THEN AND NOW. The 20th anniversary of the 1991 coup attempt and its sequella is upon us and I agree with Gorbachev’s comment that the coup planners “were truly idiots, and they destroyed everything. And we proved ourselves to be semi-idiots, myself included.” The 17 March referendum showed, with important exceptions, that the bulk of the population wanted to remain united. (The results foretold much of the coming fighting and secessions too). But it didn’t happen and there was no small misery in consequence of the breakup. However there is an interesting piece comparing ordinary life in Russia then and now in terms of purchasing power. In essence, despite much remaining poverty (20% or so), per capita income is up about 45% since 20 years ago. 45% is not that much perhaps over two decades, but the growth comes post-Putin after the seemingly unending fall throughout most of the 1990s. No wonder most Russians support Putin/Medvedev. It would be interesting to see a similar calculation in the other 14 former SSRs. In that connection, I leave you with this quotation from Ukraine’s then-PM Kuchma in 1993: “…like everyone else, I believed that Ukraine is so rich that it provided for the entire [Soviet] Union. It turned out that it is, in fact, rich. However, was it really a provider?” I believe many SSRs thought that they put in and the RSFSR took out and the moment Moscow was gone they would be better off. Not true, as they have had opportunity to learn and reflect on.

DEMOGRAPHICS. The government program continues to improve the situation at both ends. Tatyana Golikova reported that the mortality rate had decreased 2.8% in the first half of the year – the reduction was driven by declines in deaths from cardiovascular causes (-4.5%), road accidents (-5.7%) and tuberculosis (-6.3%). These are comparatively easy to reduce – at first anyway – but cancer deaths were also down 1.1%. Infant mortality has also been improving: it was 11 per 1000 births in 2005 and is now 7.1/1000. Still high – she said the European rate was 3.5 – but an undeniable improvement. A lot has been invested in improving medical centres – here’s a new neo-natal one – and the effects are showing. (BTW they’re not painting the grass green, as some thought: it’s this stuff).

WARNING. The Deputy chair of the Audit Chamber, has warned that the government is spending too much: “The structure of the Russian budget is such that it can only be balanced given extraordinarily high oil prices”. They are at the moment but…

MAGNITSKIY CASE. Adding to other charges laid as the investigation grinds forward, a charge of manslaughter against a laboratory doctor has been laid. Washington has produced a “Magnitskiy list” and Moscow, of course, has retaliated. And away we go. I don’t get it: what’s the issue that’s offended the Americans again? Russia isn’t investigating the death? Russians are all liars so go ahead and punish them anyway? More unnecessary bad relations created.

POLICE REFORM. A VTsIOM poll shows deep scepticism about the effects of police reforms; 57% expect no difference and only 28% think the police force will improve. I guess after all the “campaigns” Russians have lived through, they can’t be blamed for expecting little from another. We’ll just have to watch.

JIHADISM IN THE NORTH CAUCASUS. Much activity (mostly to the benefit of the authorities) last week. But I leave coverage of this to my colleague Gordon Hahn who watches it in much greater detail than I do.

UKRAINE. Former PM Tymoshenko is on trial in Ukraine. The formal charge is that she exceeded her power in signing the gas price deal of 2009 which tied the price to a percentage of the European price. Other motives are, of course, easily imagined. Discussions here and here. She, in return is accusing former President Yushchenko of having been in cahoots with the extremely murky RosUkrEnergo. Which he denies. At the time, of course, Western reports were full of Russia’s “gas weapon” and said little about internal Ukrainian motives. As the trial proceeds we will learn more.

GAS WARS. The fact is that neither Ukraine nor Belarus can afford to pay even the discounted price Russia charges and neither country took advantage of the long period of very cheap gas to take energy conservation measures. It seems that Putin is now offering Belarus a further discount but in exchange for Gazprom ownership of the rest of the company that owns the pipelines carrying it west. Shale gas may save them in the end but that’s some time away.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see

Reset Reset

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.


Because I was not very impressed with Obama in the first place, I expected little from “the reset” and little there has been. The problem with any initiative of the Obama Administration is brutally this: is there any follow-up after the speech?

The “reset” did change the rhetoric, although there have been no real trials. The nuclear agreement was made. But Russians would complain that they still see geriatric obsolescences like Captive Nations and Jackson-Vanik, assurances on WTO admission that come and go, periodic resolutions on “the Russian occupation” of Georgia and moralistic finger-wagging. They would ask “where’s the beef?”. I leave it to Americans to make their own list of Russian sins (Anna Chapman, Magnitskiy; any day’s indictment from the Washington Post or Ariel Cohen).

But the bottom line is that the US-USSR relationship was much more important to the two –and to the rest of us – than the US-Russia relationship is. The important thing is that each stop thinking of the other as the Main Enemy; each must rid itself of superseded habits of thought. Getting there will take some time: the USA is still the most important country on the planet and Moscow obsesses about it (perhaps too much: Saakashvili is not Washington’s creation and neither was Yushchenko). From Washington’s perspective, Russia does not turn up very often in the daily White House crisis briefings and is only important to the still vocal Russia-the-eternal-enemy faction.

What interests do they have in common? Not very many, in truth. They share a common enemy in jihadism, although the anti-Russia lobby still hasn’t figured that out. Nuclear weapons are a factor, but less and less important. There are trade interests – although not big. Occasionally Russia’s influence in some forlorn place is potentially significant. They are not large on either’s radar.

What opposing interests do they have? Again, not many. For years the anti-Russia lobby has warned us that Moscow wants to take over Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltics or whatever but it still hasn’t happened. And, if Moscow truly had some existential desire to conquer Georgia, the anti-Russia lobby still hasn’t explained what stopped it three years ago: the Russia that they fantasise about would have gone to Tbilisi, seized Saakashvili and still be there. Moscow is nervously concerned about the ultimate use of US missiles in Europe. What Moscow actually wants is a quiet life so that it can modernise itself. But it doesn’t want to be played for a sucker as it believes it was in the 1990s. This is the root of the missile problem: Moscow does not trust Washington’s mere word after, to take one example, NATO’s expansion.

There is no advantage in closing off every entrance, rejecting every overture, suspecting everything and pretending that Russia is still the USSR and gradually working to turn Russia into a real enemy.

But, what frightens me about US-Russia relations is that many on the right side of the US political spectrum still reflexively believe that Russia is the Eternal Enemy and, the way things are going, as well as the House of Representatives, they will soon control the Senate and the Presidency.

But, what keeps me (faintly) optimistic is that the inheritors of the Obama Administration will have bigger, and more urgent, problems than Russia to deal with.


OSSETIA WAR ANNIVERSARY. My take, three years later is here: in brief, Russia is better off and Georgia is worse off. As I argued elsewhere I believe that the war – and especially Saakashvili’s erratic and untruthful behaviour, “unravelled the sweater” of Western memes about Russia’s intentions. In short, the Russia that the anti-Russia lobby believes exists, and Saakashvili talked about, would have moved to Tbilisi, seized Saakashvili and still be there. Once you doubt Saakashvili’s word on this, you have to doubt everything else he said about Russia and that leads one to questioning more and more. I still believe that the most important fact was that the French Foreign Minister actually went to talk to the refugees from Ossetia. Generally Western observers – and Saakashvili’s claque especially – stubbornly refuse to contemplate the Ossetian and Abkhazian point of view. (Witness this from an American businessman who spends a lot of time there on the US Senate’s idea that Russia “occupies” Abkhazia.)

MEDVEDEV ON SAME. He gave a long interview to Russian and Georgian reporters on the anniversary and the Georgian interviewers don’t pull any punches. One interesting thing he said was that he didn’t speak to Putin (in Beijing at the time) for about 24 hours. The interviewer expresses surprise: “Yes. I had already issued all the orders to the military. Tskhinval was already ablaze… We spoke, twenty four hours after the attack over a secure line. As you understand, it’s not very appropriate to discuss matters like this by cellphone. It’s also a lot of trouble to establish a secure line connection with someone who is in a different country”. He does not believe Washington gave the go-ahead for the attack but does believe there were “certain hints” that led Saakashvili to believe that they did (see Kitsmarishvili’s testimony in Tbilisi where you will find corroboration of Medvedev’s account from the former Georgian Ambassador to Russia.). “Our mission was not to capture Tbilisi or any other city in Georgia. Our only objective was to halt the invasion that Saakashvili had unleashed.” Tbilisi dismissed his remarks as “cold war rhetoric”, Read it and decide for yourself. By the way, the Georgian reporter twice spoke of 500,000 (Kartevelian) refugees and Medvedev does not challenge her: that number is about twice what more dispassionate agencies estimate. Even the The Economist quotes the lower number. And, for anyone who knows that the population of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was about 650,000 at the last USSR census, quite preposterous.

AND IN GEORGIA. Some reflections on the state of Georgia today, three years after the war. David Berdzenishvili, one of the opposition and no friend of Moscow, has much to say about “elite corruption” in Georgia and names politicians who have become wealthy on government contracts. “In essence that what [Saakashvili] has created is a police state” and there is “still no free society in Georgia”. Another opposition leader speaks of corruption, censorship and election fraud: “Georgians know democracy and freedom exist in Georgia in name only.” Nonetheless he believes Georgia is “on the cusp of change” that will force the introduction of “democratic reforms.” I have not seen anything from Saakashvili so we will have to go with this from earlier: even though Moscow wanted to destroy democracy in Georgia, it did not; so a victory after all. Georgia’s economic situation is deteriorating and polls suggest that the economy, not the “Russian threat”, should be the government’s chief concern; unemployment in cities is reported very high and there are a lot of poor; there are a lot of people in prison; foreign investment has been falling. This website has much to say about government misdeeds. Not a very happy place and not a very happy future.

THE REST OF THE WORLD. Apart from the Saakashvili claque in the US, Georgia seems to be off the map. I believe that their former trust in Saakashvili has been shattered. There are still periodic mumbles of support for Georgia’s territorial integrity but that that is mostly for show. But there is still no resolution of the two principles of “the inviolability of borders” and “self-determination of nations” and that is what is holding this all up. Ossetians and Abkhazians do not want to be where Stalin put them. How is the contradiction to be resolved? Force majeure used to settle such questions but no one likes that idea today (even though every country’s borders were actually established by force majeure).

YOUR HUMBLE SERVANT. I am quite pleased that, in my basement, alone, in Ottawa, I got it rightfrom the beginning – while the Western MSM (I make an exception for Der Spiegel) and governments (especially Washington) got it wrong.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see


ELECTION BET. I’ve put mine down: Medvedev will run, Putin will not, there may be a second Team candidate (ie one from United Russia and one from Just Russia).

PUTIN Q&A. Another session worth reading. He was in Magnitogorsk to open a new cold rolling complex but, as usual, answered all the questions thrown at him with his customary frankness and mastery of detail. As I have noticed on several occasions lately, he seems to be in a reflective mood and is ready to speak about what he believes he accomplished (stability again: “Who is going to invest in a country that is always shaking like a leaf?”). Several times lately he has been looking back in detail but forward in generalities. Is this a (tiny, I agree) indication that he is contemplating retirement?

LEGAL ACTIVITY. Quite a lot since my last Sitrep. Contractor arrested for swindling the Navy (and, by the way, a rather easily detected swindle). Four people in the North Caucasus arrested as they were preparing a bomb attack on Moscow. Yet another RosAtom executive arrested on charges of embezzlement. Another traffic cop arrested in another “blue light” affair. Three police sentenced for abuse of office. Criminal investigation into a St Petersburg shipyard. Charges laid in the Bulgaria sinking. Investigation into a “blue light” death re-opened. Extreme nationalist sentenced. Two charged in a laser blinding case (there have been a spate of these lately). A man arrested for a multiple murder. And, in the Magnitskiy case, charges have been laid and the investigation re-opened. That’s what I’ve noticed in three weeks – I wouldn’t say that nothing is being done about corruption and malfeasance.

LIBERALS. Has a “liberal” party with legs finally appeared in Russia? I refer to Right Cause (Правое дело). Founded in 2008 out of SPS and a couple of others, it has succeeded in electing some people. Most importantly it survived the preposterously complicated (and easily manipulated) registration process and thus is ready to go. The billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov heads it and has said that he will devote his efforts to the future of the party. But the curse of Russian “liberals” is that they refuse to unite (that is, each is ready as long as he’s the boss) and hence there are innumerable and evanescent “taxi parties”. I believe that there is an electorate of 10% or so ready to support a viable “liberal” party and this might be the one.

POLICE REFORM. The Interior Minister says that over 90% of the police rank-and-file passed their performance review. That is not convincing – a third of the top people were let go and while I know that “a fish rots from the head” the rot doesn’t stop at the head. The job will have to be done again.

PAY PAL. It is reported that the enterprise is planning to start operations in Russia soon. I recall flying out to Vladivostok in 1995 carrying thousands of dollars in cash to pay our people out there: there was almost no other way to get money to them. This is a remarkable step and says much about Internet penetration, credit and banking institutions, changes in mentality and so forth. It also is a vote of confidence in Russia.

STUNTS. First we had “Putin’s Army” and now we have “Medvedev Girls”. A feeble example of civil society I suppose but mostly a publicity stunt as “Obama Girl” turned out to be.

GOOD NEWS FOR UKRAINE. Ukraine is thought to have significant reserves of oil and gas shale. It was announced that Royal Dutch Shell may make a significant investment in exploration. If this pans out, it will help reduce dependence on Russia.

QUADRIGA AWARD. The huffing and puffing worked and the award was rescinded. Pretty amateur performance.

US SENATE. One would think that American Senators had a pretty full schedule these days. Nonetheless they found time to pass a resolutioncalling upon Russia to remove its occupying forces from Abkhazia and South Ossetia”. Perhaps a Senator should go to one of these places and ask the locals what they think about the Russian troops and why they want them to stay. Once again, no consideration of the Abkhazian or Ossetian point of view.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see

My Presidential Election Bet

Note February 2016. Of course, I was wrong and Putin did run again. I believe, as I argue here, that NATO’s duplicity over Libya convinced him (correctly as it turned out) that bad times were coming and only he could helm the ship.



It sometimes seems that the only story in Russia today is who will run for President and the Kommentariat is parsing every word uttered by Putin or Medvedev in its search for clues. Neither has yet said anything definite (and no more would either: the fear is that the Russian bureaucracy – ever alert to power shifts – would stop working altogether). Readers are reminded that we heard similar speculation before: Gorbachev would not step down; Yeltsin would not (could not some said) step down; Putin would change the Constitution and stay on. In some cases, there are Russia watchers who have stoutly maintained all these positions.

I was amused by a recent – and rather lengthy – think piece which concluded that the possibilities were that Medvedev, Putin or someone else would be the next President. I believe that people who watch Russia should do better than that; and I am putting my bets down:

1. Medvedev will run for President and Putin will not.

2. There may be another candidate from the Team who runs.

Medvedev will run for President and Putin will not.

I believe that the decision was made some years ago that Putin would not serve more than two terms and that he would hand off to a trusted member of the Team which been running Russia since 2000. What Putin did, by stepping down as President and re-appearing as Prime Minister, was something not before seen: for probably the first time in Russian history there are two power centres which are cooperating. Many people simply cannot grasp the concept and insisted for some years that Medvedev was just a place-holder; now, curiously, the conventional view is becoming that Medvedev is somehow opposed to Putin and that Putin will take back the reins.

I maintain that there has been a Plan since 2000; that that Plan can be seen in the speeches of the two and especially in Putin’s Russia at the Turn of the Millennium. Or to take a more recent example, here is Putin reflecting on what has been accomplished and what remains to be done. I do not apologise for the length of the quotation; in my opinion too few actually read what the man says. He remembers what he faced in 2000:

The scale of the tasks was directly proportionate to the problems Russia was facing at the beginning of the 21st century. We entered the new century after a default that spurred inflation growth and led to bankruptcies and unemployment. At least one-third of [the] population fell below the poverty line. The system of state governance was experiencing serious problems. The authorities were ineffective, and the country looked like a group of principalities, each with its own laws and rules. At that time, a genuine civil war was under way in the North Caucasus, unleashed by terrorists who were supported by forces that sought to weaken Russia. The situation called for decisive action. I am referring above all to the restoration of constitutional order, social guarantees, and the strengthening of state institutions. We have done all of that. We have literally brought the country together, restored its legal space and created a balanced system of state governance… Most importantly, we have ensured stability.

In short, three problems: economic failure, an ineffective state and lawlessness. He did not mention the fourth: a Russia that was considered to be a declining power, on its way to negligibility. But, “Most importantly, we have ensured stability”. That sums up what Putin thinks he did as President.

The interviewer than asks him whether, “after solving high-priority problems in the past decade, we now need qualitative changes and some kind of a breakthrough in all spheres of the country’s life?” Putin answers:

I get asked this question a lot. And I’ll give the same answer by quoting Alexander Solzhenitsyn who once said that ‘preserving the people’ was Russia’s national idea. This phrase captures the main goal of modern Russia and all the ongoing transformation of its economy, social sphere, and its public and political life. At the same time, I consider consistent development to be the key to realising this national idea. We should take pride in Russia’s thousand-year history, natural resources and cultural heritage. But we must move forward, no matter what. We must maintain competitive positions in all spheres, including technology, human capital, industrial production and the arts. Society, the government and the business community must work as a team. This is the only way to attain the qualitative breakthrough you mentioned.

Qualitative change is, of course, one of Medvedev’s continually-repeated themes. I fail to see any serious disagreement between the two here. Putin “restored stability” during his two presidential terms and now is the time for a “qualitative breakthrough”. Phase I then Phase II of the long job of rebuilding Russia after what Putin once called the “blind alley” of communism.

Making the “qualitative breakthrough” will, of course be more difficult; although there were many who thought that stability could not be restored – a favourite example is a piece that appeared in 2001, the title says it all, “Russia is Finished”. It will also take much longer, and, in some respects, will never be completed because the target of “modernity” is continually moving.

Therefore, the Plan has moved into another phase and that is the job of Medvedev, whom Putin picked and nurtured (and they were both grown in Anatoliy Sobchak’s nursery). I see no serious evidence that Putin is dissatisfied with his choice. Compare and contrast lists like this do not convince me that there is a strategic difference between the two.

And there is a little clue: in another interview, Putin dropped a pretty significant hint when he said he was “fed up with foreign policy”. Foreign policy is a rather large part of the President’s job.

Therefore, I expect that The Plan will be adhered to and Medvedev will run for a second term and Putin will not.

There may be another candidate from the Team running

In 2006 the political party Just Russia (Справедливая Россия) was created. It was clear that there was a good deal of involvement by the Kremlin in its creation. This was puzzling because United Russia (Единная Россия) is the “Kremlin party”; why would the Kremlin want to create a second establishment party with a slightly different flavour?

The Russian political scene is rather barren. The only detectable raison d’être of the majority party is the division of the spoils of power. The Communists and Zhirinovskiy’s personality party have little to offer the majority. Russian liberals are quarrelsome and play more to outside opinion than to Russian interests. Perhaps the hope was that Just Russia would attract membership away from the Communist and liberal electorates but, if so, there is little evidence that it has. Although the party has secured seats in the Duma and in regional legislatures, it is very much a second fiddle to the all-dominating United Russia.

At the time – just before the 2008 presidential election – it seemed possible to me that the reason for Just Russia’s creation could be that two Team candidates would run, one for United Russia and one for Just Russia. In this event, the election would be more competitive than yet another run of the Team candidate against Zhirinovskiy and Zyuganov – a very tired contest indeed and one we have seen in almost every presidential election since 1991. Secondly, the contest would establish Just Russia as a viable party and Russia would have a species of political pluralism.

But, if this were the plan, it did not happen and Russia had another election in which the Team candidate, supported by the machinery of United Russia, faced off against Zhirinovskiy and Zyuganov. And, of course, Medvedev won as he would have, with or without the power of incumbency.

There are signs that the Team is not very enthusiastic about United Russia; as Putin said recently “Frankly speaking, United Russia, our leading political force, needs an influx of new ideas, proposals and people in these circumstances”. Medvedev has more than once called for more political competition. But, as long as United Russia is the dominant party for lack of competition, why would it ever want to be creative? All it has to do is agree and anticipate.

So, in a way, the Team is a victim of its success. In contrast to the Yeltsin period in which “pedestal parties” (eg Russia’s Choice, Our Home Russia) were cobbled together at the last moment and performed poorly, United Russia has been more carefully constructed. So the Team has a reliable base of support; but that base so dominates political discourse in Russia that the creativity necessary for Phase II (“qualitative change”) is stifled. Hectoring United Russia to be creative won’t change the reality that it is an association of apparatchiks and would-be apparatchiks.

Could my imagined 2008 scenario play out in next year’s presidential election? I believe that it is possible. I did not see much evidence of it – although the move of Sergey Mironov from the Federation Council to the Duma is interesting, as are his attempts to distinguish Just Russia from United Russia. If Just Russia were to run a credible Team candidate, it would offer a route out of the political stagnation that Medvedev and Putin complain about.

So I believe that the possibility of two Team candidates, one of them Medvedev and the other not Putin, each supported by one of these parties is something to watch for.

Other points

Putin’s future. I have no opinion on whether Putin will stay on as Prime Minister in the next presidential term. However, I believe that he has come to the end of his possibilities. He was the right man for Phase I (reversing the decline) but not so good for Phase II (qualitative change). And, as far as Russian’s image in other countries is concerned, as long as he stays in power, there will more years of speculation that “the ex-KGB officer” is really running the show. More of this would hinder the development of Phase II which requires a peaceful environment and outside investment.

When to make the declaration, I see a disagreement between Medvedev and Putin on the timing. Putin, ever cautious, has said he would prefer to get the Duma elections over with first; Medvedev keeps saying he will announce “soon”. What they both fear is the kratotropism of Russian officials. Should Medvedev declare, there will be a tendency to regard Putin as yesterday’s man and he will lose traction. Even more so, should Putin declare, then Medvedev would immediately become “nobody’s man”. On the other hand, it can be argued that the growing speculation frenzy can itself paralyze action. Thus the timing requires nice judgement and it is understandable that there could be different ideas about when to do it.

Election turnout. Russian electoral turnout, at least in presidential elections, is on the high side by world standards in the mid- to high-60s. US presidential turnouts have been gently drifting down to the low 50s; Canadian federal elections are also drifting down to the mid- to low-60s; British general election turnouts are similar and French presidential turnouts, while higher than the others, also show a downturn. Two common – and opposed – explanations are given for low turnouts: either disgust with what is on offer or acceptance of the probable outcome. Opinion polls, over many years and with many different polling organisations, suggest that Russians are generally content with their leaders. Thus it seems likely that the Russian turnout (somewhat inflated by improbable results, especially in Chechnya) will be at least in the 60s.