Ukraine & Donbas Rebels Both Begin Withdrawal from Contact Line; Iran and Russia Set to Utilize SWIFT-Free Alternative Payment System, China and India to Follow Suit; Russia Moves Up to 28th Place in World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Rankings

After Ukrainian president Zelensky confronted armed ultra-nationalist members of the notorious Azov battalion in the Donbas earlier this week for their obstruction of what was supposed to be a mutual withdrawal of forces from the contact line weeks ago, it has been confirmed by the OSCE that both sides have started the disengagement process near the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR):

KYIV, 30 October 2019 – The Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine, Yaşar Halit Çevik, welcomed the beginning, yesterday, of the disengagement of forces and hardware from the Zolote disengagement area. 

Additional SMM patrols in the Zolote area, assisted by static cameras and unmanned aerial vehicles, on 29 October observed the launch of flares by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the armed formations, signaling both sides’ readiness to disengage, and subsequently Ukrainian Armed Forces personnel and members of the armed formations exiting the disengagement area, together with their weapons.

This was the next step of the Steinmeier Formula agreed to weeks ago by both sides as overseen by the Trilateral Group (Russia, Ukraine, and OSCE). If the withdrawal is completed successfully, the groundwork will have been laid for a meeting of the Normandy Four (Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France) to negotiate implementation of the Minsk 2.0 Agreement of 2015. AP reports:

The heavy weapons disengagement in eastern Ukraine, which was delayed for weeks, is seen as the final hurdle before the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany can get together to discuss a peace settlement for the conflict that has claimed more than 13,000 lives since 2014.

Vladislav Surkov, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, told the Tass news agency that the pullback was “good news” and said the much-anticipated summit could take place if a weapons pullback in another location [in the DPR] goes ahead as well.


Representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the rebels met in the Belarusian capital Minsk on Tuesday to talk about further steps. OSCE representative Martin Sajdik, who mediated the so-called Contact Group talks, said after the meeting that the disengagement in another area near the village of Petrovske was discussed.

With respect to those talks in Minsk on Tuesday, the Russian news agency TASS reported that the representative of the LPR said the Kiev side had expressed a more cooperative tone:

“We can note that at least the tone of [Ukraine’s] envoy to the talks Leonid Kuchma was different today. He was much more understanding and practically talked openly about how Ukraine is interested in holding a summit in the Normandy format,” Miroshnik said.

He added that Kiev has high hopes for the Normandy summit. “Ukraine wants to discuss there, most likely, key issues of the special status and its inclusion in the constitution, as well as several other issues of Donbass settlement. That’s why Ukraine partially fulfilled the prerequisite in the form of the Steinmeier formula,” he noted.

Whether this actually translates into a meeting of the minds that yields a workable agreement that can be bring peace and stabilization to Eastern Ukraine remains to be seen. In the meantime, however, there was cautious optimism in Russia for this step forward as expressed in the news segment by Vesti News below. According to this report, the regular Ukrainian military had to trick the ultra-nationalist obstructionists near the contact line in order to proceed with the withdrawal:

Iran, which is now a member of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, has announced that it will be conducting business with Russia using each country’s SWIFT-free alternative banking system. RT provided the following details:

Instead of SWIFT, a system that facilitates cross-border payments between 11,000 financial institutions in more than 200 countries worldwide, the two countries will use their own domestically developed financial messaging systems – Iran’s SEPAM and Russia’s SPFS.

“Using this system for trade and business exchanges between EAEU [Eurasian Economic Union] member states can help develop and expand trade exchanges between the member states as well,” [Iran’s central bank governor] Abdolnaser Hemmati said, as cited by Mehr News Agency on Tuesday.

Tehran is set to officially join the Russia-led free-trade zone, the EAEU, next month [October]. The document on Iran’s participation was ratified in June by the nation’s parliament (Majlis) and President Hassan Rouhani has already ordered that the free trade zone agreement be implemented.

In further reporting this week from RT, Russia, China and India will be setting up a cross-border alternative to SWIFT to facilitate business among the three BRICS countries:

Members of the BRICS trade bloc Russia, India, and China have decided to connect their financial messaging systems to bypass the SWIFT international money transfer network.


Russia’s financial messaging system SPFS will be linked with the Chinese cross-border interbank payment system CIPS. While India does not have a domestic financial messaging system yet, it plans to combine the Central Bank of Russia’s platform with a domestic service that is in development.

The new system is expected to work as a “gateway” model when messages on payments are transcoded in accordance with a certain financial system.

As Washington continues its pattern of weaponizing its economic power via sanctions and threats to cut countries it doesn’t like off from the SWIFT banking transfer system, there will continue to be push-back that eventually diminishes Washington’s influence.

The World Bank has just announced its annual Ease of Doing Business rankings. Russia is now ranked 28th, having moved up almost 100 spots in 7 years.


NATO Think Tank Atlantic Council’s Relationship with Burisma Gas Company; Journalist Describes Exhibit in Kiev Honoring Banderite War Criminals as Heroes – with Official Support by US Government; Russia’s Conservative Legacy

Most of you are familiar with the scandal involving former VP Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, taking a seat on a Ukrainian gas company called Burisma. Hunter had no experience in the fossil fuel sector or in Ukraine. But then fate smiled on Hunter at the rate of $50,000 a month when pop was assigned to oversee the administration of Ukraine by the Obama administration after the 2014 coup that was engineered to install an anti-Russian government.

Some of you may have also heard of the Atlantic Council – the politically powerful Washington think tank that pushes a Russophobic and pro-NATO line. Many establishment politicians have supported and received support from this bastion of militarist pseudo-intellectualism.

But most people don’t realize that the Atlantic Council has intimate ties with Burisma. As investigative journalist Max Blumenthal recently reported:

But behind the curtain, the Atlantic Council has initiated a lucrative relationship with a corruption-tainted Ukrainian gas company, the Burisma Group, that is worth as much as $250,000 a year. The partnership has paid for lavish conferences in Monaco and helped bring Burisma’s oligarchic founder out of the cold. 

This alliance has remained stable even as official Washington goes to war over allegations by President Donald Trump and his allies that former Vice President Joseph Biden fired a Ukrainian prosecutor to defend his son’s handsomely compensated position on Burisma’s board. 

As Biden parries Trump’s accusations, some of the former vice president’s most ardent defenders are emerging from the halls of the Atlantic Council, which featured Biden as a star speaker at its awards ceremonies over the years. These advocates include Michael Carpenter, Biden’s longtime foreign policy advisor and specialist on Ukraine, who has taken to the national media to support his embattled boss. 

Even as Burisma’s trail of influence-buying finds its way into front page headlines, the Atlantic Council’s partnership with the company is scarcely mentioned. Homing in on the partisan theater of “Ukrainegate” and tuning out the wider landscape of corruption, the Beltway press routinely runs quotes from Atlantic Council experts on the scandal without acknowledging their employer’s relationship with Hunter Biden’s former employer. 

Read the full article here.

Independent journalist Yasha Levine was in Kiev late last year and saw an exhibit in connection with World War II. At first glance, Levine thought some of the symbols looked dubious. When he got close enough to read the actual inscription, he saw that the monument – just a short distance away from Maidan Square – was glorifying members of the OUN/UPA who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war and took part in massacres of thousands of Jews and Poles. These war criminals were being heralded as heroes on behalf of Ukrainian independence.

From a distance, the exhibit looked unremarkable — one of those harmless national heritage displays you can find in any European historic city center. But as I got within reading distance, I saw that there was nothing harmless about it. The exhibit wasn’t just showcasing historical Ukrainian symbols, it was celebrating and promoting one of the bloodiest fascist movements in Eastern Europe: the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and its paramilitary offshoot, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (OUN/UPA) — groups that had played a central role in the genocide of over a million Ukrainian Jews during World War II.

These groups were notorious for their savagery. Their goal was to create a racially pure, fascist state that was free from Poles, Jews, and Russians. To achieve their aims, their leaders pledged allegiance to Adolf Hitler and received training from Nazi Germany. Many of their members had volunteered for the Ukrainian Waffen-SS division, joined Nazi auxiliary police battalions, and helped the Nazis administer occupied Ukraine. Aside from killing Jews, the OUN/UPA organized the slaughter entire Polish villages. Survivors of their atrocities told gut-wrenching tales. They cut babies from wombs, smashed children against walls in front of their mothers, hacked people to death with scythes, flayed their victims, and burned entire villages alive….

….Naturally, all this dark and bloody history was left out of the exhibit. Instead it spun a superficial revisionist tale, presenting Nazi collaborators and mass murderers as heroes and liberators. A big component of the whole thing was a series of agitprop woodcuts that glorified the struggle of OUN/UPA soldiers against both the Nazis and the Reds and pushed the fiction that these groups were not bent on genocide but were involved in liberating all the peoples of the Soviet Union from totalitarian oppression. They were multicultural! Tolerant!

I stood looking at the exhibit in shock.

This was more than just whitewashing. This was straight up Nazi collabo glorification and Holocaust revisionism — an extreme reinterpretation of Ukrainian history that has long been pushed by the country’s fascist movements and the influential Ukrainian nationalist diaspora in the United States and Canada.

But even more disturbing was who was included on the list of official sponsors of the exhibit: Radio Liberty.

For those who may not recall from the Cold War days, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (now consolidated and known as RFE/RL) were U.S. government funded media targeting the Soviet/Russian population. Levine continues:

As leaned in for a closer look, I saw that it was produced by the Ukrainian government. Specifically: the Institute of National Memory, a state-funded organization closely linked to country’s top spy agency, the Security Service of Ukraine. What’s more: it had the backing of the United States. An info panel running along the bottom of one of the large displays proudly listed Radio Liberty — the U.S. government’s Ukrainian-language propaganda outlet — as a “media partner.”

Holocaust revisionism? Glorification of mass murderers and Nazi collaborators? Right out in the open in the center of Kiev? And endorsed by our very own government? What the hell was going on?

It’s not like the fascist and genocidal history of the OUN/UPA is open to interpretation. In the last decade, a huge body of amazing historical research has come out on the topic. Groups like the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Simon Wiesenthal Center both consider the OUN/UPA to be being major players in the genocide of Jews in Ukraine and have consistently criticized Ukraine’s attempts to erase and deny this history.

So why is a major federal agency funded by Congress helping push this revisionist Nazi bile on the Ukrainian people?

Read the full article here.


Professor Paul Robinson has just written a book about the influence of Conservative philosophy in Russian culture and politics. That book is the inspiration for this episode of CrossTalk featuring Robinson, along with Russian journalist Dmitry Babich and analyst Alexander Mercouris. They discuss how conservative philosophers in Russia are more rich and complex than they have typically been depicted by western pundits who often don’t have any meaningful understanding of the subject.

Russian conservatism is in many ways different than American conservatism which has a strong libertarian influence in which rejection of state involvement is central. This is generally not the case with Russia, which has a tradition of a strong state. Russian conservative thinkers, ranging from Dostoevsky to Vladimir Solovyov and Ivan Ilyin, provided deep explorations of the concepts of freedom, social morality and the challenges of modernity.

Putin and Erdogan Make Progress in Meeting re Syria, While U.S. Angrily Tells Kurds Not to Deal with Assad or Russia

SOCHI, RUSSIA – OCTOBER 22, 2019: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin give a joint news conference on Syria following their meeting in Sochi, Russia. Mikhail Metzel/TASS

After long and difficult talks on Tuesday in Sochi, Putin and Turkish president Erdogan reached an agreement (memorandum of understanding) with respect to the situation in northeast Syria that will require the Kurds to retreat approximately 20 miles back from the Turkish-Syrian border. Both leaders spoke at a press conference after the negotiations. According to the Kremlin website, Putin reiterated support for Turkey protecting its legitimate national security interests near its border, but that ultimately all countries had to respect Syria’s sovereignty as well as the rights of Kurds:

We share Turkey’s concerns about the growing threat of terrorism and ethnic and religious disputes in that region. We believe these disputes and separatist sentiments have been fueled artificially from the outside.

…. Syria must be liberated from illegal foreign military presence. We believe that the only way to achieve strong and long-lasting stability in Syria is to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. This is our principled position, and we have discussed it with the President of Turkey.

It is important that our Turkish partners share this approach. The Turks and the Syrians will have to protect peace on the border together, which would be impossible without mutually respectful cooperation between the two countries.

In addition to this, a broad dialogue between the Syrian government and the Kurds living in northeastern Syria must be launched. It is clear that all the rights and interests of the Kurds as an integral part of the multi-ethnic Syrian nation can only be fully considered and fulfilled via such an inclusive dialogue.

Putin also said that the return of Syrian refugees must be facilitated and stressed the importance that no actions by any party undermine the work of the constitutional committee which is set to begin its work at the end of the month:

We consider it necessary to continue helping Syrian refugees to return home, which will substantially alleviate the socioeconomic burden shouldered by the countries that agreed to take in Syrians. First and foremost this applies to the Republic of Turkey.

We urge the international community, primarily relevant UN agencies, to be more active in rendering humanitarian aid to all Syrians going home, without any discrimination, politicisation and preconditions….

…. Of course, during our talks with the President of Turkey, we discussed further steps to promote the peaceful political process in Syria, which the Syrians will conduct within the Constitutional Committee in cooperation with the United Nations.


The guarantors of the Astana format have meticulously worked on it for many years.


We believe the situation on the ground must not prevent the long-awaited launch of the committee in Geneva next week – October 29–30.

As reported by Russian news agency, Tass, Erdogan stated that Turkey and Russia would embark on joint patrols of the buffer zone Turkey has carved out with its recent military incursion into the northeast of Syria:

SOCHI, October 22. /TASS/. Turkey and Russia will carry out joint patrolling in northern Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday on the outcomes of the talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi.

“Within 150 hours, [Kurdish formations] the People’s Protection Units must leave the 30-kilometer zone. The countdown will begin tomorrow at 12:00 [local time, same as Moscow time — TASS]. After the 150 hours run out, Turkey and Russia will begin joint patrolling of the area to the east and to the west of the Peace Spring operation zone,” Erdogan said.

According to him, joint patrolling will be carried out on the Syrian territories 10 kilometers away from the Turkish border.

Meduza reported the following specific terms of the agreement, noting that “Erdogan’s claims were reduced to a stretch of land just 60 miles wide that contains only the two Kurdish cities Turkish armed forces managed to seize since the start of the operation against the Kurds.” :

  • Turkish troops will indefinitely retain control over the territory they managed to capture after October 9 (the agreement calls this “maintaining the status quo”).
  • Syrian border guards and Russian military police will occupy the rest of the border region, which will be off limits to Turkish troops, though Turkey will get the right to participate in joint patrols alongside Russian forces up to 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the border.
  • The Kurdish armed formations that Erdogan considers to be terrorist groups must leave the entire border region within a week. The agreement says nothing about what happens next to these groups, but both Russia and Turkey committed to “fighting terrorist in all forms.”
  • The document doesn’t mention Kurdish autonomy, but it says all questions about Syria’s political structure will be determined later by a constitutional committee convened by Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
  • The agreement also doesn’t mention the resettlement of Turkey’s Syrian refugees in Kurdish territory, except for vague language about both parties making efforts to ensure that refugees return to Syria “safely and voluntarily.”

Other bilateral issues were discussed at the 6-hour-long conference between the two leaders, including defense cooperation involving the S-400 and continued trade in bilateral currencies. Again, according to Tass:

“The works on S-400 [missile systems] continues, Turkey is receiving supply procurements. Currently, bilateral defense industry cooperation will resolutely continue,” Erdogan stressed.

The Turkish president also announced that Ankara and Moscow “agreed to expand trading in national currencies.”

Putin later conferred with Syrian president Assad by telephone to inform him of the outcome of the meeting with Erdogan. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov briefed the media on the call and stated that beginning today, Syrian border guards will conduct joint patrols with the Russians near the Turkish-Syrian border for about a week before the Turks begin their joint patrols with the Russians in the smaller stretch over which they recently gained control :

According to Peskov, the Russian leader stressed that the main goal is to recover Syrian territorial integrity and to continue political regulation efforts, including the work related to the Syrian Constitutional Committee.

Assad supports the decisions taken on the outcomes of the talks, the Kremlin spokesman added. “President al-Assad thanked Vladimir Putin, expressed his full support for the results of the work and stated that he is ready to send Syrian border guards to the [Syrian-Turkish] border along with the Russian military police,” he said…

….Starting midday October 23, the Russian military police and Syrian border guards will arrive at the Syrian-Turkish border to monitor the withdrawal of Kurdish military formations to the depth of 30 km from the border. In 150 hours, Russia and Turkey will begin the joint patrolling of the area.

Just prior to the Putin-Erdogan meeting, it was reported that U.S. diplomats told the political leader of SDF – who was in Washington D.C. for urgent talks that became contentious- that they would “not allow” the Kurds to make a deal with Assad or the Russians. But since the Kurds are no longer getting protection from the U.S., it appears they will likely not be abiding by any dictums issued by Washington.

UN General Assembly: Lavrov Says West is Wasting its Time Trying to Undermine Russia’s Partnership with China; Putin Refers to Russia & China as “Allied Relationship”; Ukrainian President Reiterates That His Priority as President is to End Donbas War While U.S. State Dept. Approves $39M in Military Aid to Kiev

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly.

In a huge blow to the editorial board of the NYT, Russian FM Sergey Lavrov, in his speech to the UN General Assembly last month, said that the west’s attempts to undermine the partnership between Russia and China are a waste of time.

To reinforce the point, in his October 3 remarks at the Valdai conference, president Putin referred to Russia’s relationship with China as “an allied relationship in the full sense.” He also announced that Russia will be helping China create an early warning missile defense system:

Successes are there for everyone to see. First, we enjoy an unprecedentedly high level of trust and cooperation. This is an allied relationship in the full sense of a multifaceted strategic partnership. This is reflected in the economy.

We are increasing our trade at a fast pace. As you may be aware, last year it reached $108 billion, although we had only planned to reach this number two years from now. Now, we will start moving to the $200 billion mark.

The trade structure is diversifying. Of course, energy accounts for over 70 percent of our exports, but this is natural. We have the product, and China needs it. This does not mean that we do not engage in other industries or other areas of economic cooperation.

We have already built four units of the Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant (which is part of our high-tech cooperation) and are working on four more units. This involves a major, simply huge amount of work.

We are working on a wide-body long-range aircraft and a heavy-duty helicopter. This project will be completed, I have no doubt about it. We are actively cooperating in outer space, and expanding our ties in agriculture. We cannot even cover the needs of China in soybeans. They are ready to buy from us as much as we can produce, but we are not ready for it….

We will continue to work together in outer space exploration and cooperate in the military-technical sphere. I am probably not revealing a big secret here, but it will transpire sooner or later anyway: we are now helping our Chinese partners create a missile attack warning system. This is very important and will drastically increase China’s defence capability. Only the United States and Russia have such a system now.

We are very closely and deeply involved in cultural cooperation. I will not list everything that goes with this now.

Region-to-region cooperation is at a very high level as well. I am not talking about joint infrastructure which is expanding, but the border provinces of China and the adjacent Russian regions in the Far East interact very well with each other. This is an entire complex, a set of interaction projects.

At the same time, and I want to emphasise this specifically, our friendship or joint work have never been used to oppose anyone. We always work in a positive manner and in each other’s interests.

Alexei Maslov, who is head of the School of Oriental Studies at Moscow’s School of Higher Economics, has even predicted that the two countries will sign a formal alliance treaty within the next year, possibly including an “Article 5-like” clause of mutual protection.

What Russians in general think about this growing partnership with China is interesting. According to some surveys, 69 percent of Russians view China in a positive light. But according to interviews conducted by two American academics with Russian and Chinese university students, there is more reticence.

Our research suggests the future elites of both countries, at least, are wary. In mid-2018 we conducted 21 focus groups of students-primarily undergraduates in their junior or senior years, but also a few graduate students-at the leading universities in Beijing and Moscow. We asked each to evaluate Russia, China and the U.S. as “great powers.” The students expressed disinterest, ambivalence or misgivings about Sino-Russian cooperation. Many believed China and Russia did not share sufficient values or interests to work together over the long term. We also found that most of the students in both countries saw much to respect or admire in the U.S….

Some Russian students also found China untrustworthy, in part because its regime is so authoritarian: “If we aren’t a democratic country in full measure, they are even more so,” one said. “That’s scary. You do not know what to expect from such a closed society.” A common worry was that in a partnership with China, Russia would be relegated to political, strategic and economic dependency. This could produce grievances and insecurities even worse than those associated with Russia’s relationship with the West, both in the past and the present….

Most Russian participants not only acknowledged American cultural and technological prowess but also respected the American political system. According to one student, “despite all the problems of the United States we’ve discussed, it all works, it all holds. And it’s been holding for a quite a long time.” For another student, “we deeply associate America with freedom.” The members of the focus groups also viewed the “American dream” as an authentic aspiration, not an anachronism or a legitimating narrative concocted by ruling elites.

Now some readers might be tempted to dismiss this as a couple of American academics (and journalists reporting on their work) finding what they wanted to find among Russian (and Chinese) students – they probably asked leading questions and/or cherry-picked the responses. And perhaps some bias did go on. But I’m actually not that shocked by this. When I spoke to Russians during my visits to the country, I often heard opinions of the U.S. as being some sort of land of milk and honey where the ideals expressed in the constitution permeated every American’s life. I had one woman in Krasnodar who worked with incarcerated youth express total disbelief when I told her that we, too, had organizations that worked with victims of the justice system, including those who were on death row and were innocent. It simply didn’t fit with her image of the United States.

I also got an opportunity to hear from high school students in both Krasnodar and St. Petersburg on my first trip. Many of them also had positive views of the U.S. – even if they thought our Russia policy was frustrating – and even continued to see the U.S. as aspirational in many respects. One youngster proudly recited the preamble to the U.S. constitution from memory.

Keep in mind these are the views of supposedly propagandized zombies who are forced to imbibe Kremlin-controlled media that constantly portrays America as the devil. Doesn’t really make sense, does it?

Perhaps the answer lies partially in the fact that everyday Russians probably derive their view of the U.S. more from our popular culture, which is very influential in Russia and has been since the end of the Cold War. In St. Petersburg, I saw billboards advertising the latest blockbuster American movie and a concert by American pop singers. In Krasnodar, I heard Russian rap on the radio and Anglo-American music piped into a pedestrian thoroughfare. In Crimea, I saw a giant billboard image of Marilyn Monroe outside of a roadside cafe.

In short, the U.S. still has phenomenal P.R. and a compelling story that it likes to tell everyone about itself, with lots of razzle-dazzle. I suppose it’s hard to resist.

************************************************************************

Ukrainian president Zelensky has publicly reiterated that his “mission” as president is to settle the war in Donbas. As reported by the Russian news agency TASS on October 10th,

“My key goal is that I want to stop the war, I believe this is my mission,” Zelensky told reporters in Kiev.

Zelensky stated that he understood that some citizens living in the uncontrolled territories in Donbass could feel that they are Ukrainians, while some of them might not.

“If people in Donbass think that they are not Ukrainians, I cannot get into their brain. Those who feel that they are Ukrainians should know that we won’t leave them and we won’t abandon them,” Zelensky said.

The president stressed that these people should have a chance to “come back to Ukraine.”

According to reporting by the AP, he also accused his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, of derailing the peace process, referring to Poroshenko’s leading role in recent protests after Zelensky approved the Steinmeier Formula for getting the Normany Four talks back on track.

KYIV, Ukraine – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy accused his predecessor on Thursday of fomenting protests to derail a peace process for the country’s separatist-held east and said talks with Russia were the only way to end the five-year war there.

Zelenskiy told reporters that Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent leader he defeated in April, was “pushing” people to oppose the withdrawal of heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine, where fighting against Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.

“He is against the pullback and he thinks that he can spearhead another Maidan,” Zelenskiy said, referring to the square in the capital of Kyiv that was the site of 2013-2014 protests that ousted a pro-Russian government and eventually propelled Poroshenko into power.

“We want to end this war. I don’t think the previous government had quite the same desire,” Zelenskiy said.

Zelenskiy said he hoped his country’s people would back his efforts to end the conflict with the separatists.

Meanwhile, the State Department has approved the release of $39 million worth of military aid to Kiev, including 150 Javelin anti-tank missiles and 10 missile launchers.

This is in addition to the $400 million worth of military aid released on September 11th – after supposedly being held up by Trump in connection with his infamous July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president.

What is the Real Status of Democracy in Russia? An Interview with Prof. Nicolai Petro

Professor Nicolai Petro

A couple of weeks ago, I conducted an email interview with Nicolai N. Petro, professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island, on the state of democracy in today’s Russia, after having read his eye-opening 2018 journal article, “Are We Reading Russia Right?” His full biography is below the interview.

1)  In your 2018 article, “Are We Reading Russia Right?” you attempt to correct some misconceptions many in the west have about the state of democracy in Russia.  You point out, for example, that Russia has a much more diverse media that includes anti-Putin reportage and opinion.  Can you explain for readers a bit more about Russia’s media landscape and what percentage of the media that state TV actually consists of and what the demographics are who consume state TV vs. other types of media?   

Those interested in the current Russian media landscape can turn to the latest Levada Center survey, which compares the situation in 2009 and 2019. A decade ago 94% of Russians got their news from television, today only 72% do. For Russians under 25 that figure is 42%. 

More and more Russians turn to the internet for news. For Russians 35 and older it is their primary source for news. The total audience for independent media (“those that regularly publish points of view distinct from the official”) is estimated to be around 35%, but in major Russian cities it is closer to half the population.    

The Levada Center’s list of independent media sources includes only the major commercial newspapers, Russian online news sites Lenta.ru, Gazeta,ru, Life.ru, RBK, Echo of Moscow, and foreign news sites that broadcast in Russian, like Meduza.io, BBC, Radio Liberty, and Euronews. Given the widespread, cheap access to the internet in Russia, however, this list de facto knows no bounds.  

Young people, both in Russia and abroad, ask about censorship and where to get reliable information. Here is how Vladimir Posner, the patriarch of Russian television journalists, answered this question recently. Posner, who has his own talk show on Russian television, is consistently rated among Russia’s most trusted journalists:

“. . . you say, ‘where should we get information? ” You have a million options, you can read any foreign newspaper, for a few pennies. Subscribe to the New York Times and read what they write, read what they write in Le Monde, read what they write in “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” and compare. Be active.

. . . You say there is censorship on television? How to put this … on Soviet television there was censorship. There was an organization called Glavlit. You came into a room with your text, and some old fogey sat there and you left your text with them. If they put a stamp on, it meant you could broadcast. No stamp, no broadcast. That is censorship. Now we have [editorial] control. That is not censorship. Today they might say “that’s not quite what we had in mind.” What can you do? You can’t always get what you want. I can compare. I know what was then and where we are today. And I’m just happy that today I can work, because then I was forced to resign.”

2)  Another misconception people have about Russia is the state of the justice system.  Your article, along with Professor Katherine Hendley’s book Everyday Law in Russia, gives a more complete – and different – picture of the state of the justice system in Russia than many Americans often hear about from our establishment media and politicians.  Both you and Hendley also go into many of the significant reforms that have been implemented under Putin’s leadership.  Can you give readers a few examples of reforms under Putin and what the effect has been for Russia?   

Putin can rightly be called the father of the modern Russian legal system. The principles of modern criminal justice were introduced under his watch into Russia. These include habeus corpus, a juvenile justice system, trial by jury, bailiffs, and justices of the peace. And that was just during his first term (for details see my article “The Great Transformation.”)      

During Putin’s second term courts struck down compensation limits for government negligence, strengthened the rights of defendants to exculpatory evidence, provided clearer guidelines on secrecy, and ruled that compensation must be paid to persons arrested without merit. Closed judicial proceedings and pretrial detention centers have been all but eliminated, privacy protections for individuals expanded, and 24,000 free legal aid centers created.

It is a clear sign of growing public confidence in the judicial system that the number of persons turning to courts for redress of civil grievances has gone from one million in 1998, to six million in 2004, to ten million in 2012, to more than 17 million in 2016. Conventional wisdom in the West questions the independence of the Russian judiciary, but if one measures independence by the number of times that courts rule against the government and in favor of private plaintiffs in civil cases, then over the past ten years, Russian courts have been independent more than 70% of the time. 

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of these legal reforms is that, in the face of terrorism and secession, not only has Russia created a modern European legal system, it has systematically and deliberately enhanced its more humane components.   Since Putin introduced the new code of criminal procedures, acquittal rates by judges have more than doubled, and are now comparable to those of the United States. Acquittal rates in jury trials are three times higher which, since their expansion nationwide, has resulted in roughly a quarter of those indicted being acquitted.  As a result of the liberalization of the penal code, the number of inmates in penal institutions has fallen to less than half a million. Alas, we see the opposite trend in some other countries. Two decades ago per capita incarceration rates for the United States and Russia were nearly identical; today America’s rate is more than twice that of Russia.

3)  Some critics of Putin state that he was more of a reformer during his first two terms as president and has moved away from that since his return to the presidency in 2012.  Do you agree with that assessment?  If so, what do you think may explain the change?

I think Russian society has changed, and Putin along with it. In his 1999 pre-inaugural manifesto, “Russia at the Turn of the Millenium,” Putin said that Russians are accustomed to paternalism, and presumably needed a firmer hand than Yeltsin could provide. But with many of his reforms having now taken root, much less direct intervention is needed; fine tuning suffices. Over time, therefore, we have seen a dramatic extension of local self-government, with the creation of 27,000 administratively independent municipalities, and the restoration of direct gubernatorial elections. There has also been a notable shift in the response of officials to public protests. While not perfect, the law now affords considerable civil protections to those detained.

In just the past few months the convictions of Ivan Golunov and Yuri Dmitriev have been overturned, Pavel Ustinov’s sentence has been reduced on appeal, and Alexei Menyailo and the other suspects detained in the recent unsanctioned Moscow marches have all been released. The major take-away from all this should be that the system of checks and balances works!

4)  Earlier this year, a few laws were passed that limit media freedom. One involves the distribution of foreign print media.  Two others involve the punishment of the deliberate dissemination of untrue information and the public expression of disrespect of the state or society.  Can you explain how these laws would actually work and the reasoning behind them?  Does this represent a regression by the Putin government?  

Both of these laws, Federal Law № 28-ФЗ and Federal Law № 30-ФЗ, are Russian versions of laws that, in other countries, prohibit, in the first case, disinformation; and, in the second case, lese majeste. 

In the case of fake news (Law No. 28), a site can be blocked if it “threatens to endanger the life and health of citizens, if it disturbs the peace, or creates impediments to the work of strategically important infrastructure.” This determination is made by Roskomnadzor, Russia’s telecommunications oversight agency, at the request of the State Procurator. The wording of the law suggests that the intent is to prevent panic and false information being spread in the event of a disaster. Like all laws, it can be abused, but I suspect that Russian courts will uphold its main thrust, on national security grounds.

In the case of lese majeste, a site can be blocked for “obvious” reference to society, the state, state symbols, the constitution, or state authorities “in an indecent manner.” Again, at the request of the State Procurator, Roskomnadzor must preliminarily block the site, pending a review by a court.

There has been considerable public criticism of these laws. The head of the Russian president’s Human Rights Commission has vowed to seek a legal review. Fortunately, the procedure for this has been in place for more than a decade, ever since the controversies that surrounded the potential designation of certain NGOS as foreign agents, and seems to work well. The number of NGOs required to register as foreign agents has fallen each year, and currently constitutes just 0.39% of all registered NGOs. Given that it is going to be well nigh impossible to implement the lese majeste law without also violating a large number of other Russian laws, I expect the matter will be reviewed sooner, rather than later. I do not favor such laws, but I have faith that the Russian legal system will ultimately find the proper balance in this matter, as it has in others.

5)  This past summer there were protests in Moscow resulting from some candidates who weren’t allowed to run for the Moscow City Council.  These protests received a lot of attention in western media.  What were these protests actually about and are they representative of a larger trend of serious dissatisfaction among Russians with the political system?  Why did the Kremlin choose to crack down on these protests?  Wouldn’t it have been wiser to just let these candidates run and then fade into oblivion as many of them often do?  

The protests were about the failure of opposition candidates to be registered. Not having been able to obtain the minimum number of local signatures (3%), some candidates deemed the signature requirement unfair and demanded that they be registered anyway. Election Commission head, Ella Pamfilova, expressed her sympathy for their plight, but pointed out that the law cannot be altered post facto. The proper procedure, she said, is to appeal for changes before the election process begins.

As for the detentions that took place, I am sympathetic to the view that law enforcement agencies should not selectively choose which laws to enforce and which to ignore. The old Roman dictum, “dura lex, sed lex” applies. Temperance and mercy are the appropriate function of the courts which, as I have already suggested, seem to be applying it liberally. One cannot expect government in a democracy not to commit mistakes; merely, that it take steps to correct these mistakes quickly, so that they do not create even more problems. Comparing Russia’s handling of its public protests to France and Hong Kong suggests to me that Russian authorities understand this, and that Russian society can now accommodate such manifestations without any serious threat to the regime.

6)  In the early years of his presidency, Putin had the regional governors removed.  This was heavily criticized in the west.  I’ve been told by some who are very knowledgeable about Russia that this was because those regional governors were extremely corrupt and an obstacle to constructive reform in the country.  What is your opinion of how Putin dealt with that situation?  Has the result been overall positive or negative?  What do you think the prospects are for local or regional self-governance in Russia in the near to medium term?  

The system has evolved. From 2005 to 2011, governors were appointed by local legislative (representative) bodies, subject to the veto of the president’s office. In 2012, the direct election of governors in regions was restored.   

There is no perfect model for local government. In many European countries (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland) governors are considered extensions of the national government, and simply appointed. There are advantages and disadvantages to both direct election and direct appointment, which is why I feel that the choice should be left to each country.

7)  In his book Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, Professor Stephen F. Cohen provides the following definition of reform:  “change that betters people’s lives, usually by expanding their political freedom, economic freedom, or both.  Nor is it revolution or total transformation of an existing order but normally piecemeal, gradualist improvements within a system’s broad historical, institutional, and cultural dimensions.”  He also specifies that reform does not have to be rapid or complete to qualify as genuine reform.  By this definition, do you think that Putin will likely be seen as a reformer by future historians of Russia?  

Reform can be a good thing or a bad thing. The best reformers, the ones praised by history, seem to know instinctively when to slow down reforms, and when to speed them up.

The reforms that Putin implemented in his first two terms caused enormous upheaval in Russian society, but also resulted in nine straight years of booming economic growth and budget surpluses. Even positive results, however, come with a social cost—intragenerational tensions, inflation, and corruption, to name a few.  It is important to always bear in mind that reforms are for the well-being of people, not people for the well-being of reforms. Every sustainable economic and social transition recognizes this, and therefore pauses periodically to allow people to adapt to and accept social changes. Only many years hence will it be apparent whether a given administration was able to achieve the proper balance between the two, since “by their fruits will they be known.” (Matthew 7:16).

8)  You suggest in your article that we in the west have trouble conceptualizing that democracy could exist in Russia – that we seem to think Russia is uniquely incapable of democracy.  We seem to not know how to talk about the possibility of democracy in Russia, even when it exists to some degree.  Can you expound on that idea?  

What we say about Russia, and other countries, is a reflection of what we already know to be true. Since Western cultural assumptions about Russia cannot envision it as a democracy, evidence of democratic behavior becomes invisible. For Western observers, this has the added benefit of reinforcing the familiar cultural assumptions about Russia that they grew up with.

I have a different perspective because I was raised within the culture of the Russian emigration, and came to this country as an adult. My efforts to expose my professors to a wider variety of interpretations of Russian political culture began in college, and eventually led to my first book The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard, 1995).

But passive acceptance of the mainstream narrative is only part of the reason for the West’s persistent hostility toward Russia. Another is the unstated assumption that a truly democratic Russia (if one could imagine such a thing) would have to abandon its distinctive cultural characteristics. To the extent that it retains such distinctions, in religion, social norms, and historical interpretation, it must ipso facto not be a democracy. The problem here, of course, is that “democracy” then becomes merely an aspect of Western culture, rather than an objectively definable phenomenon. De facto this makes “democracy” almost inaccessible to any culture that the West labels as “non-Western,” bringing us back to the argument made earlier about what we already know to be true.  

9)  What do you think needs to happen for U.S.-Russia relations to improve?  

As previously isolated parts of the globe become accessible, our perceptions about them change. At first, this can actually heighten fear and revulsion of the strangeness of other cultures, but over time, as larger and more diverse segments of society are exposed to each other, it tends to erode barriers.

I would therefore amend the popular social science dictum that democracies do not go to war with each other, to—countries that have extensive commercial and social contacts with each other, makes war between them unimaginable. While I am far from believing that such contacts alone will bring about world peace, they certainly seem to have made recourse to all-out war among major powers a rare occurrence. As a result, let me conclude on this optimistic note: if we civilizations can survive long enough, then time does indeed heal all wounds.

Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island.  His books include, Crafting Democracy (Cornell, 2004), The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard, 1995), and Russian Foreign Policy co-authored with Alvin Z. Rubinstein (Longman, 1997).  As a Council on Foreign Relations fellow, he served as special assistant for policy toward the Soviet Union in the U.S. Department of State from 1989 to 1990. He has received two Fulbright awards (one to Russia and one to Ukraine), as well as fellowships from the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research, the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington, D.C., and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  His writings about Russia and Ukraine have appeared frequently on the web sites of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, The Nation, and The National Interest.

Some Interesting Sources on Kurds and Turkey in Syria

Apologies for the blog post that went out yesterday with a video that had been taken down. I had scheduled the post several days in advance. I will try embedding the video again – it has been reportedly re-released on YouTube – in a future blog post. In the meantime, I though I’d share a few interesting sources that go into the context of the whole Kurds/Turkey/Syria issue going on right now. I don’t have time at the moment to do a deep dive and write up my own analysis and commentary, but you may find these items useful in trying to understand this situation, which is more complicated than the corporate news and many politicians are portraying.

First we have two in-depth videos by political analyst Kim Iversen. As many regular readers have probably deduced by now, she is one of my favorites as she likes to do in-depth research on timely issues and then reports back and provides analysis on them via YouTube videos. She is, of course, heavy on foreign policy. I find her to be thorough and fair-minded in her analyses. She is pretty consistently non-interventionist as well. She tends to repeat herself a little bit, but I don’t find that too bothersome.

What did Washington actually promise the Kurds and what did Washington actually promise Turkey? Who is being betrayed?

Below is a just published article by retired weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, providing his own experience with and knowledge about the Kurds in the region.

Why the Syrian Kurds Aren’t Necessarily Our Friends

Guest Post: Not Only was the Decision to Use Nuclear Weapons in 1945 Immoral, It Made No Military Sense

Today, I’m featuring a guest post from James Chen. In this essay he explores how the Truman administration’s decision to use the atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 was not only morally reprehensible, but made no strategic military sense. Please feel free to offer your thoughts on this essay in the comments section. I’ll be back next week. – Natylie

According to the standard history textbooks  in U.S. high schools, Hirohito, the Japanese emperor, announced the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945, after two atomic bombs had been dropped – one at Hiroshima and one at Nagasaki – by the Americans, thus ending the second world war in the Pacific theater.

There have been constant debates regarding the decision made by President Truman to drop the atomic bombs. Most of the discussions on the subject are focused on the necessity of the use of the bombs. On one end of the spectrum, the supporters of the decision emphasize the sparing of American soldiers’ lives and the seemingly apparent effect of the bombs pushing Hirohito to announce the surrender. On the other end, the opponents claim the emperor had already sensed the inevitability of defeat and would have surrendered, given the face-saving term of keeping the emperor, without the horrible effect of the bombs.

By analyzing all the articles on both sides, in general, the supporters are usually arguing based on incorrect or insufficient historical data, and even fallacious logic. However, most of the opponents frequently fall into believing a myth, ignoring the war criminality of Emperor Hirohito, and/or disrespecting the consensus arrived at among the allies at the Potsdam Conference:  seeking unconditional surrender from Japan.

So, some discussion on the fundamentals and the revelation of historical facts should precede meaningful analysis and a final conclusion on the matter.

The first fundamental question to ask is, “How does one make any enemy surrender in a war?”

There are basically two ways to make an enemy surrender:

a. By providing acceptable (face-saving) terms or by credibly threatening to end the leader’s life, which was a common practice throughout human history in wars involving feudal kingdoms and empires, before the birth of modern democratic republics. The empire of Japan was one archetypal example of a feudal monarch.

b. By rendering your enemy unable to conduct the war.  This can be achieved in several possible ways: by eliminating the leader’s command structure; by destroying a significant portion of his fighting forces, weapon manufacturers, infrastructure, transportation and communication, industrial resources, fuel, food and water supplies; or, occupying a critical portion of his territory.

The second fundamental question is whether the Truman administration followed these guidelines to win the war. In the summer of 1945, the top U.S. government officials from the newly sworn-in president on down didn’t seem to follow these essential guidelines to win the war against Imperial Japan, though the end of war was so near.

In my estimation, they made at least five crucial mistakes:

The first mistake was not recognizing the significance of the Japanese effort to relocate their capital. It’s indisputable that from the summer of 1942 through 1945, the American Navy in the Pacific, almost single-handedly, had reduced the powerful Imperial Japanese navy down to a wreckage. All the Japanese cities were within bombing range of the Americans, using either land-based heavy to medium bombers or carrier based light bombers. However, the Japanese Army was still in nearly full strength in Manchukuo and the occupied territories of China.

Although the Japanese government was sensing ultimate defeat in the future, there was no imminent need to comply with the Allies’ unconditional surrender demand. An intense negotiation was in progress with the Soviet Union in the hopes that the Soviets would continue to stay neutral. In the meantime, due to fear of possible destruction or occupation of Tokyo by American forces, the Japanese government had already started the relocation process of moving the central government from Tokyo to Hsinjin (New Capital in Japanese, nowadays Changtsun), Manchuria, to continue their fight with nearly one million untouched Kwantung Army soldiers.

The Japanese imperial military thinking followed the doctrine of the traditional Chinese military:  when an empire still has the strength to fight offensively, it should not remain in defensive mode; when it still has the ability to defend itself, it should not try to retreat; when it still has the option to retreat, it should not consider surrendering.  For the emperor, when surrendering is allowed, there’s no need to fight to the death, nor to commit suicide. It is fair to say that the Japanese government would not have considered surrendering unless Manchuria was invaded. Consequently, dropping an atomic bomb on Nagasaki would just waste a bomb and slaughter a huge number of civilians for no purpose.

The second mistake was continuing to indulge in an unproven myth to the point where no effort was made to destroy the Japanese commanding structure.

For reasons seldom discussed, there was a major myth clung to in the U.S. Department of War during this time – a myth that neither the Chinese nor the Soviets embraced.  That is if the Japanese Emperor were harmed, the Japanese would fight to their last. This represented completely illogical thinking for there’s never been such a phenomenon observed nor recorded in the whole of human history.

History actually shows the opposite to be true. Whenever the head of a feudal monarchy was killed, the monarchy either collapsed or suffered an existential crisis.  By not threatening Hirohito’s life directly then, the American government was violating the essential guidelines of war and choosing to slaughter more Japanese soldiers and civilians unnecessarily, while prolonging the conflict.

The third mistake was not knowing how and where to use the atomic bomb.

The Department of War had no comprehensive planning regarding how to use the atomic bombs to achieve the strategic goals of war – i.e. to shorten the length of war while reducing allied casualties.

Emperor Hirohito had already demonstrated he had no remorse over the high number of Japanese civilian casualties incurred after the incendiary bombing of Tokyo in March of 1945 by American bombers. Furthermore, he again demonstrated his disregard by refusing to surrender after President Truman had threatened a “prompt and utter destruction” to his country.

Bombing militarily irrelevant cities would not reduce allied casualties and killing civilians would not shorten the war since it clearly was not going to make a self-proclaimed divine emperor blink.

The fourth mistake was not sufficiently coordinating with other allied forces, mainly the Soviets.

During the Yalta conference in February of 1945, then-President Roosevelt acquired consent from Stalin to send troops to the Far East to help the Americans defeat the Japanese.  During the Potsdam conference a few months later in July, Stalin affirmed this promise to President Truman to invade Manchuria in early August.

If the American government would have made efforts to support the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, they would have quickly observed the Japanese government changing their stance regarding surrender since, by that time, the Japanese would have realized their retreat was going to be cut off and their Kwantung Army destroyed.

The fifth mistake was trying to start another war.

Instead of solely focusing on finishing the on-going war as quickly and justly as possible, the Truman administration appears to have had another priority – starting what would become the Cold War with the Soviets.  Truman had the Potsdam conference postponed for two weeks in order for the first atomic bomb testing in history to be conducted.  Then, during the conference, Truman was informed of the successful explosion. The meeting subsequently turned more confrontational.  A couple of weeks later, on July 26, the United States, the British Empire and the Republic of China issued the unconditional surrender declaration to the Japanese government. It would have been much more effective had the Soviet Union been included in the declaration.

But Truman seemed to care more about ending the war soon enough that the Soviets would take less territory from Japan, demonstrating the power of the atomic bomb to intimidate the Soviets (who would be emerging from WWII as the world’s other superpower), and keeping the Japanese imperial system intact so it could serve the same purpose as that of the Anti-Comintern Pact signed between Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire in 1936.  This would finish the current war in such a way as to usher in the cold war – a situation benefiting American capitalists whose profits had skyrocketed from war mobilization.

The third question to be asked is how did history really play out?

After having been informed of the Potsdam Declaration, urging the unconditional surrender of Japan, Emperor Hirohito did not convene any cabinet meeting on the subject of surrender.

Meanwhile, on August 6, without waiting for the incoming invasion of Manchuria by the Soviets, President Truman rushed to drop the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima, killing 100,000 Japanese, of which the absolute majority were civilians. It was hardly a military target. Unsurprisingly, Emperor Hirohito did not even bother to respond.

On August 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, with the mighty Red Army crossing the border into Manchuria after midnight.

The Japanese cabinet of six convened at 10:00am, August 9, ten hours after the Soviet invasion, following the traditional doctrines of war i.e. when retreat is not possible, surrender is the next step.

Unfortunately, another unnecessary bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki at around 11:00am, killing another 60,000 hapless civilians. Hence, the two atomic bombs were dropped in the wrong places, at the wrong times, on the wrong groups of people, for the wrong purpose.

On August 15th, Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender to the Japanese people and the Allies. Afterwards, General MacArthur exonerated the indisputable culpability of Emperor Hirohito, suggesting the emperor only had the power to end a war, but no power to start a war. And, Japan was quickly rehabilitated into an Anti-Soviet bastion.

Dropping two atomic bombs on noncombatants is horrible.  However, it possibly would have been worse if the Soviets had not invaded Manchuria on August 9, 1945. According to U.S. government documents, the Truman administration had a total of twelve atomic bombs in hand. Had Hirohito not had reason to finally surrender, there could have been a total of 12 cities destroyed and around one million Japanese, mainly civilians, killed.

All of the foregoing facts beg the question:  could Hirohito have interpreted the bombing of irrelevant civilians as a message, “Don’t worry, we won’t hurt you if you don’t surrender?” We’ll probably never know for sure, but upon closer scrutiny, the whole approach to Japan by the Truman administration doesn’t make much logical or strategic sense for the purpose of ending the war as quickly as possible with the fewest allied casualties.

One thing is for sure:  If the Americans cannot learn history in a serious and critical way, our days of being the leader of the world are numbered.

James J. Chen has had a life-long interest in history, politics, and the humanities. He has begun writing on these topics, with a particular emphasis on the the U.S.’s role in the evolution of the modern world.  He lives and practices medicine in the San Francisco Bay Area. His website address is: https://jamesjchen.wixsite.com/save-the-country.

Modest Progress on Negotiation of Donbas Conflict; Russia Mulls Spending Some of its Wealth Fund; Russian Parliament Invites Greta Thunberg to Speak on Climate Change; Update on Status of Book and Other Projects

Yesterday, the Trilateral Contact Group, which includes representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE, agreed to employ the Steinmeier Formula as a first step toward implementation of the 2015 Minsk Agreement. Russian news outlet TASS reported that each of the members signed off on the plan:

In late 2015, then-German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier put forward a plan that later became known as the “Steinmeier formula.” The plan stipulates that a special status should be granted to Donbass in accordance with the Minsk Agreements. In particular, the document envisages that Ukraine’s special law on local self-governance will take effect in certain areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions on a temporary basis on the day of local elections, becoming permanent after the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issues a report on the vote’s results. The idea was endorsed at the Normandy Four meeting in Paris on October 2, 2015, and has been known as the Steinmeier formula since.

Bloomberg reported that a Normandy Four format meeting would be arranged for the near future according to Ukrainian President Zelensky who made some additional public comments after announcement of the breakthrough:

But Zelenskiy has said special status for Donbas won’t include changes to Ukraine’s constitution, which lays out goals for membership of the EU and NATO. The Kremlin opposes its neighbor’s plans for Western integration, which sparked tensions between the two former allies back in 2013.

Special-status legislation will be drafted by parliament in “close cooperation and consultation with society,” Zelenskiy said. “No red lines will be crossed in the new law. That’s why there will be no capitulation.”

This is not consistent with the parameters of the agreement that Germany and France hammered out at Minsk as reported on at the time by Der Spiegel, which indicated that the DPR and LPR would have a veto over whether Kiev could join NATO. I’m having trouble imagining that Russia would go along with any agreement that does not include a block on NATO membership for Ukraine.

But, of course, Zelensky has to take this stance for domestic political reasons. Although surveys show that Ukrainians in general want the conflict in the east resolved, the dangerous segment of ultra-nationalists, who gained disproportionate influence by serving as the muscle for the 2014 coup and subsequent civil war, will oppose any concessions to the Donbas rebels. And, given how wet behind the ears Zelensky is, I don’t know what possible leverage he could use to try to temper the ultra-nationalists and the trouble they can potentially cause, especially in light of the fact that the Ukrainian Interior Ministry is still essentially controlled by them.

Although I’m glad that talks are moving forward, I’m skeptical of them ultimately being successful in the near future.

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According to a recent article by the Carnegie Moscow Center, Russia is enjoying a budget surplus and, in turn, its National Wealth Fund is flush with rubles:

The main debate in Russia’s economic bloc right now is how best to spend the super profits from oil exports that are building up in the NWF. In accordance with budget rules, oil revenues in excess of $40 per barrel are channeled into the fund, and the threshold of 7 percent of GDP above which the law allows the treasure chest to be opened up will be passed by the end of this year. That means that in 2020, the treasury will have almost 2 trillion rubles ($31 billion) in its coffers that hasn’t been allocated for anything, and in 2021, if oil prices have not decreased drastically, more than 4 trillion rubles, according to calculations by the Finance Ministry. 

It goes on to say that, since allocations have already been made in the budget for government-sanctioned investments in health, education and infrastructure, this fund is the one remaining source of potential infusions of money to the private sector. According to the authors, this translates into the last possible source for corrupt Russian fat cats. That commentary didn’t interest me, but the discussion of the wealth fund in general and conjecture as to what it might be spent on – if indeed it’s opened up for spending at all – got me to thinking. When I researched the Russian economy for Chapter 10 of my forthcoming book, it was clear that the financial system in Russia is still limited and that this has led to little available credit to small and medium sized businesses, known as SME’s. Why couldn’t some of this money in the national wealth fund be used to create a mechanism for providing loans to SME’s?

Perhaps someone who is more well versed in economics than me could provide an explanation for why this wouldn’t work. Or maybe someone else who understands some vagaries of the Russian political system better could explain why this idea wouldn’t go over. To me, it seems like a resource available that could potentially serve as a solution to a problem.

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As many readers have probably heard, climate youth activist Greta Thunberg traveled to the U.S. and spoke before the UN General Assembly last week. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the 16-year old ripped the world leaders in the audience a new one regarding their negligence in being responsible stewards of the environment that her generation will be inheriting.

Climate change and extreme weather have been having a major impact on Russia recently. And, although the country has not been a hotbed of activism on the issue, the teenager has been inspiring some Russian youth who recognize the urgency of the problem, including a young member of the Duma. In fact, Vasily Vlasov, a member of the parliament’s Natural Resources Committee, has invited Thunberg to speak before the Duma. According to the Moscow Times:

“I invite you to give a speech to Russian youth in the State Duma on any date convenient for you,” lawmaker Vasily Vlasov wrote to Thunberg, according to excerpts of his letter published by the state-run RIA Novosti news agency Tuesday.

Vlasov, 24, a senior member of the Duma’s Natural Resources Committee, highlighted his youth in the letter sent to the Swedish embassy…

“We as the younger generation must not remain silent when it comes to our future, and we won’t allow ourselves to be condemned to extinction,” Vlasov wrote….

The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry this month acknowledged that Russia, the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, is heating faster than the rest of the world. While the country is in the process of ratifying the 2015 Paris climate accord, outside trackers say Russia still lags behind the rest of the world in climate action implementation.

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I’ve had the manuscript of my book reviewed by some beta readers and will be working on some revisions next week. After that, it can go to the copy editor. I’m probably looking at a winter publication date. I will, of course, provide updates as the process moves along. Thank you to everyone for your support.

Additionally, I’m working on an interview with a Russia scholar, which should tentatively be published in the next couple of weeks. So that I can focus on those two projects, I will be having a guest post next week.