Effectiveness of Economic Sanctions on Russia’s Economy

In early 2015, Western leaders thought they had Russia cornered.  A year earlier they imposed on Russia economic sanctions, which ranged from restrictions on access to Western capital markets to bans on the export of oil-production technology, to punish it for its role in dismembering Ukraine.  Those sanctions and the Russian boycotts that followed threw Russia’s economy into turmoil.  With some justification, President Barack Obama declared that “Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters” in January 2015.  But two years later, Russia has stabilized its economy, annexed Crimea, and kept its “little green men” in eastern Ukraine.  What went awry?

Peak Pain

In financial terms, Russia felt the most damaging impact of the West’s economic sanctions within the first year of their imposition.  Suddenly, Russian companies, holding dollar and euro-denominated debt, had to repay their loans without the ability to refinance them.  Russian banks targeted by Western sanctions saw their overseas assets frozen.  That created a cash crunch.  Many companies were forced to suspend operations and slash jobs; some even required government capital injections to survive.  But they did survive.

Commodity Price Stabilization

Unfortunately for Russia, the West’s economic sanctions coincided with a steep drop in global oil prices.  That, more than anything else, exacerbated Russia’s economic woes, since much of the country’s economy depends on the production of commodities, primarily oil.  Oil prices plummeted from over $100 per barrel to under $35 per barrel in late 2015.  But then they began to recover the following year.  So too did the prices of other major commodities that Russia produces, including iron, aluminum, and copper.  No doubt global economic growth, which boosted commodity prices, helped Russia to better ride out Western sanctions.

Floating Currency

But the stabilization of commodities prices did not save Russia’s economy.  With economic sanctions darkening the country’s outlook, the value of the Russian ruble was cut in half.  At first, Russia’s central bank tried to defend it, consuming $200 billion in foreign exchange reserves in the effort.  But ultimately, Russia’s central bank took a leaf from the International Monetary Fund’s market-based playbook and allowed the Russian ruble to float.  That freed Russia’s central bank from having to defend the ruble and prevented an even greater outflow of hard currency that would have further undermined Russia’s economy.

Moreover, since commodities are generally priced in dollars, the sharply devalued ruble meant that though Russian companies faced falling prices for their goods, the dollars they did receive could be converted into more rubles.  That softened the economic blow—enough so that Russian energy companies could continue to reinvest in their businesses.  As a result, despite the sanctions on oil-production technology, Russia is able to produce more oil today than it did before the sanctions were imposed.

Inflation Control

With shortages of imported goods and more rubles in circulation, inflation became a real threat.  Rising prices ate away at the purchasing power of ordinary Russians.  But rather than reflexively enact price controls, Russia’s central bank used another market-inspired lever.  It raised interest rates, up to 17 percent by December 2014.  Credit naturally dried up, further depressing the Russian economy.  But fortunately for Russia, inflation was quickly brought under control.  That allowed Russia’s central bank to gradually lower interest rates to 10 percent, giving Russian companies much-needed breathing room to recover.

Fiscal Discipline

In the depths of its economic recession, Moscow could have increased government spending to boost economic activity.  But with falling revenues from Russian oil production, a surge in spending would have pushed Russia’s government budget deep into the red and fueled a potential economic crisis.  Instead, Moscow exercised fiscal discipline.  It held its spending in check and ran a budget deficit of only 3 percent of Russia’s GDP last year.  When more funds were needed, Moscow raised taxes and dug into its two sovereign wealth funds, draining a third of their assets before oil prices stabilized.

Wavering Western Resolve

Meanwhile, European companies, particularly German ones, gave Moscow hope.  They were never keen on the economic sanctions against Russia.  From the start, they lobbied German Chancellor Angela Merkel to water them down.  After they were imposed in 2014, German direct investment into Russia evaporated.  But only a year later, German companies returned, investing $1.8 billion into Russia.  Last year, they invested another $2.1 billion, more than they had in the year before economic sanctions were imposed.  Such continued investments have encouraged Moscow to question the strength of Western resolve.


The West’s economic sanctions have bent but did not break the Russian economy, despite its structural vulnerabilities.  What steadied it was a combination of several factors, the most important of which were the stabilization of global commodity prices and the market-oriented policies implemented by Russian authorities.  They made Russia’s economy more resilient and prevented an even deeper recession.

Ultimately, economic sanctions can make countries more vulnerable to global economic forces.  But rarely do they deliver a knockout blow themselves.  Western economic sanctions against Russia have proven the rule, rather than the exception.  Ironically, the West’s success in spreading open-market ideas at Russia’s central bank may have inadvertently weakened the effectiveness of its own economic sanctions.  If so, the further spread of such ideas could make economic sanctions even less effective in the future.

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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.

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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]. http://kopomko.ru/ramazan-abdulatipov-yakobyi-okazal-sodeystvie-v-vosstanovlenii-otnosheniy-mezhdu-liderami-rossii-i-turtsii/. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[3] “Negocieri secrete. Cum au reuşit Turcia şi Rusia să-şi restabilească relaţiile.” Publika.md [published online in Romanian 9 August 2016]. http://www.publika.md/negocieri-secrete-cum-au-reusit-turcia-si-rusia-sa-si-restabileasca-relatiile_2708501.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[4] “Putin: Rossiya i Turtsiya vystupayut za vozobnovleniye dvustoronnikh otnosheniy.” Novaya Gazeta [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. http://www.novayagazeta.ru/news/1705969.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[5] ” Putin v razgovore s Erdoganom zayavil o nedopustimosti antikonstitutsionnykh deystviy.” TASS [published online in Russian 17 July 2016]. http://tass.ru/politika/3462009. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[6] ” Putin’den Erdoğan’a telefon.” Hürriyet Gazetesi [published online in Turkish 17 July 2016]. http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/putinden-erdogana-telefon-40150943. 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]. http://ilerihaber.org/icerik/putinden-erdogana-anayasaya-aykiri-hicbir-eylem-kabul-edilemez-56902.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[8] For example see: “Putin po telefonu obsudil s Merkel’ i Netan’yakhu ukrainskiye sobytiya.” Vesti.ru [published online in Russian 16 April 2014]. http://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=1483262. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[9] “Ukraina na krayu. Vozmozhnyye stsenarii razvitiya sobytiy.” Vechernyaya Moskva [published online in Russian 24 January 2014]. http://vm.ru/news/2014/01/24/ukraina-na-krayu-232373.html. 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. https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol53no1/fiasco-in-nairobi.html. 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]. http://onkavkaz.com/articles/2781-ramazan-abdulatipov-vsplyl-v-istorii-s-izvinenijami-redzhepa-erdogana-pered-vladimirom-putinym.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[12] Gallia Lindenstrauss & Zvi Magen (2016). “The Russian-Turkish Reset.” FPRI E-Note 8 August 2016. http://www.fpri.org/article/2016/08/russian-turkish-reset/. 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). http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-16-1221_en.htm. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[14] “Turtsiya postavila EC ul’timatum po bezhentsam.” Lenta [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. https://lenta.ru/news/2016/08/09/stop_implementing_agreement/. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

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The West Needs to Stop Obsessing About Putin

Whether the Western media views Russian President Vladimir Putin as losing or winning, as strong or weak, as having a plan or lacking one entirely, it focuses almost exclusively on him as the driving force behind everything that happens in Russia and everything Russia does abroad. For good reason. Putin’s aggression is one of the top foreign policy challenges today. From Ukraine to Syria, no one stands in starker opposition to the Western world order.

Thus, Putin must go.  Focusing on the man, however, ignores the system that he’s put into place, and that system is the key to understanding today’s Russia and how we should deal with it.

The West’s Putin obsession feeds the misconception that if Putin were to step down tomorrow, Russia would be able to democratize and retake its place in the international community. Perhaps at one point in the early 2000s the removal of Putin would have made it possible for Russia to avoid a darker path. But that thought is no more than fantasy today. Putin is the central figure in the government apparatus, and members of his government cannot envision a Russia without him. Yet he has made the political future of Russia unstable by co-opting its political system, twisting it to serve himself and the elite who serve him, instead of the Russian people, and forging a system of rule that will, paradoxically, survive him and hinder democratization.

Putin’s regime is not an effective, responsive government. He has based his authority on corruption, the negation of basic political rights, the alternating appeasement and subjugation of the oligarchs, and manipulation of his people through control of the media. Even if Putin felt secure enough to appoint a successor who would guarantee him immunity from prosecution, as Putin did for Yeltsin, that successor would face problems simply by not being Putin.

This does not mean that Putin must stay for the sake of stability, or that his presence guarantees stability. Russia is not a stable country under Putin. Since the invasion of Crimea, the ruble has lost 50 percent of its value in relation to the dollar, Russia’s GDP has dropped by almost 1 trillion dollars since 2013, and Russia’s oil and gas industry has a bleak future. Russia is not a status quo international actor, as its mischief-making in Ukraine and muscle-flexing in Syria demonstrate. And with xenophobia and propaganda-induced nationalist hysteria on the rise, it could get worse, especially if a more erratic, nationalist politician were to succeed, or supplant, Putin.

If democracy is to have any hope in Russia, change must be organic, with the Russian people at its head. Democratic reformers hope that Putin’s powerbase, with its reliance on economics and the menace of external enemies, eventually crumbles and collapses under its own weight. Putin’s increasingly unpredictable behavior, spinning from crisis to crisis as he tries to maintain momentum and keep his people’s attention away from the country’s economic downturn and the population’s lack of basic rights and democratic freedoms, does not seem sustainable in the long term. Democratic hopefuls may get their wish.

An implosion may not bring about a positive outcome, however, as Russia’s own experience with the dismantling of the Soviet Union shows. The chaotic end of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent rollercoaster of what the West called reform, but many Russians called ruin, had frightening consequences. It largely discredited democracy in the eyes of Russians. They do not want to go through anything similar again.

The sad truth is that only time and more failure can push Putin from his throne. Direct external pressure will only serve to ignite the volatile mix of nationalism and fear—of the past and the future—that reigns in Russia. The West must do its best to make Putin an anachronism, to show Russians that there is a better world. If the United States wants to see Putin out of power, it must be ready for a Russia without Putin and a period of turmoil that could make the end of the Soviet Union look downright peaceful in comparison. The media can help by focusing less on Putin as an epic villain and more on the system that he’s created, how that system blights Russia’s present, and the problems it is likely to bequeath to our common future.  

Simon Hoellerbauer is a research intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College. He can be found on Twitter at @hoellerbauers. Melinda Haring is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. 


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Putin’s Hidden Victims

It has been nearly three years since Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning American families from adopting Russian children.  Many viewed the law as retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, which the US Congress had passed the month before, rebuking the Russian government for its terrible human rights record. Putin’s tit-for-tat response brought Russia’s deplorable human rights situation— especially in Russian orphanages—into focus.

Harvard Law professor and child welfare expert Elizabeth Bartholet described the ban as “cynical and brutal.”

But the outrage was not limited to the international community. Even within Russia there was a significant backlash.  Shortly after Putin announced the ban, 20,000 Russians marched with protest signs, shouting “Shame on the scum!”  Putin’s political game unfairly victimized children and condemned many to live out their childhoods in state-run institutions.

Putin responded to the criticism coyly. “We must do all we can so that orphaned children find their families in their home country, in Russia,” he said.

Today there are approximately 700,000 children in the country’s orphanage system. Nearly 95 percent have at least one living parent.  These children are not “orphans” in the traditional sense; the government coined the handy phrase “social orphan” to describe children whose parents have relinquished their parental rights.  According to official statistics, more than 100,000 children are abandoned annually.

Prior to Putin’s draconian ban, Americans adopted the highest number of Russian children each year.  In 2011, Americans adopted more than 1,000.

While developed countries rejected orphanages decades ago—placing children in adopted families or foster care—Russia has maintained its vast labyrinth of institutions, which house children from birth to the age of emancipation (generally age 17). The orphanage system and the physical buildings themselves are holdovers from the Soviet Union. Children are typically undernourished and receive inadequate medical care. International human rights organizations have documented physical abuse and neglect of the children in Russia’s residential care, including the widespread practice of tying children with ropes or rags to their cribs, leaving children lying on floors for hours at a time, and medicating children with sedatives to get them to sleep.  

Children in orphanages are isolated and hidden from view.  They do not attend regular schools, and the education they receive within the orphanage, if any, is insufficient. The official protocols state that children in residential care should not visit family members for fear that they may get used to the attention and become “spoiled.”

The situation for children with disabilities is even worse. Disabled children spend the vast majority of their day in so-called “lying down” rooms—rooms with cribs where children are left in cribs or on floor mats, unable to move. They have few, if any, opportunities to play outside, interact with other children, or play with toys.

State officials and doctors often pressure parents of children with disabilities to relinquish their parental rights, making the false claim that state institutions can provide better care for children with special needs. This pressure accounts for why more than 40 percent of children in residential care have some form of disability.

Back in 2012, as Russia banned US adoptions, the government promised to ramp up its efforts to de-institutionalize children and place them in families. But for the hundreds of thousands of children trapped in the system, Putin’s promises have amounted to very little.  His adoption ban, ostensibly aimed at harming the United States, has denied thousands of children the opportunity to escape Russia’s orphanages and become part of a family.

If Putin’s administration wants make good on its 2012 promise, it should take three steps immediately: first, it should increase the resources for programs and initiatives to keep families together and prevent children, especially disabled children, from entering the orphanage system; second, it should accelerate the process of de-institutionalizing children by increasing the number of adoptions both domestic and international and encouraging Russian citizens to become foster parents; and third, it should improve the care children in state institutions receive, ensuring that children are not abused and that they receive adequate nutrition, medical care, and education.

It’s time to put an end to the horrific treatment of Putin’s hidden victims and demand that Russia modernize its backward orphanages.  

Shonda Werry is an expert on Russia and international adoption. Melinda Haring is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.  

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Georgia’s Former President Saakashvili appointed the New Governor of Odessa: Implications for Georgia and Ukraine

President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko has appointed Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili the new governor of Ukraine’s key Odessa region. It is difficult to decipher the bizzare news, but considering the implications this move could have for both Ukraine and Georgia, the issue merits some meditation.


How are Georgians reacting?

What caused the biggest outrage in Georgia was the fact that by accepting the Ukrainian citizenship (required by Ukrainian law in order for one to take office in government) Saakashvili automatically lost, thus deliberately gave up, his Georgian citizenship. It is certainly an unorthodox move for a former president of one country to first give up citizenship of his own country, and second take political office in another country, especially a position that is of much lower rank than that of a presidential office.

Georgian citizenship is something Georgian politicians have taken lightly for a long time,[1] but we’ve seen it used as a tool of political maneuvering recently. In the 2012 parliamentary elections when the Georgian Dream Coalition was formed under the leadership of billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, his lack of Georgian citizenship became an issue. According to Georgian citizenship laws, one automatically loses Georgian citizenship when accepting another. However, it is viewed as a mere technicality, as Georgia allows its citizens to have dual citizenship, which is achieved by requesting to be “granted Georgian citizenship by law of exception.” Ivanishvili had become a Russian and a French citizen, and had never reapplied for Georgian citizenship. Legally he was not allowed to run for office. He later gave up his Russian citizenship and asked for Georgian citizenship—a process that was dragged out for months, and put on a public display by Saakashvili’s government, adding to the already high pre-election campaign pressures. To be sure, this was a process Saakashvili himself was directly involved in, as granting Georgian citizenship is the president’s job there.

Ukraine on the other hand does not allow dual citizenship. Whoever becomes a citizen of Ukraine has to give up his/her other citizenship within two years of obtaining Ukrainian citizenship. In a recent interview given to the Georgian television channel Imedi, Saakashvili, among many other things, explained the reasoning behind this move. It appears that: (1) he sees the issue of citizenship as a technicality to comply with the bureaucratic requirements of taking political office in Ukraine; (2) he does plan to return to Georgia with the hopes of reentering Georgian politics; and (3) he believes in his Georgian supporters more than they believe in him. He thinks all of this will be undone soon, with support of his Georgian voters.

In the interview Saakashvili said that “taking away my Georgian citizenship is the [Georgian] president’s prerogative [this would be in the form of the president rejecting Saakashvili’s application for being granted Georgian citizenship by the law of exception]. If he decides to take my citizenship away, I am sure, this will not be a deciding factor, because for the moment when I return to Georgia, and this will happen much sooner than many imagine, people will make them rescind the indictments against me as well as the act of stripping me of my Georgian citizenship.” Moreover, he went on to explain how he does not see the lack of citizenship as an obstacle. “Eduard Shevardnadze was not a Georgian citizen when he went to Georgia and became its leader; nor was Ivanishvili, when he was running around, conducting his pre-election campaign and became the leader of Georgia. Thus citizenship issue was never an obstacle for anyone, why should it become one for me?”

While he may be technically correct, Saakashvili may have strongly miscalculated this move. Let us set aside for a moment the implications this move will have on Ukraine. All along, Saakashvili has still believed that a comeback as Georgia’s leader was possible for him. He has been counting on the incompetence of the current government—if they bring enough poverty and setbacks to Georgia (which the current Georgian government has already partly achieved), Saakashvili and his party would then regain the people’s confidence, and would be “obligated” to return by popular demand. The Georgian Dream Coalition government may be losing approval ratings due to the worsening economic conditions in the country (the lari has been plummeting since November 2014), but this does not automatically mean that there will be popular demand for Saakashvili in Georgia any time soon (a recent National Democratic Institute poll shows that only 16% of Georgians would vote for Saakashvili’s party). Additionally, if there was any possibility of Saakashvili regaining popularity in Georgia by some miracle, those chances have now been severely diminished thanks to his Ukrainian venture.

The president in exile waited for the Georgian officials to drop charges, but ran out of patience. As he expressed,

…what does Georgian citizenship mean to me today?! Today for me Georgian citizenship means sitting in a prison cell, along with my other friends… therefore, this is purely a matter of formality, although I wanted to avoid it. … I cannot go to Georgia, whether I am a citizen or not, what difference does it make. Therefore as soon as the people make them [the government] void the indictments, when the time comes, they will also resolve the issue of my citizenship. I will distance myself from this formality, but I will always be nearby, whenever the Georgian people desire, if they need me for anything.

Browsing local headlines, this move appears to be seen as a betrayal by many Georgians. Saakashvili and his team are infamous for their impeccable PR skills, yet for someone who wants to return to Georgian politics one day, this is a huge miscalculation. Even his supporters, or what is left of them, are seeing this as a negative move. Georgian government officials have openly condemned his actions. The current president Margvelashvili called it “dishonorable behavior,” saying that with this move Saakashvili has “disgraced the country and the institution of presidency. … A former president should not have given up Georgian citizenship. … Values are more important than career, and these values include being a Georgian citizen. His behavior is incomprehensible to me.”

What does this mean for Ukraine?

So, what is Odessa inheriting from Georgia in Saakashvili? His reforms took Georgia from a nearly failed state to a booming tourist destination with a rapidly growing economy. Foreign direct investment began pouring in thanks to the highly favorable investing conditions Saakashvili created. Rampant corruption and crime disappeared and gave way to high GDP growth rates, free and fair elections, and westernization. The rapid reforms came at a high price for Georgia’s democracy, however. Saakashvili was never able to let go of the power that he had to concentrate in his own hands in the first place in order to effectively implement the reforms. Towards the end of his presidency it became clear that crucial democratic reforms had taken a backseat to the president’s insatiable appetite for contemplating and implementing major development projects in Georgia. At some point Saakashvili swapped out, or even mistook, development for democracy and became unapologetic about being the sole decision-maker in Georgia.

As we’ve already seen, American, Georgian (Saakashvili’s teammates), and Lithuanian individuals were granted Ukrainian citizenship since Poroshenko came into office, so they could take key positions in government. Saakashvili himself was Poroshenko’s advisor on a freelance basis until recently. He had been offered official government positions in Ukraine but had not accepted them. When asked why he turned down these jobs he cited various reasons. Sometimes it was the fact that he did not understand Ukrainian political culture and did not think he could be a part of it. He also said that he did not want to give up his Georgian citizenship (as he was still hoping the charges against him would be dropped and he would return to Georgia after the long exile). And lastly, in an interview earlier this year he expressed that he had reservations over the idea of “having to play nice with others” by working with other political actors in order to achieve consensus to get things done. It looks like the complete autonomy of power is something that Saakashvili is still strongly keen on. Based on Poroshenko’s speech announcing Saakashvili’s appointment, it looks like Saakashvili got exactly that, a full carte blanche to do what he pleases with Odessa, as long as he achieves there what he achieved in Georgia—rapid development and modernization through even faster and effective overnight reforms.

Putting the issue of democracy aside, Saakashvili is likely to achieve these goals in Odessa, but as with Georgia, what will be the cost of this success? Odessa is a region of high strategic importance for Ukraine, but also for Putin’s strategic agenda. Appointing Saakashvili as the head of that region is a direct insult to Putin who infamously despises Saakashvili.[2] If this is not a step back in Ukraine’s attempts at ending the war in its eastern territories, it is certainly not a step forward either. Additionally, now there is a new scenario where Saakashvili could be setting himself up for losing another war with Russia, this time in Odessa.

Yes, Ukraine is desperate for immediate reforms, and there is not enough capacity domestically to implement them effectively. Thus the international community should gladly welcome any bold steps that Poroshenko takes towards achieving that goal. However, the most baffling part in this story is that all of Saakashvili’s competence and expertise could be very effectively utilized from behind the scenes had he chosen to do so, without risking further worsening of already lethal Ukraine-Russia relations.


[1] Vast number of Georgian government officials, current and past, have dual citizenships. The practice of “bringing back” a successful Georgian from abroad and awarding them Georgian citizenship before appointing them to a government position was one that Saakashvili used quite frequently.

[2] For the second half of Saakashvili’s presidency Georgia and Russia did not even have diplomatic ties. The August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia got very personal between the two leaders and since then they do not attempt to conceal their hatred for each other in public. 

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A weekend in the life of Ramzan Kadyrov on Instagram: his wisdom on marriage, anti-terrorism, and the conspiracy surrounding Tsarnaev’s sentencing.

About a year ago my colleague Alex Fisher and I wrote about Russia’s homegrown terrorism problem. In our article we argued that if the two Chechen wars of the 1990s did not actually create the terrorism problem in the Russian North Caucasus, they certainly helped worsen things a great deal. The inhumane tactics used by the Russian government and its cronies in Chechnya to hunt down rebels left the North Caucasus mountains infested with terrorist groups in hiding. The self-declared “Islamic State of the Caucasus Emirate” is responsible for countless terrorist attacks in many Russian towns including, but not limited to, Grozny. The moral of our story was that Chechnya (as well as Dagestan) is Russia’s ticking bomb. Currently it is stable, but entirely unpredictable. Putin has poured a lot of money into achieving this seemingly stable state in Chechnya. He has heavily invested in local actors who carry out his zero tolerance policy when it comes to dealing with terrorists in Russia. One such noteworthy local actor is Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya who has quickly risen to international fame for many reasons, foremost of them being his close relationship with Vladimir Putin.

Now, with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Chechnya and the North (and even the South) Caucasus in general have been receiving renewed international attention. There have been continuous reports of foreign fighters pouring out of the region to join ISIS (as of February 2015 there were approximately 1700 Russian nationals fighting alongside ISIS). Additionally, Putin’s actions in Ukraine and elsewhere have drawn a great deal of attention to Russia itself. For example, when the world became outraged over the news of Boris Nemtsov’s murder[1] in Moscow, Kadyrov made headlines as many had connected the murder to his terrorist-fighting elite paramilitary security forces “Kadyrovtsy.” An article by The Moscow Times argued that Putin had overly spoiled Kadyrov and was not exactly in full control of him anymore. There have also been reports that Kadyrov has risen to higher ranks within Putin’s team and may eventually end up at the top of the Russian government. 

For those of us who closely observe the region, following the Chechnya news has been made somewhat amusing thanks to Kadyrov’s excellent social media skills. He happens to be an avid Twitter and Instagram user, frequently making media headlines across the world with his posts. For example, quite often he posts pictures of Putin on Instagram declaring his love and allegiance to him. This past winter he wrote that he was willing to die for Putin. 

However, this past weekend was especially eventful for Kadyrov on social media. He used his Instagram account to comment on two major events: a controversial wedding in Chechnya and the Tsarnaev sentencing.

Earlier this month Kadyrov received scrutiny for approving of and participating in a wedding of one of the members of his administration, who married a 17 year old–reportedly against her will. The wedding video shows a grim bride, barely saying “yes” to marrying the man during the civil ceremony. Later she is seen standing aside, not taking part in, the wedding celebrations where the honorable guest, Mr. Kadyrov, joyfully dances Lezginka with other guests. The Daily Beast reports that this is the second wife for the 47 year-old Nazhuda Guchigov, who has children older than his 17 year-old bride Louisa. Moreover, there were stories reporting that the bride’s family was blackmailed into allowing this marriage. Kadyrov defended this union in a long post on Instagram saying the allegations of forced marriage were incorrect.

Yes, the wedding video may simply be showing a shy Muslim bride, nothing out of the ordinary for local customs. And even if this wedding was a result of threats and blackmail, marriages like this are very common in that part of the world, and have been for centuries. However, this wedding resonated with many Russians, outside of Chechnya, who condemn polygamy. The practice is unlawful in Russia.

Watching this video, Russians began to ask, “is Chechnya not Russia?” This ultimately shows that Kadyrov is not accountable to the rule of law in Russia, but would he be the only Russian official who blatantly disregards the law? Between the Putin’s government’s unorthodox economic measures to bail out Russian businesses during the ruble crisis, to issuing laws that severely limit freedom of speech in Russia, to the widespread abuse of human rights especially when it comes to the rights of the LGBT community, Kadyrov is not exactly leading by example, he is simply following the one set by Putin. 

After addressing critics of this “wedding of the millennium” as he referred to it, Kadyrov went on to share his opinions about Dzokhar Tsarnayev’s sentencing last week. On his Instagram page, Kadyrov posted a picture of Tsarnayev. The long caption to the picture offers some wisdom from an experienced terrorist hunter and reads like this: 

“Dear Friends, Dzokhar Tsarnayev was sentenced to death. This news comes as no surprise… …Yes, I am in support of aggressive war against terrorism.” The seemingly supportive sentiments take a strange turn when he adds: “any person with evil intentions should be neutralized … But I don’t like it when a spectacle is played out under the guise of fighting terrorism. … Tamerlan Tsarnayev was killed under very strange circumstances. Ibrahim Todashev was shot during interrogation. Dzhokhar Tsarnayev was put behind the bars. … He was quickly charged under three dozen articles.” This is where Kadyrov’s comments begin to sound like he is hinting at some sort of conspiracy. He goes on to say that the brothers came to America at a very young age, they studied hard, took up sports, music… The older brother married, had a child… “The ideal biography for a gubernatorial candidate.” Kadyrov asks, “Who made them terrorists? Who taught them to so skillfully prepare bombs, plan the attack without getting found out? … I do not believe that Tsarnayevs were able to do this without knowledge attained from the US Special Forces, if they even did this at all. … If the US and Europe are really committed to antiterrorism, why are they spreading it in the Middle East?” Finally he asks “yes, if they put Tsarnayev to death, what guarantee do we have that they won’t find him innocent later on? This happens often in the United States. … He was nine years old when he came to the United States. And America, in which he believed, made him into a terrorist.”


So, what are some of the takeaways here? First, it is clear that even under the watch of Putin’s close ally, Chechnya is still not Russia. It appears that while Kadyrov may be willing to give up his life for Putin, he would not give up the autonomy of his power so easily. Between that and the fact that Chechen terrorists are still well and alive[2], Chechnya continues to be a problem area for Russia–and one that merits close monitoring.

Second, the anti-American sentiment is so prominent among Russian leaders that even on an issue like anti-terrorism, arguably the only thing the two sides could see eye-to-eye on at the moment, there is very little hope for cooperation. Conveniently for the Russian government, Kadyrov takes a dual position: he comes out strongly against terrorism in order to discourage it within Russia, but on the other hand he also manages to maintain the anti-US position that Russian leaders would approve of, accusing the US for turning Tsarnaev brothers into terrorists.


[1] Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot to death in Moscow on February 27, 2015. The assassination sparked major international outrage, many accusing Putin’s government of ordering the murder.

[2] There was a suicide terrorist bombing in Grozny as recently as October 2014. Five people were reported killed and 12 injured.  

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Bundeswehr 2.0: A German Military for a New Normal

A visit to Germany’s military history museum in Dresden reveals just how deeply ambivalent modern Germany is about its military, the Bundeswehr.  One account described it as “a meditation on mankind’s addiction to state violence.”  No wonder that Germany—despite being Europe’s most populous and wealthiest country—has continuously cut the size of the Bundeswehr since the end of the Cold War.  While much of that was warranted, given the disappearance of the Soviet threat, today’s Bundeswehr is not only a fraction of its former self (and half the size of the French military), but also apparently in a state of disrepair, according to an independent review of the Bundeswehr’s combat readiness last September.[1]

Germany Military

Hence, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to Moscow to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to end his aggression in Ukraine, she did so without the benefit of military power to back her efforts.  Instead, German diplomats have sought to use Germany’s economic power as leverage to shape Russia’s behavior.  Far better, they argue, to avoid competing with Russia on military terms, in which Germany is weak and Russia holds “escalation dominance.”  But economic power clearly has its limits, as Russia has yet to end its intervention in eastern Ukraine.  That has led even those Germans who have long been sympathetic to Moscow to consider whether there has been a fundamental shift in Russian posture—one that might require Germany to address through a stronger defense.  For the first time in decades, Bundestag legislators have begun to discuss the need to strengthen the Bundeswehr.[2]

But what kind of Bundeswehr is needed?  Surely, it must be one that is consistent with Germany’s vision of itself, if Germans are ever to embrace it.  It should be tailored for a mission that most German citizens can agree is in Germany’s national interest, such as the security of Central Europe.  It should also be one that can meaningfully contribute to NATO’s collective defense, but does not put its neighbors ill at ease.  As such, one could envision a Bundeswehr that is designed—through its armaments and force structure—to be fundamentally defensive, yet still beneficial to NATO.

From the way the German army chose to pare back its equipment after the Cold War, it is clear that its leaders sought to preserve as much of the combat capabilities of its heavy armored units as possible.  But by 2010 that was no longer possible, as the numbers of its main battle tanks (MBT) and armored infantry fighting vehicles (AIFV) plunged.  Rather than rebuild its army on a foundation of MBTs, Germany could equip it with more defensive weapon systems, like AIFVs that are fitted with long-range anti-tank missiles.  Such systems wound provide an effective defense against armor without having the offensive strength of MBTs.

Meanwhile, the German navy could focus its attention on the defensive mission to protect NATO’s sea lines of communication to the alliance’s Baltic member states.  Given the maritime environment of the Baltic Sea, that mission would primarily entail coastal diesel-electric submarines, corvettes, and minesweepers, rather than larger oceangoing combatants.  As a corollary to that mission, the German navy could contribute to NATO’s ability to send reinforcements to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania with landing ship tanks (LSTs).  Finally, the German air force could focus its resources on filling an air-superiority role (which it apparently already has begun to do), rather than a more offensive ground-support role.  Such an air force would have the added benefit of being able to enforce future defensive no-fly zones.

Even so, if the Bundeswehr is to be seen as non-threatening to its neighbors, one must also consider its force structure.  The Bundeswehr should be appropriately sized relative to those of its neighbors, France and Poland—small enough that they would not find it menacing, but large enough that, when combined with the capabilities of other NATO countries, it would be useful to fend off a foreign threat to the alliance.

Within those criteria, one could envision an expanded German army that includes two armored brigades equipped with Leopard 2A7 MBTs and six mechanized brigades equipped with a new generation of missile-armed Marder AIFVs.  When operating alongside Poland’s heavily armored units (which include 900 MBTs), the German force could help respond to any aggression from the east.  Similarly, a German navy equipped with 12 coastal diesel-electric submarines, 12 corvettes, and 36 minesweepers could help NATO keep its sea lines of communication open to its Baltic member states.  Moreover, the navy could help NATO develop a credible sealift capability with 12 LSTs that could transport relief forces and supplies to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.  Finally, the German air force—if equipped with 240 air-superiority fighters (a mix of European-built Eurofighters and American-built F-22 fighters)—could help ensure that NATO controls the skies over Central Europe.

Such a Bundeswehr would be a largely defensive force, essentially incapable of offensive action without the support of its NATO allies.  But it would be one that could make a meaningful contribution to the security of Central Europe and the integrity of the NATO alliance.  Of course, this sort of transformation would not be costless.  It will consume every bit of the military spending increase that Germany promised its NATO allies in the 2014 Wales Summit Declaration.  But in making that investment, Berlin could create a force that is worthy of praise from its allies and, perhaps, Germans too.

[1] “Consultants list Bundeswehr blunders,” Deutsche Welle, Oct. 6, 2014, http://dw.de/p/1DR9m; “Merkel peeks over Bundeswehr shortfall parapet,” Deutsche Welle, Oct. 3, 2014, http://dw.de/p/1DPdX; “A German army museum reopens,” Economist, Oct. 15, 2011.

[2] Anton Troianovski, “Ukraine Crisis Spurs Calls in Germany to Reverse Years of Trimming Army,” Wall Street Journal, Mar. 9, 2015, p. A10.

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Ukraine Crisis Timeline as of January 30, 2015

In July 2014 we published a post titled “Ukraine Crisis Timeline: Talk of Peace, Acts of War.” This updated version of that post makes clear the pattern of Vladimir Putin’s strategy of iterative deception and aggression.

We have marked in brackets the elapsed time between key events to highlight the hypocrisy of Putin’s words versus his actions in Ukraine.

I. Yanukovych’s Downfall; Putin’s Countermeasures

November 21, 2013: Yanukovych backs off from his tentative agreement to initial an association agreement with the EU at the Vilnius Summit – contrary to his campaign promises when he was elected in 2010. Popular protests in Kiev begin immediately and grow larger with each passing week. Yanukovych uses increasing violence to suppress the protesters, and Russian media portray the Maidan protesters as Western-instigated fascists. This deception and escalation continue for three months.

February 21-22, 2014: Yanukovych flees Ukraine; Maidan protesters take control of Kiev government buildings; an interim, pro-EU government is formed.   [3 months]

February 27: Pro-Russian separatists seize their first official building in Crimea; each day, new government buildings and military bases are surrounded and taken over by pro-Russian separatists backed by “little green men” (covert Russian troops).      [5 days]

March 5: U.S and reluctant Europeans announce minor sanctions against Russia for its actions in Crimea; Russia continues to deny involvement in supporting separatists; Ukraine military forces in Crimea crumble.

March 16: Self-appointed Crimean officials, also backed by anonymous green-uniformed men with guns, hold a referendum on Crimea’s secession from Ukraine; allegedly, 97 percent of voters wish to join Russia; Moscow quickly agrees to the request and moves to annex Crimea. [17 days]

March 20: U.S. and EU announce financial sanctions against additional Russian individuals close to Putin, in reaction to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.                                                  

March 31: In response, Putin promises to withdraw most Russian troops from Ukrainian-Russian border (but fails to do so).    [11 days]        

April 7: Separatists occupy government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for referenda on independence for these three major regions, and asking Russia to send “peacekeepers” to protect them.   [7 days]

II. Ukraine Fights Back; Russia Escalates and Claims “Historic” Rights

April 15: Start of Ukrainian military operations against pro-Russian separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk (Kharkiv uprising fizzles); EU remains hesitant to apply increased sanctions despite mounting evidence of Moscow’s backing for the separatists. [8 days]

April 17: Putin announces his concept of the historic “Novorossiya,” attempting to provide historical rationale for Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine.     [2 days]

April 20: US sends 600 troops temporarily to Poland and the Baltic States as a gesture of reassurance that NATO allies will be defended against similar Russian incursions. 

April 24: In response to Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operations” Russia begins new military exercises near its border with Ukraine.      [4 days]         

April 26: Russian political operative Alexander Borodai, the self-declared political leader of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic cedes control of separatist fighters to Russian military intelligence officer Igor Girkin, alias Ivan Strelkov (“The Shooter”).     [2 days]

May 2: Clashes develop between the separatist minority and the pro-unity majority in Odessa (very far from the Dombass enclaves), leaving at least 42 dead.

May 11: Self-appointed pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk hold referenda, not recognized by Kiev or the West; they declare independence.

May 25: Petro Poroshenko elected as Ukraine’s president on a reformist, pro-EU platform, with a 54.5 percent majority; but he also says he seeks negotiations with Putin.

May 26: Putin says he will respect the results of Ukrainian elections.

Late May-Early June: Separatists begin attempts to take the strategic Donetsk airport; Ukrainian forces fight back, with heavy casualties on both sides; continuing military clashes as separatists try to consolidate control of all of Luhansk and Donetsk regions; Russian armaments and “volunteers” strongly in evidence, despite Moscow’s denial of involvement

III. Separatist Offensive; Talk of a Peace Plan

June 4: Separatist rebels take two Ukrainian military bases in the eastern border region of Luhansk and fighting continues near the key rebel-held town of Sloviansk.             

June 9: Ukrainian Foreign Ministry says that Russia and Ukraine have reached an understanding on the implementation of a cease fire and peace plan for the East.

June 12: Ukrainians says three Russian tanks entered rebel areas in the east, along with other armaments; Russia denies the allegation.       [3 days]

June 14: Pro-Russian rebels shoot down a military transport plane, killing 49 Ukrainian troops, showing the sophistication of weaponry now possessed by the rebels; protesters in Kiev attack the Russian embassy.

June 16: Russia cuts off all gas supplies to Ukraine, economically reinforcing pro-Russian separatist actions in eastern Ukraine.    [2 days]

June 23: Poroshenko declares a temporary ceasefire based on Russian offer of negotiations for a peaceful political settlement between separatists and Kiev government; rebels officially agree one day later.

IV. Moscow Postures; Separatists Violate Ceasefire

June 24: Vladimir Putin officially rescinds power to use Russian military in eastern Ukraine as a gesture of his purported commitment to a peaceful settlement; nine Ukrainian servicemen die the same day when rebels shoot down an army helicopter.

June 27: The EU signs an Association Agreement with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

June 28: Rebels release eight members of OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) who had been detained since the end of May.

June 30: Poroshenko ends his unilateral ceasefire based on continuing violations by separatists with numerous Ukrainian casualties and the strengthening of rebel positions.

Ukrainian Government Takes the Offensive

July 5: Rebels are pushed out of their strategic bastion of Sloviansk; Ukrainian flag hoisted over city council building, fostering optimism for Ukrainian victory in Eastern Ukraine; pro-Russian rebels publicly criticize Putin for “lack of support.”

July 14: Ukrainian military plane shot down at 21,000 feet; Kiev government says missile came from Russian territory since pro-Russian rebels did not have adequate weaponry to hit plane at high altitude.    [9 days]

July 16: Obama warns Putin of further sanctions on Russia following continued violence in eastern Ukraine, with mounting evidence that Moscow is feeding this escalation,

V. Malaysian Airlines Shoot-down; Russian Denials, European Countermeasures

July 17: Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashes in eastern Ukraine killing 298 civilians, mostly Dutch and other Europeans and Australians; plane was downed by a sophisticated Buk surface-to-air missile supplied by Russians; separatists initially boasted they had shot down a large “Ukrainian military aircraft”; when the civilian nature of flight discovered they instead blame Kiev for the shoot-down; Moscow denies involvement.

July 25: EU announces plans for more hard-hitting economic sanctions that target Russian state banks, as well as Russia’s energy and defense sectors; Ukrainian government forces continue to push into Donetsk and Lugansk, although at the cost of hundreds of civilian casualties.   [8 days]

July 28: U.S. State Department releases photographic evidence of Russian artillery strikes into Ukraine; Russia denies authenticity of photographs.

July 31: as of this date nearly 1,200 persons have been killed in eastern Ukraine, with nearly 3,500 wounded since the separatist movement began in April; over 140,000 Ukrainian refugees have fled to Russia, with over 100,000 internally displaced.

August 3: Ukrainian Defense Minister proclaims that Kiev’s forces will defeat pro-Russian separatists shortly, citing success in reducing rebel controlled territory.

VI. Moscow Begins New Buildup, While Still Talking of Peace; Ukrainian Elections Confirm Kiev Government’s

August 5: Ukrainian military spokesman announce that Russia “has begun an enormous buildup of armored vehicles, aircraft, and personnel at the Ukrainian border” with over 45,000 soldiers, 160 tanks, 1,360 armored vehicles, 192 Russian warplanes and 137 military helicopters ready to be deployed across the Ukrainian border.     [2 days]                                                                                                                  
August 7: In response to European sanctions, Russia launches retaliatory sanctions against the West, banning food imports from Europe and the United States.

August 9: Ukrainian army surrounds Donetsk, leading to hopes of success.

August 15: Ukrainian government claims to have destroyed a Russian military convoy that had crossed into Eastern Ukraine – the most direct engagement to date between Ukrainian and Russian military forces. Putin continues to deny existence of Russian military conveys and troops in Eastern Ukraine.

August 22/23: A convoy of 280 Russian trucks crosses the Luhansk border claiming to provide “humanitarian aid” to the region. The Ukrainian government calls this a direct invasion; U.S. and Europe threaten additional sanctions if Russia does not cease support for separatists. Most Russian trucks return, but only after delivering substantial supplies.

August 25: Poroshenko dissolves parliament and calls for parliamentary elections to be held in October. Meanwhile, Russia escalates its operations against Ukraine, launching a new offensive in Novoazovsk, southeast Ukraine, thereby opening up a second front to create a land bridge between the Russo-Ukrainian border and Crimea.

August 26: Putin and Poroshenko meet in Minsk to discuss reconciliation, and agree on a “roadmap” to a ceasefire by closing the Ukrainian-Russian border to prevent movement of soldiers and military equipment into Ukraine – but hostilities continue.

August 29: Following escalating Russian activity in eastern Ukraine, Prime Minster Arseniy Yatsenuyk announces a course towards seeking NATO membership for Ukraine.

September 2: Putin privately boasts he could take Kiev in two weeks if he so wished.

September 5: Putin and Poroshenko reach ceasefire agreement at Minsk. Agreed points include a decentralization of power, OSCE monitoring of the Russo-Ukrainian border, release of all hostages, and measures to improve the humanitarian situation in Dombass.

September 6: Only one day after the Minsk agreements, the shelling of Mariupol begins. This is a key port city in south-eastern Ukraine previously cleared of separatists by local Ukrainian miners. Fighting also continues in Donetsk and Lugansk, despite the Minsk agreement.

September 18: Poroshenko addresses the US Congress seeking aid for Ukraine. President Obama promises $53 million aid package $46 million for Ukraine’s military, and $7 million for humanitarian aid.

October 2: World Back forecasts that Ukrainian economy will contract by 8 percent in 2014 due to disruptions and costs of the continuing crisis in the eastern regions.

October 12: As a purported token of de-escalation, Putin orders 17,600 Russian troops stationed in the Rostov region near the border with Ukraine to return to their bases. Putin has often shown signs of de-escalation in Ukraine right before intensifying aggression.

October 26: Ukraine holds parliamentary elections in which Ukrainians vote overwhelmingly for pro-Western parties: President Poroshenko’s bloc and the People’s Front headed by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk got 21.8 percent and 22.1 percent, respectively, although Poroshenko’s bloc won many more seats due to its better performance in single member districts.  The other pro-Western parties were Self-Reliance with 10.97 percent, the Radical Party 6.36 percent and Fatherland (led by Yulia Tymoshenko) with 5.68 percent. Total seats in new government coalition: 303 (0f 450) The Opposition Bloc (Yanukovich party’s remnants) got 9.43 percent.  Total seats in opposition, including independents: 79.

October 29: NATO officials report unusual Russian aerial maneuvers, signaling continued Russian hostility and military posturing. [3 days] 

October 30: Ukraine and Russia reach a deal on gas deliveries.

November 2: Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine hold elections one week after Ukraine’s parliamentary elections. Kiev and the West refuse to recognize these elections.

November 7: Russia sends a column of 32 tanks, 16 pieces of heavy artillery, and 30 trucks ferrying fighters and supplies into the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk. [5 days]

November 8: Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev states that the world is “on the brink of a new Cold War.”  Gorbachev blames the west for victimizing Russia and says, “I am absolutely convinced that Putin protects Russia’s interests better than anyone else.”

November 15: Putin meets with his fellow world leaders at the G-20 conference in Australia, where he receives heavy criticism and leaves early.

November 30: Russia sends another “humanitarian” convoy into Eastern Ukraine despite Ukrainian protest that humanitarian aid is a guise for further military assistance to separatists. This is the eighth such convoy Russia has sent into Eastern Ukraine.

December 4: Putin holds his annual state of the nation address in which he blames the Ukraine crisis on the “unlawful” ouster of Yanukovich and on Western support for “far-right factions” controlling the Ukrainian government. He calls Western sanctions a plot to keep Russia from achieving great power status.

December 8: After  a nearly six months hiatus, Russia resumes gas supplies to Ukraine, providing approximately 43.5 million cubic meters per day.                 

December 16: Despite a rise in interest rates from 10.5 to 17 percent, the ruble loses nearly half of its value. Although Western sanctions are an important part of the reason, the primary cause is the low price of oil (which stands well below $60 a barrel, when Moscow needs $100-plus to finance government budget and trade balance). Meanwhile, the U.S. implements additional sanctions on Russia.

December 18: In a three-hour television conference, Vladimir Putin blames foreign interference for the conflict in Ukraine and for Russia’s economic troubles.

December 24: Ukraine pays off $1.65 billion to Russia as agreed upon in gas deal signed in October. A bomb destroys a railroad track outside Odessa.

December 26: Eastern Ukrainian separatists and Ukraine exchange hundreds of POWs.

December 29: Ukraine signs a bill that drops its non-aligned status. Moscow calls this move a threat to Russia’s national security.

December 30: Opposition Leader Alexander Navalny and hundreds of protesters are arrested after an anti-Putin demonstration in Manezh square.

January 4, 2015: An explosion destroys the door and windows of the Euromaidan Coordination Center in Odessa. Ukrainian officials call the incident a terrorist attack. This attack is just one of five similar attacks in Odessa in the past month.

January 5, 2015: French President Francois Hollande suggests that international sanctions should be lessened if Russia makes progress on upholding peace in Eastern Ukraine. Similar statements are made by two top German officials the previous day.

VII. Separatists Return to the Offensive, Bolstered by Increasingly Visible Russian Military Intervention

January 11: Pro-Russian separatists begin an aggressive new offensive in the area surrounding the Donetsk Airport.

January 13: A rocket believed to be fired by pro-Russian separatists hits a bus in Volnovakha in the south of Donetsk, killing 13 civilians.

January 14: Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, proposes an end to sanctions if Russia ceases to destabilize eastern Ukraine. Key EU leaders quickly disown her statement, which she quickly “re-interprets”.

January 22: Under increasingly heavy assault Ukrainian military forced to retreat from the Donetsk Airport, which had served as a center of conflict since September 2014, due to both its symbolic and strategic value.   [11 days]

January 23: Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the Donetsk People’s Republic announces that separatist forces reject all forms of a ceasefire.

January 24: Grad and Uragan rockets fired by pro-Russian separatists kill 30 civilians and wound 100 others in Mariupol, in south-eastern Ukraine. Increasing evidence of direct Russian military intervention, involving more and heavier weaponry and as many as 9000 Russian troops.

January 27: The Ukrainian parliament formally labels Russia as an aggressor state and the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics as terrorist organizations.

January 28: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov states that Ukraine must remain neutral in order to avoid further territorial divisions.     [1 day]

According to the United Nations human rights office, the death toll from the war in Ukraine has reached over 5,000 with 10,948 wounded and over half a million Ukrainians displaced due to the continuing conflict.

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The Russo-Ukrainian War: Phase III

Given the launch in early January of a vigorous new separatist offensive in eastern Ukraine, backed by a reported 9000 Russian troops and abundant new armaments, it is now incontrovertible that Moscow is engaged in a full scale war in Ukraine.

Phase I of this initially undeclared war was the lightning Russian take-over of Crimea in March/April 2014, under the initial cover of a seemingly plausible separatist movement.

Phase II was the establishment of self-declared separatist governments controlling parts of the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, initially with crude attempts at plausible deniability as to the extent of direct Russian military involvement.

Phase III has now begun, with the separatists attempting to expand their enclaves to include the entirety of both of the contested provinces –this time with blatant Russian military backing on a larger scale.

Given Moscow’s now-familiar pattern of escalating military support for  the separatists each time the Ukrainian military seems to be gaining ground, this is now clearly a war that Ukraine cannot possibly win absent sharply increased U.S. and European backing.

For any Western intervention to succeed, it must include not just increased economic sanctions but also substantially enhanced military aid. It is true that the current financial sanctions have resulted in visible damage to Russia’s economy, and this damage has been multiplied by the precipitous drop in oil prices. However, Putin has obviously decided to double down on his aggression in Ukraine despite these economic setbacks–and, arguably, perhaps even because of them. This is not surprising, given that the war has been highly popular domestically and that it will be a long time before the mounting longer-term economic costs are fully apparent to most Russian citizens.

Phase I of Vladimir Putin’s undeclared war in Ukraine ended, from his point of view, in a resounding success. Russia’s stealth campaign in Crimea, triggered by the February 21 ouster of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich, took just one month to reach its triumphal conclusion.

By March 16, the entire province was under Moscow’s military control, and its puppet separatists held a sham referendum with an alleged 97 percent vote in favor of secession.

Crimea was formally annexed to the Russian Federation on March 21, thus permitting it to claim sovereignty over its major naval base in Sevastopol and a province that most Russians had long thought of as an intrinsic part of their country. At home, Putin’s popularity soared to over 80 percent in the polls, and it has remained in that range ever since.

The lesson for Putin was clear: given the weak Western response, he could score large geopolitical and domestic political gains with no significant price to pay internationally. Yes, there were numerous rhetorical condemnations by Western leaders, plus selective financial sanctions against a few members of Putin’s inner circle. But, for Putin, these were mere pinpricks, reminiscent of the initial outcries and minimal sanctions imposed on Russia after its 2008 war with Georgia. These minor costs have long since been forgotten, and Russia now enjoys full and unchallenged control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two provinces taken from Georgia via Putin’s intervention.

Despite this ominous Georgia precedent, many analysts and policy officials in both Europe and the US treated the Crimea annexation as a one-off event. They argued that Crimea was a special case, with a 60 percent ethnically Russian population and a strategic naval base on long-term lease that Moscow “understandably” wanted to secure permanently. Furthermore, Crimea had historically been a part of Russia until Nikita Khrushchev transferred the territory to the then Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, a decision that Putin argued was illegitimate.

Within just three weeks, however, this optimistic interpretation was proven to be delusional.

Phase II of the Ukraine war began on April 7, when pro-Russian separatists took over key government buildings in the capitals of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkhiv, proclaiming that these provinces would seek independence from Kiev. Although the Kharkhiv portion of the uprising fizzled, Russian-backed rebels in the other two capitals quickly expanded their territorial control. Only seven weeks later on May 11 the separatists held bogus referenda, with the polling centers surrounded by gunmen, “confirming” the two provinces’ secession from Ukraine.

Despite clear evidence that none of this could have happened without Russian instigation and strong (albeit semi-covert) military support, the EU temporized for months before deciding to join the U.S. in a significant escalation of economic sanctions. Brussels finally agreed to institute moderately punitive financial sanctions only on July 29. This was twelve days after the separatists had shot down Malaysian Airways Flight 17, killing 298 (mostly European) passengers. The shoot-down involved a sophisticated anti-aircraft missile system supplied by, and most likely directly supported by, the Russian military.

In August, the Ukrainian army launched an offensive to recapture territory held by the separatists, with some initial success. Since then, there have been both lulls and spikes in military action on the ground, with Putin at times giving the appearance of seeking a peaceful outcome. He and Ukrainian president Poroshenko agreed at a September 5 meeting in Minsk that they would both back a cease-fire. But the cease fire was repeatedly violated by the separatists and involved substantial casualties from shelling on both sides, despite the relatively stable battle lines that obtained through most of the fall. In retrospect, it is clear that Putin was simply buying time in which to help consolidate the rebel governments and their military positions in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Phase III began overtly in January with a new separatist offensive strongly backed by Russian soldiers and new heavy weaponry. On January 22, the separatists finally captured Donetsk airport, previously under siege for months. They also began shelling Mariupol, a key port city and transportation hub in the southeast corner of Donetsk province. Both places have major symbolic importance but they could also serve as strategic gateways for further expansion of separatist control into contiguous provinces.

Putin’s short-term goal is to ensure that the separatists gain full control of the two provinces whose independence they have proclaimed. Based on his well-established pattern of “two steps forward, one step (temporarily) back,” he might then order a pause in fighting, and he might once again go through the motions of seeking a negotiated solution while the separatists fully consolidate their new regimes.

In the middle term, however, if Putin succeeds in totally severing these two provinces from Kiev’s control his sights will most likely be set on a fairly prompt Phase IV. This fourth stage in the Russo-Ukrainian War would probably involve the establishment of a “land bridge” from Mariupol to Crimea, through the provinces of Zaparozhe and Kherson. There have also been signs that Putin may not have given up on Kharkiv, a key province immediately to the northeast of Donetsk and Luhansk.

And, for the longer term, there are continuing signs that Vladimir Putin still has his sights set on the eventual creation of a “Greater Novorossiya” stretching through Odessa all the way to Transnistria–the breakaway province of Moldova that was once part of Catherine the Great’s actual historic Novorossiya.

Unless the United States and its key European allies take prompt and decisive action, including major military assistance, there is every likelihood that the eastern and southern provinces of Ukraine will continue to be sliced away, one or two at a time. This would mean the dismemberment of Ukraine and the death knell of its Orange Revolution–once a beacon of hope for would-be democrats throughout post-communist Europe and Eurasia. It would also confirm the definitive end of the post-Cold War dream of a “Europe Whole and Free.”

Related Publications: 

Ukraine Crisis Timeline as of January 30, 2015 by Alex Fisher and Adrian Basora 
Georgia and Moldova Remain Fragile as Russian Aggression Continues by Maia Otarashvili 

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