LIVE UPDATES: US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow yesterday, March 24 for an intensive day of meetings that led to some modest joint proposals on Syrian peace talks but no breakthroughs or pledges regarding imprisoned Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko.
Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
The previous issue is here.
Recent Analysis and Translations:
– Getting The News From Chechnya â The Crackdown On Free Press You May Have Missed
– Aurangzeb, Putin, Realism and a Lesson from History
– Why the World Should Care About the Assassination of Boris Nemtsov
– How Boris Nemtsov Was Murdered: Investigation by Novaya Gazeta
– How Stalin Returned to Russian Contemporary Life – Meduza
As we have been reporting, Ramzan Kadyrov’s term as leader of Chechnya is set to expire on April 5. In a previously-unannounced move, Russian President Vladimir Putin has appointed Kadyrov as acting head of Chechnya until the presidential elections.
The Russian state-propaganda outlet Sputnik reports:
“Your term ends on [April] 5, as you just mentioned. Based on what you’ve done over the past years, first of all for the Chechen people and for those living in the republic, but for Russia as a whole as well, I signed a decree today appointing you the acting head of the Chechen Republic, hoping for your participation in the September elections,” Putin told Kadyrov at a televised meeting.
Kadyrov posted clips of the meeting on his Instagram page.
It’s not yet clear how this decision by the Russian president is legal, since the Chechen constitution was modified already so that Kadyrov could stay on this long.
Of course, as we have seen time and time again from Kadyrov (read below), rules are just not that important to the Chechen leader.
The timing of the announcement is also suspect as it falls on a holiday — but one celebrated in the West, not the East. This is Easter weekend for most Catholics and Western protestants — Orthodox Easter is in May. As a result, this news may slip under the radar in the West, as may any news about potential backlash to this announcement.
— James Miller
A Reuters story today quoting multiple experts did not contain any hard news about Kadyrov, but one seasoned analyst, Denis Sokolov, said he believed Putin would not make a “U-turn” now and remove Kadyrov. The question would be which figure in the Chechen leadership would have the control over the armed forces as well as the connections in Moscow to do the job.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow yesterday, March 24 for an intensive day of meetings late into the wee hours which began with a walk on Tverskaya.
Polite (screened?) Russian posters obliged by asking the pair anodyne questions like how they slept in space or why the age of space travelers was higher now, and if they had ever seen any UFOs. Kornienko replied, “Unfortunately, no.”
US-Russian space cooperation is the one area where the US and at times Russia try to remain positive, but the US extended some sanctions related to Russia’s annexation of Crimea to the space program, and recently hardliner Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin retaliated by saying Russia planned to end the International Space Station program and build its own by 2020.
And has happened before with US-Russian relations, things lost in translation were at issue.
“I also mentioned Nadezhda Savchenko and that she must be allowed to return to Ukraine. This is a matter of a humanitarian nature. It must be resolved immediately. The same concerns other people who were unlawfully detained.”
BBC correspondent Sarah Rainsford explained that Lavrov’s statement on unjustly convicted Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko was not in fact a breakthrough.
When RIA Novosti, the formerly more independent state news agency said “Putin gave Kerry to understand that the case of Savchenko may be resolved,” in fact Lavrov said something less distinct, according to Rainsford who understands Russian and was present at the press conference.
As can be seen from the official Russian Foreign Ministry transcript of the press conference with Kerry and Lavrov, Lavrov repeated the same positions the Kremlin has outlined in the past:
– Russia views Savchenko as now a convicted criminal;
– Her health is “fine” and she is “under the care” of Russian doctors;
– Ukrainian doctors cannot be allowed to visit her because of her “unworthy” behavior during her trial [where she gave the finger to the Russian court system]. “Contempt of court is punishable by up to two years in many US states,” insisted Lavrov, in the usual effort to draw an untenable moral equivalence between the two states.
– Convicted narcotics dealer Konstantin Yaroshenko was “never involved in the drug trade” said Lavrov; Viktor Bout, a notorious international arms trader is also innocent, he maintained.
Novaya Gazeta said Kerry offered a “more modest” solution to the war in Ukraine and offered to serve as an intermediary in the exchange of Savchenko for Russian prisoners in Ukraine.
ABC reported that after four hours of meetings with Putin, Kerry emerged to reiterate past pledges but also said there will now be a “target schedule” for Syrian peace talks.
With Russia making a partial exit from the war in Syria, the focus has turned back to the war in Ukraine which not only didn’t go away, but has heated up in some respects in recent weeks.
The meeting between Kerry and Putin had the usual forced effort at making jokes that have been the hallmark of past US-Russian meetings.
“On the one hand, it’s quite a democratic way of conduct, but on the other hand, I thought probably the situation in the United States is not that good and there is no one to assist the secretary of state in carrying his luggage,” said Putin, whose own country’s economy has been hurting due to oil low prices.
“I hear your economy is okay,” Putin continued, while alongside Kerry at the Kremlin. “I mean, there are no — there is no slowdown. Probably then I thought there was something in that case of your — in the briefcase of yours you couldn’t trust anyone else with. Probably you brought some money with you to haggle on key matters.”
Kerry took the jab in stride and replied:
“When we have a private moment, I’ll show you what’s in my briefcase,” Kerry said. “And I think you’ll be surprised – pleasantly.”
He might have referenced Putin’s own luggage-handling days from a frequently-cited photo of Putin’s humble origins after he left the KGB and joined St. Peterburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak’s staff.
These points were important to articulate, because the Russian stance is to repeatedly ignore blatant ceasefire violations, to remain silent on their own takeover of the Ukrainian border and constant intimidation of OSCE monitors, and to stress the need for Ukraine to change its Constitution nonetheless — a point also often picked up by the Western media which distorts the actual lack of Russian compliance.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick