Putin ‘scared witless by the idea of people power’

russia ukraineThe NATO summit meeting last week in Wales was dominated by Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. The rift with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was an extraordinary contrast to the last NATO summit in Britain, in 1990, Steven Erlanger writes for the New York Times:

A year after the Berlin Wall fell, NATO issued the London Declaration, asserting that “Europe has entered a new, promising era.” Eastern Europe is liberating itself, the declaration said. “The Soviet Union has embarked on the long journey toward a free society. The walls that once confined people and ideas are collapsing,” and those people “are choosing a Europe whole and free.”

 “I could weep for the hopes that we had in the early 1990s,” said Ian Bond, a former British diplomat in Russia, now at the Center for European Reform. “The walls that divided us were collapsing, and Putin is building them up again.”

Rather than moving toward democracy and individual liberties, Mr. Bond said, the Russian government obsesses about public uprisings like those in Ukraine in 2004 and this year.

“Putin wants to show that you can’t have a real democracy in a former Soviet state,” Mr. Bond said. “He’s scared witless by the idea of people power.”

Today, many in Moscow remain convinced that regime change is Washington’s ultimate objective. They view Western support for the revolution in Ukraine—allegedly engineered by Western spies and NGOs—as but an intermediate step toward similar actions against Putin’s government in Russia, according to Eugene Rumer, a senior associate and the director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia and Eurasia Program:

If none other than former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski—who is widely respected in Russia as a leading American foreign policy thinker but has also been known as a major hawk since the Cold War—has declared that supporting Ukraine is key to promoting change in Putin’s Russia, then clearly Russia is the next target for Western-engineered subversion. Western sanctions are interpreted in Moscow not simply as an instrument designed to change Russian policy in Ukraine, but as something far more sinister—to weaken Russia, to undermine its government, to instigate a popular uprising, to overthrow the Putin government, to install a puppet regime in Russia.

“In July, Putin told his security council that Russia’s foreign enemies are trying constantly to undermine Russia under the guise of democracy promotion,” Rumer writes for POLITICO. “Such ‘color revolutions,’ he said, will not work in Russia—though he probably has his doubts.”

But James Sherr, author of “Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion: Russia’s Influence Abroad,” believes that Mr. Putin was heading toward rupture regardless, Erlanger adds for the Times:

“Putin has had clear strategic objectives, even fixations, from the start, but he has pursued them by tactical improvisation,” Mr. Sherr said.

Mr. Putin is not just aiming to restore Russian primacy in the former Soviet Union, he said. “One of his fixations is Ukraine,” whose independence Mr. Putin regards as a crime.

At the same time, Mr. Sherr said, “we in the West had a very specific, hopeful, illusory idea about the end of the Soviet Union and the kind of Russia we’d be dealing with.” But even by 1994, Russian democrats were being called “romantics,” if not yet traitors. “I think Putin or something like Putin was almost preordained from this whole period of romanticism and illusions,” Mr. Sherr said. “That was fueled by the equally naïve projection of a Western liberal model of economic and political change on Russia.”

Explaining Putin’s popularity

putinrussiaWhatever the international ramifications of the outbreak of conflict in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the domestic consequences within Russia seem clear. Popular support in Russia for President Vladimir Putin and his foreign policy has reached stratospheric levels, according to sociologist Sam Greene (King’s College London) and political scientist Graeme Robertson (UNC-Chapel Hill).

According to the polling agency Levada Center, in October 2013, before the seriousness of the crisis in Ukraine was obvious, Putin’s approval rating stood at a solid 64 percent. The most recent reading, from August 2014, put Putin’s approval at a massive (even by his standards) 84 percent, they write for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog:

Of course, not all educated urbanites in our sample were equally thrilled with their president and his policies. Some 22 percent still said they thought Russia would be freer if the opposition took over, 13 percent thought the country would be safer and 19 percent richer, though each of these numbers was down from October. A minority are even more alienated than they were before, but they are a very small minority. Some 18 percent reported being more angry at the Russian leadership than in October 2013 and 14 percent of respondents expressed less hope for the future than before, among them significant numbers of previous Putin voters and non-voters. In fact, 14 percent of people who reported voting for Putin in 2012 said they would not do so if an election were held now. This figure, however, is dwarfed by the number of converts to the president – fully 39 percent of those who reported not voting for Putin in 2012 now said they would.

No shift in support for democracy

It is hard to know for sure, but the nature of the swelling support should give the Kremlin pause. In our survey we found no underlying shift in support for democracy, civil rights or other values among our sampled population. Even attitudes toward the United States did not change dramatically – while 53 percent of our July 2014 sample consider the U.S. to be an “enemy,” the number in October was already a stunning 42 percent – and attitudes to European countries like Germany, which have also joined the sanctions charge against Russia, barely changed at all. By July 2014, our educated urbanites felt more closely connected to Russian culture and identified more with the Russian state, but the differences were small and quite possibly reflect the impact of the temporary crisis atmosphere rather than a deep underlying change.

“Crises, of course, can be key turning points that become firmly etched in the minds of citizens, altering their worldview for decades to come,” Greene and Robertson note. “While this story is clearly far from over, there is as yet no reason to believe that there has been a fundamental shift of outlook among Russia’s urban elite.”


Court jails Putin critics: Kremlin ‘revives Soviet-style anti-Semitism’

russiaputinterrorFour Russians detained during a protest against President Vladimir Putin were sentenced to prison terms on Monday after a trial critics say is part of a Kremlin campaign to stifle dissent while all eyes are on the Ukraine crisis, Reuters reports (HT: FPI):

Last week one of Russia’s oldest non-governmental organizations, Memorial, added the four defendants sentenced on Monday to a list of 45 it describes as political prisoners. It said the defendants had been carrying out a non-violent exercise of the right to freedom of assembly, had been deprived of a fair trial and faced disproportionate charges.

But with the crisis in Ukraine preoccupying media at home and abroad, the case against them achieved little of the notoriety of the August 2012 Pussy Riot trial, in which members of the punk band were jailed after performing an anti-Putin song in Moscow’s main cathedral.

Putin’s regime is reviving Soviet-style anti-Semitism, analyst Paul Goble writes for The Interpreter:

An instructor at the Russian foreign ministry’s training academy told participants at a government-sponsored youth camp that “Zionism is a movement for the establishment of the world rule of Jewish bankers,” that it “finances pagans to destroy Orthodoxy,” and that it has so “Judaicized” Catholicism that “almost nothing remains” of that faith.

Olga Chetvertikova of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations made these noxious comments at the Seliger Civic forum (camp) a week ago, when they were picked up by Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Tragically, in the days since, they have been disseminated by other outlets.

“What makes these words so disturbing is that they remind us of the ugly Soviet-style anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism,” Goble notes. “This may be a result of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian and imperialist rhetoric and the Russian government’s media outlets ever more virulent attacks on ethnic Ukrainians and others.”

Like any repressive regime, Mr. Putin’s knows how to create autonomous zones of violence, notes Sergey Kuznetsov, the author of the novel “Butterfly Skin”:

The main lawless zone during his reign has been the Caucasus, especially Chechnya, where civilians, journalists and human rights defenders have been kidnapped and killed throughout the last 20 years. Mr. Putin used any manifestation of violence to strengthen his own power. Thus, after the Beslan terrorist attack in 2004, Mr. Putin eliminated direct elections for the office of governor (including governor of Moscow), essentially giving himself control over the appointments.

Chaos at the margins can make a repressive system stronger, he writes for the New York Times:

However, the system has to up the ante in order to maintain itself. This time, the zone of lawlessness is bigger than ever. Instead of risking his own Maidan revolution in Red Square, Mr. Putin has exported Russia’s Chechnya-style chaos to the southeast of Ukraine, turning Donbass into Beirut or Gaza. Everyone who lusts for action and violence now has a place to kill and to die.


Crime without punishment: Putin isn’t panicking


Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to be unfazed by international outrage over the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17, by Western sanctions or by diplomatic pressure, analysts suggest.

After all, “Putin answers to virtually no one,” a TIME magazine analysis suggests:

His command of the Russian airwaves will help him manage any blowback at home, spinning even the most damning evidence as part of an ancient American conspiracy. The more the world picks on him and Russia, the more it feeds a Russian will to push back, out of a sense of pride and victimhood. Isolation will still be the West’s only means of attack, and if Europe has lacked the will to impose it after Syria, after Crimea and even amid the global outrage over MH 17, it is unlikely to take action once the shock of the crash subsides. Putin has played this game before. He need only bide his time for the West’s own inaction to clear him.

russiaputinterror“The Europeans are in a panic over the U.S. line on sanctions,” says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected consultant who traveled to Europe in mid-July to rally support among pundits and politicians there. “As soon as the E.U. gets the slightest chance to turn away from Washington on the issue of Ukraine, they will take it.”

Putin has broken all the rules of international diplomacy, according to Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government (above).

It’s not Ukraine that Putin has been waging war against: It’s the West, says analyst Masha Gessen.

“Over the course of two and a half years, since starting his third term as Russian president against the backdrop of mass protests, Putin has come to both embody and rely on a new, aggressively anti-Western ideology,” she writes for Salon.com:

The enemy against which the country has united is the West and its contemporary values, which are seen as threatening Russia and its traditional values. It is a war of civilizations, in which Ukraine simply happened to be the site of the first all-out battle. In this picture, Russia is fighting Western expansionism in Ukraine, protecting not just itself and local Russian speakers but the world from the spread of what they call “homosfascism,” by which they mean an insistence on the universality of human rights.

Putin’s officials have threatened to retaliate against Western economic sanctions, but  “the problem with this is that it would require a sharp re-direction of Russian economic strategy,” according to David Clark, the founder and editor of Shifting Grounds, who served as special adviser at the British Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001.

“Despite the rhetoric of ‘sovereign democracy’ – an ideology based on the rejection of foreign influence – Russia is deeply embedded in the global economy,he writes for the New Statesman:

It needs not only access to foreign trade, but also inflows of foreign capital and technology to modernize and thrive. The investment requirement for its dilapidated energy sector alone stands at $2.7 trillion over the next twenty years. Without this Russia faces the threat of a return to the kind of long-term stagnation that brought an end to the Soviet era.

A strategy based on economic autarky and a closed ‘Russian world’ isn’t really viable. Russia doesn’t have either the capital or the technology needed to build new infrastructure and open new energy production in the Arctic North.

The key to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is found in the divergent mythologies of the two peoples, reflected in Putin rehabilitation of illiberal ideology against the West’s critical philosophy of information (see his recent discourse to the rabbis at the Kremlin), argues Antoine Arjakovsky, former director of the French Institute of Ukraine at Kiev, and the author of Russie – Ukraine. De la guerre a la paix?

Putin is not invading Ukraine for geostrategic reasons, but for ideological reasons, he contends:

His actions are explained only by reasons stemming from mythology. Because contemporary political science disdains myth too readily, considering it irrational, it is becoming less and less capable of understanding the world. That is like trying to negotiate an iceberg considering by only its visible part. For Putin, it is about restoring pride to the Russians by giving them an identity found, he believes, in the famous ideology of Tsar Nicholas I: “Orthodoxy, autocracy, the people.”

The sad thing is that Putin is a poor historian. He does not know that the only way for a people to recover its dignity and international recognition is to ask pardon for its crimes, to work tirelessly to eliminate every resurgence of ideology (such as the National Communism dear to Stalin) and to cease instrumental sing spiritual powers (such as the Russian Orthodox Church) in the name of power politics.

“The international community that still believes in the role of virtue and law has an essential role to play,” Arjakovsky notes. “But, as the philosopher Chantel Delsol has written, the international community should also return to the question of the spiritual foundations of democracy and international law.”

What various observers have perceived as a moment of truth that changes the mathematics of the Ukrainian crisis is, from Putin’s point of view, a misstep in a conflict with the West that he will be engaged in for years—until he leaves office, which he plans to do feet-first many years from now, notes Gessen:

To buy time, Putin issued a middle-of-the-night video address from his residence outside of Moscow [and held] an emergency meeting of the Russian security council on Tuesday. … As far as foreign observers could tell, Putin said nothing of consequence. But here is what he said at the start of his talk: “Obviously, there is no direct threat facing our country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity today, of course. This is guaranteed primarily by the strategic power balance in the world.” Translated, this means, I gathered you here today to remind the world that Russia is a nuclear power. And here is what he said as he was wrapping up: “We will respond in an appropriate and commensurate manner if NATO’s military infrastructure gets any closer to our border, and we will not close our eyes to the development of global anti-missile defense and the growth of supplies of strategic high-precision weapons, both nuclear and non-nuclear.” Translated, this means, Know how I reminded you five minutes ago that Russia is a nuclear power? Now I’ve told you we are prepared to use our nuclear capability if you try to pull one over on us. (He went on to say that missile defense systems were actually offensive weapons.) And by the way, if you every thought we’d stop at something, you probably don’t anymore.

The following day, European countries deferred a possible decision on tougher anti-Russian sanctions. The United States released information saying there was nothing linking the Kremlin directly to the downing of the plane. The U.S. media continued to call the disaster a “plane crash.” The acute phase of the aftermath of Flight 17 appeared to be ending. Was all of this because Putin was good at scaring the West or at obfuscating? Whatever it was, his tactics had worked beautifully.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, when he was not busy threatening the West with nukes, Putin signed several new laws. One bans advertising on paid-cable and satellite channels, effectively banning any independent television channel now or in the future from making money. (All broadcast channels are controlled by the state.) Another gives the government the tools to shut off Russians’ access to Western social networks such as Facebook or Twitter and services such as Gmail or Skype. A third provides for a jail sentence of up to four years for denying that Crimea is a part of Russia. On the same day, courts in Moscow and St. Petersburg ruled a half-dozen human rights organizations were “foreign agents,” effectively ending their activities.

“Putin’s war against the West and its perceived agents in Russia, in other words, continued unabated,” Gessen contends. “As he sees it, the unfortunate screw-up with the plane will be forgotten soon enough. He may or may not have to cede a little on Ukraine, but that’s all right: It’s just one battle in the giant war against the West he has already unleashed.”


Putin ‘cornered’: Ukraine woes compounded by $1.3 bn Yukos claim

russia-putin rosneft-Russia will discover next week how much it may be asked to pay for the confiscation a decade ago of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Yukos Oil Co., then the country’s biggest oil producer, Bloomberg reports:

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague will rule on July 28 on a $103 billion damages claim the company’s former owners filed against Russia in 2007, Tim Osborne, head of GML Ltd., former holding company of Yukos, said by e-mail. Court official Willemijn van Banning said by phone she couldn’t comment on the date for the ruling. The potential multibillion-dollar punitive award comes as Russian President Vladimir Putinrisks further U.S. and European sanctions after the downing of a Malaysian passenger jet in eastern Ukraine that killed 298 passengers and crew.

A substantial award of damages “would add to Putin’s sense of being backed into a corner and that the West is out to get Russia,” said Masha Lipman, an independent political analyst based in Moscow. “Whether a coincidence or not, it will be seen as more than a coincidence.”  

“Things have changed in that Putin’s in real trouble,” said Mitchell Orenstein, an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. “But his approach hasn’t changed at all.”

 “His preliminary plan to destabilize the whole southeast of Ukraine has failed,” said Wojciech Kononczuk, a Ukraine expert with the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, Poland. “Instead, Ukrainian society is growing anti-Russian in a clear signal that the Kremlin just doesn’t understand Ukrainian moods,” he told Al-Jazeera.

Perhaps most worryingly, if Putin let the rebellion fall by the wayside he could face an influx into Russia of disgruntled separatists, who could accuse Moscow of abandoning them and want to stir trouble.

“Putin is cornered,” said Joerg Forbrig, an Eastern Europe expert with the German-Marshall Fund. “He’s created a dynamic that forces him to push forward in Ukraine. Now, he can’t let go.”