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

.

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.

“Leaked Court Docs Upending Brazil!” – a brief look at news of leaked documents concerning a popular Brazilian politician

Lee Camp “Leaked Court Docs Upending Brazil!” (Redacted Tonight, June 2019)

Along with his weekly “Redacted Tonight” news / current affairs program, comedian / journalist Lee Camp occasionally uploads short rants … I mean, short talk pieces in a “Viewers’ Questions” series to the Redacted Tonight channel on Youtube.com. In this particular recent short piece, half of which is given over to answering viewer questions on other topics, he talks briefly about the current political upheaval and crisis in Brazil created by the publication of a huge trove of leaked documents and emails concerning the imprisonment of popular socialist-lite politician Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2016. The documents were leaked to the online US-based news publisher The Intercept, specifically to Glenn Greenwald who lives in Rio de Janeiro.

The leaked papers demonstrate that the prosecution of Lula da Silva, running for Brazil’s Presidency in 2018, had been politically motivated with the aim of removing him from the Presidential campaign so that Jair Bolsonaro, representing extreme fascist political forces in the country, could win the election. The judge (Sergio Fernando Moro) who presided over Lula’s trial and the Operation Car Wash corruption investigations, of which Lula’s trial was part, was shown to have (illegally) worked with the prosecutors in their investigations that led to Lula’s conviction and imprisonment. As of the time of Camp’s piece, there were still documents being released that may reveal more about Moro’s biased and illegal interference in the proceedings designed to prevent Lula da Silva from contesting the Presidency.

The time allocated to this “Viewers’ Questions” episode doesn’t permit a detailed look at the recent political situation in Brazil and how that developed over time, starting with Lula da Silva’s previous tenure as President (2003 – 2010) and Dilma Rousseff’s subsequent Presidency which ended in 2016 with her impeachment, and what those two leaders managed to achieve for Brazil, that would have given viewers some background on why those leaders are hated so much by Brazilian fascists and their supporters in the middle and upper classes. Lula da Silva and Rousseff carried out programs of cautious social reforms and change that benefited the poor in a way that tried to accommodate the interests of the middle and upper classes, build political consensus and emphasise inclusiveness. However these layers of Brazil’s society turned against even this gradual policy of social reform and change, and through personalities like Sergio Moro used a wide-ranging criminal investigation of corruption in the country’s state petroleum company Petrobras (Operation Car Wash) to target and ensnare Lula da Silva and Rousseff.

The role of the United States government in assisting the fascists to target Lula and Rousseff might be relevant, in that the US ambassador (Liliana Ayalde) to Brazil at the time of Rousseff’s impeachment had previously been US ambassador to Paraguay at the time that country’s president was impeached in circumstances similar to those prevailing during Rousseff’s impeachment.

The rest of the episode is given over to Redacted Tonight viewers’ questions about topics from previous episodes including the possibility of Australian journalist Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States to answer to trumped-up espionage charges that could put him away in prison for up to 170 years! This topic in itself deserves its own episode, given that that extradition seems a certainty once Assange serves his current 1-year jail sentence in Britain for previously skipping bail.

While this “Viewers’ Questions” episode is informative on a superficial level at least, I do wish the entire episode had been longer to give its main topic a little more depth and to do justice to some of the other viewer’s questions raised.

Investigating trauma and how a society deals with uncomfortable truths in “America in denial: Gabor Maté on the psychology of Russiagate”

Anthony DiMieri, “America in denial: Gabor Maté on the psychology of Russiagate” (The Grayzone Project, May 2019)

For two years from the time Donald Trump won the US Presidency, the United States has been gripped in a collective hysteria over his campaign’s supposed collusion with the Russian government to capture the nation’s leadership from his rival Hillary Clinton. It was only in April 2019 that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, after conducting an investigation from May 2017 onwards, finally submitted his report to US Attorney General William Barr (and published it in redacted form in April) in which he concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge the Trump campaign with collusion or coordination with the Kremlin. The curious thing about Russiagate is not that this hysteria and obsession with Russian wrongdoing or interference in US politics existed at all but that it lasted as long as it did across the political spectrum, to the extent that nearly the entire nation believed in a rumour that, when exposed to light, had no legs; and moreover, when the rumour was exposed, so many people erupted in anger and disbelief and refused to believe that they had been deceived. Despite Russia’s protestations that it had never interfered in the 2016 US presidential elections, the lie continues; if anything, it has become a permanent part of the nation’s cultural belief set that Russia is continuing to undermine American politics, even when evidence can be found that other nations are trying to influence US politics and policy.

To this end, Grayzone journalist Aaron Maté sat down with his father Gabor Maté, a physician and expert on mental health and the effect that childhood traumas can have on future adult life, to discuss the Russiagate phenomenon and how the election of Donald Trump as US President was received by thousands if not millions of Americans as a traumatic and emotionally scarring event. The half-hour conversation between the two ranges across various cultural and social psychological phenomena that have shaped American thinking over decades, perhaps even the past two centuries, that have come together not only to predispose Americans into believing that a foreign enemy they have long been taught to fear is attacking them using underhanded methods but to invest considerable effort into maintaining that belief even when it has been shot down. Psychological projection of one’s own sins onto another, scapegoating, the cult of victimhood and that peculiarly American custom of reducing and personalising complex politics and history into one person and making that person the epitome of Evil, with the result that US foreign policy ends up focusing on taking that person out, leaving chaos behind once that person is gone and having either a vague plan or no plan at all for reconstruction and rebuilding a defeated rival country: these are topics discussed in a fairly cursory manner, with no examination of how such American characteristics might have arisen in the past, and what contexts and institutions helped to birth those characteristics.

Gabor Maté comes close to choosing Hollywood as a major source of the various narratives that encourage Americans to adopt quite infantile views of how the world operates, focusing on individuals with particular psychologies and powers rather than on the long-term sociological processes that shape individuals’ mentalities and careers and which push them in certain directions. In such narratives, people and nations are either Good or Evil, America is always on the side of Good and those who oppose America are always Evil, and Good always vanquishes Evil. For many Americans, Donald Trump is clearly Evil and so it is natural that he and that other personification of Evil, the Russian President Vladimir Putin, should have put their heads together and plotted to make Trump President. (Of course there are also many Americans who regard Trump as Good.) It is a pity that father and son Maté do not trace this thinking back to the days of the Pilgrims and other early settlers who compared themselves to God’s Chosen People sent to America to tame it (and exterminate the indigenous people who owned the land) and claim it for their own. The journalist and his physician Dad unfortunately do not examine the role of Hollywood, mainstream news media and education in constantly repeating the idea of America as God’s Chosen and Exceptional Nation, to whom all other nations bow down and regard as their spiritual and moral better.

The interview also ranges across the reality of America meddling in other nations’ affairs to the extent of choosing those nations’ leaders, forcing them to sack leaders America does not like or even carrying out regime-change activities that include violence, invasion and warfare. Robert Mueller, appointed to investigate Democrat claims of Trump’s collusion with Russia, comes in for examination as a saviour supposed to deliver America from the clutches of Evil by finding incriminating evidence that will suffice for an impeachment of Trump. People clearly had unrealistic expectations of what Mueller was supposed to achieve and the actual result would have been traumatic for them.

I would like to be able to say that the conversation between the two men was bright and scintillating but while some of the issues they brought up were interesting and thought-provoking, their actual conversation droned quite considerably and keeping up with their monotone without feeling drowsy was hard. Fortunately a transcript of the interview is available at The Grayzone Project website.

At the end Gabor Maté says that being disillusioned and facing the truth is much better than continuing to believe in illusions and risk being traumatised when the illusions do not work out the way they are expected to; but beyond seeing the truth, he does not say how people should come to terms with the truth and the trauma it causes, and how they should act on the truth and become more open-minded and less inclined to follow fantasy illusions promoted by Hollywood, governments, academia and the news media.

The Curious Incident of the Skripal Poisoning in Salisbury, UK: a View from the Russian Foreign Ministry

Russian Foreign Ministry Meeting with Foreign Ambassadors on Skripal poisoning case (21 March 2018)

For nearly all of March 2018, the world was gripped by a strange incident in the sleepy English cathedral town of Salisbury – the kind of provincial English urban centre that might be a setting for a low-budget television crime / mystery series – in which an elderly Russian ex-spy and his adult daughter from Moscow were found unconscious (and the daughter suffering convulsions and loss of body functions to boot) on a park bench in the town’s shopping mall on a Sunday afternoon. The couple are attended by a doctor who administers first aid before they are taken to the local general hospital. Initially the two are thought to have suffered an overdose of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid drug which can be fatal in small amounts, not just to those who ingest but also to first-response emergency personnel who accidentally breathe or touch the particles while treating the victims. The narrative however starts to change from one day to the next: a police officer is reported as having been stricken by the same poisoning agent (which changes from fentanyl to a mystery nerve gas toxin) but the onset of his symptoms is very different (sudden as opposed to gradual in the case of the Russians) yet his condition is described in media reports as serious but stable while the Russians’ condition is critical. British police make a strange show of going to the local cemetery in Salisbury to cordon off the graves of the ex-spy’s wife and son and having two officers in hazmat suits perform a lap around them.

By the middle of March, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have blamed Russia for poisoning the Russian ex-spy Sergei and daughter Julia Skripal with a Novichok nerve gas agent, and demanded an explanation from the Russian ambassador, despite having no evidence that the Russian government or its agents had anything to do with the poisoning, if indeed poisoning with a man-made agent let alone Novichok did occur. At the same time the British government refused to share any information about the Skripals’ condition or to reply to Russian requests about Julia Skripal, and denied Russian consular access to the stricken woman. The British government also appointed a barrister to represent the Skripals’ interests in a High Court hearing on 22 March 2018 to allow doctors to obtain fresh blood samples from the couple; as far as is known, said barrister refuses to contact family and business connections of the Skripals in Russia.

With the British ultimatum to Russia demanding an explanation for the poisoning of the Skripals passing its deadline, the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow summoned all foreign ambassadors to a meeting on 21 March 2018 to discuss the Skripal poisoning incident. Speaker Vladimir Yermakov gave an outline of the situation surrounding the incident from a Russian point of view, noting that Russia was within its rights in requesting samples of materials for testing for the presence of Novichok from the British. He observed that the British had not shared any information about the incident or the condition of the Skripals with Russia, and that the way British authorities were dealing with the incident and blaming Russia was clumsy and inept. The possibility that British authorities themselves were involved in the attack on the Skripals, directly or indirectly, was raised.

Yermakov noted that the Director-General of the Organisation of Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had met with the United Nations Security Council to discuss the use of chemical weapons in Syria, at which meeting the Salisbury incident was raised by the British. The Russians asked questions about the incident, to which the answers were evasive. Yermakov went on to say that Russia itself had destroyed all its chemical weapons stockpiles under OPCW supervision and control by late September 2017.

Two other speakers were invited to give a broader context to the issue of the possible use of Novichok or a Novichok-like agent in the Salisbury incident. Major General Igor Kirillov from the Ministry of Defence spoke of the recent discovery made by Syrian Arab Army soldiers in East Ghouta (which had been held by jihadi forces for several years), in the Damascus region, of secret laboratories for the production of chemical weapons. Jihadis in that area had been preparing a large-scale CW attack that would be blamed on the Syrian government. He went on to discuss the issue of Novichok and how most information about it in the West comes from one former Soviet chemist, Vil Mirzayanov, who currently lives in the US and who holds anti-Putin views. Mirzayanov published the formulae for making Novichok in a book and on the Internet – which means that anyone with a chemistry background up to and including undergraduate university level can make the stuff. More information about Mirzayanov and his publications, and the research on Novichok and related nerve gas agents (including a list of these) was provided by Viktor Kholstov from the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

Kirillov also reminded the audience that the UK also researches and makes toxic nerve gas agents including VX nerve gas and sarin in its Porton Down laboratory (some 12 kilometres away from Salisbury) and has tested them on human guinea pigs in the past. He mentioned in particular the name of Ronald Maddison, a young soldier who was killed by sarin liquid in one experiment in the 1950s which he had volunteered for after being invited to participate in a flu vaccine trial.

There then followed a Q&A session in which ambassadors from various Western European countries and the US expressed support for and solidarity with Britain on the Salisbury incident. The ambassador from Bosnia and Hercegovina complained about the Serbian ambassador having mentioned incidents in Sarajevo and other parts of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s that were used by NATO to justify bombing Serbia, and suggesting a parallel with these incidents and the Salisbury incident, in that the Salisbury incident was being exploited by the West to isolate and demonise Russia. The ambassador from Venezuela expressed support for Russia to resolve the investigation of the Skripal poisoning in a manner transparent to everyone and urged the British to do the same.

This meeting should be of interest to all those keen to see the Salisbury incident dealt with in the manner that all incidents in which individuals are victims of possible foul play should be treated: in the manner that shuns finger-pointing, blaming others and holding kangaroo courts before evidence is properly collected, sorted and analysed to determine how the incident occurred, who most likely had the means to cause and create it, and the possible motive the perpetrator had to do it. The meeting presents the official Russian point of view of the Salisbury incident and provides a good (if embarrassing) example of how Western nations have closed ranks around the British position despite the lack of definitive evidence or proof provided by the British government so far of Russian involvement in the attack on the Skripals.  (For an example of such evidence, see this slideshow presentation made by the British Embassy in Moscow.) The British reaction to the Salisbury incident and the British government’s exploitation of it demonstrate the extent to which British elites are prepared to jettison British principles, values and institutions – and the British people themselves – to pursue an agenda against Russia.

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.

Imperialism on Trial – Eva Bartlett: an impassioned and informative talk on the Syrian war and Western news media distortions of that war

“Imperialism on Trial – Eva Bartlett” (London, 31 January 2018)

Canadian journalist Eva Bartlett was invited to speak at an anti-war protest meeting in London about her experiences in Syria in investigating and documenting events of the Syrian war, interviewing people there about their experiences and what they had witnessed, and demonstrating through her own first-hand experiences and the experiences of Syrians the extent of the disinformation and propaganda propagated by Western news media outlets. This meeting was part of a tour she undertook across Britain and Ireland focusing on media propaganda and lies about the war, and the deliberate falsification of reports on the war’s duration according to a framework and agenda portraying the war as a civil war between the Syrian government and domestic rebel opposition. The ultimate aim of such media propaganda and falsehoods is to foment public support across the globe for Western invasion and intervention in Syria including the overthrow of the Syrian government and its replacement by a government or foreign occupation. In turn, Western occupation of Syria aims to steal the country’s natural resources, in particular its energy resources, and to use Syrian territory as a base for terrorists to penetrate and destabilise other countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

A large part of Bartlett’s talk consisted of first-hand anecdotes of her experiences in Syria and the stories of the people she met in various cities and towns in Syria, including Aleppo and Homs: cities and towns that had been held or partly held by jihadists and bombed by them as well. She described her experiences of applying for and obtaining a visa to visit Syria and how freely she was able to move around the country (though usually with an escort for her safety) and interview individuals and groups of people. Contrary to Western news media perceptions, Bartlett has never been funded by the Russian government but is entirely self-supporting. Bartlett did not say a great deal about the type of society that exists in Syria or existed in the country before 2011 when the war broke out, apart from mentioning that people of different Islamic denominations did marry and that there was much less religious sectarianism in Syria than the Western mainstream news media made out. Free healthcare and education existed, as in Libya before 2011, and there was enthusiasm for political change. However the thirst for political revolution was absent across the country.

Bartlett described how the war initially began with small protests in Dar’aa in the south of the country that escalated into violence with the arrival of jihadists in groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS.

A theme constantly running through Bartlett’s talk is Western news media distortion of events in Syria and of the stories Syrian people themselves tell of their experiences. Massacres committed by jihadis were attributed to the Syrian government. Where the Syrian Arab Army was driving out jihadis from Aleppo or other parts of Syria, the SAA’s actions were described as brutal war crimes against civilians. Where jihadis were deliberately withholding food aid from civilians in eastern Aleppo, causing them to become malnourished and starving, Western news media instead claimed that the Syrian government was starving the people. In addition, Western news media concentrated on the fate of people in areas held by jihadis and portrayed them as being harassed and bombed constantly by Syrian and Russian fighter jets, to the exclusion of people in government-held areas harassed by jihadi actions. The fictional humanitarian aid group the White Helmets – whose members are drawn from various jihadi groups – is portrayed by Western media as heroes risking their lives to pull children out of bombed buildings. Bartlett concluded this part of her talk by praising the Syrian people’s resilience and steadfast determination in resisting the jihadis.

The last 15 minutes of Bartlett’s talk focused on Bartlett’s week-long visit to North Korea and that country’s quest for security to the extent of being secretive and paranoid, particularly during the periods (which occur twice every year) when the US and South Korea conduct war exercises in which they practise invading North Korea.

Bartlett’s talk was not very structured though she stuck to the topics, on which she had plenty of anecdotes and facts at hand. Over fifty minutes her monologue was interesting and riveting, and at no time during her talk did I ever get bored. While she was happy to take questions during her talk, only one or two people actually interrupted her, and only to confirm what she was saying or to get more clarification.

While Bartlett is highly informative, her talk included very few visual aids and viewers who want a timeline of events in Syria’s war against Western-aided jihadis and extremists need to go elsewhere in alternative news media to get the information that puts Bartlett’s talk into a proper global historical and geopolitical context, in which Syria is one of a number of countries targeted by the West for regime change and exploitation.

Rethinking Putin: stripping away Western criticism and fantasy, and painting a picture of pragmatic and steady leadership

Stephen F Cohen, “Rethinking Putin”, Annual Nation Cruise (2 December 2017)

Professor Stephen Cohen is a scholar and professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, and the spouse of Katrina vanden Heuvel who edits The Nation magazine, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he was invited to give a speech to the magazine’s subscribers on its annual cruise. He chose as his subject current Russian President Vladimir Putin who, if you believe Western mainstream news media, is Planet Earth’s equivalent of Star Wars villain Darth Vader, and in his speech sets out to show Putin as a major national leader of importance and a politician born of historic circumstances and political and economic trends in post-Soviet Russia.

Regrettably Cohen gets off on a wrong footing by stating that Putin has been in power for 18 years since early 2000; in fact, Putin was only Prime Minister from 2008 to 2012, second to President Dmitri Medvedev. During this period, Russia supported the Western call for a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011, such call leading to the NATO invasion of that country and its descent into chaos. Had Putin been President then, Russia most probably would not have supported a no-fly zone over Libya and the country might not have lost its independence and Colonel Muammar Gaddhafi. From then on, listeners are wise to be wary of any prejudices and limitations on Cohen’s part in discussing the extent to which Putin currently wields power in Russia as the current President. Anyway, Cohen observes the extreme and often hysterical demonisation of President Putin in the Western news media, and starts his talk proper by emphasising what Putin is not, rather than what he is. He emphasises that Boris Yeltsin as President from 1991 to 1999 behaved in a way that was highly authoritarian and corrupt, and presided over post-Soviet decline and deindustrialisation, often with the underhanded help of the US government, so any authoritarian tendencies in the current Russian administration or any corruption and concentration of wealth in the hands of an oligarchic elite did not start with Putin. Cohen also states that the killings of Russian journalists and prominent opposition figures did not begin during Putin’s early presidency. From there, Cohen strips further layers of Western criticism and fantasy about Putin.

For Cohen, Putin comes across as a reactive and conservative politician, especially in the realm of foreign policy, in the sense of attempting to preserve the status quo. Putin’s previous work in the KGB has had no bearing on his leadership style or the policies he pursues. In the last few minutes of his speech, Cohen outlines his idea of Putin: initially a young, inexperienced public servant who found a collapsing and unstable Russia, and who over the years restores proper governance, stability and security to the country in a pragmatic system of “managed democracy”. This for Cohen extends to controlling to some extent what history and historical narratives can be passed from one generation to the next, so that young people have a sure idea of what Russia represents and what its values are: this is actually no more and no less what Western countries have done for much of the 20th century. To an extent, Putin represents a conservative, somewhat traditional segment of the Russian population (who might be called the silent majority in most Western countries) who desire to see Russia as a great power with a stable and robust economy, and a society with a clear direction not disturbed and riven by the agendas of competing social and cultural groups.

At this point, the talk breaks off just as Cohen warms up to discussing Russia’s treatment of its Jewish minority but the gist of his view of Putin has been established. Whether Cohen’s view is accurate, I have no idea, not knowing any more about Russia or Putin than most people in the West do but it seems to me that to call Putin reactive and conservative in his foreign policy is doing him and his government an injustice. In an age where governments are expected to spring to action immediately over a major terrorist or other incident with no thought as to the consequences of such action, Russian delay in response, and the kind of considered action that does follow – and which often ends up flummoxing the US and its allies, and puts them in a bad light (which they richly deserve) – is no bad thing at all. One even senses that Putin takes mischievous delight in the considered actions he does take, especially if the West ends up with egg on its collective face.

Cohen paints a picture of a pragmatic and cautious leader who has steadily restored stability, security, economic and cultural progress, and most of all pride to Russia. He does not say anything about how Putin’s leadership has inspired the country to turn around from a failing and despairing post-industrial scrap-heap into a growing economic power in the space of less than 20 years; that could have been a very interesting discussion. At the very least though, Cohen gives us a vision of a country that has rediscovered a path to security and prosperity.