MILITARY. There may be more to last week’s retirements of three generals. One reporter suggests that their retirement has a connection with what he says are several cases of convicted officers being promoted. He has learned that the Presidential Administration has “frozen” their resignations and will be interviewing them to ascertain why “young, promising leaders are retiring from the army”. Report in English here. On the procurement problem – and the growing conviction that a lot of Russian-made weaponry is more expensive than it should be – a Deputy Defence Minister reports that overpricing is caused by an excessive number of subcontractors which, he said, can lead to sudden and unexplained price drops when the initial bid is challenged. It rather sounds as if this is a polite way of saying that many people are “wetting their beaks”.

“AGAINST ALL”. Russian ballots used to have an entry “Against All” and “Against All” could win and occasionally did. In that case, new election with new candidates. The provision was abolished in 2006 but Sergey Mironov, the leader of Just Russia, has introduced a bill to the Duma to bring it back. An interesting provision that very few countries dare to have because it might lead to unflattering discoveries. I suspect that the real reason Mironov made the proposal was to distinguish his party from United Russia. Whether it passes or is voted down, he will achieve that aim.

STOLYPIN. I have always had the suspicion that it is Putin’s dream to be considered a second and successful Piotr Stolypin and I have noticed the occasional reference to him in his speeches over the years. He has “suggested” government officials might “like” to contribute to a statue of Stolypin to commemorate his 150th birthday. I’ll bet all the officials would “like to” and that the statue appears.

INFRASTRUCTURE. There have been a couple of plane crashes lately and the sinking of a cruise boat on the Volga. Russian infrastructure is rather old and there is some concern. But new things are appearing: roads, hospitals, trains, farm equipment and so on. While a lot of it is foreign-made, it is undeniably new. But it’s a race.

Space. With the launch of the Atlantis, the USA has finished the Space Shuttle program. This leaves the space launch field pretty much to Russia. And to make the point, a Soyuz just launched six US satellites. Not a state of affairs to have been expected in 1961.

QUADRIGA AWARD. Putin is one of the winners {“for his contribution to the stability and reliability of German-Russian relations” we are told). This has set off the usual huffing and puffing.

GEORGIA. Tbilisi has announced the arrest of three photographers on charges of spying for – of course – Russia. One of them is Saakashvili’s personal photographer. The case has been declared secret and no information is allowed out except what the regime chooses to say. Many Georgians have lost their confidence in what the government says and the Coalition for Media Advocacy has protested the secrecy of the case and the Public Defender also wants more evidence. It would appear that their “crime” was photographing the breakup of the protest on 26 May or perhaps selling photos to Russian news outlets. Anyone who believes anything official Tbilisi says is rather naïve. More scepticism about Saakashvili’s periodic discovery of plots from Dmitry Babich here. Meanwhile six opposition parties have united to form the Free Choice coalition. I find it instructive that two party leaders and the founders of one of the six held office under Saakashvili and two of the remaining three parties were former allies of his party. Saakashvili’s Western claque is oblivious to the fact that the people who know him best have, one by one, gone into opposition. (Why do I go on about Saakashvili? you may ask. It is because Georgia has been used for years as a stick with which to beat Russia. Western sources have displayed much credulity. Perhaps not so much any more though.).

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see


GRAIN EXPORTS. When I was in Russia in the early 1990s I visited several farms. In my travels I don’t recall ever seeing a field that was being used for anything except grazing for a scrawny cow or two. I spoke to Russians and Westerners, more knowledgeable than I, who had seen farms; everyone agreed that the situation was, in a word, hopeless. At that time it was said that Russia imported half its food. Something has happened. Last year, with the bad summer, Russia halted grain exports and the world price went up. Exports have just been resumed (perhaps 15 million tonnes out of a total harvest expected to be about 85) and prices went down. Somehow the desperate situation of the 1990s has turned around and Russia is an important grain exporter for the first time since when? a century ago? In the 1990s, the idea of Russia becoming an major food exporter would have been utterly unimaginable. I am not aware of any coverage of this and I would love to see some. Private farming? A restructuring of the decayed remnants of state and collective farms? New land? What? Away from the everlasting barren speculation of neo-Kremlinology there are real stories to cover.

MILITARY. In addition to the problems of modernising equipment, improving its command and control and other matters requisite to becoming modern, the Russian Armed Forces are plagued with three endemic scandals. Military procurement, by many accounts, is a feeding frenzy for corruption. Yesterday, Medvedev gave Defence Minister Serdyukov three days to report on the state of the defence procurement order for this year. Serdyukov is a money man and was brought in to get a grip on where it goes. Second is the pain (and disagreements) of reform: it is reported that several influential members” of the high command have resigned over implementation of reforms (or maybe not). Added to this is confusion about the end point. For example, the aircraft carrier dream refuses to die: last week the head of the United Shipbuilding Corporation said Russia would get its first nuclear powered carrier by 2023; three days later Serdyukov said there were no plans to build carriers. And, completing the trio, two officers have been charged with extorting money from their subordinates. Serdyukov has just promised to create a special military police department to eradicate this sort of thing as well as bullying. Gradually the searchlight is turning to the military. In 2003 Putin said “The army in Russia, as I have said many times, should be small in size, compact but effective, ready for battle, and provided with modern equipment.” Eight years on, it is far from that goal. Indeed, I often wonder whether it is possible to reform a Soviet-pattern, mass-conscript, big-war army. Perhaps they should start all over again. Peter had to.

CORRUPTION. An investigation has uncovered 30 criminal groups engaged in car theft. The investigators said that their primary focus was catching police and they did: 160 policemen were involved in 12 of the groups.

ECONOMIC CRIMES. Medvedev has smiled upon the idea of an amnesty for economic crimes. Preparatory study is said to be underway.

MAGNITSKIY. The Investigative Committee has reported that Sergey Magnitskiy died in prison from lack of medical care; this is not news but the announcement of prosecutions to follow may be. Another inquiry suggested he may have been beaten to death. There were dismissals at the time but Medvedev’s comment that “it seems… there really was some crime committed” suggests that more serious charges may be laid eventually.

BELARUS. On Friday Lukashenka pledged to restore stability to Belarus: “In the next few months we will completely stabilise the situation… Belarus has not been forced into a corner…as some would like.” A rather stunning admission from someone whose main campaign platform since he began in 1994 would have been “peaceful Belarus”. As the economy gently moves towards the end of its economic and financial possibilities, there are now regular demonstrations and arrests.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see

Stalin’s Cartographical Time-Bombs

Note February 2016. These were done for the Russia Profile Weekly Experts’ Panel which I cannot find on the Net now. Many were picked up by other sources and I have given links where I can find them.

No reference found.

When the USSR fell apart five of Stalin’s cartographical time-bombs exploded. After the fighting, each of the five had secured its liberty: North Ossetia, Abkhazia, Karabakh, Transdnestr and Chechnya. Of these, only Chechnya has been resolved (for the time being anyway) but only after immense bloodshed and destruction. The other four maintain their independence.

International attempts to negotiate an end to these standoffs fail, over and over again, on five obstacles.

The first is the contradiction between two fundamental principles of international relations: territorial integrity and the right of self-determination. There is, however, no means of resolution when the two principles collide as they do in these four cases. As to a third principle, uti possidetis, the “international community” seems to be too squeamish to accept that the four won their independence in war and are therefore entitled to keep it.

A second difficulty is the question of who sits at the negotiating table. This issue has particularly bedevilled attempts to resolve Karabakh. Karabakh is a player, it cannot be left out of the talks. But Baku is adamant that it will negotiate only with Yerevan. That is understandable: for Baku to admit Stepanakert as a negotiator would be to concede much of what Stepanakert demands. And so discussions fail because one of the principals – the most important, for it won its war – is not party to them.

A third difficulty is the status quo. The four, whatever their long-term hopes may be, prefer the status quo of self-government to the visible alternatives. Stepanakert’s incentive to make Baku happy or Tiraspol’s to make Chisinau happy is low.

Fourth, whatever the casus belli may have been – unwillingness to join Romania in the case of Transdnestr and fear of massacres in the case of Karabakh – the four gained their independence in war and much blood was shed on both sides. They feel that they earned their independence. Several times a possible solution to the Karabakh problem has been blocked by enraged war veterans on both sides.

Finally, there is no outside power that can “deliver” any of them. While much commentary in the West seems to assume that all of these problems were fomented or caused by Moscow that is not true; they were sui generis. Neither Moscow nor any other outside power can force a solution on any one of the four.

Perhaps there were possibilities in the 1990s to peacefully resolve these problems. For example, Kiev wisely conceded autonomy to Crimea and Chisinau to the Gagauz and these potential problems were resolved in a civilised way. But, in the cases of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transdnestr and Karabakh these possibilities were not available. (Moscow did negotiate an autonomy agreement with the Chechen parliament but Dudayev would have none of it.) And so it was left to war to resolve the problems.

I do not hold out much possibility for any future negotiating session to overcome these obstacles. The irony is that the end-state – something resembling the arrangement of the Åland Islands for example – is visible. But it is hard to imagine, given the five obstacles, how to get there from here.