20 years under Putin: a timeline

This week, in the Western media highlights, The New York Times argues that under Vladimir Putin’s rule Russia is rapidly turning into an outlaw nation. Mark Galeotti in his op-ed for CNN details the Kremlin’s propaganda playbook. Meanwhile, in the Russian media, TV Rain released an investigation into the background of Pyotr Kolbin, a mysterious, Forbes-ranked Russian millionaire, who happens to be a childhood friend of Vladimir Putin. And Kirill Rogov breaks down Russia’s social structure into three groups, providing an insight into the recent Duma elections. 


Aftermath of the heavy bombing in Aleppo by Syrian and Russian forces. Photo: Basem Ayoubi / ImagesLive via ZUMA Wire / TASS


From the West

Vladimir Putin’s Outlaw State

Editorial, The New York Times 

“President Vladimir Putin is fast turning Russia into an outlaw nation” is the view put across by a New York Times editorial this week. Russia, as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, has a responsibility to uphold the international order, yet under Vladimir Putin, it violates not just the rules, but also “common human decency.” The Kremlin’s reaction to the report published by a Dutch inquiry on September 28, which concluded that MH17 was in fact shot down by rebels using a Russian Buk missile system, shows Russia has no intention of coming clean. Moreover, in Syria, despite the week-old ceasefire negotiated with the U.S., Putin, in his efforts to prop up the Assad regime, continued the bloodshed by bombarding two hospitals in the rebel-held part of Aleppo. The New York Times editorial notes that for over two months Mr Putin has been only pretending to negotiate a political solution to the war, while in reality pursuing his own interests in the region. Despite all the efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry, the Obama administration’s reluctance to directly intervene in the prolonged conflict in Syria gives him very little diplomatic wiggle room. Knowing that, and in the light of the ongoing presidential campaign in the U.S., Putin likely assumes that his hands are untied as America is not in a position to confront him in Syria, but The New York Times quotes some officials as saying “such a response is under consideration.” In the meantime, it is quite clear that “the furthest thing from [Putin’s] mind is becoming a constructive partner in the search for peace.”


Vladimir Putin, Master of Suspense

Lilia Shevtsova, The American Interest

How has Russia, a “tottering Eurasian Nuclear Petro State,” managed to outsmart and outplay the West? This is the question political scientist and Brookings Institution fellow Lilia Shevtsova attempts to answer in this week’s The American Interest. Shevtsova believes that future historians will be baffled as to how such a mediocre and corrupt elite with “no talent in government or diplomacy” could take on the Western establishment so successfully. “That the era of the West is over is the leading premise of Russia’s foreign policy doctrine,” writes Shevtsova, designating it as the “Suspense Policy.” Essentially, the goal of this policy is “to keep the West on edge,” she continues, and at its core is the pursuit of “mutually contradictory lines” (both confrontation and dialogue) and thus “orchestrated chaos” in international relations. However, the use of “Suspense Doctrine” as a tool points to “a system of personalized power in an advanced stage of decay.” On the positive side, Putin’s policy has re-energized NATO, especially along the eastern flank, but as a downside, this allows the Kremlin to promote its narrative of Russia as a “besieged fortress.” Shevtsova notes that Putin has had the luck of the draw in his efforts to push his policies. First, the timing could not have been better for the Kremlin, as the West is enveloped in a number of internal crises, including the erosion of the very model of Western democracy and capitalism. Second, the Russian elites are deeply integrated in the Western financial system, and the West is reluctant to say no to the flows of Russian money pouring into its markets. Third, the Kremlin is successfully manipulating the idea of Russia’s “humiliation” by the West, with some in the West justifying the “accommodationist” approach to Russia. However, even though the Kremlin doesn’t fear the West, it is scared of a Russian society that is “becoming more grumpy and frustrated.”  


An expert's guide to Putin's propaganda playbook

Mark Galeotti, CNN Opinion

Research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague Mark Galeotti looks at the Russian response to this week’s official inquiry into the downing of flight MH17, suggesting that its reaction ticks all the boxes of “Putin’s propaganda playbook.” Galeotti outlines five rules to the playbook: “deny, counter-attack, confuse, equate, repeat”—a formula which is growing startlingly familiar now to many in the West. Ever since MH17 was shot down in 2014, the Kremlin has been running an extensive disinformation campaign to cast doubt  over the inquiry, including everything from spreading conspiracy theories (propagated by state media) to organized online trolling, hacking, and griping about “Russophobic propaganda” by the West. Whenever it commits a policy blunder, the Kremlin invokes this playbook—from the Crimea annexation to the Syria conflict. Galeotti argues that today Putin’s policies have a paradoxical advantage: his regime has already been discredited enough that he has little incentive to stop the lying and spread of disinformation. “There is a strange freedom in already being considered one step short of a pariah regime,” notes the author. Russia’s propaganda machine has been awaiting the publication of this week’s report, and Galeotti predicts that in any case the Kremlin will attempt to “bury the truth in a mudslide of conspiracy theory, denial, and rumor.” A textbook reaction.


From Russia

Who Is He—Putin’s Childhood Friend Listed in Forbes

Natalia Telegina, Nikolai Kovalkov, Roman Badanin, TV Rain

TV Rain conducted an investigation into the activities and background of Pyotr Kolbin, who is listed by Forbes Russia as one of the richest people in the country (ranked 149th in 2016 with an estimated fortune of $550 million). What makes Kolbin an interesting case is that he is also Vladimir Putin’s childhood friend, and still very little is known about him. However, TV Rain discovered that in 2005-2010 Kolbin held a 10 percent stake in Gunvor, one of the largest oil traders in the world (another previous Gunvor owner is Gennady Timchenko, a billionaire and, incidentally, also a close friend of Putin). Kolbin also owned oil trader Surgutex, which handled oil exports for Surgutneftegaz, one of Russia’s top oil and gas companies. In 2010, Kolbin acquired a stake in Yamal LNG, the largest and juiciest liquefied natural gas project in the Arctic, for $90 million, offloading it a year later to Gazprom for $536 million. Based on these and other facts, plus expert analysis, the journalists conclude that Kolbin is likely to be acting in Putin’s interests, essentially serving as a facade for the Russian president’s corrupt deals.


Three Russias. Why the Authorities Need a Super-Majority

Kirill Rogov, Slon.ru 

Political analyst Kirill Rogov analyzes the results of the 2016 Duma elections and poses a question: are the defeat of the liberal opposition and the higher-than-usual vote gained by the pro-Kremlin United Russia the result of the Kremlin’s successful strategy? To answer this question, Rogov suggests deconstructing the Russian population according to political and geographical criteria. In the country’s social structure he thus highlights three Russias: Russia-1 is the Europe-oriented part of the population that includes citizens of large cities; Russia-3 is represented by the southern regions and autonomous republics, generally characterized as standard-bearers of traditional values and conformism; Russia-2 is the middle ground that combines elements of the other two groups. In this year’s elections the Russian authorities aspired to avenge the poor outcome of the 2011 vote that led to opposition consolidation and the largest protests in the country since the early 1990s. Their strategy was to demotivate and demobilize the Russia-1 electorate, to energize Russia-3, and to manipulate Russia-2, including the gerrymandering of district boundaries to boost the pro-Kremlin vote. Adjusting the United Russia results in 2016 to account for these factors, one sees that the party of power has the support of one third of the population. And that adjustment doesn’t even cover unfair competition and unequal media access for non-UR parties and candidates. Another plausible conclusion is that the share of the liberal electorate has not changed since 2012, amounting to 15-20 percent, whose voices were not heard due to the low turnout of Russia-1. Rogov goes on to say: “Behind all of [these factors], one can see the absence of any electorally significant agenda offered by the Kremlin as well as the real—not Volodin-manipulated—demobilization of voters and the lack of a conservative shift in mass preferences.”


Political Scientists Are Not Needed: Why Forecasts No Longer Work in Russian Politics

Mikhail Karyagin, Forbes.ru

According to political scientist Mikhail Karyagin, political forecasts in Russia often fall short due to the lack of formal institutes needed for analysis. Instead of institutes, the country’s politics is defined by personalities, which means that psychologists may be better placed to deliver an accurate assessment of the situation. Today, the focus of Russia’s authoritarian system is mostly one key person—the president, whose political will “determines the design of the whole political system.” Subjective factors and “insider information” from the Kremlin play an increasing role in political analysis as the existing instruments prove insufficient to draw any viable conclusions. Another problem that complicates the already uneasy task of political analysis in Russia is the lack of high-quality state statistics and data. In these circumstances, Karyagin suggests revising certain methods of data collection and analysis within the framework of Russian political science. Despite the development of quantitative methods in the West, including big data analytics, it appears that in today’s Russia “qualitative methods of obtaining knowledge would be more effective.”


Nathan Andrews helped compile this week's roundup.