Notebook of Geopolitics

This page is written as part of my PhD studies.

June 18, 2019

The case of Ivan Golunov:
Operational features of Putinism and new challenges it will need to face

On June 6, Ivan Golunov, an investigative reporter from a Riga-based news site, was arrested for an alleged possession and selling of dangerous drugs. Golunov had a solid reputation among his colleagues-journalists in Moscow who without hesitation and delay rebuffed the accusations and made his liberation an ultimate cause and a symbol of journalistic solidarity in Russia. In the matter of days Golunov’s fate went from one extreme to another: after being arrested, he was harshly treated by a police officer while in custody (not an unusual thing in Russia, unfortunately); three days later released to a house arrest by the court decision (quite unusual); and the following day he saw the serious charges against him dropped  by the police (an absolute surprise).

Front page of Vedomosti, RBKdaily and Kommersant: "I/We Ivan Golunov"

During these five days, Russian journalists, both from the state-controlled and independent media, demonstrated an unusual level of what many of them have called “the guild solidarity” and actively protested the arrest of Ivan Golunov. Independent media in Russia - channel TV Rain (“Dozd”), radio station Echo Moskvy, Novaya Gazeta newspaper and, what is of special importance, multiple websites and social media accounts - accused the police of faking the evidence against the journalist and literally planting the drugs in Golunov’s bag and at his apartment (according to many lawyers and human rights activists this is a common practice used by police). Minister of Interior appeared on TV to announce the dropping of charges and also mentioned his recommendation to president Putin to suspend two high-ranking police officers (“generals”) for mishandling Golunov’s case. The recommendation was approved by Putin on the same day.

The protest of media community included publication by three newspapers of identical front-page with the headline "I/We Ivan Golunov", pickets of the court houses and encouragement of public figures, celebrities and ordinary Muscovites to express their solidarity with Golunov. At the same time, representatives of the media community approached senior officials in President’s administration, Ministry of Interior and Moscow municipality. A group of journalists also announced their intention to organize a rally of support for Golunov on June 12, a national holiday of Russian independence. Golunov was released the day before, the authorities refused to approve the rally and suggested to hold it on another day, what was considered by some as a successful attempt to split the media community. Still, a crowd of a few thousand people tried to march on June 12 to protest abuse of power by police and the rally was forcefully dispersed with more than 500 people sent into custody.

What can we learn from this chain of events about the system of Putinism, proclaimed a few months ago by Kremlin’s ideologue Vladislav Surkov to be the recipe for Russia’s governance for the rest of the century? Did it expose “cracks” in Putin’s system, as some experts try to argue (“Journalist’s Release Reveals Cracks in the Putin System”, Did Putin become a hostage in the hands of medium-level bureaucrats whose petty interests and calculations can easily distract media attention from his agenda and ruin his efforts? Some even presented him as unintentional victim of Golunov’s affair (“Golunov Freed; Putin, Not so Much”,( But is he really? It is true, the scandal around Golunov’s arrest diverted media attention from Putin’s speech and diplomatic activities at St. Petersburg Economic Forum.  And it, of course, exposed, once again, Russia's 'Submerged State' whose lack of “synchronicity” with a “visible state” fires back (

However, the notion of “powerlessness” of Putin in a system of his own creation should not be exaggerated. First, the events around Golunov’s case showed that the level of responsiveness of the President’s administration to unexpected and undesirable events is very high. Three days after the arrest Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, told media that the administration is closely following the case, and the next day Golunov was released from custody. This level of responsiveness demands hands-on approach, permanent monitoring and trusted negotiators on behalf of the Kremlin. Of course, the fact that Golunov’s case happened in Moscow contributed to the Kremlin's rapid response. In the case of Yekaterinburg protest against construction of a new church on a contested site, the response was delayed, which could be explained by both the physical distance and the absence of trusted negotiators on behalf of the Kremlin who could have provided a precise analysis of the events. But even there, once the relevant information was delivered, the decision making that followed was done in a fast and effective way, almost like in Golunov’s case.

Second, while the system was ready to allow protest limited to pickets, front-pages and online coverage of the events on non-state media, it showed zero tolerance to an unsanctioned rally and any unrest on the streets of Moscow. In Yekaterinburg, after weeks and months of unrestrained online resistance and local media coverage, the authorities resorted to force only when the protesters began to confront police on the street. A conclusion that should be inferred here is that President’s administration is hostile to any kind of big street protests. It could be that the memories of Bolotnaya protests in 2011, or of the chaotic street protests in the beginning of 90s have created this aversion. In the current state of affairs, online protests, via social networks or independent media, are tolerated since their impact is considered by the authorities to be limited to certain groups of population, in Moscow and some other cities. Is there a possibility that this assessment will be modified? Maybe, but it’s unlikely, for one principal reason: the existence of independent media is an ultimate proof of freedom of the press in Russia, an argument frequently used by President Putin himself. It also can serve for authorities as a source of alternative and more authentic information in comparison to loyal reports by the state-controlled media. Moreover, as recent Russian history can teach, independent media are used, from time to time, by conflicting interest groups within the Russian establishment.

Overall, Golunov’s case didn't expose any new deficiencies in the existing system of governance in Russia that were previously unknown to the president and his experienced team. In the past, distant and not so distant, Putin’s administration had to deal with much more critical situations. Remember "Kursk", Dubrovka, Beslan? The already mentioned Bolotnaya or a murder of Boris Nemtsov? In fact, the President's administration demonstrates a high level of attentiveness and agility when forced to deal with public unrest. As Surkov argued in his article, this ability to listen to the voice of a “deep people” of Russia is an inherent feature of Putinism (see below analysis of Surkov’s article). To conclude the point, errors and shortcomings are inevitable in the system, even in the eyes of its architects, but effectiveness of Putinism should be measured by its ability to fix problems. And make it fast.

But like any model of governance in the world, the Russian system had to deal with ongoing social transformations on a bigger scale - the generational challenge being one of them. Putinism has re-established stability and certitude so long awaited by Russian citizens after the “dashing 90s”, which came at the expense of dynamism in economic and political life in Russia. Among protesters arrested on June 12 there were many young people who were born after Putin was first elected as a President. He is the only leader of the country they know, and Putinism is the only system they experienced in their life. They don’t remember the "dashing 90s", they live in the age of Internet and social media and are aware of alternative models of life, more than the previous generation who was born in the USSR. Are they ready, like their parents were, to give up on the hope to have a better life in exchange for stability? In 2024 Putin’s second (second) term will expire and possible transition of power will take place. It’s possible though that Putin will stay at the helm of the system, only changing his official title, something similar to a recent Kazakhstan scenario. But even if this will not be the case, the Russian political elite will do everything in its power to assure a smooth transition within the existing system of governance. Will the young people who joined protests in Moscow, Yekaterinburg and elsewhere voluntarily accept it?

One of the changes associated with generational gap in Russia is news consumption. Golunov’s case has clearly indicated that protesters received the information they were looking for from the Internet, mostly on social media and info-websites. While older generation of Russians is traditionally addicted to federal TV channels, young people tend to use alternative sources of information escaping the official propaganda on state-controlled television. Ironically, today’s situation bears certain resemblance to Soviet realities of 70s and 80s - when many people, dissatisfied with official propaganda on state TV, searched for more reliable information on Radio Liberty and the Voice of America.

 Generational gap might impact life in Russia in many ways, not all of them predictable today. Will Putin’s system of governance be able to handle it? According to Surkov, “the ability to hear and understand people, see through them, to the full depth and act accordingly is the unique and chief merit of Putin’s state…In the new system, all institutions are subordinated to the main task – trust-based communication and interaction of the supreme ruler with citizens.” That being the case, it’s Putin’s ability to "hear and understand" the new generation of Russians that will determine “whether after many years from now, Russia will still be the state of Putin.”

March 29, 2019

Governors from a “Presidential reserve”?
On the next cycle of gubernatorial elections in Russia

Let me start with the phrase that recently has caught my ear: “Magazine of a Presidential reserve”(‘Oboima Prezidentskogo reserva’). You can hear this term on state media and from governmentofficials quite often in the context of regional elections in Russia. A few years ago, Presidential Academy of the National Economy and Public Administration, under the supervision and guidance of Sergei Kirienko, former Prime Minister of Russia and currently Deputy Head of Presidential Administration, has started to recruit senior  experienced managers and administrators from government agencies and state companies for a special training program. The idea was to prepare them for their next position in government, whenever their skills and experience will be required. This cohort of experienced managers and administrators was named “Magazine of Presidential reserve”.

The “reservists” are already in high demand. On September 8, 2019 a new round of gubernatorial elections is scheduled in Russia. This time the elections will be conducted in 18 “subjects” of the Russian Federation – autonomous republics, territories and districts - a bit less than in the last similar round in September 2018 when elections were held in 26 such “subjects”. According to the Russian constitution governors are elected through a direct vote in most of the 85 entities of Russian Federation (except for about a dozen that opted to abandon this right and elect their governors in local legislative assemblies). The alumni from a “Presidential reserve” academy are, in the eyes of Kremlin, considered to be the natural candidates for governorship and expected to win the elections according to a pre-planned scenario.

In the last three last cycles of regional elections, starting from 2016, a unique model of gubernatorial succession of power has developed in Russia. In this model, that embodies the principle of the “power vertical”, governors are controlled by the federal center and act as its loyal representatives, while their allegiance to a local electorate is secondary. As I already wrote in this blog (see below "Regional elections in Russia: the hard choices of governance"), Russian history, both distant and recent, presents multiple evidence of attempts to reform the balance of powers between the federal center and regional entities. The pendulum has swung a few times in the last 15 years: first, President Putin cancelled direct elections of governors in 2004, then it was restored by President Medvedev in 2012. However, the federal center never gave up on the principle of “power vertical” and  always assisted its candidates with all necessary administrative and PR tools to ensure their election.

How the model works? According to the practice that was tested and proved itself in the last few years, the governors whose term nears the end and who are considered by the Kremlin “non-electable” (for poor performance, low approval ratings or other reason) announce their resignation 6 to 12 month prior to the elections. They are immediately replaced by an “acting governor” that is being parachuted from the federal center. Simultaneously, these acting governors enter elections campaign, with an absolute support of Kremlin and state media, and are eventually and unavoidably elected. In the last 3 years there were 50 (out of 85!) new governors that were elected using this method. One of the experts on Russian regionalism compared this high level of administrative rotation to Gorbachev’s similar wave of appointments in the late 1980s. 

However, as the last round of gubernatorial elections in 2018 showed, the method did not work in four regions, where local electorate refused to support Kremlin’s candidates and preferred alternative candidates from the Communist Party or LDPR. One of the reasons of the protest voting, according to Russian experts, was the growing grudge of the regions’ populations and elites over policies and appointees of the federal center. Despite the efforts to dispatch acting governors who have some personal connection to their region of destination, in most cases (between 50% to 60%) they are considered as outsiders. To take one example: last week 5 governors announced their resignation ahead of the September elections (Murmansk, Orenburg, Chelyabinsk district and Republics of Altai and Kalmykia).  Administrators from a “magazineof Presidential reserve” were appointed as acting governors and most probablywill run at the elections. Out of the five new appointees, only two have some connection to the region they are going to govern. State media emphasized their experience on federal level, explaining that “connection with the region is not the mostimportant or necessary criterion for governor”.

This assumption will be tested again in September. Many observers believe that dissatisfaction with the pension reform introduce in summer 2018 and with economic conditions in Russia was behind the protest voting in the previous election cycle. In the absence of other ways to express their discontent with federal government the voters did it on gubernatorial level. For that matter, personal connection of the candidate to a region was of lesser important; what mattered was the appointees’ association with Kremlin and central government.

Will the protest voting pattern repeat itself in 2019? It is highly probable, since the voters’ dissatisfaction has not disappeared, as could be seen from the decreasing approval ratings of the government and the President. And yet, the government is making choice in favor of the existing mode of “power vertical” and of governors’ federal loyalty over their regional allegiance. In the face of growing external pressure (international sanctions) and internal challenges (economic situation and transition of power towards 2024), greater consolidation is seen by Kremlin as the most important goal. A choice being made, the federal center will need to handle regions’ problems in a crisis management mode. A pendulum of balance of power swings again, to a new equilibrium.

March 26, 2019

Sobibor, IBM and struggle against modern neo-fascism:
a few remarks about Russian narrative on Holocaust

Two weeks ago, on March 10, I watched a long TV reportage about the role of IBM in the genocide machine of the Nazis. The reportage explained how a legendary American company provided advanced information technologies to Germany and by doing this facilitated the “Final Solution” of the Jewish question. It was a comprehensive report that was based on the book of Edwin Black, an investigative journalist from Washington DC. The book, “IBM and the Holocaust”, was published in 2001 and won praise by media and critics including award for the Best Non-Fiction book by the American Society of Journalists and Authors. I am used to a special and regular attention to the memory of Holocaust by Israeli TV channels, which of course is normal. But this reportage was broadcasted on the official channel of the Russian government, “Rossia”, as part of a weekly prime-time news show with Dmitry Kiselyov, one of the most prominent and influential hosts in Russia. 

Personally, I wasn’t surprised. For anybody, who systematically follows the Russian media, there was no news there: Holocaust has become one of the frequently discussed topics by the most popular journalists and hosts on the Russian state TV channels. Vladimir Solovyov, a host of a daily popular show on geopolitics “Evening with Vladimir Solovyov”, who proudly emphasizes his own Jewish origins, often refers to the need of preservation of the memory of Holocaust and fighting antisemitismKiselyov and Solovyov, as well as other hosts and shows (like “60 minutes” and “Vremya Pokazhet” on another state channel “Pervyi”, ‘The First’), regularly refer to Holocaust in the context of discussions on modern-day antisemitism.

This preoccupation of the Russian state television comes as part of the new overtures in the Russian official position that puts a strong (and unprecedented in the Russian history) emphasis on a fight against Holocaust denial, struggle against antisemitism and the rise of neo-Nazism and neo-fascism. Last year, President Putin hosted Prime Minister of Israel at the new Jewish Museum and Tolerance center in Moscow on International Holocaust Remembrance DayOn this occasion, as well as on many others, he highlighted the importance of preserving the memory of the Holocaust, including the key role of the Soviet Army in liberating Nazi death camps and defeating Nazism in Europe. What I find remarkable is that while this vision was present already in the Russian discourse during Yeltsin’s presidency as well as in the first decade of Putin’s rule, in the last three to four years, the official Russian narrative on Holocaust has dramatically expanded in its scope and emphasis and became part of its public relations strategy against its international antagonists – Ukraine, the Baltic states, Poland, USA and the “enlightened” and “civilized” West in general. The quotation marks don’t belong to me but to a predominant discourse in the Russian state media who considers Western world as hypocrite and two-faced.

In President Putin’s vision, the Soviet Army and the USSR, Russia’s legal predecessor, have accomplished an immortal feat which should be glorified and commemorated. Its memory is sacrosanct, that’s is why any comparison between the Soviet Union and the Nazi Germany is, by definition, not just a denial of history but an unforgivable moral blasphemy. Comparisons and accusations of this kind are, in his view, an indication of the rising forces of neo-Nazism and neo-fascism in Europe and elsewhere. The most vivid evidence of West’s moral blindness and hypocrisy manifests itself in its support of Ukrainian government which is castigated by Russian official representatives and media as Nazi, fascist, antisemitic and Russo-phobic regime. Virulent Russophobia in Ukraine is compared only to its own antisemitism, both historical and modern. Ukraine is not, of course, an individual instance of this phenomenon: Russophobia in Baltic states is also compared to the antisemitic nature of recognition and glorification of former soldiers from these countries who fought with the Nazis against Soviet Army and took part in atrocities against Jews and other nationalities. The US administration is repeatedly condemned for being one of a very few states who vote against the UN resolution "Combating Glorification Of Nazism, Neo-Nazism And Other Practices That Contribute To Fueling Contemporary Forms Of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, And Related Intolerance", which was introduced by Russia. 

According to a narrative that became common on the Russian state TV channels, current state of Russophobia in Europe and in America could be compared only to antisemitism, which was widespread in the West before the WWII. Putting it in simple words: in the past they were accusing Jews for all problems, today it’s Russia who is to be blamed for everything.

In this vision, silencing of the Soviet Army’s role in liberating death and concentration camps is just another sacrilege. Russia’s vocal protest around the renovation project of Sobibor concentration camp museum presents a case in point. The history of Sobibor is important for Russia as it spotlights its role in the Holocaust in a particularly outstanding way. A successful revolt and escape from a concentration camp, unique in the history of Holocaust, was initiated and accomplished by a Soviet officer Alexander Pechersky. In July 2017, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation lambasted countries charged with this renovation project for disinviting Russia to take part in it and accused them of “historical amnesia”. Among the countries that were condemned by Russia were Poland, Netherlands, Slovakia and … Israel, whose position was described by the Russian MFA spokeswoman as “bordering on historical betrayal".

Despite diplomatic pressure, Russia was eventually excluded from the project, but it found another way to present its perspective on Sobibor’s events and did it on a global scale. New Russian movie “Sobibor”, produced by Konstantin Khabensky, one of the most popular movie stars in Russia, with financial support of the Russian ministry of culture, was released in May 2018. The film was distributed in Russia, as well as in USA and other countries. President Putin was personally involved in promoting the movie when he watched it with Prime Minister Netanyahu on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2018.  Additionally, a special simultaneous screening of the movie was organized by the Israeli Knesset and Russian Duma on Israel’s Yom Ha’Shoah the same year, at the initiative of Knesset speaker Yuli Edelshtein and Chairman of the Russian Senate Valentina Matvienko.

New Russian narrative on Holocaust of course is diametrically different from Soviet times, when Alexander Pechersky, the hero of the rebellion, was refused by the Soviet authorities to travel and testify on Nazi crimes in Nuremberg and other trials. It also departs from the post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s, when Holocaust was recognized as a unique crime against Jewish people, but was primarily dealt as educational and historical issue, and finally was added to a school program. However, today’s narrative puts it at the heart of Russia’s official foreign policy destined, first and foremost, to the international audience. On the global scene, it empowers Russia’s image as a moral force and serves as an instrument of exposing hypocrisy of the West and forewarning the international public about the danger of neo-Nazism in Ukraine and elsewhere. Domestically, it adds to the legitimacy of the state that defends the sacred memory of the Soviet Army and its role in liberation of Europe from Nazism.

So, what is the target audience of this narrative outside Russia? and what are its goals? First, in the Russian near abroad, that includes Ukraine, Belarus and Baltic states, this narrative reinforces moral standing of pro-Russian forces who fight against the attempts to revision history of the WWII and foster more nuanced explanation of the role of representatives of those nations in the Holocaust. Thus, for example, while Ukrainian government promotes a policy of de-communization, the proliferation of antisemitic extreme groups in the country compromises Ukraine’s policies and is denounced by Russia as an attempt to rewrite a history and rehabilitate Nazi’s Ukrainian collaborators. Those attempts, it should be noted, are equally condemned by Jewish organizations and other institutions. 

Israel also could be seen as a destination for this narrative. However, the Russian narrative on the role of the Soviet Army in defeating Hitler and liberating Nazi camps was officially recognized by Israel many years ago. The celebration of the Victory day in the WWII was inaugurated on May 9th (as in Russia, and not May 8th as in the West). Moreover, all Israeli leaders, beginning with Itzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon, spoke loud and clear about historical debt of the Jewish people to the Soviet Army. Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterates this message and even was among a very few international leaders who participated on May 9th, 2018 in the March of “Immortal Regiment”, a new Russia's initiative of commemorating the victory and sacrifice of the Soviet Army. 

 Israel’s recognition is not only official, it is based on the perception of a million immigrants from former Soviet Union who hold dear the memory of their parents and grandparents. Explaining the key role of the Soviet Army in WWII for too many people in Israel is like preaching to the choir. And as an Israeli, I can tell you why “Sobibor” could strike such a strong emotional chord in Israel: Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day is called “Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance day”, and it is being observed on the day of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, a powerful expression of heroism of the Jewish people.

Another, probably even more important objective of the Russian public diplomacy around its efforts to preserve memory of the Holocaust and to fight antisemitism is Jewish community outside of Russia, particularly in the US. Take as an example a promotion of the “Sobibor” – it was distributed in the USA and multiple screenings were organized with the help of the Russian embassy or organizations of Russian-speaking community. These efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Izabella Tabarovsky from Washington's Wilson Center wandered about the reasons for this “Russia’s Strange Obsession with Sobibor”. 

 But, of course, it is not only about the movie and this “obsession” is neither accidental nor spontaneous, even if it looks strange. There is a consistent policy of President Putin himself to conduct an ongoing dialogue with Jewish leaders from both US and Europe about the problem of antisemitism. On one occasion he even suggested that European Jews come back and settle in Russia in face of the growing antisemitism in Europe. And his meetings with Ron Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, have become more frequent, the latest one was reported to take place last week. 

               Critics of the new Russian narrative highlight the fact that Russian government is less active about allowing or encouraging research on the Holocaust on the territory of RussiaMany others express overt suspicion over the change of policy and very selective perspective on both Russian and Soviet attitudes towards the Jewish community throughout the history, not only during the WWII.  Look, for instance at this article by Ben Cohen from Jewish National Syndicate with very categorical title “Putin plays with the Holocaust”

            No doubt, multiple considerations are at play, or rather, interplay of the geopolitical interests between Russia, Israel, USA, Middle East and Europe. What is clear though, is that from the beginning of post-Soviet Russia, its three Presidents, Yeltsin, Putin and Medvedev, showed respect to the Jewish community and were never accused of antisemitism. Some of their remarks (like this one - ‘Putin's 'Ukrainians,Tatars, Jews' Remark Triggers Backlash' ) were not able to change their image as authentically non-antisemitic, and some would even claim, philosemitic individuals. From the beginning of his first tenure, in 2000, Putin made serious efforts to establish strong bonds with Russian Jewish community, and thanks to that he was never accused of antisemitic motives for his assaults on oligarchs many of whom happened to be Jews.

                To conclude, new overtures in Russian public diplomacy regarding Holocaust and antisemitism stem from its geopolitical strategy but are based on strong historical narrative. They also reflect new realities and trends: while in Russia antisemitism is less socially acceptable and antisemitic attacks are in decline , in many western countries it is on the rise, fueled mainly by radical Islamic indoctrination and protest movements calling on boycotting Israel. From this point of view Putin, as a conservative leader who defends order and traditional values, is no different from many right-wing leaders in the West who support the state of Israel and are interested in reaching out to the Jewish community The new Russian narrative on Holocaust and fighting antisemitism has its limits and would be criticized and rejected by some for being rooted in cluster of its political interests. However, it has a potential to assert itself due to its moral and historical strength, and due to Russia’s growing impact on social networks and media worldwide. 

March 12, 2019

“Realism of predetermination”, “deep people”
and “altered consciousness” of the West:
Honest reflections on the nature of state in Russia by Kremlin’s advisor

In February the attention of Russian media was attracted by two events, both originating in the Kremlin. The first one was the annual address of president Putin to the Federal Assembly where he outlined the challenges and goals of the Russian government. President Putin’s emphasis this year was on social problems facing Russia, from demographic problem and poverty to insufficient economic growth and unfair practices towards businessmen.

Putin’s speech also included a long passage dedicated to international developments, where he mainly criticized US unilateral withdrawal from INF treaty and warned the Western countries to carefully “calculate the range and speed of our future arms systems” before taking their decisions. Russian President repeated that his country will not initiate deployment of weapons in Europe without being “forced” to do so by the other side. However, he added a new element to his last-year thorough description of new Russian weaponry and his warning to the West (“No one listened to us then. So, listen to us now”), when he said this:

 “I am saying this directly and openly now, so that no one can blame us later, so that it will be clear to everyone in advance what is being said here. Russia will be forced to create and deploy weapons that can be used not only in the areas we are directly threatened from, but also in areas that contain decision-making centers for the missile systems threatening us.”

This is a new detail in the existing policy of Russia, but Putin’s style doesn’t surprise anyone after his 20 years in power. That is why in my eyes, it was not the President’s address but an article by one of his close advisors, Vladislav Surkov, published a few days before it, where one can find very significant and unorthodox ideas and revelations. The article appeared in Nezavisimaya Gazeta on February 11 and was titled “Putin’s Long State”, and sub-titled “What actually is happening here”.

Surkov’s article aroused multiple critical reactions, from both liberals and conservatives in Russia. Alexander Dugin, the theoretician of Russian Eurasianism, rushed to point out flaws of Surkov’s article, denying its central argument that Putinism is here to stay for a long time even after Putin’s departure. The Moscow Times, known for its critical attitude to the authorities, was even more decisive in tone and published an opinion piece by one of its contributors named “Kremlin Puppet Master Surkov Distracts Public with Putin Panegyric”. Both liberals and conservatives opted to mock Surkov’s credentials as theoretician and philosopher and downplayed the importance of his article. But the importance of the article should be seen through the prism of national image and its impact on global scene, which are at the epicenter of today’s world of popular geopolitics.

Surkov is not just unapologetic, not just honest, he is remorselessly honest. In fact, he openly acknowledges some of the harsher liberal accusations against the current regime in Russia:

“The multi-tiered political institutions adopted from the West are sometimes considered partly ritualistic, instituted more for the sake of being 'like everyone else', so that the differences in our political culture do not attract our neighbors' notice that much, do not irritate and frighten them.”

All these institutions were introduced in Russia in the 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the goal of establishing western-like democracy in Russia. But today they aren’t but “Sunday best clothes, in which people go to neighbors, while at home, we act informally, and everyone knows what he should wear.” Surkov offers an honest description of the Russian state as it exists and functions today:

“The ability to hear and understand people, see through them, to the full depth and act accordingly is the unique and chief merit of Putin’s state…In the new system, all institutions are subordinated to the main task – trust-based communication and interaction of the supreme ruler with citizens. The various branches of power converge into the person of a ruler, not being considered intrinsically a valuable asset, but only to the extent that they can maintain a connection with the leader.”

This system of ruling the country is what Surkov calls Putinism (the first time, on my memory, that the term is used not by researchers, experts or journalists, but by a representative of the President’s administration). According to him the success of Putinism, its effectiveness and durability are founded on a trust between the supreme ruler and the “deep people”.

Even though for Surkov the concepts of “deep people” (introduced by him in juxtaposition to the concept of “deep state”) and a trust the people bestows upon its supreme ruler are key to understanding the Russian model of state, he doesn’t spare much time to explain them. “Deep people”, he says, “has a mind of its own, untouched by sociological polls, campaigning, threats, and other methods of direct analysis and influence. Understanding what it is, what it is thinking and what it wants, often comes suddenly and belatedly, and not to those who can do something.” Using some other descriptions, like « people God-bearer », he, in fact, refers us to mystical teachings about Russian people by Il’yin, Berdyaev, Dostoevsky and others. When he explains why the “deep people” trusts its leader he only mentions “whether it’s a matter of pride of a never-subdued people or whether it’s a desire to get a shortcut to truth or something else, it’s hard to say, but it is a fact and not a new one. What is new is that the state does not ignore this fact, takes it into account and departs from it in state endeavors.”
Surkov’s description of the Russian state is preceded by a virulent and equally remorseless depiction of the Western democracy, which according to him is founded on illusions, the most crucial among them “the illusion of choice”, produced by the “deep state”: “From the depths and darkness of this behind the scenes and discrete power, the bright mirages of democracy emerge made there only for the masses - the illusion of choice, the sense of freedom, the feeling of superiority, etc.” The Western democracy is characterized by an absolute distrust between the ruling class and the people, which gives way to “the beneficent system of checks and balances - the dynamic equilibrium of meanness, the balance of greed, the harmony of deception.” The answer of the Russian people to all the “tricks” of western democracy is “the realism of predetermination” and the trust between “deep people” and its “supreme ruler”. And again, unapologetically, Surkov confides:
Our system, as well as everything in our state, looks, of course, inelegant, but instead more honest. And although not everyone regards the word 'more honest' as synonymous with the word 'better', it is not unappealing.”

The model of state offered by Russia is one based on principles of sovereignty, national interests, limitations on freedoms, decisive role of “military-police functions of the state”, as opposed to a “deep state” which is “rigid, absolutely undemocratic network organization of the real power of security services hidden behind the external window-dressing of democratic institutions.” In this competition of the two distinct systems of government, western leaders were taken by surprise on how “appealing” the Russian model has become to so many citizens in the West. Unfortunately for them, Surkov asserts,

“…the twenty-first century turned out our way. The English Brexit, the American “#greatagain”, anti-immigration fencing of Europe are only the first items of an extensive list of ubiquitous manifestations of de-globalization, re-attainment of sovereignty and nationalism.

The winds of history, according to Surkov, blow in the sails of the new state system of Putinism, that’s why it is an effective “political structure” for Russia and also has a strong “export potential” abroad. Its experience is "being studied and partially adopted", and while “foreign politicians blame Russia for interference in elections and referendums around the globe… the matter is even more serious - Russia interferes in their brains, and they do not know what to do with their own altered consciousness.

Surkov’s analysis offers an absolutely clear vision by the Kremlin of today’s world as a struggle between two systems of governments that are based on opposing systems of values. This struggle could remind us about the ideological confrontation between the capitalist West and the USSR that lasted for 70 years of the last century, but of course it differs in many ways and this is not the place to discuss those differences. It’s clear though that Surkov re-affirms Russia’s choice to serve as an ideological alternative to the liberal western democracy and to present itself as anti-liberal, conservative force that defends sovereignty and justifies authoritarianism as a legitimate model of state. These ideas were introduced by President Putin on several occasions, beginning from the Munich speech in 2007, but Surkov’s article provides an honest and consistent attempt of characterization of Putinism and of projecting Russia’s national image as a strong and self-confident superpower in the ongoing geopolitical and ideological confrontation.

That is why it would be a mistake to simply brush off this vision on the grounds of controversiality of article’s author or unoriginality of his ideas. Ideas have power in the world, they can lose it, and sometimes they can regain their impact. The current crisis of liberal democracy and the rise of authoritarianism and populism have become a global trend, including in Western Europe and the United States. The appealing power of authoritarianism leads some experts to ask whether the economic competition between it and democracy could be won by the latter, as predetermined by conventional theories and beliefs. In this competition Russia not just took a side, but as Surkov reassures article’s readers: “The sizable role assigned to our country in world history does not allow us to exit offstage or play the role of the understudy.”

“Appearance blinds, whereas words reveal”, said Oscar Wilde who also wrote on the importance of being earnest. Maybe, as his critics have argued, Surkov was not completely earnest in this article. But his words were quite revealing.

 January 17, 2019

“We must protect our Constitution”

On 25th anniversary of Russia’s fundamental document, Prime Minister Medvedev and President of Constitutional court of Russian Federation forewarn of drastic revision of the Constitution

On December 12 Russia celebrated 25 years of its Constitution. On that day of 1993 a majority of Russian voters approved the document that was submitted by Boris Yeltsin, first President of post-Soviet Russia. It is worth mentioning that the vote was organized two months after confrontation between Yeltsin and the Russian parliament that ended with shelling of Parliament’s building. The new constitution established a new model of relations between the legislative and executive branches and granted more authorities to the President.

The concept of a constitution played a very important role in Russian history in the last 200 years. Already in 1818 Russian Tsar Alexander asked his aides to draft text for constitution, but in face of growing liberalization of society he gave up on the idea. The famous Decembrists, group of Russian aristocrats and officers, who tried through an uprising to reform Russia, abolish serfdom and introduce constitutional monarchy in Russia found themselves on the scaffold or in exile – the new Russian Tsar, Nikolai I was not a big fan of reforms. Almost a century later, his descendant Nikolai II was pushed to introduce reforms and declared a Manifest that is considered by some historians as a de-facto constitution.  However, the first constitution was adopted in Russia only after Bolshevik’s revolution in 1918. Second constitution was ratified in 1924 with formal establishment of the USSR. Comrade Stalin made some amendments and ratified a new version of it in 1936. 40 years later in 1977 it was the turn of comrade Brezhnev to adopt a new Soviet Constitution, which ceased to exist with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

During Soviet times the constitution was taught as a mandatory course at school. I remember studying its articles, impressed with values and principles it declared. But everyone knew that there was a disconnect between the written document and a reality, and that only one article in a constitution was fully implemented – a famous article 6 according to which “the leading and guiding force of the Soviet society and the nucleus of its political system, of all state organizations and public organizations, is the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”

“Alarming calls for cardinal constitutional reforms” and a need for “surgical” changes

But enough with all these historical digressions... Let’s talk about the current Constitution, which was approved 25 years and despite multiple amendments and modifications endured and remained mostly intact during challenging times for the country. A reason to celebrate? Yes, but … both the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (on official website of the Russian Governement) and President of the Constitutional Court of Russian Federation Valery Zorkin (in the official newspaper of Russian Governement) voice concerns about certain calls for “radical changes” of the Constituion. They do not specify where those calls come from, however they warn very clearly against them. Zorkin even asserts that these ideas are “not only superficial, but dangerous as they could bring to a severe social and political destabilization of the country”. Medvedev argues that while some modifications could become necessary to reflect the changing world, “in principle, the  Constitution should be eternal”. 

Both leaders agree that certain amendments could be adapted in order to improve the text of the constitution. Zorkin, for instance, thinks that the existing system of checks and balances, excessive strength of executive branch should be corrected; Medvedev brings examples of past amendments, some of which he initiated himself, like extension of President’s term from 4 to 6 years, that reflected the necessities of the country but did not disrupt the spirit of the constitution. Zorkin and Medvedev believe that some kind of “surgical changes” (both use this same expression) of constitution are possible without radically revising its main values and principles.

“Ahead of us – time of litigations”

One of the most important foundations of the Constitution, according to both authors, is the “doctrine of inalienable human rights and the principles of equality before law”. In Medvedev’s words “constitution’s ideology is the rights and freedoms of citizens”, and he even takes proud in the fact that this article was one of the first in Russian Constitution, compared to the US bill of rights that was approved as an amendment after adoption of the American constitution (more about references to US constitution in their articles read below). Russian Prime Minister, who is a lawyer by education, argues that Russia is entering the “era of courts” – of litigations and court rulings that will help implement and fully realize the principles and rights embedded in the Constitution.

However, both authors emphasize a need for putting limits to, or in the words of Zorkin making “a correction of the liberal and individualistic approach to law interpretation (which is predominant today in theory and practice worldwide) so that it will introduce the idea of solidarity into the concept of law.” According to him, strong sense of collectivism is an inherent characteristic of Russian people due to its specific history, which also leads him to a long discussion on the importance of the concept of “constitutional identity” of any nation and to a criticism of the European Court of human rights for attempts to impose their interpretation of laws. Medvedev also expresses his concern for excessive politicization of another European body, Council of Europe, despite the initial enthusiasm about Russia’s joining the organization in 1998.

Comparing to American constitution and political system

For me, as a researcher of US-Russia mutual perceptions, this part of discussion was surprising and quite amusing. Surprising – because despite the current level of geopolitical, military and economic tensions between the countries and widespread mutual accusations in anti-Americanism here and Russophobia there, Medvedev and Zorkin speak about American constitution and political system from a positive and respectful perspective. Zorkin, for example, believes that American two-party political system could be the best fit for Russia and asserts that “it is not shameful to borrow from the experience of others if it was tested by centuries.” Also, in his discussion of the importance of the concept of social justice he quotes a famous American philosopher J.B Rawls known for his defense of liberalism.

Prime Minister Medvedev sounds a bit condescending about some facts regarding US constitution. I already referred to a comparison he made that, unlike US Bill of Rights, Russian constitution introduced the individual rights immediately upon its adoption. In discussing the legitimacy of the Russian constitution as a result of a nation-wide referendum, he brings in a “funny story” from American history and quotes James Madison about somewhat flimsy legitimacy of American constitution. And yet, what I found amusing was the expression he chose to call the authors of Russian constitution“the Founding Fathers”. Medvedev provided a long list of legal experts who took active part in writing the constitution, among them, by the way, Valery Zorkin, but also Anatoly Sobchak, who is the only one of the Founding Fathers who is quoted in his article (Sobchak was a prominent political leader of Gorbachov’s perestroika, who was later elected Mayor of Saint-Petersburg and both Medvedev and Putin worked with him in different capacities).

Future of constitution, future of Russia?

The articles by Zorkin and Medvedev generated wide discussion which was less about constitution and more about the political future of Russia. Many experts, especially from liberal circles, underscored the political calculus behind these discussions to launch a project with a goal to allow smooth transition of power in 2024, when the second term of President Putin will come to an end.

And yet, some experts tried to keep focus on the constitution and less on immediate political interpretations. Sergei Shahrai, one of those “Founding Fathers” mentioned by Medvedev, deplored that the constitution’s level of “fictitiousness”today is between 20-25%. He also explained that for the constitution of USSR the level of fictitiousness was 100%, when there was a complete disconnect between reality and the document.

In this context, the articles by Zorkin and Medvedev demonstrate an ambition at the highest power echelons of Russia to keep and improve its democratic constitution. Facing the crisis of western liberal democracy, they look for a model of constitution and political system that can make sense. May be not to others, but at least to the Russian people?

December 1, 2018

Regional elections in Russia: the hard choices of governance

Managing the largest country in the world

The most watched elections of the fall 2018 were mid-term elections in the United States. American politics were always at the center of global attention, and during Trump presidency even more so. However, regional elections in Russia, the largest country in the world, nuclear and military superpower, that under the Presidency of Vladimir Putin strives to reassert its role as a global player, should not be overlooked. Regional elections in a country of such geographical dimensions, ethnic diversity of population (more than 200 ethnic groups) who speak on more than 100 languages, just could not be ignored.

Just think about the size of Russia: 11(!) time zones, 6.6 million square miles, making it bigger than three continents (Europe, Australia and Antarctica) and almost the size of South America. Country that is a continent in itself, and not only for its geography, of course, but because of its long history, culture and ethnic diversity. Russian Federation consists of 85 “federal subjects”, or rather constituent entities, that include 22 autonomous republics, 4 autonomous regions and 1 autonomous district, 46 administrative districts and 9 administrative territories as well as 3 cities of federal significance (Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and Sevastopol). Managing such a big country is a challenge for any type of government and bureaucratic apparatus, and the Russian history provides ample examples of attempts to change and reform, again and again, system of management of its territories.

From “parade of sovereignties” to “vertical of power”

Let’s just look at the recent years, since the dissolution of Soviet Union. The first Russian President Boris Yeltsin is credited with this famous expression addressed to leaders of Russia’s regions: “Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow.” This declaration allowed Yeltsin to recruit the regional elites on his side in his struggle against the central authority of the Soviet Union, but it also created a strong separatist movement in Chechnya and lead eventually to the first Chechen war (1994-1996). When President Putin came to power in 2000, one of his first ground breaking decisions was to restore order and control of Chechnya. The “parade of sovereignties” of his predecessor’s term was replaced by a new postulate of “vertical of power”, or chain of command. In fact, it was Yeltsin who had already introduced this concept in 1999, by it was President Putin who put it into practice. The outcome of this policy was that the relations of power between Moscow and regional entities tilted towards greater centralization, with authority and budget concentrated in the hands of federal center.

The question of elections of governors and local heads of administrative regions and territories is directly correlated with the principle of governance: During Yeltsin’s rule (1991-2000) direct elections were the norm by which local leaders came to office. But in 2004, President Putin introduced legislation to Duma, which was approved a few month later, cancelling direct elections of governors. According to a new legislation, the president would propose a list of gubernatorial candidates to regional legislative assemblies and they will make the final decision. This system allowed the federal center to de-facto appoint governors and strengthen its control over the regions. During this period 35 governors, in almost half of Russia’s regions, were replaced.  However, this system was reversed once again in 2012 during the presidency of Dimitry Medvedev. Vladimir Putin, then Russian Prime Minister, was also in favor of reforming the system and suggested that the political parties in the regions will recommend a list of candidates to the President who will select those who fit and those candidates will participate in elections. According to the final compromise that was approved in April 2013, direct elections of governors were restored, but the regions had the right to revoke them and appoint their leaders by local legislatures. Six autonomous republics of Northern Caucasus (Dagestan, Ingushetia, Adygeam Kabardino-Balkariam, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Northern Ossetia), voluntary refused form direct elections of their presidents.

Elections 2018: protest voting in four regions

Since 2012, when the direct elections were restored in most of the Russia’s regions, the representatives of the central government were able to gain support of the voters and get elected. The electoral success of Kremlin’s candidates could be explained by many factors, among them the most important were stabilization of the economic conditions in the country and growing popularity of president Putin. In many situations, the gubernatorial candidates on behalf of the federal center were appointed as acting heads of administration, in order to replace governors who asked to retire a year or so before the election date. During this period, they were able to demonstrate their managerial skills and earn the trust of population, that would lead to their election.

On September 2018, elections of heads of administration were organized in 23 regions. In four of them the Kremlin candidates lost and representatives of two opposition parties – Liberal Democratic party (LDPR) and Communist party (CPRF) – won the elections. In Vladimir region and Khabarovsk territory it was LDPR candidate, in Khakassia – the representative of CPRF. The elections in Primorye territory were cancelled by Federal election commission due to vote rigging: the candidate from CPRF was leading the polls, but his opponent surprisingly saw a ‘surge” of support when there were only 5% of votes to count. Many Russian experts agreed that the opposition representatives have won thanks to a protest voting. Government’s decision in July to raise the pension age was extremely unpopular in Russia and as a result, the approval ratings of the ruling party, “United Russia”, and those of the President Putin significantly declined ( The regional elections in September gave voters a chance to express their discontent through ballot box punishing the candidates “parachuted” by the Kremlin.

“What is to be done?”

One Russian joke tells that the two most popular questions in Russia are “Who is to be blamed?” and “What is to be done?” After rejecting the candidates of the federal center in four regions, the voters answered the first question. Now the government should find the answer to a second question, which poses the same dilemma that Yeltsin, Putin, and all their predecessors were dealing throughout the Russian history: how to manage all these immense territories?

One of the central challenges is economic disparity between the regions. There is a dozen of rich regions, and the differences between them and the poor regions is stunning. For example, an average salary in Moscow is 90690 rubles ($ 1346), while in neighboring Tver’ region it is only 26559 rubles ($ 394). Statistics show that in the last years there is a tendency of diminishing disparity between the regions, mostly due to the rising salaries of the government employees across the country. But how make non-government employees to feel this trend?

The federal government is also trying to create a managerial reserve – ( a pool of qualified and experience managers who will be able also to engage local elites and voters through dialogue and understanding, not just “the chain of command”. The success of Kremlin’s candidates in the next elections (September 8, 2019) will depend on their ability to advance the government agenda without alienating local population.

On Valdai Forum (October 2018) President Putin was talking about Russia as a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society. The attitude of tolerance towards and between different ethnic and religious group is the “basis of Russia’s existence”, according to him, and “if we want that Russia continue to develop and consolidate as such by its state-forming nation, which is of course the Russian people, then it is the interest of the Russian people to preserve this state”. President’s careful choice of words underscores how challenging it is to keep this balance in such a diverse and large country as Russia.

October 2, 2018

The US –Russia contest for leadership in the Middle East:

 Towards new confrontation or convergence of interests?

After almost 20 years of “the end of history”,  when American leadership in global affairs became self-evident and looked almost axiomatic, while the animosity between US and Russia seemed like a matter of the past, the return to Russian presidency of Vladimir Putin in 2012 tilted once again the balance of powers between the two countries. The new-old Russian president, who is projected to dominate his country at least until 2024, and, possibly, even beyond, dramatically challenged the assumptions of the post- Cold War world and shattered some of the arrangements and rules of conduct that were established in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia’s reemergence as a self-confident and aggressive global player could be dated back to the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, when President Putin was still formally Prime Minister and not a head of state. This new emboldened approach of Russia showed itself almost to its fullest extent during the Crimea takeover and the promptly organized referendum that seceded this Black sea peninsula from Ukraine and made it part of the Russian Federation. And yet, the American administration refused to see in Russia a global power, when President Obama, somewhat disdainfully, even if hastily, referred to it as “a regional power that acts against its neighbors out of weakness, not strength.” The Russian role in preventing US military strike in response to use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime made this statement by US President look as lacking in accuracy; in the light of Russian military intervention in Syria that started two years later this statement clearly constituted a severe judgment error.

The military intervention in Syria in an attempt to save the regime of Bashar al Assad and keep intact Russian interests in the east Mediterranean marked a new milestone in Russia’s determination to make a comeback as a super power to the world stage. It demonstrated Russian army’s new and advanced capacities and its willingness to keep its military presence in the Middle East; it demonstrated its ability of shrewd decision making in situation of general uncertainty as well as its aptness at coalition building and diplomatic engagement with former adversaries; last but not least, it signaled to the US and the Western world that Russia is ready to challenge their hegemony in the Middle East. While Crimean takeover, Russian-Georgian war and tensions between Russia and former Soviet republics on its western border take place in the area defined by Russia as “near abroad” and as such destined to serve as a natural buffer zone between Russia and the West, engagement in the Middle East foreshadows new global stance of the Russian Federation, and probably foretells expansion elsewhere. To fully comprehend the significance of this reemergence of Russia in the Middle East it is suffice to put it in a perspective of the recent history – from the beginning of 1990s - when Russia’s retreat from the region looked like a fait accompli.

Against the backdrop of this goal-oriented and determined standing of Russia in the Middle East, the trajectory of the US policies in the Middle East during the same period of time reveals, at least to some experts, the very opposite characteristics and direction. Beyond any doubt, American engagement in the Middle East reached its unprecedented peaks in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century: two Gulf wars, toppling of the Saddam Hussein’s regime, numerous attempts to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, dealing with Iranian nuclear program and with terrorist threats coming from the radical Islamist movements that originated from the region - to mention only the most outstanding issues. However, argue these experts, in the last years of Obama administration, as well as into the first year of Trump’s, the signs of at least partial disengagement are all but invisible, even despite the efforts aimed at ultimate deal on the Israel-Palestine conflict and a rejection of the Iranian deal. Withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, adoption of “leading from behind” approach in Libyan crisis, contradictory policies during the first years of Arab spring and diminishing zeal for peace making between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as a decision to give other to do the job, including in Syrian cataclysm - all represent this fatigue of the American foreign policy from the region. Pivot to Asia of President Obama was an attempt to redirect the map of American interests in the world and reformulate its priorities. “America first” slogan of President Trump’s campaign, even with the belated correction year after his inauguration - “first but not alone”, reasserts, in fact, the vision of America’s role that is more cautious and less dedicated the concept of boots on the ground.

I will get back to this at the conclusion, but it’s important to say in this context that the Middle East region stays and surely will stay in the crossroads of global interests between the two powers, the US and Russia, in any foreseeable scenario.  The two countries have invested enormous quantities of energy and resources in the Middle East over the course of the last 70 plus years: diplomatic, political, military and economic. They were involved extensively in the decision making process in the regional affairs, sometimes deploying their troops to defend their allies, sometimes imposing their will against them, and sometimes being betrayed by them. Hardly any other region in the world had captivated so much attention and active engagement, over such a long period of time and – with so much unpredictability, volatility and, eventually, ever-repeating frustration.

My first point, therefore, is that given a tremendous US and Russian involvement in the Middle East and an extensive web of interests, allegiances, alliances, enmities, expectations and promises that they created in the region, the destinies of individual countries in the ME as well as of the region in whole will be shaped by relentless interference from this two countries and the battle for leadership between them. In other words, United States and Russia are doomed to continue their involvement here, trying to get a return on their huge investments and competing for more influence, while being profoundly entangled by the web of these connections at all levels of engagement – from military and political, economic and financial, to value-based and emotional.

My second point is that while the confrontational approach has been characteristic throughout most of the history of their rivalry in the Middle East, American and Russian interests can nevertheless overlap, as they did in the past, and potentially allow solution of at least a few regional problems that could benefit the region. The encounter between US and Russian interests in the Middle East is not inherently antagonistic, and conditions for a positive convergence of interests of the two countries could re-emerge in the future, as it happened in a few important junctions in the past.

The US-Russian direct contemporaneous involvement in the Middle East dates to the late 1940s, when the WWII allies embarked on redesigning of the entire international system. From this time until these very days the two countries’ presence in the region was a given, even though their influence and leverage differed significantly. Three distinct periods could be delineated in this respect. The first one - 1945-1991, was a period of the American-Soviet ideological competition and rivalry that made of the Middle East one of the major battle grounds between the USA and USSR. During this time the two superpowers put enormous efforts to attract the countries of the region within their orbit and committed themselves to unprecedented levels of support to their allies. The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 marks the beginning of a second period, when the Russian presence in the region has dwindled and became marginal and sporadic. During these years the US became the only superpower present in the region and tried to impose a Pax Americana without any interference from a former geopolitical rival. This period ended in 2013 when Russia’s initiative in Syria demonstrated to the international community that it is back to the game in the region, big time. Since 2013 the Russian influence in the region kept growing, even if still challenged by local players, as well as by the USA, giving reason to observers and decision makers to see in these developments signs of the new cycle of rivalry between the two countries, Middle East being the first new front outside the Russia’s “near abroad”, where the two countries and their allies directly confront each other not just diplomatically but also militarily.

In the context of periodization of the US-Russia engagement in the Middle East, it is important to underline it doesn’t match the chapters of the Middle Eastern ideological, political and economic evolution over the same time span.  Decolonization process of the 40s and the 50s, the establishment of the state of Israel,  the pan-Arabic projects of the late 60s, the Arab-Israeli wars, the Iranian revolution and a subsequent Iran-Iraq war, as well as the Arab spring, were all results of dramatic and , all too often, contradictory transformations taking place in the region. These and other events demonstrated the limits of the superpowers as well as a large degree of independence and free choice exercised by the regional forces, even to the extent of rejection of the will of their influential allies and causing both US and Russia to adopt to new circumstances and demands. To summarize this point, it would be absolutely wrong to see the regional players as marionettes in the hands of their masters.

And yet, the role of the superpowers should not be underestimated either, particularly in the dramatic events like regional wars (Sinai campaign in 1956, war of Yom Kippur in 1973, first Gulf war in 1991, second Gulf war in in 2003) or in mediating peace agreements (Camp David in 1979, Madrid conference in 1991, Camp David II in 2000). Even though the history of the region has followed a distinct path, from ideological, political and economic points of view, reflecting a its long history and complicated snarl of religions and ethnicities, the US-Russia competition for leadership in the Middle East has undoubtedly had a profound impact on the destinies of the region and shaped its political and economic conditions.

The developments since 2013 are an indication that this relationship persists and will continue in the future, not just because of the incessant and patronizing interference from the two powers, but also as a result of the growing demand from regional players to receive assistance from US and Russia, if necessary, intervene on their behalf and defend them. For that reason, the third point I would like to make is that many countries in the Middle East have developed profound strategic dependency on one of the two powers and have high and rising expectation from them to keep their respective commitments. In case of Saudi Arabia and Golf states, Israel and Jordan this is United States; in case of Syria and Iran – it is Russia; other states, like Egypt, or stateless nations, like Palestinians and Kurds, has tried at different circumstances to play both cards in their search for superpower’s auspices and protection. The balance of powers between the regional players is in constant flux since the beginning of the 20th century, and more so in the last 70 years. This situation compels them to look for external powers that can provide them with missing or inadequate abilities and capacities. As in the past so nowadays and, highly probably, in the future they will be still in need of political clout that only global heavyweights possess, in order to protect their interests and settle accounts with their neighboring rivals. And USA and Russia seem to be all too predisposed to meddle in the regional affairs, far more eagerly than in any other region in the world, and far more eagerly than any other countries outside the Middle East would consider.

What are the reasons of this predisposition, of this “fatal attraction”? To answer this question we need to look at the wide range of geopolitical and economic interests, but also of cultural and religious influences and intellectual debates in both countries, and trace them beyond the 70 years of their competition for leadership in the Middle East. United States started its first engagements with the countries of the region, particularly with Saudi Arabia, in the 1930s and was driven, first and foremost, by economic interests. However, in the preceding period, since the American Revolution till the WWI, the Middle East was largely out of scope of American attention. It was different in case of Russia that is geographically close to the Middle East and throughout its distant history (especially in 15th-17th centuries, but also back to the times of the Kievan Rus’) came into direct contact with some of its middle-eastern neighbors. Also, since Peter the Great’s dramatic “cutting a window into Europe”, Russia has been embroiled into European affairs starting from the 18th century, and as a result entered the inter-European competition over influence in the Balkans and the Middle East already in the second half of the 19th century. 

Whereas comparative analysis of the distant historic developments is helpful in understanding the roots of the special attraction to the area, this predisposition to middle-eastern affairs should include analysis of contemporary American and Russian geopolitical calculations, their respective economic interests in the regions, and of course ideological (especially during Cold War) and geopolitical calculations. Middle East is a region of opportunities no less than that of threats. The region’s economic potential which is yet to be fully exposed and integrated into the global economy; its geographical importance as a crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe; its younger demographics that loom large over the aging populations in Russia, Europe and the USA; the insatiable regional appetites for technologies, resources and weapons  – all those factors drive Americans and Russians, as well as Chinese, Europeans, Japanese and others,  to continue their competition for the minds, the hearts and the pockets of the regional players.

Last but not least, the domestic political considerations should not be overlooked in our attempt to understand the reasons of American and Russian predilection towards the Middle East involvement as well as motivations and logic behind their positions, attitudes and policies. For instance, US steady support of Israel should be examined, among other things, in the light of the sentiment shared by large segments of American public, like Christian evangelical and Jewish communities. In case of Russia, even though the instances of public pressure, especially in questions of foreign policy, are rather sporadic, the presence of the large Muslim population in the Russian Federation is a factor that can’t be ignored by the country’s leadership in dealing with region dominated by Moslem countries and torn by violence inspired by religious confrontation.

My final point is this: many of the assumptions and assessments that we uncritically accept today are, at least, not very precise, and, possibly, could be wrong. American withdrawal from the Middle East is a fact? Not exactly, rather looking for a better match between the American presence and interests in the region with its resources, asking local players to take more responsibility. Russian domination in the region? Not exactly, but rather a mixture of a smart political maneuvering and limited use of military power, mostly in western part of Syria. The Idlib agreement with Turkey, the latest tension with Israel over the plane accident are only latest examples of how limited, difficult and uncertain Russian engagement in Syria is and why Russia will need others to find a solution in Syria.  Super-powers need to adjust their policies, to match goals with available resources. They want to adjust, not to withdraw. And this need for adjustment is probably the moment of convergence of interests.

No comments:

Post a Comment