Russia
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  Russia
    Background
    Central Issues
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Background
In its current manifestation, the Russian Federation is most certainly not a shell of it’s former self. Whilst the title of being an international superpower has faded with the vestiges of the Cold War, the political and territorial reach of modern Russia has extended well into the 21st century, presenting new challenges to the hegemony of the United States, as well as the European Union. Contemporary Russia however, denotes itself in a rollercoaster of socio-economic twists and turns, starting with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, whose foundations had cracked under the seams following Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost agendas a few years prior. From the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the following two years had signified the erosion of the Soviet Union, and the resulting loss of Russian paternalism towards their former comrades in Eastern Europe and Central Asia had a profound effect on the Russian psyche. The depopulation of ethnic Russians in former Soviet outposts failed to offset the population decline in the nation itself, as the generous socialist safety net had to adapt towards a market-oriented economy. The collapse of the Ruble, stagflation, insurgencies in Chechnya and social ills such as alcoholism had plagued Russia throughout the 1990s as the rest of the developed world had enjoyed relative prosperity. The misfortune of Russia’s transition towards free-market principles had culminated into humiliation as the state legislature, the Duma, had appealed for food aid following a poor harvest in 1998, signaling the ultimate downfall in national prestige.

Upon the dawn of the millennium, president Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned following rumors of his poor health and alcoholism. Yeltsin’s deputy prime minister, Vladimir Putin was duly appointed his successor until nationwide elections took place in March 2000. Curiously, Putin ran as an independent during the election, and had managed an unorthodox campaign, deciding not to participate in televised debates or appear on the state media. Such retreatist tactics had succeeded and Vladimir Putin won over half of the ballot, establishing a notorious chapter in Russia’s history that would shape global politics in the early 21st century. Putin’s first term in office from 2000 until 2004 had a narrowly domestic focus, concentrating on repairing the economic woes that had crippled the country during the 1990’s, and dealing with unrest in the North Caucasus involving insurgents in Chechnya with relative success, yet despite these tribulations, Putinism started to become synonymous with oligarchical rule by maintaining close relationships with business magnates and media moguls.

In 2004, Vladimir Putin won 71% of the popular vote in a second nationwide election; a landslide by Western margins. This term began the start of Russia’s affront towards American and European Union hegemony, and the start of crackdowns on civil liberties placing the country at odds with political progressiveness. Political dissidents and journalists began to experience challenges in relation to freedom of speech, and opposition protests were broken up with vigor and brute force. With his United Russia party winning office in 2008, Putin bypassed presidential term limits by appointing himself prime minister, under the premiership of Dmitry Medvedev; a move that was universally panned as political puppeteering. During this period, tensions with the West were strained following the 2008 invasion of Georgia in order to sustain the two unrecognized breakaway republics; South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In 2012, Putin was eligible for the presidency yet again, and subsequently won the vote with a decisive, yet slightly lower ballot of 63.6%. His current term of office has been marked by a foreign policy that has had the Obama administration hot on it’s heels, particularly after the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine following the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev two years later in 2014. In a chapter that shocked the international community, the seizure of Crimea into Russia’s domain had sparked a sporadic ground war in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, involving the self styled Donbass People's Republic, and Luhansk People's Republic, purportedly backed by Russia. Sanctions between the United States and Russia were swiftly traded as a war of words had punctured the relations between the two countries, furthermore the European Union had also penalized Russia with a trade embargo.

Central Issues

Economy
The World Bank regards the Russian Federation as a high-income economy, with a free market consensus operating throughout the country. That being said, there still exists a state monopoly on the energy sectors that operate nationwide, with control of Russia’s natural resources still within the government's clutch. Collectivization of agriculture failed to stay in sync with the emergence of privatization as many of the communal farming practices of the Soviet days were placed in individual ownership, further changing the dynamics of the economy.

The manufacturing and sale of military armaments are particularly notable, as Russia’s arm exports had totaled $15.7 billion in 2013, with the United States pipping Russia into first place in terms of gross military exports. Specialist functionaries such as air missile defense systems, submarines and naval ships ensure that Russia remains competitive with this field, although it has been alleged that many of these sales are geared towards rogue states and regimes, such as Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria.

Vladimir Putin's premiership initially had a favorable presence on the economy, as his emphasis on exploiting Russia’s energy reserves had resulted in a sharp rise in the disposable income of the working population, yet the emergence of an established oligarchy within Putin's circle had ensured that the bulk of the country's newly acquired wealth laid in the few, not the many.

The 2014/15 financial year saw Russia’s relative prosperity stemmed as the political and economic fallout from both the worldwide drop in oil prices, and the joint U.S/E.U sanctions from the Ukrainian intervention had taken it’s toll on the economy. GDP in real terms had contracted by -4.1% in the third quarter of 2015, yet the World Bank predicts a negligible degree of growth in 2016 at around 0.7%, suggesting that Western sanctions would only have a temporary effect on the Russian economy.

Politics and Government
The Russian Federation is a semi-presidential republic, with a president serving alongside a prime minister. In addition to this, Russia is entirely federalized in its political make-up, whereas the administrative divisions are able to exercise a degree of autonomy much like the United States, India and Nigeria. The presidential incumbent is Vladimir Putin, who has curiously served in this office from 2000 to 2008, before intermittently becoming prime minister from 2008 to 2012, only to return to the high office in 2012 where he is serving his current term at the Kremlin. Putin’s long term political counterpart is Dmitry Medvedev, who has served as the nation's prime minister since 2012. Medvedev is notable for having served as the Russian president in the periods when Vladimir Putin was prime minister, essentially signifying a political role reversal between the two.

Putin’s current term has been cast by Western standards as undemocratic and adverse towards civil liberties. U.S based non-partisan organization Freedom House has deemed contemporary Russia to be “not free” as a number of journalists have been murdered and human rights activists have been imprisoned for dubious charges. The U.K-based Economic Intelligence Unit proclaimed Russia to be an “authoritarian regime” following Putin's 2012 presidential run which would secure his presidency until at least 2018, teetering towards his twentieth year at the Kremlin.

Russia’s foreign policy aims appear to challenge American hegemony and the expansion of the European Union on its borders, not wanting to avoid NATO and Russian ground forces facing off against each other. There has also been quasi-nationalist desires to restore a degree of pride that may have been lost during the 1990’s, resulting in an emergent Russia ready to sway it’s influence on the world stage. Endorsements of rogue states such as Syria have resulted in Russia’s foreign intervention in the country to try and prop up the Assad regime against combative elements such as the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic State. Such behavior has alarmed the Western world, and Putin’s actions hold testament to the resurgent Russia that had laid politically, militarily, and economically dormant since the Soviet Union's demise.

U.S - Russian relations
It is no secret that the bilateral relationship between the United States and Russia has been historically frosty, yet the ideological spats have now been swept under the carpet. The 1990’s represented a deep thaw as it seemed that Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin had envisioned a post Cold-War world in the same way, but this thaw had stemmed at the dawn of the 21st century. Vladimir Putin’s Russia saw a marked shift away from political reconciliation with the White House, towards a more challenging, confrontational style of diplomacy that has had Washington nervous on the world stage. The Obama administration has bore the brunt of the strain, as differences over the Ukraine crisis and the Syrian civil war had almost encapsulated a return to a bipolar world.

The first signs of assertiveness had emerged during the Bush administration, as Putin had consistently opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, yet he did not veto any measures against Saddam's regime at the time. It was also at this time that NATO greatly expanded it’s scope in Eastern Europe; a move that Putin saw as an affront to his country’s sphere of influence. This affront was exacerbated by the United State’s decision to build anti-ballistic missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and Poland; two former Warsaw Pact members. It was alleged that these military installations were designed to deter rogue states such as Iran or North Korea from launching a nuclear attack, yet Putin had dismissed this position as a fallacy. Shortly after the 2008 presidential elections in Russia, Dmitry Medvedev had announced at the Kremlin that he was to procure a quantity of small-range missiles in Kaliningrad, an exclave straddling the border with NATO-backed Poland and Lithuania.

In the same year, Russia launched a full scale invasion of Georgia in order to provide sustenance towards two breakaway regions; South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia claimed that Georgia was bombing civilian areas within these regions, and had intervened to protect the two de jure republics, whilst Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili had to plead to the international community regarding the violation of Georgia’s sovereignty. The United States rushed to Saakashvili’s assistance, providing crucial military and humanitarian aid to Tbilisi, deepening the rift with Russia.

In 2013, the Edward Snowden affair had taken hold as a series of mass surveillance disclosures through the website Wikileaks. Former CIA employee Edward Snowden had copied and published classified information from the United States National Security Agency (NSA), resulting in the U.S Department of Justice pressing charges under the 1917 Espionage Act, requesting his repatriation back to Washington for his trail. Snowden seeked asylum in Russia and was granted temporary residence in Moscow, further aggravating the relationship between the two countries as a result of these actions.

Capitalizing on the Ukraine Crisis in February 2014, Russia annexed and occupied Crimea claiming the territory as it’s own after a dubious referendum. President Obama panned the move by Russia and slapped sanctions on Russian officials and companies. Putin responded with it’s own sanctions on the U.S and E.U, as Russia piled in support for the pro-Russian rebels fighting Ukrainian troops in the east of the country. In that year, the Ukraine Freedom Support Act was passed by Washington, ensuring that Russia’s state owned industries would be unable to harness Western technology and resources, as well as continuing to provide military assistance to Ukraine.

The most recent chapter in U.S-Russian relations involves Putin’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Whilst the United States and her Western and Arab allies have formed a coalition in backing numerous Anti-Assad forces, Russia had set up naval bases in Tartus and Latakia, straddling Syria’s western seaboard in support of the regime. Within this mix, both the United States and Russia currently conduct operations against the so called Islamic State, yet there lacks a degree of cooperation in how to best tackle ISIL’s threat to the region. In October and November 2015, Russia, the United States and a medley of international partners participated in the Vienna Process; a series of negotiations aimed at providing a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Syria. The outcome of the talks were inconclusive as the United States and her allies proposed Bashar Al-Assad step down from power, whilst Russia and Iran continued their endorsement of the regime. Despite the different opinions between the two countries, there have been subtle signs of political thawing as both Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin are still ready to face each other on the negotiating table. In November 2015, the G-20 summit took place in Antalya, Turkey with both of the leaders engaging on an informal level, suggesting that a degree of communication is necessary given the situation in Syria.

Russian - European Union Relations
Russia’s contemporary relation with the European Union has been far from pragmatic, as member states often act collectively in their dealings with the Kremlin in a form of unilateral diplomacy. That being said, both the EU and Russia rely on each other to an extent for trade and energy, yet this relationship has been challenging, especially within the wake of the 2014 annexation of Crimea. There have been a number of incidents however, that have tested the two blocs.

One such spat arose through a gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine. Although Ukraine is not a member of the European Union, the end of the 2000’s signaled a closer tie between Kiev and Brussels after funding was granted to upgrade Ukraine's gas pipelines. Naturally, Putin was skeptical of such dealings, as it was deemed that yet another country was pulling away from Russia’s sphere of influence towards the EU’s clutch.

There have also been accusations of Russia allocating funds towards eurosceptic political parties on both sides of the political spectrum throughout Europe. Alternative for Germany and the French National Front have both been indicted in a political slush fund directed from the Kremlin, provoking EU officials to express their concern over the potential manipulation of Europe's internal politics. Regardless of the differences between Russia and the European Union, there are crucial areas of policy that both blocs are willing to co-operate on; known as the “Four Common Spaces”. These areas of cooperation concern external security, research and education, visa facilitation and economic freedoms, yet the recent sanctions slapped on the Kremlin have brought many of these agreements into disrepute, with much of the dialogue having been suspended since March 2014.

Candidates' Positions on Russia


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