Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Finland and Sweden face Zapad 2017

As Russia's Zapad 2017 military exercise across the Baltic Sea approaches, Finland and Sweden feel vulnerable in a new way. Former U.S. ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji comments in the Wall Street Journal:
The current relationship between the U.S. and Russia is eerily evocative of the Cold War, complete with aggressive aircraft interceptions, harassment at sea, and diplomatic expulsions. But there are significant, consequential differences between America’s relationship with the Soviet Union and with the Russian Federation.
Today’s situation is more perilous, made so by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sense of grievance and revenge. Alliances have shifted too. The nations of the Warsaw Pact dissolved that treaty and most then joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. What remains of the nonaligned bloc is more nostalgic whimsy than an influential group of nations.
More here.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Russia and its Conflict with Islam

At Hoover Institution, an excerpt from Robert Service''s upcoming Hoover Press book Russia and its Islamic World:
It is widely assumed that Russian foreign and domestic policies operate quite independently of each other. This is not the way to make sense of Russia and its Islamic world. Not the least of the reasons is that the manner in which the Kremlin treats its Muslim citizens is inextricably linked to the manner in which it deals with the neighboring Muslim states of the former Soviet Union. Thus, when Putin is affirming his benign intentions toward Muslims in those states, the question arises about how he is dealing with discontent in the Muslim-inhabited territories of the Russian Federation itself. Nothing gives greater cause for concern than the scorched-earth offensive in Chechnya that he ordered in 1999 when still only Yeltsin’s prime minister.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Multipolarity and Ukraine

Stephen Blank, in Kyiv Post:
The only sovereignty Moscow recognizes or respects is its own. It certainly does not believe itself to be bound by law, domestic or international. Neither does it consider itself obliged to follow UN resolutions that are against its interests. Instead, as Condoleezza Rice wrote a decade ago, the doctrine of multipolarity leads to a world based on force where the strong do what they can and the smaller states suffer what they must accept. i.e. a world ruled by unbounded force.
Indeed, Russia’s continuing resort to force in its peripheries expresses many important truths about the nature of Putin’s regime. First, it shows that the resort to war to resolve political rivalries continues to be the regime’s logical conclusion to the denial of post-Soviet states’ sovereignty and the aspiration for territorial and imperial aggrandizement. Indeed, empire or what one might call imperial circuses has become the raison d’etre of the Putin regime since it cannot and will not give its people bread.
Imperial aggrandizement and adventures reinforce the narrative of Russia’s greatness and condition of being surrounded by enemies while also fortifying the notion of Putin as a powerful statesman whom the West fears and Russia as a similarly great and feared power. But this not merely a cynical propaganda ploy. The regime actually believes it is in a state of long-term multi-dimensional war with the West even though no shots are being fired by the two sides. Thus Russia acts as if it is and considers itself to be at war with NATO not just the United States.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Irina Ratushinskaya

I was very sad to hear the news of the passing of the Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya, some of whose work I translated in the 1980s and 1990s.

Obituaries have been published in the Guardian and the Times.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Panic and sabotage

The Russian Reader has published an English translation of the Novaya Gazeta article by Elena Milashina, in which she describes the background to the journalistic investigation of evidence of extrajudicial killings in Chechnya:
On April 20, we handed over to police investigators information about two men who, we had concluded, had been killed during the anti-gay campaign in Chechnya. Our journalistic investigation, in fact, began with attempting to clarify what had happened to these two men
We sent all information about the murdered men to investigators for their review as soon as we received it. We also gave the Russian Investigative Committee the anonymous testimony of the surviving victims, who had been kept in secret prisons and gone through terrible torture. This testimony aided investigators in independently and successfully establishing the identities of the victims, according to our information.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Last of the Colonialists

A remarkable essay in The American Interest by analyst Vladislav Inozemtsev on the last of the great European empires:
To pump more money into the central budget, the Russian leadership continues the economic exploitation of Siberia. The overall share of regional tax revenue accruing to the Siberian government dropped from 51 percent in 1997 to less than 34 percent in 2014—the central government not only introduced new taxes and duties, but created state corporations that operate in Siberia but have their headquarters in Moscow or St. Petersburg, where they pay regional taxes. Therefore, the regional gross product generated in the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg exceeds the regional gross product of the whole area from the Urals to Sakhalin and Kamchatka. Formally, Russian statistics counted only 9.2 percent of the nation’s exports as originating in the Siberian Federal District in 2016, since the official “exporters” are Moscow-based companies. Russian natural gas thus appears to be pumped exclusively inside the Moscow ring road. All this exploitation causes massive underinvestment and the persistence of low living standards in Siberia. With this obsession with “national unity” and “territorial integrity,” which prompts it to hang onto its remaining dependencies at any cost, Russia risks losing, or perhaps ruining, its colony.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Dugin and Klokotov shaped Russia's current anti-Western strategy

An article by Charles Firth, published last March on the website, makes it clear that the Ukraine war, Brexit and the Trump presidency were in essence planned 20 years ago by Russian strategists Alexander Dugin and Gen. Nikolai Klokotov in the book Foundations of Geopolitics:
Let’s start close to Russia. The book argues that Ukraine should - surprise, surprise - be annexed by Russia. “Ukraine as a state has no geopolitical meaning, no particular cultural import or universal significance, no geographic uniqueness, no ethnic exclusiveness, its certain territorial ambitions represents an enormous danger for all of Eurasia and, without resolving the Ukrainian problem, it is in general senseless to speak about continental politics.” It goes on to argue that the only use for an independent Ukraine would be to provide a barrier to Europe, but that it’s not necessary.
Next, it turns to Britain. The book’s authors say Russia should encourage Britain to leave the European Union, and thus weaken it. That’s right. Russian strategists were openly arguing in favour of Brexit in 1997, when it was still just a glimmer in Nigel Farage’s eyes.
But perhaps most amazing part of the book is when it calls for Russia to “introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements – extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilising internal political processes in the U.S. It would also make sense simultaneously to support isolationist tendencies in American politics.” If that reads like an accurate description of Trump’s inner-circle, again remember that this text was written twenty years ago.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Protest Activity Growing in Russia Despite Putin’s Apparent Lack of Attention, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 18 – Protest actions have been increasing in number, size, intensity and subject matter and are likely to continue to do so in the coming months, four Moscow experts assembled by the agency says, despite or perhaps better even because Vladimir Putin seems unaware of or at least unwilling to comment on this trend.

            Taking part in an online conference call entitled “Putin and Russia -- The Recession is Past, the Elections are Ahead,” the four were unanimous in declaring that protest activity was on the rise across the Russian Federation and would continue to increase in the months ahead (

            Olga Pavlenko a specialist on religion and foreign policy at the Russian State Humanities University, says that the protests have arisen and will grow as a result of systematic mistakes by the authorities such as their continued reliance on propaganda that puts young people off, bankruptcies of smaller companies, and the imitation struggle against corruption.

            Pavel Salin, head of the Center for Political Research at the government’s Finance University, agrees but says that it isn’t so much objective conditions that are driving the rise of protests as of the subjective sense among ever more Russians that there are few good prospects for them in the future. Unless the powers address that, there will be massive demonstrations.

            Galina Mikhaleva, another professor at the Humanities University and a Yabloko Party activist, suggests that “the protest movement will gain strength both in response to specific situations such as the long-haul truckers, the victims of renovation, deceived borrowers and depositors, and youth protests.”

            The effects of all these things will feed on one another and be cumulative, and the point has been reached, she argues, that any use of force to try to stop the protests will be counter-productive and radicalize people further.

            And Oleg Reut, who teaches at the North-West Institute of Administration of the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service, says that the failure of the Kremlin to pay much attention to this trend will only give it more time to crystallize and grow – and not lead it to dry up for lack of public attention.

Posted by paul goble at 1:30 PM

Putin May Be Crying ‘Wolf’ Once Too Often, Gudkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 12 – After a brief break from its “besieged fortress” rhetoric, the Kremlin has returned to the idea that Russia is surrounded by hostile forces which are seeking to destabilize it in advance of the presidential election in the hopes that it will help Vladimir Putin put down his opponents, mobilize voters and achieve a breakthrough with the West.

            On the Profile portal, Denis Yermakov traces the return of this older line; but at least one Moscow analyst, Lev Gudkov of the independent Levada Center polling group, argues that Putin may have cried “wolf” once too often. At the very least, he says, each new wave of such rhetoric has less impact than its predecessor (

                “A new foreign policy sharpening like that after the Turkish or Syrian events already will not be viewed by the electorate as was the case earlier,” a reflection of the fact that “every new such factor of the sharp growth in tensions workers ever less and less powerfully,” the Levada Center sociologist continues.

            “One shouldn’t cry ‘wolf’ or ‘fire’ all the time!  Citizens are ceasing to react to this. Of course, initially there will be a certain forced consolidation but it will all the same not be as strong as with regard to Crimea or Novorossiya. Then a sharp growth in dissatisfaction and opposite reaction will follow.”

            According to Gudkov’s findings, “the readiness of people to sacrifice something and respond to foreign policy events even with regard to the Ukrainian situation has fallen sharply.  If in the spring of 2014, in response to sanctions, 74-75 percent were ready to sacrifice something, then in January 2017, the situation had turned around: more than half (approximately 55 percent) tell us that they aren’t ready” to sacrifice anything.

            Indeed, he says, further demands from the powers that be to make sacrifices for foreign policy goals, even if they are as general as pursuing “the status of a great power … already have the opposite effect,” making Russians less willing to do so. Consequently, Putin’s return to the besieged fortress rhetoric may end by working against him and his interests.

            This pattern will be more true in major cities and less true in rural areas where people rely almost exclusively on television.  But given the size of the urban population, its shift against the regime would be profound.  Recently, there has been a growth in tensions and a willingness to take part in protests.

Posted by paul goble at 3:02 PM

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Moscow Worried Russian ‘Too Obviously Ceasing to Be Language of Majority’ in Ukraine, Shchetkina Says

by Paul Goble

  Staunton, June 11 – The Kremlin isn’t pleased that the number of Ukrainians who use Russian is declining, but it is far more concerned with something else: the possibility even likelihood that “Russian too obviously is ceasing to be the language of the majority,” according to Kyiv commentator Yekaterina Shchetkina.

            That reflects its understanding of the way it can use the language issue against Ukraine not only now when Moscow’s actions have alienated many Ukrainians from all things Russian but in the future after the war is over and Moscow will again be better positioned to use its “soft power” (

                Moscow’s position on language and Russians in Ukraine is something many Ukrainians do not fully understand, but to the extent they do, Shchetkina says, Ukrainians will see why changing their alphabet from the Cyrillic to the Latin script could ensure Ukraine will pass “the Lagrange limit” between Russia and Europe and become fully part of the latter.

            Speaking at a recent Livadia conference, Russia’s education minister “expressed concern not so much about ‘the threat to the Russian language’ [in Ukraine] as to the sad fate of the Cyrillic alphabet from which one after another the former republics of the USSR have departed,” the Kyiv commentator says.or them

            The minister’s words reflect a longer view than many are accustomed to adopting, she continues. “The problem of the reduction in the popularity of Russia is of course for them unpleasant, but in principle, it can be reversed. To love or not to love Russian culture, to read or not read Tolstoy is a political question.”

            At present, Russia in Ukraine is “’unpopular,’” Shchetkina points out. “But tomorrow, possibly, the situation will change.” And then Moscow will be able to recover its influence in Ukraine through the use of its numerous cultural channels.  “Sometime the war will end,” and the larger country will seek to restore its dominance via other means.

            Indeed, she says, “the return of Russian to the broad cultural spaces of the post-Soveit countries is completely possible: it is a question of time and a change of the political conjuncture.”

            But until that happens, she says, “what is really important now in the language policy of Russia is not to permit ‘the Russian language population’ to be transformed into ‘a Russian diaspora.’ For Russia, at least with regards to Ukraine, a diaspora is a not terribly reliable level of pressure.”

                Moscow fully understands this and that is why it spend so much time talking about “’the Russian language population’” of Ukraine.  It “has never considered this population as a minority, let alone a diaspora.” Instead, the Russian regime does everything it can to blur the limits between Russian speakers and ethnicity.

            “By defending ‘the Russian language population,’” she says, Moscow pursues a variety of “hybrid goals,” not least of which is to suggest that Russia is intervening in Ukraine in support of what it views as “’an oppressed majority,’” a conception that lends a certain patina of legitimacy to what Moscow is doing.

            Consequently, Shchetkina says, “the problem of the Russian language in Ukraine from the point of view of Russia’s ruling clique is not the reduction in its use but that things be arranged so that Russian does not too obviously cease to be the language of the majority.” Thus, Moscow’s concern is about image rather than reality.

            That is why Russian officials today are more concerned about maintaining or restoring the Cyrillic alphabet in the post-Soviet states than they are about the number of Russian speakers. The latter may go up or down, but the shift to Latin script marks a final break with a Moscow-centric world.

            “From a political point of view, a shift from Cyrillic to the Latin script is an excellent move,” Shchetkina says. “It guarantees a rapid and radical break with Russia’s information space and its culture as a whole.”  That is because “’the linguistic commonality’” of Ukrainian with Polish and Czech “is no less than with Russian.”

            “But [Ukrainians today] read primarily Russian resources and not Polish ones. A transition to the Latin script would mean that already the next generation, raised on the Latin script would find it easier to read books, news, and social networks easier in Polish or even in English than in Russian.”

            According to Shchetkina, “from the point of view of ‘a civilizational project,’ this shift would mark Ukraine’s escape from the orbit of the Russian empire and its move into the embrace of the Pax roman, the civilization formed by Latin.”

            Obviously, there are and will be many arguments against such a move – including historical ones. But there is an overwhelming political one in favor: “we either will take radical measure [like this] or we will remain forever in ‘a united cultural space’ secured by ‘linguistic commonality.’”

            Indeed, the Kyiv commentator says, “the alphabet can play here a key role, significantly more than the presence and number of ‘the Russian-language population.’” Ukrainian and Russian are too similar if they use the same alphabet to ensure that Ukrainian and thus Ukraine will have an independent future.

            But if Ukraine shifts to Latin, that future will be ensured, not only because Ukraine will look westward rather than eastward but also because the Russians who remain in Ukraine will become a real diaspora rather than “’the oppressed majority’” Moscow imagines them to be – and that will make better relations between Ukrainians and Russians there possible as well.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Jihad Freelancers

jun 08 2017

by Denis Sokolov

The demonization of the Russian president as a defender of tyrants and a threat to democracy prevents us from seeing that behind Vladimir Putin’s back, another Leviathan has risen.

Its backbone is made up of officers of Russia’s intelligence services who retreated after the fall of the USSR into business and politics and emerged into service again with new backgrounds at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s. They merged with the same community as the criminal underworld and field commanders; this community is de facto the collective decision-maker in big business and politics in Russia. It is important that this community is not the state, not a political corporation and not even a conspiracy – it is just a network managed by the invisible hand of the market.

This is a market of violence where financial flows and political statuses – goods, terrorist acts and local wars with accompanying media – are the business processes; warlords and military professionals are the market participants, and jihadists and other ideological volunteers and mercenaries are the proletariat for whom no other industry has been found. On this market, for the sake of his own interests, a freelancer can organize a terrorist act or provoke a war. The market of violence links two external threats mentioned by President Barack Obama in his farewell speech: terrorists, speaking on behalf of Islam, and autocrats fearing to lose their power. This is how the stock exchange links buyers and sellers.

“Project Management”

How did this happen? The early 1990s may be considered a conditional point of reference when unemployed intelligence officers of the collapsed USSR went into criminal business. Already by the mid-1990s, powerful mixed structures had been formed. One of them emerged in St. Petersburg on the basis of the so-called “Tambov” criminal association and groups of former and current Federal Security Service (FSB) officers, some of whom joined the famous Ozero [Lake] Dacha Cooperative. Now it is common to link nearly the entire upper echelon of Russia’s political elite, headed by the president himself with Ozero. The Tambov organized crime group spread its influence throughout a large part of the post-Soviet space. Now the activity of this gang and the people connected to it are actively being investigated in Spain. But a description of the market of violence in criminology terms clearly does not capture the entire scale of the phenomenon.

The association that by the mid-2000s, after the seizure of YUKOS’ assets, became dominant in Russia and its oil extraction sector is not a classic corporation nor a political party but a complex intertwining of criminal, administrative, professional, kin and friendship ties through which the raw materials rent of Russia is pumped and re-distributed as if through capillaries, extracting for oil alone more than half a billion dollars a day.

No bureaucracy can control such a network. Therefore, Russian global “initiatives” – from the Olympics in Sochi to the advancement of the Russian World in Europe to the war in the Donbass – are above all, instruments for managing the market – their own kind of interventions. Oligarchs or warlords, depending on the specific nature of the task to resolve, recruit military professionals, bankers, political consultants and even musicians for the accumulation of cash. Some finance the military operation in the Donbass, the building of the Roza-Khutor resort at the Sochi Olympics or a bridge over the Kerch Strait in the Crimea; thanks to this bridge, the construction market in Russia has maintained its size. Others create the Novorossiya Museum in St. Petersburg or provide media support for the war in the Donbass. Still, others give concerts in Palmyra after ISIS leaves.

In doing so, Moscow has become more and more frequently a hostage to these initiatives and their bold executors, who dictate to the center the political agenda, proceeding from their own economic interests. This relates to the war on terrorism, which has turned into the main political resource of the intelligence services, and to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who tried to become an Islamic leader on a world scale, and to Igor Strelkov (Girkin), who turned the “Russian World” from a cultural into a military project.

Al-Baghdadi, Kadyrov and Strelkov

Starting in the late 1990s, the battle against terrorism became the chief policy in the North Caucasus and the centerpiece of the political agenda in Russia, displacing the Chechen war for independence from both the field of battle and the news headlines. Regional politicians with private armies, Russian military, intelligence services, criminal and field commanders of jihadist groups created a new reality. This was their common business, the economics of which was built on the plundered state budget, kidnapping, the arms trade and racketeering. In Dagestan alone, the Russian region neighboring Chechnya in the North Caucasus, during the years of the war about 900 people were abducted for the sake of ransoms, and on the informal arms market near Nazran (in Ingushetia, Russia) weapons were for sale which had come through a few intermediaries directly from the warehouses of the Russian Ministry of Defense. For a decade, the Caucasus Emirate, which was represented by Doku Umarov in 2007 as a sub-division of the international terrorist organization Al Qaeda justified all this activity.

The conflict in Syria and ISIS altered the scale of the entire project from the regional to the global.

Already by mid-2014, no fewer than 2,000 people from Russia were fighting against Bashar al-Assad. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, declared the caliphate and unleashed a global propaganda campaign, Russian-language Muslims poured into Syria from all over the world. About 2,000 Chechens set off for the war from Europe and Turkey. International brigades of a post-Soviet provenance consisting of al-Baghdadi’s troops and allies from Abu Mohammad al-Julani’s Jabkhat-al-Nursa helped to blend the Syrian opposition with terrorists and substantially reduce and even block international support to opponents of Assad, whose regime Putin, Iranian and pro-Iranian militarized formations have successfully rescued in recent years.

Today, there are at least 5,000 jihadists with Russian citizenship who have joined ISIS. And there are now already hundreds of thousands of Muslims pushed beyond the red line, forced to emigrate from Russia, Azerbaijan and the countries of Central Asia. With the existing anti-Islam discourse and “glass ceiling” for the second generation of Muslim migrants in developed countries, a certain success among post-Soviet Muslim prophets of radical Islam is guaranteed.

The second project – “Ramzan Kadyrov” – also began in Chechnya in the early 2000s and in a decade and a half, the existence of “Kadyrov’s Chechnya” turned into a personal network for the head of the republic, having as assets a territory with a population of nearly a million people under his control, a consolidated budget of several billion dollars and a criminal agents’ network based on the transnational network of Chechen diasporas throughout the whole world.  Businesses, media projects and non-commercial organizations are built into this network, for example, the Akhmat Kadyrov Foundation, named for Ramzan’s father, which performs the role of an informal treasury.

It is impossible to clearly distinguish among the jihad, criminal and Kadyrov networks, which are almost equally penetrated with intelligence agent networks.

Finally, there is the Ukrainian project, one of the initiators of which is Igor Strelkov (Girkin), who provoked the war in the Donbass in 2014. In late April and early March of 2014, there was the annexation of the Crimea, and in April, war began in southeast Ukraine.

An FSB colonel in reserve, Strelkov, acting as a freelancer and using investments which financial analysts regard as venture capital, was able to provoke war in southeast Ukraine, which now has already cost thousands of human victims and brought tens of billions of dollars in income for opportunists  from the criminal underworld and intelligence community, who have created a network of many thousands of people to support the Novorossiya project in the Russian regions and mobilized tens of thousands of new combatants. In 2014, with the ID of an officer of the GRU and personal weapons, it was possible to cross the border of Russia’s Rostov Region into Ukraine’s Donetsk Region to a territory controlled by pro-Russian armed formations, and a year and a half later, it was possible to have “your own business” in Donetsk: several thousand fighters, armor, your own prison for hostages and a hotel to use as a military base. The subsequent liquidation of the “media stars” among the field commanders such as Aleksei Mozgovoy or Motorola (Arsen Pavlov) was a kind of gentrification of the balance that developed between the commercial interests of warlords inside Donetsk, their backers in Russia, and business partners in Ukraine.

An unplanned result of the realization of these and similar projects is a formed, dynamic network of military professionals answering only to the market and acting independently in various regions and countries – in the post-Soviet territory, the Middle East, Northern Africa, Central and Western Europe and North America. Bureaucratic counter-measures like sanctions, building walls, visa restrictions and the war on international terrorism lead to the growth of a social base for the market of violence and stimulate investment in it by those for whom the path to the open economy is closed. Autocrats and warlords disrupt attempts at reforms and finance conflicts, defending and expanding their political territory. They are decisive, free from checks and balance and easily find allies among respectable bankers and populist politicians, and they have a lot of money. And the main question, possibly, is not so much the war on terrorists who are only a symptom, but how to force their rich clients to invest in order and not chaos.

Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Denis is an expert at Free Russia Foundation, a visiting fellow at CSIS. He focuses on North Caucasus informal economy, land disputes, and institutional foundations of military conflict

Thursday, June 01, 2017

The Russian Government and the 1999 Apartment Bombings - 2

 Catherine Fitzpatrick took a different view of this issue. Her extensive and detailed reply was published on her Minding Russia blog in 2012:

Why is "The Family" of Yeltsin Being Blamed for the Apartment Bombings?

Russian Matryoshka dolls: Putin, Yeltsin, Gorbachev, Stalin, Lenin. (C) Catherine A. Fitzpatrick.
With Russia, you always have to ask the three age-old "K" questions: kto vinovatkomu vygodno and komu interesno -- "who is to blame, who profits, and who cares".
So when the word is out with John Dunlop's new book on the September 1999 apartment buildings that we "now know" who did the apartment buildings bombing, I'm still not sure, because not all the "K" questions are answered satsifactorily. Amy Knight, the premier expert on the KGB, reviews Dunlop's book for the New York Review of Books (that's a prelude and you'll have to pay $4.99 to read it there or, this being the Internet, read it at the Chechens' site -- but I'd recommend the payment, as the Chechen site tried to load a malicious URL on me that Kaspersky batted off). I'll need to read Dunlop's book all the way through, of course, but so far, I'm not buying the thesis I see explicated in Knight's review -- that "the Family" did it. That's because I think Putin and his pals did it all on their own, and have always and every where tried to displace the blame for this appalling act on others as part of a campaign to eradicate dissent thoroughly. Every person who has come near the investigation has ended up distracted, coopted, forced into emigration, arrested, murdered, killed.
First, let me say that regarding the apartment bombings, I've never pursued them as fanatically as some critics of the KGB and its successor the FSB under Putin (see above for what happens if you do). I'd like to think that as evil as they were and are, and as many millions of people they massacred under Lenin and Stalin and sometimes assassinate today, that the "organs" (as they are known) were not capable of killing so many of their own people. I felt that obsessing about the apartments was a little like becoming a "truther" about 9/11 -- thinking our own people, not terrorists did this atrocity.
In Putin's book, First Person, which I translated, Putin is asked by journalists about the bombing. He replies:
What?! Blowing up our own apartment buildings? You know, that is really…utter nonsense! It’s totally insane. No one in the Russian special services would be capable of such a crime against his own people.”
"Special" is what the Russians call their intelligence agencies.
And I tend to believe that statement, up to a point, or at least to say this: we don't have facts beyond a reasonable doubt to the contrary. If the fumbled Ryazan escapade is given as evidence -- partial license plates leading to the FSB; actual hexogen in the sacks, not sugar -- then as a long-time Russia watcher, I have to say: really, guys? The FSB is so clumsy that they can blow up two buildings in Moscow without leaving full finger-prints, but they mess up so hilariously in Ryazan? Was there someone else who needed to set *them* up?
And if other stories brought forward to point to the authorities themselves include a military intelligence (GRU) official calling up the liberal Duma deputy Konstantin Borovoy and warning him of a coming explosion, then did the GRU do it or did they distract from those who might be responsible? Borovoy wasn't able to get anyone to pay attention in Yeltsin's Security Council.
So let me take you through my reasoning to explain that I don't think it's the Family (Yeltsin's daughter, then-boyfriend and later husband, and others close to them) that ordered this atrocity; I don't think it's Berezovsky; although I think it might be Putin himself and those close to him, but we don't know.Inter-agency rivalry itself can be to blame for things like this; rogue agents who exploit lax oversight can be to blame. Some agents like to do things to please their bosses that they think their bosses might like (that's why many say Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated on Putin's birthday).
Look, we don't know who killed JFK, really, although I continue to wonder about the Oswald/Belarus/KGB connection, and we may never know. And we don't know who ordered hundreds of Muscovites to be massacred, either, and may never know.
Meanwhile, what we do know is that Putin is always and everywhere to distract from himself any accountability for anything bad; he even tries to make the Pussy Riot gals out to be antisemites and claims he wouldn't have jailed them for so long if it were up to him -- pretending that the Ministry of Justice and the courts are independent, which is of course absurd when you look at this top-down vertically-managed society.
For a long time, it's been clear to me that Putin has been clearing up the last remaining nests of the Yeltsin-era liberals. They never posed any real threat to him -- but KGB agents like to be thorough in removing the last bit of resistance -- very thorough.
The mass marches in Moscow in the last year since the elections were in part led by Yeltsin-era liberals like Boris Nemtsov, who has been so villified in the official and the opposition press that he has almost no following left (and his leaked cell phone chats don't help improve his image), but really more by newer public figures like Navalny, a nationalist, and Udaltsov, a communist. Remember, at some of the marches, the Russians literally divided up into separate columns of liberals, communists/socialists, nationalists, etc.
The old Soviet-era dissidents were not leaders of these marches, even behind the scenes -- they might have reported about police brutality but they mainly worried about the nature of these new self-styled democrats. To be sure, they are now senior citizens, but actually are so dedicated that they are not too old to go to marches, like Ludmila Alexeyeva, leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group, or Sergei Kovalev, Sakharov's friend and the leader of Memorial Society to address the Soviet crimes against humanity and their legacy today -- and they sometimes do. Some other Soviet-era dissidents like Valeriya Novodovskaya and Konstantin Borovoy, again, expressed repeated qualms about the kind of people that protesters were allowing to lead them -- Navalny was chumming around with fascists in youth groups and people who demanded that Moscow "stop feeding" the Caucasus. Udaltsov would have been happy to keep Putin as an interrim leader until he could nationalize all industry and put in hard-line communists.
Putin is now dealing handily with any of these newer dissenters -- frame-ups, jail, beatings, intimidation of relatives to place pressure on activists, informal forced exile abroad through threats -- the usual KGB menu. It's working pretty well.
LiveJournal and Facebook and Twitter will be left on so that the organs can scrape data to use to manipulate people, just as was done by the incumbent's campaign team and his rival in our own elections. When I asked Vadim Lavrusik, the community manager at Facebook, who happens to be a Russian, on his wall whether we could be certain that the Russian investors who have a rather large chunk of Facebook stock whether they could get on their hands on user data given how much protest leaders were using Facebook to run the marches when their LiveJournal pages wouldn't load anymore, he blocked me from that thread.
LiveJournal is an American-founded company sold to Russian entrepreneurs after it grew outdated and other platforms overtook it in popularity. Russian oligarchs related to Facebook aren't exactly anti-Putin. I have no evidence that Mark Zuckerberg, who has travelled to Russia to meet with his investors, would turn over user data to them but I worry about where the leaks might be. It's hard to even talk about this openly. When Lavrusik bragged that Facebook knew there were 71 million posts about the US elections on their platform -- a fact they knew because they search, scrape and store them -- I asked whether that information was used to manipulate elections, and whether Obama critics would find themselves blocked. I was then totally blocked from his feed -- he removed himself from my view as if he didn't exist. I hope others will keep asking this question.
But while the newer dissidents were fairly easy to disperse with strategic 15-day sentences that chilled the passion, beatings or longer sentences for leaders, the Yeltsin-era liberals were harder to get. These are more established people. They have better jobs, more income, more connections at home or abroad. They still write and publish and comment; they still go on talk shows on TV.

I've suggested that readers take a lighted candle and hold it under Julia Ioffe's piece on the Magnitsky Act and wait to see the purple pro-Kremlin prose shine through what appears to be an article in opposition to Putin. Ioffe was the first to tell us Putin was inevitable and the US should adjust to this in the highly-visible pages of Foreign Policy and other widely-read liberal publications and the air of inevitability almost seemed like it was going to stick until all those LiveJournalists and Twitterers began to turn out huge demonstrations against the election fraud. I never feld they would succeed and was really worried what would happen to them.
Ioffe succeeds in this piece, if you read between the lines, in making the following statements as if they were fact and not opinion about the case of Magnitsky, the representative of Browder's law firm who blew the whistle on Russian government corruption and wound up dead in pre-trial detention.
o William Browder, leader of the crusade for justice for Magnitsky, is a shady, wealthy guy whose grandfather was the head of the American Communist Party who got rich under Yeltsin under murky circumstances
o Browder hired people from the creepy John Ashcroft consulting firm -- boo, hiss! He was Bush's attorney general and to some, the bag man -- he crafted the hated Patriot Act.
o Browder gave up his American citizenship to move to the UK and take up British citizenship, so how can he call for US legislation?
o Browder praised Putin in his day, and cheered the arrest of Khodorkovsky, who is a crook who repented of his evil corruption while deservedly put in prison by Putin
And so on -- go read it with that candle and you'll see what I mean. The purpose of the article isn't to tell you about the Magnitsky Act, which passed in the House and now faces the Senate, where it might not pass or to tell the admittedly complicated story of Browder, who is doing the right thing by his dead colleague  -- the purpose is to discredit the Russian opposition and their supporters abroad and Putin critics. Putin critics are rich guys who used to support him but became turncoats -- how can liberals trust them and how can anybody at all trust them!
So who's left to resist Putin -- Ioffe herself, who is believed by many (but not me) to be a Putin critic, actually left Russia, her homeland, and now works at New Republic, bought out by a Silicon Valley tycoon. Well, there's Leonid Parfyonov, a thoughtful television producer who was removed from TV for his critical discussion and interviews on Chechnya. I thought he was among the best platform speakers during the marches. He's not on the talk shows so much anymore. Parfyonov has now been co-opted into the Presidential Council on Human Rights, a body that in fact has behaved sometimes independently (for show?) by doing things like criticizing the secondKhodorkovsky sentence or expressing concern about the new draconian bill on "treason against the motherland".
Just last week, this body was diluted by adding several dozen more members to bring it to 62; some of the most outspoken critics are now removed from it -- Ludmila Alexeyeva resigned; others removed include Svetlana Gannushkina, one of the great champions of the rights of refugees and non-Russian migrant labour in Russia and others who either left or weren't renewed. Mikhail Fedotov, who helped draft the Yeltsin-era press law that is now rather in tatters, remains trying to keep this boat afloat and optically independent, but there's always this question to ask: if you criticize a government's policy, say, on the cases of Magnitsky and Khodorkovsky, and they don't follow your advice, should you stay in their propaganda outlet that makes them appear liberal and keep meeting with them? Putin also made another reform to this group -- only an "executive body" within the larger group now will actually get to meet with him -- the rest won't. When Medvedev was president, they all met with him.
Another group of both perestroika-era and Yeltsin-era liberals were kept alive around the Radio Liberty office in Moscow. Actually, Putin didn't have to hardly lift a finger there -- American bureaucrats urged to take cost-cutting measures in the era of the fiscal cliff ordered the summary dismissal of 40 people even before the Russian government attempted to close it down under new rules for foreign media and foreign organizations. These faithful employees who ran various broadcasts followed by the liberal intelligentsia came to work in the morning and were told they lost their jobs; just like in Silicon Valley's big IT firms, security guards appeared at their elbows with cardboard boxes and told them to immediately clean out their desks and come this way. Actually, I don't think they even got the cardboard boxes.Steve Korn justifies the dismissals and takes an upbeat tone; others, including Lev Roitman, one of those dismissed, take a far dimmer view.
This story is more complicated than it seems -- but part of that complication is that the "down-sizing" was recommended by a transition team, and on that team was journalist Masha Gessen. Gessen is a long-tim critical journalist -- critical of Chechnya under Yeltsin and critical of everything under Putin -- she is the author of Man Without a Face a recent book devastatingly critical of the autocrat. One of her key sources, Marina Salye, who had gone into seclusion after making allegations against Putin's corruption some years ago and kept mum, died of a heart attack right after the book came out.
Gessen was working for the nature magazine Vokrug Sveta (Around the World) when she wrote something a bit snide about Putin's much-ballyhooed flight with the cranes. Her editor fired her. Then Putin summoned both her and the editor (!) to his office, to her shock, and told the editor that he should put her back on the staff. Gessen described how she countered that she did not want to be hired on instruction from the president, as that would not appear independent. If she faced down Putin in person there, it's hard to believe that she has been coopted by Putin.
Yet by being appointed by RFE/RL to head a much smaller mainly digital team now, after dozens of liberals have been fired so outrageously and summarily, the gossipers' knives are out. To be sure, this has been explained by the need to cease medium-wave broadcasting in compliance with a new Russian law. Again, Putin doesn't have to lift a finger to accomplish what American bureaucrats and Russian gossips can accomplish on their own -- but there it is, mission accomplished.
Then there's Yevgeniya Albats -- a respected journalist and very knowledgeable critic of the KGB -- I also translated her book A State Within a State. She is also the editor of Novoye Vremya (New Times), and they are in financial trouble now like just about any other hard-copy newspaper in the world, even in Russia where people still avidly read books and papers on the metro.
So to do the hatchet job on Albats, enter Kevin Rothrock, the once-anonymous blogger at A Good Treaty who later confessed to being a former American Enterprise Institute (!) researcher, who skewers her utterly from his new perch to poison the well, Global Voices -- a perch I've discussed in the past as perfect for poisoning. Of course, he was busy getting this down on Twitter even before -- again, by letting his followers do the talking.
In this piece, while purporting merely to "provide the news" of what's happening in the Russian blogosphere, he makes sure we are left with this impression: Albats is a censor; Albats is a wealthy and outdated intelligent; Albats is charging for subscriptions in an era when people can blog for free; Albats is out of touch  -- etc.
No matter that if you want critical journalism by full-time professional journalists and editors, you have to pay for it and that means sustaining a publication like Novoye Vremya which has every right to charge for content. You know, like Soros and the other backers of Global Voices pay for Rothrock's own job? Novoye Vremya can't exactly ask for a foreign grant these days, can they? If the Russian government wouldn't call them foreign spies and arrest them, Rothrock might sneer at them as rootless sell-outs even if the same foundations that pay for his salary foot the bill. It's hard to be a perfectly rooted and viable and appreciated opposition member in Rothrock's book -- there aren't any!
No matter that if an editor wants to leave out of their publication a notorious antisemite or Russian nationalist, that's called "editorial judgement", not censorship. You know, like Rothrock leaves all kinds of things out of his blog, as did his predecessors, about developments in Russia (I was astounded that during the height of all the marches with a zillion blogs flowing, a college student who occasionally wrote up some summaries was all they had at GV; then they brought in Rothrock after the movement was crushed).
No matter that the welter of blogs that don't load with a zillion pictures and comments can't make the point as well as a professional journal. Rothrock, a long-time pro-Putin propagandist, will pretend that they are the voice of experience and authenticity and any liberals, past or present, are out of touch. Under colour of writing "factually" about the opposition in Russia, he never misses an opportunity to caricature the critics of Putin in the absolute worst way, so that they look bad, and not Putin, the monster who puts punk rockers in prison for three years or lets businessmen and their lawyers languish in prison or even die.

Dunlop is certainly credible as a long-time critic of Soviet and Russian leaders. Unlike Rothrock, he has no public record of stumping obviously for Putin. But the conclusion he comes to -- that The Family ordered the hit on the buildings and got Putin and his men to do the dirty deed -- in the end distracts from Putin himself. I think that somewhere in the food chain of information and analysis, something has gone wrong here.
As it happened, I had an opportunity through confluence of circumstances to talk to Valentin Yumashev and Tatyana Dyachenko, Yeltsin's daughter, directly back in 2000. I translated Yeltsin's book Midnight Diaries, published in 2000, and his Struggle for Russia (1994). I looked them in the eyes and asked if they believed that the FSB had committed this atrocity of blowing up the buildings. Was it really possible for some Russian security agent to kill his own people? Perhaps it was some kind of rogue agents?
Neither Yumashev nor Tanya, who later married Yumashev, looked nervous, or guilty, or tried to change the subject or do anything that they might be expected to do if they had in fact ordered this horrible deed themselves. To be sure, at that time I didn't know that research might lead to suspect them of this, but I can only report what I saw -- they looked concerned and thoughtful, not guilty, and they didn't try to distract or move on from the topic. Yumashev, remember, was a journalist at the perestroika-era flagship liberal journal Ogonyok who had never been in government. Yeltsin's daughter was a privileged family member of an obkomovets, a regional Party secretary, but not near entrenched KGB levers of power in Moscow for most of her life. Say what you will about their Soviet-style venality, but they don't have the typical profiles for people who think up mass murder as a way to keep themselves in shopping money and get the country united.
So when I asked them if they thought their own FSB could have done this, neither of them flinched. Tanya didn't say much. Yumashev then added something important. "If it had happened even a few weeks later, I might have wondered if that were possible," he said. "But it happened during the time of the Stepashin bardak".
As we know from Wikipedia, in 1998 Yeltsin appointed Putin as director of the FSB, and he conducted a thorough reorganisation, which included the dismissal of most of the FSB's top personnel; he appointed Nikolai Patrushev as the head of FSB in 1999, and he was at the helm when the explosion occurred, and remained there until 2008 when he was transferred to the Security Council. 
"Bardak" is a Russian word that means literally "whorehouse," but is used to mean "a mess". Sergei Stepashin, who had the military rank of Colonel General, was in charge of the Ministry of Interior, or police, a militarized institution in Russia; the MVD takes part in supppression of riots and they also had troops in Chechnya.Then he was made Prime Minister.
As Wikipedia tells us:
He held that office [MVD] from March 1998 to May 1999, when he was appointed and confirmed by parliament as prime minister. Yeltsin made it fairly clear when he appointed him Prime Minister that Stepashin would only hold the position temporarily, and he was replaced in August 1999 by future president Vladimir Putin.
Yeltsin, as you can see from the books, changed prime ministers like gloves, and of course shifting people around from job to job like that kept them off balance but kept staff demoralized as well.
In order to plan to blow up a building, you would need time, so you can't necessarily implicate someone physically in any position in September 1999, you have to look at the lead up time.
So there were two "bardak" problems in the Russian siloviki (strongmen) at the time in the "power ministries". First, Putin had left the FSB to become prime minister and turned over the helm to someone new, Patrushev. Then at the MVD, there was Stepashin, whom Yeltsin had considered as his successor as president, but ditched because he was said not be sufficiently enthusiastic about the Chechen war (Wikipedia says "citation needed" for that claim, and I can only agree -- I translated many texts from this era and studied it thoroughly and I don't recall that theory -- perhaps someone can comment).
Stepashin didn't rule over the MVD or the government as prime minister very long; when leaders change frequently agencies are not run in a disciplined manner and lots of stuff happens. Stepashin had previously served as director of what was then called the FSK, the counter-intelligence agency, from 1994-1995, so he had intelligence ties. What I drew from Yumashev's comment would then tend to indicate not that Stepashin ordered anything, but that because his oversight was lax, at a time when Patrushev was new in the other agency, the FSB, rogue agents could have gotten away with this explosion. Attention always goes to the FSB as the cloak-and-dagger sorts, but it was the MVD that controlled the roads through the gaishniki (traffic police)-- they could have let through vehicles with hexogen sacks in them; for that matter they could let vehicles out of plants with hexogen in them; they would let those vehicles come near apartment buildings.
One of the things I always marvelled at in Russia when I worked on the film Crime and Punishment produced by CBC is that the police had their little booths right inside the apartment complexes -- they were the security guards that an American housing complex would hire from the private sector. What does the MVD know about the explosions, is anyone asking? Inter-agency rivalry is notorious in Russia.
Then, there's Mikhail Barsukov, a regular military office turned KGB officer who came in after Stepashin, said by some to be a liberal  put in charge of the FSB to reform it. That's what they always say. Maybe he was just making it to become more lean and mean. He was very good friends with Yeltsin's bodyguard, Korzhakov and did for Yeltsin during the White House rebellion in 1993 which was where Yeltsin's reputation as a liberal reformer began to get seriously tarnished. But Barsukov was removed from the position of the FSB after a year, and then given other positions by Yeltsin. He messed up one Chechen hostage crisis, then got caught with the cash for the Yeltsin campaign in the famous "Xerox box" caper and Yeltsin fired him. Then he in December 1998, Barsukov was appointed Chief Director for Military Inspection subordinate to the Security Council of Russia.
Trepashkin, the former FSB officer who was investigating the explosions says that at one point Barsukov told him to let a Chechen suspect go who was allegedly mixed up in a corrupt Moscow hotel that was said to be funding Chechen rebels. So is Barsukov the one to look at? He was at Grachev's birthday when the storm of Grozny was said to be planned. Oh, I have no idea. Let people paid to be investigative journalists or Russianologists do this job.
People are not going to like what I've written here. It looks like I might be saying that respected journalists or Sovietologists or others could be wrong and have been manipulated by Putin. And I'm saying this on the strength of The Family's two major operatives, and I translated Yeltsin's books.
But I get the same (low) rate per word to translate Yeltsin as I did his opponent Ligachev, to translate the works of Stalin or Lenin or Albats or to translate people's divorce papers or localization of online game dialogue. Translation is what I do; I'm only an amateur Kremlinologist and it's not even my main interest these days.
I spent two years of my life at the Committee to Protect Journalist, criticizing Yeltsin's handling of the Chechen war, which took a terrible toll on journalists who were murdered or kidnapped. I spent the next five years of my life after that criticizing Yeltsin and Putin for the Chechen wars and every other kind of human rights abuse. So I have no felt need to get The Family off the hook.
Meanwhile, when I translated Putin's book, my hair stood on end. There were the cultural things I didn't like -- the casual slur of a religious Jewish neighbour, and the change in the story even in the process of editing from saving a Barbie doll in the fire at the dacha, to saving a piece of jewelry which was a cross (East, not West, you see). But the incidents that really chilled me were Putin's casual flipping of a guy in the metro and breaking his arm, because he looked at him the wrong way, and his casual flipping of a guy at a bus stop just because he asked for a light. He is a bantam-weight thug. Then there was Putin's absolute resolute determination never, ever to allow international monitors of any kind into Chechnya or the same thing that happened to Kosovo would happen to Chechnya -- it would gain its independence. I was so concerned about the nature of this Mr. Putin -- who we didn't know much about -- that I sent the book Federal Express to then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright via an aide, urging her to read it on the plane as she flew to Moscow to meet him for the first time -- and I got back a note from the aide that she did. I think as a person with Czechoslovakia in her background, she already understand what she was dealing with.
In any event, I have to urge people to look harder. Yeltsin was a gruff Communist Party apparatchik who worked his way up to Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg) Party leaderk, and presided over the bulldozing of the Ipatiev House where the Tsar's family were massacred. He certainly had the common touch; he was missing one finger on his hand from a machine-lathe accident when he worked in a factory in his youth. But he was also somebody, like the more sophisticated Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, who felt that he couldn't take it any more under the stagnation of Brezhnev's communism. Whatever his corruption, Yeltsin did free the press and free entrepreneurial business on his watch, and did defeat the reactionary coup plotters' attempt. Putin hasn't freed anything.
To be sure, as a man of power, I didn't expect Yeltsin to be a full-fledged hero in Russia, even after he stood on the tank. Before that time, when he was speaker of the house (chairman of the Congress of People's Deputies of the RSFSR), I happened to meet him as part of a delegation from the International Helsinki Federation. While Yuri Orlov, the former prisoner of conscience and physicist (whose visa was delayed but whom we finally managed to get in the delegation), was reading a list of remaining political prisoners and other problems even in late Gorbachev-era perestroika, Yeltsin looked around the room. He had what you would call charisma or animal magnetism, that's how people like him succeed. He stared down every one on the room -- when they got the Yeltsin stare, they averted their eyes. I didn't. I kept my gaze. I wanted to win that little game. I did. He looked away first.
Later, when Yeltsin's book came out in Russian -- with revisions after the version I translated -- he changed some words. And although he had called Ion Andronov, a notorious pro-regime apologist in the Soviet era, by a word that meant "fascist" or "fascistic," he removed that and softened it to "militant".  Unexpectedly, I found myself as a target of a libel lawsuit over this book because in Russia, translators are not exempt from responsibility for a text. So my good name was about to be ruined, because I was accused of mistranslating a word from Russian that said "militant" and not "fascist". "Prove that you are not a camel," is how I explained it in a comment to Moscow News. What could I do but fax a copy of the page of the original manuscript to the court? People still didn't believe me, but I made a deposition to Andronov's lawyer. Then he got in touch with the half dozen or more other translators around the world, from French to Japanese. They all had the same Russian manuscript that I had, with the same word that wasn't "militant" but "fascistic". Case closed. But after that, I had trouble getting a visa to Russia.
I don't believe that either Yumashev or his later wife, Tanya, Yeltsin's daughter, gave this order to bomb innocent people in apartment buildings. Nor did Voloshin, the balding apparatchik who "devoured work"  who remained only an apparatchik, really, although with a lot of power; ultimately he left government to go into business. I don't think any of these three even created a theory that concoction of terror would help consolidate the country. You didn't need to consolidate the country that way; it was already consolidated against Chechnya. That's what I wish people would think about more -- the overall setting of Russia at the time.
In the weeks before the August 1999 Dagestan invasion of the Chechen rebels that proved later as the excuse for Putin to launch the second war in Chechnya early in his term, Sergei Kovalev sent out an urgent appeal -- there was a huge build-up of Russian soldiers in the area, even generals. They were able to get gasoline in a market with shortages -- how? Kovalev was very worried about what might happen in the coming weeks. I went and spoke to the US ambassador to the OSCE talks at the time and other US officials gave them all of Kovalev's concerns. While understanding, they didn't take it that seriously. That the Chechen incursion into Dagestan seems to have had some help from the organs or maybe have been concocted seems evident to me from that detail about the gasoline and the generals in the area. But I don't know. I wasn't there. I trust those who were and who have raised questions.
The finger is also pointed at Berezovsky for the apartment explosions. George Soros wrote in one of his books that once when he was left alone in a fancy bar in Berezovsky's lavish home, he was actually frightened that he might be murdered. I met Berezovsky only very briefly when he was at a reception in New York but I know what he means. Even so, I don't think because people look scary that they may be capable of ordering massacres. To be sure, he paid large ransoms to get out some journalists and tried to finance a factory to provide jobs to try to buy out the Chechens from violence and seemed to have Chechens on his payroll where the fix didn't stay in. They kidnappers were never arrested and floated around with their loot threatening and killing other people.
In any event, I think the place to look further isn't Yeltsin's family members, associates, or Berezovsky, who fell out with Putin. While "the Family" version of this story still ends up implicating Putin down the line, the Dunlop book and more importantly -- all the commentary about it -- including Ken Roth, who tweeted about the book review -- ends up shifting the stare back to Yeltin's people.You know, those lousy liberals who sold off the country to evil Western imperialists and impoverished the people?
I think the place to look is Putin himself. He's in charge there. Don't let him distract you.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Russian Government and the 1999 Apartment Bombings

I have noticed on Twitter that some observers have been recalling Amy Knight's review of John B. Dunlop's book The Moscow Bombings of September 1999. It's quite a remarkable read. In addition to summing up the conclusions of Dunlop's investigation it brings into sharp relief aspects of the bombings that have not to the best of my knowledge been widely discussed:
Dunlop explains why the political situation in which the terrorist attacks took place is crucial for understanding them. Yeltsin and his “Family” (an entourage that included his daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, Yeltsin adviser Valentin Yumashev, who later married Tatyana, the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and Aleksandr Voloshin, head of the presidential administration) were facing a huge crisis by the spring of 1999. Yeltsin was in ailing health and suffering from alcoholism. His popularity had fallen steeply and there was a strong possibility that his political base—a loose movement called “Unity”—would lose the parliamentary and presidential elections (respectively scheduled for December 1999 and March 2000). Yeltsin and his two daughters were facing reports charging that they had large amounts of money in secret bank accounts abroad through illegal transactions with a Swiss construction firm called Mabetex. And Berezovsky was under investigation for embezzlement when he had been running Aeroflot. 
The Family’s solution to its dilemma, according to Dunlop, was a plan to destabilize Russia and possibly cancel or postpone the elections after declaring a state of emergency. In June 1999, two Western journalists, Jan Blomgren of the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and Giulietto Chiesa, the respected, longtime Moscow correspondent for the Italian newspaper La Stampa, reported that there was going to be an act of “state terrorism” in Russia. The goal would be to instill fear and panic in the population. Chiesa wrote:
With a high degree of certitude, one can say that the explosions of bombs killing innocent people are always planned by people with political minds who are interested in destabilizing the situation in a country…. It could be foreigners… but it could also be “our own people” trying to frighten the country.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Russia Mystery

What is one to make of the "Russia connection" - the narrative that says U.S. and Russian officials and government members have been "colluding" in some ill-defined conspiracy to subvert the rule of law in America?

It appears that the connection is being taken seriously by many U.S. public figures. Congressmen, statesmen and journalists are busily exploring the backgrounds and recent activities of officials close to President Trump - Carter Page, Manafort, Bannon, Kushner, Flynn and others - to find out if they have formed secret links to Russian intelligence or have become compromised via business deals, thus also compromising the country's security.

In the Soviet era, the consequences of all this would have been earth-shattering: it would have meant that a carefully prepared Soviet espionage network had succeeded in bringing down the United States, the world's most powerful entity. Yet now, in the era of Putin and the insipid "power vertical", it somehow seems less significant - as if a minor undemocratic and unstable country had developed pretensions to grandeur based on a harebrained scheme to infiltrate the intelligence, information and economic structures of America and to cause as much damage as possible within a short space of time. This is not to say that damage has not been inflicted - it may well emerge from the countless investigations now underway that leaks, cyber attacks and the actions of certain U.S. officials and diplomats have had a disastrous effect on sections of America's infrastructure and public life.

But the question that arises is: why would Russia go to such lengths to disrupt America's security and economy? Russia is dependent on the U.S. for trade, and in general sees itself as a 'partner' of the U.S. in exerting pressure on ISIS in the war on terror. And also - why would U.S. officials suddenly want to collude with Russia in causing damage to the United States? Is there some secret cabal of Trumpist functionaries intent upon seizing power in the name of the Russian Federation? It hardly seems likely, yet this possibility is what lies behind the headlines: "Kushner's 'secret channel' with Russia", "Alleged Russian Hacker Shared DCCC Docs with Fla Operative", and so on.

The entire affair is still a mystery - a mystery as enigmatic as the presence and personality of Donald Trump himself, who combines all these serpentine threads into a single worrisome focus. America and the world face uncertain times.