Heavy darkness befalls the North; the sun rarely emerges from between the clouds. This year, Russia has noticeably less street illumination, and the spirits are anything but festive. Only the whiteness of the snow and Christmas trees break the gloom and remind us of the forthcoming low point of the cosmic wheel, Yuletide, when days starts to wax and nights to wane. As this stellar event foretells the Nativity of our Savior, this is a period of hope after a very difficult year, all over the world.
Putin supporters are unhappy
The Russians keep guessing what President Putin will tell them in his traditional televised address to the nation at the break of the New Year. He should say, this year is over, and we shall all cheer, people propose. Even the most optimistic ones are disappointed by lacklustre economic performance, and they blame the government of Prime Minister Medvedev and his liberal monetarist team. Meanwhile Putin rises above the blame game, but the government is less and less popular.
- As the Rouble drops, even the rather pro-Kremlin mass-circulation newspaper KP (full disclosure: I write an occasional column for the KP) published a call for the economy and finance ministers to resign or to be fired. There is a very little chance that Mr Putin will take this advice and clean his government stables.
- He could beef up his credit by dumping some (or all) of his ministers, but Putin is stubborn and unusually loyal to his colleagues. No accusation has ever convinced him to dismiss a man of his team. His former defence minister Mr Serdyukov has allegedly been involved in some shady dealing, while Serdyukov’s paramour and assistant amassed millions by selling prime MOD assets to her cronies. Still, Putin did not dump him, and saved him from jail. (He had to resign to become a CEO, while she served a few weeks in prison, at most).
- Last week, the opposition leader Mr Navalny aired some heavy charges against Attorney General Chayka. For his defence, Chayka said that the man behind the campaign is the notorious Mr Browder. Browder is an American crook who managed to appropriate many high-quality Russian assets for pennies during Yeltsin’s privatisation. Eventually he was forced to part with his loot and he has been sentenced to many years of jail in absentia. Browder is slime, no doubt, but it is a weak defence for Chayka. Still, Putin refused to drop Chayka or even to initiate an independent investigation of his alleged crimes.
- Putin stands by the most hated politician of Yeltsin’s era, Mr Anatoly Chubays. The Financial Times called him Father to the Oligarchs. After leaving the government, Chubays has been appointed to lead the RUSNANO, a state-owned corporation notorious for its embezzlement and waste. Putin saved him many times over from prosecution.
- Putin went, hat in hand, to Yekaterinburg for the grand opening of Boris Yeltsin’s Memorial Centre (price tag – nine billion roubles) and referred kindly to the loathed late President who appointed him his successor. People were furious seeing their president enjoying himself among the carpetbaggers of Yeltsin’s regime.
- Can you imagine Fox TV transmitting Russian propaganda? In Russia, a major chunk of Russian media, state-owned or subsidised by the taxpayer, transmits pro-Western and anti-Russian agenda, alleged the eminent film director Nikita Michalkov, a staunch supporter of Putin, in his video seen by over two million viewers in a few days. He called upon Putin to assert his line and banish the enemies within, but state TV refused to broadcast the video.
- Putin’s recent press-conference provided a chance for more criticism. Beside the points mentioned above, the journalists asked why state enterprise CEOs are paid millions of dollars a year, while everybody else is called upon to tighten the belt. They asked why the Russian Central Bank keeps buying US bonds and supports the US Dollar at the expense of the Rouble. They asked why import substitution does not work etc.
These are protests from the pro-Putin crowd, from people who supported his takeover of Crimea and his entry into Syrian war. They could bear some deprivation, but they are upset by Putin’s condoning thieves, by his apparent cronyism, by his oligarch friends. Until now, the critics avoided attacking Putin, but these are the early swallows. Dr Stepan Sulakshin, the head of a Moscow think tank, publicly accused Putin of knowingly leading Russia into further degradation.
This bubbling dissatisfaction of Putin’s supporters may yet turn more dangerous for the president than the 2011 Fronde of his hipster enemies. Meanwhile, head-strong Mr Putin does not wish to yield ground, sacrifice some of more hated ministers and CEOs, or attune internal policies to public expectations. Perhaps he is right, and things are not what they appear, but justice must be seen, not only done.
Talking Turkey with Israel
The Turkish friction caused by Erdogan’s decision to shoot down the Russian bomber is another source of Putin’s blues. He had spent a lot of effort nurturing relations with Turkey. All this effort went down the drain. There are multimillion projects, from a gas pipeline to tourism. All that was cut down at once. Putin’s plans to deliver gas to Europe bypassing the hostile Ukraine collapsed. This is a huge setback for the Russian president.
The rhetoric between the leaders became acrimonious. Hotheads in Russia speak of seizing the Bosporus and Dardanelles, of turning Istanbul into Constantinople and planting the cross on the ancient St Sophia church. The Turkish president threatened to occupy Russia within one week – with help of NATO.
Turkey’s choice is a result of its over-involvement in Syria. With so much investment, Erdogan was loath to see Syria gone. While his decision to down the Russian jet was rather extreme, the relations already were tense.
Putin’s trip to Erevan and his condemnation of “Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915” was an unnecessary provocation. No other world leader did it, but Francois Hollande of France who flew in for two hours and proceeded to Baku, the capital of Azeri Turks thus levelling the playing field. I actually called upon Putin to avoid this step, but the strong Armenian lobby insisted on this trip.
Afterwards, there was a supposed leak (in reality: a fake) of a harsh and insulting conversation between Putin and the Turkish ambassador. I checked with the Ambassador and other sides. It was a fake, but this fake has been spread in millions of sites and posts.
However, the $64,000 question is about Syria: will it become a vassal state to the reconstituted Ottomans or will it remain a sovereign state with strong ties to Russia. Russia thought it has a stronger hand as an invitee of the Syrian legitimate government; Turkey denied Bashar’s legitimacy.
The rift between Turkey and Russia became a fact. Its main beneficiaries were the US – and Israel. For the last five years, the relations between Israel and Turkey were hostile, since Israeli commandos massacred nine peace activists on board the Turkish vessel Navi Marmara. In face of the Russian threat, the Turks agreed to make peace with Israel.
Israel is involved in the conflict more than it admits. The Russians has published their evidence of Daesh oil being smuggled to Turkey by Turkish companies. This caused a lot of indignation in Russia and elsewhere. How do they dare to buy stolen oil and finance the terrorists!
The Russians forgot to mention that the smuggled oil goes to Israel. Israel is the main buyer of oil produced by the Kurds and by Daesh. This was reported and corroborated by the FT and by Al Araby al Jadeed. The Russian media avoided the topic, as Putin cherishes his good relations with Netanyahu.
Last week, Israelis attacked suburbs of Damascus and killed some Russian allies, Hezbollah fighters. Again, Russians took it quietly. None of indignation caused by downing of the bomber seeped into the Russian media.
Israel supports al-Nusra, declared a terrorist organisation by the UN. This is not a secret: recently the Daily Mail published a report glorifying Israeli soldiers saving lives of the Islamist fighters. Thousands of wounded guerrillas received medical assistance in Israeli hospitals and went back to fight Bashar.
Israel has a good working relations with Daesh, too. I was told that Daesh troops entered the Palestinian camp al Yarmuk being equipped with long lists of Palestinian activists. They were assembled and publicly executed. The Palestinians think that Daesh received the names from Israeli secret service and acted upon their request. Moreover, Daesh never ever attacked a Zionist target.
Putin – and Russian media did not say a word on that. Perhaps Putin is right; Russia does not need such a strong enemy as Israel, since Israeli leaders can say “Jump, Uncle Sam,” and Uncle Sam will ask “How high?” However, they could tone down their indignation regarding Turkish oil smuggling, Turkish help to the guerrillas and other Turkish misdeeds.
Israel is objectively an enemy: it is an enemy of Russia’s allies Hezbollah and Iran; it wants dismemberment of Syria in order to keep Golan Heights for good; it prefers a Somalised Syria to a healthy and strong one. But Netanyahu plays his hand cautiously despite his feeling of invulnerability.
The Israeli attack on the Damascus suburbs took place despite the Russian C-400 operating in Syria. Experts say the C-400 has been placed in Latakia and it can’t effectively protect the skies above the Syrian capital, while the C-300 purchased by the Syrians and located in Damascus has been hit by Israelis. Meanwhile, the Israeli Air Force is training at avoiding and coping with a C-300 in Cyprus, as that country has a C-300 of its own, recently bought from the Russians.
Putin has nothing to gain from confrontation with Israel; Israel prefers to have its way without fighting the Russians. Perhaps, sooner or later, the Israeli and Russian Air Forces will joust; but meanwhile both sides prefer to postpone that moment.
Putin hopes Erdogan will give up on Syria. This is not an easy task, but not an impossible one, either. For that, Putin must work with President Obama – or with the next American President.
Putin vs Western Leaders
It is often said that President Obama is a weak leader. I do not think so. He is a wily and sophisticated player. He voids every agreement his country made with Russia. There were, and are agreements galore: from Minsk to the recent UN SC resolutions. At first (and second) sight, the agreements follow the Russian line. Otherwise, the Russians would not sign them. However, after a while Obama offers a different interpretation. I would not like to argue against him in a court of law. He is as tricky as any lawyer.
Did he give up on the “Assad must go” mantra? It is not clear. He, and his Secretary of State John Kerry sometimes say that he may stay, but quickly contradict themselves and insist on his departure. They introduce new and peculiar ideas daily. For example, they say “Only Sunnis may deal with the Syrian crisis”. This strange idea inspired the Saudis and they even claimed they organised a huge coalition of Sunni states to fight Daesh. Needless to say, within a few days this “coalition” vanished like dew under sunrays.
However, at the bottom line, Obama plays by a Cold War script against Russia. Like a drunkard accuses others of heavy drinking, he accused Mitt Romney of “Cold War thinking”, and warned Putin of his “Cold War thinking”, but as a disciple of Zbigniew Brzezinski he hardly can think of anything else. Even Pentagon generals complained about this matrix of his mind, says Seymour Hersh.
There is nothing Putin wants less than a new round of the Cold War. He is not a new Soviet leader. People who dream of a new Stalin are barking up a wrong tree. One may regret it, and many Russians do regret it, but Putin has no great plans of social rearrangement. His ambition is more modest: he wants Russia to be independent, prosperous, great, and equal to other great nations like it was in 19th century.
Last week I was at the St Petersburg Cultural Forum, a gathering of artists, curators, and art ministers from 40 countries, and it was clear that Putin’s Russia is much more interested in its pre-revolutionary past and in the 19th century in general, than in 20th or 21st century art. They performed a lost play by Puccini, they reconstructed Petipa ballets, they read Tolstoy. They rebuilt palaces, they fixed old theatres, even the pre-revolutionary circus had been returned to its old glory inclusive of its old well-forgotten name and the royal circle. So many restaurants bear names reminding everyone of the Tsar times.
There is a wind of nostalgia in Russia, and it is for Russia of Leo Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. Putin has ordered that the remains of the White generals, philosophers, artists be brought back for burial on the Russian soil. Soviet and Communist memories are suppressed. Recently, Prime Minister Medvedev called for another bout of commemorations for Stalin’s victims. I am not sure that this is a wise policy; perhaps it would be better to let past to take care of itself. But here we are: Putin and his crowd are old-style liberals, not social reformers. They do not want to raise the banner of revolt. They want to fit into the world as it is, but as equals.
The problem is, there are people who are hell-bent on hegemony and full-spectrum dominance, and they are not likely to allow Russia to go its own way. They want to impose their rules, and set in place their docile rulers. That’s why the very modest intentions of Putin meet so much resistance in NATO and the Pentagon, in the White House and in Westminster. What’s worse, these people already control the mainstream politics of many countries, from the US to Japan, to France and Sweden. It does not matter which of the mainstream politicians win elections, the result is the same.
Putin’s (and Russia’s) hope lays in politicians outside the controlled mainstream. Donald Trump is a good example. Putin is not particularly interested in US internal politics and in Mr Trump’s unusual proposals. This is an internal matter of the US, and Putin steers clear of it, like he wants the US to steer clear of Russia’s internal matters. For him, what is important, is that Trump’s America would not try to dominate the world and impose its agenda. The moral question whether Trump’s ideas about Muslims or Latinos are lofty or base is a question for the American people to decide. Putin and many other foreign leaders want America’s non-interference in their internal affairs.
The rude Mr. Trump seems to be the candidate least likely to push the button for nuclear suicide of mankind. Much less likely than nice Mrs Clinton who could nuke Russia because Russians do not celebrate gay marriages. Remember, her nice husband bombed Belgrade because the nasty Serbs did not allow for the secession of Croats (or was it Albanians?)
Trump – or any straightforward decent politician who does not take orders from the Masters of Discourse – would be able to play ball with Mr Putin, by classical rules of international law. Trump and Putin could return the concept of sovereignty to its privileged position. This would end many wars. The war in Syria began when Mr Obama and Mr Hollande said “Assad must go”. By the classical rules, no state may interfere in the affairs of another sovereign state. From the Russian point of view, the war in Syria is first of all a war for sovereignty and against global Imperial vassaldom.
The Russians want to light their Christmas trees and wish Merry Christmas and go with their women and children to a Christian church without being scolded by the Obamas and Clintons of this world for insufficient political correctness and failure to mention Kwanzaa.
That’s why it is important for all of us if we may hope to reach peace, this Christmas or the next one.
Israel Shamir can be reached at [email protected]
This article was first published at The Unz Review