Daily Briefing: How Twenty Years of Putin Shaped Russia and the World (September 9, 2019)

Meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin with French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of the G20 Summit (Source: Wikipedia)

Table of Contents:

Vladimir the Great: How 20 years of Putin has Shaped Russia and the World: Oliver Carroll, Independent, Aug. 15, 2019

Moscow Divided Between Two Proverbs:  Amir Taheri, Gatestone Institute, Sept. 8, 2019

Russia’s Perpetual Quest for Military Modernization:  Emil Avdaliani, BESA, February 26, 2019

How Nuclear Scientists are Decoding Russia’s  Mystery Explosion:  Elizabeth Gibney, Nature, Aug. 30, 2019
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Vladimir the Great: How 20 years of Putin has Shaped Russia and the World
Oliver Carroll
Independent, Aug. 15, 2019

Vladimir Putin is arguably the most consequential world leader since Winston Churchill. That, if one thinks about it, is quite a statement for a man who initially harboured zero political ambitions. Had an ailing and desperate Boris Yeltsin not reached out to guarantee his power and his family’s immunity – or simply looked elsewhere – Russia’s history would likely have looked very different.

When Putin became prime minister on 19 August 1999, he was a political nobody with a one per cent electoral rating. Most assumed he would quickly go the way that previous Yeltsin hopes had gone – replaced in the midst of crisis. The opportunities for crisis were very real with the northern Caucasus embroiled in civil war and other regions threatening to break away. But instead, 20 years later, Putin is still here. Over those two decades, the young, grey KGB bureaucrat from St Petersburg left his mark on nearly every area of Russian life.

I am the Lord thy God

A lot more than just fashion separates today from the grainy footage of Yeltsin first inviting the 46-year-old Putin into his office. With Putin at the helm, Russia’s political system has been completely overhauled. The undeniable trend has been of growing authoritarianism.

Putin spent much of his early years rebuilding a “power vertical”, subordinating executive powers and the regions to one system of command and control. This happened concurrently with a Soviet institutional revanche, doubling state control over the economy, and returning secret services to the centre stage of Russian life.

There have been at least two discernible ideological phases along the way. The first phase was a pro-western populism: agnostic to NATO, favourable to the United States, and free-market reformist at home. This “diet Putinism” lasted until around 2006-07.
 
Later, ideas of “sovereignty” took over. First came the concept of “sovereign democracy”, introduced by the influential aide Vladislav Surkov, the signal that Russia was beginning to pivot away from the west. There was the 2007 hawkish speech at Munich that took on the world’s security establishment. Then, in 2014, came the controversial annexation of Crimea, and war in Ukraine, which brought other notions: isolationism and a sovereign economy.

“In 20 years, America saw Clinton, Bush Jnr, Obama and Trump, each time with a different policy outlook,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who worked in the Kremlin for the first 12 years of Putin’s rule.  “People think if you have one president, you have just one policy. It’s not like that at all. The first Putin term has nothing in common with the current one.”

‘The first Putin term has nothing in common with the current one’, says former Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image

If Putin transformed Russia, Russia transformed Putin too. Early Putin was unready for the big screen, and his team worried about his image. Putin had never played frontline politics before, and was not used to being the centre of attention. For a while, he even had problems finding a suit that fitted.  … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
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Moscow Divided Between Two Proverbs
Amir Taheri
Gatestone Institute, Sept. 8, 2019

In Russia, August is often regarded as the uncertain season closing the short summer and opening the path to the long duet of autumn and winter. It was, therefore, no surprise in a recent visit to Moscow to see that sense of uncertainty reflected in the political mood of the Russian elites.
To be sure, the uncertainty one notices is still in filigree. Officials and intellectuals supporting the current government are still full of self-confidence, not to say bombast, defending President Vladimir Putin’s “strongman” politics. Nevertheless, conversations regarding the political situation in Russia soon reveal three sources of uncertainty, perhaps even anxiety.

The first is an as yet tentative concern that though Putin’s current presidential term has some four more years to conclude, it is not at all certain that the current ruling elite could find someone of similar stature to carry the torch. In other words, Putinism may end as other “isms” formed around a charismatic leader, something like Gaullism, Peronism or even Titoism.

The second concern is generated by anxiety about the durability of some of Putin’s trademark “successes,” especially in the field of foreign policy. To be sure, he seems to have gotten away with annexing not only the Crimean Peninsula but also South Ossetia and Abkhazia, chunks of Georgian territory captured in 2008. He has also managed to prevent Kosovo, the latest Muslim-majority nation to gain independence, from becoming a member of the United Nations. Putin has also succeeded in establishing Russia as the key player in war-torn Syria by marginalizing not only Iran but also Turkey and the United States. Putin adulators are especially proud of his success in playing the Iran card against the United States while squeezing the Tehran mullahs for unprecedented concessions. The question is how durable, and profitable, those successes are?

With the initial glow of victory fading, the Crimean Peninsula is turning out to be as costly as a profligate mistress becomes as she ages. Counting infrastructure costs, including a new bridge, Crimea is costing Russia around $18 billion a year, of which only a fraction is covered by revenue from tourism, which is in sharp decline because of Western restrictions on travel by their citizens to the peninsula.

Return on Russia’s investment in blood and treasure trying to save President Bashar al-Assad’s shaky regime may appear meager on a second count. To be sure, Assad has given Russia long lease for a major aero-naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. However, in military terms at least, the base could hardly be regarded as an asset for two reasons.

First, it is not at all certain that a future Syrian regime, something inevitable in the medium-term, would remain committed to the signature of a despot who controlled only a fraction of the country at the time of signing. Secondly, a base located in a territory where inhabitants are hostile would always be too vulnerable to count as an asset in a game of strategic brinkmanship. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
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Russia’s Perpetual Quest for Military Modernization
Emil Avdaliani
BESA, February 26, 2019

When we consider the remaining years of the 2010s and look forward into the 2020s, we can clearly see that Russia’s decline in terms of technology, the knowledge economy, and the economy in general will continue to be the dominant trend. A driving factor behind this development is the country’s exorbitant military spending.

Such spending has long been a key factor in Russian history. Russia’s “resurgence,” which appeared to be so robust in the 2000s, already contained many elements of its forthcoming decline. That decline is a complex phenomenon encompassing factors ranging from demography to infrastructure to corruption.

In 2011, an increase in petro-revenues reassured the Moscow leadership of the availability of resources to build up the country’s military might, resulting in approval of the hugely expensive 2020 Armament Program. This mega-investment coincided with the curtailing of many of Medvedev’s “modernization” program initiatives and was criticized by many economists as too big.

This goes hand in hand with what numerous foreign and domestically produced reports identify as a significant decline in Russian scientific productivity. This was even reported by the Russians themselves at times when oil prices were high, which had led many to believe that Russia was resurgent across the Eurasian landmass.

In 2008, the Russian Academy of Science reported on Russia’s Scientific-Technical Development until 2030, noting that the country is losing its technological base as it becomes increasingly dependent on revenues from the sale of natural resources such as gas and oil. Other fundamental problems are inefficiency and high levels of corruption.

However, those problems were not visible to many ordinary Russians at the time, largely due to the focus on the Ukraine crisis, flare-ups in the confrontation with the West, dropping oil prices, and other issues. Corruption and low scientific output are not enough to result in domestic troubles as long as there is sufficient income into the budget. Once income ceases, wounds open and pressure grows for greater accountability from Russian officialdom.

The pattern playing itself out in Russia today matches what has happened in the country’s past. Russia’s history is in many ways, cyclical: there is a tendency for fundamental processes to play out the same way again and again over the long term. By the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was in its last years, Moscow was fundamentally lagging behind the West in terms of technology and other important sectors. Oil prices were low and there was high demand for reform, despite the fact that there was an abundance of resources available to move the country forward. Those financial and natural resources were spent on huge military apparatuses and the development of deadly technologies. The result, predictably, was the dissolution of the Soviet Union. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

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How Nuclear Scientists are Decoding Russia’s Mystery Explosion
Elizabeth Gibney
Nature, Aug. 30, 2019

Rumours continue to swirl about a blast at a Russian naval base on 8 August, which killed five scientists and caused a short, unexplained spike in γ-radiation. Information has been slow to emerge and confused by conflicting reports, but this week, Russia’s weather agency, Roshydromet, finally revealed details about the nuclear radiation that was released.

The information suggests that a nuclear reactor was involved in the blast, which lends weight to the theory that Russia was testing a missile known as Burevestintnik, or Skyfall. President Vladimir Putin told Russia’s parliament in 2018 that the nation was developing the missile, which is propelled by an on-board nuclear reactor and could have unlimited range.

But because official information about the cause could be scarce, independent researchers are finding ways to glean more details about the explosion. Nature examines the growing evidence.

What have official sources said about the blast?

The explosion happened at a military facility in northwestern Russia’s Arkhangelsk region. The region is home to Nenoksa, one of the Russian Navy’s major research and development sites. A day after the blast, Russia’s nuclear agency, Rosatom, said that an accident happened during “tests on a liquid propulsion system involving isotopes” and later added that the incident happened on an offshore platform.

Meanwhile, Roshydromet reported a brief spike in γ-radiation at 16 times the normal level in the city of Severodvinsk, around 30 kilometres east of Nenoksa. On 26 August, Roshydromet revealed the isotopes found in rain and air samples: strontium-91, barium-139, barium-140 and lanthanum-140.

What do we know about the scientists who died?

Rosatom named the dead scientists as Alexei Viushin, Evgeny Kortaev, Vyacheslav Lipshev, Sergei Pichugin and Vladislav Yanovsky. It’s not clear whether they were killed when thrown off the sea platform, or after being exposed to radiation. Few details are known about the scientists’ research, which took place at the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Experimental Physics in Sarov. Viushin was a member of the ALICE collaboration at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, until at least 2016.

What do the isotopes tell us?

The detected isotopes of barium, strontium and lanthanum would be created in the core of a nuclear reactor, which produces energy by splitting uranium atoms in a chain reaction. These isotopes would have been released if a core exploded, says Claire Corkhill, a nuclear scientist at the University of Sheffield, UK. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
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For Further Reference:

In St. Petersburg Election, Russia’s Political Rot Is on Full DisplayAndrew Higgins, NYT, Sept. 7, 2019 — Struggling to shake his image as a bumbling dolt before local elections on Sunday, the acting governor of St. Petersburg made a rare public appearance this past week to open three new subway stations that had taken six years and cost more than $500 million to build.

Putin and the Mullahs Amir Taheri, The Jewish Voice, Aug. 14, 2019 –– In 2015 when President Hassan Rouhani advertised his “nuke deal” with the Obama administration as “the greatest diplomatic victory in the history of Islam,” few people realized that he had, in fact, endorsed a neo-colonial document that put key aspects of Iran’s economic, industrial, scientific and security policies under the tutelage of six foreign powers led by the United States.

Russian Challenges from Now into the Next Generation: A Geostrategic Primer Peter B. Zwack and Marie-Charlotte Pierre, INSS Strategic Perspectives 29, Mar. 25, 2019 — U.S. and Western relations with Russia remain challenged as Russia increasingly reasserts itself on the global stage.

Russia’s Anti-Gov’t Protests Draw Large Crowds, but Putin Remains Secure:  Real News Network, Aug. 16, 2019, Includes video. — Last weekend, in one of the largest opposition protests of the past month, an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 Russians took to the streets in Moscow against the government of President Vladimir Putin.