If Vladimir Putin is looking for a way out of his estrangement from the west over the Ukraine crisis, he sometimes has an odd way of showing it.

Two days after Russia’s president met his US counterpart Barack Obama at the UN Security Council last month and called for an international coalition to fight Islamist terrorism, Russia gave the US just one hour’s notice that it would launch air strikes in Syria. It delivered the message via a Russian general who turned up on the doorstep of the US embassy in Baghdad.

Addressing the annual Valdai Club conference on Thursday, Mr Putin reiterated his appeal for co-operation in Syria – but only after running through a typical litany of complaints about US policy and behaviour.

Yet this was a different Mr Putin from the sour figure who, at the same meeting with foreign journalists and academics a year ago, delivered arguably his bitterest anti-US diatribe since his combative “Munich speech” of 2007.

By shifting the military theatre from Ukraine to Syria – however big a gamble Russia’s military intervention there may be – Mr Putin seemed to feel he had seized the initiative. His acid wit and self-assurance were back. Read more

Keep an eye on Transnistria, the pro-Russian breakaway state in Moldova. On Monday, Dmitri Trenin, one of Russia’s best-known foreign policy analysts and a man with good Kremlin antennae, tweeted: “Growing concern in Moscow that Ukraine and Moldova will seek to squeeze Transnistria hard, provoking conflict with Russia.” On Tuesday, a columnist in the pro-Kremlin Izvestia newspaper warned that Russia “seriously faces the prospect of a repeat of the [2008] situation” – when it went to war with Georgia – “this time around Transnistria”.

What sparked the tensions was a May 21 vote in Ukraine’s parliament to suspend military co-operation with Russia. That included a 1995 agreement giving Russia military transit rights across Ukraine to reach Transnistria, which borders Ukraine’s Odessa region. Read more

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

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

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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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

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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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

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

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

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


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

Dmitry Medvedev and foreign journalists on Wednesday 20 March 2013
For a man who suffered the indignity of having to stand down after one term as president of Russia to make way for the return of Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev appears comfortable in his own skin.

Meeting the Financial Times and representatives of six other European newspapers this week, Russia’s prime minister seemed relaxed, sometimes jocular – in spite of the pressures many political observers believe he is under. Compared with the somewhat tense and nervous figure the FT first interviewed just after his election as president in 2008, he seems comfortable with the trappings of power – even if they are now diminished from what they were.

Today, a conservative or hardline faction in the Kremlin, emboldened by Putin’s return to the presidency, is seen as jostling to replace the more liberal Medvedev with its own premier. Putin, too, is thought ready to jettison Medvedev as a scapegoat in the event of a crisis such as an economic slowdown – and Russia’s economy has got off to a weak start this year.

For now, the premier remains in the same Gorky-9 compound he occupied as president, in which Boris Yeltsin spent his second presidential term, just off the chic Rublyovskoye Shosse 15km beyond Moscow’s outer ring road. Read more

Photo by Getty

Senior Ukrainian officials insist they are still intent on closer integration with the European Union. So why do they make it so difficult for Europe to embrace it?

Friday’s announcement that jailed former premier Yulia Tymoshenko is now a formal suspect in ordering the 1996 contract killing of a Ukrainian lawmaker threatens further worsening of relations between Kiev and the west. Though prosecutors said last year they were investigating her involvement in the killing, which she categorically denies, the latest move is clearly an escalation.

That is a surprise — especially since the EU is currently debating whether to soften its stance on Ms Tymoshenko’s 2011 conviction on abuse of office charges, widely seen as politically motivated. Her imprisonment is the main reason why a far-reaching EU trade and political cooperation deal with Kiev — the biggest Brussels has ever negotiated with a third party — remains unsigned, though the text is agreed. Read more

Georgia's former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili arrives for questioning at an Interior Ministry building on December 7 (IRAKLI GEDENIDZE/AFP/Getty Images)

Former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili arrives for questioning on December 7 (IRAKLI GEDENIDZE/AFP/Getty)

A spate of arrests and investigations of members of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s party since the October election victory of billionaire premier Bidzina Ivanishvili is causing a headache for western officials over how to respond.

On the face of it, the legal campaign seems to follow the typical winner-take-all logic of elections in post-Soviet states. It looks similar to how Mr Saakashvili’s government treated former associates of his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze. It also looks rather like the Ukrainian authorities’ pursuit under president Viktor Yanukovich of former premier Yulia Tymoshenko and her allies. Read more

Georgia’s first parliament session on Sunday since the shock election victory of Bidzina Ivanishvili was a slightly sour affair. But three weeks into the country’s latest democratic experiment, the worst fears of western capitals have not been realised – though a worrying clash may loom over Georgia’s central bank governor. Read more

Amid the somewhat rancorous debate over whether it was right to award the Nobel peace price to the European Union, it is worth bearing in mind the view of those countries still aspiring to join.

Vesna Pusic, foreign minister of Croatia – which, provided all 27 EU members ratify its entry agreement, should become the 28th next July – tells a story of why, for all its flaws and current economic crisis, the Union still matters a lot in the Balkans.

Take five generations of women in her family: her great grandmother, grandmother, mother, herself, and her 26-year-old daughter.

“All of them were born in the same city. And the ones who died, died also in the same city. However, none of us will have been born and died in the same state,” says Ms Pusic. Read more

Ukrainian opposition activists clash with riot police on July 4. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/GettyImages

Ukrainian opposition activists clash with riot police on July 4. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/GettyImages

Barely had supporters’ chants at the Euro 2012 final in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium on Sunday died out, before politics as usual returned to Ukraine. Tuesday night and Wednesday morning have seen violent clashes between riot police and demonstrators protesting against a law that would upgrade the role of the Russian language in the former Soviet state.

The law was rammed through parliament in a second reading at short notice on Tuesday, after being similarly rammed through a first reading a month ago – just before Euro 2012. It now needs only to be signed by president Viktor Yanukovich to take effect. Read more

Hillary Clinton and Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics on June 28 (Ilmars Znotins/AFP/GettyImages)

Hillary Clinton and Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics on June 28 (Ilmars Znotins / AFP/ GettyImages)

Visiting Latvia on Thursday, Hillary Clinton praised the Baltic state for taking “very difficult” austerity measures that would ensure a “stable, prosperous future”.

The US secretary of state is not the only high-profile figure praising Latvia’s economic record.

Christine Lagarde, the IMF managing director, dropped in this month and proclaimed its austerity programme an “inspiration” for heavily-indebted eurozone countries.

Latvia and its Baltic neighbours Estonia and Lithuania suffered the world’s steepest economic contractions in 2009 amid swingeing austerity measures. But now they find themselves in the frontline of the debate over austerity versus growth as the best way to tackle the eurozone’s debt problems. Read more

In Russia, the music of Viktor Tsoi, a rock star who died young in 1990, is being played again. That is not just testament to how good it was, writes the FT’s Neil Buckley. With Russians once again protesting on the streets demanding greater democracy, the Tsoi resurgence highlights that history is, in part, repeating itself. Read more