Putinology: Russian soft power and the end of Helsinki

putinismVladimir Putin’s foreign policy can only be understood in the context of the regime’s evolving domestic weakness. Unfortunately, that does not make it less dangerous, notes analyst Leon Aron.

There is for all practical purposes a Putin Doctrine that postulates the recovery of some key political, economic, and geostrategic assets lost by the Soviet state, he writes for The American Interest:

Putin is not interested in an all-out restoration: He does not want to revive the state’s complete ownership of the economy nor fully re-create the Soviet Union in the post-Soviet space. But after his first term, from 2000 to 2004, in which liberal economic reforms combined with a gradual repossession of state control over the media, politics, and the legal system, he has rarely if ever deviated from three key objectives: re-occupying what Lenin called the commanding heights of the economy; establishing firm control over the political process, the justice system, and mass communications to prevent any significant challenge to the regime; and affirming veto power over the foreign and security policies of the post-Soviet states, with (at least until now) the exception of the three Baltic states. 

The present Russian regime, which cannot modernize and for which a modicum of institutional reform might prove fatal to its hold on power, has staked its legitimacy on patriotic mobilization, Aron contends:

russia putinPutin has saddled this tiger with remarkable ease and had it trot steadily. Yet among the many dangers of such a ride is the necessity of feeding the beast with an ever increasing supply of fresh meat, the bloodier the better—especially if the Russian economy, expected … to contract at least 4 percent this year, is not soon rescued by a sharp upswing in oil prices. Victory (or, more precisely, victories large or small in the imagined war with the West) become the foundation of political survival and thus must be pursued relentlessly.

This might not end wellRTWT

Signed by 35 countries on August 1, 1975, the Helsinki Final Act – which helped facilitate the implosion of the Soviet empire from within – marks its 40th anniversary this weekend, writes RFE/RL’s Brian Whitmore:

putin helsinkiThe Helsinki Accords enshrined respect for human rights and freedoms as a bedrock European principle. Today, basic rights like the freedom of speech, press, and assembly are violated as a matter of course in much of the former Soviet Union. The accords led to the establishment of Russia’s most venerable rights watchdog, the Moscow Helsinki Group. Today, that group is fighting against being branded as a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin. 

Today, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has little use for any aspect of the Helsinki Accords. Like the Soviet Union, the Putin regime ignores its commitments to respect human rights….Which means as they turn 40, the Helsinki Accords may not be on life support. But they are resting on very shaky foundations.

In the European Council on Foreign Relations series on ‘Russian soft power: At home and abroad’, a range of experts considers the changes in Russia’s deployment of its soft power, both at home and abroad, and explains the impact that this has had in various countries. In this series:

  • Alexey Levinson argues that Putin’s popularity goes beyond a personality cult.
  • Tornike Sharashenidze writes about Russia’s recent erection of new ‘border’ markings in South Ossetia in Georgia and its purpose.
  • Dániel Hegedűs outlines how the EU can end its victim mentality and counter Russia’s soft power.


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China vs. Its Human Rights Lawyers

china xiao-guozhenThe scope of China’s current crackdown on human rights lawyers offers a glimpse of a grave situation, says a leading advocate. The public is questioning the government’s ability to manage the slowing economy, particularly the recent stock market dips, and President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign has caused deep divisions within the Communist Party, notes Xiao Guozhen, a visiting fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington.

In this context, the increasing popularity of human rights lawyers, especially among the disgruntled and oppressed, and their rising influence on social media, has scared our leaders to such an extent that they felt it necessary to carry out the current wave of nationwide arrests, she writes for The New York Times:

A series of high profile cases this year has confirmed the leaders’ fear that the party might lose control and their legitimacy might crumble.

But Mr. Xi and the Communist Party leadership fail to realize that suppression could eventually lead to their political demise. In China, rights lawyers serve as a pressure valve, directing citizens’ anger and discontent into proper legal channels and giving them a voice. Hundreds of protests break out across the country each day as Chinese people show discontent with corruption, land seizures and other injustices associated with the country’s rapid development.

“Suppression of moderate dissent in a volatile society jeopardizes China’s chance to peacefully transition toward more democracy and could explode into massive and violent social unrest or even a political coup,” notes Xiao. “If President Xi Jinping were to lose power in a coup, he and his friends will find themselves without an independent defense lawyer.”


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Advancing democracy in a turbulent world: strategic rethink

rand chocesDisappointment with Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Arab Spring has left major foreign policy camps – liberal internationalists, neo-conservatives and non-interventionists – more skeptical about both nation-building and democracy promotion, notes an important new analysis.

But the lessons of the past decade are not that nation-building never works, that counterinsurgency is always too expensive, or that democracy promotion is ineffectual and potentially counterproductive, says the authors of the RAND Corporation’s Choices for America in a Turbulent World: Strategic Rethink.

Today, the United States faces no existential threat; rather, it confronts an unusually wide and diverse array of challenges, the report suggests:

Russia has reemerged as an aggressor state. China has become more repressive at home and more assertive abroad. Al Qaeda has spawned offshoots and imitators more powerful and more radical than itself. Climate change has advanced, and predictions of climate-related disasters have become more ominous, more imminent, and more credible. Cyberspace has emerged as a new battleground between the forces of order and disorder. Expansion of international travel makes the emergence of new communicable diseases like Ebola more dangerous. The past few years have been a reminder that stability is not the natural state of the international environment, that peace is not self-perpetuating, and that whole regions can descend suddenly into anarchy.

The lesson to be drawn from Afghanistan and Iraq is not that nation-building does not work but rather that it can be very expensive and time consuming, says the report, authored by James DobbinsRichard H. SolomonMichael S. ChaseRyan HenryF. Stephen LarrabeeRobert J. LempertAndrew LiepmanJeffrey MartiniDavid OchmanekHoward J. Shatz:

rand rethinkThere are more than a dozen countries around the world today that are at peace because U.S. troops—or NATO, European, United Nations, or African Union forces—intervened to end a civil war, provided security to the population, oversaw elections, helped install new governments, and stayed around long enough to make sure the new regime took hold. Few of these societies are prosperous, well governed, or fully democratic, but they are more prosperous, better governed, and more democratic than before. Most importantly, they are at peace with themselves and their neighbors, which was the prime objective of the interventions in the first place.

Democratization is not a binary condition, the report contends:

Some societies moved rapidly from authoritarian to democratic rule. In others, that process was much more gradual. Since the end of World War II, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, dozens of countries have moved away from the authoritarian camp, and now democracy is the dominant form of government throughout the world. There has been some limited regression over the past decade, with several Arab societies having transitioned from authoritarian governments to none at all in the wake of the Arab Spring. Rather than giving up on the process, however, Americans need to temper their expectations and work to promote the foundations of democratic government—civil society, rule of law, growth of the middle class—so that, when future upheavals occur, as they inevitably will, the results will be more positive. We also need to recognize that almost any government is better than none.

Values and interests

In terms of reconciling values and interests, the U.S. “needs to enunciate policies that the public will support, partners will join, and adversaries will respect,” the reports contends:

  • At a certain level of abstraction, this is easy enough to achieve. The United States values democracy and free markets and is interested in peace, international collaboration, and expanding trade. It is easier to collaborate with established democracies and to trade with free market economies than it is to do so with authoritarian governments and closed economies. Therefore, our values and interests cohere.
  • In reality, promoting values can be rather more complicated. Nondemocratic regimes resist and resent efforts to remake them in our image and will sometimes withhold collaboration on otherwise shared interests as a result. Freedom, democracy, and human rights may be universally applicable, but, much as we would wish otherwise, they are not universally attractive, particularly within conservative societies, where gender inequality and authoritarian rule are sanctioned and even enforced by religious authority.
  • Finally, as the aftermath of the Arab Spring has demonstrated, there are worse things than a cooperative authoritarian government, such as an uncooperative and even more authoritarian government, as in today’s Egypt, or anarchy and bloodshed, as in today’s Yemen, Libya, and Syria. In practice, therefore, there is sometimes tension between promoting democracy and human rights and advancing security and economic interests abroad. This requires case-by-case assessment of the local receptivity to such efforts; the cost in terms of other issues of pressing too hard; and the likelihood, if change comes, that it will move in the right direction.


  • The United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, should continue to take the lead in sustaining and extending a rules-based international order. It should promote the development of new norms in domains where these do not yet exist, such as cyber and climate management. States are the essential building blocks in any such system.
  • Challenges come from strong states that break the rules, and weak ones that cannot enforce them. Both of these challenges need to be addressed. A focus on defense, deterrence, and dissuasion is essential, but it is not enough. State capacity needs to keep pace with the growing capacity for disruption of individuals and groups.
  • The most successful eras of American statecraft have been periods of construction: the birth of new institutions, the reconstruction of shattered nations, and the establishment of new norms for international behavior. The United States needs to combine its defense of existing institutions and norms with a rededication to such a positive agenda, and commit itself to providing the necessary resources.


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From Arab Spring to Arab Winter: the Limits of Post-Uprising Democratization

arab spring Table Explanatory Factors

The main initial problem of the Arab Uprising was how to translate mass protest into democratization and ultimately democratic consolidation, notes Raymond Hinnebusch, editor, From Arab Spring to Arab Winter: Explaining the Limits of Post-Uprising Democratization, a special issue of Democratization 22.2 (2015).

Yet, despite the fact that democracy was the main shared demand of the protestors who spearheaded the uprisings, there was, four years later, limited evidence of it, he tells Jadaliyya:

On the other hand, authoritarian regimes had not simply been restored; rather, they were reconstructing themselves in various ways, some much more coercive than before. Overall, it became apparent that different states were following such different trajectories that this needed to be systematically conceptualized and that a start, at least, had to be made at explaining these differences.

Finally, while some authors had already advanced arguments that the structure of the regime at the time of the uprising had pushed states along different pathways, we felt that agency was also important—that is the balance of power between rival social forces inside each state in the post-uprising period; as such, a number of the articles in the issue look at key actors and the consequences of their roles for differences in trajectories among states.

J: What particular topics does the issue address?

democratization_special_NEWTONRH: The introduction, “Understanding the Consequences of the Arab Uprisings—Starting Points and Divergent Trajectories,” by Raymond Hinnebusch, explores how far different starting points—the features of the regime and of the uprising—help explain different pathways. Specifically, the varying levels of anti-regime mobilization, the ability of regime and opposition soft-liners to reach a transition pact, and the capacity of the authoritarian regime to resist are seen to shape outcomes.

In “Reflections on Self-Reflections—On Framing the Analytical Implications of the Arab Uprisings for the Study of Arab Politics,” Morten Valbjørn surveys the theoretical debates over democratization in the Middle East, considers the consequences of the Arab uprisings for the credibility of rival democratization and post-democratization paradigms, and asks how re-conceptualizations can throw light on the actually existing politics in the post-uprising Arab world.

Vincent Durac then examines anti-regime movements in the light of social movement theory, assessing how it enables us to understand their relative efficacy in challenging regimes but also their inability to steer a democratic transition, in “Social Movements, Protest Movements, and Cross-Ideological Coalitions—The Arab Uprisings Re-Appraised.”

Joshua Stacher, in his article, “Fragmenting States, New Regimes: Militarized State Violence and Transition in the Middle East,” examines the increased violence deployed by regimes to prevent such a transition, arguing that the outcome, the remaking of more coercive authoritarian regimes, denotes neither transition nor restoration to the pre-uprising period.

Next, in “Islamism and the State After the Arab Uprisings: Between People Power and State Power,” Frederic Volpi and Ewan Stein examine the third major category of players, variegated Islamists, assessing consequences of the relative balance between them for post-uprising politics. James Allison then examines the positive effect of a class balance, notably the relative efficacy and autonomy of workers’ movements, on democratic potentials, in his article, “Class Forces, Transition, and the Arab Uprisings: A Comparison of Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria.”

On the other hand, in “Back to the Future: The Arab Uprisings and State (Re)formation in the Arab World,” Adham Saouli assesses the opposite, negative scenario, the mobilization of communal identities by ruling elites and counter-elites.

Raymond Hinnebusch, in “Globalization, Democratization, and the Arab Uprising: The International Factor in MENA’s Failed Democratization,” then focuses on the negative impact on democratization of competitive external interference inside the uprising states.

In Hinnebusch’s conclusion, “Agency, Context, and Emergent Post-Uprising Regimes,” the combined effects of the agency of these forces and the political, cultural, and economic contexts in which they operate are summarized to understand three main divergent trajectories taken by the post-uprising states in Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia. RTWT

arab spring PAthways diagram

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How West can counter Kremlin’s information warfare

russia info warfareRussian hackers are using Twitter as an ultra-stealthy way of concealing their intrusions into sensitive Western government computer systems — a new surveillance technique that blends cutting edge digital engineering with old-fashioned spy tradecraft, The Financial Times reports (HT: FPI).

With state media waging a full-scale information war over the crisis in Ukraine, independent media such as Ekho Moskvy, where Venediktov is the veteran editor-in-chief, are battling to survive – and fear the noose around them is tightening, Reuters adds.

The United States, along with its European allies, needs to respond to Russia’s “information war” less with a focus on countering Russian propaganda than on building attractive alternatives, says a leading analyst.

Reform of U.S. government-backed broadcasting, as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) have proposed, is greatly needed and long overdue. But it is not enough, argues Daniel Calingaert, executive vice president of Freedom House.

The United States should emphasize new initiatives to bolster demand among Russian speakers for impartial, accurate news and to expose corruption and abuses of power in Russia, thereby shifting media narratives away from the Kremlin line, he writes for The Hill:

First, RFE/RL should offer entertainment in addition to news and engage viewers with a mix of programming. They would attract more viewers to their news coverage if they also showed popular TV series, like “Game of Thrones,” that many more people want to watch.

Second, the U.S. government should fund indigenous independent media in Russia and elsewhere in Eurasia, finding ways around the restrictions imposed by the Russian government and others in the region. Indigenous media have credibility, audiences and local knowledge that U.S. broadcasters are unlikely to match.

Third, the U.S. government should support locally produced satire to expose — and mock — the arrogance of Russian politicians and their abuses of power. The satirical puppet show “Kukly” was highly popular in Russia before it was taken off the air. The political satire on Voice of America’s Persian service show “Parazit” similarly drew large audiences.

Fourth, RFE/RL and local independent media should provide more news that Russian viewers can use. Such news is in short supply. A recent study found that the main news bulletin of state television channel Rossiya 1 devoted more than a third of its airtime to Ukraine, but just 1.3 percent to Russian social issues and healthcare. Channel One’s bulletins similarly gave short shrift to news affecting Russians’ daily lives. RFE/RL and local independent media can fill the gap in this kind of news and further engage audiences with call-in shows.

Fifth, the U.S. government should promote investigative reporting into corruption and other issues of public interest, perhaps by funding a Russian version of ProPublica. Just as stories of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s corruption fascinated people in his country, exposing the corruption of Russia’s elite would both grab the attention of ordinary Russians and give them insight into how their country is really run.


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