Tag Archives: ‘Putin’s

Why the experts think Belarus isn’t going to be Putin’s next Ukraine

If there is a glimmer of a silver lining for Canada, the U.K. and its allies as they watch the brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters in Belarus, it’s this: Russia probably doesn’t want another Ukraine — and it certainly can’t afford one.

The imposition of sanctions by both countries Tuesday against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, his son and six other Belarusian government officials in the wake of a disputed presidential election was the outcome of a delicate diplomatic dance that took weeks — even though some European nations chose to remain wallflowers.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson said the Magnitsky-style sanctions would have had more punch if they’d been part of a wider multinational effort.

“In the case of Belarus, we have gone after the kingpins and we hit them where it hurts — their pocketbooks and ability to travel,” he said. “It would have been better if it were a G7 rather than just Canada and the U.K., but I guess it’s a reflection of EU solidarity.”

Some experts, meanwhile, say they think there’s a better-than-even chance that — although they’re not aimed at Russia — the economic penalties will prompt dialogue and lead to de-escalation.

“The Russians don’t want another Ukraine,” said Andrew Rasiulis, a former senior Canadian defence official now with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. “They don’t want another problem on their border.”


Police detain a demonstrator during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020. (Associated Press)

While surface comparisons can be made between the situation in Belarus now and the six-year-old war in Ukraine, the geopolitical and economic landscapes are different, said Rasiulis, who once ran the Directorate of Nuclear and Arms Control Policy at the Department of National Defence.

Unlike the Ukrainians who took part in the anti-government, post-election protests in Kyiv that preceded the Russian invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014, those demonstrating in Minsk are not demanding closer association with the West or using much anti-Russian rhetoric. Belarusians are, primarily, rising up to demand good government.

And Moscow is in a weaker economic position now than it was in 2014 — in part because of the punishing sanctions imposed after its seizure of Crimea and armed intervention in eastern Ukraine.


Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Dec. 20, 2019 in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

For Belarus, getting hit by international sanctions following a presidential election is almost a regular thing.

In 2006, in reply to a heavy-handed response to protests, the U.S. and European Union levelled sanctions on dozens of Belarusian individuals and state-run companies. The EU eased up in 2016 when Lukashenko released political prisoners, but Washington has maintained an array of restrictions on Belarusian officials, including the president himself.

Penalizing the powerful

Robertson said the West has learned the hard way that targeted punishments, such as those imposed on Tuesday, will be more effective in the long run.

Experts at the U.S.-based RAND Corporation and elsewhere have warned repeatedly over the past decade that targeting key Belarusian state-owned enterprises (such as chemical and petrochemical industries) and restricting the flow of capital would cause higher economic damage to the country as a whole and hurt many ordinary citizens.

The chances of political concessions appear to be higher when you hit the business elite and the cronies, says one recent study by the think-tank.

That report, which looked at Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe and ways to contain it, said efforts to promote a more liberal Belarus were unlikely to succeed and could provoke a strong response from Moscow.

Convincing the Kremlin

William Courtney and Michael Haltzel, two noted U.S. experts on Eastern Europe, argued in a RAND Corporation blog post last month that western countries should support mediation and calls for a new presidential election with credible international monitoring.

Russia, they said, is the key — and Moscow could be enticed to go along.

“A more democratic, Eastern Slavic state on Russia’s border might be difficult for the Kremlin to accept, but the European Union and the United States could make clear that any improvement in relations with Moscow would depend on it not intervening coercively in Belarus,” wrote Courtney, a former ambassador, and Haltzel, a former policy adviser to U.S. Senator (now Democratic presidential nominee) Joe Biden.

Canada, Latvia and other western nations have called for mediation, said Rasiulis — who is convinced Moscow is more interested in keeping Belarus in its orbit than in Lukashenko’s political survival.

The Institute for the Study of War, another prominent U.S. think-tank, has warned that some of the Russian army units which took part in a recent joint military exercise may not have returned home from Belarus last week as planned.

Rasiulis said that while it’s clear Russian is keeping the option of force on table, he has a hard time believing Moscow would launch a violent crackdown because of how it would alienate the people of Belarus.

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‘This situation is very scary’: Coronavirus is disrupting Vladimir Putin’s Russia

In Yakutia, in Russia’s far north east — easily one of the most remote resource regions on the planet — isolation appears to be the least of concerns among its more than 10,000 oil field workers.

“We’re infected! Where’s the f—ing quarantine? Where are the f—ing masks?” employees shouted in an angry rant aimed at their company and local government posted on a Russian social media site earlier this week.

As many as 10,500 workers at the Chayanda oil field site have been tested for COVID-19, and though the results haven’t been released, the website Meduza quotes the regional governor as saying the number of positive cases is “very significant.” 

The availability — or rather scarcity — of protective gear at facilities and institutions closer to the country’s major population centres appears to be equally problematic.

“Here is the real truth about Reutov hospital [near Moscow] — there is no personal protective equipment in the coronavirus department!” one hospital worker wrote this week on a whistleblower Facebook page set up by frustrated Russian health-care workers.

“Staff wear [their] disposable protective equipment over and over again.”

Another video viewed by CBC News showed COVID-19 patients in a hospital in the city of Derbent, Republic of Dagestan, crammed into makeshift bunks in what appears to be storage room, coughing and hacking with IVs in their arms. They were being tended by a nurse who wasn’t wearing a mask or any other protective gear.


Social media video from Derbent, in the Russian republic of Dagestan, shows patients stacked in bunk beds to get treatment for coronavirus, with staff who aren’t wearing face masks or protective gear. (MoshebabaV/YouTube)

COVID-19 appeared to come late to Russia, compared with North America and Europe, but now it’s striking with a vengeance, the damage compounded by the lack of personal protective equipment for hospital workers.

There are almost daily reports across the vast country — from St. Petersburg to Siberia — of hospitals being quarantined because of coronavirus outbreaks among staff.

On Thursday, the state news agency RIA novesti reported that Prime Minister Mikhail Mishutsin tested positive for the coronavirus and is in self-isolation. He is so far the most senior member of government known to have contracted the virus. President Vladimir Putin has not been seen in public with Mishutsin in weeks, and the prime minister broke the news by video conference.

Doctors dying

Among health care workers, the toll has been so high over the past fortnight or so that colleagues have started compiling the names of the dead on an online memorial page — 74 names as of Tuesday night and growing.

Among them was Natalia Lebedeva, who headed up medical services at Russia’s cosmonaut training centre outside Moscow. She allegedly died after falling out a window — a fate that has become strikingly common over the years for those who either disapprove of or disappoint Russian authorities.

Independent Russian media reported Lebedeva may have committed suicide after being blamed for letting the coronavirus spread throughout the facility.

Another doctor from Siberia may also have tried to take her life by similarly jumping out of a fifth-storey window at her workplace in Siberia.

As in the cosmonaut hospital case, local media reported that Yelena Nepomnyashchay was blamed by authorities for an outbreak of the virus. She survived but is in critical condition.


A screenshot from the popular Russian Information program Vesti Nedeli, or News of the Week, shows doctors handling wards of COVID-19 patients in Moscow. (Russia 1 Television)

Putin’s plan

For the first time, Putin has acknowledged Russia is having trouble meeting the demands for enough personal protective equipment for its health-care workers.

In an address Tuesday, Putin admitted that “there is still a shortage of some technical items, equipment and disposable materials,” despite increasing production of masks 10-fold in April and making more than 100,000 protective suits every day.

“We have concentrated and mobilized all our industrial resources,” he said.


Protesters in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, stage a protest on April 20, urging the government to end the lockdown and allow them to return to work. (Youtube)

Russia is poised to surpass 100,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country, with approximately 900 reported deaths. Those are extremely low numbers compared with the experience of western Europe, where more than 20,000 people have died in each of the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain.

Many doctors — even those sympathetic to the government — have told CBC News part of the challenge is that Russia’s tests return an unusually large number of false negative results.

Other health officials linked to opposition groups believe many deaths are also either deliberately or unintentionally misrepresented.

For example, the Russian business publication RBC quoted Moscow’s deputy mayor as saying cases of pneumonia increased more than 70 per cent in the past week, filling up urgent-care beds in the city. 

Since many coronavirus patients develop pneumonia, the head of a doctors advocacy group told CBC News in an earlier interview that it’s fair to assume most of those patients had COVID-19.

Economic disaster

Putin is also facing increasing pressure over the enormous economic cost of the coronavirus lockdown, now into its fifth week in the capital Moscow.


With Moscow and most other Russian cities locked down for a over month, up to six million jobs have disappeared. (Alexey Sergeev/CBC)

Russia’s labour ministry reported Tuesday that unemployment could soon reach six million people.

Many of those out of work would only be eligible to receive a meagre maximum payout of roughly $ 200 Cdn a month.

Others who are self-employed might not get anything.

“They can’t survive in this situation if the lockdown is prolonged,” said opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov.

Gudkov is among those calling on the Putin administration to release some of the money in Russia’s huge sovereign wealth fund, which holds more than $ 150 billion US.

When oil revenues were stronger, the money was set aside by the Putin administration to help ease the shock of any future economic sanctions that might be imposed by the West. But Gudkov says the money should be spent now, by making direct payments to people, as has been done in Canada and the United States.

“He doesn’t want to spend this reserve fund,” Gudkov told CBC News.

Frustration growing

“Putin needs the money to maintain the ‘Putin forever’ model,” a reference to the Russian leader’s attempts to change the constitution to allow him to serve two more terms as Russia’s president.

Gudkov says Putin has a long list of “legacy projects” he wants built, and spending money on direct payments to people will deplete the funds for that.

But frustration is growing, as jobs dry up and the Kremlin offers people little in return, Gudkov says.

“If there is a choice to die from hunger or the virus, it’s better to die from the virus.”


Russian opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov wants the Kremlin to offer a much bigger assistance package to those hurt by COVID-19. (Chris Brown/Skype)

In his remarks Tuesday, Putin indicated the government is preparing another round of economic assistance for individuals and businesses, but he didn’t offer any clues to what it might be.

He also suggested that some parts of Russia might be able to start easing their lockdown and returning to work after a holiday period that ends in mid-May. 

‘Very scary’ for Russian government

In an online discussion hosted by the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, liberal-leaning Russian economist Sergei Guriev, who is based in Paris, suggested COVID-19 represents the most difficult challenge Putin has faced in the 20 years he has sat atop Russia’s power structure.

Guriev says street protests against the lockdown may become more frequent, as Russians run out of money and face difficulties feeding their families.

“We are in very uncharted waters,” he said. “This situation is very scary for the Russian government.”

WATCH | Russians’ frustration with the COVID-19 lockdown is growing:

Millions of Russians have become impoverished during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Kremlin is offering little financial support even though it has billions in the coffers. 2:04

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Putin’s political gambit suggests plan to rule Russia forever

Russians awoke this morning to a new prime minister and much confusion about a new constitutional process that appears designed to entrench Vladimir Putin’s status at the top of Russia’s political pyramid for the rest of his life.

“His goal is to remain the number-one, most important decision maker in Russia, to keep Russia stable, to keep the elites loyal and to keep the public acquiescent to the Kremlin’s policies,” said Maria Lipman, an independent political analyst affiliated with Moscow’s Carnegie Centre.  

Wednesday was an unprecedented day of political surprises in Moscow, as Putin unveiled his proposals to change Russia’s constitution, thereby allowing him several avenues to extend his 20-year reign indefinitely.

Then, a few hours later, the second most powerful man in the country, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, resigned, taking the entire Russian cabinet with him.   

In the final act last night, Putin appointed a little known bureaucrat, tax commissioner Mikhail Mishustin, as the new PM,  a position that confirmed by Russia’s parliament today. Western reporters have noted that Mishustin was so obscure, he didn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry before yesterday’s surprise appointment. 

‘Striking’ measures

The question of what Putin will do after his presidential term expires in 2024 has loomed over the country since he won re-election in 2018.


Putin nominated little-known bureaucrat Mikhail Mishustin for the post of prime minister. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

He is currently barred under the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term, but rather than changing that specific clause, Putin put forward a series of dramatic overhauls that could eventually change the very nature of how power is wielded in the country.

The measures are “striking,” said Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College in London. “This is a risk-averse system that likes to avoid sudden moves.”

Putin is more than simply the president — it often seems that no other political figure in Russia matters.   

Virtually every significant political appointment or decision flows through his Kremlin office. And once a year, he holds a nationwide phone-in show where Russians call and plead with him to fix their problems, from medical care to potholes on their street.

As part of his proposed package of constitutional reforms, Putin is suggesting to devolve some presidential powers to other branches of the government, notably the Duma, or parliament, as well as a fairly obscure institution known as the State Council.

Lipman said it appears Putin is taking the first steps to ensuring that when he leaves the presidency, he has a new position to move into — and that whoever succeeds him will have his wings clipped.  

In 2024, “someone else will be president of Russia, and that person will not be … as powerful,” said Lipman.

No peaceful retirement

Precisely what job Putin has in mind for himself is unclear although liberal-leaning critics believe whatever it is, Putin will ensure he maintains some control of either the police or judiciary.

Strongmen rarely get peaceful retirements, said Abbas Gallyanov, a Moscow-based political consultant. “With so many powerful people hating [Putin], he cannot rule out that revenge will come.”

Once a Kremlin speech writer, Gallyanov said he became disillusioned with Putin once he put Russia on a path toward authoritarianism.


This electronic screen, installed on the facade of a hotel, shows an image of Putin and a quote from his state of the union address on Jan. 15. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

“He made so many enemies inside and outside of Russia, he wouldn’t feel secure. So he needs political power to protect himself.” 

Kazakhstan’s long-time ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev, opted for a similar arrangement when he stepped down from the presidency in 2018. He appointed a successor but moved into a new position on the country’s security council, a job that he can keep until he dies and helps him to maintain control of the security services.

While it was expected that Putin would eventually give some indication of his post-2024 plans, Medvedev’s resignation caught the country by surprise.

Russian state TV, which often echoes the Kremlin’s narratives and messaging, was surprisingly silent on his fate and how it should be interpreted.

Medvedev told Russian media that he was resigning to give Putin leeway to make the changes he felt are needed. There was no explanation about why his departure was necessary to do that.

Medvedev slid into the president’s job in 2008, when Putin left after two terms. Once Putin decided he wanted the position back in 2012, he appointed Medvedev as prime minister and there has been speculation that Medvedev might move back into the job once Putin leaves.

As Russia’s economy has stagnated and issues such as pension reforms have taken a bite out of people’s real incomes, it was Medvedev — not Putin — who bore the brunt of the backlash. Opinion polls routinely rank Medvedev as one of the country’s most unpopular politicians.

“Medvedev’s role in Russian politics ever since he was president has been to be the guy who gets screwed,” said Greene. “It’s his job and he does it well.” 

Greater plan?

This is why Greene believes Medvedev’s resignation is part of a larger Putin plan that will ultimately end with Medvedev returning to a key role.

“I wouldn’t expect a radical change overnight. People who are in power will continue to hold power.”


Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, right, resigned his post on Wednesday. (Sputnik/Dmitry Astakhov/Pool via Reuters)

There have been signs that the uncertainty over Putin’s long-term plans were beginning to cause friction within the cliques that sit atop Russia’s power structure and dominate its major bureaucracies and industries.

The government’s response to last summer’s street protests over election rigging in the country’s capital appeared especially dysfunctional.

After thousands of protesters took to the streets in Moscow, authorities initially took a hands-off approach. But then security services quickly changed tack, making hundreds of arrests, with some protesters getting multi-year jail sentences. Then, the government did an about-face, as protesters were released and many had their sentences commuted or dismissed altogether.   

At the time, commentators suggested the response was indicative of different cabals within the government trying to assert their influence and jockey for future positions in a post-Putin Russia.

“At the moment, [Putin’s] focus seems to be on dealing with challenges he has with the elite,” said Greene.

A stagnant economy and declining incomes have put the Kremlin on the defensive. Even in Russia’s system of “managed democracy,” where opposition parties are restricted and state television dominates the political discussion, Greene said it is essential for Putin’s future to remain personally popular. 

“He has to keep the system legitimate by keeping people happy and maintaining his popularity, given that the rest of the political elite are not popular. And he has to maintain the trust of the elite so that he protects their interest and keeps enough money flowing around to keep everyone happy.”

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Facebook accuses ‘Putin’s chef,’ wanted in U.S., of targeting users in African countries

Facebook said on Wednesday it had suspended three networks of Russian accounts that attempted to interfere in the domestic politics of eight African countries and were tied to a Russian businessman accused of meddling in past U.S. elections.

The campaigns targeted people in Madagascar, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Sudan and Libya, Facebook said. They used almost 200 fake and compromised accounts to reach more than one million followers in the eight African countries.

All the networks were connected to “entities associated with Russian financier Yevgeny Prigozhin,” Facebook said. Prigozhin has previously denied wrongdoing. His lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the latest Facebook accusations involving African countries.

Prigozhin has been indicted by U.S. special prosecutor Robert Mueller as a principal figure behind an alleged Russian “troll farm” accused of trying to sway elections in the United States with covert social media campaigns.

In some of the African countries, the Russian-run networks worked with local citizens to better disguise their origins and target Internet users, said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cyber security policy.

“There’s sort of a joining of forces, if you will, between local actors and actors from Russia,” he told Reuters. “It appears that the local actors who are involved know who is behind the operation.”

Facebook declined to identify which local people or organizations had worked with the accounts or which companies it had connected to the activity and Prigozhin, a catering tycoon nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because of banquets he has organized for the Russian leader.

Ties to Wagner Group alleged

But researchers at Stanford University who worked with Facebook on its investigation said the companies included the Wagner Group — a firm of military contractors that sources have previously told Reuters has carried out clandestine combat missions on the Kremlin’s behalf in Ukraine and Syria.

Reuters reported last year that the group had expanded into economic and diplomatic work in countries including the Central African Republic as part of a push by Russia to increase its influence in Africa.

Russian authorities deny that Wagner contractors carry out their orders and Moscow has repeatedly rejected Western allegations of election meddling. The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Wagner has no public profile and has never commented about its activities. Prigozhin has denied links to Wagner.

Facebook, Twitter and Google have vowed to step up the fight against political manipulation of their platforms after facing fierce criticism for failing to counter alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Despite the increased scrutiny, U.S. officials have repeatedly warned of the threat posed by Russia and other countries who they say may still attempt to sway the result of next year’s presidential contest.

The campaigns shut down for meddling in Africa had posted about local news and geopolitical issues, as well as sharing content from Russian and local state-controlled media, Facebook said.

Some of the accounts were active as far back as 2014.

They also spent money on advertising, although Facebook estimated the total at less than $ 90,000 US. The paid social media advertising markets in many African countries are still small.

Researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory, the research lab at Stanford University, said the networks used a variety of techniques across the different African countries.

Some accounts supported a specific party or candidate, they said, while others backed multiple figures. In other cases, the pages appeared geared towards building support for Wagner activities or Russian deals for natural resources.

In Sudan, said Observatory Research Scholar Shelby Grossman, “the tone has been generally supportive of the government, but not transparently so. It does suggest the strategy is very different across countries.”

The activity marks a shift from the previous alleged efforts by the Internet Research Agency to target U.S. voters, said Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former security chief and now head of the Stanford Internet Observatory.

The “franchise” model of working with local people in target countries makes the activity more difficult to detect, he said, and may have been developed to circumvent a move by Facebook to publish the locations of administrators of some political accounts.

The action over the African countries was Facebook’s second move against groups it linked to Prigozhin in a week. Last week, Facebook said it had suspended a network of 50 Instagram accounts it linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, an organization U.S. prosecutors say was funded by Prigozhin to attempt to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential vote.

Putin has been looking to strengthen economic ties and increase exports of military equipment and weapons to the continent, last week hosting dozens of African leaders at a summit in Sochi.

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