Russia This Week is a weekly review by the MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project, covering the latest Russia-related news and analysis from media in Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.
Cartoon Of The Week – Putin The Electoral Tree Surgeon
A view of the 2018 elections (tree trunk) by Russian cartoonist Sergey Elkin: Putin has managed to saw off most of the tree leaving only dead wood such as the Communists and Zhirinovsky, candidates incapable of forming a branch such as the fallen apple (Yabloko) Yavlinksky and the only remnant of a potential opposition is Alexey Navalny, whom Putin is about to take care of with his trusty saw. (Source: Bigmir.net)
Picture Of The Week
Vladimir Putin about to immerse himself in Lake Seliger to mark Epiphany (Source: Kremlin.ru)
The Response To Forthcoming Sanctions
Russia is expecting a new round of U.S. sanction targeting Russian officials and corporations. Russia is responding to this threat politically and organizationally. On the political level Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, interviewed by Tass, branded the sanctions an attempt to influence the situation in Russia prior to the March presidential elections: "We can see here another attempt to influence our domestic situation, especially before the upcoming presidential election."
The Russian diplomat said that Moscow is undertaking measures to counteract the opponents’ possible malicious influences on the Russian economy. By framing the sanctions issue as American political interference, Ryabkov effectively claimed that the economic hardships are due to American meddling on behalf of the Russian opposition.
Ryabkov promised a measured response "I can say all options remain at our table... We shall be working on the most effective forms of response, without damaging our own interests and without affecting a future gradual improvement of relations with the U.S."
Ryabkov also connected the sanctions against Russia to similar American attempts to exert economic pressure, for example on trade with Iran.
"A wide range of countries have become targets of the U.S. sanctions," Ryabkov said. "Individuals and corporations in various countries turn out to be under this American pressure."
"Under this situation, it would be natural to establish work methods with the broader international community to counteract this American sanctions chaos and outrage," the diplomat said. "We shall work on this from different directions."
"This is a clear abuse of the U.S. positions in the system of international finances and the abuse of dollar’s role as the global reserve currency," the deputy foreign minister said.
"Those, in a situation of facing the U.S. blackmail, the U.S. ultimatums, can see more clearly the task of fencing or protecting themselves from those decisions," he said. "We also, of course, eye this situation under this focus."
(Tass.com, January 13, 2018)
According to RBC, Russia plans to establish a special bank to service the military-industrial sector and it will operate the defense budgets. Thus regular banks will be exempted from defense-related activity which will enable them to evade US sanctions. Promsvyazbank, was recently seized by the state due to financial misconduct has been earmarked for this purpose. The government will appoint Petr Fradkov the current export center head as the bank's CEO . Fradkov is the son of Mikhail Fradkov, a former Russian PM and the chief of Russia's Main Foreign Intelligence Directorate (SVR).
(Rbc.ru, January 19, 2018)
Peter Fradkov the new bank executive (Source: Rbc.ru)
U.S. –Russia Tensions
Russian MFA Accuses US Embassy In Moscow Of Funding The Political Opposition:
The ministry's Information and Press Department accused the United States of committing a new violation against the Russian diplomatic missions’ immunity
" We are gravely concerned about the fact that on January 17 Buzzfeed, a website claiming to be a news portal but in fact serving as an information tool of the US security services, published another batch of classified data on transactions performed by Russian diplomatic missions in the United States and several Russian Embassy employees, both current and former. It is obvious that this information could not have been posted without the knowledge of US officials.
"The website’s staff have admitted that to obtain comments from our diplomats they used contact information from their bank profiles. However, it is simply impossible to get access to such data without authorization of US authorities. In other words, it is Washington officials who are responsible for violating the diplomatic immunity of bank accounts belonging to the Russian Embassy and its employees.
"Moreover, a great deal of the published data has been intentionally falsified and again, like in November 2017, maliciously construed to fit within the framework of the United States’ campaign to accuse Russia of “interference in the US election.” However, in the case with these bank accounts, we are not just talking about fake news but about an actual criminal offence that, among other things, includes breaching the confidentiality of bank information and disclosure of personal data.
"Still, even such machinations have done nothing to help the Russophobic Americans – who judge others by their own standards – to produce any real claims against us for there is absolutely nothing reprehensible going on. Unlike the US Embassies, which often practice concealed transfer of funds to various opposition groups in the host countries, including with the purpose of destabilizing the domestic political situation, Russia does not engage in such activity.
"That is why the instigators of this anti-Russian provocation are looking for conspiracies in ordinary payroll transactions, wire transfers by the diplomats of their earnings to accounts at home at the end of their secondments [assignments] and payments to construction companies for renovation works.
"Once again, we have to note that Washington is not creating the needed conditions for Russian diplomatic agencies’ operation. They continue to be under growing pressure. This is a clear and systematic gross violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
"We call on the United States to stop this practice and resume decent conduct, reliable and honest inter-state communication. We demand that US authorities finally begin respecting their own laws and international obligations, immediately stop the unlawful distribution of confidential information that affects Russia’s interests and hold the perpetrators to account, including those who hold posts in the US administration."
(Mid.ru, January 18, 2018)
Russian Presidential Spokesperson Peskov Rejects Trump's Complaint On Korea
It is Russia that is ready for cooperation with the US in tackling regional and global issues, but Washington has not shown enough will for such cooperation, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. Peskov's comment came in response to US President Donald Trump’s complaint that Moscow is not providing any help to settle the situation in North Korea. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also protested that Russia is not implementing all sanctions imposed against North Korea within the UN, in particular those concerning fuel supplies.
"Moscow is seeking cooperation with the US in addressing all regional and international issues. But, unfortunately, we still feel that our American counterparts lack will for such cooperation, which is regrettable," Peskov said. He stressed that "Russia has been and remains [committed to its obligations] and will preserve commitment to its obligations under all international agreements."
"We welcome the ongoing process of direct talks between the North and the South. We believe that in the conditions of the ongoing direct dialogue it is very important to avoid any actions or statements that may undermine this fragile atmosphere of the dialogue," Peskov said.
He said that Moscow viewed discussions over " who is providing more or less help" for the settlement on the Korean Peninsula as fruitless. "The main thing is that the process of a direct dialogue is going on and it deserves common support," the Kremlin representative said.
Russia, according to Peskov, is not preparing any additional initiatives to achieve a settlement on the Korean Peninsula..
(Tass.com. January 19, 2018)
Dmitry Peskov (Source: Sputniknews.com)
Moscow intends to retaliate in kind if the United States continues to impose restrictions on Russian media outlets operating in the U.S. The warning came in a statement issued by the Russian Embassy in Washington.
"If restrictive measures against our media continue, we will provide a tit-for-tat response. That’s the way it will always be, no matter what sanctions we are threatened with," the embassy said on its Facebook page. The statement went on:
"On January 13, Russian journalists marked their professional holiday [Russian Press Day ia marked on January 13]. In the United States, this event was marred for them by another decision by the authorities to force one more organization working with Russian media outlets to register as a foreign agent. <…> We regard this as the West’s inability to compete honestly in the information realm and the desire to strip citizens of access to an alternative point of view," the statement reads.
(Tass.com, January 17, 2018)
The Domestic Political Scene
Looking Beyond The March Elections
As Vladimir Putin's victory in the March elections is a foregone conclusion speculation now shifts to what can be expected following his victory. The liberal newspaper Vedemosti wrote a gloomy article titled "Isolationism, Intensified Repression and the Extension of the Putin Era". The article summed up a discussion by political scientists at Moscow's Gaidarovsky Forum.
As Putin in 2024 will be constitutionally barred from succeeding himself, Vladimir Gellman expects preparations to begin on a new constitution or the elaboration of new rules "that will allow preserving the reins of power in the hands of the current head of government for as long as possible." In the meantime Russia can expect the previous pattern of selective repression and isolation to continue. To prevent Putin from becoming a lame duck, we will witness a transition from President Putin to leader (vozhd in Russian - a term used in Stalinist times) Putin.
Professor Nicolai Petrov also foresees increased repression. The new standard punishment is an eight-year prison term as seen from the recent trials of former officials.
Dmitry Oreshkin predicts that the country will quietly continue to degrade. The sociologist Alexei Levinson claims that a majority believes that Putin needs no further legitimation and has adapted to a situation where the country "is surrounded by a ring of enemies."
Professor Tatyana Vorozheikina suggested that the economic crisis could threaten stability. The 13.8% official poverty level was misleading because the people in that bracket did not live in poverty but in misery and many more lived under conditions that could be classified as poverty. Truckers and deceived shareholders had demonstrated and under certain conditions the people who expected social justice and did not receive it, "could take up axes and pitchforks". Andrey Kolesnikov disagreed and claimed that Putin would not be succeeded by a person but by the next generation of a dynastic state capitalism being constructed in Russia. As for those outside this privileged elite, they would adjust to a lower level fearing that things could be even worse.
A more optimistic view was offered by Dmitry Orlov, who did not participate in the discussion. Orlov believed that Putin was seriously committed to dynamic economic development rather than inertia. Putin, Orlov claimed, also respected the constitution. If he had wanted to do away with the two-term limit, he could have done so in 2007 as his second term of office was winding down. Putin would preserve control without flouting the constitution. Hence the fears of the intellectual elite "could be sooner attributed to phobias than to rational prognosis."
(Vedomosti.ru, January 18, 2018)
Crack Down On Navalny Continues
Although Alexey Navalny has been kept off the ballot, the government wants to snuff out protest actions by Navalny and his supporters. Police in different cities across Russia are raiding Alexey Navalny’s campaign offices, seizing leaflets promoting a “voters’ strike” for the March 2018 presidential election. One such raid occurred on January 18 in St. Petersburg, where officers from the Interior Ministry’s “Center E” anti-extremism unit told all staff and volunteers to vacate the office while they conducted the raid.
On January 28, Navalny plans to hold nationwide protests to promote a voters’ strike, which he announced after Russia’s Federal Election Commission rejected his presidential candidacy application on the grounds that he is still serving out a felony probation sentence in a controversial embezzlement case.
Earlier this month, the Justice Ministry filed a lawsuit demanding the liquidation of “Fifth Season,” the nonprofit organization Navalny’s campaign uses to sign office space lease agreements and pay full-time staff around the country.
Navalny video: Why is a [voter] strike needed? On January 28, we take to the streets. (Source: C-ib.ru)
Federal Security Service Updates The General Border Protection Policy:
According to the newspaper Kommersant the Federal Security Service (FSB), that also functions as the Russia Border Guards corps, proposed a new draft for borders protection doctrine. According to the draft, Russian national interests encompassed the protection of sovereignty, special economic rights in maritime economic zones under Russian jurisdiction and protecting political and social stability together with ensuring the personal security of the country's citizens.
Moreover, according to the draft, one of the threats Russia faces is territorial claims by "a number of foreign states". Another threat is "social-political tension spots in close proximity to the borders" which may lead to certain incidents along the border.
The FSB also underlines that the grounds for a destabilization of the social –political situation in foreign border areas in close proximity to Russia based on unsolved socio-economic problems, religious-ethnic contradictions and a separatist mood felt by the population which is living in border areas. The discussion on the law does not name specific problem countries but according to the deputy chair of the Federation Council's Committee of International Affairs, Vladimir Dzhabarov the border with Ukraine has become dangerous. It was therefore necessary to take "prophylactic measures".
(Kommersant.ru, January 18, 2018)
Russia Tiptoes Around Turkey's Military Operation In Syria
Turkish military convoy heads for Afrin ground fighting (Rt.com)
On Saturday, Turkey’s General Staff declared the launch of Operation Olive Branch against Kurdish units from Self-Defense Forces and Democratic Union Party in Afrin, home to 1.5 million Syrian Kurds. Ankara says that these two groups are affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that Turkey regards a terrorist organization.
Turkey's action against the Kurds creates a delicate situation for Russia. Russia has been wooing Turkey lately and considered it a coup when Turkey's Erdogan, an erstwhile champion of the Sunnis, joined Putin and Rouhani at Sochi to reach agreements on Syria. Turkey incursion is opposed by the Assad regime that threatened to down Turkish aircraft flying in its airspace and additionally Moscow wants to preserve its relationship with the Kurds. The following statements reflect the complexity of the situation.
Turkey’s operation against Kurds in Afrin area in Syria may create certain complications for the forthcoming Syrian National Dialogue Congress, State Duma’s defense committee chairman Vladimir Shamanov told TASS.
"This will introduce certain complications for the start of the inter-Syrian dialog in Sochi," the Member of Parliament said. The developments are "a painful topic," Shamanov said. "The [Syrian] government said they would perceive it as interference with domestic affairs," he noted. "That’s why I do not exclude that this may somehow influence on activities scheduled for January 29-30," the member of parliament added.
"It’s difficult to speak about this because it was an undesirable precedent on the verge of the planned congress for reconciliation of the parties in Syria," Shamanov said.
(Tass.com, January 21, 2018)
An operations group comprised of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Warring Sides and Russian military police has been re-deployed from Syria’s Afrin to Tel Ajar after Turkey had launched its offensive, Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Saturday.
This relocation was performed "in order to avoid possible provocations and to ensure Russian servicemen’s lives and health are not exposed to risks," the ministry said.
The Russian center for reconciliation of warring sides in Syria is tasked with monitoring the situation within and beyond the de-confliction zone in order to provide assistance to the civilian population fleeing the area of fighting.
(Tass.com, January 20, 2018)
According to Senator Franz Klintsevich, first deputy chair, Defense and Security Committee, Federation Council, Russia will oppose the Turkish military operation by political and diplomatic means while assisting the Syrian government. He believes that Russia will back the Syrian demand to stop the operation in the UNSC because it represented a "flagrant violation of Syria's sovereignty".
(Ria.ru, January 20, 2018)
He also added that Russia does not intend to be involved militarily in the conflict because "the agreements do not provide for that", but that there are good prospects that Syria's and Turkey's militaries would collide as Syria would have to defend its sovereignty.
(Ria.ru, January 20, 2018)
Senator Konstantin Kosachev, who chairs the Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, tried to deflect blame from Turkey on to the United States. He wrote in his FB account that he was uneasy about the Turkish operation that may complicate the current fragile political negotiations process. According to Kosachev, "it's not Kurds, who played the role of detonator for Turkish actions, but rather Washington, which has not even tried to conceal its cooperation with Kurdish military formations". The Americans furnished arms and the Pentagon announced a YPG base responsible for safeguarding the border and preserving order. It was no surprise that the belated attempt by Secretary of State Tillerson to mollify the Turks was unconvincing.
(Ria.ru, January 20, 2018)
The Russian Ministry of Defense also accused the Pentagon of triggering the Turkish operation:
The Pentagon’s deliveries of cutting-edge weapons, including man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), to pro-American units have triggered Turkey’s military operation in north Syria, Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Saturday.
"The United States’ provocations aimed to set apart mostly Kurdish regions have become the key factors determining a crisis scenario in that Syrian region," the Russian defense ministry said in comments on the beginning of Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish units.
"Ankara’s extremely negative reaction was sparked by Washington’s announcements on deployment of ‘border forces’ in regions neighboring Turkey as well as other US steps towards the partition of Syria and the steps backing up militants’ armed groups."
"The Pentagon’s uncontrolled deliveries of cutting-edge weapons to pro-American detachments in Syria’s north, including reported MANPADS, have whipped up tensions in the region and caused the Turkish forces’ special operation," the ministry said.
"Such irresponsible steps of the US in Syria tend to derail the process of peaceful settlement and block the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva, in which Kurds are due to be full participants."
(Tass.com, January 20, 2018)
Russia's foreign ministry appealed to all sides to show restraint and used its Information and Press Department rather than a high level spokesperson to convey the message:
"According to incoming reports, on January 20, Turkey began using its army in the area of Afrin in the northwest of Syria. The Turkish General Staff announced that the Turkish military shelled Syrian Kurds’ positions in response to provocative shelling by the militants of the Democratic Union, a Syrian Kurdish party.
"This information was received with concern in Moscow. We are closely monitoring the development of the situation.
"Russia maintains a consistent stand on the search for solutions in Syria based on preserving Syria’s territorial integrity, respect for its sovereignty and pursuing a long-term political settlement in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the agreements on de-escalation zones reached within the Astana process. In this connection we urge the opposing sides to show mutual restraint.
"After the defeat of the military political stronghold of international terrorism in the form of ISIS and the withdrawal of a considerable part of Russian troops from Syria, the major objective of the remaining Russian military in that country is currently to ensure the ceasefire in the de-escalation zones."
(Mid.ru, January 20, 2018)