Is Trump Russia’s Manchurian Candidate? No. Here’s Why


“Is Trump a Manchurian Candidate?” The Trump as “Manchurian Candidate” scenario has been a constant query for my colleagues and I since we published our warnings in August and November last year about Russia’s influence campaign on the U.S. presidential election. This loosely plays along the plot line of the 1959 novel and follow up 1962 movie where a communist conspiracy tries to install a dictatorial president in the U.S. In the most dire conspiracy theories today, Donald Trump is portrayed as a covert Russian operative ceding control of America to an ascendant Vladimir Putin. Trump’s supporters instead see the inverse – a new populist president focused on “America First,” seeking to make deals and secure peace through a worldview and foreign policy similar to Russia. Evidence for either of these scenarios remains scant, and conspiracy theorists on both sides of the political spectrum should consider that reality likely rests somewhere in between. Trump’s Russia connections and Putin’s overt support for “the Donald” should be evaluated not as dichotomous positions, but as the ends of a spectrum of four possible scenarios (Figure 1).


Scenario #1: “Natural Ally”

President Trump and many of his supporters contend that the new administration represents nothing more than the natural alliance between two men seeking their own country’s interests through toughness. Trump’s affinity for Russia dates back to the late 1980s by some accounts, and his business pursuits in the country have been well documented.


The “natural ally” explanation for Trump’s Russian affinity would only make sense if the president had an enduring worldview and foreign policy stance over several electoral cycles that justified and explained why an alliance with Russia would be both good for America and put “America first.” President Trump may know business, but foreign policy is not his bailiwick. Prior to his jump into the presidential race, Trump didn’t espouse any clear foreign policy stances suggesting his national security views in general, particularly in regards to Russia. On rare instances where Trump stated foreign policy views prior to his presidential run, he often contradicted himself (i.e. U.S. invasion of Iraq). Trump’s alignment with nearly every Russian foreign policy objective grew in increments, eerily coinciding with the entrance of key aides and advocates into his campaign, not through his own study.


Scenario #2: “Useful Idiot”

Russian influence of Trump most likely falls into the category of what Madeleine Albright called a “Useful Idiot” – a “useful fool” – an enthusiast for Putin supportive of any issue or stance that feeds his ego and brings victory. Russian intelligence for decades identified and promoted key individuals around the world ripe for manipulation and serving their interests. Trump, similar to emerging alternative right European politicians, spouts populist themes of xenophobia, anti-immigration, and white nationalist pride that naturally bring about a retrenchment of U.S. global influence. By spotting this early, Russia could encourage Trump’s ascension and shape his views via three parallel tracks. First, Russia led a never before seen hacking and influence campaign to degrade support for Hilary Clinton and promote Trump among a disenfranchised American populace. As a “useful idiot,” Trump not only benefited from this influence effort, but he urged Russia to find Hilary Clinton’s missing emails – a public call a “Manchurian Candidate” (see Scenario 4 below) would not likely make. Trump even fell for false Russian news stories citing a bogus Sputnik news story at a presidential rally – a glaring and open mistake that would reveal a true “Manchurian Candidate.”


Second, political operatives of other Russian campaigns mysteriously surfaced as close advisors whispering Kremlin lines in Trump’s ear, modifying his world view, sliding in Russian foreign policy positions as mainstream American positions, and even altering the Republican platform to support a Russian position over a Ukrainian ally. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager who previously worked in Ukraine on behalf of Russia, mistakenly cited a debunked Russia false news story about a terrorist attack on Incirlik airbase in Turkey as a final show of Russian influence before being fired. Carter Page, a Trump campaign linkage, denies being an agent, but has waffled on his meetings with Russian diplomats. The ex-MI6 agent’s dossier alleged secret meetings between Trump officials and Russian agents, but these have yet to be confirmed.


Third, Russia used overt influence and ultimately compromised key Trump advisors and appointees. The former MI6 officer’s dossier noted Russia’s deliberate attempts to sway Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Trump’s first National Security Advisor retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. This verifiable claim surfaced in the lead up to the presidential election with Flynn’s paid attendance at an RT event and the fact that he sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin called into question the zealous general’s allegiance in his vengeful rants against an Obama administration that fired him. Flynn then lied about his conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak prior to the inauguration which lead to his resignation. Now, Attorney General Sessions has potentially lied during confirmation hearings about meeting this same Ambassador Kislyak during the presidential campaign resulting in his recusing himself from all issues regarding Trump’s ties to Russia. Trump aides have also allegedly been pushing for a back channel deal between Ukraine and Russia, a maneuver between liaisons more typical of a “useful idiot” rather than “Manchurian Candidate” scenario. This sort of meddling provides the Kremlin plausible deniability and still achieves Russia’s objectives: breaking up the European Union, dissolving NATO, and weakening of American influence.


Scenario #3: Compromised

President Trump has been bullish on ISIS, China, and Iran, but has curiously been quite amenable to Russia. One explanation put forth regarding his toughness on all American enemies except Russia is that he is compromised – vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian government due to sexual compromise or financial entanglements. Under this scenario, President Trump would not be doing the bidding of Putin on a day-to-day basis, but would bend as needed to a Russian foreign policy position in order to protect himself from public disclosures and the resulting political backlash.


The former British intelligence officer’s dossier made salacious claims of sexual misconduct by Trump during a visit to St. Petersburg. But rumors of sexual compromise have yet to bring forth any real evidence of misbehavior. Furthermore, Russia would have a hard time sexually compromising a president who has been married three times, who may have bragged about his sexual prowess while posing as his own publicist, and who was caught using misogynistic speech in a leaked video. President Trump compromised himself in this fashion, and the voters didn’t seem to care. Should Russia release the alleged provocative video tape now, they would only confirm their meddling and achieve nothing – the dossier leak and U.S. government discussion of the dossier likely inoculated the president from any compromise on a sexual basis if anything even existed.


Trump claims no financial ties to Russia, but these allegations still remain open due to Trump’s refusal to show his tax records and the media’s failure to show any discernible financial ties to Russia. This situation may change in the future and could damage the president. More recently, President Trump’s son appears to have received $50,000 from a pro-Russia group in the weeks leading up to the election. This revelation, alongside absent tax records, suggests that President Trump and his family might be currently or in the future financially compromised through business interests that have not been properly divested by the president – business interests tied to or manipulated by Russia without the full knowledge of the First Family.


Scenario #4: Manchurian Candidate

On the other end of the spectrum, those most traumatized by Trump’s victory have questioned if the U.S. has fallen under the command of the world’s most cunning authoritarian: Vladimir Putin. A “Manchurian Candidate” Trump would be a deliberate plant commanded by the Russian government, aided during the campaign with both a hacking-influence campaign – equipped with key Russian advisors – and funding to help him take the White House.


This scenario is unlikely to be the case for several reasons. Trump’s behavior and policy positions sway with the wind. The famous former British intelligence officer dossier argued that Trump’s behavior in the lead up to the election caused unease amongst Kremlin leaders backing him. Trump openly discusses Russian connections and seems to be unaware of his closest aides ties and contacts to Russian diplomats and intelligence assets. Even Trump’s unfounded tweet storm about the wiretapping of Trump Tower would pose a threat to Russia under the “Manchurian Candidate” scenario. A Russian-directed U.S. president would be more deliberate in policy positions and would conceal rather than discuss connections with Russia. To date, no direct financial or physical contacts and communications can be directly tied to President Trump.


Most importantly, a Manchurian Candidate scenario, if it came to light, would likely result in direct war between the U.S. and Russia. The Russians started their second Cold War with the U.S. years ago, and they are winning. They don’t need a Manchurian candidate; that’s higher cost and higher risk to their efforts. They prefer systematic, indirect, asymmetric engagements that incrementally achieve their goals rather than provoking the U.S. into a direct clash militarily and economically – a fight the Kremlin would likely lose.



What are the implications of these Russian connections for Trump and America?

Regardless of President Trump’s relationship to Russia, the repeated disclosure of Russian influence and connections to his campaign and staff have created considerable turmoil in the White House and America as a whole. Trump’s loose style of alliances and tactical actions make him ideally suited for the “Useful Idiot” scenario of Russian influence as he takes on advisors and positions based on perceived loyalty, yet without a clear understanding of his advisors connections to Russia. Any traditional politician would have sensed the danger implicit in surrounding oneself with people so closely connected to Putin’s intelligence agents.


More importantly, President Trump appears strongly influenced by those in his inner circle. So if they have connections to Russia, whether President Trump knows it or not, he will, at times, be Russia’s pawn on foreign policy issues.

Tags: , , , ,

Japan’s Precarious Position in the Asia

Japanese destroyers in column formation

Over the last few years, Japan’s foreign policy gained a coherence rarely seen in decades.  No doubt pressure from Japan’s natural rivals in Asia—a rising China and a recalcitrant Russia—have helped to focus the minds of Japanese policymakers.  Certainly those closest to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe seemed convinced that Japan needed to improve its security situation.  By the beginning of 2016, it seemed as though Japan had done just that.

A Firmer Footing

While President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” proved disappointing, Japanese policymakers saw value in Obama’s support for a “rules-based international order.”  In practical terms, what that meant was that Japan could at least count on the United States to remain engaged in Asia and underpin its security.  For much of 2016, that seemed likely to continue.  After all, Obama’s nominal successor, Hillary Clinton, led in the U.S. presidential election polls.  Though Clinton had renounced her earlier support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement that Japan hoped would be the basis of Asia’s future economic architecture, most observers expected her to reverse herself again if she became president.

Hence, Abe had every reason to believe that his efforts to improve Japan’s security would be built on a reasonably solid foundation.  He tirelessly traveled throughout Asia cultivating new friendships, especially with the countries in Southeast Asia.  He encouraged Japanese companies to invest in them; he forged security relationships with them; and he even gave some of them Japanese-built patrol boats to monitor their maritime borders.  He also stepped in when Washington stumbled.  After relations between the United States and its long-time allies, Thailand and the Philippines, soured over their internal affairs, Abe quickly moved to strengthen Japan’s bilateral ties with both countries.

Japan also took more direct steps to strengthen its defense posture.  It modestly increased its defense budget.  It also laid the groundwork for new military installations in the Ryukyu Islands to watch over its East China Sea claims.  But possibly Japan’s biggest step was its new interpretation of its self-defense law.  Under the new guidelines, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces would be allowed to aid allies who come under attack.  While that may seem wholly non-controversial in most countries, it was anything but in pacifist Japan.  Some feared that Japan could be more easily drawn into future conflicts.  But the new guidelines would also enable Japan to form stronger security alliances that could prevent such conflicts from happening at all.

The string of good news for Japan’s security reached its zenith last July.  Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Permanent Court of Arbitration gave a boost to the “rules-based international order” when it judged that China’s “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea to be invalid.  With the judgment an international court at its back, a heartened Tokyo even considered filing its own case against China over their competing territorial claims in the East China Sea.

Shifting Sands

However, just then the ground beneath Japan’s feet shifted.  Rodrigo Duterte’s election as the president of the Philippines abruptly ended what some saw as Southeast Asia’s growing willingness to back an international order based on rules (or at least on ASEAN’s norms).  Having a personal animosity towards Obama and a general suspicion of American meddling, Duterte steadily moved the Philippines away from the United States.  Instead, he leaned toward China.  Abe’s meeting with Duterte in Tokyo failed to arrest that tilt.  Soon after, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, for his own reasons, began to lean the same way.  He even agreed to buy Chinese ships for the Malaysian navy.  On the other hand, Japan missed a golden opportunity to solidify its security relationship with Australia when a Japanese consortium lost a bid to build Australia’s next generation of submarines.

To top it all off, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election.  Throughout his campaign, he bashed not only the TPP, but also Japan for what he viewed as its inadequate support for the U.S. security presence in Asia.  Soon after his election, Trump confirmed that he would shelve the TPP when he became president.  Doubtlessly concerned, Abe hastily flew to New York to impress upon Trump the importance of a strong alliance between Japan and the United States.  But Abe received no public assurances.  The best news that Abe received from Trump probably came a month later when he announced his aim to expand the U.S. Navy.  If fully realized, that would at least put more substance behind America’s commitments to Asia (and to Japan), however strong they may be.

Troublesome Neighbors

China quickly capitalized on Japan’s reverses.  Given the likely demise of the TPP, China pushed harder for a Chinese-led free-trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, at the APEC summit last November.  Many believe the pact, if successful, would draw Asia’s economies closer into China’s orbit.

Russia also sensed Japan’s weakened position.  When Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Abe a month later, he offered Abe nothing new when they discussed how to settle their dispute over the southern Kuril Islands (or Northern Territories in Japan).  Putin simply reiterated Russia’s historic positions and insisted that any joint economic development on the islands must take place under Russian rules, an implicit recognition of Russian sovereignty over the islands.  Unsurprisingly, the meeting yielded little progress.

The Going Remains Tough

To make matters worse, Japan has yet to break free from a quarter century of economic stagnation.  Unless that changes, Japan will be hard pressed to devote substantially more resources to its security.  Through the TPP, Abe probably hoped to not only give Japan an economic boost, but also bind the United States more closely to Asia.  Unfortunately for Abe, the TPP’s negotiations dragged on for too long.  By the time they ended, it was politically impossible for the U.S. Senate to ratify it.  Even so, Abe has vowed to push TPP legislation through the Japanese Diet.

None of this is to say that Japanese policymakers have lost their way.  Abe is still focused on improving Japan’s security situation.  But for the moment, how much more he can do about it is not altogether clear.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Turkey: From “NATO’s Anchor” to What?

On Monday, the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Gazetesi published the backstory to President Recep Erdoğan’s meeting in St. Petersburg with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 9 August.[1] The report credited two persons for acting as go-betweens in the eventual “rapprochement,” Ramazan Abdulatipov and Cavit Çağlar. A number of Russian[2] and regional[3] media outlets published accounts of the Hürriyet Gazetesi report.

Welcoming Turkey’s “restoration of legitimate and constitutional order,” Mr. Putin said in St. Petersburg, “We have always opposed anti-constitutional actions.”[4] The Kremlin used that same term—anti-constitutional actions (antikonstitutsionnykh deystviy)— in its official statement after Mr. Putin spoke to Mr. Erdoğan on 17 July in the aftermath of the attempted coup (a conversation, the Kremlin hastened to point out, Russia initiated):

“Vladimir Putin…stressed the principled position of Russia regarding the categorical inadmissibility in the conduct of public affairs of anti-constitutional actions and violence.”[5]  

Turkish press reports emphasized Mr. Putin’s “decisive opposition to unconstitutional actions”[6] against Mr. Erdoğan’s government, some repeating Mr. Putin’s phrase verbatim.[7] That phrase is also the same one Mr. Putin used after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster.[8] It was echoed then by other members of his government—for example, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s condemnation of “radical unconstitutional actions of Ukrainian oppositionists.”[9]

The Hürriyet Gazetesi account of events leading up to the meeting in St. Petersburg is worthy of a spy novel, and Ramazan Abdulatipov and Cavit Çağlar are among its central characters. Mr. Abdulatipov is said to have taken his directions from Yury Ushakov, a long-time Russian diplomat and aide to Mr. Putin. In September 2013, Mr. Putin appointed Mr. Abdulatipov to his second four-year term as Head of the Republic of Dagestan, a Russian federal republic located in the North Caucasus.

Mr. Abdulatipov ‘s counterpart, Cavit Çağlar, is said to have taken his directions from General Hulsi Akar, Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff since April 2015. Mr. Çağlar’s usual description as “a Turkish businessman” does not do him justice. In 1999, he was a central figure[10] in a covert operation in Kenya conducted by the Millî İstihbarat Teşkilâtı (Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency, aka “MIT”) to interdict and capture Abdullah Öcalan, a founding member of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party known as the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎). Mr. Çağlar’s private aircraft was used to spirit Mr. Öcalan from Nairobi to Turkey. In late April 2001, he was arrested by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation in a parking garage at New York’s JFK Airport and extradited to Turkey, which had issued an Interpol Red Notice pursuant to his conviction in the collapse of Turkey’s Interbank. 

The precursor to the St. Petersburg meeting was President Erdoğan’s letter to President Putin. In it, Turkey apologized for the 24 November 2015 downing of a Russian warplane in Turkish airspace that was taking part in a combat mission in Syria.[11] Hürriyet Gazetesi reported a 30 April meeting in Istanbul, during which President Erdoğan authorized General Akar and Mr. Çağlar to open discussions with Russia about “normalizing” relations. Messrs. Abdulatipov and Çağlar then spent several weeks shuttling successive drafts of the letter (written by prior agreement in Turkish and Russian, not English) back and forth, with the support of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. This led to a 24 June meeting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where President Putin was scheduled to meet President Nazarbayev at the conclusion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. The Kazakh ambassador to Turkey contacted an aide to President Erdoğan, Ibrahim Kalyn, to set the meeting in Tashkent. After several last minute hitches—there were problems reconciling the Turkish and Russian versions of the letter, and Uzbekistan had closed its airspace due to the SCO summit so Kazakh President Nazarbayev had to ask Uzbek President Islam Karimov for permission to fly “his friends from Turkey” (whose aircraft, low of fuel, had landed in Shymkent) to Tashkent—President Putin and President Erdoğan agreed to the final wording. The timing was uncanny, coming a fortnight before the attempted coup in Turkey. As the Hürriyet Gazetesi report points out, the first leader to phone President Erdoğan with a message of support was President Putin.

The St. Petersburg meeting, write Gallia Lindenstrauss and Zvi Magen,[12] “is likely to be a beginning of a new phase in Turkish-Russian relations.” It may very well mark the beginning of something wider, given the pivotal Kazakh and Uzbek roles in brokering the rapprochement between their neighbors. There is another, less noticed factor as well: as Mr. Erdoğan met with Mr. Putin in St. Petersburg, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu declared his country would suspend its migration agreement[13] with the European Commission unless the Commission established a definitive date to abolish visa requirements for Turkish citizens.[14] Where that goes is anyone’s guess. What is certain, however, is that Turkey’s traditional role as NATO’s “anchor” on the Black Sea is indeed ripe for revision, exactly how much and to what extent nobody today can know.


The translation of all source material is by the author.

[1] ” Türk-Rus krizini bitiren gizli diplomasinin öyküsü.” Hürriyet Gazetesi [published online in Turkish 8 August 2016].

[2] See for example: “Ramazan Abdulatipov yakoby okazal sodeystviye v vosstanovlenii otnosheniy mezhdu liderami Rossii i Turtsii.” Seryy zhurnal [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[3] “Negocieri secrete. Cum au reuşit Turcia şi Rusia să-şi restabilească relaţiile.” [published online in Romanian 9 August 2016]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[4] “Putin: Rossiya i Turtsiya vystupayut za vozobnovleniye dvustoronnikh otnosheniy.” Novaya Gazeta [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[5] ” Putin v razgovore s Erdoganom zayavil o nedopustimosti antikonstitutsionnykh deystviy.” TASS [published online in Russian 17 July 2016]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[6] ” Putin’den Erdoğan’a telefon.” Hürriyet Gazetesi [published online in Turkish 17 July 2016]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[7] See for example: “Putin’den Erdoğan’a: Anayasaya aykırı hiçbir eylem kabul edilemez.” İleri Haber [published online in Turkish 17 July 2016]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[8] For example see: “Putin po telefonu obsudil s Merkel’ i Netan’yakhu ukrainskiye sobytiya.” [published online in Russian 16 April 2014]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[9] “Ukraina na krayu. Vozmozhnyye stsenarii razvitiya sobytiy.” Vechernyaya Moskva [published online in Russian 24 January 2014]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[10] One of the best descriptions of the events surrounding Mr. Öcalan’s flight and capture was published in the United States Central Intelligence Agency’s Studies in Intelligence series. See: Miron Varouhakis (2009). “Fiasco in Nairobi: Greek Intelligence and the Capture of PKK Leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.” Studies in Intelligence. 53:1. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[11] A Russian language report about the Hürriyet Gazetesi article stated that the language of President Erdoğan’s letter in Russian used words that were ” stronger than ‘sorry’ but not as strong as ‘apology’.” Mr. Putin, it wrote, “approved the text, despite the fact that he found it a little closer to the Turkish position, because he read it as a request for forgiveness.” See: “Ramazan Abdulatipov vsplyl v istorii s izvineniyami Redzhepa Erdogana pered Vladimirom Putinym.” On Kavkaz [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[12] Gallia Lindenstrauss & Zvi Magen (2016). “The Russian-Turkish Reset.” FPRI E-Note 8 August 2016. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[13] According to the European Commission Fact Sheet dated 4 April 2016, “On 18 March 2016, EU Heads of State or Government and Turkey agreed to end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU and replace it instead with legal channels of resettlement of refugees to the European Union. The aim is to replace disorganised, chaotic, irregular and dangerous migratory flows by organised, safe and legal pathways to Europe for those entitled to international protection in line with EU and international law. The agreement took effect as of 20 March 2016.” It provides for unauthorized migrants to be returned to Turkey and for Turkey to block “nee sea or land routes for irregular migration.” In exchange, Turkey received a payment in the amount of EU payment of €3bn (USD3.3bn). Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[14] “Turtsiya postavila EC ul’timatum po bezhentsam.” Lenta [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Let (Clean) Russian Runners Run: The Wrongheaded Collective Punishment of Russian Athletes

“I support the fight against banned substances in sports. It is an evil that needs to be eradicated. Athletes found guilty of using it should be barred from competing…However, I am concerned and deeply saddened by the possibility that, in the event Russian athletes are banned from participating in the Olympics, persons not culpable would be punished as well as those who are guilty. I regard the principle of collective punishment as unacceptable.”

Mikhail Gorbachev



The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)—the world governing body for the sport of Athletics, better known to Americans as “track & field”—decided in mid June to prohibit all Russian athletes from competing at the Rio Olympic Games next month. The basis for the IAAF decision is its finding of systematic corruption by the Russian agency responsible for mandatory testing of athletes to detect the use of prohibited performance enhancing drugs. Those tests are based on what are commonly called “anti-doping rules” adopted by the World Anti-Doping Agency (“WADA”)—an international organization responsible for the rules and regulations contained in the World Anti Doping Code.

Technically, what the IAAF did on 17 June was to determine that the sport’s governing body in Russia, the All-Russia Athletic Federation (RUSAF, sometimes appearing as “ARAF”), did not meet the conditions for reinstatement earlier set down by the IAAF. Those conditions were threefold:

  1. RUSAF “complies in full with the World Anti-Doping Code and IAAF Anti-Doping Rules.”
  2. The IAAF and the Russian anti-doping agency RUSADA “are able to conduct their anti-doping programmes [sic] in Russia (in particular, drug-testing) effectively and without interference.”
  3. “[T]hat as a result, the reintegration of Russian athletes into international competitions will not jeopardise [sic] the integrity of those competitions.”

“In short,” an IAAF taskforce concluded:

RUSAF must show that there is now a culture of zero tolerance towards doping in Russian athletics, and that RUSAF, RUSADA, and the public authorities in Russia, working in cooperation, have created an anti-doping infrastructure that is effective in detecting and deterring cheats, and therefore provides reasonable assurance and protection to clean athletes both inside and outside of Russia.[1]

Despite some noted improvements, the IAAF task force concluded “there remains a clear lack of respect for the anti-doping rules.” The report concluded, “The deep-seated culture of tolerance (or worse) for doping that got RUSAF suspended in the first place appears not to have changed materially to date” [finding 5.1] and “There are detailed allegations, which are already partly substantiated, that the [Russian] Ministry of Sport, far from supporting the anti-doping effort, has in fact orchestrated systematic doping and the covering up of adverse analytical findings” [finding 5.3].[2]

Fair enough. There is no basis on which to dispute the IAAF’s findings regarding the manifold deficiencies of RUSAF and RUSADA, nor its conclusion that the Russian Ministry of Sport was fully complicit in the systematic evasion of international anti-doping rules. In other words, all of the responsible Russian organizations and governmental agencies cheated, and did so systematically, repeatedly, and shamelessly. These acts are doubly despicable for involving shakedowns of Russian athletes—one Russian athlete, the marathon runner Liliya Shobukhova, said she gave €450,000 (about $495,000) to senior Russian officials in exchange for covering up violations—and for the alleged involvement of the IAAF’s president at the time, Lamine Diack. He reportedly admitted to French investigators accepting some €1,000,000 in bribes to cover up Russian cheating. His son is also implicated.

The effect of the IAAF action is to change RUSAF’s earlier temporary suspension as an IAAF member into a full one. What it means is that “athletes, and athlete support personnel from Russia may not compete in International Competitions including…the Olympic Games.”[3] In other words, “the decision not to reinstate RUSAF means that Russian athletes remain ineligible under IAAF Rules to compete in International Competitions including…the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.”[4]

The IAAF concluded that some number of Russian athletes evaded anti-doping rules. Those athletes cheated, systematically, repeatedly, and shamelessly. They have dishonored themselves and their country. The author’s view is that they should be identified publicly and suspended for life from competing in any sport, no exceptions. 

That being said, there is no basis for suspending every Russian athlete, including women and men who are determined pursuant to WADA-approved procedures not to have violated anti-doping rules. It is here the faint odor of hypocrisy creeps into the story.

Does every athlete found to have cheated by taking some performance enhancing substance receive a lifetime suspension? No, they do not. The United States’ top male sprinter—he has qualified to compete in the 100 meter and 200 meter dashes and the 4×100 relay in Rio—has twice been suspended for violating anti-doping rules, once in 2001 for two years (he was reinstated early by the IAAF) and a second time in 2006, when he was suspended for eight years (avoiding a lifetime suspension only by cooperating with authorities). So, too, the United States’ top qualifier in the 400 meter dash, who also is expected to compete in the 4×400 relay. He received a two-year suspension in 2010 that was eventually reduced by three months.

There are many, many more athletes who will compete in Rio after serving suspensions for violating WADA drug rules. And there are Russian athletes who will not be allowed to compete in Rio who have not done so. And that is the fundamental unfairness about the IAAFs action. Nor are the IAAF’s hands clean. Former WADA head Dick Pound said “It is not credible that elected officials were unaware of the situation affecting athletics in Russia. If, therefore, the circle of knowledge was so extensive, why was nothing done?”[5]

The prohibition against collective punishment—where all members of a group are punished irrespective of whether a given individual is guilty or innocent—is enshrined in international law. In the matter of Russian track & field athletes, however, that principle has taken a back seat to expediency.

I am no apologist for the Russian government. Nor am I unaware how deeply rooted corruption is in many Russian sports governing bodies. That being said, I am of the generation of American athletes who saw their Olympic chances disappear with the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Games. Whether President Carter was right to prohibit American athletes from competing in Moscow that year has been debated ad nauseum. But that was a decision by our President, marking our nation’s principled opposition to the Soviet invasion of a sovereign country. It was not a decision by some international organization that for many years looked the other way and now seeks to redeem itself, unfortunately on the back of athletes who get no say in the matter.   

In late July the International Olympic Committee decided against banning all Russian athletes from Rio regardless of their sport. The head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, Travis Tygart, criticized that decision, saying “the IOC has refused to take decisive leadership. The decision regarding Russian participation and the confusing mess left in its wake is a significant blow to the rights of clean athletes.”[6] Mr. Tygart is an honorable man who has worked tirelessly to eradicate illegal drugs from sports. But it is worth pondering how those clean athletes will feel about competing against the confessed drug cheaters who will be in Rio. I suspect they would rather see a clean Russian athlete who isn’t given a first chance than a dirty athlete from somewhere else who got an undeserved second chance.



[1] IAAF Taskforce: Interim Reports to IAAF Council (17 June 2016) 1. The full report is posted on the website.

[2] Ibid., 7

[3] Last accessed 25 July 2016.

[4] Last accessed 25 July 2016.

[5] Last accessed 27 July 2016.

[6] Last accessed 27 July 2016.



Tags: , , , ,

Nagorno-Karabakh: A Conflict Entrenched in Nationalistic Propaganda

Armenia-Azerbaijan relations are all but stellar.  In fact, for those familiar with the region, this is a relationship known for its enmity, aggression, and hostility via a dangerous game of propaganda and nationalistic rhetoric. The two became enemies shortly after 1988, when the region of Nagorno-Karabakh – inhabited by a majority of ethnic Armenians – voted to secede from then Soviet Azerbaijan and unite with Armenia.

What are the implications of the tragic drifting apart of the Armenian and Azerbaijani societies caused by years of relentless nationalistic propaganda carried out by both governments? Could the arms race the countries have embarked on destabilize the entire Eurasian region if it transforms into a full-scale war? Is there a path towards reconciliation?

The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in Context

The bloody war in Nagorno-Karabakh that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union ended in the loss of more than 35,000 lives. About 1.5 million people were forced into becoming refugees and internally displaced persons: Armenians living in Azerbaijan fled to Armenia, Azerbaijanis in Armenia fled to Azerbaijan, while Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other surrounding districts were displaced to other regions of Azerbaijan because of the conflict. The conflict also caused the occupation of about 20% of Azerbaijani territory by Armenian forces (see map below). As a matter of comparison, if the United States lost 20% of its sovereign territory, the loss would be equivalent to its entire Northeast region. The 1.5 million displaced individuals represented about 15% of the combined population of Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1990 (which stood at approximately 3.4 and 6.8 million people, respectively, according to World Bank figures).

NKMap 1

A ceasefire signed in 1994 halted the combat, albeit only temporarily. To this day, the two countries continue fighting across the line of contact. And, since 2012, reports of incidents including the downing of helicopters and the use of heavy artillery in and around civilian areas have increased. There is little sign of progress in the ongoing fragile peace negotiation.

Intensified fighting has occasionally coincided with Western high official visits to the region. For instance, an episode of increased violence broke out during the visit of then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to the South Caucasus in 2012. These flair ups also tend to coincide with high level international meetings in which both Armenia and Azerbaijan participate. This was the case with the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C. earlier this April, at the end of which occurred the latest and most worrying escalation of the conflict since the 1994 ceasefire.

A Peculiar Conflict for Today’s World

Even today, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains a war of trenches – a classical confrontation between conventional forces composed of tanks and heavy artillery. By their physical appearance the Armenian and Azerbaijani trenches of today can best be compared with the trenches of the First World War. 


Trenches of Nagorno-Karabakh 


Trenches of WWI

What does Nagorno-Karabakh stand for? It certainly is a scenic region at the foot of the smaller Caucasus chain. Some observers might be reminded of Switzerland, or the German Black Forest when seeing pictures of it. But beyond its rugged foothills, the Nagorno-Karabakh region does not possess major natural resources and is, because of its geography, neither an essential causeway for pipelines nor any other type of strategic route. It is also a region only half the size of New Jersey, with a population of about 200,000 before the outbreak of the conflict in the late 1980s. It then was composed of about 76.9% ethnic Armenians and 21.5% ethnic Azeris. Today, its population has shrunk to around 100,000. While accurate figures are hard to obtain, the vast majority of the region’s population is Armenian.

However, Nagorno-Karabakh has great emotional value for both the Armenian and Azerbaijani national identities. The region serves as a historical center for their respective cultures, a site where both nations continuously thrived in the face of Russian, Persian, and eventually Soviet domination.

All the above renders the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict a very singular case and one of Eurasia’s worst protracted conflicts with very meager hopes for resolution at this point.

A Nationalistic War of Propaganda

Perhaps the worst outcome of this conflict is, as Thomas De Waal  wrote in the New York Times on the onset of the recent escalation, “the bitter truth that leaders in Armenia and Azerbaijan have become trapped by their own rhetoric, promising their publics total victory that can never be achieved. They have employed the status quo as a weapon to shrink hard questions about their own legitimacy or to divert people’s attention from socioeconomic problems.” 

Fighting the nationalist propaganda has been almost impossible for peace-seeking civil society organizations. In Azerbaijan, many initiatives, organizations, and individuals advocating for a peaceful settlement have recently been shamed for their reconciliation work. Peace seekers are often portrayed as enemies of the state — traitors who have betrayed their country’s values for the sake of international grants and fallen victim to Armenia’s influence.

In Armenia too, supporters of rapprochement between Armenian and Azerbaijani civil societies are rare and going against the official state position on the conflict is not well received. As Artur Sakunts, head of the non-governmental Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly in the northern Armenian town of Vanadzor described in a recent interview with Eurasianet, “the lack of direct contacts between Azerbaijani and Armenian civil society members has only added to the animosity prevalent now.”

Online social media now carry their own share in this propaganda war. Twitter and Facebook are often used as weapons of Azerbaijani and Armenian online war and propaganda campaigns: “The Armenians or Azerbaijanis who befriend one another publicly on social networking sites such as Facebook or its Russian version,, are often attacked, insulted, and called traitors online by their ‘offline’ friends and peers from their own societies. Pro-democracy or pro-peace bloggers are also similarly attacked. Any public expression of alternative views, criticism of one’s own side, or simple public discussions of critical topics — all necessary components of a successful peace process and sustainable co-existence with other groups — are actively discouraged. Anything but repeating the silently agreed upon lines dictated by government propaganda becomes taboo, and progress within each society is held hostage,” wrote Philip Gamaghelyan, longtime supporter of track two diplomacy initiatives between the two countries and founder of the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation.

Moreover, little has changed since Gamaghelyan expressed these words in 2011. Contemporarily, a dialogue is almost non-existent, appeasing discourse is heavily criticized, and younger generations have little interest in challenging the deeply embedded attitudes groomed by this nationalist rhetoric.

A Relentless Arms Race

Another profoundly worrying aspect of this conflict is the arms race between the two countries. In 2014, President Ilham Aliyev boasted about Azerbaijan’s defense budget being twice the size of Armenia’s overall state budget. This is, however, widely due to the important gap between both countries’ Gross Domestic Products. In 2014, Armenia’s GDP was $11.64 billion while oil-rich Azerbaijan’s GDP reached $75.20 billion. While oil-money does fuel Azerbaijan’s military spending, it is important to understand that it does not actually outsize Armenia’s military spending to GDP ratio.

In reality, both countries have similar military expenditures in terms of GDP. In 2015, Azerbaijan’s military expenditures represented 4.6% of the country’s GDP, while Armenia’s spending amounted for 4.5% of its GDP. Both percentages are fairly large: the same year, Germany spent 1.2% on its military and the United States 3.3% according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

The recent fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh has demonstrated the use of modernized warfare on both sides, particularly by the Azerbaijani military, thus increasing the chances of casualties and suggesting that both countries are eager to ensure their unequivocal military success should the war break out again.

The fact that both governments inflate military expenditures and divert resources from more fundamental societal concerns is the result of very successful propaganda machines working their way into the minds of Armenian and Azerbaijani citizens from as early as primary school – presenting the other as a major existential threat.

However, in reality, most visitors to Armenia and Azerbaijan would probably agree that these nations share much more than they are currently willing to appreciate. This is true in terms of both cultural and societal dynamics.

Moreover, rare are the places in this world where religious differences – Armenians being predominantly Christians and Azerbaijanis being Shia Muslims – matter so little, in fact, not at all. This is not a conflict based on religious differences.

This is a territorial conflict firmly rooted in the quest for national identity and international statehood recognition on both sides.

While the Armenian and Azerbaijani nations are strikingly unique, their shared traditions and legacies, shaped by centuries of multi-ethnic and multicultural dynamics in the South Caucasus, are just as striking. However, if nothing changes, it is most likely that the societies of both countries will continue to drift away from each other by continuing on the path of hatred, promotion of negative stereotypes, and engaging in an aggressive arms race.

Russian Military Presence in Armenia

Another concern that some external observers have had over time is the presence of Russian troops on Armenian territory and how this might influence the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This presence – composed of about 3000 soldiers, air defense missiles, and fighter jets – is part of a bilateral agreement between the two countries within the broader context of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of which Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are members.

With the Russian 102nd Military Base located in the town of Gyumri – 75 miles north of the Armenian capital, Yerevan, and close to the Turkish border which is also one of the physical border between the CSTO and NATO – the Russian Federation is supposed to provide for the security of Armenia. With regards to external borders, Russian troops, however, patrol primarily the border with Turkey and Iran but not the ones with Azerbaijan – both mainland and the exclave of Nakhichevan to Armenia’s south (see map below).  


But after the events of this April, Russian official reactions suggest that Russian troops would not actually decide to intervene in favor of the Armenian side, should the conflict scale-up to a fully-fledged war yet again. In fact, the latest escalation has, instead, reactivated Russia’s motivation to serve as a mediator between the two parties. In addition, other CSTO countries, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, have distanced themselves from Armenia once the April events unfolded, while Azerbaijan’s strategic relevance for Russia has continued to grow.

Need for Political Reform, Education, and International Community Support

The resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict must start with profound political reforms towards democracy in both countries. Moreover, it must be strengthened with an actual will of elites on both sides to improve their citizens’ quality of life by making the region a secure place, free of conflict, through continued efforts towards reconciliation. Finally, a resolution of the conflict must be ensured by an effort to educate younger generations in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In this context, the international community has a great responsibility in helping to consolidate a very fragile thread of existing peace negotiations with the distant hope that perhaps, one day, the two nations can live in peace.

On Thursday May 5, 2016, the Armenian government has approved a draft bill recognizing the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh on which the Armenian parliament will vote next week (the week of May 9th, 2016). This move from the Armenian side, will most likely trigger reactions in Azerbaijan and from the international community. This renders the outcome of this conflict – towards either peace or war – even more uncertain.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was updated after publication. The final sentence originally read: “Otherwise, clashes of this magnitude cannot only become a norm but have the potential to morph into a broader regional conflict inevitably involving Turkey and Russia as the two countries are important regional powers in close alliance with Azerbaijan and Armenia respectively.”]

Tags: , , , , , ,