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?
With national security advisor Michael Flynn’s resignation and new reporting from The New York Times that Trump campaign officials had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials, it is time to ask the fundamental question about this administration’s underlying weakness over Russia:
Was there a quid pro quo between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign to help Trump win?
No one wants to believe this, of course, and it is an important moment to give Trump as many benefits of the doubt as possible. It is probably true that Trump would have defeated Hillary Clinton without any Russian cyber-shenanigans (though of course Richard Nixon would have easily defeated George McGovern in 1972 without ordering a break-in at the Watergate Hotel). It is also true that the leaks coming from the intelligence community could represent a serious threat to civil liberties, though it is not clear to me whether this information is coming directly from the intelligence community or secondhand from any number of potential investigations. There are many ‘known unknowns’ here, and there are potentially even more ‘unknown unknowns.’
If there’s a polite Canadian way to let Donald Trump just what Canada’s government thinks of the incoming US president with just over a week before his inauguration, it must certainly be this:
Promoting to the rank of foreign minister — Canada’s chief diplomat and the key official tasked with US relations — a former journalist who has championed free trade, who last year finalized a landmark free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union and whose writings on Ukraine and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea so offended Russian officials that they placed her on a sanctions list and banned her from setting foot on Russian soil.
Meet Chrystia Freeland.
Like prime minister Justin Trudeau, Freeland is technically very new to elective politics, entering the House of Commons after winning a by-election in Toronto only in 2013. But also like Trudeau, she’s spent her entire adult life steeped in Canadian and global politics.
Earlier this month, voters went to the polls in Belarus to elect the country’s rubber-stamp parliament under its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko and, in what amounts to democratic liberalization, two opposition MPs were elected to the 110-member assembly from the constituency that contains Minsk, the capital.
Last weekend, a higher number of opposition MPs were elected to the state Duma (ду́ма), the lower house of the Russian federal assembly, when Russian voters took to the polls on September 18. Nevertheless, despite the unfair and unfree nature of Russian elections, an electoral rout for president Vladimir Putin’s United Russia (Еди́ная Росси́я) means that Putin will now turn to the presidential election scheduled for 2018 with an even tighter grip on the Duma after United Russia increased its total seats from 238 to 343 in the 450-member body. As predicted, Putin took fewer chances in the September 18 elections after unexpected setbacks in the 2011 elections that saw United Russia’s share of the vote fall below 50% for the first time.
Moreover, nearly all of the remaining seats were awarded to opposition parties — like Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party (Политическая партия ЛДПР), Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party (Коммунистическая Партия) and Sergey Mironov’s A Just Russia (Справедливая Россия) — that long ago ceased to be anything but plaint, obedient and toothless in the face of Putin’s autocratic rule, whose party logos even mirror those of Putin’s United Russia party. Putin’s liberal opponents, operating under greater constraints than in past elections, failed to win even a single seat to the parliament.
The drab affair marked a sharp contrast with the 2011 parliamentary elections, the aftermath of which brought accusations of fraud and some of the most serious and widespread anti-government protests across Moscow (and Russia) since the end of the Cold War, prompting demands for greater accountability and democracy. Today, however, though Russia’s economy is flagging under international sanctions and depressed global oil and commodities prices, Putin’s power appears more absolute than ever. He’s expected to win the next presidential election with ease, thereby extending his rule through at least 2024 (when, conceivably, American voters could be choosing the successor to a two-term administration headed by either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump).
Moreover, more than 18 months after opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was murdered just footsteps from the Kremlin, perhaps the most telling statistic was the drop in turnout — from around 60% in the 2011 parliamentary elections to just under 48% this year. That’s the lowest in a decade, even as reports emerged of ballot-stuffing and other dirty tricks that may have artificially boosted support for Putin’s United Russia. Turnout in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where opposition voices have traditionally been loudest, fell even more precipitously to well below 30%. Though the low turnout might have boosted the share of support that Putin and his allies won, it’s also the clearest sign of growing disenchantment with Putin’s regime and its record on the economy (which contracted by nearly 4% last year, and is expected to contract further in 2016) and on civil and political rights. Corruption, as usual, remains rampant, even if oligarchs no longer dominate the Russian economy as they did in the 1990s.
Perhaps the most well-known opposition leader today, Alexei Navalny, a blogger who was at the heart of the 2011 protests, has been notably quiet (with his own ‘Progress Party’ banned from the election), though he is expected to contest the 2018 presidential vote — at least, if he’s not banned or imprisoned.
Notably, it was the first election since 2003 in which half (225) of the Duma’s seats were determined in single-member constituencies, with the other half determined by party-list proportional representation as in recent elections. Though United Russia won just 140 of the 225 proportional seats, it took 203 of the single-member constituency seats, which undoubtedly contributed to its 105-deputy gain on Sunday. One such new United Russia deputy is Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg native who has battled against LGBT rights for years, including a fight to introduce a law in the local city parliament in St. Petersburg banning so-called ‘gay propaganda.’ (For what it’s worth, Russian authorities today censored one of the most popular gay news websites in the country).
For the Kremlin, though there’s some risk that the new constituency-elected deputies could be more independent-minded than party-list deputies, it’s a risk balanced by the massive supermajority that Putin now commands in the Duma.
Conceivably, as Moscow’s economic woes grow, there’s nothing to stop Putin and his allies from moving the scheduled presidential election to 2017 — and there are signs that Putin plans to do exactly that. (The weekend’s parliamentary elections were moved forward to September from an earlier plan to hold them in December, scrambling opposition efforts).
The elections came just a month after Putin replaced a longtime ally, Sergei Ivanov, as his chief of staff, a sign that the Kremlin is already looking beyond the next presidential race to what would be Putin’s fourth term in office (not counting the additional period from 2008 to 2012 when Putin’s trusted ally Dmitri Medvedev served as president, with Putin essentially running the country as prime minister).
For Putin, the flawed parliamentary vote also comes at a crucial time for Russia’s role in the international order. Increasingly at odds with NATO, Putin thumbed his nose at American and European officials when he annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, then helped instigate a civil war in eastern Ukraine that continues even today. Increasingly, Putin believes that Russia has a geopolitical responsibility to all Russian-speaking people, even those outside Russia’s borders, complicating relations with several former Soviet states. Putin has also stepped up Russian military assistance to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, providing crucial support against Sunni-dominated militias in Aleppo and elsewhere — even as Russian and U.S. officials try to extend a ceasefire in the country’s now five-year civil war.
Moreover, though the Russian parliamentary elections are hardly front-page international news, the results are relevant to the 2016 US presidential election, in which Russian influence and cyberattacks have played a prominent role. As Republican nominee Donald Trump continues to praise Putin as a ‘strong leader,’ it’s important to note that Putin’s strength comes in large part from a brutal disregard for the rule of law and the liberal and democratic values that have, for over two centuries, been a fundamental bedrock of American politics and governance. To the extent that the next president of the United States has to deal with Putin’s ‘strength,’ it will be derived in part from a parliamentary victory yesterday that bears no resemblance to the kind of democracy practiced in the United States today, but through a mix of authoritarian force and coercion. Continue reading Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes→
The theme of this week’s convention could have already been ‘I Took a Pill in Cleveland,’ because it’s clearly more Mike Posner than Richard Posner.
All eyes last night were on Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who lost the Republican nomination to Donald Trump and, notably, Cruz’s pointed refusal to endorse his rival in a rousing address that is one of the most memorable convention speeches in recent memory. Trump’s allies instructed delegates to boo Cruz off the stage, and they spent the rest of the night trashing Cruz for failing to uphold a ‘pledge’ to support the eventual nominee.
But shortly after Cruz’s speech, David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times published a new interview with Trump about foreign policy, in which he indicated that he would be willing as president to break a far more serious pledge — the mutual collective defense clause of Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty that essentially undergirds the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the organization that has been responsible for collective trans-Atlantic security since 1949:
Asked about Russia’s threatening activities, which have unnerved the small Baltic States that are among the more recent entrants into NATO, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing if those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us.”
“If they fulfill their obligations to us,” he added, “the answer is yes.”
Mr. Trump’s statement appeared to be the first time that a major candidate for president had suggested conditioning the United States’ defense of its major allies. It was consistent, however, with his previous threat to withdraw American forces from Europe and Asia if those allies fail to pay more for American protection.
The comments caused, with good reason, a foreign policy freakout on both sides of the Atlantic. The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote, ‘It’s Official: Hillary Clinton is Running Against Vladimir Putin.’ In The Financial Times, a plethora of European officials sounded off a ‘wave of alarm.’
In successive waves, NATO’s core members expanded from the United States and western Europe to Turkey in 1952, to (what was then) West Germany in 1955, Spain in 1982, the new eastern and central European Union states in 1999 and 2004 (which include three former Soviet republics, the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia), and Albania and Croatia in 2009. Of course, many of the more recent NATO member states spent the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain subject to Soviet dominance.
Above all, so much of eastern Europe joined NATO to protect themselves from Russian aggression in the future. Article Five provides that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all NATO countries, entitling the NATO country under attack to invoke the support of all the other NATO members. This has happened exactly once in NATO’s decades-long history, when the United States invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
It’s not the first time Trump has slammed NATO during the campaign; he called it ‘obsolete’ in off-the-cuff remarks at a town hall meeting in March:
“Nato has to be changed or we have to do something. It has to be rejiggered or changed for the better,” he said in response to a question from an audience member. He said the alternative to an overhaul would be to start an entirely new organisation, though he offered no details on what that would be.
He also reiterated his concern that the US takes too much of the burden within NATO and on the world stage. “The United States cannot afford to be the policeman of the world, folks. We have to rebuild this country and we have to stop this stuff…we are always the first out,” he offered.
The latest attack on NATO and, implicitly, the international order since the end of World War II, came just days after NATO’s secretary-general, former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, announced a new plan for NATO cooperation on the international efforts to push back ISIS in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Stoltenberg, it’s worth noting, is the first NATO secretary-general to come from a country that shares a land border with mainland Russia. So he, more than anyone, understands the stakes involved. Continue reading NATO comments show why Trump could inadvertently start a global war→
It might just be the slogan of the 2016 Republican National Convention.
But it has real meaning. As has been widely reported, Donald Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort worked for the former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian puppet who ultimately abdicated in 2014 and fled to Russia when even his own supporters couldn’t defend him firing on protestors in Kiev.
When the pro-Russian clique in Ukraine yelled, “LOCK HER UP” in 2010, after Manafort helped Yanukovych win election, that’s exactly what Ukraine’s new government did. Yanukovych put Yulia Tymoshenko — his 2010 presidential opponent and a former prime minister — in prison. And she spent three years imprisoned, until Yanukovych fled Ukraine and launched the country into a civil war that continues to cripple and divide the one-time Soviet republic to this very day.
Most ironic of all, Tymoshenko’s ostensible crime was for making a natural gas deal as prime minister (under duress) with Russia that Yanukovych, a sycophant of Vladimir Putin, decreed too unfavorable to Ukraine. Even the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Tymoshenko’s jailing was politically motivated.
As I argued in an email earlier tonight to Andrew Sullivan (who’s live-blogging the two conventions for New York Magazine), this is a bad sign for American democracy.
Politicians, and especially presidents, make ethical mistakes. Bill Clinton probably committed perjury about his sex life. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were both knee-deep in Iran-Contra. George W. Bush enabled torture and may have fabricated evidence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as a pretext for war. Hillary Clinton absolutely disrespected the concept of freedom of information with her email server. Yes, she lied about the emails.
But when I hear an entire political convention yelling “LOCK HER UP,” as a slogan, it’s a troubling sign for American democracy and, let’s say it, the critical thinking of an electorate who would be led by a strongman like Donald Trump and, apparently, New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
I almost wish Clinton would invite Tymoshenko to the Democratic National Convention, just to show Americans how dangerous this moment is in American politics. I know that’s impossible, but Tymoshenko knows something about the abuse of law and being a political prisoner. It was tragic to see it happen in Kiev, but to think that we’re at this point in American politics is frightening.
No one believes more in the possibility of a post-crisis and prosperous Ukraine than Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the country’s prime minister and, too often, its chief punching bag.
Never beloved, even among the pro-European Ukrainians who live in the country’s western regions and who resent Russian interference within their borders, Yatsenyuk’s goal since the fall of former president Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, has been rightsizing an economy that’s underperformed even by standards of the region, with growth rates dwarfed by authoritarian Belarus, a Russian ally that’s retained Soviet institutions.
Facing few good options, Yatsenyuk simply gave up, hoping that, perhaps, the resignation of Ukraine’s last ‘true believer’ might shake loose enough support for the economic reforms that Ukraine desperately needs to continue its financial lifeline from the International Monetary Fund. Ironically, though Yatsenyuk has personally advocated liberalizing reforms and anti-corruption measures for years, his government is now seen as incapable of delivering reforms and as incorrigibly corrupt.
Yatsenyuk must now know how former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh surely felt after a decade in office (if not quite in power).
Though the disparate groups who hold power today in Tbilisi rode to power three years ago as the ‘Georgian Dream’ coalition, life for them is quickly devolving into something more like a nightmare.
With fresh elections due in October 2016, prime minister Irakli Garibashvili resigned abruptly on December 23 after just over two years in office (and at the ripe old age of 33). The political crisis has left Georgia, including both the government’s supporters and detractors, stunned. Giorgi Kvirikashvili, foreign minister only since September 2015 and, formerly, the minister of economy and sustainable development, became Georgia’s new prime minister-designate on Christmas Day. Like Garibashvili, he’s a political unknown with longtime ties to Ivanishvili, formerly the head of the Ivanishvili-owned Cartu Bank.
Before ascending to power, Garibashvili was a longtime employee of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire who financed the Georgian Dream (ქართული ოცნება) coalition, united mostly by its opposition to the policies and anti-Russian orientation of Georgia’s former president Mikheil Saakashvili. Garibashvili rose quickly in the new order after the Georgian Dream coalition won the 2012 parliamentary elections. While Ivanishvili himself held the premiership between October 2012 and November 2013, it was Garibashvili, by then a trusted Ivanishvili adviser, who took the pivotal role of minister for internal affairs. In that position, barely out of his twenties, Garibashvili was tasked with ‘reforming’ the Georgian police forces, though he spent more time throwing several former Saakashvili era officials in prison.
When Ivanishvili decided to step aside from frontline politics, no one believed that he was necessarily ceding control of Georgia’s new government, and Garibashvili never truly shook the impression that he was really just a puppet serving at Ivanishvili’s pleasure. That impression will be even harder to shake now, with tongues wagging that it was Ivanishvili who ordered Garibashvili’s resignation.
It isn’t an outrageous leap to believe that Ivanishvili is still calling the shots in Georgia’s government, nor is it unrealistic that he is eager to shake up Georgian politics, above all to protect his return on investment as fresh elections beckon.
Garibashvili never had much of a political power base independent of Ivanishvili. Moreover, he often clashed with Giorgi Margvelashvili, Gerogia’s president, who easily won the October 2013 presidential election (to what is now a mostly ceremonial office, thanks to reforms in the last year of the Saakashvili era that transferred power from the presidency to the parliament). Margvelashvili, formerly a little-known academic and former education and science minister, owes his position, like Garibashvili, mostly to Ivanishvili and his bankroll, though he is nominally an independent and he has demonstrated his willingness to disagree with Ivanishvili publicly from time to time.
It’s no surprise to anyone that the Garibashvili-led government has struggled for the past two years. The economic expansion of the Saakashvili years, with its technocratic zeal for improving infrastructure and attracting foreign development, are now a long-faded memory. Inflation is up, GDP growth is stagnant by the standard recent trends (now expected to be less than 3% and far below the 5% prediction earlier this year) and Georgia’s currency, the lari, is down — by nearly 40%, compared to the US dollar in the last 15 months. Garibashvili’s government has lurched between the rhetoric of reform and a far more unfocused reality, given the varied perspectives among the nationalists, socialists and liberals that comprise the many parties that comprise the Georgian Dream coalition.
With British prime minister David Cameron’s victory in the House of Commons last week, fully four of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus NATO member Turkey and several regional allies, will now be engaged in the fight against ISIS (ISIL/Islamic State/Daesh) in eastern Syria. Following last week’s fatal shooting in San Bernardino, California, by two jihadist sympathizers, US president Barack Obama reassured the United States in a rare Sunday night prime-time address that his administration will continue its intensified airstrikes against ISIS in eastern Syria, increasingly targeting the oil tankers controlled by ISIS that fund its jihadist mission.
Cameron’s team, including foreign minister Philip Hammond, argued that a force of 70,000 ‘moderate’ Syrian forces would be willing and ready to take on the ISIS threat in the event of a coordinated allied campaign to deploy sustained airstrikes against ISIS, both reducing the terrorist threat to Europeans at home and establishing the conditions for peace abroad (and the Obama administration has more or less echoed this sentiment). That seems optimistic, however, given that ‘radical’ rebels, like ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra quickly overpowered ‘moderate’ rebels like the Free Syrian Army throughout 2012 and 2013.
In reality, there’s no bright line among anti-Assad Sunnis in Syria. Although Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is Alawite, 75% of Syria’s pre-war population was Sunni, which means there’s a lot of room for variation. Nevertheless, after more than a year of U.S. airstrikes, moderate Syrians (whether 70,000 or 7,000) and Kurdish peshmerga forces have not effectively dislodged ISIS, particularly outside traditionally Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria.
Though U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is still boosting peace talks in Vienna in early 2016, neither the Assad government nor the anti-Assad rebels have indicated they will join those talks. What’s more, it’s not even clear who would ‘represent’ the anti-Assad rebels, who are fighting as much against each other as they are against Assad.
Even as countries from four continents are running air campaigns in Syria, they are acting in far from a coordinated manner. Tensions are already rising after Turkey downed a Russian military jet late last month, despite repeated warnings that the jet was infringing Russian airspace. Imagine how tense the situation could become if a Russian jet attacks an American one in the increasingly crowded Syrian skies. None of the actors, including Russia or the United States, has any clear strategic plan for an endgame in Syria. Russia still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Assad rules a united postwar Syria, and the United States still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Sunni and Shiite factions can work together to govern Syria — or even Iraq, for that matter.
The descent of the world’s major powers upon Syria was accelerating even before jihadist terrorists left 130 innocent civilians dead in Paris, and the manner in which Syria has now become a proxy war for so many other regional and global actors is starting to resemble the domino trail of alliances and diplomatic errors that began World War I. It’s irresponsible to argue that the world is plunging into World War III, but the escalations in Syria reflects the same kind of destructive slippery slope that began with the assassination of the heir of a fading empire by a nationalist in what was then a provincial backwater. Continue reading ‘Coalition of the frenemies’ is bombing Syria for all the wrong reasons→
Everyone expects the Nobel Peace Prize to have a political meaning.
By the very nature of the prize, it’s not surprising when the Oslo-based awarding committee makes a decision that is affected by — or that subsequently affects — international politics. That follows almost directly from the very words that Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel used to describe the prize’s qualifications:
The most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.
That was true earlier this morning, when Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet received the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. The decision highlights Tunisia’s peaceful transition to democracy and the crucial role that the quarter played in late 2013 to salvage Tunisia’s fragile transition. With an economy that’s still struggling, Tunisia nevertheless remains the only Arab Spring country to depose its leader that is also still working to enshrine a democratic system of government. Libya, Syria and Yemen are locked in anarchy or civil war, and Egypt’s democratically elected president, Islamist Mohammed Morsi, was deposed in a 2013 coup by the Egyptian military. The award is a reminder that the Arab Spring really did bring forth some good in one of the most difficult regions of the world. As the awarding committee itself noted, the prize is essentially a nod to the Tunisian people themselves:
More than anything, the prize is intended as an encouragement to the Tunisian people, who despite major challenges have laid the groundwork for a national fraternity which the Committee hopes will serve as an example to be followed by other countries.
But it was arguably Thursday’s prize to Svetlana Alexievich for literature that makes the bolder and more timely political statement, even though it was awarded by the Swedish Academy (and not by the Norwegian Peace Prize selection committee).
The award would have been edgy enough solely because the Swedish Academy awarded the prize to a nonfiction writer and a journalist. As Philip Gourevitch wrote in The New Yorker in October 2014, the Prize has historically favored fiction over nonfiction, and most especially over contemporary journalism.
Literature prize a shot against Lukashenko — and Putin
But Alexievich’s award — for ‘her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’ — came just three days before a sham election in Belarus.
The way the US and international media portrayed Monday evening’s meeting between US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin, you might think that the diplomatic maneuvering at the United Nations General Assembly over Syria’s civil war amounted to a fight-to-the-finish struggle for the two countries, both of which are permanent members on the UN Security Council.
But that’s just not true because the stakes in Syria for the United States are far, far lower. It is tempting to view every disagreement between the United States and Russia as a zero-sum game, with a clear winner and a clear loser, but that’s false.
Why Syria matters so much to Putin
Consider how important Syria and, in particular, Bashar al-Assad, is to Russia. Assad, these days, doesn’t control much of Syria’s territory, but he does retain power throughout many of the coastal cities where most of Syria’s weary population still resides. That’s important to Moscow because the Syrian coast hosts the only warm-water port for the Russian navy at Tartus.
But it’s so much more.
While the United States continues to project influence on a global basis and while China has expanded its regional reach into south Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and even parts of Latin America, Russia’s post-Soviet influence is more limited. The battle lines between Russia and the ‘West’ are no longer Vietnam or Afghanistan or even Poland or Hungary, it’s skirmishes within former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia or fights over influence in central Asia.
Syria, however, retained the strong ties with Moscow that it developed under Assad’s father Hafez in the 1970s. Outside the former Soviet republics, there is virtually no other country that you could consider anything like a Russian ‘client state,’ with the exception of Syria. That’s a big deal for a country resentful that it has gone from a truly global player — culturally, technologically, politically and economically — to regional chump with fading commodity exports, crumbling physical and social infrastructure and an economy one-tenth that of the US economy. Continue reading Why the ‘brosé summit of 2015’ was more about Russia than the United States→
Increasingly, though, Saakashvili has become a persona non grata in Georgia, where he held power between 2004 and 2013, ushering in liberal reforms to a country sorely in need of liberalization. When an umbrella coalition of opponents, led and financed by Bidzina Ivanishvili defeated his ruling party in late 2013, Saakashvili recognized the loss and facilitated the ensuing political transition, which coincided with the constitutional change from a strong presidential system to a parliamentary system.
So it was quite a surprise to see Saakashvili emerge last weekend in Saturday as the newly minted governor of the Odessa region.
We live in an era where Stanley Fischer can obtain Israeli citizenship, lead its central bank and then return to the United States to become vice chair of the Federal Reserve — or where Mark Carney can switch roles from heading the Bank of Canada to the Bank of England. So why shouldn’t a well-regarded former president be permitted, especially at the young age of 47, to take on a politically difficult role in a nearby country — especially when the struggles facing Georgia and Ukraine are so similar?
In order to assume the role as Odessa’s new governor, Saakashvili was obligated to give up his Georgian citizenship and accept from Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko an offer of Ukrainian citizenship. Saakashvili previously refused to do so when Poroshenko earlier offered him a position as deputy prime minister.
A post-presidential exile from Georgia
As Saakashvili himself has noted, however, Georgian citizenship entitles him to little more than six square meters in prison. That’s because the current government has charged Saakashvili with multiple offenses, all of which seem precariously motivated by politics, not the rule of law. Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev called the announcement a ‘circus,’ but the reaction from Georgia’s current leadership was even more incendiary. Tina Khidasheli, the country’s defense minister, attached Saakashvili for treason, and the country’s president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, called the move an ‘insult’ to Georgia and its government.
The step could complicate Saakashvili’s plans to lead the opposition in the 2016 parliamentary elections in Georgia or compete for the presidency in 2018.
As president, there’s no doubt that Saakashvili reduced corruption and improved the underlying Georgian economy and, in stepping down with grace, established a strong precedent for democratic transition and the rule of law. His largest miscalculation came in 2007 and 2008, when he escalated military and diplomatic tensions with Russia. With high hopes for NATO and European Union membership, and believing Western forces would ultimately come to his aid, Saakashvili’s clash with the Russian military led to the quasi-annexation of two breakaway republics — Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Many of the current government’s criminal charges against Saakashvili today spring from the debacle. Continue reading Saakashvili makes a political return — to Odessa→
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.
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.
Throughout the Putin era, it hasn’t been uncommon to see political opponents harassed or even killed.
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.
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.
It might be tempting today for policymakers in Berlin, Washington, Brussels and London to have a moment of schadenfreude at the Russian currency crisis, which seems to deepen by the hour.
But as Russia’s economy significantly weakens, those same officials might regret their glee if it causes Russian president Vladimir Putin to double down on the nationalist rhetoric and geopolitical aggression that’s characterized his third term in office. The Guardian‘s Larry Elliott declared that with today’s collapse, the West has won its ‘economic war’ with Russia and otherwise christened it ‘Russia’s Norman Lamont moment,’ a reference to the British pound’s collapse in 1992:
Back in September 1992, the then chancellor said he would defend the pound and keep Britain in the exchange rate mechanism by raising official borrowing costs to 15%, even though the economy was in deep trouble at the time.
European and US governments slapped economic sanctions against several top Russian officials earlier this year, largely in retaliation for Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March and the Kremlin’s continued role supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. Even today, US president Barack Obama indicated that he would support even more economic sanctions against Russian weapons producers and other companies tied to the Russian defense industry after the US Congress overwhelmingly passed a new anti-Russia bill with bipartisan support.
The last Russian financial crisis in 1998 coincided with slowdowns across the developing world, an ominous sign for the struggling Brazilian, Indian and Chinese economies. It may have even precipitated the 1998-99 Asian currency crisis.
Much of Putin’s support in the last decade and in his first stint as president from 2000 to 2008 rested on the economy’s strong performance. After the embarrassing and impoverishing experience of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Putin era brought an end to the grinding poverty that characterized the presidency of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Buoyed by rising demand for Russian oil and gas, Putin presided over a boom in the mid-2000s that materially raised incomes across Russia, especially in cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
That continued even through the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, when Putin, barred from a third consecutive term, instead served as prime minister. But since returning to the Kremlin in 2012, Putin has faced an increasingly precarious economy, and as Max Fisher and other commentators have convincingly argued, the political basis for Putin’s government has shifted from economic grounds to increasingly nationalist and populist rhetoric. That explains the Kremlin’s machinations in Ukraine and its growing political standoff with Europe and the United States, a stand that’s boosted Putin’s previously flagging approval ratings.
If that’s true, though, the risk of Russian aggression is actually rising as its economy deteriorates. There are now several potential catalysts — the currency crisis could easily engender a wider economic recession, oil prices might continue their drop, or the United States and Europe could implement deeper sanctions. In such case, Russian president Vladimir Putin may respond by intensifying his saber-rattling against not only Ukraine, but the Baltic states, southern Europe, Moldova and Kazakhstan, to say nothing of Belarus, Georgia or elsewhere. Continue reading Why the West shouldn’t root for Russia’s rouble freefall→