Trump’s Bombast in Brussels and London Will Not Help Putin in Helsinki

The culmination of United States President Donald Trump’s European tour occurs today (July 16), in Helsinki, at the anxiously anticipated but far-from-perfectly prepared meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump comes to the rendezvous carrying the baggage of old problems and new controversies (see EDM, July 9, 12) generated during his participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels, his official visit to the United Kingdom, and with the long-declared intention to develop a useful rapport with Putin. In Moscow, experts were reluctant to ponder what sort of offers Putin might make to the capricious interlocutor. But they were eager to speculate about tensions and disagreements within the North Atlantic Alliance (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 11). Trump’s unrelenting and undiplomatic pressure on the European (and Canadian) Allies, as well as his casual insult of UK Prime Minister Theresa May were described in the Russian press with keen attention to detail (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, July 12). Omitted in most of the commentary, however, was the direction of Trump’s escapades, which typically targeted Russia’s interests and intrigues.

The main pressure point for Trump’s assault on the Europeans is their collective failure for years to increase their defense budgets to the level of 2 percent of GDP (RBC, July 12). It is certainly politically convenient for the US President to place such a heavy emphasis on this long-debated “burden sharing” issue because it stifles the criticism of many of his other policies, from undermining the nuclear deal with Iran to withdrawing from the Paris climate accord (Grani.ru, July 13). The essence of this demand, however, is to force the concerned but demobilized NATO member states to become more serious about deterring Russia’s aggressive behavior. And every success that Trump achieves in compelling the Allies to more strongly assist with containing Russia is a setback for Moscow’s experiment with projecting power, particularly since the scope of US military deployments and activities on the European theater has also been steadily growing (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, July 6). Trump’s talent for offending allies may be warmly appreciated by the Kremlin, but the fact that NATO is fast expanding its military capabilities and infrastructure is certainly not.

Another angle of attack, in which Trump particularly targeted Chancellor Angela Merkel, is Germany’s dependency upon Russian exports of natural gas and oil. Trump’s stated data was seriously distorted—imports from Russia cover about 15 percent of Germany’s overall energy consumption, and certainly not 70 percent—but his point about the consequences of this growing dependency (particularly in the gas market) was, nevertheless, well taken (Republic.ru, July 12). Merkel sought to disprove Trump’s accusation that Germany is “totally controlled” by Russia, which is certainly an exaggeration. But the addiction to ostensibly cheaper and supposedly reliable supplies delivered by Gazprom involves security risks and bolsters Russia’s export of corruption (Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 11). Merkel’s support for the Russian project to construct the Nord Stream Two gas pipeline is dubious in terms of its economic rationale and politically damaging for European solidarity. And Trump hit precisely this sore spot (Vedomosti, July 13). The Kremlin rushed to defend Putin’s pet project and accused the US of using the threat of sanctions to seek unfair competition in the gas market. Putin was expected to refrain from putting this issue on the Helsinki agenda (RIA Novosti, July 13) because a compromise here seems out of the question and Moscow certainly does not want more volatility on the oil market (RBC.ru, July 12).

The NATO summit dealt with several important matters in the southern flank, to which Trump paid scant attention—and this neglect actually helped to achieve significant low-profile progress. Macedonia, finally close to resolving the long-running dispute with Greece about its name, received an invitation to join the Alliance. The Russian foreign ministry duly condemned this “forceful absorption” (Mid.ru, July 12). Additionally, Georgia’s President Giorgi Margvelashvili secured recognition of Georgian reform efforts that made the country a strong candidate for membership and registered another promise from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to conclude the accession process in due time (Kommersant, July 13). Armenia and Azerbaijan, meanwhile, took a couple of tentative steps toward resuming the conflict resolution dialogue (Kommersant, July 12). Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had a brief meeting with Trump in Brussels and made sure that his country’s ambition to join the Alliance was duly appreciated by the White House (Gazeta.ru, July 13). All these developments established yet again that NATO is going to remain actively engaged across Europe’s wider East, which Russia seeks to secure as its zone of effective dominance. Thus, Trump cannot grant Putin any concessions regarding the management of the multiple conflicts and fragile ceasefires in this zone of turmoil.

The declaration adopted at the NATO summit pointedly references Russia’s attempted interference in member states’ election processes as well as its disinformation campaigns and malicious cyber activities. And this seemingly ties Trump’s hands regarding potentially accepting Putin’s proclamation of innocence in subverting the US 2016 elections (Novaya Gazeta, July 12). Moreover, the recent indictment of 12 officers of Russian Military Intelligence (GRU) by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for hacking the computers of the Hillary Clinton campaign has put the blame for a major cyber-crime squarely on the Russian state (Kommersant, July 17). Trump may try to shift the blame for Washington’s feeble response to this attack on President Barack Obama, but he cannot exonerate Putin. The Russian foreign ministry condemned the “shameful comedy” of Mueller’s investigation as an attempt to spoil the atmosphere of the Helsinki summit. Yet, Trump surely knows that his every demarche against Russian spies and trolls would be welcome by the Allies as true leadership (Mid.ru, July 13).

Trump’s unfathomable capacity for sowing discord in the West and offending US allies theoretically makes him a valuable “asset” for the Kremlin. But the sum total of these commotions in the run-up to the Helsinki summit have actually been quite disappointing for Putin. NATO has again proven its capacity for forging common positions, and Trump ultimately declared himself entirely satisfied with this process. New battalions and squadrons committed by the Alliance to the defense of the Baltic States are surely disturbing for Moscow, as are the US ships partaking in naval exercises in the Black Sea. Putin’s hand in Helsinki is weakened by the firm stance of Stoltenberg, Merkel, May and Mueller; and Trump—odd as that may seem at first glance—is actually in the lead of the common cause of curtailing Russia’s assault on Western unity.

–Pavel K. Baev
Russian Federal Districts as Instrument of Moscow’s Internal Colonization
At the end of June 2018, President Vladimir Putin named six plenipotentiaries to run Russia’s so-called “federal districts” (RBC, June 26). Four were holdovers, the remainder—new appointees. But all of them, notably, had close links to the Kremlin bureaucracy or the “power ministries” (siloviki). In May, Putin separately re-nominated the presidential plenipotentiary for the Far Eastern federal district; while the individual at the head of the Volga district was named in 2011.

Russia has eight federal districts: Central, Northwestern, Southern, North Caucasian, Volga, Ural, Siberian and Far Eastern. Their establishment was the first managerial decision taken by newly elected President Putin in May 2000, although the districts as an institution are not envisaged by the Russian Constitution. Their geographical extent closely mimicked that of Russia’s seven military districts (the North Caucasian federal district was carved out from the Southern district in 2010). The federal districts and presidential plenipotentiary positions were created to exert Kremlin control over regional governors and republican heads, who, in 2000, were still freely elected by the population. However, even after Putin assumed appointment powers for governors in 2004, the federal districts were retained. And they have continued to function after the nominal return of gubernatorial elections in 2012 (see EDM, November 20, 2017).

Each of the eight federal district plenipotentiaries manages up to 100 employees, including “chief federal inspectors” who work directly in the regions. All these officials receive the high salaries of Kremlin employees because they are officially classified as part of the presidential staff. As a rule, they have no prior connections with the territories that they are instructed to control. In practice, this has frequently meant low interest in pursuing regional development initiatives (see below). Rather, their main task is to monitor and ensure that the Kremlin’s orders are followed down at the regional level. In this way, they represent the ideal of Putin’s “vertical of power”—one that in no way depends on voters (see EDM, November 17, 20, 2017).

Upon their introduction, the federal districts were met with general approval. They seemed like a reasonable way to manage Russia’s huge territory: a “golden mean” between Kremlin centralism and the administrative division of Russia into 85, often small, federal subjects. Well-known urbanist Vyacheslav Glazychev expressed the hope that the federal districts would become an effective basis for the development of the country (Glazychev, 2004).

However, from the outset, evidence started to build that such hopes would be misplaced. In 2000, journalists from regions within the Northwestern federal district proposed the creation of inter-regional mass media outlets. These regions (which include St. Petersburg, the Republic of Karelia, Murmansk, and Veliky Novgorod) are interrelated economically and culturally, but are alienated from one another in a media sense; even today they do not have joint television channels or newspapers. Yet, the district’s leaders declined to back the project, saying there was no need for it.

The plenipotentiaries’ inability or lack of interest in developing stronger ties among the regions under their district continues to this day. Yury Trutnev, whom the Russian media has singled out as one of Putin’s most influential plenipotentiaries, has led the Far Eastern federal district since 2013; he was reappointed to his post earlier this year. Trutnev recently complained that 70 percent of towns in the Russian Far East are not connected by air routes. Fedot Tumusov, the State Duma deputy from Yakutia, consequently asked, “It is good that the plenipotentiary speaks about the problem publicly. But would it not be better if he said what the state intends to do about it?” (Rosbalt, July 3). Indeed, Trutnev has not proposed any concrete solutions, and the Russian Far Eastern regions remain economically depressed (see Jamestown.org, September 13, 2016).

In his 2011 book, Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience, Professor Alexander Etkind notes that, unlike other past empires whose colonies were far away, tsarist Moscow imposed colonial-style tools of control even on nearby Russian lands. This model, which arguably persists today, explicitly precludes regional self-government. And “viceroys” from the metropolis can be used interchangeably. For example, Nikolai Tsukanov, who in 2016–2017 was Putin’s plenipotentiary in the Northwest, was appointed plenipotentiary in the Ural federal district earlier this year (RBC, June 15, 2018).

Regional communities have no control over the Kremlin’s appointees, who regularly avoid responsibility not only for corruption, but also for more serious crimes. For example, in 2017, the Central district’s chief federal inspector for Yaroslavl region was accused of manslaughter in a hunting accident. But the Kostroma regional court released him of all criminal charges and slapped him with an insignificant fine (less than $1,500) rather than a prison sentence. He remains in his post (Pasmi.ru, January 23).

Nevertheless, regime loyalists continue to hope for reforms of the federal districts. Political scientist Maxim Fomin says Russia needs economic decentralization and has suggested transforming these districts into “project federal territories” (Vedomosti, July 3). This, however, would represent precisely the sort of political-economic restructuring that central authorities fear: If federal districts can launch their own development projects, it would violate the “vertical of power” principle that is the main reason for the districts’ existence.

The processes of colonization and decolonization are historically ambivalent, however. Some observers have noted that the federal districts of Russia roughly correspond to the boundaries of states and principalities that existed before the formation of the Russian Empire—Muscovy, Novgorod republic, Siberia, etc. (Afterempire.info, June 28). The former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who foretold the collapse of the Soviet Union back in the early 1980s, evaluated the creation of federal districts ironically, in 2003: “We were wondering into what parts Russia will be divided [i.e., break apart]. But Putin created seven districts, and now we know” (Newsru.com, December 1, 2003).

Historically, the weakening of central power in Russia repeatedly led to periods of imperial disintegration. Most dramatically, this happened twice in the 20th century—in 1917 and 1991. Putin is not immortal, and it is debatable whether the political system he has created will outlast him (The Conversation, August 2, 2017). Nonetheless, it is at least possible that a new post-imperial political arrangement could emerge in Russia after his exit from the Kremlin. And if it does, it could very well focus on the level of the federal districts, since many Russian regions are too small and dependent on their neighbors to become sovereign political subjects.

–Vadim Shtepa
Georgia Remains on Path to NATO
Four years ago, then–United States President Barack Obama famously stated that Georgia is not presently on the path to membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Civil Georgia, March 27, 2014). Nevertheless, Tbilisi persisted in its efforts to maintain ever-closer relations with the transatlantic alliance (see EDM, March 11, 2016; July 18, 2016;August 1, 2016; February 7, 2017; May 9, 2018). And in the most recent NATO summit, held in Brussels, on July 11–12, Georgia remained an important issue not only in the final declaration, but also in the course of bilateral meetings and statements of the leaders of the Alliance.

The NATO summit did not “open the door” to Georgian membership—once again, the South Caucasus country did not receive a Membership Action Plan (MAP). But the outcome of the just-concluded top meeting of NATO leaders confirmed that Georgia remains an important partner, and the Allies still consider it an “Aspirant” deserving of respect for its reforms, democratic choice and active participation in international operations.

In the Brussels Summit Declaration, the heads of state and government of the 29 members of the North Atlantic Alliance reiterate the decision made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Georgia “will become a member of the Alliance, with MAP as an integral part of the process.” The Allied leaders also recognize “the significant progress on reforms which Georgia has made and must continue, which are helping Georgia, an aspirant country, progress in its preparations towards membership, and which strengthen Georgia’s defense and interoperability capabilities with the Alliance” (Nato.int, July 11).

The declaration further underscores that “Georgia’s relationship with the Alliance contains all the practical tools to prepare for eventual membership” and that the Alliance stands ready to enhance its support further, including in the areas of counter-mobility, training and exercises, and secure communications. “These efforts, along with Georgia’s participation in [European Union]-led operations, demonstrate Georgia’s commitment and capability to contribute to Euro-Atlantic security,” the document says, adding that NATO leaders “highly appreciate Georgia’s significant and steadfast contributions” to the NATO Response Force and the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan. The NATO leaders also call on Moscow to reverse its recognition of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent “states.” And the Declaration reiterates the West’s expectation that Russia implement the EU-mediated August 12, 2008, ceasefire, “particularly the withdrawal of Russian forces from the territory of Georgia; to end its militarization of these regions; and to stop the construction of border-like obstacles” (Nato.int, July 11).

During the summit, US President Donald Trump held a brief meeting with Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili. Judging by the statement of the US leader during the subsequent press conference, he was satisfied with the conversation with his Georgian counterpart: “They [the Georgian side] left a very good impression. We listened to information about their situation. The situation connected with Georgia is complicated. At a certain point, they will join NATO, but not right now,” the US president told journalists (Civil Georgia, July 12).

Later, at a joint press conference with President Margvelashvili, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg mentioned, that in the past ten years since the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war, NATO’s relationship with Georgia became unique and increasingly close. “You are one of the Alliance’s most important operational partners. And a trusted friend. Our partnership makes NATO and Georgia safer and more secure. We are grateful for Georgia’s continuing contributions to our Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan. And [we] recognize the sacrifices the Georgian people have made for our shared security. We fully support Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Georgia will become a member of NATO. Allied leaders reaffirmed this and we will continue to work with you to prepare for membership,” the representative head of the Alliance said (Nato.int, July 12).

Stoltenberg also confirmed Allied participation in next year’s NATO-Georgia exercise on Georgian territory. And he thanked Tbilisi for contributing to stability in the Black Sea “strategic region,” where Georgia and NATO are stepping up cooperation. “NATO supports Georgia’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, which includes the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” he underlined. Finally, while alluding to the fevered discussions on “burden sharing” that preoccupied a significant portion of the summit, Stoltenberg took the opportunity to congratulate Georgia for its commitment to match the NATO guideline of spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense (Nato.int, July 12).

President Margvelashvili, in turn, thanked the secretary general for his efforts at advancing Georgia’s future in the transatlantic community. “Georgia contributes to Euro-Atlantic stability and is one of the major contributors to the Resolute Support Mission. My position, which many of our friends and allies share, is that the Georgian people will be quick to draw closer to the Alliance, taking into consideration their capabilities, dedication and shared burden,” he said (President.gov.ge, July 12).

As the former rector of the Georgian diplomatic academy, Iosif Tsintsadze, cautioned, however, “The statements of the US president, NATO secretary general and other Western leaders do not mean that Georgia will soon be admitted to NATO. They only confirm that the allies give Georgia a chance but not a guarantee! Much will depend on Georgia’s own actions” (Author’s interview, June 15).

Political scientist Tornike Sharashenidze, meanwhile, drew attention to the fact that, unlike during the 2014 Wales Summit (when Georgia received the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package and the NATO-Georgia Joint Training Center was opened outside Tbilisi), there was no significant decision made at the Brussels Summit for how the country might continue to move forward on NATO integration. “This is because our government did not work actively enough with its Western partners,” Sharashenidze asserted, in an interview with this author, on June 15.

Vakhtang Maisaia, a doctor of Military Sciences, based in Tbilisi, argued that Georgia is presently in the third stage of integration with NATO—so-called “intensive dialogue.” “The next stage is MAP, but our partners are not yet ready for such a radical step,” Maisaia said (Author’s interview, June 15). Political analyst Irakli Machavariani explained this caution within the Alliance as stemming from “the fear of some European states toward Russia” (Author’s interview, June 15).

Nevertheless, most Georgian experts are convinced that, even if Georgia does not receive a MAP or be allowed to join NATO in the near future, the process of constant interaction with the Alliance has a value all its own. Joint projects in defense and security, including military exercises, create some limited security guarantees for the country against further Russian aggression. The journey is, thus, as beneficial as the destination.