Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist, installment six

Tête-à- tête with a senior Russian diplomat, Oleg K., in the Hotel National, Moscow for a tour d’horizon, politics, business and personal lives.  24 February 1977

4.00 pm return to the hotel and prepare for meeting with Oleg K., first secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a good friend of Bettina’s. Note – Oleg accompanied [Meat and Dairy] Minister Antonov ‘s delegation on the trip to Swift and Beatrice last summer. Oleg shows up at my room a bit ahead of schedule at 6.15.  Very properly dressed, discreet, Ivy League cut. Soft-spoken. Asks at once about Bettina. Seems very pleased to get the book I have with me. We chat a bit. Obviously he has heard something about me before – his first question concerns my academic background  – what was my specialty? Economics? What degree do I hold?  I explain and then he asks if I went through a dissertation defense and whether it’s like a defense here. Next back to Bettina – what about her new Chinese venture, sale of beer? I reply in the affirmative and then we move on to our comparative tastes in beer. He likes Coors, dislikes beer in cans. Asks how long I’ve been with Bettina, then how long I intend to stay in this field. I say 5 years, and that Bettina herself suggested such a term.

We then leave for the National – I have reserved a table provisionally and we will start at the bar. Both of us take Scotch and once ensconced engage in far ranging discussion. First, he asks whether I do not feel uncomfortable in a new field for which I was not professionally prepared. I reply that I have spent too much time in a field where I had the analytic framework but insufficient raw material so that I would like to gather live data for a while. In the long run, he has pointed out a potential problem but I do intend to study economics on my own and so to become prepared. I explain how historical research was a bear-like existence, how my published articles resulted in only one crank note from a professor emeritus, and how it is good to be part of something vital. Also, that I feel I can make a strong contribution to my work by bringing an analytical eye and an open mind; this is important since the companies we deal with are overloaded with sincere and conscientious engineers who are incompetent salesmen in the international arena.

Next we turn to US politics and Carter, whom Oleg types as a student of Rickover, captive of the Jewish lobby and of the Trilateral Commission which preceded his candidacy. Oleg is very well informed on Washington doings and obviously enjoys the opportunity to discuss his ideas in English, to which we have now switched. A determinist, Oleg looks to economic factions and interests to explain the moment. Says Carter’s embracing dissidents and letter to Sakharov are really causing consternation here and indicate that the upcoming Belgrade meeting the US will take very hard line. Does not blame Brzezinski or Schulman personally, sees their conduct as following from the official position.

I say it’s a pity linkage theory shelved, but you must understand that some things Kissinger did had to summon a reaction. I relate to Oleg the whole talk Sonnenfeldt gave us at Harvard: the notion of accommodation now that Russia is emerging as an imperial power on the world scale, leaving its geopolitical interests and moving into Africa, South America, etc; the idea that at each time in history when such a new imperial power emerges there are tensions as it seeks membership in the imperial club; notion that in the interests of world peace we in US should make room for the Russians and admit them to the club as equals. Oleg listens with obvious interest. He has spoken to Sonnenfeldt on his own, and what I am saying appears new to him, but he does not deny its veracity. Instead, he takes issue with the concept which I introduced as not very flattering in address to the USSR and not very appealing to a patriotic US audience.

Oleg calmly denies that an imperial club exists, still less that Russia would seek membership. He says that talk of the USSR posing a military threat to the US is absurd, since their economy is one third of ours and in modern times what counts is economics and technical might. I respond – yes, so we thought till recently. But it has been the realization that the technological balance has changed, combined with the Soviet preponderance in numbers that has reopened the whole question of our relative security. I say that the whole recent debate on military strength has been predicated on the growing realization that old reasons for smugness are disappearing and that at a certain point numerical advantage becomes qualitative advantage. I say that, of course, this is only an opinion based on what is in the press, not on inside or privy information – that I have not contributed to Foreign Affairs. With calm, reassuring words, Oleg responds: ‘you will.’

Turning again to my career, Oleg supposes that by age 40 I’ll be back in academia, asks if I won’t be rusty. I say it is doubtful I will have missed much during my absence and that in any case, I will not be returning to the pre-Revolutionary period, rather to what I am learning now. We finish our drinks and go over to the restaurant where our table has been reserved. Seeing my calling card on the table, Oleg says he sees the Parker name carries weight here. The dinner is relaxed, over two bottles of Tsinandali, and we discuss both politics and personal fortunes. Oleg has visited most Soviet embassies abroad, is very well traveled and urbane.

He says that earlier his dream was to go to the virgin forests with a rifle in hand and live the wild life; that now, however, he has become urbanized, though he is very happy to talk of his experiences in the Far East, Vladivostok region in the postwar period. Father apparently was stationed there in the garrison. Looks about 37-39, a bachelor. Says he has a taste for English girls. I comment that this is understandable, since they, like Russian girls are very strong. He agrees, saying that when you leave an English girl there are no storms and crises – you part as equals. Seems proud to be talking from experience.

I ask permission to be a bit indiscreet and inquire of their thoughts on Ford, wasn’t he really a dolt. Oleg reports that they did respect him here – that the main thing was his willingness to learn; that what one wants from a chief is decency and Ford was decent. Earlier I had suggested that Carter’s fuss over Soviet dissidents was a smoke screen to cloud his pardon of Vietnam resisters, a very unpopular move on the right; however, Oleg declined to see it as a purely domestic matter.

On the way over to the National, I mentioned my Russian marriage. Now he asks quietly ‘was it difficult?’  I say it was not and the subject is closed. Oleg returns several times to the Jewish lobby – says he’s spoken to Vanek and they have found common language – same was true of Javits. I say this shows all the more that there is a political clout behind the public stands taken and that Russians cannot ignore these chords which find deep response in the USA. Earlier while at the bar Oleg reminded me that Russians never stood for pogroms, that these were special circumstances. I agree, while he is staring directly at me.

I ask why Russians take Harriman so seriously. Oleg also wonders about this, hints that Harriman was never such a good friend. I respond that having seen documents at Columbia I know Harriman was in ’43-44 one of those most responsible for worsening of tensions, that his word was heeded all the more because he had not been associated earlier with the anti-Russian Riga school of diplomats.

We discuss the Kennan Institute, about which Oleg has evidently heard.  He is interested to learn that Princeton is behind this and that its objective has been to bring scholars, business and government together. I tell about recent conferences of journalists stationed in the USSR since WWII and he wants to know of the aim was strictly historical – I answer in the affirmative. I tell him what it was like to graduate from Harvard in 1967, the age of Kennedy and Harvard ties. He is interested.

Oleg talks at length about virgin forests and hunting. I turn the discussion to problems of trade, explain how major US companies are fully aware of the difficulties of doing business here, especially the fact that no one will put up money for the engineering that goes into a proposal – and I ask Oleg what he would say to them if he were in my place to encourage them to come here. He says the following: that one deal leads to another and that there will be much business for them to do here. He says the USSR doesn’t seek credits – knows full well that they have to be repaid sometime. The chief key to foreign trade is political – the nature of our state relations. I say that in American academic circles there is the feeling that Russia has not shown good faith in détente because it has not committed resources to export-oriented industries. Oleg responds that it has shown good faith by taking the time and effort to deal directly with US parent companies whereas they could just as easily deal only with the European subsidiaries as has in the past. Then I respond that this favor not evident when we are negotiating at the Foreign Trade Ministry and must show that it is cheaper to buy US than to buy European.

I mention concern of US companies for up-front money before undertaking project design – how they have been burned, spending up to 500,000 on such proposals only to receive noncommittal thanks from a ministry leading to nothing. I ask about the Bendix deal – resale of product to the West. Oleg suggests this is definitely an indication of things to come, that such an export potential is a very important consideration.

Oleg speaks very highly of Bettina – respects her role in the Similac deal, putting together so many disparate pairs to bring it off. As to Similac itself, he expresses surprise that the Soviets bought it, doubting it was really needed. I say that from my experience it is necessary. Moreover, the related product which, peculiarly was not sold here – Isomil and Pedialyte – would be still more valuable because they overcome a very difficult problem of the child who cannot accept milk based formulae.  Oleg states proudly that Russian products still are unspoiled, unadulterated.

I respond by saying that when I last came over I passed through Geneva in the Christmas season. I was bringing Beatrice and their rather commonplace US sausage products and here in Geneva I saw so much very superior, mouth-watering products.  But those products are expensive and you cannot feed a nation of 250 million persons on sausage that costs $10/lb. Oleg agrees – says, yes, must produce much average product and only a limited amount of luxury items.  He himself was amazed to find when touring Safonov’s plant that very high quality beef pieces went into sausage. I say, yes, and there is overall a failure to categorize beef and utilize it more rationally. We discuss chicken and I remark that its cost ratio to beef should be 1:4 whereas here it is 2:1.  Oleg replies that here the price is kept artificially high to subsidize beef production. We part at 11.15 pm – take a short stroll up Gorky. He seems genuinely pleased with the meeting and opportunity to talk politics.

PS – Who is who

Bettina….Parker, chief executive of the New York based consultancy Parker Associates, my employer from August 1976 to June 1977

Averell Harriman – Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Stalin during WWII,  later governor of New York State, still an iconic figure in US-Soviet relations in the late 1970s

Marshall Shulman – US diplomat, scholar, founding director of the Harriman Institute of Russian studies at Columbia University

Helmut Sonnenfeldt – foreign policy expert, staff member of the National Security Council, served under Henry Kissinger with whom his is closely associated as strategist

Charles Vanik – member of the House of Representatives, co-sponsor with Henry Jackson of an amendment to the 1974 trade bill which made Soviet release of Jews wishing to emigrate a condition for normal commercial relations

Jacob Javits – US Senator from New York State

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Belgium: Time to Get Serious About the New Spike in Covid19 Infections

Sadly, the Kingdom of Belgium was called out by the world press in April – May of this year for having one of the highest mortality rates of all countries battling the Covid19 pandemic. The death toll here subsequently tapered down with the progression of the lockdown that was belatedly instituted, so that by mid-July there were only 3 deaths reported each day nationwide. The total loss of life directly attributable to the infection now stands at about 9500 in a population of 11.5 million. 

To comprehend what this loss means, let us compare it with the situation in the United States, which we all know is the country that has mismanaged the pandemic in every way, starting from confusing and unhelpful messages from the Chief Executive, failures at the local level in a great many states to follow federal guidelines for lifting lockdown, and general disregard for the experience of the rest of the world in combatting this disease, not to mention the experience of New York City and the Northeast, where COVID19 first settled in and created havoc with the medical infrastructure, as well as regional death rates perhaps four times higher than in Belgium. Though the world may be aghast at American failures, the death toll there will have to reach 270,000 to match the per capita mortality of Belgium to date.  The latest figures from the States are at the level of 165,000. 

Regrettably, in the past week Belgium has again been featured on Euronews coverage of the pandemic, as the country has been among the few in the EU to see a very disturbing spike in infections.  At first this was attributed to localized communities. It was noted that half of all new Covid19 infections here have been in the province of Antwerp, where fingers were pointed at the Muslim water-pipe store fronts and at the Hassidic community, known to flout rules on gatherings for weddings and the like.

Here in French-speaking Brussels some of us took malicious pleasure in seeing Antwerp at the center of the pandemic storm. It was a demonstration that the city’s mayor, Bart DeWever, has taken his eye off the ball and ignored warning signs in his back yard while busy negotiating with the Socialists to possibly form a new coalition government at the federal level. We smirked when a curfew was imposed in Antwerp and other curtailment of freedoms was imposed.

However, most recent developments signal that the infections are moving out of control despite the best efforts of tracing and testing nationwide.  French-speaking Wallonia has just been moved from Green to Orange status, meaning extreme caution must be exercised and prospective visitors are put on notice because the daily infection rate per 100,000 has moved adversely to a new plateau well above 20.  And there is talk of the situation in the  Brussels-Capital Region likely to deteriorate as well, because many of the factors behind community transmission in Antwerp are found in the city center of Brussels, namely active socializing of young people in the bars, cafes and similar venues that were the last to reopen after de-confinement.

These developments have arisen with blinding speed.  I think of the medical status quo when I left Brussels for a nine-day vacation in Italy on 20 July compared to what is being reported daily now.  New cases then were roughly 85 per day nationwide, today they are 490; hospital beds occupied by Covid patients then numbers about 125, now they are 250; patients in Intensive Care Units then were then less than 30, today they are the double. The only statistic that has not changed significantly is daily reported deaths, still under three per day. But that is a lagging statistic and surely will rise in the month ahead.

All of this adverse change was easily foreseeable and we were told by the Acting Prime Minister that appropriate steps would be taken if and when the statistics of infection turned against us.  Indeed, some measures have been put in place, most particularly as regards wearing face masks, which now are required not only in public transport and all shops and enclosed public areas but also in designated shopping streets. Moreover, the “social bubbles” of persons with whom a given household may associate have been cut back sharply.  And mandatory reporting has been instituted for all those returning from travel abroad to facilitate tracing in case they or anyone in their near surroundings on planes, boats or other transport proves to be infected.

However, no steps have yet been taken to address the most obvious platform for transmission of the infection: bars and cafes. It is not hard to guess why:  because shutting down these enterprises is a direct attack on identifiable business interests. 

This is not to say that such a measure is not discussable here any more than it is a taboo elsewhere in Europe. In fact, this measure is already being selectively applied in the United Kingdom where some government spokesmen pose the policy choices without any sugar coating: either you close the pubs or you close the schools.

Living as I do in downtown Brussels, just a five minute walk from active shopping streets where bars and cafes abound, I see firsthand how they constitute a cesspool of infection. Tables may now be out on the sidewalks and they may be spaced somewhat apart, but the young clientele sits shoulder to shoulder at one table and turns to socialize with friends at other tables, making utter nonsense of social distancing. The owners and staff of these establishments are also almost uniformly young people who are not about to step forward as enforcers of regulations. 

I have omitted mention of restaurants because both owners-operators and clientele tend to be older, more risk averse, and the capital invested in the establishments is far greater than in the bars and cafes.

There can be no doubt that given the exponential growth of infection we are now seeing in Belgium, the order will eventually go out to shut down these Horeca platforms.  One may only hope that this is done NOW and not after the situation becomes irremediable except by total lockdown as happened in the spring wave of the pandemic.  Some part of the business community must be made to suffer right now lest the economic damage of total confinement be repeated. This is all the more relevant as the opening of schools is less than a month away.

Having made this point, I insist that much more could be done to avert medical disaster.  It is inexcusable that Belgium has done nothing to prepare dedicated hospitals for admission of Covid patients, so as to avert the chaos that prevailed in the first wave when patients were shared out to more than one hundred normal hospitals, many of which had no relevant experience with epidemiology, operation of multiple ICUs and use of ventilators.

It is also inexcusable that Belgium, like all other EU Member States is sitting on its hands with regard to acquiring medicines proven effective against Covid19,  both those that reduce sharply replication of the virus at the start of the infection, thereby reducing time in hospital, and those administered in severe cases to prevent fatal complications.  So far there has only been talk of negotiating a deal with Gilead, the American manufacturer of Remdesivir, although the U.S. government has already bought up much of the company’s production capacity, leaving in question when and at what price Belgium and other EU States will get allocations.  There has not been a word about approaching the Russian Federation for supplies of its Avifavir, which is claimed to be still better at stopping the virus in its tracks than the Gilead drug. 

Avifavir, like Remdesivir, is a repurposed antiviral drug that has been on sale for more than a decade. It was not “invented” in Moscow, but in fact came from Japan, so that the notion of Russians cooking up some wonder drug in a few months is little more than slander from our Russia-bashers in the West. 

The same question may be raised as regards the vaccine which the Russians are registering in the coming days and will be mass producing in mid-Autumn, with doses initially to be made available to medical professionals and first responders; mass inoculations are scheduled for early winter.

Note that the Russians, like their counterparts in the West and in China, have several competing vaccines undergoing testing at various stages.  Also note that the Russians have concluded a deal with AstroZeneca to procure its vaccine when it receives regulatory approval and goes into mass production. They are not relying solely on their own good luck with their distinctive vaccine technology.  Why do we not do the same and reciprocate by taking options on the Russian solution?

If our health professionals in Belgium were truly interested in saving lives and not playing along with Cold War mentality blackout on Russian science, they would be negotiating right now for allocations of the Russian medicines and vaccine.  This is a question for the Prime Minister.  Who will put it to her?

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Large Anti-Putin Demonstrations in the Russian Far East

Today’s New York Times and Financial Times feature substantial articles on the latest political developments in the Russian Far East bearing piquant titles:

NYT  – “Protests Rock Russian Far East With Calls for Putin to Resign” by Andrew Higgins

FT – “Russian governor’s arrest sparks anti-Putin protests. Khabarovsk leader Sergei Furgal is latest detention in post-referendum crackdown” by Max Seddon

Both journalists are Moscow-based, working at a distance of 6,000 km from the scene of the action, which means that everything they have reported is second-hand, gleaned from their usual anti-Kremlin contacts in the capital, from reading Facebook accounts, from the comments of Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, and, one assumes, from stringers in the Far East.  However, they do their fact-gathering job well-enough to have two or three pages of text, and I will take their facts as accurate for our purposes.

The intended contribution of this essay is to offer an interpretation of what is going on that goes farther and deeper than what these two opinion-shaping newspapers give us: the notion that Putin’s popularity is sagging or that he is using his “new powers” from the referendum on constitutional amendments to settle scores with a troublesome local politician. These factors are undeniably present, but there are other drivers of the arrest and of the protests that merit an airing. Because these factors do not mesh with the belief of mainstream media that Russia has no opposition parties or movements other than those we recognize as such, they are being ignored, even as they are, potentially, very important markers of the general direction of Russian politics today.

I do not offer a definitive interpretation here, since the information is still too sketchy, but I will raise questions that hopefully other commentators will also address in coming days, since the blow-up in the Far East is no small matter. As many as 35,000 protesters may have turned out in Khabarovsk to protest Furgal’s arrest. They called for Putin’s resignation and carried signs “Down with Moscow!”

The figure at the center of the scandal, Khabarovsk governor Sergei Furgal was arrested in the past week and taken to Moscow where he is being charged with murders and criminal business activity in his past.  Given the statute of limitations in Russia, the single murder on which the prosecution will likely rest their case must be brought now while it is still actionable.

At the start of his Sunday evening broadcast, Rossiya 1 anchorman Dmitry Kiselyov, who also heads the news services of all state broadcasting, gave the Furgal arrest extensive coverage, starting with an interview with the tearful mother of the alleged victim murdered in 2005. The program sought to demonstrate that this is an open and shut case, with the prosecution having the goods in hand to bring conviction.

Even the Financial Times reporter appears to acknowledge the likelihood that Furgal is implicated in murders, saying they were a widespread practice in business circles from the chaotic 1990s on. He says Furgal’s prosecution now, just before the statute of limitations shuts down, is revenge for being too popular, for beating the United Russia candidate and for failing to bring out the vote in favor of the constitutional amendments at the national referendum last month.  With 62% approval amidst 44% turnout, in Khabarovsk only 25% of the electorate voted Putin’s choice, in contrast to the approval of just over 50% of eligible voters that was achieved nationwide.

One additional fact tossed out at the very end of the FT account bears mention. Seddon remind us that Furgal belonged to the party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPR, for whom he had been a deputy in the State Duma for more than a decade and he caps this with an otherwise unexplained account of Zhirinovsky’s response to the arrest of his protégé:

“Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPR’s leader, threatened to withdraw all its MPs in protest at Mr Furgal’s arrest and said that security services were ‘acting like under Stalin.’”

The FT does not bother to identify the LDPR, but The New York Times does it quite precisely: they are the party of “the nationalist rabble-rouser Vladimir Zhirinovsky,” going on to say that the party is “scorned by Russian liberals as a collection of crackpots and crooks.”

But let bygones be bygones. Though the protesters may be crackpots, the journalist Higgins tells us that the protests themselves have won the endorsement of the one man who stands in for a legitimate opposition in Western eyes:  “Aleksei A. Navalny, a Moscow-based anti-corruption campaigner and Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, cheered Saturday’s protests in the Far East, hailing the street demonstration in Khabarovsk as the ‘biggest in the city’s history.’”

* * * *

In my analysis of the voting results from July 1st, “Putin’s Referendum: Where are the Numbers?” I remarked on how the Far East had given dismal results for the Kremlin.

“In…particularly the remote Far Eastern regions, where loyalty to Moscow has at times been questionable in past elections, we see particularly low turnout:  Magadan (44%), Khabarovsk (44%). Almost the same comes up in Siberia: Novosibirsk (Russia’s third largest city, 47%), Tomsk (44%).”

This leads to the question:  which party has profited at the expense of United Russia and why?

The first part of this question is relatively easy:  Zhirinovsky’s party LDPR has profited, not the Liberal-minded, European friendly folks that our mainstream would like to see as an opposition that will eventually unseat Putin and bring Russia back to heel.  But ‘why’ is more problematic.

As a first attempt at answering this, I point to the map.  Europe as a moral and political compass is still more remote to your average Khabarovsk resident than Moscow, whereas China is right under his nose.  These LDPR supporters are nationalists, and it would be reasonable to assume that they are less than delighted by the Kremlin’s tilt to Beijing these past few years.  If Moscow liberals may sound off over this because philosophically they prefer a Russia solidly aligned with the West, not in alliance with autocratic, Communist China, the broad population and its political class in Khabarovsk have more concrete reasons to dislike the ever closer ties with the China that they see daily just across the Amur.

It is not just the Yellow Peril issue of 1.3 billion Chinese keen to settle the vast empty expanses of resource rich Eastern Siberia and the Maritime Province.  It is the Chinese who connive to illegally harvest pelts, cut down forests and poach fishing resources within Russian territory and the economic zone offshore. Russian federal authorities have been notoriously slow to crack down on these abuses which directly impact the wellbeing of local woodsmen and fishermen. As regards the fishermen, there is also local anger at the poaching by North Koreans, which even is picked up occasionally on Moscow’s investigative reporting.

The curious thing is that one of the key drivers of the Kremlin’s policy tilt to China has been to develop large scale, modern and highly remunerative employment for the Far Eastern population through massive energy infrastructure projects that serve firstly, the Chinese market, and as a byproduct, serve the population of the Russian Far East, as is the case, for example of the Power of Siberia gas pipeline, that will finally bring natural gas to the Russian cities of the region and also provide feedstock for a massive chemical industry under construction there.

The protests over Furgal indicate that the benefits of the Kremlin’s investments in the Far East have not yet trickled down to the population and alienation remains high.

But there is more to this story that has direct relevance to the nationwide political balance in Russia.

I believe that the crackdown on Furgal is one more move by United Russia to establish a stranglehold on Russian politics ahead of the 2021 State Duma elections.  The leadership of United Russia was surely behind the changeover of the constitutional amendments from a redistribution of power between the three branches of government, the clear intent of Vladimir Putin when he announced the initiative on 15 January 2020, into a ratification of Putin’s eligibility to stand for election again in 2024 and 2030, which is what the 1 July referendum was all about in the end.  Surely the leadership of United Russia was also behind the removal of the leaders of the opposition parties in the Duma from nearly all television and media appearances for approximately three months this spring, till just before the referendum.

Now, the arrest of Furgal is an open attack on Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party.  The crimes that may have been on record for Furgal did not surface so long as the party leader could ensure protection.  Now that protection has been removed, Zhirinovsky has threatened to pull his party members out of the Duma in protest. For Russia today, that is very dramatic and newsworthy.  It may also reflect the deep disappointment of Zhirinovsky that the sharing of power with the other Duma parties that was promised explicitly in Putin’s 15 January speech, has been ripped up by the President’s entourage to protect their own monopoly on power.

The attack on the LDPR is all the more stunning given that Zhirinovsky had been more royalist than the king in the run-up to the referendum, suggesting that it was unnecessary to hold the ballot given that the reform had already passed both houses of the legislature.  Here he was in stark contrast to the leader of the Communists, Gennady Zyuganov, who alone among the Duma politicians had denounced the constitutional amendments precisely because of the allowance they made for Putin to remain in power forever.

For all of the above reasons, the coming trial of Furgal and resulting political fall-out deserves our full attention in the days and weeks ahead.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

The End of History

When Francis Fukuyama used this title for his 1992 book on the road  forward to a post-ideological, non-confrontational world he did so metaphorically, with reference backward to the dialectical philosophies of the mid to late 19th century.  However, here the title is meant to be understood literally.  Reading the daily news about the destruction of monuments to past heroes in the United States, in the U.K., in Belgium one may conclude that history as a social science has no future. Every effort is being made to erase the public memory.

In the United States, the rewriting of the past to deny the honors given to slave-owning aristocrats and to bring to public attention neglected heroes from among blacks and other minority groups, as well as from among the demographic majority, namely women, has been going on for more than a decade.  For the most part it proceeded quietly and at the hands of well-educated and well-meaning social activists.  I recall how in 2017 when I participated in a college reunion at Harvard, the College president explained to us why the name of a slave-owner benefactor was removed from a building and where plaques had been installed to commemorate the slaves who had inhabited one of the campus buildings back in the early 19th century. There was a feeling of serving justice and performing morally uplifting deeds in the audience.

However, in the wake of mass nationwide ‘Black Lives Matter’ demonstrations to protest the May 25th killing in police custody  of the 46-year old black man George Floyd,  attacks on monuments have taken on a whole new scale in America.

First to go were Confederate generals in the Southern states where leaders from the Civil War still are venerated to this day. But then the attacks on bronze and stone statues moved on to other targets which may be said to have represented the shared heritage of the entire nation. Statues of Christopher Columbus, the long honored discoverer of the New World were given the heave-ho amidst accusations that he took back with him to Spain a great number of American Indians who were held as slaves. And, of course, in serving the King of Spain Columbus opened the path that was followed by Conquistadores who annihilated whole civilizations in the Americas.

Then attention turned to the Father of the Nation, George Washington, who, together with another Founder and early President, Thomas Jefferson, was like other men of means in his age, a substantial slave owner. So far attacks on both have been only verbal. But there is talk of changing the name of the nation’s capital, which commemorates the First President.

Two other presidents have now also come under attack from the Revisionists. The face of one, Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt is celebrated in stone at the Mount Rushmore national memorial in South Dakota together with Washington and Jefferson.  The site itself was already steeped in controversy before the latest moves to consign the given presidents to the dustbin of history: the hills are considered sacred by the indigenous tribes. Will these sculptures in stone be hammered to smithereens the same way that the Ancient Egyptians destroyed images relating to the reign of the heretic monotheistic pharaoh Akhenaten?

In the case of Roosevelt, whom many revere as the President who took the United States out of its isolation in the Western Hemisphere under the protection of the Monroe Doctrine and made it a global power there is recollection of the imperial acquisitions of his age stemming from the Spanish-American war where he earned the reputation for military daring-do that brought him to the presidency.

Roosevelt’s successor in the White House, Woodrow Wilson is not doing better among the Revisionists leading the assault on American heroes. The former Princeton university professor who led the United States into World War I to ‘make the world safe for democracy’ had been credited with founding the dominant school of international relations in the United States for much of the 20th century and into the present: the so-called “Idealist School” which believes that human rights and democracy promotion must be the basis of all foreign policy, as opposed to the supposedly cynical pursuit of national interest that underlies the Realist School. Well, we are now told that Wilson was an out-and-out racist who supported the Ku Klux Klan.  In a fit of moralist self-flagellation, Princeton University in the past month decided to remove his name from what had been the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

 

Readers of my essays over the past couple of years know that I am no admirer of the present incumbent in the White House. However, I share his alarm and disapproval of these various acts of vandalism aimed at wiping away the country’s founders and builders in the name of today’s moral values which none of them embraced, for self-evident reasons.

Trump characterized the perpetrators as coming from the “Radical Left” which is nothing more than a guess.  I would see them more as a combination of forces, none of them good, but not falling on a neat Right-Left axis.  What they have in common is moral outrage and smugness as they proceed with dismantling the Establishment.  There are also features of a power grab through mob violence.

Curiously, in an article published in The New York Times on 7 July, the newspaper’s Moscow bureau chief Andrew Higgins chose to consider the toppling of statues that occurred in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The title of his article –  “In Russia, They Tore Down Lots of Statues, but Little Changed”  – says it all.

However, my dissatisfaction with the ongoing Revisionism or, better yet, Nihilism goes well beyond the question of whether the acts of destruction can achieve some durable change in society.  Picking a fight with past heroes who have been dead for a century or for centuries is a cheap way of showing one’s moral superiority. It is problematic, because the way our values have changed in the past is a sure sign that they will change again in the future and that our descendants will have equal claim to righteous indignation over our moral limitations.

But even that is not the point, which is, that immorality, violation of human rights and murder are all around us today. What is worthy of respect is fighting today’s villainy.  I would much prefer to see the same outrage directed against those who organized, promoted and perpetrated the murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Iraq in 2003 and thereafter. Those who should be brought to justice include both the former president of the United States George W. Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney.

Regrettably so far none of our virtuous fighters for Justice in the United States, in the UK, in Belgium have dared to take on our present day villains, and that is the most appropriate condemnation of their false claims to virtue that I can adduce.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Thane Gustafson, “The Bridge: Natural Gas in a Redivided Europe”

Looking over the back cover of the dust jacket on this book, and reading through the six complimentary blurbs by leading specialists in energy and/or Russian matters, you think you know what the book is about.  However, you will likely be mistaken, because the ambitions of the author are clearly to avoid retelling in detail episodes that have been widely covered by others, such as the cut-offs of gas to Europe in 2006 and 2009 amidst Russian-Ukrainian political and economic wrangling, and to provide us with broad background information on the issues in the gas trade between Europe and Russia that we have witnessed over the past twenty years and which, the author clearly believes, have many factors behind them other than the geopolitical considerations that our media daily feed us.

These factors include institutional cultures of the market participants from the business world both in East and West, grass roots political movements like the anti-nuclear parade and Environmentalism that have taken the European establishment, notably in Germany by surprise and the specific educational backgrounds and skillsets of the individuals in government and society who are decision makers in energy matters. Indeed, one of the great virtues of Gustafson as an historian is his filigree work, his tweaking out how men make history to no lesser a degree than economics, technological developments and the other anonymous drivers that are the darlings of contemporary political science.

Gustafson is far better equipped to deliver an expertly written context for Russia’s dealings with its partners in Western Europe because, unlike many if not most Russianists, he is an outstanding linguist, and draws heavily on German and French literature in the field as well as English-language and Russian sources. However, this is not merely an academic masterwork, but a book enlivened by occasional personal asides about his protagonists in West and East with whom Gustafson met during the several decades that he has been a leading global authority in the energy field, gas and oil.

What we get here is a political, economic and intellectual history of Europe and Russia described in parallel.   We learn about not only what directly bears on energy policy such as Environmentalism and the anti-nuclear movement but also about the economic and political theories, one is tempted to say, the neo-liberal ideology that have entirely reshaped the gas market in Western Europe into which Russia sells  over the past twenty-five years.  Indeed, for these reasons the book is heavier on West European history than Russian history.

In his detailed explanation of the role played by the EU’s General Directorate for Competition and the European Court of Justice in setting up the Single Market that was the main achievement of perhaps the  most important President of the European Commission to date, Jacques Delors (1985-95), Gustafson provides insights that surely will be of interest to all students of the European Institutions.  Although I have lived and worked in Brussels off and on since 1980 and have  become fairly involved in the activities of the European Parliament in the past five years, I profited greatly from reading the respective chapters in Gustafson’s book.

As for the narrative devoted to Russia, Gustafson explains where the frame contracts for supply of Russian gas that required so much renegotiation with the EU in the new millennium came from, namely the Groningen model developed by Europe’s first source of cross-border natural gas supply, The Netherlands.  He explains how the industry developed in Europe’s second largest source of imported natural gas, Norway, which had a configuration of state and industry that he compares and contrasts closely with Russia’s.

The last third of the book focuses on the issues we would most expect:  relations between Russia and Ukraine, meaning the legacy of the Soviet era and how it is being gradually erased; the evolution of economic relations between Russia and Germany in the new millennium when, especially after Putin’s landmark speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 challenging the West, political relations headed downhill.

One of the great virtues of this book is the way that Gustafson explains the complexity of politics, material interests and corporate culture within what our less curious and less informed journalists and academic commentators see as open-and-shut cases of monolithic Soviet tradition, like Gazprom or of Putin’s supposed autocratic monopoly of power. The following paragraph from 278 is exemplary in this sense:

“One of the main points of this book has been that the Russian gas industry, despite its geopolitical significance, is a business, and a highly technical and a highly complex one. A state-owned gas company may be an instrument of government policy and even of geopolitical ambitions, but it is also interested in profit and market share as well as its commercial reputation, the implementation of its engineering skills, and the management of such a large and complex system.  Putin is clearly the chief decider in Russian gas policy. But in the everyday conduct of business Gazprom, like any large organization, has the capacity to delay, resist, and reshape the Kremlin’s commands if they run counter to Gazprom’s commercial objectives, business models, and core competences.”

One very important benefit of Gustafson’s setting the frame of his study as broadly as he did is that in the end he can offer a key insight into the question of how Russian supply and the new pipelines like Nord Stream-2 impact on the Continent’s energy security, as we see on page 408:

“As the share of Russian gas in Europe’s gas supply reaches record levels, and as Russia completes a new generation of export pipelines, does Russia not have unprecedented leverage over Europe?

“The revolutionary changes in the European gas market suggest that the answer is no. For all the reasons discussed above – the increasing interconnectedness of the European transportation system, the diversification of import sources thanks to LNG, and the availability of storage – the European gas system is strongly resilient today and will become even more so in the future, despite the decline of Europe’s indigenous sources. Behind this is a simple fact: because of changes in gas technology and market structure in Europe and around the world, the pipeline shipper has less and less leverage compared to the past. This is true not only in Western Europe, but increasingly also in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union.”

 

At the same time, the potential subject matter for this book is still more vast than what Gustafson has addressed here and there are elements still not explored.  In particular, given the importance of the German –Russian relationship as the anchor, literally and figuratively, for The Bridge which is the subject of this book, Gustafson has not explored the German relationship with those new EU members that have been driving the anti-Russian movement within EU Institutions including on issues of gas policy.

To my understanding, the sea change took place not in 2007 but in 2012, still before the whole confrontation over Ukraine but well after the Information Wars began.  It was in 2012 that Germany dropped its definition of Russia as “a strategic partner of Europe” and no longer supported the negotiation of a new EU-Russia Cooperation and Partnership Agreement to replace the long expired agreement dating back to the late 1990s.   In effect, from this time on Merkel’s government turned its back on the Ostpolitik that was forged by former (SPD) Chancellor Willy Brandt and his close adviser Egon Bahr. With one exception, to be sure, gas policy.

I would suggest that the answer is to be found not in the personality of Angela Merkel, as Gustafson seems to suggest, but in divergent interests and mentalities between Germany’s big industrialists, who were committed to big deals with Russia, especially in energy, and even pursued the illusory objective of participating in Russia’s upstream gas industry, and the famous German Mittelstand of medium-sized, family-owned enterprises which is the mainstay of the German economy, of export, and, one may assume, of Merkel’s party, the CDU.

Gustafson does not go into the relationship between Germany and the new Member States of the European Union, like the Czech Republic and Poland, which became from the 1990s the low cost subcontractors, or economic colonies if you will, of the Federal Republic.  German Mittelstand companies surely felt much more comfortable with these East European suppliers, who knew their subordinate place, than was ever possible with Russian industrial partners, who were full cycle producers, not manufacturers of bits and pieces, who had their own pride and, one might say arrogance that was a counterpoint to German Stolz, and very easily makes for uncomfortable relations.

Surely it was this sympathy for the virulently anti-Russian Poles and for their political bedfellows in the EU Institutions, the three Baltic States, which exerted a strong influence on Merkel’s policies towards Russia so that finally she pulled up the carpet of Ostpolitik that she received from the past, except in the highly pragmatic field of gas where Germany was too well served by the Russian supply and had long enjoyed preferential treatment thanks to its participation in the pipelines.

At the same time, Gustafson has also chosen not to get into the question of US pressure on the German positions. There can be no question but that in the summer of 2014, when America was threatening to provide offensive weaponry to Kiev, Merkel did a U-turn and became the main enforcer of Russian sanctions within the EU in order to cool down American passions and prevent an all-out Ukraine-Russia war that would spill over into Central Europe.

 

Finally, a word about  Environmentalism and The Greens, whom Gustafson describes to a limited extent in this book because they may have a significant if not determining influence on how Europe deals with natural gas as an energy source and bridge to the new Green Revolution of the future.

 

Gustafson speaks of the co-founder of the German Greens, later German Minister of Foreign Affairs Joschka Fischer, but not of his alter-ego of the movement in Germany, ‘Dany le Rouge’ Cohn-Bendit.  As co-chairman of the Spinelli Group in the European Parliament Cohn-Bendit has also been a leading voice for Federalism, for the creation of a United States of Europe, which in passing, Gustafson seems to favor. This federalism has aligned him with the neo-liberal leader of the ALDE Group in Parliament up to 2019, former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. They co-authored a book promoting federalism entitled Debout l’Europe (Stand Up Europe).  And they, together with Fischer have one more cause in common, one which bears directly on Gustafson’s forecasts for the future of the Gas Bridge: ALDE and the German Greens have been the most vociferous Russia-bashers in the European Parliament. If I may allow myself a turn of phrase that Gustafson uses twice in the book: they have never seen a proposed sanction against Russia that they didn’t like. This anti-Russian posturing all has been done in the name of defending human rights, etc. This has set the background noise for confrontation between EU Institutions and Russia over Nord Stream-2, for example.

Given that the Green movement has made great advances in the last European parliamentary elections one year ago, it remains to be seen whether the visceral dislike of Russia of the German Greens will rise with the environmentalist movement that they embody and somehow impact upon Russia’s energy role in Europe.  Anti-gas words may be a convenient cover for anti-Russian thoughts and deeds.

Of course, these cavils bear on where The Bridge may be headed into the 2030s. They have not caused Russia impossible obstacles in its gas trade with Europe to date.  As for the future, time will tell.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Vladimir Putin’s New Cult of Personality

As readers of my analytical essays over the years will surely know, I have been a persistent defender of Vladimir Putin against the calumny, against his characterization as a “thug,” as an authoritarian who is inimical to our values, that has been his lot in Western media ever since his “coming out’ against the U.S. global hegemony in his speech to the Munich Security Conference of 2007.

Readers will also note that I have been a determined critic of the Constitutional Amendments put to the electorate in a Referendum on July 1st because of the single amendment turning back the clock on his time in the presidency to zero so as to enable his running for office again in 2024 and 2030. This I have seen as a violation of his commitment to rule of law and democratic principles of alternation in power through the polling booths. I also have said that Putin himself has been the biggest loser in this whole affair because he has deprived the country and himself of orderly succession when he eventually passes from the scene.

Now I turn your attention to another unpleasant fact that is an inescapable feature of this latest segment of Vladimir Putin’s long stay in power: the rise of a personality cult that is as ugly as any in the country’s past.

Going back to the last presidential elections in March 2018, I remarked that the President’s decision not to participate in televised debates with his opponents was more than offset by his dominating the airwaves in his capacity as  head of state, meaning daily news coverage of his receiving high foreign guests or opening major new infrastructure facilities, and the like. I said then that this was justifiable given that Putin is the most consequential world leader of our times who seems to be on the job 24/24 seven days a week.

What we were seeing now in the run-up to the Referendum vote was something very different:  Putin appeared almost daily on prime time television to deliver addresses to the nation that were arguably of minor importance and served only the purpose of keeping his face before the audience the whole day long, given the repeat broadcasts of moments from any of these addresses on the daily news programs.

The development of a personality cult is best typified by a Sunday evening broadcast that came on line more than a year ago but is being heavily promoted now each week by video spots that begin already on the flagship news shows of Saturday:  “Moscow, the Kremlin, Putin” on state television channel Rossiya. To put it kindly, in breathless faux excitement this delivers the kind of trivia about a VIP that you would expect from People magazine. The fawning, adulatory coverage of Putin’s stepping out of his limousine and going through his paces each day is intensified by the presenter, the young and obviously very ambitious journalist Pavel Zarubin.  That Putin can tolerate having this slime-ball at his side all day does not speak at all well for the President’s present state of mind.

Indeed, one would have to be blind to miss the changes in Putin’s behavior since the start of the year, to miss the evidence that he is less in control of his entourage and the rival factions vying for influence over policy, more a captive of his supporters than ever before.  The result is a pandering sort of populism that appeals to the lowest common denominator in the general population.  When I say this is off-putting to Thinking Russia, I have in mind not the young, brash and me-me-too professional classes of Moscow and Petersburg who all have one foot in the West, but true patriots who have served their country well, are of a certain age and remember all too well what is a “cult of personality.” Moreover,  I speak here not abstractly, but with the faces of my friends and acquaintances in Russia before me with whom I exchange thoughts on current politics from week to week.

This is not to say that Mr. Putin and his government are failing the population. Not at all. There is every sign that Russia is managing the Covid19 crisis very well.  As of present, anyone contracting the virus can receive free of charge from hospitals and clinics two newly manufactured and commercialized made in Russia drugs which treat the disease either very early to curb replication of the virus before it does damage or late, to combat the dangerous and often fatal complications which Covid19 gives rise to.  Here in Western Europe we are virtually lacking any relevant medicines, pending the conclusion of a deal with the American company Gilead to make Remdesevir available, and that drug is, the Russians tell us, much less impactful on the virus than their latest treatments.  As for the vaccine, the Russians say they remain serious contenders to be the first out with millions of doses before the end of the year.  And they continue to build super-modern hospital facilities to deal with Covid and other infectious diseases should there be a second wave ahead. In Western Europe foresight has so far not underwritten funding for such preventive actions.

And so the Putin regime chugs along, doing worthy things for the people.  But that makes the ugly signs of a personality cult none the less regrettable.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Putin’s Referendum: Where are the numbers?

We all know that President Vladimir Putin’s referendum on amendments to the Russian Constitution held on July 1st gave him an overwhelming victory.  That is what the Russia’s Central Electoral Commission officially announced on Friday and it has been picked up by all media in Russia and in the West even well before, just after the voting booths were shut on Wednesday night based on exit poll data.

So far, critics of the Referendum in the West have directed their attention to two issues only.  One of these, advanced by the long-established and authoritative Chatham House think tank in Britain tells us that the Referendum was illegal, illegitimate from the get-go, that it violated the procedures set down in the existing Constitution of 1993 and that it was superfluous since the amendments had already been approved by both chambers of the legislature.

The other critics, meaning the vast majority of our mainstream media, have kicked the tires, saying there was surely ballot stuffing and other hanky-panky which render the Referendum results fraudulent. To be sure, this is speculation unsupported by any facts and merely spreading the malicious anti-Putin gossip of opposition politicians within Russia. Moreover, the likelihood of illegal abuses at the local level such as famously occurred in the 2011 Duma elections was very low given all the technical investments in security at voting booths made in the time since.  These same advances include not merely live broadcast of cameras in the voting stations onto the internet for public access but also widespread use of sophisticated autonomous ballot boxes that read each vote before sending them into plexiglass boxes for storage in case a manual recount is demanded; and that technology incidentally makes it possible to have an instantaneous read-out of the results as soon as the polling station shuts.

However, it is striking that no one has asked: where are the numbers?  Elections are all about numbers and the results published by the Russian authorities this time break entirely with the practices of a couple of decades of national elections in the country.  In past nationwide elections, the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta carried on the next day a full breakdown of voting results for each “subject of the Russian Federation,” meaning cities and regions (the Russian equivalent of states).

Now you may ask, why bother with such a breakdown when the given vote on July 1st was essentially a plebiscite.  But the same could be said of Russia’s presidential elections, and yet the region by region numbers were always released. Surely this transparency in the past was intended to validate the credibility of the results and to provide political scientists with a future crop of dissertations and food for thought.

 

This time the officials have given us only three summary numbers. These are 67.97% participation in the Referendum by eligible voters; 77.92% votes in favor of the amendments; and 21.27% votes against. Doing the arithmetic, this tells us that 52.9% of the eligible voters approved the amendments and Mr. Putin has the support of the absolute majority that he sought. Victory!

In response, I say:  not so fast.  There are fragmentary electoral results for the regions that have been sprinkled in the Russian print and online media and which suggest that voting results differed significantly across all three parameters. These discrepancies raise questions about how the absolute majority was reached.  It is worth mentioning here that even the results by region have kept apart the release of results of voter turnout and results of yes-no on the amendments.  Only when you put these together can you understand whether a majority of eligible voters approved the amendments in any given region.  This does not change the overall conclusion that in every region except one (the Nenets autonomous region in the Far North), the voters who participated in the election approved the amendment by a majority. But it does raise the question of shortfall in the President’s objective of getting an absolute majority of the polity on board for the amendments.

Sixty-eight percent participation may be very high by European and world voting patterns, but it is still far from 100% and one can wonder why 32% stayed at home. Were they ‘no’ voters who were afraid to come out of the closet?  Were they abstainers? This is the meat of political science and we have been put on a diet by the Russian authorities.

First off, from the fragmentary published numbers on voter turnout by region, we see that some of the ‘usual suspects’ have outperformed on delivering the vote. These tend to be places like Dagestan or the Caucasus republics and the Crimea (81% turnout) which are especially beholden to Moscow for their welfare and prosperity. In other regions, particularly the remote Far Eastern regions, where loyalty to Moscow has at times been questionable in past elections, we see particularly low turnout:  Magadan (44%), Khabarovsk (44%). Almost the same comes up in Siberia: Novosibirsk (Russia’s third largest city, 47%), Tomsk (44%). This information came courtesy of the RBK news agency. As for major cities of European Russia, Leningrad Oblast (which abuts the city of St Petersburg) had voter turnout of 78%, ten points above the national average; but then it is the home to many military training bases and specialized schools turning out officers. And by definition military men are easiest to send off to voting booths, even easier than civilian employees of the government.

Turning to the “no” votes, on the day after the election yandex.ru told us that in Magadan they numbered 36% of voters, in Irkutsk – 34.84%, in Kamchatka – 37.16% and in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk – 29.55.

In many of the regions mentioned above it is obvious that the goal of 50% plus of eligible voters supporting the amendments was never achieved.

But what about the capital, Moscow?  Here, information on electoral results has been very peculiarly reported.  The Rossiiskaya Gazeta did tell us that the electronic balloting in Moscow, which was one of only two cities in the country allowed to experiment with such voting, produced 62.33%  of ballots in favor of the amendments, 37.67% against. Meanwhile, in the traditional voting booths the result in Moscow was 65.26% in favor and 30.84% against. Information on voter turnout was not provided but if it corresponded to the national average that would yield a net vote of 44% of eligible voters supporting Mr. Putin’s Referendum.

And what about Russians living abroad?  As we know the Russian passport-carrying diaspora numbers several million. The only information about their voting that I have seen was provided by the news portal Lenta.ru.  They said that the balloting of Russian at their consulates in New York, in Berlin and in Vienna all produced majorities of No votes. No further information was provided. This is significant, because unlike those living in Russia, these expats were likely uninterested in the social benefits enshrined in the amendments but were moved by the one amendment allowing Putin to stay in power after his present mandate expires in 2024. We may construe their vote to be based on more abstract principles of governance than personal welfare.

And now I direct attention elsewhere, to the 21% of participating voters who voted against the reform nationwide.  Who were they?  None of our media has given a thought to that question.  I will hazard a guess, that they were heeding the advice of the one Opposition party in the Duma that called for a No vote:  the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.

The 20% corresponds roughly to the electoral strength of the CPRF over the past decade or so, as the second largest party in the country after United Russia. About two weeks before the elections got under way, Party leader Gennady Zyuganov was asked by a journalist of Russian state television what he would be advising his followers to do.  Without hesitation, Zyuganov said to vote against the amendments. And he went on to say that if the Referendum passed, then Putin would enjoy powers greater than the pharaohs! Given the vast promotional campaign going on in favor of the Referendum, including television spots by tv celebrities, musicians, artists and scientists, this open rejection of the Referendum by Zyuganov was very courageous.  Not that it won him any plaudits from our media for defending democracy.

I close this essay with the observation that Vladimir Putin’s victory in the Referendum is in any case illusory. It attests to his inability over 20 years in power to provide a secure succession when he passes from the scene.

His first presentation of the project to amend the Russian Constitution back on January 15 was based on the notion of rebalancing the share of responsibility and power between the three branches of government, Executive, Judiciary and Legislature. His words were pointed in the direction of a cabinet responsible to the legislature, not to the head of state. By cutting back on presidential powers, he would have made it easier to find a worthy successor to fill shoes smaller than he had worn.  This all was subsequently jettisoned before the reform was presented to the Russian electorate for approval.

Yes, in principle Mr. Putin can now stand for re-election in 2024 and in 2030. However, as the old folk saying has it:  Man proposes and God disposes.  There are no assurances that Mr. Putin will stay in good health and good mental acuity into his seventies and eighties. And if he should leave the scene abruptly, for one reason or another, there is presently after these Constitutional amendments no clear path of succession that would give the country the stability that Mr. Putin places above all in his value system

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Putin’s referendum

President Putin’s grand referendum on several hundred proposed amendments to the Russian Constitution officially takes place on July 1st, although de facto through ‘early voting’ it will have been running for a week when polls open tomorrow.

If you live in the United States or in Western Europe, you would hardly know anything about it, nor is there any reason for you to know, in the estimation of our mainstream media, because the vote is a fraud and the outcome is known in advance as “proven” by copies of the new revised Constitution that went on sale in Moscow a couple of days ago. Moreover, given all the time and attention shown to the new outbreaks of Covid19 in the USA there is hardly a column inch to spare for the Russians, other than to remark on their place as number three worldwide in Covid infections and the shabby state of their medical infrastructure in the hinterland. Putin is denounced, yet again, for putting his own political objectives ahead of public health by holding this election in the midst of the pandemic.

If, however, you live in the Russian Federation or for some reason watch Russian state television broadcasts by satellite as I do, you are not merely aware of the referendum, you are saturated with news coverage about its every facet. This includes details of social distancing, hand sanitizers and the like to ensure hygiene and public safety of those coming to cast their votes. It includes interviews with volunteers who have been going out to visit the old and the infirm who cannot travel to polling stations and collect the ballots at their homes.  It includes ‘human interest story’ interviews with newlyweds who went straight from the civil office registering their marriage to the polling booths to be sure to have their votes counted and to protect the future of their progeny by signing up to the amendments, which enshrine in the Basic Law a huge list of social welfare benefits.  It includes almost daily addresses by President Putin to the nation regarding new allocations of monthly allowances to the parents of babes, of adolescents and to other socially fragile groups of the population in the spirit of the revised Constitution. This is not vote rigging but it is good old fashioned vote buying and it is being carried out shamelessly on state television.

In between these two extremes of non-coverage and over-exposure to the referendum, there is a third media position on the referendum which we may call the position of “alternative” Western media, meaning the relatively few websites that are either subtly or more commonly blatantly pro-Putin.  They are all pro-referendum because of one amendment in particular which we may call the “Tereshkova amendment” after the octogenarian Duma member, first Soviet woman in space, who at the closing of hearings on the amendments in the lower house introduced an additional paragraph resetting to zero President Putin’s time in office and thereby allowing him to run again for President in 2024 and in 2030. Our alternative media see this as an unmixed blessing, assuring Russia of firm (anti-Western) leadership to the end of our days.  This same media is mostly blissfully ignorant of Russian realities, mostly have never set foot in the country. For them, Russia is just a stick with which to beat the American hegemon and its European running dogs.

For those of us who do care about Russia and have some depth of experience of the country, this referendum is a sad page in Russia’s move backwards towards autocracy instead of forwards towards greater parliamentary democracy.  To be sure, some of the promoters of the revisions on Russian television, such as the anchorman on the “News on Saturday” program Sergey Brillyov, speak of more power sharing with parliament coming with the revised Basic Law.  But that is unsupported by the language of the amendments, which is opaque and subject to the interpretation of whoever runs the Executive in future. Meanwhile, as regards relations between the Executive and the Judiciary, there is nothing to discuss: the revised Constitution will give new powers to the Executive to remove judges who are unwilling to bend to the times.

Instead, the real pluses of the amended Constitution, such as they are, may be found in the provisions regarding protection of pensions through indexation, financial assistance to support families and the like. For Russians with a conservative bent, and Russian society, just like East Central European society in general, is deeply conservative in its social and ethical values, there are the definition of marriage solely as the bond between a man and a woman, the reminder that ‘in God they trust’, the vow never to give up an inch of national territory and many other provisions setting in concrete the values of the Putin years.

Having called out the reasons why Russians may vote ‘pro’ in the referendum, I must quickly add that not everyone has been bought off by the goodies so as to overlook the bone in the throat of a perpetual president.  In fact polls last week suggested that 43% of the Russian population opposes the revised Constitution.

So where are the Russian Opposition parties on this?  If you look at our mainstream press there are no Opposition parties in Russia.  There are Opposition personalities, the most prominent of which is the blogger Alexei Navalny. Navalny has wisely decided to hold his fire, to avoid new time in jail and to save his strength and his popularity for the 2021 legislative elections.

However, the Western mainstream press willfully overlooks the Duma parties, which they conveniently describe as sham, tolerated by United Russia to give an appearance of democracy.  Again, reality is very different.  From the beginning of democratic Russia in the early 1990s, the Communist Party has been the largest and most effective counter force first to the Neoliberal centrists of Yeltsin and then to the centrists who gathered around Vladimir Putin to form eventually United Russia.  A couple of weeks ago their leader Gennady Zyuganov spoke to the press and denounced the referendum. He said the revised Constitution would give Putin powers greater than those enjoyed by the Egyptian pharaohs. A colorful turn of phrase, it showed enormous civic courage. Needless to say, Zyuganov has not been given a microphone since.

The other less numerous parties, namely Fair Russia led by Sergei Mironov and the LDPR of firebrand nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky have been less honorable. Mironov has simply shut up.  Zhirinovsky was more royalist than the king and declared a few weeks ago that the referendum is not needed because the Duma has already approved the revised Constitution.

It will be very interesting to see what the actual numbers are in this referendum.  Given all the safeguards to protect abuses at the polling stations, it is very unlikely there will be hanky panky.  But calls for a boycott of the vote by the many thinking Russians who reject the perpetual presidency of Putin could dope the outcome.  We shall see shortly.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist, installment five: diary notes from a visit to Soviet Georgia and Moldavia, September 1979

Fond memories of a visit to Soviet Georgia in September 1979 together with a “delegation” from one of Americas’s leading global producers and marketers of tropical fruit and vegetables, organized under the aegis of the USSR Ministry of Agriculture

Following our Georgian hosts’ description of their activities, we present a 90 minute slide and tape show which they reluctantly and none too happily sit through. Then leave for a tour of their farm.

Виноградно-плодоводческий совхоз ВАРКЕТЕЛИ-   3000 hectares, founded in 1957 on arid land – brought under cultivation with irrigation from an earthen dam upriver. Grow main table varieties of grapes – have 500 tons storage capacity of grapes. During labor peaks use student help – 40 days. Pay students 20% below regular sovkhoz wages.  Use sprinklers for irrigation – chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Japanese equipment.

“During the ride I am given information on the ‘subsistence farming’ (подсобное хозяйство) which Brezhnev has been pushing this season: quite apart from land directly around one’s house, this generally means 1000 square meters here, as against the national norm of 2000 square meters. The norm for the subsistence farming in a Kolkhoz, however, is 5000 square meters = 1 acre.

The ‘tour’ of farmland is really no more than 10 minutes look from one hilltop at vineyards and orchards. Even this is sufficient for our boys, however – they take note of the extremely wasteful irrigation system, which is poorly maintained – right before our eyes one sprinkler is malfunctioning, pouring gallons of water per minute into a hole.

At about 5 pm we are taken to the house of a wine-making foreman for a feast – the six of us and an equal number of locals sit around an overladen table – with smoked suckling pigs and chicken, local cheeses and breads, grapes, pears, peaches, sauces – and homemade fresh wine. Here for the next 5 hours we feast in the Georgian tradition. Under etiquette of the feast, Jan is made the toastmaster or Tamada, with obligation to turn the floor over to each for toasting in turn.  Ceremony of Bacchus is a page out of Svetlana Allilueva’s descriptions of life with father. To my surprise, the Soviets go very easy on Cayton, who refuses to drink on grounds of religion (Mormon). Several of the toasts are outstanding. Cayton raises glass for the tillers of the earth, who work for the good of the people. The farm chief toasts our families, because if a man doesn’t love and honor his own family, then he cannot love and respect others.  Dick goes mushy, raises a glass to Russian-American friendship and begins to slobber over WWII days as an aviator – We are joined by our host’s 78 year old father, who also saw action during the World War and this brings Dick into a bawling state,  he weeps as exchanges embraces with the representative of the generation which saved us all! At this stage, the bottoms up procedure has taken its toll. Jan discovers that cannot make his way back to the house unaided on visit to the outhouse.  Selby looks poorly and Dick has begun to get sick. We beat a retreat – packed inside two cars. While Jan and Selby make a quick return, I and Dave have our hands full with Dick, who pukes miserably and requires that we stop a number of times en route. Halfway back to the hotel he has to stop and pulls a prank: climbs over a high fence intending to wretch away from public view. However, it takes two of the Georgians to retrieve him.  Back at the hotel, I have difficulty getting rid of the Sovkhoz chief, who offers insistently to set me up with girls – he sits down at my desk and starts phoning. I distract him by offering to go down to the dollar bar, where, I say, Jan and Gillis are surely hanging out. The fact is that Jan, Selby and Dick and Kotelnikov are all out cold in their respective beds.  With assistance of maids we enter their locked rooms to find them sprawled out like so many wooden planks. Bored and tired, the Georgians leave me in peace. But it is not much peace for me as I spend the next few hours suffering in my room from intoxication – to my credit and perhaps misfortune, I hold this dose down.  Note –a final macho gesture at the feast came when the sovkhoz director saw my long look at the suckling pig head on the table. He proceeded to split the skull, open the cranium and then thin slice with his knife portions of the pate like smoked pig brain, which he then slipped into my mouth, along with Jan’s, Selby’s. To their relief, neither of the latter remembered this episode the next day.

Overall I cannot especially fault the Georgians – though they set us up for a fall, they were rather considerate when disaster struck.

A city tour of Tbilisi, September 1979

We take an auto tour, which is brief and uninformative. The Old Town is shown to us from afar, atop an outlook across the river. We hear the set narrative: Tbilisi is so friendly a town, 97 nationalities live here in harmony, a testimony to the fact that people who settled here found it hospitable and stayed. Where else on earth can you find in such proximity a working synagogue, Armenian Gregorian Church, Georgian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox churches… Of course, they do not bring us anywhere close to these miracles of harmony. Instead we are shown the sterile new sections of town – the university, medical institute.  Some curiosities:  the driver points to the Набережная имени Сталина and seeing my expression says “I suppose you’re surprised by this?  I’d be surprised if you weren’t.”  It’s so obvious the Stalin cult is a kind of revenge, a way of keeping out the Brezhnev cult.

The driver tells us the story of the Georgian land: “Once upon a time, God was dividing up the Earth among the peoples. At that very time, the Georgians, being Georgians, were out in a forest meadow drinking and carousing. When a stranger appeared at the edge of the wood, the Georgians extended their usual hospitality and invited him to join them and drink a cup to their health.  He agreed and it turned out the stranger was God. God said that he was pleased to be among such a lively people, but asked why he had not seen them when he was dividing up the Earth. They explain that such is their nature and they had been drinking.  God says he had given away all the land except a small parcel which he had saved for himself – now this will be theirs.  The Georgians rejoice and prepare a basket of fruit and wine for God, to see him off on his trip back to Heaven. But God is a bit tipsy and as he ascends, He drops the basket – so that to this day Georgia is the land of fruit and wine.”

* * * * *

Notes on agricultural sector in Moldavia, 1979, as reported by local Agricultural Institute, by farms directors, by taxi drivers and other authoritative sources during the September 1979 visit

With 0.15% of the land mass, Moldavia produces 40% of Soviet canned fruits and vegetables.  Moldavia produces 360,000 tons of meat and 500,000 tons of milk annually.  Moldavia still has industrial sugar beet cultivation. Table and wine grapes is a major industry – for land on slopes.

We visited the largest orchard in the USSR at Tiraspol with 6000 hectares planting in progress, half of which has already been completed. Main varieties from the US: Golden Delicious, Richard, Starker, Jonathan, Wagner. During peak of season they use supplemental labor – detachment of 1000 university students.

The 6,000 hectare farm represents an investment by surrounding Kolkhozes. Thus far have poured 27 million rubles into the venture and 20 million have been recovered in 4 harvests. One half of the production is held for long term storage. Out of 30,000 tons apples now produced, 12,800 tons are stored – they use chilled air methods. Ship out by rail.            23 orchards in Moldavia will have an average of 2500 hectares each for overall tree planting of 50,000 hectares by 1985

In the Tiraspol region we also visited a Vegetable Farm where a pilot project is run by the American equipment manufacturer FMC under a master agreement with the USSR Ministry of Agriculture.  The project is built on a 600 hectare tomato farm. FMC has supplied all field equipment, seeds, sorting equipment.   These are late variety tomatoes going into tomato juice and paste. Contract calls for output of 50 metric tons per hectare.  In fact 36 were achieved last year and this year the figure will be 40.  Reason is that US varieties are susceptible to local fungus.  Another reason – locally poor assortment of herbicides. FMC provided the equipment for new furrow methods. This FMC equipment is very satisfactory, especially the tillers. The cannery has 80 ton per hour capacity.

We watch a combine pass through the fields pulling up tomato plants and spitting out roots and stems. The area in general has 3-crop rotation: peas, tomatoes and milo wheat. There are 2 harvests per season. From FMC’s 600 hectares they look to production of 30,000 tons, out of which 4,000 will be sold fresh and 26,000 will be canned.

Our boys are less than overwhelmed by the success of this integrated farming operation. They note that the 60% survival rate of tomato seedlings is very poor, meaning great waste of fertilizer and water resources on the way.

FMC will do potato farming and processing next. Note – we are told that FMC specialists are paid by contract – $250 and 20 rubles per calendar day per year = $100,000 total. And in a new contract to go into effect soon the figure rises to $350.

FMC has been in Moldavia for a total of 4 years. For the first 2 years they worked with the local Institute in the planning phase; the past 2 years have been in the field. Their personnel is here on a permanent basis.

Looking at fruits – 450 kolkhozes in Moldavia, with 100,000 hectares under cultivation, of which 25,000 are post-1970 specialized agriculture.

Vegetables:  Formerly vegetables were a losing proposition – but not any longer. Collective farms are now producing 800,000 tons annually, out of which 750,000 tons are sold to the state. Mainly tomatoes, cabbage, onion, cucumber, eggplant, potato, watermelon.  State farms grow all the herbs and spices: rhubarb, parsnips, parsley, dill, celery, fennel, cauliflower, lettuce.

Climatic regions:   North, potato   Southeast – vegetables, irrigated   South: onion, early potatoes

Now set 35% return on investment annually in vegetable farming

In all of Moldavia, there are 450 collective farms, each of which does some vegetable farming. However, 67 Sovkhozes are specialized in vegetable production and they produce 70% of what is sold to the State.  Use fertilizers, mechanized harvesting, irrigation.

Spices and herbs – these are grown only on state farms – sovkhozes – because they are processed directly by the state.  Very little lettuce is grown here because ‘there is little demand.’ It’ a matter of what is traditional.  Also no cauliflower.  (All very curious, given that in neighboring Romania these greens, especially leaf lettuce, are very traditional).  As regards the “little demand” explaining failure to grow lettuce, when we then mentioned this to the Ministry in Moscow we were reassured that they would give marching orders to Moldavia.

Fruit production in Moldavia: North – pears and apples.  South- apricots and peaches    Center – plums

The Institute:  plans crops for each region, develop technology, maps, equipment, guide book for administrators. Also provides practical help in planting orchards. Check on proper implementation of their directives. Develop anti-erosion methods.   400 members in the Institute – including specialists on soil, land reclamation, agronomists, economists, geologists, water resource specialists.

[2020 observation:  presently Moldova is reportedly the poorest state in Europe. From the foregoing it should be self-evident that this poverty is entirely the consequence of geopolitical factors outside the control of its population and exists notwithstanding the fertility and productivity of the land in the recent past. Wedged between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova is cut off from its traditional markets in Russia and from its natural waterway, the Dniester, leading south into the Black Sea 170 km away at the Ukrainian port of Odessa. Its substantial Russian-speaking (largely Byelorussian) population resists tooth and nail the notion of takeover by its neighbors. This unnecessary poverty is likely to continue indefinitely]

 

Memo to the files: impressions from our visit to the Soviet fruit and vegetable cornucopia:  Georgia and Moldavia, September 1979 under the auspices of the USSR Ministry of Agriculture

One of the most striking impressions is the apparent leveling of once sharp distinctions between what supplies were available in cities and those in the favored countryside areas.  Less than a decade ago it was possible to say that even highly rewarded agricultural regions in the Soviet Union were poorly stocked in consumer goods and were the poor country cousins of even second and third rank cities, let alone the metropolis of Moscow.  Today these distinctions are fess less apparent; other distinctions have taken their place, and these are generated by the degree of successful or unsuccessful integration of a given region into the political hierarchy. For this purpose, comparison of Georgia and Moldavia can be highly illustrative.

The Georgian countryside, which, with the exception of some tropical coastal areas, is mediocre to poor farmland, has been won from mountainous terrain at great cost in labor. It was formerly known to be outstanding within the Russian context. After several years of political repression, little remains of this former affluence. Shops in Georgia have little to boast by comparison with highly prosperous Moldavia.  Political alienation in Georgia seems to have further expression in a revival and stubborn advancement of the Stalin cult.  If this is indeed the source of Stalin adoration elsewhere in the USSR, then Western analysts have been probably far off base in their understanding of the cult’s reappearance. For what is in evidence today in Georgia through restoration of portraits of the former leader and through prominent bigger-than-life gilded statues of him in public buildings, though memorial plaques, and through entreaties to tourists to visit his birthplace in Gory, is little more than an affirmation of the Georgians’ national existence and rejection of rule from Moscow. The Stalin cult is not so much an affront to Western sensibilities as a challenge to the Brezhnev regime.

Comparison between Moldavia and other favored agricultural regions than Georgia is all the more striking when this development is borne in mind. As the political power base of Leonid Brezhnev, the post to which he was assigned Party Leader after World War II, Moldavia to this day enjoys a special position vis-à-vis Brezhnev’s leadership. This is manifest in the model agricultural enterprises which are encouraged in the rea, in the innovative and self-assured behavior of local Party and State officials who make a virtue out of being in step with Moscow’s latest directives.  It is seen in the richness of Kishinev’s stores, in the well-dressed pedestrians, the orderly orchards and vineyards, and the prosperous new peasant houses along small towns.

Speaking with officials both in Georgia and Moldavia, one learns that the mandated increases in agricultural incomes have been realized. Collective farm workers in Moldavia, by way of example, now receive over the course of a year remuneration at the same level as industrial workers in Moscow. As an addition, they may enjoy the fruits of their labors on private plots which, depending on the nature of the farm enterprise, range between one-quarter and one acre of arable irrigated land.

With reference to official figures, it is obvious from even a glance inside stores that consumer goods which are in scarcity in major Russian cities are available without lines in these smaller, particularly Moldavian, towns.

All of this tends to support a hypothesis about the nature of Russia’s difficulties in the consumer sector which seems to me has been overlooked by Soviet analysts in the USA who have not visited and seen first-hand what is happening in that country. This hypothesis is that shortages of consumer goods and of processed foods arise today not because of declining production but because of rising disposable income and more equitable distribution of national wealth among the Soviet population. In a situation of largely fixed-price-production that rises only modestly from year to year and broadened demand, the necessary and logical result is the one which the astute observer will find today: widespread shortages. In this respect, the Soviet Union today appears to be traveling down the same road as Poland 5 years ago. It remains to be seen whether the implications for political stability will be the same in the USSR as they have been for Poland.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Vladimir Putin’s newly published article on the lessons of World War II in “The National Interest”

The article referenced in the heading appeared a couple of days ago in a leading American think tank publication which traces its ancestry back to the Richard Nixon pro-détente circles of the nation’s capital. Indeed, the personality at its apex, Dmitry Simes, was Nixon’s Sherpa for dealings with the Soviet Union during his final years.

This article is being promoted by Russian diplomacy as the country’s official word on the significance of World War II for the present generation of Russians and of people everywhere during this year of celebration of the 75th anniversary of the war’s end.  In this connection, I was invited to offer my comments to the Russian online journal Sputnik, which came out with an article of commentary today:

https://sputniknews.com/analysis/202006191079667491-putin-is-showing-restraint-why-russian-president-could-have-written-wwii-article-in-harsher-tone/

My analysis, which is generously cited by Sputnik, was set out in full in the following:

In his article, Vladimir Putin has adopted a statesmanlike rather than argumentative tone. He has avoided naming directly the points in the historical revisionism being practiced in the West with respect to causes of World War II. This revisionism first developed in its present malignant form in the Baltic States and Poland going back twenty-five years when they loudly denounced Soviet responsibility in the start of the war arising from the deal with Hitler at their expense known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In these countries it served the purposes of nation-building.   The revisionism has in recent years been given further amplification in the United State where fits of Russophobia have suited the cause of   NATO expansion and propped up American hegemony on the Old Continent. In the United States, it is not so much blame for the start of World War II as the air brushing of the Soviet Union out of the fight against Hitler so that the liberation of Europe appears to have been purely the result of the heroic Allied landings in Normandy and the drive across France and the Low Countries towards Berlin.

Vladimir Putin has chosen to focus more attention on the Munich Betrayal, which shows up Western complicity in the Nazis overrunning Europe, starting from the Sudetenland.  This is understandable, because the notion of Appeasement as symbolized by Chamberlain’s return to the UK from his shameful deal with Hitler claiming ‘peace in our time’, is precisely how most of the Western populations view the run-up to WWII.    And then there is the one finger he points at Poland reminding everyone that the Poles were actively conspiring with Berlin to dismember Czechoslovakia. He makes a veiled hint that the aristocracy in certain Western countries were quite happy to deal with Hitler and did not heed the warnings of Moscow and its bid to create a united resistance to German aggression from the mid-1930s when it may have till been possible to stop the Germans in their tracks.

In fact, the hand of Mr Putin is much stronger than he has cared to set out in this article.  He is showing great restraint, and I would argue perhaps too much restraint given the fierce level of Information Wars against Russia that have been going on in the past decade.

It bears mention that Appeasement was a Western policy that proceeded almost from the signing of the Versailles Treaty. This argument was made very persuasively by Henry Kissinger in his master work “Diplomacy” in 1994. It was appeasement in allowing the Germans not to pay the crushing reparations that the Treaty required, by allowing them gradually to recreate their army and reoccupy their lands militarily in violation of the Treaty way before Mr. Chamberlain came on the scene. Munich was merely the culmination of a long process wherein the different interests of France and England in particular during the interwar years as regards their defense against Germany.  And let us dot the ‘I’s which Mr Putin has left blank: it was specifically the pro-fascist sympathies of English royalty and aristocracy that prevented collective action.  There was a strong streak in European political classes hoping to see the Hitlerites send their forces to the East and destroy Bolshevism.

Of course, had President Putin gone into these specifics, there would be bellowing from London, from Washington against the Kremlin.  Instead, he has spoken obliquely.  It is hard to say what effect his mild words will have.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]