Unadulterated Propaganda versus Accuracy: Alexei Navalny versus the ‘underpants poisoner’

Latika Bourke, “Alexei Navalny versus the ‘underpants poisoner'” (Sydney Morning Herald, 5 February 2021)

As examples of crude mainstream media propaganda bashing Russia and in particular the Russian President Vladimir Putin go, few breathlessly pack in as many lies and falsehoods as this article for the Sydney Morning Herald by British-based Australian journalist Latika Bourke. The online article reads like a story written for primary school-age children but the print article in the Saturday edition of the Sydney Morning Herald is hardly much better when it comes to patronising its readers.

Firstly Navalny is claimed to be a thorn in Putin’s side, though the evidence Bourke puts up to justify this is assumed when it is really non-existent. The incident in which Navalny was supposedly poisoned with Novichok while on a plane from Tomsk to Moscow in August 2020 has yet to be investigated by police and examined in a court of law because Russian authorities are still waiting for German authorities to pass on their evidence that Navalny was indeed poisoned with the nerve agent. The film that Navalny recently made purporting to show that a palace in Gelendzhik on the Black Sea coast in southern Russia is owned by Putin has been debunked by Russian journalists who visited the palace and discovered that it is actually a luxury five-star hotel still under construction and owned by Russian billionaire businessman Arkady Rotenberg. (A video of the building can be viewed here.)

Bourke then goes on to give a potted history of Navalny starting with his blogging activities in which he presents as an anti-corruption campaigner targeting corruption in government-owned companies. He did this by buying shares in various enterprises so he could get access to company financial reports and attend shareholder meetings, and also by establishing his Anti-Corruption Foundation (its Russian acronym is FBK) to compile reports from ordinary citizens of everyday government corruption. Along the way Navalny collected over six million YouTube subscribers and over two million Twitter followers, not all of whom necessarily live in Russia. One notes that Navalny limits his investigation of corruption activities to those where the people involved in corruption may be linked to senior figures in the Russian government; to take one example, he does not appear ever to have investigated the corruption of former Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov who was fired by Putin in 2012.

What Bourke fails to mention though – and this is critical to understanding why Navalny was arrested, charged and convicted in court, and subsequently jailed as soon as he arrived in Moscow in January 2021 – is that Navalny was embroiled in at least two cases of embezzlement and fraud. In 2008, Navalny and his brother Oleg formed a transportation company (Glavpodpista) to deliver goods on behalf of the Russian branch of French cosmetics company Yves Rocher: the transportation company turned out to be a shell company that paid another delivery company to transport the goods for less than what Glavpodpista was paid by Yves Rocher Vostok to do. Both Alexei and Oleg Navalny were found guilty of embezzlement on 30 December 2014 and Alexei was sentenced to 3½ years of house arrest while Oleg Navalny went to jail for the same period of time. In the second case, Alexei Navalny was hired as a business consultant to advise a publicly owned timber company, Kirovles, in Kirov region; instead Navalny formed a company to buy timber products from Kirovles at reduced prices and resell the timber to Kirovles’ customers at prices they would normally pay Kirovles if buying direct from that company. As a result, Kirovles went bankrupt and its employees lost their jobs. For this, Navalny was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on 18 July 2013. The reason that Navalny is in jail at this time of writing is that he violated the conditions of his house arrest (from the Yves Rocher case) throughout the first several months of 2020 before he made his trip to Tomsk in August by not reporting regularly to the police authorities as he should have done.

Putin’s supposed targeting of Navalny, which Bourke devotes much space to, revolves around that August 2020 incident in which Navalny fell sick on the plane flight from Tomsk to Moscow and the plane had to divert to Omsk so Navalny could be taken to hospital there. Not long after he fell sick, the German government sent a plane to collect Navalny from Omsk hospital, even though hospital doctors declared he was too ill to travel, and took him to the Charité Hospital in Berlin, where the doctors apparently found he had been poisoned with a cholinesterase inhibitor. In early September 2020, the German government announced that Navalny had been poisoned with Novichok. There then followed weeks of farcical news as, first, the tea which Navalny drank just before boarding the plane in Tomsk was said to have been poisoned; then the water bottle that Navalny drank from at his Tomsk hotel was supposed to have been poisoned (and which was later revealed to have been bought at an airport vending machine by FBK member Maria Pevchikh while travelling with Navalny back to Moscow; Pevchikh then flew back to the UK where she lives and works, avoiding questioning by Russian authorities over Navalny’s supposed poisoning); and finally and currently, Navalny’s underwear was revealed by so-called “citizen journalism” outfit Bellingcat to have been smeared with Novichok. How FSB agents tailing Navalny managed to contaminate his underpants while he and his FBK and other associates were not looking seems never to have been broached.

One notes that Bellingcat apparently acquired information about the FSB agents tailing Navalny by buying phone records with cryptocurrency through a black market dealing with phone data obtained from phone databases. One wonders how accurate such information can be when it is gathered from sources and in ways that are not transparent. Might it be that the FSB agent Konstantin Kudryavtsev, who Bourke says was duped by Navalny into revealing that the latter’s underwear had been smothered in Novichok, actually had never spoken with Navalny, that his identity details had been stolen from a hacked phone database, and that the person who spoke with Navalny was actually an actor pretending to be Kudryavtsev?

On being jailed for violating the conditions of his house arrest, Navalny and his close associates took to social media platforms such as TikTok to implore people (many of them schoolchildren lured by advertisements of parties) to attend illegally organised protest rallies across Russia. Some 40,000 people attended these rallies, which sounds like a lot of people until one remembers that the city of Moscow alone now has 12.8 million (as of late 2020 / early 2021) and so 40,000 represents just over 0.003% of that city’s population – hardly a significant proportion of Moscow’s population, let alone the rest of the country.

The Western MSM spotlight on Navalny’s recent activities from 2020 onwards comes at a time when “Color Revolution” regime-change activities and other means of overthrowing governments that the US and its Western allies happen to dislike have been failing in Belarus, Hong Kong, Venezuela and other parts of the world. On top of that, the responses by Belarus, China, Russia and Venezuela to the COVID-19 pandemic among their peoples and their healthcare sectors have resulted in relatively low death rates from the disease compared with the catastrophic mortality rates in the US, the UK and across the EU. Western public attention to the differences between the West on the one hand and on the other Russia, Belarus and China in the way they have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic – Russia and China in particular developing their own vaccines like Sputnik V to the disease – and to rising socio-economic inequalities generally in all Western nations must be deflected to issues involving apparent human rights violations: for China, this means focusing on Uyghurs supposedly incarcerated in holding camps where they are beaten, tortured or raped; and for Russia, this means focusing on supposed “opposition political figures” like Navalny, who incidentally has never enjoyed more than 2% support from the Russian electorate and who has never been a politician. An opinion poll conducted by Levada-Center in September 2020 demonstrates the aversion and contempt most Russians have for Navalny.

Why Bourke then repeats the stale lies about Russia annexing Crimea (no, the Crimeans held an independence referendum and voted to leave Ukraine in March 2014); helping to shoot down Malaysia Airlines MH17 (still not proven despite numerous court hearings in The Netherlands); or trying but failing to kill Sergei and Julia Skripal in the UK with Novichok (still not proven either, despite the ever-changing narrative in which among other things the door-handle of the Skripal house was supposedly contaminated with Novichok, necessitating the removal of the house’s roof), in concluding her article, there is certain to be one answer: through banal repetition over and over, Bourke’s article serves to reinforce the Western propaganda narrative that Russia is governed by a devious, untrustworthy and corrupt government that oppresses its people and relies on a faltering economy dominated by fossil fuels to maintain a supposedly failing order. Putin is consistently portrayed as a despotic dictator who steals from his people and relies on an economy dependent on fossil fuel exports, and surrounds himself with excessively kitsch wealth. The Russian business community which has links with the government and Putin – necessary if it needs government approval and funding for major infrastructure projects – is seen to be packed with corrupt Putin cronies. (One can see considerable psychological projection of the desires and beliefs held by Western political elites onto what they imagine passes for backroom politics in the upper levels of the Russian leadership.) The sooner the Russian government and its President are replaced by leaders amenable to the US – so that Russia’s resources can be privatised and plundered by US and other Western corporations – the better: that is the message being hammered into the mass Western consciousness. The objective behind the message however is obscured.

Vladimir Putin’s Davos online forum speech (2021): a plea for cooperation and mutual respect in striving for peace and prosperity

Vladimir Putin’s Davos online forum speech (2021)

Invited to the Davos online forum organised by the World Economic Forum over 25 – 29 January 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech on what he believes will be the state of the world over the third decade of the 21st century and what governments everywhere should do to ensure that everyone everywhere can live in peace and prosperity. After acknowledging the effort made to hold the annual Davos forum during the COVID-19 pandemic, Putin commented on the effect the pandemic is likely to have on current trends in societies and that problems and imbalances that have already built up may worsen. In particular models and instruments of economic development are undergoing a crisis, social stratification and inequalities are increasing and these trends are encouraging the growth of populsim and extremism in nations’ political cultures, with the result that violent conflicts have broken out. In turn, international relations are becoming unstable and unpredictable, regional conflicts that were once dormant or simmering are now escalating into violence and war, and the rules-based international order is breaking down.

Putin then describes what he believes to be the main challenges facing societies across the world: socio-economic challenges such as the wide and widening differences between the wealth of a small global elite and the wealth of the vast majority of humanity; socio-political challenges such as rising inequality which is leading to social conflicts and intolerance; and the worsening of current international problems such as global debt and the increasing militarisation of the world. He notes that governments need to create programs that restore and stabilise economies adversely affected by the pandemic and that this restoration is sustainable and overcomes the problems created by socio-economic inequalities. Putin proposes that government should concentrate on reducing socio-economic disparities in their own sovereign states and between states. Four key priorities are identified by Putin: the universal need for shelter and decent living conditions with access to transport and public utilities; the need to provide gainful long-term employment for everyone that ensures a decent standard and quality of living; access to high-quality and effective healthcare; and children’s access to education that develops their talents and skills and enables them to achieve their ambitions in the long term. Putin concludes this part of his speech by emphasising the need for nations to cooperate to tackle common problems and for nations to respect diversity in the approaches and policies used to deal with grave issues and problems. This requires the recognition that the world can and should be a multi-polar one in which several axes of power can exist, instead of being a world where only one superpower is allowed to dominate and to dictate to the rest of the world how they should govern themselves.

Putin then narrows his scope to speak about Russia and its role in helping to stabilise different regions in particular parts of the world by stopping armed conflict and bringing warring parties to negotiate, and in developing a COVID-19 vaccine and cooperating with other nations to ensure the vaccine Sputnik V can be made available to their populations.

Not much is new in Putin’s speech that he has not said before, in stressing the need for cooperation and partnership, and for diplomacy and negotiation over conflict and violence. Putin makes no suggestion as to how nations should coordinate their efforts to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic or with any other pressing issues such as climate change. He does not say what he believes are real as opposed to artificial global problems, though one can guess that the real problem is the West’s intransigence in refusing to work with and to respect other nations, and insisting that it alone has the answers to other nations’ problems. Putin says that nations should disabuse themselves of unrealistic ambitions about always being leaders and instead humbly and honestly deal with one another as equal partners. One really cannot ask for more than this, and yet Western nations are likely to refuse to follow this advice, simply because it is coming from a leader the West fears and hates for his ability and effectiveness as a world leader.

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech (2020) / Q&A Session

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XVII Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (Moscow, 22 October 2020) – Part 2: Q&A Session

After his speech (see Part 1), Russian President Vladimir Putin took several questions from Fyodor Lukyanov, the moderator of the plenary session, and various attendees at the Meeting both in person and online. These questions covered a wide range of topics, not all of which had been mentioned in Putin’s speech, and several were general, even abstract almost, while others were specific and covered incidents that were topical at the time.

As moderator, Lukyanov probably had the lion’s share of questions (though he may have been relaying questions from parts of the audience) and one pertinent question was why Russia would not pursue an economic lock-down again if it were hit by a second wave of COVID-19 and if this meant that Russia’s priorities in dealing with the pandemic had changed to favour the economy rather than people’s health. The examples of Sweden and Belarus as nations that did not introduce economic lock-downs were cited. Putin replied that during the lock-down during the first wave in Russia, the government mobilised resources and funding to support individuals, families, small to medium-sized businesses and even companies and industries, and to build up the healthcare system so it has the flexibility (including a reserve of hospital beds) to cope and deal with the pandemic should it flare up again. Putin believes that the funding allocated to support the health sector and other economic sectors was used effectively, and that this will enable the country to ride through a second pandemic wave without having to introduce a second nationwide lock-down that would destroy jobs and threaten distribution networks, and create distress including mental health problems among the public. The President notes also that Sweden and Belarus had their particular reasons for not introducing lock-downs, and that interestingly Sweden did not mobilise its resources to support its economy or its people during lock-down.

Several questions raised the issue of arms control and whether Russia has made too many concessions in adhering to international treaties and limiting its arsenal in the wake of recent US belligerence in refusing to renew treaties or to walk away from them, or even to accuse other nations of violating treaties when in fact those nations had done no such thing. Putin’s response is that arms control treaties are still necessary if the world is to have a future; but if other nations wish to throw their weight around and ignore arms control treaties, the Russians are prepared to build on what has already been achieved in the past, even if it was one step forward and two steps back, and are ready to work with others to achieve arms control no matter what stage or level of global arms control has been reached.

Because I am familiar with Anatol Lieven as a writer and policy analyst, I took note of the question he asked about what position Russia would take with regard to the outbreak of war in Nagorno-Karabakh, whether Russia would side with Armenia against Azerbaijan and Turkey if ceasefires and other attempts at peace fail, and if this conflict might be an opportunity for Russia to work with France and other western European nations. Putin’s reply is to point out that Russia does not favour Armenia over Azerbaijan simply because of having Orthodoxy in common as a religion, and that Russia’s connections with both countries make it ideal as a mediator. As for allying with France against Turkey’s ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean Sea region, Putin states Russia is not keen on picking sides. While perhaps Putin’s replies might not satisfy Lieven and others who want Russia to take one side or the other, one should understand Russia’s reluctance to take on such roles that could give an opportunity for the US and its allies to aid the opposing side, to sap Russian military power and at the same time create other conflicts that would try to draw in Russia as well and force the Russians to fight on several fronts. It is not Russia’s intention to act as the world’s enforcer or police officer and its stand on potential conflict between France and Turkey, or between Armenia and Azerbaijan, reflects that intention.

A related issue was posed to Putin, as to what Russia’s fundamental foreign policy goals are towards nations around its borders that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Putin’s reply is that Russia’s foreign policy goals are taking place within the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and that all the post-Soviet states will recognise the common interests and overlapping histories and cultures they share which will help to draw them closer and achieve stability.

The issue of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny and his recent poisoning while flying from Tomsk to Moscow, during which his plane was diverted to Omsk where he received hospital care, later to be transported to Berlin (at the request of his family, which Putin granted even though Navalny was technically under house arrest) where doctors reported he had been poisoned with Novichok, brought into the spotlight the question of whether Germany and Russia still had a special relationship (due to the mixed history of relations between Germany and the Soviet Union / Russia in the past) or whether that relationship had changed. After noting that Russia had opened an investigation into Navalny’s poisoning, in which investigators had asked for information from Germany to assist (and that information had not been supplied), Putin notes that the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev played a major role in allowing East and West Germany to reunite in 1989, that Germany is Russia’s second largest trading partner (after China) and that having mutual interests such as trade and stimulating employment will always be at the heart of Russian-German relations.

Questions on Chinese-Russian relations were dealt with by Putin emphasising the areas in which Russia and China are working together (trade, sharing military technologies, developing infrastructure, holding joint military exercises).

A question from Anton Roux, head of the ADC Forum in Melbourne, on how Putin might wish to be remembered, brought forth Putin’s reply that he is not concerned about his reputation or how future generations of Russians might see him. (A very interesting response indeed, given that many Western leaders seem anxious about leaving a highly burnished reputation behind despite being very mediocre politicians.)

The last question put to Putin concerned the lack of government support for Antarctic research, even though a research station was already under construction with government funding, and Putin promised to bring up this issue with the relevant government department and find out why the research funding is being neglected.

While the range of questions put to Putin covered many different areas, and many related to domestic Russian issues as well as international issues, Putin’s responses generally err on the side of caution, with a conservative attitude that stresses co-operation and mutual agreement, and Russia’s strategic interests. While this means Putin’s answers are not exciting or particularly revelatory, one can understand the caution given that many questions came from people living overseas in countries where anti-Russia propaganda is in full swing among people at all levels of society and some of these questions may have required careful answers.

Perhaps the most significant revelation for Western audiences is that Putin actually approved the transfer of Alexei Navalny to Germany for medical treatment despite knowing that Navalny was a criminal. Amazingly, no-one seems to have asked why he personally intervened and gave permission for Navalny to be flown overseas. Surely Putin’s action casts a slur on the heroic attempts of the doctors, specialists and nurses at the Omsk hospital to save Navalny’s life?

Several of the questions asked were typical of questions Putin gets during his annual Q&A sessions with the Russian public and one might expect that in future Valdai Club Meetings, the moderators perhaps should steer questions away from issues of a domestic nature and encourage people to ask questions relevant to the topics raised in the annual Meetings. The downside of this suggestion though would be to make the Valdai Club Meetings rather less attractive and accessible to the Russian general public and perhaps limit its access to Putin to raise his awareness of important national and regional issues. For his part, Putin may not mind being asked questions concerning domestic issues at the annual Valdai Club Meetings if he is keen on keeping a finger on the public pulse.

It seems very odd that Westerners in Putin’s audience did not press him further on his vision of what constitutes a free, strong and independent civil society with vibrant institutions supported by the state and the citizenry, or challenge him on what he says or insinuates about the United States and its alliesi, or those NGOs and international organisations that act as regime-change agents and creators of instability and chaos. In my view, we have missed an opportunity to learn something from Putin and what his vision of Russia might be.

A transcript of this Q&A forum and of Putin’s speech preceding it can be viewed at this link.

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech (2020): finding hope, opportunity and direction in a world in crisis

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XVII Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (Moscow, 22 October 2020) – Part 1

The 17th Annual Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club was held in Moscow over 20 – 22 October 2020 with the theme “The Lessons of the Pandemic and the New Agenda: How to Turn the World Crisis Into an Opportunity for the World”. For the first time in its history, the Club’s programme, ranging over the global COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, the escalating US rivalry with China, the possibility of global tech war and global climate change, all inter-related and in which a common theme of the world falling apart through suspicion and paranoia rather than coming together with an open spirit can be detected, was open to the news media and the general public. On the last day of the Meeting as per custom, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered the final speech via video link. At the end of his speech, Putin took questions from various individuals attending the Meeting, both physically and via video link: the questioners included Samuel Charap, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, well-known writer / journalist / policy analyst Anatol Lieven, Anton Roux of The ADC Forum in Melbourne, Hans-Joachim Spanger of The Leibniz Institute Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt and Zhao Huasheng of The Institute for International Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai.

Putin opens his speech by observing how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the Valdai International Discussion Club’s ability to hold debates and discussions and introduce new experts to share their views and opinions. He then goes on to describe how the Russian government has met the challenge of the pandemic in Russia itself, and how this challenge has emphasised the importance of certain values such as mutual assistance, service and self-sacrifice within the country. Putin stresses that only strong and secure states can deal effectively with the crisis presented by COVID-19, and that such states are strong because of the trust and confidence their citizens place in them. For states to be strong, they must have their own political cultures and traditions, and their own visions of what they want for their citizens and their particular pathways to achieve those visions. The state must support public initiatives by providing them with appropriate platforms, infrastructure and resourcing to sustain them and by opening up opportunities for them to grow an thrive. To the extent that this can be possible, other nations cannot impose their visions of “democracy” and “civil society” on states developing their own political cultures and traditions. (This is a clear jibe at Western nations interfering in other countries’ affairs to the extent of infiltrating and grooming non-government organisations and charities in those countries to carry out regime-change activities and overthrow their governments.) Putin then describes how Russia in the 1990s, and other countries in a similar situation, were dependent on foreign funding to finance non-government organisations and the threat this posed to Russia’s survival as a single nation.

Looking at the world in 2020, Putin observes how much it has changed since the end of World War II in 1945. Then, the post-war order was (as Putin sees it) established by the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. Since then, the Soviet Union has disappeared and Russia has taken its place to some extent; the United Kingdom has become a waning power; the United States still believes in its own exceptionality and invincibility but is also a declining power; and other nations such as China and the Federal Republic of Germany are rising to superpower status. Putin notes that international organisations established to carry out particular missions as part of the post-war international rule of law have been subverted by particular nations and behave in particular ways according to ideology, and not on the basis of reason, pragmatism or need depending on the context or the situation. The result is that various issues end up highly politicised and cannot be resolved properly because they are interpreted and polluted by false propaganda narratives.

On the other hand, there have been initiatives established by nations coming together to solve specific issues and Putin expresses hope that mutual help between nations can and will continue to achieve international stability and security, fight terrorism and solve problems beyond the ability of any one nation to solve successfully. These problems include climate change as it manifests in different parts of the world: in Russia, it manifests in the melting of the Siberian permafrost, leading to the sinking of buildings in towns and cities, disruption in utilities and necessary infrastructure, and the large-scale release of methane into the atmosphere which will accelerate global warming.

Lastly Putin discusses the impact of COVID-19 on cyber-technologies that enable distance communications but which also exposes people and communities to issues of cyber-security such as hacking and other cyber-crimes, and unwanted and intrusive surveillance by governments and corporations, public and private. All these plus the other crises and challenges Putin has mentioned in his speech can certainly pose threats to our security but they also present opportunities for transformation to a better way of life and a more secure and stable planet.

Throughout his speech Putin poses the choice facing us all: we can choose to react with fear and paranoia to the challenges brought about by changes that have occurred throughout the world since 1945, as a result of a relatively long peace in First World and Second World nations (in large part because they cynically used Third World nations as their proxy battlegrounds), the fall of Communism in the late 1980s / early 1990s, and the arrival of new technologies, in particular digital technologies, that changed cultures and societies; or we can choose to overcome our fears, prejudices and presumptions about others to reach out to friends and foes alike, find common ground, and work together to find solutions to the threats endangering Earth and humanity’s future. The point here is that what appears at first to be a crisis with potential for great loss, destruction and chaos can be turned into an opportunity to achieve better and greater things – but only if we are prepared to work with others, and that means respecting their rights, opinions and beliefs, and not insisting that they change to our expectations.

Significantly as in previous Valdai Club plenary session speeches, Putin does not name those nations that seek to undermine other nations’ governments and security through overthrowing their leaders and installing their own increasingly despotic and vicious versions of “democracy”, “freedom” and “civil society” but his audience will well understand him to mean the United States, the United Kingdom, France and other EU nations, and their allies.

The Q&A session that follows Vladimir Putin’s speech will be dealt with in a separate essay. An English-language transcript of the speech and the Q&A forum following can be found at this link

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Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Speech to the Russian Federal Assembly (15 January 2020): a vision of a future democratic Russia

Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Speech to the Russian Federal Assembly (15 January 2020)

Under Article 84 of the Russian Constitution, the Russian President is required to give an annual speech to the Federal Assembly on the current state of the Russian Federation and on what he believes should guide the nation’s domestic and foreign policies. The annual speech does not have the force of law. Since 2018, the current President Vladimir Putin has been giving his annual speech early in the year but 2020 marked the first time the speech was given in January. The reason for the early delivery is apparent in the opening paragraphs of the transcript of the speech: the theme of the entire speech is change, evolution and development of the necessary institutions and structures in order to face and deal with oncoming issues of social, political, economic and technological importance that cannot be swept under a carpet and assumed to be gone. These changes involve direct active personal participation by all Russians.

Most of the speech (roughly two-thirds of it) is taken up by serious issues and potential crises of an internal domestic nature. The demographic issue of a small generation of young people born during the chaotic and impoverished Yeltsin years from 1991 to 1999 is having an effect on population growth; there simply are not enough young people coming into the critical phase of their lives in which they form families and have children of their own. Unfortunately at the same time people’s incomes are not high enough for them to be able to afford having more than one child. To this end, Putin proposes that programs be adopted to provide more subsidies to families under more social welfare programs so that people can afford to buy homes and create environments into which babies can be born and children can thrive. Such programs include increasing monthly benefit payments for low-income families, increasing “maternity capital” payments to mothers of two children, subsidising mortgage payments when a family welcomes a third child, building more schools and providing free hot school lunches to pupils.

As a consequence of urging more government assistance to families to encourage them to have more children, Putin also foresees more schools will have to be built, more teachers must be trained and the institutions and structures that support teacher education and employment must also be improved. This in turn leads to the general issue of the quality of university education and boosting university education and enrolments across the nation, particularly in regions that lack or are short of medical staff, teachers and engineers. From there, Putin’ speech focuses on issues of healthcare, the training and remuneration of medical staff, and the resourcing of regional medical centres with medication supplies.

Other issues of a domestic or internal nature in Putin’s speech include government investment in vital industries and in research, and in particular the infrastructures that support and provide the environment in which industry can thrive and research can be carried out. Digital technologies and digital network infrastructures, of which the Internet is the most obvious manifestation, receive attention as forums in which the public is able to participate in the life and culture of the nation.

So far, Putin’s speech lays out a vision of an ideal Russia, provided that the relevant government departments and regional governments get off their backsides and work diligently to pursue the President’s vision. What has got Western mainstream news media fired up (in the belief that Putin is appropriating more power to himself) though is the final third part of Putin’s speech in which he proposes various changes to the Russian Constitution, of which some include the devolution of some of the powers and duties of the President to the Prime Minister, and the transfer of the power of the President to appoint the Prime Minister, the deputy Prime Ministers and all Federal Ministers to the Duma (the lower House in the Federal Assembly). One very significant reform proposal is to require prospective Presidential candidates to have had at least 25 years’ permanent residency in Russia, to have no foreign citizenship or foreign residency permits; another significant proposal is that Presidents cannot serve more than two successive terms. These proposed reforms are aimed at decentralising and diffusing political power through the executive and legislative institutions, undoing the changes that previous President Boris Yeltsin made to the Constitution (with the help of the CIA) and concentrating power in the Presidency in the 1990s; and at reducing as much as possible the potential for foreign interference in Presidential elections and in the executive function.

At the same time, Putin states that Russia must continue to have a strong Presidency, and that the President must retain the right to dismiss the Prime Minister and the government, and remain head of the nation’s armed forces. He then goes on to propose other reforms that have the effect of spreading power through the executive, legislative and judiciary functions of government and at the same time place checks and balances that each function can exercise on the others. Significantly Putin proposes that his proposed reforms be put to public referendum.

The entire document reads like a manifesto mapping out a future democratic society in which everyone has as much opportunity as possible to contribute to the well-being of all; moreover, a society that genuinely cares for people and supports them, and expresses love through concern for their development as well-rounded, educated and capable human beings. This is the legacy that Putin wishes to leave Russia when he retires as President in 2024.

Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Speech to the Russian Federal Assembly (1 March 2018): a new vision, a new path to greater prosperity and unity

Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Speech to the Russian Federal Assembly (1 March 2018)

Usually the Russian President gives an Annual Speech to the Russian Federal Assembly in the first week of December but on this occasion the speech was delayed and set back to 1 March 2018, some seventeen days before the Presidential elections are set to take place. Current President Vladimir Putin is standing for re-election for the second and last time, and if he regains the presidency (as many expect him to do), then this March 2018 speech will serve as the mid-point of a remarkable period in which Russia transforms from a developing country, having suffered near total economic collapse, political corruption and social decay during the 1990s after some decades of stagnation, into a major global political power with a diversifying economy balanced among manufacturing, a renascent agriculture and mining, and a considerable potential to project soft power and influence in the form of a rich history and culture. Putin himself has overseen much of the country’s reconstruction since becoming President in early 2000 and staying at or close to the helm of the nation for the past 18 years. During this period there have been very many developments for better and for worse that have influenced the path Russia has taken in its reconstruction: on one side, there have been major technological achievements that promise to transform people’s lives (not necessarily always for the better) and communities; on another side, the rise of China as a major political and economic power opens up opportunities for the Russians and Chinese to work together to bring economic, political and social benefits to their peoples; on yet another side, Russia faces the enmity of nations in the West angered that their attempts to usurp Russian natural resources from the control of the Russian people in the 1990s have failed with the ascent of Putin to the Russian Presidency.

Putin recognises the possibilities, opportunities and threats faced by Russia in his March 2018 speech: the first and larger half of his speech deals with domestic issues, and the challenges that these present to the government; the second half of his speech – and the half that has dumbfounded much of the world’s media – concentrates on Russian defence capabilities with an emphasis on new defensive technologies and weapons. Let’s look at the first half of Putin’s speech, that half that is focused on issues of concern to ordinary Russian citizens, as this is essentially dedicated to securing a foundation of stability for Russian families, communities and larger rural and urban settlements, and on which the nation’s future progress depends. Providing meaningful and well-paid work, improving and extending necessary infrastructure (including Internet-related technologies) in cities, towns and villages, building more houses and making them more affordable with the appropriate housing finance, improving healthcare, social services and education, committing to high standards of environmental safety and protection: these are all issues that the President referred to in some depth in his speech, enumerating achievements, pointing out deficiencies that could be worked upon and solved or improved, and setting out tough but attainable goals. In each topic, the President ranges from the very specific, focusing on particular problems and on targets, to the general.

A nation with the ambitions Russia has needs a sound and stable investment environment and Putin spends considerable time detailing the desired economic structures and policies needed to grow the economy to the target levels. Encouraging the growth of small businesses, investing in new or upgraded technologies, increasing wages and offering better and more accessible financial resources are some policies the government will adopt. At the same time, Putin observed that the agricultural industry has undergone a renaissance (thanks partly to economic sanctions against Russia by the US and Europe) to the extent where Russia has brought in bumper wheat harvests two years in a row and is poised to become the leading global exporter of wheat. For agriculture and other industries to continue to develop, appropriate government institutions and networks are needed to supply the proper advice and assistance to small business owners and the self-employed.

Such ambitions, goals and grand plans also need a secure environment to take root and thrive, and for much of the rest of his speech Putin focuses on the most recent advances in systems of Russian strategic defence weaponry, including nuclear-powered energy cells that can be inserted into missiles and unmanned submarine drones. Putin states that these advances and new systems are a response to the US decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2000, which Russia had relied upon to stop the reckless deployment of nuclear weapons. While one suspects Putin very much enjoyed delivering this part of his presentation, like a child revelling in his toys, the President also took care to praise the scientists, engineers, designers and technical people who dedicated their energies and talents in creating, testing and developing these systems and weaponry. Putin concludes his presentation by reiterating that while Russia is ready and prepared to defend itself, the nation has resolved to follow its own path to prosperity and freedom, to respect and observe international law, and to work together with other nations to preserve global peace, stability and wealth.

This is a very wide-ranging speech with much detail in its different parts with an emphasis on doing things, setting targets and striving to achieve them. Wherever possible the President emphasises collaboration and co-operation at all levels of work and hierarchy, and focuses on the unity of all individuals, groups, communities and institutions in working together. For a political speech, this presentation is visionary yet does not look or sound at all impractical or tries to bedazzle listeners with gee-whiz technical gadgetry that looks great on paper or a digital screen but morphs into a hugely expensive white elephant in reality. The humour – yes, there is humour! – is of the dry drop-dead kind: “… Friends, Russia already has such a [hypersonic] weapon …” to take one example.

While people may wish that the ideological thrust of the President’s speech were more socialist / democratic, and the economic platform concentrating less on economic growth and concerned more with quality of life and environmental sustainability, the fact is that Putin is a pragmatic populist in his own way, who prefers to stick with the tried and true (in insisting on running a real economy as opposed to following the dictates of Wall Street and the demands of the global financial economy) and ends up a leader in much more than the strict political or economic sense – which is much more than can be said for the current generation of Western political leaders.

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech (2016): shaping the world of tomorrow needs mutual understanding and co-operation, not lies, propaganda and destruction

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XIII Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (Sochi, October 2016)

As is his usual custom, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech at the final session of the annual Valdai International Discussion Club’s 13th meeting, held this year in Sochi, before an audience that included the President of Finland Tarja Halonen and former President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki. The theme for the 2016 meeting and its discussion forums was “The Future in Progress: Shaping the World of Tomorrow” which as Putin noted was very topical and relevant to current developments and trends in global politics, economic and social affairs.

Putin noted that the previous year’s Valdai Club discussions centred around global problems and crises, in particular the ongoing wars in the Middle East, and this gave him the opportunity to summarise global political developments over the past half-century, beginning with the United States’ presumption of having won the Cold War and subsequently reshaping the international political, economic and social order to conform to its expectations based on neoliberal capitalist assumptions. To that end, the US and its allies across western Europe, North America and the western Pacific have co-operated in pressing economic and political restructuring including regime change in many parts of the world, in eastern Europe and the Balkans, in western Asia (particularly Afghanistan and Iraq) and in northern Africa (Libya). In achieving these goals, the West has either ignored at best or at worst exploited international political, military and economic structures, agencies and alliances to the detriment of these institutions’ reputations and credibility around the world. The West also has not hesitated to dredge and drum up imaginary threats to the security of the world, most notably the threat of Russian aggression and desire to recreate the Soviet Union on former Soviet territories and beyond, the supposed Russian meddling in the US Presidential elections, and Russian hacking and leaking of emails related to US Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton’s conduct as US Secretary of State from 2008 to 2012.

After his observation of current world trends as they have developed since 1991, Putin queries what kind of future we face if political elites in Washington and elsewhere focus on non-existent problems and threats, or on problems of their own making, and ignore the very real issues and problems affecting ordinary people everywhere: issues of stability, security and sustainable economic development. The US alone has problems of police violence against minority groups, high levels of public and private debt measured in trillions of dollars, failing transport infrastructure across most states, massive unemployment that either goes undocumented and unreported or is deliberately under-reported, high prison incarceration rates and other problems and issues indicative of a highly dysfunctional society. In societies that are ostensibly liberal democracies where the public enjoys political freedoms, there is an ever-growing and vast gap between what people perceive as major problems needing solutions and the political establishment’s perceptions of what the problems are, and all too often the public view and the elite view are at polar opposites. The result is that when referenda and elections are held, predictions and assurances of victory one way or another are smashed by actual results showing public preference for the other or another way.

Putin points out that the only way forward is for all countries to acknowledge and work together on the problems that challenge all humans today, the resolution of which should make the world more stable, more secure and more sustaining of human existence. Globalisation should not just benefit a small plutocratic elite but should be demonstrated in concrete ways to benefit all. Only by adhering to international law and legal arrangements, through the charter of the United Nations and its agencies, can all countries hope to achieve security and stability and realise a better future for their peoples.

To this end, the sovereignty of Middle Eastern countries like Iraq, Syria and Yemen should be respected and the wars in those countries should be brought to an end, replaced by long-term plans and programs of economic and social reconstruction and development. Global economic development and progress that will reduce disparities between First World and Third World countries, eliminate notions of “winning” and “losing”, and end grinding poverty and the problems that go with it should be a major priority. Economic co-operation should be mutually beneficial for all parties that engage in it.

Putin also briefly mentioned in passing the development of human potential and creativity, environmental protection and climate change, and global healthcare as important goals that all countries should strive for.

While there’s not much in Putin’s speech that he hasn’t said before, what he says is typical of his worldview, the breadth and depth of his understanding of current world events (which very few Western politicians can match), and his preferred approach of nations working together on common problems and coming to solutions that benefit all and which don’t advantage one party’s interests to the detriment of others and their needs. Putin’s approach is a typically pragmatic and cautious one, neutral with regards to the political or economic ideology of whomever he deals with, but an approach focused on goals and results, and the best way and methods to achieve those goals.

One interesting aspect of Putin’s speech comes near the end where he says that only a world with opportunities for everyone, with access to knowledge to all and many ways to realise creative potential, can be considered truly free. Putin’s understanding of freedom would appear to be very different from what the West (and Americans in particular) understand to be “freedom”, that is, being free of restraints on one’s behaviour. Putin’s understanding of freedom would be closer to what 20th-century British philosopher Isaiah Berlin would consider to be “positive freedom”, that is, self-mastery, with the implication that for people to have self-mastery, societies need to provide the conditions in which such people can exist and thrive.

The most outstanding point in Putin’s speech, which unfortunately he does not elaborate on further, given the context of the venue, is the disconnect between the political establishment and the public in most developed countries, the role of the mass media industry in reducing or widening it, and the dangers that this disconnect poses to societies if it continues. If elites continue to pursue their own fantasies and lies, and neglect the needs of the public on whom they rely for support (yet abuse by diminishing their security through offshoring jobs, weakening and eliminating worker protection, privatising education, health and energy, and encouraging housing and other debt bubbles), the invisible bonds of society – what might collectively be called “the social contract” between the ruler and the ruled – will disintegrate and people may turn to violence or other extreme activities to get what they want.

An English-language translation of Putin’s speech can be viewed at Paul Craig Roberts’ blog at this link.

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech (2015): in the midst of war, a plea for co-operation, mutual respect and trust leading to renewal and reconciliation

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XII Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (October 2015) 

Compared to his speech at XI Meeting in 2014, this 2015 speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t quite as ground-breaking but it is full of fire nevertheless. In his speech, Putin spiked the United States government and its elites for following a path that has not only led to war and instability around the world, and continues to do so, but which has the potential to spread poverty, ignorance, distrust and a degraded culture as well, one that celebrates and encourages even more chaos and brutality.

The theme of the XII Meeting was war and peace and Putin had plenty to say about the current global drive towards war, driven in the main by the United States and its allies. Starting from a general perspective on the role of war as a catalyst for relieving tensions and re-organising and establishing new political, social and economic hierarchies in the world, Putin observed how the threat of war diminished in the period after the end of World War II in 1945 – a period in which diplomacy under the threat of nuclear war prevailed – until the Cold War ended in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union. Since then, diplomacy as a tool for resolving long-simmering tensions and conflicts has increasingly fallen by the wayside and the use of force by the United States to achieve its aims in different parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, has come to be the first resort. Along with this flexing of military muscle and the chaos, violence and brutality that have followed, comes the creation of economic blocs, based on neo-liberal economic ideologies, between and among nations with the signing of treaties whose details and implications are deliberately hidden away from the public and never discussed or mentioned until long after the ink used to sign the documents has dried. At the same time, governments, corporations and the media actively seek to withhold and censor information, analysis and opinion that oppose the aims of their agendas; plus they use databases and database networks to gather and share information about citizens and their families for various purposes which can include blackmail, psychological manipulation, marketing and pushing products and services for profit. Constant wars against terrorists and terrorist movements – themselves the consequence of US-led invasions of countries (and in the case of ISIS, possibly the creation of the US government and its agencies, to serve as a substitute army keeping Middle Eastern countries weak and divided) – result in the displacement of people in those countries, leading them to flee in their thousands to Western countries, usually by any means available (no matter how hazardous and expensive), which are not only reluctant to offer safe haven to them but actively and aggressively throw them back into the seas or imprison them in detention centres where they face abuse, violence and death from fellow refugees or prison guards working under stress. The refugee crisis is used by Western governments to whip up hatred and prejudice against refugees, and to encourage and escalate public support for more invasions of the countries being destabilised to “stop” the refugee flow.

Putin singled out the example of Syria where the process of regime change, starting in 2011 with the aim of ousting President Bashar al Assad, in ways similar to the Kiev Maidan revolution against President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine over 2013 and early 2014, is in full swing with takfiri fighters belonging to groups such as Islamic State, Jabhat al Nusra and other al Qa’ida offshoots, all funded and armed by foreign governments, fighting the Syrian Arab Army. Putin observed that such terrorist groups are hard to fight if they are being used as a de facto army to overthrow governments that, coincidentally, the US and its friends do not like.

Putin went on to say that Russia launched a military operation in the form of airstrikes on the Islamic extremists at the request of the Syrian government. Russia understands that if the terrorists in Syria win, they will send many of their number to Russia itself, in particular into the vulnerable region of Daghestan and its surrounds. Putin emphasised that the world must support the revival of Syria and Iraq, and assist in their reconstruction and revitalisation of their institutions. A plan must be developed for these countries’ reconstruction, for the restoration of their infrastructures, their hospitals, housing and schools. This is an opportunity for all countries throughout the world to come together and offer assistance to these two long-suffering nations. What is most noteworthy about Putin’s speech at this point is its emphasis on the Syrian people as the major party in deciding Syria’s future and deserving respect, civil treatment and autonomy in the decisions they make about their institutions and future from the rest of the world.

While the theme of the XII Meeting may have been war and peace, the theme of Putin’s speech is that for peace to reign, nations must co-operate together, respect one another and trust one another and in the rule of international law. This is very much a speech that follows from his speech at the XI Meeting in 2014. The fact that Putin ended his 2015 speech by speaking of renewal, restoration, hope and opportunity, and the hard work that must be done to achieve revival, demonstrates that he and his government are looking beyond helping Syria get rid of ISIS and other terrorists, and stabilising the country. An opportunity for Syria to become a model of reconstruction, renewal and reconciliation for the Middle East and the wider world is present and ready for the taking. How many Western politicians can be said to be as forward-looking as Putin? Given the way in which the US has blundered in the Middle East and north Africa over the past decade and how Germany brought chaos and confusion when it offered a haven to thousands of Syrian refugees stuck in Turkey, with no apparent thought for how to bring them over or how they would be settled, it seems that having a vision of the future and achieving it is something beyond Western leaders’ capabilities – to the detriment of the West.

This essay is based on the English-language transcript of Putin’s speech at the Vineyard of the Saker blog.

The Charlie Hebdo False Flag in Paris: Theory, Evidence and Motive – analysis of the attacks as a covert operation to disguise and to deceive

Stuart J Hooper, “The Charlie Hebdo False Flag in Paris: Theory, Evidence and Motive” (21st Century Wire, 13 January 2015)

If like me, you suspected something odd about the official accounts of the shootings that took the lives of 12 people and injured 4 others at the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in early January 2015 and you believe there’s far more behind the massacre that’s being withheld from the public, this essay by Stuart J Hooper ought to stir your interest. The article can be read at the 21st Century Wire website or you can listen to the audio transcript. Both prose and audio transcript go into considerable detail and range widely in examining the broad geopolitical context behind the killings so readers and listeners alike may need two or more excursions through the material to digest it all.

The essay posits that the killings may be a false flag operation as defined by US commentator Dr Webster Griffin Tarpley in his book 9/11 Synthetic Terror: Made in USA. Tarpley’s definition of a false flag incident includes a setting in which unseen actors perform heinous acts and force patsies to bear responsibility for them under a privatised and controlled hidden command structure. The acts are reported by a controlled corporate media interested in currying favour with its owners and masters over proper investigation and analysis of the acts and reporting the truth to the public. What Tarpley might have added is that for such a setting with such actors and institutions to exist, a particular culture with certain political, economic and social conditions, values and belief systems exists that favours its development and continuation. Governments and corporations, be they private, public or in-between, feel no compulsion to be accountable to their publics and lying, opacity and disseminating propaganda are so widespread as to be a necessary part of living as breathing is. The people are trained to want to be lied to. Citizens are treated with contempt and as cyphers to be used and abused by governments and others with political, social and economic power.

Hooper’s essay then examines what is known about the attacks to see if details about them suggest the attacks could be a false flag. The perpetrators were masked: because they were masked, their shouting of “Allahu akbar!” and that they had avenged the Prophet Mohammed don’t mean much in identifying them as radical Islamic extremists – anyone can shout such exclamations regardless of his/her faith, including you and I. What the utterances do though is to frame the attacks and push them into a particular narrative to be taken up and repeated by an unquestioning news media, and to be exploited by governments and corporations, sure in the knowledge that the public accepts the narrative, to advance their own agendas. All other alternative explanations about the perpetrators and their motives are shut out. The men on whom the killings are blamed appear to be patsies: what is known about Said and Cherif Kouachi’s backgrounds and histories suggests they lacked the ability, skills and experiece in planning and executing a professional hit on 16 people. The getaway driver turned out to be a teenage boy at school at the time of the murders.

If the attacks had been done in such a way that none other than professional killers could have performed them, how could the killers be so remiss as to leave their passports behind in the getaway car? An explanation may be that leaving ID papers behind was part of the killers’ mission to frame the Kouachi men and the teenager in order to distract the police and throw them onto a wild goose chase after the patsies. The killers would then have time to escape, blend in with the French public and maybe even leave France.

The fact that the Kouachi men had been tracked by the US, UK and French governments for years and that one of them was linked to al Qa’ida in Yemen and to Anwar al Awlaki, himself killed by a US drone in 2011, could suggest that these men were being used as assets by an unknown organisation with a command structure.

Perhaps the most important part of the essay is its investigation of the prevailing geopolitical situation to find possible motives for the attacks to occur in France in the way they did at the time they did. A number of such motives exist: the French President François Hollande recently broke ranks with his fellow NATO leaders in a radio interview in stating that Russia did not want to annex eastern Ukraine, that economic sanctions against Russia had to stop and that France would not participate in unilateral military intervention in Libya. It so happens also that France is under pressure from Russia and from French ship-building unions to deliver two long-overdue Mistral warships to that country; the likely legal and financial consequences of non-delivery and the effect on France’s business reputation must be weighing heavily on Hollande. The insinuation is that the Hebdo attacks are a warning to France to follow the NATO narrative and agenda without question regardless of the impact on French national interests and the EU project. This  suggests that a hidden command structure of the kind Tarpley’s definition of a false flag requires does exist. Some websites have raised as a possible motive the fact that in November 2014, the French lower house of parliament had voted in favour of supporting Palestinian statehood. This is more difficult to prove but there an eerie parallel could exist with Malaysia, which hosts a war crimes tribunal in Kuala Lumpur that convicted Israel guilty of genocide against Palestinians in November 2013; the following year, Malaysia Airlines lost two passenger jets in separate incidents, one of which (the shoot-down of MH-17 in Ukraine in July) appears very strongly to be a false flag incident as per Tarpley’s definition.

Hooper’s article does quite a convincing job of making the case for the Hebdo attacks being a false flag, in tying up and reconciling various anomalies and contradictions in the details of the attacks. Subsequent developments after those attacks: the march of various world leaders in Paris to show solidarity favouring freedom of the press; terror raids in Belgium, France and Germany; cyber-attacks on 19,000 French websites; the increased police security around Jewish public places in France while Muslim communities suffered increased anti-Islamic attacks and discrimination but no extra police presence; Israel pressuring the French Jewish community to leave France for its own shores; and governments in various European states including the UK ramping up repressive measures – all insinuate that the Hebdo attacks have become an opportunity to shock and scare Europeans into accepting police state measures they otherwise would have decried, even demonstrated against. One could be forgiven for being paranoid and imagining that an unseen command structure or institution is indeed manipulating events and shepherding Europeans and others through fear, terror and uncertainty into a dark direction.

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai speech (2014) / Q&A Session: what part of Putin does the West refuse to understand?

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XI Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (Sochi, 24 October 2014) – Part 2: Q&A Session

This second part of my essay focuses on the Q&A session that followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Final Plenary Session of the XI Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club held in Sochi in late October 2014. Part 1 deals with the President’s speech and can be read elsewhere on this blog.

Having finished his speech, Putin took a number of questions in a Q&A session from a number of people starting with questions by the British journalist Seumas Milne and (later in the session) Canadian political scientist Piotr Dutkiewicz on the issue of Crimea’s independence referendum, subsequent breakaway from Ukraine and reunification with Russia in early 2014. In answer to these questions, Putin patiently reiterated that Russia would seek conservative and proven solutions emphasising co-operation and mutual respect and that the country was not seeking to recreate an empire but will defend its own regional interests. He referred to the United Nations’ Charter – Part 2 of Article 1, to be precise – on the right of peoples to self-determination and to decide on their government without pressure from external others (even if these others are supposedly their legitimate rulers) with respect to the validity of Crimea’s independence referendum and compared the situation in Crimea with that of Kosovo in 1997.

Nevertheless in reporting his chairing of the discussion and the Q&A session in an article for The Guardian newspaper, Milne inexplicably portrayed Putin’s answer to his question in such a way as to misrepresent what he said, omitting to mention that Putin had mentioned the UN Charter as the basis that justifies and validates the Crimean independence referendum, and which also justifies Putin’s comparison of both the Crimean and Kosovar referendums. In particular, Milne omitted to give the full context of the statement in which Putin admitted stationing Russian troops in Crimea “to block Ukrainian units”, implying that Russian soldiers prevented Ukrainian soldiers from guarding polling stations when in fact Russian soldiers were protecting polling stations from being invaded and voting disrupted by Ukrainian forces. The overall result of Milne’s omissions was to suggest that Putin and Russia had wilfully annexed Crimea and had been prepared to use force and violence to brazenly claim another nation’s sovereign territory on flimsy pretexts; in other words, Putin and Russia were acting as if a No Rules global regime were already in place, and Might Is Right is one of its guiding principles. Such biased reporting might be expected of other Guardian reporters like Shaun Walker but I had expected far better from Milne.

As demonstrated by Milne and Dutkiewicz, a number of Western representatives in the Q&A session took for granted a particular point of view about Putin in which he behaves like a stereotypical autocratic dictator who has stashed several hundreds of millions of US dollars in bank accounts throughout the world and who conducts his foreign and domestic policies on the basis of self-interest, greed and expediency, and on that basis asked Putin rather slanted questions that seemed intended to rattle him and/or force him to contradict himself over points he made in his speech. Thus a media representative, Neil Buckley, asked Putin if he considered Ukraine to be a real and sovereign country and why there apparently were soldiers in Russian uniforms in Eastern Ukraine aka Novorossiya. To his credit, Putin not only patiently answered the questions (even though some were repeated but in a slightly different guise) but took the opportunity to explain something of Ukraine’s 20th-century history and how it became a hodge-podge nation of a number of ethnic and religious groups with nothing in common and even very different pre-1945 histories. He holds his own well against other speakers by  being able to recall and quote details of issues discussed with little prompting.

One of the more (though slightly) thoughtful questions came from Toby Trister Gati who wanted to know something about Russian-US relations and perhaps what Putin had in mind while criticising the US and its actions in the Middle East and in Ukraine: was he referring to the US President, the US political elite or American citizens generally. Putin seemed genuinely surprised that Gati did not know how the US is destabilising the Middle East by helping the terrorist organisation ISIS. The President kept coming back to the American insistence that it (the US) is always right and that it is an exceptional country bringing democracy to the benighted corners of the Earth.

Another of the few intelligent questions batted to Putin was one by academic Robert Skidelsky who expressed concern over Russia’s reliance on energy exports and the country’s low levels of economic diversification. This gave Putin the opportunity to expound on the economic and financial reforms that have taken place since he first became President in 2000.

An interesting question was posed by Nikolai Zlobin to Putin on whether Russia was making a great mistake by isolating itself from the rest of the world and in so doing, becoming more nationalistic and less democratic. Again this question reflects the prevalent viewpoint that Putin is re-establishing the Soviet Union in all its isolated and isolating ersatz glory in a Russian form. Putin’s reply was that Russia does not intend to shut itself off – it is the rest of the Western world, under pressure from the US, that is shunning Russia. In answer to Zlobin’s statement that Moscow has shut down various educational exchange programs, cut off certain non-political non-government organisations (NGOs) from Russian funding and clamped down on certain foreigners and dual citizenship, Putin pointed out that these programs, NGOs and the foreigners who had been asked to leave had been financed from abroad to carry out agendas that amounted to spreading propaganda of a subtle kind and portraying certain political and economic ideologies and philosophies as the only ones for Russia to follow. He also pointed out that the US has similar laws that prevent  backdoor subversion of US culture and society through exchange programs and charities. To rub salt into a wound, Putin even took apart aspects of US political culture – such as indirect electi0n of the President by an electoral college, contrary to what most American voters themselves believe – and pointed out the hypocrisy of a nation that tells others what to do but does not practise what it preaches. Putin and Zlobin both discussed nationalism in its American and Russian contexts and came to agreement on its ability to unite people in a nation and at the same time cut them off from others and set countries onto paths of isolationism and distrust of others.

In answer to a Chinese university academic on what he meant by “conservatism”, Putin assured him that he was referring to its original meaning of preserving the best of policies, attitudes, values and traditions that have stood Russia well over the decades, even centuries, and being open to everything new that is effective and worthwhile, and which helps Russia to advance and grow. Some people will recognise this as the kind of conservatism that used to exist in politics in the Anglosphere around the middle of the 20th century before it was distorted by Thatcherism / Reaganism and which is still represented by commentators like the American palaeo-conservative Pat Buchanan.

The Q&A session was generally more noteworthy for what the questions say about the mind-sets of the people who asked them than what they were actually about. The questioners generally proceeded from an assumption that the US is basically good, that the current US government has lost its way and, if only it had better politicians who were less self-interested and more genuinely interested in advancing their country’s welfare and in cooperating with everyone else, then US President Barack Obama would fulfill his presumed role as a sort of Messiah who would eliminate all inequalities and discrimination, abolish poverty and wrongdoing, and lead his people into a New American Century, all shiny and glittering with gold. There is no consideration at all that perhaps the US government and its agencies are populated by rogue elements answering to a power other than the American people, and that the country’s institutions, values and belief systems are much to blame as they continue to attract the most psychopathic personalities into the upper political, economic and social echelons. Clearly Putin operates on a different planet than many of the people who quizzed him. Thus there was a certain amount of repetition in some of the questions and an obsession with the situation in Ukraine and Crimea, suggesting that the people asking the questions couldn’t believe what they were hearing from Putin and trying to grill him until he came up with the answers they were expecting.

On that note, I conclude that the Q&A session was not in itself as highly informative and illuminating about Putin’s speech as it could have been, apart from Putin’s replies to Professor Feng Shaolei about conservatism and to Nikolai Zlobin about Russia’s relations with the rest of the world.