20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s Western media highlights, David Remnick dissects the mutual affection between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, arguing the latter is essentially using the former to promote his interests. In the Times, Dominick Kennedy reviews Russia’s propaganda efforts in the UK, while in Foreign Affairs, Andrei Soldatov explains how Russian intelligence is engaging with third parties to wage a cyberwar. In the Russian media, experts discuss the risks facing the Russian economy, the country’s unwillingness to modernize, and the U.S. media’s reaction to news that the DNC hacking scandal might have been staged by Russian intelligence.


In the recent weeks, the U.S. media paid special attention to the so-called Trump-Putin 'bromance,' with some observers calling the U.S. presidential candidate "Putin's agent". Photo: Ricky Bassman / Cal Sport Media via ZUMA Wire / TASS


From the West

Trump and Putin: A Love Story

David Remnick, New Yorker

David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, sets the scene for the supposed “love story” between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin that looms large in the current American presidential race. Remnick paints a rich backstory for the two men and asks the question “Who is really using whom?” As a youth, Trump was disruptive in class and was eventually shipped off to military school to keep him out of trouble, after which he went on to inherit his father’s fortune. Meanwhile, the young Vladimir Putin was raised by a wounded war veteran (often under harsh circumstances) in a St. Petersburg communal apartment and would play at chasing rats with a stick for fun. Putin started at the bottom and rose through the ranks of the KGB—he was a mid-ranking officer in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell. The contrast between the two men is stark. Trump displays a blatant ignorance of and carelessness towards questions of geopolitics and a reluctance to embrace the United States’ leading role in NATO, and it is clear that these “weaknesses” could be positively received in Moscow should the Republican nominee enter the White House. Trump and Putin do have one thing in common: a love of money. The author cites the broadcaster Sergei Parkhomenko when he remarks, “It will be easy to deal with Trump. He won’t need to use words in negotiations, only figures. When they don’t agree, it will only be necessary to find the right price.” Remnick suggests that the self-made Putin is a “cunning and cynical reader of his adversaries,” and in Remnick’s own words, “Putin knows a chump when he sees one.”


Putin Wages Propaganda War on UK

Dominic Kennedy, The Times

Dominic Kennedy’s piece this Saturday in the Times highlights the Kremlin’s attempts to infiltrate the British media space. In the wake of allegations of hacking by Kremlin-affiliated actors and the supposed attempt to interfere in the American presidential election, the author accuses the Kremlin of “spreading disinformation through a newly opened British bureau for its Sputnik international news service” in Edinburgh, Scotland. Kennedy points out that Sputnik’s new Edinburgh bureau has already been caught circulating reports suggesting that Labour MP Jo Cox may have been killed as part of a European Union plot, in an attempt to sway the United Kingdom referendum result, among other conspiracy theories. The author argues that this is just the tip of the iceberg and that a number of language and cultural centers have been set up on university campuses around the UK, funded by organizations such as the Russkiy Mir (Russian World) Foundation, run by Vyacheslav Nikonov, former assistant to the head of the KGB—Russkiy Mir, of course, being President Putin’s now-famous term for Russia’s periphery, where Russian speakers make up a significant portion of the population as a result of the fall of the Soviet Union. Kennedy claims that “Scotland is an attractive strategic target for Russia, which sees Britain—a nuclear power and permanent member of the United Nations Security Council—as a check on its ambitions.”


Cyber Showdown

Andrei Soldatov, Foreign Affairs

This week in Foreign Affairs Andrei Soldatov looks at the extent to which Russia’s alleged hacking operations can be traced back to the Kremlin. The author notes that the traditional Russian security services such as the FSB have been slow to adapt to the perpetual development of the Internet and that the Kremlin has been known to outsource hacking to third-party companies. In 2015 the Russian technology company Qrator was approached by a Kremlin official to provide help in working on something “sensitive.” As we now know, this turned out to be the start of a number of denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks on the Ukrainian Defense Ministry website and several Russian liberal media outlets. Soldatov suggests that the Kremlin “well understands that the use of informal contacts and agreements made through a wink from a government official rather than a chain of command provides plausible deniability.” While this feeds the narrative of calculated Putin-led attacks against the international order such as the recent leak of Democratic National Committee emails, the author suggests that the Kremlin is in fact not as prepared as it could be to harness the potential powers of cyber-warfare.


From Russia

The Calm Before the Storm: Can Economic Collapse Be Avoided in 2018?

Vladislav Inozemtsev, Slon.ru

Citing Tatiana Nesterenko, Russia’s deputy finance minister, Vladislav Inozemtsev, who heads the Institute of the Post-Industrial Society Studies, states that the country’s economic situation is currently in the “eye of the storm,” where everything only looks calm and quiet. In reality, the economy has hit bottom, but the government makes no actual effort to lay a path to recovery, having accepted the status-quo as the “new normal,” spending money from the sovereign Reserve Fund and somehow even cherishing hopes for the improvement of Russia’s relationship with the West. The author argues that the government should have developed anti-crisis policies long ago. As for the existing plans recently presented to the president by Aleksei Kudrin and Boris Titov, their goal is to stimulate the economy from the production side. Inozemtsev argues that neither plan will succeed in boosting the economy, because at the center of Russia’s recession is a crisis of consumer demand. The author suggests shifting the focus of the government’s discourse to delivering help to the people and launching a discussion about these three measures: increase wages and pensions for low-income Russians; hold a one-time debt and tax amnesty for those citizens whose housing services, utilities, and tax debts do not exceed 30,000 rubles ($457); and introduce direct measures to stimulate demand (i.e. an equivalent of the United States’ food stamps program).


Deficit of Dignity

Ivan Mikirtumov, Vedomosti

According to philosopher Ivan Mikirtumov, modernization is the only process of societal change that preserves such values as dignity and prestige in the public conscience. Looking at the last two centuries of world history, one can easily draw a distinction between leading countries and those trailing behind, struggling to catch up. The feeling of belonging to a leading country provides for positive self-determination within the society—benefiting the people’s lifestyle, self-esteem, activities, inclination to innovate, etc. The author notes that in the 20th century, a government’s inability to sufficiently feed and dress its people was a “disgrace for the political nation,” and it was this inability that ultimately undermined the Soviet state. Aspirations to live with dignity turned incompatible with totalitarian ideology; the discrepancy between these aspirations and reality made the whole Soviet project impossible. One of the factors that constitutes life with dignity is pride in national achievements. In today’s Russia, according to polls, people are proud of their country’s history, natural resources, and military forces. The author notes that only the latter is a measure of progress, but despite the government’s recent attempt at military modernization, Russia’s perception of its military still hinges on associations with past victories (i.e. the Great Patriotic War). Russian authorities are currently offering to the public ideology and rhetoric in place of real modernization. So far, the public is willing to play along, but Mikirtumov argues, this is leading to the degradation of Russian society. Today, Russia lacks a demand for dignity and, as a result, for modernization. The author contends that “it is more humiliating to imitate dignity than to completely lack it.”


How the American Media is Electing Putin President of the U.S.

Alexey Kovalev, Carnegie.ru

The author details the reaction of American media to Donald Trump’s foreign policy statements about Vladimir Putin and Russia, reactions that reflect increasing concerns that the cunning Russian leader may be trying to influence the U.S. presidential election with the goal of promoting the Kremlin’s interests in the West. Though conspiracy theories about Trump being an agent of Putin’s have been circulating for a while now, the current surge in coverage was caused by the leak of Democratic National Committee emails that could potentially hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The leak, as many cyberespionage experts note, was staged by hackers with ties to Russian intelligence. Kovalev argues, however, that the Trump-Putin conspiracy doesn’t hold water, because the idea of Putin manipulating a political situation in the world’s greatest power is the best gift the Russian president could hope for. And this gift has been handed to him by U.S. journalists and pundits, who have developed a habit of overreacting to Russia-related news.


Nathan Andrews helped compile this week's roundup.