As the World Cup winds down in Russia, experts are trying to capture its political and social meaning for the country and the regime. Discussions about the highly anticipated Putin-Trump summit are also taking central stage, but expectations are rather low. In the meantime, as the U.S. started the trade war with China last week, the Russian government decided not to stay on the sidelines and raised duties on certain U.S. imports by 25-40 percent.

 

July 7, 2018: Russia's players during a penalty shootout in the World Cup quarterfinal match against Croatia. Croatia won the game on penalties 4-3 ending Russia's record-breaking performance in the tournament. Photo: Alexander Demianchuk | TASS.

 

  1. Third Time’s a Charm?

The story: On July 16, Putin and Trump will meet in Helsinki for their first full-fledged summit (they met twice last year, but only within the framework of other events). Moscow has sent Washington the draft of a two-page joint statement, which the U.S. is ready to accept, but wants Russia to acknowledge its interference in the 2016 presidential election and guarantee that it will not happen again.

  • Why Helsinki? Though Vienna was considered, some sources say that the White House is still outraged that Austria decided not to expel Russian diplomats in solidarity with the UK after the poisoning of Sergei Skripal.
  • Don’t expect any breakthroughs. Though U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton did not rule out that the leaders might agree to something concrete, he also said that the very meeting “can be considered an achievement.”
  • Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov, however, said that the two presidents can at least adopt a joint statement, outlining further steps to improve bilateral relations and actions in the international sphere. [Kommersant]
  • Yevgeny Pudovkin, journalist: Despite their differences, Russia and the U.S. have maintained relations at the military level—one constructive point to be gleaned from the summit may be on the NATO treaty to eliminate short- and mid-range missiles, which Russia has violated. [RBC]

What Russians expect:

  • Only one-third of Russians consider the summit useful—56 percent do not expect significant results for Russia, according to a survey of the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center. [RBC]
  • Denis Volkov (Levada Center), Andrei Kolesnikov (Carnegie Moscow Center): Today 69 percent of Russians have a negative opinion of the U.S. and 78 percent consider the U.S. to be the most unfriendly nation vis-à-vis Russia.
  • Despite these numbers, Russians generally favor the establishment of normal relations with the U.S. and Trump. Their general feeling is that though the two countries may never be friends, it doesn’t mean they have to constantly be in conflict.
  • Russians’ desires are abstract—they hope for some kind of agreement on Syria, oil, and on lifting sanctions—and pragmatic—they are for economic cooperation with U.S., which will benefit their country and direct more government spending toward social and domestic issues rather than foreign policy.
  • But they want all of this without kowtowing or giving away too much to the West—plus, it’s better if the U.S. makes the first step toward reconciliation, so Russia doesn’t appear to have “started it all.” [Carnegie.ru]

 

  1. World Cup: What It Means

The story: Hosting the World Cup has sparked debate over the politics of the championship in Russia and its meaning for Russian citizens. The big question is whether an opponent of the Russian government can support the Russian national team.

  • Vladimir Pastukhov, political scientist: Sharing Putin’s pleasure at the Russian team’s World Cup performance does not nullify or undermine one’s criticism of the president’s regime. [Novaya Gazeta]
  • Maxim Trudulyubov, columnist: With Russia’s surprisingly successful performance at the World Cup, soccer became a channel for public conversation among citizens. The ability for Russians to celebrate the victory of their team against Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Spain was uncontaminated by the Russian military, cyber attacks, or nerve agents. [Republic]
  • Evgeny Zuyenko, journalist: Every championship has its miracle performances, and in 2018 it was the Russian team making it to the quarter finals and the host country’s successful coordination of the World Cup events. [Carnegie.ru]

The view from the West 

  • Alexey Kovalev, journalist: The coverage of the World Cup shows Russia from a side that the Western media typically ignores, illustrating the effectiveness of soft power from below.
  • None of these gloomy predictions of the Western press—that the championship would become an outlet for tensions in Syria, that tourists would experience homophobia or racism—came true. Most Western publications are now focusing on the host’s cordiality, the unexpected friendliness of the Russian police, the openness of Russian citizens, and the lack of aggressive fans.
  • This is a huge boon to Russia’s own patriotic commentators, who can claim victimhood after years of slander from the foreign press. But to perpetuate this positive PR, the Russian authorities will need the continuing voluntary support of society. [Carnegie.ru]

 

  1. Russia Joins Global Trade War

The story: In March, supposedly out of concern for national security, the U.S. announced increased duties on foreign steel and aluminum, violating WTO rules. In response, Russia, the EU, China, India, and Canada applied to the WTO to challenge the tariffs. Now the conflict has escalated—on July 6, the U.S. imposed a 25 percent duty on Chinese imports worth $34 billion, with threats to slap tariffs on goods worth up to $500 billion. In the wake of the U.S.’ decision, China accused the U.S. of unleashing the largest scale trade war in economic history and countered the measure. [RBC]

The Kremlin’s plans:

  • In the midst of a conflict that now also directly involves the EU, Canada, and Mexico, Russia won’t stay on the sidelines. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced that Russia will take the necessary steps to minimize the consequences of the trade war, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has been instructed to prepare extensions of sanctions against Western countries for 2019. [Forbes.ru]
  • On July 6, Medvedev signed a retaliatory decree on the U.S.’ tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum. The measure raises duties on U.S. imports, including road construction and oil-and-gas equipment by 25 to 40 percent. The decision is in compliance with WTO rules. [Forbes.ruNovaya Gazeta]
  • The new decree will only affect materials that have domestic counterparts so that it neither damages the Russian economy nor Russian citizens. Economic Development Minister Maxim Oreshkin estimates that given the U.S.’ tariffs, Russian losses will amount to $537.6 million, while Russia’s countermeasure will cost the U.S. $93 million.
  • Russia’s countermeasure compensates for only $87.6 million of the U.S. damages, but Russia can introduce more retaliatory measures either after three years of the U.S. action (meaning in 2021), or if the WTO permits the country to challenge the U.S. further. [New Times]

 

Other stories that mattered this week (in Russian)

  • The regime has retired”: Political scientist Kirill Rogov argues that the key idea behind the controversial pension reform is to increase the retirement age without making real change. [Novaya Gazeta]
  • Mayor without competition: what excessive filters at the Moscow elections will bring about”: Specialist in regional politics Alexander Kynev explains why the recent restrictions on registering opposition candidates at the upcoming Moscow elections undermine their legitimacy and devalue any results. [Republic]
  • The Russian authorities more than adequately represent society or a major part of it”: Professor of European University in St. Petersburg, sociologist Vadim Volkov discusses the evolution of the Russian state, its conservative shift, and the polarization of the expert community. [Republic]

 

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