Shadows of the Kremlin: A Tale of Cyberwarfare and Bureaucratic Reprisal

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“…There will be no lies. We will honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else.” ~ President-elect Donald J. Trump

Russia exercised its cyber muscle to influence the U.S. 2016 election. At least that is what the CIA, FBI, and everyone else, myself included, thinks. Liberals are wasting no time in calling Trump a puppet of Putin. Meanwhile the Trump camp denies any sort of aid from Russia. Conservatives are saying that this is just a liberal attempt to discredit Trump.

I would argue that these groups are in denial to some extent. I have no doubt that Russia involved itself in the electoral process, but I would scarcely call Trump an agent of the Kremlin. Furthermore, it is not just liberals who are attempting to weaken Trump: Democrats, the GOP, and bureaucracy are all capitalizing on the hacking.

Now, actually proving Russian involvement in the election is a difficult prospect. Throughout history Russia has proven to be a master of misdirection. The Soviets were experts of making their dirty hands appear clean and their successors are even better at this. Putin is, if anything, great at manipulating people and opinions (a trait he shares with the late Brezhnev). This is standard operating procedure: the West plays the role of accuser, Russia denies any involvement whatsoever and demands that the West prove its claims. The people who would argue that Russia is innocent are either ignorant, Russia-sympathizers, or paid propagandists of the Kremlin.

The hacking allegations follow the pattern and will continue to do so. The United States’ intelligence agencies will claim that Russia was involved but will furnish no evidence. There could be a few reasons for this. It may be that there simply is no evidence! Maybe Russia wasn’t actually involved (which seems unlikely) or perhaps Russia is just good at covering their tracks (which we would never admit). More likely they have found tangible evidence but don’t want to reveal it because doing so would expose weaknesses in the Russian cyberwarfare engine that we would prefer to be left exposed. In failing to provide proof, the CIA will only polarize domestic debates about potential hacking while allowing Putin to win more prestige  among his people for calling out the West on its constant need to vilify Russia. Regardless, I assume they have a good reason for keeping quiet on details.

Ultimately there will always be an air of mystery around the Russian interference. What is clear though is that their will be consequences, and soon. Obama’s 12/16 press conference brought up the prospect of cyberwarfare. He is still hesitant to employ an attack, both for fear of starting an escalating cycle of conflict and out of a desire to keep U.S. capabilities a secret, but I imagine we will see an attack of some sort before January 20th, 2017. Obama has authorized at least one cyberattack-against North Korea during the Sony debacle-and he will have less reservations about starting a full-scale cyberwar with the knowledge that his successor is on good terms with the Kremlin. Putin would be unwilling to annoy his ally, Trump, and wouldn’t retaliate once Trump is sworn in. We may very well see an attack on January 19th so as to minimize the Russian window for a response.

Cyberwarfare is a new and complicated field. It is certainly scary, with targets ranging from private emails up to infrastructure, finance sectors, and security agencies. While it lacks the raw collateral damage of atomic weapons the cyberattack could very well be the WMD of the future, and it could be even more common than other, conventional WMDs.  It could certainly cause much more mass “destruction” than chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons in much more short order. Of course, the novelty of cyberwarfare is precisely what may keep any cyber-engagement limited. At what point does cyberwarfare deliver diminishing returns? How do you judge one nation’s capabilities against your own? Are there any gains to be had by crippling an enemy’s infrastructure during peace time? Is it worth the retaliation that will follow?

I think a retaliatory cyberattack from the U.S. won’t lead to a tremendous amount of escalation for these reasons. Russia’s attack was admittedly small; quite frankly they may have done a service by exposing the rigging of the primary process by the DNC and revealing what information Hillary dealt with on her private server. Intervening in the electoral process of a democratic nation is heinous, let us not disguise that fact, but what measure is such an action when the Democratic Party itself tried to fix the election in Hillary’s favor? The Russian hacks and the information they revealed helped me decide to support third-party candidate Jill Stein, but they weren’t a more significant factor than Hillary’s neo-liberal tendencies. A lot of liberals act as if Trump could not have won without Putin, ignoring the real factors for his victory-Trump’s charisma, dark horse status, and economic platform juxtaposed with Hillary’s unpopularity-at their own peril.

It is feasible that Russia (or the corporations running polling machines) could have directly intervened in the results in Michigan and Wyoming, but there have been no claims made to this effect. I don’t think Russia would have used its capabilities for anything so direct either; the Kremlin places a premium on preserving plausible deniability and therefore prefers indirect, sophisticated methods. Lets face it, their hacking was only an indirect factor of Trump’s victory, and it would have been useless without the context Trump created with his campaigning.

A U.S. retaliation will therefore be small: perhaps we will target a crony of Putin’s. We will likely be unable to dig up any dirt on Putin himself given that we couldn’t even directly implicate him in the Mossack-Fonseca leaks, but in any case we would definitely not want to launch a direct attack against Putin.

As for Trump being a puppet of the Kremlin: this is bogus. Trump admires Putin’s strongman approach to leadership and heaped praises on Putin as part of a strategy to increase criticism of Obama and, by extension, Hillary. Beyond cooperating on security matters I don’t see much other reason for the two to get along. I do appreciate the irony of a populist leader coming to power by praising and receiving minor aid from Russia, a historic rival of the United States. Sure, Putin has gained some political capital with Trump, but I don’t expect that Trump will march to the beat of Moscow’s drum. Most Americans still have profound distrust of Putin; they perceive him as expansionist (incorrectly), dangerously cunning (well-founded), or as an enemy of human rights (also on-point). Combine popular opinion with the mistrust of Russia found in the GOP and you find that Trump will be quite limited in what he can achieve regarding Putin. At the very least though Moscow is happy to have a friend, and placed enough of a premium on Trump to undergo hacking in his favor.

However, one cannot deny that these accusations do work to delegitimize Trump to a certain degree, even if hacking did not directly contribute to his victory. So often we look at the motives of big men-Obama, Trump, or Putin-we also need to consider the bureaucracy and their goals! Quite frankly, Trump is terrifying to the American bureaucracy. He has ignored the advice of the intelligence community or the State Department, and his cabinet choices and stated policy goals of “draining the swamp” are reminiscent of перестройка (perestroika! “restructuring”). Professional bureaucrats and federal employees are directly threatened by Trump. The desire to send a message to Trump is partly responsible for the current emphasis on hacking.

The intelligence community wanted to show, and has shown, that it still has the ear of the House, the Senate, the media, and other groups, not the least of which is the Electoral College. The bureaucracy exists as a sort of 4th branch of government. While they may not have constitutional powers to take advantage of, they have certain de facto powers that they can use to help boost or balance against the Presidency. Several members of the Electoral College are actually looking more into the allegations before they formally cast their votes. It is a long shot that this will keep Trump from the magic 270 needed to win the Presidency, but it will cut into his lead and is indicative of division. Already, the Trump-Right Wing/GOP coalition is showing signs of stress. Trump will also have a harder time seeking rapprochement with Russia on his own without losing political capital with these allegations floating around. I still think the “Trump Thaw” will take place, but it will be much more difficult for Donald to pull off. Regardless, the left’s fear of an ultimate, all-powerful GOP-Trump coalition is bogus. Trump may have goals to drain the swamp and use his “electoral mandate” to force through reforms (some of which are good), but he seems to have forgotten that the swamp* has its own agenda and is clearly willing and able to fight back. Trump runs roughshod over federal agencies at his own peril; already they are working to shackle him.

Putin may aided Trump in a tense election, but ironically he may have only helped to weaken his apparent ally. Yet again, continued division and tension in Washington would serve Moscow more than Trump ever could.

Meanwhile we hold our collective national breath, preparing our own cyberattack.

*Please note that by referring to the bureaucracy as the swamp I don’t mean to demean them. Quite frankly I think that they are doing an invaluable service for Constitutional democracy by trying to balance against Trump.


The Trump Thaw

I never really went to bed on Tuesday. I stayed up until 1:30AM watching. Despite all polls, despite a confident Democratic party, despite all of our fears, hopes, and expectations, the stars aligned and the seemingly impossible happen. Well in retrospect it isn’t so unbelievable, but it is still shocking nonetheless. We could go into why Clinton lost for hours. We could spend days trying to figure out what this election means for women, African-Americans, immigrants, intellectuals, Muslims, LGBTQ individuals, and so on. Quite frankly, nobody here or abroad knows what is going on. Trump ran a campaign heavy on criticism and light on policy. His real viewpoints and ideologies remain to metastasize. Personally I don’t even think Trump knows what he is doing yet. The election surprised him most of all.

But Russia knows exactly what this all means. Putin was quick to extend congratulations and cooperation. Russia’s ultra-nationalist fringe candidate, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, held a party at the Duma to celebrate. Even Gorbachev was happy at the prospect of a Trump presidency. And why wouldn’t they be? After years of sanctions and Western opposition Russia finally has a reprieve: one of Trump’s few stated, plausible policies is relaxation with Russia.

Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, U.S.-Russian relations have more or less collapsed. Disarmament initiatives, cooperation against terror, and the NATO-Russia council fell apart. Crippling sanctions were placed against Russia by the West, and these have had a substantial impact on the Russian economy. Russia has responded in kind with continued support of Ukrainian separatists, military involvement in Syria, cyber intrigue, and pressure on NATO states. Tensions between Washington and Moscow have risen to the point where media outlets have been falsely advertising World War III and discussing nuclear preparedness. Many were paranoid about Russian conquest of Ukraine or the Baltic States, two completely unfounded fears.

At the start of this election both the GOP and Democrats were anti-Russian. Hillary wanted to continue Obama’s policies and perhaps create a no-fly zone. Meanwhile the Republicans were calling for greater preparation and increased military presence in Eastern Europe. I remember quite clearly when Ben Carson suggested that he would consider all viable options to stop Russia, including nuclear weapons. This bluster resonated well with  conservative voters who had long criticized Obama’s policy as too soft on Russia, and yet they ultimately chose the softest candidate on Russia, Donald J. Trump. It turns out that Trump’s economic and nativist message mattered more to people than foreign policy.

But now we are faced with an interesting question: can Trump manage to revive relations with Russia? Undoubtedly he wants to, and Putin would certainly be willing to oblige him. But can he actually do this? How far can he go? Here is where everything gets fuzzy. Trump is building his cabinet with many people who were tough on Russia, and the Senate and House are both controlled by the Republican Party who, just a brief while ago, were calling for a harder reaction against Russia. Trump and the Party differ over a number of issues, and this is one of them.

Of course, foreign relations are increasingly the domain of the imperial presidency. Trump has plenty of room to visit with Putin, work out deals, and his word carries a tremendous deal of symbolic weight. Trump is willing to end sanctions and acknowledge Russian sovereignty over Crimea, and he has unlimited opportunities to work towards this effect. I think that the GOP, for all their jingoism towards Russia, will be happy to let Trump heal relations with Russia. It would mean a symbolic break with past policy; why would Republicans pass up a chance to try to bury Obama’s legacy? Russia may become a bargaining chip for other disagreements between Trump and “his” Party, but I think Trump will be able to deliver on his only tangible and realistic policy goal.

Let’s call it: the Trump Thaw. You heard it here first folks. I searched, it seems like people use the words “Trump” and “Thaw” and “Russia” in a sentence but not as I have. Some people say “Trump Thaw” as a phrase to discuss GOP acceptance of Trump. Well that is ok, I have another name picked out if Trump Thaw doesn’t stick. Maybe we could try: Trumptente! Kremelania? Should we give them a power couple name? Is Vladonald catchy enough? Maybe we should move on…

How will the healing process take place? Here is where things get interesting. Trump and Putin are similar in  some ways. I believe they are both masters of symbolic action: read their body language, look at how Putin arrays his foreign policy and reigns over opposition, look at how Trump managed to win an election. Far from Trump being a madman who says anything and everything, I think he has very carefully cultivated and acted out this part. Putin and Trump are also used to negotiating with businessmen: Trump makes deals and Putin took out the oligarchs. So how will these wily cats approach each other? I can imagine Trump going to Putin, although it would be a very powerful statement if Putin set foot on American soil. Regardless, the Thaw will occur, and a meeting will make a profound impact.

Of course, Russia isn’t just happy about immediate direct benefits of a Trump presidency. The Kremlin is also going to benefit from the ripple effect Trump will have on Ukraine, NATO, and the EU.

Regarding Ukraine, this is a massive defeat for them. Ukraine lost its strongest backer when Trump won the election. It was a little sad to see Poroshenko acknowledge the Trump victory by saying that he hopes for cooperation. I do not see this happening. Ukraine may be at the mercy of Russia, again.

NATO, long-standing opponent of Russia in Europe, it also placed at risk by Trump’s election. Trump called for an end to NATO bandwagoning. He was unwilling to enforce Article V (collective defense) unless allies paid their fair share. For some allies this wouldn’t matter, but a significant amount of NATO members do not contribute their due amounts to the alliance, especially since NATO was used by Bush in an attempt to legitimize US entry into Iraq and Afghanistan. The question of what to do with NATO is trickier to call. Trump may be able to repair US-Russian relations, but convincing the GOP to abandon a longstanding and important alliance would be far more difficult, especially with the GOP in control of the Senate (our treaty affirming arm) and the House (our budgetary arm). I believe that NATO will remain well-funded by the United States, and we may even see the reconvening and strengthening of the NATO-Russia Counsel and renewed attempts to push NATO “out of area” in the fight against terrorism. NATO members are still paranoid though. Estonia’s pro-Western coalition collapsed following the U.S. election: they had a wide list of issues beforehand but Trump’s victory may have been the death knell. Ironically Estonia was one of the most fervant supporters of NATO and they have paid for their membership in human life and monetary contributions.

How can the US election possibly affect the European Union? Well, setting aside the fact that NATO and the EU are interrelated, the election still has a great deal of salience. Viewed in a broader context, the Trump surprise is the second big step in a Western realignment towards nationalism and populism. Remember months ago when we all thought that Brexit was going to fall flat? We all know how that went, and all the questions that raised for the EU. Now with Trump’s victory these movements are gaining more and more legitimacy. France seems next on the chopping block. Hollande’s regime has self-immolated. The next prospective election of France seems to be a toss-up between former President Sarkozy, a candidate mired in intrigue and corruption, and the face of the ultra-right, Marine Le Pen. Does this seem at all familiar to our election? Well, one detail is off: this time the female candidate is the nationalist. France has never had a female leader, so who knows what might happen. Marine Le Pen’s campaign though is energized by the Trump win-the wind is at her back. If France goes the nativist route it could shock the EU. Russia would like this.

It isn’t hard to see why Putin, Zhirinovsky, and Gorbachev celebrated: Trump’s election is tantamount to a Russian foreign policy coup.

I don’t agree with a lot of what Trump does and says. Likewise, his apparent nativism and anti-intellectualism is a big turn off. But I have to say that he does understand Russia better than any other candidate. He was the only person saying that Russia does not have designs against Ukraine (beyond the unspoken reality that Ukraine is and will remain in Russia’s sphere), and I can finally see my dream of renewed Russian-U.S. relations aimed at bolstering international security achieved. I can also say with absolute certainty that Putin will remain in power now at least until 2024. Putin likely had his upcoming 2018 election secure, but with the lifting of sanctions, peace with the West, and tangible, legitimized victory in Ukraine he will be riding high as usual (barring any extraordinary circumstances). The more things change…

All the King’s Men: Stalin and Friends

One of the beautiful ironies of Russian history is the tendency of strong, autocratic leaders to surround themselves with strong, intelligent ministers. Behind every strongman or woman was a colourful supporting cast; even Putin has his fair share of deuteragonists. You might expect that stronger leaders have fewer high major players underneath them, but any such observation would fail to explain the motley crew that handled the day-to-day administration of the U.S.S.R. under Stalin. Even a brutal tyrant who made a habit of killing or exiling anyone suspected of even a sliver of disloyalty had friends. (Well, “friends” is probably a little strong here…)

It turns out that running the Soviet Union took a lot of oversight. Governments compartmentalise naturally, but Communist states compound this by dividing administration of party and government into two separate yet mirror image hierarchies. The party half holds de facto power while the government merely acts with de jure authority. This naturally sets up a system that needs a lot of people to run, and the issue then becomes making sure that both halves of the state are staffed with loyal followers. Joseph Stalin, as the General Secretary of the early Soviet Union, was in a perfect position to stock positions with supporters. This is how he first achieved power in 1927 and then continued to gain power in the ensuing decades.

I guess it goes without saying that Stalin also had a lot of “enemies,” most of whom were imagined. Stalin directly clashed politically and ideologically with darling of the revolution and noted internationalist, Leon Trotsky. Otherwise, unfounded paranoia brought him into conflict with others, such as party theorist Nikolai Bukharin. Trotsky was sent into exile, where he continued to rival Stalin in leading the Communist movement until he was eventually assassinated in Mexico City by an ice pick. Bukharin met with an equally tragic end, being killed in the Great Purges of the late 1930s along with many other perceived enemies. Hell, even those who were pulling the triggers were not safe during the purge. The creepy Genrikh Yagoda was replaced as head of the NKVD by Nikolai Yezhovwho took the Great Purge to new heights only to have his ruthless actions rewarded by being executed and replaced on false charges like so many of his victims.

In this brutal atmosphere, only the toughest, or the most sycophantic, could survive. By 1940 Stalin had a nucleus of favorites. I suppose first we should mention Yezhov’s successor. The position went to Lavrentiy Beria, who shared Stalin’s Georgian heritage. Beria was ruthlessly efficient as head of the NKVD, and after the Great Patriotic War he continued to be tremendously important to Stalin. A spymaster, Beria was critical to the subjugation of Eastern Europe and the nuclear program. He was also absolutely terrifying, what with amassing an army of highly loyal secret police and with having a penchant for abusing his authority to kidnap and rape young girls and women.

Beria was useful enough that Stalin kept him around, and following Stalin’s death in 1953 he became a prospective successor. However, he was scary enough that he did not last long after that. His comrades in the collective leadership scheme that replaced Stalin agreed that he was too dangerous to keep around, and Beria was executed with assistance from the military.

Beria wasn’t the only man close enough to Stalin to be in the running for the leadership: there were a number of other men close to the paramount summit. Andrei Zhdanov was a favorite of Stalin’s, and was considered by many to be his hand-picked successor. Zhdanov sought to purify Soviet culture of cosmopolitan influence, but his hard living and drinking brought about an early demise in 1948. Stalin used Zhdanov’s death to launch the Leningrad Purge, meanwhile other close associates found opportunity for advancement. Georgy Malenkov was a top contender. Intelligent, a ruthless supporter of Stalin, and quite round, Malenkov was a skilled operator in the Soviet bureaucracy, and once Zhdanov was out most people considered him the heir apparent of the U.S.S.R.

Was Malenkov really all that different though? He was a fervent Stalinist, even after 1953. Yet again, most people in Stalin’s inner circle were. They supported Stalin’s brutal approach to politics, and they were happy to actualize Stalin’s will. Vyacheslav Molotov was one of the most prominent offenders. With a warm smile and a huge forehead resting on his pince-nez glasses, Molotov seemed pretty jovial. In reality he was a shrewd and scheming expert on foreign affairs. He conducted policy exactly as Stalin wished, although perhaps with more deftness and charm. Like Beria, Molotov was useful, having worked tirelessly to engineer the titular Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and then, 6 years later, the post-War peace. Molotov fell out of favor in the post-war years, but he remained firmly pro-Stalin, even after his beloved wife was held prisoner for her Jewish heritage.

There were no shortage of Stalinists. Of special note is Lazar Kaganovich. Aside from having a great first-name and a vaguely Stalinesque appearance, Kaganovich was virtually Stalin in miniature. Yet again, everyone was Stalin. Everyone was covered in blood to a certain extent. It was impossible to oppose the brutal, bloody excesses of the Holodomor and the Purge and stay alive. At times Stalin’s inner circle was directly guilty of bloodshed. At times they were merely complicit.

Still, some of Stalin’s associates apparently had some moral misgivings about Stalin. Of course they weren’t able to voice these until after 1953, but still there were glimmers of hope. The main man we talk about here is, of course, Nikita Khrushchev, who would come to become the absolute leader of the Soviet Union once the dust settled after Stalin’s burial and the subsequent in-fighting. Bouncy, fat, fun, and poorly educated, the miner’s son Khrushchev turned out to have a knack for leadership. If his memoirs are to be believed, Khrushchev was willing to challenge Stalin and his peers in the name of common sense. Undoubtedly there is some embellishment here, but you can’t deny that Khrushchev was devastatingly savvy. He was tremendously charming and, as he would show in the 1950s, a true master of rough-and-tumble politics. Despite being complicit in Stalin’s regime, especially in the oppression of Ukraine, Khrushchev would later immortalize himself by thawing the Soviet Union, introducing a program of de-Stalinization.

Certain members of Stalin’s circle would come, in time, to be members of Khrushchev’s circle, usually as long as they approved of de-Stalinization. Among them was my personal favorite of Stalin’s clique, Anastas Mikoyan. Armenian, Mikoyan was a bit of a black sheep, and yet he was enormously successful in fulfilling a variety of odd jobs. In Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, Anya von Bremzen discusses how Mikoyan was also something of a chief gourmet, overseeing nutrition, dietary guidelines, and the publication of cook books. Mikoyan had blood on his hands, no doubt about it, but his backing of Khrushchev and overall versatility ensured that he would stay around.

Stalin didn’t just surround himself with government and party officials, but also with artists and scientists who he became a patron of. Maxim Gorky helped to pioneer Socialist Realism, which essentially amounted to art directed at social purposes. In the fields of science Stalin found a useful associate in Trofim Lysenko, whose counter-current concepts regarding genetics and promises of solving the Soviet agriculture curse arrested scientific advancement in the Soviet Union for decades.  

Say what you will about Stalin, but he had a fantastic capacity for selecting supporters and manipulating them. A madman was able to hold a nation hostage by instilling loyalty throughout both party and government. But Stalin wasn’t just some evil emperor sitting along in the Kremlin issuing out orders to peons (alright, he did this sometimes). Stalin also ruled from the dinner table. From 1946-53, Stalin increasingly spent time in his private dacha, hosting dinner parties into the wee hours of the morning. It is here that he organized politics while keeping an eye on his “trusted” comrades. He usually used excessive amounts of vodka to make them pliable so that he could observe them. It was during these parties when decisions as to how to run the U.S.S.R. were made. Stalin was undoubtedly plotting his next murders while watching the latest American Westerns, feasting on shashlik, and sampling his favorite Georgian wines.

I think it is important to break down the image of Stalin as cold, aloof tyrant. He certainly was distant, brutal, and despotic but his methods were diverse and varied. He could coldly stack Party committees and replace loyal supporters, but he could also mingle and manipulate people. Stalin could make friendships serve his interests and further his goals of centralising the U.S.S.R. Even Churchill and Roosevelt noticed Stalin’s personal magnetism and ability to manipulate emotions and people, and stock footage of Stalin at the Big Three Conferences and beyond show a smiling, jovial manipulator.

So that explains this great irony of Soviet history. How exactly was a totalitarian tyrant able to co-exist with so many strong personalities? It wasn’t just because they were useful, but it was because Stalin needed all these people. The key to his leadership style wasn’t that he was a strong man who could bury opponents and suppress individuals, but rather that he was able to find competent, staunch supporters and manipulate them. Stalin was an expert at human resources. Furthermore, he was an expert at making everyone complicit in his crimes (a must for any leader of Russia). Perhaps you should remember that the next time you deal with your local HR department at work. Or perhaps you should make an effort to learn some of the unconventional names and look into some individual policies that define the support actors of Russian history.

Sochi 2014 and Russian Revival



Ahhhhh…The Good Old Days

The Olympics is a rare example of international good will and cooperation, with countries setting aside their differences to compete on the track field rather than the battlefield. The Summer Olympics in Rio are now in session, accompanied with the standard endless cable broadcasts of the same dozen people swimming in the same rectangular pool. (Personally I prefer the Winter Olympics, largely due to my inexplicable appreciation for ice dancing.)

For all the ideals it represents however, the Olympics have been coming under fire recently, and the games in Rio are only the latest manifestation of this. Underneath a beautiful exotic location and a goal of cooperation is a gritty struggle between globalisation and nationalism. Hosting Olympic games causes an undue financial burden on the host country, something many Brazilians have used to justify protesting the games. The economic aspect is just the tip of the iceberg: other controversies surrounding the Rio games include security, sanitation, and the recent political coup in Brazil. Perhaps we could also mention the haze of Zika-laden mosquitos that threaten to turn Rio into a vector for a deadly virus.

But the Olympics keep on going nonetheless, and should we be surprised? At this point opposition to the Olympics seems token, especially after the extreme controversy surrounding the previous games held in the seaside Russian town of Sochi.

Politics Never Sleeps

It would be naive to believe that the Olympics are divorced from politics. A high-profile international event is going to always be political. Certain Olympics stand out more than others. The 1936 Olympics were used by Germany to try to showcase Nazi “progress.” Throughout the Cold War the games were used to highlight East vs. West.

Russia has had its fair share of infusing politics into the games, and at times it even seems as if they incorporate the games into their political strategy. On Christmas of 1979 Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, prompting the West and much of NATO to boycott the Moscow Summer Olympics of the following year. Brezhnev was likely pleased when the Soviets swept the games. Later, in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the Soviets returned the favor by boycotting the Western games.

With the collapse of the U.S.S.R. the e is not much to report over the next decade or so. The 2008 games in Beijing were put to great use in Russia to launch a quick invasion of Georgia that was swiftly condoned by the international community. Russia’s gambit was as successful as it was unexpected, as the world was too distracted by the Beijing games to furnish a reply to Russia.

After Beijing we had games in Vancouver and London. Then, somehow or other Russia got the green-light to host the 2014 Winter games in Sochi. As usual, this was known some years in advance, but as time went on the IOC’s choice of location came under increasing scrutiny. Why was this?

Putin Prime

After reigning from 1999-2008, Putin took a brief, 4-year, constitutionally required reprieve from the Presidency by handing it to his right-hand man Dmitri Medvedev. The 1993 Constitution stipulated that a President can only serve 2 terms consecutive terms. It says nothing about total terms, a loophole that Putin exploited in 2012 by re-ascending to the Presidency.

Having won a major constitution victory, and then having re-written the Constitution to allow himself to stay in power until 2024, Putin had just entered his prime. The period from 99-08 was merely prologue. Now Putin had the country, and he could enact his will. Immediately the regime took conservative steps to further entrench its own survival. Civil society came under fire with new laws that harassed and oppressed NGOs and human rights groups. Censorship widened, with bloggers and journalists coming under fire, not to mention Pussy Riot. The state also renewed its ancient ties with the Orthodox Church. Perhaps the laws that got the most scrutiny from the West were those targeting homosexuals, which entrenched the deep Russian antipathy towards homosexuality in stark contrast to the tolerance preached by the West. Meanwhile, the price tag of the games came into question. At approximately $50 billion dollars, these were the most expensive Olympics in history. The price as obviously inflated thanks to the corruption of the Russian state, with contracts being rewarded to many of Putin’s supporters. Despite all this money, the guest rooms for athletes were laughably deficient, with barely functioning toilets. I guess we should also mention the Circassians, a Caucasian people who were displaced from Sochi by the Russian empire. They didn’t get much screen time in the West though.

There were calls to boycott or cancel the games, like those complaints now levied against the Rio games. Much like today, the IOC refused to step down and the games stayed on schedule. Controversy was reaching a fever pitch in 2013, and then Euromaidan happened. Ukraine broke out into civil war as the Russian backed President turned down membership in the European Union. The crisis was reaching a fever pitch by the time the games happened.

Sochi 2014: The neo-Brezhnevite Phoenix

Despite controversy, reproach, and the political collapse of a neighbor, the Sochi games started in February of 2014. While everyone remembered the Beijing opening, which championed the collective values of the state, fewer remember the punk-rock fiddling of Vancouver or the celebration of industrialization in the London games. It seems like even fewer people bothered to watch the Sochi opening, which was a real shame since it had a huge political message.

I have been dying to review the opening ceremony, but I have patiently waited until now to do it:

The games opened up following a young girl as she navigated the Russian alphabet, with various letters and highlights being showcased. Then she appeared in person, and floated among proto-Russian locales and villages, clearly an embracing of early Russian/Siberian life. After an excellent rendition of the Russian national anthem there was the parade of nations. I personally love the parade of nations, and the Russian house music in the background really set the mood. The German team walked out in rainbow outfits, challenging Putin’s anti-LGBTQ policies. The Russian team walked out to “Not Gonna Get Us” by T.A.T.U. For those of you who don’t know, T.A.T.U. is a female duo that used a high school lesbian aesthetic for their marketing. To my knowledge they also performed at the Olympics before the opening, and I find the contrast of anti-gay policy with lesbian fetishization to have an unsettled irony.

After the parade of nations we entered into the main body of the display. A troika brought out the sun, a tribute to Russian pagan beliefs and sun worship. It was followed by colourful onion domes and teapots, clearly representing the ushering in of Orthodox Christianity and the state created by Ivan the Terrible. The young girl from earlier was present in these games, and we were clearly envisioning the situation through her eyes: it had a fanciful and dreamy quality about it. Next we saw a stormy sea with a ship on it, followed by the regimentation of naval officers and the blueprints of Saint Petersburg, paying homage to the glory days of Peter the Great and his Westernization of the country.

Then suddenly elaborately dressed women scurry onto the stage to mingle with the officers, and we enter perhaps the most beautiful of the entire opening ceremony. An elaborate ball room scene with beautiful ballet work and classical music unfolded in front of us. It looked like something out of Tolstoy, and told a story much in the same manner. It followed the romance of a young officer and a beautiful dancer (perhaps this was the young girl from earlier grown up, representing a maturation of Russia?).

A dashing young man who looked a little like Peter the Great (though not as freakishly huge) then took center stage and started dancing in a lovely blue suit. Then suddenly the stage starts to vanish, the lights dim, and a gentle snow begins falling. The nobles seem to be cold and agonized, crowding and moshing and growing frantic as the lighting and music became frenzied. All the nobles die as the stars of the ballet begin to make out, and then the nobles come back, making clock like motions with their arms and sharing one last embrace before being swept aside. At first I thought this would usher in a Napoleonic scene.

I knew after I heard the train noise and saw the red lights though that I was wrong. I had just seen the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Now was the Bolshevik era. Lovely pillars gave way to industrial and farming imagery. Filigree turned into the brash, bold geometry of Malevich. Ornate outfits turned into utilitarian red and black bodysuits as coordinated ballet was abandoned for a robotic, mechanical dance. This was collectivization, Stalinism, and the Five-Year Plan. Georgy Sviridov’s Time Forward! set a hurried, mad tone as the stage below descending into organized chaos. While I was impressed that they were covering the taboo Stalin period, I could tell that there was no love or affection. The people looked pained and indifferent, and some gears even had people inside them, more or less crucified as they were being rolled around.

As quickly as this all appeared, it vanished. Only a small nucleus of workers remained as the lights dimmed and spotlights began to spread throughout the stadium. Suddenly the music stopped and the sounds of war began. The stage turned black and there was a moment of silence, an appropriate nod to the Great Patriotic War.

I am probably getting way off topic though. Really the only part of the open ceremony that means much is the immediate aftermath of the war tribute. The stage came alive again with blueprints and workers. Industrial sounds gave way to Soviet rock-and-roll as the streets below began to bustle with activity. This was the Khrushchev Thaw and the Brezhnev period. Young pioneers, workers, pilots, cosmonauts, athletes, even hipsters took the stage to celebrate the great achievements of this period. The seven sisters, Stalinist skyscrapers, unfurled as the famous statue, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, made its was across the roof. This wasn’t just an homage to the Soviet era, it was nostalgic. Everyone was happy and busy with their lives. Some slight unrest was featured briefly when the traffic cops pushed the hipsters away, but overall the tone and music were carefree. Then the lovers came on stage, proceeding to get married and have children in a clear state endorsement of reproduction (remember, Russia has population issues).

While some may write this portion off as ridiculous (and it was), I think it speaks a great deal of modern Russia character. There is a fundamental longing for the old days of Brezhnev and the prestige of the Soviet empire. Out of every leader, Brezhnev is generally regarded as the most loved since under his reign the Soviet Union reached its apex in terms of power and economy (most forget that Brezhnev’s policies led to later failures). Nostalgia was best represented at the end of the opening show, when the young girl from earlier let go a red balloon, symbolizing the loss of Russian character that occurred in 1991. There was no other historical or significant cultural display after this: this was the political culture portion of the show.

What followed was Olympic formalities, torches, and so on.

I feel like there really hasn’t been a lot of serious discussion regarding the opening ceremony and what it represents, but I think I have a way to tie it all into something meaningful, so standby.

The Putin Doctrine

The Olympics happened. Russia won big. Sochi was competing with Ukraine in the headlines as the conflict waxed. Amidst all the controversy, the games seem to have gone off despite plenty of criticism.

Meanwhile I was on facebook, arguing what these Olympics meant and what would happen with Ukraine. At some point I apparently predicted that Russia would take action after the Olympics, but I had no clue how quickly it would happen. Soon after the Olympics, virtually overnight, Russia annexed Crimea and took it over, validating the annexation with a local referendum and with the claim that they were protecting good Russians. The fighting in Ukraine reached new heights as Russia began to arm Russian speaking separatists. Suddenly all of the criticism and distrust of the Sochi games seemed warranted: Russia was still Russia after all.

After Beijing people were worried about China, although fears have slightly waned since their economy has slowed. After Vancouver nobody talked about Canada, and after London nobody cared about Britain. Sochi was different. After Sochi, Russian foreign policy became front and center. Of course this is due more to the Russian involvement in Ukraine rather than the Olympics themselves, but I hardly think it is a coincidence that the two happened so soon together.

When the red balloon floated away in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia was badly hurt. The economy was virtually destroyed. Russia’s prestige and power had evaporated. Russia was weak, lacking in promise and barely able to eke out an existence in a world where the United States reigned as the hegemon.

Putin had been working feverishly to get Russia back ever since 1999. He had to rebuild the economy, which he did by nationalising major industries. He had to settle the Chechen conflict and protect his country from terrorism and secession. Putin had to do his best to check the expansion of NATO and the EU into Russia’s neighborhood so as to ensure that Russia still had a say in Eurasia. We could also mention the colour revolutions, which had Putin fretting over the potential for revolutions. From 1999-2008, his job was to rebuild the country. Medvedev continued this goal from 2008-2012 in Putin’s stead.

Then Putin came back, and Russia came back too. Russia was economically stable, and Putin had proven that he could take liberties with the Constitution. Putin used the next two years to consolidate his hold on Russia and slowly began to exert influence on Russia’s neighbors (hence, Euromaidan in Ukraine).

For all intents and purposes, Russia was back. It had risen from the ashes of catastrophe like a phoenix, poised to once again resume great power status. What better way to showcase this than by hosting the most extravagant Olympics in history? Russian power and prestige were on display. By appealing to the great times in Russian history, Russia was reaffirming its historical role as a superpower. Russia’s display in the games were decidedly Russian, showing her unique Eurasian character and culture, especially the language. Finally, by highlighting the Brezhnev era in the final act of the historical presentation, Russia was appealing to its moment of greatest strength. This is what Russia had been in it’s not so distant history, and this is what Russia could be again. Surely there are some differences from the Brezhnev era and some progress, but overall I would say that Putin’s Russia is reminiscent of Brezhnev’s. At the very least however we must admit that Putin is smarter: he is far more pragmatic, active, and engaged. Brezhnev was not nearly so hands on, nor so competent.

Putin’s foreign policy, which emerged immediately after the Olympics with the annexation of Crimea, is also much better than Brezhnev’s. Brezhnev’s policy was summed up by the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine. Formulated in response to the 1968 Prague Spring, the Doctrine gave the Soviets the right to intervene in fraternal socialist countries where socialism was threatened. This gave the Soviet Union dominion over its members and satellites. Putin’s foreign policy arrangement is more precise and opportunistic. His “Putin Doctrine” seems to deal with the protection of Russian nationals and Russian speakers in other countries. It provides the logic for protecting Russia while leaving enough room for Russia to intervene in unruly neighbors like Ukraine.

While he likely didn’t have it planned out very far in advance, once the opportunity presented itself Putin could not help but jump into Crimea soon after the Olympics. Say what you will about Putin, but he knows how to make a presentation. His Olympics succeeded in the face of criticism from the West, and Russian boots remain in Crimea, which holds its breath as Ukraine and Russia warily eye one another. Within only a few weeks in February, Russia had completely re-emerged. Far from being second page news, Putin ensured that Russia would set the tempo in international affairs.

I think most people label Crimea as the turning point, but I think the Olympics in Sochi were a necessary prologue. Sochi set the tone of Russian revivalism. It captured the publics attention, acting as a smoke screen as Ukraine fell into chaos and as Russia prepared for entry into the conflict. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of Sochi and Crimea highlight just how powerful Russia has become. Russia is capable of hosting an international event in goods spirits, and then can immediately switch gears to assert its foreign policy on its neighbors almost effortlessly. The rest of the world was still in a spirit of cooperation and camaraderie, and suddenly this! Suddenly Russia is alive, dynamic, threatening, and dedicated to its goals again. Here is a state worthy of Peter the Great or Brezhnev’s legacy. Here, suddenly, is a great power.

Sochi 2014 will live in infamy. It was held in an increasingly totalitarian regime where freedoms and civil liberties are undermined. It was a globalised event held in a wild, independent, sovereign state. Unwittingly, the IOC allowed itself to be used to advertise and promote Putin’s Russia. In the end they both got what they wanted. The IOC got successful games. Russia got international recognition. Perhaps this is why people hate the IOC: they are willing to get into bed with anyone who offers one, no matter the costs. In Russia, there were only political costs for the West.

Despite the threat posed by a resurgent Russia, ultimately the Rio games may be more disruptive to the international order than Sochi. Sochi merely made a long-standing fact of history, that is, Russian greatness, an indisputable reality. Rio, on the other hand, stands poised to undermine globalisation, and the threat posed by Zika’s spread could very well be unprecedented.

Whatever you do, don’t write the Olympics off as irrelevant or merely ideological. The Olympics in many ways capture the pulse of the world at any given moment, and they prophesy great change.


The History and Future of Russian Jews

Russia has a rocky relationship with Judaism. Things may be better than they ever have been, but a dark and unfortunate history weighs heavily on the present. Plagued by anti-Semitism and, at times, direct confrontation, Russian-Israeli relations seem tense at best. Despite this though I sometimes question how solid the American-Israeli alliance is; is it plausible to argue that Israel’s posture may change? Answering this question requires a brief look at the history of Russia, Russian Jews, and the state of Israel. I apologize for doing another fairly general post this time but I have been entertaining ideas of a Russia-Israel partnership all week and I need to get it out of my system.

Russia and Its Jews

A while ago a man called Lenin apparently said that Russia was the “prison house of nations.”

Russia has housed a large Jewish population for much of its history, but this did little to dampen discrimination. For much of Russian history the operative word in Russian-Jewish relations was “pogrom.” The term refers to a sudden violent uprising motivated by ethnic or religious hatred. Jews were often the default victims of such violence. Pogroms occurred throughout Russian history well into the modern era. The regimes in power proved to be enablers, or perhaps accomplices; Tsars simply refused to quell such riots. Radzinsky writes in the Last Tsar that pogroms were regarded as useful by Tsars since they deflected anger away from the regime.

One would think that with the arrival of Communism, anti-Semitism would have fallen by the way side. Was not anti-Semitism just another wedge used to drive apart the working masses? Sartre argued this point in his 1946 book Anti-Semite and Jew, and it is likely that doctrinaire Marxists in the decades prior would have thought along similar lines. While the Bolshevik Revolution may have claimed lofty internationalist goals aimed at doing away with the past order, it did little overall to remedy the tension between Russians and Russian-Jews. Even if the political order changes, history and national culture remain.

The survival of anti-Semitism may also be attributed to Stalin who seems to have harboured a deep mistrust of Jews. Such feelings may have manifested in his persecution of prominent Russian-Jewish revolutionary and rival, Leon Trotsky. Such prejudice reached an apex in the aftermath of the Great Patriotic War, which saw Stalin’s paranoia reach new heights. There were open campaigns against “rootless cosmopolitanism” (read: Judaism) at a time when the Cold War was beginning to coalesce. In his memoirs, Khrushchev loves to point out Stalin’s anti-Semitism, perhaps to detract from his own prejudice. He recounts a story of how Stalin’s paranoia led him to exile Molotov’s Jewish wife. Perhaps the most heinous epitome of Stalin’s racism though came at the very end of his life when he accused the Jewish doctors in the Kremlin of being traitors. These accusations, comprising the so-called “Doctor’s Plot,” were thankfully cut short by the death of Stalin in 1953 before they turned into another purge.

The Modern Era: Russia and Israel

For all his prejudices Stalin did have a few things to offer to Jews. The USSR did of course defeat Nazi Germany, and the Red Army liberated most concentration camps and saved countless Jews from potential slaughter. Stalin, who we must remember used to be the Commissar of Nationalities, also oversaw the creation of a Jewish autonomous region in the USSR (it was around Korea), and when Israel hit the international scene the Soviets were the first to grant it official recognition. It may be that Stalin was just trying to push Jews away or encourage emigration, although such decisions seem to be in line with his overall stance on handling the sordid nationalities of the USSR (ironically the USSR would fall apart along national lines, but that is another post).

Regardless of why Stalin may have granted Israel recognition, he must have been disappointed to see that Israel chose the American camp in the Cold War. This would lead to  tensions throughout the Cold War, with the Soviets frequently backing Arab/Palestinian claims (such as in the Suez Crisis) and threatening to enter into several Arab-Israeli conflicts (such as the Six Day War). Israel has long complicated the Soviets ability to play politics in the Middle East. A key example of this can be found in Soviet-Egyptian relations, which started warmly but were eventually cut off once Egypt and Israel brokered peace.

The creation of Israel also created problem within the Soviet Union that would soon become a foreign policy liability. Israel welcomes Jews from all over the world, and many Russian-Jews sought to leave persecution and hostility behind forever by emigrating. The Soviets generally opposed this trend and limited the amount of Jews who could leave, which attracted fierce international criticism. Indeed, this attempt to restrict freedom of movement was one of the main contentions that American conservatives had with detente, and strong American support for Russian-Jews would come to be embodied in the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which hampered trade agreements between the USA and USSR so long as emigration was discouraged. Eventually restrictions lifted, and Jews left in droves, but bitter memories remain.

A Russian-Israeli Axis?

With such a contested history is it even feasible to talk of a Russian-Israeli partnership? Despite hundreds of years of animosity, I believe that it is not impossible. Putin has been generally very positive towards Jews. He framed his meddling in Ukraine in terms of anti-fascism and language, hinting that Russia has an obligation to protect both Jews and Russian speakers. With a massive population from the Russian-Jewish diaspora, Israel is home to many Russian speakers. Could Putin feasibly extend a doctrine of linguistic based protection to cover Israel? Netanyahu, in a recent meeting with Putin, also expressed support for Russia’s involvement in Syria, and the two countries have been working together in this regard.

Russia and Israel may also be increasingly drawn together over feelings of marginalization by the West. Russian-Western relations are obviously strained, but Israel is also experiencing some difficulty with the West over its treatment of Palestinians, particularly in its colonization of the West Bank. Countries like France are increasingly supportive of Palestine over Israel, and at every turn Israel seems to be losing ground in the hearts and minds of its allies. With growing friction from the West, Israel and Russia may turn to each other to reinforce their mutual and individual interests.

But nothing is so simple, and there is still a great deal of contention. Russia’s providing of technology to Iran is unlikely to gain points with Israel. The Russians also continue to provide support to Palestinians, perhaps merely as token resistance to a perceived American stronghold. They gave arms and other support to the PLO and enjoyed generally cool relations. Arafat even attended Brezhnev’s funeral in 1982. Russia may continue to lend support to Palestine or, seeing opportunity, may make a shift towards Israel.

I do not believe that a shift of this magnitude would be very likely however, at least not without Russia dramatically shifting its perspectives on terrorism. Terrorism is an intensely politicized issue, with varying countries distinguishing between “terrorist” and “non-terrorist” simply on the basis of national interest. Russia, for example, does not acknowledge Hezbollah as a terror group while Israel and many in the West do. The reason is obvious: Hezbollah acts as a thorn in the side of one of the United States’ most valuable allies. The same applies to Palestine: Russia is unwilling to criticize Palestine, even if Israel and the United States are wary of increasingly frequent attacks by disgruntled Palestinians. Russia can alter its terror designations at any time, but once again history and political culture remain difficult to change.

Any chance of a Russia-Israel alliance forming is unlikely to occur unless Israel and America get a divorce. Israel’s treatment of Palestine is coming under increasing skepticism in the States, but most Washington politicians remain firmly committed to the alliance and the Israel lobby remains exceptionally powerful and influence. Since both Trump and Clinton have spoken out in support of Israel I think we can count on continued American-Israeli cooperation. Ironically Bernie, himself a Jew, has offered criticism of Israel, but I doubt even he could change our posture. If I know anything about Russian foreign policy I would daresay that it may be more strategically sound for Russia to continue to support Palestine and simply use the USA’s support of Israel as a wedge between America and her allies.

Ultimately a Russian-Israeli pact is unlikely, although there is a conceivable chain of events that may bring it about. It’s still fascinating to theorize on, and the fact that a case can be made for this point stands in sharp contrast to the bitter, bloody history of Russia and its Jews. Politics can still make strange bedfellows.


The Solution to the Security Dilemma?

IT’S A BOY! Well no, it’s actually a genderless bureaucratic institution aimed at promoting national security…

This month saw the birth of a new government entity: Национальная Гвардия России (Natsionalnaya Gvardiya Rossia). Yes, Putin went forward with creating a National Guard Service on April 5th. According to the Kremlin’s website, the Guard is essentially the new incarnation of the Russia interior forces. The same website lists their responsibilities as follows:

  • participation in the protection of public order in cooperation with internal affairs agencies
  • participation in countering terrorism and extremism
  • guarding important government facilities and special cargo
  • assistance to the border authorities of the Federal Security Service in protecting the state border
  • and state control over arms turnover.

The Russian National Guard will also assume responsibility over policing migration and anti-drug and crime efforts. This force, which is more or less comparable to a gendarmerie, answers directly to the President and has been empowered to act in times of emergency. Viktor Zolotov was appointed as the head of this administration. He seems to be a typical siloviki, one of the so-called tough guys that Putin likes to surround himself with.

What can we expect from this new institution? Does it represent Putin’s desire to have more control over the Russian state, or is it simply a rational, timely, and necessary advancement to the cause of Russian security?

Unfortunately Russia is no stranger to terrorism. There have been many attacks since the fall of the Soviet Union, each with devastating consequences and important political ramifications. The Beslan School Crisis of 2004 is the most infamous incident, and the state responded to it by tightening central controls.

The last major attack on Russian took place in October of last year when ISIL apparently brought down a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula. While this attack took place outside of Russia, the homeland remains vulnerable to attack. Lasting historical tension with Chechnya and, more recently, support of Syria means that Russia remains a target, and ISIL has made threats. Russia has always had issues with security due to its massive borders and lack of natural barriers. This reality, which has haunted Russia time and time again in war, is an obsession of the Russian political psyche. Imagine then how Russia feels in an age where acts of terror are perpetrated by well-organized, highly mobile, and difficult to track individuals rather than large armies; size goes from being an effective defense to being a key security liability. Revitalizing state security initiatives therefore makes sense from the standpoint of historical necessity and modern political reality.

There is a general perception that crime, terrorism, and drugs are linked (for more you could read up on the Tri-Border Area). There is probably some truth to this, since all three ultimately rely on the funneling of dark money, and therefore it makes sense to create a single institution aimed at combating all three. At the very least it greatly cuts bureaucratic inefficiency by obviating the need for information sharing mechanisms. One agency can determine and react to threats with more speed and consistency.

Of course, the Kremlin’s motives are always being questioned, and individuals both within and without Russia are raising more than a few eyebrows at the new National Guard Service. Some believe that it would just be a mechanism for enforcing greater state control. The BBC article regarding the National Guard’s creation pursues the angle that the National Guard was designed to dampen potential protests at the upcoming Parliamentary elections. We mentioned earlier that Russians are concerned about security, and we have to remember that security in many cases can be equated with stability. Putin has said and done much to this effect.Putin has done much after the unrest of the colour revolutions a decade ago, which saw post-Soviet states liberalise, to try to avoid the potential of their being such a revolution in Russia. Putin’s fears may have been reaffirmed in 2011 and 2012, which saw large protests during Federal elections. These years also happened to coincide with the Arab Spring. If Putin is expecting continued resistance, then the National Guard may be a valuable asset in quelling riots.

Certain media outlets seem to push this line, and recent discussions in the State Duma are only raising fears. Apparently the original decree creating the National Guard bans them from firing into crowds. A recent Moscow Times article points out how this might change: several State Duma deputies believe that there may be conditions where the National Guards may be justified in firing into crowds. And, taking the idea further, if they are given such powers some suggest that should also be freed from being persecuted for any actions they might take. If Putin is trying to enhance presidential power then he has at least succeeded in making the Duma complicit.

The proposals that the National Guards be given more power and less accountability is troubling to me, especially since my hometown of Baltimore just passed the one year anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray and the riots that broke out. I suppose that both America and Russia have issues of security and policing to confront. Unfortunately the issue may be trickier for Russia to handle. Without a vibrant civil society to stand up for citizen rights, Russian legislators may go down the slippery slope of making sacrifices in the name of security and freedom. The Russian Constitution and current legislation like “On Combating Terrorism” already give the Russian executive branch tremendous power in handling terrorism and extremism, and the current debates only echo the logic that “desperate times call for desperate measures.” The State has tremendous discretion in labeling certain groups as terrorists or extremists, and we have already seen from Putin’s intervention in Syria that little distinction is made between rebels and terrorists.

Personally I think it is a double-edged sword. As with most things in Russia, we must take the good with the bad. The National Guards will be more efficient in the fight on terror and crime, but they may also be more efficient in suppressing protests and dissent. I doubt that National Guards will ever be ordered to fire into crowds; I am sure Putin is familiar with the events of Bloody Sunday and the effects this had on Tsar Nicholas II. I don’t think that Putin is trying to create a police state, but the Guards will only further enervate civil society and strengthen the Kremlin’s grip.

Koshkin, Zubacheva, and Pylova, writing for Russia Direct, seem to present the most sober assessment of the Federal Guard. What is most striking about the Federal Guard is not that they unite security functions, but rather that they unite these functions under the direct control of Putin. The guard further insulates Putin from a coup by the people, or by his fellow political elites. At worst, they may just be an insurance policy.

The Kremlin’s website is always a great place to get an idea of what Putin is up to. Here is some of the coverage regarding the creation of the National Guard.

Here is the BBC’s coverage of the National Guard:

Here is the Moscow Time’s excellent story regarding the expansion of National Guard Duties:

Here is a fantastic analysis of the potential ramifications of the National Guard by Russia Direct.

Tax Evasion Olympics 2016 (Hosted by Panama)

American’s have about nine days left to file their taxes, so I figured now would be as good a time as any to comment on the conflagration happening at Mossack Fonseca this week. Sure I could wait until next week, but this is a story that has the potential to rapidly develop (we have already seen the prime minister of Iceland resign).

Nobody likes paying taxes, but some are willing to go to great lengths to avoid paying. This is what drove many to use Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca to hide earnings in assorted off-shore shell companies.

This week a massive collective undertaking by journalists around the world published the “Panama Papers” which unveiled Mossack Fonseca’s money moving scheme along with all sorts of clients, some of whom are heads of state. Evading taxes was not the sole motivation for the Panamanian firm’s clientele; some wished to launder money, others wished to hide money earned through corruption, while others wished to hide certain holdings. All of this constitutes a defeat for so-called “dark money,” but many realize that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The leak has also attracted a lot of attention to Russia, specifically towards Vladimir Putin. In fact, a surprising amount of print space and air time has been dedicated to incriminating Putin despite the fact that he in particular did not have any holdings. Comparatively little time was spent on King Salmon of Saudi Arabia or Petro Poroshenko (the former a U.S. ally, the latter can be loosely labeled as a U.S. ally). Russia was quick to fire back, challenging the validity of the Panama papers and accusing the West (mostly America) of trying to undermine Putin.

The simple fact is that Putin is not directly involved in the Panama Papers. “But wait” Billy Mays would shout, “there’s more.”Several close friends of Putin are incriminated by the Panama Papers.

There is Roldugin, who is godfather to Putin’s eldest daughter. Then there is Yury Kovalchuk, a banker who forged links with the future president when Putin was a municipal official, and Arkady Rotenberg, a childhood chum who has become a billionaire through state-sponsored construction projects, oil pipelines and other ventures.
All Putin’s Men: Secret Records Reveal Money Network Tied to Russian Leader (see below for the Link to the article)

Russia has always seen corruption. It may be essential for ruling such a large nation, or at least it is the easiest means of doing so. The Tsars employed it. The Soviets built a massive network of nomenklatura that peaked under Brezhnev’s reign. The new Russia has been no different. Yeltsin’s crash course privatization created an ultra-wealthy oligarchy overnight. Yeltsin later got into bed with these oligarchs to win re-election in 1996 and relied heavily on them. When Putin came in he straightened out the oligarchs and their undo influence, causing some to fall from grace while rewarding those who supported him. Putin also relied on many friends and political contacts, among them his current right-hand man Dmitri Medvedev. While Putin was able to revive the Russian economy and curb the power of oligarchs, corruption has greatly increased. Putin in particular has managed to accumulate great wealth while enabling friends and relations to do the same.

There is no doubt in my mind that a great deal of money is being drained from the Russian state through modern corrupt, especially through corporate contracts, but I believe that using the Panama Papers to attack Putin is putting the horse before the cart. Yes Roldugin, Kovalchuk, and Rotenberg have a lot of money. Yes they only have this money because of a friendship with Putin. But can we conclusively tie Putin down with the Panama Papers in any way? Did Putin know about his cronies having this account? Were his cronies holding shell accounts for Putin? We don’t know right now, and I doubt that we ever will. Russian leaders tend to have a talent for remaining a few degrees removed from political drama and the blame-game. Even if Putin were directly involved I believe that his support in Russia is strong enough to enable him to weather any sort of disaster. Citizen apathy and chronic denial would come through for him.

I would feel comfortable saying this much. Yes, Putin and his administration probably engage in corruption, but using the Panama Papers to attack him is inconsequential and only furthers the Kremlin’s suspicion of the West.

Regardless the situation is dynamic. As I have said before, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Who knows what other connections might emerge? Hopefully I will have something to report by next Saturday.

Honestly I am more curious to see how comfortable Edward Snowden feels right now that I am about Putin. Snowden is a champion of whistleblowers everywhere, and he currently lives in exile in Russia. Putin kept Snowden around and offered asylum probably just to irritate America, and it works spectacularly, but I find it odd that a patriotic man with an intelligence background would have any patience for someone who broke another intelligence agency’s code of silence. Putin and Snowden just don’t share the same values. Snowden strikes me as very liberal, especially in terms of information transparency and censorship. I often wonder if Russia would ever extradite him back to America. This concern came to the forefront of my mind when I read this tweet from Snowden:

Here is Snowden, a political exile, calling his asylum out. Brave. I doubt it is the first or last time he has criticized Russia. And yet, Russia still grants Snowden asylum. After reading more of Snowden’s tweets though I don’t think the Kremlin has any problem with him criticizing Russian policy: the overwhelming number of tweets are aimed at the Western leaders embroiled in the Mossack Fonseca scandal.

Reading Snowden’s posts helped put things in perspective. Honestly I think it is more appropriate that we should keep our own house in order before trying to pin down Putin. Iceland’s PM was corrupt and has effectively resigned after historic protests. David Cameron may be soon to follow since his family was tied to the leak. Petro Poroshenko obviously took a hit as well. We can expect Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia to lack transparency. Why then do we aim more criticism at these countries than at our own allies? How much criticism has the United States even levied against itself? On Democracy Now! Amy Goodman discussed with guests about how Manhattan was probably an even larger tax haven and about how the Panama Papers raise questions about who exactly is donating and lobbying in American politics.

Like I said, this is only the beginning. Ultimately I am not surprised at all about Russian figures being caught up in all this. I am more eager to see how all of this plays out over the next months.

For the above mentioned article go here:

For more info on the Panama Papers:

For news from Democracy Now! They have had great coverage all week:

For Snowden’s Twitter Feed:

In the mood for a plot twist? Try this article which suggests that Russia may have been behind the Panama Papers: