A View of Russia from the Heart of the EU: An Interview with Gilbert Doctorow

The following is a written interview conducted with Gilbert Doctorow by email over the past two weeks. Doctorow is an American based in Brussels, Belgium who is an analyst of international affairs with a focus on Russia. He is a fluent Russian speaker and has experience in international business, including in Russia and Eastern Europe. Many of the questions are based on his recently published book of essays, A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs. He blogs at https://gilbertdoctorow.com/.

Natylie Baldwin: In one of your essays, “Russia-China Strategic Partnership,” you discuss how you see common characterizations of Russia as the “junior partner” as erroneous.  Can you explain why you think so?

Gilbert Doctorow: The designation of Russia as a ‘junior partner’ in the relationship of near-ally that it holds with China is a designation applied by Russia’s detractors in the West who insist that the great inequality of the two parties in terms of population, GDP, and other material metrics means instability in the relationship. In a word, they are telling us that the Russians will find the “junior’ status demeaning and will want out. The implication for policy made in the West is that the Russians can be drawn away from China if we propose the right “carrots.” This is precisely the message that Henry Kissinger was giving to candidate Donald Trump in 2016 and then to the newly inaugurated President in early 2017. That was the whole logic of Trump’s offer to find an accommodation with Vladimir Putin, a policy which the Democrats seized upon to wreck his presidency.

But returning to the question you posed, what would be those carrots that the U.S. was prepared to offer to the Russians:  surely they were no more than withdrawal of the sanctions imposed on Russia by the USA and by the EU in 2014. That would, in the view of Kissinger, in the view of most analysts, constitute a return to “normal.” 

However, this Western thinking is blinkered.  A return to pre-2014, pre-Crimean annexation relations does not amount to “normal” from the Russian perspective. In effect, relations between Russia and the West have not been normal ever since President George W. Bush cancelled the missile-defense [ABM] treaty in 2002 and then launched his war on Iraq the following year. The Russians emerged as leading objectors to that war, together with France, Germany and Belgium, depriving the U.S. of cover for its aggression in the United Nations. For that, the Russians would have to pay a price and they did in terms of all their commercial, diplomatic and military interests. Thus, “normal” relations ended already in 2003, but I have not heard anyone suggest that the clock might be turned back that far.  After that came the U.S.-led Information War and defamation of Putin from 2007 following his speech at the Munich Security Conference denouncing U.S. policy towards his country.  And then in 2012 came the passage of the Magnitsky Act in the USA which had as its objective to position Russia as a pariah state.  There is absolutely nothing normal about relations from that point on. If we put aside the policy implications driving Western characterization of Russia as the ‘junior partner’ in its relationship with China, we find that Russia is far less a dependent and pliant partner with China than the European Union, or more precisely, the NATO member states, are in their relationship with the U.S.  All of the elements of military, trade, diplomatic cooperation between Russia and China show clear mutual interest and benefit, with neither side dominating.

NB: You also said that you see this Russian-Chinese partnership as comparable to the French-German partnership that has helped to “steer” the EU.  Can you elaborate more on that comparison?

Doctorow: From its very inception the peace mission known as the European Economic Community, then later the European Union has been led by the countries whose rivalry spawned two world wars, France and Germany.  However comparable these two economies may have been in the beginning, over time it has been obvious to all neutral observers that Germany pulled far ahead of France in its development. This dis-balance was further enlarged when the Federal Republic merged with the GDR, that is, East Germany in October 1990, adding substantially to its population mass and territory. And yet no one speaks of a senior partner or junior partner in this duo.  The French balance the equation in other areas, primarily by providing the political weight and respectability which Germany, given its disastrous past under Hitler, cannot do without. However much the Alternativ fuer Deutschland may shout that it is time for Germany to be free from the sins of its past, reality and the consciousness of the rest of the world says otherwise. 

Something similar may be said of the Russian contribution to their political and diplomatic partnership with China.  Russia has what may be the world’s most sophisticated and experienced diplomatic service in the world.  It was the co-determiner of the world’s fate with the USA for the forty odd years of the Cold War and established close ties with a large part of what was then called the Developing Countries, now called the Emerging Markets.  To be sure, the Chinese have made great strides in establishing their world presence via the One Belt, One Road initiative. But the Russians have one other dimension, one equalizer that few point to: it shares with the United States the position as lead nuclear weapons power in the world, with approximately 43% of all nuclear warheads in its armory, the same as Washington. China, by past decisions, remains a minor nuclear power even today.

NB: You have said that Henry Kissinger is one of the more capable geo-strategic thinkers but that he has – by choice – not had a good understanding of Russia.  Can you explain what you mean by that?  Do you still believe him to be influential on Trump’s foreign policy thinking and actions? 

Doctorow: Allow me to reverse the order of my response and start with your second part, which is the easier part.  Henry Kissinger enjoyed a certain rapport with Trump into the spring of 2017 when he fell out of favor. Why? Because Kissinger’s recommendation of an outreach to Russia for the sake of a grand geopolitical realignment, prying the Kremlin away from Beijing, failed very quickly on two counts, discrediting his personal utility to Trump.

Firstly, there was the flat ‘nyet’ which came back from Putin, for whom loyalty to longstanding friends, in this case, President Xi of China, excluded entirely the possibility of the kind of cynical betrayal Kissinger had in mind. This was not merely personal chemistry but a considerable number of joint commercial projects binding the economic interests of the two countries for decades to come. Secondly, because the very hint of an outreach to the Kremlin threw oil on the fires of anti-Russian hysteria that the Democrats were developing in their ‘we was robbed’ explanation of their electoral defeat in November 2016 and threatened the further functioning of the federal government.  That being said, in the more general sense, Kissinger as the greatest living exponent of the Realist School in International Relations, has remained to this day an influence on policy under Trump, who rejects flatly the Wilsonian Idealism, the whole ideology of universal values that underpin the Democrats and Liberalism in their political creed. 

As regards Kissinger’s poor understanding of Russia, this is something that I wrote about extensively in my 2010 book entitled “Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations.” In that book I examined in particular Kissinger’s master work “Diplomacy” published in 1994 wherein he set out his expectations on how the road ahead would be towards a multipolar world in which interests and not ideology decided the ever-shifting alignments of nations under ‘balance of power’ principles.  From Kissinger’s writings about Russia in that major opus as well as in his later books I concluded that he had no feel for the country and that he probably had read little or nothing about Russia since his undergraduate days at Harvard, other than the writings of fellow Realist George Kennan – another great name whose understanding of Russia was often based on smoke and mirrors, on his reading of Russian literature rather than Russian history or on detailed knowledge of present circumstances in Russia.  That is a point which I developed at length in an essay entitled “George Kennan and the Russian Soul” published by the Harriman Institute of Columbia University in 2011.

My exposé of Kissinger no doubt will confound many observers, because the general view of the man is that he is a voracious reader.  Moreover, Kissinger has always received an especially warm welcome in the Kremlin and is believed by Council of Foreign Relations members to be a polymath. I will not dare question the intellectual powers of the summa cum laude graduate of Harvard that Kissinger was. The brilliance of his writing style is undeniable. However, style and content are different metrics.

To my understanding, Kissinger was entirely satisfied with the insights into the Russian psyche that he got as an undergraduate at Harvard from the leading professor of Russian history of that period, Michael Karpovich, who incidentally also strongly influenced the views of Kissinger’s fellow students – Zbigniew Brzezinski and Richard Pipes.

This triad under Karpovich’s sway in turn set the tone for American foreign policy towards Russia during the Cold War. At the very least, one can say that they justified policy decisions which were made for other reasons, namely power politics.  And what we are talking about here is the tradition of Russian historiography that began with the 19th century historian Vasily Kliuchevsky and passed through A.A. Kizevetter and the great Liberal politician, historian Pavel Miliukov. Karpovich was the continuator.  This was the Liberal school of historiography which was Anglophile and anti-tsarist. It is from this school that Kissinger arrived at the absurd conclusion that the Russian Empire was fragile and had to expand geographically by wars of conquest lest it collapse.  This notion of Russian expansionism as part of the national DNA and as something unrelated to the colonialism and imperialism that all of the European powers had practiced has remained with Kissinger ever since and to all appearances was never reconsidered. The same might be said of his never ending repetition that Russia had always been apart from Europe, since it never participated in the Reformation, in the Age of Discovery, in the Enlightenment, etc. These are smug platitudes that are easily contested if you do your homework.

NB: Do you still see the world as shaping up to be a bi-polar order with the US and Europe on one side and China-Russia on the other?  How do you see other countries aligning?

Doctorow: Ever since America’s unipolar moment began to unravel during the presidency of George W. Bush, it has been fashionable to speak of a multipolar world. We were told that power in the world has been redistributed among many players so that it is diffuse and that with the advent of Al Qaeda non-state actors have also taken on an important share. However, I believe this is an illusion and it is not unrelated to the illusion that nearly all of our policy establishment share about economic might spelling Hard Power might.  Yes, economic power is far more broadly distributed today among nations than it was just twenty years ago, not to mention in the times of the Cold War.  But Hard Power and precisely the ability to project military force outside a given nation’s neighborhood is not distributed in the same way.  On the contrary, there are only two – three countries in the world that have sufficiently advanced military capabilities on a global scale.

The United States is far and away the most powerful in this regard.  But Russia is not so far behind if we speak of cutting edge strategic weapon systems, not military bases. And China, by its own policy choices, remains a distant third today, focusing as it does on its immediate neighborhood. 

There is not a single European country, nor all of the European countries taken together which can do what Russia did alone in Syria. To match that, they depend on the missing parts of equipment, satellite guided intelligence, etc. that they receive from the USA. There is not a single European country which has the specialized military anti-biological warfare equipment and procedures which the Russians demonstrated in their recent ‘mercy mission’ to Lombardy to combat the coronavirus. For all of these reasons, I insist we live in a bipolar world, with the United States and Europe on one side and Russia and China on the other.  As for the other countries, they are only rarely compelled to take sides, and then they try their best to appease both blocs, as we see, for example in the cases where the S-400 defensive missile systems and other Russian arms are purchased over and against U.S. objections and threats.

NB: You suggested that Russia may have a moderating influence on China as the latter’s power increases.  Why?  Do you think this is likely to be the case after Putin leaves office?

Doctorow: Thus far, China has been reasonably restrained in the face of U.S. challenges to its influence in its home region – as, for example, the South China Sea – without any need for Russian advice. The reason was, until Trump unleashed his tariff wars, that the United States market was immense and profitable for China, so that it could not bark – let alone bite – the Americans.

Going forward I would say that the military and diplomatic partnership with Russia surely gives Beijing greater confidence in its own security and in this very qualified way helps to keep it on a steady course in the face of U.S. encirclement and other provocations.

NB: In another essay you discuss the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS), which was put out in December of 2017.  The focus of that NSS was on great power competition with Russia and China rather than a struggle between good and evil.  You said that the language of this NSS reflected a return to realism/pragmatism and the concept of a “balance of power” in international relations.  Can you go into this more?

Doctorow: As I explained in the article – and as I developed further in a follow-up article in which I addressed objections to my argumentation on the NSS which appeared in the Comments section of several portals that re-posted my original article – the 2017 National Security Strategy was a major step in the right direction for the thinking guiding U.S. foreign policy, stripping away 25 years of universal values claptrap and getting at the substance of challenges to U.S. global hegemony. Words count, ideas count even if the actions of this President during his first year in office contradicted the words and ideas of the NSS, partly because of the constraints imposed on Trump by Congress, partly by the actions, such as the Tomahawk attack on a Syrian air base, that were intended to chase away the circling buzzards of impeachment – and effectively did just that.

In the same article, I noted that the NSS has intellectual inconsistencies due to mixed authorship – partly written by the holdover federal government experts with their ‘idealist’ biases who by their job description had to be put to work on it and then its being extensively edited by people around Trump who gave it the predominantly ‘realist’ cast that sets it apart from anything we have seen in decades.  I do hope that readers will enjoy my textual analysis used to elucidate these conflicting strands in the NSS document. The method I employed comes from traditional historical research and I believe I have used it to great advantage to make sense of other key documents in the public space, as for example, to uncover obvious forgeries promoted by the New York Times or by The German Marshall Fund.

NB: You also said in your essay on this NSS that “a foreign policy based on universal values can only lead to war.”  You seem to be saying that the insistence on adherence to universal values leaves no room for compromise and diplomacy.   What are the implications for the concept of pluralism versus universalism in the U.S.’s outlook on international relations as reflected in Trump’s NSS?

Doctorow: You have to look closely at the language used in the NSS to appreciate how and why it takes us away from potential conflict and even war that the idealist school encouraged. The entire moralistic rhetoric of an ‘axis of evil’ is totally absent from the NSS.  The personalization of politics and demonization of the leaders of Russia, China and other key ‘competitors’ to U.S. global leadership is gone entirely. Indeed, these countries are precisely competitors and not ‘adversaries’ let alone flat-out enemies. We are in competition with the whole world, meaning with our nominal allies as well as with the likes of Russia and China. Those two just happen to pose an existential threat if we are careless in how we deal with them. At the same time, the NSS dispenses entirely with the legalistic argumentation about ‘violations of international law’ that dominated American rhetoric during the Cold War.  Since the thrust of the NSS, as a basically realist school document, is defense of national interests rather than values, diplomacy and the art of compromise are foremost.  You can and should make compromises that serve your interests. By [the idealist] definition, you are loath to compromise on values and have nothing to negotiate there.

NB: How do you think the Trump administration has lived up to this NSS?

Doctorow: As I have mentioned earlier, the Trump administration has not done a very good job of implementing the NSS principles for reasons outside its control – namely the vicious war being waged on it by the Democrats ever since the inauguration.  This destructive partisanship is unlikely to end if, as now seems improbable, Trump wins a second term.

NB: In the January/February 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs, Joe Biden published a 14-page article called “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin:  Defending Democracy Against its Enemies.”  In this article, Biden repeats every caricature and negative myth about contemporary Russia, vilifying Putin, etc.  Give us an overview of your critique of Biden’s article and its assumptions. What do you think it portends in terms of foreign policy under a Biden administration?

Doctorow: I stand by my remarks on Joe Biden’s piece in “Foreign Affairs” as having been a propaganda exercise in denigration of Russia that falls into line with the Democratic Party’s allegations of a Trump-Putin collusion to thwart the will of the American people. The interesting question is not so much why Biden wrote his article as why “Foreign Affairs” magazine welcomed it when otherwise the magazine’s editorial position was already moving away from complacency that, post-Trump, the United States would snap back quickly to its traditional leading position in the Free World. 

Though Biden’s article was backward rather than forward looking with respect to Russia policy, it would be an error to assume that his attacks on the ‘Putin regime’ will guide what comes in a Biden administration. If Trump is dumped in November, the Democrats can step back from Russia-bashing which has reached hysterical proportions, become a sort of mass hypnosis defying any common sense understanding of the way the world works. Thus, paradoxically, a Biden victory could be the prelude to a new ‘re-set’ in relations with Russia, though always within the narrow constraints we saw under the Obama administration. That is to say, without ever addressing Russian concerns over the security architecture in Europe that underlie the Kremlin’s over-all behavior.

NB: In your essay, “Rex Tillerson in the New York Times: Pride and Prejudice,” you offer an intriguing insight about Trump and his ex-Secretary of State Tillerson, that is derived from your early years of working with executives in the world of big business.  You point out that, though they may be reasonably intelligent in terms of an IQ test, their experience as executives in the western business world has led them to learn the wrong lessons since major businesses at the top of their industry are typically cushioned from the consequences of bad or risky decisions.  Can you talk more about that and what the ramifications are of trying to apply that mindset to governance and foreign affairs?

Doctorow: The ‘cushion’ that CEO’s of market leaders enjoy, the cushion that protects them against the consequences of bad business decisions is monopoly profit margins, so that in the end the consumer – not the shareholder – pays for their mistakes. Such companies can enter new markets and make all the wrong choices of local partners due to sloppy research or reliance on the gut instincts of the chief executive rather than the recommendations researched by middle management with their MBAs or by outside consultants – a role I also practiced between corporate executive positions. These mistakes are eventually corrected after much unnecessary red ink, but the corporation and the public only sees the end result when the numbers are positive and that reinforces confidence in the system. I am speaking now on the basis of my personal experience within several major international corporations as regards their start-up of operations in Russia and Eastern Europe. My position was never higher than middle management, but given the high expectations from the Russian market in particular, I accompanied and worked closely with our respective Vice President, International and the Board, to plan and implement strategy in Russia so I saw the figures and heard the thinking at the top level directly.  Transferring this to government, and to foreign policy formulation what we find is hubris in the US ‘power ministries’ leads us into one quagmire after another for which no one pays the bill.

NB: In another essay, you write about your conversations with several influential people with whom you attended an Orthodox Christmas dinner in the French-speaking area of Belgium in 2017.  What were their views of Russia?  How did they see the European and Belgian relationship with the U.S.? 

Doctorow: My observations drawn from participation in Russian Christmas themed gala dinners at French-speaking Belgium’s most prestigious, ‘royal’ gentlemen’s club in 2019 and 2020 [also] bear on the contradictions between the country’s political and social elites over policy towards Russia, the value of NATO and American global leadership. By social elites I mean members of Belgian aristocracy, people serving the monarch and his extended family, and also high level entrepreneurs in finance, insurance and the like, not corporate executives who tend to be more cautious in expressing their views. At the champagne cocktails before dinner, at the dinner table, and in the bar taking coffee afterwards, these people and their wives spoke to me admiringly of Russia and its culture. They gustily joined in the cries of ‘bottoms up’ (пей до дна! in Russian) when waiters carried shot glasses of vodka to the VIPs seated in our midst. In his opening remarks to the dinner, the club’s president recalled the three hundred years of good relations with Russia dating back to the visit by Tsar Peter the Great to the Belgian curative springs of Spa. Russian culture, its classical literature, its museums, its opera houses and concert halls were the first associations mentioned by my interlocutors from among the 175 dinner participants. They deplored the present confrontations with Putin’s Russia led by the USA and NATO, with the unfailing support of the Belgian Government. To be specific, they deplore what they see as Belgian subservience to America that works directly against the national interest. Regrettably these views by the social elite, which correspond precisely to the views I encounter in the street among workaday Belgians, are not reflected in the print and broadcast media which remain obsequious to NATO and the USA even if they are Trump-skeptic.

NB: In January of this year, Putin announced a set of proposed constitutional amendments, which have now been approved by the Russian parliament and are set to be voted on in the future by the Russian public.  Many knowledgeable Russia analysts, including you and I, thought that this signified that Putin did in fact intend to step down in 2024 and was beginning the process of shepherding a transition.  However, in March, another amendment was proposed in parliament and deemed constitutional by the court, which would set the clock to zero in terms of the presidency.  This would allow Putin to run for two more terms in 2024.  Putin has accepted the validity of this amendment.  You wrote an article criticizing this amendment.  Can you explain the reasons for your concerns?  How does the Covid-19 crisis affect your critique, if at all?

Doctorow: Your mention of Covid-19 in this connection is highly relevant, because many commentators make this association and see the changes in the proposed constitutional amendments from their first announcement in mid-January to their final formulation for purposes of a referendum in March as falling within the influence of Covid-19 on Russian politics.  I disagree. I believe the response of the Russian government to Covid-19 is to be found in another set of questions, namely the delegation of responsibility for initiating and implementing the fight against the virus to Moscow city mayor Sobyanin and other regional authorities, with the President and his administration taking more of an observer posture. This is being presented to us by ‘all the usual suspects’ in the Russophobic American foreign policy community as a demonstration of the President’s avoiding taking direct responsibility for highly unpopular lock-down measures. No, it is just good common sense to allow devolution of power in health matters that differ very much from one geographic location to another in the vast country that is Russia. Meanwhile, the constitutional reform has undergone change from launch to final proposition on a separate trajectory, I believe. It’s being loaded with overwhelmingly popular provisions enshrining the values of the Putin governance, namely the mixed social economy, protection of the living standards of the broad population and indexation of pensions, defense of every inch of national territory, defense of the central role of motherhood and the family – all of this was introduced to sugar coat the bitter pill of lifelong rule by Putin that comes about from the last-minute introduction of what we may call the Tereshkova amendment, after the female astronaut turned parliamentarian who placed before the Duma a resolution on setting the clock back to zero on Putin’s service in the presidency.  I see this as a crude attempt by the ruling United Russia [party] to seize control of the national political agenda and squeeze out entirely the Duma opposition parties, which is to say, to overturn the plans of Putin set out on January 15. This sets the stage for a very bitter parliamentary election next year and, if election rigging once again appears as it did in 2011, for mass demonstrations against the regime that will have unforeseeable consequences. I very much regret that Putin’s hint at greater power sharing with all parliamentary parties was nipped in the bud.

NB: So you think that Putin staying in power past 2024 is not necessarily what Putin wants – that his original announcement on January 15th reflected more of what he really wanted to see going forward?

Doctorow: I am certain that Putin does not want to stay in power beyond 2024.  To anyone listening attentively, he said precisely that a couple of months ago in a televised exchange with someone from the crowd during one of his meetings with the general public on the road. When asked about remaining in office he made reference to the bad old days of [Soviet leader] Leonid Brezhnev, saying he did not want to become another ‘mumbling’ dotard running the Kremlin. In his initial proposal of constitutional reform set out in his speech to the Duma and Federation Council, Putin spoke not abstractly like a law professor but in personal terms about his impressions from meeting regularly with all the Duma parties, namely that they are all patriotic. That I assume to mean that Just Russia, the LDPR and Communists are all deserving of a share of power as the balance between executive, legislature and judiciary is re-juggled to confer more power and responsibility on the legislature. Yes, Putin’s proposal was imprecise, approximate. This is another indication that it came from his own pen, not from someone in the presidential administration – and it pointed in the direction of greater parliamentarism not stasis as we may expect from the Tereshkova amendment.

NB: You seem to also have some concerns about the degree to which Putin is still serving as the ultimate arbiter of interests in Russia. What kinds of jockeying for power and influence might already be occurring?  Do you have any thoughts on how it may ultimately play out?

Doctorow: As for unruly jockeying for power within the Kremlin these past few months, there is no reason for surprise. The key issues before Russia, namely the oil price and supply war with Saudi Arabia and the USA, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the question of how best to tackle the coronavirus epidemic, striking a balance between securing public health and securing the economy – such issues are highly divisive among elites everywhere, so why should Russia be any different?  They are compounded in Russia by the absence of an established order of succession and the prospect of heading into unknown territory following Putin’s possible departure from office at the end of his present mandate in 2024. Has the “Liberal,” pro-Western faction of Dmitry Medvedev and Alexei Kudrin really been knocked out? It is too early to say. And what exactly does the present ascendancy of the technocrats, the quintessential “хозяйственники” (effective managers as opposed to politicians) Sobyanin and the new prime minister Mishustin mean for Russia’s political future? Moreover, who stands behind the now heavily promoted chairman of the State Duma, United Russia champion, Viacheslav Volodin?  These questions merit much more attention than I see in the writings of our peers, who focus almost exclusively on Putin and ignore the context of power fights around him.

Update on Covid-19 in Russia; Russian Economy Predicted to Contract 4-6% in 2020 Due to Economic Effects of Virus; “Where is Putin?” Game Starts Up Among Western “Russia Watchers”

This is report from this past Friday from Russia Matters:

Russia confirmed 5,849 new coronavirus infections on April 24, bringing the country’s official number of cases to 68,622. Six hundred and fifteen people have been killed by the virus, according to The Moscow Times. Meanwhile Russia’s central bank has lowered its key interest rate by half a percentage point to 5.5 percent to help ease the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak, according to RFE/RL. The bank expects the country’s economy will shrink by 4 percent to 6 percent this year, while the IMF has forecast that Russia’s economy could contract by 5.5 percent, according to the Financial Times.

To put this into perspective, most countries’ economies are expected to contract in 2020 due to the forced economic shutdown from the virus. Some higher end predictions for the U.S. economy this year include a contraction of 10-14% as reported by CNBC:

The U.S. economy could experience a double-digit percentage contraction in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Mohamed El-Erian told CNBC on Monday, suggesting a much steeper decline than most economists.

“I think we may be at minus 10% to minus 14% growth for the U.S.,” the Allianz chief economic advisor said on “Squawk Box.” “This is a big hit.” 

El-Erian said the distinct nature of this economic downturn — stemming from a health crisis — means traditional frameworks may not be applicable, acting as a further obstacle for a rebound. “The benefits you would expect normally, lower oil price means more dollars in consumers’ pockets, even that doesn’t work in this economy. So I’m a little bit more worried than what the consensus of economists out there is right now.

According to Bloomberg, Germany, the traditional powerhouse of the EU, is expected to see it’s worst post-WWII contraction this year at over 6%:

Germany expects the fallout from coronavirus to lead to the worst economic contraction since the country began its recovery in the aftermath of World War II.

Gross domestic product is forecast to shrink by 6.3% in 2020, a deeper plunge than even during the financial crisis a decade ago, Handelsblatt reported citing Economy Ministry projections due to be presented next week. The low point of the recession — the worst since at least 1950 — is expected in April, before a gradual stabilization, according to the daily newspaper.

The IMF is projecting zero growth for the Asian economy, which is unprecedented for the past 60 years:

For the first time in 60 years, Asia as a region will not register any economic growth this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to forecasts by the International Monetary Fund.

“This is a crisis like no other. It is worse than the Global Financial Crisis, and Asia is not immune,” Chang Yong Rhee, director of the Asia and Pacific Department at the IMF, wrote in a blog post published on Wednesday.

China just suffered its first quarterly GDP contraction in 28 years according to Business Insider:

China’s economy shrank in the first three months of 2020, its first contraction since 1992, as production and spending were frozen by the country’s coronavirus lockdown.

The National Bureau of Statistics reported on Friday [4/17] that gross domestic product fell by 6.8% during the quarter. China hasn’t reported a full year of contraction since the 1970s.

In short, no one is going to escape this economically unscathed. Not by a long shot.

The coming year will reveal who is in a better position to ride it out with relatively less damage in terms of external debt, financial reserves and general macroeconomic stability, productive capacity of essential goods, and a more robust safety net for its population.

Well, I’m afraid it’s time for another rant from me about how bad the mainstream corporate media is in its coverage of Russia. On April 16th, Politico ran an article entitled “As corona casualties mount, Putin keeps a low profile” in which it is suggested that Putin is not doing much amid the pandemic except for delegating authority. The article also calls into question when Putin’s video addresses to the country were recorded while trying to kick up some kind of controversy where there isn’t one.

Now Time magazine is jumping on the “where’s Putin?” bandwagon, suggesting that the Russian president is basically MIA. Apparently checking the Kremlin website (which is in English) where most of Putin’s typically workaholic schedule of meetings is posted is too hard for these paragons of journalism.

This reminds me of the time in March of 2015, when some “Russia watcher” in the corporate media decided to write an article stating that Putin was “missing” for about 10 days or so. This started a whole series of speculations about what had happened to Putin. Some suggested a palace coup, others that he was ill, and still others that he had fathered a love child with the gymnast that he was supposedly carrying on a secret affair with. As it turned out there was absolutely nothing to this idea that Putin had disappeared as the Kremlin website showed meetings that he’d conducted during the time in question, including – if memory serves me correctly – a photo or two. I guess maybe the Kremlin needed to send these “journalists” one of Putin’s fingers in an envelope as proof of life.

This is just another reminder that “journalists” in mainstream corporate media will think nothing of simply making junk up out of whole cloth about Russia. This begs the question: what are they making up about other countries or issues that they and their owners have an interest in making up?

What Our Nuclear War Budget Last Year Could Have Bought Instead; Military Industrial Complex Thinks More Weapons is the Answer to Pandemic

The Win Without War coalition tweeted out some stats from an article published recently in the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire:

The US spent $35.1B on its nuclear arsenal last year. Wanna know what $35.1B could also buy?

  • 35K Ventilators
  • 300K Intensive Care Unit Beds
  • 75K Doctors’ annual salaries
  • 150K Nurses’s annual salaries

AKA useful things, unlike a nuclear arsenal…

Also from the article:

Lawmakers have defended massive expenditure on nuclear weapons for decades, touting the safety and security they are supposed to bring to the American people. But in the midst of a global pandemic it becomes painfully clear how hollow are promises of security based on threats to use weapons of mass destruction. A virus doesn’t care how many nuclear weapons your country has. Every dime wasted on nuclear weapons could be better spent giving the American people a fighting chance against COVID-19.

This is not just a rhetorical argument. We did the math. Diverting U.S. spending on nuclear weapons for only one year would meet reported gaps in health care supplies and save lives…

…Doctors around the world see no place for nuclear weapons in this world – neither do most countries. In 2017, 122 countries adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which bans the use, production and possession of nuclear weapons. The treaty will officially take effect once an additional 14 countries ratify it. 

Well, color me shocked but the military-industrial complex is pushing a narrative that the way to address the pandemic is more arms sales. It seems ridiculous – I mean, are you going to drop a bomb on the virus? Maybe aim a rocket launcher at it? It may sound like something out of Cracked Magazine but we all know that the MIC lobbyists are all missing the shame gene as they got weapons manufacturers deemed essential businesses. From an article co-written by long-time expert on the MIC, William Hartung, at The Nation:

On one side, there’s a growing bipartisan consensus that the coronavirus has fundamentally changed the way we should think about national security. Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser in the Obama White House, recently argued in The Atlantic that we have to rethink the orientation and priorities of our government, and “it makes no sense that the Pentagon budget is 13 times larger than the entire international-affairs budget, which funds the State Department, USAID, and global programs at other agencies.”

Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the bottom line is that “we’re going to see enormous downward pressure on defense spending because of other urgent American national needs like health care.”

…If history is any indication, the military-industrial complex isn’t going down without a fight, nor is the Pentagon budget. Through their droves of lobbyists, the revolving door between the Pentagon, contractors, and Congress, and the promise of providing jobs to every Congressional district, Pentagon contractors have kept the defense budget artificially inflated for years at the expense of funding for things like the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies that can help fight disease outbreaks. And, in this new coronavirus era, they’re using the same playbook once again….

….The arms lobby is well-positioned to exert influence over Pentagon spending going forward. Hundreds of former senior government officials—645 in 2018 alone, according to the Project on Government Oversight—have gone through the “revolving door’ to work for the defense industry as lobbyists, executives, consultants, or board members. This gives them an inside track on debates over budget priorities. And, the revolving door swings both ways. The last three secretaries of defense have been a former board member of General Dynamics, a former Boeing executive, and the former chief lobbyist for Raytheon, respectively. Most importantly of all, President Trump has been the greatest champion of the arms industry, touting (and exaggerating) the number of jobs created by arms sales to countries like Saudi Arabia.

Read the full article here.

New Report Says U.S. Intel Warned White House & NATO of Virus Outbreak in Wuhan in November; Meanwhile, Neocons & National Security State Hacks Stoke China Hostility Over Coronavirus for Their Own Agenda

Those of you who read my last book may recall coverage of a Cold War era group called The Committee on the Present Danger. It was a lobbying group started by a gaggle of neoconservatives during the Ford administration with the goal of spreading falsehoods about the Soviet Union involving violations of nuclear treaties that had been negotiated by the Nixon administration, led by Henry Kissinger. The neocons used defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld to convince president Ford to take these baseless accusations seriously for a time.

Fast forward to 2019 and The Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) gets revived like Night of the Living Dead. Long-time neocon, PNAC veteran and all-around peddler of nonsense Frank Gaffney set up shop last year with Sinophobe Steve Bannon. According to an article by Dave DeCamp at Antiwar.com:

Members of the CPD refer to China as the greatest “existential threat” to the US. “The United States is likely to face in the foreseeable future a determined and aggressive superpower adversary, prepared and willing to use force, as well as nonmilitary forms of warfare, to defeat this country decisively,” reads one of the CPD’s “guiding principles.” Another principle says, “There is no hope of coexistence with China as long as the Communist Party governs the country.” The Covid-19 pandemic is the perfect opportunity for this group to exploit the fears of Americans and push for a more hawkish policy towards China.

Steve Bannon played an influential role in President Trump’s campaign and the early days of the administration and pushed hard for tariffs on Chinese goods during his short-lived role as chief strategist. Bannon’s China ambitions do not stop with the trade war. “I think ultimate success is regime change [in China], and I realize in that regard I’m considered a radical,” Bannon told NPR in May 2019.

Bannon has a podcast titled “Bannon’s War Room.” Back in January, in the early days of the outbreak, Bannon changed the title to “War Room: Pandemic.” In the show, Bannon rails against China’s response to the virus. Bannon frequently refers to the pandemic as a “Biological Chernobyl” and has said there will be a “Nuremberg-type trial” in Wuhan. Last week, Bannon appeared on Fox Business News and said, “Blood is on the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”

As I explained in a recent post, there is nothing constructive to be gained from this kind of vilifying rhetoric which has historically set the stage for escalation and even war. After all, in order to destroy someone you first must demonize and dehumanize them and those doing the demonizing usually play fast and loose with the facts while exploiting genuine concerns.

The “casus belli” if you will this time is China intentionally being deceptive about the coronavirus. In recent weeks, the usual politicians who can be counted on to beat the war drums every time have been out in full force about the dastardly China and its alleged partner in crime the WHO, exaggerating China’s initial mistakes to excuse our own government’s foot-dragging and lack of preparedness.

It has just come out via an article in the Times of Israel that American intelligence had discovered – through monitoring of internal Chinese communications – that a pandemic threat was possible and had passed this information onto the IDF, NATO, and the White House back in NOVEMBER.

US intelligence agencies alerted Israel to the coronavirus outbreak in China already in November, Israeli television reported Thursday.

According to Channel 12 news, the US intelligence community became aware of the emerging disease in Wuhan in the second week of that month and drew up a classified document.

…US intelligence informed the Trump administration, “which did not deem it of interest,” but the report said the Americans also decided to update two allies with the classified document: NATO and Israel, specifically the IDF.

…Last week, ABC News reported that US intelligence officials were warning about the coronavirus in a report prepared in November by the American military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence.

It was unclear if that was the same report that was said to have been shared with Israel.

The ABC report was denied by the NCMI.

It does appear that China dropped the ball in the early days of the outbreak in that country, but the fact of the matter is that our executive branch of government did not take the potential of a pandemic – something other agencies had discussed and tried to better prepare for – seriously. Trying to point the finger solely at China for our shortcomings is not much better than the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party cooking up Russiagate to cover and distract for its own failures. And it’s about as reckless.

Furthermore, there is an active propaganda campaign at work in the State Department as publicly admitted by Daniel Blumenthal during recent testimony to Congress. Blumenthal co-wrote the propaganda blueprint with Nicholas Eberstadt. Both work at the neoconservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. Blumenthal was in charge of the Pentagon’s China operations during the Bush II administration. During his testimony Blumenthal stated his desire to go back to a Cold War style propaganda offensive, citing the NGO’s and media outlets that the national security state has at its disposal to manipulate the narrative. See video below.

I’m not so naive as to believe that the Chinese government is filled with angels. I’m not against an intellectually honest critique of what China may have done wrong so the world can learn from it for the future. However, it’s hard to undertake such a critique when so many who are given a platform by our corporate media to discuss China are linked to the national security state or are dangerous ideologues like the neocons. Moreover, there’s an old saying about criticizing the splinter in your neighbor’s eye while ignoring the log in your own. Did the Chinese government force Trump to not take the crisis seriously once the information was finally out in January?

Remember, neocons are not your friends and just because they are not as visible as they were during the Bush II administration does not mean they have gone away. Neocons are always warmongers and anything coming from them must be viewed with suspicion. Their very ideology necessitates the U.S. having to have an enemy in order to have a pure and meaningful identity since they believe there must always be a battle between good and evil. They must have a bogeyman for Americans to fear so they can maintain power. The bogeyman may be Russia, terrorism, or China. Neocons are imperialists who believe that the United States must have “full spectrum dominance” over the world – because they inherently represent good. For a refresher on who the neocons are, what they think, and the roots of their warped philosophy, watch the 2004 BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear.

COVID-19 Update; Kiev & Donbas Exchange Prisoners; Video Series: Putin Answers Questions on 20 Topics for 20th Anniversary of His Governance of Russia – Part V

Russia’s COVID-19 cases continue to climb as there are now reported cases in all 85 regions of the country. There were just under 28,000 cases with 232 deaths as of yesterday. Here are some thoughts on how the virus is affecting Russia by Canadian Russia expert Patrick Armstrong:

This raises the question of why the death rate in Russia appears to be lower. One theory is that the widespread Soviet-era tuberculosis vaccinations (BCG vaccine) may have had an effect – just how or why is unclear, but there seems to be a statistical relationshipA test of its effectiveness is beginning in Australia. Over half the cases are in Moscow but every region except one reports cases [the last holdout of Altai reported its first case yesterday – NB]: most of Sunday’s infections in Shanghai came from a flight from Russia the day before. A pass system was introduced in Moscow yesterday but not very successfully (and many standing in line waiting to be checked). The new hospital in Moscow Region is up and running. A vaccine prototype is undergoing human testing (including by the developer)The Victory Parade is postponed. Meanwhile Russian military specialists are working away in Italy. (This, by the way, is why NBCW units were sent – not to spy, or for “gaining access to Italy’s health and military system, which is part of a larger NATO structure“, or to create “A hybrid lie. Or a hybrid truth” or be useless or whatever else NATO flacks imagine).

St. Petersburg is among the top three regions affected and is expecting a significant increase in cases in the coming week, according to the head of the official task force in the area who predicted a possible scenario of 6,000 severe cases. But he said the area’s medical facilities will be ready for it.

Meanwhile, another small exchange of prisoners took place yesterday between the Kiev government and the Donbas rebels in Ukraine. The OSCE reported the following:

TIRANA / VIENNA, 16 April 2020 – The OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, Prime Minister and Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs of Albania, Edi Rama, and OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger welcomed today’s mutual release and exchange of detainees in eastern Ukraine.

“Today’s mutual release and exchange of detainees is an important step taken before the Orthodox Easter. The sides demonstrated political will and humanitarian action. This day has been long awaited by both the detainees and their relatives and friends,” Rama said.

Below is a link to Part 5 of the TASS news agency’s interview with Vladimir Putin on 20 topics. Unfortunately, I’m unable to embed the videos.

http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/62867

William Arkin: AS WASHINGTON DC FACES CORONAVIRUS SPIKE, SECRET MILITARY TASK FORCE PREPARES TO SECURE THE CAPITAL

Ready to protect the U.S. capital: The 106th Aviation Battalion prepares to leave for Washington D.C. on March 12th. PUBLIC DOMAIIN

By William Arkin, Newsweek, April 16, 2020

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser yesterday ordered a one-month extension of the state of emergency, as cases in the region grow at a rapid pace. Federal officials in the nation’s capital expect a New York-like epidemic in the District, Maryland and Virginia, one that could potentially cripple the government.

“No one wants to talk evacuation, especially when there’s nowhere to go,” says a senior military officer working on continuity of government planning; he requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the record.

But a little-known military task force charged with evacuating Washington has already been activated, a task force charged with the most sensitive government mission of “securing” Washington in the face of attackers, foreign and domestic—and if necessary, moving White House and other key government offices to alternate locations.

Activated on March 16, Joint Task Force National Capital Region (JTF-NCR) is chartered to “defend” Washington on land, in the air, and even on its waterfronts. The special task force, the only one of its kind in the country, demonstrates how there are two sides of government preparedness. The public face, and even the day-to-day work of most men and women assigned to JTF-NCR, is the same as it is everywhere else in the country—medical support, delivering supplies, manning health-check stations.

But behind the scenes, JTF-NCR is responsible for what the military calls “homeland defense”: what to do in the face of an armed attack on the United States, everything from guarding Washington’s skies to preparing for the civil unrest that could occur if a nuclear weapon were detonated in the capital. But most immediate, JTF-NCR is charged with facilitating continuity of government, particularly moving civil and military leaders to secret locations were the order given to evacuate the city.

Ever since National Guards started to activate countrywide, Pentagon officials have insisted that men and women in uniform are not conducting secret missions and that they will not administer or enforce “stay at home” quarantines. The Pentagon has also rejected reports, including articles in Newsweek, about martial law or other extreme contingency plans, arguing that the Guard remains under strict control of state governors, while federal troops support civil agencies like FEMA.

And yet the activation of Joint Task Force National Capital Region, including almost 10,000 uniformed personnel to carry out its special orders, contradicts those assurances. JTF-NCR is not only real and operating, reporting directly to the Secretary of Defense for some of its mission, but some of its units are already on 24/7 alert, specially sequestered on military bases and kept out of coronavirus support duties to ensure their readiness.

Continue reading here.

Russia Estimated to Approach its Covid-19 Peak Next Week; Oil Deal Reached with OPEC+ as Russia Prepares to Ride Out Economic Downturn

A pretty good article by Judy Twigg appeared in recent days in the National Interest which details the time frame in which the likely peak for Covid-19 cases will occur. The article also delves into Russia’s geography, demographics and health care system and how these will likely factor in to the length and severity of the pandemic there. Here is an excerpt:

Over the past two weeks, Russia’s leadership has started to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously. As of April 9, 11,917 Russians were reported to be infected, based on over a million conducted tests, and the numbers are doubling every two to three days. Key national experts are predicting the timing of Russia’s peak for April 17–21, with infections not falling off significantly until early to mid-June. The government appears to be bracing for the worst. Currently, twenty thousand hospital beds, both public and private, are being prepared in Moscow alone.  

So far, Russia’s epidemic is heavily Moscow-centric, but it’s shifting noticeably to hot spots in other parts of the country. The identified case load outside Moscow has climbed from 29 percent to 34 percent of all infections just over the last few days, and that’s with testing activity skewed heavily toward Moscow and a few of the natural resource-rich regions of Siberia and the Far East. The relatively low number of confirmed cases in St. Petersburg—408, as of April 10—may have something to do with only forty thousand tests having been performed there. 

In terms of sheer numbers of reported tests performed and per-capita coverage of testing, Russia is one of the top countries. The quality and coverage of that testing, however, is unclear. Tests are being processed at 190 public laboratories around the country as well as a handful of private labs and clinics. New Russian-produced tests are said to be under development to deliver results more rapidly and precisely. There are numerous anecdotal reports, however, of people hospitalized with pneumonia without being tested for coronavirus, even though their conditions clearly indicate they might be infected. A Higher School of Economics survey conducted on April 4–5 found that half of Russians think the authorities are understating the actual number of infected people, while only 12 percent find the official statistics reliable. 

It’s not that the Kremlin is systematically and maliciously manipulating the books, taking in one set of numbers and then reporting out something different. The reality is surely more nuanced, having to do with factors like the criteria established for testing, and with the incentive structure at the lower levels of the system to report bad news.

Continue reading here.

In light of the worldwide economic slowdown caused by the pandemic and the resulting slump in oil demand, OPEC+ – which includes OPEC, Mexico and Russia – agreed to cut oil production by about 10%. The agreement reportedly happened after intervention by the United States in the negotiations. According to AP:

American officials have gotten involved with OPEC in the past, making phone calls or attempting to sway a deal during international crises and unusual circumstances. The intervention has typically been in response to high prices; instead, in the current situation, oil prices dropped more than 60% since the start of the year…

…Mexico stalled the negotiations by refusing to cut more than 100,000 barrels a day of production, when OPEC was asking for double or triple that amount. Trump said the U.S. would help by shouldering the cuts that Mexico was unwilling to make….

“They had to agree to give something like a cover story, a diplomatic cover, so that the other parties in OPEC, who whether they liked it or not were going to have to accept these terms, would be able to do so without a loss of prestige,” said Kevin Book, managing director at Clearview Energy Partners.

Trump’s statements also signaled that the U.S. views Mexico as an important partner in the integrated North American energy market, said Amy Myers Jaffe, senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations, who also saw it as an important policy move. “I think it will serve the president well on every count,” including border issues, she said.

The economic slump and steep reduction in oil prices is expected to reduce Russia’s GDP by .5 to 1% this year when it was expected previously to enjoy a modest rise. But due to the conservative macroeconomic policies the Russian government oversaw over the past several years due to western sanctions, the country is in a reasonable position to weather the storm. Chris Weafer, an economic analyst who has lived and worked in Russia for years explained the possible future scenarios:

.Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government has spent the last three years meticulously, i.e. at a painfully slow pace, preparing a fiscal and industrial strategy that the president hopes will lead to sustained economic recovery. More than that, his ambition is to also use these programs to improve social conditions. This means he would have greater public support for whatever succession strategy he chooses in 2024, as opinion polls show that support for the president has become closely linked with economic wellbeing…

…The big policy and spending decisions will likely be made after the summer when, presumably, there is a better sense of the damage caused, both domestically and globally, by the pandemic. By then the oil price trend should also be clearer. If both look favorable, then expect few major changes to the current recovery strategy. But, if the oil price remains well below the breakeven and is in danger of staying there into 2021, then we can expect big changes to spending plans and to economic, social and political expectations. Putin would not approve a budget deficit for two years in a row because of the risk of financial erosion and leaving the country vulnerable to future sanctions risk.

Existing sanctions, while acting as a positive catalyst initially, are proving a big drag on inward investment. Investors are reluctant to engage more with Russia because of perceived reputational and business risk. That is certainly slowing the pace of recovery and increasing the financial burden on the federal budget. Hence, it is the size of oil tax receipts that matters more over the medium term than additional sanctions.

Longer term, investment flow is critical for the development of any economy. Russia can make progress during the remainder of Putin’s current term, and come very close to the ambitious economic and social targets he has set, if the oil price recovers and COVID-19 is dealt with in 2020.

Read full article here.

Latest on Covid-19 in Russia; China Sends Aid – “We Won’t Forget Our Friends Who Helped Us”

The Covid-19 pandemic is hitting Moscow the hardest by far, with the capital accounting for over half of the national total of 12,000 by this past Friday. Reports indicate that Moscow hospitals are now at maximum capacity. AFP reports:

Moscow’s hospitals and ambulance service are working at peak capacity after a sharp rise in those hospitalized with serious coronavirus complications, a senior city official said Friday.

The densely populated capital with more than 12 million residents has the largest outbreak in Russia, with 7,822 confirmed coronavirus cases out of a national total of almost 12,000.

The number in Moscow’s hospitals has doubled since last week and more than 85% of these patients have pneumonia, deputy mayor Anastasia Rakova was quoted as saying on the city virus task force’s Telegram account.

Moscow is not sending people with mild symptoms to hospitals. Those who test positive are monitored through online video consultations.

The city has been on lockdown since the end of March and the mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, is predicting that they have not approached the peak yet.

A new hospital to specifically treat Covid-19 patients, with 500-bed capacity, has been under rush construction and is scheduled to open later this month.

Last week Putin announced that health care workers would receive a pay raise for the duration of the pandemic in recognition of their hard work and sacrifice. More on this and the status of the Covid-19 response in the country can be found in the video below:

China, meanwhile, sent a team of medical experts to Russia on April 11th to assist with the pandemic, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced. According to a TASS news agency report, the Chinese ambassador to Russia, Zhang Hanhui made the following public remarks:

“We won’t forget our friends who helped us. We are ready to do everything possible to help them overcome this crisis. We will express our full gratitude for helping us during a difficult time,” he said.

The ambassador reminded that at the start of the epidemic, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a telegram to Chinese leader Xi Jinping with words of support, after which Russia sent a military plane with 23 tonnes of medical goods to China. “Now that our friends in the north are facing an epidemiological crisis, we must do our duty,” he said, noting that on April 2, China sent 26 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Russia.