Saturday, December 31, 2016

Shakira - Belly Dance

George Michael - Careless Whisper

Russian Music -Слава - Одиночество - Glory - Loneliness

Putin's New Year Address 2017: Challenging year brought us closer together

Saudi Arabia and Gulf states 'support Islamic extremism in Germany,' intelligence report finds

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar are supporting extremist Islamic groups in Germany, according to a leaked intelligence report.
A brief seen by the Süddeutsche Zeitung and broadcasters NDR and WDR raised concern over a reported increase in support for fundamentalist Salafism in Germany, warning that the ideology already has 10,000 followers and is growing.
The report, by Germany’s BfV domestic intelligence agency and Federal Intelligence Service (BND) reportedly accused Gulf groups of funding mosques, religious schools, hardline preachers and conversion or “dawah” groups to spread the ideology. Missionary movements were part of a “long-running strategy to exert influence” by the three states, it found, naming the Saudi Muslim World League, Sheikh Eid Bin Mohammad al-Thani Charitable Association and Kuwaiti Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS), which has been banned by the US and Russia for allegedly supporting al-Qaeda.
The report comes weeks after the German government banned an Islamist missionary group linked to more than 140 Isis fighters following raids on mosques, offices and homes across the country.
Die Wahre Religion (DWR), meaning “The True Religion”, started in 2005 and claimed to spread Islam in Germany “in a modern form and with the help of new media”.
The Salafist group gained prominence with a Quran distribution campaign called Lies!, meaning “Read!”, which has since spread to countries including the UK, France, Bahrain and Brazil.
But officials said the initiative was “bringing jihadi Islamists together across the nation under the pretext of preaching Islam” while spreading hate and conspiracy theories.
Thomas de Maiziere, the German interior minister, said that the prohibition of DWR aimed to stop the “abuse of a religion by people, who under the pretext of spreading Islam are propagating extremist ideologies and supporting terrorist organisations”. “By banning this organisation, a major source of radicalisation has been eradicated nationwide,” he added. A terror network radicalising young Muslims and sending them to fight for Isis in Syria was also dismantled by authorities last month.
Germany has been on high alert since it was hit by two terror attacks carried out by Isis supporters in July, with other plots subsequently uncovered amid warnings that attempts to attack Europe will continue.
Jaber al-Bakr, a suspected Isis supporter detained on suspicion of planning to attack a Berlin airport with homemade explosives, killed himself in prison days after being arrested in October. According to figures released in May by intelligence services, 820 jihadis have left Germany for Syria and Iraq, with a third known to have returned, 140 killed and 420 remaining abroad.
Tensions have risen following the arrival of almost 900,000 refugees in the country last year, driving support for right-wing groups and a national debate on Islam and integration.
The issue sparked Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban earlier this month, as she seeks a fourth term in office.

UN Security Council adopts resolution supporting Syria ceasefire agreement

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has adopted a resolution endorsing a ceasefire agreement in Syria, which was brokered by Russia and Turkey.

Saudi Arabia jails man for a year after he publically called for end of male control over women

Samuel Osborne

    Man said he launched campaign after finding some 'female relatives were facing injustice at the hands of their families'.
    A Saudi man has been jailed for a year after he called for an end to the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom's male guardianship system.
    The unnamed man was also fined 30,000 riyals (£6,500) after being convicted of "inciting to end guardianship of women", the daily Okaz newspaper reported.
    He was arrested while putting up posters inside mosques which called for the government to abolish strict rules giving men control over women.
    The man admitted to pinning up posters in several mosques and said he solely launched an "awareness campaign" after finding some "female relatives were facing injustice at the hands of their families," the daily newspaper said, according to the AFP news agency. Saudi law states that all women must have a male guardian, typically a husband, father or brother, who gives them permission to study, travel abroad or marry.
    A Human Rights Watch report on male guardianship, published in July, found "a woman's life is controlled by a man from birth until death" in Saudi Arabia, as their ability to pursue a career or make life decisions is restricted.
    Despite limited reforms in 2009 and 2013 to reduce male control over women, which included no longer requiring permission for women to work and making domestic abuse illegal, the report found the system remains largely in place.
    The report led to a social media campaign, with women across Saudi Arabia calling for an end to the guardianship system.
    Others took to Twitter, using the hashtag #TogetherToEndMaleGuardianship and an Arabic translation, to show their support and demand social reform.
    The court claimed the defendant had launched the Twitter campaign. In September, more than 14,500 women signed a petition calling for an end to the system and leading women's rights campaigner Aziza al-Yousef delivered the petition to the royal court.

    How Syria Defeated the Sunni Powers

    Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, three of the Middle East’s major Sunni powers, once equated their standings in the region with the outcome of the war in Syria. Since the uprising broke out in 2011, they have been stalwart — if often divided — supporters of the rebels in their fight against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
    In the last several months, it became clear they were on the losing side. Recent events, including the fall of eastern Aleppo this month, are compelling these countries to adjust their strategies. A cease-fire agreement brokered by Russia and Turkey and announced on Thursday has only made it clearer that in the Middle East, force drives diplomacy.
    The mainstream rebel groups that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have backed since 2011 are now morphing into a rural insurgency. This will mean they are less of a threat to the Assad government, but more vulnerable to being defeated by jihadist groups — or lured into joining them. Supporting these rebels will soon become even more difficult, especially if President-elect Donald J. Trump follows through on campaign pledges to end American aid to rebel groups and to work more closely with Russia to fight jihadists in Syria.
    For Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, this situation raises major moral and political questions: If military victory is no longer feasible, why should they continue to support rebels at the cost of more Syrian lives? Can they and their rebel proxies carve out zones of influence that will allow them to shape Syria’s future? Should the rebellion’s sponsors cut their losses and force the rebels to capitulate in exchange for whatever favor Russia is able to offer, such as facilitating Turkish policy in Central Asia or helping Saudi Arabia extricate itself from Yemen? Or should they let the rebellion slowly die? Wouldn’t doing so only encourage Iranian aggressiveness and prove right the jihadist groups that say Arab countries are impotent and treacherous?
    Of the three Sunni powers, Turkey has the deepest involvement. Last summer, it sent troops across the border to push back the Islamic State and to contain Kurdish groups in Syria (and in Turkey) seeking autonomy. Since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has lost favor with Washington and Europe over his domestic crackdown and foreign adventures, his fortunes are now tied to Russian good will. Moscow is exploiting Turkey’s weakness and feelings of resentment of Western betrayal.
    This has already changed the course of the Syrian war. Turkey grudgingly accepted the fall of Aleppo in return for a de facto recognition of its zone of influence along the Syrian-Turkish border. Instead of supporting rebel groups fighting in Aleppo or pressuring the Assad forces besieging the city, Turkey raced to capture territory from the Islamic State before the Kurds did.
    The Kremlin is now not only acting like the magnanimous victor in Syria, but also posing as the sole mediator between Ankara and Mr. Assad’s government and Iran. This month, Moscow hosted a meeting of the foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey at which they discussed the future of Syria. This was a sign of things to come.
    First Russia outwitted and sidelined the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. Now it is shaping the future of the conflict. The cease-fire that it has brokered is meant to manage rivalries in Syria and wind down the war on Russian and Mr. Assad’s terms. Moscow has suggested that the cease-fire be followed by political discussions with select groups of the Syrian opposition. But for this to work, Russia needs Turkey to deliver parts of the Syrian opposition that will accept considerably less than Mr. Assad’s departure.
    Mr. Assad may not like it, but he is likely to accept this Russia-run process as a necessary evil. He has to play nice with President Vladimir V. Putin, his savior, even if he won’t concede much. Bringing Turkey on board is necessary to jump-start a peace process that will gut whatever is left of the United States and United Nations effort once meant to bring about a political transition — and Mr. Assad’s departure. What’s more, it would tie the hands of the Trump administration. Should the cease-fire collapse, the Assad government would still be able to crush the remnants of the rebellion with Russian cover. This arrangement will also prevent Kurdish autonomy — something that Mr. Assad, Iran and Russia, and Turkey all oppose.
    All this leaves Qatar and, more important, Saudi Arabia with very little to work with. Both countries have in the past had to move weapons and money through Jordan and Turkey to support the rebellion; these routes are now difficult if not impossible. Unable to shape the battlefield or steer diplomacy, a bruised and overextended Saudi Arabia has quietly pushed Syria down its list of priorities.
    The two Gulf states also understand that Turkey won’t subordinate its interests to their desires. In fact, Turkey is now arguing that its involvement in the Russia-led diplomacy is essential to check Iran’s ambitions, secure the withdrawal of Hezbollah and other foreign Shiite militias from Syria and obtain assurances that Mr. Assad will eventually be eased out. Turkey is seeking to include Qatar and Saudi Arabia in this process, to the displeasure of Iran.
    None of these countries are likely to fully abandon what remains of the Syrian rebellion. The costs of doing so would be immense: their reputations would suffer greatly, and they would forfeit cards essential to influence the direction Syria takes. And Syrian rebels won’t disappear just because they were defeated. Instead, formal support and funding is likely to continue but at decreasing levels and with more modest objectives. Turkey still needs rebel muscle to fight the Islamic State and the Kurdish guerrillas. Saudi Arabia and Qatar can’t afford to be accused of having abandoned their Sunni brethren at a time of regional polarization.
    They will also resist efforts by a number of Western, Asian and Arab countries to normalize relations with Mr. Assad. In their eyes, he remains a hostile actor who should be isolated and pushed out. How and when are questions for another day.

    Syria gets airborne hospital as early New Year’s present from Russia

    As Russia’s Emergencies Ministry wraps up its medical mission in Aleppo, it is leaving behind its leftover medical equipment and medicine stockpiles as a gift from Russia to Syria. Syria now has a hospital outfitted to be airlifted to wherever needed. The ministry dispatched the hospital and medical personnel to Syria in November as the fight for the eastern part of Aleppo turned in favor of the government forces. Over the month, it has treated over 1,500 patients, most of whom were women and children.
    The hospital includes 16 medical and technical pods, as well as 22 connectors and gateway modules, which can be airlifted to a location in need of medical assistance and deployed in the required configuration. The facility can serve up to 200 patients a day and has 60 beds for inpatients.
    The mobile hospital has three surgery sections and an intensive care unit, as well as bays for regular patient diagnostics and treatment, plus living quarters for the medical staff.
    The paperwork transferring ownership of the airborne hospital from Russia to Syria was signed in Aleppo on Saturday. Aleksand Romanov, head of the Russian Emergencies Ministry’s international affairs department, said he hoped that the gift would help the Syrians better provide medical care to the needy.
    Over the past week, Syrian doctors and medical personnel received training in how to deploy and operate the Russian hospital, which has inflatable elements, autonomous utilities, and other equipment capable of being swiftly relocated and independently operated. Syria’s health officials thanked their Russian colleagues for their contribution.
    The Russian medical mission in Aleppo has been praised by the World Health Organization’s representative in Syria, Elizabeth Hoff, who said that she appreciated how fast Russia deployed the hospital in Syria.
    “I spoke to many patients, who spoke greatly about the treatment they had been given by the Russian doctors,” she said, as cited by the Russian ministry.

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    Man of 2016: Putin's achievements on world scene amid pressure on Russia

    The outgoing year reaffirmed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s heavyweight status in world politics - however complex the relations between Russia and the West might be. To answer the question "Who is Mr. Putin?", which many were asking nearly seventeen years ago, one can just point to the top line of the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful personalities. The Russian leader has invariably been number one for several years running.

    "From the motherland to Syria to the US presidential election Putin continues to get what he wants," says Forbes magazine. Also, Putin was in Time magazine’s and the AFP’s short lists of the Man of the Year rankings. For the first time ever he entered Bloomberg’s list of the world’s 50 most influential people on the market of world finance and his policies continue to enjoy wide support at home.

    As far as the international situation is concerned, this year saw a continuation of what began in 2014 and 2015: the Ukrainian crisis, anti-Russian sanctions and the operation in Syria. Sadly, the outgoing year was not without some "black swan" events: for instance, the sudden flare-up of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in April, with high risks of a full-scale war between Russia’s allies and strategic partners in the Trans-Caucasus - Armenia and Azerbaijan. Putin then had to spend much of his time in telephone conversations with the conflicting parties and it was his mediation that helped return the situation back on the track of negotiations.

    The other challenges, which Russia and its leader had to confront in the international scene, may look like a string of unrelated events only to a layman. The doping row, conclusions produced by the inquiry into the MH17 flight disaster, hysteria over hacker attacks allegedly engineered and masterminded by Russia and the situation in Aleppo. All these events have one ultimate underlying aim: Moscow is to be blamed for everything. But all this is nothing but backstage accompaniment to the anti-Russian sanctions and, in a sense, their extension.

    Isolation fails

    In the meantime, Russia, while pushing ahead with an independent foreign policy, showed signs it might want self-isolation. Putin said this many a time, most recently at his customary year-end news conference. "The Russian economy, if it is to develop itself in earnest, must be part of the world one. And that’s the way it will be," he promised.

    Putin is certain anyone who may try to isolate Russia from outside will fail.

    "They’ll lack engine endurance and fuel even for taking a ride along our borders," Putin said at a recent forum, adding that isolation was just a tool of pressure on Russia.

    That the task of isolating Russia is hardly accomplishable is recognized in the West by and large, although many there still indulge in wishful thinking. The United States, for instance, claims that Putin’s aborted visit to Paris last October was evidence of anti-Russian boycott.
    In all fairness it should be remarked, though, that in contrast to just one foreign visit canceled at the very last moment (it was rather postponed, and not canceled altogether) there were nearly two dozen foreign trips the Russian leader made last year. Also, there were many more meetings with foreign leaders in Russia and on the sidelines of various international events. All in all, Putin in 2016 performed nineteen foreign visits, including nine to other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the other, to far-away countries (four of them in Europe). In the previous year Putin made 15 foreign trips, approximately as many as in 2013 - before the sanctions were imposed.

    Putin’s visit to Japan, a G7 country, stands out for a good reason. Plans for it had begun to be made long in advance, but the date was repeatedly postponed. That such a trip has eventually taken place puts "paid" to any speculations about Russia’s isolation. That Putin has been one of the most-wanted negotiating partners for other foreign leaders at major international events points in the same direction.

    Some of Putin’s major international meetings took place in Russia. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to Moscow twice, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Sochi in May.

    Sanctions and plutonium

    Yet the sanctions that were imposed on Russia in 2014 over the crisis in Ukraine were prolonged in 2016. The United States even expanded them. Also, Russia heard threats more sanctions might follow over Syria (although Moscow is the sole participant in the operation in that country that had agreed its actions with Damascus). The United States threatened it might take sanctions in retaliation for what it claimed was an attack by some Russian hackers during the presidential election campaign.

    Putin believes that all allegations about some interference by Moscow in the US election were nothing but an attempt by the incumbent authorities to distract the public from real problems to keep eyes riveted to "Russian hackers, spies and agents of influence."

    "Is there anybody in his right mind who may think in full seriousness that Russia is capable of influencing the choice of the American people somehow? What do they take the United States for, a banana republic? The United States is a great power," Putin said. "Will you please correct me, if I am wrong," he told the participants in the session of the international discussion club Valdai.

    In the last days of the year the outgoing Obama administration tried to put another spoke in the wheel of bilateral relations to impose sanctions against some Russian individuals and entities, whom Washington stubbornly suspects of complicity in the hacker attacks. "Regrettably, such actions by the current administration are a manifestation of an unpredictable, I should say, aggressive foreign policy," Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the media.

    Peskov said Russia’s response would be proportionate, but at the same time he made it quite clear that Moscow would take the trouble of discussing such matters with the Obama administration. "I don’t think that there should be any haste. I don’t think that the Russian president will be in a hurry," Peskov said.

    As sanctions continue to be prolonged, Russia is firm in pursuing a policy of counter-sanctions, including the food import embargo on the West. In another telling gesture Moscow paused the operation of the Russian-US inter-governmental agreement of 2000 on the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium. Moscow stated outright that the suspension was in retaliation for "unfriendly actions by the United States towards Russia." It also mentioned the preconditions on which it might agree to resume compliance with the plutonium deal: Washington’s cancellation of the Magnitsky Act and all anti-Russian sanctions, compensation for the damage the sanctions caused and a reduction of the US military infrastructures in NATO countries.

    Putin pointed not only to unfriendly policies by the United States, but also to Washington’s own non-compliance with that agreement. "We’ve built a plutonium disposal plant. We spent our money on it! Are we richer than the United States or what?" Putin asked.

    Olympian calm

    Heavy involvement of politics in the world of international sports was another distinguishing feature for which 2016 will go down in history. After Moscow was accused of official support for doping in sports the West unleased a campaign to bar Russia from major world competitions, including the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Russia eventually managed to secure its participation in the Rio Games, although its team had to be slashed considerably. As for parathletes from Russia, international sports functionaries took a far harder line against them to ban all of them from the Paralympics. Then there followed decisions on whether Russia should be stripped of the right to host a number of international events, including 2017 world cups in bobsleighing, biathlon and speed skating.

    From the very outset Putin demanded his subordinates’ full cooperation with international organizations in investigating the doping affair. At the same time he emphatically denied Russia had a government-sponsored system that forced athletes to take outlawed substances.

    The Russian leader interpreted the flare-up of the doping scandal as yet another attempt at putting external pressures on Russia, which the country has experienced for years. "They used every means at hand - from falsehoods about a Russian aggression, propaganda and intervention in other countries’ elections to the victimization of our athletes, including parathletes," Putin said.

    He slammed the decision to disqualify the Russian paralympic team as one going beyond the bounds of law, morality and humanism.

    "We have become witnesses to the humanistic basics of sports and of Olympism arrogantly abused by politicians, to biased, time-serving decisions made and to such qualities as greed and, possibly, cowardice, prevail over the principle of Olympism," Putin said.

    In his opinion, international anti-doping agencies require fundamental approval of their activity that would make them immune to political pressures. He emphasized the existence of double standards in that field. As follows from evidence obtained by anonymous hackers from the Anti-Doping Administration and Management System (ADAMS) many world sports stars in various years used prohibited substances for therapeutic purposes.

    But every dark cloud has a silver lining. Putin hopes that the doping row will encourage Russia to create "the world’s most advanced system of struggle against this evil." After the Richard McLaren commission published a report charging Russia with doping abuse Putin created an independent non-governmental anti-doping commission under the chairmanship of IOC honorary member Vitaly Smirnov, whose authority in the sports world is impeccable. Also, Putin asked Russia’s law enforcement agencies to investigate the affair. At the end of November he signed a law establishing criminal punishment for inducing athletes into taking prohibited substances.

    Turkish issue

    At the beginning of 2016 Russian-Turkish relations were at the point of freezing after the November 2015 attack by a Turkish military jet against a Russian Sukhoi-24 bomber in Syrian airspace. On January 1 Moscow suspended the visaless regime in bilateral relations. A little earlier the flow of Russian tourists to Turkey ran dry. A food import embargo and other measures against Ankara were taken. The list of demands addressed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remained the same, apologies for the downed plane being the main one.

    Few thought the Turkish leader would ever agree to this, but Putin’s strategy proved correct. At the end of June the Kremlin received a message with words of apology from Erdogan. Turkey arrested Alparslan Celik, the man Moscow regards as an accomplice in the murder of Russian air pilot Oleg Peshkov. After the failure of the July 15 government coup attempt in Turkey the pilots who shot down Russia’s Sukhoi-24 fighter-bomber went to jail.

    The mending of Russian-Turkish political relations was as fast as their deterioration at the end of 2015. After several telephone conversations between Putin and Erdogan there followed a Russian-Turkish summit meeting in St. Petersburg in August. Putin and Erdogan have since met twice - on the sidelines of the G20 summit in China’s Hangzhou in September and then in Istanbul in October, when Putin attended the international energy forum. On Putin’s instructions the Russian government began to restore trading and economic relations.

    In recent weeks the intensity of Putin-Erdogan contacts soared further, largely in the process of the search for solutions on the Syrian track. In the last days of November Putin and Erdogan talked by telephone thrice, and in December they had five telephone conversations.

    The murder of Russia’s ambassador Andrey Karlov in Ankara - an unprecedented and outrageous attack - was unanimously described by both leaders as a provocation and an encroachment on Russian-Turkish relations. Putin said the attack would not upset the normalization of bilateral relations.

    "We are aware of the importance and significance of Russian-Turkish relations, and we will be doing our utmost to develop them further on," Putin said.

    Despite their initial disagreements Russia and Turkey and also Iran toward the end of December achieved something that had looked impossible just recently. They persuaded the parties to Syria’s internal conflict to conclude truce, thus paving the way for peace talks.

    On the Syrian track

    As a matter of fact, the Syrian issue was the focal point of Russia’s foreign policy in 2016. The Russian aerospace group dispatched to Syria in the autumn of 2015 has considerably altered the lineup of forces in that country, which could not but have noticeable effects on the international political agenda. The successes achieved by Russia and the Syrian authorities brought about a situation where, as Putin said, the foreign media’s task was "to belittle and hush up the latest developments and to under-inform their viewers, listeners and readers" on that score. "First they were talking about the need for isolating Russia after the well-known events in Crimea. Then it became clear that it is impossible. With the beginning of our operation in Syria the awareness that such destructive actions against our country would reach nowhere became absolutely evident," Putin said.
    At the same time the Russian leader is certain that belittling or hushing up Russia’s role and successes in Syria would be impossible, "however strongly some may wish to do that." This is well-seen in the publications of many respectable mass media in the West. The Washington Post said in an editorial last March that Russia had managed to achieve a great deal in Syria and to stage its comeback as a major actor in the Middle East, as well as to largely neutralize attempts by the West to arrange for a diplomatic isolation of Moscow. The Wall Street Journal said the same month that the Russian aerospace group’s operation in Syria revealed the real potential of the Russian Armed Forces and their ability to cope with complex tasks away from the national borders.

    Throughout the year Russia’s tactic in Syria was repeatedly revised and adjusted to the current situation. In January, strikes against terrorists in Syria were stepped up. In March, Putin ordered the pullout of the bulk of the Russian group from Syria, although it was announced at the same time that the operation to provide air support for the Syrian army would go ahead. A special task force led by the aircraft carrier The Admiral Kuznetsov arrived in the Mediterranean in the autumn.The Russian military’s center for the reconciliation of the warring factions in Syria played a significant role in persuading more than a thousand communities and hundreds of armed opposition groups to join the ceasefire. An outdoor concert by the Mariinsky Theater’s orchestra under Valery Gergiyev in Palmyra, retaken from the terrorists in March (although last autumn that city fell back into the hands of the Islamic State - a terrorist group outlawed in Russia) went down in the history of world culture. At the end of last summer and in early autumn the Russian aerospace group helped the Syrian army beat back the terrorists’ powerful offensive in Aleppo and then eventually regain that large Syrian city from the militants. Some western countries’ reaction to this was hysterical. Before, the very same countries preferred to turn a blind eye on the horrors of war when the Syrian army had been retreating. This propaganda campaign reached nowhere.

    Alongside this Russia for the whole year was proactively involved in Syrian settlement talks with the United States, but neither the joint statement on the cessation of hostilities Moscow and Washington issued last February nor the truce deal clinched last September yielded the desired effect. Putin later expressed regret his personal agreements on a settlement in Syria with his US counterpart Barack Obama had not worked and that certain forces in Washington turned out to be strong enough to ruin those plans. "All this demonstrates an unexplainable, irrational determination of the Western countries to repeat the very same mistakes again and again, to step on the same rake," Putin said.

    The latest events indicate, though, that there is a chance of achieving accord in Syria without the Americans involved, at least at the first stage. At his annual news conference Putin said that the last phases of the operation to retake Aleppo proceeded without combat clashes. Trilateral cooperation by Russia, Turkey and Iran and the attitude of the Syrian authorities themselves played a role. "It was a major humanitarian operation, the largest-ever in the modern world," Putin said.

    Lastly, Putin on December 29 declared the Syrian government forces and the armed opposition had concluded an agreement to establish ceasefire and enter into peace talks in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana. This arrangement is a joint achievement of Russia, Turkey and Iran. Russia hopes that Egypt will join the Syrian settlement agreement, too, and then there will follow other countries of the region - Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and Iraq and also the United States - when President-elect Donald Trump takes office.

    If the latest Syrian settlement agreements are implemented to the full, in contrast to the previous arrangements with the United States, this will undoubtedly become a major foreign policy success for Putin and his partners in Turkey, Iran and Syria itself. The results will be hopefully in sight in 2017.


    Amid other world events in 2016 the Ukrainian crisis faded into the background somewhat. Although the Normandy process is stalled and no large-scale combat operations in Donbass, like those seen in 2014 and 2015, are underway, peace in the east of Ukraine is nowhere near.

    At a meeting in Berlin last October the leaders of the Normandy Quartet (Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine) tried to give a fresh impetus to the settlement process. In part, they agreed on drafting a road map plan to implement the Minsk Accords of February 12, 2015. Incidentally, everything essential for the implementation of Minsk-2 has long been in place, but Kiev still torpedoes the implementation of the decisions made, with both Berlin and Paris turning a blind eye on that.

    While recognizing that the Normandy format "has not demonstrated super-effectiveness," the Russian leader believes it should be adhered to. "There is nothing else," Putin explains. "Should we lose this instrument, the situation will start degrading rapidly, which would be very undesirable."

    Oil in focus

    Putin last year was among those who contributed heavily to an historic agreement to cut oil production. At their meeting in Vienna on December 10 the OPEC member-states and major oil producers outside the cartel put signatures to an agreement to jointly downscale oil production by 1.7-1.8 million barrels a day. Russia will cut its oil production by 300,000 barrels. The Russian authorities hope that in the first half of 2017 the redundant oil will leave the market and the prices of hydrocarbons will regain balance.

    "We hope that they will be stabilized at the current level," Putin told the annual news conference.

    In Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s opinion, it was Putin who largely promoted the agreement with the OPEC. "The odds were no agreement might be concluded at all." The Vice-President of the Russian oil major LUKOIL, Leonid Fedun, too, said that the Russian leader was "directly involved in making the decision" to reduce oil production. Moreover, Reuters quoted sources as saying that Putin also largely takes the credit for the agreement the OPEC countries achieved among themselves first, although Russia is not an OPEC member. Reuters said it was the Russian leader who helped Saudi Arabia and Iran eliminate their disagreements on that score, which testified to Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East since the beginning of the Russian military operation in Syria.

    Participation of foreign investors in the privatization of a 19.5% stake of the Russian oil major Rosneft - the biggest transaction on the oil and gas market in the outgoing year - should certainly be added to the list of Moscow’s successes.

    US choice

    France’s former prime minister and future presidential candidate, Francois Fillon, speaking in an interview on the radio recently complained that the Western countries over the past few years turned Russia into a "phantom enemy," although it is of no real threat to the West.
    Incidentally, talking about a Russian threat too often is a sure way of developing faith in it. This is precisely what apparently has happened to part of the political elite in the United States, where in the presidential election year Putin turned out to be one of the key figures in the election campaign without ever wishing to become one (he even featured in an episode of the animated cartoon series The Simpsons). It was also very unusual to see the Republicans, who have traditionally followed a far harder line in relations with Russia, and their representative Donald Trump take a far more constructive stance towards Moscow than Hillary Clinton and her Democratic Party.

    The Kremlin is far from feeling any illusions and it by no means expects that the sanctions will be gone as soon as Trump takes over. When the US election campaign was still in progress, Putin dismissed rumors of Moscow’s alleged support for Trump as "delirium" and "nonsense."

    He reaffirmed, though, that he really wished to have a constructive and business-like relationship with the US president-elect "to ensure this should do good the United States and Russia and the people of both countries." After the election victory Trump and Putin talked by telephone to speak in favor of joint efforts to normalize Russian-US relations.

    Positive signals

    The State Duma has been criticized much for bursting into applause when told Trump had emerged the winner in the election, but in fact Russian legislators eagerly hailed not so much a specific candidate’s victory as the defeat of the anti-Russian agenda. Whatever Trump may do and say now, it is already clear that conciliatory remarks towards Russia and Putin in person have not scared the US electorate away from the Republican candidate, while Clinton’s strong intention to conduct an iron hand policy in relations with the Kremlin on the contrary failed to win enough supporters to her side. The Democrats’ stake on aggressive rhetoric against Moscow failed to yield the expected dividends.

    Something similar happened in 2016 in other countries. The British voters were being told again and again that Brexit would make Putin happy. It did not help. French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were trying really hard to persuade their EU partners to join sanctions against Russia. In the meantime in France itself the popularity ratings of politicians who favour cooperation with Russia (from Marine Le Pen to Francois Fillon) are far higher. With the anti-Russian sanctions in their third year it has become evident that ordinary people on either side of the Atlantic are either indifferent towards Russia-related themes or even favorably disposed towards Moscow. What is still more important, they are very far from seeing Russia and Putin as threats, however hard some of their countries’ politicians may be trying to make them think otherwise.


    The final endgame between Putin and Obama


    Vladimir Putin’s restrained response to U.S. cyber sanctions could be an effort to ease the transition process for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. But will this strategy really pay off?

    "While being able to establish personal chemistry with the U.S.-President-elect, Putin will inevitably lose his key political asset — Obama’s presidency, which brought global political acclaim to him amidst a series of international crises." Photo: AP  
    On Dec. 29 the administration of outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama imposed new sanctions on Russia for alleged cyber attacks on American servers during the 2016 presidential campaign. The high ranks of the Russian intelligence services, several organizations and private figures were blacklisted in a move of retaliation. Moreover, 35 Russian diplomats were expelled, with their two private diplomatic compounds in New York and Maryland closed.  
    The first response of the Russian authorities and society to Obama’s move was very negative and emotional in its nature. Many Russians were puzzled by this decision, including those who understand the importance of the previous set of sanctions imposed on Russia after the murder of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison and after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its indirect involvement in the Donbas war.
    The Obama administration didn’t provide any evidence of Russian hackers actually being involved in interfering in the U.S. electoral process. Moreover, many Russians have started speculating that Obama is simply seeking to make the life of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump even more difficult, given his repeated promises to improve relations with Moscow.
    That might be the reason why the Russian president decided not to retaliate in response to the new set of sanctions - it is simply an attempt to alleviate the challenges that Trump faces in normalizing relations with Moscow.
    “We won’t create problems for American diplomats [in response to the U.S.-imposed sanctions],” he said in a Dec. 30 statement. “We won’t expel anyone. We won’t forbid their families and children from celebrating the New Year holidays in the places where they are used to spending their time. Moreover, I invite all children of American diplomats, accredited in Russia, to celebrate New Year and Christmas in the Kremlin.” 
    Oddly enough, Putin even wished happy holidays to Obama and his family while expressing regrets about Obama’s last presidential move. Without a doubt, the Kremlin toned down its anti-American rhetoric and became more tolerant because it sees the outgoing Obama as a “lame duck” and plans to start building ties with the Trump administration from scratch.
    And in this regard, Russians might be grateful to Putin because he alleviated their negative emotions. In fact, Putin behaved like a well-experienced psychiatrist on the eve of the most popular holiday in Russia, the New Year. He just showed off his magnanimity to highlight that it is one of the characteristics of Russia’s national character. 
    However, it could be just wishful thinking. Russians should not be misled and charmed by the idea that their president is so decent and Obama is a villain attempting to spoil their favorite holiday. One should not take the situation emotionally even though it could be music to one’s ears. One should look at the situation with a sober mind and base one’s judgment on facts.

    The reality is that Obama, who may have been outsmarted once again by Putin, has been the most convenient president for eight years for the Kremlin. Obama came to the Oval Office with sincere intentions to improve U.S.-Russia relations, with his reset policy having created the most auspicious environment for then-President Dmitry Medvedev.
    In fact, because of Obama’s flexibility and inclination to think rather than act decisively, Putin jumped at the opportunity to implement his assertive foreign policy plan of annexing Crimea and, afterwards, launching the military intervention in Syria. All this made Putin one of the world’s most influential politicians. Thanks to this global publicity, Putin has been able to remain at the helm regardless of the challenging economic crisis in 2014-2015.
    Thus, Russians should pay a great deal of respect to Obama, who was overshadowed by Putin’s heroic and political machismo. And the story about the New Year’s Eve sanctions for alleged cyberattacks proves this. The message of these sanctions should really concern Russia.
    “Finally, the decision is made, but it is only the beginning — Russia should be held accountable for what it did,” this is how this message should be interpreted. After all, it echoes the rhetoric of a number of American influential politicians, including Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) and Senators John McCain (Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina).
    Even a "friend" of Russia, U.S.-President-elect Donald Trump, promised to listen carefully to the arguments of the U.S. intelligence services about the Kremlin’s alleged cyberattacks, although previously he was very skeptical about Russia’s involvement.
    Thus, Obama’s decision to impose sanctions could be seen as less deleterious than the post-election anti-Kremlin campaign in the U.S. It has been indeed large-scale at least because Russia became a very convenient target for America’s political forces for both parties. While the Republicans are scoring points by taking on “the Russian threat,” the Democrats are trying to shift responsibility to “Russian hackers” for their failure during the presidential election. 
    In reality, Obama found himself trapped in the situation where he could not help imposing these sanctions. Likewise, he could not help responding to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the MH17 Boeing downing over Eastern Ukraine. With Trump coming to power in 2017, the White House might indeed become the center of pro-Russian forces in the United States.

    But, first, these forces are overshadowed by political heavyweights (who are skeptical toward the Kremlin). Second, the real friends of Russia (like former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Stanford Professor Michael McFaul) who know its culture and values found themselves on the political periphery with the rise of Trump. Third, while being able to establish personal chemistry with the U.S.-President-elect, Putin will inevitably lose his key political asset — Obama’s presidency, which brought global political acclaim to him amidst a series of international crises.