20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s Western media highlights, Lilia Shevtsova argues in the Financial Times that despite upbeat rhetoric on both sides, Moscow’s hopes for a Turkish pivot to the East are essentially naive. And in his essay for Foreign Affairs, Gregory Feifer dissects Russia’s deep-rooted envy toward the West. Meanwhile, in the Russian media, experts discuss the funding issues of Russian political parties in light of the upcoming parliamentary elections, as well as the ways Russian people see the country’s future and their own.


Despite the official normalization of the relationship between Russia and Turkey, many Russia experts agree that there the strategic partnership is impossible. Photo: Aleksei / TASS


From the West

As Putin and Erdogan Meet, Russia Dreams of Turkey Pivoting East

Lilia Shevtsova, Financial Times

Renowned political scientist Lilia Shevtsova looks into Turkish president Recep Erdogan’s move toward Russia in the aftermath of Turkey’s post-coup purges that have alarmed the international community in recent weeks. One reason to observe Erdogan’s next steps is that the “authoritarian international” (authoritarian regimes across the world) will  “scrutinize the western response” to these steps, in order to gauge just where the new “red line” on illiberal actions lies. Making the situation ever more crucial is the fact that Turkey is a NATO member and an aspiring member of the European Union. These are factors that, according to Shevtsova, make a closer partnership between Turkey and Russia unlikely. Moscow’s hopes for Turkey’s “eastern turn” are naive for several reasons: first, relations between authoritarian states are generally unsustainable; second, Turkey’s turn to the East would lead to a potential conflict of interests between Moscow and Ankara in Eurasia; third, breaking from NATO and having to “confront an ambitious and reckless Iran and Russia on its own” would be undesirable for Turkey. Still, Shevtsova argues, the deterioration of Turkey’s relations with the West is good news for the Kremlin, where the weakening of any NATO member state is perceived as advantageous. She suggests that the West’s reluctance to get involved in Turkey’s authoritarian reshuffling will serve to “justify Moscow’s mantra about western hypocrisy and suggests the West will stomach any authoritarian crackdown,” thus giving Putin the green light to advance his own agenda.


Putin’s Latest Crimean Gambit

Adrian Karatnycky, Politico Europe

Adrian Karatnycky, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, details president Vladimir Putin’s gambit in Crimea following a recent terrorist attack on Russian servicemen allegedly carried out by Ukrainian security services. Putin’s immediate response to the attack, although only revealed publicly four days after the fact, was to say that the provocation “will not pass by idly,” leaving spectators in suspense as to what Moscow’s next move might be. As Russia’s parliamentary elections loom closer, the economy continues to slow, and standards of living decline across the country, “claims that Russian forces are under attack can be used to rally Russians around the president’s political team” in a similar fashion to what was achieved in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea. The author notes that these political developments suggest that the Kremlin is contemplating an offensive in response to a terrorist threat to Crimea and, perhaps, a bolstering of its military presence in the region in in response to growing instability. However, an increased military presence along Russia’s border with Ukraine could lead to a tightening of U.S. and EU sanctions, a factor that would heavily dissuade the Kremlin from making such a move. Karatnycky also casts doubt on the prospect of a Russian military offensive, noting that due to increased funding and large advancements made to the Ukrainian army in recent years, “a Russian attack would lead to massive casualties, something Putin has shown great reluctance to risk.”


Russian Envy

Gregory Feifer, Foreign Affairs

In the wake of the recent doping scandal that ignited controversy over Russia’s participation in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Gregory Feifer, a U.S.-based journalist and author of Russians: The People Behind the Power, dissects the deep-rooted sentiments of insecurity and resentment toward the West that have plagued Russian society for centuries. Feifer calls these sentiments “Russian envy,” which he deems a “formidable force” in the country’s history. Quoting the novelist Vasily Aksyonov, Feifer contends that most Russians possess an “idealized picture of Europe, laden with envy,” while also believing that their “concern with deeper matters makes them better.” It’s this sentiment that Vladimir Putin is tapping into when he vows to restore Russia to “great power” status, a vow that resonates with the public consciousness. “In [Russia], where life is difficult and cheating is the easiest way to get ahead, Kremlin propaganda has helped harness resentment toward the more efficient, prosperous West by tapping into a historical sense of moral superiority,” writes the author. The current doping scandal is another example of what Russia has become under Putin, which is essentially a police state riddled with pervasive corruption and lawlessness. Feifer claims “It’s impossible to do business in Russia at any level above retail sales without at least some participation in the country’s supremely pervasive cheating and stealing.” He concludes that at some point in the future, Russia will “emerge from its current course,” and its people will have to reform not only the country’s economy and government but also “some of their cherished attitudes and thoughts.”


From Russia

Erdogan and Putin’s Meeting: Why A Breakthrough in Relationship with Turkey Should Not Be Expected

Pavel Shlykov, Carnegie.ru

Middle East expert Pavel Shlykov analyzes the meeting between the presidents of Turkey and Russia that took place this week in St. Petersburg and officially signaled a normalization of the relationship between the two countries. The author lists a number of crucial issues that remain essentially unresolved and concludes that we should not expect to see a strategic partnership between Russia and Turkey any time soon. Among the most acute issues are fundamental differences in the countries’ approaches to the Syria problem. Another issue is the construction of the Turkish Stream: though the two leaders agreed to resume this pipeline project, there is still no consent on its basic parameters. And while an understanding has been reached on lifting the food embargo imposed by Russia on Turkish products, it is not clear when this will actually be done. According to some Russian officials, there is no real need for this, since numerous Russian agricultural producers have been encouraged to saturate the market with Russian goods. In other words, Shlykov argues, this is just a restoration of the bilateral relationship to its pre-crisis level, with all of its unresolved issues, as an accompaniment to anti-Western geopolitical rhetoric.


The Parties Gold: Why There Will Be No New Players at the Duma Elections

Mikhail Karyagin, Mikhail Komin, Forbes.ru

The Russian project center Infometer published a report containing in-depth analysis of the open-source financial data of all 77 registered political parties in Russia for 2015. Political scientists Mikhail Karyagin and Mikhail Komin review this vast research and provide the key conclusions. According to their analysis, 55 out of 77 parties are incapable of running financial activities even in theory, since their funds are either minimal or completely lacking. The richest parties are those that receive federal funding because they secured enough votes in previous elections. In addition to the “big four” (United Russia, Just Russia, the Liberal Democrats, and the Communist Party), the opposition party Yabloko also managed to overcome the 3-percent barrier in 2011. The authors note a number of problems with party funding revealed during the research. One of them is lack of transparency in funding the parties represented in the Duma: “For example, students, who are not the target audience of the Communist Party, to put it mildly, and not the most well-off social group, donate between 200,000 and 1,200,000 rubles to the Communists” ($3,000 to $18,000). Other problems include using so-called “gray schemes” that make it impossible to track down the real source of funding, and donations made by current Duma deputies to their own parties. The authors conclude that “in Russia, the purge of the public policy space continues. Politics is no longer a public struggle but a behind-the-scenes game in which candidates are primarily fighting over their position in the bureaucratic structure and not electoral votes, because the vote they are getting depends more on their ‘party label,’ branding, and their place in the party list, rather than on the popular will.”


Tomorrow Never Comes

Denis Volkov, Vedomosti

Levada-Center sociologist Denis Volkov reviews recent public opinion polls in Russia, and particularly focuses on what Russians think of the country’s future and their own. It turns out that 46 percent of respondents “don’t know what will happen even in the nearest months”; 33 percent say that they can only plan one or two years ahead; 10 percent plan five or six years ahead; and only 5 percent plan “many years ahead.” According to the author, this short-term horizon for planning reflects people’s feelings that it is impossible to influence the situation in Russia. In the respondents’ answers, the “future” is described in vague terms: as continuation of the present (it will be “a bit better” or “a bit worse”); as rejection of the current state of affairs (for example, “there will be no America”); in some cases as an abstraction (“the sun will be shining”); or as a lack of an actual idea of the future (“I don’t know,” “I can’t plan”). According to the author, the polls also show that both the authorities and the public are fearful about the future, which is manifested in their “desperate resistance” to change. Even the short-lived euphoria caused by the annexation of Crimea failed to instill confidence about the future; and in the recent surveys, an underlying sense of decay is becoming more pronounced.


Nathan Andrews helped compile this week's roundup.