Mission Accomplished?

Once again Putin surprises me, this time putting my predictions of gloom and doom in Syria to rest. No, history did not repeat itself. Yes, Putin seems to have learned something from the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. A massive pullout of Russian forces (namely air power) is underway.

Is Putin just giving up on Assad? I doubt it. Putin is most likely confident in the position he has left for Assad following a potent Russian air campaign and a weary truce. The ongoing talks have been colourful, with the USA backed Kurds recently announcing the formation of an autonomous federal region in northern Syria. Ironically, the USA has not recognized this while Russia, the longtime ally of Assad, has said they are open to such a development.

So what exactly is going on? Is Assad’s regime stable? How will this impact the war on ISIL and the refugee crisis? Will the truce last?

Putin, the eternal pragmatist, most likely wouldn’t pull out unless he felt confident in Assad’s survival. Syria is Russia’s main foothold in the Middle East, providing a much needed naval base, and Putin would not gamble so lightly with such a valuable asset. Russia’s air superiority has given Assad the trump card in the war he needed. Recall that the primary target of Russia’s air strikes was not ISIL but rather Syrian rebels. Americans were disappointed and surprised to see Russia target “freedom fighters,” but but this shouldn’t have really come as a surprise. Terrorism remains a subjective term, and for Russia, which witnessed an ongoing brutal war in Chechnya, rebellion and terrorism are synonymous.

On the subject of Chechnya, I was surprised to hear that the Kremlin backed Ramzan Kadyrov has announced that he will step down. We will see if this holds true…

Anyhow yes I believe that Assad is safe. Putin has taken a special interest in protecting Assad, and Russia has achieved overwhelming successes. Putin’s spontaneity and brilliant maneuvering are to thank here. When the question of whether or not to bomb Syria was on Obama’s mind, Putin swept in and convinced Assad to surrender chemical weapons, thus nullifying any US justifications for intervention. When Assad’s regime was crumbling in civil war, Russia deployed potent air strikes. Russia’s Middle East policy has revealed that the bear has not only awoken from hibernation but is now smarter and stronger than ever. The Obama administration’s foreign policy has gone from trying to destroy Assad’s regime in 2011 to negotiating a truce with Russia and Syria in 2016: quite a turnaround! While I generally approve of Obama’s foreign policy overall, I agree with conservatives that Russia has thoroughly stumped us. Yet again, what can America do? Russia has had and will have a vested military presence in the region. Attempts to criticize the Russian intervention are met with cries of American hypocrisy for having intervened against Iraq. Just like Russia’s foreign policy coup in Ukraine, there is little that America can do here.

But is Syria really that valuable to Putin enough to justify military operations in a time of financial strain? Evidently it was! Putin obviously places a high value on the Russian naval base in Syria (Russia also had a naval base in Crimea with a lease that expired in 2017, so the oft-cited Russian desire for warm-water ports may be a truism after all!). Additionally I believe that both Crimea/Ukraine and Syria provided ample opportunity for Russia to show off its renewed drive to become one of the world’s dominant powers. Russia provides a potent counterpoint to Western/US foreign policy, and by placing safe bets Putin has been able to stymie the West. The fact that Putin’s withdraw surprised people is an indication that Russia, not the USA, holds the initiative. Of course, I think Russia’s ability to press its advantage is short-ranged: Russia can only really project force within its traditional sphere of influence, which means that Crimea and Syria are victories for Russia rather than defeats for the West. Gone are the late 80s and 90s where Russia often acquiesced to territory loss.

Regardless, Putin has performed several foreign policy coups and, at the very least, has several visible triumphs on his belt.

The stabilization of Syria under the Assad regime will likely have little impact on the war against ISIL which continues to be primarily led by US backed regional militias. Syria may have achieved greater territorial integrity but will likely not be able to lend much aid in the fight against ISIL. Russia’s withdraw of military hardware tells me they have no interest in entering combat with ISIL. Russia’s military actions may have created more sympathy for the Syrian rebels, and more suffering that could allow for radicalisation, but while a will may exist the means to mount any further serious defense against Syrian government dominance have been broken.

As for the refugee crisis, the damage is already done. As Assad regains a devastated Syria will likely continue to hemorrhage. The deal between the EU and Turkey may alleviate the crisis (for the West at least), but at a significant cost of EU unity (Turkey remains controversial among EU members for the anti-democratic nature of the Erdogan regime, and dealing with such a regime weakens the values that hold the EU together).

Will the truce hold? Since Putin smashed my expectations of the intervention I am not willing to make more predictions. Kurds, who were excluded from peace talks, are attempting to create a federal structure which, surprisingly, Russia is backing despite having intervened to preserve the Syrian governments sovereignty. Perhaps Russia is trying to force Assad to compromise? Maybe Russia is simply trying to further stabilise Syria at any costs.

Yet again, perhaps Russia has already achieved its goal. US Secretary of State Kerry is back at the negotiating table with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, and this time they are not discussing Russia. The most important thing about the truce is that the US and Russia are talking about and working together towards common international goals. After a brief stint as rogue nation #1, Putin may have managed to force the US into normalizing relations. Having thoroughly dominated Syria, Putin is now sacrificing some influence in the negotiations for the prize of forcing the USA to the negotiating table as an equal. It would be pointless to theorize that this may have been Putin’s original goal; all that matters is that Putin is once again making the best out of the situation.

 

Leviathan

It looks down on all that are haughty;
    it is king over all that are proud.
Job 41:15

In fair weather, expect foul
Mayor Vadim

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS OF A FILM YOU WILL PROBABLY NEVER WATCH

I intended my first Russian movie review to be Eisenstein’s masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin, but fate had different ideas. Checking out a few chess books at the public library the other day I happened to look up and see the foreign films section. The title of an acclaimed 2014 Russian film immediately popped into my head, so I ran to a computer to see if they had it.

Leviathan-Status: In

So I ran to the foreign film section and was disturbed when, after a cursory search, it did not turn up. Luckily I had the sense to go to the “normal” film section to my right where, lo and behold, I found it!

So the moral of the story kids is never give up!

So now its time to review a film about giving up…

I heard some bustle around this film Leviathan when it first came out. A few news stories made it into Johnson’s Russia List (an invaluable source of translated Russian media), and I filed the name Leviathan in my head for a rainy day.

Leviathan is a film that is considered to be one of the best to come out of 2014. I would also consider it to be one of the most depressing films ever made as well, narrowly edging out A Serious Man. Interestingly, both Leviathan and A Serious Man draw some inspiration from the Old Testament story of Job. Aside from being an excellent tragedy, Leviathan also turned heads as an indictment of the current Russian political climate. The Russian state certainly noticed Leviathan’s critical nature, which may have something to do with the fact that the film wasn’t widely shown in Russia, and yet a third of the film’s budget came from the Ministry of Culture (I still don’t understand this). Many in Russia have criticized the film for its profanity, portrayal of alcoholism, and sombre mood. No one criticized the actual message of the film though. Yet again, maybe censoring a film for criticizing injustice may have been too transparent.

Leviathan revolves around the ever angry Kolya, his wife Lilya, and their son Roma as they struggle to save their property from being taken by the corrupt, cocky mayor Vadim. Offered a paltry sum by the state, Kolya relies on his friend Dmitri, an accomplished lawyer, to fight back. With the courts firmly in Vadim’s grasp, Dmitri uses the only weapon he has: blackmail.  The mayor Vadim agrees to fairly compensate Kolya but, following advice from a local church leader, decides to let Dmitri know who is in charge by threatening his life.

After a brief celebration, the film becomes a tragic sequence of infidelity, savage beatings, heavy drinking, rape, and suicide. Vadim himself is not responsible for such depravity or outcomes, but he uses every weapon of state control at his disposal to capitalize on tragedy and take revenge on Kolya after misfortune destroys his life.

As in life, the corrupt state ultimately triumphs.

And corruption manifests itself frequently in the film. Vadim has the Church, the courts, the police, and a whole gang of unofficial ruffians under his authority. He goes out of his way, (literally, at one point visiting Kolya’s house) in order to undermine rule of law and harass his subjects. Corruption is never explicitly mentioned, although it is obvious that Vadim is a crook. The film subtly extrapolates its theme of corruption well beyond Vadim, and there are a handful of references to the Putin administration, with the most blatant being the picture of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin that hangs behind Vadim’s desk, but it does so in a way that neatly characterizes the nature of Russian corruption. Blat has existed in Russian for centuries, and manifests as a decentralized tool of Kremlin control. The Kremlin doesn’t just hold power, but makes local leaders complicit. Part of what makes the United Russia Party dominant has been its ability to co-opt local rulers, granting them power in exchange for loyalty.

The cinematography certainly lends itself to the decentralized nature of blat. The film is set in a grim, ramshackle fishing town in northern Russia. The landscape is massive and open, and wide shots of desolate nature convey feelings of remoteness and isolation. Regardless, corruption manages to permeate this town, and the fact that the mayor is trying to claim a patch of land when so much is evidently available only heightens his characterization as a capricious, selfish monster. The centerpiece of the film is a massive whale skeleton lying in a dried up lake. At once terrifying and solemn, the whale skeleton seems to represent the power of the Russian state which has been picked clean by a self-serving establishment.

The acting in this film is without flaw. Aleksei Serebryakov delivers an unlikable Kolya whose only redeeming quality is that he is fighting against a more unlikable regime. Elena Lyadova plays a solemn Lilya, at times stealing the show with her intense melancholic aspect and subtle physical acting. Vladimir Vdovichenkov plays a cocksure and skillful Dmitri, and his mood changes sharply as he starts to lose control of his life. Roman Madyanov is the most enjoyable to watch however, and he portrays Vadim with a smug, despicable poise.

A number of difficult themes are dealt with. The film bluntly portrays Russian alcoholism, which serves as a backdrop to numerous scenes. Alcohol is both a coping mechanism and a social occasion, and it is seems obvious that the director views alcohol as both obstacle and enabler of social functioning. Leviathan also deals with themes of manhood in Russian society, with Kolya, Dmitri, and Vadim all guilty of trying to out-man each other. This desire to showcase masculinity is a serious point of contention, and it occurs often to the detriment of women. Religion plays a role in the film as a justification to both oppressor and oppressed. Vadim is content to hear that his plans proceed in accordance with God’s will, but it is also hinted at the end that ultimately God will judge everyone for their sins, a promise that rings hollow given Kolya’s fate.

Overall though the boldest and most consistent theme is corruption. There are signs of democracy present to be sure, and there is obviously a legal framework, but these are hollow institutions. One of the few constraints to Vadim is a fear of losing the election, but it is clear that this does little to hinder his power. While there are “functional” courts, there is no effective rule of law, which essentially means that the courts only further empower and embolden the state. Corruption is pervasive and brutal, but perhaps worst of all is that it is entrenched and unbeatable.

The overall structure of the film and the interactions between characters reminded me of an interesting theory of Russian civil society. In a 1995 article, Richard Rose envisions modern Russian society as an hourglass. There is a wide top half, made up of the rich connections of social elites (including their corruption) and a wide bottom half composed of citizens who themselves have plenty of association in the form of friends and family. Unfortunately however, being an hourglass, there is nothing to connect the top and bottom halves and so there is no way for citizens to translate their networks into influence. This creates a system whereby wealthy elites work to benefit each other while individuals are forced to rely on their personal connections to assist them: neither side really interacts with or impacts the other.

Leviathan consciously or unconsciously reinforces Rose’s hourglass theory. The elites in the village are all closely aligned, and are completely isolated from the problems facing their citizens. At the other end of the spectrum, the citizens enjoy an especially rich and productive social life. Kolya does favours for friends by repairing their vehicles, and they return the favour by inviting Kolya to festivities. This camaraderie allows some strings to be pulled, such as when Kolya’s traffic cop friend helps him out, but overall it seems to mostly be a coping mechanism for living a hard life with a less than helpful government.

Rose may propose an interesting theory, but Leviathan shows how it might play out in real life. The ends of the hourglasses aren’t completely isolated from one another: what happens when come into conflict? Unfortunately, Leviathan shows that the corrupt upper half would almost always triumph. Kolya’s friendships are fairly useful, and his lawyer Dmitri is able to gain an advantage by blackmailing the mayor, but ultimately personal relationships are fragile in comparison to corrupt, self-serving bureaucracy. Had Kolya and his friends stayed on good terms his plan may have worked, but human frailties and emotions ultimately tear this support network apart. By contrast, the state has a vested interest in preserving the status quo and works effectively as a monolith. Friendships and relationships cannot survive scandal, whereas corrupt establishments are built for this express purpose. The little people are fine as long as they mind their own business. They have no hope of besting the state.

So then what is the path forward?

Sources:

 

Lipman, Masha. newyorker.com. 2015. “The Campaign Against ‘Leviathan’ in Russia.” January 26. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/campaign-leviathan-russia (accessed March 5, 2016).

Ljubownikow, S., Crotty, J., & Rodgers, P.W. 2013. “The State and Civil Society in Post-Soviet Russia: The Development of a Russian-Style Civil Society.” Progress in Development Studies, 13, 2 (April): 153-166. Academic Search Premier (Accessed ?)
This is a great article which effectively complements the ideas of Rose, discussing the history and the development of modern Russian civil society. I didn’t delve into it here, but I strongly recommend it as additional reading.

rferl.org. 2015. “Russian Culture Minister Blasts Oscar Nominee Leviathan as ‘Opportunistic’.” January 15. http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-leviathan-slammed-culture-minister-medinsky/26796076.html (accessed March 5, 2016).

Rose, Richard. 1995. “Russia as an Hourglass Society: A Constitution Without Citizens.” East European Constitutional Review 4, 3 (Summer). http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data/law_reviews/010east_euro_con/summer_1995/rose.txt (Accessed ?)
I wasn’t able to find this source to reread it. The link is now defunct. I pulled the citation from a paper I wrote back in 2013; thankfully I remember the main image of the article. Doing a search I find that there is another article by Rose and Mishler in 1997 that apparently further explores the hourglass idea. Unfortunately I was not able to locate or read this source.