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  • Trump, the Provocateur

    Looking to the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, 16 July 2018

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  • Letter from Orlino, July 2018

     

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.        

    Each summer I spend several weeks of vacation at a country house 80 km south of St Petersburg, in the hamlet of Orlino, which has about 400 registered residents, two-thirds of them seasonal, “summer people,” as they are called with a certain condescension by the true grit locals.

    We have high-speed internet and satellite television, so that business as usual is possible if I so wished. Moreover, there have been the broadcasts of the World Cup games to keep us connected to what the global community is excited about each day. Indeed, the England-Belgium match kept my wife on edge before her computer yesterday afternoon   Yet, overall this is a place to slow down, sniff the flowers and mingle with diverse people who are quite removed from my social circles in St Petersburg or Brussels. At the end of my stay, I share my observations on the state of one-story Russia in this once yearly letter from Orlino.

    Many things change in daily life here from year to year, and I will talk about them at length below.  Other things are immutable: namely the predisposition of weather in these northern climes to disappoint, particularly spring and summer.  Given the rare beauty of White Nights from mid-May to mid-July when dusk passes imperceptibly into dawn in ethereal light, it is more than a pity when the sky is hidden by unbroken cloud cover or when you have weeks on end of cold rain, as occurred in 2017.

    I got a reminder of just how constant meteorological fragility has been over not just one or two years but over centuries when taking in an evening of opera at the Mariinsky Theater before leaving for our dacha.  I was struck by the dialogues in the opening scene of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, when ladies of high society who gathered in the Summer Garden near the Neva remarked on the splendid May sunshine.  “We haven’t had a spring day like this for years,” said one.  “And the climate has become so unpredictable, not like in the past when the seasons were reliable.” says another. These lines were written by the librettist, the composer’s brother in 1889, and the piece, based on a novel in verse by Pushkin, was set in the 1790’s.

    Two thousand eighteen has been the exception that proves the rule. May in the Russian Northwest where Orlino is situated was unusually warm and sunny day after day. June was also exceptionally bright. Of course, the weather here spoiled upon our arrival on 29 June but there are signs that summer warmth will prevail in the second half of this month and beyond.

    Notwithstanding the difficult climatic conditions for agriculture in the Russian Northwest, during Soviet times there was large-scale farming activity here, employing a substantial part of the rural population. The nearby settlement of Lampovo was home to a dairy farming complex that had a herd of 5,000 cows. This state farm employed hundreds of workers, who, in typical Soviet fashion, were housed in a block of purpose-built 5-story apartment buildings set back amidst fields just a hundred meters from the district road.  That farm produced, among other things, a vast amount of butter that was entirely exported to Czechoslovakia, so that people in the region never tasted a pat. But they all had jobs.

    The bigger issue is that the farm is long gone and with it the source of employment for all these families in the cheaply built and poorly maintained housing estate that has deteriorated into slum-like shabbiness and appears to be all the more anomalous alongside open and now fallow fields. I am told that some of the luckier residents have found work in the district city of Gatchina, more than one hour away by train. Others commute to jobs in St Petersburg and spend up to six hours a day getting to work and back.

    I learned these details from our neighbors in Orlino, who told me as well about other industrial scale farms in the area producing potatoes, producing strawberries, producing even wheat that have all disappeared since 1991, leaving behind empty fields which are here and there being slowly developed into dacha-land.  Some of these new residences are splendid brick structures set behind high fences. Generally they are owned by absentee landlords who contribute little to the economy or social life of the area. They are not oligarchs, just moderately wealthy city folk.

    My sources for this local lore are neighbors. First among them is Sergei, whom I introduced in one of my first Letters. Sergei is a master builder who drilled our artesian well, installed our plumbing system eight years ago, and has looked after our property when we are away ever since. Then there is the village librarian.  Surprisingly, the hamlet of Orlino has a library that operates in the afternoon five days a week. Kids are drawn there by the cookies and candies the librarian sets out for them in what is a center of social life in parallel with the Orthodox church a couple of hundred meters further down the Central  Street where we live in the direction of the lake.  A third source of both local history and current events is the general store, three hundred meters away in the opposite direction on Central Street heading towards the district road.  The store is owned by a tough-minded lady who has held some petty administrative positions here over time, including receiving annual fees for the garbage collection. Larisa knows everyone. And, of course, I gather tidbits of information every time I take a taxi from our hamlet to the nearest commercial and administrative center, Siversk, 10 km away.  The taxis may have progressed from broken down Volgas to comfortable and well maintained Hondas, VWs and the like over the past eight years of our patronage here, but the drivers remain talkative and informative.

    From the perspective of these locals, Russian agriculture would appear to be in crisis. Of course, this view flies in the face of the objective facts, where we find that precisely agriculture is one of the drivers of Russia’s economic recovery these past eighteen years of the Putin era. Year-on-year growth of 3% is recorded regularly now. Russia has become the world’s biggest grain exporter, and, particularly in the period since 2014 when Western food products were placed on embargo in response to sanctions over Crimea’s reunification with the Russian Federation, the country has become self-sufficient in ever more sectors of the food market.

    The point is that Russian agriculture is growing in response to rational economic incentives which favor efficiency and the climatic advantages of the South of Russia.  The Kuban region just northeast of the Black Sea has been a magnet for investment in high-tech and capital-intensive farming. Its administrative and financial center, Krasnodar, is now one of the richest urban areas in the country. Meanwhile, climatically disadvantaged areas like the Northwest, have been left to die on the vine. What is clearly missing is a government program to assist the transition of such areas to the new economy and generation of non-farming employment in the given localities.

    In one respect, though, industrial-scale farming has survived in the Northwest:  year-round production of tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and other highly appreciated vegetables in newly constructed and rapidly expanding greenhouses.  Greater St Petersburg is no different from other major metropolitan areas across the country in developing these sources of fresh produce close to the consumer market.  But industrial-scale greenhouse agriculture is absent in our area.

    This is not to say that Orlino and adjoining communities have been left unaffected by Russia’s new love for greenhouses.  Indeed, as I stroll down the quiet lanes of Orlino it is hard to find a good-looking house that does not have a brand-new polycarbonate inverted U greenhouse to one side or out back.

    Such greenhouses are the latest fad.  Going back five years or so, we have seen here, as elsewhere in rural Russia, successive waves of must-have upgrades to any self-respecting Russian’s property.  One such fad was siding.  Siding gives new concrete-block houses designer facades. Siding turns granny’s weathered hundred year old gray log cabin into a neat modern dwelling, at least on the outside.

    Another fad in this period has been grass trimmers.  The Russian countryside has very few golf-course style lawns. The grounds tend to be left uneven and covered predominantly with weeds that can grow waist high if the owner is away for a month or more. The weeds come in successive waves: dandelions, plantains and other pests which my botanical knowledge is too weak to identify. The ubiquitous answer to this challenge has been gasoline or electric powered hand-held trimmers. They are almost all made in  China, whether sold as no- name or marketed under German and other European brands.  On any weekend, the quiet mornings or late afternoons are punctuated by the high-pitched whirring of these trimmers as neighbors tackle their weed patches and bring temporary order to their property.

    The polycarbonate greenhouses usually measure 3 meters by eight and may be more than two meters high in the middle, so that they can be entered and serviced in comfort. They have louvers to control the air temperature. Additional features may include self-feeding drip irrigation from cisterns and even heaters to extend the growing season well into early winter.

    Every second Russian city dweller has a country property. The happy owners praise the clean air, clean water and generally healthful surroundings. In addition, for the middle classes Russia country residences are synonymous with weekend barbecues and socializing in the bathhouse. For the lower classes, dachas have always been a valued source of nutrition.

    It is not for nothing that the zoning of all land parcels in Orlino is for “subsistence farming.” If properly managed, the standard 700 square meter plot of land can provide staples for a family of four for the year. Much of the land is given over to potatoes and cabbage. Then you absolutely must have several apple, sour cherry and plum trees. Add to that berry bushes: raspberries, gooseberries, black currant are  de rigueur.  The fruits are preserved in a variety of ways - as jam or juice or liqueur, to name but a few.

    In the past, those with a green thumb would add to their yard flower beds and….a vegetable garden. This meant firstly root vegetables like beets and carrots, or green onions.

    But we live in modern times, and Russians have acquired sophisticated tastes which extend to a variety of salads and other greens.  They also have become fastidious about what goes into their food and skeptical about what they find in the supermarkets or even farmers’ markets.

    For these health food enthusiasts, their home gardening has become a vector for self-expression and family pride. That is what I see around me on the properties of our neighbors.

    The polycarbonate home greenhouses did not come from Mars and did not land in a desert.  They represent the latest and most productive form of protected vegetable farming that has been going on here for decades.  What fifty years ago was glass-covered beds for seedlings became twenty years ago plastic film covered beds. The glass panes or plastic were removed as and when the air temperature and precipitation levels allowed the plants to continue on their own in free air.

    The new greenhouses go several steps further.  They are suitable to take the seedlings straight through to final production of vegetables, and fruits like strawberries, safe from insects, birds and other threats to the crop. This also means no weeding and no pesticides.

    Besides being certifiably organic, this protected farming allows my neighbors to experiment with non-standard plant varieties and, once they have identified what pleases them, to prepare their own seeds for planting from the last harvest.

    What all of this leads to was made crystal clear to us this past week when Sergei and his wife accepted our invitation to “high tea” on our veranda.  They came with a wicker basket of vegetables from their greenhouse:  tomatoes, cucumbers in various sizes and yellow peppers. These products were exquisite: you will not find them in stores or markets. Additionally they are growing in the hothouse summer squash, pumpkins, and some raspberries.

    They start with seedlings in March and go through three harvests to the end of October.  I asked what they buy in supermarkets these days, and the answer was short:  bread.

    What I see in Sergei and his wife is a modern day pioneer spirit of self-providing, living off the land and taking pleasure in the uniqueness and wholesomeness of what they produce.

    I do not insert politics into the chats with our neighbors, but inevitably it intrudes in one way or another. I know full well that this is Putin country, and yet there are changes in mood from year to year that are worth noting.

    In the period before 2014, I heard a lot of grousing in Orlino about corruption.  It was not as vicious as what our intelligentsia friends in Petersburg were hearing daily from Ekho Moskvy radio station and retelling with malicious pleasure to me and to anyone else within earshot, but it was undeniably questioning the fairness of the regime from the federal level on down to local officials believed to be on the take. The reunification with Crimea in the spring of 2014, followed by the imposition of Western sanctions on Russian oligarchs accused of aiding and abetting the President in his aggressive policies abroad, changed all that.  The government and its officers now were seen by my interlocutors in Orlino as defending the nation, even at the expense of their own personal interests.

    Four years of belt-tightening from the post-Crimea recession have finally corroded the patriotic euphoria here in Orlino as elsewhere in Russia.  One catalyst of change today is the highly controversial pension reform bill.

    To be sure, here in Orlino there is no controversy:  the idea of raising the pension age is seen as an encroachment on financial security.  No one is interested in the argument that the reform would merely align Russia with the rest of the industrial world, even with the other former republics of the USSR all of whom have raised their pension age.  Everyone is skeptical of the government’s ability to improve health care and so extend life expectancy.

    And yet there is no reversion to the “we versus them” mentality that prevailed before 2014. In this regard the issue of roads is telling.

    Here in our district, the local roads are deplorable.  In places, filled potholes take up more of the road surface than the original asphalt.  As one clever Lada owner posted on his back window: “I pay my taxes. Where are the roads?” In Russian that rhymes nicely:   “я плачу налоги. где дороги?”

    Since these roads are plied by municipal bus services which complain loudly about the cost of maintaining their vehicles given the deformations in the roads, finally we do get some “capital” repairs, meaning stripping the surface and putting down stretches of new asphalt. Not every year, not in every place, but at some locations and from time to time.

    One such case of resurfacing took place here a week ago on the heavily traveled road connecting us to Siversk.  And yet the strip and resurface process was localized.  Where some part of the road was deemed serviceable despite its filled potholes, it was left in place.  I took special notice of the comment of our taxi driver:  “they are economizing on us.”

    That was a fair-minded evaluation of what had happened.  He did not say that the road budget had been embezzled, diverted to someone’s pocket, as he would likely have said four years ago.  Instead, “they are economizing on us” – a politically directed observation that is not subversive in any way and potentially is constructive.

    One other change this year worth remarking is the surprising cleanliness of our streets and beaches in Orlino.  We now have a local official tasked with keeping the public areas trash-free, and to all appearances, the public is responding positively. As I said in the beginning we have had excellent weather since early May and this brings large numbers of day visitors from nearby settlements to our Orlino lakeside for boating or swimming or making barbecues. They were in years gone by hopeless litterers.  That seems to have stopped entirely, for which we “locals” can be very thankful.  If I may generalize, it seems that Russians are becoming environmentally aware in ever greater numbers and across all classes. This season in this place manifestly demonstrates that.

    Finally, what is special about this summer in Orlino is the World Cup effect. The pride of the nation in hosting this month-long sporting event reaches even into the depths of the countryside where there are no “fan zones.”  People who would never have watched a football match in their lives, have these past several weeks kept an eye on the FIFA broadcasts on Russia One.  The unexpected rise of the scorned Russian national team from its Group into the Quarter Finals caught the national imagination. And even after the knock-out of the Russian team, interest in the World Cup has continued unabated here in Orlino. Yesterday afternoon, when the match in St Petersburg for third place in the tournament was won by the Red Devils, we got a phone call from Sergey congratulating us on the Belgian victory.

    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

          * * * *

    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 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

  • Rethinking What a Trump-Putin Summit May Achieve and Why

     

    by Gibert Doctorow, Ph.D.

     

    The rethinking in the headline is a reversal of my course, not that of the two presidents named.  As recently as a week ago, I was criticizing colleagues for advocating a US-Russia summit, saying that Trump was not ready for it, that his pursuing it could end badly for him and for our common cause of easing global tensions, which is détente spelled out in simple English.

    However, there are unmistakable signs that preparations for such a summit are well under way and may occur as early as the second week in July at a meeting in Europe that may precede by several days Trump’s participation in the next NATO gathering of heads of state in Brussels on 11-12 July. I will explain below the tea leaves I have been reading before making this prediction.

    Now that the die is cast, the task of people of good will is to attempt to understand what is driving this process forward and to help to make the most of the opportunities presented, to help prevent the chances of a shipwreck, which are real.

    What concretely can we do?  Certainly not try to give advice to President Trump.  All signs are that he takes policy advice from very, very few people and decidedly not from commentators in the media and/or intellectuals. To believe otherwise is to indulge in exaggerated self-esteem. Moreover, it is his very imperviousness to the opinions of others that explains what we are about to witness.

    There remains the important task of preparing the general public and more particularly Congress for what is likely to result from a Trump-Putin meeting.  If Donald Trump is ready to walk the tight-rope, the least we can do is hold out a net.

     

    * * * *

     

    I say that a summit in the near future look likely, in part because that is suggested in several articles appearing recently in the Washington Post, in The Wall Street Journal, in The New Yorker making reference to unidentified contacts in the administration.  In part, I base it on less obvious clues that speak to the vestigial Kremlinologist in me. One is the repeat broadcast this morning on Vesti/Rossiya-1 of an interview with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz that took place just before Vladimir Putin’s state visit on 6 June. Vienna has been mentioned as a possible venue for any such summit, and the interview makes plain why the country would be so very suitable as the site of a summit – namely Kurz’s populist and Euro-skeptic policies that are so highly appreciated by both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. One additional clue is that Henry Kissinger is said to be in Moscow right now, and Henry has been an adviser to Trump on policy to Russia ever since the 2016 campaign. He has been the voice urging an accommodation with Russia for a variety of geopolitical strategic reasons.

    The timing for the coming summit is said to be during Donald Trump’s July visit to Europe for the annual NATO gathering of heads of state in Brussels.  Considering what happened at the G-7 meeting in Canada a week ago, it would be very much in line with Trump’s behavior to meet with Putin just before the NATO summit so as to deflate the self-importance of the allies in advance and defeat any thought of resistance to the changes in global politics that he is undertaking with a wrecking ball.

    The possibility of Vienna serving as host to such a meeting surely was on the agenda of Vladimir Putin’s state visit.  Vienna has the advantage of being a neutral country, and it served as the meeting place of a US President and Russian (Soviet) leader before – at the remarkable encounter of John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev back in  1961.

    The likelihood that Henry Kissinger has urged this summit on Trump and is now fulfilling the mission of a go-between during his visit to Moscow ostensibly to watch the World Cup games raises questions  about Trump’s objectives.  I have noted before that Kissinger’s advice to Trump during the electoral campaign to reach an accommodation with Moscow was aimed at decoupling the budding Russia-China strategic partnership that has undone all that Nixon and Kissinger achieved in the 1970s.  I have also noted that Putin rejected this conceptualization of the path to normalized relations with the US when Trump’s emissaries put it to him early in the spring of 2017. Putin is very loyal to his friends and would never turn on Chinese President Xi for the sake of an invitation to the White House. After that setback, Kissinger appeared to have disappeared from the Trump’s entourage.

    Evidence of Kissinger’s return to favor came as recently as a week ago when Trump reportedly said behind closed doors at the G-7 meeting that Crimea is rightfully Russia’s.  That is half of the new equation for normalization of relations now being attributed to Kissinger by hearsay:  the other side of the equation being that in return Russia would withdraw its support to the rebellion in Donbass against the Ukrainian authorities.  This exchange also will never be accepted by Russia if it is formally presented. To abandon Donbass to the not so tender mercy of Ukrainian nationalists and revanchists would be political suicide for Putin given the strength of feeling on the subject among his supporters. But if a meeting is agreed, there are also several other key issues which might fill the agenda to the mutual satisfaction of both sides, in particular on Syria and on re-starting arms control negotiations.

    There have been rumors that the United States is seeking a de facto if not de jure partition of Syria whereby its control over the Kurdish territory east of the Euphrates River is recognized by the Russians. The logic for this U.S. interest may well be related more to containing Iran than to depriving the Assad government of territory, population and hydrocarbon resources.  Figuratively the American zone would be a bulwark against Iranian infiltration of Syria and Iran’s enjoying unchallenged military access to the Israeli border.  Considering the obvious understandings between Netanyahu and Putin over Iranian operations on Syrian soil, it is quite possible that Russia would agree to the US proposal as part of a bigger negotiation over improving bilateral relations.

    As for resuming arms control talks, that already figured in Donald Trump’s congratulatory phone call to Vladimir Putin two days after his election victory on 18 March in which he said they should meet in the near future because the arms race looked as if it were getting out of hand.

     

    All accounts of the President’s decision to seek a meeting with Putin in July indicate that he is doing this over the objections of every one of his advisers.  Put another way, he would not appear to have many resources at hand at the moment for a solid preparation of the planned summit.

     

    Normally, the Russians would not accept a meeting at the top without such preparation. However, in light of what just happened in the Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, which also had close to no preparation and ended in a one-page, 4-point statement of intentions which was swallowed by the American establishment and media upon Trump’s return home, the Kremlin may well have decided that this is the only way forward with an American President under siege from his own administration not to mention the federal bureaucracy.

     

    I can envision a Letter of Intent signed by Trump and Putin in Vienna that has three points. Two are the points sketched above. The third could be a quite unexceptional statement on Ukraine that would conceal a significant change in US policy given in verbal assurances that would change the dynamics in US-Russian relations. Namely the sides could agree to take measures to ensure that both Kiev and the breakaway republics begin at once to honor the Minsk Accords.  Behind this anodyne formula would be a US commitment to force the hand of Poroshenko or to have him removed and replaced by someone who will do what is necessary to achieve a political settlement with Donbass. In return, the Russians would ensure quick deployment of a UN or other reputable peace keeping force in the Donbass at the lines of separation of forces and at the Russian Ukrainian border.

     

    The Letter of Intent would be a start, would give a new direction to the bilateral relations and would open the way to creation of working groups and restoration of lines of communication that Barack Obama foolishly severed following the tainted advice of his Neocon staff at the State Department.

     

    Restarting arms control negotiations should take in more than propping up existing agreements that are either coming to term or are being systematically violated (agreement on short to intermediate range missiles). From Trump’s remarks on the new arms race, it would be entirely logical for him now to accept Vladimir Putin’s invitation to discuss the new technology strategic weapons systems such as Russia is now rolling out, as well as cyber warfare. They would also reopen talks on the US missile defense installations on land in Poland and Romania and at sea off the Russian coasts which gave rise to Russia’s development of what are called invincible offensive systems in response.

    Such a one-page Letter of Intent could be sold to a skeptical or even hostile Congress if arms control heads the list.  The Open Letter to Rex Tillerson by four US Senators, 3 Democrats and 1 Independent (Bernie Sanders) in early March urging immediate arms control talks showed that Vladimir Putin’s speech of 1 March on how Russia has restored full nuclear parity with the United States could break through the otherwise blind partisanship on Capitol Hill when questions of national survival are on the table. (See http://usforeignpolicy.blogs.lalibre.be/archive/2018/03/10/gang-of-four-senators-call-for-tillerson-to-enter-into-arms-1164058.html )

    One topic which will surely not be on the agenda of any Trump-Putin summit is the ending of sanctions. Trump's hands are bound by US law passed by Congress in August 2017. And Putin has said repeatedly that the US imposed the sanctions and it is up to the US to remove them without any negotiation on the subject. For possible relief on sanctions, it is better to watch Brussels, where internal dissension has been growing and where disillusionment with American leadership on this and many other matters may finally break the habits of servitude to US directives.

    If one thing is clear during the Trump presidency, it is that the rule books on many aspects of international relations are being rewritten.  Impromptu summits ending in sketchy letters of intent may be the new norm in this period of transition.

    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

          * * * *

    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 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