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The Week In Russia: 2019 In The Middle East, 1938 Back Home?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before talks in Sochi, Russia, in September 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before talks in Sochi, Russia, in September 2018.

As headlines proclaim Russian President Vladimir Putin the Middle East’s new “overlord” and the go-to guy for the region, a report about hospital bombings in Syria provides a chilling backstory. Meanwhile, at home, opposition politician Aleksei Navalny says the state campaign against his operations across Russia smacks of 1938.

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

Great Terror

When the Russian state clamps down hard on dissent, there’s often talk of a return to 1937 or at least echoes of that year -- often described as the height of the Great Terror, the deadly purges under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

In describing a new series of raids on his network of offices and associates across the country, Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny brought up a different year, but not very different: 1938.

The October 15 raids on offices used by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), which has published numerous reports detailing evidence of corruption among allies of President Vladimir Putin, were “probably the biggest coordinated searches in the country since 1938,” the opposition politician said.

Aleksei Navalny
Aleksei Navalny

They came just over a month after a series of searches that followed September 8 elections in which Navalny, his own allies barred from races in Moscow and elsewhere, urged citizens to vote for any candidate capable of beating rivals from United Russia, the dominant but unpopular party that is one of Putin’s main sources of support and levers of power.

The searches also followed the Justice Ministry’s branding of the FBK as a “foreign agent,” a designation that it based on alleged donations from two men -- a Russian in the United States and a Spaniard -- totaling less than $2,200.

At Home Abroad?

From the start of Putin’s current term in May 2018, some analysts have said he seems to be more interested in Russia’s actions on the international stage than what is going on at home.

Putin has to be liking some of the headlines that have been published lately, amid a U.S. military pullback in part of Syria and his own visit to Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally that is now working with Moscow on oil-output coordination and other matters.

“In the Middle East, there’s one country every side talks to: Russia,” a headline in The Washington Post said. That suggests that what seems to have been one of the main goals of Moscow’s actions in the region under Putin -- the desire to be a player, to have a voice and be heard -- has been achieved.

The Times of London went much further, risking overreach by proclaiming Putin “the Middle East’s new overlord.”

Lucky Numbers

Whatever one thinks of that assessment, there may be few who would claim that Putin, his government, and his military should get credit for all the developments that have increased Russia’s influence in the region.

Aleksandr Shumilin, a Middle East specialist at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, suggested something closer to the opposite in remarks to The New York Times.

“It must be said that all of Russia’s most significant successes in Syria have not been reached as a result of deliberate efforts by Moscow,” Shumilin said. “They simply crashed down onto Putin and Moscow as manna from heaven as a result of the peculiar behavior of the Western countries and of Turkey.”

Russian columnist Mikhail Rostovsky’s headline in the tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets put it more succinctly: “Putin won the lottery.”

Meanwhile, other headlines -- ones that paint a picture of the methods Russia has used to get where it is today -- might be less pleasing to the Kremlin.

One of them was also in The New York Times, which analyzed Russian air force recordings and other material and concluded, in an article published on October 13, that Russian warplanes bombed four hospitals in the space of 12 hours in early May of this year in Syria.

Another came from Human Rights Watch, which said on October 18 that a “Syrian-Russian military alliance strike on a displacement compound in mid-August is an apparent war crime.”

Syria Attacks

“Witnesses said there was no apparent military target for the attack,” according to the New York-based group, which said killed at least 20 civilians and displaced about 200 survivors.

The Human Rights Watch report came two days after Putin signed a decree revoking a declaration made 70 years ago by the Soviet Union when it ratified a protocol to the Geneva Conventions that is designed to protect civilians during wars.

In a letter to Russian lawmakers, whose rubber stamp is needed to make the revocation official, Putin said that a fact-finding commission established by the protocol has “essentially not carried out its function since 1991,” the year the Soviet Union collapsed, and that while Moscow has continued to pay annual dues for the commission it does not include a Russian representative.

But he also gave another reason for the revoking of the 1949 declaration -- one that suggests the move could be meant to avoid the potential consequences of actions that might lead to war crimes claims.

“In the current international environment, the risk of the abuse of the commission’s power for political purposes by states acting in bad faith are increasing significantly,” Putin wrote.

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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.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

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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