RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – July 25, 2014

Opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov waits to attend a court hearing in MoscowTODAY: Sergei Udaltsov found guilty in Bolotnaya Square protests; Putin’s approval ratings reach a high; IMF forecasts weaker growth.  Russia denies missiles launched on its territory against Ukrainian fighter jets; Kremlin disapproves of U.S. South Korea plans; Canada announces sanctions. 

Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov and activist Leonid Razvozzhayev have been found guilty of organising mass riots at the anti-Putin Bolotnaya Square protests in a trial human rights groups have labelled a ‘mockery of justice‘.  Udaltsov has now gone on hunger strike in protest against the 4 and a half year prison sentence.  Reuters examines the phenomenon of middle class emigration from Russia, which is reportedly rapidly increasing.  Despite the MH17 disaster dealing a blow to Putin’s international image, his approval ratings have reportedly risen to a six-year high, to 86%, according to a state-run poll.  Pundits like broadcaster Dmitry Kiselyev of Channel One, the subject of this report, are helping to keep the President’s image polished.  The IMF has slashed Russia’s economic growth forecast for 2014-2015 to 0.2% from 1.3% for 2014 and to 1% from 2.3% for 2015.

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‘Oligarchs’ Are Not a Unitary Class

Allow me a moment to register shock and disdain for the front page of today’s Times of London, which broadly declares, “Cameron Under Pressure to Punish Putin Oligarchs,” lending to other misleading coverage ramping up unchecked Russophobia in Britain in response to the horror of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

We have seen before the dangers of labeling ‘oligarchs’ as a class unto itself, when in fact we are speaking about a diverse group of individuals of varying political orientations and values. In fact, it was Mr Putin himself who began the attack on oligarchs in much the same manner when he took power, seeing many of these individuals as an unwanted counterweight to his ability to rule Russia as an authoritarian state with no competing pillars of influence.

With articles like these, the Times does little service to itself or its readers by labeling many of Russia’s best and brightest as “Putin’s men.” Not every wealthy Russian is an appendage of Putin’s murderous machine, nor is every so-called ‘oligarch’ as intimately involved in state affairs as Igor Sechin, for example (who, by the way, receives the most polite reverence by British Petroleum).

Firstly, there are several generations of oligarchs who made their wealth during different periods in Russia’s development. There are those who have funded opposition parties and publications, and have worked hard to provide Russia with the smallest breath of oxygen in her civil society, for whatever that’s worth.

The indignation over what has happened in Ukraine is legitimate, and a serious coordinated response is necessary. Let’s be clear – this is an unspeakable horror that has changed the course of European history. But lumping together all Russians for punishment – even those who have done absolutely nothing wrong – will only help the hawks in the Kremlin consolidate their position as the “besieged fortress” requiring protection from the outside world.

At such an important moment, the Times could do better to distinguish between those responsible and related to the actual events.

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MH17 and the Legal Theory of Control

Writing on Opinio Juris, Jens David Ohlin raises the important issue of the theory of control in international law given the possibility of Russia’s involvement (or the “creating of conditions,” as phrased by Washington) and what level of responsibility there can be for the activity of the rebels.

If this story is true, it reveals how important the debate is, in international jurisprudence, between competing theories of control. This might seem like an obvious point, but the current situation in the Ukraine (vis-à-vis Russian influence) may stand at precisely the fault line between “effective control” and “overall control” – the two competing doctrines of attribution in international law.

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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – July 24, 2014

Coffin carried, MH17 victim at Eindhoven, NetherlandsTODAY: Rebels admit owning Buk missile system; still lay the blame on Ukraine; two fighter jets shot down in eastern Ukraine; Russia asserts sanction impact negligeable; EU mulls measures against Russia, rifts likely to thwart sanctions drive. Concerns over climate for media workers in Ukraine; NGO foreign agent law claims new victims.  In an interview with Reuters, Ukrainian rebel leader Alexander Khodakovsky has acknowledged that separatists have in their possession the Buk anti-aircraft system suspected to have shot down MH17, but blamed Kiev for the incident on the basis that it knew that the missile was in separatist-held territory and ‘did nothing to protect security, but provoked the use of this type of weapon against a plane that was flying with peaceful civilians.’  Two Ukrainian Sukhoi fighter jets have reportedly been shot down in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russia rebels, just 16 miles from the MH17 crash site.  The White House sees this latest move as evidence of a systematic campaign by separatists using Russian weapons against aircraft.  Ukraine’s Security Council believes the military jets were hit by missiles launched from Russia itself.  The volume of weapons Russia is channelling to Ukraine’s East suggests it is ‘trying to create a proper military force‘, says an analyst in the FT.  A group of U.S. senators have proposed designating the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic a ‘foreign terrorist organization‘.  Alexander Borodai, the head of the aforementioned Republic has said that bodies of victims of the MH17 disaster were not kept in refrigerated conditions because the OSCE representatives failed to arrive at the crash site promptly.  The blackboxes from the flight have reached the International Civil Aviation Organization in good condition.     Read More »

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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – July 23, 2014

TODAY: Putin blocks ad income for independent television channels, ends Gazprom pipeline monopoly; MH17 an accident, but U.S. still blames Russia; Litvinenko snub canceled out by British exports and oligarch party donations; Kudrin advises against military intervention in Ukraine; Russia to rebuild Crimean military; Moscow metro head fired.

President Vladimir Putin signed so many bills into law yesterday that it called for a list; one of the new measures will cut off income to independent television channels by banning advertising on subscription channels – excluding ‘compulsory’ state channels.  Another of Putin’s orders could reduce the dominance of Gazprom over the country’s exports by ending its monopoly over access to pipelines in Siberia and the Far East.  It is thought that Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down accidentally, but the U.S. nonetheless blames Russia for ‘creating the conditions that allowed the crash to happen.  Western powers are sending mixed messages regarding their position with Russia: Britain’s plan to hold a public inquiry into the death of former FSB official Alexander Litvinenko amounts to ‘an open snub’ to Russia, says the Moscow Times.  But despite this, and Britain’s fears about violence by pro-separatist rebels in Ukraine, the U.K. is still exporting millions of dollars worth of arms to Russia, and its prime minister is under fire to return hefty party donations from Russian oligarchs.  France is defying the wishes of its U.K. and U.S. allies by confirming its plans to deliver a warship to Russia.  The European Union has decided it will expand sanctions against Russia to target Putin’s inner circle, but as yet has taken no concrete steps.

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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – July 22, 2014

TODAY: Putin fails to apologise for airplane tragedy; Obama calls for Putin intervention as rebels hand over MH17 black box; unpredictability of Ukraine crisis scares investors; new sanctions threatened as officials say existing restrictions may affect Rosneft privatisation plans; Germany says sanctions affect its companies; Severstal pulls out of U.S. market.

President Vladimir Putin came somewhat close to apologising for the Malaysian Airlines plane crash in his conciliatory video statement yesterday, making vague statements about how the tragedy should bring people closer together, and that the event should not be used as a platform for political spectacle.  But not close enough, says The Times: ‘The “s” word is difficult for Russians, as it implies for them a loss of face.’  The downing of the plane ‘gives the lie to the idea that Mr. Putin is some kind of strategic genius,says the Financial Times, listing a series of what it sees as the President’s ‘blunders’ regarding Ukraine.  Mary Dejevsky says the crash must have been ‘an acute political embarrassment’ for Putin.  U.S. President Barack Obama is urging Putin to intervene directly with rebels to ensure cooperation with the investigation, promising Russia’s further isolation if a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis is not found.  Following 12 hours of negotiations, the black box recorders from flight MH17 were handed over to Malaysia by the leader of the pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, who again blamed the Kiev government for the crash.  Russian print media have continued also to make similar allegations.  The unpredictability of Russia’s situation – and fear of an open war with Ukraine – is spooking investors, says Reuters.

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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – July 21, 2014

TODAY: Separatists deny access to crash site; Kerry blames Russia, Russia blames Ukraine, Ukraine blames Russia; oligarchs want Putin to back off on Ukraine; Russia to retaliate against U.S.; Putin enjoys growing approval ratings; Moldovan fruit ban comes into effect.

Armed separatists in eastern Ukraine are continuing to deny access to international observers attempting to reach the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.  US Secretary of State John Kerry has increased pressure on Russia, accusing it of being responsible for supplying and training the separatists who caused the crash. Kerry said that major supplies moving into Ukraine from Russia over the past month included rocket launchers, and that it is ‘pretty clear’ that the system that downed the plane ‘was transferred from Russia’.  All of Russia’s pro-Kremlin media sources insisted, with varying angles, that Ukraine’s government was responsible for the crash – and some reports, apparently are trying to implicate the US.  Ukraine’s Security Council says Russia is continuing to send ‘heavy weaponry into eastern Ukraine to supply separatists.  Russia Today slammed the Western media for ‘unleashing a post-crash factless blame game against Russia’ in the immediate aftermath of the crash.  The New York Times says that separatists fighting in Ukraine ‘have always had the vocal support of high-ranking Kremlin officials’.  Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has thus far remained silent regarding the crash.

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What Putin Should Do, ASAP

I agree with Leonid Bershidsky’s argument here – but with the clock ticking, I fear that Putin will be cornered into a typical defensive position of denial:

By disowning the rebels immediately — in the form of criminal proceedings against the Russian citizens among them, the immediate withdrawal of any Russian aid for them and a public admission that it was their activity that led to the downing of MH17 — Putin could abandon the losing side while saving face. The window of opportunity for Putin to escape this losing war is shrinking, however, and he is unlikely to get a better chance.

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MH17 and Putin’s Recklessness in Ukraine

mh17-ukraine-russiaThe shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukrainian separatist-held territory yesterday represents an unfathomable, heartbreaking horror – the second tragedy to strike the carrier within months, while almost certainly changing the course of history in the current conflict if not the wider post-Soviet space.

While not all the facts are clear at the moment, almost three hundred people have lost their lives just one day after tougher sanctions went into effect against many of Russia’s top companies and financial institutions. MH17 was flying in approved airspace almost 20 miles above the Donetsk region, and was most likely struck SA-17 Buk 2 surface-to-air missile system. Both Russia and the separatists deny their involvement, claiming they would lack the sophisticated armament to take down a plane, however a June 17 report by ITAR-TASS reported that the rebels had seized control of a Buk system, and two other Ukrainian military cargo planes had been brought down in recent weeks.

Russia gains absolutely nothing from this terrible tragedy, while the Donetsk separatists in fact stand to lose the most, so the argument that the aircraft was intentionally taken down is not very plausible. Russia’s state media is busy pushing a “false flag” accusation that Kiev shot down MH17 with the intention of blaming it on the rebels, but this has not been supported by any of the facts thus far.

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Thailand’s Inevitable Revolution

non-protest-protestThe following op/ed was originally published on RealClearWorld:

In recent weeks, the military junta in Thailand has been working hard on rehabilitating its image. A battalion of soft-spoken diplomats has been dispatched on an international charm offensive, lecturing policymakers and journalists on their good intentions and popular support. Just don’t ask them to prove it in an election.

Their efforts are aimed at promoting a distorted understanding of events — an exercise that the United States and Europe seem all too willing to accept. They want the world to believe that the May 22, 2014, military coup is somehow a “normal” feature of Thailand’s political culture, and as such, the junta should get a free pass.

If things continue along this path, we are due to have a replay of the aftermath of the 2006 coup. At the time, Western governments eventually gave their support to the military’s plan to introduce a new constitution that severely watered down representation and allowed them to keep appointees permanently entrenched in the Constitutional Court and Senate. It’s little wonder why the situation has culminated in violence and repression once again several years later, and undoubtedly what will happen if they remain unchallenged in 2014.

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