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The Insider: Convict Labor May Replace IKEA in Russia

The Insider, 7/26/22, English translation via Google translate.

If accurate, this is a sad thing. This shouldn’t be happening in any country. whether it’s the U.S. (e.g. convict firefighters in California), Russia or anywhere else. – Natylie

The GUFSIN held an exhibition of products made by prisoners in Yekaterinburg. As stated in the department, production is actively developing in the [penal] colonies, which are ready to replace companies leaving the Russian market. The Regional Newspaper writes that correctional institutions signed contracts for the manufacture of furniture for 3.5 million rubles over the two days of the exhibition.

“The colonies may well take the place of IKEA. If we compare furniture, we have better quality and lower prices. We are not businessmen,” said Ivan Sharkov, head of the labor adaptation department for convicts of the Main Penitentiary Service of Russia in the Sverdlovsk Region.

The government of the Sverdlovsk region and the GUFSIN are planning to create a woodworking workshop in the Middle Urals for the production of sheets for the manufacture of furniture. In the Kamensk-Urals IK-47 at the end of April, as part of the import substitution program, the production of double-glazed windows was opened.

As Alexander Levchenko, head of the press service of the GUFSIN of Russia for the Sverdlovsk region, said, most of the furniture produced in the colonies is supplied to state customers.

“The authorities, the courts, the investigative committee, the bailiff service order a lot. Recently, IK-10 completed a large order for the Sverdlovsk Regional Prosecutor’s Office. We supply furniture for schools, kindergartens, rest houses, sanatoriums. Good dynamics in municipal orders – last year they earned more than half a billion rubles, including 114 million – on orders for the Sverdlovsk region, ”says Levchenko.

Previously, prisoners have repeatedly told human rights activists about the problem of the use of forced and low-paid (essentially free) labor of prisoners in colonies throughout the country. In fact, Russia still has a system of hard labor, the conditions of which can be equated with torture. Prisoners work in the sewing industry, assemble furniture, make icons and weapons.

The Insider wrote about how they work in a clothing factory in a women’s colony. One of the prisoners complained about working conditions in IK-2 in the Mordovian village of Yavas. She said that the administration had set a task: to sew 600 suits for Russian Railways workers in a week, that is, about 120 suits a day with the help of 160-170 prisoners.

In January, the founder of Gulagu.net, Vladimir Osechkin , published a conversation with a former prisoner of correctional colony No. 7 in the Omsk region, who told that convicts were forced to work in hazardous production in clandestine workshops, including making military weapons as gifts to high-ranking security officials from the FSB , TFR, FSIN and prosecutor’s office. He himself painted military weapons, made congratulatory inscriptions on them.

“The maximum salary is 300 rubles per month. But that’s only happened to me once or twice. The minimum is 30 rubles. They worked every day, Saturday and Sunday too. They did not work only in those moments when some kind of commission came, ”said the former prisoner.

According to the former convict, in the industrial zone IK-7, the convicts built a yacht for the supervising prosecutor from an old tugboat.

Alexander Nepogodin: How Ukrainians voted for the preservation of the Soviet Union in 1991, but still ended up in an independent state later that year

ukrainian flag waving in wind with clear sky in background
Photo by Nati on Pexels.com

By Alexander Nepogodin, RT, 8/10/22

Back in early 1991, few thought the disappearance of the Soviet Union from the political map was likely. The results of a huge national referendum held in March indicated as much. Ukraine’s vote exceeded 70%, and public discussion of the joint future for all the socialist republics mainly focused on various forms of a federation.

Even the proponents of Ukrainian independence did not really believe this was within reach. But, by August things started to unravel and, after a failed coup d’état in Moscow, Kiev proclaimed sovereignty.

Both the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and its peers began to believe the collapse of the country was inevitable and had to be accepted as such. It was then that both Donbass and Crimea began to demand greater autonomy from the central government and more protection of their interests. In this article, RT revisits the six months between the USSR’s landmark referendum and the independence vote in Ukraine that somehow turned out to be enough for the republic’s population to change their minds, and explores the reasons why this outcome both put an end to the world’s largest ever country and sparked off the separatist movement.

Looking for a Compromise

After 1988, a series of conflicts broke out one after another in different parts of the Soviet Union, creating a lot of tension: in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Transnistria, among others. In politics, at just about the same time, the “parade of sovereignties” began with the Estonian Sovereignty Declaration of November 16, 1988 that proclaimed the supremacy of Tallinn’s laws over those of the USSR. This was followed by a number of other republics, including the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic declaring sovereignty in 1989 and 1990, which in the end played a crucial role it taking the Soviet Union down.

The ensuing struggle between Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR Boris Yeltsin led to the formation of an alternative center of power that ultimately was able to challenge the Kremlin.

The situation was spiraling and changes appeared irreversible. Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence: This was enacted on March 11, 1990 by the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian SSR. It became finally clear that all these years, the very existence of the USSR was based on a silent agreement between the republics’ elites. The agreement, however, was seriously shaken by a severe economic crisis triggered by a sudden removal of state monopoly mechanisms, as well as by the rise of separatist movements, plus ethnic conflicts and by a long-overdue need for political change.

In an effort to contain the situation, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev proposed a New Union Treaty that would significantly expand the freedoms and rights of all the Union’s republics. In December 1990, the IV Congress of People’s Deputies, the equivalent of a parliament, voted to hold a referendum on the preservation of the USSR as a renewed confederation of equal sovereign republics and to pen a New Union Treaty. The idea of a confederation was proposed by the “architect of perestroika” Alexander Yakovlev. The proposal was put to a popular vote.

The 1991 Soviet Union referendum remains the only example of actual democracy in the history of the USSR. The ballot was set for March 17, 1991. Citizens had to answer “Yes” or “No” to the question: “Do you consider it necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics, where human rights and freedoms will be guaranteed to all nationalities?”

A lot of criticism was voiced regarding the vague wording, which allowed the results to be interpreted very broadly. But for most Soviet citizens, the question presented a simple choice between the two options: they had to say whether they are for or against the existence of the Soviet Union. In the course of the preparation for the referendum, it became clear that the USSR as it was no longer existed, as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, Moldova and Armenia had declared they would not hold an all-out referendum on their territory. There, votes were held in some designated areas: polling stations worked in a number of organizations, enterprises and military bases.

Some of those republics that agreed to run the referendum made changes. In the Ukrainian SSR, a supplemental question was added to the main one: “Do you agree that Ukraine should be part of the Union of Soviet Sovereign States on the basis of Ukraine’s Sovereignty Declaration?”The republic’s population was en masse not bothered by the inherent conflict within the wording, between the preservation of the USSR and the republic becoming its part as a “sovereign state” based on the 1990 Sovereignty Declaration. That can be easily explained by the fact that nothing really changed after sovereignty was enacted, except some attempts to introduce a new currency.

A total of 113.5 million people, or 76.4% of USSR citizens voted for the preservation of the Soviet Union. The referendum showed that despite the growing disagreements, Soviet people wanted to continue living in one big state. 70% of the Ukrainian SSR’s population were in favor, and 80% said yes to the republic joining the union of sovereign states on the basis of the Sovereignty Declaration. In Ukraine’s western parts, around Lvov, Ivano-Frankovsk and Ternopol, however, the majority of the population voted against the preservation of the USSR.

It did seem at the time that Gorbachev had received the green light to go on with the reforms and get the New Union Treaty signed. However, due to the failed coup d’état attempt by the State Committee for the State of Emergency (GKChP), undertaken between August 18 and 21, 1991, to “stop the policies leading to the liquidation of the Soviet Union,” the New Union Treaty was not signed as scheduled. These events gave impetus to the disintegration process. In a matter of days, between August 20 and 31, 1991, Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan declared their independence.

Separatism Inside Out

Thus, the results of the Soviet Union referendum ceased to have any significance five months after it was held. The union’s republics moved on and held independence referendums, one by one. Eventually, on December 1, 1991, Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union. The leadership of the Ukrainian SSR, which until then was still a Soviet republic and part of the Communist Party’s system, had spent those few months since the August 1991 attempted coup d’état waiting for the right moment.

Another factor that played a role was the fact that Gorbachev had Vladimir Ivashko moved from Kiev to Moscow as his new deputy. Ivashko was at the time chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR and head of the Ukrainian Communist Party. Gorbachev’s idea was to strengthen the ties between the leaderships this way and secure more support for himself in his fight against Yeltsin. However, the move backfired: Ivashko, who was a native of Kharkov in Eastern Ukraine, was replaced in the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR by Leonid Kravchuk, a Western Ukrainian, and this only accelerated the disintegration processes.

When the State Committee for the State of Emergency made its official public announcement of attempting to change the country’s political course on August 19, Kravchuk addressed the people of Ukraine on television with an appeal to “focus on solving the most important problems of the daily life of the republic” and to maintain peace and order. In a conversation with the then Commander-in-Chief of the Ground Forces of the USSR General Varennikov, Kravchuk gave an assurance that he would be able to independently maintain order in the republic.

With Yeltsin declaring himself Gorbachev’s “deputy” during the coup and acting like a de facto leader of the USSR calling for a “strong Russia,” Ukraine’s leaders realized that the time had come for decisive action. Events in Moscow triggered a lot of activity in Kiev. An emergency meeting of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR was set for August 24. Deputies Levko Lukyanenko and Leonty Sanduliak wrote a draft Declaration of Independence overnight, but at the meeting it was decided the document was in need of major adjustments. A commission was set up to do this. Among its members were Alexander Moroz, the future head of the Socialist Party of Ukraine for many years to come, and Dmitry Pavlichko, who claimed that he had fought in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA is recognized as an extremist organization and banned in Russia) and was tasked to join the Komsomol and the Communist Party as an undercover agent for the WW2 Nazi collaborators in order to help sabotage the regime from the inside.

The final draft was a botched job anyway. Moroz later recounted how he’d proposed to remove any words of recognition of Yeltsin’s role from the text of the Declaration of Independence right in Kravchuk’s office: “After our meeting with Kravchuk, I said: let’s remove any wording about Yeltsin’s role in this process, because as time will pass, it will become just awkward. This is a historical document. Everyone agreed, we crossed it out and went to present it for the vote.”

The support was almost unanimous. Even the Communists voted for independence. “[The Communists] voted for Ukraine’s independence because they understood that the imperial games of power in Moscow could end badly for Ukraine, and because the precedent was already set by Vilnius and Tbilisi … It all boiled down to who would take power, Gorbachev or Yeltsin,” Moroz, who would become chairman of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, said later.

Confidence Vote

Nevertheless, most Ukrainians didn’t want to break up the country, severing economic and political ties with Russia – the two republics had close connections, including the familial ones. At the March referendum that was held in the USSR the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians voted for keeping the Soviet Union. That’s why Kravchuk and his government needed to rally people’s support ahead of the referendum on Ukrainian independence to undermine the legitimacy of the USSR vote.

There was another factor that contributed to the success of this scenario – Yeltsin, concerned with staying in power, benefited from Ukraine’s declared independence and the referendum. It made signing the renewed Union Treaty impossible, which would inevitably strip Gorbachev of his power and throw him out of the equation in the eyes of the Communist party elites, as well as regular Soviet people. 

The plan of the Ukrainian authorities was successful. Almost 85% of registered Ukrainians voted in the referendum held on December 1, 1991. Only one question was asked – about the declaration of independence. The overwhelming majority (90%) said ‘yes’ to gaining independence. The numbers spoke for themselves. 83.9% of Donetsk residents voted ‘yes,’ 83.9% in Lugansk, 86.3% in Kharkov, and 85.4% in Odessa. Crimea had the lowest score in that respect, only 54.2% of people supported the independence scenario.

To this day, Ukrainian politicians use those numbers as proof that this was a time when the people came together in their nation-building ambitions. In reality, the overwhelming support of Ukraine’s independence even in the “pro-Russian” regions came as a surprise to many at the time. There were several reasons for the massive ‘yes’ vote, however. 

First off, people were promised that all ties with Russia would stay intact and there would be no boundaries, cultural or otherwise, between the two states. The authorities also ensured the citizens that the Russian language would be protected. Kravchuk himself said this on a number of occasions. Nobody expected that there would be immediate borders dividing Russia and Ukraine. Subjectively, citizens of the two republics didn’t want a breakup, but they wanted strong power, which the Kremlin couldn’t demonstrate, so Ukrainians thought that there would be more order if the republic gained sovereignty. Many hoped that nothing would really change in the grand scheme of things, while Ukraine’s independence would result in its prosperity. Propaganda promised economic growth comparable to that of Germany and France. After all, before the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was the European leader in steelmaking, coal and ironstone mining, as well as sugar production.

People were completely disoriented after the “parade of sovereignties” and August Coup. Another important factor is that the referendum was held at the same time as the presidential campaign, which Kravchuk won. Many didn’t necessarily vote for independence, they voted for the “boss,” which was the usual MO for the Soviet people. These were the same people who said yes to keeping the Soviet Union earlier, in 1991. And nine months later they chose Kravchuk and Ukraine’s independence.

The referendum on Ukraine’s independence killed the scenario of an updated Soviet Union. The USSR soon disappeared from the map. In his comments on the referendum results, Yeltsin clearly stated that “without Ukraine, the union treaty would make no sense.” At that point, 13 out of the 15 republics had already declared independence and held similar referendums (Russia and Kazakhstan were the only ones that hadn’t done it). The events in Ukraine weren’t shocking, but they put an end to the dream of another union. Ukraine was the second most important republic and without it Gorbachev or Yeltsin had no union to rule over.

Cost of Independence

Nevertheless, even after the results of the December 5 referendum were announced Yeltsin met privately with Gorbachev to discuss the prospects of the Soviet Union. On the same day, during his inauguration, Kravchuk promised that Ukraine wouldn’t join any political unions, but would build bilateral relations with the former Soviet republics. He said that his country would be independent in its foreign policy and institute its own army and currency. The New Union Treaty was never signed, and on December 8, 1991, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine put their signatures under the famous Belovezh Accords, instituting the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). This was the final nail in the Soviet Union’s coffin.

Later Leonid Kuchma, the second President of Ukraine, admitted that the Ukrainians had been misled ahead of the referendum: “We weren’t completely honest with the people when we said that Ukraine had been feeding Russia. In our estimates, we just used global prices on everything we manufactured, but we didn’t take into account the cost of products supplied by Russia for free. In 1989, our Economy Institute published a report about the Russia-Ukraine pay balance, and it ended up being negative for Ukraine. Ukraine paid for oil and gas less than for tea or water. The country was forced to sober up when Russia switched to the global prices in trade. This resulted in hyperinflation, the scale of which couldn’t compare to any other former Soviet republics.”

Already in the beginning of the 1990s local authorities began to realize that it wasn’t just the issue of economic growth that was presented in a misleading way. During the independence campaign, it was clearly stated that Ukraine would respect the rights of Russian and Russian-speaking citizens, that everyone would be equal and there would be no discrimination. In the end of 1991, Kravchuk promised that forced “Ukrainianization” would not be allowed, and his government would “take decisive action” against any ethnic discrimination.

In 1990, after the Ukrainian legislators declared sovereignty, the Crimean parliament scheduled a referendum on the peninsula’s legal status and re-establishing the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. It took place on January 20, and 94% of Crimeans voted for creating an autonomy within the USSR. 

However, Crimea didn’t turn into a conflict zone in 1991. The Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic even passed legislation granting the peninsula its autonomous status, but within Ukraine. Russia didn’t do anything about it because it was busy dealing with its own problems and the fight between Gorbachev and Yeltsin. The government of Crimea was also satisfied, since it got the right to its own constitution, president and guarantees for ethnic Russians.

However, Crimea was not the only region striving for autonomy – other Ukrainian territories also wanted political independence. The International Movement of Donbass lobbied for autonomous status for the Donetsk region, and it even had a scenario in which the Donetsk–Krivoy Rog Republic would be re-established. This was formed in 1918 as part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and included the Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk and Donetsk regions.

Ukrainian authorities were able to avert the crisis at the time by passing a law that criminalized activities aimed at undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity – this could now cost a perpetrator up to 10 years in prison. The government also promised that the Russian language would be equal to Ukrainian in its state-language status, but this never happened; the legislation never went through, even though, according to Kravchuk, independent Ukraine “was going to be a state for Ukrainians, Russians and other ethnic groups.”

In the following years, Kravchuk, Kuchma and their successors in office greatly disappointed the Russian-speaking communities of southeastern Ukraine – especially in Donbass and Crimea. After a prolonged political crisis, failed promises to Russian-speaking Ukrainians and two major Western-backed street uprisings (the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Euromaidan), 22 years and 364 days after the first referendum, the Crimean Autonomous Republic held its last referendum, during which it chose to be reunited with Russia. The Donbass had fought for autonomy since 1991, and now it decided to follow its own way as well, different from that of Ukraine.

Sonja Van den Ende: Russians Welcomed as Liberators in Many Eastern Ukrainian Cities Contrary to Western Media Depictions

A destroyed car in Lysychansk. [Source: Photo courtesy of Sonja van den Ende]

By Sonja Van den Ende, Covert Action Magazine, 8/10/22

Sonja is a freelance journalist from the Netherlands who has written about Syria, the Middle East, and Russia among other topics. Sonja can be reached at: sonjavandenende@gmail.com.

[Sonja van den Ende has been reporting on the war in eastern Ukraine and has received protection from the Russian military.—Editors]

On my way from Severodonetsk to Lysychansk on the right bank of the Donetsk River in eastern Ukraine, I saw many destroyed buildings as well as a lot of cars, ambulances and rescue vehicles. A few bodies could be seen when I passed the Bilohorivka Bridge, which was targeted by the Ukrainian army.

During the Russian special operation, which started on February 24, 2022, heavy fighting took place in Lysychansk—the first coal-mining settlement of the Donetsk basin. The most intense fighting took place in late March 2022, destroying dozens of buildings and causing civilian casualties.

The regime in Kyiv claims that the Russians had this on their conscience, but the facts refute this.

The Ukrainian army and their Aider (or Azov), a Luhansk Nazi battalion, knowing that the Russians were coming, hid themselves in buildings where civilians lived, in schools and shopping centers. They took civilians hostage and used them as human shields, keeping the civilians captive in the basements. [Note a recent report by Amnesty International has confirmed that Ukrainians have indeed been illegally operating out of civilian buildings].

On May 9, 2022, Russian troops attempted to cross the Seversky Donets River with a temporary pontoon bridge at Bilohorivka. Ukrainian troops bombed the bridge and Russian vehicles crossed it, resulting in Russian losses.

But in the end, the Ukrainians proved to be too weak against the supremacy of the Russian army, which from Severodonetsk eventually took Lysychansk, the last major city in the Luhansk region, on June 26, 2022.

In Lysychansk, after the Russian victory, there was a display of all confiscated NATO and U.S. weapons. Also, there was humanitarian aid for the remaining residents and water was supplied to provide relief from the 35-degree heat.

A street full of confiscated NATO, U.S. and older Ukrainian (Soviet-style) weapons that had been seized during the battle for Luhansk—was displayed by the Russian army along with tanks and ammunition.

Apparently the Ukrainian army did not have enough weapons, even though NATO and EU countries have provided billions of dollars in weaponry since the war began.

One soldier told me that drones were bought at AliExpress. Rumors also have it that Russia confiscated HIMARS, although none was on display that I saw.

HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) is intended to engage and defeat artillery, air defence concentrations, trucks, and light armor and personnel carriers, as well as support troop and supply concentrations. The system launches its weapons and moves away from the area at high speed before enemy forces locate the launch site. It has been delivered to Ukraine from the U.S. and some have been confiscated by the Russian army.

The Melitopol Referendum About Joining Russia

When I visited Melitopol for the third time, I was again invited to a press conference in the town hall. Last time there was new mayor Galina Danilchenko, but this time her deputy spoke, a straightforward man who patiently answered all questions.

The former mayor, Ivan Fedorov, was a member of Pravdy Sektor (an ultra-right-wing political party with Nazi ideology) who was not elected but installed by the regime in Kyiv. This was in a city with a majority of Russian-speaking residents, who were now being discriminated against. They were no longer allowed to speak Russian, and were no longer allowed to participate in their annual Ninth of May celebration—the commemoration of the end of the Second World War and victory over the Nazis!

I had a question for the deputy mayor, the last question at the press conference.

Mayor Galina Danilchenko’s deputy is a very decisive and “to the point” man. I asked him as a last question during the press conference:

“How will the EU react if there is a referendum just like in Crimea in 2014?”

His reply was succinct:

“We have nothing to do with that, Europe is finished and when they will react badly, the same thing will happen as in the Patriotic War of 1941-45, we will defeat fascism! We live here, they do not!”

So these were his last words to my final question. He further said in his speech that a referendum will be held in September 2022, to decide whether Melitopol will become part of Russia. But it is not just about Melitopol, but also about Kherson and Zaporizhia and other “liberated” cities in southern Ukraine and the entire Donbas.

The Western media are already warning about it. It would be “false” elections, just like in Crimea they warn. They still call that an annexation in the West, but the residents I spoke to in Crimea call it a democratic referendum, where they voted to be part of Russia!

As the mayor’s spokesperson said, it is up to them, not propagandists, called media or politicians, far away in the West! They only follow propaganda to maintain a war due to their “twisted” ideology. They in the West are at war with Russia. But the inhabitants of the Donbas are at war with the regime in Kyiv and NATO, which fire missiles at them every day, and kill their children. That’s the way it is and nothing else!

As expected and what I have heard several times, in the cities, towns and areas I have visited over the past five months, most people do not want to belong to Ukraine any more. Too much has happened, eight years of war, a war of attrition for the population that stayed.

The West is deaf to the war: They only follow their own agenda and ignore the civilian casualties in eastern Ukraine! For the remaining residents, the pinnacle has been reached, as NATO (EU and the West) supplies weapons to the regime in Kyiv, which is killing them and their children! So most likely the majority will vote yes, to become a part of Russia!

The Kill List of Ukraine and CIA

After my visit to Mariupol, the Azov Steel factory and other places, I started to receive daily “threatening” emails. In these emails, which came from Langley (CIA) with some via Polish trolls, I was accused of being an FSB agent and my details have been known for years about my crimes. If I enter the Netherlands, I will be declared an “outlaw” and face court.

After researching where these threats might have come from, I quickly found out that there is a Ukrainian so-called “peace list,” which is really a death list, run by Ukrainian Nazis in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); at the top of the list is “Langley, Virginia,” the location of CIA headquarters, and its branch in Poland.

This is the list that includes Henry Kissinger and Viktor Orban; several journalists in Ukraine were also killed by it. Recently, Johnny Miller, a journalist from Iranian Press TV, has been put on the list as well. Children’s names also appear on the list.

Since my name has appeared on this list, great confusion has arisen in the Dutch media. Rumors circulated that I was dead, fallen in battle in Ukraine. Which is absurd, because I am not directly on the front lines. They are deliberate rumors, spread directly by various media outlets, after they themselves wrote a so-called article about conspiracy theories that I would spread about biological weapons. After this, things escalated, not only in the Netherlands (my home country), but also in Belgium (Flemish-speaking area).

This shows the true face of the so-called Western democracies. As I said, kids’ names even appear on this list—for instance, a 13-year-old girl from Luhansk, Faina Savenkova.

Faina has been writing about her experiences in the Donbas. After her name appeared on the list, she started to receive online threats of physical violence.

Faina Savenkova [Source: wikidata.org]

Johnny Miller wrote about Faina on Press TV; after his publication, he was added to the list as well!

So much for Western democracy, human rights and protection of children and journalists. It is plain fascism, what is happening in the Western world, or a move towards it.

Philip Short: The Miscalculations and Missed Opportunities that Led Putin to War in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin

By Philip Short, Time Magazine, 8/3/22

Adapted from Philip Short’s new biography, Putin. Published by Henry Holt. Short is the author of Putin. He also has written other biographies including Mao: A Life and Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare. He had a long career as a foreign correspondent in Moscow, Beijing, and Washington, D.C., for the BBC, the Economist, and the Times of London.

When Bill Clinton telephoned Vladimir Putin on New Year’s Day, 2000, to congratulate him on his appointment as acting President, Putin told him: “There are certain issues on which we do not agree. However, I believe that on the core themes we will always be together.” Clinton was equally upbeat. Putin, he said, was “off to a very good start.”

Later it would be said that the American President had been naïve and that Putin’s protestations of friendship with the West were a masquerade from the start. But Clinton was not alone in seeing the Russian President as a valuable partner in the post-Cold War world. Britain’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair, thought “Putin admired America and wanted a strong relationship with it. He wanted to pursue democratic and economic reform.” The Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, pronounced him ‘a Russian patriot’ and Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, found his support after 9/11 simply “amazing… He even ordered Russian generals to brief their American counterparts on their experiences during their Afghanistan invasion in the 1980s… I appreciated his willingness to move beyond the suspicions of the past.”

On both sides, however, those suspicions never entirely went away. The Warsaw Pact had been dissolved and the Soviet Union no longer existed. “But NATO still exists,” Putin complained. “What for?” From the Kremlin’s standpoint, it was a fair question. “We all say,” he went on, “that we don’t want Europe to be divided, we don’t want new borders and barriers, new ‘Berlin Walls’ dividing the continent. But when NATO expands, the border doesn’t go away. It simply moves closer to Russia.”

The bureaucracy on both sides had a lot to answer for. The Penta­gon, under Donald Rumsfeld, was allergic to anything which might constrain America’s freedom to act as it wished. The Russian General Staff was obsessed with the idea that NATO was planning to deploy troops along Russia’s borders. Putin himself acknowledged that “many things that seem fine in negotiations often end up bogged down in practice.” But even if the blame were shared, the West often gave the impression of deliberately dragging its feet. Francis Richards, who at that time headed GCHQ— the British equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency—remembered: “We were quite grateful for Putin’s support after 9/11, but we didn’t show it very much. I used to spend a great deal of time trying to persuade people that we needed to give as well as take . . . I think the Russians felt throughout that [on NATO issues] they were being fobbed off. And they were.”

The result was a growing sense among the Russian elite that Putin was being played. Vladimir Lukin, who had been Yeltsin’s first ambassador to the U.S., protested: “One sided steps cannot be taken forever . . . Decisions should go both ways. They should not end just in smiles and encouragement.” There was grumbling, not only in the army and navy but also within the Presiden­tial Administration, at what was termed a “policy of concessions” which brought Russia no tangible benefit.

Putin held firm. Russia had made “a strategic choice,” he said: “Russia today is cooperating with the West not because it wants to be liked or to get something in exchange. We are not standing there with an outstretched hand and we are not begging anyone for anything. The only reason that I pursue this policy is that I believe it fully meets [our] national interests . . . A rapprochement with the West is not Putin’s policy, it is the policy of Russia.”

By the end of his first presidential term, in 2004, that position became more difficult to defend. Russia had done everything Bush had asked for and more: it had shared intelligence, given the Americans overflight rights and encouraged its allies to provide base facilities. But what had it got in return? America had insisted on abrogating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, rather than modifying it as the Russians had proposed; it had gone ahead with plans for a national missile defence programme over Rus­sian objections; NATO enlargement was continuing apace and would soon reach Russia’s borders; and Russia’s concerns about America’s invasion of Iraq, which were shared by many of America’s own allies, had been summarily dismissed. The final straw had been U.S. support of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which to the Kremlin was tantamount to promoting regime change on Russia’s borders.

American officials saw things rather differently. They focused instead on Russian backsliding over human rights and democracy issues. But few Russians thought that that was any of America’s business. Even liberals who excoriated Putin’s regime jibbed at heavy-handed foreign criticism. Putin spoke for a wide segment of Russian society when, commenting on Ameri­can criticisms of the Russian elections, he said: “we are none too happy about everything that happens in the United States either. Do you think that the electoral system of the USA is perfect?”

On the surface, the relationship remained correct. But there were worrying undercurrents. Bush’s administration, Putin felt, wanted to keep Russia down and was prepared to go to almost any lengths to do so. Whether, or to what extent, that was true was almost beside the point. What mattered was perception, and the leaders’ perceptions of each other’s goals were starting to diverge.

When Putin finally gave vent to his grievances in public in a vituperative speech at a security conference in Munich in February 2007, American officials were stunned. In fact, he said little that he had not said before. What had changed was the tone. What Putin liked to call the “false bottom” to U.S.-Russian relations—the pretence that all was well and that Russia and America were solid, strategic partners with just a few trifling tactical problems—had been discarded. In simple terms, as Bill Burns, then U.S. Ambassador in Moscow, put it in a cable to the White House, the message was: “We’re back, and you’d better get used to it!”

America, Putin had concluded, was not listening to Russia’s concerns and would not do so until given a salutary shock. “It doesn’t matter what we do,’ he told a group of Russian journalists a few days later. ‘Whether we speak out or keep silent – there’ll always be some pretext for attacking Russia. In this situation, it is better to be frank.” The West saw itself as “shining white, clean and pure” and Russia as “some kind of monster that has only just crawled out of the forest, with hooves and horns.”

Reflecting, a decade after these events, on the steady, seemingly ineluctable deterioration of relations between the U.S. and Russia after Putin came to power, Ambassador Burns concluded that both countries had been deluding themselves all along. “The Russian illusion,” he thought, “[was] that somehow they were going to be accepted, even though the power realities had changed enormously, as a peer, as a full partner.” The American illusion was that “we could always manoeuvre over or around Russia. There was bound to be a time when they were going to push back . . . A certain amount of friction and a certain num­ber of collisions were built into the equation.”

In retrospect, what is surprising is not that Russia’s relations with America finished up as a train wreck, but that it took so long to happen. Putin was not a natural liberal, but he was a realist and, contemplating the available alternatives after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he concluded that cooperation with the West was the only sensible policy. Culturally, spiritually and, in part, geographically, Russia belonged with Europe. It had nowhere else to go. The Russian elite did not send their children to study in Beijing or Shanghai. They sent them to Brit­ish or American schools and universities. Russian oligarchs did not park their ill-gotten gains in Seoul or Bangkok, they invested in Lon­don or New York and bought property in Knightsbridge or Chelsea, Manhattan or Miami.

There was another more personal reason for Putin’s reluctance to abandon the rapprochement with the West. In trying to promote cooperation with Russia’s former adversaries, he had overridden the reservations of many of his closest colleagues. The siloviki, the state bureaucracy and the military had been dubious from the outset about the wisdom of trusting Western governments to engage with Russia as genuine partners. Putin was in no hurry to admit that they had been right and he had been wrong.

The U.S. was equally disappointed. The belief that Mos­cow would become a partner, if not an ally, espousing Western values in an American-led world, which had animated U.S. policy towards Rus­sia since the early 1990s, had proved vain. American exceptionalism found to its surprise that it was facing a Russian exceptionalism which was no less tenacious.

Could it have been done differently? In theory, at least, the answer must be yes. Were there missed opportunities, which, had they been taken, might have set relations on a different road? No doubt. Would the outcome then have been different? Perhaps, but not necessarily; there is no way to be sure. In practice the ideological convictions of the Bush admin­istration, shared not just by Cheney and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz but also by Bush himself, made agreement all but impossible. By 2008, as Putin ended his second four-year term as Russia’s leader, the rift had become too deep to heal.

Over the next ten years, Putin’s disillusionment with the U.S. deepened. Most of his foreign policy initiatives during his third term, from 2012 to 2018, were payback for what the Kremlin regarded as anti-Russian moves by the West.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea was payback for Kosovo, which, with Western support, had seceded unilaterally from Russia’s ally, Serbia. To Putin, that was the first of the West’s three cardinal sins—the others being NATO enlargement and America’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty—that had destroyed both sides’ hopes of building a better, more peaceful world after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden in 2013 and the ban on Americans adopting Russian children were payback for the Magnitsky Act, which allowed America to impose sanctions on Russian officials suspected of corruption or human rights abuses.

Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015 on behalf of that country’s brutal President, Bashir al-Assad, was payback for U.S. intervention in Libya and Iraq.

Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 was payback for America’s efforts to spread—or “impose,” as Putin preferred to say—its own system of values to other nations.

But payback was not an end in itself. It was part of a broader response to the economic and military pressures which the U.S. and its allies were exerting on Russia. Above all, it was an attempt to assert Russia’s place as an independent actor in an increasingly multipolar world in which, in Putin’s view, the United States was destined to lose its role as the dominant power.

Over the course of his third term, Putin’s thinking about Russia’s relationship with the West crystallised, forming, in his mind at least, a coherent picture of all that had happened in the 25 years—the “wasted years,” as he now put it—since the Soviet Union’s demise.

The relationship had started going wrong from the very beginning, Putin thought. Instead of establishing a new balance of power in Europe, the West had created new divisions. Its claim that NATO had no choice but to accept new members from Central and Eastern Europe was phoney, Putin argued. It was true that other countries had the right to apply, but that did not mean that the existing members were obliged to accept them if they thought it was contrary to their own interests. “They could have said: “we are pleased that you want to join us, but we are not going to expand our organisation because we see the future of Europe differently” . . . If they had wanted to, they could have [refused]. But they didn’t want to.”

Putin was not wrong. The NATO Charter says only that the member states “may invite any other European state in a position to . . . contribute to the security of the area.” There is no obligation to do so.

But for Washington, NATO enlargement was a means of consolidating America’s hold over its European allies, even though it implied obligations which, were war ever to break out, the U.S. might be reluctant to fulfill. For countries like France and Germany, the advantages were less obvious. It was hard to see how their security would be enhanced by a commitment to defend the Baltic States, let alone Georgia or Ukraine, from possible Russian aggression. But in the early days, amid the euphoria which marked the end of the Cold War, when the West assumed that Russia was destined to become part of the American-led world and Moscow was far too weak to resist, none of America’s partners thought it worthwhile to object. The result was that NATO’s military infrastructure arrived at Russia’s borders.

What would America have done, Putin wondered, if it had been the other way round—”If Russia had placed missile systems on the U.S.–Mexico border or the U.S.–Canadian border?” The answer was self-evident. When Khrushchev had attempted to install Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, the world had been brought to the brink of nuclear destruction and the issue remained so fraught that, 60 years later, the United States continued to subject the island to an economic blockade.

American officials reject such comparisons. The United States, they say, supported NATO enlargement not to threaten Russia but to reassure America’s European allies. The reality was more galling and more prosaic. The U.S. acted as it did because it could.

“Our biggest mistake,” Putin told a western scholar, “was to trust you too much. Your mistake was to take that trust as weakness and abuse it.” It was a lesson, he said. If a bear stops defending its territory, “someone will always try to chain him up. As soon as he is chained, they will tear out his teeth and claws . . . When that happens, . . . they will take over his territory . . . and then, perhaps, they will stuff him . . . We must decide whether we want to keep going and fight . . . Or do we want our skin to hang on the wall?” In Putin’s metaphor, the bear’s teeth and claws were Russia’s nuclear arsenal. But it was also intended in a wider sense. When he looked back over the previous two decades, he saw—or claimed to see—an America which, from the outset, had set out to dupe Russia.

As Russia’s relationship with the West became increasingly hostile, the backsliding on democracy at home, which American officials had been complaining about ever since Putin’s first term, became more pronounced. Pro-western liberals were excluded from decision-making. Those advocating democratic values were marginalised. The result was a vicious circle. The more the siloviki were in the ascendant, the more internal repression intensified and the worse relations with the West became. Starting in 2018, the regime transitioned from a relatively free authoritarian system to a closed dictatorship, not quite totalitarian but close.

Putin’s rhetoric changed, too. The West, he charged, had backed “an international terrorist invasion of Russia… This is an established fact and everybody knows it.” It was the language of Soviet propaganda from the 1960s and ’70s. Even though it was transparently untrue, it fitted the Kremlin’s narrative of a hostile western world, headed by a waning hegemonic power, which was trying by fair means or foul to tear Russia apart as it struggled to fight off its own inexorable decline.

By 2019, Putin was starting to think seriously about a political transition to a new generation of Russian leaders. He introduced constitutional changes giving himself the possibility of remaining in power almost indefinitely. But that was a feint to prevent a struggle for the succession. He had no desire to die in harness, but nor did he want to preside over the squabbles of his entourage vying for influence against the day when he might step down.

In the meantime, there was one last piece of unfinished business he wanted to resolve: the status of Ukraine.

Putin had had a fixation on Ukraine since long before he became President. In 1991, it had been Ukraine’s insistence on declaring independence that had triggered the break-up of the Soviet Union. Twelve years later, in 2003, Ukraine had dealt him the first serious political defeat of his presidency when the Orange Revolution prevented the election of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych as Ukraine’s head of state. After the annexation of Crimea, in 2014, Putin had hoped that the Minsk accords would lead to the creation of a federal system effectively guarantee the country’s neutrality. But that had not happened. Instead Ukraine became a military outpost of the western alliance, not formally a member but in practice a close partner, hard up against Russia’s border.

That was the pretext, though not the fundamental reason, for the war that Putin launched on February 24. It was not just a matter of bringing Ukraine to heel. It was to show that the U.S. was powerless to prevent it

As the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, put it: “This is not actually, or at least, not primarily, about Ukraine at all. . . It reflects the battle over what the [future] world order will look like. Will it be a world in which the West will lead everyone with impunity and without question or will it be something different?”

This was partly spin. Portraying the conflict as a proxy war in which Russia was fighting on behalf of the non-aligned nations of the world to end American hegemony made it a much easier sell to Russian public opinion as well as to countries like China and India which favoured a multipolar global system. If Russia succeeded, Putin believed, it would fatally undermine the structures of European security which had been built up under American leadership since the end of the Cold War.

The Biden administration insisted that Ukraine was a special case because it was not a member of the alliance and that, were any NATO state attacked, America would rush to its defence. But how much reliance could countries like Poland and the Baltic States place on such assurances when NATO was so risk-averse that it refused to establish a no-fly zone to protect Ukrainian cities for fear of nuclear escalation? Putin’s charge that the West was happy to fight to the last Ukrainian was dismissed as propaganda in America but it gave pause to leaders in Eastern Europe. Would the United States really risk nuclear annihilation to defend Warsaw or Tallinn? The question was not new but the invasion of Ukraine put it in a harshly different light. To Putin, even if Russia had failed to prevent NATO enlargement, it might yet sow doubt about the alliance’s reliability, undermining faith in America’s support for other states on Russia’s borders, NATO members or not.

Putin plays a long game. Throughout his time in office, whenever he was faced with what he saw as an existential choice between antagonising the West and preserving his own power and Russia’s position in the world, the latter always prevailed. That was so when he clamped down on the oligarchs in 2003 and when he annexed Crimea a decade later. On each occasion, he accepted the economic damage to Russia as the price to be paid. In 2022, the invasion of Ukraine followed the same pattern.

At first sight, it appeared that he had grossly miscalculated. The West emerged with a new sense of purpose. Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, proved an inspirational leader. Russia’s economy was battered by sanctions, though less severely than the West had hoped. More worrying for Washington, the global South hedged its bets. Of the world’s ten most populous countries, only one—the United States— unequivocally backed Ukraine.

The Biden administration recognised the danger. America’s goal, said the National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, was ‘a free and independent Ukraine, a weakened and isolated Russia and a stronger, more unified West’. The deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, put it more succinctly. America, she said, wanted to inflict on Putin a “strategic failure.”

It was déjà vu all over again. The West was returning to the old policies of containment that it had honed during the Cold War, but this time with a more radical objective: not merely to contain Russia but to leave it so diminished that it can never threaten its neighbours again.

If, in the process, a new Iron Curtain descends across the continent, its purpose will be different from that imposed by Stalin to subjugate Eastern Europe. This time the goal is to keep Europe free and the Russians out. Unlike Stalin’s Iron Curtain, it will be enforced by economic weapons rather than watchtowers and barbed wire—a memorial to a Europe that might have been but never came to fruition because leaders on all sides failed to grasp the opportunities offered by the Soviet Union’s demise.

Asia Times: Ukraine – the situation (August 10, 2022)

ukrainian flag waving in wind with clear sky in background
Photo by Nati on Pexels.com

By Uwe Parpart, Asia Times, 8/10/22

Overview

* The Ukrainian “offensive” in the south has been underway for 18 days as of today. As an American military intelligence officer observed, “I’m reminded of Lincoln’s comment about McClellan: ‘He has a case of the slows.’” More on this propaganda offensive below.

* In the principal theaters of action, the mouth of the Donbas salient, the line of Ukrainian fortifications near Avdivka, west of the city of Donetsk, and the areas west and north-west of Kherson, there is heavy and stepped-up Russian artillery shelling accompanied by multiple missile attacks throughout Ukraine.

* Russian forces are within 2-3 kilometers of the city of Bakhmut, the transport hub that anchors the south end of the Donbas salient.

* Amnesty International acknowledged the “distress and anger” caused by its report that accused the Ukrainian army of criminal behavior by using civilian facilities as ambush sites and shields but said that it “fully” stands by the report.

* Reports of Russians mining and threatening to blow up the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant have been shown to be false, according to US military sources.

East/Center

Russian forces are engaged in ground and tacair operations with strong artillery support along all points and lines of contact from north and northwest of Sloviansk to Bakhmut and further south to the area west of Donetsk with activity focused on Avdivka, the scene of heavy fighting back in 2017.

Sloviansk itself and at least 11 small towns near Bohorodychne northwest of Sloviansk were struck by sustained artillery fire. Further east, there was small unit ground activity near Siversk.

But principal Russian attention continues to be on Bakhmut as ground forces are pushing toward the transport hub from the Luhan River Reservoir as well as from the east.

Reports that Russian forces have entered Bakhmut from the south-east were contradicted by the Ukrainian General Staff. But even the slowest Russian grind will bring the south-end anchor of the Donbas salient under Russian control in a matter of days to a week.

The most intense current fighting in the East/Center sector is taking place further south along an extended line of contact from Krasnohorivka in the north to Avdivka and Pisky around Donetsk City all the way down to Marinka. The Avdivka to Pisky segment is being contended the hardest.

After taking the fortified Butivka mine halfway between the center of Donetsk City and the center of Avdivka, Russian forces now appear intent on pushing through the fortifications of Avdivka established by Ukraine in 2015-17.

The Ukrainian General Staff still reports that the Russians have not taken Pisky but bloggers and videos show Russians in the town center. A breakthrough at Avdivka looks possible in the near term and would open the western areas of the Donetsk Oblast to Russian attack along the major M-04 highway.

South

The vaunted Ukrainian southern offensive “to liberate Kherson Oblast by September”, as asserted by President Volodymyr Zelensky, to date has been desultory at best.

Aside from establishing a bridgehead across the Inhulets River between Bilohirka and Andrivka some 100 kilometers north of Kherson City prior to the announced start of the offensive on July 23 and off-and-on company-size engagements with Russian forces in the area, there has been no Ukrainian ground forces activity.

The main tactic appears to be to use some of the 16 HIMARS delivered by the US to strike Russian ammo depots and attack bridges across the Dnepr River upstream from Kherson. Perhaps the Ukrainians are still massing forces and the plan was to sever the Russian supply lines and let them “whither on the vine.” But that is not playing out.

Another Ukrainian plan might be to conduct a grand deception, tie some Russian forces down near the bridgehead and build a large strike force near the City of Kryvyi Rih to drive down the west bank of the Dnepr River and catch the Russians from the rear. But there’s no evidence of that yet.

Meanwhile, the Russians are moving more men and material to the region, reportedly at a rate of three to four major convoys a day, and are directing near incessant artillery fire into the bridgehead toward the cities of Mykolaiv, Kryvyi Rih, and Nikopol and into Ukrainian defensive positions along the LoCs.

That has the feel of a Russian “counteroffensive” in the direction of Mykolaiv and some Russian forces have probed in that direction. US military intelligence is now picking up talk by Ukrainians of “postponement” of the offensive.

Assessment

If the Ukrainian offensive that never was is indeed being postponed, then the delay would merely acknowledge military realities. To conduct a significant military offensive without sizeable air support or decisive air superiority is difficult if not impossible.

Even the best of long-range artillery cannot substitute adequately for tacair operations. Moreover, of course, the classic three-to-one manpower advantage or close to that has to be in place. How would the Ukrainian armed forces have come up with that?

Manpower losses on both sides in the months-long slow grind in the Donbas salient were large, probably larger on the Ukrainian side while they had been larger on the Russian side in the early ill-fated attack on Kiev.

New Ukrainian recruits plus forces withdrawn from the East and Center sections of the war theater would have had to make up a Kherson offensive strike force. But there are major constraints on both of these resources.

Russian forces pushing west out of Donetsk into Pisky and threatening Avdivka – even if they were not to continue to drive west – represent a severe threat to more central regions of Ukraine.

Moreover, a Russian victory at Avdivka would have serious morale consequences as it would mean a loss of positions held by Ukrainian forces for seven years. A similar threat is posed by the likely fall of Bakhmut, which might be followed by the fall of Sloviansk.

There may have been the vague and rather desperate hope by the Ukrainians to be able to trap substantial numbers of Russian forces in exposed positions west of the Dnepr River and deliver a quick and demoralizing blow. There may also have been the hope that allegedly exhausted Russia would fail to marshal forces to counter the slow-motion Ukrainian moves.

But it was always a high-risk gamble, a push they will have known could not succeed but undertook nonetheless to convince the US and NATO to deliver massive additional offensive weapons or even eventually intervene more directly.

Nadezhda Azhgikhina: A Letter From the Dacha

An idyllic Russian village of dachas (countryside cottages) in the summertime. (Franz Marc Frei / Getty)

By Nadezhda Azhgikhina, The Nation, 8/3/22

Like many Muscovites, I am spending this summer at the dacha. In 2022, there are many more people than in years past vacationing in our village, located close to the former Obiralovka Junction, where Lev Tolstoy tossed Anna Karenina under a train (women leave bouquets at the memorial plaque at the station, thinking that Anna was a real victim of unhappy love and not a fictional character). One reason there are more people is the development of the Internet; many continue working remotely, which they began doing during the pandemic. Besides, almost everyone who usually vacations abroad is spending the summer of 2022 in Russia because of the international sanctions.

The “special operation” in Ukraine that began on February 24 has radically changed many Russians’ lives, particularly members of the middle class, intellectuals, and people who were active civically.

As Western sanctions were levied against Russia, almost all the major international businesses and their affiliates left the country, leaving thousands of specialists without work. Russian scholars, doctors, musicians, and athletes are being expelled from international associations and universities and barred from concerts and competitions, while at the same time Russian colleges and educational institutions have ended programs of international cooperation and student exchanges. An iron curtain has dropped precipitously from both sides. New laws and rules have made political discussion almost impossible in public, and almost all independent media outlets have been shut down or have decided to close.

The list of “foreign agents” is regularly updated with new names of journalists and human rights activists—this process is aided by denunciations from “vigilant citizens,” a long-forgotten Soviet practice. According to data from human rights organizations, by midsummer close to 200 online and off-line mass media sources were blocked and more than 150 criminal cases and more than 200 administrative cases have been started under the new laws on fake news and discrediting the army. Dozens of rights activists, journalists, and information technology specialists have left the country, finding themselves in a difficult, even untenable, situation: Russian banks are under sanctions, and they cannot use their credit cards or transfer money from Russia. At the same time, people in small towns or poor regions, or who work for the state, or who have never been abroad or cared about politics have not seen serious changes. Grocery prices have gone up, but not a lot. Poor families and pensioners received small (but noticeable to them) state subsidies and other benefits. It must be said that throughout Russia the most varied sources of information are available, including blocked foreign resources, through the simple acquisition of a virtual private network (VPN ownership is free and not criminal—what is punishable is disseminating critical information). But far from everyone is interested in alternative opinions.

This spring, analysts Natalya Zabarevich and Yevgeny Gonmakher predicted that the “special operation” and sanctions would most affect the middle class, educated, and pro-West. The poor would remain poor, and the rich and officials would continue in their privileged positions. Founder of the Yabloko Party Grigory Yavlinsky has warned of the dangers of the growing wealth gap. It is clear today that class differences are highly significant. Three strata of society live in different worlds, experiencing events in their own way.

Our dacha community has representatives of all three classes. My businessman neighbor is building a second “cottage” on his lot. Before 2014, he was in oil products, but after the introduction of anti-Russian sanctions, he switched to import replacement and the production of “Russian Parmesan.” His wife continues to buy the real Italian cheese in Europe. His children live in Spain, and he recently visited them. He thinks that Russia had no choice but to start the “operation” in Ukraine.

He is the only one building in the community. Prices for construction materials, many of which are imported, have tripled. Prices for cars, gadgets, and appliances have soared.

Groceries, pharmaceuticals, and the most essential staples have not increased in price greatly. Store shelves are as stocked as they were before. The shortages predicted in the spring have not occurred. Some brands closed their boutiques, but rather quickly fashionable cosmetics and clothing have appeared in other stores—at a much higher price. However, the demand remains high, and people are still spending. Restaurants in and around Moscow are full and you can’t get in without reservations. McDonald’s and Starbucks may have left Russia, but they have been replaced by Russian-owned cafes with other names and similar products. Russians have become avid consumers in recent years, and the authorities understand that. Delivery services in our community work smoothly.

The businessman’s wife has cosmetics and other mystery packages delivered, while his handyman, a former electrician from a neighboring village, gets beer and nationalist publications. He strongly supports the “special operation” in Ukraine and sometimes calls on fellow drinkers at the local bar to go “fight the Nazis.” His wife, a veterinarian, leader of the local animal rights movement, and regular participant in protests of recent years, was recently fined for an anti-war picket. Husband and wife do not discuss politics. They spend all their money on training for their teenage son—he is the Russian champion in karate and hopes that soon the sanctions will be lifted and he will be able to participate in the next Olympic Games. Their older son, a computer specialist, moved to Georgia at the start of the military operation.

My longtime friends at the dacha—writers, doctors, teachers, engineers—and our long evening conversations this summer remind me of those held by the Soviet intelligentsia, our parents, during the Brezhnev “stagnation” years. We discuss the latest news and statements on the Internet, and every evening we talk about what happened to our country, how we lost what we had fought for in August 1991 and the following 30 years, and how to live now. About how we must complete the conversations from 30 years ago which did not clearly assess the Soviet past. About how it is still not too late to do it. What each of us—at university, business, school—can do to resist the return of totalitarianism. After all, history does not depend only on global trends but also on real people. Perestroika was not made only by Gorbachev and Reagan but by the millions of Soviet people who believed in change and inspired Gorbachev. Just like the Americans who believed that the Cold War had to end. That experience of inner resistance to nascent totalitarianism is extremely important today. As are the 300 years of resistance by Russian intellectuals, journalists, and writers to censorship and arbitrary rule. It lends strength. The experience of resistance to bans, censorship, and state pressure is returning to Russian practice, and it will certainly lead to the victory of common sense. This is what my dacha friends, and many other people in Moscow and other Russian cities, are saying. This gives us hope.

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis

MK Bhadrakumar: Russia’s Vostok 2022 has big messages

By M.K. Bhadrakumar, Indian Punchline, 7/27/22

Bhadrakumar is a retired Indian diplomat.

The announcement by Russian Defence Ministry on Tuesday on Vostok-22 strategic command post exercises during August 30-September 5 gives a big message to the West in political and military terms.

The announcement said, “In addition to the troops (forces) of the Eastern Military District, units of the Airborne Troops, Long Range Aviation and Military Transport Aviation, as well as military contingents from other states, will be involved in these manoeuvres.”

If there is going to be participation by China, it will be highly significant in the present context of global politics, especially in the Far East.

Vostok 2018, held exactly four years ago, was the first time such a massive military exercise was held after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. (At the height of the Cold War in 1981 under Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Union held its last Vostok exercise). In the event, Vostok 2018 turned into a Russia-China gun show.

The Russian Federation put more than 300,000 troops in the field—alongside tens of thousands of tanks, helicopters, and weapons of every sort—for a huge war game in Russia’s far-eastern reaches, and invited the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to play along, which it did.

And a whole new groove in international affairs began appearing, signifying that the interests of Russia and China have once again begun to align — this time around, in response to US military power under a pugnacious president, Donald Trump. 

On the sidelines of the exercise, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping had a breakfast of blinis together in Vladivostok. It was a powerful signal that Russia no longer saw China as an adversary but as a potential military ally. It was widely noted internationally as heralding a major shift in the co-relation of forces in world politics.

To be sure, any Chinese participation in Vostok 2022 will be similarly subjected to close analysis by Washington and its allies at a time of heightened tension in US-China relations, with Beijing warning last week to take “resolute and strong measures” should the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi proceed with reported plans to visit Taiwan.

China has vowed to annex Taiwan by force if necessary, and has advertised that threat by flying warplanes near Taiwanese airspace and holding military exercises based on invasion scenarios. At a meeting in Singapore early July with Chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff, the chief of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission Gen. Li Zuocheng had warned that Chinese military would “resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity. If anyone creates a wanton provocation, they will be met with the firm counterattack from the Chinese people.”

However, at the end of the day, Chinese participation in Vostok 2022 will be seen as an expression of solidarity with Russia in the best spirit of the February 4 joint statement by the two leaderships, which states that “Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”

No matter the usual mantra that the Vostok 2022 is not directed against any third party, its optics will be as a counter to the US pressure on Russia and China. Both Russia and China face new security challenges in the Far East in the recent period — especially, the revival of “militarism” in Japan, NATO’s growing Asia-Pacific posturing, and the belligerence in the US’ provocations over Taiwan.

Tass news agency has reported that Russian Defence Ministry has proposed certain amendments to Russia’s Federal Law “On territorial waters, territorial sea and the contiguous zone of the Russian Federation”, putting restrictions on the passage of foreign military ships through the Northern Sea Route connecting Europe and East Asia.

The proposed amendment will require foreign military and state ships to sail through the Northern Sea Route without entering ports or naval bases, and, furthermore, seek permission from the Russian authorities at least 90 days in advance. The amendment will be effectively restricting the use of the shortest sea route to Asia for the western navies operating in the Asia-Pacific region.

Significantly, this Russian move comes in the wake of the NATO’s plans to forge stronger security links between the North Atlantic area and Asia-Pacific countries (Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand) in a coordinated strategy to counter China’s rise. 

Equally, the staging of Vostok 2022 comes at a juncture when Russia’s military operations in Ukraine are entering a crucial phase. In a major speech in Moscow on July 7 at a meeting with leaders of the parliament, Putin warned that everyone should understand that Russia “by and large hasn’t started anything seriously yet” in Ukraine.

To be sure, Vostok 2022 flies in the face of western propaganda that Russian military capabilities are steadily weakening due to the conflict in Ukraine. The MOD announcement on Vostok 2022 made it a point to touch on it indirectly.

The MOD statement said, “A number of foreign media are spreading inaccurate information about alleged mobilisation activities. Please note that only a part of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation is involved in the special military operation, the number of which is sufficient to fulfil all the tasks set by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief.

“Moreover, none of the planned operational and combat training and military-technical and international cooperation activities of the Russian Ministry of Defence have been cancelled and will be provided with the necessary personnel, weapons, military equipment and materials.”

This is only logical, since, following the massive haemorrhage suffered by the Ukrainian military in the past 5-month period, the military balance is now working favourably for the Russian forces. Equally, the Russian military strategy to grind the Ukrainian forces with heavy artillery and missile strikes and the slow pace of the conflict also meant that the operations are sustainable over a prolonged period.

At any rate, given the hostile posturing of the NATO forces all along Russia’s western borders, it is inconceivable that Moscow would have risked by heavily committing its forces to the Ukraine operations. Interestingly, Germany’s army chief Lieutenant General Alfons Mais told Handelsblatt newspaper recently in an interview that Russia has “almost inexhaustible” resources. 

In the general’s estimation, “With its artillery superiority, the Russian army is apparently working its way forward kilometre by kilometre. This is a war of attrition that will raise the question of how long Ukraine can hold out… The Russian army is getting stronger, and Russia has resources that are almost inexhaustible.”

The focus of Vostok 2022 will be “on the use of groupings of troops (forces) to ensure military security.” It will be staged in 12 different locations spread across the Eastern Military District, one of Russia’s five military districts, with a vast geographical spread of 7 million sq. kilometres, headquartered in Khabarovsk on the Amur river in the Russian Far East near the Russia-China border, and comprises the regions up to Sakhalin Oblast, which includes Kuril Islands.

Roundtable Discussion on US-Russia with Ray McGovern, Ted Postol and Larry Johnson

Link here.

This was an excellent conversation among Ray McGovern, Larry Johnson, and Ted Postol, mediated by Gonzalo Lira. It’s nearly 3 hours long and I had to divide it up into a couple of sittings. I especially recommend watching the first hour or so. The experts here discuss the context of the current conflict between US/NATO and Russia, the nuclear treaties that were abrogated by the US, as well as the utter lack of competence and character of people like Condoleezza Rice and Michael McFaul who have passed themselves off as experts on Russia and have served as advisors to presidential administrations.