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The Real Russia. Today. Russia’s merc with a mouth (and a pen)

Source: Meduza

Monday, January 31, 2022

  • An exclusive report: the Russian mercenary who wrote a memoir
  • Public policy: Russia’s elderly elites, and (opinion) Tatiana Stanovaya says a bigger crackdown is coming
  • The Ukraine crisis: primetime TV coverage, suspected provocateurs arrested in Ukraine, (opinion) Alexander Baunov says autocracies have reason to fear free world, (opinion) Andrey Kortunov advocates ‘demystification’ of NATO, (opinion) Alexander Golts revisits Europe’s Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces, (opinion) Fyodor Lukyanov says Moscow’s tactics are working, (opinion) Igor Ivanov says Russia’s adversaries stand to gain from ‘war hysteria’ in Ukraine, and (opinion) Kate Aronoff says Ukraine war could mean ‘windfall’ for U.S. energy giants
  • Other international news: The Moscow Times tracks Russians crossing Mexican border into U.S. for asylum

✍️ A mercenary who worked for the Wagner Group in Syria was pressured not to publish his memoir. He published it anyway. (14-min read)

Photo by Yekaterina Balaban

In January 2022, the Yekaterinburg-based publisher Gonzo released the memoir of Marat Gabidullin — the first combatant from the Wagner private military company (PMC) to speak openly about his experience in the secretive organization. Despite the Wagner group’s active participation in military conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, information about the mercenary company — and the people who have died working for them — is hard to come by; the Kremlin usually responds to questions about the group by pointing out that the concept of a PMC doesn’t even exist in Russian legislation. Gabidullin, who started out as a rank-and-file Wagner combatant and rose to become the commander of a reconnaissance company, sat down for an interview with Meduza in 2020 and said he was planning to release his memoir. Soon after that, according to Gabidullin, pressure from “the relevant people” forced him to put the publication on hold. A year later, though, he was able to find a new publisher. Meduza special correspondent Liliya Yapparova read an advance copy of the book — and spoke to its author and editor about the difficulties (and dangers) they faced on the path to publication.

Public policy

👴 The average age among Russia’s political elite is almost on par with the Brezhnev era (6-min read)

When Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, the mandatory retirement age for government officials was 65 years old. During Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency in 2010, this age limit was lowered to 60. But just three years later, after Putin had returned to the presidency, it was raised to 70 years old. Since then, the Russian president has been gradually extending or abolishing the mandatory retirement age for senior civil servants, as Putin’s entourage continues to age along with him. In a new investigation, iStories journalists calculated the average age of Russia’s ruling elite.

🔨 (Opinion) Russia’s escalation in Ukraine intensifies the Kremlin’s political crackdown back home

In an essay for the Carnegie Moscow Center, analyst Tatiana Stanovaya says the escalation of Russia’s tensions with the West will accelerate the nation’s “conservative and repressive tendencies,” further empowering anti-Western elites who benefit from the conflict. This shift will mean an even tougher, far broader political crackdown that visits not just opposition politics but also business, journalism, culture, and more. Even “systemic” opposition parties, like the Communist Party, won’t be safe. Russia’s large financial reserves have filled the Kremlin with confidence that it can weather an expanded confrontation with the West. If there’s a major war, there will be a burst of patriotic mobilization but not “natural consolidation,” says Stanovaya. This will expand the divergence between the country’s “fake” system and its “brooding” underbelly “with all the ensuing risks,” she concludes.

The Ukraine crisis

📺 Russia’s primetime coverage of the impasse over Ukraine (3-min read)

A month and a half after Moscow presented the United States and NATO with demands for sweeping security guarantees, tensions between Russia and Western countries remain high. Diplomatic negotiations have made little progress and with upwards of 100,000 Russian troops still concentrated near Ukraine’s borders, Washington has repeatedly warned that a full-fledged invasion is imminent. Meanwhile, Russian state television has been offering its own analysis of the crisis, putting the focus squarely on the United States. To give a general sense of what’s being said on state-controlled channels, Meduza summarizes two segments that aired during primetime on Sunday, January 30.

👮 Ukrainian police arrest two suspects over alleged plot to orchestrate violent unrest in Kyiv and regions near border with Russia (4-min read)

Ukraine’s National Police have arrested two suspects on charges of attempting to orchestrate violent unrest in Kyiv and other parts of the country, the Interior Ministry announced during a press conference on Monday, January 31. According to police officials, the detained suspects were planning a series of demonstrations and recruiting paid participants to clash with police officers. Allegedly, the first rally was supposed to take place in the capital on Monday and involve as many as 5,000 people. Ukraine’s Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky noted that other demonstrations were planned in regions not far from the border with Russia. Ukrainian police did not disclose the suspects’ identities and are still investigating whether or not they have ties to Russia or the Kremlin-backed breakaway states in eastern Ukraine.

🕊️ (Opinion) Democracies and autocracies are dangerous neighbors

In an essay for the Carnegie Moscow Center, analyst Alexander Baunov dissects Russia’s fears and motivations in the ongoing Ukraine crisis. Baunov rejects talk of a new Yalta Conference, arguing that the 1945 agreement was between World War II’s winners, whereas the Kremlin today is acting as the Cold War’s loser, seeking to fix the limits of the West’s victory.

Baunov also points out that the modern-day West’s concept of national security is based on an “inequality of threats” posed by fellow democracies and by autocracies. In this worldview, democracies cannot be aggressors because they are responsive to their citizens, who oppose such wars. As a result, the West considers any conflict with an autocratic state to be defensive and legitimate by default. Western nations are also inclined to believe that the lives of people living in autocracies are secondary to their pursuit of freedom, which lowers the threshold for the use of force against states led by tyrants. This makes democracies inherently dangerous neighbors for autocracies. In Eastern Europe, there’s already a tendency to judge freedom not in the abstract but in relation to how far nations have separated themselves from Russia.

Baunov attributes the timing of the current tensions surrounding Ukraine to “Russia’s new confidence,” citing three factors: (1) Moscow’s temporary superiority with certain high-tech weapons, (2) the sense in the Kremlin that Russia, unlike the USSR, has never lost a war, and (3) the perception that Russia is stronger in some ways with China as an ally than the Soviet Union was with the Warsaw Pact. In Ukraine, Moscow also enjoys an escalatory advantage because Russia believes it is defending its vital interests there, whereas the West is merely guarding certain principles.

Russia is conducting negotiations not like a country that’s prepared to wage war but like a country that might pursue one if things turn ugly, says Baunov, who argues that Vladimir Putin is now making decisions not as a politician but as a “historical actor” thinking about his place in the history books. This higher “pedestal” of thinking means a purely practical negotiating approach might not be enough to resolve the crisis in Europe.

🕊️ (Opinion) If Russia gets real about the NATO threat, Moscow might find some negotiating room

In an op-ed for the newspaper Izvestia, Russian International Affairs Council director-general Andrey Kortunov advocates the “demystification” of the supposed existential threat NATO poses to Russia. He points out that Moscow currently enjoys good relations with several NATO members, arguing that membership in the alliance doesn’t always determine how a state will interact with Russia. Kortunov also denies that NATO expands and amplifies cultural values that are alien to Russia, citing Turkey’s gradual turn from Western liberal civilization. (The European Union does more to spread Western values, says Kortunov.)

NATO’s “real, not mythical dangers” are mainly the expanded deployment of military hardware closer to Russia’s borders, but Kortunov says the U.S. fields much of its strategic arsenal in the air and sea, and Washington hardly needs new NATO members to reach agreements on new missile deployments in Europe. In fact, while NATO categorically opposes any revisions to its open-door policy, Moscow could potentially negotiate a formal ban on military infrastructure installations near Russia’s borders. Precedents in 1990, namely the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, demonstrate the feasibility of this kind of agreement on limiting NATO deployments.

🛡️ (Opinion) Russia’s diplomacy will backfire until Moscow accepts that NATO is no threat

In an essay for Republic, military expert Alexander Golts echoes Andrey Kortunov, writing that Europe’s Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces could be a model for the diplomacy that deescalates the Ukraine crisis. He argues that Moscow foolishly refused to withdraw its troops from Moldova and Georgia, torpedoing the treaty’s chances, though it was ultimately implemented in practice, nevertheless. Golts warns that Russia’s current escalatory approach in Europe is backfiring. Abstract fears in Moscow that Ukraine is abandoning a shared “special path” (not military concerns about NATO) are what drive and poison the Kremlin’s diplomacy, argues Golts.

📺 (Opinion) Russian escalation is working, but the West is pressing its media advantage

In an article for Kommersant, political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov argues that Russia’s escalation strategy in Ukraine is working, insofar as the West has finally started listening to Moscow’s concerns about European security, but he notes that the West’s domination of the global information space is a serious advantage. Now that Moscow has demonstrated the force it can bring to bear in Ukraine, it is negotiators’ role to remember that modern societies have no interest in a classical war between “major countries,” says Lukyanov.

📺 (Opinion) Ukraine and the U.S. benefit from ‘information attacks’ against Russia

In an op-ed for Russia's official newspaper of record, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov argues that Moscow is the target of an “information attack” claiming that the Kremlin is plotting an invasion of Ukraine. He argues that anyone in Russia who makes bellicose statements is outside the Kremlin’s decision-making, and he warns that the idea of war against Ukraine is not a platform that can consolidate Russian society.

At the same time, Ivanov says both Ukraine and the United States stand to benefit from spreading panic about war with Russia, so long as it remains mere “propaganda.” In Ukraine, “hysteria” about the Russian threat (1) helps “form a new national identity,” (2) motivates the West to ignore the dysfunctionality of the government in Kyiv, and (3) boosts anti-Russian sentiment. Washington, meanwhile, gets a major international story that distracts the public from domestic problems and signals to Europe that America still cares.

🏭 (Opinion) U.S. energy industry could treat Ukraine conflict as major ‘cash grab’

In an article for The New Republic, Kate Aronoff writes that draft congressional legislation ostensibly designed to “defend Ukrainian sovereignty” could be used “to whip up business” for U.S. energy corporations. Though lawmakers say the bill is a national security priority that “does not directly translate to increasing fossil fuel consumption,” Aronoff argues that the initiative would back “a prodigious buildout of fossil fuel infrastructure across the region.” She points out that the legislation has the support of the Atlantic Council, which accepts large donations from the oil and gas industry, and one of its chief advocates in the U.S. State Department is Amos Hochstein, a former gas executive. (The article also describes NATO as an American “sphere of influence” and urges Washington to “compromise on its expansionary ambitions” in Europe.)

Aronoff acknowledges that Europe’s energy security will face immediate risks in the event of major disruptions to Russian gas imports, but she warns that the U.S. legislation would spend billions of dollars on fossil fuel infrastructure that won’t come online for several years — “an awfully indirect and shortsighted way to handle this problem.” If pursued, it could “lock in emissions for decades to come.” 

Other international stories

🛂 Russians join Latin Americans at Mexico border, seeking better lives in the U.S.

The Moscow Times journalists Felix Light and Pjotr Sauer learned that thousands of Russian nationals are joining Latin Americans at the Mexican border, trying to cross into California. Following pandemic restrictions and deteriorated diplomatic ties, the road to San Diego is now “one of the last available routes into the U.S. for Russian immigrants.” Sources told Light and Sauer that the Biden administration’s more liberal asylum policies “removed a major deterrent” for would-be migrants. Some Russians come with legitimate asylum requests and others pay for fabricated stories.

Though the Mexican authorities have started denying entry to suspected Russian refugees flying into Cancun, hopeful immigrants from Russia are nevertheless paying hefty fees to “unscrupulous middlemen” and “embarking on the treacherous journey” through Mexico to America.

Yours, Meduza

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