Draft evasion in today’s Russia

Draft evasion, escalation of military operations and other highly topical subjects in today’s Russia

My good friend and “comrade in arms” in the anti-war community, Ray McGovern, yesterday published an article on how The New York Times is stoking the war in Ukraine and goading the Biden administration to be ever more aggressive and irresponsible. Ray went on to remind us of the ignominious role played by NYT news reporters and their editorial board in promoting the Vietnam War, from the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that heralded the start of the real US engagement to the bitter end, all without a word of apology or regret in later years.

As a member of the Vietnam War generation in the USA, mention of that war brings up for me two words of great importance in the Russia that I see around me on this three week visit to St Petersburg:  draft evasion and escalation.

It would be no exaggeration to say that the “partial mobilization” that was announced by the Kremlin in the past week is the number one item of news and discussion in the social networks here as well as on  radio and television broadcasting. As I mentioned a day ago in my coverage of the national radio station Business FM, there is extensive examination on air of the implications of the call-up to military service for business and society in general.

 A great deal of attention is directed at exemptions from service for various categories of the population, primarily, by relevance of their work to national defense and technological sovereignty. In this regard the most widely discussed industry is IT. The public is being told that software programmers are absolutely needed in their present workplaces to further the import substitution program. But does that extend to individuals and companies developing software for video games? And what about the owners-managers, the finance directors, the legal department heads of IT companies that do serve the defense industry and/or technology more broadly?  As we hear on air, these other members of staff are also critical to the viability of the companies and so to the national interest. Without them the companies in question just fold.

Another related issue widely covered in the media here is draft evasion, in particular, by those leaving the country clandestinely by plane, by private car across the land frontiers, and even by electric scooters which move straight to the head of the queues at the border crossings. The Georgian border is now being closed by authorities in Tbilisi. The border with Kazakhstan is being closed down to auto traffic.  But there is still the Finnish border, where 7 hour lines are forming.

Media reporting tells us that some 300,000 Russian males eligible for call-up, which now extends to age 55, have already fled the country. The significance of that number, if it is in fact reliable, depends on who these draft dodgers are:  if they are skilled and experienced, say in computer programming and communications, then the loss is significant; if they are hair dressers and farm hands, then the loss of 300,000 in a population of 145 million is a drop in the bucket.

Those who are departing to evade the call-up are being denounced as “rats” by socially prominent personalities before the radio and television microphones.  Ordinary women interviewed on the streets of Moscow or other multi-million cities across Russia tell members of the opposite sex to “be men” and do their duty. 

I have no doubt that the European elites shudder at this very traditional appeal to sexist stereotypes that underlie national defense and patriotism. But such appeals definitely have resonance in Russia today.  My 50-year old main taxi driver, infantry captain in the reserves, has little doubt he will be called up, if not in this first “partial” mobilization then in the general mobilization that is sure to follow once Russia declares war on Ukraine, which may be within the coming two weeks. And what does he say about it? “I already have the best years of my life behind me. I am ready to go and, if necessary, to die for my country.”  Verbatim and without a hint of jingoism. It sounds a bit like the charming “my country write [sic] or wrong” that my grandfather Max, who emigrated to the U.S. from the Russian Empire in about 1910, wrote to me in the 1960s. Both expressions were heartfelt and merit respect.

In my description of how Business FM covers the impact of the mobilization on society and also the issue of lines at the borders, I said the broadcaster was neither pro-Putin, nor anti-Putin, but that is not entirely true. By its nature, such coverage provides useful information to draft dodgers, meaning the Opposition.  I mention this to underline the fact that despite the heightened controls on society that the war has brought with it, Russian media are still often honest, transparent and useful in ways that your average Russia-basher in the West cannot conceive.

On the question of escalation, there is less public discussion but a lot of grumbling in the kitchens of ordinary folk that the war is proceeding much too slowly, that Russia should apply the devastating conventional weapons at its disposal to put an end to the fighting one-two-three. The hard-line patriots are calling for Defense Minister Shoigu, who in fact never served in the armed forces, to be replaced by someone with “balls,” like Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechnya Republic. Kadyrov sent his forces to the Donbas, where they spearheaded the conquest of Mariupol and are destroying the enemy now by tough urban warfare in other Donbas settlements

War by escalation was the policy which the Kennedy brain trust of the “the best and the brightest” implemented in Vietnam. From a modest expeditionary force, it led finally to the deployment of more than 600,000 troops in Vietnam and to vastly destructive bombing of that country and neighboring Laos and Cambodia. But to no avail. This seemingly rational doctrine was overturned when Nixon came to power and introduced the “madman” leader guise by his Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972. The U.S. then projected the image of a dangerous foe ready to inflict all manner of atrocities on the enemy, and some have argued this helped bring the North to the negotiating table.  Regrettably, this approach to war seems not to have caught the attention of Mr. Putin’s inner circle of advisers. I recommend it to them.

But perhaps I am mistaken.  Perhaps the mobilization is just a cover, suggesting continuation of the war under its present method of attrition, while de facto preparing the way for a change of tactics to destruction of the Ukrainian command and control at the Ministry of Defense and destruction of the civilian decision making instances by precision bombing in Kiev using unstoppable hypersonic missiles for which the latest air defense installations coming from the USA are useless. Perhaps the mobilization is merely to have ready boots on the ground to occupy and hold the Ukraine following the decapitation of its civilian and military leadership.  Time will tell.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

News from the home front: Russia under conditions of partial mobilization

In recent articles I have made frequent references to the political talk shows on Russian state television as an invaluable source of information about the thinking of the chattering classes and, in particular of social and political elites close to the Kremlin.  Even an acerbic academic from Rhode Island who left a nasty comment on my site about the value of my latest article on the shift from ‘special military operation’ to open war remarked in his closing sentence that he intends to follow more closely the Evening with Vladimir Solovyov program, especially when RT director Simonyan appears as a panelist. So I think I have made my point about television fairly convincingly.

In today’s essay, I want to direct attention first to Russian radio, in particular commenting on the national broadcaster “Business FM” which is based in Moscow but has national coverage and puts on air reports from all around this vast country that are of interest not only to stock brokers but to the general public. I listen to them daily over breakfast and their slogan “Radio not in words but in facts” is well justified by the originality of their news management. Politics and politicians are not on their agenda. The impact of new laws, regulations and government programs on the population and especially on the business community is their main interest.  Sales figures, company profits, challenges in recruiting and keeping personnel: all of these subjects are dealt with by presentation of concrete facts from concrete companies and localities, and the result is a very informative mosaic. These very serious news items are leavened by humor in their feature sketches under such categories as “Деньги к деньгам,” which may be loosely translated as “Money flows to those with money.”

Business FM offers little slices of life which tell a big story, such as the remark yesterday that in the last couple of months Russians’ purchases of tranquillizers went up by 15% and such sales are 30% above the level of a year ago. That is a pretty good indicator of the nervousness of the general population.

Then there has been reporting from Siberian and other provincial cities regarding how the call-up of reservists is being conducted and in particular how this affects businesses which are losing highly capable personnel for whom they will have to reserve their jobs in the same way they must keep on hold the posts of women who go out on maternity leave.

Another very interesting look at the home front is the broadcaster’s interviews of Russians who are crossing the land borders to Finland – where there is now a waiting time of more than three hours each on the Russian and Finnish border control points. The journalists go into the details of whether those departing are being asked about their military status, about their reasons for leaving, etc.

Business FM has also reported on the impact of Russians leaving to avoid the draft on the apartment rental prices in their key destinations such as Istanbul and Tbilisi. The impact appears to be negligible.

Finally, I heard this morning a fascinating set of interviews with the leaders of voluntary organizations in Moscow working to provide the military forces with materiel that is not available in sufficient supply out in the field because of mismanagement in the defense hierarchy. These shortages include headgear and body armor, warm clothing, and more. 

All of the above is not pro-Putin or anti-Putin but a realistic composite picture of life in the home front in times of mobilization.

Now I propose to switch over to anecdotal but also telling details from my own experience living in Petersburg for the past couple of weeks.  I can point first to the dramatic decision earlier today of the prospective Buyer of our dacha in the south of Petersburg, already under contract of deposit, to suspend the deal, first in the hope of squeezing a further discount from us due to post-mobilization uncertainties and then with demand for more time to see the fall-out of the referendums in Donbas.  Yes, ordinary Russian business women, like our fairly shrewd Buyer, are spending sleepless nights worrying whether in these turbulent times it is better to own bricks or to have liquid cash in rubles under the pillow.  But such uncertainties and contradictions have always existed. As an argument that it is always ‘the best of times and the worst of times,’ I think of the French sterling silver forks and knives bearing hallmarks from 1791 or so that we bought in antique booths in the Brussels weekend market on the Sablon: even in the midst of Revolution some folks were ordering silver sets for newlyweds.

My experience as a shopper in supermarkets in the economy, middle class and luxury ranges reveals changes from what I have reported several months ago.  “ПРОМ УПАК” is replacing Sweden’s Tetra Pak on milk and other liquid foodstuffs. The QR code is replacing the strip codes on every variety of store products. I assume that is due to some licensing issue.

 French, Spanish and Italian wines are present on store shelves in much reduced offerings, as are wines from even “friendly” countries like Chile.  Surprisingly, friendly South Africa has dropped out of the wine market, perhaps over difficulties with payment.  Meanwhile Russian sourced wines from the Krasnodar region and the Crimea now take up 80% or more of shelf space. To be sure, in luxury shops, the Russian wines can be excellent, but at prices well above the European peers they replace, and the Russian wines in economy and middle class stores can be of highly variable quality for the same price.

The owner of a high-end wine shop on Vasilevsky Ostrov told me that he continues to receive shipments of top level chateau wines from France, and some are coming via third countries including China. But there is no way of knowing how long this will continue. He has hedged his bets by stocking up on the priciest and most sought after wines from the Russian south.

Otherwise, the assortment and pricing of meats, poultry, fruits and vegetables in the Russian stores at all market levels are unchanged from what they were some months ago.

A visit to the city’s most prestigious shopping center on Nevsky Prospekt where the anchor store was and still remains the Finnish retailer Stockmann’s provided further insights into the way the home front is adapting to the sanctions and to the departure of foreign companies from this market.

At the Food Court on the 4th floor, I enjoyed a couple of hamburgers in McDonald’s replacement as fast food operator ‘’Вкусно – и точка’’ (Tasty – period).  Quality and price were both unchanged.   Then on the ground floor I followed up with a visit to the Starbucks replacement, which is named “Star Coffee.”  All the design elements remain the same as before and my coffee Americano was excellent. 

All the design elements of the Apple store just opposite Star Coffee also are unchanged.  To be sure, the store legend “Apple Reseller” now reads “Premium Reseller.”  The product assortment seems to be unchanged.  I asked about the i-phone 14 and was told that it is available by advance order and will be arriving in shop as from the first week of October. The price for the model on offer is a stunning 238,000 rubles, which comes to about 4,000 euros.

Finally, a personal observation about the exodus across the Finnish border.  Yesterday, I tried to book tickets for our departure by bus from Petersburg to Helsinki. All seats on all buses of the two competing bus operators were sold out until October 6th, five days later than we had planned to leave.  To be sure, there are only five or six buses making this trip each day, and each has only 50 seats.  In fact the great majority of those crossing the border are doing so in their private cars. They are the ones suffering the seven hours of lost time spent in queues and in individual processing.  Buses such as we will be using go to the head of the line and are typically processed within an hour or an hour and a half, which is a nuisance but not yet a misery.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

From ‘special military operation’ to open war

From ‘special military operation’ to open war: significance of the referendums in Donbas, Kherson and Zaporozhie

The televised speech yesterday morning by Vladimir Putin and the follow-up remarks by his Minister of Defense Shoigu announcing the partial mobilization of Russia’s army reserves to add a total of 300,000 men to the military campaign in Ukraine have been widely reported in the Western press.  Plans to hold referendums on accession to the Russian Federation in the Donbas republics this weekend and also in the Kherson and Zaporozhie oblasts in the very near future also were reported by the Western press.  However, as is very commonly the case, the interrelationship of these two developments has not been seen, or, if seen, has not been shared with the general public. Since precisely this interrelationship has been highlighted on Russian state television talk shows these past two days, I use this opportunity to bring to my readership the key facts on what turn the ongoing conflict in Ukraine will now take and an updated view of when it will end and with what results.

The very idea of referendums in the Donbas has been ridiculed by mainstream media in the United States and Europe. They are denounced as ‘sham’ and we are told that the results will not be recognized.  In fact, the Kremlin does not at all care whether the results are recognized as valid in the West.  Their logic lies elsewhere. As for the Russian public, the only critical remark about the referendums has been about the timing, with even some patriotic folks saying openly that it is too early to hold the vote given that the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Zaporozhie and Kherson oblasts have not yet been fully ‘liberated.’ Here too, the logic of these votes lies elsewhere.

It is a foregone conclusion that the Donbas republics and other territories of Ukraine now under Russian occupation will vote to join the Russian Federation. In the case of Donetsk and Lugansk, it was only under pressure from Moscow that their 2014 referendums were about declaring sovereignty and not about becoming part of Russia. Such annexation or merger was not welcomed by the Kremlin back then because Russia was not ready to face the expected massive economic, political and military attack from the West which would have followed.  Today, Moscow is more than ready: indeed it has survived very well all the economic sanctions imposed by the West from even before 24 February as well as the ever growing supply to Ukraine of military materiel and ‘advisers’ from the NATO countries.

The vote over joining Russia will likely hit 90% or more in favor.  What will immediately follow on the Russian side is also perfectly clear:  within hours of the declaration of referendum results, the Russian State Duma will pass a bill on ‘reunification’ of these territories with Russia and within a day or so, it will be approved by the upper chamber of parliament and immediately thereafter the bill will be signed into law by President Putin.

Looking past his service as a KGB intelligence operative, which is all that Western “Russia specialists” go on about endlessly in their articles and books, let us also remember Vladimir Putin’s law degree. As President, he has systematically stayed within domestic and international law. He will do so now.  Unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin has not ruled by presidential decree; he has ruled by laws promulgated by a bicameral parliament constituted from several parties.  He has ruled in keeping with international law promulgated by the United Nations. UN law speaks for the sanctity of territorial integrity of Member States; but UN law also speaks of the sanctity of self-determination of peoples.

What follows from the formal merger of these territories with Russia?  That is also perfectly clear. As integral parts of Russia, any attack on them, and there certainly will be such attacks coming from the Ukrainian armed forces, is a casus belli. But even before that, the referendums have been preceded by the announcement of mobilization, which points directly to what Russia will do further if developments on the field of battle so requires. Progressive phases of mobilization will be justified to the Russian public as necessary to defend the borders of the Russian Federation from attack by NATO.

The merger of the Russia-occupied Ukrainian territories with the Russian Federation will mark the end of the ‘special military operation.’ An SMO is not something you conduct on your own territory, as panelists on the Evening with Vladimir Solovyov talk show remarked a couple of days ago.  It marks the beginning of open war on Ukraine with the objective of the enemy’s unconditional capitulation. This will likely entail the removal of the civil and military leadership and, very likely, the dismemberment of Ukraine.  After all, the Kremlin warned more than a year ago that the US-dictated course of NATO membership for Ukraine will result in its loss of statehood. However, these particular objectives were not declared up to now; the SMO was about defending the Donbas against genocide and about de-nazification of Ukraine, itself a rather vague concept.

Adding another 300,000 men at arms to the force deployed by Russia in Ukraine represents a near doubling and surely will address the shortages of infantry numbers that has limited Russia’s ability to ‘conquer’ Ukraine. It was precisely lack of boots on the ground that explains Russia’s painful and embarrassing withdrawal from the Kharkov region in the past two weeks. They could not resist the massive concentration of Ukrainian forces against their own thinly guarded hold on the region. The strategic value of the Ukrainian win is questionable, but it greatly enhanced their morale, which is a major factor in the outcome of any war. The Kremlin could not ignore this.

At the press conference in Samarkand last week following the end of the annual gathering of heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Vladimir Putin was asked why he has shown so much restraint in the face of the Ukrainian counter offensive. He replied that the Russian attacks on Ukrainian electricity generating plants which followed the loss of the Kharkov territory were just ‘warning shots’ and there would be much more ‘impactful’ action to come.  Accordingly, as Russia moves from SMO to open war, we may expect massive destruction of Ukrainian civil as well as military infrastructure to fully block all movement of Western supplied arms from points of delivery in the Lvov region and other borders to the front lines. We may eventually expect bombing and destruction of Ukraine’s centers of decision-making in Kiev.

As for further Western intervention, Western media have picked up on President Putin’s thinly veiled nuclear threat to potential co-belligerents. Russia has explicitly stated that any aggression against its own security and territorial integrity, such as has been raised by generals in retirement in the USA speaking to national television in the past several weeks about Russia’s break-up, will be met by a nuclear response. When Russia’s nuclear threat is directed at Washington, as is now the case, rather than at Kiev or Brussels, the supposition till now, it is unlikely that policy makers on Capitol Hill will long remain cavalier about Russian military capabilities and pursue further escalation.

In light of all these developments, I am compelled to revise my appreciation of what transpired at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting.  Western media have focused full attention on only one issue: the supposed friction between Russia and its main global friends, India and China, over its war in Ukraine.  That seemed to me to be grossly exaggerated. Now it appears to be utter nonsense. It is inconceivable that Putin did not discuss with Xi and Modi what he is about to do in Ukraine. If Russia indeed now supplies to its war effort a far greater part of its military potential, then it is entirely reasonable to expect the war to end with Russian victory by 31 December of this year as the Kremlin appears to have pledged to its loyal supporters. 

Looking beyond Ukraine’s possible loss of statehood, a Russian victory will mean more than an Afghanistan-like bloody nose for Washington. It will expose the low value of the U.S. military umbrella for EU member states and will necessarily lead to re-evaluation of Europe’s security architecture, which is what the Russians were demanding before their incursion into Ukraine was launched in February.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Samarkand: first conclusions

The world’s media have paid close attention to the gathering of 15 world leaders in Samarkand, Uzbekistan these past two days with particular emphasis on the ‘summit’ held by Presidents Putin of Russia and Xi of China on the sidelines of this general meeting. 

Observers noted that the visit to Samarkand is the first foreign trip by Xi since before the onset of the Covid pandemic and it was being undertaken precisely for the sake of face-to-face meetings with Putin, with whom he met last during the Winter Olympics in Beijing, just weeks prior to the launch of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.

Today’s news updates from Moscow point to the Chinese leader’s expressions of readiness to continue and expand his country’s ties with and support for Russia.  What exactly that means is left entirely vague.  However, yesterday the pickings for the world press were still more meager.  The online edition of The Financial Times built its main ‘front page’ article on the Russian-Chinese summit around one sentence from Putin, to the effect that he understands the questions and concerns of the Chinese with respect to the war. From this one sentence, the FT speculated at length on how the Ukraine war has raised tensions between the two countries and put in question Xi’s famous declaration at the Olympics summit that the Russian-Chinese relationship is greater than an alliance.

As a protocol event, the SCO gathering has a great deal of symbolism because of the shared ambition of all its members to pursue creation of a multi-polar world order to replace global American hegemony. The members represent a very substantial share of the world population and also of the world economy. However, what went on in Samarkand surely also had a great deal of material content. We know, for example, that Russia and Pakistan in their side talks have fleshed out prospective energy cooperation entailing the high volume sale of pipeline gas to Karachi, all of which will represent a substantial restructuring of the energy markets in South Asia. But because so much of the content is being negotiated against a backdrop of aggressive American imposition of sanctions, most particularly of late directed against Russia in connection with its military operation in Ukraine, it is understandable that all parties in Samarkand sought to avoid waving a red flag before the American bull and were quiet about their bilateral commercial and other agreements.

Apart from Russia and China, surely the country that has followed the progress of talks in Samarkand most closely is Iran, which made its debut as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Accordingly, Iran’s Press TV last night organized a live discussion of the fruits of the Samarkand talks in which I was pleased to be a participant. The link to the video recording of this broadcast is here:

http://www.urmedium.com/c/presstv/116895

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

Russia ‘takes off the gloves’

In my last essay, I devoted considerable attention to commentary by the host of the leading political talk show on Russia’s state television Friday night with respect to the country’s obvious military setback in the Kharkov front, which still had not yet reached its culmination in the evacuation of the strategic town of Izyum and the withdrawal from a vast territory in the neighborhood measuring 3,000 square kilometers. As I noted, Vladimir Solovyov was likely speaking on behalf of the Kremlin when he said  Russia was now fighting NATO, not just Ukraine, and it was time to escalate to all out war.

The notion that these talk shows have relevance to conduct of the war was disputed by a few readers in comments posted on my website. They remarked that ‘talk is cheap,’ and that such shows in no way influence what the President of the country does. That in itself is a challenge to my long-standing characterization of such shows: I have said in the past that they reflect the thinking of Russian social elites who set limits on what the Kremlin can or cannot do without running unacceptable political risks.

Under present conditions of war censorship, I believe the producers of the best of these shows strictly control who says what about the war, assigning roles before they go on air, so as not to cross red lines by giving unwanted advice to the Commander-in-Chief and reserving for the host and select panelists ideas coming from Putin and his closest advisers.  To those readers who might object that such shows were always stage managed, I say ‘no’ on the basis of my own experience going back to 2016 as a guest panelist on the talk shows of all the state and private Russian channels, including once on the Solovyov show: these live shows were uncensored; you could take the question given you and run with it in any direction without fear of being cut off the air. But that was then…

The best proof that it is worth paying close attention to what the country’s top talk show host says came yesterday, when the first in his list of things to do as Russia escalates to all out war on Ukraine was implemented.  The Russians used long range bombers to fire missiles which destroyed electric power stations in a number of cities across Ukraine. The impact of the attack was sufficiently great to create a disbalance in the country’s power grid that compelled Kiev to shut down the atomic power stations they still manage.

President Zelensky today acknowledged that 9 million people in his country were left without power. He called this a ‘terrorist attack’ on civilian infrastructure, as if his own forces have not in the last few months been systematically destroying civilian infrastructure including power stations in the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics of the Donbas.

Yesterday Russian forces also destroyed a railway center 60 km west of Donetsk city which was no doubt being used to supply munitions to the artillery that daily strikes residential districts in the capital. Attacking railway trains and infrastructure was point two in Solovyov’s list.  For the moment, there has not been any move towards point three in the list – attacks on the decision making centers of the Kiev regime – but that may not be long off.

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Vladimir Solovyov from time to time brings in colleagues who make insightful observations that are useful for those of us trying to understand the psyche of Russian decision makers.  In yesterday’s Sunday Evening edition, we were treated to the views of director of RT (Russia Today) Margarita Simonyan.  Her comments on this program have become ever more serious in recent weeks. For that reason, I open today’s essay with a brief summary of what she told us.

Her main contribution was to remind the audience that overconfidence in its armed forces has been very costly to Russia in the past, just as it seems to have been responsible for inattention to enemy forces that led to the serious losses in the surroundings of Kharkov. What she had in mind was Russian behavior at the outset of the Crimean War, which, she pointed out, resembles the present conflict in that Russia was fighting the combined forces of the leading Western powers of the day, France and Britain.  The Ottoman Empire, over which the war was fought, was only a nominal participant, just as Ukraine is today. At the outset of one of the key battles, Russian generals invited polite society to a look-out point to watch the expected Russian victory. The ladies came in their finest, but what they saw was a rout of the Russian army.

However, it is always risky to mine history for lessons, and Simonyan failed to see one big difference with the Crimean War:  that was lost because Russia had fallen way behind in military technology and was simply outclassed on the field of battle.  Today, by contrast, Russia has developed and turned over to its soldiers some of the most advanced military hardware on Earth.

Meanwhile other panelists drew out lessons from another war in which Russia stood alone against the combined forces of all of Europe: the war of 1812 against Napoleon’s invading Grande Armée numbering half a million soldiers, many of them Germans and Poles. In that case, Western textbooks commonly attribute Napoleon’s defeat and Russia’s victory to Father Frost. However, in a magnificent work entitled Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace (published in 2011), British historian Dominic Lieven carefully explains that Napoleon’s defeat was actually attributable to Russia’s superior logistics and to its manifold numerical superiority in cavalry horses, which were the tanks of that day.

The 1812 war was very much on the minds of educated Russians this past week as they marked the anniversary of the Borodino battle, which was a loss in terms of casualties but a win in terms of stopping the onslaught of the invaders and demonstrating the bravery and élan of Russia’s men at arms. The battle was a necessary relief from the incessant retreats that weighed so heavily on the mood of Russian society at the time.  As Solovyov’s panelists remarked, Russia’s general Kutuzov, hero of the battle, had an edge over today’s generals in that he did not come under daily attack for his strategic retreat from outraged patriots using the Telegram social app. 

Indeed, one of the main points in Simonyan’s several minutes at the microphone last night was that she has been receiving a lot of social network messages from ordinary citizens, from Putin supporters, who simply cannot understand Russia’s restraint in the way it is conducting the war.  ‘Why do we hold back?’  they ask. This message, of course, builds on what Vladimir Solovyov was saying last Friday, and it explains the change in Russian war making we are about to see in the coming weeks.

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A word is now in order with respect to what the Ukrainians have achieved on the ground in the Kharkov region.  I have in front of me today’s Financial Times article entitled “Russians ‘fled like Olympic sprinters’ as Ukraine retook northeast.”  

The story is surely music to the ears of the Ukraine Contact Group that assembled in Ramstein last week. The Ukrainians are delighted to describe the Russian departure as ‘cowardly.’  A military adviser to Ukraine’s defense ministry concludes that “the Russian army is a blown-up balloon.”

The FT journalists are more cautious in their conclusions. “The strategic effect of what this attack has already achieved – other than free vast swaths of thinly populated Ukrainian territory – are still to become clear.”

Russian news channels do not dispute the loss of territory but give some clarifications that are vitally important to appreciate what happened.  First, the Russian lines around Kharkov were held not by the Russian army but by local militias of the Donetsk Republic, who are not professionals and are not equipped with the advanced hardware of the Russian army.

Second, it appears that the Ukrainian ambition of surrounding and capturing large numbers of Russian soldiers in Izyum and nearby settlements in their very swift attack failed completely.  To what extent the ‘sprinters’ skills of the Russian side explains their evading the enemy as they withdrew, we will never know.  But I make reference again to Dominic Lieven’s book when I say that effective retreat is a more difficult operation in war than attack due to a number of factors, especially the morale and discipline of the combatants. In this sense, the Russians have no more reason for embarrassment than did Kutuzov in his day.

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Finally, I would like to shine some light on what we may expect from the Russian war effort in the coming week.  Why the coming week?  Because we are in a count-down period to the meeting of Chinese President Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Samarkand, Uzbekistan at the gathering of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization one week from today.

This will be the first trip abroad for Xi in over two years, and there is heightened expectation that some understanding with the Russians over the way forward together in dealing with the US-led containment policy against them both will be agreed. It may be that the Russians will do something of importance to move their campaign in Ukraine to a higher plane right now to give a positive impulse to the cooperation with China.

From the outset of the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, one of my close colleagues in the United States insisted that Putin would never have entered upon this project without having secured the backing of Xi. I was skeptical that Putin, the Realist, would ever commit his nation to a conflict that it cannot handle on its own thanks to its own armed forces. However, as that conflict has gone on and on, as the United States has drawn ever more countries to its side to punish Russia, the need for Chinese assistance becomes clearer by the day.

Until now, the Chinese were very circumspect in their backing to Russia.  They were generous with diplomatic support in the United Nations and elsewhere, but their leading international corporations withdrew from the Russian market for fear of coming under U.S. sanctions, and we have not heard about any arms and munitions being sent to Russia.  The only signs of material cooperation so far have been from second tier Chinese companies which have no big foreign establishments that might come under U.S. scrutiny and can safely trade with Russia. .However, recent American warnings that it will apply secondary sanctions against countries importing Russian oil in violation of price caps, as China is certainly going to do, have put the country on notice that further confrontation with Washington is inescapable.

What Russia needs now from China is more than words and more than enhanced trade, including in military supplies.  Arms and munitions, the Russians can procure elsewhere.  But China has the possibility of rendering the Russians invaluable help by simply stepping up their pressure on Taiwan and harassing the American fleet in the South China Sea. This would open the specter of a ‘second front’ that would necessarily distract Washington from its current focus on the Kremlin and would cut Russia some much needed slack.

This question of relations with China may become as important an ‘off ramp’ for Russia from the Ukrainian war as the possibility of  popular demonstrations forcing European leaders to change course, lift sanctions and cut their support to Kiev, about which I wrote in my last essay.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

U.S. ups the ante: are we indeed headed into WWIII and what can save us?


The UK and Commonwealth may be mourning the passing of Queen Elizabeth II yesterday.  I am in mourning as well, but for a very different reason:  the gathering of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group in the Ramstein air base in Germany yesterday reshuffled the deck on Western military and financial assistance to Ukraine, raising contributions to the ongoing holy crusade against Russia from still more nations and adding new, still more advanced precision strike weapons to the mix of deliveries to Kiev. It was an open summons to the Kremlin to escalate in turn, as were the test firing the same day of a new intercontinental rocket, the Minuteman III, from Vandenberg air base in California and the unannounced visit to Kiev yesterday of not only Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was featured in Western media accounts, but also other top officials of the Biden administration. The most notorious member of this delegation was surely Blinken’s deputy, Victoria Nuland, who had stage managed the February 2014 coup that put in power in Kiev the Russia-hating regime that Zelensky now heads.

 The Russians may be compelled to take the bait due to the course of military action on the ground. As now becomes clear, they have just suffered some losses in very heavy ground and artillery fighting these past few days around Kharkov. The Ukrainian gains were facilitated by the advanced weaponry recently arrived from NATO countries, by the targeting data they are receiving from the U.S. and from off-stage tactical direction from NATO officers.  By ‘take the bait,’ I mean the Russians may escalate to all out war on Ukraine.  This question figured prominently in yesterday’s major news and political talk show programs of Russian state television.  I will go into these matters in some detail below.

Regrettably, all of the foregoing also obliges me to revisit the critique I published a couple of weeks ago on the latest essay in Foreign Affairs magazine by John Mearsheimer. His overarching message on the dangers of our stumbling into a nuclear war is better substantiated by the latest developments, even though I believe that Mearsheimer failed to identify the several successive steps that lie ahead before we find ourselves in such a war. Mearsheimer oversimplified Russian options to deal with setbacks on the ground. This also will be a central issue in my narrative below.  

Finally, in this essay I will direct attention to the second dimension of the ongoing confrontation between Russia and the entire Collective West:  the economic war being waged on the Russian Federation via sanctions, which now far outnumber those directed against any other country on earth. This war, as I will argue, is going well for the Russians. More importantly for us all, it is the sole area in which the peoples of Europe may have a say in putting an end to the mad policies being pursued by their national governments under the direct pressure of Washington.

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Over the past ten days, we have witnessed the start of the Ukrainian counter-offensive which was preceded by so much anticipation in Western media. A reversal of Russian fortunes in the war was predicted, leading to the stalemate or outright defeat for Russia which Mearsheimer and some other analysts in the US foreign policy community feared would trigger a nuclear response from the Kremlin.

In fact, the Ukrainian counter-offensive got off to a very bad start. It opened in the south, in the Kherson region.  Kherson, which is predominantly Russian-speaking, was the first major Ukrainian city to fall to the Russians and it has strategic importance for ensuring Russian domination of the Black Sea littoral.  However, first results of the Ukrainian attacks there were disastrous for the Ukrainian armed forces. It soon was obvious that they had deployed new recruits who had little or no military experience. The infantry attacked across open terrain where they were easily destroyed in vast numbers by the Russian defenders of Kherson. I have heard the figure of 5,000 Ukrainian casualties in the Kherson counter offensive.   Obviously the Russians were jubilant, though there were reports of some Ukrainian reservists being withdrawn from the field of action for redeployment elsewhere.

What followed was something the Russians evidently did not expect, namely a well prepared and implemented assault on their positions around the northeastern city of Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city. Kharkov was briefly surrounded by Russian forces at the start of the war, but was left in relative peace as the Russians refocused their strategy on taking the Donbas and avoiding major urban warfare except in one place, Mariupol.  Exactly what the Russian game plan has been was recently explained in a remarkable paper published by a certain ‘Marinus’ in the Marine Corps Gazette. See https://www.imetatronink.com/2022/08/a-former-us-marine-corps-officers.html

A couple of days ago I picked up the following amidst the chatter of panelists on Evening with Vladimir Solovyov: “yes, we made some mistakes, but it is inevitable in a war that mistakes are made.” As from the latest news on the apparent loss of Balakliya and surrounding villages on the outskirts of Kharkov, we can see that the Ukrainian tactics were precisely those which Russia had been using so effectively against them from day one of the ‘special military operation,’ namely a feint in one war zone followed by all-out attack on a very different region. Of course, the ‘feint’ around Kherson, if that is what it was, entailed the cynical sacrifice of thousands of young and not so young Ukrainian foot soldiers. But the resultant distraction prevented the Russians from bringing up sufficient manpower to successfully defend their positions around Kharkov, which include the strategically important city of Izyum.

Izyum is close to the Russian-Ukrainian border southeast of Kharkov and is a major logistical base for munitions and weaponry that are sent onward to support the Donbas operation. The latest information on the Russian side appears to be that the Russians have now dispatched large numbers of reservists to this area to hold their positions.  They also speak of intense artillery duels. We may well assume that both sides have experienced heavy loss of life. As yet, the outcome is unforeseeable. Meanwhile, Russian war correspondents on the ground in Donetsk insist that the Russian advance towards Slavyansk, in the center of the former Donetsk oblast, is continuing without pause, which suggests that the strikes on their munitions stores claimed by the Ukrainians have not been totally effective. If Slavyansk is taken in the coming few weeks, then Russia will quickly assume control of the entire territory of the Donbas.

In last night’s talk show program, host Vladimir Solovyov said that this latest push in the Ukrainian counter-offensive was timed to coincide with the gathering at the Ramstein air base, Germany of top officials from NATO and other allies under the direction of the visiting U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.  If the Ukrainian efforts were failing in the field, then the cry would go up:  we must provide them with more weapons and training.  And if the Ukrainian efforts in the counter-offensive were succeeding, those in attendance at Ramstein would hear exactly the same appeal to aid Kiev.

Though Evening with Solovyov, on air from about 23.00 Moscow time, offered viewers some few minutes of video recordings from the opening of the Ramstein gathering, far more complete coverage was provided to Russian audiences a few hours earlier by the afternoon news show Sixty Minutes.  Here, nearly half an hour on air was given over to lengthy excerpts from CNN and other U.S. and European mainstream television reporting about Ramstein. Host Yevgeni Popov read the Russian translation of the various Western news bulletins. His presentation clearly sought to dramatize the threat and to set off alarm bells.

For his part, Vladimir Solovyov went beyond presentation of the threat posed by the United States and its allies to analysis of Russia’s possible response.  He spoke at length, and we may assume that what he was saying had the direct approval of the Kremlin, because his guests, who are further removed from Power than he is, were, for the most part, allowed only to talk blather, such as the critique by one panelist of a recent pro-Ukraine, anti-Russia article in The New York Review of Books by Yale professor Timothy Snyder, who counts for nothing in the big strategic issues Russia faces today.

So, what did Solovyov have to say? First, that Ramstein marked a new stage in the war, because of the  more threatening nature of the weapons systems announced for delivery, such as missiles with accuracy of 1 to 2 meters when fired from distances of 20 or 30 kilometers thanks to their GPS-guided flight, in contrast to the laser-guided missiles delivered to Ukraine up till now. In the same category, there are weapons designed to destroy the Russians’ radar systems used for directing artillery fire.  Second, that Ramstein marked the further expansion of the coalition or holy crusade waging war on Russia.  Third, that in effect this is no longer a proxy war but a real direct war with NATO and should be prosecuted with appropriate mustering of all resources at home and abroad.

Said Solovyov, Russia should throw off constraints and destroy the Ukrainian dual use infrastructure which makes it possible to move Western weapons across the country to the front.  The railway system, the bridges, the electricity generating stations all should become fair targets.  Moreover, Kiev should no longer be spared missile strikes and destruction of the ministries and presidential apparatus responsible for prosecution of the war.  I note that these ideas were aired on the Solovyov program more than a month ago but then disappeared from view while the Russians were making great gains on the ground.  The latest setbacks and the new risks associated with the Western policies set out at Ramstein bring them to the surface again.

Solovyov also argued that Russia should now use in Ukraine its own most advanced weapons that have similar characteristics to what NATO is delivering to the other side. As a sub-point, Russia should consider neutralizing in one way or another the GPS guidance for U.S. weapons.  Of course, if this means destroying or blinding the respective U.S. satellites, that would mean crossing a well-known U.S. red line or casus belli.

Next, in the new circumstances, Russia should abandon its go-it-alone policy and actively seek out complementary weapons systems from previously untouchable countries, such as Iran and North Korea. Procurements from both have till now been minimal. On this issue, a couple of panelists with military expertise were allowed to explain that both these countries have sophisticated and proven weapons that could greatly assist Russia’s war effort.  Iran has unbeatable drones which carry hefty explosive charges and have proven their worth in operations that are unmentionable on public television. And North Korea has very effective tanks and highly portable field artillery which are both fully compatible with Russian military practice, because the designs were based on Chinese weapons, which in turn were copies of Russia’s own. These weapons also have shown their worth in the hands of unnamed purchasers in the Middle East. Moreover, North Korea has a vast store of munitions fully compatible with Russian artillery.  It was also mentioned in passing that insofar as Kiev has mobilized in the field many Western mercenaries and covert NATO officers, Russia should also recruit from abroad, as for example, whole brigades from North Korea available for hire.

If any of these ideas put out by Solovyov last night are indeed implemented by the Kremlin, then the present confrontation in and over Ukraine will truly become globalized, and we have the outlines of what may be called World War III.  However, I note that the use of nuclear weapons, tactical or otherwise, does not figure at all in the set of options that official Moscow discusses in relation to the challenges it faces in its Ukraine operation. Such a possibility would arise only if the NATO forces being sent to the EU’s ‘front line states’ grew in number by several times those presently assigned and appeared to be preparing to invade Russia.

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Before Ramstein, before the news of Ukrainian successes on the ground in the Kharkov sector, I had plans to write about a very different development this past week that coincided with a different calendar: the end of summer vacations and return to work of our national governments.  With the return, our presidents and prime ministers would finally have to address the critical state of the European economies, which are facing the highest inflation rates in decades and an energy crisis brought about by the sanctions on Russian hydrocarbons. Speculation was rife on what exactly they would do.

I was particularly struck by several articles in the 7 September edition of The Financial Times and planned to comment on them.

 For months now, the FT has been the voice of Number 10, Downing Street, at the vanguard of the Western crusade to crush Russia.  Their editorial board has consistently backed every proposal for sanctions against Russia, however hare-brained.   And yet on the 7th their journalists ran away with the show and cast doubt on the basic assumptions held by their bosses. One article by Derek Brower in the “FT Energy Source” newsletter has the self-explanatory title “The price cap idea that could worsen the energy crisis.”  As we saw today, Brower’s concern was misplaced:  finally, the EU could not agree a price cap policy. This notion, promoted from the United States by none other than the Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, is in full contradiction with the practices of the global hydrocarbon market, as even a few EU leaders understood, depriving the initiators from the Baltic States of their hoped for consensus.

Another article of the 7th in FT, by Valentina Pop, Europe Express Editor, analyzed quickly and competently the problems facing European policy-makers in their bid to alleviate the pain to households and industry that the latest electricity and heating bills would otherwise present, given that they are several times higher than just a year ago and are unaffordable by large swathes of the population. Pop identified the key issue thus:  how to provide aid quickly to those most in need given the constraints and resources available to the various government bureaucracies: “Some capitals will take many months in determining which households require help” she says.  Of course, ‘many months’ of patience in the broad population will not be there.

But the most surprising article in this collection from the  7th was in the “Opinion Lex” section of the paper which was nominally about how Russian banks have weathered the storm that broke out when the EU sanctions on their industry first were laid down shortly after the start of Russia’s ‘special military operation.’ Indeed, VTB and other major Russian banks have returned to profitability despite it all. The author finds that ‘sanctions are biting less than western politicians hoped.’ Not only did the expected banking crisis not materialize, but the ruble is at five-year peaks and inflation is falling. Moreover the official Russian financial data behind these generalizations is said to be sound by independent and trustworthy market observers. The key conclusions are saved for last: “Russia has shown it can bear the pain of western sanctions. Western Europe must endure reprisals as robustly, or concede a historic defeat.’ The ‘reprisals’ in question are the complete shutdown of Russian gas deliveries through Nord Stream I until Europe lifts its sanctions.

It is interesting that even the Opinion article by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg published on the 7th in FT carries the following grim warning:  “We face a difficult six months, with the threat of energy cuts, disruptions and perhaps even civil unrest.’ [emphasis mine]

To be sure, here and there in Europe, there are a few clever administrators who find promising solutions to the pending crisis of energy bills. In her first day in office, Britain’s new Prime Minister Liz Truss announced one such solution:  to immediately freeze the maximum energy bill per household at the present level of 2500 pounds sterling per year and then to turn around and agree with the power companies a subsidy for them to cover their losses. 

This is fine for nipping in the bud possible ‘civil unrest.’  But the question remains how Britain will finance the estimated 150 billion pounds this will cost in the first year alone. If a similar solution were approved in the EU, the overall cost would surely approach the 800 billion euros of assistance borrowed to cover losses attributable to the Covid pandemic a year ago. But whereas the Covid aid was financed by collective borrowing of the EU, no such solidarity is likely to deal with the energy crisis, given that Germany, the Netherlands and other northern Member States oppose this becoming a general practice and will apply a veto. The British solution, however clever it may be, will hardly be available to many countries in the EU on their own given their high state indebtedness.

Then there is the second question of what to do to assist industry.  Failure to give industry proper relief will result in company closures and rampant unemployment, which finally also sparks political protest. In any case, such solutions do not deal with the knock-on effects of vastly increased government borrowing to finance the energy subsidies, something which in the best of times always reduces capital available for other government services and capital available to private business for investment and job creation.

These various problems in dealing with the energy crisis that Europe created for itself by imposing sanctions on Russia may well be intractable and may well lead to spontaneous protests in a number of European countries this fall.   

There is,no anti-war movement on the Old Continent to speak of.  So popular protests over the ‘heat or eat’ dilemma being imposed from the chanceries on the people without anything resembling public debate may be the salvation of us all if they induce war mongering politicans to resign.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

Russia makes a U-turn on reciprocity policies

Russia makes a U-turn on reciprocity policies as regards issuance of tourist visas to foreign nationals

This news item very likely will not appear in mainstream, though it represents a stunning victory of pragmatism and common sense by a government engaged in a bitter and costly war that has a heavy ideological dimension. 

Today in a meeting with government administrators and stakeholders in the tourist industry, Vladimir Putin said publicly that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs will break with its traditional insistence on full reciprocity in relations with other states as regards issuance of visas to citizens of “unfriendly countries.”

Putin argued that there was no reason to make a fetish of reciprocity when the result would run counter to Russia’s national interests.  In this instance, he said Russia would best respond to the sanctions and restrictions being imposed on it by unfriendly countries, meaning first of all, the European Union, by issuing visas to their citizens so that they may see for themselves what the country is like.  “We have nothing to hide,” he added.

The instructions to Sergei Lavrov’s team were clear: to proceed with reinstatement of electronic visas available free of charge upon demand via an internet portal. This program was barely under way in 2020 when the Covid epidemic closed down borders everywhere. As from March 2020, Russia stopped issuing visas of any kind other than so-called ‘humanitarian’ visas for close relatives of Russian citizens.  There was a glimmer of hope that the e-visas would resume in late 2021 as the epidemic receded. However, the onset of the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine in February 2022 put a halt to that.

Let us imagine that the same pragmatism and enlightened self-interest may be extended to Russian policy on applicants for permanent residency and naturalization. Russian talk shows now raise the question of conceding an Israeli-like “right of return” to ethnic Russians who were left to their lot as second class citizens of the new sovereign republics formed from the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Should this come to pass, then Russian statehood will be entering a new level of maturity just as the West slips into self-debilitating obtuseness.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

Arena di Verona and patriotism,civilizational continuity

Arena di Verona:  The healthy opposition between Patriotism and civilizational continuity on the one hand and  Political correctness, Russophobia on the other

I am on my way home from a week-long cultural vacation in Northern Italy which included three evenings of opera at the Arena di Verona.  My comments here on the state of civilization in Italy are drawn from what I saw at the opera: this was a world of mostly traditional cultural values on stage, of courting heterosexual couples and mature heterosexual couples in the audience, of packed eateries that surround the Arena, and of open patriotic fervor when the unofficial national anthem, “Va, pensiero’ from Verdi’s opera “Nabucco” was performed with the customary reprise following prolonged applause from the audience and amidst fluttering 4 meter high Italian flags on stage.

My point is simple and direct:  notwithstanding the mindless political correctness that Northern and Eastern Europe have been projecting from even before the start of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine on 24 February, the policy makers in Verona have kept cool heads and resisted any deviation from  sophisticated multiculturalism and respect for artistic accomplishment wherever it comes from.  As a token of this policy from the top, I note that the spring performances by the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko  in “Aida” and “Traviata” took place as scheduled. Unlike in Germany or New York’s Metropolitan, the Verona administrators stood by the artist and did not play to cheap populism under a banner of “cancel Russia.”  Still more remarkable is the fact that the choreography commissioned from Russia’s Alexander Vasiliev for the Zeffirelli staging of Aida was offered last night without apologies or cuts. This runs directly in the face of the primitive anti-culture policy decisions of the opera houses in Paris and in Germany which, even before the Russian-Ukraine war, threw out Russian choreography over its alleged racial slurs and stereotypic ethnic dances. 

It bears mention that Vasiliev’s choreography for the main dance scenes in “Aida” drew directly on the tradition of the late 19th century-early 20th century Mariinsky theater choreographer Fokin, whose works were also carried to Europe by the Ballets Russes of the impresario Diaghilev.  Here the oriental melodies are danced by black-face African slave boys using pseudo-African steps.  Similar ethnic platitudes were widely used in Silver Age Russian choreography, for example, in Tchaikowsky’s ballets.  What we are witnessing on stage is artistic masterpieces which happen also to carry the naïve and benign prejudices of theater-goers from the mostly wealthy and aristocratic layers of society who frequented the ballet and opera houses. 

The implausible argument that these ballet pieces support a less benign prejudice today conceals something far more dangerous for society at large, namely the aggressive intolerance of politicians and administrators who impose censorship, who want to wipe out the past so as to better enhance their control over society today.  A society without a past, however flawed it may be in various respects, is a society living under totalitarian conditions.

In my first paragraph above, I alluded to patriotism. Allow me to explain that the single driver of popularity of Verdi’s otherwise complicated opera “Nabucco” is the five minutes in the next to the last act when the Hebrew captives (the Babylonian captivity) who are about to be slaughtered by order of the Assyrian king Nabucco sing a fascinating melody recalling their native land.  It is an open appeal to national patriotism. See this Fenice Opera recording of several years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aiSSz0snWzA

I have heard “Nabucco” performed in Belgium, and the song in question does not evoke any special enthusiasm, familiar as it is to all music lovers everywhere.  However, in an open sky arena, in the company of an audience numbering perhaps 15,000, nearly all of them Italians who know very well why they are there, the high emotional level is extraordinary.  Why is this important?  Because it is the policy of the Brussels’ based European Commission and of select leaders of the Member States like Emanuel Macron, to wipe out all traces of “nationalism,”  previously known as “patriotism” on the argument that nationalism was responsible for Europe’s endless wars including the global civil wars we know as World Wars I and II.  Here again, the policy coming from Brussels aims to destroy identities of masses of people who organize for their own protection from Big Government, meaning against those same unelected officials, mostly failed national politicians, who sit in Brussels and issue their diktats.

Finally, in closing, I wish to share another impression from the last week, one formed last night in our hotel room when I watched on the Russian internet broadcaster smotrim.ru the News of the Week program hosted by Dmitry Kiselyov.  This was an unusually serious program which directed a good half hour to remembering Gorbachev, who died in the past week and was just buried in Novodevichii cemetery with state honors.  Kiselyov emphasized that among the less attractive Soviet government  traditions which Gorbachev broke was to leave in peace and not discredit previous leaders.  He pointed to the solemn respect for Gorbachev which Vladimir Putin displayed in his visit to the bier when it was on public display. And Kiselyov presented a very balanced coverage of Gorbachev’s achievements and failures as state leader.  This is a kind of maturity in politics and general civility which has eluded American leaders in the past several decades right up to the present day.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

Remembering Gorbachev

When I received a call this morning from Turkish public television TRT asking that I comment on the death of Mikhail Gorbachev in a live broadcast, the first thought which came to mind was the ironic remark of Soviet intellectuals on the place of leading personalities in history:  “there is nothing as changeable and unpredictable as the past.”

Of course, this notion is applicable everywhere, not just to Soviet history and personalities. Indeed, history is always being reinterpreted in light of current developments. As I commented in my interview, the achievements and failures of Gorbachev in power must now be reevaluated in light of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, which is the largest and most dangerous military conflict on the European continent since 1945.

This war follows directly from the break-up of the Soviet Union, which Gorbachev failed to prevent, though he did his best. Indeed, in the spring of 1991 he oversaw a referendum on the issue and won support from the population for continuation of the USSR. However, his playing off the right and left forces within the Politburo and within the Party at large over a number of years, the deceptions he practiced to get his way, finally caught up with him and laid the way in the summer of 1991 for the Putsch by rightists intent on restoring Soviet orthodoxy, which in turn so weakened Gorbachev that he was easily pushed aside by Boris Yeltsin. Destruction of the Union was Yeltsin’s instrument for achieving the complete removal of Gorbachev from power and setting out on a course of economic reform and de-Communization that was anathema to the leaders of the more conservative Soviet republics.

As we now know, the break-up of the USSR released pent-up animosities within and between the successor states, which had in each substantial ethnic minorities, in particular Russian-speakers, who numbered more than 25 million outside the boundaries of the Russian Federation in 1991. This was the largest such dispossessed ethnic community from the disintegration of empire in history, and its existence did not augur well for tranquility in Eurasia, from the Baltics, to the Caucasus, to Central Asia.

The collapse of the Soviet Union also touched off a very unhealthy wave of national excitement in the United States. It was now the sole surviving superpower, unchecked by any rivals. Fueled by hubris, Washington elites set course on remaking the world through a succession of military interventions and full-fledged wars abroad that has gone on for close to 30 years.  Failures in these military missions led to ever greater concern to “contain” any and all possible competitors on the world stage.  In practice, this meant containment first and foremost of Russia as it recovered economically and politically in the first decade of the new millennium. And this, expressed in terms of NATO expansion, is what brought us to the present conflict over Ukraine.

In that regard, I direct attention to Gorbachev’s greatest failure which resulted not from the conspiracies of his compatriots but from his own peculiar naivete in his dealings with the United States, meaning with Reagan, with Bush and their minions. The man who had shown such cunning in outfoxing his Politburo colleagues was completely outfoxed by his American and European interlocutors.  Had he been more cautious to protect Soviet-Russian interests, he would have demanded and likely received much better terms of compensation for the withdrawal of Soviet forces from all of Eastern Europe and disbanding the Warsaw Pact. Had he been less gullible and more realistic, he would have demanded  written treaties setting in concrete the prohibition of NATO expansion to the East and, or, he would have left Soviet garrisons in each of these states to ensure compliance. As it was, the Americans who gave him verbal assurances knew full well that they were meaningless and were perplexed at the Kremlin’s failure to defend strategic national interests.

These are the sins which patriotic Russians hold against Gorbachev today, even as they acknowledge his astonishing feats in freeing Soviet citizens from the totalitarian yoke of the past through glasnost and perestroika.

Of course, it is an open question whether a democratic Soviet Union could have long survived. The economy was hopelessly mismanaged and the entire legacy of Soviet legislation rendered it virtually impossible to escape from violence or the threat of violence to make things work.  This is a point over which historical debate will continue for many decades to come.

For today’s interview, see  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVz4QGouoFQ

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022