20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s media highlights, Joshua Keating writes in Slate that with the suspension of the Syria talks with Russia, the Obama administration might give up on any meaningful cooperation with the Kremlin. And Mary Dejevsky in The Guardian argues that the U.S. and Russia could never fix the Syria crisis in concept. Meanwhile, Russian media experts discuss Russia’s pulling out of the plutonium agreement with the U.S., the newlook Duma, and the need for massive government reform.


President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russia's Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit last month. It was likely the last attempt of the current U.S. administration at reaching a peace deal in Syria with Russia. Photo: Aleksei Druzhinin / TASS


From the West

Obama May Have Just Given up on Russia for Good

Joshua Keating, Slate

In Slate this week, Joshua Keating looks at the deteriorating relationship between Moscow and Washington over Syria. “Unsalvageable” is the word Keating uses to describe diplomatic relations between Moscow and Washington after this Monday, which saw the suspension of negotiations between the two powers over their cooperation in Syria, followed by Vladimir Putin’s subsequent withdrawal from Russia’s treaty on the disposal of plutonium. The war of words between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been steadily escalating in recent days, from accusations of America supporting international terrorism to threats of beefed-up sanctions against Russia. However, Putin’s readiness to withdraw from arms treaties stymies further cooperation. “The day’s events serve as a sad bookend to the fraught but occasionally productive era that began when Clinton presented a mistranslated ‘reset’ button to her Russian counterpart Lavrov on March 6, 2009.” Keating argues that “Washington can’t afford to cut off Moscow entirely” and that “de-conflicting” is still a viable option between the two nations. However, should public rhetoric begin to escalate between Obama and Putin, Keating claims that it could spell the end of cooperation while there is still time left to talk.


Syria isn’t a cold war conflict: the U.S. and Russia can’t just fix it

Mary Dejevsky, Guardian

British author Mary Dejevsky takes an alternative view on the role of the U.S. and Russia in Syria in her op-ed for The Guardian. Terms such as “new Cold War” have been thrown around a lot in recent times as tensions between the two alleged “superpowers” grow over a solution to the Syrian conflict. Despite the war-mongering rhetoric from many Western commentators, Dejevsky argues that the stand-off between Russia and the U.S., characterized by relatively empty threats from both sides, does not warrant such apocalyptic thinking. Neither country has as much influence in Syria as they themselves believe. “The latest ceasefire failed not only because the U.S. mistakenly bombed a contingent of Syrian troops, and not only because an aid convoy was destroyed, but because the sponsors of the deal—the US and Russia—were unable to control what happened next.” This lack of control, exemplified in the breakdown of the ceasefire, leads Dejevsky to suggest that an effective solution to the conflict in Syria will involve numerous other parties, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The two nations in Syria appear to be merely “playing to their domestic galleries” as Putin faces domestic criticism over the steepest decline in living standards since the fall of the Soviet Union, while Obama is being pushed by both Republicans and Democrats to assert himself. Dejevsky believes that “the old-style superpower deal is no longer enough” and that Russia and America are both slowly coming to terms with this as the need for a unilateral agreement becomes ever more pressing.  


New Dictators

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz, Joseph Wright, Foreign Affairs

Personalized regimes are on the rise, claims Foreign Affairs this week. The article cites some startling statistics that point to a marked increase in “strongmen” since the late Cold War period, suggesting that “highly personalized regimes are coming to the forefront of political systems across the globe” with 40% of the world’s current autocracies ruled by so-called “strongmen.” Research shows that personalized regimes are less likely to be cooperative, and more likely to “take risks that other dictatorial systems simply cannot afford,” including instigating foreign wars against democracies and investing in nuclear weapons. The lack of institutional constraints that Putin faces at home allows him to be a risk-taker, as seen in Crimea and now Syria, and the lack of opposition within the Kremlin erodes genuine accountability. Corruption and autocracy are inherent in personalized regimes, as they rely on the “distribution of financial incentives” to maintain positions of power, while the dismantling of institutions and opposition figures means that strongmen are only ever likely to be replaced by their own kind. The article predicts that today’s growing turmoil and political polarization mean that personalized regimes are set to persist.  “Strongmen” do not sit well with Western leaders, and “gaining a better understanding of this growing trend and its implications for U.S. foreign policy seems both essential and overdue.”


From Russia

Why Russia’s Pulling Out of Plutonium Agreement Is Dangerous

Aleksei Arbatov, Carnegie.ru

Scholar in residence and chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Nonproliferation Program Aleksei Arbatov looks into Russia’s agreement with the United States to dispose of surplus weapons-grade plutonium and reasons why Vladimir Putin pulled out of this agreement earlier this week. The deal was reached in 2000 when both countries were on a path to significantly reduce their nuclear arsenals, but since that time U.S.-Russia relations have deteriorated, while nonproliferation programs stand on the verge of collapse. Arbatov notes that the U.S. was already in technical violation of the agreement, having sacrificed compliance for financial interests, which Russia officially accused Washington of in April 2016. However, the author is puzzled by Putin’s demands for resuming the deal, ranging from repealing the Magnitsky Act to scaling back NATO infrastructure to the 2000 level. The assymetry of the claims raises the question: what is behind Putin’s ultimatum? Arbatov posits that the Kremlin wants to show steely-eyed conviction in its game of “chicken” with Washington. The author calls for both countries to stop escalating the tensions and take a leaf out of the Cold War playbook.


Volodin and Others: What the New State Duma Will Be

Aleksei Makarkin, RBC

Vice-president of the Center for Political Technologies Aleksei Makarkin looks at the composition of the new State Duma and conducts a comparative analysis of the two assemblies. Most eye-catching is pro-Kremlin United Russia’s revamped supermajority, but other factors attract the expert’s attention as well. First, the major divide among deputies now runs not between the “party of power” and the Duma’s systemic opposition, but between the groups that support the so-called “Crimea consensus” and those that oppose it. “The reunification of Crimea and the conflict with the West harmonized or at least narrowed the animosity gap between the ‘great power nationalists’ and pro-Kremlin politicians who used to feud all the time,” notes Makarkin. Second, with independent voices like Dmitry Gudkov and Sergei Petrov gone, it is very likely that the new Duma will vote along Soviet lines, meaning no nays or abstentions. Third, the appointment of Vyacheslav Volodin, the Kremlin’s former key “political technologist” or spindoctor, as the Duma chairman is clearly a meaningful move. Makarkin presumes that Volodin is there to keep tabs on the single-mandate deputies and any attempts at lobbying regional interest, as well as to make sure that the conservatism of some newly elected deputies (for instance, on the abortion issue) do not scare away Putin’s majority.


State Reform Is Needed

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vedomosti

Founder of Open Russia Mikhail Khodorkovsky offers his vision of the reforms needed for the country’s government system. According to Khodorkovsky, the Soviet Union collapsed not under the growing pile of economic problems, but rather because of the “tough government model that couldn’t adapt to the ongoing change.” In Putin’s system one can observe similar problems: monopolization, concentration of power in the hands of a narrow circle of people, corruption, stagnation, and looming crisis. Khodorkovsky believes that Putin is incapable of reforming his own system, but power transfer is fraught with danger, so major government reforms are needed now. The key task of such reforms is to restore local government with real political representation and an independent court system. “The superpresidency model is outdated and must be replaced by at least a presidential-parliamentary model,” writes Khodorkovsky, underscoring that presidential office time should be limited. Such massive reforms should have been implemented eight to ten years ago, notes the author, but Russia still has some time before the crisis of the political system reaches its climax.


Nathan Andrews helped compile this week's roundup.