Kremlin to Viktor Bout: Game Not Over

Posted April 25th, 2012 at 5:16 pm (UTC+0)
43 comments

As Viktor Bout starts his 25-year jail sentence in the United States, the question on the minds of movie goers worldwide is: will the convicted Russian arms merchant take a visit from Nicolas Cage?

In the 2005 Hollywood movie, Lord of War, the American actor played a Ukrainian-American arms dealer who made his fortune selling leftover Soviet weapons stocks to African warlords.

A prison meeting would be a bonanza for glossy entertainment magazines.

But it is not going to happen.

Why?

Because Bout, locked deep inside the American prison system, is still a player.

Why?

Because Bout, at aged 45, knows far too much for the Kremlin’s comfort.

On April 5, a New York judge imposed a 25-year sentence on Bout, the legal minimum, for conspiring to sell weapons to a US-designated terrorist group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

A journalist friend was in the Manhattan courtroom. Back in Moscow, he tells me Bout “lost it,” verbally attacking the American agent in charge of the case.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents take Russian arms trafficking suspect Viktor Bout from a chartered plane in New York on Nov. 16, 2010. After a two year extradition battle in Bangkok, Thailand, Bout was flown to U.S. to face terrorism charges: Photo: AP/Drug Enforcement Administration

Within hours, the Kremlin swung into action.
On a visit to Kazakhstan, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced Bout’s trial and sentencing. A few days later, in Washington, he brought up Bout in a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In Moscow, the Russian Duma’s International Affairs Committee voted unanimously to protest the conviction and vowed public hearings in May.

Russian trade union members and Kremlin support groups picketed the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Russia’s state-controlled television channels gave generous airtime to a courthouse interview with Bout’s wife, Alla, and to Bout’s post-sentencing video link interview from prison.

“It was not a trial, but an Inquisition-like act,” Bout said from New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center. “There is no evidence that I traded in weapons.”

Reviewing official Russia’s chorus of complaint, I am tempted to paraphrase Shakespeare’s classic line of suspicion in Hamlet: “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”

Alla Bout, wife of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, speaks to Russian TV and radio reporters following the sentencing of her husband in the U.S. Federal Court in New York on April 5, 2012. Bout, caught in an undercover sting by U.S. agents posing as Colombian guerrillas seeking weapons, was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a U.S. judge. Photo: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

On one level, the Kremlin’s multi-level campaign has a target audience of one: Viktor Bout.

It is highly unlikely that Bout acted without official Russian approval in 2008, when he flew to Thailand, met with American agents posing as FARC agents, and offered prices, terms and delivery dates for 100 shoulder held anti-aircraft missiles.

As they might say in a 1930s gangster movie: “Don’t squeal, Bugsy. We’ll spring ya.”

Kremlin’s second target audience is the White House.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry now considers the Bout case “one of the priorities on the Russian-American agenda.” On May 7, Vladimir Putin returns to Russia’s presidency. His return is expected to bring a hyper-pragmatic approach to the West: every Russian “favor” has a price.

Presumably, the Russians are realistic enough to realize that there will be no horse trading over a Bout repatriation to Russia until the American presidential election is decided. Last month, an open microphone caught President Obama telling President Medvedev about missile defense: “After my election, I have more flexibility.”

If a Republican candidate (presumably Mitt Romney) wins in November, resistance may be high to trading Bout. The operation to entrap and arrest Bout in Thailand took place on the watch of the last Republican President, George W. Bush.

While some people in Moscow are debating what the Russians might trade for Bout, the key question is: what is Bout’s value to the Kremlin?

In this courtroom illustration Viktor Bout sits during sentencing in New York on April 5, 2012. At age 45, he faces 25 years in prison. What will the Kremlin offer to get him home? Drawing: Reuters/Jan Rosenberg

For this, I called Doug Farah, a friend and former competitor from our days covering Colombia in the 1990s for rival American newspapers. During our years in Colombia, Farah and I flew over Amazon jungles and Andean mountains in Colombian military aircraft. We know what a game changer it would be if the FARC got their hands on 100 shoulder-held, heat-seeking missiles.

After leaving Colombia, Farah authored with Stephen Braun in 2007 what is considered the definitive Bout book: “The Merchant of Death.”
Speaking from his home in the Washington area, Farah said that during the 1990s and early 2000s, Bout operated on the margins of the Russian power structure.

“If they had caught him in 2003-2004-2005, I doubt the Russian state would have reacted the same way,” Farah said, reviewing the Kremlin’s reaction to Bout’s sentencing. “Then around 2005, Putin imposed control on intelligence services. Bout goes from being an outside operator, from being a freelance operator, to being part of the system.”

In the past, Farah said, Bout would meet with an African warlord, take down his shopping list for Soviet equipment, and then say he would see what he could do. Farah said: “Bout never offered something he could not deliver.”

That changed, he said, by the time Bout met with Hezbollah guerrilla leaders in Lebanon in 2006. That meeting apparently led to the delivery of late Soviet-era anti-tank weapons and rocket propelled grenades. Hezbollah immediately used these weapons in the summer 2006 war with Israel.

The move from selling surplus stocks of AK-47 assault rifles to offering sophisticated late Soviet weaponry, such as shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles, came because Bout won official protection, says Farah, who is a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington.

“Igor Sechin is his main guy, protecting him as he comes up,” said Farah, referring to a Russian Deputy Prime Minister seen as a right hand man to President-elect Putin.

Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin looks on as he attends a Cabinet meeting in Moscow. Sechin and Bout, both Soviet military translators in Portuguese-speaking Africa in the 1980s, say they have never met each other. Photo: AP/ Alexander Zemlianichenko

In his April 12 video link from jail, Bout explicitly denied any ties to the Kremlin.

“Let me say to the ladies and gentlemen who are trying to capitalize on my connections to the Kremlin, to Vladimir Putin or Igor Sechin: you need not pursue this,” Bout said to the Russian press from prison. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any contacts with the Kremlin, or with Putin, or with Sechin.”

Two weeks after Bout’s conviction in New York, Sechin made his first trip ever to the United States, traveling to New York. In the only interview with the American media on the trip, Sechin told The Wall Street Journal that he came to New York to promote American investment in developing Russia’s Arctic oil and gas reserves.

In the 1980s, Sechin worked in Mozambique, where his official Soviet post was Russian-Portuguese interpreter. Bout, believed to be fluent in six languages, was also a Russian-Portuguese military translator, apparently serving in Angola and Mozambique in the late 1980s.

To this day, Mozambique’s national flag is emblazoned with the image of an AK-47, a tribute to the crucial military aid that the Soviet Union gave its independence fighters in the 1970s and its government during a civil war in the 1980s.

Sechin and Bout have said they have never met.

Russian Arms dealer Victor Bout is processed after his arrest in Bangkok, Thailand, on March 8, 2008. Reflecting the value Washington put on Bout, then President George Bush raised the issue of Bout's extradition during a visit with then Prime Minister Samak Sundravei. Photo: AP/David Longstreath

If they were posted at the same time to the same southern African country, that is highly unlikely.

In the 1980s, I made repeated reporting trips to Angola and one to Mozambique. Soviet advisors were clannish and closed, partly because they stood out a mile away against the human landscape of black Africa.

(Toward the end, they opened up to other foreigners. I’ll never forget the evening in February 1989 when a Pravda correspondent gave me a ride in his Lada back to the Hotel Presidente, in Luanda. To my total shock, he volunteered to me his opinion that the Soviet Union was doomed.)

In recent years, Sechin has used his fluency in Spanish to become the Kremlin’s point man on Russia’s arms deals with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

His work bears fruit this year as Venezuela opens a Russia-licensed factory for production of AK-103 assault rifles, an upgraded model of the AK-47.

Regarding the internal violence in neighboring Colombia, Venezuela maintained an official policy of neutrality for the first four decades after the founding of the FARC, in 1964. But in 2002, President Chavez barely survived a coup attempt and the coup leader took refuge in the Colombian embassy in Caracas. After that, President Chavez started to secretly supply the FARC.

Farah said that some of Russia’s arms sales to Venezuela in the 2000s were diverted to Colombian guerrillas. Since Russia and Colombia maintain diplomatic relations, it would be impossible for Russia to openly ship guns directly to Colombia’s anti-government rebels.

“Bout knows a lot about the weapons gray market, about intel issues in Russia,” Farah said about arms trades that the Kremlin does not want to acknowledge. “There is a lot that he could say. And that makes them nervous.”

But then, Bout could also get nervous.

In the Lord of War movie, Nicolas Cage plays an arms dealer named Yuri Orlov.

In real life, a Russian businessman named Oleg Orlov was arrested in 2005 on suspicion of smuggling Soviet-era long-range missiles from Ukraine to Iran. Orlov is often described as an associate of Viktor Bout.

In 2007, the slow moving investigation of Orlov came to an abrupt end. Orlov was found strangled to death in prison in Kyiv.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Kremlin TV Channel to US: No Reset

Posted April 21st, 2012 at 9:41 am (UTC+0)
11 comments

Launched in 2005 as Russia Today, RT now has 2,000 employees and programming in English, Spanish and Arabic. Photo: RT

One generation ago, I reached the level in Russian language studies at Yale University where the next course looming in my face was: “Soviet Newspapers.”

Faced with spending winter afternoons in a windowless basement classroom with CIA wannabes as we parsed Pravda and Izvestia, I ran away to Rio (literally).

For today’s junior Kremlinologists, there is a much more fun way to read between Russia’s lines: the website of RT, the government-owned English language TV station previously known as Russia Today.

The key to RT is that it’s funded by the Russian Government. There may be a secret hotline, but there are layers of deniability between the Kremlin and the RT newsroom.

RT says what some Russian officials think — but can’t say in public.

Here the Kremlin follows the teachings of that influential, late 20th century American philosopher, Bart Simpson. One of Mr. Simpson’s most famous quotations: “It wasn’t me. No one saw me do it. You can’t prove it.”

After an afternoon of content analysis, here is the world, according to RT:

RT count: Election reporting — RT working near the HQ of presidential hopeful Mikhail Prokhorov

Trucks of RT, Russia's well-funded English language channel are now a common sight in Moscow. During Russia's recent presidential candidate, two were parked outside the headquarters of candidate Mikhail Prokhorov. Photo: RT

TURKEY BAD – SYRIA GOOD

Everyone knows about the Russian bear’s soft spot for the Assad regime in Syria. (Just type Syria into the RT search engine)

But there is a new subtext circulating in Moscow these days. Just the other day, a Near East analyst in a fur hat was ranting to me in the snow about Turkey’s “neo-Ottoman foreign policy.”

For two generations, NATO has kept the peace between Istanbul and Moscow. But something eternal is stamped in the DNA of whoever occupies the Kremlin: watch our southern flank. Don’t forget that Czarist Russia fought 13 wars with Turkey – and won almost all of them.

So I was not surprised last week when I saw this RT report: “U.S. heavily presses Turkey into ganging up on Syria.”

William Engdahl, an analyst popular with RT (52 citations on the site) told RT that CIA director David Petraeus is almost weekly in Turkey on a visit, warning darkly: “We can imagine he is not talking about the quality of Turkish tea.”

SHALE GAS BAD — GAZPROM GOOD

Europe is Russia’s number one customer for Russia’s number one export – natural gas.

Taking its market share for granted, Moscow in the recent years has been happy to bully its captive customers, to cut off supplies and to block Central Asian gas from reaching Europe.

Then along came a game changer: hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ a technology that releases gas from shale rock.

Thanks to shale gas, North America, in only seven years, has achieved energy independence in natural gas — and has seen gas prices drop by 90 percent: to $2 per million British thermal units today.

By contrast, gas prices in Europe are five times as high — $10 per million BTUs.

Consequently, some of Russia’s biggest customers, notably Poland and Ukraine, are investing heavily in shale exploration.

Not so fast, warns RT.

Take this story aired Tuesday: “Fracking hell: UK government set to green light risky gas drilling.”

From a long list of RT stories warning on the dangers of shale gas technology, here are a few:

“Pennsylvania law endangers public health to promote fracking”

“Americans protest fracking as Obama cheers for it”

“France may ban fracking, cites US disasters”

The last story came true.

France and Bulgaria banned fracking technology out of fear that it could poison drinking water or cause earthquakes. Defenders of shale gas extraction allege that Gazprom has secretly funded anti-fracking films, reports and movements. Gazprom denies these charges.

But, last week, in a speech to Russia’s Duma, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned about shale gas, saying: “Our country’s energy companies absolutely have to be ready right now to meet this challenge.”

USA BAD — USSR GOOD

Over the last year, RT has given extensive coverage to the Occupy Wall Street movement. RT Photo:Tina Berezhnaya

Much of RT’s reports have that back to the future feel.

I feel it is the spring of 1975, and I am trapped in that windowless basement classroom, deciphering a report by an Izvestia reporter who took the A train to Harlem for a story: “Race Relations in the United States.”

Checking the Documentary section of RT site, I find their April offerings:

Murder, spies & voting lies: After the 2008 election, Americans and the world must wonder, why did we endure eight long years of George Bush? As the curtain gets pulled back on W’s dark legacy, election fraud can be seen as the precursor to all the other Bush crimes. Hijacking votes and putting the wrong man in the White House may have been ignored by the media, but the blogosphere decried it and independent filmmakers, etc., etc.,

Drugs and Death at Bagram: The mystery surrounding the death of a young US soldier which begins under a fog of foul play and drug abuse ultimately reveals a growing controversy around the use of the anti-malaria drug Lariam in this complex and eye-opening documentary. On July 12, 2004 Army Specialist John Torres was found dead in a latrine at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. His death was ruled a suicide, but members of his…, etc., …etc.,

The Thomas Miller-El affair: Thomas Miller was 34 when he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. After escaping 10 times the death corridor, he is today 61 and has spent almost half his life behind bars. In 2005, after analyzing new facts, the Supreme Court of the USA cancels the death sentence. But the State of Texas does not want to accept its failure. Either Thomas Miller goes back to court and will, no doubt…, etc., … etc.

Wow – pretty depressing stuff!

But no worries, RT readers, there is a special place in the world:

“Soviet Man, Be Proud! You Discovered the Path to the Stars!” Poster from RT’s ‘Back to the USSR’ photo gallery. RT Photo: Ksenia Belmessova

Soviet files: star squad: The documentary marks the Cosmonautics day when on April 12, 1961 the first manned space flight took place! Everyone knows his name. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. But there were 19 people more – the members of the first cosmonauts squad. What did they have to endure before the first human being flew into space? What happened to them afterwards? Find out the secrets of the Soviet space…, etc.

Leaders and Healers: They say that there was a magic pill that could cure any illness and prolong life. But only the Soviet leaders had an access to it. Get inside the Kremlin walls and learn what the heads of USSR used to eat and drink, how they protected themselves from illnesses and what their main phobias were. Meet the doctors, chefs and close relatives of people who ruled the state and find out all…

RT seems to wish we were back in the USSR.

Behind the scenes, there is growing, selective admiration among many Russian for the Soviet Union.

But wait, RT has more for us.

USA – RUSSIA RESET? NEVER HEARD OF IT!

For the last three years, Moscow and Washington have tried to follow the “reset” policy of finding areas of common ground.

Skipping around the RT website, it’s hard to find a trace of that policy. This is rather strange for a channel that is supposed to be Russia’s calling card to the English-speaking world.

RT site visitors can download free cartoons by Vladimir Kremlev. His strong anti-American themes indicate that he aspires to follow in the footsteps of Boris Yefimov, whose 90-year career spanned American presidents from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush. Yefimov’s depictions of American presidents as cowboys with dollar signs on their 10-gallon hats were icons of the Cold War.

Cartoons — Fascist fans fuel fears for Ukraine’s Euro 2012 hosting

In the footsteps of his Soviet predecessors at Krokodil and Pravda, RT cartoonist Vladimir Kremlev takes equal aim at American leaders and at Ukrainian nationalists. Photo: RT

RT visitors also can enjoy anti-American diatribes by non-Russians.
For example, Juha Molari, a suspended Finnish Lutheran pastor, writes in his RT blog, under the headline: ‘Who Does NATO bring security to?”
He wrote: “Walking to the subway station in I Itäkeskus, Helsinki, I could see that the eastern expansion of NATO did not brought security to all: a Roma beggar from Romania knelt cap in hand, asking for money…”

Or, there is Thom Hartmann, billed by RT as “America’s #1 progressive radio show host.” Last week, his “Big Picture” talk show on RT included these programs:

Thom Hartmann hosts The Big Picture on Kremlin-funded RT: America-bashing with an American accent. Photo: RT

“Shoot first, prosecute later: Thom looks at why it’s easier to kill on the streets of Florida than on the streets of Baghdad. Also… Thom looks at the latest from the 1 percent’s war against the middle-class.”

And

“Trickle-down austerity: Thom looks at how the Republicans have been working tirelessly to destroy our economy…and in tonight’s “Daily Take,” Thom looks at how America has gone insane and the rest of the world knows it.”

Meanwhile, back in the world of public diplomacy, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wrote a soothing note in a key foreign policy essay in late February, just before he won Russia’s presidential election. Titled “Russia and the Changing World,” Mr. Putin wrote: “In general, we are prepared to make great strides in our relations with the United States, to achieve a qualitative breakthrough, but on the condition that the Americans are guided by the principles of equal and mutually respectful partnership.”

Once again, the great thing about Kremlin-funded RT is the deniability.
Kremlin interference in the RT newsroom would violate freedom of press in Russia.

This summer, I can imagine Kremlin guys and gals boogying late into the night to the bad boy lyrics of Shaggy, the Jamaican-American reggae rapper world famous for his 2000 hit single: “It Wasn’t Me, It Wasn’t Me.”

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Putin to NATO: Yankees, Please Stay in Afghanistan

Posted April 14th, 2012 at 7:29 am (UTC+0)
18 comments

U.S. Army soldiers from12th Infantry Regiment pass through a village while on a patrol last October near Forward Operating Base Blessing, Afghanistan. Photo: International Security Assistance Force

God bless the American soldiers in Afghanistan.

This message of good cheer came from an unexpected corner this week: Russia Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, addressing the entire Duma in Moscow.

First, he set the deputies up by denouncing NATO as “a relic of the Cold War.”

Applause, applause.

Then, before the clapping could fade, he quickly added that, sometimes, just sometimes, NATO plays a “stabilizing role in world affair, such as in Afghanistan.”

“We understand what is happening in Afghanistan – right?” Russia’s educator-in-chief lectured the Duma. “We are interested in things there being under control, right? And we do not want our soldiers to fight on the Tajik-Afghan border, right?”

“It’s in our national interests to help maintain stability in Afghanistan,” he continued. “Well, NATO and the Western community are present there. God bless them! Let them do their work.”

As Vladimir Putin embarks on his second decade running Russia, as he approaches his 60th birthday, the long serving KGB officer is not going soft on the USA.

Instead, he is living out the Biblical admonition: “As you sow, so shall you reap.”

For years, Putin has fanned anti-NATO sentiment. As recently as two months ago, he was using it to rally voters around his candidacy for president. Over the last 15 years, Russian TV viewers have consumed hundreds of hours of anti-NATO “documentaries,” each complete with spooky music and a kooky story line.

No matter that the Central European plain has been wiped largely clean of American battle tanks. Of the 12,500 American tanks in Western Europe in 1982, about 5 percent, or 684 remain today – slightly more than the number maintained by Spain. No matter only 2 percent of American respondents to a recent opinion poll singled out Russia as the primary military threat to the United States.

For Russian politicians, hammering on and on about the NATO threat is cost free and far safer than to talk of the geostrategic threat that dares not speak its name in Moscow: the 3 million active duty and reservists of China’s People’s Liberation Army.

But now, as Putin acknowledges, Russia needs NATO in Afghanistan.

Russian Prime Minister seeks to educate Russia's Duma on the need for NATO troops in Afghanistan. On May 7, Putin returns to the presidency of Russia. During his six year term, he will have to cope with the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan, and the possible destabilizing effects on the five republics of former Soviet Central Asia. AP Photo: Ivan Sekretarev

As American taxpayers say “Time’s Up” on our Afghanistan decade, the Kremlin now realizes that it had the best of both worlds: American troops containing in remote Afghanistan a radical Islamic threat to former Soviet Central Asia — and the luxury of complaining about it.

As Washington moves to wrap up its fighting role in Afghanistan over the next 18 months, Russia’s foreign minister and the nation’s top drug enforcement officer responded last week with a classically American approach: they threatened to sue.

They are threatening to sue NATO, or the U.S. government, for not fulfilling U.N. Security Council resolutions mandating the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force to stabilize Afghanistan. They argue that NATO troops have to stay in Afghanistan until Afghanistan is stable.

While this could mean a bonanza for New York law firms, it is unlikely that American taxpayers will fund a war to comply with a court order.

(On the financial side, it could be attractive: instead of spending $1 billion a week fighting in Afghanistan, American tax payers can spend $1 million a week fighting in New York courts.)

Putin’s NATO comments are part of different strategy — and directed at a different audience, the Russian people.

Last month, within days of the end of the Russian presidential elections, Kremlin officials started floating trial balloons that an underused airport in Ulyanovsk, a southern city on the Volga, would be used as a cargo hub to move NATO supplies in and out of Afghanistan.

Prior to this, Ulyanovsk’s main claim to fame was that it was re-named after its most famous son, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Vladimir Lenin.

Ulyanovsk’s Communists immediately demonstrated, chanting: “NATO Nyet!”

A “NATO base” they said, will never be built in the birthplace of Lenin.

Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, told the faithful that “the NATO base” near Ulyanovsk was “a gift from Putin to the USA for recognizing the elections.”

On April 7, a column of 1,000 protesters, largely communists and nationalists, marched through central Ulyanovsk, chanting “Russia Without NATO,” and waving signs reading: “No Russian Land For NATO,” and, in English: “NATO Go Home.”

The night before Prime Minister Putin climbed the podium in the Duma to defend the NATO cargo transit deal, police in Ulyanovsk broke up a tent encampment where communists had started a hunger strike.
After Putin gave the signal with his nationally televised address, Russian officials swung into high gear to defend the deal.

Foreign Ministry officials briefed reporters that no NATO officials will be allowed at the cargo transit center in Ulyanovsk.

Unmoved, Eduard Limonov, a radical poet, led his Other Russia group to the Stalin-era high-rise that houses Russia’s Foreign Ministry. There, they set off orange flares and held up a banner reading: “Foreign Ministry: Traitors’ Den.”

Dmitry Rogozin, deputy prime minister in charge of defense industries, has had the hardest job. As Russia’s ambassador to NATO for four years until last December, he specialized in publicly lampooning NATO.

Now he is tweeting overtime, defending the Ulyanovsk deal – and his own nationalist credentials.

“There is no NATO base in Ulyanovsk,” he tweeted. “There is none, and there won’t be any. Those who spread the ‘news’ about NATO bases in Russia are either saboteurs or idiots. Consider this as an official statement.”

In another tweet, he said the cargo jets would carry nonlethal cargo, like “NATO toilet paper.”

In response, protesters last week delivered rolls of toilet paper to government offices.

In Ulyanovsk, Sergei Morozov, the governor, is billing the project as a boost for regional development. He says Volga-Dnepr Airlines, a Russian cargo company based in Ulyanovsk, will profit handsomely from NATO contracts. (The Moscow Times estimates that NATO will try to move out of Afghanistan 70,000 vehicles and 120,000 containers.)

The governor says the deal will pay for upgrading the international airport’s rundown terminal and its 5-kilometer air strip, the world’s third longest public access runway.

Then he holds out this juicy teaser: for each takeoff or landing of an Antonov An-124, the airport would receive a $5,000 fee.

Mmm, yum-yum, presumably salivate the international jet set of Ulyanovsk, a depressed industrial city with population of 615,000.

Once again, the communists are unmoved. Many of them are pensioners who have been unable to afford an airplane ticket since the collapse of communism 20 years ago. At a recent protest, they waved signs referring to their Governor: “Morozov — Doorman for NATO.”

And on the Russian internet, conspiracy videos are going viral.

The spectacular, fatal explosions at Ulyanovsk’s military arsenal in 2009? Obviously steps to clear the way for NATO.

Just a coincidence that NATO chose Ulyanovsk, a city endowed with a rare railroad bridge over the Volga? How naïve! NATO troops will roll east and west, jumping out of railway containers and sowing chaos, from Central Russia to Siberia, just like the Czechoslovak Legionnaires did in 1918-1919.

Maybe it is time for the Kremlin to talk straight to the Russian public.

From Cold War levels, 95 percent of American battle tanks in Western Europe have gone home.

Only 2 percent of Americans now see Russia as the primary military enemy.

If you take away the assets, if you take away the intent, all you have left is the hysteria.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Russia Has the Wheels; Now it Needs the Roads

Posted April 10th, 2012 at 8:23 pm (UTC+0)
13 comments

Russians get perverse pleasure out of taking photos of their bad roads and then posting the pictures on the internet.

This year, for the first time, Russia is expected to top Germany as Europe’s largest car market.
With car purchases increasing by 20 percent in Russia this year, the Center of Automotive Management predicts that Russians will buy 3.2 million vehicles during 2012, slightly more than Germany.

So how are Russia’s roads?

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, Russia ranks number 125 out of 139 countries on the quality of its highway infrastructure.  According to another report, this one by Renaissance Asset Management, barely half of Russia’s road networks meet minimum riding quality and strength measurements.

All this leads to a highway fatality rate in Russia that is higher than in Brazil, China and India.

But I don’t need reports to tell me this the morning after I made  a hair raising 250 kilometer drive from  Moscow to Yaroslavl. And then back again.

In a 20-kilometer bypass of the M8, the drivers of 18-wheel trucks zig-zagged around huge potholes eased their rigs slooowly over deepening trenches gouged in crumbling asphalt, or tried their luck in the spring chocolate sauce of deep mud that bounded that two lane “highway.”  All the while, drivers of private cars wrestled to find their space in this obstacle course.

I felt a pang of nostalgia. I felt I was back in Brazil in the 1970s, trying to move along the fringe of Amazon rainforest.

April is the mud season in Siberia!

But this was “European Russia” and my destination was Yaroslavl, an ancient city founded in 1010. Yaroslavl was built on the west bank of the Volga River, Russia’s main thoroughfare for trade for centuries.

After 1,000 years, the Russian state still has not learned how to build safe and solid roads.

Judge a nation’s economy by its car fleet.
Judge its government by its roads.

Roads reflect a government’s ability to project power and to harness bureaucracy for the common good.

In my life’s travels, I have had the luck – and pleasure — of walking the Appian Way, built near Rome around 300 BC.  In Peru’s Andes, I hiked the Inca Trail, built as a stone path from the Andes to the Pacific in the 1450s. In Angola, I have seen traces of asphalt roads swallowed up by the African bush after the collapse of Portuguese colonialism in 1975.

In Russia today, the “highway” between Moscow and St. Petersburg is such a death trap that I spent $1,200 on train tickets last December for myself and my three sons. Driving to St. Petersburg and back would have seriously risked cutting one branch from the Brooke family tree.

While China builds an interstate highway system that connects cities you have never heard of, Russia still cannot link its two largest cities with a safe, eight-lane divided highway.

The traditional Russian response is to quote Nikolai Gogol. This satirist once wrote that Russia’s two problems are – duraki i dorogi – fools and roads. But Gogol wrote that almost two centuries ago.

In the 1980s, people used to have a similar throwaway line for Brazil: “Brazil, the country of the future – and it always will be.” Today, people who say that are either intellectually lazy or simply out of touch.

But Russia’s fools and roads comment came back to me Monday. One hour north of Moscow, I was dealing with the kind of mud tracks you might associate with rural Bolivia.

I wonder where the budget money for the asphalt went? The Lena 'Highway' in Siberia.

Stealing money on road construction is really easy.
You contract to lay 10 centimeters of asphalt. You put down five centimeters.  You pocket the difference, minus the amount need to keep the state road inspector happy.

The current joke in Moscow is that so much money has been stolen on reconstructing the main highway in Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics that it would have been cheaper to pave the 20 kilometer section of the M27 with Louis Vuitton handbags.

Asked a few weeks ago about highway corruption, Russia’s Transport Ministry responded limply that there is no point in creating a black list of corrupt highway contractors.

Why?
Because the companies would just change their names.

Another governmental copout is that Russia has a bad climate.

Oh, really? I grew up in rural New England where road maintenance and snow plowing are points of pride. At the annual town meetings, one of the hottest topics is the road budget.

Across Canada, Russia’s sister nation on the far side of the North Pole, roads are excellent.

Some Russian drivers don't realize how deep their puddles can be. Photo: English Russia website.

In Northern Japan, where I also worked, roads are scarily well maintained. In mountain areas, they actually heat some stretches of pavement to prevent ice. You feel like you should wash your tires and make a little bow before driving over these roads.

After the climate, apologists for Russia’s bad roads focus on the fool factor.

That’s odd. Look closely at a Google map of the Russian-Finnish border.

 On the Finnish side, the road network looks pretty good.
On side of Russian Karelia, paved rural roads seem few and far between.

Finland and Karelia share pretty much the same genetic stock, the same hard drinking habits, and a lot of history. Until 1917, Finland was a Grand Duchy in the Czarist empire.

But modern Russia lacks the local citizen responsibility that you see in New England, Canada, Japan and Finland. Communism did a good job of wiping out Russian feelings of responsibility toward public property.
Russia’s new democracy movement seeks to build citizen responsibility for local affairs.

And then, on leadership side of the coin, it is clear that, despite the authoritarian longings, Vladimir Putin is no Inca. Although the title Czar derives from the word Caesar, the modern connection is not there. Generation hence, no one will pen odes to Putin’s roads.

With his carefully created TV image, Putin may be more like the Wizard of Oz.

Behind the tough guy act, Putin does not seem to really control Russia’s bureaucracy.

During the 2000s, annual spending on Russian roads doubled to $20 billion a year. But statistics show that Russia’s network of paved roads gradually retreated.

And, yes, city potholes can be big too.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Stalin: A History Gap Divides Russia From Its Neighbors

Posted April 5th, 2012 at 6:05 pm (UTC+0)
45 comments

In Moscow, adults are snapping up school notebooks for children.

Why? The cover has a heroic image of Stalin.

The Stalin notebook is part of a “Great Names of Russia” series.

On one level, it is depressing that many Russians do not seem to know that “Stalin,” was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, a Georgian. (Please see responses below from publishing house Art Director Artyom Belan — jb)

But far more importantly, Russia’s amnesia towards its Stalinist past is dangerous.

Winston Churchill, no friend of his wartime ally, once noted that Stalin dragged Russia from the wooden plow to the H-bomb. Similarly, many Russians prefer to focus on this “positive” of Stalin’s three decades of rule.

As to the sinister side, Stalin’s close collaborators called him: “Genghis Khan with a telephone.”

On May Day, Russian Communist Party supporters will bring out into the daylight their Stalin portraits. This scene from last year’s parade in St. Petersburg. AP Photo:Pavel Golovkin

Those telephone calls led to the deaths of millions of people through executions, famines, and mass jailings. Add to that his criminally poor preparation for the Nazi attack in World War II, a war that cost the lives of almost 15 percent of the Soviet population.

“When children see this magnificent cover with handsome mustachioed Stalin, they perceive him as a hero,” Nikolai Svanidze, a television historian, wrote this week about the Soviet leader in his marshal’s uniform, with military medals covering his chest.

Russia’s denial of its 20th century history is crippling it in its 21st century dealings with its neighbors.

The other evening, I had dinner in Moscow with David Satter, an American historian and author of a new book: “It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past.”

Acknowledging that many Russians feel nostalgia for the communist social welfare system of the 1970s and 1980s, he told me: “The failure to see the crimes that were committed, and the need for these crimes to be recognized, makes it harder to resist present and future crimes.”

He noted that there is no national museum in Moscow dedicated to educating future generations about the appalling human death toll of the communist era. The one museum in Moscow that does deal with the subject is hidden away, poorly laid out, and, from my impression, largely visited by foreigners. Similarly, of the 8,000 Gulag labor camps that once dotted the Soviet Union, only one, Perm-36, has been retained as a museum.

I visited Perm-36 recently on a cold and bleak day. It is clear that Soviet guards did not need sophisticated torture instruments to control political prisoners. They just used the cold.

Of the 8,000 Stalin era labor camps once scattered across the Soviet Union Perm-36 on the Western edge of Siberia is the only one preserved as a museum. Tourists are rare, which is why I took my own photo. VOA Photo: James Brooke

In the United States, strong domestic groups force larger society to confront unsavory aspects of our history. African Americans forced schools to stop white-washing slavery, a treatment that was common when I was in elementary school in the 1960s. Similarly, Native Americans (Indians) forced their point of view into historical accounts of the United States’ 19th century westward expansion. Japanese Americans won officials apologies – and museums – for the World War II era internment camps.

In contrast, Japan’s World War II wartime atrocities in the Philippines against American citizens (including relatives of mine) are little known in the United States. The American population of the Philippines dispersed decades ago, after full independence was achieved.
On nearby Guam, I have seen how “Chamorro” residents teach new generations of islanders about Japanese wartime occupation abuses. But that tropical Western Pacific island is out of sight and out of mind for mainland Americans.

By contrast, the communist death toll in the Soviet Union was, in Satter’s words “a self-inflicted wound.” Inside the borders of modern day Russia, Stalinist atrocities largely involved ethnic Russians killing ethnic Russians.

As a result, Stalinist history is often best chronicled in places where it contributes to nation state building: the Baltic nations, Poland, Western Ukraine, Georgia, Mongolia, and Central Asia.

After 20 years, this history gap leads to Satter’s second point: “It makes it difficult for Russians to understand why their neighbors don’t like them. But maybe, on a more fundamental level, it makes it easier for Russians to behave in the same bullying and imperialistic way they did in the past to the countries which were once part of the Soviet Union.”

It is a short mental step from Russian amnesia about internal Soviet atrocities to Russian denial of external Soviet imperialism. Minds shut even faster when Westerners focus on these twin evils. Russian nationalists are quick to say that Western obsession with Communist era excesses is a Trojan horse for Western wishes to weaken and divide Russia.

In that light, Russia looks like modern Japan, where I worked as a reporter 2001-2006.

A woman holds a portrait of Stalin outside the house where he was born in Gori, Georgia, 80 km west of Tbilisi. Dozens of Georgian communists gathered on March 5 to mark the 59th anniversary of his death. Reuters Photo: David Mdzinarishvili

In Japanese schools, the study of 20th century history oddly stops around 1930 — the buildup to Japan’s military invasion of China and its expansion through Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. Japan’s 1910 annexation of Korea is dealt with lightly.

As a result, more than two generations after the end of World War II, young Japanese are often surprised by anti-Japanese hostility they encounter on trips to China and South Korea.
In Germany, discussing and denouncing the Nazi era has been a national obsession for the generations born after the end of World War II. As a result, Germany’s relations with its neighbors carry little WWII baggage.

Although German soldiers slaughtered millions of Russians during World War II, Germany today enjoys better relations with Russia, than do Britain and the United States, two countries that gave massive material support to Soviet Union during the war. Full German acknowledgement of the Nazi era has been a building block for today’s good German-Russian relations.

Today, it is inconceivable that bookstores in Berlin would peddle a “Famous Germans” school notebook series with one cover featuring Adolf Hitler. (Actually, he was Austrian).

But this week in downtown Moscow, Artyom Bilan, art director of the Alt publishing company, responded to a reporter’s question about the Stalin notebook with his own question: “Why would we withdraw such a successful product?

Welcome to Perm-36 Memorial Center of Political Repression VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks


Bunks made from timber prisoners cut from the Siberian taiga forest. Radiators were added to barracks in 1950s when Perm-36 housed officials convicted of committing excesses under Stalin. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

Rose left by visitor to unheated punishment cell. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Putin and Romney: Back to the Cold War?

Posted April 2nd, 2012 at 7:34 pm (UTC+0)
8 comments

Russia is scary, Mitt Romney, the leading Republican candidate has been saying in recent days. In this file photo, he was speaking to delegates 18 months ago at the New Hampshire Republican Convention in Concord, N.H. AP Photo: Mary Schwalm

Americans living in Moscow are suffering from mental whiplash.

During Russia’s recent presidential election, we enjoyed the moral high ground.

Our politicians, we thought smugly, would never stoop to reviving the Cold War to wake up their conservative bases.

But, in a city where snow fell on April Fool’s Day, it’s dangerous to walk with your nose in the air. Ice still covers many sidewalks here.

Yes, Mitt Romney pulled a Putin.

“Russia is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe,” the leading Republican Party presidential candidate warned CNN TV anchor Wolf Blitzer.

Similar to Vladimir Putin alleging Washington was behind last winter’s democracy protests, Romney was targeting his party’s elderly base.

The U.S. is scary, Russian Prime Minister Putin warned the faithful at a Moscow rally in February when he was running for President. AP Photo.

Romney followed up with “Bowing to the Kremlin,” a Foreign Policy website article that concluded: “For three years, the sum total of President Obama’s policy toward Russia has been: “We give, Russia gets.”

Then, The Washington Post popped Romney’s balloon by digging up a poll conducted last year for CNN. It revealed a generational Grand Canyon in American attitudes toward Russia. For the Cold War generation, 47 percent of Americans polled over age 50 saw Russia as unfriendly toward the United States. In a flip, 70 percent of American adults aged 18 to 49 saw Russia as ‘friendly.”

Separately, in a U.S. News/Chicago Tribune poll conducted in the United States last week, 78 percent responded negatively to Romney’s “number one geopolitical foe” remark.

Putin and Romney may have been separated by birth and class – one in working class Leningrad and the other in upper class Detroit. But they cling to comfortable Cold War worldviews, at least in public.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, some Americans thought that Russian real politik would soon reassert itself. The positive thinking was that last winter’s anti-Americanism was an electoral gimmick designed to animate lethargic voters.

Immediately after Putin won the March 4 Presidential election, a high Foreign Ministry official chirped that Moscow assumed the three-year-old reset policy with Washington was on track. On Afghanistan, Moscow tentatively agreed to allow NATO cargo jets to refuel at Ulyanovsk, an air transit hub on the Volga. Then in Seoul, outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev declared that, on his watch, U.S.-Russian relations have been the best in a decade.

Addressing Romney, President Medvedev told reporters: “It is 2012, not the mid-1970s.”

On Sunday, US Vice President Joe Biden picked up this theme, saying of Romney on CBS: “He acts like he thinks the Cold War is still on, Russia is still our major adversary. I don’t know where he has been.”

In Moscow, some Americans assumed that, with the elections over, the Kremlin’s party line had changed. Russia is hemorrhaging $10 billion a month. The government relies heavily on high oil prices to pay its bills. To diversify the economy, the Kremlin courts foreign investors.

Then, U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul stepped out of his car — and into a strange piece of political theater.

Before meeting with human rights workers in Moscow, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul asks NTV reporters how they know his work schedule. Photo: NTV

Two steps from entering a building that houses a Russian human rights group, he was accosted by a camera crew from NTV, a channel that is notorious for hit jobs on Russia’s opposition.

On one level, it was simply an ambush interview – the kind perfected years ago by American TV crews.

But this one came with theatrical extras – two men dressed as Cossacks planted nearby. A third man held a large sign that read in Russian: “What price for the Motherland?”

Annoyed by the set-up, the ambassador told the NTV reporters: “This is against the Geneva Convention, if you are going to receive my information from my telephone or from my BlackBerry.”

After the interview, McFaul tweeted: “I respect press right to go anywhere & ask any question. But do they have a right to read my email and listen to my phone?”

In another tweet, he asked the key question: ““Everywhere I go, NTV is there. Wonder who gives them my calendar?”

NTV responded that they knew about the meeting due their network of informants.

A more realistic analysis is that the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, is still wiretapping Russian human rights groups.

A not so benign analysis is that the FSB is reading the Ambassador’s email and BlackBerry messages. (Officials at Research in Motion, the developers of BlackBerry, do not publicize the fact that, under Russian law, the FSB has the legal authority and capability to monitor BlackBerry messages.)

The Kremlin has worked long and hard to tap into communications from the embassy.
In the mid-1970s, American embassy officials did not believe that interest in historic preservation prompted Soviet authorities to renovate an early 18th century church with a bell tower that rose above the walls of the U.S. Embassy compound.

Church bells stopped ringing in the six story bell tower in 1929, the year the Soviets confiscated Nine Martyrs Church. After the mid-1970s restoration, American diplomats referred to bell tower as “Our Lady of the Microphones.”

At that time, in 1975, Putin joined the KGB in Leningrad. His first job was to monitor foreigners and consular officials.

That Russia’s intelligence services still try to monitor telephone and email traffic by American diplomats is no surprise. That this information may be used for staging and filming political “provokatsii” evokes Leningrad of 35 years ago.

Last week, Konstantin von Eggert popped any illusions Americans might have about Putin 3.0 – his third term which starts May 7.

“Putin doesn’t like America,” von Eggert wrote last week in his Due West column, which is distributed by Ria Novosti, a state-controlled news agency. “All the explanations that that his anti-U.S. rhetoric is just an electoral trick are vacuous. The man says pretty much the same thing at every opportunity: America has discriminated against Russia in global affairs ever since the end of the Cold War.”

He concludes: “The general perception of America as competitive and hostile is no doubt part and parcel of Putin’s and the Kremlin’s thinking.”

Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor under President Carter, said of Putin in a CBS News interview last week: “He’s clearly driven by nostalgia for the past and the (Soviet) super-national status.”

From the other side, Romney warns of Russia in his book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.” He writes: “We are now obliged to be wary and vigilant once more, because by mid-century, our grandchildren may well view Russia with the same concern that we and our parents once did.”

So, one year from now, journalists may be reporting, from a frozen lake in rural Michigan, that President Romney and President Putin are grimly trying to bond — over ice fishing.

Meanwhile, in Moscow this year, a new spring season for Russian-American relations may have come and gone – before the first yellow daffodils had a chance to arrive. It reminds me of the yellow tulips I gave a Russian friend over the weekend. She kept hopefully dipping her nose to the bouquet of scentless flowers.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Russia x US on Missile Defense: A Phony Problem Needs a Phony Solution?

Posted March 28th, 2012 at 7:08 pm (UTC+0)
11 comments

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev chat just after the open mic episode at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul on March, 26, 2012. AP Photo:Pablo Martinez Monsivais

It used to be that journalists had a monopoly on blunt talk about U.S.-Russian relations.
Since we are not diplomats, we don’t have to be diplomatic.
Then missile defense flared this week as the burning issue between Washington and Moscow.
On Monday, an open microphone in Seoul caught U.S. President Barack Obama asking Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev for more “space” on missile defense. The American leader said he would have more “flexibility” after the Nov. 6, U.S. election.

In response, Mitt Romney, the leading Republican contender, told CNN that Russia is America’s “number one foe.” Then, President Medvedev retorted that that phrase “smells of Hollywood.” He suggested the American candidate “check his watch,” as “it’s 2012, not the mid-1970s.”

The next day, Romney fired back on the website of Foreign Policy magazine, with a piece titled: “Bowing to the Kremlin.” Romney accused President Obama of being “pliant” on missile defense. He summarized the Obama Administration’s policy as: “We give, Russia gets.”

In the middle of all this, Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department’s top arms control official, landed in Moscow on Wednesday. She told the Kommersant newspaper that a mutually acceptable solution can be found on missile defense.

A ground based interceptor rocket at the missile defense site at Ft. Greeley, near Fairbanks, Alaska, is inspected in the Aug. 2006 photo by US Air Force Lt. Gen. Trey Obering, then Director of the Missile Defense Agency (left), and Donald H. Rumsfeld, then Defense Secretary. AP Photo: AP: Robert Burns

That solution most likely will not be found during the American presidential campaign season, a time long called “the silly season” for the claims and charges made by candidates.

While the politicians try to score points, here are a few things they won’t say about Washington’s plan to build a missile defense picket line to knock one or two missiles coming from Iran.

First, Eastern Europeans generally like missile defense — not because they fear an Iranian missile, but because it places an American human trip wire between them and Russia. South Korea has flourished for almost 60 years, partly because of the thousands of American soldiers stationed between Seoul and the DMZ.

In North Korea, three generations of the ruling Kim dynasty have known that if they follow through on threats to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire,” the resulting American casualties would enrage the American public and force Washington to intervene. Everyone in South Korea knows this realpolitik. In the U.S., few do.
Generations of U.S. Army recruiters have enticed 18 years olds into military with slogans like “See the World!” They don’t try to entice with a slogan like “Be a Human Tripwire!”

Many Eastern Europeans who know their history would like to have American boots on their ground, even it is just for a radar station or a missile picket line.

Second, unless I am hard of hearing, I hear no calls from Western Europe for defense from Iranian rockets.
My hearing may have dulled when, as a teenager, I attended mass marches in France against the Vietnam War. When 100,000 French people march through the narrow streets of a university town, they raise a huge racket.

In this 2007 photo, a passenger car passes in front of a newly built NATO air-defense radar base near Nepolisy, some 85 kilometers east of Prague, Czech Republic. In Sept. 2009, the Obama White House announced a downgrading of the plan. Last June, Czech Defense Minister Alexander Vondra said his country had withdrawn from missile defense out of frustration at its minor role in the new U.S. plan. AP Photo: Alexandra Mlejnkova

In contrast, today I hear only tiny Western European voices speaking for missile defense: from conservative thinks tanks and from Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Danish prime minister. As NATO’s secretary general, he depends on good relations with the Pentagon for his job security. On Monday, in a video linkup from NATO headquarters in Brussels, he told Moscow: “The anti-missile shield is not directed against Russia, nor designed to attack Russia or undermine what Russia calls its strategic deterrent.”

Responding to President Medvedev’s threat to deploy nuclear tipped missiles in Kaliningrad, Russia’s westernmost territory, he added: “It would be a complete waste of money to deploy offensive weapons against an artificial enemy – an enemy that doesn’t exist in the real world.”

From the Russian side, President Medevedev told a Euro-Atlantic security conference here in Moscow last week: “To be honest, during sideline talks, many of the European leaders would tell me in a whisper that they really do not need this, but they have obligations, given the Atlantic solidarity.”

On one level, that is Moscow’s age old game of trying to split Europe from Washington. But, I have yet to see – or hear — Western Europeans marching in the streets, demanding missile defense.
The third point here is that Russia fears missile defense because it wants to preserve the nuclear status quo inherited from the Soviet Union – Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD.
Russia believes that if missile defense is allowed out of the box, a small, pilot program will eventually grow to be a monster that nullifies Russia’s fearsome nuclear arsenal.

Russia’s leadership does not want to repeat the costly arms race that helped to bankrupt the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. According to a World Bank study on Russia’s economy released Tuesday, oil prices have to stay above $115 a barrel for Russia’s governmental budget to balance. That is four times the $30 level that balances the budget five years ago.

Russia’s other insecurity is that it fears it cannot keep up with the science. As corruption and a scientific brain drain undermine the quality of Russian universities, no Russian institution ranked last week in a world survey of the world’s top 100 universities.

Russia’s roughly 3,000 active nuclear warheads give the Kremlin a seat at most big power tables. If a missile defense system were to ever neutralize this threat, Russia would end up looking like a poorly run Canada, a supplier of raw materials to Europe and China.

To guard against such a sad, but faraway, fate, President Medvedev told the security meeting here last week: “The main thing is that we must hear one simple thing – hear it and receive confirmation: ‘Respected friends from Russia, our missile defense is not aimed against Russian nuclear forces.’ This must be affirmed, not in a friendly chat over a cup of tea or a glass of wine but in a document.”

Construction on a ballistic missile interceptors field at Ft. Greely near Fairbanks, in Alaska’s interior in Dec. 2005. AP Photo: Al Grillo

But, on the American side, that is not going to happen. The last Republican president, George W. Bush, pulled the United States out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in 2002. He pulled the U.S. out precisely to allow American scientists to work on a missile defense program to protect the U.S. and its allies against a nuclear tipped missile, from North Korea or Iran.

Last year, U.S. Senate specifically banned sharing of confidential missile defense data with Russia. On Tuesday, 43 out of the 47 Republican Senators in Washington signed a letter to President Obama opposing any attempt to limit U.S. missile defense capabilities.
To many American conservatives, it would irresponsible for America’s leadership to not invest in a technology that could potentially save millions of lives. Republicans say that Democrats deride missile defense as “Star Wars’ technology” and that Democrats only keep the program alive in order to be able to sacrifice it as a bargaining chip in a deal with Russia.

Perhaps alarmed at this week’s surge in Republican opposition, Sergei Koshelev, Russia’s top liaison with NATO, invited Rasmussen on Wednesday to Moscow for a May 3 missile defense meeting. Referring to NATO’s 28 members, he soothingly told Interfax: “We are telling them: ‘do everything you think necessary, but not to the detriment of Russia’s security.’”

Until the U.S. presidential election is over, Russian and American negotiators are expected to grapple behind closed doors with the missile defense Rubik’s Cube.

Maybe the best solution came Friday from Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin.

First, he attended Euro-Atlantic security conference where he denounced Washington’s anti-Iran missile defense system, saying: “The system that is being developed is intended to intercept heavy intercontinental missiles blasting off from the Russian territory.”

Then, he drove 45 kilometer north to Moscow’s Institute of Thermal Technology. There, he posed with the developers of Russia’s Bulava, Yars and Topol-M strategic missile systems.

Talking to reporters, he said Russians can remain calm.

“The advanced Russian missile systems that are being developed today guarantee the ability to overpower any existing and future missile defense shields,” Rogozin said.

So this may be the face saving exit.
After creating a pretend problem, the Kremlin can now create pretend solution.

The contrail from the launch of a unarmed Minuteman III missile test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, north of Santa Barbara, California, lights up the night sky in Los Angeles in September 19, 2002. The two unarmed re-entry vehicles traveled 4,200 miles in 30 minutes, striking targets at a missile range in the Marshall Islands, according to the United States Air Force. Reuters Photo: Fred Prouser

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Afghanistan: Pass the $1 billion a week baton to Russia?

Posted March 23rd, 2012 at 6:47 am (UTC+0)
29 comments

American soldiers of 101st Airborne Division return fire during a firefight with Taliban forces in Barawala Kalay Valley in Kunar province, Afghanistan, March 2011. Photo: U.S. Army: Pfc. Cameron Boyd

In early September 2002, one year after American troops entered Afghanistan, I reported newspaper stories from Kandahar, the main city of the Pashto-speaking southern part of Afghanistan.

I drove in from Quetta, Pakistan, and stayed 10 days at the “best” hotel on Kandahar’s main street.

For one report, I spent a morning walking the street with a Pashto-English interpreter. I talked to the video rental man, poked around the bazaar, and sipped tea with the used car dealer and his brothers. As a Westerner, I was a bit of an attraction. People were curious. Some were reserved. Some were friendly. For most of my stay, I’m sure the Taliban knew where I was.

This was back when the war’s goal was to destroy al-Qaida in Afghanistan. From the ruins I saw of Tarnak Farms, the Al Qaeda training camp near Kandahar airport, it was clear that the American and allied soldiers had done fine job of that.

Then, two Washington syndromes descended on Afghanistan.

With mission creep, getting rid of al-Qaida morphed into democratizing Afghanistan.
Without a sunset clause, the war went on and on and on.

New Best Friends? Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in mid-March that his country is plagued by “two demons” – the Taliban and American soldiers. Here, he meets in Sochi, Russia with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. But Russian officials balk at the $100 billion a year cost of stabilizing Afghanistan. They now say American troops should stay until Afghanistan is 'stabilized.' Photo: Reuters/Dmitry Astakhov

As George Friedman, CEO of the Stratfor analytical group, wrote Monday, Afghanistan has become the longest multi-divisional war fought in American history.

And where is the progress? Ten years after I strolled in the sun down the main street of Kandahar, I now would only cover that stretch of asphalt in an armored car.

After a decade, the American public is realizing that Afghanistan is not working out as hoped. In poll after poll, two thirds of Americans want to bring our soldiers home.

With President Hamid Karzai calling American soldiers “demons” last week, the current pullout date of December 2014 seems awfully far away.

In addition to the human cost, American congressmen and American taxpayers are now focusing on the financial cost. Until recently, the calculation was $1 billion a week. Then last week, Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican of North Carolina, upped the bill, saying: “We are spending $10 billion a month that we can’t even pay for.”

In response, Moscow is saying this week: Not so fast!

A little background.

For the last five years, Russia has enjoyed the luxury of sniping from the sidelines at the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Just last month, Konstantin Dolgov, the Foreign Ministry’s Commissioner on Human Rights, used a new United Nations report to criticize NATO for rising civilian casualties. He neglected to mention that the same U.N. report said the Taliban and other insurgents caused 77 percent of documented civilian deaths.

Russian officials routinely — and correctly — note that the NATO mission has made little progress in reducing poppy crops and opium production in Afghanistan. What they fail to note is that, after decades of war against cocaine and marijuana production in Latin America, the street prices for cocaine and marijuana in North America have not changed much since my time in college (a long time ago). The current bloodbath in Mexico is the latest evidence of a failing drug war in the Americas.

Going home: 1st Sgt. Michael McKay, of 101st Airborne Division counts fellow soldiers boarding a C-130 cargo plane as they begin the trip home upon completion of a year long deployment last August in Paktika province, Afghanistan. In polls, majorities of Americans say they want to see an end to what has become the nation’s longest war. Photo: AP/David Goldman

According to the latest figures, the U.S. is spending over $100 million to stop heroin trafficking into Central Asia, and on to Russia. Maybe that money would be more efficiently used in the United States — on education and needle exchange programs to protect our own people?

Moscow has made a big deal about allowing NATO cargo and personnel to fly over or travel through Russia. It does not mention the fine print: Russian transport companies earn about $1 billion a year on these contracts.

But Moscow also wants people to be blind to the BIG PRINT: The United States has been giving Russia enormous help in Afghanistan for the last decade. A chaotic, unstable Afghanistan could destabilize Central Asia, and eventually Russia’s Islamic south.

Facing calls in the U.S. for a faster withdrawal, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, gave a lengthy interview Sunday to a reporter from ToloNews, the Afghan TV network.

“I don’t think the job has been done,” Lavrov warned in blunt English. Taking a legal tack, he argued that American troops can only leave Afghanistan when they can report to the United Nations that they have met their mandate to provide law and order in Afghanistan.

Soviet troops and armored personnel carriers withdrawing from Afghanistan in 1988. Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev

“It’s clear that trouble continues in Afghanistan, and that terrorist attacks have not subsided,” he continued. “We are especially concerned that terrorist activities have spread to the north of Afghanistan, where three years ago there was a quiet situation. The terrorists have basically pushed into the northern territories of Afghanistan from where they infiltrate to the Central Asian neighbors of the Russian Federation.”

Lavrov went on to unveil the development programs that Russia plans for Afghanistan: rebuilding the old Soviet cultural center in Kabul as a Russian cultural center, and reviving as many as 150 projects from the 1980s, the Soviet’s own decade-long intervention in Afghanistan.

On Friday, Viktor Ivanov, director of Russia’s Drug Control Service, joined the chorus, warning about chaos in Afghanistan after an American pullout in 2014. He told reporters in Moscow: “Apparently, after 2014 there will be an uncontrollable rise in drug production, some sort of heroin, hashish tsunami that will head both to Russia and the E.U countries along the Balkan route.”

But the people to persuade are American taxpayers, a group that is increasingly tired of spending $1-2 billion a week to keep the peace in a landlocked nation of minimal strategic value, on the far side of the globe from the United States.

Here’s an idea: Maybe Russia might want to pick up the Afghan baton again? Maybe Moscow would like to take over policing Afghanistan for the next decade?
Since many Russians today indulge in selective Soviet nostalgia, wouldn’t policing Afghanistan fit perfectly into the national mood? Back to the big power 1980s!

Russia has $505 billion in foreign reserves — good for a decade of Afghan stabilization.
And on spending money, the Kremlin has a huge advantage over the American White House.
Most of Russia’s federal budget comes from taxes paid by 15 large energy and natural resource companies.

In contrast, President Obama has to deal with 100 million tax payers, most of whom plan to vote on Nov. 6. Now that Vladimir Putin has won his reelection, he does not have to worry about playing nice to voters.

I’m sure that all the Russian teachers, doctors, soldiers and pensioners who were promised big pay hikes during last month’s presidential campaign will fully understand that their pay raises will be indefinitely delayed in order to try to stabilize Afghanistan.

So far, Americans have grudgingly agreed to do their bit. But now, having done our decade in Afghanistan, Americans might like to focus on rebuilding the United States.

Since there are 52 weeks in the year and 50 states in the Union, each week, one new state would win the $1 billion lottery! And, at the end of the year, we would have $2 billion left over for Guam, Puerto Rico and American Samoa!

Sound like a plan, Moscow? Start practicing your Pashto!

Back to the future? A Soviet Spetsnaz, or special operations, group prepares for a mission in Afghanistan, 1988. The next year, the Soviet Union pulled out, ending a 9-year military intervention. Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Moscow Grrl Band Sets Kremlin’s Teeth on Edge

Posted March 19th, 2012 at 9:16 pm (UTC+0)
3 comments

Pussy Riot band stages lightning punk performance on Red Square on January 20 to protest
six more years of Vladimir Putin leading Russia. Photo: Reuters: Denis Sinyakov

Band members wear hand knitted ski masks to submerge their identities into the group. They say they draw inspiration from the 1990s punk grrl music movement in the US. Photo: Igor Mukhin

Just when politics here were starting to look boring again, along comes an outrageous girl band to rattle Russia.

With their day glo balaclavas, bright tights and summer dresses on the white snow, the angry girls call themselves Pussy Riot.

They’re starting to make President Vladimir Putin look like Dwight Eisenhower. He was the American president who took a dim view of Elvis “the Pelvis” Presley and his scandalous hip gyrations.

Under Eisenhower, the King of Rock and Roll was drafted into the U.S. Army.

Under Putin, the leaders of Pussy Riot are now in jail facing charges that could carry sentences of up to eight years.

Russia’s generational clash was triggered by Putin’s announcement last Sept. 24 that he and President Dmitri Medvedev were going to switch jobs.

For a group of Russian feminists, six more years of Putinism was six years too many. They formed a punk band, took vows of individual anonymity, agreed to perform only illegal concerts, and chose a deliberately rude and provocative name.

A supporter held a photo of imprisoned band member Natalya Tolokonnikova, marked ‘Freedom,’ during a picket
March 8 in front of police headquarters in Moscow. AP Photo:Ivan Sekretarev

In the old days (five years ago), Pussy Riot would have been a dead-end garage band, playing for friends in an abandoned warehouse. But now that half of Russia is online, their video performances are going viral, scoring hundreds of thousands of views.

In six months, Pussy Riot has become a household name across Russia. Reflecting this, a state-run TV channel recently devoted an evening program to the band, explaining to viewers that its members come from broken homes, that their parents are alcoholics, and that several band members are bad mothers.

Indeed, the mothering will suffer if they have to sit in jail for seven years.

But, it is not the quality of mothering that irritates the Kremlin, it is the politics.

In Pussy Riot’s debut action, they took over a Moscow metro station and sang their song: “Loosen the paving stones!”
Referring to the Arab Spring, they sang: “Egyptian air is good for the lungs! Let’s make Tahrir in the middle of Red Square.”

Last December, after police arrested hundreds of people who protested voting fraud, band members climbed atop a roof next to the jail and performed this song: “Death To Prison, Freedom To Protest.”

Two weeks later, after the government called out tens of thousands of police to tightly control a protest demonstration, the band climbed atop an ancient stone platform in Red Square and performed a song with this refrain: “Revolt in Russia/Putin Wets his Pants.”

That concert resulted in detentions of several hours and warnings.

Members of radical feminist group Pussy Riot try to perform their ‘punk prayer’ to save the nation from Vladimir Putin at Russia’s largest Orthodox Cathedral, Christ the Savior, in Moscow on Feb. 21. AP Photo: Sergey Ponomarev

But the final straw for the Kremlin was the band’s pre-election invasion of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. Standing near the central altar, they crossed themselves, and sang: “Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, drive Putin out!”

Targeting the close alliance between church and state in Russia, band members sang: “Black cassock, gold epaulettes! The congregation bows, crawling to him! The Ghost of Freedom in heaven / Gay Pride is sent to Siberia in chains.”

Then:“The KGB chief, their patron saint is escorting protesters to a detention center; the Patriarch believes in Putin, better believe in God.”

On the eve of Russia’s March 4 presidential election, police arrested two women they said were ringleaders of the cathedral invasion, Maria Alyokhin and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. A third woman, Irina Loktina, was arrested on Friday. All have been charged with hooliganism, charges that can bring up to eight years in jail.

Prosecutors say they are all members of Pussy Riot. The women refuse to confirm or deny membership. They are to remain locked up until they go on trial, on April 24.

The Kremlin is fed up.

Talking to Dozhd, the internet TV channel, Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, said ,“Honestly speaking, as far as what happened in the cathedral, there’s no other way to describe it than disgusting.”

Maxim Shevchenko, a pro-Kremlin television talk show host, told a radio station after the cathedral invasion: “This is an insult, blasphemy, sacrilege and a desecration of the Orthodox Church. The church is not a place for gay and lesbian activists.”

Two months earlier, a Ukrainian feminist group, Femen, targeted Christ the Savior cathedral for a protest in solidarity with Russians demonstrating against electoral fraud. Here a security guard detains a Femen activist. Reuters Photo: Denis Sinyakov.

The Orthodox Church is split on the case. About 5,000 lay members have signed a petition calling for forgiveness.

Vladimir Legoida, a church spokesman, told the gazeta.ru newspaper: “Church officials have more than once said they do not support the idea of a real prison sentence in this case, but call instead for social condemnation.”

He added: “Even the Bolsheviks in their time did not allow themselves such sacrilege, which was demonstrated during this so called ‘punk service’.”

(If the Legoida quote is accurate, he seems to be forgetting that the Bolsheviks executed tens of thousands of Orthodox priests and destroyed thousands of churches, including the Cathedral, which was dynamited on Stalin’s orders in 1931.)

But Vsevolod Chaplin head of the Church’s social relations department told Interfax on Monday that the girl band had tried to perform their punk prayer in the another Moscow Cathedral before they succeeded at Christ the Savior, the largest in Russia.
“They have declared war on Orthodox people, and there will be war,” he told the Russian news agency. “However, responsibility for it rests with those who started it. If the blasphemers are not punished, God will punish them in eternity and here through people.”
Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader and a nationalist, was more moderate, writing in his blog: “Their action at Christ the Savior Cathedral is idiotic, and there is nothing to argue about. To put it mildly, I would not like it if some cranky chicks broke into a church while I was there and started running around the altar.”

But, Navalny added in his blog, it was equally ridiculous to have Pussy Riot members jailed for almost two months “during an investigation into an offense which obviously cannot be punished harsher than five days of arrest. Let them mop the square around Christ the Savior Cathedral and think about their behavior. This is senseless and horrible cruelty, which is much worse than their very stupid but small offense.”

While Elvis Presley’s singing career zoomed after his two-year stint in the Army, the musical future of Pussy Riot is not so clear.
In an interview with gazeta.ru, a band Riot member described their two-minute concerts as performance art, creating images of “pure protest, saying: super heroes in balaclavas and acid bright tights seize public space in Moscow.”

To get their message about, the band has their own LiveJournal blog, a YouTube PussRiot channel, and a new English language support site: “Free Pussy Riot!”

Another band member, who goes by the pseudonym Garadzha, told the Moskovkie Novosti newspaper that the group is open to women recruits with limited musical talents. She said: “You don’t have to sing very well. It’s punk. You just scream a lot.”

Pussy Riot sing an anti-Putin song from Lobnoye Mesto, a white stone platform where Prince Pozharsky announced in 1612 that Moscow was free of Polish occupiers. Reuters Photo: Denis Sinyakov

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Mission Impossible: Send Russia’s Elections Chief to Alaska?

Posted March 13th, 2012 at 8:50 pm (UTC+0)
3 comments

Vladimir Churov, chairman of Russia's Central Election Commission, told reporters that he believes that many foreign election monitors are spies. Now, he plans to monitor the U.S. Presidential election.


Separated by birth? No, by the Bering Strait! Like Churov, these American Old Believers also favor big white beards.

Vladimir Churov, head of Russia’s Central Elections Commission, has been busy in Moscow.

The day after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s presidential electoral victory, the elections supervisor said that no other nation in the world could have “a more open, fair, transparent presidential campaign.”

Previously, Churov, a former Putin aide in St. Petersburg, was best known for his quote: “Churov’s first rule: Putin is always right.”

With Putin now set for another six years in office, Churov, who turns 59 on Saturday, is turning to new challenges.

He has announced that he will lead a Russian government project to monitor the 2012 American presidential campaign and the November 6 presidential election. He vows “detailed” monitoring and promises to find “flaws.”

Curiously, at the same press conference, he told reporters that many international election observer groups have “transformed into the collection of political, or even military-political information.” He warned: “Observers have a keen wish for entering border units, nuclear and missile centers and so on. The number of such people is growing.”

Vladimir Yevgenyevich, why not combine your two passions — and spend November in Alaska?

Yes, watching voting and counting can be boring. But it would be a great cover for collecting “military-political information” on three strategic mysteries that torment Russians today.
They are:
1) The Alaskan Death Ray – When Russia’s Mars probe, the Phobos-Grunt, failed after launch from Baikonur, Kazakhstan last November, Lt. Gen. Nikolai Rodionov, a former commander of a Russian missile attack early warning unit, told the Interfax news agency that powerful military radars in Alaska could have knocked down the interplanetary rover.

Welcoming committee for Churov? No, this Inupiat family was photographed in 1928 by Edmund S. Curtis.

2) The Alaskan Mind Bender Ray – As Alan Cullison reported last month in The Wall Street Journal, a website in Magnitogorsk reported that Russian opposition protests were triggered by high frequency signals beamed straight into the brains of Russians – all sent from a secret military base in Alaska.

3) Alaskan Expansionism – Not content with living in the largest state in the United States, some Alaskans now want islands long controlled by Russia. Last month, a website headline screamed: “Obama Gives 7 Oil-Rich Islands to Russia: Secret Give Away – Alaska Not Consulted.”

So, Mr. Churov, should you accept this mission, your cover will be to watch the American presidential campaign in Alaska.

But, as you roam from Dutch Harbor to Homer, those of us watching from Moscow will know what your secret mission will be (wink, wink).
Exciting? You bet! Off we go!
First, some travel tips:
Unfortunately, the 1998 ruble crisis prompted Alaska Airlines to roll up its six-city route network in the Russian Far East. So, instead of hopping a cross-Bering flight, you will have to fly the long way around — via New York and Seattle to get to Anchorage.

At one of the airport stops along the way, pick up a powerful flashlight. It will be symbol of your mission!
But it will also be practical as there will be only eight hours of daylight in Anchorage on November 6, Elections Day. By the end of November, daylight will dwindle to six hours.

The upside of Alaska in November: cheap off season hotel rates!

Now, some contacts:

1) Sarah Palin. This powerhouse of the Republican Party (accurately) told ABC News that you can see Russia from Alaska. But, geographically challenged comedians and journalists — the kind of East Coast people who cannot tell Little Diomede Island from Big Diomede Island — pounced on Palin. They distorted her words, saying she said she could see Russia from her house in Wasilla. (Interview tip: start on common ground – for example, the evils of Washington, the American Media, etc.). During the election period, Palin might be traveling in the Lower 48 (states) with her Tea Party friends (conservatives who gather around an American-style samovar to complain about Washington).

2) Joe Miller. Palin pal, Tea Partier, Gulf War Army vet, and Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Alaska in 2010 elections. In a new twist, Miller started lobbying Washington last month to assert a claim over seven islands long recognized as on the Russian side of the international boundary. (see map below)
As Maggie Thornton wrote last month in her conservative blog, Maggie’s Notebook: “Obama’s State Department is giving away seven strategic, resource-laden Alaskan islands to the Russians. Yes, to the Putin regime in the Kremlin.” (Note to Kremlin: sharpen intel gathering by starting this secret Google alert: “Russia.” Also, Wikipedia notes that Alaska is the size of Libya – can’t anyone connect the dots?

After losing the 2010 Senate race, Republican candidate has started campaigning to win for Alaska seven islands west of the Bering Strait. Here he speaks with reporters in Juneau, Alaska in 2010. Photo: AP)

Note to FSB: instead of planting flaming red-haired Anna Chapman in a Manhattan Starbucks, it might be more productive – and more discreet — to plant Boris and Natasha in Bullwinkle’s Pizza Parlor, two blocks from the Alaskan State Capitol, in Juneau).

3) Russian Orthodox Eskimos. They live largely in Aleut and Yupik communities along the seacoast. But, undoubtedly, they have gossip, err, intel, about the interior, clues about where The Death Ray and The Mind Bender Ray might just be located. (Interview tip: shy away from the island sovereignty issue. They think it is stupid that people need visas to visit their cousins on opposite sides of the Bering Strait). Stick with English. The Russian they know is Church Slavonic brought by missionaries in the 1790s. Good photo opportunities of onion domed churches to justify your expense accounts back in Moscow.

Russian Orthodox Church in Sitka serves some of the 50,000 Orthodox believers in Alaska, a legacy of the work of early 19th century Russian missionaries. Photo: Jeremy Keith

4) Old Believers — You will feel right at home with these guys. They favor the same Dostoevsky spade beard as you! (Interview tip: skip the politics — they have been down on the Kremlin since 1666 — the year of the Great Schism.) Best bets: a four hour drive from Anchorage, try the Fox River villages of Voznesenka, Beryosovka and Nikolaevsk. Old Believers are not big on high tech, so they may not be up to speed on The Death Ray or The Mind Bender Ray. But more photo ops for the expense accounts.

This may be a pretty tall order for one “election monitoring trip” (wink, wink).

But Alaska need not be all work and no play!

The last time I was in Anchorage, I observed Russian “tourists” disappearing into the 4th Avenue showroom of David Green Master Furrier. Hours later, they would emerge with two, three or four mink coats.
Alaska can be fun in November!

Alaskan Expansionism? Some Alaskans are claiming islands west of the internationally recognized boundary between Russia and the United States. Threatening a war of maps, expansionists are circulating this chart.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

About

About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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