Behind Putin’s Smile for Kerry

Posted May 8th, 2013 at 4:07 pm (UTC+0)

At the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin musters a welcoming smile Tuesday for visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov maintains the tradition glum visage, perfected by his mentor, Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Union’s Cold War Foreign Minister who was often called: ‘Grim Grom.” Photo: Reuters/Mikhail Klimentyev

When Vladimir Putin smiles, take notice.

A Russian friend once commented to me that one thing she like about her president is that he does not smile in public.

On Tuesday, Vladimir Putin spent much of the day displaying on TV the thin-lipped sneer he adopts when playing the Good Czar berating the Bad Boyars. He marked his first year back in the Kremlin by berating his cabinet for falling short of meeting goals.

The first impact of this tongue lashing came Wednesday with the resignation Vladislav Surkov, a deputy prime minister and political architect of what he called Russia’s “sovereign democracy.”

Kerry’s visit to Moscow coincided with preparations for Russia’s celebration of the Soviet Union’s May 9, 1945 victory over Nazi Germany. On Tuesday, his arrival at Moscow’s Ritz Carlton was delayed for 30 minutes by tanks and rocket carriers maneuvering in a rehearsal for the Red Square military parade. Photo: Reuters/Mladen Antonov

On Tuesday evening, President Putin’s next televised encounter should have elicited more grimaces from Russia’s stern ruler. It was with John Kerry, the new U.S. Secretary of State.

Only one year ago, while campaigning for President, Prime Minister Putin accused the U.S. State Department of funding and organizing mass opposition street rallies. A favorite protest chant was: “Russia Without Putin.”

On returning to the Kremlin, Mr. Putin devoted one year to methodically cutting U.S. influence here. He expelled USAID and an alphabet soup of American programs dating back to the 1990s. He signed a law requiring non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funds to register as “foreign agents.”

But Russia’s protest movement is not dead. Twenty-four hours before Kerry and Putin met, 15,000 protesters gathered on an island across from the Kremlin. Once again, they chanted “Russia Without Putin.” And Russia’s president knew that on Wednesday, the Secretary of State was scheduled to meet with leaders of Russia’s beleaguered NGOs.

So on Tuesday night, as the Kremlin TV pool camera rolled, it was a surprise to see President Putin force the left and right sides up his mouth, up, up, up into, yes, a :).

Countries don’t have friends. They have interests.

Presidents often don’t have friends. President Truman once said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

Putin knows these rules better than most.

Putin has a public image of a stern taskmaster. Here he presides over a Cabinet meeting. Photo: Reuters/Alexsey Druginyn

Of the eight heads of government posing in the 2000 G-8 class photo, he is the only leader still in power.

So why did Putin give a beaming welcome to the U.S. Secretary of State? Why did Russia’s president then spend two and a half hours in a closed door meeting with Kerry, the rank equivalent of a foreign minister?

The Kremlin wants to do business. And the time is now.

The Kremlin feels the landscape has been cleared of the 1990s legacy dependency relationships with the U.S. Putin feels he can now deal with Washington as an equal, mano-a-mano, eye to eye.

The Kremlin wants things. The agenda is long – from blunting U.S. missile defense, to managing the American exit from Afghanistan, to protecting their stakes in Syria. Hours after Kerry was wheels up from Moscow on Wednesday, Putin met with Russia’s Security Council to plot defense of Central Asia and southern Russia after a U.S. pullout from Afghanistan.

Putin also wants the international prestige of bilateral meetings with the U.S. president. The two presidents will meet during the June 17-18 G8 meeting at a golf resort in Northern Ireland. President Putin also has invited President Obama to Moscow immediately prior to attending this year’s G-20 meeting, in St. Petersburg in Sept. 5-6.

The White House has confirmed Northern Ireland meeting next month and President Obama’s attendance at the G-20. But last May, President Putin stood up President Obama at last year’s G-8 meeting at Camp David. The Kremlin knows plans can change.

From the American side, officials have let the Russians know that a four-month clock is now ticking.

If real achievements are not on the horizon by mid-September, President Obama will step back. He will hand the U.S-Russia relationship off to lesser ranking officials.

Kerry enjoying the summer sunshine on Red Square in front of St. Basil’s cathedral. Let’s see if the warm temperatures that US-Russia relations. Photo: Reuters/Mladen Antonov

America’s second term president is in legacy mode. Meetings for the sake of meetings is not Obama’s path to a place in history books.
So how to read Putin’s smile?

The Kremlin now is in transactional mode. It seeks to do business on geopolitical issues that concern Russia – the end of the civil war in Syria, international participation in the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, containment of Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions without military attacks, and curbs on American missile defense programs.

The Kremlin is shifting gears, from anti-Americanism to “let’s make a deal.”

Kerry’s brief visit to Russia coincided with the end of Moscow’s four-day spring, and the kickoff of its 120-day summer.

Let’s see what is achieved by summer’s end, at the Putin-Obama meeting in St. Petersburg next September.

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.

After Boston’s Bombs, Russia’s World Class Sports Events Face Big Security Challenges

Posted April 30th, 2013 at 9:46 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

Alpha male athlete Vladimir Putin follows a strategy of promoting his new Russia through high profile, world class sporting events — from Winter Olympics to World Cup football to Grand Prix auto racing. Reuters: Alexei Druzhnin

Back in the sunny days before the Boston Marathon bombings, Vladimir Putin, an avid sportsman, decided that the best way to showcase his new Russia would be to host world class sporting events.

Now, his sports policy is about to bear fruit as the world media prepares to cover Russia’s five-year marathon of sporting events.

But after terrorists exploded bombs in front of TV cameras at the Boston Marathon, Russia’s sports calendar suddenly looks like a five-year obstacle course of security challenges.

In July, the Universiade, or university games, is to be held in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, Russia’s most populous – and most moderate — Muslim majority republic.

In August, Moscow is to host the World Athletic Championships, complete with a 42-kilometer marathon through the streets of Moscow.

Next February, Russia hosts the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, a city on the western edge of the Caucasus, an area wracked by separatist and Muslim extremist violence.

Further down the road is the 2014 Russian Formula One Grand Prix auto race in Sochi, then the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup, and finally the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

President Putin, a judo and karate expert, taught himself to skate in recent years to help promote the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Photo: Reuters/Alexksey Nikolskyi

Five years from now, most of the seven billion people on the planet will have seen images from a sporting event in Russia.

Terrorists don’t seem to care much for sports. But, as the bombs placed at the Boston Marathon finish line indicate, terrorists do love publicity.

The Boston bombers scored a home run for publicity. The message was fuzzy — some kind Muslim fundamentalist protest. But their images went viral worldwide.

For Russians, the horror of these images was compounded by the knowledge that the two lead suspects, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, are ethnic Chechens. One decade ago, they emigrated to the United States from Dagestan, a republic that borders Chechnya.

In recent years, Chechen separatists have chosen Russian targets with the maximum media impact – Moscow’s metro, Moscow fast train to St. Petersburg, and Moscow’s most modern international airport.

Russia’s hard-eyed security forces are not experts in mass communications theory. But they are experts in locking things down.

An Interior Ministry officer stands guard inside the Sochi’s newly completed international airport. Photo: Reuters/Alexander Demianchuk

For the August marathon through Moscow, spectators will have to go through metal detectors to approach the course. After the Boston bombings, Valentin Balakhnichyov, president of the Russian Athletics Federation, told Reuters that he was tripling the level of security protection.

“At the same time, we don’t want to make Moscow a ghost town,” said Balakhnichyov. Hmmm.

In a telephone call on April 29, President Putin and President Obama discussed improving security information cooperation. Yury Ushakov, a Putin aide, said that the two presidents “stressed the importance of joint work to guarantee the security of the Sochi Olympics.”

Indeed, the big challenge will be the Sochi Winter Olympics next February.

It will be held on the westernmost edge of the Caucasus mountains, an area where Islamic extremism, ethnic secessionism and widespread poverty cause a cocktail for political violence that has been taking one human life a day since the start of this year.

The violence is in the mountainous Caucasian republics to the east of Sochi.
A full 150 years after Czarist authorities “pacified” the area, Russian authorities have yet to build a road from the mountains to the sea. This highway segregation policy keeps violence-torn populations bottled up in the mountains, away from the Olympic towns of Sochi and Krasnaya Polana.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Russian Interior Ministry officers started to check the identity documents of passengers arriving at the rail station of Sochi, the host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Photo: Reuters/Alexander Demianchuk

But mountain peoples with a sense of history know that the final peace treaty with Czarist Russia was signed at Krasnaya Polana, and that the deportations of mountain Muslim populations to Turkey took place from the beaches of Sochi.

Immediately to the south of the Olympic venues, Russia has created a buffer state, Abkhazia, where Russian security services enjoy free rein. Last year, police uncovered a weapons cache that was apparently stored in preparation for the Olympics. Tied to Chechen rebels, the arsenal included surface-to-air missiles, grenade launchers, mines, and TNT.

In Sochi itself, the skating venues are inside a fenced off seaside compound where access will only be for ticket holders who have registered their passports.

The mountain skiing and snowboarding venues are more far flung and thus harder to protect. Connecting the two Olympic sites is a 48-kilometer high speed rail line that also will be vulnerable.

Given the conflicted neighborhood, Olympic planners implanted tight security from day one. Here fencing and gates surround around the construction site of the Olympic ski jumps. VOA Photo: Vera Undritz

During athletic events last winter, security was so tight that one contestant, a snowboarder from Alaska, complained that she carried her credentials to go brush her teeth.

Before VOA visited Krasnaya Polana in March, I spent a day filling out credential forms and scanning and emailing passports. But, after traveling 1,400 kilometers from Moscow, we were confined to the base lodge area and were not allowed to ride the brand new gondola up Rosa Khutor mountain.

And that was before security was tightened.

On the evening of April 27, Austin Malloy, video journalist for VOA’s Moscow bureau, was relaxing on a park bench in Sochi. Suddenly, police detained him, taking him to a police bus. Police told Austin that the curfew for foreign construction workers is 9 pm. After his brief detention, Austin emailed me that a Russian friend told him: “It was because I had a beard. He told me to shave.”

What is more suspicious — the beard? Or VOA’s Austin Malloy ‘talking’ on a pay phone in Abkhazia? VOA Photo: James Brooke

This kind of profiling that Russian police have long used informally may now become so standard that we may see audience apartheid at the Sochi Olympics. The Winter Olympics will be held in the Caucasus mountains. But, in the grandstands, there will be only a token handful of inhabitants from the Caucasus.

Here is a joke going around the Caucasus these days:
A Chechen, an Ingush and a Dagestani are traveling in a car.
Question: Who is driving?
Answer: The police!

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.

Boston’s Bombs Will Echo Around the World

Posted April 24th, 2013 at 6:01 pm (UTC+0)

Anzor Tsarnaev, once a political refugee from Dagestan, talks to Russian TV reporters, in Dagestan. He says he plans to meet with U.S. investigators in Dagestan this week, then fly to the U.S. to see his son Dzhokhar in Boston. Photo: AP/ Kurban Labazanov

Many Russians watch with quiet satisfaction as the American saga unfolds about the two Chechen brothers turned Boston Marathon bombers.

Russians, who have long been targets of Chechen terror attacks, now see Americans walking a kilometer in their shoes. The minor difference is that Boston’s Chechens, the Tsarnaev brothers, apparently were driven not by separatist desires, but by Islamic fundamentalism.

But beyond the four dead and 282 wounded in the Boston bombings and shootings, the future collateral damage could be far wider.

Hardening American attitudes toward immigrants could stop a new immigration reform bill in Congress. That would close doors for an estimated 11 million illegal residents of the U.S. who hope to win U.S. citizenship. Included in this group undoubtedly are thousands of Russians who long ago overstayed their tourist visas.

As details tumble out daily, the Tsarnaev family seems to be cast for a comic book lampooning Washington’s “Swiss Cheese” immigration system.

First there is Dad, Anzor.

In April 2002, Anzor and his younger son, Dzhokhar, came to the United States on 90-day visas. Anzor soon applied for political asylum for his family of six.

Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, mother of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two men who set off bombs near the Boston Marathon finish line, walks with an unidentified man near her home in Makhachkala on Tuesday April 23. Photo: AP
/Ilkham Katsuyev

Anzor cited fear of violence in Chechnya, a Russian republic where the family apparently only lived for a few months.

Although an ethnic Chechen, he was not coming to the U.S. from Chechnya, a Muslim majority republic then embroiled in a secessionist war with Moscow. The Tsarnaev family had lived in Kyrgyzstan, a newly independent Central Asian nation, and then made a one year stopover in Dagestan. Although Dagestan borders Chechnya, it was relatively peaceful in 2002.

Once in Boston, the asylum-seeking family was set up in public housing and public schools for their four children.

Fast forward a decade: the next we hear from Dad is that he is giving interviews to Russian TV…in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan. Today, Dagestan records the highest level of political violence in Russia. In wars between Islamic fundamentalists and moderates, barely a day goes by in Dagestan without a bomb going off or a policeman getting shot. Here are the Interfax headlines for today, April 24:

“IED goes off near mosque in Dagestan’s Buinaksk, no one harmed”


“Two Militants Eliminated in Dagestan – National Antiterrorist Committee”

Did Anzor return to Russia, and apply for refugee status from Boston’s harsh winters?

Located on the western shores of the Caspian Sea, Makhachkala is a city where snow never falls. Dagestan is a land blessed with such a balmy climate that the republic is famous for its table grapes.

Zubeidat Tsarnaeva may have sour memories of the United States after her arrest last June for allegedly shoplifting at a Lord & Taylor store in a suburban Boston mall. Photo: Natick Police Department

Until recently, the only photo we had of Mom, Zubeidat, was a mug shot taken last June, after she was arrested and arraigned for allegedly shoplifting or damaging $2,640 worth of dresses at a Lord & Taylor store near Boston. That arrest seems to be at variance with neighbors reports that she embraced a strict version of Islam. She skipped her last pretrial date and now lives with her husband in Makhachkala.

(Mr. and Mrs. Tsarnaev gave a joint press conference April 25 in Makhachkala. They asserted their sons’ innocence. Zubeidat Tsarnaev charged that Boston police had captured her oldest son Tamerlan alive, stripped him naked, and then killed him. The parents did not extend condolences to the 285 victims of the bombings.)

Then there is Dzhokhar the 19-year-old son, who now lies on a hospital bed in Boston.

He first arrived in Boston as an eight-year-old. Ten years later, he won American citizenship, pledging to honor and defend the U.S. Constitution at a group ceremony on Sept. 11, 2012.

Dzhokhar attended an elite public high school in Cambridge, was captain of the school wrestling team, and worked as a lifeguard at Harvard University. Friends say he was a well-adjusted, easygoing American teenager. Cambridge gave him a $2,500 scholarship to attend University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, a publicly funded university.

The pay back for Massachusetts taxpayers?

Police say that on Thursday night, just hours after police released wanted photos of Dzhokhar and his older brother Tamerlan, the Tsarnaev brothers approached Sean Collier, a university policeman, who was sitting in his patrol car. They shot him in the back, killing him, and attempted to steal his service revolver.

Described by one friend as an easygoing American teenager who followed his older brother around ‘like a ‘puppy, Dzhokhar clearly has another side to his personality. His namesake is believed to have been Dzhokhar Dudaev. A former Soviet Air Force General, Dudaev was president of the unilaterally declared Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in 1993, the year of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s birth. Photo: FBI

Then there is Tamerlan, the older brother, who died in a shootout last week at age 26. This handsome boxer with the engaging smile undoubtedly will now have a posthumous career as the poster boy for the next conservative campaign for tighter immigration controls.

Tamerlan arrived in Boston at age 15.

Within a decade, he became the New England Heavyweight Golden Gloves Boxing champion, and married Katherine Russell, a nursing student from Rhode Island. He supervised her conversion to Islam, encouraged her to wear the hijab, and fathered a daughter, Zahara.

Tamerlan also attended a publicly funded university, but dropped out. He enjoyed cruising Boston in his wife’s white Mercedes. But holding a job did not seem to fit his lifestyle. To support the family, his wife Katherine, the daughter of a physician, worked 70 to 80 hours a week as a home health aide. According to The New York Times, the family budget was supplemented for over a year by government family aid, known in the United States as food stamps and welfare.

According to Katherine Russell Tsarnaev’s lawyer, Tamerlan was the home husband, caring for their three-year-old.

Given the bomb-making arsenal found in their apartment, one can only imagine Tamerlan parking little, curly haired Zahara in front of the TV, while he experimented with pressure cooker bombs in the kitchen. This week Dzhokhar told police from his hospital bed that his brother learned techniques from Inspire, an online English language magazine of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. One recipe: “How to Make a Bomb in Your Mom’s Kitchen.”

Tamerlan seems to have placed his bombs at the Boston Marathon finish line to maximize the media impact.

On his return from Dagestan last July, Tamerlan became increasingly steeped in fundamentalist Islam and grew a thick beard. One culturally clueless Boston neighbor later described him as looking ‘Amish.’ As the April 15 Marathon approached, Tamerlan shaved his beard, apparently seeking to blend into the crowd. This screen grab was a taken from a surveillance camera minutes before the two backpack bombs exploded on Boylston Street. Photo: FBI

But he is also known to have disapproved of women who bare their arms and legs in public. Before he got married, he reportedly shouted at a girlfriend that she was a slut and a prostitute for not covering her arms and legs.

In that light, the Boston Marathon probably qualifies as New England’s largest annual gathering of uncovered women’s legs. Largely because the two pressure cooker bombs were carefully packed with shrapnel, about 13 Marathon attendees are now amputees.

The day after the Boston Marathon bombing, the Tsarnaev brothers came to the garage of their Brazilian mechanic to pick up Katherine Tsarnaev’s white Mercedes. Apparently, they feared that Dzhokhar’s green Honda was in a police data base. Police had run a warrant check on him last year in connection with an underage drinking party.

The mechanic told The New York Times that Dzhokhar was chewing on his fingers and had weak knees, leading the mechanic to conclude later that Dzhokhar had been smoking marijuana. Other friends told reporters that Dzhokhar liked to drink alcohol and smoke weed.

The drug connection may give the Tsarnaev saga an even more gothic twist.
On 9/11/2011, three men, all Jews, were found slashed to death, virtually decapitated, in an apartment in Waltham, a Boston suburb. A Waltham police investigator reported: “Their throats were slashed right out of an al Qaeda training video.” Marijuana had been sprinkled over their bodies.

There was no sign of forced entry, leading police to believe that the men had let in the killer as a friend. One man, Brendan Mess, was a close friend and boxing partner of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Friends found it odd that Tamerlan did not attend the funeral.

Four months later, Tamerlan flew to Dagestan where he lived for six months. Tamerlan’s father found it odd when heannounced that he was thinking of working in Dagestan and bringing his wife and child there. Unemployment rates in the southern Caucasus run as high as 48 percent. Russia’s most impoverished region exports people to find work elsewhere.

Near Boston this week, prosecutors announced that they were reopening the murder case, looking at possible connections with the Tsarnaev brothers. On April 23, ABC News reported that authorities now believe Tamerlan may have been responsible for the triple homicide.

Some Russians have noted that the first bomb appeared to explode directly behind the white, blue and red flag of Russia.

Boston, one of North America’s oldest cities, has weathered its share of political violence over the centuries, most notably the Boston Massacre. In that bloodletting, British Army troops killed five civilians in 1770.

More relevant is the case of Ferdinand Nicola Sacco and Bartolommeo Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists who were tried for the 1920 murder of two men in the armed robbery of a shoe factory near Boston. After a series of trials, the men were ultimately convicted and executed in 1927.

With anarchist bombings a regular occurrence in the 1920s, the Sacco and Vanzetti case gripped the United States. An anti-immigration backlash grew, and Congress responded, first with the Quota Act of 1921, then with the National Origins Act of 1924. The new laws sharply limited immigration overall, and from Italy in particular.

Almost a century later, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was charged Monday with using “a weapon of mass destruction.” Conviction on that charge can lead to execution.

But beyond Dzhokhar’s personal fate, the shock waves from the April 15, 2013 Boston Marathon bombing may well reverberate for years to come, affecting the destinies of millions of other people, not only in the United States but also around the world.

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 Searches for ‘Foreign Agents’ at Home, Disguises its Information War Abroad

Posted April 17th, 2013 at 6:00 am (UTC+0)

Russia’s government is busy rooting out “foreign agents.”
So far police agents have “inspected” 700 non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, looking for traces of foreign funding. Police say there are 7,000 more to inspect this year.
At best, “inspections” mean demanding copies of cartons of files. At worst, it means carting off computers, and, in two cases, criminal charges.

Policemen in Moscow detain two protesters on April 6. The man dressed as a cucumber carried a sign reading: “We are not vegetables.” Russian state TV blames “foreign-funded” nongovernmental groups for stirring up Russians with imported ideas about democracy and human rights. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

In Germany, President Vladimir Putin told a TV interviewer last week that 654 Russian NGOs had received $1 billion over a recent four month period. NGO leaders described the figure as a wild exaggeration, unless the Russian leader was including such groups as the Catholic Church and Alliance Francaise, the French language teaching group – two organizations that were recently raided.

In the information sphere, Russia officials forced Radio Free Europe off the air in Russia last November. Now, police are pressuring provincial librarians to close their American Corners – sections dealing with U.S. books and periodicals.

In this environment, it is interesting to look at Russia’s overseas television broadcasting arm — RT.

Serving up a steady diet of attacks on the United States, on the West, and on democracy, RT takes pains to disguise from viewers the ultimate source of 100 percent of its financing: the Kremlin.

The Kremlin launched Russia Today in 2005. For three years, the channel languished as a little watched vehicle for promoting tourism and trade with Russia.

Then in August 2008, Russia won a brief war with Georgia. But it badly lost the information war. Western media played down the fact that Georgia apparently fired first. Instead, American and European TV and newspapers focused on the fact that Russia’s Army briefly cut Georgia in half, and then established permanent bases in two breakaway provinces.

Margarita Simonyan shows then-President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev around the brand new Washington bureau of RT America on April 14, 2010. Reflecting the Kremlin’s desire to influence American public opinion, the RT’s Washington bureau has 70 staffers, making it RT’s largest bureau outside of Moscow. Photo: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

In response, Russia Today’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, rebranded the channel as RT. Then she got the Kremlin to triple RT’s annual budget, to $380 million. With 2,000 employees, RT now has a staff close in size to that of Al Jazeera and broadcasts in English, Arabic and Spanish to over 100 countries.

To Russian audiences, Simonyan says that RT is Russia’s weapon in a world information war.

“Information weapons, of course, are used in critical moments, and war, that is always a critical moment,” she told Moscow’s website recently. “This is a weapon like any other, you understand. And to say that it is not needed, is like saying: ‘Why have a Defense Ministry, if there is no war?’”

In a separate interview with Afisha magazine, Simonyan sketched out a “sleeper” approach to dealing with world audiences: “It is important to have a channel that people get used to. And then, when needed, you show them what you need to show.”

One key to winning credibility as an “alternative” news source is to camouflage Kremlin support. RT America is funded directly by a Moscow-based nongovernmental organization, a structure designed to avoid registration in the U.S. under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The ultimate source of funding is the Russian budget.

For Moscow, it’s an old technique.

In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, KGB documents came to light showing that the Soviet government heavily subsidized the Communist Party USA for decades. In the 1970s, Americans reading editorials extolling the Brezhnev foreign policy in the People’s Daily World did not know that, ultimately, Moscow paid the bills for the New York printer. For Vladimir Putin, who served in the KGB in East Germany in the 1980s, such overseas tactics were standard fare.

Today, many RT viewers are probably unaware that the Kremlin pays for the news programs that constantly highlight electoral fraud, street protests, and racial and class tensions in the United States. Ironically, these are largely taboo topics for RT in its coverage of Russia.

Occasionally, RT seems to cross the line between propagandizing and participating. The channel’s exhaustive coverage of the “Occupy Movement” led RT last year to create a Facebook app to help protesters connect through social media.

Before last November’s Presidential election in the United States, RT aired calls by American protesters urging viewers to boycott elections, rise up, and “take this government back.” Another pre-election documentary said that America could only be changed through “revolution.”

This is pretty strong stuff coming from channel owned by a government that wants to impose eight-year jail sentences on protesters charged with throwing rocks at policemen before Vladimir Putin’s inauguration one year ago.

This German protested Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on nongovernmental organizations when the Russian President visited the Hanover trade fair on April 7. In recent weeks, police have raided the Moscow offices of such groups as Amnesty International and Transparency International. Photo: AFP/Odd Andersen

Julian Assange, the cyber guerrilla of WikiLeaks fame, has his own show on RT.

In contrast, Alexei Navalny, Russia’s charismatic opposition leader, rarely appears on RT. Producers at the channel say he routinely turns down their interview requests. (Next week, Navalny goes on trial in a remote provincial court, far the hundreds of thousands of people in Moscow and St. Petersburg who regularly read his anti-corruption blog).

RT pushes pet projects of the Kremlin, while masquerading to viewers as an “alternative” channel that thinks outside the box.

For example, RT repeatedly airs reports criticizing the fracking technology that is used to release underground natural gas. Left unsaid is the fact that the technology is a game changer for the world gas industry. It is cutting billions of dollars from the export earnings of Gazprom, Russia’s largest company.

And RT pays to play. About half of RT’s annual budget of $380 million goes to foreign cable and satellite television operators to win air time for RT. On its website, RT now claims it can reach 85 million Americans and 550 million people worldwide.

Actual American viewership is not made public. But in Britain, the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board, the U.K’s main measurement body, reported that in the third quarter of last year, 550,000 people watched the channel weekly. That would make RT the most watched international channel in Britain, surpassing Al Jazeera.

One can only wonder: how long would the Kremlin allow Russian cable TV operators to carry a foreign-funded Russian language channel that preaches that Russian elections are a sham, that Russia’s ethnic minorities are oppressed, and that the only paths forward are street protests and revolution?

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 Loses Cyprus

Posted March 31st, 2013 at 6:06 am (UTC+0)

Beaches and Banks: A three hour flight south from Moscow, Cyprus offered Russians a pleasant place to do their offshore banking. Photo: Cyprus Tourism Organization

Russia suffered a major defeat last week.
And no one noticed.
But the setback was so striking that President Vladimir Putin picked up the phone at 4 am on Thursday and ordered a surprise drill of 30 Russian Navy ships in the Black Sea.
The political goal was to flood Russian TV news with images of pretend naval heroics in the Black Sea. Ideally, this would distract attention from Russia’s real defeat in the neighboring Mediterranean Sea.
China has Hong Kong, an offshore island where British-style law guarantees property rights.
Similarly, Russia has Cyprus – British-style law, low taxes, and membership in the European Union. The formula was so successful that tiny Cyprus became the largest foreign investor in Russia.
Last week, when the financial merry go round stopped, currency controls froze as much as $30 billion in Russian deposits on the island.
Now, more accurately, Russia had Cyprus.

In face of the Cyprus debacle, President Putin ordered 30 ships of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet to sea for maneuvers. Here the missile cruiser Peter the Great on an earlier exercise. Photo: Presidential Press and Information Office

The European bailout, designed in Brussels and Berlin, essentially ends Cyprus’ role as the premier offshore financial center for Russia. With currency controls now locking up billions of deposits, Russians’ number one goal in Cyprus today is get their money out of the island.
No wonder President Putin ordered the ships to sea – and ordered his officials to shut up about Cyprus.
Diversions, coincidental or otherwise, can be useful in politics.
President Ronald Reagan invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada two days after truck bombs killed 299 American and French soldiers in Beirut. Images of the American victory over Communist Caribbean forces quickly displaced those of the 220 dead U.S. Marines.
In Russia today, the loss of Cyprus highlights in stark detail the Kremlin’s real lack of influence over Europe.

Cyprus’ membership in the European Union and in the Euro currency zone gave Russian a false sense of security. Photo: EUCyprus

In Putin’s early years, he formed friendships with Germany’s Schroeder, Italy’s Berlusconi, and France’s Chirac. But in real democracies, the figures at the top change. Of the G-8 of 2000, only Putin survives, marching into a third term that is to stretch to 2018.
Handicapped by a personality based diplomacy, Putin had no powerful friend to call last week in Europe to block the EU’s strangling of the Cyprus offshore banking system.
As the crisis unfolded, Dmitry Afanasiev, a Moscow lawyer, wrote an essay in the newspaper Vedemosti urging the Kremlin to act. The essay seemed designed to drum up business with Russians planning to sue to get their money out of Cyprus banks. But Afanasiev let slip one interesting truism: “Russia has only one friend left in the EU, Cyprus, and that friend could be lost.”
That is a pretty depressing testament to the efficacy of Russian diplomacy.
While we Americans think that the Kremlin only picks on us, the Europeans have been stewing in silence in recent years.

Raising the comfort level for many Russians, the Greek population of Cyprus overwhelmingly follow the Orthodox branch of Christianity, as attested by this church in Platres, Cyprus. Photo: Cyprus Tourism Organization

The Kremlin’s clear use of oil and gas deliveries as a political cudgel has scared Europeans into building terminals to receive natural gas from the Persian Gulf, into interconnecting gas pipelines and into developing shale gas and oil resources.
Russia’s spreading anti-gay legislation offends many Western Europeans, fueling anti-Kremlin rallies. Watch how President Putin’s visit to Amsterdam goes off on April 8.
And the Kremlin’s relentless crackdown on civil society alienates democratic Europe. Recent police raids on German political party foundations in Moscow and St. Petersburg prompted front page articles in Germany – just when the Kremlin needed someone to call in Berlin.
Realpolitik strategists may say “goodwill” does not carry weight in international relations. But, as Putin might recall from his days in the 1960s as a self-described “punk” on the streets of Leningrad: what goes around comes around.
Increasingly at odds with the West, Putin’s Kremlin is defaulting to the mentality of Russia’s 1880s Emperor, Alexander III, who said: “Russia has only two friends: its Army and its Navy.”
The Cyprus case not only illustrates how estranged the Kremlin has become from Europe. It also illustrates how the Kremlin’s rhetoric often masks a lack of action.
President Putin’s spokesman criticized the bailout plan as “unfair, unprofessional and dangerous.”
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev accused the EU of acting “like an elephant in a China shop”. He warned the continued currency controls “could even bury the whole banking sector of Cyprus. It will cease to exist.”

Russians fly South to enjoy the sun and the warmth of Cyprus, here on Agia Napa beach. Photo: Cyprus Tourism Organization

The warning signals on Cyprus were crystal clear over 18 months ago.
With Cypriot banks heavily invested in Greek government bonds, Cyprus looked less like a Mediterranean Hong Kong and more like a southern extension of Greece. But the Kremlin missed the window to be proactive.
The Kremlin had another reason to change the subject when Cyprus came up. In recent months, Putin has launched a highly public anti-corruption campaign. One element is the ‘de-offshorization” or curbing the Russian practice of parking money outside the country for safekeeping.
A Cyprus bailout does not fit into this narrative. On one hand, Cyprus drew deposits that were undoubtedly the fruit of corruption. On the other, Cyprus drew deposits from Russians seeking protection from corruption. Bailing out an offshore tax haven for Russian oligarchs will not boost Putin’s popularity rating at home.

Spring in Moscow. Snow fell on March 31, the Sunday celebrated in the West as Easter. Photo: James Brooke

But, if the Kremlin had been more nimble and decisive, it could have pulled off bold coups.
With $460 billion in foreign currency reserves, the Kremlin could have crafted a bailout tied to Gazprom’s development of Cyprus’ offshore gas reserves. With Syria’s civil war threatening the future of Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean, at Tartus, Syria, the Kremlin could have told Cyprus to add a naval base to the deal.
Instead, the Kremlin seems to have fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the political book – bamboozled by the leader of a small country who fluently speaks the language of the big country.
In the Cyprus case, the soothing words came from Demetris Christofias, Cyprus president from 2008 until Feb. 28 – five weeks ago. A leader of Cyprus’ Communist party, AKEL, Christofias studied history for five years in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. In his meetings as president with Kremlin leaders, Christofias may have said nice things, in Russian. But clearly, he had a, um, fuzzy understanding of finance.

Sunset for Cyprus as an offshore banking center for Russians? Tourists will always come to escape the cold and enjoy the vistas, such as this sunset at Larnaka. Photo: Cyprus Tourism Organization

So Cyprus became a Russia-friendly island in recent years: a Russian-speaking president who loved Moscow, a people who shared Russia’s Christian Orthodox faith, the security of the Euro zone, lawyers and accountants with impressive British accents, and all those nice Russian-speaking waiters and real estate agents.
Unfortunately, few Russians bothered to read the fine print. Or, if they did, take it seriously. As in most European Union countries, bank deposits in Cyprus are insured for the first 100,000 Euros, about $130,000.
If you parked $10 million in Cyprus last month, you are now painfully aware that insurance does not cover $9,870,000. And what remains after the bank reorganizations may be locked up for years.
All the missile cruisers and mine sweepers churning the waters of the Black Sea are not going to reverse Russia’s loss of Cyprus in the Mediterranean.

Jack Payton
Jack Payton was the executive editor of VOA’s principal English-language website. His reporting from New Orleans was Jack's final professional work before his unexpected death at age 69.

Azeri Wolves in Iranian Sheep’s Clothing?

Posted March 14th, 2013 at 8:18 pm (UTC+0)

On the surface, it looks like a win-win.

Innocent Iranian sheep? Or agent of Azeri expansionism? Photo: Andreas Cappell

Iran faces political population bomb: a young, growing and urbanized population that wants food – cheap and traditional. Iran’s population has doubled in the last 40 years, hitting 75 million people today. Half of all Iranians are under 35 years of age, and 71 percent live in cities.

Immediately to the north, lies help: the fallow grazing lands of Armenia.

Fewer and fewer Armenian men want to make a living as shepherds, tending sheep on scenic, but lonely mountain slopes. Armenia’s agriculture ministry says that 70 percent of the nation’s pastures are now without livestock – about 800,000 hectares.

Here’s the deal:
Iran’s Ambassador Mohammad Reisi offers to rent thousands of hectares of mountain pastures to provide grazing land for Iranian sheep. With the grazing leases, he has estimated that Armenia could increase its livestock fivefold. Within a decade, he says, Armenia could be exporting 2-3 million sheep a year to Iran.

Sounds good to me.

Not too many people are lining up to invest in Armenia, a small, landlocked nation, with poor relations with two of its four neighbors.

Closed Borders

To the east, Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan are closed.
On some stretches, soldiers of Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbaijan face each other across trenches, poised on hair trigger alerts. About once a week, a military sniper on one side kills a soldier from the other side.

To the west, Armenia’s land borders are closed with Turkey, a legacy of bitter feelings over Ottoman Turkey’s campaign against ethnic Armenians in 1915.

So the Iranian offer sounds like a win-win for Armenia.

How naïve, Hasmik Evoyan, told me one morning in Yerevan.

Hasmik Evoyan looks a map of Armenia and says southern Syunik province is to vulnerable to open up to shepherds from northern Iran. Photo: Austin Malloy

Evoyan, an environmentalist, walked me through the geopolitics of sheep. She showed me why many Armenians see putting lamb dishes on Iranian dinner tables could be lose-lose for Armenia.

The sheep would largely graze in Armenia’s southernmost province, Syunik. Long and as narrow as 30 kilometers wide in some places, Syunik is Armenia’s lifeline to Iran. But it is strategically vulnerable, sandwiched between two territories of Azerbaijan.

Lifeline to Iran

Although Syunik is Armenia’s second largest province, it is also one of its least populated. With 15 percent of Armenia’s land area, Syunik has less than 5 percent of Armenia’s people. The population dropped in the late 1980s, after ethnic fighting forced an Azeri minority to flee to Azerbaijan and northern Iran.

The mountainous landscape of southern Armenia is beautiful, but often empty. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Without a large local population to draw on, the Iranian sheep project would mean importing Iranian shepherds, and possibly their families. Depending on the age of slaughter — for lamb or mutton — an annual export of 2.5 million sheep could mean an Iranian flock of 5 million sheep in southern Armenia. Given the region’s steep terrain, it would be hard for one shepherd to watch more than 500 sheep.

So, back of the envelope calculations point to as many as 10,000 Iranian shepherds.

Where would the shepherds come from?

The memorandum of understanding was signed between Syunik and the neighboring Iranian province, a place with a name that sounds ominous to many Armenians — Eastern Atrapatakan, or Eastern Azerbaijan. With a population 20 times that of Syunik, Eastern Atrapatakan is keystone of the northern Iran’s Azeri minority – about 17 million people.

So, the Iranian sheep deal could come with as many 10,000 ethnic Azeri shepherds, their families, and their watchdogs.

Then, there is another wrinkle.
Over the last 20 years, the withdrawal of Armenian shepherds from the mountain pastures has allowed the nation’s wolf population to surge. Armenian authorities now pay a $275 bounty for each wolf shot. So, it stands to reason that Iranian shepherds would carry rifles to protect their flocks from wolves and other predators.

Men with Rifles

So, in a nutshell, Armenians say, the Iranian sheep deal could mean infiltrating into a strategic area several thousand ethnic Azeri men, all armed with rifles.
“With the sheep, a couple of thousand people may come to Armenia, and may live in places that are strategically important for Armenia,” said Evoyan, of the Armenia’s PreParliament opposition group. “It’s not only about the employment. As I said, it’s about the non-formal, informal migration of other nationalities to Armenia that is not strategically right choice for Armenia.”
On Feb. 14, four days before Armenia’s hotly contested presidential election, Evoyan and others protested the sheep deal in front of Armenia’s National Assembly building in Yerevan. I arrived in Armenia’s capital the next day. But Gohar Abrahamyan, a reporter for Armenia Now news website, covered the protest.
She got environmentalist Silva Adamyan to say out loud what many Armenians are thinking quietly.
“I remember how the Azerbaijanis were quietly taking control of Syunik during the Soviet years,” Adamyan told Armenia Now. “We have liberated it. And now, we want to give it to them again? Can’t we really understand that it is the same Azeris – citizens of Iran – who would be coming back to Syunik, bring their families, and so the blood shed for those lands would turn out to be for nothing?”
In Armenia’s presidential election, Serzh Sargsyan, the incumbent was re-elected. But the opposition performed strongly and has been continuing with street protests. By all indications, the Iranian sheep project will die a bureaucratic death, buried in the Ministry of Agriculture.

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.

Russian Adoption: American Mom Vs. Russian Politicians

Posted February 25th, 2013 at 11:58 pm (UTC+0)

Max Shatto, a 3-year-old boy adopted from Russia, died under unexplained circumstances in the yard of his Texas home in late January. Photo: Russian Investigative Committee.

Russian politicians have made political hay this week out of the recent unexplained death in Texas of Max Shatto, a three-year-old boy adopted in Russia.

First, Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, issued a statement declaring: “Urgent! In the state of Texas, an adoptive mother killed a three-year-old Russian child.”

The facts that the boy apparently died while playing outside and that the autopsy is not complete did not stop Astakhov. He is the ideological father of a new Russian law that bans adoptions of Russian children by Americans. He immediately demanded that the United States provide a registry of each of the 60,000 Russian orphans adopted by American families over the last 20 years.


In response, Russia’s Duma unanimously passed a motion demanding that the U.S. Congress provide, “within the shortest possible time, full information on the conditions in which all Russian children adopted by U.S. citizens are living in U.S. Families.”


After the deaths of 20 Russian adoptees in 20 years, one Duma deputy charged that adoption by Americans lead to “certain death.” Another called for the return of all 60,000 adoptees to Russia.


Birth mother wants boy back



To regain the media spotlight, Astakhov met with Yulia Kuzmina, the Russian birth mother of the dead Texas boy. She asked for the return of the boy’s brother, who had been adopted by the same American family. Astakhov announced at a press conference that Kuzmina “now has a job, has stopped leading an asocial lifestyle, and is asking for her parental rights to be reinstated.”


Kuzmina made a tearful appeal broadcast nationwide on state television, and then took the night train home to Pskov. Her 15 minutes of fame proved short lived. She was hauled off the train by police for getting drunk and fighting with her boyfriend. Ria Novosti quoted regional authorities as describing her conduct as “drunken debauchery.”From Pskov, the news website quoted a neighbor saying: “She drinks away, whatever stuff she comes by, hasn’t worked a single day, and is not fit to raise a child.”

With Kuzmina fast losing media appeal, politicians turned on U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, criticizing him for declining to testify before the Duma on American adoptions.

McFaul responded in a statement:“As a worldwide practice, American ambassadors do not testify before foreign parliaments when summoned to do so.”

He added: “Just as it troubles me to see unfair stereotypes of Russians and Russia in the American press, it pains me to read these inaccurate portrayals of Americans and our values by some in your media.”

In response, Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the Duma’s international affairs committee, tweeted: “By refusing to come to the State Duma to discuss the deaths of our children, the U.S. ambassador showed that they are not prepared for a serious dialogue on this problem.”


Irina Yarovaya, chairwoman of the ruling United Russia, commented on the party’s website about the U.S. ambassador: “Apparently, it’s not democratic from his point of view to admit the inaction of U.S. authorities in cases of violence and abuse of little children.”


Parallel reality


Increasingly, I get the feeling that Russian politicians are creating a strange, parallel reality. I emailed recent wire service stories to an American high school classmate, “Julia.” She is the adoptive mother of an orphaned Russian baby.


Deleting a little profanity and changing names for privacy reasons, I attach here the otherwise uncensored views of an American mother who, for 16 years, has been living the daily reality of coping for with a girl adopted from a Russian orphanage. She starts by referring to her earlier plan to take her adopted daughter back to Russia this summer for visit:


Thank you for remembering my interest in this, Jim. We will wait on this trip. I was nervous enough when I went over there in 1997 to “liberate” Maria from the orphanage in xxx. Don’t need to take any risks at this point! What they really should be doing studies on is how (“damaged”) these kids are coming out of the orphanages. Between the fetal alcohol syndrome and the lack of basic human interaction and nurturing in the orphanages, the majority of kids coming over here are learning disabled at best, and at worst exhibiting extreme emotional and behavioral problems.


Of course, the American adoption agencies tell the desperate-for-a-child parents that: ‘All they need is Love.’ In reality so few of the families are at all prepared to deal with the issues these kids have. It definitely is worse with kids from Russia. The girls adopted from China, for example, have turned out very well.

In terms of sheer numbers, the cost of providing therapies and a special needs school education to my daughter has been, I’m guessing, over $500,000, borne largely by our local school system as well as our out of pocket.


The $20,000 we spent on lawyers to get the school system to pay for her special school was a drop in the bucket. It has been worth it. I’ve been told she would have been mute if I hadn’t adopted her (though she looked fine when we got her). And, of course, now at age 17, she would have aged out of the orphanage and be living on the street in xxx.


That’s the real story in a nutshell of the Russian adoptions!



When I diplomatically thanked her for “the reality check,” Julia, a successful businesswoman, shot back with this view, lightly censored:


Those xxx Russian politicians who are making such a fuss about Americans adopting Russian kids are the ones who need a reality check! We take better care of our pets here than they do of their kids in the orphanages!”


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.

Washington – Kremlin: Why Be Nice?

Posted February 4th, 2013 at 8:35 am (UTC+0)

At least they are talking: Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden (R) meet for bilateral talks during the Conference on Security Policy in Munich, on February 2 Photo: AP

At a round table discussion in Moscow the other evening, two of my American reporter colleagues argued that the United States needs Russia more than Russia needs United States.
At the risk of sounding rude, I am afraid my friends may be suffering from a mild case of…err…localitis.
Here is a reality check:
— Population: Over the next 25 years, the American advantage is to go from two-to-one today, to three-to-one in 2038. That would be 400 million Americans versus 133 million Russians.
— Economy: The U.S. economy is eight times bigger than Russia’s.
— Military: The U.S. outspends Russia 10-to-one.

Barring wild card factors – like worldwide weather chaos – there is no foreseeable reason why these fundamental disparities should change significantly in the medium term.

Indeed, the biggest game changer of our time — the shale gas revolution — benefits the US. With energy self-sufficiency looming and low gas prices a reality, the United States is re-industrializing. In contrast, Russia faces falling gas export revenues.

To compensate for its reduced clout on the world stage, the Kremlin glues Russia to China. It is like the medium size kid who gets protection by bonding with the biggest boy in the playground. The Kremlin works overtime to massage Russia’s relationship with China. The Chinese clear cut Siberian forests, pollute international rivers, and refuse to build manufacturing plants in Russia – and that is OK with Russia’s rulers.

In contrast, the Kremlin goes out of its way to pick fights with Washington.
After January’s infamous ban on Americans adopting Russian children, last week saw Russia slap a ban beef and pork imports from the United States, and a delay in certifying the latest model Boeing 777 passenger jet for use by Aeroflot. Given the already large US trade deficit with Russia, new restrictions on American exports will only further alienate the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress.

But, protest a few remaining voices in Washington, we have to be nice to the Putin Administration because we really need Russian support on key world issues.

Oh, really?
Let’s run down the checklist:

– North Korea — The Kim dynasty is a political Frankenstein that long, long ago escaped control of its Kremlin creators — probably half a century ago. On the subject of nuclear bombs, Pyongyang simply ignores Moscow. A Russian ambassador once told me that the North Koreans play a shell game, hiding their nuclear bombs in caves – and North Korea’s military has dug thousands of caves. With North Korea apparently preparing a nuclear bomb test this month, the only concrete reaction by Russia has been to turn on radiation detectors around Vladivostok. Only China has real leverage over North Korea.

Syrian woman holding “Freedom” poster protests against Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photo: Reuter

– Syria – Saturday’s meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and a Syria opposition leader was encouraging, but not a first. Outsiders long hoped that a political deal could be brokered if the Russians delivered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the Americans delivered the Syrian opposition. Now, it seems clear that the Kremlin will not – and probably can not – persuade Syria’s president to step aside for a political solution. With 60,000 already dead, there is no harm in trying to enlist Russian diplomatic support for a political solution. But after 18 months of failed diplomacy, Washington has little illusions.

– Iran – Whoever is in the Kremlin has to step carefully here. Russian caution is tempered by a 500-year history of dealing with Persia. Russia does not want a nuclear-armed Iran on its southern border. Nor does it want to take a step today that Persians will hold against Russians for decades to come. That said, Russia’s cancellation of the sale of its S-300 air defense system to Iran put pressure on Tehran to negotiate its nuclear weapons program. Talks resume later this month in Kazakhstan.

Soon Russia’s problem? U.S. Army soldiers from12th Infantry Regiment pass through a village while on a patrol in 2011 near Forward Operating Base Blessing, Afghanistan. Photo: International Security Assistance Force

– Afghanistan – During the Falklands War, Henry Kissinger once described Argentina as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.” For many Americans, Afghanistan has a similar strategic importance. President Obama recently said in his inaugural address: “A decade of war is ending.” For Russia, that means that, after a decade of criticizing from the sidelines, the Kremlin will soon have the privilege of spending Russian taxpayer money to stabilize Afghanistan and prevent the spread of Islamic extremism into Central Asia – a genuine security concern for Russia. At the same time, Russian companies and the Russian government will lose revenues from ferrying NATO war material in and out of the Northern Distribution Network. Billed by the Kremlin as a favor to the West, Russia’s participation in this supply route was highly lucrative and in its own strategic interest.

– Missile Defense – Russian cooperation would be nice in building a picket line against a lone Iranian missile flying West. But Russia’s loud opposition has not slowed the program. For stopping missiles from Iran, today’s sea-based U.S. Navy Aegis interceptors are better positioned than yesterday’s land missiles in Central Europe. The Patriot missiles installed in Turkey in January could also play a role. Last month, Minister Lavrov accurately complained of Washington’s position: “They sort of offer to continue the dialogue, but do what they have decided to do.”

– Nuclear Arms Reduction – This is an issue dear to the heart of President Obama, but not terribly high on the worry lists of American voters. A North Korean nuclear test could change that. Obama Administration envoys are to come to Moscow in coming weeks to start talks. Some mutual cuts can be achieved by executive orders. But given the American congressional skepticism of the Putin government, a new bilateral treaty would be a hard sell. If Russia’s unilateral trade bans expand beyond beef and Boeings, forget it.

– United Nations Security Council Veto – UN Security Council approval gives solid international legitimacy to diplomatic or military actions. In the post-Soviet era, one of the Kremlin’s most cherished powers is Russia’s veto. But after the Bush era invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama Administration is wrapping up American involvement in these wars and limiting engagement in new ones. Libya was an example of Washington “leading from behind.” Mali was handed off to the French. Syria is largely under observation. With American voters wary of getting dragged into faraway civil wars, one can predict fewer American appeals to the Security Council for its seals of approval. If there is a direct threat to the security of the United States, the American President, Republican or Democrat, will act – with Security Council approval, or without it.

And what does Russia need from the United States?

Here is a short checklist:

– Industrial investment to diversify from dependency on natural resource exports;
– A boycott-free 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics;
– Support in countering the spread of Islamic radicalism from Afghanistan into Central Asia;
– Continued access for Russian exporters to the world’s largest economy;
– Continued easy access for Russian tourists to the United States
– Continuation of the pax americana where the US Navy has guaranteed freedom of world shipping since World War II.

Last week, then-Senator John Kerry briefly touched on Russia during his confirmation hearings for the post of Secretary of State. His caution — and limited expectations — were clear. He said of Russia: “I would like to see if we can find some way to cooperate.”
PS This just in: Russia bans imports of American turkey meat, effective Feb. 11. That wipes out 10s of millions of dollars of US sales to Russia this year. On the upside, Aeroflot just won permit to fly its new Boeing 777-300ER jet. Good news because they have 16 on order.

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.

Obama II Downgrades Relations With Russia’s Kremlin?

Posted January 27th, 2013 at 6:17 am (UTC+0)

Beautiful Vera gloms on to US Amb. Michael McFaul. (Why not the guy in the nice red tie?) Despite Kremlin carping — or because of it — the American Ambassador has attained star status in Moscow. Photo: Joseph Kruzich

Scenes from three weeks of watching US-Russia relations in New York, Washington and Moscow:

 Kate, an old high school classmate, tracks me down to ask it if will be safe for her to take her 17-year-old adopted Russian daughter back to Russia for a visit this summer

 Ruslan, a 22-year-old adoptee of half-Russian, half Chechen descent, listens quietly as I try to explain why Russian officials cite horror stories to justify banning new adoptions by American parents. Nearby, the New Year’s Day table at his grandparents’ house in New England is covered with hams, curries and cakes.

 Last Monday night in Moscow, as official anti-Americanism matches the bitter cold outside Spaso House, I am inside cajoling, and nearly dragging, U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul to a live VOA TV interview. Hands keep reaching out for handshakes. Russian guests keep blocking his path for photographs.

On the personal level, relations between Americans and Russians are as good as they have ever been. My 10-hour, every seat packed, Aeroflot flight from New York to Moscow is testament to that.

But, on the official level, relations are bad.
And defying my innate optimism, I see no reason why this should change in the near future.

Last year’s pre-election “silly season” of anti-Americanism has morphed into the silly era.

Obama Administration officials believe that this is driven not by events, but by President Putin’s domestic political strategy. The Kremlin, they say, is using state-controlled television to create a straw foreign “enemy” to reverse a gradual erosion of popular support.

Russia’s powerful state media can reshape public opinion.

In 2010, 38 percent of Russians polled by the VTsIOM pollster said they opposed foreign adoptions. In a survey released by this state-controlled pollster on Jan. 18, the portion opposing adoptions by American families had doubled to 78 percent.

Moscow family marches against the ban on American adoptions. Photo: James Brooke

But there is another, more worldly Russia. On the average day, 1 million Russians eat a meal at a McDonald’s restaurant. Last month, 10 percent ordered Christmas presents from overseas. Last year, 15 percent of Russian adults vacationed outside the former Soviet Union. And, most threatening of all, 50 percent of Russians now use the internet.

For Americans, the adoption ban was the breakthrough issue. It brought the cranky new Kremlin home to the American public and to the American Congress. One American official described the mood in Washington as: “Disgust.”

Some Russian officials don’t get the message. At Foreign Minister Lavrov’s annual reception for foreign correspondents, also on Monday evening, Russian diplomats expressed optimism that President Obama will accept President Putin’s invitation for a one-on-one meeting in Russia.

That visit is unlikely to happen, my American sources say. The American President will attend the G-20 meeting in Russia in September. And that may be that. The 1,000-day clock on his presidency will start ticking. More than ever, the American president will devote his time to areas where he can make a difference and create a legacy.

St. Petersburg student Kate, outside a Manhattan cinema, enjoyed the British film version of Anna Karenina. She joined the flood of Russians who packed planes to enjoy New Year’s holiday in the U.S. Photo: James Brooke

Barring a major crisis, Washington will probably downshift relations. Without top level interest, one American official predicted that the relationship could easily descend into becWashington “sending a midlevel person to Moscow, to hear ‘no’ and then come home.”

Countries don’t have friends. Good will may not count for much in international relations. But civility between leaders does not hurt.

American officials note that during his four-year stint as prime minister, Vladimir Putin never visited the United States. Since returning to the Kremlin as president last May, Putin stood up Obama at the G-8 Summit at Camp David, showed up late for a bilateral meeting with Obama at the G-20 Summit in Mexico, and then presided over the Asia Pacific summit in Vladivostok for September, a time when the American president campaigning for re-election was unable to attend.

And then October brought the start of a series of expulsions of American programs in Russia.

In recent weeks, anti-Americanism reached the level of officials making weird charges that American adoptee parents were, variously: pedophiles, engaged in organ trafficking, interested in acquiring domestic servants, or preparing a legion of 50,000 Russian adoptee zombies to attack Russia.

Now the Duma is studying bills to ban Russian officials from marrying foreigners, to ban foreign passport holders from criticizing Russia on state controlled TV, and to fine officials who use English words in public. On Friday, the Duma gave initial approval to a vaguely worded bill that would ban “homosexual propaganda” that could be seen by minors.

But it would be a setback for Russia if Americans start taking Russian government rhetoric seriously and start writing Russia off as the kooky country.

Almost two decades ago, a Brazilian Finance Minister told me that, after years of annual inflation rates of several thousand percent, the biggest risk to Brazil was “irrelevancia.” The minister, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, went on to end Brazil’s hyperinflation, and to win elections as president.

Today, Brazil is far from irrelevant.

But, today, it sounds like déjà vu when I hear an Obama administration Russia expert exclaim: “We don’t need them. We don’t need the Russians.”

Next week: Why the Kremlin’s Leverage over Washington is Overrated

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.

The March of Moscow’s Silent Majority?

Posted January 16th, 2013 at 10:13 am (UTC+0)

Yuri, aged 42, marches with his daughter Anastasia, aged 17, and his adopted son and daughter. Anastasia urged her father to come out to protest Russia’s new ban on Americans adopting Russian children. VOA Photo: James Brooke

During my two-week vacation in the United States, American friends again and again looked at me intently, and then asked: How do Russians see the new ban on Americans adopting Russian children?

During the last three months of 2012, the Kremlin read out a steady drumroll of American and international organizations or programs expelled from Russia: USAID, NDI, IRI, UNICEF and Nunn-Lugar. But, for the Americans I talked to in New York and New England, the Kremlin’s clear anti-America message got lost in this murky alphabet soup.

The breakthrough came with the adoption ban. That put a human face on the Kremlin’s calculated xenophobia.

In simple terms, Russian politicians are sacrificing the futures of 1,000 Russian orphans – the number adopted by American parents last year – to make a political point.
Take that, America!

Long lines of young policemen did not intimidate protesters twice their age. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Over eggnog at a New Year’s Day party and over breakfast at my sons’ New England college, Americans gingerly asked me: What kind of people would do that?

To my relief, I found insights Sunday afternoon while walking in an immense column of Muscovites protesting the adoption ban.

After interviewing half a dozen walkers, I concluded that I was covering “The March of the Normal People.”

In contrast to earlier demonstrations, these were Moms and Dads, Grandmothers and Grandfathers.

This was not “the creative class” that spiced up past demonstrations with costumes and skits.

Nor were these the chronically unhappy, brandishing red or black flags tacked on baseball bats.

Sunday’s protesters were middle aged and middle class, the mainstream, the building blocks of society. They were people deeply involved in what is often the world’s most challenging profession: parent.

Grandmothers and granddaughters unite against the new law that will deprive an estimated 1,000 Russian orphans from finding homes with American families this year. VOA Photo: James Brooke

In American terms, they could have stepped out of a meeting of the Parent Teachers Associations, the volunteer groups that advise local schools in America.

These Russians had no problems with light snow and the -10C temperatures. In Moscow, parents know how to sensibly double fold their scarves, and don warm hats, boots, coats and gloves before stepping outside for two-hour walk on a mid-winter afternoon.
They did not chant the standard protest slogan of 2012: “Russia Without Putin.”

Instead, they chanted something more damning: “Pozor” – “Shame.” They carried posters with portraits of their parliamentarians, also stamped: “Shame.”

They chanted: “Take Your Hands off Children.”

“Duma, Federation Council, Putin: Scoundrels.” This woman seems to equate Russian politicians with wolves. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Ekaterina, the 39-year-old mother of a son, carried a sign reading: “Don’t take revenge on children.”

“I’m here because I am against yet another cannibalistic law voted for by the Duma,” she said, referring to Russia’s parliament. “The deputies used children as instruments in their political game.”

A few minutes later, Anna Glukhova, the 40-year-old mother of a daughter, said she found it shocking that the Duma banned adoptions to retaliate against the United States Congress for passing a bill demanding justice in the prison death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer for an American hedge fund.

“I think that it’s very bad to defend murderers of Magnitsky with our orphaned children,” said Glukhova, the deputy director of a trading company who marched with her husband.

Flowing up out of metro stations, at least 25,000 people turned out for the “March Against Scoundrels,” the largest protest turnout since President Putin’s inauguration last May. Much of the population of Russia’s capital is indifferent or hostile to the President. In March presidential, Moscow was one of the few places where he did not win a majority of ballots cast, winning only 47 percent.

The moderate nature of Sunday’s protesters contrasted with the radical words of ruling party deputies. The deputies’ extremist views highlight a deepening divide between urban Russians and their government.

In advance of the march, Andrei Isayev, a leader of the United Russia ruling party, warned on the party website about citizen “hysteria” over the adoption ban.

“All the enemies of Russian sovereignty have revealed themselves as ardent supporters of American adoption,” Mr. Isayev, a member of the party’s general council, wrote before the protest. They “will go out to march for the right of unrestricted export of Russian children to America.”

“Let’s look attentively and remember the faces of the organizers and active participants of this march,” he wrote, calling Sunday’s event a “March of Child Sellers.” “Our task in the coming years is to drive them to the farthest edge of political and public life, to the middle of nowhere.”

Yekaterina Lakhova, the United Russia deputy who sponsored the adoption ban last month, told Kommersant FM as the march began: “I am especially surprised to see people gather at such a large action in support of American business – because for them, our children, Russian children, are factually, let’s put it this way, an object of trade.”

After the march, Evgeny Feodorov, a ruling party deputy, warned me in an interview that it is highly possible the Russian children are cut up in the United States for the organ trade.

State-controlled television chimed in with Soviet-style slant.
Dmitry Kiselyov, presenter of “Vesti Nedelyi” or “News of the Week,” showed images of the march, warning viewers: “They urge everyone to protest against a ban on exporting children.”

This man was not star struck by the embrace that French tax exile Gerard Depardieu gave Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month. VOA Photo: James Brooke

For the folks back home and around the world, here is what is happening in Moscow:

On one hand, the Kremlin is continuing its year-long anti-American campaign, believing it can shore up support among rural, small city and Soviet generation Russians, the people who get most of their news from state-controlled television.

On the other hand, the Kremlin seeks to focus attention on “foreign causes” for Russia’s looming demographic decline. Because of a dearth of babies born during chaotic years that followed the collapse of communism in 1991, the number of fertile age Russian women is starting to shrink.

A believer of Alice in Wonderland demographics, Lakhova, the ruling party deputy, warns that American adoptions over the last two decades represent a small city lost for Russia.

But in light of Russia’s sky high emigration and abortion rates, the American adoptions of 60,000 Russian orphans are, in reality, a drop in the bucket.

If 5 million Russians emigrated over the last 20 years (a conservative figure), American adoptions equal three months of emigration.
If 1 million pregnancies in Russia end in abortion each year (a conservative figure), two decades of American adoption equal three weeks of abortions.

It is increasingly unlikely that Russia’s television viewers will be exposed to this mathematical reality check. In a move that would bring television news closer to the Soviet model, Duma deputies are debating a law that would ban anyone with a foreign passport, including Russian citizens, from criticizing the Russian government on television.

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.



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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