20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s roundup: New Times and Maxim Mironov discuss the recent scandal of drugsmuggling through the Russian Embassy in Argentina; Pavel Luzin analyzes the CAATSA law’s short- and long-term effects on the Russian defense system; Tatiana Stanovaya writes about a new phenomenon in Putin’s system—the so-called “integrators”; and Kirill Semyonov poses the question whether escalation in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta will make it the second Aleppo.


Argentine President Mauricio Macri (left) and Russia's Ambassador to Argentina Viktor Koronelli (center) seen in Moscow in January 2018. Photo: Mikhail Metzel / TASS.


  1. New Times: Cocaine Without Immunity

  • Journalist Alexei Klimenkov discusses the recent scandal of drug smuggling through the Russian Embassy in Argentina to Moscow.
  • Some government officials have noted that they do not approve of the way the media has reported the story, saying it “casts a shadow on [the] diplomatic mission” of the Russian ambassador and his staff.
  • Bloggers have contributed significantly to the coverage. One, Maxim Mironov, who lives in Argentina, wrote that for several years now, the security at embassy schools—where drugs were stashed—has been sharply increased due to fear of terrorist attacks.
  • Mironov’s account [see full recap below] mentions that the Argentine special services, which conducted investigations with defendants in the case, do not believe the Russian Foreign Ministry’s official version—after its publication, they began to hand records from wiretapped conversations with the defendants to the press. The Russian embassy described the official Argentine position and that of Mironov as “gutter journalism.”
  • Investigations into the drug network began in late 2016, when the Russian ambassador appealed to local law enforcement agencies after 389 kg of high-quality cocaine (valued at $50 million) was found in the school building at the embassy. Conducted in secrecy, three Russian citizens were arrested in Moscow and two suspects were detained in Argentina in December 2017, charged with attempted smuggling of cocaine.
  • The first attempt at transporting the cargo was on a private plane, which the Argentine special services intercepted. Then, they used the trip of an Argentine policeman to Moscow (the buyers of the drugs were detained by special services).
  • It’s not the first time drugs have been transported to Russia using diplomatic channels. Still, the joint investigation of the special services in Moscow and Buenos Aires doesn’t mean this scandal ends here—it’s possible that a drug trafficking operation could be in place in neighboring Uruguay. 

New Times, Кокаин без иммунитета, Алексей Клименков, 27 февраля 2018


  1. Echo of Moscow: On Argentine Сocaine, or Why the Foreign Ministry Is Lying

  • Professor Maxim Mironov, who detailed the cocaine smuggling story from Argentina to Moscow in his blog, discusses why the Russian Foreign Ministry’s account of the story is a lie. (The Ministry claims that it was the Russian ambassador in Argentina who exposed the drug trafficking channel.)
  • When the Argentine police traced a large batch of cocaine to the doors of the Russian embassy, official accounts say that Ambassador Viktor Koronelli allowed them to confiscate the drugs and replace the contents of the suitcases with flour.
  • But Mironov believes that the Argentine police gave him an ultimatum, and Koronelli turned the cocaine over to avoid a scandal.
  • Mironov, who currently resides in Argentina, writes that he has two children currently in the embassy school where the cocaine cargo was discovered. He also personally knows the assistant to the Ambassador Aide for Security, Oleg Vorobyov, who negotiated with the drug traffickers.
  • With this intimacy, Mironov writes that the official story—that the 12 suitcases filled with cocaine could be carried into the school without the knowledge of the guards—is implausible. Since 2014, the security at the embassy has sharply increased, explained away as anti-terror protection. Second, it’s clear from the wiretaps that Vorobyev was the main partner of the drug traffickers at the embassy.  
  • In December 2015, Argentina elected a new president and governor of Buenos Aires, who reduced the level of corruption in the police and cracked down on drug trafficking.
  • Two men were named as the key persons of interest in this case: Ivan Bliznuyk and Andrei Kovalchuk (the latter is the alleged owner of the suitcases). It has also been confirmed that Kovalchuk is an associate of the Russian embassy’s Vorobyov.
  • Mironov argues that, unlike the official story, the scandal is not about a contractor who used a business trip to traffic drugs—it’s about the drugs mafia, who can issue direct instructions to the security staff of the Russian embassy.
  • The story also highlights the fact that cocaine has been transported through embassy channels for a while, but the connection broke after Koronelli refused to cooperate with Kovalchuk following the Argentine crackdown on corruption. Even more interesting is that Kovalchuk is heard on a wiretap claiming that he would use his connections to replace Koronelli with a more loyal ambassador.
  • Mironov concludes that Kovalchuk does indeed have connections at the very top and therefore is protected by the Kremlin. As a result, the Argentine secret service that believes Russia’s official version is faulty, and began to leak the wiretaps to the press. This is not just an isolated incident, Mironov concludes—it exposes an entire system of drug trafficking, coordinated at the very top.

Эхо Москвы, Про аргентинский кокаин, или Почему МИД врет? Максим Миронов, 26 февраля 2018 г.


  1. RBC: A Blow to Future Prospects: the Threats to Russian Arms Exports

  • Defense policy expert Pavel Luzin analyzes the CAATSA law’s short- and long-term effects on Russia.
  • According to U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Neuert, the Russian military-industrial complex lost $3 billion after the CAATSA law was adopted. Annually, Russia exports arms and military equipment to the tune of $5-7 billion, and contracts are already signed for the years ahead.
  • So what explains Russia’s losses (which Moscow continues to deny)? It turns out they’re a symptom of Washington’s diplomatic efforts.  
  • Since the CAATSA law was enacted, Donald Trump has delegated their responsibility and evolution to the Secretary of State in a way that allows the U.S. government to increase pressure on Russia over time, making it much easier to impose restrictions.
  • But the purpose of the U.S. sanctions policy is not to immediately inflict maximum damage— it has no intention of stopping Russian arms exports or destroying Russian enterprises. Rather, it aims to complicate these channels and impede international cooperation with Russia’s military-industrial complex.
  • India, Vietnam, China and Algeria account for almost 70 percent of Russian arms exports and the country is in dire need of diversification as these export markets continue to peak. In light of this, large-scale arms deals with Egypt and Turkey, as well as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, were signed. Some of these deals, like the one with Turkey, were done in part as an expression of dissatisfaction with the West.
  • The monetary setbacks to Russia because of U.S. sanctions remain opaque, and aren’t as important as other U.S. levers of pressure. It’s important to the U.S., for example, that the Turkish defense industry should work in cooperation with its American and European counterparts—that this cooperation is much more attractive to Turkey than an S-400 missile deal.
  • It’s important to remember that CAATSA is influenced not only by American law, but also by American diplomacy, concludes Luzin. Overall, it doesn’t really matter if one or more countries refuse to buy Russian weapons, concludes Luzin. Because of CAATSA, any significant importer of Russian arms (aside from China) is forced to listen to Washington’s position on the issue.

РБК, Удар по перспективам: чем грозят санкции российскому оружейному экспорту, Павел Лузин, 26 февраля 2018 г.


  1. Carnegie.ru: Integrators as a Type of Technocrats. Who Will Become the Demiurge of Putin’s Fourth Term?

  • Tatiana Stanovaya of the Center for Political Technologies writes about a new phenomenon in Putin’s system. In the shadow of the technocrats who have captivated Russian experts and journalists since 2016 is another lesser studied personnel shift: the so-called “integrators,” represented by Anton Vaino, Andrei Turchak and Yelena Shmelva.
  • The “integrators” are taking up high positions in the Putin system, with a hybrid role. Unlike technocrats, they are not only managers, but also have political functions; unlike political appointees, they are deprived of their own ambitions and political neutrality.
  • Traditionally, there have been two forms of traditional power relations within the Putinist system. First, the direct incorporation of representatives into key posts, and second, relations through the oblast (regional) structures. But the influx of technocrats began to rock the foundation of these two models. Where technocrats occupied key positions, a political vacuum was created, open to different groups of influence.
  • Enter the “integrators.” First came Vaino, head of the Presidential Administration. Unlike a technocrat, Vaino was set the political task of coordinating different interest groups and finding compromises, while acting solely in the interests of the president. As with Vaino, the difference between an integrator and a political appointee lies in the political neutrality of the former.
  • A feature of Putin’s fourth term may be an increase in the number of such integrators: previously unimportant at the federal level, but suddenly in managerial roles with unexpectedly wide prerogatives and drivers of Putin’s desires. We’ve seen this with Andrei Turchak, who recently became secretary of the General Council of the United Russia Party, and with Yelena Shmeleva, who headed the initiative group to nominate Putin as president and then became one of the three co-chairs of his election headquarters.
  • Moving forward, Stanovaya predicts that the role of these “integrators” in aligning the wants of interest groups will grow. Broadly, these personnel shifts are inevitable given the presidential elections and expected cabinet reshuffle.
  • But it should be noted that the “integrators” are an untested tactic—they can be delegated like political heavyweights cannot, but have more political experience than the young technocrats. Their only limitation, Stanovaya concludes, is how soon the integrators will turn into independent centers of political influence.

Carnegie.ru, Интеграторы как вид технократов. Кто станет демиургом четвертого срока Путина, Татьяна Становая, 26 февраля 2018 г.


  1. Republic: The Bombing of an Armistice. Will East Ghouta Become the Second Aleppo?

  • The adoption of a 30-day nationwide ceasefire in Syria by the UN Security Council is unlikely to significantly reduce escalating tensions in the suburbs of the Syrian capital. Instead, argues Islamic Studies expert Kirill Semyonov, increased pressure from the international community, and on Damascus from Moscow, is vital to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.
  • The main problem is that different countries understand the resolution differently: the U.S., France and the UK considered the ceasefire a step toward re-implementing the de-escalation zone. Russia and Syria, however, seem to be using the provision as a tool to facilitate their own military tasks—to establish full control over East Ghouta (this is why Moscow supported the resolution).
  • Instead of a ceasefire, these parties planned to open a corridor five hours each day for civilians to exit, thereby clearing their name. But the release of civilians and their subsequent relocation in Syria plays into Assad’s hand; it removes a neighborhood in the capital strongly opposed to Assad with the potential to resist. Regardless, their en masse exit is hardly feasible today given the circumstances.
  • After six years of being under siege, if the Assad regime is unable to control its own capital and suburbs, there can be no final victory in the civil war. This is why none of the “national” ceasefires have been observed in the neighborhood.
  • The situation changed dramatically when Russia decided to participate in the fight in the capital, which significantly increases the Assad regime’s success. If the rebels refuse the peace initiative decided upon by the Sochi Congress, Russia may intensify its military activity in Syria. At the same time, the congress has lacked significant results, only leading more Russian military officials and diplomats to insist on more active support for the Assad regime in order to achieve final military victory over the opposition.
  • In terms of spheres of influence, East Ghouta may be Assad’s last prize in the Syrian conflict—this argument apparently convinced Moscow to render Assad assistance and try to apply the Aleppo scenario there. However, East Ghouta cannot be compared to Aleppo.. The former has at least twice as many blockaded civilians who would have to be purged in order for the regime to establish control.
  • East Ghouta also has many more militants—branches of the opposition specific to the region—who cannot be easily withdrawn from the region and deployed elsewhere. Leading factions, along with local activists, appealed to the UN, promising to clear East Ghouta of terrorists—that is, to eliminate the reason that Moscow called for a military campaign in this part of Damascus to begin with.
  • In conclusion, Semyonov writes that the thought of another Aleppo will probably result in the West putting greater pressure on Russia to stop the offensive in East Ghouta. Another important factor could be U.S. willingness to use force.

Republic, Бомбардировка перемирия. Станет ли Восточная Гута вторым Алеппо? Кирилл Семенов, 28 февраля 2018 г.