Thursday, July 24, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Putin Now Down to One Ally – Moscow Television

Paul Goble


            Staunton, July 24 – Tsar Aleksandr III famously said that Russia has only two allies – its army and its fleet – but now, according to Rashit Akhmetov, the editor of “Zvezda Povolzhya,” Vladimir Putin is down to only one – Moscow television with its ability to shape and direct Russian opinion.


            In a lead article in that Kazan paper today, Akhmetov argues that in the wake of the shooting down of the Malaysian airline, Putin is “beginning to recognize that the ‘patriotic’ and nationalist wave” he helped to generate’ “now can be thrown against himself because it will demand a more aggressive policy which Putin and Russia do not have the resources for.”


            As a result, Akhmetov says, Putin has only “one ally -- television” – on which he can rely as he tries to extricate himself from his current problems in Ukraine and to survive in the Kremlin. Russia “doesn’t have a fleet, and its army will suffer enormously from the defeat in Donetsk  (“Zvezda Povolzhya,” no. 27 (707), July 24-30, 2014, p. 1).


            The Kazan editor says that his dependence on television will become ever more obvious because he “will be forced to turn to the support of the West.” To cover himself, he will insist that the West promise not to seek the return of Crimea to Ukraine. Only later, Akhmetov suggests, Putin will “begin to purge those guilty of the Ukrainian adventure.”


            Those are Akhmetov’s conclusions.  They rest on a more extended argument.  He begins his article by saying that the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner is “a turning point” in history perhaps equivalent to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 which triggered World War I.


            That is because, he continues, the shooting down of the plane may have been the work in the immediate sense of the secessionists in eastern Ukraine, but they would not have had the necessary weapons system had Moscow not given it to them and would not have fired it had they not convinced their Russian controllers that they needed to shoot down a plane to prevent the defeat of the secessionist cause.


            In the wake of the surrender of Slavyansk by the secessionists, both they and Moscow were worried enough to use ground-to-air rockets to shoot down Ukrainian military planes bringing in supplies, actions that the secessionists have acknowledged in other cases.  The real question is why was Russian oversight so bad in the case of the Malaysian civilian airliner?


            According to Akhmetov, the secessionists made a mistake, but they succeeded in getting Moscow’s authorization to shoot because they exploited the nervousness of Russian commanders and of Moscow not only about the military situation in southeastern Ukraine but also about what could happen in Russia itself in the event of a total collapse of the secessionist project.


            Unless they got authorization, the Kazan editor says, the secessionists implicitly threatened that the Donetsk Peoples Republic would “suffer a defeat” and be forced to “evacuate tens of thousands” of armed men into the Russian Federation where they would pose a threat to the political situation there.  Out of fear and in confusion, the Russians authorized the launch, and the result was tragic.


            In many ways, this represented a playing out of the misconception Putin himself had about southeastern Ukraine.  As he repeatedly has said, Russia won in Crimea without firing a single shot or without the loss of a single life and without the imposition of Western sanctions. The Kremlin leader clearly expected the same thing elsewhere in Ukraine.


            But he failed to understand two crucial realities. On the one hand, southeastern Ukraine is significantly less ethnically Russian and significantly more integrated into Ukraine than was Crimea, with 80 percent of its population being Russia and its anchor being the Russian naval base at Sevastopol.


            And on the other, while ethnic Russians in southeastern Ukraine might have accepted the integration of their region into the Russian Federation if the Russian army had come to occupy them, they were not and are not willing to fight for that outcome. Because Putin recognized that he could not send in the army without provoking a major war, he thus found himself in a position where he could not win.


            In short, Putin was pushed into a corner, something that ensured that he would make mistakes because of his own nature.  As a KGB officer, Putin was trained never to trust anyone. His suspiciousness of others, even those nominally closest to him, represents a problem that may be even greater to his future than any threat posed by the West.


            And even before he became a Soviet intelligence officer, Akhmetov says, Putin had a childhood experience about what happens when someone is driven into a corner. As he has told journalists, he drove a rat into a corner with a stick. The rat retreated until it had nowhere to go and then it attacked.


            “I once and for all time understood,” Putin said, “what the phrase ‘driven into a corner’ means.” 


            Because he trusts no one, the Kremlin leader could easily imagine that the leaders of the secessionists would turn on him if they were allowed to go down to defeat. And because he can see that they feel that they have been “driven into a corner,” Akhmetov continues, they have all the more reason to come out fighting against the man they blame for their predicament.







Window on Eurasia: Belarusians Challenge Russian National Narrative and Some Russians are Angry

Paul Goble


            Staunton, July 24 – The central Russian narrative on the emergence of the three modern nations of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, a narrative on which Vladimir Putin relies, is that there was a single Russian nation a millennium ago and that Ukrainians and Belarusians were byproducts of Russian ethnogenesis, the result of outside interference.


            That narrative has been shown to be false by numerous historians and ethnographers: a millennium ago, there was no separate Russian nation, and neither it nor its Ukrainian or Belarusian counterpart emerged under several centuries later, arising out of various east Slavic tribes.


            What Russian writers can point to is the fact that those whom they call Russians had an articulated state for almost all of that period while Ukrainians had a state for only about half of it and Belarusians for only a tiny fraction of that millennium, yet another Russian confusion of ethnic and state development that Moscow has long promoted.


            Ukrainian historians have long challenged the Moscow version of reality, and Belarusian writers are doing the same, casting doubt on the Russian version of reality and provoking anger among some Russians who recognize that Moscow stands to lose far more if it loses this debate about events of centuries ago than it might seem at first glance.


             In an article in “Russkaya planeta” yesterday, Yury Glushakov says that “ever more frequently” Belarusian scholars and popular writers are “casting doubt” on “the common history of the Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian peoples,” projecting the existence of the first further and further into the past and downplaying the role of the state in ethnogenesis (


            On the one hand, the Russian writer says, the appearance of such books reflects commercial calculations: people are more likely to buy books which debunk older ideas or promise to “reveal” new ones.  But on the other, he insists, it is an ideological challenge to Russia because it insists that the commonalities of the three Slavic nations are “no more than a myth … thought up in the Russian Empire and then strengthened, modernized, and used in the Soviet Union.”


            There is a range of views within this new Belarusian trend, Glushkov says. Some Belarusian “national romantics” say that Belarusians have existed since Kievan times. Others insist that the Belarusians were never Slavs at all but instead “Balts who accepted under certain historical circumstances a Slavic language and by blood have little in common with the Slavs.”


            These various Belarusian views have been around for some time, the Russian writer says. The “founding fathers” of them, Vsevolod Ignatovsky and Vatslav Lastovsky, were exposed by Stalin as “’bourgeois nationalists’” in the 1930s. But these “academic” ideas are not what is really at stake, he continues.


            Many Belarusian “national romantics” believe that they can provide support for “the sovereignty of contemporary Belarus” by pointing to the emergence of a Belarusian nation earlier than or at least apart from “the medieval ancient Russian nationality.” And they see Kievan Rus as the forefather of Ukraine not of Russia.


                Glushkov discusses and then dismisses Belarusian commentaries on Slavic ethnogenesis, with the core of his argument being that the Russians had a state while the Belarusians did not and therefore the Russians became a nation much earlier and would have absorbed those who call themselves Belarusians had it not been for outside actors like Lithuania and Poland.


            And for all the details that he offers, Glushkov shows himself to be but the latest example of the longstanding Russian confusion between nation building and state building and of those in Moscow, Putin among them, who fear that if the other Slavs do have states, they will become separate nations, and that this process must be stopped before it goes any further.





Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Putin has Repeated Andropov’s Mistakes but Doesn’t Have Andropov’s Options, Grigoryants Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, July 23 – Vladimir Putin has repeated the two chief mistakes of Yury Andropov – invading a neighboring country and shooting down a civilian aircraft – but he doesn’t have the Soviet-era KGB and CPSU chief’s options anytime soon of a return to totalitarianism or a shift to officers in the organs who can get Russia out of its difficulties.


            That is the judgment of Sergey Grigoryants, a prominent dissident in Soviet times who suffered for his actions and who today is a thorough-going critic of the Putin regime and its crimes. His words merit the closest attention because Grigoryants very much knows whereof he speaks (


            Having in the space of three months repeated Andropov’s mistakes, Putin doesn’t have the options that the former Soviet leader did. He has not developed the institutions he would need to impose totalitarian control over the country – institutions Andropov had and developed over 15 years – and he doesn’t have young and supposedly pure KGB and party operatives who can try to save the situation.


In short, there are neither camps nor Gorbachevs immediately available to Putin, all speculation about both notwithstanding, Grigoryants says. No one should be under any “illusion” about that.


Grigoryants says that in his view, “the KGB and the MVD are not capable of creating real terror in the country. Censorship, the destruction of the electoral system and public life, and suppression of the Internet are insufficient for that.”  And the options of turning to the West by reforming at home are very, very limited.


No one believes Putin anymore after what he has done, the commentator continues, and consequently, it is “already too late” for the Kremlin leader to present himself as something other than an outlaw, especially since “in terms of his moral qualities, Putin is no better than Andropov or Stalin.”


And Putin isn’t about to yield power to anyone else, Grigoryants continues. He won’t commit suicide as legend has it that Nicholas I did out of a sense of shame. And his system does not allow for the emergence of a serious alternative.  That makes it “very difficult to imagine” what will happen next, he says. But almost certainly, it will not be anything good.



Window on Eurasia: ‘Hot Heads’ Who Shot Down Malaysian Plane Could Lead Ouster of Putin, Bukovsky Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, July 23 – Europe will do everything it can to avoid taking a hard line against Vladimir Putin even after the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner lest that lead to a break with Russia and in a remarkably short time, the governments and publics in the West will forget about this crime, Vladimir Bukovsky says.


            But that is not the end of Putin’s problems, the former Soviet dissident, says.  He faces a monster of his own creation: the hotheads who shout “’Crimea is Ours!’” and who shot down the plane. They may become the agents of the ouster of Putin and even the demise of the Russian Federation (


            Bukovsky, who now lives in London, says that he doesn’t expect the West to impose more serious sanctions. On the one hand, Western countries would suffer as a result. And on the other hand, as Saddam Husseyn demonstrated, a country put under sanctions can “easily” work around them.  Moreover, no sanctions regime lasts forever.


            In this circumstance, he told Ukraine’s news agency, Ukrainians must fight, counting only on themselves. And they should have begun fighting much earlier. Had they fought in Crimea, they would not be facing the problems in Donetsk. Only Ukrainians really recognize how dangerous the Russian aggression is.


            Asked why young Russians who have travelled abroad and have access to alternative sources of information nonetheless support Putin’s campaign, Bukovsky says that it is still not clear “whether they really believe or are only appearing to do so.”  Given that “fear has returned to Russia,” the latter is likely.


            And even if some of them do support Putin, that support is unlikely to last very long, he argues.  Just like people in the West, many Russians will focus on other things soon enough.  There are exceptions, however, and they may set the weather for the coming months. Those exceptions are the radical hotheads in Ukraine and in Russia itself.


            As conditions in Russia deteriorate, Bukovsky continues, as the economic crisis deepens and some portions of Russian territory even begin “to separate themselves” from Moscow, including regions like the Russian Far East which could “become an independent republic,” such people will only become more enraged and more willing to take radical steps.


            It is unfortunate, the former Soviet-era dissident says, that “the building of ‘the Russian empire’ will collapse on the heads of ordinary citizens, but the Putin regime will fall – and not in the least because it unleashed war in Ukraine.”  That mistake “has accelerated everything.” Now, neither Putin nor Russia has more than “a few years left.”


Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Elite Must Confront Putin on Ukraine, Albats Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, July 23 – Those with access to Putin’s ear must convince him to change course now, before he crosses a line from which there is no return, because if such people who are now called an elite prove to be only a bunch of “greedy and frightened” people and do not do so, they may keep their money but they will be “without a country,” Yegeniya Albats says.


            What makes her argument and appeal so important is that Albats has not made this kind of statement before. That she is doing so now, directly calling on Putin’s entourage to intervene to get him to change course, underlines just how dire the situation she and many others in the Russian capital believe it to be.


            The editor of Moscow’s “New Times” says that the elite must recognize that “never before in the post-Soviet history of Russia has the country been in such a horrific position as it is now” and that “all variants – from a major war to a junta in the Kremlin – are possible” (


            And the elite must act because only it has a chance to push Putin in the right direction. The Kremlin leader, she suggests, “has begun to understand that his Chekist entourage, which is interested in an iron curtain and a war of all against all has led him not just into a dead end” but “into a nightmare in which he will go down in history as someone on whose hands in the direct sense is the blood of innocent children.”


            They must make sure that the Kremlin leader understands that. History “won’t remember” the pro-Moscow militants in the Donbas, but “it won’t forget Putin” or his connection with the downing of the Malaysian aircraft. And this is his nightmare until the end of his days.”


            Tragically, Albats continues, it will not be only his nightmare but that of Russia as well, “if something still worse does not take place.” The elites need to take steps to ensure this does not happen and can only do so by going to Putin and declaring that “day X” has come, the day of “his choice” about the future.


            They and he must think about more than their own personal interests. They must remember more important things, like their country, because on their choice and that of Putin himself depends his future and Russia’s as well.




Window on Eurasia: To Maintain Himself in Power, Putin Will Continue to Maneuver on Ukraine, Piontkovsky Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, July 23 -- To the dismay of some and the surprise of others, Vladimir Putin used the Russian Security Council meeting yesterday to signal that he has no intention of changing course on Ukraine but instead will continue to maneuver, now stepping up his aggression and now portraying himself as a peacemaker, according to Andrey Piontkovsky.


            That combination, which has worked for him so far, will simultaneously hold off any domestic challenge to his rule at least for a time while ensuring that the West remains divided on how to respond. Indeed, the Russian analyst said, the only restraint on the Putin regime will be that regime itself (


            The Kremlin leader is now “in a very complicated situation,” the Russian analyst says. If he “actively supports the separatists” in Ukraine, the international community will impose “serious sanctions.”  But “if on the other hand, he ends that support, “he would be confronted by a serious domestic political problem” among those who have accepted his own propaganda.


            Over the last few months, Piontkovsky points out, Putin and his regime have suggested that what is happening in the Donbas is virtually “a struggle for the salvation of the Russians from extermination.” If he backs away from that too quickly, many Russians will view that as “a betrayal” and stop supporting him. Consequently, Putin is playing for time.


            He clearly hopes that his agreement not to block an international investigation into the Malaysian plane downing “will be viewed as an act of good will” in the West and at the least will delay if not prevent entirely the imposition of  “any radical sanctions against Russia. And talks among the parties will also allow him “to save face.”


            But because this maneuvering satisfies no one completely, including Putin himself, the Moscow leader cannot maintain it “forever.”  But his decision to continue on as he has in the last few weeks “is yet another piece of evidence that he has no long-term strategy” but is only “maneuvering in order to keep himself in power.”


            And the issue of Putin’s continuance in power is now very much the subject of discussion, Piontkovsky says.  Now, the Western media, which had been talking about a permanent Putin presidency, are raising the question: where will Russia be “after Putin.”  And such thoughts are now in Russian heads as well.


            Putin doesn’t have “unanimous support inside the country, and what is most important, he doesn’t have “the unanimous support of the elites,” the Russian analyst says. He does not yet face mass protests as he did in 2011, “but a palace coup is becoming ever more probable since Putin’s actions have dissatisfied a significant part of his immediate entourage.”


            Piontkovsky reiterates his view that this entourage consists of two groups: “the global kleptocrats” whose wealth depends on avoiding heightened tensions with the West and “the national kleptocrats” who do not see their fate dependent on maintaining good relations with the West and may even believe that they are better off with new tensions.


            But many in both groups have “already begun to lose billions,” and they are not happy about that, Piontkovsky says. Putin has relied on both because he is part of both, but some in the two are now asking whether they might not be better off without him.  In this situation, playing for time by not making a clear choice on Ukraine makes sense.


            But that tactic – and Piontkovsky insists it is not a strategy – will only work so long because “it will not solve any problems foreign or domestic. The crisis will continue to grow.” That is his own fault because had he stopped with the annexation of Crimea, the West would have accepted that and his domestic constituencies would have been pleased.


            Instead, convinced by some of his own popularity and invulnerability, he decided to try to seize “eight oblasts” of Ukraine, the area he calls “Novorossiya.” The West cannot accept that with equal equanimity, and the problems that have arisen in that region have become problems for Putin, problems that threaten to become for him “fatal.”


            The Russian leader isn’t going to gain support “before the 2018 presidential elections” at the very least, the analyst continues.  Even if there are no additional sanctions, “the economy of Russia is in a terrible situation,” and that is only one of the many problems Russia and hence Putin now face.


            In response, as some have speculated, Putin could try to move to a tough totalitarian regime, but that would almost certainly generate resistance within the regime itself and possibly lead to his overthrow. Piontkovsky says he does “not exclude” that this could occur “already in the course of this year.” But what would happen “after Putin” remains very much an open question.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Russia Too Dependent on West to Be Independent Superpower It Imagines, Inozemtsev Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, July 22 – Provoking a further deterioration in relations with the West will have “catastrophic” consequences “not for those who take these decisions but for the Russian economy” because Russia is far too dependent on the West to act as independent superpower, according to Vladislav Inozemtev.


                In an article posted online today and to be published in “Moskovsky komsomolets” tomorrow, the noted Moscow economist says “the political elite of the country” considers Russia to be a superpower but its members need to “keep in mind that contemporary Russia is not” one (


            “A country which has 2.8 percent of the global GDP, only two percent of the earth’s population, and cannot settle and dominate more than 60 percent of its territory, one that is supported by its [export of raw materials] and which does not produce any high technology goods, except arms,” cannot be a superpower, he continues.


            To be sure, Inozemtsev says, Russia ranks fifth in terms of its monetary reserves and second in the export of arms, “but this does not give it additional possibilities. The reserves can be frozen,” and its weapons like Buk, “thank God, are not used as massively as mobile telephones, portable computers or tomographs, none of which Russia has learned how to produce.”

            Few want to acknowledge it, but it is a fact that “today Russia critically depends on the external world, and this dependence is incompatible with ‘superpower status.’” It imports much of what it needs in key sectors, and there is little chance that it will be able to substitute for any shortfalls in these by developing domestic producers anytime soon.


            Because Russia depends on the export of oil and gas, the Moscow analyst continues, it is vulnerable to an embargo, and its domestic market is not large enough to make up for the shortfalls that would produce. Indeed, “powerful sanctions against the resource sector would be a death sentence to the Russian economy.”

But its dependence in these sectors is not the main thing, Inozemtsev says.  Much more critical is Russia’s financial dependence because it has promoted consumption relative to investment throughout Vladimir Putin’s term in office. That may be popular but it hasn’t created the basis for a superpower.

            Finally, Inozemtsev says, the West has another “and the most powerful weapon” against Moscow’s pretentions: the Russian people who have gotten used to being able to travel and having their country viewed as part of the international community rather than an outcast.  They are not the Soviets of 40 years ago, and they don’t want to go back.


            Russia has been able to make its way in the world only because “the leaders of the West are still not prepared to go for broke and seek a radical change in Russian foreign policy,” he argues.  But that isn’t a given if Moscow continues to give the West a reason to change, and “present-day Russia could not oppose the West for very long” if that happened.


            “By an evil irony, those who have promised to save the country from the cursed liberals who supposedly want to destroy it are putting it at much greater risks than all the supporters of radical market reforms taken together,” Inozemtsev says.


            Russia is currently being saved by only one thing: “the inability of the West to believe that the country which was always considered a European one is acting at odds with the existing world order” and that a country which is not in the first rank of powers is throwing its weight around as if it were.


            Leaders in world capitals have been repeating “the mantra that there must not be a new ‘cold war.’” But they will stop doing that if Russia continues to violate the rules of the game and if they then reflect that they won the cold war in the past and against a much tougher opponent than Putin’s Russia.


            The Russia of today, Inozemtsev says, is “not a new ‘defender of stability,” but a country  that needs the preservation of the status quo that existed a decade ago which “guaranteed [it] the ideal conditions for its present flowering. To destroy this order is difficult, but to fall out of it is very easy.”