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The Week In Russia: Not So Quiet On The Western Front


Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) gestures as Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka mops his brow during a meeting in the Black sea resort of Sochi in February.

Editor's Note: Steve Gutterman's The Week In Russia will not be published for the next two weeks. It will resume its regular schedule on May 24. To receive The Week In Russia each week via e-mail, subscribe by clicking here.

Russian President Vladimir Putin steps up pressure on Ukraine and Belarus, and Moscow’s man in Caracas holds on to power amid a standoff pitting the United States against Russia in the Western Hemisphere.

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

The Long Game

Along with “Putin’s a thief! and “It’s OUR city,” one of the slogans at a May Day protest in the Russian president’s hometown of St. Petersburg – which ended with dozens of arrests -- was “Putin is not immortal.”

That’s kind of obvious – or maybe not. To some Russians, he may seem more or less permanent. For those turning 20 this month, for example, Putin was secretary of the Security Council when they were born and would become prime minister a few months later – and from that moment on, he has held that post or the presidency every day of their lives so far.

And while some leaders turn to photo-editing software to smooth out the wrinkles or reverse the ravages of time, Putin, 66, has by all appearances taken a more direct route – changing his face itself.

Even if gravity always wins and taxes are not the only certainty in this world, some of Putin’s allies predict his legacy will live on for decades or more after his death. Longtime aide Vladislav Surkov – more on him later – wrote earlier this year that Russia will be “Putin’s state” for a century.

Putin 2024-Ever?

Meanwhile, with the first year of his current six-year term ending on May 7, there is no shortage of speculation that while he is around Putin wants it to be his state more literally than figuratively: that he wants to keep at least one hand on the reins.

And the notion that his path to that goal could lie through Belarus just won’t go away.

After a surge of suspicion amid multiple meetings between Putin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka before the New Year, evidence has popped up at least twice in recent weeks.

Citing three unidentified people close to the Kremlin, a Bloomberg report said that Putin “may lay plans to head a unified state with neighboring Belarus to sidestep a constitutional ban on remaining president after 2024.”

Russia and Belarus already have a “union state,” at least on paper, so the framework is there – and has been since before Putin came to power about six years after his counterpart in Belarus. But as Bloomberg points out, Lukashenka “has rebuffed demands to agree to a monetary union, single legal system, and common foreign and security policy as a price for keeping the lifeline of economic benefits that Moscow estimates at about $6 billion a year.”

The idea that Russia could one day seek to swallow up its smaller neighbor to the west has been a kind of slow-acting poison in Moscow’s ties with its closest partner throughout Putin’s rule.

Big Fish, Small Pond

Tension flared way back in 2002 when Lukashenka touted closer integration, possibly angling for a leading role, and Putin called his bluff by saying there could be a “full merger” within a year – but added a thinly veiled warning that it would turn the president of Belarus, a country of nearly 10 million, into little more than a provincial governor.

Putin made Lukashenka “an offer he had to refuse,” an RFE/RL article put it at the time. And the Belarusian president has repeatedly cited what may be his strongest card – the fact that few Belarusians want their country to be absorbed by Russia – in pushing back against a merger on Putin’s terms.

With Moscow turning up the economic pressure on Minsk, the question may be how long he can continue to refuse.

According to Kommersant, he has one year – at least in the eyes of the Kremlin.

Citing unnamed sources, the Russian daily reported on April 30 that Putin’s dismissal of Mikhail Babich, the Russian ambassador who raised many hackles in less than a year in his mission in Minsk, was quid pro quo in a deal – reached on the sidelines of an international meeting in Beijing – in which Lukashenka agreed to set an integration process in motion.

Putin “gave Lukashenka a year, promising not to interfere in internal Belarusian affairs,” the newspaper quoted one source as saying.

Belarus And Ukraine

It’s hard to know how much stock to put in such a report – given that the unnamed sources could have unspoken agendas, and that the two leaders themselves are engaged in a diplomatic dance that is delicate until it’s not. But it does suggest one thing: Suspicions that Putin may choose to use Belarus as a path to stay in power will not be quashed anytime soon.

“The probability of such a scenario -- the unification of Belarus and Russia into one state under Putin -- is low but should not be dismissed,” Bloomberg quoted Andrei Yeliseyeu, research director at the Warsaw-based think tank EAST Center, as saying.

The drawn-out shadowboxing with Belarus over sovereignty is one example of how Russia’s actions abroad are sometimes strongly guided by domestic concerns – more, it sometimes seems, than many other countries.

Another example, some argue, is Russia’s latest actions in relation to Ukraine – another country on Russia’s western flank in which Putin seems to be seeking to gain more influence for Moscow in what could be his last presidential term.

State Your Aim

Five years after Russia fomented separatism across much of Ukraine and backed militants who seized parts of the section of southeastern Ukraine known as the Donbas at the start of a war that has killed more than 13,000 people, Putin is offering the people who live in those areas a fast track to Russian citizenship.

Putin made that offer with a decree published three days after a politically untested 41-year-old comedian won the presidency in Ukraine. Surkov suggested an almost ideological aim, saying that Moscow was paying a debt owed to Russian-speaking and “Russian-thinking” people in the Donbas.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Ukrainian President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy (combo photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Ukrainian President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy (combo photo)

After another three days, Putin said he might expand the offer to include all Ukrainians, adding to the ire in Kyiv. Putin said it with a straight face, but many people in Ukraine – a country he is said to have told U.S. President George W. Bush is “not even a country” – might find it hard to treat the idea as a straightforward policy initiative and not a threat.

Still, beyond trolling and what Kyiv and Kremlin critics say is clearly an effort to undermine Ukraine, there may be domestic goals involved.

In a blog post on April 30, Simon Saradzhyan, founding director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, singled out what he said “could be the most important among the many factors” in Putin’s decision:

With its labor force smaller than at the time of the Soviet collapse and expected to shrink by up to 900,000 a year until 2025, Saradzhyan wrote, “Russia needs more working hands.”

Work Force

In Putin’s view, he added, “the best way to get them...short of an instant demographic miracle would be to stimulate labor migration from countries where workers are (a) skilled, (b) speak Russian and (c) are culturally close enough that Russian authorities and companies do not have to spend undue money and time trying to train or integrate them. “

Putin has not yet put his signature on a decree that would extend the fast-track offer to all Ukrainians. And he may prefer to leave it hanging in the air -- not least because if he were to formalize it, the numbers might not look great for him.

“A Russian passport is only useful if one plans to live, work, or study in Russia,” Bloomberg opinion columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote, adding a reference to the fiery Facebook retort in which Zelenskiy wrote that a Russian passport grants its holder the right “to forget about all rights and freedoms.”

“To ensure broad uptake in Ukraine, Putin probably would need to offer citizens some of the freedoms Zelenskiy mentioned and access to more visa-free countries,” he wrote. “That’s not in the cards.”

While stopping short of offering a fast track to all Ukrainians for now, Putin did widen the net somewhat on May 1, signing an additional order adding Ukrainians who lived in Crimea at any time before Moscow seized it in 2014.

Part of Putin’s stated rationale for the citizenship initiative is the contention, often voiced by Russian officials, that Russians and Ukrainians are brotherly peoples -- or even a single people.

Hearts And Minds

After Zelenskiy suggested that Kyiv could respond by offering Ukrainian passports to Russians, Putin chose to publicly interpret that as meaning that “common citizenship” was on the agenda – an idea that would blur the lines between the two countries, playing powerfully into the Kremlin’s hands -- and said: "This indicates we will come to terms, possibly, because we have a great deal in common."

That kind of talk, and the potential offer of citizenship to all Ukrainians, is an effort to win over hearts and minds across eastern Ukraine, where support for Zelenskiy was highest in the election, according to RFE/RL commentator Vitaliy Portnikov.

The Kremlin is “beginning its battle with Zelenskiy specifically for the electorate in Ukraine’s eastern and southeastern regions – that is, the regions where the incoming president’s position is strongest,” Portnikov wrote in a May 2 article.

"Putin has a simple goal that he will apparently be working on in the near future: Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s voters must become his voters – Vladimir Putin’s voters,” he wrote. “And when the Russian president talks about common citizenship of the two countries, he is not joking or even mocking his future colleague. He’s simply laying out a plan for the 'quiet annexation' of eastern Ukraine."

After thinking “for a long time” about what Russia and Ukraine have in common, Zelenskiy teed up another retort to Putin.

Good Fences, Good Neighbors?

“The reality is that today, after the annexation of Crimea and aggression in the Donbas, we have only one thing in common: the state border,” he wrote on Facebook on May 2. “2,295 kilometers and 400 meters of ‘commonality.’ And Russia must return control over every millimeter to Ukraine. Only then can we continue the search for ‘commonality.’”

The restoration of Ukrainian control over the border in the parts of the Donbas held by Russia-backed forces is one of the main aims of the Minsk Accords, the cease-fire and settlement deal aimed at ending the conflict -- now in its sixth year.

Putin’s fast-track citizenship offer has further undermined his claim that Russia wants the Minsk deal to be implemented. The U.S. State Department called it a “highly provocative action” through which “Russia…is intensifying its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Germany and France – which brokered the 2015 deal and signed on as its guarantors – said Putin’s decree "goes against the spirit and aims" of the Minsk process.

That probably doesn’t matter much to Putin. If the initiative has dealt another blow to the Kremlin’s credibility, he might reason, it has also put pressure on Ukraine at a delicate time before the handover of power in Kyiv, which is expected in early June, and attracted the West’s attention once again.

Backing Maduro

That’s something Russia has also done further to the west, in Venezuela, where its ally Nicolas Maduro weathered a push for his ouster by National Assembly leader Juan Guaido, the opposition leader recognized as interim president by the United States and more than 50 other countries.

After Guaido’s bid to lead an uprising appeared to fizzle on April 30, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN that Maduro “had an airplane on the tarmac” and had been “ready to leave this morning, as we understand it, and the Russians indicated that he should stay.”

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova dismissed those remarks as part of an “information war,” but it’s hard to imagine Putin being upset at the suggestion that Moscow had an important hand in averting – at least for now – the demise of an ally in the Western Hemisphere.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on December 5
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on December 5

Ahead of an expected meeting between Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Finland on May 6, on the sidelines of a gathering of Arctic region countries, the two top diplomats traded accusations about Venezuela in a telephone call on May 1.

Lavrov accused the United States of violating international law and warned that "the continuation of aggressive steps is fraught with the most serious consequences," according to a Russian Foreign Ministry statement.

Pompeo criticized Russia’s “intervention” and urged Moscow “to cease support for Nicolas Maduro and join other nations, including the overwhelming majority of countries in the Western Hemisphere, who seek a better future for the Venezuelan people," the State Department said.

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Some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward, by RFE/RL's News Editor Steve Gutterman.

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