My last report on Russia’s premier political talk show, “Sunday with Vladimir Solovyov” was in advance of the scheduled Russia-US, Russia-NATO, Russia-OSCE talks that took place in the week of 10 January. Now I will present some findings from after these meetings, namely the show of Sunday, 16 January.
I will not take readers’ time with the remarks of all the panelists, only the remarks of the talk show host and his politically most important three guests: Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Duma member, leader of the nationalist party LDPR; Andrei Sidorov, dean of the department of world politics at Moscow State University; and Yakov Kedmi, retired officer of Israeli intelligence, former Soviet citizen, ‘refuse-nik’ refugee and present-day super patriot of the homeland he left behind. I preface their remarks only with some background information on who they are. My own comments on what they have said will be saved for the end of this essay.
The show is worthy of our attention because of the shift in focus from negotiations with the West to war, in one form or another.
Before summarizing or selectively quoting from the speakers on the program, I call attention to one point on which they all agreed: the embarrassingly low intellectual level of the American representatives to the talks in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna. But the scathing criticism reaches higher into the whole Biden administration where they find there is almost no one worth talking to on the American side. Blinken is a fool, who likely believes in the empty propaganda he endlessly spouts. Sullivan is disappointing. Victoria Nuland is beyond the pale as an outrageous liar and propagandist. Curiously the one American official who gets a thumbs up for advising Biden to engage with the Russians rather than walk away from their brazen demands is….Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Perhaps it is because he alone knows very well what “military technical” arguments the Russians have to back up their demands.
Lest readers draw the false conclusion that the Americans come in for exceptional scorn, the European statesmen do not score any better in the collective view of the Russian panelists. EU foreign and defense affairs commissar Borrell is seen to be a pitiful buffoon, groveling now for a place at the table in the negotiations. And Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg is singled out for special mention. He is seen as likely believing in the nonsense he delivers from the podium, and he is deemed to be mentally defective generally. As one panelist said about him: “Stoltenberg is the ideal person to lead NATO in this period of political schizophrenia.”
Additional scorn, of course, was heaped on the Ukrainian leadership. However, these moments of levity stand out in a session that dealt with the gravest issues of war and peace.
Out of the six panelists on the program, two were outstanding for their assertive nationalism and calls for war. One was Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the bad boy of Russian politics ever since he first ran for the Duma against the ruling Communists in the early 1990s. His party surged in popularity in the 1996 elections and seemingly was on the cusp of displacing, along with the Communists, the pro-American parties on which Boris Yeltsin relied to control the national agenda. In the last Duma elections, his party won a little more than 12% of the vote and did especially well in Siberia and the Far East, where they control local politics in several cities.
Zhirinovsky has often played the clown, making knowingly outrageous statements that drew to his side public attention while keeping him safe from attack by the ruling party precisely because he posed no threat among right-thinking citizens. But behind the façade of extravagance and excess was always a first class and broadly educated mind. Zhirinovsky has over the years been consistently contemptuous of the Soviet Union’s waste of Russian resources to maintain an empire of scroungers.
After Vladimir Putin unveiled Russia’s new offensive weapons systems in March 2018 and Liberal candidates asked how the country could hope to compete militarily with the USA, with its very strong economy and military budget ten times the size of Russia’s, Zhirinovsky’s response on air was tough and persuasive. He showed his contempt for the United States over its costly global ring of military bases around the world which meant, in his words, that the $700 billion in defense budget was going to pay for toilet paper in all those latrines rather than in development of new weapons systems, such as Russia was doing very effectively in the new millennium.
Zhirinovsky has for years been given priority access to the microphone on Solovyov’s program and Sunday night, 16 January was no exception. He speaks at length. Exceptionally for a Russian talk show, Zhirinovksy is never interrupted because of his venomous tongue that lashes at others who dare to cross him. So it was on Sunday.
Zhirinovsky’s opening words set the tone for the entire evening: “The year 2021 was the last year of peace in the new millennium. We have nothing to talk about with the United States. Foreign troops are at our borders along with their weapons. We can hold talks. They took place. Maybe there will be some more, and talking is better than pushing the button on both sides. But the solution can only come by force.” This, he emphasized, was his personal opinion and not the official opinion of Russia.
“The end may be that part of Europe doesn’t exist any more. Take out London! Leave Ireland alone. Don’t touch Wales. London is the heart of the anti-Russian forces. And London is dancing its last days. Look at the photo of Boris Johnson [projected onto the screen].”
“Ahead is a great tragedy for Europe, for humanity. War is inevitable! It will spell the end of Europe, the end of the USA.”
“We now demand a return to the NATO configuration of 1997. I would demand removal of all nuclear weapons from Europe, including denuclearization of France and the UK.”
“I would demand that all sanctions be canceled at once. If they don’t say yes to this, then I have just one sanction for them: we force them to fulfill our demands. Our armed forces are in full battle readiness and they await an order from their commander in chief.”
Following these inflammatory words by Zhirinovsky, moderator Solovyov intervened, not to calm down the discussion but to heighten the emotion. Indeed, Solovyov’s opening speech of the evening had been a lengthy denunciation of the United States for its never ending lies to Russia, about Russia going back to the 1990s and continuing to this very day in the official statements from the Biden Administration.
Now he denounced NATO and the false self-image it projects as non-threatening to Russia, just a peacemaker. Instead he pointed to the alliance’s bloody wars as from the bombing of Belgrade in the late 1990s, then the murder of two to three million Iraqis in George W. Bush’s attack of 2003. This was followed by the assault on Libya. And most recently the installation of a fascist dominated regime in Ukraine, about which Europe does nothing.
Solovyov ended his fiery speech with talk about the Germans, and their acknowledgment of guilt before the Jews over the Holocaust but their absolute indifference to what they committed as a nation by their Operation Barbarossa, namely the murder of 27 million Soviet citizens. Instead, the Germans come before us as moralists, castigating Russians for their supposed aggression.
The intensity of the remarks from Zhirinovsky and Solovyov were then allowed to cool down when the microphone was passed to Andrei Sidorov, dean at Moscow State University. Sidorov had smiled knowingly through the tirades, but used his opening words to respond to Zhirinovsky’s implicit criticism of the Russian diplomatic corps earlier on, which had implied that by recruitment of graduates from the elite MGIMO higher school, then by postings to cushy positions in London, Paris and New York, the Ministry had been preparing cadres which are unable, unwilling to strongly defend Russian interests abroad against the West. Without remarking on past educational programs, Sidorov said that a lot has changed, and very pointedly noted that since March 2020 the president of the department of international relations at Moscow State is none other than Leonid Slutsky, member of the State Duma from Zhirinovsky’s own party, chair of the Duma committee on foreign relations and holder of a doctorate in economics. Let all those who wonder about the patriotic cast of Russia’s present-day preparers of their foreign policy community take notice.
Sidorov observed with pleasure that Russia has begun responding to the West, where there is still the illusion that after Putin Russia may return to its pliable state in the 1990s. He said it is good that Russia is dealing now directly with the United States. The USA tries to dilute the discussion by bringing in NATO. Meanwhile, the Baltics, Poland say Russia is the source of all the problems today – this is because conflict is essential to justify their own existence.
Yes, the United States can create problems for us – sanctions. Or by their special operations to foment unrest, as, for example, in Kazakhstan and in Belarus. We have to secure our rear. Here at the level of the USA, Sidorov does not see military solutions. But with respect to Ukraine: it has to be resolved, by war if necessary.
When the microphone was passed to Yakov Kedmi, the emotional temperature in the room rose once again.
Kedmi has appeared on the Solovyov program by remote from his home in Israel, as well as by coming to the Moscow studio, which he did on Sunday.
In the past, Kedmi has made statements on the Solovyov show that were so stridently pro-Russian, so admiring of Russian military forces and so intent that they be unsheathed that I have wondered if he wasn’t an agent provocateur. However, for purposes of this essay, let us assume that his remarks are all bona fide and based on his knowledge as a professional in military intelligence.
On Sunday evening he came forward more as a practitioner of political intelligence, a traditional Kremlinologist. He devoted most attention to recent statements from Kremlin officials and tweaked out hidden messages that others have missed. He directed special attention to the answer given a couple of days earlier by Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov to a question whether Russia would be invading Ukraine. Peskov chose his words carefully : “I can neither confirm nor deny that we will use offensive weapons in Ukraine.” Per Kedmi, that is a clear signal from the man closest to Vladimir Vladimirovich from among all his assistants that Russia will attack Ukraine, and not with tank columns and boots on the ground but ‘the American way,’ with high level bombing and missile strikes against the military infrastructure. And, per Kedmi, the casus belli will be not some Ukrainian attack on Donbas but Kiev’s overall disregard for fulfillment of the Minsk Accords.
Kedmi insists that the Russian war plans are developing along entirely different lines from those anticipated by NATO, where Stoltenberg continues to talk about a traditional invasion.
According to Kedmi, Russia has not only delivered an ultimatum to the United States and NATO; it has delivered an ultimatum to itself. Russia cannot afford to fail in the coming confrontation. To fail would, in his words, put the government and the state in peril. It would show that Russia is weak, irresolute and incompetent. Therefore it is vitally important for Russia to win this fight, while for other countries, like the EU, it is just a matter of lost prestige.
Russia awaits concrete written answers on every point in the draft treaties within a week. If the demands are not agreed to, then Russia must move on to “military-technical means” to achieve its objectives.
NATO must be kept out of not just Ukraine and Eastern Europe; it must be kept out of the entire post-Soviet space.
At this point Solovyov jumped in to remind the audience that on 3-4 February Putin will be in Beijing for the Winter Olympics and meeting with Chairman Xi. It is clear that the meeting will be used to agree a coordinated plan of action going forward. Like Russia, the Chinese have important material levers to bring the West to its knees without deploying military force: by cutting all exports of rare earth.
Kedmi closed out this section of the session with the observation that in case of full nuclear war between the United States and China, Russia might suffer ‘heavy losses’ but the United States would be obliterated, wiped off the face of the earth and its territory would remain radioactive for a thousand years. The same would be done to the nuclear powers of Europe, meaning the U.K. and France.
Again Solovyov jumped in to thicken the plot, saying that implementation by Europe of the US-drafted sanctions on Russia would bring about economic collapse globally, and that it would first hit European and American shares, given that a large part of the hydrocarbon assets on the books of Western oil companies are in fact assets in Russia.
His closing remarks posed the rhetorical question whether a Russian attack on the Ukraine infrastructure would be a “war” or something less. He reminded the audience that rational behavior on the part of the Americans in the days ahead is hard to predict, that Americans still believe that their F-35s can destroy anything and allow them to act with impunity on the world stage. The flaw there, per Solovyov, is “there are too few of them.” And, at the end of the day, the Americans don’t have the will to fight, as we see from the diminishing world status of the present administration. They have lost their hegemonic status and they are now rallying to what remains of their status as “world leader.”
I refrain from comments on anything said by the panelists save one: the remark by Kedmi that in case of full nuclear war Russia may incur serious damage but the USA would be obliterated. This bears uncanny resemblance to an unforgettable dialogue in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: when the flighty, gum chewing senior Army officer in the War Room reports to the U.S. President, that “in case of war I won’t say we will not take a haircut, maybe ten or twenty million, but the Russians will be totally destroyed.”
I close this essay with several observations on the little signals the Kremlin is now giving regarding its intentions if and when it pulls out of further talks with the United States in the two or three weeks to come.
First, there is the stunning late-breaking news of the surfacing of a fully armed Russian nuclear submarine just off the East Coast of the United States.
This story is carried by a dozen or more news portals in Russia, none of particular repute and may well be fake news. According to the portal of Russia’s Federal News Agency, the submarine was either from the recent super-quiet Akula or Borei class vessels. It would be carrying up to sixteen ballistic missiles, each with multiple entry warheads, enabling it to destroy a large swathe of the USA. The captain of the ship said they had entered his service zone off the American coast undetected by the Pentagon. His vessel was performing its permanent watch.
True or not, this particular report is an unsubtle hint from sources close to the Kremlin about what surprises may be in store in the coming weeks as real as opposed to fake news. In any case sightings like the one which is alleged to have taken place on 14 January have been made from time to time going back to 2012, when CNN disseminated such a report. We are dealing here with traditional Psy-ops, which is a proper arm of state warfare.
Lastly, I note the latest change in the tune of leading Western media about the applicability of Nuland’s ‘sanctions from hell’ to Russia. Today The Financial Times published a lengthy article by its Moscow correspondent Max Seddon explaining how Russia has amassed wealth, reduced its foreign exposure to purchases of its state bonds and to foreign investment flows generally, so that it can withstand whatever Washington is planning to send its way should it take action in Ukraine. The same article explains Western Europe’s energy dependence on Russia as barring imposition of sanctions that leave no channel of payment open. There is nothing new in the report, so its timing for publication now reflects only one factor: the growing recognition in Western financial media that Russia is bulletproof and that it will do what it wants to secure its vital security interests whatever Washington and Brussels may think.
In the meantime, I can recommend to all a short film clip from The Wizard of Oz that one reader of my last essay kindly forwarded. Let us hope that the denouement of the present crisis follows the script.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2021