Covid-19’s Effects in Russia

St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow
Photo by Natylie Baldwin, October 2015

After an initial period of minimal infections and relative calm compared to other parts of Asia and the West, Russia is now seeing a larger outbreak of the Covid-19 virus. By March 21st there were 306 confirmed cases of the virus throughout Russia. According to Russia Beyond‘s reporting from March 17th, starting March 18th through May 1st, all travel into Russia from outside would be restricted as the number of confirmed virus cases in the capital increased by 50% in one day, likely due to mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s prior instruction that all patients with respiratory symptoms were to be tested. People in Moscow are working remotely if possible, stocking up on basic essentials, and holing up at home:

Starting from March 16, 2020, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin has instructed all employers to screen their employees for fever and send those who have high temperature home, says the relevant order issued by the mayor’s office. All Moscow schools have been temporarily closed, while university students have switched to distance learning.

Some companies have introduced remote-working arrangements even before these official measures were announced.

“We were told back on March 13 that work in the office was being suspended for at least two to three months until everything settles down. At first everyone was happy, but now it is scary,” a TASS news agency employee told Russia Beyond.

To accommodate social isolation, many cinemas, theaters and museums are providing online access to movies and presentations.

Meanwhile, the governor of Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg, has suggested that it would be counterproductive to shut down the city but has discouraged domestic tourists from coming.

In Novosibirsk – Russia’s third largest city – located in Siberia, community development activist, Sarah Lindemann-Komarova, wrote about the changes that were gradually occurring within a week of the first confirmed cases in the area on March 13th: school closures, stockpiling of food, the donning of masks and gloves in public places, the shift toward working remotely for those whose jobs could be done in such a manner:

[It’s] March 18 and as of today no foreign nationals will be allowed in Russia until May 1. My daughter is home, my husband is still going to work. He is head of data science for a big financial services company and they are in the process of setting up a system so they can work from home, hopefully by Monday. I passed several parents teaching their kids to ski today. [My colleague] Natalia posted about the City Council meeting. There are 1377 specialized beds and 570 ventilators in the Region. The plan is buy another 16 respirators and have beds for up to 2,000 patients. Much of the behavioral elements of the program are still recommendations. Some of what they say is in place is clearly not happening. There are news reports of empty shelves in the City 30 km away but here, still food, still people without masks in cafes and restaurants. Russians are not panic-ers but is this the calm before a storm that will shake us all regardless of how well prepared we are, or have the fates, just this once, gone easy on the people of Siberia?

In an addendum entry to her diary later that day:

March 18, 14:33, Tayga.info announced the first official case of COVID-19 in Novosibirsk and one in Tomsk.

As the illness spreads, there are more reports of hoarding behaviors, especially by those who can afford it. As of this past weekend, many places of employment that cannot accommodate remote work are still open, such as factories and the spring military draft exercises were still scheduled to go ahead. There are reportedly more checking of symptoms of the virus, including temperature monitoring:

Russian public figures, doctors and citizens have launched a petition urging the government to take urgent action against the coronavirus as the country’s number of confirmed cases continues to climb, including postponing the April 22 vote on President Vladimir Putin’s constirutional amendments.

Moscow traffic police have launched spot checks on the city’s taxis to ensure drivers wear face masks and regularly disinfect their vehicles. Under new regulations, drivers must change masks every three hours and use sanitizer to clean their hands and disinfect their vehicles twice a day.

Last week, Putin had a meeting with other government officials in which he laid out what precautions should be taken for dealing with the virus. Here is the video (approx. 15 minute run time):

Foreign Policy published an article recently that must be read with discernment as it contains the usual negative assumptions about Russia. With that caveat stated, it did mention some interesting points:

On Tuesday, Putin toured a new coronavirus information center in Moscow that is pulling together high-tech resources, including surveillance cameras and artificial intelligence, to monitor social media for disinformation about the spread of the disease, properly enforce quarantines, and identify empty supermarket shelves, which have recently been emptied in major cities as Russians have begun stockpiling goods. After the visit, Putin said that he judged the situation in the country to be “under control.” 

“We were able to contain the mass penetration and spread” of the pandemic, Putin said during a government meeting of ministers and top officials in Moscow. “The situation is generally under control despite high risk levels.”

In spite of such public assurances, Russia has stepped up its defenses recently. Foreign nationals are now banned from entering until May 1 as part of an effort to slow the spread of the virus, and Moscow has barred all outdoor events and limited indoor gatherings to fewer than 50 people. Older Russians have been told to remain inside. Schools are now closed, as are major tourist attractions, while Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin announced a $4 billion bailout package on Monday to help businesses that are at risk due to the drop-off in economic activity. Russia has also shut its sizable land borders with its 14 neighbors, and the city of Moscow is currently constructing two large hospitals to house patients infected with the coronavirus. 

The article also suggests that current statistics from the Russian government may be an underestimate of the true numbers of people affected:

While official figures remain low, evidence is emerging that that reality is more severe, with many cases of the virus being misdiagnosed as other ailments. A report published last week by RBC, a Russian business newspaper, found that Rosstat, the country’s official statistics agency, has recorded an increase of 37 percent of cases of “community-acquired pneumonia” in January as compared to January 2019, which could fit similar symptoms to the coronavirus. Such an increase would represent nearly 2,000 cases. 

Other evidence that a much larger spread of the virus could be hiding in Russia was put forward by the Doctor’s Alliance, a recently formed countrywide union for medical professionals, who said that the true figure of those infected with the new coronavirus could be in the thousands, but that many cases have likely been labelled as pneumonia. In a recent video posted on the group’s YouTube channel, the organization also warned about a lack of protective gear in hospitals outside of major cities in Russia’s regions that could lead to more infections. The video also featured anonymous calls from doctors who said that they were being told to clear entire hospital wards in order to accommodate a flood of patients suffering from “pneumonia.”  

Moscow’s mayor Sobyanin seems to agree. With the number of diagnosed cases shooting up since the beginning of the week, Sobyanin advised Putin yesterday during a meeting of the State Council that the government’s current official figures may indeed be misleading in terms of how many Russians are potentially infected and how the spread of the virus may develop:

Meeting with Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin said the country’s official data may not be wholly accurate. He noted that many cases had not been tested, and urged the president to take more robust measures to battle Covid-19…

…The mayor told Putin that many of those who returned from abroad did not get tested but went instead into self-isolation. It is unknown how many of them were infected.

To battle the spread of coronavirus, Sobyanin – in his other role as head of the State [C]ouncil’s Covid-19 task force – announced a new set of instructions for other parts of the country. The plan includes making sure there is the correct number of hospital beds and ventilators in each area of the country. He also stated that “not all regions understand” how to deal with the virus. 

“All regions, without exception — regardless of whether they have patients or no patients — everyone needs to prepare,” he said.

Sobyanin further explained that it is vital to enforce a nationwide quarantine on Russia’s elderly. According to him, the healthcare “system will fail” without such measures. 

According to reports out of Russia this morning, Putin has postponed the national vote on the proposed constitutional changes and declared that all non-essential workers are to stay home on paid leave for one week. Prime Minister Mishustin has also ordered mobile phone companies to work out the logistics within a few days of beginning to track those with coronavirus in order to have the ability to notify those who’ve been exposed.

One new case of Covid-19 confirmed over the past weekend in Russia is the infectious disease specialist for the Stavropol region, Irina Sannikova. She had recently returned from vacationing in a hot spot of Spain and did not report it upon return or quarantine herself. Amid fears that she has spread the virus, she may be held criminally liable according to Russia-based journalist Bryan MacDonald.

In other Covid-19-related news. Putin has agreed to send a team of doctors and medical equipment to Italy after a request from the hard-hit country’s Prime Minister. So far, China and Russia have stepped in with medical and humanitarian aid to Italy as Europe and the United States have done nothing to assist their ally.

NATO’s “Defender 2020” Military Exercises in Europe Canceled Due to Pandemic

NATO Defender 2020

From Rod Renny at The Duran:

The Pentagon had already deployed some 6,000 troops and 3,000 pieces of equipment to Europe by March 13, when the transfers were halted amid the rapid spread of the coronavirus. The decision to cancel the drills actually improved European security, since the risk of covid-19 transmission among the troops – and from them to civilians – was unacceptably high, former US Marine Corps intelligence officer and international security commentator Scott Ritter told RT.

Canceling the exercise was “the most prudent action possible” from the political standpoint, said Ritter, as the fallout from US troops infecting civilians with the coronavirus would have made future such exercises “problematic.”

“The exercise was more political than practical, a show of force designed to deter Russian ‘aggression’ in the Baltics,” Ritter added. Poland and the Baltic states have clamored for a bigger NATO – mainly US – presence in their territory since 2014, hyping the threat of “Russian aggression” by pointing to the conflict in Ukraine. The US has happily obliged, even under the Trump administration, while NATO maintained its increased deployments on the Russian border were entirely defensive in nature. Needless to say, Moscow is not buying it.

“There’s no actual military threat to Europe. Nobody is going to attack it,” Konstantin Sokolov, geopolitics expert and research fellow with Russia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, told RT.

Political relations within NATO have been fraying for months, with unilateral actions in Syria by the US and Turkey prompting French President Emmanuel Macron to describe the alliance as “brain dead.”

Read the full article here.

Note: I will be blogging less frequently over the next couple of weeks in order to attend to some personal matters. I will periodically post references to other articles on relevant topics. – Natylie

Gilbert Doctorow: Putin and Other “Irreplaceable People”

Kremlin Wall, Red Square, Moscow; photo by Natylie S. Baldwin

By Gilbert Doctorow

I was delighted with the wide distribution given to my last essay on the ‘Tereshkova Amendment’ to the Russian Constitution which, when the reform of the Basic Law is approved by nationwide referendum, as widely anticipated, will set the presidential terms served up to now by Vladimir Putin back to zero so that he may run again in the elections of 2024 and 2030 if he so wishes. My essay was reposted by several portals in the United States and links to the essay were published by still other outlets in Europe.

I was also pleased by the substantial number of reader comments, even though the great majority did not agree with my assertion that Putin was foolhardy to accept that amendment, subject to the Constitutional Court finding that it does not contradict the intent of the Fundamental Law. I had expressed the pious hope that Vladimir Vladimirovich would quietly direct the Court to do the decent thing and reject the amendment. However, by its decision of 16 March the Court has now approved the entire package of amendments. In light of this development, I feel free to move to the next level of discussion with my readers, responding to their objections and detailing why the very prospect of Putin in power to 2036 will undo his legacy of stable nation-building. I will conclude by setting out an alternative scenario which is far more likely to ensure policy continuity after 2024 while moving Russia’s democracy to a new level of maturity. This path remains open to Mr. President if he rethinks the likely consequences of the Tereshkova Amendment and moves to correct his error well before the 2021 parliamentary elections, when the “regime” may suffer a humiliating defeat.

The objections from readers to my stand on Putin’s running for the presidency again mostly came down to one point that had been raised by Tereshkova herself as justification for her initiative: that the international arena is so volatile and poses so many threats to the country that Vladimir Vladimirovich’s proven experience and dedication to national welfare is and will be required and valued more than ever. Some readers’ comments name the corona virus or the oil price war with Saudi Arabia, or the near war with Turkey over Syria as indicative of the pressing need for steady leadership by Putin into the distant future. Others point to the aggressive economic, military strategic and propaganda war against Russia being waged by the United States and its allies in Europe to justify the indefinite continuation in office of a leader who has so consistently and effectively foiled their ambitions to put Russia in its place under their heel and instead restored his country’s status as a great power.

All of the foregoing is true, of course. We do live in extraordinary times and “revisionist” or “resurgent” Russia, to use the vocabulary of Foreign Affairs magazine, faces strong opposition from an “international community” intent on preserving the 1990s status quo when Russia was on its knees. However, the proposition that Russia has no one capable of taking over the baton from Vladimir Vladimirovich does not hold up to scrutiny.

It is all too easy to forget that when he took over from Boris Yeltsin just after New Year’s in 2000, Putin was a nonentity who had been chosen for his unquestioned loyalty to the family and who enjoyed the support of Boris Berezovsky and other oligarchs precisely because they believed he would be easy to manage. As for the nation at large, Putin’s only credit was his brutal conduct of the war in Chechnya which seemed to be bringing results and which proved his patriotism. He had been an efficient assistant to the liberal mayor of St. Petersburg Sobchak and did well with foreign, especially German business leaders behind closed doors. But he was an unimpressive public speaker and he badly failed his first exposure to the press when he answered reporters’ questions about what happened to the submarine Kursk with the flat statement: “It sank.”

From this weak start, Putin rose quickly and steadily to become finally the world’s leading statesman that he is today. A whole generation of administrators and political operatives has grown up in his shadow. I have no doubt that there are among them worthy successors if given the chance.

If I may invoke a bit of folk wisdom: the cemeteries are filled with irreplaceable people.

When he delivered his decision on the amendment, Putin added another line of argumentation in its favor, namely Russian traditions of governance. Some of my readers have taken that up and expanded upon it in their comments. They look to Russian history, with its millennial tradition of autocratic rulers to justify keeping the incumbent tsar on his throne. Some place Putin in the ranks of Russia’s Greats: Peter and Catherine in the 18th century to plead his case.

My critics argue from exceptionalism, which is always risky, and second, they fail to appreciate the value of institutions over people in the life of nations.

On the subject of exceptionalism, Vladimir Putin himself has always been equivocal. On the one hand, he regularly denounces American exceptionalism of the variety first formulated by Madeleine Albright in her description of the nation that stands taller and sees farther than others, all of which was later hand delivered to the Kremlin by Barack Obama when he sought to explain to Vladimir what was what.

On the other hand, Putin has always defended the special traditions of each nation and the right of each nation to preserve its uniqueness without interference from others. Yet, Putin has also acknowledged certain universal rules of political science, in particular the value of alternation in power of competing political forces. So it only comes down to when that can be implemented. To this, I respond: there is never a good time, there are always mitigating circumstances one can claim against applying the rule. And for this very reason, the rule of alternation should trump all other considerations without discussion.

I will not take the reader’s time belaboring the obvious: an unlimited time in power means institutionalized corruption. “The bums” are never given the boot. And, what is less commonly seen, incompetence is the reverse side of the corruption coin. This is a non-negotiable issue.

Looking beyond my own readers and considering more broadly the analysis which so many Western commentators have published these past few days regarding Putin’s decision on 2024, I find a certain commonality of approach which is entirely consistent with how our Russianists have been writing and lecturing for decades now: all focus on Putin, the man as if he were the alpha and omega of Russia, the country and its polity. That is to say, these commentators apply to Russia the same personalization of politics which they use at home in the United States, where identity has long replaced policy on the ballot. We vote by gender, by race, by ethnicity and not by pro- or anti-labor positions, by redistributive or wealth-protecting policies. They vote for good or bad autocrats.

In the same spirit, instead of considering what this decision on terms in office means for those Russians who believe in rule of law, or in the commitments of their leader not to hang onto power into his dotage repeated many times in the past and as recently as on 16 January 2020, our commentators try to delve into Putin’s thought processes and to explain the flip-flop on 10 March. Since no one has yet placed a microphone under the pillow of the Russian President, all of the commentary we read is pure and idle speculation, whereas the views of Russians on the decision taken can be sampled, as I will do in what follows.

I have a residential base in St. Petersburg and in normal times I am there for two weeks out of each couple of months. My wife and I have many contacts among Russians at all levels, from our regular taxi driver to our neighbor and fix-it man at our country dacha, to intellectuals and professionals in both Petersburg and Moscow. To a man, or woman, our friends and acquaintances are all Russian patriots. Several have served their country in the performing arts, in journalism, in design of launch vehicles for space missions and in other ways. They have all been pro-Putin, until now…

The trigger for the change of heart of many is deep disappointment over the deception, the fraudulent nature of the upcoming referendum on amendments to the Constitution now that the whole exercise seems to have only one purpose: to extend Putin’s time in power. To be sure, this rabbit was pulled out of a hat once before, when Vladimir Putin and Dimitri Medvedev switched roles in 2012. But that trick conformed to the letter of the law, even if it was, shall we say, sneaky. The decision to set Putin’s time in office back to zero now is an insult to the intelligence and so doubly offensive.

That the maneuver is unseemly is supported by the obnoxious way in which it has been defended, something which none of our Western commentators seems to have picked up.

After coming under attack from various political activists and even from her own home town where she had a street named after her for her achievements in outer space, Tereshkova defended herself and her amendment, saying that she has been getting letters of support from “simple people” all around Russia. In the same vein, Chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin declared that “those who are against Tereshkova are against Russia.” But then this former head of the presidential administration is the same man who said previously that “if there is no Putin, there is no Russia.” I think it is fair to call this type of argumentation from both Tereshkova and Volodin unashamedly Stalinist in nature.

And that is exactly what one my close friends has written to me using colorful terminology that mines the treasures of the Russian language in the same manner as Putin himself so often does. I offer here a free translation.

“Like you, we are not delighted by the presidential terms of Putin being turned back to zero. Society is tired, people are tired of this. It looks like he has decided to beat Stalin’s record. But the main thing is that this is being done in a clumsy way, in the spirit of Soviet propaganda – ‘upon the request of the workers.’ Tereshkova tells us that every day she is receiving packs of letters expressing gratitude for her initiative. This is propagandistic Soviet primitivism.

For the moment, we don’t know if we will take part in the voting. But if we do go to the polls, of course, we will vote against the amendments and the reset on terms in office.”

It is widely assumed in the West that there is no opposition to Putin and Putinism in the State Duma, only in the so-called non-systemic opposition of people like Alexei Navalny and Ksenia Sobchak who never made it past the 5% minimum level of support to enter the Duma. And, I must concede that when the Tereshkova amendment came up for a vote, two of the Duma parties which have regularly put up candidates to run against Putin in the presidential elections, Sergei Mironov’s A Just Russia and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR spoke in its favor. However, what is largely overlooked by our Russianists is that one party, Gennady Zyuganov’s Communists, had the courage and persistence to speak against the amendment. These are the same Communists who have traditionally been the fiercest competitor of United Russia and of its centrist predecessors; the same Communists who narrowly lost to Yeltsin in 1996 because of flagrant electoral fraud assisted by U.S. agents over fears for democracy in Russia. And yet today, ironically, the centrist parties have defended a Stalinist vision of Russia’s presidency while the Communists were backers of full-blooded democracy, meaning alternation in power.

That is not all.

On 10 March, when Tereshkova introduced her amendment on resetting the terms in office of the sitting president, another deputy introduced a bill calling for early Duma elections. Though this was rejected out of hand by Vladimir Putin when he spoke to the chamber a couple of hours later, it is this bill which better deserved his backing. Early elections were supported by one party alone, again the Communists, who said they had nothing to fear. Such elections were likely put an end to the majority position of United Russia, which has lost substantial support in the population ever since the retirement age was raised a year or so ago. This is why they said no. However, their loss of a majority is precisely what could trigger a new balance of power and the scenario for political consolidation that I am recommending.

When he spoke about his intended changes to the Russian Constitution during his annual “state of the nation” address to the bicameral legislature on 15 January, Vladimir Putin suggested that his intention was to readjust the balance of power among the three branches of government by raising the rights and prerogatives of the legislature. By trimming slightly the powers of the President in this process he would, in effect, make it easier to find someone to fill his shoes. Moreover by bringing the Duma into greater consultation in formation of the cabinet, he would be raising their commitment to the system in exchange for greater responsibility.

At the time, Putin mentioned specifically his impression from regular meetings with the leaders of the Duma parties that are all patriots. The logic from this was that when the Medvedev cabinet peremptorily resigned following the presidential address, some of the leading parliamentarians from outside United Russia should have been invited to take up ministerial portfolios. That did not happen. Instead the cabinet itself was depoliticized and filled with technocrats.

Assuming that Putin wishes to ensure that the broad lines of his policies continue after he leaves office, whatever that date may be, I believe that the recent missed opportunity should be revisited and preparations made for forming a government of national unity that distributes ministerial portfolios to all of the Duma parties. By their service in the intervening years, this would provide the best indications of who will deserve to run in the presidential election of 2024 in which Putin will choose not to take part. It will remove the present cynicism and disappointment of many patriotic Russians over the way high politics is evolving and provide a renewed interest in elections with optimism for the future.

Over the long term, coalition governments or ‘power sharing’ have their down sides, I know only too well from the experience of the Kingdom of Belgium, or in neighboring Germany. These include inconsistencies in the various domestic and foreign policies implemented and possible incompetence of individual ministers and their teams. However, in the short term it is worth taking the risk to avert mass demonstrations when the 2021 Duma elections come, not to mention the presidential elections of 2024. This is a crucial step in Russia’s march towards mature democracy that should not be ignored.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2017. Reprinted with permission from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

More Proposed Constitutional Amendments on Second Reading to Duma; Putin Says Resetting Presidential Term Limits to Zero, Theoretically Allowing Him to Run Again, Possible if Approved by Constitutional Court

The constitutional committee appointed by Putin to consider additional possible amendments and changes to the Russian constitution has reportedly received hundreds of proposals on a range of issues, from both the public and those in government. But the deadline for submission of proposals was March 2nd. On that date, several additional proposed constitutional amendments were submitted by Putin himself.

These new proposals, which were accepted by the Duma and will be included in a national vote by Russians on the whole package of constitutional reforms on April 22nd, were obviously intended to placate certain groups in Russia, including lower income Russians, those advocating Russian national independence, and the Orthodox Church whose stance on certain cultural issues reflects the attitude of many Russians.

These proposed amendments include the following as nicely summed up by Russia-based journalist Bryan MacDonald:

  • The need to mention God in the document.
  • Civil servants being prohibited from holding foreign bank accounts and citizenship.
  • A ban on giving away any Russian territory.
  • The restriction of marriage to the union of a man and a woman, ruling out gay marriage.
  • Provisions to recognize the modern Russian Federation as the successor to the USSR (a move which enshrines its legacy as the victor in World War Two).
  • A mention of “historical truth” to protect “the great achievement of Russians in their defense of the Fatherland” (This is also a reference to the role of the USSR/Russia in World War II and a response to the EU’s attempt to re-write history on behalf of certain elements in Poland and the Baltic states – Natylie)
  • The Russian people will be recognized as the founders of the state (which also implies that the national language is Russian).
  • A guarantee that the minimum wage will not be lower than the cost of living.

What has received even more attention recently, however, is a peculiar turn of events in the Duma in which parliamentarian Valentina Tereshkova, the first Soviet woman in space, proposed that the “clock be reset to zero” – so to speak – on presidential terms at 2024. That would mean that Putin would be able to run again in 2024 and serve what would be the constitutional limit of 2 terms. According to reports, this suggestion seemed to throw the Duma into confusion and Putin subsequently made an unscheduled appearance at the Duma to address the issue. He then said that resetting the clock on presidential terms was possible but would have to be approved by both the Constitutional Court and the Russian people when they vote on April 22nd.

Needless to say, I’m not the only one who has been flummoxed by this. As Paul Robinson explains:

Was this Putin’s aim all along? Did he put Tereshkova up to it? Or was he as blindsided by her proposal as everybody else? It’s not clear. If he’d wanted this, it would have been simpler just to include it in the original amendments. On the other hand, it arguably looks better if it appears to come as a result of some sort of demand from below, especially when voiced by somebody like Tereshkova who has something of a heroic status. But then again, that status means that she has some independent moral authority and doesn’t have to do whatever the Kremlin asks her. So maybe it was her idea after all, and she was acting on her own. In that case, though, why didn’t Putin reject it?

There are several possibilities to speculate on. Was this staged so the Constitutional Court can judge it unconstitutional and Putin can abide by the ruling – there, see, the system works, we have checks and balances?

It makes strategic sense to me that Putin may want to keep the political class guessing as to what exactly he’s going to do and when he exactly is going to do it in order to prevent the jockeying for power he knows will come if he’s perceived as a lame duck who’s leaving soon.

The bottom line is that however impressive of a job Putin has done pulling Russia up from a failed state to a country with a decent standard of living and a force to be reckoned with on the world stage, Putin is mortal and there must be some preparation for taking the training wheels off so new leadership can step in and keep steering the country on the forward path. I believed that is what he was starting to do with his announcement of reforms in January.

For the reasons mentioned above, I think it would be a mistake for Putin to remain president past 2024 rather than stepping back to a behind-the-scenes advisory role. Unless, of course, the plan is to keep him around forever – eventually having his dead body stuffed and propped up in a corner of the Kremlin and governing via seance.

Image result for seance memes
https://imgflip.com/i/1c24zj

But in all seriousness, in my perusal of Russian history, I’ve noted that any time a leader wanted to institute reforms, they were always inevitably unleashing forces they couldn’t always control. There are going to be unintended consequences. As Russia analyst Gordon Hahn writes:

The entire process is not only mobilizing society and the opposition on the eve of the federal election process, which begins with the Duma election set for September 2021, but may also raise expectations as to the importance of the reform or of the adption of one or another reform to one or another constituency. Herein lies a danger for Putin and Russia’s political stability. ‘Below,’ in society, pro-democracy opposition groups likely have a low enough set of expectations regarding Putin that they expect little in the way of what they regard as positive results, in particular political liberalization or democratization. However, more radical opposition groups as well as more or less pro-regime elements such as the Russian Orthodox Church or nationalists of one stripe or another might pose a bit of a problem. Some among the latter, ‘conservatives’ or traditionalists less interested or even opposed to democratization, are putting forward proposals of another sort. The idea of including the word ‘God’ in an as yet unclarified way or a declaration to the effect that ‘marriage is an institution binding together a man and a woman’ are being put forward. Should the final amendments exclude these or other proposals coming from groups with expectations their proposals would be included, the result could lead dissent and division.

Similarly, the extent to which the amendments touching on the political system affect the duration of Putin’s tenure in some non-presidential office and thus the tempo and depth of the change inherent in 2024, potentitally weakening the political and business prospects of one clan or another, the debate over systemic changes could provoke a split with the ruling elite. Such a split could revolve around disagreements between those who would prefer Putin stay at least until 2024 and take up a serious office or several offices under a new ‘caretaker’ president and those who would prefer a more rapid departure, perhaps even with mid-term presidential elections and a minimal or no role for Putin under the next president.

Perhaps that sheds more light on Putin’s second set of proposed amendments listed above. Bottom line: reform is not easy. Things can get complicated. Putin may just be keeping his options open in case those unintended consequences become too destabilizing – at least, in his mind.

OPEC Agreement with Russia Collapses – How Will Russia Fare?

Russia and OPEC failed to agree on new production cuts during a meeting in Vienna. From April 1 all the oil producing countries are free to pump as much as they like.

Oil prices have plummeted in recent days as a result of the collapse of negotiations between OPEC and Russia to continue agreed upon production cuts to oil, which would have kept prices more stable.

According to reporting by both Ben Aris and Chris Weafer, Russia decided to let prices drop in order to end what they considered to be buoying of the U.S. shale industry. According to Weafer:

At last week’s meeting, Russia only offered to extend the existing OPEC+ deal, which is set to expire at the end of this month, for a three further months and then to assess the situation. Saudi Arabia wanted Russia to participate in cutting an additional 1.5mn barrels per day (bbl/d) through Q2 in order to try and balance the global oil market. Having been rejected by Moscow, Saudi has responded very quickly with an announcement that it has no intention of extending the current deal and will “open up the oil taps” from April 1. It is already reported that the Kingdom is offering discounted oil.

At first glance, this looks like a battle between Russia and Saudi over oil policy. But the context of the relentless rise in US oil production over the past ten years is also an important factor. Both Russia and the major OPEC producers have been openly annoyed with the refusal of the US producers to participate in past production cuts and the fact that the US industry has been the major beneficiary of the price support mechanisms. It is a stretch to say that Moscow and Riyadh are in any sort of cooperation to try and reduce US oil production; the body language at the Vienna meeting strongly suggests otherwise. But if a price war results in some US casualties and a greater reluctance by investors and lenders to fund future US marginal production, then Moscow and OPEC will be relieved.

The coronavirus has already cut global demand for oil in conjunction with a general economic slowdown. This all is giving rise to the question of what countries are best prepared to withstand a low oil price. The usual suspects in the west will contend that Russia will be in deep trouble if this goes on for any length of time. After all, they are simply a gas station posing as a country, right?

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, Russia has intentionally implemented economic policies to shield itself from economic instability. With oil sales only comprising 35% of Russia’s budget now, they are in a much better position to withstand lower oil prices than Saudi Arabia. Weafer explains:

Russia has had to allow the ruble free-float from early 2015. This was a policy forced on the Kremlin as a result of the combination of western sanctions and low oil. That has turned out to be a major silver-living for the budget, as well as for economic competitiveness, and it means that the budget break-even oil price moves lower as the ruble weakens. Assuming the ruble-dollar exchange rate drops below 70 then the breakeven will drop to $45 per barrel. If the ruble-dollar rate hits 75 then the budget will breakeven around $40 per barrel without any cuts to current planned spending. This compares with a breakeven of $115 per barrel in 2013.

Saudi Arabia reportedly needs $85 per barrel to balance its budget and does not gain from a currency offset as the Riyal is pegged to the dollar.

Russian oil producers now have a very low production cost, exactly for the same reason of the ruble flexibility and also efficiency gains that the industry also had to adopt because of western sanctions.

Aris adds the following details on what the Putin government has done in terms of buffeting the Russian economy against potential instability:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent much of the last four years building a “fiscal fortress” to sanction-proof Russia. He has sold down Russia’s US debt holdings, paid off debt and built up gross international reserves (GIR) to around $570bn now – enough to cover Russia’s entire external debt and still leave $100bn of cash. Moreover, a revolution of Russia’s tax service and new taxes, as well as a hike to the retirement age, have cut the breakeven oil price for the budget to around $42 from its peak of $115 in the boom years. All this means Russia can sustain a long war of attrition on US shale production.

In response to the drop in oil prices earlier this week, U.S. president Trump suggested the possibility of a government bailout of the shale industry, which is mired in debt and could be in deep financial trouble if the oil price drop lasts for any length of time. Common Dreams reported that executives from the industry had already reached out to the Trump administration to request assistance:

The administration began weighing a bailout after Trump supporter Harold Hamm—a Trump supporter whose company’s stock plunged Monday, losing Hamm $2 billion of his 77% of the company’s shares—reached out to the administration. Hamm confirmed the conversation to the Post

Hamm was not alone—the Post revealed that a number of executives have made overtures to the White House on policy aims that run counter to public health.

I always thought that major capitalists were ideologically opposed to the government providing any financial assistance to anyone. But I digress…

Some sources, such as Russia-based journalist Bryan MacDonald, have been reporting that Russia has been preparing for a rocky global economy for some time: “Moscow has been preparing for a major recession for years. Kremlin insiders believe it will devastate western economies.”

*Next post will discuss latest developments relating to the constitutional changes in Russia, including a bombshell on presidential terms

Putin & Erdogan Agree to Another Ceasefire in Idlib After 6 Hours of Difficult Talks; Trump Agrees to Putin’s Proposed Summit of 5 UN Permanent Security Council Members

After a tense phone call over a week ago that reportedly devolved at one point into a shouting match between Putin and Erdogan, the two leaders met in Moscow and agreed to another ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province. The talks lasted for 6 hours last Thursday and concluded with agreement to a ceasefire and the establishment of a buffer zone, along the M4 highway, to be patrolled jointly by Turkey and Russia. Additionally, the “rebels” are supposed to evacuate from south of the highway.

Thursday’s agreement is considered an “additional protocol” to the Sochi Agreement of 2018. The ceasefire took effect on Friday morning and the joint patrols are due to start on March 15th.

Scott Ritter describes the reality on the ground after about a week of clashes between the Syrian Army and Turkish forces – the latter of which received no substantive support from Washington/NATO, which motivated the talks between Erdogan and Putin:

This [Turkish] operation soon fizzled; not only was the Turkish advance halted in its tracks, but the Syrian Army, supported by Hezbollah and pro-Iranian militias, were able to recapture much of the territory lost in the earlier fighting. Faced with the choice of either escalating further and directly confronting Russian forces, or facing defeat on the battlefield, Erdogan instead flew to Moscow.

The new additional protocol, which entered into effect at midnight Moscow time on Friday, March 6, represents a strategic defeat for Erdogan and the Turkish military which, as NATO’s second-largest standing armed force, equipped and trained to the highest Western standards, should have been more than a match for a rag-tag Syrian Army, worn down after nine years of non-stop combat. The Syrian armed forces, together with its allies, however, fought the Turks to a standstill. Moreover, the anti-Assad fighters that had been trained and equipped by the Turks proved to be a disappointment on the battlefield.

One of the major reasons behind the Turkish failure was the fact that Russia controlled the air space over Idlib, denying the Turks the use of aircraft, helicopters and (except for a single 48-hour period) drones, while apparently using their own aircraft, together with the Syrian Air Force, to pummel both the Turkish military and their allied anti-Assad forces (though neither side has officially confirmed the Russians bombing the Turks – that would be a disaster for the talks). In the end, the anti-Assad fighters were compelled to take shelter within so-called ‘Observation posts’– heavily fortified Turkish garrisons established under the Sochi Agreement, intermingling with Turkish forces to protect themselves from further attack. [Turkey’s] Operation Spring Shield turned out to be a resounding defeat for the Turks and their allies.

Forgive my cynicism but this sounds reminiscent of previous agreements that have broken down. The Turks did not live up to their obligations under the Sochi Agreement to remove jihadists such as terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS aka Al Qaeda/Al Nusra re-branded) from established de-escalation zones. Turkey’s failure to do this prompted the Syrian Army to remove the terrorists (“rebels”) themselves. According to Ritter, the additional protocol just agreed on reiterates the goal of pushing out the terrorists but does not elaborate on how it is to be achieved.

As military analyst Moon of Alabama points out:

This ceasefire is unlikely to hold over a longer period. But it brings a useful pause for the Syrian army that will allow it to recover a bit and to take care of its men and equipment.

This for now also ends the Turkish threat to attack the Syrian army and to reconquer all areas it had liberated over the last months.

Erdogan, who had made many demands, saw none of them fulfilled. The agreement will cost him political points within his party.

So it sounds like Erdogan took a big risk with his blustering action in Syria and ended up laying an egg. But I doubt Erdogan is suddenly going to give up the ghost rather than continue to find ways to throw sand in the gears of Syria’s push to regain full control over their sovereign territory.

A Redlines interview by Anya Parampil with Iranian professor, Mohammad Marandi, who just got back from Idlib, gives an update from on the ground as well as a good discussion of the history of the Syrian war.

For those who like symbolism – and have a propensity for Schadenfreude, here is a photo of Erdogan’s visit to Moscow and the decor he was subjected to during part of his meeting with Putin – courtesy of Russian historian and geopolitical analyst Nina Byzantina. (Note: you will only be able to see this image if you go to this post on my blog, it will not show up in the email version of this post – NB).

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In response to Putin’s January call for a summit of the 5 permanent UN Security Council members to discuss peace and other global issues of importance, France and China had quickly announced their receptivity. The US and UK, however, had been mum.

Last Wednesday, Russian news agency TASS reported that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed that president Trump has now agreed to the summit, which might take place at the UN on the sidelines of a General Assembly meeting in New York. Izvestia reported the following on March 4:

According to Lavrov, besides the challenging issue of nuclear disarmament, the parties are expected to discuss regional conflicts, new challenges and threats such as international terrorism, drug trafficking and other forms of organized crime, as well as human trafficking, migration issues and new technologies, which could slip out of control and pose a serious threat to humanity.

It’s easier to arrange this meeting of the five UNSC permanent members in New York, said Pavel Podlesny, Head of the Center for Russian-American Relations at the Institute for the US and Canadian Studies. “China and France backed the idea to meet a long time ago and now the US has agreed, and therefore Britain has no other option. It’s easier to hold the discussion in New York ahead of a session of the UN General Assembly as Donald Trump has offered,” he noted.

Bernie Sanders’ Foreign Policy Adviser Matt Duss’s Comments at Quincy Institute’s Forum on “A New Vision for America in the World”

Matt Duss is Bernie Sanders’ adviser on foreign policy. He represents a mild improvement on post-Cold War foreign policy – he’s not a Neoconservative and he acknowledges that the Palestinians have rights.

However, I’ve noted some very poor takes by Duss on Twitter such as one comment in which he seems to suggest that the main problem with Trump’s Venezuela policy is that it has been handled incompetently and allowed “Russia to screw with us in our own backyard.” He invokes a cold war narrative against Russia and seems to suggest that our interference in Venezuela isn’t really a problem – all in one tweet. He did receive significant criticism from Bernie supporters about it.

More recently, he put out a tweet supporting an article in The Guardian in which he suggested that the United States should support democracy activists in Russia and highlighted Alexey Navalny as representing the democratic opposition there. Others had to school him on who Navalny actually is: a right-wing racist xenophobe who actually referred to Central Asian immigrants in Russia as cockroaches.

This underscores the problem with Bernie Sanders and his campaign’s dangerous ignorance on the world’s other nuclear superpower in particular, as well as with their overall Manichean framework of the world’s democracies taking on the world’s “authoritarian” governments as outlined in a major speech given by Sanders on foreign policy in 2017 at Westminster College.

Last week, Duss was interviewed at a conference put on by the new think tank the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which advocates for restraint in U.S. foreign policy. A video was posted this past weekend of the event and I watched the first half, which included a discussion with Gen. David Petraeus – who said what one would expect him to say while also engaging in a lot of what Tim Black would call ear fatigue, yammering on about a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with the question asked until most people in the audience were wishing someone would pull the fire alarm and force an evacuation.

Congressman Ro Khanna also made an appearance and said some reasonable things, which cleansed the palate a bit after the bad taste left by Petraeus.

About an hour and a half into the conference Matt Duss was interviewed, along with Joe Biden’s foreign policy adviser and program director at the German Marshall Fund, Julianne Smith. Here are a few highlights of what Duss said in response to an initial set of questions from the moderator, Jonathan Tepperman – editor of Foreign Policy Magazine:

Most worrisome foreign policy issue facing a new president – Duss said climate change. It needs a multilateral response and will affect many other issues such as immigration.

How can damage Trump has done to alliances and “rules-based order” be repaired – Duss said that based on some of his conversations with allies in Europe, the election of Trump and his policies has made them begin to wonder if they’d misunderstood the U.S. Duss, however, did state that we should realize that Trump is not such a departure from the U.S.’s foreign policy of the last 20 years – i.e. after 9/11, which saw the “securitization of immigration,” the vilification of Muslims and a general demonization of diplomacy.

Moving forward – Duss said that we shouldn’t necessarily just return to the past on all foreign policy issues. Some challenges will require creating a new consensus and a comprehensive review of what institutions and policies are needed to meet current challenges. He also said that foreign policy should be rooted in an overall U.S. political consensus. I wasn’t really sure what this meant as he didn’t elaborate.

Israel/Palestine – Duss reiterated the need to return to a 2-state solution framework and international law and resolutions governing this basic framework. He did note that Israel’s actions, such as expansion of settlements, has undermined this. He said that Sanders would be more willing to put pressure on Israel to abide by its obligations. He mentioned Sanders’ characterization of Netanyahu as a “right wing nationalist” and connected that to the campaign’s overall critique of “right wing” “authoritarians.”

At this point, questions from the audience were allowed.

Are there any justifications ever for regime change wars and, if so, what are they? – Duss eschewed regime change wars, saying simply “Let’s not do it.”

What is the guiding principle or “north star” of your foreign policy? – Duss said that the strength of our democracy would guide our foreign policy in addition to reliance on allies and partnerships with other countries to create a “democratic consensus.”

This sounded vague to me. What does this actually mean in practice?

What role should sanctions have in foreign policy? Individual v. sectoral sanctions? – Duss said there should be more coherence on the use of sanctions, acknowledging that there had been an “over use” of them and that they sometimes have the effect of preventing diplomacy. He seemed to be more amenable to individual sanctions over sectoral sanctions so as not to harm civilian populations.

Duss was asked about the Manichean framework of democracies v authoritarian governments and whether democracy promotion could just be used as a tool for regime change – Duss stated that Sanders is not neutral on the issues of democracy and human rights. Although the U.S. needed to be more humble in terms of intervening in other countries, there should be a push for international norms.

Again, I’d like to know what exactly this means. What types of intervention are acceptable under this framework and who defines what constitutes democracy and violations of human rights? Do small countries get to tell larger (more powerful) countries that they are violating democracy and human rights? If so, what recourse do they have in effecting change in the larger country? If the U.S. is going to decide whether Russia, for example, is violating democracy and human rights, what sources are they going to be relying on to determine that? Alexey Navalny? Matt Duss – who clearly knows squat about Russia?

Grayzone journalist Max Blumenthal asked Duss about Ro Khanna’s recent twitter comment in the aftermath of the Russiagate accusations against Bernie’s campaign that we should trust the intel agencies. He also asked why Bernie is not demanding proof of the allegations – Duss said that Sanders had been briefed convincingly regarding Russian election interference (for 2020) and that Sanders would oppose any election interference by any foreign country.

What should our nuclear posture and position on “no first use” of nuclear weapons be? – Duss said Sanders supported a no first use position.

Interestingly, one member of the audience asked about reining in the defense budget and how such a reduction could be implemented with respect to congress, etc. This question was ignored.

Ukraine Opens Criminal Investigation into Pressure Allegedly Placed on Former Prosecutor Shokin by Joe Biden; Video Series: Putin Answers Questions on 20 Topics for 20th Anniversary of His Governance of Russia – Part I

On February 27th, Interfax [a private Russian news agency that is generally considered reliable] reported that a criminal investigation has been opened up by Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation regarding alleged pressure put on Ukraine’s former prosecutor Viktor Shokin by former Vice President Joe Biden.

The investigation was opened in response to a motion filed by Shokin. The State Bureau of Investigation was court ordered to register the case.

In his motion, Shokin spoke of pressure put on him by Biden, Teleshetsky said.

“The reason for the pressure was the investigation being conducted by the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine into grave crimes of international corruption linked with the activities of former Ecology Minister of Ukraine Mykola Zlochevsky and top managers at the Burisma company,” he said.

Shokin’s motion was filed with the State Bureau of Investigation back on January 28, 2020, but information about the criminal offence was added to the Unified Register of Pre-Trial Investigations only on February 24 after the country ordered the bureau to register the case, Teleshetsky said.

The case was opened on the charge of interfering in the work of an official of a law enforcement agency, he said.

Even though Shokin included Biden’s name in the motion, which prompted the opening of the case, the investigation itself mentions only a “U.S. citizen,” without giving any names, Teleshetsky said.

The State Bureau of Investigation is also handling criminal cases opened in response to Shokin’s motion on charges of disclosing pretrial probe secrets to employees of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, he said.

“Bearing in mind the fact that a possible suspect in all three of these criminal offences could be Joseph Biden, as a person who, in our opinion, is involved in these events, we deem it necessary to merge all the cases into one, in order to ensure an effective investigation and set up a competent investigative group, as well as a group of experienced prosecutors who can ensure the investigation within a reasonable period of time,” Teleshetsky said.

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The Russian news agency, TASS, conducted a comprehensive interview with Vladimir Putin on 20 different topics for the 20th anniversary of his initial election as Russian president. It will be a multi-part video series to be posted at intervals through the end of March. Below is a link to the first video with English subtitles. Unfortunately, I could not embed the video.

https://putin.tass.ru/en?_ga=2.127845517.142265297.1581953885-311200542.1578148349