Behaving Badly on Big Things and Small, Core of Russia’s National Strategy under Putin

April 13, 2017
Vladimir Safronkov, Russia's deputy ambassador to the UN, raising his hand as the sole "no" vote and veto of a resolution to investigate the chemical warfare attack in Idlib, at the UN Security Council on April 12, 2017. Photo by Bebeto Matthews / AP

After Tillerson Leaves, Putin Orders Sweeping Arrests of Opposition Figures

Russians reading aloud the Russian Constitution on Red Square on April 12, 2017. They were detained by police. Photo via OVD-Info. 

Staunton, VA, April 13, 2017 – Last night and this morning after the end of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit, Vladimir Putin ordered the arrest of nine opposition figures across the country, “from Nakhodka to Samara,” Rusmonitor reports.

Ilya Ponomaryev, a Russian former MP who now lives in Ukraine, told the news agency that these arrests were the Kremlin’s response to the success of the March 26 actions and that their timing reflected both Putin’s statement yesterday after fighting “color revolutions” and his desire not to have them become the subject of US-Russian conversations. 

Olga Kurnosova, writing in Rusmonitor, says she completely agrees with Ponomaryev that the nine arrests are not only the result of a personal decision by Putin but are worrisome because activists don’t have details on where those detained are being kept and fear they may be charged with “an attempted coup” for their organization of the March demonstrations. 

In addition to these arrests, there have been a wave of searches of the apartments of opposition figures. Not all have been formally arrested, but some have been detained for some time on increasingly flimsy pretexts. 

That pattern was highlighted yesterday when the Russian police detained a group of activists for reading the Russian Constitution aloud on Red Square, yet another document for which Putin has routinely shown his contempt.

For more on the arrests of three leaders of nationalist parties, see here

Russian Truckers Win a Victory: Moscow Begins to ‘Flinch,’ Svobodnaya Pressa Says

Staunton, VA, April 13, 2017 – As their strike heads into its third week, Russia’s long-haul truckers have won an important victory: Valentina Matviyenko, the Federal Council speaker, has “flinched,” in the words of Svobodnaya pressa and ordered two committee of her chamber to look into the Platon system, the main Moscow policy the strikers object to.

Given that Vladimir Putin has done everything he can to prevent coverage or discussion of the strike and that the strikers have said from the beginning that their very first goal is to get Russia’s senior leadership to pay attention to their grievances, Matviyenko’s action represents a serious victory for them.

In reporting it under the title, “The Powers have Flinched,” Svobodnaya pressa notes that on April 12, the Federation Council speaker directed that body’s committees on economic policy and on the budget to “analyze the basis and effectiveness of the ‘Platon system’” of collecting fees from the truckers to build roads. 

Matviyenko’s declaration followed one by Vyacheslav Markkhayev, a Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) senator from Buryatia, who argued that it was “already impossible to ignore the protests of the long-haul drivers” and that the Platon system did not appear to be a good way to ensure “the construction of normal quality highways.”

It is of course true that governments often send for study those things that they want to bury by drawing out the examination process. But it is also the case that Matviyenko clearly feels that she has no option but to do something – and that reality is something that the drivers and their supporters can build on.

Three New but Fateful Developments on Russia’s Chessboard of Nationalities

Staunton, VA, April 13, 2017 – Discussions among intellectuals and politicians in Moscow attract more attention, but the often more obscure tectonic movements of the multiplicity of nationalities within the Russian Federation typically have far larger and more fateful consequences not only for the specific ethnic communities involved but also for the country as a whole. 

Three of the most important developments of this kind reported this week are: 

· Moscow is trying to get private companies to help provide funds for the numerically small peoples of the North where the companies are engaged in various kinds of economic activity, but only two of the 22 companies the central government has encouraged to provide assistance of this kind have been willing to make any such contributions.  Curiously, if only coincidentally, that report came as one prominent Moscow blogger reported that the reason the Russians lost out in Alaska to the Americans was because Russian settlers did not interact with the indigenous populations and make use of their skills and expertise but assumed they could do everything on their own.  The Americans, by contrast, Pavel Pryannikov says, recognized early on that cooperating with and even assisting indigenous peoples was a more useful way forward. 

· Vladimir Putin’s regional amalgamation project has never been popular with non-Russians because it is based on the proposition that smaller non-Russian units should be folded into larger and predominantly ethnic Russian ones. Where that has happened, the non-Russians have discovered in every case that they are worse off economically and politically than they were before. Now, there is another development that is likely to convince them to oppose further amalgamations and may even cause Putin to rethink this idea.  Ethnic Buryats from the former Agin national district that was folded into Chita Region which became the Transbaikal Territory in 2008 are moving en masse to the Buryat Republic, making that federal subject more Buryat, and Transbaikal more Russian, the reverse of what was supposed to happen.

· Russia’s last two bi-national republics, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia, in the North Caucasus are now under pressure to dissolve and allow the Turkic Balkars and the Turkic Karachays who speak the same language to form their own mono-ethnic republic. What makes this development new and important is that the pressure for making this change is coming from the Turkic nationalities rather than from the Circassians Kabards and Cherkess who had long been thought to be the prime movers in this direction and against whom Moscow has worked to prevent the reformation of a Greater Circassia in the homeland from which that nation was exterminated or expelled by tsarist forces in 1864.  Now, however, the Circassians have a new ally in the Turkic peoples that Moscow had thought it would be able to use to put a brake on Circassian aspirations..

Behaving Badly on Big Things and Small Core of Russia’s National Strategy Under Putin

Staunton, VA, April 13, 2017 – From making world leaders wait for meetings to mafia-like language from its leaders and diplomats to flouting international law by invading and occupying neighboring countries, Russia’s national strategy under Vladimir Putin is based on behaving so badly that others don’t seem to know how to react.

On the one hand, as many sympathetic observers have noted, Russia is suffering from the loss of empire and behaving in ways that recall but in fact are far worse than most other modern states that have lost their former possessions. And on the other, Putin has discovered that in Russia and the West such outrageousness works to his benefit both at home and abroad.

The latest display of the Russian approach came this week in the UN Security Council where Russia’s deputy permanent representative Vladimir Safronkov used extremely undiplomatic language to condemn other members of that body and then the Kremlin came to his defense saying that his behavior was entirely normal

Many commentators were appalled by Safronkov’s behavior comparing it to Nikita Khrushchev’s pounding of his shoe at the UN more than half a century ago.

But there have been three especially thoughtful reflections about what Safronkov’s words say about Putin’s approach to the world, why many in the West find it so hard to cope with such behavior, and how the only responses that do appear to work are very much at odds with how Western governments do business. 

On Facebook, Russian commentator Igor Eidman draws a sharp contrast between what Khrushchev did so long ago and Safronkov’s antics.  Khrushchev acted as he did for “completely sincere” motives, he says. “He thought that was how one had to speak with ‘class enemies’”. 

“In contemporary Russian policy,” however, Eidman continues, “everything is a bluff and a lie.” Even what Safronkov did was “a rehearsed spectacle,” one organized because “the Putin powers that be in this way want simultaneously to frighten the world with their inadequacy and look tough before the Russian public.” 

Anyone who doubts this, the commentator says, should remember that the Russian representative wasn’t ad libbing: he spoke from a prepared text. 

Putin’s methods recall “the tactics of the criminalized street children of the 1920s” in the USSR. They often extracted money from those they mugged by saying that they had syphilis and would spit on their victims if they didn’t hand over the cash. Safronkov on Putin’s behalf is doing the same thing, albeit at a higher level to convince the West it has no choice but to give in. 

The second such commentary by US-based Russian historian Irina Pavlova, argues that Safronkov’s bandit-like speech shows the emergence of “a new historical reality” which many in the West have been unwilling to face up to let alone challenge in any effective way. 

“The West is only beginning to recognize the seriousness of the problems which the present-day Russian regime presents to the world,” she says, quoting from an earlier article of hers. More to the point, the West “besides rhetoric” and “targeted sanctions against individual Russian bureaucrats, the West hasn’t come up with a way to counter” Putin’s Russia. 

And the actions the West has taken, Pavlova suggests, “are not horrifying to the Putin regime: they only strengthen it in the eyes of his own population.” 

The West and above all the US must come up with a response to stand up to this challenge by peaceful means, she continues, because the Kremlin could easily respond by using nuclear weapons if it was challenged militarily. “Therefore, the reponse must be intelligent, targeted and unexpected.” 

And this response must forever strip Moscow of the possibility of playing on human ignorance with lies and disinformation and promote a new generation of Russian leaders who are committed to integration with rather than the destruction of the globalized world, Pavlova concludes. 

The third commentary on this issue is by Igor Yakovenko who addresses why, given Putin’s approach, the response of Donald Trump is likely to be more effective than that of Barack Obama, although it will entail consequences for the US and the West that many will find uncomfortable. 

According to Yakovenko, “Obama is a good man and a professional politician. Trump in general is neither … But against Putin, Obama could do nothing. Putin while Obama was in office did whatever he wanted … [because] contemporary diplomacy with its careful weaving of agreements and searches for compromises is powerless.” 

It is not yet completely clear, the Russian commentator says, “what Trump will be able to do, but for now he is going along the right course,” challenging Putin with simple questions that the Kremlin leader cannot answer easily such as “do you want to be with Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran or with the US, Europe, Japan, Israel and Australia?” 

“The ability to simplify complex questions is a talent,” he continues, and “in relations with those who violate all rules, simplification is the only means of communication.” Any more complex approach gives those like Putin the possibility of escaping responsibility and playing things back against the questioner. 

That doesn’t mean, Yakovenko says, that such simple and direct statements will get Russia out of Syria or Crimea, but it is preferable to sending a signal that one is prepared to compromise because Putin and the Russians view that as “a display of weakness and the occasion for further aggression.” 

The West needs to recognize that “it is impossible to reach an agreement with Putin,” but “it can and must deprive him of room for maneuver by narrowing the political space” in which he can function. For this, the Russian commentator says, “simple diplomacy” of the kind Trump has displaced is the most suitable.