Tag Archives: Russia

Who Killed Nemstov?

It is the question of the hour. Initially, it was presumed that Mr. Putin had a hand in it. But Mark Almond thinks that perhaps it was the radical nationalist crowd

Whoever murdered Boris Nemtsov wanted to kill hopes for a cosier future between East and West.

There is a point here — Nemstov’s murder will harden attitudes in the west against Putin (whether there is evidence of his complicity in the crime or not). It will make it harder — not easier — to undo sanctions.

But consider — during the Ukrainian fiasco, Putin showed no serious interest in getting rid of sanctions quickly. He could have by doing a deal in Ukraine, but he did not. So is he really so worried about sanctions now? Perhaps not. On the other hand, a public murder of Nemstov demonstrates to the Russian elite that they cross him at their peril.

We might also recall that murder in Moscow has not been all that uncommon over the last period of years.  Anyone remember Paul Klebnikov?  Anna Politkovskaya? These are just two. Who killed them? Was it the shadowy nationalist right, trying to discredit Putin? If so, what did Putin do to demonstrate that he is a more moderate figure? As far as I can recall, he did nothing.

In other words, my own guess is that Almond is full of it.



Putin in 2015

As we exit 2014, we are left with a number of hot conflicts around the world. One was a war of choice started by Mr. Putin in Ukraine. When Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine, it was not so easy to predict how things would turn out. Now it is a bit more clear. The war is starting to impact Mr. Putin’s political fortunes in Russia.

Mr. Putin is still popular.  But the signature event in Russia now is its economic crisis. So far, Mr. Putin has managed to sell the story that this has been caused by hostile outside forces in the west. A key question for 2015 will be whether this continues to sell.

I do not believe that the Russian people will suddenly blame Mr. Putin for the mess they are in. But when things get bad, people start getting angry about it. And when they are angry, they start listening more closely to stories that confirm their anger. Like stories about corruption and incompetence. These stories may create an opening for new voices inside Russia to be heard.  Vox has an interesting story along these lines already.

I suspect that this will be one of the more interesting stories that will unfold in 2015 – whether the Kremlin can sustain the control of the political messaging in Russia from the top down.

Update: Ruble Rubble

This is the news today from BI – the Russian  finance ministry is trying to prop up the Ruble  but  —

The currency’s volatility at the moment is severe. The ruble is currently up 3.81% against the dollar (today), after falling around 13% yesterday and 10% the day before. It’s dipping back below 65 rubles to the dollar, after approaching nearly 80 yesterday. It was barely above 50 rubles to the dollar at the start of December, and 33 to the dollar at the start of 2014

On the other side of the Atlantic, Obama announced support for  new sanctions against Russia that were passed by Congress.

So far, crude oil prices are holding below $60 per barrel after a brief pop yesterday.

Russia: An Inflection Point Coming?

Well, things are looking pretty grim for Mr. Putin and his crowd these days. What to make of this?

Some argue that his popularity may suddenly plummet, opening up the door for possible change. Others argue that allowing a disaster in Russia is not worth the risk. Kevin Drum, writing for Mother Jones, is one of them.

he writes this

I have precious little sympathy for Putin, whose success—such as it is—is based on a toxic stew of insecurities and quixotic appetites that have expressed themselves in a destructive brand of crude nativism; reactionary bigotry; disdain for the rule of law, both domestic and international; narrow and myopic economic vision; and dependence on an outdated and illiberal oligarchy to retain power. Nonetheless, there are kernels of legitimate grievance buried in many of these impulses, as well as kernels of necessity given both Russia’s culture and the post-Cold War collapse of its economy that has left it perilously dependent on extractive industries.

Kernels of legitimate grievance? Just what does that mean? More obscure is the phrase “kernels of necessity”.  Let’ not get confused about what is going on. The Ukraine adventure was not something based on a legitimate grievance. Nor was it necessary for Russia. It was chosen by Mr. Putin as a tactical move. It was an incursion of choice. He can end it whenever he wants to do so. He can negotiate his way out of it. But if the west flinches now, he will win. And if he wins here, he will know that he can flout the foundations of western security again.

What Putin Said

Vladimir Putin gave a “state of the union” speech yesterday to the Russian parliament and BI reports on it.  These types of speeches are primarily for domestic political audiences and are interesting for what is said and for what is not said.

Putin said what you would expect from him. He attempted to assure his audiences that he situation was under control —  even though everyone is pretty well aware that it is not. And here is his analysis of the sanctions regime

“This is not just a nervous reaction of the United States and their allies to our stance in regard to the events and coup in Ukraine; not even in regard to the so-called Crimean spring. I am certain that if all this did not take place… they would come up with another reason to contain Russia’s growing capabilities, to influence it or, even better, use it for its own goals.”

“The policy of containment was not invented yesterday. It has been applied to our country for many, many years.. every time when anyone only thinks Russia has become strong, independent, such instruments are applied immediately.”

Notice the narrative of “growing capabilities” threatened by hostile forces. A historical confrontation that Russia must win in order to survive.

What was not said?  I missed any vision of hope for peace and friendship. At this particular moment, the absence may not be noticed. The crisis is not yet all that old. But one wonders if the call for strength without hope will resonate over the next several years. I guess we will find out.

Russia: The Broader Narrative

The world was blindsided by Mr. Putin’s military intervention in Ukraine. Polite folks didn’t think that he would go that far. It was thought that he might try to meddle behind the scenes, but to outright invade? Well, that was beyond the pale.

And so we have a surprise on our hands. In conflict management, surprise is not good. It shows that an underlying theory of what drives folks is incorrect. That, in turn, forces a re-think.

My own re-think was that Putin would realize that he had made a policy mistake. He would see that the potential gains from military intervention did not justify the losses that would surely come from sanctions. I predicted that a settlement might be possible once he saw this. I was surprised again. Time has gone by, the bite of sanctions and plunging oil prices have exacted severe punishment on Russia. Yet there still is no settlement.

One surprise is nicht gut. Two surprises is very nicht gut. A deeper look at what is behind the scenes in Russia is in order. Several books have come out presenting the case that the underlying motivations of the Putin administration are not what they seem. That, I would argue, is obvious.  The question is what are they? A new book comes out with the claim that the entire Putin enterprise is rotten to the core – that they administer a “kleptocracy”.

I link to a review of the book at WSJ that makes this point

(The author) is ascribing complicated motivations to a set of actions that most likely came about through simple greed. It’s not that Mr. Putin didn’t set out to create an authoritarian state: He did. It’s that the link between authoritarian plans and illegal business dealings is assumed by the author, but never fully explored.

In other words, while some of Putin’s actions may have been based on greed, it does not mean that all of them were. There may be other motives as well.  So, once again what are they?

They may be simply a desire to stay in power in order to avoid arrest. Crisis provides a convenient excuse not to allow a transfer of power, and deepening crisis an even better excuse. They may be genuinely based on state interest. Winning in Ukraine and elsewhere is important for Russia. And of course, there is a third possibility. There may be no strategy at all motivating what is going on. Decisions may have been made on the spur of the moment without deep thinking about what might happen. Putin is a tactical rather than a strategic thinker.

From a conflict management point of view, this muddle is unfortunate. It forces the other side to assume the worst cast — that  Putin et al will not change course. That the powers that be in Russia are instead, intent on further destabilizing Eastern Europe and destroying NATO. Whether this is in fact true or not, doesn’t matter. Because one cannot be sure of what will happen, one must assume the worst.

We can learn about conflict management from this. The lesson is a simple one. It is very easy to get locked into conflict because of uncertainty. Once you are locked in, conflict acquires a logic of its own until the uncertainty is resolved one way or another.

Putin’s Demand for Respect

I read about this today. The President of Russia demands respect in his dealings with the US.

As a principle, his is within his rights to demand respect. It is a prerequisite  for any potential dialogue. But what does it mean? Reading Mr. Putin’s remarks, the suggestion is that Russia has not been respected. That the US needs to change its attitude towards Russia as a condition for settlement.

Of course, as with discussion of any principle, it is abstract. Respect can mean any number of things when it is translated into actions. On the one hand, it may mean only that the US must say that it respects Russia. On the other, it may mean that the US must refrain from any involvement in security issues in the region near Russia’s borders.

Which is it? And why? Well, the answers to these questions may determine whether Mr. Putin is angling to settle Ukraine or not. Let’s see what he means.