Squandering Its Way to Superpowerdom

“Squandering”: Did the US Secretary of State Grasp the Russian Approach to Budget Spending?
The Kremlin Accused the State Department of Tactlessness and Unprofessionalism, Yet Pompeo’s Remarks Were on the Mark
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
December 13, 2018

padrino.jpgVenezuelan Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino gives his thumb up as he sits on the cockpit of a Russian Tupolev Tu-160 strategic long-range heavy supersonic bomber after it landed at Maiquetia International Airport, north of Caracas, on December 10, 2018. Courtesy of Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

Russian’s decision to send strategic bombers on a junket to an airport near Caracas elicited a curious reaction from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who publicly expressed his pity for Russian taxpapers, whose money the Kremlin, habitually disregarding the costs, has been spending on its geopolitical moves.

“The Russian and Venezuelan people should see this for what it is: two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer,” Pompeo wrote.

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded by calling Pompeo’s statement “utterly unprofessional” and even “villainous.” Pompeo’s remarks, which the Kremlin, in turn, dubbed “inappropriate” and “undiplomatic,” were apparently really lacking in nuance: the hardships of Russians, fortunately, cannot yet be compared with the suffering of Venezuelans. But, hand on heart, was Pompeo so wrong when he talked about the losses to the Russian federal budget and lack of oversight?

Russian society has an extremely vague notion about how much the Kremlin’s expansionism has ultimately cost the country. According to calculations made by IHS Jane’s at the outset of Russia’s operations in Syria in autumn 2015, Russia could have been spending as much as $4 million a day. Later, the Yabloko Democratic Party, which is not seated in the Russian parliament, estimated the Kremlin had spent a total of 108–140 billion rubles [between $1.6 and $2.1 billion] on Syria. A more accurate assessment would be difficult to make. Experts doubt that anyone, including the Finance Ministry, keeps tabs on such expenditures. Thus, nobody knows the real cost of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, argues the Gaidar Institute’s Military Economics Laboratory.

The budget’s fading transparency has been a trend in recent years. In 2016, secret and top-secret allocations accounted for 22% of total federal budget expenditures, a record for the entire post-Soviet period, and much higher than secret allocations in comparable countries, according to RANEPA’s March 2015 report on the Russian economy.

Quite naturally, this state of affairs has not improved the quality of the state’s financial decisions. In terms of effective state spending, Russia ranked nineteenth in a new rating of twenty-five countries, compiled by the Higher School of Economics using data from the World Bank and OECD. Since they are not priorities for the current regime, problems with child mortality and life expectancy were among the reasons Russia ranked so low in the survey: the government spends more on the army than on healthcare—4.3% of GDP versus 3.8% of GDP, respectively. In these circumstances, the chances the Kremlin’s strategic projects in the Middle East and Africa (e.g., the Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mozambique) will be decently funded are always much greater than the national healthcare project, which stipulated increased government spending on cancer treatment. The government nixed the plan over summer.

Since it remains largely Soviet in spirit, Russia’s foreign policy has been categorically blind to history’s lessons. The Soviet Union’s exorbitant geopolitical ambitions and support for fringe regimes around the world left the country with a legacy of mostly toxic multi-billion-dollar debts. The process of writing them off has been disguised as a form of international charity or, speaking diplomatically, official development assistance (ODA). According to RANEPA, writing off the debts of developing countries accounted for 35% of all such “international aid” last year or $425 million. It has been the Russian government’s usual way of doing business. Previously, the Russian government wrote off the debts of Nicaragua ($6.3 billion), Iraq ($21.5 billion), North Korea ($10.9 billion), Syria ($9.8 billion), Afghanistan ($11 billion), and Cuba ($29 billion), among other countries. Venezuela risks joining this sad list. Over the past twelve years, Russia has invested a total of $17 billion in the country.

Russia’s Expenditures on Official Development Assistance (Excluding Humanitarian Aid), 2005–2017, in Millions of Dollars. Sources: OECD, Russian Finance Ministry. Courtesy of Republic

Since it was paid for by the Russian federal budget, which has been running a deficit for the last seven years, Russian officials probably did not see the transatlantic flight of its strategic bombers as too expensive. On the contrary, they saw it as a flashy display of Russia’s military prowess and proof of its influence in the region. However, the government of Nicolás Maduro signed off on the stunt. Subject to growing pressure from creditors and an angry, desperate population, it lives day by day. In all likelihood, it will soon collapse, leaving behind a mountain of unpaid bills and unfulfilled obligations to its allies. If this is the case, can we evaluate the Russian government’s action better than the tactless Mike Pompeo did? Probably not.

Translated by the Russian Reader

House of Cards

mir-sberbankA disembodied hand proudly holding a Sberbank-issued Mir card. Photo courtesy of PressTV

Central Bank Preparing for Cutoff of Some Banks from International Payment Systems
Regulator Asks Small Banks to Have Backup Intermediary Able to Service Their Cards
Anna Yeryomina
Vedomosti
December 6, 2018

The Russian Central Bank has asked small banks to find a backup partner that would be able to service their bank cards. This would be an asset if their current intermediary banks were cut off from international payment systems.

The Central Bank is concerned with the continuity of card transactions in banks that work with payment systems indirectly, that is, via an intermediary bank. The regulating authority has advised these indirect clients of payment systems to contract with another bank, besides their primary intermediary bank, that could supply them with access to card payment systems. Five bankers confirmed to us they had received the memorandum.

The memorandum also says the contract should provide for a test exchange of information when integrating with the new intermediary banks. It also states payment systems should draft an action plan and recommend it to their participating banks.

The major intermediary banks are Payment Center Credit Union, Uralsib, VTB Bank, Rosbank, and Promsvyazbank.

A Central Bank spokesperson stressed the memorandum was only advisory, but it was based on international recommendations for risk management in payment systems. The need for banks to contract with backup intermediary banks is not so obvious. According to several of its recipients, in early autumn the Central Bank had sent banks a letter urging them to draft plans to ensure the continuity of payments, but it had not recommended any specific measures.

Switching intermediary banks is a time-consuming, expensive process that takes between three to six months, notes Maya Glotova, director of Kartstandart, a processing center that partners with Payment Center Credit Union. The most high-profile case occurred in 2013 after Master Bank’s license was revoked. As Glotova recalls, Master Bank had functioned as an intermediary bank in payment systems and provided payment processing services. Small banks had to halt their operations for several weeks, and several of them had to leave the payments business. Glotova estimates it would cost a single bank more than $100,000 to switch intermediary banks in the three payment systems.

Intermediary banks had little to say about the memorandum. A spokesperson at Promsvyazbank promised to follow the Central Bank’s recommendations, while a spokesperson at VTB Bank said their own intermediary program had worked well.

Several bankers believe the Central Bank is hedging not only against the collapse of intermediary banks but also potential sanctions, which are fraught with the possibility that intermediary banks would be cut off from Visa and Mastercard, as occurred in 2014 and 2015. The United States has been drafting a new set of sanctions that could affect major banks. Payments within Russia would not be affected: these transactions are processed by the National Payment Card System (NSPK). Russian bank cards, however, would not function abroad. (A spokesperson for NSPK, which operates the Mir payment system, said they had not received the Central Bank’s memorandum.)

VTB Bank had drafted a plan to counter sanctions, its president, Andrei Kostin, told the TV channel Rossiya 24 in October.

“We have been mapping out with both the government and the Central Bank how to avoid the consequences, especially for individuals and companies. I think we can overcome them. I don’t think the sanctions will be wholesale and directed against the entire financial sector,” Kostin said.

Translated by the Russian Reader

We Wouldn’t Mind If You Died of AIDS

nutter

HIV Prevention Organization in Altai Territory Closes Due to Inability to Pay Court Fine
Takie Dela
December 4, 2018

Choice (Vybor), a non-profit HIV service organization, has been forced to close its office in Biysk, Altai Territory, due to its inability to pay a court-imposed fine, reports Kommersant. The NGO had been found guilty of refusing to acknowledge it was a “foreign agent.”

The Altai Territorial Court upheld the ruling of the Biysk City Court, which had fined Choice 150,000 rubles [approx. €2,000] for failing to recognize itself as a “foreign agent” and voluntarily place itself on the registry of “foreign agents.”

According to Maxim Olenichev, a lawyer from Attorneys for Equal Rights who represented Choice in court, on November 30, the organization was forced to close its office and cancel its HIV prevention programs in the region, including programs for intravenous drug users and other risk groups.

“HIV-service NGOS have access to ‘closed’ groups of people who are unwilling to turn to state institutions for help,” Olenichev said in an interview with reporters. “Attacking such NGOS reflects a policy of ‘traditional values,’ a policy focused on criminalizing the actions of people who do not comply with these values or ignore them. By using the law on ‘foreign agents’ to destroy NGOs, the state promotes the growth of HIV-infected people, although by joining forces with NGOs the state could halt the epidemic’s growth.”

The court ruled that several of Choice’s campaigns, during which the NGO handed out HIV express tests (41 people tested positive — TD), over 100,000 clean syringes, and 20,000 condoms for free, were “political” in nature. Choice employees noted they worked with the primary vulnerable groups as defined by the Russian state, using the same methods as specified in the official rules for HIV prevention. The court chose to ignore these arguments.

The court also agreed with the Russian Justice Ministry’s claim that Choice had received foreign funding in 2014 and 2016. Choice received 147,000 rubles from ESVERO, a non-profit partnership, and 272,000 rubles from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Olenichev pointed out that ESVERO had been implementing a project of the Global Fund for Fighting AIDs, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which receives funding from the Russian government, in thirty-four Russian regions. The NGO was thus using grants to put the money back into the Russian economy. As for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which sponsored Choice with funding in rubles, Olenichev claimed there was no evidence in the case file that the organization was foreign. Nevertheless, the court refused to reverse the fine.

According to the latest data from the Russian Health Ministry, in 2017, 53.5% of new cases of HIV infection were caused by sexual intercourse, while 43.6% of new infections were caused by the use of intravenous drugs. According to official statistics, the number of HIV-infected people in Russia is 998,525. Eighty-one percent of them know they are infected.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized Russia as leading Europe in new cases of HIV infections at 71.1 cases per every 100,000 people. The virus is primarily transmitted through heterosexual sex (59%) and intravenous drug use (30%). The Russian Health Ministry has called these figures “extremely inaccurate.”

In late October, the Saratov Regional Organization of Chronic Diabetes Sufferers announced its closure: a court had also fined it 300,000 rubles for violating the law on “foreign agents.” The expert employed by the prosecutor’s office to audit the organization concluded it had “shape[d] preconditions for discrediting the authorities” and “report[ed] about the region’s so-called sore points to [its] foreign partners.”

Thanks to Alexander Feldberg for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Migrant Worker Blues

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACentral Asian migrant workers queuing outside the Russian Interior Ministry’s work permit application center on Red Textile Worker Street in St. Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

Should Everyone Disappear into the Shadows? What the Fee Increase for Migrant Worker Permits Entails
Yekaterina Ivashchenko
Fergana News
November 29, 2018

The license [in Russian, patent] system for foreign nationals seeking permission to work in Russia was introduced in 2015. The cost of a work permit has varied from one region to the next. In Moscow, for example, it initially cost 4,000 rubles a month. In 2016, the price rose by 5% to 4,200 rubles, and in 2018, it rose by 7% to 4,500 rubles.

It is absolutely necessary to have a work permit. Without it, a migrant worker faces up to 7,000 rubles in fines, expulsion from Russia, and a ban on entering the country for a period of three to ten years. Employers who hire employees without work permits are punishable by fines, and their operations can be suspended for up to ninety days.

Something important happened on November 21, 2018. The Moscow City Duma approved a law bill increasing the cost of a work permit in Moscow. In 2019, it will rise by 500 rubles (11%) and cost 5,000 rubles a month (approx. $75).

The next day, November 22, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said the city’s revenues from legal migrant workers had been growing and would exceed 16 billion rubles ($241 million) by year’s end.

“By paying such a high price for permits, migrant workers have come to occupy a fair position vis-à-vis Russian nationals [rossiyane] working in Moscow, because in the past they paid nothing at all, and, of course, it was profitable to employ them, but the situation has changed today,” said the mayor.

On January 1, 2019, the cost of a license for migrant workers seeking employment in Moscow Region will increase by 450 rubles. The Moscow Region work permit, which cost 4,300 rubles ($64.60) in 2018, will cost 4,750 rubles ($71.50) per month in 2019.

Taras Yefimov, chair of the Moscow Regional Duma’s budget, finance and tax committee, said the measure would enrich the region’s coffers by around one billion rubles [approx. $15 million]. In 2018, Moscow Region made six billion rubles [approx. $90.5 million] on migrant work permits.

St. Petersburg has decided to raise the price of the work permit from 3,500 to 3,800 rubles a month. City officials noted the decision was made because foreign nationals had begun earning considerably more money.

Filling out the forms for extending a work permit. Photo courtesy of Fmskam.ru and Fergana News

Wages Are Not Growing
Svetlana Salamova, director of Migranto.ru, a website for migrant workers looking for jobs and employers seeking to hire migrant workers, has not seen the real growth in the wages of migrant workers that officials have cited.

“The wages of foreign nationals who are employed on the basis of work permits has remained at the level of 29,000 rubles to 35,000 rubles [$435–$525] a month. Maybe the Moscow authorities are focused on high-profile specialists who make 168,000 rubles a month officially?” Salamova sarcastically wondered.

Salamova has noticed wage increases only among Kyrgyz nationals. After Kyrgyzstan joined the EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union), employers offered them 40,000 to 45,000 rubles a month.

“But they work without permits. (EAEU nationals can work in Russia without permits as long as they have an employment contract — Fergana News.) Besides, many Kyrgyzstanis agree to low wages of 19,000 to 20,000 rubles a month. They work part time in several places at once, and so ultimately they make a decent amount of money,” explained Salamova.

Salamova did not discount the possibility that fees for work permits have been raised in light of the fact that employers must index wages for inflation as of the new year. Perhaps the authorities decided to increase the cost of permits for foreign national because they took into account this indexation of wages on the Moscow job market.

Immigration center in Moscow. Photo courtesy of Mos.ru and Fergana News

But what do migrant workers themselves have to say about it?

“Since 2015, the fee for the work permit has increased three times, but I have not even once received a raise. We spend little as it is: 4,500 rubles for the permit, plus the fee for residence registration; 6,000 rubles on rent, 5,000 on groceries, 2,000 on transportation. I sometimes buy clothes and medicines, and there are unforeseen expenses, like when my phone stops working. So, I have only 10,000 rubles left over from my monthly salary of 35,000 rubles. The latest 500-ruble increase will definitely affect my expenses. 6,000 rubles a year is a lot of money: an average family in Tajikistan could live for a month on that amount. It means my relatives back home will have to get by one month of the year without receiving a remittance from me,” said Magomed, who comes from Khujand, Tajikistan’s second-largest city.

Pushed into the Gray Economy
In June 2017, Mayor Sobyanin said the problem of illegal migrant workers in Moscow had been solved and had ceased to be a source of concern for Muscovites. Most migrant workers were employed legally and duly paid their taxes.

Experts believe the increase in the price of the work permit could lead to a rise in the number of foreign workers who decide not to pay taxes.

“The cost of the work permit will increase by 11%. An extra 6,000 rubles a year might not seem like a huge amount of money. But for migrant workers, who earn this money literally with their blood, living far from their families, and undergoing numerous hardships and risks, this is not a small amount at all: the overall cost of a permit for a year will be 60,000 rubles or $900. Some migrant workers will thus decide to go off the books. Consequently, Moscow’s budget is unlikely to get a huge boost, but the city will be supporting a policy of pushing migrant workers into the gray economy with all the attendant social consequences,” says Professor Sergey Abashin.

“It is odd that Moscow MPs say we will start earning more. Every migrant worker pays around 12,000 rubles to get a work permit in the first place. Then every month he pays for the work permit and his residence registration, he pays the rent, and he buys groceries. He even has to pay bribes to the police. People are taking money from us at every turn. What will we have left to send home?” said Muhammad, who is originally from Samarkand.

Batyrzhon Shermuhammad, a lawyer and founder of the website Migrant, also sees no signs of a wage increase.

“If you look at the want ads, you will see that the wages of migrant workers who are employed on the basis of work permits range from 25,000 rubles to 35,000 rubles a month. We monitor the job market, and no one mentions anything about a salary of 40,000 rubles a month. On the contrary, the economic crisis in Russia has been deepening. There is inflation, and the dollar/ruble exchange rate has been rising, which affects the remittances sent by migrant workers,” Shermuhammad said.

The latest increase in the cost of the work permit will force migrant workers to retreat into the shadows, he argues.

“One could understand the increase if the economic situation had improved, but the trends are negative: the prices in shops have increased, and the dollar has become more expensive vis-à-vis the ruble. People have no money, and so they have been having problems with residence registrations. Also, by law you cannot be late paying for your work permit even by a day. If a migrant worker is paid his wages late, he cannot pay the fee for his work permit, and he has no way of shelling out approximately 12,000 rubles to have a new work permit drawn up. While introduction of the work permit system brought migrant workers out of the shadows, the subsequent tightening of immigration laws and the increase in their expenses has been leaving migrant workers with fewer chances to stay legal, even if they would want to,” Shermuhammad said.

Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan. Photo courtesy of Kloop.kg and Fergana News

“Even though I make good money, a 6,000-ruble increase in the price of the work permit is a serious expense, and I have huge expenses aside from the permit. My mother, sister, and I pay 33,000 rubles a month for a place to live. That is 11,000 rubles per person, plus utilities. In addition, I have to pay the fees for my studies twice a year: that is another 100,000 rubles each time. We don’t spend a lot on food, no more than 10,000 rubles per person a month. I also spend money on transportation, clothes, and gifts, and I spend 5,000 to 7,000 rubles a month for English lessons. Lately, we have not been sending a lot of money home, $200 to $300 per month at most. Mom and I used to be able to save money, but in the last six months our expenses have skyrocketed, and after the new year they will increase even more due to the work permit. Basically, the increase in the work permit fee means I won’t be able to pay for English lessons for a month,” said Ilkhom, who hails from Tashkent.

“For migrant workers, 500 rubles is a mobile phone connection for a month,” said human rights active Karimjon Yorov. “It is the cost of a week’s worth of subway trips. It is two lunches, finally. For families with children, it means being able to buy school supplies or pay for school lunches. In short, 500 rubles is a lot of money.”

Yorov argues that raising the cost of the work permit will make migrant workers not want to pay for it, meaning that revenues to Moscow’s coffers will actually decrease.

“Migrant workers will prefer to work without a permit and cross the border every three months. Currently, a trip to the border and back (i.e., exit and re-entry) costs 8,000 rubles in total, while the cost of a work permit for three months is 13,500 rubles, meaning they save 5,500 rubles by exiting Russia and re-entering it. This comes to 22,000 rubles, plus 12,000 rubles for the initial paperwork. The total is 34,000 rubles, which is the same as the cost of round-trip plane ticket to Uzbekistan. When you do the maths, it makes more financial sense for migrant workers to be off the books. The authorities themselves are forcing migrant workers underground, especially now that the laws on immigration registration have been tightened. Whether you get a work permit or not, if you do not live at the address where you are registered, you will be deported. Migrant workers will emerge from the underground only when the law on immigration registration has been abolished,” Yorov concluded.

Thanks to Sergey Abashin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Andrei Kolesnikov: Hooked on Militarism?

new hope“New Hope. All drug addicts quit using. Some manage to do it while alive.” Photo by the Russian Reader

Where Militaristic Infantilism Leads
Society’s Losing Its Fear of War Is More Dangerous Than What Happens in the Absence of an Anti-War Movement
Andrei Kolesnikov
Vedomosti
November 28, 2018

The “polite people” in the Russian military have taken to ramming ships, shedding their politesse. A military coming out has happened. Either so-called hybrid war has become more hybridized in terms of the variety of its methods or it has become more like good old-fashioned war, involving actual armed clashes. Politically, Russia has become not merely toxic but hypertoxic. A premonition of war prevails among more timid folks, although the footage of the ramming at sea, as painless and triumphal as a military parade on Red Square or a football match (“Crush him!”), still make military operations appear unscary and toylike. We will carry the day in any case, sans victims and blood (ours, that is), as in a cartoon by Putin.

This militaristic infantilism—the loss of the fear of war, the loss of the idea that war is terrible—is the worst outcome of our country’s daily intoxication with the thought of its own greatness for several years running. The army is greatly respected nowadays. People need to trust someone, and the armed forces have bypassed another institution, the presidency, in trustworthiness ratings.

Does this mean Russians are ready for a real war? To put it more plainly, are Russian parents willing to let their eighteen-year-old boys be called up to fight Ukrainian boys just like them? Does anyone understand what they would be fighting for? Is it really all about cementing the nation, “Crimea is ours!” and the personal ambitions of several high-ranking figures in the Russian establishment?

Since 2012, Russia’s collective identity has been built on negative foundations, on awakened resentment, which had been dozing, but had no thought of waking up. The plan has worked quite well. This resentment, however, is verbal and fictitous. Public opinion supported “coal miners” and “tractor drivers” verbally. In Syria, the official army and private military companies fought, or so Russians imagined, at their own risk. The proxy war with the US has gone very far at times, but in the summer of 2018 it did not stop the majority of Russians from abruptly improving their attitude [sic] to the States and the west in general.

But suddenly there is the threat of a real war. On the other side of the border, in the country [i.e., Ukraine] that the Russian imperialist mind never really considered sovereign, a mobilization is underway and martial law has been declared. Is this reality capable of changing popular opinion and rousing Russian civil society, which has a lot going for it except an anti-war movement? No, because so far the war has not been regarded as real.

Identification with the military is the last bullet in the Russian regime’s gun, but it is a blank or, rather, a prop. Exploiting what Russians regard as sacred—i.e., privatization of the memory of the Great Patriotic War [WWII] by a particular group—is a tool that is still in play, but militarism as such has lost its power to mobilize and consolidate Russians. If “German POWs” are marched around Novgorod on January 20, 2019, in an absurd attempt to reenact the NKVD’s Operation Grand Waltz, and on January 29, a military parade is held in St. Petersburg to mark the latest anniversary of the lifting of the Siege of Leningrad, it will not raise Putin’s approval rating from 66% to 80%. Those days are gone. So, the props have been dropped in favor of direct action in the Kerch Strait, but its power to mobilize people is not at all obvious.

You can cynically throw the ashes of those who perished in the Siege of Leningrad to stoke the furnace of fading ratings as much as you want. You can march people dressed up as German POWs round Novgorod as much as you like. When, however, pollsters ask Russians between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four what countries they regard as role models, they list Germany, China, and the US. This is not because young Russians are unpatriotic, but because not everything comes to down to the top brass feeding on the poisonous corpse of the Stalinist past. The present day, progress, and visions for the future matter, too.

Can we do it again? We cannot. Nor is there any reason to do it. Infantilized by the regime, Russian society’s maturation will be measured by the numbers of people who are convinced that we cannot and should not do it again.

Andrei Kolesnikov is program director at the Moscow Carnegie Center. Translated by the Russian Reader

“Die in Battle and Go to Valhalla”

DSCN3949Russian public opinion? Photo by the Russian Reader

I don’t trust Russian public opinion polls, but the Putin regime, which rigs elections and otherwise tries to every manifestation of public life it does not astroturf itself, has increasingly relied on such wildly dubious methods to monitor the success of its propaganda machine, especially, television, in shaping hearts and minds. So, it must have noticed that a few of the elections it rigged did not go as planned this past autumn, and that Putin’s spurious approval ratings have dropped.

The regime’s response? Ram a few Ukrainian boats in the Kerch Strait to whip up patriotic fervor. It worked in 2014, so maybe it will work again in 2018.

Since there is pointedly no Russian anti-war movement to mobilize public opinion and actual people against any military aggression by the Kremlin, it is hard to say how the Kremlin will fare in the polls after the Kerch gambit. Maybe Putin’s wholly ersatz popularity will nominally shoot up a few dozen points as “Russians” “express” “their” “outrage” over Kyiv’s nonexistent military agression. Maybe, unaccountably, TV viewers will suddenly see through the nonstop war dance that has undoubtedly erupted on all Russian news channels and drop Putin’s rating another few points.

What definitely won’t happen is that millions of Russians will take to the streets to demand the resignation of a would-be president for life whose reign has been marked by military aggression and “patriotic” manipulation of public sentiment since day one.

There were one or two largish protests in Moscow against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine at the very start of that glorious campaign, and that was that. There has never been even a middling protest against Putin’s decisive use of military force against innocent Syrians opposed to the butcher Assad. And on an issue that should have been a cakewalk for the opposition, the so-called pension reform (i.e., raising the retirement age precipitously to save money for military spending), the vast majority of Russians decided to get upset, if they did get upset, in the comfort of their homes, watching the FIFA World Cup on TV, rather than bravinngthe balmy weather that prevailed all over Russia this past summer and showing the government how angry they were.

But popular demonstrations are never just a matter of public sentiment. They are also a matter of political organization. And while nearly all opposition forces in Russia did at least make the attempt to get people into the streets this past summer to oppose the pension reform, they would never risk whatever political capital they had to call for anti-war marches and protest rallies.

Maybe they would be surprised by the turnout if they did call for such protests and put their hearts and souls into organizing them, but that is not going to happen for the simple reason that the unacknowledged, apparently invisible bull in the china shop—Russian imperialism—informs the Russian liberal and leftist “anti-Putinist” views of the world as much it does Putin’s view of the world. {TRR}