Putin’s weekend diplomacy with Austria and Germany: reading the tea leaves

During this past Saturday, 18 August, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a brief visit to Austria to attend the wedding of the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Karin Kneissl.  Per the Kremlin, this stop of several hours in the Styrian wine country not far from the border with Slovenia was a “purely private” side excursion “on the road to Germany” for the state visit with Chancellor Angela Merkel starting later in the day at the Meseberg Palace, the federal guest house 60 km north of Berlin.

Journalists were admitted to film the wedding party, including Putin’s dance with the 53 year old bride. No questions were taken and no statements were issued by the President’s Press Secretary, who also was present. We know only that on the return journey to Graz airport, Putin was accompanied by Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Presumably they had some issues to discuss that may be characterized as official talks.

Prior to their meeting both Putin and Angela Merkel made statements to the press listing the topics they intended to discuss.  We may assume that these lists were not exhaustive. Comparing their lists, we find that the respective priorities of the parties were in inverted order, with economic cooperation at the head of Putin’s list while regulating the Donbass crisis in Ukraine was the top concern of Merkel. Moreover, the content of issues bearing the same heading was very different.  Both sides spoke of Syria, but whereas for Putin the issue for discussion is the humanitarian crisis of refugees, ensuring their return to their homes from camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey by raising funds to repair and replace fundamental infrastructure destroyed in the war. For Merkel, the number one issue in Syria is to prevent the Russian-backed Syrian armed forces from creating a new humanitarian disaster by their ongoing campaign to retake Idlib province from the militants opposed to Bashar Assad.

Meanwhile, what is surely the single most urgent issue for both sides was not mentioned at all in their opening statements: namely how to respond to US President Donald Trump’s new sanctions on Russia and on participants in the Nord Stream II gas pipeline project that both countries support.

As was explained at the outset, there was to be no press conference or joint statement issued at the conclusion of the talks.  The only information we have is that Merkel and Putin conferred for more than three hours, which is in itself quite extraordinary and suggests that some understandings may have been achieved.

In a word, the potentially very important diplomatic developments of Saturday remain, for once, a state secret of the parties, with no leaks for the press to parse.  And yet there is material here worthy of our consideration. I have in mind the interpretations of what might transpire before, during and after the events of Saturday in the news and commentary reportage of various countries having greater or lesser interest in Russian affairs. Indeed, my perusal of French, Belgian, German, British, American and Russian news media shows great diversity of opinion and some penetrating and highly pertinent remarks based on different information bases. This material is all essential if we are to make sense of the behavior of the parties on the international stage in the coming weeks.

In this essay, I will set out what I have found per country , starting with the least attentive to detail – the United States – and ending with those who offered the best informed and most interested reportage, Germany and Russia.  I will conclude with my own reading of the tea leaves.

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Let us take The Washington Post and The New York Times as our markers for how US mainstream media reported on Putin’s meetings this past Saturday.

On the 18th, The Washington Post carried in its online edition two articles dealing with the Putin diplomatic doings. “At Austrian foreign minister’s wedding, Putin brings the music, the flowers and the controversy” was written by the newspaper’s bureau chief in Berlin, Griff Witte. It is accompanied by video clips of Vladimir Putin dancing with the bride and speaking, in German, to the wedding party seated at their banquet table.  The journalist touches very briefly on the main political dimensions of Putin’s visit to Austria, including the party relations between United Russia and the far right Freedom Party in Austria’s ruling coalition which nominated Kneissl for her post, the criticism of Putin’s participation in the wedding coming from the Opposition parties in Austria who see it as a violation of the government’s own ambition to be a neutral bridge between East and West, and the issue of Putin’s sowing division on the continent. The only criticism one might offer is that the article is superficial, that each of the issues raised deserves in-depth analysis separately.

The newspaper’s second article online, which spread its net more broadly and covered the meeting with Merkel in Germany as well as the visit in Austria, came from an Associated Press reporter, not its own staff. Here again, the problem is that issues surrounding the meetings are not more than bullet points, and the reader is given no basis for reaching an independent finding on what has happened..

The New York Times’ feature article “Merkel and Putin Sound Pragmatic Notes After Years of Tension,” also published on the 18th and datelined Berlin was cited by Russian television news for a seemingly positive valuation of the talks in Meseberg Palace. However, the content of the article by reporter Melissa Eddy is more cautious, highlighting the pattern of “conflicts and reconciliations” that have marked German-Russian relations over the centuries and seeing the present stage not as a warming of relations but instead as reaching for compromises “on Syria, energy and other key issues while maintaining their differences over Russia’s role in the conflict in Ukraine.”  She sees the Syrian issue as one where German and Russian interests may be closest given that refugees from the Middle East are now a German preoccupation with political weight.  The reporter cites several experts attached to well-known institutes in Germany that are generally skeptical about Russia’s intentions. But the end result is better informed than most NYT reporting on Russia even if it leaves us wondering what will result from the Saturday diplomacy.

In both mainstream papers there is no attempt to find a link between Putin’s two visits on Saturday.

I close out this little survey of English-speaking media by pointing to an article in The Guardian from the 18th entitled “Putin urges Europe to help rebuild Syria so refugees can return.” This piece comes from the Agence France-Presse in Berlin. It is not much more than a recitation of the lists of topics for discussion that Putin and Merkel issued before their talks. But the reporter has made his choice for the most important of them, Syria and refugees.

The French-language press does not seem to have been very interested in Putin’s “private” trip to the wedding of the Austrian foreign minister, but was definitely keen to discuss Putin’s trip to Berlin. On the day preceding the Putin-Merkel meeting, the French press offered a clear concept of where things were headed.  We read in Figaro, “Merkel receives Putin Saturday to renew a difficult dialogue.” A caption in bold just below is more eye-catching:  “While the German Chancellor has become the main opponent to the Russian President within the EU, the policy of sanctions conducted by Washington has led to a rapprochement between Berlin and Moscow with regard to numerous issues.”

The reporter notes that following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, relations between the two heads of state had become quite bad and in four years they met only when obliged to do so during international summits.

“But starting three months ago, their diplomatic exchanges have intensified: in May Angela Merkel met the chief of the Kremlin in Sochi, Russia. In July, she met the head of the Russian diplomatic corps, Sergei Lavrov, in Berlin. By inviting Vladimir Putin this time, the German Chancellor has promised ‘in-depth discussions.’ “She is pursuing a pragmatic attempt at normalization of German-Russian relations, because the international realities have changed,’ explains Stefan Meister, director of the Robert Bosch Center for Russia.”

And how has the calculus of international relations changed?  Both Merkel and Putin are now facing the same challenge:  US foreign policy has become unpredictable, both for its allies and for rivals like Moscow. Notwithstanding the warm discussions Donald Trump had with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, the American administration has just announced a new wave of sanctions on Russia relating to the Skripal affair.

“The American policy represents a danger for the Russian economy and a threat to German interests.”

A spokesperson from Merkel’s CDU party responsible for foreign policy is quoted on the possible dangers of secondary sanctions being directed at Germany through the application of US extraterritoriality against those failing to respect the new sanctions on Russia.

The article explains the issues surrounding the Nord Steam 2 pipeline, and in particular Trump’s hostility to the project for its locking in German dependence on Russian hydrocarbons.

And the author points to the common interests of Germany and Russia over maintenance of the Iranian nuclear deal as a factor powering the rapprochement of the two countries. Here again the common threat is Donald Trump and American sanctions against those companies which continue to trade with Iran.

The article concludes that divergent views of Russia and Germany over Ukraine and Syria exclude any breakthrough at the meeting on Saturday. But nonetheless the dialogue that was lacking these several past years is being recreated.

In its weekend edition issued on 18 August, the Belgian mainstream daily La Libre Belgique was even more insistent on interpreting the Merkel-Putin meeting as a consequence of the policies of Donald Trump. Their editorial captures the sense very nicely in its tongue-in-cheek headline: “Trump is the best ‘ally’ of Putin.”

La Libre sees Vladimir Putin’s latest diplomatic initiatives as directly resulting from the way his host at the White House has annoyed everyone.  Moreover, his outreach is welcomed:

“Germany is not the only ‘Western’ nation to return to the Kremlin. Putin is taking full advantage of the boomerang effect caused by the policies of Donald Trump, who, by hammering away at his customary allies is pushing them to other interlocutors. By looking for confrontations, imposing taxes and sanctions while thinking that this rampant isolationism will make the United States ‘great again,’ Trump is helping to build a wall that he no doubt did not imagine, that of the anti-Trump people.”

The editors point to Turkish President Erdogan’s clear signal that he is now looking for other allies. He has done his calculations and has said he has more to gain with Moscow than with Washington.’

The editorial concludes that a summit on reconstruction of Syria might even take place at the start of September between Moscow, Ankara, Paris and Berlin.  The conclusion? “Putin has taken center stage on the chessboard. Thank you, Mr. Trump.”

The article filed by La Libre’s correspondent in Berlin, Sebastien Millard, bears a heading that matches the editorial view of the newspaper:  “Merkel and Putin – allies of convenience facing Trump.”  The author credits Donald Trump with being the catalyst for the resumption of dialogue between Germany and Russia; they are telling Washington that they do not accept its blackmail. He notes that we should not expect any reversal of alliances. There are too many differences of view between Berlin and Moscow on a variety of issues.

 

 

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The German press paid a good deal of attention to Vladimir Putin’s visit to Austria for the wedding of Foreign Minister Karin Kreissl.

In an article posted on the 16th entitled “Suspicion that Austria is a Trojan horse,” Die Welt highlighted the negatives of Putin’s presence. Quoting an “expert from the University of Innsbruck” this does not cast a good light on the country. They anticipate political fall-out.  This will impair Austria’s ability as chair of the European Council to play a role of intermediary in the Ukraine conflict.  The only beneficiary of the visit will be the the Russia-friendly

be the Russia-friendly Freedom Party.  For Putin, being a guest provides him with the opportunity to demonstrate that he is not isolated but is instead highly welcome in society of an EU country.

As for the coming meeting with Merkel on Saturday evening, Die Welt in a related article of the same day lists the issues for discussion. Without taking a position, it cites experts for and against the Nord Stream II pipeline and other issues on the list.

Welt’s report from the wedding party on the 18th was gossipy and unfriendly, comparing it to a wedding of some European royal family because of the extraordinary guest list that included the country’s chancellor, vice chancellor, and defense minister as well as the head of OPEC and…Vladimir Putin.   With typical German petty financial accounting, they reckon that the 500 police and other security measures needed for the safety of the highly placed guests cost the Austrian tax payers 250,000 euros.

A separate article in Die Welt deals with Putin’s meeting with Merkel at the Meseberg Palace. The emphasis here is on Merkel’s remarks during the Statement prior to the talks that cooperation with Russia is “vital” to deal with many conflicts globally and that both sides bear responsibility to find solutions.

The article quotes from the opening statements of the leaders on all the issues in their list for discussion – Syria, Ukraine, Nord Stream II.  We are given bare facts without any analysis to speak of.

The other major mainstream daily Frankfurter Allgemeine in its Saturday, 18 August edition offered separate articles on Putin’s visits to Austria and Germany.

The article on Karin Kneissl’s wedding heads off in a very different direction from the reporting in other media that I have summarized above.  FAZ notes that Kneissl is rarely in the headlines and it asks:  who is she?  They answer the question with some curious details.  We learn that Kneissl was once active in competitive sports and even now swims a kilometer every day. For many years she has lived on a small farmstead with a couple of boxers, two ponies, hens and cats. Each morning her chauffeur takes her and the dogs to her office in Vienna, to return in the evening.  Regrettably, FAZ does not take this curious biographical sketch further. No connection is drawn between her personality and the Russian President’s acceptance of her invitation to her wedding.

FAZ similarly has chosen to amuse rather than inform in its coverage of the meeting in Berlin entitled “Sparkling wine in Austria, sparkling water in Meseberg.”  They comment on how Putin arrived half an hour late, on how it is hard to see how the meeting could be characterized as a success. They stress that we know nothing about the content of the consultations. Then they tick off the opening positions of the sides as set out in their statements before the talks.

Spiegel online risks more by giving more interpretation and less bare facts. Its article entitled “Something of a new start” suggests that a rapprochement is underway and that both Merkel and Putin have a lot in play. Unlike the other German press we have mentioned, Spiegel sees a direct link between Putin’s attending the wedding in Styria and his visit to Merkel.

Putin is under economic pressure to find closer ties with Europe. In Austria, which now chairs the European Council, he has allies in the government, namely the extreme right populists of the Freedom Party which installed Kneissl.  But the way to Europe passes by way of Merkel and Putin knows that.

Meanwhile, says Spiegel, Germany also is interested in improving relations with Russia despite all the controversy, namely due to the growing conflicts with US President Donald Trump. We don’t know the exact content of the talks which were confidential, but there is some movement now between Germany and Russia.

Spiegel remains cautious. Cordiality does not enter into the relationship. The parties keep their distance. There is no laughter to lighten the atmosphere. Yet, it concludes: “The talks have prospects and we can see the wish to make progress through common positions, and without being silent about contradictions. Diplomatic normality, as it were. A  step forward.”

 

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If the great bulk of commentary in the West about Putin’s diplomatic weekend was reserved and stayed by the bare facts without speculation, Russian television more than made up for dryness.  I point in particular to two political talk shows which invited a mixture of experts from different backgrounds.

Let us begin with  the show Vremya Pokazhet (Time will tell) on state television’s Pervy Kanal.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FR0AL9pJSM   Their Friday, 17 August program focused on Putin’s forthcoming visit to the wedding ‘on the road to Berlin,’ which several panelists saw as a strong signal to Germany that Russia had other channels to the EU if Germany refuses to be its intercessor.

The visit was said to be breaking new ground in diplomatic practice.  According to panelist Andrei Baklanov, deputy chair of the association of Russian diplomats, this kind of positive, human diplomacy is Russia’s answer to the negative behavior in international affairs that has occupied center stage in the recent past – sanctions, fake news, etc.   As another panelist interjected, this is the first time that a Russian head of state attended a wedding abroad since Tsar Nicholas did so in Germany in 1913.

Baklanov proceeded to provide details about the bride, however, bringing out aspects of her career that are far more relevant to her attracting the attention of Putin than the Frankfurter Allgemeine produced. We learn that she grew up in Amman, Jordan, that she speaks 8 languages: Arabic, Hebrew, Magyar, French, Spanish, Italian, English as well as her native German.  She studied Near Eastern languages in Vienna University, in the Jewish University of Jerusalem, in the University of Jordan and also graduated from the National School of Administration in France. She holds a doctorate in law.  She is a non-party minister, which also attests to her generally recognized professionalism. For all of these reasons, she is a good fit with Putin’s determination to find supporters in Europe for investments to restore Syrian infrastructure and enable the return of refugees.

The country’s most prestigious talk show, “Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov,” had a couple of Duma members and a well-known politician from Liberal circles comment on the diplomacy of the day before.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1mZa6rB5ns)

Sergey Mironov, leader of the socialist party Fair Russia said that despite Merkel’s warning in advance not to expect breakthroughs it is likely progress was made in agreeing how to deal with US sanctions. This would be tested in the coming days.

As for the link between the visits to Austria and Germany, the representative of a pro-business party Sergey Stankevich reminded viewers that Germany and Austria are the market makers in Europe for Russian gas. Nord Stream II gas may land in Germany but a large part of it will be pumped further to Austria’s hub for distribution elsewhere in Europe.  Whatever may have been said publicly, Stankevich believes that Merkel and Putin did agree on many if not all the subjects named before the start:  Iran, Syria, Ukraine, Nord Stream.

Russian media coverage of the Saturday travels of their President continued on Russian news programs into Monday, with video clips of Putin dancing at the wedding and speaking alongside Merkel before entering into their talks at Meseberg Palace.

 

 

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Looking back at the media coverage of Putin’s visits to Austria and Germany on 18 August, and with all due respect to those who opinions are different from mine, I find that the most helpful for our understanding of the present day international situation were the report and editorial in Belgium’s Libre Belgique and the unruly, risky but at times brilliant insights on Russian television.

What comes out of this is the understanding that the visits to a wedding in Austria and to the federal Chancellor outside Berlin were directly linked in Russian diplomatic strategy, that Russia is playing

the Austrian card during the country’s six months at the helm of the European Council in Brussels, that Russia is pushing for a multi-party relief effort for Syria to facilitate the return of refugees to their home and pacification of the war-torn country.  The web of common interests that Russia is pursuing has at its core the fragility of the current world order and generalized anxiety of leading countries due to America’s aggressive pursuit of narrow national interest under Donald Trump as seen in his tariff wars and sanctions directed at friends and foes alike.

Where I differ from the interpretations set out in the foregoing press reports is in my understanding of what Trump is doing and why.

The nearly universal assumption of commentators is that Trump’s policies known as “Make America Great” are ignorant and doomed to fail.  They are assumed to be isolationist, withdrawing America from the world community.

However, Trump did not invent bullying of US allies. That was going strong under George W. Bush, with his challenge “you are either with us or against us” when he sought to align the West behind his invasion of Iraq in 2003 without authorization of the UN Security Council.  His more urbane successor Barack Obama was no kinder to U.S. allies, who were slapped with crushing fines for violations of U.S. sanctions on Iran, just to mention one way in which they were kept in line.  And the U.S. Congress today is no more reasonable and diplomatic than the President in the brutal unilateral sanctions it has on its own initiative advocated against not just Russia but also against Turkey and other states which are not snapping to attention with respect to purchases of military materiel from Russia.

What made U.S. bullying tolerable before Trump was the ideological smokescreen of “shared values,” namely democracy promotion, human rights and rule of law, that all members of the alliances could swear to and which set them apart from the still unenlightened parts of the globe where autocrats hold sway.

In my view, Trump’s use of sanctions and tariffs here, there, everywhere has a totally different logic from what is adduced in the writings of my peers in the analyst community.  He invokes them because 1. they are within his sole power as Chief Executive and 2. they are in principle as American as apple pie and do not require grand explanations in Congress or before the public.  As to why he invokes them, there you have to look at Trump’s foreign policy from a 360 degree perspective and not merely as it relates to Putin or to Erdogan or to any of the small slices we see discussed in the news.

When viewed in the round, it is obvious that Trump is reshuffling the deck. He is doing what he can to break up NATO and the other military alliances around the world which are consuming more than half of the U.S. defense budget and do not arguably provide greater security to the American homeland than the country can do for itself without fixed alliances and overseas bases.

The first two presidencies of this millennium undid the country’s greatest geopolitical achievement of the second half of the 20th century: the informal alliance with China against Russia that put Washington at the center of all global politics.  Bush and Obama did that by inattention and incomprehension of what was at stake. That inattention was an expression of American hubris in the unipolar world which, it was assumed, was the new normal, not a blip.

By contrast, what Trump is now doing is not a blunder or a bit of bluster.  Even if he is not conversant with the whole of the Realist School of international relations, as surely he is not, he does grasp the fundamentals, namely the centrality of the sovereign nation-state and of the balance of power mechanism by which these states are constantly changing alignments of these nation-states to ensure no one enjoys hegemony.  We see this understanding when he speaks about looking out for American interests while the heads of state whom he meets are looking out for the interests of theirs. In his tweets we find that our allies are ripping us off, that they are unfair competitors.  His most admiring remark about Russia is that it is a strong competitor.  The consistent element in Trump’s thinking is ignored or willfully misunderstood in the press.

Accordingly, I insist that the possible rapprochement of Russia and Germany will be in line with Trump’s reshuffling of the deck not in spite of it.

Angela Merkel, Austerity and the Pathetic State of German Roads

The Genoa bridge collapse on Saturday, 11 August with the loss of 39 lives and still counting has precipitated extensive discussion in European media about infrastructure weaknesses elsewhere on the Continent. Typical of this genre, an article in yesterday’s Figaro served up its content in the headline: “In France, 30% of the bridges managed by the State are in need of reconstruction.” To understand the scale of the assignment, there are 200,000 bridges on the roads of France.

In Germany, the online edition of the mainstream newspaper Die Welt published an article two days ago with a similar message: “Two-thirds of the German highway bridges are in an alarming state.” (https://www.welt.de/wirtschaft/article181181806/Nach-Genua-So-werden-die-deutschen-Bruecken-geprueft.html) We are told that only one-quarter of the bridges are in good condition.  A number of major bridges are and will remain closed to truck traffic because they are too fragile.

The article describes the system of inspections of the bridges. It goes on to say that the problematic bridges are only the tip of the iceberg: “Since the year 2,000 the condition of bridge surfaces considered to be in ‘very good’ or ‘good’ condition has more than halved.”  In  cases of unsatisfactory condition, the speed limits on such bridges will be drastically reduced and they may be closed to commercial vehicles of certain weight categories.

Die Welt notes that the problem extends beyond major highways to local roads, where 10,000 bridges must be replaced by 2030, affecting 15% of all communal roads in Germany. The investment cost of the replacement will be 11 billion euros. Indeed, one out of two of the local bridges is in poor condition and requires repairs. Implementing this would raise the overall investment needs to 16 billion.

Meanwhile, also on 15 August Bloomberg online news published a feature article looking at the problem more broadly:  “Germany’s Infrastructure Skids Into Crisis on Merkel’s Autobahn,” by Leonard Kahnscherper. Here we find at the outset a key generalization about the problem:

“[Germany’s] once envied network of roads, bridges and railways are decaying due to decades of underspending. The country has fallen to 15th in road quality behind Oman and Portugal, according to the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness rankings…”

True to its economic and business focus, Bloomberg remarks that traffic jams resulting from the inadequate road system cost the German economy more than 60 billion euros a year from wasted working time and delivery delays.

Put in the broader perspective of overall infrastructure, Bloomberg finds that the investment gap for German municipalities amounted to 159 billion euros in 2017, of which roughly a quarter was for traffic infrastructure. To this one must add the national and regional projects.  Their research shows that “Germany’s net investment has been negative throughout most of Merkel’s reign.” Simply put, money spent by the government fails to keep up with wear and tear.

Bloomberg likens the road decay with the failure to keep up with technological change in digital networks, where Germany is a laggard country now: “In mobile phone penetration, the country ranks 76th behind Algeria, Mali and Sri Lanka, according to the World Economic Forum.”

 

These cited articles were all prepared by remote, using statistical research by third parties not from personal time behind the wheel by the journalists.  Having just completed a 500 kilometer vacation drive through the length of Germany from Aachen by the Belgian border into northeastern Bavaria, I have fresh observations of the situation in an extensive and representative part of the country. My observations have been backed up by those of friends who travel frequently in Germany by car in this and other parts of the country.

Moreover, for a comparative sense I draw upon my more than 3 years of experience in the early 1990s as a weekly commuter from Brussels to Frankfurt or Cologne. That was when autobahns were still the pride and joy of automobile infatuated Germans. To be sure, even then one could speak nostalgically of still earlier times when no speed limits were set to spoil the fun. Speed limits were already applied to some stretches of the federal highways in the 90s, including a large portion of my commuting route, but the hidden friskiness of otherwise dour Germans still had plenty of road segments to put the pedal to the floor and enjoy domination of the road.

And for a second reality check, my observations in what follows were tested against the findings of my return trip from Bavaria to Brussels, when I chose to leave behind the wretched autobahns and experience the autoroutes of France from Strasbourg north and through Luxembourg to Belgium. Both in time and space, the comparisons with what I found In Germany a week ago lead ineluctably to Germany’s shame.

 

The first and overriding fact of driving on the autobahns today is that major road construction work is going on everywhere.  On each arterial road, you cannot go more than 10 or 15 km without getting caught up in the road works constrictions that make travel time planning impossible and put your life at risk, something which Bloomberg & Co. has not yet considered measuring.

Summer time is by definition the season when road authorities in many European countries do the lion’s share of their annual road maintenance and improvements.  However, what I saw was not comparable to  the summer work in Germany of the past. Aside from separate and isolated cases of widening autobahns here and there, the big activity causing the infamous Stau or bottleneck on the German highways going back five years or more was installation of sound insulation barriers to protect residential areas adjacent to highways or similar minor improvements.

What is going on today is largely addition of a lane in each direction on what are four lane highways.

Reading the signs put up at the start of many of these work sites showing the planned termination dates of the ongoing work which extend out three and four years, and considering that the work is going on simultaneously everywhere, I conclude that the problem has been created by certain political and  budgetary priorities of the German federal government which contradict  best practices and expose the public works to unaccountability, frequent cost revision, quite apart from damage to the productive economy and safety risks.

In a nutshell, this type of approach to public works is process oriented rather than outcome oriented.  If the latter were the case, you would see rapid scheduling of one highway project after another in sequence.  Simultaneous construction all over the place means the pain is being spread and budgeting is stretched out It is a clever political tactic to calm voters and taxpayers.  But the pain is being drawn out for everyone unnecessarily. The savings are illusory, since men and materiel are locked into very long-range projects.

The road widening exercise entails diversion of existing lanes into “temporary” lanes that are perhaps 20% narrower than normal and are delineated on either side by concrete or metal dividers.  This creates high tension for drivers to stay within the narrow bounds. The frequent redirection this way and that makes it difficult to follow the car in front, compounding the strain on driver vision. Any momentary lack of attention and you have the real possibility of bouncing off the divider and crashing.

Then there is the problem of truck traffic.  Back in the 1990s truck traffic was a nuisance because the trucks in the right lane might be traveling at 90 km/hr while the autos in the left lane could be doing 150 km/hr or more. When any of the trucks moved into the left lane to pass a peer, a hazard was created for the speed demons in their autos.

Today, the right lane of the two lane temporary highways are wholly given over to trucks, which form long caravans of twenty or more semi-trailers, often either not moving or proceeding at a snail’s pace.  Effectively only one lane is open to cars, also moving under Stau warning conditions, meaning start-stop, sharp acceleration and deceleration.  Here we have another contributing factor to driver weariness and heightened risk of collision.

The end result is that today the German highways are very unsafe, about which no one is talking.  This issue has nothing whatever to do with preventive maintenance or the general erosion of infrastructure. It has to do with human lives and quality of life.

That it does not have to be this way was shown up by my return trip through France and Luxembourg on roads that roughly run parallel to the German autobahns on the east side of the Rhine.  Yes, there were road works going on here and there, but they were strictly maintenance work – on the bridges, by the way. If one of the two lanes in each direction was shut immediately before and at the point of the works, there was no diversion from the remaining normal lane, hence no increased hazards, only the possible loss of time.

In effect, the loss of time from road works on the French side was negligible because traffic density was low. In particular, truck  density on the autoroutes was very low, reminiscent of the 1990s.  Thus, the question must be asked why Germany has attracted the vast numbers of trucks, many, perhaps more than half, registered in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Turkey.  Does this preference for the German roads have something to do with the pricing policy on tolls for commercial traffic?  Given that trucks create vastly more wear and tear on transport infrastructure than automobiles, one has to ask if the German authorities have not trapped themselves into a vicious cycle of road expansion to accommodate vast truck traffic which is destroying the infrastructure and making travel a misery for private users.

The degradation of the German road system goes well beyond transport for business and pleasure. It shows the consequences of the austerity policy which Angela Merkel and her stiff-necked and equally mulish finance minister for much of her reign, Wolfgang Schauble, imposed on the whole EU following the financial crisis of 2008.

We usually think of the EU’s austerity policy with respect to Southern Europe, where it was made a precondition for bailouts in Greece, in Portugal and elsewhere when the failing sovereign bond markets and bank collapses put the continued membership of these countries in the Euro zone in danger and urgent help was required for them to stay afloat.

Now  it is obvious that in Germany, the author and enforcer of Austerity, the chickens have come home to roost.

Germany and anti-Semitism

The hate-crime murder of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in her Paris apartment in March shocked the Jewish community of France and touched off a broad discussion in European media about a rising tide of anti-Semitic acts in recent years and how it relates to the influx of Muslim refugees on the Old Continent. Attention was particularly drawn to Germany, which for historic reasons remains the barometer of religious and racial tolerance within the EU, and where the refugee tide from the Middle East and North Africa reached highest volume.

An opinion article published on 30 March by the English-language edition of Deutsche Welle said it all in the headline: “Jews face rampant anti-Semitism in Germany, Europe.” The article noted that in Germany “Jewish schools, kindergartens and community centers have needed protection against original and neo-Nazis for decades.” The author, Michel Friedman, pointed to blatantly anti-Semitic slogans propagated by the extreme Right party Alternativ fuer Deutschland (AfD), now the leading Opposition group in the German federal parliament.

The issue was raised to nationwide discussion in Germany at the end of April when two young men wearing Jewish skullcaps were attacked on the streets of Berlin. The assault against one, a 21-year old Arab Israeli, was captured on video and was disseminated widely on social networks.  The attacker whipped the man with a belt and shouted at him “Yehudi,” the Arabic for “Jew!”

Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly condemned the incident and expressed her regrets that Jewish schools, kindergartens and synagogues needed police protection.  Notwithstanding her longstanding defense of immigration on humanitarian grounds, she also acknowledged that the refugees of Arab origin had brought with them anti-Semitic beliefs that now added to Germany’s own traditional anti-Semitism.

However, there is another side to the story which I will set out in this essay: namely that despite all the head winds from the arriving refugees and from native German defenders of Palestinian rights whose condemnations of Israeli policies, condemnations of Zionism easily conflate with raw anti-Semitism, Germany’s official policy of zero tolerance for intolerance carries the day and produces remarkable and ubiquitous signs that lessons from history are not forgotten. Indeed, the lessons are being re-taught in every corner of the land more than 65 years after the Shoah in the country most responsible for the destruction of European Jewry.

* * * *

I have just returned from a first-time visit to the Bayreuth opera festival, where I had seats for the new production of Lohengrin and for the re-staging of last year’s highly successful Meistersinger von Nuremberg.

Depending on your turn of mind, this part of Bavaria is either the temple of German high culture or the black heart of Germany, linked forever with the racist ideology of the Third Reich and personally favored by Adolf Hitler, who came repeatedly to the festival and was lodged in Wahnfried, the home built for Richard Wagner, where he was treated like family by Wagner’s daughter in law Winifred and was called “Uncle Wolf” by Wagner’s grandchildren.

The first surprise of the visit was seeing the installation commemorating the victims of the Holocaust situated on the “Green Hill,” as the site of the opera house is called, just below the entrance area, where the audience gathers before each performance for the fanfare by trumpeters on a balcony above calling them to take their seats inside.

The installation is very dignified, restrained and impactful. It consists of metal stele bearing the name, portrait and a brief biographical sketch of opera singers, instrumentalists, conductors and other creative staff of the Wagner festival who were chased out after the Nazis came to power and died in one or another of the concentration camps.  Unlike Berlin’s “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” which has been criticized for vagueness about the victims and the perpetrators, the installation in front of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus deals frankly with the anti-Semitism within the Wagner family and in particular as practiced by his widow Cosima, daughter of pianist Franz Liszt, who personally intervened to purge the house of any Jewish presence.

It must be remembered that the audience in Bayreuth, which is perhaps 80% German, with an admixture of Americans, British, Japanese and other globe-trotting melomanes, comprises the crème-de-la-crème of German society. While other German music and arts festivals like the Ruhrtriennale, which I know well, may be frequented by local intelligentsia, university professors and government bureaucrats, the audience at Bayreuth is perfectly on a par with the Salzburg Festival, which attracts top businessmen, bankers, senior politicians and aristocracy. The ubiquitous tuxedos on men and long gowns on ladies were conclusive evidence of their social standing.  And a good many strolled through the installation on the Holocaust.  Clearly the monument has reached its intended audience of arbiters of culture and taste in Germany.  Given the history of the place, one must imagine the fight that went on with its custodians to hold up to the audience this mirror of horrors.

The opera productions themselves demonstrated the profound degree of repentance and awareness of social responsibility by the organizers of the festival.  The Meistersinger from last year was produced by the first Jewish stage director in Bayreuth’s 141 year history, Barrie Kosky.  Kosky did not appear from nowhere: he is the artistic director of Berlin’s Komische Oper.

For a detailed review of the production, I refer the reader to a very fine article by Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times of `1 August 2017. Like Woolfe, I will call attention here not to the quality of the singing and conducting, which were in fact magnificent and fully worthy of Bayreuth’s reputation, but to the stage concept. The staging had its own unmistakable message which is entirely justified on the facts.  The first act opens in the library of Wagner’s home, Wahnfried, and the alter egos of Wagner and Hans Sachs, of Cosima and Eva, of Liszt and Veit Pogner are highlighted.  That is to say, the autobiographical elements in Wagner’s composition are brought to our attention.  Meanwhile, in the later acts the stage decoration reproduces the courtroom of the war crimes trials in Nuremberg at the conclusion of WWII. In between there is a scene properly identifying the one villain in the piece, Beckmesser, as the repugnant Jew who is a suitor to the hand of the heroine and who is beaten by a crowd of townsfolk in a street riot or pogrom.

By these various devices, the stage director reminds us that Nuremberg, which is close enough to Bayreuth (95 km away) is not merely a medieval German city famous for its music guild and song competitions, but is the second largest city in Bavaria; that it was the venue for the torchlight processions of the Nazi party; that it was where the Allies held their tribunal following victory.

In general, I believe that art is an end in itself and should not be used to convey political messages. However, in the given case I am particularly accepting of this Meistersinger. From my experience of thirty years of opera going, German, and more particularly East German stage directors have dominated European opera theater presentations of Russian classics, and especially of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. During this entire time of German representation of Russian history on stage we have seen a succession of Gulag concentration camps with Kalashnikov armed guards in the early 17th century. It is high time for Germans to get a taste of the same anachronistic and eclectic treatment of their own tragic history.

The production of Lohengrin was notable only for non-artistic reasons:  Yuval Sharon, a young Israeli, was chosen as stage director.  Regrettably, in this case political considerations outweighed common sense, since Sharon had no prior experience staging operas and the production was no better than one might find in many second-tier European opera houses. I saw better three months ago in Brussels’ La Monnaie theater.

The surprises I encountered in Bayreuth went beyond the opera house to the Richard Wagner Museum in the aforementioned Wahnfried house. The audio guide, the narratives posted on the walls, and the video clips in the adjacent house where Wagner’s son and daughter in law lived later, speak directly about all the negative associations of the place.

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Back home in Brussels this past weekend, while perusing the latest issue of Germany’s leading Sunday paper, the Welt am Sonntag, from the politically Center Right Axel Springer Publishing House, I found in passing yet further demonstrations of how official Germany is dealing proactively with open or concealed anti-Semitism in its midst.

One article explains at length the ongoing scandal at the Ruhrtriennale, the music, theater and dance festival in Germany’s rust belt city of Bochum. The Triennale was created in 2002, when its first Intendant, Belgian impresario Gerard Mortier, till then head of the Salzburg Festival, set the highest artistic standards. After his departure, the festival has been on a slippery downward course.  The latest scandal with its new Intendant suggests it is hitting bottom.

As Welt informs us, the incoming Intendant Stephanie Carp has made a couple of grave missteps in programming the season that will open soon.  The first and most unforgivable came within her attempt to step down from high to more popular culture. The season has no operas, for the first time, but features a Scottish Hip-Hop Band called “Young Fathers” which is linked politically to the Boycott-Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement directed against Israel.  As local politicians have remarked, this crosses Germany’s red lines by putting in question Israel’s right to exist.  Consequently, the head of the North-Rhineland-Westphalia State, which hosts and financially supports the festival, has made it known he will not speak at the opening ceremony, will not come to any of the performances and will not be photographed with the new Intendant.  By all logic, she will be obliged to step down.

The same  issue of Welt am Sonntag carries a two page article describing a Jewish-Muslim interfaith project that is sending young adults from both faiths on five day long visits to concentration camps in Germany and Poland (Auschwitz) where the Holocaust was perpetrated to raise awareness of the country’s past evils.

 

 

* * * *

 

 

The issue of anti-Semitism lies outside my professional focus, and I speak here as a layman. But I have been involuntarily drawn into the topic by my experience with online publishing.  Those who follow me will be aware of my coming to the defense of one of my publishing platforms, Russia Insider when its owner decided several months ago to deal directly with the facts and myths of (American) Jewish  promotion of anti-Putin, anti-Russian policies from the highest levels of government and in the media.  The issue is real but its discussion invites outpourings of anti-Semitic rants.

The fact is that anti-Semitic messages are pervasive in the Comments section of many alternative media platforms when they are not being actively censored by the editors but are left to third party administrators like Disqus.  In these columns, Zionist conspiracy theories run wild.  To a lesser extent the same is true of even mainstream publications, though they are more likely to actively weed out offenders or simply to close down their Comments feature when editing proves too costly or distracting.

In all these cases, I am persuaded that the contributors of the filth are not merely anti-Establishment readers but more likely anti-social personalities for whom the “Jew” tirades are a vent for their frustrations and hatreds that is accepted or tolerated. But there is nothing new in this: the very same could be said about the venomous writings and spoken remarks of Cosima Wagner.

The German experience today is very relevant.  Indeed, there must be no tolerance of intolerance in civilized society. The Germans know better than anyone else where this leads.

Trump and Erdogan

In my last essay on how Donald Trump is remaking U.S. foreign policy, I mentioned that the overriding interest of both his many foes and his few supporters has been with regard to the Russian dimension, while other elements such as spoiled relations with the EU, with NATO are either misconstrued as random, the products of his personality defects, changeability and perverseness in particular, or are properly understood as a 360 degree attack on the U.S.-run alliance system but without any rational justification adduced.

Trump is at war with the West, we are told, as if that were sufficient interpretation in and of itself. Trump is picking fights with everyone just for the sport of it, other commentators say.

I insist that there is a consistent logic to everything Trump is doing in the international arena, however contradictory it may seem at times because of his policy reversals to confound and disarm his domestic enemies.  The logic is to dynamite the whole international order of military alliances which constrain the United States, embroil it in regional conflicts where it has no national interest and drain away more than half of its defense budget for housekeeping expenses at its military bases abroad.  In its place, he wants to the return of ‘balance of power’ politics, with the Great Powers regulating conflicts of interest among themselves by ‘spheres of influence’ understandings and the lesser powers making their own peace with one another at the regional level without the meddling of Great Powers putting their thumbs on the scales.

In the past week, another important foreign policy initiative of Donald Trump captured the world’s headlines, but not one of the mainstream or alternative news purveyors has seen the sense of it.  I have in mind the escalation of the dispute with Turkey to a critical point that puts at risk the long-term relationship with Ankara.

The core issue or catalyst for the present conflict is Turkey’s detention and prosecution of the American clergyman Andrew Brunson, who is accused of espionage and other crimes.  In ratcheting up the American pressure on Turkey by sanctions including most recently a doubling of US tariffs on Turkish aluminum and steel exports to force the release of the pastor, Trump is wholly aligned with the thinking of Congress, where the case is magnified by non-Trump considerations of bringing an authoritarian ruler to heel and of forcing reversal of Turkey’s purchase of Russian S400 air defense system.  Trump is also playing to his core constituency of evangelical Christians who take to heart the persecution of one of their own.

This is to say that Donald Trump is using the predisposition of foes and friends alike to work his own policy of dismantling NATO.

The direct consequence of U.S. sanctions on Turkey was a 25% devaluation of the Turkish lira last week. The damage to the Turkish economy forced President Erdogan to raise the anti-U.S. rhetoric and speak of reviewing Turkey’s alliances, saying that the country always had alternatives.  This is a thinly veiled threat to withdraw from the NATO alliance, where Turkey’s armed forces are the second most numerous after the United States.

Turkish relations with NATO have been deteriorating ever since the Obama administration lost its way on Syria policy and began supporting any and all forces on the ground there which might participate in the destruction of the Bashar al-Assad government’s control over its territory.  One line of attack was U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds, even as this support crossed the red lines of Ankara.  There is no more sensitive issue in Turkey than assistance to the Kurds, any Kurds, as they try to establish nationhood on territory belonging to the three states where their populations are concentrated: first and foremost Turkey itself and Iraq, secondarily, Syria.

Withdrawal of Turkey from NATO and its likely compensatory action of closer ties with Russia, China and Iran would re-draw the geopolitical map of the Middle East, very much to the disadvantage of Europe and the USA.  At the same time, it would be a knife to the heart of NATO, removing a very significant part of its military muscle. It would force a rethinking of the burden sharing within the Alliance at the very time when Donald Trump has made that very issue fundamental to his questioning its continued existence.

Looking further afield to Trump’s other very important moves in the Middle East, I draw attention to what he is doing relative to Iran.

Removing the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (nuclear deal with Iran) was one of Donald Trump’s featured promises during the 2016 electoral campaign.  It stood alone then, just as it has stood alone today in the interpretation of the vast majority of commentators.  The minority of commentators who see sense in it are wrong-headed: they see this as proof that Trump is in the pocket of the Israel Lobby which helped to finance him and is a stooge of Benjamin Netanyahu.

There is, I believe, a wholly different logic at work here that is identical to what I discerned in the present dispute with Erdogan: the master plan to destroy the cozy relationship with Europe that has underpinned NATO and so much else of U.S. foreign policy.  Along with his withdrawing the United States from the Paris convention on global warming, and along with his largely artificial dispute with the European Union over tariffs, Trump’s Iran policy was meant to go against European security interests and to place the Atlanticists in an untenable position.

One may ask why Trump has such animus against the European Union.  The answer is quite simple if you look beyond trade and defense relations, which are indeed of dubious value to the American nation apart from certain American elites who have been feasting on the world’s lunch, which always was and remains the hallmark of imperialism.  The answer lies in the domain of domestic politics:  Brussels is run by promoters of the same “values” that are the ideological foes of Trump within the United States.  Brussels is run by Neoconservatives who deny sovereignty of other states as they campaign for the spread of democracy, human rights and rule of law everywhere. Brussels is run by the promoters of LGBT rights, abortion, and a host of other questionable Liberal concerns. Brussels is run by politicians who very actively meddled in the US presidential election of 2016 on behalf of their fellow Liberal Hillary Clinton, none more so than the U.K. and its MI6 with Mr. Steele’s dossier.

Trump is inarticulate and does not come across as brainy.  But you can be sure he knows who are his friends and who are his natural enemies.  As for us more or less brainy observers, it is comforting to know that this car has a driver with a mission that, in the end, spells peace.

Donald Trump remakes US foreign policy

With Russiagate hysteria triumphant in the US media, all the world’s daily news goes through a filter to isolate and cultivate real or imaginary “Russian influence” and “meddling.” And if the news item genuinely relates to bilateral relations with Russia, then a feeding frenzy may be expected. Such is the case with every direct contact between this Administration and the Kremlin, none more so than the summit meeting of the two Presidents held in Helsinki on 16 July.

 

This unhealthy, prejudicial mindset takes in the whole US political establishment, both the vast majority positioned against Trump and the small minority of Russia specialists who speak out against the majority’s obsession with a seemingly all powerful, satanic Putin, but who themselves by their professional focus, do not see the wider world, the big picture and at best are arguing that “Putin didn’t do it.”

 

Donald Trump’s comportment at the press conference which concluded the summit meeting in Helsinki was deemed by much of the US media to confirm suspicions of collusion with the Kremlin, that Trump is a kind of “Manchurian candidate,” that Moscow has some kind of hold over him. Alternatively, it was opined that Trump is captivated by authoritarian rulers, by populists-nationalists like Putin.

 

As regards Donald Trump’s non-Russia specific Tweets and actions bearing on foreign and economic policy, they are generally dismissed as whimsical, unpredictable, changeable and merely symptomatic of his supposedly amateurish and childish behavior, something which we must tolerate until he is impeached or his term runs out and he is replaced by an “adult” who will restore traditional values and priorities.

 

There are very few commentators in mainstream US media who try to see an overriding policy guiding Trump’s foreign policy actions outside its alleged pro-Russian disposition. And those who do leave us with more questions than answers.

 

I have in mind the stream of analysis that is summed up well by the title of an opinion article written by David Leonhardt in the 10 June issue of The New York Times:  “Trump Tries to Destroy the West.” The following remarks at its start sum up the case neatly:

“It’s impossible to get inside [Trump’s] head and divine his strategic goals, if he even has long-term goals. But put it this way: If a president of the United States were to sketch out a secret, detailed plan to break up the Atlantic alliance, that plan would bear a striking resemblance to Trump’s behavior. It would involve outward hostility to the leaders of Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Japan. Specifically, it would involve picking fights over artificial issues – not to win big concessions for the United States, but to create conflict for the sake of it.”

 

This angle of analysis has been best developed in the lengthy daily summaries of news and interpretation issued as emails to subscribers by The Washington Post, in what they call “Today’s WorldView.”  Initiated a couple of months ago in obvious competition with The New York Times weekday “Briefings,” this digest compiled by Ishaan Tharoor offers not only items from the host newspaper but also links to related articles in other mainstream publications such as The New Yorker, The Guardian and also the unpublished observations of those whom he calls his “colleagues.”

 

The 18 July issue of “Today’s WorldView” poses the question “Is Trump at war with the West?” This newsletter draws on the results of Trump’s summit in Helsinki, bu also looks back to his performance in Brussels at the NATO gathering: “To many Trump critics, his performances in both cities capped a year and a half of both tacit and overt attacks on the transatlantic alliance.”

 

Tharoor quotes from New York Times columnist David Brooks who concluded that Trump’s behavior was that “of a man who wants the alliance to fail.”  He quotes extensively from Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister and leader of the Liberal political fraction in the European Parliament fighting for a much more integrated EU, who sees Trump as the enemy of liberal internationalism and ally of his own alt right enemies in Europe.

 

Tharoor also brings into play Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, who delivered a scathing attack on Trump for his rejection of the West: “…today the U.S. president appears hostile to core American values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law; he feels no loyalty to allies; he rejects open markets; and he despises international institutions.”

 

In the 23 July issue of “Today’s WorldView,” Tharoor takes advantage of the time gone by since Helsinki to refine the conclusions. He offers a pithy commentary from Susan Glasser of The New Yorker: “We are witnessing nothing less than the breakdown of American foreign policy.”

 

In the same issue, Tharoor notes that public reaction to Trump in Helsinki is less pronounced than one might suppose from reading the pundits. He offers the following remarks of colleagues on the results of a recent poll:  “Most Americans do not feel Trump went ‘too far’ in supporting Puitn, and while more Americans say U.S. leadership has gotten weaker than stronger under Trump, his ratings on this question are slightly improved from last fall.”

 

If we go back in time to the days following Trump’s visit to the NATO gathering in Brussels, we find in the  headlines of the 11 July issue another take on what Trump is doing:

 

“Trump’s NATO trip shows ‘America First’ is ‘America Alone.’”

 

Here we read about Trump’s insistence that America “stop footing Europe’s bill” for its defense, namely his demand that all NATO allies pay up 2% of GDP at once, not in the remote future; and that they prepare to double that to 4% very quickly.  By intentional abrasiveness, these moves by Trump are, Tharoor tells us, “undercutting the post-World War II order in pursuit of short-term, and likely illusory, wins.”

 

All of these comments address the question of what Trump opposes.  However, Tharoor is unable to say what, if anything, Trump stands for. There are only hints:  continued US hegemony but without the ideological cover; might makes right; nationalism and the disputes that lead to war.

 

Does this make sense?  Or is it just another way of saying that Trump’s foreign policy stance is an inconsistent patchwork, illogical and doomed to fail while causing much pain and destruction along the way?

 

I fully agree with the proposition that Donald Trump is ripping up the post-Cold War international order and is seeking to end NATO and the rest of the alliance system by which the United States has maintained its global hegemony for decades.  But I believe this destructive side is guided by a creative vision of where he wants to take US foreign policy.

 

This new foreign policy of Donald Trump is based on an uncompromising reading of the teachings of the Realist School of international affairs, such as we have not seen since the days of President Teddy Roosevelt, who was its greatest practitioner in US history.

 

This is not isolationism, because Trump is acting to defend what he sees as US national interests in foreign trade everywhere and in geopolitics in one or another part of the world.  However, it is a world in which the US is cut free from the obligations of its alliances which entail maintenance of overseas bases everywhere at the cost of more than half its defense budget. He wants to end the risks of being embroiled in regional wars that serve our proxies, not core US national interests. And he is persuaded that by a further build-up of military might at home, by adding new hi-tech materiel the US can secure its interests abroad best of all.

 

I reach these conclusions from the snippets of Trump remarks which appear in the newspapers of daily record but are intentionally left as unrelated and anecdotal, whereas when slotted together they establish the rudiments of an integrated worldview and policy.

 

For example, I take his isolated remark that the United States should not be prepared to go to war to defend Montenegro, which recently passed NATO accession, because Montenegro had been a trouble-maker in the past.  That remark underwent virtually no analysis in the media, though it could be made only by someone who understood, remarkably, the role of Montenegro at the Russian imperial court of Nicholas II precisely as “troublemaker,” whose dynastic family aided in their own small way the onset of WWI.

 

Donald Trump is not a public speaker.  He is not an intellectual. We cannot expect him to issue some “Trump Doctrine” setting out his Realist conception of the geopolitical landscape. All we get is Tweets.  This inarticulate side of Trump has been used by his enemies to argue he has no policy.

 

In fact, Trump is the only Realist on the landscape.

 

Going back to 2016,  I thought he was being guided by Henry Kissinger during the campaign and then in the first months of his presidency, I misjudged entirely.  Trump is true to the underlying principles of Realism without compromise, whereas Henry K. made his peace with the prevailing Wilsonian Idealism of the American Establishment a couple of decades ago in order to remain welcome in the Oval Office and not to be entirely marginalized.

 

Trump’s vision of Realism draws from the source in the Treaty of Westphalia, 1648 with its guiding concept of sovereign nation-states that do not intervene in others’ domestic affairs. It further draws on the notions of raison d’état or national interest developed by the French court of Louis XIV and then taken further by “perfidious Albion” in the eighteenth century, with temporary and ever changing combinations of states in balance of power realignments of competitors.  The history of the Realist School was set out magnificently by Kissinger in his 1994 work Diplomacy.  It is a pity that the master himself strayed from true and narrow.

 

In all of this, you have the formula for Trump’s respect, even admiration for Putin, since that also is now Vladimir Vladimirovich’s concept of Russia’s way forward: as a strong sovereign state that sets its own course without the constraints of alliances and based on its own military might.

 

The incredible thing is how a man with such poor communication skills,  a man who does not read much came to such an integrated vision that outstrips the conceptual abilities of his enemies, his friends and everyone in between.

 

We are tempted to look for a mentor, and one who comes to mind is Steve Bannon, who is very articulate, razor-sharp in his intellect and who provided Trump with much of the domestic content of his 2016  campaign from the alt right playbook.  And though Bannon publicly broke with Trump in their falling out over his ever diminishing role in the Administration, Bannon’s ongoing project, in particular his Movement to influence European politics and shift it to the Right by coordinating activities across the Continent during the parliamentary elections of May 2019, very closely parallel what Trump’s ambassador in Berlin seems to be doing in Trump’s name.

 

It may well be that the President and his confidantes find it prudent for him to play the hapless fool, the clueless disrupter of the global political landscape until he has the support in Congress to roll out the new foreign policy that is now in gestation.

 

The logical consequence of such a Realist approach to foreign policy will be to reach an understanding with the world’s other two principal military powers, Russia and China, regarding respective spheres of influence in their geographic proximity.  But I do not believe we will see a G-3  succeeding America’s unipolar moment. Given the predispositions of both Russia and China, we are more likely to see a broader board of governors of global policy in the form of the G-20, ushering in the multipolar age. In such a formulation, regional conflicts will be settled locally by the interested parties and with the major powers involved only as facilitators, not parties to conflict.  That promises a much more stable and peaceful future, something which none of Donald Trump’s detractors can begin to imagine as his legacy.

 

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

Republic of Latvia, Apartheid State within the EU

This essay draws upon my personal acquaintance with Alexander Gaponenko, the victim of ongoing cruel and unusual judicial procedures in Riga, Latvia which violate fundamentally the much-touted “values” of the European Union. However, this is not about the misfortune of one person, fallen afoul of local authorities. The Gaponenko case fits into a broad context of vicious discrimination by the Latvian state of its minority of Russian speakers who constitute more than thirty percent of the general population of the country.  I will begin with an overview and proceed to the particulars.

My objective is to raise public awareness in Western Europe of the Apartheid regime that has been running Latvia since its independence in 1991 with the connivance of the USA and EU. It is high time for protests to be lodged with Latvian embassies so as to force a solution to what is eminently amenable to political remedy.

* * * *

 

These days we hear a lot about the wayward EU Member States of Central Europe, which are allegedly reverting to authoritarian habits of their Communist past and are trampling on democratic principles and rule of law.  Foremost in these countries selected for stigmatization are Viktor Orban’s Hungary and Poland under its Law and Justice Party of the Kaczynskis.

How grave the recidivism of these two nations may be remains to be determined, and so far the possible sanctions against them are only a talking point.  The contest with Brussels will be difficult.  While the Polish government is on the defensive, insisting that its judicial reforms do not violate EU law, the Hungarian government is on the offensive. In the past week Prime Minister Orban asserted flatly that Western Europe is no longer democratic.  If by that he means that it is no longer open to free discussion of basic issues, is intolerant of other views of governance than those prescribed by Liberal Internationalism, then he is entirely correct.

In any case, these disputes are over abstractions that are entirely internal to the European Union.  There is at the same time flagrant violation of EU law on human rights and judicial procedure that goes on with hardly a murmur in Brussels, though its risks to the Union concern not so much internal housekeeping as relations with the big neighbor to the East, thereby impinging on European and global peace. I have in mind the egregious denial of civil rights to Russian-speakers in Latvia.

This history goes back to the early days of Latvian independence from the Soviet Union when a 1992 law on nationality effectively stripped more half the population of Russian-speaking Latvians of their citizenship. That loss was compounded by economic restrictions on employment that barred the new non-citizens from certain professions like law and banking, set ceilings on how high they could rise in other domains and barred them from land ownership.  At the time, those deprived of their rights numbered 400,000.  Since then by natural attrition of mortality and by emigration, that number has dropped to 300,000 but still amounts to 15% of the current population of the country.

The objective was plainly to ensure that the core Latvian population enjoyed full political and economic control within national borders. That may sound innocent and excusable given the woeful tale of past hardships imposed on Latvians during the preceding fifty years of domination from Moscow, including the large-scale settlement on their land of non-Latvians serving in Soviet naval and army bases and in Soviet-built factories.   But as with ethnic cleansing anywhere, the measures to rectify past injuries inflicted enormous harm on the newly targeted population, created resentments and set the stage for ever worsening inter-ethnic relations. Latvian nationalists running the state have exploited an imaginary potential for ‘fifth column’ resistance to their rule in order to progressively tighten the repression and injustice directed against the Russian speakers.

More to the point, the guilty consciences of Latvian ruling elites induced them to direct an information war against the Russian Federation to cover up their incivility against Latvian born Russian speakers, all to avoid dealing with the problems in their own house. Hence the leading role of the Republic of Latvia in the EU’s confrontation with Russia and its insistent calls upon NATO for ever more protections on the ground to deter a possible Russian military strike or the launch of hybrid warfare instrumentalizing the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia.

One of the ironies of the past quarter century is that the ethnic cleansing intent of Latvia’s discriminatory legislation utterly failed to achieve its objectives. The hardships imposed on them induced some of the Russian-speaking minority to emigrate, but not nearly on the same scale as ethnic Latvians who could use their EU passports to freely leave in search of employment and a better life in Western Europe, with right of return at any time.  The numbers of the Latvian emigration are in line with similar departures of economic emigrants from other Baltic states and from former Communist countries of Eastern Europe, on the order of 25% of the population.

In Latvia, as in the other two Baltic States, the outward flow of its best and most energetic citizens was a largely self-inflicted wound, since the limited job opportunities at home resulted directly from the worsening relations with Russia, with which they had had extensive mutually advantageous commercial relations before they launched their information war on their neighbor for purposes of their nation-building.

The flagrant violation of human rights inherent in the citizenship law was known to the EU when Latvia’s accession application was under review.  But for reasons of expediency, to hasten the implementation of security provisions for the whole region, and in diplomatic horse-trading among the Member States to assure all candidate countries sponsored by one or another of them got a pass, Latvia joined the EU in 2004 with no consequential constraints on its practices towards the Russian speakers in its midst.

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In March 2014, I spent several days in Riga, my first time in the city since independence twenty-three years earlier.  I came as a guest of the city authorities who were generously welcoming visitors to experience “Riga, Cultural Capital of Europe,” for the coming half-year.

At the time, I published my impressions¹ which duly described the cultural attractions of the city but mostly dealt with the political atmosphere, which as a privileged guest I was able to observe not only at street level but in the company of the ruling elite, including, to be quite precise about it, the mayor’s direct assistant for public relations, who guided the festival and spoke to me at some length during one of the cocktail receptions.  My focus of interest was treatment of the Russian minority, and I learned to my considerable surprise, that this robust nationalist who ran the festival admitted it had been a terrible mistake to strip the Russia-speakers of their citizenship. She had seen how Russian neighbors fully supported Latvia’s liberation from the Soviet Union with their votes and…at the barricades when there was a military showdown.  It was only stubbornness and the conviction that they could not be seen to back down before Putin’s Russia that maintained this injustice.

Also on this visit, I spent some hours with a certain Alexander Gaponenko, who was one of the co-founders of the Congress of Latvian Non-Citizens, a body set up in 2012 and whose members were elected by the 300,000 stateless Latvians to represent their interests before the powers-that-be.  I had made Gaponenko’s acquaintance by chance the week before when I heard him address the Brussels Press Club together with Congress co-founder Elizabeta Krivcova in a talk urging West Europeans to use their right to vote, to rise from indifference by considering how others in the EU were struggling to regain their citizenship and, with it, the franchise.

 

Eager to hear more, I had agreed with Alexander to meet during my visit to the cultural festival.  That meeting was in fact delayed by his detention for six hours of police interrogation just after my arrival. This was part of the cat and mouse game the authorities were playing with him over his attempts to arrange an evening of Russian songs.  Just songs, not protests or politics. The concert was eventually prohibited. This fit a pattern of harassment that he had become accustomed to.

Following his release, Alexander very kindly took me on a walking tour of downtown Riga during which he explained the psychology of people like himself who had refused to attempt the naturalization process, which they considered demeaning.  In fact, at the time, only about 2,000 Russian speakers a year were passing the process and regaining their citizenship.  It was patently clear that the 300,000 non-citizens would never be assimilated.

From speaking to others and in particular from a visit with one of the priests in the Russian Orthodox cathedral of Riga, I understood that the number one issue facing the Russian-speaking community now was the assault on their cultural identity by the authorities in the form of restrictions on use of the Russian language in public school instruction.

The fears of the Russian-speaking community were realized this year when the legislature passed and the prime minister signed on 2 April a language law completely forbidding Russian-language instruction in the public school system. The complete ban takes effect in the 2020-21 academic year, but it will be introduced in stages beginning already in the coming year.

Like the citizenship law of 1992 and the rupture of commercial ties with Russia that began later in that decade, the prohibition on use of Russian is not only a slap in the face of the 40% of the population of Riga that speaks Russian as its maternal language.  It is a measure that will be destructive of the entire educational system for years to come, because there simply are insufficient numbers of competent Latvian speaking teachers available in the country.  The result will be, for example, math lessons given in broken Latvian by teachers who are basically Russian-speakers.

However, the nationalists who call the shots in Latvia are not interested in practical outcomes.  Their concern is to exercise and maintain their monopoly on power at whatever cost.

The expected passage of the new language law outraged many Latvians months in advance and gave rise to a protest movement that has included street demonstrations.  Given his long-established activism, it comes as no surprise that Alexander Gaponenko was one of the leaders of this movement.

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My third and most recent meeting with Alexander Gaponenko was quite accidental, as we found one another in the small party of 40 international election observers sent to the Crimea by various NGOs to report on the 18 March 2018 presidential election.  An accidental and yet surely also inescapable meeting..

On the evening of the 17th, Alexander and I were seated at the same dinner table of a small hotel on the outskirts of Yalta where our group was spending the night. Early the next morning we would head out to polling stations in Yalta, then to several small villages along the main coastal road leading up to the regional capital of Simferopol where we would conclude our inspections.  However, the evening of the 17th was free. We ordered several bottles of the best Crimean wine I have ever sampled, a white that would rival any fine French Chablis and priced accordingly.  We chatted.

Alexander spoke of his various film and publishing projects. Everything seemed normal.

Therefore I was deeply shocked when just over a month later I learned of his arrest and incarceration in Riga on 21 April over unspecified charges.

The violent manner of Alexander’s arrest itself was unnerving. He was beaten. He was handcuffed for more than 11 hours and he was not given food.  However, that was only the start of his ordeal.  Under Latvian law, the authorities have the right to impose preliminary arrest for a period of two months. In fact, when that term expired on 21 June, his arrest was extended for another two months.

Since charges have not been brought, one may speculate on what prompted this arrest.

Some say the current accusation is related to his recent film “The Latvia we lost-2” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZWTxQ-Pu11) about Soviet Latvia, a one-sided film generally positive about Soviet history.

Others believe the case is related to Gaponenko’s having spoken at a parents’ conference for the defense of Russian-language schools on 31 March. That was the opinion of Vladimir Vuzajevs, Latvian Human Rights Committee co-Chairman in a letter dated 20 May to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

In fact, Alexander Gaponenko was not the only defender of Russian language usage in the Latvian public schools to face proceedings. As of 9 May, at least five participants of the parents’ conference in Riga protesting the coming language prohibition were called to the Security Police for questioning, partly as suspects, partly as witnesses, among them Tatjana Zdanoka, co-chair of the Latvian Russian Union political party and until her resignation in March 2018, a three term Member of the European Parliament.

On 8 May, one of the keynote speakers of the conference, Mr. Vladimirs Lindermans was arrested in Riga by masked people without uniform. Later the Security Police clarified that they were its officers acting in criminal proceedings initiated on April 18.  On 21 May, by decision of the regional court of the city of Riga, he was released from prison but numerous restrictions were placed on his liberty.

In addition to the Parliamentary Assembly, the Latvian Human Rights Committee wrote to the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, asking that they “remind the Latvian authorities about the need to enter into frank dialogue with national minorities, and to have their meaningful participation in decision-making on their education, instead of political intimidation.”

Up to present, the Council of Europe and the OSCE have responded to the letter of the Latvian Human Rights Committee that they are following developments in Latvia with respect to the problems raised. The UN rapporteurs, for their part, sent a stern letter to the Latvian authorities at the start of the year criticizing the planned elimination of education in Russian, but have taken no action on the recent cases of police harassment.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

 

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¹Republished as chapter 33 “Latvia’s failed U.S.-inspired policies towards Russia and Russians” in G. Doctorow, Does Russia Have a Future?

FIFA World Cup, Russia 2018: an appreciation

When the month-long football World Cup tournament in Russia ended on Sunday, 15 July, it was entirely overshadowed in the news and global commentary by coverage of preparations for the summit meeting of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki the next day. In turn, the summit was immediately followed by a firestorm of criticism of Trump that precluded any further thoughts being given to the World Cup in US and Western media.

However, in Russia the FIFA tournament most decidedly has not disappeared from ongoing news cycles in the two weeks that have passed since the closing ceremony.  On several occasions  Vladimir Putin has used public appearances to draw a line under the month of football matches, to congratulate all those who participated in making the World Cup what FIFA President Gianni Infantino declared to have been “the best World Cup ever.”   The culmination was a televised reception in the Kremlin a couple of days ago to which the national team players, their wives and trainers were invited.  The most valuable  defense players and strikers in the matches were especially honored, and the head trainer Stanislav Cherchesov was warmly praised by Putin for his leadership qualities as well as excellent tactical guidance in the matches.

As many observers have noted, by its performance on the field, by perseverance in giving their all in contests against the world’s best proven teams…and winning, the Russian team surprised a skeptical Russian public and stoked national pride. For the first time since Soviet days, a Russian team had made it to the quarter finals. They left the tournament with heads held high following a penalty goal loss to Croatia in what was otherwise a very well-played game which could have gone either way.

In the commentary of sports professionals, politicians and journalists during the World Cup and at its conclusion, there were three dimensions to the unquestioned success of the tournament in Russia.  One was the valor of the home team. The second was the warm reception and openness of the Russian people: their volunteers manning the fan zones in each city, the staff in hotel receptions, in eateries, in taxis, in public transport, wherever the visitors came into contact with them.  This hospitality constituted highly effective “public diplomacy” that proceeded independently from the government authorities, even if it was encouraged from on high.

The third dimension was the organizational skills the hosts demonstrated during the month long tournament. This was precisely what Vladimir Putin identified as the likely distinguishing element of this World Cup before the games opened, when the prospects of the home team could in no way justify the effort and expense that had been invested in the World Cup.

Precisely this managerial competence is essential to any reading  of Putin’s Russia and in particular of its claims to a seat at the world’s board of governors, quite apart from the country’s nuclear arsenal or inherited status as Permanent Member of the UN Security Council.  This dimension is well outside the scope of interest of our political scientists, who, to a man, are focused on gross GDP and demography when drawing up their tables of national power and so systematically overlook Russia as a global leader by merit. And yet, in the domain of business, in the running the national economy, in military potential and Hard Power the organizational skills Russia so effectively put to work during the World Cup over eight years of gestation are decisive.

It is worth noting the remarks made by International Olympics Committee president Thomas Bach at the closing of the World Cup on Sunday, 15 July.  After leading the charge against Russia for its alleged doping programs and abuses at the Sochi Olympics, after avoiding any meeting with Putin since 2014, Bach, who was the guest of FIFA President Infantino for the final France-Croatia play-off in Moscow,  now had only complimentary words for the Russian people, whom he called “kind and hospitable hosts.” This, he said, had “changed perceptions” of Russia in many countries.  Moreover, in line with my thesis in this essay, Bach added: “Russia has really proved once again that the country can create such large-scale events due to exceptional organizing skills.”  That these were not empty words of flattery, we can see from the specific recommendations they led to.

According to a release by the International Olympics Committee, in his chat with Vladimir Putin at the stadium, Bach and the Russian President agreed “that in the interests of Russian athletes, now was the time to re-enter into a dialogue to look to the future and to bring Russian sport fully back in the international sports community.”

In the last part of this essay we will return to this issue of organization.  But first I direct the reader’s attention to how the US-led global media covered the World Cup from start to finish, because it was very different from what one might have anticipated.

In fact, I begin my survey in the period preceding the start, since what would come was already clear then.

Heading into the tournament, there was remarkably little negative reporting on Russia and its preparations as host such as had poisoned the atmosphere in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.  This is not because US and Western media have become kinder towards Russia over the past four years. Indeed, quite the opposite is true: a widespread campaign of vilification of Putin’s Russia has grown ever more malignant year by year following the reunification with Crimea in March 2014 and Russian intervention in the Ukraine’s Donbass insurgency that summer.

The fairly neutral US reporting on the World Cup ahead of its opening may be explained in relation to the US bid to host the same World Cup in 2026. That bid was to be adjudicated by the gathering of all FIFA associations in Moscow on the day before the opening of the football tournament. Any malicious attacks on Russia would necessarily put in jeopardy if not sideline entirely the US chances. Moreover, though football (soccer) is the world’s favorite sport, it is still a minor sport in the USA and the prestige it carries in the USA cannot be compared to the Summer or Winter Olympic Games.

Once the matches got under way, US reporting moved from neutral to enthusiastic as regards the hospitality and the new or massively reconstructed stadiums of the 10 cities across European Russia in a 2500 km swathe from Kaliningrad in the northwest to Sochi in the southeast where the matches were held. Warnings about the likelihood of hooliganism, racist outbursts and rough treatment of visitors from the LGBT community sprinkled the reporting of some US media initially, but only briefly. The reality of the welcoming hosts and vast numbers of foreign fans cheering in gratitude for the festive atmosphere that the Russian organizers invited and supported took the preponderant share in US reporting.

Meanwhile the European press, having received no guidelines from Washington, took to the sporting event in non-ideological manner, offering their readers scoops about the cities where the respective country matches would be held, gossip on the condition of their national teams, and the like.

I call attention in particular to coverage by the two US newspapers of record which also happen to be leading the anti-Russian hysteria ever since 2014, if not earlier:  The Washington Post and The New York Times. In quoting their positive statements, I do not mean to say that these newspapers and their journalists stopped Russia-bashing entirely during the football World Cup. However, in relation to the football tournament they published texts favorable to Russia in a way that has been unthinkable for years.

Let us consider, for example, the 26 June submission of Washington Post Moscow correspondent Amie Ferris-Rotman etitled “For the World Cup, the Russian people are all in, win or lose.”  The opening paragraph sets up the largely positive account that follows:

“Russia is on a winning streak at the World Cup, and it has little to do with its team on the field. Since the tournament kicked off nearly two weeks ago, chants for one country have dominated the stadiums, rising above the din or supporters from around the globe: ‘Ros-si-ya!’ Even when the host nation is not playing, those three syllables are noisily spouted morning and night by energetic fans of all ages.”

“Finally, a Loss for Russia. But only on the Field,” an article by New York Times reporter Rory Smith the same day has similar upbeat remarks, pointing to certain characteristics of the team on the field: “style, panache and joy – traits not exactly associated with the country’s soccer traditions, and, to some extent, not attributed to the country as a whole.”

Speaking of the stadium in provincial Samara, Smith tells us: “Inside, the stadium was faultless. Everything had turned out O.K., and much the same can be said for the team and the country….[Russia] has staged the carnival, to use the cliché, that the World Cup is supposed to be.”  He observes that Russians appear to be enjoying the party as much as the guests.

A little more than a week later, on 5 July, in their article “How Russia Gave Itself a Facelift for the World Cup” for The Wall Street Journal, another newspaper which has done its fair share of denigrating Russia, Anatoly Kurmanaev and Andrew Beaton summarize what they have seen on the ground as follows: “This World Cup has shaken the Russian stereotypes for the masses of foreign visitors, who encountered first-world infrastructure, impeccable planning and friendly people. “

These impressions of foreign journalists are supported by statistics published by Russian authorities, by wire services, by NGOs. To be sure, during and even after the World Cup there have been unexplained contradictions or inconsistencies on the numbers of visitors or expenses. But I will set down here some of these data even if they are not perfect, because they give scale to what are otherwise anecdotal reports.

Russia opened its doors and the world came in. There were between one and two million foreign visitors holding tickets to the matches. More than two million foreign visitors were registered in the cities hosting the games. In Moscow alone, there were a total of 4 million visitors during the month of the World Cup, which is the equivalent of the normal visitor count in a whole year. Of that number, one half were foreigners.

Moving back from quantitative to qualitative measurement of the impact of the World Cup on Russia’s supposed “international isolation” due to post-Crimea Western sanctions, more than twenty heads of state or government came to Moscow for the opening. And the list of dignitaries who came thereafter as the national teams moved into the final competition included Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, French President Emmanuel Macron, Belgian King Philippe and Foreign Minister Reynders.  The only country whose football team was not supported by government officials arriving for matches was Britain, which declared a boycott of the Games and braved the indignation of many British fans over its politicization of sport.

The various logistical challenges which the Russian government faced and mastered as it prepared for the World Cup’s month-long festival of football strains the imagination.  Host cities stretched from one end of European Russia to another. Some of the host cities were well off traditional tourist itineraries and were in need of considerable upgrading of transport facilities, hotels and training for staff. Fan zones were created in all the host cities and elsewhere across the country. Transportation had to be arranged from city to city, meaning upgrading rail facilities and in selected cities, building new airports. Additional flights were put on where necessary and flight tickets were issued gratis or against nominal payment.

Russia has visa free travel arrangements with much of Latin America and Asia.  But none exist with North America and Western Europe, from which many of the inbound football fans would be coming. The solution was creation of a World Cup “passport,” a cutting-edge technological platform providing the holders of tickets to the matches with a document that served as multiple-entry visa, seat ticket in stadiums, entitlement to local transportation and train or plane connections from Moscow to the remote locations.

Surely when the World Cup closed, the Russian leadership could breathe a collective sigh of relief that it had passed without incidents of hooliganism, not to mention terrorist attacks. To ensure security under conditions of unparalleled transparency and openness, Russia mobilized some 100,000 policemen in the host cities and deployed 10,000 military servicemen equipped with state of the art intelligence techniques.  Potential trouble-makers from abroad were denied entry into the country. Every World Cup venue had airport type security screening.

And yet, as all journalists remarked, the security arrangements were not heavy-handed. Police, in particular, were trained to be tolerant of extravagant behavior, public consumption of alcohol that is normally prohibited in Russia and other signs of high spirits of the visitors from across the globe. That this actually was implemented, not only under the noses of the authorities in Moscow but in all the provincial venues of the matches is a testament to effective managerial controls.

After the World Cup ended, The Financial Times published a kick-the-tires article that raised questions other Western media had brought up earlier in the tournament:  what will become of the new stadiums, will they not be white elephants as has happened to infrastructure built for so many international sports events worldwide?

In fact, the estimated $6 billion in investments in stadiums and an equal amount in new airports and other transport infrastructure is in total just one-fifth of the cost of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and there is reason to believe that even that huge investment will pay off over time, given that Sochi has now become the number one  year-round resort destination in the Russian Federation, with top quality alpine skiing facilities and world class hotels and beaches. In addition, Sochi is now a major convention center for national and international events.

In the case of the FIFA Cup facilities, several of the locations, in particular Saransk and Kaliningrad, would ordinarily not justify great expectations given the small size of local populations and hitherto rather limited attendance at local football matches.  However, in a speech delivered on 20 July, Vladimir Putin committed the federal government to support the running costs of all the football stadiums participating in the FIFA Cup for a period of five years. During that time, private owners will be lined up to operate the facilities at a profit for multi-purpose use.

The construction of the stadiums has been done to the highest standards of safety, functionality and aesthetics, with due thought given to their integration into their urban surroundings. I was persuaded of this a couple of weeks ago when I viewed the new St Petersburg football stadium from a river cruise ship in the Neva.  It is absolutely magnificent by itself and it is served by the new highways that otherwise direct traffic from the city center (Vasilievsky Island) either east or west along the Gulf of Finland.  The double suspension bridge across the Neva associated with this route is a spectacular piece of engineering.

Then again, the investment in FIFA infrastructure has to be seen in the context of ongoing massive Russian infrastructure investments in general. The most widely publicized success in this domain earlier this year was the opening of the Crimea  bridge connecting the peninsula to the Russian mainland across the Kerch Strait.  That was another feat of engineering and management, with completion six months ahead of schedule so as to serve the 2018 tourist influx in Crimea.

As was expected in late 2017, the next spectacular transportation link that the President has tentatively approved during this past week is a bridge linking the island of Sakhalin with the Russian mainland.  The bridge will serve as a major integrating force in the Russian Far East and will prepare the way for eventual connection with the Japanese island of Hokkaido when Prime Minister Abe or one of his successors finally is ready to sit down with the Russians and sign a peace treaty.

But apart from these extraordinary inventions of engineering, the more general federal highway program has been producing tangible changes to long-haul road traffic, both for private cars and trucking.  It is now quite normal for Russians to consider driving the 2500 km from St Petersburg to Sochi or the Crimea for their summer vacations, just as transcontinental automobile travel became an everyday phenomenon after President Eisenhower’s National Interstate and Defense Highways Act got underway. Moreover, in his policy directives to the cabinet in the month following his election to another six-year term, Vladimir Putin called for manifold increase in spending on roads.

To summarize, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been busy doing what governments should do in the view of liberal economists:  creating infrastructure that will improve the lives of people and the efficiency of business.  Of course, some of the most visible investments have a special geopolitical rationale. But none are white elephants, all are completed and function as intended.  Seen from this angle, the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia was just one more proof of the high competence of the Russian Government, with world-beating organizational skills.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

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Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on http://www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review  http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg