News & Current Affairs

September 15, 2008

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev must agree policy decisions

Getting to the bottom of the shadowy depths of Kremlin decision-making is tricky. Machiavellian power struggles, dark paranoia of security chiefs and long fingers of corruption can turn seemingly rational and transparent explanations inside out.

But even public signals are instructive, and in the wake of the Georgia crisis, Russia’s leadership is taking stock and has several messages for the West.

The first key question about Russia is – who is really in charge?

The standard answer is President Medvedev as Commander in Chief. He, and only he, ordered Russian troops across the border to hit back when Georgia attacked on South Ossetia.

But presidential power is now the tip of an iceberg. What murky currents swirl beneath the surface is less clear.

Dmitry Medvedev says he was caught unawares and admits his relative inexperience.

“I was on holiday on the Volga when the defence minister called,” he said at a conference of the so-called ‘Valdai Club’ of foreign academics and journalists who specialize in Russia.

“I’ll never forget that night, knowing the consequences there would be when I gave the order to return fire… especially when I’d only been president for 95 days,” he said.

But what about Russia’s ex-president, now his prime minister, who was also at the conference?

“However much authority I have, whoever I may be talking to, none of the troops or tanks would have moved an inch until President Medvedev’s order,” was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to deny his own importance when we asked about his role, thereby indicating that his clout and involvement were considerable.

Bridget Kendall
1998 to present: BBC diplomatic correspondent
1994-98: Washington correspondent
1989-94: Moscow correspondent

What is more, at the outset of the crisis, when Mr Putin was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games, he was already thinking about Russia moving swiftly to recognize the two enclaves at the heart of the crisis.

He had taken the time, he told us, to inform the Chinese leadership that Russia would understand if Beijing chose not to react.

Double act

It begs the question – who is really driving policy, the president or the prime minister?

The choreography and timing of our audiences with both were instructive.

A pair of three-hour meetings, two elegant luncheon settings, two declarative statements for Russian TV cameras at the start, and even two carefully informal blue suits with matching ties.

All to signal, perhaps, that their status is equal – a dual leadership exercising power in tandem.

I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice
Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev

Indeed one senior government official made a point of emphasizing the duality, constantly referring to them in the same breath.

Policy decisions had to be cleared with both, he said. And what was wrong with that? A double act surely strengthened, not muddled governance, requiring a green light from two instead of one.

We met Mr Putin first. Almost the entire discussion was devoted to foreign policy.

He was burning to give his point of view. He seemed supremely confident, engaged and in charge. His anger at the way he felt Russia had been treated in recent years blazed through, as though it was his own personal animosity which is now firing and fuelling current policy.

It was hard to remember he was no longer president.

Economic policy, supposedly at the heart of his new job as prime minister, came up sporadically and he admitted he is still mastering his new brief.

When he did comment directly on Dmitry Medvedev, the impression he left was curious.

Mr Putin seemed to want to play up the differences between them, as though suggesting a “good cop, bad cop” routine.

He described himself as “conservative” and with an uncharacteristic flash of self-deprecation admitted his penchant for blunt speaking was sometimes a liability.

Whereas he described Dmitry Medvedev as bright, young and highly educated, with modern and – he stressed this twice – liberal views.

“He’s a good lad,” said Mr Putin a touch condescendingly, as though recommending his young protege to a would-be employer for a new job.

The aim, it seemed, was to send a signal to the West that Dmitry Medvedev is indeed more flexible and reformist than Putin himself – and was forced to act tough because the crisis left him no option.

Moral high ground

So the US and its allies should understand they had made a big mistake by allowing this conflict to happen – and they would make an even bigger mistake unless they made the compromises Russia now wants.

When we met Dmitry Medvedev he underscored the point.

“I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice,” he said.

“I very much don’t want the Caucasus crisis to destroy Russian co-operation with Europe and the United States,” he elaborated, and suggested he felt frustrated at his new role of “President of War”.

He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans
Vladimir Putin on George W Bush

“A whole month has been lost on this war… I’d rather have been doing other things,” he said. “Yesterday when I met the defence and finance ministers, instead of talking about car and tractor production, we had to discuss where to deploy the Russian army. Priorities have had to change.”

So what, then, at this juncture does Russia want from the West?

The first message is that the Russian government is in no mood to compromise.

It insists it occupies the moral high ground in this crisis and sees no reason to give way.

This was tantamount to Russia’s 9/11, President Dmitry Medvedev declared to us, a defining moment in national policy and in relations with the outside world.

That conviction was echoed from top to bottom in our discussions with government officials, mainstream academics and journalists, all of them insisting Russia had no choice but to respond militarily and take South Ossetia and Abkhazia under its wing.

Any suspicion that Russia cunningly laid a trap that Georgia rashly walked into was dismissed as an outrageous lie.

The idea that by deploying troops deep inside Georgia and unilaterally recognising the two disputed enclaves’ independence Russia had gone too far was rejected out of hand.

The suggestion that by invading Georgian territory, and asserting its right to redraw the map, Russia made itself look like a bully, was also thrown out.

Instead President Saakashvili was blamed for triggering the conflict.

The United States had nudged him into it and rashly armed and trained his men while Europeans had looked the other way.

Any Western criticism to the contrary was hypocritical, given interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, and yet another example of anti-Russian hysteria and unfair stereotyping, based on prejudices left over from the Cold War.

Red line

Curiously both Mr Putin and President Medvedev were carefully respectful when it came to President Bush.

“He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans,” said Mr Putin, at the same time complaining that he had twice tried to get the US president to intervene.

Instead it was Vice-President Cheney and the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with their Soviet expertise, who were targeted as villains, suspected of fueling anti-Russian sentiment in the US administration and egging Georgia on.

“We need to get rid of stereotypes. The US president has too many Sovietologists in his entourage,” observed Dmitry Medvedev caustically.

A Russian tank crosses a main route in Georgia

Russia is keen to avoid accusations of annexing Georgian territory

The second message that came through clearly was that Russia’s “red line” – any move to extend Nato to Russia’s borders by seeking to incorporate Georgia or Ukraine – still stands.

What Russia really wants is a new discussion on European security arrangements to replace Nato with something else entirely.

But short of that, attempts by the United States or Nato to rearm Georgia or to extend formal invitations to either Georgia or Ukraine to join the alliance seem likely to prompt a furious Russian response.

“Russia has zones that are part of its interests. For the West to deny it is pointless and even dangerous,” said President Medvedev.

“It’s unjust, it’s humiliating, and we’ve had enough. It’s something we are no longer prepared to endure,” he said. “You have a very clear choice here. Let there be no doubt about it.”

What exactly Russia would do to try to prevent this further Nato enlargement was left unclear.

“We’ll do all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen,” said Mr Putin carefully, talking about Ukraine.

Although on Georgia he noted Russian tanks had been within 15 kilometres of Tbilisi and could have taken the capital in four hours.

Economic concerns

So the hints of a threat, but not exactly – and that is interesting. Because the third message that came through was that Russia would like to think a major East-West confrontation can still be avoided.

There may well be powerful forces in Russia’s military and security elite, ultra nationalists who would like to see their country retreat from global integration and rely once more on internal resources – economic and military – as in Soviet days, to reclaim influence geographically and show the outside world Russia’s might can no longer be ignored.

Roubles being sorted at the Goznak mint in Moscow

Russia’s stock market value has fallen by 50% since May this year

But diplomatic and economic isolation does not seem to be what the Kremlin leadership currently wants to embrace.

The haste with which both Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev shrugged off the notion that Russia might have to pay a price for this crisis was telling.

They denied that the loss of nearly 50% of Russia’s stock market value from its all time high in May had much to do with the Georgia crisis.

A far more likely cause, they argued – with some justification, given what is happening on Wall Street – was the impact of global financial instability.

In comparison to many other countries, they insisted, Russia’s economy was in good shape – signs of capital flight were temporary. Foreign investors would be back. Russia’s energy resources were needed by everyone and it had weathered economic storms before.

The fact only Nicaragua had joined Russia in recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia was also dismissed as unimportant, even if the glaring lack of overt diplomatic support for Russia’s actions appears to be a sensitive point.

When the leader of South Ossetia told us he intended to follow up independence by amalgamating his tiny republic with North Ossetia and becoming part of the Russian Federation, he was hurriedly slapped down. Within hours he had issued a retraction.

Outright annexation by Russia of what is, after all, legally speaking Georgian territory is an accusation Moscow seems anxious to avoid.

Yes, Russia wants to claim that the ball is now firmly in the court of the US and its allies – that it is up to them, not Russia, to decide how this geopolitical crisis plays out.

But behind all the moral outrage, I felt there was also a nervousness, a worry that if Russia’s bluff is called and further tensions with the West ensue, it might force a stand-off from which neither side could back down.

“There is a chill in the air and a loss of trust,” said Dmitry Medvedev, “but I don’t think this is a corner turn that will lead to a long confrontation. This is not what we want. And it’s not what you want either.”

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September 7, 2008

Venezuela plans Russia navy visit

Venezuela plans Russia navy visit

Russian navy ships in Sevastopol

The exercises will be the first of their in the region

Venezuela says it plans to hold joint naval exercises in its territorial waters with Russian forces in November.

A senior Venezuelan naval officer said four Russian ships would take part in the exercises, which would also involve Venezuelan aircraft and submarines.

Correspondents say the move is likely to raise concern in the US, whose relations with Russia have been soured by Moscow’s recent conflict in Georgia.

Washington already has rocky relations with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez.

In July, he called for a strategic alliance with Russia to protect Venezuela from the US.

Caracas and Moscow agreed to extend bilateral co-operation on energy, with three Russian energy companies to be allowed to operate in Venezuela.

Regional first

On Saturday, Venezuela’s Rear Admiral Salbatore Cammarata Bastidas said four Russian ships and 1,000 Russian troops would take part in exercises in Venezuelan territorial waters from 10 to 14 November.

“This is of great importance because it is the first time it is being done (in the Americas),” he said in a statement quoted by the AFP news agency and local media.

President Chavez supported Russia’s intervention in Georgia last month and has accused Washington of being scared of Moscow’s “new world potential”.

Earlier, US Vice-President Dick Cheney launched a furious attack on Russia over the recent conflict in the Caucasus.

Mr Cheney described Moscow’s actions against Georgia as an affront to civilized standards and said it was reverting back to old Soviet tactics of intimidation and the use of brute force.

He added that Russia was also seeking to use its energy resources as a weapon.

September 5, 2008

Ukraine ‘must live without fear’

Ukraine ‘must live without fear’

US Vice-President Dick Cheney (r) and Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko

Mr Cheney aims to strengthen ties with Russia’s neighbours

US Vice-President Dick Cheney has said Ukraine has the right to live without fear of invasion, adding that the US stands by its bid for NATO membership.

Mr Cheney met both the prime minister and president in Kiev, the last stop of a tour aimed at underlining support for US allies in the former Soviet Union.

Mr Cheney reassured the president that the US had a “deep and abiding interest” in Ukraine’s security.

Analysts fear Ukraine could be the next flashpoint between Russia and the West.

“We believe in the right of men and women to live without the threat of tyranny, economic blackmail or military invasion or intimidation,” Mr Cheney said, in an apparent reference to Russia’s military intervention in Georgia.

‘Hostage’

Mr Cheney arrived in Ukraine just days after the country was plunged into political turmoil.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party blocked a motion condemning Russia’s actions in Georgia, and sided with the opposition to vote for a curb on the president’s powers.

Members of President Viktor Yushchenko’s party walked out of the coalition government in protest, leading the president to warn that he could be forced to call a snap general election.

Mr Cheney urged the politicians to heal their divisions and be “united domestically first and foremost”.

“Ukraine’s best hope to overcome these threats is to be united,” he said following separate meetings with Mr Yushchenko and his former ally turned political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Mr Cheney expressed support for Ukraine’s bid to become a member of Nato.

Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko (image from February 25, 2008)

“Ukrainians have a right to choose whether they wish to join Nato, and Nato has a right to invite Ukraine to join the alliance when we believe they are ready and that the time is right,” he said.

Russia is strongly opposed to any further expansion eastwards of Nato, and is furious that Ukraine and Georgia have been told that, one day, they will be offered membership.

But Mr Cheney – recognizing Ukraine’s contributions to NATO missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo – said that no country beyond NATO would be able to block Ukraine’s membership bid.

President Yushchenko says Ukraine is a hostage in a war waged by Russia against ex-Soviet bloc states.

The strategically-located country is important to Russia, with pipelines that carry Russian gas to European consumers and its Black Sea port, home to a key Russian naval base.

Russia has a powerful tool at its disposal, namely the large ethnic Russian population in Ukraine’s southern province of Crimea.

Open aggression

Mr Yushchenko has restricted Russia’s naval operations, and insists Moscow must leave when an inter-state treaty expires in 2017.

Ukraine has said it is ready to make its missile early warning systems available to European nations following Russia’s conflict with Georgia.

Mr Cheney’s visit comes at an awkward time for President Yushchenko, with the country’s largely pro-Western ruling coalition divided in its attitude toward Russia.

The leaders’ faltering relationship has now boiled over into open aggression, with Mr Yushchenko threatening to dissolve parliament and call a snap election.

The president has been a staunch supporter of his Georgian counterpart, Mikhail Saakashvili.

But Ms Tymoshenko has avoided outright condemnation of Russia, leading analysts to suggest she may be hoping for Moscow’s backing in a possible bid for the presidency in 2010.

September 3, 2008

Ukraine in snap election warning

Ukraine in snap election warning

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko

Mr Yushchenko said he would call a poll unless a new coalition was formed

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has threatened to dissolve parliament and call elections after the collapse of the country’s ruling coalition.

Mr Yushchenko’s supporters walked out in protest following new laws trimming the president’s powers.

The laws were introduced by the pro-Russian opposition and backed by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party.

Former allies, the prime minister and president are now at odds despite sharing pro-Western political goals.

All but one of 12 ministers from Mr Yushchenko’s party boycotted Wednesday’s cabinet meeting.

“A political and constitutional coup d’etat has started in the parliament,” Mr Yushchenko said in a televised speech.

“I will use my right to dissolve parliament and decree early elections if a new coalition is not formed within 30 days,” he said.

‘Irresponsible behaviour’

But Ms Tymoshenko blamed her rival for the chaos, vowing that the Ukrainian cabinet would continue its work despite the break-up of the coalition.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (l) and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko

“I am sorry that the president behaves irresponsibly,” she said at a cabinet meeting. “The coalition was destroyed under his instruction.”

Mr Yushchenko’s popularity is at rock bottom at the moment with opinion polls giving him single-digit levels of support.

The prime minister and president are believed to be jockeying for position before next year’s presidential election, though our correspondent says Mr Yushchenko’s chances of winning with current popularity levels would be slim.

The crisis follows mounting tension between the president and prime minister with Mr Yushchenko accusing Ms Tymoshenko of treason for allegedly siding with Moscow over the conflict in Georgia.

Mr Yushchenko has been a vociferous supporter of Georgia during the conflict but the prime minister’s party on Tuesday blocked a parliamentary resolution condemning Moscow.

The flare-up comes a day before a planned visit to the country by US Vice-President Dick Cheney.

The trip is part of a tour of former Soviet states which the US sees as key allies.


Are you in Ukraine? Are you concerned by developments? Send us your comments and experiences

Russia praises EU’s approach

Russia praises EU’s approach

Lavrov, left, said Russia did not discriminate against Turkey in trade relations [AFP]

Russia has praised the European Union for taking a “responsible approach” to its conflict with Georgia by declining to impose sanctions on Moscow.

But Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, said the EU had failed to understand Moscow’s reasons for moving into Georgia and recognising the separitist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“In my view, the outcome is double-edged,” Medvedev said at his summer residence on the Black Sea.

“This is sad, but not fatal because things change in this world. Another situation, in my opinion, is more positive.

“Despite certain divisions among the EU states on the issue, a reasonable, realistic point of view prevailed because some of the states were calling for some mythical sanctions.”

He later said that he does not consider Mikhail Saakashvili to be Georgia’s president, in an interview with a Russian television channel.

“For us, the present Georgian regime has collapsed. President Saakashvili no longer exists in our eyes. He is a political corpse,” Medvedev said.

EU leaders met in Brussels on Monday to discuss Russia and Georgia and threatened to postpone talks with Moscow on a new partnership pact if it did not withdraw its troops to pre-conflict positions in Georgia by mid-September.

The leaders were unable to reach a consensus on the sanctions that some members, including Britain and the Baltic states, had been pushing for, highlighting the bloc’s divisions over how best to deal with its largest energy supplier.

Cheney visit

Ahead of a visit by Dick Cheney, the US vice president, to US allies in the region, a Kremlin aide said he expected Washington would also opt against imposing sanctions.

Cheney, due to leave on Tuesday for Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine, has been an outspoken critic of Russia, saying last month its push into Georgia could “not go unanswered”.

Sergei Prikhodko, chief foreign policy advisor to Medvedev, told reporters:”We hope that a positive agenda in relations with the United States will prevail.”

Cheney has been an outspoken critic of Russia since the war broke out [EPA]

The statements contained none of the strident remarks made by Kremlin officials in the run-up to the EU summit.

It also appeared designed to signal Moscow’s readiness to take a conciliatory stance with western countries if they also avoid confrontation.

Russia sent its forces against its southern neighbour in a brief war last month after Georgia tried to recapture by force its pro-Moscow, separatist region of South Ossetia.

It has drawn Western condemnation by pushing beyond the disputed area, bombing and deploying troops deep inside Georgia proper and recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russia said it was forced to intervene to prevent what it has called a genocide of the separatist regions by Tbilisi, and says it is honouring a French-brokered ceasefire deal.

The former Soviet republic of Georgia is strategically important to the West because it hosts oil and gas pipelines that bypass Russia.

September 1, 2008

Gustav changes Republican plans

Gustav changes Republican plans

Republican presidential candidate John McCain has suspended most events planned for day one of his party’s convention because of Hurricane Gustav.

The convention, due to begin on Monday in Minneapolis, was scaled down as the fierce storm approached New Orleans.

Gustav, now a Category Three storm, is due to make landfall on Monday.

Residents of New Orleans have been told to leave the city. The mayor has imposed an overnight curfew and warned looters they will be sent to jail.

Speaking in Mississippi, Mr McCain said it was important to tone down the traditional pomp and flair of convention week.

Predicted route of Hurricane Gustav (31 August 2008)

“Of course this is a time when we have to do away with most of our party politics,” Mr McCain told reporters.

President George W Bush and VP Dick Cheney have scrapped plans to address the convention on Monday. Mr Bush said he would instead go to Texas to monitor relief efforts.

Mr McCain’s campaign chartered a jet to fly worried delegates back to their home states threatened by the hurricane, which is set to hit the Louisiana coast on Monday.

‘Hope and pray’

After returning from a tour of relief preparations in Mississippi, he said convention delegates needed to “take off our Republican hats, and put on our American hats and we say America, we’re with you”.

The Republicans are keen to avoid the kind of political damage incurred by the Bush administration’s clumsy response to Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

Justin Webb
Plainly the backdrop of images of destruction reminding Americans of Katrina will be horrible for the Republicans
BBC North America editor Justin Webb

Republicans clearly cannot afford to be seen hosting glamorous political events, while the people of New Orleans are once again fleeing their city, he says.

“I hope and pray we will be able to resume some of our normal operations as quickly as possible,” McCain told reporters via a video link from St Louis.

“I have every expectation that we will not see the mistakes of Katrina repeated,” he added.

Mr McCain’s convention manager Rick Davis said the convention would open for just over two hours on Monday, solely to go through procedures necessary under law to begin the process of nominating a president and vice-president.

National Guard troops on the streets of New Orleans

The streets of New Orleans were empty as a curfew loomed

The formal business of the convention includes, on Wednesday, the formal nomination of the Arizona senator for president and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Mr McCain’s acceptance speech, set for prime time on Thursday evening, is deemed to be among the most important events of the campaign for his chances of winning the White House in November.

Meanwhile, Democratic nominee Barack Obama said he would open up his vast donor list to channel money or volunteers to help recovery efforts, in response to Gustav.

“We can activate an e-mail list of a couple [of] million people who want to give back,” Mr Obama told reporters after attending church in Lima, Ohio.

Exodus

New Orleans residents have been fleeing in their thousands after Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a full evacuation of the city.

FLASHBACK TO KATRINA
Hurricane Katrina evacuees
Katrina struck US Gulf Coast in August 2005 as a category three storm, killing more than 1,800 people
New Orleans was 80% flooded after storm surge breached protective levees
US Government was blamed for slow, botched response that exacerbated disaster
Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced

Roads out of the Louisiana port – much of which lies below sea level and is protected from flooding only by a fragile system of levees – have been crammed with traffic.

Mr Nagin said that the first storm winds could hit New Orleans as early as daybreak on Monday and the hurricane could reach Category Four strength.

America’s homeland security chief, Michael Chertoff, said the main evacuation was going well but he warned that people hoping to ride out the storm would be “exceptionally foolish”.

The evacuation comes almost exactly three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

In 2005, three-quarters of the city was flooded after a storm surge breached its protective levees. More than 1,800 people died in coastal areas.

Gustav has already claimed the lives of more than 80 people in the Caribbean, causing widespread damage in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica over the past week.

At least 300,000 people were evacuated in Cuba as the storm brought extensive flooding and some severe damage, but no reports of deaths.


Have you been affected by Gustav? Are you preparing for its arrival? Send us your comments and experiences

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