Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Russia Must Promote ‘Best Ideals of Holy Rus, Caliphate and USSR,’ Orthodox Hierarch Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 25 – Given his reputation for the outrageous, few people paid much attention to Supreme Mufti Talgat Tajuddin’s observation two weeks ago that Russia’s Muslims already have a caliphate. “It is called Holy Rus” (

            But far more are likely to attend to the notion that “the best ideals” of Holy Rus are not only linked to the Islamic caliphate but also to the USSR” now that this idea is being pushed by Archpreist Vsevolod Chaplin, a protégé and spokesman for Moscow Patriarch Kirill ( and

                The head of the Synod Department for Church-Society Relations says that around the world “people are seeking justice, higher meanings, and the re-ordering of the world as it is. We must give them the chance to achieve what they want by peaceful and lawful but very direct means.” 

            To do so, Chaplin said in comments to hearings at the Russian Social chamber yesterday, “we must here in Russia realize the best ideals of Holy Rus, the caliphate, and the USSR; that is, of those systems which challenge the injustice and diktat of small elites over the will of the peoples.”

            At various points in the past decade, Vladimir Putin has suggested that Orthodoxy is closer to Islam than to Roman Catholicism (, but Chaplin’s statement especially at a time when the Kremlin insists it is fighting ISIS rather than propping up the Asad dictatorship is striking. 


New Chinese Railway from Xinjiang to Iran Undercuts Russian Influence in Central Asia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 25 – The China Railway Corporation has announced plans to build a high-speed rail line to Iran via Central Asia. Not only will this railway bypass Russia, something Moscow has very much feared, but it will reduce Russian influence in that region because the new line will use the international gage rather than the Russian one.

            Initially, the Chinese government company says, the new line, which is intended to link China with Europe, will follow existing Russian gage tracks in Central Asia. (Russian tracks are 1520 mm apart, while those of most of the rest of the world are 1435 mm.) But in time, Central Asian rail lines seeking to work with the Chinese will likely go over to the world standard.

            For China or anyone else to work with Russian rails has meant serious delays at the border because rail cars have to be lifted off wheels set for one gage and put them on others set for the other gage. For those who want to use Russia as a place of transit, that imposes two sets of delays and thus higher costs (

            The new Chinese line will connect Urumchi in Xinjiang to Tehran, passing through Almaaty in Kazakhstan as well as the capitals of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.  As such, it will undoubtedly have as much a political impact as an economic one, being both a rebuff to Russia ( and an encouragement to people there to look to it rather than Russian routes for transport (

Downing of Russian Plane has Serious Consequences for Putin at Home, in Central Asia, and in Ukraine

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 25 – The shooting down of a Russian military plane by Turkish forces after Kremlin ignored repeated warnings from Ankara not to violate Turkey’s airspace not only increases the risks of a clash between Russia and the West but has serious consequences for Putin at home, in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and in Ukraine.

            The consequences inside Russia could prove to be the most fateful. While Vladimir Putin has ratcheted up the bellicosity of the government-controlled media in response to what Turkey has done, the steps he has taken simultaneously annoy Russians – now, they won’t be able to vacation in Turkey – but highlighted how isolated Russia is and how few levers its possesses.

            Any Russian move against Turkey militarily or via hybrid war involving the Kurds would backfire. On the one hand, Turkey is a NATO member and can count on Article 5 guarantees. And on the other, Ankara could end Russia’s hopes for a pipeline west and even block the straits to Russian shipping; and any Russian support for the Kurds would undermine Syria’s Asad.

            These have all been the subject of intense discussion in the Russian-language Internet media over the last 24 hours. (See among others, and

                These discussions suggest that Russians can see an increasing gulf between the bombastic assertions by Putin about Russia’s power in the world and the real limits on the Kremlin leader’s ability to act when the chips are down, a gap some observers say may trigger greater opposition to Putin and his regime (

            That the Russian government is worried about at least some of its citizens drawing such conclusions including in the first instance millions of Muslims and Turks inside Russia is suggested by the words today of the Supreme Mufti of Russia, Talgat Tajuddin, who said Turkey must apologize for what it has done ( ).

                That represents a bridge to the second set of consequences of the Kremlin reaction to the shooting down of the Russian plane.  Moscow has failed to see that its harsh words against Turkey have an impact on the much larger Turkic world that includes not only Turks inside Russia but those in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

            While Kremlin propaganda has sought to portray the downing of the plane as the result of American opposition to Moscow’s line, Russian outlets have focused much of their anger on Turkey with articles talking about Russian-Turkish wars in the past and Turkey’s supposed duplicity regarding the Soviets.

            That may play well with most Russians, but it is already having a negative impact in the Turkic areas of the Caucasus and Central Asia, something that is likely to become even more important because Ankara has explicitly positioned itself as the defender of the Turkmens of Syria ( and .

            At a minimum, that will make the populations of these countries less well-disposed to Russia and likely make their governments more inclined to oppose Moscow and even ally themselves with Western countries, if the latter are clever enough to take advantage of the situation (

                And the third set of consequences of the plane shoot down are likely to involve Ukraine.  Many analysts have been suggesting that Putin’s involvement in Syria will limit his ability to expand his aggression in Ukraine. But there are at least two reasons to think that such optimism may be misplaced.

            On the one hand, the only resources Putin has are those of hard power – that is to say military force.  He cannot use that easily against NATO: the risks are too high. But using force against Ukraine could give him a victory, especially if he decides to use Russian forces to obtain a land bridge to Crimea, currently suffering from an energy and products blockade.

            If he used land forces to do that, he might be able to once again change the subject and come out looking like a winner, especially as he might even be able to avoid tougher sanctions given that some in the West would accept a Kremlin argument that he had no choice but to engage in such a “humanitarian” operation given Ukrainian policy.

            And on the other, Putin may conclude that now that his conflict with the West has escalated because of Russian violations of Turkish and thus NATO airspace has escalated, he has nothing to lose by increasing his aggression in Ukraine and getting the land bridge to Crimea many have said all along he wants.

            Consequently, Moscow’s reaction to the shooting down of its airplane is likely to send shockwaves far beyond the incident itself and the countries immediately involved. And it may even force Putin to double or quit his aggressive behavior, attacking not those he most opposes but rather those whose defeat he thinks he can achieve and thus do him the most good.



Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Number of Russians Incarcerated for Non-Violent Extremist Crimes Suddenly Doubles This Year, Verkhovsky Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 24 – In the overwhelming majority of cases, those Russians charged with non-violent extremist crimes like posting on the Internet or being members of organizations deemed extremist are not sentenced to jail but rather given suspended sentences, fines, or corrective labor, SOVA Center’s Aleksandr Verkhovsky says.

            The relatively small share who are sent to prison or the camps are either those who have posted many articles, are linked to other crimes, or already are incarcerated. This last group includes those who have been convicted and are behind bars but nonetheless continue to post things on line (

            And the specialist on human rights says that this pattern is “good” because “expressions should be punished by the deprivation of freedom only in certain extreme cases.”

            But since the start of 2015, he says, there has been a disturbing development: after remaining relatively stable the last several years, the number of people in prison or the camps for non-violent extremist offenses such as posting articles or joining banned groups has “approximately doubled.”

            Verkhovsky says that he cannot say what this is connected with, but Soviet history suggests at least three possibilities, all of which are disturbing.

            First, this upsurge may represent an effort by investigators, prosecutors and the courts to compile conviction and sentencing statistics that will put them in good stead with their political bosses.

            Second, it may represent a decision by the political authorities to spread fear in the population that even if Russians do not commit an act of violence, they can face prison or the camps, a fear that will certainly restrain many from any actions of dissent.

            Or third, and most ominously, it may be an indication that investigators, prosecutors and the courts, while acting in the general direction that the Kremlin wants, are acting in ways that go beyond what the center wanted, in much the same way that Victor Serge described in “The Case of Comrade Tulayev.”

            If this upsurge in the number of people imprisoned is the result of the first, that means that officials are content to boost their statistics by the easy means of going online rather than by the more difficult ones involving real investigations into genuine extremism.

            If it is the result of a decision by the Kremlin itself to spread fear, that suggests that either the central authorities are more worried than many now think or that they may be prepared to crack down even further in the coming weeks and months.

            And if it is the third, then that suggests not only that the power vertical is anything but a tightly run organization but also that the Kremlin may soon announce show trials of some officials to try to convince Russians and the West that it is in fact better than a reasonable reading of these figures would suggest.