Radio St Petersburg: an appearance on “The History Club”

Last week one of my “to do” tasks for this trip to Russia was successfully completed: I spent an hour in a recording studio of Radio St Petersburg’s Chanel Five speaking to Professor Andrei Leonidovich Bassoevich about the edition of my Russia in the Roaring 1990s published here in November 2021 and more generally about the cycles of friendship-enmity in Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe over the past half century. 

Bassoevich has been the presenter of this show for the past twenty years. He has a distinctive way of interviewing and of lightening the style of the broadcast by insertions of music and other sound tracks relevant to the subject at hand.

Our conversation was conducted in Russian.

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The impact of Western sanctions on Russian musical life

In Volume II of my Memoirs of a Russianist: Russia in the Roaring 1990s, the diary entries which constitute three quarters of the book describe in considerable detail the musical and literary life of the country that I saw firsthand and in which I participated as sponsor in the name of my employers. Notwithstanding an economic collapse that was deeper than America’s Great Depression of the 1930s, Russia experienced a cultural renaissance, moving in new directions and bringing out great new talent that won over discerning cultural consumers the world over. My conclusion was that High Culture was, is and forever will be a distinguishing feature of Russia come what may in world affairs and in the domestic economy.

In this essay, I propose to examine how Russian culture is faring in the face of the new and dramatic challenges posed by Western sanctions and by the “cancel culture,” “cancel Russia” movements that are being fanned by Western media. They have resulted in the cutting of cultural ties at the intergovernmental level and also at the level of individual artists and individual symphony halls and opera-ballet theaters from both Russia and the Collective West.

Playbills in the West are being censored and revised to remove Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and other Russian staples of the international musical repertoire in a manner similar to the way Wagner was cut from repertoires during and after WWII. The direct consequence is the removal of opportunities to appear on Western stages for the best performers of such works, meaning both troupes and individuals first and foremost from Russia. Artists who regularly crossed what were invisible borders now are confronted with almost insuperable obstacles

I focus attention here on music, meaning opera, concerts and ballet, because, of all the performing arts, it is the most accessible to the broad public at home and abroad given that knowledge of language is not a requirement for full enjoyment.

But before we look at the present, I will go back to the 1990s and direct attention to what some of the same Russian institutions and individuals as figure in the news today at the head of Russian musical culture were doing then.

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Musical leadership in Russia today is less concentrated geographically and institutionally than it was in the 1990s.  Many new theaters and greatly improved troupes have emerged in places like Kazan in Tatarstan and in Novosibirsk in Siberia. They are well financed by local government, which is flush from income generated by extractive industries, and with their deep purses can attract some of the best talent in the country.  Nonetheless, the one person and the one house of music that stood out in the 1990s and which set the tone for the nation then remains the bellwether today:  Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theater of St Petersburg.

Under Gergiev’s guidance, during the 1990s the Mariinsky moved way ahead of its key competitor and long-time ‘ elder brother,’ Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, which was beset by internal discord, political interference and an inability to respond appropriately to the economic challenges of the market economy then being established. It was precisely Gergiev’s genius at selling his ‘product’ abroad via recording contracts, joint productions, foreign tours and the development of opera and ballet festivals that drew in leading artists from the world over as well as a wealthy audience of foreign and domestic visitors.  Meanwhile, “Friends of the Mariinsky” fund-raising associations were cultivated in major musical centers. Besides financial contributions, they helped with the rebranding of what had been known as the “Kirov” company in Soviet times, to the new “Mariinsky” label. 

As musical director, Valery Gergiev had a clear agenda which he implemented with great consistency and success. Keen to turn his house orchestras into quality performers of symphonic music, he downgraded the ballet repertoire, for which the Kirov was best known abroad, to second place and brought forward the opera troupe with new, more demanding repertoire. This entailed promotion of Wagner, and of the Ring Cycle in particular. It entailed the promotion of compositions by long ignored geniuses of Soviet Russia, meaning Sergei Prokofiev in particular.

Gergiev invited leading stage directors from Europe to update the visual presentation of scenery, lighting and costumes from the static Soviet past, and, most importantly, to bring up to world standards the delivery methods of the singers themselves. From “stand up and sing,” they became actors and actresses on stage. The introduction of titles in English and Russian was a finishing touch to engage the audience in the dramatic flow of the opera.

Annual tours abroad to London and New York, among other global opera centers, consolidated the Mariinsky’s worldwide reputation and provided financial assistance to the orchestra members and singers who otherwise received miserly paychecks at home. 

All of these priority initiatives came together in 1991, three years into Gergiev’s tenure as Music Director, when the Mariinsky launched a sensational, unforgettable co-production of Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel with London’s Covent Garden. The presentation of this opera had been held up for many years by the inability to find a suitable female lead singer for the role of Renata. With the casting for this role of the young and rising star, Mariinsky soprano Galina Gorchakova, this gap was filled. Following the presentation of this show in London, Gorchakova was named opera singer of the year in the United Kingdom. She went on to make an important international career, during which she noisily denounced Gergiev as a “dictator” because of his tight control over the private lives of his protégés. Sometimes Valery Gergiev does not hold a grudge and today Gorchakova works at the Mariinsky as a voice coach, her singing career having ended some time ago.

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In the new millennium, the hyper-active musical director and chief conductor of the Mariinsky Theater, Valery Gergiev, oversaw the creation of a musical empire.  A spectacular new opera house, dubbed Mariinsky II, was built adjacent to the historic 19th century theater, which underwent much-needed renovation.  Five minutes walking distance away, a third venue was added, the Concert Hall, where concert performances of operas also are presented on a daily basis.  Moreover, in a manner which paralleled the Russian art museum world, where satellites or affiliates of the Hermitage were being set up in other Russian cities, the Mariinsky went beyond domestic touring to establish several permanent operational bases in the country. 

One was in the city of Vladikavkaz, the capital of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, the area where Gergiev was born and spent his childhood. Western readers will know this part of the Caucasus best from its connection to South Ossetia, which was once territorially part of Georgia and was the land over which the Russian-Georgian War of 2008 was fought. The Gergiev family has maintained close relations with Ossetia. Valery’s sister Larisa, who otherwise is engaged as director of the professional vocal school attached to the theater in St Petersburg, holds administrative and production oversight positions in Vladikavkaz.  Lest one think that this remote territory is a musical backwater, I note that the conductor of last Friday’s splendid production of Rossini’s Barbiere di Seviglia in Mariinsky II, Zaurbek Gugkaev, bears the title of ‘honored artist of the Republic of North Ossetia.’ His conducting was world class.

Another key achievement of the Mariinsky’s extension of its domestic and international reach was the opening of its ‘Maritime Region Stage’ in Vladivostok in 2013. Housed in a new and architecturally exciting building, this opera and ballet company operates a full season of productions. The logic of its creation was not merely to raise the attractiveness of living in the Russian Far East by adding a center of European high culture there to complement the university center developed on Ostrov Russky in the Vladivostok harbor, but to serve as a beacon to opera and dance aficionados in neighboring Korea, Japan and China, where potential demand was huge. The logic of this investment seemed impeccable….until February 2022.

When the “iron curtain” fell on Russia once again following the start of the ‘special military operation’ on 24 February, among the first news reports in Western mainstream media were about the scandalous dismissal of Valery Gergiev from his position as principal conductor by the Munich symphony and of his status as persona non grata at the Met in New York, where he had once been very welcome together with the entire troupe for Russian seasons. Soon afterwards, the world renowned soprano who began her career at the Mariinsky, Anna Netrebko was also kicked out of the Met, while European performances in La Scala and elsewhere were cancelled on the phony pretext of health problems.

Gergiev did nothing to challenge the disgraceful and cowardly actions of his Western partners. He had seen this circus before, when he was given the boot by his hosts in Europe and America over his patriotic stance in support of the Kremlin during the 2008 war with Georgia. After a few years, they all came back to him to beg for renewal of ties.

However, Anna Netrebko’s career as singer is by definition not going to be as long-lived as Gergiev’s conducting career. Moreover, her tax residence is in Austria and that is where her home is, meaning that it would be personally quite painful to pull up stakes. Thus, she made the decision to meet the demands of the Met and openly denounced Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. In doing so, she enraged fans in Russia and a planned performance in Novosibirsk was immediately cancelled there by her hosts. Still she failed to sway the stubborn Met General Manager Peter Gelb to rescind his blacklisting her.

Gelb’s pre-Met career was in marketing at a leading recording company. As marketer he always pitched to the bleachers and continues to do so, without regard for ethical or cultural values. 

Netrebko’s public turn away from the Kremlin did win her some concessions in Europe. Her first success was at the Opera of Monte Carlo. Other appearances followed.  Now, as the White Nights Festival gets underway in St Petersburg, there are rumors that Gergiev has invited her to perform in one or another opera.

Follow-up Western mainstream coverage of the ‘cancel Russia’ movement affecting Russian cultural icons told us about the departure of a Resident Conductor at the Mariinsky, the American Gavriel Heine. Since joining the company in 2007, Heine had taken over nearly the entire historic ballet repertoire, conducting the orchestra both at home and on tour abroad. His loss to the Mariinsky will be felt, although as I explained above, the theater places primary emphasis on opera, where interpretation by the maestro at the podium plays a substantially bigger role. I also note that Gergiev has had a succession of Western conductor protégés over the years.  A select few like Gianandrea Noseda, went on to make international careers of the first order.  Others remained relatively obscure. 

The Bolshoi company in Moscow took a much bigger hit when its Russian music director and principal conductor Tugan Sokhiev resigned, saying he had been under pressure to take a stand on the military operation in Ukraine. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Sokhiev also resigned from his decades long position as head of the Orchestre nationale du Capitole in Toulouse, France, for the same reason. This case illustrates perfectly the dilemma of performers who have not only great talent and skills, like Netrebko, but also brains and self-respect, like Sokhiev.

Turning from the fate of individuals to that of the institutions which shape national culture, we note that the descent of the new Iron Curtain instantly stripped away all of the foreign sources of income and performance opportunities of the Mariinsky company as a whole.

Now that the traditional White Nights Festival which runs from 24 May to 17 July is about to open, I have taken a look at their program to consider what changes the sanctions have made.

Firstly, you note the nearly total absence of foreign performers. This may well explain the unusual fact that a good number of performances on the playbill are still listed with casts “to be announced.” Nonetheless no shows have been cancelled, and as in the past each of the three Mariinsky venues in St Petersburg that I cited above offers one or more performances during each day of the Festival.

It is still too early to say what effect the loss of foreign visitors will have on ticket sales to the Festival events. One side effect of the difficulty Russians have had traveling abroad since the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic was that domestic tourism shot up and St Petersburg is a top tourist destination. That trend has of course been given further powerful encouragement by the shutdown of air transport links with Europe and America, and the complication of getting visas for travel abroad resulting from the shutdown of foreign consulates and expulsion of embassy staff dating from the beginning of the military operation.

Of course, the foregoing will not be of much assistance to the Mariinsky’s Vladivostok stage. The city is nearly twelve hours flying time from Moscow and is not a significant tourist destination among Russians. It is now cut off from the neighboring countries. China remains under lockdown, and both Korea and Japan have joined the sanctions parade.  Relief to Vladivostok will come only when China reopens. In the meantime the house will surely incur serious operating losses.

Besides out-of-town Russians, another boost to sales in the St Petersburg venues has been the implementation of a previously introduced scheme of federally financed allowances enabling students to buy tickets to museums, concert and opera houses for tiny out of pocket cost. At our evening in the Mariinsky last Friday, there were large numbers of young people present, despite the posted ticket prices that would normally be out of their reach.

In a way, market laws have long determined pricing of tickets at the Mariinsky. As a rule, starting prices for ballets are double the price of operas. Ballets are less demanding intellectually and they are considered by loving parents to be a perfect way of introducing their children to high culture.  All seats are sold out whatever the price.

At performances of the best loved ballets, Swan Lake and Nutcracker, there will always be lots of kids aged six and up sitting with their parents in the most expensive front rows of the stalls (“orchestra seats” in American parlance). By expensive, I mean on the order of 150 euros. The same seats will sell for half that to see a popular opera, one quarter of that for an opera that is either not beloved by Russians (as, for example, Hector Berlioz’ Les Troyennes in the current Festival) or is simply a poor show with dull staging and weak cast. Needless to say, there are very few of the last named category in the coming weeks.

In the program of this year’s White Nights Festival, there are several shows which will be in great demand and which are priced at levels that may cover direct costs of the theater. I have in mind Swan Lake in several star-studded casts and a revival of Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace staged by the Russian film director Andrei Konchalovsky.  I was present when this opera production premiered on 11 March 2000. Also present at the opening was British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who spent the day in St Petersburg as the first Western leader to meet with the newly installed President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. He was seated with his wife in the royal box, next to Vladimir Vladimirovich. The whole Russian government was in attendance and security was extraordinary. The opera’s revival is particularly timely today:  while the first half, Peace, is lyrical and romantic, the second half, War, is very patriotic, aggressively anti-French and more generally anti-West. It should do especially well with the audience now.

Other shows in this year’s Festival may also do very well in drawing audiences and keeping the box office busy on the strength of a single star performer.  I have in mind the June performances of Macbeth, Don Carlos and even the less loved Troyennes in which the soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk sings. She might just as easily have taken the easy way out and stayed in Paris or Salzburg, where she is most welcome, but Semenchuk has opted to sing in this year’s Festival, which will warm the hearts of Russian opera lovers.

The White Nights Festival has in the past featured performances by world renowned instrumentalists. Looking over the program, one might conclude that this aspect of the Festival has suffered the most from the ‘cancel Russia’ movement.  However, there will be a concert by the Russia-born pianist Nikolai Lugansky that is sure to be successful. Given his solid standing in the West, Lugansky’s boldness in coming to St Petersburg merits recognition.

One special feature of this year’s Festival is the attention given to works by the ‘house composer’ of the Mariinsky, Rodion Shchedrin, who will be celebrating his ninetieth birthday in December of this year. Shchedrin is best known in the West not for his ballet and opera compositions but as the husband, now widower, of one of the Soviet Union’s most celebrated ballerinas, Maya Plisetskaya.

Schedrin has composed in many different genres including instrumental music ranging from chamber music to concertos and other orchestral pieces. His pieces for the stage have been shown in various European and American theaters, but have not entered into repertoire and are unfamiliar to the general public, except for one – his Carmen Suite.

The four pieces by Shchedrin to be performed in this Festival are the ballet Little Hump-backed Horse and the operas Adventures of an Ape, Boyarina Morozova and The Enchanted Wanderer. In light of the patriotic feelings sparked by the military operation in Ukraine, Gergiev may well now regret that he did not have the foresight to bring back to the stage Shchedrin’s opera The Left-Hander, which premiered in 2013 and was dedicated by the composer to Gergiev’s sixtieth birthday that year. I can say, from my personal impressions, that the production which premiered in the Mariinsky as staged by Aleksei Stepaniuk was brilliant.

The opera The Left-Hander is based on a novel by the 19th century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, as are several other operas by Shchedrin. The Left-Hander is set in the first quarter of the 19th century, in the rein of Alexander I, the conqueror of Napoleon in 1812, who later made a royal visit to the United Kingdom, which is depicted here. The opera highlights the civilizational divide between Russia with its sobornost (collective solidarity) and England, with its individualism. Very timely!

Finally, it bears mention that in keeping with the house rules Gergiev established at the very start of his directorship at the Mariinsky, the Festival program includes a couple of Wagner operas, Lohengrin and Tristan and Isolde. Let it be noted that these productions, as well as the other featured operas that I mentioned above all require enormous theatrical resources which very few opera theaters in the world can summon in the best of times.  The Mariinsky is proceeding full speed ahead in these, the worst of times.

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I have spoken of how the Mariinsky may fill most seats and cover some of its Festival related expenses from the box office.  But the loss of its revenues from foreign tours, recording contracts, live broadcast contracts (Mezzo and national broadcasters) present an enormous challenge to management.  In this context, none other than the country’s President has stepped in to help. It is widely rumored that Putin proposed to merge the management of the Bolshoi theater in Moscow with that of the Mariinsky theater, all under the musical direction of Valery Gergiev.  The vacancy in the Bolshoi created by the departure of Tugan Sokhiev makes this decision not only possible but necessary for the sake of both companies. 

Of course, taking control of the Bolshoi has been a long time ambition of Valery Gergiev.  It will be opposed by many in the Moscow musical establishment, but no one will dare go up against The Boss. The benefit for the Mariinsky in the new, pending arrangement is that it will be able to tap into some of the generous federal funding that the Bolshoi has enjoyed since the 1990s, when it failed to enjoy the success in the global marketplace that Gergiev had assured for his theater. Most everyone in the Russian musical world will be watching closely to see how this proposed merger develops.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

Life in the village

Spending some time in the countryside was one of our objectives on this trip to St Petersburg and now that we are into our third day I have some impressions to share about what has or has not changed out here since the start of the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.

My location is 80 km south of Petersburg, in the hamlet of Orlino within the Gatchina district of Leningradskaya Oblast. Population about 300 in season, maybe one third that number year-round.

Ours is the main street that takes you from the nearby intercity highway down to the large lake 200 meters away which is the pride of Orlino and the key attraction for summer visitors.  Our house is lined up with others facing the street; and behind it the property opens onto a long strip of land that traditionally was dedicated to subsistence farming, meaning fruit trees, a vegetable garden and the obligatory patch of potatoes. 

We are separated from the neighbors by picket fences and it is common to chat over the fence about the usual concerns of weather, infestations of Colorado beatles threatening the potato harvest and the like. Right now the key question is whether it is still too cool to plant the potatoes. When the birch trees are blooming, like now, is the right time to plant says one neighbor.  No, the real test is to lower your trousers and plant your butt on the soil; if it feels cold, wait a while. So much for folk wisdom… 

Politics rarely arises and it is not a subject of discussion today, though convictions can be expressed otherwise. One change I note is the appearance of the national flag on houses. Never saw that before. It fits into a broader pattern:  a couple of weeks ago orders were given by Moscow for all schools in the country to raise the flag at the start of each week and for all students to sing the national anthem.  Curiously, in a country that is in a proxy war with the United States, these public shows of patriotism look very much like America in the 1950s.

The quiet discussion of the war which we have had with locals closest to us shows unquestioning confidence that it was necessary to preempt an attack on Donbas and Crimea by Ukrainian forces planned for the first week of March and that it is being properly prosecuted.  Yes, soldiers are dying, but that is in the nature of wars.  Should there be a mobilization?  Absolutely not!  One professional special forces contract soldier is worth 100 recruits says our friend and handyman Sergei.

Though we come and go several times in the year, this is the first time in all ten years of our visits to Orlino that the neighbors took an interest in how we got here.  Was it difficult, they asked? The fact that we come from Belgium, more specifically from Brussels, now registers with them in a way it did not in the past.  I suppose I can thank Frau von der Leyen for that.

Finally, a word about television. Like most everyone in this hamlet, like most everyone living in the hinterland across this vast country, we have satellite television. The installation of the dish and tuner is a one time cost. We pay nothing for what we watch. There are on the decoder a few hundred stations listed, but in practice we only watched a half dozen foreign broadcasters plus the three main Russian state channels. 

I was not surprised to find that French and German broadcasters are no longer available on our satellite tv. However, it was unexpected to see that BBC World News and Bloomberg are still available.  This supports my conclusions about cable television in Petersburg: that the exclusion or retention of given channels seems to be the result of commercial deals between content providers and the Russian distributors.  I imagine that the removal of nearly all foreign stations from our cable service in Petersburg is due to that factor rather than from any government orders. In this way it would be like the withdrawal of Hollywood film companies from the Russian market. “Animal World” is gone. “National Geographic” is still available.

Otherwise little has changed in village life from what we left behind on our last visit in October 2021.  The food shops in Orlino and in the surrounding villages are fully stocked. Prices are unquestionably higher but not shockingly so. Local roads that were dodgy have been fixed and we drove on smooth asphalt. The taxi service has been improved; it now operates 24 hours. Gasification has finally come to Orlino: some residents on a parallel street to ours are now getting their connections after a wait of many years.  Life is good…

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

When your taxi driver is a retired Russian Foreign Intelligence officer…

Several months ago, when talking about the way everyone in Russia faced economic hardship immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Vladimir Putin spoke for the first time about how it affected him:  for several months he had to take work as a taxi driver just to be able to feed his family and pay bills.

Those days of generalized destitution in the Russian population during the early 1990s are long gone. But formerly well placed officers in the Soviet intelligence community and in other branches of the siloviki still turn to taxi driving to make a supplemental income and to fill their days with interesting conversation. I know this from first-hand experience, such as what I am about to share with you.

I observed long ago that for me taxi drivers have always been a major source of information on how people really live here. That goes for our “regulars,” meaning individual drivers who may work for taxi fleets but become attached to us when we are here for several weeks and take us on our longer trips – into downtown Petersburg or out to the dacha. It is all the more true of the drivers sent to us by automated dispatchers of the big fleets when we are out and about in Petersburg. In the context of complete anonymity, given that we will never meet again, these drivers are often especially chatty and informative.

Yesterday was a case in point.

Our driver from the fleet in ‘green livery,’ Taksovichkoff,  turned out to be a retired officer of the Soviet/Russian Foreign Intelligence (GRU), as he told us towards the end of the ride. He picked us up during rush hour. The downtown traffic was slowed to a crawl by bottlenecks and we spent close to 40 minutes in his car in a conversation that at least initially was intriguing.

He opened by saying he is very worried that nuclear war is now a real threat and could end civilization. But whether that happens will depend on who strikes first.  If the Americans launch first, then truly everything will go to hell globally.  But if the Russians strike first, they believe they can contain the risks and humanity will go on.  He says that advisers to Putin are urging him to consider a first strike but that the President is holding back. “He does not want to go down in history as the one who did it.”  The last point sounds a lot like a line from the conversation in the War Room between Peter Sellars as President of the USA and his senior general in the always relevant film, Dr. Strangelove.

Otherwise, the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine was also a topic in our exchange.  He maintains contact with former pals in the service and so I take his story with a high degree of trust.

Our GRU officer in retirement said that the first five days of the ‘special military operation’ were a disaster, with heavy loss of life on the Russian side.  It was all due, he said, to the incompetence of the major generals in Moscow who were in charge of the invasion. Considering the debacle, he accuses them of treason.  In fact, they were removed from command days later and shunted to one side. But our driver insists the whole lot of them should have been shot.

Why were they incompetent?  Because they owed their jobs to corruption, not to merit. The major generals were armchair experts, whereas the Russian Armed Forces had plenty of simple generals who had proven themselves in the field of action.  Moreover, Intelligence experts were kept out of the operation, which explains its starting out on false premises about the enemy.

I tried to comfort him by noting that incompetence and corruption in the higher ranks of government and military are problems that also exist in many countries, including the USA.  He wasn’t listening: “they should all have been shot,” he repeated.

My question how things are going now was met by silence.

After sharing these observations and opinions, our driver decided that it was time to move on and directed the conversation to a totally different topic, his concerns over global warming, telling us that his expert friends in high places believe that climate change is now irreversible whatever we do. The methane emissions from the oceans are rising and will overwhelm mankind’s best efforts to halt the process.  Then he turned to speculation on divine intervention that has allegedly gotten Russia out of hopeless situations, including on the battlefield, in the past, going back to the Borodino battle during the war with Napoleon. At this point, I turned off my mental tape recorder.

“Loose lips sink ships” as they used to say in the States.  Despite the Terror, in Soviet times Russians blabbed quite a bit.  In the Putin era, this has been largely cut off at the source. The Boss takes all the big decisions alone, so that the possibility of leaks is excluded.

The chitchat of taxi drivers can relate what they hear from friends in high places. These elites are, of course, not in full agreement among themselves. But their views set the limits on what the Boss can do either way.

Before closing, I acknowledge that not every taxi driver is a patriot. The other day, a driver from the same ‘green livery fleet’ said just before dropping me off at a hotel: “I really hope the Americans will win in Ukraine.” Perhaps he thought he would engratiate himself with me, an obvious foreigner. Perhaps that is what he truly believes. But I was perplexed to think how his country’s defeat could serve his own interests, financially or otherwise.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

Who is winning? It is all down to timing

Over the course of the past couple of weeks, Johnson’s Russia List, the daily digest of news and commentary about Russia to which a great many American academics and international affairs professionals subscribe, has been filled with articles by respected experts from think tanks, from the universities all explaining why Russia is losing the war.  Some of these analysts specialize in military affairs: they tell us that the Russians do not have sufficient men and materiel to close the cauldron in the Donbas and achieve their objective of destroying Ukraine’s most effective fighting force. Being just a layman in these matters, I read their arguments with concern.  This concern is amplified by the writings of other American experts published in JRL who explain how Russia’s failure at arms will precipitate regime change or chaos in the Russian Federation.

Against this background, I was amazed to read today’s Morning Briefing from The New York Times, which seemingly out of nowhere is telling a very different story.  It is so remarkable that I copy it uncut below.

Quote

Russia makes gains in eastern Ukraine
More than two months into the war in Ukraine, Russia is making some significant territorial gains, even as its invasion has been marred by poor planning, flawed intelligence, low morale and brutal, indiscriminate violence against civilians. Follow the latest updates from the war.
Russian forces have advanced to the border between Donetsk and Luhansk, according to the Russian defense ministry — provinces where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukraine’s army for eight years. If confirmed, the news makes it more probable that Russia could entirely control the region, known as the Donbas, compared with just a third of it before the invasion.
If Russia can hold on to, or expand, the territory it occupies in the south and east, and maintain its dominion in the Black Sea, it could further undermine Ukraine’s already battered economy, improve Moscow’s leverage in any future negotiated settlement and potentially expand its capacity to stage broader assaults.
Unquote To be sure, Russia’s announcements yesterday of successes in reaching the western and northern territorial boundaries of what had been Lugansk oblast before the civil war that began in the summer of 2014 bear on the NYT’s article. However, by just following the daily maps of territories under the control of the Lugansk People’ Republic the “new” conclusion about the overall state of play could have been reached by any military professional without guidance from the Russian Ministry of Defense. I believe the greater factor in the NYT’s change of tune today about who is winning and who is losing the war was the successful passage yesterday of a new 40 billion aid package by Congress. From the standpoint of Washington, “mission accomplished” and now we can move on. The entire logic of that bill was to provide urgently needed assistance to back Kiev in what has been portrayed as a very successful defense and the start of a counter-offensive against the Russians to recover lost ground. If the Ukrainians are seen to be losing, and losing badly, why bother? In this regard, it is worth considering another item in the news today, this time in the pro-Kremlin Russian daily newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta: Quote A foolish PR stunt by the Kiev regime to seize Zmeiny Island [in the Black Sea, southwest of Odessa] on the eve of Victory Day led to the senseless death of more than 50 Ukrainian fighters and soldiers from elite subdivisions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. In addition, the Ukrainian army lost 4 planes, 10 helicopters, 3 cutters and 30 drones. This was reported by the representative of the Russian Ministry of Defense, Major General Igor Konashenkov. In particular, during the attempt to seize the island, the Kiev regime lost in the area around the island three SU-24 bombers and one SU-27 fighter jet. Out of the 10 Ukrainian Air Force helicopters which were destroyed, three Mi-8 were shot down with a landing party on board along with one Mi-24 support helicopter. Additionally, six Mi-7 and Mi-24 helicopters which were detached to the operation were destroyed on ground near the city of Artsiz, Odessa oblast. Konashenkov said that three Ukrainian armored Centaur landing craft cutters were destroyed at sea together with their landing parties on board. “Thus, this military adventure ended in catastrophe for Ukraine.” Unquote

If this is indicative of the way the long-awaited Ukrainian counter-offensive in Donbas will be managed, it is unlikely the trajectory of the war sketched in today’s New York Times article will be changed in the coming weeks, with or without Mr. Biden’s package of 40 billion dollars of assistance.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

March of the Immortal Regiment, St Petersburg, 2022: Impressions of a Participant

One of my highest priorities in these writings is to record personal impressions of significant Russia-related events in which I have been a first-hand witness, i.e. to practice active journalism as opposed to sedentary commentary on what others have said or written. Over the course of two years beginning in the spring of 2020, visa and other restrictions imposed by nearly all countries including Russia to combat the Covid epidemic stood in the way.  Then following the onset of the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, getting to Russia became still more challenging when air and train networks were shut down. Nonetheless, when there is a will there is a way, and it is a rare pleasure to once again report ‘from the field’ on yesterday’s March of the Immortal Regiment in Russia’s Northern Capital.

This was the first parade celebrating Russia’s victory over fascist Germany in World War II per the Russian calendar after the two-year suspension due to Covid. Lest the skipping of a parade go underappreciated by readers, allow me to remind them that May 9th is the most important holiday of the year to Russians, trumping personal birthdays, because virtually every family in the country lost loved ones in World War II. Twenty-six million died in defense of the homeland, the greatest wartime loss of life in human history.

The March of the Immortal Regiment was added to the commemoration ceremonies several years ago as a ground-up movement that provides a personal and family oriented counterpoint in the afternoon to the formal military parades on the morning of the 9th in Moscow and in major cities across the country. Nearly all marchers hold aloft photographs of their fathers, grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers who fought on the front or who served the defense effort at home, both those who died in the conflict or who lived on as veterans.

I have written about the Immortal Regiment four times following my participation year after year, and so I can bring a certain comparative sense to what I am about to say.

Let me begin with numbers.  Surely, the high point was in 2019, when it was estimated that one million people turned out for the March in St Petersburg alone, roughly one quarter of the city’s overall population. Though I have not seen official numbers, my guess is that this year’s edition attracted significantly fewer. 

It would be risky to name any reason for reduced attendance.  The weather was reasonably good:  no rain or snow showers, as have occurred in the past, just a cold breeze recorded as 10 degrees C. 

Perhaps lower attendance may be explained by a popular mood that is depressed by the military action now going on in the Donbas.  It did seem to me that the joyfulness of families, of three generations from grandparents to toddlers participating in the same public event, was less in evidence than in years past. Perhaps there were fewer dating couples in the parade, no flirting policemen and women on the sidelines, though overall young people were very present.

I will not hazard conclusions from these several observations. It is very much to the point that among the thousands of people whom I saw around me only one person was carrying a placard on which was written: “Peace. No to War.”  And that individual carrying a dissonant message was left alone by the good-humored crowd singing Katyusha; no scandal resulted.

After walking down the traditional route starting from the Alexander Nevsky Square by the riverside to the Uprising Square and continuing for several hundred meters along Nevsky Prospekt in the direction of the Palace Square, we left the parade and headed for our traditional May 9th dinner with friends or relatives.  Same friends, same apartment.

The table was richly set with the appetizers that support vodka toasts so beloved by Russians of a certain age: marinated slivers of salmon, pickled herring with onions in sour cream, salted wild mushrooms and assorted herbs and greens. Only this time there were very few toasts.

Following the tradition of the household, our host read from his poems published in a volume dedicated to May 9th.  He is a certified blokadnik, who spent his early childhood years living in a downtown apartment with family during the entire Siege of Leningrad.

This time he went off script and left his poems to tell us how he survived:  with one or two other children, he would cross the street from his apartment house and would be given some sweets or table scraps by soldiers in the garrison building on the other side. But he also told us of his macabre experience witnessing partly eaten frozen corpses, the results of cannibalism by which some adult neighbors survived.

The atmosphere of our gathering was altered in other ways. For the first time ever, our camaraderie was interrupted for several minutes by a quarrel over the necessity and sense of the ‘special military operation.’

Our friends, our hostess, are all Russian patriots.  But they are also flesh and blood people with personal and family concerns over how the war affects them and their loved ones. Will there be a general mobilization?  Will men as old as 50 be called up?  These questions weighed on the celebratory mood of May 9th and begged to be discussed. In this respect yesterday’s Victory Day was unlike any I have witnessed until now.

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Before closing, I am obliged to remark on the morning’s televised spectacle from Moscow and its grand military parade that the whole country was watching. Perhaps the attention was all the more keen due to expectations, fears that some new escalation in the military operation would be announced from the tribune by President Putin during his brief speech.

As it turned out, Putin’s words were very restrained.  There were no threats of nuclear attack on NATO nations posing an existential threat to Russia. The word “Ukraine” was not mentioned once. All talk was of the Donbas and of the historic Russian lands (meaning the Eastern territories of present day Ukraine) which were threatened by a Ukrainian punitive expedition in the run-up to Russia’s launch of its ‘special military operation.’ The operation, he said, was preemptive in nature from the get-go.

Western commentators found little to sink their teeth into other than the seeming admission that the operation is taking a toll on military personnel: this may be tweaked out of President Putin’s signing a decree providing for additional financial compensation to the families of wounded servicemen or those killed in action.

Meanwhile, Russian observers, such as the political scientist who offered his appreciation of the speech on Business FM radio St Petersburg this morning, explain that by tradition a presidential address during May 9th celebrations is not the format for announcing decisions with respect to military operations. In this respect, Western observers were simply naïve in their expectations.

As for the military parade itself, the expected symbolism was respected.  The parade was opened by flagbearers carrying aloft the flag which was hoisted atop the Reichstag in Berlin following Germany’s capitulation to the Red Army and other Allied forces. At his entrance to Red Square in his open-top Aurus limousine for a review of the troops, Russia’s Buddhist Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu crossed himself in Orthodox fashion as required  after passing under an icon mounted above the portal.

Otherwise, the parade was noteworthy only for its brevity. There were plenty of tanks and also of the Grad truck mounted multiple rocket launcher that is seeing a lot of action in the Donbas. But there was only one intercontinental missile on display, the Yars which is launched from a mobile carrier and which was deployed by the army more than ten years ago.

Most importantly, the air show or ‘parade’ was cancelled at the last minute due to unfavorable meteorological conditions. This deprived both the domestic audience and foreign observers of a view of the specially configured ‘White Swan’ heavy bomber known as the Judgment Day aircraft since it is intended to take on board the President at the start of a nuclear war.

Nonetheless, the fraught times in which we are living were brought to mind by one aspect of Putin’s appearance on the tribune and of his subsequent walk to the Eternal Flame at the walls of the Kremlin in the Alexander Garden: he was shadowed the whole time by a security guard carrying the briefcase with ‘the button,’ meaning the key to unleashing Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022 

Delusional interpretations on both sides of the Russia-West divide

In the past few weeks, I have commented several times on the way Western media and politicians either overlook or fail to understand the Russian Way of War as implemented presently during the military operation in Ukraine. They judge the success or failure of the Russians by what the U.S. Armed Forces would do if their objective were to subdue Kiev. With no ‘shock and awe’ opening by the Russians and considering the very slow progress of their move to free the entire Donbas region from Ukrainian control, Western commentators consider the Russian effort a failure.

Perhaps the most extreme analysis and most dangerous conclusions were presented on 6 May by a British journalist who has for decades written about Russia and is widely considered to be an expert, Mary Dejevsky.  Her article in The Independent was given a heading that almost says it all: “By hyping up the Russia threat, the west helped ignite this war. It turns out that Russia had a far more realistic idea of its own strength, or lack of it, than the west allowed.” 

In the body of the article, Dejevsky takes us back to the days of the USSR, which despite its faltering economy in the Gorbachev years was considered in the West to be a military powerhouse. The country’s poor performance in the Afghanistan war and then the total collapse of the Soviet Union forced a revision of the mistaken notion of a military threat from Moscow. 

Now again, she believes the West has overrated Russia’s arms.  She supposes that the arms manufacturers in the West have a vested interest in perpetuating the myth. However, Russia’s poor results against the Ukrainian forces, which have been trained and supplied by the West, compels us to think again.

Unfortunately, Dejevsky goes beyond this observation, which is shared by all too many Western commentators. Her concluding paragraph merits full quotation:

“The west fatally misread a weak state as a strong state, meaning that its attempts to second-guess Russia’s behavior largely misfired. If there is to be any new relationship between the west and Russia – which is unlikely to be very soon – the west must start with this basic reassessment. It must accept that Russia is a weak state, and that the west and Nato are strong.”

Quite amazing that she does not see what is right in front of her nose. About Russian military strength, the fact that Russia now occupies a part of the Ukraine bigger than the United Kingdom thanks to its advances in the ‘special military operation’ somehow does not register. As for economic strength, it is also amazing how blind she is: the market economy of Russia today is vastly more resilient than the command economy of the USSR. Indeed, no other country on earth could have withstood the ‘sanctions from hell’ that the USA has imposed on Russia since 24 February.

But my key point is that if Russia is deemed to be weak, then American and EU pressure will have no limits and will precipitate a reaction from the Kremlin that takes us straight to Armageddon. Vladimir Putin has threatened precisely this and he is, above all, a man of his word.

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Now I would like to direct attention to delusional thinking on the Russian side that may in its own way head them and us to Judgment Day. The material for my commentary is a front page feature article on today’s online edition of Rossiiskaya Gazeta, a high quality pro-Kremlin newspaper.

Pride of place in the right column is an interview with Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation. His position may be likened to that of Jake Sullivan in the USA. He surely has the ear of Vladimir Vladimirovich and what he says in this interview should worry us all.

Patrushev opens by stressing that the root evil in present world crises as in the past is Washington’s striving to consolidate its global hegemony and to prevent the collapse of the unipolar world.

“The USA does everything to ensure that other centers of the multipolar world do not dare raise their heads. However, our country not only dared but declared for everyone to hear that it will not play according to imposed rules. They have tried to force Russia to renounce its sovereignty, its self-awareness, its culture and its independent foreign and domestic policy. We have no right to agree with this approach.”

So far, so good. I broadly agree with Patrushev on the foregoing.  But the problems begin as he proceeds, in particular his expectations of what the future holds for Europe:

“What awaits Europe is a deep economic and political crisis for the various countries. Growth of inflation and lowering standards of living already are making themselves felt on the pocketbook and in the mood of Europeans. Moreover, large-scale immigration adds to the old threats to security. Almost 5 million Ukrainian migrants already arrived in Europe. In the near future, their numbers will grow to 10 million. The majority of the Ukrainians arriving in Europe expect Europeans to maintain and look after them, but when they are forced to work, they begin to rebel.”

Patrushev goes on to forecast food shortages that will push tens of millions of people in Africa and the Near East to the edge of starvation. To live on, they will try to reach Europe.

He concludes: “I am not certain that Europe will survive this crisis. The political institutions, supranational associations, economy, culture, traditions may all recede into the past. Europe will be gnawing at its knuckles, while America will be rid of its main geopolitical fear – a political alliance between Russia and Europe.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Patrushev is confusing what he would like to see happen with what indeed will probably happen. Intellectually mediocre, conformist and slavish in their pandering to the American overlords as the leaders of the EU Member States and EU central institutions may be, they are unlikely to lose political control at home. Their instinct for survival is not that far gone yet. Moreover, passivity and indifference to the political class are the rule in most of Europe. What the highly unpopular Emanuel Macron just achieved in winning reelection is proof positive of that reality.

Patrushev’s belief in Western weakness is as fraught with danger as the notion among the U.S. and European political establishment that Russia is weak.  These misconceptions easily lead to reckless policies of brinkmanship.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

Déjà-vu all over again:  Western companies exit Russia en masse

In my Memoirs of a Russianist: Volume II, Russia in the Roaring 1990s* published in February 2021, my diary entries from the period 1998-2000 devote a good deal of attention to the exodus of Western businesses from Russia following the default of August 1998.  In the preceding five years, the number of companies setting up business in Russia and their headcounts in country had grown by leaps and bounds, to the point where there were 50,000 expats and their families in Moscow alone. In the year following the default, the expat population fell by more than 50%.

 Most small and medium sized foreign companies that, in fact, lacked the resources to get their arms around the huge and complex Russian market threw in the towel.  Large multinational corporations nearly all stayed on, but they halted all further investments in the country and replaced their expat managers, including those in the key positions of general director and finance director, with local staff.

In fact, the promotion of the Russian employees was for those employees a Pyrrhic victory: the departure of the expats meant that Russia was downgraded in the corporate priorities generally.  Moreover, the organizational change within Russia was often accompanied by a change in the corporations’ global marketing structure. Companies like the one I worked for at the time as general director, United Distillers & Vintners (UDV), known today as Diageo, gave a strong signal to investors that Developed Markets in Western Europe and North America now trumped the formerly hyped Emerging Markets. The latter would no longer report directly to senior management in headquarters as had been the case hitherto but would instead be subordinated to individual Key Markets. This had the advantage of burying losses in places like Russia within the performance reports of large, established and profitable markets.

I have had reason to think over these issues as we all have read in mainstream media about the closures of the Russian operations of most U.S., European and even Japanese and Korean corporations in the weeks following the start of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine in February. 

Whatever the wishes of senior management, today the practicalities of doing business dictated at least a temporary suspension of operations in Russia for the very same reasons as I saw around me in 1998: a collapsed ruble exchange rate followed by great volatility and a compromised banking system. The challenges facing any company running a business entailing importation of finished goods or components from abroad were as great in February 2022 as in September 1998. Thus, at a minimum one had to expect suspension of business activity. 

What has changed is the way the 2022 crisis has been driven by geopolitics at the level of Western governments imposing sanctions on Russia and at the level of society in the West, where the ‘cancel Russia’ movement has been promoted by the media. These are factors that skittish business executives could not ignore. Hence, the widespread decision of very big corporations in 2022 not merely to suspend operations but to close down altogether and exit the country.

Does this make sense in the medium and long term?  When may these companies reconsider their decision and try to reenter the market? What does the temporary or permanent departure of Western companies mean for Russian firms that may be tempted to fill the void?  In what follows, I will try to answer each of these questions.

In conclusion, I will offer a personal observation on the cycles of construction and destruction in business life.

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Does the departure of major corporations from the Russian market now make sense in the medium and long term? 

To be sure, the Russian market lost its appeal for Western business executives long ago following a series of severe shocks. The default of 1998 under President Yeltsin was the first. The second came in 2008 during the global recession triggered by the failure of Lehman brothers in the United States and the toxic assets of mortgage loans that had been securitized and sold worldwide by American banks: the Russian economy, alongside other Emerging Markets experienced a very big setback. Then came 2014 when the first hard sanctions were imposed on Russia by the USA and the European Union following the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s intervention in the Ukrainian civil war. 

For some industries, for example beer brewing, which has been wholly dominated in Russia by AB InBev, Carlson and a very few other global players, the general rush for the exit in February may have given them a pretext to close what had long ceased to be the money spinners they had hoped for. For other multinationals, like Apple, the share of Russia’s contribution to sales and profit may have been no greater than 1%, so the withdrawal from the market falls within the normal accounting margin of error and could be taken without any adverse impact on share values while resulting in good PR. For still other companies like the international banks operating on the Russian market in consumer banking, the pull-out from Russia entails sustaining substantial pain and multibillion dollar losses.

The decisions taken now with so few apparent reservations or second thoughts represent a total write-off of major investments of senior management time and capital over the past 25 years from when all of global business was knocking at Russia’s front door to get in.  As regards consumer goods manufacturers in particular, they also are writing off the possible future rise of the Russian economy and purchasing power in a country of 150 million citizens as it undergoes reindustrialization through government supported import substitution. Vast numbers of good paying high-tech jobs will be created.

When and under what conditions are the companies leaving the market today likely to make a reentry try and what obstacles will they face?  From my experience as someone who reported to top management in London headquarters of multinational corporations, I find it hard to imagine that those leaving today will be ready to reconsider resuming activity in Russia in less than five years.  The decision to leave is taken at the CEO or Chairman level and no Vice President with regional responsibility will dare come back to them with proposals to reverse such decisions any time soon, since it would be the equivalent of denying the correctness of the decision to leave.

Nature abhors a vacuum and in the meantime, one way or another it is highly likely that the place of those departing will be filled by other companies, first and foremost by Russians.  All of which brings us to the question of why the foreign companies have dominated so many sectors of the Russian economy. This is something I witnessed back in the 1990s when the Western businesses were first being set up in Russia. The key lever back then was working capital, which the Western companies had and which existing Russian companies or entrepreneurs did not have. Western industrial and consumer goods may have been better than their Russian equivalents, but that was not the decisive issue.  Western goods were offered to wholesalers and retailers either on consignment or on generous credit terms that the Russian manufacturers could not match.  An additional advantage of the major Western brands was their marketing and advertising skills.

Today, when Western companies leave, there will be many Russian companies of long standing as well as start-ups that will, with government assistance, have the working capital essential to make a go of it. And once they are entrenched in any given industrial sector, it will be hard for any foreign company seeking to reenter the market to gain traction.

Secondarily, the place of many Western manufacturers in the Russian market may be taken by Chinese and other non-Western corporations who have political backing and see business opportunities in Russia that did not exist for them until now, when global competitors have left the field.

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In a week or two, I will be making an hour-long presentation of my Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s on a St Petersburg radio show called “The History Club.”  Back in November 2021, which is when this should have taken place had there been no new wave of omicron, I had a story to tell about the construction of the Western business presence in Russia which I participated in during the 1990s. This was a story that had its positive and negative sides.  Some of the companies at the time, such as the intermodal shipping and railway logistics company SeaLand, made a very positive contribution to Russia’s infrastructure while also making a handsome profit on their investment. I knew their story from the inside having been the lead candidate to replace their Russian manager.  Other companies were ill-adapted to achieve much in Russia because their internal political wars between the field and the headquarters precluded taking business decisions on the basis of objective profit and loss analysis as opposed to the interests of individual company officers. I knew such companies from having worked in them. Yet, on balance, I think more benefit came from the presence of Western companies in Russia than the damage that the blundering of some caused. A generation of Russian managers was trained in what had been until then alien business concepts and practices.

As I prepare for my radio talk, I find that the subject at hand is truly history, an age gone by. What we built in that decade and in the years since has been largely destroyed in the past few weeks, as Western companies have pulled up stakes. This is sad, but not tragic.  It is a good reminder that nothing is forever, that change is the only constant in our lives.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

Lavrov’s ‘anti-Semitic’ remarks

In the past couple of days, there were two major diplomatic scandals at the international level. One concerns the Ukrainian ambassador to Berlin, who grossly insulted the Chancellor.  The other concerns Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov’s offhand remarks in an interview regarding anti-Semitism, which immediately riled the political establishment in Israel. Though both incidents have been featured in news bulletins, neither has been approached from the angle of investigative journalism.

When Ambassador Andrij Melnyk accused Olaf Scholz of behaving like “an offended liver sausage” for refusing to visit Kyiv, that caught the attention of not only German media, but global media. The term “offended liver sausage” may have seemed peculiar to English speakers, but it clearly was not meant as a compliment.

The Daily Beast went further than most of the press in identifying the term as a German colloquialism “commonly employed to describe someone as a prima donna.” They connected this insult to the head of government with a tit-for-tat by the Chancellor:  in the preceding month, Zelensky had refused to receive German head of state Frank-Walter Steinmeier because of his past close ties to Moscow and this motivated Scholz’s decision not to go.

However, the nominally investigative journalists of The Daily Beast looked no further. Neither this paper nor mainstream has asked and then answered persuasively why Kiev would intentionally offend the most powerful country within the EU, upon whom it greatly depends for military and economic assistance. Some put it down to the ambassador’s personal views. Others are simply confounded.  No one has considered that the spat Kiev’s man on the spot has initiated with Scholz might be a calculated intervention in German domestic politics, with a view to pushing the indecisive Scholz out of power.  The Chancellor is known to be under threat from other members of his own party and from coalition partners who would gladly replace him with someone more committed to helping the Ukrainian cause with action and not just words.

The case of Lavrov’s remarks about Jews and anti-Semitism has received even less penetrating analysis.  He is quoted in the press as having said that Hitler also had Jewish blood and that the worst anti-Semites are found among Jews.  These words were instantly denounced by the Israeli government, which called for an apology.

The Western press was equally quick to remark how Lavrov had precipitated what can only be a cooling of relations with Israel. Jerusalem would now surely abandon its claims to be an honest broker and would align itself more closely with Kiev. In Washington and London, editors were gleeful.

However, no one asked the question which begs to be addressed: how, why would Sergei Lavrov, who is surely the most experienced diplomat on the world stage, make remarks that could only do damage to Russian-Israeli relations?

I admit that there is an innocuous explanation. Lavrov intended his words as a counter to Western denial that Kiev is a Nazi-dominated regime on grounds that President Zelensky himself is Jewish. But Lavrov had to be aware how Jerusalem would react to his words, so we should look further.

Let me hazard a guess.  Lavrov knew well what he was doing and probably had discussed this subject with his boss, Vladimir Vladimirovich, before he opened his mouth.

The Russians are very dissatisfied with Israel over its past military cooperation with Ukraine, and Lavrov’s statement was only the opening round. If we go back to the very first days of Russia’s ‘special military operation,’ when they took control of the Zaporozhye nuclear power station and seized there documents relating to Ukraine’s efforts to build a ‘dirty nuclear weapon,’ the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that there were foreign enablers active there.  Then the next day, unexpectedly and in great haste, Israeli Prime Minister Bennett flew to Moscow for unscheduled talks with Putin.  Almost nothing was disclosed about the subject of their talks. But subsequently the foreign enablers were never identified by the Russians.

Though I have been praised by some readers for avoiding ‘speculation,’ I will permit myself just this once to speculate:  it is not inconceivable that the Israelis were among the key advisers to Kiev on its program to build nuclear weapons.  If that is so, we may expect Russian-Israeli relations to get a lot worse in the coming weeks and months.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

America’s ideological blinkers and the Ukraine war

Ideological blinkers prevent a correct U.S. assessment of the Russian successes in the Ukraine war, of the likely outcomes and of what to do now

Yesterday’s edition of the premier Sunday news wrap-up on Russian state television, Vesti nedeli, hosted by Dmitry Kiselyov,  marked a turning point in what the Russians are saying officially about their achievements on the ground in Ukraine. It set me to thinking over why Washington is getting it all wrong and how America’s ideological blinkers may lead to very unfortunate consequences on a global level.

Up until now, Russian news has been very quiet about the country’s military achievements in Ukraine. The daily briefings of Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov have only given summary figures on the planes, tanks and other armored vehicles, command centers in Ukraine that were destroyed by high precision Russian missiles plus the names of towns that were taken, without elaborating on their strategic or other value.  Otherwise, Russian television programming has been showing only the damage inflicted daily by Ukrainian forces on the city of Donetsk and its suburbs from artillery and Tochka U missile strikes. There is a steady toll of destroyed homes, hospitals, schools and loss of civilian lives. The sense of this programming is clear: explaining again and again to the Russian audience why we are there.

Yesterday’s News of the Week devoted more than 45 minutes to Russian military operations on the ground. The message has changed to what we are doing there. Television viewers were led by the Rossiya team of war zone reporters through the wrecked forests and fields of the Kharkov oblast in northeastern Ukraine as well as in newly liberated parts of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Filming from an armored all-terrain vehicle, they showed us kilometers long stretches of burned out Ukrainian tanks and other heavy military gear as well as dozens and dozens of corpses of Ukrainian soldiers “killed in action” and left behind to rot by their fast retreating comrades and deserters. Then came interviews with Ukrainian prisoners of war, whose faces and words tell a very different story from the heroic encomiums raining down from Zelensky and his entourage. Finally, there were interviews with some of the civilians who were let out of the Azovstal underground complex these past couple of days and made their way to freedom via the humanitarian corridor which the Russians set up each afternoon.

I will deal briefly with each of these segments from last night’s News of the Week. But first, allow me to offer two overall generalizations.

First, the Russian ‘special military operation’ is a millstone that grinds slowly but grinds fine. It is working. The Russians are crushing the Ukrainian forces.  It is improbable that any amount of deliveries of foreign equipment to Kiev can make a difference on the outcome of this conflict. Indeed, while critics of the US-led intervention in the conflict claim, correctly, that the deliveries are drawing out the war by encouraging Kiev to fight on, it is also true that the Russians have no problem with that:  the longer it goes on, the more territory they can seize, with a view to controlling and ultimately annexing the entire Black Sea littoral. They would thereby ensure that what survives of the Ukrainian state can never again pose a military threat to Russia, with or without NATO help.

Second, the Ukrainian army indeed has NATO trained officers and skilled professionals who may be admirable fighters, as the Western media insist. But it also has a lot of cannon fodder. By cannon fodder I mean overaged recruits dragooned into the forces and also volunteers who are useless to any modern military and are no longer trainable. Most of the prisoners of war shown on Russian television were in their late 50s and even late 60s; they had no prior military experience. One of the latter, with haggard face and scraggly beard down to his chest was asked why he enlisted to fight. The answer came back: “There was no work. So I signed up just to make some money.” After seeing their mates shot dead, is it any wonder that such soldiers raise their arms to surrender at the first opportunity? 

The question not being asked is where are all the young and able Ukrainian males? How have they evaded the draft?  Given the widely acknowledged corruption in Ukrainian government and society, would it not be strange if some just buy their way out of the war? Are they among the 5 million Ukrainians who have gone abroad since the start of the hostilities? Are they the ones now driving their high priced Mercedes with Ukrainian license plates around the streets of Hamburg? Who in the West records this or really cares about it?

The testimony of the prisoners of war shows that they were misled by their officers. They were told that the Russians would simply slaughter them if they showed the white flag.  The testimony of the several women who walked to freedom from the Azovstal catacombs supports the official Russian version of the situation there: they were intimidated by the nationalist warriors who used them as human shields. They were barely fed and were warned that the way out was mined so that they would die in any attempt at escape.

The advance of the Russians on the ground as they finish preparations of the cauldron or total encirclement of the major part of Ukrainian forces in the Donbas is slow, only a couple of kilometers per day. The reason was clear from the reporting last night: apart from the open fields and forests mentioned above, the Ukrainians are in well-fortified bunkers that they constructed over the past eight years and they are situated in the midst of small towns where they have to be flushed out street by street, house by house. Carpet bombing or unlimited shelling would result in heavy loss of life among the civilian population, many of whom are Russian speakers, precisely the people whom the Russians are seeking to liberate.

The reasoning underlying the Russian Way of War in Ukraine has been wholly overlooked or dismissed out of hand by official Washington. American media and senior politicians speak only of Russia’s supposed logistical problems and poor implementation of its war plans.  This is so is not because Biden’s advisers are lame-brained. It is so because of the ideological blinkers that the whole foreign policy establishment in the United States wears. The ideology may be called (Wilsonian) Idealism. It stands in contrast to Realism, which is espoused by a tiny minority of American academics.

The distinction is not mere words. It is how foreign policy issues are analyzed. It is about the creation in the United States of a post-factual world that might just as well be called a virtual world. 

Idealism in foreign policy rests on the assumption that universal principles shape societies everywhere. It systematically ignores national peculiarities, such as history, language, culture and will. By contrast, Realism is based precisely on knowledge of such specifics, which define national interests and priorities.

Under these conditions, the think tank scholars in the United States can sit at their computers and write up their evaluations of the Russian prosecution of the war in Ukraine solely on what they, the Americans and their allies, would do if they were directing the Russian military effort.  They would fight the American way, meaning a start with “shock and awe” followed by vast destruction of everything in the way of their march on the capital of the enemy state to bring about total capitulation in short order.  The reasoning of the men in the Kremlin holds no interest for them. Hence, the dead wrong conclusion that the Russians are losing the war, that Russia is not the strong military force that we feared, and that Russia can be successfully challenged and beaten down until it submits to American directions and American definitions of its national interest.

The same problem of a “virtual world” approach comes up now in the discussion among American experts of the likelihood that Putin will use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine and how the US-led West should respond.  The possibility that the Russians are winning and have no need for extreme solutions is excluded. The possibility that non-nuclear solutions like carpet bombing might be applied if the Russians genuinely were stymied is excluded.

The latest variation on Russia’s possibly escalating towards WWIII by using tactical nuclear weapons is a reaction to President Putin’s vague threat of a ‘lightning quick’ response to any sign of Western powers becoming co-belligerents by their deeds in support of Ukraine.  Curiously, the threat was deemed to mean precisely tactical nuclear attacks, not the launch of the new Sarmat hypersonic and ABM-evading ICBMs, or the dispatch of the deep-sea drone Poseidon to wash away Washington, D.C. in a nuclear explosion caused tidal wave.  In any case, the assortment of devastating new weapons systems at Russia’s disposal seems to be ignored by our policy experts. They have settled on just one, about which they speculate endlessly.

The virtual world bubble in which the U.S. foreign policy community exists and flourishes is a disaster waiting to happen.  Who will heed the wake-up call of John Mearsheimer and the few policy experts who hold up the Realpolitik standard?

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022