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Russian Referendum

28 June 2020
“The very existence of an opportunity for the current president (to be re-elected in 2024), given his major gravitas, would be a stabilising factor for our society,”, said Valentina Tereshkova, former Soviet cosmonaut, first woman in space, and now, at 83, a member of the Russian Duma (parliament).

She was talking about President Vladimir Putin, of course, and she was proposing a constitutional amendment to let him bypass the existing term limit and be re-elected in 2024 (and again in 2030, if he likes). The Duma obediently passed the measure, and Russians are now voting on the new constitution, but she paid a certain price on social media for sucking up to Putin.

“Tereshkova – the first woman who bravely travelled into cosmic cold and darkness, and then brought the entire country there,” read one post, retweeted by opposition leader Alexei Navalny. But Putin will win the referendum on the new constitution without even having to cheat.

The vote was delayed for two months because of the coronavirus: Russia has the world’s third-highest number of infections, although it only admits to 9,000 deaths. Voting is being spread out over a week to minimise the risks, and the results won’t be known until early July.

Government ads urging people to get out and vote (or stay home and vote – for this time only they can do it online) barely mention that the new constitution will ‘reset the clock’ for Putin. That means he will be entitled to run for two more terms as president, which might let him stay in office until 2036, but his advisers reckoned that was more information than people actually needed.

This referendum is rather like a lottery, and all you have to do to win is vote. Text messages told Moscow voters this week that there will be ‘millions of prizes’, from hair-dryers to washing machines and on up. Provincial governments and even private employers are also offering prizes, and the central government is raising pensions and the minimum wage.

Yet Putin was bound to win this referendum even without all these incentives: in twenty years in power, his approval rating has never gone below 65%. The result might drop below that figure this time, because the country’s oil income has halved in recent months and lots of people were already having a tough time economically, but it’s hard to believe that it could fall below 50%.

So why this circus to achieve a big turnout and a large majority? Could Putin be feeling insecure? His abrupt dismissal of the entire government including the prime minister in January might be a clue, and his various public changes of mind on what the new constitution should contain might be another.
But trying to read Putin’s mind like latter-day Kremlinologists is a futile pursuit, and in any case it’s obvious that he has to keep his options open. It must be legal for him to run for re-election when his present term expires in 2024, because if he becomes a lame duck the struggle to succeed him starts now. No mind-reading is necessary to know that.

I would hazard a guess, however, that Putin doesn’t actually know what he will want to do in 2024, when he will be 71. He might have to stay in power because he has made too many enemies to be safe in retirement, but he has never had a grand plan beyond restoring Russia’s status as a great power. If it feels safe, he might just pick a promising successor and quit.

The main point of this discussion, for those of us who aren’t Russians, is to remind ourselves that it isn’t always about us. Russia has its own internal politics and priorities, and most of them are not about foreign policy.

Like any great power of long standing, Russia has a large ‘intelligence’ branch of the government that gets up to various bits of skulduggery overseas. The latest allegations are that the GRU offered bounties to Taliban fighters for killing American and British troops. (But why pay them when they’ll do it for free?)

More plausible claims allege that Moscow’s spies tried to kill Russian exiles in Britain with nerve poison, and that in 2016 they tried to influence the British referendum in favour of Brexit and the US election in favour of Trump. So what? Washington’s spies have overthrown governments from Vietnam to Iran to Chile, and spent a lot of money (along with their British colleagues) trying to influence Russian elections in the 1990s.

It’s what great powers do, and it doesn’t mean they are plotting global conquest. In particular, it doesn’t mean that the Russians are trying to take over the US or British governments or planning a new Cold War. For the most part, they are just busy with their own affairs.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“The vote…needed”)

The Next Russo-Turkish War?

Turkey has not won a war against Russia since the 1600s, although there have been at least half a dozen of them. You would think that even the most aggressive Turkish leader would try to avoid another one, but you would be wrong.

President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey for the past seventeen years, says he is going to start a war with Russia at the end of this month. Just in Syria, of course, where both Turkey and Russia have already been meddling in the civil war for years. He’s not completely deranged.

“We are making our final warnings,” Erdogan said on Wednesday. “We did not reach the desired results in our talks [with Russia]….A (Turkish) offensive in Idlib is only a matter of time.”

Idlib, in Syria’s northwest, is the last province controlled by rebel forces, and Turkey is their patron and protector. Russia’s military intervention on the side of the Syrian regime in 2015 saved President Bashar al-Assad from almost certain defeat, so there was already strain on the Turkish-Russian relationship – but until recently it was kept under control.

While Russia was determined to stop militant Islamists seizing power in Syria, it was also angling to lure Turkey out of its membership in the NATO alliance, so in 2018 Moscow and Ankara made a deal at Sochi on the Black Sea. The northwestern province of Idlib, where all the surviving rebels had retreated, would remain under Turkish protection, at least for the time being.

That deal broke down last year for several reasons. Almost all the other rebel forces in Idlib were subjugated (after considerable fighting) by the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham organisation, which is just al-Qaeda with a name change. (You remember al-Qaeda: the 9/11 attacks, head-chopping, ‘Islamic State’.) And Turkey made no effort to stop the jihadi take-over.

Turkey also didn’t keep its promise to free up the M5 freeway, which runs between Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s two biggest cities. (Its northern section, in Idlib province, was in rebel hands.) So in December the Syrian army, backed by Russian airpower, launched an offensive to clear the jihadi forces off the M5. They have now succeeded, and Erdogan is very cross.

Western media unanimously condemn the ‘ferocious’ Syrian offensive (so unlike the gentle offensives conducted by Western forces), and focus only on the refugees who have fled the fighting. They almost never identify the people the Syrians and Russians are fighting as al-Qaeda, preferring to describe Turkey’s jihadi allies as “some rebel groups in the area”.

But there is little chance that NATO will come to the aid of its Turkish ally even if Erdogan acts on his threat to attack the Syrians and Russians. And he may well do that: in recent weeks he has been pouring thousands of Turkish troops and hundreds of tanks into Turkey’s ‘observation posts’ in the province.

The Russian response to Erdogan’s threats has been steadily hardening. After a last-ditch meeting between Turkish and Russian delegations in Moscow on Tuesday failed to produce results, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned: “If we are talking about an operation against the legitimate authorities of the Syrian republic…this would of course be the worst scenario.”

He added sarcastically that Russia would not object if the Turkish military took action against the “terrorist groups in Idlib”, in line with the Sochi accord. But what would the Russians actually do if Erdogan carries out his threats?

Erdogan is threatening air strikes against targets throughout Syria, not just in Idlib. He has a big air force, and he could certainly do that, but Russia has a bigger one. Would it just sit idly by and let its Syrian ally be pounded from the air? That seems unlikely. A ground war between Turkish and Syrian troops could well be accompanied by air battles between Russia and Turkey.

You can spin the speculation out endlessly – what would the Israelis do? What would the United States do? – but the likeliest outcome is that Erdogan backs down and the ceasefire line in Idlib is redrawn to leave Highway 5 in Syrian hands.

However, ‘likeliest’ is a long way from ‘certain’. This could end up as a major war, and since Turkey can easily block Russian ships heading for the Mediterranean, Russian victory would not be quick or easy. But they would win in the end, as they always do, and Russia’s victory would make it the paramount power in the eastern Mediterranean.

It would also entail the fall of Erdogan. There’s always a silver lining.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Western…province”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Ukraine: A Cold Peace?

After Monday’s first encounter between Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Paris, there were the inevitable accusations that Putin had taken the inexperienced Zelenskiy to the cleaners. After all, what chance did an ex-television comedian have against a wily former intelligence officer?

Wrong question. It’s not about how clever the players are, it’s about what cards they hold – and not even a diplomatic team that included Talleyrand, Metternich and Henry Kissinger could have beaten Putin’s hand. Russia won the war years ago, although people continued to die every week along the front line in southeastern Ukraine.

Zelenskiy’s task, which is still very hard to accomplish, is to close the war down without losing anything more to Russia, and without giving Putin decisive influence over the future course of Ukraine’s politics.

After 68 months of fighting and 13,000 deaths, the military stalemate in eastern Ukraine seems permanent, but that is an illusion. The Ukrainian army cannot break it, clearly, or it would have done so and recovered the lost territory already. But Russia could move forward any time it wants.

What deters Russia from advancing further is the huge diplomatic price it would pay, including a dramatic reinforcement of NATO’s forces along its western border and even more severe sanctions. Besides, ruling over tens of millions of resentful and impoverished Ukrainians is deeply unattractive to Moscow, and could easily turn into an interminable anti-Russian guerilla war. So Russia doesn’t want any more of Ukraine.

Any realistic Ukrainian would want to close the war down, cut Ukraine’s losses in the breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, and get on with building a better future for the other 95% of the country. A peace deal between Moscow and Kyiv is therefore possible, but it is not inevitable or even indispensable.

The real measure of Zelenskiy’s realism is his Plan B. He can’t discuss it aloud himself, because he would be condemned as a defeatist and a traitor by Ukrainian super-patriots who simply ignore the realities of the situation. However, his adviser Andriy Yermak was quite frank about it at a meeting in London last week.

Ukraine’s preferred peace deal would restore the breakaway provinces, grant them wide local autonomy, and get the Russian troops out, but would not create a federal state in which those two provinces held a veto over central government policies. But if Zelenskiy can’t persuade Russia to accept that deal, then Kyiv will just walk away from the talks.

“If we don’t see readiness from Russia to…move towards a peaceful solution with a clear-cut time frame,” said Yermak, “we’ll be building a wall, and life will continue.” What kind of wall? He didn’t go into details, but it would clearly have to be both political and physical. Ukraine would abandon the breakaway provinces, wall them off, and get on with the rest of its life.

Since most of the people who remain in the Russian-controlled parts of those two provinces would really prefer to be part of Russia (one-and-a-half million people who prefer to be Ukrainian have already left), this would not constitute a great betrayal of innocent Ukrainian citizens. And it would free Ukraine from an unwinnable and therefore pointless war.

Maybe this won’t be necessary. Maybe Putin will be willing to make a deal that restores Ukraine’s sovereignty over its lost territories in the east (although not over Crimea), and that gives those territories autonomy without granting them a veto over central government policies. But the odds are against it.

This whole conflict was Putin’s response to the ‘Meydan Revolution’ of February 2014 that overthrew a deeply corrupt and slavishly pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. To punish Ukraine, Putin seized Crimea the following month – and then in April he sponsored the breakaway revolt by pro-Russian groups in Donetsk and Lugansk provinces.

His objective was somehow to regain a dominant Russian influence over the government in Kyiv. That has not succeeded, and he is left holding the eastern half of those two provinces, a partially depopulated post-industrial wasteland. So maybe he will cut a deal that hands them back to Ukraine and restores reasonably civil relations between Moscow and Kyiv. Or maybe not.

In either case, the relationship will stay very cool, because Russian popular opinion would never allow Putin to hand back Crimea. It is historically Russian territory, and only got transferred to Ukraine in 1954 as a result of murky machinations within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The best that can be hoped for is a cold peace, and even that is not guaranteed, but Zelenskiy’s Plan B shows that he is no fool. “I don’t know who [beat] whom,” he said after the Paris meeting. “I think it would be appropriate to be diplomatic as we’ve just started talking. Let’s say for now it’s a draw.”
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 14. (“Maybe…against it”; and “In either…Union”)

Orthodoxy: the New Great Schism

6 January 2019

If you live long enough, almost anything is possible. It is now possible, for example, to hear the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, describe a former KGB agent and avowed atheist as a “miracle of God”.

The miracle in question, Vladimir Putin, made his career in the Soviet secret police before the collapse of the Soviet Union, which meant he had to be a member of the Communist Party. As a loyal Communist, he had to struggle against the evil influence of religion, the ‘opium of the people’, and as an ambitious careerist he did just that.

But the regime changed in 1991, and Putin had to carve out a new political career in a post-Communist Russia. So he got religion, or at least pretended to, and made an alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church. That’s why he is now warning that there may be bloodshed if the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is allowed to break away from the Moscow patriarchate.

The president of Russia got the best education the Soviet state could provide, and his private opinion about the Russian Orthodox Church is probably not far from that of Pussy Riot (although they would agree on little else). But the Church has always served the interests of the Russian state if it is allowed to, and as the embodiment of the Russian state Putin feels obliged to return the favour.

What has upset Patriarch Kirill and his colleagues is that last weekend Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople granted a ‘tomos of autocephaly’ to Metropolitan Epiphanius of the newly formed Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Which probably needs a bit of translation.

The Ecumenical Patriarch is the head – or rather, the ‘first among equals’ – among the heads of the various national Orthodox Christian churches. ‘Constantinople’, actually now Istanbul, is still the headquarters of Orthodox Christianity although it has been under Muslim control for over 500 years.

The Ukrainians had asked Patriarch Bartholomew if they could have their own church back, and after due consideration he decided that they should. The tomos of autocephaly (independence) was the document that contained his decision. He was just putting things back the way they were.

Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine, was the first capital of the Russian state, and naturally the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church as well. But Kiev was destroyed in the Mongol invasion of 1240, and for centuries afterwards the new centres of Russian civilisation were in the forests far to north.

In 1686, when Muslim slave-raiders from Crimea were still operating regularly in the vicinity of Kiev, the patriarch in Constantinople officially transferred the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church from Kiev to Moscow. All that’s really happening now is that Kiev is getting its own patriarch back.

The people who live in this area now are called Ukrainians, speaking a language somewhat different from Russian. Normal Orthodox rules say that each national group is entitled to its own national church, so what’s the problem? Politics, of course.

For three centuries after 1686, Ukraine was part of the Russia empire and its successor, the Soviet Union. It was the Russian Orthodox Church that made the religious decisions for everybody, and received the revenues from the 12,000 Orthodox parishes in Ukraine. But since Ukrainian independence in 1991, all that has been in question.

The question became more urgent with Russia’s unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine since then. Moscow wanted to keep control of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, since it was a way to influence Ukrainian opinion in Russia’s favour. But for the same reason, it was a priority for Ukrainian nationalists to expel the Russian influence.

Ukraine won, and Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, thanked Patriarch Bartholomew last weekend “for the courage to make this historic decision….Finally, God sent us the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.” (Is Poroshenko really a believer? Maybe, but he’s certainly running for re-election in March.)

Putin and Poroshenko are both using religion for their own purposes, but Bartholomew just did what was right. That has a cost: the Russian Orthodox Church accounts for almost half of the 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world, and the hierarchy in Moscow has now broken off relations with the patriarchate in Constantinople. This is a schism that may take a long time to heal.

But Pussy Riot should have the final word. As they said in their famous ‘punk prayer’ in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in 2012 (for which two of them did serious jail-time):

The Church praises rotten leaders

The march of the cross consists of black limousines

Patriarch Kirill believes in Putin,

Would be better, the bastard, if he believed in God!

Virgin birth-Giver of God, drive away Putin!

Drive away Putin, drive away Putin!
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 15. (“The people…course”; and “But Pussy…Putin”)