Russia Turmoil: Winter of Discontent and American Interests

There is much serious turmoil in Russia which is likely to create a difficult 2012 for America and the rest of the globe. The pattern of repression, response, and unrest within the population now seems to be getting more intense and signs of deep unhappiness are clear. Opinion polls seem also to show a high level of criticism of the Kremlin-backed United Russia party. Economic and social statistics are indicating a downward spiral in quality of life for the average citizen in Russia. Street protests in Moscow and elsewhere, which according to some estimates were as large as 150,000, indicate an increased public willingness to question the authority of the day and a recent corrupt election for Duma seats.

There is nothing to give any rational thinker in America or Europe joy. This trend could indicate an ugly period of added instability, growing use of narrow nationalism, and directed antagonism towards the West and its values. This has been exacerbated by the likely next president Vladimir Putin, trying for narrow political ends to re-direct citizen anger towards an outside “boogeyman,” mostly the U.S. but also Europe. Threats are being made of withdrawal from the New START treaty, which would hurt both sides. The treaty was agreed to by now President Medvedev and implicitly by Prime Minister Putin and ratified by a Duma dominated by the Kremlin lead United Russia party.

The hard reality is that Russia has more to lose by increasing conflict and animosity towards the West. The loss of confidence by investors, businesses from the West, and closing down of multiple levels of interchange in many fields, can only increase the sense of isolation by the people and the leaders.

The backbone of the Russian economy remains its energy base – largely gas and oil – whose prices have recently been volatile. Such revenues provide most of the revenue for the government and its programs. But more fundamentally, the Russians have become more and more aware of the lack of freedom, no real participation in their society, and its authoritarian direction as they watch the changes of the Arab Spring and the freedom enjoyed by former members of the old Warsaw Pact countries.

There are two optics that one can foresee for these events, one is the possibility of a true “Russian Winter of Discontent” accompanied by upheavals with dire outcomes for both the Kremlin and the Russian people. The other alternative is a “Russian Slow Spring,” in which the stage is set for a long term thaw in the authoritarian and top down hand of Putin and his security service coterie. In the first case, the demonstrations would continue and a fraudulent election for president would be held on March 4th. The result would be a widely seen illegitimate regime and further alienation of the general population. It would also make more difficult a strategy of “reset” and constructive engagement with Putin and his band of narrow Kremlin sycophants.

The other scenario is that Putin and Medvedev might try to co-opt the popular discontent and make some reforms and move, probably slowly, towards a more consensus-based and quasi-democratic structure. This has its risks but it also has some advantages if the top leaders wish to promote balanced economic growth, broad domestic support, and institute civic society that goes beyond the dysfunctional corrupt society that exists today.

America should continue its fundamental sound policy of active engagement with Russia no matter what direction Russia takes. It is for the Russians to shape their society, but US and its allies can have some useful influence. We can, however, be certain that 2012 will be a year of social unrest, uncertainty, and even perhaps dramatic upheavals. Thus we need to pay attention and react wisely.

What is tragic for Western policy is that the Republican presidential candidates largely seem more bent on a crazy ideological desire to recreate a dangerous “Cold War” than to look for creative ways to move Russia towards responsible membership in the world community. Obama’s “reset” stance is the best option we have and it has resulted in net gains including a New START treaty, entry for our supplies into Afghanistan, and permitting the UN endorsed Libyan NATO actions leading to a new playing field in that country.

America needs now a thoughtful, bipartisan, constructive, and multilateral approach to Russia in this key year and not a narrow hostile and mindless scheme.

Prospects are still dark given the wretched rhetoric we have seen from the candidates so far.

By Harry C. Blaney III.

Libya in Transition: What Does the Future Hold?

The swift move of the rebels into Tripoli is almost certainly the start of the end of Gaddafi and his regime. As I noted both in an earlier letter to the Financial Times and in past blogs, this is the time for the international community to move swiftly and massively with assistance to help build stability, provide just governance, basic services, and above all security for the Libyan population.  The victory was in significant part due to a coordinated series of 7,459 total missions flown by NATO and its allies according to press reports this morning.

Libya has the resources to make life good for its population. In the short run, the largest challenge for the rebel National Transitional Council is to assert authority and provide stability and unity. But this can’t be done without outside help including from the U.S. What we needed to do is to prepare for this ending months ago, since it was inevitable that this day would come. A resumption in oil sales, providing food supplies, and training of both military and civilian officials is necessary so that an effective transition can be quickly developed. The United Nations can and should help in this process. Jobs need to be created for the unemployed with funds released from the Gaddafi regime’s funds abroad.

A unified government is required that reaches out to all groups, asks for outside assistance, and puts in place the mechanism to effectively see that aid reaches the people that need it, not just the rich and well-connected. But NATO and allied countries also need to give help, visible to all, in place at once. Planes should be landing now with aid. This is not just the end of the end, but the start of a new fragile beginning that needs our immediate help as we did in the days after World War II.

A good sign was the presence of Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey D. Feltman in Benghazi, who is probably trying to help coordinate aid in the transition and push for broad participation and assist stability and security of the entire population. It looks like at least America has some immediate plans to provide humanitarian help. But will it be sufficient over the long-term given the GOP’s demanded cuts to our diplomacy budget?  

One of the ironic and hypocritical elements of the Arab Spring upheavals is that the conservative Republicans that cried out for the U.S. to bring our ground armed forces into the fray have shown their true colors. They criticized President Obama for his caution and moderation and are now cutting drastically the funding of our preventive diplomacy capability (via State and USAID). This means that we may not be able to turn this immediate military victory into a long-term success and have an influence on the course of events in this region. One wonders: just how serious were Republican critics in their so-called support for Middle East democracy and American leadership in dealing with the risks and opportunities of Middle East change?

We welcome your comments!

By Harry C. Blaney III.

Synopsis of National Security News: 9/10/10 – 9/17/10

New START Treaty:

The Committee on Foreign Relations voted 14-4 to approve the New START treaty. Sources say that a floor vote on the treaty will likely occur during the post-election, lame-duck session during November.


Afghanistan is preparing for legislative elections on Saturday, September 17. Hundreds of polls were preemptively closed both as a security measure in the more dangerous Taliban-heavy areas and as an anti-corruption tactic to prevent the ballot-stuffing that was ubiquitous during last years presidential election.

North Korea:

US and South Korea are softening their approach to North Korea away from sanctions and military exercises and in favor of a resumption of aid and diplomatic talks.


The US has accused Iran of bullying nuclear inspectors into misreporting their findings. This is in response to the recent Iranian ban placed on two nuclear inspectors.


The head of the MI5, British internal security service, warns that Al-Qaeda has the determination and means to attack the UK.

Compiled by Grant Potter, CIP National Security Intern

Synopsis of National Security News: 9/3/10 – 9/10/10


  • Customers made a run on Kabul Central Bank amid allegations of corruption and a flurry of resignations by high-ranking members of the Central Bank. This panic was compounded by the fact that people were already planning on withdrawing money to celebrate the completion of Ramadan. The Central Bank is important as it provides the salaries for the local Afghani security forces.
  • Riots broke out in Afghanistan in response to the proposed Koran burning planned by Florida pastor Terry Jones.
  • The US has denied the request by NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen for 2,000 additional troops to serve under the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.


  • A new compromise has the potential to break the deadlock in the Iraqi Parliament which has been unable to form a coalition government since elections took place in March. The proposed plan would limit the powers of the Primer Minister, currently held by Nuri al-Maliki, to appease his chief political rival Iyad Allawi.
  • President Obama formerly ended combat operations in Iraq on August 31st. Approximately, 50,000 troops will remain in Iraq to serve as assistance for local security forces.

North Korea:

New START Treaty:

  • Former secretaries of state, George Shultz (under Reagan) and Madeleine Albright (under Clinton), signed an op-ed in the Washington Post encouraging the Senate to approve the New START treaty.

Intelligence Reform:

  • A lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was dismissed on Wednesday after the CIA invoked the state secrets privilege. The plaintiffs were the alleged victims of “extraordinary rendition”, the policy of transporting suspected terrorists to foreign countries to be tortured for information by local intelligence services at the behest of the CIA.

Compiled by Grant Potter, CIP National Security Intern