Putin’s Milosevic moment

As the world is gearing up for the upcoming talks between Vladimir Putin, Petro Poroshenko and Western officials in Minsk next week, all sides seem to pretend that time works for them and stakes are higher on the other side. The Ukrainian army, while suffering heavy losses, claims that it is close to the total annihilation of rebels. The EU, marred by internal debates on Russia’s present and possible future counter-sanctions, including a gas war, is trying to show unity and determination. Russia, despite an obvious panic among some of its largest businesses – such as Rosneft or VTB – acts as if it were winning the conflict in Ukraine. While such a chicken-game, many fear, might as well turn the conflict into a full-scale war, there is something that has to make Putin extremely cautious: he cannot know when he is about to reach his ‘Milosevic moment’.

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Why sanctions may as well work

Two days ago, Clifford Gaddy and Barry Ickes, two renowned experts on Russia’s economy published a short analysis on the possible effect of European and American sanctions on Russia. The outlook was grim, they concluded: not only were sanctions unlikely to produce the desired effect, but they would also lead to an increased state control over the Russian economy and they would make the Russian public rally around Vladimir Putin. While the two gentlemen make a number of valid and important points, I still think that sanctions, if properly implemented and accompanied by an adequate show of political will, do work. Here’s why.

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Not a golden opportunity

One of the conclusions many have drawn from the tragedy of flight MH17 was that Vladimir Putin now had the golden opportunity to withdraw from Ukraine – a war he had wanted to end anyway – and blame it all on the separatists. However, somehow this does not seem to be happening. The war has continued and Russia put the blame on Ukraine. This is not a surprise: there has never been a golden opportunity. Putin did want to exit the war but he wanted to do it on his own terms. This choice is what he lost in the disaster on Thursday. 

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A tragedy with consequences

This is the end of the conflict in Ukraine as we know it. 

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Go back to Start, do not collect $200bn

Sometimes words can hurt more than actions. Last week, the president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi said that capital flight from Russia might be four times as high as reported by Russia’s government. So far, the finance ministry reported $ 51 billion in the first qurter, while, according to Draghi, ECB estimates total outflows to have reached $ 222 billion this year. At the same time, there is significant suspicion that not only the official numbers on capital flight but also the ones on Russia’s currency reserves ($ 477 billion) are bogus, following the Russian Central Bank’s efforts in the past weeks to protect the rouble. Regardless of whether these assumptions are right, the mere fact that it is just plausible to assume that Russia is lying about its important economic indicators may soon lead to serious consequences. By all accounts, Russia may be headed towards a 1998-type crisis.

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A case against Medvedev #2: the Armenian lesson

One of the most publicised reforms carried out during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency was Russia’s switch to year-round Daylight Saving Time (DST) for economic and health reasons. However, the reform did not quite work out and sparked a lively debate, yet, to this day, it has not been repealed. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin got back in the saddle, Russia’s domestic and foreign policy course changed, which, among many other effects in the post-Soviet world, prompted political changes in Armenia. The question is: how are all these related and what could turn out to be Medvedev’s swan song?

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On the brink

As I am writing this blog entry, something that worryingly resembles the beginning of a civil war is underway in Eastern Ukraine. The triple strategy of the Ukrainian government – send in the military but restrain its activity, ask for UN peacekeepers, offer a countrywide referendum on federalisation – has failed. First, there are reports on Ukrainian troops switching sides, following a couple of small-scale skirmishes yesterday and today: in fact, armoured vehicles with Russian flags are entering the town of Sloviansk as I’m writing this. Second, despite yet another session of the Security Council scheduled for today afternoon, it is clear that the UN will not intervene. Third, though its ultimate goal may be the federalisation of Ukraine, Russia will not agree to a countrywide referendum that, without doubt, would be won by the opponents of a federal Ukraine. A Russian invasion seems to be imminent. However, there are some points that need to be stated. 

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