Putin rides the tide (but lacks strategy)

mcfaulobamaRussian President Vladimir Putin himself doesn’t know his strategic objectives in Ukraine, says Stanford University’s Michael McFaul (left), the US ambassador to Russia from January 2012 to February of this year.

“I think that this was not some master plan that Putin’s been plotting for decades — annex Crimea and go in to take Novorossiya,” he told NPR:

This phrase “Novorossiya,” New Russia, which is [used] to describe these eastern Ukrainian regions — I think he used that for the first time just a couple of weeks ago. So that actually gives me hope, because that means it’s not some grand plan, master design that he feels he is now empowered to execute, but that this is more contingent. He’s making it up as he goes, and he’s calculating about the cost of direct military intervention and then occupation in Ukraine.

“Putin is a smart person. He’s not doing it a vacuum, and he, I think and I hope, he knows how costly that would be,” said McFaul, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Putin looks like he will continue to ride the tide he has set into motion for the time being, says Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center and member of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies’ Research Council,

But amidst his tactical successes we can already see the signs of a looming strategic defeat, she writes for The American Interest, adding several “finer brushstrokes to bring the wider landscape into view.

The Kremlin’s efforts to root Russian identity and patriotism in shows of force and in seminal historical events like the victory in the Great Patriotic War (World War II) has prompted a continuous search for enemies. Russia has embarked on a path of perpetual war (or at least perpetual confrontation) with those who refuse to accept this identity—whether those enemies are to be found beyond Russia’s borders or within them. Cooperative gestures by other nations will not change this paradigm; it can only be undone when those who set it in motion relinquish power.

While the results of this “war/patriotic” consolidation of Russian society have been impressive thus far, the recent history of such efforts (the second Chechen War of 1999 and the Russia-Georgia war of 2008) suggests that this gambit will only work for a time. Eventually, the numbing effects of mass military psychosis begin to wear off. And if recent polls are any indication, they may be wearing off quickly this time: ……

The elites are still behind Putin. But the comprador segment of the elite, which is integrated into the West, is already unhappy. It is feeling the pinch of the sanctions and of the West’s growing hostility. Pragmatists within the ranks of the elite have begun to doubt whether Putin can successfully protect their interests. But the elites will voice their doubts and misgivings openly only if the people take to the streets……

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Russia’s media imperialism

putinrussiaThe repressive “bloggers law” signed by President Vladimir V. Putin on May 6 says a good deal about the troubling decline of free expression in Russia, according to two leading analysts. This measure comes on the heels of a series of other laws recently put in place to restrict television, books, films, and certain public performances, further curtailing Russia’s already besieged media space, Christopher Walker and Robert Orttung write for Freedom House’s Freedom At Issue blog…..

During the decade and a half of Putin’s rule, media freedom in Russia has gradually eroded. As we write in a recent issue of the Journal of Democracy, the Kremlin is finding alarmingly effective ways to manipulate and control media, despite the proliferation of new communication technologies and methods of news distribution…..

Diffusion of Kremlin Media Values

Putin’s revanchism brings with it some distressing byproducts, one of which is the projection of illiberal Kremlin media values beyond Russia’s borders. …..The first order of business for Russian-backed forces in Crimea was to cut off sources of information beyond the control of the Kremlin. The crackdown on mass media was accompanied by fierce repression of local activists, bloggers, and others who voiced opinions contrary to the Kremlin line, according to a report written by Ivan Šimonović, the UN assistant secretary general for human rights. ….

The same type of propaganda invasion that coincided with the physical invasion of Crimea has been on view in eastern Ukraine. As pro-Russian forces extend their hold, Kremlin media values take root there, too, with coercive tactics used on independent journalists and dissidents in ways that are common in Russia, but had been rare in Ukraine….

As the Kremlin’s ability to project media power has strengthened over time, the authorities in countries on Russia’s periphery have been forced to contend with increasingly provocative and destabilizing messaging. Moscow’s well-funded media complex simply outguns local Russophone alternatives in places like Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and the Baltic states.

Moscow’s propaganda effort in these countries is nothing new; it has been a staple of Putin’s rule, calibrated to suit Russian authorities’ needs at any given time. What is different now is its intensity, the sheer brazenness of the falsehoods disseminated by Kremlin-controlled media, and the fact that its disruptive and provocative elements are being escalated as part of Russia’s new revanchist push. The Kremlin’s claims that it wants stability on its borders ring hollow in the face of its own utterly destabilizing propaganda.

Censorship and Propaganda: Two Sides of a Coin

Even as the Kremlin and its surrogates saturate social networks and the internet in general with comments from Kremlin-friendly trolls and provocateurs, more elaborate measures to censor online expression are being put in place. The “bloggers law,” for instance, requires bloggers with significant audiences to register with the authorities and obliges both domestic and international hosting services to record and turn over user data. Additional evidence that the walls are closing in on Russia’s online world is abundant. Pavel Durov, the founder of Russia’s largest social-networking website, fled Russia on April 22, a day after he said he was forced out as the company’s chief executive for refusing to share users’ personal data with Russian law enforcement agencies. At a forum in St. Petersburg on April 24, Putin called the internet a “CIA project” that needed to be controlled, giving a strong signal that further restrictions are in the offing…………

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Christopher Walker is executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy and can be followed on Twitter @Walker_CT. Robert Orttung is assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs. He can be followed @RobertOrttung.

Putin’s new social contract: Russians feel Great Power high again

Why did the annexation of Crimea have such a powerful mobilizing effect and strengthen the position of the Kremlin so much at a time when economic growth has stopped, capital flight has reached record levels, the ruble is falling and prices are rising? a leading analyst/activist asks.

The reason, it would seem, is simple: The ”nation of consumers” that arose in the boom years of the 2000s, which followed the chaotic and lean years of the 1990s, wants to see the country extend its influence and strength onto the global arena, says Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007.

The triumphant annexation of Crimea enabled Russians to once again feel that they live in a country that is a great global power, he writes for The Moscow Times:

According to the April Levada Center poll, the overwhelming majority of respondents — 90 percent — welcomed the decision to annex Crimea with feelings of joy, approval, national pride and the sense that a historical injustice had been corrected. Only 3 percent of those polled experienced feelings of fear and anxiety, and only 0.6 percent felt shame, despair and outrage over the move.

According to the new social contract that has emerged after the Crimean annexation, the majority of Russians support Putin’s pursuit of Russia’s great-power status, Ryzhkov contends:

By extension, that means most Russians have given their consent to the creation of the Eurasian Union, the formulation of a new corporatist state ideology, a rejection of political and economic reforms, increased military spending, greater isolation from the West and a shift toward China in an attempt to form a political, economic — and perhaps eventually even military — Moscow-Beijing coalition against the West.

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Putin’s assault on civil society continues

Russian civil society organizations are actually doing a remarkable job of fighting back against discriminatory legislation, says the National Endowment for Democracy’s Miriam Lanskoy. But a new bill presented to parliament sends an ominous signal, she writes for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab.

Last week, as international attention toward Russia was focused on its belligerence in Ukraine, a member of the Russian parliament introduced a draft amendment to the current law on nongovernment organizations that largely escaped the notice of Western media. The potential impact on Russian NGOs is substantial. After the Kremlin passed a notorious 2012 law that compelled a wide range of organizations to register under the sinister-sounding label of “foreign agent,” the country’s civil society has resisted with admirable solidarity, and not a single organization has complied. The new amendment, if passed, would allow the government to simply place groups on a “foreign agents” list by fiat.

This latest initiative by the Russian government serves as a reminder that, even as the international community is scrambling to respond to Moscow’s aggressive behavior in Ukraine, the Kremlin has been equally aggressive in cracking down on domestic political freedoms. …

In the face of unrelenting legal and societal pressure, writes Lanskoy, the NED’s Director for Russia and Eurasia, new groups continue to experiment with different formats and strategies. For example, Russian online activists have organized various informal networks to support local initiatives and expose corruption and injustice through social media. One such group, the “Dissernet,” uses crowdsourcing techniques to research and analyze signs of plagiarism in the dissertations of prominent persons, including Duma deputies, ministers, governors, and university professors. Such initiatives promote accountability and transparency and attract considerable interest, while rejecting the formal structure of NGOs. Another new initiative is therusini.org platform that provides training and crowdsourcing resources for grassroots initiatives in Russia’s regions. Such informal groups are very different from the established NGOs; one conference participant dubbed them the “rebellious and ungrateful teenage children” of the established NGOs.

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Forget Facebook, Bring Back Samizdat

The Russian Internet may well be headed the way of China’s, says a leading observer.

Samizdat texts - Polish

Samizdat texts – Polish

But the history of Russian dissidence is long, and if the Internet ceases to be an open and uncensored space, there is another medium that activists can and should look back to for inspiration and perhaps a more effective alternative: samizdat, notes Gal Beckerman, the author of “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” who is currently working on a history of social media before the Internet.

This decidedly pre-digital form flourished during the last 20 years of the Cold War, acting as the connective tissue that held together dissidents in Moscow, Leningrad and far-flung parts of the Soviet Union, he writes for The New York Times:

From subversive writing to reprinted material from the West, it was hand-typed on carbon paper, disseminated by hand and then copied out again. As a medium, the Internet dwarfs samizdat’s scale and speed. But because it was more discreet, samizdat was much harder for the government to shut down. And being more difficult to produce and disseminate it fostered a dissident community that was smaller but more cohesive and resilient.

Take the example of the Chronicle of Current Events (or Khronika in Russian), one of the most important samizdat journals. Started in 1968 by a group of Moscow dissidents, it survived for 15 years and 64 issues despite the serial arrests of its editors. It quickly became a wide-ranging regular catalogue of human and civil rights violations across the Soviet Union.

Samizdat demanded discipline. Putting together an issue of Khronika was tedious and dangerous work. But it was a process that in itself helped form citizens with the confidence to hold their government accountable in a country in which such challenges to power were almost unheard of.

SOVIET JEWRYBut there are ways to recreate the closed, smaller, more secure networks that characterized samizdat using today’s technology, Beckerman insists:

Activists from China to Syria have long mastered the use of encryption software and Virtual Private Networks that bounce IP addresses all over the world in order to mask Internet activity. These VPNs can also be used to create protected forums for conversation. Applications like Cryptocat and Off-the-Record Messaging allow for groups to communicate privately through the use of authentication and encryption software. And then there’s the creative use of external hard drives and USB sticks, in which a drive is “dead dropped” in a secret location and individuals can surreptitiously upload or download information…..

But social media can also play a critical role in a lower-profile process: incubation. It can be a space for individuals, sometimes anonymously, to egg each other on and test out oppositional identities and ideas. It’s where new ways and habits of thinking are formed. This is exactly what Khronika did. It allowed a form of participatory citizenship to incubate under an authoritarian regime.

“Switching from a medium that facilitates staging huge protests to one that allows an opposition to build strength and develop a viable alternative might be just what’s needed,” Beckerman concludes.

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