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The Week In Russia: The Blame Game, Population Problems, And 'Putin's Justice'


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) exchanged barbs this week over a controversial naval incident off the coast of Crimea.

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Moscow played the blame game as a new confrontation with Ukraine and a dispute with the West over missiles that could reach deep into Europe ratcheted up tensions. At home, Russia saw its population decline and faced flak over the jailing of a 77-year-old rights activist.

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

An Election Next Door

For a guy who claims he doesn't meddle in elections, Russian President Vladimir Putin sure is talking a lot about one of the presumed candidates in Ukraine's vote next March -- the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko.

Amid even-higher-than-usual tension between Moscow and Kyiv over a confrontation in which Russia fired on Ukrainian naval vessels and arrested 24 crewmen -- who are now in Moscow's Lefortovo jail -- Putin gave an elaborate explanation of why he wasn't taking Poroshenko's phone calls. Which was, of course, dutifully reported by state news agencies.

"It's not that I'm just avoiding Petro Alekseyevich and don't want to talk to him, that's not it," Putin said on November 5, possibly using the patronymic to imply respect on the surface while hinting that Poroshenko can never escape his Soviet background. "The thing is, I don't want to take part in his election campaign."

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Poroshenko, Putin said, "wants to demonstrate that he is successfully resolving the problems that arise" by laying the blame on Russia. "It's an obvious scheme, and I…won't take part."

The remarks echoed a broadside Putin launched at Poroshenko before an audience of foreign executives and Russian state-TV viewers on November 28. Accusing Kyiv of staging the confrontation to boost his seemingly slim chances of reelection, he said that Poroshenko "might not even make it to the second round" that would be held if no candidate wins a majority of votes on March 31.

Ukraine, of course, blames Russia for the November 25 incident near the Kerch Strait, as does the West.

Dinner Discussion

President Donald Trump cited the incident -- and, in particular, the fact that the 24 crewmen were still in Russian custody -- when he called off a major meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G20) summit in Buenos Aires on December 1.

The snub may have been a blow to Putin -- for a sign that it hit home see a spate of criticism of Trump on state TV, with one prime-time host asking "What kind of a man is this?"

But Putin did talk briefly to Trump at a summit dinner -- a conversation in which he said neither president budged from his position.

U.S. President Donald Trump (right) looks at President Vladimir Putin as they line up for a photo at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires.
U.S. President Donald Trump (right) looks at President Vladimir Putin as they line up for a photo at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires.

A week later, who's ahead in the geopolitical grappling set off when a Russian coast guard cutter rammed a Ukrainian navy tugboat?

Depends who you ask.

"Round 1 goes to Russia," was how Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, put it in the title of an article on December 3.

"The West should make clear that Russia will face concrete consequences if it does not release the Ukrainian naval vessels and crews and allow Ukraine free passage" through the Kerch Strait, the bottleneck between Russia and Crimea that is the only passage for ships between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, where Ukraine has key ports, he wrote.

'There Must Be Action'

But so far, Pifer wrote, "the United States and Europe have reacted weakly, largely limiting their responses to expressions of concern."

"Nothing suggests that [Western] expressions of concern and condemnation, or Trump's on again/off again handling of his meeting with Putin, caused anxiety in the Kremlin," he wrote.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin appealed for a robust response as his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov looked on at an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Milan on December 6, saying: "Declarations are not enough. There must be action."

Pavel Baev, a senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, had a different take. He sees the naval clash and Trump's snub as a sign that Putin is "trapped in an escalatory spiral of his own making," as the title of an article published by the Jamestown Foundation on December 3 said.

"Putin's inflexible position in this latest crisis shows that his ability to maneuver around military confrontations in order to maximize political gains has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared," Baev wrote.

60-Day Deadline

Speaking of the blame game, Russia is playing it avidly as pressure mounts for Moscow to scrap a missile system that the United States and NATO say violates a cornerstone of Cold War nuclear arms control -- the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). And so is the United States.

Trump announced in October that Washington would abandon the INF, citing the alleged Russian violation and concerns that non-signatories such as China are free to develop the medium-range missiles that are off-limits for Moscow and Washington under the 1987 pact.

Trump did not offer Russia an out in his warning. But on December 4 -- amid concerns that the United States was letting Russia out of the treaty while attracting all the blame itself, and calls in Europe for efforts to keep the INF alive -- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington would walk if Moscow does not come into compliance within 60 days.

The top U.S. arms control official added detail to the demand two days later, saying Russia must get rid of the Novator 9M729 system or decrease its range to return to "full and verifiable compliance."

"The ball's in Russia's court. We can't do that for them. They have to take the initiative," said Andrea Thompson, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

But Moscow hates ultimatums, and Putin had already made pretty clear that it is not happening, saying the United States was "looking for someone to blame for this...ill-considered step" and repeating a warning that if the United States arms itself with missiles banned by the treaty, Russia will do the same.

Not That Into You

Even if Putin can convince the world that the United States is to blame for the seemingly inevitable demise of the INF, Russia's image in the West is unlikely to improve much.

Nearly five years after it sought to shift state borders by seizing Crimea from Ukraine, Russia is viewed more unfavorably than favorably in 16 out of 25 countries surveyed for a Pew Research Center report released on December 6 -- including the United States, Canada, and all of those surveyed in Europe except Greece.

Whatever the effects abroad, Putin may be eager to see whether the standoff over the INF -- and more so, the confrontation near the Kerch Strait -- give his ratings at home a new Crimea bump.

He could use one: In a survey published on November 22 by the Levada Center, 56 percent of likely voters would vote for Putin if a new presidential election were to take place now -- 10 percentage points fewer than one year ago.

With or without the action at sea or any other major catalyst, Putin may be hoping public anger over the imminent increase in the pension age will fade -- and that his ratings improve – as the months pass.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the target of not-so-successful Kremlin efforts to shield Putin from blame for the retirement-age hikes away from Putin, said on December 6 that the decision to push ahead with pension reform was "the most difficult" decision a Russian government has had to make in recent decades -- since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that is.

Demographic Decline

Meanwhile, there are signs that some of the policies Putin has pursued are falling short of their aims, and that prominent pieces of legislation he has signed are having a negative effect.

One of Putin's main goals has been to reverse Russia's post-Soviet population decline and show up those who predict the population will dwindle further.

But with the deaths exceeding births, Russia saw a population loss of 173,400 in the first nine months of 2018.

Speaking of blame, the culprit was the 1990s, according to Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova.

On December 4, Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova said that a law Putin signed in 2017, which decriminalized some cases of domestic violence, was a "mistake" and called for new legislation to combat abuse in the home.

Human Rights Watch is due to issue a report next week documenting how a 2013 law whose stated goal to prevent the spread of "propaganda" for "nontraditional sexual relations" to minors is having a "deeply damaging effect on LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] youth."

Road To Repression?

And while Russia is grabbing plenty of attention for its actions abroad, it faced criticism this week for a development at home that Kremlin critics say does not bode well for the rest of Putin's six-year term: the jailing of human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, 77.

On December 5, a Moscow court ordered Ponomaryov jailed for 25 days after ruling that he was a repeat violator of regulations governing public gatherings -- in part because of Facebook post about a planned protest.

"Putin's justice in all its glory," opposition politician Ilya Yashin tweeted, while the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner called the sentence "a stark example of the disproportionate nature of the sanctions foreseen in the legislation."

Ponomaryov himself, speaking to the AFP news agency as he rode to jail in a police van, said that Russia is "gradually inching toward mass political repressions."

Ruling on appeal on December 7, the Moscow City Court shortened the sentence to 16 days.

About

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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