“Hot Spots” in the Former USSR


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.

Let’s start with a little chronology. Abkhazia and South Ossetia won their wars against Georgia in the early 1990s and each declared independence. Moscow did not recognise them. The clock turned over: new decade, new century; Moscow still didn’t recognise them. Georgia attacked again in 2008; Moscow recognised them.

Moscow has its own potential territorial problems: Kaliningrad, parts of Karelia, the “Northern Territories”; the border with China; North Caucasus independentists. It is a status quo power that prefers that everything stay the way it is because it has other things to worry about. It has little sympathy with irredentist claims.

So why did Medvedev decide to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008? Let’s ask him: “We restored peace, but we could not extinguish fears and hopes of the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in a situation when Saakashvili continued (with participation of and encouraged by the US and a number of other NATO members) to speak of re-arming his military and re-establishing control over ‘the Georgian territory’…. Russia was left no choice” (Regnum News, 28 August 2008). In short: recognition was the only way Moscow could think of to stop Tbilisi attacking again.

But why does Moscow care whether Tbilisi attacks again? My personal conviction is that its real fear is blowback. The last time Tbilisi went adventuring in South Ossetia and (especially) Abkhazia, North Caucasian militias (particularly Shamil Basayev’s Chechen Brigade) intervened. In those days, there was a desire to recreate the short-lived “Mountaineer Republic” of 1918. Basayev and his fighters, having defeated Tbilisi and established the western end of the “Mountaineer Republic”, returned to Chechnya to create the eastern end. Thus we can connect the Georgian attack on Abkhazia with the first war in Chechnya, the second war and Moscow’s troubles in the North Caucasus today. Ergo, Moscow does not want that to happen again; ergo it must ensure that Tbilisi will not attack Abkhazia and South Ossetia again; ergo recognition means that Tbilisi will know that another attack means it faces Russia; ergo that should stop it from attacking again. QED.

The other ex-Soviet “hotspots” are still negotiable. Transdnestr needs a guarantee that should Chisinau join Romania, this former piece of the Ukrainian SSR does not have to follow it and Karabakhians need a guarantee that they won’t be massacred by “Turks”. These are still imaginable. These borders are Stalin-Jughashvili’s creations and there’s no reason the rest of us should take them as sacred and unchangeable.

Few Western capitals have figured this out. In the meantime the status quo is endurable from Moscow’s point of view. Therefore, as things stand today with fragile ceasefires holding, Moscow has no reason to recognise either Transdnestr or Karabakh.

Everyone should have followed Kiev’s wise and just treatment of Crimea or Chisinau’s wise and just response to Gagauz wishes.

But who in the West has ever heard of either?


CHANGE. More change working away. Last Sitrep I reported about a quarter of Russians had travelled outside the former USSR. Now we find that about 90% have cell phones and about 40% of adults use the Internet daily. ROMIR tells us that 70% of Russians have savings, the overwhelming majority in Rubles, many in banks. And a per-capita GDP is getting on for half that of Japan. I believe that easy communication, travel, access to the New Media and savings accounts are the outward signs of internal change: “middle class” things. I think it’s fair to say that Russia has never been a “middle class country” before: it’s not there yet but getting there.

POLICE. More police outrages: more torture cases revealed; a conviction for same; a conviction for murder. There is some pressure building to have the Interior Minister dismissed.

CORRUPTION. Medvedev admitted his campaign had yielded only modest results. Putin said much the same thing at the end of his second term. For my money it’s Russia’s worst problem.

THE EMPTINESS OF FORMER FLAPS. Lugovoy has passed a lie detector test administered by people from the UK over the Litvinenko death. The standard view, re-typed by thousands of outlets, takes a hit.

PUTIN. Putin is stepping down as head of United Russia, because, “The president should be a non-party figure.” This is a common sentiment in the former USSR where the word “party” still has some bad connotations.

INVESTMENT CLIMATE. Putin and Medvedev have both spoken about Russia’s bad investment climate. It appears that improvements are on the agenda. Putin announced that there would be no export duties for new hydrocarbon projects on the Russian shelf and, lo! a few days later Rosneft and ExxonMobil announced a deal. He then proposed tax holidays for new production facilities in special economic zones.

NONSENSE. SIPRI claims that Russia is the 3rd largest military spender in the world after the USA and China at US$71.9 billion. That kind of money would buy a lot more than 6 Su-35s and 30 Su-30s between now and 2015. NATO used similar PPP cooking in the past to claim Russia was Number 2.

MISSILE DEFENCE. The Chief of the General Staff agreed that there is a potential threat of nuclear weapons acquisition by Iran and North Korea and that it should be jointly defended against. Earlier the Director of the (US) Missile Defense Agency told a US Senate panel that cooperation with Russia could benefit the USA. There is to be a conference on the subject in Moscow next week: maybe something will be done about this unnecessary impasse.

POLITICAL PARTIES. The rules for registering political parties have been relaxed and no fewer than 143 have applied. I’ll bet at least half are parties claiming to unite the liberals under a single leader.

ASSUMPTIONS. A commonplace of comment, inside and outside Russia, is that every time a Western power(s) overthrows a government, Russia loses business there. Doesn’t actually seem to work that way: LUKoil has started work on the West Qurna-2 oilfield in Iraq.

ARROGANCE. The US State Department’s spokesman says that the investigation into the death of Sergey Magnitskiy has been “inadequate”. Maybe it’s time for Moscow to take up Conrad Black’s incarceration. But really, what arrogance: are we to presume that Washington knows the correct answer? there is an investigation in Russia, actually.

ABKHAZIA. There was an assassination attempt against President Ankvab of Abkhazia in February. Arrests have been made and two suspects are reported to have killed themselves. One theory is that it’s connected to corruption. I haven’t heard anyone suggest that it was Tbilisi.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/)

McFaul’s Influence

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. Can’t find a link for this. Question was presumably something about what influence McFaul had as US Ambassador to Russia.

Having been a diplomat, all I can say is that diplomats should be seen and not heard. It rarely works out well, for either side, when an individual diplomat becomes a personality rather than a quiet go-between passing information from one capital to the other. The ideal diplomat explains each to the other quietly and discreetly: diplomatically indeed.

That having been said, I don’t think that the real problem is with McFaul. Consider the famous “reset”. It was announced to the world with the reset button gift: a cute symbol, but nothing wrong with that. But the Russian word used was not the correct one and, even worse, it was written in Latin characters. Surely someone in the State Department knows what the correct Russian word for “reset” is and, even if no one does, Microsoft certainly knows. The Russians have their own alphabet – does no one in the State Department know that? Of course there are people in there who know these things. So why weren’t they asked?

A frivolity. A stunt. Not serious. Patronising. Amateur night.

What is the Obama Administration’s policy on Russia? Has there been any follow up to this bizarre beginning? Some say the rhetoric has been turned down. But has it? Clinton condemned the Duma elections almost before the results were out. As to substance, European missile defence is still a neuralgic issue for Moscow as if nothing had changed since 2008. Yes there is a nuclear weapons agreement in which each side retains a preposterous number. And Russia is finally in the WTO after a mere two decades of waiting. Not trivial, but are they really a “reset”?

Is there an actual, real, worked-out, consistent, pursued policy that is properly explained and defended? Or is it just evanescent rhetoric, gestures and the Europeans bullying Tbilisi out of its (strangely-acquired) WTO veto? The NATO Secretary General still says on one day that Georgia should and will be in NATO eventually and on another tries to importune a transit supply base in Russia. And we still await the repeal of the outrageously out-of-date Jackson-Vanik Amendment.

McFaul can hardly be blamed for not knowing whether the program is cooperation with Russia in a reasonable and mutually beneficial way or to attempt to denigrate and weaken Putin.


OPEN MIKES. Everyone by now has heard about what Obama said to Medvedev. A cynic would say that Obama could have done all that in his first two years when his party had a majority in Congress, or even now while it still has one in the Senate. But, here we are, back where we started. Romney’s response was preposterous but it appears that all the standard memes about Russia-the-Eternal-Enemy are firmly embedded in his mind. If he is elected, there will be bad times ahead for US-Russia relations. My fuller response will appear at Russia Profile Experts’ Panel on Friday.

POLICE. Clearly Medvedev’s police reform was, to put it mildly, incomplete. After the murder of a suspect in Tatarstan, the Russian Investigative Committee spokesman told regional units to check all complaints about police misconduct. Almost immediately, 66 more cases were revealed there. And still more elsewhere. A police accountant was charged with stealing payroll money and the head of a regional traffic police department with accepting a bribe. The “performance review” accepted 90%; too many.

CORRUPTION. After an investigation, the Prosecutor General’s Office concluded that about US$84 million of state money had been embezzled in North Caucasus, with next to none recovered, That’s about 1%. Even if the investigators are off by a factor of ten that strikes me as a gigantic reduction from former times when it was closer to 100%. Charges of financial wrongdoing against the former head of the Moscow subway have been dropped. Russians are sceptical that Putin can significantly reduce corruption (His “most wearying and difficult to resolve” problem said he in 2008): only 25% think he can. Some observations are relevant. Corruption is not, of course, a Russian invention although it’s often reported as if it were; we all have it in varying degrees and styles. Second, the worst corruption is invisible because insiders steal the money before it leaves the Treasury; the most visible is small-time shake-downs. And third, it is a serious problem in Russia, but arrests are made and convictions obtained. And fourth, perceived corruption is very dependent on what an individual sees and what he hears about (which is why I don’t take TI’s ratings very seriously).

END OF AN ERA. Sergey Shoygu is the new Governor of Moscow Region, replacing Boris Gromov, who, rumour has it, will go to the Federation Council. Shoygu has served as the head of Russia’s emergency services for the incredible term of 20 years, outlasting a multitude of ministers; fascinating to think of what he has seen pass by in the government and all the changes he has observed from his office. By all accounts he has done a superb job: he had people on the ground in the 2004 tsunami, for example, the next day.

TRAVEL. A Levada poll tells us that about a quarter of Russians have been outside the FUSSR. That, when you think of it, is quite a large number and is part of the psychic changes happening in the country: I suspect most have done their travelling since 2000.

CARS. Putin has urged all government structures to buy vehicles made in Russia, Kazakhstan or Belarus. I seem to recall an earlier Yeltsin decree to that effect. Mind you, Russian cars are better today. But, still, there’s nothing like a big, black Merc, with a cluster of little Mercs scampering around you. Maybe that will change.

CIRCASSIANS. After Russia conquered the North Caucasus in the Nineteenth Century, many Circassians left for the Ottoman Empire and are now found all over its successor states. A number of those in Syria apparently want to leave and return to their ancient homeland: it is said that they feel Assad was their protector and guarantor of their security. Their cause has been taken up by a Federation Council Deputy from the Kabardin-Balkar Republic. More here. It will be interesting to see what happens.

GEORGIA. Some years ago, Russia cut off imports of Georgian mineral water, claiming problems with forgery and adulteration. But, after extensive re-tooling, the Borjomi plant is up to standards and Russia’s health organisation has approved it for import. Russia is a very large market and the water is a significant export earner for Georgia.

THE EMPTINESS OF FORMER FLAPS. The Ukrainian Prosecutor-general says that the Yushchenko poisoning case should be closed for lack of evidence. Lots of the usual nudge-nudge wink-wink stuff implicating Russia at the time which helped to boost the “Orange Revolution”. Doubts at the time got little coverage. Another piece of typing masquerading as reporting. More on the Ukrainian prosecutor’s views.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/)

Romney: Russia, the “Number One Geopolitical Foe”

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. Can’t find a link for this. Question presumably was to comment on Romney’s statement.

Is Russia really the “number one geopolitical foe” of the United States? Of course it isn’t and it is quite absurd that anyone should be saying so after 911. Indeed, if we look at Romney’s charge sheet against Russia – “Russia continues to support Syria, supports Iran, has fought us with [by?] crippling sanctions we wanted to have the world put in place against Iran” – obviously he doesn’t believe it either: he thinks Iran and Syria are greater “foes” and that Russia is only an obstacle on the road to the happy future that beckons when unpleasant “foes” are overthrown. And, when challenged by the CNN interviewer, he backed down: “The greatest threat the US faces is a nuclear Iran”.

We are left in confusion: which is the “number one foe”? Or is there some mystical hierarchy in which Iran is a “threat” and Russia merely a “foe”? Ridiculous.

In other remarks it is apparent that Romney has absorbed all the memes about Russia that have been pounded in by incompetent reporting and lobbyists. At the Citadel in October he said “Russia is at a historic crossroads. Vladimir Putin has called the breakup of the Soviet empire the great tragedy of the 20th Century. Will he try to reverse that tragedy and bludgeon the countries of the former Soviet Union into submission, and intimidate Europe with the levers of its energy resources?” Well, Putin didn’t say it was the great tragedy; the Russian is very clear: not the superlative form at all. But the misquotation has been re-typed by innumerable lazy media outlets and has become the foundation factoid of the Russia-as-Eternal-Enemy stance. In a Washington Post interview in March we hear that: “He [Romney] is convinced that Putin dreams of ‘rebuilding the Russian empire’ [the misquotation again]. He says, ‘That includes annexing populations as they did in Georgia [what a peculiar way to put it] and using gas and oil resources’ to throw their weight around in Europe. He maintains that the START treaty was tilted toward Russia. ‘It has to end’, he says emphatically about ‘reset’. ‘We have to show strength’, I ask him about WTO, which has been much in the news as Putin blusters and demands entry into the trade organization. Romney is again definitive. ‘Letting people into WTO who intend to cheat is obviously a mistake.’” In the Foreign Policy piece he says one of Obama’s “gifts” to Russia (which has “rewarded these gifts with nothing but obstructionism”): “Without extracting meaningful concessions from Russia, he abandoned our missile defense sites in Poland”. (But isn’t the missile defence scheme supposed to be about “rogue states”? Apparently not: Romney seems to support Moscow’s suspicion that it’s really all about Russia.)

So they’re all there – Georgia, gas prices and a despotic, cheating, revanchist Putin – welded together by a misquotation and a string of casual assertions. All that’s missing is that Putin used to be in the KGB.

But it is clear that to Romney, Moscow’s original sin is not snapping to attention and saying Так точно! to every whim that comes out of Washington (except, of course, these days, those from President Obama).

One has to assume that Romney actually believes all this stuff and, if he does become President, this does not bode well for future US-Russia relations.