How Has the Russian Economy Withstood Sanctions?

dirty vintage luck table
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When Vladimir Putin took over the Russian presidency in 2000, he inherited a nation that was having trouble carrying out the most basic functions of a state.  Putin found himself presiding over a multitude of crises:  rampant crime, a major mortality crisis, a decrepit military, and an economy that had been devastated by Shock Therapy and corrupt schemes to sell off Soviet era assets to a small group of ruthless and well-connected bandits who became the oligarchs. As a result, Russians had experienced massive poverty, bouts of hyperinflation, collapsed savings, and the irregular payment of wages and pensions.

During his first term in office, one of Putin’s top priorities was to increase state revenues.  This meant he had to get Russians to pay taxes.  The tax system was complicated, oligarchs resorted to a myriad of schemes – legal and illegal – to evade obligations while the majority of Russians were too poor to pay excessive taxes.  First, he implemented a reduced, flat tax of 13 percent for most Russians and a reduced corporate tax rate.  Second, he presented the oligarchs with his famous deal: in order to keep their ill-gotten gains, they had to pay taxes and stay out of politics.  The latter requirement effectively stripped them of being oligarchs and rendered them merely super-rich. 

These policies worked and the state began to have more money in its coffers. It helped that the price of oil was high in those years and Russia invested in improving its oil infrastructure. Putin also implemented a land code that allowed for the buying and selling of residential property.  Since many Russians had been given deeds of ownership to the apartments they lived in during the 90’s, they could now sell them as assets. 

Another priority for Putin was to pay off all of Russia’s sovereign debt. By 2003, Moscow paid off its debt to the IMF and by 2006 it paid off the Paris Club. Today, Russia has very little sovereign debt and continues to pay what it owes on foreign bonds, despite roadblocks being thrown up by the west. 

By 2007-2008, Russia was seeing an average annual GDP growth rate of 7 percent.  Many Russians wanted the Kremlin to use the extra income it was getting from oil sales to increase spending.  But Putin and his advisers knew that the price of oil could vacillate and they needed a plan for years when the price would be low and income for the budget would decrease.  A reserve fund was established and billions of rubles were saved. 

Between 2001 and 2010, the poverty rate was cut from 35 percent to 10  percent while the size of the middle class expanded from 30 percent to 60 percent, driven by wage growth and an increase in the availability of more productive jobs. However, though Russia has universal health care and education, public spending on the welfare state is stingy compared to the EU average.

Russia’s Response to the 2014 Sanctions

Putin has prioritized stability and many Russians, given their history of constant upheavals over the past 100 plus years, especially the collapse of the 90’s, largely agree with that priority.  Keeping taxes low so that the citizenry doesn’t become motivated to ask too many probing questions about where its money is going, along with a low unemployment rate, has comprised a large part of the Kremlin’s strategy for maintaining stability, especially in the face of stagnating incomes since 2014.

Over the past 8 years, the unemployment rate has been between 4.6 percent and 6.0 percent. In March of this year, the unemployment rate was 4.1 percent and is expected to be around 5.3 percent for the end of Quarter 1 due to most western companies leaving the country and other effects of the extreme sanctions levied by the US/EU since February.

The import substitution policies that were enabled by the counter-sanctions the Putin government imposed on western food imports in 2014 has led to Russia becoming self-sufficient in food and the top exporter of wheat.  Just prior to the counter-sanctions, according to the UN, Russia was already in the top 3 of producers of many fruits and vegetables as well as potatoes and poultry. By 2015, the Russian government was providing federal budget funding and legal/regulatory frameworks and facilitating loans to support import substitution.  In 2017, Putin announced a public goal of becoming the world’s top producer of organic produce.  Legislation creating official organic standards and labeling and certification procedures was signed in 2018.

During that period, it also began to diversify its trade relations, mainly with China, India, Vietnam, Turkey and Latin America.  China is now Russia’s largest trading partner and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is a major partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.  The EEU also has a free trade agreement with Iran.

Russia’s Response to the 2022 Sanctions

According to University of Birmingham professor Richard Connolly in his book, Russia’s Response to Sanctions, as of 2018, Russia’s economy could be roughly divided into four sectors. The first is Sector A, comprised of highly profitable companies that are competitive on the global market such as fossil fuel companies, agricultural conglomerates, some defense manufacturers, and companies involved in commodities.  The state plays an important role in these companies either through ownership stakes (e.g. Gazprom and Rosneft) or via strong personal ties between the political class and the owners (e.g. Lukoil).

When it comes to commodities, Russia’s role in the global economy cannot be understated and fossil fuels is only a part of it.  Russia is the #1 exporter of gas, #2 exporter of oil, #3 exporter of coal, #1 producer of enriched uranium, a key exporter of all three components of fertilizer, #2 exporter of sunflower/safflower oil, the #1 exporter of wheat, and a major exporter of aluminum, steel, and various metals needed for electronics and airplane manufacturing.

Second is Sector B which consists of companies that mostly provide domestic goods and services, such as auto manufacturing, shipbuilding, and fossil fuel equipment.  Businesses in this sector don’t always produce a consistent profit and are not typically competitive globally. They are dependent upon the revenue produced by Sector A.  Pensioners and government workers are also included here. It’s estimated that sectors A and B combined account for around 70 percent of the Russian economy.

Third is Sector C, which is the sector comprised of companies that rely on their ability to make a profit and are more likely to encourage competition and innovation. These include large construction companies, retail and business services, various small and medium sized businesses in retail, transportation, business support, and communication technology.

Fourth is Sector D which is Russia’s financial system.  It consists mostly of large state-owned or influenced banks that provide a wide range of services and credit mostly to sectors A and B. Russia’s financial sector is relatively small compared to other middle-income countries.

Russia’s Economic Support Measures After Post-Invasion Sanctions

Russia’s political class certainly realized that major economic sanctions from the west would result from its invasion of Ukraine as both the Biden administration and various European leaders had warned.  However, it appears that the freeze of nearly half of Russia’s foreign currency reserves, consisting of dollars and euros, took the Kremlin by surprise.  

In addition, western companies fled or suspended operations in droves in the weeks after the invasion. In response, the Russian Central Bank (CBR) enacted several emergency measures that included closing the Russian stock market for weeks, increasing the interest rate to 20 percent to counter inflation (it has now been lowered to 14 percent), and capital controls, among others.

The Kremlin has also passed more than one tranche of government bills to provide support to individuals and businesses.  The first package included the allowance for pensions and the minimum wage to be increased.  It also provided for various methods of increasing the domestic supply of medications including export restrictions and pausing inspections on businesses through the end of the year.

Subsequent bills have included extended government support for families with children under the age of 16, the restructuring of regional government debt, and providing loans from the federal budget to support regional economic development.

A policy allowing for parallel imports, or a gray market, was also announced earlier this month.  Products listed for parallel import mostly consisted of western automobiles and their component parts such as tires, metals, tools, electronics, and seat belts. This was likely motivated by the 79 percent drop in automobile sales and the simultaneous rise of 31 percent for auto parts in April. 

Inflation is high for big ticket items while the price of food is starting to stabilize and grocery stores are reportedly well stocked.  A recent shortage of sugar has now abated thanks to sugar imports from Brazil, but there have been reports of shortages of feminine hygiene products, paper and disposable gloves.  Energy consumption is holding up as well as consumer spending in bars, cafes and restaurants.

Russia still has high revenues, approximating $1 billion a day, coming in from energy exports due to high prices. Despite tough talk from the EU about a ban on Russian oil this year, Hungary’s concern for the potential catastrophic effects on its economy has forced the idea onto the back burner. Again, despite tough rhetoric rejecting Russia’s gas-for-rubles scheme, five countries have now agreed to open up the necessary accounts with Gazprom, including Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, and Slovakia.

Russia is also enjoying a record trade surplus as exports have increased by 8 percent and imports (mostly from the west) have decreased by 44 percent  And, according to Bloomberg, as of May 11th, the ruble was the world’s best performing currency this year.

As for the long-term effect of western businesses leaving Russia, it was just announced that Russian businessman Alexander Govor is set to buy all 850 McDonalds’ restaurants in the country and will operate them under a new name. According to ABC News: “Govor, a licensee since 2015, has also agreed to retain McDonald’s 62,000 Russian employees for at least two years on equivalent terms. Govor also agreed to pay the salaries of McDonald’s corporate employees until the sale closes.”

This is not to suggest that the Russian economy doesn’t still face significant challenges. There is a projected loss in economic growth of 10.4 percent this year, supply chain issues are expected to hit early next year, personal and business savings have dropped, and unemployment has edged up. But clearly the objective of collapsing the Russian economy has failed and for largely the same reasons that I have outlined in previous writings about the western sanctions of 2014.

This is the result of western countries having no substantive understanding of Russia and rather than learn from past mistakes in prognosticating the effect of their policies, they seem to revel in continuing on with their ignorance. Though Russia does have significant problems such as corruption, lower productivity, and a smaller financial sector than many other middle-income countries, it clearly would not be able to show the wherewithal it has if it were merely a kleptocracy or a gas station posing as a country.

In Russia’s Buryatia, soldiers killed in Ukraine are buried daily. Has this changed how locals feel about the war?

Elena Trifonova

This article was published by a local media outlet in the Buryatia region of Russia. It was translated into English by Meduza. – Natylie

Meduza, 5/5/22

As Russia’s military casualties in Ukraine continue to mount, Buryatia has emerged as the country’s second-hardest hit region in terms of losses. The only place losing more men is Dagestan. Nevertheless, the speeches at the near daily funerals in Ulan-Ude and other Buryatian cities still resound with support for Russia’s war against “Nazis” and gratitude for the fallen soldiers not being “left behind,” but shipped home for burial. At the end of April, the local magazine People of the Baikal published a report about how Buryatia is burying their dead soldiers, and what their loved ones and the regional authorities think about these losses. With their permission, Meduza has translated their article in full.

They built the archery range a year ago. You can make out its yellow roof and white-and-blue tiled facade from afar, against a backdrop of wooden barracks, tilting over from age, and portable toilets. This is Buryatia’s most important archery range; archery is an extremely popular traditional sport here. It is where children are trained, where athletes from other cities and regions come to compete.

Since the beginning of March, the main auditorium of the archery range has been repurposed to hold funerals for soldiers killed in Ukraine. The children keep shooting, training behind a wall, in another part of the building. The door to the training hall is only a few meters away from the door through which the coffins are carried out.

“Parents aren’t happy they’ve turned the athletic center into a funeral home,” says Tatyana, whose son is training in archery here. “The room the kids practice in smells like dead bodies now, too. Everything here smells like the dead now.” 

The archery range is by the side of the road, and traffic patrollers line the path to it all the way back to the highway exit. There are no police at the building’s entrance, but in two days, they will start standing here, too. People who come to the funerals are greeted by associates from the Mayor’s Office, which is responsible for organizing these ceremonies. They ask them, “Who have you come to pay your respects to?” 

The local media outlets wrote that on March 28, the archery range would hold the funeral of soldier Naidal Tsyrenov. But at the appointed time, four coffins arrived at the athletic complex. 

There were no signs or photographs next to the coffins, but the people from the Mayor’s Office could say which coffin had who in it. 

The first one held 24-year-old Naidal Tsyrenov, the captain of his school’s KVN team and 2016’s Student of the Year. He served as a military medic. Naidal’s hands lay folded over his chest in his gray uniform jacket. One of them had been bandaged. 

Thirty-five year old Bulat Odoyev lay in the second coffin. He’d served in the Fifth Tank Brigade and left behind a five-year–old daughter and a pregnant wife. “Everyone asked him why he was going. And he’d say, ‘How can I abandon my brothers?’,” said a woman named Olga, Bulat’s cousin’s wife. 

Zhargal Dashiyev lay in the third coffin. He’d left behind two daughters and a pregnant wife. 

Finally, in the fourth one, was 20-year-old Vladislav Kokorin, who’d grown up in an orphanage before getting adopted. 

Relatives stood next to each coffin. But there was hardly anyone near Vladislav’s coffin. During the ceremony, one of the organizers approached it and draped the dead man in a thin blue cloth, pulling it up to his chest. Then she put portraits of the men up in front of each coffin. The photographs were also without any labels — everyone presumably knew who they had lost. There were no strangers in the room. 

The coffins stood in the part of the room where children usually shot bows and arrows. The people who’d come to pay their final respects sat in the bleachers. Some of them stood in the passageways, there wasn’t enough room for everybody to sit. In fact, the main auditorium of the athletic center was packed to capacity — at least 600 people had come. 

Soldiers stood at alert at the heads of the coffins. Their backs straight, machine guns pressed to their chests. Their young faces were reminiscent of high school seniors’ doing their ceremonial guard shifts at the Eternal Flame. Some of the soldiers were crying. They couldn’t wipe their tears, so they just ran down their cheeks. 

A table stood between the coffins and the people who’d come to the funeral. Four lamas in traditional burgundy Buddhist robes sat at the table. Three of the dead men had been Buddhist and were receiving Buddhist funeral rites. There was also a Russian Orthodox priest there, but he did not perform any rites over Vladislav Kokorin, he just stood to the side with the officials. 

The lama’s table had a peacock feather in a vessel decorated with a red and yellow fringe. An open book lay on a red cloth. The lamas sang funeral prayers in Tibetan, which they read from the book. Next to the book there was a Zula, a Buddhist lamp with a flame rising up from it. Incense smoked on a small copper dish. 

The suffocating fragrance of the incense mixed with the nauseating smell of the corpses. The dead take a long time to transport — sometimes there’s a month or even two between their deaths on the battlefield and their funerals. It was difficult to breathe in the auditorium. 

The lamas heads nodded to the cadence of their songs. Through the black and gray bristle on their heads, you could clearly make out the many scars on their skin. 

Without pausing their prayers, the lamas got up and started to circle the coffins. With that, the Buddhist burial ritual ended. Now, anyone who so desired could approach the coffins to bid their loved ones farewell. Relatives also circled the dead, stopping to press their lips to the soldiers’ boots or the walls of their coffins.  

There were no sounds of crying. Buddhists are forbidden from crying at funerals or intensely mourning their dead at all. After death, the soul is supposed to pass through a celestial path and return to the Earth 49 days later in a new body. Tears block the path and delay the dead on their journey. 

The following day, Amgalan Tudupov and Eduard Zhidyayev would have their funerals at the archery range. Two more men would arrive two days later, 23-year-old Bator Dondokov and Anton Khatkheyev. “The parents of one of the dead soldiers went up to us and said, ‘You’re so lucky! At least he came back to you whole. All we got was a head and two hands,’” said one of Bator Dondokov’s relatives. 

Another soldier, 22-year-old Zorigto Khotsayev, would be buried in the village of Alla, where he was born, on March 28. Ten Buryatian soldiers would be buried over the course of a single week. 

After Bator’s funeral, three of his friends signed up to fight in Ukraine. At one of the ceremonies, acting commander of the 36th Army Colonel Sokol said, “On behalf of everyone serving, I’d like to say that we will avenge them, for our mission is righteous. Victory will be ours.” 

The memorial service began after the rituals. 

“They did not die for nothing,” said the republic’s Deputy Head Bayir Tsyrenov, first in Russian then in Buryat. “They died so that Russia could be great. So that the bloodshed in Ukraine would come to an end.” 

“They died protecting the freedom and future of our country,” said Ulan-Ude Mayor Igor Shutenkov. 

“No one has ever defeated Russia. And nobody ever will!” said Tsyren Dozrzhiev, the vice speaker of the People’s Khural [Buryatia’s parliament].

“The paratroopers took their final leap, into the sky. It’s incredibly painful. In eternal memory,” said acting commander of the 11th Air Assault Brigade Lieutenant Colonel Vitaly Laskov. He’d said the exact same thing about “their final leap” a month ago, at the first of these services.

Colonel Igor Sokol, acting Commander of the 36th Army, spoke before Laskov. Almost all of the military officials who speak at these rallies have “acting” in front of their titles. 

About ten police officers stood in the audience. They were watching to make sure that no one was photographing or filming the proceedings. 

About 15 minutes after the ceremony began, the policemen approached the journalists. 

“Who are you?” 

“The press.” 

“There is no photography allowed here. You need special permission from the organizers.” 

Larisa Stepanova, the deputy head of public affairs for Ulan-Ude’s Sovetsky District, is the lead organizer. She was engrossed in a lively conversation with the Mayor. 

“No, you can’t take any photos and no, I will not comment on anything,” she replied to a question about how often these funerals are being held. Suddenly, Stepanova was overcome and her eyes filled with tears. “Do you know how many of these funerals I’ve organized already? I have a son over there, in Ukraine.” 

Stepanova’s profile page on Odnoklassniki [a Russian social network] has a photo of the administration employees lined up in the shape of the letter “Z.” Her latest post was a portrait of Putin with Stepanova’s caption, “…I pray for my President, I pray for each soldier of our Great Nation, I pray for the brave and honorable Chechens who have not betrayed our country, and I mourn the dead…” 

Ulan-Ude Mayor Shutenkov and Vice Speaker of the National Khural Dorzhiyev refused to comment for this piece. 

The relatives of the four dead soldiers would not talk to journalists. 

The police asked us to leave the auditorium. They had a car outside where they took down the journalists’ personal information. 

“If you try to take any photos or film any of this again, you’re coming to the precinct.” 

A man in a filthy jacket staggered out of a lopsided, wooden barrack next to the archery range. He smelled hungover. 

“Do they often have funerals at the archery range?” I asked him.

“Hey there, don’t record me!” he waved his hands in front of his face, as though he was chasing a journalist off. “I can smell you traitors a mile away. I used to work undercover myself.” 

At the beginning of March, when the first coffins arrived in Buryatia, the head of the republic, Alexey Tsydenov, had come to a handful of these funerals himself. He’d been accompanied by news cameras and journalists. The first obituaries appeared on the front pages of regional newspapers. Once the funerals became a near-daily occurrence, Tsydenov stopped coming. 

As of April 26, People of the Baikal had compiled a list of 102 fallen soldiers from Buryatia. All of them had either done military service or been born in the republic; their deaths were reported by their relatives, the regional authorities, or People of the Baikal journalists who had been at their funerals. 

Buryatia has the second highest war casualty rate among all of Russia’s regions. Dagestan is in first place. According to data compiled by Mediazona, when there were 125 dead from Dagestan, Buryatia reported 85. There are hardly any casualties among Moscow or St. Petersburg residents, even though they make up 12 percent of the Russian population.

The Defense Ministry has twice issued statements about the number of Russian losses since the beginning of the “special operation.” Last time, they claimed there were 1,351 dead in total. Meanwhile, Mediazona reported 1,744, deaths that were confirmed by regional authorities. The U.S. State Department estimated the number of Russian casualties at 10,000 as of the end of March, without revealing how they arrived at that number. 

Since March, the names of the dead have only been published in Buryatia’s local newspapers or on social media. Then their obituaries are reprinted in the regional press. For instance, 19-year-old Andrey Dulsky’s former school posted about his death on their VKontakte page. His funeral took place in the village of Ilyinka, where Dulinksy lived. 

Sometimes the obituaries are simply written by friends or relatives. There was no official notice regarding the deaths of Eduard Zhidyayev or Anton Khatkheyev, whose funerals were held at the archery range during the last week of March. The VKontakte page “I’m from Ulan-Ude” posted about Vladislav Kokorin’s death a month after his funeral. 

There is no information regarding the number of war casualties on the regional administration’s website. Evgeny Fuzhenko, the Irkutsk region’s Military Commissar, said that he would not name the number of casualties because “it’s not very significant.” The Krasnoyarsk region’s Military Commissioner Andrei Lysenko said that it’s “inappropriate and indecent to request this kind of statistics.” No one in Buryatia has been publicly asked about the republic’s total number of military casualties.

“They tell us that we just shouldn’t write about that,” said a journalist from a publication controlled by the regional administration. She asked not to be named. “And if we try writing something about them, we have to literally walk through fire to do it.” 

A journalist from another publication attempted to get in touch with the relatives of a fallen soldier. The relatives asked army officials for permission to talk to him. That very evening, the editor in chief of the publication called the journalist into his office and told him that he had gotten a call from the administration; the editor then explained that the journalist shouldn’t be talking to the relatives of the deceased. “There’s an unspoken ban on this subject,” the other journalist we talked to added. 

Almost all soldiers’ relatives refused to talk about the deceased.

Zhambo Khotsayev, a doctor at a traditional Eastern medicine clinic in Ulan-Ude, buried his nephew Zorigto Khotsayev on March 28. He explained that military officials had warned everyone ahead of time not to take any photos at the funeral, not to tell anyone anything, and not to answer phone calls from unfamiliar numbers. “Ukrainian hackers will steal your data and make fakes. That’s what the soldiers told us,” Khotsayev said. 

How the “Ukrainian hackers” would use the “data,” Khotsayev didn’t know. A few days ago, his wife received a Viber message from an unfamiliar number wishing her condolences on the death of Zorigto. Zhambo and his wife didn’t like that. Their relatives have been getting cursed out regularly from Ukrainian phone numbers. Ukrainians leave these kinds of messages under practically every social media post about soldiers’ deaths. 

On April 19, the Defense Ministry officially proposed limiting access to the information of fallen soldiers’ relatives. Videos with soldiers who return from tours of duty in Ukraine have soldiers’ and relatives’ faces blurred out. 

Naidal Tsyrenov, Bulat Odoyev, Vladislav Kokorin, and Zhargal Dashiyev were transported from the archery range to the Southern Cemetery on the outskirts of Ulan-Ude. The funeral processions stretched a kilometer behind the hearses. When the soldiers removed the coffins from the black vans labeled “Ritual Service,” and raised them up on their shoulders, a brass band began to play. 

Women were carrying wreaths behind each of the coffins. Buryatian women don’t go to the cemetery; they are traditionally forbidden from attending burials. But there were so many wreaths — from the government, from relatives, from the Defense Ministry. They were carried by associates from the Mayor’s Office. 

“Would you mind grabbing a wreath?” one of them asked a People of the Baikal journalist. 

“But we’re not relatives.” 

“Neither am I. It doesn’t matter,” the woman said, handing over a wreath for Vladislav Kokorin. 

Fallen soldiers are buried either here, at the Southern Cemetery, or in the towns and villages where they are from. This is up to their relatives. The Defense Ministry has its own lot at the edge of the cemetery. Since the end of February, it has gained 27 graves. Fifteen fresh ones stood empty while the groundkeepers were digging more. 

“We were told to get two new rows ready by today or tomorrow. Another shipment of them is supposed to come in,” said Dmitry, a gravedigger. There were six graves left to dig to complete the two rows. “I wouldn’t say they’re burying a lot more people than usual,” Dmitry added. “Maybe two or three soldiers a day. During the height of the pandemic, it was, like, 15 people a day. Now that was busy.” 

Meanwhile, the lamas were building small fires near the graves of the Buryats with logs they’d brought with them. Unwrapped candy and cookies are thrown into these fires to feed the spirits so they will protect the dead in the sky. 

The majority of Buryats are Buddhist. After the funerals, they don’t return to the cemetery. They don’t put tombstones up on their graves and they don’t erect gates around them like the Russians do. They tightly pack the dirt over their graves and then place a soyombo at their feet — tall stakes with a white or blue cloth tied to the top. The sooner the grave becomes level with the earth and becomes overgrown with grass and trees, and the soyombo rots and falls over, the better it is for the soul of the dead. In 49 days, the soul must be reborn in a new body. 

The graves in the Defense Ministry’s lot are all identical, with tombstones made of black granite. The tombstones bear engraved portraits of the dead, and the dates of their births and deaths. There are no gates or benches next to the graves. Each one has fake flowers and wreaths laid next to it. The only difference between the burials of the Russian and Buryat soldiers is that the Buryats’ graves have the soyombo. Photographs in identical frames stand right on the graves. 

When the graves are covered over, Colonel Sokol hands the relatives of the departed medals for Courage, which the soldiers are all awarded posthumously. Soldiers give final salutes over the graves. 

The question of why so many Buryats are dying is being discussed in every kitchen in the republic. Sometimes, dissatisfaction is expressed publicly. 

At the end of March, Buryatia’s Head Alexey Tsydenov gathered cultural leaders at the Buryatia Opera and Ballet Theater and read them a lecture about the “special operation.” After the lecture, the the Buryatia Drama Theater’s spokesperson, Batodalai Bagdayev asked the regional head, “You know Ceremonial Guard No.1 on Red Square? Have you ever seen anyone with ‘slanted eyes’ in it? The selection process for that brigade is obvious: they only want tall, blue-eyed, Slavic men. Our kind — bow-legged, short, high-cheekboned — aren’t wanted around there. But when it comes time for someone to die, we are the ones that they send.” 

“Bastard!” someone shouted out from the audience. Tsydenov asked for Bagdayev’s microphone to be cut and the artistic director of the Buryatia Opera and Ballet Theater, Vladimir Rylov, took the floor next. “I would like to respond to that bastard who has dared to insult the Buryat people in front of me, in my theater. We are all Putinist Buryats! We will not let our country be destroyed. If we start criticizing the government for the fact that yes, there are casualties, yes, there are wounded, yes, there are victims, we will betray those victims and wounded. It will mean they have died for nothing. Victory only!

In April, Ulan-Ude’s Soviets’ Square was decorated with a banner reading “Buryatia for Truth” — with the letters “V” and “Z” in the Russian words replaced with the Latin letters used in pro-war propaganda. The message was written in yellow letters on a blue background with the “Z” in a St. George ribbon pattern and the “V” painted in the colors of the Russian flag. The letters stretched out across the entire length of the facade of the civic registrars’ office. The banner faced a 23-foot tall sculpture of Lenin’s head — the largest one in the world. 

The base of the bust was also decorated with a banner striped like the Russian flag, with a letter “Z” on it. A week later, someone had cut the lower part of the banner off with a knife. This occurred in the middle of the night, but by the morning, authorities had already put up a fresh one — with the letter “V.” They explained that that’s what they had wanted to do all along: the wives of the Buryat soldiers had been begging Tsydenov to put up a “V” banner since that was the letter on the vehicles in which their husbands fought.

But the issue is not that it is Buryats in particular fighting. Of Buryatia’s 102 casualties [recorded by People of the Baikal as of April 26], 55 are ethnic Russians. Buryats actually only make up 30 percent of the local population. 

“Why do you think so many soldiers from Buryatia have been killed?” asked Ekaterina, the sister of Mikhail Garmayev, who was killed in battle. “There are absolutely no jobs here. That’s why the boys have to sign up to fight.” Many relatives said the same thing. Mikhail Garmayev had been interested in the theater when he was young, he drew. After he did his army service, he and his brother got jobs at a company that installed security systems. He made 15–20,000 [$220–290] rubles a month. After working like that for almost two years, he enlisted as a contract soldier. 

His brother Alexander still works at that same company. Now he makes “okay money, 30-35,000 [rubles] a month” [$440–510]. It’s shift work, so he almost never comes home. 

Amgalan Tudupov graduated from the athletics department of Buryatia State University. He got a job as a gym teacher. “He’d take his kids everywhere — skiing, basketball. He loved his job,” his mother Tsyrema Tudupova said. But his salary at the school was 7,000 rubles [$100] a month. After his first child was born, he needed more money. He “held out for a year then he joined the army.” He immediately started making 40–50,000 [$590–730] a month. “He was so happy, so satisfied with himself when he got in,” Tysrema recalled. “‘Mama, they took me!’ They didn’t used to take just anyone — but they do now.” 

Amgalan liked the army although he said it was “difficult work.” He’d come home late and then get up early, at 3 or 4 in the morning and go back to work. “I’d ask him, ‘Maybe you should quit?’” Tyrema said. “But he’d respond, ‘And how would I feed my kids?’” 

The soldiers who ended up in Ukraine have anonymously said that they are making 250 thousand rubles a month [$3660 USD]. 

In 2020, Buryatia ranked 81st among Russian regions in terms of quality of life. The neighboring Irkutsk Republic ranked 55th. According to Buryatia’s Statistics Service, 20 percent of residents had incomes below the poverty line in 2020 — up from 17.5 percent in 2013. In 2019, Ulan-Ude took last place in terms of quality of life among 78 cities with populations over 250,000. 

According to public data, there are 15 military units in Buryatia. The total number of contract soldiers is unknown. In 2015, their numbers were supposed to be doubled. The authorities planned to enlist 26,000 people in the Eastern Military District. In 2020, 1,300 more people signed contracts with the army, and another 600 people enlisted in 2021.

The same day as the funeral at the Southern Cemetery, March 28, Zorigto Khotsayev was being buried in the village of Alla. His family had moved to Ulan-Ude in 2014, but his relatives had decided to bury Zorigto in his native village. “The mountains are beautiful, the water is clean. That’s where the soil that ties him to the earth lies,” said his uncle, Zhambo Khotsayev. 

Zorigto was the eldest of three children. He’d studied programming at the technical academy, did his army service, then signed up as a contractor. He’d been a gunner in the 11th Assault Brigade. He’d already fought in Syria. He left behind his parents, his brother, and a little sister, who is in second grade. 

He died February 25 and was buried March 28. “We were the first ones called in for identification,” Zhambo Khotsayev said. “There were five city boys in the morgue, and ten country boys. Ours was the most badly burned. We ended up having to do genetic tests, that’s why it took so long to get him buried.”

When relatives were invited to speak at the cemetery, Zhambo thanked the army officials. “I said, ‘Nephew, you have not been left behind. You died, but they found you and brought you home. Flew you 12 hours back to Ulan-Ude. Then drove you 450 kilometers [280 miles] to Alla on an overnight bus ride. No man left behind aren’t just empty words’,” Zhambo said, summarizing his eulogy.

According to Zhambo, a lot of Alla’s boys are fighting in Ukraine right now. Some families have two sons there at the same time. Many people wept at Zorigto’s wake, thinking about their own sons. After Zhambo spoke, people stopped crying. An army official thanked him for that. 

When Zorigto’s relatives were notified that he’d died, they went to the Lamist temple to see the lama, who told them that according what he foresaw in the Buddhist books, in his next life, Zorigto would be born as a girl in a rich family, in a warm country by the sea.

“They believe that you will turn into whatever you are thinking about right before you die,” Zhambo said. “He must have been freezing, that’s why he’s going to be born in a warm country. There was no water, he wanted to drink, so it will be by the sea. He was thinking about his family, about supporting them, so he’ll be born in a rich family. And he was thinking about his little sister, so he will be a girl. That girl will graduate from a good university and will come here to Alla once she is around his age, and she will fight for peace across the world.” 

“Buddhism prohibits killing. But Buryatia’s Buddhist soldiers do kill. Can they expect to be reincarnated into better lives?” I asked Zhambo. At the end of April, the lamas of Russia’s traditional Sangkha performed a service for soldiers at a field camp in Ukraine. 

Zhambo didn’t say anything for a long time. Then he said, “Who told you that they were Buddhists?” 

“They’re not?” 

“They’re not.” 

He said that even Buddhists’ traditional footwear — boots with curled tips — are sewn that way so that they wouldn’t accidentally harm the ground that they walked on, the grass, or a single insect. 

“When you say you’re ‘against the war’ — that’s no good, that’s a negation,” Zhambo continued. “It’s better to say you’re ‘for peace.’ And we’re all for peace. I am not saying this to justify the war. But it’s like it was back in ’41. It’s the same thing now — that same fascism. I don’t have all the information. But I do know that.”

Some Thoughts on Reports that Putin is Seriously Ill

My first thought in response to these recent reports of Putin’s ill health is that I’ve heard these kinds of stories over the years – that Putin has cancer or a similar serious health problem.  Several years ago, it was spinal cancer.  In recent weeks it’s been speculated that it is thyroid cancer and now some suggest some kind of blood cancer.  None of these stories has ever been substantiated or shown to be true.  What’s more, as with so many other claims about Putin or the Kremlin, it is unlikely that anyone in a position to really know this to be true would be blabbing it to western media or some obscure Telegram channel account owner.

The fact that Ukrainian officials are now pushing these stories screams of information war.  And the cherry on the sundae is that Christopher Steele is expressing his agreement that Putin is seriously ill.  Given Steele’s track record, it’s tempting to totally dismiss it based on that alone.

That all being said, Putin is 69 years old and he’s not immortal.  It’s plausible that he could develop any number of possible health problems, even a significant one, no matter how well he has tried to maintain his health.  This is why a couple of years back I said that it would be best for Putin to start grooming a successor so he can ease himself out of power by 2024.  I see no outward signs that he has done so.  I suggested then that it would be far more destabilizing for Russia to be forced into a sudden transition because Putin dies or becomes incapacitated, which becomes a bigger risk the older Putin gets while delaying substantive plans for succession.

According to the Russian constitution, the next in line for the presidency should Putin die or become incapacitated is the prime minister (formally known as Chairman of the Government):

Article 92

Section 2. The President of the Russian Federation shall cease the execution of the powers of the President before their expiration in cases of resignation, continued inability to discharge the powers of the office for reasons of health or removal from office by impeachment. In such cases, new elections of the President shall be held no later than three months after the early termination of the execution of the office.

Section 3. In all cases when the President of the Russian Federation shall be unable to execute the powers of the President, they shall be temporarily performed by the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation [Prime Minister – NB]. The acting President of the Russian Federation shall have no right to dissolve the State Duma, call a referendum or submit proposals on amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation or revisions of its provisions.

Mikhail Mishustin, who currently holds the position of prime minister, is by all measures a very effective technocrat.  He does not appear to have any obvious character issues like arrogance, dishonesty/corruption or temperamental instability.  But his experience is limited when it comes to the range of duties he would suddenly be responsible for should he be thrown into the presidency.  We have no idea how he would approach foreign policy and I don’t know if he has the ability to sternly balance the different interests that Putin has arbitrated over.  What would the field of candidates look like in a quickly organized election? Would a more strident and ruthless person from the security services ultimately win?  Would such elections be relatively free or largely manipulated? There’s also the question of how the US/west would respond to such a situation at a time when it’s already been publicly stated that a weakened Russia is desirable.

Regardless of one’s opinion of Putin, I think the best hope is that he is able to finish out his term through 2024 and that, by that time, perhaps the war will have been wound down, the economy stabilized and the ugly divorce with the west will not be quite as fresh.  Though probably unlikely, Putin’s sudden death in the near future could be extremely messy.

French Writer Adrien Boquet Discusses What He Witnessed in Ukraine During His Recent 16-Day Humanitarian Trip

Adrien Boquet is a French writer and former soldier who spent 16 days in Ukraine on a humanitarian mission. He discussed what he witnessed with Sud Radio last week. The original interview is in French. This is a version with English subtitles. One thing to note is that Boquet says he has numerous videos as evidence of his claims. The videos are not shown on this program. Presumably, this French outlet would have looked at his evidence as part of the fact-checking process, but I can’t say that with certainty. So far, I am not aware that any other outlet has interviewed Boquet or covered his story.

Sarah Lindemann-Komarova: Two Months into the Special Military Operation: The View From Siberia

By Sarah Lindemann-Komarova, Echo Siberia Blog, 5/12/22

Sarah Lindemann-Komarova has lived in Siberia since 1992. She was a community development activist for 20 years and currently, focuses on research and writing.

On February 24, 2022, the Donbas War turned into a Special Military Operation (SMO) and the Crimean special sanctions operation became a War. As the conflicts evolve, the reaction to both are similar in the two vastly different environments I live (the town of Akademgorodok, Novosibirsk and Manzherok Village, Altai Republic).

There was unified shock, no awe, among those supporting and those against the SMO. As the weeks drag on, the shock does not diminish. Those who oppose the SMO are vehement and vocal. They will bring up the topic. Those who support it are mostly silent and never introduce the subject. Support by the people I have encountered comes with an asterisk. There is no rah rah, go get em. For them, something had to be done. The operation was provoked because it did not begin on February 24 but eight years ago. They usually slip it in starting with a description of their connection to Ukraine (family, friend, where they grew up) and/or to someone serving in the Russian military there. There are no degrees of separation, this is personal. Their heartache is equal to those who oppose.

Early Days

Day one people were very active on social media. The range of Points of View were well represented:

· An Independent Deputy from Novosibirsk posted 5 Thesis: For Peace, Stop Military Actions, It is Important to be Calm, Limit your News Time, and Care Instead of Fear.

· An activist in Novosibirsk was arrested when he protested and posted photos with commentary of his experience from the holding cell to the court.

· In Manzherok, an elderly woman posted about her “Homeland Ukraine” and relatives still in Kyiv, “My heart bleeds… Ukraine is on the border of Russia, historically our peoples are brothers. Artificially separating them was a great sin… now I only rely on the mercy of God.”

· A programmer who moved his family to Siberia from the Donbas when the war started, “War is always bad. Eight years ago, the Kyiv authorities launched a war against the civilian population. The shells hit my alma mater, there were casualties, people hid in the basements.”

The assumption was it would be over in a few days so when the second week began a new reality took hold. There was not a lot of chatter about it online beyond a lively debate on the Manzherok What’s App chat about whether or not it was appropriate to celebrate Maslenitsa (the first day of Spring), we did. A neighbor’s son in law came over to install security cameras and asked, “Do you want to talk politics?” My husband answered, No”, Anton said, “Good”. The Russian government passed a law threatening 15 years in prison for people who publish “fake news”.

The second front, sanctions, kicked in noticeably. Exchanging information and advice became part of the Siberian canon: weather, food, and sanctions. Every day you woke up to discover what else you can’t do. It began with no Apple/Google pay, then fly, and shop at IKEA. Everyone started backing up data and signing up for Chinese UnionPay Cards. They said goodbye to Coke, Pepsi, KFC, McDonalds, and Burger King and checked the origin of favorite products. Everyone who did not have a VPN got one. Anyone who wasn’t on Telegram or VK moved there. The few Facebook stragglers fled when Meta announced it would relax content moderators[1] criteria in some countries to allow promoting violence against Russians and Russian soldiers and death to Putin and Lukashenko. The Russian government blocked Meta Platforms.

Then, a new sanctions category appeared with announcements about where Russian artists, athletes, and students are not welcome. When the stakes couldn’t be higher the sanctions jumped the shark with the banning of Russian cats on the International cat circuit.

The exception is IT specialists who are not only welcomed, but enticed. At one Novosibirsk AI Department two out of 80 programmers decided to leave, one returned after a week. Another working for a US start-up with a wife and two kids was given the option. “I am not in physical danger, I have an apartment…why go?” But for young people without families the opportunity to travel, that was fostered by COVID distance work, the response is “why not?’ The Russian government fast tracked an order providing special benefits to the IT sphere including no Army conscription until 27, low percent mortgages, and IT companies do not pay taxes on profit for 3 years.[2]

Two Months In

The Western sanctions have done nothing to foster a negotiated settlement. There is an occasional announcement about a donation drive for refugees in Novosibirsk. Graduates of Novosibirsk State University launched a petition that has attracted 1,298 signatures representing classes from 1964. 84% provided public signatures and a few of those indicated they are living in the US. ”Z”s are not ubiquitous. I have only seen one billboard, one giant sign at a horse rental business, and less than 20 “Z” cars. I saw “Z” t-shirts for sale but have only seen one person wearing it, a young girl.

Early days there was news from relatives in Kyiv (hunkered down, not happy that weapons were being distributed to everyone) and Mariupol (hunkered down, happy the Russians arrived). Now you hear news about those serving. One friend welcomed her son-in-law home, another, waiting to hear if he will be going, got a call that his friend was killed.

Despite what has been promoted by the White House as, “The most significant and crippling sanctions package…in history” [3], early anxiety has become “what else is new”. So far, workarounds or substitutes have been found or are in the process of being developed. There is no panic or complaint, “We will just plant more vegetables” said one mother.

The Siberian calm is rooted in two things. The Russian character described in a Perestroika anecdote that defines a pessimist as someone who believes things can’t get worse and an optimist as someone who knows they can and will. The second is the experience of three previous economic shocks (early 90s, 1998, and 2008) when all aspects of life were drastically transformed overnight. Also, the 2014 Crimea sanctions demonstrated there is opportunity for those ready to take advantage of it. The cheese niche is now being filled by people like Alexei the cheddar cheese master from Tyumen.

After an initial leap up, the ruble dollar exchange is lower than it was before the SMO. 42 brands in Novosibirsk remain closed but some, like IKEA and Zara continue to pay their workers and are waiting for an opportunity to return siting supply chain issues. [4] McDonalds, Burger King, and KFC are still working. Coke is available, just no more investment or marketing. At the Mega Mall, the “Unfortunately, we are temporarily closed” signs hang on closed gates like “back in ten minutes” with fully dressed mannequins and full shelves and racks. [5] On a recent Sunday there were plenty of shoppers, many flocking to the French holdouts Leroy Merlin and Auchan.

There have been several product panics including sugar and xerox paper. The latest is female hygiene products and some stores are limiting three to a customer along with sugar and kasha. Despite some hoarding, the shelves remain full of these and most other products.

Inflation is real but fluctuating. A Novosibirsk newspaper project monitors costs for goods at ten of the most popular supermarkets. The last week of April, the average cost of most products listed are down (Sugar/-3.91%, Salt/-2.54%, Tea/-10.11%, Macaroni/-11.34%, Flour/.01%, Bread/-4.60% ). The three climbing were Rice/+4.90%, Buckwheat/2.28%, and Vodka, up 1.25%. [6]

I met an interior decorator who has never been busier, “people can’t invest abroad so they are investing it here”. Round the clock work on the massive Sberbank Manzherok Resort continues but there are concerns there may be a pause because the interiors were from Italy so a substitute may need to be found. Many people in Manzherok are building guest houses to take advantage of what is expected to be a blockbuster season since it is hard to travel abroad. However, Turkey has just made that easier by creating a new airline, Southwind, to accommodate Russian tourists.

Anyone with strong ties to the West, financial or personal, is having a harder time. The UnionPay salvation card crashed when China stopped negotiations with Russian banks due to fears of secondary sanctions. [7] One friend and her daughter lost jobs that were connected to Western business, it is clear that more layoffs are to come.

Nobody needs to wear a “Z”, the sanctions have insured that the war is a shared experience: the teenager who can’t make income from Instagram, the Babushka worried about cooking oil, the beautician who can’t see American movies in the theatre, the mini-oligarch who doesn’t have access to his Swiss bank accounts, the middle class families waiting for IKEA to open or for a car part to arrive.

One acquaintance told me she hoped this inspired people to be more responsible for their country, especially government. There are some signs of this in the Village. For the first time the chat has hosted detailed, hours long discussions about improving quality of life. A protest against illegal deforestation got traction on social media and was picked up by regional news.

The Manzherok House of Culture was full for a Town Meeting that not only included the Heads of the District and Village, but representatives from the Prosecutor, Healthcare, Pension, and Tax Departments. There are also indications the government is getting serious about corruption with March 6 amendments that authorize audits for officials and their families that have assets greater than their total income for the previous two years.[9]

CONCLUSION

The SMO trend is not good, no one is backing down, everyone is arming up, and the info wars are out of control making sure everything is dumbed down to heroes and villains. The situation is complex and none of that complexity is presented in most of what you find in main-stream Western media. 30 years after the “new Russia” was born and the anticipated peace dividend celebrated, we have arrived at the worst-case scenario. There are only three certainties: anyone who makes a prediction about this situation should be ignored, the world will never be the same, and the people of Siberia will not be weakened.

[1] https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/exclusive-facebook-instagram-temporarily-allow-calls-violence-against-russians-2022-03-10/

[2] http://publication.pravo.gov.ru/Document/View/0001202203020001?index=0&rangeSize=1

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xw6F8_JyI7Q&t=3791s

[4] https://sib.fm/news/2022/03/29/v-marte-v-novosibirske-zakrylis-42-magazina-populyarnyh-brendov

[5] https://www.thetechoutlook.com/news/ikea-plans-to-come-back-to-russia/

[6] https://tayga.info/177358

[7] https://intellinews.com/chinese-unionpay-payment-system-backs-away-from-russian-banks-on-secondary- sanctions-fears-242072/?source=russia

[8] https://www.garant.ru/news/1532593/

James Carden: Biden and the Democrats pivot to proxy war

By James Carden, Asia Times, 5/12/22

This is the second part of a three-part series on ‘the Blob’ that runs American foreign policy. Read part one here.

WASHINGTON – The Russian war on Ukraine has seen ‘the Blob’ reassert itself with a vengeance in the 11 weeks since Russia announced the commencement of hostilities on February 24.

This article will examine the forces shaping President Joe Biden’s approach to the Ukraine crisis, and then move on to explore the state of foreign policy debate, or lack thereof, within Biden’s Democratic Party.

Former high-ranking military officials, intelligence analysts and diplomats who served at various points during the Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump administrations paint a picture in recent conversations with Asia Times of the likely policy options being presented to President Biden as he faces the gravest crisis on the European continent since the Second World War. 

The past month has seen the Biden administration, by fits and starts and then seemingly all at once, adopt a militarized, hardline approach toward Russia, declaring Ukraine’s “victory” over Russia as the only acceptable outcome.

While Biden remains steadfast in assuring the public that there will be no “boots on the ground,” in point of fact, current and former officials have suggested that US paramilitaries are indeed on the ground, with military assistance being coordinated by the new appointee to the Biden National Security Council, retired US Army Lieutenant General Terry Wolff.

According to retired US Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as secretary of state Colin Powell’s chief of staff, the administration is planning for a protracted conflict in Ukraine.

Wilkerson says “they are extremely desirous of a protracted conflict because they want to effect regime change in Moscow, destabilize Russia and then take on China. That is their long-term geopolitical strategy.”

It is helpful here to take a moment to describe the prevailing mindset of the top national security officials closest to Biden. 

At the very beginning of Biden’s term, a message was sent loud and clear to both supporters and critics in Washington that it would not tolerate any deviations from the establishment orthodoxy and that the perspective and expertise of outsiders were not welcome. 

Consider, for instance, the case of respected Russia expert Dr Matthew Rojansky. For years, Rojansky had served as the director of the mainstream, congressionally-funded Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center think tank.

No fierce challenger of the establishment, Rojansky had been a fixture in track-two level talks between American and Russian political scientists and former government officials.Russia expert Matthew Rojansky’s views are unwanted by the Biden administration. Image: Twitter / Bucknell University

Yet when news leaked that Rojansky was under consideration for an appointment to Biden’s National Security Council (NSC), the knives came out and the Democratic hawks made Rojansky their prey. The appointment was torpedoed – and quickly.

Rojansky is now head of a US-Russia-focused non-profit, far from the corridors of power. That’s worrying because, outside of Central Intelligence Agency director William Burns, deep expertise on Russia is thin on the ground in the Biden administration, according to former and current officials who spoke to Asia Times.

But if Russia expertise is lacking, what the vast majority of Biden’s foreign policy appointments do have are deep connections to the reflexively hawkish and dominant wing of the Democratic foreign policy establishment, and that, in part, explains the trajectory of the administration’s policy in Ukraine.

The evolution of Biden’s policy was described to this correspondent by former ambassador Chas Freeman, now a senior fellow at the Watson Institute at Brown University who remains deeply engaged in the foreign policy debate in Washington. Freeman said: “It took about eight weeks for the administration, in the person of NSC Advisor [Jake] Sullivan, to enunciate war aims for the proxy war.

“At the outset of its response to the Russian invasion, the administration was careful to limit possible provocation of the Russians. But, not having seen direct retaliation from Moscow, it has become progressively less cautious. 

“This lack of caution is aided by the fact that it is Ukrainians, not Americans, who are dying and by the success of pro-Ukrainian propaganda and the effective Western ban on contradictory information from non-Ukrainian sources. There is a risk that the administration will inhale its own propaganda and underestimate the risks it is taking,” said Freeman.

George Beebe, former head of Russia analysis at the CIA and a senior member of the intelligence service who served on the national security staff of vice president Dick Cheney, agrees.

“It seems to me that the United States and NATO are experiencing the phenomenon of the appetite growing with eating. We didn’t expect the Ukrainians to be as successful as they proved to be,” Beebe said.

Beebe, now the director of the grand strategy program at the Quincy Institute, continued: “A good part of the credit goes to the Ukrainians themselves, their leadership, their courage and fighting against the Russians. A good part of it comes from our own support for them, the intelligence and military assistance that we’ve provided that they’ve used very effectively.

“But I think that has produced battlefield successes that go well beyond anything that the US government expected when Putin launched this invasion. As a result, we started to think, ‘Hey, maybe we can win this.’”Ukrainian soldiers use a launcher with US-made Javelin missiles during military exercises in Donetsk region, Ukraine, on December 23, 2021. Photo: Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service

“Our eyes, “ says Beebe, “have grown bigger. You walk around here in Washington and there are very few people that are worried that we might get into an escalation spiral that we can’t control. Seems to me that much of Congress is worried that they might be accused of not doing enough to support Ukraine, not of doing too much that tips us over the edge here into a very dangerous situation. So I think it is fair to say that we are in a much more dangerous situation right now from the point of view of escalation than we’ve been in my lifetime.”

Freeman observes that as a result of the war fever enveloping Washington, “It is now taboo in the United States to inquire into the origins of the war, to suggest that Western policy had any role in provoking it, or that there has been or is any basis for Russia’s security concerns.”

And nowhere is the taboo of raising even the most basic questions about American involvement stronger than on Capitol Hill. Indeed, what the last couple of weeks in Washington has shown is that, with respect to the proxy war the administration has now embarked upon, there is essentially a uni-party on Capitol Hill. 

This is thanks in large part to one person: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who rules her caucus – including the so-called “Squad” – with an iron discipline. In some respects, as Beebe pointed out, Congress appears to fear it is not doing enough.

Pelosi is working overtime – and with the full support of the small and now politically neutered progressive caucus – to ensure that the dominant perception is otherwise.

Two landmark pieces of legislation recently signed into law by Biden help tell the tale. Legislation to revive the lend lease program and apply it to Ukraine passed the House on April 28 by a vote of 417 to 10; the 10 opposition votes were all Republicans. Two weeks later, the House passed by a wide margin, 368 to 57, a US$40 billion aid package to Ukraine. Once again, there were no Democratic dissenting votes.

What, then, accounts for Pelosi’s total effectiveness in pushing the war agenda through the House with only token Republican opposition?

A longtime and current Democratic Party insider with ties going back to the Clintons says that Pelosi has become the most effective and feared House Speaker since Sam Rayburn because she is a “Workhorse not a show horse. She understands the substance and policy better than all those folks who just want to hear themselves talk.”

“Don’t ever,” she said, “bet against Nancy Pelosi.”In this file photo taken on October 9, 2021, US Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, speaks to the press on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP / Nicholas Kamm

It helps, too, to control the money. The insider noted that Pelosi’s power comes as much from her legendary indefatigability, showing up at all hours to events large and small to press the flesh and charm the intended marks, as from her access to the high dollar donor base that funds the Democratic party.

In a contest between large dollar donors and small donors such as those who were the lifeblood of the two Bernie Sanders presidential runs, there is no contest.

And in this administration, as with all others, it’s the big donors, like Mr. Biden’s patron, former Comcast CEO David Cohen, who is now his ambassador to Canada, and fundraisers like Jane Hartley, now US ambassador to the United Kingdom, who have the ear of the president and Pelosi.

Pelosi has faced no opposition from her left flank on the massive funding for the war effort, and not simply because progressives are outspent and outnumbered. Progressives have a very weak infrastructure on Capitol Hill when it comes to foreign policy.

As the longtime defense analyst and critic Winslow Wheeler said, “I worked in the Senate and Government Accountability Office for 31 years. I worked for three Republicans and one Democrat. I know the difference between quality staffers and obedient functionaries.” 

“Bernie,” says Wheeler, “has a bunch of non-entities on his defense staff. But, on the bright side, at least Elizabeth Warren has Mandy Smithberger, a diamond in the wasteland.”

And so, Biden’s approach to the war is reflective of a kind of “hegemonic multilateralism” that presidents Obama and Clinton practiced, which is basically the pursuit of global hegemony as set out by the infamous 1992 Defense Planning Guidance authored by Paul Wolfowitz and disguised with rhetorical nods to “humanitarianism” and the importance of multilateral international institutions such as the UN.

But there are serious risks in such an approach. Beebe, who has long experience with Russia, says Biden’s wartime policy reflects a zero-sum mentality that is “something that we’ve accused the Russians of, I think with some justification, for many years.”

The idea that whatever weakens Russia and hurts Putin is good for the US, says Beebe, “makes us susceptible to winding up in strategic situations in which our interests are actually hurt. As the Russian conventional military weakens, one of the dangers is that Russia’s dependence on its nuclear arsenal grows.”Russia has threatened to use nuclear arms in retaliation for the West’s support to the Ukrainian resistance. Photo: Getty / Twitter

Freeman’s assessment is equally bleak.

“The US, our NATO allies, Ukraine, and Russia are now locked into long-term hostility. It is entirely possible that the conflict in Ukraine’s east and south, like that between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, will sustain warfare for decades to come. If so, there will be a constant danger of an outbreak of hostilities on Europe’s eastern frontiers and of escalation to direct conflict between Russia and the United States, including a possible nuclear exchange,” he said.

“Given the absence of any serious diplomatic dialogue between Washington and Moscow,” said Freeman, “it is far from obvious how such escalation can be prevented.”

Analysis & Book Reviews on U.S. Foreign Policy and Russia

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