ELECTION FEVER. Recent remarks by Medvedev and Putin have set off a Kommentariat feeding frenzy of will-they-won’t-they run again. I’m tired of this analytical bankruptcy: there is more happening in Russia than can be reduced to the actions of a few people at the top of the power pyramid. But, more importantly, it is unreflective. Neither Medvedev nor Putin is ever going to say out loud whether and for what position he is going to stand in the future. If, for example, Putin were to say he was tired of working like a “galley slave” and would open a fishing lodge in Yakutia in the new year, there would be immediate upheaval in the bureaucracy and power structure as kratotropic timeservers sought a new power source to connect to. The Russian government is not so well-structured and stable that it can smoothly hum away on its own while the men at the top change. There is also a stubborn inability to observe. Putin never signalled personnel changes in advance. I commend three case studies: the replacement of Sergeyev by Ivanov as Defence Minister, the replacement of Vyakhirev by Miller at Gazprom and the blessing of Medvedev as President. There were no hints: he never gave away his thinking, but when he thought he had the right man, he acted. It is too early to see whether Medvedev follows the same modus operandi, but I would be surprised if he didn’t. And if the two should ever doubt the wisdom of keeping quiet about their intentions, all they have to do is observe the political paralysis in their immediate neighbour caused by the open hostility between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko. Continuing speculation about whether Putin will become President betrays a refusal to comprehend that, had he wanted to, he could be President right now: the question is not “will he or won’t he?” but “why didn’t he?”. Finally, it should be noticed that the will-he-won’t-he obsession of the Kommentariat now involves two people: to that extent Russia has advanced in political pluralism.

MV ARCTIC SEA. A spokesman for Investigation Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office says no “compromising” cargo has been found on the ship. The theory that it was carrying missiles to Iran is inherently improbable: it would have been far easier to put them on a train to the Caspian and ship them direct to Iran. But, probability is often ignored when it’s about Russia.

TOILETS. Yulia Latynina, who evidently hasn’t heard that there is no press freedom in Russia, has written (another) piece attacking the system: Medvedev is Putin’s “obedient sidekick” and Russia is “completely ungovernable”. I don’t know why she feels she has to use such absolute terms: completely ungovernable?

CORRUPTION. It is reported that criminal charges have been laid against a company for faking the age of replacement parts for the MiG-29s which Algeria rejected last year. The Defence Minister has ordered a probe into corruption charges, reported by Novaya Gazeta, against the Airborne Troops commander.

CASPIAN OIL. LUKoil has announced that it plans to start extracting oil from the Russian sector next spring.

MUSLIM CLERIC MURDERED. On Sunday, Ismail Haji Bostanov, the deputy chairman of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Karachay-Cherkess Republic and former Rector of the Karachay-Cherkess Republic Muslim Institute, was assassinated. He was a strong opponent of Wahhabism, describing them in 2001 as “doing their utmost to spread hatred of mankind”. The murder of influential Muslim opponents is an important tactic of the international jihad.

YUSHCHENKO POISONING. Readers will recall the mysterious affliction suffered by Viktor Yushchenko in 2004 which was diagnosed as dioxin poisoning caused by “unknown opponents” (nudge-nudge wink-wink). Apart from the inherent improbability of poisoning someone with something that might kill him in 20 years, I have been struck with the fact that, despite Yushchenko’s being President for four and a half years, we have heard nothing more about it. Or perhaps not: a Ukrainian parliamentary commission; inspired by the conclusions of a prosecutor who alleges that his blood samples had dioxin added to them in the USA and implicated his wife in the fraud, wants an official inquiry. I doubt we will learn more as long as Yushchenko is President.

ANOTHER. Sozar Subari, the former Public Defender, has joined the Georgian opposition. There’s been another leak that the long-delayed EU report will not be to Saakashvili’s liking. The opposition may be re-activated by it when it (supposedly) comes out next week. Saakashvili is preparing its reception by suggesting that Moscow bought the commission.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see

Unguided Missiles

For some years Washington has been planning a missile defence network with a radar in the Czech Republic and ten interceptor missiles in Poland ostensibly to counter possible intercontinental ballistic missiles from Iran. Last week the plan was dropped. At a briefing at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Gates provided the rational: there had been, he said, two changes since 2006 when he had recommended the Polish and Czech bases: “The intelligence community now assesses that the threat from Iran’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles… is developing more rapidly than previously projected” while “the threat of potential Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities has been slower to develop than was estimated in 2006”. Thus a different defence against a different threat is planned.

Immediate Polish and Czech official reaction was that Washington had abandoned them: “we are not firmly anchored”; “losing a strategic alliance with Washington”; “the Americans are not interested in this territory”; “defeat primarily of American long-distance thinking”. It should be emphasised that the idea was never especially popular in either country and a Polish poll immediately after the announcement shows approval. Here, as in other places, the leadership is not in line with the population.

Abandoned to whom? Why to Russia of course: the decision “may embolden Russian hawks”; it was an “appalling appeasement of Russian aggression”; it “advances Russia’s goal” and “betrays” allies; it resembles Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler; it rewards “bad Russian behaviour”. Little talk of Iranian ICBMs here.

From the beginning, Moscow had objections. Regarding the threat of Iranian ICBMs as overblown, military planners assessed that the locations of the bases suggested that Russia was, or could be, the real target. These concerns were ridiculed and dismissed: “Technically speaking and militarily speaking, this is not a threat to Russia: the geography is not right”. Others, however, saw justification in the Russian position.

Moscow’s concerns were caricatured: “The idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in eastern Europe are going to threaten the Soviet strategic deterrent is purely ludicrous and everybody knows it” said US Secretary of State Rice in 2007 (Imagine saying “Soviet” while implying that Moscow was “grounded somehow in the 1980s”!). But Moscow was worried about future possibilities: as Medvedev said last November, it was the constant step-by step “construction of a global missile defence system, the installation of military bases around Russia, the unbridled expansion of NATO and other similar ‘presents’ for Russia” that made it nervous. What would be next?

As to Washington’s assurances that the sites were only looking at Iran, Moscow no longer believes mere promises. And why should it? Jack Matlock, US Ambassador to the USSR from 1987 to 1991, and present at many of the discussions, has many times stated that a condition of Moscow’s acquiescence to German reunification was the “clear understanding (though not a legal obligation) that NATO’s jurisdiction would not be moved further eastward”. Or, perhaps, these numerous assurances led to a “misunderstanding” in which Moscow was foolish enough to think that an undertaking not to expand NATO’s “jurisdiction” precluded expansion. “The whole history of Russia’s relations with NATO is a history of broken promises, guarantees and obligations”. Mere verbal promises have lost the force in Moscow that they might once have had.

Moscow’s concern was, notwithstanding promises today, that tomorrow the ten might become twenty, then forty, then sixty…. As Medvedev said in November 2008: “we must take this into account in defence expenditures” and announced some counter-measures including deployment of missiles in Kaliningrad. The first mention of this obviously conditional reaction was, typically, interpreted as a threat of nuclear attack on Poland; a “military threat to the West” or, said NATO, a threat to arms control agreements (although, puzzlingly, the US missiles were not). Here we see a certain cock-eyed logic at work: NATO insists that some action – missiles, new members – does not “threaten” Russia; Moscow says that it feels threatened and may take counter-action; the counter-action is called a “threat” by NATO; and so NATO must counter-threaten Russia.

But Medvedev’s statement was not Moscow’s first reaction; it was its last. At the 2007 G8 meeting, then-President Putin offered the leased Russian radar station at Qabala Azerbaijan (having first secured Baku’s agreement) as a part of the system and later the newly-opened Armavir radar. That offer went nowhere. Then Moscow asked whether Russian officers could be stationed onsite in order to observe that the radars were really only looking at Iran. That too went nowhere. Naturally the arguments of those who claimed that the locations were – or easily could be – aimed at Russia were strengthened; the Kaliningrad deployment was a last attempt to point out that there would be consequences.

Now it appears that Moscow was right all along. The Pentagon agrees that the threat of intercontinental missiles (as opposed to shorter range missiles) from Iran was overblown; leaders in Poland and the Czech Republic agree that the missiles had more to do with Russia than with Iran.

What of the future? Moscow has already cancelled the Kaliningrad deployment – but that was always conditional. Many think that Washington’s decision is part of something larger and, indeed, there are hints in Obama’s speech (“In confronting that threat, we welcome Russians’ cooperation to bring its missile defense capabilities into a broader defense”), Gates’ speech (“Their Armavir radar in the southern part of Russia could be integrated into this network and could be very effective in helping us”); Medvedev’s response (“we agreed that the United States and Russia will strive to work together to assess the risks of missile proliferation in the world”); and the NATO Secretary General’s speech (“This brings me to another area where Russia and NATO can and should work together, which is missile defence”).

We will see what comes next. It’s a common problem, after all.


MISSILES. Washington has given up missile system deployment in the Czech Republic and in Poland. (White House Pentagon), an idea never very popular in either country. A good deal of the comment accuses Washington of abandoning eastern Europe to the “Russian menace”. This is very ironic: when Moscow complained that it saw the missiles as a possible threat, everyone pooh-poohed it and insisted that it was only about Iran. Now it turns out that many saw them precisely as a counter to Russia. (Indeed we see this logic here: we say that what we do is not a threat to Russia; but the Russians think it is; that is itself threatening; therefore we must counter this Russian threat). I am encouraged that there seems to be some opening to Russian participation in the new scheme. But, more details to follow no doubt.

MILITARY REFORM. At the Valdai meeting, one of the authors of the military reform plan (he doesn’t like the word “reform”; he prefers “revolution”) described it. “Russia is giving up the mass army prepar[ed] for a large-scale war. That old system was introduced by War Minister Dmitriy Milyutin in 1874. The purpose was to have a rather small regular army for peace time and a huge pool of reservists… And that was followed for almost 150 years”. But there is now no need for it today: “No mobilization, no large-scale war, no threats from NATO”. The aim now is about one million in the standing forces with reserves of about 100,000. However, tactical nuclear weapons will be “the replacement for those reserves, dozens and dozens of reserve divisions in case of something happening. It is not considered a real threat at the present time. But when they speak about Chinese spread or NATO spread, you cannot just dismiss it as something impossible”. Russia is adopting NATO’s strategy of the 1950s: nuclear weapons as the equaliser. But it is painful: “And it is difficult to accept with the military mind, that is why lots of officers are unhappy about what is going on. But it should have been done, in my opinion, five, 10 – maybe even better – 15 years ago. What’s being done is overdue.”

COLOURS OF RUSSIA. I recommend a look at this. “The Colours Group of Canada addresses the need to eliminate the out-dated and often negative cultural stereotypes perpetrated by global media.”

ALCOHOL. Medvedev has instructed the government to prepare a plan to regulate alcohol production and use. Here are some statistics; they don’t look especially bad to me as an average, but binge drinking (запой) is quite common and that is more dangerous than steady quiet soaking.

CORRUPTION. The Head of the Voronezh Oblast branch of Agency for Federal Property Management, Zafeddin Mikailov, was arrested on suspicion of taking a bribe.

BONY. It is reported that that the Bank of New York Mellon is very near settlement on a money laundering suit brought by Moscow. Of course, the story was reported rather differently in 1999: “USA Today reported Thursday that Russian organized crime figures laundered at least $15 billion”.

TERRORIST ATTACKS. The past week has brought at least three suicide attacks in the North Caucasus. Confirming my deduction that the area has (again) become a magnet for the international jihad, Ingush Republic President Yevkurov has said that “Out of 30 recently killed participants of illegal armed formations, 27 were foreigners”.

NAVY. The head of the Navy announced that Moscow plans to hold an international tender for the purchase of a helicopter carrier; France, Spain and the Netherlands were mentioned as bidders. With the customary opacity of the MoD, it’s not clear whether this is exclusive of the announcement that it would buy a Mistral-class amphibious assault ship from France. But it is certainly an indication of the deficiencies of Russia’s shipyards.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES. A year ago NATO was all in a huff about Russia, yesterday the new NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, called for an “open-minded and unprecedented dialogue” with Moscow, taking into account “that Russia has legitimate security concerns”. What could have made the difference I wonder? Could reports like this, or this, or this have had an influence?

NORD STREAM. As another piece of evidence of Europe’s changing views since last year, Gazprom has announced that a French company will buy into the pipeline.

CHAVEZ VISIT. Venezuelan President Chavez visited Moscow; announced Caracas’ recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and did some arms deals involving, it is said, tanks, MLRSs and possibly SSMs. Not, I would have thought, much use to Venezuela but they will, not doubt, look impressive on parade.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see


HISTORY (AGAIN). We are seeing a spate of tendentious pieces trying to make out that “Russia’s traumatic history is being rewritten on a massive scale to rehabilitate Stalin”, to quote a recent example of the genre. They are usually based on misreports about a textbook (actually a teachers’ guide), Contemporary History of Russia 1945-2006: Book for Teachers. There is every indication that none of the writers has actually looked at the book itself. What the book is actually trying to do is not “rehabilitate” Stalin but create the background for a classroom discussion: “For some, he is the hero and orchestrator of Victory in the Great Patriotic War; to others, he is the embodiment of evil itself.” It quotes Winston Churchill (“Stalin came to Russia with a wooden plough and left in it possession of nuclear weapons”) and Antonov-Ovseyenko (“bloody tyrant”). On the one hand; on the other. It concludes: “On the one side, he is regarded as the most successful Soviet leader… But Stalin’s rule had another side… the ruthless exploitation of the population.” But don’t take my word for it: read it yourself (Eng Russ). And, which these writers will never tell you, the Education Ministry has just decreed that sections of the GULag Archipelago will become compulsory, joining One Day in the Life…. This attempt at balance, however poorly it may be done, is better than the wholesale airbrushing that is common in other countries. The past is not just a Russian problem: these pieces never tell you about all the Lenin statues still standing in Kiev; to do so would destroy the simple story they are trying to sell you.

MEDVEDEV’S LATEST. He is setting himself up as grand strategist and chief moraliser. His latest, on the question: “Should a primitive economy based on raw materials and endemic corruption accompany us into the future?” Worth reading as a guide to what he is trying to do.

NORTH CAUCASUS. A better week for the authorities with several “militants” killed, including a major fighter who, they say, was the mastermind of the assassination attempt on Ingush Republic President Yevkurov. A Russian newspaper says that the authorities prevented two suicide terror attacks on Moscow itself this week.

GAS WARS. Tymoshenko says there are “no conflicts” between Russia and Ukraine over gas supplies or storage. Typically, Yushchenko’s side disagrees. But Yushchenko is now a very lame duck indeed.

MOLDOVA. The newly-elected speaker of the Moldovan parliament, Mihai Ghimpu, has been, in the past at least, an advocate of Moldova’s dissolving its existence and becoming part of Romania. He denies he still intends this but it is a dangerous subject to be raised at all. The Moldavian SSR was created by Stalin in two steps: first he created, out of a piece of the Ukrainian SSR, the Moldavian ASSR and then, when he acquired territory from Romania, the Moldavian SSR was created out of most of these former bits of Romania and most of the former Moldavian ASSR. And a Moldavian ethnos was invented to make all this fit with the Soviet nationality theory. It was this territory that is today’s Moldova. When the USSR broke up, many in Moldova believed that they were really Romanians and sought to merge into Romania. The inhabitants of the former Moldavian ASSR, about two-thirds of them Ukrainians or Russians, did not want to be so submerged into a foreign body and the wars broke out and, as a result, the Transdnestr Republic appeared. In short, talk of joining Romania was the casus belli. Transdnestr is recognised by no one and the issue remains unsettled – although the proposal on the table would allow a referendum in Transdnestr should Moldova decide to become part of Romania. This is therefore potentially a dangerous thing to mention. And why raise it now? Perhaps because Moldova is said to be one of the poorest countries in Europe and merger with Romania is one solution to the problem.

TURKISH CAPTAIN. Tbilisi has reconsidered; after a visit by the Turkish Foreign Minister, the 24-year sentence of the Turkish captain of the ship trading with Abkhazia has reduced and he freed.

SOUTH OSSETIA WAR. Three weeks ago Russian prosecutors said they had discovered evidence that “Ukraine’s regular Defence Ministry units and at least 200 members of the UNA-UNSO nationalist organisation” had participated in the war. There are two components to the assertion: forces that Kiev controls and forces that it does not. Ukraine President Yushchenko has strongly denied the involvement of the former. Some of the purported evidence of the latter is here but I have seen no evidence for the participation of regular forces. Although, given the large supply of weapons from Ukraine, there may have been Ukrainian troops somewhere in Georgia when the war began. But that’s not quite the same thing.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see


HISTORY AGAIN. Tuesday was the anniversary of the German attack on Poland which is generally taken as the beginning of the Second World War and many gathered in Gdansk to commemorate it. Putin was there for Russia and preceded his visit with an article he wrote (or caused to be written) in Gazeta Wyborcza. It called for a balanced view: one that speaks of the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact to be sure, but also of the Munich agreement and the generally flabby response to Hitler than many countries practised. All very historically accurate and reasonable (although he couldn’t resist the temptation to remind us that Poland grabbed a bit of Czechoslovakia after Munich). As to Western MSM coverage of this, ya pays yer money and ya takes yer chances, but I’ll bet you won’t see this quoted: “The people of Russia, whose destiny was crippled by the totalitarian regime…”. In any event, none of this is very new and Putin is quite correct: no country has much to be proud of. Here’s Putin’s speech (Eng Russ) making the same points.

MILITARY REFORM. Yesterday the top military leaders of Russia met to discuss military reform. A no doubt painful discussion. One topic would be whether to bring naval units under command of the North Caucasus Military District. It is said that one of the problems last year was the lack of unity of command.

SUICIDE ATTACKERS. Ingush Republic President Yevkurov says he has information that a group of suicide bombers has arrived in the republic. There is good evidence that suicide attackers are a world-wide resource and are moved around the various battlefields. Iraq is not the attractor it formerly was and they are being sent elsewhere (at least one in Dagestan this last week). It’s not just about Russia; pieces like this are exceptionally naïve: the war in the North Caucasus became international when Khattab arrived from Afghanistan in 1995.

GAS WARS. Putin and Tymoshenko met in Poland and agreed that Ukraine will only pay for the gas that it actually consumes. I’m not sure what this means. Gas producers prefer to produce gas evenly over the year although demand is usually higher in the winter; and so summer gas is pumped into storage facilities to be released in winter. In the Soviet days, understandably, storage facilities were built in the Ukrainian SSR and that fact has led to a lot of the problems today. Does this agreement mean that Gazprom will own the gas in the Ukrainian storage tanks and, in the winter, sell it to Ukraine and to Western Europe as needed? Anyway, the two seem to have quite a convivial and useful meeting. No doubt, Tymoshenko will be claiming, when she runs for president, that she can deal with Russia in a reasonable way.

BOTH ENDS AGAINST THE MIDDLE. Lukashenka has just said that Belarus will steer an equal course between Russia and Europe. Perhaps the Kommentariat, rather than persisting in its usual zero-sum assumptions, should look for examples of this, the sensible strategy for small powers with powerful neighbours. And one that usually pays off: the Kyrgyz Republic managed to pry money out of both Moscow and Washington while getting a better deal on Manas.

TURKEY-ARMENIA. Switzerland has mediated talks between Turkey and Armenia on mutual recognition. There was no recognition when the USSR disappeared and Turkey closed its border in the 1990s during the Karabakh wars. At least two issues have to be cleaned up: Yerevan’s demands on Ankara re massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and Ankara’s taking sides in the Karabakh issue. But both sides are hopeful and the Turkish Foreign Minister hopes that this will be an impetus to resolving the Karabakh problem.

SHIPS. Tbilisi maintains that Abkhazia is part of Georgia and that no one may trade with it. Accordingly Georgia forces have been apprehending ships suspected of trading with Abkhazia. On 16 August Georgian warships impounded the tanker Buket carrying gasoline and diesel to Abkhazia and on Monday, the Turkish captain was sentenced to 24 (24!) years in prison by a Georgian court. I suspect that Ankara will not be amused especially since the Turkish operator of the ship claims the seizure was made well outside Georgia’s territorial waters. On the 28th, claiming that 23 ships had been stopped this year, the Russian Border Service announced it would start protecting ships passing through Abkhazian territorial waters. Those who enjoy nightmarish speculations can image US warships backing up Georgian warships seizing Turkish merchant vessels with Russian warships trying to stop them.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see