Armistice Day Commemorations, 2018: turning the “lessons of history” on their head

Today French President Emmanuel Macron officiated at a ceremony before the Arc de Triomphe in Paris marking the 100th anniversary of the Armistice which ended the First World War. While dozens of heads of state from around the world were present, the featured guests were the German Chancellor and the presidents of Turkey, Russia and the United States. They were seated on either side of Macron and were picked up repeatedly by the cameramen who projected their images onto large screens and into the television feed of the French broadcasters.

There is fitting logic for the venue and for the honor roll.  We recall that four years ago, the commemoration of the start of The Great War took place in Belgium, where the hostilities on the Western Front began in August 1914.  The fighting ended in France with the signing of the Armistice on 11 November1918 in a railway car near Compiègne, not far from Paris, where the German army had staged its last, unsuccessful offensive. Hence the role accorded to France from among all combatant states to lead the solemn events this year.

As for the highest consideration paid not to an ally in the Entente, but to precisely the leader of the once-upon enemy, Angela Merkel, we must recall that German-French reconciliation has underpinned the peace project that we know as the European Union from its inception and the two countries have guided the Union in tandem ever since, even if the French half has limped along this past decade under deeply flawed and unpopular heads of state.

In this essay we will consider several issues surrounding this commemoration of WWI. First, the message of “multilateralism” which figured in Macron’s speech today at the Arc de Triomphe and serves as the leitmotiv of the Forum for Peace which he opened this afternoon to a vast number of participants including the visiting heads of state, NGOs, business interests. Macron’s message was built on a wholly incorrect reading of the “lessons of history” surrounding the Great War. We will consider the question from a very different perspective.  Second, we will look at the commemorative events from the standpoint of Emmanuel Macron’s ongoing bid to replace Angela Merkel as the de facto leader of Europe and position himself as a politician of global stature. Finally, we will consider the unprecedented presence of the president of Russia in WWI commemorations in the West and look at how Russian television has been serving up the centenary to the public.

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Let us not mince words:  the lessons of history which Emmanuel Macron drew for his global audience is that WWI came about from forces of nationalism and that its conclusion, in the Treaty of Versailles, unleashed new waves of national egoism that engendered fascism and led to the tragedy of the Second World War. Per Macron, these same forces of nationalism are rising again in our midst and must be thwarted.

Regrettably, this is willful reading into the past of present concerns of Davos Culture elites over populism, Euro-skepticism, and Trumpism. It is a continuation of the same self-serving interpretation that already was evident in 2014 in François Hollande’s address at ceremonies commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War when he decried nascent aggressive nationalism and populism.

A more open-ended and unprejudiced look at issues surrounding the First World War yields very different and more troubling findings, though the overarching notion of parallels between then and now remains true. What raised international tensions and threatened war then is indeed the same today.  But it was/is not nationalism as such. It was the strivings of the great power of the day, the hegemon of 1914, Great Britain, together with its allies, to maintain the World Order they knew and profited from by preventing the rise of Germany to world power status. Just as today, the United States with its allies is striving with might and main to “contain” resurgent Russia and economic, soon to be military superpower China.   The contributing factor then and now is the alliance system itself, the two power blocs. Then they were the Entente and Central Powers, today they are NATO and Russia-China.

Henry Kissinger argued persuasively in his 1994 master work Diplomacy that balance of power and spheres of influence built around national egoism did not bring about WWI, as Wilsonian idealists and their followers in the United States and in Europe today insist.  It was the breakdown of balance of power with its freely realigning nation-states, its replacement by the rigidity of the alliances under constraints of the then military technology and logistics requiring mass and irreversible mobilizations that constituted a deus ex machina, a determinism that overrode the intentions, hopes and fears of individual statesmen on all sides.

As for the interwar period, French Marshal Foch who signed the 1918 Armistice noted that the eventual terms of peace ensured not durable peace but only a twenty-year truce. The consequences of the horrific blood-letting in the Great War and of the destruction of French industry in that war made very remote the likelihood of generosity to the vanquished or, alternatively, keeping Germany down indefinitely. It is cheap rhetoric to declare that a multilateral approach based on international institutions could have averted the disaster that developed in the 1930s. The root causes lay in the madness, in the folly of Europe’s ruling classes in 1914.

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Macron is promoting “multilateralism” and global governance through the international institutions Washington built ever since the end of the Second World War. This is a World Order characterized by US domination and subservience from all its allies, including the European Union, for which in return European elites have helped themselves to a handsome share in the spoils of power.

The butt of Macron’s address today and of his Peace Forum was Donald Trump with his scorn for international institutions to which the United States contributions have far outweighed those of other members, his dislike for the limitations imposed by international conventions and his rude insistence on “America First” mercantilism.

The front page of yesterday’s leading French daily in Belgium, Le Soir, blasts the news that “Trump Shuns Macron’s Peace Summit.” That sharp rebuke to the American president may sell newspapers but it tells us nothing that common sense would not foresee.  Trump was not present at the Joint Session of Congress in April when Emmanuel Macron delivered his address attacking the whole of Trumpism to a rapturous audience.  He would have been a fool to be present today when Macron sought to isolate and attack his policies before the thousands attending the Forum. And Donald Trump is no such fool.

 

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The solemn ceremony in Paris was the culmination of week-long commemorative events in the northeast of France, at battlefields visited by Emmanuel Macron and selected guests. The most important surely was at Verdun, where more than one million combatants lost their lives. The most symbolic was at Compiègne, outside Paris, where German forces signed the armistice with Allied commander General Foch. Here Macron’s partner was Angela Merkel and they reconfirmed yet again the eternal friendship between their countries.  .

The visits earlier in the week one on one with European leaders including Theresa May, and more particularly the gathering in Paris today were structured in support of Macron’s ambition to assume the mantle of de facto political leader of the European Union, and so become a figure of global importance. He alone delivered an address. And he set conditions for his VIP guests to ensure that the side interests among them would not detract from the sole focus of the event. They were under orders not to speak among themselves. And so we in the television audience saw an unusually glum and bored assembly of national leaders.

Macron’s bid comes in circumstances when the leadership role in Europe has been slipping through the fingers of Angela Merkel. Since her recent renunciation of her position as head of her party which is due to be filled at a gathering in December and by her renunciation of  candidacy for re-election as chancellor in 2021, Merkel has been on the skids politically, with an exit from power projected as early as February 2019, depending on who is chosen to succeed her in the party directorship.

For his part, Macron’s bid for an international audience comes at a time when his own standing at home has been slipping precipitously. This has been due to domestic policies rolled out as “reforms” but amounting to an attack on the privileges and protections of organized labor. In addition, Macron has worked to his own detriment by a series of gaffes and demonstrations of poor judgment. These included inaction when his personal assistant beat up marchers on May Day while wearing a police uniform to which he was not entitled. More recently Macron was filmed engaging in chit-chat with half-naked black youths in the poor outlying districts of Paris while one gave him the finger. This was seen as an inexcusable breach of decorum by the French. And of late his proposed raising of taxes on fuel has angered a broad swathe of the population. The net result is that it is hard to see how the French President can achieve international success in the face of dismal poll results at home.

Be that as it may, news of the past week at the level of Europe-wide parties provides a further proof of Macron’s aspirations.  Following rumors of a bid to join forces ahead of the May 2019 elections to the European Parliament, yesterday it was announced that Macron’s République en marche party has formally aligned with the European Liberals, meaning the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), headed by former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt.

ALDE stands for the values of US neo-conservativism, including a heavy dose of anti-Putin venom. In the European Parliament, alongside the German Greens, it has been the most vociferous promoter of sanctions against Russia going back to 2012. In this light, Macron’s courting of the Russians since his accession to power may very well be seen as duplicitous.

It bears mention that Verhofstadt is an old admirer of Margaret Thatcher, with her union-busting free capitalism. This would seem to match very well Macron’s attempts to reign in the French labor force.

By contrast, France’s traditional Center Right party, which under Sarkozy was renamed Les Républicains, forms part of the European-wide Center Right coalition called the European People’s Party. The EPP is the largest political group in the European Parliament and holds a substantial number of porfolios on the Commission.  Meanwhile, ALDE has just 10% of the Parliament’s 750 seats.  The idea of La République en marche running candidates in coordination with ALDE for the May 2019 elections, with the hope of capturing the number two position in the European Parliament, seems excessively optimistic given Macron’s difficulties with the French public today now that the mystery about him as the “dark horse” candidate of 2017, the man to break with the political establishment, has been dispelled.

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As I noted at the beginning, the presence of Vladimir Putin at the WWI commemoration in Paris was a debut for the Russians in such events in the West.  If there had been any chance of a similar invitation being issued in 2014, it surely was dashed by the controversy over the Russian annexation of the Crimea that spring and its involvement in the Donbas insurgency.

Under the restraining order given by Macron to his guests, Vladimir Putin looked frustrated and bored during the Arc de Triomphe ceremony. He was able to shake Donald Trump’s hand, but the hoped for mini-summit on the sidelines was not to be.

Nonetheless, Putin’s participation fit nicely with Russia’s own revision of history since 2014 and the belated show of respect for its officers and soldiers who fought in The Great War.  This episode in the country’s history had been totally ignored ever since 1917. The war was officially dismissed as an imperialist venture whose only virtue was that it prepared the way for revolution.

In 2014, just ahead of the commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of war, Vladimir Putin unveiled a monument on Poklonnaya Gora in Moscow dedicated to those who gave their lives in World War I. In his speech at the time, Putin said:

“Today we are restoring the historical truth about World War I and are discovering countless examples of personal courage and military skill, and the true patriotism of Russia’s soldiers and officers and the whole of Russian society. We are discovering the role Russia played in that difficult and epoch-changing time for the world, especially in the pre-war years. And what we see reflects very clearly the defining features of our country and our people.”

Preparations in Russia to mark the centenary of the Armistice have included some special television programming this past week. One particularly interesting program highlighted the circumstances surrounding Russian expeditionary forces sent to France during the War to defend Paris.  And today, the channel Rossiya-1 released a quite remarkable documentary film entitled “First World War. The Suicide of Europe “ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89vZl9PegOk)

Among the more noteworthy moments in this film, which runs slightly more than one hour, are a detailed explanation of the role played by the Russian imperial army at the opening of the war. As the narrator explains, the offensive launched against the German territory of Eastern Prussia by General Samsonov, though ultimately disastrous for his command, forced the Germans to pull troops from their ongoing operation to take Paris swiftly before turning East. It thus changed irremediably the nature of the war from blitzkrieg to the stationary trench warfare that it remained to the end. Another segment details the destruction of 45% of the Austro-Hungarian forces by a Russian offensive in the opening months of the war.  This film by Aleksei Denisov, narrated by Fedor Bondarchuk definitely merits translation into English and broad circulation in the West.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

Alternativ fuer Deutschland: Germany’s Left and Right Change Sides on the issues of War and Peace

 

31 October 2018

 

The results of last weekend’s elections in the German state of Hesse have been getting quite a run in mainstream media.  The sharp losses suffered by both parties in the Grand Coalition, the Socialists (SPD) and Merkel’s center-right CDU, finally delivered the decisive push that spells the end the reign of the iron lady in Berlin.  Not immediately, but in the very foreseeable future, depending on who is elected to replace her at the head of her party in December.

Otherwise commentators have called attention to the beneficiaries of the waning strength at the center: the Greens on the Left, and more particularly the Alternativ fuer Deutschland (AfD) on the Right.  While the Greens are a long known quantity in German politics by their participation in the coalitions governing several Laender, the AfD is a relative newcomer and analysts noted with anxiety that the latest election returns now put AfD deputies in all of the German federal states, making it finally a nationwide party and eventual claimant to ministerial portfolios following the next German elections which might come already in 2019.

What we hear about the AfD in mainstream media tends to be condescending, at best, scornful more commonly. The party’s rise is attributed to one issue: its anti-immigration policy.  It is dismissed as xenophobic and nationalistic. Its members are assumed to be “deplorables,” if we may borrow Hilary Clinton’s pungent characterization of their assumed moral equivalents in the USA.

Mainstream occasionally reminds us that the homeland of the AfD is the territory of the former GDR. And it is taken as axiomatic that xenophobia and nationalism would have festered there because of the region’s Communist past, so unlike the open and sophisticated society of West Germany.

In the essay which I present here, I will demonstrate that the AfD’s present and likely future successes in German politics come from realities of life in East Germany that are quite unsuspected by global audiences, namely a long-borne resentment at their colonization by their Western compatriots following the annexation of the GDR, by their second class citizen status 28 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  For this association between the sufferings of Ossies at the hands of West German elites and their newfound political voice in what is called the “extreme right” I owe a debt of gratitude to Russian television, and to be specific, to two editions of the flagship Sunday news round-up of channel Rossiya-1 hosted by Dimitri Kiselyov, Vesti Nedeli, on 7 and 14 October.

See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sqr_AQi0eHg, at 1h20min to 1 h 28 min   and

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yWWON9Z6DOw&has_verified=1  from 0:54 to 1h13 min

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The point made by Kiselyov and his correspondents in the field is that following its“annexation” in 1990, the new bosses in the West purged East Germany of all its leaders, not merely the cadres of the Communist Party that governed the country or the Stasi secret police that spied on the citizenry and reported to Moscow, but all the professionals including the university professors, sporting administrators, army officer corps.  The lustration process put them out on the street, and also deprived their children of opportunities in education and careers bearing as they did the marks of offspring of “enemies of the people.”

The East German elites were replaced at the top of local society by carpetbaggers from the West, very often second or third rate opportunists.  At the same time, the most qualified Ossies moved out, often abroad, to pursue employment opportunities in the UK or the United States.

In parallel, East Germany underwent de-industrialization. With very few exceptions such as the Karl Zeiss enterprise in Jena, East German factories were shuttered and no new manufacturers of scale appeared.  East Germany became little more than an incremental consumer market for the West.   Consequently its economic indices remain at just 73% of Western levels, and this is set to decline to just 66% by 2045.

All of this is very valuable to bear in mind when we consider the radicalization of East Germany and its rejection of the main parties from the West, as expressed today in strong and growing support for the Alternativ fuer Deutschland.  According to Kiselyov, latest polls indicate 27% of voters in the East now back the AfD. This is unquestionably the highest level of backing anywhere in Germany today.

Meanwhile, the Ossie origins of the AfD contribute greatly to the rest of its party platform outside of opposition to immigrants. We hear much less about this in mainstream media except when they speculate on the chances of its entering into a coalition with the main traditional parties of Germany and try to match up policies.  We find here not merely Euro-skepticism, but opposition to NATO, plus calls for ending sanctions on Russia.  These last points we normally associate with the Left of the political spectrum, but they are in keeping with the predisposition of a large part of the population in what was the GDR to trade with and have normal relations with Russia as they did in the distant past. In this context, the Ossie who is the federal Chancellor is at odds with the population from which she came.

I have called these policies, and especially the opposition to NATO, typically Leftist because they were precisely that in the German past.  The Entspannungspolitik, or Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt was a case in point.  However, power sharing in the Grand Coalition with the CDU has pulled the party from its moorings in exchange for the spoils of power.  When several of the former assistants to Brandt and his advisor on the East, Egon Bahr, tried to relaunch Détente a couple of years ago, it found almost no support, as I saw from inside attending what was supposed to be the launch.  The SPD was firmly in the hands of the Martin Schulz wing and like-minded Atlanticists, globalists.  So it is today.

To be sure, to the Left of the SPD we find Die Linke, another party with roots in the former GDR. Die Linke’s brilliant Bundestag deputy Sahra Wagenknecht regularly weighs in against NATO, against the sanctions on Russia, etc.  However, Wagenknecht is enmeshed in a party riven by internal disputes – over pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian factions, over personalities – to the point where it is politically ineffective and has been unable to profit from the weakness of the centrist parties.

Also to the Left of center we find the Greens. However, on international affairs, the German Greens are among the fiercest Cold Warriors on the Continent.

And so those who are condemned by today’s governing elites in Germany as the dregs of society, as fascist leaning, and so forth, namely the AfD, are by default Germany’s otherwise missing anti-war movement.

 

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It bears mention that the anti-war sentiments of Germans led in the 1980s to large scale demonstrations against the installation in Germany, in Europe of nuclear armed US Pershing missiles meant to counter Russia’s SS20 intermediate range missiles of that era.  There was heft and determination, and their actions keeping the threats of these weapons in the news surely contributed to the conclusion in 1987 of the Treaty that is now under threat of revocation by Trump in the coming month.

I had been despondent contemplating the disarray of the Left and absence of any kind of antiwar movement which might challenge some coming reintroduction of US nuclear tipped intermediate range missiles into the European heartland in the near future.

However, the vitality of the AfD suggests that it could well make political grist from any such US plans just as it has prospered from the calamity of open borders to immigration that Angela Merkel so foolishly caused. If so, our political compass will be spun around entirely.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

 

Unprecedented Summit of Four in Istanbul reveals unbridged, irreconcilable differences between Russia and the West over Syria

29 October 2018

 

The summit meeting of the German chancellor and the presidents of Turkey, Russia and France in Istanbul this past Saturday has rightfully been called “unprecedented” by the world press. It was the first time Putin, Macron and Merkel sat together since the last G-20. It was the first meeting of two very different groups of backers of a Syrian settlement:  the Astana Group, represented by Russia, and the so-called Small Group, represented by France and Germany. But by a conspiracy of silence its net results have been reduced by global media to the hopeful and empty generalization that “the solution to the Syrian crisis can only be political, not military” while the irreconcilable differences among the parties over how to structure the political process and what it will lead to remain unstated.  Unstated not only by the French, German and Turkish media, but also by the Russian media, for which I take last night’s News of the Week with Dimitri Kiselyov on the state channel Rossiya-1 as my marker.

In this brief essay, I will focus precisely on the differing, essentially contradictory understandings of the cause of the Syrian tragedy, of the legitimacy of the Syrian government  or ”regime,” and on the way that a political settlement can or cannot achieve what  was not achieved on the battlefield by the opponents of President Bashar Assad.

My prime material for providing this analysis is the full video broadcast of the press conference which the four leaders held at the conclusion of their 3 hours of talks provided by Ruptly, the German affiliate of RT and posted on youtube:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cezjdhuEd18

It bears mention that such broadcasting is a very significant public service to the credit of RT and to the shame of all the mainstream Western media that denigrate the Russian news agency by calling it a propaganda outlet of the Kremlin. Full, uncut transmission of major international events represents the best side of the dis-intermediation that typifies our internet age. It allows each of us to draw our own conclusions on what transpired based on what we hear and see, including the body language of the leading personalities.

 

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Interpersonal Dynamics of the Four Leaders

Putin

Before the summit, many commentators spoke of the key role expected to be played by President Putin, for whom sitting down together with Macron and Merkel to talk about a collaborative approach to ending the Syrian crisis would appear to amount to a political victory. Ever since the crushing defeat of the Islamic militants in Eastern Ghouta at the hands of Syrian troops with Russian air support, spelling the near total military victory of the Syrian armed forces in the civil war, Putin has been knocking on doors in Western Europe to secure commitments of humanitarian aid to Syria and infrastructure investments essential to pave the way for the return of refugees from abroad.

To be sure, such a flattering advance interpretation of the event came from the “friends of Putin” community.  But not only. Responsible voices in mainstream Western media conceded the same point – as, for example, a feature article in the Wall Street Journal ahead of the meeting: “At Istanbul Summit, Russia Seeks Role as Mediator of Syria War.”

The reality in Istanbul was rather different. Indeed, it was fairly obvious that Vladimir Putin was odd man out against the three other summit leaders, all of whom have not abandoned their ambition to see Bashar Assad removed from power and replaced by some unspecified government formed by Syrian civil society. And while the final declaration of the summit stresses their unanimity on the need for a political settlement, three of the leaders at the table seek to gain by the political process what their proxies lost to Assad on the battlefield.

From body language, it was clear that President Putin was frustrated by the positions of his talking partners. Indeed, on two occasions he spoke out in direct contradiction to the seeming consensus.  One was his reminder to all present that the settlement in Idlib, namely the halt to Syrian plans to take that last rebel-held province by storm, was not binding on him if there should continue to be attacks on Government and Russian forces outside Idlib from the terrorist organizations within it.  The second was his rebuke to his colleagues, and implicitly most directly to President Macron, for their referring to Damascus as the “Assad regime” when it is in fact the UN-recognized government of the Syrian Arab Republic.  Indeed, in his next moment at the microphone Macron stepped back and spoke more respectfully of the Syrian leadership.  Moreover, Putin’s criticism of the term “regime” with reference to the Assad government was picked up by the correspondent from Le Monde and cited in the last paragraph of her coverage of the summit as an example of the differences among the summit leaders over the eventual fate of Bashar Assad: “Un sommet inédit à Istanbul pour amorcer une solution politique en Syrie.” The author, Marie Jégo, was the one member of the French media invited to ask a question at the press conference.

 

Erdogan

Erdogan has in various forums over the past several months made blunders in his statements about Syria that exposed him to ridicule.  The jokes at his expense seemingly ended following his conclusion of the Memorandum of Understanding with Putin over Idlib, which won for Erdogan plaudits from the West.

Now in Istanbul he appeared before us as the statesman, the peace seeker, the coordinator.  He opened the press conference and, by far, spoke the longest.

To be sure, his recitation of some basic facts surrounding the Syrian civil war were faulty. He claimed that the Assad regime had killed one million of its citizens, when the casualties since 2011 are placed at 400,000 by UN sources, taking all casualties together and without attributing responsibility for any given share of deaths to the government or its opponents.  But his mention of Turkey’s role as the host to the greatest number of Syrian refugees, namely 3.5 million, earned him a special position in talks that had as their ultimate objective the return of the Syrian refugees to their homeland under conditions of UN supervised peace.

Of course, there is bitter irony in Erdogan’s pose of peacemaker and humanitarian given that he himself has murdered his own civilian population in Turkey by his military attacks on the Kurdish communities in the east of his country.  But hypocrisy is the common currency of diplomacy.

Merkel

Merkel was the most unassuming, modest presence on the dais. the humanitarian voice placing greatest emphasis on saving the Idlib Memorandum of Understanding  lest a government offensive unleash another massive wave of refugees into Turkey and beyond to Europe.

Her reticence is characteristic of her rule by silence these past thirteen years.  It is all the more appropriate given the fragility of her hold on power today.

 

Macron

Emmanuel Macron looked and sounded cocky. His flag in Europe and on the broader international scene has been rising inversely to the sinking fortunes of Angela Merkel, and also inversely to his own political ratings at home.  His confidence rests on one pillar:   his newfound position as the favorite of Washington now that the Brexit-stricken UK is out and Germany’s Merkel is down.

Curiously, Macron made pains to convey to the audience that he is the stalking horse of Washington. I point to a couple of his statements that were, in the context, otherwise gratuitous and irrelevant to the proceedings. The first was his using the podium to express his condolences to the American people and to President Trump for the tragedy that had just occurred in Pittsburgh (shootings at a synagogue). Secondly his mention that he would be briefing the Americans about the behind closed door talks of the summit leaders.

At the summit, Macron was the most aggressively and openly opposed to Russia’s Syria policy.  While international media reporting on the summit have fairly uniformly noted that there were differences of views among the leaders, none has gone into the details, which were made plain to anyone interested precisely by the remarks of Macron.

Macron insisted that the cause of the refugee outflow from Syria was and is opposition to the Assad regime. Under this hypothesis, no return of refugees is possible, nor will it be assisted by France, so long as Assad is in power.  While France joined Russia in providing some limited humanitarian assistance to Syrians following the fall of Eastern Ghouta to government forces, it did so via NGOs and so far refuses to provide assistance to government held territory.  This position remains directly in contradiction to Vladimir Putin’s request for infrastructure assistance, such as restoration of power and water, as a precondition for return.

A less politicized view of the refugee issue would suggest that those now in the Syrian diaspora abroad were fleeing not the Assad regime but the Islamic terrorists, or more generally, the chaos and insecurity created by civil war conditions.  Proof that this is the reality was provided at the summit by none other than President Erdogan when he took credit on behalf of his military forces for two military operations on Syrian soil that “neutralized” 7,500 Islamic terrorists, restored peace to a substantial tract of land, following which some 250,000 Syrian refugees returned to their homes, by his estimate.

Macron also in his time at the microphone repeated his long-held emphasis on the inclusion of the Syrian diaspora abroad in the political settlement process.  From his own and surely Washington’ standpoint, if this issue is properly structured the Assad regime will be removed by popular vote.

 

  What was achieved in Istanbul?

 

Given the foregoing, one may reasonably ask what actually was achieved at the Istanbul summit.

In his own remarks ahead of the summit, Vladimir Putin sought to play down expectations of a global resolution of the crisis resulting from a one day summit. He said that it would be an opportunity for the sides to exchange notes on Syria, which is a quite modest if still positive objective.

And we have good reason to believe that the major topic for this note-sharing was detailed discussion of the Russian-Turkish Memorandum of Understanding on Idlib.  Not merely walking through the ten points of the MoU, but looking at how it has been implemented so far.  That may well explain the presence of Russian Minister of Defense Shoigu at the Istanbul summit: to have all the military details at the ready for question and answer.

All parties to the summit have stressed the primacy of political processes and they mentioned the shared objective of a constitutional committee to prepare Syria’s future convening before the end of this year.

It is clear that France, Germany and Turkey are looking for a very different outcome of these processes from Russia.  This might lead one reasonably to ask whether Vladimir Putin is able to properly defend the interests of the Assad government.

Can he be motivated to sacrifice the regime in return for some unrelated concessions from the West? This is a question which not only might arise in Washington, London or Paris, but also in the minds of fierce Russian nationalists who often question to resoluteness of their president.

In the given situation, such backtracking by the Russians is not really possible, given the vital role played by Iran, the third guarantor of the military de-escalation process in Syria, and the only one not present at Istanbul. There can be no question of Tehran’s determination to stick by Bashar Assad whatever the West may or may not do.

In conclusion, I believe that the world media, Western and Russian, have chosen not to highlight the issues I have raised here because of the complicity of the parties in presenting a fairly optimistic story to the general public while everyone temporizes.

The default position is that Damascus, with assistance from Russia and Iran, will complete its clawing back of all its territory, including Idlib, cost what it may. In that case, the Syrian crisis will in fact be resolved by military means, whatever gloss diplomats may choose to apply. How the country will be rebuilt if the “international community” continues to turn its back on Damascus remains an open question. This is the “lose-lose” situation that Vladimir Putin is trying mightily to avoid.

Propaganda and posturing from all sides as West and Russia aid and abet the New Cold War

As a certified “dupe of Putin” in the eyes of our McCarthyite, mob rule majority that speaks for the American foreign policy establishment, I use this opportunity to restate my claim to independent thinking about the big issues of responsibility for the ongoing and escalating New Cold War, including each and every major incident along the way.

If only there were no consequences for you, dear reader, for myself and for the 7 billion plus other souls on this planet, I would say “a pox on both your houses” in address to the political leaderships of both the US-EU “global community” (formerly known as the “free world”) and the Russian Federation (formerly known as the “empire of evil”).  However, any such curse will rebound on us.

To put it in the language of the once fashionable MIT bard of the 1960s Tom Lehrer: “we will all go together when we go.”  For this reason, let us take the time to sort out where this spiral of action and reaction, where the mutual contempt and provocations are taking us and what, if anything, we simple mortals outside government can do about it.

It is axiomatic in these days of anti-Russian hysteria in Washington, in London, in Brussels, that whatever reverses there may be to political control by the globalist, liberal democracy elites with their new age culture of pro-women, pro-LGBT, pro multiculturalism, etc. agendas you can be sure the cry will go up: “the Russians did it.”  The Russians were responsible for the sports doping of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, where they captured the lion’s share of gold medals.  They were responsible for the annexation of Crimea and intervened militarily with “hybrid warfare” to protect the insurgencies in the Donbass. They were responsible for the MH-17 airliner crash. They hacked into the Democratic National Committee server, disseminated their anti-Clinton trove of documents via Wikileaks and otherwise interfered egregiously in the 2016 US presidential elections. They have supported the criminal regime of Bashar Assad in Syria who uses chemical weapons against his own civilian population. Most recently the Kremlin organized the chemical poisoning of their ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England using their chemical warfare agent Novichok.

The official Russian response to most of these allegations of misdeeds has been “show us the proof,” or let us investigate this incident jointly, as our shared international conventions require.  Their main weapon of self-defense has been to pour scorn on their accusers. Brimming with sarcasm, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has repeatedly mocked British PM Theresa May for relying on unproven but “highly likely” argumentation in support of her clamoring for ever more sanctions to be imposed on Russia.

In fact, it has been my peers in the small Russia-friendly camp of Western experts who have published articles detailing the holes in the narratives of Russian wrong-doing put out by US and European media with government backing. Some of my colleagues have relevant professional knowledge in military sciences, in Information Systems and how they operate to support their point for point refutations of the allegations against Russia.  Others do not have any added value to contribute, but nonetheless do not stop at the water’s edge; instead they plunge into highly technical aspects of the charges against Russia and counter-charges.

As a general rule, I have stayed clear of these debates on anti-Russian narratives in their details, seeing no possibility of contributing anything new.  When I have spoken on scandals of the day, as for example the Skripal case, I have addressed only the overarching question of whether the allegations made any sense if the investigator applied the acid test of cui bono, meaning whose interests could be served by the given crime.  And on this basis I found the entire case against the Kremlin to be without merit.

It would have been nonsensical for the Kremlin to murder a former spy who had served his time, had been pardoned and expelled to his handlers in London, and to do this after the passage of many years just a couple of weeks before the opening of the World Cup of Football in Russia, for which the country had invested more than $10 billion in an exercise of Soft Power. On the other hand, for MI6 to have staged this assassination attempt at a location very close to its Porton Down chemical weapons facility as a provocation to blacken the image of Russia at precisely that moment, ahead of a sporting event that would attract the attention of global audiences, makes perfect sense in the context of an escalating information, economic and geopolitical war and the clear objective of isolating Russia, turning it into a pariah state. Anyone who thinks that the “fair play” Brits could not possibly be so cynical and immoral as to engage in assassination for raisons d’état should go back to their kindergarten benches. Those of us wearing long trousers know better.

Regrettably, recent developments have prompted me to rethink the whole logic of cui bono under present-day conditions when no side’s position can be taken at face value and when, quite possibly, all sides are actively engaged in propaganda and provocation.

I was prompted to reconsider my position by a couple of developments in the past two weeks. The first was the remarkable answer that Vladimir Putin gave to a questioner who asked about the Skripal case during the meeting with the press at the Russia Energy Week international forum in St Petersburg. This was just after the British released what they called the real names and GRU affiliations of the two alleged perpetrators of the poisoning. That identification directly contradicted the Russian president’s assertion at the Eastern Economic forum in Vladivostok 12 September, when he claimed the two were ordinary civilians, “not criminals.”

Now Putin called Sergey Skripal not only treasonous but подонок, a term sometimes translated as riff-raff but more pungently translatable as “scum.” That Putin dropped all pretense of diplomacy suggested strongly to me that there is more to the issue than meets the eye and that his prevarication was exposed.

A still bigger prompt to rethink came a few days later when Sergei Lavrov responded to the breaking news that in April the Dutch had expelled 4 Russians carrying service passports who had been caught near the headquarters of the world chemical weapons inspection organization  (OPCW) in a rented car which had electronic snooping equipment in the trunk.

Under circumstances which appear to be fairly straightforward and are proven by published photos, Lavrov could have acknowledged that Russian agents were nailed but gone on to explain the reasons justifying the intended hacking into OPCW computers, namely the way Western powers have actively compromised the impartiality of the institution’s activities as regards the supposed chemical attacks in Syria and in the Skripal case.

Lavrov did not do that. Instead he presented a cock and bull story that the 4 chaps whom the Dutch police nabbed were there to do routine security checks on the Russian embassy. And the Russian Foreign Ministry went on the offensive, charging the Dutch with violating a gentlemen’s agreement about the case, going public only months later at a politically opportune moment.

To be sure, I never believed that the leadership and state entities of the Russian Federation were bunny rabbits. But their image as mostly truthful and sincere about seeking peaceful relations with the West was badly tarnished by these latest developments.

Moreover my concerns from these developments fit into a context of disillusionment with the degree of impartiality of Russian state television, which, as recently as a year ago I still found bracing. Apart from the coverage earlier this year of the presidential electoral campaign and in particular the granting of air time to uncensored debates among the candidates, Russian state television has steadily displaced genuine news, commentary and talk shows with repetitive heavy propaganda.  The share of broadcasting given to the overall situation in Ukraine and to the civil war in Donbass, in particular, has become mind-numbing.

Over the past couple of years, Russian state television has daily disseminated the view that Ukraine is one step away from economic and political collapse. This is patently untrue. On the major Russian political talk shows we see the same Ukrainian crazies and the same smug Russian politicians engaged in sterile thrust and repartee.  And the tone of presenters, such as Yevgeni Popov and Olga Skabeeva on the widely watched talk show “60 Minutes” has become shrill and offensive.

Taking all of these observations into account, I conclude that a significant part of the Russian ruling elites stands for worsening relations with the West, and that their cui bono would be well served by events like the Skripal poisoning, all the more so if it were carried out in such manner as to be identifiably Kremlin sponsored and lead to the scandalous rupture of relations with the United Kingdom that ensued.

In this overall concept of what is occurring, we have mirror images in Russia and the USA of Deep States that earnestly seek a New Cold War as a confirmation of national identity. The confrontation is more than a tool to hold onto power. It is the means of ensuring allocation of state resources to the military industrial complexes.

In the Russian case, the confrontation, with its sanctions and embargos has made possible a reindustrialization that eluded the Russian state under conditions of friendly relations with the Wes and allocations of investment funds along purely market-dictated terms, which meant high concentration of investment in the exploration, production and export of hydrocarbons at the expense of all other industrial sectors.

As for the United States and Europe, the New Cold War has reinvigorated the moribund NATO alliance, given it a purpose for existence and heavy investment in expansion. It has given a new lease on life to American global hegemony.

So what can we, the peoples do about this?

The first thing is to try harder to get our minds around the challenge.  Batting down false narratives put up by Western media is a futile and insufficient response. There are ever more false flag provocations in the pipeline and no one outside a small circle of experts takes an interest in the often highly technical elements of such argumentation.

The way forward has to be political mobilization of an anti-war movement that is not engaged in the blame game, but rises above it in the knowledge that all sides in the New Cold War are lying, posturing and engaging in propaganda at our expense.  Until and unless political activists can focus their minds on this single objective of a broad anti-war coalition the world will continue its creep towards Armageddon.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

Brussels calling: where is Steve Bannon?

3 October 2018

In the third week of July, we heard about the ambitions of Steve Bannon,  strategist of Donald Trump’s electoral victory in 2016, to set up a coordination office, tentatively based here in Brussels, that would bring together and promote the populist movements across Europe, shepherding them into his own AltRight camp. Bannon was said to be modeling himself after George Soros as outside influencer and heavy weight in European affairs. Soros has been financing  Liberal, pro-EU, Antlanticist political agents on the Continent now for decades through Open Society and other channels. Of course, Bannon would be furthering diametrically opposite politics from Soros. The immediate objective would be to change the political calculus of Europe for the May 2019 Continent-wide elections and specifically to capture one third of the seats in the European Parliament for Euro-skeptics of all stripes.

Politico and The Daily Beast carried the story on the 22nd and 23rd.  On 24 July, Roland Freudenstein, an author at the Martens Centre, a mainstream think tank in Brussels pooh-poohed the notion that Bannon had the intellectual capacity or charm sufficient to lead European populists.  Freudenstein also dismissed the possibility that nationalists or populists could by definition submit to any supranational project given their inherent isolationism and focus on domestic concerns. See https://www.martenscentre.eu/blog/steve-bannon-coming-brussels-dont-hold-your-breath.

Freudenstein appears to have come to his conclusions from his reading of France’s right-wing politics and from his consideration of the policy contradictions between even such reputed allies as the Polish and Hungarian nationalists who are presently challenging in tandem the principles of liberal democracy emanating from Brussels but are dogs and cats when the issue turns to relations with Russia.

I do not dispute Freudenstein’s conclusion that Bannon has only slight chances of succeeding in his mission. However, the abstract reasoning  that Freudenstein applied has its limitations.  I say “abstract” because I am doubtful that he ever got down from his ivory tower to discuss Bannon with live members of the European Far Right or Far Left.

It is very common for folks in centrist politics here to shun politicians at the extremes, as if a handshake and a shared lunch would discredit them forever among their mainstream peers. I have no such prejudices.  It is my rule to enter into discussion with all men of good will and certifiable intelligence, whatever political label they wear on their sleeve. That is how you learn and, possibly, grow.

Indeed my recent lunchtime chat with one of the founding members of the National Front who worked alongside Jean-Marie Le Pen and has been a long time Member of the European Parliament yielded some highly relevant observations not only on why Bannon is unlikely to succeed, but also on who is more likely to wield influence on Europe’s Euroskeptics and populists as we go into the 2019 elections.

Going back to 2016, there have been lines of communication between Bannon and nationalists,  populists, and EU skeptics like Geert Wilder in The Netherlands, Nigel Farage of the U.K. and Marine Le Pen in France over defense of national sovereignty against the immigration policies,  multiculturalism, and radical social values being promoted from Brussels.  The most visible evidence of their comradery was perhaps the guest speaker slot given to Bannon when Le Pen convened her party’s gathering in Lille in May of this year.

However, the party faithful were not enthusiastic about Bannon’s presence.  Not because their sympathies are anti-American, as Freudenstein supposes, but because they see no reason to submit to an agenda set on another continent.  My interlocutor sees no magnetic force in Bannon, whereas there are such personalities within the European populist movements, particularly among those in power.

Le Pen and Wilder may be in the opposition, but Matteo Salvini and Sebastian Kunz are in power in Italy and Austria, respectively. Both have the strength of personality, energy and physical attractiveness of youth, suaveness in managing relations with political competitors and intellectual acuity to give credibility and force to the assorted populist movements rising across Europe, where Bannon is just a big mouth.

In the case of Kunz, his most visible feature is charm and prudence, avoiding giving unnecessary offense, a quality that Bannon never learned.  In the case of Salvini, it is strategic and tactical brilliance. He got the attention of the broad Italian public by his stand against the boatloads of immigrants. But he also countered his would be defamers from the political mainstream by offering financial outreach to the countries in Africa and Southern Asia whence the big immigration flows are coming for the sake of agreed repatriation and also to reduce the economic hardship propelling emigration. Moreover, once established in the Government, he quickly moved on to a broader agenda of promoting economic growth in Italy by loosening the budgetary purse strings in defiance of Brussels’ continuing counterproductive emphasis on austerity. As for the European Union, Salvini’s objective is to return the European Union to its status before the Maastricht Treaty, meaning an economic community rather than supra-national sovereign entity. In this vision, many of the powers now exercised in Brussels would go back to the Member States. To achieve this, clearly Salvini has to reach across national borders and engage directly with other populist movements. He needs no mentoring from Bannon to see this.

For a very good insight into the remarkable intellect and personality of Matteo Salvini, I heartily recommend his recent interview with Stephen Sackur on the BBC’s show Hard Talk.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SihWTOyICco      Salvini, not Bannon, is clearly the man to watch going forward.  In this sense, the smugness that results from Roland Freudenstein’s dismissal of Bannon as a spent force and his view of European populists as lacking in competent leadership is misplaced.

Another side of mainstream complacency that should be jettisoned is the notion that identity politics is the enemy of democracy and panders only to base instincts.  Here in Belgium, the most forthright defenders of national borders against unrestricted immigration is the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which is at the same time the “power behind the throne” of Prime Minister Charles Michel, holding the portfolios of Ministry of Interior and the secretary of state for Asylum and Migration. While the repatriation efforts of this government have been decried as in violation of human rights, the Secretary of State in question,  Theo Francken, is no rude xenophobe.  He has just published a book entitled Continent Without Borders the key points of which were published  on a full page of the leading French daily Le Soir, weekend edition of 29-30 September.  Those who believe they can  defeat Francken and his fellow thinkers by applying pejorative labels to them, i.e. by ad hominem argumentation instead of engaging in point for point debate may be in for a surprise in May 2019 no less stunning than the Brexit vote or the 2016 US presidential vote.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

Democrats Abroad Belgium: a refreshing moment of candor and realism in a world of cant

Know your enemy!  In that spirit I joined my wife last night to attend a panel discussion at the Press Club of Brussels organized by Democrats Abroad Belgium that promised a lively cocktail party if uncertain  and possibly repugnant political content.

I say “enemy” because I lost whatever hopes I had for the Democratic Party at some point in the first year of the Obama Administration when I came to see that my vote had been stolen under false pretenses and that the candidate, now president was a bait and switch tactical operation by his party, put in place to implement the very opposite of what he said to catch our votes, particularly in the realm of foreign policy, which is the side of US politics that interests me most.   Moreover, at about the same time I came to understand that the local expat organization, Democrats Abroad Belgium, was in 2008 not merely headed by a young chap working at NATO who was being steered by handlers, but that those handlers, all “retired” US intelligence officers, had no room for dissident views in their little tent. And so I moved on, re-registered myself as an Independent, and did not look back. Until last night.

 

The overseas country associations of America’s two dominant political parties, the Democrats and Republicans, have traditionally existed in a passive state most of the time, coming alive before each general election every two years to execute their primary obligation of getting out the vote:  encouraging expatriates to carry out their civic duty and vote, and/or helping them to do just that by getting absentee ballots from the electoral officials in the district of their last residence in the USA, a task that is often more tedious and prone to failure than it need be, depending on any given state. Other functions are optional.

The facts of expat participation in elections underscore the challenge that volunteers in voter registration from both parties face. Out of the six million Americans living abroad, only about 400,000 request and receive absentee ballots. Of these, only about two-thirds actually cast their votes. If this participation rate is raised significantly, it could affect the outcome in some swing states. However, given the very low participation rates, it might pay to rename Americans living abroad as “exiles” rather than “expats.”  By this I mean the reasons they are living in Brussels or Paris or London and not in Austin, Texas or Peoria, Illinois may have as much to do with disillusionment with the home country and indifference as they do with fortuitous job assignments abroad. In that sense, the threat of Hollywood celebrities and others to leave the States if Trump won was not a new phenomenon at all, just a new iteration of 2% of Americans opting out that has been going on for a very long time.

To its credit, the local expat association created by the Democrats in Belgium does somewhat more than operate telephone banks every two years to help would-be voters.  It runs discussion groups each and every year, and it hosts events like the one last night in the Press Club of Brussels, which served first quality wines that cost a pretty penny and was better organized and more informative about general political trends in the US than I had anticipated.

Indeed, the evening was remarkable precisely because, for the most part, the organizers showed themselves to be candid and reasonable in understanding their party’s loss to Donald Trump in 2016,  as well as the uphill battle Democrats face if they are to avert another Trump victory in 2020. Trump supporters were characterized as people you know around you, maybe even a cousin or other family member, not as the “basket of deplorables” per Hillary Clinton during the campaign. This level of insight and openness goes well beyond what you could expect from people who still take The New York Times at face value as great journalism to be imbibed daily, which was also in the air.

To be sure, the ubiquitous belief that the Russians had hacked the 2016 elections and had abused social networks to influence the elections was repeated from the dais.  But that was an almost mindless “hail Mary” which ran up against the conscious and far more revealing explanation of the loss to Trump as the result of a massive rejection of Hillary within the Democratic Party.  Republicans held their noses and voted for Trump, we were told, whereas Democrats could not bring themselves to go to the polls to support Hillary.

There is an explanation for this candor and detachment here in Brussels from the Democratic mainstream mantra in the USA that we call “Russia-gate,” meaning Trump collusion with the Kremlin. That is the story still promoted by the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and the other party bosses.  But the overseas Democrats, as it turns out, voted 3 to 1 in the primaries for Bernie Sanders and they just kept walking when he was knocked out by Hillary, notwithstanding their hero’s call to close ranks.

Why is this so?  Here again, the explanations from the dais last night were very revealing:  expats in Europe have seen in their daily lives that Social Democracy works, that it means free higher education, universal medical care and the other social benefits that the Continental USA refuses to abide.

For those of us who follow with pleasure Donald’s ongoing destruction of the alliances that undergird US global hegemony and wars without end, the sober pessimism of Democrats Abroad Belgium was very welcome and unexpected news.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

Thomas Kaplan, U.S. Billionaire Art Collector, Political Progressive and Enthusiast of Russian culture opens a Rembrandt Exhibition at the Hermitage Museum

On 4 September, I had the good fortune to be present at the press conference and pre-opening tour of the  first show  in the Hermitage Museum’s fall season, an exhibition entitled The Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer: Masterpieces of The Leiden Collection

Unlike many of the exhibitions at the Hermitage these past few years, the given event consisted not of one or another famous painting on loan from cooperating museums abroad.  Rather it renewed the tradition of “blockbuster” shows for which the St Petersburg museum was famous earlier in the tenure of its long-serving director, Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky. To be precise, The Age of Rembrandt presents 82 works from among the leading painters of the Dutch Golden Age. We have here paintings by Rembrandt from both his earliest and mature periods, as well as Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer, and paintings by Rembrandt’s students including Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck.

The unusual feature of the show is that the Hermitage included 8 works from its own collection to complement the works from the Leiden Collection. The logic for doing so is impeccable:  the Hermitage has one of the most important collections of Rembrandt and the Dutch masters from among all the world’s museums.  The Leiden Collection is the largest private holding of  paintings by Rembrandt and his circle.  And both collections were assembled in a similar manner though the collectors are separated in time by 250 years. The U.S. billionaire Thomas Kaplan, who began assembling his collection in 2003, relied on his personal emissaries and dealers to pounce on works in private hands as they became available for acquisition, knowingly following in the tradition of Russian Empress Catherine the Great who had done the same in her time.   As the collecting passion gathered pace, Kaplan was acquiring one artwork per week. Today his collection numbers 250 paintings and drawings.

Anonymity has been a big feature of Kaplan’s art collecting. Until a couple of years ago, his collection was being lent out anonymously to art museums work by work on a temporary basis.  It bears mention that the Kaplans chose not to keep a single work acquired in their homes but to make everything accessible to the public. Nor did they name their collection after themselves, but instead chose to call it the Leiden Collection after the Dutch city where Rembrandt and fellow masters of the Dutch Golden Age were long based. To this day the Leiden Collection, nominally domiciled in New York, has no permanent building of its own.

After reaching a critical mass, Kaplan took his collection in a new direction, to exhibitions in major museums and personally stepped out of the shadows to present what he has accumulated. The first such show was in 2014 in the Louvre, where the directors of the Hermitage and of Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Art caught up with him and agreed an eventual showing in both Moscow and St Petersburg.  After that the collection was presented in the National Museum of Beijing and in the Long Museum in Shanghai.

This year 2018 Kaplan’s showings in Russia ran from March through July at the Pushkin Museum while the show that opened on 5 September in the Hermitage closes on 13 January 2019.

From the words of Thomas Kaplan at the press conference, it is obvious that the show in St Petersburg is the high point of his venture into the art world.  He may not be awarded the decoration of Chevalier of culture that the French bestowed on him, but the matching of his works with the collection of Catherine the Great in the rooms of her palace surely provided a still greater boost of pride given Kaplan’s enthusiasm for Russian culture, about which I will speak in a moment.

Just as his amassing and initial presentation of works in the Leiden Collection was done anonymously, so Kaplan has carefully kept much of his private life hidden from the public.  His entry in Wikipedia reads like a Public Relations release, raising more questions than it answers about who he is and how he became the billionaire patron of the arts we saw in the Hermitage Theater.

We are told that he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at Oxford. However, that in itself is quite extraordinary for an American born in New York and raised in Florida.  To be sure, American elites do sometimes see their offspring off to Oxford, usually for one year, as Rhodes scholars following their graduation from some Harvard or Yale. Bill Clinton is a prime example.  However, to take a four year course at Oxford and then proceed to a doctorate there is a rare choice which begs for an explanation.

He has a doctorate in history.  Which history? We are not told , though we know his doctoral dissertation was on “the Malayan counterinsurgency and the way in which commodities influence strategic planning.”

There is no obvious link between a doctorate in history and commodities trading, not to mention investment in exploration for and production of precious metals and hydrocarbons, which made Kaplan his billion.  Physics or advanced mathematics are fields of study that more commonly lead to the kind of career Kaplan pursued to fortune.

The public record tells us, however, that already during his Oxford years Kaplan was working on the side as an analyst covering Israeli companies.  His Israeli-based in-laws  may have been the bridge to his future. It was through them that he was introduced to Israeli investor Avi Tiomkin who hired him as a junior partner in 1991.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Kaplan’s financial interests have focused on basic values, gold, in particular.  In this sense, it should come as no surprise that his artistic taste was in proven long-term value as well:  Rembrandt and the Dutch masters.  During his brief introductory speech, he mentioned his surprise when he embarked on his collecting activities that so much had remained in private hands and that so much was affordable.  Affordable to a billionaire, one might respond coldly. But it would appear that his purchases were in the range or tens of thousands to $5 million for a single acquisition.  In this sense, he was able to achieve far more than had he held a passion for modern art, where figures can easily be an order of magnitude greater and where problems of authenticity are also more challenging.

Thomas Kaplan made his money in precious metals and hydrocarbons, industrial sectors in which Russia plays a leading world role.  Yet, it would appear that Kaplan’s investment and production activities have never crossed the Russian border. Instead they have been concentrated, in the United States, in the Americas and in South Africa.  The single investment bet which brought him the greatest part of his capital was in nonconventional gas in a Texas sand basin, where he and his co-investors created one of the most valuable assets in the energy sector in the past couple of decades that they eventually sold on.

So where is the tie-in with Russia that figured so prominently in his introductory remarks? Both in Kaplan’s speech to the press conference and in response to questions from journalists, it was clear that the bond is firstly family related and secondly purely intellectual in nature.

Cherchez la femme! Kaplan’s Israeli wife came from Russian-born parents, and today, he explains, Russian is spoken in his home whenever his wife, mother-in-law and others want to keep secrets from him. Put more generally, he related that his family’s heritage goes much farther back in time in Russia than in the USA. And Thomas Kaplan has found the time to dust off this tradition. In 2014, he took his children to Russia for the first time to visit the Hermitage, among other sites.

As for the intellectual attraction, Kaplan stressed his love for Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and the gold standard of Russian classical literature.  As a justification for his art collecting passion, he eagerly cited Dostoevsky’s remark that if anything will save humanity it is beauty.

Kaplan’s acknowledged love for Russian culture stands out as truly remarkable today given America’s ongoing Russophobia, which has infected Uptown Manhattan’s liberal Jewish progressive communities of which Kaplan is otherwise a member in good standing. Let us hope he has the courage to deliver the same message on Russia in his own back yard.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2018