PUTIN POPULARITY. At last a reasonably intelligent piece on Putin’s popularity. But, while it makes the important point strongly, it is still has some of the clichés that clutter up Western reporting. The important point is that Putin’s popularity has held up despite the fall in oil prices. However, it is a cliché that his popularity suffered with the Kursk sinking (presumably the feeling is that Western leader would in a similar case), the piece claims a “significant drop”, but the chart shows only about one point lost and soon regained. Someone is quoted dragging out the hoariest cliché of all: Russians’ alleged “lasting desire for strongman leadership”. No, it’s much simpler than that. Compare Russia’s prospects in 1999 with today’s. Russians give Putin’s team credit for the improvement across the board: higher standard of living, greater stability and cohesion, increased position in the world and all the rest. There’s nothing mysteriously Russian about it: people like effective leaders everywhere. Another point to reflect on is that many observers assume that they can measure political freedom by the level of opposition they perceive. They see opposition in Georgia or Ukraine but little in Russia. But, as the piece shows, since 2000 about seven out of ten Russians have approved of Putin; an observer will have to look much harder there to find an opponent than in the other two countries where the government structure is much less popular. There it’s easy to find opponents of the government: in Ukraine more than nine out of ten disapprove and in Georgia eight out of ten. And, I suspect, they are much more passionate about their disapproval.

POLITKOVSKAYA TRIAL. Has re-opened after the Supreme Court declared a mistrial in the last attempt. It was adjourned today to consider defence objections. Another case of Russia being damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. It’s condemned because the case is still not resolved; it’s not congratulated that the government’s case failed to convince a jury.

SUBMARINES. Russian submarines off the US coast “raised concerns”, “assertive stance” “echoes of the cold war era” etc etc. But, according to the Russian Navy, such patrols never stopped. So why mention them now? And in the usual context which doesn’t even wonder whether the US makes similar patrols (it does)? As Stalin used to say: “the struggle intensifies”: many people want to undermine Obama’s “reset”.

SOUTH OSSETIA WAR. Saturday will be the first anniversary of the start of the fighting and there will be, no doubt, many think pieces written. Check them, dear readers, with these points in mind: any serious discussion ought to at least mention most of them. Background should start in 1918 when the Democratic Republic of Georgia attempted to add South Ossetia by force; then carry through Stalin-Jughashvili’s decision to cut Ossetia in two and give the southern half to the Georgian SSR; it should mention Ossetian demands to retain the rights they had had in the Soviet system (as an “Autonomous Oblast”); Tbilisi’s rejection of that; then the Georgian attack in 1991. Extra bonus points if anyone mentions the “hosts and guest theory” prevalent in Georgia in the late 1980s. All this left a legacy of mistrust and constant shooting back and forth. These think pieces should get the immediate chronology right too. On 7 August, Saakashvili gave a speech announcing a ceasefire and saying “I love Ossetians as a President and as an ordinary citizen of this country”. A few hours later, Georgian forces opened fire. Expecting a quick seizure of the bridge at Didi-Gupta and believing he had support from Washington, on the 8th Saakashvili gave a “victory speech”. But Georgian forces were stopped by Ossetian militia and collapsed and ran when Russian soldiers arrived, abandoning their cities and their weapons. Since then Saakashvili has changed his story several times; in particular he is now saying that the Russians moved first. There should be some understanding that Saakashvili’s former Defence Minister has admitted that an attack on South Ossetia was always part of the plan. There should be recognition of the truth that the Ossetians are actors, not Moscow puppets and that they have shown, by plebiscites and by fighting, that they do not want to be part of Georgia (at least as it has been constituted since Gamsakhurdia). All of these points should be considered. If they are not, you are reading a whitewash. Perhaps paid for by Saakashvili.

MOLDOVA ELECTION. In parliamentary elections, the Communists won a plurality but not a controlling majority.

UKRAINE GAS. The IMF has approved the third tranche of its US$16 billion stabilisation loan to Ukraine (about US$10 billion received so far). Gazprom has been paid in full for the gas pumped into Ukraine storage facilities in July. Perhaps we will have a quiet winter for once: the winter gas is getting there; it’s paid for.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see