The Syrian Breakthrough

kuzminNikolai Kuzmin during his solo picket outside the exhibition The Syrian Breakthrough, in Pskov. His placard reads, “Spend budget money on our own schools and hospitals, not on someone else’s war.” Photo by Lyudmila Savitskaya. Courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Yabloko Activist Detained in Pskov at “Syrian Breakthrough” Exhibition
Lyudmila Savitskaya
Radio Svoboda
April 26, 2019

In Pskov, police have detained local Yabloko Party activist Nikolai Kuzmin, who held a solo picket outside an exhibition of military equipment entitled The Syrian Breakthrough. Kuzmin stood behind servicemen queued at the city’s train station to see the exhibition.

He held a placard that read, “Spend budget money on our own schools and hospitals, not on someone else’s war.”

Commenting on his actions, Kuzmin claimed over 25,000 schools had been closed in Russia over the past twenty years. The activist argued that, outside Moscow and Petersburg, it was nearly impossible to get an ambulance, and half of the men in Pskov Region did not live to retirement age.

“As in a dystopia, however, instead of being productive and saving the lives of Russians, we have raised war into a cult that we worship. Lacking reasons to feel proud, we are administered daily injections of patriotism. But patriotism does not mean fighting wars in someone else’s countries. It means building things in your own country and having a critical attitude toward the mania for military victory,” Kuzmin added.

Kuzmin’s picket lasted around ten minutes. During this time, members of the pro-regime organization Team 2018 managed to have their picture taken with him. Kuzmin was then surrounded by military police who asked him to leave. Kuzmin responded by asking them to identify themselves [as required by Russian laws regulating the police] and explain their grounds for wanting to remove him from a public event.

The military policemen were unable to fulfill Kuzmin’s request, so Sergei Surin, head of the Interior Ministry Directorate for Pskov [i.e., the local police chief] came to their aid. He personally detained Kuzmin while repeatedly refusing to explain the grounds for the arrest to Kuzmin and comment on it to reporters who were present.

Lev Schlosberg, leader of the Yabloko Party in Pskov, demanded Kuzmin’s immediate release and the removal from Pskov of The Syrian Breakthrough, which he dubbed a “propaganda scrap heap.”

“Russia must cease military operations in Syria, while government funds should be spent on peaceful goals that further the interests of Russia’s citizens,” Schlosberg said.

In February 2019, the Russian Defense Ministry launched a train containing weapons seized, it claimed, by Russian servicemen during combat in Syria. The train departed Moscow on an itinerary of sixty cities and towns. When it reaches Vladivostok, the train will head back to Moscow. It is scheduled to arrive there on the eve of Victory Day, May 9.

Thanks to Nikolai Boyarshinov for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Alexander Podrabinek: Murder in Tyumen

“Russian counter-terrorism police say they prevented an imminent Islamic State attack in the Siberian city of Tyumen, as two armed terror suspects were eliminated in an intense raid with heavy gunfire and explosions. The militants, who were holed up in a private home, refused to lay down their arms and opened fire at the law enforcement on Friday. ‘They were neutralized during a gunfight,’ the National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAC) said. There were no casualties among civilians and security personnel as a result of the exchange of fire. The terrorists were planning an attack in [a] public place in the city and the decision to launch an operation was made swiftly, the NAC said. Numerous unconfirmed videos on social media appeared to show the nighttime operation in full swing, with heavy gunfire, a building on fire, and a score of police cars and military vehicles amassed in the streets.” Published on April 12, 2019, by user AS2017

Murder in Tyumen
Alexander Podrabinek
Grani.ru
April 14, 2019

The killing of two suspected terrorists in Tyumen has been spun as a showcase counter-terrorist operation. It went off without a hitch, that is, you do not count the spontaneous undertaking by curious locals who attempted to livestream it on the internet. On the other hand, Tyumen Regional Governor Alexander Moor had lots of nasty things to say about local video bloggers, commentators, and social media users.

On Friday, security forces cordoned off the area around Amur Street in Tyumen. They claimed two Islamic State terrorists had holed themselves up in a private house in the street. The cordoned-off area was declared a counter-terrorist operation zone, and approximately one hundred local residents were forcibly evacuated from the area. I think it superfluous to ask whether the suspected terrorists noticed the evacuation or not. If the terrorists had been real terrorists and the operation itself risky, not a staged textbook operation, the security forces would have tried to use the element of surprise. But no, all possible eyewitnesses were first removed from nearby houses, and only then did the security force go after the “terrorists.”

tyumen“Counter-terrorism operation” in Tyumen. Photo by Maxim Slutsky. Courtesy of TASS

The two people who had been designated terrorists were killed, of course. Half of their one-storey wooden house was burnt to the ground. This makes sense: the fire destroyed inconvenient evidence. The Russian Investigative Committee reported that two machine guns, two explosive devices, and religious pamphlets were found in the house, along with twenty-first-century weaponry in the shape of electronic devices. In short, they predictably found the usual kit of the modern “terrorist.”

Surprisingly, the fire did not damage the damning evidence. The explosive devices did not explode, the religious pamphlets were not reduced to ashes, the smartphones did not melt. If we recall that in many other cases the Russian security forces planted weapons and narcotics on “suspects,” nothing surprising happened. The “clues” the investigators need will be entered into physical evidence, while the stuff it does not need will not be registered anywhere.

We might learn the identities of the dead men in the coming days. Someone must have known them, and someone will tell us about them. The security forces identify them as “terrorists,” but the charges filed are not for terrorism, but conspiracy to murder and attempted murder of a law enforcement officer. This is odd, as is the fact that the FSB carried out the counter-terrorist operation, while the Investigative Committee has headed the investigation.

The Investigative Committee and FSB claim the “terrorists” were Islamic State members who were planning massacres in public places. They have not made any details of the case public, much less the overall circumstances. We are asked to take their word on it, although after the “bags of sugar” in Ryazan, Alexander Litvinenko’s murder, the attempted assassination of the Skripals, and many other exploits, the security forces cannot imagine the public will trust them.

The Tyumen “terrorists” have been accused of conspiracy to commit a crime (Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 30), but they were unable to commit any crimes because their lives were taken. Along with their lives, they were deprived of the chance to defend themselves and attempt to prove their innocence in court.

Is it possible they were real terrorists and eliminating them was necessary to ensure the safety of others? Of course, it is possible. On the other hand, are we not aware of numerous instances when the security forces provoked crimes only to kill the “suspects” while covering their tracks—their own tracks more than the tracks of the “criminals”? I have in mind not only the crimes of the NKVD but also the events of the past two decades, especially in Dagestan and the rest of the North Caucasus?

One of the most telling examples of this kind was the so-called Nord-Ost hostage crisis at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in 2002. While freeing the hostages, the security forces killed all thirty-six terrorists. Most of them were killed by being shot in the back of the head while lying unconscious, knocked out by the poisonous gas the special forces released in the theater’s auditorium. They thus got rid of the defendants and the need for a trial, a trial during which parts of the story that shed an unflattering light on the regime could have come out.

Heir of the old Soviet ways, the current regime has aspired to conduct all cases and campaigns against people who have opposed it under arms and people who have fought it with words and people who have been the accidental victims of deliberate provocations by the security services in secret. Reporters are not allowed into counter-terrorist operation zones, inconvenient eyewitnesses are rubbed out, defense attorneys are made to sign nondisclosure agreements, and court trials are held in closed chambers.

Consequently, we have no reliable means of judging whether a particular individual has committed a crime or not. We are well aware, however, that despotism and lawlessness are fond of silence but no friends of publicity. We have been through this before. So, every time a clandestine operation is carried out, every time “criminals” and witnesses are eliminated, and every time a trial is heard in closed chambers, we have every reason to suspect the security forces of provocation, dishonesty, and fraud.

Thanks to Nastia Nek for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

De-Escalation

idlibSmoke rises after an airstrike hits a city center in Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province on March 13, 2019. Photo by Ahmet Rehhal. Courtesy of Anadolu Agency and the Middle East Monitor

Commander of Russian Airborne Forces Lands in Syria: Andrei Serdyukov Takes Charge of Russian Forces in Republic 
Ivan Safronov
Kommersant
April 12, 2019

Kommersant has learned that Lieutenant General Andrei Serdyukov, commander of Russian Airborne Forces, has taken charge of Russian troops in Syria. He replaces Lieutenant General Sergei Surovikin, commander-in-chief of Russian Aerospace Forces, who commanded the Russian military in the republic the last several months.

As we have learned, Serdyukov’s priority will be coordinating joint patrols by Russian military police and Turkish servicemen in the Idlib de-escalation zone, in which over 35,000 insurgents are amassed and over thirty facilities containing chemicals [sic] are located.

Several high-ranking military and diplomatic sources told Kommersant about Serdyukov’s appointment. They said he had taken up his new duties on April 10, replacing Suvorikin who, according to our sources, would again focus on his immediate responsibilities (commanding Russian Aerospace Forces) after returning from his latest Syrian deployment.

Yesterday, the Russian Defense Ministry refrained from official comments on the shuffle.

Our sources explained Suvorikin had spent over a year in total commanding Russian forces in Syria, longer than any of the other high-ranking officers who have occupied the post. While the Syrian campaign was underway, he was promoted from the post of commander of the Eastern Military District to the post of commander-in-chief of Russian Aerospace Forces (see our November 1, 2017, issue), but even after his promotion, he was rotated in and out of Syria to command not only the Russian air force but also regular combat troops and special ops units.

In keeping with the practice of rotating senior command personnel, Serdyukov could have been sent to Syria as early as September 2017. (Our sources said his combat experience in Chechnya and the operation to annex Crimea were significant advantages.) However, shortly before this was to take place, Serdyukov’s official vehicle, while returning from exercises in Murmansk Region, brushed against a car in the oncoming lane at full speed. Serdykov’s car flipped over several times and slid into a ditch. In hospital, he was diagnosed with head and back injuries, including a closed vertebrae fracture.

The general underwent a long convalescence during which there was no question of deploying him to a combat zone. Ultimately, Lieutenant General Alexander Zhuravlov, current commander of the Western Military District, was dispatched to Syria instead.

Serdyukov has now been deployed to Syria to perform a specific mission, said one of our sources. He will focus on accelerating the Russian-Turkish agreement to organize joint patrols in the demilitarized and deescalation zones in Idlib Province. Ankara and Moscow reached the agreement in 2018. They had originally planned to launch joint patrols of Russian military policemen and Turkish servicemen on October 15. However, as one of our sources noted, the Turkish side took responsibility for withdrawing insurgents and heavy weapons from the Idlib de-escalation zone into the demilitarized zone. The plans were thwarted, however. Due to an intensification of attacks by insurgents (especially those controlled by the Al-Nusra Front, an organization banned in the Russian Federation [sic]), the joint patrols did not begin on schedule, while insurgents remained in the demilitarized zone along with their heavy weapons.

The highest level of military diplomacy was put into motion to remedy the situation. Thus, in February 2019, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar signed a supplementary memorandum outlining the actions to be taken by Russian and Turkish troops during their joint patrols. According to our sources, on March 8, Turkish troops began patrolling the demilitarized zone as situated between the Turkish observation posts at Barkum, Tel Tukan, and Surman. As of March 17, their patrols were extended to areas west of Aleppo and north of Hama and the mountains of Latakia. As of yesterday, according to our sources, a coordinated patrol by joint convoys of Russian and Turkish servicemen should have begun patrolling the contact line between the warring parties in the area between the Turkish posts at Barkum and Surman.

If these maneuvers are deemed successful, the two countries will commence joint patrols in the northeastern part of the de-escalation zone after April 20.

“We are counting on being able to launch coordinated patrols in the form of joint convoys inside the demilitarized zone in May,” our source in the Russian army added.

He said the de-escalation zone was divided into parts: into a withdrawal zone 3,300 kilometers square in area, containing 511 towns and villages, and over two million people, and a demilitarized zone as such. According to our source, the demilitarized zone had an area of 3,100 square kilometers and a total of 341 towns and villages, with an approximate population of 1,690,000 people.

Our source said the situation was exacerbated by several factors simultaneously. Aside from civilians in Idlib Province, there were over 35,000 armed insurgents. There were around 8,900 militants on the western front, and almost 15,000 on the southern front. They regularly carried out raids. The last raid took place in the wee hours of April 10, when the militants shelled the towns of Tall Al-Maktal (Idlib Province), Safsafa (Latakia Province), and Hamdaniya (Hama Province).

However, according to the Russian military, the Idlib de-escalation zone contains over thirty sites where chemicals are stored [sic]. Serdyukov would also have to try and solve this problem in cooperation with the Turkish military command, our source added. He specified that an invasion of Idlib by Russian ground forces was out of the question.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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The Takeaway

Why would I translate and publish this dry-as-dust article from Kommersant about the new commander of Russian forces in Syria and how he will be handling joint patrols with the Turks in the Idlib demilitarized zone?

1. Whenever the Russian press has anything to say about Russia’s decisive, murderous adventure in Syria, it says it in this utterly depersonalized way, as if the real subject were an upcoming corporate merger.

2. Nevertheless, the only people who ever emerge as full-blown human beings in these scanty reports are members of the Russian high military command. Notice how General Serdyukov, the new Russian commander in Syria, has been given the loving touch by Kommersant.

3. Although I would argue that Russia’s successive invasions of Ukraine and Syria have had extraordinarily bad consequences for Russians back at home, especially the working class and the political opposition, you will search high and wide for meaningful discussions of Russia’s role in Syria in Russia’s opposition press and burgeoning social media.

4. The charitable way of putting this is that Syria is a taboo subject for Russians. I’ve already written about the uncharitable way of putting this so many times I’ve lost count, but it has no visible effect on anyone.

Most Russians are convinced Syria doesn’t matter to them. In fact, Putin’s Syrian campaign has probably destroyed the last chances they had at living in a more or less prosperous, democratic country in our lifetime.

5. It’s a timely reminder that the holy blessed “anti-imperialist” martyr Julian Assange has been supporting this regime of fascist Starship Troopers for years. This is not even a secret. If you demand Assange’s release while claiming solidarity with the Syrian Revolution, I think you should have your head examined.

6. But I wouldn’t insist on it, unlike the Putin regime’s satraps, who have increasingly resorted in recent years to compulsory psychiatric hospitalization of their opponents, evoking some of the darkest pages of Soviet history. {TRR}

P.S. My comrade Dick Gregory, who has published the blog News of the Revolution in Syria since 2012, posting a total of 4,036 entries during that time, had these important corrections to make to my remarks and, especially, Kommersant‘s exercise in pro-Putin and pro-Assad propaganda.

Obviously, there are a number of untruths [in the article], from the joint patrols, which they announced a couple of weeks ago and turned out to be entirely separate patrols, through the non-existent Al Nusra Front to the nonexistent chemical weapons in Idlib.

A piece in the Syrian Observer got me thinking. I actually tweeted the portion where the Syrian opposition spokesman was saying it was important for rebel groups not to fight each other; but I began to think Russia is not trying to start an offensive in Idlib, but wants to leave enough confusion about its activities, and to massively retaliate against civilians when there is any action by the rebels, in order to protect Assad against the possibility of the rebels launching an offensive, so Assad can be kept in power despite Russia having no real plan to restabilize the regime.

Al Nusra doesn’t exist, as it was shut down in 2016 by its former leadership as part of the break with Al Qaeda, and an attempt to broaden the appeal of that brand of Islamic jihadism. So, partly the Russians are just being as lazy as many westerners by continuing to use the old name. But the Russian bombing campaign in support of Assad, always presented as combating the threat from terrorists, was initially very largely directed at specifically FSA groups (to which the US may well have given them the coordinates,, supposedly so then they wouldn’t bomb them). That’s why the surviving rebel groups in Idlib are largely Islamist, because the Russians bombed out of existence the specifically secular ones.

Framed?

A Speedy Trial?
Maxim Leonov
Novaya Gazeta
April 2, 2019

It took law enforcement agencies over a month to deliver eleven suspects and 127 volumes of criminal case files to Petersburg. At the first hearing in the case, on April 2, the reporters who were present got the impression that the Moscow-based judges trying the case had no intentions of dragging the trial out. Nearly all the lawyers who had come onto the case, replacing state-appointed defense attorneys, were turned down in their request to be granted additional time to review the case files.

“Coordinate it during the recesses,” said presiding judge Andrei Morozov.

The indictment claims all the defendants were associated with a certain Sirojiddin Muhtarov aka Abu Salah. He was not among the defendants on trial. Investigators claimed he was currently in the vicinity of Aleppo, along with Uzbek national Bobirjon Mahbubov (code-named Ahmed), who had turned 22-year-old Akbarjon Jalilov into an Islamic suicide bomber.

Investigators claimed Muhtarov and Mahbubov communicated with the defendants on Telegram. Their recruitment into the ranks of the alleged terrorist organization had also, apparently, taken place on the internet, because almost none of the defendants had been abroad except for Jalilov.

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The Terrorist Attack
An explosion rocked the Petersburg subway at 2:33 p.m. on April 3, 2017. Twenty-two-year-old Akbarjon Jalilov is alleged to have to set off a homemade bomb on a section of the subway between Sennaya Ploshchad and Tekhnologicheskii Institut stations. The train’s driver, Alexander Kaverin, was able to get the damaged train to Tekhnologicheskii Institut, where the wounded were assisted.

According to the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry and the Russian Health Ministry, eleven people died in the explosion, including the suicide bomber. Another victim died en route to hospital, while two more died upon arrival. The total number of people killed was thus sixteen. Eighty-nine people sought medical attention after the blast; fifty-one of them were hospitalized.

The same day, it transpired that two simultaneous blasts had been planned instead of the one. Another bomb, three times more powerful than the one set off, allegedly, by Jalilov, was found camouflaged as a fire extinguisher by Albert Sibirskikh, an inspector at Ploshchad Vosstaniia subway station. A cursory examination of the bomb revealed it would have been detonated by a mobile phone.

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The mother of one of the defendants, Mahamadusuf Mirzaalimovasked reporters not call her son a “terrorist.”

“He was merely at the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said.

The place where most of the defendants were found at the wrong time was the Lesnoye Cafe in Moscow Region’s Odintsovo District, where Jalilov worked as a cook between December 2016 and March 2017. Another such place was a flat at 22/1 Tovarishchesky Prospect in Petersburg. It was here, while they arrested five of the suspects on April 5, 2017, that FSB officers were alleged to have found components of an explosive device. The indictment claims that Jalilov and five of the defendants lived in the flat.

Investigators allege that brothers Abror and Akram Azimov had acted as Abu Salah’s agents in Russia. He supposedly sent them money to buy parts for the explosive device.

Defendants are typically reluctant to talk to the press [sic], but in this case it was quite the opposite. During the hearing, both Azimov brothers petitioned the court to have their testimony televised.

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“We are willing to explain how we got mixed up in this case and how we were forced to testify. We are only random Muslims. We have done nothing else wrong,” the Azimov brothers told the court.

Judge Morozov rejected their motion to have their testimony filmed, arguing that only the reading of the verdict could be recorded.

All the defendants in the case have refused to plead guilty to involvement in terrorism. Yana Teplitskaya, a member of the Petersburg Public Monitoring Commission (PMC), told us that she had information the defendants had been tortured. According to Teplitskaya, the Muhamadusup brothers [sic] and Ibrahim Ermatov had related to PMC members that investigators had subjected them to physical violence, but their injuries had not been officially certified by medical personnel. PMC members promised to released more detailed information in the near future.

Defense lawyers also claimed their clients were ordinary people who had accidentally been caught up in the juggernaut of the investigation.

“He pleads not guilty,” Ketevan Baramiya, defense attorney for Ibrahim Ermatov, told us. “It’s a great pity the court rejected the motion to videotape the testimony. The defendants are willing to explain how they got mixed up in this case.”

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However, it was not only defense lawyers who had the impression the FSB had chosen the “terrorist conspirators” at random.

“Frankly speaking, they don’t really look like terrorists,” said Yuri Shushkevich, who was injured in the terrorist attack, “especially that woman.”

He meant Shohista Karimova, who has been charged with aiding and abetting the alleged terrorists by buying SIM cards for mobile phones and storing an F1 grenade, which she claims was planted in her domicile by FSB field officers.

“They all look like ordinary guys, but how would I know what terrorists look like?” wondered Shushkevich.

All photos by Elena Lukyanova and courtesy of Novaya Gazeta. Translated by the Russian Reader. See my previous post on this case, “The Strange Investigation of a Strange Terrorist Attack” (12 February 2018), for a more detailed account of the case.

The Crimea Lesson

history of crimeaSchoolchildren animatedly perusing a textbook entitled The History of Crimea, 5–6, Part 1. Photo courtesy of Viktor Korotayev and Kommersant

Schoolchildren Encouraged to Discuss Crimea
Ministry of Enlightenment Recommends Thematic Lessons on the Peninsula’s Accession 
Ksenia Mironova
Kommersant
March 19, 2019

The Russian Federal Ministry of Enlightenment has drafted a set of recommendations for thematic lessons dealing with “Crimea’s reunification with Russia” in schools. The ministry stressed  its recommendations are just that: recommendations. In particular, they suggest choosing the lesson’s format depending on the age of children. Depending on their ages, the ministry suggest the children play games and have contests or holding conferences, seminars, and debates involving parents and civil society stakeholders. Experts, on the contrary, argue schools should not risk debating the subject.

On Sunday, the ministry’s press service reported Crimea’s accession [sic] to Russia  had been included in the calendar of educational events occasioned by state and national holidays. In this connection, the ministry drafted recommendations for holding “thematic lessons, round tables, class assemblies, concerts, events, and contests” in connection with March 18, “the day Crimea was reunified with Russia.”

According to the ministry, its methodological suggestions are only recommendations meant to “help teachers select the right information and hold thematic lessons, special events, meetings, and other interventions.” By way of enlightening schoolchildren about the issues surrounding “Crimea’s reunification with Russia,” the ministry has recommended hold different events depending on the ages of children. It has suggested telling them about Crimea via games, contests, drawing competitions, conferences, seminars, and debates. In addition, the ministry has suggested involving parents and civil society stakeholders. The ministry’s press service said the recommendations were based on the practical know-how of teachers, but it refused to answer our questions about what exactly the ministry had recommended telling schoolchildren about “Crimea’s reunification with Russia.”

According to Olga Miryasova, secretary of the trade union Teacher, she was especially intrigued by the ministry’s recommendation to hold “debates among high school students.”

“It’s not worth risking debates on the subject. High school students read the internet and know how to argue. God forbid some of them accidentally voiced the ‘wrong’ viewpoint. The homeroom teacher would be left to pick up the pieces. Either the event, as recommended by the ministry, would be a failure or teachers and students would be forced to try and prove the legality of the ‘reunification,’ and there is no guarantee they would be able to do that. And so, again, some children would be threatened with expulsion or bad marks. That is what debates would boil down to,” argued Miryasova.

Lawmakers do not agree with her. According to Boris Chernyshov, an LDPR MP and deputy chair of the Duma’s education and science committee, such recommendations were signs of “proper management.”

“The Minister of Enlightenment was simply obliged to draft these recommendations. Crimea is a vital historical milestone. We only need the psychologists to tell us what age groups can be told what,” Mr. Chernyshov told us.

As we have written earlier, the fifth anniversary of the peninsula’s accession to the Russian Federation has been celebrated on a large scale only in Crimea, Sevastopol, and Moscow, where concerts, exhibitions, and thematic festivals were scheduled.

On March 15, a special citywide lesson dealing with Crimea’s accession to the Russian Federation was taught in all of Simferopol’s schools.

Commenting earlier on the Crimean Spring Festival, political scientist Konstantin Kalachev told us the celebration had been depoliticized as much as possible. It had been turned into a mainly cultural event.

“Crimea’s mobilizing effect has petered out,” he said. “The explanation is simple. Some people are a bit tired of the subject of Crimea, and some even find it irritating.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

Alexander Morozov: The Price Russia Has Paid for Crimea

krym nashGraffiti and counter-graffiti on the parapet of a bridge over the River Spree in downtown Berlin, March 8, 2019. By changing a single letter in the spelling of “Crimea,” “Polina, Lera, German, Roma, Arina, and Vlad” reasserted that “Crimea is ours,” i.e., it belongs to Україна (“Ukraine” in Ukrainian, not Russian), on January 28, 2019. Photo by the Russian Reader

The Price Russia Has Paid for Crimea
Alexander Morozov
New Times
March 11, 2019

The five years that have followed the events of 2014, regardless of whether you refer to those events as annexation, the Russian spring, a Putinist coup, reunification, a homecoming, an historic choice and so on, have emerged as a whole set of consequences powerful in terms of determining history, having a lasting influence, and shaping Russia as a whole, that is, impacting Russian domestic politics, the Russian economy, and the self-awareness of large segments of the Russian populace. These consequences have generated “another Russia,” a country different from the one that existed in reality and people’s minds throughout the previous stages of its post-Soviet progress.

Destroying Eurasianism
Early Putinism was drive by the integration of so-called Eurasia, i.e., the former Soviet republics. Nursultan Nazarbayev, president for life of Kazakhstan, was the man behind political Eurasianism, as we know. During the Yeltsin administration, Moscow was indifferent to the concept. Later, however, the idea that Russia was Eurasia’s leader was made basic Kremlin doctrine.

Moscow’s actions in this respect were alternately gentle and crude, but generally its policies were seen as rational, as attuned to the region’s economic growth and security.

The Crimean adventure completely gutted the Eurasianist policy. It managed to frighten such stalwarts of Eurasian integration as Belarus and Kazakhstan. At the same time, it put paid to notions of “Slavic unity” and inevitably provoked an assault on the so-called canonical geographical domain of the Russian Orthodox Church.

As long as the logbook contained only one point, the war with Georgia, we could say it had been an extravagance. But the occupation of Crimea was the second point, which could be joined in a straight line with the first.  The Kremlin abandoned its policy of cultural and economic expansion, pursuing instead a police of aggression, bullying, and crude displays of superiority.

Not a single neighboring country has recognized Crimea’s accession to the Russian Federation. Consequently, Russia has symbolically transitioned from Eurasia to solitude. Putin abandoned Eurasia, going over its head to engage in various unilateral actions in the far abroad. Although Russian university lecturers habitually still rattle on about Eurasianism, the occupation of Crimea has meant that Kremlin, like Zarathustra, has climbed to the top of an imaginary mountain peak, whence it transmits its rhetorical messages, addressed to the void.

Warring with the West
The occupation of Crimea has meant that, since 2014, the perpetual cold war with the west has taken on a more heated, hysterical tone than under the communists in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. During one of his last interviews, in 2014, the late former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, an imperialist politician if there ever was one, said, “Television has been laying it on thick. The propaganda [on Russian TV] suggests we are preparing the populace for war.”

Before the occupation of Crimea, between 2007 and 2014, the period following Putin’s Munich speech, the Kremlin made numerous demands on the west, reacted harshly to any criticism of its polices and actions by international institutions, and sometimes made rather abrupt diplomatic moves. But the word “rivalry” still described all these things. The occupation of Crimea shifted relations with the west into another stage of aggregation known as hybrid war.

The term is quite obviously inaccurate, like any other term containing the adjective “hybrid.” But the key word in the phrase is “war.” It does not matter whether we believe the Kremlin has been conducting a well-conceived and well-coordinated war based more on the power of networks and the internet than brute force or whether we think the degree of coordination has been exaggerated. All observers have argued that the numerous discrete incidents paint a picture of a networked war against liberal democracy, the preparatory stages of a major war to redraw the world’s geopolitical spheres of influence or an attempt to provoke the United States. The occupation of Crimea put Moscow’s relations with the west on a different conflictual footing.

Transparency
The occupation of Crimea has made everything the Kremlin does automatically malicious, so that between 2014 and 2019 the notion of what the Russian presence means has changed completely. Nowadays, everyone looks for Russian fingerprints everywhere. This means that, as in the recent Troika Dialog money laundering scandal, very old deals and transactions are reviewed as well. Russia’s communications with the rest of the world have come under a spotlight, they have been run through an x-ray machine. Things previously regarded as dubious but acceptable have suddenly gone toxic. The Kremlin has gone from being a partner, albeit a problematic one, to a keeper of rat holes and catacombs. Foreign intelligence agencies, financial monitoring bodies, and reporters are now busy, as they once were with the Islamic presence in Europe, segregating what used to be considered the harmless Russian presence as something automatically toxic. However, the hot zone, meaning the people and entities found to have connections with the Kremlin and its malignant plans, has been expanding continuously for the last five years. Clearly, this investigatory work has not reached the midway point. The exposure of the Kremlin will continue for a long time to come.

Sanctions and Consolidating the Elite
The main outcome of international sanctions has been that the truly powerful segment of the Putinist elite has been professionally recounted. Before Crimea was occupied, people also had notions of who was a member of Putin’s inner circle, and they traced the orbits of his clients. But these speculations were a matter for experts and were thus open to debate. Everything has now fallen into place, which is quite important symbolically. The key personal positions of the players who vigorously went on the hybrid warpath are not just represented in political consultant Yevgeny Minchenko’s periodic “Politburo” reports or some murky media rating of the “100 Most Influential Politicians in Russia,” in which actual stakeholders are confused with officials who have no access to real resources. All of them have now been posted on the world’s bulletin board.

The sanctions have also caused the Russian elite to consolidate. Putin’s dependence on the elite has increased, and the so-called collective Putin has stopped being a metaphor, becoming a specific list of people. Of course, Russia’s history is not predetermined: history consists of twists and turns. But the actual collective Putin’s moves are predetermined, of course. The occupation of Crimea made it impossible for it to change course. At each new fork in the road, the collective Putin must turn towards further escalation, while Putin himself can no longer pull the emergency brake.

Novorossiya
Through the post-Soviet period, Moscow relied on the basic notion that there were two Ukraines, left-bank Ukraine and right-bank Ukraine. It was simply regarded as a fact that, in particular, gave rise to various “cultural” and “humanitarian” undertakings, for example, the long involvement in Crimea of ex-Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov and his people.

The occupation of Crimea, however, produced a monstrous historical about-face. In order to pull off its seizure of Crimea, the Kremlin had to support the so-called Novorossiya campaign to divide Ukraine, which has now gone down in Eastern European history. There is no argument that would make these events look any less inglorious than the partition of Poland and the occupation of the Baltic countries. Whatever history holds in story for Crimea, the Kremlin’s outright malevolence towards a neighboring people in the twenty-first century has been recorded in big black letters. The Novorossiya campaign has meant that all elements of the Kremlin’s earlier policies towards Ukraine have inevitably been reexamined. In the light of latter events, they now appear to be only parts of a plan to invade Ukraine.

Intellectual Perversion
Crimea is the poison that for five years has been continuously injected in small doses into the entire system of education and culture in Russia, as well as the mundane ways the country argues about its national identity. The media constantly have to devise, spread, and discuss on talk shows different fallacious grounds for occupying Crimea. This lie has had to be incorporated into school textbooks, movie plots, the system of legal training for civil servants, and all the pores and crevices of public space.

Russian society cannot live with the thought it unjustly annexed part of another country, and it has an even harder time admitting that it has been complicit in the attempt to partition Ukraine.

It has thus been necessary to engage in nonstop production of the rhetorical glue that kept the textbook The History of the Soviet Communist Party from falling to shreds during the late-Soviet period, i.e., the solid, ornate lie that was meant to show the rightness of the party line despite the endless mistakes and violence.

This intellectual perversion itself turns into a huge machine that latter cannot be extracted from the state apparatus without damaging the entire system. The lie machine and the state come to be equated, meaning Crimea has been inflating like a bubble inside the system. It cannot be localized. Every day it dispatches cancer cells in all directions within the tissue of state and society.

What is next? The five post-Crimean years have been much to short a historic period to make generalizations. It is clear, however, that if Putin had not seized Crimea and then organized the Novorossiya campaign, it is scary to imagine the wonderful chances he and his gang of stakeholders would have had at increasing their influence unchecked in a world encumbered by Trumpism and a Europe weakened by Brexit. But now Putinism is not merely a cowboy, but a horse rustler.

Therefore, international crises and growing uncertainty do not work in favor of the Putinists, although they do fool themselves when it comes to uncertainty, trying every which way to manufacture it themselves. The Putin gang will never try and play nice again. Any way you slice it, Russia will ultimately have to show the world another gang, because the current gang has proven incapable of accommodating itself to Russia’s long-term place in the world.

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

Postage Stamps and Gunpowder: Syria and the Russian Economy

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Postage Stamps and Gunpowder: How Important Is Syria to the Russian Economy?
The Kremlin has been trying—unconvincingly—to repackage its military campaign in this devastated country as a long-term investment project. 
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
February 27, 2019

The economy was probably the last thing on the Kremlin’s mind when it decided to get involved in a civil war in the heart of the Arab world. But now that Russian military forces have been in the region for several years, the Kremlin has been increasingly trying to spin its support for Bashar Assad’s regime as a sound investment, a contribution to a prosperous trading future between the two countries.

Russia has claimed it is willing to export to Syria anything it can offer in addition to weapons, from wheat to know-how for preventing extremism on the internet. Along with Iran, the country has big plans for taking part in the postwar restoration of Syrian cities and Syrian industry, including the energy sector. Russia’s governors speak touchingly of their readiness to go to Damascus at the drop of a hat to negotiate with the Syrian government.

“When the talk turns to Syria, I immediately catch myself thinking I need these meetings,  I need to see those people again and again, and I need to be useful,” Natalya Komarova, head of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District said at the Russian Investment Forum in Sochi two weeks ago.

The expenses Russia has incurred during the Syrian campaign are shrouded in mystery. Analysts at IHS Jane’s calculated in October 2015 that Russia could have been spending as much as $4 million a day.  In July 2017, the opposition Yabloko Democratic Party published its estimate of the overall bill: as much as 140 billion rubles [approx. 1.87 billion euros], but this total did not include associated costs, including humanitarian aid. In 2017, according to RANEPA, 84% of Russia’s official total of disbursed humanitarian aid ($19.6 million) went to Syria. What kind of economic cooperation could justify such figures?

It would be pointless even to try and find an answer in recent trade trends between the two countries. Its volumes are negligible. During the first nine months of 2018, Syria’s share of Russia’s exports was 0.09%, while Syria accounted for 0.002% of imports to Russia during the same period. This has always been more or less the case.

trade

“Trends in Russia’s trade with Syria (in billions of US dollars).” The pale violet line indicates Russia’s exports to Syria, while the blue line indicates Russia’s imports from Syria. The data for 2018 is only for the first nine months of the year. Source: Russian Federal Customs Service. Diagram courtesy of Republic

The largest transaction in the history of the economic partnership between the two countries was Moscow’s cancellation of $9.8 billion dollars in debt, 73% of what Syria had owed the Soviet Union. At the end of the 2005 meeting at which this matter was decided, Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin also spoke publicly of the idea of establishing a free trade zone. Subsequently forgotten, the undertaking was mere camouflage for the political bargain reached by the two men, which was and remains support for the Syrian dictator’s regime in exchange for the dubious dividends the Kremlin has received by increasing its influence in the region. It is believed Russian strategic bomber saved Assad, who had already been written off by the west. But explanations of what Russia has ultimately won for its efforts and what its economic strategy might look like have been more muddled and contradictory than before.

In an October 2018 interview with Euronews, Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov avoided directly answering a question about joint economic projects. During his tenure as head of the Russian Export Center, Pyotr Fradkov (not to be confused with his father former PM Mikhail Fradkov, the current head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service or SVR) talked about Russia’s potential involvement in developing the “high-tech segments of Syria’s economy.” A month ago, however, the selfsame Russian Export Center placed Syria at the bottom of its ranking of 189 countries in terms of their favorability for foreign trade.

The Syrian economy, in turn, can currently offer Russia even less. Mainly, its exports boil down to fruit, but in such small and unstable quantities that they cannot seriously compete with deliveries from Turkey. Russia has been promised priority access to the development of natural resource deposits in Syria, which are teeming with oil, natural gas, and phosphates. But the smoldering war and the lack of security guarantees for investments have hampered implementing these plans.

Russian experts pin their hopes on the surviving remnants of industry in the government-controlled areas of Latakia, Tartus, and Damascus. Based on the fact that “the level of production that survived has enabled Assad to almost fully provide himself [sic] with food during five years of war,” Grigory Lukyanov, a political scientist at the Higher School of Economics has concluded the Syrian government “depends on a well-developed business community.”

Syria, however, seemed like a nightmare for investors well before the country was turned into an open wound. “Only a crazy person would go into Syria at his own behest,” Vedomosti quoted a source at a major company that was involved in negotiations with the Syrian government in the summer of 2012. Suffering from international sanctions, Syria proposed that Russian companies take part in construction of a thermoelectric power station in Aleppo. Four years later, one of Syria’s largest cities had been turned into ruins by heavy bombardment.

The Rothschilds [sic], who made fortunes on wars, thought the best time to invest was when blood was flowing in the streets. Their approach might seem to resemble the Kremlin’s strategy. But let’s not kid ourselves: unlike the famed financiers, President Putin is completely devoid of insight when it comes to the economic consequences of his military escapades. Business plans are not his strong suit.

Photo courtesy of Mikhail Klementyev/AP and the Washington Post. Translated by the Russian Reader