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The Real Russia. Today. The ‘dialogue’ in Geneva

Source: Meduza

Monday, January 10, 2022

  • U.S.-Russian talks on European security: a summary of the Geneva dialogue between Ryabkov and Sherman, (opinion) Peter Rutland breaks down how Biden and Putin fell out of sync, (opinion) Dmitry Novikov says Moscow already views Biden as a lame duck, (opinion) Andrey Kortunov thinks Russia and the West are waiting for each other to collapse, and the NYT’s extensive coverage
  • Law and order: Two draftees charged with felony for prank at monument, and karma bites an ex-FSB agent in the rear
  • Unrest in Kazakhstan: CSTO mission will end in 12 days, Air Force repatriates almost 1,500 Russians from Almaty, (opinion) Valery Shiryaev says the CSTO mission thwarted a key Central Asian “constitutional mechanism” substitute, and (opinion) Andrey Pertsev weighs what Nazarbayev’s fall means for Putin’s future
  • 2021, last glance: Andrey Pertsev sums the year’s biggest domestic political developments

The ‘dialogue’ in Geneva

🕊️ Here’s what the heads of the Russian and U.S. delegations said after today’s talks in Geneva (2-min read)

On Monday, January 11, diplomats from Russia and the United States held a series of security talks in Geneva. Taking place against the backdrop of Russia massing troops along its border with Ukraine, the discussion centered around a set of draft security proposals that Moscow presented to the United States and NATO in December. Speaking to reporters after the talks, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman underscored that no concrete decisions have been made as of yet.

🕊️ (Opinion) Biden’s neglect and Putin’s brinkmanship

In a policy memo for PONARS Eurasia, Professor Peter Rutland argues that the Biden administration’s foreign policy is a “complex and contradictory combination”: a mix of the economic interests of “’middle-class America,’ alongside a rhetorical return to Wilsonian universal values on the global stage and a new emphasis on countering Chinese expansion.” In terms of both interests and values, this leaves “little space” for reaching common ground with Russia, despite Biden’s shot at a “fresh start” by blaming Trump for Washington’s lousy relationship with Moscow. Rutland says Russian media coverage ahead of the June 2021 Geneva summit suggests that “Putin was ready for better relations with the West,” but the White House proved to be committed to “benign neglect” in Eastern Europe, hoping to maintain an unstable status quo “while diverting U.S. resources to domestic reconstruction and the contest with China.

By late 2021, “Putin seems to have concluded that Russia is losing the geopolitical struggle with the West for control over Ukraine,” which led to Moscow’s “new approach.” Rutland says the “prevailing assumption” is that Putin doesn’t want war, “but he is prepared to go to war if the West does not recognize the ‘red lines.’” Unfortunately for Ukraine, the U.S. won’t put its own military in the field to stop an expanded Russian invasion, and the harsher economic sanctions in Washington’s arsenal will harm Europe’s economies far more than America’s.

The odds of a diplomatic breakthrough “look slim.” “The minimal conditions of one side are beyond the maximum concessions offered by the other,” but a “creative solution” could make it possible for “each side to come away claiming a political victory that they can then proclaim to their respective domestic constituencies and foreign partners.”

🦆 (Opinion) The Kremlin already sees Biden as a lame duck

National Research University Higher School of Economics International Relations deputy director Dmitry Novikov says decision-makers in Moscow have concluded that Russia’s two biggest mistakes on NATO were (1) “blindly trusting” Western leaders that the alliance wouldn’t expand beyond East Germany, and (2) accidentally reinforcing a security architecture that contradicts Russia’s national interests with the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. In the current U.S.-Russian “dialogue” over NATO and Ukraine, Moscow seeks something akin to the 1975 Helsinki Accords, says Novikov. Moscow is being deliberately inflexible with its negotiations, he explains, to avoid multilateral talks.

According to Novikov, the Kremlin views the Biden administration as a “transitional” presidency, believing that a “new kind of American political system” is taking shape in Washington and changing the nation’s role globally. Partisan battles also make Biden a weak negotiating partner, particularly when considering any agreements that would require ratification by the legislature. (This is why a general agreement on the “fundamental principles of European security” modeled on the Helsinki Accords appeals the most to Moscow.) The Kremlin also fears that “lobbying” efforts by America’s allies and its own military industrial complex could “torpedo” any U.S. compromise with Russia.

Novikov says that Moscow assumes Biden will not be in office after 2024 and is already “calibrating” for the next administration. Studying “the current direction of the international system’s transformation,” Novikov says, the Kremlin expects to get what it wants, if Russia can remain an important global and regional player.

👎 (Opinion) Russia and the West think each other’s civilization is in decline

Russian International Affairs Council director-general Andrey Kortunov laments that the Kremlin and NATO missed an opportunity in the 1990s to establish Russia as an “alternate West” (something like the role Poland plays in modern Europe). With that chance squandered, he says, it’s now important to acknowledge the “serious shifts in national priorities,” both in Moscow and in Western countries. According to Kortunov, the “discrepancies” in worldviews are now so fundamental that each side believes that the other civilization’s days are numbered: the West views Russia as a fragile and economically and technologically backward nation, while Russia sees Western society as divided, falling behind China economically, and crippled by public distrust in state institutions.

To “reduce the risks associated with the current confrontation that could last a very long time,” Kortunov recommends bolstered diplomatic ties between Russia and the West, and a renewed appreciation for the “interests of the entire system of international relations.”

📰 NYT extensive coverage of U.S.-Russian ‘dialogue’ in Geneva on Monday (on America’s “non-starters,” Russia’s “vague threats and ominous warnings,” “Cold War-style talks,” the threat of military action against Ukraine, and the crisis over Ukraine as “a test of U.S. credibility abroad”)

Law and order

👮 Two conscripts outside Krasnodar face felony charges for video featuring young soldier putting GRU special forces statue in headlock (The draftees, reportedly from Chechnya and Dagestan, will also face disciplinary measures. A spokesman for the Southern Military District says local elders from their hometowns will also be involved. Military investigators have charged the two men with “desecrating symbols of Russia’s military glory” and insulting the memory of the nation’s defenders.)

⚖️ Website editor in Penza is fined for failing to identify the ‘foreign agent’ status of an NGO that he got designated as a ‘foreign agent’ (Alexander Tuzov didn’t warn his readers about the status of the Civic Union charity in an article published on his website last June. A former FSB agent and police adviser, Tuzov was fined 4,000 rubles — about $50 — for the lapse. His formal complaint led to the foundation’s designation by the Justice Ministry.)

Kazakhstan’s unrest

👋 Kazakhstani president says CSTO peacekeepers will begin leaving on Thursday (Tokayev says the complete withdrawal will take no more than 10 days)

🛫 Defense Ministry says military planes have repatriated 1,461 Russian nationals to Russia from Kazakhstan (they’ve all come from Altmay)

😰 (Opinion) Kazakhstani President Tokayev appealed to the CSTO in a moment of panic about the reliability of his own police and armed forces (columnist and military analyst Valery Shiryaev also describes mass unrest that forces out presidents as Central Asia’s own “substitute for a balanced constitutional mechanism”)

(Opinion) Despair but also hope for Russia’s opposition as it watches Kazakhstan’s unrest

In an op-ed for Republic, journalist Andrey Pertsev embraces the “egotistical-cynical perspective” of “opposition-inclined Russians” and asks what Kazakhstan’s political upheaval could mean for Russia. The typical lifecycle of this demographic’s interest in protests abroad, he says, is a two-step process of (1) rooting for the demonstrators and (2) fearing the consequences their success or failure might have back home.

The unrest itself seems to have discredited Kazakhstan’s model for peaceful transitions of power (viewed as an option for Putin in Russia) wherein a long-time president chooses a successor but maintains an honorary leadership title. Given Nazarbayev’s ouster, it now seems impossible that Putin would repeat Kazakhstan’s experiment by exiting the presidency for a seat in the State Council.

At the same time, however, the recent events in Kazakhstan are a “good sign,” says Pertsev, because they show that a political system like Russia’s will jettison its dear leader when that individual is no longer capable of maintaining stability and protecting the elites’ ability to extract rents — even when that individual was thought to be indispensable before the start of mass unrest. “Cash will defeat evil,” says Pertsev, repeating a lyric from the Crimean band Undervud.

One more look back at 2021

📅 Meduza’s Andrey Pertsev sums up the key developments in Russia’s domestic politics in 2021 (6-min read)

The year 2020 saw the death of public politics in Russia. To accommodate a plebiscite on amending the constitution, the authorities introduced a three-day voting period (leaving ballots unsupervised at polling stations overnight), as well as “mobile polling stations” (giving rise to the infamous “stump” voting). The official result was 67 percent turnout, with 78 percent of voters supporting the constitutional changes. With the authorities tinkering with the voting results so freely, the opposition’s participation in elections has increasingly become an exercise in futility. Why fight for a fraction of the vote if the results for government-backed candidates have been programmed in advance and are a breeze to ensure? The results of the elections to the State Duma and regional legislatures in 2021 only confirmed this thesis.

Yours, Meduza