political instability in Central Asia

While dealing with Central Asia, Trump also should be mindful about the risks of political instability in the countries of the region. Such tensions might emerge in the case of a power takeover or dominance of some political stakeholders, as indicated by the events in 2016, when many leaders of the region started thinking about peaceful transition of power to successors.

For example, before the upcoming presidential election, Kazakhstan held snap parliamentary elections to test the approval and credibility ranking of the country’s 76-year-old President, Nursultan Nazarbaev and, most importantly, the political system he created.

In Tajikistan, the authorities conducted a referendum that allowed current President Emomali Rahmon, age 64, to stand for the presidency with an unlimited number of terms. This move resolved the problem of succession, at least until the moment he passes away. Moreover, Rahmon appointed his son to the position of mayor of Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, which indicates that he might be the country’s next president.

Uzbekistan has already changed its political elites, with those at the helm trying to create their own stable political system and increase their clout inside and outside of the country. On Dec. 11, 2016, Kyrgyzstan conducted a referendum that allowed the authorities to amend the country’s constitution. It was seen as an attempt to create a more reliable mechanism of power transition. 

The situation in Turkmenistan is even more complicated and challenging, with its oil-dependent economy. In 2016, the country faced an economic crisis that resulted from the drop in oil prices, and this poses a serious risk for the presidency of Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow and the country’s political future, in general.

While being aware about all these looming political threats, the leaders of the Central Asian countries might seek support from their more powerful foreign partners, including Russia, China and the United States. However, the new political elites of the region will ask the Trump administration to decrease their dependence on Moscow and Beijing. It is a matter of diversification. Washington could jump at the opportunity in this case by supporting the new political elites and strengthening their ties with civil society in the region.

However, it doesn’t mean that the U.S. will once again assume its messianic role, lecturing and spreading democratic values (given Trump’s reluctance to do it). It just means that the U.S. could increase the number of exchange programs, scholarships and fellowships in the U.S. for students, professionals, politicians and academia to give them opportunities to acquire all necessary skills abroad and apply them in their home countries.

Also read: "What's the future of US foreign policy in Central Asia?"

And the C5+1 format, which brings together the U.S. Secretary of State and his counterparts of the five Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan), could be a good platform for such dialogue on civil society development.  In fact, over the medium term, such an approach could be much more effective in alleviating political risks, strengthening democratic institutes and maintaining stability in the region than immediate military support for the survival of the regimes.

This is what Trump should keep in mind if he wants to maintain good relations with the Central Asian countries. At the same time, he should understand that amidst the Russian-led Eurasian integration project and China’s One Belt, One Road project, Central Asia could find itself in the situation where it has to choose. And this also means the U.S. can take its own initiatives and invest in the region. At any rate, Central Asia will remain open for investment from the U.S. as well as Russia and China. And this is a good sign.  

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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Why US policy toward Russia will not take a U-turn under Trump https://russia-direct.org/opinion/why-us-policy-toward-russia-will-not-take-u-turn-under-trump
Aurel Braun

The current “bromance” between Trump and Putin and early signs that the two leaders will find common ground are no assurance of good and sustainable relations between the U.S. and Russia.

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Tue, 24 Jan 2017 19:06:43 +0000 5388 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/why-us-policy-toward-russia-will-not-take-u-turn-under-trump#comments Why US policy toward Russia will not take a U-turn under Trump

The current “bromance” between Trump and Putin and early signs that the two leaders will find common ground are no assurance of good and sustainable relations between the U.S. and Russia

The current “bromance” between Trump and Putin and early signs that the two leaders will find common ground are no assurance of good and sustainable relations between the U.S. and Russia.

Pictured: New American President Donald Trump during one of his pre-election campaign events. Photo: AP

“Shocking” is an often overused word to describe political events, but for the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it is appropriate. Conventional wisdom in the media, among the punditry and in the case of the pollsters, proved wrong, and now billionaire and Republican Donald Trump is officially the new American President.

Conventional wisdom now suggests that Russia is one of the great beneficiaries of this outcome. If there are indeed celebrations in the Kremlin, such assumptions may well prove to be mistaken or at least premature. Prudence, realistic expectations, and nuanced assessments would be wise guidelines in both capitals in preparing for Trump's tenure. The supposed “bromance” between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin may in fact prove to be ephemeral or, at minimum, volatile.

Also read: "Russia braces itself for a Trump presidency"

To be sure, there is a need for and there are new possibilities for improving relations between Russia and the U.S., relations that have sunk to new lows. There are multiple areas where much can be done realistically.

Potential areas for cooperation

The two countries can and should cooperate in defeating and destroying the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). The West under Trump’s leadership may slow the possible future expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), thereby reassuring Russia. NATO may offer more cooperative arrangements to Russia, including various confidence-building measures that would ease Moscow’s concerns about encirclement. A Trump administration likely would also place less emphasis on criticizing Russian domestic policies in contrast to Barack Obama’s leadership, which has characterized Putin’s government as dangerously repressive.

Further, President Trump is likely to tone down, in general, the criticism of Russia and his administration may encourage Eastern European Alliance members to smooth their own relations with Moscow. Lastly, the Kremlin may itself make positive gestures towards a Trump administration by diminishing or eliminating provocative actions by Russian air and naval forces that, particularly in the past year, have alarmed Alliance members.

Recommended: "Here is why the Kremlin's big bet on Trump might be risky"

None of the above steps, which would seem both reasonable and achievable, however, change certain crucial realities in the relationship between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. Warm congratulations from the Russian leader and words of praise from Trump do not alter the asymmetrical nature of the relationship that, in turn, is bound to deeply affect the policies of the two states.

Expectations, particularly in Moscow, consequently need to be congruent with the reality that regardless of who the president is in Washington, and Moscow’s international aspirations aside, the United States is the only true global superpower and its economy is roughly eight times that of Russia. Moreover, a desire for good relations in the case of both parties will not eliminate the insistence of each government to protect their own particular and divergent national interests.

Consequently, if Russia expects that under a Trump presidency there will be a rollback of the NATO enlargement that has already taken place, Moscow is highly likely to be disappointed. The Kremlin is also likely to find that a Trump government will not legitimize Russia’s annexation of Crimea or any attempts by Moscow to pursue its interest in Eastern Ukraine through the use of hybrid warfare because this would significantly derogate from American national interests and international prestige and credibility. It is difficult to see then how the United States would agree to lift sanctions unless Moscow made some very substantive concessions in Ukraine.

Reasons why Trump will not back down

There are multiple reasons, in fact, why an America under Trump would not simply take a U-turn in policies toward Russia, despite the possibility of him pursing a kind of neo-isolationist foreign policy.

First, Trump is not a traditional isolationist. That is, what Trump promises is a United States that is less extended in military engagements and commitments internationally, but not one that somehow conjoins isolationism and demilitarization. Specifically, he wants a United States that is the most powerful military entity in the world, with the strongest and most dynamic economy working together with reliable allies who pay what would be, in his view, their fair share for defense. As he does not tire of telling the American people, Trump insists on being a “winner” and promises to make the United States a “winner.”

Far from disarming, the new President promises to greatly rebuild the American military. During the election campaign, it is noteworthy that he continually used Russia’s military buildup to justify his call for a rapid rebuilding of the American armed forces. Russia has indeed invested heavily in its military, raising defense expenditures from $30 billion in 2000 to over $90 billion by 2014, with a new generation of tanks, strike aircraft, cruise missiles and the development of a new heavy thermonuclear ICBM (designated by NATO as “Satan 2”).

Trump especially contrasted the massive modernization of Russia’s nuclear forces with the stagnation of American forces and promised an urgent U.S. reversal. Coupled with what America and its allies view as provocative actions, including Russia's installation of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, alleged Russian incursions into Estonian airspace in October, claims of Russian cyber attacks and accusations of Russian hybrid warfare, could mean that, combined with a large American rearmament program under Trump, one might see a dangerous arms race that Russia could ill afford.

Second, Trump’s demands that NATO allies pay their fair share by boosting their military expenditures may in the longer term actually strengthen the alliance’s capabilities rather than lead to its dissolution. Such growth in capacity, combined with greatly enhanced American military capabilities, would hardly be in Russia’s interests. A Hillary Clinton administration might have used inflammatory rhetoric but America’s military capabilities likely would have followed the downward curve instituted by the Obama administration.

Also read Russia Direct's report: "The new face of America: How Donald Trump will chnage Russia-US relations?"

Third, Trump’s commitment to abandoning or sharply changing the Iran nuclear deal could also be a blow to Russia. Moscow’s very large military and economic relationship with Tehran could come under new scrutiny and criticism because Trump, despite his pledge to improve relations with the Kremlin, has committed himself to confronting Iran’s massive support for terrorism, blocking Tehran’s ambitions for regional dominance and punishing the Iranian theocracy’s attempts to humiliate America.

Finally, Trump’s intention to make the United States into an energy superpower, with large energy exports, could also complicate matters for Russia. These added energy exports would drive down world prices, thereby damaging the Russian economy that is both stagnant and heavily dependent on such exports.

In sum, the current “bromance” and soothing words from Trump are no assurance of good and sustainable relations. “Applied history” will only go so far in predicting new policies, and the asymmetry in Russian and American power and Trump’s ambitions to make America great and a “winner” are also seminal determinants in the future relationship.

Add to that Trump’s desire for a “winning” legacy, and the unpredictable temperament of a man who’s alive to all insults, real or imagined, and the asymmetrical “bromance” could prove to be truly ephemeral. It would be wise then, it seems, for Putin and members of his circle to greatly lower expectations and tread very carefully internationally, and particularly with the incoming administration in Washington.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

The article was initially published in Russia Direct Report "The New Face of America."  This report also brings together the analysis from  Victoria I. Zhuravleva of the Russian State University for the Humanities, Nicolai Petro from the University of Rhode Island, and Christopher Hartwell, president of the Center for Social and Economic Research in Warsaw. In addition, it features the interview with Evgeny Minchenko, director of the Moscow-based International Institute for Political Expertise. To get access to the report, subscribe to Russia Direct and download it.

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Trump's inauguration, the Davos forum and the Eurosceptic summit https://russia-direct.org/russian-media/trumps-inauguration-davos-economic-forum-and-eurosceptic-summit
Anastasia Borik

Russian media roundup: The inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, the Davos economic forum and the convention of Eurosceptics in Germany all made headlines last week.

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Mon, 23 Jan 2017 21:02:16 +0000 5386 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/russian-media/trumps-inauguration-davos-economic-forum-and-eurosceptic-summit#comments Trump's inauguration, the Davos forum and the Eurosceptic summit

Russian media roundup: The inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, the Davos economic forum and the convention of Eurosceptics in Germany all made headlines last week

Russian media roundup: The inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, the Davos economic forum and the convention of Eurosceptics in Germany all made headlines last week.

On Jan. 17-20, the World Economic Forum took place in Davos and brought together leaders of different countries, businessmen, politicians, economists and journalists from all over the world. Photo: Reuters

Last week Russian journalists focused their attention on the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump. It overshadowed other domestic and foreign policy events. In addition, the Russian media also covered the Jan. 17-20 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and the German convention that brought together Eurosceptics from across Europe.

Trump’s inauguration and his presidency’s impact

On Jan. 20, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump officially assumed the role of the presidency and moved into the Oval Office. As might be expected, his inauguration attracted a great deal of attention from the Russian media. Journalists focused on the ceremony itself as well on Trump’s first moves and the expected impact of his presidency on U.S-Russia relations, including sanctions. 

Vedomosti, a business newspaper, points out the key principles of the new American president — populism, isolationism and protectionism. Trump’s inauguration speech, with its focus on the hardships of the ordinary American citizen who had to shoulder the burden of the economic crisis, suggests that the U.S. will have to live through a challenging period of time that could be like the Great Depression.

Also read: "Russia braces itself for a Trump presidency"

Vedomosti also pays attention to the tone and the substance of Trump’s message to the American people, with his anti-establishment populism and criticism of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s social policy. He even didn’t mention the Republican party in the speech or any establishment institutions, which are supposed to help him in implementing his pledges. Usually, inauguration speeches are meant to unite people, but Trump’s performance indicates that he may already be alienating parts of the nation. This implies that his presidency will be unpredictable, which is not a good sign.

Meanwhile, Izvestia, a pro-government newspaper, published the opinions of Sergei Sudakov, a political pundit, who predicts that the next four-year period won’t be easy – not just for Americans, but also for Trump himself, because his pre-election pledges will be very hard to implement in the United States for objectives reasons (such as pressure from the U.S. Congress and numerous foreign policy challenges, including relations with Russia).

Although Russia is interested in improving relations with the U.S. and is pinning its hopes on Trump, it doesn’t mean that Moscow will make concessions to Washington unilaterally unless Trump offers reciprocity. Russia and the United States will have to work hard to reach compromise and it will require a lot of time.

At the same time, the pundits interviewed by the tabloid Moskovskiy Komsomolets question the ability of the new American president to cope with domestic and foreign policy challenges. After all, Trump overtly put himself into opposition to the entire Washington establishment and announced his audacious plans. However, today there seem to be no signs of him being able to get his plans off the ground, because his own party and the U.S. Congress may not support his initiatives.

The Davos economic forum

On Jan. 17-20, the World Economic Forum took place in Davos, Switzerland and brought together leaders of different countries, high-profile businessmen, politicians, top managers, economists and journalists from all over the world. This year, the Chinese delegation, which was headed by the country’s president Xi Jinping, was one of the biggest delegations at the forum.

Gazeta.ru, an online media outlet, highlights that the ghost of Trump’s presidency haunted the forum, given the protectionist penchant of the new American leader and his pledges to restrict U.S. trade with China. Such rhetoric puzzled the participants of the Davos forum a great deal. One of the representatives of Russia in Davos, Anatoly Chubais, the head of Russian Nanotechnology Corporation (RUSNANO), described the environment in Davos as “an atmosphere of horror” ahead of Trump’s tenure.        

Also read: "Why the Russian economic crisis is far from over"

At the same time, Gazeta.ru points to the fact that the news and the fear about Trump overshadowed a very important agenda at the forum: the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the environmental challenges facing the world.

Likewise, business media outlet RBC Daily focuses on the “misgivings” of business and, specifically, its fears of Trump, “populism and extremism, the return to protectionist policy and trade wars.” Political uncertainty hampers big business, which is losing its confidence about the future. At the same time, RBC Daily highlights the fact that China, with its huge economic clout, played one of the key roles during the 2017 Davos summit. According to the newspaper, China attracts even more interest this year, unlike Russia that remains on the periphery of the forum.

Meanwhile, Vedomosti also raises the topic of the increasing role of China, which, oddly enough, has become the key driver and ideologue of liberal globalization. China has assumed the role of a responsible global leader that sets and maintains the global rules and is not afraid of discussing them with its Western counterparts.

However, the Western countries, including France and Germany, are focusing on their domestic challenges, which creates for China even more opportunities to maneuver. 

The Eurosceptic summit in Germany

On Jan. 21 far-right and Eurosceptic leaders from Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere came together in the German city of Koblenz amidst the protests that brought together more than 3,000 people. The leaders of France’s National Front, Belgium’s Flemish Interest, Alternative for Germany and the Italian Northern League discussed their future plans in the European parliament in an attempt to bolster their popularity in Europe and contribute to creating a new world order.

Russian media paid a lot of attention to the summit, because Moscow sees the Eurosceptic and far-right populists as its allies.

Izvestia, a pro-government newspaper, expects that 2017 will be the year of the Eurosceptic parties, given that 2016 saw many shakeups, including the exit of the UK from the European Union (“Brexit”). Now that Trump has officially assumed the U.S. presidency, 2017 may see an increase in instability, given his populist and far-right rhetoric.

Moreover, the EU countries are facing numerous domestic challenges, which their political elites so far cannot respond to in a proper manner. And, amidst this uncertainty, Eurosceptic politicians plan to offer an alternative. And the attempt to unite all European far-right parties at one summit creates an opportunity for them to turn into political heavyweights.

Also read: "A disintegrating Europe should not be in Russia's best interests"

At the same time, business daily Kommersant gives voice to a Russian expert, Sergei Utkin from the Russian Academy of Sciences, who assesses the odds of Europe’s far-right politicians being able to modify the current world order. He describes the summit as “ostentatious in its nature,” pointing to the fact that every political party is seeking publicity.

Their attempt to create a new world order is too audacious a goal to implement, he implies. Brexit and Trump’s presidency will mobilize European mainstream politicians who are interested in keeping their Eurosceptic counterparts at bay, Utkin added.

Expert comment of the week

Sergei Veselovsky, associate professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), about Trump’s inauguration:

President Donald Trump’s inauguration speech echoes the pledges of his pre-election campaign (America first! Buy American and hire American!). It also confirms his decisiveness to tackle America’s domestic problems first and foremost. He pays little attention to foreign policy and reiterated the necessity to defeat radical Islamic terrorism. After Trump’s inauguration, a new and exciting period of American and international politics started. It remains to be seen how Trump will change the system. He won’t give up without a fight.

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Audacity of hope: Impact of Barack Obama's legacy https://russia-direct.org/opinion/audacity-hope-impact-barack-obamas-legacy
Victoria I. Zhuravleva

Despite the criticism of his opponents, President Barack Obama leaves his mark on history as the president of hope.

 

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Fri, 20 Jan 2017 21:37:35 +0000 5384 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/audacity-hope-impact-barack-obamas-legacy#comments Audacity of hope: Impact of Barack Obama's legacy

Despite the criticism of his opponents, President Barack Obama leaves his mark on history as the president of hope

Despite the criticism of his opponents, President Barack Obama leaves his mark on history as the president of hope.

 

President Barack Obama makes Thanksgiving Day phone calls from the Oval Office to U.S. troops stationed around the world, November 24, 2016. Photo: White House / Pete Souza

After the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, the presidency of Barack Obama will become part of history — not only of America, but also the world. At the very least, he will be remembered as the leader of the only global superpower.

Most importantly, Obama will leave his post with a relatively high approval rating — 58 percent of Americans assess his presidency favorably. However, on average, his rating has been about 53 percent throughout his second presidential tenure. That marks a significant drop from a level of 78 percent in 2009.

Does this really mean that the 44th president of the United States failed, as his opponents claim? Moreover, does Trump’s victory, the failure of the Democrats in the elections and the crisis of the American political system mean that Obama didn’t perform well?

Like any president and political leader, Obama left a complicated, if controversial, legacy, with his successes often accompanying failures. It also depends on how one frames his policy: his success might be seen as a failure by some, but not by others.

Also read: "Russia braces itself for a Trump presidency"

Furthermore, one should keep in mind that Obama had to shoulder the hard legacy of his Republican predecessor George W. Bush, that America and the world pinned a great deal of hope on Obama, that the world itself changed significantly after he came to the Oval Office and these changes have persisted throughout his entire presidency. No one knows how other presidents would have responded to the challenges if they were in his place and whether they would have succeeded.

Obama’s legacy in domestic policy

Obama came to power in the wake of an economic crisis, one of the greatest challenges after the World War II, which was about to turn into another Great Depression. Obama succeeded in steering the country out of the deep recession and created 17 million new jobs in the American economy. GDP has been growing since 2010; the American economy and the financial system have been reinvigorated. But the economic growth between 2009 and 2016 was comparably modest — only 2 percent amidst the increasing tax burden of $1 trillion.

More than one-third of this sum fell on those from the middle class, despite Obama’s promises to improve their living standards. In addition, the implementation of his administration’s anti-crisis strategy required a lot of money from the budget and resulted in the increase of the national debt to $19 trillion. Americans are hardly likely to forget this.

Obama met the leaders of key European countries to discuss an array of security and economic challenges facing the trans-Atlantic partners as the U.S. prepares for President-elect Donald Trump to take office in January. Photo: AP

The Obama administration started its tenure amidst increasing social and economic inequality. Besides the creation of new jobs, Obama felt compelled to give healthcare guarantees to 20 million Americans despite harsh opposition from the Republican Party, the country’s largest insurance companies and the middle class. Nevertheless, the healthcare reform will leave its mark rather as a success, given its audacity and large-scale scope.  

Despite the fact that Obama promoted cultural and national diversity in the form of multiculturalism, his presidency saw racial tensions within the country, as indicated by numerous incidents with African-American people, killed by police officers. These tensions led to social unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities and highlighted the dormant problem of American racism. It was aggravated by anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S., exploited by Trump in the context of his right-wing populist campaign.

Obama himself pinned a lot of hopes on large-scale national reconciliation in American society, which was faced with perennial social, religious and ethnic conflicts as well as new social challenges. At the same time, his presidency didn’t meet the expectations of those who saw him as a progressive and innovative president.

Obama promised to show the advantages of liberalism. While he inspired people, he also encouraged unjustified optimism and almost messianic enthusiasm among voters. This, in turn, led to disappointment and increasing indignation, which Trump ultimately used during his presidential campaign. This also accounts for the popularity of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont).

However, the liberal doctrine has not lost its allure, merits and perceived advantages. It just didn’t meet the demands of a significant part of the American electorate. And it is not uncommon for the history of the U.S., which has been accompanied by the modification of the party credo. It remains to be seen if the Democratic party, which weakened its positions by the end of Obama’s presidency, will be able to return American people’s trust and offer them a realistic and coherent political program, which will combine healthy idealism and realism.

At the same time, Obama is leaving his mark as a charismatic intellectual with an excellent sense of humor. Most importantly, he wasn’t marred by any scandal and proved to be an honest and fair leader with a great deal of integrity and moral responsibility.

 

President Barack Obama greets nine-month-old Josephine Gronniger, whose father, Tim Gronniger, brought his family by the Oval Office for a family photo. Photo: White House / Pete Souza

Obama’s foreign policy legacy

Audacity of hope also symbolizes Obama’s foreign policy legacy, because he came to power in the wake of increasing anti-Americanism, the result of President George W. Bush’s policy. Obama sincerely sought to bring peace and stability in the fragile and war-torn world. He wanted to reconcile the West with the Islamic world, alleviate the nuclear threat, reset relations with Russia and Latin American countries, and contain the rise of China.

Also read: "What Obama's foreign policy legacy means for Trump"

His approach was based on the transformation of the character of the U.S. leadership through smart power and its advantages in innovation and technology. Rejecting the unilateralist paradigm, he wanted to be a responsible global stakeholder and make the world better in cooperation with American partners.

Yet Obama was not decisive, persistent and consistent enough during some moments that required these traits. He drew red lines and then backtracked. He stepped up his efforts to regulate the perennial conflict between Israel and Palestine instead of responding in a timely manner to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). He described Russia as an economically weak country, a regional power with low GDP. Yet at the same time he admitted that Russia might be powerful enough to interfere in the U.S. electoral system. To an observer, all this seems inconsistent.

Obama had to deal Bush’s troublesome foreign policy legacy — three wars: in Iraq, in Afghanistan and against international terrorism. The first two campaigns are over thanks to Obama’s efforts in 2011 and 2014. However, Americans troops are still present in these countries to withstand ISIS and terrorist organizations, including Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The war against global terrorism is far from being over. Obama could not resolve this challenge despite the fact he annihilated the most wanted terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, who took responsibility for the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. At the same time, the issue of U.S. drones to bomb terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somali causes a lot of debates given the collateral damage, including casualties among peaceful citizens.

While Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East and his attempt to promote democracy in the region leave a mixed impression (as indicated by the Arab Spring), his nonproliferation efforts look less controversial. One of Obama’s foreign policy achievements is the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New Start), which was ratified together with then-President Dmitri Medvedev in 2010. The agreement intends to decrease nuclear missiles to 1,550 units, with the number of intercontinental ballistic, submarine and bomber warheads supposed to decline to 700. However, the agreement was suspended during the crisis in U.S.-Russia relations, which were largely severed as the result of the civil war in Ukraine.

 

On his birthday, former U.S. President Barack Obama listens to a prayer during a phone call with pastors. Photo: White House / Pete Souza

Moreover, in 2015, he contributed to the ratification of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which is better known as the Iranian nuclear deal.

Under this agreement, Tehran was obligated not to enrich uranium for military purposes, to upgrade the Arak heavy water reactor in central Iran to exclude production of military-grade plutonium and, most importantly, to reduce over the next decade the number of centrifuges at its disposal from nearly 19,000 to only 5,060 functioning in the Natanz nuclear facility. However, Iran was allowed to maintain a small uranium enrichment program with the option of later — and perhaps rapid — expansion.

At the same time, this agreement left an unpleasant aftertaste by hampering U.S. relations with its traditional ally in the Middle East, Israel.

Recommended: "Obama's legacy: Not that bad after all?"

Finally, Obama's latest contribution, if symbolical, to nonproliferation became his May 2016 visit to Hiroshima, one of the Japanese cities that felt the impact of the U.S. atomic bomb in 1945. This is a remarkable event within his tour to the Asia-Pacific region, because he became the first American leader in the country’s history who dared to make this move as the U.S. President after the atomic bombings of Japanese cities. He also paid a visit to Vietnam to contribute to the collective memory of the 1955-1975 Vietnam War, a tragic and traumatic experience in the U.S. history.

Within the politics of memory Obama established the Honouliuli National Monument in Hawaii, near Pearl Harbor, on the site of the internment camp that held about 4,000 Japanese prisoners of war, and cut a deal to return American military land on Okinawa (a legacy of the World War II) to the Japanese government, the move that was hailed as the biggest land transfer in more than four decades.

All these "historic gestures" of Obama indicate that he tried to restore historical justice and take responsibility for the policy of his predecessors.

Nevertheless, experts from both sides of the Atlantic are inclined to downplay Obama’s contribution. According to their narrative, Obama’s many foreign policy initiatives (including the Iranian nuclear deal, the restoration of the diplomatic relations with Cuba, regional trade agreements – Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) came as result of his personal political ambitions and attempts to justify the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in advance after he won the 2008 election.

But, in fact, all these moves resulted from his consistent implementation of his foreign policy concept and attempt to fulfill his pre-election pledges. At least, Obama’s firm intentions to make the world safer and more stable do matter. In addition, his foreign policy initiatives, from global integration projects to his contribution to the Paris Climate Agreement, pursue long-term goals, not short-term ones. And it remains to be seen what results they will bring many years from now.

The civil war in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s policy in the post-Soviet space became a big challenge for Obama. During his tenure U.S.-Russia relations went through the full cycle — from the reset, intended to foster the collaboration between the two countries, to the full-fledged crisis. At the same time, Obama proved that he is ready to come up with a compromise with Russia, when he refused to impose the non-fly zone in Syria in 2013 after President Bashar Assad allegedly used chemical weapons in the conflict. Finally, Russia and the U.S. agreed to neutralize the Syrian chemical weapons.

Moreover, under Obama, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met regularly with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to foster the negotiation process between Moscow and Washington. At times, this was successful because it contributed to alleviating the tensions in Ukraine and Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Sochi on May 12. Photo: RIA Novosti

However, despite this success, Obama was not able to establish personal chemistry with Putin himself. But it is not only a matter of personal antipathy (even though it also played a certain role). The post-Cold War history of U.S.-Russia relations demonstrates that the leaders of the two countries could get along with in the times of the political modernization and (or) the economic reforms in Russia. At the same time, the identity crises in Russia hampers the attempts to establish close ties between the presidents. The latest move of the Obama administration directly targeted Russia, and the recent anti-Kremlin campaign in response to the alleged hacking of the U.S. electoral system is controversial, like the reset.

Time will tell…

One of the key problems of Obama’s foreign policy is the absence of healthy balance between idealism and pragmatism. In addition, his domestic and foreign initiatives primarily focused on the long-term perspective. However, the U.S. historical experience indicates that American society is able to return to a state of balance that it might have temporarily lost. After all, the "audacity of hope" is the essential part of the American political traditions, and it will remain a vivid metaphor of Obama’s entire presidency.

Recommended: "Here is why the Kremlin's big bet on Trump might be risky"

At any rate, Obama has already left his mark on history and will always be seen as the first African-American president, who inspired hope and came up with a lot of noble initiatives that, unfortunately, could not catch up with the current political agenda. But, who knows, they might be implemented in the future, when the necessary momentum returns.

Probably, Trump would not have become so popular, had Obama presented his technocratic liberalism in a more understandable way for the average American. However, this is not the only reason why Trump won.

Will Trump be able to leave the same mark on history? Will he be able to push through his controversial initiatives, given his low approval rating, at a time when 51 percent of Americans disapprove of the presidential transition? It remains to be seen.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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Russia braces itself for a Trump presidency https://russia-direct.org/analysis/russia-braces-itself-trump-presidency
Pavel Koshkin

The long-awaited inauguration of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president has been a source of constant debate within Russia’s expert community, which continues to point to his unpredictability.

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Fri, 20 Jan 2017 17:07:13 +0000 5382 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/russia-braces-itself-trump-presidency#comments Russia braces itself for a Trump presidency

Trump's presidential inauguration has been a source of constant debate within Russia’s expert community, which continues to point to his unpredictability

The long-awaited inauguration of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president has been a source of constant debate within Russia’s expert community, which continues to point to his unpredictability.

Russian dolls of U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Photo: TASS

As the U.S. prepares for President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, Moscow has been paying close attention as well. Arguably, the Russian media is paying as much attention to Donald Trump as it did to the annexation of Crimea or the military escalation in Eastern Ukraine.

Throughout the week leading up to the inauguration, Russian pundits have conducted a series of discussions and reports on Trump’s presidency and its impact on U.S.-Russia relations. At the same time, many everyday Russians are now pinning their hopes on the future American leader. Yet to what extent are these expectations justified and realistic?

To answer this question, a number of well-known Russian pundits weighed the pros and cons of a Trump presidency at two recent events in Moscow. One of these was a Jan. 18 Valdai Discussion Club event, while another was a Jan. 20 event at a media center in central Moscow. All agree that Trump’s presidency raises a lot of questions as well as creates both challenges and opportunities. The Trump administration looks like a big political experiment with uncertain results and implications for the world, they say.

Understanding the Trump phenomenon

However, even though the next four years in the United States are expected to be unpredictable, the election of Trump has a certain logic to it, resulting from many factors that should be analyzed together.

Increasing inequality in America, political differences within the U.S. establishment, disappointment of the bulk of population in the country’s elites, the failure of the Democrats to attract three million more voters, the underestimation of the Trump phenomenon and the overestimation of the Democratic party’s popularity — all this contributed to the victory of the flamboyant oligarch.

According to experts, Trump’s presidency is rather a symptom of a political crisis that needs to be resolved as soon as possible given the global clout of the United States. Robert Legvold, a professor at Columbia University, described it as “the intensification of polarization” of U.S. policy — the greatest since the 19th century. It is accompanied by the challenges of a “dysfunctional government” and an institutional crisis.

Trump is the result of Barack Obama’s presidency, according to Maxim Suchkov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).

Trump is ‘an absolute field for an experiment’

Today, power and influence are shifting to leaders within the military and industrial sectors. Trump’s victory is a clear indication of this trend, according to Andrei Bezrukov, an associate professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), who presented his report “Donald Trump: A Professional Profile of The New U.S. President” at the Valdai Discussion Club this week.

In fact, during his pre-election campaign, the U.S.-President-elect represented these two elites — the military and industry — with his mantra “Make America Great Again!” In turn, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton represented four other elites — Wall Street, the media, academia, and the establishment. 

Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin describes the members of the Trump team as “serious” dealmakers who are ready to relentlessly pursue their goals and come up with compromise, driven by simple categories of national and business interests. He also pointed out that his team doesn’t include representatives of think tanks and academia, as it was the case during the presidencies of Trump’s predecessors.

Recommended: "Here is why the Kremlin's big bet on Trump might be risky"

All this indicates that Trump is behaving like a classic contrarian. He destroyed the Washington consensus and challenged notions of political correctness, which existed before in American political life and brought elephant-in-the-room problems to the agenda — many inconvenient questions that were passed over in silence or relegated to the secondary agenda. Specifically, he raised the problem of U.S. identity and outlined a new role that America should play domestically and globally, experts concluded.

The Trump phenomenon resulted from the fact that public debates on inconvenient and taboo topics were overshadowed by the establishment’s agenda or “suppressed” by political correctness, said Ivan Safranchuk, an associate professor at MGIMO University, during the Valdai Discussion.

There are a lot people in the U.S. with the Trump mentality. To quote Safranchuk, they supported him because they were accustomed to high living standards. Faced with economic challenges, they “felt wild fear of the future” and were uncertain about it, with looming unemployment, falling incomes, healthcare challenges and low odds of getting higher education and being competitive.

“Trump reformatted the political dialogue in the United States,” reiterated Bezrukov.

While shying away from political correctness (which is uncommon for the U.S.), Trump went too far in his rhetoric, with almost every single move bringing about an outcry and a great deal of buzz in the media. Yet, despite this, Trump was like a duck to water. The more outlandish and bizarre he was, the more criticism came from mainstream media, the more popular and strong he became. This is exactly how the law of antifragility works, presented in the book "Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

In fact, Trump transformed all this strenuous criticism in his favor and, finally, won the U.S. election. Any other candidate would have failed to convert his or her scandalous behavior into political triumph, yet Trump won, in part, due to the fact that “he is the phenomenon of pop culture,” according to Andrei Sushentsov, the director of the Foreign Policy Advisory Group, another author of the Valdai report.

“And this is a unique case,” he said, adding that Trump is a president who is not in debt to lobbyists, the establishment and other financial groups for his victory. And this gives him more freedom and turns his presidential tenure into “an absolute field for an experiment.”  

Legvold argues that the U.S. and the world will be able to understand the nature of the Trump administration in several months. So far, everybody is consumed with trying to answer several looming questions: How much political capital will Trump’s team spend on domestic policy? How will  foreign policy change — will Trump shy away from global U.S. dominance or try to maintain its global leadership? These are the questions that puzzle the expert community in the U.S., according to Legvold.

And this is especially important in the current geopolitical environment — amidst assertive and defiant foreign policy moves of Russia in Ukraine and China in the Asia-Pacific region, he added. 

So far, Trump’s pledges and statements have left Ukraine worried, China frustrated, and “Russia uneasy, but hopeful,” said Legvold. And, most importantly, does Trump’s team really know how to reconcile with other stakeholders, including Russia?

Trump’s team and challenges for his presidency

All experts agree that the next four years won’t be easy for Trump, given that he failed to win the popular vote, with Clinton having garnered two to three million votes more than her Republican opponent. After his election, many Americans took to the streets chanting slogans like “Trump is not my president.”

According to the Jan. 4-8 Gallup-Newsweek poll, Trump’s approval rating is the lowest in comparison with his predecessors, and people were disappointed even before his tenure officially started. When asked if they approved of the way Trump is handling his transition, 51 percent of Americans disapproved of it, and only 44 percent approved.

By comparison, Obama’s rankings were high during his transition in January 2009: 83 percent of the Gallup respondents supported him. Likewise, George W. Bush performed better before his inauguration and got the support of 61 percent of Americans (only 25 percent disapproved of him).

 

Moreover, the Washington establishment voted against Trump and now he will have to work with many of those who publicly distanced themselves from him. It is not ruled out that any of his moves will be rejected by the U.S. Congress or sabotaged, Russian experts assume.

The Congress will block any of Trump’s initiatives that it sees as too pro-Russian or controversial, says Suchkov. However, Trenin believes that Trump might be able to deal with the challenge, given his background and ability to cut deals.

“The Congress is not only a platform for debates, but also a place for lobbying one’s interest, ” Trenin told Russia Direct during the Jan. 20 discussion, when asked about the potential conflict between Trump and the Washington establishment. “The relations with the Congress will be based on the principles of a business deal.”

Meanwhile, Safranchuk expects that the Trump administration will be controversial and even scandalous, “so there is no reason to expect consistency from it,” he added, warning that the way it is handling domestic problems and foreign policy might “turn into chaos.”   

“It is likely to be a scandalous administration,” he predicted.

Also read Russia Direct's report: "The new face of America: How Donald Trump will chnage Russia-US relations?"

Such a hostile political environment might create a lot of risks, according to Trenin. Given Trump’s penchant for “playing hardball,” he will be as assertive as possible in responding to threats of political sabotage or the information war that has already been covered in detail by American journalists.

When asked by Russia Direct about the odds of Trump’s impeachment, which has already become the topic of debates, Trenin warned that such a scenario would be deleterious for the stability of the U.S. political system and, most importantly, could pose a serious threat to the world.

“Any impeachment means a grave political crisis within the country,” he said. “I don’t think that Trump’s opponents will provoke his impeachment. If it takes place, the crisis will be exacerbated and lead to unpredictable implications, including for the entire world.”

U.S.-Russia relations under Trump

At the same time, Sushentsov and Bezrukov imply in their report that the Trump administration might become a catalyst and resolve many international and domestic problems, given the background of Trump and his image of an effective and assertive dealmaker.

They assume that Trump will be driven by pragmatic interests, not ideology, which creates an opportunity for Russia to find common ground with Washington.  Yet, it remains to be seen whether Trump is able to translate his effective business experience into a successful presidency and good relations with the Kremlin, says Sushentsov.

Indeed, during his press conference, he admitted that he would try to get along with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yet, if he fails to establish chemistry with his counterpart, he will be much tougher than Clinton if she had won the election, Trump implied.

Video: President Donald Trump 2017 Supporters TV

Most Russian experts, including Trenin and his colleague Alexei Arbatov, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program, believe that the Trump administration will talk with Russia from a position as the world’s only superpower, from a position of force, if it fails to come to a compromise with the Kremlin. 

Also read: "Nonproliferation or nuclear buildup: What path will Trump follow?"

While the Democrats want to make the world happier by contributing to resolving global problems, "the Republicans want to make America happier by exploiting the world as an asset," said Arbatov, adding that such an approach could lead to tensions with Russia.

“Russia will have to respond from a weaker position and not lose at the same time, because it is weaker [than the U.S.] economically and politically,” Trenin said.

However, the good sign is that the Trump administration, at least, has a concept of how the U.S. sees the role of modern Russia in the world. And if this concept echoes the Kremlin’s one, Trump might normalize relations with Russia, Sushentsov says. If not, no one dares to predict the consequences. And, hopefully, the warnings of Clinton won’t come true. “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons,” she said during her campaign.

Yet, even though Putin and Trump might see eye-to-eye, it doesn’t mean that their personal chemistry will translate to better relations, warns Suchkov. Such an approach — focusing on the personal ties between two leaders — could mislead and lead to wishful thinking. It is vitally important to find chemistry not only between leaders, but also with other groups, structures and agency.

Otherwise, the future of U.S.-Russia relations will amount to nothing more than the assumed friendship between Putin and Trump. And this is dangerous, given the example of Putin’s relationship with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the downing of Russia’s jet near the Syrian-Turkish border in November 2015. 

Suchkov argues that the Kremlin should not be surprised if Trump changes his favorable and complimentary tone toward Putin and moves to a tougher realistic rhetoric, implying the need for tradeoffs for the relationship to work.  

Amidst such unpredictability, Moscow and Washington should alleviate tensions and prevent politics from hampering their cooperation in the Arctic and other fields, where they might find common ground, said Ivan Timofeev, the program director at the Russian International Affairs Council.

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Nonproliferation or nuclear buildup: What path will Trump follow? https://russia-direct.org/opinion/nonproliferation-or-nuclear-modernization-what-path-will-trump-follow
Artem Kureev

When Putin and Trump meet for the first time, one major topic of discussion could be the fate of each nation’s nuclear missile systems.

Pictured: U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. Photo: AP

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Thu, 19 Jan 2017 20:35:10 +0000 5380 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/nonproliferation-or-nuclear-modernization-what-path-will-trump-follow#comments Nonproliferation or nuclear buildup: What path will Trump follow?

When Putin and Trump meet for the first time, one major topic of discussion could be the fate of each nation’s nuclear missile systems

When Putin and Trump meet for the first time, one major topic of discussion could be the fate of each nation’s nuclear missile systems.

Pictured: U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. Photo: AP

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has been facing a lot of criticism for his controversial statements, reckless inconsistency and his apparent lack of understanding of key political and international problems. And his recent interview with Time magazine only seems to have confirmed his image of an impetuous politician.

During the interview, Trump made it clear that the sanctions imposed on the Kremlin for its policy in Ukraine could be lifted only as part of a tradeoff involving nuclear nonproliferation. In other words, he plans to pursue the same policy of nonproliferation as his predecessors and expects the Kremlin to do the same if it wants economic sanctions to be lifted or alleviated.

However, he said in December that he would build up America’s nuclear potential. He noted that this policy would continue “until such time, as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” This appears to be exactly the opposite strategy of nuclear nonproliferation. Does it mean that he contradicted himself within the period of just a month?

Or is there just a political calculation behind his recent move that aims at resolving all problems at once — modernizing the U.S. nuclear potential and, at the same time, presenting himself as a peacekeeper who helped to contain Russia’s nuclear threat?

A short guide to the history of nonproliferation

The history of nonproliferation dates back to the era of the Cold War, when nuclear weapons became a deterrent factor in the 1950s. Nowhere was this more evident than in the resolution of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world was at the brink of a nuclear catastrophe. The Soviet Union had some advantages in delivery systems of nuclear weapons and missile systems in comparison with the U.S., yet by the 1970s the Soviet nuclear potential decreased due the country’s economic challenges, resulting in near parity with the United States.

Also read: "Putin and Trump: How to make nonproliferation a priority in 2017"

In 1972, Moscow and Washington signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-I), which aimed at limiting the nuclear arsenals of the two countries to the level that they had reached at the moment of the ratification.

In the same year, the Soviet Union and the U.S. signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that obliged them to decrease the number of territories covered by their ABM systems: Only Moscow in Russia and the Grand Forks Air Force Base in the U.S. were protected by missile systems until 2009, when the treaty expired.

However, today the New START treaty between Moscow and Washington is still intact after being signed in April 2010 between Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev. The agreement intends to decrease nuclear missiles to 1,550 units, with the number of intercontinental ballistic, submarine and bomber warheads supposed to decline to 700. Both Russia and the U.S. regarded the New START treaty as a big diplomatic victory. This was especially true for the Kremlin, because at the moment of ratification, Russia had significantly fewer warheads than America.

Moreover, Moscow has not yet reached the nuclear missile threshold. In addition, the New START treaty doesn’t extend to multiple rockets, which can carry 12 warheads instead of just one.

At the same time, the New START treaty failed to resolve the problem of the American ABM shield in Eastern Europe and didn’t lead to the reduction of the nuclear arsenal of two U.S. allies — Great Britain and France. In fact, it just reconfirmed the nuclear parity and status quo and didn’t give any advantages to either side.

The inconvenient truth about nuclear deterrence

One should be mindful about some inconvenient aspects of nuclear deterrence that are ignored by diplomatic circles or dismissed by the political establishment (advertently or inadvertently). Today, the nuclear deterrence concept amounts to one simple and obvious move: in the case of nuclear attack, an adversary will be forced to respond in kind, regardless of how catastrophic the implications might be.

Top brass in the armed forces and military pundits refer to it as “unacceptable damage.” What does it mean? It means that even a limited nuclear attack would result in the total collapse of the economy, unimaginable social upheaval, serious problems with energy sources and the food supply - not to mention radiation poisoning and a colossal death toll in the epicenter of a nuclear explosion.

Also read: "For Russia, nuclear security is not the same as nuclear disarmament"

In any imagined apocalyptic scenario, in which the U.S. or Russia would conduct a nuclear attack against each other (or their allies), the response is supposed to be reciprocal. Yet the nuance is that the New START treaty doesn’t forbid the types of delivery systems and nuclear warheads that could destroy life on the planet. Moreover, the United States has been stepping up its efforts to develop the so-called bunker buster bombs, which could penetrate to deep underground bunkers and shelters as well as hardened targets.

Likewise, the Kremlin has also expressed interest in such warheads. Andrei Bezrukov, a Russian undercover agent who was exposed in 2010 after a spy scandal, allegedly obtained secret information about bunker buster bombs, as some Russian media report.

Thus, the current treaties between Russia and the U.S. are hardly likely to save the world from a nuclear apocalypse. Moreover, the anti-missile system won’t be able to protect a country from a potential nuclear threat: submarine warheads, Tomahawk cruise and P-500 missiles cannot be intercepted by the ABM system. This might mean that any potential large-scale conflict between the two powers will hardly likely be a zero-sum game: it will be a lose-lose conflict.

Russia and Trump’s nuclear agenda

What can Trump offer as an alternative to nuclear deterrence? At any rate, his initiative will be political in its nature and he might make an effort to offer an acceptable tradeoff to Russia. Washington and NATO are highly interested in Russia withdrawing its Iskander missile systems from Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave in northeastern Europe.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin seeks to persuade the White House to withdraw nuclear missile systems from military bases located close to the Russian border. It also wants guarantees that the U.S. won’t deploy its ABMs in Eastern Europe. Such an agreement could also cover the problem of multiple warhead rockets and decrease the number of military launch systems.

At the same time, all these “peaceful” initiatives of Trump don’t mean that he is not going to build up and modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal and strengthen the entire military complex of the United States. Similarly, he is hardly likely to stop developing new kinds of nuclear weapons. After all, many American politicians repeatedly highlighted the importance of modernizing the U.S. nuclear potential. Moreover, it is not in the interest of the Trump administration to make any concessions about ABMs in Europe.

In turn, the Kremlin won’t withdraw the Iskander missile systems from the Kaliningrad region unless Trump yields on the question of ABMs. However, there might still be a political tradeoff — and the so-called nuclear trains could be the subject of this tradeoff.

Moscow announced the launch of such a train, the Barguzin, in 2016. Western experts labeled it “the ghost train” and characterized this nuclear train as an invincible threat that would be able to undermine U.S. security. The nuclear train is a mobile railroad complex that carries the nuclear warheads and rockets and easily maneuvers throughout the country. It is convenient in responding to potential attacks or launching its own missiles. It is a significant deterrence factor.

Also read: Interview with Carnegie's Alexey Arbatov "Russia might be the first casualty if nuclear terrorism becomes reality"

And if Trump can persuade Putin to give up the project if the U.S. withdraws its ABMs from Eastern Europe, it could be framed by his administration as a big diplomatic victory and a breakthrough. In addition, it could be used to optimize the U.S. budget as a way to modernize the country’s military project, a goal that the Trump administration is pursuing. Such a move could be quite logical and expected from the U.S. President-elect, given his pledges to prioritize the U.S. army and cut expenses involved in maintaining the military infrastructure in Europe.

Moreover, such a move would allow Trump to find common ground with Russia and normalize the bilateral relations, which could foster the process of lifting (or alleviating) the sanctions imposed on the Kremlin, at least those sanctions that hamper American business.

All this indicates that the nonproliferation agenda might play a significant role during the first official meeting between Putin and Trump. However, it remains to be seen if they will be able to come up with a compromise. If they will, it is not clear to what extent their potential deal will be viable and long-standing, given a great deal of unpredictability and the fact there are no effective agreements that could restrict the use of nuclear weapons.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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The Kremlin's difficult balancing act in preserving the political status quo https://russia-direct.org/analysis/kremlins-difficult-balancing-act-preserving-political-status-quo
Pavel Koshkin

With presidential elections looming on the horizon, the Kremlin faces difficult choices about how to preserve social and economic stability without overreaching its authority.

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Thu, 19 Jan 2017 00:51:26 +0000 5378 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/kremlins-difficult-balancing-act-preserving-political-status-quo#comments The Kremlin's difficult balancing act in preserving the political status quo

With presidential elections looming on the horizon, the Kremlin faces difficult choices about how to preserve social and economic stability without overreaching its authority

With presidential elections looming on the horizon, the Kremlin faces difficult choices about how to preserve social and economic stability without overreaching its authority.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during the meeting with the Security Council at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti

Hundreds of Russians took to the streets last week in central St. Petersburg to protest a controversial decision of the local authorities to hand over an important city landmark, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site and an important museum since 1917, to the Russian Orthodox Church. In the minds of many Russians, the takeover sends a symbolic message to society: the Kremlin plans to step up its policy of social and religious conservatism.

This issue is particularly relevant for Russia in 2017 as it attempts to deal with an economic crisis at home, geopolitical instability abroad, and the looming presidential election in 2018. Given the number of political variables, say some experts, the state may start to take a more active role in spheres such as religion and culture in order to assert some sort of stability in society.

This was a recurring theme at the recent Gaidar Economic Forum in Moscow, where participants addressed the country’s political challenges and the relationship between the state and the population. One of the discussions, organized by the Valdai Club and the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (WCIOM), outlined current and future social trends in Russia and assessed to what extent the authorities are ready to respond to the current challenges.

Recommended: "Movers and shakers in Russian politics in 2016"

It’s here that the example of St. Isaac’s Cathedral is particularly instructive. By handing over the landmark to the church, the authorities may be seeking to appeal to traditional values, while implicitly calling on Russian citizens to shy away from Western values and liberalism. The government appears to be going ahead with its decision despite the fact that the St. Petersburg activists gathered at least 160,000 signatures on a petition to revoke the local government's plan to hand over the cathedral.

This case is a vivid manifestation of how the Kremlin sees current domestic policy, and the state’s willingness to sign off on the transfer of St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church might give some hints as to how the Kremlin will frame its political agenda in 2017.

The social compact between state and society

One of the problems currently facing the Russian government is defining its relationship with society: What does it give to the people and what does it take or require from them? In a best case, of course, there would be a balance in this relationship. According to Valery Fedorov, the head of WCIOM, defining this relationship should the key question for the authorities and their success depends primarily on the ability to maintain a balance and satisfy the population.

Framing the nation’s identity is crucial in this regard, because it mobilizes people around the leader and contributes to maintaining the balance. Without the clear understanding of one’s identity, a country is likely to collapse, Fedorov argues. Andrei Fursenko, a presidential aid, agrees. The government should come up with clear goals and guides and convey them to people, he said.

No wonder, then, that the Kremlin strongly promotes a conservative agenda – in many ways, it is meant to help the nation cope with an identity crisis and reconfirm the traditional values that many Russians have been yearning for since the annexation of Crimea. Amidst the conservative surge, Russians are starting to identify themselves as part of a great nation that is ready to sacrifice well-being and economic prosperity for the sake of abstract national pride, according to numerous experts.

That’s why economic challenges and the looming possibility of the Kremlin failing to fulfill its social commitments to the population haven’t affected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s public approval ratings. It is also the result of the population’s demand for a strong leader and the surge of populism within the country.

Learning to spot the signals of discontent

However, all these trends might mislead both the population and the authorities. First, it suggests that government cannot keep the balance between what it gives and what it takes. Sooner or later, domestic challenges (ranging from low quality of education, poor healthcare and rampant corruption) might lead to dissatisfaction.

Maintaining the nation’s pride by imposing the idea of Russia being a great country might result in a backlash if the expectations of the population won’t be met in a timely manner. In the language of economists, it could be a case of short-term planning and a narrow planning horizon.

The problem is that the authorities prefer to make rational, if short-term, moves. Yet such short-term thinking create many long-term challenges and risks, said Nikolai Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics (HSE), during the Gaidar Forum. Populism might win tactically, but it could fail strategically. 

The ghosts of 1917

At the same time, attempts to focus purely on the political agenda and public opinion polls could leave the authorities unaware about the real problems and moods of ordinary Russians, as a number of experts at the Gaidar Forum highlighted. They warn against increasing inequality in the country, which might complicate any policies of the government.

Andrei Bezrukov, an associate professor at Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University), compared the current situation to the one in 1917, before the great revolution in Russia, when inequality was approximately the same.

Marine Voskanyan, the international links coordinator at the Moscow Economic Forum, is even more pessimistic. Quoting numerous research reports and experts, she said that today inequality in Russia is bigger than before the 1917 Great October Revolution.

It results from the fact that the authorities failed to satisfied the demands of the population. What is in demand in today’s Russia is social justice, she said.  As a result, the state turns into a sort of political hybrid: Ostensibly, it is attractive and prosperous, yet in reality, “people live here like in a jungle,” Voskanyan warned.

Many participants of another Gaidar Forum discussion, “Political Trends – Assessment, Analysis, Forecast,” echoed her view. Georgy Satarov, a politician and a former aide of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, says that during a crisis of governance, sociologists cannot “track down all changes” occurring in society. And this is almost impossible in the current political environment in Russia, where the media frames all events so that they reflect the views of the authorities. According to Satarov, all inconvenient facts are passed over in silence or whitewashed.

Read the interview with Leonid Gozman: "What do the Kremlin and the Russian opposition have in common?"

The growing split in Russian society

According to Vladimir Gelman, a political expert and a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg, the key reason why experts and politicians fail to understand public opinion or predict incidents is the fact that “we are inclined to overestimate the moves of some political figures” while underestimating the background of the events, the environment, global trends and shifts.

Indeed, the agenda of the political elites overshadows public problems and the challenges of ordinary people. Their agenda is comparably underrepresented, which could increase the risks of “important and deleterious processes,” said Tatyana Vorozheykina, a political scientist, during the Gaidar Economic Forum.

“Likewise, one hundred years ago, nobody expected the catastrophe [of the revolution],” she warned, while clarifying that it doesn’t mean that 2017 will necessarily bring another upheaval.

One of the key challenges is that Russia is divided, yet this split is dormant in its nature, with the Kremlin dismissing it as unreal, because it relies on public opinion polls.

And the results of the 2016 parliamentary elections imply that many Russians, basically, those living in the country’s “European part (Moscow, St. Petersburg and other big cities), don’t support Putin, while those in the Eastern or southern distant regions mobilize around the Kremlin, according to Dmitry Oreshkin, an political expert and a member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society Institutions Development and Human Rights. The low turnout is a clear sign that the population is increasingly disappointing the policy of the authorities. Oreshkin describes this state as a “dormant domestic asymmetry.”

What happens to the status quo?

Amidst such rising pessimism, Leonid Gozman, a well-known Russian democratic activist and politician, expresses concerns about the fact that Russia’s authorities are unable to objectively and realistically assess public opinion and their approval ratings. At the same, the authorities fear any changes in the country’s political system and possess a lack of real confidence about what might happen, he said.

That is probably why the authorities are reluctant to make any hasty moves that could lead to grave mistakes. Instead, say experts, they prefer maintaining the status quo, especially in 2017, which marks the 100th anniversary of the 1917 October revolution.

Andrei Kolesnikov from the Carnegie Moscow Center argues that those at the helm prefer “to maintain the political equilibrium” without unnecessary moves, because they are afraid that “something wrong might happen.” Thus, they stick to the wait-and-see approach, at least until the 2018 presidential election in Russia.

“2017 might be a year without significant domestic events,” Kolesnikov said during the forum. “This year will be the year of preparation for the events in 2018.”

Political options for the Kremlin

To maintain political balance and bring people together, the Kremlin might reinvigorate a witch hunt against opponents, tighten the screws or intrude into people’s privacy. This is especially true if it fails to establish chemistry with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and fails to achieve its goals on the international arena, Gozman and other experts warn. Bringing people around such an agenda is dangerous: It is “bad consolidation” because it creates the illusion of stability, Kolesnikov said.

Also read: "The results of the Duma elections send the wrong signal to the Kremlin"

Vorozheykina echoes and further develops this view. By focusing too much on the Chechen wars, fueling the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and launching the Syrian military campaign (i.e. the bombing of Aleppo), the Kremlin seems to have legitimized violence as a tool in foreign and domestic policies to maintain the authoritarian regime in the country. In fact, this helps the authorities divert people’s attention from economic problems, she concludes.

In this regard, the ideas of Bezrukov are indicative. Amidst the increasing unpredictability in the world, rising inequality and the risks of economic crisis and social upheavals, the state is likely to step up its domestic control, which, eventually, will lead to what he describes as “the dominance of the state” in all fields. It will inevitably create a conflict between privacy and state control. The challenge for the authorities today is to persuade people to accept this dominance and justify the right to interfere, said Bezrukov.

So, it remains to be seen what steps the Kremlin will undertake in 2017. Will it take subtle and cautious steps, or will it take a more forceful role in claiming its control over society? The most intriguing question is how society will respond, as one is about to see with the example of St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

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From Obama to Trump: Is Cold War really averted? https://russia-direct.org/opinion/obama-trump-cold-war-averted-what-now
Nicolai Petro

The Trump administration has a unique opportunity to change the American foreign policy debate about Russia and move beyond the policy of containment.

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Wed, 18 Jan 2017 23:25:06 +0000 5376 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/obama-trump-cold-war-averted-what-now#comments From Obama to Trump: Is Cold War really averted?

The Trump administration has a unique opportunity to change the American foreign policy debate about Russia and move beyond the policy of containment

The Trump administration has a unique opportunity to change the American foreign policy debate about Russia and move beyond the policy of containment.

Nicolai Petro: U.S. President Barack Obama "has tried pretending that values do not matter. The only thing that has never been tried before is assuming that the fundamental values of both sides are the same, and this is where the Trump presidency might have a historical impact." Photo: AP

For a very different take read: "Here is why the Kremlin's big bet on Trump might be risky"

President Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy is marred by the failure to improve relations with Russia. This failure is due primarily to his administration’s inability to envision Russia as anything but an obstacle to U.S. interests. Time and again, at key junctures, his administration failed to provide innovative leadership that might have moved Americans beyond the assumptions of the Cold War, and instead fell back on conventional stereotypes about Russia.

Why the reset failed

The “reset” serves as a model for the failure of the entire Russian-American relationship. From its inception, the reset rested on the flawed assumption that there was a rift between the values of the Kremlin and the Russian people that the West could exploit. Its object was not to engage Russian officials in an open dialogue about values but instead, as the policy’s chief architect Michael McFaul explained, “to establish a direct relationship with the Russian people” over the Kremlin’s head. As a result, a golden opportunity to change the tenor of Russian-American relations by engaging in a real dialogue was lost.

In its fundamental assumptions about Russia, therefore, the reset was really little more than a variant of containment, the policy that has guided American foreign policy toward the Soviet Union for more than half a century, and that has not been fundamentally challenged in the twenty-five years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Ever since that collapse, U.S. administrations have been searching for an alternative to containment that would offer a similarly compelling explanation for Russian behavior. They have failed because, with few exceptions, America’s foreign policy elite cannot truly imagine a Russia that is no longer driven by an ideology that propels it to global confrontation, or that is trying to integrate into the global economy. American attempts to reach a modus vivendi with Russia consistently fail because they seek to prevent what Russia does not want, while discouraging what America should want.

The failure of the reset therefore illustrates a failure of imagination, which persists to this day. Two recent examples of this include the failure by the U.S. to see Russia as a partner in bringing to an end the horrific bloodshed in Syria by fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) together, and the U.S. failure to work together with Russia to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, which risks undermining the entire security architecture of post-war Europe.

The never-ending crisis in American relations with Russia is therefore also an intelligence failure, though why the U.S. failed is a matter of contention. Some argue that the U.S. failure is the result of taking too sanguine a view of Russia, while others say it is because the U.S. has been too quick to blame Russia for everything.

The reset tried to “split the difference” between these two entrenched views by setting values aside. This is precisely why it failed. By pretending that U.S. foreign policy could be conducted without addressing what previous administration had identified as the fundamental reason for disagreements — the “values gap” — the Obama administration undermined its own rationale for improving relations with Russia.

Also read: "The final endgame between Putin and Obama"

It is only possible to surmise how different things might have been had the Obama administration partnered with the Russian government to promote a common post-Cold War values agenda, instead of clinging to the notion that a “yawning divide” in values made partnership impossible. The net result has been to alienate Russia which, regardless of what one thinks of its political system, has prevented the resolution of issues around the globe where American interests are directly affected.

The next administrated should not make the same mistake.

The U.S. has tried assuming that values differ (George W. Bush). The U.S. has tried pretending that values do not matter (Barack Obama). The only thing that has never been tried before is assuming that the fundamental values of both sides are the same, and this is where the Trump presidency might have a historical impact.

What can the Trump administration do differently?

Each new administration conducts a comprehensive review of key U.S. foreign policy objectives. Of course, if one decides a priori that the objective is to contain a hostile Russia, then such a review is merely an exercise in confirming preconceptions, not in exploring ways to move beyond them.

It would be useful for the Trump administration to start its review with the basic question that needs to be asked: If America truly wants to improve relations with Russia, what actions could America take that would end the old Cold War perceptions, and eventually turn Russia into an ally? This is the question that candidate Trump implicitly posed when he asked, rhetorically, “Wouldn’t it be great if we actually got along with Russia?”

Source: ABC15 Arizona

An honest approach, one that does not assume that the only answer is regime change in Russia, would find that the U.S. already cooperates with Russia in many areas vital to U.S. national security. The U.S. cooperates in the peaceful exploration of the Arctic, the U.S. relies on Russian rockets to explore space, the U.S. has even worked together with Russia quite successfully to preserve the environment, combat terrorism, and limit nuclear proliferation.

But previous administrations have failed to utilize these areas of practical cooperation to shape the tone of overall policy. As a result, instead of seeing them as a part of a vital network that can be expanded and deepened to create opportunities for better relations overall, each instance becomes unique, isolated, and even anomalous. Senior government officials are often simply unaware of just how much the two nations are already cooperating—a good illustration of this is the attempt by the U.S. Congress to end the use of Russian rockets that are vital to the U.S space program.

It is important to bear in mind, however, that the incoming president will still be surrounded by many in his own party who have very little desire to understand contemporary Russia, and by an embittered foreign policy elite that is eager to capitalize on his failures.

To succeed in establishing his own agenda, therefore, Trump will need to assert personal control over the government’s narrative about Russia, or risk seeing it slip into the hands of neo-cons, both Democrat and Republican. If this happens, it will inevitably undercut funding for any domestic agenda. This happened to both President Harry S. Truman, who saw his ambitious “Fair Deal” domestic agenda sacrificed to fund NSC-68, and to President Jimmy Carter, whose domestic agenda suffered after his administration’s focus shifted to combating Soviet intervention in Afghanistan [NSC-68, or National Security Council Report 68, was a 58-page top secret policy paper presented to President Truman in 1950 that some view as launching the Cold War with the Soviet Union – Editor’s note].

Also read Russia Direct's report: "The new face of America: How Donald Trump will chnage Russia-US relations?"

Trump would therefore be wise to use the presidential “bully pulpit” quickly and often to reshape the public’s view of Russia, in the same way that President Nixon reshaped its view of China. Without such personal intervention, Trump’s administration will be unable to rewrite even the first chapter of what President Obama derisively called the “Washington playbook,” which has traditionally been devoted to the Cold War.

When former Secretary of State Dean Acheson tasked the head of his policy planning staff, Paul Nitze, to craft NSC-68, he told him to write something that could “so bludgeon the mass mind of 'top government' that not only could the President make a decision but that the decision could be carried out.”

Something similar is needed today, only this time, instead of providing the mass mind of government with a rationale for containment, it should provide a rationale for finally replacing the policy of containment, and reclaiming the once bright promise of the end of the Cold War.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

The article was initially published in Russia Direct Report "The New Face of America."  This report also brings together the analysis from  Victoria I. Zhuravleva of the Russian State University for the Humanities, Aurel Braun of the University of Toronto, and Christopher Hartwell, president of the Center for Social and Economic Research in Warsaw. In addition, it features the interview with Evgeny Minchenko, director of the Moscow-based International Institute for Political Expertise. To get access to the report, subscribe to Russia Direct and download it.

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Obama's legacy, Trump's dossier and Canada's new foreign minister https://russia-direct.org/russian-media/obamas-legacy-trumps-dossier-and-canadas-new-foreign-minister
Anastasia Borik

Russian media roundup: Barack Obama’s presidential legacy, Donald Trump’s upcoming inauguration, and the appointment of Canada’s new foreign minister all made headlines in Russia last week.

Pictured: Outgoiing President Barack Obama. Photo: White House / Pete Souza

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Tue, 17 Jan 2017 22:49:23 +0000 5374 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/russian-media/obamas-legacy-trumps-dossier-and-canadas-new-foreign-minister#comments Obama's legacy, Trump's dossier and Canada's new foreign minister

Russian media roundup: Barack Obama’s presidential legacy, Donald Trump’s upcoming inauguration, and the appointment of Canada’s new foreign minister all made headlines in Russia last week

Russian media roundup: Barack Obama’s presidential legacy, Donald Trump’s upcoming inauguration, and the appointment of Canada’s new foreign minister all made headlines in Russia last week.

Pictured: Outgoiing President Barack Obama. Photo: White House / Pete Souza

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s upcoming inauguration continues to attract the attention of Russian journalists, who are discussing it in the context of recent hacking scandals and U.S. President Barack Obama’s political legacy.

At the same time, journalists paid attention to the appointment of Chrystia Freeland as the new Canadian foreign minister, because her tough stance toward the Kremlin might have implications for Russian-Canadian relations.

Obama’s legacy and his Russia policy

During the week, the Russian media discussed in-depth the results of Obama’s presidency, including his recent policy positions regarding Russia. Many members of the Russian media are inclined to describe the outgoing American president as nervous and unfriendly toward Russia, with his latest moves putting a cloud over the future of U.S.-Russia relations.

In his column for Gazeta.ru, journalist and political expert Georgy Bovt argues that the presidency of Obama was a failure in almost every way. At the same time, he admits that Obama achieved a certain measure of success in overcoming the economic recession that started in 2008. However, in other fields, the president who once promised “Hope” didn’t justify the hopes of Americans, according to Bovt, who sees the inequality and political split within U.S. society as a glaring failure of Obama’s tenure.

Also read: "Obama's legacy: Not that bad after all?"

Likewise, in the realm of foreign affairs, Obama was not forceful and decisive enough to bring stability to the world, Bovt says. He also speculates that Obama tried to complicate the presidency of Trump by spurring tensions with the Kremlin over the past two months.

Meanwhile, Russia’s official newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta focused on Obama’s farewell speech, in which Obama talked primarily about his achievements while forgetting about his failures. According to this publication, Obama’s legacy might be overshadowed by Trump’s presidency, especially if Obama’s huge projects on regional trade agreements are not implemented.

At the same time, Actualniy Kommentariy, an analytical publication, published the opinions of columnist Natalia Yankova, who describes the last-minute moves of the Obama administration as deleterious and “toxic” for successors on the Trump team. She believes that such tactics reveal Obama’s underlying weakness.

However, Russia Direct columnist Ivan Tsvetkov doesn’t agree with Russian media and pundits. According to him, they tend to distort reality and are just trying to discredit Obama and his administration, because it is convenient for the Kremlin. Russian propagandists “just scapegoated” Obama and presented him as a very unfavorable leader toward Russia. However, they pass over in silence the fact that Obama’s political opponents and rivals criticize him.

“Such misperception results from ignorance about the American political reality and its nuances,” wrote Tsvetkov. “But in reality, U.S. politicians, mostly from the Republican Party, criticize Obama for his alleged weakness and failure (or cautious reluctance) to respond more firmly to Putin… According to this narrative, in fact, Obama turns out to have been one of the best American presidents for Russia.”

Trump’s intel dossier

With Trump’s inauguration this week, journalists in the Russian media tried to analyze his background, as well as the rumors and leaks surrounding him, from different perspectives.

One of the most intriguing topics that attracted coverage from some media outlets was a controversial (and still uncorroborated) intelligence report about the U.S. President-elect and his licentious behavior in a Moscow hotel, leaked to the American media in early January.

The report contained damaging information about Trump, and hinted that the Kremlin might possess more of the same kind of material that it might use to blackmail the future president. Russian media covered this story in the context of Trump’s future policy toward Russia.

Also read: "Here is why the Kremlin's big bet on Trump might be risky"

Meduza, an independent media outlet based in Riga, Latvia, weighed all the pros and cons of the report and, eventually, found it unreliable and invalid. Dubious sources of the leaked information as well as the style of the so-called “dossier” look very suspicious (and even obscene).

Moreover, the publication of unverified and unfounded information contradicts basic principles of journalistic ethics and calls into question the integrity of some editors of Buzzfeed, an American online publication, which released the dubious report to the public.

At the same time, Kommersant, a business daily, focused on the controversies within the Trump team. Many of these future members of the administration have yet to come up with a common position toward the Kremlin. The problem is that there is no unanimity between some members of the Defense Department and the State Department. The Russia question has seriously divided the Republican establishment in its approaches toward Russia, with some describing Trump’s position toward Moscow as too soft. All this brings about concerns within the Kremlin.  

Meanwhile, Gazeta.ru, an online media outlet, reached out to Russian pundits, who suggest that Trump might be changing his rhetoric about Russia after having been elected. During his pre-election campaign he was more sympathetic about Russia and President Vladimir Putin and was ready to recognize Crimea as part of Russia and discuss the possibility of lifting sanctions. Yet, weeks before his inauguration, he made it clear that he is planning to offer the Kremlin a tough tradeoff in exchange for concessions regarding sanctions and Crimea. At any rate, the Kremlin is taking a wait-and-see approach, the publication concludes.

New Canadian foreign minister

On Jan. 10, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Chrystia Freeland, a former journalist of the Financial Times with Ukrainian origins, as the new Canadian foreign minister. This move might have serious implications for Russian-Canadian relations, given the fact that the Kremlin blacklisted and banned her from entering Russia for her tough stance toward the Kremlin and harsh criticism of Crimea’s annexation. The appointment was met with a mixed response from Russian media and came as a big surprise for the Kremlin.

Kommersant argues that the appointment of Freeland might deteriorate Russian-Canadian relations, which are currently not in good shape. However, there is so far no reason to speculate that the relations will inevitably worsen. The only problem is Freeland’s ban from visiting Russia and now there is no clarity how she will fulfill her duties as Canadian Foreign Minister if she needs to pay an official visit to Russia. Other than that, nothing extraordinary happened with her appointment, given the current political environment and the fact that the Kremlin doesn’t see Canada as a top priority.

Also read: "What the Trump presidency means for Canada-Russia relations"

Quite naturally, the state-run Sputnik, an English-language media outlet, which is seen as propaganda by many Russian and Western experts, describes the appointment of Freeland as a “catastrophe” for Russian-Canadian relations, given the intransigence of Freeland and her sharp criticism of Putin.

At the same time, experts don’t see any links between her appointment and any attempt to complicate relations between Moscow and Ottawa. The key reason is that Canada needs a tough politician to deal with Trump in any negotiations about the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Pundits see the deterioration in relations with Moscow just as collateral damage.

In contrast, Vedomosti, an independent business newspaper, sees Freeland as a good candidate to deal with the Kremlin on behalf of Canada. After all, she lived in Russia for a long period of time, she sincerely likes Russian literature and culture and, most importantly, the people. Although she is tough toward the Kremlin politically and sharply criticized Putin’s policy in Ukraine, it doesn’t necessarily mean that she is a Russophobe. She just sticks to her principles and tries to observe integrity. That’s why there is no reason to be a doomsayer about the prospect of Russian-Canadian relations.

Decriminalization of domestic violence

Last week, Russian members of parliament supported a controversial law that decriminalizes domestic violence in Russian families. The State Duma gave the green light to the bill in the first reading, which means it needs to approved in the second and third readings.

Although the bill is not signed into law, this initiative brought about an outcry in society, especially among media and human rights activists. Journalists warn against “the legalization of domestic violence,” which was previously seen as a serious crime under the Criminal Code. Now the bill is expected to categorize it just as an administrative and petty crime.

On the website of the Echo of Moscow radio station, human rights activist Alena Popova makes no bones about her indignation and the fact that the parliamentarians approved the bill on the first reading. She raises the issue of domestic violence by predicting that the law will increase more incidents in many families, because those who use violence will feel they have impunity.

Meanwhile, Kommersant interviewed experts who highlighted the bill contradicts the state policy of supporting families, because it makes potential victims (including children and women) legally vulnerable to violence and aggression. Moreover, it hampers the attempts of government and human right activists to deal with the problem of domestic violence.

Also read: "The real reason why a resurgence of conservatism in Russia is dangerous"

However, according to the representatives of the authorities, quoted by Izvestia, a pro-government newspaper, the goal of the bill is to overcome what they call “legal contradictions” that lead to unfair punishment. It doesn’t necessarily mean the legalization of domestic violence, the publication reads.

Comment of the week

Oleg Ignatov, expert at the Center for Current Policy, on the bill decriminalizing domestic violence:

“The goal of this bill is an attempt to satisfy the conservative majority of the country. In fact, the authorities conducted such a policy even before Russia retook Crimea from Ukraine. The State Duma adopted a series of laws intended to put, even if artificially, the conservative part of society into opposition with the liberal minority. They just offered an agenda that would help most people to understand their identity and take a political position. With the absorption of Crimea, such tactics of the Kremlin became irrelevant. However, it is not ruled out that those at the helm, who identify themselves with conservatism, seek to return this political agenda once again through such legislation.”

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Why the Russian economic crisis is far from over https://russia-direct.org/analysis/why-russian-economic-crisis-far-over
Pavel Koshkin

Despite encouraging signs, Russian economists and politicians continue to express only cautious optimism about the future of the economy.

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Tue, 17 Jan 2017 19:21:01 +0000 5372 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/why-russian-economic-crisis-far-over#comments Why the Russian economic crisis is far from over

Despite encouraging signs, Russian economists and politicians continue to express only cautious optimism about the future of the economy

Despite encouraging signs, Russian economists and politicians continue to express only cautious optimism about the future of the economy.

In 2017, Russia might be forced to recognize itself as strong politically, but comparably weak and poor economically, with a destitute population and undiversified economy. Photo: RIA Novosti

Despite many difficulties, the Russian authorities were relatively successful in responding to the 2014-2015 crisis, alleviating its burden on the population and eventually emerging from the economic recession in 2016. At least, this is how Russian and foreign experts, economists and politicians assessed the situation during the Jan. 12-14 Gaidar Economic Forum, one of the nation’s key platforms to address major economic, financial and political challenges.

However, the crisis is far from over. One positive sign is that some representatives of the government are aware of this fact. At the forum, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned against the risks of a long-standing recession, which are still high. The only way to hedge these risks is to conduct sweeping structural reforms, which would shift investment from large-scale natural resources projects into infrastructure and human capital.

“The fact that Russia overcame the recession doesn’t necessarily mean the problems are resolved,” Medvedev said during the Gaidar Forum. He pointed out that the key challenges are Russia’s technological backwardness, the commodity-based economy and the enormous role of the government in it.  

Likewise, Oleg Buklemishev, a professor at Lomonosov Moscow State University and a former assistant to the finance minister and the prime minister, expresses pessimism despite the fact that “the current statistics increasingly confirm the view that the recession is formally over.”

Also read: "What can Russia offer foreign investors during a time of crisis?"

“That doesn't mean that it was irreversibly overcome,” he told Russia Direct. “There could be economic growth in 2017, but this growth will be more of a statistical phenomenon rather than something real. According to the government's forecast, investment growth will not resume in 2017, and it means that future economic advance is not guaranteed even in the longer term.”

Christopher Hartwell, the president of the Warsaw-based Center for Social and Economic Research (CASE), is even more pessimistic about the future of Russia’s economy than his Russian counterpart. Although he agrees with Medvedev’s repeated mantra about the urgent need for drastic structural economic reforms, “private investment, the driver of the economy, isn’t going to rebound any time soon unfortunately,” he told Russia Direct.

Sounding the trumpet about defeating the recession would be like Napoleon claiming he conquered Russia once he reached Smolensk,” he said. “No, the battle is nowhere near done and any ‘victory’ now is Pyrrhic.”

“The Russian economy is so intimately tied to public spending that any cut-off of said spending leads to huge ripple effects throughout the economy,” he added. “This is why the price of oil is so important. Now, the tentacles of the Russian state in every economic activity is exactly why we’ll never again see growth like we did in the early 2000s – there are just too many hands on business for it to grow. So what you’re going to see is slow growth, because you can’t quite strangle entrepreneurship no matter how hard you try. But any growth that occurs in 2017 is going to be a result of public spending.”

Will the Kremlin be able to fulfill its social commitments?

At the same time, some participants of the forum questioned the Kremlin’s capability to meet the expectations of its citizens and fulfill its social commitment over the long term unless sweeping structural reforms are undertaken. Today Russia is trying to maintain its wobbly oil-dependent economy and reclaim its great power status. It spends money from its budget coffers on its military endeavors in the Middle East. So, many experts agree that it is becoming even more difficult to meet the demands of the ageing population.

In 2017, Russia might be forced to recognize itself as strong politically, but comparably weak and poor economically, with a destitute population and undiversified economy, according to Andrei Movchan, an economist and an expert at Carnegie Moscow Center. He sees Russia as “the government that can afford itself nothing” — it can afford neither large spending on defense, nor expenses on social welfare, pensions, high-quality healthcare, science, education and infrastructure.    

Recommended: "Fulfilling Eastern Economic Forum pledges: Easier said than done"

Most importantly, in December 2016, Russia’s Finance Ministry spent half of the country’s Reserve Fund, accumulated over the years due to high oil prices, to pay debts and fulfill budget commitments. In other words, these funds were used to plug holes in the country's oil-dependent budget. If one looks at it from a broader perspective, the statistics for 2016 will be even more pessimistic. In 2016, the Fund fell from $50 billion at the beginning of last year to $16.03 billion in early 2017. No wonder, then, the World Bank warned in its recent report that Russia might face serious difficulties in fulfilling its tacit social compact with the population — providing economic prosperity, welfare and cheap government services in exchange for political dominance.

The problem is that 42 percent of the Russian population (60 million people), including 40 million retired people and 20 million employees of state-run companies, depend on the government a great deal, with their key source of income coming from the state budget.

And this cannot help concerning those at the helm. In short, the government is finding it more and more difficult to balance between fulfilling its public commitments and maintaining its budget at an acceptable level, the World Bank reported during the Gaidar Forum. It also pointed out other economic problems, such as inefficient governance, outdated infrastructure, an unattractive investment climate, and declining human capital.

Will Russia’s “rainy day” funds help?

Nevertheless, the authorities continue to pin their hopes on the scenario of rising oil prices, which, according to many economists, might be feasible in 2017. The recovery in oil prices this year could be helpful for Russia's Finance Ministry to avoid spending all of its Reserve Fund in 2017, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said on Jan. 13, during the Gaidar Forum.

"Will we be able to preserve the Reserve Fund if oil prices stay at $50 per barrel? We will," he told reporters on the sidelines of the economic forum.

However, Hartwell is very skeptical about the prospects of the recovery of oil prices, especially given Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States and his promise to make the U.S. an independent energy power. “If President Trump goes full throttle on oil development in the U.S., we can expect to see Russia’s stagnation last for quite some time,” he said.

Naturally, this could have serious implications for Russia’s economy and result in a deficit. And the country’s reserve and welfare funds might not be enough to address the challenge, according to Movchan.

“We are talking about two funds,” he told Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty. “One of them, the Reserve Fund, is more or less liquid, while the second one, the National Welfare Fund, comprises many assets that are impossible to sell. This means that there is much less real money than is officially declared. That’s why if one uses these funds, they will be depleted much faster than it seems to be.”

Hartwell is also skeptical about the potential of the two reserve funds to deal with the economic challenges.

“Where is the money for fiscal ‘stimulus’ coming from when revenue is down?” he asks. “Well, you can print money, go into debt, or cover it from savings. That last one is exactly what the Russia authorities have done, taking from the Reserve Fund for current spending. It’s obviously unsustainable — savings run out at some point during a crisis — but it has kept the Russian economy from a much deeper recession.”

Also read: "Liberals and statists battle for Russia's economic future"

Although spending in a recession might lessen “the depth of the trough,” it also lowers the height of the rebound, Harwell continues. After all, austerity and fiscal consolidation in a crisis leads to much healthier economies in the long run. But the problem is that the buffer of the wealth fund took away the urgency of austerity, because the cushion will run out sooner or later, and the Kremlin will be forced to confront inconvenient spending choices.

Likewise, Buklemishev sees the Kremlin’s excessive reliance on the Reserve Fund in dealing with the crisis as “too rosy” and believes that “the authorities played a negative role during the 2008-2009 crisis in Russia, creating the wrong impression that solution of any problem could be financed with the help of its funds.” That’s why, he argues, the government is still working under the assumption that “the pain of reform is not needed.”

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Here is why the Kremlin's big bet on Trump might be risky https://russia-direct.org/opinion/here-why-kremlins-big-bet-trump-might-be-risky
Ivan Tsvetkov

With the upcoming inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, the Kremlin is increasingly hopeful of creating a better relationship with the West. But is it really the case?

 

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Mon, 16 Jan 2017 18:56:20 +0000 5370 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/here-why-kremlins-big-bet-trump-might-be-risky#comments Here is why the Kremlin's big bet on Trump might be risky

With the upcoming inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, the Kremlin is increasingly hopeful of creating a better relationship with the West. But is it really the case?

With the upcoming inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, the Kremlin is increasingly hopeful of creating a better relationship with the West. But is it really the case?


 

A friend of Russia? Pictured: A fragment of the cover of Russia Direct's report: "The new face of America: How Donald Trump will chnage Russia-US relations?" Photo: Russia Direct / Reuters

With less than a week left until the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, it’s now possible to put together a more comprehensive overview of what to expect in U.S.-Russian relations. After all, the future members of the Trump administration – including Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson - have already passed through Senate hearings and have already given their assessment of key political and foreign policy problems that might impact Russia.

Russia is an avid watcher of these pre-inauguration procedures, at least because the state propaganda machine, together with leading politicians, are doing their utmost to present better relations with the Trump administration as the Kremlin’s key foreign policy goal in 2017. They pin a great deal of hope on Trump himself. However, if their expectations don’t come true about the U.S., the Kremlin has a back-up plan: search for other “friends” in Europe. For example, French presidential candidate Francois Fillon has good odds of winning the election in 2017. He is also seen as a friend of Russia. Moreover, Moscow is looking forward to the elections in Germany as well other European countries.

However, amidst this buzz about the so-called “friends of the Kremlin,” few in Russia are paying attention to one obvious, if important, problem: A really great power is supposed to be self-sufficient and not rely on political changes and new leaders in other countries. A really strong and successful nation should not really care about the future presidents of France, the U.S. or any other nation. Furthermore, for a great power, there is no reason to have a strong view on the Senate hearings of the future members of the Trump administration.

However, the Kremlin’s foreign policy amounts to the idea that the new leaders of foreign countries could determine the future of Russia, its failures and successes. In accordance with such logic, if Trump overcomes what Moscow sees as anti-Russian rhetoric in the Congress and the French people choose the pro-Russian Fillon, everything will be fine — economic and political sanctions will be lifted, and Russia will earn respect and be widely recognized as one of the greatest powers. By the same token, if Russia’s friends won’t defeat those whom the Kremlin sees as adversaries, there will be neither global success nor geopolitical recognition.

Also read: "The final endgame between Putin and Obama"

However, such a foreign policy approach is personality-driven and Russia might find itself trapped eventually. After all, some political nuances and unpredictable factors could a play a leading role if, for example, key political positions transfer over to the control of “undesirable” figures, such as hawks or those who prefer to be tough toward the Kremlin.

In this context, consider the example of Chrystia Freeland, appointed to become the new Canadian foreign minister. She is a former journalist for the Financial Times with Ukrainian origins, who is well known for her tough stance toward the Kremlin. The Russian Foreign Ministry blacklisted Freeland for her harsh criticism of Crimea’s annexation. Russia’s propagandists have already slammed this appointment, with the Kremlin at a loss for how to deal with Canada now.

The problems will increase like a snowball rolling down a mountain if such politicians with principles and political integrity will come to power in Germany, the United Kingdom and France. And what will happen if Trump fails to get along with his friend Putin and the confrontation with Russia increases? No response so far.  

Unfortunately, the Russian authorities don’t seem to understand this harsh reality. Moreover, they have failed to get rid of their foreign policy illusions, with their continued focus on the role of personality in political processes and history. Therefore 2017 might be the year of hopes and disappointments for the Kremlin, at least because it eagerly expects friendly moves from the new political elites of Western countries. And, at the same time, it is concerned with the response the pro-Russia politicians will get from the “hawks.”     

The Kremlin’s penchant for looking for conspiracies and enemies in the outside world is an attempt to explain the current domestic and foreign challenges, which, in fact, stem from objective reasons, not imagined. That’s why the only solution for these problems is the embrace of new politicians who might be able to find common ground with Russia.

In fact, this might be a distortion of reality by Russians. It is a matter of wishful thinking. And one of its key reasons is the effort of the state propagandists, who quite effectively fulfilled their task of discrediting outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama and his administration. They just scapegoated him, with many Russians seeing his policy as the reason for all of Russia’s woes in 2014-2016. 

As a result of the Kremlin-led information campaign, this created firm convictions among Russians that only one man, with the help of a bunch of advisors, was supposedly able to create a crisis in Russia. And if that is the case, another man at the helm [i.e. Trump] will be able to resolve the crisis by reversing all previous mistakes, according to such logic.

No wonder, Russian media run vague reports and stories that focus primarily on Obama’s political flaws and foreign policy mistakes. Few point to Obama’s achievements. Moreover, Russian media and politicians pass over in silence the fact that his political opponents and rivals criticize him.

Also read Russia Direct's report: "The new face of America: How Donald Trump will chnage Russia-US relations?"

Such misperception results from ignorance about the American political reality and its nuances. In addition, any attempts to understand this reality will lead to cognitive dissonance among Russians with their deep-seated, if misguided, beliefs that Obama is the most aggressive and anti-Russian president in the history of the U.S.

But in reality, U.S. politicians, mostly from the Republican Party, criticize Obama for his alleged weakness and failure (or cautious reluctance) to respond more firmly to Putin, viewed by many Western media and politicians as a “Russian dictator” who bullies his neighbors with claims on their territorial integrity and sovereignty. According to this narrative, in fact, Obama turns out to have been one of the best American presidents for Russia.

After all, his response to Crimea’s annexation was relatively moderate and not at all aggressive in comparison with other alternatives, proposed by the “hawks.” Obama refused to provide military assistance to Ukraine regardless of the pressure from the hawkish Republicans. He also gave up attempts to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which is supported by the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, those who are deemed to be friends of Russia might be much tougher and decisive in their response to the Kremlin’s foreign policy overtures. For example, Tillerson, the candidate to become the next U.S. Secretary of State and widely considered to be another “friend of Russia,” made it clear during the Senate hearings that Russia poses a threat to the United States. Moreover, in his view, Russia occupies a part of Ukrainian territory. Furthermore, he said that he would have supported Kiev with military aid in 2014 if he were Obama.  

So far, many in the Russian media are analyzing how to frame the controversial statements of the Kremlin’s “friends.” They keep pushing the same agenda by positively assessing Trump’s odds of improving relations with Moscow. The Kremlin continues to express hopes the pragmatic Trump administration will bring a positive shift and lift sanctions, recognize Ukraine as a sphere of Russia’s geopolitical interests and treat the Kremlin as an equal partner in resolving the Syrian crisis and other international problems. 

Putin, with his KGB origins, is used to betting on the agents of influence when he deals with domestic problems. And now he seems to be testing this approach in foreign policy. Although many Americans are seriously concerned with the U.S. President-elect being the Kremlin’s agent, it is hardly likely to be the case.

It is just the personality-driven approach of Russia in resolving international challenges. It hardly poses a threat to the U.S., yet does threaten Russia itself, because a country with its aspiration to reclaim its great power status finds itself trapped in a situation, in which its future depends on the domestic policy of foreign countries. Hopefully, the Kremlin will understand the flaws and risks of such an approach.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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Can Russia realistically integrate with China and Europe at the same time? https://russia-direct.org/analysis/can-russia-realistically-integrate-china-and-europe-same-time
Pavel Koshkin

Russia has been trying to align its Eurasian integration project with China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. But has the Kremlin really assessed the political and economic consequences of such an alignment?

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Mon, 16 Jan 2017 10:38:51 +0000 5368 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/can-russia-realistically-integrate-china-and-europe-same-time#comments Can Russia realistically integrate with China and Europe at the same time?

Russia has been trying to align its Eurasian integration project with China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. But has the Kremlin really assessed the political and economic consequences of such an alignment?

Russia has been trying to align its Eurasian integration project with China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. But has the Kremlin really assessed the political and economic consequences of such an alignment?

A fragment of the cover of Russia Direct's report "Crossing The Bridge to The Far East". Photo: Russia Direct

The concept of a “Greater Europe” was not the only lively topic of debate at the Jan. 12-14 Gaidar Economic Forum in Moscow. The possibility of a free trade agreement between the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and China’s One Belt, One Road initiative (OBOR) also energized pundits, who described this as an “alignment.”

While those who took the floor at the forum are optimistic about the prospects of this bold and much touted project linking Russia and China, independent experts from the West remain very skeptical.

First and foremost, there is the risk that Russia may be spreading itself too thin by trying to establish closer ties with both the EU and China at the same time. By rushing too quickly into new EAEU integration initiatives without adequately assessing the current state of relations with Brussels, Beijing, and the Central Asian countries themselves, Moscow could be setting itself up for failure.

Secondly, experts are concerned that any type of alignment between the EAEU and the OBOR might be seen purely as a new form of bilateral cooperation between China and Russia. However, it would ignore the key role of the Central Asia countries, which should have a say and offer more initiatives, with Moscow and Beijing shying away from dominance. Any “alignment” should be both bilateral and multilateral in its nature, experts agree. And the same principle should be applied to any type of EAEU cooperation with the European Union.

Yet, given the current geopolitical reality, in which Russia is attempting to reclaim its great power status and China is asserting its right to become another global superpower, attempts to align several huge integration projects might be good just on paper, not in reality.    

Inherent obstacles and risks

One of the problems facing the EAEU is that it cannot offer new stakeholders anything of value other than hydrocarbons and security. Unfortunately, the agenda of Russia’s collaboration with the EU and China is very limited; at times, in fact, it appears that each of these geopolitical players is pursuing its own asymmetric interests.

Also read: "Here is why Russia’s pivot to the East still hasn’t taken place"

As Evgeny Vinokurov, the director of the European Development Bank’s Center for Integration Studies, points out, the economic interests of the EU and the EAEU (and thus Russia) don’t necessarily coincide, regardless of their energy and trade interdependence. While Europe seeks to get access to the 180 million people in the Eurasian market, its natural resources and, to a certain extent, security, the EAEU badly needs EU innovation, technologies and a visa-free regime, said Vinokurov at the Gaidar Forum on Jan. 13.

Such asymmetry stems from the economic peculiarities of the stakeholders, with the Russian economic model based primarily on oil and gas exports and the European model on innovation and new technologies.

Likewise, there is a great deal of asymmetry in the goals Beijing and Moscow are pursuing. As experts and economists argued during last year’s international conference organized by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), the model of China-Russia cooperation is outdated, with Russia exporting raw materials like gas and oil and China providing manufactured goods.

Moreover, Western pundits believe that Beijing basically pursues economic goals in its relationship with Russia. Specifically, it is seeking more energy resources to support its economy, while Moscow is looking at its strategic partnership with China rather in a political and security-driven context, which, oddly enough, could hamper any alignment of the EAEU and the One Belt, One Road project.

“The two parts of the ‘great game between Russia and China’ are asymmetric,” according to an article by Jeffery Schubert, director of the International Center for Eurasian Research at RANEPA  (Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration) and his colleague Dmitry Savkin, also a researcher at RANEPA.

As they point out, “Russian thinking about the EAEU has less to do with economics than with security and political prevalence in the heartland of Eurasia, while Chinese thinking about the OBOR is rather in terms of economics and long-term influence over broader regions.”

"Where Is the Silk Road leading?'

However, despite the challenges created by such asymmetry, the discussion resulting from the “Where Is the Silk Road Leading?” panel at the Gaidar Forum was rather optimistic about any EAEU-OBOR alignment.

Stanislav Voskresensky, deputy minister of Russia’s Economic Development, is more optimistic. He views the alignment of the two integration projects as an attempt to harmonize the relations and cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. Not only is it expected to foster the implementation of their common infrastructure and investment projects, but also it could lead to the creation of joint value added chains and competitive, collaboratively manufactured products. 

Likewise, the idea of the Silk Road endeavor is music to the ears of Justin Yifu Lin, a professor at Peking University, former chief economist and senior vice president at the World Bank (2008-2012). He describes the bold integration as “a win-win project” for both nations. It could spur what he calls regional infrastructural “connectivity.” At the same time, Lin is clear about Beijing’s real interest: opening up to the world In order to explore resources that are vital to its future economic growth.

However, Naoki Tanaka, the president at the Center for International Public Policy Studies (CIPPS), another speaker at the discussion, questions China’s efforts to diversify its markets and sees it as a form of economic expansion to achieve regional dominance. Thus, China’s efforts to re-balance the distribution of goods and resolve the perennial problem of overcapacity, even if they are well-intentioned, might have important implications for nations in the region.

Also read: "What are the results of the Kremlin's turn to the East?"

Djoomart Otorbaev, the former prime minister of Kyrgyzstan (2014-2015), echoes this view. While expressing cautious optimism about the project, he argues that the One Belt, One Road project is going to be a serious challenge for China not only economically and financially, but also politically. Beijing should understand how properly to implement its economic expansion without irritating its neighbors in Central Asia and creating unnecessary conflicts.

Robin Lewis, the director of RANEPA’s Master of Global Public Policy Program, also raises eyebrows at China’s attempts to frame its integration project as a win-win solution. In today’s world, when Russia and the West are driven by a Cold War-like mentality, the win-lose approach might prevail, he implied.

Nevertheless, Lin (as well as his other Chinese counterpart Ho-Fung Hung, a professor at Johns Hopkins University) claims that the One Belt, One Road project is purely economic in its nature and does not seek political dominance. Lin dismisses such skepticism from Tanaka and others as “misperception.”

Lack of trust

Another problem is the lack of sincerity and trust. According to numerous experts, despite the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping do have personal chemistry, it doesn’t translate into trust between Chinese and Russian business leaders. This fact was recognized by Chinese and Russian experts at the 2016 RIAC conference in May. The lack of trust is still a problem, not to mention the high potential for strategic rivalry in Central Asia.

Li Fenglin, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of China to Russia (1995-1998), is among the skeptics. During his speech at the RIAC conference, he said that Russia and China are lacking cooperation in the field of small and medium-sized business, which is overshadowed by the robust collaboration between the state gas monopolies of the two countries.

Moreover, all these bold projects within the EAEU-OBOR alignment might not be commercially viable and demand-driven. So far, they seem to be politically imposed. Given a lot of speculation about the weakening Chinese economy as well as extremely high costs of the One Belt, One Road initiative, it remains to be seen if China and the Eurasian Economic Union will be able to keep up with their grandiose ambitions.

“All infrastructure projects should be commercially viable — nobody will deal with a charity,” said Kairat Kelimbetov, the president of Astana International Financial Center and the former chairman of the National Bank of Kazakhstan (2013-2015). He called for realizing the potential of already existing foundations and banks, including the Silk Road Foundation and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.

All these challenges and hidden risks should be taken into account by the Kremlin, which persistently promotes the idea of Eurasian integration and Russia’s further economic expansion to Asia. Moscow should constantly keep in mind that trying to launch two integration initiatives is going to be hard to implement without an adequate assessment of the current geopolitical and regional landscape in Central Asia.

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Trump, Russia and the Arctic https://russia-direct.org/analysis/trump-russia-and-arctic
Morgane Fert-Malka

For now, it appears that business and purely pragmatic interests will guide the Trump administration in coming up with any semblance of an Arctic policy. But that might actually help, not hurt, the U.S.-Russian relationship.

 

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Fri, 13 Jan 2017 22:48:58 +0000 5364 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/trump-russia-and-arctic#comments Trump, Russia and the Arctic

For now, it appears that business and purely pragmatic interests will guide the Trump administration in coming up with any semblance of an Arctic policy. But that may actually help, not hurt, the U.S.-Russian relationship

For now, it appears that business and purely pragmatic interests will guide the Trump administration in coming up with any semblance of an Arctic policy. But that might actually help, not hurt, the U.S.-Russian relationship.

 

The Russian polar explorers, who traveled to the Arctic to set up a drifting station. Photo: RIA Novosti

With Donald Trump’s inauguration fast approaching, there is still no telling what his presidency will really be like. Policy forecasts in this regard can only be speculation. However, the signals he has been giving out during his campaign, the appointments he has made since then and the expectations of his foreign counterparts give some indications of the course international relations might take during his upcoming term.

Arctic politics have always been a kind of exception to the rule, as if to some extent the region’s fog and the ice insulate it from the normal ebbs and flows of global affairs. For instance, the Arctic has been relatively preserved from the increase in tensions between Russia and the West, yet it is a central - and somewhat mysterious - element of their relationship.

Questions of Arctic governance are complex, encompassing issues of climate change, environmental protection, industrial development, navigation, local populations and military balance of power. The many uncertainties surrounding the next U.S. presidential administration only add a layer of complexity.

Will Arctic cooperation benefit or suffer from the new setup? Will territorial and military tensions in the region increase or decrease? Will U.S.-Russian relations change so much that it will reshuffle the parameters of Arctic affairs - or conversely, will Trump’s Arctic policies impact the region so much as to affect U.S.-Russian relations?

Russia Direct spoke to Arctic experts from Russia and North America, in order to decrypt the signals and identify possible trends for the future of Arctic affairs and bilateral U.S.-Russian relations in the region. The picture that emerges is dominated by oil and gas extraction, business interests, a retreat from multilateralism and a measure of uncertainty.

The Trump team’s lack of strategic direction

Neither Trump nor any of his appointees has yet formulated a comprehensive foreign policy strategy, let alone a strategy for the Arctic. As Valery Konyshev, professor of International Relations at St. Petersburg State University, notes, “The statements that have hitherto been made regarding the Arctic are private and fragmentary, not reflecting any strategic direction.”

Also read: "Can UN Law of the Sea stop militarization in Arctic?"

Trump has no policymaking record in general, and no record of taking position on Arctic issues, specifically. Neither do his appointees have particular experience with the Arctic. While in Russia the Arctic has become a central feature in politics, it has traditionally been a relatively minor topic in the American public debate.

“I am not sure Trump even knows what the Arctic is,” says Rob Huebert, who is an associate professor at the University of Calgary. According to him, Trump’s “Arctic legacy” has every chance of becoming merely an “afterthought” - much like President George W. Bush’s. That is to say, a peripheral fallout of his industrial, climate and foreign and security policies.

During his campaign, Trump called global warming a ‘Chinese hoax’ and promised to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. This caused much dismay, especially among Arctic scientists, who are witnessing and documenting the extraordinary consequences of global warming on the Arctic region and the positive feedback loop this creates.

Since his election, Trump has sent mixed signals about this issue. He notably admitted in mid-November that anthropogenic climate change might not be a hoax after all and said he was looking closely at the Paris agreement with an “open mind.”

However, says Rafe Pomerance, chair of Arctic 21, a network of scientific organizations that advocates for climate change action on Capitol Hill, the signals are overall “rather depressing.” In fact, “So far the various appointments to critical jobs indicate that [Trump] will completely turn around the course set by Obama.”

Most controversially, Trump appointed Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and his transition team started a bizarre, witch hunt-like inquiry into the Energy Department’s personnel. In addition, Pomerance says, “Both Houses of Congress are now controlled by the Republican Party, which has been - not totally but heavily - governed by a denialist wing. This is a completely new and worrying situation.”

ExxonMobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson, who stands to be the next Secretary of State, has publicly recognized the existence of climate change and the role fossil fuels play in it, but as an oil tycoon he is neither a keen environmentalist, nor is he likely to turn into one as he starts on his new job.

Trump’s electoral promise to withdraw from the Paris agreement and to downscale U.S. participation in various environmental cooperation programs in the High North “have caused discontent in Russia and other Arctic states,” says Alexander Sergunin, professor of International Relations at St. Petersburg State University. That’s because Russia is among the countries that are most affected by environmental degradation in the High North. An excessively nonchalant environmental stance in the U.S. might thus alienate Russian negotiators, if it poses a concrete and identifiable threat to Russia’s Arctic Zone (AZRF).

On the other hand, says Sergunin, “Moscow hopes that Trump will lift economic sanctions against Russia, including the ban on offshore oil and gas projects.” While Trump and his team have not singled out the Arctic as a specific theater, the fossil fuel industry will likely be a central feature of his presidency. Arctic politics will be shaped in part by the American administration’s oil and gas policies, and these are likely to be both liberal and pragmatic. Russia and the U.S. might very well find a solid common ground there.

The University of Calgary’s Rob Huebert predicts “a complete reversal of U.S. policy, in particular regarding the development of fossil fuels. U.S. outgoing President Barack Obama was slowly moving towards a ban of any type of new development in the Arctic region. Trump made it abundantly clear that his major focus will not be about respecting the Paris accord but rather insuring that the U.S. has energy self-efficiency. Part of that self-efficiency will be based on opening up resources in the Arctic.” Huebert foresees a “much more welcoming regime for companies to return to the Arctic once the oil prices rebound, as they inevitably will.”

 Read the interview with Magnus Johannesson from the Arctic Council: "20 years of promoting peace in the Arctic"

This, Huebert says, coupled with the “bizarre relationship Trump is developing with Russian President Putin,” makes for a new and intriguing equation.

Professor James Kraska of the US Naval War College concurs. “I think we can see the U.S. adopt a more balanced approach to offshore oil and gas development, much like Norway has,” he said while predicting that this may foster cooperation with like-minded Arctic states.

As far as territorial disputes and navigational issues are concerned, Trump is unlikely to bring about significant change. Trump is unlikely to advocate for or obtain the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) - which means the U.S. will keep considering the treaty as reflecting customary law, all the while affording itself some latitude in its interpretation of the freedom of navigation principle. It also means no U.S. claim to the Arctic continental shelf can be filed.

Keep an eye on the militarization of the Arctic

In Arctic affairs, questions of navigation, the environment and fossil fuel extraction feature most prominently, but questions of military balance are no less important - albeit as a discrete underlying theme. There again, there is little indication that Trump’s administration will formulate an Arctic-specific security policy. Changes in U.S. military presence in the region will most likely happen only as a corollary of broader endeavors.

Trump seems to head towards a less idealistic and more pragmatic foreign and security policy. Many have drawn the immediate conclusion that the U.S. would become less interventionist - a conclusion that makes sense as regards distant theaters such as the Middle East and Central Asia, where the U.S. is involved mainly on ideological grounds. However, ‘more pragmatic’ does not mean ‘less assertive’ and realpolitik entails a degree of ruthlessness that has to be reckoned with. In addition, a more isolationist U.S. might want to reallocate its military capabilities in its vicinity, which includes the Arctic.

Experts remain cautious about forecasting any militarization of the American Arctic. According to Kraska, “The U.S. Navy is likely to grow, so there may be a greater subsurface (submarine) presence in the region, but not markedly.”

For Huebert, militarization in the Arctic is definitely an issue and “more U.S. isolationism in this context might mean building up the borders in the region. It is something Canada is watching closely and it will have direct repercussions for the U.S.-Canadian relationship in NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command).” However, Huebert notes, any increase would remain marginal.

“Depending on how you measure it, the U.S. already has a hefty military presence in the Arctic,” he says. “The Americans maintain a very substantial airbase in Southern Alaska - mostly oriented towards Asian issues, but it is still an Arctic base. They also have their key anti-ballistic missile intercept sites in Alaska, at Fort Greely. Finally, they have the world’s largest submarine attack fleet - something that is very difficult to get a hand on because it is so secret.”

Thus, even if Congress (now controlled by a Republican majority) and the Trump administration are in the position to increase the overall military budget, this should not substantially alter the balance of military power in the region, where the U.S. is already strong.

A blow to multilateralism

While Obama was the first President to commit the U.S. to a leadership role in Arctic governance, including its climate and environmental dimensions, the Trump administration will likely grant systematic and multilateral discussions in the Arctic Council (AC) little attention and resources - except when Alaska’s direct economic interests will be concerned.

“Trump has made no secret of the fact that he wants to reverse as much as possible of what Obama has achieved,” says Huebert, “and it is quite clear that he does not support the idea of multilateralism for multilateralism alone.” So the Arctic Council will continue its work, only “it is not going to have that American support and input that really had come to energize the organization under Obama.”

U.S. retreat from multilateralism could trigger a chain reaction, with other Arctic countries reneging on their commitments as well, or it could backfire and reinforce these states’ willingness to work even harder together towards solutions to common challenges. However, as Europe is engaged in political turmoil, with important elections ahead and other issues perceived as more pressing than multilateral Arctic governance, it is unclear how much energy the remaining Arctic states will be able or willing to dedicate to it. The role of the U.S. in this setup would be ambiguous.

As Sergunin notes, “The Trump administration will likely keep a low profile in the Arctic Council - especially on climate change and environmental issues - but it will also likely oppose its further institutionalization.”

Bilateral relations based on pragmatism

Bilateral U.S.-Russian relations are among the most contentious issues in the current debate about the future of global politics, and they remain surrounded with uncertainty. Their evolution will likely impact Arctic affairs, and any change in Arctic affairs will also have an impact on the relationship.

Also read: "So far, cooperation in the Arctic not affected by geopolitics"

Trump has shown signs of personal sympathy for President Putin on several occasions, and whether or not one admits the actuality of Russia’s interference in the U.S. election, it is clear that the Russian leadership sees Trump as a more favorable interlocutor than Obama (and especially former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton). This does not mean, of course, that the two leaders will agree on everything or that they will be able to overcome the current deadlocked positions that have stymied Russia’s relationship with the West.

Mostly, Moscow seems optimistic about the upcoming Trump administration. According to Konyshev, “The Russian political elites expect the U.S. to return to a more constructive approach towards Russia. This means less Russophobia and a new relation built on pragmatic bases, in due consideration of interests and real balance of power parameters. This general trend will be reflected in the Arctic.”

Tillerson’s appointment as Secretary of State is also welcome in Russia. “He has experience in cooperation, no Russophobia, no ideological blinkers when making decisions,” says Konyshev. In short, “He neatly reflects the Trump spirit.”

Certainly, if Trump’s foreign policy is guided by economic - in particular energy - concerns, he will push for sanctions against Russia to be lifted and will be in favor of fossil fuel development projects in the Arctic. If that happens, the joint exploitation of Arctic resources could go down in history as what mended the strained U.S.-Russian relationship, when nothing else could.

At the same time, experts express cautious optimism regarding Trump's presidency and its impact on Russia. Huebert argues that the new U.S. President is going to be “much more sympathetic to Russia - at least until Putin does something to upset him, because all politics are personal for Trump.” If that is true and diplomatic relations between the Arctic’s two nuclear powers depend on the blunders and indiscretions of two alpha males, then there might be grounds for concern.

But if Putin and Trump consistently act as the two "rational businessmen" they seem to consider each other to be, one might expect a much more stable U.S.-Russian relationship than has been the case in the past few years.

“The Russian political and expert mainstream took a wait-and-see position and emphasized the difference between electoral rhetoric and real policies in office,” said Sergunin.

Yet he also added that “Moscow had concerns about some of Trump’s campaign advisors’ declarations on global ballistic missile defense, including its Arctic component.” That's why the future remains uncertain. Yet Konyshev is not worried about a potential militarization of the Arctic led by America.

“Moscow is not expecting military escalation with the U.S. in the Arctic,” he told Russia Direct, adding that if the U.S. does increase its military presence in the region, it will merely be as a result of increasing U.S. economic activity there, not as a sign of aggression towards Russia.

All this points to a situation where business interests might stabilize diplomatic relations - and because the Arctic presents significant business opportunities, it may potentially play a greater role than ever in influencing international relations towards a more cooperative course.

Although the Trump administration’s likely reluctance to work on climate change and environmental issues might create new tensions among Arctic players, the convergence of economic interests between American and Russian elites may lay a new groundwork on which high-level bilateral relations could thrive. Many actors in the Arctic community would be left out in such a setup, and collateral damage could be dire. Proponents of a U.S.-Russian rapprochement on the basis of realpolitik, however, would have their way.

Recommended: "Fostering scientific diplomacy in the Arctic"

On the other hand, Trump has no observable record as a head of state and his leadership style remains to be tested against real world conditions. There is no guarantee that he will indeed be able to manage a stable relationship with his Russian counterpart - to a great extent it also depends on how the latter plays his cards.

But it also depends on the rest of the world. However friendly Putin and Trump may become, and however well their joint Arctic business may come to thrive, the U.S.-Russian relationship will not be insulated from the political turmoil surrounding Europe. This includes the challenges that migration presents for global stability and security, as well as disagreement over nuclear deterrence and ballistic missile defense. And both sides must acknowledge the role China will keep playing in the years to come.

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A disintegrating Europe should not be in Russia's best interests https://russia-direct.org/analysis/disintegrating-europe-should-not-be-russias-best-interests
Pavel Koshkin

Europe is facing difficult questions about what will happen after Britain leaves the EU. For Russia, too, the future of European integration remains a hot-button issue.

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Thu, 12 Jan 2017 23:02:34 +0000 5362 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/disintegrating-europe-should-not-be-russias-best-interests#comments A disintegrating Europe should not be in Russia's best interests

Europe is facing difficult questions about what will happen after Britain leaves the EU. For Russia, too, the future of European integration remains a hot-button issue

Europe is facing difficult questions about what will happen after Britain leaves the EU. For Russia, too, the future of European integration remains a hot-button issue.

A fragment of the cover of Russia Direct's report "Brexit: Is Europe Unraveling?". Photo: Russia Direct

At this week’s 2017 Gaidar Economic Forum, which is taking place in Moscow at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), the central topic of debate was the future of Europe. More specifically, participants discussed how Brexit might change the future trajectory of the EU.

Coincidentally, the Moscow event is taking place during the same week that UK Prime Minister Theresa May was supposed to take the floor with a highly anticipated speech on the Brexit process. Officially, Brexit is scheduled for the end of March, so time is running out to clarify what will happen next.

Brexit and the future of Europe

Brexit is still very much in the spotlight, even after six months of discussion and debate. The goal for Prime Minister May, it appears, is to complete the Brexit process with minimal reputational, financial, economic and political damage for Britain. At the same time, the UK will need to reach mutually beneficial economic and trade agreements with the EU.

That may be much harder than anyone thought this past summer. The EU’s 27 countries have consistently been sending a clear signal to London that it should not expect any favors for leaving Europe. Look no further than this week’s statements by Joseph Muscat, prime minister of Malta, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Once again, they made it clear that the UK won’t enjoy the same benefits and perks from the EU once it leaves.

 Also read Russia Direct's report: "Brexit: Is Europe unraveling?"

Thus, Prime Minister May now finds herself in a very difficult situation. She is under intensifying pressure to explain how her nation will implement Article 50, under which Britain will formally exit the EU.

European disintegration

RANEPA Rector Vladimir Mau raised the problem of EU disintegration during the plenary session “Russia and the World: Setting Priorities,” which brought together well-known economists, experts and politicians, including Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator for The Financial Times, and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

What is more ominous – the future life of the EU without the UK or the complicated process of Brexit itself? This was the key question that seemed to hang over the speakers during the first day of the forum.

As Wolf pointed out, Great Britain has perennially been “in the zone of instability” in its relations with the rest of Europe, with the UK having always been “a semi-detached” member of the EU with its own interests and reluctance to share the Union’s major objectives. This reality contributed to the Brexit. The migration crisis was the final straw that made the exit from the EU possible, according to Wolf.

Meanwhile, one of the speakers, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the vice-president of the European Parliament, regrets seeing “the motherland of European liberalism leaving the EU.”

Yet Vaclav Klaus, the former president of the Czech Republic (2003-2013), who also took the floor during the session at the Gaidar Forum, makes no bones about his views: He welcomes Great Britain leaving the EU. Moreover, he sees it as a “symbolic rejection” of what he calls the undemocratic, flawed and stagnating, ossifying bureaucracy and the decline of the European Union. He hails the referendum and its results as a gesture of freedom and awareness.

Wolf doesn’t agree. According to him, the key danger of Great Britain leaving the European Union is its deleterious effect on European institutions. It might undermine the stability of the EU as well as its currency. And an unstable Europe could be a burden for Russia rather than an asset, according to Wolf.

The Kremlin and Brexit: Winner, loser or neither?

When asked if Russia benefits from Brexit and a weaker Europe, Wolf said, “It depends what you mean by benefit.”

As Wolf notes, if the Kremlin seeks to be strong relative to its neighbors and “push them around,” it would be rational for Moscow to be interested in the disintegration of Europe and the weakening of other global stakeholders. After all, if the EU weakens, China explodes, and the United States disappears, “Russia will be the most powerful country in the world,” Wolf said sarcastically.

“If [Russia’s] aim, however, is a relatively peaceful, stable and prosperous world, in which you could participate, then I think it would be in your interest to keep the European Union together,” he added. “You decide what your national objectives are.”

Read the interview with Carnegie Moscow Center's Dmitri Trenin: "The world after Brexit: From globalization to fragmentation"

Likewise, Lambsdorff believes that it is very difficult to know for sure to what extent Russia could or could not seek to weaken the European Union through Brexit and other possible disintegration processes. While one theory argues that Russia should be interested, given its revisionist aspirations in the international arena, the other theory (which coincides with the official position of the Kremlin) suggests that Russia would like to see the EU as stable and reliable, given its proximity to Russia’s borders.

In fact, a stable Europe echoes the Kremlin’s concept of creating a greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok, where Moscow could play a bigger role and greatly contribute to European security.

However, there seems to be a small inconsistency in the Kremlin’s logic. Ostensibly, it is looking for a robust, peaceful and prosperous Europe, yet at the same time, it has no stomach for the very idea of European enlargement and, specifically, Georgia’s and Ukraine’s aspirations to join the EU.

In fact, these exaggerated concerns of the Kremlin, in part, led to the Ukrainian crisis. However, EU representatives, politicians and experts at the forum made clear during the discussion “Europe After Brexit” that Tbilisi’s and Kiev’s bid for EU membership is hardly likely to be approved amidst the crisis of European integration.

“We are now 28 or 27 and a half… and have to agree all the time. … It is difficult enough as it stands,” said Lambsdorff, implying that it is out of the question to talk about the accession of Georgia and Ukraine to the European Union.

Likewise, Vaclav Klaus believes that the concept of EU enlargement is “a lost game.”

“[EU] enlargement was lost, it doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “Of course, some politicians continue to talk about future enlargement, but, practically, it is a lost game for the imaginable, foreseeable future, as far as I see it.”

That’s why Russia’s fears that its close neighbors and two former Soviet republics, where the Kremlin has been seeking to reclaim its national interests, will become members of the EU and leave the orbit of Russia influence are unfounded. It is, in part, because of Brexit’s impact on EU integration and, in part, because of the ongoing civil war in Eastern Ukraine, which Moscow contributed to, according to numerous experts.

For example, British diplomat Robert Cooper points out that although Russia doesn’t see itself as part of the conflict with Kiev, in fact, it plays a very significant role in the war by supporting the Donbas rebels.

“In the Ukrainian crisis at the moment Russia claims that it is sitting at the table as a mediator,” he told Russia Direct during last December’s discussion “Hypocrisy vs. Diplomacy: How Insincerity Undermined the World Order after the Cold War” in Moscow. “I think it is pretty hypocritical because to anybody looking at the conflict, it is clear that Russia is not a mediator, it is a part of the conflict.”

Thus, as implied by numerous estimates of pundits, Moscow’s strategy to keep Ukraine divided works and, in fact, hampers its odds of joining the EU.

Also read: "How the Russian political elite view Brexit"

Nevertheless, those EU experts who took the floor at the Gaidar Forum expressed cautious optimism about the future of Russia-EU relations in the foreseeable future, while downplaying the effect of Brexit on dialogue.

“Relations between Russia and the European Union have been very strong for many years and they will remain strong with or without the United Kingdom,” Jorge Braga de Macedo, director of the Centre for Globalization and Governance at the NOVA School of Business and Economics in Portugal, told Russia Direct.

“The EU is a neighbor to Russia. It is a country that no European can ignore. I don’t see Russia is really interested in creating divisions within that group [of the North Atlantic community — the EU, the UK and the U.S.]. It is not in the interest of Russia to fuel differences where they have not existed since the Second World War.”

Lambsdorff echoes his Portuguese counterpart. “The relations between Russia and the EU should be built on trust, but… the Minsk Agreement should be implemented and the crisis in Ukraine must be diffused and calmed down for Europe and Russia to be able to engage in a meaningful way. And in this situation we should not think in terms of winners or losers. We should think about common interests. And what are the common interests? I think it is a stable Central and Eastern neighborhood, it is a strong European Union  and, at the end of the day, a strong Russia.”

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Donald Trump's election and Russian public opinion https://russia-direct.org/opinion/donald-trumps-election-and-russian-public-opinion
Dmitry Shlapentokh

Based on how Russians reacted to the election of Donald Trump, it’s clear that liberals and conservatives have very different notions of “populism” and “democracy”.

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Thu, 12 Jan 2017 21:47:47 +0000 5360 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/donald-trumps-election-and-russian-public-opinion#comments Donald Trump's election and Russian public opinion

Based on how Russians reacted to the election of Donald Trump, it’s clear that liberals and conservatives have very different notions of “populism” and “democracy”

Based on how Russians reacted to the election of Donald Trump, it’s clear that liberals and conservatives have very different notions of “populism” and “democracy”.

Portraits of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Union Jack pub in Moscow. Photo: AP

The election victory of Republican candidate predictably led to a proliferation of thousands of articles, including many analyzing the implications of Trump’s election for U.S.-Russia relations. Most of them were quite predictable – they seemed to indicate that Trump, an authoritarian isolationist, finds in Russian President Vladimir Putin a similar-minded person. Based on that, the two leaders might easily find common ground.

Still, what’s most important might not be what the Kremlin thinks about Trump and his election victory, but rather the views of some segments within the Russian intelligentsia that are usually regarded as conservative. Their ideals provide not just an insight into the views of various segments of Russian society – they also help one understand how Russians interpret the meaning of the word “populism.” This term has been frequently used, not just to characterize Trump supporters, but also structurally similar movements and trends throughout Europe.

Also read: "Top 5 events in US-Russia relations in 2016 that intensified confrontation"

Trump’s victory led to a response from a contributor of Zavtra, one of the leading conservative, nationalistic, if odious, publications in Russia. Zavtra has been staunchly anti-American throughout the newspaper’s entire life [This newspaper combines ultranationalist and Communist views and is typically considered a media outlet of Russia’s extreme right – Editor’s note].

The problem with the U.S. was not just what the contributors to the publication regarded as America’s attempt to marginalize Russia globally, but also the pitfalls of American capitalism, which they blame for impoverishing millions of Russians.

They also bemoan the passivity not just of average Russians plundered by the elite, but the passivity of the masses all over the world, who are unable or unwilling to defend their rights. However, Trump’s victory changed their minds.

After Trump’s victory, the newspaper published several articles in which the authors praised what they had never done before – the U.S., democracy, and Americans. In fact, they juxtaposed Americans to Russians. One of the authors stated that he was truly surprised by Americans. Indeed, he noted Trump was vilified by the entire American mass media, and that President Barack Obama himself joined the anti-Trump team. Still, Trump prevailed.

Nothing like this could have happened in Russia. In fact, Putin only needs to appear on the same campaign poster with a candidate for any position, and the candidate is surely to be elected. It is not just ordinary Russians who behave in this way. A good part of the Russian intelligentsia is not very different from members of the working class or middle class in cities around the nation.

The author of another article in Zavtra makes fun of the Kremlin propagandists who present the U.S. as the source of all of Russia’s problems. He wondered what these people would do right now and how they would move from presenting the U.S. as the source of all of Russia’s problems to an almost ideal country.

The conclusion is clear: Whereas Russians behave like docile sheep, Americans are not so easily led astray. In short, their choice of Trump (and not his Democratic counterpart Hillary Clinton) indicates that democracy indeed works. People can indeed impose their will, regardless of the wishes of the elite. Thus, Russians should imitate Americans.

While the contributors to Zavtra, at least some of them, see in America’s election a great example of democracy, the liberals, including, for example, the contributors to Ekho Moskvy, a well-known liberal radio station based in Moscow, looked at the Trump election victory from a quite different perspective.

Also read Russia Direct's report: "The new face of America: How Donald Trump will chnage Russia-US relations?"

For them, Trump’s election demonstrated the simplistic ignorance of Americans, who could be so easily manipulated by political messages like “Make America Great Again”. Trump’s victory indicates that the political will of the masses, regardless of place of residency, is not the manifestation of democracy but ugly populism. As a matter of fact, they implicitly lamented that Trump-style “populism” has spread in the West.

Still, those who condemn “Trumpism” as a manifestation of “populism” – clearly a negative phenomenon in their reading – and praise “democracy” – clearly a positive phenomenon for them – do not elaborate on the difference between them. Their problems could well be understood as meaning that the words “democracy” and “populism” are actually the same.

“Democracy,” a word of Greek origin, and “populism,” which stems from the Latin term, mean the same: the rule of the people. But how, in the narrative of Russian liberals, has “democracy” been transformed into ugly “populism?”

The answer might be found in pre-revolutionary France. The peasants, as they were imagined by the French elite of that time, were joyful, well-fed, dancing and singing happily in the village square. The French elite could have well said that the ancien régime was indeed a peculiar form of “democracy” where the benign elite enjoyed the full support of the masses.

Still, historians know that the life of the French populace was hardly pleasant, and when it exploded during the French Revolution, it hardly pleased the elite. And at that point, the mass movement transformed into ugly “populism.” This explains the sharp differences in interpretation of Trump’s victory by conservatives and liberals, and the op-ed writers from Zavtra and Ekho Moskvy.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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What kind of Russia should the West fear? https://russia-direct.org/qa/what-kind-russia-should-west-fear
Pavel Koshkin

RD Interview: Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center explains how current misguided perceptions in both the United States and Russia could lead to a dangerous new geopolitical reality.

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Wed, 11 Jan 2017 09:41:57 +0000 5358 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/qa/what-kind-russia-should-west-fear#comments What kind of Russia should the West fear?

Dmitri Trenin explains how misguided perceptions in the U.S., Russia can lead to a new conflict

RD Interview: Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center explains how current misguided perceptions in both the United States and Russia could lead to a dangerous new geopolitical reality.

"The West should fear a Russia that is weakening and disintegrating. And this is not an impossible scenario at all, as indicated by the Soviet experience." Photo: Reuters

Today, the West is seriously concerned with the Kremlin’s alleged interference in the domestic affairs of Europe and the United States. Amidst the speculation about Russia’s supposed contribution to Brexit and the victory of Republican candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S, a new book written by Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin is particularly relevant. Its title is indicative of the current sentiment in the West: “Should We Fear Russia?”

It is especially intriguing after the Jan. 7 publication of the U.S. intelligence report on Russia’s alleged hacking of the U.S. electoral system.

Recommended: "Intelligence report on Kremlin hacking makes any reset close to impossible"

Trenin presented the book in mid-December 2016 in Moscow and expressed his surprise about the level of fear among Western political elites and pundits about the threats emanating from the Kremlin. Never have Western decision-makers and experts found themselves in such a pessimistic state, when such a lack of confidence becomes commonplace, said Trenin during the presentation.   

Amidst such an environment, Russia Direct sat down with Trenin to discuss his new book and the future of Russia-West relations. At the same time, he shed light on key challenges in their relations, which hypothetically could lead to direct confrontation of Russia and the West, and explained how to deal with Russia to avoid such confrontation. 

Russia Direct: You recently released a new book with a very provocative title “Should We Fear Russia?” How can you account for the title of the book?

Dmitri Trenin: This title came not from me, but from my publisher, in fact. I was a bit confused with such a title, because I cannot identify myself with the West. I offered to correct the name and change it to “Should the West Fear Russia?” but the publisher insisted. So, I had to comply with these requirements. So, the pronoun “We” means the West — it is the key audience of my book.

RD: What conclusions did you come up with — should the West be afraid of Russia, especially given a great deal of buzz about Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. presidential elections?

D.T.: I come up with a very simple conclusion. The threats, which allegedly emanate from Russia and have come to the fore in the West, are very exaggerated. Or they don’t exist at all. For example, there is no such threat like Russia’s imagined invasion in one of the NATO countries, in my view. Yet, there is obviously Russia’s influence in some countries.

Indeed, the Kremlin has an impact on foreign and, maybe, domestic policy of certain states. Yet, I don’t see this influence as key in those countries’ decision-making process. On the other hand, to deal effectively with Russia one has to be very smart. The West should handle Russia with a great deal of care, because it is an important global stakeholder. Careless, reckless or outright provocative policies toward Russia are fraught with serious implications. This is how I see the situation.

At the same time, in the book I disagree with those who describe the current state of U.S.-Russia relations as a new Cold War. I believe that Moscow and Washington are in a state of confrontation, yet this confrontation might be sometimes even more dangerous than the significant part of the Cold War period.

Nevertheless, this oversimplified comparison with the Cold War frequently misleads people who begin fearing threats that were only real in the past and are unlikely to come true again. At the same time, I focus on new problems that might lead to tragic consequences.

For example, if we are talking about the possibility of the direct confrontation of Russia and America, it might indeed take place not because of some miscalculation in planning, but due to the increasing escalation in turbulent regions. If the U.S. established a no-fly zone over Syria without coordinating this question with Russia, what implications would it have?

Recommended: "Top 5 events in US-Russia relations in 2016 that intensified confrontation"

One could imagine that if this decision were taken, the U.S. commander-in-chief would be faced with a very serious question — should he shoot down Russian jets in this no-fly zone or not? If he refused to shoot down the jet after imposing the no-fly zone, it would undermine his credibility and prove his worthlessness and uselessness. Yet, if he confirmed his words and shot down the jet, this would draw Russia and the West closer to an escalation that could spin out of control and lead to the worst-case scenario.

RD: Today Moscow and Washington seem to compete with each other in Syria. Despite the common threat emanating from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) they don’t seem to be ready to cooperate at the current moment, given their divergent approaches toward Syrian President Bashar Assad. What are the odds of Russia and the U.S being able to find common ground in Syria to fight ISIS under U.S. President-elect Donald Trump?

D.T.: Yes, there is an impression that Russia and the U.S. are competing in Syria and the media play the key role in it. However, the reality is different and more complicated. Russia’s key task in the last few months was not to defeat ISIS per se, but rather, to help the Syrian army seize Eastern Aleppo and strengthen its positions. In fact, Russia’s top military leaders don’t see a big difference between ISIS and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which poses a greater threat to the Assad army than ISIS itself.

RD: In the wake of the U.S. presidential campaign, you said that while Russian media ridicules Western leaders, Western journalists demonize their Russia counterparts. And you found this trend very dangerous. Why?

D.T.: It is very dangerous, at least because today Russia and the West perceive each other as political opponents, in fact. And one should treat one’s opponent very seriously. After all, if you don’t take your adversary very seriously, it might lead to underestimating your opposing side’s potential and overestimating your own capabilities. It could provoke you to do something reckless and dangerous. It could provoke your opponent to do some moves, which you are not interested in.

That’s why such baiting might bring about unfavorable implications. If you tease a beast, it will bite you. So, there is no need to demonize or ridicule. Both tactics are dangerous. We need to be more reticent towards our opponents, but the current media environment, with the abundance of information, requires dramatization and exaggeration.

And this histrionic behavior creates an impression that people don’t take it seriously: They look at it as if they were watching a movie or a TV show; they see it as a virtual reality that cannot happen in a real peaceful and prosperous life.  They cannot imagine that the world could be on the brink of an apocalyptic disaster. However, the world is more fragile than it seems to be at first glance.

When I see senior retired generals, who demand to establish mandatory no-fly zones and who are ready to shoot down Russian jets, when I see Russian experts who call for engaging in an all-out war in Syria to assure a full victory for Bashar al-Assad, I am concerned. Such narrow-mindedness linked to recklessness creates a very unhealthy and dangerous environment.

RD: Amidst this background, to what extent is the direct confrontation between Russia and the U.S. possible?

D.T.: The danger is relevant if both sides go too far. And it is not a matter of them really needing such dangerous tactics. It is a matter of their inherent nature. While some players try to showcase their bravery and bravado, others seek to stick to their principles without backing down. However, both types of behavior could lead to the same results.

Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin. Photo: Russia Direct

RD: For the U.S., was it matter of principles to contain Russia?

D.T.: For the Obama administration it was a matter of principle. They were loathe to compromise with Russia, because by doing so they would compromise their own democratic values. Many Republicans in U.S. Congress would not compromise because they see Russia as less than equal. Maybe Donald Trump will be different. 

RD: What about Russia? Is it trying to demonstrate its willingness to take reckless steps?

D.T.: Russia is using its own willingness to take higher risk as a countervailing factor in a situation when the United States is obviously much stronger. It is a tactic.

RD: Why does Russia prefer these tactics to more careful and reserved approaches?

D.T.: In terms of power, Russia is not America’s equal. Yet, it cannot accept inequality in relations. Thus, it has to punch above its weight to stay in the competition. Also mentally, Russians are in-your-face people, unlike the Chinese, for example.

RD: Russia hopes to improve relations with the U.S. under Trump. It hoped to normalize relations with Washington in the beginning of Obama’s presidency, yet all efforts failed in the end. Is it possible to improve U.S.-Russia relations at all, or is it naive?

D.T.: Well, politics cannot add up to just noble intentions to improve relations between two countries. Tactics or even a strategy could include attempts to normalize relations, but in this case, the improvement should be a means to achieve a certain political goal.

RD: Do you mean that in politics it makes no sense to improve relations for the sake of these relations?

D.T.: Yes, nobody is ready to improve relations just to feel better. Again, everybody seeks to get certain benefits from it. While some want to get a junior ally, others prefer to find protection and patronage from a senior ally.

Also read: "The final endgame between Putin and Obama"

Meanwhile, others look for security from this abstract improvement in relations. There could be different goals. For example, during the Cold War, Soviet and American leaders had just one goal, which they sought to reach through normalization. This goal added up to the alleviation of the possible threat of nuclear war. And since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, this was the key goal for Moscow and Washington, when they talked about the improvement in their relations.

However, if one of the sides found itself in a vulnerable position as a result of this improvement because the other side promoted too vigorously its own interests, then relations saw another decline and confrontation. So, it was just an attempt to promote one’s national interests under the disguise of improvement.

RD: Do you think that the U.S.-Russia reset also served, primarily, as a tool of promoting one’s national interest?

D.T.: Yes, this policy idea came about as a necessary strategy to give an opportunity to the new administration of then U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to use the possible improvement in U.S.-Russia relations to resolve America’s key challenges, related to the Iranian nuclear program, Iraq and Afghanistan and, to a certain extent, nuclear nonproliferation. 

RD: How do you assess Obama’s presidential legacy and, specifically, his policy toward Russia?

D.T.: His policy toward Russia turned out to have been his biggest failure. However, he didn’t seek to provoke Russia to challenge the U.S. leadership. It wasn’t his goal. But, unfortunately, he did precisely that. Obama’s handling of the Ukraine issue led to the confrontation between our countries. Not that Vladimir Putin did not make mistakes in his Ukraine policy, particularly before the Kiev Maidan. Confrontation over Ukraine in 2014 might have been avoided, but the U.S.-Russia relationship had been deteriorating, essentially leading to a collision some time, somewhere.

The key problem of the U.S.-Russia reset is that there was neither a clear goal for improving their relations nor the strategy of how to reach this goal. I mean, as soon as the U.S. got what it wanted from Russia during the period of the early reset, Russia was again relegated to the secondary agenda. That might be the reason why the reset failed.

RD: However, Russia also contributed to the failure of this reset. It just refused to play in accordance with the rules of the United States. Trapped by its inferiority complex, the Kremlin claimed that Washington didn’t view Moscow as an equal. And Russia is still looking for equality. To what extent do such arguments really resonate with the West if Russia and the U.S. cannot be equal economically and politically for objective reasons, given the fact that America has a greater clout in the world than Russia?

D.T.: Well, the United States doesn’t accept the concept of equality because it sees itself as the dominant power and it has been wedded to this position for about 70 years. Although the Soviet Union was militarily equal to the U.S., it was not equal to Washington in other fields. That’s why after the end of the World War II, the United States perceived itself as the world’s only real superpower. This attitude grew stronger after the end of the Cold War.

Meanwhile, Russia prefers a very different approach. By its nature, it doesn’t accept foreign dominance in the political and military agenda. Moscow can accept the fact that the dollar is the global currency; it does agree that the U.S. is much more powerful economically than Russia.

Also read: "A New Year gift: US imposes sanctions on Moscow for alleged hacking"

But when this dominance extends to its sovereignty and security, Russia cannot accept it. It cannot put up with the military dominance of the U.S. And this is the key difference of Russia from other countries. This contradiction is almost impossible to resolve. It illustrates the clash of American and Russian interests. It is a matter of the scythe striking a stone. It is a standoff.

RD: How can you account for the reasons why Russia cannot accept U.S. military and political dominance?

D.T.: Historically, Russia has been a country, which has almost never had senior and domineering allies. Throughout the history, it has been self-reliant politically and militarily. Unlike great powers of Europe such as Germany, France or Great Britain, Russia has almost never experienced sweeping defeats, which could force its political elites to radically change their outlook, to be more specific. German, French and British political elites retreated from their great power ambitions and changed their outlook. Not Russia’s.

Although Russia lost the Cold War, it didn’t change its basic self-image, because the defeat resulted not from the war (like Germany’s) or the collapse of its colonial empire (like Great Britain’s and France’s), but from the domestic changes within the Soviet Union. Russia’s political elites continue to perceive their country as a great power. They see it as a great power not because of its vast territories or the capability to impose its will (in fact, the Kremlin can’t do it today), but because it cannot accept political and military dominance of others over its interests and agenda.  

RD: Do you mean it is a matter of national pride?

D.T.: Exactly, it is pride. Yet, again, it doesn’t mean that Russia seeks political dominance. This pride just means that Russia cannot tolerate political and military dominance of others. It is a matter of sovereignty and security.

RD: Don’t you see the contradictions and even inconsistency in such behavior, taking into account the fact that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced an inferiority complex and wanted to keep up with the West by accepting its dominance in other fields and sometimes even in the realm of politics?

D.T.: Yes, it is a curious paradox, because — unlike the Soviet Union that could not inherently put up with capitalism and relied on the imagined superiority of the Soviet ideology  — modern Russia is more pragmatic and selective. It sets certain priorities and draws certain redlines, yet sometimes it gives up its strongly held views in some fields that are not existentially important for Russia.

RD: Sovereignty and security seem to be the key red lines and top priorities for the Kremlin and, in fact, Russia fuels fears in the West by defending its national interests. In your book, you ask if the West should fear Russia. If it should, what kind of Russia should the West be afraid of?

D.T.: The West should fear a Russia that is weakening and disintegrating. And this is not an impossible scenario at all, as indicated by the Soviet experience. Theoretically, it might happen in the future if Russia’s elites and the people are not able to resolve key historical challenges.

On the other hand, the West is afraid of a Russia, which finds itself in a vulnerable and insecure position. If you surround and contain Russia and try to keep it at bay, you will see a backlash, because Russia sees such containment as an offensive move, not as defense from Russia itself. For the Kremlin, it is a matter of encirclement by Russia’s  enemies. And this means that Russia could find itself in a state of high military alert, with its nuclear arsenal in the Kremlin’s hands. And such a situation is very dangerous by its very nature.

RD: What kind of the West should Russia fear?

D.T.: Russia should not be afraid of the West. A country like Russia can only be defeated by itself. Thus, it should be focused on dealing with its own weaknesses. 

In my view, NATO’s enlargement doesn’t create an existential threat for Russia and should be dealt with seriously, but calmly. The fear [of the West] is a very bad thing for Russia: It distorts our perception of reality.

This interview was initially published in Russia Direct Report “The Year in Review: What Changed in 2016 and What to Expect in 2017.” This report brings together the analysis from Andrey Kortunov of Russian International Affairs Councils (RIAC), Dmitry Polikanov from PIR-Center, Vasily Kuznetsov from the Institute of Oriental Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences and other Russian experts. The report also features the analysis of Paul Goble, former special adviser to U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and a former CIA analyst, and Stephen Holmes from New York University. To get access to the report, subscribe to Russia Direct and download it.

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Why the new US military buildup in Europe doesn't yet worry Russia https://russia-direct.org/opinion/why-new-us-military-buildup-europe-doesnt-yet-worry-russia
Artem Kureev

As President Obama deploys thousands of troops and new military hardware to Europe, Moscow is waiting to see the next moves of the Trump administration.

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Tue, 10 Jan 2017 19:33:45 +0000 5356 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/why-new-us-military-buildup-europe-doesnt-yet-worry-russia#comments Why the new US military buildup in Europe doesn't yet worry Russia

As President Obama deploys thousands of troops and new military hardware to Europe, Moscow is waiting to see the next moves of the Trump administration

As President Obama deploys thousands of troops and new military hardware to Europe, Moscow is waiting to see the next moves of the Trump administration.

A U.S. paratrooper during the NATO-led peacekeeping military exercises to maintain proficiency in airborne operations in Kosovo. Photo: AP

In early January, just two weeks before the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, the U.S. started deploying troops and military equipment in the port of Bremerhaven in northwestern Germany, close to Eastern Europe. The Independent, a British media outlet, described the move as "the biggest transfer of American armour to the region since the fall of the Soviet Union."

The U.S. is carrying out the transfer of its armored equipment as part of the agreement between Washington and its NATO allies signed in April 2016 that was intended to provide Eastern European countries with security. At the same time, the U.S. and NATO plan to conduct a large-scale military exercise in Poland.

NATO and the U.S. have stepped up their efforts to boost NATO’s military buildup and presence in Europe ever since the start of the civil war in Ukraine in 2014, when Russia began to be seen as a potential adversary.

Given the fact that Trump will come to the Oval Office in January, it remains to be seen how Washington will change its approach toward NATO and its allies in Eastern Europe in 2017. Will the U.S. withdraw its troops from Europe? If not, what will Trump demand from its partners to maintain the American military presence close to the borders of Russia?

 Also read: "What Trump's NATO policy means for Russia"

Washington and NATO actually agreed to deploy the American military equipment and troops and create all necessary infrastructure in July 2016, about five months before the presidential election in the U.S. That’s why any speculation that U.S. President Barack Obama tried to complicate the presidency of his successor Trump is probably unfounded. This is not a last-minute move designed to lock in the American military presence.

Moreover, the U.S. president has significant authority and independence in conducting defense and foreign policies. The U.S. Congress can restrict President Trump only if he tries to cancel or alleviate the sanctions imposed on Russia for its policy in Ukraine and its alleged hacking into the U.S. electoral process.

Thus, Trump might reverse the U.S. military buildup in Eastern Europe without requesting the endorsement of Congress. Yet, stopping this process will be difficult. And does the U.S. President-elect really want it, given the fact that he makes no bones about his plans to boost U.S. military capabilities and make the nation even stronger?

Currently the U.S. is transferring its infantry and deploying military equipment in Eastern Europe. Washington announced this move almost one year ago. There are several goals of such a military buildup.

First, the U.S. and its NATO allies could seek to earn more experience in the fast transfer of troops and equipment from the United States to Europe to withstand the Russian threat in case of a direct conflict with Moscow.

Second, they might want to test the capacity of the German and Eastern European railways to see if this infrastructure is sufficient to transfer troops and military equipment.

Third, Poland, which has one of the strongest armies in Europe, gets a chance to coordinate a military exercise with its American allies in January and February.

Finally, the Eastern European allies of Washington can feel secure, because the very fact that Washington has started transferring its troops and equipment close to Russian borders proves the U.S. commitment to defend its allies in the case of aggression from their big neighbor to the east.

Recommended: "Three scenarios for Russian military action"

Interestingly, the U.S. is expected to deploy four battalions, comprising just 4,000 people. Moreover, they will be scattered along the Russian border to strengthen the armies of the Baltic countries, Romania and Poland. All this might mean that the transfer of the U.S. troops is purely a symbolic move, intended to create much buzz and send a message to Moscow. At the same time, it seems obvious that American military instructors will train their allies how to use their equipment and conduct joint military campaigns.

Oddly enough, the current military buildup doesn’t contradict the statements of Trump, who promised to scale down the American presence abroad. It might just mean that the U.S. President-elect will ask America’s EU clients to pay more of their own defense and security. At the same time, one should not forget that Trump planned to reequip the U.S. army and increase its personnel.

This could indicate that the big financial burden on maintaining the security and army in Europe will be shifted to the Europeans themselves. In other words, Poland, Romania and the Baltic countries will have to spend budgetary resources from their own coffers to maintain the military infrastructure for American troops and equipment. Trump’s policy is crystal clear: No money — no security.

And if Europeans, concerned with the Russia’s “aggressive aspirations,” are ready to financially maintain the army of the United States on their territories, it will be a good deal for Washington. Thus, Trump is not interested so far in cancelling the agreements of the outgoing U.S. presidential administration. Moreover, the U.S. President-elect should be interested in “exporting” its military equipment abroad and transferring a great number of troops — as long as someone else is paying.

Oddly enough, such an approach of Trump doesn’t bring about concerns within the Kremlin, at least because Russia itself is stepping up its military buildup close to Europe. It maintains a troop contingent of 330,000 people in the western part of the country, close to the Baltic countries, Poland and Romania. Moreover, Moscow is extensively reforming and reequipping its army while paying a great deal of attention to the country’s nuclear potential and missile systems.

Also read: "Conventional arms race draws the world closer to state of brinkmanship"

Thus, approximately 10,000-15,000 American soldiers scattered along NATO’s eastern borders don’t pose a serious threat to Russia. However, the Kremlin might be concerned with the other important challenge: those American military instructors deployed in Eastern Europe might eventually end up in Ukraine to train its army. After all, official Washington and Brussels have made clear their readiness to support the Ukrainian army, with Kiev having admitted that American instructors had trained its army before.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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Intelligence report on Kremlin hacking makes any reset close to impossible https://russia-direct.org/analysis/intelligence-report-kremlin-hacking-makes-any-reset-close-impossible
Pavel Koshkin

Expecting conclusive evidence in the declassified intelligence report about the Kremlin’s alleged hacking would be naive in the current U.S. political environment, where Russia is seen as an adversary.

 

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Mon, 09 Jan 2017 16:01:03 +0000 5354 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/intelligence-report-kremlin-hacking-makes-any-reset-close-impossible#comments Intelligence report on Kremlin hacking makes any reset close to impossible

Expecting conclusive evidence in the declassified intelligence report about the Kremlin’s alleged hacking would be naive in the current U.S. political environment, where Russia is seen as an adversary

Expecting conclusive evidence in the declassified intelligence report about the Kremlin’s alleged hacking would be naive in the current U.S. political environment, where Russia is seen as an adversary.

 

The Fancy Bear group is among the main suspects that might have hacked the emails of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and the head of her election campaign, John Podesta. Photo: RIA Novosti

The Jan. 7 publication of the U.S. intelligence report on Russia’s alleged hacking of the U.S. electoral system was met with a great deal of interest from both those who believe in these allegations and those who question them. The report, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections,” provides “a declassified version of a highly classified assessment that has been provided to the President.”

It claims that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election” to discredit the U.S. democratic process, Secretary Clinton, and “harm her electability and potential presidency.” The report also pays a great deal of attention to "Russian Propaganda efforts" and, specifically, the activity of RT, the state-run television channel (former Russia Today), targeting foreign audience, and Sputnik, a news agency. The report’s assessments are based on the assumption that “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

The most intriguing question is what additional evidence was presented in the classified part of the report, given the fact that U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who consistently dismissed the intelligence allegations as unfounded, admitted for the first time that Russia might be involved in the hacking of the servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.

Nevertheless, the declassified report didn’t seem to meet the expectations of many Russian and Western journalists and pundits, especially those who expected more evidence and even those who don’t rule out the possibility of the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.

For example, Kevin Rothrock, a contributor to the Moscow Times, an independent English-language newspaper, didn’t see anything new in the report, which, according to him, is just “repeating conclusions publicized by the White House and officials like U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper.”

“Unfortunately, America’s case against the Kremlin suffers from some major flaws that should be acknowledged, even by individuals who argue reasonably that the Russian government likely used hackers to attack and undermine democratic institutions in the U.S.,” he wrote in his column.

“The declassified part of it reveals few new details, omits even already known evidence and focuses mostly on the “influence operations” tools of the Russian media,” Alexandra Kulikova, an expert on international cybersecurity and a consultant for PIR Center, a Russian think tank, told Russia Direct. “It rather discusses the conclusions made and the context explaining why such conclusions are only natural (Annex on RT), rather than providing the technical evidence everyone is so much looking for.”

However, three leading American newspapers — The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal — found the intelligence report “remarkably blunt ” and “surprisingly detailed.”

In reality, the American mainstream media, in its coverage of the report, just highlighted current trends in the U.S. political environment and Moscow-Washington relations. Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitri Trenin succinctly conveyed this idea in a recent Twitter post. “Emerging grand compromise among US elites: Trump is legitimate, Russia is an adversary,” he wrote.

In this situation, expecting more persuasive evidence and new information about Russia’s alleged hacking in U.S. domestic affairs in the declassified report would be naive. And the authors of the report make it clear by referring to “estimative language” and “judgments” that don’t necessarily mean “that we have proof that shows something to be a fact.”

“Assessments are based on collected information, which is often incomplete or fragmentary, as well as logic, argumentations, and precedents,” the report reads.

Most importantly, the authors reiterate in the report that “the declassified report does not and cannot include the full supporting information, including specific intelligence and sources and methods” with the conclusions and more evidence “reflected in the classified assessment.”

The intelligence community “rarely can publicly reveal the full extent of its knowledge or the precise bases for its assessments, as the release of such information would reveal sensitive sources or methods and imperil the ability to collect critical foreign intelligence in the future.”

Kulikova argues that “the report doesn't leave the impression that it was meant to convince - as if the U.S. government felt that it needn't provide more direct evidence than has been made public to make a strong case against Russia and a supporting Annex on RT was enough.”

“Hard evidence would be certainly necessary in case of retaliation if the hack were officially acknowledged as act of aggression/armed attack, and supposedly it has been presented to the President-elect," she added. "But even at the level below this threshold, there's no internationally recognized procedure of escalation or mitigation of a cyber conflict – likewise there are no generally recognized [legal] standards of attribution of cyber attacks.”

Weighing pros and cons of the Intelligence report

Likewise, Mikhail Troitskiy, an associate professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), points out that the declassified report was not intended to provide evidence.

“One needs to be clear that the intelligence report on Russian hacking has not been designed to lay out any evidence in support of its main claim,” he told Russia Direct. “The document starts by saying that the reader will have to rely on the ‘judgments’ and ‘assessments’ of the U.S. intelligence community because providing 'evidence' would compromise its sources and methods. So it makes no sense to judge the report on the grounds of ‘evidence’ that it was never meant to contain.”

According to Troitskiy, the outgoing administration of U.S. President Barack Obama “decided to order such an unprecedented report partly because it was looking for comfort and culprits in the wake of the loss of the Democratic candidate [Hillary Clinton] in the presidential election.”

The Obama administration is currently facing a lot of challenges, as it is being forced to respond decisively under the pressure of the current U.S. political environment. One of the major characteristics of this environment is a great deal of distrust toward Russia and President Vladimir Putin, given Russia’s policy in Ukraine and Putin’s KGB background. Obama finds himself trapped in a very difficult position, where he needs to take into account the views of many advisers, especially those who are inclined to believe that Russia hacked the U.S. election.

Thus, the key inference that can be drawn from the report is that Washington does not see the Kremlin as trustworthy. This lack of trust is the core problem.

“The bottom line in the debate about the report is that President Obama and large numbers of influential professionals in the U.S. foreign policy community are convinced that Moscow has set out not just to oppose certain U.S. initiatives across the globe, but also to undermine the very foundations of U.S. power and its position in the world,” Troitskiy said. “Those convictions will outlive the Obama administration and make any new ‘reset’ in U.S.-Russia relations difficult to pull off [for the Trump administration].”

At the same time, Andrei Tsygankov, a professor at San Francisco State University, argues, “The intelligence report is part of the broader campaign to discredit Russia and Donald Trump, who expressed his commitment to normalize relations with the Kremlin.”

“That too is not new – Russia has been a convenient scapegoat for U.S. foreign policy problems at least since the infamous Magnitsky Act [which imposes sanctions on Russian officials involved in the alleged murder of Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-corruption campaigner — Editor’s note],” he told Russia Direct.

“The report doesn’t contain anything that hasn’t been already discussed in the public space regarding Russia’s alleged role in hacking the U.S. elections,” Tsygankov added. “Russia may have indeed been behind the described cyber attacks, but we still don’t have the smoking gun type of evidence of exactly who and how was involved in it.”

Meanwhile, Dimitri Simes, the president at Center for the National Interest, compares the intense focus on Russian hacking efforts to a political witch hunt. “Russian hacking is a serious problem but to single it out when other nations including China engage in similar practices, when the U.S. itself is no stranger to cyber warfare, and when the outgoing President of the United States, Barack Obama, is ordering reports from his appointees instead of giving intelligence agencies an opportunity to present their findings to the new president and his team is clearly politically motivated. It is another attempt to delegitimize Mr. Trump’s election — plain and simple,” he wrote on his Facebook page shortly after the release of the report.

However, Steven Pifer, a senior fellow with the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, firmly believes in the results of the Intelligence report.

“It is true that countries other than Russia — in particular, China — engage in cyber espionage against the United States. But Russian intelligence agencies did something unique, something that goes beyond espionage,” he told Russia Direct. “They took information, the Democratic National Committee e-mails that they hacked, and passed that to Wikileaks for public release. That was clearly designed to influence the U.S. election. That said, Mr. Trump won the election. There is no way to re-litigate the outcome. How can one prove that that someone who voted for Mr. Trump in Scranton, Pennsylvania did so because of the leaked e-mails? Mr. Trump will be president. But he and all Americans should be concerned about this Russian attack at the heart of the American political system.”

In contrast, James Carden, a columnist for The Nation magazine and a former advisor to the U.S.-Russia Presidential Commission at the U.S. State Department, is hesitant to call the report reliable and well-grounded. Instead, he describes the document as “a mountain of evidence-free assertions and risible conspiracy theories relating to Russian state media.”

“The U.S. government puts its name and authority behind, what is in reality, a report that can only be described as the result of a White House-directed attempt to politicize intelligence in an effort to mislead the public,” he told Russia Direct.

At the same time, Carden does not rule out the possibility of the Kremlin having hacked the U.S. electoral process in 2016. However, even if it is proven that Russia was behind the hacks of the DNC and John Podesta’s emails, “Does any sentient person believe that the contents of those embarrassing and self-serving emails were what persuaded working class voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin (who had gone for Mr. Obama in 2008 and 2012) to cast their ballot for Donald Trump? Of course not.”

“What all this amounts to is an overlong, pathetic attempt to exonerate Hillary Clinton for running one of the most inept general election campaigns in memory,” Carden concluded.

However, despite the fact that the intelligence report makes any reset of U.S.-Russia relations close to impossible, “Trump still has a chance to improve US-Russia relations since the President drives such issues much more than Congress,” argues Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research at Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Department.

UPDATE: The story was updated on Jan.10 to include the comments of Alexandra Kulikova, an expert on international cybersecurity and a consultant at PIR Center, a Russian think tank.

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The Dadin List could become the new sequel to the Magnitsky List https://russia-direct.org/analysis/dadin-list-could-become-new-sequel-magnitsky-list
Marina Obrazkova

Human rights activists within Russia are pushing for the creation of a Dadin List, which would sanction top Russian officials implicated in the detention and systematic torture of Ildar Dadin, an opposition activist.

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Mon, 09 Jan 2017 14:08:26 +0000 5352 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/dadin-list-could-become-new-sequel-magnitsky-list#comments The Dadin List could become the new sequel to the Magnitsky List

Human rights activists within Russia are pushing for the creation of a Dadin List, which would sanction top Russian officials implicated in the detention and systematic torture of Ildar Dadin, an opposition activist

Human rights activists within Russia are pushing for the creation of a Dadin List, which would sanction top Russian officials implicated in the detention and systematic torture of Ildar Dadin, an opposition activist.

Pictured: Ildar Dadin, the first person to be imprisoned under a controversial federal law that criminalizes repeated public protests. Photo: AFP / East News

The whereabouts of Russian opposition activist Ildar Dadin, who became the first person to be imprisoned under a controversial federal law that criminalizes repeated public protests, are now known, after nearly a month in which his fate was uncertain. He was finally found in a prison in the Altai Region. He had been transferred from a jail in the Republic of Karelia, where he experienced numerous and violent incidents of torture.

His story attracted a great deal of attention both inside and outside of Russia after the publication of his letter on the website of Meduza, an independent Russian media outlet now based in Riga. That letter, from Dadin to his wife, revealed an inconvenient truth about the Russian prison system: perennial human rights abuses, violence and severe torture. Dadin’s wife, Anastasia Zotova, a journalist and human rights activist, did her best to publicize the case to spread awareness of her husband’s plight and hold those responsible accountable.

 Also read: "The Russian protest movement, still without a real leader"

Thanks to the efforts of other activists and journalists, the story of Dadin reached even the American government. An important and symbolic move came from U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (Democrat – Maryland), who initiated the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which imposes sanctions on Russian officials involved in the alleged murder of Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-corruption campaigner. Cardin published an opinion piece in the Washington Post on Nov. 17, 2016, in which he called on the U.S. to extend the Magnitsky Act to cover those Russian officials implicated in Dadin’s torture.

“We must support the embattled human rights defenders inside Russia who continue to face growing repression from the state,” Cardin wrote. “Ildar Dadin is one such example. It is our obligation to speak out on their behalf and pressure Russian human rights violators by using the Magnitsky Act to the fullest extent.”

Even though Zotova and other human rights activists forced the authorities to move Dadin to another detention facility, the long period of his transfer that took more than one month resulted in substantial concern about Dadin’s security and his life. Even though he was eventually found in an Altai prison, the very fact that his wife was not informed about his route and his conditions indicates that the prison system is flawed. At the same time, it reveals the negligent attitude of the authorities toward opposition activists.

However, Russia’s human rights ombudswoman Tatiana Moskalkova argues that Dadin’s transfer coincided with the New Year holidays in Russia and that’s why it took so much time to move him to  another prison. On Dec. 29, the transfer was interrupted to give prisoners an opportunity to celebrate a holiday dinner on New Year’s Eve, according to Moskalkova and officials from Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN). In addition, Moskalkova told journalists that Russian legislation forbids revealing any information about the route of transferred prisoners and the location of the new region where prisoners are being moved.

Dadin was moved from a prison in the Republic of Karelia to one in the Altai Region. The distance between them is more than 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) and takes two to four days by car or train, according to different estimates, not a full month, which is the time that Dadin’s transfer took (it started on the early December 2016 and ended on Jan. 8). That’s why Dadin’s wife as well as human rights activists have questioned the claims of the FSIN officials.  

Torture is commonplace to silence opponents

Lev Ponomaryov, the executive director of the For Human Rights movement, argues that a great of secrecy about transferring prisoners in Russia is commonplace. “When a prisoner is moved [to another jail], the route is not revealed and, in general, this is normal. It is the rules of secrecy,” he told Russia Direct. “But in this case [of Dadin], it took a lot of time.”

Ponomaryov describes the story of Dadin as a typical example of all prisoners in Russia facing violent torture. “This system of violence has been existing there [in prisons] for many years and we are now researching and revealing new cases. Currently, we have about 20 testimonies from prisoners who were in the same jail where Dadin served his term."

Karelia is one example where prisons have turned into torture chambers, but such a system is not common for all Russian prisons. Nevertheless, violence and torture seem to be increasingly permitted as a way to intimidate certain prisoners, according to Ponomaryov.

The Dadin List

Vladimir Osechkin, the founder of the Gulagu.net social network, firmly believes that the Dadin case has become an important litmus test for the entire prison system of modern Russia. According to him, some law enforcement agencies rule the country in the style of the notorious NKVD, the Soviet-era security and secret police body [The NKVD was the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, which was formed during the beginning of Stalin’s regime – Editor’s note]. Osechkin argues that the Dadin case might further blacken Russia’s reputation abroad, given the fact that his story has attracted the attention of some Western politicians and media outlets, including the BBC.

Also read: "Could students lead the next Russian protest movement?"

“The Dadin List is looming on the horizon, with sanctions expected to be imposed on all those involved in his prosecution and torture,” Osechkin said. He added that Dadin is attempting to use his case as a way to attract as much attention to this practice as possible. In fact, it was a big risk for his own life.

“This should be taken into account,” said the human rights activist. “And it is not enough for the authorities to create a favorable environment for Dadin now. It is necessary to tackle the problem of torture with drastic measures if the authorities would not like to be accused of covering up systemic and large-scale torture and violence.”

St. Petersburg human rights campaigners echo Osechkin’s view. They conducted a series of one-person protests in support of political prisoners in Russia. They also believe that the Dadin List should be created to restore justice. Thanks to these activists, as well as the efforts of his wife, Dadin has become popular among opposition activists for his moral integrity and stamina. This might give another chance for Russia’s protest movement. 

“Although Dadin was not the leader of the protest movement and didn’t want to be one, the very system is turning him into such a leader,” said human rights activist Ponomaryov.

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Russia and the EU: Teaming up to save the environment in 2017? https://russia-direct.org/opinion/russia-and-eu-teaming-save-environment-2017
Anton Tamarovich

As Russia gets set to mark the Year of the Environment in 2017, there is growing hope that the Kremlin might be able to partner with the EU on several showcase environmental projects.

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Fri, 06 Jan 2017 19:34:15 +0000 5350 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/russia-and-eu-teaming-save-environment-2017#comments Russia and the EU: Teaming up to save the environment in 2017?

As Russia gets set to mark the Year of the Environment in 2017, there is growing hope that the Kremlin might be able to partner with the EU on several showcase environmental projects

As Russia gets set to mark the Year of the Environment in 2017, there is growing hope that the Kremlin might be able to partner with the EU on several showcase environmental projects.

A view of Moscow from the 54th floor of the Moscow City business center. Photo: RIA Novosti

2017 will be the Year of the Environment in Russia. The Kremlin has already announced numerous environmental projects (involving both education and infrastructure) to implement within this year. In addition, it will spread awareness among Russians about the nation’s increasing ecological problems.

This move by the Kremlin echoes the global trend, as indicated by the much-touted Paris Climate Change Agreement signed in December 2015 to replace the outdated Kyoto Protocol. And that raises the prospect of potential collaboration between Russia and other nations that are similarly aligned on environmental goals. There might even be an opportunity for Russia and the EU to partner together in 2017.

The EU is one of the most important stakeholders that is concerned with the challenges of climate change and environmental protection. Over the past few years, the EU has sought to maintain an image of being the key driver of the “green trend” globally. For example, the EU’s expenses on environmental protection were the highest in 2013 in comparison with other countries.

Thanks to the EU’s heft and its large-scale financing of environmental projects in the regions bordering Russia, the latter is improving its environmental record heading into 2017.

Russia and the EU: A history of collaboration

To understand the future basis of cooperation, it’s important first to understand that Russia and the EU actually have a 25-year history of environmental partnership. In 1991, within the Technical Assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States (TACIS) program, the EU started a project that dealt with the environment and nonproliferation. It also involved Russia and contributed to alleviating some environmental and nuclear challenges.

Nearly ten years later, 2000 saw the creation of the Russian Regional Center for Environmental Protection (now defunct). For nearly two and one-half years, Russia and the EU extensively cooperated to harmonize environmental state standards and help the Russian authorities to improve environmental legislation. Its cost was €2.5 million (approximately $2.65 million).

Another project, Civil Protection, which was implemented from 2010 to 2013, sought to come up with a framework of how to prepare and respond to natural and man-made disasters as well as protect the environment and population by increasing the country’s resilience to numerous external factors, including emergencies brought on by large-scale weather events.

Recommended: "The Paris climate change agreement: One year later"

At the same time, an international foundational for supporting environmental collaboration was created, with €100 million ($106 million) allocated to implement the project. The banks of some European countries provided large long-term loans to get off the ground dozens of environmental protection projects in the St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Murmansk, Arkhangelsk and Novgorod regions, as well as in the republics of Karelia and Komi, located in northwestern Russia. Within this program, the authorities established clean air and water infrastructure projects, including plants that recycled the waste of the chemical and cellulose industries.   

Moreover, the Heinrich-Böll Foundation, a German non-governmental organization, fostered EU-Russia academic and student exchanges in the field of environmental protection, with numerous grants and scholarships available for students and academics. Their goals were to spread awareness about environmental challenges and foster the decision-making process.

Russia and the EU: The current situation

Today, Russia-EU environmental cooperation is regulated within the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) signed by Russia’s Natural Resources and Environment Ministry and its EU counterpart in Helsinki, Finland in October 2006. This initiative includes the creation of a special working group and seven sub-groups that are supposed to come up with a common environmental agenda and policy. In 2013, the PCA working group held its last session in Brussels. Unfortunately, the civil war in Ukraine interrupted and froze this process and the European Investment Bank (EIB) stopped funding its projects in Russia.

However, three years later, in 2016, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini announced the necessity for the “selective” resumption of cooperation with Russia in those fields that are mutually beneficial.

Recommended: "Climate change could make Russia vulnerable to security challenges"

Among those fields of potential cooperation, she had in mind climate change, global warming and environmental protection. Thus, Russia and the EU agreed to resume their cooperation within the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for governments with stakes in the Arctic, to protect the region’s flora and fauna and intensify the collaboration between stakeholders.

The Russian and EU authorities also gave the green light to launch environmental protection and preservation projects in the regions of northwestern Russia and northeastern Europe where they shared a common border. Thus, they expect to get off the ground at least five programs, with two of them (that deal with climate change) in the process of implementation. 

The first program aims at protecting the marine environment from pollution by toxic and man-made waste as well as maintaining biodiversity in St. Petersburg, the Leningrad and Kaliningrad regions. Meanwhile, the second one spreads awareness about energy efficiency as a way to deal with climate change and intends to support Russian nongovernmental environmentalists in St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Region.   

Geopolitics, casting a long shadow over environmental cooperation

Today, the EU identifies itself as the leader of the environmental movement in the world. However, if the status quo persists, it might be difficult to maintain this image without Russia’s participation, given its heft and environmental protection potential.

For example, it was Russia that ratified the EU-backed Kyoto protocol, which was on the verge of collapse in 2005 due to the reluctance of India, China and the U.S. to ratify the agreement. In fact, it was also a political gesture of solidarity with the European Union, not only a pragmatic move. Thus, in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol, the Kremlin was supposed to provide its territory for nuclear waste in exchange for EU investment in Russia’s environmental projects. This, in turn, could encourage Moscow and Brussels to cooperate in other fields. 

Nevertheless, in the case of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, Russia didn’t play a significant role. However, Moscow’s support might have influenced the U.S. and China to sigh the agreement within a six-month period and, thus, accelerated the entire process.

Given the rich experience of Russia and the EU in environmental protection, it could draw them together and be an effective field of “selective cooperation.” The hope is that this could help to alleviate the political confrontation between the two sides.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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Putin and Trump: How to make nonproliferation a priority in 2017 https://russia-direct.org/opinion/putin-and-trump-how-make-nonproliferation-priority-2017
Richard Weitz

 Even amidst growing tensions, there are several steps that the U.S. and Russia can take in the coming year to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation.

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Thu, 05 Jan 2017 21:51:56 +0000 5348 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/putin-and-trump-how-make-nonproliferation-priority-2017#comments Putin and Trump: How to make nonproliferation a priority in 2017

Even amidst growing tensions, there are several steps that the U.S. and Russia can take in the coming year to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation

 Even amidst growing tensions, there are several steps that the U.S. and Russia can take in the coming year to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation.

President Barack Obama, left, followed by Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Chinese President Xi Jinping, leave the room during the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, April 1, 2016. Photo: AP

Despite good intentions, the Obama administration leaves office in January with U.S.-Russia nonproliferation cooperation in a precarious condition. Moscow’s boycott of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, suspension of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), exclusion from the Group of Eight (G8), and other developments are major, though manageable, challenges in the nuclear security domain.

Renewing U.S.-Russian nonproliferation ties is vital since both countries have large stocks of nuclear weapons, advanced civilian and military nuclear complexes, and expertise in many nuclear and terrorism-related areas. Their cooperation has been responsible for important nuclear security successes, such as removing fissile material from vulnerable former Soviet bloc nuclear facilities.

Yet, while both powers want to deny other countries nuclear weapons, they often differ in their proliferation-related threat perceptions, preferred nonproliferation tactics, and the costs they are prepared to incur to avert further nuclear proliferation. For example, U.S. officials are more willing to sanction countries that pose a proliferation risk, while Russians are more worried about regime instability.

Russia’s exclusion from the G8 has weakened that Group’s nonproliferation functions, including its management of the Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. For more than a decade, the Global Partnership has conducted billions of dollars’ worth of nonproliferation projects in Russia, but now these have been completed or frozen due to tensions between Moscow and the West.

Washington and Moscow can, however, rely more on strengthening the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT). The GICNT endorses multinational training, exercises, and sharing of best practices in the prevention, detection, and response to nuclear incidents triggered by non-state actors. It also promotes use of highly enriched uranium and plutonium in civilian activities and enhancing the security of radiological sources that could be used to make dirty bombs. Importantly, while China is not a member of the G8, it is a leading player in the GICNT.

Russia and the United States continue to support the GICNT. Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, recently told Russia Direct that, “Despite all the difficulties in our relations with the U.S., our cooperation [in the Global Initiative] is very… constructive.”

Also read: "For Russia, nuclear security is not the same as nuclear disarmament"

To further enhance bilateral cooperation on nonproliferation, both countries need to share more intelligence to counter radiological or nuclear terrorism threats to themselves and others. Furthermore, both governments should do more to encourage other contributions to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). By securing more diverse sources of funding, the IAEA can raise the stability, sustainability and credibility of its programs. Furthermore, Russian and U.S. experts could partner to prepare an IAEA prospectus on nuclear security and help its Nuclear Security Division develop a strategic plan to manage emerging threats and opportunities.

At the multilateral level, Russia and the United States can keep strengthening the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which obliges all states to refrain from supporting non-state actors seeking to develop, acquire, manufacture, possess, transport, transfer or use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their delivery systems.

The Resolution further requires that all governments establish export controls on WMD materials and criminalize WMD-related proliferation activities. Consistent enforcement by governments of these obligations remains elusive since neither the resolution nor the UN Committee that oversees implementation offers clear standards for comprehensive enactment or adequate financial and technical support for its execution.

Both countries are leading users and exporters of civilian nuclear energy technologies, so they have a shared commercial interest in making nuclear energy production more secure and safe. For example, they can work together to apply supply- and demand-focused measures to civil nuclear exports to curb the spread of dangerous nuclear technologies and materials as well as better support international safety and security norms.

Furthermore, the Russian and U.S. nuclear enterprises can offer human capital training, regulatory assistance, and other support to states contemplating launching new nuclear energy programs to help them avoid accidents and protect their nuclear material and facilities.

Though bilateral and multinational partnerships, Moscow and Washington can develop safer and more secure commercial nuclear technologies. Such work can be done on a bilateral basis, such as through their underutilized bilateral civil nuclear security cooperation agreement, or via regional or multilateral approaches such as the World Association of Nuclear Operators.

Also read: Interview with Carnegie's Alexey Arbatov "Russia might be the first casualty if nuclear terrorism becomes reality"

Russia and the United States can also collaborate more closely in support of the new IAEA nuclear fuel bank in Kazakhstan. Such multinational nuclear fuel repositories could provide developing countries with reactor fuel in a safer, cheaper, and more secure way than if they tried to develop their own fuel-producing technologies, which can be misused to make nuclear weapons.

When bilateral relations improve, so will the possibility of renewed U.S.-Russian laboratory cooperation on nuclear security and nonproliferation issues.

Fortunately, Russian officials say they are willing to consider the “Action Plans,” adopted without Russia’s presence, at the last Nuclear Security Summit. The Plans offer proposed agendas for the UN, the IAEA, INTERPOL, the GICNT, and the Global Partnership. Ulyanov suggested, “We are ready to support everything reasonable that was adopted at the Washington Summit.”

The Trump administration should keep an open mind about the international convention to suppress acts of chemical and biological terrorism that Moscow has placed under consideration before the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Even if Washington decides that the proposed convention would add little to existing agreements, U.S. support for the proposal, which is also backed by China and other countries, might catalyze new WMD cooperation. For its part, Russia needs to stop claiming that the United States is supporting chemical terrorism in the Middle East or building biological weapons labs in the former Soviet republics.

Finally, while expanding cooperation on these nonproliferation issues, Russia and the United States should sustain public health collaboration against major natural diseases and keep studying the potential impact of emerging disruptive strategic technologies, such as cyber and outer space warfare. By doing so, Russia and the U.S. can make the world a safer place in 2017.

Dr. Weitz would like to thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for supporting his non-proliferation research.

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The Turkish New Year's massacre and the future of terrorism https://russia-direct.org/opinion/turkish-new-years-massacre-and-future-terrorism
Artem Kureev

If the recent tragic events in Istanbul are any indication, nightclubs could become a target for future terrorist attacks by ISIS.

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Wed, 04 Jan 2017 18:58:40 +0000 5346 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/opinion/turkish-new-years-massacre-and-future-terrorism#comments The Turkish New Year's massacre and the future of terrorism

If the recent tragic events in Istanbul are any indication, nightclubs could become a target for future terrorist attacks by ISIS

If the recent tragic events in Istanbul are any indication, nightclubs could become a target for future terrorist attacks by ISIS.

A Turkish special security force member patrols near the scene of the Reina night club following the New Year's terrorist attack in Istanbul, Jan. 4. Photo: AP

On Jan. 4, the Turkish authorities finally identified the fugitive gunman who orchestrated a massacre in an Istanbul nightclub in the early hours of New Year’s Day, according to the state-run news agency Anadolu. The police had also detained about 20 people (including several citizens of Russia) who might be affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and the nightclub attack.

Reportedly, the terrorist and his family came from Kyrgyzstan to Istanbul on Nov. 20, and afterwards, moved to Ankara, the Turkish capital, before eventually arriving in the city of Konya. According to the media, the terrorist brought his wife and children with him to Turkey to deflect attention while preparing his attack.

The fact that the bloodshed took place on the first day of 2017, at a time when the entire nation was celebrating the New Year’s holiday, is highly symbolic and also ill-omened, much like the Dec. 19 Berlin attack that shook Germany in the days leading up to Christmas, one of the most important holidays in the West.

Thus, the New Year’s “gift” from ISIS, which quickly took responsibility for the attack, means that Europe and all other countries fighting against this terrorist organization (including Russia) should be prepared for the worst in the year ahead. Most importantly, the Berlin terrorist attack and the Istanbul nightclub massacre could indicate that ISIS is changing its tactics.

In the wake of the New Year’s party in Istanbul’s Reina nightclub (which is very popular among celebrities and foreigners), a gunman, who was reportedly disguised as Santa Claus, opened fire in the crowd of 400 people. According to recent reports, the terrorist reached the club, took his machine gun out of the trunk of his vehicle, killed security officers in front of the entrance, entered the club, chose a convenient location and started shooting.

As a result, the assault killed 39, with dozens severely injured. Panic-stricken guests started jumping in the Bosporus and tried to swim away from the place of the massacre. Oddly enough, this incident took place in Turkey’s biggest city, where more than 17,000 police officers have been trying to maintain security.

Recommended: "Turkey’s New Year party terrorist attack reminds 2017 won’t be easy"

Amidst the post-massacre chaos and disorder, the terrorist easily left the club and disappeared in the panic-stricken crowd. In the same way, the terrorist who was responsible for the Berlin attack disappeared, but eventually was shot dead several days later in Milan. It is not ruled out that another such person is hiding today in Europe or elsewhere, waiting to repeat the experience of the gunman who killed dozens in the Turkish nightclub.

Unfortunately, all recent terrorist attacks, be they in Turkey, Germany or elsewhere, show that ISIS is changing its tactics. The focus is on giving any perpetrator the chance to kill as many people as possible and survive without being punished.

In fact, such tactics echo the ones of the famous Chinese military leader, strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu, who lived in ancient China. His treatise “The Art of War” introduces two particularly relevant terms: “the living spy” and “the dead spy.” While the former should survive after his military task, the latter should die. The former requires many more resources to prepare, with his experience becoming richer with every attack. The latter is doomed to die and is seen by leaders as expendable. This “dead spy” is a suicide bomber who usually commits terrorist attacks under the influence of drugs and psychotropic substances.

In contrast, those who are supposed to survive (like the one who orchestrated the Istanbul attack) are able to withstand psychological pressure: They have a great deal of physical and mental stamina, they can kill dispassionately and, finally, they can pretend to be a victim in order to disappear. Such people can easily repeat their experience elsewhere. That’s why ISIS might be pinning their hopes on them for creating maximum chaos in the West. And this makes them even more dangerous.

Another risk is the way most nightclubs work today, which makes them a particularly attractive target for terrorists. Let’s begin with the assumption that a terrorist won’t necessarily attack a famous and popular nightclub in a city, guarded by many security and police officers during the most prominent holidays - as it was the case in Istanbul.

However, a terrorist will pay attention not to the image or reputation of a venue, but to the number of people attending that nightclub. The more people that will come to celebrate or party, the more likely a terrorist will come to kill them. Given the fact that even average clubs might bring together a lot of people during the holidays and some of them are very loosely guarded and vulnerable for attack, this create additional risks and a massive headache for security services everywhere, including in Russia.

After all, many clubs might not follow necessary security measures and, moreover, might hire doormen or bouncers with controversial life experiences, without checking their previous record and reliability. This, in turn, creates a loophole for terrorists who seek to get into the club and launch another attack.

 Also read: "Trucks instead of bombs: The new face of terrorism"

That’s why Europe, with its abundance of nightclubs, becomes a very vulnerable target for ISIS today. First of all, a nightclub is an ideal place for a terrorist attack, at least because zealous Muslims denounce such places as immoral and evil.

Second, nightclubs bring together many people in a relatively constrained space; this makes it relatively easy to turn a club into the scene of a panic-stricken crowd that is stampeding for the exits.

Third, even if police officers provide security in a nightclub, they are hardly likely to open fire in the crowd.

Fourth, masquerade theme parties, common for many nightclubs, make it easier for a perpetrator to disguise himself (or herself), hide a gun, merge into the crowd and leave shortly after shooting, right through the escape exit. This appears to be the case in Turkey, where a Santa Claus disguise may have provided cover for the perpetrator.  

However, it remains unclear if Istanbul’s New Year party massacre was really a well-orchestrated attack that involved several culprits or just an attack conducted by a lone wolf who was lucky enough not to be detected by the Turkish police. Yet now it seems to be clear that ISIS might, unfortunately, take into account this example as a playbook for future attacks. And, again, this makes ISIS more dangerous: The more the West squeezes ISIS in places like Iraq or Syria, the more desperate ISIS may be to lash back in the capitals of Europe.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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In 2017, stopping hostilities in Ukraine is now a matter of political will https://russia-direct.org/qa/2017-stopping-hostilities-ukraine-now-matter-political-will
Andrei Zolotov

Interview: Alexander Hug of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine discusses the current situation in the war-torn nation, focusing on the need to avert a large-scale humanitarian disaster in the war zone.

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Tue, 03 Jan 2017 13:23:19 +0000 5344 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/qa/2017-stopping-hostilities-ukraine-now-matter-political-will#comments In 2017, stopping hostilities in Ukraine is now a matter of political will

Interview: Alexander Hug of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine discusses the current situation in the war-torn nation, focusing on the need to avert a large-scale humanitarian disaster in the war zone

Interview: Alexander Hug of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine discusses the current situation in the war-torn nation, focusing on the need to avert a large-scale humanitarian disaster in the war zone.

SMM Principal Deputy Chief Monitor Alexander Hug urged both sides to repair the bridge and create a safe environment for people crossing. Photo: OSCE / Evgeniy Maloletka

The last weeks of 2016 have seen a major upsurge of violence in some areas of Eastern Ukraine, including a recent separatist offensive near Svitlodarsk and Debaltseve. Russia Direct interviewed the principal deputy chief monitor of the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Ukraine, Alexander Hug, about the development of the situation in the region over the past year.

According to Hug, both sides now have enough control of their troops on the ground to be able to implement a ceasefire, but the problem is a lack of political will to do so. Looking into the next year, Hug suggests putting the plight of civilians as the absolute priority for negotiators, ahead of any political interests.

Russia Direct: There are alarming media reports from the Debaltseve area and elsewhere along the Luhansk contact line. What is going on there?

Alexander Hug: Yes, indeed, the OSCE has long been recording exchanges of fire and ceasefire violations in the wider area between Svitlodarsk and Debaltseve. We have teams permanently present in Debaltseve and in Svitlodarsk, and that area has been one of the main hotspots along the contact line that we have been concerned about [Debaltseve is vital to the control of both Donetsk and Luhansk, and has seen some of the heaviest fighting during the conflict, including the infamous “Debaltseve Boiler” — Editor’s note].

During the week of Dec. 12-18, the number of ceasefire violations recorded by the SMM increased by 75 percent compared to the previous week. We have seen there in the past the use of heavy weapons on both sides and again now. The use of heavy weapons proscribed by the Minsk agreements has tripled. The monitors recorded at least 985 mortar, tank, artillery and multiple rocket launch systems fire explosions compared to 244 the week before. The vast majority of them (843 explosions) occurred south and southeast of the government-controlled Svitlodarsk.

We are dealing with a considerable upsurge in violence. Teams on the ground have been in touch with the Joint Center for Control and Coordination, which has the task to ensure the comprehensive ceasefire, and on a number of occasions it worked and the ceasefire started to hold again. But it is unstable in that area.

Our monitors were turned back on a number of occasions and we are often unable to determine what actually happened. If you want clarity from the SMM, and you are one of the sides, you better give access to the SMM, because only then it would be possible to document what has been happening.

RD: What about getting access to the war-torn territories? Is it easier for the SMM now than a year ago or worse?

A.H.: It should be noted that access for the SMM is granted by its mandate of 57 participating states, and is further reconfirmed in the Minsk Agreements. And that means that Russia, Ukraine as well as Alexander Zakharchenko [the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic — Editor’s note] and Igor Plotnitsky [the head of the Luhansk People’s Republic — Editor’s note] have also signed up to this very important attribute of the mission. The freedom of movement for the SMM is unconditional. Any restriction of any kind is a violation of the SMM mandate and of the Minsk Agreements.

Having said that, it is true that we still encounter numerous restrictions in our movement. Overall and looking back in the year — while both sides restrict SMM’s freedom of movement — the majority of those do occur in the areas not controlled by the government. If looking at the disengagement areas, we have encountered there a significant amount of restrictions, including those that relate to the presence of dangers on the ground — mines and other hazards that are there. And the sides are required to remove them but have not removed them.

 Recommended: "What are the prospects of a new OSCE monitoring mission in Ukraine?"

The restrictions are of different nature – there are delays at checkpoints, there are complete denials of movement, when our monitors are required to go back and not allowed to go forward. Often, this happens in areas not controlled by the government, and we see civilian cars passing, but we are not allowed often under the pretext of security risks, which are not specified precisely. But those security hazards should have been removed by the two sides. The SMM is also subject to violence and aggression – there has been fire upon our patrols, they have been threatened at gunpoint and every now and then, in areas not controlled by the government, they encounter organized crowds of people that prevent them from moving forward.

If we look back a year ago, we had similar challenges. There is now an increased problem — and that’s the nature of any conflict — risks on the ground, posed by unexploded ordnance and mines that are increased now and there. The longer the conflict lasts, the more of these risks there are. Keep in mind that Russia, Ukraine representatives of certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk have already agreed back in 2014 that mines need to be removed and no new mines should be put on the ground. Unfortunately, that is still not the case and it is up to them to remove those hazards.

RD: How did the general situation evolve over the year regarding the cessation or resumption of hostilities?

A.H.: Let us take 2015 as the first reflection point. There were large-scale battles like Donetsk airport, Debaltseve and other theaters, including the attack on Mariupol. We saw the large-scale use of heavy weapons including tanks on both sides. The conflict line was shifting in many places.

This year, the violence started to concentrate around clearly defined hotspots along the contact line, such as the triangle comprising Donetsk Airport-Yasynuvata-Avdiivka. There is an area discussed before – between Svitlodarsk and Debaltseve in the western part of Luhansk region in the south of Donetsk region, to the east and northeast of Mariupol.

Comparing this year to last year, there are less heavy weapons used, but still they are in use. There is still an unacceptable level of violence – throughout the year we have recorded almost 300,000 ceasefire violations. We have spotted 3,000 pieces of weapons proscribed the by the Minsk agreements within the withdrawal lines.

Also read: "What to expect from Austria's OSCE chairmanship"

We have entered the third winter, when the civilian population on the both sides of the contact line continues to face humanitarian hardship as a result of the violence they are exposed to. Civilian infrastructure — water, gas — is being damaged and destroyed by the violence. As the contact line has become stable, the civilian infrastructure that leads across this line is subject to attacks and destruction. Gas, electricity and water pipelines become increasingly interrupted by the ongoing fighting, and their repair becomes increasingly difficult, because the areas of effective control are not entirely clear, are very risky and also polluted with mines and it becomes very difficult to interact there.

There is also, towards the end of this year, clearly a lack of will to continue to implement the Minsk agreements in full. We have seen that the sides have at their hands the instruments to control the fighting. The last time we have seen this was on the first of September, when they decided to recommit to the ceasefire, then overnight they stopped the fighting.

These days it is less of a problem of command and control, but more of a problem of lack of political will on both sides to stop fighting. And I would like to emphasize that the civilians suffer most in this. They have difficulties in getting across the contact line, they have difficulties in getting access to basic services. With utilities interrupted, their places of work cannot be reached any longer, kids cannot go to school, they cannot visit their friends.

The situation of civilians left and right to the contact line becomes increasingly unbearable and, certainly, unacceptable. Ukrainians on both sides who have nothing to do with this conflict should come to the fore of the agenda and should dominate the decision-making criteria to have solutions that will ease their life.

RD: Why is it the case that there is no political will today to implement the Minsk agreements?

A.H.: Ending the fighting is not impossible. We know, and the civilians know, and those who have signed the Minsk Agreements know, that the sides can stop this within hours — we have seen it multiple times. To discuss why they are not doing this would be speculation. These decisions are difficult to take, of course. The situation is very complex. But the decisions need to be taken.

Otherwise the civilians will continue to suffer unnecessarily. And any political agenda should come after the interests of the civilians on the both sides of the contact line — people who have nothing to do with the ongoing fight.

RD: Would you say then that there is a regression in the Minsk process?

A.H.: No, the discussions are ongoing in Minsk, and the Trilateral Contact Group and the working groups are meeting regularly. Regression is probably not the right word. I can say that towards the end of the year we see signs of stagnation. Clearly, no forward movement has been made in the past weeks.

Alexander Hug, Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. Photo: OSCE / Micky Kroell

But what is important is that Minsk is the way to go ahead, Minsk is the platform where everyone sits down and discusses, and Minsk provides the solutions. So, in no way would I suggest that Minsk is dead. And if the sides decide to not move onwards, it is not the process itself that brought it to a standstill.

And if you read our reports, the results of non-compliance with the Minsk Agreements are there every day: lack of withdrawal of heavy weapons, the non-adherence to the ceasefire, the placing of mines, the restrictions of the freedom of movement of the SMM, etc. are omnipresent, and this is the direct result of non-adherence of the signatories to these measures in Minsk.

RD: What are the major obstacles to disengagement?

A.H.: First of all, I would like to be very clear about what disengagement means. Disengagement is a process that prevents skirmishes along the contact line. It prevents accidental starting of fighting where the sides are very close. It is not about giving up gained areas; it is not about retreating armed forces or formations. It is about creating space that would lead to a reasonable and sustainable ceasefire.

And the simple fact is that in all of those hot spots the sides sit on top of each other. Creating a space between them would create conditions for the situation to calm down. But it can only make sense if all the measures agreed in Minsk — in particular the withdrawal of heavy weapons - can be implemented at the same time.

The lack of political will here also clearly is one of the reasons why disengagement does not move ahead. At the same time, you have to acknowledge that in those areas where it did happen — in two of the three areas — in the Zolote disengagement area in Luhansk region and in Petrivske in the southern part of Donetsk region – the results are visible. We register very few, if any ceasefire violations in these two areas.

It is also important that we have access to these areas to verify the withdrawal. Obviously, when new disengagement areas are created, it will lead to a more stable ceasefire.

RD: What do you see as the biggest achievements and the biggest losses of 2016?

A.H.: Overall one can see that the conflict has been contained. There were days and months, when we had to register a great number of ceasefire violations. But everyone involved, including the Joint Center for Control and Coordination, has invested much to prevent the large-scale deterioration and instability as we have seen in the previous years.

Probably what is most needed now, and what was absent in the latter half of the year is the political will to give the Minsk agreements new momentum.

RD: What are the current numbers of the SMM and is the mission going to grow further?

A.H.: At the moment we have roughly 700 monitors in Ukraine, 600 of those in the east of the country. On top of that, we have another 100 people international staff and about 330 Ukrainian colleagues working alongside us.

RD: What is happening to the number of civilian casualties? Is it decreasing or growing?

A.H.: Due to the lesser use of heavy weapons, we have been registering fewer casualties overall than in earlier days. But the numbers are still high. From January to November, for instance, the OSCE SMM has corroborated and confirmed 83 civilian deaths and 305 cases of civilian injuries.

RD: In your opinion, can Minsk-2 be really fully implemented? Looking from the ground, is there a need for a Minsk-3?

A.H.: Look, any ceasefire in the world is messy. Solutions and results on the ground will not come overnight. This is a very complex affair and it drags now into the third winter. This will take time. But the way to achieve results has been clearly designed and agreed already. It is the Trilateral Contact Group and the decisions that it took in Minsk that has highlighted the way that the sides wanted to go to bring a settlement in the sense that the violence ends and the future decisions are based on that.

We believe, without being naive, that the measures foreseen in Minsk are the measures that are required to bring about a stable situation in the eastern part of the country. No agreement is perfect and it always depends on the will of the sides to make the best out of it. It is the intention of the 57 OSCE participating States with its field operation — the SMM — to contribute to the implementation of Minsk.

Recommended: "The paradox of the Minsk Agreements"

But, once again, much depends on the political will of the sides to implement those agreements. And it is not only required to have discussions in Minsk, but it is also required to take actions on the ground, and we will continue to document if such actions have been taken and whether or not they lead to tangible results.

RD: Several months ago there was a lot of talk about creating an “armed OSCE mission” in the eastern part of Ukraine. Where do we stand on this now?

A.H.: The OSCE is an organization that makes its decisions on a consensus basis. The SMM is a field operation deployed by consensus decision of the 57 participating states, so any changes to this mission, which is a civilian monitoring mission, and the establishment of a new field operation, would require the consensus of all 57 states.

So, it will require a clear vote and political will by all 57 states, not by one, two or four of them. This debate belongs to the Permanent Council in Vienna, where it should be held. The SMM had its mandate extended until March next year and we will continue to exercise our mandate until it expires, and should it be extended, we will continue to do so. It is up to the Permanent Council to make a consensus-based decision.

RD: What are your expectations for 2017 - if not for the whole year, then at least for the first several months?

A.H.: What I would like to see also applies to the last days of 2016: I would like to see an immediate cessation of hostilities, that the weapons are silent. We know that the sides can stop this. There is need for the withdrawal of weapons behind the lines, and they need to provide us with inventories, so that we can do the verification of this measure. We need to see more crossings for civilians, and they need to be safe.

There needs to be disengagement, including in these areas, so that civilians could cross from one side of the line to the other without being put in harm’s way. There needs to be in this regard an immediate action in the Luhansk region, where civilians can to this day cross only on foot through the damaged bridge over the contact line. That has to change.

There is a clear solution at hand, and there are existing crossing points. They just need to be opened again – will is needed. It is purely a matter of the sides agreeing and doing what they need to do, which is to help civilians get back to a normal life. Three years of this conflict is enough. It is time now for the sides to do what they agreed to do.

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Turkey’s New Year party terrorist attack reminds 2017 won’t be easy https://russia-direct.org/analysis/turkeys-new-year-party-terrorist-attack-reminds-2017-wont-be-easy
Russia Direct Team

Less than 24 hours into the New Year, Turkey experienced the first major terrorist attack of 2017. We look back at the 10 terrorism attacks of the past year that made headlines.

 

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Mon, 02 Jan 2017 13:22:24 +0000 5342 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/analysis/turkeys-new-year-party-terrorist-attack-reminds-2017-wont-be-easy#comments Turkey’s New Year party terrorist attack reminds 2017 won’t be easy

Less than 24 hours into the New Year, Turkey experienced the first major terrorist attack of 2017. We look back at the 10 terrorism attacks of the past year that made headlines

Less than 24 hours into the New Year, Turkey experienced the first major terrorist attack of 2017. We look back at the 10 terrorism attacks of the past year that made headlines.

 

A man waits to leave a flower for the victims outside a nightclub which was attacked by a gunman overnight, in Istanbul, on New Year's Day, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017.  Photo: AP

2017 started with a great tragedy for Turkey's Istanbul, a city already on high-alert for a terrorist attack. A gunman opened fire on Jan. 1, in the wake of the New Year celebrations in a Turkish nightclub, Reina, which is very popular among local celebrities and foreigners. The massacre killed at least 39 people, with almost 70 severely wounded. Among the victims are more than two dozen foreign nationals.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as well as a number of global leaders condemned the attack and offered condolences for those who lost their lives, including foreign citizens. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack. Without doubt, the incident is a not a good sign. It reminds global leaders about the terrorism threat that has been persistently haunting the world since the turbulence in the Middle East started.

In summer, on June 28, Turkey faced another tragedy. At least 42 were killed and over 230 more injured at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport as a result of an explosion caused by three suicide bombers and gunfire. According to the Turkish authorities, the three suicide bombers were affiliated with ISIS.

Keeping this in mind, Russia Direct offers a list of the articles about the most violent terrorist attacks in 2016.  

1. Trucks instead of bombs: The new face of terrorism

A truck which ran into a crowded Christmas market Monday evening killing several people Monday evening is seen in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016. Photo: AP

On the eve of the winter holidays, Dec. 19, a heavy truck crashed through a crowd at a busy Christmas market in Berlin. This was another tragedy, which revealed a new strategy by the Islamist radicals: using trucks as instruments of terror. Even though the number of victims in Germany was significantly smaller than during other terrorist attacks in 2016 (police sources reported nine dead and 50 injured), the incident was a bad harbinger.

Read the full article here.

2. Hard lessons for the Kremlin from the Ankara assassination

Russian President Vladimir Putin during the funeral ceremony of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov, Dec. 22. Photo: RIA Novosti

On Dec. 19, the same day that the terrorist attack shook Berlin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was hosting journalists during a holiday event at the Foreign Ministry mansion in Central Moscow, and tragic news came from Turkey. For all gathered, the news was shocking: Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov was assassinated in Ankara during the opening of the photo exhibition titled “Russia Through the Lens of Turkish Eyes.”

A young man in a traditional black suit for guards fatally shot the Russian ambassador and shouted out in Arabic a well-known slogan of radical jihadists in all countries. “Don’t forget Aleppo,” the assassin then shouted as he pulled the trigger. “Don’t forget Syria.”

Russia Direct’s regular contributor Ivan Tsvetkov describes the incident as “an extraordinary case in the history of Russian diplomacy.” 

Read the full article here.

3. Will Europe tighten its migration legislation after a summer of terror?

Candles near a mall where the July 22 shooting took place leaving multiple people dead in Munich. Photo: AP

A series of explosions and numerous terrorist attacks shocked Europe during the summer of 2016. On July 22, Europe was shaken by an act of violence – a mass shooting close to a shopping center in central Munich, Germany. Although the Munich tragedy came just one week after the terrorist act in Nice, France, the police said on July 23 that there was no connection to ISIS.

The evidence suggested that the teenager was a “lone wolf,” similar to the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people five years ago. Based on witness accounts, the attacker Ali David Sonboli expressed his hate for foreign migrants before starting to shoot. While a connection with ISIS was ruled out, experts assume that the main motive for the attack was anti-migrant sentiments.

Read the full article here.

4. Terror in Nice: Could it lead to more international cooperation?

Flowers and candles outside the French Embassy in Moscow in memory of the victims of the terrorist act in Nice. Photo: RIA Novosti

Despite the fact that many European countries, notably France, significantly stepped up anti-terrorism and security measures after the series of terrorist attacks in Brussels and in Paris in recent months, the July 14 incident in Nice, which coincided with the Bastille Day celebrations, indicated that terrorists were becoming more persistent.

More than 84 people, including a number of Russian tourists, were killed when a truck driven by a 31-year-old French citizen of Tunisian origin rammed through a police barrier and into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day along the Nice promenade. The tragedy was a reminder that such events are unpredictable and can take place anywhere.

Read the full article here.

5. Multiple explosions shake Brussels, leaving at least 28 dead

Airport workers embrace as they leave the scene of explosions at Zaventem airport near Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016. Photo: Reueters

A series of suicide bomb attacks in Brussels killed at least 28 people on Mar. 22, with two huge blasts at the city’s airport and another at a metro station in the immediate vicinity of the EU headquarters. The first two explosions took place at the Zaventem airport just before 8 a.m., resulting in the death of at least 13 people and leaving about 35 injured. Soon after, another explosion blasted through Maalbeek metro station, leaving 15 dead, according to media reports.

These incidents showed all signs of a coordinated, well-orchestrated attack like in the deadly multiple attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015. Coincidentally, the attacks came a day after Jan Jambon, Belgium’s interior minister, warned that terror attacks might take place following last week’s arrest of Salah Abdeslam, a suspected participant of November’s Paris attacks.

The attacks became be the first suicide bombings in Belgium, spurring fears about the growing threat from ISIS.

Read the full article here.

For an alternative opinion read: “Brussels attacks will force the Kremlin to face moral and political choices

7. The Orlando shooting reveals the ugly side of Russia's anti-Americanism

People hold up candles against a rainbow lit backdrop during a vigil for those killed in a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub downtown Monday, June 13, 2016, in Orlando, Florida. Photo: AP

The summer of 2016 was challenging for the United States as well. A mass shooting took place in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 12, leaving 50 people dead. An American-born man, Omar Mateen, pledged allegiance to ISIS and carried out the attack. Later, the terrorist organization claimed responsibility for the shooting.

However, the reaction of the Russian public to the massacre at the Orlando gay nightclub showed that the concept of international terrorism as a common enemy unfortunately is no longer enough to bridge the gap between Russia and the United States. However, after 9/11, the threat of international terrorism served as a unifying force between the two nations. Russia Direct’s contributor Ivan Tsvekov tries to account for the reasons of this trend.

Read the full article here.

Also read: “15 years after 9/11, the terrorists are winning

8. Kazakhstan finally forced to confront the threat of radical Islam

The Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev called the attack on police station in Almaty a terrorist act. Photo: RIA Novosti

On July 18, two gunmen killed three policemen and a citizen in Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty. While it is not yet clear who is behind the attack, the shootings come a month after a deadly assault in the northwestern town of Aktobe.

On June 6, radicals linked to ISIS attacked two gun stores and a military unit in the city of Aktobe in one of the most notable and brazen attacks in Kazakhstan in recent years. According to investigators, the perpetrators had planned to seize arms and continue their attack in the city. However, as a result of a gunfight at the military unit’s headquarters, 12 of the attackers were killed and nine were detained. The Ministry of Interior recognized the events in Aktobe as a terrorist attack.

Read the full article here.

9. Russia and the West need to think beyond Syria to deal with ISIS

Nigerian soldiers man a checkpoint in Gwoza, Nigeria, a town newly liberated from Boko Haram. Photo: AP

The Jan. 31 atrocities committed by Boko Haram in a village in Nigeria that resulted in 86 people having been burnt alive, including a great number of children, indicate that the ISIS-led unique brand of terrorism is spreading throughout the world.

“The atrocities committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria are yet another example of the increasing global influence of ISIS and its capability to export terrorism,” Russia Direct’s contributor Jack Goldstone, a professor at George Mason University, argues in his column. “This should be a major concern for Russia and the West.”

Read the full version of the article.

10. Russia Direct Report: “Terrorism: Inside Russia's Syria campaign and the global fight against extremism

This report takes a closer look at the topic of Russia and anti-terrorism. Ever since Russia launched a military campaign against ISIS in October 2015, there has been increased interest in Russia’s efforts to roll back the gains made by Islamic extremists in the Middle East. Given the recent unprecedented terrorist attacks in both Paris and Brussels, the report tries to figure out if extensive cooperation between Russia and the West in tackling the problem is possible.

The report includes a brief overview of the goals, accomplishments and challenges of Russia’s military campaign in Syria. It also contains a review of the rise of extremism and terrorism in Europe, analyzes the link between the civil war in Syria and the growth of the terrorist threat to Europe, takes a closer look at the risk of terrorism being imported into Russia, and concludes with a consideration of possible ways that Russia and Europe might become part of the same anti-terrorist coalition.

Find more information about the report here.

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Best of 2016: Russia Direct's 10 articles that attracted most attention https://russia-direct.org/russian-media/best-2016-russia-directs-10-articles-attracted-most-attention
Igor Rozin

As 2016 came to an end, Russia Direct presents the list of its best articles published throughout the past year.

The covers of Russia Direct's analytical reports. Photo: Russia Direct

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Mon, 02 Jan 2017 01:43:02 +0000 5340 at https://russia-direct.org https://russia-direct.org/russian-media/best-2016-russia-directs-10-articles-attracted-most-attention#comments Best of 2016: Russia Direct's 10 articles that attracted most attention

As 2016 came to an end, Russia Direct presents the list of its best articles published throughout the past year

As 2016 came to an end, Russia Direct presents the list of its best articles published throughout the past year.

The covers of Russia Direct's analytical reports. Photo: Russia Direct

2016 was a very challenging year for Russia, the United States, Europe and the world in general. Russia Direct tried to follow all the important events and provide a balanced coverage. This year the most popular topics included the U.S. presidential campaign and the presidency of Republican Donald Trump, Russia’s policy in Syria and U.S.-Russia confrontation.

At the same time, Russia-India relations attracted a great deal of attention. The personality of Russian President Vladimir Puti