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 12, 2008

Putin defends Georgia offensive

Putin defends Georgia offensive

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Sochi (August 2008)

Mr Putin said Russia was prepared to work with Western partners

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made an impassioned defence of Russia’s military intervention in Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Mr Putin accused the Western press of an “immoral and dishonest account of what happened”.

He said Russia had had no choice but to intervene following what he alleged was Georgian aggression.

And he went on to dismiss out of hand European criticism of Russian force as “disproportionate”.

“What did you want us to do? Wave our penknives in the air and wipe the bloody snot off our noses?” he asked, adding: “When an aggressor comes into your territory, you need to punch him in the face – an aggressor needs to punished.”

He added that Russian tanks had, after all, only been 15km from Tbilisi and could easily have taken the Georgian capital and ousted President Mikhail Saakashvilli if they had wanted to.

Mr Putin also accused the US of behaving like the Roman Empire by believing it could pursue its own interests and extending its influence to the Caucasus without regard for Russia’s point of view.

“God forbid that we should tread on US toes in its backyard,” he said, expressing frustration that the United States seemed to think it was alright to arm Georgia on Russia’s border – a move which he repeatedly argued had provoked Georgia to take up military action.

‘Anti-Russian hysteria’

On wider relations with the West, he insisted that current tensions did not amount to the start of a new Cold War, and dismissed arguments that Russia might suffer diplomatic or economic isolation because of the crisis.

SOUTH OSSETIA & ABKHAZIA
BBC map

But he also said Russia was prepared to work with Western partners and wanted a constructive relationship with the European Union but only if what he called “realities” were taken into account.

Russia, said the prime minister, should be treated as an equal partner and all sides agree on new common rules of behavior based on international law.

“The problem is not with us,” Mr Putin said, “it lies with political groups in the West who use old phobias to whip up anti-Russian hysteria.”

However, he warned that tensions between Russia and the EU may well worsen if, as expected, US missiles are deployed in Poland as part of the controversial missile shield.

He said he expected that to be the moment that Russia would reposition its missiles to point at European targets.

“Why have you placed missiles under our nose?” he said, and warned it would ratchet up an extra notch the nuclear arms race in Europe.

UK relations

Mr Putin also indicated that relations with Britain were unlikely to improve while Russian emigres remained in the UK despite Russia’s requests to extradite them to stand trial – an apparent reference to the Russian business tycoon Boris Berezovsky and the former Chechen spokesman, Ahmed Zakayev.

Vladimir Putin (L) talks with George Bush in Beijing (8 August)

Putin said the US had not intervened early on in the Georgian crisis

“Why do you allow UK territory to be used a launching pad to fight Russia?” he asked.”Imagine if we gave sanctuary to armed members of the IRA – that’s why its not possible to build normal relations with Britain,” he said.

Mr Putin also threw new light on the crisis in South Ossetia.

On 8 August, when he was in Beijing for the start of the Olympic Games, he had spoken to US President George W Bush soon after hearing of the attack by Georgian troops on the South Ossetian capital – but the United States had failed to intervene.

In Beijing, he had already raised the question of Russia recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent territories with the Chinese government, and told them Russia did not expect Chinese support.

This is an interesting comment that suggests Russia was already planning to recognise the two enclaves from very early on in the crisis.

August 29, 2008

Russia hits back at G7 criticism

Russia hits back at G7 criticism

Georgians mourn soldiers killed in the conflict, 28/08

Georgians have been burying soldiers killed in the conflict

Criticism by the G7 group of nations of Russia’s actions in Georgia is biased and groundless, Russian officials have said.

The G7 was trying to justify Georgian aggression towards the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.

The G7 had accused Russia of breaking international law by recognising the two provinces as independent.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief war earlier this month over the issue.

The ministry accused the G7 of making “baseless assertions about Russia undermining Georgia’s territorial integrity”.

SOUTH OSSETIA & ABKHAZIA
BBC map
South Ossetia
Population: About 70,000 (before recent conflict)
Capital: Tskhinvali
President: Eduard Kokoity
Abkhazia
Population: About 250,000 (2003)
Capital: Sukhumi
President: Sergei Bagapsh

“This step is biased and is aimed at justifying the aggressive actions of Georgia,” the ministry said.

The new statement comes a day after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stoked up the war of words with the US.

He told CNN there was a “suspicion” that the Georgian conflict was created by someone in the US in the hope of benefiting one of the candidates in the presidential elections.

The White House dismissed Mr Putin’s assertions as “not rational”.

Meanwhile, officials in the Moscow-backed South Ossetian government have been quoted as saying Russia intends to absorb the breakaway province within “several years”.

Parliamentary speaker Znaur Gassiyev said the move had been agreed at high-level talks in Moscow earlier this week, the Associated Press reported.

The Kremlin has not yet commented on the claims.

August 28, 2008

Putin blames US for Georgia role

Putin blames US for Georgia role

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

Mr Putin said US citizens were in the area during the conflict

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has accused the US of provoking the conflict in Georgia, possibly for domestic election purposes.

Mr Putin told CNN US citizens were “in the area” during the conflict over South Ossetia and were “taking direct orders from their leaders”.

He said his defense officials had told him the provocation was to benefit one of the US presidential candidates.

The White House dismissed the allegations as “not rational”.

Georgia tried to retake the Russian-backed separatist region of South Ossetia this month by force after a series of clashes.

Russian forces subsequently launched a counter-attack and the conflict ended with the ejection of Georgian troops from both South Ossetia and another rebel region, Abkhazia, and an EU-brokered ceasefire.

Diplomatic wrangling

Mr Putin said in the interview: “The fact is that US citizens were indeed in the area in conflict during the hostilities.

“It should be admitted that they would do so only following direct orders from their leaders.”

Those claims first and foremost are patently false, but it also sounds like his defence officials who said they believed this to be true are giving him really bad advice
Dana Perino,
White House spokeswoman

Mr Putin added: “The American side in effect armed and trained the Georgian army.

“Why… seek a difficult compromise solution in the peacekeeping process? It is easier to arm one of the sides and provoke it into killing another side. And the job is done.

“The suspicion arises that someone in the United States especially created this conflict with the aim of making the situation more tense and creating a competitive advantage for one of the candidates fighting for the post of US president.”

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino rejected the allegation.

“To suggest that the United States orchestrated this on behalf of a political candidate – it sounds not rational,” she said.

“Those claims first and foremost are patently false, but it also sounds like his defense officials who said they believed this to be true are giving him really bad advice.”

SOUTH OSSETIA & ABKHAZIA
BBC map
South Ossetia
Population: About 70,000 (before recent conflict)
Capital: Tskhinvali
President: Eduard Kokoity
Abkhazia
Population: About 250,000 (2003)
Capital: Sukhumi
President: Sergei Bagapsh

Diplomatic wrangling over Russia’s actions in Georgia continued on Thursday with the Georgian parliament urging its government to cut diplomatic ties with Moscow.

Earlier, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner suggested some EU countries were considering sanctions against Russia.

Mr Kouchner insisted France had made no proposals for sanctions itself but, as current president of the EU, would aim to get consensus among all 27 countries of the bloc if sanctions were envisaged.

France has called an emergency EU summit on Monday to reassess relations with Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described talk of sanctions as the working of “a sick imagination”.

Such talk was an emotional response that demonstrated Western confusion over the situation, he said.

The US has said it is now considering scrapping a US-Russia civilian nuclear co-operation pact in response to the conflict.

“I don’t think there’s anything to announce yet, but I know that that is under discussion,” Mr Perino said.

The White House has also announced that up to $5.75m (£3.1m) will be freed to help Georgia meet “unexpected and urgent refugee and migration needs”.

Rocket test

Earlier on Thursday Russia failed to get strong backing from its Asian allies over the Georgia conflict.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), comprising Russia, China and Central Asian nations, met in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and spoke of its deep concern.

The group did not follow Russia in recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev insisted he had the backing of the nations over Moscow’s actions.

Amid the rising tension, Russia announced on Thursday it had successfully tested its long-range Topol ballistic missile from a launch site in Kamchatka in the far east of the country.

Russia says the rocket is capable of penetrating the proposed US missile defence.

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