Alastair Gill

See more by Alastair Gill

Putin and Biden (talking) back in 2011
Russia

Russia And The U.S.: To Talk Or Not To Talk

Moscow and Washington are attempting to work out how to communicate with each other after Joe Biden insulted Vladimir Putin.

MOSCOW — Russia's ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, is back in Moscow, after having been recalled "for consultations," after U.S. President Joe Biden labeled Vladimir Putin as "a killer" in an television interview.

After his return Sunday, Antonov summed up the situation obliquely: "Russia is interested in relations with the U.S. to the same degree that the U.S. itself is interested."

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During last weekend's protests in Moscow
Novaya Gazeta

Navalny v. Putin: A Point Of No Return For Russia?

The attempted assassination and subsequent arrest of Alexei Navalny, and accusations of state corruption, have sparked a new protest movement in Russia that may force Vladimir Putin to consider the 'Belarus option.'

-Analysis-

After a week of high drama, the political situation in Russia is moving into a new, more radical phase. The Jan. 17 arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who had just landed in Moscow after recovering in Germany from a poisoning attack, came as Navalny released a viral YouTube video that exposed a vast palace President Vladimir Putin allegedly built for himself on $1.35 billion of kickbacks. The protests that followed were Russia's most widespread since the 1990s.

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A protest in Krakow against Belarusian President Alexandre Lukashenko
Belarus

Lukashenko Threats Force Hand Of Belarus Opposition

The opponents of ‘Europe’s last dictator’ are trying to avoid loss of life and focusing new energy on labor strikes.

Two weeks have passed since the presidential election in Belarus, the results of which are disputed by the opposition. Despite the large turnout for Sunday" protests, there are signs that the movement against longstanding leader Alexander Lukashenko may be gradually dying down.

Proclaimed president of Belarus for a sixth time, Lukashenko is busy attempting to regain the initiative with the help of alternative pro-government demonstrations among his supporters — along with grim warnings that order would be restored in the country.

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A protester holds up a sign that reads 'How much more blood will it take?' in Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus.
Belarus

Tanks From Moscow? What Prague 1968 Tells Us About Minsk 2020

A Russian political analyst asks whether it is in Moscow’s interest to send military forces into Belarus in support of embattled leader Alexander Lukashenko.

MOSCOW — August. Mass demonstrations in a Slavic country. Its leader is, of course, no enemy to Moscow, but the alliance isn't quite working out the way the Kremlin would like. The temptation here is to continue in the style of the armchair analyst; this analogy proves that the protests in Belarus are destined to be … But this isn't about 2020, and it isn't about Belarus.

In 1968, the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia lasted for a couple of months. The Czechoslovak leadership wanted to push the window open a bit and allow the population to breathe the air of freedom. Moscow thought otherwise. In those days the Kremlin didn't beat around the bush with its allies (or even vassals), so half a million soldiers and more than 6,000 tanks and armored troop carriers from Warsaw Pact nations set off for Czechoslovakia. No military hostilities took place. The leaders of the country that had yearned for "excessive" freedom were swiftly taken into captivity by Soviet paratroopers and whisked off to Moscow, and a Soviet military presence was maintained in Czechoslovakia until 1991.

The Brezhnev Doctrine, that is the readiness to intervene in the internal affairs of Warsaw Pact states in cases where the Kremlin considered it necessary, was an effective military and political instrument at the time. In today's Czech Republic and Slovakia, however, it is hard to find anyone who will justify the decision to send in the tanks as in 1968.

In a historical sense, the USSR once again appeared as the strangler of freedom: You can encounter "tanks on the streets of Prague" in almost any debate about the fate of the Soviet Union. Post-1968, after all, the United States only strengthened its position in Europe (its allies gained an additional argument about protection from the "evil empire"), and Czechoslovakia ultimately liberated itself from Soviet influence in any case. The Warsaw Pact was bound to fall apart.

Mentions of "tanks in Prague" have become increasingly common on social media.

Following two phone calls in as many days between Russian President Vladmir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko, mentions of "tanks in Prague" have become increasingly common on social media. Lukashenko has mentioned Russia's readiness to offer assistance on several occasions, and it's not hard to guess what such assistance might consist of. The two states have recalled the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), but this is applied in cases of repelling external aggression. What do hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of Minsk have to do with the CSTO?

I do not know what will happen and whether Lukashenko will hold on to power.

Look at any Facebook page right now and you'll find an erstwhile Ukraine expert, temporarily carrying out the duties of a Turkologist, an Orientalist, an Americanologist and a Balkanologist, and now playing the role of an expert on Belarus. They all have the answers.

I would like only to recall the recent past of Georgia and the role played by Russia in those events, since this was no less effective politics than tanks in Prague.

WC_inside_Prague_1968

Russian soldiers on a tank in Prague, August 1968— Photo: Mondadori Portfolio

Nov. 22, 2003. Evening in the Georgian parliament. Protesters break into the auditorium at the very moment that President Eduard Shevardnadze is giving a speech. The security detail hurriedly escort the head of state to safety. As the street protests mount peacefully outside, demanding resignations, a young Mikheil Saakashvili Georgia's future president runs up to the rostrum and takes a sip of the president's still-warm tea. Russian TV channels cover the protests in a fashion befitting a proper mass media, allowing both sides to give their point of view, without taking sides.

In 1999 Shevardnadze had already promised to "knock on NATO's door," but Russia remained the heavyweight player in the region. So Russia's foreign minister Igor Ivanov flies to Tbilisi late at night on Nov. 22. Nobody sends in the tanks. The head of the Foreign Ministry simply arrives at the presidential residence and on the morning of Nov. 23 Shevardnadze seats him at the head of the table. The Georgian leader then sits to his left. To his right — Mikheil Saakashvili and the prime minister, Zurab Zhvania. Photographs of this symbolic meeting can easily be found on the internet. As Igor Ivanov later pointed out, it was President Vladimir Putin who phoned the Georgian leader to offer Russian help.

The end of this story is not very uplifting. Back in 2004, Russia's Igor Ivanov, who by then had passed his foreign minister post on to Sergei Lavrov to head Russia's Security Council, flew to Georgia a second time. This trip was to Batumi, where he persuaded Aslan Abashidze, the rebellious leader of Georgia's coastal province of Adjaria to abandon the country and fly back to Moscow with him. In this way, Adjaria returned to Georgia's constitutional space without blood being spilled. And Georgia's drift toward NATO continued. In 2008, Russia would even manage to take on the Georgians, "coercing them into peace." Then diplomatic ties were severed for good.

So it turns out that there aren't many good arguments for those who want to dispatch tanks to any place where an allegedly pro-Russian leader is being overthrown.

What's the point of this tedious diplomacy, if we act as mediators in negotiations between the authorities and the opposition, and the new leaders, forgetting about gratitude, run off to NATO anyway? At the very least, so that in the historical context years later we won't be reminded of this by the addition of a comma: "Prague 1968, Minsk 2020." The Kremlin will not be deploying tanks any time soon.

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No choice but to flee to neighboring Lithuania for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya
Belarus

'Joan Of Arc' In Exile: Can Tikhanovskaya Lead Belarus From Abroad?

Violent clashes continue to rock Belarus after opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee the country, following President Lukashenko's reelection.

MINSK — As protests take over Belarus, following a presidential election that many are calling rigged, a new opposition government begins abroad. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who lost the Sunday election to 26-year incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, is trying to gain international traction as the legitimate president of the Eastern European country.

Tikhanovskaya will manage affairs from exile in Lithuania, where she fled in the early hours of Aug. 11 after what appears to have been long and extremely distressing talks with representatives of the Belarusian authorities.

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Moscow's mostly abandoned subway on April 26
Russia

No Work, No Way Home: Russia’s Migrant Workers Trapped By COVID-19

The imposition of quarantine and self-isolation has hit migrant workers hardest of all. They have nothing to live on in Russia but have no way of returning home.

For three weeks in late March and early April, chaos reigned in Russia's airports. Thousands of migrants from the Central Asian republics and the South Caucasus were vainly trying to fly home, not only from Moscow, but from many other cities.

A month ago Russia closed flights to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which responded almost immediately with symmetrical measures. One or two charter flights a day operated by Central Asian airlines were arranged, but this was only done with difficulty. Prices for tickets doubled, as passengers fortunate enough to get on board — and out of the country — were obliged to cover the operating costs for the empty flight into Russia.

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Ukrainian citizens from Russia walk at the central railway station in Kiev after the evacuation.
Russia

As Virus Takes Hold, Russia (And Russians) Caught In Limbo

As the coronavirus pandemic tightens its grip, Moscow is struggling to put together a coherent strategy to repatriate Russian nationals and allow foreigners to leave.

MOSCOW — U.S. ballet dancer Julian Mackay and his brother Nicholas were settling into their seats on board Aeroflot Flight SU102 from Moscow to New York on April 3 when the cabin crew made an unexpected announcement: The flight was canceled.

The brothers, who both live in Russia, were desperate to reach their dying father and had been trying to leave for weeks before managing to get tickets for the flight, which the U.S. embassy had warned could be the last one of the month.

"It's chaos, people are yelling and screaming at flight attendants …" said Nicholas in a video posted to Julian's Instagram account, as passengers vented their fury in the aisles behind them.

It soon became clear that they were not alone: more than 100 Russian citizens were left marooned in New York after the corresponding flight was also pulled, and flights to Russia from Istanbul and the Maldives were canceled too.

Aeroflot later issued a statement announcing that the flight had been grounded "following a decision by Russian aviation authorities to suspend all permits previously granted to carriers for charter flights to repatriate Russian and C.I.S. citizens."

As the Kommersant business daily reported, the reason was a government decision to suspend all flights in and out of Russia while Moscow reorganizes its repatriation strategy in light of the coronavirus crisis. Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said that the halt was necessary in order to understand exactly how many citizens required repatriation, their location and their identity.

Yet almost an entire day had passed before this became clear, with embassies (whose citizens were unable to leave Russia due to the cancelation of flights) and journalists left in the dark as they made frantic calls to government agencies. When officials did actually pick up the phone they either refused to discuss the situation or admitted that they themselves had no idea what was going on.

The U.S. State Department has now announced that it will provide a special charter flight on April 9 for its citizens still in Russia following the cancelations. Meanwhile, more than 30,000 Russian citizens are still stranded abroad, many of whom say their funds are dwindling.

The confusion over repatriation is symbolic of Russia's haphazard approach to dealing with the outbreak so far.

A Kommersant government source told the paper that the suspension was a temporary measure and was intended to last only "until the creation of certain special conditions."

Indeed, on Monday, April 6 the Foreign Ministry announced that it was relaunching its repatriation program with two flights from Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh, to be followed on April 7 by two flights from Bangkok. But the confusion over repatriation is symbolic of Russia's haphazard approach to dealing with the outbreak so far, despite having had plenty of time to formulate a response.

Mixed messages

For a long time the numbers of COVID-19 cases in Russia were low, allowing the Kremlin to indulge in soft power stunts such as sending medical aid to Italy, while state media peddled conspiracy theories and mocked Europe's struggles to cope with the outbreak.

Now, however, with the official number of those infected in Russia at over 7,000 and steadily rising, the government is seeking to emphasize the seriousness of the situation. Yet while the country is now effectively under a lockdown until the end of April, President Vladimir Putin has failed to declare a state of emergency, instead describing the measures as a "non-working" period.

These mixed messages are hampering efforts to limit the spread of infection, with many people continuing to ignore social distancing recommendations. The situation illustrates the problems Russian officials face, as they attempt to implement a coherent strategy to fight the virus while keeping imported infections under control.

Citizens returning from abroad have given the Kremlin another headache, with almost every day bringing a fresh story of passengers slipping out of airports on arrival in Russia in order to avoid being placed into quarantine. In the Pacific port of Vladivostok, police had to track down 12 "runaways' who disappeared after returning on a flight from Thailand on April 2.

Calling the Motherland

According to the foreign ministry, the vast majority of Russian citizens who have expressed a desire to return home are in Thailand — around 19,000 in total. Kommersant writes that while some of these are holidaymakers, many live in Thailand, making use of the relatively liberal visa regime, but have decided to return to Russia in light of the circumstances. There are also around 5,000 Russian nationals in India, and another 5,000 in Indonesia, mainly in Bali.

There is little sympathy in some quarters for the plight of stranded Russians.

Yevgeniya Starovoit, who flew to Australia with her husband in early March, is stuck in Melbourne. "To begin with we thought that we were the only ones here, but at the consulate they told us that around 500 Russians wanted to leave Australia and another 150 wanted to leave New Zealand," she told Kommersant. They had return tickets for April 6 via Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways, but on March 24 the company sent them an email informing them that the flight had been cancelled.

Russia has allocated 500 million rubles ($6.6 million) for temporary accommodation for citizens who are unable to return home, and says applicants need to sign up on a special online government register, though it is unclear how they will be able to access these funds or how people will be able to prove they need them.

However, there is little sympathy in some quarters for the plight of stranded Russians. Writing for Ria Novosti on April 6, Irina Alksnis echoed the thoughts of some online commentators when she accused many Russians stuck in limbo of "flagrant irresponsibility."

"Some — who live permanently abroad — hoped that this would blow over, and sat tight until the moment when they needed emergency evacuation," she wrote. "Others left Russia for vacations in March (all the way up to the 20th and beyond!), when an epidemic was already raging in the world, and states were closing their borders one after another. What all these people were thinking, one can only guess."

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Putin addresses the Duma
Novaya Gazeta

End Of Perestroika? Russia’s Media Reacts To Putin’s ‘Reset’

MOSCOW — After months of speculation, it appears that Vladimir Putin has finally settled on a strategy that will allow him to retain power beyond 2024. Ever since he announced plans to make a raft of amendments to the country's constitution back in mid-January, discussion had been rife over what exactly the Russian president — barred from running for a third consecutive term — was planning. Was he intending to retire? Was he eyeing a supervisory role in the State Council? Was he plotting a merger with Belarus? In the end, it appears he has opted to start all over again from scratch.

On March 10, during a session of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, cosmonaut-turned-politician Valentina Tereshkova suggested that a new, altered constitution could be the basis for "resetting" the clock on presidential term limits. Putin responded that in principle he agreed, as long as the Constitutional Court gave its approval. Within an hour the amendment had been approved by the Duma. The amendments go to a "public vote" on April 22, the result of which is likely to be a forgone conclusion, as is any ruling by the Constitutional Court. The proposal paves the way for Putin to run again in 2024 if he so chooses, meaning that in theory he could remain president until 2036.

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President Putin and his new Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin on Thursday
Novaya Gazeta

Putin's Chess Match With Russia's Constitution As Pawn

A sudden rash of constitutional changes, and the government's subsequent resignation, looks to be a maneuver for Putin to hold on to power indefinitely.

-Analysis-

MOSCOW — It was arguably the most dramatic day in Russian politics since the late 1990s: a bolt from the blue that even senior government officials didn't see coming. On Wednesday, January 15 the country's political landscape was turned upside-down by a double bombshell.

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Armenian soldiers in Yerevan
Russia

Armenia And Azerbaijan, A Fragile Truce After 25 Years

May marked the 25th anniversary of the ceasefire that ended Armenia and Azerbaijan’s war for the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. It wouldn't take much to reignite fighting.

DZHODZHUG-MARDZHANLY — This village doesn't appear on maps or on Google. Old satellite photographs show just a few scattered roofless houses. Dzhodzhug-Mardzhanly, a village in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, was victim of the war fought between Armenia and Azerbaijan over this mountainous region in the South Caucasus in the early 1990s — a conflict that Armenia won. From 1994 to 2016, the village lay in ruins. But in the last three years, Dzhodzhug-Mardzhanly is very much back on the map.

During an outbreak in fighting in April 2016 Azerbaijani troops captured nearby Mount Leletepe, and the village was subsequently settled and rebuilt at a cost of $16 million. Dzhodzhug-Mardzhanly is now a propaganda trophy for Azerbaijan, a symbol that the republic has the resources to recover and rebuild its lost territories, while large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh remain uninhabited and in ruins.

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Nord Stream 2, already in the pipes
Russia

Why Washington May Detour Russia's Big Pipeline Project

Opposition to the planned Nord Stream 2 gas project had been limited to Europe. But now the Trump administration is challenging it too — with possible sanctions.

-Analysis-

The political heat over Russia's proposed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany is now coming from far afield, after the United States announced plans to sanction companies working with Moscow's state-owned gas giant Gazprom on the controversial project.

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Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a press conference after his victory
Ukraine

For Ukraine's New TV Star President The Show's About To Get Very Real

Ukraine’s president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy has learned how to appeal to the whole country — but now this former comedian has to learn how to rule it.

Ukraine's Central Election Commission has made it official: the young comedian and TV actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy has defeated incumbent Petro Poroshenko by a triple margin: 73.2% to 24.4%, with more than 99% of the votes counted. Not only was this a landslide victory, but it was achieved all over the country, in both the Russian-speaking east and the Ukrainian-speaking west.

The outgoing president managed to beat his rival only in the staunchly nationalist Lviv region in western Ukraine.

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