Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Three More Danger Signs Regarding Putin's Intentions in Ukraine

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 30 – Whether Vladimir Putin will launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the near future or simply continue to engage in destabilizing sabre rattling to undermine Kyiv and distract Russians from their problems at home in advance of the Duma elections and the international community from his actions is far from clear.

            One survey of regional experts found no agreement on what the Kremlin leader may do next, instead concluding that with Putin, “it is possible to expect almost anything” given that he has made surprise and unpredictability the centerpieces of his approach to policy making (inforesist.org/ekspertyi-o-veroyatnosti-nastuplenii-ot-rossii-mozhno-ozhidat-chto-ugodno/).

            But in the last 24 hours, three developments represent a further ramping up of tensions by the Kremlin, adding to those it has already put in place as a result of the new military maneuvers and the involvement of large parts of the civilian authorities in them.  They thus deserve to be taken seriously even if they do not necessarily point to an expanded war.

            First of all, the Kremlin’s favorite polling agency, VTsIOM, reported today that ever fewer Russians are paying attention to events in Ukraine and ever fewer back the regime’s support for the DNR and LNR, with some Russian analysts saying that Russians no longer view this conflict as “’the victory of good over evil’” (sobkorr.ru/news/57C542BC8CE56.html).

            Given how central that trope has been in Putin’s propaganda effort, it is entirely possible that he might think that a new round of aggression would refocus Russian attention on Ukraine and mobilize support for himself. It is unthinkable, given his nature, that he would back down and even implicitly acknowledge his errors and crimes. 

            Instead, this result almost certainly pushes Putin in the direction of redoubling his bets either in Ukraine or somewhere else.

            Second, Sergey Markov, a Russian analyst with close ties to the Kremlin, says that the US is planning to commit aggression in Ukraine both to undermine the G-20 summit in Beijing and to help Hillary Clinton defeat Donald Trump (politobzor.net/show-104462-sergey-markov-ssha-gotovy-nachat-predvybornuyu-voynu-na-donbasse.html).

            Accusing Russia’s opponents of planning to do what Moscow in fact is planning to do is standard operating procedure in the Orwellian world of Kremlin propaganda. And Markov is consistent not only with that trope but with another: he says that “Russia’s fate and to a large extent the fate of the world” is being decided in the Donbass.

            That also points to a dangerous trend in Russian thinking: It reaffirms what many Kremlin backers have insisted on, that Russia is not fighting Ukraine in Ukraine but fighting the United States or even the West as a whole.  That position makes it even more difficult for someone like Putin to back down.

            And third, the Russian media are giving enormous play to reports from Kyiv that the Ukrainian army is mobilizing and that secret orders to that effect have already gone out to regional commanders (polit.ru/article/2016/08/29/mobilization/ picking up on vesti-ukr.com/strana/163738-prikazano-gotovitsja-k-mobilizacii-chto-pravdivo-iz-sluhov-o-prizyve).

            Kyiv “is afraid of provocations. Where one will take place, in Crimea or in the Donbass is still not clear,” according to sources in the Ukrainian defense ministry cited by the Ukrainian media and replayed in the Russian media and a Ukrainian response that the Russian outlets are treating as suggesting that Ukrainian forces may advance.

            That is part and parcel of the Markov line, but there is another aspect to this report that Moscow is playing up. The Polit.ru portal quotes Georgy Zhizhov of the Center for Political Technologies as saying that there is no need for Ukraine to mobilize because there is no threat, exactly the kind of calming message that an aggressor would put out before acting.


Could ‘the Parade of Sovereignties’ have Saved the USSR?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 30 – Twenty-six years ago today, Tatarstan became the second republic in the RSFSR – Karelia was the first – to declare itself a sovereign state, thus triggering what many call “the parade of sovereignties” among almost all non-Russian republics within the RSFSR, a development that many believe pointed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

            But this is a misreading of history in at least two ways. On the one hand, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev encouraged this “parade” in the hopes of undermining the RSFSR’s Boris Yeltsin and Yeltsin responded not by opposing such declarations but by welcoming them and thus increasing his own authority.

            And on the other, as many now forget, these declarations did not call for complete independence and exit from the Soviet Union but rather for enhanced authority within the Soviet system and the elevation of the various autonomies to a status equal to that of union republics like Kazakhstan or Ukraine.

            What might have happened had the Soviet leadership agreed to these demands?  Today, a Tatar commentator, A. Shamilich, offers an intriguing suggestion. He argues that had the Kremlin done so, that might have led to the transformation of the USSR in a way that could have saved it, at least for a time (idelreal.org/a/27952559.html).

            These days, he points out, officials in Tatarstan prefer to speak about the declaration in hushed terms because many in Russia see it as “an act of separatism.”  In fact, there was nothing in the document suggesting the pursuit of separatism: the Tatars simply called for their republic to have the status of a union republic, that is, an SSR.

            “In reality,” he continues, most Tatars at the same recognized that the disintegration of the USSR would be “extremely unprofitable” for Tatarstan and they hoped via the declaration to “form the conditions for the establishment in the country of an effective model of the equality of peoples.”

                They and others, including the Bashkirs, the Buryats and the Sakha, had tried this route once before. In the early 1920s, they sought the status of union republics without success.  (The only “autonomous republic” that did achieve that status was Abkhazia which from 1921 to 1931 was a union republic administered by another union republic, Georgia.)

            The 1990 declaration was simply “a logical extension of these processes and attitudes,” the Tatar commentator says. And even today, when two-thirds of the population of Tatarstan supports sovereignty for their republic, almost all see that as something that will be achieved “in the framework of a single union state.”

            Those who blame “the parade of sovereignty” within the RSFSR for the collapse of the USSR forget, he says,  that even before the coup, six of the 12 union republics and all three of the then occupied Baltic countries had declared sovereignty, with the former actively seeking a new Union treaty and only the latter fully committed to the restoration of independence.

            Moreover, he continues, while “skeptics” note that the Tatarstan declaration, unlike the others, didn’t mention the legal status of the republic (the USSR) of which Tatarstan was a part, they fail to note that the preamble to the declaration specifies that Tatarstan is to be “the Tatar Soviet Socialist Republic” which underscores its commitment to a renewed federation.

            Had the center accepted such formulations and allowed the autonomies to become union republics with a status like the others, Shamilich’s analysis implies, it would have been far more likely to have been able to come up with a genuinely federal system and one that would have precluded the exit of Russia and thus of the other SSRs from the USSR.

            Indeed, as various analysts have pointed out, federations that involve a large number of constituent elements are more stable than those that are divided in only a few, an argument that some have used against Vladimir Putin’s penchant for regional amalgamation and his formation of the federal districts.

            “The disintegration of the USSR put the autonomous republics in a completely new political and social-economic situation,” he continues. “In this conditions, the provisions of the Declarations were realized only in part, in some cases more and in some less.” Tatarstan by achieving a power sharing accord created “a unique model” that others might have used.

            On would like to hope, Shamilich says, that “the current backing away from this model is only a temporary shift and that in the name ‘Russian Federation,’ the second part of the term will be filled with new content and cease to be,” as unfortunately is now the case, “an unnecessary element.”

Putin’s Kerch Bridge Project Preventing Much Needed Repairs of Other Russian Bridges

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 30 – Vladimir Putin’s plan to build a bridge across the Kerch straits to Russian-occupied Crimea, a project few expect will be completed on time or under budget, most say involves enormous corruption, and some say will prove technically impossible, is sucking up so much money that there is now none left to repair aging and decaying bridges elsewhere.

            And that given the drumbeat of reports about bridges collapsing has the effect of bringing the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine home to Russians in a way that few other things, other than combat losses, do, Moscow’s spending on a problematic bridge and not spending on much-needed ones elsewhere is thus becoming a political problem.

            In a commentary on Moscow’s Versiya portal, Nikolay Zlobin says that “the grandiose nature” of the Kerch bridge does nothing to distract attention from the fact that the situation with regard to bridges in Russia is anything but unproblematic (versia.ru/stroitelstvo-mostov-prevratilos-v-kormushku).

            Ten percent of the country’s 42,000 car bridges, he points out, are made of wood and desperately need to be replaced to carry the increasingly heavy loads that trucks now are placing on them, and many of its 30,500 railway bridges are in poor shape as well, with both kinds routinely collapsing or requiring repairs.

            And while some of the gigantist bridge projects Moscow has come up with, including in Sochi and in Vladivostok, have in fact been built, albeit in every case way over budget and well past deadline, there are some high-profile ones that have fallen flat, the most recent and prominent being the bridge between Russia and China.

            In 2005, Zlobin says, the two countries agreed to build a bridge between them to carry Russian coal to Chinese plants.  The Chinese got to work and have completed their half of the structure – but the Russians have not even begun and so this has become a kind of Russian-Chinese version of the notorious “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska.

            According to experts, Russian officials prefer to launch high-profile major projects because they involve vast sums of money, some of which the officials and their partners in the business community can then steal, although it is often difficult if not impossible to bring those responsible to justice.

            Meanwhile, many of Russia’s other bridges are falling down.  Last week, a bridge collapsed over the Menkule River in Sakha. Officials blamed the truck driver involved for failing to obey a sign saying that the bridge was not save for any vehicle over 15 tons, even though in this case as in many others truckers have no choice but to use the bridges that exist.

            A month earlier in the same republic another bridge collapsed for the same reason, and “if the officials responsible don’t change their approach to bridge building, more bridge collapses will occur,” according to Vasily Mazur, a transportation company official in Sakha says.  He adds that he has been trying to get official to focus on bridges for two decades.

            Now he has appealed directly to Putin to address the problem. (See versia.ru/uzhasnyj-razval-mostostroeniya-kak-zakonomernost-vrednogo-upravleniya-i-nekompetentnosti.)  Many will dismiss this as a local and non-political complaint. But it is not only political but involves foreign as well as domestic policy given the impact of the Kerch project on Russia’s bridges.