Further thoughts on the forthcoming Biden-Putin summit: U.S. policy built on false foundations
In my last essay proposing a “reductionist approach” to identifying the driver of Biden’s initiative for a meeting with Putin so early in his presidency, I spoke of putting a cap on the nuclear arms race, which is proceeding adversely to U.S. security interests.
In this brief essay, I will explain why acknowledgement of Russia’s military achievements over the past decade, both in strategic and in tactical forces, is so difficult for the American foreign policy establishment, and why this fact is a major hazard for the forthcoming summit to succeed.
But in making my argument, I am obliged to broaden our survey to take in China as well as Russia, given that recent U.S. doctrinal papers have in one breath dealt with both as leading competitors and/or potential adversaries.
My point is that official U.S. threat analysis of these two countries is based on wrong-headed estimates of their respective military strength today and in the future. The abstract notion underlying these wrong estimates is the equation of economic strength, measured by GDP, and military strength. As we all know, China is rated number two after the USA; Russia rates itself as number 10.
As recently as 6 years ago, the President of the United States was saying that Russia produced nothing that the world needed or wanted, that its economy was a shambles. A U.S. Senator who enjoyed wide respect of his colleagues in both parties was saying Russia was nothing more than a ‘gas station’ parading as a sovereign state. And while we do not read these ignorant and defamatory declarations about the Russian economy today, the recent ignorant and defamatory statements about Russia’s Covid 19 vaccine Sputnik V, the first such vaccine in the world to be registered, perpetuate the notion that Russians are incapable of world-beating innovation of any kind.
For all of the above reasons, mainstream media tells us endlessly that Russia is a declining power, that it only occupies the role of spoiler, whereas China is the world’s second greatest military force as well as being the world’s second largest economy and so is the strategic competitor and potential adversary worthy of our rapt attention.
I do not mean to suggest that China does not pose a potential military threat to U.S. global interests. Indeed, China’s military and geopolitical posture is changing as we talk, precisely because of the very aggressive attempts of the US to “contain” China and hinder its international ascent commercially and geopolitically.
What I mean regarding China is that until Trump began his frontal assault on the country by his trade war and confrontation in the South China Sea, by attempts to round up all the neighboring states and Europe in a common front against China, i.e. before the unleashing of a new Cold War against Beijing, Chinese military ambitions were limited in scope to their own back yard, not global or strategic. Now things are changing. The Chinese are adding to their nuclear arsenal, which was, by intent, very modest. It is arguable that China is now starting a build-up of strategic arms usable as deterrence against the USA that it would otherwise have started only 20 years from now.
The same factors have pushed China into Russia’s arms. The Chinese – Russian embrace is typically described as coming from the Russian side due to the pressure they are under from NATO and the U.S.-led sanctions. However, whereas China was doing splendidly pre-Trump in its economic relations with the West and had no reason to jeopardize this boon by coming too close to Russia, the pariah state, those inhibitions have been swept away by hostile U.S. actions. Today China is the suitor in an informal global alliance with Russia.
So, where is Russia as a security threat to the United States? It is without question today the single greatest opponent to US global hegemony in the world. It alone has the capability of leveling the USA in 20 minutes. And it has moved maybe 10 years ahead of the U.S. in the most advanced nuclear weapons delivery systems, ICBMs, hypersonic cruise missiles, deep sea nuclear drones, you name it. Though no one talks about it, de facto Russia probably now has a first strike capability backed up by its own iron dome ABM system.
Here in Pushkin, a close suburb of Petersburg, where I write to you from today, 10 minutes by car from our gated community apartment complex there is what looks like an S400 unit standing out in the open. Pushkin happens to have some of the main naval training centers with foreign students enrolled (we see Guinee trainees in uniform when we shop in the supermarkets here), and there is a helicopter center and military air field close by.
How long can the Russians keep this up? Forever would be my guess. Putin has said in the past 10 days that Russia will be lowering its military expenditures as percent of GDP in the coming two years to just 3.5%, which is wholly sustainable for the indefinite future.
Mutual respect is what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has demanded as a starting point for diplomatic negotiations with the Americans. Respect is not conferred on an interlocutor “from a position of strength,” the typical American approach to such talks.
The problem for Washington is that no one on Capitol Hill or in the foreign policy community wants to acknowledge the obvious facts about Russia today. Everyone is happy with the vision of a slovenly, chaotic Russia ruled by a merciless dictator, whose regime is fragile and just needs a little push, like Nicholas II’s autocracy, to tilt over and collapse. This is rubbish and if it remains the foundation of U.S. policy towards Russia under Biden then we can expect nothing much to happen to reduce the dangers of nuclear war or move towards calmer waters in international relations
In the past several days, ever since a firm date and location were announced for a summit between the US and Russian presidents, 16 June in Geneva, American political scientists and journalists have been working overtime to fill newspaper columns and broadcast time with speculation on what should, what could be the agenda for such a meeting. As we all know, meetings of heads of state must be programmed in detail in advance to succeed.
We have heard, read that possible agenda items will include global hot spots such as Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine as well as the management of the Covid pandemic and implementation of the Paris agreement on cutting greenhouse emissions, among others.
Indeed, the foregoing discussion points are “highly likely” to receive attention of the principals and of the task forces in their suites. We may even see some agreements reached on common positions when the leaders present their conclusions at the press conference following their talks. However, this type of discussion leapfrogs over the question which analysts should be asking first: why exactly has the Biden administration moved so quickly to schedule a face to face meeting with Vladimir Putin, whom the American president, as a leader of the Democratic Party, had vilified for the whole of the Trump years in office. Biden was one of those who insisted that the Russians had intervened in the 2016 presidential elections to do dirt on Hilary Clinton and help elect Donald. He believed the Russians were guilty of the Novichok poisoning of the Skripals in English Salisbury in 2018. In his programmatic policy article published by Foreign Affairs magazine at the start of the presidential race early in 2020, he detailed how the Russians had pursued malign policies in Syria and elsewhere.
Most recently, Biden was in line with fellow Democrats in condemning the Russian imprisonment of opposition activist Alexei Navalny. In short, the Democrats, and Biden at their helm, had made Russia into the great villain behind most every development domestically or internationally harmful to American interests. The culmination was Biden’s confirmation a little more than a month ago to a television reporter that Putin “is a killer.”
So why is Joe Biden pressing ahead with a meeting so early in his tenure in office? We are told that the objective is to achieve “greater stability” in bilateral relations. But I have not heard from our commentators what stability is to be addressed. In the brief essay which follows, I will attempt to fill that void. In doing so, I will ignore all the aforementioned agenda items, which I consider to be little more than a distraction to draw public attention away from the essence of the forthcoming meeting, from what is driving the American side since it is simply too embarrassing for hubristic American elites to swallow this truth.
In my reductionist approach, the summit has one driver behind it, namely to put a cap on an arms race that the United States is losing, if it has not already irrevocably lost, and to prevent the adverse shift in the strategic balance against America from getting still worse. The side benefit would be to strike down planned military expenditures budgeted for well over a trillion dollars to modernize the nuclear triad alone. This would thereby free funds for the massive infrastructure investments that Biden is presently trying to push through Congress.
In saying this, I am not guessing or engaging in wishful thinking. I am basing myself on facts that go back to March 2018. These facts are not being marshalled today by my peers, firstly because foreign policy commentators in the public domain tend not to have memories that go back more than a month or two, and secondly because the facts themselves were officially suppressed at the time and never appeared in the mainstream media. What publication there was occurred in the so-called alternative media, by the efforts of myself and a few other contrarians, as I will detail below.
The events I am alluding to relate to the dramatic disclosure of Russia’s latest cutting edge strategic weapons systems by Vladimir Putin in the last third of his lengthy address to Russia’s joint session of its bicameral legislature, what we commonly call his State of the Nation address. Putin described in detail the operational capabilities of new systems that were ready for release to the active military forces or were far advanced in the testing and production pipeline. These included hypersonic missiles flying at Mach 10 and more. He claimed that the new weapons systems marked the first time in history that Russia had moved ahead of the West in innovative, unparalleled performance of its arms, whereas in the Soviet past, from the end of the Second World War and advent of the nuclear age, they had always been playing catch-up. Moreover, he insisted that the new weapons systems signified the restoration of strategic parity with the United States.
Since the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2002 under George Bush, US policy had aimed at enabling a first strike knocking out Russian ICBMs and then rendering useless Russia’s residual nuclear forces which could be shot out of the air by U.S. anti-ballistic missile systems. Russia’s new, maneuverable and ultra-high speed missiles could evade all known ABMs. According to Putin’s text in March 2018, the new Russian strategic arms relegated the hundreds of billions that the Americans had invested in achieving superiority to the status of a modern day Maginot Line. Whatever Washington could throw at Russia, the residual Russian forces would penetrate American defenses and wreak havoc on the American homeland.
In the days following this “shock and awe” speech, the mainstream U.S. media reacted to Putin’s claims with incredulity. The notion that his relatively poor country could move ahead of the United States in strategic weapons, working from a budget 10 times less, seemed improbable to many. Moreover, skeptics pointed to the context of Putin’s speech, which was in effect his electoral platform for the presidential elections later in the same month. They argued that his grand show before parliament was for domestic consumption, to defend himself against Russia’s Liberals, who had made corruption and theft of state assets their battering ram and who argued, like Yabloko candidate Grigory Yavlinsky, that the country could never be a military match for the West given its low GDP and manufacturing industry.
However, in official Washington, and surely inside the Pentagon, there were those who did not let ubiquitous arrogance and supposed exceptionalism blind them to the facts Putin had produced. If his presentation were a bluff, it would put in jeopardy tens of millions of his compatriots and it was out of character for a leader who had always been restrained and consequential. Among those who were alarmed by Putin’s roll-out of the technical capabilities now possessed by the Russians were four U.S. Senators, three of them full-fledged Democrats and one Independent who otherwise ran as a Democrat when he sought the presidency. The two Senators I call particular attention to here were Dianne Feinstein of California and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the nominal Independent.
I mention Sanders, because he was one of the more visible Putin-bashers among the Democratic Party leadership when he ran for the presidency in party primaries. Feinstein is notable because at the time she was one of the longest serving members of the Senate Intelligence Committee where, from 2009 to 2015, she was the chair. Therefore, we may well assume that what Putin revealed at the start of March 2018 had not figured in the assessments of Russian military might by the whole U.S. intelligence establishment. This was an enormous intelligence failure, but it was not unique as regards U.S. understanding of Russia in those years. Time after time, the Americans had found themselves clueless about Russian demarches, including, for example, the Kremlin’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, the establishment of its joint intelligence command with Baghdad, its receiving overflight rights of Iran and Iraq to carry on its mission in Syria. These “surprises” had come despite the presence of thousands of U.S. intelligence officers in Iraq.
In an open letter to then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson published on the Senate website of one of the four signatories, Senator Jeff Merkey (D- Oregon) these four Democratic Senators called upon him to immediately enter into arms control negotiations with the Russians, notwithstanding all of the differences with the Russians in so many other domains.
I quote from the opening paragraphs:
“We write to urge the State Department to convene the next U.S.-Russia Strategic Dialogue as soon as possible. A U.S.-Russia Strategic Dialogue is more urgent following President Putin’s public address on March 1st when he referred to several new nuclear weapons Russia is reportedly developing including a cruise missile and a nuclear underwater drone, which are not currently limited by the New START treaty, and would be destabilizing if deployed.”
Specifically, they proposed that the new Russian weapons systems be brought into the SALT treaty, which they urged him to extend. This would ensure strategic stability.
I quote from their closing paragraph:
“There is no guarantee that we can make progress with Russia on these issues. However, even at the height of Cold War tensions, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to engage on matters of strategic stability. Leaders from both countries believed, as we should today, that the incredible destructive force of nuclear weapons is reason enough to make any and all efforts to lessen the chance that they can never be used again.”
This letter by four U.S. Senators published on the Senate website of one was picked up by the agency RIA Novosti, RBK and Tass within hours of initial posting, from where it went into mainstream Russian news. However, mainstream U.S. and other Western media did not give a single line of coverage to it and it disappeared in days as if down a black hole.
However, all traces of nervousness in official Washington did not end there. Later in the month, following the victory of Vladimir Putin in the elections which took place on the 18th , The New York Times carried on page one a report of Donald Trump’s remarks about his phone call to congratulate his Russian counterpart:
“We had a very good call,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “We will probably be meeting in the not-to-distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control.”
Yet, even the words of a president led to nothing, and the issue of Russia’s possibly having achieved strategic parity with the United States and reinstated Mutually Assured Destruction was left without public discussion in Washington. The President called for and Congress reacted positively to raising the defense budget and in particular to funding a massively expensive modernization of the country’s nuclear weapons potential.
A year later, in his February 2019 State of the Nation address Vladimir Putin returned to the question of Russia’s new strategic arms and what they meant for bilateral relations with the United States. As he said explicitly now, the country’s new hypersonic weapon systems would enable Russia to reach targeted American cities within the same 10-12 minutes that the Americans would enjoy by lobbing their slower missiles at Moscow from perches in Poland and Romania. Still the United States did not react. America was very busy with its domestic political wars.
In 2020, Russia, the United States and the world at large were wholly absorbed in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. However, in 2021 the Kremlin has repeatedly called attention to those of its most advanced weapons that are now integrated into its armed forces and are fully operational. As Vladimir Putin remarked in an address to one professional organization a week ago that was covered extensively on state television’s evening news, the firings of its newest missiles have been followed closely by American intelligence. With more than a dollop of contempt for American pigheaded self-indulgence and denial of reality, Putin said that the Russians stood ready to share their telemetric recordings with the United States so that they could see better what they were now up against.
The caustic disdain for Russia’s ill-wishers implicit in that statement is fully symptomatic of the latest hard line that we see in Russian foreign policy ever since Biden assumed the presidency. Putin is not coddling Joe the way he did Donald. The Kremlin has no illusions about the Cold War mentality of its American and of its European adversaries, and it is responding in kind. This pertains to diplomatic expulsions, to economic and personal sanctions, to whatever slings and arrows come its way.
In recent weeks, we have seen how every affront to Russian national pride and to international diplomatic norms has been met by a Russian response that went one step further against “unfriendly states,” of which the United States is now listed officially.
In this highly charged atmosphere, we may assume that sober reports on Russian military capabilities have been fed to the President by senior Pentagon officials. While politicians have engaged in their blather, for many weeks these military men in the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been engaging their counterpart in the Russian military establishment, General Gerasimov, to keep the peace, avoid misunderstandings where U.S. and Russian forces act in close proximity and to maintain “stability.” It is a safe bet that their concerns are what is driving the agenda for the summit, and it is a safe bet that the Biden-Putin meeting will end in some agreement on procedures for negotiating a broader and deeper arms control treaty. Whatever else happens at the summit in Geneva will be cherries on the cake.
In my observations yesterday on the Victory Day parade in Moscow I omitted mention of the speech President Putin delivered at the outset of the event. To be sure that speech was one other element of the day which broke with tradition, and so contradicted my overarching generalization of “déjà vu” to characterize the day. Now that one of Russia’s leading journalists and television personalities, Vladimir Solovyov has publicly called attention to what he called Putin’s “extremely tough” statements from the reviewing stand yesterday, I feel obliged to take a step back and add my comment.
Indeed, as Solovyov has remarked, Putin yesterday underlined the unique contribution of the Soviet peoples to the victory over fascist Germany, their massive sacrifices that spelled the turning points in the war. His hands were free to do this, given that this year there were no “Allies” or other state leaders with him on the tribune apart from Rakhmon from the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan. These remarks were clearly issued as an antidote not only to efforts in the West to airbrush from history the decisive role of the USSR in the Victory by equating Stalin with Hitler, and by praising the contribution of the Allies via Lend-Lease and via the second front so as to diminish the role of Russia itself in the victory. This antidote is all the more relevant given that the poison is spread in Russia itself by a pathetic minority of Russians who declare themselves to be sworn enemies of the “Putin regime” but are in reality enemies of their own compatriots, whom they despise. We think in this connection of the friends of Ekho Moskvy, of Meduza and…of Alexei Navalny.
Another measure of the “toughness” in Putin’s speech per Solovyov was his taking on directly the issue of neo-Nazi ideology in European countries as represented by the naming of streets and monuments for known and exposed war criminals of WWII who, as Putin said, had the blood of hundreds of thousands of civilians on their hands. This was a direct challenge by the Russian leader to the ruling ideology in Ukraine and to the unseemly revival of Nazi scum in their midst, celebrated for their supposed pro-Ukrainian, anti-Soviet views. Putin’s direct mention of this issue was all the more telling given the silence on this subject from U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken during his visit to Kiev days earlier, a silence that was especially shocking given Blinken’s status as the step-son of one of the most widely known and celebrated internees of Nazi death camps, Simon Pisar.
Solovyov also calls out the lightly veiled condemnation of Western leaders in Putin’s address for their indifference to the rise of Hitler and gleeful anticipation of a war to the death between Fascism and Communism
In my capacity as an “independent” observer who is not constrained by raison d’état, I will go one step further than Vladimir Putin and his semi-official interpreter Solovyov.
Readers of my Memoirs will be aware that I lived and worked in Germany for more than 4 years in the period 1988 – 1993. I mastered the language reasonably well, enjoyed life in the culturally appealing metropolises of Frankfurt and Cologne. In the time since, I have on occasion tossed bouquets to present-day German elites for their purposeful remembrance of their parents and grandparents’ savage and deadly persecution of Jews and others in the 1930s and 1940s. But in the context of Vladimir Putin’s address to his people yesterday at the start of the Military Parade celebrating the 76th victory over fascist Germany, I want to deal directly with an issue that only comes out obliquely from Official Russia but bears directly on all of European – Russian relations today and going forward: by the barbaric behavior not only of SS units but of the entire German armed forces on the Eastern Front, representing the German nation at large, Germany has forfeited for the 500 years to come any right to stand on a podium as Angela Merkel has done, as current German Foreign Minister Heiko Haas has done, and reproach Russia for violation of “European values.” Indeed, Russians today are not angels, but it is not for the devils to call them out. Let us all just proceed in establishing international relations on the neutral grounds of respectful acknowledgement of national interest and non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states. In a word, the validity of Westphalian principles is timeless.
The title of this essay may be misleading as regards what took place and what did not take place this morning during Moscow’s celebration of the 76th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day.
I will begin my account with those elements which broke with the traditions of the past, some large, some small. Then I will turn to the way today’s Victory Parade highlighted facts about today’s Russia which hark back many years if not centuries. Indeed that last point may have been crystal clear in the West to knowledgeable observers from European television programming, about which I will write in the concluding section of this essay.
To begin with, what was new? First, I direct attention to who was the foreign guest of honor at the reviewing stand seated between President Putin and Defense Minister Shoigu: President Rakhmon of the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan.
In the pre-pandemic past, many world leaders accepted Moscow’s invitation to attend the military parade. In 2020, the event was postponed by more than a month due to the pandemic and almost no one aside from the leaders of former Soviet Republics came to what was the very important 75th anniversary. This year, out of health considerations, the invitation list was cut back to one sole president.
Why Tajikistan? That was clear from the news coverage of Putin’s meeting with Rakhmon in the Kremlin the day before, on Saturday. Secondarily, they met to discuss migration and labor questions of mutual interest given that more than 250,000 Tajiks are working in the Russian Federation as Gastarbeiter. In what was surely a remark to preempt any criticism of this situation from Russian nationalists, Putin emphasized that these Tajiks were an important contribution to alleviate Russia’s labor shortage. Primarily, however, Rakhmon was given special welcome status because of the geopolitical and military importance of his country as a bulwark against Islamic extremists from neighboring Afghanistan now that U.S. and NATO forces are leaving.
Another new element (second year) directly related to the ongoing pandemic was the elimination of the till recently very important public dimension of Victory Day celebrations, the March of the Immortal Regiment, in which Russian families have carried aloft placards with photos of their parents and grandparents who were participants in the WWII war effort either on the home front or on battlefields. These afternoon marches gathered a million or more participants in each of the two capitals and also large numbers in cities across the country. This year the Immortal Regiment was made into a “virtual event,” meaning posting of those relatives’ photos online. This was a very sad reminder of the extraordinary times Russia and the world are passing through. And so, the authorities were compelled to remove the “human” dimension that had become so important to everyday Russians as they mark the most important date in the civil calendar.
Otherwise, the military parade celebrating Victory went according to the traditional script, hence, as I say, déjà vu. Some of the latest military hardware from among tanks, tactical and strategic rockets, as well as fighter jets and helicopters was shown with remarkable precision. We were reminded most powerfully that notwithstanding all the shocks of the post-Soviet period to its economy and most importantly to its manufacturing industry, Russia today stands unique as developer and manufacturer of cutting edge military equipment on this Continent, enjoying a status that no, I repeat NO, European state can begin to rival. Were it not for U.S. equipment sold to NATO members through application of overwhelming political pressure from Washington, the Continent would be no match for the Russian military industrial complex.
At the same time, as a pure layman I dare to share one observation regarding the ground vehicles put on display by the Russians. They are purely functional; they declare loudly their military as opposed to civilian allure: clunky in design terms and in many respects a throw-back to Soviet aesthetics. Perhaps Washington pays too much attention to the Hummer look and overspends accordingly. Meanwhile, the latest Russian tank, the Armata, breaks with this design tradition and looks sleek enough. And the Russian aircraft in their fly-over at the conclusion of the parade, whether large or small, are outstanding exemplars of elegance in flight, none more so than the strategic bomber TU-160, nicknamed the ”White Swan.”
The May 9th celebrations fall this year just one week after the celebration of Orthodox Easter in Russia, and for some reason the German-French classical music television channel Mezzo has used this week to broadcast Russian opera and ballet performances. It all began on Sunday, 2nd May with a traditional staging of Boris Godunov performed by the Bolshoi Theater which touched off the train of thought expressed in the title of this essay, namely déjà vu.
Two scenes from Boris bear on today’s international events and draw into high relief the continuity of national contradictions in Eastern Europe. Lest the reader think I am overdoing the argument of continuity, I refer to another set of circumstances in real life, not on the opera stage: Britain’s dispatch of naval vessels to the waters of the Channel Islands to protect these British possessions from French militants protesting fishing regulations they see as discriminatory. This naval stand-off reminds us of the near millennium of British-French military conflict.
The first of the two scenes in Boris that I have in mind takes place in a tavern near the Russian-Lithuanian border, where the renegade monk Grigory Otrepiev, the “False Dimitry,” is on his way to recruit Polish-Lithuanian backers for his claims to the Russian throne as the surviving son of Ivan the Terrible. The following scene takes us across that border to the noble estate of Marina Mniszek, who agrees to be his bride and return with him to Moscow on the strength of Polish arms and in the company of a contingent of Polish Catholic clergy intent on converting the heathen (Orthodox) Russians. One would have to be totally blind to miss the updating of these events today in the person of one Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fulfills the tradition of Russian runaways seeking and finding support for their claims to the Russian (Belarussian) “throne.” One would have to be blind to miss the continuity in Polish aspirations to dominate the Central European space between Berlin and Moscow from North to South, “od morza do morza.”
And then there is a third scene in Boris which never fails to inspire me: the monologue of the monk chronicler Pimen in his cell, speaking to himself and then to Grigory Otrepiev before the latter’s flight in pursuit of fame and riches. Pimen tells us that he records the terrible times that Russia is living through in the vague expectation that some day hundreds of years later his chronicles deemed to have been written by an “anonymous monk” will be read and will open the eyes of future generations to the catastrophes of Pimen’s times. It is in this spirit that I pursue my own scribblings in the fairly bleak present day.
As we all have been taught, at its creation what is today called the European Union was conceived as a “peace project.” True, its first iteration in a French-German understanding on managing trade in coal and iron was purely economic. True, a later iteration was the European Economic Community or Common Market, all of which call attention to the economic dimension. However, the framers of these institutional arrangements were motivated by the need to put an end to Europe’s century long civil war, to the cleavage between the biggest economies of the Continent, France and Germany.
Regrettably, that past is now being buried day after day as the European Institutions, in particular the Commission and the Parliament, turn the 27 into NATO by another name, that is, into a war-fighting alliance directed against….Russia under the micromanagement of Washington.
Last week we learned that the Parliament passed a resolution empowering the expulsion of Russia from the SWIFT monetary transfer network and also called for an embargo on Russian gas. It is hard to imagine any action that could do more damage to European economies by “cut off my nose to spite my face” thinking.
Removal of Russia from SWIFT would instantly end the means of paying Russia for its natural gas which covers 40% of Europe’s current imports. And it would also end the means of paying Russia for the very large shipments of crude oil it now receives. Incidentally, the same would impact the USA, for which Russia has become the single biggest source of imported oil, thanks to the “cut off my nose to spite my face” policy of Washington to utterly crush the petroleum industry of Venezuela, which was the traditional supplier to US refiners. As wits in Moscow commented, expulsion from SWIFT would mean that Europeans and Americans would be ferrying suitcases stuffed with cash to Russia if they wanted to keep the lights on.
Meanwhile, the Commission is busy working at cutting all other normal ties with Russia. And that is not merely by means of expulsion of Russian diplomats and closing of diplomatic facilities, which is proceeding at a quick pace on the basis of totally fabricated accusations against the Kremlin. The case in the Czech Republic is only the most glaring; it was accompanied by “solidarity” actions of the other usual Russia- baiters – Poland, the Baltic States, Bulgaria and Slovakia.
A favored vector for poking the Russians in the eye is now the domain of “vaccine diplomacy.” Today’s New York Times has a spectacularly tendentious feature article on how the Russians are supposedly using their vaccine to create havoc within the European Union, turning Member Country against Member Country over the acceptability of Sputnik V for use in Europe. Of course, that report is turning the facts on their head. It is Brussels that is playing politics with the vaccines to ensure that the Russians are frozen out of the Europe pharma market in this as in all other dimensions. All for the purpose of denigrating and isolating the neighbor to the East.
The latest development in the vaccine war being pursued by Europe against Russia was announced on Russian news yesterday but does not seem to have found space in Western mainstream, namely the cancellation of the planned UK tour of the Bolshoi Theater, cancelled at the last minute by the UK because it now says it will not admit onto its holy soil anyone not vaccinated with a vaccine approved in the UK. Needless to say, these purists have not approved Sputnik V. The same anti-Russian policy is being implemented by the EU 27 Member States. All of which is very curious insofar as some Member States, notably Hungary, have vaccinated a substantial part of their population with precisely Sputnik V within their successful program to achieve the highest rates of vaccinated adults in all of Europe.
I do not wish to paint a totally black picture of European media. It was a very pleasant surprise to find in the mainstream Libre Belgique newspaper on 27 April an interview with the Lebanese-origin political scientist Rudolph el Kareh entitled “Biden is building on what Trump made.” Without any commentary from the editorial board, this lengthy interview overturns absolutely everything one would otherwise read in the same newspaper and in other European media about American foreign policy and its anti-Russian direction. El Kareh states openly that the whole of U.S. policy continues to be containment of Russia and China for the sake of propping up the failing U.S. global hegemony. He states openly that the United States has no allies, only vassals and slaves, and that Europe falls in the former category. To the editors, I take my hat off. But in my letter extending to them a bouquet for this interview, I ask why they otherwise print only the fake news they are handed by Washington and by lackeys that pass for governments on the Continent.
I have long been an admirer of your magnificent novels and I happened to be present in the Guild Hall in October 1999 when the jury chairman, former Labour Party minister Gerald Kaufman explained to the audience that he came from the “simple and naive world of politics and was unprepared for the long knives of literary critics.” Then he read off your name as winner for “Disgrace.” That was the first time ever that a given author was twice named laureate of the Booker Prize. At my table, we were all delighted.
I was present at the Awards Dinner in my capacity as Chairman of the Russian Booker Prize, an offshoot created by the UK Booker’s founder Sir Michael Caine in 1992. I mention that evening of October 1999 in my newly published “Memoirs of a Russianist, volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s”
You were remarkably brave in writing and publishing Disgrace, and the jury was brave to recognize its genius because you were directly opposing political correctness.
For all of the above reasons, I am greatly disappointed to learn that you affixed your signature to a letter petitioning Russian President Putin to release from prison the opposition personality Alexei Navalny.
With all due respect, I must tell you frankly that you have been duped by fellow intellectuals who are themselves the knaves of the Russia-bashers, the Ugly Americans who populate the governing political elite of the United States in both parties. To put it less formally, you don’t know your ass from your elbow when it comes to current Russian politics, when it comes to who is who and what is what. But this ignorance has not prevented your barging in precisely in the spirit of political correctness as it is practiced by the Collective West. Shame on you, Mr. Coetzee.
I will not be tedious. I will not explain why exactly Alexei Navalny has earned his fate, is a pawn in the hands of German, UK and US intelligence operatives, has no more than 4% of support within Russia as against 65% support enjoyed by Vladimir Putin, fair and square, in polling by many non-government experts. More to the point, Navalny in power would threaten European and world peace, since he is an outrageous xenophobe and Russian nationalist who has none of the self-restraint of the current Russian governing elites.
The video recording of yesterday’s presentation of “Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s” has now been released on http://www.youtube.com. I offer below the link to the video and the full text of the speech.
Speech: Presentation of “Memoirs of a Russianist, volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s”
First, I wish to thank the Russian House, Brussels for kindly inviting me to present the book today and for organizing this Zoom show.
Though it would be wonderful to be able to appear in person in the Russian House auditorium as was the case before Covid, there is an undeniable advantage to the Zoom technology in that the audience today extends across several countries – Belgium, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, the United States.
Moreover, it is thanks to Covid that I have books to present today. The self-isolation imposed on us by the pandemic led me to carry out a project that I had long postponed. The project of writing and publishing my Memoirs goes back more than ten years. Indeed, as you can read on the back cover of Volume II, it was already in my thoughts in 1998 when I was writing the diaries that are the basis of the Memoirs.
Five years ago I set out on the floor of my home office the 15 linear meters of files that went into Volume II, but they just sat there gathering dust. With no other distractions now and with the fear of imminent doom spurring me to act, over several months I spent my days transcribing the paper documents onto MS Word computer files. And from that I distilled the material now published in the books.
I speak of “books” because there are two – volume II which I will talk about today, covers the period when I worked as an expatriate manager in St Petersburg and Moscow, 1994 – 2002. Then there is volume I, which was also published in this past “year of the plague,” in November 2020 to be precise, and which covers the period from my childhood through my college years and work experience as consultant and as corporate manager looking after business in Russia and Eastern Europe from offices in Brussels, in London, in Frankfurt, all the way up to 1994.
I speak about Volume II today because it is the volume with greatest interest to the broad public. The 1990s were volatile, with dramatic changes in the economy, in domestic and foreign policy almost weekly. The times set the stage for the East-West confrontation of the 21st century and so have immediate relevance to today’s reader. However, Volume I has its own merits to recommend it to your attention: it helps you to understand where the author of Volume II came from, what intellectual baggage and life experience I brought with me to my assignments as expatriate manager in Russia in the 1990s. And within the narrative and diaries of Volume I there are chapters which the general reader can enjoy.
There are two high points of Volume I worth mentioning here. The first was the period when I headed my own consulting company and took the senior executives of a half dozen major U.S. corporations in the food processing and agricultural sectors to negotiations for major turnkey projects in the USSR. That is 1976-1980. The highest point within that period was my participation as a guest at the dinner in honor of Leonid Brezhnev in the Kremlin in December 1978. At that point, as a company president, I was among America’s 150 captains of industry singing “Happy Birthday, Dear Leonid Ilyich” to the General Secretary of the Communist Party. The second period of greatest interest in Volume I is the four years from 1989 to 1993 when I was employed by the logistics company United Parcel Service to create and then to operate a parcel delivery system in what had been the East Bloc, and within the USSR to create and co-manage a Joint Venture delivery company with Russia’s biggest ground transportation company, the trucking firm Sovtransavto. My adventures traveling across the Soviet Union as far as Vladivostok in the East, down to Central Asia where Uzbekistan became our main hub, and through the Baltic States and Ukraine are set down in diary entries which read like a time lapse recording of the final couple of years of the Soviet Union when it was in progressive dissolution and the local populations of the borderlands were trying to find new identities.
Volume II will soon be launched in a properly edited Russian translation by the St Petersburg publishing house Liki Rossii. It will have a new name: not “Memoirs” but “Diaries of a Russianist.” That name change will better reflect the true nature of these volumes.
Many people publish memoirs, often written decades after the events described and based on sketchy recollections. In my case, 75% of both volumes consist of diaries, a further 10% is news clippings and 15% is overarching narrative placed at the start of each book to orient the reader about the blocks of time that will follow.
As a professionally trained historian, with a doctorate based on research in state archives the contents of which tend to be dry and impersonal, I knew the value of diaries very well from when I was lucky to find such documents in the collections of university libraries. That value goes well beyond the details that our memories tend to lose later. Rather, the greatest value is to convey the thinking of the author and of his/her interlocutors at the time of the events, without any changes that are always introduced in memoirs written much later as personalities evolve over time and as social values change.
In keeping with this approach and not to compromise the status of these volumes as “primary sources,” I have kept the lessons I draw from the diaries largely to myself. You will find very few generalizations in these volumes. It is largely up to you to extract what you wish from the diaries depending on your interests.
However, today I will violate that principle and share with you in this presentation some of my conclusions from the diaries. These are in several dimensions worthy of note: domestic politics in Russia at the time, the challenges of doing business in Russia back then, foreign relations and culture.
Since the host of this book presentation is the Russian House was until recently known as the Science and CULTURAL Centre, I think it is appropriate to begin with and to devote most of my remarks to what my book tells us about Russian cultural life in the 1990s. That is all the more justified when you browse the diaries themselves and find, as I did, that a great deal of my time and attention was spent on Russian culture.
I will go into that in a moment. But first the overriding conclusion that I draw from the diaries in this particular dimension: that the performing arts in what we call High Culture were, are and likely will always be a defining characteristic of Russia and “Russianness.” Even in the very difficult times of the 1990s when the Russian economy had shrunk by 50% (compare that to the US loss of 30% of GDP in The Great Depression) Russia had one of the world’s richest offerings of high culture that we foreign residents, often living without our families, had the time and interest to explore.
However, I was not just a consumer of Russian culture. My work and my interests gave me the opportunity to participate in the creation of cultural events.
As the general manager in Russia of multinational corporations at a time when sales were in the hands of our local business partners, not run directly by our employees, and when most strategic direction was given by corporate headquarters in London or New York not by people in the field like myself, I had primary responsibility for public and government relations, for brand image, not for daily sales. This was all the more true during my two years 1998 to 2000 working for United Distillers/Diageo, the world’s largest liquor company then, and today, since the number one issue facing the company in Russia was the challenge to its ownership of the Smirnoff vodka brand by a local offshoot of the Smirnoff family, Boris, who had set up his own vodka brand and was capturing market share. His legal challenge was not only intended to drive our Smirnoff off the Russian market, which he successfully did, but also to collect billions of dollars in damages for the sale of Smirnoff around the world on the basis of wrongly claimed ownership. Since you have seen a lot of vodka brands on supermarket shelves, allow me to explain that in the period under review Smirnoff was the world’s best- selling vodka and the second best-selling hard liquor brand after Bacardi rum.
Besides the law courts, the defense of Smirnoff was carried out in the domain of public and government relations, which I answered for. Sponsorship in the arts was and is an important tool of public relations in the luxury goods sector. I was given a relatively free hand in choosing where and on what to spend the funds entrusted to me for these purposes.
For those of you unfamiliar with the workings of international business and who may believe that sponsorship is a crassly commercial activity motivated directly by profit targets, let me inform you that the relationship between sponsor and beneficiary is much more subtle and mutually advantageous. I will explain in detail in a moment.
First, I want to stress that the sponsorship activities which I oversaw were generally on a limited budget. Not all of them to be sure. Indeed, when I was general manager for United Distillers/Diageo my single biggest project was not cheap. I headed the board of the Russian Booker Literary Prize, because my company paid the bills of the competition, which came to about $200,000 per year. Of this $15,000 went to the first laureate of the Prize. The rest went into supporting and building out the infrastructure of the competition: the Long List and Short List announcements at press conferences, which entailed generous hospitality for journalists, and the Awards Dinners which were organized on a lavish scale. We engaged the main ballroom of the Metropole Hotel in downtown Moscow, opposite the Bolshoi Theater; we entertained our guests with a chamber orchestra conducted by a deputy to Valery Gergiev and with appearances by known stars including at the time Bolshoi Theater tenor Nikolai Baskov, who is today a leading television personality in Russia and crooner at every televised New Years celebration.
Otherwise, however, I was able to achieve considerable impact with spending far less money. This was all the more possible in St Petersburg, where I chose to hold many of our sponsorship events, partly because many could be executed there at a cost 10 times less than in Moscow. In 1996-97, on behalf of my employer Seagram & Sons, the Canadian liquor company, I arranged to sponsor four concerts of the St Petersburg Philharmonic Society to mark the 75 years of their founding. These were events with high visibility in St Petersburg to which I was able to purchase tickets for our VIP guests, including government officials of importance to our business, such as the head of the city’s customs office, the directors of our main importers and distributors with their wives. At one concert the star performer was the singer Barbara Hendricks, then in great demand across the world. At another the conductor was Sir Georg Solti. Our contribution to each concert was just $2,000. By an agreement with the managers of the magnificent Grand Hotel Europe across the street from the Philharmonic, we hosted post-concert receptions for the lead performers which were highly appreciated. In this we were recreating the tradition of such receptions that was widely practiced before the Revolution.
Another key cultural event for which I arranged sponsorship was also done jointly with the management of the St Petersburg Philharmonic: this was the first ever Russian performance of Dimitri Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (known only till then in its censored version “Ekaterina Izmailova”). This was to celebrate the anniversary of Shostakovich’s birth. The performances, two in Moscow and two in St Petersburg, under the direction of Mstislav Rostropovich, had national importance. That cost us a total of $20,000. In Moscow the proceeds of ticket sales were contributed to the reconstruction of the Christ the Savior cathedral, a project that enjoyed the patronage of Mayor Luzhkov, so that the donation made business sense in terms of our visibility before the authorities.
I do not mean to suggest that all events sponsored by major international companies in St Petersburg were cheap. On the same day as we had Sir Georg Solti at the Philharmonic, Mercedes Benz sponsored the performance in the Mariinsky Theater of the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Claudio Abbado. That must have cost Mercedes several hundred thousand dollars – to bring the entire orchestra to St Petersburg, and to host their VIP guests in loges at $600 per loge. Add to that the cost of the direct broadcast of the concert to Germany by German television.
Nonetheless, my point is that brand building activities in public and government relations do not have to be very expensive in cash, though they are very demanding of management time. The best payback is what I heard from Yasha Gordin, the editor in chief of St Petersburg’s literary journal Zvezda, after one of our sponsored concerts: “I see that your company Seagrams not only comes here to take but also to give back to Russian society.” That is what every sponsor wants to hear.
It takes two to tango, and I wish to point out that especially in St Petersburg we had very good partners in the general director Anton Getman of the Philharmonic Society and in the Mariinsky Theater, where we established excellent relations with the Intendant, Schwarzkopf.
Over the course of the six years I was working in Moscow from major corporate offices, my cultural activities began primarily in music, then moved to literature and finally to drama theater.
Aside from financial affordability, a major reason for concentrating on music in St Petersburg rather than Moscow was that at this time the Mariinsky theater of opera and ballet under the musical directorship of Valery Gergiev was unquestionably the leading house of music in the whole country. After the forced departure of choreographer Grigorovich, the Bolshoy was in disarray, ruled by committee.
In the 1990s, the Mariinsky Theater was my second home. Our closest friends in St Petersburg were the Kalagins. Sergei was one of a handful of conductors performing in the orchestra pit several times a week and also taking the orchestra on some foreign tours. For many of the performances which Gergiev himself conducted the preparatory work with the orchestra was carried out by Sergei or other assistants.
Thanks to Sergei, Larisa and I sat in the Director’s Loge several times a week. After a show we would leave with Sergei and often with his wife Irina and his daughter Nastya, then a student of the Conservatory and protégé of Larisa Gergieva in her group of young singers, to take champagne at the most prestigious meeting place in the city at that time, the Grand Hotel Europe. Anastastya Kalagina is today a soloist – soprano – in the Mariinsky. We also were introduced to Kalagin’s circle of friends among the opera singers – I name here Victor Chernomortsev and Sergei Naida, who were known in Europe and in the Metropolitan Opera in New York. All of these get-togethers were recorded in my diary and are largely reproduced in this book.
The Mariinsky meant still more to us. For a couple of years we rented an apartment from the first and second viola players in the orchestra, the Safarovs, and they invited us to their dacha, which Seva built in an artistic community outside Petersburg. We went to the debut performance in the Conservatory of their violinist daughter, who today is second violin in the Mariinsky.
Now a word about my involvement with Russian literature in the 1990s, or to be more exact, during the years 1998 to 2002 when I was the chairman of what was then Russia’s most prestigious private literary award, the Russian Booker Prize. For the first two years of my chairmanship, my position was directly attributable to my employment with the Prize’s general sponsor. However, after my departure from United Distillers/Diageo in 2000 I was kept on as chairman at the request of the U.K. Booker Prize in recognition of the substantial work I had been doing to expand the activities of the Prize in Russia and bring it into line with the formula for success that had made the UK Booker the world’s leading literary competition, attracting the attention of the British middle and upper classes, and yielding book sales of the laureates on the order of hundreds of thousands of copies.
When I came to the Booker, the Russian off-shoot needed excitement, to capture popular imagination. It also needed to do some work with the publishing industry and with booksellers to revive the supports to literature which had collapsed with the Russian economy from the late 1980s into the 1990s. In this regard, with the assistance of the British Embassy we arranged events bringing together these critical contributors to literary production and consumption. The lady general manager of the St Petersburg Dom Knigi, Samokhalova, was a strong supporter of these initiatives.
When I joined the Russian Booker, not a single novel nominated for the Prize was actually published as a self-standing book: they all had been appeared only in literary journals. We paid for a retrospective publication of the past laureates as hardbound volumes.
Adding well known authors to the Advisory Committee that oversaw the awards process was one task to raise the visibility of the Prize. In this regard, I can name one outstanding writer who joined at our invitation – the satirist Vladimir Voinovich. Still more important was the addition of popular personalities from the arts to the jury. The fact that the Booker jury changes every year was a key part of their success formula – to ensure that the personal taste of a permanent jury is not the determinant of winners year after year. With changing juries recognition is given to the highest quality in various literary trends. Thus, together with the Advisory Committee I brought onto the jury, Dmitry Bertman, enfant terrible and director of the fashionable boutique opera house beloved by Moscow intelligentsia, the Helikon Opera. Also the film maker Valeri Todorovsky. And actor Sergei Yursky ….
These appointments are all set out in the diaries.
Of course, everything comes to an end. When Diageo wound down its funding of the Booker in 2002 and a local sponsor stepped in, The Open Russia Foundation of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, it was time to turn over the chairmanship to a Russian and for me to move on. However, the moment of transition was by itself unexpectedly interesting and I recorded in my diary, published in Volume II, a verbatim account of my meeting with the new “owners” of the Russian Booker. That meeting sets out a clear rebuttal to anyone who says that Khodorkovsky stood for civil society in Russia. Quite the contrary, he and his foundation had no respect for our free jury and behaved like authoritarians. Thus, in 2003 the winner of the Russian Booker Prize was dictated by none other than Mikhail Khodorkovsky himself, who overrode the jury and issued the winner’s name from the prison cell where he was then.
In Moscow, there was still another cultural establishment with whom I brought my employers into a sponsorship relationship. I have in mind Yuri Lyubimov and his Taganka Theater in the period 1998-2002. Our “sponsorship contribution” consisted of wine and hard alcohol for their frequent receptions in the theater. These allowed them to be generous hosts to visitors of great importance, for example, the lady President of Finland. Or when they hosted the 80th birthday celebrations on stage for Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I was there and took down my notes on these extraordinary days.
At such events it is expected that luxury beverages will be served with the buffet table food. However, under rules of the Russian state Treasury, institutions receiving government funding were not allowed to spend money on liquor. We helped them out of this embarrassment repeatedly and regularly. In return, we were invited into the inner sanctums of the Taganka.
I think of the gatherings in Yuri’s offices where we could meet some very interesting personalities, as for example, our meeting with the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who was invited in to see Yuri since the latest show then in rehearsals was made possible by money from the award Triumph that Berezovsky sponsored. It was a revelation to see that Berezovsky, who was flattered by Katalin Lyubimova as “The Brain” in the room, could not remember her name when he was proposing a toast and addressed her as “Yuri’s companion for life.” These and similar notable events were captured in my diaries and are published in Volume II.
I mention here that Yuri Lyubimov first entered my consciousness in 1972 when my future bride Larisa Zalesova talked our way into the sold out Taganka performance of “Hamlet” starring the already then famous bard Vladimir Vysotsky. We were given places on the stairs. Then I had first met Lyubimov in person at the end of the 1980s when he was living in exile, based in Jerusalem, traveling the world and largely employed by opera houses, including nearby Bonn. He was here in Brussels for a couple of days staying with the dissident writer-publisher Maksimov, a friend and collaborator of Solzhenitsyn. Maksimov owned a house in the Brussels borough of Foret. I drove Lyubimov down to Namur for a day of mushroom hunting. These events are set out in Volume I of the Memoirs.
Doing business in Russia
When I arrived in Russia to live and work in 1994, there were at the time 50,000 expatriate managers and their families living there. Some in senior positions were my age. Many others were quite young, 15 or 20 years younger than me. Many of these comparative youngsters came to Russia to study the language and literature, saw the opportunities to get good jobs immediately and stayed to make their fortunes. I write about this cohort in the chapter of Volume II entitled “Who were we, the expatriates?”
I point out here that while some of the young foreigners were unprincipled opportunists others were highly talented and trained professionals who were using the vacancies in their chosen field to get invaluable experience in a major emerging market. This concerns journalists in particular. It is worth mentioning that the current Deputy Prime Minister of Canada Chrystia Freeland was in the late 1990s a reporter in Moscow for “The Financial Times.” Her well composed articles on many different facets of life in Russia were published several times a week. There were also some very smart journalists in what I would call the “underground” English language press in Moscow working for “The Exile” and other publications that exposed the hypocrisy of both expat and official Russian communities.
As regards doing business, the generalization I offer today is that it was very difficult, almost impossible to do business legally in Russia in the mid-1990s. The picture of Russia as a normal country governed by law that the Big Accounting firms were presenting to the headquarters of multinational corporations was nothing more than a Potemkin- village that contradicted the chaotic reality.
The problem was not an absence of law, although to be sure there were entire domains with respect to share trading, truth in advertising and so forth where the law did not yet reach. The bigger problem was the body of law that was inherited from the Communist past that was in flagrant contradiction with the market economy being introduced. This was the legacy of 70 years of Communism and was based on the assumption that all private business was run by criminals. Hence, there were restrictions on all business transactions. The Central Bank forced the commercial banks to act as policemen. Both income and expenses of more than a few dollars had to be justified to the bank managers. The situation was impossible.
Privatization was uppermost in the minds of Russian “reformers” and their Western backers but it did not address this critical dimension of the market economy in formation. Western mainstream media and Western politicians spoke of Russia’s problems as being the mafia, corruption. These were lesser evils. Meanwhile many Western consultants arriving on assignments for US Government and European Community agencies were abusing their fiduciary responsibilities when serving as advisers to the Russian reforms and engaging in their own corruption. I discuss this in the diary notes, backed up by news clippings.
The further problem facing business, both foreign and local business, was the never ending flow of new decrees and regulations supposedly to implement laws but in fact taking the place of laws. The many years’ war between President and Duma during the Yeltsin period meant there was no proper legislation during the whole time. The decrees were often contradictory and confusing as power shifted to and from among Yeltsin’s entourage between reformers and conservatives.
The alcoholic beverages industry in which I worked for most of the period 1994 to 2000 was one of the most criminalized in all of the Russian economy. It was also highly politicized. Taxes on liquor had accounted for about 30% of the Russian state budget in the days of the Soviet Union. They were still 23% when the Soviet Union collapsed. That is to say, liquor was as important to the Russian state then as gas and oil are today. For that reason, the taxes and regulations governing the alcohol industry were a point of contention among the politicians at the top. I was following closely the political fortunes of Anatoly Chubais back then because his policies on the alcohol industry were of decisive importance to our daily work. Hence the extensive diary notes on who was who in the Presidential Administration. These may not be of interest to every reader, but they will have importance for historians of the period.
Russian Domestic Politics
As I leafed through my diary notes, I found many entries reporting on speeches behind closed doors delivered by leading Russian politicians of the day, for example the governor of Novgorod oblast, Mikhail Prusak, or the deputy minister of Finance or the head of the Tax Administration.. But the speakers were not only members of the government, federal and provincial. They also included important people from the State Duma, such as the chairman of the Committee on Taxation. These gatherings were often organized by the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow, which despite its name, was the largest business club of all international companies operating in Russia.
Then there were also industry association gatherings that I attended such as those organized by the alcohol producers and bottlers Rosalko. They were busy preparing to lobby the government to save the industry which in 1996 was operating at only 10% of capacity for a number of reasons that the government could remedy if it took an interest. At these meetings the leading figures in the Government responsible for excise taxes and other issues of vital importance to the industry spoke. What emerges from my diary entries is in direct contradiction with what we are accustomed to think about the domestic political situation in Russia during the Yeltsin years, namely that a Reformist minded Executive was in never ending conflict with a Communist dominated legislature, compelling the use of presidential decrees to get things done.
What I saw before me was very often incompetent or wholly impractical people from the Ministries and presidential administration and very competent and patriotic legislators from the Duma who knew their economics very well. And while we in the West celebrated the Liberal Reformer Boris Nemtsov for the supposed economic miracle in his Nizhny Novgorod oblast, which never happened in fact, the quietly efficient and business friendly governor of Novgorod oblast situated between St Petersburg and Moscow, had captured several of the country’s biggest manufacturing investments, including the 200 million dollar Cadbury chocolate factory and the Stimorol chewing gum factory thanks to focused assistance to overcome bureaucratic obstacles in such matters as fire inspection and housing for workers. Prusak did not offer tax breaks and that did not harm to his attractiveness to foreign investors.
Then there is the issue of good and evil in the Russian political world, a never ending refrain in Western commentary on Russia up to the present. Those Russian politicians who provided favors to Western business were by definition Reformers and their opponents were by definition retrogrades, Neanderthals.
However, as one sharp tongued political analyst writing in the “underground” English language press in Moscow observed in his commentary on Boris Nemtsov as a phony Liberal and de facto defender of the status quo: we Westerners always painted Russian political fights as between good and evil when most often they were, like political contests everywhere, a fight over power and the perquisites of holding office and not much more. We very easily forget that in the 1990s nearly all of those occupying office within the government or elected to office by popular vote were former Communists with the same education and life experience. Liberals took to authoritarian behavior and to corruption once in power like ducks to water. The reality was that Russia was ruled by presidential decree and by implementing regulations issued for all new and old laws which had the power of laws themselves. There was a constant flow of regulations from the top down. The political direction of these edicts and regulations changed at any moment depending on the shifting balance of power in the Executive, with Liberals like Chubais in favor one day and out of favor the next.
Of course my diary and the news clippings record the developing international relations and the growing alienation of Russia from the US led International Community. Russia’s liberation from Western tutelage was signaled by the retirement of “Mr. Yes,” Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and his replacement by Evgeni Primakov, a strong defender of national interests and “realism” in foreign policy. What is less noted in Western accounts of the period but what impressed me was how the Duma elections of 1995 and emergence of strong nationalist and pro- Communist voters fed the argument in the West that Russia might turn from the liberal democratic path, and so NATO enlargement would protect against any resurgent Russia.
I also direct your attention to my description of one of the turning points in Russian –Western relations, the murder of American investor Paul Tatum in November 1996. His gangland style execution just outside the hotel-business center of which he was co-owner together with Mayor Luzhkov’s Property Office, showed that Western businessmen were as likely to see any disputes with Russian partners settled in gun battles as were purely Russian bankers and businessmen. That was a shock to the entire Western business community.
These are some of the highlights of Volume II in my reading. The book is vast, nearly 800 pages. No doubt every reader will find what interests him or her most and will skip material that is outside that focus of interest. I do not expect the average reader to go through this book word for word, page for page. But I do believe there is enough variety to satisfy both specialists who will use this book in university courses as a primary source and general readers who want to learn about those fateful years in Russia from a very personal perspective of someone whose feet were on the ground and had the advantage of being an outsider recording the views of the expatriate community as well as of Russians in all levels of society.
I stopped watching Russia’s premier political talk show “Evening with Vladimir Solovyov” about two years ago, because it had gone completely stale with the same guys and gals chewing the cud show after show about Ukraine’s imminent collapse. However, I tuned in last night and was surprised to hear some rather good commentary on Putin’s Address to the Nation.
As one analyst remarked, the foreign affairs section was notable as much for what Putin did not say as for what he did. No country was named. It was all rather abstract except for the specifics of the Belarus assassination plot. The idea was to leave the US and the Collective West guessing about Russia’s next moves. Not a word about Biden and the proposed summit. Not a word about the intended use of the troops massed at the Ukrainian border. Not tipping his hand in any way. At the same time, the intent of the segment on foreign affairs, just as in the all of the speech devoted to domestic issues, was to calm the Russian public, to say in effect, don’t worry, don’t be alarmed by the news, everything is well under control. We are ready for anything sent our way!
Incidentally, in the morning yesterday, hours before Putin went on air, the Russian news wires carried a quote from Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov that the Federation Council (upper house of Parliament) is expecting a message from Putin directing them to vote without delay on any legislative resolution authorizing the President to send the armed forces into action outside the borders of the Russian Federation. Zyuganov said he would vote for such a resolution. That shoe did not drop during the Address to the Nation. But when/if it comes the Russians will be doing exactly what US law requires in the States – receiving from Parliament authorization for what is, in effect, a declaration of war. Given that such formal declarations have for decades been dispensed with in America while the White House pursues war by stealth in various hot spots across the globe, should Putin put military action in Ukraine to a vote, he will show which country in fact is a Rechtsstaat, or nation under law, and which is, as the title of one of books by Robert Kagan, Neocon theorist and husband to incoming Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, says outrageously, the Dangerous Nation.
President Putin’s annual address to a joint session of the bicameral legislature which was held today in Moscow with a considerable presence of invited representatives of civil society generally followed the tradition of the past two years in terms of allocation of time to domestic and foreign policy. Now as then the lion’s share of his talk was devoted to what he called the “everyday issues” (бытовые вопросы) that are of greatest interest to the average television viewer across the country: financial assistance to families with children, improving medical services, investments in high-speed auto routes passing through St Petersburg and Moscow to Kazan and Yekaterinburg, keeping food prices under control under conditions of pandemic caused inflation, vaccinating the whole country.
Foreign policy and the deployment of the latest strategic weapons systems took up just 10 minutes at the end of his speech of nearly one and a half hours. But for the “Kremlinologists” among us, those last minutes were golden, meaning they contained substantive material for discussion, bearing in mind that for speeches such as this every word has been weighed in advance and nothing is spontaneous or superfluous.
It was remarkable that Vladimir Vladimirovich began his survey of international issues with mention of the attempted assassination of Belarus President Lukashenko, which he described as entailing more than the liquidation of one man. According to Putin, the coup d’etat would have been accompanied by a massive cyber-attack provoking the shutdown of electricity and all infrastructure. All of this, he was beyond the pale. And yet, he further added, it received no condemnation from the Collective West. Finally, Putin likened the foiled plot to what happened in Kiev in February 2014 when Ukrainian President Yanukovich was forced from power by a coup and attempts were made to murder him as he fled the capital and made his way to the Russian frontier to find refuge.
In fact, these likenesses follow ironclad logic of responsibility which goes back to the United States. So far from Belarus itself we have heard that the plotters were funded by United States intelligence operatives. Surely that was also true in 2014. But behind them stood diplomats, in particular a certain Victoria Nuland who ran the show apparently without oversight by her nominal bosses in the State Department or in the White House of Barack Obama.
In fact, the Collective West has not merely failed to condemn the Belarus operation, it has not acknowledged in any way the Belarus-Russian claims of a foiled plot, though all the elements of their activities on the project at a downtown Moscow restaurant were shown on Russian television prior to their arrest and transfer to Minsk for interrogation. And there has been a total blackout of news coverage in US major media, a near total blackout in European media.
One may speculate variously on the reasons for this blackout. A couple of days ago I wrote that the revelations of the foiled plot made by Russia’s premier weekly news program on Sunday caught Washington by surprise, and since they had no way of knowing how much the captured plotters would reveal about Washington’s implication in it all, they ordered everyone to just shut up. Today, I see an additional and more persuasive factor to explain Operation Silence: these days that very same Victoria Nuland has been passing through the vetting in the Senate of her appointment as Under Secretary of State for Policy. Her approval seemed to be in the bag. It would have been most inconvenient for the February 2014 events, for Victoria’s famous “Fuck the EU” remarks on an intercepted telephone conversation with the US ambassador to Ukraine to be brought up in connection with the very similar operation now in Belarus.
By placing the Belarus assassination plot in his Address to the Federal Assembly, Putin has made it very difficult for the Western press to continue to ignore the issue.
In his last book “War with Russia?” my friend and colleague Steve Cohen wrote about the flagrant censorship of news being carried on by The New York Times in support of its Russia-bashing editorial policies. Said Cohen, the newspaper’s century old slogan of “All the News That’s Fit to Print” has been turned into “All the News that Fits” when it comes to coverage of Russia.
But the problem goes far deeper than the professional malpractice of one leading newspaper in America. The censorship of news carried by mainstream media by U.S. authorities covers not only the domestic press but also the mainstream of Allied countries. News blackouts are imposed when something ugly arises implicating the United States in violation of international norms of state behavior for which the State Department has no ready explanation or white wash.
This very situation seems to have arisen over the weekend, when news broke in Moscow over the arrest of two conspirators plotting a coup d’état in Minsk, to be carried out by the Belarus armed forces tentatively during the 9 May parade celebrating victory over fascist Germany in the Second World War.
Other leading English-speaking papers such as The Guardian and The Financial Times have front page reports on Alexei Navalny’s near death condition in a prison camp but not a word about Belarus. Ditto the Frankfurter Allgemeine and Le Figaro. Curious, n’est-ce pas? Warum? Let’s look into the story in its full dimension.
Last night’s News of the Week program hosted by Dimitry Kiselyov, Russia’s top manager of state news programming, began with a 20 minute report on the extraordinary arrest of two conspirators plotting armed rebellion entailing the murder of Lukashenko and his family, abolition of the post of President, installation of a Committee of Concord such as previously had been headed by the opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
But these were not empty allegations. The arrests followed on a meeting by the two conspirators with Belarus military officers held in a downtown Moscow restaurant which was filmed from start to finish by the Russian state security agency, the FSB. Lengthy segments of recordings from their meeting and discussion of their treasonous plans were aired on the Kiselyov program. Moreover, the accused are not some unknown pawns such as the British presented to the world press when they released their accusations against Russia over the Skripal poisoning. No, one of the two arrested was the former press secretary of Lukashenko, a person who would have had all the contacts necessary to organize such a rebellion. The other plotter has dual US-Belarus citizenship and was well known as a fighter against Lukashenko’s rule.
The two were turned over to the Belarus KGB for interrogation in Minsk. Surely further information about the links of the plotters to Ukraine, to Poland and to the United States will come out in the next few days.
What we have here is “very likely” (to use current Anglo-American political jargon) involvement of the United States in yet another regime change operation. The revolution from below in Belarus led by Tikhanovskaya with support from Poland and Lithuania failed. The anti-Lukashenko street demonstrations led to nothing. And now Plan B, a putsch from above, was being organized to achieve the objective of removing Lukashenko both politically and physically. We have not seen such openly murderous plans with “likely” U.S. backing since John Kennedy’s days when the assassination of Fidel Castro was the hot game in D.C.
On the same “very likely” logic, I permit myself to take this all back to the door of the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Policy designate Victoria Nuland. The links to Warsaw and Kiev that appear present are all in line with what she was doing to precipitate the Maidan in 2013 and violent overthrow of the sitting President in Kiev amidst attempts to murder him as he made his escape to Russian territory in February 2014.
From all of the foregoing, it looks as though U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s pledge several weeks ago that the US would no longer pursue “orange revolutions” was either an out and out lie or made without his knowing that control of foreign policy no longer is in his hands, but is being carried out by his nominal subordinate, Mme Nuland. No wonder that the U.S. has ordered “stop the presses” on this story until it can put together some plausible response.
In the meantime, the same news program delivered the Kremlin’s response to the Czech action over the weekend to expel 18 diplomats from the Russian embassy in Prague over allegations that Russia was involved in blowing up an arms depot near the capital back in 2014, an event which previously the Czech authorities had blamed on the owners-managers of the depot. Per the Kremlin, these new and absurd Czech charges of Russia’s nefarious activities were agreed with Washington to direct attention away from the pending story about U.S. involvement in plans to murder the Belarus head of state.
Are we headed to World War III? If the war machinery today were like what existed in August 1914, the answer would be unquestionably yes. It is our good fortune that until someone on either side of the East-West divide pushes the Red Button, there are ways back from the abyss. However, we are still heading in the wrong direction, towards the abyss, and the United States is the prime mover.