The Slightest Crack in the Rubber-Stamp: Belarus’ Almost-Unsurprising Parliamentary Election


Among the states of Eurasia, contemporary Belarus is perhaps the closest in resemblance to the old Soviet Union. It remains a highly authoritarian country under the firm control of President Aleksandr Lukashenka, a collective farm boss who reversed a brief period of democratization in the mid-1990s. Having ruled for more than two decades, Lukashenka has maintained a polity dominated by state-owned corporations, a powerful and repressive security apparatus still called the KGB, and a political system totally dominated by his own loyalists. Through well-executed bouts of elite purging, he has managed to prevent the rise of independent oligarchs, has successfully undermined civil society, and has stymied efforts at rival power-bases emerging within or without state institutions.

A perfect example of Lukashenka’s absolute grip on a country whose main journalistic cliche is the tired phrase ‘Europe’s last dictatorship,’ is its barren and hollow legislature – the Belarusian House of Representatives. Having eschewed creating an institutionalized regime party long ago – as Lukashenka has really never needed one to ensure control – the parliament is made up almost entirely of ‘independent’ deputies who are personally loyal to the president. Looking more like the old Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies than a modern legislative organ, the House of Representatives is an institution utterly devoid of political content. The body ritualistically passes every law it sees, has no control over the state budget (a critical power that legislature’s often need in order to act as effective checks against the executive), and has been filled with only loyalist deputies since 2000.

September 11th’s parliamentary election in general followed the traditional script of authoritarian elections that has dominated Belarus for the majority of its history as an independent state. Turnout was at its usual rate of just under 75% – with over 30% of ballots having been cast early, a process which makes detecting fraud more difficult. The vast majority of elected deputies were unaffiliated independents, with a smattering coming from various professional associations and many either bureaucrats or state-owned company managers. On a more positive note, 38 out of the 110 seats will be filled by women, giving the legislature a respectable 34% female representation that is not always achieved in democracies. Additionally, only 28 deputies had sat in the previous parliament – one could almost optimistically note that new loyalist faces are better than old ones.

The big news in the election, however, is the victory of two actual opposition figures to the parliament. According to official figures, Anna Konopatskaya of the long-oppositional United Civic Party and Elena Anisim of the Belarusian Language Society (a civil society organization) both won their districts, with 23.7% and 40.5% of the vote, respectively. 2 out of 110 does not seem like much, and it surely does not presage any kind of major liberalization from Lukashenka’s hardline regime, but it is a notable event nonetheless. Belarus’ opposition activists and parties are infamously fractious and divided, with little true support across the country (borne out even in pro-opposition polling).

Most discussion thus far has rightly focused on the reason that this – even if only symbolic – result was allowed at all by a regime thoroughly capable of ensuring only loyalist victories. Many attest that this is a cosmetic effort to appease Western governments by holding broadly fraud-free, nonviolent elections with tiny opposition achievements, a tactic that had been deployed to similar effect during the last presidential election. In a country as closed as Belarus, with total media domination, legitimate fears of repression, employment dependent on the state, and a feckless opposition, actual ballot fraud is often simply not necessary to get the desired outcome. Perhaps this will be the excuse the West needs to justify further cooperation and economic support for the country.

Others have pointed to seeing these two minor opposition victories as largely meaningless, and that there can be no change without the destruction of the regime. Therefore, talking about these results distracts from the real struggle against authoritarianism. Others have worried that the victories will legitimize dictatorial institutions, that winning in and of itself is a form of antidemocratic, immoral compromise.

What few have noted so far is what this means for Belarus’ rubber-stamp parliament itself. The addition of two deputies from the opposition should not change the broad functioning of the institution as a mechanism for rote passage. Two deputies are not enough to deny quorum, to obstruct or delay legislation, or demand any sort of concessions or compromises. Two are not even enough to cause trouble through physical violence or disruptive tactics – often the recourse of larger opposition parties in non-democratic regimes. The committee system of the Belarusian legislature is undeveloped to say the least, and there are simply no institutional means by which two figures can achieve much of anything, nor should we have this expectation.

Under such circumstances, a common tactic for such minute oppositions is to simply boycott the institution, staking a moral position despite their election. Research shows, however, that this is usually a mistake when the opposition is small – a gesture serving only to strengthen the moral feelings of oppositional true-believers. Instead, the two will be most impactful by remaining as voices in the chamber, giving speeches and adding a discordant note to otherwise blandly unanimous support for the regime. This kind of tactic is not a guaranteed thing – there are many ways for a parliament speaker to prevent floor speeches if they desire – and there is no assurance that the average person will ever learn of what is said in the chamber, as that will depend on domestic media. Yet if the Belarusian opposition wishes to get anything out of their new, nominal inclusion in a long-closed national political institution, we should expect to see these deputies to make the most of their positions through symbolic actions that do not threaten their foothold within the parliament. Furthermore, sustained socialization between these members of the opposition and the sea of regime loyalists – as well as a newfound treating of a parliamentary seat as meaningful – may provide for unintended consequences over the course of this legislative session.

These parliamentary elections in Belarus are no game-changer for the regime, nor any kind of sign that President Lukashenka’s grip on power is loosening. The Belarusian House of Representatives will continue in its role as a rubber-stamp, and political power will remain firmly in the domain of the presidency and the powerful ministries of state. And yet, even the slightest change in the composition of the submissive deputies that populate this quasi-Soviet institution can provide new opportunities for political actors long-marginalized in Belarusian society. This signals a new arena through which watchers of Belarus’ highly restrictive politics will look to, and may just reinvigorate – if however slightly – a long-emasculated legislative institution.

Julian G. Waller is a fourth-year Ph.D student at George Washington University whose research focuses on formal political institutions in hybrid regimes and electoral authoritarianism with a regional interest in post-communist Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space.

Photo Source: RFE/RL


Refreshing the Duma: Why Should We (and Putin) Care About Russia’s Upcoming Elections



On September 18th, Russians will go to the polls to elect a new parliament that no one seems to care about. This electoral ritual has already been widely condemned as an authoritarian farce, with the new legislature bound to be just as rubber-stamped as before. The usual analysis of the Russian Duma is one of weakness and unimportance, with no space for democratic debate and an institution devoid of meaningful power. The articles have already started streaming in – and will only grow more common as the date approaches – that tell us one way or another how this election is a façade, or will lead to no change, or is just another controlled manipulation by the ever-so-smart Putin regime. Certainly we should not be expecting some sort of miraculous liberal revolution suddenly pouring onto the streets, and the 2018 presidential elections will force far harder public choices for Mr. Putin himself. Yet we should not be so flippant in dismissing either the September election or the new legislature its winners will sit in.

This election marks five years since the start of a particularly turbulent period of Russian political history. The 2011 parliamentary elections were distinguished by widespread fraud, and perceptions of this subterfuge sparked an unprecedented mobilization of voters disillusioned with the regime and its failure to deal with corruption, economic stagnation, and unresponsive institutions. Even with fraud, the 2011 election was an embarrassment for the ruling United Russia party, barely managing to hold on to a simple majority in the Duma. Uniting disaffected liberals, leftists, and nationalists for a few brief months, the post-election protests rallied tens of thousands to the streets in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg and showed a side of the public not seen since the 1990s. These protests failed to spread further, however, and soon the victorious regime took a turn for the more overtly authoritarian. Repression of the protest organizers and the wider world of Russian opposition was coupled with an ideological move towards an ill-defined, but quite popular anti-Western conservatism. And then Ukraine happened, throwing everything only further into an unpredictable tumult.

The Russia of the post-2011 election has been a very different beast than the years of Putin’s first two terms or the formal interregnum of the Medvedev administration. In the span of five years, the country has passed laws classifying NGOs as ‘foreign agents,’ banned the adoption of orphans by US citizens, criminalized the ‘propaganda of non-traditional [i.e. homosexual] relations’ to minors, annexed Crimea, invaded eastern Ukraine, been sanctioned by the West, been kicked out of the G8, intervened in Syria, seen its currency devalued and its state budget slashed, among many other profound events. Just in the last few months, Putin called for the creation of a de facto praetorian guard to ensure internal order outside of normal military channels and the Duma passed a package of laws that forced internet and mobile service providers to archive every communication and piece of sent data for three years. Russia is more authoritarian and more militant, yet with fewer allies, resources, and goodwill than in many years. All the while decision-making has further shrunk to the immediate informal circle around Putin, whose truly impressive popularity figures are awkwardly juxtaposed with increasing popular pessimism about corruption, the economy, and the future direction of the country. In a sense, the September 2016 elections are thus a nice way to mark how much has changed over a single five-year period in the country, and the first national-level effort at finding out exactly what it was that changed.

There are two major reasons why we should treat these elections seriously as outside observers. Firstly, there is a burgeoning field of scholarship in political science that suggests elections in autocracies can be quite consequential. This literature is widely varied, showing that elections can serve to consolidate but other times undermine autocracies, with the formal degree of electoral competitiveness at the election’s outset sometimes not a particularly helpful indicator.

Elections are mobilizing instances, and the physical act of going out and voting for the autocrat or his/her party can have powerful psychological effects, enforcing the feeling that the regime is inevitable and strong, even despite objective weaknesses. Elections are a powerful means to assess the effectiveness of regional and local elites – those who will actually be ensuring the vote goes according to plan. Thus, regions which perform poorly for the ruling party often see post-election elite-level changes – governors resigning, public funds awarded or taken away, and so on. Regular elections are often signaling mechanisms as well, used in authoritarian regimes to gain or maintain an appearance of democratic legitimacy for external consumption – to appease international aid donors or broadly conform to international norms. Although in some ways this motivation is less relevant to Russia, the keeping up appearances of electoral integrity has historically been a goal of the regime. Finally, in a situation when an election goes poorly for the regime – as it did in 2011 – this can send a powerful signal that the regime needs to change course, while one that goes well is a good way to underscore unity among the regime’s loyalists. For these reasons and more, we should understand that these elections can have profound impacts.

This leads us to the second reason why we should pay attention to Russia’s fall vote. Elections in authoritarian regimes rarely just happen. They may be stage-managed, controlled, manipulated, defrauded, or otherwise rendered less than democratic, but all of this – and the degree of it – is an active choice by the regime. Sometimes that choice is preordained due to weak regime capacity for coercion and manipulation (see Ukraine under Viktor Yanukovych) or constricted because of relatively liberal norms among autocratic elites (see Singapore’s fairly mild handling of the opposition and encouragement for participation). The upcoming Russian elections are well understood by the highest elites in the regime to be important even if they would prefer them to go off without a hitch.

Evidence for Russian elites treating these elections seriously comes from no less a figure than President Vladimir Putin himself. On several occasions, Putin has talked directly about the need for a new and functioning Duma. He spoke in person to a plenary session of parliament ahead of its dismissal, reiterating the importance of the institution. One can read this all as pro forma nonsense and simply going through the motions, but a peculiar theme keeps emerging each time Putin or people from the Presidential Administration talk about the election. Each time, they speak of new blood and a fresh approach to politics that the upcoming elections are supposed to provide.

This rhetorical change – Putin rarely emphasizes the power of representative institutions (even as hollowed-out as the Duma) over presidential authority or that of the amorphous state/bureaucracy – has been accompanied by action. The ruling party, United Russia, held pseudo-primaries in which many incumbents failed to qualify, lost their race in winner-take-all single-member district races, or were placed too low in preference for proportional representation party lists to be guaranteed seats. The end result will be a notable culling of current United Russia MPs from the next Duma. The party’s primaries further drove home the point of a qualitative change in the nature of this next generation of ruling party parliamentarians – out of 225 United Russia candidates in the single-member district side of elections, only 18 will have ‘few or no ties’ to their respective region, while the vast majority will either be formerly deputies to regional legislatures, officials from regional governments, or well-known local businessmen and other personalities. This is a stark change compared to the last several Duma convocations where regional loyalties were of little importance.

Russian political scientist Nikolai Petrov has written on the peculiar position the Russian regime faces – exceedingly popular because of an extended post-Crimea delirium of victory, but one whose legitimacy is over-personalized around Putin-as-conqueror (to the Russia-watchers, a ‘gatherer of the Russian lands’ analogy could be appropriate here). He identifies the return from ‘military-legitimacy’ to ‘electoral-legitimacy’ as central to current elite thinking inside the regime. The fear is that the president’s extraordinary popularity will not last forever, and that a new bulwark of publicly accepted institutions has to come back into view, especially in light of assumed economic austerity measures in the near future. Having a ‘believable’ scapegoat for such painful measures is widely seen as necessary, even given widespread cynicism about decision-making in the system. Noting the persistent effort by high-tier Russian elites to emphasize the Duma elections as important and legitimate, the surprise appointment of a liberal critic Ella Pamfilova of the regime to head the Central Electoral Commission, and the personal interventions of Putin in enforcing the value of a fresh-faced Duma corps of loyal MPs, it is clear that these upcoming September elections are seen as critically important for long-term stability, and a great deal of resources is being brought to bear to ensure they go off without a hitch and with the intended result.

All of these efforts at putting up appearances of competition and electoral rigor, as well as rejuvenating the cadre ranks of ruling party parliamentarians with ‘fresh faces’ obviously do not signal a movement towards actual democratization, nor necessarily even a new round of substantive liberalization. In all likelihood, decisions on key issues will remain the prerogative of a poorly understood small clique surrounding the president, while the ministries stutter along and the parliament engages in schizophrenic activity. The parliament itself will likely be even more dominated by United Russia than before (although perhaps more riven with faction), and we could see the total collapse of support for some of the loyalist ‘opposition’ parties that have long been stalwarts of the regime. Yet the sophistication of the managed political system Putin once ruled over has fallen by the wayside, all the while the legislative organ of the country has been more active than ever. Reestablishing a post-2011 normalcy after five years of authoritarian consolidation, legislatively hyperactive conservative reactionism, and international isolation is a tall order, and the September elections will be the first institutionalized test of how well the regime has fared.

Julian G. Waller is a fourth-year Ph.D student at George Washington University whose research focuses on formal political institutions in hybrid regimes and electoral authoritarianism with a regional interest in post-communist Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space.

Image Source: RT

Part I: Why did we return to the Cold War? A Russian view.


Recent years have been marked by sharp disputes between Russia and the United States. More and more people have started to talk about a new Cold War period. What is the Russian view? Here is a short review of how Russian vision changed throughout the years – a deconstruction of Russian discourse based on Russian media and memoirs from 1991 to 2016 to explain the motivations, fears, and frustration of Russian society in relations with the West. (Editor’s Note: This is Part I of a multi-part series.)

The Yeltsin Years 1991-1999

In the West it is generally considered that President Yeltsin’s terms were the best time for the Russia-West relationship. However, a closer examination shows that this time frame was troubled by doubts and concerns as well. One thing is indisputable – for a Russian it was this period when the country revived its psychological trauma, feeling betrayed and cheated by the West. What is the origin of such pain?

1991-1992 The initial euphoria

The story begins in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite the volatility and the terrifying decline in living standards, Russian media was empowered by the euphoria of the end of the Cold War. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Kommersant, Segodnya and even the military-oriented Krasnaya Zvezda published articles sharing optimism about new cooperation. Jingoist politicians like Sergey Glaz’ev or Alexandr Ruckoy even figured that Russia joining NATO to be a positive and even necessary option. This was a time of emerging hope – a hope for a world without violence and conflict, dominated by international law and multilateral treaties. At least, that is what Russians believed in. As was later stated by the architect of new Russian foreign policy Igor Ivanov in his book New Russian Diplomacy: “After 1991 Russia made a fundamental choice and became a democratic state with independent and predictable foreign policy.” (p. 3.) (see Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Issue 118, from 01.10.1991, Nezavisimaya Gazeta Issue 152, from 28.11.1991, Kommersant Issue 27, from 08.07.1991)

Not only media and the general public felt this. Top officials like Foreign Minister Boris Pankin built Russian foreign policy on the idea that the end of the Cold War would transform NATO into an equal foundation for security of the “new European home.” NATO was seen as a future peacekeeping mechanism not only for the Balkans, which were then turning to civil war, but even for emerging conflicts in the former Soviet states. Moreover, opposition to NATO was seen as a path towards isolation. Certainly, when Russians imagined the alliance in this role, it was the new NATO, a partnership of equals. The old form was not in the scope of view; it was simply ignored as something unnecessary, which would disappear naturally after the end of the Cold War. (see Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Issue 184, from 24.09.1992, Nezavisimaya Gazeta Issue 152, from 28.11.1991, Kommersant Issue 139, from 06.11.1991)

1992-1994 The common home and the OSCE

The harsh truth was soon seen, however. Euphoria became weaker as people and the elites saw that NATO “is not going anywhere.” The belief in integration with the West was still strong though. The OSCE (back then CSCE) was considered a new model for building a common European home. For the next six years of President Yeltsin’s terms, Russia would put all its efforts toward transforming this organization into an equal security provider for Europe and an alternative to NATO. Foreign Minister Andrey Kozirev manifested this vision during the 1992 OSCE conference in Stockholm and made his career into bringing this dream to life. Ideologically, Russia aspired to become a member of a common European home, while the Russian Foreign Ministry blamed NATO for hindering this process by empowering Cold War relics. (see Kommersant-Daily, Issue 61, from 15.12.1992, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Issue 61, 28.03.1992)

In 1994, Kozirev’s doctrine was tested at the OSCE summit in Budapest, sparking an open confrontation between the Russian delegation, which defended the idea of the OSCE as a major security organization, and NATO members opposing this conception. For the first time since the Cold War, NATO was seen as a hostile alliance seeking to dominate the European security space and intervene in the affairs of Russia and the former Soviet Union. Russian policymakers and analysts started to describe NATO as a rudimentary organization of the Cold War mentality obsessed with reviving anti-Russian sentiment and using military force to achieve its aims. (see Kommersant-Vlast’, from 12.10.1994. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Issue 236, 09.12.1994, Segodnya, from 18.11.1994, Segodnya, from 09.12.1994)

1995-1997 A turning point

The war in Chechnya, the expansion of NATO, and an economic dispute with the EU resulting in anti-dumping sanctions only widened the diplomatic divide. Russians came to the understanding that there is no way to be seen by the West as an equal partner. This was one of the most painful foreign policy traumas in Russian modern history. The level of frustration led to strong self-reflection from which two views emerged. Interestingly enough, this is the first time the phrase “New Cold War” became popular.

OSCE defender Andrey Kozirev and his successor Evgeniy Primakov as well as General Leonid Ivashov, a military intellectual, championed the first view. They fought back by continuing to defend the OSCE agenda. As a result, the organization was given access to the Chechen conflict. During the OSCE summit in Lisbon in 1996, Russia publicly called on the OSCE to become a counter-weight against NATO. Most Russian politicians, including Boris Yeltsin, considered this a crucial success. Meanwhile, NATO expansion was seen as an existential threat to Russian security: the West was using Russian weakness and idealism to promote its agenda through hard power. (see Kommersant-Daily’, Issue 14, from 27.01.1995. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Issue 005, 14.01.1995, Segodnya, from 02.06.1995, Segodnya, from 24.02.1995, Izvestiya, Issue 28, 14.02.1995, Segodnya, from 24.03.1995, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Issue 041, 01.03.1996, Krasnaya Zvezda, Issue 151, from 05.07.1996)

As noted by Ivanov: “In the United States, and some countries of Western Europe, decision makers were under the influence of the victory in the Cold War and did not see a democratic Russia as an equal ally. She was, at best, given the role of junior partner. Any manifestation of independence and the desire to defend Russian position was perceived as a recurrence of the Soviet “imperial” policy” (p.15).

The second approach was to continue negotiations even as an unequal partner because the alternative meant isolation. Influential diplomats like Vitaliy Churkin and head of MGIMO Andrey Zagorskiy aimed to combat frustration through new international agreements, particularly the possible signing of the OSCE Charter promoted by Russia and the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. Greater cooperation within the Partnership for Peace program was also touted to promote the Russian position within NATO decision-making. (Segodnya, from 22.07.1995, Izvestiya, Issue 94, 25.05.1995, Segodnya from 21.06.1996, Kommersant-daily, issue 13, 01.02.1996, Izvestiya from 10.01.1997, Izvestiya from 27.05.1997)

Foreign Minister Evgeniy Primakov provided the following description of that time frame in his book The World Challenged: “Though Russia has moved toward rapprochement with NATO, Russia remains staunchly opposed to NATO expansion, since it brings a military alliance right up to our borders for no real purpose. That being said, Moscow has continued the process outlined in the 1997 Founding Act to participate in the creation of the NATO–Russia Council. All twenty council members—Russia being one—focus on projects where NATO and Russia share a common goal, such as new-generation threats like international terrorism. The Founding Act had created a similar council based on a nineteen-plus-one plan. It could be surmised that one reason the West agreed to this new initiative was the disappointment of many NATO members over the operation against Yugoslavia. (…) The core issue is that the United States continues to act alone in addressing matters of great international importance” (p. 64).

1998-1999 The final years, the final blow

If the 1995-1996 shock could be described as personal, the Yugoslavian events created a shock that could be described as existential – the entire worldview of Russians changed.

NATO involvement in Kosovo was seen as a shift to something essentially contradictory to what Russia envisioned for the world order: not dialogue between Moscow and Washington or a joint peacekeeping force, like the one Russia supported in Bosnia, but brute force and a unilateral military operation. The “turn over the Atlantic” – when Prime-Minister Primakov’s jet turned back to Moscow instead of flying on to Washington for negotiations – was more than a symbolic act; it was a new modality of Russian vision filled with a sense of betrayal and threat.

President Yeltsin wrote in his memoir President’s Marathon: “The case here was not only some features of “Slavic brotherhood”, which are attributed to Russian-Serbian relations. We would have reacted the same way if we were talking about any other country – Poland, Spain, Turkey – it does not matter which one” (p. 203).

The world was once again shaped by military power; decisions were made on the basis of force and not law. And Russia, weakened by a 1998 default and the Chechen War, was not able to find itself in this new reality.

Igor Ivanov wrote in his memoir: “Military action against Yugoslavia was a kind of “testing ground” for “NATO-centrism” concept, which caused the most acute international crisis since the end of the Cold war. It damaged the foundations of international order and stability. The world returned to military force as a criteria of national security.” (p. 32).

But Russia still had enough faith in the future. Igor Ivanov, formulating a new foreign policy in 2000s, stated: “the key problem of contemporary international relations is the nature of the future world order. Will it be multipolar, taking into account the interests of the entire international community, or will the interests of one country or group of countries be imposed on everyone else?” (p. 56). Russia still hoped to gain a positive answer to this question and with this hope she entered the new millennium.

But unlike the last decade, Russia was ready to fight back for its vision of the world. In a final address on 25 March 1999, Yeltsin stated: “In fact, we are talking about NATO trying to enter the 21st century in the uniform of a world policeman. Russia will never accept this” (p. 204). (see Nezavisimaya Gazeta, issue 228, 05.12.1998, Nezavisimaya Gezeta, issue 085, 15.05.1998, Segodnya, from 22.07.1995, Izvestiya, Issue 94, 25.05.1995, Segodnya from 07.10.1998, Segodnya from 05.05.1998, Kommersant-Daily, 04.12.1998, Izvestiya from 28.10.1998, Izvestiya from 14.07.1998, Izvestiya from 25.03.1998, Izvestiya from 14.10.1998)

Elisey Boguslavskiy

Photo Source: Centre for Research on Globalization

Quick Take: Russia and the DNC Hack

Source: MSNBC

Amid the soaring oratory of Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention last night, the media vociferously speculated on the drivers and implications of Russian interference in American domestic politics following the recent DNC hack and subsequent Wikileaks release.

Indeed, Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Moscow, chimed in at the DNC, giving the American people in the span of a few hours an unprecedented combination: a dose of dirt on Russian intelligence just after receiving their fix of Demi Lovato.

Also worth noting, Kim LaCapria at dove deep into what has been verified so far, while John Marshall of provided the latest on a few shady financial dealings and personnel connections between Trump and Putin.

As commentators dream up grand conspiracies – a Russian-directed erosion of democracy across the transatlantic community through support for far-right movements or Putin’s personal control of the Republican presidential candidate to execute a vendetta against Hillary Clinton for starting the Bolotnaya protests in 2011-2012 – more discussion is needed on how the Russian intelligence apparatus actually operates under Putin’s policymaking guidance. Examine the how to better understand the why and thus the true level of impact.

Of utmost analytical importance, Russia is not a monolith; it is a hydra.

Putin has set the course for Russia to be in confrontation with the West. As the most powerful decision-maker in the system, his mandate is absolute. How that mandate should be carried out though to curry favor with Putin and his inner circles is broadly defined within the highly competitive Russian intelligence services.

It is not as far-fetched as it might first seem that an ambitious GRU or FSB mid-level official engineered the DNC hack using a state-linked cyber criminal proxy. But like any opportunistic group perhaps it went rogue and sent the sensitive information to Wikileaks for a bigger payday. The aim of most intelligence operations is certainly not to have ways and means end up on the front page of The New York Times.

For Putin to directly sanction such an overt move does not make a lot of sense. As Dr. Mark Galeotti explains in a recent study on Russian intelligence agencies, “it is Putin himself, and his dreams of Russia as a renewed great power, that is the real victim of this aggressive and badly managed beast…their activities reinforce a global image of Russia as a bully and a brat: at best, a power dismissive of the etiquette of international relations; at worst, an unpredictable threat with whom no lasting understanding can be reached.”

Putin is a leader obsessed with his personal prestige on the world stage. He wants to restore the parity of respect between Russia and the United States i.e. Kerry paying frequent visits to Moscow to solve the world’s biggest problems together. So blatantly intervening in the presidential elections of a sovereign state (even if the big bad United States) would bring his already tarnished image for Russia to a whole new level. 

Of course, credit should be given where credit is due. Putin does create an environment of impunity to enable Russian intelligence operations against Western political processes. But the preferred approach covertly manipulates already existing dissent to showcase, particularly for popular support at home, the superiority of the Russian model of development compared to the instability in the morally corrupt West. 

Putin does not want to be viewed by the world as starting American ‘color revolutions.’ He wants to be vindicated and accepted as an enlightened autocrat of a managed democracy, a respected leader of a great power with a regional sphere of influence. Maybe Trump would give Putin this based on some comments, but in his usual contradictory, unpredictable policy prescriptions, other remarks claim the opposite.

It is doubtful that the FBI investigation will find any evidence of a top-down plot showing orders from Putin to interfere in American domestic politics. Even determining attribution in sophisticated cyber malfeasance is often a difficult task. A closer look at how Russian intelligence services operate under Putin though suggests that the DNC hack into the Wikileaks release could have ultimately been a Russian intelligence operation gone awry. Посмотрим.

Peter J. Marzalik


Photo Source: Vimeo

How Russia and Ukraine Reacted to the Coup Attempt in Turkey


On July 15th and July 16th, Turkey saw extreme political violence – tanks on the streets and jets in the skies of Istanbul and Ankara, street warfare and almost 200 fatalities followed the failed attempt of the military to take power. Could such events repeat in the post-Soviet space? The reemerging reality of the military coup in world politics is causing doubt in the perception of stability in Moscow and Kiev.

The military coup attempt in Turkey elicited a strong reaction in Russia and Ukraine. Among the publicized fears there is one particularly interesting – the projection of the Turkish events on post-Soviet soil. The Russian-speaking Facebook, Vkontakte, has a new meme rapidly gaining popularity: A Russian tourist is asked why he does not want to evacuate from Turkey and explains: “It is warm and sunny here, and the coup is already finished, while in Russia it is cold and rainy, but most importantly, the coup didn’t yet even start!”

Psychologically, such anxiety is very predictable and natural. In Security Studies this would be considered a classic security bias or heuristic effect – a set of psychological mechanisms related to threat perception and going beyond rational models by applying emotional ones (Paul Slovik, Lawrence Woocher). Indeed, tanks on the streets, political violence, and a radical shift in social life are very emotional because they are so easy to conjure up in the mind of a Russian or Ukrainian.

However, could there be an actual rationale for this fear – something going far beyond the emotional response? Could anything like the events in Turkey happen on the streets of Moscow or Kiev in the next few years?

An immediate analytical response would be most likely – no.

Unlike the former Soviet Union, Turkey has military/political violence and politicization of the military as an ingrained element of politics, according to Kemal Karpat – one of the most influential Turkish historians. 1960, 1970, 1980 – are the dates of successful coup d’etats in Turkey with five more unsuccessful attempts, not including the recent one.

On the other hand, the Soviet Union modeled its civil-military relations through the traditional scheme of separation between the army and politics. The only exception was the Great Patriotic War, when the existential threat to the Soviet nations required extreme mobilization of all popular strengths, and the Red Army became a political body in itself. Soon after the death of Stalin, in June 26, 1953 Nikita Khrushchev used the military led by Marshall Zjukov to depose Lavrentiy Beria – the supporter of Stalinist policies. This was the closest the Soviet/post-Soviet military ever came to a successful coup d’etat. Naturally, after these events, the Politburo returned to its policy of depoliticization of the military with twice the fervor.

However, times have changed and these traditions could be irrelevant in the 21st century. Many details are still unknown, but what is already clear from recent Turkish events is that new social technology is becoming a game changer. Of greater regional consequence, the post-Soviet structures of civil-military relations strongly differ from their predecessors.

In Security Studies it has been found that violence could be instigated based on the probability of success (James Fearon, Paul Collier) or on the probability of risk (James Fearon and David Laitin). Both of these effects would be at play for Russia and Ukraine in the context of a military coup.

First of all, the Russian and Ukrainian militaries have become increasingly politicized of late. For Ukraine it was due to the massive support for the army during the Ukrainian conflict and the popularity of the volunteer battalions movement, whose leaders became parliament members in the Rada. Interestingly, one of the most influential commanders/parliament members Semyon Semenchenko (leader of the ethnic Russian, pro-Ukrainian Donbass battalion) describes the coup in Turkey on his Facebook page in terms of Ukrainian geographical and political topography, literally copying Turkish events on Ukrainian soil.

For Russia, the military is not as politicized, but current servicemen know how convertible their military background could be into political capital. The classic example is General Lebed’, who became a presidential candidate in 1996 and completely changed the election competition, eventually deciding the result of the elections by giving his backing to President Yeltsin. And Lebed’s case is far from unique – Makashov, Ruckoy, Troshev, Kazancev, Shamanov are just a few of several other generals who acquired strong political power after transferring from the armed forces into the civil service.

Moreover, the Ukrainian conflict led to an extreme militarization of political rhetoric, which inevitably led to the militarization of Russian society. Unlike the rhetoric, this movement is difficult or even impossible to control. Deep social impact caused by militarization along with the encouraging experience of generals becoming politicians could convince the military that they would receive public support in a push for power.

On the other hand, the Turkish events show that risk factors for a military coup are different in the modern era. In a sense, Erdogan was saved by social media and the massive peaceful demonstrations that resulted. It is hard to imagine President Putin receiving such support. The experience of pro-Putin rallies, where people were brought under threat from employers, as well as recent anti-terrorist legislation sparking resistance from Internet activists and frequent attacks on free media could provoke citizens to back the coup and provide it with legitimacy.

The failed coup in Turkey shows that traditional security challenges could reemerge in the contemporary environment but develop in a completely new shape, impacted by such new trends and factors. To preserve stability Mr. Poroshenko and particularly Mr. Putin should introduce a more holistic and flexible security doctrine, which could answer not only the threats of terrorism or hybrid warfare but the social developments within their political systems. This approach would halt the militarization of society as a sustainable solution, which could dangerously empower the narrative of a military capable of solving all social threats and thus giving additional incentive for tactical action by the generals.

Elisey Boguslavskiy specializes in security and political risks in the former Soviet Union and Middle East. He works as an analyst for a private security firm in DC and holds a Master’s Degree in Security Policy Studies from the George Washington University. He also obtained a Bachelor Degree in Near Eastern Studies from the Moscow State University and has recently published a book on Turkish, Israeli, and Iranian security services.

Photo Source: The Independent

Stronger Russian-Japanese Relations: Prospects and Implications


The relationship between Japan and Russia has seen a flurry of activity in recent months. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Russia on May 6th, 2016 to meet with President Putin in Sochi, despite President Obama’s private attempts to discourage the talks. Since the meeting, Japan has announced billions in new foreign investment in Russia’s struggling economy. Most recently, Japan hosted talks with Russia at the Deputy Foreign Minister level in an attempt to resolve a longstanding territorial dispute between the two countries.

From a U.S. perspective, Japan’s aggressive push to improve relations with Russia might be puzzling at first glance. As a close ally of the United States, one might think that Japan would keep its distance from Russia in solidarity with the rest of the G7. In fact, Japan has strong incentives to seek closer ties with Russia such as improving energy security, countering Chinese influence in northeast Asia, and resolving the Kuril Islands/Northern Territories dispute. For Russia, Japan presents an alternative partner to China in its stalling “pivot to Asia,” which has so far failed to break Russia’s international economic isolation. These driving factors ensure that Russo-Japanese cooperation will only deepen with time, perhaps to the chagrin of the United States.

Relations between Russia and Japan have historically been frosty due to a number of lingering issues. Though it has been nearly 71 years since the conclusion of World War II, the two countries have failed to conclude an official peace treaty. The difficulty lies in determining the fate of a stretch of islands to the north of Japan, seized by Russia in the final days of the war. Known to the Japanese as the ‘Northern Territories’ and to the Russians as the ‘Kuril Islands’, both nations claim sovereignty over the islands.

After entering office in 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made improving relations with Russia a strong priority. Between late 2012 and early 2014, Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin met ten separate times to discuss a variety of different issues, including the island territorial dispute. The two leaders have much in common – both are right-wing nationalists – and allegedly share a good rapport, built up over the course of many meetings.

Settling the Kuril dispute could open the door to economic cooperation benefiting both countries, especially Japan. Japan has very limited natural resources, and since its nuclear power plants were deactivated in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the island country must rely on imported hydrocarbons to keep its factories running. In the three years since the nuclear shutdown, Japan’s energy imports have skyrocketed to 97% of total consumption, with 90% of this amount sourced from the unstable Middle East. These energy imports flow through the South China Sea, vulnerable to Chinese disruption. Meanwhile, Russia possesses massive untapped energy reserves in its Russian Far East (RFE) region, and is eager to expand production to Japan. Western sanctions over Ukraine have taken their toll on the Russian economy, accelerating Moscow’s search for new economic partners in its vaunted “pivot to Asia.” Greater collaboration on energy production in the RFE would boost Japan’s energy security while strengthening Russia’s economy.

So far, Russia’s pivot to Asia has consisted largely of a multitude of bilateral deals signed with China, with only small increases in engagement in Central Asia and Southeast Asia. Most public among these agreements was the $400 billion gas deal signed in May 2014. Despite Moscow’s best efforts, trade volumes with China shrunk by 28.6% in 2015. Billions in anticipated Chinese investment have failed to materialize – the evidence suggests that many Chinese banks are complying with Western sanctions which restrict flows to Russia, and choosing instead to invest in the relatively stable markets of the United States and the EU.

China’s booming economy and growing population have raised fears over Chinese immigration to Russia’s Far East. As Russia’s population and economy shrink, bringing in Japan – a long-time rival of China’s – as an economic partner in the RFE is an easy way to balance Chinese influence in the region. To this end, Japan and Russia announced joint initiatives in 2012 to build a $13 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant along with a Mazda automotive factory in the port of Vladivostok. Tokyo feels threatened by an expansionist China, and hopes that stronger ties with Moscow will provide a counterweight to Beijing’s ambitions.

Tokyo’s efforts at rapprochement with Moscow were cut short in early 2014 by the eruption of the Ukraine crisis. As Russia was kicked out of the G8 in March 2014, Japan was forced to side with the remaining G7 group in opposition to Russia. Though early Japanese sanctions on Russia were fairly light and targeted mainly towards individuals, in September 2014 Tokyo expanded the sanctions, banning Russian banks from selling securities in Japan and restricting arms sales.

Relations first began to revive in September 2015, when President Putin and Prime Minister Abe met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York – their first face-to-face meeting since the onset of the Ukraine crisis. The two leaders met again in Sochi on May 6th, 2016 for informal talks over the protests of President Obama. Both sides agreed on an eight-point plan of bilateral economic cooperation. The Sochi talks were initially heralded positively by officials on both sides, and viewed by many observers as a turning point in Russo-Japanese relations. Abe declared that a “new approach” to bilateral relations had begun: “I have a sense that we are moving toward a breakthrough in the stalled peace treaty negotiations.” This “new approach” seems to involve tying increased economic cooperation with Russia to diplomatic movement on the territorial issue.

Since the Sochi talks, relations between Tokyo and Moscow have been punctuated by sweeping announcements, diplomatic incidents, and high-level dialogue. Japan appears intent on carrying through with its economic promises – its May 23rd announcement of $200 billion in new infrastructure exports included a special emphasis on the Russian Far East. Moreover, members of the Japanese Business Federation Japan-Russia Business Cooperation Committee traveled to Moscow on June 8th to meet with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich along with other high-level officials to discuss Abe’s eight-point economic cooperation plan.

Japan’s room to maneuver with Russia is constrained by its alliance with the United States, which has been less than supportive of Abe’s push to accommodate Russia. The 2016 annual G7 summit, held on May 27th in Japan, resulted in a strongly worded joint statement, which condemned Russian actions in Ukraine and reaffirmed the need for anti-Russian sanctions. That statement raised questions about Mr. Abe’s ability to influence other G7 leaders. Immediately after, Russia’s defense ministry announced a large boost in military infrastructure on the disputed Kurils. On June 8th, Russian and Chinese naval vessels jointly entered the waters surrounding the Japanese administered Senkaku islands, indicating possible support for China’s claim to the contested island chain.

Despite ongoing tensions, some progress towards a peace agreement is showing. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov met with Japanese special envoy Chikahito Harada met in Tokyo on June 22nd, opening discussions aimed at resolving the disputed islands. The two officials agreed to continue peace talks, with the next round to be held in Moscow. Though neither side has yet commented on the contents of the Tokyo negotiations, it is suspected that the groundwork was laid for a visit by Putin to Japan in the near future. If the past is any indication, the probable outcome of another meeting between Putin and Abe will be closer political and economic ties between their two countries. It is unlikely that the United States and the rest of the G7 will be pleased with such a result.

Photo Source: The Wall Street Journal

Cedric Kenney is a third year undergraduate student pursuing a B.A. in Political Science and Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is currently an intern in the U.S. House of Representatives. His interests include energy geopolitics, international security issues, and international development.

Russia and the New World: Energy, Economy, and Putin’s Greatest Challenge Yet


Russia has once again clawed its way back into the global spotlight. In the last two years Russia successfully annexed Crimea with little pushback from the international community, after which separatists proceeded to claim large tracts of Eastern Ukraine. The effects of Western sanctions and an oil glut eventually ushered in a depreciation of the ruble, but Russia’s economy somewhat stabilized, and Putin moved on to the next strategic maneuver. The September 2015 Russian intervention on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared wildly successful, and it left the Turks, the Saudis, and Western powers without an obvious response. Putin seemingly proved that Russia was still a great power, at least in its near-abroad. The wars in the Middle East, the conflict in Eastern Europe, the global economic setbacks and ongoing recovery—all were great power issues, and Putin was determined to see that Russia would play a role in each and every one.

Powering Russia’s steady reemergence to global prominence after the economic catastrophe of the 1990s–and truly powering Putin’s rise as a possible “President for life”—has been the former Soviet giant’s massive reserves of oil and natural gas. In 2013, Russia exported $174 billion worth of crude oil, and $73 billion worth of natural gas—most of it to Europe. The importance of oil and natural gas to the Russian economy cannot be overstated; non-fossil fuels accounted for only 9% of Russia’s energy consumption in 2012. Russia is the largest producer of crude oil in the world, the second largest producer of dry natural gas, and as of January 2015 had proven oil reserves of 80 billion barrels. The massive quantities of oil and natural gas pulled Russia back from the brink of economic collapse, and state control of the largest producers turned President Vladimir Putin into one of the most powerful men in the world. But the story of how state controlled energy giants such as Gazprom, Rosneft, and Lukoil allowed Putin’s Kremlin to wield the iron fist over the Russian polity is also the story of Putin’s greatest source of vulnerability. While Putin does not exactly have a cult of personality, his power is such that any and all state functions—including but not limited to economic performance—reflect upon his role as the leader of Russia.

Rosneft and Gazprom together control 80% of Russian gas fields, but the latter, in particular, has witnessed its productivity and influence wane over the past half-decade or so as inefficiency and competitors challenge its supremacy. From mid-2008 to 2014, Gazprom’s capitalization fell by an astonishing 86%, from $367 billion to $51 billion. Also in 2014, Gazprom reduced its gas production to 443.9 billion cubic meters, the lowest amount in its history. Gazprom’s decline does not necessarily signal a decline in the importance of state-controlled energy in Putin’s authority, but it may suggest a flaw in Putin’s power structure. Putin built his power on the back of Russia’s natural resources, and he used the energy firms to assert dominance over the oligarchs that rose to prominence in the 1990s. The trend of change and uncertainty that has come to permeate state-controlled energy companies across the world could complicate Putin’s formula for control. The authority that he exerts over private industry though, and the oligarchs in particular, largely limits the potential for formidable dissent.

The rising uncertainty in state-controlled energy is a function of a number of factors that have coalesced at the same time, including the greater investment in renewable energy, the competition for Arctic resources, the shale boom and expansion of American fuels more generally, and the present oil glut that coincides with the post-JCPOA Iranian oil resurgence. Nowhere has this change provoked a more radical reaction than in Saudi Arabia, where Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman is leading the Saudi Vision 2030 which proposes to wean the Kingdom from its dependence on oil. Russia’s recent attempts at economic diversification have focused on research and development, but they have proven unreliable. Moreover, the Russian government seems unwilling to transition away from a dependence on energy exports when energy has been so consistently profitable over the past two decades.

Putin has used his power to paper over perceived Russian vulnerabilities in the past. The 2008 invasion of Georgia quickly ended the discussion of admitting the formerly Soviet country to NATO. He fiercely cracked down on 2011 and 2012 protests against corruption in government elections. The annexation of Crimea and unofficial paramilitary operations in Eastern Ukraine were a response to the Maidan Revolution that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, while the Syrian intervention protected the sovereignty of Assad’s government and disrupted NATO intentions. The later two instances, however, have created a backlash that has seriously hurt the Russian economy. Oil and gas account for 70% of Russian exports and 50% of government revenues, and the majority of those two figures arise from trade with Europe. Almost all gas exports go to Europe and Turkey. The annexation of Crimea, which was so successful in early 2014 threatened the future of Russian relations with Europe. It provoked sanctions from the US, UK, and others in Europe that will have a long-lasting negative impact on Russia’s energy sector, even if the immediate effect is less certain. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “virtually all involvement in Arctic offshore and shale projects by Western companies has ceased following the sanctions.” Russia’s Arctic projects are long-term investments, and the sanctions may only prove to be medium-term setbacks, but Putin cannot afford to assume that oil prices will recover to a level sufficient to offset major expected sources of revenue.

Meanwhile, Putin’s response to international resistance remains varied and fascinating. In August 2014, Russia imposed a ban on food imports from countries that levied the Ukraine-related sanctions. The import ban served only to reflect poorly upon Putin and place the domestic pressure squarely on his shoulders. The original extent of the ban ended in the beginning of June 2016, when Russia lifted restrictions on produce used to make baby food, but the rest of the import ban is scheduled to last until 2018. His decision to intervene in Syria proved far more successful from a strategic perspective. It saved Assad from likely defeat, allowed the government forces to go on the offensive, and gave the Assad regime the advantage when the third round of peace talks began in early 2016. Putin grabbed the military initiative and gained control of the war-time narrative, but it has come at the expense of a faltering economy.

Russia’s military intervention was largely viewed through the context of Putin’s domestic predicament. Until September 2014 the price of crude oil was over $100 per barrel, but by January 2015 it had plummeted to under $50. Non-coincidentally, the value of Russian exports fell by $160 billion between 2014 and 2015. In December 2014, after the value of the ruble had fallen dramatically against the dollar, but before the oil price collapse, Putin announced that it would take two years for the Russian economy to recover. When the price of oil began to fall, that timeline appeared to increase exponentially. By the time Putin sent Russian troops to Syria, crude oil had stabilized somewhat in the range of $50 per barrel, but in the coming months oil truly fell of a cliff. Brent crude reached a low price of $28.94 in January 2016, while the ruble settled at over 70 ruble/USD. As a result, Russia lost $125 billion in revenue during 2015.

Despite the worsening economy, Putin’s Syrian adventure took priority. An IHS Jane’s estimate placed the cost of the intervention at $2.3 to $4 mil per day, although due to certain amounts of budgetary obfuscation this estimate was likely low. Harkening back to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, domestic concerns were trumped by the need to maintain Russian prestige on the international stage. The Russian economy contracted 3.7% during 2015 and is expected (by the World Bank) to contract by another 1.9% in 2016. In addition, the population of those living in poverty increased by 3.1 million over the course of 2015. Yet spending on defense and national security continues to rise—officially defense spending comprises $54.1 billion, or roughly 4.3% of GDP; however, estimates that include all defense and security expenditures have placed that figure at over 20% of Russia’s GDP. At the start of the Syrian intervention, it was reasonable to assume that Putin was using Russia’s military to consolidate his power and distract from domestic issues by wielding power beyond Russia’s borders, but the period 2014-2016 has cost Russia dearly, with so little to show outside of the “return” of Crimea.

The greatest threat to Putin’s leadership may stem from the fact that his reputation as a savior of Russian pride and individuality was driven, first and foremost, by his leadership at a time of economic revival. Protests will not cause his downfall, but the failure of the Russian state to provide for the Russian people rests with only one man, and Putin has chosen that responsibility. In December 1979 Russia thrust itself headfirst into international chaos to defend communism in Afghanistan, and the blowback helped bring down the Soviet Union. Putin’s forays into Ukraine and Syria will not bring him down, but they have compounded the negative effects of economic exhaustion, and the implications will be long felt. Russia’s recent failures are also those of Putin, and though his power and authority resonate throughout the world, the rising tide of economic unrest presents his greatest ever challenge. As Mikhail Khodorkovsky and others can attest, Putin is skilled at foisting blame on others, but responsibility for the current state of affairs is Putin’s alone.

Photo Credit: Gazprom

Eric D’Angelo recently graduated with an M.A. in International Relations and International Economics from Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. He is currently an intern at the research and risk analysis firm Sidar Global Advisors.


Russian Elite Working Around EU Sanctions


It seems not all sanctions are created equal. France just granted an entry visa to a sanctioned Russian Agriculture Minister, the same official denied entry by Germany in January. The European Union (EU) placed Alexander Tkachev on the sanctions list after Tkachev actively supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The list remains the same; the implementation apparently less so. The incident highlights the often complex connections that exist between the Russian elite and the EU. Simplification of these links should be in order.

Ties between the EU and the Russian elite run deep, especially in the finance sector. Russian money often winds up in European banks and luxury real estate. Louise Shelley remarks how money acquired through illicit means is often laundered by purchasing real estate in sought-after locations. Southern France, Switzerland, and Spain represent well-known locales for parking Russian money abroad. Aside from certain illicit elements, keeping assets abroad is an avenue for privacy and security.

In his first public address as a third-term president, Putin announced a repatriation campaign aimed at encouraging movement of assets back to Russia. What happened is quite the contrary. Since that speech, a net $330 billion left Russia in the form of capital flight. Financial institutions in the EU represent a way to hedge against risk, which includes political uncertainty, lack of transparency, and economic fragility. As an example, the newly released report on illegal asset raiding details the level of insecurity and pressure faced by companies in Russia.

It is based on these financial links that the EU implemented sanctions targeted at high-level officials. Essentially, the current power vertical in Russia is alive and well, at least trying to be. Dmitry Oreshkin, a political scientist based in Moscow, commented on the lack of incentives for the political elite to move away from the status quo and the official Kremlin rhetoric. The EU sanctions fit within this context.

The EU sanctions were meant to influence the direction of foreign policy. If Putin plays to an inner circle, then a shift in the priorities of key figures would influence policy. Counterargument here would be that a dissenting voice could simply be rotated out of the inner circle. However, replacing the whole contingent is not as easy as removing just one figure. In effect, top-level political and business leaders do wield power to influence policy, and it matters where their priorities lie.

However, certain elements within the EU political establishment seem reticent to prolong sanctions in July. In April, the French lower house of parliament passed a largely symbolic resolution calling on France to drop the sanctions. In a bid to encourage Hungary to back up anti-sanction rhetoric with concrete action, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently met with his Hungarian counterpart. Foreign policy is often complex and rarely clear-cut. In this particular case, the EU should opt for simplicity.

It makes little sense to take up valuable time reevaluating sanctions when the Minsk agreements, the implementation of which is the basis for the sanctions, have clearly not been met. For all the criticism directed at the West, the Russian elite continue to vacation and travel in the EU, for business and for pleasure. It is a status symbol to spend winters in the Alps and summers at the Côte d’Azur. If the EU can affect the cost-benefit analysis of targeted top-level officials, i.e. limited access to the EU, it should.

As such, the EU should stay the course and refrain from devising new conditions for sanctions relief. To change gear now would be to delegitimize EU credibility. It would both send a signal that the EU lacks resolve and suggest that waiting out any unwelcome EU policy is a viable strategy option. Russia likely calculated that an intervention and then a withdrawal from eastern Ukraine could provide leverage to drop sanctions imposed due to the annexation of Crimea. Moscow could simply wait out the sanctions.

If anything, the EU should strengthen its position and synchronize sanctions with Washington, whether that entails additional sanctions from the EU, less sanctions from Washington, or a combination of the two. Washington and Brussels already coordinate on some level. The U.S. Treasury Department imposed added sanctions on Russian entities the day after the EU renewed sanctions this winter. Concerted transatlantic efforts would put more pressure on the Russian political elite to change their calculus.

Alexander Tkachev considered attendance at an animal health conference in Paris as a top priority. Motivations that prompted France to disregard sanctions and grant him the visa remain less clear. The EU chose to implement sanctions as the least bad option. So far, sanctions remain the most effective diplomatic tool to affect Russia’s foreign policy toward Ukraine. The Russian political elite is already predisposed to maintain the status quo. The EU should help create incentives for change.

Photo Credit: Kremlin

Pikria Saliashvili recently finished a M.A. in International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs. She focuses on international security issues. Her interests include exploring the intersection between business and politics.




Transforming Montenegro Within The NATO Alliance

Montenegro - NATO

Photo Credit: Balkan Insight

With Russo-Western relations tanking over Ukraine and tense over Syria, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has gained a new relevance a quarter century after the Cold War. Europe’s primary adversary of old is returning with a seemingly sophisticated form of hybrid warfare combined with aggressive military posturing and nuclear saber rattling. In addition to reassuring peripheral allies with words and deeds, NATO must respond strategically to recent tactical surprises, such as annexing Crimea, destabilizing Donbas, and deploying to the Middle East. The recent invitation to Montenegro for membership in NATO sends a strong signal to the world that the West will support and defend those countries-in-transition willing to play by the rules. Moreover, the move offers sound security benefits that outweigh the costs of politically antagonizing Russia in the current environment of heated rhetoric and potential escalation.

Since achieving independence, Montenegro has oriented toward integration in Western institutions, particularly NATO. In 2006, the newly sovereign state established official ties with NATO under the Partnership for Peace program. A few years later this cooperation transitioned into an ongoing Membership Action Plan (MAP). Though not a formal member as yet, Montenegro has already contributed to alliance operations. Montenegrins joined the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan as well as anti-piracy efforts off the coast of Somalia.

With a small military of only a few thousand, Montenegro offers many more geostrategic gains for NATO defense planning against threats from the east and south. Adding the small Balkan nation would link alliance territory in Greece and Albania to Croatia and Italy. Montenegro provides contiguous land for military mobilization as well as full NATO coastline coverage of the Adriatic Sea. This positioning gives NATO a better bulwark against any Russian meddling in the Balkans. More importantly, the new presence also enables a more effective response to security concerns emanating from the Middle East, including the migrant crisis and foreign fighter threat.

Though desirable from a geostrategic standpoint, Montenegro arguably falls short of the values touted in the NATO alliance. Since late September, Democratic Front (DF), a bloc of nationalist opposition parties with pro-Russian leanings, has organized protests calling for an end to the 26-year rule of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic. Voicing legitimate political and economic grievances, many Montenegrins remain appalled by the incumbent’s attempts to rig elections in 2012. Buying voters by linking political loyalty to job security in state-controlled sectors certainly mocks the democratic principles promoted in NATO.

The nature of current civil unrest in Montenegro must be examined though, particularly alleged Russian involvement. On October 24th, a few thousand demonstrators camped outside the parliament building in Podgorica. At sundown, the protests became violent with DF organizers reportedly leading a chant of “Russia,” then throwing rocks, fireworks, and Molotov cocktails. Police responded proportionally, quickly dispersing the riots using teargas. At least 15 police officers and 24 civilians were injured. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement only a few hours later condemning the supposed crackdown and lambasting Montenegro for its planned ascension into NATO.

Amid these internal and external pressures, the government has shown willingness to play by the rules championed in the West. For example, following European guidance, the ruling party initiated high-level political dialogue with the opposition. DF refused to compromise, instead pushing for more protests and thus losing support from other sympathetic parties. A movement for fairer elections and more competitive markets has now been co-opted into a debate over NATO membership. This unhelpful shift in focus explains why ongoing demonstrations only draw a few thousand people at best.

Like several countries before, Montenegro embodies a country-in-transition on a promising path to greater integration with the West. With strong historical and cultural ties to traditional Russian ally Serbia, many Montenegrins still feel conflicted in joining NATO, which bombed their homes during the 1999 campaign against Kosovo. Support has steadily risen in recent years though as a 45% majority recognizes a new strategic environment, including a revisionist Russia and destabilized Middle East, threatens Montenegro. Indeed, over 70% of Montenegrins anticipated achieving membership last year.

Cognizant of but undeterred by the recent political instability, NATO is making a smart decision in inviting Montenegro to join the defensive alliance. The formal invitation to Montenegro sets NATO up for a solid deliverable at the Warsaw Summit in 2016 that in fact boosts the security of the regional bloc. Sensible enlargement is also useful at this stage to reassert the resilience of transatlantic unity and openness of Western institutions amid ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine. Furthermore, with NATO deterrence underlying Montenegrin national security, the opposition in favor of dialogue will receive more political space to mobilize the frustrated public toward addressing legitimate grievances, not promoting a greater Russia agenda. Ultimately, NATO membership to Montenegro in the near term offers the best chance for the West to guide its gradual transformation into a more democratic and prosperous country.

Peter J. Marzalik

Old Friends? How U.S.-Russian Relations in the 1860’s provide a framework for rapprochement today


The United States and Russia are strategic rivals and global adversaries. This sentiment has been so often repeated, in both countries, that it has become cliché. Beginning with Cold War competition for global supremacy and continuing with recent clashes over global flash points from Syria to Ukraine, the common narrative posits that the United States and Russia are adversaries with divergent interests and little space for policy compromise, or so the story goes.

However, is this narrative accurate? Are the United States and Russia implacable adversaries locked in a perpetual zero sum struggle; or, as will be argued here, does a more comprehensive analysis of U.S.-Russian relations evidence past collaboration that could serve as a blueprint for future cooperation. Contrary to the popular narrative, the diplomatic history of the United States and Russia provides a number of rich examples of U.S.-Russian cooperation, not out of sentimentality, but out of a realization that each nation’s national interests could be served through collaboration. One of the best examples of this real politick is the appearance of the Russian Baltic Fleet in New York City harbor in the autumn of 1863, during the darkest days of the U.S. Civil War.

The Great White Fleet and the Civil War

On September 24, 1863, the Russian Baltic Fleet, led by its flag ship the Alexander Nevskii, arrived in New York City harbor to significant celebration. The sailors of the fleet were feted with balls in New York City and Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked that the fleet’s appearance proved “[Russia] was our friend when the world was our foe.” How did such a seemingly strange event come about?

Throughout most of the 19th century, U.S. relations with Russia were better than with the two “traditional” allies, the United Kingdom and France. Despite substantial historical, cultural and political connections to the United Kingdom and France, by the outbreak of the Civil War the U.S. relationship with both nations was poor. Both nations sought to increase their power in the Americas and the growing might of the United States frustrated those ambitions.

Accordingly, during 1863, both the United Kingdom and France were considering intervening on the side of the Confederacy; reasoning that a divided United States would be more pliable to their desires. The United Kingdom sent military attaches to observe the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and was constructing two powerful ironclads, called Laird Rams, to break the Union’s blockade of the South. The U.S. ambassador warned the British government that delivery of those ships to the rebels would constitute an act of war.

While the U.S. Civil War raged, Russia also confronted its own insurrection. In January 1863, the Poles rebelled, hoping to create their own state. The United Kingdom and France tacitly supported the Polish rebellion. Russia mobilized its armed forces to crush the rebellion but feared French and British intervention.

At this critical moment, the Tsar remembered Russia’s erstwhile friend, the United States. Since independence from the United Kingdom, Russia and the United States had enjoyed warm relations. Russia had refused to provide troops to the United Kingdom to suppress the U.S. revolution, mediated between the United States and United Kingdom to end the War of 1812 and became the first nation given most favored U.S. trading status. The United States had also supported Russia in the Crimean War against the United Kingdom, France and Austria.

Recognizing that the United States and Russia were both facing armed insurrections and both insurrections were potentially supported by the same coalition of the United Kingdom and France, Czar Alexander II devised a bold plan to send the Russian Baltic Fleet on an American “tour.” This strategy had both a practical and political component. By sending the fleet to the United States, he ensured that if war did come, the British navy could not bottle up his fleet in the Baltic Sea and his fleet would be in a position to harass British commerce. Politically, sailing the Russian Baltic Fleet to the United States would be a strong show of support for the Union; cementing U.S.-Russian relations and signaling to Britain and France that intervention in Poland could bring war with the United States.

The Tsar’s bold strategy paid off. The Russian Baltic Fleet was met with huge enthusiasm in San Francisco, Boston and New York and provided important political support for the United States on the world stage. The fleet’s arrival sent an unmistakable message to the Untied Kingdom and France that intervention in either Poland or the U.S. South could lead to a global war. The U.S. government quickly seized on the presence of the Russian fleet, increasing its pressure on the United Kingdom not to send the two ironclads to the South. Ultimately, the United Kingdom, not wanting to risk a war with the United States and Russia, backed down. The United Kingdom did not send the ironclads and choose to remain neutral in both the U.S. Civil War and the Polish rebellion.

Gideon Wells, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, appropriately summed up the general feeling of Americans towards the Russian action when he exclaimed “God bless the Russians!”

Learning From The Past: Policy Prescriptions For U.S.-Russian Cooperation

Sentimentality should not be the basis for foreign policy. Today, the United States and Russia are separated by wide ideological chasms. The United States criticizes Russia’s backsliding on democratic reforms and human rights, along with its interventionist policies toward its neighbors. Russia sees the United States as a hegemon without a check, who carelessly intervenes in the internal affairs of other nations and has brought the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to its doorstep. At the root of all this mistrust is the simple fact that both the United States and Russia see themselves as exceptional nations, with a strong sense of purpose and national pride.

As a prerequisite to cooperation, ideological posturing and nationalistic pride most be tempered by sober assessment of national interests. The example of the Russian Baltic Fleet’s Civil War excursion illustrates that the United States and Russia often have more to gain from working together. Then, as now, the United States and Russia face common adversaries, including: Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, failed states in the Middle East and Central Asia and a rising and assertive China. Then, as now, clever cooperation by both nations is critical to advancing each nation’s national interests.

Just as Tsar Alexander II’s shrewd use of the Baltic Fleet helped deter British and French aggression in Poland and the U.S. South, benefiting both the United States and Russia, adroit maneuvering by the United States and Russia today could help resolve two of the most difficult foreign policy challenges, Syria and Ukraine. If Russia reconsidered its commitment to Syria’s President Bashar-al-Assad, suspended military and economic support for him and worked with the United States to construct a mutually agreeable transition plan to remove Mr. Assad from power and replace him with a government of national unity; the United States could play a constructive role in ensuring that Russia is not sidelined on the issue that it seems to care most deeply about, the inclusion of Ukraine within the European community.   The consequence of refusal to cooperate will be continued short-term struggle resulting in the exacerbation of both conflicts.

In short, while today’s geopolitical struggles will not be solved by one bold maneuver of a fleet, the Russian Baltic Fleet’s U.S. excursion reminds us that clever cooperation between the United States and Russia has enormous potential to solve geopolitical problems.

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Matthew Fontana is an attorney at Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney. He is an avid follower of U.S.-Russian relations and a student of Russian history.