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Peak Putin?

The crowds of protesters in Moscow and other Russian cities were far bigger the last time, in 2011-2012. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was so intoxicated by the forty or fifty thousand citizens who demonstrated in Moscow against Vladimir Putin’s rule that he boasted: “I see enough people here to take the Kremlin…right now, but we are peaceful people and won’t do that just yet.”

It was a delusional thing to say even then. Five years later, the crowds joining the protests against official corruption on Sunday were in the hundreds or the low thousands in most Russian cities. Even in Moscow’s Pushkin Square they probably did not number more than ten thousand – and Navalny himself was arrested on his way to the square. At home, Putin reigns supreme, with approval ratings around the 80 percent level.

He’s not doing too badly abroad, either. On Friday he met with Marine Le Pen, the leading candidate in France’s presidential election next month and Putin’s favourite Western leader after Donald Trump. She supported Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from the start, and promises to work for an end of European Union sanctions against Russia if she becomes president of France this spring.

That promise might be hard to keep, since she would also be busy organising a referendum on withdrawing France from the EU, but Putin replied “I know that you represent a European political force that is growing quickly.” It certainly is: the Brexiteers in Britain have already won their referendum on leaving, and the EU would probably not survive the departure of two of its three biggest members.

Without the EU, there would be no powerful counterpoise to Russia in Europe, and the election of Donald Trump has already put an admirer of Putin in the White House. Moreover, Russia is now the dominant outside power in the Middle East for the first time since the 1960s, and it has achieved that position at a far lower cost in blood and treasure than the United States paid in 2001-2015.

Putin is undeniably a master manipulator both at home and abroad, and he has good reason to be pleased with his accomplishments. And yet….

Putin has played a weak hand internationally with great skill, but Russia really is weak. Its economy is smaller than Italy’s, and apart from defence industry the country is largely de-industrialised. (Have you ever bought anything made in Russia?)

Only oil and gas exports give Moscow the cash to play the great power game at all, and the collapse of oil prices has put Moscow on a starvation diet. The relatively low-cost intervention in Syria has brought Moscow high diplomatic returns in the short term, but Putin lacks the resources to play a major role in rebuilding post-war Syria, so Russia’s influence in the region is bound to fade as time passes.

Even in Europe, Russia’s posture is essentially defensive, if only because it could not afford to hold up its end of a new Cold War. Putin has effectively neutralised the pro-Western government of Ukraine by seizing Crimea and sponsoring a separatist war in two eastern provinces, but he won’t go any farther even with Trump in the White House.

Putin’s real vulnerability is at home. His popular support has held up well despite three years of economic decline because of falling oil income, and it may even carry him safely through next year’s presidential election. But there is no reason to believe that oil revenues are going to recover in the near future.

Even Russia’s cooperation with the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries in cutting oil production to get the price back up caused only a modest and brief upward tick in world oil prices. Now they are back down where they were three months ago.

There is great over-capacity in the world’s oil industry, and it’s entirely possible that Russians face two or three more years of declining incomes (from a base that was never all that high). Many Russians are still grateful to Putin for ending the decade of chaos and acute poverty after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but for half the population that is ancient history.

It is the young whom Putin must fear, because they are less impressed by hollow foreign triumphs in places they don’t care about, and more unhappy about an economic future that leaves most of them bumping along the bottom. He has had a long run in power – seventeen years and counting – but his future is probably a lot shorter than his past.

In fact, Russia may be at peak Putin right now, with only mounting troubles in his future. The crowds were smaller this time than last, but they were not just in the big cities. When there are protests in places like Chita and Barnaul, you know that a lot of people are running out of patience.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“Even…House”; and “Even…ago”)

Everybody Take a Valium

When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, he took more than half a million troops with him, and he still lost. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he used four million troops, but he lost too. And now the United States has deployed just one thousand American into Poland.

So did the Russians giggle and snort at this pathetic display of American “resolve”? Of course not. They pretended to be horrified by it.

“We perceive it as a threat,” said Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman. “These actions threaten our interests, our security, especially as it concerns a third party building up its military presence near our borders. (The United States) is not even a European state.”

The Russians have not suddenly caught a severe case of timidity. They know perfectly well this handful of American troops poses no danger to them. But building up the American “threat” helps to mobilise popular support for Putin – and he will be even more popular when Donald Trump enters the White House and makes a “deal” with Putin that ends this alleged threat.

Pantomime threats like this are a standard part of international politics, and should not be seen as a cause for panic. It is also quite normal for great powers to bury an inconvenient dispute and move on, as Trump will probably do with Putin after he takes office. As long as Trump does not formally recognise Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, international law will survive. Indeed, it would survive, perhaps limping a little, even if he did.

As Trump’s inauguration looms, there is great panic among American commentators and strategic analysts (and quite a lot of people elsewhere) about the grave danger that the ignorant and impulsive Trump will pose to world peace, but this ignores two important facts.

One is that the other world leaders he is dealing with will still be grown-ups. The other is that the real US government – the tens of thousands of senior civil servants and military officers who actually make the machine work – are people with a lot of real-life experience, and they instinctively resist extreme policies and grand visions.

Even Trump’s most radical ideas, like threatening to end America’s 45-year-old “One China” policy – and implicitly, therefore, to recognise the independence of Taiwan – will only destabilise the international order if OTHER national leaders are panicked by his demands. In most cases, they will not be. (Indeed, many of them are already taking up meditation or practicing deep breathing in preparation for having to deal with him.)

None of this guarantees that Trump will not blunder into a big international crisis or a major war during his term, but the chances of his doing so are relatively low – maybe as low as one-in-ten. You wouldn’t freely choose to live with this level of risk, but people did live with it for decades during the Cold War, and they survived it.

As for the ‘Manchurian Candidate’ nonsense: while Trump may have had significant Russian help of one sort or another during his election campaign, he is almost certainly not an ‘agent of influence’ for Moscow. The intelligence report by a British ex-spy that is causing such a fuss is actually TOO detailed: senior Russian officials do not give that much away to each other, let alone to Western spies or the Russians who work for them.

Even if the lurid accounts of Trump’s alleged sexual games with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel were backed by Russian-held film of the event, Moscow could never blackmail Trump with a threat to make it public. He would know that it was a bluff, because Putin’s rational strategy must be to put and keep Trump in power, not to discredit him.

The real cost of the leaked allegations for Trump is domestic, it is high, and he has already paid it. He can indignantly deny the story until his thumbs are sore, and he may actually be telling the truth, but mud sticks. People think of him as the sort of man of whom it MIGHT be true, and so the ‘lentil and chickpea’ jokes will not stop. He has suffered grave and lasting reputational damage even among his own supporters.

Many people will be very frightened about the future when Trump swears the oath of office on Friday. They are certainly right to be concerned, and the economic damage may be very bad, but the risk of war, even with China, is probably lower than they fear.

Back in 1976, when the Quebec separatists won an election for the first time, English-Canadians were terrified, and the anglophone minority in Quebec itself saw it as the apocalypse. It was only six years, after all, since there had been dramatic terrorist attacks in Quebec by a different brand of separatists. But cartoonist Aislin (Terry Mosher) in the Montreal Gazette had the right idea.

It just showed a close-up of the separatist leader, René Lévesque, smoking his usual cigarette and telling the entire country: “OK, everybody take a Valium.” It was better advice than even he knew: Quebec never left and the heavens never fell.

We need Aislin again.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Even…supporters”)

Syria: The Russians Were Right

“The Russians had a more realistic analysis of the situation than practically anybody else,” said Lakhdar Brahimi, the former United Nations Special Envoy to Syria. “Everyone should have listened to the Russians a little bit more than they did.”

Brahimi was referring to the Russian offer in 2012 to end the growing civil war in Syria by forcing the country’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to leave power. The Russian proposal went before the UN Security Council, but the United States, Britain and France were so convinced that Assad was about to fall anyway that they turned it down. Why let the Russians take the credit?

So Assad is still in power, several hundred thousand more Syrians have died, and millions more have fled. But Brahimi’s comments are still relevant, because the Russians are still right.

Finally, very reluctantly, the United States is coming around to the long-standing Russian position that the secular Baathist regime in Syria must survive, as part of some compromise peace deal that everybody except the Islamist extremists will accept (although nobody will love it).

Such a deal back in 2012 would have involved the departure from power of Bashar al-Assad himself, and it could still do so today. He’s mostly just a figurehead anyway. He was living in England, studying to be an optometrist, until the death of his elder brother made him the inevitable heir to the presidency that his father, Hafez al-Assad, had held for thirty years.

It’s the Baathist regime’s secular character that makes it so important. Its leadership is certainly dominated by the Alawite (Shia) minority, but it has much broader popular support because all Syria’s non-Muslim minorities, Christian and Druze, see it as their only protection from Islamist extremists. Many Sunni Muslims, especially in the cities, see it the same way. They also see it as the one Arab government in the region that has always defied Israel.

The deal that the Russians could have delivered in 2012 would have ditched Bashar al-Assad but left the Baathist regime in place, while compelling it to broaden its base, dilute Alawite influence, and stop torturing and murdering its opponents. An over-confident West rejected that deal, while its local “allies”, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, gave weapons and money to the Islamist rebels who aimed to replace the Baathists with a Sunni Muslim theocracy

Fast forward to 2015, and by mid-summer the Islamist forces, mainly Islamic State and al-Qaeda, control more than a third of Syria’s territory. The exhausted Syrian army is retreating every time it is attacked (Palmyra, Idlib, etc.), and it’s clear to Moscow that all of Syria will fall to the Islamists unless Russia intervenes militarily. So it does.

When the Russian air force started attacking the Syrian rebels on 30 September last year, Western propaganda went into high gear to condemn it. Russian President Vladimir Putin “doesn’t distinguish between ISIL (Islamic State) and a moderate Sunni opposition that wants to see Mr Assad go,” said US president Barack Obama. “From (the Russian perspective) they’re all terrorists – and that’s a recipe for disaster.”

All America’s sidekicks said the same thing. “These (Russian) military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more radicalisation and extremism,” said France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US and Britain in a joint statement on 2 October.

The Russians simply ignored the Western propaganda and went on bombing until they had stopped the Islamist advances and stabilised the front. Then they proposed a ceasefire.

The brutal truth is that there is no “moderate Sunni opposition” in Syria any more. Almost all of the remaining “moderate” groups have been forced into alliances with al-Qaeda’s local franchise, the Nusra Front, and the deal that the Russians might have brokered in 2012 is no longer available. The ceasefire they proposed in late 2015 deliberately left the Islamist groups out – and the United States (better late than never) went along with it.

That ceasefire has now been in effect for more than three months, and although there are many violations it has significantly lowered the level of violence in Syria. In the longer term, the Russians might be able to produce sufficient changes in the Baathist regime (including Assad’s departure) that some of the non-Islamist fighting groups might break their alliances with al-Qaeda and accept an amnesty from Damascus.

Maybe even the Islamist-controlled areas can be re-conquered eventually. Or maybe not: it’s a bit late for a peace settlement that preserves Syria’s territorial integrity. But at least the US State Department has finally abandoned the fantasy of a “moderate” rebel force that could defeat both the regime and the Islamist rebels in Syria, and instead is going along with the Russian strategy.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has wisely given US Secretary of State John Kerry equal billing in the ceasefire initiative, and there has been no crowing in Moscow about the Americans finally seeing the light.

Great states never admit mistakes, so there will be no apology from Washington for all the anti-Russian propaganda of the past year. But it is enough that the US government has actually changed its tune, and that there is a little bit of hope for Syria.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 10 and 14. (“Such…years”; “All…October”; and “Maybe…strategy”)

Russians in Syria: Mission Accomplished

He wasn’t standing on an aircraft carrier with a banner saying “Mission Accomplished” behind him, but Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was a lot more credible than former US president George W. Bush when he declared his country’s military intervention in the Middle East a success. And most of the Russian forces in Syria are going home after only five months, not the eight years that American troops stayed in Iraq.

“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” said Putin on 14 March. And it has indeed been a remarkably intelligent and successful intervention.

The Russians said right from the start that it would be a limited operation both in scope and in time, and that their goal was not to help the Assad regime reconquer Syria but to restore the military stalemate in the civil war as the necessary preliminary to a ceasefire and peace talks. And that is exactly what they did.

Western media were surprised by Putin’s announcement on Monday, but only because they had come to believe their own governments’ propaganda. If you have convinced yourself that the evil Russians are backing the evil Syrian regime in order to extend its evil rule, and that the preferred Russian tactic is the deliberate bombing of hospitals and schools, then you are bound to be bewildered when reality intrudes.

The real reason for the Russian air campaign in Syria was not to “reestablish Russia as a major player” in the great power game, or to demonstrate the effectiveness of their new-generation weapons to potential buyers overseas, or to maintain their access to a small naval base on the Syrian coast. All these petty explanations were offered by Western politicians and journalists who diligently ignored the obvious reason for the intervention.

Last summer, the Syrian army was at the breaking point. If it cracked then the whole Assad regime would go under, and all of Syria would fall under the control of the Islamist extremists of the loathsome “Islamic State” and of the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda. (By 2015 the “good” rebels fighting Assad were only a small fraction of the opposition forces.)

A triumphant and vastly expanded “Islamic State” was definitely not in the national interest of Russia, which has an 8 percent Muslim minority and is not that far away from Syria. So the Russian air force was sent in to save Assad from defeat – but not to win him a decisive victory.

Even with Russian air support, the Syrian army was too weak to destroy all the rebel forces and retake the whole country. Moscow just wanted to make sure that the Islamists didn’t win, and to push the other rebels back far enough to make them understand that they couldn’t win either. Then it would call for a ceasefire and a peace conference that specifically excluded the Islamists.

Russian aircraft carried out more than 9,000 combat sorties in five months, according to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, and helped the Syrian army to regain control over 10,000 sq. km. of lost territory. That done, Moscow started pushing hard for ceasefire talks between the Assad regime and the non-Islamist rebels.

Both sides needed to be pushed, so Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov enlisted the aid of US Foreign Secretary John Kerry to put pressure on the rebels. Meanwhile he started twisting the arm of Bashar al-Assad, who sometimes fantasised aloud that with enough Russian help he might one day reunite Syria by force – and Lavrov’s main tool of persuasion was the prospective withdrawal of the Russian air force.

Each great power delivered its Syrian partners to the ceasefire talks, and the ceasefire was agreed two weeks ago. Both great powers agreed that the two parts of Syria controlled by the Islamists (al-Nusra in northwest Syria, “Islamic State” in the east) would be excluded from the talks, and would remain legitimate targets for attack.

And both parties also agree that Assad will not be allowed to stonewall and simply refuse to discuss the question of his own departure from power as part of a compromise peace settlement. That is why Moscow has made an early announcement of Russia’s troop withdrawal (without any published timetable): to make Assad understand Moscow’s real position.

Russia doesn’t care whether Assad stays in power personally in Syria, although they would clearly like to see a friendly government in Damascus that continues the long-standing alliance with Moscow. In fact, they see Assad as a brutal and inflexible man who should be replaced by a more acceptable figure when it is safe to do so.

But it will probably not be safe to do that until the Islamist-controlled territories are isolated, blockaded and besieged, so Assad will remain in power for a while yet.

It has been an elegant diplomatic operation backed by a very precise and effective military strategy. There is still a chance that it could all go wrong, but the Russians may have actually given Syria a chance for a decent future.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Western…intervention”)