Putin for 15 Years and Counting

11 Aug


On August 9, 1999, fifteen years ago, Boris Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin, an unknown, ex-KGB man to become Prime Minister of Russia. Then, no one would have guessed that Putin would still be with us today, and likely for many more years to come. For the anniversary, Oleg Kashin has provided long post detailing how the Russian press covered Putin’s appointment. How about the English language press? How did they describe this now historic moment?

Colin McMahon of The Daily Telegraph wrote:

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the man they called “the grey cardinal” in St Petersburg for his careful avoidance of the political limelight, is a blank slate to the average Russian.

For the third time in the last four tries, Russian President Boris Yeltsin has plucked from relative obscurity a bureaucrat to take over the post of prime minister of the Russian Federation.

Mr Putin has the added advantage, or handicap, depending on one’s point of view, of being named Mr Yeltsin’s preferred successor as president. . .

He spoke little, smiled less and, except in the hottest of times, wore over his suit a leather jacket that still says KGB. That deadpan style was on display on Monday night in an extensive interview on the independent station NTV.

He seemed guarded on just about everything, as if the interview were an interrogation and not a get-to-know-you visit.

“I have a wife and two children, two girls, ages 13 and 14,” he said. “They study in Moscow.”

Asked about interests beyond work: “Sport, literature, music. Which sport? Fighting and judo.”

If Mr Putin lacks charisma, say his supporters, it has yet to hurt his effectiveness. . .

Mr Chubais, a Yeltsin confidant regarded in the West as one of the smartest free marketers in Russia, opposed Yeltsin’s plan to name Mr Putin to replace Sergei Stepashin as prime minister.

A source in the political movement Right Cause told Interfax that while Mr Chubais considers Mr Putin a “contemporary politician” and a “powerful leader,” he predicts that public politics will test Mr Putin’s abilities.

At this stage, Mr Putin would be considered a long shot to win the presidency, no matter how much Mr Yeltsin might wish it.

Celestine Bohlen of the New York Times:

Nor do many Russians necessarily believe that Mr. Putin, 46, will still be Mr. Yeltsin’s preferred choice as a successor by the time the presidential elections roll around, several months after December’s parliamentary elections. Russian politics are littered with men who, at one time or another, held the mantle that has now been bestowed on Mr. Putin.

In Prime Minister Putin, Mr. Yeltsin will have a loyal servant — and a recent boss of Russia’s domestic intelligence service at that — who will be more ready than his predecessor to pull the kind of levers of power that might make even Russia’s most brazen regional bosses, an increasingly independent lot, think twice. Often portrayed as the kingmakers in the coming elections, they are still sensitive to the granting of funds and the release of compromising information — tools at the Kremlin’s disposal.

Brian Whitmore, now of RFE/RL’s the Power Vertical, wrote in the Moscow Times:

Vladimir Putin is a former KGB spy, a shrewd bureaucratic operator – and a completely untested public politician. He also has the reputation of a man who is completely loyal to his immediate boss. . .

But analysts say that Putin, an uninspiring speaker who rarely makes public statements, would be a tough sell in Russia’s presidential elections, scheduled for next July.

“I can’t imagine that in one year’s time it will be possible to turn Putin into a viable public politician,” said Yevgeny Volk of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Moscow office. Instead, said Volk, “Putin will be a useful and obedient tool in Yeltsin’s hands.” Putin, nominated for prime minister on Monday after Yeltsin fired Sergei Stepashin, has been director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor agency to the Soviet KGB, and has chaired the Security Council, which advises the president. His views on important matters such as economic policy are not well known.

Several observers said that Stepashin was sacked in favor of Putin because Putin is a tougher operator, more likely to use all available means against Yeltsin’s opponents – Gennady Zyuganov’s Communists, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, and Russia’s increasingly assertive regional leaders.

Throughout his career, Putin has been a tough bureaucratic infighter and a master of behind-the-scenes politics who has been able to advance his career and loyally serve various masters.

Corky Siemaszko in the Daily News:

Putin, who admitted he had not “been involved in politics,” said he would run for president on his record in office in the coming months.

Yeltsin, who cannot seek a third term, gave no reason for firing the loyal Stepashin after three months in the job, but Putin suggested Stepashin’s failure to end the standoff with Muslim militants in the Caucasus played a role in his dismissal.

Political analysts noted the emergence of Moscow mayor and Yeltsin rival, Yuri Luzhkov, and his new political alliance last week as the catalyst. Muscovites were cynical.

“What do you expect from an ill president and his troupe of clowns?” asked a Muscovite named Marina.

Kremlin watchers, however, said Yeltsin’s anointing of Putin shows how desperate he is to find a successor who will guarantee immunity from prosecution for him and his allegedly corrupt entourage.

They also predicted Putin would not last long.

“He wants his allies to rally around Putin, but it’s too late,” said Columbia University political science Prof. Steven Solnick. “Putin has never even run for political office. . . . He’s not presidential material.”

Yulia Latynina opined in the Moscow Times:

Monday morning, it finally became clear who will not become Russia’s president in the year 2000. It will not be Vladimir Putin. He will not become president simply because prime ministers are sacked in Russia these days when they are just ripening. Besides, it’s impossible to stay for a year as an heir apparent to a sultan who is fanatically in love with his power and has only a vague idea of what is happening in reality. The astonishing fact that President Boris Yeltsin seriously considers himself capable of appointing his successor shows how little the president understands the political reality. Any nomination from him would inevitably cause a serious allergic reaction in the voters. The only thing worse for Putin would be an endorsement from a Russian lesbian association.

The New York Times editors wrote:

Mr. Yeltsin’s latest selection, Vladimir Putin, shares some of the same questionable qualifications as his immediate predecessors, Sergei Stepashin, who lasted only three months, and Yevgeny Primakov, who served for nine months. All three held senior positions in the Russian security services that succeeded the Soviet K.G.B., organizations not known for teaching the fine points of democracy. During the cold war Mr. Putin, who is 46, worked as a top Russian security officer in Germany, and most recently ran Russia’s internal security service.

None of these men had experience in economic management when they were appointed Prime Minister, making it difficult for them to devise programs that might revive Russia’s sinking economy. If Mr. Putin is confirmed by the Communist-dominated Duma, he will have to move quickly to show the International Monetary Fund that he is exercising budgetary restraint, collecting taxes effectively and taking other steps to justify a new round of lending.

Mr. Yeltsin’s clumsy efforts to stage-manage the next presidential election now leave Mr. Putin as his designated candidate in a likely field of far more prominent, seasoned politicians. Other possible contenders include Mr. Primakov; Yuri Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow; Gennadi Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, and Aleksandr Lebed, a former general who is now Governor of a region in Siberia. So far the only prospective candidate with strong democratic credentials is Grigory Yavlinsky, who has had difficulty building a national base. It is hard to imagine how Mr. Putin, with no experience in electoral politics and no organized party behind him, can expect to compete for the presidency.

Alice Lagnado in the Times London:

Vladimir Putin, chosen by President Yeltsin yesterday as Russia’s acting Prime Minister and the Kremlin’s favoured presidential candidate, is a loyal but little-known figure known as the “grey cardinal”.

Mr Putin, 47 and married with two children, graduated from the law faculty of Leningrad University before being recruited into the KGB’s foreign espionage operation. He was posted to Dresden, part of the then East Germany, for 15 years.

In the 1980s he became an adviser to Anatoli Sobchak, the head of the Leningrad Soviet, or legislative assembly.

Mr Putin’s conscientious work – he was said to have had the final say in all of Mr Sobchak’s decisions – earned him the post of first deputy head of the St Petersburg city government in 1994, and the “grey cardinal” tag. When Mr Sobchak, St Petersburg’s first Mayor, lost the 1996 elections, Mr Putin moved to Moscow to become deputy to Pavel Borodin, Mr Yeltsin’s administration manager.

In March 1997 he became head of the Kremlin’s Control Department, a watchdog body, where he oversaw relations with Russia’s 89 regions. There he was dubbed an “imperialist” due to his toughness in preventing regional leaders seceding from Russia.

In July last year his loyalty paid off when he was promoted to head the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB. But he received only a half-hearted welcome from liberals, who saw him as a reformist intelligence chief. He is believed to be a protege of Anatoli Chubais, the architect of Russian privatisation, It is believed Mr Chubais was a key figure in his promotion. “There are rumours in Moscow that Putin landed his post with the help of influential natives of Leningrad working in the Government and presidential administration,” the Segodnya newspaper wrote of his appointment.

Since then there has been some disappointment that Mr Putin has failed to meet important challenges. His officers still spend much time and resources on harassing environmentalists. The case continues against Aleksandr Nikitin, a former naval captain accused of spying, after he wrote a report claiming that the Russian Navy dumped nuclear waste in the Arctic Sea.


Putin’s Strategy Behind the Food Ban

8 Aug

The consensus around Russia’s ban of food imports from the US and EU is that Russia is only hurting itself. As a NY Times editorial, aptly named “Russia Sanctions Itself,” stated, “No doubt many producers in these countries will feel the loss of $30 billion in food exports to Russia, but the overall effect on their large and diversified economies will be marginal. Russia, by contrast, imports about 40 percent of its food needs in terms of value, and the Russian agriculture minister has acknowledged that the sanctions would cause a spike in inflation.” If this is the case, then what’s Putin’s strategy behind the food ban?

Writing in Slon, Maksim Samorukov takes a stab at Putin’s possible strategy. In 2013, the EU exported 10.5 billion euros of food to Russia, about 10 percent of its total agricultural exports, making it the second largest market after the US. It’s a growing market, Samorukov states, because Russia imports three times more from Europe than it did ten years ago. Moreover, these exports are important to balance trade in Russian oil and gas. Nevertheless, 10.5 billion euros doesn’t seem like a lot when spread over 28 EU countries. Nevertheless, some countries will be more affected than others as this chart shows.


And this is perhaps what Putin is banking on. Europe’s agricultural lobby will put pressure on their governments and countries like Spain, which has the most to lose with Russia’s food ban, will break the solidarity of the EU. It’s wishful thinking, for sure, but here’s what Samorukov argues:

  1. The food ban will hit European farmers, and their discontent might force governments to weaken their resolve. Samorukov writes, “Farmers in Europe are very organized people, with extensive experience in lobbying and a tradition of organizing mass demonstrations at the slightest threat to their welfare. You can always find a group of fishermen or peasants at the official European Union buildings in Brussels expressing their indignation at the next food policy. And if it comes to any major changes in agricultural policy, then there is bound to be a crowd of many thousands. . .” Moreover, these farmers will have the sympathy of the population, adding to the political pressue. Putin is essentially counting on European democracy to work in his favor.
  2. The EU’s pocket book is squeezed on both sides. There’s the “pampered” farmers in western Europe that refuse to accept any reduction of agricultural subsidies on one side, and the poorer famers from eastern Europe on the other.  Until now, according to Samorukov, famers in the east were getting fewer subsidies than their counterparts in the west. But now the EU will have to pay those famers equally to alleviate the pain of the Russian food ban. “A unified EU budget, where agrarian subsidies make up almost half of expenses, cannot support such a burden.” Putin, therefore, is hoping that the EU financial woes will play to his advantage as well.

Samorukov concludes:

Russian ban on European food seems to have been invented in the hope to take advantage of these difficulties in the EU’s agricultural sector and try to split the unity of the Union. For example, the countries of southern Europe, that have little enthusiasm for sanctions against Russia, joined the them solely to not betray European solidarity. And now the imposition of sanctions would mean they would not only have possible problems with the flow of tourists, but also tangible losses to their already problematic and large agricultural sector.

Samorukov, however, doubts this will work:

The Kremlin certain in its cynicism, as usual, underestimates the principles of Western leaders and their willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of the idea of ​​European solidarity, especially when it comes to such lawlessness as the revision of the borders. But still the impact on agriculture was the best choice from the viewpoint of the proportion of losses and effect.

There’s also the shooting down of MH17 by Russian backed separatists. This changed everything, and explains Europe’s suddenly discovered resolve.

Though Samorukov doesn’t make the argument, I think there’s a possible third idea behind Putin’s thinking: the long term goal of reducing Russian dependence on the West. This project of import substitution coincides with the nationalist fervor that has characterized Putin’s third term. In the short term, Russia will likely increase its exports from places like Brazil. In the long term Putin is banking on the food ban to invigorate Russia domestic agricultural production. Russian consumers will certainly feel the pinch of this policy, but as Samorukov states, the Kremlin can reassert that Russia is a besieged fortress and its people must sacrifice for the sake of sovereignty. But this mobilization can’t last forever. The question is whether Putin’s strategy will pay some geopolitical dividends before the nationalist mobilization peters out.


Civilians Caught in the Crossfire in Eastern Ukraine

22 Jul


The downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, presumably by a separatist surface to air missile, internationalizes a conflict that has already claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians and displaced tens of thousands of people. As we rightly express outrage over MH17, we shouldn’t forget that civilians are caught in the crossfire between the Ukrainian military and separatists. Eastern Ukraine became a tragedy long before MH17 was shot out of the sky. Only now with an international incident perhaps people will pay more attention. What they will find is a warzone in Europe once again.

Civilians are caught in the middle of this warzone. It’s easy to forget this until you read the stories. Here’s one description from the Kyiv Post:

The streets of Donetsk were mostly empty all day, and rebels set up new block posts in the city to control traffic. Residents were seen fleeing from the area around the train station, suitcases in tow. All around, explosions from artillery reverberated, and a dense cloud of black smoke rose from a car factory in the distance.

The courtyard of a residential complex was a warzone marked with craters likely from Grad rockets mere meters from a children’s swingset.

When 31-year-old Vlad Kozlov opened the front door of his flat near Donetsk’s central railway station en route to the institute where he teaches, two pieces of shrapnel from one of the rockets struck him in the legs. Kozlov was taken to a local hospital, but not before leaving sprawling blood stains on the stairs inside his apartment building.

“He is going to have an operation,” said Valentina Nikolayevna, his grandmother. “I hope he won’t become disabled after this.”

Just 50 meters away, another blood stain marked the place where a woman was killed by the same rocket. Her body had been taken away, but her shoes remained at the site.

Sergey, a local resident who refused to give his last name, showed the Kyiv Post a video taken just after the incident of the woman’s mutilated body. “Now I want just to take up a gun myself [and fight Kiev’s forces],” he said.

Complete civilian casualty figures are hard to determine. Numbers come from local medical personnel, eye witnesses, and fact finding missions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). An OSCE report the released on July 20 based on evidence from local doctors estimated that at least 250 civilians have been killed and over 850 wounded in Luhansk in June and July alone. According to a recent OSCE Special Monitoring Mission update, the shelling of Luhansk on July 17-18 left 20 people dead and 150 injured. On July 18-19, according to information the head of the Lugansk city morgue, 29 people had been killed, all of them civilians except one. And about 40 miles from the MH17 crash site, three civilians were killed in the crossfire between the Ukrainian military and rebels. This is only a small glimpse into the continuing carnage.

Both sides have an interest in fudging the numbers, deny firing on civilians, and cast blame on each other. But this misses the point. Like the 298 people who were killed in MN17, many Ukrainian civilians are casualties of a civil war that only promises to get more violent in the coming weeks.


Why We Can’t Let Ukraine Lose the Donbass

2 Jul

By William Risch

Last night, Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, told his nation that they were at war.  The Ukrainian government, after attempting peace talks for several days, was ending its unilateral ceasefire with pro-Russian forces in the Donbass region, which it has been fighting for over two months.  “They have publicly declared their unwillingness to support the peace plan as a whole and particularly the ceasefire,” he said.  “Militants violated the truce for more than a hundred times.” Thus Ukrainian forces, including the army, National Guard, Ministry of Interior forces, and paramilitary battalions have officially renewed the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO).

This time, the ATO promises to be an all-out war.  Since the ceasefire took effect June 20, both Ukrainian and rebel forces have reinforced their positions.  More tanks, rockets, personnel, and supplies from across the Russian border have reached pro-Russian forces.  The Ukrainian online news source Inforesist reported June 30 that separatist Igor Girkin (a.k.a. Strelkov), after complaining for weeks about a lack of support from Russia, had assembled a force capable of seizing Izium, the headquarters of Ukraine’s ATO:  5,000 armed men in Sloviansk and dozens of armored equipment, tanks, and multiple rocket launchers.  Fresh reinforcements have arrived in nearby Krasnyi Liman and Kramatorsk.  Inforesist stressed that Strelkov not only could take Izium, but also advance toward major industrial city of Kharkiv, due to the Ministry of Internal Affairs forces lacking heavy armament.

Facing forces like Strelkov’s, Ukraine’s ATO will cost many lives.  It will make worse a refugee crisis that has already led to at least 27,200 internally displaced persons from eastern Ukraine as of June 27, according to a recent United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report.  The hundreds of military and civilians killed could reach the thousands if air strikes and artillery assaults become even deadlier.

Despite the nightmarish scenario, all-out war looks inevitable.  There is not even one hint that the forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) or the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) even took President Poroshenko’s ceasefire seriously.  During it, their forces killed a total of 27 Ukrainian security forces personnel and wounded 69. DNR and LNR leaders have suggested plans for creating a larger entity, New Russia (Novorossiia), which would incorporate other regions of eastern and southern Ukraine.  On June 26, one of their key supporters – Oleh Tsarev, one of their representatives in peace talks with the Ukrainian government – announced competitions for designing national symbols for Novorossiia and a history textbook for the start of the new school year.

In the face of war, neither the United States nor the European Union can afford to let Ukraine lose the Donbass.  The Budapest Memorandum of 1994, which led to Ukraine giving up its stockpiles of Soviet nuclear weapons, guaranteed that the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America would refrain from using force “against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.”  Over the past few weeks, Russia’s lending separatists advanced weaponry and armed volunteers from across the border has seriously threatened Ukraine’s territorial integrity.  What looked like a local conflict lacking popular support at the beginning of June has turned into a full-scale invasion at the beginning of July.  This invasion and Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea have made a total mockery of the Budapest Memorandum.

Supporting Ukraine’s war for the Donbass does not mean sacrificing the blood and treasure of U.S. or E.U. member forces.  Western countries could send military advisors to train a more effective army (one badly undermined by corruption over the past quarter century).  They could send ammunition.  They could help finance the construction of a more secure border between Russia and Ukraine.  Most importantly, they could support more vigorous economic sanctions against Russia.  The West either must do what it can to support Ukraine’s military effort, or it may have to admit that international borders need to be redrawn and that international guarantees like the Budapest Memorandum are mere scraps of paper.

William Risch is a contributing journalist at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Associate Professor of History at Georgia College.  He is author of The Ukrainian West: Culture and the Fate of Empire in Soviet Lviv (Harvard University Press, 2011).

Ukraine’s Refugees: How Many?

27 Jun

People walk among donated clothes at a former concert hall converted into a center for collecting humanitarian aid for refugees in Donetsk

In my post on Ukraine’s refugees, I anticipated some questioning about the numbers of Ukrainians fleeing to Russia. I cited a MChS estimate of 30,000. It’s hard to pin down just how many people have packed up whatever they could and crossed the border. The Russians have presented various figures. Valentina Matvienko, Russia’s Federal Council speaker, gave an obviously exaggerated number of 500,000 refugees inside Russia! Another news report states that 80,000 have arrived in Rostov province in the last two weeks! Last week Russia’s migration service gave a figure of 80,000.I’ve also read that there are only 25,000 refugees inside Russia. These widely divergent figures are not surprising. After all, presenting the crisis in Ukraine as a humanitarian disaster is in Russia’s interest, as it’s in the interest of Kyiv and its supporters to low ball the numbers to Russia but inflate the number of refugees from Crimea. How much are the Russian figures an exaggeration? Matvinenko figure is preposterous, of course. But the Russian official figure of 80,000 turns out to be closer to the UNHCR’s count.

According to the UNHCR press release:

In Ukraine, UNHCR is seeing a rise in displacement. We now estimate that 54,400 people are internally displaced – 12,000 from Crimea and the rest from the Eastern region. Over the past week, the number of internally displaced increased by over 16,400.

Increases are also being seen in the numbers of Ukrainians in Russia and other countries, although so far only a relatively small number have applied for refugee status. Since the start of the year around 110,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Russia, and 750 have requested asylum in Poland, Belarus, Czech Republic and Romania. Of those in Russia only 9,600 have requested asylum. Most people are seeking other forms of legal stay, often we are told because of concerns about complications or reprisals in case of return to Ukraine.

Arrivals of the past few days are mainly clustered in Rostov-On-Don (12,900 people, including 5,000 children) and Byransk (6,500 people). In Rostov, people are being accommodated in public buildings and some tented camps. In Bryansk the majority are staying with relatives and friends. We have also seen unconfirmed reports of other recent arrivals from the east of Ukraine to Crimea.

110,000! I was taken aback by that number. Granted the vast majority of these people aren’t in refugee camps, but are staying with friends and relatives in Russia. Ukraine’s refugee crisis, both inside Ukraine and Russia is masked by the personal ties many Ukrainian citizens within and outside the country. Nevertheless, the UNHCR’s estimates illustrates that the refugee crisis is real and it’s getting worse.