Thursday, October 20, 2016

Putin Now Talking as If He Just Came to Office

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 20 – Vladimir Putin’s increasingly vulgar language has attracted more attention – see some examples at -- but a more important trend, Valery Koronevsky says, is the Kremlin leaders proclivity for giving the impression that he just came to office and must correct all the mistakes that someone has made in recent years.

            Running as an outsider when you are not and running away from one’s record when one would like to avoid being held responsible for it are common features in Western democracies, but this shift in Putin’s rhetoric after 16 years in office is something new in Russia and in his reign and may thus point to radical changes ahead.

            On the pro-communist portal, the Moscow commentator notes that “Putin talks and talks and talks; and everything is correct and wide and really necessary, but there is the impression that he only just received power, only today, and intends that it is necessary to finally do something” (

                “Finally,” Koronevsky continues, “HE has received power and now is putting things in order. Optimism has appeared and hope is reborn and to listen to him is interesting and attracting, and his speeches inspire. Now, we will finally show progress … And only somewhere in the corner of one’s memory is the question – and where were you all these last 15 years?”

            “What was [Putin] waiting for all these years? What did [he] process so wisely and confidentially every year? And what was done?”  “Remember the doubling of GDP?” that Putin talked about. Now, Dmitry Medvedev admits that it is at the same level as in 1990 and that “a quarter of a century in fact was lost.”

            “And where today is this ‘modernization of the political system’?” the commentator asks.  And who remembers about these good intentions and the official plans and declarations of the President of Russia?” From one year to the next, the same promises, and at no time are there any results.

            That Russians should begin to ask what after all Putin has in fact done for them over the last 16 years is interesting, but that he should begin to talk as if not he but someone else were in office and that he now must take action to correct everything is far more so.

            On the one hand, it suggests that Putin in his alternative reality is increasingly losing touch with the world in which his own people are forced to live. But on the other, it may mean that he has concluded that the only way forward is to act as if the past never happened – or at least that he isn’t responsible for.

            In the former case, such questions could presage a further erosion of Putin’s standing among the Russian people. In the latter, it could open the way for him to make truly radical policy and personnel changes, something that could send shockwaves not only through the population but through those who have been his closest colleagues in the past.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Putin’s Easy Victories are All Behind Him, Any New Ones Will be Harder or Impossible, Oreshkin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 19 – Vladimir Putin finds himself “in a mousetrap where the free cheese is already eaten” and where prospects for more put him at risk at home and abroad, Dmitry Oreshkin says, a poetic way of saying that his easy victories are now behind him and that any new ones will be harder or even impossible to achieve.

            In an interview with Ukraine’s ONLINE news agency, the Russian commentator argues that “Putin’s Russia is condemned to lose to the West” both because the West’s “’soft power’” is so much greater and because the West now understands Putin and his approach far better now (

            That is why Putin has started his use of nuclear blackmail, “the only sphere” where Russia has rough parity with the West, Oreshkin continues. “Putin does not have any other levels of influence on his neighbors. But even more, he continues to be a prisoner of the geopolitical thinking of Stalin’s time, where he who controls territory uses it. But already this is not so.”

            The use of nuclear threats works “to a certain degree.” No one wants a nuclear war, and many in the West are prepared to do many things to prevent one. But that doesn’t mean that governments in the West are ready to make concessions as a result: A few people are but most have taken Putin’s measure and are responding on that basis.

            “Now,” Oreshkin says, “Putin is in a situation in which he acts predictably and his earlier success was based on his unpredictability.” No one expected him to take Crimea, and consequently, “no one was prepared. But today even his unpredictability is predictable. Everyone understands who he is.”

            Everyone is ready for the renewal of a Russian attack in the Donbass, and everyone knows what the response will be: “lethal arms for Ukraine and a new cycle of sanctions. Putin can’t permit that,” and so he will sacrifice the LDNR just as he did Novorossiya. Moscow simply doesn’t have the funds for such actions.

            “In order to preserve his victorious image, Putin will raise the stakes.” But he cannot do so economically now that Europe and even Ukraine are no longer dependent on Russian oil and gas.  And what is most important now: Russians can see this and are becoming ever less supportive and ever more disappointed in Putin.

            Oreshkin argues that “Putin needs a victorious local war, but those have already happened in Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine.” He isn’t going to get on in Syria, and so he lashes out at the US.  “But the Americans understand his game, and therefore they completely rationally respond boosting anti-ballistic missile defense and putting pressure on the Russian economy.
            What remains for Putin? “Only pathetic rhetoric” and playing the nuclear card. But “this policy is becoming ever more paranoid, less constructive and ever more hysterical.  People aren’t idiots,” and they are slowly but surely forgetting their enthusiasm about the annexation of Crimea.

            Could Putin attack Latvia? The answer is no. Could he expand the war in Ukraine? Again now because “everyone is ready for this.”  What can he do to “raise his rating? Only by using propaganda and buying votes in the West.”  But those who must deal with him can hardly be comfortable.

            All of Putin’s talk about nuclear war can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, Oreshkin concludes, something extraordinarily “dangerous for all countries and in the first instance for the Russian Federation itself.”

Moscow Wants to Reduce Divisions among Four Legal Schools of Sunni Islam in Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 19 – Vladimir Putin is seeking to do something that has eluded Muslim leaders for more than 1400 years and that even Stalin didn’t try: his government is seeking to reduce or even eliminate divisions among the four legal schools of Sunni Islam and create in their stead a uniquely Russian unified Muslim faith.

            But Muslim leaders are already warning that their faith not only generally but in Russia in particular is inherently pluralist and that such efforts to create a single dogmatic version of Sunni Islam in the country – and as in the world as a whole, about 90 percent of Russia’s Muslims are Sunnis – will backfire (

            Not only are Muslims divided between the Sunnis, who are subdivided in the four legal schools, and the Shiites, but they are also divided between these traditions and Sufism, a trend that seeks individual unity with the divine. Sometimes these have been in sharp conflict, even when most of their adepts say they share many common views.

            Within the Muslim umma in Russia, the basic divide is between the Sunni Muslims of the more liberal Hanafi school which dominate the community in the Middle Volga and the Sufis and Sunnis of the far stricter Hanbali school which predominate in the North Caucasus. That distinction been intensified since 1991 by the arrival of Hanbali missionaries in both areas.

            Because of these differences and because Islam lacks both a clergy and a clerical hierarchy which could decide on the policy of the community as a whole, the Russian state has traditionally had to recognize that there are multiple centers of the umma in that country rather than only one, however much some Russian leaders would like to have a single vertical.

            Periodically and especially under Putin, Moscow has tried to promote unity even if it recognizes how difficult that will be and also how problematic the achievement of that end could be for a regime that in this as in so many other areas depends on the imperial principle of “divide and conquer.”

            This week, there were two developments that suggest the Kremlin is prepared to expand its push, the convention in Moscow of a conference entitled “The Unity of Islam is the Unity of Muslims” devoted to reducing or eliminating differences among the four legal schools, and the appointment of Sergey Kiriyenko as first deputy head of the Presidential Administration.

            What the Kremlin hopes for from the Moscow meeting was underscored by a message of greeting from Igor Barinov, the head of the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs
( What Kiriyenko’s appointment is likely to mean is discussed in “NG-Religii” today (

            In his message, Barinov stressed that “the rapprochement of the maskhabs is an issue which has not lost its importance either internationally or within [Russia] … it is not a short-term campaign but a long-term strategy which must prevent the threat of the clash of civilizations and become the first step toward their cooperation and partnership.”

            More significant, although completely consistent with this is what Artur Priimak writes about Kiriyenko.  Most commentators have treated him as “a typical ‘effective manager,’” given his earlier service as prime minister and presidential plenipotentiary in the Middle Volga Federal District.

            But while he was in that position, Kiriyenko associated himself with and helped promote the project of “’Russian Islam’” that was developed and pushed by two political technologists, Petr Shchedrovitsky and Sergey Gadirovsky. (For a discussion of their views and activities, see

                He promoted the development of the Hanafi rite in the Middle Volga, the use of Russian in the mosques of the Russian Federation, and even the idea that Russia should rest on two civilizations, Orthodox Christian and Muslim. To that end, Kiriyenko did what he could to promote unity within the Muslim community.

            If the Kremlin follows through on what this week’s meeting appears to suggest, Kiriyenko will likely play a key role in that, something that could profoundly affect not only the balance within the umma of the Russian Federation between the Middle Volga and the North Caucasus but between Islam and Orthodox Christianity.

            And to the extent that happens, the new man in the Presidential Administration is likely to be far more than the simple “effective manager” many now expect him to be.