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Russia and Syria


Tensions have renewed between rebels and the government in Syria.  The scary news about the worsening conflict is that both sides appear to be using increasingly more destructive weapons, making everyday life more dangerous for citizens of the war torn nation.

International attempts to ameliorate the situation have been minimal.  A ceasefire, backed by the U.N., was put in place, but it failed to create an end to the deaths.  One of the reasons more has not been done is the reluctance of Russia to support the rebels.  Russia, with its permanent position on the United Nations Security Council, is able to veto measures they disagree with.

The reason Russia has been hesitant to support the Syrian uprising, or at the very least condemn Bashir al-Assad’s regime, is that Assad’s Syria has been an ally for Russia.  Additionally, Assad has allegedly bought arms from Russia, giving Russia a valuable trade partner that might be lost if the rebels take power.

Other nations have been critical of Russia’s actions, but they have not been all that outspoken until recently, when the U.S. accused Russia of supplying Assad with attack helicopters.

The U.S. is right to worry.  Thousands have already died in Syria’s bloody conflict, and Assad’s forces have commonly been indiscriminate in who they attack.  Worse news is that with a powerful weapons supplier like Russia involved, it is hard to see the Syrian conflict ending anytime soon.

The best and most obvious course of action would be pursuading Russia to end their support.  This, of course, is easier said than done.  A great deal of political capital was already expended convincing Russia to allow intervention in Libya last year.

External pressure is a difficult path forward, but perhaps we can expect some internal pressure for change as well.  Vladimir Putin’s election to a third term as Russia’s president in a vote marred with concerns over fraud has ignited large-scale protests.

Russia’s opposition has been emboldened by both the fraud allegations and by better performances in recent elections.  While Russia’s political system is still heavily stacked in Putin’s favor, the current political climate seems to be helping the opposition.

Internal change is promising, but it has no timetable.  International pressure seems  difficult, but an increasingly precarious situation in Syria may make it a more feasible solution.  As the deaths continue, it will become harder for Russia to continue their support.  For now, harsher dialogue is a better path forward than quiet acquiescence.  We must remember that Russia is a key player in fixing a broken Syria, and any progress, internal or external, is welcome.



Filed under International
Jun 13, 2012

Vladimir Putin’s Reelection


With all of the attention  focused on Super Tuesday primaries this week, an important election slipped through the radar of discussion.  Vladimir Putin, the perennial Russian leader, was reelected on March 4th with almost 65% percent of the vote.  Unlike some of the hotly contested primary states, the outcome of the Russian election was obvious, and Putin was the only candidate who had enough strength to garner a majority.

This has been a recurring problem in Russia.  Putin and his political party, United Russia, have been in power so long that political opposition finds it difficult to make inroads.  While there were opposition candidates running against Putin, there has been no consolidation of anti-Putin sentiments into a specific political party.  Many claim that Russia under Putin is less of a democracy and more of a one-party state.  After all, no other presidential candidate was able to top even 20% of the vote.

Naturally, many Russians are upset about this.  Parliamentary elections held last December resulted in a staggering loss for Putin’s United Russia.  The party was plagued by allegations that they had to commit fraud in order to maintain a slim majority.  An angry public took to the streets of Moscow in anti-Putin protests.

Here we must remember that Putin still maintains a great deal of support, as he was able to drown out the anti-Putin protests with a pro-Putin rally.  Putin’s mastering of the political sphere has helped him to quiet dissent, and the fact that he also controls the media has largely halted the spread of any anti-Putin sentiments.  However, for the presidential election, Putin tried to appease his critics who were accusing him of election fraud by having cameras watch over many voting locations for any misdeeds.

This gesture failed, as the election was still regarded as unfair, and more allegations of election fraud have surfaced.  People went back to the streets to protest against the unfairness.  However, little is expected to come of these new protests.  In no way will they prevent Putin from retaking the presidency and ruling Russia for the next six years.  And when elections come again in 2018, it would not be surprising to see Putin on the ballot once more.

At the end of the day, Russia is a cautionary tale.  More than twenty years after shifting away from Communist rule, the ‘democratic’ society that the Russians tried to form is anything but.  Luckily, opposition is beginning to find ways to protest against the current leadership.  The main problem as of now is that opposition parties are separated by regional differences.  Still, as anger over the status quo of Putin increases, hopes rise that the opposition can find a way to coalesce and thus grow stronger on a national level.  Russians need a true choice when they vote, and a stronger opposition coupled with more stringent checks against election fraud can finally bring true democracy to Russia.

Filed under International
Mar 9, 2012

Russian Reversion


Apparently, claiming land in the modern world is still as easy as planting a flag into the ground. In 2007, Russia drilled a titanium flag into the bedrock under the North Pole, thereafter claiming the entire Arctic Circle as their own hoping to access the newfound oil plains underneath the polar cap. Naturally, the international community did not take kindly to the aggressive land claims. Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident. Proposed NATO missile shields and growing internal conflict have Moscow acting out of fear that its influence is declining. Russia is reverting back to its Soviet tendencies but with new economic stratagem in a move that could destabilize current world relations

In the last decade, Russia has dramatically increased its natural gas exportation to become the world’s number one exporter. This gives them both economic and physical power over importers. The New York Times (January, 2009) shows Russia demonstrating this power dramatically when it cut off all natural gas flow through Ukraine and into Europe after Ukraine refused to meet the demands of the Russian gas giant, Gazprom. The gas was shut off in the middle of winter provoking Romania to declare a state of emergency and European leaders to scramble to find a solution as tens of thousands of people went without heat. Russia’s harsh crackdown on business policy shows the lengths they will go in order to retain their economic strength.

Moscow’s most ambitious move yet, however, has been their plan for a Eurasian economic union. Once again boasting Russia’s vast economic strength, Putin expressed the desire for a strong economic partnership with neighboring countries to rival that of the European Union. This comes at a time when Putin also has tried to get old Soviet countries to adopt the ruble and increase free trade. A London Guardian article (October, 2011) explains that customs deals with Belarus and Kazakhstan have set these plans in motion. The deals are set to bind the three countries as a ‘unified economic zone’ in 2012, setting up the base for the Eurasian Union.  The selection of the strong members of the ex-Soviet Bloc demonstrates strong undertones of their socialist history as Russia tries to show off their fiscal influence by challenging the European Union.

There are viable and beneficial solutions to curbing Russia’s potentially harmful influence. The first step is continuing the environmental crusade. Reducing dependence on fossil fuels by redoubling the push for renewable energy will make Russia’s natural gas dominance much less powerful. Simultaneously, the environmental push will encourage technological innovation benefiting the environment as well. Second, the European Union needs to consider expanding its membership. A recent article in the Economist states how Ukraine has been vying for a position in the European Union since the 1990s. Opening up the EU will further free trade and accessibility in Europe. Just proposing the admittance of old Soviet Bloc countries will effectively reduce Russia’s ability to create an influential Eurasian Union as the states flock to garner European influence. While neither solution is simple, the time and effort put in by European leaders will be important to curtailing the potential political and economic destabilization that another Russian superpower would create.

Russia is clearly attempting to reassert itself as a world superpower, but this time focusing economically rather than militarily, a move that will destabilize the current balance of power if left unchecked. Claiming the arctic is clearly not all that Russia is planning for the future, but with collaboration and multilateral communication, the world can ensure that titanium flags are the least of our worries.

Filed under Economy, International
Feb 22, 2012

Putin’s Problem: A Rumbling Russia


Sure, the Soviet Union collapsed twenty years ago and Russia started to transition itself away from communism and toward democracy, but Russian democracy follows a less exact interpretation of ‘rule by the people’.  In many cases, the Russian people have begun to feel uneasy about their lack of choice in governance, and they have been showing their discontent.

It all started a few weeks ago, when current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that he was running for a new term, this time as the Russian president.  However, Putin has already dominated Russian politics for the last twelve years, controlling virtually all aspects of the government.  Unhappy voters in Russia find themselves in a situation where, with little opposition, Putin is the inevitable president.  The manifestation of this displeasure is clear.  United Russia, the party Putin is most closely connected to, lost over 70 seats in the Russian legislature during the most recent round of elections.

But it gets worse for Putin.  While United Russia was able to cling on to a slim majority in the legislature, many election watchdogs have proclaimed that this was only due to ‘voting inconsistencies’.  Many have called for a re-vote, saying that the results were tipped in United Russia’s favor.

This embarrassing revelation has only brought attention to even more undemocratic practices in Russia.  United Russia has passed unfair laws that make it difficult for minority parties to run candidates in both the legislative and executive branches.  Parties do not even begin to win seats in the legislature until they garner 7% of the national vote.  Apart from ensuring that the current leaders can remain in power, this has also left United Russia and Vladimir Putin as the only option for many voters because regional and sectional parties are sidelined.  Power breeds more power, and this excess leads to corruption. With corruption running rampant in Russia, voters have plenty of reasons to be unsatisfied with their government.

Strangely enough, this anger at the incumbents, as much as it has been directed at United Russia, is barely affecting Vladimir Putin.  While his approval ratings have fallen, he still has enough support with the Russian people to easily win the election next March.  Nevertheless, more Russians are becoming aware that Putin has been changing the rules to benefit his own wishes.  The best evidence of this can be seen with the intervals between elections.  When Putin was first elected president in 2000, he served a four year term.  However, if (or more probably when) he is elected in 2012, he will be serving a six year term due to an amendment of the Russian Constitution.  If elected again in 2018, Putin would be able to serve as the Russian president until 2024.  It seems to many in Russia that the Constitution was amended solely to keep Putin in power for a longer length of time and limit voters’ say on their leadership.

Many Russian voters find the fact that an elected leader can rule for a quarter-century unnerving, but with no established opposition, Putin is the only possible outcome for the future of Russia.  Unhappy voters do not yet have the power or the ability to spur change because of both Putin’s popularity and because of unfair election rules.  Still, the hurt feelings over the most recent election will only foster more discontent in Russia as Russian voters realize that, if they choose to back anyone other than Putin, their voice in Russian ‘democracy’ will be discounted.  A choice between Putin and no one at all is not a really a choice, and as more Russian voters raise their voice in protest of these injustices, one can only hope that a movement for greater democracy in Russia can gain enough support to be politically powerful.  As of right now, however, Putin still retains the power to ignore whatever displeases him.  And yet, it may be a wise move for him to make some concessions to the opposition, and try to stop the rumblings that are gathering against him.


Filed under International
Dec 9, 2011

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