Amy Knight is a former Woodrow Wilson fellow. Her books include Who Killed Kirov: The Kremlin’s Greatest Mystery, Spies Without Cloaks: The KGB’s Successors, and How the Cold War Began: The Igor Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies.
Putin has justified Russia’s military involvement in Syria by saying that it is better to fight terrorists abroad rather than in Russia. But the apparent bombing of Flight 9268 may cause Russians to believe that the air campaign in Syria has actually turned them into new targets of extremist groups in the Middle East.
In her revealing biography of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, Rosemary Sullivan portrays a woman who was never able to find herself. Her yearnings for a lifelong partner were never fulfilled and she was constantly disappointed in her choices of places to call home. Yet she carried on with determination until …
In both the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts, the Kremlin is trying to provide a counterweight to NATO. Yet while Russia has managed thus far to hold its own in Ukraine, the Syrian gambit is far riskier. Russian journalist Yulia Latynina says, “The scandals over Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib will seem like kindergarten in comparison to what in a month the western media will be saying about Russian involvement in Syria.”
When Russian authorities rounded up five Chechen suspects in the assassination of leading opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, it appeared the Kremlin was following a predictable path. Instead, the arrests have led to new speculation about the Kremlin’s involvement in the murder.
Not only was Russian politician and liberal activist Boris Nemtsov very close to the Kremlin when he was shot dead on Bol’shoi Moskvoretsky Bridge. He was also in an area that was under the intense surveillance of the Federal Protection Service (FSO), a security agency under the direct control of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Western leaders have until now avoided directly confronting Russia about its part in the downing of Malaysian flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine. But a growing number of unofficial investigations show unambiguously that a Russian missile system was used to down the passenger jet, killing all 298 people on board.
To anyone who has followed the Kremlin closely over the years, its actions in Ukraine should not come as a great surprise. To the contrary, the recent events bear out longstanding policy aims of the Putin regime, which for years has worked to roll back US and European influence and rebuild its own suzerainty over post-Soviet states.
The toppling of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, an autocratic leader whose government was plagued by corruption, hits dangerously close to home for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The memory of large demonstrations in Moscow and continued allegations of Kremlin corruption are doubtless much on the minds of senior Putin advisers.
As the US prepares to send more than two hundred athletes to Sochi, concerns about terrorism continue to mount. The December bombings in Volgograd might have been anticipated or even thwarted if the FSB had not botched an earlier investigation. Meanwhile, continued threats provide a convenient pretext for more crackdowns on civil rights.
When the Russian city of Sochi, on the Black Sea, was chosen as the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics in 2007, Vladimir Putin had every reason to be pleased. Russia was given a chance to show the world the accomplishments of his regime. Now that he is again Russia’s …
It is probably unfair to draw comparisons between Edward Snowden and Kim Philby, another Westerner who fled to Russia, whose betrayal of his country as a double agent did unprecedented damage and cost many lives. Snowden was not an agent of a foreign state, and was apparently motivated to divulge NSA secrets to journalists by his indignation at the discovery of the NSA’s pervasive and intrusive eavesdropping program. But the longer Snowden remains in Russia, at the mercy of his Russian hosts, the greater the chances of his ending up like Philby and living the life of a man without a country.
As usual, the Russian government is playing a tough game with the US and its Western allies over Syria, with the revelations in late May that it plans to deliver advanced S300 anti-aircraft missiles and other military aid to the Assad regime. Yet while voicing criticism of these deals, the Obama administration has been welcoming a series of senior Russian officials to Washington, and Britain has actually softened its relations with the Russian government. Why is the Kremlin getting away with this? One reason is that US officials—and their European counterparts—are loath to upset ties with the Russians in the run-up to the Syrian peace conference, which the Obama administration is trying to convene this summer with Russian support. But just as telling may be Washington’s newly-declared cooperation with Moscow in fighting terrorism, prompted by the April bombings in Boston.
The close cooperation between Moscow and Washington on the Boston bombing investigation raises new questions about the issue of human rights in Russia. Will the US government now turn a blind eye to Russia’s increasingly brutal crackdown on its own democratic opposition because of overriding concerns about national security, just as it did after 9/11? Will the Kremlin wager that it can get away with its hard-line approach now that, as a result of the Boston attacks, the Obama Administration needs its help in counter-terrorism efforts? A test case could be the trial of Russian anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.
In 2000 Sergei Kovalev, then the widely respected head of the Russian organization Memorial, observed in these pages that the apartment bombings in Russia in September 1999, which killed three hundred people and wounded hundreds of others, “were a crucial moment in the unfolding of our current history. After the …
Although they have gotten little attention in the Western press, the regional elections taking place throughout Russia on October 14 may be Vladimir Putin’s greatest test since his return to the presidency last spring. With voters in seventy-three of Russia’s eighty-three regions going to the polls less than a year after the Kremlin faced allegations of widespread fraud in parliamentary elections, the looming question for Putin is whether he can ensure a favorable outcome without overt manipulation. For the opposition, a primary concern is whether their candidates will even be on the ballot.
Though he was inaugurated only weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin already faces serious challenges to his administration. Judging from a controversial cabinet appointment that Putin made last week, one way the Kremlin may try to combat growing opposition is to revive a traditional Soviet-era weapon—propaganda. The person running the propaganda machine will be the new Minister of Culture, 41-year-old Vladimir Medinsky, who some Russian commentators have already dubbed the Russian Goebbels.
With protests against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin continuing in the aftermath of his recent victory in the presidential election, the August 1991 coup attempt in Moscow seems particularly relevant to our understanding of what is now happening in Russia.1 The failed coup led not only to the disintegration …
It came as little surprise that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin won Russia’s March 4 presidential election, but the fact that he received over 63 percent of the vote was unexpected. To be sure, the Kremlin had launched a huge propaganda effort on Putin’s behalf, and the four other candidates on the ballot, including billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov (who represented no party and had no clear platform), hardly offered viable alternatives. But Putin’s popularity had been eroded following December’s disputed parliamentary elections, and recent large-scale protests had called into question the continued strength of his support. In fact, there are multiple indications that the Kremlin has again manipulated the outcome. If these reports are correct, they suggest Putin is playing a dangerous game, since the widespread perception that December’s elections were fraudulent was what brought tens of thousands of Russians into the streets in the first place.
For much of the past decade, Putin’s Kremlin was able to consolidate its power by marginalizing the democratic opposition and providing enough economic benefits for middle-class Russians to keep them quiet. As recently as late November, Putin’s smooth return to the presidency for six and perhaps twelve more years seemed virtually assured. But then there were the December 4 Duma elections, marred by allegations of widespread fraud, and everything changed. Now, with presidential elections less than six weeks away, the old formula may no longer work. Which leaves two possibilities: a vigorous reform effort, or more drastic steps to insure the election outcome.
There are many reasons for the poor showing of Vladimir Putin’s party in Russia’s December 4 parliamentary elections, among them the way Putin announced earlier this fall that current president Dmitry Medvedev would step aside in the March 2012 presidential elections so that he could run largely unopposed. But there also seems to be an increasing sense among Russian voters that the Kremlin has done nothing to stop pervasive corruption and that its own behavior is often above the law. To understand the extent of the crisis, observers might do well to watch German filmmaker Cyril Tuschi’s provocative new documentary about jailed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which began showing in Russia and the United States just days before the elections and is now at New York’s Film Forum.
On October 7, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin celebrates his birthday, which this year—his 59th—is probably an especially happy occasion for him. Two weeks earlier, on September 24, President Dmitry Medvedev announced that he would step aside so that Putin instead of him could represent the United Russia Party in the March 2012 presidential elections. This means that Putin—who after years of dominating the political scene is unlikely to face a credible challenger—could serve as leader of the Kremlin until 2024, when he will turn 72, in the age group of his predecessors in the Soviet era. But perhaps Putin should not celebrate too soon.
Judging from Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Moscow on September 12, the British government has decided to cave in to the Russians in the long-running dispute over the November 2006 murder in London of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko. The victim, who was highly critical of Vladimir Putin and had been given asylum in Britain in 2000, died an agonizing death at a North London hospital on November 23, three weeks after being poisoned with polonium 210—a rare and highly lethal radioactive substance. As a result of Russia’s unwillingness to cooperate with its investigation of the crime, Britain ended intelligence sharing with Moscow and introduced new visa restrictions on Russian businessmen trying to go to the UK. But Cameron’s meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin this week indicates that Britain is reassessing its Moscow strategy—and by extension, its view of the Russian leadership.
At first glance, it is hard not to conclude that the future looks dire for Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, the former Yukos executives who have been in prison since 2003 and are widely seen as victims of the Kremlin’s power politics and greed over oil assets. Yet despite this apparent bad news, there may be growing reason to hope that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev will be released early. Above all, there has been a dramatic shift in how the Russian media is handling the case.
Russia’s democratic opposition gets a lot of criticism from political observers for failing to convey its message to ordinary Russians. No doubt this owes in part to the overwhelming dominance of the country’s political space by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his supporters as well as to general political apathy. As authoritarian states in the Middle East erupt in popular uprisings, the Russian public continues, for the most part, to be resigned to its political leadership. In a new poll conducted by the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 61 percent of respondents said they take no interest in politics or public life, up from 39 percent in 2007. The liberal oppositionists clearly face an uphill struggle in trying to reach beyond the circle of urban educated people who comprise Russia’s small online community of bloggers and activists. But they have by no means given up.
As the story of the horrific January 24 bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport continues to unfold, the parallels with past major terrorist attacks in Russia are striking. It is not just the high number of casualties (36 dead and 160 wounded) and that the perpetrators appear to have come from the volatile North Caucasus. As with earlier such violence, there were also serious warning signs in advance that were ignored, and the immediate handling of the attack by the authorities was botched. Above all, the confusing and contradictory response of both the security agencies and Russia’s leadership has once again raised troubling questions about the Kremlin’s counter-terrorism policies.
Since a Russian judge sentenced former Yukos oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, to thirteen and a half years in prison on December 30, many commentators have viewed the outcome—after a 22-month trial that openly flouted judicial standards—as a major setback for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. After all, a little more than a year ago, Medvedev gained international attention for vowing to institute the rule of law in Russia and make foreign investment in Russia a top priority, and there had been growing speculation that he might begin to take on the entrenched interests of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. For the moment, those hopes seem dashed. In the long run, however, the case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev may hurt Putin more than Medvedev as the two rivals position themselves for the 2012 presidential contest.
Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, and his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, apparently cannot agree on one question—which of them will be running for the Russian presidency in March 2012. As it has in earlier contests over leadership, the country’s all-powerful Federal Security Service (FSB) is bound to have a crucial part in that decision. During his leadership, Putin gave friends from the security services key positions in the Kremlin and in state corporations, thus creating a new power base of officials—commonly referred to as the siloviki (“strong men”), with loyalties to the security services and to Putin himself. By the year 2007 two thirds of the members of the president’s administration were siloviki. Can Medvedev afford at this point to take on the FSB if he wants a second presidential term?
Poor Yuri Luzhkov. He can’t keep his mouth shut. Just when it seemed that the fall-out from his abrupt dismissal in late September as Moscow’s mayor had begun to dissipate, Luzhkov gave an interview on CNN in which he once more attacked Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the man who fired him: “Unfortunately, we’ve seen a whole set of circumstances happening in the country on Medvedev’s watch—calamities, terrorist acts, bad harvest and so on. These kinds of things don’t contribute to the tangible results of his work as the President.”
Of course, Luzhkov has a right to be bitter. After 18 years in office he was fired, according to the official version, because of “loss of confidence by the president of Russia.” (In the Russian Federation, provincial governors, including the mayor of Moscow, are appointed directly by and answer to the Russian president.) Luzhkov’s dismissal was apparently provoked by his outspoken criticism of the Kremlin; but as Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats pointed out, “There was not a word of explanation, either from the president’s side or the side of Prime Minister Putin, as to what he did to lose confidence.”
Over the past couple of weeks, the case of the infamous Russian arms trader Victor Bout—who has supplied guns, ammunition, and material to groups ranging from the FARC in Colombia to the Afghan Taliban—has generated enormous attention and raised many questions. Considered one of the world’s most prolific weapons traffickers, Bout has become the object of a high-level tug-of-war between Washington and Moscow over US efforts to extradite him from Thailand, where he is being held. Yet amid all the speculation about Russia’s interest in the case, one of the more revealing clues about Bout’s Kremlin connections has gone largely unnoticed.
In the summer of 2004, two years and four months before she was gunned down in the entrance to her Moscow apartment, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya made a bold visit to Chechnya to interview 27-year-old Ramzan Kadyrov, who had recently become (with the Kremlin’s blessing) the republic’s de-facto leader. It proved to be a harrowing experience. When they met face to face, Kadyrov could not contain his rage at Politkovskaya for reporting on his brutal rise to power, even threatening to have her shot. Politkovskaya concluded later that “a little dragon has been raised by the Kremlin. Now they need to feed it. Otherwise it will spit fire.”