Johnson's Russia List
2 January 2016
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"We don't see things as they are, but as we are"

"Don't believe everything you think"

You see what you expect to see

DJ: Should the last issue of JRL, "The Best of 2015," be made available to a broader audience? 

In this issue
December 31, 2015
New Year Address to the Nation

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Citizens of Russia, friends,

In a few moments, we will see in the New Year of 2016. The sensation of this wonderful moment between the past and the future is familiar since childhood. We look forward to it with joy, hope and excitement, believing in the best.

Traditionally, we celebrate it with our families, with all our near and dear ones. Of course, not all manage to see the New Year in with their families.

People have to work at hospitals and production facilities, perform their service and combat duty, defend our borders, and be on regular duty ensuring our security on land, at sea and in the sky.

We are grateful to all those who are always on their post, day and night, weekdays and holidays. Today, I would like to extend special greetings to those of our service members who are fighting international terrorism, defending Russia's national interests at distant frontiers, showing their willpower, determination and staunchness. Though, these are the qualities we need all the time, whatever we are doing.

The success of the entire nation depends on the efficient labour and achievements of each one of us. We are united by the same goals, by our common desire to benefit our Motherland and by our sense of responsibility for its future.

In the outgoing year of 2015, we marked the 70th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War. Our history, the experience of our parents and grandparents, their unity in times of trouble and their willpower shall always serve as an example for us. They have helped and will help us to meet all current challenges with dignity.


On this New Year's night, we feel especially strongly just how much our near and dear ones mean to us. It is so important for all to be healthy and everything to be fine. For our parents to be surrounded by love and care, so that all the good things they have ever taught us come back to them.

Let our children grow smart and active, while love and responsiveness, kind-heartedness and compassion support us in our everyday chores.

There are a few seconds left before the New Year. Let us wish each other success and happiness.

Let us thank each other for understanding and support, for sympathy and responsiveness we give each other.

And let us raise a toast to the prosperity and wellbeing of Russia!

Happy New year to you! Happy 2016!

December 30, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a New Year's message to U.S. President Barack Obama, has called for cooperation between their countries to respond to international challenges.

Ties between Moscow and Washington reached a post-Cold War low when Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and threw its support behind separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. The U.S. and other nations responded with economic sanctions against Russian officials, state-owned companies and entire sections of the economy.

The Kremlin on Wednesday quoted Putin's New Year's greetings to Obama as saying the "relations between Russia and the United States are crucial to ensuring global security."

Putin was also quoted as saying that both countries would "successfully take on new challenges and threats" across the world if they were to engage in a "constructive dialogue."
December 31, 2015
Medvedev: New year to bring bright events, new accomplishments

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev addressed all Russians, wishing them a happy New Year and expressing confidence that the next year will bring bright events and new accomplishments.

"Dear friends! From the bottom of my heart, I wish you a happy New Year. This holiday is filled with special atmosphere, pleasant engagements and joyful surprises. On this day we try to have all our business finished, forget about problems and together with our family and friends make most desirable wishes to the chime of the Kremlin bells, opening the door to some bright events and new successes, which all of us will surely have in the next year 2016," his greeting message published in the Russian government's website on Dec. 31 said.

"Good health to you and your loved ones! May everything go well," Medvedev wrote.
December 31, 2015
By Paul Robinson
University of Ottawa

In Western countries the end of the Cold War led to a huge decline in interest in Russia. Russian studies departments at universities shut down in droves. Fewer and fewer people studied Russia's history, language, and politics. In the years since, Russia has repeatedly surprised the West, most specifically in the past two years by annexing Crimea and intervening militarily in Syria, but more generally by not putting good relations with the Western world at the top of its priorities. Flabbergasted by what is seen as Russian 'unpredictability', 'aggression', and 'authoritarianism', some people are beginning to think that perhaps cutting back on Russian studies wasn't such a good idea.

In February 2015, the European Union Committee of the British House of Lords asserted that the UK had badly misread Russian intentions, and 'blamed Foreign Office cuts, which it said led to fewer Russian experts working there.' A few days later, the UK's House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee also 'concluded a lack of Russian speakers in the Foreign Office left Britain's diplomats ill-equipped to anticipate the events in Ukraine.' And yesterday (30 December), the Washington Post reported that in the United States:

"Experts, lawmakers and former administration officials describe a national security apparatus that, once teeming with experienced Russia specialists, including at the highest levels of decision-making, now relies on [a] looser regime of more junior experts who lack the reach to directly influence policy. The result, they say, is a series of missed opportunities to anticipate Moscow's recent moves in areas such as Ukraine and Syria, even when clues were readily available. ... experts point to a lack of funds for foreign language instruction at universities, a reduction in funding for cultural exchange programs with former Soviet states and the recent evisceration of a grant program for advanced research on Russia and its neighbors as signs of why the government is having trouble developing a corps of Russia specialists."

One can easily understand why people might think that the lack of understanding of Russia stems from a penury of Russian 'experts', and that investing more resources into Russian studies might solve the problem. Yet there is, in fact, no shortage of 'experts' currently carrying out analysis of Russian affairs. In the past year, I have drawn readers' attention to a considerable number of books, articles, reports, and speeches about Russia. I have reviewed books by Garry Kasparov, Marvin Kalb, Walter Laqueur, Oleg Khlevniuk, Richard Sakwa, and Peter Pomerantsev; looked at reports and articles produced by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and prominent think tanks like the International Institute for Strategic Studies; and examined articles in both academic and non-academic journals, such as Foreign Policy and Slavic Review. The problem is not one of quantity. It is one of quality. Although once in a while I have found something to praise - such as Richard Sakwa's book Frontline Ukraine - a lot of the time it has been my opinion that what I have read is of very low quality.

There are, of course, many scholars doing excellent research on various aspects of Russian history, politics, and philosophy, but relatively little of this research reaches the general public. In mass media and think tanks, the past 12 months have seen much more bad analysis than good. Since starting this blog, I have concentrated on critiquing the former rather than praising the latter. In the year to come, I will try to change tack a bit, and seek out more of the better stuff as well.

Happy New Year!
Washington Post
December 30, 2015
Lack of Russia experts has some in U.S. worried
By Karoun Demirjian
Karoun Demirjian covers defense and foreign policy and was previously a correspondent based in the Post's bureau in Moscow, Russia. Before that, she reported for the Las Vegas Sun as its Washington Correspondent, the Associated Press in Jerusalem, the Chicago Tribune, Congressional Quarterly, and worked at NPR.

While the international war against the Islamic State and a multilateral nuclear deal with Iran underscore Russia's growing influence in major foreign policy challenges around the world, there are growing concerns that Washington's lack of understanding of its one-time chief adversary is proving to be a critical national security risk.

Top intelligence and national security officials - including the top general of NATO - have warned that the United States' depth of knowledge and capacity for collecting information on Russia is not up to snuff, given the stakes of the conflicts at hand and the threat an unpredictable Kremlin poses to U.S. interests.

Experts, lawmakers and former administration officials describe a national security apparatus that, once teeming with experienced Russia specialists, including at the highest levels of decision-making, now relies on looser regime of more junior experts who lack the reach to directly influence policy. The result, they say, is a series of missed opportunities to anticipate Moscow's recent moves in areas such as Ukraine and Syria, even when clues were readily available.

"We've been surprised at every turn," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.). "We were surprised when they went into Crimea, we were surprised when they went into Syria."

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said there has been some "atrophy" in the government's Russia expertise since the Cold War, a trend that needs to be reversed.

"We've gotta double down on re-looking at Russia," he said.

Over the last several months, military and intelligence officials have repeatedly pointed to Russia as posing a potential existential threat to the United States, but the amount of resources dedicated to the expertise needed to gain a better understanding of Moscow and its plans does not reflect that reality.

"After Sept. 11 there was a focus, rightly, on trying to increase focus on the Middle East and it's had consequences," said Michael McFaul, the previous ambassador to Russia and a former senior adviser to President Obama on Russian and Eurasian affairs. Compared to 15 years ago, he noted, the government's bench of experts and the quality of Eurasia analysis is "shallower."

"Trying to figure out decision-making in Russia on foreign policy requires a great deal of qualitative depth... and that requires new investment and knowledge," McFaul continued. "We're going to disagree with the Kremlin and with the Russians on certain issues over time, but what we can't have is disagreements based on misperception and bad information."

It is difficult to quantify the exact abatement in Russia expertise since the end of the Cold War, as the knowledge of individuals occupying certain key positions varies and line-items in the budget often apply to a broader range of activities rather than a single country.

But there are noteworthy examples of how the federal impetus to create and sustain a highly-capable, Russia-focused workforce has fallen away.

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of troops and support personnel stationed in Europe, who were tasked with understanding and responding to threats emanating from Moscow.

On the home front, experts point to a lack of funds for foreign language instruction at universities, a reduction in funding for cultural exchange programs with former Soviet states and the recent evisceration of a grant program for advanced research on Russia and its neighbors as signs of why the government is having trouble developing a corps of Russia specialists.

Experts also note that except for a few figures - such as Celeste Wallander, senior director for Russia and Eurasia on the National Security Council and Victoria Nuland, assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs - it is difficult to find senior government officials grappling with Russia who intimately understand the country and its leaders.

"When senior administration officials go up to the Hill, it's presumed they have expertise. The dirty secret is that our capability is terrible, it stinks," said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center. He said he has conducted Belarus briefings where "nobody in the room has gone to Belarus" and noted there are parts of NATO in which "we don't have anyone who can read the Russian press."

"Almost any metric we might choose to assess capacity, we just don't have it: it's weak, and it's spotty," Rojansky said.

Some lawmakers excuse such attrition as normal in a government of limited resources and argue that gathering intelligence and an understanding of what the Kremlin is up to has never been easy.

"When Russia was less of a threat, they were less of an intelligence priority and that's really as it should be," said House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). While changes are "certainly necessary," he added, expecting expert intelligence on Russia overnight is foolhardy.

"Russia's a very hard target in just about every way: they're sophisticated electronically, they have good operational security and the decision-makers in this very authoritarian regime are a very small circle [around Putin]," Schiff said. "It makes predicting difficult."

But that rationale doesn't sit well with experts outside government.

"That's actually jut a way of saying because he hasn't told us his strategy, we can't figure it out - when it takes some time and effort, and some expertise," said Fiona Hill, director of the Brookings Institution's Center on the United States and Europe and a former intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council.

When NATO officials in Brussels can see Russia moving military equipment toward Syria, but can't properly predict an impending offensive, she reasoned, the problem isn't so much intelligence-gathering as having the frame of reference to understand the intelligence you have.

"Why are we constantly surprised? They do all these things, and sometimes they do signal quite clearly, but we missed a lot," said Hill.

Yet grasping that elusive understanding of Putin's Russia is no easy task. An ongoing diplomatic and sanctions standoff between the United States and Russia has already winnowed opportunities for educational and business exchanges, while Russian laws against "foreign agents" and "undesirable organizations" have made the business of getting Americans time in the country more complicated.

And with little funding available for new Russia positions at think tanks and universities, the pull toward a career in Russian studies is weak. While the recent Eurasian crises have sparked a slight uptick in Russian language enrollment, it is coming only after a significant decline. Enrollments in Russian courses plummeted as a percentage of students taking foreign languages between 1960 and 2013, only German suffered a greater drop in interest, according to a study published earlier this year by the Modern Language Association of America.

As a result, experts say, it's inevitable that until the country can make up for lost time and build back up a corps of Russia experts, the United States is going to be at a strategic disadvantage.

"The mistake that was made 20 years ago was assuming Russia's a weak power, a declining power," McFaul said. "Whether they're a great power or a middling power, we can argue about. But they are a major power, in the top 5 or 10 economies in the world, a top nuclear country in the world and now, given the investment Putin's made in the military, they're one of the major military powers in the world. Those trends are not changing in the next 20 or 30 years."
Washington Post
December 30, 2015
Abbott Gleason, scholar of Russian history and culture, dies at 77
By Emily Langer
Abbott Gleason, a scholar of Russian history and culture whose works helped illuminate the Soviet Union during and beyond the Cold War era, died Dec. 25 at a nursing home in East Providence, R.I. He was 77.

The cause was complications from Parkinson's disease, his wife, Sarah Gleason, said.

Dr. Gleason, known as Tom, taught at Brown University for nearly four decades, from 1968 until he retired in 2005. In Washington, he was director of the Kennan Institute for Russian studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in the early 1980s, a role that made him well known among Kremlinologists during the Cold War.

At Brown, he chaired the history department and lectured on "everything from the emergence of the Slavs as a definable Eurasian culture all the way through to the end of the Soviet Union and into the Putin era," he wrote in a memoir, "A Liberal Education" (2010), excerpted in the university alumni magazine.

Dr. Gleason displayed similar academic range in his writings. Among his best-known works were "Young Russia: The Genesis of Russian Radicalism in the 1860s" (1980) and "Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War" (1995).

The word "totalitarianism," Dr. Gleason wrote, originated in Italy, where it was used to condemn fascism and later was adopted by Mussolini to project the strength of his regime.

Many leftists rejected comparisons of Nazism and communism, but Dr. Gleason presented totalitarianism as the basic characteristic linking the major U.S. enemies of the 20th century: Nazi Germany and fascist Italy during World War II, and the communist Soviet Union during the Cold War.

He argued "convincingly," Dennis H. Wrong, a sociologist, wrote in a New York Times review, that totalitarianism would eventually "come to be seen as only the most extreme example of a phase in human history in which the transforming powers of the state, of politics, were greatly exaggerated by political actors, at the expense of slower and more complex cultural and economic change likely to be far more durable."

Abbott Gleason was born in Cambridge, Mass., on July 21, 1938. His father was a historian who worked for the National Security Council during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. His mother was a painter.

"Tom" Gleason, as he had been called since infancy, graduated from the private St. Albans School in Washington in 1956. He later studied at Harvard University, receiving a bachelor's degree in history in 1961 and a doctorate in Russian history in 1969.

Dr. Gleason participated in the civil rights movement and taught at Tougaloo College, a historically black institution in Mississippi, during the 1960s. Later, his work as a historian was distinguished by a "strong moral perspective," Blair A. Ruble, vice president for programs at the Wilson Center and a former director of the Kennan Institute, said in an interview.

"What Tom took from the civil rights movement," Ruble remarked, "is that politics is about morality and moral philosophy, not just about power."
The Brown Daily Herald
December 27, 2015
Retired History Professor Tom Gleason dies
Campus-wide email highlights Gleason's "remarkable" personal, professional life

Abbott "Tom" Gleason, professor emeritus of history and faculty member at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, died Friday, President Christina Paxson P'19 wrote in a campus-wide email Saturday.

Gleason, who began his "long and productive" career at the University in 1968 as an assistant professor, taught courses on Russian history, the Cold War and international relations, the email stated. Gleason served as director of the Watson Institute between 1999 and 2000 and is a former chair of the Department of History. A talented painter, Gleason also crafted a number of works exhibited at the Watson Institute in 2013, Paxson wrote.

Paxson described Gleason as a "teacher, administrator, scholar, colleague and friend." In his memoir "A Liberal Education," Gleason chronicled his work, his interests in music and art as well as his experience with Parkinson's disease, Paxson wrote.

"Tom Gleason will be much missed," wrote Cynthia Brokaw, professor and chair of the Department of History, in an email to The Herald. "Since his retirement in 2005 he remained a close friend of the department," she added. "A civil rights activist, distinguished historian of Russia, devoted teacher, department and university leader, jazz aficionado, writer and painter, he was a man of wide-ranging talents and passionate commitments - a model for us all."

The University will provide information about a memorial service to be held on campus in late January when its exact date is determined.
Moscow Times
December 31, 2015
Russia's Winning Words Of the Year 2015
By Michele A. Berdy
Michele A. Berdy, a Moscow-based translator and interpreter, is author of "The Russian Word's Worth" (Glas), a collection of her columns.

Every year linguists, academics and lovers of language vote on several categories of words of the year: слово года (word of the year); выражение/фраза года (expression or phrase of the year); антиязык (anti-language - propaganda, lies, hate speech); and авторский неологизм года (authorial neologisms of the year). The last category is filled with made-up phrases and words designed to both characterize the year - and show off that fabulous, undying Russian word wit.

This year, alas, the first three categories are grim.

The word of the year for 2015 is беженцы (refugees). While people everywhere in the world have their own understanding of why refugees leave their countries and how - and where - they should be resettled, we do all agree that 2015 was, very sadly and tragically, the year of the refugee.

Next on the list came the very Russia-specific санкции (sanctions); антисанкции (anti-sanctions), and the luscious санкционка (slangy forbidden food). Third of the list was simply война (war), which is so depressing I can't stand it.

The top three expressions or phrases of the year also make me want to weep: Немцов мост  (Nemtsov Bridge, the proposed new name for the bridge Boris Nemtsov was assassinated on); ИГИЛ - запрещенная в России организация (ISIS, an organization banned in Russia); and атмосфера ненависти (atmosphere of hatred). See above for commentary.

There were some funny entries, like Битва холодильника с телевизором. Кто победит: холодильник или телевизор? (In the battle between the refrigerator and the TV, who will win?) - which is something like the Russian equivalent of "voting with your wallet," only involving the reality of food shopping and the unreal world of Russian TV propaganda.

In the hate-speak category, the top winner is Обама - чмо (Obama is a schmuck), something you can find scrawled on walls and etched on car windows throughout Russia, because никогда россияне не жили так плохо, как при Обаме (Russians have never lived worse than under Obama). Yes, people really say that; see above, "unreal world of Russian TV propaganda."

Next up is вата, ватник (literally cotton batting and a quilted coat), slang words for the great unwashed masses of Russia, the kind of folks who believe the TV (see above) and are happy if there's vodka, bread and pickles in the fridge. And in third place is вашингтонский обком (literally Washington Regional [Party] Committee) -a mythical group of people in the U.S. capital who make decisions to rule the world. Really. Because you can't make this stuff up.

And now, before the headache I'm working on explodes, here are some of the best made-up words of the year. The first place winner is the touching бессмертный барак (immortal barracks), which was coined for a movement to remember the people repressed under the Soviet regime to match бессмертный полк (immortal regiment) - a movement to remember people who died in the war of 1941-45.

I adore the clever соцсед, соцседка (net-neighbor, male and female) - friends on social media. And I like нипричёмыши - to whom it does not concern, i.e. people who don't get involved in anything since whatever's going on has nothing to do with them. This is the silent majority, Russian style.

Finally, there is лайчущий - жаждущий лайков (someone craving лайки - likes - on Facebook).

No matter what you crave in the new year, here's hoping that you get it!

Hope floats in cold winter -- How Russia braves dual challenges

MOSCOW, Dec. 30 (Xinhua) -- Chocolate has become this year's favorite gift for many Russians for the upcoming new year holiday, instead of red packets with a certain amount of money inside, or fancy smart phones, as their country is braving major challenges.

With skyrocketing commodity prices and steep depreciation of the ruble, the national currency that depreciated by 72.2 percent against the U.S. dollar from March 2014 to December this year, Russians have to pinch every penny.

So does the Russian government.

Facing global oil prices plummeting from around 100 dollars per barrel in early 2014 to about 36 dollars per barrel now, and the extension of Western sanctions, the Ministry of Economic Development forecasted that Russia's GDP would shrink 5 percent and the government's revenue would drop 3 trillion rubles (some 42.8 billion dollars) this year.

The external pressure has just made things worse. The Ukraine crisis, despite glimmers of hope for an upturn in sight, seems to continue to plague Moscow's relations with the West, while the country's ties with Ankara are strained after a Russian fighter jet was downed by Turkey in late November.

Moreover, since Moscow launched its air campaign against targets of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group in Syria late September, security concerns in the country have been on the rise, as extremists have threatened to bring bloodshed to Russia "in the nearest future."

In the discouraging picture, Russian President Vladimir Putin has urged the country to optimize economic structure, improve governance and attract foreign investment, while turning to the country's Far East region, and making the development of the region "an overriding priority of the 21st century."

Following that, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a one-year anti-crisis package in January worth 2.3 trillion rubles (30 billion dollars) to stabilize the domestic economy.

The government also created a "block of advantages" to speed up the socio-economic development of the Far East, including tax breaks, simplification of administrative procedures, and the creation of a single management center.

As Moscow began to look toward the East, it considers China as one of its main potential partners in the region's development, particularly in view of China's Belt and Road initiative and the Russia-initiated Eurasian Economic Union project.

Earlier this month, U.S. rating agency Moody's changed the outlook on Russia's government bond rating to stable from negative, while Credit rating agency Fitch Ratings expected a 0.5 percent growth of the country's GDP in 2016.

At his annual year-end press conference on Dec. 17, Putin assured the Russian people that "Russian economy has passed the peak of the crisis."

Following Russia's air campaign against the IS, which many believed has eclipsed the U.S.-led one, the West has somewhat eased their pressure on the Kremlin over the Ukraine crisis.

From French President Francois Hollande to British Prime Minister David Cameron, and then to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the West has shown substantial willingness to work with Moscow on the anti-terror mission and a political settlement of the protracted conflict in Syria.

In his annual state of the union address to the Federal Assembly earlier this month, Putin made encouraging promise and showed his determination in front of the Russia people.

"There are always difficulties and obstacles on the path to progress and development. We will respond to all challenges. We will be creative and productive. We will work for the common good and for the sake of Russia," he said.
Russia Beyond the Headlines
December 30, 2015
2015 in review: From the murder of Nemtsov to blackout in Crimea
The murder of Boris Nemtsov was arguably the most discussed domestic political issue in Russia this year, along with the bankruptcy of Transaero, the blackout in Crimea and protests by long-haul truckers.
By Igor Rozin

Nemtsov's murder shocks the nation

A woman holds a portrait of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov during a march in memory of him on March 01, 2015 in Saint-Petesrburg. Source: Getty Images

Opposition leader and former Russian first deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov was killed in central Moscow on Feb. 27. He was 55. According to Russia's Investigative Committee, Nemtsov was walking along the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge near the Kremlin a little after 11 p.m. when a white car pulled alongside him and fired a number of shots at point-blank range, hitting him in the back. Five men from Chechnya were arrested in connection with the murder, and arguments were made that the incident had religious motives, as Nemtsov had made some disparaging comments about Islam in the wake of the January attacks on the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Nemtsov's allies instead linked the murder to a report he was working on documenting evidence of Russia's alleged involvement in the civil war in eastern Ukraine, including financing of the rebel movement and provision of weapons and soldiers under the guise of "volunteers." The report, entitled "Putin.War," was later published by Nemtsov supporters led by Ilya Yashin.

The five suspects remain in custody in Moscow and the investigation is ongoing. In September, a representative of Nemtsov's family asked that the case be investigated as "an attempt on the life of a statesman," a separate article in the Russian criminal code from murder.

A native of Sochi, Nemtsov rose to prominence in the 1990s, first as governor of Russia's third largest city, Nizhny Novgorod and later as first deputy prime minister in the administration of Boris Yeltsin. He was one of the most prominent members of Russia's liberal opposition. In 1999, Nemtsov founded the political party the Union of Right Forces (SPS). After the SPS party split, Nemtsov worked with other opposition movements and parties. He was active in the protests against electoral fraud in the winter of 2011-2012 and was a member of the coordinating committee of the current Russian opposition movement. Since 2012 Nemtsov had been a co-chair of the Republican Party of Russia - People's Freedom Party.

Russia's second-largest airline goes broke

In September, the press reported that Russia's second-largest airline, Transaero, was so debt-laden that it couldn't afford to refuel its planes. Initially the government's transportation management agencies decided to allow the country's flagship carrier, Aeroflot, to acquire a 75 percent stake in Transaero to save the company, but Transaero shareholders were unable to consolidate a large enough block of shares and the deal fell through.

Later, a major shareholder in Russia's third-largest carrier, S7 Airlines, agreed to buy 51 percent of Transaero, but then backed out of the deal.

At the moment, the company seems headed for bankruptcy, as it has nothing left to offer potential buyers. Transaero has been banned from flying or selling tickets and its major international routes have been taken over by Aeroflot.

Anna Bazoyeva, an analyst at investment company UFS, believes that bankruptcy, while the likely path forward, sets a bad precedent.

"This example will once again remind businesses that aggressive growth based on borrowed money is a road leading to nowhere," she said, adding that while financial institutions like banks and leasing companies will be affected the most by the bankruptcy, it will also hurt Transaero shareholders, who are mainly private individuals.

Passengers will also suffer, according to Dmitry Baranov, an expert at Finam Management.

"The company's bankruptcy will not benefit anyone, including its creditors, and many populated areas will not have good transportation accessibility," he said.

Until recently, Transaero operated flights to 260 destinations and accounted for 14 percent of the domestic aviation market. From January to July this year, 7.5 million passengers flew with Transaero.

The company's finances had weakened due to the recession and sharp devaluation of the ruble, which have depressed demand for travel and raised the cost of airplane leasing agreements, which are often denominated in dollars.

Transaero's 260 million ruble debt includes 150 billion rubles ($2.4 billion) owed in leasing obligations and 20 billion rubles ($325 million) owed to airport management and fuel companies.

Blackout sign of problems in Crimea

The solemn inauguration of the so-called "energy bridge" along the bottom of the Kerch Strait between the Krasnodar Territory and Crimea on Dec. 2 was a joyous occasion for local residents, who had been living without power for more than a week after Ukrainian nationalists sabotaged pylons carrying power lines to the peninsula from Ukraine's Kherson Region. However, for many the "energy bridge" still has only symbolic significance. The power line provides only 200MW of the 500MW Crimea needs from outside sources.

After two additional circuits come online next May, Russia will supply all the power needed by the peninsula.

The Crimean electricity network was completely shut down in the early hours of Nov. 22 after a group of Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar activists opposed to Russian rule in the region blew up the power lines going to Crimea from Ukraine, plunging the peninsula into darkness. At that moment, in accordance with an agreement signed with Russia, Ukraine was supplying up to 80 percent of all the energy consumed by Crimea.

 Surprisingly, considering the tensions between Ukraine and Russia, the incident took the Crimean authorities by surprise. According to Russian Deputy Energy Minister Andrei Cherezov, out of the 94 supermarkets on the peninsula, only 10 have autonomous power supply sources.

Local authorities were forced to supply power only to critical facilities such as hospitals while other consumers were switched to rolling blackouts.  The government had to immediately transfer a large number of diesel generators onto the peninsula and speed up work on the "energy bridge," which consists of an electricity cable from Russia's southern Kuban region to Crimea.

Many local residents and officials questioned why the cable had not been laid earlier, as Crimea has ruled by Russia for a year and a half already. According to Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak, the problem was that the difficulties of laying the cable along the bottom of the Kerch Strait, but that Russia does not produce cables of the length needed, and most of Russia's foreign partners refused to supply the cable as a result of sanctions. In the end the cable was bought from China, but the ship carrying it from Shanghai arrived only on Oct. 11.

The incident raised questions about Russia's ability to support the region, particularly securing its water supply. On April 26, 2014, Ukraine blocked the locks of the North Crimean Canal, which channeled water from the Dnieper River to Crimea. Since that time Moscow has provided only temporary solutions.

Russian truckers protest against tolls

As of Nov. 15, new tolls have been introduced on major intercity highways in Russia. The toll collection system, called Platon, applies to trucks weighing over 12 tons using federal highways and charges 3.73 rubles ($0.06) per kilometer.

Even before Platon came into effect, long-haul drivers began protesting against the new levy, arguing it would cut into already slim profit margins. Trucks moved along federal highways at minimal speed, causing massive traffic jams. The authorities responded to the protest by lowering the toll for the first three-and-a-half months to 1.53 rubles ($0.02) per kilometer, and by considerably reducing the penalty for non-payment. Initially, the penalty for companies was 450,000 rubles ($6,500) for the first non-payment and 1 million rubles ($14,000) for repeat non-payment. The penalty was reduced for individuals and companies alike to 5,000 rubles ($70) for the first offense, and 10,000 rubles ($140) for repeat non-payment.

Despite the concessions made by the authorities, the truckers have continued their protest. Activists from the regions have more than once announced their intention to come to Moscow and stage the main protest there by blocking traffic along the Moscow ring road. On Dec. 4, several groups of protesters appeared on roads leading to Moscow, although the protest ended peacefully on Dec 7.

The authorities have indicated that they will not cancel or suspend the Platon system. In an interview with the business daily RBK, the head of federal road agency Rosavtodor, Roman Starovoit, insisted that an absolute majority of long-haul drivers did not object to the new levy and that the protest involved no more than 1 percent of all truckers in Russia. According to Starovoit, more than two thirds of all 12-ton trucks have already registered with the system.

It would be an overstatement to say that the truckers' protest has received considerable support beyond the relevant professional community, although the participants in the actions say that ordinary people have been supporting them, offering to put them up for the night and bringing hot food and drinks.
A difficult year for Russia

TASS MOSCOW, December 30. /TASS/. The outgoing year has been eventful for Russia. The persisting sanctions, falling oil prices and economic downturn, political confrontation, international terrorism... The Russian leader admitted during his annual news conference that what had earlier seemed a black stripe looked not so gloomy against the backdrop of the current situation.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin does not tend to dramatize the situation. Yes, the year has been quite difficult, said Dmitry Peskov who has been working in Putin's team for fifteen years. However, talking to a TASS correspondent he urged not to succumb to emotions: the country has stronger positions now than before.

Without emotions

"If we recall the year 2000 when Russia was actually 'taken to pieces,' torn apart by regional politicians, tycoons and other, if we recall that oil cost twenty plus rubles, those days were probably harder," Peskov said. "Now the country is consolidated with a clear top-down command structure, it is united geographically, politically, ideologically and spiritually, and this, of course, gives more strength and capacity to counter challenges," the presidential spokesman said.

Peskov recalled that, just like now, at the dawn of the new century various challenges were facing Russia. "The genesis of these challenges has hardly changed," he said. "Elements of the confrontation with the West in their various interpretations were in place both at that time and now. The only difference is that now all this is more intensive, exalted, the masks have been torn off," the spokesman noted. "The international economic environment has impacted the Russian economy both at that time and now, the only difference being that today, in spite of all sorts of sanctions, we are much deeper integrated into the global economy," he went on to say. "The threat of international terrorism was relevant in those days - I mean the war in the Caucasus supported from the outside. The problem of terrorism is at the forefront today as well," Peskov added.

"Of course, one cannot call the outgoing year an easy one," he told TASS. "However, we should hardly succumb to emotions and talk about something extraordinary."

Isolation fails

What most certainly did not occur in 2015 was Russia's international isolation, the talks about which began a year earlier in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis and the imposition of anti-Russian sanctions. Throughout the year, the Russian president made a dozen and a half international trips to both European and Asian capitals and took part in major international forums - the UN General Assembly, the climate conference and the G20 summit. He did not become a persona non grata. On the contrary, on the sidelines of the summits Putin was one of the most highly sought-after interlocutors among fellow leaders.

Foreign leaders did not miss a chance to visit Moscow too. The celebrations dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the Victory over Nazism, which Putin called the most high-profile event of the year, has brought together two dozen leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President of the Czech Republic Milos Zeman, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the leaders of many CIS member-countries. Besides, Russia hosted BRICS and SCO summits and the St.Petersburg International Economic Forum. Russia was also visited by a number of influential politicians, such as former French President Nicolas Sarkozy whom Putin received in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside of Moscow and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to whom the Russian leader showed Crimea.

It is noteworthy that the intensity of the Russian leader's personal contacts with the current occupant of the White House who may be called Moscow's main opponent on the international scene almost exceeded that of the "reset" days. Over the past few months, Putin held a number of conversations with Barack Obama - at the UN, at the G20 summit and at the climate conference. US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Russia twice, in both cases he was received by the Russian president. After the last meeting Kerry admitted that Washington had no specific policy aimed at isolating Russia.

In November, Putin noted that, although there was no isolation, a year ago Russia's relations with Western partners "were indeed more tense than today." In his opinion, new challenges dictate the need for joining forces in the international arena.

Syrian front

One of the challenges was the problem of terrorism represented in the outgoing year by the Islamic State extremist group that had gained control of large areas of Syria. Notably, the ranks of this organization outlawed in Russia were replenished by immigrants from Russia, which brought the threat levels closer to a critical point.

Moscow was an important diplomatic player in the Syrian settlement in the past as well. However, this year Kremlin has moved from words to deeds. By issuing an order to begin a military operation in Syria on September 30, Putin considerably strengthened Russia's positions in this issue, if only because, unlike the US-led coalition, Russia's Aerospace Forces are operating in Syria legitimately from the point of view of international law, at the formal request of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Besides, during the first months the Russian Aerospace Forces not only pushed back the threat of Damascus capture by extremists, but also made it possible for the Syrian army to launch an offensive in several directions.

Such 'aerobatic maneuver' by Putin dealt a final blow to the idea of Russia's international isolation. At the same time, the operation in Syria - the largest foreign military campaign in the history of new Russia - showed increased capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces, which was acknowledged even by skeptics in Western media.

Not without losses

Terrorists dealt a blow to Russia - on October 31, Russia's A321 passenger airliner was blown up in the sky over Sinai, all 224 passengers were killed. "We will not wipe away tears from our hearts and souls. This will remain with us forever. But this will not prevent us from finding and punishing the perpetrators," Putin said, ordering to punish those responsible for this tragedy.

Human casualties could not be avoided in Syria too. However, the death of marine Alexander Pozynich and pilot Oleg Peshkov was not the consequence of a terrorist attack but "a stab in the black" by Turkey.

Putin's response to the attack of the Turkish Air Force against Russia's Sukhoi Su-24 jet on November 24 was tough. The dialogue with Ankara at the highest level was effectively terminated. Russia's military grouping in Syria whose airspace was repeatedly violated by Turkish aircraft was reinforced with the S-400 air defense systems. Finally, sanctions were imposed against Turkey. However, Putin noted, "We consider the Turkish people to be a friendly people and do not want our relations with the Turkish people to be severed. As for the current [Turkish] leadership, the morning sun never lasts a day."
Ukrainian conflict

Against the backdrop of all these events the Ukrainian issue has been pushed to the background by the end of 2015. However, the beginning of the year was disquieting in the war-torn Donbas region. It was only possible to stop the hostilities after the adoption of declaration by the "Normandy Four" leaders and the signing of the Minsk agreements based on it between Kiev and the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics. After 16 hours of talks in Minsk, which lasted all night, Putin said, "That was not the best night in my life, but I believe that the morning is good, because, despite all difficulties of the negotiation process, we managed to reach an agreement on the main things."

It turned out that the signing of the document did not guarantee its implementation by the Ukrainian side. Kiev essentially sabotages the implementation of the accords, above all in their political part, while Russia, which is not a party to the conflict, promotes their implementation in every possible way. Putin even raised the level of Russia's presence at the Contact Group by appointing domestic policy heavyweight Boris Gryzlov special envoy in it. Yet, in the last days of the year observers expect the leaders' decision on the extension of the Minsk agreements.

Sanctions as chance for diversification

Busy foreign policy agenda could not but affect the format of the president's work on the domestic track. Putin did not pay less attention to the country's socio-economic development. Rather, he gave the government greater opportunities for operational management on pressing problems joining this work in case of urgent problems in the "manual control" regime.

One of the most important tasks was import substitution. The reason for launching this program were sanctions imposed by Western countries. Both Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev admit that the issue should have been tackled earlier.

The president outlined the industries, in which Russia should provide itself 100% with its own production. These are the areas ensuring the national security in every sense of the word - from food to military security. As a result, Putin's work schedule during 2015 included dozens of meetings dedicated to the development of the agro-industrial complex, medicine, space industry, and, of course, defense industry.

Budget and oil

The problems of Russia's economy were exacerbated in the outgoing year not only by sanctions but also by the global situation. The energy prices that came down sharply have affected the ruble exchange rate.

Active anti-crisis measures taken by the government coupled with the president's close attention to fiscal policy helped prevent the collapse. During his December news conference Putin said that no one had forecast the large-scale pressure from external economic factors during the preparation of the 2015 budget. As a result, the budget had to be amended and later transformed from a three-year to a one-year one.

Considering this, the preparation of the 2016 budget was conducted as thoroughly as possible. Despite all the difficulties, Putin demanded that the level of government responsibility should be preserved. In particular, the president outlined the basic requirements, including the deficit of no more than 3% of GDP, targeted social support measures and an array of others. The government complied with this guidelines when forwarding the draft budget to parliament.

In manual mode

In spite of all challenges, Putin has not abandoned the practice of personal involvement in solving pressing problems. One of the first instances in the outgoing year when the "manual control" regime was required was the situation with commuter trains cancelled simultaneously in several regions because of their unprofitability. The president's phrase "Are you crazy?" addressed to Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich helped to restore train traffic on the day the meeting was held.

Another reason for the head of state's scrutiny became the situation in the Siberian republic of Khakassia affected by wildfires. Putin visit the region three times supervising the construction of new houses for the victims. He relied not so much on officials' reports but on conversations with the locals and the personal examination of the affected area.

Crimea gets rid of past problems

Putin paid considerable attention to Crimea, which marked the first anniversary since its reunification with Russia. The Russian authorities were able to clean the "Augean stables" of socio-economic problems left over from Ukraine. However, Kiev tried to invent new forms of blockade of Russia's Crimea - first the food blockade and then the energy one.

Ukraine's efforts, which went as far as blowing transmission towers, turned out to be unsuccessful. Under the instructions of the Russian head of state, an energy lifeline connecting Russia's southern Kuban region and Crimea was launched within a short period of time. Putin personally attended the ceremony of launching the first cross-flow, and that was his third trip to the Black Sea peninsula in 2015. The energy blockade backfired on Ukraine itself. Moscow warned Kiev and it would stop purchasing Ukrainian electricity in the near future.

Baker's dozen for New Year

On New Year's Eve, the president will address Russians with congratulations offering them to recall the outgoing year and take all the best from it to the coming year. If one takes into account Putin's first New Year address on December 31, 1999, which he made as the acting president, the current address will be his thirteenth. The "unlucky" number logically completes the complex and controversial year.

However, the Kremlin is not prone to sentimentality. We should not succumb to emotions, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Putin himself is no less categorical. "There are always difficulties and obstacles on the way of any development," he said in his address to Russia's Federal Assembly. "We will respond to all challenges, we will act creatively and effectively, work for the common good and for the sake of Russia. We will move forward together and we will be sure to succeed," the president said.
Russia Beyond the Headlines
December 30, 2015
2015 in review: 8 Russian figures who made an impact this year
RBTH has selected eight people and things from various fields of Russian life who had a significant influence on domestic and global affairs in their spheres in 2015.


Sergei Shoigu - the operation in Syria

Russian Defense Minister since 2012. Previously Minister of Emergency Situations for more than 20 years, he is one of the most popular Russian officials.

In 2015, under Shoigu's supervision, the Russian armed forces prepared to secretly transfer an aviation division to Syria composed of a few dozens of planes and helicopters. Since Sept. 30 Russia's air force has been conducting strikes on what Moscow says are sites held by Syrian Islamists. The military campaign includes long-range aviation, navy ships and submarines, and Russia is using guided missiles for the first time in combat conditions. With support from the air, the Syrian army is now regaining territory it lost earlier in 2015.

Maria Zakharova - who will call ISIS?

Russian Foreign Ministry Press Secretary since August 10, 2015.

The first woman to ever occupy this position, Zakharova actively uses social networks and has earned a reputation for her tough statements, especially on the Russian military operation in Syria.

When UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said that Russian President Vladimir Putin could end the madness in Syria with just one phone call to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Zakharova replied: "If after Assad's departure the madness ends, where in this case will Daesh [the Arabic name for ISIS - RBTH] go? Or will someone also call them and say that the game is over? Attention, the question is: Who will call Daesh?"


Sergei Glaziev - the presidential advisor's scandalous report

Economist, Minister of Foreign Trade Operations in 1992-1993, academician and in recent years presidential advisor.

Glaziev's report for the Security Council committee, which contains recommendations for improving the Russian economy's competitiveness, created a storm even before its publication in September.

In Glaziev's suggestions the mass media saw an attempt to return to the command economy of the Soviet days and significantly strengthen the role of the government.

Glaziev himself affirms that he suggested creating an effective system of long-term credit for real production, activating monetary emission. Its volume will be determined by the scale of the projects that the government and business select. In his view, if this program is realized Russia's GDP can grow at a rate of 7 percent a year.

The Russian ruble - depreciating but holding on

Russia's embattled national currency became a full-fledged character in its own right for Russians in 2015 - it was followed, it was cheered for.

In 2015 the ruble did not justify the gloomy predictions that had been made at the end of last year. Back then observers had forecast the further devaluation of the Russian currency, predicting a value of 100 rubles to the dollar. It seemed that the forecasts were about to become reality.

In the summer of 2015 there were rumors that the Russian Central Bank had suggested that credit organizations carry out a stress test based on a value of over 100 rubles to the dollar. The Central Bank denied this. For now the ruble is hanging on (the dollar costs about 70 rubles), even though its value is decreasing along with cheapening oil.


Doctor Liza - help for the children of the Donbass

Elizaveta Glinka, known as Doctor Liza, is a doctor and emergency physician. She heads the Just Help Foundation.

As the non-profit organization's site says, the foundation helps "the homeless, the terminally ill, pensioners living in solitude and invalids who have been deprived of their homes and livelihood."

After the beginning of the war in the Donbass in eastern Ukraine, Doctor Liza started helping children in the conflict zone. According to Russian media, Glinka has evacuated at least 250 children in need of medical attention from the Donbass. For this work in 2015 she was awarded the Svoya Koleya (Own Track), a prize established by one of Russia's charity foundations.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva - returning to the presidential council

Human rights activist, one of the founders and longtime director of Russia's oldest human rights organizations, the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG).

In the 1960s Alexeyeva was a dissident. Persecuted by the KGB, in 1977 she emigrated to the U.S., where she worked for Radio Liberty and the Voice of America radio stations. In the 1990s she returned to Russia and headed the MHG.

In 2015 she returned to the presidential human rights council, which she had left three years earlier due to a disagreement about elections to the council by means of the internet. Alexeyeva has said that her main objective since returning to the council is the fight against the NGO-foreign agent law that has been in place since 2012. It obliges all NGOs that receive foreign financing and that participate in political activities to register as "foreign agents."

During a council session on Oct. 1 Alexeyeva asked Putin to "annul this damaging law." "Don't suspect us (human rights activists) of that which we are not guilty of," said Alexeyeva, explaining that by receiving money from abroad the NGOs use it only so that people in Russia can have a better life.


Leonid Slutsky - riding in to rescue Russia's Euro 2016 hopes

He has been coaching the Russian national soccer team since August 2015.

Slutsky got the top job in Russian football after Italian coach Fabio Capello's three-year tenure with the national team ended in disappointment at a time when Russia's qualification for Euro 2016 was in serious doubt. With Slutsky as coach the team won five out of six matches, including those against Portugal and Sweden. In October the team secured its place at next summer's tournament in France.


Valery Gergiev - the Mariinsky Theater in the Far East

Conductor, artistic director and general director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. In 2015 the Primorsky Opera Theater in Vladivostok became a branch of the Mariinsky.

"This is a good idea since Vladivostok is a very important theater. It is close to South Korea, China and Japan," said the superstar conductor in an interview with the Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper.

In 2015 Gergiev resigned from the position of chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, which he had headed for 10 years. He then became chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. In his words, the first two-three months of work with the new orchestra "were heavenly" - the orchestra played both German and Russian works.

Russia Direct
December 30, 2015
2015 as seen by Russian pundits
Russian think tanks sum up the past year and make predictions for the hear ahead. The consensus appears to be that things were tough in 2015, but they will get even tougher in 2016.
By Anastasia Borik

In December, Russian analysts discussed world oil prices and the economic problems of Russia, offered their views on events that took place in 2015, and analyzed the results of the UN climate change conference in Paris.

Looking back at 2015

All Russian experts agree that the past year was a difficult one for Russia and the world; however, their evaluations of the results vary. Among the pessimists were analysts from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University) and the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), while the optimists included analysts from the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) and the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Andrey Fedorchenko, expert at MGIMO, in summing up the year 2015, noted the inability of world powers to settle a number of difficult conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, and in particular in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. We should not expect the conflicts in these countries to end any time soon, and so Russia's involvement in Middle East problems will only increase - and there are no doubts on this point.

This is connected directly to the increased terrorist threat hanging over not only the states of the Middle East, but also the entire world, including Russia, which cannot stand idly by and wait for decisive action on the part of the West - after all, Russians quite well know firsthand what terrorism really is.

In this sense, the main result of the outgoing year has been Russia's decisive engagement in a full-scale war against international terrorism, and this will continue in 2016. After all, currently all prerequisites for the development and expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), an organization banned in Russia, remain unchanged.

Alexey Fenenko, analyst at RIAC, with regret noted that in 2015 Russian-American relations, and thus overall, the relationship between Russia and the West, reached a new level of confrontation. If earlier the Russian leadership held illusions about the possibility of the country's integration into the international system being built by the United States, then today these hopes are gone forever.

The ideological contradictions between Russia and the United States have now grown beyond a stage that can be resolved diplomatically, and in 2015, these became so serious and obvious, that no common challenges or threats, including terrorism and the collapse of the Middle East subsystem of international relations, could unite the opponents. Fenenko believes that there is some hope that this situation can be changed, but it is hardly possible without major shocks in world politics.

"The struggle against transnational terrorism no longer unites Russia and the United States, even at the level of theory or ideology," the expert concludes.
Unlike his colleagues, the head of Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) Fyodor Lukyanov tried to find some positive trends in 2015. Among them, he especially emphasized a shift in priorities in the Middle East - in 2014, at the level of the international community there was mostly talk about the need to remove the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which had led to endless disputes between the great powers.

In 2015, a unifying theme made it onto the international agenda, and this was the realization that the world was facing a common threat - that of terrorism, against the background of which the future place of Assad pales in importance. Lukyanov thinks this is a positive development and it portends well for 2016, which might become the year when classical diplomacy makes a solid comeback.

Analyst Alexander Baunov at the Moscow Carnegie Center also sought positives in 2015. Unlike his colleagues at RIAC, Baunov believes that the main event in 2015 was the end of endless bickering and conflicts in relations between Russia and the West. The past year has demonstrated that Russia and the West, and in particular the United States, can engage in constructive dialogue when it comes to common threats.

"The time has come when the West does not view every conversation with Russia as an acknowledgment of its own defeat, and Russia should stop considering every such conversation as a great diplomatic victory, and the defeat and routing of a potential enemy. The West has left behind its previous frame of reference, where whatever Putin said meant taking the contrary position," optimistically declares Baunov.

The fall in world oil prices as a blow to the Russian economy

The drop in world oil prices in December has not gone unnoticed by Russian analysts. For Russia, a country dependent on energy exports, the collapse in the oil market became a source of endless stress and headaches, especially during this New Year holiday period. Against the background of the international successes, the country's crumbling economic position raised particular concern among Russian think tanks.

Andrey Movchan, economic observer at the Carnegie Moscow Center, predicts tough times ahead for the Russian economy. Movchan lays the blame here not only on the falling oil prices, but also on the entirely inefficient and irrational economic system in Russia.

The expert announced a disappointing forecast - stagnation, cuts in spending on social services, rising inflation due to stimulated emission, a sharp decline in living standards, as well as the lack of resources to pursue an active foreign policy. Perhaps in 2016 we will see only the beginnings of these processes, but in the future, we can expect to see these developing further, the analyst said.

Vladislav Inozemtsev, an expert at CFDP, does not see reasons for optimism when it comes to the Russian economy. According to him, the Kremlin is underestimating the extent of the impact of falling oil prices on the Russian economy, and this factor is capable of "finishing off" the economic welfare of the country, which is already suffering from inefficient management.

Nevertheless, even in announcing a negative outlook on economic development in 2016, the expert says the Russian economy has good prospects, stressing that everything will depend on the actions of the country's leadership, which can either save the situation or destroy the country, and their own power at the same time.

"If the government fails (or simply lacks the time) to restart economic growth, the current regime will sign its own death verdict, which will be carried out, although with some delay, but with no chances for appeal or revision," concludes Inozemtsev.

At the RIAC website, the economist and academician Ruslan Greenberg also sees no prospects for the improvement of the economic situation in Russia in 2016. The government has been too slow to respond to the crisis, and it had little maneuvering room, as it could do nothing to prevent the sharp drop in oil prices.

The main problem, he says, is the absence of any kind of stimulation for development, as neither the state nor the private sector is able to offer this.

However, Mr. Greenberg says there is no need to despair, because we are not talking here about the collapse of the national economy: "The level of unpredictability of the future is very high, for us to be able to say something concrete. However, one thing is clear - the economic situation of the country is unlikely to get better, but then again, there is also no need to despair."

Climate Summit in Paris

On Dec. 12, after two weeks of talks at the Climate Summit in Paris, the participants were able to conclude and sign a new international agreement on climate change.

This agreement is based on three main provisions, which the countries that are party to this agreement must implement in their environmental activities. Firstly, all countries have agreed to take measures to limit their greenhouse gas emissions, in order to ensure that the average temperature on the planet does not increase by more than two degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Secondly, these measures and restrictions should be reviewed every five years. Thirdly, a fund will be established to help developing countries to deal with these changes, and the ultimate effects of global climate change. This new fund will have at least $100 billion to spend annually. The signing and ratification of the agreement is expected in the spring of 2016, and this Paris Agreement will start being implemented in 2020, when the Kyoto Protocol lapses.

Geologist Konstantin Ranks (Carnegie Moscow Center), after carrying out a detailed analysis of the concluded agreement, explained why such an accord had become possible just now; after all, just a few years ago at the Climate Summit in Copenhagen, similar ideas were defeated, and that summit ended without any results.

According to Ranks, there are two reasons. Firstly, during the years since the Copenhagen Summit (2009), researchers around the world have managed to accumulate more evidence on climate change. The climate was not only becoming "warmer", but also was starting to be fully unpredictable, and the manifestations of this are being seen throughout the world.

Secondly, big business has unexpectedly started to see a kind of "gold mine" in the environmental movement. Ecological sustainability and technological growth are no longer antonyms, and businesses around the world have launched major investment projects, not only in energy savings, but also, for example, in consumer products, from which an environmental component is increasingly being required.

However, Ranks stated that given these positive developments, it does not mean that the Paris Agreement will face no challenges when it comes to ratification, nor that it will be implemented in full. A difficult political struggle lies ahead for the ultimate fate of this agreement.

RIAC expert Igor Makarov had a nuanced view of this new Paris Agreement. On the one hand, the environmentalists were right to criticize this agreement, because its provisions provide no specifics, and even levels of financial assistance are not specifically spelled out. Moreover, in their policies each country will proceed based on its national capacity to adherence to listed restrictive measures.

In this sense, the forecast on restricting the increase in the warming of the Earth's average temperatures to just two degrees Celsius is extremely optimistic, and in reality, we should expect the overall ceiling to be about 3.7 degrees. On the other hand, this lack of specificity makes it more likely that the agreement will be ratified, even in such traditionally "difficult" countries like the United States.

Moreover, Makarov believes that in the case of the Paris Agreement, we are not talking about technical rules, but rather about new environmental thinking, based on responsibility, as well as new attention being paid to problems in developing countries. Whereas Kyoto was based on the actual exclusion of developing countries from working on improving the ecological system, the Paris Agreement calls for providing assistance to developing countries, in order to help them overcome environmental challenges.

Moscow Times
December 31, 2015
State vs Art: Russia's 2015 Crackdown on Contemporary Culture
By Eva Hartog

"It's theater. We were just playing."

That's how Boris Mezdrich, his tone simultaneously apologetic and defiant, described the avant-garde production of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser that got him fired.

"Blasphemy!" - was what the Russian Orthodox activists shouted as they protested outside the State Opera and Ballet Theater in Novosibirsk, the Siberian city where it was staged.

For Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, the opera was sufficient cause to personally sack Mezdrich, the theater's managing director, earlier this year.

But for Russia's cultural elite, it heralded a year of what it considers a state-sponsored war on progressive thought, fueled by religious conservatism and spearheaded by Medinsky himself.

The past year has been "one of the most dramatic periods in the history of post-Soviet Russian culture," Irina Prokhorova, a leading Russian culturologist, told The Moscow Times.

'Blasphemous' Film Within an Opera

The Novosibirsk opera's staging of Tannhäuser featured a filmmaker who depicted Jesus Christ's early years filled with carnal pleasures before he chose a life of moral suffering. In the opera, a poster for the film  showing a crucifix lodged between a naked woman's open legs  sparks outrage and leads to its maker being expelled from town.

In real life, it ignited a wave of protest from Orthodox activists. Novosibirsk's Church elder, Metropolitan Tikhon, called upon believers to join several protest rallies outside the theater, arguing it would be a betrayal of Christ not to do so.

He also filed a complaint with the prosecutor general's office against Mezdrich and Timofei Kulyabin, the opera's director, claiming the production had insulted the feelings of religious believers - an offense punishable by up to three years in prison.

The legal case against the theater's staff was dismissed by a local court in March, citing a lack of evidence.

But Medinsky that same month fired Mezdrich and replaced him with Vladimir Kekhman, the artistic director at the Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg and a suspect in a multi-million-dollar embezzlement case.

Known colloquially as the "Banana King" for a fortune made importing fruit, Kekhman had publicly denounced Tannhäuser.

Unsurprisingly, the new appointee immediately struck the production from the theater's playbill.

Institutionalized Orthodoxy

For the Russian art world, the Tannhäuser uproar seemed to condone ultra-conservative activism that has grown recently and continued to make headlines.

In August, Orthodox activists vandalized an exhibit that included a piece of art by the acclaimed sculptor Vadim Sidur at Manege - one of Moscow's most prominent exhibition spaces.

The exhibit's curator, Vera Trakhtenberg, told The Moscow Times earlier that Sidur's works had been on display in a separate museum for 20 years - with no incidents.

But the activists, led by self-proclaimed "missionary" Dmitry "Enteo" Tsorionov, yelled that the works on display were offensive to believers and therefore illegal.

Enteo had earlier also thrown a pig's head - marked with theater director Oleg Tabakov's name - at the doors of the Chekhov Moscow Art Theater in protest against an Oscar Wilde comedy.

Tannhäuser was also the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that the director of a state-owned theater was fired on ideological grounds.

Liberal art circles took the scandal as a symbolic gesture and a warning.

"It is enough to crack down on one independent theater, for all the others to be afraid," said Yelena Kovаlskaya, art director of the Moscow cultural Meyerhold Center. Her center is one of a small minority of theaters and concert halls not owned by the state.

Many feared that the Culture Ministry was returning to the Soviet-era practice of having a so-called khudsovet - or artistic council - vet the ideological content of productions before they were allowed on stage.

Medinsky said in a recent article in the Izvestia newspaper that Tannhäuser should never have made the playbill and "should have been rejected at the idea phase."

The fears received new impetus when the Russian Union of Theater Workers in October announced the makeup of the jury of Russia's most prestigious theater prize, the Golden Mask Awards.

Critics accused Medinsky of having personally placed pro-Kremlin figures in the panel, including a theater critic infamous for her tirades against Tannhäuser and the works of prominent contemporary theater directors.

The head of Moscow's Gogol Center, Kirill Serebrennikov, and fellow theater director Konstantin Bogomolov declared a boycott of the awards. Almost 100 theater critics from all over the country signed an open letter to Medinsky, demanding a jury that did not "arouse suspicions of ideological tendentiousness and bias."

In a reply to the protest, the theater union said in an online statement that, as an organizer of the awards, the Culture Ministry had the right to "participate" in the panel's makeup.

Bogomolov declined to comment on his boycott to The Moscow Times, adding that his relationship with the authorities was non-existent, "and thank God for that."

Defending Conservatism

Medinsky has defended his ministry's moves as protecting a largely conservative Russian society from an elite group of rebellious liberal intelligentsia.

In his article in Izvestia, Medinsky cited a poll by the state-run Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), in which 82 percent of respondents said "the government should control the content of art."

"We cannot and will not ignore the opinion of the majority of our compatriots," he wrote, adding: "The non-traditional artist conducts experiments on the souls of thousands and thousands of people."

Medinsky has consistently pushed for patriotism in culture, founding initiatives such as military youth camps and calling for the creation of patriotic media.

In fact, under Medinsky's leadership, Russia's cultural scene has fallen within the ideological sphere of the government, guided by a combination of conservatism and isolationism, Prokhorova said.

In April, the Culture Ministry banned the screening of the Hollywood film "Child 44" - a thriller centered on the hunt for a child murderer in 1950s Stalinist Russia.

Medinsky said the film had "distorted historical facts" and accused the filmmakers of depicting the Soviet Union as a land of "physically and morally defective subhumans."

Earlier this year, prominent art gallery owner Marat Guelman was expelled from his gallery at the Winzavod art center in Moscow after hosting a charity auction for political prisoners in Russia, including people arrested at anti-Kremlin protests in 2012.

"It was pointless to pressure me, so [the authorities] pressured Winzavod," Guelman told The Moscow Times in written comments.

The independent theater Teatr.doc has also been evicted several times - most recently after law enforcement officers unexpectedly attended a rehearsal of a play about the imprisonment of Russian protesters.

Art on Demand

Using the rhetoric of supply and demand, Medinsky has described state-funded art that conflicts with "Russian values" as a waste of taxpayers' money.

"Let a hundred flowers bloom, but we will water only those that are useful to us," a policy outline published by the Culture Ministry last year cited Medinsky as saying.

The film "Leviathan," which shows a corrupt local mayor who abuses his position to crush his opponents - interpreted by some as a commentary on life under Putin - was partially funded by the state.

Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev, the film was embraced abroad, receiving an Oscar nomination and winning a Golden Globe. But Medinsky was not amused.

"Films focused not only on criticism of current authorities but openly spitting on them ... filled with a sense of despair and hopelessness over our existence, should not be financed with taxpayers' money," he said at the time.

Zvyagintsev told The Moscow Times he wanted nothing to do with Medinsky or the Culture Ministry.

"This figure is so unpleasant that I don't even want to talk or think about him," he said.

Vitaly Mansky, organizer of one of Russia's largest documentary festivals ArtDocFest, said the ministry's funding policy dictated:"Whatever we order, you should produce."

Mansky - whose festival Medinsky said would "never" again receive state support because of its "anti-state" programming - said denying state subsidies would be "a death blow to 99 percent" of independent film festivals in Russia.

Looming Threat

Despite the high-profile incidents, non-traditional art in Russia continues to exist and at times appears to operate free from constraint.

Dmitry Ozerkov, curator of the 20/21 contemporary art project at the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, told The Moscow Times he had not experienced any pressure from the public or authorities - even when the museum put on display provocative artworks on homosexuality and Russia's role in Ukraine.

Kovalskaya, of the Meyerhold Center, said people were often surprised at her center's sharply Kremlin-critical performances.

But, she added, the threat of closure hung over all independent art institutions.

"If they want to close down Meyerhold, a hundred [regulatory] violations will be found," she said.

Despite the crackdown, 2015 had been a good year for the Russian arts, Guelman said, "not thanks to the Culture Ministry, but in spite of it."

"This year, the authorities' pressure was enormous, but it did not kill us," he said.

Guelman named as the year's grand finale a stunt by Pyotr Pavlensky, who in November set the doors of the FSB headquarters in central Moscow on fire. "All of Medinsky's attempts to sabotage [the arts] were reduced to zero with this one gesture," he said.

More to Come

But the pressure continues. Mezdrich is still haunted by the Tannhäuser case, he said. With most theaters in Russia in the hands of the state, Medinsky's firing is a stain on his reputation and he is struggling to find employment.

A public vote recently awarded the staging of the opera a prize for best musical performance. When Mezdrich went to the local municipal museum to hand over the trophy to be put on display, he was met there by Orthodox activists once again.

It was a sign that the Tannhäuser saga is not over. "[The church's] head is reeling with success and its appetite is growing," he said. "This is just the beginning."

Christian Science Monitor
December 31, 2015
How one Russian became an object lesson for all would-be protesters
Denis Lutskevich was not an activist, he just wanted to see the 2012 protests against Putin's re-election. But he, along with two dozen others, served three and a half years in prison for doing so.
By Fred Weir, Correspondent

For those who paid close attention to the protests on the eve of Vladimir Putin's inauguration almost four years ago, Denis Lutskevich might stir a memory. Though just one of some 600 people arrested that day in May 2012, Mr. Lutskevich stood out more than most thanks to images of him being arrested, shirtless with his back covered in red welts shaped like police truncheons.

But the rangy, now-20-something ex-marine wasn't an activist. He says he and his friends only went to the protests to "see what was happening." Indeed, none of the voluminous video and photographic evidence from the scene shows him committing any acts of violence. Nonetheless, Lutskevich was singled out for committing "mass disorders" and "using force against representatives of the state," for which he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

But the recently released Lutskevich's case, and those of more than two dozen others convicted of serious crimes against the state arising from the protests, is the source of intense ongoing debate in Russia. Critics argue that the cases were ginned up by state prosecutors to make examples of ordinary Russians from various walks of life rather than hardened street activists - so that all Russians would heed a tacit Kremlin warning that protests of any stripe would not be tolerated.

"People were chosen from various age groups, social status, and professions in order that every Russian could recognize himself behind the bars in that courtroom," says Sergei Davidis, a human rights lawyer who has defended opposition figures. "The relative guilt or innocence of any particular defendant was irrelevant. It was intended as a deterrent to the whole society, and the message was clear: go to a protest rally, and this can be you."

The Bolotnaya Affair

What most witnesses - including the Monitor - saw on the square that day seemed little more than a brief disruption on the fringes of a peaceful rally which would pass without much remark in most Western cities. But the so-called "Bolotnaya Affair" - because it occurred on Bolotnaya Square, within sight of the Kremlin - was treated in the Russian media as an organized attempt to overthrow the state.

The incident may have been started by a handful of protesters, who attempted a sit-down protest and threw bottles and other items at police - the facts are still in dispute. But riot troops responded with massed charges into the crowd, hauling people away with seemingly little discrimination.

"I wanted to get away, but it was a tight area and the press of the crowd was too great. I got my shirt torn off somehow," says Lutskevich, a fact that makes him quite recognizable in many of the videos from the event. "Then police grabbed me, five or six uniformed officers beat me, and threw me into a paddy wagon. I was pretty scared. It was the first time anything like that had ever happened to me."

But he was soon released, and a district judge dismissed his case.

'The script was already written'

In the days following Mr. Putin's inauguration, the Kremlin's powerful Investigative Committee established a special task force of 200 officers to look into what had happened. What had seemed a small blot on the otherwise peaceful record of Russia's fledgling protest movement grew into a vast conspiracy aimed at staging a "colored revolution" in the heart of Moscow. In a parallel trial, leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov and other protest organizers were charged with working on behalf of foreign interests to bring down the state.

More than a month after being released, special police raided Lutskevich's flat, seizing computers and books in search of extremist literature. None was ever presented in court. He was arrested and taken to a Moscow remand prison where he spent nearly two years while the trial unfolded. He was convicted solely on the basis of testimony from a police officer who claimed Lutskevich ripped off his helmet during the melee.

Extensive video evidence, all available online, shows Lutskevich being beaten, arrested and taken away by police officers - who all have their helmets on. The police officer who testified against him in court, Alexei Troyerin, later told Russian Esquire magazine that he couldn't remember who actually tore off his helmet.

"There was lots of video evidence showing police brutality on the square, but none of that was admitted in court," says Lutskevich. "Nothing seemed to make any difference; it seemed like the script was already written and it just played out to the end. I got very disillusioned. I knew I had no hope."

The public's lesson

It is this sense of inevitability, regardless of mitigating evidence, that critics say was deliberately cultivated to send the message to all walks of society that attending a protest rally can be dangerous for one's health.

"It's not about crime and punishment at all, as it would be in a genuinely law-governed place," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. "The goal of these trials wasn't to teach a lesson to individual offenders, to change their future behavior. They were selected at random and given no chance precisely to change public behavior. And it does seem to have worked."

The protest movement that began four years ago with huge rallies against alleged electoral fraud gradually petered out over the year that followed. Putin's popularity has soared amid Russia's standoff with the West over Ukraine, and Russian military intervention in Syria. But as a nearly two-year-old economic crisis continues, a different kind of protest movement - this time over bread-and-butter issues - may be stirring in Russia's far-flung hinterland. For example, Russian truckers recently went on strike and briefly blockaded several cities over a new road tax.

Sergei Markov, a former Putin adviser who tends to be a reliable defender of the Kremlin, agrees that the sentences handed out to Lutskevich and many of his co-defendants were unusually harsh by Western standards. He argues that the reaction of the state to any sign of disorder is conditioned by Russia's history of being destabilized by often small but highly-organized minorities. Twice in the past century alone a mighty Russian state has collapsed and been replaced by revolutionaries who seemed to come almost from nowhere.

"Our nation has gone through many catastrophes, and that's why we have such a low tolerance for instability compared to more fortunate countries," Mr. Markov says.

In Lutskevich's case, the lesson seems to have worked. He says his personal outlook has been turned upside-down by what happened to him, but there is no way he is going to get involved in future political action. He wants to go into business, to "live by my own efforts," and find ways to get by within existing reality.

"I'm still in a state of shock, and I have learned so much," from what happened, he says. "But I have learned that there is no result from mass protests or appeals to authorities to change things. It ends very badly."

Russia Insider
January 1, 2016
Russia's Latest Human Rights Celebrity Is a Nut Case
By Nicolai Petro

The author is an academic specialising in Russian and Ukrainian affairs, currently professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island

As a rule, I do not favor punitive measures for hate speech, since they tend to have a chilling effect on public discourse. In line with most Western countries, however, Russia has laws that restrict speech that incites to violence.

This week one "radical  blogger," as he calls himself, Vadim Tyumentsev, was sentenced to five years in prison and restrictions on internet access under these laws, after a trial that lasted nearly a year.

Based on two videos, and his postings on social media, Tyumentsev was accused of violating Articles 282 and 280 of the Russian Criminal Code. The first refers to "incitement to hatred or enmity, as well as the degradation of human dignity." The latter refers to "public calls to extremist action."  In the U.S., much of the former is protected by the free speech provisions of the U.S. constitution, while the latter can fall under the category of "criminal threat" or "terroristic threat."

According to a Radio Liberty report, "A Russian court has sentenced a blogger to five years in a Siberian penal colony for 'inciting hatred and extremism' after he criticized Russian intervention in Ukraine and, separately, accused local authorities of corruption and incompetence."

Given this interpretation, it is not surprising to learn that the verdict against Tyumentsev was condemned by human rights groups in Russia, like Sova and Memorial, and by Freedom House. Unfortunately, while technically accurate, this description omits so much that it is essentially misinformation.

While Tyumentsev's videos do accuse local authorities of corruption, and criticize Russia for having anything to do with Ukraine, that is not their main thrust. The main point, which is impossible to miss if you watch the videos, is to urge violence against refugees and the Russian officials that offer them shelter.  

In one video, aptly entitled "Get out of Tomsk," Tyumentsev complains that refugees are being "herded from Ukraine to Tomsk" and calls for their immediate expulsion. Local authorities he complains are treating "our people like Negroes," bending over backward for these refugees, who have abandoned their own country are now coming to "piss away [prosrat'] ours."

Calling the local government's support of refugees "criminal," Tyumentsev calls upon "people who have any sense of personal self-worth" to "make the only possible decision--to expel these unfortunates from our land. . . they have nothing to do here. . . First these people betrayed the Soviet Union and now they betray their own country--Ukraine."

"Got the hell out of here, please. If not, we'll help you to do so," he pointedly tells refugees. Twice.

Tomsk residents must band together to oppose the current "pro-American authorities who are so deeply rooted in Russia" and who "under the pretext of patriotism are continuing their policy of genocide." He ends this brief video shouting: "Russia for Russians! Enough bringing us this trash."

His other video, "Day of National Anger," shows a more sedate Tyumentsev against the stirring backdrop of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, calling for an "uprising against local authorities" on January 15, 2015. His calm however degenerates by the fourth minute of his monologue.

"This regime must fall," he insists. Either the mayor and governor will be arrested for corruption, or "we the people" will detain them, as well as the entire Russian government, and "put them up against the wall;" i.e., have them shot.

Interestingly, at this point in the video (4:50) he specifically includes the president of Russia among those that will have to be executed. In the United States a threat against the president falls under 18 U.S. Code § 871, and is punishable by up to five years imprisonment.

"If they do not observe the law, then why should we," he asks his audience (4:30)? Moreover, Tyumentsev warns that if arrested, not only the authorities, but "their children, and their families will pay. There will be no other option." (5:10)

Apparently anticipating arrest, he vows to continue his fight in prison, and "after the regime falls I will ensure that everyone who opposed the interests of the people and the nation will be put up against the wall." (5:45)

If the Russian government does not remove the Tomsk mayor and governor, he concludes, "then we will simply demolish this whole federal center on January 15, 2015 the Day of National Anger. Wishing you all the best, this was Vadim Tyumentsev." (6:30)

After watching these videos, I think most people would conclude that this is not so much a human rights issue, as it is a mental health issue for the unfortunate Mr. Tyumentsev.
December 30, 2015
Russian opinion poll reveals support for protesting truckers

Almost two-thirds of Russians support protests by lorry drivers against a new road toll for heavy goods vehicles, according to a survey by the Levada Centre, one of Russia's leading polling organizations.

In a report on its website on 30 December, the Levada Centre said that 63 per cent of those polled supported the protests and only 12 per cent did not.

The poll was conducted between 18 and 21 December and involved 1,600 Russian adults from 48 regions across the country.

Under the new toll system, introduced on 15 November, heavy goods vehicles over 12 tonnes are charged R1.53 (0.02 dollars) per kilometre for the use of federal highways, with the tariff set to double in March. The system is operated by a company linked to Igor Rotenberg, the son of billionaire businessman Arkadiy Rotenberg, who is widely considered to be a close associate of President Vladimir Putin.

Shortly after the toll was introduced, roadside protests by lorry drivers broke out in various parts of Russia, but police have so far been successful in preventing protesters from converging on central Moscow.

Among the protest supporters interviewed by the Levada Centre, the most widespread causes of displeasure with the new toll were the introduction of charges for hitherto free services, the choice of a private company to operate the system and the fear of a knock-on effect on consumer prices.

The poll also revealed, however, that despite the popular dissatisfaction with the toll and the country's growing economic problems, a large majority of Russians do not expect street protests. Seventy-two per cent of those polled said that protests in their towns and villages over the falling living standards were unlikely. The proportion of those thinking that protests involving political demands were unlikely was 75 per cent. Even larger proportions, 78 per cent and 82 per cent, said that they were unlikely to take part in, respectively, economic and political protests.

Russia Direct
December 29, 2015
What helped Russia's economy survive in 2015?
Even with falling oil prices, the Russian economy proved remarkably resilient in 2015, partly thanks to policies such as allowing the ruble to float freely.
By Dmitry Dokuchaev
Dmitry Dokuchaev is a Russian journalist and columnist, who deals with economic issues. He has extensive experience in different Russian media, including Izvestia, Moscow News, The New Times, The Echo of Planet.

The official economic results of 2015 will be tallied up by respective government agencies only in January 2016 after the New Year holidays.

However, even without meticulous calculations, it is clear that virtually all indicators will point to a fiasco: GDP is down by nearly 4 percent, the inflation rate is up 12.5-13.0 percent, and foreign trade dropped by 35-40 percent.

The ruble has been weakening, and now the dollar is worth about 70 rubles, and the euro is around 80, which is respectively 25 percent and 15 percent higher than the exchange rates at the beginning of the year. The most disturbing trend has been the 10 percent decrease in real wages and 5-6 percent drop in individual income.

Overall, these are clear indicators of a deep economic recession in Russia. Its causes are obvious, for they fully surfaced a year ago.

First, following geopolitical events in Ukraine, sanctions were effected on Russia, and since 40-50 percent of the Russian economy is dependent on raw materials exports, another damaging blow came from falling oil prices. Over the past 18 months, the price per barrel dropped almost threefold.

Thus, when looking at the negative economic results of the past year, we can find only one reason to be optimistic. Before 2015, many expert economists predicted that the Russian economy would not be able to handle oil prices below $60 per barrel, then they changed the number to under $50 and finally to less than $40.

As we have observed, nothing terrible happened. The Russian economy survived and did not collapse even with the current $36-37 per barrel. It proved a lot more resilient than skeptics gave it credit for.

So what alleviated the consequences of the recession?

Two reasons why Russia's economy did not collapse

It is necessary to consider two factors. First, Russia has sizable financial reserves that the government and the Central Bank of Russia accumulated during the "fat years," when oil prices increased every year and then lingered at $100 per barrel.

By the way, while these funds were being put away for a bad day, critics were actively demanding that the money be immediately invested into the economy. Financial agencies did not give in to the demands and were right: the country was not defenseless before the current crisis due to having the third largest financial reserves in the world.

Now that the bad days have come, the reserves are naturally being spent on supporting some sectors of the economy, infrastructure and budget needs. The Reserve Fund has lost almost $20 billion over the last year, but still, even after introducing anti-crisis measures, there is still $70 billion left in it.
According to Anton Siluanov, the Minister of Finance, Russia's national reserves are currently running at about 11.3 percent of GDP. These funds, according to the Central Bank of Russia analysts, will let Russia maintain its budget spending until the middle of 2017-beginning of 2018 even if oil prices do not go up.

The second anti-crisis measure taken by the monetary authorities was the early introduction of the floating national currency rate at the end of 2014. Thus, the Bank of Russia de facto proposed a universal mechanism for adapting the economy to outside shocks. Ruble depreciation was now determined by the market,

The depreciation of the national currency helped the government delay some of the most catastrophic consequences of the oil price drop. According to Chris Weafer, a partner with Macro Advisory Moscow, currently every barrel of oil gives the government the same revenue (in rubles) as before, which helps the authorities keep the budget deficit in check.

Unemployment and capital outflow

Of course, the above-mentioned measures did not prevent the Russian economy from dropping, but clearly saved it from a catastrophe and a budget collapse. Moreover, some statistic results of 2015 upset experts' pessimistic forecasts.

To begin with, according to the International Labor Organization data, the unemployment rate remains relatively low for a recession at 5.5-5.8 percent. Compare Russia with the EU, which at the height of its crisis recorded a 4-5 times higher number.

Last year, some Russian manufacturers cut salaries, some reduced shifts and work hours, and others shifted employees to off-site labor, but in general Russia managed to avoid a spike in the unemployment rate and the civil unrest that would have followed a massive job loss.

Another telling indicator is capital outflow. As estimated by the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank of Russia, net capital outflow over the course of the year is not likely to exceed the $60 billion mark.

This is a huge amount of money that points to difficult times for the economy, but it is important to put it into perspective: in 2014, Russia lost almost $100 billion more for a total of over $154 billion.

Skeptics keep saying that all capital that wanted to leave Russia had already done so. But that is only part of the truth. Clearly, the capital that is ready to work in Russia under the current conditions is stabilizing, and that is good news.

What is next in 2016?

Given the circumstances, what can we expect in the coming year? Paradoxically, the authorities anticipate that economic growth will soon pick up. Both Alexey Ulyukaev, the Minister of Economic Development, and Maxim Oreshkin, Deputy Minister of Finance, agree that Russian economy hit  rock bottom in 2015, and it will rebound in the first months of 2016.

Recent statistics from October and November, seasonal factors aside, indicates that GDP is growing steadily, albeit minimally. The economic and finance sectors of the Russian government are positive that this process will continue into 2016.

Independent experts are more skeptical. For example, Igor Nikolaev, the Director of the FBK Strategic Analysis Institute, does not believe that there are ways to stimulate the Russian economy directly, and the positive data from the last several months is determined by the low base effect, which can be observed, for example, when November 2015 is compared against November 2014, when the economy was sinking a lot deeper and faster.

For a full recovery, the economy needs investment, and attracting those during the recession and under global sanctions is challenging, to put it mildly. However, the situation is not desperate.

True, many sectors of the economy recorded fewer investments in 2015 ranging from minus 10 percent in agriculture to minus 30 percent in construction and power generation, but chemical production and the development of natural resources are seeing a 15-17 percent increase.

By the way, it is these sectors, along with the food processing industry, that received a good boost from the government's import substitution policies, which are exhibiting growth in 2015 on a year-over-year basis.

On top of that, Abel Aganbegyan, a full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a department head at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, believes that Russia possesses a major internal investment resource.

"The main internal money pot is bank assets estimated at 775 billion rubles, which is commensurate with GDP," Aganbegyan claims. (Even at current exchange rates, that is more than $10 billion).

According to his calculations, only 1.5 percent of this enormous amount is being invested, while in developed countries (for example, in Italy) the number is around 20 percent. Even if Russian banks' investments reach 5 percent of their assets, it will help create the conditions for future economic growth.

Another expert, Ruslan Grinberg, an associate member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Director of the Institute for International Economic and Political Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, believes in state budget investments as opposed to the banking sector.

"No economic recovery is possible unless the government invests into infrastructure, i.e. projects that facilitate regional development, such as the construction of high-speed railways, highways, and residential housing. It is important to focus on 10-12 top priority projects. Here is how it should work: the government initiates projects, starts funding them, and then makes them appealing to private investors," the expert says.

Finally, when making forecasts for 2016, it is impossible to stay away from discussing highly volatile oil prices. The more they drop now, the higher the probability of them rebounding.

At any rate, that is the forecast of organizations such as the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA), which independently stated that oil prices would be gradually increasing in 2016, and by 2020, would reach $80 per barrel. If the forecast comes true, it will definitely help the Russian economy.
Financial Times
December 31, 2015
Rouble slides amid fears for Russian economy
Jack Farchy in Moscow
The rouble fell to its lowest level in more than a year on Wednesday as Russians faced the prospect of a second successive year of recession in 2016 amid continued oil price weakness.

The Russian economy is expected to contract 3.7 per cent this year, hit by falling oil prices and western sanctions, but officials had previously suggested the situation was stabilising with President Vladimir Putin saying the "peak of the crisis" had passed.

But the drop in the oil price has tempered those expectations and senior figures in the Russian political and business elite warned this week that the country should brace itself for further weakness next year.

On Wednesday, benchmark Brent crude oil fell more than 3 per cent to $36.64 a barrel as Saudi Arabia reiterated it would not cut production in response to lower oil prices after announcing a radical austerity programme earlier this week.

That helped to trigger a slide in the rouble to more than 73 to the dollar - its weakest level on record apart from a brief rout last December that threatened a run on the Russian banking system. By early evening in Moscow, the rouble was trading 1.2 per cent weaker, at Rbs73.1570 to the dollar, down 26 per cent since the start of the year.

"2016 will not be easier than 2015, and it could be more challenging," Alisher Usmanov, one of the country's wealthiest oligarchs, said in an interview broadcast on state television this week.

Alexei Ulyukayev, economy minister, said that Russia should prepare for oil prices to remain low "for years".

Russian government data showed that the economy contracted month-on-month in November for the first time in five months.

"It all depends on oil, oil, and again on oil," says Oleg Kouzmin, economist at Renaissance Capital in Moscow. "This current crisis has no concrete bottom."

The recent weakness in the economy is hitting ordinary Russians particularly hard, analysts say. Government data published this week showed that real wages were down 9.2 per cent year-on-year in the first eleven months of 2015. That marks the first such fall since the economic turmoil of the late 1990s.
Chart: Russian rouble against the dollar

Sales of consumer goods - from food to cars - have fallen sharply, with retail sales down 13.1 per cent year-on-year in November. And according to state-owned pollster VTsIOM, 39 per cent of Russian households cannot afford to buy either sufficient food or clothing - up from 22 per cent a year ago.

Mr Putin struck a downbeat note on the economy at his annual marathon press conference earlier this month, warning of the prospect of a rise in the retirement age - although he repeated his insistence that the peak of the crisis had passed.

"Now it's about managing expectations, particularly coming into 2016," said Chris Weafer, a partner at Moscow-based consultancy Macro-Advisory, pointing to parliamentary elections due to be held next September. "The last thing you want to do is be talking about Russia being in recovery as people are becoming even more fearful about their income and their job security."

The main reason for the change in tone on the economy is the further decline in oil prices, which in mid-November resumed their slide, touching 11-year lows earlier this month. Oil and gas account for half of Russian government revenues and the price of oil has a sizeable influence on confidence among businesses and consumers.

While the economy ministry is still forecasting a return to slight growth for the Russian economy in 2016, few share its optimism. The World Bank earlier this month trimmed its forecast to a 0.7 per cent contraction. The Russian central bank envisages a 0.5-1 per cent contraction should oil prices recover to an average of $50 next year, but a 2-3 per cent recession under a "stress scenario" of $35.
Chart: Russia retail sales

Russian officials have been warning the population to brace for the worst. Both Alexander Novak, the energy minister, and Alexei Ulyukayev, economy minister, have appeared on state television in recent days warning of a protracted period of low oil prices. Mr Novak blamed low prices on an increase in production from Saudi Arabia, which he said had "destabilised the situation on the market".

"We cannot say the peak of our problems has passed," said Aleksei Kudrin, a respected former finance minister, in an interview with Interfax. "Some time ago, many experts, myself included, believed that we had reached the bottom, or as they say, had passed the peak of the crisis. But today we see some further deterioration."

While Mr Putin still enjoys sky-high popularity ratings of more than 80 per cent, the decline in ordinary Russians' economic situation is a source of concern for the Kremlin, analysts say.

A protest by truck drivers from several Russian regions over a new electronic toll system has flared up in the past two months, in a rare sign of open discontent. A poll published on Wednesday by Levada Centre, a leading Russian pollster, found that 63 per cent of Russians supported the truckers' position.

Mr Kudrin, who advises Mr Putin on economic matters and has long been rumoured to be due to return to government, warned that 2016 "will bring a serious challenge" for the country. He said that in some parts of Russia consumer demand was down 30 per cent ahead of the new year holidays.

Mr Ulyukayev, the economy minister, said of the fall in consumer spending: "We haven't seen anything like this since 1999. Many of those who are working today simply haven't experienced anything like this."

Mr Weafer argued that the Kremlin's response to the shooting down of a Russian jet by Turkey in November - restricting Russian tourism there and banning the import of a range of Turkish products - had combined with falling oil prices to deal a hefty blow to consumer sentiment.

"There was this general confidence that this would be a one-year recession," he said. "Turkey and oil prices have led people to reassess the reality of the situation, and they found there was much less reason for optimism than they had previously assumed."

Some of the Russian government's recent actions have not helped its domestic economy. The embargo on the import of a range of Turkish and Ukrainian products is likely to contribute to higher inflation in the next few months. And the EU recently extended sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine, saying it had failed to implement obligations under the Minsk ceasefire agreement.

"Geopolitical priorities are making the situation worse," Mr Weafer said. "The key point for 2016 is: will the concern about deteriorating economy start to have a moderating impact on foreign policy or not?"

Russian economy in lingering recession, hoping for recovery
Oil prices continue to be one of critical risks for the Russian economy in 2016

MOSCOW, December 31. /By TASS reporter writer Maria Bobareva/. Expectations of Russian authorities regarding the long recession of the Russian economy in 2015 proved to be largely justified. Formal outlooks of the Russian Ministry of Economic Development revised the drop in the economy from 0.8% to 2.8%, while the most recent decline forecast is 3.7-3.8%. Stabilization surfaced in the economy in summer but was later undermined by volatile oil prices and plummeted by the year-end. At the same time, authorities and analysts believe the situation could be worse but the economy managed to adapt to low raw materials prices and sanctions environment.

Consumer demand and investments, these main drivers of the economy, did not show anything promising. The consumer sector is the greatest point of concern for the government, Minister of Economic Development Alexey Ulyukayev said. Investments declined by 5.5% in January - November 2015, in contrast to earlier expected 10%, he said. Investments of the fuel and energy sector contributed to improvement of this indicator, the minister said. Consumer demand fell because of the real salary contraction, the price hike and the consequent transition to the selective and saving model of ongoing consumption, the Economic Development Ministry said in its November bulletin. The retail trade turnover dropped 13.1% year-on-year in November 2015.

Oil prices continue to be one of critical risks for the Russian economy in 2016. Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov gave a pessimistic assessment for the oil price. It will be $40 a barrel in 2016, the minister said. Financial authorities are ready to revise the budget already in the first quarter of the next year if such a scenario is implemented.

The government expects a minor recovery in the Russian economy in 2016. The Ministry of Economic Development expects growth to be 0.7% in its latest outlook. However, Minister of Economic Development Alexey Ulyukayev said later that grounds exist for the downward revision of the forecast due to low oil prices. Current expectations of the ministry provide for inflation at the level of 6.4%, the average annual dollar rate of 63.3 rubles and the oil price of $50 a barrel.
January 2, 2016
Russian oil output hits post-Soviet record high in December 2015
By Vladimir Soldatkin

Oil output in Russia, one of the world's largest producers, hit a post-Soviet high last month and in 2015 as small- and medium-sized energy companies cranked up the pumps despite falling crude prices, Energy Ministry data showed on Saturday.

The rise shows producers are taking advantage of lower costs due to rouble devaluation and signals Moscow's resolve not to give in to producer group OPEC's request to curb oil output to support prices.

But the rise will contribute to a global oil supply glut and exert continued downward pressure on oil prices which hit an 11-year low near $36 per barrel last month, having fallen almost 70 percent in the past 18 months.

For the whole of 2015, Russian oil and gas condensate output rose to more than 534 million tonnes, or 10.73 million barrels per day (bpd) from 10.58 million bpd in 2014.

In December, Russian oil output rose to 10.83 million bpd from 10.78 million bpd in November. In tonnes, oil output was 45.782 million last month versus 44.115 million in November.

The increase in production defied many expectations of a fall in Russian oil output which has been on a steady rise since 1998 apart from a small decline in 2008.

The Energy Ministry had expected output to fall to 525 million tonnes in 2015 due to the exhaustion of mature oilfields in Western Siberia, which account for over a half of the country's total oil production.

But medium-sized producers, such as Bashneft, cranked up production. And Gazprom, the world's top natural gas producer, increased production of oil, mainly gas condensate, by 5.3 percent for the year.

However, oil output at Russia's leading producers declined.

Production at Rosneft edged down by 0.9 percent, while output at Lukoil's Russian assets fell by 1.1 percent last year.

According to a Reuters poll, Russian oil production in 2016 is expected to rise to a new post-Soviet yearly average high of 10.78 million bpd despite price falls as new fields come online and producers enjoy lower costs due to rouble devaluation.

Natural gas production in Russia was 63.31 billion cubic metres (bcm) last month, or 2.04 bcm a day, versus 60.8 bcm in November.

For the year, it declined by 0.8 percent to 635.3 bcm.

The ministry did not disclose separate production figures for Gazprom, which has been losing domestic market share to other producers such as Novatek and Rosneft.

Pipeline oil exports from Russia rose to 210.813 million tonnes in 2015, or 4.234 million bpd from 195.542 million tonnes in 2014.

In December, it was 17.269 million tonnes, or 4.083 million bpd, down from 4.318 million bpd in November.
December 31, 2015
Russia eyes trillion rubles from privatization in 2016: finance minister

Russia aims to raise 1 trillion rubles ($13.53 billion) from privatization next year, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said in an interview aired on Thursday, signaling a major acceleration of plans to sell state assets.

These plans, ambitious on paper, have largely ground to a halt over the last three years against the background of poor stock market conditions, exacerbated by a plunge in oil prices and Western sanctions linked to the Ukraine conflict.

However, the same negative economic developments also mean that the government is increasingly strapped for cash, giving it an incentive to speed up privatization as an alternative to raising taxes, cutting spending or exhausting fiscal reserves.

"Next year we will seriously change our approach to privatization," Siluanov said in the interview on Rossiya-24 television. "The Russian government is preparing proposals to sell stakes in large companies."

He added that "in the first instance" the state oil firm Rosen (ROSN.MM) was being prepared for privatization. Bashneft (BANE.MM), a smaller oil company that was renationalized last year, is also under consideration.

Plans to sell a 19.5 percent stake in Rosen were first announced in 2013 and approved by the government a year ago, but progress has been minimal. Rosen is presently 69.5 percent state-owned.

While the finance ministry is eager to accelerate privatization to boost state revenues, opponents - among them Rosneft's CEO Igor Sechin - have repeatedly argued that privatization should be delayed until stock prices are significantly higher.
December 31, 2015
Inflation in Russia reaches 12.9 per cent, highest since 2008 - statistics

The inflation in Russia has reached its highest value since 2008, mounting to 12.9 per cent for 2015, the Russian Federal Service of State Statistics (Rosstat) reported, as cited by Russian privately-owned news agency Interfax on 31 December.

According to Rosstat, the preliminary calculations for December, which are based on data for a limited list of goods and services, show the inflation of 0.8 per cent, while the final result for December will be published on 12 January 2016.

At the same time, prices of foodstuffs rose by 1.2 per cent in December and by 14 per cent in 2015 in general, according to Rosstat. In 2014 foodstuffs' prices soared by 15,4 per cent. As for the non-food products, their prices in December increased by 0.4 per cent and by 13.7 per cent in 2015 (the increase for 2014 was 8.1 per cent). The cost of services went up by 0.7 per cent in December and by 10.2 per cent in 2015 (10.5 per cent for 2014).

Higher inflation was recorde! d in Russia only in 2008, when it reached 13.3 per cent, Interfax reported. Inflation in Russia in 2014 was 11.4 per cent and in 2013 it was 6.5 per cent.

Still, the Central Bank of Russia expects that the inflation will decrease in 2016, reaching 7 per cent under the risk scenario of oil prices at 25 dollars per barrel. Russian Economic Development Ministry expects the inflation of 8.3 per cent under the conservative scenario of oil prices at 40 dollars.
International Business Times
December 30, 2015
Russia could cut their energy costs by 20% by going 100% renewable
By Matt Atherton

Russia could go 100% renewable by 2030, and cut their energy costs by 20%, say researchers. A study found that the cheapest option for Russia and Central Asia in the long term is to go renewable, based on the abundance of resources in the continent.

The researchers, from Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland, modelled an energy system for Russia and Central Asia based on solely renewable energy resources, including wind, hydropower, solar, biomass and geothermal energy. They found it is more than achievable, and their energy costs would be around 50% lower than a system which used nuclear technology, or carbon capture and storage.

"We think that this is the first ever 100% renewable energy system modelling for Russia and Central Asia," said Christian Breyer, one of the authors of the study. "It demonstrates that Russia can become one of the most energy-competitive regions in the world."

Most of the countries used in the model are heavily-reliant on fossil fuels and nuclear power, meaning a drastic change would be needed. Thirteen countries formed part of the model, including Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Should the featured countries adopt the 100% renewable model, their energy costs will be reduced by 20%.

The results were based upon a number of assumptions. These included that each country provided its own electricity supply, and a 'Super Grid' is built to distribute each different source of renewable energy.

The model also used wind for 60% of all energy production, using smaller, even amounts of solar, biomass and hydrothermal energy. The total capacity of the renewable system would be 550 gigawatts, according to the model - 162 gigawatts more than the current system.

The research was part of the Neo-Carbon Energy research project. The project has also carried out similar investigations in North-East Asia, South-East Asia, South America and Finland.
Tiger-Goat Duo rockets to stardom in Russian cyber space on New Year's Eve
By Tamara Zamyatina

MOSCOW, December 30. /TASS/. In the last weeks of the outgoing year - the Year of the Goat in the Chinese Zodiac - a black goat nicknamed Timur and Far Eastern (also called Siberian) tiger called Amur met in a safari park in Russia's Primorye Territory to instantly rocket to stardom in the national cyber space.

At the end of November the goat was brought to tiger Amur's vast enclosure the size of a football pitch approximating wildlife environment as live prey. The park's specialists explain this has to be done from time to time to ensure the tiger retains hunting habits. It is easy to imagine how surprised the park's attendants were when the goat boldly confronted the huge cat head on showing no intention to step back an inch. The tiger had to retreat. Then, at a certain point the beast of prey for some reason displayed remarkable benevolence towards the unexpected guest. First, the tiger let the goat use his shelter to hide from rain and snow during the night. Then, in several days' time the wild beast and the domesticated goat apparently developed what began to look pretty much like real friendship. They were repeatedly seen take long strides together, play tag and even have their meals side by side. They go to sleep away from each other, though. It looks like the goat has never had a bad experience with beats of prey and nobody has ever taught him to get scared of tigers. Timur boldly approaches Amur and even follows him wherever he goes - a sure sign he recognizes the tiger as the leader of the small pack.

The goat's boldness promptly earned him a worthy name - Timur (literally meaning 'iron'), also born by many historic personalities known for their valor and bravery. The tiger's name - Amur - was borrowed from a nearby border river between Russia and China in Russia's Far East.

The public at large took such immense interest in this unusual phenomenon that the safari park's management has placed several web cameras around the enclosure, now peacefully shared by two mammals that in the usual natural environment would have been doomed to remain at the opposite ends of the food chain. The videos showing the unusual companions' daily routine are viewed hundreds of thousands of times every single day. At a certain point the safari park's website even turned inaccessible, as too many visitors tried to enter it.

The animals have their own sponsors and caretakers, who voluntarily send donations to the safari park, whose director, Dmitry Mezentsev, has come up with an idea of using the popularity of Tiger Timur and Goat Amur for positive social advertising or making a touching cartoon for family viewings. Some have already decided that this theme is an excellent means of money-making. In the world web there has opened an on-line shop called Timur and Amur. Customers are ordering mugs, mirrors, keychains and magnets with images of the pair of unusual friends.

Just days ago, when the rouble slumped to an all-time low, some wits started telling this joke: "Listen man, the greenback is already up to 70 roubles!" - "Don't care a bit. Better tell me how is Timur the Goat carrying on?"

The social networks are brimming with hundreds of rhymed comments dedicated to the newly-discovered celebrities of the animal kingdom. Bloggers are eager to share opinions as to how long the relationship may last and ponder over its lasting philosophical implications.

"Both animals are worthy of being sculptured. This kind of relationship between a potential hunter and his victim is really amazing and should be commemorated," says user Sergey leo77 on the forum of the Unknown Genius website.

"Sometimes it's worth turning to mother nature to borrow good manners," says user Tamilla.

"People are fed up with bad news on TV - all those terror attacks, bomb blasts, calamities, hostilities in Ukraine and Syria, soaring prices and inflation, etc. Now all of a sudden there comes this extraordinary piece of news from the wildlife world, and the news is good! I reckon the people have experienced a mixture of feelings: surprise, excitement and curiosity, but I suspect that surprise is the strongest of all. Yet, some have already been making bets in the Internet when the tiger will eventually has the goat for lunch. Prophet Isaiah said about a future Paradise on Earth: "The wolf and the lamb will graze together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox; and dust will be the serpent's food." (Isaiah 65:25). When seeing biblical prophecies come true one by one these days one cannot but stop to think why shouldn't this one materialize right away, too," says Natalya.

"Subconsciously each human being sees the relationship between these two animals as an ideal model of coexistence to be followed in this no simple world. In particular, now. Mother nature itself gives us a hint. In our minds this theme is instantly projected to relations between humans. We, people inhabiting the globe, have proved unable to co-exist in peace even in the 21st century. We, humans, are sometimes worse than animals," says Filmah.

The vice-president of the International Academy of Psychological Sciences, Yelena Shestopal, believes that over the past eighteen months to two years many developed the fear there may occur another terrorist attack or war, God forbid.

"The people are in dire need for simple emotions. We are desperate for simple, kind feelings. We are glad to see a tiger has not eaten a goat - in defiance of all laws of nature. And this extravagant situation puts us back on the track of normal behavior," Shestopal told TASS. "The tiger-goat idyll and society's tremendous interest it has riveted is a very positive ending of this year. Our hearts aren't hopelessly calloused yet."
Putin gives Kursk schoolgirl Labrador retriever puppy

KURSK. Dec 31 (Interfax) - Anna Abramova, 11, from Kursk, received from Russian President Vladimir Putin a Labrador puppy as a gift, the press service for the Kursk City Assembly reported on Thursday. The girl named the puppy Undina.

The girl has been dreaming about a dog for a long time, but the income of her family (her mother, Tatyana Abramova, is a school teacher and a single mother of two) did not allow them to buy a dog. Anna decided to write to the president about her wish and the letter was sent in September, the report says.

The girl's mother said she had decided not to talk her daughter out of writing to the president, saying the girl deserved encouragement as she is a straight A student and engaged in crafts and riding," the pres release says.

The 3-months-old puppy was delivered to the Abramovs' on New Year's Eve. "The puppy has already become accustomed to the new place, has made friends with the cat and the rat, who are also living in the residence, and showed a huge appetite, preferring meat dishes and porridge," the press service said.

Anna now gets up earlier to be able to take Undina for a walk before school. The dog is very curious and playful and lets people stroke her.

Kursk Mayor Olga Germanova and the region's federal inspector Valery Kobezev have visited the Abramov family. They gave Anna a congratulation from the president and brought sweets, the report says.

It was reported on December 11 that Olga Marushchenko, 12, from the village of Bely Yar, Khakasia, had received a husky puppy as a gift from the Russian president. The press serviced for the republic's government reported that the girl had written a letter to Putin, in which she said she had a dream to have a husky.

Bearing in mind the girl's successes in school, her creative capabilities, and also the social position of the family, the Russian president ordered giving Olga and her younger sister New Year presents on his behalf, the press release says.
December 30, 2015
The Dog That Explains Russia
By Mark Adomanis
[Text with links here:]

Usually, I'm a big proponent of Excel charts and Rosstat data tables. Even though Russia seems to be trying to wall itself off more and more from rest of the outside world, it remains a member in good standing of powerful international organizations like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization. Membership in these organizations brings a number of obligations, particularly in the realm of information sharing and government transparency, and so Russia continues to publish a broad range of statistical data about the performance of its economy, the financial condition of its government, and the health of its population. Perhaps this will all come to a halt someday, but even in today's atmosphere of suspicion and recrimination it continues apace.

But data, while often of enormous value, is not the only thing of importance. Sometimes, particularly during this time of the year when people tend to get just a little bit more nostalgic and reflective,' it's worth taking a look at a couple of illustrative anecdotes. These are stories that don't make a definitive statement about The Way Things Are, but that provide interesting real-life manifestations of important social, political, and economic trends.

Thanks to the magic of social media, which even supposedly hidebound Russian state media establishments have embraced with at least as much enthusiasm as their American and Western counterparts, I stumbled upon just such a story, a story whose main character is an insanely cute Pembroke Welsh Corgi Named Gosha who lives in Rostov. Yes, you read all of that right. A Welsh Corgi. Named Gosha. In Rostov.

Ok since that sounds totally insane, let's provide a little bit of background. Apparently at some point last year during his annual telethon (or whatever you want to call it), an elderly female resident of Rostov sent a text message to Putin. The message complained about the "shrewish" husband of one of her close friends, a certain Boris Fadeev. Boris, despite his wife's repeated pleas, had obstinately refused to buy her a dog. Since dear old Boris had, apparently, served in the military at one point, the woman beseeched Putin, and asked that he, in his capacity as the commander in chief of the Russian armed forces,* order Boris to buy his wife a dog.

Putin, a noted canine enthusiast who famously used Russia's new GLONASS satellite system to track his Labrador Retriever Koni, replied that in his view the purchase of a dog would be a "kind act" that would "strengthen the family." While not issuing any formal orders, he "advised" Citizen Fadeev to "please allow your wife to buy a dog." Boris, apparently being a reasonably intelligent person, figured that if Vladimir Putin took time out of his nationally televised call-in show to give personal advice it would be a good idea to follow it. So he went ahead and bought his wife a dog, just in time for her birthday.

Given how rare and expensive Pembroke Welsh Corgi puppies are in the Northeast United States, much less in the rather less developed environs of Rostovskaya Oblast, I have to guess that Boris got some kind of behind-the-scenes help in obtaining Gosha. Money is pretty tight in Russia these days, and retired military staff seldom have a $1,000 to spend acquiring a relatively rare (if awesome) breed of British herding dog.

That, of course is pure speculation. Maybe ex Colonel Fadeev simply knows a guy who knows a guy. But what is not pure speculation is that Gosha recently debuted as a dog show in Rostov and won "top marks" within his breed (apparently Russians grade dogs on a five point scale, and he got a five).

Now you might wonder "how on earth did Mark learn about this, is he trolling corgi fan forums on VKontake?" (Yes, according to Google those, do, in fact, exist).

Actually I stumbled upon Gosha's tale much more prosaically: his story was being tweeted out by the Kremlin-Friendly LifeNews which I follow because, in its tabloid absurdity, it is as close as one gets to the pure, undistilled government line. LifeNews tends not to bother with complex ideological justifications or obtuse political arguments: much like Donald Trump it just comes right out and says things that other, more timid, competitors might only hint at. It's ugly and crude, yes, but in this sense it's useful for identifying who, in the Kremlin's view, is a friend or a foe.

But after doing a little bit of digging it became clear that Gosha wasn't simply some kind of pet project of LifeNews. He was in Komsomolskaya Pravda and also on the website of government-run NTV. Within the Russian state media, then, Gosha was a minor celebrity.**

Why is this story the slightest bit important? Well apart from the fact that I absolutely adore Corgis (in my totally biased opinion they're the world's greatest dogs) it shows how Russia media is able, to a surprising degree, to create its own self-contained echo chamber. This was a non-story from top to bottom. Gosha seems like a cute dog and all, but there's not really any substance to the story (a local dog show in Rostov? How did anyone even think to cover that?) But, by acidulously, linking to each other's stories, LifeNews, KP, and NTV were able to make it seem like there was some kind of buzz. LifeNews itself has more than half a million twitter followers: it's easy to imagine that, between the various platforms that wrote about him, hundreds of thousands of Russians are now aware of Gosha and the extent to which he "meets the specifications of his breed."  

Drawing attention to a corgi puppy is, in the grand scheme of things, about as benign a form of media manipulation as you can possibly imagine. The danger isn't in the content (Gosha isn't going to be running point for a tank division invading Ukraine) but the process. The process by which thousands of people can suddenly start reading about the exploits of a random corgi from Rostov is a powerful one and one which has already been used in the pursuit of other far less admirable ends.

In addition to the power of the state-run media, the Gosha episode also highlights another awkward fact about contemporary Russia, that of Putin's overawing personal influence. This, of course, is a topic which deserves a deeper and fuller treatment on its own, but it should suffice to say that a political environment in which a president can "suggest" the purchase of a dog and that dog subsequently wins top marks at a competition is not terribly healthy.

No it's not full-blown Stalinism, but Gosha reminds us that, in a depressing pattern with roots deep in Russian history, the man at the top of the state is sought out for advice on a whole host of problems that Russians really ought to solve on their own. Usually the reminders of this are either brutal or boring, but perhaps the fact that this example is an extremely photogenic dog will get us to pay a little more attention.

*this, as ought to be clear, is not terribly great logic!

** have you ever had multiple news stories written about you on the same day? I certainly haven't

December 25, 2015
Pundit: Changes in Russia "inevitable" but not necessarily for the better
Semen Novoprudskiy, Nobody Is Promising That Things Will Get Better. Semen Novoprudskiy on Why Changes in the Country Are Inevitable

There is a splendid joke: In Russia everything changes every five years and nothing changes in a millennium. Right now, in my modest view (and I lay claim to no others), the proportion of truth in this joke is close to 100 per cent.

An incredible number of texts have been passing before my eyes recently conveying the shared passionate conviction that "there will be no change in Russia. It is impossible. There is no point even dreaming of anything before 2024 (when Putin's "second second" presidential term is apparently scheduled to end). And these texts are being written or spoken by people with diametrically opposite convictions. Supporters of the current Russian regime with manifest malicious glee: Dream on, they say. And opponents with poorly concealed despair: We won't live to see the day, they say.

But elementary widely known facts and figures from recent years prove irrefutably that changes in Russia are not only inevitable. They are already happening. Furthermore, they cannot be stopped without other serious changes. Here is a far from complete list of the totally revolutionary changes that have befallen Russia in the last two years.

Our position in world politics has changed radically

Russia was scheduled to host the latest G8 summit in Sochi in June 2014 but by then it had ceased to be part of this G8. There was hardly a single politician in Russia, including the top man, who could have predicted this even in January 2014. The United States, the EU countries, and a number of other states imposed sanctions on Russian companies and citizens because of Crimea and the Donbas [Donets Basin]. Russia introduced countersanctions against these countries, banning exports of most foodstuffs. And to make things more convincing it started incinerating and crushing sanctioned products with excavators. Now our propaganda is trying to convince us that itself that Russia is not isolated internationally.

Two years ago nobody was even thinking along these lines. How can a G8 country find itself isolated?

The country's territory has changed

This happened for the first time in the quarter-century since the disintegration of the USSR, if we disregard the 337 square meters of Tarabarov Island and part of Bolshoy Ussuriyskiy Island that Russia handed over to China in 2004. In 2014 Russia annexed two new regions - Crimea and Sevastopol. All the consequences of these geographical changes are still not totally clear, but it is already perfectly obvious that these are historic changes whose cost to Russia and Russians cannot yet be calculated. Russians themselves also have interpreted the increase in territory as a revolutionary change. For some it was proof of the revival of a great power's former might, whereas for others it was the starting point of a process of our political suicide.

Two years ago life in Russia was peaceful, whereas now a war is raging

Russia has been de facto in a state of war, at least a propaganda war, since the end of February 2014, when the first "polite people" appeared in Crimea. Although we are officially continuing to deny the involvement of the regular army in combat operations on Ukrainian territory, the Russian authorities are equally officially acknowledging the presence in the Donbas of Russian citizens and individual service members of ours. Since early September 2015 Russia has been fighting officially: The Federation Council approved an aerial operation in Syria. Furthermore, a consequence of Russia's involvement in the Syrian war has been the conflict with Turkey, which we were describing as a "strategic partner" as recently as early November 2015. This conflict was also not predicted by any of our Russian politicians or political analysts.

The economic situation has changed fundamentally and irreversibly

For the population the most perceptible changes have been the virtual doubling of the prices of all main goods, the more than halving of the value of the rouble against the dollar in two years, and also wages, which have shrunk de facto even if some people's have been nominally "adjusted." We have double-digit annual inflation again. GDP growth has been replaced by a downturn. For the first time this century the population's incomes have being consistently falling for more than a year, and this decline is already the biggest since 1999. Finally, Russia's foreign trade turnover fell by 34.4 per cent in a year (the Federal State Statistical Service's figures for the first 11 months, but the results for the year will not be very different). To lose one third of your foreign trade in a year is an absolutely revolutionary change.

But the main economic change is not even the fact that many Russians became moderately more affluent for a while but have now started to become rapidly poorer.

A much more important fact is that one economy (the rent economy) in Russia has come to an end but another has not yet begun. Like a long-distance runner, it has run out of breath but not yet gotten its second wind.

It was actually government officials, not some kind of "fifth column" (its emergence as a universal and universally understood definition of anybody who disagrees with the regime's current policy is also an important change of the last two years), who were talking publicly in 2013 about the "exhaustion of the current economic model." When state revenues are rising steadily it is possible to consistently increase both thieving and at the same time the crumbs from the master's table that go to the people. Now, for the first time in 15 years - with a short pause in late 2008-early 2009 - the Russian state will be having less and less money rather than more and more.

And for the first time this century there will no longer be this money without radical changes in the economy and politics. There is no way "back" to 2013 out of the current crisis.

The economic impasse and the regime's disproportionate response to the 2011 street protests (which now seem to us to already be something not even from the past but from the distant past, although not even five years have passed) were the cause of the well-known political decisions that set this flywheel of change in motion. Russia's migration from domestic to foreign policy, from the economy to war, was a response to the demise of the inertia-driven oil and gas economy in the form in which we knew it in 2000-2013.

The fall in world oil prices dispelled the myth about the solid economic foundations of Russian stability. Our foreign policy has destabilized the country's economic position even further. The very word "stability," which remained the Russian regime's watchword throughout the first decade of the 21st century, has simply disappeared from the Russian political vocabulary.

So, radical changes in Russia's fate have been evident in the last two years. But where is the guarantee of the inevitability of new changes?

The country's economic and political situation provides such a guarantee. We do not have the resources for a protracted war. The resumption of economic growth requires the resumption of investment in the economy, which has been falling for a third successive year. The resumption of investment in the country requires a change of political climate (specifically the political climate, not the "business climate" that is used as a euphemism for it). For the political climate to change it will inevitably be necessary to change foreign and domestic policy. Because there will not be sufficient money for the current policy.

Furthermore, if the authorities do not do any of this, life will continue to change of its own accord anyway. It is just that instead of new friends we will acquire new enemies. Instead of new investments there will be new sanctions. Living standards will continue to fall. The federal centre's ability to support regions that are plummeting into ruin will continue to shrink.

So changes in Russia are inevitable in any event. Irrespective of what name the president goes by or what society wants (or does not want). The only thing is that, depending on the nature of these changes, we may not like them very much. But then nobody is currently promising that things will get better.
Washington Post
December 31, 2015
In Russia, political engagement is blossoming online
By Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan
Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan are authors of "The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia's Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries."

In late November, the number of websites being blocked in Russia reached 1 million, according to Roskomsvoboda, the country's independent Internet censorship watchdog. This did not surprise the Russian online community, which is used to bad news. The Kremlin's offensive against Internet freedom has intensified dramatically over the past three years, including the creation of website blacklists, the updating of an advanced national system of online surveillance and increased pressure on international Internet companies to share data with Russian security services.

The failure of the 2011-13 Moscow protests, Russia's version of a "Twitter Revolution," to ease Vladimir Putin's grip on the country, along with all the depressing news from the Middle East, has led many to question the idea that online technology can be used to facilitate political change.

But is it correct that the protests achieved nothing in Russia?

Some argue that those who maintain their faith in the power of technology overlook long historical experience. Well, Russia's historical experience tells the story of a country that for centuries was defined by hierarchy and vertical power. During the Soviet period, the people were kept at maximum distance from decision-makers - it was for mysterious party bosses to decide their fates, while the population was left to wait until the party line was disseminated over government-controlled media and through local party cells.

During the Cold War, the state also clearly understood the threat posed by communications technology, which could allow citizens to spread information on their own. In 1954, the first Russian photocopy machine was smashed to pieces when the secret police realized its potential. The automatic system of international telephone communications that was launched in Moscow for the 1980 Olympics was cut off mere months after the games to stop ordinary people from making calls abroad without first going through KGB-monitored operators.

The result was a Soviet people politically passive and ignorant of how government operated - though, to be sure, KGB-inspired fear helped to keep them that way.

After the brief thaw of the 1990s, Putin sought to refashion this system for a new era. Employing a combination of old and new tactics based on coercion and intimidation, he accomplished many of his goals by the mid-2000s. But Putin's regime relied on the population's passivity; few wished to protest, but even fewer wished to actively support Putin.

This all changed when the Moscow protests erupted in 2011. The ideas circulating among the protesters may have been strikingly naive - they wanted to form a party of honest politicians, to ensure fair elections without destabilizing the system, and so on. Simply wielding the white-blue flag of Facebook does not automatically make protesters harbingers of democratic practices and principles. But one thing was clear: Thousands of outraged Muscovites shed their passivity, and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter facilitated widespread debate about issues that had not been publicly discussed in years.

Social media are difficult to control. Because these new networks are horizontal in nature and content is generated by real users, the Russian government cannot impose its agenda on them as it did so successfully with traditional media organizations in the early 2000s. True, so far the Kremlin has outsmarted the protest movements by manipulating the newly mobilized public. While the opposition mumbled about fighting corruption, Putin offered a resurgence of national pride, first with the Sochi Olympics and annexation of Crimea, now with Syria. His message appeals to many Russians who resent the West, which they blame for failing to bring prosperity in the 1990s. Putin's success in this respect is hardly surprising, given 15 years of decline in Russian political debate.

Nonetheless, the centuries-old model of rulers governing a politically passive population has come to an end in Russia. Russian society may be divided, but it is no longer apathetic. Increasingly, people discuss topics such as Ukraine, Syria, terrorism and the hypocrisy of the West. Many of them may have been brainwashed by propaganda, but the fact that they are now talking about political news - not just their cars or apartments - is important. For the first time in a long while, there is political engagement. And much of it is occurring online.

The Kremlin is trying its best to intervene in this conversation, but Russia's Internet community is pushing back. Outraged by the arbitrary blocking of thousands of websites, more and more Internet service providers are defiantly placing messages on the blank pages of blocked sites saying, "We are not supporters of the Internet censorship but should comply with the requirements. To bypass the censorship, click here." The link then takes users to a site providing circumvention tools. Russia ranks second in the number users of the Tor network, which allows people to communicate anonymously. Last month Russian Internet users, worried about Kremlin pressure on global Internet companies to move their servers into the country, launched a petition on pleading with the tech giants: "Don't move personal data to Russia." The petition has amassed more than 40,000 signatures.

This is a direct result of the digital revolution, which is something entirely new in our history. While the Russian authorities, so comfortable in dealing with hierarchies, have never hesitated to intimidate editors or the bosses of the Internet companies, the Kremlin has been hesitant to outlaw the Tor network and other circumvention tools. Doing so would mean dealing directly with ordinary users, who are a potentially unstoppable force.

January 1, 2016
Russia's 'right to be forgotten' bill comes into effect

"Right to be forgotten" legislation came into effect in Russia on January 1, enabling web surfers to file a personal request to have links to obsolete personal information deleted on indexing services operating in the Russian segment of the Internet.

President Vladimir Putin signed the "right to be forgotten" bill into law on July 14, 2015, and the legislation came into force on the first day of 2016.

"Under the new federal law search engine operators must delete - on request - links that allow access to information about private individuals if spreading such information violates Russian laws or if the information is false or has become obsolete," the Kremlin's press service explained at the time.

Search engines doing work on behalf of the government or local authorities are not subject to the new regulations.

The new law does not permit information concerning criminal prosecutions to be deleted or edited, even if the person has already served their prison term.

In addition, a state employee cannot demand that information on their personal income or property be hidden.

The search engines are only obliged to delete search results, leaving the actual information on web platforms untouched.

Requests can only be filed personally, the only exception being parents demanding that links to inaccurate information about their children be deleted. For instance, Russia forbids disseminating the personal details, including address, of underage criminal suspects.

The law gives a search engine three to ten days to fulfill a user's request. If a search service refuses to delete the links, the person who filed the complaint has the right to go to court and get a warrant.

Fees on indexing services for non-compliance with court decisions could reach one million rubles (over $13,000).

Although the bill passed a first reading in parliament almost unanimously, criticism from internet professionals prompted considerable changes in the bill. Russia's State Duma introduced some mechanisms preventing the elimination of truthful information and inked out a regulation obliging search engines to automatically eliminate links older than three years.
January 1, 2016
Russia's national security strategy for 2016 in 9 key points
[Text with graphics here]

President Vladimir Putin has signed the country's national security strategy for 2016 with color revolutions and biological weapons named as primary threats to Russia. Here are nine key points you want to know about the document.

1. "Color Revolutions" and corruption among key threats to Russia's security
Listed among threats to national security are "color revolutions" and their instigation, the undermining of traditional values, and corruption.

Who could be engaged in such activities? According to the document, "radical social groups which use nationalist and religious extremist ideologies, foreign and international NGOs, and also private citizens" who work to undermine Russia's territorial integrity and destabilize political processes.

The activities of foreign intelligence services, terrorist and extremist organizations, and criminal groups are also classified as threats.

2. US complicates things with bio weapons threat

The growing number of countries in possession of nuclear weapons has also increased certain risks, the decree says. Indeed the risk of countries gaining possession of and using chemical weapons, as well as biological weapons, has risen as well, it elaborates.

"The network of US biological military labs is expanding on the territories of countries neighboring Russia," it said. "Russia's independent foreign and domestic policy has been met with counteraction by the US and its allies, seeking to maintain its dominance in world affairs."

3. NATO expansion goes overboard

The North Atlantic alliance advance towards Russia's borders is a threat to national security, according to the document. Processes of militarization and arms build-ups are unfolding in regions neighboring Russia, it says, adding that "the principles of equal and indivisible security" are not being respected in the Euro-Atlantic, Eurasian and Asia-Pacific regions.

Nonetheless, Russia is still interested in a fair dialogue and good relations with NATO, the US and the EU, the strategy says. Under the partnership, it's important to enhance mechanisms "provided by international treaties on arms control, confidence-building measures, issues related to non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the expansion of cooperation in the fight against terrorism, the settlement of regional conflicts," it says.

4. Ukraine figures

US and EU support of the coup in Ukraine has led to a deep split in Ukrainian society and prompted an armed conflict, the decree stated. The rise of far-right nationalist ideology and the intentionally-created image of Russia as an "enemy" in Ukraine have made it a "long-term source of instability in Europe and directly at the Russian border."

5. No to nukes?

Russia may be ready to discuss curbing its nuclear potential, but only based on mutual agreements and multi-lateral talks, the document states. Curtailing Russia's nuclear potential will only occur if it were also to "contribute to the creation of appropriate conditions that will enable a reduction of nuclear weapons, without damaging international security and strategic stability."

At the same time, Russia plans to prevent any military conflicts by maintaining its nuclear capabilities as a deterent, but would resort to the military option only if all other non-military options had failed.

6. Info warfare

Secret services have become increasingly active in using their capabilities in the struggle for international influence, the document highlighted.

"An entire spectrum of political, financial, economic and information instruments has been brought into struggle for influence in the international arena."

7. When to use military force

The strategy allows the use of military force only in cases when other measures to "protect the national interests" are ineffective.

8. Money matters

Russia's economic stability is in danger mainly because of its low level of competitiveness and its resource-dependent economy.

Among other threats is "a lag in the development of advanced technologies, the vulnerability of the financial system, the imbalance of the budgetary system, the economy going offshore, the exhaustion of the raw materials base, the strength of the shadow economy, conditions leading to corruption and criminal activities, and uneven development of regions."

The fact that Russia is dependent on the external economic environment doesn't help matters, the document reads. Economic restrictions, global and regional crises, as well as the misuse use of the law, among other things, will have a negative impact on the economy, and in the future could lead to a deficit of mineral, water, and biological resources.

"The growing influence of political factors on economic processes, as well as attempts by individual states to use economic methods, tools of financial, trade, investment and technology policies to solve their geopolitical problems, weakens the stability of the system of international economic relations."

9. What's next for the economy?

Understanding the problems faced by the country's economy, the Russian government plans to take measures to deal with them. To ensure economic security, the country will need to balance its budget, prevent capital outflows, and reduce inflation, the document states.

"To resist the hazards to economic security, the government... will carry out a national social and economic policy involving ... strengthening of the financial system, ensuring its sovereignty and the stability of the national currency".

Russia also considers developing relations with China, India, Latin America and Africa as highly important.
December 31, 2016
Russian security blueprint sees NATO expansion as threat

President Vladimir Putin signed off the latest version of the Russian Federation National Security Strategy on 31 December 2015, the Kremlin website reported on the same day.

The document accuses Western countries of interventions that have jeopardized international security and spawned terrorism (including Islamic State). NATO expansion is described as a threat to national security and the "defining factor" in relations with the alliance. The USA and EU are blamed for the situation in Ukraine and the USA is rebuked for trying to maintain a global hegemony by holding Russia down. But the document also states a commitment to arms control, nuclear deterrence and international security frameworks and an openness to negotiations on these matters, and it recognizes the global importance of the Russia-US relationship.

This amended wording of the strategy replaces and supersedes the one dated 12 May 2009.

After the United Nations and its Security Council, the international groups that Russia names as priorities for collaboration are BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), RIC (Russia, India, China), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the G20, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

As for individual countries, India and China are mentioned in their own right, as are the secessionist Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; European states and the USA are last in the list. "The previous strategy set out Russia's aims in strategic stability and strategic partnership on an equal footing but did not name specific countries," RIA Novosti news agency said.

Below are selected quotes from the document, which is published in full on the Kremlin website as a 41-page pdf file. []


"The defining factor in relations with NATO remains the unacceptability to the Russian Federation of the alliance's increase in military activity and the proximity of its military infrastructure to Russia's borders, the creation of a missile defence system and attempts to assume global functions in breach of international law ... (This) creates a threat to national security."

Russia "is ready to develop relations with NATO on the basis of equality to strengthen overall security in the Euro-Atlantic region. The depth and substance of these relations will be determined by the alliance's willingness to take into account the Russian Federation's legitimate interests in its military-political planning and to respect international law".

Islamic State

"The practice of overthrowing legitimate political regimes and causing internal instability and conflict is becoming more widespread. Alongside existing seats of tension in the Near and Middle East, Africa, southern Asia and on the Korean peninsula, new 'hot spots' are appearing and areas not under the control of any state are expanding ... The emergence of the terrorist organization calling itself Islamic State and the strengthening of its influence are the result of the policy of double standards that some states apply in the fight against terrorism."


"The West's practice of resisting integration processes and of creating seats of tension in the Eurasian region is having an adverse impact on the pursuit of Russia's national interests. US and EU support for the anticonstitutional coup d'etat in Ukraine led to a profound schism in Ukrainian society and the emergence of an armed conflict. The strengthening of an extreme right-wing nationalist ideology, deliberate portrayal to Ukrainian public opinion of Russia as the enemy, the manifest determination to resolve internal issues by force and a profound socioeconomic crisis are turning Ukraine into a long-term seat of instability in Europe and right on Russia's borders."

Strategic deterrence, nuclear weapons

"Strategic deterrence and prevention of military conflict are secured by maintaining nuclear forces at the required level and the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, other forces, and military structures and bodies at the required level for use in combat."

"A favourable environment for the Russian Federation's sustainable long-term development is created through maintaining strategic stability, including gradual progress towards a world free of nuclear weapons ..."

Russia is "ready for further discussion of reductions in nuclear weapons on the basis of bilateral agreements and in multilateral formats and also facilitates the creation of appropriate conditions for reductions in nuclear weapons without detriment to international security and strategic stability".

"Global and regional stability are much harder to maintain when the USA is deploying components of a missile defence system in Europe, the Asia-Pacific region and the Near East, putting into practice its concept of 'global strike', deploying strategic non-nuclear precision weapons and also deploying weapons in space."


"Russia is growing stronger against a backdrop of new threats to national security that are complex and interrelated. The Russian Federation's pursuit of an independent foreign and domestic policy is leading to countermoves by the USA and its allies as they attempt to maintain their domination in global affairs. Their policy of restraining Russia takes the form of exerting pressure through political, economic, military and information means."

"The Russian Federation is interested in building a fully-fledged partnership with the USA on the basis of coincidence of interests, including economic and with account for the key influence of Russian-American relations on the international situation in general. Vital areas of such a partnership remain the improvement of international treaty mechanisms for arms control, strengthening of confidence-building measures, solutions to nonproliferation issues with weapons of mass destruction, expansion of cooperation against terrorism, and settlement of regional conflicts."


"Structural imbalances in the global economic and financial system, growing sovereign debt and volatility on fuel and energy markets mean that the risk remains high of a repeat of large-scale financial and economic crises."

"Essential conditions for energy security are more effective state management of the fuel and energy complex ... ensuring the country's technological sovereignty on the world energy market ... preventing discrimination against Russian fuel and energy suppliers on markets abroad and against Russian extraction companies for development of hydrocarbon deposits beyond Russia's borders, and resisting attempts by a number of states to regulate fuel and energy markets for political rather than economic considerations ..."
Russia Direct
January 1, 2016
Debates: Russia's foreign policy failures and achievements of 2015
As 2015 has already come to an end, Russia Direct picked up its best comments from prominent experts to outline the Kremlin's most significant failures and achievements in its foreign policy in 2015.
By Pavel Koshkin
[Graphic here:]

Russia Direct sums up the results of the Kremlin's foreign policy - its achievements and failures - in 2015 by bringing together the comments of Russian and foreign well-known experts.

Dmitri Trenin, director of Moscow Carnegie Center:

With a firm alienation of Russia from Europe, there is "anti-Russian barrage with military taste" created in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, Ukraine has become and will remain the most hostile country toward Russia. The Ukrainian nation is currently based on the anti-Russian foundation. Ukraine's project itself is implemented not only through "being without Russia," but "being in defiance of Russia."

The calculation [of the Kremlin] that Ukraine will quickly collapse won't come to fruition. It will remain in a half-collapsed state.  The Minsk Agreements will be neither fully implemented nor buried.  However, the likelihood of the war is very low in comparison with the last year.

Regarding Russia's campaign in Syria and its policy in the Middle East, of course, Russia is participating in the war, but the Kremlin is conducting it in the American style [by using military methods and committing the same mistakes]. It is the first war, which is not common for our [foreign policy] tradition. Never ever have we conducted such wars.

It won't be easy to leave the Middle East. It will be difficult like the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. Yes, Russia boosted its geopolitical status by launching military campaign in Syria, but it might be caught in a quagmire in the Middle East. The problem is that Russia seems to punches above its weight. The gap between its ambitions and potential is very big.  

What surprised me this year [most] is Russia's U-turn in its relations with Turkey. It means that our policy is conducted not really in the19th-century style, but rather in the style of the 19th century. And this both impress and frighten. Russia's intervention in the Middle East brought about a mess in Turkey's plans in Syria, that's why Ankara downed the Russian jet, not because it crossed its airspace.

The comment is based on Trenin's Dec. 22 presentation of the results of Russia's foreign policy in 2015 at Carnegie Moscow Center.   

Richard Sakwa, professor of Russian and European Politics at University of Kent:

2015 has been a dynamic year for events. While 2014 have been dominated by Ukraine, was dominated by Syria and the refugee crisis. The speech of Mr. Putin at the UN [70th anniversary] summit was extremely important.It outlined not only his often criticism of the Western policy, but it outlined the flat platform, the possibility of some sort of reliance.

Secondly, [there was] the emphasis on fulfilling Minsk 2 agreement, because the year began with the Battle of Debaltseve, and the signing of the second Minsk Agreement in February neutralized Ukraine as an element of the conflict between Russia and the West. So, it is the second major achievement, given that Russia is trying to ensure the fulfillment of the Minsk Agreement. So far, all countries are condemning each other for the failure to achieve this.

And, thirdly, of course, the failure is that the sanctions [on Russia for its policy in Ukraine] continue, [the Kremlin's] import substitution policy failed. The great failure, of course, is to achieve a breakthrough on economic level, given the fact that the country is in crisis now.

Russia Direct interviewed Sakwa during the 2015 convention of the Association of Slavic, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES)

Kathryn Stoner, political analysts at Stanford University:   

Russia has a lot of foreign policy successes in 2015. Mr. Putin was very determined to re-establish Russia as the major international player and inserting Russia in Syrian conflict in the way that so far can be viewed as a success in terms of Russia now needing to be taken into account.

Whether or not, it translates into leverage in other areas in terms of Russia's international security is a question as well. I think more frictions have been created with NATO. I don't think that it is in Russia's interests at all. And this is the major failure [of the Kremlin's foreign policy].   

Dmitry Gorenburg, director at the Center for Strategic Studies:

The achievements of the Russian foreign policy in 2015 are primarily related to its operation in Syria. Russia showed higher level of military capabilities than anyone expected and it is inserted itself into the discussion of settlements in the Middle East in the way it didn't have before.

In terms of failures of 2015, the operation in Ukraine was the main failure. Russia only lost influence in Ukraine as a result and now caught in a quagmire. It negatively affects its relations with the U.S.   

Russia Direct interviewed Goreburg during the 2015 ASEEES convention.

The survey was carried out by RD among experts participating at the ASEEES 47th Annual Convention (November 19-22, 2015) and via email. An online survey was available only to RD's website audience (December 4-10, 2015). The respondents could answer the given questions by choosing only one of the four proposed answers or submit their own.

Mark Galeotti, professor of global affairs at New York University and a specialist on Russian security affairs:

There are tactical and strategic achievements. The tactical ones include the Syrian move: Although there are still many, many risks, associated with it, it was brilliant by the way it was executed.

But more generally, the strategic virtue is two-fold: One is actually managing to mitigate some of the worst impacts of the post-Ukrainian adventure, isolation and so forth. And secondly, Russia seems to have proved that to a certain extent it is a regional and global player: not a strong one, not by any means like the United States or China.

Because Putin has demonstrated a capacity to play his weak hand very well, because Putin has demonstrated a capacity to be a spoiler, he has, at least, made a case that you cannot ignore Moscow. And this is a key priority of this year.

But the failures are also in essence extensions of the failures of 2014. Attempts to induce Kiev to accept Moscow's hegemony have proven unsuccessful - if the attempt to build a new, democratic and West-looking Ukrainian state comes to nothing again, it will as usual be because of the Ukrainians.

Attempts to persuade the West to lift its sanctions regime have failed. Attempts to turn economic relations with China into some broader alliance that would allow Moscow to minimize the impact of Western isolation have failed.

There is a chance that thanks to Syria and, ironically, ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria], Moscow may be able to make some progress on this, but for all the talk of Putin as a master strategist, actually Russian foreign policy so far this year has not accomplished any of its main goals.
Russia Direct interviewed Galeotti during the 2015 ASEEES convention.

The survey was carried out by RD among experts participating at the ASEEES 47th Annual Convention (November 19-22, 2015) and via email. An online survey was available only to RD's website audience (December 4-10, 2015).
Aurel Braun, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto and an associate of the Davis Center at Harvard University:

Clearly, Russia has ensured that it is not ignored. The Western countries made a mistake of moving from the Soviet era where the Soviet Union was their number one preoccupation to actually almost forgetting about Russia and not realizing that Russia is an important player and Russia needs to be respected and consulted.

And to that extent Russia's foreign policy has been successful and understand the change, we have the example of the French President Francois Hollande going to Moscow to consult with Mr. Putin [after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks]. Clearly, Russia cannot be ignored.

But the problem is that given the methods used by the Kremlin this kind of Russian success has been achieved at a very heavy cost [sanctions, ruined reputation, harsh criticism and attempts at isolation from the West]. What is so very important for the Russian people is to understand that those in the West who may criticize the Russian government are not necessarily anti-Russian, that many of us do care deeply about Russia, like the Russian people and would like to see the Russian people have a better future.

Robert Freedman, visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University's Department of Political Science:

Heavy-handed actions that Mr. Putin has used has driven Finland and Sweden into seriously considering for the first time joining NATO. That's a huge mistake on his part. He was projecting Russian power, but it proved to be counter-effective. This is number one.

Number two is that the Russian strength in the Middle East comes primarily from American failures: in Egypt, Russia had a big success, due to the Obama administration's confusion as to how to relate to the Sisi government. That was the case until the airliner was shot down, and now Russian-Egyptian relations are more problematic.

However, unlike the United States, which was wavering on supporting the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi government, Russia came immediately to support the Sisi government. And for this reason, I expect a quick reconciliation betwen Russia and Egypt.

Also the Kremlin made use of the mistakes of the United States in getting too close to Iran, which alienated the Saudis. Consequently, the Saudis began seriously negotiating - without a lot of success so far with Russia. So there are two big successes.
December 30, 2015
Russia and Ukraine Finally Break Up
By Leonid Bershidsky
[Chart here]

Russia and Ukraine have spent most of their post-Soviet history as Siamese twins, but for the last two years they've been undergoing political and economic separation surgery. It will probably be more or less complete in 2016, and though both twins are in for a grim period, the weaker one, Ukraine, has the better prospects in some ways.

Ever since Ukraine declared independence in August 1991, it sought to establish an identity that would set it apart from Russia. Its second president, Leonid Kuchma, even published a book called "Ukraine Is Not Russia" in 2003. In practice, however, Ukraine kept following its bigger neighbor even through its failed Westernization period of 2005 to 2010. It inherited the same basis for its legal system and government -- the Soviet bureaucracy -- and even attempted reforms often imitated Moscow's moves. When I moved from Moscow to Kiev in 2011, I felt no discomfort: Everything, from bureaucratic procedures to the pervasive corruption that made a mockery of them, was largely the same in the two countries.

Economically, Ukraine remained Russia's colony. In 2013, its trade turnover with Russia, at $31.8 billion according to the official Ukrainian statistics agency, reached 28 percent of its total trade. For Moscow, Ukraine wasn't as important, but it was still its fifth biggest trading partner with a 5 percent share of turnover. That last peaceful year, 6.1 million Ukrainians, out of a total population of 45.5 million, visited Russia, about two-thirds of them to work. Only Poland, Ukraine's entry point to the EU, received slightly more visitors.

Russian rulers got used to this. Even this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin contended that "Russians and Ukrainians are one nation." It's no longer true: The last two years, since Ukraine's "Revolution of Dignity," the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, have seen perhaps the biggest breakup between neighboring, closely interconnected countries in post-World War II history. In 2014, only 4.6 million Ukrainians traveled to Russia -- less than two-thirds as many as to Poland. This year's statistics are not in yet, but another drop in travel to Russia is highly likely, because Moscow has been tightening regulations to make it harder for Ukrainian migrant workers to stay indefinitely and because, as of last summer, there are no more direct flights between the two countries. Besides, starting in mid-2016, Ukrainians will be able to travel visa-free to the European Union, which will likely make travel to Europe vastly more popular.

As for bilateral trade, it has plummeted:

Though both Russia and Ukraine have suffered declines in international trade because of sharply devalued currencies (the ruble has lost 20 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar this year, and the hryvnia lost 34 percent), the decline in exports and imports between the two countries has been more pronounced than with the rest of the world. For example, Ukraine's exports to Russia stood at 44 percent of the 2014 level in the first 10 months of this year, while total exports were at 67 percent.

Ukrainian businesses have fought to maintain sales to Russia, using a free economic zone in Crimea that the two countries quietly maintained as a window for cheap Ukrainian food. In the fall of 2015, though, Crimean Tatar and right-wing Ukrainian activists cut off the traffic, and Kiev decided against interfering. On the import side, Russian natural gas supplies have shrunk because much of Ukraine's energy-intensive industry is in the war-torn east, the winter has been mild and the government has managed to secure alternative supplies from Europe.

Next year, the last vestiges of mutual dependence between Ukraine and Russia will probably be destroyed by Moscow's decision to scrap the free trade area with Kiev in response to the removal of trade barriers between Ukraine and the EU. The two countries will keep fighting about the annexed territory, the status of the rebel-held regions, and the $3 billion debt to Russia that Ukraine recently refused to honor, but these festering disputes are just the anticlimactic aftermath of a process that has been more drastic than any divorce.

Both have been painfully depleted by the surgery.

Economically, Russia suffered much more from a low oil price than from the economic sanctions imposed for its treatment of Ukraine -- those have mainly forced its mammoth state firms to deleverage and cut useless projects. Yet in response to the sanctions, the Putin government shot itself in the foot, imposing a food embargo on Western countries. The decision has been a disaster: Import substitution has failed to materialize because of an oppressive business climate, and the restrictions on imports have crushed the retail sector. Retail sales were down 13 percent year-on-year in November.

Russia's GDP will go down by 3.8 percent this year, according to the Bloomberg consensus forecast, and the Kremlin's ham-handed response to Ukraine-related ostracism is probably as much to blame for this as cheap oil. It has hastened the end of the consumption-driven growth model that sustained Russia through the last decade.

Ukraine, for its part, has lost about 3 million residents compared with 2013, despite one of the worst natural population growth rates in the world. The Crimea annexation is mainly to blame. Ukraine also saw a 20 percent decline in industrial production, largely because the factories in the east stopped working.

This, of course, is a disaster for a country that was poor to start with and that is now the poorest in Europe. Yet there is one good reason to believe the steep fall has bottomed out: Russia has no appetite for further military adventures in Ukraine. Recent month-on-month indicators show a cautious rebound is already under way. Though this year, the Bloomberg consensus forecast is for a 10.7 percent economic decline, economists believe Ukraine will grow 1.4 percent next year. For Russia, a 0.2 percent decline is forecast.

For Russia, the economic bottom is still nowhere in sight, and the government has no good ideas on how to fix the economy during a commodities downturn. Isolation and repression will remain the key words of 2016, as Russians' patience is further tested with the decline of the consumer economy they've grown used to.

While Russia will remain a much wealthier, stronger country than Ukraine in 2016, Ukraine will be on a relative upswing even if it fails to do anything about its stifling corruption and incompetent governance. It still has support from the International Monetary Fund, despite recent squabbles over the 2016 budget and new tax laws, and it has agreed debt reductions and delays with most of its creditors. The abolition of European visas will also provide a much-needed morale boost.

Russia, of course, is far from a lost cause: It has rebuilt itself after worse crises. Neither is Ukraine a likely big winner: Its political and economic fabric may be too rotten for redemption. In 2016, however, Ukrainians have more to look forward to than Russians.

December 30, 2015
'American exceptionalism' hampers its war on terror - Lavrov

America's consciousness of being an "exceptional" nation interferes with its ability to fight terrorism in every direction and by all means, Russia's foreign minister has said, noting that Turkey is copying the behavior of its NATO mentor in Iraq.

"The factor that does no good to our cause is American exceptionalism. It sets a stamp upon how they decide to fight terrorism: in depth, in width and against individuals," FM Sergey Lavrov said, adding that the Americans believe that they can admonish everybody else.

The creation of a coalition on Syria is "absolutely" an American idea, Lavrov said, sharing that many of the US's allies in NATO would prefer that the issue is dealt with the "proper way," through UN institutions.

"But no - they say [Syrian President Bashar] Assad is illegitimate and there could be no deal with him," Lavrov said in an interview with Zvezda TV.

The Russian foreign minister also pointed out that the international counter-terrorist coalition treats Iraq in a different way from Syria.

When Baghdad asked the international coalition to fight terrorists on its territory, then "we love Iraq," in the meantime Syria is a dictatorship which days are numbered, so "we're going to bomb it without asking for permission," Lavrov said, referring to the US attitude toward the two countries.

Lavrov specifically singled out Turkey, saying that it mimicked this type of behavior when violating Iraq's sovereign territorial integrity.

"Hadn't there been such arrogant approach on part of the US-led coalition toward bombing terrorists in Syria without the authorization of the country's government, Turkey would not dare to behave in such an impudent way toward Iraq," the Russian FM said.
Vineyard of the Saker/Kommersant Vlast
December 31, 2015
Interview of Michael T. Flynn, retired United States Army lieutenant general, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)

We are moving towards a major war

Translated by KA

Michael Flynn, former head of the intelligence service of the US Ministry of Defence from 2012-2014, visited Moscow in December at the invitation of the TV channel Russia Today, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. Known as a critic of the US invasion of Iraq and the international military operation in Libya, Michael Flynn talked to "Vlast" about the consequences of the Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict.

Q: According to the television channel Al Jazeera, you were the first senior US official to state publicly that the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia were supplying groups inside Syria connected to "Al Qaeda" with weapons to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Is that what you said?

No, it's definitely not what I said. I meant that we support such diverse anti-Assad forces in Syria, such a variety of factions, it is almost impossible to figure out who is who and who is working with whom. The increasing complexity of the composition of the warring Syrian opposition has considerably complicated its identification. For this reason I am sure that from the point of view of US interests, we must once more take a step back and subject our strategy to review. Because the possibility that we will support forces linked to the "Islamic State" (an organization which is banned in Russia - Vlast), along with other anti-Assad forces in Syria does exist. We cannot act on a "straddle the fence" principle. We must very clearly define what we are trying to achieve and with whom we intend to work.

Q: Which groups does the US support in Syria?

Oh God, too many. I remember we counted around 1,200 warring groups. I really believe that not one of us, including Russia, has a clear understanding of what we have to deal with there, but tactically it is very important to understand it. A one-sided view of the situation in Syria and Iraq would be a mistake.

Q: Russia and the United States have differing opinions on the activities of rebel groups in Syria and cannot yet agree on a common list of terrorists. For example, Moscow proposes to include such radical groups as "Ahrar al-Sham" and "Jaish al-Islam." What do you think of these groups?

Russia, like the United States, can declare certain groups to be terrorist organizations, taking the responsibility to do so in accordance with its own vision. I would like to believe that we - Russia and the United States - could have a really constructive conversation about this, discussing whether "Jaish al-Islam" or "Al-Shabab", which is associated with "al-Qaeda", or some other group should be designated as terrorists. In so doing we must provide each other with our precise criteria for the definition of terrorist groups.

Q: However, regarding certain groups the USA is obviously wavering. For example, the Salafist group "Ahrar ash-Sham" incorporates a powerful jihadist component and has links to the terrorist organization "Jabhat al-Nusra". Is this not enough?

Personally, I think that it is enough. "Jabhat al-Nusra" supports the "Islamic state." All in all, I think it is now important for the United States to take a more realistic look at who's who in this zoo. Because this is a zoo and one with wide-open cages. It's a jungle. And so we have to define our common criteria for interacting with all of this.

But a decision must also be made on the Assad regime. Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, he violated international and moral law; he must be brought before an international tribunal. That is what I would recommend in this situation. We cannot consider such a person as a national leader.

When the whole story began, Assad tried to deal with each individual incident, in every part of the country, trying to pacify the protesters against the background of the Arab uprisings that swept through various countries. However, Assad did not recognize that he had one big problem in the whole of the country. He used the wrong means. In my opinion, he is very lucky to still be alive and in power. And Russia is the main reason why it is still the case. Russia, together with the international community, needs to decide whether we can live on the same planet with people like Assad. Can this person take a leadership position. Whether the Syrian people have the right to vote. Just think - ten million displaced persons - it is half the population of the country. We - the international community - must give the Syrian people the opportunity to choose, we must give the refugees the opportunity to return, we must give hope of a prosperous and sustainable state.

Q: You stated that in 2012 the US government turned a blind eye to a report of the Pentagon's Intelligence Agency headed by you detailing the substantial progress of radical Sunni Salafist groups among the Syrian opposition. Why did this happen?

This was intentional and was done for political reasons. The problem was that the investigation was carried out correctly, the Intelligence Agency informed the authorities about the real situation. And this, in my opinion, is the main function of the intelligence services - to speak truth to the authorities. If I tell the president the truth, but he does not like what he hears, it is not my problem. My problem is to provide an appropriate report.

The report mentioned among other things the significant deterioration of the situation in the region. In 2013 there were 300 bomb attacks on the territory of Iraq. The situation was getting worse. The decision to withdraw from Iraq eventually became one of the preconditions for the emergence of the "Islamic state".

Q: One of the reasons why for a long time the United States did not dare to supply weapons to the Syrian opposition was that there was no guarantee that these would not fall into the hands of radicals. Since then the situation has only worsened. Why did the US then decide in 2013 to supply arms?

I do not know what played a decisive role. I know one thing: we need to stop investing in the conflict. In supplying weapons to Syria, we kindle the conflict. And we are talking about Russia, too. We need to invest in security, and in this the community of Arab countries should also play a major role.

Q: How serious, in your opinion, is the problem of support of radical Sunni groups by US allies? We're talking about Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar? What can be done about this?

Let's not play the information game. Because my counter-question to that is: what can be done about the fact that the Syrian regime's ally Iran supports "Hezbollah"? "Hezbollah" is an international terrorist organization whose branches operate far beyond the Levant, it is absolutely precisely a serious security threat. Members of "Hezbollah" killed a lot of people not only in the Middle East. Hence, Iran is doing the same by sponsoring terrorism. Fruitful cooperation between Russia and the West is only possible if Iran becomes a part of the equation. In order to commence resolving the issue, we must recognize that Iran is part of the problem.

Q: What are the possible consequences of the Russian intervention in the conflict?

From this viewpoint, the Russian intervention in the form it took immediately changed the balance and dynamics that existed before. I'd really like to talk about it with President Putin. After all, what consequences and what effect has he already experienced? We have seen the incident with the Russian warplane downed by Turkey, and also the explosion organised by the "Islamic State" on board an aircraft with Russian passengers, as a result of which many people died. They are overly disadvantageous consequences for the start of the intervention. Both are unacceptable, but they are real consequences.

President Putin's decision to intervene in the conflict and to do what he was doing there is, in my opinion, connected to problems within Russia. Five to ten thousand Russian citizens are fighting in Syria which is partly why Russia wants to be there - so that these people do not return to Chechnya, Dagestan, Uzbekistan and Moscow. I think we did not recognize and did not realize this - that President Putin is trying to solve a problem that in reality already exists, and for which a part of the solution can be found in Syria and Iraq. The main problem is how we - I mean the great powers, Russia and the West - can work together. This is a major question. And this is not about diplomatic negotiations, it is about how we will work on the battlefield, in the information field and on the digital battlefield, which also exists in reality.

We firmly believe in the existence of a mutual interest in destroying this cancerous tumour that is radical Islam. If we don't do this together, we will have to try to do it alone, which will be much more difficult.

As a young officer, I learned the rule that the best plan is the one that at the very last moment leaves you with the most alternatives. I wonder whether President Putin believes that he has the best plan? Does President Obama believe the same? When I look at what's going on - how things are - I can see that a huge threat hangs over us. I don't think we have left ourselves a sufficient variety of choices. And the direction in which we are currently moving leads to a widening of the conflict - to a major war. The closer we are to it, the higher the risks, the higher the price, the more limited our choices. So now it is important that we work together, the United States and Russia, to determine whether we can develop more opportunities together to stabilize the situation.

Q: Does the US have a long-term strategy for Syria and for the region as a whole?

Here I can only give my own view on this issue. Considering I really do not understand what the US strategy of today is: it lacks definition, clarity and it lacks consistency. In my view, the strategy should consist of four components: first you need to achieve security, then you must stabilize the region, and then you begin to stimulate economic prosperity in the region, bringing back new ideas, new technologies and a new system of education. You need to give the region a sufficiently long period of time to develop.

In order that this can become a reality, the strategy must be implemented not only by the US and the West, but the regional powers Russia, China and India must also be involved. Since the current situation affects all of us, without exception. Because in the short term, we cannot continue to move in the direction, in which we are moving. This is unsustainable.

Q: How can the "Islamic state" be defeated?

At this point, the military component must play a major role - the destruction of the "Islamic state" in the occupied territories. However, this is not enough.

After all, the roots of the problems are economic. It is necessary to promote the emergence of a viable regional economy. We must deprive radical Islamists of their justification, of the opportunity to blame the West for all the troubles in the region. Let us give these countries something in order to deprive the radicals of opportunities to influence young people.

In the long term it is also necessary to work against the spread of the Salafist and Wahhabi ideology. We need strong leaders in the religious community, who can prevent the spread of radicalism.

Q: There is broad support for the "caliphate" project in the Muslim world and it is not only among the marginalized. In Saudi Arabia, which is the leader of the Islamic world and the official religious doctrine of which is Wahhabi Salafism, around 90% of the people believe that the norms established by the salafist "Islamic state" really correspond to Islam, according to the results of a survey, which appeared in Arab mass media.

I don't believe it is 90%. And I do not think that Saudi authorities are happy that they are compared to the radicals or even that they are considered a part of this community. Although, no doubt, there is a Saudi component (in the "Islamic state" - "Vlast."

President Obama once said (commenting on Vladimir Putin's proposal made to the UN General Assembly to create a joint anti-terrorist coalition- "Vlast") that the US-led coalition had 60 members whereas President Putin had only two (he was referring to Iran and Assad - "Vlast"). This is not how we should be talking. Today there are representatives of 80 countries in the ranks of the "Islamic State". Their coalition is bigger than ours. There are around 20 to 30 thousand foreign fighters in Syria. Why? It's not just the Saudis. It is the ideology, which was introduced in many countries and which converted people there to "true believers." We must work together to come up with ways to counter this dangerous enemy. And for that we need to include getting rid of the white liberal guilt complex.

Q: Barack Obama's speech at Cairo University in 2009 was seen by many as the beginning of a change in US policy in the Middle East. He created the image of a "friend of Islam." Has the policy really changed in recent years? How would you evaluate it from today's standpoint?

I do not think that it has become qualitatively different. President Obama, by the way, spoke about this recently in his speech in the Oval Office. We have not changed the direction of our policy - it still consists of the fight against terrorism. That is, we continue to do what our country has decided it should do. US policy today lacks transparency, clarity and consistency. I think we just have to admit that it's not working. However, Russian policy is also not entirely clear. Russian intervention is becoming an increasingly important factor, it fundamentally changed the dynamics and we have to work with it. Better together than separately.
Absent 'Revolutionary Change,' Russia's Population Decline to Accelerate in Coming Decades, Experts Say
Paul Goble

Staunton, January 1 - Unless "revolutionary" steps are taken - something Moscow has shown no taste for given that it has spent less than half as much on boosting s than it did on the Sochi Olympiad - Russia's demographic decline will accelerate in the coming years and its population will fall in this century to just over half of what it is now.

Those are just some of the worrisome projections of Russian demographers surveyed by Aleksey Polubota and Varvara Sobolyeva in an article for the Svobodnaya pressa portal posted online today that follows the December 25 vote by the Federation Council to extend the maternal capital program, albeit at reduced levels (

The decision to extend the program, the two journalists say, "says on the one hand that the state recognizes the seriousness of the demographic challenges standing before it" but "on the other, demographers have said for a long time that such a measure is capable of giving only a short-term effect."

Boris Denisov, a demographer at Moscow State University, says that maternal capital has had an impact in some places on how many children Russians have and when they have them but he stresses that the program has not been all that large. Over nine years, Moscow has spent 20 billion US dollars on this effort to boost the birthrate, less than half of what it spent on Sochi.

Now, the Russian government is reducing the amount it spends on this program still further and consequently, the size of the Russian population will fall because the number of women in prime childbearing age groups will fall, deaths among the last "'Soviet generations'" will increase, and migration won't be able to compensate.

Igor Beloborodov, a specialist at the Russian Institute for Strategic Research (RISI), says that if the government had not extended the maternal capital program, the country's demographic situation would be even worse given the impact of the economic crisis. But he said no one should expect any "grandiose increase" in the birthrate as a result.

"For example," he says, "in regions like the Caucasus and Buryatia, the level of second births even earlier was relatively high, but in the northwestern regions of Russia, where the demographic crisis is most manifest, the situation has remained almost unchanged" despite this program.

Beloborodov suggests that Russia should adopt "more creative decisions" in this area, including a television propaganda campaign to promote the idea that families should include three or four children and not just one or none as now. In doing so, he says, Russia would not only be saving itself but showing the way for other countries as well.

The immediate challenge for Russia is truly enormous, he continues.  Given the decline in the number of women in prime reproductive age cohorts, "young [Russian] mothers must give birth significantly more than now. That is, if today, on average for improving the demographic situation, they need to have 2.2 children each, by 2025, this figure could be boosted to 2.5."

(Beloborodov does not say so but such a boost in such a short period of time is almost unprecedented in international experience except immediately after military conflicts and for a relatively short period at that.)

And Yury Krupnov of the Moscow Institute of Demography, Migration and Regional Development, says that Moscow is going to have to do a lot more if it hopes to avoid a real demographic collapse.  In the short term, Russia cannot avoid falling into another "demographic pit."

Over the next 13 years, he says, the number of women in prime childbearing cohorts will fall, with the lowest point being in 20215 when there will be almost half as many such women as there were in 2010, "with all the ensuing consequences" of fewer babies, smaller families, and declines in the population.

Many in Moscow have been shouting about "victories and a large birthrate" in Russia in recent years, but "nevertheless, by the end of this century according to the mid-range scenario, if the current trends continue, there will remain a little more than half of the current population - about 80 million people."

That prospect should cause officials to think about "revolutionary means" of boosting the birthrate, including those which will change cultural attitudes and patterns.  If Russia is to avoid this disaster, Krupnov says, women should have on average four children rather than the one they do now.
Washington Post
January 2, 2016
The unseemly energy deal between Germany and Russia
The proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline project makes sense only if you're Vladimir Putin.
By Jim Hoagland  
The writer is a contributing editor to The Post. His email is

Germany's citizens and leaders have earned the world's respect over the decades since World War II by repeatedly taking the moral and political high ground. From Willy Brandt's imaginative Ostpolitik approach to relations with the Eastern bloc to the peaceful and effective reunification of their divided country in 1990, and on to Angela Merkel's principled welcome of Syrian refugees in 2015, Germans have set standards that the rest of us have to admire.

So why in the world are they risking that hard-earned reputation for the sake of a seemingly corrupt gas pipeline deal with Russia's Vladimir Putin - especially since the vast changes in the global energy markets of the past year have made the Russian deal obsolete, as well as damaging to European unity? And why is the Obama administration doing so little to discourage Chancellor Merkel from going along with Putin's pipeline skulduggery?

This makes no sense. Putin's objective is blatant. He intends to lock in revenue for his Gazprom corporation while deepening Western Europe's dependence on Russian gas and strangling Ukraine's ability to resist his faltering destabilization campaign there. And yet Merkel persists in describing the proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline as "a commercial project" that makes market sense.

"But it doesn't," says Anders Aslund of the Atlantic Council. "Consumption of natural gas in the European Union has fallen by 21 percent over the past decade, and the existing Gazprom pipeline under the Baltic Sea is now operating at half capacity. And Gazprom is no ordinary state corporation. It pursues Russia's geopolitical goals, cutting supplies or raising prices when the Kremlin wants."

The views of Aslund, a Swedish economist with extensive experience in Russia and Ukraine, are bolstered by Gerhard Schroeder's role as the head of the board of directors at Gazprom's Nord Stream subsidiary. Schroeder signed the initial sweetheart deal with Putin for the Nord Stream 1 pipeline in 2005 shortly after his defeat by Merkel at the polls. It was in his final days as Germany's chancellor that he began discussions with Putin about going on the Gazprom payroll, according to one source in a position to know.

And the surprise announcement in June by Gazprom of its intention to build yet another pipeline that bypasses Ukraine - which currently earns about $2 billion in transit revenue for Russian gas passing through its territory - is vigorously defended at every turn by the vice chancellor of Merkel's coalition government, Sigmar Gabriel, a major figure in Schroeder's Social Democratic Party.

Certainly by the standards Germany has developed to overcome its Nazi past and to protect its strong sense of social unity, this is tawdry stuff. It is not just about the money, of course. It is also about the geopolitics of placating Putin. And that suggests a surprising lack of solidarity by Germany toward its neighbors to the east.

In the two years I lived in Germany, I came to admire the German willingness to share the burden of hard times broadly across society. The willingness of German workers to restrain demands for wages and benefits helps explain why German unemployment today is half of that of France. The sacrifices made to absorb the former East Germany's population on equal terms speak for themselves.

But Merkel's failure to recognize an essential reality - for Putin, economics is war by other means - suggests that solidarity now seems to stop at Germany's frontiers. And as Italy's Matteo Renzi and other European Union leaders pointed out at the E.U. summit in Brussels two weeks ago, Nord Stream 2 would gravely undermine the E.U.'s efforts to form a common energy market that is pledged to move toward decarbonization.

It may be no coincidence that Gazprom's escalation of pipeline positioning comes as Putin's military campaign in the eastern part of Ukraine seems to be faltering. Putin has found it much harder to control the insurgent forces he has armed there than he apparently expected. One rebel leader, Igor Strelkov, has been quoted in Moscow as having criticized Putin for not helping his forces enough. Putin may sense that time is running out on his Ukrainian adventure and that he must either win or deal now.

U.S. law was recently changed to permit the export of oil, and the country has an abundance of low-cost natural gas. The administration should make clear that it will provide Ukraine with emergency energy supplies if need be. And President Obama, who is making a push to wrap up a new trans-Atlantic trade pact, should use his enhanced working relationship with Merkel to make sure that Germany lives up to its own high standards of behavior and solidarity with allies by abandoning a strategically dangerous pipeline.
December 31, 2015
What next for President Putin?
Bridget Kendall
Diplomatic correspondent

For the past two years the story of Vladimir Putin's Russia has been a tale of two halves.

His supporters (plus, with grudging admiration, some of his detractors) have hailed him as a skilful strategist. They argue that his interventions in Ukraine and Syria caught Western powers unawares and made the world see that he was an international player to be reckoned with.

And it is true that, unlike most Western leaders who have to keep an eye on election cycles, he can afford to exercise strategic patience. Already more than 15 years at the helm and constitutionally able to stay on as president until 2024, with no viable opponent in sight, he can afford to wait and overcome setbacks if he doesn't get his way immediately.

It is also no secret that he does have long-term strategic goals. He talks about them all the time.

He is determined to wield his country's military clout, so that the world in general and the United States in particular realise that Russia is a great power, an equal partner whose interests must be accommodated.

He wants the West to acknowledge Russia's right to treat its post-Soviet neighbours as part of its sphere of influence, free from links to Nato or any other Western-dominated alliance.

He is on the lookout for levers to weaken Europe's ties with the US, in the hope of one day turning Russia into Europe's main strategic partner.

He keeps tightening his grip at home to avoid threats to his own power (like those street protests in 2011) and to the country's stability.

And he seeks to re-orientate the Russian economy to protect it from foreigners, and reduce its reliance on imports and plummeting energy prices.

Short-term retaliation

But not everyone is convinced that Mr Putin is a master strategist. Others see him as more of a tactician, constantly tacking back and forth in abrupt zigzags. His switches of policy may catch the world by surprise, say these critics, but they are more probably the result of short-term thinking than long-term planning.

Some gestures, they argue, are outbursts of retaliatory fury. Both the annexation of Crimea and Mr Putin's recent rupture in relations with Turkey would fall into this category.

Some moves can be seen as ways to extricate Moscow from faltering policies.

So this summer the guns went quiet in eastern Ukraine where the so-called Novorossiya project had failed to materialise and where a simmering war with its closest Slavic neighbour was proving unpopular with the Russian people. In its place came a new and bigger military campaign against an even more compelling enemy: the jihadist extremists in Syria.

On Russia's state-run TV the conversation abruptly changed too: no longer was the focus on Ukraine's government as "fascist" and "illegitimate"; no longer was the US painted as an existential enemy who for decades had been trying to dismember first the Soviet Union and then Russia.

Now, domestic viewers were told, it was the jihadist threat which was paramount, not just to President Assad of Syria but to Russia itself too. And only by striking the enemy first could Russia stay safe from it.

So now the West was no longer the main threat but a reluctant partner, and Western leaders were invited to remember earlier times when they put aside differences with Moscow to defeat a common Nazi enemy.

Such moves, say Mr Putin's critics, may satisfy short-term goals, such as forcing the outside world to pay attention to Russia and boosting his domestic popularity, but in the longer term they are often highly risky.

Dominance challenged

After all, probably contrary to Kremlin expectations, the Western sanctions against Russia have not wavered. Ukraine, the Baltics and others once in Russia's sphere of influence now see it as an enemy.

Montenegro, once a haven of Russian influence in the Balkans, now wants to join Nato. Having shot down a Russian plane, Turkey has gone from valued partner to mortal enemy. Even China, while ostensibly an important alternative ally, is challenging Russian dominance in Central Asia through its new Silk Road project.

And all the while at home the combination of sanctions and counter-sanctions, investor flight and low oil prices leading to a plummeting rouble has plunged Russia into what could be a sustained and painful recession.

Even the latest policy switch - towards war in Syria - has had its setbacks. No longer is Russia claiming as it did at the outset that this will be a short, sharp air campaign, over in four or five months. Now Russian officials admit they are likely to be in for the long haul.

And far from making Russia safer, the air campaign in Syria has already made it more of a target, with the tragic downing of a planeload of Russian tourists heading home from Egypt being seen by many as jihadist retaliation for Russian air strikes.

Already, in response, Russians are being encouraged not to risk foreign travel any more, for fear they might be targeted by enemies.

So what will 2016 bring?

The short answer is in foreign policy terms probably more of the same. President Putin's long-term objectives won't alter. He will continue to seek out new allies among populist politicians in Europe. Poland is one country to watch.

The run-up to German and French elections in 2017 will be watched closely in Moscow, especially if Nicolas Sarkozy looks like he could make it back to the Elysee. And a potential "Brexit" will be seen in Moscow as another possible weakening of the European project, which could provide it with new opportunities.

President Putin will no doubt also hope to make further headway in getting the outgoing Obama administration or the new incomer to do more to recognise Russia's importance.

He may well harbour the hope that Donald Trump makes it to the White House. Mr Putin has a liking for maverick politicians - think of his friendship with Italy's Silvio Berlusconi.

It was notable that he went out of his way to compliment Mr Trump during his end of year Kremlin press conference. And he probably worries that Hillary Clinton, well versed in foreign policy from her time at the State Department, may prove a tougher interlocutor.

Fragile Ukraine and Syria

No doubt his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, will continue to press for political solutions to the Ukraine crisis, through the Minsk process and in Syria, through what Moscow now describes as the Vienna process. But the omens are not good.

In Ukraine, the ceasefire is fragile. There has been renewed gunfire along the front line in recent weeks. Moscow says it won't fulfil the main condition of the Minsk agreement - restoring control of the border to Ukraine - until the status and autonomy of its rump statelet in the Donbass (the eastern region of Ukraine) is secured to its satisfaction, which seems unlikely.

Already Western sanctions have been extended until July. The uneasy status quo could well solidify this year, turning eastern Ukraine into yet another post-Soviet frozen conflict, which could stay in place for decades.

As for Syria, January is supposed to see the launch of a UN-sponsored third peace process. So far two rounds of peace talks have foundered.

And even if this time President Putin desperately needs a peace deal to extricate himself militarily from Syria, it is uncertain quite how far Russia's influence extends. He may now have more leverage over President Assad than he did, but there are also the conflicting interests of Shia Iran and the Sunni Arabs of the Gulf to contend with.

And while Syrian opposition groups continue to complain they are being hit by Russian bombs, it is unclear how they can be brought to the negotiating table, let alone be persuaded to turn round to fight so-called Islamic State (IS) targets, while trusting that the Syrian government forces which they once opposed, and which are now at their backs, won't take advantage of them.

'Fortress Russia'

But the most important focus for Russia in 2016 may be domestic.

The economic outlook is sobering.

President Putin claims that the peak of the economic crisis is over, and points to record harvests and dairy production as proof that Russia is already benefiting from "import substitution" and increased investments in agriculture.

But in other parts of the economy the picture is gloomy. Crude oil prices have plunged two-thirds since 2014, causing the rouble to sink in tandem.

Next year's budget is based on the assumption that oil prices will be at $50 a barrel, which could be a vast overestimate. If oil prices stay low, there will have to be severe cuts in the budget, with knock-on impact on payments and services which could adversely affect the very people who are Mr Putin's core supporters.

The Russian government will do what it can to cushion the blow, especially with parliamentary elections due in September - always seen as a litmus test of support for the government. But a recent strike by truckers and a smaller protest by teachers in the Urals will have worried the Kremlin. Keeping the lid on further protests will no doubt be a priority.

Add to this the Kremlin's concern about possible threats from IS extremists on Russian soil, and it seems inevitable that 2016 will more than ever be a year of "fortress Russia".

Ordinary Russians will be further discouraged from foreign travel on security grounds. New legislation may make it easier for the government to crack down on or stifle its opponents. Migrant workers from the Caucasus and Central Asia may find themselves scrutinised even more closely for possible links to jihadist groups in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Under threat from economic decline and from potential extremist jihadist attacks, Mr Putin may well feel under pressure. It could be an argument for him to try to end his row with the West, to get sanctions lifted and to find a way to end the war in Syria.

But if he feels he is being pushed too far, it is also an argument for him to batten down the hatches and tell the Russian people they face a dangerous world out there, no foreigners are to be trusted, and in the name of national security no disloyalty will be tolerated.
January 1, 2016
After Stalin's Death: Ludmila Ulitskaya's "The Big Green Tent"
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Ludmila Ulitskaya: The Big Green Tent
Trans. By Polly Gannon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 579 pp., $35

Stalin's death, March 5, 1953, is a day that I can still vividly remember, no doubt because of the newspaper report-including a photo-that doctors had used leeches to bleed him, to rid him of his bad blood. Oh, that it were so simple. No such reference to leeches appears in Ludmila Ulitskaya's amazing novel, The Big Green Tent, though there is plenty of rejoicing (including dancing in the streets) once the news of the dictator's death becomes public-preceded by disbelief, because if your life is controlled by such a monster, you find it almost impossible to believe that the situation will ever change. As an old woman observes soon afterwards: "That new Stalin, watchamacallem, he'll be worse than the old one. The old one took everything, and this new one is picking through the leftovers. Oh yes, they liberated us from everything, the dears-first they freed us from the land, then from my husband, then from my children, from my cow, my chickens... They'll liberate us from vodka, and our freedom will be complete."

Much later, another character links all of the country's leaders together-"Lenin-Stalin-Khrushchev-Brezhnev"-supposedly in a moment of praise for the leaders, but that is certainly not the reality of Soviet life as experienced by Ulitskaya's characters. Above all, The Big Green Tent is a story of survival for artists and other creative types under a state that recognizes no place for beauty and truth. And what is so wondrous about this novel is the way we follow those characters from childhood well into middle age. Initially, that focus is on three schoolmates, three young boys who are in fifth or sixth grade, at the end of primary school. They're not exactly outcastes but neither are they members of the "in-crowd," which is why they fall in together and become lifelong friends. I don't recall anything like this (youthful friendship) in any other Russian novel that I have ever read. You can even apply the coming-of-age cliché given to such American novels that deal with these experiences.

The three boys we initially encounter (Ilya, Sanya, and Mikha) gain much of their enthusiasm for life from Victor Yulievich, their sixth grade teacher who introduces them to the great Russian writers, mostly of the previous century. The boys are attracted to him individually but also to one another, especially as Yulievich takes them on extended walking tours around Moscow, the setting of most of the novel, pointing out historic biggreententliterary sites (for the writers themselves and their characters). Yulievich's followers become known as the lords of Russian literature, and he instills in them what is the theme of Ulitskaya's novel: "Literature is the only thing that allows us to survive, the only thing that helps us to reconcile ourselves to the time we live in...."

The boys (who the narrator says "had slowly filled up with testosterone") are acutely aware that the great Russian literature was all written by men. (How impressive that this novel was written by a woman, one who has been hugely successful in Russia, though she has had her own difficulties with censorship.) When they grow up, all three young men pursue the arts: Ilya is a poet but also a significant force in the underground production and circulation of samizdat, as was Ulitskaya herself. That endeavor requires an elaborate juggling system to avoid the authorities, subterfuge with his living arrangements and movements. Sanya is a talented pianist until he injures a hand and has to shift to musical theory. He becomes involved in the circulation of banned, avant-guard composers, which means that he also needs to conceal some of his activities from the KGB. Mikha's artistic career is photography, another area that threatens the authorities. As the story progresses, the three of them see each other less frequently than they did as children, though the women in their lives (Olga, Galya and Tamara) are also engaged in forbidden activities that result in KGB encounters and surveillance.

In covering the years between 1952 and 1996, the narrative includes multiple references to Dr. Zhivago and Boris Pasternak's attempts to get his manuscript for the novel out of the country, so it could be translated and published. The Russian authorities were furious when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The avant-garde and the Futurists help bring about a new word for these artists: dissident. The approved Soviet writers are members of the Writers Union; the outsiders are often turned into the authorities by their own family members. It's a chilling atmosphere for artists, with the women doing much of the drudgework, such as typing whole books (Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago) and samizdat. Thus we observe specific activities of the young facilitators of this dissident art in an environment that is described as "the crushing reality of Soviet existence, nauseating and dangerous." Even Nabokov is mentioned, frequently, as a threat to the state, though his books were being published in the West in English.

The fates of the men and women in The Big Green Tent include frequent encounters with the KGB (houses are searched, literally trashed as authorities look for manuscripts and/or banned books). They are imprisoned and sent into exile, driven to suicide, yet Ulitskaya makes it clear that dissident artistry survived because of the great compromises that men and women made to make certain that it would not be snuffed out. Although more space is devoted to literature than music or painting, this is above all a novel about every aspect of what we regard as literature: books, reading, book collecting, book binding and especially the appreciation of great literature.

The translation by Polly Gannon is superb. The extensive array of complex characters, the deep feeling for Mother Russia in spite of the harshness of the authorities, the sweep of many years-all these tie The Big Green Tent to the great Russian writers of the past. Ludmila Ulitskaya is a worthy heir to their tradition.
Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's interview to Zvezda TV channel, December 30, 2015
Question: Mr Lavrov, what year was more difficult for you, 2014 or 2015? In late 2014, we thought 2014 was as tough as it gets, but it seems 2015 was even tougher. Or is it the other way round?

Sergey Lavrov: I could tell you the joke about black and white stripes that President Putin told at a news conference. Frankly, I'm not sure. I find it hard to compare. 2014 was a year of disappointment in our partners; we have become even more confident in our abilities because we realised that we can rely only on ourselves. There's a well-known adage by a Russian emperor about the army and the navy being Russia's only allies. Beginning this year, we also have the aerospace forces.


In 2014, we were profoundly disappointed by the West's conduct in connection with the rupture of the Kiev agreement on resolving the crisis between ex-President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych and the Ukrainian opposition (the agreement on resolving the political crisis in Ukraine of February 21, 2014) attested by France, Germany, and Poland. They placed in power in Kiev their associates, ruptured this agreement, made a helpless gesture in response to our perplexity, "how come? You issued guarantees that there will be a peaceful transition, early elections, etc," reasoning that they were the new powers that be and can use force against those who refuse to accept the results of the anti-constitutional armed coup. When they moved towards Crimea, we were still told that they, the West, want the new authorities to use force proportionally. We now know what this means. President Putin made a decision at the time that I consider to be historic. It was dictated by the final realisation that when you deal with political partners who are incapable of reaching an agreement, your only choice is to rely on yourself.

Question: You didn't think they could behave like that? Have there been any explanations of their behavior?

Sergey Lavrov: It's hard to say. We didn't have time to make any assumptions as it happened so quickly. They called it off overnight. The Right Sector and other militants assaulted the presidential administration building, his residence, the government building, etc. Less than 24 hours have passed since this agreement was signed, which the entire West strongly welcomed and supported. They asked us to help implement it. When the opposition crudely violated it, they threw up their hands and said, "now let's start working in new circumstances."

Question: Do you remember who your first contact was with immediately after Crimea? Was it US Secretary of State John Kerry or German Chancellor Angela Merkel? What did they say?

Sergey Lavrov: President Putin worked with Chancellor Merkel, while I had phone conversations with Secretary Kerry. They took place amid the unfolding crisis, when we were called upon to influence the Ukrainian authorities so that they didn't take the army to the streets. We provided assurances that former Ukrainian President Yanukovych had no plans to do so. NATO repeatedly came up with statements not to take the army to the streets. When everything came to pass, in late February, the new authorities, through Right Sector leader Dmitry Yarosh and others like him, began saying that Russians have no place in Crimea and that Russians will never celebrate the birthday of Stepan Bandera or Roman Shukhevych. They began staging provocations with "friendship trains" to Crimea, and attempted to capture the Supreme Council of Crimea. We responded to this. As you may recall, back then they seized regional administrations, as the officials elected and appointed under the previous government refused to obey the coup participants. An anti-terrorist operation was announced. Then, the West, in one voice, just as they demanded that Yanukovych refrain from taking troops to the streets, urged the new authorities to use armed forces proportionately. Now, we know everything about that "proportionality." This, indeed, was the main event of 2014.


The outgoing year is memorable for different reasons. If you take the economy, which was covered extensively by President Putin during news conferences and on other occasions, it leaves much to be desired as it continues to shrink compared with 2014. If we measure 2015 by a foreign policy yardstick, the hardest and most important chemical demilitarisation process in Syria was completed in 2015. I'm pointing this out, as we summed up its results in 2015, and it happened at a time when we continue to actively push for a political solution to the Syria crisis. Some of our counterparts keep saying that they are willing to go ahead with it only if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is removed from the political process and future government entities because he is illegitimate. President al-Assad was perfectly legitimate when there was a need to remove and destroy chemical weapons in Syria. UN Security Council and OPCW resolutions were adopted, which welcomed the Syrian government's decision to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. Everything was fine, and no one said he was an illegitimate partner.

I have said this on many occasions, and I will now say it again: I'm convinced that the terrorist threat is no less grave than the threat of chemical weapons, all the more so as it becomes international, and does not concern only Syria. We cannot afford the luxury to be led by someone's whims and say that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was legitimate, but stopped being so this year.

In addition to resolving the Syrian chemical weapons issue, we have resolved the Iranian nuclear programme issue, which was a major problem over the past decade and was the source of increasing tensions in international relations. It was thoroughly discussed and a sound balance of interests was struck, which ensures Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy, including uranium enrichment (this was the critical interest of our partners in Tehran), and at the same time provides for the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Minsk agreements on Ukraine

I believe the Minsk agreements on Ukraine, which were achieved as a result of many hours of talks with the participation of heads of state, is a major achievement. President Putin, Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande, and President Poroshenko personally wrote its various provisions. Therefore, it is now important to prevent attempts to revise them. And there are such attempts. They are now telling us that President Poroshenko has domestic political issues, and he cannot implement everything, and suggest that we don't take the Minsk language too literally. How can we not take it literally when it says that the constitution must include decentralisation on a permanent basis. This means the right to use the Russian language in Donbass, special economic relations with Russia, the right to participate in the appointment of prosecutors, judges, and have law enforcement agencies of their own, including people's militia, and a number of other provisions personally written by Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande. Instead, the constitution says that these territories may have certain self-government rules.

Question: Is there any hope that Kiev will sit at the negotiating table with Donetsk and Lugansk or do you think this won't happen in the next few months?

Sergey Lavrov: Formally, this dialogue is on, but only formally. Ukraine is represented in the Contact Group by Leonid Kuchma, a retired politician and official. He is a respectable man, former Ukrainian President and personal envoy of current Ukrainian President Petr Poroshenko. Donetsk and Lugansk are represented by the people elected by the population of these territories.  Martin Sajdik is the special representative of the OSCE, while Russia is represented by the presidential envoy as well. The Ukrainian authorities believe that this is the most they can agree to. There is no direct dialogue except for this format of the Contact Group and its working sub-groups. As for methods, it is possible to be flexible and understanding. If the Minsk agreements could be implemented in this format, this could be considered a direct dialogue but everything is the other way round.

The domestic political situation in Ukraine is serious: squabbles, strife among allies and Maidan participants; contradictions in one and the same party. We are all witnessing the political process in the Verkhovna Rada, government sessions and meetings of other national agencies. They are beset with difficulties. I'm convinced that after the signing of the Minsk agreements and the elections, Ukrainian President Petr Poroshenko declared himself the "president of peace" rather than war. The Minsk agreements were approved by France, Germany, the entire EU and UN Security Council, including the United States. After February, when all these events took place, the Ukrainian president had every opportunity to push through decisions that would implement this major document, using the influence of Europe and the United States despite the resistance of radicals and extremists who accused him of high treason.

Question: Why didn't he do this?

Sergey Lavrov: I don't know. For some reason he decided to counter extremists with their own methods and began to argue with them on their venue, trying to outdo them in anti-Russian rhetoric. He kept accusing us of aggression and occupation, stating that the Minsk agreements were the first step towards its discontinuation. Even the terms he used showed that he was spoiling for a fight to score political points at home. I don't know if he succeeded - his ratings point to the contrary. People are tired of this war in Donbass. Thank God, there is at least some armistice there now but it is violated. In our estimate, which considers OSCE data, it is violated by various battalions that have not been completely incorporated by anyone and that are largely used by their owners to escalate tensions at one point and de-escalate them at another.

It is rumoured that violations of the truce and ceasefire became regular after our Aerospace Force started operations in Syria. There is a theory that some people overseas or closer in the West want to make Russia fight on two fronts, assuming that we are already fighting in Donbass. As before, nobody has managed to prove anything and they are not even trying as they know that such attempts will lead nowhere.

I've quoted an example of what Ukrainian President Petr Poroshenko was supposed to do for implementing the constitutional reform. Instead, it was written in the Constitution - into its Transitional Provisions into the bargain - that Donbass may have "a special status." I read in the news the other day that my Ukrainian colleague Pavel Klimkin said somewhere that the Law on the Special Status will enter into force only after the elections in Donbass, which Kiev wants to hold as it sees fit, although under the Minsk agreements it has to coordinate modalities of holding the elections with Donbass - something it is not doing.

The Minsk agreements do not link the Law on the Special Status to the elections. These are two different subjects. As for the logic of this law, it would not be logical to wait for elections and then expect the legitimate power, as Mr Klimkin said, to return Donbass into Ukraine's legal field. It would be logical for this territory to have this law, which should not be reduced to the rules that exist for all other regions. Kiev promised to grant special status to this territory. Therefore, it would be better and more logical to adopt this law before the elections because if you vote for the deputies of local councils, you want to know what rights they will possess. The law explains what rights they will have. If the law is not adopted, a voter will have to wonder what rights will be exercised by a deputy who will be elected to run a specific area. This is contrary to any logic. I have the impression that our Western partners want to conceal their utter inability to discipline those who they mentor in Kiev by their bashful procedures linked with the prolongation of anti-Russian sanctions.

US influence over EU

Question: Why are they unable to do this?

Sergey Lavrov: In the film, "The World Order," President Vladimir Putin spoke about Europe's highly increased dependence on the United States. This fact is not limited to the Ukraine situation. It is reflected in many other events of global politics. Speaking about this probability, during meetings of US President Barack Obama with President Putin, and US State Secretary John Kerry with me, our American colleagues said many times that they don't have any special interest in preserving this crisis and support the Minsk agreements, that they worked with the Verkhovna Rada, trying to persuade it to write something about Donbass's special status.

I find it difficult to call into doubt the sincerity of the words of President Obama when he expresses his readiness to help, looking into President Putin's face. However, neither they, nor the Europeans have managed to achieve results so far. What was done with the rules of the International Monetary Fund is beyond the realm of reason. Greece, Ireland and many other countries were punished by the old rules (I'm referring only to EU states without even mentioning Argentina and other large debtors in the third world). But when it came to Ukraine, one of the cornerstones was suddenly removed from the IMF's foundation.

People in charge of Western politics

Question: It seems like the last two years have been a period of throwing off the masks because the aura around the propaganda created over many decades, certain spin doctoring around western leaders, democracy, honesty in the media and so on are crumbling right in front of everybody. I think even in the West many people are starting to understand that. People who are currently in charge of Western politics - everybody who you just mentioned plus maybe five or ten people (called "the elite") - are really unaware of what they are doing. Or are they aware of that and intentionally going where we don't want them to go? Is this their general knowledge, education, or do they just not know how to foresee a situation?

Sergey Lavrov: They all give the impression of experienced, wise and forward-looking politicians. I'm wrestling with the question myself and can't figure out the reason. Sometimes their public statements contradict what they tell me one on one, when nobody else can hear them. In person, the majority of EU members say things that I see as reasonable: it is a mistake to argue with Russia about Ukraine, which fell victim to EU politics and was faced with a choice. We were not involved in this. The next morning, Ukraine broke off the agreement pushed by France, Poland and Germany. Instead of a government of national unity, it got an unconstitutional armed coup. They all say that the crisis is going to calm down and that the Minsk agreements should be implemented, following which we can go back to normal cooperation and strategic partnership. However, when they come together to speak in public they can't say that. Italy insisted on a recent event, the purpose of which was not just to extend the sanctions by six more months with sheepish looks, but to talk openly and look into each other's eyes. This is a small example of an exception to the rule. I don't know, it looks like some mutual cover-up, the principle of solidarity.

USA uses NATO to influence EU

Question: There is a conspiracy theory, according to which our American partners, as we like to call them, raised these people for years to put them on the political Olympus in order to control them as they are doing now, and these people are basically incapable of making their own policies without instructions from across the ocean.

Sergey Lavrov: It's a fact that Americans want to have a strong influence on Europe, just as it is true that they have a powerful instrument for this - NATO. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Treaty Organisation, NATO became euphoric, but later it looked for a new reason for its continued existence. At that time, clever politicians argued that since the Warsaw Treaty Organisation and the Soviet Union were no more, democracy had won and they joined the Council of Europe and opened up to the world, this called for the dramatic strengthening of the OSCE, which included all European countries, and for creating a powerful and universal military-political alliance to protect the security of Euro-Atlantic countries against external threats. The threats of terrorism and drug trafficking did not yet become global at the time. Only Russia was feeling the first effects of extremism in Chechnya. But it was decided that the OSCE should remain a loose organisation without a charter or clear-cut rules, that it should not build up its muscles for this would make it too competitive. And so they have created such institutions as the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which, just like the OSCE, has no statutory documents. They have created the office of High Commissioner on National Minorities, who has been doing its best, although the situation with citizenship in the Baltic states has not improved, yet no one has criticised them for this. They have created the office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media, which is currently held by a lady who turns aside when something openly unacceptable happens to journalists in the West or Ukraine, but at the same time indulges in hair-splitting as regards the Russian media when allegedly somewhere someone asked someone else to do something and got some favour from the authorities in return. And from this far-fetched conclusions are reached.

NATO enlargement

NATO has not been simply preserved but has expanded eastward. You probably read about this, these debates about the non-expansion promises that were allegedly made to the Soviet Union before the reunification of Germany, and later to Russia when it became a sovereign state.

Question: Did they make these promises?

Sergey Lavrov: Yes, they did. We have documents to this effect in our archives, about which they know. By the way, the closure period for many documents is expiring in the West, and they are soon to be made public. We plan to organise a seminar (it can be possibly organised by the ministry's Department of History and Records) for scientists who would be able to read the records of those negotiations without politics, rhetoric or emotions. Nowhere has it been put in writing that the bloc would have no legal right to expand or deploy its military infrastructure [on new territories], even after they started doing this. The Russian foreign minister at the time was the late Yevgeny Primakov.  Politics is the art of the possible, especially in the situation in which Russia was placed at the time. Eventually, when we saw that they were expanding quite consistently, despite their oral promises and assurances, we signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between the Russian Federation and NATO in 1997, in which the NATO states pledged to refrain from additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces in the new member states. The Baltic countries, Poland and some other NATO members want to terminate this Founding Act, to withdraw from it in order to be able to permanently station substantial combat forces on their territories.

Question: Mr Lavrov, I have a personal question. Are they really afraid at this top level that our tanks will enter Europe? What are they afraid of? Is this some kind of a longtime phobia?

Sergey Lavrov: I'm sure everyone understands that no tanks of the Russian Federation's Armed Forces will enter NATO territory, and that no one is even thinking about this. They understand this perfectly well. This is a good pretext to take advantage of new NATO members who, for some unknown reason, are seething with anti-Russian sentiment. When they were joining NATO, the United States persuaded us not to raise a fuss as allegedly they were extremely afraid of Russia since the time when they joined the Soviet Union in a not exactly voluntary manner, and that they had their own phobias. We were told that they would calm down after joining the North Atlantic alliance. They have not. After becoming NATO members, they are behaving absolutely differently. On the contrary, they are using this membership to "pounce" at us and attack us with their non-stop rhetoric. I believe that their hysterical stance with regard to Russia is being used, and attempts are being made, to interpret the choice of the people of Crimea as our aggressive efforts, so that NATO will deploy its forces along these boundaries.   

European Union

Question: What does German Chancellor Angela Merkel need this for?

Sergey Lavrov: It's hard to say. You and I are speaking soon after the film, "The World Order," was released. The President of Germany has discussed Germany's role in great detail after both world wars. Quite possibly, it's hard to demand that the modern German nation maintain a low profile, now that several generations have changed hands. In effect, Germany remains an occupied country, with dozens of US bases, and no one in Germany is openly talking about this, although politicians are thinking about it. Such a considerable level of distrust with regard to modern Germany is probably raising questions. Germany is now also reassessing many EU concepts. There is a system stipulating the mandatory appointment of EU commissioners from every country and providing them with jobs. In the past, there were 15 EU commissioners, and now there are 28. Although the amount of work remains the same, the number of EU commissioners has doubled. They are increasing their number and inventing new functions for them. This bureaucracy is assuming substantial responsibilities. Many powers in excess of the Treaty of Lisbon have been delegated to them. However, just like any other bureaucratic entity, they are striving to strengthen their positions. The Germans don't like this. Germany is the largest EU country. Currently, unlike the UK, the people of Germany don't yet doubt if they have done the right thing by delegating so many powers to Brussels.  The Danish authorities have held a referendum implying that the people of Denmark don't want to follow subsequent plans to further toughen regulations in the security sphere and in the area of immigration. The German political minority is also thinking about this. Germany, the largest European economy, is virtually lending money to everyone else. But it has no decisive vote in addressing various issues in Brussels. This is a complicated process.

US influence on EU

Going back to your previous question - what is this for, and who influences the EU. Quite possibly, the United States doesn't want its rivals to reassert themselves (this is just an objective fact, rather than a critical remark). China is America's economic rival, Russia is rivaling the United States in military terms (anyone who had any doubts on this score no longer doubts this). And, of course, the EU is offering some foreign policy competition. It's hardly surprising that, when some EU members (Germany, France and probably Italy) voiced timid ideas about establishing their own armed forces in the EU, this discussion was stopped quickly, and they were told that there was no need for this because there is NATO. And the Supreme Allied Commander Europe is always a US general. One can probably understand the United States, which doesn't want Europe to "run astray."

"Golden billion", IMF, BRIC

Question: Perhaps I'm digressing from the topic, but there is the concept of the "golden billion," which relates to the Western world. They are in the habit of doing whatever they please in the world, sending bombers to a place not because they have been invited by the local authorities but just because they want to. They flew to Libya, bombed out the presidential palace and flew away. They can do it because this is what they are - they are the "golden billion." Is it your impression that all problems of today's world stem from the fact that these six billion are up against the one billion and that these six billion do not want to live as prescribed by the one billion - to assemble cars on a conveyor belt with a screwdriver for $100 a month and work for this "golden billion" so that it enjoys a house, garden, wife, dog and so on?

Sergey Lavrov: To a large extent, of course, there are contradictions. Historically, the West has run the world for 400-500 years. They realise that the era of colonial acquisitions and gains in Latin America, Africa, India and virtually all of Asia, except for two or three countries, is coming to an end. Of course, it is difficult for them to part with all this. New economic and financial giants are emerging today. The share of the West and the US as a leading Western power in the global GDP is falling. This is a long-term trend.

Today, at last, the five-year process of reforming IMF quotas and votes has been completed. All BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are among the top 10 shareholders. Together, BRIC members account for about 14.7 percent of the vote, while 15 percent ensures the veto power at the IMF. In other words, the next review of quotas and the voting system (it may not come soon, but still) will enable the BRIC countries to block decisions they do not like. Today, only one country - the US - has a quota of over 15 percent. This enables it to block any decision on its own. The situation is changing. Before long, it will be unable to act in this way. Even with 14.7 percent of the vote, several percentage points can be obtained from like-minded members.

Of the six-billion-population block, 90 percent are not concerned about politics. These are poor people, many of them just barely able to survive. They need food for their families, a roof over their heads and a job. They need their children to go to school and stay healthy.

How to tackle religious extremism

Question: Is this not the cause of the Syria crisis and ISIS? I know there are a lot of causes and the situation there is difficult and tense. These poor six billion people can see on the internet how the West lives (it is available almost everywhere today). They are responsive to ideas regarding why they live in this way, why they are being bombed and why they cannot live differently. Take up arms, take control of this territory and build the kind of state you want. Isn't this the root cause of terrorism?

Sergey Lavrov: Very much so. Importantly, they are not told to take up arms - they are actually provided with weapons. There have been a lot of reports about children, seven- or eight-year-old boys being trained to clear field obstacles at military camps and zombified, to the effect that there is no justice in the world and that they will never see any real change from this "golden billion" except for the handouts that make no difference one way or the other. So they should take care of their own future and fight for their happiness. In the past, there were crusaders. Today, there are anti-crusaders. This is forthright, of course, but that's the way it is.

This is why, as he addressed the UN General Assembly, President Vladimir Putin said it is necessary to fight terrorism and its brutal manifestations comprehensively - be it the plane over Sinai, terrorist attacks in Paris or what has been going on in the majority of countries in the region, and continues to date - namely, the bombing of mosques and churches. However, it is also crucial to fight the economic causes of terrorism, which means dealing in earnest with the agenda for sustained development so that these regions develop steadily.

A long time ago, when the concept of official aid to poor countries was only being developed, one wise politician said: "If you give a man a fish, he is hungry again in an hour. If you teach him to catch a fish, you do him a good turn." It's wrong just to supply food, which is simply consumed, or some medications from abroad to make them dependent on the former mother country. It's necessary to create production facilities there, teach them and build schools. This is becoming a priority today. Of course, this requires a lot of effort, resources and time. Changes will not come about any time soon, but this is the right track. It is important, of course, to stop financing, wean them off drug trafficking and illegal trade in oil or whatever. All of this is part of the fight against manifestations of terrorism.

The third priority is ideology. It is essential to address education so that children in poor countries do not run around the streets to be picked up by recruiters from ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra and other terrorist groups. It is important to pay attention to the kind of Islam that is preached at mosques. Unlike Christianity (Orthodoxy and Catholicism), there is no pope or patriarch in Islam. There is no vertical chain of command to set the guidelines, fundamental postulates and course to be followed. Often, utterly different sermons are preached at different mosques in the same country. There are plenty of examples of extremist imams taking the lead. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian Islamic theologian, regularly broadcasts via Al Jazeera his absolutely disgusting extremist calls to Muslims in his country, the region and the entire world. So this knot should be untangled very carefully, without putting a bet on bombing someone, finding another Osama bin Laden and thus getting everything right.

Question: Somebody else will replace him?

Sergey Lavrov: Of course.

Secretary of State John Kerry, US foreign policy

Question: On the face of it, you are on good terms with US State Secretary John Kerry. Have you discussed this with him over a cup of tea? Is he aware of it? Do they, in general, have an understanding of what's going on in the world, or are they focused on their own interests and have no such understanding? Are they aware that there's a wave rising, which they won't be able to cope with, and which may hit everyone?

Sergey Lavrov: Secretary Kerry is a most-experienced politician. He served in the US Senate for a long time, and was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for four years, which is when I met him. No doubt, he is one of the most seasoned politicians internationally. He does understand what's going on. Sometimes, we discuss such things. Occasionally, we go for a walk, just the two of us, to discuss things as part of our international meetings. Of course, there are people in the United States who are thinking about this. However, Washington's actions are rooted in a number of factors, one of which is its geographical location. They believe they are fenced off from the outer world: they have Canada, their ally, in the north, and Mexico and the ocean to the south of their border.

US policy towards terrorism, Middle East

Question: Haven't they learned anything from 9/11?

Sergey Lavrov: Indeed, September 11 was a big shock for America, as was the most recent attack in San Bernardino, California, which took place several days after President Obama said they were able to curb terrorism and keep it outside America. Of course, all of that will be used in the political game unfolding in the United States.

The second factor, which doesn't help either, concerns the Americans identifying themselves as an exceptional nation. Accordingly, they believe they can convince everyone else of the correctness of their decisions regarding ways to combat terrorism (as it applies to the depth, width and personalities involved in such a fight). Actually, this is precisely what's happening. When they formed the Syrian coalition (it is 100 percent their idea), many of its members, including the European NATO members, wanted to go to the UN Security Council last year and do everything by the rules. They said, "No, Syrian President al-Assad is illegitimate, so there may be no agreements with Syria, whereas Iraq asked us to come - we love that country, but still try to talk sense into them. Syria is run by a dictator, his days are numbered, so we will be bombing Syria without asking anyone's permission." That's about the same as what the Turks are saying now. They aren't doing things for nothing. If the US-led coalition wasn't so arrogant (they allegedly know where the terrorists are in Syria and they know who to bomb, so they need no permission from the legitimate Syrian government), I don't think Turkey would be acting so arrogantly and without hiding its intentions with regard to Iraq, including their allegations that "they have their instructors there, and they had to bring in the tanks to protect them; they respect the sovereignty of Iraq and are using tanks to promote it," even though the Iraqi government wants them out.

Saudi Arabia has also established a coalition. Presenting it to the public, the Saudi representatives said its primary goal is to fight terrorism. They said they will fight it hand-in-hand with the legitimate governments, but will not include illegitimate governments in their coalition. This is also a contagious bacillus, and the Americans need to understand that.

There's another component that affects their actions, no matter how profound or correct their analysis of the situation may be. It's their electoral cycles. Every two years, the United States holds elections: once every four years presidential elections and intermediate elections where two-thirds of Congress - the Senate and House of Representatives - are rotated. For them, such elections are critical milestones in their political life. When the issue concerns a country that boasts the most powerful military and economy, and is the most influential country in the world, which holds political elections every two years, it very often occurs that the most important international issues become hostages to electoral motives of the incumbent US authorities, which want to ensure that their every move in the international arena scores big for their party candidates.

Question: Does this mean that after the presidential election in the United States, we'll have a chance to bring the Syria crisis to an end? Is there a way out of the Syria crisis?

Sergey Lavrov: There is a way out. It's recorded in a recent UN Security Council resolution. I watch our talk shows where many people take this close to heart. They say it will not work, as the resolution does not provide for specific agreements with regard to terrorists, or who will represent the opposition. Nevertheless, the resolution sends a clear twofold signal. First, we want the political process to begin in January. Second, the UN should select a delegation, relying not on just one opposition group but on the results and participants of all meetings that have taken place in the past 18-24 months. These include the meetings in Moscow and Cairo and the recent meetings in Riyadh. It is also stated in no uncertain terms that there must be no place for terrorists at the negotiating table, while we have questions about certain participants in the latest round of meetings, as they represent two groups that we regard as terrorist. Jaish al Islam regularly shells residential neighbourhoods in Damascus. Their mortar attacks came close to our embassy. The other is Ahrar al Sham, which follows in al-Qaeda's footsteps and is banned by the UN Security Council, so it should be banned anyway. Nevertheless, this resolution, which needs clarifying, of course, does give the Syria crisis a chance.

It is difficult to say what the US foreign policy in Syria and the region as a whole will be after the election. There are a lot of examples of election pledges being forgotten afterwards or when the president is unable to fulfill them. For example, the Guantanamo prison that President Barack Obama vowed to close. His resounding pledge was: We'll close this notorious prison in Guantanamo, which is in conflict with all US values, the Constitution and so on. He vowed to deal with CIA "flying prisons" in Eastern Europe but nothing happened there either. Everything is swept under the carpet. However, today, there is a growing realisation in the administration that terrorism in Syria and the Middle East is far more terrible than Bashar Assad, Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi.

Today, more than a year ahead, they are beginning to make preparations for the presidential election and everything that is done on the foreign policy front the US administration assesses as to the impact it will have on presidential ratings. They have a system whereby people responsible for making practical foreign policy and international decisions are political appointees - 1,500 in all. All of these 1,500 are confirmed by the Committee and then the full Senate. This can take as long as a year. In other words, you've been elected, you've selected your team and it is up for confirmation in the Senate, and while this goes on, few can focus on their work, as all future chiefs have yet to be approved. This process can last up to a year and then it is time to start preparing for congressional elections.


Question: Mr Lavrov, we're meeting ahead of the New Year. I know that you are a football fan and that you also play football. Do you think we have a chance in 2016 or 2018?

Sergey Lavrov: A fan always lives by hope. If I - in my capacity as foreign minister - am asked if there is hope that some crisis will be settled, I say immediately that hope is not part of our profession. Our profession is to work and achieve the goals set by the country's leadership.

As for football, especially our national team, I always have hope. I hope that our team understands its responsibility. The country is looking forward to this championship - even those people who are not particularly interested in football, although there are not many of them. Everyone without exception has a feeling of pride after the Sochi Olympics, which were recognised (not by us, but by everyone who knows something in life) as the best Olympic Games of all time. Of course, we want to keep up the good work and make the football championship equally exciting. And our team's performance should come as a high point in it.

Question: Let's hope. What has been the most unusual New Year's Eve in your life?

Sergey Lavrov: The most unusual New Year's Eve was at the university - out in the forest with a bonfire and tent.

We often went hiking. In summer, when I was a student at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, we went out to work with student construction teams every year and during winter vacations we went hiking in the Arkhangelsk Region, the Kola Peninsula, Karelia. One of our hikes came during New Year's Eve. We had a tent with some sort of heater. It was cold but fun.

A happy New Year to all your staff members and TV viewers!