Vladimir Putin’s lying game


Keith Brown, Arizona State University

At the now infamous Helsinki press conference held after the summit meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin, Trump indicated he was impressed with Putin’s denial of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

“I have great confidence in my intelligence people,” Trump said, “but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”

That answer must have pleased Vladimir Putin.

Strength and power have been key to Putin’s political brand ever since August 1999, when he was appointed as Russia’s prime minister by President Boris Yeltsin.

Putin led the country to victory in the second Chechen War, and as the virtual incumbent following Yeltsin’s resignation, he rode that wave of patriotism to victory in the presidential election of March 2000, with 53 percent of the national vote.

Putin, with Moscow Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, in 1994.
AP/Dmitry Lovetsky

Eighteen years later, following a brief hiatus from 2008 to 2012 during which he served as prime minister, Putin remains president, winning 77 percent of the vote in May 2018.

Putin makes strongman politics look effortless, and President Trump could not be clearer in his expressions of admiration and trust for his more experienced counterpart. From over two decades studying communist and post-communist politics, I believe there is value in looking past Putin’s confident self-projection and examining the machinery behind it.

As a former KGB officer and head of FSB, Russia’s national security agency, President Putin has professional roots in deception, disinformation and violence beyond the imagination and experience of most Americans outside the intelligence community. His 18-year record in public life provides high-profile cases where he has been equally “strong and powerful” in undermining truth – and targeting those who expose him.

Truth, lies and consequences

Here is a short catalog of Putin’s most glaring lies, as well as his actions against those who challenged him.

1. In 1999, bombs exploded in a number of apartment buildings in Russia, killing 293 civilians.

The bombings were attributed to Chechen terrorism, driving up patriotic support for Russia’s military in invading Chechnya. When one bomb was detected and defused in the city of Ryazan before it went off, new Prime Minister Putin praised the people of Ryazan for their vigilance.

His subsequent strong leadership during the Chechen War was key to his election as president in March 2000.

Yet forensics, eyewitness accounts and whistleblower revelations all indicated that Russia’s security service, the FSB, planted the Ryazan bomb.

The commission established to investigate the FSB’s role in all the bombings discontinued its work in 2003 when two key members died violent deaths. Deputy Sergei Yushenkov was gunned down, and investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin died in a hospital from an “unknown allergen” that shut down all his vital organs. FSB whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko, who directly accused Vladimir Putin of involvement in the apartment bombings, was poisoned in London in 2006.

A British inquiry found that the Russian secret service killing of Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko was ‘probably approved … by President Putin.’
AP/Cathal McNaughton

2. In 2004, Chechen terrorists took hostage hundreds of schoolchildren and their teachers in a school in Beslan in North Ossetia.

Russian authorities refused to negotiate and instead deployed military forces to storm the school. More than 330 people died and another 550 were wounded. Among the dead were 184 children.

Putin was adamant that the use of force was justified and necessary in the face of terrorism, and used Beslan to increase centralized Kremlin power. He rejected a European Court of Human Rights judgment that Russian authorities used excessive force against their own citizens.

Journalist, human rights activist and Putin critic Ana Politkovskaya was poisoned when traveling to Beslan to cover the siege. She survived, and continued to research and publish on Putin’s assault on democracy until she was shot and killed outside her Moscow apartment in 2006.

3. In 2005, the American-born British CEO of Moscow-based investment fund Hermitage Capital, Bill Browder, was denied re-entry to Russia, and declared a threat to national security.

Browder’s tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky then uncovered a US$230 million tax fraud scheme against Hermitage Capital. Magnitsky’s work revealed high-level government collusion in the criminal looting of public assets.

After taking the allegations public, Magnitsky was arrested in Moscow on fabricated charges and detained for 11 months prior to trial. He was repeatedly abused in jail, including denial of treatment for chronic health conditions. Eventually he was beaten to death.

The Russian state’s punishment did not stop then. Magnitsky was posthumously tried and convicted for tax evasion.

Browder has subsequently pursued justice for Magnitsky, advocating for the worldwide adoption of the Magnitsky Act. The act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2012 to sanction individual Russians involved in human rights abuses.

Putin held a December 2012 press conference
following the Magnitsky act’s passage and the Russian Duma’s subsequent retaliatory ban on American adoptions of Russian orphans. Putin said, “Magnitksy … was not tortured — he died of a heart attack.”

4. On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard.

Putin denied the U.N. finding that the Russian military had shot down a civilian plane, killing all 298 people on board.
AP/Vadim Ghirda

In May 2018, a U.N.-backed Joint Investigation Team concluded that the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, based in Kursk, had fired a missile and brought down the plane.

In direct contradiction of the forensic evidence, Putin flatly denied any Russian involvement in shooting down MH17.

That denial comports with Putin’s long-time denial that Russian forces invaded Ukraine in 2014 – one of 10 false Russian claims about Ukraine identified and debunked by the U.S. State Department. That report is no longer available on the U.S. government website.

5. In February 2015, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in Moscow. Just before his death, Nemtsov had taped a television interview in which he discussed his investigations into Russian war crimes in Ukraine, and called President Putin “our expert in lying. He is a pathological liar.”

After Nemtsov’s death, President Putin assured Nemtsov’s mother, “We will do everything to ensure that the perpetrators of this vile and cynical crime and those who stand behind them are properly punished.”

Nemtsov’s relatives and allies insist on Putin’s complicity and have called the investigation and prosecution of five killers a cover-up. Video evidence and the journalistic investigation into the details of Nemtsov’s murder, likewise, see the highly organized hit involving multiple gunmen and vehicles as the work of a professional intelligence organization like the FSB.

Connecting the dots

The risks for individual Russians challenging Putin’s lies are clear. One journalist has listed 34 suspicious deaths since 2014.

Those killed have nonetheless left an evidentiary trail for a host of contemporary writers like Masha Gessen, David Satter and Peter Pomerantsev. Those writers, and others, detail how Putin has built enormous wealth and power by deploying violence and deception to control the political narrative and disable or eliminate meaningful opposition.

President Trump respects that strength and at times, seems even to envy it. How, then, does he interpret this array of evidence of serial lying and complicity in multiple critics’ violent deaths?

He might conclude that all of these independently produced, empirically-grounded investigations are somehow part of a grand deep-state conspiracy to defame or discredit a man of integrity who can and should be taken at his word.

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That conclusion, though, would dishonor the ordinary and extraordinary Russians who have stood up to the deception and violence of President Putin’s regime, risking or losing their lives as a result. It’s the responsibility of the American president to acknowledge this. By virtue of the office he holds, President Trump has the ability to stop being played by Putin, and speak truth to power.

Keith Brown, Professor of Politics and Global Studies, Arizona State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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In the outrage over the Trump-Putin meeting, important questions were overlooked



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The outrage over Trump’s comments at the joint press conference meant an opportunity for meaningful debate about policy was lost.
AAP/EPA/Anatoly Maltsev

Filip Slaveski, Deakin University

In a now famous Fox News interview with Donald Trump in February 2017, Bill O’Reilly asked the new US president if he respected his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The following discussion ensued:

Trump: Well, I respect a lot of people but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get along with him.

O’Reilly: But he’s a killer though, Putin’s a killer.

Trump: There are a lot of killers, we’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?

Not a few viewers in countries on the wrong end of US foreign policy may have had to stop and catch their breath at Trump’s final sentence. A common thread of so many of their experiences of US foreign policy is not only the bombing from above. Many share a deep repugnance toward what they see as a well-manicured facade of American moral superiority, which helps to frame, water down or justify the violence and humiliations to which they are regularly subjected.




Read more:
Why the world should be worried about the rise of strongman politics


Just for that breathless moment, it seemed this sentence of moral relativism tore a hole in this façade and threatened the moral protection it provides to members of the American establishment.

It is these elected politicians from both major parties, military, state department and security officials, spies, advisers and lobbyists who have reacted most vociferously to Trump’s moral relativism in international affairs. This was perhaps most evident in his accommodating attitude to Putin in general, and especially in Helsinki last month.

In the blanket and largely uncritical Western news coverage of the establishment’s expressions of outrage, commentaries and interviews in response to the July meeting, Trump was depicted as a traitor to the US, Putin’s puppet and now even a greater threat to US national and, indeed, international security.

They may or may not be correct on some or all counts. But it is worth examining exactly what or whom Trump was betraying in Helsinki. So what did Trump do? He accepted uncritically (then later awkwardly back-tracked) Putin’s denial of election meddling and adopted much of his critique of US foreign policy over the last couple of decades.

As far as we know, Trump did not even interrogate Putin over his deadly meddling in Ukraine. He may not be particularly interested. In the lead-up to Helsinki, Trump trash-talked old US allies (including NATO).

Taken together, this conduct exacerbated the establishment fear that Trump was threatening to dismantle well-established Western political structures geared toward containing Russian influence carried over from the Cold War. These structures have been essential to cementing a broader post-Cold War US unipolarity. This has given the US political establishment a free hand to pursue its foreign policies without much restraint but with terrible consequences for those affected in, for example, the Middle East.

I doubt Trump is pursuing a grand strategy to unravel these structures, especially when his rhetoric displays a penchant, even a fetish, for the US unipolarity these strategies help foster.

Furthermore, his rhetoric has not really translated into significant foreign policy changes so far. Much of it is meaningless. But there is whole body of scholarship and commentary that would encourage Trump in any dismantling efforts, as it argues that the carrying over of Cold War structures of Soviet (Russian) containment such as NATO after 1991 have stood in the way of the development of more peaceable relations between Russia and the West. Indeed, structures like NATO fuel Russian anxieties and aggression, which NATO was founded to combat.

More traditional scholarship disputes these “revisionist” ideas, citing Russia’s aggression as evidence of the indispensability of containment to international security.

Scholars on both sides can find evidence to support their arguments in Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine. But these revisionist ideas, or even the debate with more traditional ones, were hardly mentioned in the blanket media outrage over Helsinki. Critically, then, an examination of the object of Trump’s supposed “treachery” was also lacking when it was most needed.




Read more:
As Trump meets Putin, expectations may be high but the prospects are poor


The focus on outrage may just be the reality of covering an outrageous president in politically sensitive times. In any case, an issue remains for us in Australia to re-examine our own approach to Russia.

This could mean advocating a “new” revisionist or “new” traditional approach toward Russia in response to its conduct, especially in Ukraine. But it would also mean at least trying to untangle the latter from the broader implications of supporting American unipolarity and, hopefully, avoiding its consequences.

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This larger project beyond Russia is worth pursuing, if not for the sake of those who suffer its consequences around the globe, then at least for our own. Mass population dislocations, food shortages, terrorism and economic disruption threaten more than ever to reverberate all the way from those far-flung borders straight to our doorstep.

Filip Slaveski, Research Fellow, Alfred Deakin Research Institute, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Russia not so much a (re)rising superpower as a skilled strategic spoiler



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Much of the interest in Russia centres around its experienced and skilled political leader in Vladimir Putin, speaking here with Donald Trump.
Reuters

Alexey D Muraviev, Curtin University

Russia keeps posing a massive intelligence puzzle to the West: it is never as weak as we may want it to be, nor is it as strong as we fear it may be.

So, how can we classify Russia as an international power? It is not the Soviet Union reincarnated, so it is not a reborn counterpoint to US global supremacy. Nor does it intend to be. But it remains a major strategic spoiler of the US’ ambitions to retain its rules-based global order.

Moscow is trying to strengthen its relationship with like-minded major powers. China is one of Russia’s comrades-in-arms, although not a formal ally. China and Russia are not forming any sort of anti-Western/anti-US alliance; both great powers have their own national agendas.

Over the past ten years, Russia and China have developed very close military ties, but their economic relationship remains uneven and quite low on the common strategic agenda. They are de facto engaged in soft competition across Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

But their intention to change the status quo in support of their ambitions aligns with their security and strategic agendas, at least for now. Just like China, Russia seeks to maximise its strategic autonomy by aggressively fending off any perceived challenges to its national interests or sovereignty.

The time cannot be better. US President Donald Trump keeps puzzling allies by reversing major political decisions of previous administrations, while prioritising an inward-looking approach to running his country. And he is no match for Vladimir Putin in terms of experience, charisma, domestic popularity and global influence.




Read more:
Stakes are high as Turkey, Russia and the US tussle over the future of Syria


Try a simple experiment: search any publication about Russia published by the Australian media and try to find an article on anything Russia-related that does not have a reference to Putin. We see in Putin a manifestation of Russia’s ambitions; its political, military, economic and even sport successes and failures; defence of traditional values and criticisms of the Western way of life.

Putin wants for Russia a “place under the sun”: that is, dominance over the immediate neighbourhood combined with Russia’s recognised right to have interests in other parts of the world. The big question is: does modern Russia have what it takes to be a global superpower? The reality is there is no definitive answer to that.

On the one hand, Russia possesses key elements of a superpower: it is self-sufficient when it comes to natural resources and it is an energy superpower; it is a space power with a developed sovereign capability; it has a world-class scientific capability; it is the second-biggest military superpower in the world behind the US. Finally, it has global ambitions and a global agenda.

On the other hand, like China, Russia does not have a civilisational agenda – a competitive political model that could be an alternative to Western liberalism based on a free-market economy. After all, the Cold War was a clash of competitive socioeconomic systems supported by geopolitical and military-strategic competition. There is none of that today.

Second, Russia does not have the economic might of China and its intertwined economic interaction with the US. The Russian economy has suffered a great deal from the tight sanctions regime implemented after the Ukraine crisis, and is only beginning now to show signs of recovery.

That is not to say Russia has lost the economic means to support itself and its global ambitions. Over the past two years, it has achieved a major breakthrough in exporting grain and other agricultural produce, making it one of the top-three foreign currency earners. In 2017 alone, Russia earned some US$20.5 billion by exporting agricultural produce.

Russia’s energy exports also remain high. In 2017, Russian energy giant Gazprom generated total revenue of US$103.6 billion. This year’s revenue is expected to reach US$108 billion. In Europe alone, Gazprom controls 34.7% of its energy market, thus making it an important element of Russia’s regional geoeconomics.




Read more:
Where will the global political hotspots be in 2018? (Spoiler alert: it’s not all about Donald Trump)


The Russian defence sector plays its traditional role of both earning much-needed cash and furthering Russia’s geopolitical agenda. In 2017, Russian arms exports were worth US$17 billion, while the total portfolio of foreign orders of Russian armaments and military equipment is about US$45 billion, effectively retaining the number-two position in global arms sales.

Still, Russia has no means of global economic expansionism. It is desperately seeking new economic opportunities and partnerships with other countries that do not want all the power focused on the US. This gives China a strategic lead because of its diversified extensive economic partnerships with the US, Europe and Asia.

Yet it would be premature to crown China as the sole superpower rival to the US. Unlike Russia, China clearly lacks political and diplomatic experience – the ability to play complex games on a global chessboard.

As an incoming superpower with global ambitions but limited experience in great power politics, China studies carefully the Soviet and Russian experiences and leaves Russia to fight all the major fights at international forums. North Korea and the South China Sea are among the few exceptions where the Chinese show strategic activism.

Apart from its extensive diplomatic experience, China also needs Russia’s strategic nuclear and conventional military might.

Under Putin, the Russian military managed to close the capability gap with the most advanced Western militaries and transformed itself from a large, under-equipped and understaffed army into an effective, highly motivated and battle-hardened force. Putin has given the once-cash-strapped military machine a massive financial boost – and, more importantly, full political support.

Between 2013 and 2017, Russia landed in the world’s top-three nations on defence expenditure, just behind the US and China. In Europe, Russia has remained the single largest defence spender and buyer of major combat systems.

From 2012 until early 2017, the Russian military received 30,000 new and upgraded armaments and items of heavy military equipment. The Syria campaign and Russia’s ability to exercise strategic reach has once again made the military factor supported by active diplomacy one of the key determinants of successful realising its national strategic agenda.

In short, Russia is a major global power in outlook and reach, locked in a values-based confrontation with the West. But it still lacks all elements of a developed superpower.

The ConversationBut what it does most effectively is play the role of a strategic spoiler in times when the world is gradually accepting a new international configuration with a suite of established and emerging great powers that would dominate a future world order.

Alexey D Muraviev, Associate Professor of National Security and Strategic Studies, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

When Trump met Putin, and how the Russian won the day



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The much-anticipated meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump finally took place at the G20 summit in Hamburg.
Reuters/Carlos Barria

Kumuda Simpson, La Trobe University

It was the meeting we’ve all been waiting for. US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on Friday during the G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany.

The key question was whether Trump or Putin would emerge as the stronger leader, with most backing Putin’s ability to manipulate and control the exchange. Trump’s lack of diplomatic or political experience, and his unwillingness to prepare for the encounter, inspired very little confidence that he would walk away with any serious concessions from Putin.

The meeting was scheduled to take half-an-hour. In fact it lasted more than two hours, and an indication the two leaders found a significant amount to talk about. The only other people present were US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and two interpreters. The little we know of what was actually discussed has come from statements Lavrov and Tillerson gave to the press following the meeting.

Russian interference in the US election

Tillerson said Trump pressed Putin over Russian interference in the 2016 election, but seemed to accept his denial that Russia did any such thing.

President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past.

Tillerson said the White House was not “dismissing the issue” but wanted to focus on “how do we secure a commitment” that there will not be interference in the future.

The big question going in to the meeting was whether or not Trump would raise the accusation with Putin. While he clearly did, the ease with which he appears to have accepted Putin’s protestations of innocence, and his reassurance that it won’t happen again, is remarkable.

According to journalists’ reports on Twitter, Lavrov had a slightly different spin on Trump’s reaction to the issue. He said:

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In light of Trump’s remarks in Poland the day before, when he called into doubt the reliability of US intelligence on the issue, this has further undermined the credibility of the US intelligence community. That Trump did this during a face-to-face meeting with Putin can only deepen the mistrust between the CIA and FBI have for the White House, and further damage morale.

It can also be read as a clear victory for Putin, who came away from the meeting without having to seriously address charges that Russia systematically engaged in what is a gross violation of the democratic integrity and sovereignty of another country.

Syria

There was a clear opportunity for Trump to use the meeting to pressure Putin over his continuing support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

While any significant agreements over how to resolve one of the most complex conflicts in the region were highly unlikely, the two leaders did agree to support a ceasefire in an area of southwestern Syria. There were no other details, and Tillerson himself admitted that ceasefires in Syria have tended to fall apart very quickly.

While Russia and the US have a shared interest in fighting Islamic State in Syria, they disagree over the almost every other aspect of the conflict, particularly the future of Assad and the role of Iran.

Trump has recently ratcheted up to anti-Iranian rhetoric and it seems the Russian relationship with Iran could become a significant point of conflict between the US and Russia in the future.

No transcript of the meeting is available so it’s impossible to know exactly what was discussed here. But if Putin was not pressed on these points, it is certainly a missed opportunity.

Shared interests

While both Lavrov and Tillerson highlighted the shared interests the two countries have, neither Ukraine nor the ongoing nuclear crisis in North Korea could be counted among them.

North Korea’s testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile guaranteed that it would be high on the list of issues that would be discussed. Russia has contradicted the consensus among the other G20 leaders over the missile’s range, and blocked a resolution by the UN Security Council calling for “significant measures” in response to the test.

So, what do we make of this highly anticipated meeting?

With very little detail about what was actually discussed, and with the narrative firmly controlled by Lavrov, Trump would seem to have gained very little while conceding much.

Putin has come away with an implicit agreement to move on from the question of election meddling, without promising more than “dialgue” on Ukraine, no agreement on how to deal with North Korea, and no real movement on the horrific human tragedy in Syria.

The ConversationAlong with Tillerson’s affirmation that the two leaders shared “a clear positive chemistry”, it’s hard not to recall George W. Bush’s claim to have seen into Putin’s soul, and conclude that Putin has once again expertly played a US president.

Kumuda Simpson, Lecturer in International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia: Tony Abbott Promises to Shirtfront Vladimir Putin


One does have to wonder just how serious Tony Abbott’s comments can be taken, especially this one about ‘shirtfronting’ Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Is this a core promise or just spruiking for the camera – will there be some video record of the shirtfronting, because without it I would find it difficult to believe it has happened.