Tag Archives: kremlin

Low-key Kislyak lies at the heart of Trump’s ongoing Russia mystery

Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak lies at the heart of the mysteries surrounding ties between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. (Sputnik)

He’s served as the Kremlin’s man in Washington since 2008.

But only now has Sergey Kislyak, the low-key Russian ambassador to the United States, started making headlines as the person no one in the Trump administration seems to remember meeting.

It’s not a crime for a sitting US senator to meet with the ambassador of a country that sits on the UN security council, even one that’s sometimes , like Russia. It might not even, as a technical matter, be perjury, that US attorney general Jeff Sessions ‘forgot’ about the two conversations he is now reported to have had with Kislyak in 2016 at the height of the presidential election campaign.

So who is the old Russian hand at the center of a controversy that’s already claimed the resignation of Mike Flynn, the retired general who is no longer national security advisor, and might claim Sessions as well?

Kislyak is a longtime career diplomat who speaks fluent English and French. In contrast to Russia’s long-serving foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, the burlier and less polished Kislyak mostly avoids the spotlight. If reports are true, Kislyak is already a lame-duck ambassador — Moscow is reportedly readying a more hard-line figure, deputy prime minister Anatoly Antonov, to replace Kislyak.

One of the mysteries of the current brouhaha over the Trump campaign’s ties to Kremlin officials is the disconnect in December between Kislyak’s initial anger over the outgoing Obama administration’s additional sanctions (related to increasing indications that Russia attempted to use cybertricks to interfere with the US election) and the Kremlin’s more relaxed response a day later — after nearly a half-dozen calls between Flynn and Kislyak:

The concerns about the contacts were cemented by a series of phone calls between Mr. Kislyak and Michael T. Flynn, who had been poised to become Mr. Trump’s national security adviser. The calls began on Dec. 29, shortly after Mr. Kislyak was summoned to the State Department and informed that, in retaliation for Russian election meddling, the United States was expelling 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives and imposing other sanctions. Mr. Kislyak was irate and threatened a forceful Russia response, according to people familiar with the exchange.

But a day later, Mr. Putin said his government would not retaliate, prompting a Twitter post from Mr. Trump praising the Russian president — and puzzling Obama White House officials. On Jan. 2, administration officials learned that Mr. Kislyak — after leaving the State Department meeting — called Mr. Flynn, and that the two talked multiple times in the 36 hours that followed. American intelligence agencies routinely wiretap the phones of Russian diplomats, and transcripts of the calls showed that Mr. Flynn urged the Russians not to respond, saying relations would improve once Mr. Trump was in office, according to multiple current and former officials.

So who is Kislyak and how did he come to be the Kremlin’s envoy to Washington for a decade?

Continue reading Low-key Kislyak lies at the heart of Trump’s ongoing Russia mystery

Obama’s top two foreign rivals could be vanquished in one week

putinnetanyahuPhoto credit to Kobi Gideon / GPO / Flash90.

It’s still irresponsible chatter to suggest that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s nine-day absence from public view is anything more serious than the flu.USflagRussia Flag IconISrel Flag Icon

But as Julia Ioffe wrote Saturday in The Washington Post, even if Putin’s absence is, as very likely, caused by something as mundane as the influenza epidemic currently sweeping through Moscow, it is becoming a more serious event because of the highly personalized system of Russian government where everything has become so micromanaged by Putin and his close allies. The longer Putin’s absence, the greater the chances of an internal coup or putsch, perhaps by the internal security forces, the siloviki, upon whose support Putin rose to power in the 2000s:

You can see why some in Russia are panicking right now—or veiling their discomfort in humor. It certainly doesn’t help that Putin’s disappearance comes at a particularly nervous time for the country. It is at war in Ukraine, its economy is shuddering under sanctions and historically low oil prices, and the opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, was recently gunned down steps from the Kremlin. There is a sense in Moscow that the wheels are coming off. To Moscow’s chattering class, Putin’s disappearance confirms that impression.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, in national elections, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) is set to win fewer seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset (הכנסת) than the center-left Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני‎) of Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and former justice minister Tzipi Livni. Though it’s too soon to write off a third consecutive mandate for Netanyahu, the March 17 vote is the toughest electoral fight for Netanyahu since he lost his first bid for reelection in 2001.

Even if Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, a former Likud speaker in the Knesset, convinces Likud and the Zionist Union to form a national unity coalition, polls show that Herzog, and not Netanyahu, would become prime minister. That would place deadening pressure on Netanyahu’s leadership of Likud, where capable replacements, such as former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar, are waiting in the wings.


Remarkably, that means that US president Barack Obama’s two most nettlesome rivals in international affairs could be sidelined in the course of the same week — or even the same day. Continue reading Obama’s top two foreign rivals could be vanquished in one week

Nemtsov assassination rocks Moscow


Throughout the Putin era, it hasn’t been uncommon to see political opponents harassed or even killed.Russia Flag Icon

Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in 2006 in the elevator of her building in central Moscow after writing several highly praised books detailing the dark side of life in Russia under president Vladimir Putin.

Officials in the United Kingdom protested furiously when, as if out of a Cold War thriller novel, former Russian secret service agent Alexander Litivinenko was apparently poisoned with the radioactive polonium-210 a month later.

Alexei Navalny, who rose to prominence more recently as a critic of Putin and the corruption of Russian government, has been harassed and imprisoned on politically motivated charges.

* * * * *

RELATED: The idea of a nuclear war with Russia is absolutely crazy

* * * * *

Business leaders like Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky were exiled and imprisoned after Putin’s government decided that they amassed too much wealth in the fire sale of the 1990s when Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, sold many of the former Soviet Union’s public assets.

But the assassination of opposition figure and former Yeltsin-era deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov is the most brazen attack yet. I’m sure no one will ever be able to tie Nemtsov’s murder to the Kremlin, which is already officially condemning the murder. The attack — an audacious murder on the streets of Moscow when Nemtsov was otherwise on a Friday night stroll — sends a chilling message to everyone in Russia who opposes Putin’s increasingly autocratic rule (not to say that Putin’s rule was even incredibly liberal or democratic).

Nemtsov’s assassination seems certain to subdue a planned opposition march scheduled for Sunday.

Don’t think for a moment that this isn’t exactly the gruesome image the Kremlin wants its critics to see — a dissident gunned down in the back just footsteps away from the Kremlin walls: Continue reading Nemtsov assassination rocks Moscow

A Russian bailout may have always been ‘Plan B’ for Tsipras

junckertsiprasPhoto credit to ELTOS/ELTA.

It may have seemed odd that, within hours of taking office, Greece’s new prime minister Alexis Tsipras struck out at the European Union to delay and ultimately weaken the bloc’s resolution to extend sanctions against Russia and certain actors within the Russian government.Greece Flag IconRussia Flag Icon

The incident shed light on an under-explored element of policy preferences of Greece’s new governing party, the leftist SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left — Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς), including its reluctance to embrace NATO and the traditional military and security alliance that links the United States and the European Union. Tspiras, who has visited the Kremlin several times, has forcefully opposed the EU sanctions against Russia stemming from its involvement in the unrest in eastern Ukraine.

Furthermore, Tsipras’s choice to form a coalition with the right-wing, anti-austerity Independent Greeks (ANEL, Ανεξάρτητοι Έλληνες), and to appoint ANEL’s leader, Panos Kammenos, as defense minister, brought into government a brand of right-wing nationalism with roots in traditional Greek Orthodoxy and plenty of euroscepticism.

Throughout the campaign and, indeed, for years, Tspiras has publicly evoked confidence, if not outright cockiness, that he would be able to negotiate a deal to lighten Greece’s debt load if elected to power. Presumably, many commentators believed that meant Tsipras was willing to engage EU elites, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, in a game of ‘chicken’ over Greece’s potential exit from the eurozone. That’s probably still true.

But the common view among most economists is that Greece’s leverage on this point is growing weaker. Merkel and others have privately briefed that the eurozone is much stronger now than in 2012 when the ‘Grexit’ issue first became a real concern, and they don’t believe that the contagion from a Grexit today would be considerable. Greece’s turmoil can be isolated, but caving to the demands of the Tsipras government could embolden radical leftists elsewhere in Europe, especially in Spain, where the leftist Podemos movement now leads polls in advance of elections later this =year. The European Central Bank last week essentially backed Merkel’s view by announcing that it would refuse to accept Greek bonds as collateral, pushing the burden of risk on Greek debt exclusively upon the Greek central bank. Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis clashed publicly with German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble last week as well, noting that he didn’t even ‘agree to disagree’ with Schäuble over the Greek debt standoff.

But Kammenos’s comments yesterday about Greece’s ‘Plan B’ make it clear that the Tsipras government believes it has another, potentially more explosive card it can play:

“What we want is a deal. But if there is no deal – hopefully (there will be) – and if we see thatGermany remains rigid and wants to blow apart Europe, then we have the obligation to go to Plan B. Plan B is to get funding from another source,” he told a Greek television show that ran into early Tuesday. “It could the United States at best, it could be Russia, it could beChina or other countries,” he said.

The United States is certainly not going to undermine Merkel and the EU leadership, especially to bail out a far-left government in Greece. Furthermore, China’s recent history demonstrates that it very rarely makes splashy political moves in foreign policy outside regional Asian politics (such as in Bhutan or Sri Lanka).

That, of course, leaves Russia, which shares a common form of Christianity with Greece in Orthodoxy, and which also happens to be in the middle of the most high-stakes geopolitical struggle with NATO since the end of the Cold War. Continue reading A Russian bailout may have always been ‘Plan B’ for Tsipras

Pre-Sochi required reading list: McFaul’s foibles and Putin’s Olympics


If you read nothing else before the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, you could do much worse than these two brilliant pieces in Foreign Policy and Politico Magazine that explain in majestic scale the state of Russia today and the nature of US-Russian relations in the 2010s, even as journalists started arriving in Sochi earlier this week and reporting the (sometimes humorous) problems with infrastructure. USflagRussia Flag Icon

The first is a profile of Michael McFaul (pictured below), the US ambassador to Russia, who announced earlier this week that he will step down following the Winter Games in Sochi, after just two years as the US envoy to Moscow.  Just the second non-career diplomat in US history to hold the post, Michael Weiss writes in Foreign Policy about both McFaul’s successes and failures, but especially McFaul’s failures, evident from the first sentence:

The Kremlin, for instance, will be sad to see the nicest, most eager-to-please man to ever inhabit Spaso House quit the joint after only two years of floundering and squirming under the Kremlin’s systematic, Vienna Convention-violating sadism.


McFaul (pictured above with Obama), a  professor of political science at Stanford University, previously served as US president Barack Obama’s special assistant and senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs.  The ‘reset’ concept with Russia at the beginning of the Obama administration was McFaul’s brainchild — though the US secretary of state at the time Hillary Clinton, memorably presented her Russian counterpart with a reset button inscribed with the word peregruzka (‘overload’) instead of perezagruzka (‘reset’).  But it’s important to remember that McFaul was also instrumental in the successful negotiations to enact deeper nuclear non-proliferation through the New START treaty with Russia enacted in May 2010.

Weiss’s piece makes clear just how difficult it was for McFaul to adjust between ‘advocate’ mode and ‘diplomat’ mode, and most of the major ‘gaffes’ of McFaul’s tenure relate to the gap between advocate and diplomat — over-reliance on social media; meeting with a wide group of the Kremlin’s political opponents for his first official meeting; dissembling over the Magnitsky Act (which ties US-Russian trade to human rights abuses) and encouraging Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization; or even the time he tweeted about ‘Yoburg’ (which translates to ‘Fuckville’ in Russian) instead of ‘Yeakaterinburg.’

McFaul had a style that was hard to account for or justify, as when he admitted, by way of an apology, that he was “not a professional diplomat.” This, too, had the merit of being true; but what, it prompted many to wonder, was he doing in the most difficult diplomatic posting on the planet advertising as much?

Though John Beyrle, the career diplomat who served as ambassador between 2008 and 2011, would not have made those same mistakes, he also wouldn’t have tweeted a message of support (‘I’m watching.’) to opposition figure Alexei Navalny last summer during a politically-motivated trial on trumped-up charges.  Part of the charge against McFaul is that he didn’t follow the rulebook of international diplomacy, but that runs both ways — one man’s diplomatic faux pas is another man’s bravery.  If, a decade from now, we look back at the August 2013 confrontation with Syria as the start of a successful model for US-Russian cooperation, the Obama-McFaul reputation on Russian relations will look drastically better  (of course, that depends mostly on the cooperation of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in dismounting his chemical weapons program and the ability of the OPCW and UN personnel to evacuate them from a country in the midst of a civil war).

Ultimately, though, the McFaul tenure coincides with what seems today like a stark deterioration in bilateral relations, even from the headier days of 2009 and 2010.  Here’s the devastating kicker:

Unfortunately, he’s leaving with the Russian media portraying America as a country that tortures orphans to death, brainwashes children into becoming homosexuals, supports al Qaeda terrorists in the Middle East, eggs on neo-Nazis to overthrow the government of Ukraine, and otherwise behaves as both a bumbling colossus and a serially defrauded and discombobulated mug in world affairs.

The second piece you should read is Leon Aron’s piece in Politico Magazine explaining how the Winter Games initially came to Sochi (partly a rare English-language speech from Putin to the International Olympic Committee in 2007):

But it mostly explains why, at a price tag of between $50 billion and $55 billion, they’re the most staggeringly expensive Olympics ever (more than even Beijing’s 2008 Summer Games and more than all previous Winter Games in Olympic history):  Continue reading Pre-Sochi required reading list: McFaul’s foibles and Putin’s Olympics

Opposition critic Navalny’s conviction, in Putin’s Russia, is a badge of authenticity


So right on time, the Russian government has engineered a conviction of Alexei Navalny, the outspoken critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin.Russia Flag Icon

His conviction stems from a truly bizarre accusation that he embezzled around $500,000 out of a timber company in Kirov, an industrial town hundred of miles northeast of Moscow, and all signs indicate that the conviction is politically motivated to remove Navalny as a Putin critic whose following is growing — and his conviction is likely to only enhance his attraction.

Navalny now faces five years in Russian prison far away from Moscow, where Navalny was running to contest the mayoral election on September 8, an election that’s now even more likely to be won by incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, a Putin ally who took power after former mayor Yuri Luzhkov was pushed out of office by then-president Dmitry Medvedev in 2010.  The election’s sudden timing effectively prohibited prominent billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov from arranging his complex international finances in order to contest the race, leaving Navalny as the leading prominent challenger.

Prokhorov, who owns the New Jersey Nets, and who waged a presidential campaign in March 2012, has shown that his opposition is a much more delicate dance with the Kremlin than Navalny, who led full-throated protests in Moscow protesting the presidential vote and credible allegations of fraud in the December 2011 elections to the ду́ма (Duma), Russia’s lower legislative chamber.  In contrast to Navalny’s sledgehammer opposition, Prokhorov has been more hesitant to cross Putin and Putin’s allies, and it was even speculated last year that Prokhorov’s opposition was entirely manufactured by Putin’s allies.  That’s probably not true — after all, Prokhorov, as a good businessman, has much more to lose from a full-throated attack on the Kremlin than Navalny — and he’s forged links with other credible opposition figures like former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin.

Navalny had become such a radioactive political figure in recent days that Prokhorov even refused to back Navalny in the Moscow mayoral race, instead endorsing Sergey Troitsky, the lead singer of a Russian heavy metal band, ‘Corrossive Metal,’ and who is most well-known by his stage name, Pauk, which means ‘spider’ in Russian.

But Navalny’s conviction today means that he’s likely to leapfrog the tentative Prokhorov and other anti-Putin activists as the central figure of the Russian opposition.  Russian prisons are notoriously brutal places, rife with violence and diseases, including drug-resistant tuberculosis, and Navalny faces some amount of peril in the years ahead.  Navalny’s conviction is already drawing international condemnation, and Putin will now have succeeded in elevating a one-time gadfly into a political figure empowered with the authenticity of someone who’s willing to face down Russia’s horrible prisons as the price of speaking out against Putin.

Navalny tweeted and blogged to his supporters, encouraging them to keep up his fight against Putin’s dominant Еди́ная Росси́я (United Russia) party, which he famously referred to as a ‘party of crooks and thieves.’

After the verdict, Navalny tweeted: “So that’s it. Don’t get bored without me. Most importantly, don’t sit around doing nothing. The toad won’t get off the oil pipe by itself.”

In his LiveJournal blog on Wednesday Navalny said: “The current authorities are not a big, healthy fish, but rather a bloated fish or Latin American toad, which puffs itself up when it sees danger, with the help of television.”

Utlimately, Navalny’s trial and conviction are another indication that the Putin administration intends on being as fully authoritarian as it needs to be to hold onto power, in the same way that prominent opposition leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko remained — and still remains — in prison over politically motivated charges in neighboring Ukraine during last October’s parliamentary elections.

But Putin, in attempting to silence a 21st century critic with ham-fisted 20th century methods, risks that his strategy will backfire by bringing Navalny even more notoriety and credibility.  Just witness the international attention that the politically motivated trials against oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky commanded, the sudden 2006 murder of prominent anti-Putin journalist Anna Politkovskayaor even the suspicions of foul play in the apparent suicide earlier this year of exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky in London.

Continue reading Opposition critic Navalny’s conviction, in Putin’s Russia, is a badge of authenticity

Largest street protests in Moscow since the Soviet Union’s fall?

UPDATE (1:15 pm ET): Alexey Navalny (@navalny), a top blogger and critic of the Putin regime, has been arrested in Moscow.

Protestors are gathering on Pushkin Square in Moscow against widespread fraud in yesterday’s Russian presidential election for what could be the largest anti-government movement since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Former Guardian Moscow correspondent Luke Harding has called this moment newly restored President Vladimir Putin’s “Brezhnev moment,” the moment where Putin stops bearing any semblance to a truly elected leader:

Sunday night was Vladimir Putin’s Brezhnev moment. It was when he ceased simply being an elected leader and segued towards a lifetime presidency. Having neatly sidestepped the rules by doing a stint as prime minister (no Russian leader can serve more than two consecutive presidential terms) Putin can now go on and on. Brezhnev did 18 years, Stalin 31. Despite the whispers of revolution lapping at the Kremlin’s walls, who would bet against Vladimir matching Leonid?

Julia Ioffe has a thoughtful column in Foreign Policy today that sets forth the fundamental choice that Putin will have to make in the days ahead in response:

What Putin decides to do come March 5 is “the central question, not because Putin decides everything in politics on March 5 but precisely because he can no longer decide everything himself,” says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who worked on Putin’s 2000 presidential campaign but was fired by the Kremlin in the last year. “It’s become a very complicated scene.” The way Pavlovsky sees it, there are two possible paths: modernize and reform the political system or “play the tsar.” The first option is the more difficult one, but should Putin choose the second door, Pavlovsky predicts, “He’ll become a prisoner of his own system, completely out of touch with reality, locked in the Kremlin and with his minions ruling in his name. And this is the worst possible outcome.”

I would put it in even starker terms: if the protests gather the kind of momentum that’s being expected, Putin will have to choose between Iran 2009 and Tunisia 2011.  Putin can “play the tsar” (which is much the same in this context as playing the ayatollah) and use brute force to kill, imprison and scare away the opposition, but in doing so will only delegitimize his regime further in the eyes of the opposition, of the international community and within the Russian elite.  Putin can compromise with the opposition, but risks a slippery-slope that leads to his downfall (much like deposed Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali) or, at the very least, the kind of embarrassing electoral re-run that occurred in 2004 after the fraudulent Ukrainian elections spawned the “Orange Revolution.”

Either result would sharply reduce Putin’s current position of strength, which should make the next 12 hours fascinating for Kremlinologists.

In the meanwhile, as protests are scheduled to get underway, we have an indication of what the future might hold:


Kremlin Kops or Keystone Kops?

After a weekend in which anti-Putin protestors united in a ring of defiance around the Kremlin, truly wacky reports have surfaced of a potential assassination plot against Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, stymied by Ukrainian security forces:

The Russian prime minister’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told the BBC “this was absolutely a plot to kill the prime minister.”

It seems not outside the realm of possibility that Ukraine’s government, which is currently controlled by pro-Russian factions under pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, could be convinced to help legitimize the gravity of the plot.  Certainly, the Kremlin ploy helps to distract, in part, from anti-Putin protests just six days in advance of the first round of Russia’s presidential election.

In a piece in The Guardian yesterday, Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was jailed by Putin a decade ago and removed as CEO of Yukos Oil, advocates a vote for any of the four opponents to Putin, thereby forcing Putin into a second-round runoff vote.  He compares the recent grassroots protests against Putin to the Arab Spring protests of 2011 that toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt:

By forcing a second round we will push our country down the path of positive change. Presidential power that previously answered to no one would have to start listening to the people it serves. The state that until now took the monopolistic presidential power for granted would be more wary of its hold and start moderating its behaviour. The politicians who gathered the opposition votes could become a force to be reckoned with, a voice for articulating the thoughts and views that have been ignored before. The establishment would have to start negotiating with the opposition and an evolutionary transition could meaningfully begin. Continue reading Kremlin Kops or Keystone Kops?