Tag Archives: russia

For whom do the tomahawks fly

When in the early morning hours of April 7 the US destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross fired 59 Tomahawk missiles against Syrian air base Shayrat, the big question wasn’t if the US had violated international law (which they had). What was of real concern to most analysts was if a military operation by a nuclear superpower could bring the death of military personnel of another nuclear power, thus creating a classical casus belli, or case for war. It seemed, though, that the Russian command in Syria had been warned in advance before the attack, so the chances of direct confrontation and spiraling escalation in the Cuban crisis sort of way was prevented pretty neatly.

Now the more interesting question about this attack is different, and it could have serious consequences for Russia both in geopolitical and military sense. I’m talking of the widely heralded myth about the impenetrable air defense system, the last-generation C-400. Elements of that system are installed around the air bases in Tatrus and Lattakia, hosting the Russian warplanes in Syria. In theory, C-400 is an air defense system with mid- to long-range that could intercept targets within 600 km and destroy them at a 400 km distance. It should be able to destroy planes, drones, ballistic and other missiles. But during the Tomahawk assault in Shayrat, for some reason all C-400 stations remained silent. All 59 missiles, based on 40-year old technology, flew unimpeded across the entire defense line. So far no one has come up with an official explanation of what really happened.

These systems have a special place in the modern Russian doctrine for military dominance. By installing C-400 in a zone, the Russians are capable of isolating huge chunks of air space, where any movement of enemy aircraft could be blocked at any given time. And if they put such a system near the border with another country, they can control all air traffic up to 400 km inside that country’s territory. It was the Russian air defense system that has forced Daesh to review their plans for air support of allied units on the ground.

In NATO language, such zones of blocked access are called Anti Access / Anti Denial or A2/AD. Such “domes” of blocked airspace are currently present not just over Syria but also Kaliningrad (covering parts of Poland and the Baltics), and Crimea (reaching as far as the shores of Romania and Bulgaria). Because of these zones, the NATO strategists were forced to seriously re-think their defense plans in case of aggression on the eastern flank of the alliance. Practically, the presence of such air defense systems seriously undermines the allies’ ability to quickly deploy reinforcements by air in case of sudden crisis, or to support the logistical networks of their defense forces in case of a protracted conflict.

The fundamental problem with C-400 is that so far no one has seen its true capabilities in real battle conditions. So any future customers of the Russian military-industrial complex would surely be looking very closely into what happened during the US air strike against Syria. There are military giants like China and India among those customers, and soon Turkey could also join that list (itself a NATO member). That’s probably the reason for the strange and enigmatic statement by the Russian chiefs of command, which said only 23 out of the 59 Tomahawk missiles had reached their target, without specifying why exactly. If that’s a hint that the remaining 36 missiles had been downed by C-400, the Russians might still be having a problem: this way they’re admitting their system is too porous in case of a swarm-like attack of low-flying missiles.

Still, the likeliest explanation is that the Russian air defense system in Syria was merely kept inactive – partly to conceal its true capabilities, partly to deliberately allow an escalation of tensions with the US. An argument in support of this assumption is the “evolution” of statements coming from various Russian officials. For instance, the chairman of the defense committee at the Russian parliament Victor Ozerov said the C-300 and C-400 systems are in Syria “to guarantee the safety of our armed forces”. In other words, about a fortnight ago Assad’s army might have suddenly found itself outside the list of Russian-protected puppet regimes, at least as far as attacks from the sky are concerned. Whatever the Russian military officials say from here on, there’ll always be a question hanging around the qualities of the “impenetrable” C-400 system: could it really eliminate a 40-year old US Tomahawk missile flying at subsonic speed – or not?

Meet the new master of the Middle East

There are indications that Russia is planning a military intervention in Libya. On March 13, Russian special units and drones were spotted in the Egyptian coastal town of Sidi Barrani, just 100 km east of the Libyan territory that’s controlled by the Russia-supported Gen. Khalifa Haftar.

If Russia is really working to change the balance of powers in Libya as they did in Syria, Turkey’s positions in the Eastern Mediterreanean will be threatened (not to mention America’s). Establishing a military presence there is aimed to stabilise the Sisi regime in Egypt against the Islamists. That’s in line with the traditional Russian policy since the Soviet times when they were in alliance with Egypt. Now they’re conducting joint military exercises, and Russia is actively helping Egypt to guard its vulnerable western border.

These movements have the long-term goal to support Gen. Haftar in Libya, who’s facing Jihadist threats against the territories he controls, including the important oil ports in Ras Lanuf and Es Sider. Haftar is a former Gaddafi loyalist who’s now ruling from Tobruq and has been a key player in the Libyan civil war. He now controls most oil fields in Libya, with a daily output of 700K+ barrels.

Last month, the Russian oil giant RosNeft signed an agreement with the Libyan national oil corporation for the delivery of raw oil, plus some further investment in Libya. And last December, the Russian deputy foreign minister Gatilov harshly criticised the special UN envoy to Libya, German diplomat Martin Kobler, for his statements in support of Haftar’s opponents.

In January, Haftar was invited on board the Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in the Mediterranean, where he had a video meeting with Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu. And a month later, Shoigu warned his British counterpart Michael Fallon against meddling in Russian affairs in Libya (“Don’t tell a bear what to do!”)

There’s no doubt at this point that Russia is trying to restore its previous military alliances.

Meanwhile, Turkey is not sleeping either. They’re also trying to assert their positions in Libya after the failed attempt to prop up the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt a couple of years ago. Last summer, during his visit to Libya, Turkish foreign minister Cavusoglu managed to snatch an agreement for the completion of 304 abandoned projects worth $18.5 bn. The deal was done with Haftar’s rivals, however. The Turks are concerned that after Syria and Egypt, Libya could be Russia’s next prize, and Putin might be trying to create a Russian ring to control the southern flank of the Eastern Mediterranean – which would practically mean the encirclement of Turkey, and its geopolitical isolation.

Let me remind that vast new oil deposits have been found off the Cyprus coast, conveniently situated well in range of at least half a dozen countries, so the scramble for access to that new treasure will be very fierce. Some have even argued that this is at the core of all the recent conflicts in the region, including the string of Arab Spring events across the Maghreb and the Levant. Iran is also a factor, trying to establish a Shia-controlled corridor spanning Iraq, Bahrain and Syria and allowing them to gain access to the Mediterranean and control the crucial trade and pipeline routes crossing the region. And Saudi Arabia wouldn’t allow that. So there are more than 4 or 5 big players, plus about a dozen other secondary participants involved in this whole mess. And the knot doesn’t seem likely to be untied any time soon. Worse, it’s only just beginning to get tightened.

What a move…

Well, it seems Russia will not only refrain from retaliating to the US expelling some of its diplomats in response for the alleged Russian meddling in the US election – but Putin has also disregarded his foreign minister’s recommendation to reciprocate, and will keep all US diplomats in place, and even invite their kids to the traditional New Year’s festivities in the Kremlin:

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/russia-us-35-diplomats-expelled-9536358

This is a very calculated move by Putin. Despite the fact that he is a dictator, it’s also doubtless that Putin is an astute leader who can assess the situation very quickly – unlike newly elected leader Trump who seems incompetent on virtually any issue. Putin wants to show himself as the good guy here, and I think Trump will no doubt take this bait rather easily.

The problem with this sort of diplomatic “sanctions” is that there is no concrete proof of Russia participating in election meddling at a government level (although we all know they did). In the meantime, we have to keep in mind that any country (especially powerful ones) at any given time is always actively trying to hack any information they can get from another country. These hacking activities have been there for decades and will stay as long as we have the digital world. And as soon as a new medium of information transfer is invented, that one is also going to be employed for espionage.

In a nutshell, Putin has scored another point against Obama here, making him look petty at the end of his term. Of course, Putin is in the stronger position here, because he knows Obama’s days in office are numbered, and he’s losing the last remnants of his influence pretty fast. In other words, he’s beating a dead horse. All in all, America has been trolled yet again.

On booze, and Russian national security

On the day when a rampant terrorist shot the Russian ambassador in Turkey dead, the Russian people didn’t give a damn about that news, as much as they were shaken by other news coming from the heart of Siberia. And there’s good reason they cared about it so much, because it directly impacts their sense of safety and security – to such an extent that the local authorities declared a state of emergency in Irkutsk, banning all liquid sales. The reason? 60+ people went to meet their creator after having ingested fake alcohol. And that’s not just some obscure footnote in some online media, it’s the News.Ru being the first to report on it. So it must matter a lot, guys!

If that’s not the most Russian thing ever, I don’t know what is.

Just think about it. Those poor sods didn’t die of over-drinking, which is what you would’ve expected. No, it’s the stuff they drank that bought them a one-way ticket to Hell. It’s some sort of hawthorn potion called Boyarishnik (literally: ‘hawthorn’), used for cleaning bathrooms. Something like a liquid lotion. There were three-score fatally affected within a single day. 7 somehow survived – according to the local doc, the reason is they had consummated the potion with potatoes and some soda beverage. The rest had ignored this tiny detail, so they had had at it in full-force without any meal. They gulped the Boyarishnik, and soon they relocated to the netherworld.

If there’s one place such weirdness is seen as the norm, it’s certainly the vastness that is Russia. NTV reported that 33 had died on the spot, another 17 had woken from their coma just for a short while, only to report about the circumstances of the incident… and still another 2 were found dead in the… wait for it… collector tanks of the local heating company?!

Oh, by the way, this massive intoxication happened in the Novo-Lenino residential area of Irkutsk. Those who managed to testify said they had all drunken from the hawthorn concentrate, even though they had clearly read the label, saying it shouldn’t be consumed. Apart from the classical ethanol alcohol, there was also methanol (poison), and antifreeze in the mix. Soviet innovation, you know.

The ensuing investigation found thousands of bottles of the potion in the vicinity, so Irkutsk now has an all-round ban on selling any liquids, even ones with the tiniest possibility of containing alcohol. A similar thing happened about a month ago in neighboring town Sayansk, except back then the scandal was somehow covered up because of the relatively “small” number of casualties.

Now after the fact, the Russian media report on the fact that this sort of alcohol substitute has been quite popular among Russians because of the lower price compared to real alcohol. The deeper the economic crisis gets, the more rampant this problem becomes. In this sense, the prevalence of fake-alcohol intoxication is a fine indicator for the real economic state of affairs in Russia. In 2010-2014 for example, such drinks had killed 45,000 people in Russia. This, within half a decade. Seems like Russians don’t really need wars or terrorism to threaten them – they’re already losing entire cities worth of population to bad alcohol on an annual basis.

But let’s face it. Despite the localized, temporary measures, nobody is able to stop Russians from passionately loving alcohol. Just try to ban it nationwide, and you’ve got a revolution on your hands. And because legal alcohol is expensive, and they can’t stop drinking, they come up with all sorts of ingenuous alternatives. In October, the town of Kaluga witnessed a huge scandal, because suddenly a street vending machine popped up in the city center, where one could buy thornapple tincture for 20 roubles (30 euro-cents). Without any regulation or oversight. One could drop a coin, get a 100 g bathroom-washing chemical containing some alcohol, then drink it. Needless to say, a long line immediately formed behind this machine, dead-drunk folks queueing all day for the elixir of oblivion. This caused quite some outcry.

Then there was a similar vending machine in Chita in the Far East. This new fad spread so widely, federal MP Nikolai Govorin proposed a bill banning alcohol vending machines altogether, plus forceful court-imposed rehabilitation for alcoholics. On top of that, PM Dmitry Medvedev has now officially commented on the Irkutsk tragedy, finally recognizing it as “a grave problem”, and the illegal alcohol trade as “a national-security threat”.

He’s very correct, of course. Russia don’t need no Chechens, Taliban, Ukrainians, Americans, sorosoids or Europeans. The real threat to Russia is this innocent liquid called alcohol, which keeps decimating the Broad Russian Soul at the rate the Mongols did: low-quality alcohol, fake methyl alcohol, lotions, perfumes or dish-washing liquids, you name it. Turns out, as soon as the Russian sniffs alcohol, all national security goes down the sink. Literally. So, don’t be tellin’ me nuffin’ about no Russian hackers tilting US elections for Trump or anything like that! That wouldn’t make any sense – not in a country where you’d hardly find enough sober people to do a job so specific and sophisticated.

An old acquaintance of mine once used to work in Siberia for a few years. Bulgarians mostly used to work in the Republic of Komi during commie times, near the Urals. You make good money there, which you don’t have where to spend – and alcohol becomes your regular companion in those frozen forests. So he spent a couple years in Syktyvkar. He came back a complete Russian-style drunkard, but at his rare times of sobriety he used to say, “I saw such wonders there that I can’t find the words to describe – but at some point it would all sink into an alcoholic haze for me, when the vodka took over. Down and down you spiral, until it all merges into a blur. Even the Mariana Trench has been better explored than the drunken Russian!” At some point he went back to Russia (this time Moscow). Not because he needed the money, but because he “couldn’t drink here as much as he wanted” (and mind you, I’m talking of Bulgaria here!) In a few months, the terrible news came that he had been found frozen to death in a ditch, a couple blocks away from his home – a half-empty vodka bottle in hand, a smaller one in the pocket of his coat.

That was a long time ago. Communism may’ve fallen since then, but the Russian’s love for alcohol hasn’t faltered even one bit in the meantime. Hackers, terrorists, and national security? Pfeh! Those are a joke. Just give’m vodka, hawthorn concentrate and bathroom-washing lotion, sit back, and watch!

Russian ambassador in Turkey is shot

Those who organised yesterday’s shooting of Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador in Turkey, likely wanted to take a revenge at Russia for her actions in Syria and to disrupt the ongoing warming up between Turkey and Russia. It seems they have failed in this, because no signs of another freezing of these relations are seen. The Turkish foreign minister is still going to visit Moscow for a trilateral meeting with Iran and Russia on Syria. The only thing the assassination will change is probably the level of security measures before the meeting.

Of course Russia will not just forgive and forget the death of their ambassador, so there will be some tensions. Especially because the memory of the downed Russian fighter jet is still so fresh.

And of course, because it is Russia and Turkey that we are talking about here, the conspiracy theories of CIA involvement popped up almost immediately. You see, America wanted to disrupt the plans of Russia, Iran and Turkey, so they staged this event. Another, even crazier version is that Russia may have sent spec ops agents to kill its own ambassadors in order to gain the upper hand at those negotiations (compassion, and all that). Sounds too cynical to me, even for Russia.

In reality, the further development of the Russian-Turkish relations mainly depends on Turkey’s behaviour from now on: how efficiently it will react, what measures it will take. It is hard to imagine that this act was inspired by the Turkish authorities. Whether the incident was due to negligence or not, Russia is right to demand the restoration of order, but without spoiling their relations with Turkey, because they are even more important now, given the latest developments in Aleppo.

Russia would hardly want to provoke a conflict – it is obvious that the attack was on Russia, not Turkey, because it is not in Turkey’s interests to spoil their relations with Russia just after having amended them somewhat.

It is very unlikely that there would be another fallout between Russia and Turkey, although some challenges are inevitable. The two countries are among the main targets of terrorism, they are at the frontline in the struggle against terrorism, so they will have to proceed with the negotiations no matter what. And these negotiations will have to be constructive, no matter the differences. And of those there sure are many. But this monstrous act is now a chance for them to become even more sane and constructive. Because it is evident that neither side is safe.

This was an act not on the ambassador, but against Russia, and their interests. It was obviously a well-planned terror act; what remains to be specified is whether it was committed by a lone wolf or a group. It does not seem too possible that a single person did this on their own, though. It takes a lot of organisation to infiltrate a guarded event of this sort.

Ultimately, the most important question is, who gains from this act? First and foremost, it is those who do not want Russia and Turkey to negotiate a solution of the Syrian situation. Another important aspect is the economic cooperation between these two countries, particularly the gas pipeline from Russia to Turkey. There are a number of influential regional players who do not want that project to become reality. In any case, the trail leads outside of Turkey. Whether it is somewhere in the Gulf or beyond the Atlantic, I suppose we will never learn for sure. What matters now is that neither side should take hasty steps, even though the temptation to “do something, anything” and retaliate is great, and war is in the air every time a diplomat of this calibre is killed (just to remind how World War I started).

Russia is already paying a steep price for getting involved in the Middle Eastern quagmire – first the downed fighter jet, then the passenger plane over Sinai, and now the killed ambassador. The cost is getting greater by the day, although they may have gained a tactical victory on the field for the time being. Getting so heavily involved means the threat of Paris- and now Berlin-style attacks on Russian soil are imminent. Perhaps the Russian people would hold their leaders accountable for it at some point, but for now, they seem to revel in their victories happening at the presumably safe distance of thousands of miles away.

Russia might be in crisis; Putin, not so much

In late November, the canals of St. Petersburg, the so called Northern Venice, are covered in ice. The few hours of sunshine and the extremely low temperatures make these days quite an ordeal. The ambulances crisscross the city in search of hobos and drunken people, taking them off the streets to prevent deaths from frostbite. Every winter about 600 people die on the streets of St. Petersburg, and that’s not counting all those who’ve had their limbs amputated, and other victims of frost.

At the Nevsky Ave, in the center of the golden-clad city that was built by Peter the Great in place of some swamps next to the Gulf of Finland, posh shops are lining the sidewalks, alongside shiny restaurants and souvenir shops. St. Petersburg is not just a tourist hub and Russia’s primary Baltic port, but also the country’s second most important city after Moscow. It’s a huge economic center. But it still hasn’t managed to avert the crisis that has engulfed the whole country.

The recent news that from Jan 1, the ticket for the public transport would surge by 30%, was met as if it were the umpteenth treason against the people. But this painful change does have its reasons. In recent years, the Rouble has shrunken by 40%, mostly due to the dropping oil prices. The economic sanctions against Russia do have some role too, but it’s mostly about the oil. Because it makes up for nearly 50% of the government revenue. Which makes Russia very vulnerable to the fossil fuel prices. The banking crisis and the shrinking consumption have added to the perfect storm, thus causing a lasting recession. The World Bank assesses that Russia’s GDP has decreased by 3.7% for 2015, compared to a +0.7% for the preceding year. That’s some serious stuff. The effects of this can be felt everywhere.

The temporary stabilization of the Rouble after the initial shock from last year was no consolation though, because in the meantime the food prices kept skyrocketing (between 20% and 40% increase). The medicines, by 20%. The list could go on. (Just to remind that major political turmoil broke out in the Middle East mostly because of food prices – the best example is Tunisia, which kick-started the so called Arab Spring).

More than 15% of the Russian population lives below the poverty line as of now. That means 21+ million Russians make less than 125 euro a month. A significant drop in consumption in Roubles was registered in the first half of this year, 3.1%.

In order to deal with this predicament, the public and private enterprises are using such unpopular methods like freezing or cutting wages. The Russians’ real income dropped by 5.9% in October, compared to the same month of 2015. The crisis has opened up the income gap even more than before (and it had been pretty grim even before the crisis), unemployment has surpassed 6%, and private debt has jumped up to dangerous levels.

All that said, president Putin somehow still manages to remain immune to criticism, and preserve his aura of a protector of the realm. The recent arrest of the minister of the economy on charges of corruption, and the appointment of 34 year old Maxim Oreshkin, shows that there’s a new strategy for changing the guard at the tops. Thus the Russians can witness that their leader is “doing something”, instead of sitting idle aside and not working on the problems.

So we end up in the weird sitution where more than half of the Russians believe the economic situation has deteriorated, but no one believes the president is to blame for that. His ratings remain higher than 80%, and 2/3 of the Russians want him to run for a 4th term in 2018.

Most of the population believes that the EU’s and America’s policies toward Russia are to blame for her woes, as well as the corruption and incompetence of the Russian MPs and bureaucrats who “make decisions on things they know nothing about”, and “only care about lining their pockets”. But not Putin.

Next year is expected to be of crucial importance for Russia. The WB forecasts a 1.4% growth for the Russian economy. The OECD and OPEC deals for limiting the oil production and balancing the oil prices is also expected to contribute to the economic revival.

In his traditional State of the Nation address a couple of weeks ago, Putin didn’t focus that much on international policy, but mostly talked about the main measures his government was planning: addressing the banks, corruption, health-care, and education. He said the economy is starting to get back on its feet, and inflation won’t exceed 6% next year. He also said the Western sanctions and the corresponding counter-measures have “helped the domestic market and domestic producers, especially in agriculture”, and now “they are giving us more revenue than arms sales” (commendable).

Putin has seemed unimpressed by the sanctions, anyway. The general argument is that during the Nazi blockade in WW2, millions of people died in Russia – and mere sanctions cannot kill Russians. The expectation is that Trump’s ascent to power will mean a warming up with America, and consequently, with Europe. The sanctions are expected to be dropped some time next year if the logic of the events is to be followed. And then Russia will be back in the game. Which means, Putin will become even more assertive. And with a friend of Putin’s in the White House, there’ll be nothing to counter him. We in East Europe can brace ourselves for another Iron Curtain.

How The EU Banned Orthodox Christianity… Except It Didn’t

We’ve all become perfectly aware by now that the EU has been under increasing pressure from hostile Russian propaganda, which threatens to undermine its relations with its partners, to block important decisions, and generally damage the credibility of the major European institutions by instilling fear and a sense of insecurity among the EU citizens. The purpose is to cause discord within the EU, and put its democratic values in question – and the means that the Russian government is using to achieve that are various, from think-tanks, to multilingual TV channels (RT), to pseudo information agencies and multimedia sources (Sputnik), trans-border social groups and religious organizations, to social media and internet trolls, and of course funding political parties (mostly Euroskeptic and right-wing) and populist movements.

That’s basically what the part about Russia in the EU’s recent report on Strategic Communication With A View To Counteracting Propaganda Against It By Third Countries says. This EU resolution only has an advisable character and doesn’t impose anything on anybody, instead it recommends urgent measures for countering hostile propaganda, without prescribing bans on free speech or any such thing. All it does is identify a problem, and propose possible solutions within the law.

And yet, the report has caused a hysterical reaction. Even from the highest ranks in the Kremlin, and of course the usual suspects among the Kremlin media puppets: “We are witnessing an obvious degradation in the notions of democracy of the Western society”. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the report “a disgusting paper, proving the EU’s information crimes”. Some of the above-mentioned Russian “media” called for all international organizations, media groups and unions, to show solidarity and oppose the “creeping discrimination and censorship”. And our very own former prime-minister from the Socialist Party, now turned chairman of the European Socialist Party, Sergei Stanishev expressed formal indignation at the “absurd placing of Russia alongside ISIS in the same document”. From his entire expose, it transpires that Russian propaganda doesn’t exist as a problem in his mind, and the very mention of Russia in some sort of negative context is akin to a crime against humanity.

But the very reactions that followed this resolution in themselves are evidence in support for the statements contained inside, and proof for its conclusions about the methods and tools of Russia’s propaganda war. Or “hybrid war” as we call it nowadays.

You want examples? Fine. Just days before the resolution was voted in Strasbourg, Russia Today cited “trusted sources” to spread the “news” that a sinister amendment had been added to the draft document, stating that “Orthodox Christianity is dangerous because it strives to spread its Christian values and expand its influence in the world”. The article also claimed that the EU was “starting a war against Orthodox Christian propaganda in Europe and around the world”. Then the “news” was instantaneously transmitted by various known and unknown “media” in East Europe, my country included, all of them raising a hue and cry that the European Parliament was planning to adopt a bill to authorize a war against ideological enemies from outside, its main target being Orthodox Christian propaganda. They also claimed that “even at the time of the Ottoman yoke, Orthodox Christianity had enjoyed a protected status and was preserved, while now the EU wants to destroy it and ban it”.

Then a chorus of “analysts” joined in, explaining how “the West always needs an external enemy”, and in order to counter Russia, it’s now planning to attack Orthodox Christianity “as the last paragon of freedom in the world” (which it most emphatically isn’t). Which, for countries defined by their Orthodox heritage (like my country) was “a sucker-punch on their primary historical, cultural and religious identity”. Meanwhile, the discussion was joined by the thousands of payroll trolls and useful idiots on the Internet, and amplified many-fold around various forums and media whose professional standards are somewhere around zero. It became the primary topic on our blogosphere for a few days, people sharing indignation against the “rotten West that is coming to take our values and freedoms”.

Meanwhile back in the real world, even a cursory check would’ve showed that nowhere in that resolution even a word had been mentioned about any such thing: there was nothing about a “dangerous” Orthodox Christianity, no “war on Orthodox Christian propaganda”, and neither even a hint of any “ban”. All in all, the document didn’t even speak of religious convictions, values or priorities. It only said that “the regime in Moscow attempts to present itself as the sole protector of traditional Christian values” – which is the truth, as we’ve mentioned here before.

Such examples (slightly adjusted to each country’s specifics, of course) can be seen all around the EU these days: from the “innocent” blurring of the line between real fact, arbitrary interpretation, and outright lie about the “banned Orthodox Christianity” and those evil Westerners’ plans to “take our dearest things away from us” (as if anyone in the West cares that much about our “things”, whatever those might be), to instilling distrust, insecurity, fear and hostility among ourselves. Granted, our society has always been split between Russophiles and Russophobes (which is a civilizational divide between East and West really), so we only need a little spark to ignite the whole keg over and over again.

In turn, this propaganda is just one among an array of tools in Moscow’s hybrid war against the West, now openly described by its key ideologists as “a strategy for influence, not brute force“, whose pupose is not to destroy the enemy but to “disrupt the inner coherence of its governance systems”.

Of course, EU’s problems and those of its separate members are not entirely and solely caused by the Russian hybrid war – it’s not central to them. They’re structural and societal, i.e. much deeper than that. But still, in pursuit of its own interests, Russia is actively working to deepen them by using all sorts of means to stimulate the disintegration processes in the EU, wherever they may occur. Russia is trying to stimulate and catalyze the undermining of its fundamental values and principles, and is playing a long game in that respect. Patiently and methodically. And we’re now seeing that Russia has become so bold in this, it’s already spreading its arms across the ocean, and actively influencing American politics as well – a process that is only bound to continue and deepen from here on, now that their Manchurian Candidate has successfully been installed in office.

Putin has become so bold that by asserting its “right” to spread lies and disinformation, Russia is cynically citing exactly one of the most important European values (which is not respected in Russia itself), the freedom of expression, of the media, and of speech, as an argument in its favor. For instance, this EU resolution was commented with the argument that “the most criminal way to counter an opponent is by banning something, which is a violation of the democratic norms” (Putin’s words); or “these methods are no different from the perceived threats that the report describes, and are thus in conflict with Europe’s democratic values” (our Socialist guy Stanishev, who curiously pretends to know a thing or two about democracy). These guys are speaking of “information crimes” and “stark discrimination and censorship”, while at the same time actively practicing them at home.

In fact, the measures proposed by the report are the exact opposite to all that. These include making people more informed and raising the information literacy of the EU citizens, reinforcing media pluralism, freedom of the press, and encouraging high-quality journalism, with an emphasis on investigative journalism. The EU MPs recommend to foster an understanding of the distinction between propaganda and criticism, and they remind that it’s counter-productive to try to counter someone else’s propaganda with propaganda of your own.

So the response they’re proposing to hostile propaganda is entirely consistent with the democratic values and principles. Still, two questions remain. First, would this response be productive and efficient enough, since it’s clear we’re not dealing with a normal, conventional “opponent”, and neither with normal “media”, or a constructive “alternative standpoint”, but a powerful disruptive machine instead, whose main output is blatant and indiscriminate disinformation? And secondly, isn’t that response coming a bit too late?

Peculiarities Of The Hybrid Warfare

Scared of the little green men in green uniforms without any signs on them, are we? Don’t know where they’re coming from and what they want from us, eh? East Europe trembles with the shaking ground under their boots, and prepares to eat the dust from under their heels. The angry bear is stirring, and is preparing for a predator leap: RRRAWR! But this time it’s masked, it has no insignia, and it uses RT to convince the world that it’s actually not a bear, but a mere lamb. You gotta believe it, or else!

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“War is merely the continuation of policy by other means”, Carl von Clausewitz’s famous “bottom-line” says. For those unaware, that was one of the preeminent military theoreticians of the 19th century. Now almost 2 centuries later, when we’re seeing direct stand-offs between standing armies belonging to nation-states more seldom than ever, the Prussian general’s argument is, paradoxically, more valid than back then. Even if it’s somewhat tilted upside down. Today, the boundary between war and peace is painfully smeared. The Anschluss of Crimea and the stirring of a separatist uprising in East Ukraine for the last few months is the best example of that.

Naturally, the various smartheads in the security & defense genre already have a name for that sort of conflict: hybrid warfare. The term gained traction in my country only recently, with the infamous “2020 strategy for European defense” memorandum, where Russia was initially painted as the epitome of evil, only to then be watered down to milder definitions, lest we anger Big Bear too much.

The new hybrid warfare, combining conventional methods and means of guerrilla, cyber and information warfare with actions contradicting international law, is putting an immense political, military and economic challenge to the region“, the initial draft version of the concept said. Eventually, the part about “information warfare” was tossed out of the document, and substituted with the somewhat more PC term, “propaganda”. And the nature of hybrid warfare was narrowed down to a single sentence. How sad. It would’ve made for a great action-movie script.

But what is this hybrid menace, after all? Many people have hastened to put an equation mark between this new beast and the already familiar asymmetric warfare. In practice, though, the hybrid approach is the next stage in the evolution of armed conflict. It came into the public focus somewhere in the mid 2000s with the Second Lebanese War between Israel and Hezbollah. That sort of conflict, on the one side, combines conventional with guerrilla methods, and on the other, it uses both military and non-military means for achieving its objectives.

The partial application of hybrid tactics is not that new, though. Granted, it did start to gain popularity after the end of the Cold War, when in most cases the protracted and aggressive conventional warfare in most cases would lead to catastrophic results for the aggressor. America has been learning that lesson time and time again since then. That’s why in many cases, non-government formations like guerrilla groups, terrorist organizations, revolutionaries, separatists, would be used around the zone of operation. Using anonymous troops without national uniforms, the so-called “little green men”, plus an aggressive information blitzkrieg of unprecedented proportions in the history of information warfare, has become part of the Russian operations in Ukraine. So, if anyone is to counter such action, they should probably be adapting to dealing with that sort of paramilitary formations, while preparing themselves to adequately counter possible cyber attacks as well.

Neither asymmetric nor hybrid warfare has a clearly defined frontline. It’s being conducted with all military and non-military means available, and the battlefields are actually several: in the conflict zone itself, among the ranks of the population (which is often being used as a human shield), and among the population back home (the constant struggle for gaining public support for the military campaign through propaganda, and inciting hatred for the enemy, dehumanizing the other side, eliminating internal opposition, silencing dissent, etc). The other battlefield is the international community, where the struggle is for gaining legitimacy.

A hybrid war involves one country or non-state “actor” who’s prone to using the whole palette of means and methods simultaneously, including regular armies, guerrilla actions, and tools for psychological influence on people’s perceptions on both sides. As of now, we’re at an intermediary point between the era of conventional warfare and asymmetric warfare, organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah simultaneously seeking political representation without even being a state, and conducting conventional operations. These are using all sorts of means to gain political legitimacy, while trying to maintain something resembling state organization in their controlled territories (as ISIL is doing), they have formations very much resembling regular army, but they also use their typical guerrilla tactics as well. On the other hand, they’re still giving priority to covert tactics and tools, which is a feature of asymmetric warfare. What we’ve seen in the recent months, shows that even some countries like Russia are prone to using a larger specter of instruments to achieve their goals.

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But perhaps the most important characteristic of hybrid warfare is the combination of military and non-military methods. Thus the country that’s the recipient of the aggression finds it hard till the very last moment to clearly tell whether it’s being subject to a coordinated assault or not. And even if that’s somewhat clear, the covert character of the hybrid tactics wouldn’t allow it to have a sufficiently legitimate justification for retaliating with open force without becoming the evil one, or seek military help from its allies without being accused of open aggression. In the case with Ukraine, NATO has been very hesitant to activate its collective defense, because that would be interpreted as a direct act of aggression. We should also note that using non-military means of pressure like (propaganda, appeal to emotion or outright lies), and imposing one’s political will upon another country doesn’t necessarily mean that these actions are explicitly aiming to provoke some sort of armed conflict, as opposed to merely being yet another tool for conducting aggressive diplomacy and gaining a more favorable position for possible future negotiations. Again, the borderline here is uncomfortably smeared.

bo4czbicaaaqtud(But won’t someone think of the children!?!)

This unclear line between war and peace is actually the most dangerous consequence of hybrid warfare. The tricky part here is to refrain from using the term “war” too arbitrarily. If we take the case with Russia, it does have its interests regarding both the EU and NATO. Generally speaking, the idea is to provoke dissent within both organizations. But if we’re to conclude outright that pursuing those interests constitutes war, that would mean falling into the realm of constant paranoia, and no longer being able to make a rational distinction between diplomacy and warfare. There should be a clear line between potential threat and real conflict. One tends to evolve into the other, but when we’re talking of hybrid warfare, we’re seeing the use of regular armies.

Espionage, for example, does not necessarily mean war. On the other hand, when we’re talking of cyber security, the problem is that when we see such attacks, we should clearly establish to what extent they pursue military objectives, thus constituting a form of military action. For the time being, the premise is that the final assessment depends on the end result of the attack: when there’s a destruction of physical infrastructure and/or human life, that’s an act of war. So, when we’re talking of economic, financial or political influence, or funding of political parties and political engineering, or nation-building by a foreign state, that’s hardly an act of war. It doesn’t make it any less hostile an act, though. It’s just that the state and the national security services should be doing their job accordingly.

The usual escalation of hybrid threats and their evolution into real armed conflicts logically brings the conclusion that the key element for countering them is the adequate work of the secret services, particularly counter-espionage. It’s their job to get information about the intentions of other countries, and intercept any foreign attempts to meddle into domestic matters by infiltrating their agents at key positions of political and economic life, and thus manipulate the decision-making at a state level. When shit hits the fan, though, especially when external factors prove overwhelming, then there’s nothing else to do but to either submit to the pressure, or succumb to endless conflict, and go down to the level of the aggressor, starting to use their own tools against them. Something that’ll eventually come haunting ya afterwards.

A Giant On Clay Feet

Since recently I’ve been hearing the talking points of some Russophiles both at home and abroad taking precedence over common sense, I’ve bothered to do some work in summing up some facts, which I hope would help put those Putinite talking points into perspective. Because the Russian propaganda ain’t sleeping for a minute, definitely not around these latitudes. Just a disclaimer: the lines below are not directed at the Russian people as a people. Indeed, they’re quite lovely people when taken individually. What I can’t approve of is the way that nation has allowed itself to be ruled for centuries, and the results that’ve come out of it. So do bear with my diatribe.

1. By various estimates, Russia ranks 8th or 9th in terms of GDP. However, the Russian economy is about 7 times smaller than those of the US and EU, 3.5 times smaller than the Chinese, 1.3 times smaller than the Japanese, and 0.73 times smaller than the German economy. But what’s more interesting, a country with 148 million people like Russia is producing GDP which is twice smaller than that of a country like Italy, and just barely bigger than Canada’s, which is many times smaller in population. If anyone claims this is a sign of an efficient economy, I’d recommend they re-read their economics study-books. Source: here.

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^ See? Doesn’t look that big now, does it? (No, Russia ain’t the huge green blob. Russia is the squashed blue stain that’s squeezed between the real players.

2. 95.7% of Russia’s national treasure is formed by natural resources, and 70% of the Russian exports are oil and gas. Whichever way we look at it, Russia is a mere supplier of raw materials for the more developed economies of the world. If we believe the Russian economy is capable of producing cheap products of good quality, we’d better think of how many Russian goods (affordable, and of good quality) we’ve bought anywhere for the last 5-10 years. Personally? I haven’t bought even one. And I live less than a thousand miles away from there. Source: here.

3. I’ve been hearing Russians spouting the narrative that Russia is some kind of defender and paragon of Orthodox values, as opposed to the rot of the godless West. Personally, I can’t wrap my mind around this notion – I don’t get what makes the Russian Orthodox “values” so different from the standard Ten Commandments, and how is Russia propagating these values, since the divorce rate in that country is 51%. The US divorce rate is comparable, 53%. What’s more, evidently even the most prominent “defender” of Orthodox values could himself be divorced, which is exactly Putin’s marital status. It’s a public secret that the reason for his divorce was his romance with Alina Kabayeva, a former Soviet gymnast. On top of all that, if the purported Orthodox traditions are so strong in Russia, then how come the words “Russian woman” have long been associated with “harlot” around here (especially along our coast, which is so full of temptations)? Source: here.

4. Russia has the highest documented abortion rates in the world (34.7 abortions per 1000 births). Yep, you heard me. The highest in the world! But that’s just one factor for the rapidly waning population of that country. Immigration is the other. People are voting with their feet, apparently. I suppose Western liberal democracy is to blame for that as well? Source: here.

5. Barring the African countries (with the exception of the Maghreb), Russia has the highest registered HIV-positive rate in the world – 1.2 million infected. Source: here.

6. Russia has hard drug use levels (1.8 million people) which are comparable to those of the Third World. Source: here.

7. The homicide rate in Russia is 9.2 per 100,000, while that in the US is 4.7. And the US is being criticized for being a violent place!? Mind you, Russia shares the same area in the ranking with such nice places like Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Burundi, Somalia, Burkina Faso, Iraq, Guinea-Bissau, The Philippines, Gabon, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Angola, Djibouti, The Gambia, Haiti, Togo, Zimbabwe and Uganda. Among the more developed countries, only Mexico and Brazil are higher. Source: here.

8. The levels of corruption in Russia are staggering. And that, for a country that claims to be a leading economic powerhouse. The latest Transparency International ranking puts Russia at the 136th place (out of 174). Only Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Libya, Venezuela, North Korea and a few former Soviet republics are worse than that. Quite a nice record indeed. Source: here.

9. Russia is ranked 152nd out of 178 in terms of freedom of the press. Again, quite a remarkable record. Again, Russia shares the company of such nice Third World countries like Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and North Korea in this respect. Source: here.

10. Despite the constant muscle-flexing, Russia isn’t the military juggernaut we usually see on the Red Square parades, either. The US spends between 581 and 610 billion dollars on defense, China follows with 129-216 billion. Russia is either 3rd or 4th with 70-84.5 billion. Saudi Arabia is somewhere there as well, then follows Britain, France, Japan, India and Germany. One must be very infected with confirmation bias in order to believe they’re the most badass force in the world. Source: here.

11. Russia ranks 10th in the world in terms of suicide rates per capita, with 19.5 suicides per 100,000. Only Turkmenistan, South Sudan, India, Burundi, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Tanzania, Mozambique, Suriname, Lithuania, Sri Lanka, South Korea and Guyana are worse. The US is 50th with 12.1 suicides. I don’t know, Russians must be killing themselves so much out of sheer happiness for living in such an awesome place – or something. Source: here.

12. Russia is 4th in the world in alcohol consumption per capita (over 15 years of age). Only Belarus, Moldova and Lithuania are ahead. I’ve mentioned what “Russian woman” is associated with; well, in the meantime, “Russian man” is associated with “drunkard” around these latitudes (and not only). Source: here.

13. Russia has one of the highest homeless populations in the world, about 5 million. In comparison, those are 3 million in the EU (with almost 3 times more population), and in the US that number varies between 0.6 and 2.5 million, depending on the estimate (with twice the total population). Source: here.

14. You’d think people in the Middle East and East Asia are slaughtering each other like flies on the roads? Wait and see what’s happening in Russia. Most countries that rank higher than Russia in that respect are in Africa and Latin America (excepting Saudi Arabia, China and India out of the more developed countries). On the other hand, the road victims in Russia related to the number of vehicles is 4 times that in any developed country. Source: here.

15. You’d think Russia is preaching to the West out of some sort of pride for its social achievements? Well, in terms of social inequality Russia isn’t much better than, say, the US (a Gini coefficient of 39.7 against 41.1). Mind you, the highest concentration of billionaires (read: fraudulent exploiters) is in the US (190), while the billionaires in Russia (read: generous, socially responsible folks) are 86. Given the population differences, their concentration isn’t that different. Source: here.

16. In terms of government budget, Russia is 12th in the world. The revenue part of its budget is 1/6 of the US one, 1/4 of the Chinese, and 1/3 of the Japanese. What’s more, Russia has a state budget that’s a tad smaller than Australia’s (16% smaller revenue), and just a bit bigger than the Dutch one (try to compare Russia to the Netherlands on the map). Source: here.

17. That said, about half the budget revenue in Russia comes from the sales of oil and gas. This makes Russia resemble the likes of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, rather than the US, Japan, China, Germany, Britain or France. No need to even begin discussing how the lack of diversification puts that budget in tremendous risk. Because it’s already happening (really: check the Rouble and compare its fluctuation to the movement of the global oil prices – noticing something?) Source: here.

18. The economic freedom index ranks Russia 139th out of 177. In terms of business climate, it’s 92nd out of 189 (although improving slightly in recent years). Source: here.

The list could go on for a while. The point is, the inconvenient truth for Russia, which too many Russophiles around here are willingly failing to see, is that Russia has turned itself into a country that’s a mere resource and energy appendix to the world economy. It’s got a un-free, corrupt and demoralized population, but meanwhile a large military and most importantly, aggressive, self-centered leaders. In many of the indicators for social, economic and political development, Russia rather resembles a Third-World country, only with a much colder climate, plus lots of nukes.

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I also don’t get the argument that Russia is somehow a paragon of something, an example to be emulated, hence superior to others in some way (except for size). A protector and champion of traditional values? Doesn’t seem to be the case, no. It remains a mystery how exactly these values are manifested, since Russia is among the worst in a number of negative rankings that are directly related to ethics, morality and the personal value system. I wonder how come at least part of the so loudly preached traditional Russian values haven’t been harnessed and channelled into creating more wealth and prosperity for the Russian people, as is the case in so many other more developed countries. Are Western liberal democracy and “tolerasty” to blame for Russia’s dire predicament? That doesn’t make sense.

Now looking at the facts and the data, I wonder which area of social life does the Russian state excel at, where exactly is it superior to the rest of the world – that’s important for me to know, if I am to be following the Russian model of governance and societal development, as some people are trying to convince me. What useful and important contributions has Russia done for the last few decades, which may’ve changed the world to the better? Apart from various forms of dictatorship, oppression, iron-fist governance, oil, and gas, I mean? Is there a product, a service, a technology, a model which the Russian society has offered to the world lately, which has made humankind’s existence easier, better, and all in all, more meaningful? And isn’t it a bit sad that such a huge potential is lingering dormant, useless, and utterly suppressed under a mountain of apathy and mediocrity? Hell, Russia could’ve become a truly prosperous country by now! After all, it’s not like it hasn’t given tons of amazing geniuses to humankind! Then what has happened? Where has all that gone?

Well, here’s what. The one thing that has been hindering the Russian people from unleashing their true potential, is the fact that they’ve always been stuck under the heavy boot of their own rulers, face firmly pressed against the mud. They’ve been oppressed, humiliated and used since time immemorial. They’ve been ruled by despots. And we’re seeing the results now. As for our very own Russophilia or Russophobia, they’re here to stay for quite a while. We East Europeans would always be divided on those issues. It’s inevitable, given our own complicated history. The real question we should be asking ourselves though, is: where do we go on holidays, what currency do we keep our savings in, where do we want our children to study, which foreign language do we want to learn, where would we rather immigrate, what music do we listen to and what books and movies do we read and watch? No need to give me an answer. I think everyone could easily answer this for themselves. And the answer they’d get would be the best proof which model we’d choose for ourselves.

Life in the kommunalky

Communal apartments, or Kommunalky. You can see most major Russian cities being encircled by those mastodons of Socialist-realist architecture. They look grand, imposing, intimidating even. But what’s life like in those? And I do mean *is*, not *was*. Because a huge chunk of the Russian people still live there. I’ve been to Moscow over a dozen times through the years, but I must admit this is the first time that I’ve come to know Russians so intimately.

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So, about the kommunalka. Visitor’s first impression: the staircase stinks! It literally reeks. I’ve thought Russians bake and boil and fry stuff at home only when they’re on holidays at the apartment complexes that they’ve bought along the sea coast of my country, but no. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. When you enter an actual Russian kommunalka, you get instantly hit by a thick wall of odors. All sorts of meals can be felt from a hundred yards. They mix with each other into some sort of omnipresent, omnipotent, all-enveloping, invisible (and often visible) mist of smells, among which, after taking the second breath, you can no longer distinguish the separate meals.

If you somehow manage to survive this initial shock and make it to the, let’s say 3rd floor of this shabby juggernaut of a building, you’d go through another shock. You’ll end up in Heaven! Or rather, a haven for voices and moods, and all sorts of opinions, and meals, and rumors, and stuff.

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Actually the typical communal home does encompass the entire floor (and it’s a huge floor, mind you). On both sides of the long corridor there are tiny rooms. Each is no more than 10 sq m. At the end of the corridor, there’s the bathroom and toilets. And one kitchen, shared by all 16-24 families. All women and men, children, elderly folk. They’re all in this together.

It’s a dark corridor. The plaster is coming off the walls, and you can’t recognize what color it might have been once. Most lights have gone dead way ago. There’s a ray of light at the end of the tunnel, though. It’s the kitchen window. There’s one. It’s the kitchen that these 16-24 families consider their HQ, the heart of the community, the very command center of the kommunalka. I meet a lady called Nastya who was born here, has always lived here, and has almost never left the area. She’s something like a chieftain here. That’s an interesting and long story really. While Russian men may appear manly and powerful in politics and sports, deep in the bowels of these homes of theirs, they’ve been ruled by their women ever since the two world wars, when women became the dominant power due to the shortage of men, and the fact that women were running the whole economy – and they’ve never relinquished that position since. Anyway; Nastya has some special privileges in this place. There’s a certain hierarchy, practically a matriarchate. Those who’ve lived in the kommunalka the longest have the most rights. They can choose which corner of the table they’ll sit on at dinner (or even have separate tables of their own). Or which side of the stove they’ll sit beside (that’s kind of important; Russian winters are quite tough).

There are 5 tables and 2 stoves in the kitchen. And 16 families. If you want to cook, you’ll have to wait for your turn. The single washing machine works non-stop, 24/7. There’s lots of pants and shirts and diapers to wash, after all. I wait in line for the toilet. In a minute, Pavlik, Nastya’s son, comes out, pink toilet paper in one hand, a round wooden board with a hole in it in the other. Yep, every family brings their own toilet board with them. Hygiene matters! You know, the line between privacy and community are kind of blurred in a place like this. At that point, another lady goes through the corridor (littered with personal stuff, btw – I thought Russians were weird for putting their shoes in front of their doors at our holiday complexes, despite having all that space inside, but now I understood where that habit comes from; they’re just not used to having space). The lady is wearing pink bunny slippers. They’re fluffy. She looks Asian. I start a conversation. Turns out she’s Uzbeki. Never learned her name, though. Almost half of the 16 families on that floor are Uzbeki or Turkmen, I later learned. Guest workers who are treated like cattle in Russia, but still make double the money they’d make back home. Or triple. Most seem cautious about making new contacts, at least initially. After some ice-breaking, they open up and tell me curious things.

Unlike them, Nastya is quite talkative. She knows everything that’s going on in their section of the kommunalka (there are about 20 sections, each with its own entrance, separate lift – it’s another society, another planet; you rarely meet many people from outside your own entrance). Nastya invites me to their family’s room (I wouldn’t even call it home, or apartment; it’s just one room). I’m welcomed by their cat, who looks at me from his personal armchair with suspicion. The cat’s armchair, all in scars, is a separate sovereign territory, I’m told. I dare not dispute this.

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We sit around the tiny table. And then I ask the question that’s been on my mind all the time: why do you guys live in such a place, if there’s so little space and almost no comfort? Why not somewhere in the burbs, you could have a small house and yard there? It’s actually quite comfortable, and it’s very cheap, she responds. They pay a quarter of what folk would pay living in the center. Besides, it’s actually quite cosy. There are all those typically Russian carpets on the walls (and floor). Only problem is, the Uzbeks are increasing in numbers, and taking over, she says. The Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajiks and Kyrgyz have become a feature of the big Russian cities for quite a while. You won’t see a cashier at a supermarket who isn’t Asian any more. Or a taxi driver. Or street cleaner.

One word: “pilaf”. That’s what the Uzbeki woman with the fluffy bunny slippers drops at me while passing beside Nastya’s open door. Sounds like an invitation. Seems like there’s a hospitality competition going on here, so I can’t refuse. I’ll be treated to the traditional Uzbeki meal with rice, lamb and carrots. Top taste, I must say. But if you thought the inhabitants of the kommunalka dine together, you were wrong. The meals they cook together in the kitchen are soon distributed to their respective recipients. Yeah – they eat in their rooms, where they sleep and raise their kids. Some families even eat on the floor, as they don’t have enough chairs. The hospitable Uzbeki family are no exception. I bend my knees and sit the Eastern way on their amazing carpet (stained, unfortunately), and I enjoy the pilaf.

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Soon I’m back with Nastya. There’ll be vodka and gurkins, I’m promised. Can’t miss the vodka. But first there’ll be coffee. “We live all in peace, together”, Nastya tells me later while we’re having coffee back in her single-room home. It’s Kitchen Philosophy lecture time, apparently. “There are parliamentary elections in a week, you say? Hmm, let me think. When was the last time I voted on those?” Her son Pavlik reminds her it must have been the year 2000. “So who are we voting for this time? There’s no real opposition with a program of their own, no one to promise us a better life. Cherish what you have, they tell us. And we do”. Pavlik, who seems more philosophically inclined, remarks that in a huge country like Russia, the only way to keep so much folk in line is to rule with an iron fist, govern with an imperial style so to speak. “There’s no way Russia could ever have democracy. No way. We’d plunge into chaos. We tried that for a while, and it didn’t work”, he concludes. He means Yeltsin’s time, obviously. “It was total chaos. And we don’t want chaos. We fear chaos. We’ve seen what chaos looks like, and we don’t want that. We prefer stability, no matter the cost”.

I quit my intentions to question their relationship with totalitarianism. It’s pointless. Russians obviously do like their oppressors the way they are, and they even love them. Because they bring stability. Period.

“Today’s Russia reminds me of the 70s”, Nastya says. “I was young then, but I remember”. Her prediction sounds ominous: “Everything will collapse eventually, everyone knows that. And there’ll be a revolution, and then we’ll all live a new life. But I won’t be around to see that. It won’t be too soon. So I’m not making any long-term plans for the future. No one is”. Pavlik adds, “We live here and now, for this moment. But that doesn’t stop us from being happy in our own way. Of course our country has many flaws. Who doesn’t? But we love what we have, and we’re happy with it”.

Comrade Putin has enjoyed a 70%+ landslide victory because of people like Nastya and Pavlik. Of those there are many. His future, and that of his clique and whoever he happens to hand-pick for his successor, is ensured because of people like them. But for how long? Given the current economic insecurity, Russia’s mid- to long-term future seems rather uncertain at this point. Despite the strict hierarchy, the total government control on all institutions, the media, and the economy. And despite the deeply inbred proneness of the Russian people to put up with whatever form of oppression they’re presented with. Whatever happens, the kommunalky will still be there, standing tall above the cityscape. It’s where people will keep finding their safe, cheap haven – or Heaven. Despite the strict hierarchy. Or maybe exactly because of it. It brings stability, doesn’t it?