Saturday, February 24, 2018

Putin Will Always Turn to War When His Position Weakens, Babchenko Says



Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 23 – Having successfully mobilized Russians to support him by his Crimean Anschluss after the mass demonstrations against the Kremlin in 2011-2012, Arkady Babchenko says, Vladimir Putin will in the future always turn to war whenever he feels that his position has been weakened.

            “The only means Putin has to influence domestic policy [in Russia] is war,” the Russian commentator now in exile in Kyiv says; “and when his position is threatened, when centrifugal processes begin, he will try to stop them by some sort of new war: escalation in the Donbass, in Syria, or somewhere else” (afterempire.info/2018/02/23/babchenko/).

            According to Babchenkko, “Russia now is an extremely unstable situation and therefore it is extremely difficult to predict what will happen.” Over the past five years, one could count on Moscow choosing the worst of all options. “Now, this kind of unpredictability is spreading to many other countries.”

            “Their regimes also are moving away from liberal democratic values and shifting to the side of some kind of authoritarianism and ‘greatness.’ One can see that in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Trumpist America, and in Turkey.” That all feeds back into Russia and gives Putin the chance to behave even worse at home and abroad.

            Babchenko observes that “the world is changing and not entirely in the direction that many of us would like. The European Union unfortunately has not been able to do what its founders dreamed. In many countries, isolationist attitudes are growing.” And many are again talking about dividing up the world into spheres of influence.

            As far as Russia is concerned, the Kyiv-based commentator says that he “already simply does not believe in any united ‘democratic Russia.’” Now, he suggests, “we are living in the era of the collapse of empires,” in Russia’s case, the third phase, the first being in 1917-1918 and the second in 1991. But how long that will last depends on many things, including the price of oil.

            If oil price remain where they are now, in the 70 US dollars a barrel range, he suggests, the current regime could continue to exist “for decades.” But if they fall significantly, Russia could become like Venezuela; and in that case, “quite interesting processes will begin,” although they may lead in a bad direction instead of toward a democratic one.

            Babchenko says that he does not think that Russia will succeed in building a democracy. Instead, he argues, there will be some kind of neo-Pugachevshchina, “’senseless and pitiless,” and that will end with the rise of a new authoritarianism just as it has so often in the history of Russia.

            On the other hand, if Russia disintegrates, and the core is reduced to something like Muscovy, then it is possible that portions of what is now the Russian Federation might be able to articulate democracies.

            That depends also on the role of other countries.  In 1991, Russia was “in fact” under external rule, and it was that rule by Western institutions that prevented “the final collapse of Russia” at the time.  Whether the West will play the same role in the future is very much an open question, Babchenko says.

            The Russian opposition has been gelded, he continues, elections no longer really exist, and there are now powerful regionalist movements.  As a result, the domestic opposition, rightist and imperialist, on the one hand, and democratic, on the other, does not have significant influence on the Kremlin.

            And then Babchenko concludes with the following observation: “When I heard that ‘the people in Russia have never lived as well as they do under Putin,’ this is close to the truth. Many depend too much on the budget and it depends on oil. Although propaganda is gradually ceasing to work.”

            “The Donbass theme, for example, has practically disappeared from the information agenda. It doesn’t tie Russians together. They don’t talk or think about it. Therefore, the war in Ukraine now does not influence domestic politics in Russia.” Only a much larger war there or somewhere else might.

An Official Ban No Longer Means the Same Thing in the Internet Age: Chechnya and the Deportation Anniversary



Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 23 – Today, Chechens and their supporters in Daghestan, Ingushetia, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Georgia, Turkey and the United States organized memorial services to honor the memory of the Chechens Stalin deported from their homeland 74 years ago on this date (kavkazr.com/a/29058225.html).

            In fact, it would appear, they did so everywhere there are Chechens except for one place: Chechnya itself where Ramzan Kadyrov denounced Stalin but blocked public commemorations lest they interfere with a Russian military holiday and said Chechens should look forward not backward (kavpolit.com/articles/kadyrov_chechenskij_narod_nikogda_ne_zabudet_stali-37540/).

            But as the Kavkaz Uzel news agency reported, “the residents of Chechnya are remembering the victims of the deportation despite the prohibition by the authorities,” something that has been the case since 2011 and yet another way in which the Internet is changing the meaning of any such official bans (kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/316945/).

                Not being allowed to organize any public activities on the deportations, the news agency says, Chechens “nonetheless are discussing this date on social networks and messengers.”  Yesterday, on the WhatsApp messenger network, an appeal appeared calling on people to leave the doors of their homes open on February 23, a traditional sign of mourning among Chechens.

            Others posted pictures, reminiscences, and photographs about the 1944 events, a not so implicit protest against the fact that the Kadyrov regime not only banned meetings but did not provide much coverage on its television station.  On the 10:00 pm news, for instance, it devoted most of its coverage to the Russian Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland.

            When the station finally mentioned the deportation, it was only in the context of the notion that “although the Chechens were exiled, the best sons of the people continued to fight on the fronts of the Great Fatherland War,” one anonymous source of the Kavkaz Uzel news service said.

                Many Chechens indicated they had seen the appeal to keep their doors open on February 23, but some said few would do so because the regime would certainly view that as an act of civil disobedience and what it what do to those who engaged in such actions could only be imagined given what it did to Ruslan Kutayev who was jailed for talking about the deportation and complaining about Kadyrov’s shift of the memorial day in 2014 to May 10.

            Those who will avoid taking that risk, however, Chechens said, are likely to distribute food to their poorer family members and friends, another traditional Chechen action of remembrance.  But as for Kutayev, he apparently will avoid doing even that lest he be sent back to prison from which he was released only in December.

            But perhaps the most important way that Chechens are using social media to remember that which officials would prefer they forget is to share their memories.  One Chechen shared the following memory of the dark day when Chechen women, children and old men were loaded on train cars for dispatch to Central Asia.

            He said he had heard from witnesses the following story: “When a large group of Chechens were brought to the railroad station and were begun to be loaded into box cars, the women and children began to shout and cry. And then one of the old men shouted to them: ‘People,’ he said, ‘Be calm!’ They cannot take us anywhere where the All High won’t be.”

            After that, he said, “the noise and cries ceased.”

Putin’s Russia, ‘Land of Victorious Militarism,’ had Three Reasons to Play Down Red Army Centenary



Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 23 – Few governments play up anniversaries and especially “round” ones than does Moscow, and that makes it all the more curious that today, it did remarkably little to mark the Day of the Defender of the Fatherland on what is the centenary of the creation of the Red Army.

            But despite the fact that in recent years, Vladimir Putin has transformed Russia into what military observer Aleksandr Golts calls “the country of victorious militarism” (ej.ru/?a=note&id=32168), the Kremlin had three compelling reasons for doing so, all connected with the election campaign and Russia’s current military problems.

            First, as Golts himself points out, the recent deaths of Russian mercenaries at the hands of American forces in Syria is something that the Putin regime has been working overtime to play down, lest it spark either questions about the competence of his regime or demands for a more forceful response than the Kremlin can or at least wants to give.

            Nonetheless, he says, “it remains true: for the first time since the Korean war, Russia and the United States have begun to fight.” It doesn’t matter much that “the Americans destroyed not Russian soldiers … but only armed citizens of the Russian Federation.” And that points to a still more dangerous development.

            The Kremlin’s “successes” in its military actions “are making war more probable.” On the one hand, “its operations in Ukraine and Syria do not have the slightest connection to the country’s security. They are directed exclusively at strengthening ‘the pride’ of the Kremlin. And Russians can see that.

            And on the other, they make war more likely, not only because they have created a domestic constituency within the military-industrial complex for more spending on military affairs; but they have increased the chances for the kind of accident that happened in Syria February 7-8 and that could happen again. Russians can see that as well.

            Second, while Putin’s regime almost in every case traces its institutions back to Soviet ones rather than to earlier tsarist cases – Russia has had defenders far before the Red Army was created on February 23, 1918 – it also has problems with it selection of such early Soviet models, perhaps nowhere more than in this case.

            Talking about that centenary raises questions about just what the Soviet government was about, Georgy Oltarzhevsky writes for Profile (profile.ru/culture/item/124989-strategicheskij-yubilej-s-nedomolvkami), thus calling into question both Putin’s notion of a common historical stream for all Russians and the possibility of the peaceful future they want.

            And third, in addition to the ebbing of the “Crimea is Ours” enthusiasm among Russians that boosted Putin earlier, there are growing indications that Russians are increasingly skeptical about what the Kremlin leader is doing in Syria in particular. Polls suggest Russians are less than pleased by events there, and the comments of some are devastating.

            Radio Svoboda’s Siberian Realities program interviewed people on the street in Vladivostok, Irkutsk, Blagoveshchensk and Krasnoyarsk about the war in Syria. What is found was skepticism about Putin’s explanation of both Russian involvement and Russian victories there (sibreal.org/a/29058628.html).

            One resident summed up what many Russians appear to be thinking: What Russia is doing in Syria, he said, “is not a duty; it is simply a use of force.”  Given such attitudes, a big celebration of the centenary of the Red Army would likely be counterproductive as far as the Kremlin is concerned.