How far the Soviet star has fallen A statue of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, stands near Sputnik in the first gallery of the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow. REUTERS/Jason Fields Russia's just not the same under President Vladimir Putin. It wasn't long ago that Russia didn’t need to paint its military convoys a pale white to cross international boundaries. The trucks and tanks were green and boldly emblazoned with red stars — not crosses — on their sides and turrets. And when they …
I find Vladimir Putin annoying at the best of times, but this month my distaste has blossomed into unbridled loathing. By imposing sanctions on food imports from the United States, European Union, Canada and Japan, Russia’s kefir-drinking head of state scuppered my chances of making a decent plate of cacio i pepe or a batch of brownies for the next calendar year. The specter of Soviet-era scarcity is already making itself felt in eerie ways in supermarkets all over Moscow.
An entire section of the once expansive dairy aisle at one market is empty and shuttered with a sign citing “technical difficulties” where once Irish butter, French creme fraiche and Finnish skim milk stood proudly alongside Russian sour cream, kefir and milk. The Indian host of a sushi restaurant in my neighborhood, hugely popular with Japanese businessmen and diplomats, shook his head in despair, as he relies heavily on fish imports from Norway for his delectable sashimi and sushi. Heading back to Moscow from Italy yesterday, I loaded up my suitcase with 10 pounds of parmesan, vacuum-packed smoked ham and elegant jars of sage, rosemary, basil and mushroom pesto. Less than a week ago, they were all available at select grocery stores and wholesalers. Now, everyone is scrambling.
“Uh…uh..agh…aghhhhhhhh….?” was all my buddy, Michelle, who is a chef at the American Embassy, could spurt when she heard the news. She couldn’t stop long to chat; she was on her way to loop through all the upscale supermarkets to stockpile the Belgian baking chocolate she relies upon to make her legendary cakes and cookies.
from John Lloyd:
What would it take for Russia to walk a way from violence and seek peaceful coexistence with its neighbors? It's certainly hard to see a way out right now.
The dogs of war in the east have been let slip again. On Monday, Petro Poroshenko, the recently elected Ukrainian president, said a 10-day unilateral truce with the separatist, pro-Russian forces in the eastern part of his country had ended: Force would now be required to “free our lands.”
Ukrainian units were moved in to try to bring the cities and areas controlled by the heavily armed separatists under control. By Tuesday morning, the Ukrainian military was reporting air and artillery strikes.
By Rob Cox
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
As the eagle flies, it's a long way from Bunkerville, Nevada to Slovyansk, Ukraine. Right now, though, the two places have something insidious in common: armed vigilantism. That parallel sadly seems to escape the many American policymakers who have accused President Barack Obama of adopting the logic of appeasement in his dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. They're missing a big point. If the United States can't uphold the rule of law at home, it can have no credibility abroad.
Over the weekend, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham joined the chorus of Republicans branding Obama the new Neville Chamberlain. He told CBS's "Face the Nation" that the president is "delusional" and his latest economic sanctions "should have been called the Russian economic recovery act" for helping bolster the Russian stock market and rouble last week.
from Ian Bremmer:
By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.
Long live the king? You can't hold it against the Russian people for wondering just how long Vladimir Putin intends to remain in power with the recent announcement that he plans to return himself to the presidency and swap his partner Dmitri Medvedev into the prime minister slot. The electoral game Putin is playing is being compared to "castling" in chess-- a rook and a king swapping places, in order to shore up the defense.
There might be defense at the heart of the strategy, but Putin's ruling party, United Russia, despite some recent murmurings, is still the only game in Moscow. Which is to say that Vladimir Putin is by all reckoning the most powerful man in the world. What other leader, leaving aside third-world strongmen, has so completely consolidated his rule over a country, as Putin has? His success is all the more venerable when one considers that Putin is leader of a country of nearly 150 million people -- and at the helm of the one of the world's most important economies. Attention must be paid to him. Sure, other leaders around the world may have more people or even larger economies, but they don't have as full a grip on the reins of power as Putin. (And few have ever been reverently photographed riding horseback shirtless, petting a tiger, or playing piano in tux and tails.)
Even with this switcheroo, little will change about Russia's, which is to say Putin's, stance on foreign or domestic affairs. Despite years of inspired reformist speechifying from President Medvedev, little has changed in the ossified Russian bureaucracy. That speaks to his true, limited, authority. The civil service system he declaims remain inefficient and antiquated, and presents ample opportunity for the kind of low-level corruption that greases the wheels of local politics across the world. Medvedev has been a friendly face for the Western world, someone who says the right things on its grand stages; but he has had little influence, as president, over the country's true direction. As the prime minister in waiting, look for that trend to continue.
– Paul Taylor is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –It’s time to get Russia back into proportion.Moscow’s resurgence as a major power, determined to be treated with respect and to stamp its influence on its neighborhood, has been one of the big stories of 2008.The sight of Russian tanks rolling into Georgia in August, coupled with a Kremlin drive to extend its control over energy supply routes to Europe, sent shivers through former Soviet satellite countries and drew loud condemnation from Washington.President Dmitry Medvedev’s threat to site short-range missiles in Kaliningrad aimed at Poland if Warsaw deploys part of a planned U.S. missile shield raised the rhetorical stakes.Yet the global financial crisis, the collapse of oil prices, the aftermath of the Georgia war and U.S. President-elect Barack Obama‘s victory have all cast doubt on Russia’s real weight.The credit crunch has hit Russia harder than other emerging economies, hammering confidence in its stocks, bonds and the rouble and forcing the central bank to spend some of its huge foreign currency reserves to stabilize the financial system.Foreign portfolio investors have fled and many Russian investors have parked more of their money in foreign currency abroad, at least partly due to heightened political risk since the military action in Georgia.State gas monopoly Gazprom (GAZP.MM: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), feared in many parts of Europe as a predator seeking a stranglehold on the continent’s gas supply, has lost more than two-thirds of its market capitalization since May.SHRINKING POPULATIONWith oil prices down from a peak of $147 a barrel in July to below $50 now, the heavily oil-and-gas-dependent economy looks more vulnerable, especially since Russia needs Western technology to boost its energy extraction.Alexander Shokhin, president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, says that after a 10-year boom, growth will fall to between 0 and 3 percent next year.Russia remains a lucrative market for Western consumer goods, but concerns about state meddling in business, widespread corruption and shortcomings in the rule of law have contributed to its failure to diversify away from hydrocarbons and minerals.Compounding the weakness of its non-energy economy, Russia’s demographics are among the worst in the world, with a life expectancy of just 67 (60 for men) and the combination of a low birth-rate, an aging population and a public health crisis.The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) projects the population could shrink by nearly one-third by 2050 to 100 million from 143 million.Diplomatically, Russia overreached itself after its lightning military victory in Georgia by recognizing the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent.Only Nicaragua followed suit. Major allies such as China and India, fearing the precedent, pointedly declined.The European Union, the main customer for Russian gas, has responded by accelerating efforts to reduce its dependency, planning an alternative supply corridor through Turkey and seeking new suppliers in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.Other former Soviet republics, including Azerbaijan, Belarus and Turkmenistan, have sought closer ties with the West.True, the U.S.-led NATO alliance has gone no further toward giving Georgia and Ukraine a roadmap to membership — the issue is off the agenda for now — and it has now resumed some frozen contacts with Russia, as has the EU.But Moscow’s efforts to reshape the security architecture of Europe, sidelining the role of the United States and of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, loathed by Moscow for its election monitoring, have gained little traction.STATUS QUO POWER?Russian analysts insist the Georgia war was a defensive action responding to pro-Western Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s bid to retake control of South Ossetia by force.”Russia is a status quo power, not a recidivist aggressor on the prowl,” says Dmitry Trenin, head of the Moscow office of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.Moscow has taken a number of steps recently to suggest it wants peaceful solutions to other “frozen conflicts” in its neighborhood, brokering the first summit talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, and seeking a deal between Moldova and its breakaway region of Transdniestria.In Ukraine, the biggest former Soviet republic where a democratic “Orange Revolution” in 2004 infuriated the Kremlin, Russia has other political and economic levers it can pull to maintain influence without having to use force.Getting Russia into proportion does not mean ignoring Moscow or its security interests. Its location and the fact it supplies 40 percent of Europe’s gas imports mean it cannot be neglected.The United States and the EU have an interest in binding Moscow rapidly into rule-based international bodies such as the World Trade Organization and the OECD, although they put both processes on hold in reprisal for the Georgia war.Some Western analysts believe a weak Russia could be more dangerous, if mishandled, than a strong one.In NATO circles, some see a risk of the “Weimarisation” of Russia, comparing it to Germany’s economically enfeebled Weimar Republic that was swept away by the rise of Hitler’s Nazi party.Political humiliation and economic instability could lead to a surge of aggressive nationalism.After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, wags branded Boris Yeltsin’s rump Russian Federation “Upper Volta with nukes,” capturing the paradox of a failed state with a ruined economy sitting on a huge arsenal of atomic weapons.When Vladimir Putin succeeded Yeltsin in 2000, he was determined to restore Russia’s power and pride after a decade in which many Russians felt the West ignored their interests by expanding NATO in ex-communist eastern Europe.Today, it sometimes seems that Russophiles and Russophobes in Europe and the United States have become objective allies in exaggerating the importance of or the threat from Moscow.A more self-confident Europe and a less unilateralist America need to find a way of engaging with Russia according to its true weight, without treating it as a giant.