Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Paper Bear: Why You Shouldn't Get Too Scared About Putin

Insightful Russia analyst and journalist Ben Judah recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled "Arm Ukraine or Surrender" that has been getting a lot of attention. 

In his article, Judah clearly favors the "Arm Ukraine" option, and the intensity with which many others have been echoing this sentiment has dramatically risen as Moscow has significantly escalated its direct military involvement in Ukraine over the last few days.

However, Judah's article makes a series of false assumptions, which are important to reconsider due to the consensus developing among many about the dire need to take Putin on militarily.

Judah writes that allowing the Kremlin to successfully carve out a South Ossetia like statelet in eastern Ukraine would be a "crushing defeat for the West" for the following three reasons:

Judah: "Russia would have restored itself as an empire — the former Soviet Union once more under the sway of the Kremlin. The West would thus concede, in effect, that Russia may invade or annex any of these territories as it pleases. And in these lands, the appeasers would flourish, and democracy wilt."

Putin gaining control of a devastated and depopulated swath of eastern Ukraine is hardly equivalent to the restoration of an empire, especially when this relatively unimportant gain has come at such a cost.

By failing to arm Ukraine, the West would also not "concede that Russia may invade or annex any [ex-Soviet] territories as it pleases." The West has not and will not formally accept the Russian annexation of Crimea, and Washington and Brussels have hit Russia with serious economic sanctions that are expected to be significantly intensified within the coming week.

Granted, sanctions have been unable to stop Putin on the ground in Ukraine, but the effect the sanctions will ultimately have on the Russian economy, and the effect they are already having, is another story. And in the bigger picture, the health of the Russian economy is a much more important strategic factor than who controls a devastated sliver of Ukraine which most officials in Washington and Brussels would have been hard pressed to identify on a map before the crisis began.

Also, Russia would not then be able to "invade or annex any [ex-Soviet] territories as it pleases." Ukraine has put up a real fight and any other country Putin tried to grab land from would do the same. Such an assumption is misleading: for example, a successful land grab by the Kremlin in Georgia in 2008 has not meant Ukrainians have let Putin do as he pleased six years later in their country.

Judah: "Russia would have triumphed over the world order imposed by the West after the Soviet Union lost the Cold War. This would mean the destruction of American geopolitical deterrence. America’s enemies, from China to Iran, would see this as an invitation to establish their own spheres of influence amid the wreckage."

This argument is misleading in light of recent history. For example, Putin used the Russian military to change borders in Georgia and establish two statelets in 2008 and this did not overturn the world order or spur Iran or China to launch reckless invasions of other countries. Neither did Kosovo's independence from Serbia or the US invasion of Iraq, for example.

Further, Iran and China and all big regional powers always have and always will strive to "establish their own spheres of influence" regardless of what happens in eastern Ukraine.

Judah: "Russia would not stop there. Mr. Putin wants to undermine NATO, and the smell of weakness would tempt him further. It would be merely a matter of time before Moscow exploited the Russians in the Baltic States to manufacture new 'frozen conflicts.' Poland would feel compelled to act as though NATO did not exist, creating a defensive military alliance of its own with the Baltics; it might even establish a buffer zone in western Ukraine."

Russian military invasion of a NATO member would be a completely different situation than Putin's interference in Ukraine, a country that is not a NATO member.

NATO has long been a backbone of Western security and any military attack on a NATO member would play very differently in Washington and Brussels than the Russian interference in Ukraine has. The Russian military has looked good beating up on poor Ukraine, but any attack on a NATO member would be met with a devastating counter.

Further, Baltic populations are much more hostile to and wary of Moscow than Ukrainians were before the current crisis turned most of them against Russia. 

The idea of a successful Russian military invasion and land grab in Poland or the Baltics is more a product of the current anti-Putin hysteria than any real future threat.


I raise these points not to single out Ben Judah, who is an excellent journalist and analyst, but rather to place the current Ukraine crisis in perspective.

In my opinion, many Russia analysts are understandably caught up in the emotions of the moment and overstating the importance of the current crisis to Western strategic interests.

The war is, of course, an existential question for Ukraine. However, the battle over Ukraine's east is not fundamentally different from past Russian meddling in Georgia or Moldova or potential future Russian interference in Kazakhstan. All such events in the former Soviet Union are relatively unimportant to core Western concerns.

What is more, while Putin appears big and bad at the moment, in many ways he may be utterly undermining his own strategic interests and his very hold on power in the longer term.

The economic downturn already set in motion because of Ukraine could ultimately bring down his regime, and the mounting body bag count could accelerate this.

Ukraine, even minus a chunk of its land in the east, could now turn to the EU and NATO for the long run. A successful transition could then inspire other former Soviet countries to make the same choice. This brutal rupture of the Ukraine-Russia bond may become one of the darkest parts of Putin's legacy. 

Moreover, Putin's overreach in Ukraine could destroy any chances of the Eurasian Economic Union leading to some form of political or military integration as Moscow hopes it will. The EEU itself could fall apart if the sanctions war continues and Kazakhstan and Belarus tire of taking economic hits due to Russian aggression.

Further, the Ukraine crisis could be what finally spurs the EU to move seriously to diversify its gas supply, which would become a major problem for the Russian state.

Events like MH17 have already made the Putin regime a Western pariah and Russophobism and NATO will be invigorated for years because of the Ukraine crisis.

Asia, and especially China, are certainly not going to rally around Russia if it affects their economic ties with the West and Beijing could move to distance itself from Moscow if the sanctions war spirals further out of control.

In total, a step back from the emotions of the moment shows Russia to be a paper bear more than anything along the lines of a "restored empire" threatening to deal the West a "crushing defeat."

Getting too scared about Putin and making decisions based on any such false assumptions could be dangerous.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013


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Monday, July 29, 2013

Does The Levada Center Deserve Its Reputation?

The Levada Center is a well-known polling and sociological research organization in Russia, and it is easily the most prominent source for polling data about Putin's Russia in the Western media. In fact, is often the only source for such data taken seriously. Click the following links to view the group's official website in English and in Russian.

The reason for its status in the West as a bastion of respectability, amidst a landscape of state control & manipulation of broadcast media and public opinion, is succinctly summarized by the following quote taken from an RFE/RL article:

The Levada Center was established in 2003 by sociologists who left the state-owned All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM), citing political pressure. It has since established a reputation as Russia’s most independent and reliable pollster.

A quick Google search provides many more good examples of its stellar reputation: The Moscow Times considers the Levada Center to be the "top independent polling agency" in Russia. A recent article by The New York Times reads: "In recent years, when public opinion turned against the Kremlin, there was one main way to find out about it — the Levada Center, a respected group of sociologists who broke off their relationship with Vladimir Putin’s administration and set up the country’s only independent polling agency." The list of such quotes could go on & on, but you get the point.

The Levada Center's credibility in Western circles does not stop with major news sources, however, but also extends far into the heart of academia as well. For example, consider the excellent study Russia After the Global Economic Crisis, which was produced by the Peterson Institute, CSIS, and The New Economic School. Each chapter of this study was authored by a different Russia expert, and the chapters written by leading US academics Daniel Treisman of UCLA and Timothy Frye of Columbia both heavily rely on data from the Levada Center (see page 42 & 83 of Russia After the Global Economic Crisis, respectively).

Further, the Kremlin obviously regards the Levada Center as a threat, as evidenced by the fact that it has been under attack as of late. A new law passed last summer requires that politically engaged NGOs which receive foreign funding register as "foreign agents," a term with very negative historical connotations in Russia. The authorities have recently been using this new law to target major NGOs such as the Levada Center that have been in the habit of receiving at least some funding from abroad and are defiantly refusing to classify themselves as "foreign agents."

So the consensus appears to be that the Levada Center has been and should continue to be a respected and trusted source of information about Russia. As I began doing research for my senior thesis last year at Williams College, I had thoroughly absorbed this sentiment. Therefore, I was very disturbed when I came across the following:

In the lead up to the 2011 Duma Election held on December 4th (in which United Russia officially won ~49% of the vote), Levada pre-election polling found that the number of Russians planning to vote for United Russia in the upcoming election (of those Russians planning to vote) was:

57% in September 
60% in October
53% in November

Likewise, in the lead up to the 2007 Duma Election held in December of that year (in which United Russia officially won ~64% of the vote), Levada pre-election polling found that the number of Russians planning to vote for United Russia in the upcoming election (of those Russians planning to vote) was:

53% in September 
68% in October
66% in November

I came across these numbers after I had just written an entire chapter compiling evidence which persuasively indicates, in my opinion, that both the 2007 and 2011 Duma elections in Russia were permeated by significant degrees of fraud (for more, read chapter 2 of my thesis via the link near the top of the right sidebar).

This suggests that either the the allegations of Duma election fraud or the Levada Center pre-election polling numbers are a lie.* And since I am fairly convinced that there was significant fraud in both the 2007 and 2011 Duma elections (feel free to take issue with chapter 2 of my thesis if you disagree), it seems that perhaps Levada should not be trusted, or at least not in certain highly sensitive political contexts such as national elections. From this perspective, the Levada polling numbers in the lead up to the 2007 and 2011 Duma elections do seem to suspiciously converge toward the ultimate official result in a way that indicates the influence of irresistible political pressure or even outright collusion with the authorities.

*A third possibility is that even completely honest pre-election polling in the Russian context can be misleading for various reasons. These reasons are considered in detail in chapter 2 of my thesis as a way to explain the discrepancy between the Levada numbers and my finding that there likely was significant fraud in both 2007 & 2011. While this remains a possibility, I do not find it overly convincing.

If this is the case, then I believe that the Western opinion of the Levada Center needs to be seriously reassessed (perhaps my doubts can be entirely dismissed, and, in fact, I hope this is the case because I admire the courageous & demanding work of any NGO fighting to present an alternative to government propaganda and promote freedom of speech and public debate). But if the Levada Center fabricated pre-election polling to support massive fraud by United Russia in a national election at least twice, then it should not be treated as such a respectable and creditable cornerstone in the Western press and academic research. It could be the case that the Levada Center may still deserve its reputation except in highly sensitive political contexts, but this would be a major and significant caveat.

In light of the seemingly problematic pre-election polling discussed above, wouldn't it be a good idea to pause for a moment & make sure the Levada Center truly deserves the stellar reputation that it enjoys (especially in the West)? I think so.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Putin Regime Summer Report Card

As the hot summer sun drifts toward its midday peak, and I settle in for the slow roast of another late July day at my family home in Virginia, it seems as good a time as any to attempt to score the Putin regime's handling of recent developments from a broad perspective. The report card below eschews a normative approach, and instead attempts to judge the outcomes of regime actions on its own terms and to capture the cynical motivations, largely revolving around great power pretensions and personal interests, which appear to guide top-level decision making in Russia (while perhaps unappealing to some, this approach proves much more analytically revealing and valuable).

The photograph to the right was taken of Putin as he was submerging in a red submarine last week in the Gulf of Finland in order to examine the wreck of a 19th century frigate. This photo was quickly categorized by many online commentators, who were already worked into a frenzy by the unfolding Navalny saga, as a timely metaphor for the impending death of Putinism. Undeniably, this photo was a terribly timed optic for Kremlin propagandists, but how is the Putin regime actually doing on its own terms across a broad array of measures? Click on Read More Below for my Putin Regime Summer Report Card.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Navalny Verdict Looms

Kirov judge Sergei Blinov
The Kirovles trial is drawing to a close, and judge Sergei Blinov will issue the verdict next Thursday, July 18. The prosecution has asked the court to sentence Navalny to 6 years in jail and fine him 2 million rubles (~$60,000) as well as jail co-defendant Peter Ofitserov for 5 years and fine him 1 million rubles.

However, as I have posted about earlier, the official verdict may not be the most important outcome of the trial. The broken state of Russia's judicial system in such politically sensitive contexts means that the more important outcome may be how the trial and verdict are perceived by the general public. A Levada poll of Russians across the country published on July 4th sheds some light on this question:

Do you know who Alexey Navalny is, and, if so, are you following his court trial in Kirov?
                                                                                       April  May  June
I am closely following the case:                                              2%   2%   3%
I have heard a lot about it:                                                     18    15    19
I have heard something about it, but not sure exactly what:         24    29    29
This is the first time I have heard about the trial:                        23    25    19
I do not know who Navalny is:                                                 33    30    30

What do you consider to the aim of the Kirovles trial to be (for those who have heard about it)?

To shut up Navalny and his supporters, who 
are accusing high-level government officials of corruption: 44%

To punish Navalny and his associate, who are guilty 
of corruption and embezzlement: 23%

To keep Navalny from running for mayor of Moscow: 13%

Overall, this Levada polling data suggests that Navalny is doing pretty well in the battle for public opinion, especially in light of the fact that the state controls television, which is still the dominant news source in Russia by far. The Levada polling shows that only a quarter of the Russians who have heard about the Kirovles trial have swallowed the state line, while over half of the Russians who have heard about the trial consider Navalny's persecution to be a cynical political maneuver. And in June, just over half of all Russians had at least heard about the trial, while just under 1 in 3 Russians still did not know who Navalny was. Considering the recentness of Navalny's rise from relative obscurity, these Levada numbers are not bad at all. It is intriguing, however, that from April to June only 3% more Russians learned who Navalny was. I had thought that the platform offered by the Kirovles trial would increase general awareness of Navalny by much more than this.

It should be noted that these Levada numbers are representative of Russians across the country, and Navalny's profile is surely much higher in Moscow. In fact, Navalny supporters are planning to gather across from the Kremlin on July 18, the day the verdict will be announced. The Facebook page created for this event already shows over 6,000 "going," and it will be very intriguing to see how much more support can drummed up by next Thursday, as well as, of course, how many people actually show up. The Facebook page for the as of now unsanctioned event ominously emphasizes the right to free and peaceful assembly guaranteed by the Russian constitution. In my opinion, it seems unlikely that a crowd size on the scale of the winter 2011-12 protest outbreak will materialize (especially at an unsanctioned event), but it is also hard to imagine much better of a mobilization opportunity at the current time for the opposition than Navalny's sentencing.

Alexey Navalny delivering his closing speech
As the cold, hard reality of years behind bars looms for Navalny, he remains utterly defiant. To the right is a picture of Navalny delivering his closing statement on July 5th in the Kirov courtroom. For the statement, Navalny decided to transcend the specifics of his case, and instead angrily denounced the "feudal regime sitting like a spider in the Kremlin," before stating that he will not leave Russia or back down. Click on Read More below for a transcript of Navalny's closing remarks translated into English by Nikolai Khalip of The New York Times. Video of Navalny's speech can be viewed here.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Strategy 6

"Moscow, Red Square, July 6,
7 pm; Strategy 6; Return
Freedom to the May 6th
Prisoners; Will you able to
 come to the square?"
The political opposition in Moscow has launched a new street protest campaign called Strategy 6. The Facebook page for the group's July 6th event reads (translated into English): 

We will take to the street on the 6th day of each month until the government ends the illegal persecution of citizens in the so-called "Bolotnaya case." We will not stop until all the May 6th prisoners have been released!

Place: Red Square. If it is closed, then Manezhnaya Square or Revolution Square.

Time: 7 pm.

Our taking to the street (without flags, banners, posters, megaphones, etc.) should not be regarded as unsanctioned action. It should be remembered that all Russian citizens still have the right to be in public places and move freely around the city.

We hope that, sooner or later, on the 6th of each month, all of Red Square will be filled with people who have come to join hands and show solidarity with those illegally thrown into prison.

In the future, detailed information will be published on the following page: In some cases, additions to the specified event format may be made when possible.

Currently, the May 6th prisoners are being held hostage, serving time for "our and your freedom." Supporting them is the duty of every respectable citizen.

Prison is no place for our contry's best people. The May 6th prisoners need to be immediately released and fully acquitted!


Strategy 6 is modeled after Strategy 31, the long-running effort to hold gatherings in cities throughout Russia on the 31st day of every month in order to fight for the right to free assembly granted by Article 31 of the Russian constitution. Strategy 31 began in July 2009. In Moscow, attempts to hold Strategy 31 gatherings on Triumfalnaya Square
Strategy 31 gathering in Moscow on May 31, 2013 
have regularly been hindered by the authorities. City officials have consistently withheld permission for the gatherings, and have often scheduled conflicting events, such as car rallies, or blocked off the square, for reasons such as construction work. The number of protesters at Strategy 31 events has varied from several hundred to occasionally even several thousand, but riot police roughly break up each event, usually detaining and fining many of the participants.

"Free the May 6th Prisoners! Take to the Street, Return their Freedom! Moscow, Red Square, July 6"

Monday, July 1, 2013

Navalny's Political Platform for Moscow Mayoral Election

Today, on his official websiteAlexey Navalny published his political platform for the Moscow mayoral election, which is scheduled to be held on September 8th. To read the full platform translated into English, click on Read More below.

Abstract: Overall, Navalny's platform is a populist appeal to harness Moscow's huge budget of just under $50 billion in oder to build a modern, clean, efficient, orderly, safe and vibrant city that does not pale in comparison to leading European capitals. Navalny wants to create a Moscow that is controlled by the people through decentralized and democratic insitutions and that serves and takes care of all its citizens in an equitable and respectful manner under the management of a highly transparent, accountable and honest city government structure. As implied by the slogan below, Navalny's platform not only lays out a plan and set of principles by which Moscow can be transformed, but puts forth a vision that Navalny hopes will one day come to guide all of Russia.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Navalny Musters Volunteer Army To Take Moscow Mayor's Office

Alexey Navalny is trying to make the jump
from Internet star to real political leader
Sergei Sobyanin's recent decision to resign and force a snap election in September for the office of Moscow mayor has opened the door for rising opposition star Alexey Navalny to seize real political power. Navalny has been officially nominated as the RPR-Parnas candidate for mayor, and Navalny's team is currently working around the clock to gather the 110 district deputy signatures needed to actually get on the ballot in September, as well as to get his election campaign up and running.

Many things could bring the whole house crashing down in an instant. Navalny's unfolding embezzlement trial in Kirov could result in a suspended sentence banning him from running for public office, or in a long jail term. The "municipal filter" crafted by those in power to undermine real opponents could keep him off the ballot. But, if against all odds, Navalny finds a way to actually run in the Moscow mayor's race this September, could he win?

Navalny's election campaign is just shifting into gear and he is planning to raise a volunteer army to support his run for mayor. Part of a LiveJournal post today on his blog, which I have translated into English, provides more detail on his thinking for the upcoming campaign:

"Everyone is asking: how are you going to conduct your campaign? You will be excluded from TV, billboards, and local newspapers.

Well OK, haven't I always been excluded from these things?

We have something much better.

What kind of help can a candidate for Moscow mayor expect if he is an normal guy who lives with his family in a block of flats in Marino, sits in traffic three hours a day, uses the district hospital, and has children attending the district school and kindergarten?

He can count on the help of ordinary Muscovites who live with their families in ordinary homes, sit in traffic for three hours a day, use the district hospital, and have children attending the district school and kindergarten.

This is better and stronger than any zombie-box (TV).

I am just like you, and therefore represent your interests, and I am counting on your help.

As I posted about before, we are creating a volunteer headquarters. Some of you have already received an email newsletter about this.
It will be the largest experiment with volunteer work in Russia.
Together with you, we will try to organize the work of thousands of people who do not agree with the fact that power in our city and country appoints itself with one purpose - to steal.

We have the people and we will make our opinion heard without TV. We will be heard through you instead." 

In today's world, online campaigns such as this can go viral, spreading like wildfire practically overnight. And, as of late, Moscow has been a hotbed of discontent full of many relatively well-off Internet users who seem to be awakening politically. House money and expert opinion still, of course, remain on Sobyanin reaffirming his grip on power in September. However, Navalny's attempt to muster a volunteer army should make for a fascinating study in the political power of the Internet, no matter the ultimate result.

As expected, Navalny is mustering his forces by way of social network, and you can check out these efforts via the links below:


To read the full LiveJournal post from today quoted above click on Read More below. You can also read the original post in Russian here.