U.S. Politics

What does Putin want?

REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

THE WEEK

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been playing an aggressive game of chess against the West. What’s he up to? Here’s everything you need to know:

How powerful is Putin?
In Russia, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, 64, rules like a czar, with near-total control of the country. A former KGB agent, he is a secretive, self-disciplined geopolitical strategist who, unlike most Russian men, doesn’t drink at all. He presides over a cult of personality that seems comical to outsiders — images of him shirtless on horseback, tracking down a Siberian tiger, or diving in the Black Sea to retrieve ancient artifacts are common in Russian media. But his macho nationalism resonates with the many Russians who longed for a strong leader after the chaos of the Soviet collapse. Putin’s regime is deeply entangled with the Russian oil industry and the country’s billionaire oligarchs; as a result, his personal fortune is immense, estimated at some $40 billion in palaces, planes, and stakes in oil companies and banks. His private life is mysterious: He divorced his wife, Lyudmila, after 31 years and rarely mentions his two daughters, and rumors have linked him romantically to an Olympic gymnast and a calendar model.

How did he come to power?
Through the work of the FSB, successor to the Soviet KGB. Putin was an unknown FSB operative when the agency strong-armed an ailing President Boris Yeltsin into picking him as prime minister in August 1999. Putin had spent five years as a spy in East Germany. Just a month after he took office, a series of apartment bombings shattered Moscow, killing about 300 people. The FSB blamed Chechen extremists, although there is strong evidence the spy agency planted the bombs itself; the carnage served as pretext for a second ruthless war to put down the restive Muslim province of Chechnya. Putin became the face of the battle, vowing in his characteristically crude language to eliminate all the terrorists, “wherever they hide, even on the crapper.” By the end of the year, Chechnya had been laid waste, thousands of Chechen civilians were dead, and Yeltsin had named the now popular Putin as his successor as president.

How has he governed?
Putin has sought to bolster Russia’s power against the encroachment of the West, picking fights with nearby Georgia and Ukraine and intervening in Syria as a show of strength. His proud nationalism has made him very popular among Russians, although the international sanctions brought on by his seizure of Crimea — combined with a sharp downturn in oil prices — have badly damaged Russia’s fragile economy. Russia’s gross domestic product tumbled from $2.2 trillion in 2013 to $1.3 trillion in 2015 — lower than that of Italy, Brazil, or Canada. Only 27 percent of Russians have any savings at all, and the average Russian now spends half his or her money on food. Few Russians, however, complain.

Why is that?
Step by step, Putin has stamped out the remaining glimmers of democracy and civil society that emerged in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. He did so under the guise of reform, by going after oligarchs who had enriched themselves through the privatization of former Soviet state assets — but ultimately he replaced them with oligarchs loyal only to him. Independent media has been all but snuffed out, and the most dogged critics and journalists have been killed. (See below.) Regional governors are now appointed, not elected, and the legislature is made up of parties loyal to Putin, with just a few dissidents to give the appearance of opposition. Putin calls this system “managed democracy,” and it is essentially a one-man show.

Why did he meddle in a U.S. election?
Several reasons. One of them, U.S. intelligence services say, was to exact revenge on Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state made strong statements condemning the apparent rigging of the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections. Putin blamed her for the demonstrations against him, saying she had given “a signal” to demonstrators working “with the support of the U.S. State Department” to undermine him. To his KGB-trained mind, the U.S. is behind all threats to his power and Russia’s interests. “We need to safeguard ourselves from this interference in our internal affairs,” Putin said. A crackdown on dissent followed, with arrests of protesters and new laws banning mass gatherings. Putin found the Russian demonstrations so unsettling because they closely followed the Arab Spring uprisings, and the toppling of dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. So he and the FSB decided to launch a counterattack on democracy itself.

What did it consist of?
A sophisticated cyberwar against Western governments and institutions, the use of internet trolls and fake news to sow confusion, and financial support for right-wing nationalist parties in Europe. U.S. intelligence services have concluded that the Russians hacked Democratic officials primarily to undermine faith in democracy and divide the country, as well as to hurt Clinton and help Donald Trump. “His aim is to discredit the U.S. election process,” said Russia analyst Arkady Ostrovsky in The Atlantic. If the West seemed “as hypocritical, as cynical as Russia is,” why would Russians or nearby countries such as Ukraine or Georgia want to emulate it? Putin hopes to build himself and Russia up, in other words, by dragging the U.S. and the West down.

Where critics end up dead
Those who cross or criticize Putin have an unfortunate tendency to get poisoned, shot, or beaten to death under mysterious circumstances. Anna Politkovskaya, who documented Putin’s brutal abuses of civilians in Chechnya, was brazenly gunned down in the streets of Moscow in 2006. Alexander Litvinenko, an FSB whistleblower who described how the agency staged the Moscow bombings to bring Putin to power, was poisoned with polonium in London; a British inquiry found that Putin likely personally ordered the hit. Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader working on an exposé of Russian military involvement in Ukraine, was assassinated in 2015, just steps from the Kremlin. All told, at least 34 journalists have been murdered in Russia since 2000, according to the international Committee to Protect Journalists. When MSNBC host Joe Scarborough asked Trump last year about Putin’s record of assassinating journalists, Trump replied, “At least he’s a leader,” adding, “I think that our country does plenty of killing, too.”

The Week Staff

U.S. Politics

10 things you need to know today: January 14, 2017

Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

THE WEEK

1. Trump may lift Russia sanctions ‘if we get along’
President-elect Donald Trump may lift U.S. sanctions against Russia if relations between the two countries improve during his time in office, he indicated in an interview published by The Wall Street JournalFriday. “If you get along and if Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions if somebody’s doing some really great things?” Trump asked, though he noted he will not make any major changes “at least for a period of time.” He also suggested possible diplomatic shakeup with China, announcing that “Everything is under negotiation including ‘One China,'” the long-time U.S. policy of formally accepting Beijing’s claim that Taiwan is not a separate nation. Still, the president-elect made a point to highlight the holiday greeting he received from Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying, “I have a beautiful card from the chairman.”

Source: The Wall Street Journal, Politico

2. House votes to begin dismantling ObamaCare
The House approved a budget measure Friday afternoon that paves the way for repealing ObamaCare. The measure was passed 227-198, just a day after the Senate voted 51-48 in favor of the same resolution. Nine House Republicans voted no; on the Senate side, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was the sole Republican to vote against the budget because of its addition of $9 trillion to the national debt. Republicans can now repeal ObamaCare using a procedural tool known as “budget reconciliation,” which allows repeal to pass with a simple 51-vote majority. Friday’sresolution gave Republicans a Jan. 27 deadline for drafting repeal legislation, though House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has said Republicans do not yet have a hard deadline in place.

Source: CNN, The Washington Examiner

3. DOJ: Chicago police’s ‘excessive force’ violates the Constitution
The Chicago Police Department has habitually used excessive force that violates the Constitution, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Friday. The findings followed what Lynch described as an “exhaustive” 13-month Department of Justice investigation launched amid uproar over the fatal shooting of a black teenager, Laquan McDonald, by a white police officer. The resulting 161-page report attributed the “unreasonable” use of sometimes “deadly force” to “systemic deficiencies” within the city and police department. Lynch said there is “considerable work to be done,” and Chicago authorities have signed an agreement pledging their commitment to reform.

Source: Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post

4. Trump applauds Cabinet nominees who ‘express their own thoughts, not mine’
President-elect Donald Trump reiterated his support for his Cabinet nominees Friday after several of his picks contradicted him on key policy issues during confirmation hearings this week. Trump tweeted that his nominees “are looking good and doing a great job,” and insisted he wants them “to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!” Secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson and defense secretary nominee James Mattis were more critical of Russia and its intentions than Trump has been. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s pick for CIA director, expressed his opposition to waterboarding, a form of torture Trump has suggested bringing back, and Homeland Security secretary nominee John Kelly expressed doubts that Trump’s proposed border wall would “do the job.”

Source: NPR, Donald Trump

5. Palestinian president says Trump’s plan to relocate U.S. embassy will hinder peace
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Saturday that President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a mistake which could hinder the Mideast peace process. “We are waiting to see if it happens,” Abbas said while visiting Vatican City to inaugurate the Palestinian embassy to the Holy See. “If it does it will not help peace and we hope it does not happen,” he continued. Palestinians oppose the move on grounds that it could undermine historic claims to the disputed city by Muslim and Christian residents, consolidating the power of the Israeli state and upsetting any movement toward a two-state solution.

Source: Reuters, The Associated Press

6. Democratic congressman says Trump isn’t ‘a legitimate president’
In an interview with Meet the Press published Friday, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said Russian efforts to interfere in the U.S. presidential election undermined President-elect Donald Trump’s position as “a legitimate president.” “I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected,” Lewis said, adding that while he believes “in forgiveness” and in “trying to work with people,” he is certain “there was a conspiracy on the part of the Russians and others” to put Trump in office. “That’s not right. That’s not fair,” Lewis said. “That’s not the open democratic process.”

Source: NBC News, The Week

7. Steve Harvey to join Ben Carson on inner city initiative
Actor and comedian Steve Harvey announced Friday he will team up with Ben Carson, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to work on an inner city initiative. Harvey hosts Family Feud and The Steve Harvey Morning Show. He also hosted the 2015 Miss Universe pageant, in which he famously announced the wrong winner. “It’s not my jump into politics, I ain’t going to pass a background check,” Harvey told the press after meeting with Trump in Manhattan on Friday. “It’s just me following orders from my friend, President Obama, who said, ‘Steve,’ as he told everyone, ‘get out from behind your computers, stop tweeting and texting. Get out there and sit down and talk.’ I stepped from behind my microphone and I came and talked to the guy who is going to be the 45th president.”

Source: Reuters, CBS News

8. Moody’s pays $864 million to settle allegations of its contribution to the 2008 financial crisis
Credit rating agency Moody’s agreed to pay about $864 million to settle allegations that its assessments of residential mortgages contributed to the 2008 financial crisis, the Department of Justice announced Friday. The deal also involves 21 states plus the District of Columbia; the federal government will take about half of the money and the rest will be split among the states. “Moody’s failed to adhere to its own credit-rating standards and fell short on its pledge of transparency in the run-up to the Great Recession,” said Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Bill Baer. “Today’s settlement contains not only a significant penalty and factual admissions of its conduct, but also a commitment by Moody’s to new and continued compliance measures designed to ensure the integrity of credit ratings going forward.”

Source: The Independent, Reuters

9. NFL prepares to kick off divisional playoff round
During the NFL’s wild-card weekend, all four home teams — the Houston Texans, Seattle Seahawks, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Green Bay Packers — emerged victorious. This weekend, they all go on the road against teams that had a bye last weekend. First up on Saturday at 4:35 p.m. ET, the Seahawks play the Atlanta Falcons, followed by the Texans visiting the top-seeded New England Patriots at 8:15 p.m. ET. On Sunday at 1:05 p.m. ET, the Steelers face the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Packers visit Dallas for a much-anticipated game against the Cowboys at 4:40 p.m. ET. The Patriots are a popular favorite to win yet another Super Bowl; FiveThirtyEight predicts New England has a 35 percent chance of winning it all.

Source: Bleacher Report, The Washington Post

10. Widespread ice storm coats Midwest this weekend
A major ice storm plus freezing rain will make for dangerous conditions across the Midwest this weekend, stretching as far as Texas and Washington, D.C. One motorist has already been killed by the storm, which is expected to lay down a glaze of ice up to an inch thick that will make travel difficult and topple power lines. Missouri and Oklahoma have declared states of emergency, and the National Guard is preparing to offer emergency assistance in several states.

Source: CNN, Reuters