The Russian Federation is the largest of the 21 republics that make up the Commonwealth of Independent States. It occupies most of eastern Europe and north Asia, stretching from the Baltic Sea in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east, and from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Black Sea and the Caucasus in the south. It is bordered by Norway and Finland in the northwest; Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania in the west; Georgia and Azerbaijan in the southwest; and Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, and North Korea along the southern border.
Tradition says the Viking Rurik came to Russia in 862 and founded the first Russian dynasty in Novgorod. The various tribes were united by the spread of Christianity in the 10th and 11th centuries; Vladimir “the Saint” was converted in 988. During the 11th century, the grand dukes of Kiev held such centralizing power as existed. In 1240, Kiev was destroyed by the Mongols, and the Russian territory was split into numerous smaller dukedoms. Early dukes of Moscow extended their dominion over other Russian cities through their office of tribute collector for the Mongols and because of Moscow’s role as an administrative and trade center.
In the late 15th century, Duke Ivan III acquired Novgorod and Tver and threw off the Mongol yoke. Ivan IV—the Terrible (1533–1584), first Muscovite czar—is considered to have founded the Russian state. He crushed the power of rival princes and boyars (great landowners), but Russia remained largely medieval until the reign of Peter the Great (1689–1725), grandson of the first Romanov czar, Michael (1613–1645). Peter made extensive reforms aimed at westernization and, through his defeat of Charles XII of Sweden at the Battle of Poltava in 1709, he extended Russia’s boundaries to the west. Catherine the Great (1762–1796) continued Peter’s westernization program and also expanded Russian territory, acquiring the Crimea, Ukraine, and part of Poland. During the reign of Alexander I (1801–1825), Napoléon’s attempt to subdue Russia was defeated (1812–1813), and new territory was gained, including Finland (1809) and Bessarabia (1812). Alexander originated the Holy Alliance, which for a time crushed Europe’s rising liberal movement.
Alexander II (1855–1881) pushed Russia’s borders to the Pacific and into central Asia. Serfdom was abolished in 1861, but heavy restrictions were imposed on the emancipated class. Revolutionary strikes, following Russia’s defeat in the war with Japan, forced Nicholas II (1894–1917) to grant a representative national body (Duma), elected by narrowly limited suffrage. It met for the first time in 1906 but had little influence on Nicholas.
The Bolshevik Revolution
World War I demonstrated czarist corruption and inefficiency, and only patriotism held the poorly equipped army together for a time. Disorders broke out in Petrograd (renamed Leningrad and now St. Petersburg) in March 1917, and defection of the Petrograd garrison launched the revolution. Nicholas II was forced to abdicate on March 15, 1917, and he and his family were killed by revolutionaries on July 16, 1918. A provisional government under the successive prime ministerships of Prince Lvov and a moderate, Alexander Kerensky, lost ground to the radical, or Bolshevik, wing of the Socialist Democratic Labor Party. On Nov. 7, 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution, engineered by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, overthrew the Kerensky government, and authority was vested in a Council of People’s Commissars, with Lenin as prime minister.
The humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 3, 1918) concluded the war with Germany, but civil war and foreign intervention delayed Communist control of all Russia until 1920. A brief war with Poland in 1920 resulted in Russian defeat.
Emergence of the USSR
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was established as a federation on Dec. 30, 1922. The death of Lenin on Jan. 21, 1924, precipitated an intraparty struggle between Joseph Stalin, general secretary of the party, and Trotsky, who favored swifter socialization at home and fomentation of revolution abroad. Trotsky was dismissed as commissar of war in 1925 and banished from the Soviet Union in 1929. He was murdered in Mexico City on Aug. 21, 1940, by a political agent. Stalin further consolidated his power by a series of purges in the late 1930s, liquidating prominent party leaders and military officers. Stalin assumed the prime ministership on May 6, 1941.
The term Stalinism has become defined as an inhumane, draconian socialism. Stalin sent millions of Soviets who did not conform to the Stalinist ideal to forced-labor camps, and he persecuted his country’s vast number of ethnic groups—reserving particular vitriol for Jews and Ukrainians. Soviet historian Roy Medvedev estimated that about 20 million died from starvation, executions, forced collectivization, and life in the labor camps under Stalin’s rule.
Soviet foreign policy, at first friendly toward Germany and antagonistic toward Britain and France and then, after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, becoming anti-Fascist and pro–League of Nations, took an abrupt turn on Aug. 24, 1939, with the signing of a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. The next month, Moscow joined in the German attack on Poland, seizing territory later incorporated into the Ukrainian and Belorussian SSRs. The Russo-Finnish War (1939–1940) added territory to the Karelian SSR set up on March 31, 1940; the annexation of Bessarabia and Bukovina from Romania became part of the new Moldavian SSR on Aug. 2, 1940; and the annexation of the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in June 1940 created the 14th, 15th, and 16th Soviet republics. The Soviet-German collaboration ended abruptly with a lightning attack by Hitler on June 22, 1941, which seized 500,000 sq mi of Russian territory before Soviet defenses, aided by U.S. and British arms, could halt it. The Soviet resurgence at Stalingrad from Nov. 1942 to Feb. 1943 marked the turning point in a long battle, ending in the final offensive of Jan. 1945. Then, after denouncing a 1941 nonaggression pact with Japan in April 1945, when Allied forces were nearing victory in the Pacific, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan on Aug. 8, 1945, and quickly occupied Manchuria, Karafuto, and the Kuril Islands.
The Berlin Blockade and the Cold War
After the war, the Soviet Union, United States, Great Britain, and France divided Berlin and Germany into four zones of occupation, which led to immediate antagonism between the Soviet and Western powers, culminating in the Berlin blockade in 1948. The USSR’s tightening control over a cordon of Communist states, running from Poland in the north to Albania in the south, was dubbed the “iron curtain” by Churchill and would later lead to the Warsaw Pact. It marked the beginning of the cold war, the simmering hostility that pitted the world’s two superpowers, the U.S. and the USSR—and their competing political ideologies—against each other for the next 45 years. Stalin died on March 6, 1953.
The new power emerging in the Kremlin was Nikita S. Khrushchev (1958–1964), first secretary of the party. Khrushchev formalized the eastern European system into a Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) and a Warsaw Pact Treaty Organization as a counterweight to NATO. The Soviet Union exploded a hydrogen bomb in 1953, developed an intercontinental ballistic missile by 1957, sent the first satellite into space (Sputnik I) in 1957, and put Yuri Gagarin in the first orbital flight around Earth in 1961. Khrushchev’s downfall stemmed from his decision to place Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba and then, when challenged by the U.S., backing down and removing the weapons. He was also blamed for the ideological break with China after 1963. Khrushchev was forced into retirement on Oct. 15, 1964, and was replaced by Leonid I. Brezhnev as first secretary of the party and Aleksei N. Kosygin as premier.
U.S. president Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev signed the SALT II treaty in Vienna on June 18, 1979, setting ceilings on each nation’s arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty because of the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops on Dec. 27, 1979. On Nov. 10, 1982, Leonid Brezhnev died. Yuri V. Andropov, who had formerly headed the KGB, became his successor but died less than two years later, in Feb. 1984. Konstantin U. Chernenko, a 72-year-old party stalwart who had been close to Brezhnev, succeeded him. After 13 months in office, Chernenko died on March 10, 1985. Chosen to succeed him as Soviet leader was Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who led the Soviet Union in its long-awaited shift to a new generation of leadership. Unlike his immediate predecessors, Gorbachev did not also assume the title of president but wielded power from the post of party general secretary.
Gorbachev introduced sweeping political and economic reforms, bringing glasnost and perestroika, “openness” and “restructuring,” to the Soviet system. He established much warmer relations with the West, ended the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and announced that the Warsaw Pact countries were free to pursue their own political agendas. Gorbachev’s revolutionary steps ushered in the end of the cold war, and in 1990 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to ending the 45-year conflict between East and West.
The Soviet Union took much criticism in early 1986 over the April 24 meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear plant and its reluctance to give out any information on the accident.
Dissolution of the USSR
Gorbachev’s promised reforms began to falter, and he soon had a formidable political opponent agitating for even more radical restructuring. Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian SSR, began challenging the authority of the federal government and resigned from the Communist Party along with other dissenters in 1990. On Aug. 29, 1991, an attempted coup d’état against Gorbachev was orchestrated by a group of hard-liners. Yeltsin’s defiant actions during the coup—he barricaded himself in the Russian parliament and called for national strikes—resulted in Gorbachev’s reinstatement. But from then on, power had effectively shifted from Gorbachev to Yeltsin and away from centralized power to greater power for the individual Soviet republics. In his last months as the head of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev dissolved the Communist Party and proposed the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which, when implemented, gave most of the Soviet Socialist Republics their independence, binding them together in a loose, primarily economic federation. Russia and ten other former Soviet republics joined the CIS on Dec. 21, 1991. Gorbachev resigned on Dec. 25, and Yeltsin, who had been the driving force behind the Soviet dissolution, became president of the newly established Russian Republic.
At the start of 1992, Russia embarked on a series of dramatic economic reforms, including the freeing of prices on most goods, which led to an immediate downturn. A national referendum on confidence in Yeltsin and his economic program took place in April 1993. To the surprise of many, the president and his shock-therapy program won by a resounding margin. In September, Yeltsin dissolved the legislative bodies left over from the Soviet era.
The president of the southern republic of Chechnya accelerated his region’s drive for independence in 1994. In December, Russian troops closed the borders and sought to squelch the independence drive. The Russian military forces met firm and costly resistance. In May 1997, the two-year war formally ended with the signing of a peace treaty that adroitly avoided the issue of Chechen independence.
Financial Crisis and Political Upheaval
In March 1998 Yeltsin dismissed his entire government and replaced Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin with fuel and energy minister Sergei Kiriyenko. On Aug. 28, 1998, amid the Russian stock market’s free fall, the Russian government halted trading of the ruble on international currency markets. This financial crisis led to a long-term economic downturn and political upheaval. Yeltsin then sacked Kiriyenko and reappointed Chernomyrdin. The Duma rejected Chernomyrdin and on Sept. 11 elected foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov as prime minister. The repercussions of Russia’s financial emergency were felt throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Impatient with Yeltsin’s increasingly erratic behavior, the Duma attempted to impeach him in May 1999. But the impeachment motion was quickly quashed and soon Yeltsin was on the ascendancy again. In keeping with his capricious style, Yeltsin dismissed Primakov and substituted Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin. Just three months later, however, Yeltsin ousted Stepashin and replaced him with Vladimir Putin on Aug. 9, 1999, announcing that in addition to serving as prime minister, the former KGB agent was his choice as a successor in the 2000 presidential election.
In 1999, the former Russian satellites of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO, raising Russia’s hackles. The desire of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, all of which were once part of the Soviet Union, to join the organization in the future further antagonized Russia.
Just three years after the bloody 1994–1996 Chechen-Russian war ended in devastation and stalemate, the fighting started again in 1999, with Russia launching air strikes and following up with ground troops. By the end of November, Russian troops had surrounded Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, and about 215,000 Chechen refugees had fled to neighboring Ingushetia. Russia maintained that a political solution was impossible until Islamic militants in Chechnya had been vanquished.
Putin’s Rise to Power
In a decision that took Russia and the world by surprise, Boris Yeltsin resigned on Dec. 31, 1999, and Vladimir Putin became the acting president.
In Feb. 2000, after almost five months of fighting, Russian troops captured Grozny. It was a political as well as a military victory for Putin, whose hard-line stance against Chechnya greatly contributed to his political popularity.
On March 26, 2000, Putin won the presidential election with about 53% of the vote. Putin moved to centralize power in Moscow and attempted to limit the power and influence of both the regional governors and wealthy business leaders. Although Russia remained economically stagnant, Putin brought his nation a measure of political stability it never had under the mercurial and erratic Yeltsin.
In Aug. 2000 the Russian government was severely criticized for its handling of the Kursk disaster, a nuclear submarine accident that left 118 sailors dead.
Russia was initially alarmed in 2001 when the U.S. announced its rejection of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, which for 30 years had been viewed as a crucial force in keeping the nuclear arms race under control. But Putin was eventually placated by President George W. Bush’s reassurances, and in May 2002, the U.S. and Russian leaders announced a landmark pact to cut both countries’ nuclear arsenals by up to two-thirds over the next ten years.
On Oct. 23, 2002, Chechen rebels seized a crowded Moscow theater and detained 763 people, including 3 Americans. Armed and wired with explosives, the rebels demanded that the Russian government end the war in Chechnya. Government forces stormed the theater the next day, after releasing a gas into the theater that killed not only all the rebels but more than 100 hostages.
Attempts at Chechen Independence Fail
In March 2003, Chechens voted in a referendum that approved a new regional constitution making Chechnya a separatist republic within Russia. Agreeing to the constitution meant abandoning claims for complete independence, and the new powers accorded the republic were little more than cosmetic. During 2003, there were 11 bomb attacks against Russia that were believed to have been orchestrated by Chechen rebels.
In April 2003 reformist politician Sergei Yushenkov became the third outspoken critic of the Kremlin to be assassinated in five years. Just hours before he was gunned down, Yushenkov had officially registered his new political party, Liberal Russia. In Nov. 2003, billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, president of the Yukos oil company, was arrested on charges of fraud and tax evasion. Khodorkovsky supported liberal opposition parties, which led many to suspect that President Putin may have engineered his arrest. On May 31, 2005, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Putin was reelected president in March 2004, with 70% of the vote. International election observers considered the process less than democratic.
A Shocking Hostage Situation, a Move Towards Climate Change, and Radiation Poison
On Sept. 1–3, dozens of heavily armed guerrillas seized a school in Beslan, near Chechnya, and held about 1,100 young schoolchildren, teachers, and parents hostage. Hundreds of hostages were killed, including about 156 children. Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility. In the aftermath of the horrific attack, Putin announced that he would radically restructure the government to fight terrorism more effectively. The world community expressed deep concern that Putin’s plans would consolidate his power and roll back democracy in Russia.
In Sept. 2004, Russia endorsed the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. It was the final endorsement needed to put the protocol into effect worldwide.
Former Chechen president and rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov was killed by Russian special forces on March 8, 2005. Putin hailed it as a victory in his fight against terrorism. An even greater victory occurred in July 2006, when Russia announced the killing of Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, responsible for the horrific Beslan terrorist attack. In Feb. 2007, Putin dismissed the president of Chechnya, Alu Alkhanov, and appointed Ramzan Kadyrov, a security official and the son of former Chechen president Akhmad, who was killed by rebels in 2004. Ramzan Kadyrov and forces loyal to him have been linked to human-rights abuses in the troubled region.
Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who has been critical of the Kremlin, died from poisoning by a radioactive substance in November 2006. On his deathbed in a London hospital, he accused Putin of masterminding his murder. In July 2007, Moscow refused the British government’s request to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, another former KGB agent who British authorities have accused in Litvinenko’s murder.
Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin died in April 2007.
Crumbling Relations with the United States
The International Olympic Committee announced in July 2007 that Sochi, Russia, a Black Sea resort, will host the Winter Games in 2014. It will be the first time Russia or the former Soviet Union hosts the Winter Games.
In July 2007, President Putin announced that Russia will suspend the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, which limits conventional weapons in Europe. Several U.S. officials speculated that Putin was acting in response to U.S. plans to build a missile shield in Europe―a move stongly opposed by Russia. The move provided further evidence of deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia.
In September, Putin nominated Viktor Zubkov, a close ally, as prime minister. The Duma, the lower house of Parliament, confirmed the nomination.
Putin Retains Power
Putin announced in October that he would head the list of candidates on the United Russia ticket, the country’s leading political party. Such a move would pave the way for Putin to become prime minister, and thus allow him to retain power. In December parliamentary elections, United Russia won in a landslide, taking 64.1% of the vote, far ahead of the Communist Party of Russia, which took 11.6%. Opposition parties complained that the election was rigged, and European monitors said the vote wasn’t fair. Putin used his sway over the media to stifle the opposition and campaign for United Russia, making the election a referendum on his popularity. Opposition leader and former chess champion Garry Kasparov said the election was “the most unfair and dirtiest in the whole history of modern Russia.”
In December, Putin endorsed Dmitri Medvedev in the presidential election scheduled for March 2008. A Putin loyalist who is said to be moderate and pro-Western, Medvedev is a first deputy prime minister and the chairman of Gazprom, the country’s oil monopoly. He has never worked in intelligence or security agencies, unlike Putin and many members of his administration. Medvedev said that if elected, he would appoint Putin as prime minister.
Medvedev won the March 2008 presidential election with 67% of the vote. Putin said he would serve as Medvedev’s prime minister and indicated that he will increase the responsibilities of the position. Although Medvedev vowed to restore stability to Russia after the 1990s turmoil, significant change in the government is not expected.
On April 15, 2008, Putin was chosen as chairman of the United Russia party and agreed to become prime minister when Dmitri Medvedev assumes the presidency in May.
On May 6, 2008, Dmitry Medvedev was sworn in as president, and Putin became prime minister days later. Although Medvedev assumed the presidency, Putin clearly remained in control of the government and signaled that the premiership would gain broad authority. In assembling a cabinet, Putin called on several members of his former administration.
Conflict with Georgia and the Demise of the Western Friendship
In August 2008, fighting broke out between Georgia and its two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia sent hundreds of troops to support the enclaves, and also launched airstrikes and occupied the Georgian city of Gori. Observers speculated that Russia’s aggressive tactics marked an attempt to gain control of Georgia’s oil and gas export routes.
At the end of August, after a cease-fire agreement between Russia and Georgia was signed, Medvedev severed diplomatic ties with Georgia, officially recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent regions, and pledged military assistance from Russia. The move heightened tensions between Russia and the West.
Both Russia and Georgia have painted each other as the aggressor responsible for the war—Georgia said it launched an attack in South Ossetia because a Russian invasion was under way, and Russia claimed it sent troops to the breakaway region to protect civilians from Georgia’s offensive attack. In November 2008, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, a former Georgian diplomat to Moscow, testified that the Georgian government was responsible for starting the conflict with Russia. Kitsmarishvili stated that Georgian officials told him in April that they planned to start a war in the breakaway regions and were supported by the U.S. government.
A dispute over debts and pricing of gas supplies between Russia and Ukraine led Gazprom, the major Russian gas supplier, to halt its gas exports to Europe via Ukraine for two weeks in January 2009, affecting at least ten EU countries. About 80% of Russian gas exports to Europe are pumped through Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine blamed each other for the disruption to Europe’s energy supply.
String of Suicide Bombs Sparks Fear of a Crackdown by Putin
On March 24, 2010, the United States and Russia reported a breakthrough in arms-control negotiations. Both countries agreed to lower the limit on deployed strategic warheads and launchers by 25% and 50%, respectively, and also to implement a new inspection regime. President Obama and President Medvedev signed the treaty that outlines this agreement on April 8 in Prague. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, called New Start, in December.
Two female suicide bombers, acting just minutes apart, detonated bombs in two Moscow subways stations, killing at least 39 people in March 2010. It was the first terrorist attack in the capital city since 2004, when Moscow experienced a string of deadly violence. Doku Umarov, a former Chechen separatist and the self-proclaimed emir of the north Caucasus, claimed responsibility for masterminding the attack. Two days later, two explosions killed 12 people in the north Caucasus region of Dagestan. The attacks prompted concern that Prime Minister Putin would crack down on civil liberties and democracy as he did in 2004, following the siege of a school in Beslan.
In June 2010, the FBI announced it had infiltrated a Russian spy ring that had agents operating undercover in several cities in the United States. Ten people were arrested and charged with espionage. By most accounts, their attempts to collect policy information were largely ineffective and clumsy, and any material they managed to gather was readily available on the Internet. Days later, the U.S. and Russia completed a prisoner exchange, with 12 suspected spies deported to Russia and four men accused of spying on the West were sent to the United States.
Putin to Return to the Presidency
Putin announced in September 2011 that he would run for president as the candidate of the United Russia party in March 2012 elections. In a deal that was reportedly struck two years ago, Putin and President Medvedev will swap positions, with Medvedev assuming the role as head of the party and thus becoming prime minister. Putin is all but assured to sweep the election and serve another six years as president. The announcement confirmed the widely held assumption that Putin runs the country.
Also in September 2011, Putin announced his plans for the Eurasian Union. This new union would include countries that were formerly part Soviet Union.
In November 2011, Georgia and Russia agreed to a Swiss-mediated proposal that allowed for the monitoring of trade flow between the two countries. The agreement would allow Russia to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) by December. Membership to the WTO is based on a consensus; therefore, Russia needed to gain the consent of Georgia. Hostilities between the two countries, including a war in 2008, have kept the two countries from an agreement before now. In return for its consent, Georgia asked for direct trading on its border with Russia.
2011 Parliamentary Elections Spark Massive Protests
The December 4, 2011 parliamentary elections sparked protests, mainly from middle-class Russians. International and local monitors condemned the election as fraudulent. United Russia, the party led by Putin, came out on top in the elections, receiving nearly 50 percent of the vote, but they lost 77 seats. Monitors said that United Russia would have lost more seats were it not for ballot-box stuffing and voting irregularities. For example, videos, some taken with cellphones, surfaced on the internet showing local authorities threatening subordinates at polling stations.
The height of the protests came on December 10, when over 40,000 Russians rallied near the Kremlin. It was the largest anti-Kremlin protest since the early 1990s and approved by city authorities, although riot police were on hand. The activists called for Putin’s resignation and denounced the election results. Three minority parties in Parliament also complained about the election’s outcome, but they were all at odds over what to do about it. President Medvedev called for an inquiry into the election fraud. Meanwhile Putin accused the United States, singling out Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for instigating the demonstrations when she criticized conduct during the parliamentary elections.
On December 12, billionaire industrialist Mikhail D. Porkhorov announced that he planned to run for president against Putin in 2012. Porkhorov owns many businesses in Russia as well as the New Jersey Nets, the NBA franchise, in the United States. In his announcement, Porkhorov said, “I made a decision, probably the most serious decision in my life: I am going to the presidential election.” Many observers questioned if Porkhorov was truly challenging Putin or if he had Putin’s approval to run to create an air of legitimacy to the race.
On December 24, around 80,000 people in Moscow protested against the recent parliamentary election. It was the biggest demonstration yet and the first with two high-level figures in attendance. Aleksei L. Kudrin, a former Finance Minister and member of Putin’s inner circle, gave a speech in which he expressed his support for the protestors’ demands. Mikhail D. Porkhorov, who still plans to run for president against Putin, was also in the crowd. Three days later, Prime Minister Putin ruled out a redo of the election, which has been the protestors’ chief demand.
In January 2012, the opposition movement prepared for more protests and formed an alliance with Russian nationalists. Even though Russian liberals had been wary of nationalism as a threat to stability and freedom for over twenty years, they felt like an alliance was needed to drive out Putin. How much the nationalists would help the protestors remains unclear. The next large demonstrations were planned for Feb. 4 and March 11, 2012.
Russia Blocks U.N. Action in Syria
In February 2012, Russia made international headlines by blocking an effort by the United Nations Security Council to end the violence in Syria. Russia, along with China, vetoed the resolution just hours after the Syrian military launched an assault on the city of Homs. The Security Council voted 13 to 2 for a resolution backing an Arab League peace plan for Syria. Russia and China voted against the resolution, seeing it as a violation of Syria’s sovereignty. Russia also continued to provide weapons to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as diplomatic support. Syria’s 11-month uprising has caused more than 5,000 casualties.
Also in February 2012, President Medvedev awarded Syrian writer and poet Ali Ukla Ursan a Pushkin Medal. Ursan was one of 11 foreigners honored for their close ties with Russia. Ursan, an adviser to the Syrian Writers Union, has publicly expressed anti-Semitic opinions and praised the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
On July 19, 2012, Russia and China vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on the Syrian government. The proposed U.N. sanctions were intended to push Syria into putting a peace plan into action and ending its 17-month-old conflict. The resolution was proposed by Britain and backed by ten other council members, including France and the United States. Russian ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin explained the Russian veto to the council, “We simply cannot accept a document which would open the path for pressure of sanctions and further to external military involvement in Syrian domestic affairs.”
Assassination Plot Uncovered Before Putin Wins the Presidential Election
In late Feb. 2012, Russian and Ukrainian intelligence worked together to stop an assassination attempt against Vladimir Putin. Two men were arrested in Odessa, the third largest city in Ukraine, after an apartment explosion. A third would-be assassin was killed in the explosion. Officials announced that the three men were sent by a Chechen terrorist leader, Doku Umarov. The report about the plot was released on Russian television on Feb. 26, one week before the presidential election. Putin was expected to win the election, despite his fading popularity and the recent protests. Also on February 26, thousands of protesters demonstrated in downtown Moscow. The activists held hands and wore white ribbons to express their frustration with Putin.
On March 2, 2012, two days before the presidential election, Putin hinted in an interview that he might run again in 2018. That would lengthen his total time as Russia’s leader to 24 years. “It would be normal, if things are going well, and people want it,” Putin said.
On March 4, 2012, Vladimir Putin won the presidential election, claiming 64% of the vote. The following day, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe challenged the election, saying Putin won because he had no competition and government spending at his disposal. The United States and the European Union called for an investigation into fraud allegations. Meanwhile, thousands of demonstrators in Moscow took to the streets, chanting, “Russia without Putin.” A similar demonstration happened in St. Petersburg. When protestors refused to leave, police arrested them. In Moscow, 250 people were arrested. In St. Petersburg, 300 demonstrators were detained.
Inspired by the protests against Putin, about 200 young Muscovites ran as independent candidates in municipal March 2012 elections. More than 70 of them won spots on district councils. Even with Putin’s supporters occupying many of the other council seats, the elections were a sign that the protests had made an impact in the political system and, perhaps, would continue to do so.
Protests Become Violent Ahead of Putin’s Third Inauguration
In May of 2012 as Putin prepared to take office for a third time as president, demonstrations turned violent. The day before the inauguration, 20,000 antigovernment demonstrators fought with police near the Kremlin. The fighting included smoke bombs, bottles, and sticks. The following day, while Putin officially took office, the protests continued and police arrested 120 people. Even though antigovernment protests have been going on for months, the demonstrations had been peaceful until now. The violence was a dramatic shift. Dressed in riot gear, police searched cafes and restaurants for protesters. The demonstrators taken into police custody were sent to military draft offices.
Right after Putin was sworn in as president, he nominated Medvedev as Russia’s prime minister. Medvedev said that Russia needed “continuity in the government’s policies.”
On June 8, 2012, Putin signed a law imposing a huge fine on organizers of protests as well as people who take part in them. The law gives Russian authorities the power to crackdown on the anti-government protests which started months ago when Putin announced his decision to run again for President. Four days later, 10,000 protesters took to the Moscow streets in response to the new law. The fine for those marching in protests was set at $9,000, a steep penalty considering the average yearly salary in Russia is $8,500. For organizers of demonstrations, the fine was set at $18,000.
Massive Flood Kills More Than 100 People
In early July 2012, a major rainstorm created massive flooding and killed at least 104 people. One of the worst weather-related disasters to hit Russia in years, the storm unleashed 11 inches of rain along Russia’s Black Sea coast. State television reported that it was one of the country’s worst weather-related disasters in years. The rainfall was the equivalent to three months in a normal year. Survivors were forced to climb trees or retreat to rooftops.
On NTV television, a woman at an evacuation shelter asked, “Why weren’t we warned?” Ilya V. Ponomaryov, an opposition Parliament member asked for a debate over why the death toll was so high. The Russian government had been developing the area along the Black Sea south of where the flood hit for the 2014 Winter Olympics. It remained unclear whether those development projects contributed to the flood’s path. The area had been known for floods in the past, but far less severe.
The Kremlin Takes Action against Political Activists
During the summer of 2012, the government began cracking down against political activists in new ways. Two new laws were signed by Putin. One law gave the government the power to shut down websites that have content which could be harmful to children. The other law increased penalties for libel. In July 2012, the Investigative Committee began criminal cases against Aleksei Navalny, an anticorruption blogger, and Gennady Gudkov, a lawmaker. Navalny, a leader of the anti-Putin protest movement which began in Dec. 2011, was found guilty of embezzlement and faced five to 10 years in prison.
Also in July 2012, three members of a Russian punk band called Pussy Riot were arrested and put on trial for hooliganism after they performed an anti-Putin song on the altar of Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral. During one of the most high-profile trials that Russia’s had in years, the band members said their demonstration was political, not an attack on Orthodox Christians. The three female band members could face seven years in prison if convicted. In early Aug. 2012, during a sold-out concert in Moscow, Madonna voiced her support for the three women. “I know there are many sides to every story, and I mean no disrespect to the church or the government. But I think that these three girls — Masha, Katya, Nadya — I think they have done something courageous. I think they have paid the price for this act. And I pray for their freedom.”
On Aug. 17, 2012, Masha, Katya, and Nadya, the three members of Pussy Riot, were convicted of hooliganism and sentenced to two years in a penal colony. At the sentencing, activists outside of the courthouse began to protest, chanting “Free Pussy Riot!” Police arrested dozens of protestors. Rallies supporting the three women were held in cities around the world, including London, New York and Paris. Immediately following the verdict, the United States, other governments, and human rights groups criticized the decision, calling the sentence severe. The women’s lawyers said they would appeal the decision.
Russia enters the World Trade Organization
After 19 years of negotiations, Russia became the newest member of the World Trade Organization on Aug. 22, 2012. Russia has cut tariffs on imports and set limits on export duties as part of a series of reforms enacted to qualify for entry into the international trading arena. Expectations of membership include an increase of 3% in the Russian GDP, more foreign investment, and a doubling of U.S. exports to Russia—as long as trade relations are normalized through the lifting of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment.
One Punk Band Member Released as Case Continues to Draw International Attention
On October 10, 2012, a court in Moscow freed one of the three members of Pussy Riot, the punk band convicted of hooliganism for protesting in a cathedral last February. Yekaterina Samutsevich was released after judges accepted her new lawyer’s argument that she played less of a role in the cathedral protest performance that landed her in jail with her band mates. The latest ruling maintained the guilty verdict against all three women on charges of hooliganism, but the judges ordered Samutsevich’s release on the grounds that she had less of a role in the incident. The case continued to draw international attention and condemnation of Russia for suppression of political speech and beliefs.
Russia Won’t Renew Weapons Pact with United States
On October 10, 2012, the Russian government announced it would not renew the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program with the United States when the agreement expires in the spring of 2013. The agreement was part of a successful 20-year partnership between Russia and the United States. An agreement which eliminated nuclear and chemical weapons from the former Soviet Union and protected against the threat of nuclear war. For example, as part of the agreement, 7,600 nuclear warheads were deactivated and all nuclear weapons were removed from former Soviet territories such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.
Russian officials explained that their country’s economy had improved since the agreement. In a statement, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said that it had increased its budget allocation “in the field of disarmament.” The statement went on to say, “American partners know that their proposal is not consistent with our ideas about what forms and on what basis further cooperation should be built.” The statement left open the possibility of a new agreement with the United States, but no specific conditions of a new agreement were given.
Opposition Leader Says He Was Forced to Confess
On October 19, 2012, Leonid Razvozzhayev, a Russian opposition leader, disappeared from Kiev, Ukraine. According to an interview with The New Times magazine, published on October 24, he was held for three days by men threatening to kill his children if he did not sign a confession. Razvozzhayev was in Kiev seeking advice on political asylum from the United Nations office there. He was held in a house and not allowed to eat or drink for three days. Once he signed the confession, his kidnappers turned him over to authorities in Moscow.
Russian authorities have charged Razvozzhayev and other opposition figures with plotting riots and seeking aid from Georgia in order to overthrow Putin’s government. Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for Russian federal investigators, said that Razvozzhayev turned himself in to the authorities in Moscow and, at the time, he did not speak of any “torture, abduction or any other unlawful actions.” Markin said investigators would look into the claim of a forced signed confession.