CORRUPTION. The OboronServis scandal expands with former Defence Ministry official (and, some say, former Minister Serdyukov’s girlfriend) Yevgeniya Vasilyeva charged with large-scale fraud and placed under house arrest. A spokesman for the Investigative Committee said that companies controlled by the Ministry had embezzled more US$250 million this year; not, it appeared, just from this particular swindle. No charges have been laid against Serdyukov but they may be coming pending investigation. It is also reported that the new Minister has so far brought with him 14 senior people from his previous jobs which suggests that he wants people around him whom he can trust to be clean. In other investigations a case has been opened against two military officers in the Far East for embezzling ration money; a former officer of the Federal Drug Control Service was sentenced to jail for drug trafficking and an ex-FSB officer was arrested for fraud. We’re definitely touching the organs of state security here. Stay tuned.

DUUMVIRATE. Levada finds a slow decline in Putin and Medvedev’s ratings, although each remains at over 50%; on the other hand VTsIOM finds United Russia is back to where it was a year ago – just under 50%. Still, by world standards, pretty high but another indication that Putin’s return might not have been such a good idea. He was the right man for the job then but is he now? The population seems to be coming to think not.

MAGNITSKIY BILL. The bill has taken a step forward by passing the US House of Representatives by a strong margin. What I find particularly idiotic about this is how are the names for the blacklist to be discovered except as a result of the Russian investigation?

PARTY RIOT. The Justice Ministry is chewing away at the pile of political parties that want to be registered. “Against All” was just registered (№ 38 on the list of 212). This party stands against those who stand against the Church but will, no doubt, attract votes from those who remember the old “against all” ballot option. One of the effects of Pussy Riot, I suspect, is the creation of pro-Church groups. As is this poll showing increased support for the Russian Orthodox Church. What the Western typists missed was that Pussy Riot’s stunt was much more anti-Church than anti-Putin and the cross cuttings and other things are creating a reaction.

INTERNET. According to a survey by Levada, nearly 60% of the population “use” it. News and information is a predominant use. Apart from the new law (resembling those in other countries) shutting down child porn sites, it is open to all.

MOSCOW HELSINKI GROUP. With the cessation of US government funding, this organisation is having trouble raising money. We will find out, as time goes on, how many so-called Russian human rights organisations have support from actual Russians. The new NGO law came into effect a week ago.

POLICE REFORM. I don’t know if anyone would call this very exciting progress but, last year 2.3 times as many people did not trust the police as did; nowadays it’s only 1.8 times as many.

DEPT OF IRONY. Two aircraft from Russia’s Emergency Ministry delivered relief supplies, mostly blankets, to US victims of Hurricane Sandy. One would have thought that FEMA would have plenty of blankets in storage. Fortunately, Russia does.

GAS WARS. It’s that time of year again and this time Kiev wants to reduce the amount of gas it will buy from Russia. Technically this violates the contract but my guess is that, after some huffing and puffing, Gazprom will accept. It’s not as if Ukraine can pay for it anyway. Thanks to Europe’s problems, Russia is looking at lower demand from there too.

GEORGIA. A potentially explosive question: how did Zurab Zhvania die? has re-opened with a new investigation. Meanwhile PM Ivanishvili says he will not push for President Saakashvili’s impeachment but he does want to cut his powers particularly by bringing in the new constitutional arrangement earlier than the scheduled October. In his turn, Saakashvili warns “more and more people in Georgia realize that our country is in danger”. Dual power: never a happy situation.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (

The Magnitsky Bill: The Sources of America’s Obsession with Russia

Why this bizarre American obsession about Russia – a power that truly is not very pertinent to Washington’s strategic and security concerns? Considering, for example, what Obama and Romney talked about in their foreign policy debate, we see that Moscow hardly featured. I’m perplexed and all I can offer in explanation is a jumble of partly-baked theories.

Perhaps lefties dislike Russia because it rejected socialism; indeed the Soviet experience stands as an indictment against the whole scheme. If you believe more government is the solution, or that equality is the answer, Russia’s rejection of the Soviet experiment is a standing rebuke to your convictions.

Righties dislike Russia because, communist or not (and how many think it still is?) it’s still Russia. But why should they dislike Russia per se? Apart from the communist period, Russia has never been very germane to American concerns – not, at least, since the Alaska Purchase. And yet, as David Foglesong has argued, many Americans were obsessed about Russia long before the Bolsheviks. Russia was then seen as a sort of backwards twin brother. But Americans had a long obsession with China too: all the missionaries, the “who lost China” excitement in the 1950s. Why Russia still?

Another notion is that Americans have to have a rival, an opponent, a counter, an enemy even. It’s geopolitical chiaroscuro: the light can only shine against the darkness. Russia is large, significant and gives a contrast more substantial than, say, Venezuela would. But, best of all, unlike China, US-Russia trade is pretty inconsequential. So Russia is a low-cost opponent. It’s safe to abuse Russia; abusing China comes with a cost.

In periodic American fits of moral censure, Russia is a safe target. An issue as trivial as Pussy Riot can be played up as a momentous moral outrage. On the other hand, any sustained condemnation of the treatment in Saudi Arabia of Shiites or Pakistani and Filipino servants would come with a cost. Outrage against Russian “occupation” of parts of Georgia is one thing; outrage about Chinese occupation of Tibet would be something else. It is always pleasing to illustrate one’s moral superiority by manifesting outrage against someone else’s moral imperfections but a target that can bite back would cost more than the transitory satisfaction of being among the Saved Remnant. Russia’s sins are a perfect fit: pleasing moral superiority without uncomfortable consequences.

Or is Russia an ungrateful child? In the 1990s there was much talk about US aid and advice reforming Russia, the “end of history” and all that. Russia was, evidently, on the edge of becoming “just like us”. But it didn’t and such back-sliding cannot be forgiven.

Or is Russia just one of those unfortunate countries whose fate it is to be explained by foreigners after a two-week visit? A palimpsest on which to write the presumptions you brought? Martin Malia wrote a fascinating book showing how Westerners from Voltaire onwards found Russia to be the perfect exemplar of whatever it was that they wished it to be. So, in Russia you can find whatever you’re looking for: a “geostrategic foe”, for example.

So abusing Russia satisfies many political needs: a safe opponent; a contrast that can be painted as dark as you like; an object of feel-good moral righteousness; a sullen teenager who won’t listen to Daddy; a blank slate on which to write.

But best of all, something like the “Magnitskiy Bill” feels good and it doesn’t cost anything much. The geopolitical equivalent of banning Big Gulps in New York City.


CORRUPTION. There are those who believe that one of the main reasons for Putin’s re-appearance in the President’s chair was that only he has the political muscle to really move on Russia’s widespread problem of corruption, especially corruption at the top. I have always said that we won’t know that the anti-corruption drive is serious until it takes down someone in an office near Putin’s or Medvedev’s. Do we start to see this? The OboronServis case is getting bigger. The case concerns skulduggery with the extensive number of military properties. Some charges have been laid and the inquiry has been widened. Last week Putin dismissed Defence Minister Serdyukov (that’s an office pretty near his) and some think that there is a connection and there is a hint in Putin’s words that there is (although, naturally, there are plenty of other theories too). Sergey Shoygu, the popular long-time Emergency Services Minister (Governor of Moscow Region since April) was appointed to replace him. The Chief of the General Staff and other senior military were also replaced shortly after and others today. It’s true that Serdyukov was very unpopular with the generals but Putin had kept him on nevertheless upon his return. Another possible scandal that may emerge involves the defence industries which many accuse of being only able to make ineffective weapons that are also very expensive. On the heels of this comes another scandal in another important and celebrated enterprise: the Russian GPS system GLONASS. For some years it has been promising more than it has delivered and now a case charging embezzlement has been opened. The chief designer of the system has just been fired. These are corruption scandals in important and prestigious parts of the state structure and are therefore much more momentous than another bent cop discovered somewhere in the sticks. More coming maybe. I would observe that, in my opinion, the worst corruption in Russia involves privatisation: public property being transformed into private gain; both of these fit that category.

SLOW JUSTICE. For one reason or another, the Russian justice system is slow. A gang leader has just been sentenced for a string of murders 15 to 20 years ago and one of the alleged masterminds of the Budyonnovsk attack in 1995 is about to go on trial.

HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL. The new Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights exists and held its first meeting with Putin on Monday. I haven’t been able to find a list of members but there are said to be real critics on it. However, many members of the last iteration resigned charging that it’s just for show; we will see whether this is better. But a bad first sign: Putin promised to take a second look at the new treason law, but signed it anyway yesterday. A rather short second look.

THE EMPTINESS OF FORMER FLAPS. Everything you thought you knew about Litvinenko is not so certain.

INTERNET BLACKLIST. There are now 180 websites blocked. They are all supposed to be child porn, drugs or other social ills. An official website claims to give the details (but I can’t figure it out, but no doubt a reader can).

NATIONALIST MARCH. Not all anti-Putin protesters are ones we like. The super nationalists marched on the 4th. Six to ten thousand calling for the end to immigration (ie from the Caucasus and Central Asia) and Russia for Russians. They dislike Putin because he’s not one of them. Reasonably peaceful other than some arrested for wearing Nazi symbols.

THINGS YOU WON’T SEE IN THE WESTERN MEDIA. Putin met with Solzhenitsyn’s widow on the 50th anniversary of Ivan Denisovich. I reiterate that the Gulag Archipelago is required reading (excerpts anyway) in high schools and Solzhenitsyn was given a high award by Putin. But that doesn’t fit the Approved Narrative.

GEORGIA. As expected, things are heating up. PM Ivanishvili asked Saakashvili to vacate the Presidential Palace (a rather elaborate structure for a poor country) and move to cheaper space, Saakashvili refused but agreed to turn the lights off at night. But, more to the point, Bacho Akhalaia, former penitentiary service head, Defence Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs, was charged last week and is now in pre-trial detention and more charges have been added. The Armed Forces Chief of Staff and a brigade commander were also charged. The case concerns abuse of soldiers. This is causing some anxiety in Europe and NATO which for so long regarded Saakashvili as a potential member of their club (I’ve seen nothing yet from Washington). I expect there will be more charges coming on other subjects.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (

Post-US elections 2012: Toward A New World Order?

William of Ockham, if he were here, would probably tell us that the next four years in the USA will resemble the last four. Sluggish economy, growing deficit, high unemployment, drone strikes offstage, the occasional attack on a US facility, armed interventions (is Mali next?). Maybe he would be wrong. But he has been a reliable guide for seven centuries.

As for Russian-US relations, at least the US President doesn’t say that Russia is the “number one geopolitical foe” but he still says “America remains the one indispensable nation. And the world needs a strong America”.

Ask for what end the heav’nly bodies shine,

Earth for whose use, Pride answers, ‘Tis for mine!

What of Obama’s whispered “flexibility” on missile defence? Well, it might amount to some genuine considerations and satisfaction of Russia’s concerns, but it might just be some words. After all, what was preventing Obama from doing something in this direction in the last four years? We shall see, but I don’t expect anything much. And, as I have argued elsewhere, the famous “reset” has not reset Washington’s conviction that Moscow will never be a reliable sled dog in the team.

But the reality is that Washington’s foreign concerns will be driven, as they have been since 2001 (and earlier) by some unexpected development in the Middle East/jihadist nexus and not by anything that originates from Moscow.

Reset? What Reset?


An important part of the Obama Administration’s new approach was the improvement of US-Russia relations and accordingly Obama, soon after taking office, began to speak of a “reset” in relations. Secretary of State Clinton formally launched the “reset” in Geneva with Lavrov on 6 March 2009. She presented him with a “reset button”. Nothing wrong with that as a symbol and something to put on his desk except for the fact that the wrong word was used and that wrong word was written in the Latin alphabet. Are we to assume – Clinton said “we worked hard to get the right Russian word” – that the US State Department has no Russian translators or no people who know that the Russians have their own alphabet? Of course not, but she evidently couldn’t be bothered to consult them. Microsoft and Apple, by the way, know the right word and what alphabet to use. An amateurish beginning to something that was presented as a serious policy change.

But, in my opinion, revealing: if she got something so simple so wrong, was the “reset” ever a thought-out policy? Or was it just a transitory rhetorical flourish?

Yes missile defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic were cancelled. But missile defence is very far from off the table and Russia’s concerns are still brushed off as not being worthy of a serious response.

Yes, after years and years, Russia is a member of the World Trade Organisation but the absurdly obsolete Jackson-Vanik Amendment endures. Possibly to be replaced by the “Magnitskiy List”.

Yes, Saakashvili is no longer loudly praised but Russia still “occupies” Georgian territory. There is no indication of any reconsideration of that bumper-sticker, and formally incorrect, view.

NATO expansion, arguably the most neuralgic issue for Moscow, has stopped, but it’s still Washington’s official policy.

And the nuclear weapons agreement – not trivial, to be sure, but something that would likely have happened anyway. And, even though it’s not fashionable to say so: perhaps these agreements are not as important as they once were.

There is still no understanding that Moscow has few reasons to, and several good reasons not to, trust mere assertions. We, Washington and the rest of us dragged in its wake, may indeed be the “good guys” but we need to do some work on keeping our promises.

So some progress here and there but nothing to suggest any real effort to “reset” the assumption that Russia’s point of view is not to be taken seriously. Missile defence? We’ve told you it’s about “rogue states” with nuclear weapons and delivery systems and not Russia; you’re being obnoxious when you doubt our word. Ossetians and Abkhazians? They’ve been annexed by Russia and their opinion is worthless. Trade with Russia? Not without conditions. NATO expansion? Still a good idea, if not quite now.

But this small progress stopped with Russia’s elections. I have written elsewhere about, “independent vote monitors”, the strange events in the US branch of Amnesty International. And then we come to the charge that Moscow prevents “progress” (what progress?) on Syria. For the Obama Administration, Russia remains deeply “undemocratic” and an obstacle. It’s as if there had been no “reset” at all.

So the “reset” seems to have been a stunt with nothing much behind it. And, at the end of 2012, relations between the US and Russia aren’t much better than they were four years ago. For official Washington, Russia is still an object of visceral suspicion, rooted mistrust and wilful incomprehension.


OPPOSITION VOTE. The opposition ran an electronic vote to choose their… what? – leaders? most popular figures? coordinators? The results are here (Russian). The top 5 are Navalniy, Bykov, Kasparov, Sobchak and Yashin. What I find striking is, in a supposedly computer-savvy broadly-based movement, that only about 80,000 actually voted out of the 170,000 who registered. One cannot say that the phenomenon is insignificant, but it does not seem to be so very large after all.

UDALTSOV. The Investigative Committee has opened a criminal case against Sergey Udaltsov (20th on the opposition vote) as a result of a TV program which showed a film allegedly of him conspiring to start disturbances. The Committee then claimed that one of his associates had confessed to organising disturbances bankrolled by Givi Targamadze. Said associate promptly declared that the “confession” had been forced out of him by threats. On Friday Udaltsov was formally charged with plotting mass disorder and released on his promise not to leave Moscow. As I said, I could believe he did it or that it’s a government setup.

BUSINESS CLIMATE. Improving. But, read the list and ask yourself whether you agree. (All FUSSR states better except Ukraine, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan?)

PUTIN. He will not give his call-in program but will likely hold a big press conference. Rumours aside.

MUSLIM CLERGY MURDERS. Most Russian Muslims are Sunnis with a strong Sufi influence. Wahhabis despise Sufis, regarding them as contaminated by innovation and idolatry. Influential imams and muftis are therefore obstacles to their aims. A Dagestani imam was murdered on Tuesday. This is the third murder this year of an imam in the North Caucasus that I have noticed (I’m sure there were more) and there was an attempt on the Mufti of Tatarstan in July. Another part of the complete story not often covered by the Western MSM.

CORRUPTION. Managers of the Defence Ministry property management company are being investigated for embezzlement and their offices were raided last week. Moscow police suspect the head of the Duma’s Office of “selling” positions. Two administrators at Moscow State University were arrested for soliciting a bribe from a student.

INTERNET CENSORSHIP. A law banning sites, principally those involved in child pornography, has come into effect. As usual, what is common elsewhere (France, UK, Finland, Germany, Australia for example) is spun as uniquely sinister when Russia follows the fashion.

STALIN. On the Day Commemorating the Victims of Political Repression, Medvedev condemned Stalin’s “war against the nation”. Lest anyone take this as a sign of struggles under the rug, Putin on the same day five years ago, at Butovo where about 20,000 were murdered, described the victims as “the pride of the nation”. Same program, same team.

GEORGIA. Back in the “Rose Revolution” Saakashvili had two allies: Zurab Zhvania, who later died in what was said to be an accident, and Nino Burjanadze who has been in the opposition for some years. The new chief prosecutor says the investigation into Zhvania’s death should be continued. This could open a can of worms: first because the FBI blessed the official story and second because some (Shevardnadze and former Defence Minister Okruashvili for two) suspect he was murdered.

TBILISI-MOSCOW. A delicate balance. The new Foreign Minister has declared that there will be no diplomatic relations so long as Moscow has embassies in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The new parliament speaker has said that Tbilisi “should abandon the role of crusader with regard to ‘undemocratic Russia.’” and “shouldn’t be making pinpricks that gratify us for two days but create two-year problems”. There will likely be steady improvement on bread-and-butter issues but South Ossetia and Abkhazia will remain obstacles: it will be many years before they will trust Tbilisi.

UKRAINE ELECTION. Parliamentary elections were held on Sunday and President Yanukovych’s party did best winning about 40% of the seats. Western observers condemned the vote as did Washington. Would a cynic be right to argue that because Yanukovych doesn’t support NATO entry for Ukraine, he is not a “democrat” and therefore elections that favour him are fakes? Or would that be too cynical? At any event, that is the reaction – and outcome – that I expected. “Step backwards” is the phrase of the day.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (