By 2015, Russia Wants To Establish A Eurasian Union To Rival The EU

Is Moscow’s proposed Eurasian Union an initiative to revitalize stagnant economies, or an attempt to re-establish a Soviet Union “lite?”  After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world suddenly had 15 more nation states, some of whom had not been sovereign territories since the 19th century.  Nevertheless, calls for a re-integration of the Eurasian region were soon heard, often led by Russia, according to (pdf) a Chatham House paper.  In 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the fall of the USSR “a major geopolitical disaster of the century.”  There’s been a smattering of different attempts at unification, including the Commonwealth of Independent States security union, but a lack of commitment to creating the institutions have stalled efforts, Chatham House writes.

Continue reading.

Putin, Party of One: Obama ‘Leads’ Ousting from G-8, But Russia Finds New Friends

Leaders of the G-8 met at the Dutch prime minister’s residence Monday night and decided to reduce the size of their fraternity to seven.The White House was quick to paint the meeting and its outcome as the president’s idea.

In what is called The Hague Declaration, leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, along with the president of the European Council and the president of the European Commission, affirmed support for Ukraine’s “sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.”

Continue reading.

Shots fired as Russian troops force their way into Ukrainian base in Crimea

Reuters) – Russian troops forced their way into a Ukrainian airbase in Crimea with armored vehicles, automatic fire and stun grenades on Saturday, injuring a Ukrainian serviceman and detaining the base’s commander for talks.

A Reuters reporter said armored vehicles smashed through one of walls of the compound and that he heard bursts of gunfire and grenades.  Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, the commander of the base, said a Ukrainian serviceman had been injured and that he himself he was being taken away by the Russians for talks at an unspecified location.

Asked if he thought he would return safely, he said: “That remains to be seen. For now we are placing all our weapons in the base’s storage.”  Belbek was one of the last military facilities in Crimea still under Ukrainian control following Russia’s armed takeover and subsequent annexation of the peninsula, which has a majority ethnic Russian population and is home to one of Russia’s biggest naval bases.

Continue reading.

Ukraine crisis: Russia warns West over Crimea sanctions

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov issued the warning in a telephone call to US Secretary of State John Kerry.  It came hours after Russian and Crimean leaders signed a treaty absorbing the peninsula into the Russian Federation following a disputed referendum.  On Wednesday there were reports an army base in Sevastopol had been stormed.  An Associated Press reporter at the scene said pro-Russian self-defence forces had broken into the building – the headquarters of the Ukrainian navy – and raised the Russian flag.

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin told the BBC the treaty signed on Tuesday was already in effect, and Crimea was now part of Russia.  The BBC’s Richard Galpin in Moscow says that although it must be approved by Russia’s constitutional court and ratified by parliament, there is no doubt MPs will give their full backing when they vote on Friday.  On Monday, the US and the EU imposed sanctions on several officials from Russia and Ukraine accused of involvement in Moscow’s actions in the Black Sea peninsula.

Continue reading.

US rejects Crimea vote, warns Russia on new moves

WASHINGTON —President Barack Obama told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday that Crimea’s vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia “would never be recognized” by the United States, as he and other top U.S. officials warned Moscow against making further military moves toward southern and eastern Ukraine.

The two leaders spoke after residents in Crimea voted overwhelmingly in favor of the split in a referendum that the United States, European Union and others say violates the Ukrainian constitution and international law and took place in the strategic peninsula under duress of Russian military intervention. Putin maintained that the vote was legal and consistent with the right of self-determination, according to the Kremlin. But the White House said Obama reminded Putin that the U.S. and its allies in Europe would impose sanctions against Russia should it annex Crimea. U.S. and EU sanctions are expected to be announced Monday.

Continue reading.

Russian warships pass through Istanbul’s Bosphorus sea

Two Russian warships on their way to the Black Sea have passed through Istanbul’s Bosphorus staits.  Russia’s ‘Saratov’ and ‘Yamal’ ships sailed unaccompanied through the Marmara Sea before entering the Bosphorus straits at 07:30 local time (05:30 GMT).  The two ships, which were usually based in the eastern Mediterranean to monitor developments in Syria, are now on their way to Crimea due to the latest situation there.

At the same time a Ukrainian ship called ‘Hetman Sahaidachny’ entered the straits at Canakkale (Gallipoli) on its way to the Marmara Sea.  Thousands of Russian troops have been deployed to the Crimea, an autonomous region of Ukraine, after Russia’s Parliament passed a motion on Saturday.  Due to prior agreements, the Bosphorus straits are recognized as international waters despite cutting through the middle of Turkey’s most populated city, Istanbul.  The Bosphorus is a key strategic passage between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.

Continue reading.

Russia Blocks Access to Major Independent News Sites

Russia’s government has escalated its use of its Internet censorship law to target news sites, bloggers, and politicians under the slimmest excuse of preventing unauthorized protests and enforcing house arrest regulations. Today, the country’s ISPs have received orders to block a list of major news sites and system administrators have been instructed to take the servers providing the content offline.

The banned sites include the online newspaper Grani, Garry Kasparov’s opposition information site kasparov.ru, the livejournal of popular anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, and even the web pages of Ekho Moskvy, a radio station which is majority owned by the state-run Gazprom, and whose independent editor was ousted last month and replaced with a more government-friendly director.

Continue reading.

Watch Turkey in Crimea

If you thought that in Ukraine we finally had a global crisis sans Islam, think again. My first clue was hearing “Allah Akbars” on a Youtube of some anti-Russia protestors (not in news media). Then, a Ukrainian e-pal from Kiev wrote in, noting, “The Kirimli (Tatars) can ask for help Turks and other Muslim peoples. With Hisb-ut-Tahrir or Wahhabites. It could be a new `hot point.’ ”

The Tatars of Crimea — at least the ones who have returned to Crimea in the aftermath of Stalin’s mass deportations of nearly 200,000 Tatars in 1944, which would kill nearly half of the population  — are Muslim and speak Turkish.

According to Al Monitor, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutolgu recently met in Kiev with the former speaker of the Tatar National Assembly, Mustafa Abdulcemil Kirimoglu, and declared: “If the term is appropriate, we are in ‘mobilization’ to defend the rights of our kin in Crimea by doing whatever is necessary.”

Continue reading.

Ignoring West, Crimea readies vote on joining Russia

Crimea

Simferopol, Ukraine (CNN) — The pro-Russian government of Ukraine’s southeastern Crimea region declared independence Tuesday ahead of a scheduled referendum on whether to join Russia, ignoring international warnings that the vote won’t be recognized.

 

In the regional capital Simferopol, pro-Russian militiamen guarded the airport and train station, some wearing armbands that proclaimed their allegiance to “the autonomous republic of Crimea.” Flights into the region from Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, were canceled Tuesday, while flights from Moscow appeared to be landing as scheduled.  A guard at the railway station told CNN that he and his comrades were looking out for weapons being shipped in from the rest of Ukraine.

 

Crimea will hold a vote Sunday on whether to remain in Ukraine or become part of Russia; in Moscow, the Russian parliament announced it would debate whether to accept Crimea as part of the country on March 21. Ukraine’s interim government, backed by the United States and European powers, has said the upcoming vote is illegitimate.

Continue reading.

 

U.S. moves closer to sanctions against Russia over Ukraine crisis

KIEV, Ukraine, March 3 (UPI) — If Russia continues its military incursion into Ukraine, it will be on the “wrong side of history” and violating international law, President Obama said Monday.

Even with strong cultural and commercial ties between Russia and Ukraine, “what cannot be done is for Russia with impunity to put its soldiers on the ground and violate basic principles that are recognized around the world,” Obama said during a media availability with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “And I think the strong condemnation that has proceeded from countries around the world indicates the degree to which Russia is on the wrong side of history.”

Russian leaders maintain it is their right and obligation to protect Russian citizens and pro-Russian people in Ukraine where Moscow ally Viktor Yanukovych was ousted as president two weeks ago, fled Kiev and took refuge in Russia. There have been no verifiable reports of violence against Russians in Ukraine.

Continue reading.

Obama warns Moscow of ‘costs’ if Russia intervenes in Ukraine

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia, Feb. 28 (UPI) — U.S. President Barack Obama Friday cautioned Russia “there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.”  In a statement issued by the White House, Obama said his administration is in daily communication with Russian officials, “and we’ve made clear that they can be part of an international community’s effort to support the stability and success of a united Ukraine going forward, which is not only in the interest of the people of Ukraine and the international community, but also in Russia’s interest.”  ”However, we are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine,” he said. “Russia has a historic relationship with Ukraine, including cultural and economic ties, and a military facility in Crimea, but any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia, or Europe.”

Continue reading.

Moscow and the Mosque

RUSSIA-POLITICS-PUTINIf Russians were holding their breath in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, it was with good reason. A Black Sea spa town long favored by Kremlin apparatchiks, Sochi occupies a perilous position on Russia’s southern frontier, just 50 miles west of the North Caucasus Federal District, a cauldron of ethnic strife, nationalist separatism, and state repression since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the last two years alone, violence in this vast mountainous region, including car bombings, assassinations, and clashes between Muslim fighters and Russian security forces, has killed or injured more than 1,500 people.

Islamist militants in the North Caucasus have been making more frequent appeals to Russia’s other Muslims to rise up and join their cause. Last summer, Doku Umarov, an underground commander who claims control over a phantom Caucasus emirate, called on mujahideen in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan — two faraway autonomous republics about 400 miles and 700 miles east of Moscow, respectively — to “spoil” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to stage the Olympics in Sochi atop “the bones of our ancestors.”

But Umarov’s attempts to provoke a Muslim uprising across Russia against Putin’s government have accomplished little. The Caucasus remains an outlier among Russia’s Muslim-majority territories, which, rather than radical redoubts, are stable, well-integrated, and relatively prosperous regions. Most Muslims in the bulk of the Russian Federation hardly ever express sympathy for their brethren in the restive North Caucasus, and historically, they have shown more interest in accommodating the state than resisting it.

The key question today, however, is how the Kremlin will continue to manage its varied Muslim population and whether it can maintain the allegiances of such a diverse group. The Putin government has worked especially hard to co-opt Muslims for its own political goals, both foreign and domestic. Finding an end to the war in the North Caucasus is one piece of the puzzle. In other regions, stability will depend more on whether Moscow keeps trying to control how Russia’s Muslim citizens interpret Islamic tradition by mandating which religious authorities and practices are sufficiently patriotic and compatible with the state.

Muslims in Russia have increasingly embraced different and competing religious orientations. Government interference in the debates among disparate Muslim communities runs the risk of alienating those who opt for ways of being Muslim that, although perfectly peaceful, conflict with official understandings of Islam. Putting a straitjacket on Islamic interpretation, even if done with the support of one camp of Muslim authorities over another, will not resolve the many policy challenges related to Islam that Russia faces. Instead, the Kremlin will have to accommodate greater pluralism in an ever-changing Islamic landscape.

CONTESTING THE CENSUS

Russia’s Muslims defy easy categorization. Even their demographic profile is the subject of intense dispute. Today, the government, journalists, and civil rights organizations estimate the total population to be some 20 million, or 14 percent of Russia’s overall population of 143 million. That figure would make Russian Muslims not just the second-largest religious group in the country but also the largest Muslim population in all of Europe. Yet the most recent census, in 2010, which asked only for “nationality,” not religious affiliation, suggested that the country has closer to 13 million Muslims, or roughly nine percent of the population.

This smaller figure is the product of only counting members of ethnic groups that have historically identified with Islam, such as the Azeris, the Bashkirs, the Chechens, the Kazakhs, and the Tatars, and listing them all as Muslims. Many Muslim leaders claim that the lower count represents an effort to undermine their political clout, since it fails to reflect Russians’ actual religious affiliations. Despite the official census numbers, even Russian politicians close to Putin, and others from the ethnic republics, regularly invoke the higher figure of 20 million. They do so to make Russia’s claim on membership in the Islamic world look more credible and to pander to their bases in order to secure Muslim electoral support.

Russia’s federal system, inherited from the Soviets, compounds the uncertainty by giving local ethnicities an incentive to overcount their numbers. Take Tatarstan. In the early Soviet period, Lenin and Stalin (an ethnic Georgian) created it and other similar republics as a concession to ethnic nationalism and to rebuff ethnic Russian domination. Today, elites there and elsewhere cling to power by claiming to represent the interests of their self-described nations. But in Tatarstan and other republics, it has always been hard to maintain indigenous majorities, given the large Russian populations and constant emigration; Tatars today officially make up only 53 percent of a population of 3.8 million. Muslim activists and local elites have been accused of pressuring pollsters to manipulate the census and increase the count of Muslim groups.

A similar tussle takes place in Moscow, which is officially home to 300,000 Muslims of varied ethnicities, out of a total population of between 12 million and 17 million people. Yet the census tells only part of the story. Another two million Muslims live there without registration papers, and some observers claim that two million more Muslim migrants work in the city. Most of these Muslims have come to Moscow to escape woeful economic conditions in their home countries, such as Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. But their temporary and often undocumented status makes them vulnerable to police harassment, exploitation, and racist violence — all factors that undermine the government’s attempts to project tolerance.

The distorted census figures, police intimidation, and bigotry lump all of Russia’s Muslims together into a single group, even though they are in fact a varied lot spread across the country. In places such as Tatarstan, Muslims make up the elites, but in Moscow, most occupy the lowest ranks of the labor force. Although the Russian federal system gives Russian Muslims considerable political influence, government policies, including well-documented cases of police harassment and raids of homes and businesses, marginalize Muslim immigrants, who remain invisible to census takers yet appear highly visible to Muscovites anxious about Muslim immigration.

BEYOND CHECHNYA

This anxiety is fed by Moscow’s long confrontation with Chechen separatists, a conflict that, as it has spread throughout the North Caucasus as a wider Islamist-led insurgency, has fused radicalism and Islam in the minds of the Russian public. As the Volgograd bombings last December showed, militants from the North Caucasus have taken their fight against the government to Russian territory beyond their home region. Yet the government has also capitalized on this fear.

Russia’s security agencies fabricate militants where none exist and accuse local Muslims of extremist ties on the basis of evidence that often hardly goes beyond one’s style of beard or dress. Frequently aided by Muslim clerics close to the state, officials like to blame violence on “Wahhabis,” Muslims who have ostensibly adopted Saudi Arabia’s controversial version of Islam. But the government, the media, and the courts tend to apply the label liberally. They call nonconformists Wahhabis to reinforce the authority of state-backed Muslim clerics, who oppose religious styles that the government deems alien to Russian Islam. Such stigmatized groups include Tablighi Jamaat, the world’s largest Muslim proselytizing organization, which has an underground presence in various Russian cities today, and Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamic organization that seeks to create a transnational caliphate.

At times, the security agencies have contributed to the extremist threat in more direct ways. Both Putin during his first term as president and his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, used the wars that began in Chechnya in the late 1990s to boost their popularity and to justify an array of authoritarian security measures. As a result of their manipulations, many Russians suspect, with good reason, that the Federal Security Service had a hand in a number of major terrorist attacks that rocked Russia a decade ago, including a series of apartment bombings across the country in 1999 and the Dubrovka Theater crisis in 2002 (in which 40 Chechen militants and some 130 hostages were killed).

Moscow likes to portray violence in the North Caucasus as linked to Islamic insurgencies outside Russia. After the Kremlin launched the second war in Chechnya, in 1999, some Muslim fighters did start to wage a campaign to create a pan-Islamic emirate on Russian soil. But such utopian schemers were responsible for only some of the region’s overall instability. For the most part, armed groups in the Caucasus were engaging in highly localized struggles for power, in which religion was only one of several motivating forces. Often, so-called extremist fighters have been more interested in criminal profit or revenge against government brutality than in Islamist causes.

The truth is, despite the government’s hype and provocations, most Russian Muslims remain firmly attached to their country and its institutions. Elements of transnational Islam may be growing in appeal — Russian Muslims can now shop for the latest international Islamic fashions at specialized stores and attend the annual Moscow Halal Expo — but that does not betray a fundamental shift in loyalty or outlook.

And most Russian Muslims remain indifferent to the blandishments of foreign missionaries. Like other communities in Russia, Muslims have used the freedoms they have won since the demise of communism and atheism to rediscover their religion. But they have mostly rejected offers made by Turkish missionaries, the Saudi government, or other foreigners to replace the Communist Party of the Soviet era with new religious tutors from abroad (notwithstanding Russian Salafists, a deeply conservative cohort that has intellectual ties to Saudi Arabia and that advocates living lives strictly modeled on those of the early companions of the Prophet Muhammad). Outside the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, which has the closest ties to Arab educational institutions, Russian Muslims have focused on establishing their own religious schools. And in this effort, at least, Muslims have enjoyed the firm support of the state, which has accorded Islam the privileged status of a “traditional” Russian faith. Although formally a secular state, Russia favors the Orthodox Church, but officials also pledge to protect Islam, Buddhism, and even Judaism from foreign influence. In practice, this means lending support to those religious authorities who are willing to work closely with the state to promote patriotism among the faithful.

CATHERINE THE GREAT’S EXAMPLE

The state’s backing of a version of Islam it finds palatable was on display last October, when Russian officials and Islamic scholars in Ufa, the capital of the republic of Bashkortostan, celebrated the 225th anniversary of the Central Ecclesiastical Administration of the Muslims of Russia, an institution created under Catherine the Great to bring Islam under the direction of the state. During Catherine’s rule (1762–96), Russian Muslims gained official recognition for their clerics and mosques. Her government even endorsed Islamic laws in relation to marriage, the family, and public morality. Mullahs and mosque community members frequently turned to the tsarist police to denounce neighbors who committed adultery or failed to attend prayers. Islam became a pillar of a conservative imperial order.

In exchange, Islamic authorities were expected to teach their followers that being a good Muslim meant being loyal to the state — then as now, official tolerance came with strings attached. As in the past, today many Muslim clerics also preach against social ills, although now they include alcohol and narcotics. A number of them also focus on foreign policy, echoing the Kremlin’s vision of an alliance among Muslim countries and of Russia as a counterweight to a hegemonic United States.

At the ceremony in Ufa, Putin declared Islam to be “a striking element of the Russian cultural code, an inalienable, organic part of Russian history” and praised the institution for having helped make Muslims “true patriots of our country.” But he warned that “certain political forces” were seeking “to use Islam or, more precisely, its radical currents” to weaken the state. Russian Muslims, Putin added, “have always been united in serving society and their state, defending it from external enemies as well as from any manifestations of extremism.” He called on the assembled clerics to be “louder” in forging unity and harmony within Russia and in the Muslim world at large, to help integrate migrant laborers, and to strengthen Islamic institutions with a distinctively Russian Muslim theology so as to marginalize “informal leaders” whose spurious teachings threaten the country.

Putin’s remarks underscored how Muslims and Russian officialdom have always been engaged in a dialogue about how to police Islam, albeit one in which the state has ultimately had the final say. And sure enough, Talgat Tadzhuddin, the 65-year-old leader of the Central Ecclesiastical Administration, responded enthusiastically to Putin’s instructions. Reiterating Putin’s reference to Muslims’ historic service in defense of the state, the senior mufti noted that his institution was doing everything possible to preserve “traditional Islam” by blocking “the prop­aganda of totalitarian sects and radical currents in our communities.”

PUTIN’S GAMBLE

Although such exchanges represent an attempt by Putin to maintain the state’s tradition of control, they also highlight a dilemma for him, since Russian Muslims do not speak with one voice. Tadzhuddin may have stressed cooperation, but he has a rival: Ravil Gainutdin, the 54-year-old head of the Council of Muftis of Russia, a body of clerics that has competed with the Central Ecclesiastical Administration to act as Russia’s authoritative representative of Islam. Gainutdin did not relish Tadzhuddin’s time in the spotlight with Putin and only made a fleeting appearance at the ceremonies in Ufa. The two Muslim leaders have been battling for years over control of Russia’s Muslim institutions, including numerous regional clerical bodies and schools, in a struggle for prestige, financial resources, and access to state patronage.

Tadzhuddin interpreted the anniversary celebration as an endorsement of his call to unite some 80 regional Islamic organizations in the country under his authority. Gainutdin, for his part, faults Tadzhuddin for supporting a local court’s decision to ban a new translation of the Koran, a ruling that has outraged many Muslim campaigners for civil rights. The danger for Putin is that tapping Tadzhuddin as the official voice of Russian Islam may not only compromise Tadzhuddin’s standing in the eyes of his followers. It could also endanger the Kremlin’s friendly relationship with Gainutdin’s organization and lend weight to those Muslim critics who see persecution as being on the rise. In Tadzhuddin, Putin may be betting on a lame horse.

Such power struggles are playing out throughout Russia today, with mosque leaders challenging one another for supremacy, hurling charges of extremism and heresy, and appealing to state censors and the police to intervene. In a recent case, Seidzhagfar Lutfullin, an imam from Tatarstan who organized a boycott of an Elton John concert in the republic’s capital city late last year, raised the alarm that two of his opponents were disseminating “extremist” views associated with Hizb ut-Tahrir. They were promptly convicted and sentenced to jail.

Such polemic labels mask more subtle and profound debates about what it means to be a Muslim in Russia today. For the past two decades, the quest for an authentic Islam in a post-Soviet world has yielded multiple answers — and deep disagreements. Many Tatars, for example, have embraced the view that they practice an Islam that is a kind of ethnic inheritance, complete with religious leaders whose authority should be reinforced by the government. They see this interpretation as inseparable from their distinctive Tatar identity. But this school of thought quickly brands those who question its precepts as Wahhabis or extremists.

More secular Tatar intellectuals look west to argue that Islam calls for reform along the lines of what is practiced in Europe. Islam, they say, should be compatible with contemporary notions of progress and women’s rights. In their view, Muslims should have broad leeway in deciding which Islamic legal norms have outlived their time.

But both the Tatars’ ethnic and government-sanctioned conceptions of Islam and their more secular, cosmopolitan beliefs are anathema to Russia’s Salafists, who renounce such mainstream interpretations. Largely apolitical and distributed in small pockets throughout the country, the Salafists stand out the most among Russia’s Muslims, not only with their distinctive beards and dress but also because they pose such a bold intellectual challenge to the status quo.

Despite the recent rise of the Salafists, who have drawn inspiration from Saudi Arabian and other sources, it would be misguided to see them as the future of Russian Islam. In Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, Moscow and St. Petersburg, and elsewhere across Russia, all kinds of Sunni and Shiite groups are mixing in new ways, often through immigration from former Soviet republics to the south. For example, even though Salafists reject Sufis (who hold a more mystical interpretation of Islam) and their veneration of saints and shrines, the two groups still meet on the job at construction sites and markets and in Moscow’s overflowing mosques. And both groups pray alongside the sycophants of the state-backed Islamic hierarchies and alongside those who call for civil society, not the state, to organize Muslim affairs.

For all the emerging pluralism, dissent, and rediscovery of Islam in Russia, it would be a mistake to either exaggerate the scale of this religious revival or equate it with militancy. A 2010 poll by the respected Russian Public Opinion Research Center found Muslims to be generally less enthusiastic about religious holidays, literature, and rites than Orthodox Christians are. In Tatarstan, a 2012 survey revealed that only six percent of Muslims there identified themselves as “deeply religious,” with another 17 percent admitting to being “doubtful,” if still Muslim at all. Although Muslim women in Tatarstan have practiced various kinds of veiling since the early 1990s, only seven percent of them wear the hijab.

If militancy is bred in war zones such as the Caucasus, Tatarstan has little reason to worry. With its lucrative oil industry, solid agricultural base, and strong manufacturing sector, Tatarstan ranked fourth among Russian regions for quality of life in a recent poll, after Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the greater Moscow area. Respondents who expressed the most fervent religious devotion were not the angry young men that Russian and Western journalists tend to caricature: they were instead female pensioners in the countryside. A starker contrast could not be drawn with the war-scarred republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia, where, in addition to there being ubiquitous violence, at least one-third of the population is unemployed and despair and anxiety reign.

China buys up Russia’s backyard

Russia spent the end of last year battling the EU for control over Ukraine. But should the Kremlin have been paying more attention to what was going on its southern border instead? In the last three months, the Chinese have swept through Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and Central Asia, buying up Russia’s backyard in a string of billion-dollar deals.  Chinese President Xi Jinping was set for a summit in Moscow in September last year, where Russian President Vladimir Putin was hoping to conclude a crucial natural gas deal that would see a gas pipeline built to connect Russia’s Siberian fields with China’s underdeveloped northwest territories. The pipeline project was agreed on years ago, but the deal has been held up, as the two sides can’t agree on the price of the gas that will flow through it.  However, instead of flying directly to Russia’s northern capital, President Xi went on a whirlwind tour of Central Asia. It was like a visit from Santa Claus as Xi distributed billions of dollars of deals along the way.  In what must have come as a shock to the Kremlin, during his last stop in Turkmenistan Xi signed off on a $60bn energy investment deal that includes $10bn to develop the massive Galkynysh gasfield which has gas reserves of some 1.3 trillion cubic metres – enough to meet China’s needs for several years. The Turkmen deal makes Gazprom’s deal largely superfluous.

Continue reading.

The Real Reason Putin Supports Assad

Russian Soldier

Few issues better illustrate the limits of the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia than the crisis in Syria. For more than a year, the United States has tried, and failed, to work with Russia to find a solution to end the violence. Moscow has firmly opposed international intervention to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, arguing that the conflict must be resolved through negotiations and that Assad must be included in any transitional arrangement leading to a new government. Although the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, reached out recently to the leaders of the Syrian opposition, these talks produced no indication that the Kremlin is seriously recalibrating its positions on Syria. And that’s hardly surprising: the main obstacle to any shift in Russia’s calculations is President Vladimir Putin himself, whose aversion to forcible regime change is intense and unwavering.

 

Why has Putin offered such steadfast support to Assad? On the surface, Moscow seems to profit from exporting arms to Syria, and it depends on the regime’s good will to maintain Russian access to a naval facility at the Mediterranean port of Tartus. But these are marginal and symbolic interests. Putin is really motivated to support the Assad regime by his fear of state collapse — a fear he confronted most directly during the secession of Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Chechnya, which he brutally suppressed in a bloody civil war and counterinsurgency operation fought between 1999 and 2009. (In Russia, the republics are semi-autonomous federal units comprising the historic territories of the country’s non-ethnic Russian groups.) In a series of interviews he gave in 2000 for an authorized biography, Putin declared that “the essence of the … situation in the North Caucasus and in Chechnya … is the continuation of the collapse of the USSR…. If we did not quickly do something to stop it, Russia as a state in its current form would cease to exist…. I was convinced that if we did not immediately stop the extremists [in Chechnya], then in no time at all we would be facing a second Yugoslavia across the entire territory of the Russian Federation — the Yugoslavization of Russia.” And we know how Putin feels about the demise of the Soviet Union; in 2005 he called it “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century,” a comment that was meant to bemoan the collapse of the Soviet state rather than the demise of communism.

 

For Putin, Syria is all too reminiscent of Chechnya. Both conflicts pitted the state against disparate and leaderless opposition forces, which over time came to include extremist Sunni Islamist groups. In Putin’s view — one that he stresses repeatedly in meetings with his U.S. and European counterparts — Syria is the latest battleground in a global, multi-decade struggle between secular states and Sunni Islamism, which first began in Afghanistan with the Taliban, then moved to Chechnya, and has torn a number of Arab countries apart. Ever since he took office (first as prime minister in 1999 and then as president in 2000) and was confronted by the Chechen war, Putin has expressed his fear of Sunni Islamist extremism and of the risks that “jihadist” groups pose to Russia, with its large, indigenous, Sunni Muslim population, concentrated in the North Caucasus, the Volga region, and in major cities such as Moscow. A desire to contain extremism is a major reason why Putin offered help to the United States in battling the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11. It is also why Russia maintains close relations with Shia Iran, which acts as a counterweight to Sunni powers.

In the case of Chechnya, Putin made it clear that retaking the republic from its “extremist opposition forces” was worth every sacrifice. In a speech in September 1999, he promised to pursue Chechen rebels and terrorists even into “the outhouse.” He did just that, and some opposition leaders were killed by missile attacks at their most vulnerable moments. The Chechen capital city of Grozny was reduced to rubble. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed, along with jihadist fighters who came into Chechnya with the encouragement of extremist groups from the Arab world, including from Syria. Moscow and other Russian cities endured devastating terrorist attacks. Putin’s treatment of Chechnya became a cautionary tale of what would happen to rebels and terrorists — and indeed to entire groups of people — if they threatened the Russian state. They would either be eliminated or brought to their knees — exactly the fate Putin wishes for today’s Syrian rebels.

 

After two decades of secessionist strife, Putin has contained Chechnya’s uprising. Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel who switched his allegiance to Moscow, now leads the republic. Putin granted Kadyrov and his supporters amnesty and gave them a mandate to go after other militants and political opponents. Kadyrov has rebuilt Grozny (with ample funds from Moscow) and created his own version of an Islamist and Chechen republic that is condemned by human rights organizations for its brutal suppression of dissent.

 

For the past two years, Putin has hoped that Assad would be able to do what he did in Chechnya and beat back the opposition. Based on the brutal record of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, in suppressing uprisings, Putin anticipated that the regime would have no problem keeping the state together. But now Assad seems to have failed, and Putin is not one to back a losing horse. He and the rest of the Russian leadership are well aware that their staunch support for Assad has damaged Russia’s standing in the Arab world, but they have no alternative plan to get out of the stalemate. Putin is still not ready to sanction an intervention that could lead to the dismantling of the Syrian state and to risk creating a situation akin to that in Afghanistan in the 1990s, when warring groups of extremists fought each other and created a breeding ground for global jihadism. In Putin’s view, lawless post-Qaddafi Libya, which has become an exporter of guns, fighters, and refugees to its neighbors, only further underscores the dangers of international intervention.

Continue reading.

Russia and Japan Make a Play for the Pacific

GangofTwoOn November 2, Russia and Japan held their first-ever “two plus two” meeting, which brought together their respective foreign and defense ministers in Tokyo to discuss security cooperation. The meeting grabbed few headlines, but was far from routine: such gatherings are typically reserved for close allies, and for most of their modern history, Moscow and Tokyo have been anything but.  Now, however, the two countries find themselves linked by a shared predicament in the Asia-Pacific. Both are secondary players in a region overshadowed by an increasingly assertive China, which has not hesitated to push against the boundaries of its neighbors. New ties between Russia and Japan would mark not only a breakthrough in their relations but also a significant shift in Northeast Asia’s political dynamic. Since the 1950s, U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea have dominated regional security. Russia and China thawed their frosty relationship in the 1990s and signed a friendship treaty in 2001, but China’s rise has increased tensions in every regional relationship.

Continue reading.

Russia claims $5 billion in helicopter orders at Dubai Air Show

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Nov. 23 (UPI) — Russia’s state-owned arms exporter said Saturday it has new orders worth $5 billion from Arabian Gulf nations for helicopters.  A Rosoboronexport representative made the announcement at the Dubai Air Show in the United Arab Emirates.  The representative said outstanding orders as of Nov. 1 exceeded $38 billion for Russia’s state arms exporter for military-related equipment.  During the five-day biannual air show, the Russian delegation held talks with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, India, Jordan and Algeria, RIA Novosti reported.

NATO expansion in Nordics would force Russian response

KIRKENES, Norway (Reuters) – Any expansion of NATO to include Sweden and Finland would upset the balance of power and force Russia to respond, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Tuesday, underlining Moscow’s nerves over moves to bring the Western alliance closer to its border.  Although Sweden and Finland are not actively seeking membership, both nations cooperate extensively with NATO and have openly debated the possibility of joining.  Speculation over Sweden mounted after it warned earlier this year that its defence capabilities were alarmingly limited. It was embarrassed in April when it could not respond to Russian military jets nearing its border, according to media reports.  Finland shares a long boundary with Russia.

Continue reading.

The Russia Left Behind

A few times every day, the high-speed train between St. Petersburg and Moscow barrels through the threadbare town of Lyuban. When word gets out that the head of Russia’s state railway company — a close friend of President Vladimir V. Putin — is aboard, the station’s employees line up on the platform standing at attention, saluting Russia’s modernization for the seconds it takes the train to fly through. Whoosh.  But Vladimir G. Naperkovsky is not one of them. He watched with a cold, blue-eyed stare as the train passed the town where he was born, with its pitted roads and crumbling buildings. At 52, having shut down his small computer repair business, Mr. Naperkovsky is leaving for another region in Russia, hoping it is not too late to start a new life in a more prosperous place. The reasons are many, but his view boils down to this: “Gradually,” he said, explaining his view of Lyuban, “everything is rotting.”

Continue reading.

Moscow riots follow ‘migrant’ murder

Police in Russia have arrested at least 400 people after a protest against a murder blamed on a migrant from the North Caucasus turned violent.  The protest in southern Moscow was against the killing of a young ethnic Russian stabbed to death on Thursday.  Protesters stormed a shopping centre, smashing windows, and then overran a vegetable warehouse searching for migrant workers.  There were chants of “Russia for the Russians” and “White Power”.

Continue reading.