Russia Review | October 2021


• Russia shrugs off Nobel Peace Prize message
• US & Russia tone down rhetoric and rev up engagement
• Finding a modus vivendi on Ukraine

Russia shrugs off Nobel Peace Prize message

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize 2021 was awaited with expectant anticipation in various constituencies in the post-Soviet space. The responses to the announcement ranged from quiet relief in official circles to indifference and disappointment elsewhere.

The Russian recipient, Dmitry Muratov, who shared the prize with Philippines journalist Maria Ressa, is the editor-in-chief of the privately-owned newspaper Novaya Gazeta (NG). Though respected for his professionalism and journalistic integrity, he is hardly a household name in Russia or outside. NG is a thrice-weekly print publication, with a circulation of under 100,000, restricted to Moscow and a few cities, though its website had 17 million views in September (according to an AFP report). Muratov expressed astonishment at being selected; other Russians were equally astonished or indifferent.  

The award citation notes that NG has been courageously publishing “critical articles on subjects ranging from corruption, police violence, unlawful arrests, electoral fraud and ‘troll factories,’ to the use of Russian military forces both within and outside Russia”. It also mentioned that six NG journalists have been killed, including (the best known of them) Anna Politkovskaya, a powerful critic of the conduct of the war in Chechnya, of alleged atrocities by the security agencies, and of corruption in high places. Public memory of these murders has somewhat blurred over time: the last of them was over a decade ago (Politkovskaya was killed 15 years ago). NG has continued to expose the venality of government officials and the impunity of security agencies, but measures to muzzle them have stopped short of outright execution. Even while promoting brave journalism, Muratov has skilfully ensured that some red lines are not crossed. He has also been successful in working his contacts in the establishment to protect his journalists from extreme responses, though some have often been threatened or roughed up.

NG’s unusual pedigree perhaps enables it to get away with more than other media outlets. It was founded by a group of journalists of Komsomolskaya Pravda, the mouthpiece of the Youth Communist Party during Soviet times. It boasts a high-profile patron in the last Soviet President, Gorbachev, who used money from his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize to help establish the newspaper and purchase its first computers. Gorbachev announced in the mid-2000s that he had increased his holdings in the paper. Another of its early sponsors was Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB officer, who continued with its successor agency after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Over the years, Lebedev and his son also acquired a controlling stake in the publications of The Independent group in the UK.  

The fact that Russia carefully monitors and strictly regulates media outlets is indisputable. A distinction is made between domestic media and media outlets or journalists who are dubbed “foreign agents”. If there is the slightest whiff of any foreign financial or other assistance to journalists or organizations, they have to self-declare as “foreign agents” and have to use this label, whenever they publish or broadcast anything. The list of foreign agents has been growing rapidly in recent years, corresponding to increased foreign funding coming in for NGOs and media outlets engaged in monitoring human rights violations or issues of democratic governance. Foreign agents face greater surveillance and restrictions on their access. These measures seem to stem from a paranoia about foreign powers seeking to infiltrate Russian institutions, provoke public discontent and bring about regime change. This paranoia has heightened with the rising acrimony in Russia-West relations since 2014, and finds mention in many public utterances of President Putin.

Domestic media, including privately owned media (there are a few such, other than NG), enjoy greater latitude in their reporting than foreign agents. Criticism of federal or local government policies, including foreign and economic policies associated with the President, and allegations of corruption in high places do surface in the media. Personal attacks on the President and excessive intrusion into the operations of security agencies are carefully avoided. Russia is ranked 150 in the global press freedom index put out by Reporters Without Borders. 

The Peace prize will obviously not influence any of this. But supporters of opposition activist Alexei Navalny in Russia and outside were bitterly disappointed that he did not get the award. There is a time-honoured tradition of the Peace Prize being awarded to activists who have worked for change in authoritarian systems – from Sakharov to Walesa, Aung Sang Suu Kyi and Liu Xiaobo. Navalny supporters feel that the West has not backed its declared support for his political campaign, and its criticism of his alleged poisoning and subsequent incarceration, with sufficiently effective sanctions against Russia. The Nobel would have compensated for this by giving him a larger-than-life profile and poking the Russian authorities in the eye.

Another disappointed constituency was that of the Belarus opposition politician, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Her supporters too feel that, after having recognized electoral fraud in the Belarus Presidential elections in August 2020 , the US and European Union could have applied more effective pressure on President Lukashenka to step down or fast-track constitutional reform. The Nobel award that eluded her could have given fresh impetus to her campaign, at a time when President Lukashenka appears to be consolidating his position and the opposition movement losing coordination, focus and unity.

Russia wisely chose to project the award as a prestigious recognition of a Russian citizen, ignoring the admonition to the government that it delivered. President Putin’s press spokesman sent a gracious congratulatory message to Muratov, describing him as a talented and brave person, who was consistently true to his ideals. Muratov was invited to President Putin’s annual interaction with Russian and foreign journalists at the Valdai Club, where the President congratulated him, reminding him that he was in the good company of Presidents Gorbachev and Obama. Muratov was permitted to ask a question. He took up the issue of the law on foreign agents, pointing out that it is too severe, the criteria are vague, and there is no appeal against the designation. President Putin responded patiently, but the only point which he conceded was that the criteria could be made more transparent.

US & Russia tone down rhetoric and rev up engagement

Fortuitously or otherwise, US-Russia relations escaped the acrimony that would have resulted from a Nobel award to Navalny. In the event, there was a range of bilateral interactions at various levels on strategic stability, cybersecurity, military deconfliction, Afghanistan, Iran and Syria.

A significant bilateral event was the Moscow visit of US Under Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland. She is widely considered a Russia hawk. In 2014, as Assistant Secretary of State, she was in the thick of the public demonstrations in Kyiv, which eventually overthrew the government of President Yanukovich. Her intercepted conversations with the US Ambassador in Kyiv revealed the extent of US involvement in the formation of the new Ukrainian government. She was among those on whom Russia imposed sanctions, in retaliation to the US sanctions on senior Russian officials. Some negotiations were required to waive the sanctions, so that she could be issued a visa. The Russians extracted in return a lifting of sanctions on a disarmament expert, who had been denied a US visa to attend to UN work in New York.

There was little official briefing on the content of Nuland’s meetings. Her meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov was said to have covered the ongoing strategic stability (arms control) negotiations in Geneva, and an exchange of perspectives on the West Asian theatres where US-Russia confrontation has stymied peace efforts. A particular focus of attention was the tangled situation resulting from the tit-for-tat restrictions on diplomatic and consular missions in the two countries. The functioning of these missions in both countries has been severely restricted by the forced reduction of staff and the closure of some offices. US diplomatic missions in Russia have been particularly hit by Russia’s ban on employment of local staff, because of the language problem. The Nuland visit did not resolve this issue, apparently because Russia demanded the withdrawal of all restrictive measures on the US side (including seizure of some Russian consular and trade offices).

Foreign policy issues were also discussed with President Putin’s senior-most foreign policy advisor, Yuri Ushakov. An even more significant meeting was with Dmitry Kozak, the Presidential representative for negotiations relating to the Ukraine crisis. Though there has been no official word from the US side on the content of this discussion, signals from other developments, as well as some “leaks” from the Russian side, seem to indicate efforts to find ways of defusing tensions. This is elaborated in the next section.

The consultations on strategic stability appear to be progressing. The second round, on September 30, resulted in an agreement to set up two working groups: one to concretize the principles and objectives of future arms control, and the second to identify potentials and actions that could have strategic consequences. Given the complexity of issues involved and the gulf between the two sides on doctrines and threat perceptions, the establishment of a structured dialogue mechanism is itself a positive development. Both the US and Russia have publicly elaborated on their expectations of an arms control regime. Both agree that there is potential meeting ground.

As in virtually every global problem, China is the elephant in this room as well, but acknowledged only by one side. The Trump Administration had delayed the extension of the arms control treaty, new START, on the argument that any viable arms control regime should now include China. The Biden Administration agreed to an extension until 2026, but also reiterated the need to draw China into future arms control negotiations. Considering Russia’s geography and the pace of China’s nuclear and conventional militarization, this makes just as much sense for Russia, but current politics prevents it from publicly articulating this perception. The public Russian response has been that, if the US wants to draw China into the discussions, it is for the two of them to agree on this, and then UK and France, as the two other nuclear powers should also be drawn in. US NSA Jake Sullivan recently indicated that this subject was discussed in a preliminary manner in the recent Biden-Xi virtual meeting.

Russia and the US quietly acknowledge some forward movement in their discussions on cybersecurity, including sharing information on threats emerging from cyberspace. The intensity of ransomware attacks from Russia on US institutions seems to have decreased, and several networks of Russian hackers have apparently been shut. As evidence of cooperation in this sphere, they have agreed to co-sponsor a resolution in the UN on responsible state behaviour in cyberspace. This is a symbolic, rather than a substantive, development, since differences remain in their ideas of norms and standards comprising responsible behaviour. Nevertheless, bringing together the two rival groupings in which they were pursuing their ideas has some demonstration effect. Russians, however, complain, from time to time, of asymmetry: NSA Patrushev recently drew attention to cyber-attacks on Russian nuclear power plants, allegedly emanating from US territory.

The US State Department has recently acknowledged that Russia has been helpful in the effort to draw Iran back into the JCPOA negotiations. Secretary Blinken discussed this on phone with his Russian counterpart, who has had a number of conversations with his Iranian counterpart.

Another positive development was a meeting between the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley and the Russian CGS General Gerasimov in Helsinki in end-September. It resumed a dialogue that had tailed off sometime in 2019. No specific details were divulged of the agenda, beyond the obvious ones of risk reduction and operational deconfliction. US-Russia confrontation and near-misses in the Baltic and Black Seas, Syria and Ukraine make this a necessary and important exercise.

Rumours surfaced in Russia and the US that a substantial part of the six-hour Milley-Gerasimov conversation was on Afghanistan and about US access to locations for surveillance and over-the-horizon attack capabilities. Milley seemed to confirm this in Congressional testimony. The effectiveness of US reconnaissance and strike drones is limited by distance and time, because they are launched from bases in Qatar. In the early 2000s, when US-Russia relations were on more even keel, the US had the use of bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. This was discontinued at the behest of Moscow. Ever since the Taliban took over in Afghanistan, Russia has been strongly warning Central Asian leaderships not to fall for US inducements to accept either Afghan refugees or US infrastructure in their countries. The Moscow-led security alliance, CSTO, has demonstratively held military exercises near the Afghan border, to beef up defences, deter militant influx and discourage the entry of outside forces. 

At the same time, President Putin is reported to have told President Biden in Geneva in June that, while Russia continues to oppose basing of US troops or infrastructure in Central Asia, it could be of help to the US in dealing with the threat from Afghanistan. Time will tell how this will materialize and what Russia will demand as a quid pro quo.

The most intriguing US-Russia interaction was a visit to Moscow of CIA chief, William Burns. He had meetings with Russia’s Secretary of the Security Council (NSA) Nikolai Patrushev and the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service Sergei Naryshkin. But what attracted the most attention was his telephone conversation with President Putin. In the Corona era, calls on President Putin have been strictly limited; a few favoured ones are granted a telephone call. Burns was US Ambassador to Russia during a difficult period of bilateral relations (2005-8) and is even today remembered in Moscow as one of the most professional American ambassadors to have served there. The Kremlin website carries the fulsome praise that President Putin showered on him at his farewell call in 2008.

In the absence of official briefing on the visit, the US media speculated that Burns’ mission was to warn Russia about escalation of tensions with Ukraine. Sections of the US media had been writing about a Russian troop build-up on Ukraine's border, conjuring up images of impending war. Russia denied such a build-up – in fact, its denial was issued on the day Burns was in Moscow. Remarkably, even the Ukrainian Defence Ministry issued a press release, quoting the Chief of the General Staff as saying “there was no increase in [Russian] forces on the state border with Ukraine”, suggesting that Russia was undertaking routine troop movements in its own territory.  

As Director of the CIA, former US Ambassador to Russia and former US Deputy Secretary of State, it would be reasonable to assume that Burns went to Moscow to discuss a spectrum of bilateral issues, and not just Russian troop movements. Moreover, since President Putin never receives courtesy calls from visiting dignitaries, it is likely that Burns was carrying more than a protocol message from President Biden. Even if the message was about Ukraine, it is unlikely to have been the one reported in the media.

Amidst these manifestations of constructive dialogue were the usual confrontational rhetoric and actions. Secretary of State Blinken issued a statement on the 15th anniversary of journalist Politkovskaya’s murder, declaring that the “continued impunity” of those who ordered Politkovskaya’s murder undermines freedom of speech and human rights in Russia.

A US statement in the OPCW reiterated the assertion that FSB (Russia’s intelligence agency) agents poisoned Navalny with a nerve agent of the Novichok group, “which only Russia has developed and used”.

NATO revoked the accreditation of 8 Russian diplomats in the permanent representation to NATO (accusing them of espionage). The Russians retaliated by closing the mission altogether, and ordered the immediate closure of the NATO Military Liaison Mission accredited to the Russian defence ministry and NATO’s Moscow Information Office.

Finding a modus vivendi on Ukraine

Ever since the Biden-Putin summit in June, it has been a refrain of American officials that the US seeks a predictable and stable relationship with Russia. A fundamental obstacle to such a relationship is the Ukraine crisis, which will remain a festering sore in Russia-West relations, unless some way is found to defuse tensions and stop bloodshed, even if a final denouement is not in sight.

Earlier issues of this Review (see 5/21 and 4/21) have described how the Biden Administration has walked a tightrope between Ukraine's expectations of support (including by sanctions against the Russia-Germany gas pipeline Nordstream 2) and Russia’s demand for unequivocally endorsing the Minsk Accords as the basis for a political settlement. The Minsk Accords of 2014-15 were brokered by France and Germany, accepted by Ukraine (which didn’t have a choice), endorsed by Russia (which had masterminded the military advances of the southeast Ukrainian groups), and eventually approved by the UN Security Council. A strict implementation of the Accords would effectively create an autonomous southeast Ukraine in a loose Ukrainian federation, which is emphatically opposed by Ukrainian nationalists. The US and its allies have called for the implementation of the Minsk accords, but have also supported Ukraine in its periodical redefinition of their provisions. Recent US statements and actions have aroused concern in Ukraine and some of its European partners that, as it searches for a predictable and stable relationship with Russia, the US may be diluting its position on Ukrainian interests. The waiving of US sanctions on Nordstream 2 in May jolted Ukraine and other opponents of the project in Europe. The suspicion of dilution was strengthened by reports of the Nuland-Kozak meeting. Kozak said they had agreed that a special autonomous status for Donbas (the southeast Ukraine region of conflict), was an essential requirement for conflict-resolution. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman quoted this as the main result of the discussions with Nuland about Ukraine. These statements went uncontested by US officials.  

The Biden Administration recognizes that progress in the US-Russia dialogue on issues like arms control, cybersecurity, Syria, Iran and Afghanistan would be facilitated if a modus vivendi can be found on Ukraine that respects the red lines of all stakeholders. It would also help to further US objectives vis a vis China. The Nuland and Burns visits (and a part of the Milley-Gerasimov dialogue) may have explored ways to square this circle. If this is, indeed, the effort, it would face strong headwinds from within the US Administration itself, from Congress and a number of US allies and partners in Europe. This accounts for contradictory signals, recurrent mutual recriminations and the zig-zag course of relations. The unpredictability of Russia’s behaviour, stemming from its own internal contradictions, adds immeasurably to the complications.  


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About the Author

Ambassador PS Raghavan

Former Indian Ambassador to Russia

Born in 1955, Ambassador Raghavan holds a B.Sc. (Honours) degree in Physics and a B.E. in Electronics & Communications Engineering. He joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1979. From 1979 to 2000, he had diplomatic assignments in USSR, Poland, United Kingdom, Vietnam and South Africa, interspersed with assignments in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in New Delhi. From 2000 to 2004, he was Joint Secretary in the Indian Prime Minister's Office dealing with Foreign Affairs, Nuclear Energy, Space, Defence and National Security. Thereafter, he was Ambassador of India to Czech Republic (2004 - 2007) and to Ireland (2007 - 2011).

He was Chief Coordinator of the BRICS Summit in New Delhi (March 2012) and Special Envoy of the Government of India to Sudan and South Sudan (2012-13). Ambassador Raghavan conceptualized and piloted the creation of the Development Partnership Administration (DPA) in MEA, which implements and monitors India’s economic partnership programs in developing countries, with an annual budget of $1-1.5 billion. He headed DPA in 2012-13. From March 2013 to January 2014, he oversaw the functioning of the Administration, Security, Information Technology and other related Divisions of MEA. Since October 2013, he was also Secretary [Economic Relations] in MEA, steering India’s bilateral and multilateral external economic engagement. Ambassador Raghavan retired from the Indian Foreign Service in January 2016, after serving from 2014 as Ambassador of India to Russia. Since September 2016, he is Convenor of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India.

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