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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
October 1, 2016

Publication: Windows on Eurasia
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Medvedev Backs Radical Reform of Structure of Russian State

Staunton, October 1, 2016 - In another indication that Russia may be on the brink of radical reform of its state structures and of how such a development may open a Pandora’s box of problems for the Kremlin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev says that it is “necessary to replace the entire system of government administration” for another.

On September 30, Moscow’s Kommersant newspaper reported that Medvedev had said that “he could not but agree” with Aleksey Kudrin that “it is important not only to achieve all [social] but also “it is necessary to replace the entire system of state administration” with something new. 

The prime minister did not specify exactly what he personally had in mind; but Kudrin, the former finance minister and current head of the Moscow Center for Strategic Planning, earlier this week remarked that “the governors of Russian regions must be given more freedom in decision making. 

Since the Duma vote, there have been many articles suggesting Vladimir Putin plans to reform state structures in radical ways. (For a discussion of some of these ideas, see here). But most of these articles have acted as if Putin now has a free hand to act as he wants. 

Medvedev’s intervention, to the extent that it is more than his typical penchant for saying more than he intends, points to something else: the possibility that others, be they governors or heads of republics, will decide that they should be participants in this process, something that could trigger conflicts that the Kremlin leader would then have to respond to. 

At the very least, this opens the possibility that many Russians will begin to reflect on Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation, frequently cited during Gorbachev’s time, that “the worst time for a bad government is when it decides to begin reforming itself” because such a move can open the way for more groups to get involved than the authors of such reforms plan on.

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Can the West Use Russia’s Border Regions Against Moscow?

Staunton, VA, October 1, 2016 - An article in a German newspaper suggesting that residents of Russia’s Pskov Region want good relations with Estonia and Latvia and do not support Moscow’s “’aggressive tone’” has raised the hackles of a Russian commentator who argues that the West will fail if it tries to set the border regions of the country against the center.

On the RuBaltic portal which often serves as Moscow’s mouthpiece about the Baltic countries, Aleksandr Nosovich takes offense at an article by Klaus-Helge Donath in Berlin’s Tageszeitung about the situation in Pskov Region and both pro-Western and anti-Moscow sentiments there.

(Nosovich’s article which appeared September 30 can be found here) Donath’s article, which was originally published on September 16 is available in German here and in Russian translation here.)

 According to Nosovich, the West has “decided to use the residents of border regions” of the Russian Federation against Moscow. He draws that conclusion on the basis of the Donath article and predicts that the West will expand such efforts in other regions of Russia, including Kaliningrad. 

The Russian commentator quotes Donath’s observation that “on the whole, the situation in Pskov with its 200,000 residents does not look especially good. Many homeless people follow tourists from one church to another in the hopes of receiving some money from them. More than that, every fifth resident of Pskov lives ‘below the established minimum’” income. 

According to the German journalist, Nosovich continues, “industrial enterprises have left the city and over the last six years, the population has fallen by six percent which as the local press writes, ‘exceeds the figures from the period” of World War II. As a result, “in the city, the situation in fact is tense” because residents compare their fate with that of the wealthier Baltic countries and St. Petersburg.

Nosovich says that Donath’s comment about population losses is “only the most obvious” of his mistaken claims. Between 1940 and 1945, Pskov Region's population fell from 1.6 million to 500,000, while between 1989 and 2010, it declined only from 870,000 to 650,000. The Russian commentator implies but doesn’t show that Donath’s other arguments are wrong. 

He does say that the German journalist “manipulates the good-neighborly attitudes of Pskov residents to their Baltic neighbors and pushes his readers to the conclusion that the residents of the Russian border region are oriented in their development to Estonia and Latvia and do not support the foreign policy of Russia.” 

Pskov residents, Donath says, aren’t hostile to Estonia and Latvia and they do not understand Moscow’s militaristic tone. Moreover, “20 percent of the residents of [Pskov’s] border regions are citizens both of Russia and of the EU,” that is, they are citizens of Estonia and Latvia, two EU member states, and thus are within the Shengen zone.

Nosovich says that such comments raise “several questions.” First, according to him, no one in Pskov could have heard Moscow’s “’militant tone’” toward the Baltic countries because Moscow has never displayed that. Second, Donath insults the Balts by comparing them with a region in Russia rather than with Russia as a whole. 

And third, according to Nosovich, Donath is wrong to suggest any problems Pskov residents have are the result of Moscow’s policies. According to him, many of their problems have arisen because Estonia hasn’t been willing to allow a special visa regime for border area residents even though as many as 33,000 Pskovites have Estonian passports. 

Thus, the Russian commentator says, Donath’s article represents not some accidental publication but the manifestation of a new anti-Moscow policy in the West based on an attempt to use “the friendly and good-neighborly attitudes of residents of the border regions of Russia toward EU countries” against Moscow. 

“It remains to be seen,” Nosovich says, “how this will develop in the future. We now can expect Western reports that the residents of Kaliningrad oblast feel themselves as Little Lithuania and do not support Putin’s plans, already proven and not subject to doubt, to occupy Vilnius.” 

No such articles have yet appeared, but today, a Russian news agency reported that the situation in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad is now so dire that stevedores working in the port there are saying “we will not survive if we don’t reach agreements with Lithuania and Belarus.

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Chechen and Afghan Echoes of Putin’s Military Operation in Syria

Staunton, VA, October 1, 2016 - On the first anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s decision to introduce Russian forces into the Syrian civil war on the side of Baathist dictator Bashar al-Assad, commentators in Russia and Ukraine are pointing to ways in which this conflict recalls Moscow’s earlier interventions in Chechnya and before that in Afghanistan.

Their conclusions should be disturbing to all people of good will around the world given the brutality of Soviet and Russian actions in those wars, but they should also serve as a warning to Russia and Russians given that such military adventures did not end well for their authors or their authors’ country, however many victories Kremlin propagandists may claim. 

Independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgengauer notes that in Aleppo, “the Russians are using the Chechen tactic of the period of the second Chechen war” when they destroyed civilian areas in cities in order to defeat their military opponent in the field. 

Whether this constitutes “’a war crime,’” the analyst says, is up to an international tribunal; but of course, if it is found to be such in one case, it could easily be extended to others. 

Russian military commanders believe that if they can take Aleppo, “this will be a decisive victory” in the Syrian civil war, one that will give Assad a victory and make Baghdad into what was true in Chechnya after the second Chechen war, a pro-Russian vassal that will help project Moscow’s power in the region.

But, Felgengauer argues, Moscow is wrong. Taking Aleppo by such massive and indiscriminate use of force may be possible, but that will not lead to the end of the civil war in Syria. That conflict will “in any case” continue; and even more people will die there as a result of the actions of Assad and his Russian allies.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian journalist Vladislav Kudrik compares what Putin is doing in Syria with what his Soviet predecessors did in Afghanistan, a conflict that undermined the USSR, led to a Soviet withdrawal, but didn’t solve the problem of that Central Asian country.

At the moment, he says, many experts believe that Russia has “outplayed the West,” but most of them see this as a short-term rather than long-term result because, in the view of many of them, “Syria is becoming for Moscow a new Afghanistan,” a place it cannot withdraw from without risks at home and abroad but that it cannot gain what it hoped for either. 

Moscow’s main goal in going into Syria was to force the West and above all the US to make a trade, with the West paying for Russian cooperation against terrorism in the Middle East with an agreement to end sanctions against the Russian Federation for what Putin is doing in Ukraine. But if that was Moscow’s goal, it has clearly failed.

Its actions have increasingly infuriated the West, which has stepped up its criticism of what Moscow is doing with its bombing of civilians in Aleppo, threatened to break off all talks on Syrian issues, and even to introduce new economic sanctions against Russia. Most important, the West has refused to make any grand bargain with Putin.

What is worse for Moscow, experts like Igor Semivolos, the director of Kyiv’s Center for Near East Research, say, is that Moscow has little choice but to keep fighting despite the increasing costs it is imposing on itself by that policy. “In authoritarian regimes,” Semivolos note, “defeat in war usually very quickly leads to the fall of the regime.” 

Moscow is thus caught in a trap of its own making, incapable of winning either on the ground or in diplomacy but equally unwilling to take the risks involved of pulling out entirely. Russian leaders know what happened after Gorbachev pulled out of Afghanistan, and they don’t want the same outcome.