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Editor’s Introduction

As the first anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine comes into view, Vladimir Putin’s mafia regime continues to be the five-hundred-pound bear sitting in the global living room. What will the Kremlin’s strongman do next? Is he acting out of strength or weakness or some pathological combination of both? Will the combination of falling energy prices, the flailing ruble, and the slowly accreting costs of sanctions “maximize the contradictions” (as the Russian leader’s onetime bosses in the Politburo used to say) and allow the West to play a waiting game? Or must the Kremlin’s aggression be confronted more forcefully to whip the bear back into his den?

As the questions about what comes next continue to multiply, World Affairs continues to monitor the progress of Putinism. Big-picture analysis is always good, and Walter Laqueur, dean of American Russia watchers, excels at it. “State of Mind,” his piece on what the theorists behind Putin’s throne are theorizing, is filled with provocative insights about how the intellectual bandwidth inside the Kremlin’s policy elite has narrowed to a debate between the hard hard-line and the soft hard-line.

The former believes that in the aftermath of the brief opening the post-Soviet era, the West sought to enlarge its sphere of influence at Russia’s expense. Despite promises of partnership and integration, NATO treacherously reneged on its promise not to move eastward in a cynical effort to camouflage and remedy a crisis within the European project itself, thereby revealing the EU as a paper tiger. Now is the time for payback.

This vengeful fantasy, based on a particularly Slavic version of the “stab in the back,” is only slightly mitigated by the views of the somewhat more respectable soft hard-line—risibly referred to as the “peace party” in Russian policy circles, according to Laqueur—which regards the Crimea as a welcome fait accompli and believes in keeping the pressure on Ukraine, although by economic and political rather than military means.

That these are the only alternatives, according to Putin’s nomenklatura, shows how profoundly he has cleansed Russia’s intellectual landscape and how grim the prospects are.

But while the big picture is always worth regarding carefully, understanding is sometimes increased by breaking off a piece of it and taking a close-up look. In “Russia and the Baltics,” Moscow journalist and democracy activist (and World Affairs blogger) Vladimir Kara-Murza measures today’s Russia by the post-Soviet state on the verge of being born under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin in 1991. As Soviet tanks rolled into Vilnius in January to crush Lithuania’s aspirations for independence, Yeltsin, at the time speaker of the Parliament of the Russian Federation, stood against the Kremlin’s aggression and flew to the Estonian capital of Tallinn to support the leaders of the Baltic states and their “inalienable right to national independence.” While there, Yeltsin met with Soviet troops and urged them to disregard any orders from the Kremlin to crush the peaceful demonstrations.

Yeltsin was not alone. Soon after his trip, hundreds of thousands of citizens marched in Moscow to protest Mikhail Gorbachev’s crackdown in Vilnius and to demand the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Six months later, Yeltsin, now the popularly elected president of Russia, signed a treaty acknowledging what Kremlin leadership had been denying for decades—that Lithuania (and by implication Estonia and Latvia, too) had been annexed by the Soviet Union, against their will, in June 1940, and had since been captive nations.

Kara-Murza goes on to make this “what Russia might have been” case more poignant by giving chapter and verse on how Putin, during his fifteen-year rule, has systematically destroyed Yeltsin’s democracy legacy—domestically by attacking the media, fixing elections, and jailing opponents; and internationally, most visibly in the post-Soviet space, by thumbing his nose at history and common sense in his Orwellian insistence that the Soviet Union’s 1940 incorporation of the Baltic states was “consensual” and consistent with international norms—a rationale that opens the doors for subversive black ops, like those that continue in eastern Ukraine. It is a grim tale that tracks how far Russia has come since that heady moment in 1991—a journey that has been all downhill.

In “The Big Chill,” Peter Pomerantsev, author of the new book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, also focuses on the Baltics and Eastern Europe as a way of understanding Putinism. The Kremlin’s political algebra, Pomerantsev believes, is clear. The post-1989 world order, and the strength and leadership of the US within it, is based on Central Europe’s transition to democracy. If this transition can be reversed, then the US is morally weakened and globally discredited. That is why Putin has invested such a broad array of resources in the region, ranging from creating a massive propaganda machine that preaches conspiracy theory and discontent to the Russian minorities in the Baltics, to providing ideological and financial support most notably to far-right nationalist parties in Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, and elsewhere in an effort to establish a fifth column supporting pro-Russian and anti-European policies.

After surveying the territory, Pomerantsev draws a conclusion about this contested ground of Central Europe that seems as urgent as it is commonsensical: “We need new institutions to monitor and rapidly respond to the Kremlin’s weaponization of money, culture, and information.”

 

So, yes, we are admittedly a bit preoccupied with Vladimir Putin and the art of the war he is waging against the transatlantic partnership and the universal values it represents, defends, and promotes. But we have also kept a weather eye on other turbulent regions in this issue. In “Barbarians at the Gates,” for instance, journalist Matthew Clayfield takes us into Erbil, the heart and capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, for a situation report on the war for survival being waged by the Kurds against the Islamic State and its armies of the night. This is an important piece of reportage, a street-level view, in real time, of this crucially important war, being waged just outside our field of vision, by a group that should be one of our closest allies against a group that is our implacable enemy.

Looking east, Asia watcher (and regular contributor and blogger) Gordon Chang weighs in on “The Hong Kong Moment” that unfolded this fall when Beijing’s attempt to impose new election laws on the semi-autonomous region breathed new life into the city’s flagging democracy movement. After seventy-five tense days, police eventually disbanded the protests in December, under orders from Hong Kong’s feckless chief executive, but not before the demonstrations of the “Umbrella Revolution” raised political awareness—and suspicion of Beijing—among the city’s larger citizenry, a group otherwise not prone to dissent. “The best China obtained by clearing protest sites in Hong Kong is a tactical, short-term gain,” Chang writes. “Most people in the city, it is clear by now, believe they should have a greater say in how they are governed, and, whether or not they approved of the methods of the protesters, they support the political liberalization that Beijing adamantly rejects. Now that protest sites have been cleared, conversations in Hong Kong will focus on questions for which Chinese leaders have no answers.” Protesters chalked the phrase “We’ll be back” wherever they could as they departed.

Looking ahead further, Mohan Malik examines how rapidly developing shifts in the global energy market could have geopolitical effects that turn the gloom-and-doom “energy dependency” talk of barely a year ago on its head. Lamont Colucci asks if wars between great powers have truly been relegated to the ash heap of history. Oussama Romdhani reports on Tunisia’s struggle to beat back the forces of jihad and remain the success story of the Arab Spring. Alexander Motyl warns readers not to be fooled by realists masquerading as experts on Ukraine. And Stefano Casertano proposes a reconception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that takes into account Russian meddling.

We hope, as always, that you’ll let us know how we’re doing.

— James S. Denton

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