Elation over Trump melts away as Russia reacts to ‘hawkish’ Tillerson

MOSCOW – When U.S. secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson appeared before the U.S. Senate for his confirmation hearing on January 11, pundits and politicians in Moscow were watching closely for signals of the new administration’s stance on Russia. Reactions ranged broadly from upbeat pragmatism to an “I told you so” warning that a Russia hawk could be entering President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet. Over all, the comments painted a much more sober take on a Trump presidency than the jubilation displayed by many in Russia after his surprise victory in November. On the Vesti FM state radio station, prominent pro-Kremlin journalist Vladimir Solovyov chided those Russians who were expressing surprise at what many saw as a hawkish tone to Mr. Tillerson’s comments:

“For our dear listeners I will for the 156th time, although it is fashionable to say 150th, repeat that Tillerson is not Major Vikhr [a Russian TV superhero], and Trump is not Colonel Isayev, Stierlitz [a fictional Soviet superspy akin to James Bond]. They are both patriots of the U.S. One will, if confirmed, become the secretary of state.

Putin accuses Obama administration of trying to undermine Trump

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration of trying to undermine President-elect Donald Trump’s legitimacy by spreading what Mr. Putin said were false allegations. A dossier shown earlier this month to Messrs. Obama and Trump – part of which was leaked and published – contained salacious and compromising, but uncorroborated, information compiled by a former British intelligence officer on links between Russia and Mr. Trump, who rejected the claims as “fake news.”

And on January 6, U.S. intelligence agencies said they had concluded that Mr. Putin ordered a hacking campaign that aimed to undermine U.S. democracy, help Mr. Trump, and discredit his opponent in the November 8 election, Hillary Clinton. Speaking at a news conference on January 17, Mr. Putin dismissed the dossier alleging Mr. Trump’s sexual activities at a Moscow hotel in 2013 as “fake” and charged that those who ordered it are “worse than prostitutes.”

In his first public comments on the claims, Mr. Putin suggested that Russian intelligence agencies would have had no reason to spy on Mr. Trump during his 2013 visit to Moscow, when the episode allegedly took place in a Ritz-Carlton hotel suite in Moscow. “Does anyone think that our special services chase every American billionaire?

Lifting of sanctions could paradoxically spark upsurge of mass discontent in Russia

Donald Trump’s election has led many Russians to conclude that Western sanctions against Russia will be eased or lifted entirely in the coming months and that life in Russia will “really become easier.” But Moscow commentators warn that, paradoxically, that could become “a catalyst” for growing popular discontent within Russia. The reason, Andrey Polunin of the Svobodnaya Pressa portal says in summing up their views is that “if an external enemy in the form of the West disappears,” the Kremlin won’t be able to blame it for all of the shortcomings in Russia as it has done quite successfully up to now (svpressa.ru/politic/article/163694/). If in 2017 Western sanctions are lifted, Russian government experts say, the GDP of Russia could rise by 0.6 to 0.8 percent, a small but significant increase that could be improved further by rising oil prices. But Mr. Polunin says that no one should forget that “sanctions are far from the main cause of the slowing down of the Russian economy.”

One need only remember, he says, that the Russian economy began to head in the wrong direction already in 2013, before Crimea and the imposition of sanctions, “when the rate of GDP growth fell from 3.7 to 1.3 percent. Already then it was obvious that there were serious structural problems that Moscow was not addressing.

The illusion of a restored Russian superpower

For the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States has been declared a “threat” to Russia’s national security. The new Russian foreign policy concept, signed by President Vladimir Putin, was published on December 1, 2016 (Gov.ru, December 1, 2016). It replaced the previous concept adopted in 2013. The Russian financial website Finanz.ru candidly named the new foreign policy concept a “Cold War doctrine,” because of its premise of confrontation with the West (Finanz.ru, December 1, 2016). Indeed, if in the 2013 foreign policy concept Russia considered itself “an integral part of Europe,” now such language is excluded and replaced instead with accusations of “geopolitical expansion” by the European Union.

Ukrainians reflect bitterly on ‘betrayed hopes’ of Euro-Maidan

KYIV – Between classes in Kolkata, India, 17-year-old Svyatoslav Yurash was glued to a video stream of almost a million of his compatriots rallying in Ukraine’s capital when he decided to join the protest that would soon swell into a revolt.

The night before in Kyiv – on November 30, 2013 – hundreds of demonstrators, most of them students, had been bludgeoned by riot police. The idealistic Mr. Yurash couldn’t stand by any longer. He flew home and rushed to Independence Square – better known as simply the Maidan. Soon, he would launch the influential Euro-Maidan PR agency that amplified voices from the barricades in half a dozen or so languages across almost as many platforms.

Out on the Maidan, the “loss of hope” that had driven Mr. Yurash out of Ukraine after the 2010 election victory of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych faded. As he and his fellow protesters pressed their case for closer ties to the West and greater transparency, fighting back the ranks of riot police, passion swelled within him.

Obama signs law restructuring U.S. international news media

WASHINGTON – U.S. President Barack Obama has approved legislation that would consolidate oversight of U.S. nonmilitary broadcasting in the hands of a single chief executive – an overhaul that supporters laud as a much-needed reform but critics warn could endanger journalistic independence. The legislation, part of a larger bill on U.S. defense spending in 2017 that the president signed into law on December 23, restructures the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency that oversees civilian government broadcasting and media operations such as RFE/RL and Voice of America. The new law will replace the BBG’s bipartisan board with a presidentially appointed advisory board that will not have decision-making powers. Instead, those powers will be placed in the hands of a CEO appointed by the White House and subject to Senate confirmation. Proponents of the law, which was spearheaded by Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and backed by the Obama administration, say it will improve performance of U.S. international broadcasting by scrapping a board consisting of members who served part-time and met infrequently.

A Trump-Putin deal on Crimea could trigger a much bigger war

Avraam Smulyevich, a leading Israeli specialist on ethnic issues in the former Soviet space, says that Kyiv might be forced to agree to a Trump-Putin deal on Crimea but that such a deal would “only convince the Russian dictator that he had to invade other countries without being punished” and thus lead him to launch new wars. “Putin himself has acknowledged,” the head of the Israeli Institute for an Eastern Partnership told Kseniya Kirillova in an interview published on January 3 by Radio Liberty, “that the Syrian war is a training ground for his army and that the state of his army has really improved” (ru.krymr.com/a/28210963.html). The Kremlin leader is “evidently preparing his country for war” in order, among other things, to preserve his own power by launching aggression abroad. The rest of Ukraine is less likely to be in his sights than the Baltic countries, Poland or “some countries in the South Caucasus such as Azerbaijan.”

And in the current environment, Mr. Shmulyevich says, it is possible that Vladimir Putin will reach an agreement with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan “about the participation of the Middle East or a dash into Central Asia,” a region Ankara has long coveted and one that Moscow would like to rebuild its power in. With regard to a settlement on Crimea, he continues, “the return of Crimea is even more important for some representatives of the West than it is for the ruling Ukrainian elite.” That is because Kyiv wants to end the conflict as soon as possible, while some in the West want to maintain the principle of the inviolability of international borders by force alone.

State of war exists between Russia and Ukraine, Portnikov says

It is a measure of the triumph of Kremlin propagandists, the fecklessness of Western leaders and the fears in Kyiv of angering both that, more than two years after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, a Ukrainian commentator has been forced again to state the obvious: a state of war exists between Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian media has been having a field day with a speech by Mikhail Aleksandrov, a researcher at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, who said at a meeting of the Russian Institute for Strategic and International Studies that Moscow should attack Ukraine with missiles and transform Ukraine into “a new Syria.” (For his speech, see gordonua.com/news/war/ekspert-mgimo-predlozhil-vlastyam-rf-atakovat-ukrainu-aviaciey-i-raketami-po-primeru-sirii-video-165028.html.)

Now, Ukrainian commentator Vitaly Portnikov has offered a commentary on what that speech means, what it doesn’t, and why Ukrainians view it as an indication of Moscow’s real intentions toward their country (svoboda.org/a/28187680.html). Ukrainians read it this way because they can see what Moscow is doing despite all of Moscow’s declarations that “ ‘we aren’t there,’ that there is a civil conflict [between the Ukrainian authorities and the Donbas], and that to punish Russia which seeks exclusively for stabilization of the situation in a neighboring country is the most obvious cynicism of the West.”

Mr. Aleksandrov’s words do not permit an alternative interpretation as to what he would like to see happen in Ukraine: the bombing of Ukrainian cities, rocket attacks and the advance of “the Donbas Army” throughout the country, “cleansing the occupied territory and establishing order.”

“This really is the plan of the Syrian war,” Mr. Portnikov writes, “and this means that Kharkiv, Mariupil, Berdiansk and Melitopil will look like Aleppo, that out of the destroyed cities of the Ukrainian east hundreds of thousands will flee into nearby regions and countries, that the bodies of people… will rot in the streets, and that only ruins will remain.”

Were that to happen, then next door to Russia there would be a pile of ashes, he says, as anyone can conclude having glanced at pictures of Aleppo now or Grozny a decade or two ago. Of course, Mr. Aleksandrov’s speech is not necessarily an indication of what Vladimir Putin will do. The Kremlin leader “is carrying out against Ukraine ‘a hybrid war,’ occupying territory with the help of local collaborationists, imitating civic conflict and using force to destabilize a neighboring country in order to prevent it from carrying out an independent policy.”

“This too is a horrific war,” the commentator writes.

Europe seeks consolidation in the face of cyber and information threats by Russia

Europe’s supranational institutions and many individual EU member-states have come to recognize Russia’s offensive cyber operations as one of the most imminent direct threats posed to European security. On November 23, 2016, the European Parliament adopted a non-binding resolution aimed at consolidating the European countries in countering Russian propaganda and preventing cyber attacks. The resolution included strong language stressing that the European Parliament is “seriously concerned by the rapid expansion of Kremlin-inspired activities in Europe, including disinformation and propaganda seeking to maintain or increase Russia’s influence to weaken and split the EU.” The resolution stresses that Moscow has engaged and financed a number of subversive activities in Europe and warns that Russia’s aggressive activities in the cyber domain facilitate information warfare  (European Parliament, November 23). Moscow reacted furiously. The editor-in-chief of Russia Today, Margarita Simonian, condemned the declaration, accusing the European Union of “betraying its own democratic values and establishing obstacles to freedom of activities of key Russian international agencies.” The spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, stated: “We are sorry to admit it, but the EU has not ceased demonizing Russia.” She also warned that, should the European Parliament conduct any practical steps in this direction, the Russian Federation would provide an adequate and decisive response (1tv.ru, November 24).

No matter how much Trump may want to, he can’t ‘give’ Ukraine to Putin, expert says

“However much he may desire it, no Trump can give away Ukraine” to Russia because Vladimir Putin by his actions has alienated all Ukrainians and failed to provide a single compelling reason why they or anyone else should want to live under Kremlin rule, according to Andrey Piontkovsky. In a commentary on December 30, 2016, the Russian political expert suggests that many in Moscow think that the coming of Mr. Trump to office will represent a complete change in the situation, thus ignoring both the limits of any one leader to achieve that and the limits Russia has imposed on itself by its failures and its aggression (svoboda.org/a/28201258.html). Mr. Piontkovsky argues that Russians have suffered from this “pleasant delusion” since Mr. Trump won office on November 8 and that some of them have behaved the way Adolph Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels did when he learned on April 13, 1945, that Franklin D. Roosevelt had died. “The whole course of the war is changing,” he told Hitler in the bunker. Russian officials have some reason for maintaining their view of Mr. Trump, the commentator says.