20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s Western media highlights, the New York Times explores the connection that seems to exist between Julian Assange and the Kremlin in light of the recent Democratic National Committee email leak that many experts trace back to Russian intelligence. Writing for Vox, Mark Galeotti dismisses the West’s fears that Russian troops are amassing by the Ukrainian border in order to invade. And in the Russian media, analysts discuss recent shifts in the Kremlin’s power structures and implications of the death of Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov, who occupied the office for 27 years.


WikiLeaks' founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange spoke at RT's tenth anniversary conference on politics and mass media in December, 2015. Photo: Valery Sharifulin / TASS


From the West

How Russia Benefits When Julian Assange Reveals the West’s Secrets

Jo Becker, Steven Erlanger, Eric Schmitt, The New York Times

Jo Becker, Steven Erlanger, and Eric Schmitt collaborate this week in the New York Times to bring us a report that sheds light on who really benefits from Wikileaks’ publications. Julian Assange’s rise to fame in 2010 after leaking a large cache of United States government secrets to the public led many observers to wonder who the beneficiary of such a project might be, bearing in mind that the project itself is essentially a non-profit organization. Assange’s public status as a promoter of freedom of speech and government transparency is questioned in the report, drawing our attention to the fact that Russia is conveniently absent from criticism by Wikileaks, which claims to be a guardian of truth and openness. Russia has always shown an interest in Wikileaks’ view of the U.S. as an international super-bully and expressed this interest by offering Assange his own TV show on RT. Dissenters such as Assange and Edward Snowden have found a common sympathy with the Kremlin’s main line of propaganda in undermining and attacking the governments of the West. It leaves us to ponder the findings of the New York Times that “Whether by conviction, convenience, or coincidence, WikiLeaks’ document releases, along with many of Mr. Assange’s statements, have often benefited Russia, at the expense of the West.” “I am Wikileaks,” Assange frequently reminds us. Is it then such a surprise that this organization, with its fallible human face, should find a sanctuary for its beliefs in the Kremlin?


Iran and Russia’s Uncomfortable Alliance

Mohsen Milani, Foreign Affairs 

This week in Foreign Affairs, Mohsen Milani, executive director of the Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies, dissects the warming relationship between Russia and Iran that has caused anxiety among many Western observers in recent weeks. Milani, however, suggests that this relationship is not quite as comfortable as many believe it to be. Iran has allowed Russia to use its Shahid Nojeh air base to conduct strategic bombing runs on Syrian positions—making it the first time since 1979 that a foreign power has acquired access to Iran’s military facilities. But this decision caused controversy amongst some Iranian officials whose motto is “no East, no West” (no preferential treatment to any country). The relationship is further complicated by the inherent mistrust between the two countries due to the legacy of Soviet military intervention. At the same time, Iran considers Russia a “powerful counterforce against the United States” that shares with it a common strategic goal in supporting president Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Russia’s involvement can help Iran tip the balance of power in the region and promote Tehran’s interests. Given this background, Milani suggests that the U.S. should actively take steps in integrating Iran back into the world economy and appeal to the “moderate” elements in Iran who wish to have a “balanced—or at least neutral—foreign policy,” in order to avoid the potential forming of an anti-U.S. bloc in Central Asia and the Caucasus.  


Russia Is Amassing Thousands of Troops on Ukraine’s Border—Here’s Why We Shouldn’t Panic

Mark Galeotti, Vox

This week for Vox, New York University professor Mark Galeotti gets to the bottom of the rising tensions along Russia’s border with Ukraine and gives insight into both Kiev and Moscow’s capabilities of responding to further military aggression. Galeotti argues that current fears among Western policymakers and pundits of a full-scale Russian invasion are “overblown” and that the Ukrainian army has undergone significant modernization in the years after the fall of Viktor Yanykovich, who left the army fatally underdeveloped. The Russians are aware of this, and it is in no one’s interest to enter a direct conflict against a more advanced and larger Ukrainian army that has extensive Western support. The author suggests that the military posturing by Russia along its Ukrainian border and in Crimea is an attempt to impose political pressure on Kiev, rather than a preparation for all-out invasion. The new Ukrainian army could match potential Russian numbers without sacrificing the main body of its army in the event of a Russian invasion, and with the possibility of acquiring American anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, these experienced veterans could quickly turn such a scenario into a “bloody stalemate.” Galeotti claims that “Moscow seems to have given up on any thought of winning this war militarily,” yet at the same time is far from willing to concede a defeat in the Donbas. Thus we are likely to see a continuation of the status quo: “not quite war, but certainly not peace.”  


From Russia

The Old Man and the Grief: How Power Is Transferred Without a Successor

Alexander Baunov, Carnegie.ru

In light of the death of Islam Karimov, who served as president of Uzbekistan for 27 years, Alexander Baunov, editor-in-chief of Carnegie.ru, discusses power changes in authoritarian regimes. Following the customary pattern, first, Uzbekistan authorities kept the news about the leader’s passing in secret, thus habituating the public to the thought of a potential change in the country’s leadership. Next, there will be a discussion about who will occupy the vacant spot and whether it will be a successor or a group of the weak contenders for power. Later, a scenario might come into play according to which the advocates of preserving Karimov’s legacy may clash with its opponents, and this may lead to democratization. Another scenario is possible: in a much longer transition period, institutions (real or imitative) may form and start working. And finally, the younger generation may take their grievances to the streets. Baunov concludes that against the current backdrop, the Russian leaders need to account for the Central Asia factor, especially given the age of other leaders in this region and the fact that succession issues in these countries are also unclear.


Reorganization of the Empire: From OOO “Rossiya” to OAO “Putin”

Vladimir Pastukhov, Slon.ru

Oxford University professor and political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov analyzes the latest political metamorphoses in Vladimir Putin’s entourage and notes a clear paradox: during degradation of the regime into one of personal power, its structures are not getting simpler—on the contrary, they are becoming much more complex. According to Pastukhov, starting with Putin’s third term as president, his name became synonymous with Russia (the author refers to a famous phrase by one of Putin’s aides, that there is no Russia without Putin). This shift caused a ripple effect. If earlier the country was governed in a simple manner, similar to managing a cooperative kiosk, at the moment we are witnessing a new governing system emerging, one that’s more like a multiсorporate enterprise. One of the distinguishing features of the new system is a clear separation of the elites into two groups—“managers” and “stakeholders”—with hierarchies within each of the groups. “The disorderly scrum around the power office has been replaced by ‘entrance only for authorized personnel,’ but also under different categories.” High-profile officials will never communicate with Putin as they once did—like with “someone equal who they used to know.” Pastukhov argues that by initiating an obligatory structuring and formalizing his power, Putin essentially removes “the flexibility of his old code of behavior” that had allowed him to weather many political storms. Contrary to some speculation, the author also suggests that the regime’s deterioration could be non-linear. As the regime continues to slide into the abyss, it could still “get stalled at vast stability plateaus,” in which case it will be taken down not by the current opposition, but by direct successors of the regime.


Everything Is Still Well: Why the System Won’t Notice the Decline of the Party of Power’s Rating

Andrei Kolesnikov, RBC

Andrei Kolesnikov, chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, comments on recent polls published by Levada Center. According to the polls, United Russia’s ratings have significantly declined—from 39 to 31 percent. Kolesnikov argues that this data, however, doesn’t mean there is an increase in protest voting—this is how the public shows its frustration with the current economic and social situation, but it still perceives the “party of power” as “the second name of the government” and expects it to distribute money and help. For that reason, the author doesn’t expect any change in the composition of the next Duma: all four parliamentary parties will keep their representation, which confirms the public’s paternalist moods. Kolesnikov also notes that the ratings decline took place despite Putin’s voiced support of United Russia, but this paradox can be explained by the Russian people who continue to perceive the president as the primary source of power, while all other state structures are secondary. The next Duma composition will work normally until at least 2018, but later this customary political structure may develop problems, considering that the leaders of the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party are inevitably aging.


Nathan Andrews helped compile this week’s roundup.