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The Week In Russia: Rough Around The Edges -- Challenges For The Kremlin At Home And Abroad

The downing of a Russian plane in Syria is a source of potential discord between Israel and Moscow. Pictured: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo).

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The Kremlin suffered setbacks along edges of its sphere of influence over the past week: Syrian forces shot down a Russian reconnaissance plane, killing 15 servicemen; a ruling-party win in the Russian Far East was annulled amid evidence of "shocking" fraud; and the Russian Orthodox Church slipped closer to a historic loss of clout in Ukraine.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward.

Chess Or Checkers?

The troubles in Syria, Primorye, and Ukraine pose challenges for the Kremlin, and its responses may contain clues about President Vladimir Putin's priorities -- as well as lessons about how he handles problems.

For one thing, the Syria shoot-down shows once again that Putin is highly pragmatic: He picks his battles, seeking to avoid confrontation when it's too much of a risk.

Four years of assertive, often aggressive Russian activity on the world stage have generated debate over whether Putin is a strategist or a tactician, acting or reacting, a chess master thinking several moves ahead or a checkers player just hoping to double-jump an overconfident opponent and cry "King me!"

Either way, his reaction to the downing of a Russian plane -- hit by a missile Moscow provided to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- reinforces the fact that Russia's return to the Middle East comes at a price. And that Putin is ready to pay it.

In a kind of good-cop bad-cop routine, the Russian Defense Ministry raged against Israel, accusing its warplanes of using the Russian Il-20 as cover and threatening to take "commensurate measures in response."

But then Putin weighed in with a much softer line, blaming a "chain of tragic accidental circumstances" and saying "an Israeli plane didn't shoot down our jet" -- a fact that may not have been obvious to some who heard Russian military officials talk about it.

Yellow Light

Sure, he admonished the Israeli military, and warned of measures in response that would be plain for all to see.

But he made clear those measures would be aimed to protect Russian troops, not to avenge the Russian deaths, suggesting he is eager to avoid risking a real rift in ties with Israel.

A file photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad.
A file photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad.

Putin "needs to exercise caution" to keep hold of the gains Russia and Syria's government have made since Moscow launched air strikes and stepped up its military presence on the ground four years ago, Leonid Bershidsky wrote in a Bloomberg Opinion article.

"This is perhaps the most difficult position for the Russian leader in Syria since 2015," he wrote.

Primorsky Cry?

Still, Putin may be more worried about developments in a more peaceful place that is much further than Syria from Moscow: Russia's Primorsky Krai, or Primorye.

Primorye has always posed a problem for post-Soviet leaders in Moscow. Seven hours ahead and more than 6,400 kilometers east of the capital, its people have complained of being cut off and ignored.

The capital, Vladivostok, has repeatedly been an arena for raucous political battles fought far from the Kremlin between protagonists like "Winnie the Pooh" -- the nickname of a convicted felon who won a 2004 mayoral election after his closest rival "tripped" on a grenade outside his office days before the vote.

Communist Party candidate Andrei Ishchenko candidate says he should be declared the winner of the original vote in the Primorye gubernatorial election.
Communist Party candidate Andrei Ishchenko candidate says he should be declared the winner of the original vote in the Primorye gubernatorial election.

Echoes of that restive history have haunted the gubernatorial election this month in Primorye, where Communist Andrei Ishchenko was headed for victory in a September 16 runoff until a last-minute surge put Kremlin-backed United Russia party candidate Andrei Tarasenko ahead – and was quickly followed by allegations of blatant cheating in the vote count.

With speed that surprised some, Russia's elections chief called on regional electoral officials to declare the vote invalid, citing violations on a scale she said "shocked" the authorities -- and they complied less than 24 hours later.

Interesting Times

Russian gubernatorial elections were annulled six times in the 1990s, but this is the first time it has happened since Putin became president in 2000 -- sort of. Following a 2002 runoff in the Krasnoyarsk region, officials voided the result over "numerous legal violations" but reversed the decision after Putin went ahead and appointed ally Aleksandr Khloponin acting governor anyway.

One journalist called the Primorye vote "Russia's most interesting election in years" -- and it's not over yet.

The Central Election Commission announced that a new election will be held in three months, but the Communists are planning a legal challenge against the decision to void the election. They say their candidate was robbed and that the best solution is to review the results in some 20 districts where they contend that ballot-stuffing and other illegal methods gave Tarasenko the lead at the last minute.

But if the Kremlin wants a new vote, of course, that is what's pretty much certain to happen. And it looks like that's what the Kremlin wants.

In fact, the online publication The Bell suggested there was a method to the mad rush of falsifications that both the Communists and election officials suggested occurred late in the vote count: United Russia and its backers in government may have deliberately set out to torpedo the election once they realized their candidate -- the incumbent, appointed acting governor by Putin in 2017 -- was headed for defeat.

United Russia may win in the end, of course. But even if it does so, and its formal dominance is not dented, the vote may forever be seen as a sign of Kremlin weakness -- an embarrassing show of the machinations required to "manage democracy" in Russia -- and a harbinger of potential trouble to come later in what may be Putin's last term.

Orthodox Conflict

Moscow's involvement in the Syria war is part of Putin's 21st-century effort to restore Russian clout in lands to its south, and its possession of Primorye is the result of tsarist-era expansion to the east. To the west, meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church – which has close ties to the Kremlin -- is struggling to maintain influence in Ukraine.

It looks like a losing battle.

Russian Patriarch Kirill (left) and Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I at their meeting in Istanbul last month.
Russian Patriarch Kirill (left) and Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I at their meeting in Istanbul last month.

With the "first among equals" in the Orthodox Christian world apparently edging closer to granting the Ukrainian Orthodox confession that is not loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church ecclesiastical independence, Moscow-based Patriarch Kirill traveled to Istanbul in late August to meet with Patriarch Bartholomew in an apparent last-ditch effort to prevent that from happening.

It did not go well: Kirill didn't even stick around for lunch, reports said. And a week later Bartholomew sent two bishops to Ukraine "within the framework of the preparations for the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine," strongly suggesting it had already decided to grant independence to the Ukrainian church.

'Friend' To Foe

So far, the Russian Orthodox Church has responded by saying it is suspending participation in all structures chaired or co-chaired by representatives of the Patriarchate of Constantinople -- a step a senior Russian cleric, Metropolitan Ilarion, likened to cutting diplomatic ties.

There's probably plenty more tension to come: Ilarion warned that disputes over church property in Ukraine could lead to "bloodshed."

He may have overstated the threat in order to attract attention, but in any case the developments in Ukraine's religious landscape are part of a rift that has opened wide between Kyiv and Moscow since 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and fomented separatism in eastern Ukrainian regions where the ensuing war has killed more than 10,300 people.

Another sign of the growing divide: On September 17, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a decree to terminate a 20-year-old Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership treaty with Russia.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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