«Cold War: From Words to Deed?» Politkom.ru 10 Oct 16

Relations between Russia and America have reached the highest point of tension ever in modern history. The risks of the start of an American military operation in Syria have also increased sharply, something that effectively makes Russia and America potential military opponents.

The inability of Russia and America to reach agreement on Syria, which has always seemed an extremely difficult task, lies at the heart of the current sharp deterioration in Russo-American relations. Russia’s initial aim in Syria was «matryoshka-like». On the one hand, Moscow has its own traditional geopolitical interests in the region, which amounted to minimizing the risks of the situation becoming chaotic: the civil war in Syria and the sharp increase in the activities of terrorist organizations did not only create a security risk, but also risks that Russia would be squeezed out of the region and Western partners would seize the initiative. At the beginning of September 2015, these interests were «enveloped» in the Ukrainian geopolitical crisis: suggesting the creation of an international anti-ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] coalition at the UN General Assembly, Vladimir Putin was first and foremost seeking an opportunity to impose partnership on the West in the fight against a single threat, emerging from isolation. This task was partially accomplished: The Ukrainian agenda was placed on the back burner, Russia again attracted interest to itself, and those who in 2014 had advocated the toughest approaches to putting pressure on Moscow over the Crimean episode and the downing of the Boeing-777 started to meet the Russian president regularly. And it was then that it became clear that Moscow’s policies were not only a regional matter but also affected international security.

However, as soon as the «envelope» of the Ukrainian crisis was set aside, it became clear that in practice a joint antiterrorist struggle, primarily between Russia and America, was de facto an impossible task. The main problem is the exceptionally deep lack of trust between the Russian and American military, which blocked any rapprochement. There was no success in carrying out work effectively on separating moderate opposition figures from radicals, or in exchanging military data, or in reporting the positions of «their own people» to one another out of fear of exposing them. Strategically, the parties proved to be even further apart: for America it was critically important to remove the blockade on Aleppo, establish a truce, and prevent the routing of the anti-Asad opposition. Russia was against a truce (agreement to this was perceived by Moscow as a big concession), thinking that the military operation must be continued and Aleppo «cut off» from external supplies (where not only civilians get food but also the opponents of al-Asad, who are at the same time supplied with weapons as well). Russia thought that by supporting the moderate opposition America was also assisting the radicals at the same time, seeing them as allies in the fight against the al-Asad regime. America thought that Russia was using the war against ISIL (banned in Russia) as a cover to rout the moderate Syrian opposition.

As a result, as soon as agreement was reached on the truce that was critical for America it immediately fell through, leaving both sides without any hope of a return to cooperation. It seemed that everything possible had been done, and even more than that, but despite the efforts a real rapprochement had not actually occurred.

After this, each side began to look for their own way of «going it alone». In America, people started to talk about new sanctions, and they also started to discuss a possible military operation in Syria at a meaningful level. In Russia a step was also taken to hit at American interests in the nuclear sphere.

The PMDA [Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement] is a document of great significance, however not from the point of view of the confrontation between Russia and America, but rather that of the responsibility of both countries for the stocks of weapons-grade plutonium accumulated during the years of the nuclear arms race. The objective of the agreement is to agree on neutralizing the stocks, which as surplus should not fall into the hands of extremists or unpredictable states within the framework of the policy of nonproliferation. The agreement was suggested by America in the 1990s and signed in the year 2000. It concerned the disposal of 34 tonnes of plutonium by each side. Experts on nuclear security maintain that around 20 tonnes of plutonium are required for the warheads that America has today. Over 50 tonnes remain in the arsenals of each of the two nuclear powers, excluding the 34 tonnes that were supposed to be destroyed.

This means that both America and Russia have a full supply of weapons-grade plutonium with a large reserve and this will not change even after both parties hypothetically meet their obligations under the agreement. However, Moscow’s public position is that America is sabotaging the agreement by suggesting rewriting it to include a different method of disposal, preserving «breakout potential». «This means that it (weapons-grade plutonium) can be extracted, processed, and converted again into weapons-grade plutonium. That is not what we agreed on,» Vladimir Putin snapped.

Putin is right when he says that America is not meeting its obligations, while Russia has moved a long way towards implementing the accords. However, nuclear security experts stress that the alternative method of disposing of plutonium did not present any threat to Russia. «As a result of the reductions made over the past two decades the level of nuclear weapons has decreased many times over and the declared surpluses of weapons-grade plutonium cannot in any way create a basis for the reversibility of this process,» Anatoliy Dyakov, chief researcher at the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies, and Vladimir Rybachenkov, senior researcher at the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies, wrote in February 2014 in Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kuryer.

Moreover, Russia has its own long-term strategic programs to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium, which should then be used in the civilian atomic industry. So the further implementation of the agreement by Russia will be continued, irrespective of America’s actions.

America has tried to change the agreement for almost 10 years, in 2010 an addition to the agreement was signed, which, however, was still not implemented by America. The main reason was financial. The initial estimated cost of the construction at the Savannah River nuclear center (South Carolina) of a plant to produce MOX fuel (the very disposal method that Russia insisted on) increased from 4.8 billion dollars to 7.7 billion, and the planned date for it to be commissioned was postponed from 2016 to 2019, moreover, 3.7 billion dollars has already been invested in the construction of the site.

It was reported in 2016 that America would carefully bring Russia to rewrite the agreement again. However, Pavel Podvig, the head of the Russian Nuclear Forces research project and fellow at the UN Institute for Disarmament, told Radio Liberty: «officially, America has not settled on any one method of disposal, they do not have any proposals that they could take to Russia and say… There is a technical aspect to this case, it is very complicated and confusing… But from the point of view of use in weapons – neither Russian nor American plutonium, we can be one hundred percent sure, will ever be used in weapons again.»

Thus, Moscow has withdrawn from a treaty, which was de facto being implemented by it alone. However, we cannot ignore another aspect – the subject of disposing of nuclear waste is of great significance for America, which claims a special role as the architect of international security. Even despite the fact that America put the brakes on the implementation of its own obligations, the priority of disposing of weapons-grade plutonium in some way has never been in doubt. Russia, in withdrawing from the treaty, is effectively trying to show the world community that the conflict with Moscow initiated by America carries a nuclear threat to the entire world community (a reduction in the strategic monitoring of the reserves of weapons-grade plutonium). Since the PDMA envisaged not only the practical disposal of weapons-grade plutonium but also the development, analysis, and testing of the mechanisms for such a disposal and monitoring of the surpluses. Without joint efforts in this sphere, the level of world security will inevitably be reduced. Russia is also trying to place responsibility for this with America. It is another issue that Russia’s motive here might also be the desire to hurt America, its role as global leader in nuclear disarmament processes, as well as subjective motives based on a very contentious assessment of America’s intentions to use its nuclear potential against Russia.

On 4 October, Moscow went even further: the government announced the suspension of agreements between Russia and America on cooperation in scientific research and development in the nuclear and energy spheres. «In 2014, notification was received from Washington that America was suspending such cooperation with Russia in connection with the events in Ukraine… In this situation, Russia is halting the implementation of the agreement in response to the unfriendly actions of America,» the Russian Foreign Ministry reported. This step was more of a formality simply recording the reality and at the same time stressing once again the toughness of Russia’s stance.

Simultaneously with its withdrawal from the plutonium disposition agreement, Russia also put forward a number of deliberately unrealistic political demands. As a condition for the restoration of the agreement, Putin demanded that the military infrastructure and numbers in the contingent of American troops in countries that joined NATO after 1 September 2000 (effectively devaluing the consequences of the expansion of NATO that were negative from Russia’s point of view) be reduced, the «Magnitsky Act» and all of the sanctions be repealed and in addition to this – that compensation be paid for damages both from America’s sanctions policy itself and from Russia’s «forced» counter-sanctions.

These demands should be seen as the final sentence passed on cooperation between Russia and the Obama administration. Understanding that the American president is departing, Moscow has permitted itself to take such a radical step hoping that it will be possible to maneuver with the new American administration here, since it does not automatically consider it the successor of Washington’s former policies. Even if no American administration will meet the declared demands (which is clear), in the future any friendly gesture can be seen as a revision of the anti-Russian policies and a step in the direction of reducing tension. In connection with this, the rigidity of the policy chosen by Moscow should probably not be overestimated either.

Both Russia and America have reached a breaking point in their relationship, where emotions and not the most rational of gestures are coming to the fore. America is refusing to cooperate with Russia in Syria, raising the question of new sanctions, sharply stepping up the rhetoric, which in emotional terms is not very different to the language spoken by the Kremlin. Moscow has withdrawn from the PMDA, something that runs counter to the interests of both countries, and is also going it alone in Syria without taking the interests of its partners into account. It seems that the current skirmish with America is becoming irreversible under the administration of Barack Obama (with a very high risk of the high level of confrontation being maintained under any following administration as well).

The situation is to some extent reminiscent of Moscow’s style in relation to the post-revolutionary regime in Ukraine in February-May 2014: at that time Moscow cut off all contact, showing that it did not see any future in dialog with the new regime. In the current situation, the Kremlin also seems to be cutting short all hopes of dialog with the outgoing administration and de facto entering into bargaining with the future head of state, sharply raising the stakes. However, in contrast to Ukraine where the elite and the political trends were highly susceptible to prevailing conditions and policies were relatively movable, historically in America a stable consensus has developed on the need to contain Russia (the question is only what style and to what extent). The more unpredictable and destructive Moscow’s actions look (and that is precisely how recent steps have been perceived by the American establishment, playing into the hands of the «hawks»), the higher the chances are that the policy of containment will be tightened under any administration.

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«The ‘Renova’ Case: Security Forces’ ‘Roller’ As New Principle of Political Reality» Slon in Russian 06 Sep 16

The criminal case which directly or indirectly affects Russia’s biggest businessmen — Viktor Vekselberg and Mikhail Fridman — and also the most in-demand top managers including «VympelKom» head Mikhail Slobodin is rapidly gathering momentum. First there was the check by the Procurator General’s Office into the Vorkuta heat and electric power station [TETs] (which belongs to the «T-Plyus» company) in the Republic of Komi and then the search at the Moscow offices of «T-Plyus» (the legal successor to the «KES» company with respect to whose leaders the investigation is being conducted) and of «Renova,» and the arrest of the two companies’ managers, Boris Vaynzikher and Yevgeniy Olkhovik respectively. There is contradictory information coming in about Mikhail Slobodin: The investigators are so far not revealing what specifically he is suspected of, while he himself as of yesterday was saying that he is on a business trip in France. But late on Monday evening [5 September] the operator’s head company, Vimpelcom.ltd, reported that Slobodin had resigned «following today’s news.»

What is happening is a typical example of how a purely economic dispute is turning into big-league politics. «Renova» controls the Vorkuta heat and electric power stations (TETs-1 and TETs-2) which over the course of 2009-2016 have seen consumers’ debts accumulate, reaching, according to the energy company’s figures, 6.2 billion rubles. Of this figure 5.2 billion rubles is accounted for by the «Vorkuta Heating Networks» limited company, whose director was convicted in March of hiving off money into offshore companies. Renova’s relations with the republic’s former leadership were by no means as serene as the Russian Investigations Committee portrays them: The problem of nonpayments has remained unresolved for years. A number of articles focusing on the owners of the Vorkuta heat and electric power stations have pointed out that the company hoped that following the Republic of Komi change of leadership the new authorities would be able to bring more vigorous pressure to bear on consumers. The logic of business here is simple: If we are not paid for our services, we will not modernize. And in May it was decided to sell the asset.

The Russian Investigations Committee tells a different story. It believes that the region’s former authorities headed by Vyacheslav Gayzer were an organized crime gang while the «T-Plyus» leadership was handing out bribes for setting higher energy tariffs. But the TETs owners completely refused to invest in the modernization of the enterprises, which affected the deterioration of the equipment and a rise in the number of accidents. The last major accident occurred in June of this year, but the problem had reached government level back in the winter: Conferences and discussions were held, but no solution was found. Indeed, in the current situation, when «the money isn’t there» [reference to Premier Medvedev’s recent response to complaint from pensioner about non-indexing of pensions], it would be hard to find a solution: Who would take on the burden of being an investor in an enterprise which chronically fails to receive payment for its services?

What we have is a classic dispute between representatives of the authorities and an investor who is behaving like a conventional business — looking where there is an advantage and getting rid of what is running at a loss.

But politics has entered an economic dispute together with the elections: The issue of providing heating is socially acute and the aggravation of the problem could lead to adverse sociopolitical consequences. In Vorkuta a critical situation with regard to heating is evidently indeed taking shape and if nothing is done then a winter crisis is guaranteed. In the end it is simpler for the local authorities to put pressure on the TETs owner than to prevent the onset of the cold weather.

The regional authorities here have a whole complex of interests, one of which could be preventing the sale of the asset. In fact it could be a case of an attempt to use administrative and security-forces means to impose a veto on the deal. It is likely that the decision to sell was the event which sharply turned the investigation agencies’ interest away from the former leadership of the Republic of Komi (although that interest remains) to the owners of the Vorkuta heat and electric power stations. The number two task could be forcing the owner to ensure the enterprise’s performance capability. Whether at a loss or not is a problem for the drowning man himself. From the viewpoint of the regional authorities, the sale of the asset (and, moreover, to some person unknown) jeopardizes heat supplies to enterprises and to the population and also hypothetically deprives «Vorkutaugol» of its biggest consumer of coal. That is what the new governor, Sergey Gaplikov, called a «threat to energy security» in his letter to Putin.

They may have painted a picture for the president showing a self-indulgent «oligarch» (Vekselberg is seventh on the Forbes list) thinking of buying himself another mega-asset and casting an entire region to the fates, a region which runs the risk of freezing when the first frosts set in. And then there are the federal elections, the Motherland’s fate, stability, security, and sovereignty. The FSB [Federal Security Service] was called in to help.

The security services are gradually becoming not only spin doctors controlling the non-parliamentary opposition and foreign agents, but also arbitration managers.

A new crime «roller» has appeared in Russia — a power vehicle steamrollering across all accessible paths. You only have to look at all the events that have been happening in the past three years for it to become clear that as soon as the «roller» has been given the OK, all boundaries vanish. The FSB roller, starting with the customs case, has driven over Yevgeniy Murov and Andrey Belyaninov. There are also the cases against the governors. Even a Putin appointee can now very swiftly become a defendant. Limits are also being expanded in the business environment: Vladimir Yevtushenkov, Dmitriy Kamenshchik, Yevgeniy Dod. And now Vekselberg and Slobodin. The caliber of the notional suspect is no longer of any importance. Each of the people being prosecuted is an individual, but they are all united by a marked lowering of the barriers in the path of the advance of the security forces’ «roller.»

The roller principle is based on the fact that differentiating between those who can be crushed, those who have to be treated with caution, and those who cannot be touched is becoming difficult, to put it mildly. Once it has been set in motion, the roller will not make any complicated maneuvers. The road to the Vorkuta TETs has also tangentially affected «VympelKom.»

The very fact that in the present system the roller principle is allowed deserves to be examined separately: After all, in a situation where Putin no longer needs «friends» and replaces his entourage with young secretaries and adjutants, the value of the political environment depreciates. There is a depoliticization of the systemic space where the allocation of power and influence contracts to a very limited circle of people who are «the masters of the Motherland’s destiny.» The rest are left with temporary right of access to management, distribution, and the feeding trough.

But there is no longer any stability for these people: Today you are a «courtier,» tomorrow you are a criminal. Human capital is losing its value for the regime, which is why we are observing the arrival of Putin’s former bodyguards in the most difficult areas of work. «In what way are they worse?» the president asks, airily dismissing any difference between the management of a territorial state formation and the management of protection activity. You have a think about that, governor.

It seems that the time of big criminal cases is now coming, whose roller will crush ministers, governors, the owners of major assets, and top managers. Some people will be lucky, others will go to prison. But they will crush their own people and the others, the efficient and the not very efficient, the honest and the criminal. Human capital is being liquidated. Unless a separate «reversal» decision is made (for instance, on the advent of a reformist government, which seems increasingly unlikely but is nonetheless not out of the question) then the system is being restructured to devour itself. And when the human material runs out they will turn on those who are doing the repressing.


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«Victory for Security Agency Officers’ Party. How Elections and Plans to Create MGB Are Linked» Slon in Russian 20 Sep 16

The news that United Russia has secured a constitutional majority in the election, together with rumors of the possible creation of an MGB [Ministry of State Security] incorporating the SVR [Foreign Intelligence Service] and the FSO [Federal Protection Service], became symbolic. It was reminiscent of the feeling in September 2011: Vladimir Putin’s address and announcement at a United Russia pre-election congress that he will run [for president] came like a bolt from the blue. After all, then, too, «everybody knew everything» and rationally understood that Putin was bound to make a comeback (to cede power, this time for six years, to a successor who, by then, had clearly played himself into the role would have been extremely naive), but an overwhelming majority of the liberal public and the elite refused to believe this. Many people saw the September congress as a very heavy iron fence that suddenly fell on the road and made it impossible, for a long time, to continue living as before. There was an intuitive understanding that the country was making a U-turn and heading toward the past, but few people realized that this would happen so swiftly and completely.

This election campaign was merely a political backdrop — as if it did not exist. The elections, which were dull for both the authorities and the opposition, were of little interest to experts and voters. Everything seemed to be predictable and uninteresting, but then suddenly… This anticipation of «suddenly» was really very strong and very naive, just like it was in September 2011 when Medvedev «suddenly» capitulated politically and Putin regained everything even before he was elected. This was a milestone that set a new direction for the country.

And 19 September proved to be another milestone. The new Duma will be more politically homogenous, conservative, and dependent on the Kremlin. This will be a spoiler parliament, rather than the driver parliament [former Russian Finance Minister] Aleksey Kudrin spoke about. This must have been wishful thinking on his part. With this Duma, it will be much harder to implement reforms.

While the authorities were, consciously or not so consciously, attaching this spoiler to the state machinery, the machinery realigned itself in a completely different direction — not toward reforms, but toward preservation and regression. The FSB [Federal Security Service] is now preparing for a final battle for its resurrection.

Putin made the first step toward this back in 2003 when he gave the FSB the border service and some of the functions of FAPSI [the now defunct Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information] (they were divided between the FSO and the FSB). However, the FSO itself and the SVR remained independent. The FSB, despite a certain restoration, remained in a relatively competitive field of security forces. Moreover, the FSO, jointly with the Federal Drug Control Service, which was founded in 2003, «herded» security agency officers for several years, which evolved into the security agency wars of 2005-2007. Putin, in a certain sense, managed to reduce the confrontation after major reshuffles in the FSKN and, partly, in the FSB, but the president failed to put an end to constant rivalry between the FSO and the FSB.

The prevailing view has always been that Putin is deliberately maintaining animosity between his security agencies in order to control them better. This makes sense, but may not be quite correct.

The scandal exposing security agency officers’ role in the «furniture case» of the mid-2000s, the FSKN tapping generals’ phones (the Bulbov base), the FSB’s retaliatory attack, constant personnel shakeups, leaks, staffers informing on each other — all of this was not so much about control as about pulling apart those who were simply fighting to divide power and influence. The manner in which these conflicts were resolved suggested that this was an extra burden for Putin, a waste of effort and time, and ultimately a consequence of an ineffective system of security agencies. Constant spats also led to «the washing of dirty linen in public,» which Putin does not tolerate on a genetic level.

But neither does Putin tolerate drastic institutional or personnel steps. His decisions, as we already know full well, mature for years. Let the sleeping dog lie; better be safe than sorry — the president has said these words repeatedly. Meanwhile, Putin’s cautious approach enabled the FSB gradually to gain influence — first politically and later personnel-wise and institutionally. Everybody has already read about the 6th department of the FSB’s Internal Security Directorate, which investigates all high-profile criminal cases against officials and [regional] governors. In 2016, it was the Internal Security Directorate that, through well-known contraband cases, «devoured» Yevgeniy Murov [FSO director from 2000 through May 2016]. This meant not just speeding up his long-awaited resignation, but switching the FSO to a new mode of personnel operation where people without political experience or ambitions who were only recently colonels have found themselves in charge of the service itself and its key division, the Presidential Security Service. Thus the influential institution has first lost its leader and then its political capacity and identity.

While the country was debating what reforms should be implemented and when, and while the State Duma was preparing for «competitive and transparent elections,» the process of expansion by security agency officers was in full swing in a parallel reality.

After Murov was devoured, it was the turn of the FSB’s Economic Security Service (SEB) and the SKR [Russian Investigations Committee] The latter was inflicted a devastating blow, which should logically lead to another major institutional decision — the abolition of the SKR and the distribution of its functions between the Procurator General’s Office and the FSB. «It is contemplated that MGB officers will not simply track and support the investigation of criminal cases instituted on the basis of their material by the SKR and MVD [Internal Affairs Ministry], but also exercise procedural oversight. Meanwhile, the investigations department of the MGB, which will acquire main-administration status, will be able to deal with the most high-profile criminal cases and those of state significance, whose investigative jurisdiction, under the Code of Criminal Procedure, is currently assigned to the SKR and the MVD,» Kommersant wrote.

It would be logical to incorporate the SVR into the future MGB. The current SVR chief, Mikhail Fradkov, has been in the post since 2007 and has long been preparing to make way for someone more active. But the main contender to replace him, Sergey Naryshkin, will, with a high degree of probability, stay in the State Duma (and is likely to keep the post of speaker [Naryshkin was appointed SVR director on 22 September]). This is further evidence of the impact of the election results on the conservative trend in the country’s development: The obscenely high result of the party of power has contributed to the Duma status quo being maintained. Security service officers got lucky again: It is easier to absorb an agency that has no influential leader. And this is the right time to get hold of the FSO, while its young leaders still lack experience and audacity. Only the Presidential Security Service remains independent.

It is important to understand that all the things described above are a «whim» by the FSB, which must feel that its own political opportunities are expanding. Just as in late 2011, security agency officers, «dirigiste» officials, and United Russia members have been waiting for the right moment to take revenge and restore their position following the despised Medvedev thaw. The FSB is now clearing the field for itself by taking advantage of the weakness of its «rivals,» their weaker political and personnel position, reputational problems, corruption scandals, and their having been discredited in the eyes of the president. And the president is wistfully observing his decaying entourage while being happy about the strong mandate of popular trust (that is precisely how the president interprets the election results). Falling behind the people is the FSB, the infallible eternal companion so nicely portraying itself as the only unblemished structure, in which experienced and selfless colonels «devour blood sausage» and live off their salaries while fighting on the invisible fronts of their vast Motherland.

Putin is ending 2016 in the people’s embrace, hand in hand with the trusty FSB. It was only recently that he was being told that the ratings of the party of power were falling, there were gaps in the budget, and people were about to stage violent protests. Liberals were painting a grim future with disappearing sovereign funds and low oil prices, pushing for an unpleasant and painful decision — the postponement of the presidential election and the subsequent launch of reforms. «Enough,» Putin said yesterday. No shock therapy. Enough of bad news. After all, it is clear to him now that the people love him and will understand everything while the FSB will protect and provide guarantees of stability, reliability, and steadiness. It seems that this is how the Duma elections have put paid to the main intrigue of 2017 — whether or not there will be reforms — and have given the FSB a new argument to keep the steamroller of security service officers rolling.


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«The Enemy Without Is Already Within. How the State Is Exposing Itself» Slon 14 Sep 16

On the same day that Komsomolskaya Pravda suggested that the billions of rubles discovered in Colonel Dmitriy Zakharchenko’s apartment were intended to finance a Russian Maydan and had been delivered directly from the United States, the Justice Ministry adopted a decision to include Ekovakhta on the list of foreign agents. The environmentalists, who had traveled to Krasnodarskiy Kray to fight fires, were accused of arson and de facto compelled to wind up their activity. Previously the Levada Center had also been deemed to be a foreign agent. And the State Department was named as an interested party in the campaign against the general procurator and as a sponsor of Aleksey Navalnyy and the FBK [Navalnyy’s Foundation for Combating Corruption] — the Russian authorities are «investing» increasingly actively in the anti-American trend. But this could backfire: America will gradually become less and less frightening and more and more attractive, although it is nevertheless never going to be loved.

The article in Komsomolskaya Pravda is presented as if it is backed up by a big journalistic investigation as a result of which a deep secret is being revealed to readers. Its author, Dmitriy Steshin, sets out a robust logical sequence: Investigators are remaining silent about the provenance of the «mindblowing» almost 9 billion rubles, and journalists are advancing untenable theories. Admittedly Steshin himself demolishes these theories: For example, that it was stolen Nota-Bank money. «Banks do not work with such cash sums,» he asserts, without bothering to provide a banal explanation of just what it is that banks transfer to ATMs. Might this even has been corrupt money, Steshin retorts: Where in Russia do we see such astronomical bribes?

Admittedly it was only recently, for example, that the FSB [Federal Security Service] arrested Investigations Committee of Russia generals for allegedly accepting a bribe of $5 million to release Shakro Junior. This is only a single episode, but it is possible to notionally rack up quite a few over several years. Indeed can the author of the article fail to recall a recent interview by Aleksandr Korzhakov talking about truckloads of cash being delivered to Igor Shuvalov’s house? The result is a strange logic: There are corrupt officials, but there are no bribes. So, if we were to follow this logic, Zakharchenko’s apartments were also purchased by American sponsors. Admittedly the Americans shot themselves in the foot, it transpires. «The cash dollars were wrapped in a yellow package — the factory-supplied money wrapper used by one of the Federal Reserve’s 12 American printing plants,» Komsomolskaya Pravda writes, citing some «vigilant» blogger.

In precisely this way, with a stroke of a pro-regime journalist’s pen, that the population is presented with a picture of the State Department penetrating deep into Russian regime structures as it seeks to destroy the state from within and the foundations of stability.

A history of hatred

The theory of the State Department wanting to destroy Russia has broad social support and powerful political backing from the conservative part of the elite, especially since the latter has started to spell out its priorities on the domestic policy agenda. There are both objective and speculative foundations for this. On the one hand, the Putin era is distinguished by a return to geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the United States: Russia has demanded recognition of its exclusive rights in the post-Soviet area and also noninterference in internal affairs. On the other hand, the Russian elite’s impotence in its attempts to win respect in the world arena has led to a radicalization of the anti-American mentality. The contention that «America is trying to achieve world hegemony» has gradually been replaced by the contention that «America is planning to destroy Russia.» There is a fundamental difference: The Russian regime saw pro-American interests as the basis of the former and sees anti-Russian interests as the basis of the latter.

Originally, as the confrontation increased, anti-American rhetoric was employed primarily as part of foreign policy logic. Society was enlisted as an ideological ally of the regime in the dialogue with Washington and, in that situation, was rather a resource that strengthened the Kremlin’s position, making it historically sounder and more correct.

The siloviki have always been adherents of the argument that «the State Department is preparing the destruction of Russia,» and as the years have passed they have started to turn from a peripheral force into a vanguard force, particularly on issues linked to security. The problem is that «security» as a value suddenly acquired infinite dimensions. From a narrow military-strategic topic it turned into an everyday reality. Russia’s security is threatened by sociological centers, environmentalists, rights activists, oppositionists, journalists, and also Western food products, Turkish resorts, foreign technology and the Internet, and investments and grants. There are enemies all around, and there is no longer any need to try to work out where the State Department is.

Enemies all around

The abuses of anti-American and simultaneously military rhetoric are gradually producing several paradoxes that are making the Russian regime less and less credible and convincing. Paradox one: Timetabled war. Anti-Western rhetoric reached its peak in 2013-2015, before the Syrian campaign began and Russia faced the challenge of trying to reach agreement with the United States in order to break out of the crisis. It was here that a dual agenda emerged: On the one hand, the flywheel that had been cranked up for a «US war against Russia» and, on the other, partnership, to sustain which the country’s most progressive elite forces were deployed. Anti-American speculation now developed not so much against the notional State Department, with which the Russian head of the Foreign Ministry is in negotiations day and night (and Putin talks approvingly of John Kerry), as against internal enemies. It transpires that the Americans cannot be trusted, but sometimes they can. There must be no retreating ever, but it has to be done if it is very important.

This leads onto the second paradox: The enemy without has become the enemy within. This is a very interesting transformation that few people have yet gotten to the bottom of. In the Russian regime’s traditional anti-American rhetoric «foreign agents» (in the broadest political rather than juridical sense) have always constituted instruments mobilized in the interests of external players (meaning the United States) to destabilize the situation in Russia. They are a technique for infiltrating the country. But now the «State Department» as a tool has started to acquire subjective forms of its own. It has suddenly started to turn into part of the regime itself.

Note that it is no longer some little-known rights activists and oppositionists but an MVD [Ministry of Internal Affairs] colonel and deputy chief of the main anticorruption administration who are being declared to be the implementer of the United States’ revolutionary plans in Russia. Questions arise here to which the «system» is not providing an answer: Did the minister know about it? And the FSB? And what about the all-powerful Putin? If they did know, why did they not react, and if they did not know, then to just what extent is the Russian state vulnerable? And is the regime capable of being effective at all?

Another even more indicative example is the Vesti report on Operation Drozh [Trepidation] which states that Browder and Navalnyy killed Magnitsky with the aid of their «proxies in the penitentiary system.» One of the most discredited oppositionists in the eyes of the population is endowed with the potential to wield mega-influence, while the state is reduced to a weak and rotten organism. At the same time no official investigations are being conducted into these «proxies in the penitentiary system,» which logically raises other questions: Is it possible that the State Department has already bought up FSB generals too? There are indeed few people investigating the nuances of the silovik wars: Generals with crates of cash are flashing up on TV screens one after another.

A third participant — multifaceted, powerful, and elusive — is manifestly emerging in the world-view system of Russian-US confrontation: the «corrupt traitor» running amok by no means outside the boundaries of the establishment arena but in the innermost part of the state hierarchy. America is a long way away, whereas these people are right here. And the war against «corrupt traitors» is being waged totally unconvincingly for some reason.

And here we come to the third paradox: The rotation of natural enemies. Andrey Kolesnikov has written about this, and it refers to the routinization of a military mentality, which is gradually becoming all-pervasive. To begin with (until 2004) it was exclusively the United States that was regarded as Russia’s «enemy.» The post-Soviet republics, the countries of West and East Europe, Japan, and other «unfortunates» to whom Moscow tried in vain to extend a helping hand buckled under the United States’ imperial ambitions. But then it was not just that the number of enemies increased. They started to multiply, to develop, and to be born and die depending on the foreign policy climate. The Baltic republics, Poland, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine again, Egypt, Turkey. Whenever a foreign policy conflict situation arose Russian society was mobilized as a resource to strengthen the Russian regime’s position in bringing pressure to bear on the «enemy» or «rival.» But when historically aggregated, such a number of campaigns weakens focus, diverts attention, and lessons trust. Imagine a military detachment whose commander constantly changes direction, urging his men to proudly lay down their lives in a struggle against first one enemy, then another. And tomorrow yesterday’s enemy may simply turn out to be an ally.

Inevitable evil

But the possibility that maybe America is not so scary after all is a question that arises as a result of such campaigns. And this is confirmed by the pollsters. In the last two years Russians have started to have a more positive attitude toward the United States. The proportion of respondents with a positive attitude toward the Americans has increased from 18 to 25 percent, while the proportion with a negative attitude has fallen from 74 to 66 percent, the results of an August Levada Center poll showed. Negative attitudes peaked in 2014, after which gradual adjustments began. The Levada Center sociologists simultaneously noted that the United States is seen less and less as a threat.

It will be increasingly tricky to consolidate Russian society on the basis of anti-American rhetoric. First, the regime is instigating too many scare stories, excessively broadening the focus on sources of external and internal dangers. Second, the system, which until 2016 was cultivating stability, is now producing conflict after conflict, but now within itself: Intra-elite showdowns have also become a means of political survival for the apparatus. And this is provoking a feeling of instability and unpredictability and also — and this is extremely important — of a loss of control and weakness on the part of the state. This kind of regime may be sustainable for a long time yet, but only as an inevitable evil that is itself becoming a source of threats.

Third and finally, positive mobilization is being replaced by a negative version, and the negative version is extending to literally every sphere of ordinary people’s lives. Television is telling them not only about the «State Department» and «junta» but also about corrupt officials, thieving governors (who only recently were Putin people!), billionaire siloviki, and foreign agents. This category will include, side-by-side, fraudsters from the realms of housing and municipal services, substandard food products, and unscrupulous retail chains, charlatan social workers and illegal realtors, and fraudulent banks and fat-cat bankers. And for dessert they will offer us stories about Russian military exercises all over the place, even including the Arctic, and a de facto military siege against a backdrop of billions of rubles stolen from the budget and a lack of money to index pensions.

To begin with the Russian regime recruited society as an ally, exploiting the knowingly present and consistently strengthened anti-American arguments that had existed since the 90s. But the tactic of cautious speculation was replaced in 2012-2015 with a ruthless crackdown and a gamble on former Soviet citizens’ deepest fear of war, including nuclear war. Aggression started to coexist with fear.

But as the number of exposed enemies — external and internal, floating around and changing their spots but no longer by no means necessarily linked to the State Department — increases, reasonable fear is being replaced by an intuitive feeling of vulnerability and defenselessness in the face of not so much an American threat to Russia as a threat to everyday life. And this is the sphere of responsibility not of the US State Department any longer but of our own state, which is irrationally investing out of inertia too much effort in proving that it is itself a powerless victim.


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«The Duma Does Not Make the Man. Will Vyacheslav Volodin Be ‘Downgraded’ by New Post?» Slon 23 September 2016

When Dmitriy Medvedev in June made the strong-willed decision to propose making Vyacheslav Volodin head of the regional group on United Russia’s list, Volodin’s departure to the State Duma seemed unlikely. But the first deputy chief of Presidential Staff does indeed seem to be being consigned to the post of boss of the crazy printer [derogatory nickname for State Duma] , and this immediately after United Russia’s triumph in the elections (undoubtedly achieved thanks to Volodin). Things may not be so simple, however, and Volodin may be off to the Duma to do anything but follow in the footsteps of his predecessor in the post, Sergey Naryshkin.

Back in April Slon Magazine wrote on the topic of the «shrinking» of functions of the Presidential Staff’s Domestic Politics Administration. Real domestic politics is the «Bolotnaya case,» criminal cases against Navalnyy, films about the liberals on NTV (and the special services’ unconcealed involvement in them). Domestic politics is the Federal Security Service [FSB], the Russian Investigation Committee [SKR], and even the Federal Protection Service [FSO], which has acquired the additional role of court sociological center. Since then, much more has changed. Medvedev has begun to engage much more actively in domestic politics (it was he, for example, who pushed through the idea of creating a Strategic Development Council — a platform for preparing Putin’s election program for the coming presidential election); the National Guard, headed by Viktor Zolotov, has appeared; and the FSB continues to expand, swiftly devouring its rivals both internal (FSO, SKR) and external (Economic Security Service).

As for Volodin, blows have recently started to be struck against him. First, an article in Vedomosti claiming that Volodin was not coping, and that his work with the regions was ineffective, a series of blunders. And then another — about Volodin as a possible successor. Oleg Kashin even suspected that someone was trying to set up the first deputy chief of Putin’s staff.

Volodin probably was a «bane» first and foremost for Medvedev. The premier, having gotten involved in domestic politics and the party of power, most likely sincerely believes that United Russia’s constitutional majority is also thanks to him. And he may well have raised with Putin the question of rearranging the Domestic Politics Administration. In this way the party of power would have smoothly shifted to become the responsibility of the government head, and Volodin would have been left with the role of supraparty business manager.

This undoubtedly also affects the direct interests of Putin himself, who realizes very well that the personnel issue regarding Volodin could be tied to the resolution of an issue of far more importance to him — the preparation and conduct of the presidential campaign. Here everything revolves around the battle for the premiership, and this is where it is far more important for the president to keep everything under control. A concession to Medvedev could later become part of a package deal.

But now the main question for Volodin’s future will be who is going to eat whom: Will the post downgrade Volodin, or will Volodin make the speakership politically stronger? So far in recent Russian history no speaker of the lower chamber of parliament has been a genuinely influential figure. Ivan Rybkin (presidential candidate backed by Boris Berezovskiy in 2004) became famous for becoming part of a Berezovskiy scheme that failed spectacularly; Gennadiy Seleznev took the role of Communist Party of the Russian Federation dissenter; and Boris Gryzlov almost dissolved out of existence until he returned unexpectedly as a «fifth column» within United Russia, after which he was urgently neutralized by being granted the honor of serving as Ukrainian peacemaker. Finally, Naryshkin has been exiled to the Foreign Intelligence Service — the FSB can’t have everything. To all appearances, the speaker was in no hurry to go there and resisted to the last.

The history of previous speakers is clearly against Volodin, and the move to the State Duma seems to be not so much a demotion as a humiliation. But Putin’s style also teaches us not to rush to conclusions. When Sergey Shoygu was exiled to the post of Moscow Oblast governor, he too was written off, but now he is one of the main decisionmakers. Demoting people, waiting a bit, then hauling them up again — that, too, is a familiar pattern for Putin’s handling of personnel issues. But, as a rule, no cunning plans or desire to test and torment lie behind this. Rather, everything is much simpler: Convinced that he is the chosen one, Putin sincerely believes that a «man of state» should serve where the Motherland asks him to, and, if he is successful, he will receive his reward.

Perhaps Volodin will become the first speaker to combine the function of political manager and technical executor. However, in that case we should expect a narrowing of the functions of the Domestic Politics Administration and the arrival there of a nonpolitical «work horse» — a move that would also be fully in line with the new character of Putin’s personnel policy. Posts of regional head, for example, are now being taken by Putin’s adjutants (Volodin, by the way, had conflictual relations with the gubernatorial corps), political players are being replaced by servants, and ideologists by executors. And if things carry on like this, the Presidential Staff Domestic Politics Administration will turn into an administration without any politics, for which Volodin may have been too major a figure.

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Tatyana Stanovaya, “Conservatism Versus Reform: Exacerbation of Dichotomy” Politkom.ru 03 Oct 16

The federal and regional elections were seen by the elite as a kind of line beyond which the meaningful discussion of modernization projects would begin. However, following the end of the election season, the reverse trend is being observed…

The closure of Jock Sturges’s exhibition “Without Embarrassment” at the Lumiere Brothers Photography Center was a major scandal, while [Federation Council member] Yelena Mizulina’s proposal to withdraw abortions from the system of compulsory medical insurance proved to be the subject of the week. The latter was also supported by the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church. At legislative level, documents on banning baby boxes [hatches at hospitals where unwanted infants can be left] are also being prepared. All this has generated broad public discussions, provoking pessimistic feelings regarding the direction of the country’s development.

The conservative political trend became the mainstream in 2012, and now it is maintaining and even strengthening its dominance. The State Duma elections not only did not moderate its influence, but rather the reverse — they created the right conditions for a more aggressive conservative agenda. The new composition of the parliament is ideologically more paternalistic, anti-liberal, and markedly patriotic. But it is precisely that parliament that has to adopt unpopular social decisions and take responsibility for the government’s policy amid shrinking resources.

At the same time, unlike in the 1990s or even in the first half of the 2000s, the current parliament is completely politically dependent on the Kremlin, and no problems should emerge with the adoption of the necessary laws. However, it is important to prepare for the fact that this kind of forcing through will inevitably provoke political polarization between the social-conservatives in the loyal political field and the executive authorities. Plus, differing interpretations of socioeconomic priorities and banal bargaining over budget expenditure will overlap with the emergence of ideological confrontation. It is possibly too early to talk about this, but difficulties in relations between the State Duma leadership and the cabinet of ministers cannot be ruled out either, given the election of Vyacheslav Volodin to the post of speaker of the lower chamber of the parliament.

It is also worth drawing attention to the fact that the ideological disputes which in previous years were relatively marginal and corporate (for example, they were relayed as a viewpoint regarding a narrow social stratum) are now rising to a higher state level. In particular, the discussion of the subject of the possible withdrawal of abortions from the medical insurance system has become meaningful. In response to the proposal of the Russian Orthodox Church and a number of conservatives within the authorities (and children’s ombudsman Anna Kuznetsova and Yelena Mizulina can be categorized as such), Vice Premier Olga Golodets suggested first of all to remove the reasons why a woman would terminate a pregnancy rather than restricting abortions. And Ministry of Health head Veronika Skvortsova admitted that withdrawing abortions from the system of compulsory medical insurance may create a threat to women’s health.

The conservative ideology that is associated with the authorities and that puts forward traditional values and patriotism is also becoming institutionalized. Its political role is also growing: Adherence to traditional values is becoming a sign of political identification in the system of coordinates of pro-Putin — anti-Putin forces. Hence the non-random stratification between the opposition community, where liberal feelings prevail, and the pro-authorities groups, which fiercely (and sometimes aggressively) defend a conservative agenda. The intensification of this ideological stratification may lead to a situation whereby the supporters of liberal reforms will be seen even more as a hostile destabilizing force (although this trend already exists now). Let us note, however, that a large proportion of the Russian elites looks at such trends cautiously or with hostility. This is notably connected with the desire to protect the private life to which they are accustomed, in which the conservatives are interfering increasingly frequently (both careerists who wish to advance, making use of the trend that is taking shape, and bluenoses who believe in conservative values). Another reason for the hostility on the part of the elites is a reluctance to experience rivalry from the active conservatives.

Another important feature is that the institutionalization, spread, and dominance of conservative ideology in the pro-authorities strata is occurring without any direct intervention from the Kremlin, but with its tacit agreement. The conservative trend is gaining increasing momentum in this connection, and becoming increasingly less controllable. This was clearly visible in the situation surrounding Jock Sturges’s controversial exhibition. The photographer, who specializes in photographing nudists, really does have a very mixed reputation (in the United States attempts were made, although unsuccessfully, to find proof against him of pedophilia), but his works have already been acknowledged as classics of world photographic art. Natalya Grigoryeva, director of the Lumiere Brothers Photography Center, who in fact brought over his works, told [cultural website] colta.ru that Sturges’s photographs are “classics which today are seen as conservatism.” The conflict arose after the famous pro-authorities blogger and provocateur Lena Miro wrote a post in which she accused the organizers of the exhibition of propaganda for pedophilia, demanding that the law enforcement organs should close it. Children’s ombudsman Anna Kuznetsova, Yelena Mizulina, and also Anton Tsvetkov, leader of the Officers of Russia movement and member of the Public Chamber, immediately responded to this, sharply condemning the organizers of the exhibition. After Tsvetkov visited it, the exhibition was closed.

However, the conflict itself flared up in an unexpected way, not between the liberals and the conservatives, but between the “protectors” themselves: After visiting the center, Tsvetkov eased his stance considerably, accusing Lena Miro of provocation. As it turned out, the exhibition was showing photographs of adults, and there was no violation of Russian law. In her interview with colta.ru, Grigoryeva pointed out that she started experiencing pressure and receiving threats of reprisals in the complete absence of any response from the organs of power: Neither the Ministry of Culture, nor the law enforcement organs asked her to adopt any measures. The exhibition was closed solely as a result of pressure from the “protectors,” operating outside the legal framework.

Incidentally, Lena Miro herself soon assailed Yelena Mizulina with criticism for her initiative to ban baby boxes. At the same time, according to Kommersant’s information, the government supported the ban, although the conclusion of the cabinet of ministers is being interpreted very broadly and leaves room for compromise. Anna Kuznetsova also advocated a ban on baby boxes, but then the representative’s apparatus clarified that the children’s ombudsman is not “a supporter of the policy of bans,” and advocates preventive work with women. Vice Premier Olga Golodets’s public statement about baby boxes also “can be interpreted variously,” the official’s apparatus reported to Kommersant, without elucidating what she said. The Russian Federation Presidential Council for Human Rights called the proposal to ban abortions “cynical and out of touch with life.”

As we can see, the conservative trend, which is increasingly pronounced, and is also being displayed in lawmaking work, is nevertheless already coming into conflict with its own restrictors. Both the subject of abortions and the subject of the ban on baby boxes have generated the widest discussions, in which there has been no agreement even among the bearers of “traditional values” themselves. It is important, however, that as the conservative wave grows, the overall strife in the political sphere and the aggressiveness of the players may intensify. At the same time, for the authorities, excessive activeness by the ideological conservatives presents a considerable risk — from the outset, they have been using the conservative wave as a tool and are not interested in the emergence of red guards from conservatism, who could level moral accusations against the authorities themselves. In certain cases this is already starting to happen — thus, an orthodox activist from Novosibirsk, Yuriy Zadoya, in May demanded the dismissal of Governor Vladimir Gorodetskiy, accusing him of insufficiently protecting traditional values. It is not surprising that the authorities “are calling to order” the conservatives who have gone too far — the sharp change in Tsvetkov’s stance on the exhibition is evidently a consequence of this.

The situation regarding Patriarch Kirill’s anti-abortion stance is also interesting — last week he signed a very radical appeal demanding a ban on abortions without any exceptions (the document prepared by a group of orthodox fundamentalists did not even talk about the possibility of abortion in the case of danger to the life of the woman). At the same time, Vladimir Legoyda, chairman of the synodal department for mutual relations between the church, society, and the mass media, explained that the Russian Orthodox Church does have a sharply negative attitude to abortions, but understands the “prevailing situation in society and the state,” and at present insists only on withdrawing abortions from the compulsory medical insurance system. Thus, the church in its own way is also trying to “feel about for” a compromise, although to a number of state departments its stance looks too rigid, while to conservative activists it looks excessively soft.

At the same time, a reformist trend has also existed throughout 2016. In its first months the legitimization of establishment liberals was observed. Aleksey Kudrin joined the presidential council for economic development, whose work was unblocked. He also started getting actively involved in work at government level and taking part in government conferences and sessions. The authorities are convinced of the need to improve the system of state management, which Dmitriy Medvedev publicly admitted 30 September. “We must admit that the criticism that is being voiced about the state management system for being insufficiently flexible and having a low level of efficiency is absolutely just. The machinery of state is indeed unwieldy (…). The ideas that could advance the country in the most varied spheres are simply being dashed against the walls of administration. And it is clear that the laws that are being adopted do not work as they should,” the premier said. The alarmist statements on the finite nature of the reserves of sovereign funds, on the need for rapid privatization, on the growing problem of the budget deficit, and the pension problem, which has not been resolved for years, and so on, are also making a far greater clamor.

This kind of situation also creates the need for more progressive mechanisms of state management, budget planning, and the formation of administrative levers of influence on the economy and business. However, side by side with this agenda, in practice, practically all initiatives remain at the level of experts’ discussions. Thus, large-scale privatization is being postponed definitively: The Ministry of Finance is only putting 40-50 billion rubles [R] into the 2017 budget as revenue from privatization. There are no serious blocks of shares to sell, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said. The sale of state blocks of shares in Rosneft and Bashneft is planned for 2016, which may bring in R1 trillion, but the privatization of these blocks of shares is too politicized and is stalling. Medvedev’s assurances of 30 September that privatization will be conducted by the end of 2016 seem unconvincing. It is also telling that the work of the presidential economic council looks suspended again — it has not met since May (under the updated provisions, sessions should be held at least once a quarter).

The reasons for this slowdown are well-known by now: First and foremost, it is a lack of political will, President Putin’s lack of involvement in resolving budget tasks, the bureaucratic weakness of the government (although now this situation has started changing somewhat, and a certain strengthening of Medvedev’s position can be observed). We must add to this the factor of the conservative trend, which, in spite of certain restrictors, remains very serious.

The authorities’ need to reduce expenditure is also leading to the adoption of unpopular decisions (freezing the indexation of maternity capital, the raising of excise duty on gasoline, and so on), and a considerable proportion of them are yet to be adopted. But the authorities are dragging their feet with conducting the reforms, and Vladimir Putin has directly asked the government to give up on shock therapy. The authorities’ fear of social and political destabilization coinciding with the growth in the conservative trend is essentially blocking the political will for changes, and raising the risks for any reformist agenda: Because the more clearly expressed is the conservative political direction, the higher the political costs of conducting the reforms, promoting them, implementing them at legislative level, and normative and legal provision for them, will be. At the same time, the conservative trend is being backed up increasingly frequently by personnel policy, while the liberal trend by an acute need for reforms. The intensification of awareness of the inevitability of institutional reforms and a liberal economic policy is coming into conflict with the rise in the conservative trend.

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«Switch to Offensive. The Risks of Russia’s New Approach to Hunting for Enemies”, Slon 29 Sep 16

Vladimir Putin’s regime emerged and has existed for more than a decade by relying to a large extent on the suppression and elimination of «enemies» threatening the country’s national interests and strategic positions. The construction of «enemies» was a natural and uncontested requirement for the regime, its way of life, where an acute sense of its own vulnerability prevailed. But now, after Ukraine and Syria, the model has changed: Defensive tactics are being ousted by an increasing game of playing at being a superpower. What kind of consequences might this have?

How enemies have multiplied

Russia is the victim of foes who are cynically and ruthlessly exploiting all the opportunities available to them to weaken the country, dismember it, and reduce the population to a state of total degradation. It was from this premise that Vladimir Putin’s term of office began in 2000. It was precisely the ability to present himself as a defender that enabled Putin to crank up his rating from 5 percent to 30 percent in the fall of 1999. At that time the country needed such a leader, who immediately undertook to «whack in the shithouse» the Russian people’s real and illusory «enemies.»

To begin with the first and main «enemy» was Chechen separatists and terrorists, whose elimination, as Putin put it, saved the country from destruction. Very soon the oligarchs and Mikhail Khodorkovskiy, who bore the collective responsibility for the injustices of the 90s, became «enemy» number one. The rules of the game were rewritten and the regime became monopolized by the Kremlin.

«Color revolutions» took place at almost the same time — to begin with in Georgia, then in Ukraine. A regional geopolitical conflict led to the intensification of the global rivalry between Russia and the United States. The 2007 Munich speech marked the official opening of a new and broader front — against the West, which, as the regime put it, was dreaming of smashing Russia, which was making tentative attempts to get up off of its knees.

The basis of the antiterrorist, anti-oligarch, and anti-Western rhetoric alike was always the internal vulnerability of the state, which was experiencing critical difficulties in functioning harmoniously. Separatists were threatening integrity and security, oligarchs and regional elites were eroding the «vertical axis of power,» and also, as the Kremlin saw it, the United States was intruding into a zone of traditional Russian interests — the post-Soviet area. As we can see, everywhere the Russian regime felt that its status comprised being under attack and incapable of defending its own interests.

In 2000-2007 we saw the establishment of a model of political leadership based on the logic of enforced defense against stronger and unscrupulous rivals: We could not defeat them, we reviled them, we traded with them, but we did not dare to «go to war,» or likewise to concede too much. From 2008 through 2011 the regime retreated significantly in this context: No matter how much he may be mocked today, Medvedev switched from a confrontation with notional «enemies» to a model of cooperation. And this applied to both internal and external «enemies.» Putin could not put up with this for long, rapidly coming to an arrangement for the capitulation of his successor and relinquishment of his post.

Switch to the offensive

The annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the conflict in the Donbas [Donets Basin] totally changed the regime’s perception of itself and the algorithm governing the operation of its model. An aggressive reflex was the consequence of the feeling of vulnerability turning into a feeling of total license: If you cannot compel more powerful opponents to play by your rules, there will no longer be any rules. For the Putin regime this was the first experiment in setting the direction of travel for the development of the situation as opposed to actions within the framework of prescribed (seen as imposed) restrictions.

At the same time the policy remained specifically defensive in terms of rhetoric (although it was increasingly tricky to explain this): All of Russia’s key moves in the Ukrainian context were positioned as countering a new fascist threat. Admittedly this was much more far-fetched by comparison with previous threats.

The model of protecting the people and the state against external and internal «aggressors» definitively collapsed as the model for the functioning of the Putin regime after the beginning of Russia’s campaign in Syria. Whereas in Ukraine Russia’s involvement in the conflict was largely of a spontaneous and enforced nature (if there had been no revolution in Ukraine, there would have been no Crimea as part of Russia and no DNR-LNR [Donets’ka People’s Republic-Luhans’ka People’s Republic] in the Donbas, in Syria the Kremlin was itself acting as an «aggressor,» and not against enemies of Russia but against potential selected enemies according to the objectives associated with them. Until September 2015, when Putin proposed at the UN General Assembly the building of a coalition against ISIL [the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] (which is banned in the Russian Federation), the threat of Islamic terrorism was a profoundly peripheral challenge for Russia. From August 2015 through August 2016 the number of mentions of ISIL increased sixfold in comparison with the previous year.

The objective of the Russian campaign in Syria was to establish a format for hauling the country out of international isolation and to impose enforced cooperation in the fight against terrorists on the West. What was found was not an enemy of Russia, but an enemy in combating which it would be difficult for the West to refuse the Kremlin, which was extending a hand to it. The only thing is that by that time Moscow’s motivation was already very multilayered. The attempt to break out of isolation turned out to be not the only reason for going into Syria. The military and the siloviki, who were rapidly increasing their clout, were pursuing totally different objectives linked to Russia’s geopolitical expansion. Vulnerability as a sense of weakness and a source of protective and defensive responses got lost in growing military and foreign-policy ambitions. Appetite comes with eating: As time passed, the campaign in Syria acquired for Moscow a value of its own which was no longer linked in any way to Ukraine.

It was specifically from 2015 that external and internal enemies started to be transformed from «aggressors» into targets, resources, or a handy tool used by Russia for a preemptive offensive. The United States, which had for decades been accused of violating international law and interfering in sovereign states’ internal affairs, is being converted in Russian propaganda into a hysterical country characterized by nervous breakdowns and clumsy rhetoric. Moscow is now teaching Washington lessons.

New era

The feeling of vulnerability is abating, while a feeling of impunity and anything goes is increasing. Sanctions? They are benefiting us. Isolation? It did not work! «Nothing you have done has worked» is what Putin thinks whenever he looks into the eyes of an Angela Merkel or an Obama threatening to lean on the Russia. Russia’s response to the Boeing-777 investigation — torpid, indifferent, unemotional, and impassive denial, without even particular concern for logic and persuasiveness — was also indicative. It appears that the military, deputies, senators, and the DNR-LNR are each being left to step up to the plate to the extent possible in the absence of a «general line» from the Kremlin, which has washed its hands of the situation.

2015 was the turning point: It changed the model for the functioning of the regime from defensive to offensive. Protection against «aggressors» as a way of life is changing in favor of an endless search for «enemies.» This means a crisis in terms of real enemies and the flourishing of invented enemies, which also demanded a supremely powerful system of identification: «foreign agents,» «pedophile» exhibitions [allusion to controversial Jock Sturges photo exhibit in Moscow], abortions, a lack of spirituality and morality, spies, a «State Department» opposition, and revolutionaries. It is precisely now, in the conditions of a crisis involving real «enemies,» that the regime is intuitively developing «friend or foe» and «patriot or traitor» identification mechanisms. Are you in favor of abortion? That means you are a covert revolutionary. Do you like Sturges’s photographs? That means you are a potential traitor. This is the ideological matrix for identifying «regime loyalists.»

2015 also overturned the logic governing internal development: Conservatism as a means of minimizing domestic political risks is no longer appropriate. The regime’s atrophied capability for change is being replaced by an instinctive universal mobilization, a recalibration of control mechanisms, and the discarding of elite ballast. Internal fear in the face of insurmountable geopolitical barriers is being driven out by the euphoria of unimpeded expansion. It is in this kind of situation that the state is becoming separated from society: The latter is turning from an object of (albeit largely manipulative) protectionism into a regime vulnerability. The trust that the population places in the regime is no longer seen by it as a voluntary social upfront payment but is turning into a robust demand noncompliance with which is deemed to be hostile.

Russia is entering a new era of historical development: The regime is starting to consume [assets] and go on the offensive, losing all sense of moderation and failing to understand the main thing — that a superpower’s privileges require corresponding resources. And the state will have to try to find these resources, if not from the bowels of the earth then from individual and corporate pockets.


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