Neil Buckley

The dangerous stand-off between separatists and pro-government forces in Ukraine’s two easternmost regions continues, threatening to tip into a Yugoslav-style war. Yet for the first time in more than two months, there are tentative signs that Russian pressure on Ukraine may be easing.

Russian president Vladimir Putin on Monday said he was ordering Russian troops camped near Ukraine’s border to return to their permanent bases, even if there was little immediate sign of movement. Moscow “respected”, but did not explicitly recognise, self-rule referendums in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk held last week. Read more

Neil Buckley

Barely 18 hours after Vladimir Putin called on pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine to postpone “independence” referendums planned for May 11, they snubbed the Russian president. There seem only two possible explanations. Either Mr Putin’s statement was cynical theatre designed to distance him from whatever the separatists may do next, and to ward off escalating western sanctions. Or Moscow genuinely does not have full control of those separatists.

Understandably, many are jumping to the first conclusion. Even if, as Moscow claims, there are no Russian soldiers or agents among the rebels in eastern Ukraine, few western military analysts doubt that Moscow has at least lent logistical and other support from across the border. The east Ukrainian rebels wave Russian flags, and have several times publicly called for assistance from Mr Putin (pictured above). It strains credibility that if they received an unequivocal public – and private – signal from Moscow to back off on their referendum plans, they would defy it.

Eurasia Group, the risk consultancy, even on Wednesday night said Mr Putin’s suggestion that the May 25 Ukrainian presidential elections could be a “step forward” if the rebels postponed their referendum and there was dialogue with Kiev, was at best a “tactical feint”. It aimed to wrongfoot the west, exploiting intra-EU and EU-US differences over sanctions policy.

By Thursday, Tim Ash, Standard Bank’s wily watcher of Ukraine and emerging markets, was suggesting Mr Putin “deserves an Oscar for his performance”. Read more

Neil Buckley

With pro-Russian separatists refusing to leave captured buildings in eastern Ukraine on Friday, it is already clear that Thursday’s Geneva agreement has done little to reduce tensions on the ground – or the threat of a Russian invasion.

That the US, EU, Russia and Ukraine managed to agree on any document and concrete steps at all in Geneva was positive and unexpected. But some of those steps are already proving difficult to implement and provide no guarantee the situation in eastern Ukraine could not escalate further.

Most importantly, there was no commitment by Russia to pull back the tens of thousands of troops it has massed on Ukraine’s border, which Washington and Brussels have both been pressing for.

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Neil Buckley

Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Getty)

As Mikhail Khodorkovsky enters a fourth day of freedom in Berlin after his stunning release from a remote prison colony last Friday, some conclusions can now start to be drawn. All suggest it is premature to get too excited about the implications of the liberation of Russia’s most famous political prisoner.

First, though it may be true – as Mr Khodorkovsky claims – that no formal conditions were attached to his pardon by president Vladimir Putin, the former Yukos oil company chief is in de facto exile. He says he will not return to Russia while a $500m legal claim related to his first conviction on fraud and tax evasion charges in 2005 still hangs over him. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled this claim illegal. But unless Russia’s supreme court strikes it out, Mr Khodorkovsky fears it could be used, at the very least, to prevent him from leaving Russia again if he did go back. Read more

Neil Buckley

The manoeuvre was vintage Putin. After answering journalists’ questions for four hours and five minutes in an annual press conference – which had already included a question about Mikhail Khodorkovsky – the Russian president chose to slip the main news into a casual comment to a group of journalists afterwards. Russia’s most famous political prisoner, and arguably one of the most famous in the world, will be pardoned after ten years in jail “in the shortest time”.

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Neil Buckley

Alexei Navalny, opposition leader and blogger, who came second in Moscow's mayoral election (Reuters)

Little by little, more air is set to be let into Russia’s tightly managed democracy. Opposition members from outside Kremlin-approved parties ­– the so-called non-system opposition ­– will be allowed to compete in, and even win, local-level elections. The recent polls in Moscow and Yekaterinburg were the start.

Those are conclusions that can be drawn from four days of discussions last week among invited Russian and foreign experts at the annual Valdai Club conference, and off-record meetings with some very senior Russian officials. They provided some grounds to hope that the worst of the clampdown that followed the demonstrations of winter 2011-2012 may be over. Having established some ground rules, the Kremlin seems to be elaborating a new approach to the oppositionRead more

Neil Buckley

After a testing two years for Vladimir Putin that saw the first serious protests against his rule, Russia’s president was back to his relaxed, confident and sometimes acerbic self at an annual meeting with academics and journalists on Thursday.

Though avoiding triumphalism, Mr Putin seemed to bask in his diplomatic success over the plan for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons. He also appeared to believe the sting had been drawn out of the demonstrations that followed parliamentary elections in December 2011 and his own decision to return for a third term as president. Read more

Neil Buckley

Alexei Navalny (Getty)

After a decade in which most elections have been little more than puppet shows with the Kremlin holding the strings, real politics may just be starting a comeback in Russia. Sunday sees elections for mayor of Moscow and some other big cities, plus several regional governors and local legislatures. For the first time in years, at least some candidates from outside the Kremlin-controlled arena of politics are being allowed to take part.

It is significant that the governors’ elections are taking place at all. Russian president Vladimir Putin abolished regional governors’ elections (and those for Moscow and St Petersburg mayor) after the Beslan tragedy in 2004. They were reinstated in the face of public protests over alleged vote-rigging in the 2011 parliamentary elections – albeit with an effective Kremlin veto on candidates.

Gennady Gudkov (Getty)

But the authorities have allowed Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption blogger and closest thing the protests have to a leader, to stand in Moscow. Navalny was even released from jail, hours after being sentenced to five years on dubious embezzlement charges, pending the result of an appeal, apparently to allow him to stand.Another prominent figure in the protests, Gennady Gudkov – who was expelled from the Russian parliament – is standing for governor of the Moscow region, the area around the capital. And Yevgeny Roizman, an opposition anti-drugs activist, is a candidate for mayor of Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-biggest city. Read more

Neil Buckley

A mourner holds a picture of Sergei Magnitsky AP

The farcical conviction of the deceased lawyer Sergei Magnitsky on tax evasion charges will only increase the pressure on European countries to follow the US lead and adopt a “Magnitsky list” of banned Russian officials involved with the case.

Yet the biggest impact of the Magnitsky affair may come not from any official response by western governments, but precisely where it now hurts Russia and its leadership most – in investment. Read more

Neil Buckley

(AP)

An audience with Vladislav Surkov, “grey cardinal” of the Kremlin and architect of Vladimir Putin’s “managed” democracy, is a rare thing. But little did those who saw him speak at the London School of Economics last Wednesday realise it would be his last public appearance as Russia’s deputy premier. A week later, he is gone.

His LSE comments may even have played a part in his departure. In particular, Surkov criticised Russia’s investigative committee, the powerful FBI-style agency headed by a Putin classmate that is increasingly becoming a law unto itself. He said the committee was wrong to sling mud about alleged corruption at Skolkovo, Russia’s answer to Silicon Valley that is premier Dmitry Medvedev’s pet project – and for which Surkov has been responsible for the past year.

That move was already a demotion after he appeared just a little too sympathetic to the middle-class Muscovites protesting over alleged vote-rigging in the December 2011 parliamentary election – ironically, the very system Surkov created. As Kremlin deputy chief of staff for a decade, he had been the puppet-master who pulled the strings of the parties and individuals permitted to perform in the political theatre he had created. Read more