Friday, February 28, 2014

Russian Neo-Nazis React to Events in Ukraine

By Richard Arnold

While the exact role of Ukrainian far-right groups in removing President Viktor Yanukovych is disputed, they were clearly present among the protestors and well represented by, amongst other organizations, Pravyi Sector (Right Sector). The role of the ultra-radicals is one of the variables on which the stability of Russia’s most important neighbor now rests.

Like other Russians, the Russian far-right is monitoring the events in Ukraine closely. They are even sending their own reporters to Maidan in an attempt to produce “news without censorship” (http://www.dpni.org/articles/blogi/38461/). The overall tone of articles concerning Ukraine does not suggest a clear indication in favor of either Ukrainian nationalists or the government. An article reporting on Viktor Yanukovych’s February 27 appeal to “loyalists” in Crimea openly criticizes him (http://www.dpni.org/articles/novostnaya/38526/). On the other hand, an article regarding the mobilization in Crimea argues that people should not be deceived by claims that the “Russians have all won” and calls on Russians in Crimea to oppose “the new government” under which “the [Crimean] Tatars are the complete masters” (http://vk.com/wall-65924970_479). What unites these seemingly disparate articles, however, is anti-Putinism and populism. The prospect of a Maidan-like protest movement in Moscow sponsored by extremist Russian ethno-nationalists has to frighten the Russian government.

Illustrative of this threat, a January 26 article titled “How to carry out a people’s assembly” and sent from Ukraine provides instructions on mobilizing ethnic Russians in a similar manner to events at Kondopoga in 2006 and Biryulyevo in 2013 (http://www.dpni.org/articles/novosti__d/38302/). The article offers advice to protesters on how to avoid detention, including directions to record the protests and post the videos on the internet. It ends with a warning that Vladimir Putin’s regime has passed a law increasing fines on attendees of unsanctioned meetings to 10,000 rubles ($278) and 100,000 rubles ($2,782) on the organizers of such meetings. While the far right has been trying to hold such rallies frequently, the events in Ukraine cannot fail to have provided them with inspiration.

Indeed, March 1 will see a series of Neo-Nazi rallies held across Russia. The main one will be in Moscow, in part organized by Slavyansky Soyuz (Slavic Union). The “Day of Heroes,” which these events will be commemorating, is not an official holiday but rather honors an action by Russian troops in the second Chechen War (August 1999–May 2000). The organizers of the rally suggest such symbolic actions as “carrying flowers to the tombs of dead soldiers” and singing songs to praise the “heroes of your city” (http://www.dpni.org/articles/novostnaya/38502/). The Moscow march will begin at 2:00 p.m. local time, and there are separate marches planned in Ryazan, Volgograd, Nizhny Novogorod, St. Petersburg and Khabarovsk (dpni.org, on February 26). The Vkontakte (popular Russian social network) page of the rally showed that, as of February 25, over 5,000 people had promised to attend and another 10,000 were listed as “maybe” (http://vk.com/event50337355). There may also be people who turn up spontaneously and do not register their participation ahead of time. In the current atmosphere, even a patriotic rally has the potential to scare the Kremlin. With the ability of ethno-nationalist ideas to bring masses of people out into the streets, the warning of Emil Pain that the ethno-nationalists are, indeed, the main opposition to the Kremlin seems like it is being borne out (http://magazines.russ.ru/druzhba/2014/1/18p.html).

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ukraine: Countering Threats of Strategic Drift and Economic Collapse

By Matthew Bryza

This article first appeared on Eastbook and on the International Centre for Defence Studies (ICDS, Tallinn) blog page.

Last weekend’s breathtaking triumph of those who seek a democratic, prosperous, and modern future for Ukraine will remain fragile for months to come, even in a best-case scenario. Assuming Ukraine succeeds in forming a new government, revising its Constitution, and electing a new President, the country will remain vulnerable to two other serious threats: strategic drift and economic collapse. Now is the critical moment for the European Union and United States to act together as a lighthouse, guiding Ukraine’s new ship of state toward a safe geopolitical harbor where groundbreaking reforms will be rewarded with lifesaving economic support.

Strategic drift is perhaps the more urgent threat. Tension is likely to persist in pockets of eastern and southern Ukraine, where sentiment runs strong for Ukraine to sustain its historical closeness to Russia rather than Europe. Moscow is feeding these tensions: Foreign Minister Lavrov has denigrated Yanukovych’s ouster as a coup d’├ętat, while Kremlin-controlled Russian media warn of possible civil war and partition. The Russian government may step up the pressure by withdrawing promised economic support, restricting imports of Ukrainian goods, manipulating natural gas supplies and prices, issuing Russian passports to residents of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, and supporting pro-Russian politicians (whether openly or covertly). Such tactics have a twofold aim: to hamper the push by Ukraine’s new leaders toward Europe; and to counter the West’s pull of Ukraine toward a modern future outside Russia’s geostrategic orbit.

Moscow’s tactics appear to be working in Washington. Since the dramatic events of Saturday, February 22, the White House has claimed that Ukraine is not the object of an East-West tug-of-war, despite a myriad of signs from Moscow to the contrary. The White House seems to ignore that the genesis of these past three months of popular unrest in Ukraine was Russian President Putin’s successful intimidation of Yanukovych into abandoning the then-Ukrainian President’s own policy of signing an Association Agreement with the EU last November at the EU’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. Moscow will now employ the growing range of tactics outlined above to pursue President Putin’s most urgent geopolitical goal: preventing Ukraine from aligning with the EU and sliding from Russia’s exclusive geo-economic grip.

There is nothing Washington can do to dissuade President Putin from his zero-sum approach, or to convince him that the U.S. and EU did not somehow engineer Yanukovych’s ouster. In fact, by pretending they do not have a profound and historic strategic interest in Ukraine’s deeper integration with into the West, the U.S. and EU risk tempting Russia to manipulate centrifugal political forces in eastern Ukraine and Crimea with increasing intensity.

In reality, the Kremlin does not seek civil war or the partition of Ukraine. On the contrary, as President Putin contemplates a long-term plan to counter his humiliating defeat in Kyiv, his fundamental goal remains—over time—to reintegrate a united Ukraine into Russia’s economic and political orbit. President Putin’s greatest geopolitical project, the Eurasian Union, can achieve genuine geopolitical and geo-economic heft only if all of Ukraine—not just the eastern half—joins Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan in this embryonic bloc.

There is, therefore, little to lose and everything to gain by Washington articulating clearly and loudly the geostrategic truth: Ukraine’s closer alignment to the European Union is a key strategic interest of the entire Euro-Atlantic community. Such a rhetorical shift by the White House would provide both the strategic guidance and shot-in-the-arm that Ukraine’s new government and the brave protestors who got it there so urgently need.

At the same time, the EU and U.S. should also demonstrate their readiness to help Ukraine tackle its second serious vulnerability, economic collapse. The Ukrainian economy is stalled, with zero percent GDP growth in 2013—and far worse expected this year. The country’s huge debt burden is unserviceable absent serious external help, with 25 percent of some $75 billion in external debt due within the next 18 months. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s currency has been depreciating sharply, thanks to rising prices for natural gas imports, decreasing prices for Ukraine’s metal exports, and a flight toward the safety of international currencies during political crisis; Ukraine’s foreign currency reserves can now cover only two months of imports. Finally, Ukraine’s new government will not be able to sustain the Yanukovych regime’s unrealistic budgetary promises in pursuit of political stability, which included subsidies to inefficient heavy industry and its oligarchs in the East and social welfare programs that eat up 50 percent of GDP. Cancelling these benefits will not boost the stability of Ukraine’s next government.

Fortunately, the EU and U.S. are scrambling to provide Ukraine a hefty bailout package, which EU Economic Commissioner Olli Rehn said during the G20 meeting in Sydney “will have to be measured in the billions rather than hundreds of millions.” Such Western aid was unthinkable during Yanukovych’s criminally inept and kleptocratic regime. Nor was it possible following the Orange Revolution of November 2004, the first time when Yanukovych was ousted by mass protests, as Ukraine’s victorious “reformers” disappointed their domestic and international supporters with their inability to break the inefficient and corrupt practices stretching back to the Soviet era, which continue to hamstring the Ukrainian economy to this day.

This time, however, things could be different. The historical stakes seem higher today than following the Orange Revolution in late 2004, given the loss of life and the new generation of political leaders that have now emerged in Ukraine. If Ukraine’s new leaders demonstrate the same commitment to groundbreaking reforms as did their predecessors in neighboring Poland in 1989, they should enjoy similar aid from the international community, including help from the IMF in restructuring official debt, as well as technical assistance and budgetary support from the World Bank and EU. Such resolve would be unprecedented in Ukraine’s political history, but must remain a precondition for any international bailout. Otherwise, Ukraine will likely return to the darkness that has plagued the country over the past few months.

At the center of any serious reform effort must be Ukraine’s natural gas sector, where massive corruption has allowed Moscow’s favored Ukrainian political and business leaders to become oligarchs; it has also perpetuated Ukraine’s vulnerability to Russian gas cutoffs during disputes over Ukraine’s non-payment and exorbitant transit fees to pump Russian gas to European markets.

Many American and European politicians now hope that by soft-pedaling the geopolitical contest that has undeniably taken shape over Ukraine, they can bring along Russia as a partner in stabilizing its big neighbor. A litmus test of this approach’s integrity could be whether Moscow is willing to abandon its hardball tactics on natural gas supplies to Ukraine and instead partner with Brussels and Kyiv to develop a transparent and efficient transit system for Russian natural gas to cross Ukraine and reach European markets. Such a solution would mark a joint victory for Ukraine, the EU and Russia itself. And, precisely because of its win-win nature, this option will likely be rejected by Russia. Moscow will instead likely choose to stick with its hardball tactics of gas cutoffs and gargantuan subsea pipelines like Nord Stream and South Stream, each of which costs more than the entire Sochi Olympics and drains the Russian treasury of resources that could be better invested in the welfare of Russia’s own citizens.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Cossack Militia Whip Pussy Riot in Sochi

By Richard Arnold

One of the most positive (and most surprising) features of the 2014 Winter Olympiad in Sochi has been the absence of security problems—an absence which has boosted the perception of Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a more stable, orderly, and developed country than Western observers may have thought. One incident, however, does still illustrate that beneath the calm exterior there are social tensions which could further escalate in the future.

On February 19, six members of the punk band Pussy Riot—Nadezhda Tolokinnovka, Maria Alechenna, and other activists—tried to perform a song titled “Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland” (featuring lyrics that accuse Putin of being a “dictator,” as well as mock the double toilet built in Sochi. The full text of the song is available here: http://pussy-riot.info/blog/2014/2/20/putin-nauchit-tebya-lubit). The performance took place under a “Sochi 2014” banner near the city’s seaport, outside of the secure Olympic Village (http://lenta.ru/news/2014/02/19/sochi/). Videos show the singers meeting underneath the poster and more or less spontaneously breaking into song. After only a short while, however, Cossack militias descend on the band and beat them with whips, chastising those who were singing along (http://rus.delfi.ee/daily/abroad/video-v-sochi-kazaki-othlestali-uchastnic-pussy-riot-pletmi.d?id=67987939). The Cossack militia later told the prosecutor that the band had “offended our religious feelings” with their performance (http://www.nr2.ru/sochi2014/485607.html), despite the fact that the performance did not take place in a religious area and no religious symbols were displayed. The Cossacks may have believed themselves to be punishing Pussy Riot for their notorious protest in a Moscow church in 2012 (see EDM, July 2, 2012).

The arrival of Pussy Riot in Sochi was greeted with interest by observers who what the activist group would do in the city to embarrass the Russian government. Previous accusations of theft from their hotel in Sochi were dropped due to lack of evidence (http://itar-tass.com/obschestvo/979086). In the grand scale of potential actions to embarrass the government that the band could have undertaken, the simple singing of a song vaguely offensive to the president is a very minor form of protest. Indeed, the Cossack retaliatory attack was actually counter-productive in bringing more attention to the actions of Pussy Riot than perhaps they would otherwise have received. This may be part of the reason that Krasnodar’s Governor Alexander Tkachyov tried to sweep the violent response under the rug, saying simply that he “regretted” the incident and promised an investigation (http://www.nr2.ru/sochi2014/485607.html). The power of repression to invigorate the anti-Putin protest movement should not be underestimated, however, especially given dire predictions about the future of the Russian economy.

Four hundred members of the Kuban Cossack host were drafted to help provide security in Sochi during the games (see EDM, January 29), amidst concerns about their professional standards. To those familiar with the Cossack movement in Russia’s south, it is unsurprising that they used violence to force Pussy Riot to stop their protests against Vladimir Putin. Indeed, the Cossacks’ highly symbolic practice of beating people with Nagaika (short riding whips) is considered to be a public way of shaming people whom they believe have embarrassed the community—or, in this case, Russia. Generally, the Cossacks have become one of the key social movements that Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to appeal to due to their embodiment of conservative values and devotion to Russia. Indeed, in response to the recent events in Ukraine, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, who had been in touch “with the Don and the Kuban” hosts, gathered in Sevastopol on Thursday to protect Crimea’s autonomy (http://russian.rt.com/article/22668). In the event of a fracturing of Ukraine, the influence of the Cossacks may well be instrumental in determining which parts of the country join Russia.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Putin Says West Using Circassian Issue to ‘Contain’ Russia

By Paul Goble

President Vladimir Putin said today (February 10) that the West is using the Circassian issue as part of its broader effort to “contain” Russia and “hold back” its development. This has been the Russian president’s most definitive comment to date on the Circassians, whose ancestors suffered mass murder and expulsion in 1864—which the Circassians and their supporters call a “genocide”—in the place where Russia is now hosting the Winter Olympics. Moreover, Putin’s remarks were the clearest indication yet that Moscow will not make any concessions anytime soon to Circassian calls for justice, including either greater rights for that nation in the North Caucasus or the return of members of their nationality from war-torn Syria.

Putin made his comments at a meeting of the Social Council, which has been involved in organizing the Olympiad. They were reported by Forbes (http://www.forbes.ru/news/250741-putin-obvinil-zapad-v-sderzhivanii-razvitiya-rossii) and have been replayed by Russian and Circassian outlets (aheku.net/news/society/5573; http://www.forbes.ru/news/250741-putin-obvinil-zapad-v-sderzhivanii-razvitiya-rossii).

The Russian president said the West’s effort has no prospects and is doomed to fail: “I know the attitudes among the Circassians, I am familiar with the leaders of Circassian organizations, and I know how they relate to their small motherland and to their large one, Russia.” According to Interfax (February 10), one of the Circassians present, from the Republic of Adygea, said that was absolutely true. But of course, if he had not been prepared to say that, he would not have been at the meeting.


Despite the requirement in the Olympic Charter that hosts of the Games recognize the autochthonian peoples of the place where the competitions are held, Moscow has not done so. Instead, it has limited the presence of the Circassians at the Sochi Games to those who are fully prepared to follow the Kremlin’s line but who do not represent the Circassian community in the North Caucasus or abroad. And, indeed, the Circassian community leaders have already described those who have gone as traitors to the cause.