The bonfire of rationality

Yesterday I was going to post a long and detailed entry about Vladimir Putin’s priority list. About the way priorities were exposed during times of crisis and scarcity. I was going to draw a comparison with my college days in Dublin, where, due to my meagre funds, I had to decide which parts of a full Irish breakfast I wanted to keep, as I could not afford them all. I was going to tell how I decided the lack of which ingredient would not disrupt my morning. I was going to point out how Putin seems to have decided which elements of the Russian political system were essential and worth keeping and how others were being cut off. At the end, I was going to point out how this ended up producing a very different system from what it was before – just like a student’s breakfast was not nearly the same as a proper one would have been. But I was late. The murder of Boris Nemtsov told more about the state of Russia and Putinism that I could have. Regardless of how important or unimportant a personality Nemtsov was in contemporary Russia, and regardless of a series of similar murder cases in the past years, the context makes this case different. It shed light on the weakness and the vicious circle hiding behind the robustness of Russia’s geopolitical posturing.

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A tale of two choices

Oil prices tumble, the Russian economy is in recession, the Russian elite is nervous, but Vladimir Putin is smart enough to avoid the traps that the Soviet Union fell into – in a nutshell, this is the argument of Richard Sakwa’s opinion piece, published in The Guardian three weeks ago. There’s no way out of this crisis and Putin will soon have to handpick a successor, argues Alexander Morozov on openDemocracy. Between these two, somewhat extreme opinions that supposedly contain some wishful thinking, we have seen a myriad of scenarios emerging in the past month about the end game of the crisis in Ukraine. All of them sound somewhat plausible, yet it is difficult to argue that one of them has significantly higher chances of happening than the rest. This ambiguity paints a perfect picture of Russia at the beginning of 2015.

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Europe’s game – Part 2

In the previous entry, I argued that Europe had to push forward with sanctions on Russia, despite the imminent threat of a Russian economic crisis. However, Europe’s game does not end here. It has to carefully observe the movements within the Russian political elite. Russia’s looming economic breakdown and Western sanctions have indeed affected power relations within the elite – but not everyone suffered equally.

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Europe’s Game – Part 1

Pro-Russian rebels held illegal elections in the Donbass on 2 November, which Russia first recognised then only “respected”. Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities and NATO reported a serious Russian military build-up in Eastern Ukraine. Vladimir Putin was told off at the G20 summit, where even his face-to-face encounter with Angela Merkel went haywire. The British embassy in Kiev offered the Russian government a guide to identify its own armoured vehicles. You might have thought that if anytime Europe was ready to introduce new sanctions against Russia, it was now. If you did, you were wrong. EU member states failed to agree on new sanctions against Russia on Monday; instead, they chose to pretend something was happening and called to sanction rebel leaders. With the Russian economy on the verge of a serious crisis, the newest phase of the Ukraine crisis may just look like this: a chicken game, in which, before eventually losing, Putin might first score some political points.

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When the wells run dry

Those critical of Western sanctions against Russia usually point at the fact that these measures have so far failed to do their job. They failed to bring meaningful changes in Russia’s foreign and domestic policies and failed to stop the war in the Donbas. Critics are partly right. Certainly, it took the West too long to force Vladimir Putin to the negotiating table. On the other hand, if the purpose of the West was to weaken Russia and to simultaneously split the political elite, thereby paving the way for changes in the longer term, they are on the right track. 

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The cost of peace

The war in Ukraine is, arguably, a very costly business for Russia’s leaders. No wonder that the political and business elite seem to be increasingly divided on the issue. However, the situation created by the conflict has benefited Russia’s ruling political class and personally Vladimir Putin in a different way: it granted the President an almost unprecedented hegemony over the Russian political sphere. Putin should, however, know that this hegemony is temporary. Therefore, while he is still able to accumulate further political capital, he will try to finish the redistribution of power and wealth that started together with his third term. This is expected to cost Dmitry Medvedev his position.

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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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