Immigration! A review of Theo Francken, “Continent sans frontière”

Continent sans frontière [Continent Without a Border] directs a powerful spotlight on one of the central issues in current political life in Europe and the United States:  immigration policy.

Ever since the tidal wave of over one million unprocessed, illegal migrants hit European shores in the summer and early autumn of 2015, the questions surrounding the EU’s “open borders” policy practiced at that time under the welcoming slogan of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel “wir schaffen das” [we can handle it] have changed the political landscape on the Old Continent.

The author argues that this unprecedented flood of immigrants was a major contributing factor to the decision of the British to leave the European Union during their June 2016 referendum (Brexit). This wave aggravated a pre-existing resistance to newcomers in Britain resulting from the settlement of more than a million Poles and others from Eastern Europe since their accession to the Union in 2004, with the accompanying depressing effect on wages and housing conditions for native Britons.

He also argues that the 2015 wave of illegal arrivals consolidated opposition to Brussels in the Central European Member States known as the Vysehrad Four, raising the possibility of a further disintegration of the Union if the underlying differences over immigration and multiculturalism are not resolved. And, of course, it gave impetus to protests against the ruling elites that we now know as the “populist” parties on the right and left extremes of the political spectrum, which may unseat the centrist majority in the European Parliament in the May 2019 elections. Across the pond, border control has been one of the main issues used by Donald Trump to take and hold the presidency. In a word, the issues confronted in this book are of primary importance in the world’s leading democracies.


Who is the author?

Theo Francken is uniquely qualified to present the subject. From 2014 until the fall of the coalition government in which his party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) was the power behind the throne, Francken was the State Secretary for Asylum and Immigration.

As a central figure in the controversial immigration affairs, he was a highly visible member of a party that until its grudging acceptance into a coalition government formed under pressure of financial crisis had been dealt with at arms’ length by polite Belgian society. It was precisely disagreement over his dossier, immigration policy, that pitted the N-VA against the Center-Left Prime Minister Charles Michel in December 2018 and brought down the Government. The point of contention was N-VA opposition to Belgian participation in the intergovernmental conference to adopt a global compact on migration backed by the United Nations and held in Marrakesh earlier in the month.

In his official capacity, all during his tenure Francken participated not only in Belgian internal wrangling over the immigration issue but in talks at the European level where he represented the respective meetings of the European Council.  In this book, he explains the dynamics of the European tug-of-war over immigration from his insider perspective.

As one of the younger members of government who made his share of gaffes along the way, Francken has been the object of vituperous attack not only from opponents in other political parties but from the Belgian mainstream media, academics and NGOs as a moral reprobate, a man without a heart.  He has been labeled a xenophobe, a fascist. Thus, it is no accident that in this book the author goes out of his way to show us his utter reasonableness and lawyer’s training in presenting carefully researched and argued positions. Unlike his detractors, Francken claims the high ground of intellectual debate and does not engage in ad hominem attacks which are the bane of modern political life.  This makes the book all the more extraordinary and much more valuable than one normally expects from political memoirs.

* * * *

In Continent sans frontière, Theo Francken covers his subject comprehensively, from many angles, past, present and future. In this segment, I will call out the subjects and to a limited extent the argumentation of the sequence of chapters.

Francken opens by introducing us to the misrepresentation of the migrant crisis from the get-go that made it possible for the well-intentioned European public to accept an influx it might never have tolerated had it known the facts.

In September 2015, the migrants were by official account and by unanimous media coverage described as being largely Syrian refugees, often well-educated folk, fleeing the bombs of Bashir Assad and the terror imposed by ISIL.  However, from the information available in Belgium’s Office of Foreigners, the reality appeared to be quite different: less than 20% of those who applied to settle in Belgium in the period from September to December 2015 were of Syrian origin. Most were young Afghan and Iraqi males, and they came not from war-torn parts of their countries but from the capitals, Kabul and Baghdad, which were relatively stable at the time. By his estimation, these were strictly economic migrants seeking their fortunes in Europe and having no right to consideration for asylum or to entry without advance processing and issuance of visas. Moreover, the majority of even those who claimed to be Syrians when reporting to authorities across Europe had not come directly from Syria, but from UN-administered camps or from the major cities of Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan, where they had taken temporary residence. That is to say, they faced no threats to their lives prior to entering Europe.

Francken insists that these facts were all accessible to the media, but that they chose instead to present an entirely false image of pretty young female and child asylum seekers or of young men with artistic ambitions. In this effort, the media were backed up by progressive politicians who took liberties with the facts, all for the sake of a good cause.  The shared objective was to elicit sympathy from the broad population while blackening the reputation of politicians of the Right, of realists, who called for shutting the borders and pushing back the migrants.

Francken then asks what was the driver of the migration if it was not war. This he identifies as the Eldorado principle, the hopes for a better life among the lower middle classes of Northern and Western Africa as well as from the extended Middle East who could find the several thousand dollars to pay smugglers the passage to Europe as clandestines.

He asks why it was precisely these geographic areas that have generated the millions of candidate migrants to Europe, and in the end, concludes that it is the very high birth rates in the source countries which exceeds any sustainable economic growth and produces each year a surplus of young and dispossessed males who form the legions of migrants if given a chance.  The heightened fertility comes back to a cultural factor in common:  Islam.

Francken turns next to the question of why millions of people living in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa are drawn to Europe. Prosperity, stability, liberty are all factors. But why Europe? Why not to Japan, to Indonesia, to Australia, where the same positive attractions beckon? The reason is that Europe’s frontiers have been left unprotected, whereas the other possible destinations firmly protect their borders and push back would be arrivals.

This brings us to the question of how and why Europe’s borders are open. One is that European society and countries are divided in their thinking about migration, with the left of the political spectrum expressing considerable sympathy. They draw on Christian ethical teachings, charitable impulses and feelings of guilt over our own good fortune, which is deemed to be arbitrary. The result is a mentality that “the world belongs to all.” The notion of “illegal” immigrants is rejected on principle. Those reasoning in this way go on to claim that migrations have existed in every epoch and that there is nothing that can prevent them.

Francken also finds many apologists for mass migration among business elites. The influx of immigrants will provide new consumers and workers, rejuvenating Old Europe and providing a net benefit for the economy.  He patiently walks us through the facts, showing that yes, immigration can bring benefits, but only if it is controlled, if the candidates are vetted in advance to match their skills with the needs of the economy in the country of arrival. Thus, there has indeed been benefit to the economy in the United States, in Canada, in Australia, where such screening is done. However, chaotic arrivals and passive immigration based on the principle of family reunification give no such positive proofs. On the contrary, they indicate net losses from financial assistance to the majority who are not placed in jobs within four years of arrival.  Studies in Germany already in October 2015 indicated that the majority of arrivals in the country were illiterate or had very little education. And the final bill to Germany for its open arms to illegal migrants in 2015 was a whopping 50 billion euros annualized.


Francken moves on to explore how it was that Europe was politically powerless to control its borders and push back against the illegal flows of migrants in 2015.  Here he walks us through a sequence of judicial decisions by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg starting in 1989 with an extradition case which expanded the provisions of the 1950 Convention on Human Rights, Article 3, prohibiting torture and inhuman or degrading treatment beyond any semblance of the limited intentions of the framers and original signatories of the Convention. The Court effectively curtailed sharply the options of government authorities across Europe to refuse entry and to forcibly eject illegal immigrants and unprocessed asylum seekers. What we are shown is the judiciary at the European level encroaching on the legislative powers and violating the principle of separation of powers.

One consequence was to render inoperable the provisions of the compromise framework of Member States on handling immigrants known as the Dublin Agreement. That governed return of immigrants to the Member State where they first entered the EU. These problems were aggravated by follow-on court rulings at the national level.  The end result is that when the hundreds of thousands of migrants arrived in Greece in 2015 from Turkey and elsewhere, they no longer could be kept in place or returned to Greece if they moved further into the Schengen area, and Greece became just a transit country.

The courts also exerted a decisive and baneful influence on Europe’s options for controlling arrivals from the sea.  The European navies were denied the right to turn back migrants at sea. The result is that very quickly the passage to Europe on chartered boats destined for European ports hundreds of kilometers away morphed into passage on unseaworthy small rubber dinghies dispatched from the Libyan coast and sailing to international waters just beyond the 12 mile limit, where they could be met and “rescued” by mercy ships made available by European NGOs promoting immigration who conveyed them to Europe.

Further decisions at the European level, in this case the Dublin Agreement itself, shaped and encouraged yet another outstanding feature of the migrant influx of autumn 2015: the arrival of nearly 90,000 undocumented, unaccompanied minors. The well-circulated fact that such minors would be given freedom to choose their country of asylum within Schengen, whereas adult migrants had no such right, encouraged parents in West Africa, in the extended Middle East to forcibly send children on their way to the hazards of passage to Europe in the expectation that once they arrived they would establish residence, being untouchable till they reached 18 and in the meantime would file on behalf of their parents and siblings on the principle of “family reunification.”

Francken goes on to explain that whereas Belgium and The Netherlands used radiographic techniques to establish the true age of self-declared undocumented “minors,” Germany, the biggest destination for the “children’s crusade” did nothing whatsoever to verify ages and by ignorance or deception granted asylum to persons who were de facto adults.  The knock-on effect was that such young adults were placed in schools where they were several years older than their native-born peers. The most egregious such cases were recorded in Sweden, which of all European countries was the most zealous to take in “refugees” and demonstrated the most suffocating conformism in denying the realities of those who were arriving at its processing centers.

Theo Francken takes his time walking us through these developments precedent setting case by case.

Although, as I said at the outset, the author does not engage in character assassination when discussing his political opponents, he does name names and bring out inconsistencies and prevarication. This is particularly the case in his indictment of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, whose unqualified position in favor of open doors and unrestricted immigration was made clear at the height of the crisis in September 2015 and in his determination thereafter to force Member States to accept quotas of immigrants, notwithstanding the strong resistance of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia (Vysehrad Four). Thus, he finds that Juncker has done serious damage to EU solidarity and credibility.

Finally, Theo Francken looks at how other industrialized countries have managed to stay on the right side of international law, while enforcing a robust defense of their borders against illegal migration.  He sees the practices of Australia as exemplary in this regard and discusses them at some length. His point is that given the political will, Europe can also implement a rational and at the same time humane immigration policy.




* * * *

Continent sans frontière was first published by the author in his native Flemish. The French language edition was put out very soon afterwards. At his book presentation in a French-speaking literary club in Brussels in mid-December, that is about a month after publication, where Francken spoke very good French and established rapport with his audience, he proudly announced that more than 10,000 copies in French had already been sold.  Given the small scale of the book trade in this country, given the curses sent his way by the press, this achievement was quite remarkable.

It is a great pity that so far no English language edition has yet appeared or been promised. The issues addressed in this book have relevance far beyond the state of Belgium,

Finally, I note that this book has value as a chronicle of our times in a wholly different dimension. Throughout, Francken shows how the ruling elites in Belgium, in a manner undistinguishable from counterparts in the United States, in Germany and elsewhere, link arms with mainstream media, with universities, think tanks and NGO’s to dictate what our values should be and what can and cannot be the proper subject of public discussion.

Exactly the same phenomenon occurs with respect to a couple of other major issues which are the defining moments of our day:  climate change and relations with Putin’s Russia.


Suppression of free debate on immigration may lead to the break-up of the EU, which we will all survive even if we have deep regrets.  Suppression of free debate on climate change may lead to economic slowdown that serves no useful purpose, to much higher energy costs for the public and industry, to power blackouts due to the irregularity and shortfalls of renewable sources. We can also survive that.  However, suppression of free debate on relations with Russia is something we may not survive. Our present policies, which are uninformed by public discussion and face no challenge thanks to blacklisting of anyone putting a question to our complacent Establishment, are leading us directly into nuclear confrontation and possible Armageddon.

In this book, Theo Francken wears his politics on his sleeve. He is a proud Rightist, and he denounces at every turn the uninformed and lazy idealism of the Left, of “progressive humanity” and “constructive media” for the bad policies on immigration handed down and enforced by our courts, by our legislators and by the executive arm of government at the national and supranational levels. He makes a compelling argument.

However, in our democracies with their alternation in power, the vices of enforced conformism can and do attach themselves to Right as well as Left over a period of decades, The greater principle is that muzzling or denigration of political opponents impoverishes our thinking processes. Destructive policies are not required to prove themselves in an open marketplace of ideas. Political correctness of all stripes curtails pluralism, which is the precondition for a vital democracy.



©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

The Kremlin’s Military Posture Re-considered: strategic military parity with the U.S. or absolute military superiority over the U.S.


To the vast majority of Americans, including the foreign policy establishment, the question posed in the title may seem something of a joke. After all, absolute military superiority over Russia and other potential rivals for global influence has been the objective of US military policy for the last twenty-five years or more, at vast budgetary expense. One instrument for its achievement has been the roll-out of a system known as the global missile defense, which in effect encircles Russia and China, posing the threat of massive simultaneous missile strikes that could overwhelm any defenses.  To intelligence specialists at the Pentagon, who likely have been watching, as I have done, what the Kremlin disseminated earlier today in Russian only versions so far, the question of Moscow turning the tables is entirely serious and shocking.

When Vladimir Putin first publicly described Russia’s latest state-of-the-art weapons systems in development and deployment one year ago, during his 1 March 2018 Address to the bicameral legislature, he said these systems would ensure the re-establishment of full strategic parity with the United States. Western media sniggered. US politicians, with a very few exceptions, chose to ignore what they considered to be just domestic electioneering during a presidential campaign that Putin was expected to win handily. It was all a bluff, they said.

In his annual Address this past Wednesday, 22 February, President Putin expanded on those developments in armaments, reported which systems were now entering active service. He made it clear one of them is the planned Russian response to a likely consequence of US withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty: the stationing by the U.S. of nuclear armed cruise missiles like the Tomahawk on land and directed against Russia, all of which would reduce the warning time of incoming attack in Moscow to just 10 – 12 minutes and constitute an existential risk.

Putin, being Putin, did not spell out the threats implicit in the prospective deployment of the new Russian weapons systems. He remained always polite and open to discussion in his speech.  But as we saw earlier today, he entrusted the task of dotting i’s to  a member of his close entourage, Dmitry Kiselyov who is the chief administrator of all news programs on Russian state television while also serving as the anchor of the widely watched News of the Week, a summary newscast shown on two federal channels on Sunday evenings. To expand the circulation still more beyond the News of the Week audience, the segment dealing with Putin’s Address and the new arms systems was released as a separate 10 minute video on early in the afternoon.

And a summary of the information in the television broadcast was distributed still earlier today by the associated news agency, RIA Novosti.

The central point of the television broadcast was summarized in one paragraph by RIA Novosti and bears repeating here. It makes reference to the threat of shortened warning times of incoming American missiles and to the Russian “mirror like” response. Putin claimed that Russia now has the means to respond immediately and with full confidence of success. Such counter measures would be directed not only at countries hosting the American missiles but at the “decision making centers” authorizing use of these missiles, meaning in the United States.

With more than a dollop of sarcasm, Putin had said in his speech that the Americans surely can still count. He urged them to consider the speed and the range of the new missile system that will be arrayed against them before taking any decision on deploying land-based Tomahawks and similar t in Europe.

We were told today that the Russian missile system that Putin had in mind as his counter measure is the Zircon, a hypersonic missile capable of traveling at 11,000 km/hour and having a range of 1,000 km. It can be installed in submarines that already carry the Kalibr cruise missile which was used to great effect in the Syrian campaign.

Kiselyov’s people now did the calculations for us on what the Zircon will mean for US security. I quote from RIA Novosti:

“If we [Russians], without violating anything or disturbing anyone, should simply locate in the oceans our submarines equipped with launchers of the Zircon missiles – each carrying 40 pieces, – then in the operational zone of the Russian hypersonic weapons we find the very centers of decision making about which Putin spoke. Our vessels are situated beyond the boundaries of the exclusive economic zone of the USA which extends 200 miles from the coast.  Two hundred miles is 370 kilometers. We can calmly position ourselves at 400 km from the coast. All these centers of decision making are also not so far from the coast. Let’s say they are an additional 400 km. Thus, a total of 800 km. The Zircon flies with a speed of 11,000 km/h.  Thus to cover the 800 km the Zircon spends a bit less than five minutes. This is a problem that third grade school children can solve. There you have it, the flight time.”

And which decision-making centers in the United States will the Russians be targeting? On the East Coast, they are the Pentagon, Camp David and Fort Ritchie in Maryland.  On the West Coast:  McClellan Air Force base in California and Jim Creek [Naval Radio Station] in the state of Washington.  What Kiselyov was talking about might be called a “decapitating strike” or a “first strike capability” against all of US strategic command and control over its nuclear forces that would leave the US unable to respond in a coordinated manner.

After setting out these facts, Dmitry Kiselyov turned over the reporting to a journalist team who described in some detail the other major new weapons systems that Vladimir Putin first mentioned one year ago and spoke of in passing on the 22nd, bringing us up to date on the state of their testing and or introduction in the active armed forces. However, there is no need for us to deal with them, because they reflect the vast potential for attack on the United States that the Russians would enjoy following the decapitating strike of the Zircon systems. Or perhaps it would be better to say that these duplicative systems operate in parallel with Zircon since several are fully capable of penetrating and evading US anti missile systems on their own.

There was however, one especially noteworthy point from their report, a statement by Minister of Defense Shoigu underlining the high efficiency of the Russian arms development, which, he said, costs hundreds of times less than the systems being developed by the US for use against Russia. Plus the minute or so of additional video which they took from Putin’s speech closing out the discussion of weapons and foreign policy. The Russian President remarked that he was ready at all times to negotiate with the United States over arms limitation whenever the States are ready to do so on an equitable basis. And he continues to seek full-bodied, mutually beneficial and friendly relations with America.

* * * *

How can we characterize this Russian broadcast?  Is it a threat, pure and simple? Or is there something else that the Kremlin has in mind?

One might say that the intention was to warn the US to come to its senses and reconsider its withdrawal from the INF Treaty.  Failing that, it is a warning not even to think about stationing cruise missiles in Europe, lest the Russians proceed with the Zircon deployment.

However, it is also possible to see the Kremlin announcement as presaging Russia’s taking absolute strategic military superiority over the United States, i.e., appropriating to itself what it accuses the United States of having tried to achieve vis-à-vis Russia with encirclement and the move of NATO to Russian borders.

In this connection, it is worth paying attention to one other broadcast on Russian television this past week, on Thursday, 23 February, that is the day after Putin’s speech. This was  a lengthy interview with Yakov Kedmi,  an Israeli political scientist and intelligence expert speaking by video link from Tel Aviv to Russia’s most authoritative political  talk show, Evening with Vladimir Solovyov. See

Kedmi is a frequent guest on the Solovyov show, both in person and on video link. He is a colorful personality with unusual insights into military and foreign policy of Russia and in the Middle East. A  former Soviet citizen, a Jewish “refusenik” who was long denied emigration rights but finally did leave for Israel, he made a career in one of the Israeli intelligence agencies and was declared persona non grata in Russia. Then about five or six years ago his right to travel to Russia was restored and he has been making appearances on Russian television ever since.

In his analysis of Putin’s speech and of the new security posture of Russia, Kedmi argued that thanks to its latest weapons systems the country is well positioned to establish absolute strategic superiority over the United States. To respond to the challenge of these weapons in kind, the US will have to make enormous new investments that it will not be able to afford unless it cuts back on its global network of military bases.

Perhaps Kedmi’s most interesting and relevant observation is on the novelty of the Russian response to the whole challenge of American encirclement. He noted that for the past 200 or more years the United States considered itself secure from enemies given the protection of the oceans. However, in the new Russian military threat, the oceans will now become the most vulnerable point in American defenses, from which the decapitating strike can come.

Now the ball is in the American court.  Much will depend on how Washington responds to the Russian challenge and whether the Russian red lines over installation of cruise missiles in Europe are crossed.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Shinzo Abe in cloud cuckoo land: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the chances for a Japanese-Russian peace treaty

Sundays in Russia, like Sundays in most of the Western world, are usually not news generating days. However, today Moscow broke that rule and provided Russia-watchers with a couple of very weighty international affairs developments that I will analyze in this article on Japan and in another article later today on what the termination of the INF Treaty will mean for Russian military doctrine, namely reaching for the Holy Grail of a first strike, a decapitating strike capability against the United States in the foreseeable future.

What these two developments today have in common is how the very harsh messages are being delivered: not by the head of state, Vladimir Putin, but by members of his inner circle, his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the knock-out blow on Japanese expectations of a peace treaty so long as Shinzo Abe is prime minister, and the head of news on Russian broadcasting, Dmitry Kiselyov, as regards the detailed explanation of Russian plans for arms deployment following the end of the INF Treaty.

I have said a number of times that the USA and Europe have been lulled into disbelieving war is possible because of Putin’s very gentlemanly demeanor and mild language when speaking to us, even as we impose potentially crippling sanctions on his country and wage an information war against him personally and against his country. Just a couple of weeks ago, I urged him to bang the table from time to time in the manner of his Soviet predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev, to get our proper attention so that we might bestir ourselves and demand that our mass media and political classes correct course before our current policies lead to nuclear confrontation with Moscow.

True, in his recent appearance before the bicameral Russian legislature for his annual state-of-the nation address, Vladimir Putin delivered a tougher line, but without spelling out his intentions in detail.  He remains a practitioner of Teddy Roosevelt’s maxim:  “speak softly but carry a big stick.”

What Putin has done, however, is to empower people in his close circle to say what he cannot allow himself as head of state.

In that connection, I call attention here to Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister.  Lavrov has always taken his marching orders from the boss.  When he reported directly to Putin in the first two terms of office, he took a tough stance.  When he reported to Dmitry Medvedev during the interim presidency, Lavrov was very accommodating to the West.  And now, especially in the past couple of weeks, Lavrov has shown his teeth to the West.  We saw that during his Q&A at the Munich Security Conference a week ago, when the MSC director Ischinger pitched to him a typically snide “question” from a Washington Post journalist congratulating Russia for taking charge in Syria and asking how the Kremlin intended to prevent Assad from perpetrating further massacres against his people.  Lavrov did not hesitate for a minute: he brushed off the question, saying he had no reason to respond since the journalist would write what he wanted regardless of what Lavrov said.  That particular exchange delighted viewers back in Moscow and was the main item on the MSC reported in the Russian media for the next two days. The frosty exchange between US Vice President Pence and Chancellor Angela Merkel was deemed less significant by the Russians, who were simply pleased to see their government hit back at Western verbal aggression.

Today’s  news from Sergei Lavrov is effectively a put-down of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has thoroughly exhausted the patience of the Russians over his insistence that a peace treaty with Russia is just within reach. Listening to Abe, one would assume that his friend Vladimir just needed a bit more coaxing, yet another glass of sake at friendly one-on-one summits to be brought to sign on the dotted line a draft peace treaty that returns the South Kurile Islands to Japan. Per Tokyo, the Russians should be happy they were not seeking reparations for the occupation of the islands since 1945.

In an article on Abe’s presentation as honored guest of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok last autumn, I explained that the Japanese Prime Minister was odd-man-out, that he alone among the key speakers described cooperation with Russia in terms harking back to the 1970s and ‘80s, when Japan was a technological and economic powerhouse and Russia (the Soviet Union) was stagnating and poor. South Korea, China, Mongolia all delivered presentations highlighting the mutuality of their bilateral relations with Russia serving both parties equally. Moreover, Abe did not in any way address the existential concern of the Russians that conceding the Kuriles to Japan would compromise their national security given that the US military alliance with Tokyo would be used to station American bases there and further extend their encirclement of Russia by the global missile defense system.


Lavrov’s remarks on Japanese-Russian relations today came at the very end of a lengthy television interview which began with Russian-Vietnamese relations, but also addressed more broadly  relations with Asian countries, this ahead of his planned visit to Hanoi, followed by a trip to China for a joint meeting with the foreign ministers of China and India.  The interview went on to cover a whole range of issues, US-Russian relations figuring prominently and taking up perhaps a third of the time. It ended, as I say, with Japanese-Russian relations.

In all subjects covered, including and particularly, the issue of Japan and a peace treaty, Lavrov spoke with lapidary clarity, without any diplomatic evasiveness. I offer below my translation of the transcript issued in Russian today on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

Interview of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with “Vietnam Television” and with the Chinese television channels CTV and Phoenix,  24 February 2019

Question: The Japanese side has expressed the hope that during the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Japan this June both sides will sign a frame agreement about a peace treaty. Do you believe that this plan can be realized? Moreover, Japan’s plans for the installation of the US missile defense are one of the important problems for the Russian side. Do you think that diplomatic efforts can remove this threat?

Lavrov: As regards the announcement by the Japanese side that they have plans with respect to the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Japan for participation in the summit of the G-20 and for holding the next regular meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe, I leave that to their consciences. No such agreements have been reached, nor could any have been reached, because we never are parties to any artificial deadlines relating to any problems whatsoever. We have repeatedly explained this to our Japanese colleagues. The last time I did was not so long ago in Munich, when I met with my colleague, Minister of Foreign Affairs Kono.  Moreover, no one ever has seen any draft frame agreements. I don’t know what our Japanese neighbors have in mind.

Secondly, our position is very simple. In order to solve complex issues, you have to ensure not just a suitable atmosphere but also real content of relations in economics, politics, international affairs. If we look at the real situation, PM Abe appears before his Parliament and says that he is absolutely planning to solve the question of a peace treaty on Japanese terms. Honestly, I don’t know how he arrived at this conviction. Neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor I, nor anyone else from among those participating in the Russian-Japanese consultations provided our Japanese colleagues with any basis for statements like this. The fact that in Singapore, at the sidelines of the Summit meeting of the G—20, Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe said that it was necessary to speed up work on a peace treaty on the  basis of the 1956 Declaration tells you the opposite: we are conducting the dialogue not on Japanese conditions but on the conditions of this document  There it is clearly stated: first conclude a peace treaty. And this, as I have said many times, means the need for our Japanese neighbors to acknowledge the results of the Second World War in their entirely, including the sovereignty of the Russian Federation over all the Kurile Islands. It is rather strange that our Japanese colleagues do not want to agree with the results of the Second World War in the form in which they are set down in the UN Charter. The Charter states that everything which was done by the Victorious Powers is not open to discussion. Even if the Japanese have their own interpretation of the San Francisco Peace Treaty and of other documents concerning this region, they ratified the UN Charter. It is not proper to revoke your ratification. That will not work.

Speaking more broadly, there was an agreement first of all to create a new quality of relations. Japan has joined in perhaps not all but in a whole range of sanctions against the Russian Federation. This can hardly be considered to be a friendly position. In the UN, Japan votes in solidarity with the USA on all resolutions directed against Russia. It comes out against or abstains from voting on drafts proposed by the Russian Federation. In general, it coordinates its position in the UN with Washington. We do not oppose Japan’s cooperating with other countries, but the USA has called Russia its main enemy, naturally together with China.

Question: Is American influence on Japan felt?

Lavrov: I don’t know to what extent such influence exists but surely this is being discussed. Recently it was announced that at the end of May US President Donald Trump intends to visit Japan. One of the topics for negotiation will be the issues of a peace treaty with the Russian Federation. If the lack of independence of Japan is demonstrated to such a degree, then there is nothing for me to add. The fact that the Japanese have a military alliance with the USA is also a major factor. The Americans have the right to locate their armed forces wherever they like in Japan and already are installing there their missile defense system, which creates risks both for Russia and for the Chinese People’s Republic (we have repeatedly spoken about this). I repeat: this is happening under conditions when the USA declares us to be its main enemy. It would be very wrong if we did not see that instead of the stated objective this does not improve but greatly worsens the quality of our relations.

We are ready to continue our dialogue with our neighbor. We see  a lot that is promising. We have very good cultural and humanitarian cooperation: the “Russian Seasons,” the Festival of Russian Culture enjoy great popularity in Japan. We have some pretty good joint economic projects. But this is by no means a favor to the Russian Federation. These are projects  in which Japanese business is interested. It would be even more interested in the Russian economy but, as I understand, it is being held back by the official line. From time to time we get signals that as soon as a peace treaty is signed on Japanese terms, they will send us manna from heaven in the form of Japanese investments. That is not what we have agreed.

And lastly: among the agreements on how we need to improve the quality of relations there is a point about the need to create in public opinion a positive image of one another. As was set down in Russian-Japanese agreements in years gone by, the decision on a peace treaty should be such that it is supported by the peoples of both countries.  However, when in Japan we see that the terms “Northern territories” and “illegal occupation” are included not only in school textbooks but in many government documents which underpin the activity of ministries and departments – this is precisely working in the opposite direction.

Recently, as you know, the Japanese government is speaking a lot publicly about the idea that it is nearly achieving its desired result. If you follow the reaction this elicits in Russia, you know that polls of public opinion show how wrong it is to act the way our Japanese colleagues are doing, trying to impose their view of this solution on us. And to add insult to injury, they promise not to seek reparations.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin has said in his address this year to the Federal Assembly on 20 February, we will continue our detailed work and achieve an outcome in agreements which allow us to create conditions for such a solution of the problem of a peace treaty which will be acceptable to the peoples of both countries. In the meantime we see that these conditions are totally absent


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019


More on Vladimir Putin’s State-of-the-Nation Address: Guns and Butter?

In the past couple of months, as the date of possible US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty approached and then arrived, the viscerally anti-Russian editorial board of The New York Times,  which I shall take as a marker for mainstream US media generally on the given country, found itself in the awkward position of defending continuation of an arms limitation treaty with their favorite punching bag country. Yes, The Times told us, allegations of Russian violations used by the Trump administration to press ahead with cancellation were likely true. But the treaty’s life should not be ended pending negotiations on successful resolution of the differences of the parties over its observance.

This position was stated succinctly in an editorial of 18 December 2018 entitled “Don’t Tear Up This Treaty.”  But this was weak tea.  The paper did not rely on its also habitual Trump-bashing to question the decision to withdraw from the Treaty.  It even conceded that “Mr. Trump is justified in his concern about Russia’s noncompliance with the I.N.F.” Nor did it dare to venture into discussion of any specific downsides to withdrawal relating to the possible military preparedness of Russia for such an eventuality and any existential threats posed by their new weapons systems still not deployed but claimed to exceed the performance of US arms. Those new weapons had been largely dismissed as empty bragging by our media when they were showcased last March by President Putin in his 2018 annual state-of-the-nation address to the joint chambers of Russia’s parliament.

That is to say, the two strongest potential arguments against dismantling decades old arms limitation treaties, incompetence or stupidity of the sitting US administration and risks to our very existence by calling the Russians’ bluff, were not invoked by the newspaper.

Things had become so confused or desperate at The New York Times that a couple of days ago they broke with their longstanding blacklisting of “Putin stooges” and other loose cannon on the deck and published an essay by professor emeritus of MIT Theodore Postol, a specialist on strategic weapons systems who had advised the U.S. military in decades past. The headline title assigned to Postol’s essay sounds uncontroversial enough: “Are Trump and Putin Opening a Pandora’s Box?” However, the follow-on subtitle tells us that the Russians also have claims of U.S. violations that merit discussion: “Contention over the I.N.F. missile control treaty is complicated by suspicions on both sides that the other has broken its rules” This is the kind of openness we have not seen in The Times for many a year. To be sure, the essay appeared only in the NYT’s online edition, not in the more prestigious and for-the-record print version.

This confusion at the NYT over how to play the INF Treaty story continued today into the newspaper’s coverage of President Putin’s address to his bicameral legislature.

As I mentioned in my analysis of Putin’s speech yesterday, the Russian President spent nearly all of his time at the lectern discussing domestic policy issues, in   particular immediate release of new funds to pensioners, to families with two or more children, and other targeted measures to tackle the problem of low purchasing power of the working population, not to mention the endemic poverty of vulnerable layers of society, who number about 15% in total, or 19 million citizens.

But the last 12 minutes were devoted precisely to how Russia is responding to the American withdrawal from the Treaty: with more guns.

In today’s article devoted to the Russian President’s speech, The New York Times has chosen to put in question his ability to deliver on both military security and domestic social commitments going forward. See “Threatening U.S., Putin Promises Both Missiles and Butter” by Neil MacFarquhar.

Apart from the usual dose of sniggering over quality of life and governance in Russia, the article is notable for several perspectives that bear on how American ruling elites brush off Putin’s threats so as to avoid reconsideration of current defense and foreign policies as they relate to Russia:

  1. Disparagement of Russian military hardware, actual and projected. Per MacFarquhar, the new weapons systems are just “claims” even as he acknowledges that two of the more awesome among them are now entering active service. Moreover, the journalist says that this year Putin “mentioned just a few” of the systems from last year. Either the journalist misplaced his glasses or got lost in the text, because in fact Vladimir Putin yesterday enumerated each and every new weapons system first mentioned in 2018, stated which of them are in final testing stages and which are being deployed this year or further on. For good measure, he added a couple of new shock and awe systems that were still under wraps a year ago.


  1. Disparagement of the Russian economy, and the assumption that there are no financial resources available for both greatly increased social spending and an arms race with the United States. I quote:


“In promising both butter and missiles,…Mr. Putin did not explain how the troubled Russian economy could pay for it all. As always with his addresses focused on domestic issues, there was a certain gap between the Russia he was describing and the reality.”


The related but unstated assumption is that the Kremlin will have to prioritize the social spending, because the President’s poll ratings have dropped from 80% in the two years following the reunification with Crimea to 60% or less today due to declining real wages and the unpopular decision last year to raise the retirement age in order to cover potential shortfalls in the pension system.


  1. The assumption that the Russians are at the starting point in an arms race, given Putin’s use of the words “create” and “produce” new weapons systems if the United States proceeds with installation of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles in Europe.


Yes, those words were in Putin’s text.  But the advanced weapons systems being introduced into the Russian armed forces this year are already a powerful deterrent to any thoughts of a first strike that American military planners might be harboring. And several of the projected new missiles now ready for serial production could be launched from existing multi-functional launchers without additional expenditures.


MacFarquhar fails to understand that to a large extent, the Russians have been engaged in a new arms race with the United States that began more than a decade ago when the Americans concluded agreements with the Polish and Romanian governments to build what were called missile defense bases. These were immediately seen by the Russians as dual purpose, serving also to launch offensive cruise missiles in the direction of Moscow if necessary. The Russians set out their plans for counter measures back then and today the arms race is largely over for them.


  1. Finally, MacFarquhar repeats the stale story on how the Soviet Union came crashing down because of the last arms race: “a costly arms race in the 1980s, combined with sinking oil prices, contributed to the collapse…”  In light of the foregoing points, however true it may or may not have been that Reagan’s Star Wars broke the back of the Soviets, this tale has little relevance to where we are today.  Indeed, for reasons I will set out in a moment, the warning signs on overspending and excessive financial strain might be better placed before the American leadership with its current $22 trillion federal debt rather than before Russia, which has close to zero net federal debt.

I leave it to others who have the relevant expertise to deal with the question of “guns,” i.e. to try to evaluate the effectiveness of the new Russian weapons systems as deterrents, as reestablishing Russia’s full strategic parity with the United States.  I would only venture to say that my long time observations of Mr. Putin suggest that he is a cautious politician, not one to risk the survival of the country he loves on an empty bluff.

In what follows here, I propose to deal with the “butter” side of the equation. And for this purpose, I shall rely on some expert testimony from Russia’s senior legislators representing all the political parties seated in the Duma: the ruling United Russia, the Communist Party, the nationalist LDPR and the left of center A Just Russia party. They were panelists in the country’s most serious and respected political talk show, Evening with Vladimir Solovyov in a discussion dedicated to analysis of the President’s address earlier in the day.

The question of affordability of Putin’s social programs was precisely the topic they first discussed.

The consensus was that Russia possesses the cash on hand to cover all of the social allocations detailed by the President. Cash reserves had been building up over the past several years but were not touched because of uncertainty over the stability of the economy under the stress of sanctions.  That feeling of crisis is now past. The economy is growing again and is considered to be fairly secure against headwinds of possible new sanctions. Net federal debt is close to zero. Holdings of U.S. Treasuries have been drastically cut back. Accordingly, the government has confidence that it can assume long term commitments to alleviate poverty and improve living standards for  those of its citizens who have been left behind. Putin came to the legislature not with generalities but with very specific proposals that had been costed with great care.

Perhaps the most authoritative voice on the talk show was Andrei Makarov, United Russia deputy and Chairman of the Duma Committee on Budget and Taxes. He confirmed that the 200 billion rubles needed to fulfill all of the President’s new social programs each year is presently available so that implementation could begin at once for many of these measures. Others would require several months to initiate because they required reworking of laws. Amending the current budget law to enable all of the requested allocations could be achieved within the statutory deadlines of May – June.

One other panelist worthy of special mention was Oleg Morozov, member of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign relations.  He noted that the country had indeed emerged from crisis and could now tackle social issues.  In 2018, he explained, Russia had its largest ever export figures, exceeding by 100 billion dollars the previous high set in 2013, i.e. before the Crimean Spring and onset of sanctions. And the foreign trade balance was strongly positive. Moreover, there was strong growth in non-raw materials exports, setting a record on that too in 2018.

These gentlemen and their colleagues will be answerable for fulfillment of the “butter” program. We may trust their judgment on feasibility well above the hostile speculations of Mr. MacFarquhar and his editors at The New York Times.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Vladimir Putin on national defense in his Annual Address to a joint session of the Russian parliament: threats or a bid to negotiate on arms control?

As he stated at the outset, Vladimir Putin’s annual state of the nation address today before a joint session of the nation’s bicameral legislature was devoted preponderantly to domestic policy. He was expanding on the practical implications for the Russian population of the policy priorities for his current six-year term that he set out in decrees of May 2018. These have in the meantime taken the form of national projects organized around support to families to encourage child-bearing and stabilize the national demographics; housing construction and financing; roads, ports and other transport infrastructure development; improved health services; upgrading public education; encouragement to business innovation and export; and the like.

This material was delivered with a human touch, drawing on many experiences of contact with people from all walks of life that the President has gathered in specially organized meetings focused on these national projects at various cities around his vast country. He cited in particular his time in Kazan last week talking about housing.

For most political observers outside of Russia, myself included, the domestic policy story was marginal to our interests, though we did sit up and pay close attention to his brief remarks on one achievement illustrating the strides the country is making in state of the art applied sciences. This was his description of the breakthrough represented by the design and production of the hypersonic Avangard missile system. He likened it to the launch into orbit of the first Sputnik and he promised spill-over of the science into the civilian economy.

Otherwise, we foreigners had to wait until the very end of his speech to hear what brought us to watch this annual ritual in the first place. The raisins in our cake came when the President finally turned to international affairs. And there, after a rather cursory summary of Russia’s foreign policy priorities, his discourse shifted to defense issues raised by the recently announced American withdrawal from the Intermediate- Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty. Indeed, notwithstanding the mention a few moments before of the key importance of bilateral ties with China and also with India, Putin’s focus on Washington and the way the whole Russian defense industry is directed to meeting threats from the USA, highlights the centrality of that one country in Russian thinking. Thus, Putin allowed himself to mock Europe as US “satellites.” Further to the point, he went on to use folksy language that Nikita Khrushchev would surely a have approved to describe the Europeans as so many little piglets oinking their assent to Washington’s allegations of Russian INF violations. The audience in the hall turned to smiles and applauded enthusiastically.

Western mainstream media have been quick to note the direct threat by Putin in his speech to respond to any US placement of nuclear armed cruise missiles in Europe by targeting not only the European host countries of such installations but the decision-making centers authorizing their use, meaning Washington. By its new hypersonic weapon systems, Russia would be able to reach targeted American cities within the same 10 – 12 minutes that the Americans would enjoy by lobbing their slower cruise missiles at Moscow from perches in Poland and Romania.

This is tough talk over basic issues that suggest not so much a revisiting of the US-Russian Cold War confrontation over European based Pershings versus Soviet medium range SS20s targeting Western Europe in the 1980s, as a revisiting of the issues underlying the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. At that time, US missiles secretly based in Turkey brought a mirror image response from Russia (the Soviet Union) in the form of missiles positioned just off the American coast and having comparable flying times to hit the American heartland.

Surely, as I have remarked in recent essays, the highly polished Putin is no Khrushchev, and he is careful to avoid appearing to issue threats. But the toughness is there under the velvet glove in speeches like today’s.

To allow readers to draw their own conclusions, I offer below my translation of the complete text of the speech relating to the United States.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019


Source of Russian text:

Excerpt – the final 12 minutes devoted to foreign and defense policy of a speech that ran approximately 90 minutes.


The most acute and discussed issue today in Russian-American relations is the unilateral withdrawal of the USA from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Therefore, I am simply compelled to dwell on this in some detail. Yes, to be sure, from the moment of the conclusion of this Treaty in 1987 there have been serious changes in the world. Many countries have developed and continue to develop this form of weapons, whereas Russia and the USA do not. We voluntarily have restricted ourselves in this matter. Such a situation, of course, can raise questions; that is understandable. That is what our American partners should have said, honestly, and without using fabricated accusations against Russia to justify their unilateral withdrawal from the Treaty. It would have been better if, as in 2002, when they left the ABM Treaty, they had been open and honest about it. Whether this is a good or bad thing is another matter. I believe it is bad. But they did so and that’s it.  Here they should have acted honestly. How are they themselves acting in fact? They are violating everything and then seek justification and designate guilty parties. And still more, they mobilize their satellites:  they are very cautious, but still like piglets they oink their assent on this question. At first, they began development and application of medium range missiles, seeking to divert attention by calling them “target missiles” for their missile defense system.  Then they began installing in Europe the MK-41 multi-purpose launchers which make it possible to perform combat use of the medium range Tomahawk cruise missiles.

I am talking about this and taking your time with it only because we are compelled to respond to the accusations which we hear directed against us. But having done everything that I have just said, the USA openly disregarded and demonstratively ignored the whole set of provisions stipulated by articles 4 and 6 of the INF Treaty. In particular, according to point 1, article 4 of the Treaty, (and I quote) “each of the parties liquidates its medium range missiles and launch installations for such missiles so that neither of the parties has such missiles and such launchers.” In article 6, point 1, we see (I am reading word for word): “after this Treaty comes into force and thereafter neither of the parties will produce any medium range missiles or carry out flight tests of such missiles, nor produce any stages of such missiles or any launch installations of such missiles.”  End of citation.

By launching medium range target-missiles and by installing in Romania and Poland launchers suitable for use with Tomahawk cruise missiles, the USA directly and crudely violated these requirements of the Treaty. Well, they did this already long ago.  In Romania these launch installations are already standing, and nothing, or seemingly nothing is happening. Strange, you might say. We see nothing strange. But people should see this and understand.

How do we evaluate the situation in this regard.  I have already said and want to repeat:  Russia does not intend – and this is very important, I repeat it especially – Russia does not intend to be the first to locate such missiles in Europe. If they really will be produced and placed on the European Continent, and the USA has such plans, in any case we have not heard contrary statements, then this will greatly exacerbate the situation in the sphere of international security; it will create serious threats for Russia. After all, the flying time to Moscow of certain categories of such missiles can amount to 10 – 12 minutes.  This is a very serious threat for us. In this case, we will be compelled, and I want to underline, precisely compelled, to take mirror-image and asymmetrical actions.  What does this mean?

I will say right now directly and openly what I am talking about so that no one will rebuke us later, and so that everything is clear in advance. Russia will be forced to create and deploy forms of weapons which can be used not only with respect to those territories from which the respective direct threat arises, but also with respect to those territories where are located the centers for taking decisions about using the missile complexes threatening us.

What is important in this connection: here there is a lot that is new. By their tactical and technical characteristics, including flight time to the indicated management centers, these weapons will fully match the threats which are being directed against Russia.

We know how to do this and we will carry out these plans immediately, as soon as the respective threats to us become real. I do not think that the international situation today is such that it needs additional and irresponsible exacerbation. We do not want this

What do I want to add here? Our American colleagues have already tried to achieve absolute military superiority with the help of their global missile defense system. They must put such illusions aside. The response from our side will always be powerful and effective.

Work on the promising models and systems of arms about which I spoke in my Address a year ago is continuing – at an even pace, without interruptions, according to plan.  We have begun serial production of the Avangard complex about which I already spoke today. This year, as was planned, the first regiment of the Strategic Missile Troops will be supplied with it. We are in production and carrying out the cycle of tests on the heavy, intercontinental missile Sarmat which has unprecedented power.  The Peresvet laser installations and air force complexes equipped with the hypersonic Kinzhal missiles have confirmed their unique specifications in test and battle duty; the personnel have gained experience operating them.  In December of this year all the Peresvety units delivered to the Armed Forces will be put on combat duty. We are continuing work to extend the infrastructure for hosting MiG-31 planes equipped with Kinzhal missiles. The tests are going well on our unlimited range cruise missile powered by the Burevestnik nuclear engine, as well as on the Poseidon, our underwater drone with unlimited range.

In this connection, I want to make a very important remark.  We didn’t talk about this previously, but today I can say this: already in the spring of this year we will put out to sea our first atomic submarine carrying this drone complex. The work is proceeding according to plan.

Today, I consider it possible also to officially inform you about still one more promising new unit. Remember that last time I said: there is something additional to talk about, but it is a bit early. Now, calmly we will tell you what we have held in the vaults. It is one more promising innovation, work on which is going successfully, with completion certain to occur within the planned timeline. Namely, I want to speak about the hypersonic Zircon missile, having a speed in flight of around Mach 9 and a range greater than one thousand kilometers, capable of destroying targets both on land and at sea. Its use is foreseen on naval carriers, serial produced surface ships and submarines, including those already produced or under construction  and fitted with the high precision Kalibr missile complexes. That is to say, all of this will not incur extra costs for us.

In this connection, I want to emphasize that for the defense of the national interests of Russia, we will turn over to the Russian Navy two – three years earlier than scheduled seven new multifunctional submarines, and in the near future we will begin construction of five surface ships for global service, while a further 16 ships of this class will be introduced into the fleet by 2027.

In closing out the subject of the unilateral withdrawal of the USA from the INF Treaty, I would like to say the following.  In the past few years, the USA has been conducting towards Russia a policy which one could hardly call friendly. They ignore the lawful interests of Russia. They are constantly organizing various kinds of anti-Russian campaigns which are absolutely unprovoked, and I emphasize this, from our side. They introduce more and more new sanctions which are illegal from the standpoint of international law. They are dismantling unilaterally practically all the treaties and legal basis of international security that developed over recent decades, and at the same time they just about call Russia the main threat to the USA.

I will say directly that this is untrue.  Russia wants to have full-bodied, equitable and friendly relations with the USA.  Russia is not threatening anyone. All of our actions in the sphere of security bear an exclusively reactive, meaning defensive character. We are not interested in a confrontation and do not want it, least of all with such a global power as the United States of America. But it would appear that our partners are not noticing how and with what speed the world is changing, where it is headed.  They continue their destructive and clearly erroneous policy.  It hardly corresponds to the interests of the USA itself. But that is not for us to decide.

We see that we are dealing with business-like, very talented people. However, among the ruling class there are many of those who are excessively captivated by the idea of their exceptionalism and their superiority over the rest of the world. It stands to reason that they have the right to think so if they wish.  But do they know how to count? Surely they do. Let them calculate the range and speed of our upcoming weapons systems. We only ask one thing:  let them first do their calculations, and only after that take decisions which can create serious threats for our country, understandably leading to actions in response from the Russian side to reliably ensure our security.

Moreover, I already spoke about this and want to repeat it:  we are ready for negotiations on disarmament, but we will no longer knock at a closed door. We will wait until our partners mature, come to understand the need for equitable dialogue on this subject.

We will continue to develop our Armed Forces, to raise the intensity and quality of combat preparation, including our taking into account our experience from the anti-terrorist operation in Syria. And this was received by practically all the commanders of the major units of our Ground Troops, our special operations forces and military police, navy crews, army, tactical operations, strategic and military transport aviation.

I want to emphasize the following: for steady and long-term development we need peace. All of our work to raise our defense capability has only one objective: it is directed towards ensuring the security of the country and of our citizens, so that no one will not only not think about committing aggression against Russia but will not try to use the methods of forcible pressure against our country.


Full video of the Address to the joint houses of the Russian parliament:



The INF Treaty is dead: will the arms race be won this time by the most agile or by the biggest wallet?

In an article I published several days ago that received wide resonance and republication not only within the English-speaking world but also in translation on Serbian, Italian and Russian portals, I argued that perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin was doing both his own country and the West a disservice by being so very polite and unthreatening, by his acquiescence in the slings and arrows we are sending his way with ever greater provocativeness.  Time to stop playing nice with the United States, I was saying. Time to respond forcefully to every new attempt by the United States to alter the global strategic balance and to pull the security blanket over to its side of the bed.  Only in that way, by instilling fear in the European and American publics, may the degenerative downward spiral to war be halted.




By a curious coincidence, this message to the Kremlin came just two days before Vladimir Vladimirovich changed course and delivered a tough as nails response to the US suspension and pending withdrawal from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces ( INF) treaty dating from 1987 that was one of the key arms limitation agreements holding in place a modicum of transparency and mutual trust between the nuclear superpowers.

As released Saturday afternoon, 2 February by Russian state television news broadcasts, a two or three minute long video showed President Putin seated at a table in one of the Kremlin salons with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seated to his right and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu seated to his left.  We hear Putin deliver his statement that the Russian Federation now suspends its participation in the INF Treaty just as the United States had done, “in mirror image fashion.”

Scenes from this brief reportage were carried later in the day by Euronews, which repeated also for nth time the reasons given by the United States’ for withdrawing from the treaty, namely alleged violations of its terms by the Russians. But as I recall, Euronews did carry Putin’s words that Russia would not return to negotiations until “our partners have matured… and are ready to negotiate on the substantive issues on an equitable basis.”

For its part, the BBC also was quick to carry a short video segment of Putin’s announcement from the Kremlin.  Commentary was provided by their Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg, who opined that “this looks like the beginning of a New Cold War.”  That conclusion, which others had drawn more than two years ago, suggests that Rosenberg and his London editors have been asleep at the wheel. Other Western media observers got it right, saying that “it looks like the beginning of a new arms race.”

Full Russian coverage of the Kremlin meeting with extensive interpretive commentary was delivered on 3 February by Dmitry Kiselyov, the country’s senior news administrator and anchor of the News on Sunday program.  The respective segment of the program takes us through the well-rehearsed Kremlin theater piece which was addressed to two audiences simultaneously: the home audience within Russia which has its own questions about the INF decision and what it will mean not just for state security but for their standard of living, and the Western decision-makers in Washington and Brussels, whom Putin treated to just bare diplomatic niceties and a lot of hidden threats for them to think through.

In particular, without naming them, his words swept aside all Europeans like Angela Merkel and her Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas, who have in recent weeks positioned themselves as potential mediators in the Russian-U.S. dispute over the INF Treaty, beckoning Russia to submit to U.S. ultimatums and destroy one of their missile systems said to be in noncompliance so as to ensure continued U.S. adherence to the treaty, allowing the Europeans to sleep anxiety-free.

As we see from Kiselyov’s show, the Kremlin meeting opened with Putin’s asking each of the ministers to report on what had happened: why the United States was leaving the treaty and under what circumstances.  The collective voices of Lavrov and Shoigu set out the following story.

They enumerated American violations of the letter and spirit of the treaty going back as far as 1999, when the United States began producing military drones with operational characteristics close to those of land-based cruise missiles. As from 2014  American violation became especially egregious as work began on installation of what were called anti-ballistic missile systems in Romania and Poland. In the expert opinion of the Russians, this American infrastructure close to Russian borders can easily and very quickly be converted from ABM use to  launch of compatible offensive intermediate range missiles. Such reconversion, taking perhaps half an hour of reprogramming, would directly violate the treaty and cannot be verified

They pointed to recent US Congressional appropriations for the development of precisely the category of intermediate and short range land based nuclear armed cruise missiles which the treaty prohibits. Finally, and conclusively, in support of the Lavrov – Shoigu testimony to the President, the commentary section showed Russian satellite images of the Tucson, Arizona R&D and production center of Raytheon Corporation. This industrial estate has been recently built up and taken on 2,000 workers to produce missile categories banned by the treaty, in particular the Tomahawk.

Having heard the ministerial reports, Putin then delivered his decision on what Russia would do about all of this.  First, as reported by most media, Russia would respond to the Americans in “mirror-like fashion,” suspending its observation of the treaty with immediate effect and withdrawing from it within the time limits it prescribes.  In addition, Putin directed both ministers not to initiate any talks whatsoever with the Americans on arms limitation [NB, “arms limitation” generally, and not only related to the INF Treaty] “until our partners have matured… and are ready to negotiate on  substantive issues on an equitable basis.”

But that part, largely reported in the Western mass media, was by no means all. Putin went on to instruct Shoigu to prepare a program of development work to enable the stationing on land-based launchers of the intermediate range Kalibr cruise missile, which currently is housed only on naval ships.  The high-precision intermediate range Kalibr missile was tested extensively and successfully  in wartime conditions during Russia’s air operations in Syria against ISIS targets that began in September 2015. It had been fired from Russian corvettes in the Caspian Sea.  In addition, Putin called upon Shoigu to begin similar work to modify the recently announced Russian hypersonic missiles, originally designed for launch by air force units to be ground-launch capable and ready for installation anywhere in European Russia. It must be recalled that the hypersonic weapons systems are cutting edge technology where Russia claims to be a decade ahead of the West.

No sooner than Shoigu had taken in these marching orders, than Putin asked him:  can all this be done within the officially approved military budget for 2019-2020, that is without supplemental appropriations?  Shoigu said that was possible.

The context for this exchange merits explanation.  All talk of a new arms race in the West has assumed that the vastly larger American economy will be able to assume new expenses that would be ruinous for the much smaller Russian economy, leading to Russian collapse just as the Soviet Union was said to have collapsed under the pressure of Reagan’s Star Wars program.  Let us remember that the budget of the Pentagon is already more than 10 times greater than Russia’s military budget.

Putin’s point was crystal clear:  he insists that his team is vastly more creative, able to “think outside the box” than his Soviet predecessors were or than his American contemporaries are, and that by means of unique technologies, unique dedication of Russian researchers and production staff Russia can produce “asymmetrical defensive solutions” that overcome and defeat American offensive weapons systems costing many times more.

Putin’s lecture to Washington did not end there.

He went on to say that these two Russian weapons systems and others that he had announced at his 1 March 2018 speech to the joint session of the Russian parliament were not all the new systems that his country is preparing and which can ensure his country’s defense whatever adversaries may think of developing.  And he rounded this out by instructing Shoigu to prepare visits for him with the country’s arms development and production centers, naming in particular the one responsible for a whole new weapons class, a long-distance high speed nuclear armed drone torpedo operating in the depths of the ocean and capable  of destroying port cities anywhere in the world, the tentatively named “Poseidon.”

Putin closed his meeting with his Foreign and Defense ministers by saying very clearly that notwithstanding Russia’s moving directly into the coming arms race without trepidation “the door is open” to negotiations and, most importantly, that he will not deploy the new land-based intermediate and short range nuclear missiles until and unless U.S.-produced systems are deployed within striking distance of Russia, meaning in Europe and possibly in Japan.

True, in his speech Putin retained his respectful vocabulary of “our partners” but otherwise what he said eliminated any possibility of misunderstanding Russia’s determination to protect itself, come what may.  It also restored the situation which prevailed during the entire original Cold War:  that Russia’s only talking partner on existential issues of security is the United States.  Europe has ceased to be relevant as a talking partner in these matters even though the roll-out of intermediate and short range missiles by both the United States and Russia directly affects the viability of Europe in any future great power clash.

I remind readers that the adversarial relationship between the United States and Russia arose in the second administration of the Clinton presidency with the expansion of NATO eastward and with the first steps towards outright economic warfare in the energy sector with the creation of pipelines (first the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline) to bring Central Asian oil and gas to European markets by skirting Russian borders and at the expense of Russian producers.  Throughout the past 25 years a more agile and determined Russia has bested the United States and had its way in each and every energy corridor which the United States tried to block with might and main and dirty tricks.   It remains to be seen whether the same agility and skills will bring Russia victory in the coming new arms race, or whether the bludgeon of American economic strength will win out.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Book review: Stephen F. Cohen, “War with Russia?”

As one of America’s most authoritative historians of Russia and the Soviet Union, Professor Stephen Cohen has authored seven books in a number of genres from traditionally academic to journalistic-scholarly. His latest work, War with Russia? represents a new direction that holds great value as well as accessibility both for a target audience of university undergraduates and for the general public, indeed for all those who would like to believe in a tomorrow for themselves and their children and grandchildren.


The chapters in War with Russia? are mostly lightly edited transcriptions of the hour on air that Cohen has each week on the John Batchelor Show, broadcast by WABC AM New York and listened to by an audience estimated to number in the millions. These weekly contributions have been systematically reposted as podcasts in the online edition of the magazine of commentary The Nation together with a summary print text.


The book begins with a brief overview of the onset of what is now generally recognized to be a New Cold War between Russia and the US-led West in 2014-15. This is followed by three extensive year by year selections of the weekly entries for the period of malignant flowering of the New Cold War between 2016 and 2018.  Intermixed with the broadcast transcripts there are several of Cohen’s speeches and personal reminiscences of very significant events or meetings in which he participated; because of their special importance, and because they help convey the real life, as opposed to purely scholarly sources of Cohen’s expertise I will call them out below.




It must be said that collections of essays are a hard sell for any author to trade publishers, who normally deal in monographs.  However, War with Russia? is an important book precisely because of the regularity of the weekly reporting, which allows the reader to follow every significant development in the Russia story over the several year period framed and with the changing perspective of the author as each corner is turned. Yes, this organization of the material results in a certain amount of repetition, but that is a small price to pay to appreciate causality, the interconnectedness and, often, the unpredictability of events.


This book is an easy read for a couple of reasons, both related to the format.  First, the source is oral rather than written.  The style is conversational.  Syntax is simple:  what would otherwise in a scholarly work be complex sentences with several dependent clauses here are presented as short sentences, many in fact without verbs. Secondly, the “chapters” are mostly between two and three pages long, that is, bite sized.



At the start of his essay dated June 21, 2016 Cohen cites the late comedian George Carlin whose on-stage routine still has great relevance.

“A local radio newscaster begins his report: ‘Nuclear war in Europe. Details after the sports.’”

The citation is typical of Cohen’s light touch in this book and also sums up his mission: to provide the details which are a direct answer to all those well-meaning Americans who are confident no war is possible because they hold no animus against Russia and do not see in their daily news any reason to think the US is being provocative, baiting Russia or that Russia is ready to respond militarily.

Cohen identifies as the main driver of relations with Russia since the 1990s and the single most important cause of the present New Cold Warthe triumphalism of American elites in their thinking about Russia as the defeated adversary which lost the Cold War. Hence, the insistence that Russia has no inherent rights of any kind, not to non-intervention in its internal affairs, not to any sphere of interest at its borders, not to a say as an equally entitled participant in managing global affairs. Hence, too, the Russian sense of grievance if not bitterness towards the United States as it realigns its economy and its foreign policy to protect and further its national interests by ways that bring it into direct confrontation with Washington in a number of regions and industrial sectors.

Another recurrent observation throughout the book is the unprecedented halt to all public debate of US policy towards Russia as we head ever deeper into conflict with Russia. All of those who would raise a hand and say “yes, but” are denounced as stooges of Putin or subjected to other ad hominem attacks which evade responding to factual and/or logical objections.

And the final recurrent theme binding the book together is the calamitous decline in journalistic standards at our leading national dailies, The New York Times and The Washington Post, together with the major U.S. television channels.  In the press, opinion and news reporting are mixed up inseparably and the media have become partisan advocates in a fierce political war against the incumbent president. To put it neatly, the motto of The New York Times, “All the news that is fit to print” has degenerated into “All the news that fits.”

Meanwhile, each of the years 2016, 2017 and 2018 has its own clear theme in War with Russia?



What stands out in 2016 is hopes dashed. With each passing entry, we see Cohen’s hopes for US-Russian cooperation in Syria to combat ISIS are raised with each announcement of a prospective US and Russian arranged cease-fire.  To Cohen, such prospects of détente- like cooperation could lead to some understandings easing the confrontation of the two nuclear superpowers in Ukraine and in the Baltic States, to name two other potential flash points in the New Cold War.  However, each time the deals brokered by the State Department and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs are overturned by an intervention of what Cohen identifies as the “American war party” based in the Department of Defense, in segments of the intelligence agencies, the Congress and mainstream media



Cohen’s regular reports for 2017 begin with the hysteria and neo-McCarthyism that set in even before the Trump inauguration and which had as their objective to discredit him and to undermine his legitimacy.  Cohen chronicles here the impact of the “Russiagate” allegations and investigations with all of the accompanying mangling of truth and of our pluralism.



Here the leitmotif may be said to be the development of what Cohen and others call “Intelgate,” meaning the unlawful activities of segments of the intelligence community, in particular, the CIA and FBI directors, in the wiretapping of Trump campaign officials and advisers during the 2016 race based on uproven dirt about Trump which people close to Hillary had paid for, namely the so-called Steele dossier. These criminal activities were compounded by the leaking of that dossier to the press. And they culminated in the Director of National Intelligence’s misrepresentation of the findings of the 17 intelligence agencies on alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which gave a patent of credibility to the supposed collusion between Trump and the Kremlin. All of this encouraged media frenzy.


Good and superb

The weekly reports show the progressive deterioration of US-Russian relations mostly due to political power struggles within Washington and the abandonment of hopes for reason to prevail and détente to be restored.

That being said, there are among the essays some which stand out above the rest. One in particular to which I direct the reader’s attention is the entry dated August 24, 2017 and entitled “The Lost Alternatives of Mikhail Gorbachev.” It is worthy of special mention because here Cohen is commenting on his own personal experiences, in this instance, a dinner meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev at his home in the suburbs of Moscow.

Cohen reminds us of his close, almost family relationship with Gorbachev dating from their first meeting in Washington in 1987. From this installment we can appreciate that the knowledge informing this book comes not only from Cohen’s formal scholarly research, but also from his life experience in Russia meeting with a range of people from the President down to dissidents, to the offspring of victims of Stalin’s Terror and to other Russian intelligentsia on their home ground.

A similarly important and autobiographical essay is dated  November 8, 2017 and entitled “The Unheralded Putin – Official Anti-Stalinist No. 1.”  This recounts Cohen’s visit a week earlier to Moscow for the opening of  the Wall of Sorrow dedicated to all victims of Soviet repression and focused on the Stalin years from 1929 to 1953.

Yet another memorable chapter is devoted to Vladimir Putin’s address to the joint houses of the Russian parliament on March 1, 2018 in which he unveiled the new, state of the art weapons systems which Russia is bringing into serial production to reestablish its full strategic parity with the United States.  And the final raisins I will pull from the cake are his analytical pieces on the results of the presidential election of  March 18, 2018 and of the Trump-Putin summit meeting in Helsinki in July 2018.  These alone justify buying the book and having a read.


Politically brave

In this book, Professor Cohen shows his mettle. I particularly recommend the bold essay dated September 2017 entitled “The Silence of the Doves.” Here Cohen calls out those who otherwise have been political allies, the Progressives, for their descent into celebration of the US intelligence services, of the Mueller investigations with the very harsh and intimidating techniques applied to extract confessions and plea bargaining for the sake of implicating Donald Trump and his advisers.




In his wrap-up essay, Professor Cohen reminds us that he has placed an interrogation point in his book title: “War with Russia?”   No one can say whether this New Cold War will end badly. But, as he describes it, the New Cold War is substantially more dangerous than the 40 year long original confrontation by that name which we barely survived through a number of mishaps on the way.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019