THE SOBCHAK INFLUENCE. Medvedev and Putin are disciples and admirers of Anatoliy Sobchak and both commemorated the tenth anniversary of his death on Saturday. Medvedev, who knew him as one of his students and later worked with him in St Petersburg, gave praise to “the man who first brought legitimacy to Soviet politics”. In an interview for a program on his life and work, Putin paid very high tribute to him. He described how he began working for him when he was Mayor of St Petersburg, how he quit the KGB in the August 1991 coup attempt (“I wrote a letter of resignation in the first hours after the coup began… The point is that I had made my choice and I could not change it. It was my duty to be there, defending our shared ideals and the concept of national development which Mr Sobchak and I had put into words and implemented together.”) and how much he learned from him in work habits and morality: “The time when I worked with Mr Sobchak was the most valuable part of my education. It was in that period that my basic principles of work and communication took shape. The fundamentals of my personal principles and behaviour probably began to develop much earlier, at home and later at the university, where I studied and he taught. However, my work with him had tremendous practical significance for me”. So we have both the present and previous Presidents telling us that they regard Sobchak as their mentor and example and regard their times working under him as formative. Perhaps, the Kommentariat should pay more attention to this relationship and less to the lazy assumption that all we need to know is that Putin was a KGB officer and Medvedev is his sock puppet.

POLICE REFORM. Reform of the Interior Ministry started with a bang as Medvedev dismissed 15 senior MVD generals, including 2 Deputy Ministers (they to be replaced by civilians). Some were dismissed because of violations of the law by them or their subordinates, some to clear the way for new people. As the Russians (and many others) say: “The fish rots from the head” (although the Minister himself appears to be safe. And in uniform as an Army General: surely it is time to stop giving Armed Forces ranks to policemen.)

ENERGY. Putin has signed a resolution setting out the principles of Russia’s long-term energy market, Details are not yet out but he promises clear and consistent regulations that companies will have to work within (and punishment if they do not). As has suddenly become fashionable, he proposes investment for new nuclear power plants.

LAW AND ORDER. Members of a racist skinhead gang the “White Wolves” (interestingly, one of them has a Georgian surname) have received heavy sentences for numerous murders. Investigators say they have identified a suspect in the murder of Natalia Estemirova.

NATO. Confusing messages out of NATO: US Secretary of State Clinton calls for cooperation: “While Russia faces challenges to its security, NATO is not among them”; Secretary General Rasmussen says NATO has not given up plans to accept Georgia and Ukraine. By the way, the new Russian military doctrine distinguishes between a “military danger” (военная опасность) and a “military threat” (военная угроза). NATO expansion is the former and clearly not as serious as the latter.

UKRAINE. Viktor Yanukovych was inaugurated today as President and made a speech to the Rada (with several Christian references, interestingly) in which he pledged that Ukraine sought good relations all round and would not join any military alliances (“We are ready to participate in such processes as a European non-aligned state”). Symbolising this, his first trips abroad will be to Brussels (1 March) and Moscow (5 March). Tymoshenko withdrew her court challenge but, as she did, claimed the court was biased and insisted that she did not recognise Yanukovych as President. Her party (modestly named the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc) boycotted Yanukovych’s address. So, the question for the Ukrainian political system is whether Yanukovych’s party can put together a coalition and oust her as PM or whether we will have another period of the (same) PM opposing everything a (different) President does. Amusingly, Berezovskiy has excoriated the Ukrainian people for their vote: many suspect that he was one of the people behind the “Orange Revolution”.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see


MEDVEDEV PROGRAM. Medvedev’s (ie The Team’s) program for the first year was derailed by two unexpected events: the international financial crisis and Saakashvili’s invasion of South Ossetia. Nonetheless, we do have an idea of what he (ie The Team) has in mind. While not very much has happened, there is talk of selling off a number of state-owned companies and many speeches about the problem of corruption. Overtures to, if not the opposition, at least non-Kremlinocentric opinion and, many many references to modernisation: “perhaps the most important topic on our agenda, namely the modernisation of our economy. The modernisation of Russia’s economy must be based on new technologies, innovation and the radical restructuring of the country’s internal economic structure.” Medvedev spends a lot of his time exhorting people and talking about the big strategic picture (for example, to energy sector executives on Friday). Thus far, not that much legislation has hit the street, but it is coming (education, police, quality control, banking).

THE NEW BIG MIS-QUOTATION. So far Medvedev has been spared the selective and false quotations that were the foundation of so many think-pieces about Putin. But it’s happened at last. A breathless piece (JRL/2010/29/25) quotes Medvedev saying about Saakashvili “If you, as a president, did something that you must be held accountable for, you will, without a doubt, face consequences”; later author calls this an “ominous forecast” showing the “Kremlin’s malevolent plans for Georgia”. Here’s what Medvedev actually said:” So if you have done something, especially as President, for which you must answer, you have to take responsibility sooner or later. What kind of responsibility? I think that first and foremost Mr Saakashvili should answer to his own people, since he plunged them into war, condemned them to great suffering, and in the final analysis all this led to the collapse of his country.” Much the same opinion, in fact, as that of Saakashvili’s former Foreign and Defence Ministers (not that such propaganda pieces ever mention the opinions that so many people who worked with Saakashvili have of him). I wonder if this will go the rounds like Putin’s so-called remark to Bush that Ukraine wasn’t really a country; a “quotation” for which no one seems to have been able to find the original.

ANOTHER FOREIGN WEAPONS PURCHASE. Curved barrel small arms from Israel for special forces.

POKLONNAYA GORA. The war memorial complex in Moscow was supposed to have a memorial structure for each of Russia’s four “recognised” religions. The church, mosque and synagogue are complete and land has just been granted for a Buddhist temple.

DEMOGRAPHICS. The government programs continue to chew away at the problem with increases in the birth rate and reductions in the death rate, including improvement in infant mortality. (Figures as of 3rd quarter 2009). It is expected, taking immigration into account, that Russia’s population will have grown slightly in 2009.

NORTH CAUCASUS. More evidence for my hypothesis that the jihadists in the North Caucasus should have laid low this winter: in a battle in Ingushetia, security forces claim to have killed a number of them.

HISTORY WARS. The Polish government has joined a class action suit to sue Moscow for the Katyn Massacre. The cynic would say that Russia now has money and people want some of it. Sue Jughashvili and Beria I say.

UKRAINE. Tymoshenko continues to refuse to accept the election results (she is quoted as saying she will “never” accept Yanukovych as the winner) and her team has presented evidence to the Supreme Administrative Court claiming a million false votes were counted. The court has suspended the election results until it considers the evidence tomorrow. Given that practically everyone else has accepted the results as legitimate, it is unclear what she hopes to achieve. Her party has 30% of the seats in the Rada but she can’t be gaining support by her actions. More paralysis for Ukraine.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see


MILITARY DOCTRINE. On Friday Medvedev signed off on the latest military doctrine (officially the third after 1993 and 2000). I don’t see anything very different from its predecessors: NATO expansion, terrorism, nuclear weapons will be used if we think we have to. (The last seems to be hailed as a new development whenever it appears: in 2010 or 1999; but it’s every nuclear power’s actual policy). Perhaps there’s a bit more emphasis on modernisation of the Armed Forces and their equipment as a consequence of deficiencies discovered in the Ossetia war. I must confess, I never understand what these documents are supposed to do: large sections are simply a list of the obvious. For example: “36. The main tasks of military planning are” a, b, c, d, e, f; all of which could be summarised as “to plan for eventualities”. But they must serve some planning or authorisation purpose in the Russian bureaucratic structure. A calm and thoughtful assessment here.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE. It’s a cliché in certain circles that Russia has “annexed” Abkhazia. Apart from the fact that this is not formally true, all my sources indicate that Abkhazia seriously believes it can be an independent country: it would not be the smallest in the world. But, grateful as Abkhazians may be for Russia’s protection against Georgia, and economically dependent on it as they now are, they are not an appendage of Moscow (see 2004 election, for example). As an example we have a problem over the alleged seizure of Russian-owned real estate in Abkhazia. This will no doubt be settled amicably but it is a small indication of divergent interests.

MISTRAL. It is reported that Paris has agreed to sell Moscow at least one Mistral-class amphibious assault ship and possibly three more. Moscow is reported to be still considering doing so. There is a considerable lobby in Russia that would insist that it can make everything itself. More of the post-Ossetia war wakeup in France.

CORRUPTION. On Monday it was announced that 19 traffic police had been arrested in Astrakhan on bribery charges. Of course, arresting traffic police on corruption charges is shooting fish in a barrel and has little to do with the real corruption problem but it’s at least a nibble at a tiny corner of it.

NATO. NATO continues its voyage of discovery of things it ought to have known before with the Secretary General intimating in Munich that Russia might join the NATO operation in Afghanistan (rather unlikely, it would seem). I remember some of our delegates, returning from the Munich conference of February 2001, mocking Ivanov’s assertion that “Russia, a front-line warrior fighting international terrorism in Chechnya and Central Asia is saving the civilized world of the terrorist plague”; melodramatic, perhaps, but not wrong.

NORTH CAUCASUS. In past years, fighters in the North Caucasus lay low during the winter; which, given the severity of conditions there, was understandable. This winter, however, they have carried out a number of attacks. This, however, does not appear to have been a wise thing: it appears to me that the security forces have had more successes than they have. Given the transport advantages – helicopters and so forth – of the security forces this is, perhaps, not surprising.

UKRAINE. The latest results show a slight Yanukovych win, high turnout and a regional division: in short, what opinion polls predicted. Tymoshenko has not conceded and it’s not clear just what she’s doing; some of her people are claiming fraud. With the approval of Western outside observers it will be politically difficult to challenge the results.

WHAT HAPPENED IN UKRAINE. To my mind it is rather easy to explain. There have been a lot of opinion polls in Ukraine over the past years and, while one can object to this or that poll result, the agreement among them has been very strong. And, one has to go with opinion polls, if they’re there and they’re good: otherwise it’s just opinion and blather. What the polls show is that there has never been more than 20-25% support for joining NATO and that 70-80% of Ukrainians want to have good relations with Russia. A policy – Yushchenko’s – that pandered to the 20-25% and ignored the 70-80% was certain to fail. And Yushchenko’s friends and supporters in the West were remarkably otiose not to realise that. On the other hand, for Yanukovych to play to the 70-80% and ignore the 20-25%, while not as politically suicidal as the reverse, will not succeed either. The only rational – and politically viable – course for a Ukrainian leader is a via media. Will Yanukovych be wise enough to behave accordingly? First indications – an interview with CNN – are promising. And, if all that is out of the way, he can try to tackle Ukraine’s real problems.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see


OVER-CENTRALISATION. I have long thought that Putin, probably as a result of his fear that Russia would break up, over-centralised control (From his first phone-in in 2000: “The ‘power component’ in this country has become weakened and everything went tumbling down”.). One of Medvedev’s problems, therefore, is to reduce this centralisation: his goal of “modernisation” is impossible if all decisions are made at the centre. Yesterday, the Institute of Contemporary Development, with which Medvedev is associated, issued its report on what should be done. In brief, it calls for a general loosening of the political and command system of the country and a number of changes; many reverse decisions Putin made when he was President and mark somewhat of a return to the Yeltsin period. No doubt the Kommentariat will go into a frenzy of speculation about a struggle between the two Duumvirs, but I believe that this is all part of the next stage of the Team’s Plan. The report is probably to be seen as a contribution to the discussion. We will see what happens.

MCDONALDS. Some years ago I was asked at a conference what I thought to be the best thing that Canada had done for Russia: I answered McDonalds, to the surprise of the assembled policy wonks and academics. Not everyone is aware that it was the Canadian branch of the company, and the determination of its Chairman, George Cohon, which made it happen. Snooty people can sniff all they want, but food was in short supply then in Russia and the McDonalds restaurant on Pushkin Square never turned anyone away. And, important then: clean toilets. And everything was priced in rubles. Since then McDonalds has expanded all over Russia. It has stayed the course through crises; it invested its earnings back into Russia; it makes most of its product in Russia thereby forcing its standards on suppliers; it virtually introduced a real service culture to the country; it has been a school for management; it has inspired many Russian imitators. On Sunday it celebrated the twentieth anniversary of opening.

GDP. On Monday RosStat reported that Russia’s GDP had declined 7.9% in 2009; the good news was that a decline of 8.5% had been projected.

AEROFLOT. Apparently abandoning an idea to create a large regional air carrier, Putin announced that Aeroflot would take over a number of regional carriers. The stated reason is to improve service and safety as many of the “babyflots” that came into existence in the 1990s are in trouble. Reminiscent of the creation of the Canadian National Railway out of bankrupt lines in the 1920s.

PEOPLE POWER. There was a large protest by several thousand people in Kaliningrad on Sunday over some tax increases. This has stirred some alarm locally and at the centre as people scurry there. A number of things appear to have coalesced to cause the protest and, for once, all the opposition parties got together to organise it. Much of the anger seems to be aimed at the Governor, Georgiy Boos. It remains to be seen whether this is anything more than a local grievance (vide the protests in Vladivostok last year) or has wider implications.

NORWAY SPIRAL”. Remember the lights over Norway last December? This analysis makes interesting reading. The author suggests that the Bulava failures may be a cover for the (successful) testing of something else.

NORTH CAUCASUS. Security forces claim to have killed one of the original jihadists who came to the North Caucasus in the first Chechen war. He is Mohamad Shaaban, an Egyptian, and is described as having arrived in Chechnya in 1992 and, together with Khattab, organised the “North Caucasus branch of al-Qaeda”.

OIL AND BELARUS. Moscow and Minsk signed an agreement last week on supplies and transit and the problem seems to be now over. By the way, those who think that Ukraine’s future is to be under the Russian boot might profit from studying Minsk-Moscow relations over the years.

UKRAINIAN ELECTION. A change has been made to the election rules which Tymoshenko claims could lead to cheating against her (mind you, the argument for making the change was to prevent her side from cheating). President Yushchenko has signed off on the change. Some pundits opine that there is a below-the-surface alliance between Yushchenko and Yanukovych. Meanwhile, Tymoshenko threatens to call her people onto the streets if she doesn’t like the result (bet they don’t show up). Polls indicate a narrow win by Yanukovych on Sunday. Unity seems as far away as ever.

IRAN. Is Teheran about to reverse its position on the uranium enrichment proposal? Who knows?

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see

Flying So High You Can’t See the Ground

JRL/2010/25/31 2 Feb 10

Ukrainians will be electing a new President on Sunday and, while we do not yet know who will win, we know that neither Yanukovych nor Tymoshenko is running on an overtly anti-Russia platform. Therefore, whoever wins, relations between Kiev and Moscow will likely be calmer than they have been since the “Orange Revolution” of 2004. Stratfor sees this in apocalyptic terms: “The next few months will therefore see the de facto folding of Ukraine back into the Russian sphere of influence” and “a new era of Russian aggressiveness” now begins The author goes on to talk about the Carpathians as a defence shield for Russia, Ukraine as Russia’s “breadbasket” and so on.

But who decided that this was the question that Ukrainian voters were answering? It was the “Orange Revolution” and its outside backers that injected into Ukrainian politics the binary choice of either joining the West or becoming Russia’s appendage: at no point was there support among the majority of Ukrainians for such a choice. And there is absolutely no reason to treat the recent election as having made such a choice. While Yushchenko was indeed the binary candidate: “either this pro-Kremlin couple and pro-Kremlin policy wins, or the pro-European policy does”, he and his view have been brutally rejected by the voters. No surprise, of course, to those who have been watching opinion polls in Ukraine.

Typical of such stratospheric analyses, there is nothing in the Stratfor piece about the Ukrainians themselves. The fundamental assumption of the authors is that either Ukraine is a member of the free Western alliance or it is a subject of Moscow. There is no in-between. But there is absolutely no reason to suppose that Ukrainians voted to reject Yushchenko and his “Orange Revolution” so that they could be under Moscow. Polls like this one, indicate that Ukrainians want good relations with Russia yes, but also with the EU. The voters reject the either-or option. Ukrainians spurned Yushchenko and his program because his term in office was a black hole into which every hope disappeared: according to a Gallup poll last summer, Ukrainians’ support for their government is “the lowest in the world”. The economy is not noticeably better; indeed it may even be worse. Corruption is as bad as ever. Ever since the “Orange Revolution” the government system has hardly functioned at all. The hope (and the hype) of the “Orange Revolution” has evaporated leaving disgust. There is nothing in these results to suggest that Ukrainians want Moscow to be their puppet masters. The fact that Moscow may be happier with this turn of events, does not mean that Moscow orchestrated it; to assume so is a ludicrous example of the petitio principii fallacy.

This is what stratospheric analysts miss: they are so lost in their perception of a chess game high in the sky that they fail even to see the actual decision makers.

A similar blindness is found in two recent books on the Ossetia war of August 2008. Cornell’s book does not include a chapter discussing the Ossetian point of view. Judging from the reviews, Asmus’ book also ignores the Ossetians. It too is full of stratospheric analysis in which the war was “really” between Moscow and the West and the Ossetians (and the Georgians too, come to think of it) were mere pawns moved around by the chess players in the sky. But, why don’t these books, which claim to be contributions to the discussion, discuss the Ossetians? After all the real casus belli, for 90 years now, is the desire of the Ossetians not to be part of Georgia. They fought Georgians at the end of the Russian Empire, at the end of the Soviet Union and they did so again in August 2008. They stopped the Georgians in the streets of Tskhinvali and then welcomed the Russian troops as liberators. There is no anti-Russia liberation war in Ossetia. That, in itself, ought to be an important indication of reality.

Any serious examination of the background to the war must start in 1918 when the Democratic Republic of Georgia attempted to add South Ossetia by force; carry through with Stalin-Jughashvili’s decision to cut Ossetia in two and give the southern half to the Georgian SSR; mention Ossetian demands to retain the rights they had had in the Soviet system (as an “Autonomous Oblast”); refer to Tbilisi’s rejection of that; describe the Georgian attack in 1991. A perceptive account would reflect on the “hosts and guests theory” prevalent in Georgia in the late 1980s and what non-Kartevelians thought about it. There should be recognition of the truth that the Ossetians are actors, not marionettes and that they have shown, by plebiscites and by fighting, that they do not want to be part of Georgia.

But, as soon as these actors are taken into account, the beautiful simplicity of stratospheric analysis becomes impossible to sustain. Rather than the machinations of omniscient chess players in the sky, we have their fumbling reactions to events they did not plan. But it is simply easier to maunder on about Carpathian barriers, bread-baskets, Russia’s sphere of influence and other high-falutin but vague phrases: how boring to study Ukrainian opinion polling or actually to talk to an Ossetian.

It’s nonsense; it’s an example of the logical fallacy of assuming your conclusions; after twenty years of this, it’s time to stop giving it house room. Ukrainians and Ossetians (and Georgians) have their interests: they’re not pawns in the East-West chess game and its sloppy, and silly, to write up everything at such a stratospheric level that nothing remains but initial assumptions fleshed out with claptrap. The Ukrainians have just shown that the “Orange Revolution” was based on false premises and a futile – and damaging – interference in Ukraine’s affairs by ignorant outsiders. The Georgians will soon show the same about the “wilting petals” of the “Rose Revolution” (the same Gallup poll shows support for the government there at only 21%).

And, as to Stratfor’s assertion that “Ukraine is the Russian Empire’s breadbasket”, in the latest figures available (2003/2004), Russia exported 35 times as much wheat as Ukraine did.