Biological Warfare and Covid19

In the ‘fake news’ exchanges between China and the USA, the question of whose biological warfare lab may have developed and lost control over the coronavirus has figured prominently, although most intelligence agencies seem to agree that the virus had natural causes and was not manufactured by humans anywhere.

At the same time, it seems to me that no one is talking about how nations having cutting edge experience in biological warfare can apply that knowledge to combatting the virus.  In Western media there is one tiny exception that is not properly drawn out and explained: namely the mention that the US Army is contributing to efforts of private pharmaceutical concerns to develop a vaccine.

Meanwhile, the fact that the Russian military is being brought into action on the Covid19 front hardly figures in Western coverage, except as related to the Russian mercy mission to Lombardy, when giant Russian freight aircraft brought in equipment and military medics to assist the vastly overwhelmed Italian medical establishment to cope with the tide of infected, ailing and dying. At that point there were some snide comments to the effect that the Russians were in Italy on an intelligence gathering mission, not truly humanitarian in motivation.

It escaped mention in the media, though surely did not escape notice in our intelligence services that the Russian mission to Italy was a powerful demonstration of what Russia’s military has learned in the domain of biological warfare. Italian journalists expressed their amazement at the specialized motorized equipment that the Russians brought to disinfect the towns, from streets to building by building, often using for interior work not chemicals but oxygen as the sanitizing agent.

If Britain, for example, has any similar insights in combatting biological agents at its Porton Down facility (so well publicized by the Skripal case), then we have heard nothing about these capabilities being harnessed for combatting the ongoing pandemic.

I make the foregoing remarks about Russia’s very special knowledge in the realm of biologicals because it is a possible additional reason why the country so far has an astonishingly low mortality rate compared to most countries in Western Europe and the USA.  Perhaps from the same pool of knowledge, it would appear that the Russians are getting much better results with their use of ventilators to treat the worst affected cases of Covid19.

We have heard a lot about ventilators in the past two months everywhere in Europe and the USA.  They were said to be in grave shortage in New York as the epidemic approached its peak there.  What no one has talked much about is how capable our medical practitioners have been to achieve life-saving results with these devices. If I am not mistaken, there was mention several weeks ago that 88% of those put on ventilators in New York died.  Here in Belgium it appears to be more than 50% die.

Does it have to be that way, or is it the lack of know-how in using these sophisticated devices to treat Covid19 that explains these shocking results?  A very interesting program on Russian television several weeks ago indicated that they have been experimenting with the gas mixtures used in ventilators, in particular with the volume of helium versus oxygen to find the right balance whereby the oxygen is not blocked by the virus but in turn purges the virus from the lungs and allows the oxygen levels in the blood to return to levels sustaining life.  We do not hear a peep about these issues in the Belgian media, for example.

If I may sum up, when the crisis passes and our journalists and civic activists begin their assessment of what has gone wrong in Western Europe to allow the levels of mortality to reach the shocking levels we have seen, let us hope attention will be given to the questions I have raised here, as well as to the issue I discussed  yesterday:  why our national governments did not open their checkbooks and order the urgent construction of dedicated state of the art hospitals to treat coronavirus patients well apart from the normal hospital establishments which were overtaken by the virus and ceased to perform their essential services for the non-infected population in oncology, in cardio-vascular medicine and the like. The Russians and the Chinese have done precisely that.

 

©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.]

Russia’s handling of the Covid19 pandemic: a busy week

This week started with a major presentation by President Putin of Russia’s plans for gradually lessening the strictures of lockdown, restarting the economy and restoring normal life as the epidemic in the country passes stabilization, which was just reached, and enters the ebb phase of contagion, hospitalization and death. The setting was a virtual conference with major players in the government responsible for managing the health crisis. However, since Putin’s lengthy speech which came to 17 typed pages was televised live by all Russian state channels, it could just as easily be called an address to the nation.  The main focus was on the economy and assistance to citizens and to business.

That speech has received little attention in the West and I will come back to it in a follow-up tomorrow, because it tells us a great deal about the guiding principles of Russian governance and its ‘social economy.’

In this essay I deal with the second major appearance by Putin this week dedicated to the coronavirus which took place this afternoon, Friday, 15 May. It also was carried live by all state television channels. It also was nominally remarks made within a virtual intragovernmental conference. And it also was a major policy statement that merits our greatest attention, not only for what it says about Russia, but more importantly for what is says about us, in the West, and how we are badly handling the challenges of the pandemic because of our stubborn and proud disparagement of China.

I listened closely to two of the reports to Putin from the ‘regions’, meaning territories outside Moscow on what is being done right now to handle the growing case load of coronavirus sufferers, and Putin’s comments which may be characterized as ‘programmatic’ insofar as they seek to use the ongoing experience in combatting the coronavirus to deliver, at long last, a substantial rebuilding of medical infrastructure across the country with the help of the military.

The regions reporting were St Petersburg, which is still relatively healthy compared to Moscow but has seen a growing number of infections and hospitalizations in the past few weeks, and Voronezh, which more typically represents the Russian provinces and till now has had a very low level of infection, but is preparing for the worst. In each case the governor read a report of what is being done to build dedicated hospitals for treatment of coronavirus cases both by the local administration and with the help of the Ministry of Defense, represented by the senior officer standing at their side who is overseeing construction of modular hospitals by military personnel and staffed by military doctors.

In Petersburg, which is Russia’s second largest city with a population of approximately 5 million, there are specialized hospitals for light cases with 1,000 beds being completed and specialized hospitals with Intensive Care Units in the size of 200 to 600 beds also reaching completion.  A similar approach is being implemented in Voronezh.

The involvement of the Armed Forces in building some of these hospitals is very significant, because they have developed modular solutions that can be applied uniformly across the vast continent that is Russia.

In a way, these projects are similar to what Moscow did as first mover when it opened the state of the art hospital at the city’s periphery in a district called Kommunarka.  The logic is to remove the coronavirus patients from the general hospital system. This leaves the general hospitals free to continue to serve their traditional ‘clientele,’ the community of those with other ailments. It focuses training, equipment, medicines in locations where maximum attention can be given to ensuring sanitary conditions that protect medical staff and encourage application of well-rehearsed solutions to the challenges of each patient.

Now where would the Russians have gotten this idea from?  It is not hard to imagine.  We need only think back at the response of the Chinese authorities following the recognition that the outbreak in Wuhan posed existential questions for the local population, indeed for the nation as a whole if it were not contained and wiped out. We all were stunned at the construction of the first specialized facility to deal with the epidemic in one week!

The Russians are less “Stakhanovite” these days, and the hospital projects mentioned above are being executed on a 6 week schedule.  But they are being implemented at the highest technical level. Putin gave the figure 5 million rubles as the cost of one hospital bed in the new units; that comes to $60,000 and in Russia’s price equivalency to the dollar probably represents a US cost double or triple the nominal ruble cost. So they are not skimping, not planning to put the incoming patients on matrasses on the floor as happened in Bergamo, Italy.

We also know from the day’s press, that the Russians are now entering into mass production of the few medicines which the Chinese told them proved to be effective in treating their coronavirus patients. Which ones Putin did not say.

And now I must ask, how does Russia’s borrowing from the Chinese playbook compare to what we see around us in Western Europe and the United States?  Here China comes up in the coronavirus story only as a punching bag, the people who ‘kept us in the dark’ about the dangers of this plague, not as providers of solutions and advice from their own first and successful experience snuffing it out.

The question I must pose is this:  are the Russians being especially clever, or are we being especially stupid?

The segregation of coronavirus patients from the general flows of the ailing contrasts dramatically with what has been going on in Belgium, for example.  Here about 100 hospitals around the country have been sharing the aggravated cases of coronavirus requiring hospitalization. This population reached about 5,000 at its peak with nearly one third in Intensive Care, of which to two thirds required ventilators. At the peak a couple of weeks ago, the number of patients in the last category came close to the national inventory of ventilators, a bit more than 1,000.  Thankfully, the numbers in the past ten days have come down sharply and there are now half the number of hospital beds taken by virus sufferers.

However, at the peak all of Belgium’s hospitals resembled war zones with ‘extraterrestrial’ suited medics at the entrances. Normal patients did not have to think twice to shun them. Accordingly, even non-elective surgery was being cancelled; chemotherapy patients were staying at home, etc.  This is one element of the mortality brought on by the coronavirus that no one has been recording.  Moreover, one has to ask about the quality of medical attention when 100 hospitals, mostly without any experience in epidemics, in virology, were being used to treat Covid19 patients. This had to be a contributor to the body bag count that went into official statistics.

Finally, in closing ,a word about body counts.

In the past several days there have been news reports in Western media accusing Russia of under-reporting deaths in the country due to the coronavirus epidemic.  In particular, I can point to articles in The New York Times and in the Financial Times.

With respect to the New York Times the piquant title given to one respective article pointing to a “Coronavirus Mystery” – is fully in line with the daily dose of anti-Russian propaganda that this most widely read American newspaper has been carrying on for years now.  A couple of weeks ago the same paper carried an article by one of its veteran science journalists accusing President Putin of using the coronavirus to undermine American science, and medicine in particular. That article was totally baseless, a collection of slanderous fake news.

With respect to the accusation of intentional underreporting of mortality figures in Russia, the New York Times was actually borrowing from the Financial Times, which stated that Russian deaths from the virus may be 70 per cent higher than the official numbers.  In both cases, even if the underreporting were true, and this is very debatable, it obscures the fact that both official and unofficial numbers are miniscule compared to the devastation wrought by the virus elsewhere in Europe (Italy, Spain and the UK) or in the USA, where the numbers continue to spike.  Russia has either a couple of thousand deaths or something closer to three thousand. Compare that to the official deaths ten times greater in the worst hit European countries having overall populations less than half or a third of Russia’s.  So the accusation of 72% underreporting in Russia is a debating point that can easily be shown to be deceptive if not irrelevant.

 

However, there is a missing element here: context.  The whole issue of underreporting Covid19 deaths has been reported on by the Financial Times for a good number of countries, not just Russia. Indeed, their first concern has been to show that the official numbers posted by the UK government, now in the range of 30,000 are a fraction of the actual deaths in the UK (more than 50,000) if one uses not the death certificates case by case but the overall excess of deaths in a given month in 2020 compared to the norm in the given country over the 3 preceding years.  The New York Times in its typical cherry picking approach to find what is worst to say about Russia ignores this background of FT reporting.

 

Why is there underreporting?  There are many possible reasons, the chief one is the varying methodology used by the various countries to allocate a given death to the virus.

By curious coincidence this very issue was addressed in today’s press conference on the pandemic by the Belgian Ministry of Public Health. As is widely reported, Belgium has one of the world’s highest rates of mortality from Covid19, very close to the figures in Spain and Italy. This has been reported in the local press and the Ministry today chose to respond.  As they noted, Belgium is one of the few countries to report ALL Covid-19 deaths, meaning both those in hospital and those in care homes (mostly old age homes). In Belgium, as in France, deaths have been equally split between these two sets of institutions. Almost no deaths have occurred at home or, as they say, ‘in the community.’ Moreover, deaths are attributed to Covid-19 if the symptoms were there even if no proper test was carried out to confirm this.

In total, Belgium death count today stands close to 9,000 for a general population of 11.8 million.  High, but still substantially lower than the mortality in New York, for example, whichever way you count.  And, to put the picture into a less dire context, it is reported that each winter Belgium experiences about 5,000 deaths attributable to the seasonal flu.  Of course, the flu does not lay waste to the medical establishment, and there you have the difference that makes the ongoing Russian approach to Covid19 so relevant.

©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.]

Russia still licking the ass of the Liberal West

These days Russian television, like television in Europe and the USA is almost entirely given over to reportage on the coronavirus epidemic:  how it is being experienced in Russia and how it is being experienced in the world at large. The only positive notes are those on laboratory research into vaccines. Even the occasional interview with a celebrity who came down with the virus and was saved thanks to the dedication and possibly unique knowhow of Russian medics serve the purpose of warning the general public of the horrendous, life-threatening complications that may come with the infection. And so, Russian news programs are presently bleak and depressing.

However, there are some obvious conclusions to be drawn from the videos showing Russian police measures to enforce lockdown that somehow are missed by the political watchdogs in Moscow and which bear explicit discussion here: namely, what is being done at present to enforce social distancing is nothing more than a tap on the wrist.

Yes, the limitations on travel within Moscow technically facilitated by electronic passes are controlled by police roadblocks and we may assume that violators are being turned back.  However, during these May day holidays, Muscovites and presumably residents of other Russian cities are being allowed to leave the city for their country dachas, which about 50% of them own. They are advised not to socialize outside their household, not to hold their traditional barbecues with neighbors and relatives.  But this is only advice and it likely will not be controlled, except by investigative television crews on a spot basis for the evening news.

More important is how Muscovites are behaving within their neighborhoods in the city.  Are they out and about? Is youth on the prowl for partying in the parks as usual?

In the television reportage, police officers are shown gently reminding young people and the not so young congregating at recreation areas that this is not allowed and proposing that they disperse.  In a way, these scenes are no different from what CNN shows us of the enforcement attempts on some Florida beaches.

Meanwhile, the daily count of confirmed infections in Moscow and Russia in general seems to be following the kind of exponential curve we have seen in the West, even if hospitalizations are relatively low and deaths, so far, are very low.

Where, one might ask, is the heavy-handed policing that one might expect given the criminal jeopardy that violation of quarantine carries under recently passed federal law, namely up to seven years in prison.  Nowhere!  To date, Russian enforcement agents are behaving like pussy cats.

The same may be said of Russian state control of the churches and the pussy-footing of secular authorities with rebellious clerics who have created hearths of infection and death in many parishes.

Why is this lax control of the population amidst a pandemic being allowed to continue?  I venture to guess there is one reason:  to avoid at all costs the appearance of authoritarianism that might be exploited by the non-systemic Opposition and provide grist for the country’s defamers and detractors in the USA, in the UK, in continental Europe. To be sure, there is also a potential domestic resistance that could be inflamed by stricter closing of churches: the fervently religious, of whom there are now a great many in Russia.

So far, with rare exceptions like The New York Times and the odd article in the Financial Times, Western news coverage of the coronavirus epidemic in Russia has been benign and non-ideological. The Information War on Russia has been shelved and coverage is in both print and electronic media focused on the ‘human interest story’ where Russia is just one more large and somewhat exotic country on which the news machine informs the public, alongside reports on coronavirus in Latin America or in Africa. As a case in point, I would mention yesterday’s featured report on BBC World from its Russian correspondent Steve Rosenberg.

Rosenberg blows hot and cold on Russia in general.  Yesterday’s report was definitely friendly: he interviewed a 97 year old Russian WWII veteran, a much decorated lady sergeant who earned her medals at the Battle of Stalingrad. She was moved by the past weeks’ BBC reporting on 100 year old British veteran, Captain Tom who has now raised tens of millions of pounds on behalf of the National Health Service by daily walks to and fro in his garden. Our Russian heroine just knitted him a pair of socks to keep his feet warm on these fund-raising promenades. Rosenberg filmed her packing the socks in a little parcel that has been carried express to London for delivery.  A heart-warming story that happens to center on Russia.  This is as close to international solidarity in the face of the pandemic that we get as regards East-West relations.

If the Russians put in place draconian police and military enforcement of lock-down, which is entirely possible in the coming weeks should the infection rate, hospitalization rate and mortality surge rather than plateau and decline because of the utter indiscipline and egoism of so many Russians and their scorn for social distancing, then it will be a wholly different kind of news coverage that we will see in the West.  The hints at how facial recognition techniques are being implemented in Russia for coronavirus control that we have noted in some Western media will explode into daily tirades against the Putin regime and how it is reintroducing Stalinist repression.

I have no doubt that the Liberal minority among Kremlin elites, the faction of Kudrin and Medvedev, to name but two visible personalities, has been urging great restraint for this very reason. What it comes down to is their usual ass-licking of the West.  The days ahead and the evolution of the viral infection in Russia will determine whether the country puts paid to Public Relations and focuses on the mortal threat to its population and economy presented by the novel coronavirus.  To their credit, the Chinese had no compunction about deploying massive force to ensure that self-isolation was imposed and not voluntary. The results in terms of deaths and in terms of present reopening of their economy speak for themselves.

[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.]

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

Has Putin lost control? Revisiting the issue..

In the days since publication of my essay entitled “Kremlinology 2.0” on 28 March, I have received fairly wide exposure in the alternative media as a ‘formerly’ reasonable observer of the Russian scene who has gone rogue.  I am said to have joined the Anglo-Saxon propagandists who are working nonstop to discredit President Putin and Russia more generally.

The signal for this stampede of the herd of Russia’s would-be defenders to trample my objectivity and credibility was given by The Saker originally in its English language portal, but then broadcast by its multifarious network in French, in Russian, in Greek and other languages. But whereas the couple of words directed at me by Andrei Raevsky were a hint rather than a full-blown denunciation of apostasy, the Comments sections of his blog and associated portals, were overrun by the usual claque of no-nothings keen to spill blood.

The same flood of ignorant commentary bordering on the obscene occurred on portals like www.anti-empire.com which merely re-posted (without permission, as usual) my 28 March essay. I responded there to a couple of the defamers and let it drop.  Here in this essay, I take up the gauntlet in a more public way because the issue is too important to go unremarked.

And what is that issue?  It is that, regrettably, the vicious and mindless propaganda of Russia-bashers who dominate mainstream and “own” America’s newspapers of record, The Washington Post and The New York Times (witness the utterly scandalous publication there on 13 April of a concocted and factually baseless article by William Broad entitled “Putin’s Long War Against American Science”) is matched in equal measure of vicious and mendacious propaganda among the more fervent defenders of the ‘Putin regime’ in the West.

I hasten to add that far too many of these defenders know absolutely nothing about Russia and care still less about the facts. Russia and Putin are of interest to them solely as a bludgeon against the American world order that they despise.  Indeed, they are entitled to their loathing for the USA, for capitalism, and the rest. They are not entitled to invent a Russia and a Kremlin leadership as a foil and to pick and choose factoids in support of their theses.

Both sides in the Info Wars are adept at smear techniques, using guilt by association and ad hominem argumentation to avoid entirely responding to the reasoning of those they are pillorying.  It is not what you are saying and proving factually that counts, but who publishes you and how what you are saying can be used by one’s enemies that matters. A supporting technique is to take separate phrases one might use out of context in order to misrepresent the target’s ideas as the inversion of what they are in context, and to ignore irony so as to construe it as the opposite, meaning the author’s avowal of what he is lampooning. I called out these abuses in my response to Comments on www.anti-empire.com.

Then there is the pure invention of a Curriculum Vitae for the purposes of discrediting today’s object of attack. In my case, as one example, a reader of my “Kremlinology 2.0” commented that I had a long record of “working for” anti-Russian propaganda publications, in particular for the Finnish-owned  Moscow Times.  In its obliviousness to the truth this allegation from would be Kremlin defenders matches perfectly the denunciations I received a couple of years ago from our overzealous Progressives and Liberals over my “working for” the anti-Semitic, pro-Kremlin news portal Russia Insider.

I state here flatly that I have never “worked for” or “written for” anyone.  My life as a political commentator specializing in Russia-related news began in 2010 as a post-business career avocation, acting as a “public intellectual” who neither expects nor receives compensation from anyone. All of my writings appear first on my own blog site and are copyrighted. They are reposted with or more usually without my permission because other portals appreciate their value to their reader communities. Period.

And specifically with respect to The Moscow Times, which published a total of a half-dozen of my analytical articles at the start of my re-invention of myself as political analyst, these articles got through the anti-Russian filter of the responsible editor for the Op-Ed page, the nominal journalist Michael Bohm, who made cuts and assigned titles at odds with my intent.  I put up with this mangling because theirs was the only game in town at the time when they still had a paper edition. But all of that is history. Bohm went on to become a highly paid talk show guest on all Russian state and commercial channels where his keen knowledge of Russian in all of its folk wisdom and his invariable regurgitation of CIA propaganda were a useful foil to the patriotic experts deployed by the shows’ hosts.  I went on to publishing online in my own blog site attached to a middle of the road Belgian newspaper, La Libre Belgique.

* * * *

So much for current Info Wars. Now I direct attention to the main contention of my article of 28 March, namely that ever since the roll-out of his planned constitutional reform during a state of the nation address on 15 January 2020, Putin seemed to have lost control of the political agenda. To be very specific, what Putin had suggested would be a re-balancing of powers at the federal level between Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches, moving gently in the direction of parliamentarism, eventually, in the bill passed by both the State Duma and the Federation Council, turned out to be nothing more than a consecration in the Fundamental Law of the values of the Putin era, namely a social economy, protection of living standards for the broad population, patriotic defense of the Motherland and of its historical record, bouquets to motherhood and the family, etc. That and the incredible point reversing to zero the time Putin has served in the presidency so that under the two-term limit he will again be eligible to run when his present mandate expires in 2024.

All of these changes in what will be put to the electorate for ratification in a referendum indicated to me that the course of Russian politics was now being dictated not by Vladimir Putin, the key figure as arbitrator among Kremlin factions that he has been for the past 20 years, but by one of these factions which has overruled his preferences. Given the virtual disappearance of Duma opposition party spokesmen from Russian state television since the end of January,  it seemed to me that all of the opposition has been sidelined, made irrelevant and that United Russia has seized control of the political agenda in the hopes of retaining majority control of the legislature in the upcoming 2021 elections.

In my article, I also pointed out that Russia’s response to the oncoming coronavirus crisis revealed the same kind of infighting among elites that we have seen in virtually every one of the major countries in Western Europe and the United States.  There were too many contradictions in policy at that moment, not least of which was a promotional airfare being offered by Aeroflot to boost domestic traffic at the very moment when the government should have curtailed or ended such traffic to avoid spread of the infection.

Putin was obviously caught in the cross-fire between defenders of the economy and defenders of public health. And in the meantime, there was ongoing clan fighting over the just initiated oil and price war with Saudi Arabia.

Looking at these contests going on behind the scenes in the Kremlin, I made the simple argument that it was and is high time to resume Kremlinology, to look beyond the lynchpin of Russian politics, Mr. Putin, and to sketch out in detail what the interest groups are doing as they jockey for and perhaps seize control of Russian politics in one domain or another.  I stand by that reading today, undeterred by the slings and arrows that have come my way.

In the meantime, for the moment some consistency has been restored to Russian domestic policy as regards the coronavirus with a temporary victory of the defenders of public health and imposition of ever tighter shutdown in the hearth of the epidemic, Greater Moscow.

Moreover, the second shoe is about to drop.  At the start of anti-coronavirus measures, the Kremlin announced the cancellation of this year’s regular St Petersburg International Economic Forum scheduled for the first week in June. However, not a word was said about the fate of the still earlier May 9th Victory Day celebrations marking the 75th anniversary that would, if held normally, with mass public participation numbering in the millions, provide a splendid platform for propagation of the virus throughout the population and across the country.  It is only now that we hear that Veterans’ Organizations are petitioning the Kremlin to postpone the celebration.

What we see here is that just as Russia is following the multi-nation curve of infection rates to a peak and plateau, so Russia is following the near-universal laws on the political risks of taking on the corona virus by quarantine and other draconian measures.

This question was very aptly put in a recent Euronews interview with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. The journalist probed and probed again whether the Prime Minister felt any guilt for the government’s slow response to the oncoming pandemic which cost so many thousands of Italian lives.  In a carefully worded answer that was fully in line with his professional background as a law professor and intellectual, Conte said that he was ‘not so arrogant’ as to claim that no mistakes were made.  At the same time, he noted that had he introduced quarantine and lockdown at the outset he would have been universally condemned in Italian political circles as being ‘mad.’

Indeed this is the predicament facing political leaders in all countries today and name-calling  or guilt-attribution by the public in the midst of the crisis does not help.  It is also the predicament facing the Russian leadership which is divided the same way as in most countries.  These political realities merit investigation and discussion, not politically motivated silence.

©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 Archive of a Russianist, Installment Three

My letter to an aunt in California, 15 January 1989

As I suppose you know I left ITT a year ago and set up two trading companies of my own in Switzerland and in Holland. I did about $400,000 in sales in the first six months. I was on my way to becoming the television picture tube king in South Africa with sales of Soviet and Polish made tubes, but then prospects started to dim about last July and I decided to look for a safer harbor. Happily there is at the moment great interest in East-West trade and several good offers came up at the end of a three month search. In early December I accepted one of these and I am now commuting to London each week, and traveling out into Eastern Europe from London for United Parcel Service. And so after Harvard and Columbia I am working for a team of ex-truck drivers helping to take them to Russia.

My work with United Parcel got off with a bang. My first day on the job was when that earthquake devastated Armenia. Two days later at my initiative UPS landed the first foreign jet, a company-owned DC-8 freighter, to get into Yerevan airport after the quake….I will be following up these developments with negotiations with Soviet organizations in New York next week and in Moscow the week after hoping to win the rights to open a UPS delivery service at Moscow airport.

The coming weeks are not likely to provide such instant gratification on the job. There will be just travel and more travel.

 

Letter to my parents in New Jersey, 23 December 1988   

 My work at United Parcel has gotten off to a good start. Within the first two days at the office I was able to enjoy a greater feeling of accomplishment than over 8 years at ITT. My joining coincided with the Armenian earthquake and as the first written reports came in on Thursday evening December 8th the scope of the catastrophe began to appear truly Biblical. Friday morning I understood that there could be something for us as a transportation company with our own air fleet to do in the emergency and I proposed an airlift to my boss, who took it up to his boss, who took it to the Vice President, International in Greenwich, CT and within 4 hours the company approved the idea of placing our DC-8 in Cologne at the disposal of relief efforts.

Our German office then rounded up donations of medicines, blood fractions, disposable syringes and other equipment from among our corporate clients in Germany. We in London worked to get the permissions for overflight and landing in the Soviet Union and kept the U.S. State Department informed. Then at 6AM, Saturday December 10 our plane took off from Cologne carrying 42 tons of emergency supplies. At 10AM ours was the first foreign plane to land at Yerevan airport. Over the next 5 hours it was unloaded by hand by some 250 volunteers. During that time Gorbachev’s plane landed at Yerevan and the chief made a slow circle by car around the UPS freighter.

Regrettably our name did not get in the papers, though Pravda the next day described in a dispatch from Cologne all aspects of the mission. We just didn’t have a PR department to match Norma at Trump’s. But we were all jubilant to have been of real assistance when it was most needed and to have accomplished our first landing on Soviet soil.

There has been plenty of follow-up to do in order to move from charity to commercial business. And as part of this work, I expect to come to New York on January 22 for meetings with some Soviet organizations. So tentatively please block out this date for a visit. I imagine that I will have two days in the city then a day in Washington and then will fly back to London. Between now and then I will be in perpetual motion: January 3 in London, 4-5 in West Berlin, 6 in London, 7-8 in Brussels, 9-13 in London, 14-15 in Brussels, 16-18 in Helsinki, 19th in Copenhagen. That’s what I mean about the suitcase syndrome. It’s hotels and restaurants all the way and I am losing the battle on the scales as a result.

On the bright side, I now have a guy reporting to me and I expect to break out of Eastern Europe into Africa and the Middle East in the next few months. This seems to be a company very serious about development the potential of its managers. So we are willing to put up with inconvenience.

 

Notes

 

These first impressions of my on the job experience with United Parcel Service are a foretaste of the fascinating and encouraging possibility of combining doing good with doing well when working for major corporations and riding high off the ground. This was precisely what made my employment as country manager in Russia so attractive in the second half of the 1990s: managing corporate sponsorship in the performing arts and literature.

The distinguishing feature of UPS in 1988-89 was the colossal expansion of its international services, till then limited to serving the US military bases in West Germany, in the midst of a repositioning of all the express parcel and logistics companies so as to achieve global capabilities.

In the run-up to my joining UPS, I had done a brief in-depth, in the field marketing study of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union for Fedex, which included a visit to their Memphis hub and talks with prospective service partners in Moscow, Ljubljana, Warsaw and Budapest.   I also was engaged in inconclusive negotiations for employment with DHL, who had just months before opened an operational center for Eastern Europe in Budapest and were expanding all guns blazing.  This kind of double and triple job hunting was entirely typical of all expatriate managers with whom I associated later, during the 1990s, in Moscow and St Petersburg.  Our employment positions were highly volatile and it was up to us to reinsure ourselves against changing moods back in corporate headquarters.

This life of expatriate managers, which I will describe in detail in my forthcoming book of memoirs dedicated to the 1990s shows how the new Eldorado in the East attracted not only the most dynamic industries and corporations but also the most ambitious and talented young people from everywhere to be business managers, financial and legal advisors, and journalists, if I may name several key professions.  It was not accidental that someone like Chrystia Freeland, today’s deputy premier of Canada, first came into wide public view as a talented and energetic and reasonably impartial journalist based in Moscow for the Financial Times in the mid-90s.

I mention here in passing Norma Foerderer who for 25 years was public relations vice president to Donald Trump, looking after in particular damage control for his dalliances, divorces and the like. Prior to joining the Trump Organization, Norma had been for five years my co-founder and partner at East-West Marketing, Inc., a small consultancy to major U.S. food processing companies aspiring to enter the Soviet market in a big way, among them The Ralston Purina Company, Castle & Cooke and Burger King. We maintained close ties of friendship till her death in 2013.

A word about ITT.  In the 1970s, this mother of all conglomerates created and run by the business genius Harold Geneen, was a sort of stock portfolio that paid out 10% dividends year after year to its many conservative small shareholders. However, with the change of leadership at the start of the 80s to Rand Araskog, and with the change of technology in its core business, telecoms, from electromechanical to purely digital switching, the company invested vast sums in development that were not covered by income from sales, with the consequence that it was on a long road to disposal of that core business that came in 1987 and to eventual extinction, as followed later. Thus, a major industrial group in an extended declining or ‘disrupted’ period was not a cheerful place to be employed, nor could it give any of us on board opportunities for exercising creativity or expecting reward such as I now found in the ebullient express courier industry.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist – installment two

Diary notes, Saturday, 15 August 1987   Brussels – Namur

At 9am, I leave the house in a great rush for Forêt to pick up Vladimir Maksimov, per request of Galya, who called last night to ask that I do this favor and also to make certain that I set out very early: that’s the best time to go, she said. Sounded a bit peculiar. I wasn’t aware that mushrooms, like fish, prefer to be chased at one or another hour.

Without too much difficulty I locate Maksimov’s house – he invites me in to wait. Shake hands with Aksyonov and his wife, who are driving out to Bruges today. Also meet a big, lively guy in his late 50s who is going with us to Namur. He is wearing conspicuously new jeans and sandals. I advise him to put on something more serious for a walk in the woods and he returns in equally spanking new jogging sneakers. He is close shaven, has full, silvery hair and deeply bronzed skin. I don’t catch the name but his theatrical manner and mention of Taganka as we get in the car – he in front with me – Maksimov in his safari suit in the back – convinces me he is Yuri Lyubimov, which is later confirmed.

The day is bright and as we drive out on Roosevelt Avenue and onto the highway to Namur. I regret I haven’t cleaned the windows recently; the car looks dirty, unkempt.

Maksimov is very quiet in the back and I mostly converse with Lyubimov. He is very eager to talk about Israel, where he settled 3 months ago after living a nomadic existence for the past 3 years, from Rome to London and other points. Likes Israel – says they made him a good offer, make him welcome. He was chased out of Paris and out of La Scala in Milano after the Soviets lifted his citizenship and has been looking for a home. Talks ebulliently about the Kibbutz, about the climate in Jerusalem. Says he doesn’t like Haifa because it is Leftist dominated. Theater life is meager, mostly there is musical life. All are very proud of the Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. Lyubimov will be in charge of the Bathsheba theater. But clearly he will be spending a lot of time on the road: tomorrow he departs for Chicago to put on some opera production, then in the season he will put on the Ring Cycle of Wagner at Covent Garden and Tannhäuser at Stuttgart. I mention that 2 weeks ago I was in Leningrad and that the impression was of grinding poverty, economic crisis which is the motive for Gorbachev’s economic policy. I mention the Shmelyov article, about which they do not know; say that only concrete results so far are pay toilets and blitz portraits. I ask about Dupak’s statement in Warsaw last December that Lyubimov would be returning and he says Dupak was the informer in the Administration; the man is not to be trusted or believed.

To my surprise, I find Galya’s house without difficulty after an absence of perhaps 8 – 10 months. Masha, Igor and their big black mutt Jack rush out to see us. We pack pails and set out by car for a count’s forest, 10 minutes away. I park before a warning sign that trespassers risk coming before hunters (Galya says not to mind). We trudge into the woods. Galya and Masha instantly spot опята, then белые грибы. I finally get a couple of kilos of the опята, but nothing more refined.

Lyubimov tells how before his start at Milan’s Scala, he got quite nervous – accepted an offer of Leningrad choreographer Godunov to produce a ballet – for him an entirely new area of work – as a distraction. Lyubimov also talks about why for a theater director to work with an opera company represents steady pay. He never believed it would be so hard to find work as a director in the West.

Lyubimov finds only one рыжок and Maximov finds nothing at all in the two hours we search. Besides the modest harvest of mushrooms we gorge ourselves on blueberries. Low bushes are full of fruit. Our hands become purplish. The latest health warnings – that berries may carry rabies-infected urine of mad foxes doesn’t dissuade us.

Back at Galya’s, she slowly prepares the meal, which turns out to be rather modest meat stew and fish cakes. I wonder why the mushrooms have not been served. We chat. Lyubimov talks about the administration of the Taganka : how even the highest stars and he himself made no more than 300 rubles per month; how the seat prices were absurdly low – cheaper than cinema and how the theater was permanently dependent on state subsidies. All along Galya says to this and that “конечно”. Such a lack of interest in details and superficial acceptance of new information explains her near total ignorance.

As we prepare to leave, I am asked mysteriously whether we will meet tonight and must assume we will not.

We drive back to Brussels and just as I drop off Lyubimov and Maksimov, the latter says: ‘you’re invited to a barbecue tonight at 7.30.’ And so I will go after all.

I arrive at the party to find that everyone is there:  Nina Hirschhorn (Philippe is in Switzerland on concert), Larisa and Romy, Galya and Igor, Mara and her son and brother, as well as Lyubimov and Aksyonov plus the latter’s wife, a bossy blonde named Maria. There is also one older gent, who turns out to be a 97 year old doctor who emigrated a few years ago to Belgium and lives in an old age home under Mara’s supervision. He looks no more than 70 – slow but alert and really enjoying this outing : “я никогда не думал, что в старости моей жизни я бы присутствовал в таком обществе…”  A bit tiresome, but all put up with him – especially when he delivers a charming toast concluding with the wish that we all live up to his ripe age.

The highlight of the evening is the two-man routine of Lyubimov and Aksyonov doing an interview of Brezhnev in the nether world. Both stand at the hearth. Lyubimov becomes lively. He is a big physical presence – heightened by the contrast of silvery hair to deep bronze complexion. The most important feature is his hands, which end in long, well-manicured fingers – contrasting by refinement with his big frame and fleshy belly.

 

Notes

 

My first awareness of Yuri Lyubimov and understanding of his artistic magnetism dated from the year of my Fulbright Fellowship in Russia, 1971-72 when my fiancée, future wife Larisa Zalesova used her whiles and feminine charm to secure for us places on the stairs of a sold-out performance of Hamlet in the Taganka Theater starring the bard Vladimir Vysotsky…

From the mid-1990s, when Lyubimov was back in Moscow once again running the theater he had created and enjoying the patronage of the all-powerful Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and support from oligarchs including Boris Berezovsky, my wife and I established close relations with Yuri and his wife Katalin based on my position as Country Manager, Russia of wine and spirits companies Seagrams, then Diageo-United Distillers. In this position, within the heading of corporate sponsorship, I was able to provide necessary supplies to the receptions that were otherwise proscribed from the budgets of state supported institutions. In my to be published memoirs of life in Moscow during the 1990s I include diary entries from our meetings with Lyubimov including during the 80th birthday party for Alexander Solzhenitsyn on stage (1996) and the meeting with Boris Berezovsky in Lyubimov’s offices to discuss the funds from the Golden Mask awarded to the theater.

 

Who is who?

The circle of acquaintances mentioned here is representative of the odd assortment of Russian dissident writers, philosophers, musicians and artists who circulated, settled in Belgium, France, Germany and the USA during the 1980s. Several had links to Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Maksimov –  Vladimir Maksimov, novelist, founder of Kontinent magazine, died in Paris in 1995 aged 64

Aksyonov –   Vasily Aksyonov, novelist, stripped of Soviet citizenship, based in Washington in 1987, died in Moscow, 2009

Philippe  –   Philippe Hirschhorn, born 1946, Riga – died 1996, Brussels. Virtuoso violinist, winner of the First Prize, Queen Elisabeth International Musical Competition in Brussels, 1967 after which he defected to Belgium. Married to Nina Alexeyeva, artist, Leningrad. Close friends of ours in the 1990s.

Galya / Igor Khmelevsky – mathematicians, taught in Central Africa within Soviet exchange programs, defected in the 1960s and settled in Belgium where they hosted many dissident gatherings at their home in Namur to which my wife and I were frequent visitors.

 

Kremlinology 2.0: is Vladimir Putin still in charge in the Kremlin?

This is not a question that figures in our Western commentary and analysis, since it is universally assumed that one man, Vladimir Putin, dominates Russian political life for a good reason: his unique ability to tame the contending factions at the center of power in Russia. He is the indispensable lynchpin.

However, I insist that this assumption may have become threadbare, and that there may well be a power struggle going on in the Kremlin today which Vladimir Vladimirovich no longer controls. Indeed, it appears he is receiving his script now from the stronger of the contenders around him and is not comfortable with his lines.

I hinted at this three days ago in my analysis of his address to the nation on the coronavirus, saying that perhaps “Putin’s command of the situation is faltering.”

Mary Dejevsky, a shrewd and experienced journalist who served as foreign correspondent in Moscow of The Guardian, the next day posted the following in her Comment on my article:

“Agree. especially on putin’s decline in authority – I thought his actual demeanour during nationwide broadcast looked less ‘in command’ than usual.”

In what follows, I describe a set of developments, some interrelated, some coming from unrelated contexts, but all pointing to Putin’s loss of control of the political agenda in Russia starting from his annual state of the nation address to the bicameral legislature on 15 January 2020.

* * * *

His state of nation speech was noteworthy for raising the question of amending the Russian constitution with an aim to rebalancing the powers accorded to the executive, legislative and judicial branches at the federal level, in effect reducing the imperial presidency put in place by Yeltsin in his 1993 constitution. This would introduce checks and balances that would reduce the possibility of some successor taking domestic or foreign policy in some wholly new direction. It would also make it easier for someone else of less stellar quality to fill Putin’s shoes at the presidency after he leaves office in 2024.

Exactly what would be conceded to the Duma was not clearly stated in Putin’s speech. Would the Duma actually name the cabinet. This was never stated explicitly but was implied by Putin’s saying that the president could not refuse them. His only hope would be to remove ministers after they took office and proved unable to implement the agreed policies.

This crucial nature of the proposed constitutional reform morphed into something quite different by the time it left the Duma and and was ready for presentation to the public in a referendum scheduled for 22 April. The reassignment of powers in the direction of parliamentary rule has disappeared. Instead the Constitution is being pitched to the Russian electorate as the embodiment of national values of a social economy, a country that upholds traditional family values, religion and patriotism, that provides employment with living wages, real inflation indexed pensions, universal free quality medical care and education. And into this “apple pie” recipe, at the very last moment before it was voted through by the parliament, an octogenarian deputy, first female astronaut, heroine from the 1960s who has hardly been heard from since, Valentina Tereshkova, added that missing element which explains and justifies the whole operation from the standpoint of the Kremlin: the ‘re-set ‘ of Putin’s service as president to zero so that he can enter the 2024 elections.

What happened to the Constitutional reform was, to anyone with any political experience, a sham, a staged process.  And it bore the fingerprints we have now seen on other key political developments, most recently when, on the day before Putin’s address on the coronavirus, Moscow mayor Sobyanin, was allowed to deride the official statistics on the infections in Russia and to announce on state television that Russia was facing a possible medical catastrophe similar to what is now going on in Italy or Spain, that has been widely reported on Russian media as if it had no relevance to Russia.  Sobyanin was now a play actor under the same stage direction as Tereshkova had been. He has no past role speaking on the national level. He has had great authority but at the municipal level only.

Meanwhile, in the period since Putin’s 15 January speech, there has progressively been a striking change in the programming of Russian state television. To be specific, the leaders of the opposition parties in the Duma and a great many other political celebrities have disappeared from view.

Note that immediately following that speech, these same leaders were interviewed by the television news and invited to comment on the prospect of greater role in shaping the cabinet. In anticipation of good things to come, they were quite upbeat.   However, as the weeks passed Sergei Mironov of Just Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the nationalist LDPR and Gennady Zyuganov of the Communists faded from view.  This disappearance was especially telling for Zhirinovsky who had been in the past a regular guest on the major political talk shows such as Evening with Vladimir Solovyov. No longer.

Instead, the only political leaders we see speaking on television regularly now aside from Vladimir Putin are Duma Chairman Volodin, Prime Minister Mishustin, Moscow mayor Sobyanin. Federation Council chairwoman Matviyenko is from time to time quoted. The long serving and well known Minister of Defense Shoigu, Minister of Foreign Affairs Lavrov, Minister of Finance Siluanov still appear in front of the cameras, but in vignettes, often silent.

Vyacheslav Volodin, former chief of Putin’s presidential administration, was until recently seen on television only on the dedicated once-weekly program devoted to parliamentary affairs.  Now he is a regular. Moreover, he is the one who so vigorously defended Tereshkova and her amendment giving Putin a free pass to rule until 2036 if he so wishes, more or less telling everyone else just to shut up.

Add to this Vladimir Putin’s answer to a question about his long term political plans put to him during one of his encounters with the general public. Does he intend to be president after 2024?  He said that he had no desire to stay president unless the people so mandated.  A bit too clever by half? Or the genuine admission by a man whose career path is now out of his hands.

* * * *

Twice in the past four years, spokesmen for the Russian government have asked who is in charge in Washington, the elected President or the Deep State. In Russian parlance, the Deep State means the intelligence services, the military, those who in Moscow are called the siloviki, or ‘power ministries.’

The first time when the Russians spoke publicly about their anxiety that the U.S. government was out of control came towards the close of Barack Obama’s second term, on 17 September 2016, to be precise, when under instructions from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, U.S. fighter planes bombed the Syrian outpost in the southeast of the country at Deir ez-Zor, killing more than 70 Syrian soldiers and probably some Russian officers embedded with them. As was surely Carter’s intention, that attack sabotaged the just concluded Syrian ceasefire agreement negotiated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry under the approving eye of President Obama.

The second time the Russians aired their nervousness over who is calling the shots in Washington came less than six months ago, when FBI agents detained and interrogated Russian State Duma deputy Inga Yumasheva who had arrived to participate in a conference on improving bilateral relations hosted by the Fort Ross Dialogue. She alone from among the invited Russian delegation was subjected to questioning, because she alone had received a U.S. visa; all the others were denied visas and stayed at home in Moscow.  As Sergei Lavrov now remarked, this harassment under the nose of the State Department made a mockery of the Trump administration’s stated goal of improved relations. He asked rhetorically who in fact represents the United States?

Now, as I said at the outset, the shoe is on the other foot: we can ask the same about Russia: who is really in charge in the Kremlin.

The problem we face as we approach this question is that nearly all of our Russianists and other generalist commentators are unprepared. They have either never studied Kremlinology or forgot what they once learned.  They have not been looking into Kremlin factions for years, because as we all know Vladimir Putin has consummate skills as broker and could keep the rivals in check by being indispensable to them all. Moreover, as we all know, Putin is power mad. To understand any given development in Russian politics we need only consider how it serves his personal interests.   Constitutional reform, you say?  It only serves the purpose of extending his rule beyond 2024 to 2036. Contradiction between what he said the reform entails on 15 January and what is in the proposition being offered to the electorate for the referendum?  You need only examine his thought processes, to find how the changing calculus of the political landscape compelled the changes.

I submit that this approach is rubbish and that we have to look beyond Putin to understand what is afoot.

Is it important to know who is really pulling the strings today?  Only in that way can the United States, Europe and other powers understand what reactions to expect from Russia to any given policy stand they assume and to understand the respective risks of war. Are ultra-nationalists calling the shots?  Or is it the pro-Western Liberal contingent from the Medvedev wing? Or yet some other unidentified group?

At this point, my objective has been to set up the question. For answers we all have to wait a bit longer for more evidence to emerge. But I can share this preliminary speculation.  Moscow gossips speak of a power struggle between the premier Mishustin and the mayor of Moscow Sobyanin. Sobyanin it appears has been given extraordinary powers to deal with the coronavirus threat.  Otherwise it is also likely that in Russia there is the same struggle of interests going on now between defenders of the economy and defenders of public health in the face of the coronavirus tsunami as we see in the United States or in Western Europe.

Decisions on preventive measures have been incomplete and contradictory.  On the same day as Putin delivered his address on the coronavirus, Russian media were carrying news of promotional airfares at 30 percent discount being offered by Aeroflot for domestic flights. Today it appears the government is about to issue a shutdown of those flights. This is not a tight ship.

And in the background we are told there is a deep divide in opinion of Kremlin elites over the oil production and pricing war being waged against Saudi Arabia at the initiative of Rosneft boss, Putin ally Igor Sechin. Does this explain the fade-out from media coverage of both Gazprom’s Alexei Miller and Minister of Energy Alexander Novak?

In light of these troubles around him, is it any wonder that the body language of Vladimir Putin during his speech on the 25th indicated to the Russian speaking analysts among us that he did not like the script he had been given to read and was possibly losing his grip.

 

©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 one

These days of coronavirus related lock-down in Brussels have had the benefit of my finally closing my door to the great number of distractions outside the home that beckoned in normal times and instead to spend hour after hour transcribing my six linear meter archive of diaries, correspondence, newspaper clippings in preparation for writing two volumes of memoirs.

The first will be devoted to the expatriate community in Petersburg and Moscow when I was a card-carrying member of management for multinationals setting up in Russia during the period 1994 to 2002. The times were extraordinary, and the newcomers to Russia were among the most ambitious and talented young people of the age. Moreover, their numbers were significant: over 100,000 families in Moscow alone.

The second volume will follow the more traditional, less concentrated pattern of ‘my life and times’ from childhood to retirement.  Among the more interesting single documents from among the several meters of archive files that will be used in the second volume is the following letter I composed during theU.S. presidential race of 1984. With a sidewise glance at today’s candidacy of Joe Biden, I believe it fits the rule of folk wisdom that ‘what goes around comes around.’

 

* * * *

 A letter to Walter Mondale dated 27 August 1984

Subject: Managing Foreign Policy

Your selection of Ms. Geraldine Ferraro as your running mate in the November presidential election demonstrates your ability to rise above tradition, to take reasonable risks while pursuing what you believe is both right and politically timely. May we hope that you will also be open-minded and bold in dealing with the deadly serious questions of war and peace.

The Democratic Party electoral platform advances a foreign policy plank whose virtues are easily arguable. Nonintervention in foreign disputes that are peripheral to US interests, withdrawal from untenable positions now held abroad, great emphasis on reigning in the arms race. All of these notions are reasonable taken separately. But in the absence of an overarching policy which reckons with the central factor in world affairs of our times, these points cannot succeed.

This central issue is the USSR’s striving for US recognition as equal arbiter of the fate of the world. Only political accommodation with the Soviet Union can assure the peace. Arms control and constructive great power cooperation to resolve regional disputes will follow from and not lead to that political accommodation.

The Soviets cannot be dealt with at arm’s length. President Carter’s hope that we could go our own way, draw closer to our traditional allies and let the Soviets stew in their own juice only aroused their aggressivity and condemned to failure his Administration’s exciting arms reduction proposals. The Soviets cannot be bullied into reasonableness. President Reagan’s arms buildup has not brought our adversaries to us on their knees. There is no sensible alternative to accommodation.

A policy of political rapprochement with the USSR must be boldly conceived and well crafted. It must be shaped by persons whose frame of reference goes well beyond the lawyer’s daily problem-solving, in –basket/out-basket turn of mind. It must be founded upon an historical sense of the current of world events, of where things are headed and what can be turned to our advantage by the exercise of will and intelligence. It must avoid narrowly technical solutions born of aseptic minds. In the foundation of global strategy alone can one hope to deal with an adversary who himself responds to events from the perspective of global strategy. This is not cynicism but creative use of power.

Historically important foreign policy decisions are no more risk-free than your choice of running mate. And a policy of accommodation with the Soviet Union will surely require risk taking, all the more so that it has been tried in the recent past under the name of détente and was dropped amid catcalls from a multitude of detractors. However, it is our only hope if we are to escape from the increasingly dangerous confrontation  course with the Soviets that we are now following.

I am not advocating a simple return to the détente policy of the 1970’s. President Nixon’s détente was not born in a vacuum. The international events at the time of its inception, the status and popularity of its midwives necessarily determined its specific characteristics and chances of success. The policy served President Nixon’s aim of restraining Soviet support for Hanoi so that we might prosecute the Vietnamese war to an acceptable settlement. It was burdened with the intense animosity that a large portion of the population felt for its authors due to that war, a fact which is especially relevant since those reviling Nixon should otherwise have been disposed to the essence of détente. And it was burdened with the failings of implementation that were characteristic of Nixon and his close associates and which are also to be understood in the context of the times: namely the President acted conspiratorially in foreign affairs, failed to inform the public on the costs of accommodation with the USSR and on practical limits to possible success. There was exaggerated optimism in the press over the political and commercial benefits of détente, followed by exaggerated disillusionment.

Nixon failed in his leadership role and détente foundered. The President was unable to deliver on his pledges to the Soviets. Amid the need for quick and easy foreign policy successes, Messrs Nixon and Kissinger pursued a course in the Mid-East which ran counter to the thesis of détente and sought to exclude the Soviets from one of the main areas of contention in the world. In Congress, President Nixon’s trade liberalization bill ran aground with the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Thus the Soviets were denied favorable access to American trade, technology, and investments, all of which had been intended to coax them into responsible behavior abroad. Then confusion in American political affairs during the Watergate crisis tempted the Soviets into flagrant adventurism in the Third World and irresponsible military build-up.

Notwithstanding these harsh words, there was much to détente which should be salvaged and integrated into a new foreign policy of accommodation. First, the recognition of the political nature of the contest with the USSR, hence of the chance for solutions of tension at the political level. Second, the recognition of dynamic change in the distribution of power in the world, the welcoming of the Soviets into the great power club and acceptance of their legitimate national interests.  Third, the idea of weaving a fabric of relations with the USSR which make ‘good behavior’ pay well for them and ‘misbehavior’ costly.

There can be no illusions that implementation of a policy of accommodation will be easy. The Russian bear hug itself can be embarrassing. There is an odious aspect to the Soviets’ wished-for parity: a condominium in which we jointly police the world and keep all lesser powers in their place. Such hegemonism is patently unacceptable to us. There is also the delicate problem of maintaining friendly ties with allies even while the               objectives of our alliance are undergoing re-definition. Because serious efforts at reaching an understanding with the Russians must inevitably place in question the existing military blocs and the validity of the post-war division of Europe. Finally, there is the psychologically demanding task of upholding America’s sense of purpose while drawing close to a nation with political traditions that are antithetical to our democratic and open ways.

The challenges in conception and realization of a policy of accommodation with the USSR are formidable, but your success in this critically important area will mark a turning point in modern history from the insanity of nuclear rivalry towards mature statecraft befitting our civilization.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this material, 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

Mr. Putin’s nationwide address on the corona virus epidemic

 

As is his custom, this afternoon Vladimir Putin delivered a well-constructed speech to the nation in which, after expressing the nation’s gratitude to its medical cadres and other front-line personnel dealing with the coming epidemic, he spoke next about the issue that everyone knew was at the forefront of his concerns, the 22 April referendum on the Constitutional Reform. The referendum will now be postponed indefinitely, pending recommendations from health experts. As Mr. Putin reminded his audience the lives, health and security of the nation are the highest priority of his administration. In and of itself, this is a rather comforting message that contrasts with the confusion over serving the economy and serving the public health that we find in many Western countries, including the USA.

Then Mr. Putin set out an extensive list of immediate government measures intended to deal with the oncoming epidemic, which has in the past few days shown an exponential rise in the number of proven infections, generally in line with the experience of China and most recently of Europe.  The need to act, the need to see the corona virus as potentially as devastating in Russia as it has shown itself to be in Italy, Spain and France, indeed the need for this address was tipped off yesterday by the televised remarks of Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.

One may be certain that the Mayor was given the microphone to issue his stark warning precisely to set the context for today’s address. In previous weeks Russian media had pointed to the insignificant infection rate, while detailing the misery (Western) countries are now experiencing.  Sobyanin’s words were a transparently “corporate” maneuver. The same may be said of Putin’s donning a yellow space age anti-infectious disease suit and helmet with nano-filtration for his visit yesterday to the Kommunarka hospital treating corona virus patients. Corporate America should take off its hat to Vladimir Vladimirovich for this performance, worthy of the best top executives.

Among the key measures that President Putin mentioned in his speech this afternoon were the following:

  1. A week-long stay at home order for the population beginning this weekend except for essential services
  2. A substantial rise in unemployment insurance payments to those laid off due to the virus and its impact on the economy. These will rise from 8,000 rubles monthly to the legal minimum income (poverty level) of 19,000 rubles monthly (223 euros at today’s exchange rate)
  3. Speeding up the allocations of new social benefits to families with children announced during his state of the nation address in mid-January as well as accelerated payment of bonuses to veterans of WWII
  4. A moratorium on personal credit and mortgage credit repayments during this crisis
  5. Credits to be made available to small and medium businesses
  6. A temporary halt to bringing bankruptcy proceedings against businesses in default

Then, with special flourish, Mr. Putin used the impending crisis to fix several unpopular tax loopholes favoring the very rich, so that the proceeds of the new taxes may be used to offset some of the costs of the social protection measures now being introduced for the great majority of the working population, for families, etc.  To name one such abuse, he is calling for all remittances of dividends and the like by physical persons to offshore ‘tax havens’ where they go untaxed, now to be subjected to a 15% income tax in Russia. The double taxation treaties with those tax haven countries allowing this abuse will be amended accordingly.

Now let us consider what was missing from the speech.

First, and most importantly, there was not a word about the fate of the forthcoming May 9th  celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the victory over fascist Germany.  Here we see that the Putin administration is taking the same head-in-the-sand position as the Abe government did over postponement of the Olympics that was finally agreed two days ago.

It is foolish to think that the same considerations of public health underlying the decision on the Constitutional referendum of April 22nd are not applicable to May 9th, when normally there would be the March of the Immortal Regiment bringing out a million or more civilians onto city streets in Moscow and in St Petersburg, and lesser but still very large public gatherings across the nation. If allowed to go ahead, these marches and the celebrations in restaurants that follow them will serve as a splendid platform for propagation of the corona virus.

There was also not a thought given to how the impending crisis might require a greater mobilization of society and greater creativity of approach than the technocratic Cabinet and the United Russia party majority in the Duma can muster.

I return here to my standing recommendation that the President move to create a government of national unity by bringing leading figures from the Duma opposition parties into the cabinet, starting with the position of Minister of Labor.

This is all the more relevant when we see that the latest legislative initiative of Duma Chairman Volodin to combat the corona virus is to establish criminal liability for those who violate the quarantine rules, thereby causing the infection and possible death of others.  The notion that this problem will be solved by putting quarantine violators in prison for five or seven years is foolhardy and will be totally ineffective. One might better ask why the Russian government and Aeroflot are doing so much to repatriate the 50,000 or so Russians stuck abroad on vacations which they took when the gravity of the global epidemic was already clear. These insouciant egoists are the greatest threat to Russian public health as they now return home at government expense.  Here is a flagrant violation of common sense.

In both the ‘corporate flair’ of the presidential administration and in the shortcomings of imagination at the Duma, we see that Putin’s command of the situation is faltering.  On the other side of the ledger, it is also true that Russia may be spared the “Italian scenario” for reasons very specific to its geography and to the extreme caution and prudence of its fiscal and monetary management over the past decade dealing with a sequence of ‘stress tests’ by which I mean sanctions.  The latter is self-evident. The geography related advantage requires a word of explanation.

Apart from Moscow, Europe’s most populous city, St Petersburg and Novosibirsk, Russian cities hover around one million and there are not many of them at that size.  An unusually large part of the population still lives in the countryside. Indeed, a still larger percentage of the elderly live precisely in the empty countryside, left behind when young males and other able-bodied folks went to town for jobs and contemporary life style. In this sense, the world’s largest country has intrinsic advantages compared to Western Europe, where population density is often very close to China’s.  We will see in a few weeks how this plays out

©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 and other ‘Irreplaceable People’

I was delighted with the wide distribution given to my last essay on the ‘Tereshkova Amendment’ to the Russian Constitution which, when the reform of the Basic Law is approved by nationwide referendum, as widely anticipated, will set the presidential terms served up to now by Vladimir Putin back to zero so that he may run again in the elections of 2024 and 2030 if he so wishes.  My essay was reposted by several portals in the United States and links to the essay were published by still other outlets in Europe.

I was also pleased by the substantial number of reader comments, even though the great majority did not agree with my assertion that Putin was foolhardy to accept that amendment, subject to the Constitutional Court finding that it does not contradict the intent of the Fundamental Law. I had expressed the pious hope that Vladimir Vladimirovich would quietly direct the Court to do the decent thing and reject the amendment. However, by its decision of 16 March the Court has now approved the entire package of amendments. In light of this development, I feel free to move to the next level of discussion with my readers, responding to their objections and detailing why the very prospect of Putin in power to 2036 will undo his legacy of stable nation-building.  I will conclude by setting out an alternative scenario which is far more likely to ensure policy continuity after 2024 while moving Russia’s democracy to a new level of maturity. This path remains open to Mr. President if he rethinks the likely consequences of the Tereshkova Amendment and moves to correct his error well before the 2021 parliamentary elections, when the “regime” may suffer a humiliating defeat.

* * * *

The objections from readers to my stand on Putin’s running for the presidency again mostly came down to one point that had been raised by Tereshkova herself as justification for her initiative:  that the international arena is so volatile and poses so many threats to the country that Vladimir Vladimirovich’s proven experience and dedication to national welfare is and will be required and valued more than ever.  Some readers’ comments name the corona virus or the oil price war with Saudi Arabia, or the near war with Turkey over Syria as indicative of the pressing need for steady leadership by Putin into the distant future. Others point to the aggressive economic, military strategic and propaganda war against Russia being waged by the United States and its allies in Europe to justify the indefinite continuation in office of a leader who has so consistently and effectively foiled their ambitions to put Russia in its place under their heel and instead restored his country’s status as a great power.

All of the foregoing is true, of course.  We do live in extraordinary times and “revisionist” or “resurgent” Russia, to use the vocabulary of Foreign Affairs magazine, faces strong opposition from an “international community” intent on preserving the 1990s status quo when Russia was on its knees. However, the proposition that Russia has no one capable of taking over the baton from Vladimir Vladimirovich does not hold up to scrutiny.

It is all too easy to forget that when he took over from Boris Yeltsin just after New Year’s in 2000, Putin was a nonentity who had been chosen for his unquestioned loyalty to the family and who enjoyed the support of Boris Berezovsky and other oligarchs precisely because they believed he would be easy to manage. As for the nation at large, Putin’s only credit was his brutal conduct of the war in Chechnya which seemed to be bringing results and which proved his patriotism.  He had been an efficient assistant to the liberal mayor of St Petersburg Sobchak and did well with foreign, especially German business leaders behind closed doors. But he was an unimpressive public speaker and he badly failed his first exposure to the press when he answered reporters’ questions about what happened to the submarine Kursk with the flat statement: “It sank.”

From this weak start, Putin rose quickly and steadily to become finally the world’s leading statesman that he is today. A whole generation of administrators and political operatives has grown up in his shadow. I have no doubt that there are among them worthy successors if given the chance.

If I may invoke a bit of folk wisdom:  the cemeteries are filled with irreplaceable people.

* * * *

When he delivered his decision on the amendment, Putin added another line of argumentation in its favor, namely Russian traditions of governance. Some of my readers have taken that up and expanded upon it in their comments.  They look to Russian history, with its millennial tradition of autocratic rulers to justify keeping the incumbent tsar on his throne. Some place Putin in the ranks of Russia’s Greats:  Peter and Catherine in the 18th century to plead his case.

My critics argue from exceptionalism, which is always risky, and second, they fail to appreciate the value of institutions over people in the life of nations.

On the subject of exceptionalism, Vladimir Putin himself has always been equivocal. On the one hand, he regularly denounces American exceptionalism of the variety first formulated by Madeleine Albright in her description of the nation that stands taller and sees farther than others, all of which was later hand delivered to the Kremlin by Barack Obama when he sought to explain to Vladimir what was what.

On the other hand, Putin has always defended the special traditions of each nation and the right of each nation to preserve its uniqueness without interference from others. Yet, Putin has also acknowledged certain universal rules of political science, in particular the value of alternation in power of competing political forces. So it only comes down to when that can be implemented.  To this, I respond: there is never a good time, there are always mitigating circumstances one can claim against applying the rule.  And for this very reason, the rule of alternation should trump all other considerations without discussion.

I will not take the reader’s time belaboring the obvious:  an unlimited time in power means institutionalized corruption.  “The bums” are never given the boot. And, what is less commonly seen, incompetence is the reverse side of the corruption coin. This is a non-negotiable issue.

* * * *

Looking beyond my own readers and considering more broadly the analysis which so many Western commentators have published these past few days regarding Putin’s decision on 2024, I find a certain commonality of approach which is entirely consistent with how our Russianists have been writing and lecturing for decades now:  all focus on Putin, the man as if he were the alpha and omega of Russia, the country and its polity. That is to say, these commentators apply to Russia the same personalization of politics which they use at home in the United States, where identity has long replaced policy on the ballot. We vote by gender, by race, by ethnicity and not by pro- or anti-labor positions, by redistributive or wealth-protecting policies. They vote for good or bad autocrats.

In the same spirit, instead of considering what this decision on terms in office means for those Russians who believe in rule of law, or in the commitments of their leader not to hang onto power into his dotage repeated many times in the past and as recently as on 16 January 2020, our commentators try to delve into Putin’s thought processes and to explain the flip-flop on 10 March.  Since no one has yet placed a microphone under the pillow of the Russian President, all of the commentary we read is pure and idle speculation, whereas the views of Russians on the decision taken can be sampled, as I will do in what follows.

I have a residential base in St Petersburg and in normal times I am there for two weeks out of each couple of months. My wife and I have many contacts among Russians at all levels, from our regular taxi driver to our neighbor and fix-it man at our country dacha, to intellectuals and professionals in both Petersburg and Moscow. To a man, or woman, our friends and acquaintances are all Russian patriots. Several have served their country in the performing arts, in journalism, in design of launch vehicles for space missions and in other ways. They have all been pro-Putin, until now…

The trigger for the change of heart of many is deep disappointment over the deception, the fraudulent nature of the upcoming referendum on amendments to the Constitution now that the whole exercise seems to have only one purpose: to extend Putin’s time in power. To be sure, this rabbit was pulled out of a hat once before, when Vladimir Putin and Dimitri Medvedev switched roles in 2012. But that trick conformed to the letter of the law, even if it was, shall we say, sneaky.  The decision to set Putin’s time in office back to zero now is an insult to the intelligence and so doubly offensive.

That the maneuver is unseemly is supported by the obnoxious way in which it has been defended, something which none of our Western commentators seems to have picked up.

After coming under attack from various political activists and even from her own home town where she had a street named after her for her achievements in outer space, Tereshkova defended herself and her amendment, saying that she has been getting letters of support from “simple people” all around Russia. In the same vein, Chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin declared that “those who are against Tereshkova are against Russia.”  But then this former head of the presidential administration is the same man who said previously that “if there is no Putin, there is no Russia.”  I think it is fair to call this type of argumentation from both Tereshkova and Volodin unashamedly Stalinist in nature.

And that is exactly what one my close friends has written to me using colorful terminology that mines the treasures of the Russian language in the same manner as Putin himself so often does.  I offer here a free translation.

“Like you, we are not delighted by the presidential terms of Putin being turned back to zero. Society is tired, people are tired of this. It looks like he has decided to beat Stalin’s record. But the main thing is that this is being done in a clumsy way, in the spirit of Soviet propaganda – ‘upon the request of the workers.’  Tereshkova tells us that every day she is receiving packs of letters expressing gratitude for her initiative. This is propagandistic Soviet primitivism.

For the moment, we don’t know if we will take part in the voting. But if we do go to the polls, of course, we will vote against the amendments and the reset on terms in office.”

 

It is widely assumed in the West that there is no opposition to Putin and Putinism in the State Duma, only in the so-called non-systemic opposition of people like Alexei Navalny and Ksenia Sobchak who never made it past the 5% minimum level of support to enter the Duma. And, I must concede that when the Tereshkova amendment came up for a vote, two of the Duma parties which have regularly put up candidates to run against Putin in the presidential elections, Sergei Mironov’s A Just Russia and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR spoke in its favor.  However, what is largely overlooked by our Russianists is that one party, Gennady Zyuganov’s Communists, had the courage and persistence to speak against the amendment. These are the same Communists who have traditionally been the fiercest competitor of United Russia and of its centrist predecessors; the same Communists who narrowly lost to Yeltsin in 1996 because of flagrant electoral fraud assisted by U.S. agents over fears for democracy in Russia. And yet today, ironically, the centrist parties have defended a Stalinist vision of Russia’s presidency while the Communists were backers of full-blooded democracy, meaning alternation in power.

That is not all.

On 10 March, when Tereshkova introduced her amendment on resetting the terms in office of the sitting president, another deputy introduced a bill calling for early Duma elections. Though this was rejected out of hand by Vladimir Putin when he spoke to the chamber a couple of hours later, it is this bill which better deserved his backing. Early elections were supported by one party alone, again the Communists, who said they had nothing to fear. Such elections were likely put an end to the majority position of United Russia, which has lost substantial support in the population ever since the retirement age was raised a year or so ago. This is why they said no. However, their loss of a majority is precisely what could trigger a new balance of power and the scenario for political consolidation that I am recommending.

* * * *

When he spoke about his intended changes to the Russian Constitution during his annual “state of the nation” address to the bicameral legislature on 15 January, Vladimir Putin suggested that his intention was to re-adjust the balance of power among the three branches of government by raising the rights and prerogatives of the legislature. By trimming slightly the powers of the President in this process he would, in effect, make it easier to find someone to fill his shoes. Moreover by bringing the Duma into greater consultation in formation of the cabinet, he would be raising their commitment to the system in exchange for greater responsibility.

At the time, Putin mentioned specifically his impression from regular meetings with the leaders of the Duma parties that are all patriots. The logic from this was that when the Medvedev cabinet peremptorily resigned following the presidential address, some of the leading parliamentarians from outside United Russia should have been invited to take up ministerial portfolios. That did not happen. Instead the cabinet itself was de-politicized and filled with technocrats.

Assuming that Putin wishes to ensure that the broad lines of his policies continue after he leaves office, whatever that date may be, I believe that the recent missed opportunity should be revisited and preparations made for forming a government of national unity that distributes ministerial portfolios to all of the Duma parties.  By their service in the intervening years, this would provide the best indications of who will deserve to run in the presidential election of 2024 in which Putin will choose not to take part.  It will remove the present cynicism and disappointment of many patriotic Russians over the way high politics is evolving and provide a renewed interest in elections with optimism for the future.

Over the long term, coalition governments or ‘power sharing’ have their down sides, I know only too well from the experience of the Kingdom of Belgium, or in neighboring Germany. These include  inconsistencies in the various domestic and foreign policies implemented and possible incompetence of individual ministers and their teams.  However, in the short term it is worth taking the risk to avert mass demonstrations when the 2021 Duma elections come, not to mention the presidential elections of 2024.  This is a crucial step in Russia’s march towards mature democracy that should not be ignored.

* * * *

Post Script:    The view that no worthy successor to Putin exists is founded on unwarranted pessimism about the distribution of talent and leadership capacity in the political elites.

People shape events and events shape people. For anyone who doubts the wisdom of this observation, I direct their attention to what the corona virus crisis has done for us in the Kingdom of Belgium these last two weeks.

This country has not had a properly installed Government ever since the last cabinet resigned in December 2018 over internal disagreement about Europe’s immigration policy.  The parliamentary elections of May 2019 produced deadlock, with leading parties in the North and South of the country, on the right and left of the political spectrum unable to hobble together a majority coalition in parliament.

Accordingly, by all normal reasoning, Belgium should have been in a woeful situation going into the stress test of the corona virus epidemic.  It was this very weakness in parliamentary government that Vladimir Putin highlighted in his public statements following the launch of his planned constitutional reforms in Russia, saying that Russia, given its size and complexity, could not allow such disarray at the federal level as months or years without a proper Government.

Fine for theory. The facts have proven quite the opposite as regards the alleged hopelessness of democracies.  The decisiveness and humane principles guiding what acting Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès  has proposed to her fellow cabinet members and leading politicians of the country won their backing for draconian confinement measures that are among Europe’s toughest, matched by measures of economic relief and by measures to bring order and compassion into the dispensation of intensive care services to the critically ill, which are being ramped up with all possible speed. All of this has aroused cries of ‘chapeau’ (hats off) from the media and from the general public.

Wilmès was a political non-entity until this challenge presented itself.  Now there is widespread belief that in six months she will be confirmed in her position as Prime Minister heading a minority government that will be supported by Opposition parties.

By the way, Wilmès is from the same Center Left party as the former Prime Minister Charles Michel who was moved to the European Institutions where he is now the president of the European Council, a fine sinecure for a talker, not a doer. Good riddance!

The same principles of hidden talent waiting to be tapped apply everywhere.  The Russians should take note.

 

©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.]