Opinion

The Great Debate

Putin’s new ‘values pact’

Now that Russia President Vladimir Putin has swallowed Crimea, the question becomes: What if the peninsula doesn’t satisfy his appetite for new Russian territory? What if the only thing that will satiate his hunger for power is the goulash known as eastern Ukraine? Or does he then move on to Moldova, and then on and on?

Indeed, while the world watched the protests in Kiev and the Sochi Olympics last month, the Moldovan territory of Gagauzia quietly held a referendum about whether or not to join Russia if the rest of the country opts for stronger ties to the European Union. Its citizens, just like those in Crimea, have argued that they would be economically better off on Putin’s planet, rather than as meager satellites in the Western solar system.

The prospect of joining Russia, of course, sounds far better on paper than in reality. The promise of benefits is likely to evaporate when robust Western sanctions throw Russia’s economy into a steeper downturn. The ruble has already lost almost 9 percent of its value this year against the dollar. Many have argued (myself included) that very soon Putin won’t be able to survive the international blowback.

But what if Putin’s grand plan is more than just presiding over the re-united Russian territories? What if his long-term strategy is creating a new global conservative bloc, building an iteration of the Cold War that pits decadent, neo-colonial Western democracies against everyone else?

By beating the anti-West drum and turning the sanctions policy on its head, Putin seeks to mold Russians into an ever more obedient, patriotic public — forced to give up many of their post-Soviet amenities for the sake of glorifying mother Russia.

Ukraine’s Protests: Not (yet) a revolution

In the three weeks since Ukraine formally suspended talks aimed at signing an Association Agreement with the European Union, two important facts have become clear.

First, it is now apparent that Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovich, had no effective strategy to resist intense pressure against the EU deal from Moscow. The Kremlin promised big cash loans, a gas discount and debt forgiveness, while explicitly threatening to block Ukraine’s access to the Russian market and implicitly threatening to stoke separatism in regions of the country.

Second, as street demonstrations gain momentum in Kiev and other cities, it has become clear that a strong, diverse and increasingly vocal plurality of Ukrainians will not accept their country’s continued isolation from the West. The authorities have confronted street protestors with shocking violence, and have offered no significant political concessions. Yet the prospect of real reform driven by the EU association has now become a key symbol for Ukraine’s national identity.

Russia: Where has all the money gone?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has had a good run over the past few months.

Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, landed on his doorstep, a gift from the PR gods. Agreement on Syria went from no chance to golden opportunity in the course of one afternoon. Forbes dubbed Putin the most powerful man in the world. Yet all these successes obscure a basic fact: Russia is running out of money.

To be fair, Russia is far from broke. Revenues continue to stream in from oil and gas sales, and Moscow maintains healthy financial reserves for future rainy days. Russia also dislikes budget deficits and keeps its foreign debt down — a model of fiscal rectitude that most Western countries can only dream about.

Yet despite these accomplishments, the Russian government submitted an austere budget to the Duma in September that contemplated freezing government salaries and significant across-the-board cuts for most government agencies. Though the Duma restored some social spending in its budget amendments, Russia will be working under tight financial constraints for several years to come.

Navalny: Russia’s opposition hero cult

Russia’s opposition has turned into a hero cult. What was a protest movement has morphed into a one-man show called Alexei Navalny.

The man who first fought Russian corruption with crowdsourcing is now running for mayor of Moscow. But for his 10,000 volunteers, mostly kids in their early 20s with no Soviet memories, he is already president.

His campaign “feedback sessions” resemble a rock star meeting the fans. When Navalny shows up, the volunteers chant his name. When he speaks they rush up, trying to get his signature or shake his hand.

Russia after Cyprus: Bringing the money home

The Kremlin’s initial outrage over developments in Cyprus – and the island’s shocking expropriation of billions of dollars held by Russian companies and citizens – has given way to mild indifference. “If somebody gets caught and loses money at the two largest [Cypriot] banks, it’s a shame,” First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov recently stated, “but the Russian government isn’t going to do anything about it.”

It turns out that the European Union settlement that left Cyprus’s banking sector in shambles has done Moscow a big favor. Not only did the EU take down a major offshore banking center, it helped President Vladimir Putin’s campaign to return to Russia any money stashed away in offshore bank accounts.

This seemingly technical financial issue also reveals a potential sea change in the rules of the game for Russian business.Instead of seeking shelter abroad, Russian companies and financiers may finally have a stake in fighting to protect their money at home

Obama’s aims to reduce nuclear threat

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Barack Obama will reportedly reiterate his interest in reducing the threat of nuclear weapons, though unlikely to announce specifics. The administration is interested in seeking an agreement with Russia, building on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) of 2010 and cutting U.S. strategic nuclear forces by another third in the expectation that Moscow will do the same with its nuclear arsenal.

This would leave each country with roughly 1,000 deployed long-range warheads, plus several thousand more in reserve and in tactical arsenals.

It would be an appropriately modest step toward serious pursuit of Obama’s (and President Ronald Reagan’s) goal of a nuclear-free world. With 1,000 warheads, the U.S. nuclear arsenal would remain more than capable of targeting any reasonable set of military sites abroad. Washington and Moscow would also avoid tempting any medium-size nuclear powers, most notably China, with its 250 or so warheads, to pursue nuclear superpower ranks.

from The Great Debate UK:

Save Georgia’s Peace Mission

lsheets2Lawrence Sheets is Caucasus Project Director of the International Crisis Group. The opinions expressed are his own.

The truce that ended last summer's war between Russia and Georgia may be more or less holding for now, but the structures keeping the peace are crumbling due to Russian pressure and Western acquiescence.

Last August, Moscow and Tbilisi fought a short but vicious war over South Ossetia, a region of less than 50,000 people that Moscow now recognizes as an independent state but which the rest of the world regards as part of Georgia. Intense diplomacy was crucial in ending the fighting, as European Union mediation, under the French Presidency, helped compel Russia to put its pen to a truce agreement.

  •