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  • PRESS RELEASE

     

    PUBLICATION 12 OCTOBER 2017:  DOES THE UNITED STATES HAVE A FUTURE

     

    An overview of Gilbert Doctorow’s new book Does the United States Have a Future?

     

    In many respects, the United States has made the destruction of the Putin “regime” and of Russian power more generally, a test of its ability to direct the world according to its own preferences, without compromise or serious discussion with other powers. The articles in this collection guide the reader through the action-reaction between the US and Russia over the time covered as the USA arguably began losing the tug-of-war with the Kremlin.

     

    The overarching genre of essays in this collection is reports on events and personalities in the news that the author saw firsthand. These essays are not a daily chronicle. The author did not join commentators on the scrimmage pile-up. He concentrated on impressions drawn from personal activism.

     

    One of the greatest virtues of this collection is the details on how we approached a catastrophic military confrontation with Russia, especially in the final months of the Obama administration. We are still not out of the woods.

     

    This would not have been obvious to most readers because of the blackout on Russian-sourced news imposed from Washington, working hand-in-glove with major media. A number of essays demonstrate this blackout and its tendentiousness very clearly.

     

    There are always two or more sides to an issue, and the author has applied all of his talents and contacts to bring out what the other side has been saying and why, to separate out cause and effect.

     

    Essays in this collection draw upon the author’s experience during a nine-month period of “stardom” from May 2016 to January 2017 as one of a handful of foreigners, and of Americans in particular, who were invited to appear on Russian political talk shows for the domestic television audience to comment on the American presidential campaign through the inauguration of Donald Trump.

     

    The author’s time on Russian domestic television was more important for what he heard than for what he said. He was able to see up close some of Russia’s most articulate and impressive legislators, educators, think tank directors and television hosts. In these essays, he shares his impressions of what is a far more vibrant and sophisticated political and intellectual life than one might imagine.

     

    Appreciations of Does the United States Have a Future? by four professional reviewers:

     

    Robert Parry. Investigative journalist and founder of Consortiumnews.com

    Gilbert Doctorow offers powerful and insightful analysis of the crucial events unfolding in what is called the New Cold War, a dangerous, costly and largely unnecessary showdown between the world's two nuclear-armed superpowers. At the heart of these tensions is a propagandistic distortion of what Russia wants and how it operates. As an American who has lived in Russia, Doctorow strips away the exaggerations and shows you the real Russia.

     

    Professor Robert English, University of Southern California School of International Relations.

    This book will make most readers uncomfortable—and it should.  Russia is constantly in our news and commentary, yet understanding is scarcer than ever, so this most vital of our international relationships slides deeper into confrontation.  Doctorow’s Russian experience is vast, his insights rare, and his judgments sound—whether exposing media pundits’ ignorance, political officials’ hypocrisy, or advising on remedies for all these follies.  The demonization of Russia reflects the pathologies of American politics much more than it does the realities of Russia, and few expose these delusions better than Doctorow.  A return to reason in US foreign policy is long overdue, and this book is an excellent place to start. 

     

    Andrei Nekrasov. Independent film maker, Norway. Director of The Magnitsky Act: Behind the Scenes

    Gilbert Doctorow’s sharp and profoundly independent mind makes the reading of this collection of his essays on American Russia politics an intellectual pleasure. It’s a diary of a uniquely unbiased and knowledgeable observer that would help an open-minded reader to see through the clouds of prejudice and propaganda contaminating even some of the world’s most respected “quality media” today. Doctorow’s evocation of McCarthyism seems chillingly fitting in the context of the neoconservative ideological authority giving short shrift to anyone daring to dissent. Spot on are quotations from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina mirroring the jingoism of those who today, as one hundred forty years ago, risk nothing by sending others to kill and die. The difference of course, we are reminded, being in the nuclear warheads, 90% of which are shared by America and Russia, capable annihilating each other and the whole world in a matter of days.

     

    Ray McGovern. Former CIA Presidential briefer, co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity

    Finally a lucid analysis, by an author with superb academic credentials AND life experience, addressing: “Does America Have a Future?” The US Empire is being trumped by accelerating Russia-China entente and allies hedging their bets.  The post-WWII era is over – the new era marked by “goose pimples” at Trump’s “finger on the nuclear button.”  Can new realities shatter the groupthink that now prevails and usher in, peaceably, the inevitable erosion of US power? This book could help that happen.

     

     

    Does the United States Have a Future? is available for purchase as a paperback from amazon.com and related websites globally. In coming weeks the paperback will be listed by all retail booksellers. An e-book version will also be released in this time frame.

  • 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.