A Baker’s Dozen of Neglected Russian Stories – No. 69

February 6, 2017
An army store in Russia offers a 10% discount on merchandise in celebration of Trump's inauguration.

Moscow Doesn’t Expect Trump to End Sanctions All at Once but ‘Cleverly’ Over Time, Markov Says

Staunton, VA, February 3, 2017 –  “Russophobia is so deeply rooted in European-American ideology,” Sergey Markov says, that Moscow doesn’t expect new US President Donald Trump to end all sanctions all at once but rather “in a clever fashion” that avoids problems for him and over a significant period of time. 

The words of Markov, a well-connected Russian political analyst, politician and commentator, are important to correct two widely-held but mistaken assumptions. On the one hand, some appear to have thought that Trump could magically end all sanctions at once, ignoring the reality that the sanctions are varied and not all were imposed by the US.

And on the other hand, others appear to think, especially after the confusion of February 2 when almost simultaneously the US “corrected” some sanctions and stated at the UN that it wouldn’t lift them until Russia withdraws from Crimea, that if Trump does not lift sanctions now, he won’t until all the goals that they are intended to promote have been reached. 

Instead, sanctions can be eased or lifted entirely in one area as the result of a deal about issues unrelated to them, or at least so has President Trump suggested; and on the other hand, the process of easing sanctions can occur sufficiently slowly that some defenders of such an action can deny that anything is taking place. 

Markov’s argument about sanctions and their prospects likely reflects the thinking of many in the Kremlin and consequently merits the closest possible attention not only because of the message it send to broader Russian elites but also because of the one it sends to the West. 

He suggests that neither Putin nor Trump wants to talk about sanctions at least not now. Putin, for his part, has “several reasons” for that. On the one hand, raising the issue is something a great power doesn’t do. And on the other, Russia has long experience with living with various kinds of sanctions and the current ones are as varied as any. 

Moreover, Markov says, “the continuation or lifting of sanctions is the internal affair of the US.” Moscow can’t offer concessions to achieve a lifting of sanctions because to do so would mean that even if these sanctions are lifted, the West would simply re-impose others when it wanted to extract further concessions. 

But according to Markov, “it is extremely disadvantageous for Trump to raise the issue about the possible lifting of sanctions in these talks with Putin.” The new American president needs Congressional approval for many things, including his new cabinet, and lifting sanctions now would spark protests on the Hill where anti-Russian feelings are strong. 

Getting into an argument with Congress, especially over an issue which for Trump is secondary, simply is “too high a price” for him to pay. “Does this mean that Trump will not lift sanctions? No.” Markov argues that “he will lift them but that he will proceed by another more clever path.” 

The American president will, he continues, “begin to lift anti-Russian sanctions following a request from some major American company that will ask that sanctions” affecting its interests be eliminated. That could involve “the development of cooperation with Russia on extracting oil and gas on the Arctic shelf.”

“It is possible,” Markov says, “that Trump will begin to lift them because of the struggle with ISIS and international terrorism.” A joint effort will be difficult if sanctions affecting the Russian defense ministry and even more the Russian security services are left in place.  

The Moscow analyst says that “the logical first step” for Trump’s new secretary of state to begin this process would be to reverse the expulsion of Russian diplomats from Washington, a step which, Markov pointedly notes, Putin did not retaliate in the usual tit-for-tit manner. 

Russians should remember that “it is in Trump’s power to lift almost all anti-Russian sanctions except the Magnitsky Law … but it would be rational for Trump [to take this step] without angering Congress” that could, if it was so inclined, respond to his action in this aarea by opposing others. 

Moreover, there is a great deal Trump can do that won’t raise the hackles of people on the Hill. Far more important than the formal anti-Russian sanctions the Obama Administration imposed are “the so-called unofficial limitations” involving such things as limiting the ability of banks to make loans or of US organizations to cooperate with anyone in Russia except “the radical opposition.” 

“In this silent dialogue with the US president, the issue of American sanctions for Russia is secondary,” Markov says. “For Russia much more important are ties with the EU and therefore more important the lifting of European sanctions. What is needs from Trump is an end to pressure on the EU to maintain sanctions and to signal that the US plans to end its own. 

That and the upcoming elections in several European countries will be enough, Markov says, to lead to “the step by step winding up of sanctions in the course of the spring of 2017.”

Once the US and the EU end sanctions, Russia will be under some pressure to end its counter-sanctions, but “here one must be careful,” Markov says. In his view, Moscow should try to extend them “as long as possible,” especially in the agricultural area to allow for more Russian growth there. 

Summing up, Markov says that the main impact of sanctions was not on the Russian economy which has done remarkably well or on the political system where national unity is greater than before but rather on the notion widely shared by Russian elites until now that the country could be modernized by drawing on “Western technology, investment and people.” 

Western actions concerning the Sochi Olympics, regime change in Ukraine and then sanctions “showed that we cannot modernize the economy relying only on Western technology because access to that can be limited for one or another political reason and, if need be, be an invented one.” 

In the post-sanctions period, Markov says, “Russian strategy will be based not only on the idea that sanctions bear a temporary character but on the idea that their lifting also will likely turn out to be a short term affair. Hopes for stable strategic relations with the West, unfortunately, are something that Russia sill not have for many more years.” 

This doesn’t mean, he says, that “cooperation between us is impossible.” It isn’t but it will require new forms; and it will be based on Ronald Reagan’s slogan that in such relations it is necessary to “trust but verify.”

A Baker’s Dozen of Neglected Russian Stories – No. 69

Staunton, VA, February 3, 2017 — The flood of news stories from a country as large, diverse and strange as the Russian Federation often appears to be is far too large for anyone to keep up with. But there needs to be a way to mark those which can’t be discussed in detail but which are too indicative of broader developments to ignore.

Consequently, Windows on Eurasia presents a selection of 13 of these other and typically neglected stories at the end of each week. This is the 69th such compilation. It is only suggestive and far from complete – indeed, once again, one could have put out such a listing every day — but perhaps one or more of these stories will prove of broader interest. 

1. Putinists have Sent Abroad More than Half What Russia Earned from Selling Oil and Gas. In the 17 years since Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia has received some 2.5 trillion US dollars from the sale of oil and gas abroad more than enough to develop the country and address its many needs. But the Kremlin leader and his cronies sent more than half of that abroad so as to enrich themselves rather than invest it on Russia.  That is just part of what must be included in any balance sheet of his rule. Other parts are harder to monetarize, but the invasion of other countries, the suppression of democracy and various freedoms and his encouragement of some of the worst aspects of Russians must also be included on any such assessment

2. Trump Gets Even More Russian Media Mentions than Putin Last Month. According to a new statistical analysis, the Russian media mentioned Donald Trump even more often than it did Vladimir Putin during January. And with the mentions has come a wave of Trumpomania, perhaps the most extreme form being the decision of a Sochi resident to have profiles of Trump and Putin engraved on his teeth. 

3. As Economic Crisis Deepens, Some Say Cannibalism Might have to be Legalized. With the deepening of the economic crisis in Russia, the purchasing power of ordinary Russians declining, and shortages of basic foods like rice being reported, some Russians speculate that the country might have to legalize cannibalism so that the population would have enough to eat. Among the flood of bad news about the Russian economy this week were the following stories: One in every five Russian firms isn’t making investments because of the sanctions regime. Russians may soon be fined if they are discovered hoarding Moscow-sanctioned items. The real pay of Russian doctors is 60 percent less than Rosstat says as wave of closures of hospitals continues and price of medicine continue to go up. Inmates in Russia’s strict regime camps must feed themselves or starve. Rice shortages are spreading through the country. Moscow deploys university students to work on the Kerch bridge as the price for that megaproject continues to soar. And Russia falls even further behind on the Big Mac index.  But despite this, the Kremlin said it would not cut military spending to help the population deal with its problems. Not all the economic news was bad, especially in the defense sector and for the rich. Bloomberg says the Russian economy did slightly better than reported earlier because of a new accounting method that includes outyear plans for defense spending, new ways for laundering money to send abroad have come into play, and Moscow is offering special tours to the North Pole on its nuclear-powered icebreaker over the next two years. The cost? Just under US $28,000 per person, far beyond the reach of most Russians or others as well. 

4. Non-Russians Don’t Share Russian View that Beating is a Sign of Love. As Moscow’s new law eliminating criminal punishments for violence within families is set to go into force and the country’s largest newspaper tells its readers that women should welcome beatings because those who are beaten are more likely to give birth to sons, a survey among Russia’s northern peoples finds that few of them share the widespread belief among Russians that beatings are a sign of love. But that was just one of the developments in Russian society this past week worthy of note. Others include: the rapid spread of protests east of the Urals about utility price hikes, a proposed law on missionary activity that will make any religious assembly of three or more a potential crime, a report about how Moscow now has “standardized” how Russians are to express their grief over tragedies, Russia’s most highly rated university is one the authorities stripped of its license, the beating by police of a woman who investigates torture in places of confinement, Freedom House’s conclusion that Russia now leads in attacking basic human rights, and a decision to bring in priests to bless a road against accidents after the authorities announced they had no plans to fix its dangerous potholes. 

5. Moscow Metro Wanted Aleksandr Nevsky but ‘Like Always’ Got Darth Vader Instead. Russia’s monument wars continued the past week, with some conflicts intensifying and other unexpected developments emerging. Perhaps the most amusing of the latter was a decision to put up pictures of Aleksandr Nevsky in the Moscow metro, a project that came crashing down when the pictures put up resembled Darth Vader of Star Wars’ Evil Empire than the Russian prince who allied with the Mongols against the Teutonic knights. Some other flashpoints in this war in no particular order included: Black Hundreds-style rhetoric increasingly surfaced among Russian Orthodox activists who want St. Isaac’s cathedral back and who say they will burn theaters which show a film they don’t approve of, residents of the nuclear city Obninsk object to plans for building a church there in honor of Russia’s nuclear weapons program, Moscow officials work tirelessly but ineffectively to remove flowers from the site of the murder of Boris Nemtsov, Roman Catholics and Old Believers say they are inspired by the success of getting Russian Orthodox churches back and plan to launch their own campaigns for the churches seized from their communities in Soviet times, activists denounced the Yeltsin Center as “a neopaganist shrine” and demanded it be closed as such,  Izhevsk officials said they were worried Moscow would not deliver to them the 21 billion rubles it had promised for the jubilee of the creator of the Kalashnikov rifle, Moscow will erect a memorial to those who died in the recent crash of a military plane over the Black Sea and also name a square for Fidel Castro, and Volgograd as it does every year according to a Putin law became Stalingrad for a day on the anniversary of the World War II battle there. But other evidence of Stalin’s more continuing return to Russian life included the discovery that the ombudsman responsible for children’s welfare in Yaroslavl has a picture of Stalin with a child. 

6. Russian Hackers Seek Release of Files Intended to Discredit IOC Anti-Doping Investigation. Hackers who have been linked to Moscow have leaked documents that seek to present the IOC investigation into the doping scandal as a political witch hunt. But more evidence of widespread use of performance enhancing drugs by Russian athletes continue to surface. Meanwhile, 24 Russian athletes who have been stripped of their medals are ignoring demands they return them, even apparently when Russian sports authorities have acknowledged that there were violations and stripped a Russian athlete of a medal, an action apparently intended to curry favor with the West or at least sow confusion. Russia will not take part in the 2018 Para-Olympics, but the push to strip Russia of the World Cup appears to be easing at least in the US in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and shift on Russia.  And that is happening despite growing evidence that Moscow will not have put the infrastructure in place that it promised as part of its agreement with FIFA to host that competition. 

7. Russia’s Jews, Feeling the Chill of Anti-Semitism, Leaving for Israel. Duma deputy speaker Petr Tolstoy’s remark about the role of Jews in seizing and destroying Russian churches a century ago has been condemned by many, but it has opened the floodgates for others who want to go back to blaming Jews for all their problems.  Russia’s relatively few remaining Jews, feeling the chill of anti-Semitism, are moving as rapidly as possible to Israel and now outnumber Jews from any other country about repatriants to that country. 

8. Is There a Muslim Maidan in Moscow’s Future? Mufti Ravil Gainutdin, head of the Council of Muftis of Russia, says that widespread Russian discrimination against Muslims may force the latter consider organizing a Maidan in Russia in order to defend their rights. That Russia has repressed and even killed numerous Muslims in recent years has been documented by the Golos Islam portal, and that Russians dislike Muslims more than almost any other European country has also been documented. But on that point, there are some interesting nuances: Russians don’t like Muslims but they are less opposed to the wearing of the hijab than are many others, and they are less inclined to be hostile to members of Muslim nationalities than they  were a decade ago precisely because they are more fearful of conflicts arising abroad. 

9. Russians Fall for New Game that Encourages Them to Be Snitches Like Pavlik Morozov.  One of the most noxious heroes of Soviet times was the boy Pavlik Morozov who was killed by relatives for turning in his parents to the authorities. Now, he is making a comeback as a hero in Russia, and the idea that turning people in to the authorities is a good thing for Russians to do is being encouraged not only by new laws but by a newly-popular computer game. 

10. Russians Worrying about Baby Boom – in China. The effective end of the one-child policy in China has led to a baby boom in that country, and some Russians are now worried that this demographic development will lead Beijing to look northward to the underpopulated areas of the Russian Federation east of the Urals, given that Russia is definitely not experiencing a baby boom of its own. 

11. FSB Interfered with Nobel Committee to Prevent Peace Prize from Going to Poroshenko.  The Russian government was sufficiently concerned that the Nobel Peace Prize might be awarded to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that it launched an active measure campaign via the FSB to prevent that from happening, according to Scandinavian investigators. 

12. Most Russian Siloviki and Officials are Imperial Chauvinists, Kurbanov Says. Ruslan Kurbanov, a specialist on the Caucasus at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, says that “a significant fraction” of Russia’s siloviki and other officials “are infected with imperial chauvinism” and that this limits their effectiveness. 

13. This Week’s Good Russian: Aeroflot Pilot Saves Deportee from Certain Death.  A pilot for Aeroflot was told that there was a man on his flight who was being deported to a Middle Eastern country where he almost certainly would be killed. So he stopped the plane and allowed the man to get off and flee in order to avoid that outcome. 

And six more from countries neighboring Russia: 

1. Extremist Materials on Kazakh Web Growing ‘Exponentially.’  Kazakh officials are extremely worried by what they say is the “exponential” growth of extremist materials of all kinds on the internet in Kazakhstan in both Kazakh and Russian. 

2. Kazakhs Living in Tajikistan Forgetting Their Native Language.  The Russian language is not the only threat to non-Russian languages, experts say. Other non-Russian ones can be a threat as well if members of one group living in a place dominated by speakers of another lose their native tongue.  That is now happening, Astana says, with some ethnic Kazakhs who live in Tajikistan. 

3. Crimean Tatars Experience Ethnic Hatred Eight Times More than Minorities in Russia.  According to a new survey conducted for the Russian Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs, Crimean Tatars in Russian-occupied Crimea are nearly eight times more likely to say they have suffered from discrimination and the hostility of other groups than are ethnic minorities in the Russian Federation, with 38 percent making such declarations compared to five percent by the other ethnic communities. 

4. Moscow Now Recognizes LNR and DNR Passports as Travel Documents. Even though this step violates international law and opens Aeroflot and other carriers to possible sanctions, Moscow has decided to recognize the passports issued by its sponsored territorial entities within Ukraine the so-called “Luhansk Peoples Republic” and the “Donetsk Peoples Republic” as travel documents that Russian officials and firms will accept as travel documents equivalent to the passports of actual countries. 

5. Lukashenka Says ‘Fraternal Ukraine’ Fighting for Its Independence. In dramatic fashion, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka has positioned himself in opposition to Moscow by declaring that “fraternal Ukraine” is fighting for its independence, a statement that is far tougher than those made by many Western governments concerning the new upsurge in fighting. Indeed, the US Department of State in its initial statement didn’t mention Russia by name in its condemnation of the fighting at Avdiivka. 

6. Moscow Lies When It Says It Invented the Belarusian Language in 1926, Minsk Scholar Says. Russian officials who present “alternative facts” about Belarus and the Belarusian language are simply lying, a Minsk historian says, noting that the idea that Moscow “invented” both in 1926 is contradicted by all available information about Belarusian history.

The previous issue of A Baker’s Dozen, No. 68, can be seen here.