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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

January 30, 2008 -- Contents


(1) Another Original LR Translation: Latynina on Kasyanov

(2) Another Original LR Translation: Journalists, Perishing

(3) EDITORIAL: Economic Storm Clouds Over Russia

(4) Putin's Energy Schemes, Imploding Like the USSR

(5) Bonner on Putin

(6) Putin the Brutal Despot Fomenting Cold War II

NOTE: Oborona reports that Oleg Kozlovsky has been placed in lock-down confinement, in their words "for practical purposes, under bed arrest" at the hospital where he is confined, denied all communication except with his parents. His winter clothes have been confiscated so he cannot depart and he has a security escort everywhere he goes. Hospital authorities have refused comment. Lawyers are still working on his behalf to adjudicate his status. Oborona has published a translation of the Washington Post's article about Oleg, clearly much encouraged by the support he is getting from abroad. It is a total disgrace that more major papers have not reported this story; please write your preferred paper and demand coverage.

NOTE: One of our FACEBOOK friends points us to a radio program called "Putin's Russia" from NPR Boston discussing Russia's future with a list of fascinating guests, including Arkady Ostrovsky, Moscow correspondent for The Economist, Dmitry Sidorov, Washington correspondent for Kommersant, a leading Russian newspaper, Masha Lipman, Editor-in-chief, Pro et Contra Journal, Carnegie Moscow Center, and columnist for The Washington Post and David Kramer, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs at the State Department. Click through to listen online.

NOTE: Here's the most recent snapshot of our dynamic, international readership (we are proud to note that the second-largest group of readers comes from Russia, a hopeful sign for the country's future, we believe):

Another Original LR Translation: Latynina on Kasyanov, by our Original Translator

The Major’s Syndrome

Yulia Latynina

Yezhednevniy Zhurnal

January 24, 2008

Now they want to exclude Mikhail Kasyanov from the presidential elections. But whatever for? So what if Kasyanov runs and gets 2% of the vote? Whom would this bother? On the contrary, it would help legitimize the election.

Remarkably, and almost simultaneously (January 21), something very similar happened: Russia issued an Interpol warrant for the arrest of Mikhail Gutseriev, accused by the Tverskiy court of fraud and money laundering.

This cannot be called an especially wise move. The problem is that the temperamental Gutseriev, unlike others who were in the process of having their businesses taken over by the authorities, did not restrain himself, but instead wrote a letter in which he accused the Kremlin of stealing his company. After which all of his company’s stock was frozen and a federal arrest warrant was issued for Gutseriev himself.

After that Gutseriev’s son was killed. The young man was involved in an auto accident in his personal car, but refused hospitalization (an ambulance crew that arrived immediately after the accident gave him a shot). He returned home, called his relatives to assure them that it was nothing serious, then went to bed - and died.

So the young man died of acute pride - he did not want to bother his father, who already had his own heap of problems without having to worry about an auto accident, a trip to the hospital, etc. Mikhail Gutseriev will always have to ask himself whether his son would have died if he, Gutseriev, had not been in the process of having his business confiscated.

But more to the point: immediately after the accident rumors started swirling around Moscow. That the accident was staged; that the ambulance arrived suspiciously quickly after the accident; that the paramedics injected Gutseriev’s son with poison. And all this was done to trick Gutseriev into coming back to Russia to bury his son. Paradoxically, the rumors were being circulated by both the enemies of FSB chief Igor Sechin - locked in mortal combat with him for the graces of the monarch - and, apparently, his followers, who were trying to highlight the omnipotence of their patron.

Gutseriev is now, as far as is known, still in London.

In this situation, issuing an Interpol warrant for Gutseriev’s arrest would seem, to put it mildly, unwise. More exactly, it was stupid.

Any legal procedure brought against Gutseriev while he is in London will end with his triumphantly receiving political asylum. Furthermore, I doubt that the British public, following the Litvinenko Affair and the Papua New Guinea-like story of what happened with the British Council, will be so skeptical as yours truly is toward the theory that Gutseriev’s son was killed by the Russian intelligence services, who were trying to take over his father’s business.

In that case, you ask, why in the world would they issue a warrant for his arrest - if up to that point he had been sitting quietly in London, not requesting asylum, and apparently even hoping to negotiate for a peaceful resolution to his case? And then, after issuing an arrest warrant through Interpol, you get not only an international scandal and refusal to extradite, but also an enraged guy from the Caucasus, with three billion dollars and a dead son?

The answer is simple: just don’t analyze the actions of the authorities from the perspective of what benefits the Kremlin (Putin, Sechin, etc.). The Kremlin is so little in control of the situation that the actions of the authorities should be analyzed only from the perspective of what benefits the Major [TN: the middle-ranking officer].

What were they thinking, going after Kasyanov? Did they want to give another card to those who are going to doubt the legitimacy of the elections? Certainly not. But here’s poor Mr. Churov, Chairman of the Central Elections Commission. And if he doesn’t expel Kasyanov from the elections, then tomorrow some little cockroach wanting to take his job will come running to the Kremlin with a story about how Churov didn’t exclude Kasyanov because Churov is a secret supporter of the “Orange Plague”. What should Churov be thinking about? The strategic interests of the Kremlin, or his own job security?

What were they thinking, issuing an arrest warrant for Gutseriev? That this time a London court, hearing from Putin, Sechin & Associates, would embarrass them worse than they ever dreamed of? Certainly not. But here’s some Major, charged with going after Gutseriev. And if he doesn’t issue an arrest warrant, then tomorrow some little Captain, wishing to take his place, will come running with a story about how the Major didn’t issue an Interpol arrest warrant for Gutseriev because he’s taking money from him and plotting against Sechin. What should the Major be thinking about? The strategic interests of those who want to steal Gutseriev’s company, or keeping himself out of jail?

Oh, just imagine how much that little Major must hate those s.o.b’s who get to steal whole companies, while he, the Major, has to wince and worry as he slips 10 measly rubles into his pocket.

Another Original LR Translation: Documenting the Legacy of Media Murder in Putin's Russia, by LR's Translator S.S.

The Glasnost Defence Foundation, an NGO founded in 1991 to support Russian media and provide advocacy for journalists, has released figures (in Russian) on the incidents relating to journalists in the Russian Federation this year. In total 1502 incidents were recorded, a figure that has risen every year since 2003, when 1119 incidents were reported.

8 journalists were killed in 2007, including Vadim Kuznetsov, chief editor of the magazine World and Home St Petersburg. This figure compares to 9 deaths in 2006 and is a drop from 20 deaths in 2003.

75 attacks on journalists are recorded, again up from 2006 but lower than the 96 attacks reported for 2003. 11 attacks on editorial staff were reported.

Journalists continue to be persecuted by law enforcement agencies, including the FSB. Forty six journalists were prosecuted in 2007, with several facing more than one charge. Gleb Ivanov, the chief editor of Fakt i Kompromat, published in Astrakhan, was detained in March and faced four charges of libel, relating to a complaint made by T. Belova, head of the regional branch of the Federal Registration Service. It is widely believed that Ivanov’s arrest was an act of persecution organised by Belova resulting from an allegation of sexual harassment made against her which had been published in Fakt i Kompromat. [GDF report is here].

Natalya Petrova, a documentary journalist from Kazan was arrested on the 6th of September 2007 and badly beaten by the police. She has since left Kazan, though her parents have continued to be harassed and threatened by the police. [Reporters sans frontières report here]

In addition, 140 journalists were arrested, almost twice as many as in 2006 and more than six times the number arrested in 2003. 220 lawsuits were issued against Russian journalists --158 fewer than in 2003 -- and more than 5 million roubles were collected in damages.

There continue to be barriers to journalists both accessing and disseminating information. Access to government and business has been limited and accreditation has been refused to some journalists: 238 such cases were reported this year.

As well as this, censorship remains a problem. 33 acts of censorship against newspapers, magazine and television and radio programmes were reported. Again this is a rise from 2006 and 2005 which recorded 28 and 23 such acts respectively. 34 reports of refusal to print in the press and 27 refusals to broadcast or terminations of broadcast of radio and television programmes were reported. The withdrawal or seizure of print runs has increased dramatically: 92 instances were recorded. This is a large rise from 28 seizures in 2006. Internet publications have also had their work disrupted, a total of 41 cases were reported in this area.

Generally cases of pressure upon journalists and other rights violations have increased overall from 281 in 2003 to 376 this year.

Other Russia has also reported on the GDF data.

EDITORIAL: Economic Storm Clouds Over Russia


Economic Storm Clouds Over Russia

In an article for Forbes magazine Dr. Vladimir Kvint, the president of the International Academy of Emerging Markets, a U.S. Fulbright Scholar and the chair of the Department of Financial Strategy at the Moscow School of Economics, points to the menacing economic storm clouds that hover above Russia these days. First, he notes "the steady rise in prices of consumer goods and food, a very dangerous development." He writes:
The consumer price index surged 12%, but the price of certain foods has risen at a much faster pace--vegetable oil increasing by 150%, butter by 40%, milk by 30%, and grains and bread by 25%. This is not the result of a worldwide increase in food prices--Russian food prices are growing faster than world prices, even faster than in neighboring emerging market economies like China and India.
Some have claimed that Russia is only being victimized by a worldwide trend, which would be bad enough since Russia is ill-equipped to absorb it, but Kvint dispels that illusion. In fact, the problem is worse in Russia than it is in other countries, and getting worse all time. The Kremlin has been forced to set up a special emergency commission to deal with the crisis; Reuters reports that "the consumer price index rose 1.8 percent in the first three weeks of January, against an expectation of 1.8 percent for the whole month and compared to 1.7 percent in January last year."

Then there's the stock market. Kvint's article came out on January 8th, just a bit too early to catch Russia's market take a nosedive. Stock market analyst James Beadle wrote on January 24th: "The benchmark RTS index has dropped 16 percent since peaking at 2339.79 on Jan. 14. This sudden loss of around $160 billion in market value stands in sharp contrast to consensus expectations, which predicted around a 25 percent upside and decisive decoupling from the slowing U.S. economy this year."

Kvint continues, observing the the purchasing power of the ruble has plummeted:
The rise in consumer prices is a result of increases in salaries, pensions, stipends and other social spending at a pace much higher than what economic growth allowed. This puts more rubles in the hands of Russians, but decreases the purchasing power of the currency. During the last 11 months of 2007, the ruble supply increased by 30%. As a result, taking into consideration the high speed with which money circulates in Russia, the purchasing power of the ruble fell by 20% to 25%, according to my calculations.
The expanding money supply will mean particularly drastic jumps in gas prices, he says:
Indeed, the increase of rubles in circulation has grown four times faster than the growth rate of the national economy. This trend also resulted in an increase in gas prices. The government implemented many limitations to slow the consumer cost compared with the cost of production. This means that this compressed "price spring" will expand in 2008, resulting in a sharp increase in gas prices for consumers, as well as prices of first necessity goods.
Turning to the trade balance, Kvint finds more horror:
Despite growing prices for natural resources and raw materials, Russia's positive trade balance has shrunk, because imports are increasing faster than exports--which may be a dangerous trend, and likely to continue in this year. It seems that Russia is incapable of substantially increasing the production, and consequently, the volume, of exports of natural resources.
And he notes that Russia is willfully driving resources away from the service of the population's needs and towards cold war expenditures, just as was the case in Soviet times:
Another trend in 2007 that is likely to continue this year is the visible rate of growth of military expenses, which is pushing Russia toward a militarized economy, though it is still too early to judge the scope of this trend.
Turning to yet another area of potential disaster, Kvint recognizes Russia's looming credit crunch:
There has been fast growth in the amount of debt accumulated by Russian consumers. It is interesting that ruble debt has grown twice as fast as debt in foreign currency, which has not been the case in previous years. Taking into consideration Russians' general lack of experience with credit obligations, the possibility exists for a wave of bankruptcies in 2008.
Finally, Kvint offers a laundry list of other disasters:
  • The diversification of natural gas supplies to Europe, which is mostly a result of the new role of Turkmenistan. This will have a direct impact on Russian influence in certain European countries.
  • The failure of Russia to become a member of the World Trade Organization, despite expectations to the contrary
  • The failure of Russia's amnesty of capital program, which was not surprising--it was, in fact, practically inevitable. Russia was the only country in the world to make tax collections the focus of its amnesty of capital program. Most of these programs seek to repatriate capital to create new jobs. The tax rate on repatriated capital is typically between zero and 5%, but Russia's program taxed repatriated capital at 13%. In Italy, 61 billion euros worth of capital was repatriated in only six months of 2002. Russia's program was not economic amnesty, it was bookkeeping amnesty, and was a total failure.
Ukraine is being allowed into the WTO, from whence to sit in judgment on the Russian application, and Georgia, already a member, has vetoed the Russian position. The world is aggressively moving to find alternatives to Russian energy, which will drive down prices, in large part because of the confrontational policies of Russia's failed Putin administration, and the recently proved dependence of the Russian stock market on America's shows that Russia is far from being energy independent even with prices at historic highs. Indeed, Kvint points out that "the British were the leading foreign investors in Russia in 2007," so Putin's childish, spiteful attack on the British Council is quite literally biting the hand that feeds him.

Looking for bright spots in the Putin economy actually proves quite difficult. Kvint notes that "cumulative foreign direct investment increased by 55%" but then he points out that "the outflow of foreign direct investment has decreased, this trend began to reverse over the last six months. This is a direct response to the economic policies of Putin's government beginning to worry investors."

He states that "foreign investment surged by a factor of 2.5 in 2007. None of the world's 15 leading national economies can compete with this achievement. Some $100 billion was invested in Russia from abroad over the last 12 months." But here he makes a serious error. Perhaps other nations cannot match the percentage increase Russia generated in 2007, but the dollar amount of foreign investment in Russia is puny compared to that of America, which in 2007 was over $400 billion. It's a common mistake to neglect Russia's tiny economic base when considering its growth levels, and he makes this mistake again when he notes that economic stability "has resulted in job creation and stimulated economic growth, which is now approaching 8%." Russia's economic base is 1/12 the size of America's, which means its rate of economic growth has to be divided by 12 before being compared to America's. Doing so produces a rate of growth of just 0.7% in Russia compared to over 3% for America. In other words, the dollar value of Russian economic growth in 2007 was more than four times less than that in America. That's not very impressive, is it? And though Kvint speaks of "job creation," it notable that he makes no effort whatsoever to quantify his statement -- a good indication that he is only speculating. And, in the end, Russia's problem is not unemployment but lack of quality employment, with an average wage of less than $4/ hour and an average male lifespan of less than 60 (not in the world's top 100 countries).

We report below on analysis that shows Vladimir Putin's plans to make Russia an energy superpower have backfired in classic Russian style. Instead of using the country's good fortune on the oil markets to improve the lives of its citizens, Putin has chosen instead to spend Russia's income just the way the USSR did, in a profligate attempt to do political battle with the West. As Russian ruler have always done, he grinds the nation to dust under his feet so he will have something soft to tread upon.

* * *

If you can believe it, the shameless idiotic propagandists at Russia Blog actually republished Kvint's article, because they thought it reported good news for Russia. They were probably misled by the headline "Russia's Surging Economy" that Forbes put on the piece, failing to have sufficiently developed thought capability to realize that this might be a teaser. It's clear that they only read the first couple of paragraphs, where Kvint tries to find some hope for Russia before laying waste to it, and that they didn't think at all about his positive comments. This is the laughable style of the Soviet propagandist, and would indeed be very funny if so many people's lives did not hang in the balance. It's exactly this kind of "thinking" and "analysis" that brought the USSR to its knees, and Russians first and foremost should be outraged by it. As we've said before, Russia Blog needs to be put down. Anybody who reads it uncritically is being played for a sucker. It's an embarrassment to the blogosphere.

Putin's Energy Schemes, Imploding like the USSR

Stratfor reports on the implosion of Vladimir Putin's schemes to weaponize the country's energy resources (via David McDuff):

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his anointed successor, Dmitri Medvedev, were in Bulgaria on Jan. 17. The point of the trip was to put the crowning touch on a Russian effort to hook Europe into Moscow’s energy orbit. After a touch of bitter rhetoric about how Russia and Bulgaria were “doomed to be partners,” Putin agreed to grant equal rights to the South Stream natural gas pipeline Moscow hopes to lay through Bulgaria. Yet the tension of the meeting and the concessions that Putin had to make simply to get permission are symptomatic of a broad unraveling of Russian foreign policy toward Europe.

The Russian Scheme

Russia often has had a love-hate relationship with Europe. Dating back to the time of the czars, Moscow has had to aim for a mix of economic integration and military intimidation to make its voice heard. In the aftermath of the Cold War and the degradation of the Red Army, the military intimidation factor has largely fallen away, leaving economics as the primary method of impacting Europe. In this, Russia has forces at its disposal every bit as useful as Soviet tank divisions. Cold War-era infrastructure provides the 27-member European Union with roughly one-quarter of the natural gas and oil it consumes. Such dependence might not be sufficient to force European deference, but it certainly guarantees that Europe will hear Russia out.

Natural gas is unique among the various industrial and energy commodities. The combination of its gaseous nature and the sheer bulk that is required to power large economies (the European Union uses more than half a trillion cubic meters of the stuff a year) means that it can only be efficiently transported via pipeline. While oil and coal and alumina and wheat and platinum can all be loaded into trucks, rail cars and tankers — allowing any producer to supply any consumer — natural gas can travel only along existing pipeline networks. Canada therefore only supplies the United States and Russia only supplies former Soviet republics, Turkey and Europe. This contained relationship gives Russia leverage in a way that its mineral and oil wealth do not. And so it is here that the Europeans have tried — with some success — to slice through the ties that bind.

Putin has sought to strengthen this energy leverage via two pipeline projects in particular. The two natural gas lines — Nord Stream, which would run under the Baltic Sea from St. Petersburg to Germany; and the aforementioned South Stream, which would run under the Black Sea from near Novorossiysk to Bulgaria — would increase the European dependency on Russian natural gas from 25 percent to 35 percent of its total consumption.

Economically, neither of these projects makes sense. Building long underwater pipelines to Europe — a region with which the former Soviet Union shares a land connection — is simply asinine; landlines typically cost less than a third of their underwater equivalents. Additionally, Nord Stream would be the world’s longest underwater natural gas pipeline and South Stream the deepest.

But the Russians did not plan these projects with profitability in mind — having tripled their natural gas export prices since 2000, they have profit aplenty. Instead, they are thinking of the Americans. The Kremlin’s Cold War mantra has long been that if the Europeans can be neutralized, then American influence can be purged from Europe. Ergo, American presidents dating back to Ronald Reagan have opposed (explicitly or not) any expansion of trade and energy links between Europe and Russia. And there also is the minor detail of Russia hating to involve transit states such as Belarus and Ukraine that are able to siphon off Russian energy en route to hard-currency-paying Europeans.

Given the political nature of these projects, then, the numbers have always been a touch wacky. The Russians have underestimated the costs of both of the natural gas lines to a humorous degree (likely by a factor of four or more), they lack the technological ability to build the lines themselves and they have insisted that the Europeans foot the bills. Specifically they expect ENI to pay for South Stream, and BASF, Gasunie and E.On to cover Nord Stream. Topping it off, they expect themselves — not the countries on which the pipes will lie or the companies that finance and build them — to own the projects when they are completed.

The European Response

The Europeans certainly exchanged some worried looks when these projects were proposed and Russia started assembling consortia to work on them. But in January 2006 an event happened that galvanized European action to wean the Continent off of Russian energy. A natural gas pricing dispute with Ukraine resulted in a brief suspension of deliveries to Europe (Russian natural gas deliveries to Europe currently transit Ukraine and Belarus). Russia attempted to leverage this energy crisis to force the Europeans to back Russian policy in Ukraine. Specifically, Moscow wanted Europe to repudiate Ukraine’s Orange Revolution against Russia’s preferred Ukrainian government and recognize Russian suzerainty in the former Soviet Union.

The strategy backfired and sparked intense interest across Europe in diversifying sources of petroleum and reducing total demand. European states and firms launched alternative supply lines, rafts of terminals were built to import natural gas shipped by tanker in more expensive liquefied form, a new fleet of nuclear reactors were commissioned, and the European Union adopted ambitious alternative energy and conservation programs (which incidentally dovetailed nicely with Europe’s anti-greenhouse-gas plans). The formal European goal is now to reduce total energy consumption by 20 percent — with 20 percent of the remaining total coming from alternative sources — by 2020. The EU states are still squabbling over who needs to bear what specific burdens, but there is no disagreement as to the goal — or the reasons it exists in the first place.

There are two questions remaining.

The Question of Time

First, how long will it be until the Russians realize that their energy tool is no longer sharp? The answer is, longer than you might think.

The Russians have persevered in their pursuit of these projects despite increasingly obvious signs that the Europeans not only are not interested in the projects, they are not interested in the Russians. In part it is because, if Moscow’s plan were realized, it would be a very good plan indeed, as it would harness Europe irrevocably to Russia.

But mostly the lack of realization is because of Russia’s historical blind spot. Russia’s wide-open geography means that it has few barriers to invasion. Consequently, Russian history is one of occasional foreign occupation, which has resulted in a culture that mixes xenophobia, bitterness, persecution and a sense of entitlement in equal measure. This idea of “we have suffered so much so you should do what we say” — a sort of superiority complex based on an inferiority complex — clouds Russian strategic thinking and contributes to the seeming inability of the Kremlin to sense that the Chinese are stealing Central Asia from under the Russian nose.

It also explains why the Russians have not realized that the Europeans are moving away from them in as expeditious manner as feasible. The European reactions to Russian entreaties on these natural gas projects can best be summated as humoring the Russians. Few states want an out-and-out breach in their relations with Moscow, which could result in an actual and immediate energy cutoff before the Europeans are prepared to sever economic ties. So they have been taking advantage of Russia’s cultural blind spot while quietly developing alternatives.

This is doubly true for firms such as E.On and Gasunie, which supposedly are involved in consortia to build the projects. All are key purchasers of Russian energy exports and have found it easier to feign support than to be bluntly honest and so risk losing reliable deliveries of Russia natural gas. The one possible exception might be ENI, which is desperate for any source of natural gas to maintain its market position in Italy. But even here, it is far from clear that a single firm — even one as large as ENI — can shoulder realistically the massive burden of financing and building a project as questionable as South Stream by itself.

Years from now, Putin’s Jan. 17 trip to Bulgaria will likely be seen as the turning point in the European-Russia power balance, because that is when the humoring broke down. As Putin was en route to Bulgaria, Sofia insisted that, should South Stream come about, it will be Sofia — not Moscow — that holds a majority share in the portion on Bulgarian territory. A compromise — a 50-50 ownership split — was ultimately struck, simply because there is little Moscow can do to punish Bulgaria without deeply damaging its own interests. Bulgaria does not border Russia (or any former Soviet republic) and since it is a transit state for Russian natural gas to third countries, it cannot simply be cut off.

Bulgaria is hardly the bravest or most powerful of the EU states. It also is not among the crop that has done the most to diversify its energy consumption away from Russian sources. Consequently, it stands to reason that the nod-and-smile approach that has dominated European attitudes toward all things Russian is starting to crack. In the first 10 months of 2007 alone, total European demand for natural gas already dipped sharply, according to International Energy Agency data — reversing a 50-year upward trend.

Add in increased alternative supplies that are not merely prospective (such as the Nord and South Streams), but actually under construction — within three years Europe will have established alternatives for at least two-thirds of the natural gas Russia currently supplies — and Russia’s energy grip on Europe is slackening quickly.

In short, Europe is reorienting its entire energy sector to eliminate the “Russian factor.” This is allowing the Europeans to take a firmer line on Russia in other areas as well. For example, on Jan. 17 the European Union gave Ukraine the green light to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). Until recently the Europeans had expected Ukraine under a pro-Russian government to join the WTO at the same time as Russia, so the Europeans played softball with the Russians in accession negotiations. But now that a pro-Western coalition has returned to power in Kiev, and since a pro-Western Ukraine will have the ability to block Russian accession on its own, the Europeans sense an opportunity to pry Ukraine out of Russia’s economic orbit and lash it into Europe’s. Consequently European negotiators have switched to hardball tactics on economic issues ranging from timber to transport, pushing back — yet again — serious efforts to bring Russia itself into the WTO.

Such isolation is far more damning than it sounds. According to the European Commission, if energy is shorn from Russian-European trade, then the new (much reduced) total value of that trade shrinks to an amount equal to that of the European Union’s trade with Iceland, a country with fewer than half a million people.

The Question of Response

That brings us to the second question. What will the Russians do about it?

For Russia, the challenge is not about the lost income — between rainy day funds and currency reserves, Moscow has socked away nearly $700 billion — but lost influence. Russia’s other exports, primarily metals, minerals and weapons, still fetch a pretty penny and put Russian fingers in pots the world over, but none grant it influence where it truly matters: in Europe.
Russia faces a near future in which the economic might of Europe will reinforce the geopolitical ambitions of the United States. Washington’s desire to whittle Russia back to a more manageable size is nothing new, but few realize that Brussels has its own ambitions. The Europeans would like to expand their economic reach into the bulk of the territory between the EU border and Moscow, as well as into the Caucasus. Europe does not see this as an imperialist venture, but simply as the natural order of things. The Russians, of course, see the world through a different lens, and European plans would be even more damaging in the long run to Russian interests than will American efforts, as they would make these border territories not only politically unreliable, but rather like the Baltics: firmly integrated into a rival system.

If economic tools no longer are relevant, Russia will be forced to fall back on political and military tactics, including:

  • Military intimidation of the Baltics and Finland
  • Reunion with Belarus and a return of the Red Army to the Polish border
  • Overt intervention in the Russian-speaking portions of Ukraine
  • Active and public participation in Georgia’s secessionist conflicts, both to block European influence and to disrupt some of those alternate energy supplies
  • Support for Europe’s various secessionist regions.

None of these options is clean and easy, and all are laden with consequences. Two of those consequences are critical enough to warrant mention here. First, any action from this list would rejuvenate NATO to the point that a Western military response, likely resulting in a new containment strategy, would be a foregone conclusion. Second, a renewed Russian confrontation with the West would certainly provide ample opportunity for China to make inroads into Central Asia and the Russian Far East, a region where Russia’s own intelligence services warn that Chinese squatters already might constitute the majority of the population. Yet with Russia’s economic toolkit impotent, such options are all that remain before the Kremlin.

Russia’s best hope is to recognize, before it is too late, that the tide is irrevocably turning. But Moscow faces one other complication in wrestling with the changing geopolitical reality — one that could critically delay an adjustment in strategies: itself.

Though Putin is undoubtedly the man in charge, he is not the only one with ambition. His inner circle is split roughly in half by a clan war between Vladislav Surkov and Sergei Ivanov. Both are loyal to Putin, but their battles have absorbed the majority of the state’s ability to deal with any issue. While the two overlords clash, the Europeans make ever-greater strides toward freeing themselves from dependence on Russian energy, steadily closing the window of opportunity for the Russians to adjust.

And when that window closes, Russia will face a world in which the United States no longer is consumed with all things Middle Eastern and the Europeans no longer are afraid of all things Russian.

Bonner on Putin

The Weekly Standard reports:

For one elderly woman in Massachusetts, events in Russia -- where a brief experiment in freedom is foundering under a rising tide of authoritarianism -- have both personal and political resonance. She is Elena Bonner, the 84-year-old widow of world-famous Russian nuclear physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, and a heroic figure in her own right.

In the twilight of her life, Bonner is watching developments in her native country--a country she still considers home--from afar. While she is still a Russian citizen, since 2002 she has lived in the United States, where her son and daughter from her first marriage emigrated in the 1970s. At first, she divided her time between Russia and America. Today, because of her heart condition, she no longer travels and seldom leaves the house.

Formerly chairman of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation and co-chairman of the Commission on the Commemoration of the Legacy of Andrei Sakharov in Russia, Bonner has been in de facto retirement for several years. "I now divide my time between my balcony and the hospital," she said wryly in August as we had tea on the balcony of her one-bedroom apartment in Brookline. Yet her mind has lost none of its sharpness, and her opinions are as strong as ever. "I am a private person," she says. "But no one can deny me the right to speak out when something gets my goat." And that, she certainly does.

Bonner is one of a handful of Russians whose participation in public life spans both the dissident movement of the 1970s--the first significant challenge to the totalitarian Soviet regime--and the democratic movement in post-Communist Russia. Her life has been a hard one. In 1937, both her parents were arrested in Stalin's purges; her father was shot, her mother sent to the Gulag. Bonner served as a military nurse in World War II and was wounded twice, with permanent damage to her eyesight.

In 1970, as an activist in the nascent human rights movement, she met the widowed Sakharov. After their marriage in 1972, Bonner became a target of Soviet propagandists seeking to explain the scandalous fact that the leading Soviet scientist and a recipient of the highest state honors had turned against that state. They depicted Sakharov as a besotted man manipulated by a power-hungry, depraved seductress with Zionist ties (Bonner is partly of Jewish background). In 1980, Bonner shared her husband's internal exile in the city of Gorky, east of Moscow.

Everything changed when Gorbachev came to power and in 1986 recalled Sakharov from Gorky as one of his first gestures toward opening up the Soviet regime. In 1989, Sakharov was elected to the Soviet Union's first and last real parliament, the All-Union Congress of People's Deputies, and was one of the leaders of the democratic opposition bloc that included Boris Yeltsin. But in December that year, Sakharov died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 68--shortly after Gorbachev rudely berated him in a televised Congress session for pushing too quickly for a multiparty system. Sakharov's funeral drew a crowd a hundred-thousand strong, and the image of Bonner as the quietly grieving woman at his coffin was etched into the public mind.

Now, times have changed again. The liberal, pro-Western ideas championed by Sakharov are out of favor in Putin's Russia, and so is Bonner herself. In recent years, pro-government newspapers have once again started treating her as persona non grata, a sellout in the pocket of Uncle Sam. The tone taken toward her is typified by a sneering aside in a December interview by political analyst and television host Maksim Shevchenko: Arguing for an "authentically Russian" form of liberal democracy, Shevchenko commented that "it wasn't Dr. Sakharov who laid the foundations of Russian liberalism while battling for his wife's right to have her teeth done in Switzerland." (In fact, Sakharov had gone on several hunger strikes to secure permission for Bonner to travel abroad for life-saving heart surgery.)

Such attacks leave Bonner unfazed, even bitterly amused, but the bigger picture in Russia saddens her deeply. Bonner believes it is a mistake to see Russia as backsliding toward the Soviet era. "This is a completely different historical point. Analogies to the Stalin era or to the 1970s do not feel real to me," she said in a telephone interview days after Putin's United Russia party won the massively rigged parliamentary elections on December 2. "I am closer to the view that there are many parallels to Germany in the 1930s. The same decrease in unemployment, economic stabilization; people are living better. Putin, like Hitler, is seen as the man who brought Russia out of chaos, raised her from her knees. It is ridiculous and embarrassing when the leaders of United Russia refer to Putin as 'the national leader. What's a leader? The Führer. It's a carbon copy of a word that inevitably evokes certain associations."

So far, of course, Russia has no state ideology similar to Nazism; however, Bonner cautions, "there is a very strong nationalist idea, as well as the idea of Russian Orthodoxy as a state church. Authoritarianism, Orthodoxy, populism--not even focused on 'the people,' but on ethnic Russians--this formula, which is being more and more broadly adopted by the powers that be, seems to me a very frightening direction for my country. A large part of the population is unhappy about this. But when push comes to shove, even most of those people will not vote for the opposition but for Putin and United Russia, because they've been persuaded that the rise in prosperity today is the merit of Putin and United Russia."

As much as Bonner loathes the Putin regime, she also has some harsh words for its predecessor, idealized by many Russian liberals today. (She broke with the new Russian government under Yeltsin, resigning from his Human Rights Commission in 1994 in protest against the first war in Chechnya.) It's worth remembering, she says, that the first "fake elections" in post-Soviet Russia took place in 1996.

"After Yeltsin died, there were many admiring comments about the transformation of state and society under his leadership," she says. "But nothing was said about the fact that the corruption-ridden, mafia-like nature of state power is also Yeltsin's legacy. Only now, it has become even more blatant. I think everything that has happened in Russia in the 21st century is, in a sense, on the one hand a continuation of Yeltsin's economic 'reform' and the looting of the country, which peaked under Yeltsin--but at the same time, we have lost all the gains in democratic development for which the foundations were also laid under Yeltsin."

Was there a turning point when the pro-democracy movement missed its chance? If there was, Bonner believes it came in 1992-93, when the democrats agreed to give up on the idea of a constitutional convention with popularly elected and accountable delegates, and to participate instead in a nonbinding "constitutional conference" that helped the government's experts craft Russia's constitution. "Formally the constitution was a good one, but it was tailored to one president," says Bonner, who refused to "play the game" and participate in the constitutional conference. "And most important, without enforcement mechanisms, that constitution set the stage for all the changes of the following years"--including the drastic centralization of power and the rewriting of election laws to systematically exclude the opposition.

Another fatal mistake, she believes, was allowing much of the Soviet-era Communist elite to seize power in the guise of newly minted "democrats": "I didn't think that the Communist elite needed to be tried on criminal charges and sent to Siberia. But they absolutely should have been removed from positions of power, and even from access to jobs in the administration of government." While she strongly disagrees with the notion that the Russian people are congenitally unfit for freedom, whether by their genes or their cultural history, she understands that building a free society in post-Communist Russia could not have been an easy task. But, in her eyes, that makes "the enlightened democrats who fell for the tricks of the old elite" even more guilty of failing their country.

Bonner's criticism is directed at the West as well. "The West has never truly understood what's going on, and it still doesn't. On the one hand, they are too optimistic; on the other hand, they are mired in an energy crisis, and right now it's very difficult for European leaders or even for Bush to have a principled position." She bristles, in particular, at the post-September 11 idea of Putin as a partner in the global War on Terror: "By passing off the tragedy of Chechnya as a part of the struggle against global terrorism, Russia has deceived the West and persistently pushed the Chechen population into the radical Islamist corner."

Bonner's disappointment with the West also has a more personal dimension: what she considers the shameful neglect of Sakharov's legacy. In 1993, she donated a large collection of Sakharov's papers that had been smuggled out of the Soviet Union--documents pertaining not only to Sakharov himself but also to the human rights movement--to Brandeis University, where a Sakharov Archive was established, run by émigré human rights activist Alexander Gribanov and Bonner's daughter, Tatiana Yankelevich. Several years later, private funding for the archive dried up, and by 2003 it was in danger of being shut down. In 2004, arrangements were made to transfer it to the Davis Center at Harvard, where Yankelevich currently oversees a small, financially strapped Sakharov Program on Human Rights. The program sponsors seminars on human rights in the Soviet Union.

To Bonner, all of this seems painfully inadequate. She has fond memories of Ronald Reagan, who mentioned Sakharov in several speeches in the 1980s, including his New Year's radio message to the Soviet people broadcast over the Voice of America on January 1, 1987. "Reagan had a soft spot for Sakharov and regarded him as a like-minded man," she says. Today, she detects among American public figures only "an insulting indifference."

The preservation of her late husband's legacy is the final task of Bonner's life--especially important, in her view, because she is concerned that the new regime in Russia may try to recast Sakharov as a Russian nationalist and statist in its own image. "I fear very much that this will start happening as soon as I leave this world," she says. Despite her failing health, Bonner worked for three years to prepare Sakharov's diaries, along with her own, for publication; a three-volume edition was published in Moscow in 2006. (Bonner is also the author of two memoirs which have been translated into English: Alone Together, the story of her and Sakharov's Gorky exile, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1986, and Mothers and Daughters, an account of growing up in Stalin's Russia, published in 1992.)

As Putin's presidency nears its end, Bonner hazards few guesses as to what the future will bring. She is not sure what relevance the legacy of the 1970s human rights movement of which she was a part may have for the opposition in today's Russia, operating in very different circumstances. If there is one element of the human rights movement that she would like to see the new generation preserve, it is its commitment to "moral principles."

For the near future, she sees no viable way for the opposition to challenge the new ruling clique's monopoly on power. Participation in the presidential elections can only "lend a veneer of legitimacy to what Putin is doing; on the other hand, nonparticipation suggests the lack of a platform."

In a New Year's greeting emailed to friends, reflecting on the state of her country, Bonner quoted some lines about Russia by the 19th-century poet Nikolai Nekrasov that capture the present commingling of hope and despair:

She will survive it all, and pave
A wider road, a better way;
A pity neither you nor I
Will live to see that wondrous day.

Putin the Brutal Despot Fomenting Cold War II

The mighty Edward Lucas, in the Daily Mail, adapted from his forthcoming book The New Cold War. The piece was accompanied by the photograph above, with the caption "Naked Aggression." Ouch.

Few things embodied Stalinist terror more than the midnight knock on the door. For millions of innocent victims it heralded interrogation, torture and a lengthy - and all too often lethal - sentence in the Communist concentration camps of the Gulag. Now the heirs of Stalin's secret police are running Russia - and there could be few clearer signs of their true nature than the British Council's Russian staff being hauled from their beds to answer for the "crime" of working for a foreign employer.

The harassment of the British Council on transparently bogus charges of tax evasion has prompted a protest even from our supine Foreign Office. The extraordinary thing is that Vladimir Putin hardly seemed worth a footnote to Russian history when the ailing Boris Yeltsin named him Prime Minister in 1999. Few realised that the taciturn bureaucrat with a taste for judo was the harbinger of a silent putsch that would put the old KGB in charge of the Kremlin, with chilling consequences not only for Russia, but for the world.

The "siloviki" (literally "men of power"), as the spooks are called, have transformed Russia. They took over a pluralist country with a lively Press and strong pro-Western orientation, though still reeling from the Soviet economic collapse and the looting and corruption that followed it. Many at home and abroad hoped that a few years of heavy-handed rule by sinister strongmen would be the price of freedom and security.

They were wrong. The costs of Putin's KGB putsch have been colossal. Russia today is the epitome of bullying and crookedness. The independent media have shrivelled, with television in particular coming almost completely under the authorities' control. Almost every channel for complaint and dissent is blocked. Judicial and bureaucratic harassment, as well as physical threats, deter all but the bravest from speaking out. The authorities increasingly use forcible incarceration in psychiatric hospitals, the most loathsome weapon in the Soviet arsenal of repression, against their critics.

No wonder most international rankings no longer count Russia as a "free country"; no wonder they now list it as one of the most corrupt in the industrialised world. That is a shameful retreat from the hopes of the 1990s. Yes, living standards in Russia have soared under Putin, and most Russians believe they are living in a golden age. This is hardly surprising, given that the price of oil - a resource the country has had in abundance - has risen some five times since Putin came to power. And in a country where the media has been annexed for pro-Putin propaganda, is it not understandable that his regime has popular support?

In truth, Russia is being run by a corrupt, incompetent and despotic regime, and the huge windfall of high oil prices is being squandered. Now is the time to modernise Russia, using the vast influx of petro-roubles, but there is no sign this is happening. The oil and gas will not last for ever - their production is flat or falling and Russia is suffering power shortages; public services are a disgrace and the infrastructure pitiful. Grand plans are everywhere: Russia says it will spend a trillion dollars on public investment projects in the coming years. But the evidence so far is that this money is at best stolen, and at worst simply wasted.

After eight years of Mr Putin's rule, there is little improvement in roads, railways, power stations and pipelines. Abysmal standards of public health, dangerous workplaces, endemic alcoholism and dreadful road safety make male life expectancy only 58.6 years - worse than in Laos or Yemen. The so-called golden age is as phoney as Russia's elections that put Mr Putin and his cronies in power time after time. When his hand-picked successor Dmitri Medvedev "wins" the presidential election next month, the nameplates on the doors may change, but the political system Mr Putin and his fellow siloviki has created will stay: impenetrable to outsiders, impervious to criticism and lubricated with vast sums of money obtained corruptly. Mr Putin is reckoned to be worth $40 billion.

One source of this cash - though denied by all concerned - is an extraordinarily profitable Swiss-based oil trading firm that seems to have the miraculous knack of gaining almost limitless supplies of cut-price Russian crude oil to sell on the world market. True, the oil and gas have fuelled a remarkable boom in construction and retailing. Glitzy malls and towering skyscrapers are sprouting up across Russia. But the boom is fuelled by natural riches, not brainpower. Bright Russians with good ideas need the certainty provided by honest courts and solid property rights, and go abroad to find them.

Mr Putin talks of a "dictatorship of law" - but it is dictatorship, not justice, that has been the reality. The KGB regime in Russia is more than just a missed opportunity; it is also a direct threat to us. The best example of this came with a shameless act of nuclear terrorism in the heart of London barely a year ago. Alexander Litvinenko was a strident London-based critic of Mr Putin, accusing him of everything from mass murder to paedophilia. Poisoned with a rare radioactive isotope, polonium-210, at a meeting with three Russians at the Millennium Hotel, this British citizen died an agonising death; his last words directly blamed Mr Putin for his murder. Had the assassins come from any other country claiming to be an advanced European democracy, this would have led to intensive - and successful - cooperation between Scotland Yard and the foreign criminal justice system. Whether or not the murderer was extradited, he would certainly have been prosecuted. At the very least, careless handling of toxic radioactive substances is a crime and Andrei Lugovoi, the man British officials have named as their prime suspect, left a trail of polonium in his travels across Europe. But Mr Lugovoi enjoys Kremlin protection at the highest level. Despite having endangered scores, if not hundreds, of innocent Londoners with his antics, he has faced no penalty. Indeed, he has been feted in Russia, becoming a celebrated politician. The Kremlin scoffed at British concerns: why would London jeopardise important trade relations "for the sake of one man", a foreign ministry spokesman asked.

Some 20 years after Mikhail Gorbachev started dismantling Communism, Russia is reverting to Soviet behaviour at home and abroad. Thanks to billions of pounds in oil and gas revenues, the Kremlin can afford to be contemptuous of our values. So far our response has been perilously inattentive and complacent, partly due to greed and wishful thinking, and partly because of distractions. European countries have been so preoccupied with their distaste for George Bush's "war on terror" that they have all but ignored the threat from Russia. Those who downplay the threat say that elements of a new Cold War are missing. That featured a global military and ideological confrontation, when a surprise conventional attack in Europe by the Warsaw Pact could have reached the Rhine within three days, forcing the West to choose between surrender and starting a nuclear war. Half the European continent was under the ice cap of Communism, with even the most fleeting human contacts constrained by the climate of fear.

That Cold War is indeed over: I remember it when it was alive and - as a correspondent in Eastern Europe as Communism collapsed - I was there at its funeral. But so too are the rosy sentiments that succeeded it. The most catastrophic mistake the outside world has made since 1991 is to assume that Russia is becoming a "normal" country. From this Panglossian viewpoint, any problems that arise are mere bumps in the road that will be left behind in the progress towards Westernstyle freedom and legality. That idea always seemed optimistic, but now it looks downright fanciful; those who advocate it are deluding themselves and those who listen to them. Russia still, outrageously, belongs to the G8 club of big rich Western countries and the Council of Europe, a talking shop that also guards the continent's human rights conventions.

But that should fool nobody. Russia has explicitly abandoned Western values of political freedom, the rule of law and multilateral security, in favour of its own ideology, "Sovereign democracy". That is a mixture of xenophobia, nationalism, autocracy, self-righteousness and nostalgia for the Soviet - and Stalinist - past. Gangster capitalism is not international Communism. But it is still a fundamental threat to our political and economic system.

It is true that despite the colossal increases in its defence budget, the Kremlin is not yet a direct military menace to the West. Russia's newest warplanes may be formidably manoeuvrable, its submarines super-silent, its torpedoes terrifyingly fast, but it has not - yet - been able to produce these weapons in any quantities. Its surface navy is a pathetic relic, with barely 20 seaworthy big ships. Two-thirds of Russia's nuclear missiles are obsolete. But the Kremlin is a menace in a different way. It sells advanced weapons to dictatorial and anti-Western regimes. The Shkval [Squall] torpedo, for example, is an underwater rocket that creates a cone of water vapour enabling it to travel very fast. It is one of the few weapons that can sink an American aircraft carrier. Russia has sold that technology, Western spooks fear, to Iran. Its air defence systems are better than America's Patriot missile. As the Kremlin exploits Western disunity and weakness all over the world, arms sales give it teeth.

Yet high explosives, hardened steel and enriched uranium are still a sideshow. The New Cold War is fought with cash, natural resources, diplomacy and propaganda. Having cast off the dead weight of ideology, the former KGB men in the Kremlin are presiding over a Russian Klondike, a source of irresistible temptation for greedy outsiders. Russia is exploiting the West's increasingly desperate shortage of energy. We in Europe face growing dependence on scanty and expensive Russian gas, with little chance of alternative supplies. The Kremlin wields the energy weapon to bully its enemies and bribe its allies, and uses its financial clout to buy friends and influence.

The big strategic worry used to be the Soviet navy's capacity to blockade Europe's sea lanes. Now it is Gazprom's ability to blockade its gas pipelines. Once it was the Kremlin's tanks thundering into Afghanistan that signalled the West's weakness; now it is Kremlin banks thundering through the City of London. The growing business and financial lobby tied to Russia represents a powerful fifth column of a kind unseen during the last Cold War. Once it was Communist trade unions that undermined the West at the Kremlin's behest. Now it is pro-Kremlin bankers and Western politicians who betray their countries for 30 silver roubles. Western investment in Russia has already created a lobby for good relations with the Kremlin in the City, in German big business and in the energy industry across Europe. That is reinforced by the billions of dollars of Russian investment pouring into Western Europe and North America. When Russian tycoons — who these days run their businesses at the Kremlin's bidding — own big stakes in the West's biggest companies, they are no longer outsiders, but insiders. Russia is becoming a giant nuclear-armed version of Saudi Arabia: a country so rich and powerful that even its support for terrorism does not bring Western disfavour.

The main battleground so far — and one where the West is losing hands down — has been in the once-captive nations between Russia and the rich half of the continent. Russia makes no secret of its desire for a dominant say-so in its former empire: it wants to know everything that happens and to have the power to stop what it does not like. For its neighbours, Russia is like an aggressive man on crutches — no threat to the ablebodied, but still a menacing bully for someone in a wheelchair. That means a tussle in Central Europe, the Balkans and the Caucasus, and particularly in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They are the Soviet satellites whose loss the Kremlin resents most sharply. Their thriving economies and lively, open societies are a constant and glaring contrast to the authoritarian crony capitalism across the border.

Russia is putting the Baltic states under an energy squeeze, cutting off oil supplies to Latvia and Lithuania. It has incited riots in Tallinn, the Estonian capital. It has abandoned Yeltsin's policy of historical reconciliation. The Kremlin's line now is that the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states in 1940 — part of the shameful Hitler- Stalin pact — was legal. That should come as no surprise: Mr Putin, who says the collapse of the Soviet Union was the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century, believes the history books written in the Yeltsin years paint the past in too bleak a light.

The strangest feature of all this is the West's unwillingness to admit what is happening. Officials and politicians ask haplessly: "If Russia is a political menace again, what on earth are we supposed to do about it?" The old Cold War imposed a demanding regime of mental and moral toughness on the countries of Western Europe: they knew that if they did not hang together they would hang separately. Now the Kremlin's central tactic of "divide and rule" has an almost free run. During the old Cold War, no NATO member would have considered doing private deals with the Kremlin: any overtures from the Soviet Union encountered hard-headed scrutiny, while few in Western officialdom made a career out of being nice to the Soviet bloc. Anyone in the business world who made a profit out of dealings with Communist countries was an instant target of suspicion, and risked ostracism. In the New Cold War, such deals are commonplace — most ominously in the big countries of continental Europe. Russian money and influence has reached astonishingly far.

Few would have believed that a former German leader, Gerhard Schröder, would have taken a lucrative post as chairman of a Kremlin-backed gas venture within months of taking office. It took the West 30 years after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 to realise the threat it faced from the Communists in the Kremlin.

How long will it take us to see the danger now that the most sinister force in the Soviet Union — the KGB — is using our own weapons against us?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

January 28, 2007 -- Content


(1) EDITORIAL: Potemkin Russia

(2) An Australian Open Recap

(3) Neo-Soviet Postcards from Penza

(4) Exposing Putin's Failure in Chechnya

(5) The Serbian Suckers

(6) The Battle of Britain, Part II

NOTE: Before the month has even ended, January 2008 has become our best month ever for visitation, with the blog for the first time recording more than 17,000 visits in a single month.

Monday, January 28, 2008

EDITORIAL: Potemkin Russia


Potemkin Russia

A review by the Russia editor of OpenDemocracy, Hugh Barnes, of a new history of the Russian battle for Moscow in World War II, The Greatest Battle by Andrew Nagorski, recently appeared in the Moscow Times. In it, Barnes writes:
On Sept. 16, 1941, [Nazi] Field Marshal Fedor von Bock gave the orders for the capture of Moscow under the codename "Typhoon," and the following month German troops surrounded seven Soviet armies near the cities of Vyazma and Bryansk, just west of Moscow, killing or capturing a million men. The novelist and journalist Vasily Grossman, who reported from the frontline for the newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, noted that the October weather seemed to the Germans a more daunting opponent than the Red Army itself. "General Mud and General Cold are helping the Russian side," he added. "But it is true that only those who are strong can make nature work for them, while the weak are at the mercy of nature."

German field commander General Heinz Guderian begged Hitler to let him press all the way to Moscow, but crucially -- and perhaps inexplicably -- the Fuhrer hesitated, in October 1941, when the capital lay defenseless, insisting that the Panzer units head south and capture Kiev first. By the time the Russians reached the outskirts of Moscow at the end of the year, it was too late. The Germans were worn down by the weather, lacked supplies for the winter and were already exhausted by the struggle.
In other words, the Russians didn't defeat the Nazi invasion by means of skill but rather by means of sheer dumb luck. Didn't courage play a role? Barnes continues:
One of the overarching themes of official Soviet accounts of the Great Patriotic War is that the Russian people never wavered in their fight against the German invaders, even when the outlook was grim. But Nagorski's well-researched book suggests that Stalin's own unpredictability as much as the proverbial stoicism of the Russian people held the key.

His volatile temperament recovered from the dark days of midsummer to galvanize, or perhaps terrorize, the nation into a heroic resistance. The Battle of Moscow helped Stalin to work out a strategy by which the sacrifice of millions of lives made up for the inadequate weaponry and equipment of the Red Army. At one point, in early December 1941, Soviet military commanders begged Stalin to let them move the western front to the east due to a lack of ammunition. "Do our soldiers have spades," barked the Great Leader down the telephone line. "Yes, Comrade Stalin, there are spades. What should they do with them?" came the reply. "Tell your men to take their spades and dig themselves some graves."
In other words, it wasn't courage against the German threat that decided Russia's fate, it was fear . . . fear of the even more horrible things their own government would do to them if they didn't resist the Germans.

As we've said before, it wouldn't be at all difficult to make the argument that Russia would have been better off in the long run losing to Nazi Germany rather than winning. After all, Moscow fell to Napoleon, and Russia lived to fight Hitler. France was conquered by Germany, yet now it wields an economy far more potent and a standard of living immeasurably higher than Russia.

But more important, if Russia had lost it would have been forced to confront the reality of losing, and perhaps it would have been induced to make some changes, changes that might have altered the course of Russian history so that today Russia would rank in the top 100 world nations for male adult lifespan and its people would earn a standard European wage, rather than an average wage of $4 per hour.

Below, we report on the outcome of the Australian Open tennis tournament, finding a number of stark parallels between tennis and Russian political life. Tennis analyst Peter Bodo has written of the tournament's winner, so-called "Russian" Maria Sharapova, that "when you see that Sharapova fall-away forehand or some of her other stroking glitches (serve, anyone?), maybe it's just as well that [her stroke consultant Robert] Lansdorp's name has largely been left off her resume." What he's saying is both that Maria's crazy father, Yuri, has tried to take too much credit for the quality of Maria's game, and at the same time vastly overestimated that quality, which his own influence has greatly diminished from what it might have been. Maria herself can't even seem to decide which country's she's from. If it's Russia, why not go back and live there? If it's America, why keep telling the world otherwise?

If you listen closely, you will undoubtedly hear in the reactions of Sharapova's sweaty little fans the echo of Russia itself. It doesn't matter how badly she's played or for how long. It doesn't matter that she's spurned Russia her whole life. If she ever wins, regardless of how much dumb luck was involved, it's a great victory for "Russia" the proves perfection and immunity to criticism. In the same way, no matter the cost, if Germany failed to actually take over the Russian government then it was Russia's great victory in the "Great Patriotic War." It's exactly this type of ivory-tower idiocy that brought the USSR to its knees, and Russians go right on with it as if that never happened, either. We find this phenomenon quite terrifying, far more so even than the KGB's murdering those who try to dispel the illusion. We offer it battle.

It's not -- this is important to remember -- confined to military activity and sports. In fact, in the economic sphere it has a name: Dutch disease. Thus, Russia scholar Michael McFaul has argued that the Russian economy, always vastly overestimated, would have been far better without the intervention of Vladimir Putin. Because of him, and the rising oil price, it's neglected basis reforms that are utterly essential to its future. For Russia, oil is more like a toxin than an elixer. As stock market analyst James Beadle wrote on January 24th in the Moscow Times: "The benchmark RTS index has dropped 16 percent since peaking at 2339.79 on Jan. 14. This sudden loss of around $160 billion in market value stands in sharp contrast to consensus expectations, which predicted around a 25 percent upside and decisive decoupling from the slowing U.S. economy this year." This jolt has forced many to begin to realize just how correct McFaul was. Yet, all the Russian nationalist set can do is jabber about Russia's economic power. They can't name one specific policy he has enacted which is responsible for any increase in Russia's standard of living, they simply given Putin credit for the rising price of oil as if he were controlling it.

Just as the barbaric actions of Vladimir Putin, most recently ordering the return of tanks and missiles to Red Square on May Day and firing missiles off the coast of France have exposed Putin for the crude barbarian he is, as we report below the actions of Sharapova's father from the stands at the Australian Open have betrayed his (and her?) true nature as well. The illusion of success isn't success; in a very real sense, it's worse than actual failure because it prevents you from reforming and eventually destroys you. The Soviets preferred it anyway. Will Russians follow that path?

Maybe one day Maria Sharapova will become insightful and grownup (and American?) enough to admit that she needs to reform seriously instead of deluding herself into thinking she's already great. Maybe one day after one of her rare tournament wins she will say: "Wow, I have a lot of potential and should be doing so much better. I really need to make some changes, and now I'm going to. And the first thing I'm going to do is move back to Russia (or get U.S. citizenship). And the second thing is that I'm going to fire my father." Because she has a lot of talent, and could become great if she did. And maybe one day Russia itself will admit that World War II wasn't a great victory it was a horrific defeat, and that it needs to dramatically rethink itself. Because Russia has a lot of talent, and could become great if it did. That's what this blog is all about.

But the clock is ticking on both Sharapova and Russia. Time is running out. A few more years with their heads in the clouds will have them both stumbling into the dustbin of history.

The theme of the Potemkin Village, the practice of elevating form over substance, is if illusion was reality, runs right the way through Russia's 1,000-year history. Russians have simply shown no interest in putting their noses to the grindstone and doing the real work that makes a truly great nation. Russian patriots who try to expose Potemkin Russia in the hope of reform are jailed or killed, while Russian traitors like Putin who seek to expand the Potemkin village are lionized and empowered. That is the reason Russia has degenerated to such an extent that today it's average male life span is not in the top 100 world nations and the population is in rapid decline.

Annals of Russian Horror and Shame: An Australian Open Recap

Russia's top-ranked male tennis player Nikolay Davydenko
lost disgracefully at the Australian Open and faces a major
investigation for corruption

Well, let's see now, how did the Russian contingent do at the year's first grand slam tournament, the Australian Open down under?

Humiliation, as usual, of course. It's hard to imagine how the events could have unfolded more bitterly or disgracefully for the Russian nationalists. Their only consolation may have been that the entire tournament turned into a spectacular disaster, with neither of the two most interesting male players (Federer and Nadal) and none of the three most scintillating women (Henin and the two Williams sisters) making it into the finals. Except that this should have meant the top Russians had an excellent opportunity to notch a major title.

No such luck.

Just to start with, neither Russia's top-ranked woman, Svetlana Kuznetsova, nor its top-ranked man, Nikolay Davidenko, made it as far as the quarterfinals. Both were summarily brushed aside by much lower-ranked competition, and it's hard to say which loss was more humiliating. Kuznetsova was blown off the court in easy straight sets in the third round by, of all things, a Polish (ouch!) player (not ranked in the world's top 25), while Davydenko was brutally crushed in straight sets by a fellow Russian, winning only one game in the decisive set. Usually, highly ranked Russians can at least hope to beat other Russians.

In fact, doing so is pretty much how they get their high rankings in the first place (it's how "Russia's" #2 woman, Maria Sharapova -- a "Russian" who spends all her time in America for some reason -- for instance got out of the third round, by destroying Russia's #11-ranked Elena Dementieva in yet another pathetic outing for the serveless wonder). That same Pole who whipped Kuznetsova then did the same to Russia's #4 player, Nadia Petrova (ranked #14), who was unable to win a single game in the decisive third set of their match. Double ouch. Triple!

The most "Russian" player in the draw, world #27 Maria Kirilenko ("the Other Maria"), who hardly speaks English, was beaten by Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova in the fourth round when, after winning the first set, she proceeded to lose the next four games without winning a single point, one of the most unheard of and embarrassing implosions in modern tennis history. Kirilenko may actually have considered herself lucky to lose, though, since if she had won she would have had to face that Polish Russian-killer in her next match. Kirilenko had polished off the much higher-ranked Anna Chakvetadze Russia's #3 player, to round out Russia's third-round humiliation, with Chakvetadze managing to win a total only three games combined in the second two sets. After that win some thought Kirilenko might be "for real." Then again, not so much. They forgot that the win had come against a fellow Russian, not a good predictor for performance outside their sphere.

After this wholesale Russian slaughter, the only "Russian" woman to reach the quarterfinals was Sharapova, who has lived in the United States since childhood and owns property there, having learned her American game in Florida. And who, by the way, was bitterly booted off the Russian national team last year in a hissy fit of recrimination from the real Russian players. Talk about pouring salt in Russia's wounds!

The net result (pardon the pun) was that more American women (both Williams sisters) reached the quarterfinals than "Russians" (three Americans and no Russians, actually, if you count Sharapova, who has never played for the Russian national team and speaks English on the court, as American), and the same number of American men did so as Russians -- even though America is in a major lull in its glorious tennis history. The lone Russian male survivor, Mikhail Youzhny, was then summarily blown off the court by an unseeded Frenchman, failing to win a single game in the second set of a straight-set loss. One was left to wonder how that crazy idea about "dominant" Russian tennis players ever got started. Perhaps the KGB was involved? Or, perhaps, just morons.

Thus, by Tuesday the only "Russian" left standing in the men's or ladies' draw was the "Russian" who's lived most of her life in the United States, Shamapova, the one player the Russian nationalists would presumably least like to see in that position. Tiny Serbia had three times as many players in the semifinals as mighty Russia.

Surely the luckiest human being on Earth, based on her draw Sharapova by all rights should have had to face both world #1 Justine Henin and multiple Australian Open champion Serena Williams just to get to the finals, where she should have had to face multiple grand slam winner Venus Williams or prior French winner Amelie Mauresmo, yet in the end she had to face only one of them, winning a freakishly lop-sided victory against Henin that no knowledgable fan could attribute to Sharapova's skill. In the semi-finals, she met Serbian Jelena Jankovic who, hobbled by injuries, was barely able to even complete the match, vaulting Sharapova into the finals. It was as if the title had been gift-wrapped for her, and Sharapova conveniently seemed not to notice. Admitting that she was "desperate" to atone for her humiliating defeat at the hands of Serena in the finals last year, she stated: "I've been able to execute the things that I've been wanting to do and I've been able to do it consistently, not just for three, four games and then have a major letdown." Able to execute? Indeed so. Able to execute another amazing run of sheer dumb luck, catching the world's greatest player on a bad day and then totally avoiding any of the other dangerous players. As we note in our editorial today, it's exactly the same sort of bluster we see from the Putin regime, lost in a fog of self-delusion. And, believe it or not, this wasn't the worst of it, not by a long shot.

Because then there was Yuri.

When you look at this photograph of Maria Sharapova's father Yuri "Unabomber" Sharapov watching her play the world #1 Justine Henin from the stands at the Australian Open, do the words "innocent joke" come to mind? That's what Yuri said he was doing when, just after Sharapova's victory, he covered his head with his camouflage hood, donned dark glasses, and made a barbaric throat-slitting gesture, scowling like a barbaric madman in front of the world's television cameras. Joking? Sounds just like the type of explanations the Soviets used to give when the would invade Hungary or Afghanistan -- ridiculously embarrassing drivel that only a Russian, and maybe not even one, could believe. One Australian paper said: "Sharapov's belligerence, captured by a camera he knew was in his face, belongs in a professional wrestling ring not beside a tennis court." Yuri is too Russian even for many Russians themselves. French Open winner Anastasia Myskina once threatened to stand down from Fed Cup if Sharapova was selected -- because of the antics of her father. "If she joins our team next season you won't see me there, for sure," Myskina said.

It's really quite pathetic how some Russophile fanatics choose to see our criticisms of Sharapova as being anti-Russian; in fact, when we attack her it's one of the rare occasions when we are taking Russia's side, agreeing with folks like Ms. Myskina. It's so typical of Russians to be unable to recognize who their friends are, to attack them while comforting those who are really their enemies.

Yuri Sharapov is no doubt bitter from so many years of such spectacular failure by his daughter, desperate to inflate the significance of any kind of victory, as if history didn't exist. That's exactly the way the leaders of the USSR behaved, and it is exactly the way Vladimir Putin is behaving now. These sorts of Russians live in dream worlds of their own concoction, isolated from real information like the Emperor with his New Clothes. As we have said before, in this we see Russia displayed in perfect microcosm on the tennis court, which is why we continue reporting on such events.

Postcards from Penza

Other Russia reports, translating Oborona:

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, the man likely to sweep presidential elections in March, landed quietly in the city of Penza on Wednesday. So quietly, in fact, that town residents only learned of a Presidential visit when workers started fervently washing light-poles in the city center. Once Putin and his protégé arrived, their presidential motorcade drove down streets cleaned of rubbish, dirt, and, it turns out, opposition activists.

Starting early in the morning, militsiya officers in Penza began detaining and arresting youth leaders from a whole series of opposition organizations and political parties. According to the Sobrok@ru news agency, large numbers of activists from the liberal Yabloko party and the Oborona youth movement are currently being held at various police stations around the city. No explanation has been given for the detentions, and no charges have been filed.

One of the youths, Alexei Pavlutkin, is well-known for throwing an egg at Putin’s motorcade in 2005. A number of other activists are being held under house arrest. Student members of the Union of Communist Youth have been told to stay in their educational institutions, under watch of school management. Militsiya officers have also been sent to keep track of specific members of the opposition at their places of employment.

It should be noted that no demonstrations or political actions were planned by the opposition groups for the presidential visit. Leaders have pledged to challenge the illegal detentions and file a case with the regional prosecutor.

Exposing Putin's Failure in Chechnya

Paul Goble reports:

The descent into chaos of Kabardino-Balkaria, long considered “an island of stability” in a region with all too little of that, is the direct result of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policy failures in the North Caucasus as a whole, according to a Moscow analyst. In an article posted online [January 22nd], Dmitry Tarskiy carefully traces the ways in which Putin’s approach not only has failed to reverse the destructive trends of the past two decades but in fact has accelerated them to the point that their resolution may no longer be possible. Although its favorable geographic location, benign climate, and wealth of natural resources and well-trained workers had made Kabardino-Balkaria a success story in Soviet times, by 2005, the Moscow analyst says, the situation there had reached a point that could only be described as “catastrophic.” The initial reasons for that development, he continues, are to be found in “the clan-elite privatization of economic and political life” there and the increasing use by such groups of measures ranging from the “administrative- legal” to “pure banditry” against anyone who tried to oppose them. After failing to do much about this during his first term, Putin n 2005 thought he had the chance to correct the situation, the Moscow analyst writes. Valery Kokov, who had run Kabardino-Balkaria for more than 20 years, stepped down, and Putin appointed Arsen Kanokov in his stead.

From Putin’s perspective, Kanokov was “’a young professional’” who stood outside the clan system in the republic and thus could rein in its activities, lead the republic out of the crisis and immunize its people from the kind of extremism that the Russian president saw sweeping the region. “However,” Tarskiy writes, Putin’s expectations that and outsider and a businessman could solve the problem were misplaced, and consequently, despite some positive developments in the economy, the crisis in that sector and the social one as well “has continued to grow.” Moreover, problems in these two have been exacerbated by ethnic issues, creating a lethal combination that Kanokov has not figured out a way to deal with. As evidence of these linkages, Tarskiy points to the way in which the political-economic clans seized land from the Balkars to build ski areas, something that infuriated the others. Kanokov acted to restrain that but did not do anything to support the survival of the lowland resorts, for which Kabardino-Balkaria had been famous and which had employed many people there. Nor did he do anything to ensure that the wolfram and molybdenum mines in the Balkar area would be able to continue to operate. In addition, he did not find a way to restore any of the defense industries or bring back other plants and agriculture from their “half dead” state. As a result, unemployment in the republic is now officially 23 percent – three times more than the all-Russia average – and the flight of skilled labor is thus continuing. The only sector of the economy which is flourishing, given this lack of “a systematic approach” on the part of Moscow’s man on the scene, Tarskiy notes, is vodka production, which has shot u but which has had a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of the population.

This pattern, Tarskiy argues, shows that Putin’s decision to rely on businessmen and to give them “a completely free hand” in exchange for declarations of loyalty is “a dead end” for the region. Such business types simply do not know enough to be able destroy the clan-administrative system and often are captured by it. And that in turn is only accelerating the descent of these regions into chaos, Tarskiy insists. Putin’s outsiders arrive, spark a new fight over the division of property, and the people suffer as a result, with many becoming ever more hostile to those in positions of power. Despite what some in the Kremlin apparently believe, Tarskiy argues, “the Caucasus is not Taiwan or an early South Korea were poverty and economic isolation are balanced by identification with the state and a high level of trust” in its officials from top to bottom.

At present, in fact, the public standing of the president of Kabardino-Balkaria is so low that he has to regularly invoke Putin’s somewhat better reputation in order to have enough authority to function at all. But given how conditions there are becoming for most of its residents, even that “resource” is far from infinite. Kabards and Balkars, Tarskiy says, now remember Soviet times with nostalgia, not simply because their economic situation was better but also because there was a sense then of communal purpose. That has been destroyed and it will not be restored by the purely “business” approach Putin and his representatives favor. The clearest indications of how far this social decay has developed, he writes, are social pathologies ranging “from the growth of alcoholism to the appearance of terrorist networks.” But instead of addressing their root causes, Tarskiy says, Putin is choosing to address only the symptoms and to assume that business will take care of everything.

Unless the Kremlin leader or his successors change course radically and soon, T. concludes, any “positive change” in the situation in KB or elsewhere in the North Caucasus will soon “become completely impossible,” with increasingly disturbing consequences for all concerned. Just how serious they may already be was underscored by Andrei Soldatov, a specialist on counter-terrorism, in an article [last] week in which he described the increasingly close ties between developments there and Islamist radicals elsewhere in the North Caucasus. To the extent Soldatov’s reporting and analysis are correct – and he is one of the most respected commentators on this aspect of the Russian scene -- the impact of Putin’s policy failures in the region may soon mean that Kabardino-Balkaria will challenge Ingushetia as the hottest of the hot spots in the North Caucasus.

The New York Times continues the dirge:

Protesters angry with the leadership of the troubled Russian region of Ingushetia clashed with riot police Saturday, throwing rocks and firebombs the day after the government started a major security operation. Police responded by firing live rounds over the heads of some of the 300 protesters who tried to gather in the central square of Ingushetia's main city, Nazran; heavily armed riot police blocked side streets. No injuries were reported, but dozens of people were believed to have been detained, and with the North Caucasus region already tense, the situation threatened to spiral out of control.

Protesters -- many of whom appeared to be young men -- set fire to a nearby hotel and the building of a local newspaper that the opposition has criticized for praising authorities. Some of the protesters threw rocks and incendiary devices at police, who fired shots into the air before moving into the crowd, beating people severely and hauling them into waiting police vans. An Associated Press reporter saw at least half a dozen people forcibly detained, including four journalists, and dozens more people were believed arrested. Police did not give the exact number held. ''Everyone even indirectly involved in organizing this protest will be severely punished,'' regional Interior Minister Musa Medov told The Associated Press.

Much of the violence in this poor, mostly Muslim republic of fewer than 500,000 people is seen as a spillover from neighboring Chechnya, which shares a language and culture and where Russia has fought two wars against separatist rebels. Ingushetia has many refugees from Chechnya's fighting and is seen as sympathetic to separatists. Government critics attribute the growing number of attacks in the region -- mostly against police -- to anger fueled by abductions, beatings, unlawful arrests and killings of suspects by government forces and local allied paramilitaries.

Many Ingush are also intensely unhappy with regional President Murad Zyazikov, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a former KGB agent. ''President (Zyazikov) has to face his people,'' Ingush lawmaker Bamatgirey Mankiyev said. ''What is going on now only pits the people against authorities, especially against police.'' Government forces on Friday began security campaign in several districts of Ingushetia in response to a surge in violence and abductions. Regional law-enforcement bodies together with federal interior and security forces increased identity checks and searches for militants and their arms caches in abandoned buildings and other places.

Federal officials last year tripled the number of law enforcement troops in Ingushetia in an effort to stem the violence.