Tag Archives: Putin

Putin’s Futile Effort to Win Back Ukraine

Russian president Vladimir Putin clearly fancies himself as a bit of a historian. A while back he wrote a piece on the origins of the Second World War for the National Interest magazine, and now he’s penned (or at least he and his helpers have penned) a great long tome discussing the historical origins of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. The purpose of it all is to prove that Russia and Ukraine are truly one, and that their current division is the product of the malicious activities of outside powers – the Poles and Austrians in olden times, the West as a whole nowadays.

I discuss the piece in an article for RT that you can read here. In this I speculate that Putin is trying to appeal to ordinary Ukrainians over the head of their government. Millions of Ukrainians think positively of Russia, he says, but they are intimidated into silence by the despotic regime in Kiev, which is trying to turn the country into an ‘anti-Russia’. It seems that Putin believes that there are large numbers of Ukrainians who share his point of view, and that this is his attempt to speak directly to them in an effort to win Ukraine back for Russia.

Personally, I think it’s a giant waste of time.

Putin may be right that a large segment of the Ukrainian population doesn’t share the anti-Russian stance of its government. One suspects that if – God forbid – Russian tanks were ever to roll into Odessa, while some would fight them, some others would crawl out of the woodwork and declare that they always loved Russia all along. But the thing is that the opinion of the ordinary Joe (or Ivan, or whatever the Ukrainian equivalent is) isn’t that important.

Ordinary Joes don’t run any country anywhere. Political elites compete for their votes, but by and large they live in a different world, with a different frame of mind, shaped far more by what the educated classes think than by the average guy on the street.

At this point, I will admit that I’m not a Ukrainian expert, so I may be entirely wrong about this, but from a distance I get a very strong sense that the Ukrainian educated classes, and with them the political elite, have swallowed the Maidan ‘anti-Russia’ stance with a vengeance. Basically speaking, there are precious few people left who are willing or able to represent the ‘pro-Russia’ point of view.

This isn’t just because it’s been repressed, though it has been – as seen by the arrest of Mr Medvedchuk. It’s more that this representation doesn’t exist in any meaningful form. And without that representation, it doesn’t really matter how many ‘pro-Russian’ people are out there. Politically speaking, their prospects are zilch.

In other words, Ukraine is a lost cause from the Russian point of view. Its upper classes have made up their minds – at least for a generation (perhaps something will change when the promised integration into the West never happens, but even then one can’t be sure). Putin can appeal over the government’s head to the Ukrainian people as much as he likes, but I don’t see it changing a thing.

Summit Yawn

I feel that I should write something about the outcome of the much-awaited Putin-Biden meeting in Geneva, but to be frank it’s a bit of a yawn. As was to be expected, nothing much was decided, though they at least avoided a major bust-up (it would have been more newsworthy if they hadn’t). The Russian news agency TASS asked me for a comment, and I replied as follows:

Expectations were low regarding this summit and it’s fair to say that those expectations were met. Nobody foresaw a major breakthrough on any issues, and there weren’t any. At most, they agreed to keep talking, especially on nuclear arms control. That said, the two sides took a very, very modest step towards better relations, as seen by the announcement that the respective ambassadors will be returning to their posts. Overall, I would assess as it as a very moderately positive outcome, but the gap between the two sides remains extremely wide.

In essence, there’s not a whole lot to say about the summit. The real issue is how both sides go on from here. There are serious impediments to any forward movement. It’s not just that the USA and Russia have incompatible views of their own national interests. It’s also that there appears to be an almost complete lack of mutual trust. Consequently, I tend to the view that what matters is not reaching agreement on any substantial matters but preventing the hotheads on either side from dragging US-Russia relations even further into the depths. In other words, it’s not about repairing relations, it’s about preventing them from collapsing entirely.

On the Russian side, the big danger, to my mind, is that some idiot in the security and intelligence services will take it into his brain to do something crazy, like the poisonings of Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny, or even worse. Sadly, one can’t rule it out. Beyond that, outside of the talking heads on Russian TV shows, I don’t see any appetite for conflict in Russia. I see of lot of resignation that it’s unavoidable, but no desire to make things worse.

I’m less confident in that regard when it comes to the Americans. Biden himself seems fairly level-headed, but as I pointed out in a recent post about Ambassador Kurt Volker and his phrase “success is confrontation,” there is an element in the US foreign policy establishment that seems to be gunning for a fight. On the American side, the challenge will be to see these people off.

I suspect that Biden will be able to quieten the extremists on his side a little bit by pointing to the fact that he used the summit to raise issues with which Putin might feel uncomfortable, such as human rights. No doubt Biden’s supporters will use this as evidence that he is suitably “tough.” In reality, though, this is so much window dressing. One can’t imagine that it will change Russian behaviour in any way. More important is what Biden didn’t do, which is that he didn’t go out of his way to annoy Putin. Nor did he put any obvious spokes in the way of future negotiations. In fact, the summit ended with agreement to keep talking on some key matters. That’s not exactly progress, but it’s not the confrontation that Volker and his ilk were looking for.

In that sense, I see the summit as a bit of a defeat for the hardliners in Washington. Not a huge one, to be sure, but still a setback for them. Given that we couldn’t realistically have expected anything more, I think that on the whole we can consider the meeting a job well done.

Shock Revelation: Putin wants stability in the USA

Remember the claims that Vladimir Putin and the Russian government had a role in inciting the mob that broke into the Capitol building in Washington DC back in January? I wrote about this in an article a few weeks ago. No sooner had the dust settled than social media was abuzz with statements that Putin either arranged the whole thing or at the very least was celebrating what had happened. As former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes put it, “This is the day that Vladimir Putin has waited for since he had to leave East Germany as a young KGB officer at the end of the Cold War.”

The idea that Putin and the Russian state want nothing more than to see Western democracies collapse into chaos is now so widespread as to be pretty much an uncontestable truth. Everybody knows that it is so. Russian “disinformation”, election “meddling”, and all of the rest of it, are put down to Putin’s enormous fear of democracy and of the West, and his concomitant desire to undermine both.

If you have any doubts, just Google “Putin, undermine democracy.” I did, and this is what I got:

Continue reading Shock Revelation: Putin wants stability in the USA

Rule of Law in russia

In my latest article for RT, which you can read here, I discuss Russia’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights, and the possibility that Russia will quit the Council of Europe so as to withdraw itself from the court’s jurisdiction. I argue that it would be a shame if Russia did decide to do this. The evidence does not suggest that the court is biased against Russia, and many Russians have benefitted from it being there to protect their rights. I suggest that,

The problem with a number of Russian leaders, throughout history, is that they have tended to want to make their subordinates accountable to the law, while at the same time not wanting the same accountability to apply to themselves.

I conclude that Russian president Vladimir Putin should avoid going down the same path himself.

Of course, many people think that he went down that path long ago, and I was interested to see a couple of pieces this week that also address issues of the rule of law in Russia.

The first is an NBC News interview with exiled billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In this Khodorkovsky says, ‘Putin is a typical mafia godfather, a typical head of a crime syndicate.’

The second is a piece in Meduza that discusses liberal economic reform during Putin’s first presidency, and in particular the role of two important officials, Alexei Kudrin and Herman Gref. The article reports the following:

Kudrin and Gref pushed for new things like a tax of mineral mining. According to Gref, major oil companies were not happy with the proposal. He says that a representative of the company Yukos approached him on the night before the new law was to be discussed by the Duma and told him that they’d made an agreement with all of the deputies. As a result, the ministers were given a choice: they could either not take the proposal to parliament, or they could ‘be taken out [feet first]’. … Gref called Kudrin and found out that he’d also been visited and threatened. … In the end the legislation failed miserably.

So, who was it who owned this oil company, Yukos, which suborned parliamentary deputies and threatened senior officials? Well, golly gosh, it was none other than Khodorkovsky, the same man who accuses Putin of being a ‘mafia godfather.’

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Crackpot Theory No. 11: Passionarity

Russian president Vladimir Putin had a private meeting the other day with the heads of key media organizations. Normally, the content of these meetings remains secret, but on this occasion one of those present leaked what Putin had said. Apart from the statement that ‘We will not abandon Donbass,’ what grabbed the headlines was the following words of Putin:

I believe in passionarity [passionarnost’], in the theory of passionarity. As in nature, so in human society, there is development, a peak, and extinction. Russia hasn’t yet reached the peak. We are on the march, on the march of development. The country passed through very tough experiences in the 1990s, at the start of the 2000s, but it is on the march of development. I look at what is happening here: we have a sea of problems, but unlike other nations that are old or aging, we are still on the rise. We are quite a young nation. We have an immortal genetic code. It is founded on the mixing of bloods, if you can say it in such a simple, popular, way.

I mentioned this odd topic of passionarity once before, but it’s worth returning to it for a more detailed explanation of what Putin is on about, as I suspect it doesn’t mean a lot to most Western readers.

The term ‘passionarity’ was invented by the Soviet ethnologist Lev Gumilev and was a key point in his (failed) doctoral dissertation, later published as a book, entitled Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere. But before going on to that, it’s necessary to introduce a bit of historical background.

Continue reading Crackpot Theory No. 11: Passionarity

Latest Poll Undermines Claims of Rising Dissatisfaction in Russia

Something has changed, we are told again and again. After two decades of misrule, Russians are getting increasingly fed up with Vladimir Putin and his ‘regime’. The recent protests caused by the arrest of Alexei Navalny are just the tip of the iceberg, underneath which is a huge wave of dissatisfaction just waiting to burst loose.

But is it? On the one hand, journalists provide anecdotal evidence to support the claim. On the other hand, there are the cold hard facts of survey statistics. What do they tell us?

To answer that question, we turn to the Russian sociological organization known as the Levada Centre. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, Levada has been doing surveys for a long time, so one can compare data over a prolonged period. And second, Levada is well known for its liberal, anti-government orientation, and so cannot in any way be accused of biasing its surveys to favour the Russian state.

Today, Levada published its latest set of indicators. So, let’s take a look at these, starting with the one that everybody is always interested in – Vladimir Putin’s approval rating.

Approval of Vladimir Putin

This records that when asked the question ‘do you approve of Vladimir Putin’s activities as President?’, 64% of respondents said yes. That’s down from 69% in September of last year, but up from the 60% recorded in July at the peak of the first wave of coronavirus. The survey was conducted in January, which means before the recent protests, but well after Navalny’s poisoning and revelations of possible state involvement. If Russians were going to hold Putin to account for what happened to Navalny, or for the large number of covid-related deaths in Russia, one would expect that to show already. It doesn’t.

If there is any reason for Putin to be concerned it is that his approval rating is lower among younger people than older ones. Whereas 73% of people aged 55 or over approve of him, only 51% of those aged 18 to 24 do so. But then again, 51% is still a majority. It would clearly be wrong to say that Russian youth have firmly turned their backs on their president. Overall, therefore, while one can say that Putin has lost ground since the big bump in support he got after the annexation of Crimea, he’s still in a reasonably strong position.

The next set of data relates to the approval of the Russian prime minister over time. This has gone up and down, the biggest positive rating being when Putin held the post between 2008 and 2012. But if you look at the recent end of the chart, you see that the current PM, Mikhail Mishustin, seems to be doing quite well, with a rating of 58% and rising. Interestingly, that brings him close to Putin in terms of approval. Unlike for the president, however, this data is not from January, but from November of last year. It will be interesting to see if Mishustin keeps moving upwards.

Approval of the Prime Minister

Approval of politicians is one thing. One’s general attitude to life is another. Perhaps Russia support their rulers while quietly growing more and more unhappy with the general state of things. This third chart, which is again based on surveys in January, suggests otherwise, at least in general terms.

Evaluation of the current situation in the country

The black line in the chart shows the percentage of people who think that the country is moving in the right direction, and the blue line the percentage who think the opposite. The most recent data indicates is that despite the troublesome economic situation, Russians generally have a positive outlook, with 49% currently thinking that things are improving, and 40% thinking that they are getting worse.

Obviously, things can change. A ‘black swan’ might come along and disrupt everything. But Russia has experienced a few such swans in recent years (repeated economic crises, Western sanctions, and covid) and yet Russians on the whole retain a positive outlook regarding their country’s prospects and their rulers.

In fact, looking at the charts, rather than concluding that everything has changed, one gets the impression that the present looks very much like the past. As they say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Putin is Doomed

From the conclusion to ‘Kicking the Kremlin’ by British journalist Marc Bennetts:

The protest movement has failed to bring Putin down, but there is a new vulnerability about the ‘national leader’. The Kremlin’s crackdown was not so much a sign of Putin’s strength, as a tacit admission that he felt threatened.

… Ominously for Putin, the amount of Russians who believe what they see and hear on television is falling fast … and even those who believe are starting to have their doubts. … Russia is changing, but Putin is not. ‘It’s a very difficult moment to pinpoint,’ said Gleb Pavlovsky, the ex-Kremlin political consultant. ‘But whenever the emotional connection with the people is gone, it’s gone forever.’

A generation has lived their entire adult lives with Putin as either president or prime minister. Familiarity has, inevitably, bred contempt. In the words of one former supporter, Putin’s ‘judo tricks no longer cut it.’ … Putin is increasingly a figure of fun. His message of stability is increasingly irrelevant to a generation that has little memory of the chaotic 1990s. For many Russians in their early to mid-twenties, Putin is simply, as one protestor described him to me, some ‘weird old man’ who has been in politics far too long.

‘He’s lost it completely,’ said Matvei Krylov, the young activists who left home at the age of fourteen to join the fight against Putin. ‘When you look at him, you can tell that he doesn’t want to be in power anymore.’ … Krylov laughed, his words a mixture of pity and contempt ‘But he’s trapped. He’s got nowhere to run.’

Published in February 2014.

Oops!

Putin 2036?

Russian politics keeps turning up surprises, and you have to think that some of them surprise even those at the top of the Russian power system themselves.

When Vladimir Putin proposed amendments to the Russian constitution a few weeks ago, the general reaction of the Western press was to declare the act as a ‘power grab’ and proof that Putin intended to remain in power beyond the end of his last constitutionally permitted term as president in 2024. This narrative had a number of problems. First, since the press had been telling us for years that Putin already had absolute power, it was hard to see how he could be ‘grabbing’ it. Second, once the exact wording of the proposed amendments was announced, it was obvious that far from permitting Putin to stay in office, they guaranteed the opposite. Furthermore, Putin specifically ruled out taking a job other than president, such as head of the State Council, thereby undercutting all the speculation that he was jiggling the system in such a way as to allow himself to continue to be in charge even while not being president. For a while it really did look like Putin would be well and truly gone in 2024.

Until today.

In a completely unexpected development, Valentina Tereshkova, best known for having been the first woman in space but now a member of the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, proposed to the Duma that once the new constitutional amendments come into force, the count of how many times somebody can be president be reset to zero. This would allow Putin to stand once again for president in the election of 2024, and to serve two more terms as far as 2036.

Tereshkova’s proposal seems to have taken the Duma completely by surprise. Worse, nobody knew what to do with it. The idea hadn’t come from the Kremlin – at least not directly – but deputies couldn’t be certain that Tereshkova wasn’t acting as a conduit for Putin, and they didn’t want to vote her idea down just in case she was. What to do? The answer was temporary paralysis, as the Duma tried to find out what Putin really thought, a problem which was resolved only by an emergency meeting attended by the president himself, who turned up at the Duma a short while after Tereshkova made her proposal to make an unscheduled speech. In this, Putin said ,

The proposal to remove restrictions for any person, including the incumbent president … In principle, this option would be possible, but on one condition – if the Constitutional Court gives an official ruling that such an amendment would not contradict the principles and main provisions of the Constitution.

In short, Putin gave his consent to the idea, subject to a ruling from the Constitutional Court.

Was this Putin’s aim all along? Did he put Tereshkova up to it? Or was he as blindsided by her proposal as everybody else? It’s not clear. If he’d wanted this, it would have been simpler just to include it in the original amendments. On the other hand, it arguably looks better if it appears to come as a result of some sort of demand from below, especially when voiced by somebody like Tereshkova who has something of a heroic status. But then again, that status means that she has some independent moral authority and doesn’t have to do whatever the Kremlin asks her. So maybe it was her idea after all, and she was acting on her own. In that case, though, why didn’t Putin reject it?

It’s next to impossible to know what’s actually going on here. For the past few weeks, Putin’s been sending strong signals that he really does plan to leave in 2024. So this is quite a reversal. The cynic in me imagines that in a political system as tightly controlled as Russia’s, today’s events can’t have been a surprise to the president. But the way it happened – the temporary paralysis in the Duma, and Putin’s sudden, unscheduled speech – suggest something rather more spontaneous. I pronounce myself flummoxed.

Of course, this doesn’t mean for certain that Putin will stay on as president post-2024. It’s possible that even if permitted to stand again, he’ll decide not to. Nor does it mean, as the Daily Telegraph immediately announced, that Putin would now be president ‘for life’. But it certainly opens up the possibility that he’ll be hanging around in power for a lot longer yet. Having said that the proposed amendments precluded that (as indeed they did before today), I find myself once again contemplating the wisdom of avoiding making firm predictions while engaging in punditry. What’s going to happen next? I don’t know. All we can do is sit back and see how things unfold.