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  • Kremlin issues stern warning to Washington over its support for terrorists in Syria



    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


    From time to time, the Kremlin uses the Sunday evening weekly news wrap-up program of Dmitry Kiselyov on state television channel Rossiya-1 to send blunt and public warnings to Washington without diplomatic niceties.  Last night was one such case and we must hope that the intended audience within the Beltway can put aside its focus on Russia Today’s supposed fake news long enough to read a real message from Moscow.


    The last such message came in the week following the 6 April Tomahawk attack on a Syrian air base that Donald Trump sprung on the world, allegedly to punish the regime of Assad for a chemical attack on a village in Idlib province.  Kiselyov used his airtime then to spell out the Russian response, which he characterized as unprecedented in scope and seriousness. It was essential to put all of its elements together in one place, as he did, because our boys in the Pentagon chose to downplay one or another element in isolation, such as the Russian installation of their Iskander nuclear potential missiles in Kaliningrad, or the abrogation of the deconfliction agreement relating to air space over Syria, or the dispatch of still more Russian vessels to the Eastern Mediterranean equipped to sink our Navy. While our generals were saying that the Russians didn’t really mean it, Kiselyov put the whole picture on the screen:  an ultimatum to Washington to back off or be prepared for war.

    A still earlier message of this kind to Washington aired on the Kiselyov Sunday news show in the week following the supposedly accidental US and allied bombing of Syrian army positions in the encircled eastern town of Deir Ezzor, which killed more than 80 Syrian soldiers and prepared the way for a renewed offensive by the siege forces.  That bombing scuttled the agreement on a Syrian cease-fire concluded with the approval of Barack Obama less than a week earlier by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry after a 14 hour negotiating session.  Lavrov was shown on the Kiselyov program openly accusing US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter of directing “friendly fire” against Kerry and of dangerous insubordination to his boss, the US President, which put in question any possibility of reaching agreements with the Americans on anything.

    That last charge has now again re-emerged in the program that Kiselyov presented yesterday.  The Americans were identified as the “main obstacle” to the mopping up operation in Syria, at a time when “the light at the end of the tunnel” is visible [Kiselyov’s characterization], when more than 90% of the Syrian territory is under government control.

    To wit, the United States is secretly aiding the terrorists: supplying them with weapons, helping them to move around, removing them from under hostile fire, giving them the findings of aerial reconnaissance, maps of where Syrian government forces are operating and even the locations of Russian military detachments. Things have gotten to the point where it is not the military capability of the Islamic State but the American assistance which stands in the way of the total liberation of Syria from terrorists.

    This, says Kiselyov, is not his own idea: it is the official position of the Russian Ministry of Defense as issued through its spokesman this week, Igor Konashenkov.

     Kiselyov resumes:

    The Americans deny everything. But the RF Ministry of Defense does not believe their words, relying instead on facts. We recall in the past week how part of the main road connecting Palmyra and Deir Ezzor was taken over by the fanatics. This is the main artery supplying the Syrian forces leading the offensive from Deir Ezzor against the remaining forces of the terrorists in Syria. De facto this was an attack in the rear. This was planned and facilitated by the Americans. In parallel, on 28 September a large group of terrorists numbering about 300 men left the area of the American base in Et Tanf at the Jordanian border. In this area there is a refugee camp numbering tens of thousands.

    Per Kiselyov, the Americans have cut off the refugee camp, not allowing in UN or other humanitarian relief convoys, so as to use the camp as cover, a human shield, for the Islamic State fighters they are supporting.

    Then comes the direct warning from Konashenkov: If the US forces see these attacks by mobile units of terrorists they are assisting as “unforeseen random events,” then Russian armed forces in Syria are prepared to totally destroy all such random events directed against the zone under their control.

    Kiselyov asks why is this happening?  Did Trump decide this?

    The question is rhetorical. Trump is exculpated.  It may be “amazing,” but it appears that Trump was not a party to this.  More likely it is due to what he calls sloppy management, when the military gets out from under political control, and then on the territory of Syria, “they start wandering around quite on their own” and “flirting” with the terrorist groups.

    Whatever the case, says Kiselyov, the result is extremely unpleasant both for Russia and for the American leadership as its generals are being pushed towards adventurism.

    Konashenkov characterized the area in Syria under American control near the Jordanian border as a “black hole” that is 100 km long. From this black hole, like devils escaping from a snuff box, the terrorists come out to stage their attacks on Syrian troops and against the peaceful civilian population.


    The feature segment moves on to a calm note, with insistence that Putin remains confident in the victory over the terrorists regardless of who is aiding them.  To demonstrate this Olympian calm, which comes from certainty of victory in the near future, we are shown footage of Putin’s response to questions put to him at the Energy Forum in Moscow at mid-week. Putin tells us that “in the end, we all [presumably including the Americans] have common interests in securing Syria and the region against terrorists and that will bring us together for cooperative action.”

    In the meantime though, we are treated to videos showing the consequences of Russian air activity in Syria this past week.  That included more than 400 sorties of Russian planes based in Syria, plus bombing by SU 134 and 135 arriving from Russian territory that killed a dozen or more terrorist leaders together with 50 security personnel and seriously injured their top official, who lost an arm and sank into a coma.  

    Russian air attacks destroyed the terrorists’ main underground weapons caches amounting to a thousand  tons.  And an attack by Kalibr cruise missiles launched from submarines in the Mediterranean destroyed Islamic State command installations and vehicles as well as weapons supplies. This cleared the way for Syrian troops to move to liberate the town of Meyadin.

    The dots are left unconnected, but the Russian threat is clear: they will use their air power to eliminate all forces standing in the way of their complete victory including US forces on the ground near the Jordanian border.

    The same news round-up last night also had another segment that relates in less direct fashion to the coming Russian victory in Syria: this was a week when the king of Saudi Arabia made the first state visit to Russia in their 90 plus years of diplomatic relations. And it was not a simple affair.

    Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud brought with him a suite of 1,000, including business leaders, ministry officials and senior military.  We are told they came with 100 tons of baggage, including favorite carpets and other necessities of life.

    All aspects of this visit were impressive, including the signing of contracts and letters of intent for multi-billion dollar joint investments in industrial projects in both countries, possible Saudi purchases of Russian Liquefied Natural Gas from yet another mega-project seeking financing and multi-billion dollar military procurement, said to include the latest S-400 air defense system that Russia agreed to supply to Turkey a few weeks ago in exchange for a 2.5 billion dollar down payment and which Turkey accepted gratefully over NATO objections.  Putin quipped to the moderator of the Moscow Energy Forum also held during the past week that nothing is forever, not even the U.S. hold on the Saudis.

    Kiselyov placed the visit in the context of Russian foreign policy in the region generally. Putin, he said, is pursuing a policy of seeking peaceful harmony in the Near East that takes into account the balance of interests of all countries in the region, a policy which is paying off: Russia is now the only country in the world to have good relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Iraq and, of course, Syria.

    From both segments it would appear that US domination is unraveling.

    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2017



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    Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His forthcoming collection of essays Does the United States Have a Future? will be published in October 2017

  • Fish!


    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


    When in 2014 the United States and the European Union slapped sanctions on Russian officials and business entities as punishment for what they called the “annexation” of Crimea and military intervention in the Donbas region of Ukraine, when Russia responded with its embargo on food products from those countries and rolled out a generalized policy of “import substitution” to sharply curtail dependency of the domestic economy on external factors of international relations, there were many observers both within Russia and in the West who predicted the failure of the Russian government’s efforts.  The dire predictions were based on a complete misreading of the mood and general political situation in Russia: the American legislators who initiated the sanctions believed that the punishment directed at the Kremlin entourage and big business would alienate the oligarchs from Vladimir Putin and lead to regime change, or at a minimum, to change in Russia’s foreign policy to suit better the wishes of Washington.

    We now know that the stated ambition of the sanctions on Russia never worked. Reunification with Crimea and the Western sanctions aroused swelling national pride and patriotic feelings in the broad public. The Kremlin doubled down and has stayed the course on Crimea, on Donbas and more recently in Syria where its military support for the regime of Bashar Assad has gone directly against US and Western policies of backing the insurgents. But what about import substitution?

    Within months of the Kremlin’s announcement of this policy, commentators were publishing statistics showing that import substitution was negligible. Ignoring the reality that re-creation of industrial sectors usually takes years, on the basis of first findings they predicted that import substitution would never amount to anything. They pointed to the unbalanced structure of the Russian economy, with massive resources invested in the highly profitable energy industry providing “rents” to the ruling elites. Moreover, the investor unfriendly country ratings bode ill for attracting foreign or even local capital to restructuring.

    Those remarks were largely correct, but they missed other highly relevant problems facing the plans for import substitution resulting from new business ventures and capital investment.  The bigger issues were around money, namely the cost of money and its scarcity.  In 2014, Russia was still experiencing high inflation and the attempts of the Bank of Russia to contain it by tight money.  The costs of borrowing for small businesses in particular were usurious. Indeed, the disparity with the West on both counts was a direct continuation of what had been going on since the 1990s. Lack of working capital on competitive conditions was the main contributor to the flooding of the Russian market with imports and the collapse of local industry. 

    In its implementation of the import substitution policy, the Russian Government identified priority sectors and provided various kinds of federal assistance that included credit subsidies.  It also has taken steps to maintain the ruble at a low exchange rate to protect against imports whatever happens to the sanctions and embargo.

    Agriculture is one sector where the payback can be very quick if one chooses carefully the given application, as for example wheat over livestock, poultry over pork.  And when the oxygen of subsidized credit was applied, the results were stunning.  In 2017, despite capricious, if not malicious weather conditions in the spring and early summer, Russia is expecting its largest ever grain harvest, possibly reaching 130 million metric tons, and the country retakes its position as the world’s top wheat exporter and leading exporter of other grains and of beet sugar.

    What is happening in other sectors of the economy which the Government prioritized for import substitution will be obvious only in the years to come, precisely because of the greater capital and knowhow requirements and slower payback. But given the way agriculture has responded to stimuli from the federal government, it is reasonable to expect similar success stories in manufacturing and service industries like banking, insurance, and computer programming over time.

    The rising tide raises all ships, and the success of parts of agriculture have attracted big business interest not only to industrial-scale farming of grain crops but also to many other sides of food supply and processing. Such investments are being made not only by start-up small and medium sized businesses but also by the oligarchs, for whom this is a point of pride and a direct response to the wave of patriotism that has swept the country. Thus, as The Financial Times recently reported oligarch Viktor Vekselberg has been pouring vast capital via his Renova holding company into the construction of greenhouses for vegetable crops that are in great demand among Russia’s urban populations. Payback on these investments is measured in years, not months and demonstrates great confidence of Russian competitiveness against ground crops from Turkey, from Central Asia and from hothouse crops from Western Europe whenever the sanctions are lifted.

    The result of these various undertakings is that Russian Federation Minister of Agriculture, Alexander Tkachev himself a farmer with large-scale interests in the sector, can report regularly on the dramatic progress being made in all areas of agricultural self-sufficiency, meaning import substitution. Indeed, in many product groupings quite apart from grains, Russia is becoming an exporter for the first time since before WWI.

    In this essay, I would like to focus on one area of food production and processing that is especially surprising given the national traditions:  fish. Russia, like Serbia, has long followed the folk saying that the best fish is a pig. This prejudice was long justified by the quality of fish products that were available in the market as from Soviet times. The improvement in assortment and appeal of these products dates from the middle of the first decade of the new millennium.

    To be sure, what is happening in aquaculture did get coverage in The Financial Times article mentioned above, which gave statistics for the Murmansk-based LLC Russkoye More, an ambitious firm that is rapidly expanding to occupy the leading position as supplier of farmed salmon in what is a major import substitution project. The Russian market for fresh salmon, like the European Union market, was until two years ago entirely dominated by the Scandinavians, now on the embargo list.

    Whereas The Financial Times addresses the changes in the fish sector at the corporate and macroeconomic level, here we will talk about the microeconomic level, where people live and demand meets supply. What follows comes from my visits to supermarkets, to independent fish vendors, to covered street markets in cities and in the countryside up to 80 km from St Petersburg.  It is one thing to speak about supply at source, and another to speak about supply as it reaches consumers. The distribution and logistical chain is all the more important in products as perishable as fresh fish. Moreover, this informal sampling will look not only at fresh fish but also frozen and tinned fish to get a more comprehensive overview of the situation.

    In past surveys of the changing Russian shopping basket, I pointed to some specific fish varieties that are locally grown in the Russian Northwest region. These include the sig, a fresh water member of the salmon family native to Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest body of fresh water that is 50 km east of Petersburg, and also the minnow-sized koryushka, another native of Ladoga that each spring travels down the Neva River to the lightly saline Gulf of Finland to lay its eggs and is caught on the way in vast quantities to the great pleasure of Petersburgers.

    However, the bigger picture is that as the largest country on earth, representing more than 10% of the world’s land surface, Russia has tremendous fresh water resources in terms of lakes and rivers that still abound in fish enjoying local reputation and retail distribution. This is particularly true of the Siberian rivers; smoked delicacy fish from there are sold at high prices across the Russian Federation.  In addition, of course, Russian fishing fleets based in Murmansk, to the north and in Vladivostok to the east have been and remain large suppliers of ocean fish.

    What has changed is the scale of production and distribution of fresh salt water or lake and river, wild and farmed fish.  Whereas in the past, the fish section in Russian supermarkets meant shelves of tinned sardines or catfish in tomato sauce, today every respectable market offers fresh fish, in filets or whole, presented on beds of ice and in better or worse condition depending on the store management.

    Specialized fish stores have sprung up even in the hinterland here in the Northwest, receiving daily shipments of farmed salmon, wild gorbusha and hefty flounders, among other varieties. By local standards, these fish are all substantially more expensive sources of protein than domestic chickens or pork chops. But they obviously do find their consumers and they are priced 30% or more below West European store prices for similar fish.

    Speaking of ocean fish meant until very recently fish brought to market frozen.  The Soviet Union developed a large fleet of trawlers and fish processing ships that brought frozen product to port, much of it going into export.  The fish were usually low grade, bony, good only for stews and soups.  Intrinsically higher grade fish like cod appeared for sale in shops in bulk in contorted stages of rigor mortis, not very appealing to the faint of heart.

    Now, in the past couple of years, the frozen foods bins of super markets are stocked with fish steaks packaged in clear plastic that are as attractive and as high quality as anything sold in Western Europe. These cod steaks, wild salmon (gorbusha) steaks have been flash frozen and are offered in half-kilogram portions. The labeling stresses that no preservatives have been used, that the products are natural and healthful, with detailed nutritional information provided.


    In the days of the Soviet Union, the Russian fishing industry produced some world-beating tinned products including red and black caviar and Chatka brand king crab meat. These exclusive and very pricey products are exported, where they enjoy demand and are available domestically in specialty shops. However, most tinned fish traditionally fell into the category of low-grade fish in tomato sauce or very poor grade vegetable oil.  Over the past several years, that has changed beyond recognition. Tinned fish of world-class quality is making its appearance on store shelves.  For example, a week ago I discovered a new arrival: “premium” class chunk tuna in olive oil packaged in 200 gram glass jars. The producer is the Far East fishing fleet, and the fish name is given in Japanese as well as Russian.  The product is similar in design and presentation to premium tuna on sale in Belgium at twice the price.

    And finally another fish product category is worth mentioning:  the salted, smoked or otherwise processed and unit-packed fish sold in the chilled products sections of supermarkets. This has expanded in product range and quality so as to be beyond recognition when compared with similar offerings just a few years ago.  Many different suppliers vie in the category of cold or hot smoked, salted salmon shrink wrapped in units of 200 grams plus or minus.  Herrings filets in oil or in sauces are now very attractive and of generally high quality. Anchovies and other small fish filets have proliferated. And hitherto unknown product categories such as “seafood cocktails” consisting of baby octopus and squid, pink shrimp and mussels in brine are offered in small plastic pots; quality is in no way inferior to what you would find in an up-market supermarket in Western Europe.  All such alien, “indescribably awful” (гадости) foods in the judgment of your average Soviet consumer, are today welcomed as the basis for salads, as stuffing for avocados, themselves a relatively new food item to the Russian shopper.  Travel abroad, and 10 million Russians do travel abroad each year, has turned them into quite sophisticated shoppers and diners. And what they have come to love they now can largely find in their supermarkets supplied by domestic producers, including all varieties of fish specialties.

    The point is, that from nowhere, the Russian fishing industry has made enormous strides and, unlike the cheese industry, is fully replacing imports with equal or better quality contents and lower prices.

    This is the consequence of change in demand as well as change in supply.  Demand has changed because before 2014 Russians still distrusted their compatriots and believed that everything made in their country was rubbish.  Come the Crimea annexation, come the war in Donbass and the upsurge of patriotism prodded folks to try their own.  What Russia has now is a virtuous cycle:  more positive expectancy, more positive supply.


    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2017


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    Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His last book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming collection of essays Does the United States Have a Future? will be published in October 2017.

  • Time to Impeach Trump



    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

    My political positions have very frequently been countercurrent.   When the Liberals were calling for Trump’s head, when Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi in Congress were preaching all-out obstructionism against the newly inaugurated President to thwart his policies, I was urging Progressives to lay down their pitchforks and try to deal constructively with the new administration for the good of the nation.

    Now, in the past several weeks, in a belated show of bipartisanship, Democratic Party leaders have finally found a negotiating partner in Donald Trump, starting with relief to the “Dreamers” in the sphere of immigration policy and extending to the bill raising the national debt ceiling.  More deals are said to be underway. In theory, that is all to the good.

    However, in the meantime this President demonstrated fulsomely in his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, that it is high time for him to go.   And that is not because of his widely discussed volatility, impulsiveness and narcissism.  It is because of his irremediable stupidity, primitivism and thuggery that are leading this country on a path to commit unspeakable horrors abroad.

    To be sure, Trump’s shocking debut at the UN comes as the culmination of a lengthy decline in civilized behavior by our national leaders over the past two decades.

    The swagger and bloated self-importance of George Bush did not itself come of a day.  At the start of his presidency, after 9/11 but before the fateful invasion of Iraq, Bush would make one or another outrageous, lying statement about international affairs, such as the “weapons of mass destruction” he alleged were retained by Saddam Hussein. Then he would pause and look into the camera with hesitation, as if wondering whether his whoppers would be swallowed by the public. Satisfied that he had gotten away with it, he resumed his rant.  That hint of self-doubt or fear of discovery disappeared with the years even as adversity on the battlefield and in the economy that his misguided, if not criminal acts gave rise to progressed apace. Bush limped along to the end of his second term none the wiser.

    Our intellectual president Barack Obama, with his term on the Harvard Law Review as seeming proof of mental and cultural distinction, never did learn to behave in a statesmanlike manner.  From start to finish, he conducted himself with scandalous insouciance. His well-meaning arm over the shoulder of Queen Elizabeth, which the Brits saw through as disrespect for court decorum, his chewing gum while  standing before the public eye were noted by our commentators indulgently. They never noted, however, when he slipped beyond faux pas to openly insulting behavior towards leaders of the world’s great powers, when he issued slurs which in other people’s mouths would be denounced as a form of racism.

    One such case occurred when Obama stood by the side of Chinese President Xi in the White House Rose Garden for a press briefing, and said that he would be watching closely to see that the Chinese implemented the actions that had been agreed upon.  Then there was his likening Putin to a misbehaving schoolboy, skulking at the back of the classroom. Or his description of the whole country, Russia, as a fading regional power that produced nothing that anyone wanted. This was gratuitously insulting, degrading and finally very primitive behavior for the leader of the world’s mightiest country. And the content of his remarks was based on verifiable untruths, if only he had taken care to do fact check.

    However, all of these inexcusable verbal misdeeds of the recent past are nothing compared to what Donald Trump delivered on Tuesday during the 42-minute speech marking his debut at the General Assembly of the United Nations.

    Trump’s vicious remarks directed at Iran and Venezuela may have been in line with the “Axis of Evil” speeches of George W. Bush.  But his threat to “totally destroy” North Korea, a country of 22 million, if it so much as “threatened” the United States and its allies went beyond incivility.

    The name Adolph Hitler has come up repeatedly in American political discourse over many decades in a search for a likeness going beyond the pale. It was applied famously by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Russian President Vladimir Putin when she sought to vilify the Russian leader as had never been done before even in the worst days of the original Cold War with the Soviet Union.

    By his threats to annihilate a nation issued from the tribune of the world’s greatest forum for peace-making, Trump cast himself as a modern day Hitler.

    Those of us who once backed Donald Trump on the basis of his promised normalization of relations with the world’s other nuclear superpower were initially confused and disappointed when he surrounded himself with Neocons, Liberal Interventionists and other advisers and implementers who proceeded to speak and act in ways that directly contradicted Trump’s promised changes to US foreign policy.

    But now there is no room for confusion or indulgence.  We cannot point a finger at his defense secretary, “Mad Dog” Mattis, or at his Neocon ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, or at any of the generals propping him up from the right and the left.  This time it is the boss himself who spoke outrageously, who delivered what some media outlets properly called a “tirade” and others, more timidly spoke of as “bellicose.”  

    What marked this speech from the long series of uncontrolled, self-indulgent tweets on foreign and domestic affairs from this President, was that it was precisely a scripted speech in which every word had obviously been weighed beforehand for its likely interpretation and public impact.  And it was the speech of a thug, of a dictator whose place in the world’s gallery of aggressors and war-makers is safely reserved.

    On the day of the speech, major U.S. media contented themselves with quoting Donald’s more remarkable statements, starting with his threat to North Korea.  On day two, the editorial boards reached their conclusions on how to handle it and the remarks became more interesting and revealing. The New York Times, for example, allowed itself to point to the contradiction between Trump’s celebration of sovereign nation states, with their own traditions and patriotism and his call for regime change with respect to the three states singled out as “rogues” threatening the world order

    Indeed, the sovereignty for some and not others approach on which the entire speech was built is a fault line of illogic in Trump’s thinking, if we divert ourselves with a rational analysis of what was an irrational speech.  The same fundamental contradiction was inherent in all of US foreign policy these past twenty-five years,  that of some farm animals being more equal than other farm animals, to put it in terms of George Orwell.  However, until now it was masked by the stress on universal values as the guide to foreign policy and as the justification for punishing evil-doers.  When that fig leaf is stripped away, when foreign policy is said to be built on principles of Realism and national interest, then the whole logic of might makes right, and US assertion of its right to be the world’s judge and jury is plain for all to see.

    After he is removed from office on whatever grounds will do the trick, including phony charges of collusion with the Kremlin to win the presidential race, I wish Donald Trump a comfortable retirement to a bar stool at one of the lounges of Trump Tower, which is where he and his bombastic remarks truly belong.



    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2017


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     Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published in October 2017.