Inland Empire: Life in Russia Without Visa and Mastercard

buyerThis woman is happy she doesn’t live in Russia, where Visa and Mastercard may soon be banned. Courtesy of Fluencia

Inland Empire: How Will Russians Live Without Visa and Mastercard?
Sergei Khestanov
Republic
July 12, 2019

The new attack by Russian lawmakers on the international payment systems Visa and Mastercard may come to a head, successfully or unsuccessfully, this summer. For the law bill’s sponsors success would mean the near-total financial isolation of Russians from the rest of the world. All that would remain would be to adopt restrictions on foreign currency.

Going Our Own Way
There had long been talk of the need to talk of a completely autonomous domestic payments system, but the events of 2014 and, especially, the imposition of sanctions visibly accelerated the process.

In fact, in the spring of 2014, MPs in the Russian State Duma drafted amendments to the law “On the National Payment System” that would have forced Mastercard and Visa, which had been obliged to observe the sanctions against a number of Russian banks, to deposit amounts of money equal to their two-day turnover in special accounts at the Russian Central Bank. Visa said it would stop doing business in Russia. Negotiations with the Russian government and Central Bank followed this announcement. The draft law was considerably softened. The amount of the obligatory deposit was removed from the bill, and it was decided that international payment systems would operate in Russia through specially established local subsidiaries.

After Mir bank cards were launched, they were quite unpopular among Russians for a long time. Russians preferred time-tested foreign bank cards. Besides, initially there were purely technical problems with Mir that caused their cards to be rejected, but after the Russian Central Bank issued stern warnings, banks updated the software of their ATMs and payment terminals, more or less solving the glitches.

Another problem is that Russian cards are nearly useless abroad since they are accepted almost nowhere. However, given the small percentage of Russians who travel abroad, this is not such a huge problem.

The breakthrough in promoting the domestic cards came in 2018. On July 1, 2018, the electronic wage payments of all state-sector workers were transferred by law to Russian bank cards. By January 1, 2019, they had taken a big bite out of the share of the Russian market controlled by their famous competitors. According to the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service, during the period from January 1, 2018, to January 1, 2019, the share of actively used Visa cards among the Russian populace fell from 45% to 39.5%, while Mastercard’s share fell from 42% to 36%. The reduction in the international payment systems’ share of the Russian market happened as Mir doubled its share of active card users, which rose from 12.5% to 24.5%.

This is not surprising. The traditional Russian principle of pushing certain things, ironically dubbed the “voluntary compulsory” method, is rather effective. Outcomes are achieved quickly, making such methods of promotion quite popular. We should say, in all fairness, that this happens not only in Russia.

Such aggressiveness has a price, however. Compulsory promotion of goods and services reduces competition, since the advantages of using a particular service or buying a certain product derive from the market’s absence. Over time, products and services pushed in this way lag behind their absent competitors in terms of their quality.

Striking examples of diminishing quality in a market in which competition was restricted were the Soviet automobile and electronics industries. The latter lagged behind the world especially disastrously. Remember the old joke, “Soviet handheld calculators are the biggest handheld calculators in the worlds”?

Rejecting the Outside World
But degradation as a consequence of pushing goods and services through non-market methods is only half the trouble. It is much more dangerous to ban and expel foreign products and services from the domestic market. The new regulations described in the draft law “On the National Payment System” could force international payment systems out of Russia since they would be unable to comply with the regulations. Once they leave, Russian bank cards would not be accepted for payment abroad, and cards issued by foreign banks would not be valid in Russia.

Mir cardholders who never travel abroad would not even notice this nastiness. Everyone else would soon voluntarily be forced to join them. Give the Russian state’s high and growing share in the Russian economy, the regulations would not provoke fatal disaffection with the leadership.

Russia’s policy of self-isolation was adopted long ago, and a large segment of the populace has no real objections to it, while people who use their bank cards within Russia mostly do not care what system processes their transactions. What matters is that everything works fine and does not cost too much. Mir’s reliability is now on a par with the international payment system, and so are its rates. Besides, if push came to shove, the Russian Central Bank and the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service could force it to reduce its rates.

There are no rational reasons for establishing a homegrown system when the duopoly of Visa and Mastercard serve the Russian market just fine. China’s UnionPay and Japan’s JBC have been processed by certain Russian banks, but they have never played a significant role. You cannot make money in a highly competitive, mature market, long dominated by world leaders like Visa and Mastercard, unless you employ non-market methods of competition. The market simply does not need new players.

The reason for the persistent promotion of Mir card is not commercial. It is an insurance policy of sorts, one that will have claims made on it if real, harsh Iranian-style sanctions are imposed on Russia. If you regarded this scenario as a serious possibility you would have cause to establish a national system, especially because Chinese banks (on whom great hopes were placed in 2014) have essentially supported US sanctions. In these circumstances, it is better to have a stunted system in terms of its international access than to witness a sudden collapse of cashless payments if harsh sanctions are imposed.

However, this non-competitive idea immediately inspires people who are willing to make money by destroying their competitors.

If regulations pushing the international payment systems out of the Russian market were adopted, it would deprive Russians of the ability to pay for things abroad without cash, and the logical next step of banning or restricting the export of foreign currency from the country would be easy as pie. Simultaneously, Russians would find it much harder to purchase foreign goods in foreign online shops, something that would be incredibly difficult without access to international payment systems.

A side effect of the ban would be the promotion of Russian-registered joint ventures for selling Chinese goods to Russians.  This would have a positive effect on the receipt of VAT from these purchases. VAT matters since VAT revenues constitute up to a third of Russian federal revenues, making them comparable to Russia’s export revenues.

The natural consequence of depriving Russians of access to foreign online shops would be a rise in prices. At first, the government would profit slightly because VAT revenues would grow—until people stopped buying things.

The policy of isolating the Russian economy from the world economy in terms of Russian nationals being unable to spend money outside Russia has been reasserted, and yet another step on the long road of restrictions and bans may soon be taken. The tendency towards restrictions on foreign currency has once again been confirmed. We might recall the recent discussion about restricting unqualified investors from opening foreign currency accounts.

The hope remains, of course, that, as in 2014, the international payment systems would reach an agreement with the Russian government, Russian MPs would be reined in, and cardholders would not feel the pain. Unlike 2014, however, the Russian Central Bank has supported the bill.

Sergei Khestanov is a macroeconomics adviser to the director of Open Broker and associate professor of financial markets and financial engineering at RANEPA. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Two Russian Nationals Jailed in Tripoli

Two Russian Nationals Jailed in Prison in Tripoli Suburbs
RBC
July 6, 2019

Two Russian nationals, previously detained by Libyan authorities, have been jailed at Mitiga Prison in the suburbs of Tripoli, according to Alexander Malkevich, president of the National Values Defense Fund [sic], as reported to TASS.

Malkevich confirmed that two Russian nationals, sociologist [sic] Maxim Shugaley and interpreter Samer Hasan Ali, who is a  dual Russian-Jordanian national, had been jailed. There were a total of three people in their research group [sic]. Malkevich also claimed fund staff members had not meddled in election campaigns in Libya. Their work was limited to monitoring the situation there.

The Russia-based National Values Defense Fund (FZNTs) reported on July 5 that their staff members had been detained in Libya. It claimed they had only been carrying out sociological surveys and researching humanitarian, cultural, and political conditions in Libya.

According to Bloomberg, the Russian nationals were detained in May of this year. In particular, two of them had arranged a meeting with Saif al-Islam, son of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Saif al-Islam is considered a possible Libyan presidential candidate.

As noted in a letter sent by the Libyan Prosecutor’s Office to PNE [sic], the information found on laptops and flash drives confiscated from the detainees proved both of them worked for a company “specializing in meddling in the elections scheduled in several African countries,” including Libya. The prosecutor’s office also noted a third Russian national had managed to leave Libya before the special services arrested the men.

Thanks to Grigorii Golosov for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

fundRussian Orthodox Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, Russian MP Vitaly Milonov, and Alexander Malkevich presenting the National Values Defend Fund at a press conference at Rossiya Segodnya News Agency in Moscow in April 2019. Photo courtesy of Znak.com

Grigorii Golosov
Facebook
July 7, 2019

As for the National Values Defense Fund, which sent a poor spin doctor (identified as a “sociologist”) to Libya, it is a new project, obviously run by [Yevgeny] Prigozhin. Its website makes it clear it is going to defend Russian national values primarily in Africa.

You can read more about the project here.

I realize Putin’s ex-chef Prigozhin has long been more than an errand boy for the man with whom he has been involved in the asymmetrical albeit profitable relationship of vassal and liege lord. Prigozhin has his own business interests in Africa. Russian foreign policy is now so arranged that Prigozhin’s business interests are Russia’s national interests.

So be it. China also has interests in Africa. They are backed by colossal investments that are gradually exchanged for political influence. This happens really slowly because the Africans are quite touchy about it: Chinese influence makes people unhappy. But the investments it makes go a long way toward containing the unhappiness.

Russia has taken a different route. It helps its cause to educate African army officers at the relevant Russian universities, but that is a long-term deal. The powers that be want things to happen quickly, hence the appearance on the continent of mercenaries [like Prigozhin’s Wagner GroupTRR] and spin doctors to aid dictators in fixing their so-called elections and squashing protests through trickery.

In other words, the Chinese approach involves spending money now to obtain influence later, while the Russian approach involves trying to gain influence now in order to make money later. I don’t need to tell you there is no better way to make “Russia” a swear word in Africa and elsewhere, and all Russian nationals into automatic personae non gratae.

Our current rulers will surely take pride in the fact they managed to make as many countries and regions as possible hate Russia. This how they imagine defending national values.

Thanks to Louis Proyect for the link to the article about Jane Goodall’s campaign against Chinese influence in Africa. Translated by the Russian Reader

What Are You Waiting For?

800px-Flag_of_Georgia.svg

On Sunday, RBC reported that the well-known Georgian jazz singer Nino Katamadze had announced she would no longer perform in Russia because she regarded the country as an invader. Her boycott is, of course, a response to the latest attempt by the Kremlin to bring what it regards as a colonial vassal to heel while using the incident to spark a moral panic on the home front.

Actually, no one should perform again in Russia, including Russians, until Putin and his fascist clique clear out of Dodge for good. It’s just funny that tiny, virtually unarmed countries like Georgia and Estonia have the moxie to stand up against the Kremlin, while much richer, stronger countries like the US, the UK, and Germany try to avoid the topic.

This is not to mention Russians themselves, who, especially in the capitals, have more means at their disposal to oppose tyranny than their poor Georgian ex-countrymen, who still hold them in the highest regard despite getting the Russian neo-imperialist treatment now and in the recent past with hardly a peep from “liberal” Russians.

Twenty years of nonstop Putinism has done such a number on Russian brains that you wouldn’t believe it unless you had witnessed it up close and personal for nearly the whole time, as I did.

It’s worse than you can imagine and it’s much, much, much worse than most Russians can imagine since, apparently, all they can imagine is inflicting Putinism on themselves and the rest of the world till kingdom come.

Correct me if I’m wrong. Show me the two million people who were just on the streets of downtown Moscow. Don’t believe the hype generated by “flash mobs” that are mostly ghosts in the social media machine.

The regime will go when millions of Russians hit the streets in all the major cities and everywhere else, too. That means two million people in Moscow, one million in Petersburg, hundreds of thousands in all the other big cities. This is what “the opposition” should be organizing toward. Neither the country nor the world has any more time for the Theory of Small Deeds 7.0 or whatever version Russia’s beautiful souls have recently launched.

I see lots of my Russian friends going to great pains and putting themselves through excruciating intellectual contortions to separate themselves and their country discursively from the current regime and government. That’s a cop-out. They either have revolt for real or things will get much, much worse very quickly.

As if they weren’t beyond awful right now. There are TWO show trials underway in Petersburg right now. Isn’t that enough to boycott Petersburg and Russia until further notice?

What are we waiting for? What are you waiting for? {TRR}

Image of Georgian flag courtesy of Wikipedia

Russian Import Substitution Blues

cherry coke 2018“Try Ripe Cherry Coca-Cola.” Billboard, Petersburg, July 28, 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

The Consequences of Countersanctions: Food Import Embargo Makes Russian Producers More Inefficient
Vladimir Ruvinsky
Vedomosti
June 25, 2019

Vladimir Putin has extended Russia’s food embargo until the end of 2020, but the policy’s positive effect has dried up. Instead, it has been making Russian producers less efficient and driving up prices. The Kremlin imagined an embargo would be a good response to western sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, but Russian consumers have had to foot the bill.

Putin’s ban has been in effect since August 2014. It prohibits the import of meat, fish, and dairy products from the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia, and Norway. During his televised “direct line” to the nation the other day, Putin explained that, over the past five years, the sanctions those countries imposed on Russia had led to the loss of $50 billion for the Russian economy since 2014. The west, however, had lost more. According to Putin, the EU had lost $140 billion, while the US had lost $17 billion. Apparently, Russians should take heart knowing they have not been the main losers in the sanctions war.

First, however, the economies of the EU and the US are many times bigger than Russia’s, so, in fact, Russia has lost the most. Second, the losses do not boil down to simple arithmetics. Third, the subject of countersanctions has not really been discussed. Natalya Volchkova, director of applied research at the Center for Economic and Financial Research (CEFIR), has calculated the protectionist policy costs every Russian 2,000 rubles a year: this is the sum total of what we overpay for products in the fourteen categories affected by the countersanctions. She argues that, out of this sum, 1,250 rubles go to Russian producers and 500 rubles go to companies importing food from countries not covered by countersanctions, while the toll on the Russian economy’s efficiency amounts to 250 rubles per person per year.

Full import substitution has not been achieved: suppliers from the sanctioned countries have been replaced by suppliers who work with other countries, who often charge more for their goods. Restricting competition was meant to give Russian agriculture a leg up, and some domestic producers have, in fact, increased output. According to Rosstat, retail food imports decreased from 34% in 2014 to 24% in 2018. Since 2016, however, the dropoff in imports has trailed off. Volchkova complains that most Russian import-substituted goods have increased in price. They are produced by businesses that had been loss-making. This is the source of the overall inefficiency.

Natalya Orlova, the chief economist at Alfa Bank, divides countersanctions into two phases. When they are implemented they have a positive effect, but over time the risks of negative consequences increase.  The only good option on the horizon is the lifting of the sanctions. When it might happen is not clear, says Orlova: it is currently not on the agenda. When it does happen, however, it will be bad news for Russian producers. Countersanctions have helped major players increase their shares of the domestic market. They have become more visible in such cushy conditions but less competitive as well. The longer the conditions are maintained, the less ready the Russian agro-industry will be to face the harsh competition. When the walls come tumbling down, we will see again that European producers are more sophisticated technologically.

Translated by the Russian Reader

#PutinKillsChildren

putinkillschilren.JPGPoster at a rally in support of Idlib, 15 June 2019, Pariser Platz, Berlin. Photo by the Russian Reader

As the extraordinarily eloquent photographs a friend of mine took six days ago in Moscow show, another “look at us revolution” has been taking place there.

Like the previous “look at us revolution” of 2011–2012, staged almost exclusively for social media and international media consumption, the implicit message has been, “W are smart white people and we deserve better. Marvel at our clever placards. Look deeply into our educated white faces. In every single way that matters, we are just like you Herrenvolk in Europe and the US. The fact we live under a vicious tyranny is an unhappy accident for which we bear almost no responsibility.”

Beyond that, apparently, there is no plan, program or coordination, so it would be a mistake to imagine the detention of these protesters by the hundreds means the Putin regime is afraid of them. No, the regime is discouraging the protesters and potential protesters and, more importantly, it is gathering information on the detainees, information it can use in future crackdowns.

There will be a real revolution in Moscow when the super smart “white people” there not only learn how to get much larger numbers of people on the street, coordinate their movements, push back against the police’s attempts to detain them, and make real political demands but also discover the existence of the rest of the world and Moscow’s increasingly baleful effect on it.

If a hundred thousand people marched in the streets of Moscow demanding Putin immediately withdraw all Russian troops and mercenaries from Syria, this would not only signal the beginning of the end of Putin’s long reign but it would also mean anti-regime Russians had realized solidarity is a two-way street.

You cannot expect people in other parts of the world to empathize with your struggle for democracy and justice when your country’s armed forces, internet trolls, mercenaries, spies, and military proxies are fighting and fueling armed conflicts and political crises in dozens of other countries.

Russia might have more natural resources than any other country in the world, but the reserves of goodwill toward the country and its people will eventually dry up.

It has been said before by hundreds of activists and commentators, but if the US had allied itself with Assad to bomb the hell out of his opponents in Syria, the whole world, especially the leftist part, would be up in arms.

Russia has been bombing the hell out of Syria and doing lots of other nasty stuff elsewhere, including poisoning people in broad daylight and shooting down airliners, but it troubles almost no one, relatively speaking.

What is more, no one bothers to ask why it does not bother all the nice “white people” in Moscow, who would never think to demonstrate en masse against their country’s attacks on lesser folk in third-world countries. {TRR}

#PutinKillsChildren

Five Crimean Tatars Sentenced to as Long as 17 Years in Prison in Rostov-on-Don

800px-Flag_of_the_Crimean_Tatar_people.svgThe Crimean Tatar national flag. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Five Crimean Tatars Sentenced to as Many as 17 Years in Prison in Rostov-on-Don
Anton Naumlyuk
Radio Svoboda
June 18, 2019

The North Caucasus Military Court in Rostov-on-Don has rendered a verdict in the Simferopol Hizb ut-Tahrir trial.

Five Crimean Tatars were detained after searches of their homes in October 2016. They were charged with involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization that has been banned in Russia. One of the five defendants, Teimur Abdullayev, was also charged with organizing cells for the organization in Simferopol.

During closing arguments, the prosecution has asked the court to sentence the defendants to between 11 and 17 years in prison. However, except for Abdullayev, who was sentenced to 17 years in a maximum-security prison camp, the other four defendants were given longer sentences than the prosecutor had requested. Uzeir Abdullayev was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Emil Jemandenov and Ayder Saledinov were sentenced to 12 years in prison, while Rustem Ismailov was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

The convicted men had pleaded innocent to the charges. Their defense team plans to appeal the verdict.

“We are not terrorists. We have not committed any crimes,” Uzeir Abdullayev said in his closing statement. “I would also like to say that the criminal case [against us] was a frame-up, a fabrication. The secret witness alone was proof of that—and he was proof of our innocence. […] I thus want to show that human rights are violated in Russia and you violate your own Constitution.”

Nearly 70 individuals have been arrested in Crimea, occupied by Russia since 2014, as part of the criminal investigation into Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization that is not illegal in Ukraine and most European countries. Most of the suspects and defendants in the case, include the Crimean Muslims convicted today, have been declared political prisoners by the International Memorial Society, an alliance of human rights organizations headquartered in Moscow.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Syria Is Only Three Syllables

It is pointless to say anything more about the near-total non-reaction of Russians to their government’s ruthless, quasi-genocidal bombing campaign against civilians in Syria, but I will say one last thing before giving up the subject entirely on this blog. It is important for eyewitnesses to important historical events to write down what they saw, heard, and read. Otherwise, decades from now, posterity might be reading about a nonexistent “Russian anti-war movement” during the Putin era.

Anything is possible in our fallen world.

Like Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and Central Asians, Syrians are viewed as civilizational subhumans by Russians, as “natural-born terrorists” who deserve to be destroyed, as they would put it in the blunt lingo of Russian TV propagandists.

Educated Russians feel solidarity only towards a very limited segment of other Russians and northern Europeans, and even then only under extraordinarily limited circumstances, as witnessed by the self-love and virtue-flagging festival currently underway on the Runet.

The whole point of it is not to save the life of an investigative journalist framed by the police on drugs charges but to show to themselves (and the world) they can “fight back” against their corrupt government, that they are not as bad as they imagine themselves to be and, in fact, really are.

Indeed, Russians can fight back, as has been proven hundreds of times during the last twenty years. But this has been proven not by today’s virtue-flaggers, but by other Russians, Russians who have been fighting for their lives, livelihoods, natural and urban environments, workplaces, you name it. They live in the twenty-first century, too, and so they also have made use of the internet as needed for their campaigns, but their campaigns have had real objectives, and the militants in these campaigns have often been less bashful in their methods.

Look up, for example, anything you can find about the grassroots movement against plans to mine copper and nickel in Voronezh Region, which reached a crescendo four or five years ago. One of the leaders of that protest was an “ordinary” woman who worked at the local produce market. She virtually commanded battalions of other locals, including local Cossacks, in a knock-down, drag-out fight against mining companies and police.

Not surprisingly, these skirmishes have generally garnered much less attention in Russian society at large, the Russian press, and the international press.

It has been easier for all those groups to imagine the Russian provinces as “Putin’s base,” as a wasteland filled with aggressive vatniki, as they are derogatorily called. (The reference is to the humble gray quilted jacket favored, allegedly, by regime-loving proles in Russia’s regions.)

I have spent at least a third of my time on this blog and its predecessor trying to show this is not the case. It is a thankless and nearly pointless business, however, because it is not trendy to care about hicks in the sticks anymore anywhere, so almost no one reads these dispatches.

Putin’s real power bases are and always have Moscow and Petersburg, but you would never know that from the cool spin residents of the “capitals” put on every gesture in the direction of protest they make, even when they are not really protesting anything at all. If anyone has benefited from Putin’s promises of stability and prosperity, it is them, not the hicks in the sticks. But none of this has led to a “bourgeois revolution,” as some were expecting. Quite the opposite has happened.

Of course, there are activists and grassroots politicians in the capitals who are every bit as smart, fierce, and savvy as their counterparts in the provinces, but they do not outnumber them, despite what certain large-scale, protests in the recent past might have suggested.

So, what is up now? Sooner or later, every ambitious Russian with a social media profile and any sights on the west realizes it is not great to look like too much of a conformist. It is okay for Putin to kill Syrian babies by the truckload. Or, rather, it is not okay, but you are only asking for trouble if you protest something a) no one else is protesting, and b) that looks to be really important to the powers that be, so important they would squash you like you a fly if you made a peep about it.

The grassroots “Free Golunov!” campaign is perfect for anyone who wants to pad out their protest resume because a) everyone is protesting it, and b) the real powers that be probably do not care so much about prosecuting Golunov to the full extent of their lawlessness.

At his next public appearance, Putin could well be asked about the case by reporters. If he is asked, I would not be surprised if he said it was a bloody mess that shows how much work needs to be done before Russian law enforcement has been thoroughly purged of corruption.

Heads would then roll, and Golunov would be released as a gesture to the Russian moral one percent’s “yearning for justice.”

People with shaky protest resumes—meaning nearly every member of the intelligentsia in the capitals and major cities—want to jump on a bandwagon that has half a chance of making it to its destination, not light out for the territory with no chance of winning.

On the other hand, the Kremlin could neutralize these virtue-flaggers for good by throwing the book at Golunov, despite the overwhelming evidence he is innocent, and sending him down for fifteen years.

In reality, this sort of thing happens all the time. It happens routinely to “politicals” and ordinary blokes, to businessmen and Central Asian migrant workers, etc. But no one bothers to go ballistic when these people are framed by the wildly unscrupulous Russian police and security services because a) everyone leads really busy lives, and b) these victims of Russian legal nihilism do not have reporters and editors going to bat for them and publishing their names in big letters on the front pages of their newspapers.

What will “rank-and-file” protesters do if, despite their extraordinary efforts, Golunov is sent to prison for a crime he did not do? What will become of their “movement”? Will they up their game? Will they embrace more radical methods to free their beloved here.

Their movement will evaporate in seconds. We will never hear or see any political statements from most of these people ever again because if they can live peaceably with everything done by the Putin regime at home and abroad in their name over the last twenty years except this one thing, they can go on swallowing or, really, ignoring a double and even triple portion of the more of the same until Putin finally keels over thirty or so years from now.

Or they will leave the country. It is not as if they actually give a flying fuck about it. If they did, I would have written a very different outburst than this one. I would have written it a long time ago, in fact. || THE RUSSIAN READER

idlibThe bombing of Idlib is stirring memories of Guernica, as portrayed by Picasso. Photo by Abdulaziz Ketaz. Courtesy of AFP, Getty Images, and the Sunday Times

Syria: Russians refine slaughter in Idlib
Observers say Moscow is using the Syrian province as a kind of Guernica, while casting innocent victims as terrorists
Louise Callaghan
The Sunday Times
June 9, 2019

The fighter jet screamed over the town at about 8.30am, while the family was still asleep in the cool morning air. Mahmoud Ali Alsheikh, his wife and their three children were shaken awake by the first bomb.

Ahmad, the youngest, was 10 months old. His father held him as the second bomb exploded further down their street. His mother, Fatma, 29, held her hands over his ears. Nour and Salah, 8 and 7, crouched next to them.

The next bomb hit the house. Shrapnel ripped into Ahmad’s stomach, killing him. “I was trying to protect him,” said his father, a sweet-maker.

Ahmad was just one victim of Russia’s bombing campaign in Idlib, a rural province in northern Syria where a renewed assault by pro-regime forces has killed at least 347 civilians since the end of April, according to local doctors with the aid group Uossm. Twenty-five medical facilities have been bombed, many of them far from the front lines.

It is a horrifying escalation in a conflict in which Moscow and Damascus have an overwhelming military advantage as the eight-year-old civil war winds down. Analysts suspect that Russia, which has bragged about testing more than 200 new weapons in Syria, is cynically using Idlib to refine the bombing techniques it has developed during the conflict.

“Idlib for the Russians now could be what Guernica was for the Germans ahead of the Second World War. It’s a conflict in which they tested all of their techniques, rolled out their new doctrine,” said James Le Mesurier, a former British Army officer who founded the organization that trains and supports the White Helmets rescue group.

The Nazis’ use of the Spanish town of Guernica for bombing practice in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War allowed them to break new ground in the mass killing of civilians from the air and refine techniques that would later become invaluable to their war machine. The aftermath of the bombing was immortalized in a painting by Pablo Picasso.

For Russia, disinformation techniques have become as vital as military tactics. Moscow and the Syrian regime portray Idlib as a terrorist haven under the control of hardline groups — justifying the bombing campaign on the grounds that they are fighting jihadists.

Russia has put great effort into an online campaign portraying Idlib as a vipers’ nest of terrorists. The truth is more complicated. While groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly an al-Qaeda offshoot, control large swathes of the province, some key towns are held by more moderate rebels.

A rebel counter-attack last week took back several villages from pro-regime forces. But the rebels have no air power.

Mixed in among them — and vulnerable to Russia’s supremacy in the air — are tens of thousands of terrified civilians: both locals and others from across the country who were bused to Idlib when their homes were retaken by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

After ousting rebel forces in much of the country, the regime is now renewing the attack on Idlib, which it has pledged to claw back at all costs.

A ceasefire, negotiated last year in Sochi, the Russian Black Sea resort, is in tatters after an assault by pro-regime forces targeted civilian and rebel targets alike with cluster bombs and barrel bombs. Videos appear to show incendiary weapons being used.

Diplomats say that, for the moment, an all-out military assault on Idlib is unlikely. The aim of the bombing campaign is to wear away at the ceasefire, grind down the rebels and force Turkey — which maintains military observation points in Idlib and backs some opposition groups — to agree to a handover of the province to the regime.

“A full-on assault is not imminent. But I do think the option will be kept on the table so that people can use that as a way of increasing influence,” said a senior western diplomat working on Syria.

Turkey, which is one of the guarantors of the ceasefire, has been outwardly maintaining a balanced relationship with Moscow, even as it reportedly funnels weapons to opposition groups in Idlib.

The Turkish border with Idlib is closed to the tens of thousands of civilians who have fled to it in search of safety. Last week residents told The Sunday Times that entire villages in Idlib’s interior were deserted, and displaced people were camping out in olive groves near the border without food or water.

Among them were the surviving members of Ahmad’s family.

“I don’t know what will happen but I hope the regime won’t advance because they will kill and arrest everyone,” said his father, who was badly injured in the airstrike that killed the baby. “The Assad regime is targeting our town all the time.”

He said his home town, Kafranbel — which used to be famous for its figs and is about 30 miles from the Turkish border — is not controlled by jihadists but by remnants of the Free Syrian Army.

Other locals and analysts confirmed this. But for Russia and the Syrian regime, rebels, jihadists and civilians alike are regarded as terrorists.

“Since the beginning, the Russians, Iran, Assad regime and Hezbollah are saying that,” he said. “Because their military policy is burning and killing everyone who lives in the opposition areas.”

Using Russian state-funded broadcasters and websites, Moscow has muddied the waters of the Syrian conflict by attempting to push the narrative that anyone who is against Assad is a terrorist, and that no news from opposition-held areas can be trusted.

Its disinformation campaign particularly targets the White Helmets, portraying its members as jihadists who stage their work. Slick video content, purporting to show the White Helmets faking chemical attacks by the regime, is often presented as impartial news and shared across the world.

Last month a Syrian government television channel took this technique a step further in a “fake news” comedy sketch that lampooned the White Helmets. A glamorous actress portrayed a crying woman as “White Helmets” staged a fake rescue mission. She later apologized for causing offense but made clear she still believed that attacks and rescues were often faked by the White Helmets.

Impartial observers, who credit the White Helmets with saving many lives and drawing attention to the regime’s atrocities, say there has been no proof that they have faked anything.

Additional reporting: Mahmoud al-Basha

Thanks to Pete Klosterman and the Facebook public group Free Syria for the heads-up. {TRR}