Posts Tagged ‘Foreign Policy’

Laughter at the Kremlin

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Boris Reznik, a parliamentarian from Russia’s ruling party, has a take on the spy saga now unfolding in the U.S.: “Why are you causing this scandal?” he says, chuckling. “Watch out, or we’ll arrest all your spies here in Moscow! You guys have more of them here.”

Aside from the unfortunate timing of the event—coming just on the heels of Dmitry Medvedev’s honeymoon in the U.S. and at the G-8 summit—the roundup of the supposed Russian spy ring, known as The Illegals, has become some kind of strange American joke in Moscow. “It’s kind of unclear, and kind of stupid, and looks a bit like what we had here with that rock,” says Putin’s former chief of staff, the longtime Kremlin player Alexander Voloshin. He, too, laughs at the mention of the alleged spies. The rock he refers to is the 2006 incident when the Russian security services accused the British of using a rock to spy on them in Moscow. “It has about the same flavor,” Voloshin says, still trying to shake the giggles.

Sure, Russian officials have expressed hurt at the timing: Couldn’t they have waited a few months, you know, for the afterglow to pass after the high-level burger summit? And, behaving not unlike a woman scorned, Russians wonder: Who is trying to break America and us up?

But mostly the tale of The Illegals is seen as some kind of joke. The foreign ministry has issued just one statement; the Duma has asked for clarification, but that’s it, as far as seriousness goes. The president is mum. And the prime minister, a man who in his days as president would surely have lashed out with salty words—and, perhaps, a snot metaphor—is mute, as are his loyal security services. No one is making a move to kick out American representatives or arrest any American spies—or, indeed, the foreign journalists working in Moscow, who, in trying to discover policy outlines on the START treaty by talking to think tank experts, are doing pretty much what these supposed Russian spies did.

At a meeting with former President Bill Clinton on Tuesday, Vladimir V. Putin, the prime minister and a former spy himself, said, “Your police have gotten carried away, putting people in jail.” But he played down the episode: “I really expect that the positive achievements that have been made in our intergovernmental relations lately will not be damaged by the latest events.”

And no one is assailing the Obama administration or America as a whole, accusing it, as they would have during the Bush days, of trying to humiliate or vilify Russia. “The reaction has been minimal,” says Sergey Markov, a Duma deputy who chairs parliament’s council on global politics. “We’re trying not to spoil the relationship, to minimize the damage.”

Instead, the Russians, as is their wont, see a conspiracy. “America is a well-thought-out country,” one political aide told me. “It doesn’t do anything ‘just because.’ So if there is a huge uproar, why do they need it? And I think that you need to look not outside, but inside.”

In other words, Russia has nothing to do with this. The supposed spies, apparently, are an American domestic matter.

“The White House has lost control,” military analyst Evgeny Khrushchev told Russia Today, the Kremlin-backed news channel. “Beltway bandits have regained the initiative. Conservatives are hijacking the agenda. They are actively against resetting relations with Russia.”

Another theory is that this is an American military insurrection. “This is a protest of sorts,” Markov theorized. “It’s the military establishment’s démarche against Obama. If McChrystal, who is a serious general, accused him of unprofessionalism, it’s probably not only McChrystal who thinks this—that he is unprofessional and a pacifist.”

Or, some speculate, the unlikely tale is a product of overzealous U.S. intelligence. “Our intelligence services love distractions, your intelligence services love distractions,” Reznik told me, preferring, like many Russians, to see America as similar to Russia only with a better haircut. “If they don’t have work, they make work.” (Given the timeline of the FBI surveillance of The Illegals, this could be a byproduct of the snooping boom brought about by the War on Terror.)

Of course, no one is denying that there are Russian spies operating in America. “How do you not spy on Bush if he’s the most powerful man on the planet, and he periodically consults with God?” scoffed Markov, the Duma deputy.

So if spies in America and spies in Russia are a given, say the Russians, this whole mess is not about Russia in the slightest.

The utterly bizarre complaint filed in a Manhattan federal court doesn’t dispel that notion, and might offer hints why Russians wouldn’t rush to claim these particular spies.

First of all, there is a spy ring that is tasked with gleaning “information on the U.S. position with respect to a new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty”… from New Jersey. Federal agents describe two operatives who can barely use their computers, and talk with awe of a super high-tech, state-of-the-art communication device known as the WiFi. Invisible ink makes an appearance in the complaint as does Morse Code, which, of course, is pretty uncrackable. And then there are the spies who bury cash in an open field and pass sensitive (think tank?) data to each other publicly… in bright orange bags. Not to mention the awkward Mata Hari, Anna Chapman, who buys a temporary Verizon phone using a fake name and the fake address at “99 Fake Street.”

Russians note that this motley crew hasn’t even been charged with spying. Instead, they stand accused of failing to register as foreign agents (maximum sentence five years) and money laundering (which could carry 20). And reading this complaint, it seems much more likely that a rogue element in the Russian secret service needed to launder some stolen cash and stumbled on some starry-eyed American suburban yokels and asked: “Hey, wanna be a spy?”

The American press is loudly invoking the late Le Carré. But to the Russians, it feels a lot more like Pink Panther. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that these spies are as real as Saddam’s atomic bomb,” Markov says, once again laughing.

Laughter at the Kremlin [The Daily Beast]

Hold Tight, Hillary: Russia Just Got Scarier

Friday, November 21st, 2008

If any proof were needed that the Russian political system operates in its own time-space continuum, it came this morning, when the parliament decided to deal with the country’s economic meltdown by amending its constitution. The Duma fixed the 1993 text by decoupling presidential and parliamentary elections and approving term extensions for the president, from four to six years. The amendment, which President Dmitry Medvedev announced on November 5, was discussed for a scant two weeks and passed overwhelmingly: 392 to 57. (Amazingly, those 57 votes came from the Communists.)

In the West, the amendment was met with a hearty round of “how could they’s.” It was perceived as a cynical play by Putin for another stab at the presidency, and, more fundamentally, as yet another giant crack in the foundation of an anemic democracy.

The debate among Russia’s chattering classes, however, sounds very different–more like specific, sinister prophesies of doom. The amendment, they say, is all Putin’s doing, and now Medvedev will step down within the year, ushering in a new round of elections, the end of the thaw, and, of course, twelve years of President Putin (whose approval ratings, incidentally, are still some 20 percent higher than Medvedev’s, the actual sitting president). Yulia Latynina, a prominent political columnist, sees something even more complex on the horizon: “First, the ruble will collapse in early 2009–or at the latest when the country’s gold and foreign currency reserves run out. … Medvedev’s first reaction will be to blame the West for everything. Then he will explain that he lacks the moral strength to lead the country during a serious crisis.” Then, a new round of elections, twelve years of Putin, yadda yadda yadda.

These fears are not unfounded, of course, but for the regular folks, it’s far more simple. Fully 56 percent of Russians support the amendment because, heck, they like the president. Both of them! Of the people less favorably inclined–this third of the population mostly happens to live, by the way, in Russia’s two big (elitist?) cities–some disapprove because they don’t buy the government’s argument that they need more than four years to get everything done. In a country of red tape, city voters feel, perhaps ironically, that four years is plenty of time to achieve policy goals. More than half of the dissenters, however, defend democracy so fiercely as to render it moribund: Twelve percent of Russians say that a constitution is not for amending. Ever.

What does the Kremlin say in its defense? It invokes the economic crisis and the time needed to deal with it; it points to Russian exceptionalism and the country’s dire need for a strong leader. “To be honest, I do not think that Russia should be a parliamentary republic,” Medvedev said at a press conference on Tuesday. “I think this would be fatal for the country.” And in the saltiest Russian manner, he invoked the “you hypocrite Americans do it all the time” excuse, saying, “Some countries do it less often, like the United States, for example, though they too have passed a fair few amendments over the years.”

Most baffling of all, however, was Medvedev’s harking back to the days of the tsarist ancien regime when the French were to be emulated in all things. When Madeleine Albright asked him at the G20 summit why the Russians were so keen to extend presidential term limits, Medvedev replied like a borscht-belt comedian: “That’s normal for an incumbent administration–trying to enhance your capabilities.” He then added, “But I was guided by other considerations. … Recall the Constitution that France had at the time of De Gaulle. It gave the President a seven-year term in office. I think it played a good part in helping France to develop as a strong nation.”

So there you have it, folks: Russia is moving towards a de Gaullian form of government.