Biden-Putin Summit: who won the match of wills?

It is now the morning after the widely anticipated video conference tête-à-tête between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and it is time to put our Kremlinology skills to work. By that I mean to say there is very little today in the public domain to provide clear answers to what may have been achieved, or to put it more brashly, who won the match of wills. We must rely on small hints that we can tweak out from mainstream media, which has, of course, been hand fed by Washington.

First, reading The New York Times and the Financial Times today we see that the bluster coming from Washington in the run-up to the contest has been deflated and something closer to the reality of U.S. leverage over Russia or lack of it is coming through.  I will not go beyond these two leading newspapers of the USA and the United Kingdom, because a brief perusal of Continental papers like Le Soir in Belgium, Le Figaro in France and the Frankfurter Allgemeine in Germany shows that coverage of the Biden-Putin summit is negligible. That relative disinterest in and of itself also counts as deflating the inflammatory Biden Administration bluster which came before.

As regards my two mainstream flagships, I note the subtle change in numbers.  A couple of weeks ago, I read that the Russians had 250,000 troops moved south to the Ukrainian border region. A week ago, it appeared there were 150,000 but many more could be brought in.  Today I read that the Russians have 70,000 troops standing by in the region adjoining the border with Ukraine.

Yesterday we read that the US had agreed with its European allies on a set of crippling economic sanctions to impose on Russia if it invaded Ukraine.  Today’s NYT tells us that a Russian invasion “could end Russia’s hopes of completing the Nord Stream II pipeline to Europe.”  But that has been at the top of the U.S. agenda for the last five years or more, and it is still placed in the conditional tense.  The message is even more diluted in the FT this morning: “The U.S. is putting pressure on Germany to block Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as part of a package of sanctions that would be implemented in the event of Vladimir Putin invading Ukraine.”

There is hardly mention of the cut-off from SWIFT and halt to convertibility of the ruble into pounds, euros and dollars which had been in the threat list given to the press by Russia-hater in residence at the State Department, Victoria Nuland.  Is it any wonder, then, that the Russian stock market this morning did not react at all to US threats of kicking Russia out of the world financial system and was in positive territory at the open.

From the brief highlights of the meeting released to the media by the Kremlin, we learn that both presidents expressed satisfaction with the meetings of their delegations over cyber security which followed from their face to face summit in Geneva in June.  We also are told that some small progress was made addressing the reduction of the respective diplomatic presence in both countries to crippling levels: as a first step, the Americans are granting the Russians access to the diplomatic properties that were seized at the end of the Obama presidency and start of the Trump presidency in violation of international law. In the context of a virtual meeting set up in great haste for the ostensible purpose of bullying Russia into abandoning its alleged plans to invade Ukraine in the coming two months, these little signs of “business back to normal” put in question the depth of the crisis being addressed.

Finally, I note that today Biden has reversed course on his coziness with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.  Before the video summit, Zelensky had been led to believe that he would hear from the American president immediately afterwards.  Now, in what is clearly a humiliating put-down, Zelensky has been told to await a call from Biden on Thursday, that is after the American President has conferred with his West European allies.

However tentative all the above remarks may be, it is a safe guess that there will now be a war between Russia and Ukraine only if Kiev launches a military assault on the Russian backed rebel provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk.  It is now crystal clear that no Western military aid will come to save the necks of the Ukrainians when the Russians move in, as they will definitely do to save their Donbas brethren, many of whom are Russian Federation passport holders.  And assuming that Zelensky has any sense of self-preservation and desire to enjoy the millions he has surely amassed during  his brief time in office,  he would likely be on the first private jet out to Israel or wherever, should his generals march on Donbas under instructions from the Right Sector and neo-Nazi radicals who have never been properly stripped of power.

That being said, the avoidance of war tomorrow does not mean the problem of U.S.-Ukraine-Russian relations has been solved in any way.  Vladimir Putin is not one to kick the can down the road. It will be solved on his watch before 2024. But having shouted “wolf” once, as it did in the days leading up to this summit, Washington will be ever less able to rally Europe to its side in the future over the supposed Russian menace.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Biden has set the mousetrap: what mouse will he catch?

Today the “international community” is waiting impatiently for the start of the Biden-Putin video conference which is scheduled to begin at 18.00 Moscow time, 10.00 AM Washington time. While the proceedings will be closed to the public, the opening salutations will be aired and much will be made by our pundits of the body language of the two leaders. Every minute that the two men spend together will be weighed by our television and press analysts for what that says about the substance of the talks. Then there will be the press conferences of the two presidents immediately after the video conference, providing still more of a feast for the journalists and commentators.

In the event we are awaiting, all attention will be directed to one man, Vladimir Putin, to see if he flinches before the threats of dire economic sanctions that Biden has prepared with the clear backing of Congressional hawks and with alleged backing of the European allies should the Russians do what Washington says they are planning, namely invade Ukraine.. The sanctions list that has been released to the public includes cut-off from the international settlements body SWIFT and halting the convertibility of the ruble into dollars, euros or pounds. Such measures would be unprecedented in the post-Cold War period and, if the Russians had not long rehearsed their own devastating response for the West, would normally constitute a casus belli.

 In short, Biden and his associates are surely congratulating themselves on the way they have set the mousetrap for Putin, who will be damned if he does invade Ukraine and damned if he doesn’t when the Kiev forces retake the Donbass. Should Putin choose not to invade, for whatever reason, with or without a Ukrainian march on Donbass, then Biden can claim that his standing up to the Autocrat worked, and he will  potentially raise his domestic standing with the American electorate as defender of the U.S.-led world order. This, by the way, is one scenario which I failed to identify in my earlier writings on the U.S –Russian confrontation over Ukraine.  How well a zero sum scenario will actually play with the Republicans and Democratic hawks remains to be seen.

Vladimir Putin will come to the conference in a self-confident mood.  His blitz trip down to India yesterday and talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi fully validated Russian foreign policy at the global level. Their meeting ended in re-confirmation of the special strategic relationship that India and Russia have enjoyed now for decades, which has survived the pressures arising from the fast development of an informal but deep Russian alliance with China, India’s greatest adversary of the moment. Indeed, Modi is proceeding with implementation of the S-400 contract with Russia in the face of threatened sanctions from ….the USA, which has been actively courting India from the time of the Trump administration.

Moreover, notwithstanding Putin’s general caution in exercising the country’s military might, no one should doubt for a moment his choice when faced with what the Russian leadership and political classes perceive as an existential threat from U.S. and NATO forces in Ukraine. Kiev’s retaking Donbass with U.S. help would amount to such a threat.

And we should keep in mind that the kind of sanctions now being mentioned by the Americans have been discussed for several years. Together with China, Russia has prepared work-around solutions to manage its affairs whatever sanctions are thrown up by Washington.

Of course, there is the real question of whether the cut-off from SWIFT and scuttling of ruble convertibility in their currencies is truly enforceable on the European allies, whatever Biden may have wanted to hear from them in the run-up to today’s video conference.

If, as a direct consequence, the Russians cannot be paid for their gas deliveries to Europe, which amount to 40% of total European imports, 30% of actual consumption today ,then they will have contractual basis for stopping those deliveries.  It is inconceivable that even the American vassals who run Europe can withstand the rebellion of business and general public domestically when the lights go out just to please Mr. Biden and play America’s political games. Now, of all times, as winter is setting in and gas reserves on European territory are low!

Reporting in the Financial Times and other major media on the response of NATO allies to the salesman’s work of Mr. Blinken and the Pentagon generals over the past couple of weeks has avoided these fundamental questions. We hear only that the Europeans, including Germany, were finally persuaded by American intelligence that the Russians are preparing for an invasion of Ukraine.  We have not heard how these countries will likely respond to such an invasion if it takes place. Will they not investigate under what conditions it takes place, that is to say, who actually starts the war, Ukraine by overrunning  Donbass or Russia by unprovoked aggression. Under a similar scenario in Georgia in 2008, Europe did its own investigation on the ground to assess responsibility, led by then French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He came back with the conviction that the Georgians were to blame and no sanctions on Russia followed.

Finally, no survey of the dynamics of a European follow-through on the sanctions threat can avoid dealing with the question of how the new German government will respond.  The three party coalition formed by SPD leader Olaf Scholz was assembled over the heads of the German electorate, like the other undemocratic  coalitions that rule much of Continental Europe today. Formulation of policies, programs and distribution of ministerial portfolios among the three parties was the result of horse-trading between them. The result is quite fragile if put to the test, and imposition of draconian sanctions on Russia would be just such a test.  It is inconceivable that the business friendly Free Democrats will support Scholz if one of his first acts in power would be to destroy the German economy by depriving industry of gas supplies and leaving the general population to spend their pending lockdown freezing in unheated  homes.

So, who is left for Mr. Biden to catch in his mousetrap?  One person only:  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Will he be sufficiently stupid to spring the trap on himself, possibly fatally, by risking a war with Russia that everyone knows he cannot win if Mr. Putin does not hold back. Even this B Grade actor cannot be that dumb.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

A Tale of Two Cities: Cultural Life in Brussels and St Petersburg during Covid Wave 4

In my recent online lecture to the Prince George Golitsyn Memorial Library in St Petersburg presenting my newly published book Russia in the Turbulent 1990s, I remarked that one of my main conclusions from living in Russia at that time of economic collapse and generalized misery for the population was that the Performing Arts remained at top international levels despite it all and even underwent a renaissance.  I noted that High Culture was clearly a defining element of modern day Russia, and went on to say that today, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic calamity this remains true: the cultural life in Russia’s capitals is far richer than in any European state or than in North America.  This very point was hammered home two days ago when I received an email from the Mariinsky Theater setting out its program of events on its three stages of downtown Petersburg over the coming six weeks of the holiday season.

Having spent a couple of weeks in Petersburg at the end of October – start of November, and having attended evenings of ballet at the Mariinsky and at another theater hosting the Diaghilev Festival of dance, I know full well that these establishments were securing the welfare of visitors, perfomers and staff by requiring QR codes from all ticket holders and requiring the wearing of masks at all times once inside.

 I also know that  the current Wave 4 of Covid-19 has hit Russia hard, in particular, its most densely populated cities, St Petersburg and Moscow.  If we compare infection rates per 100,000 population, hospitalizations, ICU units occupied and the like, the situation in Petersburg over the past several weeks to present has been roughly similar to what we have been experiencing in Brussels.  The big difference has been in “outcomes”: mortality is substantially higher in Russia due to the still low rate of vaccination.  Only in the past few days, under very great pressure of media and imposition of what is effectively a lockdown on unvaccinated seniors, has there been a rush to vaccination centers. As of today, the rate of vaccination in Petersburg among adults approaches 55%, roughly comparable to that in Brussels, if way below the levels in Flanders and Wallonia.

Meanwhile, the way institutions of Culture are being shabbily treated in Belgium speaks of cowardice of our elected officials and pandering to prejudices of the N-VA leadership, if I may be allowed to point fingers.  The decisions reached on Friday at the latest session of the Consultative Committee of the federal government meeting with the leaders of the Kingdom’s three Regions, were a disgrace as they pertain to the cultural establishment.  Theaters were placed under a strict limit of two hundred ticket holders even given the requirement of masks and Covid Safety Passes, meaning proof of full vaccination or recovery from the virus. Such limits can only aggravate the already dire financial situation of these houses after 18 months of negligible revenue.

To their credit, the Directors of the Royal Theater La Monnaie, of the Bozar complex which includes concert halls, of the National Theater of Wallonia-Brussels and of the Royal Flemish Theater have issued an Open Letter to the public flatly rejecting the illogic of the latest government restrictions. I refer the reader to the opera house website to read the details of the measures these establishments have put in place to assure public safety and prevent spread of infections in keeping with the recommendations of Science: https://www.lamonnaie.be/fr/mmm-online/2234-les-maisons-de-la-culture-plaident-pour-une-vision-a-long-terme.  Moreover, you do not have to be a genius to follow their argument that imposition of a limit of 200 persons means half of the normal occupancy for one hall while it means one-sixth of occupancy for another hall; in other words, the one size fits all approach of this Government is patent nonsense.

I say “bravo” to Peter de Caluwe at Monnaie and to his colleagues for their brave stand.  May they prevail over the policy of malicious disregard for the Performing Arts being pressed on the federal government by the Minister President of one region only, Flanders.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

The United States pushes Russia to the brink of war, then cries “wolf”

Later today, 5 December 2021, a local radio station in Los Angeles will be airing a half-hour interview I taped on Thursday with Scott Horton, a radio host affiliated with the “dissident” online digest of international news www.antiwar.com  The topic of our discussion was the ongoing escalation of tensions at the Russia-Ukraine border and whether a Russian invasion in the coming months is likely.

In the interview I elaborated on points made a week earlier in my essay about this same subject on this website and on my LinkedIn accounts, namely that the entire community of commentators on Russia, myself included, had been focusing attention on Russia’s build-up of men and materiel near Ukraine for a war when Vladimir Putin’s actual purpose was not to subjugate  Ukraine but  to get the attention of the United States and warn against crossing his country’s ‘red lines’ in Ukraine, red lines that he now defined as introducing attack-capable missile systems in Ukraine. 

In an online Q&A with the international business community on November 30 entitled “Russia Calling” the Russian President said such use of Ukrainian territory by American forces would reduce to 5 – 7 minutes the warning time on incoming missiles to Moscow. He stated that Russia’s response was ready for implementation:  to station its new hypersonic missiles on ships just outside the U.S. territorial waters, thereby reducing to the same 5- 7 minutes the time to target in Washington.  In short, invasion of Ukraine had no place in his pending strategy.

However, the ball did not stop there. In the last couple of days, President Joe Biden has said the United States does not recognize Russia’s red lines in Ukraine. He said the U.S. is putting in place assistance to Ukraine and taking other measures that would make a Russian invasion very difficult. Meanwhile top Pentagon and State Department officials have been banging the drum once again about alleged Russian war plans in Ukraine, including by release of maps showing the likely routes of ground attack. We are told the Russians have dedicated 250,000 men to this mission. 

For their part, the Russian media speak of 150,000 Ukrainian troops that were moved up to the borders of the rebel, Russian backed provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk. This represents one half of the Ukrainian Army. 

U.S. diplomacy has been in intense discussions with NATO allies both at a gathering in Riga this past week and more generally to align the response to any “Russian aggression” that may come.  Potentially draconian sanctions on Russia have been discussed, we are told. These would likely include a halt on regulatory approval for the Nord Stream II gas pipeline and exclusion of Russia from global bank clearing systems.

Consequently, in light of this new flare-up and ahead of the crisis talks scheduled to take place  between Biden and Putin in the coming week, I will try once again to weigh the interests of the parties in this confrontation without going into who acted first and who is reactive.

My position on cause and effect remains resolutely defiant of the Western media consensus about Russia’s culpability. The media differ only in the degree of foolishness  by which they explain Russian objectives and thinking processes. Even the most prestigious and seemingly serious Western media like the BBC have been handing the microphone to utter nitwits whose only merit for their purposes is hatred and disdain for Russia. On this morning’s BBC news broadcast, several minutes of air time were given to a dunce who rattled on about how Russia’s coming invasion was intended to distract attention from domestic woes such as the faltering economy and the poorly managed fight against the Covid pandemic.    

I ask instead what does Washington hope to achieve by pouring kerosene on the flames of the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation.

First, to the extent that Washington can keep the “guard rails” in place and not touch off an all-out war with Russia, it seeks to do precisely what that gal on the BBC was attributing to Mr. Putin:  to create a diversion from its own political travails at  home.  Going back 70 years to the start of the first Cold War, domestic U.S. politics have always been a major factor in the ratcheting up or down of the conflict with Russia over global “leadership.” 

At this moment, though Biden has won a partial victory on his domestic infrastructure legislation, he is widely seen in the U.S. establishment as a weak president in defending U.S. interests abroad because of the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Political pundits see a likely loss of Democratic control in the House and Senate in the mid-term elections that are less than a year away. And if muscle-flexing on the world stage might help the image of the man and his Administration, how much safer it is to do that precisely with Russia, which has a long record of cautious, reactive behavior when under threat rather than to try new provocations against Beijing, who otherwise are Washington’s number one adversary today. The Chinese, under President Xi, are both very assertive and unpredictable.  As we approach the anniversary of “Pearl Harbor” there is no doubt the U.S. is more wary of China’s readiness to defend its neighborhood proactively than it is of Russia doing the same.

As seen from Washington, its present encouragement to the Ukrainians to be irresponsible and try to reassert control over their rebel provinces by military force , its threats to Russia to keep its forces out of the way, all appear to be a ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ bet. If the Ukrainians should, against all expectations, resist any Russian onslaught thanks to NATO training and war materiel, and retake the Donbas, then Moscow has a bloody nose and becomes a less serious threat to American interests globally.  If Kiev is smashed, then so what: the U.S. still wins, because the European allies will be compelled to go along with imposition of draconian sanctions on the “aggressor” that do great damage to the Russian economy, to its military capability, and to its global standing. And Biden will have won laurels that serve him well next November. Republicans who are clamoring for his scalp today will just have to shut up.

Of course, all of these calculations on the American side are reckless.  The Russians have plainly said that they deem the Ukrainian government to be U.S-controlled, not a free agent, and they hold Washington directly responsible for whatever may happen on the ground in their neighborhood. So the threat of a regional war remaining localized and not escalating to exchange of blows between the Great Powers is unclear. Moreover, there is the question of how the Chinese may use the pending conflagration over Ukraine to their own advantage in settling their contest with the U.S. over Taiwan and control of the South China Sea.

As I have been saying for some time, the near term fate of humanity rests not in combating Global Warming but in resolving the threats to global peace emanating from Washington as it tries by hook or by crook to maintain the worldwide hegemony that is fast slipping through its fingers.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

“Swans of color” and Anti-vaxxers

My recent essay entitled “Swans of Color” immediately found a receptive readership. The censorious, self-righteous political correctness driving the anti-Cultural wave that is sweeping through Europe and the United States is getting on the nerves of a great many sensible folks of all political stripes, though, most particularly, it rankles those having conservative political views. Among the conservatives, we also find the greatest number of anti-Vaxxers, a position very much in the news these days as we pass through the Fourth Wave of Covid. 

I will explore what these seemingly very different positions have in common, what is respectable therein and what is destructive.  Let me assert here at the outset that I deplore the anti-Vaxxers for being  excessively egoistical, anti-social and dangerous for the survival of our health infrastructure.

At the same time, I expand below my remarks on political correctness which only scratched the surface in my Swan essay and did not get far beyond my shock over the havoc now being encouraged by those presently in power on two continents in the name of “inclusiveness.”

                                                                  *****

What the promoters of political correctness on the Left and the anti-Vaxxers on the Right have in common is hunger for power, either to stay in power or to seize power depending only on where one is at any given moment. In this sense they align with all major social movements of our time. Activists over Climate Change or Black Lives Matter, just like anti-Migrant Populists, are only partly defenders of ideas; they are ultimately presenting positions on who holds Power in society. The ideas are levers for mobilizing voters.

Secondly, the anti-Vaxxers and the would-be enforcers of current political correctness have in common an identification of The State as the underlying subject of their debate.  The anti-Vaxxers largely  describe themselves as defenders of their bodies against restrictions and  mask wearing or vaccination mandates which are impositions of an absolutist State. They are defenders of freedom of choice and freedom of expression.  Of course, they ignore the old rule that one is free to do as one pleases until one infringes  the rights of others, which is the case at hand when attacking measures taken or proposed to manage the Covid crisis by saving lives and protecting the economy which feeds us all.

With respect to our enforcers of political correctness, they tend to see The State as an unqualified force for good. Yet, the net effect of their removing books from libraries, cancelling ballet performances in the name of “European values” is to remove all gems of our cultural heritage, the rocks on which our civilization stands.  It is one more manifestation of the attempt to deprive us of our past, both the good and the bad,  that we saw a year ago following the onset of the BLM movement whereby statues to colonialists, slave-owners and philanthropists of the past were demonstratively torn down before enthralled crowds and jubilant television journalists on two continents and on one island nation just off the coast of Europe. All of these various manifestations of indignation over deemed violation of today’s latest standards of “inclusiveness” have one convenient outcome:  the present day population is left without any orientation other than what our current political leaders tell us to believe. This is a recipe for state absolutism.  It destroys the underpinnings of all democracy, namely pluralism, as we are left with just one world view, that of today’s powers that be.  The obvious fact that today’s “values” will be no more durable than those of the past troubles none of our leaders,  whose real objective is to enjoy the fruits of power here and now at our expense.

Who are the leaders I have in mind?  First and foremost they are present in Brussels in the European Institutions.  The latest demonstration of what these folks are up to has come to public attention in the past week: the draft recommendations on acceptable language in all EU communications coming down from the Commission.  Here we see precisely the pandering to LGBTQ, to illegal and legal immigrant minorities, to rabid feminists who, it is assumed, will take pleasure and comfort from seeing off expressions such as “Ladies and Gentlemen” from public speakers and who want to see mention of Christian holidays like “Christmas” systematically removed from all public pronouncements.  Happily , Italian statesmen summoned the courage to veto this last-named assault on Europe’s cultural heritage by our secularists in power.

Nonetheless, the utter mindlessness of today’s political correctness is becoming law here in the Kingdom of Belgium. The newspapers of this week inform us that henceforth Belgian national ID cards will no longer carry the binary designation of sex of the bearer. Sex will no longer be mentioned at all!  Bravo, ye practitioners of the Brave New World….

Nothing personal in all this, to be sure. It is just excessive indulgence in what politics was, is and will forever be: Power and who enjoys it.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Russian attack on Ukraine imminent?

 

In the past couple of weeks, nearly every one of my peers in the community of analysts – Russia watchers has weighed in on Russia’s possible plans to invade Ukraine.  We have been given detailed breakdowns of the forces and equipment which Russia has moved into the border region with Ukraine, and we have heard every imaginable scenario for the use of these forces when the weather turns colder, as in February, for example.

 Others of my peers have reckoned in great detail the political and economic price which Russia would be compelled to pay if it were reckless enough to invade and seek to neuter Ukraine in one way or another. One analyst has described Russia’s possibly dividing Ukraine in two at the Dnieper River and forming a Russia-friendly state to the east of that divide, while allowing the rump state of rabid Ukrainian nationalists to go to hell on its own.

For its part, the Kremlin has vehemently denied having any designs on Ukraine and claims that Washington is behind this fake news which is intended to encourage the Zelensky government to do something quite stupid such as stage an all-out attack on the Donbas, using the latest weapons which it has received from Washington and its allies, in the mistaken belief that it will be backed up by Washington if things go awry. In short, this would be a replay of the scenario in Georgia in 2008 when the very same Biden who is now US President was feeding false hopes of support to the then Georgian President Saakashvili .

In my own unpublished ruminations about what is or is not going on at the Russian-Ukrainian border and what it means for peace or war in the coming months, I directed my attention to the issue of ‘red lines’ that Vladimir Vladimirovich has called out in various forums over recent weeks, though these red lines were never spelled out. Both in what he said and in remarks by unofficial spokesmen for the Kremlin like television news director Dmitry Kiselyev, I assumed that the Russian build-up of forces at the border was meant as a signal to the United States to desist from its stationing weapons and troops on Ukrainian territory in an attempt to achieve by stealth what it could not achieve by formally bringing Ukraine into NATO: to use the territory as an advance platform against Russia within the overall policy of “containment.”

Now, in the latest remarks to come from the Kremlin, it would appear that we all, my peers among Western commentators and I, have been wrong-footed.  Putin has said as clearly as conceivable within the traditional language of international diplomacy that if the USA puts offensive missile systems onto Ukrainian soil, thereby cutting the warning time of attack on Moscow to 5-7 minutes, then the Russians will station their hypersonic attack missiles on surface and submarine vessels within 5-7 minutes striking distance of Washington, D.C.

In short, what we potentially now have before us is the Cuban Missile Crisis Redux.  Only this time the gamblers with the fate of the world are playing with the cards face up.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

P,S. – One reader of this essay on my LinkedIn account asked me to document the new position statement by Putin regarding what it will do if its red lines in Ukraine are crossed by US and NATO. Good question! Putin made this explicit warning on November 30 during the online forum for the international business community, Russia Calling. It was partly reported by Reuters, I stress PARTLY: https://www.reuters.com/markets/stocks/putin-warns-russia-will-act-if-nato-crosses-its-red-lines-ukraine-2021-11-30/ Moreover, as a splendid example of how mainstream media use weasel language to conceal from their readers what our ‘adversaries’ are saying, the article on this subject in the December 1st edition of the “Financial Times” also tells us everything but the main point about Russia’s planned response to the new potential threat, namely positioning its hypersonic missiles to give equally short warning time to those who threaten Russia via Ukraine, meaning Washington, D.C. Other, less prestigious news outlets were more forthcoming. I think in particular of The Daily Mail.. It bears mention as well that such positioning of Russian hypersonic missiles just off the shores of the United States, in international waters 200 miles out, was outlined by Putin as Russia’s new capability arising from the various state of the art weapons systems he announced to the world in his State of the Nation address a couple of years ago. Since then Russia has gone on from prototypes and tests to full serial production and deployment of these missiles which may be carried on board surface vessels in shipping containers or on attack submarines.

Bringing Belarus Closer: Interview with Belarus Radio – Television

Bringing Belarus Closer: Interview aired on Belarus Radio-Television

As I remarked last week with regard to TRT World, it is a pleasure to see the emergence of high quality English language global broadcasting from countries which never enjoyed a place on the dais hogged by CNN and the BBC.

Today I share with you the link to a 15-minute interview on the Belarus confrontation with Europe hosted by Belarus Radio & Television.  In an unhurried manner, I was allowed to cover the waterfront of issues behind the news of the Belarus – Polish showdown over migrants, and to put in context the geopolitical situation of Minsk that underlies US and EU efforts to make of the country a second front in their efforts to “contain” Russia by whatever means at their disposal, even at the risk of all-out war.

In particular I was able to call attention to the time dimensions that are missing from all mainstream media coverage. Our journalists tend to stay within the living memory of their profession, meaning, generally, what happened yesterday. Opinion page political scientists bring in their own more retrospective views going back perhaps ten years. And then there is the historical perspective, which I am adding, showing that, in the given case today’s disputes have a time line that goes back four hundred years or more.

I note that no cuts whatsoever to the taped interview were made by the studio’s editors during production. This amounts to an exceptional level of respect for the interviewee. I assure you that anyone given the microphone by CNN will be lucky to see 5 minutes out of 60 actually aired following cuts to find just the remarks that match the corporate political line.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQ01yMkjtXI

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

“Swans of Color” and Wokeness on the Old Continent

As I have pointed out in the past with respect to the indigenous, home-grown Neo-Liberalism that swept through Continental politics over the past two decades in parallel to and not as derivation from the same development in the Anglo-Saxon world,  I point now to the latest manifestations of an indigenous “wokeness” in Europe that is following a parallel track of righteous intolerance that we see in the United States as promoted by Black Lives Matter and the anti-Culture bandwagon.. In both parts of the world the result is stifling political correctness that threatens anything resembling humanism, sophistication and breadth of thinking.

The latest outbreak of this insanity in Europe is in the ballet world.

In Berlin, we read the following in the online website “Slipped Disc” datelined November 26:

“The Staatsballet Berlin has quietly removed Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker from its year-end programme. Director

Christiane Theobald says it contains a Chinese dance and an oriental dance that amount to ‘a clear case of racism’ – even more so since the Berlin production follows Tchaikovsky’s 1892 original”

A fuller explanation of this cancellation may be found on thegoaspotlight.com, which quotes from the Russian business information website RBK.  As becomes clear in this article, the Russians are very interested party in the production and take the cancellation personally. Here we read:

“The directors did not like the appearance of children, whose faces are painted with dark paint, as well as the ‘stereotypical’ images of China and India in the ballet. The production will be presented to the audience, but later and in a revised version.

“The state Ballet of Berlin has refused to stage the Nutcracker by two Russian choreographers due to racial stereotypes, the acting head of the troupe Christian Theobald told Bild..

“She recalled that the play is a reconstruct of the original production of 1892 However, some elements that were acceptable at the time raise many questions in the modern world and need to be revisited, Theobald noted.

“For example,the directors were embarrassed in the appearance in the second act of children with faces painted with dark paint…

“Also criticized were the Chinese dance, where the dancers move with very small steps, and the oriental dance, in which the girls from the harem and the soloist with dark makeup participants.”

We may possibly explain these decisions in Berlin as anticipatory and precautionary measures of the management to cover its ass ahead of the installation in office of the new federal cabinet where the position of ‘commissar of culture’ has been assigned to a leading figure from the Greens Party, who are in general at the forefront of the new bigotry and self-righteousness to which German politics is prone..

However, the same virus seems to have attacked brains in the French cultural world, and did so at the very start of this calendar year, as we read in the web pages of REMIX News, www.rmx.news datelined 4 January 2021

“The recently appointed director of the Paris Opera House, Alexander Neef, plans to remove three of the best-known ballet choreographies from the repertoire on account of those allegedly promoting White dominance, Neef told Le Monde . The three ballets in question are The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Die Bajadere… all choreographed by the late Rudolf Nureyev, considered the best ballet dancer of his generation, according to Origo . The conflict goes back to September, incidentally, the month when Neef was appointed director. Then the artists of the Paris Opera House issued a manifesto entitled “On racial issues at the Paris Opera”, in which they said, among other things, that performers of colored skin will refuse to be masked as white when, for instance, dancing the role of a white swan.

“ While the management of the Paris Opera House denied the information in a somewhat lukewarm manner, French-Canadian academic and political commentator Mathieu Bock-Côté, in a commentary in Le Figaro, attributed the issue to the Black Lives Matter movement.

According to Le Monde, the three ballets in question have been targeted for the following reasons. In Swan Lake, the white swan is a symbol of good while the black swan that of evil. In The Nutcracker, critics found issues with the Arabic-themed dance Coffee…”

The spineless behavior of the directors in Berlin and Paris will lead to the utter gutting of repertoire if pursued without  resistance from art lovers.

Yes, indeed all of these classical gems from the 19th and early 20th century repertoire imbedded in their choreography features from the mental outlook of high society of their age. The remarks about national, ethnic, racial stereotypes in Tchaikowski’s works are accurate, but attempts at cleaning up the act, if the political will is there at the top of the troupes to do just that will run straight into the stereotyped musical composition which dealt in the popular melodies of flamenco, 1001 Nights Arabia, the Chinese Empire, Polish petty nobility, Russian folk ensembles and the like.  If the steps taken over from the Mariinsky choreographer of 1892, the brilliant French-Russian Petipas are found to be offensive to today’s thinking, what would one say of his follower, Fokin, who was the Russian impresario Diaghilev’s first choreographer for the Ballets Russes that brought these and contemporary masterpieces to Europe.  Yes, Fokin, had very cute tribal dances of blacks and other stereotypes in his pieces.  And so what?

The argument of the Paris Opera for delisting Swan Lake is even more strained, or shall we say, absurd.  Black Swan versus White Swan!  

This very same censorious behavior can sweep away most of Western classical literature.  I am now re-reading for the n’th time Dostoevsky’s incredibly rich Brothers Karamazov, which has vastly more to it than the dialogues from the Grand Inquisitor by which it is best known in Comp Lit 101 courses of American colleges.  It also speaks of patriarch Fedor Pavlovich Karamazov’s dealings in Odessa with Zhids and his even befriending Jews. It paints Poles in the most unflattering light as born card cheats, utterly dishonest people.  Yes, indeed, Dostoevsky had his own little prejudices.  And so what.  Only a certified idiot would tamper with his works, which are among the most brilliant contributions to world literature of all time not only in terms of the religious, ethical discourses of his protagonists but in the remarkable diversity of speech ranging from Old Church Slavonic to standard Russian of the street at the time to Frenchified Russian of the noble class, including the reprobate Fedor Karamazov.

As for the Russians’ view of the ongoing self-destruction of Western Civilization by their neighbors to the West, they have absolutely no problem with blackface, with Black Swans, and with stereotyped Chinese.  As they say, they never had black slaves, as did the Anglo-Saxon nations and the French, by the way. Instead they had and have today a ‘person of color,’ an offspring of Black Africa, Alexander Pushkin, as their national poet and universally recognized cultural hero.  Full stop.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Translation into English of my book presentation speech

Translation into English of my book presentation speech to the Golitsyn Library, St Petersburg,16 November 2021

Shortly after I delivered a Zoom presentation of my book Russia in the Turbulent 1990s: Diaries, Memoirs, Documents  (Россия в бурные 1990-е: Дневники, Воспоминания, Документы) to the Golitsyn Library in St Petersburg, I posted on my website the Russian text of my speech. This was further carried on my Linked-In account, where it attracted a number of visitors.  How many of those visitors were Russian-speakers I cannot say, but I assume many visitors were not and so could not appreciate what is a very important statement on the state of play in historiography of Russia’s “second revolution” in the 20th century, its years of painful transition from Communism to a market economy and democratic institutions in the 1990s.

For me, the appearance of this book in its Russian edition several weeks ago was a landmark on my life’s journey, as I explain in the speech.  Therefore, I now offer to English speakers a translation of the speech so that they may follow my reasoning.

I crafted the speech itself directly in Russian and did so in a literary style which, typically in the Russian language, meant paragraph long sentences and complicated grammar with often barely pronounceable participial phrases. The painful effort of oral delivery was clearly evident in the video recording of my speech that was posted by the Library and which I have put up on my website. However, that literary style enabled me to share with lapidary quality some complex observations on the creation and translation of my new book that I wanted to share with prospective readers and with the profession generally. I do that now in English below. May this message spur other participants in the expatriate world of Russia in the 1990s to come forward and add to the literature about those extraordinary times.

QUOTE

Good evening to you all and thanks for deciding to participate in this presentation of my book “Russia in the Turbulent 1990s.”

Firstly, I want to express my gratitude to my Russian publisher, Liki Rossii, St Petersburg for our fruitful collaboration in creating on the basis of my original two-volume, 1200 page English edition a book in Russian coming to 780 pages which I present to you today.

For you, book lovers, it is important to know that my partnership with Liki Rossii showed how useful it is to work together with professional editors when such possibility exists.  Unfortunately, I had no such possibility in the USA or in Western Europe when I was preparing the original edition in English. In the States many authors do as I did – they publish their books according to the formula “self-publishing,” a new and very widespread form of samizdat, which in fact is a return to the system of book publishing in the 18th and 19th centuries. To be author and consultant on the organization of your book as well as proofreader is a difficult burden.

Elizaveta Petrovna and Yuri Borisovich Shelaevy and their team gave me professional advice on shortening the text and optimizing the interest for prospective readers in this country, for example, by adding photographs which illustrate important moments in the narrative, and by adding a detailed Index of Names.  They of course, checked all the facts set out in the text. But surely their most important contribution was in editing the text with a view to eliminating inaccurate or simply erroneous selection of words and figures of speech in the translation from English.

On the cover of the book you will not find the word “translation.” Nor will you find the name of a translator.  In a certain sense the translator was me, but only in a certain sense.

The basic translation from English was done by a “machine.” I used the online program on the website www.linguee.ru.  I uploaded English files half a typed page at a time and a second later received back the Russian text.  Thus, I got the entire translation of 780 pages in the course of one month. Entirely for free. If I had assigned this task to a normal translator, the work would have lasted a year and the cost would have been prohibitively high.

I want to note that I myself managed to catch and correct many of the peculiar words and expressions that a machine translation gives you even today, after all the remarkable progress that translation software has made in the past few years.  Moreover, as I said at the outset, my colleagues at Liki Rossii further cleaned up the text to reach a satisfactory end result.

Bearing in mind that the Foreign Literature Department of the Mayakovsky Municipal Library of St Petersburg is one of the “sponsors” of today’s event, I think that this entire production process of my book can give my “host” some useful tips.

Thus, I have a book, and this publication is a landmark on my life’s journey. I am proud that right after its release in its English original edition, my work was purchased by the New York Public Library and by a group of other libraries in the USA. However, to be frank, the material in this book will surely be better appreciated here in Russia, where every educated person older than 50 knows the personalities in business, political and cultural life with whom I became acquainted, collaborated and wrote about in my diary notes written long before the appearance of this book.  In the USA or in Europe only a narrow circle of specialists knows about them.  This book is more about your history than about ours.

 Now I will explain to you why my book is a pioneer in its genre of diaries and memoirs about Russia written by foreigners who worked in Moscow and St Petersburg in the 1990s.

And in conclusion I will share with you several of the conclusions I have drawn from reading my diary entries published in this book as regards democracy in Russia during the Yeltsin years, as regards the challenges which both domestic Russian and foreign businesses faced at the time, and as regards cultural life in Russia during those years.  I emphasize that the diaries are in and of themselves raw material for your personal evaluation and each reader will find his or her own discoveries.

       * * * *

The foreign community in the Russian capital during the 1990s reached 50,000 English-speaking families at the peak, in 1995-1996. They held all the key jobs in the newly opened representative offices and production subsidiaries of Western companies and international organizations. As I explain in the chapter entitled “Who were we?” there were among us people of my own age, in their 50s and older, having experience of working in Russia during the Soviet period.  But there were also many youths, 15 – 20 years younger than me, who were recruited by Western companies for their knowledge of the language and ambition to earn salaries that were not available to them back home, to become managers right after completing their degree programs.

For our benefit, an English language periodical press was created. It was partly mainstream in terms of political orientation, partly “underground,” but always interesting. In my book, I quote from articles appearing there to add a measure of salt and pepper to the narrative.

After the default and financial crisis of August 1998, Western companies halted plans for expanding their activities in Russia and sharply cut their staff.  Within a year, half of all expatriates already had gone home and they were replaced by Russian managers.  This signified not so much the promotion of Russian employees up the business ladder as it did the scaling down of Russia in the global plans of international business.

Why is it that almost none of the participants of the community of expatriates have written about what they saw and did in Russia during those years? One reason is that in general and most everywhere it is not in the nature of your average businessman to keep diaries and to prepare books of memoirs. Their aim in life was succinctly and colorfully expressed by my boss in the company Diageo, Andrew, when he spoke to us, his team, at one of the corporate gatherings: “You should become filthy rich!” Period.

Furthermore, there is the contractual clause on confidentiality imposed on all managers at the higher levels of corporate life. And even putting aside the contracts of the 1990s, many of those individuals either are still working in companies or are paid consultants to companies and cannot allow themselves the freedom to speak out publicly about their past.

In these matters, I occupy a special position. First, I received an education as an historian and knew very well from the time of my doctoral research how important diaries can be: they can add color to an age and add the human dimension to otherwise dry facts in archival dossiers. Moreover, during the years of my stay in Russia as a general director of the representative offices of a number of the world’s leading companies in the field of elite alcoholic beverages, I knew that I occupied a unique perch from which to observe the life of the upper and middle strata of Russia society and their interaction with us, foreigners, during an historically rare moment of hectic change.  I felt obliged to set all this down on paper.

When five years ago I finally thought about writing a book about Russia in the 1990s, I had a rich store of diary notes written week after week during the entire period.  In addition, I had cuttings from newspapers of this period which provide a general background for my observations.

All of this was arranged in files sitting on the floor of my office in Brussels, files which I did not look at until the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. During lockdown it became clear that it was high time to write and publish this rich material. It was now or never.

Secondly, since the time that I left corporate business 18 years ago and became an analyst of international relations, a blogger, the author of books of essays and a participant in political talk-shows on television, I faced no obstacles preventing my sharing information about my past as expatriate manager in Russia which is not a commercial secret. I merely observed several precautionary measures: I deleted the last names of my immediate bosses, who might take offense at any infringement of their privacy, and I excluded mention of those personal quarrels which always arise in human relations and are not interesting for the reader. I followed the old and wise folk saying that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

The proof that my approach was correct came in the remarks of one of my colleagues from United Parcel Service, a man who made a brilliant career in the company and was for more than ten years the president of their subsidiary in Germany. He wrote to me after reading the chapter on my four years working in the company, from 1989 to 1993: “Gil, I did not know that you had such positive feelings about UPS when we worked together.”  And he then recommended my book to his colleagues and bosses in the company’s Atlanta headquarters.

* * * *

If you open the web page for the English edition of Russia in the Roaring 1990s on www.amazon.com, you will find the evaluation of the book written by the editor of the best known daily digest on news about Russia read in American university circles, David Johnson. I quote:

“Fascinating firsthand account of work, politics and life in Russia in the 1990s. You should read it! Very relevant to today.”

I put the accent on his last words – about the relevance of this book.  I have no doubt that he was talking about the idealized view of Yeltsin’s Russia as the golden standard for democracy, in contrast to today’s Russia of Vladimir Putin, who supposedly liquidated this democracy and replaced it with his “vertical of power” – in other words, with an authoritarian regime.

You should bear in mind that 75% of my book consists of diaries which were written long ago and not of memoirs written in 2021. This means that the content does not reflect the thinking of today but instead consists of observations made in that period as regards the arbitrary exercise of power, the constant war carried on by the Executive Branch against the elected deputies of the people, that is to say, the State Duma, under Yeltsin.

These diary entries show how governance was carried out via decrees and ministerial circulars supposedly interpreting the laws, and not in accordance with the letter of the laws passed by parliament.  The decrees contradicted one another because of the constantly changing balance of forces within the Government between reformers and others. It is clear from my diaries that there was no Rule of Law, and this situation was recognized by the Western lawyers who were consultants to my employers. These lawyers told me that they were hardly doing any normal work to defend us in the courts; instead they mostly were busy with what we might call lobbying the senior bureaucracy on behalf of their clients.  At the same time, our auditors from the leading companies of the world in this specialty quietly and behind closed doors admitted that the application of prohibitions in laws and decrees issued in Russia ex post facto made it impossible to be law-abiding always and in all places.

As I remarked in my diary entries, these leading firms in the fields of accountancy and audit, leading law firms reported to the corporate headquarters of their clients in London, in New York, that Russia was on its way to reforms and that you could work calmly there.  By their own hands, these highly paid experts created in the 1990s out of Yeltsin’s Russia some Potemkin Village for the broad public in the West.

In Western media of that period we heard only about two negative factors in the New Russia: corruption and the threat to the rule of pro-Western Liberals coming from the Communists and the ultra-nationalists like Zhirinovsky and his LDPR.  Such views took hold among educated American society.

I remarked in my diary how the topic of corruption dominated conversations at a breakfast gathering organized by the Harvard Club of Moscow in 1998 on the occasion of the arrival from Beijing via the Trans-Siberian Railway of a group of Harvard alumni, top administrators and their guide, professor of economics and deputy director of Harvard’s Russian Research Center, Marshall Goldman. These gentlemen did not want to hear about anything else.

I do not deny that corruption was everywhere in Russia at that time, beginning with the bribes taken by petty law enforcement officers and reaching up to the powerful friends of the President. But we in business faced more serious problems every day about which I wrote a great deal in my diaries – namely, the massive anti-business legislation that was promulgated over 70 years of Communism and remained in force.

To be sure, in certain fields Russia did not have appropriate new laws to regulate new institutions and fields of activity, like the stock market and retail banking, to protect consumers. But in the current affairs of general business the problem was entirely different – the huge number of laws which treated all commercial operations of private business as criminal in fact or by intent.  The Government under Yeltsin used the banks as policemen, requiring justification to the bank officers for every kopek of income or expense. And no one – neither the Russian Government nor the Western media – paid any attention to this.

The only objects of their interest were the falling levels of tax collection, the national import-export account, state debt and, mainly, the privatization of state companies.  These questions are all set out in detail in my diary notes.

Finally, I direct attention to the significant part of my book devoted to High Culture in Russia during the 1990s amidst the general poverty and misery of the population. One may say that this phenomenon is rather topical today, considering how in our time of the Covid-19 pandemic the cultural life of Russia – symphonic orchestra concerts, ballet and opera performances, drama theater shows and exhibitions in art museums – are both much greater in number and far richer than in any other country in Europe or in America, where many cultural institutions still remain shut.  My book confirms the generalization that the performing and fine arts and other forms of Culture were and are a defining element of Russia among the world’s nations.

Whence the frequent entries in my diaries about cultural events and about leading artists? I had the privilege to work for producers of luxury goods, among whom it is customary that the budget for brand promotion includes not only advertising but also sponsorship of elite events. As the general director, I had a free hand to decide where to spend considerable sums of money, especially in Petersburg, where the expectations of cultural institutions from sponsors were more modest than in Moscow.

I established good business relations with the Philharmonic and with the Mariinsky Theater in the musical world. And business relations over sponsorship often became those of close acquaintances and friends. So it was with the director of the Philharmonic Society, Anton Getman and with the chief conductor Temirkanov.  So it was also with Sergei Kalagin, conductor of the Mariinsky Theater and assistant to Valery Gergiev. Kalagin presented me to the leading singers, baritone Vasily Gerello, bass baritone Viktor Chernomyrdin and tenor Sergei Naida. They all were world class talents who also performed abroad in the Met or in major theaters in Germany.

With time, my sponsorship on behalf of my employers moved from music to drama theaters and literature. Thus, together with my wife, culture journalist Larisa Zalesova, I established close friendly relations with the founder the director of the Theater on the Taganka in Moscow, Yuri Lyubimov and his wife Katalin. In the entr’actes Yuri Lyubimov invited us into his office for drinks with other sponsors, among whom at times were Boris Berezovsky, governors of Russian provinces and leading personalities in the arts. We were at the theater during the evening devoted to the 80th birthday of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, an unforgettable evening partly due to the unexpected speech by Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov.  We met with Lyubimov abroad as well, in France, Belgium and elsewhere.

Thanks to my position in the company United Distillers – Diageo, in 1998 I was appointed chairman of the Russian Booker, which was at the time the most prestigious literary competition in the country. I remained there until 2002, that is, two years after my divorce from Diageo. During those years, I became acquainted with the country’s literary intelligentsia, along with leaders among Russia’s publishers, the book trade and the directors of libraries in the provinces.

All of this is described in detail in the diary notes of my book. I hope that you will find these entries both interesting and instructive.

Today I do not have time to talk about an entirely different dimension of the book – my thoughts at the time about domestic politics of Russia and their influence on the country’s international relations, especially with the USA and the West. I have in mind the reaction of the West to the election of the State Duma in December 1995. The massive vote given to the Communists and ultra-nationalists appeared to support the arguments of those circles in the West who feared a coming change of course of Russia, its striving to reassume the status of a Great Power and to defend its national interests. In fact, that is exactly what was already under way: the Minister of Foreign Affairs known as “Mister Yes” because of his going along with all the impositions put up by the West, Andrei Kozyrev had been replaced months earlier by Yevgeni Primakov, a man of a completely different disposition and world view. Now the West no long felt restrained and shifted course to expansion of NATO in the East. This entire process of alienation of Russia from the West and vice versa is continuing right up to the present day. I hope that there will be among my readers some who are interested in these issues.

With this I close my address. Thank you for your attention. I am ready to answer your questions.

Unquote

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Turkish Public Broadcasting panel discussion of EU policy towards Belarus

TRT World:  “The Newsmakers” 22 November 2021

Yesterday I had the privilege to participate in a TRT-hosted panel discussion devoted to the virtual conference on coordination of EU sanctions against President Lukashenko convened in Vienna by Chancellor Schallenberg.

Global political, economic and military power have all undergone de-concentration and moved away from U.S. hegemony in the past few years.  Quality news channels in English serving global audiences have also developed apace in a number of countries which in the past never sought audiences outside their borders. TRT World, based in Istanbul, is a case in point as the program link below illustrates.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=PbohRGAWYxY.