Monday, 7 May 2012

Moscow quells anti-Putin protests

Riot police in Moscow arrested dozens of protesters May 6 after clashes broke out during a demonstration against Russian President Vladimir Putin, witnesses said, Reuters reported. Two opposition leaders, Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, were also arrested. Police confined protesters to a square across the Moscow River from the Kremlin and beat some demonstrators with batons. Some protesters threw plastic bottles and a smoke bomb.

Police eventually arrested approximately 450 people for various crimes around Moscow on May 6, a Moscow Police spokesman said, Interfax reported. Crimes cited include resisting police and organizing provocations in the area around Bolotnaya Square. Some 40 people described by the spokesman as "nationalists" were arrested after attempting to start a fight with police near Teatralnaya metro station.

Protests are commonplace in much of the world. If change is needed and a large enough group of people believe in the cause, they will find a way to rally support, protesting and demonstrating to spread their discontent. 

If their voices grow too loud reaching a tipping point before state intelligence and police forces (sometimes even the military) can put down the unrest, then demonstrations can evolve into regime change. Many protests are peaceful propaganda, never leading to any fundamental upheaval. But every so often, if the timing’s right or the funding is accurate, a protest can evolve rapidly.

Russia is unfamiliar with the concept of the protest. For much of the last century the Russian state apparatus removed dissenting voices efficiently and quickly, keeping any anti-Kremlin voices gagged. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union over 20 years ago, the Russian public slowly came to accept demonstrations as a legitimate and safe method to display their discontent. 

Anti-Putin protests in the lead-up to the Russian presidential elections this year never quite got off the ground, despite the majority of the crowds being below 30 years of age and clearly passionate about their cause.

One of the things this site looks for is the potential movements of the state intelligence apparatus. Very often they are invisible, but through the lens of geopolitical theory it can be much easier to spot them. Intelligence agencies do not generally work under their own direction or for their own ends; instead they are instructed by the geopolitical imperatives of their country and its leaders. This results in patterns and predicted movements which can be uncovered. Over the past week, Moscow has opened the door into this world very slightly.

The protests in Moscow could well be the continuation of the anti-Putin rallies held before the election. But the timing and place need to be taken into account to gain understanding of their significance. 

On Thursday 5 May, diplomats from 50 countries, including every NATO member, gathered in Moscow for the international conference on Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD). This conference was meant to highlight the growing strain on US-Russia relations and the controversial missile interceptors. 

BMD has been a thorny issue for Washington and the Kremlin as it threatens to rearrange the strategic equilibrium on the Eurasian continent, changing the balance of nuclear deterrent and tipping the two countries back into an expensive arms race. Or so Russia would have the world believe. 

The United States has promised Romania and Poland that it will build early-warning radar (EW) sites to guide US interceptors such as the MIM-104 Patriot anti-ballistic missile (ABM). This missile system replaces the old MIM-14 Nike Hercules ABM which the US positioned throughout NATO countries in the latter part of the 20th century. Today the threat is purported to come from rogue countries like Iran, where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for missile strikes on neighbouring states.

Russia called the US bluff by offering to synchronise their native BMD network with the US-NATO systems so they would not have to position their own interceptors in Romania and Poland. The US declined this offer, preferring instead under President George W. Bush - and later Barack Obama - to continue talking with Warsaw and Bucharest. Russia has countered the growing US-led enclosure around its periphery by setting up EW sites in their exclave of Kaliningrad and threatening to reposition Iskander ballistic missiles in the region, effectively vindicating US and NATO fears of a new Russian missile threat.

What worries Russia is not the emplacement of American EW sites and BMD interceptors in Poland; rather it is the promised military package accompanying the systems. 

ABM positions require their own layers of defence. US fighter aircraft would have to be supplemented with refuelling and electronic warfare aircraft. These aircraft would need airfields with ground troops for protection, preferably on separate bases. On top of this, those troops would need armour and the ability to call in artillery support and so on. Russia is smart enough to realise the full implications of US BMD deployment.

Russia is pushing to regain influence over its old Warsaw Pact allies and realises that the window of opportunity to do so is closing. While the US are distracted in the Middle East and South Asia, Moscow has moved to overturn democratic “colour” revolutions in the Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and the Baltic states bringing them into line with Russian thinking. 

Russian freedom to act was displayed in full during the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, in which the US was unable to assist their Caucasus ally aside from rhetorical gestures. The US worries that as Russia regains influence over these states it will be able to pressure traditional US allies in Western Europe, especially as Russian oil and gas exports count for the bulk of German, Polish, and Central European energy consumption.

This is why the anti-Putin protests in Moscow are important. They don’t so much represent the cogent or strategic positioning of a strong-man against Russian President Vladimir Putin, because there really is no political party large enough at this time to challenge his domination of the Kremlin and its clans. 

Rather the protests are a clue to the movements of foreign intelligence agencies working against Russian interests. One of the tactics America reserves to respond to Russian resurgence is stirring discontent and democratic fervour in Former Soviet Bloc countries. An example of such tactics was found in the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine which capitalised on rumours of election fraud, ushering pro-western Viktor Yushchenko to leadership.

Western intelligence agencies were suspected to be behind those Colour Revolutions, and it makes sense if they are again involved in Moscow today. Building up support for the opposition parties in the Kremlin places stress on Putin’s presidency as the clan system he helped set up in his first march to power could be crumbling. 

Turning the Kremlin’s eyes away from their periphery to focus on their interior buys the US and NATO precious time as they race to conclude the fighting in Afghanistan. Only when they wind up the campaign in South Asia can they redeploy troops to block Russian expansionary efforts.

While Russia has improved its peripheral security during the last decade, the time for relatively risk-free movement is quickly coming to a close. US focus is returning to the region, creating strong defence ties with natural counter-weights to Russian influence like Poland and Romania. 

US intelligence agencies may not have anything to do with the anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow, but geopolitical logic offers reasons why they should be there.

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