Also, it’s Russia’s traditional season of disaster.
The hard-line coup attempt that brought the fall of Communism in 1991, the default and financial collapse in 1998, the start of the second Chechen war in 1999, the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000, Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, the hydro-electric dam bursting in 2009, devastating wildfires in 2010, catastrophic floods in 2011 — all happened in August.
Russians call it the “Curse of August” — though apophenia, the tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data, may really be what’s at play.
Cursed or not, August 2016 is certainly brimming with menace, brought on by a Kremlin purge, a rising drumbeat of accusations against Ukraine and an Olympic atmosphere in Moscow that’s a febrile mixture of wounded pride and belligerence.
As Russia gets hammered in the medal stakes by the U.S. and China, winning athletes are described by state television as having “manfully fended off accusations of doping by the Russophobic international sports establishment.” At the same time, the total ban on Russian athletes proposed by the World Anti-Doping Association — overturned at the last minute by the International Olympic Committee — is described as an American plot.
I was recently invited to appear as a guest on Channel One’s “Special Correspondent,” a news-related chat show, where I sat through two hours of increasingly wild theories linking the Olympic doping ban to a Western conspiracy to punish Russia for its “independent” stance in international affairs.
“Tell us, Owen, do you agree that the Olympic ban is payback for our having taken Crimea?” barked the quick-talking presenter Evgeny Popov. “Russia defied Washington’s hegemony and now its time for us to be punished?”
Then, on Friday, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB officer and long-time Putin ally, was removed from his post as head of the Presidential Administration and replaced by his deputy, Andrei Vaino, a minor apparatchik who made his way up in the Kremlin protocol service.
Ivanov’s sacking is part of a pattern. Russian President Vladimir Putin has consolidated his personal rule, purging long-time political allies in favor of young, faceless, but utterly loyal bureaucrats.
Earlier this year, Putin appointed two former bodyguards as the governors of the Tula and Kalinigrad regions, and he placed his former personal bodyguard, Viktor Zolotov, in charge of the powerful National Guard, a newly-formed law enforcement organ composed of 250,000 armed men and directly answerable to the Kremlin.
“Putin is purging old friends and replacing them with servants,” Kremlin-connected analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told fontanka.ru. “These people reminded [Putin] of a time before he was a boss, let alone President … Now he needs executors, not advisers.” In other words, Putin is removing anybody capable of standing up to him.
This latest purge followed days of amped-up rhetoric directed at Ukraine. Last week Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, claimed to have captured several Ukrainian special forces saboteurs carrying arms and explosives after a firefight near the Russian-occupied Crimean border village of Armyansk. Two more exchanges of fire along the de-facto border followed, according to the FSB, and Russia’s Kremlin-controlled media have been whipping up war mania by accusing Ukrainians of preparing to destabilize and possibly invade the occupied peninsula.
“Kiev is not searching for paths to negotiations, but is moving to terror,” Putin told reporters. “Two soldiers died in the course of preventing terrorist attacks in Crimea. We cannot let this pass.”
Video footage broadcast by Russian State TV on 12 August showed one of the prisoners, Ukrainian citizen Yevgeny Panov from Zaporizhia, making a full confession after more than a week in Russian custody.
“I was invited to Kiev to take part in a sabotage group,” Panov — whose face was bruised and cut — told an interrogator in footage released by the FSB. “All the members of this group were officers of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense’s Main Intelligence Directorate.”
He went on to name his alleged accomplices and confessed to touring Crimean towns to scope out potential targets for terror attacks.
Ukraine quickly denied taking part in any such plots. “FSB made another hoax,” tweeted Deputy Prime Minister Ivanna Klympush.
Nonetheless, pro-Kremlin bloggers and Russian media have lost no time in accusing Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of sponsoring terror and urging Russia to push back in self-defense.
“Kiev is not doing anything for peace, but is openly preparing for war,” blogged Alexei Chesnakov, a former Kremlin political adviser. “What’s the point of talking to Poroshenko? He’s always lying.”
Is this a prelude to another Russian military campaign? During the intense fighting in the summer of 2014 between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels in Donesk and Lugansk, there was talk of creating a land corridor between Crimea and Russia.
But so far at least, there’s one important indication that such a move is not on the Kremlin’s agenda: its attack dogs in the media haven’t yet been ordered to lay the information ground-work for such an offensive.
“So far we’re just pouring [criticism] on Poroshenko, who is a terrorist who has been caught red-handed,” says one senior Russian TV news executive who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There’s been no instruction to prepare any information platform for a defensive operation by our troops.”
Prior to all previous military adventures — from the invasion of Georgia in 2008 to the Crimean invasion of March 2014 — the Kremlin’s first move was to carpet-bomb Russian television viewers with propaganda highlighting the suffering of the peoples of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Crimea. This time around, there’s been no such telegraphing.
More likely, the Kremlin’s aims are smaller-bore. Whether a real, if incompetent, attempt at subversion by Kiev or an elaborate FSB invention, the alleged Ukrainian terror plot gives Putin a neat excuse to pull out of an upcoming meeting with the so-called Normandy group of Western nations.
The Normandy group — formed in 2015 in order to implement a peace agreement in Ukraine and comprising Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany — was scheduled to meet on September 4-5 at a G20 summit in China. Now, says Putin, it makes “no sense under current circumstances” to have the meeting. By scuppering Normandy, Putin has effectively ducked criticism over his violations of the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement singed by Russia last year that require the withdrawal of all Russian troops and armor from Ukraine and a return of control of the border to Kiev — none of which has been implemented.
Putin is also fighting hard to remove crippling economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and the EU in the wake of the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 by a surface-to-air missile supplied by Russia to Ukrainian rebels in July 2014.
Using his time-honored tactic of divide and conquer, Putin has been courting several European nations, including right-wing Hungarian President Viktor Orbán, with offers of cheap gas and nuclear power deals. With French conservatives and German industrialists arguing against continued sanctions, the European consensus is cracking. Making Poroshenko out to be a sponsor of terror is an important way to distract from ongoing fighting in the Donbass — and widen Europe’s divisions even further.
There’s another upside for Putin in creating a climate of fear in Crimea. In recent weeks there have been signs that Russia’s grip on its proxies in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea has been slipping.
Last month, Igor Plotnitsky, the head of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic, was injured after a roadside bomb went off as his car passed nearby. Plotnitsky blamed Ukrainian authorities and the U.S. for the assassination attempt. But it’s more likely that local rivals or a falling-out with his Russian handlers were behind it.
Crimea itself has also been experiencing regular power cuts because it is dependent on Ukraine for all of its power supply until a multimillion dollar bridge over the Kerch Strait links it to mainland Russia.
With parliamentary elections coming up in September, the Kremlin is keen to show that Russia’s newest citizens in Crimea are happy with the annexation — and whipping up fear of Kiev-sponsored terror is one way to bolster support for Putin.
Whatever is happening at the Kremlin, the Curse of August has brought about one thing at least: A sense of late-summer peril.
Author: Owen Matthews