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Covid-19 Exposes Utter Failure of National Security State to Protect Americans

In this brief video, retired army colonel and historian Andrew Bacevich, president of the non-interventionist Quincy Institute, discusses how Covid-19 has exposed the failure of the U.S. national security state’s priorities in the post-Cold War era.

In terms of how the national security state failed in its handling of the pandemic, Scott Ritter explains in a recent article for The American Conservative that the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) – a body within the larger U.S. intelligence apparatus – failed in its most basic duties. First Ritter explains what the NCMI is and provides an example of how it can work successfully:

Included in this budget is a small, specialized intelligence unit known as the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), which operates as part of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The mission of the NCMI is to serve as the lead activity within the Department of Defense (DoD) “for the production of medical intelligence,” and to prepare and coordinate “integrated, all-source intelligence for the DoD and other government and international organizations on foreign health threats and other medical issues to protect U.S. interests worldwide.”

For a small agency, the NCMI packs a large punch in terms of the overall impact of its product. For example, in April 2009—two months prior to when the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially declared the global outbreak of H1N1 influenza a pandemicNCMI published an intelligence product, known as an “Infectious Disease Risk Assessment,” which predicted that a recent outbreak of the Swine Flu (H1N1) would become a pandemic. 

The positive work done by the NCMI in relation to the H1N1 outbreak contributed to the creation of the 2012 “National Strategy for Biosurveillance,” designed to help facilitate a full-time institutionalized process for obtaining timely and accurate insight on current and emerging biological risks. President Obama himself noted the critical role played by “accurate and timely information” during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic that enabled decision makers, including himself, to “develop the effective responses that save lives. 

Then Ritter describes how the NCMI completely dropped the ball on the coronavirus:

The NCMI’s job, [Air Force Col. Dr. Anthony M.] Rizzo noted, is predictive in nature—not to explain what is happening, but rather “what we believe is going to happen.” To do this, NCMI has access to the resources of the totality of the intelligence community, including intercepted communications, satellite imagery, and sensitive human intelligence, including covert sample collection.

The coronavirus was clearly part of the NCMI’s remit. And yet its first Infectious Disease Risk Assessment for COVID-19 was issued on January 5, 2020, reporting that 59 people had been taken ill in Wuhan, China. This report was derived not from any sensitive intelligence collection effort or independent biosurveillance activity, but rather from a report issued to the WHO by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, dated January 5, 2020.

The next day the CDC warned American citizens to take precautions if traveling to China, followed a day later with the activation of a COVID-19 incident management team within the CDC Emergency Management System. This, however, is not the kind of predictive analysis that U.S. policymakers needed if they were going to get ahead of the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike 2009, when the NCMI provided a full two months heads up about the threat of a Swine Flu pandemic, in 2020 the Trump administration was taking its cues from the WHO, which waited until January 30, 2020 to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). The NCMI had been relegated to a mere observer, having failed in its mission to provide timely, predictive analysis of pending epidemiological threats.

Read the full article here.

In a recent article by Ken Klippenstein for The Nation, it is brought out that the Pentagon had predicted in a 2017 report that a respiratory virus was likely to cause a health crisis in the United States within the coming years. Furthermore, the Pentagon assessed that the federal government had insufficient equipment to handle such a crisis, such as ventilators, masks, etc.:

Despite President Trump’s repeated assertions that the Covid-19 epidemic was “unforeseen” and “came out of nowhere,” the Pentagon was well aware of not just the threat of a novel influenza, but even anticipated the consequent scarcity of ventilators, face masks, and hospital beds, according to a 2017 Pentagon plan obtained by The Nation.

“The most likely and significant threat is a novel respiratory disease, particularly a novel influenza disease,” the military plan states. Covid-19 is a respiratory disease caused by the novel (meaning new to humans) coronavirus. The document specifically references coronavirus on several occasions, in one instance saying, “Coronavirus infections [are] common around the world.”

The Nation article quotes a retired intelligence official, Denis Kaufman, who said that some agencies within the intelligence community had warned of a possible pandemic but that administration officials had ignored it:

Denis Kaufman, who served as head of the Infectious Diseases and Countermeasures Division at the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2014 to 2017, stressed that US intelligence had been well-aware of the dangers of coronaviruses for years. (Kaufman retired from his decades-long career in the military in December of 2017.)

“The Intelligence Community has warned about the threat from highly pathogenic influenza viruses for two decades at least. They have warned about coronaviruses for at least five years,” Kaufman explained in an interview.

“There have been recent pronouncements that the coronavirus pandemic represents an intelligence failure…. it’s letting people who ignored intelligence warnings off the hook.”

The bottom line is that the national security apparatus of the United States, including all of those serving in the executive branch of government who are privy to such information, failed in connection with a real threat to the average American’s security while being preoccupied with and investing gobs of resources into countering foreign bogeymen.

Putin in Self-Quarantine as Hospital Administrator He Came in Contact with Tested Positive for Covid-19; In 2nd Address to the Nation, Putin Announcs Work Holiday Extended Through End of April, Some Regions Permitted to Take Stronger Measures Amidst Pandemic; Kremlin Denies Trump’s Claim of Imminent Deal Between Russia & KSA on Oil

Putin Gives 2nd Address to Russia on Covid-19 Crisis

It was recently announced that Putin is under self-quarantine at his residence outside of Moscow after learning that a hospital administrator he came in contact with last week had tested positive for Covid-19. As reported by Zerohedge (emphasis in original)

On Tuesday it was revealed that Denis Protsenko, the head doctor at the infectious diseases hospital treating coronavirus patients in Moscow, tested positive for COVID-19.

Just a week ago Dr. Protsenko was photographed shaking hands with President Vladimir Putin, during the Russian leader’s visit to the hospital, where he donned a full protective Hazmat suit to visit patients. But during most of his interaction with Protenko, Putin wasn’t wearing the protective gear. 

Putin’s office now reports he’ll conduct his duties remotely, in self-isolation after the exposure. “The president prefers these days to work remotely,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the press just before Putin was due to hold a cabinet meeting by videoconference Wednesday.

After a surge in confirmed cases of the virus earlier this week, Putin gave a second address to the nation on Thursday regarding the Covid-19 crisis (see video above). In that address he announced that the paid work holiday would be extended through the end of April. According to Bryan MacDonald’s report at RT:

Putin said the peak of the coronavirus epidemic is yet to come both globally and in Russia. Moscow, which is the hardest hit Russian city, announced almost 600 new confirmed cases on Thursday. 

“I’ve made a decision to extend the time off until the end of the month, that is, until April 30 inclusively, while maintaining wages for employees,” the President said.

According to Putin, the combination of isolation regimes and holidays will allow Russia “to buy time for proactive measures.” However, he conceded it’s too early to talk about turning the tide of infections. 

Putin also announced that, depending on circumstances, some regions will be allowed to implement tighter restrictions with respect to countering the spread of the virus.

“More stringent restrictions must be observed somewhere, while somewhere else, where there is a high level of preparedness, local, point solutions will be enough now,” the president said, calling for the need to take into account specific regional features.

The Russian regions will receive additional powers to decide which methods to choose to fight the novel coronavirus, Putin said.

“The constituent regions and heads of the regions will get additional authorities by my orders. Before the end of this week, they are to define the concrete set of preventive measures optimal for their territories from the point of view of ensuring the health and safety of the people, as well as stability of the economy and key infrastructure,” Putin said.

There are reports that Russian economists quoted in the Russian media have suggested that the month-long holiday may lead to billions of dollars in losses and numerous company failures, with the country’s largest retail association predicting millions of job losses in that sector along with major debt defaults from shopping centers across Russia.

One final note: The Kremlin has officially denied that talks have occurred between Russia and Saudi Arabia on oil, which undermines a claim Trump made via a tweet yesterday that a deal – which would help the U.S. shale industry by letting up on the recent nosedive in oil prices – was imminent between the two countries. According to the Moscow Times, which quoted the Russian Interfax news agency:

“No, there was no conversation,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Interfax news agency, adding that “so far” there were no plans for such talks, after Trump said the Saudi crown prince had spoken to Putin and he expected them to agree on a cut in oil production.

Kremlin Announces Stricter Measures to Combat Covid-19 as Putin Postpones Vote on Constitutional Amendments & Orders Higher Tax Rate on Wealthy; Putin Offers Medical Aid to U.S., Trump Accepts

In order “to avoid endangering the health of Russian citizens due to an unfavorable epidemiological situation,” Putin signed a decree last week postponing the national vote on the proposed amendments to the country’s constitution, which were originally scheduled to take place on April 22nd. The new date will be determined later and announced via another decree. According to the Russian news agency TASS:

Putin stressed during his address to the Russian nation earlier on Wednesday that ensuring public safety and health is a top priority. “I believe that the vote needs to be postponed to a later date. We will see how the situation unfolds in the regions and in the country on the whole, and will make a decision on a new date based on expert opinion,” he emphasized.

On the same day, Putin outlined a package of measures intended to stabilize the economic situation in Russia amid the pandemic. The measures included a 15% tax on Russian wealth being parked outside of Russia. RT reported Putin’s comments as follows:

“Currently two-thirds of such funds, and, in fact, this is the income of specific individuals (as a result of various kinds of schemes of the so-called optimization), are subject to a real tax rate of only 2 percent. While citizens, even with small salaries, pay income tax of 13 percent. This is, to say the least, unfair. Therefore, I propose for those who withdraw their income in the form of dividends to foreign accounts, to provide a tax rate on such dividends of 15 percent.”

Putin added that Russia is prepared to “withdraw from agreements on avoiding double taxation with countries which disagree with these measures.”

Putin also announced tax and loan deferments for small and medium sized businesses for the next six months as restaurants and cafes have now been ordered closed. VAT would be excluded.

“I consider it necessary to provide tax deferrals for all taxes for small and medium-sized businesses, with the exception of VAT, for the next 6 months. In addition to such deferrals, a deferment on insurance contributions to social funds should be given to micro-enterprises,” he said on Wednesday during his televised address to the.nation over coronavirus spread.

SMEs, as well as microenterprises, which find themselves in the most difficult situation, should receive loan deferments from banks for the next six months, Putin said .

“As for bank loans, small and medium-sized companies, microenterprises, which find themselves in a difficult situation, should receive loans deferments for the next 6 months,” he said. According to him, small and medium-sized enterprises now face objective difficulties – decline in orders and in revenue. He noted that such companies need help to continue their activities, and therefore to keep their employees.

All social benefits over the next six months would remain without need for periodic confirmation of eligibility during that time, an additional 5,000 rubles will be provided for each child under the age of three from April through June to families receiving maternity benefits, benefits for children aged three to seven will begin earlier, and unemployment insurance and sick leave at least equal to the minimum wage will be provided at least through the end of the year.

Starting this week, Moscow is on lockdown with residents only allowed out of their homes to obtain groceries and medical care. Essential workers will need official permits to move around. According to RT correspondent Murad Gazdiev:

Only people with city-issued “quarantine passes” (doctors, officials, store workers etc) will be allowed to move around the city (to and from work).

As of last Friday, the number of cases in the country had risen by almost 200 to 1.036, with 4 deaths. By Monday, there were 1,840 confirmed cases with 16 deaths. 194,353 people, mostly Russians returning from abroad, were in medically supervised quarantine.

Other legislation related to the pandemic has passed the Russian parliament, including laws that provide for fines on those who are caught breaking the quarantine as well as harsh punishments of those who disseminate false information or fake cures for the virus. The media watchdog for the OSCE raised the following concerns:

VIENNA, 31 March 2020 – The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, expressed his deep concerns today about amendments to the Russian legislation, imposing up to five years in prison, for spreading false information about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The amendments were approved by the State Duma and by the Federation Council of the Russian Federation today. They toughen liability and punishments for the dissemination of false information that could threaten the life and safety of citizens. They were made both in the Code of Administrative Offenses and in the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. The amendments include punishments for the spread of false information about measures that the authorities take to ensure the safety of the population and territories.

“I share the concern of the Russian Duma to combat the dissemination of false information related to the current health crisis,” the Representative said. “However, the amendments to the Code of Administrative offense and to the Criminal Code, as envisaged, pose a risk of undue restriction on the work of journalists and of self-censorship for media actors trying to inform the public.”

“I call for a greater consideration of the principles of necessity and proportionality in the new amendments. The amendments should also clearly guarantee that the right of the media to report on the pandemic will not be constrained by the new legislation, which should only aim at combating intentional disinformation that is detrimental to citizens’ health. The media and independent journalists have an important role to play in the fight against disinformation, especially online, and they should not be unduly restrained in their reporting on the pandemic,” said Désir.

In a telephone call on Monday with Trump, Putin offered pandemic-related medical aid to the U.S., which Trump accepted. Here is what RT reported yesterday (emphasis mine):

A cargo plane loaded with medical supplies and protection equipment may depart for the US by the end of Tuesday, the Kremlin said, after a phone call between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The issue of protective gear was raised during the Monday phone talks, with Putin asking if the US needed help and Trump accepting, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday.

Moscow suggested the aid in anticipation that the US will be able to return the favor if necessary, once its manufacturers of medical and protective equipment catch up with demand, Peskov said.

Iranian President Appeals Directly to American People to End Sanctions in Fight Against Pandemic

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Tasnim News.

On March 20th, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani made a direct appeal to the American people to end the sanctions against Iran so that it can provide better assistance to its citizens in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. The virus has hit the Persian country particularly hard with over 35,000 confirmed cases and over 2,500 deaths as of Saturday. Over the last week, the UN and several countries throughout the world, including Russia and China, have called on the U.S. to end the sanctions on humanitarian grounds in the midst of the pandemic.

Rouhani sent the following message via his official website:

In the Name of God, the Compassionate the Merciful

On behalf of the great Iranian nation, I write to the people of the United States of America on the occasion of the Iranian New Year (Nowruz). The coronavirus outbreak has endangered the health of—and even presented a considerable threat to—humanity with no distinction as to nationality, or gender or religious backgrounds. This presents an opportune moment to further contemplate our common pains and our human principles. 

Today, all of humankind feels apprehensive toward the future; a future threatened in every aspect; be it health, business, and even social relationships and the way of life. The level of unpredictability and uncertainty is simply unprecedented. It is self-evident that our success in what is likely to be a long fight depends on the spiritual and heartfelt affinity of all human beings. The international defense that we have to mount will not be successful without camaraderie on the part of the whole of humankind. Today, instead of soldiers belonging to different armies, human soldiers, donning similar unicolor uniforms belonging to no particular country, are selflessly and altruistically at war against the enemy of humans across the globe. In this common fight, we all belong to one front. We all seek to prevail over our common enemy: a deadly virus. With this enemy, in contrast to other issues, we have no difference of views, and we do not diverge on its nature, its definition and its destructive consequences for the whole of humanity.

Full message here.

Covid-19’s Effects in Russia

St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow
Photo by Natylie Baldwin, October 2015

After an initial period of minimal infections and relative calm compared to other parts of Asia and the West, Russia is now seeing a larger outbreak of the Covid-19 virus. By March 21st there were 306 confirmed cases of the virus throughout Russia. According to Russia Beyond‘s reporting from March 17th, starting March 18th through May 1st, all travel into Russia from outside would be restricted as the number of confirmed virus cases in the capital increased by 50% in one day, likely due to mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s prior instruction that all patients with respiratory symptoms were to be tested. People in Moscow are working remotely if possible, stocking up on basic essentials, and holing up at home:

Starting from March 16, 2020, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin has instructed all employers to screen their employees for fever and send those who have high temperature home, says the relevant order issued by the mayor’s office. All Moscow schools have been temporarily closed, while university students have switched to distance learning.

Some companies have introduced remote-working arrangements even before these official measures were announced.

“We were told back on March 13 that work in the office was being suspended for at least two to three months until everything settles down. At first everyone was happy, but now it is scary,” a TASS news agency employee told Russia Beyond.

To accommodate social isolation, many cinemas, theaters and museums are providing online access to movies and presentations.

Meanwhile, the governor of Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg, has suggested that it would be counterproductive to shut down the city but has discouraged domestic tourists from coming.

In Novosibirsk – Russia’s third largest city – located in Siberia, community development activist, Sarah Lindemann-Komarova, wrote about the changes that were gradually occurring within a week of the first confirmed cases in the area on March 13th: school closures, stockpiling of food, the donning of masks and gloves in public places, the shift toward working remotely for those whose jobs could be done in such a manner:

[It’s] March 18 and as of today no foreign nationals will be allowed in Russia until May 1. My daughter is home, my husband is still going to work. He is head of data science for a big financial services company and they are in the process of setting up a system so they can work from home, hopefully by Monday. I passed several parents teaching their kids to ski today. [My colleague] Natalia posted about the City Council meeting. There are 1377 specialized beds and 570 ventilators in the Region. The plan is buy another 16 respirators and have beds for up to 2,000 patients. Much of the behavioral elements of the program are still recommendations. Some of what they say is in place is clearly not happening. There are news reports of empty shelves in the City 30 km away but here, still food, still people without masks in cafes and restaurants. Russians are not panic-ers but is this the calm before a storm that will shake us all regardless of how well prepared we are, or have the fates, just this once, gone easy on the people of Siberia?

In an addendum entry to her diary later that day:

March 18, 14:33, announced the first official case of COVID-19 in Novosibirsk and one in Tomsk.

As the illness spreads, there are more reports of hoarding behaviors, especially by those who can afford it. As of this past weekend, many places of employment that cannot accommodate remote work are still open, such as factories and the spring military draft exercises were still scheduled to go ahead. There are reportedly more checking of symptoms of the virus, including temperature monitoring:

Russian public figures, doctors and citizens have launched a petition urging the government to take urgent action against the coronavirus as the country’s number of confirmed cases continues to climb, including postponing the April 22 vote on President Vladimir Putin’s constirutional amendments.

Moscow traffic police have launched spot checks on the city’s taxis to ensure drivers wear face masks and regularly disinfect their vehicles. Under new regulations, drivers must change masks every three hours and use sanitizer to clean their hands and disinfect their vehicles twice a day.

Last week, Putin had a meeting with other government officials in which he laid out what precautions should be taken for dealing with the virus. Here is the video (approx. 15 minute run time):

Foreign Policy published an article recently that must be read with discernment as it contains the usual negative assumptions about Russia. With that caveat stated, it did mention some interesting points:

On Tuesday, Putin toured a new coronavirus information center in Moscow that is pulling together high-tech resources, including surveillance cameras and artificial intelligence, to monitor social media for disinformation about the spread of the disease, properly enforce quarantines, and identify empty supermarket shelves, which have recently been emptied in major cities as Russians have begun stockpiling goods. After the visit, Putin said that he judged the situation in the country to be “under control.” 

“We were able to contain the mass penetration and spread” of the pandemic, Putin said during a government meeting of ministers and top officials in Moscow. “The situation is generally under control despite high risk levels.”

In spite of such public assurances, Russia has stepped up its defenses recently. Foreign nationals are now banned from entering until May 1 as part of an effort to slow the spread of the virus, and Moscow has barred all outdoor events and limited indoor gatherings to fewer than 50 people. Older Russians have been told to remain inside. Schools are now closed, as are major tourist attractions, while Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin announced a $4 billion bailout package on Monday to help businesses that are at risk due to the drop-off in economic activity. Russia has also shut its sizable land borders with its 14 neighbors, and the city of Moscow is currently constructing two large hospitals to house patients infected with the coronavirus. 

The article also suggests that current statistics from the Russian government may be an underestimate of the true numbers of people affected:

While official figures remain low, evidence is emerging that that reality is more severe, with many cases of the virus being misdiagnosed as other ailments. A report published last week by RBC, a Russian business newspaper, found that Rosstat, the country’s official statistics agency, has recorded an increase of 37 percent of cases of “community-acquired pneumonia” in January as compared to January 2019, which could fit similar symptoms to the coronavirus. Such an increase would represent nearly 2,000 cases. 

Other evidence that a much larger spread of the virus could be hiding in Russia was put forward by the Doctor’s Alliance, a recently formed countrywide union for medical professionals, who said that the true figure of those infected with the new coronavirus could be in the thousands, but that many cases have likely been labelled as pneumonia. In a recent video posted on the group’s YouTube channel, the organization also warned about a lack of protective gear in hospitals outside of major cities in Russia’s regions that could lead to more infections. The video also featured anonymous calls from doctors who said that they were being told to clear entire hospital wards in order to accommodate a flood of patients suffering from “pneumonia.”  

Moscow’s mayor Sobyanin seems to agree. With the number of diagnosed cases shooting up since the beginning of the week, Sobyanin advised Putin yesterday during a meeting of the State Council that the government’s current official figures may indeed be misleading in terms of how many Russians are potentially infected and how the spread of the virus may develop:

Meeting with Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin said the country’s official data may not be wholly accurate. He noted that many cases had not been tested, and urged the president to take more robust measures to battle Covid-19…

…The mayor told Putin that many of those who returned from abroad did not get tested but went instead into self-isolation. It is unknown how many of them were infected.

To battle the spread of coronavirus, Sobyanin – in his other role as head of the State [C]ouncil’s Covid-19 task force – announced a new set of instructions for other parts of the country. The plan includes making sure there is the correct number of hospital beds and ventilators in each area of the country. He also stated that “not all regions understand” how to deal with the virus. 

“All regions, without exception — regardless of whether they have patients or no patients — everyone needs to prepare,” he said.

Sobyanin further explained that it is vital to enforce a nationwide quarantine on Russia’s elderly. According to him, the healthcare “system will fail” without such measures. 

According to reports out of Russia this morning, Putin has postponed the national vote on the proposed constitutional changes and declared that all non-essential workers are to stay home on paid leave for one week. Prime Minister Mishustin has also ordered mobile phone companies to work out the logistics within a few days of beginning to track those with coronavirus in order to have the ability to notify those who’ve been exposed.

One new case of Covid-19 confirmed over the past weekend in Russia is the infectious disease specialist for the Stavropol region, Irina Sannikova. She had recently returned from vacationing in a hot spot of Spain and did not report it upon return or quarantine herself. Amid fears that she has spread the virus, she may be held criminally liable according to Russia-based journalist Bryan MacDonald.

In other Covid-19-related news. Putin has agreed to send a team of doctors and medical equipment to Italy after a request from the hard-hit country’s Prime Minister. So far, China and Russia have stepped in with medical and humanitarian aid to Italy as Europe and the United States have done nothing to assist their ally.

NATO’s “Defender 2020” Military Exercises in Europe Canceled Due to Pandemic

NATO Defender 2020

From Rod Renny at The Duran:

The Pentagon had already deployed some 6,000 troops and 3,000 pieces of equipment to Europe by March 13, when the transfers were halted amid the rapid spread of the coronavirus. The decision to cancel the drills actually improved European security, since the risk of covid-19 transmission among the troops – and from them to civilians – was unacceptably high, former US Marine Corps intelligence officer and international security commentator Scott Ritter told RT.

Canceling the exercise was “the most prudent action possible” from the political standpoint, said Ritter, as the fallout from US troops infecting civilians with the coronavirus would have made future such exercises “problematic.”

“The exercise was more political than practical, a show of force designed to deter Russian ‘aggression’ in the Baltics,” Ritter added. Poland and the Baltic states have clamored for a bigger NATO – mainly US – presence in their territory since 2014, hyping the threat of “Russian aggression” by pointing to the conflict in Ukraine. The US has happily obliged, even under the Trump administration, while NATO maintained its increased deployments on the Russian border were entirely defensive in nature. Needless to say, Moscow is not buying it.

“There’s no actual military threat to Europe. Nobody is going to attack it,” Konstantin Sokolov, geopolitics expert and research fellow with Russia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, told RT.

Political relations within NATO have been fraying for months, with unilateral actions in Syria by the US and Turkey prompting French President Emmanuel Macron to describe the alliance as “brain dead.”

Read the full article here.

Note: I will be blogging less frequently over the next couple of weeks in order to attend to some personal matters. I will periodically post references to other articles on relevant topics. – Natylie

Gilbert Doctorow: Putin and Other “Irreplaceable People”

Kremlin Wall, Red Square, Moscow; photo by Natylie S. Baldwin

By Gilbert Doctorow

I was delighted with the wide distribution given to my last essay on the ‘Tereshkova Amendment’ to the Russian Constitution which, when the reform of the Basic Law is approved by nationwide referendum, as widely anticipated, will set the presidential terms served up to now by Vladimir Putin back to zero so that he may run again in the elections of 2024 and 2030 if he so wishes. My essay was reposted by several portals in the United States and links to the essay were published by still other outlets in Europe.

I was also pleased by the substantial number of reader comments, even though the great majority did not agree with my assertion that Putin was foolhardy to accept that amendment, subject to the Constitutional Court finding that it does not contradict the intent of the Fundamental Law. I had expressed the pious hope that Vladimir Vladimirovich would quietly direct the Court to do the decent thing and reject the amendment. However, by its decision of 16 March the Court has now approved the entire package of amendments. In light of this development, I feel free to move to the next level of discussion with my readers, responding to their objections and detailing why the very prospect of Putin in power to 2036 will undo his legacy of stable nation-building. I will conclude by setting out an alternative scenario which is far more likely to ensure policy continuity after 2024 while moving Russia’s democracy to a new level of maturity. This path remains open to Mr. President if he rethinks the likely consequences of the Tereshkova Amendment and moves to correct his error well before the 2021 parliamentary elections, when the “regime” may suffer a humiliating defeat.

The objections from readers to my stand on Putin’s running for the presidency again mostly came down to one point that had been raised by Tereshkova herself as justification for her initiative: that the international arena is so volatile and poses so many threats to the country that Vladimir Vladimirovich’s proven experience and dedication to national welfare is and will be required and valued more than ever. Some readers’ comments name the corona virus or the oil price war with Saudi Arabia, or the near war with Turkey over Syria as indicative of the pressing need for steady leadership by Putin into the distant future. Others point to the aggressive economic, military strategic and propaganda war against Russia being waged by the United States and its allies in Europe to justify the indefinite continuation in office of a leader who has so consistently and effectively foiled their ambitions to put Russia in its place under their heel and instead restored his country’s status as a great power.

All of the foregoing is true, of course. We do live in extraordinary times and “revisionist” or “resurgent” Russia, to use the vocabulary of Foreign Affairs magazine, faces strong opposition from an “international community” intent on preserving the 1990s status quo when Russia was on its knees. However, the proposition that Russia has no one capable of taking over the baton from Vladimir Vladimirovich does not hold up to scrutiny.

It is all too easy to forget that when he took over from Boris Yeltsin just after New Year’s in 2000, Putin was a nonentity who had been chosen for his unquestioned loyalty to the family and who enjoyed the support of Boris Berezovsky and other oligarchs precisely because they believed he would be easy to manage. As for the nation at large, Putin’s only credit was his brutal conduct of the war in Chechnya which seemed to be bringing results and which proved his patriotism. He had been an efficient assistant to the liberal mayor of St. Petersburg Sobchak and did well with foreign, especially German business leaders behind closed doors. But he was an unimpressive public speaker and he badly failed his first exposure to the press when he answered reporters’ questions about what happened to the submarine Kursk with the flat statement: “It sank.”

From this weak start, Putin rose quickly and steadily to become finally the world’s leading statesman that he is today. A whole generation of administrators and political operatives has grown up in his shadow. I have no doubt that there are among them worthy successors if given the chance.

If I may invoke a bit of folk wisdom: the cemeteries are filled with irreplaceable people.

When he delivered his decision on the amendment, Putin added another line of argumentation in its favor, namely Russian traditions of governance. Some of my readers have taken that up and expanded upon it in their comments. They look to Russian history, with its millennial tradition of autocratic rulers to justify keeping the incumbent tsar on his throne. Some place Putin in the ranks of Russia’s Greats: Peter and Catherine in the 18th century to plead his case.

My critics argue from exceptionalism, which is always risky, and second, they fail to appreciate the value of institutions over people in the life of nations.

On the subject of exceptionalism, Vladimir Putin himself has always been equivocal. On the one hand, he regularly denounces American exceptionalism of the variety first formulated by Madeleine Albright in her description of the nation that stands taller and sees farther than others, all of which was later hand delivered to the Kremlin by Barack Obama when he sought to explain to Vladimir what was what.

On the other hand, Putin has always defended the special traditions of each nation and the right of each nation to preserve its uniqueness without interference from others. Yet, Putin has also acknowledged certain universal rules of political science, in particular the value of alternation in power of competing political forces. So it only comes down to when that can be implemented. To this, I respond: there is never a good time, there are always mitigating circumstances one can claim against applying the rule. And for this very reason, the rule of alternation should trump all other considerations without discussion.

I will not take the reader’s time belaboring the obvious: an unlimited time in power means institutionalized corruption. “The bums” are never given the boot. And, what is less commonly seen, incompetence is the reverse side of the corruption coin. This is a non-negotiable issue.

Looking beyond my own readers and considering more broadly the analysis which so many Western commentators have published these past few days regarding Putin’s decision on 2024, I find a certain commonality of approach which is entirely consistent with how our Russianists have been writing and lecturing for decades now: all focus on Putin, the man as if he were the alpha and omega of Russia, the country and its polity. That is to say, these commentators apply to Russia the same personalization of politics which they use at home in the United States, where identity has long replaced policy on the ballot. We vote by gender, by race, by ethnicity and not by pro- or anti-labor positions, by redistributive or wealth-protecting policies. They vote for good or bad autocrats.

In the same spirit, instead of considering what this decision on terms in office means for those Russians who believe in rule of law, or in the commitments of their leader not to hang onto power into his dotage repeated many times in the past and as recently as on 16 January 2020, our commentators try to delve into Putin’s thought processes and to explain the flip-flop on 10 March. Since no one has yet placed a microphone under the pillow of the Russian President, all of the commentary we read is pure and idle speculation, whereas the views of Russians on the decision taken can be sampled, as I will do in what follows.

I have a residential base in St. Petersburg and in normal times I am there for two weeks out of each couple of months. My wife and I have many contacts among Russians at all levels, from our regular taxi driver to our neighbor and fix-it man at our country dacha, to intellectuals and professionals in both Petersburg and Moscow. To a man, or woman, our friends and acquaintances are all Russian patriots. Several have served their country in the performing arts, in journalism, in design of launch vehicles for space missions and in other ways. They have all been pro-Putin, until now…

The trigger for the change of heart of many is deep disappointment over the deception, the fraudulent nature of the upcoming referendum on amendments to the Constitution now that the whole exercise seems to have only one purpose: to extend Putin’s time in power. To be sure, this rabbit was pulled out of a hat once before, when Vladimir Putin and Dimitri Medvedev switched roles in 2012. But that trick conformed to the letter of the law, even if it was, shall we say, sneaky. The decision to set Putin’s time in office back to zero now is an insult to the intelligence and so doubly offensive.

That the maneuver is unseemly is supported by the obnoxious way in which it has been defended, something which none of our Western commentators seems to have picked up.

After coming under attack from various political activists and even from her own home town where she had a street named after her for her achievements in outer space, Tereshkova defended herself and her amendment, saying that she has been getting letters of support from “simple people” all around Russia. In the same vein, Chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin declared that “those who are against Tereshkova are against Russia.” But then this former head of the presidential administration is the same man who said previously that “if there is no Putin, there is no Russia.” I think it is fair to call this type of argumentation from both Tereshkova and Volodin unashamedly Stalinist in nature.

And that is exactly what one my close friends has written to me using colorful terminology that mines the treasures of the Russian language in the same manner as Putin himself so often does. I offer here a free translation.

“Like you, we are not delighted by the presidential terms of Putin being turned back to zero. Society is tired, people are tired of this. It looks like he has decided to beat Stalin’s record. But the main thing is that this is being done in a clumsy way, in the spirit of Soviet propaganda – ‘upon the request of the workers.’ Tereshkova tells us that every day she is receiving packs of letters expressing gratitude for her initiative. This is propagandistic Soviet primitivism.

For the moment, we don’t know if we will take part in the voting. But if we do go to the polls, of course, we will vote against the amendments and the reset on terms in office.”

It is widely assumed in the West that there is no opposition to Putin and Putinism in the State Duma, only in the so-called non-systemic opposition of people like Alexei Navalny and Ksenia Sobchak who never made it past the 5% minimum level of support to enter the Duma. And, I must concede that when the Tereshkova amendment came up for a vote, two of the Duma parties which have regularly put up candidates to run against Putin in the presidential elections, Sergei Mironov’s A Just Russia and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR spoke in its favor. However, what is largely overlooked by our Russianists is that one party, Gennady Zyuganov’s Communists, had the courage and persistence to speak against the amendment. These are the same Communists who have traditionally been the fiercest competitor of United Russia and of its centrist predecessors; the same Communists who narrowly lost to Yeltsin in 1996 because of flagrant electoral fraud assisted by U.S. agents over fears for democracy in Russia. And yet today, ironically, the centrist parties have defended a Stalinist vision of Russia’s presidency while the Communists were backers of full-blooded democracy, meaning alternation in power.

That is not all.

On 10 March, when Tereshkova introduced her amendment on resetting the terms in office of the sitting president, another deputy introduced a bill calling for early Duma elections. Though this was rejected out of hand by Vladimir Putin when he spoke to the chamber a couple of hours later, it is this bill which better deserved his backing. Early elections were supported by one party alone, again the Communists, who said they had nothing to fear. Such elections were likely put an end to the majority position of United Russia, which has lost substantial support in the population ever since the retirement age was raised a year or so ago. This is why they said no. However, their loss of a majority is precisely what could trigger a new balance of power and the scenario for political consolidation that I am recommending.

When he spoke about his intended changes to the Russian Constitution during his annual “state of the nation” address to the bicameral legislature on 15 January, Vladimir Putin suggested that his intention was to readjust the balance of power among the three branches of government by raising the rights and prerogatives of the legislature. By trimming slightly the powers of the President in this process he would, in effect, make it easier to find someone to fill his shoes. Moreover by bringing the Duma into greater consultation in formation of the cabinet, he would be raising their commitment to the system in exchange for greater responsibility.

At the time, Putin mentioned specifically his impression from regular meetings with the leaders of the Duma parties that are all patriots. The logic from this was that when the Medvedev cabinet peremptorily resigned following the presidential address, some of the leading parliamentarians from outside United Russia should have been invited to take up ministerial portfolios. That did not happen. Instead the cabinet itself was depoliticized and filled with technocrats.

Assuming that Putin wishes to ensure that the broad lines of his policies continue after he leaves office, whatever that date may be, I believe that the recent missed opportunity should be revisited and preparations made for forming a government of national unity that distributes ministerial portfolios to all of the Duma parties. By their service in the intervening years, this would provide the best indications of who will deserve to run in the presidential election of 2024 in which Putin will choose not to take part. It will remove the present cynicism and disappointment of many patriotic Russians over the way high politics is evolving and provide a renewed interest in elections with optimism for the future.

Over the long term, coalition governments or ‘power sharing’ have their down sides, I know only too well from the experience of the Kingdom of Belgium, or in neighboring Germany. These include inconsistencies in the various domestic and foreign policies implemented and possible incompetence of individual ministers and their teams. However, in the short term it is worth taking the risk to avert mass demonstrations when the 2021 Duma elections come, not to mention the presidential elections of 2024. This is a crucial step in Russia’s march towards mature democracy that should not be ignored.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2017. Reprinted with permission from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

More Proposed Constitutional Amendments on Second Reading to Duma; Putin Says Resetting Presidential Term Limits to Zero, Theoretically Allowing Him to Run Again, Possible if Approved by Constitutional Court

The constitutional committee appointed by Putin to consider additional possible amendments and changes to the Russian constitution has reportedly received hundreds of proposals on a range of issues, from both the public and those in government. But the deadline for submission of proposals was March 2nd. On that date, several additional proposed constitutional amendments were submitted by Putin himself.

These new proposals, which were accepted by the Duma and will be included in a national vote by Russians on the whole package of constitutional reforms on April 22nd, were obviously intended to placate certain groups in Russia, including lower income Russians, those advocating Russian national independence, and the Orthodox Church whose stance on certain cultural issues reflects the attitude of many Russians.

These proposed amendments include the following as nicely summed up by Russia-based journalist Bryan MacDonald:

  • The need to mention God in the document.
  • Civil servants being prohibited from holding foreign bank accounts and citizenship.
  • A ban on giving away any Russian territory.
  • The restriction of marriage to the union of a man and a woman, ruling out gay marriage.
  • Provisions to recognize the modern Russian Federation as the successor to the USSR (a move which enshrines its legacy as the victor in World War Two).
  • A mention of “historical truth” to protect “the great achievement of Russians in their defense of the Fatherland” (This is also a reference to the role of the USSR/Russia in World War II and a response to the EU’s attempt to re-write history on behalf of certain elements in Poland and the Baltic states – Natylie)
  • The Russian people will be recognized as the founders of the state (which also implies that the national language is Russian).
  • A guarantee that the minimum wage will not be lower than the cost of living.

What has received even more attention recently, however, is a peculiar turn of events in the Duma in which parliamentarian Valentina Tereshkova, the first Soviet woman in space, proposed that the “clock be reset to zero” – so to speak – on presidential terms at 2024. That would mean that Putin would be able to run again in 2024 and serve what would be the constitutional limit of 2 terms. According to reports, this suggestion seemed to throw the Duma into confusion and Putin subsequently made an unscheduled appearance at the Duma to address the issue. He then said that resetting the clock on presidential terms was possible but would have to be approved by both the Constitutional Court and the Russian people when they vote on April 22nd.

Needless to say, I’m not the only one who has been flummoxed by this. As Paul Robinson explains:

Was this Putin’s aim all along? Did he put Tereshkova up to it? Or was he as blindsided by her proposal as everybody else? It’s not clear. If he’d wanted this, it would have been simpler just to include it in the original amendments. On the other hand, it arguably looks better if it appears to come as a result of some sort of demand from below, especially when voiced by somebody like Tereshkova who has something of a heroic status. But then again, that status means that she has some independent moral authority and doesn’t have to do whatever the Kremlin asks her. So maybe it was her idea after all, and she was acting on her own. In that case, though, why didn’t Putin reject it?

There are several possibilities to speculate on. Was this staged so the Constitutional Court can judge it unconstitutional and Putin can abide by the ruling – there, see, the system works, we have checks and balances?

It makes strategic sense to me that Putin may want to keep the political class guessing as to what exactly he’s going to do and when he exactly is going to do it in order to prevent the jockeying for power he knows will come if he’s perceived as a lame duck who’s leaving soon.

The bottom line is that however impressive of a job Putin has done pulling Russia up from a failed state to a country with a decent standard of living and a force to be reckoned with on the world stage, Putin is mortal and there must be some preparation for taking the training wheels off so new leadership can step in and keep steering the country on the forward path. I believed that is what he was starting to do with his announcement of reforms in January.

For the reasons mentioned above, I think it would be a mistake for Putin to remain president past 2024 rather than stepping back to a behind-the-scenes advisory role. Unless, of course, the plan is to keep him around forever – eventually having his dead body stuffed and propped up in a corner of the Kremlin and governing via seance.

Image result for seance memes

But in all seriousness, in my perusal of Russian history, I’ve noted that any time a leader wanted to institute reforms, they were always inevitably unleashing forces they couldn’t always control. There are going to be unintended consequences. As Russia analyst Gordon Hahn writes:

The entire process is not only mobilizing society and the opposition on the eve of the federal election process, which begins with the Duma election set for September 2021, but may also raise expectations as to the importance of the reform or of the adption of one or another reform to one or another constituency. Herein lies a danger for Putin and Russia’s political stability. ‘Below,’ in society, pro-democracy opposition groups likely have a low enough set of expectations regarding Putin that they expect little in the way of what they regard as positive results, in particular political liberalization or democratization. However, more radical opposition groups as well as more or less pro-regime elements such as the Russian Orthodox Church or nationalists of one stripe or another might pose a bit of a problem. Some among the latter, ‘conservatives’ or traditionalists less interested or even opposed to democratization, are putting forward proposals of another sort. The idea of including the word ‘God’ in an as yet unclarified way or a declaration to the effect that ‘marriage is an institution binding together a man and a woman’ are being put forward. Should the final amendments exclude these or other proposals coming from groups with expectations their proposals would be included, the result could lead dissent and division.

Similarly, the extent to which the amendments touching on the political system affect the duration of Putin’s tenure in some non-presidential office and thus the tempo and depth of the change inherent in 2024, potentitally weakening the political and business prospects of one clan or another, the debate over systemic changes could provoke a split with the ruling elite. Such a split could revolve around disagreements between those who would prefer Putin stay at least until 2024 and take up a serious office or several offices under a new ‘caretaker’ president and those who would prefer a more rapid departure, perhaps even with mid-term presidential elections and a minimal or no role for Putin under the next president.

Perhaps that sheds more light on Putin’s second set of proposed amendments listed above. Bottom line: reform is not easy. Things can get complicated. Putin may just be keeping his options open in case those unintended consequences become too destabilizing – at least, in his mind.