Finland: rah, rah, rah

Readers of my travel notes will know that I often use anecdotal evidence to support my conclusions about this place or that, meaning that I set out my personal observations based on a small sampling, but one which is entirely my own. At times, this sampling may not be truly representative of the given country or city. That is a calculated risk that is common in journalism. It usually pays off, but not always.

I write now to reconsider the dismal picture of Finland which I painted nine years ago following a lengthy visit to the country’s provincial eastern region of Karelia.  This region, especially its southernmost district just across the border from Russia, had been described to me glowingly by friends in St Petersburg, who went there periodically to do shopping for smoked fish and other Finnish delicacies or who were crossing over to Finland at its nearest point to satisfy the requirements of the Schengen visas which Finnish consulates were giving out with abandon to Russian tourists for the sake of anticipated hard currency earnings during mandatory stops in Finland on the way West. These friends were greatly impressed by the smooth asphalt of the roads and high quality of infrastructure generally, by the cleanliness and orderliness of the towns and countryside. As one observed, “Finland is Russian landscapes plus civilization.”

My own visit to this eastern province of Finland was made in August 2012 when my wife and I went to the Savonlinna Opera Festival, which was marking its hundredth anniversary. The management generously accorded to my wife free tickets in her capacity as accredited journalist, which, of course, favorably disposed us to the festival organizers. What we saw there on stage and on our follow-on visit to the “black heart” of Karelia to the north, in Kuopio, a university town and center of environmental studies, was described in some detail in my unflattering essay:

https://gilbertdoctorow.com/2012/08/19/finland-oy-oy-oy-travel-notes-from-karelia/

Since Finland then, as today, figures among the most desirable nations on earth in which to live in the tables compiled by travel experts, not least of all due to the supposedly healthy life style, I imagine that readers of that essay may have been surprised by my remarks on the sickly or deformed specimens of humanity that we saw around us in Karelia:  I called out in particular the high numbers of obese or grossly overweight ladies and gents, the high number of deformed or disoriented people resulting from alcoholism.  And lest anyone would suggest that this was a lower class phenomenon from which I was generalizing, let me remind the reader that Savonlinna during the festival is the musical center of the country, attracting the prosperous audience of the Helsinki Opera as well as from the rest of the country. The dead drunk lady who was looking in vain for her seat in our row was holding a ticket that cost her 140 euros. The passengers on our river and canal cruise north to Kuopio had paid a handsome fee for the right to be served alternating rounds of sparkling wine, beer and spirits nonstop over the ten hours of the trip. And after we disembarked another restrained couple of fellow passengers went straight to the hotel bar before check-in and were in no rush to go to their room.

In the years since 2012, I have visited Finland a couple of times but in the mode of my 1990s travel to the country, not as a destination but as a stopping off point on the way to or from Russia. On one such overnight visit we stayed in a business class hotel in the Helsinki harbor before proceeding to Russia on the newly opened fast trains to Petersburg and Moscow.  The impression of that trip was favorable but not sufficiently so for me to have bothered to reexamine my earlier published remarks on Karelia.

This summer is an entirely different case. Helsinki was our destination for a 12 day holiday and our impressions are so very positive that I am compelled to bring this to the attention of my readers so as to set right what may have been a spoiled or shall we say unrepresentative sample of Finland taken nine years ago.

Why Helsinki of all places for a summer holiday?  It bears saying that our original plans for this July had been to spend a month at our country house 80 kilometers south of St Petersburg, Russia. We had been there in May, after a Covid mandated absence of 18 months, and, at great pains, had put the grounds in order in preparation for a relaxing stay in July.  The meteorological reports indicated a Russian summer of unusual warmth, underscoring our sense of anticipation.  However, Covid intervened yet again: in late June the third wave of the pandemic hit St Petersburg and Russia generally, a wave led by the Delta variant which greatly increased infections, hospitalizations and…deaths. It was clear that this was a risk to be avoided, notwithstanding our full vaccination records. Moreover, and decisively, we understood that any visit to Russia just now would place us in a social void, because we would not meet with our friends and acquaintances, nearly all of whom were anti-vaxxers or as they call them in Russia vaccination dissidents. We had our fill in May of arguments over the benefits of vaccination, of wearing masks, as well as over the value of Belgian (not just Russian) official statistics that weigh in on these matters.

And so to enjoy the rare pleasures of White Nights and the unusually warm northern summer, we looked to Finland. The decisive point was that Finland from the start of the epidemic had very low infection rates and that has continued to the present, notwithstanding the Delta variant. Indeed, Finland is one of the very few “green” countries in Europe, with much better current indices of infection, hospitalization and death than our country of residence, Belgium, which recently moved up to “orange.”

 Since we have no interest in driving, an indispensable feature of renting a dacha in Finland, and since we were not attracted to “fine urban views” from the windows of up-market hotels in provincial towns like Tampere, we looked more closely at Helsinki and discovered to our great pleasure a five-star Hilton hotel at comparatively modest room rates situated in a secluded shoreline residential area within city limits, at Munkkiniemi, the terminus of the number 4 tramline northwest of the city center. Here our balcony looks out directly at a protected inlet of the sea. Here the hotel’s private stretch of shore and the adjacent public beach measuring perhaps 250 meters each attract only a handful of swimmers, so that “social distancing” occurs entirely naturally.

The hotel itself appears to have a respectable occupancy rate, though it is certainly not sold out. The guests, as confirmed by Reception, are about 90% Finns, mostly young families, with an admixture of visitors from Germany and Estonia. The absence of foreigners generally is attributable to Covid travel restrictions. An international branded hotel like this in normal times would have a large foreign contingent of guests. The Finns staying here are not only out-of-towners, visitors from the hinterland, but also some Helsinki residents who were driven by the intense heat earlier this month to escape to the park-like surroundings of this residential district, about which they, unlike me, were long well informed.

They would know, as I didn’t, that this district is home to the official residences of both the premier and the president of Finland, as well as of the Guest House where foreign dignitaries are put up. When you consider the beautiful natural setting of mixed pine and deciduous forests and the vast expanse of the sea inlet which these houses border, the location speaks for itself.  Meanwhile there are also two noteworthy tourist sites here. One is the former official presidential residence, now a museum open to the public (Tamminiemi), where the country’s longest serving president, Urho Kekkonen lived most of his 27 years up to 1981.  The other is the Seurasaari Island, fifteen minutes walk from our hotel, which is one of the main tourist attractions of Helsinki thanks to its open air “museum” of architecturally interesting wooden buildings of various usage moved here from all around Finland and dating back mostly to the late 18th and 19th centuries.

I was once a frequent visitor to Helsinki going back fifty years.  It was, as I said, a transit point to the Soviet Union. This ceased in the 1990s when both Finland and the new Russian Federation, headed in different directions and redefined their commercial and political identities. I had been a visitor to Helsinki in the late 1990s when I had business partners in the country for whom I was performing consultancy. But all this time I had stayed downtown in business class hotels and knew well only the area running from the main railway station to the Finlandia concert hall and nearby Hotel Hesperia and similar. Now, just 25 minutes away by tram, I discovered this other Helsinki that is a splendid resort with conference facilities as well.

The 90% of guests in our hotel as well as the visitors we see on the beach, the folks playing at the nearby clay-courts tennis club, riding their bicycles or taking their morning jog are decidedly healthier looking than the people we saw in Karelia, even if they also line up at all the ice cream kiosks and order a lot of pastries and other sweets in the cafes. I would say that no more than 20% of the adults we see are seriously overweight, of which perhaps a third are classically obese. In this day, when Americans and Brits tend to need two chairs on an airplane to be comfortable, the weigh-in of the Finns I see around me is not exceptional. 

Meanwhile, the restaurants and cafes that we find here in our hotel complex and also in downtown Helsinki, are definitely offering healthier food than I remember from the past. They nearly all feature salads consisting of greens to which are added “toppings” such as baked salmon that are perfect for the diet conscious.  Moreover, these offerings are taken up by many diners. And in the supermarkets, boxes of healthy salads kept fresh in controlled atmosphere are put out daily, meaning that they sell out.

 Hamburgers with fries are almost nowhere to be seen outside of specialized fast food outlets, of which there are relatively few.  In the cafes, soft drinks are available but generally passed up. Instead, most everyone takes advantage of the free water. Among alcoholic beverages, we see only beer and to a lesser extent wine enjoying favor. Few take more than one glass of wine. In our 10 days we have not encountered a single drunk or a single instance of exuberant drinking. 

The Finns we see around us have other remarkable features that we did not notice so clearly in Karelia: the men in particular are very big, very tall.  A great many males are over two meters. A great many of them also have wide frames and developed musculature.  Women, when they are fit are very fit.

But the real kudos goes to the kids, who are almost without exception slim and well proportioned from toddlers through early adolescents.  They are well-behaved, quiet and cute. 

This observation about the kids reminds me of the comment made by one Russian taxi driver in St Petersburg at about 1995 who said that he would not buy a Russian car because his countrymen were not good at manufacturing anything, though to their credit they “produced very cute little kids.”  I don’t think his point about poor manufacturing has any relevance to Finland, but his remark about kids does.

At 1.3 million residents, Helsinki is about the size of Brussels. It goes without saying that it has a more limited cultural offering than the Belgian and EU capital. In this regard, my observation from the past about Helsinki being quite exciting when arriving from the East and quite boring when arriving from the West still holds.  Nonetheless, what high culture it does offer is of good, international quality.  The musical life in season is worthy of respect. The musical establishment includes very well respected

schools such as the Sibelius Music Academy. The cultural calendar which restarts in late August features in particular symphonic music, opera and dance.

And the national art museums are today under good management, as we understood at once upon visiting the ongoing temporary exhibition of Ilya Repin at the Ateneum.

This exhibition has to be called the cultural event of this summer in Helsinki. The Ateneum’s website urges visitors to buy tickets in advance online and they are very right. When we arrived before the museum’s entrance this past Tuesday we found a line stretching around the corner, meaning a good 45 minutes to get in and buy a ticket. However, the effort would be worthwhile. The exhibition presents 130 paintings and drawings by Repin, including several that are signature pieces by the artist known the world over.

At the entrance to the exhibition, Repin is identified as “a Finnish-Russian painter.”  To Russians, this may seem peculiar, though it is truthful:  as from 1918, following the Revolution, the Finnish-Russian border north of Petersburg was moved several dozen kilometers to the south and Repin’s residence cum studio Penates at Kuokkala, just 30 kilometers from Petersburg, fell within the new Finnish state. Repin lived out the remainder of his life there, to 1930.

Though Repin donated several of his paintings to his new homeland, the Finnish holdings of his works are clearly very few.  Nearly all of the paintings and drawings come from Russia, mainly from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the State Russian Museum in Petersburg, who are co-organizers of the exhibition together with the Petit Palais fine arts museum, Paris. Smaller museums across Russia such as in Saratov and in Irkutsk and elsewhere also have contributed paintings.

The most famous large scale canvases on display include the Barge Haulers on the Volga, the Reception of Volost Elders by Emperor Alexander III in the Courtyard of the Petrovsky Palace in Moscow,  a Religious Procession in the Kursk Governate, the  Zaporozhian Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan, Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom.  Importantly there are sketches and oil studies for these master works also shown.
Given the tense relations between Russia and the European Union these days of Cold War 2.0, given the open hostility towards all things Russian by the Finns’country cousins across the Gulf in Estonia and by the other neighboring Baltic States, it bears emphasizing that this important exhibition has been curated with the highest professionalism and will bring great pleasure to all art lovers who visit. Ideology and geopolitics are totally absent, as well they should be.
I have no easy answers as to why this stay in Finland produced a so much better impression than the one of nine years ago. To be sure, dietary habits in Finland may have evolved in a positive way just as they are changing across Europe. Infrastructure investments are in evidence in downtown Helsinki and the city looks that much better than it did just a few years ago, with more pedestrian zones and less congestion. I freely acknowledge that we were staying this time in a particularly prestigious part of town which has been meticulously planned for the comfort and pleasure of residents and visitors alike. There are splendid walks and riding paths along the shores of the sea.  Traffic is free flowing and public transit runs at frequent intervals on clean, new and well-designed vehicles.  To all of this, I say “bravo.”
In these signs of prosperity and superior management, the capital factor has to be taken into account. Helsinki has nearly one quarter of the country’s 5.5 million inhabitants.  It surely presents the best that Finland has to offer.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Mikhail Bulgakov, “Master and Margarita” and the anti-Russian hysteria in the United States

I write to you today from Helsinki, this summer’s vacation destination chosen not only because Scandinavia is enjoying an usually warm and sunny season, unlike Central Europe even putting aside the latest, once in five hundred years devastating floods that have struck Germany and Belgium; not only because the White Nights, even in these final weeks, lend a magical quality to the trip, when we can enjoy 20 hours gazing at the calm sea that stretches out below our balcony; but also because Finland is one of the very few “green” countries on the Covid map, meaning that the infection rate remains far lower even that in Belgium, newly upgraded to “orange,” and we can delight in a hotel stay without worrying unduly over anyone around us who may sneeze or cough once or twice.

Apart from swimming in the sea and visiting some downtown museums that escaped our attention on past visits to Helsinki, these lazy summer days are given over to reading. I am  now wading through Bulgakov’s brilliant novel Master and Margarita (in Russian) and mentally cross-referencing what the author was saying very boldly and insightfully about Soviet society of his day, namely 1935, and what I see around me in American and West European society and politics.

I was a latecomer to this novel. In my student days I had read only Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, which I found only mildly interesting.   I discovered Master with the help of my wife, when she bought and we watched the many hours long serialization of the novel made in Russia in 2005 and shown then on the state television channel Rossiya before release as a set of DVDs.  There was a long-suppressed movie of Master that preceded the television serial and another movie is said to be underway in Moscow studios at present. But that 2005 serial captured the very best of Master and may be credited with fantastic direction by Vladimir Bortko and very successful casting. It is hard to imagine anyone presenting a better Voland than Oleg Basilashvili, a better Pontius Pilate than Kirill Lavrov, a better Margarita than Anna Kovalchuk or a better Azazello than Alexander Filippenko. The original musical score was also extraordinary.

The only possible criticism one might make pertains to the final installment of the serial, where the director, who apparently also was responsible for the script, went beyond the novel to make explicit what otherwise is implicit in Bulgakov’s text:  that the whole of Soviet society in the period of the Great Terror was experiencing mass hypnosis. It is such hypnosis which the head of the security services (NKVD), a Goebbels-like figure, uses to explain to the public gathered in the city planetarium the bizarre events that have accompanied the visit to Moscow and demonstration of “black magic” at the Varieté theater by the foreign “consultant” Voland (Satan). In these conditions, sane and reasonable people were locked up in madhouses, as was the Master and several of the other characters in the novel. The truly insane were out in the streets.

As I now read the novel, the moral of the story is driven home with ever greater clarity. And it leads me to draw comparisons with what has been going on in the United States ever since 9/11 tipped the whole country into paranoia. Two thousand people died in the attack but you would think it had been millions and that the attack had been made not just on two buildings in NYC and one in Washington but on the nation at the level of every hamlet. What was punctured was the belief in the inviolability of the United States. What followed from that was naked fear, and from fear came the readiness to point fingers.

There have been recurrences of this madness, of mass hypnosis ever since Putin’s 2007 speech to the Munich Security Conference, which touched off a vicious and never ending vilification of Putin, the Kremlin, Russia and Russians led from the White House and amplified by all state controlled media, meaning ALL MEDIA.

Yes, this hypnosis was very effective. The whole country was brainwashed, including my sister in New Jersey and a great many of our now former friends and acquaintances. The entire Russiagate story about the theft by Russians of documents from the DNC server for the purpose of destroying candidate Hilary Clinton’s reputation, the Steele dossier on the alleged mad behavior of candidate Donald Trump and other featured fake news ever since the summer of 2016 are just variations on that theme.

In my occasional appearances as interviewee on RT International, I am often asked to comment on the lack of proper proofs for allegations of violations of international law, egregious misconduct by the Kremlin, whether it be large issues like the Skripal poisonings or small charges that arise almost weekly. I disappoint my hosts by saying that the details of the case are irrelevant because the overriding issue is the campaign led by the United States and supported by the European Union to blacken the reputation of Russia and punish it as a pariah state. And this denigration has nothing “personal” about it: the final objective is to knock out the Russian Federation as a challenger to US global hegemony. Regime change is just a means to that end.

The same issue arises in my periodic interviews on Belarus television, one of which took place just two days ago. I was asked to explain why the Federal Republic of German does not respond to the new complaints by Minsk that it is harboring terrorists who are planning attacks on Belarus.  My answer was not to be surprised in the least, given that Germany and the EU as a whole were dead silent when less than two months ago the Russians showed on state television plotters from among Belarus opponents to the regime with support from Lithuania and the USA planning the assassination of President Lukashenko and his family so as to install a new pro-Western government.  The point, as I said, is that Belarus is only an instrument in the hands of certain EU member states, with financial and technical backing from Washington, to strip away another critically important buffer state protecting Russia from NATO on its borders. The objective is precisely the same as noted above: to compromise Russian security and remove the challenge to US global hegemony.

And yet again the same kind of issue arose a day ago when colleagues asked me to help “debunk” the latest set of empty, unsupported and unsupportable allegations published in The Guardian about Putin’s measures in 2016 to assure the victory of Donald Trump in the presidential elections. Reference was made to a meeting in Moscow in January of that year at which Putin supposedly gave the green light to such plans, believing that the mentally unbalanced Trump would do great damage to US society and impair the country’s defense capabilities.

My answer to this request was that the best “debunking” was the name of the single best known author of this article in The Guardian, Luke Harding, a Russia-hater and vicious propagandist of long standing whose credibility as expert on Russia is close to zero.

I have identified above a raison d’état for the Russophobia which controls public policy in the United States. But that is at the level of top policy makers. Below that level and in the broad public the logic is precisely the witch hunt, finger-pointing directed at the Kremlin as the source of all the world’s ills.  The separate allegations, such as a supposedly aggressive Russia keen to destroy democratic nations and to raise the fortunes of its own autocracy, do not stand up to any reasonable analysis. What we have here is political science at the kindergarten level, where one and one, if ever totaled, come to four.  That no one calls this out is a sign of mass hypnosis or hysteria.

I appreciate that some of my friends’ writings take apart the Russiaphobe fabrications, challenging them technically and otherwise bit by bit.  Someone should do that and my comrades in arms do that very well and professionally.

However, my own position on these matters is rather different.  It is not just that you cannot beat card cheats, that you cannot dissuade propagandists from their mission, but that you cannot beat mass hysteria, which is what is going on. You waste your breath.

You cannot argue with mass hypnosis.  You can keep a diary, write a chronicle that reveals the falseness of the spirit of the age to hopefully enlighten future readers, because, as we hear in another of the main points of Bulgakov’s novel Master and Margarita, “manuscripts do not burn.” That is what I do….

How bad has this mass hypnosis – hysteria in the USA been? Well one piece of evidence that I have not yet revealed until now is that my daily correspondent in 2015 at the time when we co-founded the American Committee for East-West Accord, Steve Cohen, put up the money for the Committee’s foundation and assembled the august board of directors including Reagan’s ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock for one purpose only: to save his own neck should he be called to testify before a revived Un-American Affairs Committee in Congress, and should he then be thrown into prison. Then there would be this august Board to reach out to the public to get Steve released.  Like the Master, it was not Steve Cohen who had schizophrenia but society at large.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Frank Sportolari, in Memoriam

Frank Sportolari, in Memoriam

The amazon.com page of my recently published Memoirs of a Russianist: From the Ground Up carries one five-star review signed “Frank Sp” and headlined “Unique insights into a fascinating business era.” The reviewer was my one-time colleague in United Parcel Service at the beginning of the 1990s, Frank Sportolari.

Frank’s untimely death was announced yesterday and I hasten to record my reminiscence of this extraordinary person who left the most positive impression on me and surely on everyone who knew him.  His life and career offer pointers to all those who enter the service of leading multinational corporations or other large bureaucracies. I use this occasion to share them with as broad a readership as possible.

 Frank was ten years younger than me and at the time we worked together he was on the first rungs of management in the Finance department of UPS Deutschland.  His raw talent in this domain was appreciated by his superiors, who were already then giving him increasing responsibilities. The company was completing a massive expansion as it transitioned from being a predominantly domestic delivery company in the United States to being a global logistics provider with major operations across Europe. The expansion was implemented with great haste and with great waste. The Finance function was tasked with clean-up, to bring costs under control and cut losses. It was a time when talents such as Frank possessed were rising to the fore. And yet at the time the pecuniary benefits accruing to his cohort in Finance were not in evidence.

Though he was an American passport holder, Frank was hired by UPS under the terms of German nationals, because he had been working in the country already for six years and was not considered to be an “expatriate” brought over from the States for the assignment.  This meant that Frank had  compensation package that was significantly lower than mine or of the senior management levels who were all enjoying expat benefits.

Frank bore this discrimination with neither rancor nor envy. Overall, he showed humility and acceptance of the hand he was dealt. We knew very little of his important educational accomplishments in the United States before he came to Europe.

UPS at the time placed great emphasis on working class values of its drivers who became top managers and shareholders. We all knew of colleagues who were millionaires at age 40 after having put in 25 years with the company. Among personal qualities, the company valued loyalty, readiness to work 60 hour weeks when required, “street smarts” and toughness. Many top managers had risen through the ranks by their talents in labor relations, dealing effectively with the semi-criminal units of the Teamsters.  Education as such was just beginning to rise in value as the company culture absorbed the highly trained engineering achievements of its pilots and others working in its air fleet, which became already at the start of the ‘90s one of the world’s largest airlines.

Frank was a keen observer of the contradictions of this corporate milieu in transition which was grist for his wit.  Traveling with him on business was always a pleasure, thanks to humor and his light touch.

I left the company in 1993 to pursue opportunities in Russia, which just then became a major Emerging Market that was attracting a large foreign business community.  Frank stayed with UPS. Over time, his forebearance was handsomely rewarded: he made a brilliant career as senior manager in Italy, in Spain, in Belgium and in Germany which was then and remains today the most important UPS operation on the Continent.  His long term of service as the head of UPS Deutschland ended only recently due to the health problems that in short order led to his demise. He was twice elected President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany, where he had very important representational duties and met official and business leaders of both countries. Frank’s gifts as a linguist combined with his gregarious nature to make him a very effective communicator in his postings across Europe.

Over the past twenty-five years, I met a number of times with Frank in his home, met with his wife and growing family. He always wore his responsibilities lightly and retained his keen sense of humor at life’s foibles. He had the rare quality of projecting “one of the guys” modesty while possessing rare financial-management skills and experience. He was in the best spirit of UPS – a “people person.”

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Vladimir Putin’s favorite book

Vladimir Putin’s favorite book

The foreign affairs content of Vladimir Putin’s latest “Direct Line” annual live broadcast of Q&A with the general public was notable for more than his dismissing the possibility of World War III being ignited by the confrontation of Russian and British forces in territorial waters off the Crimean coast several days previous, about which I published my commentary yesterday.

The additional gems, which my peers in East and West seem to have overlooked came later in the program and in a wholly different context, when the Iron Man lifted his protective gear and gave us a rare look into his soul, which is quite broad in the positive, Russian understanding of that concept. He was asked about how he spends his free time and he said that on weekends he is just another Russian guy who enjoys a  tipple and loves to sing Russian songs together with his friends.  He also was asked to name his favorite novel and he did not pause for a moment before answering War and Peace by Tolstoy. Now that was a revelation worthy of all our residual Kremlinologist talent and experience.

There is vastly more to War and Peace than the romance between Natasha and Andrei which is the key element adored by successive generations of teenage girls everywhere or than the carefully built cinematic structure of unfolding scenes which facilitated the novel’s transposition into films made in Moscow and in Hollywood that won over still broader audiences around the globe.

War and Peace was used by its author to set out his thoughts about the broad sweep of history, about the driving forces and causality, about great men in history and the role of the masses. He did this not only in asides planted within the narrative but also in a lengthy Epilogue consisting of philosophical musings. Indeed, historiographical analysis was so invasive that literary critics of his day questioned whether War and Peace was a novel or something else.

I have written about these issues extensively in one of my most successful, and I believe, enduring political essays:  https://gilbertdoctorow.com/2019/01/27/war-and-peace-the-relevance-of-1812-as-explained-by-tolstoy-to-current-global-affairs/

Since study of causality has always been one of my own passions that I indulged by pursuing a doctorate in history, in reading War and Peace I considered very closely Tolstoy’s pronouncements such as his insistence that the war of 1812 was much more than a French invasion made in the name of Revolutionary principles to bring down the ancien régime of which Russia and its tsar Alexander I was a key bulwark.  Tolstoy reminds us that by its composition, the Grande Armée was a mass movement of the whole of Europe to the East, to Russia to engage in acts that in ordinary times are properly called out as counterfeiting money, murder and pillage. Aside from the well-known and substantial Polish contingent which was fighting for its national liberation, Napoleon’s soldiers included a great many volunteers from among Germans and other West European peoples.

Tolstoy went on to say that the realization of the invasion came about not because of directions of one man, Napoleon Bonaparte, but because of the willing participation of every last man at the bottom of society, both those in the army proper and those on the home front who supported them. It came about because every noncommissioned officer under Napoleon had re-enlisted when his time in service was fulfilled and had done so willingly. And their motivation was booty, the spoils of war.

When I read Tolstoy, this very point seemed questionable.  However, two days ago, I had to revise my judgment entirely when I visited the ongoing exhibition in the South Belgian city of Liege marking two hundred years from the death of Napoleon entitled “Going Beyond the Myth.”

The curators of this exhibition did not show much daring in their attempt to go “beyond the myth” surrounding Napoleon. However, in some small details which were included, whether wittingly or by negligence, they fully answered my doubts about Tolstoy’s identification of the motivation of those marching on Moscow in 1812.  In particular, I was struck by the remarks of the curators about Napoleon’s extraordinary rapport with ordinary soldiers under his command which explains the valor and success they enjoyed in combat. The curators tell us that just before one of the major battles Napoleon addressed his troops thus: “Our stores of supplies are empty. The enemy’s stores are full.  Go do what must be done!”

And then, in another room displaying the uniforms and equipment of foot soldiers in Napoleon’s army we are shown a typical back pack carried by every soldier and weighing 25 kilograms. This held alongside two spare pairs of footwear and heavy undergarments a container for war booty.  We are told that as that booty expanded in the course of a campaign the soldiers jettisoned the underwear to make room for more precious possessions.

And so, there you have it: Napoleon’s armies were motivated by spoils of war. The indiscipline that raged among them during the occupation of Moscow when Napoleon’s troops engaged freely in marauding led ultimately to his defeat and to the massive loss of life among his soldiers on the retreat.

It is one very small step from the vision of geopolitics that Tolstoy sets out in War and Peace to the present day concerns of the Kremlin over the new Grande Armée represented by NATO and poised to march East at any moment. The prominence of the Poles today among agitators and constituents of the anti-Russian hordes is just a cherry on the cake. It is one small step from the brigands of Tolstoy’s 1812 to those who would, as Putin said recently, like to take a bite out of Russia’s territorial vastness which they claim is too much for one country to possess. He went on to say that anyone who tries to take a bite now will have his teeth knocked out.

Continuity in historical trends is a theme which comes up in a recently published paper co-authored by one of America’s best known experts on Russia, Eugene Rumer, under the imprimatur of one of the country’s most highly regarded think tanks, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:  “Grand Illusions: The Impact of Misperceptions About Russia on U.S. Policy.”

To sum up their thinking in a nutshell:  “America is Back” – Good; “Russia is Back” – Bad. 

The Kremlin’s concern over national security, over loss of strategic depth essential to that security due to the eastward advance of NATO to its borders is all a matter of “perception” in the view of Rumer and his co-author, Richard Sokolsky. They tell us it is regrettable that American policy planners were so overwhelmed by hubris after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 and so struck by the economic and political shambles that Russia became as that decade proceeded that they could not imagine Russia returning to the table of great powers and took decisions according NATO membership to former Warsaw Pact member states and even former republics of the Soviet Union under terms that were unwise, as we see today. However, Messrs Rumer and Sokolsky lack the vision or, more likely, just the courage to say that these new Member States never should have been invited into NATO because their presence subtracts from rather than adds to the collective security of the Atlantic Alliance. Such frankness would not win them plaudits for speaking truth to power.

So long as Vladimir Putin and his entourage have Tolstoy’s War and Peace on their night table, the Collective West will do well to put aside any thoughts that Russian policy is the arbitrary result of decisions taken by one man only in an authoritarian regime. Russian policy is taken on the basis of the collective memory of a 145 million strong nation whose guard is up and whose perceptions of threat are razor sharp.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Vladimir Putin on ‘Direct Line’ today: HMS Defender and the start of WWIII

Vladimir Putin’s annual “Direct Line” television program in which he takes questions addressed to him from the Russian public via their audio-video apps was held today.  As usual, it received a great deal of promotion on all state television channels days in advance. As usual, a special Kremlin call center received and analyzed questions sent beforehand so as to get a firm idea of which questions were most common and so select from among them for the live session today.

Otherwise, the format was changed, perhaps most significantly in that both moderators sitting on either side of Putin were women.  That was surely a calculated decision corresponding to the predominantly domestic – family budget nature of the incoming questions from the audience.  Big economic or foreign policy questions would be only a minor part of the planned program.

However, the organizers were very kind to international observers, like me, whom they knew had little interest in the local community or home economics side of the Direct Line questions.  Accordingly, less than 30 minutes into the program we heard exactly the question pitched to Vladimir Vladimirovich which made it worthwhile for us to tune in.  He was asked whether the clash with the cruiser HMS Defender inside Russian territorial waters off the coast of Crimea could have touched off World War III.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Putin said “no,” there was no such chance. Then he went on to give information about the event which had not previously come out in Russian media and which puts much of the commentary that has appeared in the West, even from highly experienced if not cynical observers, in a new light.

Specifically, he said that the event had both military and political dimensions.  On the military side, there was the fact that the British cruiser’s misadventure came hours after the United States completed a reconnaissance flight over the area via a spy plane based in Greece. The Russians followed that plane from start to finish, noted what information it was tasked to extract about the preparedness and operating efficiency of Russian coastal defenses and, said Putin with a mischievous smile, “we fed them what was their due.”

The British naval mission was, on the other hand, strictly political, to demonstrate non-acceptance of the referendum which Russian authorities held before the union of Crimea with the Russian Federation in 2014 and so to reject Russian rule in Crimea and its coastal waters.

Putin went on to say that there was no chance of this confrontation touching off World War III, even if the Russians had sunk the Defender.  Why?  Because “they knew it would be a war they could not win.” Turning around Putin’s phrasing from diplomatic to Realpolitik language:  “because they knew it was a war they would lose.”

There are several interesting points here.  First, we note the Russian leader’s unhesitating confidence in Russian strategic superiority over the Collective West and his belief that they ‘get it.’  Second, we see the involvement of Washington in this mission from the get-go.  The advice to the U.S. government a couple of days ago by none other than Pat Buchanan that they make clear to Britain it would not enjoy U.S. protection if this provocation ended badly for them was advice that missed entirely the reality of who is calling the shots. Third, this incident puts in question the ability of Biden to override the Russophobes in his administration and in Congress and negotiate successfully a new strategic deal with Russia that puts an end to dreams of executing a first nuclear strike and enshrines Mutually Assured Destruction once again.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Boris Johnson, the Pyromaniac Prime Minister

The incident of 23 June off the coast of Crimea when the British destroyer HMS Defender intentionally crossed into the territorial waters of the Russian Federation and was shooed away by Russian coast guard vessels and fighter jets has received a modicum of coverage in Western Europe, much more coverage in the U.K., itself, where the fissures within Boris Johnson’s cabinet in advance of the adventure came to light, exposing the remarkable fact that the go/no-go dispute between the Defense and the Foreign Ministry was settled by decision of the Prime Minister himself. 

Adding to the piquancy within the U.K. was the direct conflict between what was reported by a BBC journalist on board the Defender and what was announced by the British Minister of Defense:  the former confirmed Russian claims that warning shots were fired and bombs dropped in the path of the British ship to force it to change course and leave the RF territorial waters; the latter said that no Russian warning shots were noted but called the close overflight of the vessel by Russian fighter jets risky and unprofessional.

Of course, British journalists lost no time taking the question of responsibility for the incident straight back to the Prime Minister, who on live television said that he saw no fault in what was done, because Britain does not recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, hence the waters in question are Ukrainian, not Russian, and the British Navy was exercising its rights to innocent passage under international law.

One’s jaw drops at Johnson’s statements. This, and his assertion not to worry, that Russian-British relations had survived even greater conflict in the past, revealed a state of mind that goes beyond insouciance to pure idiocy.

The question of the prime minister’s fitness for office has come up many times in the past. First, over his dogged insistence on Brexit, and “hard Brexit” at that, cost what it may. However, he survived politically, got his Brexit across all hurdles, claimed victory and then recouped much of the spent political currency by successfully managing a vaccination campaign that put Britain way ahead of Continental Europe in protecting its population from the ravages of the Covid-19 epidemic. For these reasons it is doubtful that raised eyebrows among some British compatriots over the extraordinary risks taken last week to poke the Russians in the eye will cost Johnson anything.

Having just spoken of Johnson’s idiocy, I must take a step back and admit that there is likely reason to his madness.  The international context is clear.  Following Joe Biden’s 16 June summit with Vladimir Putin in Geneva and the changed course of US-Russian relations in prospect, towards greater pragmatism, less ideological posturing, Johnson, the visceral Russophobe, is odd man out. Moreover, even in the European Union, measures were afoot last week to change course on Russia. To be sure, the proposal for a similar EU summit with Putin advanced by Angela Merkel and seconded by Emmanuel Macron did not receive approval from the 27, but some kind of outreach to Russia at another level remains in prospect. Against this background, Johnson’s staged incident in the Black Sea was meant to stiffen the resolve of the anti-Russian forces both on Capitol Hill and among the EU’s hardline states, the Baltics, Poland, Romania and, most recently, the Czech Republic.  In this way, the UK reasserts its relevance as a great power. No matter that this last hurrah may end in the obliteration of the British navy by overwhelming Russian force at any time of their choosing.

In Russia, the incident was viewed as more than a passing curiosity. It was taken as a precursor to war. The next day Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Ryabkov stated flatly that any future incursions will be met by force. The Brits may expect not warning shots but direct attack from the Russian military.

And already on Saturday, 24 June, the Russians made their counter-move to remind the British of who is who and what is what. This time not in the Black Sea but in the Mediterranean, where they moved their previously planned combined submarine, surface vessel and air force exercises to within 30 km of the new British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth in a position just south of Cyprus. The MHS Defender, it will be remembered, is part of that aircraft carrier’s task force as it makes its way around the globe on its maiden mission.

In a month or two, this aircraft carrier task force will enter the South China Sea where it is expected to make similar provocative actions in the exercise of Her Majesty’s rights of naval passage through international waters.  The Brits have already foresworn sending the task force through the Straits of Taiwan which would by general understanding be a step too far with respect to the People’s Republic of China.  However, something as foolish as the incident off the Crimea is surely planned.

In this regard, we may be sure that these past few days Russians have been exchanging information with their Chinese colleagues on how to keep the British Navy from doing anything really stupid and touching off a war.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Reductionist Approach to the Summit: on scoring a “home run”

If I may use the vernacular of American baseball, my article entitled “A Reductionist Approach to the forthcoming Biden-Putin Summit in Geneva” published on 9 June scored a “home run.” The number of visitors to my website rose dramatically just after its publication and in the next several days the article was  republished on a good many alternative news websites that have their own very broad readership, including opednews.com

“Reductionist Approach” ran counter to what was being published not only in Western mainstream media but also in many of the “dissident” websites like antiwar.com, where the editorial tone was skeptical first that the Military Industrial Complex and related malefactors would allow the summit to take place at all (by setting out yet some new false flag scandal around Russia in advance of the scheduled date for the summit) and second, that the Summit, if it proceeded as planned, could amount to anything meaningful given the Russophobe, Cold War mentality of the handlers who supposedly are writing Joe Biden’s debating points for him, and not just reminding him in his crib sheets to address Putin as “Vova,” the easy to pronounce familiar form of Vladimir.

Meanwhile, on the Russian side, state television’s interviews of home team international affairs experts, including the preeminent Fyodor Lukyanov, produced, like their American counterparts, only shopping lists of the difficult issues which the two presidents were expected to discuss, without any particular prioritization among these different issues or any prediction of which ones, if any, might find success during the face to face meeting.

As we now know, the Geneva Summit both did take place on 16 June and did result in a couple of noteworthy agreements that even Russia haters in the West could not ignore:  the decision to return the respective American and Russian ambassadors to their work posts and to begin restoration of normal functioning of the consular and ambassadorial offices in both countries; and the decision to enter into arms control negotiations with the objective of establishing strategic stability.

Some American media outlets did pick up other lesser signs from the Geneva talks that suggested something big was under way.  One such broad hint from Biden was his remark at the opening of their session that it was appropriate for “two great powers” to meet and find points in common for cooperation amidst all their political differences.  That remark was, of course, intended to break with the past denigration of Russia that Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama, laid down as Washington’s overriding policy line when he called Russia “just a regional power.” It was a declaration of respect for the country and for the man whom Biden had described publicly the day before as a “worthy adversary.” It thereby met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s minimal requirement for successful negotiations.

In the past few days, Russian state media have moved out from what I would call their protective screen of downplaying the Summit before it took place to celebration of the Summit and open explanation of its logic from start to finish now that it is past. In this move, they surely were following signals from Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Ryabkov in his evaluation of the results of the Summit that came on the next day.

That explanation conforms totally to my own “Reductionist Approach,” namely identifying as the driver for the Summit America’s need to put a cap on an arms race that it was losing .

This interpretation was driven home by the top manager of the Russian news establishment Dmitry Kiselyov in his very widely watched News of the Week program last night.  Kiselyov put on the screen images of the various new cutting edge weapons systems that the Russians have developed and now deployed in their armed forces, including  hypersonic cruise missiles that can evade all known Anti-Ballistic Missile systems and ensure a devastating counter-blow should the USA be tempted into making a first nuclear strike.

Nineteen years after the United States began the process of cancelling the treaties that ensured Mutually Assured Destruction and so made nuclear war unthinkable, at the 16 June Summit in Geneva, President Biden took a step back and agreed to negotiate a new stability that will be enshrined in an expanded version of the present New START treaty. 

Kiselyov also directed attention to the declaration of the two presidents in Geneva which reconfirmed the statement in 1985 by then presidents Reagan and Gorbachev that no one can win a nuclear war. That conclusion should be self-evident but it was tacitly denied by the Americans for the past 19 years in their failed quest to overwhelm Russian defenses with deployment of new short range missiles all around the perimeter of the Russian Federation in order to establish global strategic superiority.

Finally, in his coverage of the Summit, Kiselyov did not fail to mention that other motivation of the Americans to find some working relationship with Russia at this time– namely to draw Russia away from any possible alliance with China, which is a nightmare scenario for Washington. This is an issue which Vladimir Putin dealt with extensively in his interview with NBC that preceded the Summit by several days.  Here, the ambitions of policy makers in Washington are overblown, just like their fears.  Neither Russia nor China has any desire to lose its geopolitical independence by entering into alliances. That has been and will remain only a fallback position in the face of unrelenting pressures from Washington to “contain” their economic, social and, yes, military growth.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Travel Notes: Russia, June 2021

On 14 May, not long after we took off from Brussels airport on our Aeroflot flight headed for Moscow, with onward flight to our final destination, St Petersburg, the lead stewardess announced on the public address system that it was mandatory for all passengers to remain in their face masks during the entire flight. She went on to say that if any violators refused to comply, the captain would put the plane down at the nearest airport, eject the offenders and all costs relating to this maneuver would be charged to them. That announcement got our entire attention and put us on notice that official Russia takes the Covid pandemic very seriously.

Indeed, my traveling to Russia at this time was quite exceptional in that the country has been closed to foreigners since March 2020. Business visas, e-visas, tourist visas: all were cancelled back then and are still not being issued today. The only exception is for those who, like myself, are the spouses of Russian citizens accompanying them to their homeland on two-entry visas valid for three months. To all appearances, on our flight from Brussels, there were no other foreigners, just Russians. 

Our flight was full, but that is not surprising given that all air traffic has been greatly curtailed since the onset of the pandemic. Brussels Airlines had wholly suspended its Russian service early in the first wave and Aeroflot offers only two flights a week, both only to Moscow.

On the continuing flight to St Petersburg, no announcement about the penalties of not wearing a mask were made. Scattered passengers did not wear them, or had them under their chins, in a show of defiance. One of these exceptional individuals happened to be in our row and my requests to cabin staff to intervene elicited no great interest on their part.  It began to become clear that the situation with respect to hygienic regulations was not as it first appeared. 

The days that followed in Petersburg and the countryside to the south of the city confirmed this confused and disturbing state of affairs where “deconfinement” is the rule. That being said, the rates of infection, hospitalization and death are similar to those of Belgium and Western Europe, which still have a much more restrictive regime in place and are opening up much more slowly. However, the trend in Russia is headed ever so slightly in the wrong direction and surely a major factor is a low take-up of the vaccinations on offer, about which I will .offer some explanations below. Otherwise, in what follows I will share impressions about current daily life, about the economic and social impact that Covid appears to have had since my last stay in Russia.

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Much has changed in Belgian and Western European society since the onset of the Covid pandemic.  So it should come as no surprise that the Russia of today, is not the same as what I left behind 18 months ago.

The economic impact of Covid is immediately obvious. Platforms for small vendors like our Gostinny Dvor shopping complex in downtown Pushkin have lost half or more of the shops; the entire second floor of the building is now vacant, representing the loss of dozens of small enterprises.

Here we see the consequences of the Russian government’s very low level of financial assistance to business generally.  Measured as a percentage of GDP, Russia remained fiscally conservative from the start. It did not take out massive new loans to assist recovery from Covid as did the USA and the European Union. It mainly directed its outlays to assisting families with children, through one-time grants and new monthly allowances, building on pre-existing social programs.  Similarly, it extended a program of cheap mortgage loans both to support the important construction industry and to help people with limited means to improve their living conditions. It put new money into medical services, hospitals, salaries to doctors and nurses. But, overall, the economy was left to its own resources.

Public sector employees, a large part of the work force, were largely protected against financial loss from the lockdowns.  Meanwhile, for their part, the big industrial and agricultural enterprises had sufficiently deep pockets to avoid lay-offs and pay salaries to those who were not working normal hours. They could survive the crisis on their own.

It was the small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) who needed help and who did not receive it. Highly regrettable stinginess on the part of the Putin government has opened wounds in society that will not easily heal even if the economy as a whole plows ahead and returns to its pre-Covid levels thanks, in particular, to the recent sharp rise in the price of gas and oil, as well as of agricultural commodities that Russia exports in vast amounts.

Other social and economic losses resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic arose from the closing of borders. For the reasons noted above in my introductory remarks, foreign tourists have disappeared. The most visible such groups were, of course, the Chinese, who came through the Hermitage, the suburban tsarist palaces and other cultural and historical centers of interest in enormous groups. They had been a source of irritation among locals, who found their own access to these facilities limited as a result and who questioned whether the Chinese groups, taken around, fed and housed by enterprises run by their compatriots, really contributed much to the economy. Such questions are no longer relevant: there simply are no Chinese, almost no Americans and West Europeans. To a limited extent, luxury establishments like the Hotel d’Europe, are now taken over by wealthy Russians. But there are not enough of them to go around. As a result, hotel vacancy rates are high and ‘must visit’ gourmet restaurants are nearly empty.

The closed borders also have cut down substantially on the numbers of Gastarbeiters from Central Asia who had been performing all sorts of menial but essential jobs in construction, public works and miscellaneous services. Their gypsy cabs that 18 months ago provided us with instant transportation in the outlying districts of Petersburg are today a distant memory. Now we are reliant on Uber, Yandex and the other cartelized taxi providers operating only by phone or internet reservations. They are thin on the ground outside of the city center.

On the positive side, in Russia, just as in the West, the pandemic lockdowns supercharged online shopping. Russia’s answer to Amazon, a company called Ozon, has vastly expanded its presence. And major supermarkets have offered facilities for placing orders online that are delivered to the shopper’s home.

Meanwhile, as regards Covid itself, the picture which emerges from the month I have spent in Russia’s second largest city, St Petersburg, and in the countryside 80 km to the south, in the Gatchina district of the Leningradskaya oblast, is more complex than what one might assume from reading reports in mainstream Western media. Our journalists stress only the low vaccination rate across the population as a whole without any differentiation. They speak about the public’s uncertainty over the Russian vaccine Sputnik V due to its “rushed” approval. And they cite mortality figures from Covid which are several times those officially published by Russian authorities.

What I found by talking with people on the spot revealed a big cleavage in acceptance of the vaccination program, as well as in acceptance of the sanitary regulations surrounding wearing of masks and social distancing between city people and country people, between the “intelligentsia” meaning educated folks, thinking society, and everyone else.

 The country folk we met with in the hamlet of Orlino, population 400, had been vaccinated at the first opportunity, without hesitation or discussion. They all wore masks in stores, as required. Otherwise, they walked their streets mask-free, so that to anyone driving through it was as if there was no Covid.

But, of course, Covid reached into even the smallest and remote communities. Our immediate neighbors on one side of our property all came down with Covid just after New Year’s 2021.  Where did they get it? Answer – at work.  Apparently, their illness was only moderately serious: no one was hospitalized and all appear to have fully recovered. We saw them last weekend planting and tending their potato patch, which is back breaking work.

In our St Petersburg borough of Pushkin (Tsarskoye Selo), we have no acquaintances whom we might ask about vaccinations. But we do see that the respect for Covid sanitary regulations is less uniform. To be sure, in the major supermarket chains Pyaterochka, Perekryostok, Magnit and Fix Price which I frequent, all the staff wear masks and most but not all customers do as well.

At Pyaterochka, a gal in her early twenties in line just after me approached the cash register mask-less and was asked by the cashier, also in her early twenties, to take one of the free masks offered to shoppers at the entrance. She did that without complaint. That in itself was testimony to the remarkable civility today of Russians in their settlement of differences and contrasts starkly with the shouting and cursing that often accompanied enforcement of rules in the Soviet past.

In downtown St Petersburg, the general observance of Covid-related sanitary regulations is much more lax and, frankly, cause for concern.

The latest daily reports on new Covid infections in Russia are heading in the wrong direction. From a low of less than 8,000 daily a couple of weeks ago, the figures have risen to more than 13,000 now. Of that roughly half the new cases are in Moscow, a significant rise.  St Petersburg’s daily count is said to be stable at around 860 cases. Bear in mind that the general population of St Petersburg is less than half that of Moscow. The incidence of new Covid infections is therefore about three times less than in Moscow.

How may we understand the relatively worse situation in Moscow than in St Petersburg given that medical facilities in the former are much superior to those in the latter? The question is all the more intriguing given that Moscow is governed by one of the most sophisticated and energetic mayors in the country, Sobyanin, whereas St Petersburg is run by the nonentity Beglov, of whom the best people say is that “he has done no harm.”

Possibly the difference is found in the relative isolation of St Petersburg to the outside world at present, with almost no international flights, in contrast to Moscow which is virtually the only port receiving international passengers from all over the world, including “red zone” countries.  Then, as a second possible contributor, there is the mass transit system.  Moscow’s metro is by far the biggest carrier of commuters in the country. It is far larger and far more needed given the vast territory of the capital and the outlying residential areas feeding in commuters each day.

I cannot say how secure is the Moscow metro from spread of Covid, but I can offer an observation about its St Petersburg counterpart, which as presently run must be a significant spreader of infection.  Only a small minority of passengers are wearing masks and the level of occupancy of the railcars is very high even in off hours. Surface transport in Petersburg also appeared to be hit or miss with respect to mask observance.

Meanwhile, in St Petersburg public entertainments are being offered as if there were no pandemic.  I went to two operas and two ballet performances at the Mariinsky and Mikhailovsky theaters. All the performances were sold out, all seats were occupied, and only some spectators wore masks.  For its part, Horeca is operating normally, both restaurants and bars.

Russia has taken a stand as a front-runner internationally in reopening and normalization of public life. The St Petersburg International Economic Forum is often referred to as a Davos-scale event of international importance. But whereas Davos remains on hold and will be largely a virtual event this year, the St Petersburg forum attracted more than 2,000 foreigners, which though substantial is about half the normal contingent. The arriving foreigners all had been issued special forum-related visas and all were required to undergo a PCR test before being admitted to the event premises.

Similarly, St Petersburg is host to UEFA competition matches, whereas other European capitals like Brussels did not agree to take the risks this year.  Two days ago, we witnessed the opening of a fan zone in the city center. Hundreds if not thousands of young people were streaming towards the entrance gates, almost none of them wearing masks. By contrast, the Rosgvardia and city police officers present to maintain order were nearly all in masks.

In a word, apart from the daily news broadcasts that highlight the latest infections, hospitalizations and deaths, judging by the behavior of most city folk, there is little to remind  you that we are still in the midst of a pandemic that has infected more than five million Russians, killed more than 100,000 if not three times that figure.

Our city friends are nearly all well educated people. For the most part, they have not been vaccinated. Some say they are waiting for availability of new Russian vaccines later this year which they think will be safer. Others say they have no intention of getting vaccinated at all. The reasons they give can be amazing in their ignorance and disregard for the advice of medical experts and the authorities generally.

“Why should I get vaccinated? I haven’t been sick!”  This bit of illogic I heard from both ends of the urban social spectrum. At the top end, the speaker was a late ‘30s, early 40’s woman with a musical education. She is happily married to a much older music professional. She says that very likely a year ago they both came down with Covid. Given his age and comorbidities he was greatly at risk of complications. Yet, she refused to take him to a clinic or hospital, reasoning that they would put him on a drip and progressively see him to the grave. Instead, she nursed him at home, gave him aspirin initially and then after a week, when the fever abated, gave him standard antibiotics. They both recovered.  Fine, you may say. However, she refused to see a doctor even after recovery or to undergo PCR tests, saying they give contradictory results and are worthless. Accordingly, they now have no proof that they recovered from a Covid infection. As they plan foreign travel, she intends to buy counterfeit certificates of vaccination, which are now coming onto the Russian consumer market for a price of $60 each.

In her case, her aversion to the vaccine and to the entire Russian medical establishment is part of a broader refusal to believe anything coming from official sources, whether Russian….or foreign. When I presented statistics showing the dramatic effect that the first strict lockdown and now mass vaccinations have had on the incidence of infection, hospitalization and death in Belgium, she refused to listen, saying that all statistics are phony.

My case from the bottom of society is the Uzbek vendor of dried fruit in one of the city markets where I have made regular purchases for more than five years. Fine fellow! But when I asked if he had been vaccinated, he gave the same response as my lady acquaintance above. No mask on him. No interest in hearing about Covid.

The identical wording of their rejection of vaccinations and of expert medical advice possibly suggests a common source in one or another of the widely followed social networks and celebrity bloggers.  However, I believe that the cause-effect linkage of these gurus is the inverse of what is popularly assumed: namely, people choose to follow bloggers and celebrities who say what they want to hear.

In the West, media commonly speak of the “authoritarian regime” in Russia as if the populace were cowed and docile. However, as the resistance to Covid prevention measures here indicates, there is a strong undercurrent of what I would call elemental anarchism in this country. It goes back a long way in  national traditions. It was best formulated in the last quarter of the 19th century by the theoretician-political activist Prince Piotr Kropotkin.

So far, this anarchist mind-set has not resulted in any bunt or spontaneous outbreak of violence. Surely it has revealed itself in the outpouring of support for the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who offered no political program as such, to attract his followers, only a rejection of everything. Commentators in the West refuse to see this side of the pro-Navalny demonstrations of several months ago following his arrest and internment. For them Navalny is but an instrument, a lever to be used in their quest to disrupt Russia and bring about regime change. I see the outpouring of demonstrators in the streets as a generalized expression of frustration over the Covid restrictions and worsening standard of living they engendered.

Before closing, I offer one further observation of what has changed here in the 18 months I was away: respect for the United States and the Collective West has fallen sharply among all of our acquaintances, even those who were formerly Anglophiles, Liberals and sworn opponents of the “Putin regime.”  The sanctions, the never-ending flow of bitter denunciations of Russia coming from Western media have arrived together with news of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, mass shootings by madmen and abuses of the militarized police forces in the US, providing stark illustrations of the double standards being practiced in the West in contradiction with their supposed values. All of this disillusionment comes on top of the Russians’ generalized feelings of frustration over the Covid restrictions.  Moral of the story for anyone willing to listen on Capitol Hill: this is not a propitious time to bait the bear if ever there were such a time.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Post Script, 19 June 2021:  My remarks about the rising Covid-19 infection and hospitalization rates in Russia offered a week ago were prescient.  The latest infection figures announced by Russian state radio yesterday were above 17,000, of which half the cases were recorded in the city of Moscow. And in Moscow itself more than 80% of new infections are of the newly arrived Indian variant, all of which suggests that the city’s being the sole point of entry for international flights explains its particular vulnerability to new waves of Covid. 

Meanwhile, the authorities have decided at last to take firm action on behalf of the vaccination program.  In Moscow city, then in the surrounding Moscow Oblast in the past week they introduced mandatory vaccination for workers in various spheres who have contact with the general public, exceptions being made only for those who have medical justification for not undergoing vaccination. The order has immediately made itself felt in the past few days. Nationwide, the vaccination rate went up by 5%. In Moscow itself, the daily number of vaccinations has increased by 30%. 

However, in proudly announcing that more than 40,000 vaccinations are now being administered daily in the capital, the city fathers miss the point that in the state of Belgium which has roughly the same number of inhabitants as Moscow, the daily vaccinations reached more than 200,000 as the country hit its stride a month ago.

Yesterday, we had tea with a long-time friend who is well educated, very sophisticated in her artistic, gastronomic and other tastes. You might call her a perfect intelligent if it weren’t for her having become very patriotic in the past few years and if it weren’t for her having gotten vaccinated at the first opportunity. As we discussed the Covid situation here, she remarked that “Russia needs to be ruled with an iron fist.” Indeed, the broad population is only confused and annoyed by gentleness in matters that concern its own welfare, like countering the pandemic.  The Kremlin has finally taken notice.

Further thoughts on the forthcoming Biden-Putin summit: U.S. policy built on false foundations

In my last essay proposing a “reductionist approach” to identifying the driver of Biden’s initiative for a meeting with Putin so early in his presidency, I spoke of putting a cap on the nuclear arms race, which is proceeding adversely to U.S. security interests.

In this brief essay, I will explain why acknowledgement of Russia’s military achievements over the past decade, both in strategic and in tactical forces, is so difficult for the American foreign policy establishment, and why this fact is a major hazard for the forthcoming summit to succeed.

But in making my argument, I am obliged to broaden our survey to take in China as well as Russia, given that recent U.S. doctrinal papers have in one breath dealt with both as leading competitors and/or potential adversaries.

My point is that official U.S. threat analysis of these two countries is based on wrong-headed estimates of their respective military strength today and in the future.  The abstract notion underlying these wrong estimates is the equation of economic strength, measured by GDP, and military strength. As we all know, China is rated number two after the USA; Russia rates itself as number 10.

As recently as 6 years ago, the President of the United States was saying that Russia produced nothing that the world needed or wanted, that its economy was a shambles.  A U.S. Senator who enjoyed wide respect of his colleagues in both parties was saying Russia was nothing more than a ‘gas station’ parading as a sovereign state.  And while we do not read these ignorant and defamatory declarations about the Russian economy today, the recent ignorant and defamatory statements about Russia’s Covid 19 vaccine Sputnik V, the first such vaccine in the world to be registered, perpetuate the notion that Russians are incapable of world-beating innovation of any kind.

For all of the above reasons, mainstream media tells us endlessly that Russia is a declining power, that it only occupies the role of spoiler, whereas China is the world’s second greatest military force as well as being the world’s second largest economy and so is the strategic competitor and potential adversary worthy of our rapt attention.

I do not mean to suggest that China does not pose a potential military threat to U.S. global interests. Indeed, China’s military and geopolitical posture is changing as we talk, precisely because of the very aggressive attempts of the US to “contain” China and hinder its international ascent commercially and geopolitically.

What I mean regarding China is that until Trump began his frontal assault on the country by his trade war and confrontation in the South China Sea, by attempts to round up all the neighboring states and Europe in a common front against China, i.e. before the unleashing of a new Cold War against Beijing, Chinese military ambitions were limited in scope to their own back yard, not global or strategic.  Now things are changing. The Chinese are adding to their nuclear arsenal, which was, by intent, very modest. It is arguable that China is now starting a build-up of strategic arms usable as deterrence against the USA that it would otherwise have started only 20 years from now. 

The same factors have pushed China into Russia’s arms. The Chinese – Russian embrace is typically described as coming from the Russian side due to the pressure they are under from NATO and the U.S.-led sanctions. However, whereas China was doing splendidly pre-Trump in its economic relations with the West and had no reason to jeopardize this boon by coming too close to Russia, the pariah state, those inhibitions have been swept away by hostile U.S. actions.  Today China is the suitor in an informal global alliance with Russia.

So, where is Russia as a security threat to the United States?  It is without question today the single greatest opponent to US global hegemony in the world. It alone has the capability of leveling the USA in 20 minutes. And it has moved maybe 10 years ahead of the U.S. in the most advanced nuclear weapons delivery systems, ICBMs, hypersonic cruise missiles, deep sea nuclear drones, you name it.  Though no one talks about it, de facto Russia probably now has a first strike capability backed up by its own iron dome ABM system. 

Here in Pushkin, a close suburb of Petersburg, where I write to you from today, 10 minutes by car from our gated community apartment complex there is what looks like an S400 unit standing out in the open.  Pushkin happens to have some of the main naval training centers with foreign students enrolled (we see Guinee trainees in uniform when we shop in the supermarkets here), and there is a helicopter center and military air field close by.

How long can the Russians keep this up?  Forever would be my guess. Putin has said in the past 10 days that Russia will be lowering its military expenditures as percent of GDP in the coming two years to just 3.5%, which is wholly sustainable for the indefinite future.

Mutual respect is what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has demanded as a starting point for diplomatic negotiations with the Americans. Respect is not conferred on an interlocutor “from a position of strength,” the typical American approach to such talks.

The problem for Washington is that no one on Capitol Hill or in the foreign policy community wants to acknowledge the obvious facts about Russia today. Everyone is happy with the vision of a slovenly, chaotic Russia ruled by a merciless dictator, whose regime is fragile and just needs a little push, like Nicholas II’s autocracy, to tilt over and collapse. This is rubbish and if it remains the foundation of U.S. policy towards Russia under Biden then we can expect nothing much to happen to reduce the dangers of nuclear war or move towards calmer waters in international relations

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

A reductionist approach to the forthcoming Biden-Putin summit in Geneva

In the past several days, ever since a firm date and location were announced for a summit between the US and Russian presidents, 16 June in Geneva, American political scientists and journalists have been working overtime to fill newspaper columns and broadcast time with speculation on what should, what could be the agenda for such a meeting. As we all know, meetings of heads of state must be programmed in detail in advance to succeed.

We have heard, read that possible agenda items will include global hot spots such as Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine as well as the management of the Covid pandemic and implementation of the Paris agreement on cutting greenhouse emissions, among others. 

Indeed, the foregoing discussion points are “highly likely” to receive attention of the principals and of the task forces in their suites. We may even see some agreements reached on common positions when the leaders present their conclusions at the press conference following their talks.  However, this type of discussion leapfrogs over the question which analysts should be asking first:  why exactly has the Biden administration moved so quickly to schedule a face to face meeting with Vladimir Putin, whom the American president, as a leader of the Democratic Party, had vilified for the whole of the Trump years in office. Biden was one of those who insisted that the Russians had intervened in the 2016 presidential elections to do dirt on Hilary Clinton and help elect Donald. He believed the Russians were guilty of the Novichok poisoning of the Skripals in English Salisbury in 2018. In his programmatic policy article published by Foreign Affairs magazine at the start of the presidential race early in 2020, he detailed how the Russians had pursued malign policies in Syria and elsewhere.

Most recently, Biden was in line with fellow Democrats in condemning the Russian imprisonment of opposition activist Alexei Navalny. In short, the Democrats, and Biden at their helm, had made Russia into the great villain behind most every development domestically or internationally harmful to American interests. The culmination was Biden’s confirmation a little more than a month ago to a television reporter that Putin “is a killer.”

So why is Joe Biden pressing ahead with a meeting so early in his tenure in office?  We are told that the objective is to achieve “greater stability” in bilateral relations.  But I have not heard from our commentators what stability is to be addressed.  In the brief essay which follows, I will attempt to fill that void. In doing so, I will ignore all the aforementioned agenda items, which I consider to be little more than a distraction to draw public attention away from the essence of the forthcoming meeting, from what is driving the American side since it is simply too embarrassing for hubristic American elites to swallow this truth.

In my reductionist approach,  the summit has one driver behind it, namely to put a cap on an arms race that the United States is losing, if it has not already irrevocably lost, and to prevent the adverse shift in the strategic balance against America from getting still worse. The side benefit would be to strike down planned military expenditures budgeted for well over a trillion dollars to modernize the nuclear triad alone. This would thereby free funds for the massive infrastructure investments that Biden is presently trying to push through Congress.

In saying this, I am not guessing or engaging in wishful thinking. I am basing myself on facts that go back to March 2018. These facts are not being marshalled today by my peers, firstly because foreign policy commentators in the public domain tend not to have memories that go back more than a month or two, and secondly because the facts themselves were officially suppressed at the time and never appeared in the mainstream media.  What publication there was occurred in the so-called alternative media, by the efforts of myself and a few other contrarians, as I will detail below.

The events I am alluding to relate to the dramatic disclosure of Russia’s latest cutting edge strategic weapons systems by Vladimir Putin in the last third of his lengthy address to Russia’s joint session of its bicameral legislature, what we commonly call his State of the Nation address. Putin described in detail the operational capabilities of new systems that were ready for release to the active military forces or were far advanced in the testing and production pipeline. These included hypersonic missiles flying at Mach 10 and more. He claimed that the new weapons systems marked the first time in history that Russia had moved ahead of the West in innovative, unparalleled performance of its arms, whereas in the Soviet past, from the end of the Second World War and advent of the nuclear age, they had always been playing catch-up. Moreover, he insisted that the new weapons systems signified the restoration of strategic parity with the United States.

Since the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2002 under George Bush, US policy had aimed at enabling a first strike knocking out Russian ICBMs and then rendering useless Russia’s residual nuclear forces which could be shot out of the air by U.S. anti-ballistic missile systems.  Russia’s new, maneuverable and ultra-high speed missiles could evade all known ABMs.  According to Putin’s text in March 2018, the new Russian strategic arms relegated the hundreds of billions that the Americans had invested in achieving superiority to the status of a modern day Maginot Line. Whatever Washington could throw at Russia, the residual Russian forces would penetrate American defenses and wreak havoc on the American homeland.

In the days following this “shock and awe” speech, the mainstream U.S. media reacted to Putin’s claims with incredulity. The notion that his relatively poor country could move ahead of the United States in strategic weapons, working from a budget 10 times less, seemed improbable to many. Moreover, skeptics pointed to the context of Putin’s speech, which was in effect his electoral platform for the presidential elections later in the same month. They argued that his grand show before parliament was for domestic consumption, to defend himself against Russia’s Liberals, who had made corruption and theft of state assets their battering ram and who argued, like Yabloko candidate Grigory Yavlinsky, that the country could never be a military match for the West given its low GDP and manufacturing industry.

However, in official Washington, and surely inside the Pentagon, there were those who did not let ubiquitous arrogance and supposed exceptionalism blind them to the facts Putin had produced. If his presentation were a bluff, it would put in jeopardy tens of millions of his compatriots and it was out of character for a leader who had always been restrained and consequential. Among those who were alarmed by Putin’s roll-out of the technical capabilities now possessed by the Russians were four U.S. Senators, three of them full-fledged Democrats and one Independent who otherwise ran as a Democrat when he sought the presidency. The two Senators I call particular attention to here were Dianne Feinstein of California and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the nominal Independent. 

I mention Sanders, because he was one of the more visible Putin-bashers among the Democratic Party leadership when he ran for the presidency in party primaries. Feinstein is notable because at the time she was one of the longest serving members of the Senate Intelligence Committee where, from 2009 to 2015, she was the chair. Therefore, we may well assume that what Putin revealed at the start of March 2018 had not figured in the assessments of Russian military might by the whole U.S. intelligence establishment. This was an enormous intelligence failure, but it was not unique as regards U.S. understanding of Russia in those years. Time after time, the Americans had found themselves clueless about Russian demarches, including, for example, the Kremlin’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, the establishment of its joint intelligence command with Baghdad, its receiving overflight rights of Iran and Iraq to carry on its mission in Syria. These “surprises” had come despite the presence of thousands of U.S. intelligence officers in Iraq.

In an open letter to then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson published on the Senate website of one of the four signatories, Senator Jeff Merkey (D- Oregon) these four Democratic Senators called upon him to immediately enter into arms control negotiations with the Russians, notwithstanding all of the differences with the Russians in so many other domains. 

I quote from the opening paragraphs:

“We write to urge the State Department to convene the next U.S.-Russia Strategic Dialogue as soon as possible.  A U.S.-Russia Strategic Dialogue is more urgent following President Putin’s public address on March 1st when he referred to several new nuclear weapons Russia is reportedly developing including a cruise missile and a nuclear underwater drone, which are not currently limited by the New START treaty, and would be destabilizing if deployed.”

Specifically, they proposed that the new Russian weapons systems be brought into the SALT treaty, which they urged him to extend. This would ensure strategic stability.

I quote from their closing paragraph:

“There is no guarantee that we can make progress with Russia on these issues. However, even at the height of Cold War tensions, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to engage on matters of strategic stability. Leaders from both countries believed, as we should today, that the incredible destructive force of nuclear weapons is reason enough to make any and all efforts to lessen the chance that they can never be used again.”

This letter by four U.S. Senators published on the Senate website of one was picked up by the agency RIA Novosti, RBK and Tass within hours of initial posting, from where it went into mainstream Russian news. However, mainstream U.S. and other Western media did not give a single line of coverage to it and it disappeared in days as if down a black hole.

However, all traces of nervousness in official Washington did not end there. Later in the month, following the victory of Vladimir Putin in the elections which took place on the 18th The New York Times carried on page one a report of Donald Trump’s remarks about his phone call to congratulate his Russian counterpart:

“We had a very good call,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “We will probably be meeting in the not-to-distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control.”

Yet, even the words of a president led to nothing, and the issue of Russia’s possibly having achieved strategic parity with the United States and reinstated Mutually Assured Destruction was left without public discussion in Washington. The President called for and Congress reacted positively to raising the defense budget and in particular to funding a massively expensive modernization of the country’s nuclear weapons potential.

A year later, in his February 2019 State of the Nation address Vladimir Putin returned to the question of Russia’s new strategic arms and what they meant for bilateral relations with the United States. As he said explicitly now, the country’s new hypersonic weapon systems would enable Russia to reach targeted American cities within the same 10-12 minutes that the Americans would enjoy by lobbing their slower missiles at Moscow from perches in Poland and Romania. Still the United States did not react. America was very busy with its domestic political wars.

In 2020, Russia, the United States and the world at large were wholly absorbed in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. However, in 2021 the Kremlin has repeatedly called attention to those of its most advanced weapons that are now integrated into its armed forces and are fully operational. As Vladimir Putin remarked in an address to one professional organization a week ago that was covered extensively on state television’s evening news, the firings of its newest missiles have been followed closely by American intelligence. With more than a dollop of contempt for American pigheaded self-indulgence and denial of reality, Putin said that the Russians stood ready to share their telemetric recordings with the United States so that they could see better what they were now up against.

The caustic disdain for Russia’s ill-wishers implicit in that statement is fully symptomatic of the latest hard line that we see in Russian foreign policy ever since Biden assumed the presidency. Putin is not coddling Joe the way he did Donald. The Kremlin has no illusions about the Cold War mentality of its American and of its European adversaries, and it is responding in kind. This pertains to diplomatic expulsions, to economic and personal sanctions, to whatever slings and arrows come its way.

In recent weeks, we have seen how every affront to Russian national pride and to international diplomatic norms has been met by a Russian response that went one step further against “unfriendly states,” of which the United States is now listed officially.

In this highly charged atmosphere, we may assume that sober reports on Russian military capabilities have been fed to the President by senior Pentagon officials. While politicians have engaged in their blather, for many weeks these military men in the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been engaging their counterpart in the Russian military establishment, General Gerasimov, to keep the peace, avoid misunderstandings where U.S. and Russian forces act in close proximity and to maintain “stability.”  It is a safe bet that their concerns are what is driving the agenda for the summit, and it is a safe bet that the Biden-Putin meeting will end in some agreement on procedures for negotiating a broader and deeper arms control treaty. Whatever else happens at the summit in Geneva will be cherries on the cake.

References:

https://gilbertdoctorow.com/2018/03/02/missile-gate    –  lengthy analysis of the defense part of Vladimir Putin’s speech to the bicameral Russian legislature and of the reasons for the collapse of U.S. intelligence reporting on Russia over several decades

https://gilbertdoctorow.com/2018/03/10/gang-of-four-senators-call-for-tillerson-to-enter-into-arms-control-talks-with-the-kremlin/

https://gilbertdoctorow.com/2018/03/20/u-s-raises-the-white-flag/

https://gilbertdoctorow/2019/02/20/vladimir-putin-on-national-defense-in-his-annual-address-to-a-joint-session-of-the-russian-parliament-threats-or-a-bid-to-negotiate-on-arms-control/