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The Kremlin’s Social Media Influence inside the United States: A Moving Target is a report co-authored by Maria Snegovaya and Kohei Watanabe summarizing key insights of their analysis of social media behavior on Twitter during the 2020 US Presidential elections.
The study scopes out the Kremlin’s malign social media operations in the United States, their key purveyors, platforms and enablers. It analyzes how the Russian approach to conducting social media campaigns targeting domestic audiences in the US has evolved since 2016 and whether its efforts can be deemed successful or effective.
Snegovaya and Watanabe attempt to determine what demographic characteristics make specific members and segments of the US audience more susceptible to the Russian disinformation campaigns and how that impacts their voting behavior. The report articulates a list of policy recommendations for improving the US society’s resilience to the Russian malign influence campaigns.
On February 11, 2021, the DFR Lab at the Atlantic Council hosted a discussion of the report. You may view the recording of the event here: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/event/foreign-interference-us-politics-kremlin/
How the Kremlin Undermines Western Solidarity with the Russian Opposition Using the Left.
Imagine a scenario where two policemen catch a known rapist-killer. As they are about to handcuff him, he says: “I just saw a guy around the corner who jaywalked two days ago putting three cars at risk of crashing. Perhaps you could arrest him”. The policemen forget the task at hand and start discussing whether they should go after the jaywalker. As the discussion heats up, they forget about the rapist-killer, who simply walks away.
In political warfare, the trick used by the rapist-killer in this scenario is called “reflexive control”. It involves conveying particular information to an adversary in order to induce that adversary to voluntarily make a specific decision to their own detriment. Most often, reflexive control is about confusing an adversary, clouding his thinking and making a wrong decision.
The two policemen in our story lose track of a critical and time-sensitive priority—arresting and neutralizing a grave offender. Not veering off into a discussion about whether the jaywalker was real or imagined, whether he deserved to be arrested or not.
The current attacks against Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny alleging his nationalistic leanings bear all the traditional markings of a reflexive control operation initiated by the Kremlin. Their goal is to undermine the legitimacy of Navalny in the eyes of the West and paralyze action in his support.
I am unable to shake off a strong feeling of a déjà vu with tragic events that took place seven years ago. As the Kremlin unleashed its invasion of Ukraine, it has successfully crowded the Western media space with anti-Ukrainian narratives in order to undermine Western support for Ukraine. The leitmotif of this campaign portrayed the Maidan revolution as an ultranationalist putsch that resulted in the rise of an ultranationalist government.
In February-March 2014, as the Russian green men establish a blockade of Ukrainian military bases in Crimea and occupy administrative buildings; and as Russia annexes Crimea, in gross violation of a number of international treaties,—a significant bulk of the Western media discourse is evaluating whether the Maidan revolution was instigated by ultranationalists.
The Kremlin’s ultimate goal was not to convince the West that Kyiv was run by a fascist junta. Rather, it sought to distract Western attention from Moscow’s criminal actions and to shift the focus of Western decision-makers to an entirely different issue, whose importance and time-sensitivity was disproportionately low compared to the Kremlin’s gross violation of international norms and post-war order. Putin has successfully executed a reflexive control operation as part of a 4D approach to managing the aggression against Ukraine internationally: dismiss, distort, distract, dismay. Dismiss the fact of occupation of Crimea by Russian troops, distort the general picture of the situation in Ukraine with the use of disinformation, distract Western attention from the Kremlin’s activities by launching accusations elsewhere, and dismay Western audiences by scaring them with Russia’s unpredictable behaviour.
In the case of Alexey Navalny, the Kremlin’s method is similar.
Over the years, Navalny has published a series of shocking investigations into the mind-boggling corruption of Russian kleptocratic elites. The investigations were highly damaging to Putin’s reputation. Navalny continued his investigative work despite the intimidation by criminal cases fabricated by the Kremlin against him.
Switching its approach, the Kremlin decided to kill Navalny with a Novichok nerve agent, in violation of the national law, all democratic norms, and the international Chemical Weapons Convention.
Miraculously, Navalny survived the assassination attempt and returned home from Germany, where doctors treated him after the poisoning. Upon his arrival to Russia, he was immediately arrested and jailed.
The European Parliament has responded by adopting two resolutions related to Navalny, one strongly condemning his attempted assassination, the other calling for his immediate and unconditional release. In October 2020, while Navalny was still recovering from the poisoning in Germany, the EU introduced sanctions against top Russian officials and a number of entities involved in his assassination attempt.
Moscow’s 4D approach to eroding the European solidarity on the Navalny case has been the following: dismiss accusations of poisoning the leading opposition figure, distort the circumstances surrounding Navalny’s poisoning by suggesting multiple theories of his sickness, distract European attention from Navalny’s attempted assassination sanctioned by the Kremlin, and dismay European politicians by expelling diplomats for supporting the jailed opposition activist.
The “mechanics” of the “distract” element consist of a reflexive control operation involving three phases. First, the Kremlin conveys the narrative (“Navalny is a nationalist”) privately to its agents of influence and publicly via state-controlled media (such as RT) setting up the agenda. Second, Russian “leftists” reproduce the sanctioned narrative in Western national and international left-wing media. Third, the narrative “travels” to more moderate, centrist media space and becomes part of the mainstream discussion, which is Moscow’s main goal of the “distract” element. By “laundering” this reflexive control operation through Russian “leftists”, the Kremlin partially removes traces of its influence in “Navalny’s nationalism” debates among Western left-wing commentators and activists.
Unsurprisingly, Russian mediators between the Kremlin and the Western left feature the very same personalities who advanced Moscow’s anti-Ukrainian campaign.
One egregious specimen is Alexey Sakhnin, a member of the Russian organisation “Left Front”. Introduced to Western left-wing audiences as an opponent to Putin, Sakhnin has been continuously involved in the Kremlin’s information war against Ukraine since 2014, as well as in several operations aimed at smearing and discrediting European experts and politicians critical of Putin’s regime. While living “in exile” in Sweden in 2012-2019, Sakhnin was busy packing Sweden’s Left Party and Green Party with pro-Kremlin narratives packaged as genuine left-wing analysis of international relations. Upon his return to Russia, he became a regular commentator for the Russian once leading financial newspaper Vedomosti: shortly before Sakhnin started writing for it, Vedomosti had been sold to businessmen loyal to the Kremlin who needed new authors after the newspaper’s senior staff departed in protest to the loss of editorial independence. Today, as part of the Kremlin’s reflexive control operation against Navalny, Sakhnin is targeting left-wing circles not only in Sweden, but also in Norway and internationally. While it may be Sakhnin’s and other Russian “left-wing” contacts’ objective to convince Western left-wing activists and commentators of Navalny’s nationalist political sentiments, it is only an intermediate and not even necessary objective for the Kremlin. With its reflexive control operation against Navalny, Moscow’s ultimate goal is to elevate an irrelevant debate into prominence, undermine Western solidarity with the Russian opposition and let the murderous kleptocratic regime get away with the very real crimes infinitely worse than Navalny’s presumed nationalism.
Continued detention of Navalny is illegal and he must be freed immediately. Suppression of peaceful protests and mass arrests of Russian citizens must stop, and the Kremlin must release all those illegally detained and imprisoned on political motives. Free Russia Foundation calls on the international community, the US and European leadership, to move beyond expressions of concern and articulate a set of meaningful instruments to compel the Kremlin to stop its atrocities.
In this exclusive and groundbreaking report, Free Russia Foundation has translated and published five documents from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.
The documents, obtained and analyzed by Free Russia Foundation’s Director of Special Investigations Michael Weiss, details the GRU’s modern psychological warfare program and are dated from within the last decade. The documents include the memoir of a former colonel in the Soviet Unions’s Special Propaganda Directorate who explains how psychological and information operations were conducted at the tail-end of the Cold War, and then adapted for the post-Soviet era. The documents also include the organization of psychological warfare, down to the military unit, as well as the theory and practice of working over targets in the West.
We are deeply concerned with information recently distributed by the well-respected authoritative source Center “Dossier.” According to “Dossier,” the Kremlin is using Russian political expert Sergey Mikheev and consulting company “Politsecrets” to manipulate Georgian society, distribute disinformation and anti-democratic narratives, undermine Georgia’s Western aspirations, and interfere in free and fair elections in Georgia scheduled for October 2020.(more…)
Free Russia Foundation is gravely concerned about the life and safety of Alexey Navalny. (more…)
Free Russia Foundation stands in staunch solidarity with the People of Belarus. (more…)
On June 2, 2020, Free Russia Foundation hosted a congressional discussion on the Fate of Crimean Tatars in the Aftermath of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. (more…)
On Monday, April 20, 2020, numerous virtual protests took place throughout Russia, including several cities with populations of over a million of inhabitants.
The PR Campaign:
April 2020 has witnessed a conspicuous uptick of publications in Western and Russian media in support of the Nord Stream 2 project:
- Germans want closer contacts with their eastern neighbors – survey
- Great understanding of Corona travel restrictions
- Forsa survey: great understanding of travel restrictions due to Corona
- Support for Nord Stream 2 Pipeline Strengthens in Germany
- Germany stands for closer cooperation with Russia
- OST EUROPA In cooperation with the business magazine OstContact | 3/4 – 2020
Who Paid for the PR Campaign?
The poll was commissioned by the German Eastern Business Association (Ostausschuss – Osteuropaverein der Deutschen Wirtschaft, OAOEV)
OAOEV is a fairly new NGO that promotes German business in “Eastern” countries – from Russian to China. It was founded in 2018 through the partnership of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations (Eastern Committee) and the Eastern Europe Business Association of Germany.
In December 2019, several OAOEV members met with Vladimir Putin. Following the meeting, OAOEV published a press release.
The press contact for the Nord Strom 2 Survey listed on the OAOEV website is Andreas Metz. Metz is described by Politico Europe as “member of Berlin-based lobbying group Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, which supports the pipeline Nord Stream 2.”
This OAOEV survey coincided with the November 1, 2019 appointment of Mario Mehren as the new spokesperson of its Russia working group. Mehren is a member of the shareholders committee of Nord Stream 2.
Mr. Mehren is also the Chairman and CEO of the natural gas and crude oil company Wintershall Dea – one of the two German companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 project (the second is E.On). It is a joint venture of a German concern BASF (67%) and LetterOne (33%) co-owned by Russian oligarchs with strong ties to the Kremlin, – Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan.
There is overwhelming evidence suggesting that these oligarchs have close ties with the Putin’s regime and its intelligence services.
Wintershall Dea owns stakes of gas reserves in Russia and chemical factories in Germany that rely on the export of that gas.
In this role as the head of Wintershall Dea, Mario Mehren met with the CEO of Gazprom Alexei Miller numerous times:
- Gazprom and Wintershall Dea discuss current issues of cooperation
- Gazprom and BASF Discuss Cooperation On gas Production and Nord Stream 2 project
- Gazprom supplies to Germany climb 20.4pct in October 2016
Mr. Mehren has been on the record lobbying for Nord Stream 2 for a few years now. For example, he is a co-author of a 2018 disinformation piece about Nord Stream 2 in a US outlet.
Given the above connections of the oligarchs to the Kremlin and conflicted interests of the Wintershall Dea shareholders and top leadership, it is reasonable not to be believe in the independent nature or objectivity of this research poll.
Who Executed the Polls?
The Nord Stream 2 survey was executed by an infamous commercial polling agency Forsa Politik- und Sozialforschung AG, which had been accused of data manipulations in several of its past projects. In 2009, for example, the firm was involved in a scandal concerning a methodologically flawed survey whose cooked results claimed disapproval of the 2007 railroad operators’ strike and approval of privatization of the railway. It was uncovered that the biased study had been secretly funded by Deutsche Bahn.
Forsa’s Nord Stream 2 poll is based on a phone interview of 1,006 Germans and purports them to reflect the attitudes of the entire German population.
While neither the full Nord Stream 2 survey data nor its methodology have been made public, the Wintershall Dea website features the most extensive write-up of the Forsa Nord Stream 2 survey.
The Wintershall Dea website highlights the interpretation of data according to which the majority of German people do not see the U.S. as a reliable partner and juxtapose it to Putin’s Russia. Its title is “Forsa: less and less confidence in the U.S.”
The survey’s other published findings also reinforce the anti-US and pro-Russian narrative through claims such as:
- Only 10% of Germans regard the United States as a reliable energy supplier. That puts the U.S. behind the Middle East (with 14% of German citizens having confidence in the Middle East as a reliable energy supplier);
- Over half (55%) of German citizens want closer economic ties with Russia;
- More than three quarters (77%) of respondents say that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline construction should continue despite US opposition.
What Are the Prospects for Nord Stream 2?
With just a hundred miles of seabed pipeline construction remaining, the work on the Nord Stream 2 project was abruptly halted by US sanctions introduced in December 2019. The sanctions threaten to blacklist any foreign companies collaborating on the construction of the pipeline. This caused all foreign partners to pull-out from the construction and left Russia with no foreign vessels willing to complete the pipe-laying, according to analysis by Benjamin L. Schmitt published by the Jamestown Foundation.
Neither the sanctions, the Coronavirus Pandemic nor the perturbations on the global energy market seem to have any affect, as Putin vowed to finish the pipeline no later than the first quarter of 2021. Such a timeline, however, seems overly optimistic, for two reasons.
Firstly, Russia needs to receive a permit from Denmark to deploy in its territorial waters. Such a permit (given Denmark’s appreciation for the true nature and purpose of Nord Stream 2) is far from certain, and even if granted, may be issued with a significant delay. The Danish Energy Agency (DEA) had spent two and a half years evaluating Gazprom proposals before finally granting permission to build the pipeline in its waters in October 2019.
In February 2020, the Danish Energy Agency said it began negotiations with Nord Stream 2 AG regarding the unfinished Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but the involvement of any specific new vessels has not yet been discussed.
Secondly, Russia currently has no vessels equipped to carry on the construction. According to a European energy expert and Jamestown Foundation Senior Fellow Margarita Assenova, Russia has two ships it may potentially use to complete the project: Akademik Chersky and Fortuna.
Akademik Chersky, a vessel owned by a Moscow-based construction firm with a loan from Gazprombank, set sail from Russia’s Far East toward the Suez Port in Egypt in March 2020 and after several peculiar route diversions headed to Las Palmas in early April. It possesses dynamic positioning stipulated by Danish authorities. Chersky, however, requires a technology upgrade to be able to lay pipes. An upgrade can potentially be performed in two to three months. It would then take additional time for Akademik Chersky to reach the Baltic, said Assenova.
Fortuna, located in the Baltic Sea, does not have dynamic positioning. As explained by a CEPA report, “dynamic positioning is a computer-controlled system that automatically maintains the vessel’s position and heading, without the need to use anchors to maintain its course in deep waters. Avoiding anchors in the Baltic Sea is a key environmental and security requirement of Danish authorities for drilling platforms, research ships, and cable-laying and pipe-laying vessels.” Gazprom has floated an idea of attaching a tugboat with dynamic positioning to Fortuna, as reported in the Russian media.
Even if either of these schemes is successful, the vessels would still have to be insured, and its insurers would fall under the US sanctions. Russia has been developing its own instruments for insuring vessels under the new sanctions regime, according to Mikhail Korchemkin from East European Gas Analysis group.
What are the Objectives of this PR Campaign?
With its publicity campaign, Wintershall Dea has attempted to improve the political and social dynamics in Europe to facilitate the quickest completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline so badly wanted by the Kremlin.
While revenues from gas exports are not essential for the Russian federal budget, the sector has become the primary instrument of expropriating state resources and channeling them into the accounts of Putin’s’ cronies. As such it is one of the key factors to the ability of Putin to remain in power.
Putin’s regime simply cannot afford to lose its market share to a highly competitive US LNG. Gas price manipulation has proved an effective strategy for Gazprom in the past decade. By completing Nord Stream 2, Gazprom is hoping to brainwash European consumers in its ability to sustain high volumes of affordable gas supply for the long term while in reality Russian gas has always come with the political strings attached, bringing corruption and subversion of democratic institutions.
With this PR campaign, the Kremlin attempts to shift the focus away from its track-record of price manipulation and to the commercial aspects of this partnership with the EU, as well as convince the society that the Nord Stream 2 is a purely commercial project and not a political weapon of the Kremlin.
At the present time, the political life of Russia’s regions is all but destroyed. There are no organizational or financial resources for it and such a state of affairs is the result of a deliberate strategy to destroy democracy in Russia which has been implemented throughout the last 20 years.
Despite the fact that various regions of Russia have their own nuances and special features, on the whole, the situation is the same everywhere: the head of the region and the heads of the major municipalities are approved, and de facto appointed by the presidential administration, and all the rest of the regional leadership is appointed and approved by the governor. Those who disagree with this state of affairs are forced out of official politics.
On the whole, it should be acknowledged that after the presidential elections of 2018, political life in the regions was completely sterilized; so in that sense, there is only a point in discussing the reasons which led to this state of affairs and to think about the prospects for Russia to get back on track to democracy and federalism. Obviously, without radical changes in the leadership of Russia, the situation will not change, and as long as the laws, and most importantly, the president of Russia remains unchanged, any sort of revival of regional politics cannot be expected.
Democracy and Federalism in Russia
Democracy and federalism in Russia turned out to be powerless before the onslaught of autocracy in the early 2000s, because they had no real support either in the government itself or among citizens – and such a state of affairs had been programmed by the creators of the political system of Yeltsin’s Russia.
Even those government agencies which were formed directly by citizens had no real autonomy from the higher levels of government, primarily at the federal level, because the president was able to rid himself of inconvenient regional leaders and the regional leaders were able to oppress the municipalities. Naturally, in such circumstances the level of citizens’ trust in municipal and regional government was rather low, so the Kremlin was not afraid that some mayor or governor would be bold enough to argue with it, that they relied on the real support of the people, rather than on fixed elections. The local elites wasted so much effort on fighting among themselves that they were gladly ready to agree to the federal center’s terms, just to get rid of their rivals. In the end, a tactical alliance with the federal center became a trap; once they fell into it, local elites lost their political agency. This is what Putin exploited when he set about sterilizing regional politics completely.
The current state of affairs and its incorporation into the renewed text of the Russian constitution is the result of a constant and consistent attack on democracy and federalism. This has been under way for the entire 20 years of Putin’s rule, but as has been noted, it began much earlier. Essentially, the system created by Yeltsin in 1993-1996 had to guarantee the president that even if he had a minority in parliament and his personal rating was low, and if members of the opposition come to power in a number of regions and major cities, he could still remain in power and successfully block all the efforts of his critics.
Precisely within the framework of this concept, the prospects for local and regional self-government were in fact destroyed. Since all real powers were concentrated in the president, and all the other branches of government (parliament, the courts, the regions, and local self-government) were intentionally weakened, the deliberate course of the new President Putin enabled him to destroy both federalism and democracy in several years, without encountering any real resistance.
The Attack on Self-Government
Thus, as has already been said, the constitution of 1993 was written not so much to create a firm foundation for democracy and federalism in Russia, but rather to serve the interests of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Its authors were motivated by fear of a communist revanche, which they expected “from below.”
Obviously, local elites fully shared that fear of Yeltsin’s entourage, or rather exploited it for solving their own tactical problems. The presence in Russia in the 1990s of the so-called “red belt,” that is, the regions where the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) traditionally garnered many votes, forced the Yeltsin team to search for any allies for themselves who were prepared not to allow a victory of the CPRF and in exchange for that, forgive them any abuses.
Thus, emerged the phenomenon of “electoral reservoirs,” that is, regions guaranteed to show a high turn-out at all elections with high indicators for the party of power and its candidates. Essentially, a number of local leaders simply changed their loyalty for financial bonuses and impunity. This is exactly what defined the nature of interrelations between the federal center and the regions. Therefore, when Putin took the line of restricting the real powers of local bodies of government, the elites of the regions were already rather isolated from the citizens and did not have high authority among them which would have enabled them to rely on the support of voters in opposition to the Kremlin’s policy – if they even had such a wish at all.
Nevertheless, under Yeltsin, political life in the regions was preserved – among other reasons because the Kremlin played on the contradictions of the local elites, in each case wishing to find a counterweight to an ambitious governor through the head of a regional center or in some other way. Taking into account that Yeltsin’s ratings were extremely low all through the second half of the 1990s, the Kremlin was forced to reconcile itself to a certain level of political freedom in the regions, in the wealthiest of which quite interesting political systems had been formed and operated relatively successfully. For example, in Sverdlovsk Region there was a bicameral regional parliament where the upper house was elected every two years through elections in the districts, and the lower house by party lists; in fact the main fight was usually among the regional parties, whereas the federal party did not have significant influence. But all of this was possible because Sverdlovsk Region was relatively wealthy, which enabled numerous regional industrial groups to exist, which were interested in political representation among other things.
This is why we must not forget that Alexei Kudrin’s tax reform finally put to death the prospects for political life in the regions, the result of which led to the total financial dependency of the regions on the center and made struggling for power in their regions pointless; if the center distributes cash and everything comes from the center, then it is quite logical that a person appointed from the center is at the head of the region.
The local elites accepted the rules of the game and instead of resistance to the changing viceroys, tried to cooperate with each new governor because any other strategy is fraught with serious problems and losses.
We cannot overlook the quality of the local elites as well; in the absolute majority of cases, already by the mid-1990s, power in the regions had wound up in the hands of the Soviet nomenklatura. On the one hand, it preferred the administrative-command methods of leadership and leaned toward the necessity of taking part in honest and competitive elections, but that is why it was prepared to obtain powers from the leadership and not the public. On the other hand, it turned out to be involved in corrupt schemes which enabled the federal government to control any local leader by the kompromat [compromising material] compiled on him. In many cases, it was these people who kept power in their hands all through the 1990s and 2000s, until the Putin administration gradually, but methodically, got rid of them.
The situation in Sverdlovsk Region was illustrative, where Arkady Chernetsky, mayor of the regional center, remained in his post from 1992-2010, but Eduard Rossel, governor of Sverdlovsk Region, had in one way or another headed the region from 1991-2009 (with a break from 1993-1995). Both of them came out of the Soviet nomenklatura, and despite the undoubted political talents and readiness for participation in competitive politics, both were drawn to authoritarian methods and were not ashamed of using manipulative techniques in the elections.
All the years they were in their posts, these politicians and their teams waged an unceasing war, but in the end both of them gave up their power, not by losing elections, but by subordinating themselves to order. Now both of these rivals represent Sverdlovsk Region in the Federation Council without any real weight in regional politics.
It is noteworthy that even after the departure of Chernetsky from the post of head of Ekaterinburg, his team resisted pressure from the regional government for several years, which created a certain space of political struggle and even enabled the non-system politician Evgeny Royzman to win the elections to head of Ekaterinburg (by that time, this position had already become symbolic). But this resistance had purely economic reasons and in no way presupposed criticism of the federal government and its policy. On the eve of the 2018 presidential elections, the city team finally capitulated, and with that, politics in the region ended. In May 2018, Evgeny Royzman was forced to give up his powers as head of Ekaterinburg prematurely, and the city charter no longer stipulated new direct elections. Despite the specific nature of the situation in Ekaterinburg and Sverdlovsk Region, in the end even there, the Kremlin achieved its aims – as in all other regions of Russia, rich and poor, national republics and ordinary regions and territories.
What Is to Be Done?
What can and should be done, so that democracy is returned to Russia and cannot be so simply overthrown? As was said at the very outset, without changes at the federal level, we should not expect a flourishing of politics in the regions. But it is important not to repeat the mistakes of the past and not create the prerequisites so that democracy and federalism in Russia could be overthrown some time again.
First, it is necessary to have the constitutional transfer of the maximum number of political, legal, and financial powers to the level of local self-government. Even the regional level of government must be not be as influential as the municipalities. Essentially, the regional administrations must be involved only in the creation and maintenance of the general infrastructure and coordination of the efforts of local communities. It is much harder to take control of thousands of municipalities with great powers, elected by direct elections, than several dozen regional governments. This is exactly why the municipalities must become the foundation of democracy and the guarantor of the separation of powers in Russia, or otherwise everything will rapidly return to the current state of affairs.
Secondly, the restrictions on the creation of regional parties must be removed. Taking into account the dimensions of Russia, it is more logical to prohibit federal parties as such, motivating regional parties to form blocs at the federal level around common program lines and interests. Federal politics must be made in the regions and municipalities and not the opposite.
Third, the incorporation of a parliamentary system of governance at all levels of government – from the federal to the municipal – seems correct, that is, in both the regions and in the major cities, executive power must be in the hands of the head of government elected by the parliament. This will enable the destruction of the prerequisites for a revanche of Putinism several years after the departure of Vladimir Putin from politics, because it will destroy even the theoretical possibility of subordinating one level of government to another through personal agreements or blackmail. On the whole, all of Russia’s history teaches us that any opportunity to concentrate power in the hands of one person rather quickly leads to authoritarianism and a lack of change in government – and not only at the level of the head of state.
Fourth, any attempts to return Russia to the path of democracy and federalism are unthinkable without lustration not only at the federal but also at the regional and even municipal level. The main reason why the democratic endeavors of the 1990s were so easily overthrown was the fact that in the early 1990s, real power in Russia was left in the hands of descendants of the Soviet nomenklatura. Taking into account by whom and how the regional and municipal bodies of governments were formed in recent years, keeping these people in politics will inevitably lead to a revanche in a very short time. There are quite enough new people for politics at all levels in Russia, but for them to get involved and not lose at the very first elections to the re-painted Putin nomenklatura, the latter must be lawfully excluded from the process. Otherwise, everything will come full circle in this new, reimagined future.
Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Pro-democracy Russians appeal to the world leaders and international community to condemn Kremlin’s repressions and the recent attack on civil liberties. (more…)
This publication is the product of an initial effort undertaken by Free Russia Foundation in 2018 to stimulate public discussion of Russian scenarios, mitigate the likelihood of a bad surprise or missed opportunities, and support the country’s transition to a more positive future. (more…)
On November 25, the Ukrainian ships “Berdyansk,” “Nikopol” and “Yany Kapu,” en route from Odessa to Mariupol through the Kerch Strait, were detained by officers of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. During the detention, Russian border guards used life-threatening violence. As a result, the coast guard boat of the Russian Federation rammed a Ukrainian tug. According to the Ukrainian Navy, six Ukrainian seamen were wounded, all three Ukrainian vessels were seized together with a crew of 23 people and taken to the port of Kerch, located on the territory of the occupied Crimea on the Crimean Peninsula. Later, a Spokesman for the President of the Russian Federation announced the opening of criminal proceedings against detained sailors on charges of illegally crossing the border.
This incident became a turning point in the Azov conflict, which has been mounting over the past few months between the two countries. After the opening of the Kerch bridge, which established the road transport connection between Russia and the occupied Crimea, the Russian side strengthened its military presence in the waters of the Sea of Azov and complicated the passage of Ukrainian ships, despite the existing international treaties ensuring unhindered access of the two countries to their ports. Arbitrary detentions of Ukrainian ships, as well as the emergence of new military equipment, were regarded by many Ukrainian and international experts as a deliberate escalation of the conflict, culminating in the events of November 25.
It is important to note that the collision in the waters of the Azov Sea was the first case of open aggression of Russia against Ukraine. Despite the fact that the armed conflict between the parties began in 2014 with the illegal annexation of Crimea, and then developed in the form of military actions in the territory of Donbass, earlier Russia did not commit acts of military aggression against Ukraine under its own flag.
Andreas Umland, a German political analyst, an expert of the Euro-Atlantic Cooperation Institute specializing in Russian ultra-nationalism and authoritarianism identifies three possible reasons why such an escalation could occur right now. The first and most common version is a decrease in Putin’s rating and the need to divert attention from socio-economic problems with yet another demonstration of power. The second possible reason is the probability of the existence of the project on turning the Sea of Azov into the inner Russian sea and the desire to negatively affect the Ukrainian economy by the blockade of ports in Berdyansk and Mariupol. And the third possible reason concerns the news that the construction of the brand-new Kerch Bridge is allegedly shifted. Accordingly, a new attack could have been undertaken in order to divert attention from the news damaging the reputation of the Russian authorities.
Mikhail Gonchar, director of the Centre for Global Studies “Strategy XXI”, adds that the situation should be looked at much wider than just the conflict between the two neighboring countries. Russia claims the leading world position and in every way demonstrates to the west its strength, checking the limits of what is permitted. In addition to the Ukraine and Syria cases, as well as the case of Skripals, Mikhail also cites a recent example of failures in the GPS navigation system in Norway and Finland, which resulted in that the Norwegian frigate rammed the Finnish tanker during NATO exercises in Norway. According to the Presidents of both countries, the reason was the deliberate creation of GPS-interference from the Russian side. Mikhail Gonchar claims that Ukraine in this chain of events is just an element of a more global policy of Russia’s aggression against the West.
Further Russia goes, the more cynically and shamelessly it lies. Despite the open attack on the sea vessels of Ukraine, the ram of one of them, the opening of fire against members of the Ukrainian vessels crews, and the detention of these crews, Russia accused Ukraine of provocation and violation of the state borders of the Russian Federation and initiated an emergency session of the UN Security Council, which indeed took place on November 26. However, the members of the UN Security Council rejected the wording proposed by Russia and the session was held in accordance with the agenda proposed by the Ambassador of Ukraine to the UN.
The member states of the UN Security Council expressed their deepest concern about the events and called on Russia to immediately release the detained Ukrainian sailors and return the vessels to Ukraine. The NATO Secretary General, as well as the President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, expressed their full support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. The International Monetary Fund, in turn, said that it would not stop cooperating with Ukraine even if martial law was introduced.
There is no doubt that the actions of Russia fall under the definition of aggression, stipulated in Art. 3 of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3314 (XXIX) adopted on December 14, 1974 (paragraphs “a” “c” and “d”).
By its actions, the Russian side violated the basic principles of the United Nations concerning the non-use of force or the threat of force in international relations. The provisions of Section 2 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, as well as Art. 2 of the Treaty between Russia and Ukraine on cooperation in the use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait in 2003 were also violated.
However, since the Russian Federation is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and has the right to veto its decisions, bringing Russia to justice becomes a rather difficult task. Nonetheless, other UN member states have the legal tools for a peaceful resolution of the current situation in the framework of existing international law. However, this would require extraordinary efforts and the development of new approaches that have not yet been applied in international practice. It is entirely possible, under rule 9, to convene an emergency session of the UN General Assembly. In that case, if the GA recognizes the fact of a material violation of the basic UN principles and the fact that Russia is a party to the conflict, then guided by paragraph 3 of Art. 27 of the UN Charter and the principle “in propria causa nemo judex” the Russian side would be obliged to abstain from voting in the Security Council on the issue of resolving this dispute.
It is worth noting that according to the definition of the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 23 detained Ukrainian sailors fall under the status of prisoners of war and should be subject to the rule that “no physical or moral torture or any other coercive measures” can be applied to them. At the same time, at the moment the detainees are in the status of suspects who have allegedly committed a criminal offense and, most likely, are subjected to cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment.
Even though there are still unused international legal means in the arsenal of Ukraine, many experts question their effectiveness in comparison with economic tools. Mikhail Gonchar believes that the so-called collective West has to take decisive consolidated actions necessary in order to break the chain of illegal actions of Russia both in regard to Ukraine and in relation to the entire Western world. Both Gonchar and Umland see the most realistic response to the current situation in the suspension of the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline being built from Russia to Germany, as well as the second thread of the Turkish Stream.
As for the actions of Ukraine itself, in addition to international legal instruments, it has taken unprecedented measures to ensure internal security. On November 25, 2018, the President of Ukraine convened the National Security and Defense Council, which took the initiative of imposing martial law throughout Ukraine. On November 26, a presidential decree on imposing martial law was approved by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine.
On November 25, 2018, the President of Ukraine convened the National Security and Defense Council, which took the initiative of imposing martial law throughout Ukraine. For the presidential decree on the introduction of martial law to enter into force, its approval by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine is necessary.
The legal framework of the martial law is settled by International Humanitarian Law and the Law of Ukraine On the Legal Regime of Martial Law.
Martial law implies a significant expansion of the powers of state bodies, simultaneously with a significant restriction of civil rights. The restriction of the rights of persons present on the territory of Ukraine may concern almost all spheres of public life (property rights, freedom of movement, political rights, etc.). However, the text of the presidential decree introduces only a small part of the measures on martial law, whether this list will expand we will see in the future. The validity of such emergency measures throughout the territory raises serious doubts.
Special attention should be paid to the clause on a direct prohibition of elections for the period of martial law, which, given the first version of the presidential decree, meant that presidential elections already scheduled for March 31, 2019 could be delayed by at least one month. However, after a decisive protest of the deputies of the Verkhovna Rada, Petro Poroshenko changed his decision and shortened the period of martial law to one month, as well as narrowed the geography of its application to several regions.
Thus, the decree approved by the Verkhovna Rada introduces martial law in 10 regions of Ukraine from 9:00 on November 28, 2018 for 30 days to 9:00 on December 27, 2018 (the final version of the document as of November 27, 2018 has not yet been published). The President also instructed the Administration of the State Border Service of Ukraine to strengthen the protection of the state border with the Russian Federation and the administrative border with the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and the Security Service of Ukraine to take measures to strengthen the counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism and counter-sabotage regime. The essence and limits of these measures are not yet clear; it is the responsibility of the authorities to determine this. Apart from that, the Decree contains a secret part (paragraph 12) closed for the public.
As of November 27, 2108, there were no additional restrictions imposed on persons present on the territory of Ukraine regarding their movement and stay inside the country, as well as the border crossing regime. The administration of the Boryspil airport has officially stated that the adoption of martial law will not affect the mobility of the population, and the airport will operate in a normal regime.