Russia bans food imports

On August 6th, Russia adopted a retaliatory package of sanctions against the West. Namely, they ban imports of food coming from the US, European Union, Norway, Canada, Japan, and Australia. In theory, the initiators of the restrictions have sought to hobble Western economies by hitting their exports to Russia. In fact, Russian authorities seem to have done much more damage to Russia’s own economy instead. The total volume of food exports from the EU to Russia was 126 billion euros in 2012. However, that number represents only 9% of the EU’s food exports, a noticeable decline, yet not fatal. Nevertheless, Europe’s #1food importer is still the USA, not Russia. Russia has occupied second or third place in European trade. Meanwhile, China, India, Saudi Arabia are each rapidly rising economies with growing population and thus growing demand for food. As a result, it won’t take long for Europe to divert its food exports to these regions thereby ameliorating the eccentricities of its rowdy eastern neighbor.


The new measures will be detrimental for the Russian market and ordinary Russian citizens. First, it is important to consider that before the restrictions so-called “domestically-produced” products were made partially with imported ingredients. Russia’s hot dog and sausage industry relies on imported ferments and fillers. Russian chocolate also depends on foreign ingredients. To make a chocolate bar, Russian confectioners add local ingredients like sugar to cacao solids brought from abroad.
Second, to maintain the variety and quality of home-made goods the market needs to be open and conducive for small and medium business. The companies, in their turn, need to be competitive. Russia’s current situation is the opposite. A few monopolists dominate the market. Shelf space is literally purchased, rather than won on the basis of price or quality. In such an environment, there is little chance that the isolated Russian food market will be able to offer a large assortment of goods at similar to Western quality.

Third, barring Western brands from Russian market won’t really stop the flow of goods from the West. Belarus and Kazakhstan haven’t adopted any restrictions on foreign food items, plus both are in the Customs Union with Russia, which acts as a free trade zone. Thus, Belarus and Kazakhstan will become essentially the gateway for foreign food to enter Russia’s market. Replacing foreign stickers with “Made in Russia” is a well-known trick practiced in Belarus. So, little will change from the exporters’ perspective; however, people who work along its path will get a lot richer. In Russia, instead of the anticipated deficit of foreign foods, there will be a giant black market controlled by gangsters, who will charge outlandish prices. The situation will be analogous to that of Venezuela, which implemented currency controls, resulted in nothing more than a thriving black market for foreign currency.

Who will pay for a social experiment with entirely predictable consequences? Obviously, Russia’s ordinary people will.. For how long? For at least a year, as Putin made it clear. Bearing in mind recent attempts to protest in the streets over the past two years, it’s highly doubtful that the Russian people will be eager to tolerate such a denial of their basic rights. It is also doubtful that after such a retaliation against Western pressure and sanctions, Putin will still be enjoying his current 85% approval rating. Prohibition of food imports from the West is a draconian measure primarily directed against Russia’s own people and yet is just a mosquito bite for the targeted countries. In this regard, tension in Russian society will increase. Russian indignation with their decision-makers should spill over to other social clusters and including both the older generation and low-income groups, giving it the potential to become massive. In the best case scenario, Putin will soon realize that and change their policy trajectory. In a worst case scenario, the peoples’ resentment might soon grow to a revolutionary fervor.


Soviet trade system

[This is a rough translation of some soviet reminiscences by my favorite Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya. Following the main text are the comments to the original post in Russian by the readers, who also happened to live the Soviet regime].

All goods in Soviet Russia were either socialist or capitalist. The capitalist goods were unavailable to the ordinary Soviet folk – they were sold only at “Berezkas” (“Birches” stores) to the nomenklatura people or to secret dealers. Those who had money, had contacts – so they had access to capitalist goods as well. However, the latter were very very expensive.
Imagine a family with five grown-up children. They all need clothes, so do I. In 1974, I am going to get married. I need a pair of nice wedding shoes. In shoe-stores you will find nothing. No wedding shoes, no sandals. You can only chose between boots “goodbye youth” and felt flip-flops “no step back”. The only shoes, that were on the shelf, were horrible – they were made in Romania and had a poopy-brown color, with laces. Our family was friends with a Frenchman who ultimately went with me to the Berezka store and we got a decent pair of wedding shoes “Gabor”. My wedding dress was made of rough silk and patterned with large yellow flowers, short and tailored. My tailor Valentina would steal fabric all the time.
However, you can’t wear Gabor pumps for a hike or to go sunbathing at a sea-resort. You need a pair of sandals. There was no way to get sandals in 1974. I was asking around my friends if they knew some old ladies who would remember the 1919 and how to weave sandals out of ropes. Once I had found one, another problem popped up – in 1974, no ropes were sold in the stores. I can’t remember now how I made it through, but I clearly recall a woman in our hiking group – she was wearing a summer coat. A summer coat when it was 85 F out! So I asked her privately – why? And she whispered – “I have no dress”.
We also had a special dealer, although mother disapproved of dealers – she believed that dealing was unfair. My sister and I didn’t take mother’s principles seriously, so we just let her have her own opinion. Meanwhile, we bought two identical puff coats (made in Finland, with click-buttons!) from the dealer, and then our sister-in-law bought one for herself too. So we all three were dressed in identical puffers, and thought that we were very very cool.
What was also cool was to wear a mohair scarf. Men would wear them. Once I happened to be at our dealer’s home. All her shelves and cupboards were stuffed with crystal wares. A double bed was covered with a huge mohair plaid with Scottish checkers. It was 2×3 meters in size. That was unbelievable! Had one happened to see it, the dealer would have ended badly.
Socialist goods could be found and purchased in special shops in Moscow. “Vanda” was selling polish eye-shades, whereas neighboring “Sofia” had some terrible rose butter that caused splitting headaches. There was “Leipzieg” in the middle of nowhere and “Yadran” in the combes.
I went to “Yadran” once. Some roll-sweaters called “banlons” and blouses were given out. But “given out” did not simply mean “sold out”, no-no, nothing was simple back then. Blouses were wrapped in plastic and it was prohibited to unwrap the package and try the thing on. Don’t ask why. Because. You first buy and then try on! They were made in Yugoslavia so the cut was different from the  normal Russian one, thus it was impossible to guess which size was right. So, what women would do was first, they would stand in line for hours – the closer you are to the counter the tighter you are getting squeezed by the others behind you – also willing to grab a blouse. Finally, you get a couple of blouses of the size you guess will probably fit you (normally, two blouses because if one doesn’t fit, the other will). Yet, it’s not the end of the story. After you grab the blouses, sweaty and blowzy, you step out of the crowd onto the street, or, rather, in the combes. And there, on the unpaved road, you open the package and try the blouse on. You are not the only one doing that – many other women are doing absolutely the same, with no shame or fear for men around them (who are equally hunting for mens clothes).
If the blouse doesn’t fit you, patiently wrap it pack in plastic and sell to another woman, who the blouse will more likely fit. At times, there is a police officer walking around and arresting women for illegal trade (“speculation”). I happened to be approached by police once and was threatened with a detain. In my defense, I said that “speculation” is something when you buy a thing at one price and sell it at another price, so that you benefit from the deal. In my situation, I was selling the unfit blouse by the exact same price I had bought it at the store. “If you arrest me and bring to the police station, you’ll simply waste both your and my time”, I said to the officer. He looked at me in surprise and then walked away.

Comments by people:

“A cold winter night… and a line in 3-4 circles to a store. People are lining for a Rubic’s cube.”
“In “Passage” (a department store), there was a multiple meter long line to get Japanese umbrellas.”
“Sometimes you see a queue and and just join it, with no idea what people are standing for. You just stay in this line because everything you could think of was in short, while you need everything.”

“In bridal salons, one could buy good shoes and clothes. For this, one should have a special checking book from the Vital Register with coupons valid for everything in the bridal salon – varying from underwear to kitchen utensils. Many people would send their fake applications for marriage licenses several times – for the sake of obtaining the bridal salon checking book.”

“When toilet paper was available (“was trown out”), people would buy it amass, string it up on a rope and carry such a “necklace” home.”

“When I was five I remember standing in line for 2-3 hours to get an ice-cream. We lived in a small military town, where the ice-cream truck would come only twice a year.”

“People from Tver’ would travel 3 hours to and 3 hours back from Moscow to buy groceries.”

“My mother was lucky to get a beautiful crimson coat in a small provincial town in exchange for two sacks of pumpkin seeds. When she arrived at a place to get the coat, she was pointed out that the seeds “were not fanned”. So, my mother and my uncle started fanning the seeds in the street shuffling them from one sack into another back and forth… ”

“When Russians traveled to Lithuania in 1987 and saw 5 types of bread in the supermarket there, they couldn’t believe their eyes and thought it was a miracle. And then they came back to Russia and told their friends, and the friends couldn’t believe.”

In the 70s, a soviet citizen was supposed to get 200 gr butter, 0,5 kilo sausage, 0,5 kilo meat, 1 kilo rice and a lill bit of something more per MONTH! The money my parents-academicians earned went all on food from the market. Once a month my dad and his professor friend would travel to Moscow and bring meat, butter, chocolates, whiskey, cognac and Finnish cheese “viola”with them back home.

“When I was a high-school student it was impossible to get a lipstick. You could only buy it from gypsies at the railway station, and it costed 10 rubles. However, I didn’t dare to ask my mother for money (for two reasons: first, it was embarrassing, second, parents would usually say that it’s a bad manner to color leaps with a lipstick and unhealthy, because lipsticks are poisonous). So I had to color my leaps with a red pencil and then put a layer of petroleum ointment… I also remember the only type of mascara available in stores. It was a box of black dry and solid paste in it with a small brush, you spit in the paste and smoosh the paste with the brush and then but that mixture on the eyelashes.”

Anti GMO-hysteria

The world’s population is growing by 1 billion people every 12 years, and by 2050 it is expected to reach the 9 billion mark. The increase in population drives food demand up, so that by the middle of the century food consumption is expected to double. Much of the demographic growth takes place in Asia and Africa. In Africa, one third of the population is dependent on rice. 3.5 billion people, half of mankind, depend on rice as a staple crop. Roughly 20% of all human calories come from rice. However, rice is a vulnerable crop. It requires two to three times as much water as other cereals, yet fresh water is generally scarce. If there is a shortage of water, the entire field dies. Over 90 percent of the world’s rice is produced and consumed in the Asia-Pacific Region. The intensifying urbanization of Asia, and especially in China, triggers the problem: fertile rice-growing lands are increasingly being converted into industrial zones, buildings, and roads. Climate change poses another threat – sea-levels are rising, thereby jeopardizing rice crops with floods and salinity. Droughts, damaging storms, dry winters and very hot days in summer are taking toll on crop yields. With climate change, the weather has become less and less predictable, which only decreases chances for stable yields. In the meantime, the food production cannot keep up with rising demand.
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In this situation, science is of great help, if not the savior. Geneticists and plant breeders are now working on rice modification that will bring about flood-resistant rice, or rice that better tolerates drought, salinity and extreme heat. Mid-century demand for rice is estimated to exceed 555 million tons. Rice that is better adapted to sudden changes of climate and weather, could double yields, which would boost global output of rice by 1.2 – 1.5% per year. Growth of rice yield at such a pace should be sufficient to feed the growing population and keep prices affordable even to the middle of the century.

As progressive and dynamic as modern science is, so brutal and intense is the mass protest against it. Out of sheer dialectical nature of things, once there is a force there is always a counter-force. Science has had particularly long to deal with such dialectics. If in the Middle Ages, it was revolutionary to say that the Earth is not the center of the universe, that it is not even the center of our galaxy, so is it revolutionary today to apply modern genetics and modify species – be it food, animals, or a human DNA. In fact, the criticism of genetic engineering with regard to food has turned into a massive hysteria. Take a look at daily headlines in newspapers and magazines: “Ben and Jerry’s says goodbye to GMOs”, “Lake Champlain Chocolates nixing GMOs”, “Oregon hopes to be first state to map GMO fields”, “Every State Counts: Support GMO Labeling in Oregon and Colorado”, “GMO companies are dousing Hawaiian island with toxic pesticides”, “France wins greater control over GMOs,” “World needs UN GMO watchdog – Russia”.
What is particularly worrisome is that the anti-GMO propaganda is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of some key things about the way in which the world works. It refers to the statement that “bloody” scientists take one piece of DNA, crop it and insert into another DNA. For example, they take a dandelion DNA, that produces Beta-carotene, and breed it into rice. According to the anti-GMO activists, such an alteration is toxic and will ultimately either kill or turn us into mutants. Environmental groups, food safety watchdogs, and others instill this myth into hundreds of thousands of people. Organizations such as GMO Free USA, Institute of Responsible Technology, Organic Consumers Association, Center for Food Safety, etc. create outrageous myths about genetically engineered products saying that the DNA, which people consume with the food, is changing their own DNA and causes mutations.


The existence and viability of the anti-GMO propaganda would not be so astonishing were we to live in the medieval Europe or in the Soviet Union under Lysenko’s propaganda and massive stalinist repressions against genetical scientists.

Meanwhile, “the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops,” concludes a team of Italian scientists, who thoroughly studied and evaluated over 1,700 research papers published between 2002 and 2012. The researchers found little to no evidence that genetically modified crops pose a health risk to people and animals. To the opposite, their study reveals that non-GM crops tend to significantly reduce biodiversity. In reality, genetic modification of crops is just an accelerated evolution. The core meaning of evolution is when one gene gets broken, another doubled, or being altered by a natural insertion of one gene into it. What geneticists do today, to put it simply, is they insert a foreign gene derived from, say, bacteria into corn, and give the plant a trait it wouldn’t otherwise possess.


Thus, the anti-GMO propaganda is nothing but a conscious and deliberate misinformation. Sadly, it proves to be quite viable: it has been widely supported by prominent scientists and well-reputed news magazines (such as Huffington Post), students groups and talk-show celebrities: Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Oz and Bill Maher – they all warn against consuming food made with genetically modified ingredients. Even more sadly, the propaganda works, it attracts thousands if people, who after such a brainwashing go out in protest marches with “”Say no to GMO!” placards, calling the GM-products “cancer food” and “cancer water.” Why does the propaganda work? Because for an average citizen it is much easier to understand a short and simple statement “GMO is bad, GMO kills”, “GMO = pesticides and chemicals” rather than read some serious scientific studies with an abundant evidence that biotechnology and genetic engineering implies no harm. Such myths are dangerous and destructive. They replace science and fundamental facts about life with a fake science through a psychological manipulation. In other words, people consciously wage campaigns against scientifically proved facts, thereby legitimizing pseudoscience.

How do these eco-concerned media and environmental activists benefit from their fear-mongering propaganda? Well, easily. They build their status and fame through telling people that they are being fooled and poisoned by “evil scientists”, whereas the anti-GMO organizations are there to save them. That is scary. The uneducated, intimidated and angry mass of people is scary. Why would the anti-GM organizations be interested in waging war against science? They seek to paralyze people’s ability to critically and logically think, to make them manipulable. The result is a massive support for some completely nonsensical yet destructive ideas. From the larger perspective, the mechanism of psychological manipulation and appealing to human emotions rather than to cognitive abilities help many politicians and religious groups to secure a massive support for their simple yet very tantalizing ideas – who is to blame in income inequality, for instance? The richest 1%, of course. Who is to blame in terror attacks? Western society for provoking peaceful Muslims. Why is Africa so poor? Because of neocolonialism.


Afghanistan at Crossroads

2014 will be looked at as an important year for the history of US-Afghan and Russian-Afghan relations. In February, Russia commemorated the 25th anniversary of the final departure of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. For the Afghani, 2014 marks the end of the Karzai era. A new president will be elected on April 5th. The fate of the country remains anything but certain. The upcoming elections are perceived by most to be of critical importance to the future of the Afghan state. For the United States, 2014 marks the end of the official military operation in Afghanistan that began in 2001.
Russia’s reaction to the US and NATO military presence in the region over the past decade has been rather ambivalent. On one hand, Moscow welcomed the post-9/11 “Global War on Terrorism” and the intervention of American forces in Afghanistan. Russia sought to lend legitimacy to its own “war on terrorism” in the North Caucuses, where it had for many years been waging a brutal counter-insurgency battle against Chechen Islamists and extremist groups. On the other hand, Moscow has grown even more concerned that the ever-expanding Western security presence in Afghanistan is ultimately an attempt to keep Russia “in check” in Central Asia. In September of 2012, the Obama administration announced the withdrawal of the 47,000 strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. However, negotiations surrounding the bilateral security agreement (BSA), the agreement that will govern U.S.-Afghan relations following the drawdown of U.S. troops, have recently stalled. The BSA would permit the U.S. to keep a small residual force of about 8,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to support and train local forces and conduct limited counterterrorism activities. There is still hope for a favorable resolution of the issue as a result of Afghanistan’s April 5th presidential elections.
However, Russian officials have expressed deep concerns about Washington’s decision. Russian Defense authorities recently said that the ISAF “has been too hasty about making the final decision to pull out in 2014.” Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, pointed out that the ISAF’s mission had not yet been fully accomplished. He also voiced his concerns about potential spill-over of violence and infiltration of terrorists over Russia’s southern border. In fact, both Russian experts and Russian officials paint a pessimistic future for Afghanistan and its surrounding region following the ISAF’s departure. Among the top concerns for Russia: reemergence of local extremist groups and their attempts to regain power over Afghanistan; well-trained terrorists from the Afghanistan conflict moving across Russia’s southern border; the local army and police being unable to carry out counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations without foreign assistance; the political structure of the state becoming more fragmented and thus even more fragile; and finally, a rise in drug production and trafficking following the anticipated decrease in foreign aid. Russian officials believe that presence of the numerous, well-trained and well-equipped NATO forces has been a key factor deterring a full-scale bloody conflict in the country. If Afghanistan had a stable political environment, it could potentially serve as a bulwark to protect Russia’s southern borders from drug trafficking and Islamic extremism. Therefore, Russia’s interest in restoring stability in the region stretches well beyond the end of the NATO military operations.

Russia’s and America’s views of the withdrawal and policy recommendations

American experts on Afghanistan both in and out of government have a diverse range of outlooks on the situation. The U.S. commanders in the field and Pentagon are largely opposed to a hasty departure of the troops fearing the resurgence of the Taliban and Afghanistan’s rapid descent into chaos. Government officials, to the contrary, argue that the American combat mission has been successfully completed in a sense that it contributed to the formation of a credible and self-sustained Afghan army and decreased chances for al-Qaeda to “reestablish a foothold in the country where the Sept. 11 attacks were plotted.”
American think-tanks experts mostly agree with the planned withdrawal of forces, but at the same time, they appeal to U.S. politicians to provide an enduring military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 to better coordinate civil aid during the transition period and to prevent the terrorist groups from regaining control over the region. Some predict the resurrection of foreign terrorist groups (such as those of Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, or Iraq) putting “down roots again in Afghanistan if the country were to fall to the Taliban after NATO’s departure,” as Michael E.O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution writes.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggests that the most important issue in the debate over Afghanistan has been overlooked. Instead of debating the issues with Afghan president, the American government should first weight the value of keeping its forces in Afghanistan. He essentially questions the necessity to maintaining an American presence in a region whose strategic importance to the United States has diminished. Mr. Cordesman concludes by suggesting,  “Why not leave the task of dealing with unrest and extremism in Central Asia to Russia and China? Why can’t the United States do the best job of winning the new Great Game by ceasing to play it?”
Pauline Baker of the American Interest predicts a “terminal meltdown” of the Afghan state, “with the insurgency spiraling upward” and increased political fragmentation following the withdrawal of international forces. Despite certain achievements by the ISAF, she sees no viable rationale behind the idea of continuation of the previous military policy in the region. Until the policy is reviewed, the further presence of American troops in Afghanistan would mean further waste of both human and financial resources. To put a finer point on it, she states “Thus far, the war has cost the United States at least $500 billion over the past ten years (some say as much as $1 trillion), with spending close to $100 billion in 2013 alone.”
As soon as the American forces leave the country, international aid will be cut significantly as well. “Without continued international military and economic support, Afghanistan risks falling back into civil war, with the attendant rise in extremist groups, outflow of refugees and disruptions in commerce that would threaten the region as a whole,” stated Ambassador James Dobbins, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, during his testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
According to the World Bank, currently 95% of the Afghan GDP is funded by foreign taxpayers of donor’s nations. Where will their post-2014 budget come from? The answer appears self-evident – from Afghanistan’s prior sources of cash: poppies, opium production, and the narcotics trade. Recently, the presence of foreign troops and controls introduced by the Karzai government suppressed but never eliminated such sources of cash. Thus, another fatal risk – narco-trafficking – is rising. At an event on the Middle East recently hosted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering expressed regret about the ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan. In addition to the departure of well-equipped and trained foreign forces, the withdrawal implies the loss of “extensive funding for the Afghan national security forces.” “One of the things that I think is the most important,” said the Ambassador, “is to see if we can push India and Pakistan to begin to talk about their interests in and their future roles in Afghanistan.” Summing up his observations of the broader Middle East, Mr. Pickering said that “our effort has to be to help build balances in the region rather than to pick winners and losers.”
Russian foreign policy and Afghanistan experts outline numerous scenarios for the post-2014 Afghanistan. Omar Nessar, Director of the Center for Contemporary Afghan Studies (CISA), points out that “The Taliban interprets the drawdown of the Western forces as its own victory. So now they certainly are not going to accept any concessions. They believe that the timing is playing into their hands, and as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan approaches, their positions are being only strengthened.” Mr.Nessar in his correspondence with IMR said that even in the situation when a small military contingent is present (such as of 8,000 troops) it still will not be enough to detain possible terrorist assaults. Thus, resumes Mr.Nessar, the task of counter-terrorism will be placed on the local police, whose combatant ability is insufficient. He also warns of the outcome of the April election. “Absence of security in the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan, low voter turnout in the election – all that contributes to the victory of a non-Pashtun candidate at the presidential election-2014, which will inevitably cause unrest among the Pashtuns. On the other hand, the current situation of insecurity in the region increases chances of the Taliban and other opposition groups to win the election,” predicts Mr.Nessar.

Nikolai Pakhomov of believes that “the total departure of the ISAF from Afghanistan does not correspond with Russia’s strategic interests.” He emphasizes that the problems with drugs production and drugs trafficking, terrorism that existed before and that were under some sort of control during the presence of the Western forces, have not gone away completely and that they are still enduring, which poses a serious threat to Russia. “ So,” warns Mr.Pakhomov,  “if Moscow does not assist its neighbor-countries in the security building measures she is going to be the next to fall victim to the belligerent and stiffened Islamic fundamentalism.”
Some experts envision Russia splitting along the Volga and the Ural Mountains as a result of potential conflicts to the south of the Russian border. “Additional impact will have the escalating conflicts in North Caucasus and the Volga region,” says Vladimir Souvorov, head of the Department of Governance and National Security at Russia’s Military Academy.“In the future, these threats will aim to split our country along the lines of Afghanistan-Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan – on one hand, and “driving a wedge” from North Caucasus along Volga – on the other hand. This will eventually separate the Ural and Siberia from the European part of Russia and disintegrate the country’s territory overall.”
In light of the shifting landscape in the Central Asia, Russia might consider the introduction of visa regime with the Asian republics, suggests Artyom Vit of Voennoye Obozrenie. The customs control regime on the border with Kazakhstan might also be restored in the coming years. In this respect, the drug trade may become an obstacle for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to join the Customs Union.
Another scenario drafted by experts could be summoned as a fatalistic prediction that as soon as the American/NATO troops leave the country the Islamist extremists will rise against Hamid Karzai. The president then might turn to Russia for protection, which will inevitably drag Russia into another war in Afghanistan.
            Following the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1989, Afghanistan is the last thing Russia wishes to be involved with again. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says that it is now up to the Afghans to decide what type of state they want, how to increase security and build stability in the country – they should do it on their own, whereas other states are in no position to dictate them what to do. So peaceful, prosperous, friendly, neutral, but it will not come by itself. The efforts of all of us – the friends of Afghanistan – is required to make this happen and will be strongly supporting the government of Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan on the road to this bright future.” In other words, Russian foreign policy authorities in their policy recommendations for the post-2014 Afghanistan refer to the diplomatic principle of “respect of other people’s right for self-identification and no foreign interference with their right to shape their own future.”
Russian experts believe that America’s imminent departure makes a strong case for Russia’s leadership on anti-drugs measures in Central Asia. They suggest that Russia should focus on its southern border’s security, increase the control and prevention of drugs production and drugs trafficking. Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Moscow Center recommends Russia should do a careful assessment of the current Afghan realities, seriously consider the importance of the Pashtun factor, and soberly assess the actual capabilities of the Taliban. “It needs to cooperate with Afghanistan’s neighbors but stay away from their competition. It absolutely needs to avoid any military involvement of its own in Afghanistan, and engage economically only when this makes sense in economic terms,” deems the Carnegie expert. Omar Nessar of the Center for Contemporary Afghan Studies (CISA) hopes that the uneasy situation will induce the Central Asian leaders to start seeking “new forms of collaboration in their attempts to fight the terrorist groups as well as new mechanisms to maintain regional security without relying on the NATO and the U.S. support”.
American experts as well as their Russian counterparts advise that the remaining combat regiments should now train, advise and assist Afghan local forces to make sure that Afghanistan is able to further maintain its security on its own, without heavy foreign support in the future. The remaining international contingent should also be tasked to conduct strikes against terrorists. The problem of fragility of the Afghan state should be specifically addressed. Pauline Baker writes, “The April election is critical to the transition, but we should ensure that we are helping to establish the constitutional and electoral foundations for all future balloting, not just the next one.” She suggests that the international community should assist Afghanistan in building good governance through such means as promotion of tough anti-corruption laws, cultivating civilian control over the military to avoid the situation where the latter seized the power. The international peacemakers should also promote an all-inclusive peace negotiation process where the Afghan politicians would sit at one negotiating table with Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Haqqani network and the Northern Alliance, among others and discuss the peaceful resolution to the conflict.

April elections and three options
            Lying on the crossroads of three strategically important geographic regions – Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East – Afghanistan has always been that “player” one would inevitably have to deal with if they wanted to pursue their interests in the region. Not an easy task. Russia treated the region as a sphere of interest in the 19th century, when, together with Britain, she was actively engaged in the so-called “Great Game”, and in the late 1970s when the Soviet troops invaded the country and were tied down for a decade. The United States has historically been involved in the region owing to its role in energy production and transportation, but following 9/11 and the “War on Terrorism” Afghanistan has been a major focal point for America’s national security policy. However, the geostrategic situation has drastically changed over the past 25 years. Whereas Russia learned a bitter lesson from the 1979-1989 invasion, Obama is entirely reconsidering America’s foreign policy priorities – America is no longer the world’s policeman and the greater Middle East is no longer the top foreign policy priority for the country. “We would like to get out of there, thank you very much,” as Ian Bremmer stated in his recent talk at the Carnegie Council.
While the Middle East region is geographically remote and strategically less important for the United States, it still remains a tangible threat to Russian security, primarily due to the fact that it borders the region. Not surprising then that Russian authorities criticize Washington’s decision to exit as being “too hasty” and point out that the task of eliminating terrorism and building stability in the country has not been accomplished. Given the escalating threat from a NATO-free Afghanistan and deteriorating relations with the West (mainly a result of the Ukrainian crisis), Russia has to seriously assess its security concerns – first and foremost, terrorism and narco-trafficking – and weigh potential losses and gains from preserving cooperative relations with the United States. When the international forces are withdrawn, given the persistent instability, failure to eradicate terrorism or drug trafficking, weak and corrupt military and police, the likelihood of the Taliban guerillas regaining power is quite high. In the given context, the outcome of the April presidential election remains critical. It basically bears three options: 1. The new leader signs the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US for continuing presence of its troop 2. The new leader is powerful and determined enough to build more efficient and accountable governance in Afghanistan. 3. Turn back to the profound misgovernance and corruption, which only strengthens the Taliban and increases chances of another civil war.


Russians, S-300, and cash

I found this story at, a Russian magazine. Its author – Valeriy Morozov – is sharing a mind-blowing story from the 90s.
Here is a link to the original:

And here is rough translation that I did:

I met Valeriy Gorelov in 1994. He was deputy superintendent in Moscow’s Kremlin. Gorelov was in charge of technical maintenance of the Kremlin buildings. Gorelov took responsibility for the contract between Russia’s Major Security Agency (also known as the Federal Security Agency) and the York Russia company (the Russian branch of the American York International corporation). Back then I was director general of the York Russia and supervised the former Soviet countries. According to the contract, “York” was rebuilding the air-conditioning system in the Kremlin’s Grand Palace.

The following is a dialogue between the author of the article and Mr.Gorelov.

“I thought I would tell you one story,” said Gorelov, his face blushing. He bent his head in a bird-like manner and was looking past me. He appeared to be looking inward rather than elsewhere in the room.

“ What story?“ I asked. I can’t say I was particularly intrigued. Rather,  I was surprised at Gorelov’s unusual behavior.

“Have you met Varshavsky?”

“No, I haven’t. Who is he?”

“He is an emigrant. He used to be Russian. He emigrated to America during the Soviet regime.”

“No, I have never heard of him.”

Gorelov was silent for a moment. Then he looked at the corner of my desk as if something was written there, and started violently moving his finger over its polished surface, trying to erase what he would be seeing there.

“We sold the S-300 ballistic missile to Americans. The whole package. With missiles. One whole unit. For three million dollars. In cash.”

The room fell silent.

“You mean, the surface-to-air missile system?” I asked.
“ Yes,” he replied.
“With the “friend-or-foe” system?” I  asked.
“Yes,” he said, and stopped rubbing the desk, looking somewhere behind me.
“Who do you mean by ’we’?”
“Korzhakov, Barsoukov, and myself.”
“Korzhakov, Barsoukov. And I.”

Here, in front of me, was sitting, a former head of security for Loukianov, the Communist Party’s Politburo member,former deputy head of security of Yeltsin, former deputy superintendent of Moscow’s Kremlin. A man who had just said that he himself, together with the head of Russia’s President’s Security Agency, and the head of the Federal Security Agency (the successor to the KGB) who is now the head of the FSB’s main office (the Federal Security Service of Russia in charge of the security and safety of all underground communications and entities, including command and control centers). He and two military generals, two leaders of the major security agencies in the post-Soviet Russia, had sold Americans Russia’s the most advanced air-defense and anti-ballistic missile system, the S-300, via an intermediary  in early 90’s. They sold it together with the “friend-or-foe” identification system. In other words, he left Russia without the anti-ballistic missile defense system…for three million dollars…cash.

“Valeriy Pavlovich,” I asked, “do you realize what you are talking about?”

We were silent.

“ I, myself, brought a suitcase with three million dollars to the Kremlin,” he said. “I brought it to Korzhakov in his office. Korzhakov and Barsoukov were waiting for me. Korzhakov took the suitcase and said, ’you, Palych, go home now. You’ll come back tomorrow and get your share.’ So I left. – Gorelov smiled. – The following day I got back to Sashka Korzhakov in his office. He and Barsouk were hugging me and saying ’good job, Palych. We are very grateful to you‘… and handed me a gun made at a Izhevsk factory… A beautiful gun with manuals… ‘Here,’ they said, ‘this is for you – for your good job, Palych!’ And so they were giving this gun to me as a present. Solemnly.  ‘We know you are fond of guns.’ Then they were giving me a bunch of hugs again. ’Alright, they said, go now‘… I left the office with a gun. ’Oh, son of a bitch!’ I thought to myself. They made me do all that for a gun. Then I decided that I would neither forget nor forgive them.”

I cast a look at Valeriy Pavlovich again – he narrowed his face to the desk’s surface and started rubbing it with his finger again – as if in attempt to erase something written there.

“Palych, why did you tell me that?” I asked him.

“Just thought I would tell you. Just in case… I needed to tell it to someone. So, I figured I would tell you…”

Then he left the room.

I never saw Valeriy Gorelov again. He died in a car accident a few months later.

Russia-Egypt Rapprochement: is Russia Back to the Middle East?

November 14, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov together with defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, paid ’the highest level visit in years‘ to Egypt. The talks were being held in a “2+2” format – two top diplomats and two military chiefs – for the first time in the decades-long history of relations between Egypt and Russia. In the talks, the Russian and Egyptian officials discussed military and technical cooperation, which usually implies arms sales. The latter intensified the earlier speculations about the renewal of Russia’s military assistance to Egypt following the partial suspension of military aid and equipment supplies from the United States.

Over the past three decades, the United States was Egypt’s strongest military and financial aid provider. U.S.-Egyptian relations have declined since the July 2013 coup, in which Egypt’s military overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The subsequent crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters, violent battles and killings of thousands of protesters in Cairo, instigated the Obama administration to withhold roughly a third of its $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt. The United States has also frozen the delivery of F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 Abrams tank kits and Harpoon missiles. Al Jazeera reports, “Washington has said it would consider resuming some of the suspended aid depending on Egypt’s progress in following the interim government’s plans to hold elections.” Some view the Egypt-Russia conference as a message to the United States conveying the notion that Egypt has options beyond Washington as it seeks to arm itself; if Washington wants to maintain conditions for military aid, Egypt can simply do business with Russia. Meanwhile, Badr Abdelatty, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman, emphasized that “We are not replacing one party with another. We want to strengthen the independence of our foreign policy. We want to diversify. And Russia is a very important global power.” In fact, Russia’s return to the Middle East does not imply that Moscow’s overtures are an attempt to oust Washington from the region. First, the United States will simply never allow Russia to take control over the situation in the region. Second, Moscow and Washington are pursuing different goals in the Middle East. One seeks to maintain its naval and air defense forces, and the other, to have a constant access to the region’s rich energy resources.
Unlike the United States, who enthusiastically backed the Muslim Brotherhood taking power last year, Russia abstained from any explicit expression of support and refused to publicly criticize the debacle that brought the military back to power in July this year. “After the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime, Egypt flung back into the arms of its people and its sons. We have again become ourselves. I’d like to point out that we never forget our Russian friends. We greatly appreciate the position of the Russian people and the Russian government towards the June 30 Revolution…”, Nasser’s son Abdel Hakim Abdel Nasser spoke about that in interview with the Voice of Russia. Such a strategy has obviously scored points for Russia with the Egyptian authorities. Russia’s view of the Syrian crisis has also played in its hands. The Muslim Brotherhood was calling for military jihad in Syria, meanwhile the current Egypt administration entirely shares Putin’s standing on Syria. “We need a reliable friend, and hope that Moscow helps us to resist the pressure from the West”, said the former foreign minister Mohamed al-Orabi in his interview to Russia’s Kommersant newspaper. To further assure Egypt of their reliability, at the joint news conference with his Egyptian counterpart, Nabil Fahmy, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed that “Russia is against any foreign intervention in internal affairs and we respect Egypt’s sovereignty and the rights of the Egyptian people to determine their future.”

Russia and the Middle East

Russia is particularly interested in reinforcing of its relations with Egypt given its weakening strategic positions in the Middle East over the past five decades. The wave of military coups in Northern Africa, that began in the winter of 2010, eventually entitled the “Arab Spring,” has dramatically undermined military and technical cooperation between Russia and the countries in that region. As a result, Russia lost its ties with Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other major powers, leaving only Syria as a serious customer. Syria had, until recently, been Russia’s major stronghold in the Middle East. At the same time, Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime has become part of the reason why Moscow has been at odds with most of the Persian Gulf states. Enhancing ties with the Arab world’s most populous country would give Russia another chance to fortify its foothold in the region, whose countries have largely aligned themselves with the United States. “Russia is returning to the Arab world because the Arab states are asking us to. They want someone to rely on other than the US and Saudi Arabia,” says Sergei Markov, a frequent foreign policy adviser to President Vladimir Putin. Another recent example of this trend is found in Iraq, whose new leadership started improving its relationship with Iran and restored its military and technical cooperation with Moscow. In the fall of 2013, Russians began the supply of Mi-35M helicopters to Baghdad based on a bilateral contract.
Besides the military and technical assistance that Russia provides its allies with, Islam and Russia’s religious pluralism are another mechanism for Moscow to rekindle its relations with the Islamic world. Russia recently hosted an international economic summit with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). “Our goals are clear and transparent – at the October meeting with Russian Muslims’ muftis”, said Putin. “Russia is interested neither in split nor in reorganization of the Islamic world. We will continue support the reinforcement of the collective action in the international community in order to assure safety and security of the modern world”.
While U.S. diplomacy is failing to maintain its influence in the Middle East, Russia is restoring its reputation among Arab countries as a reliable partner whose assistance will persist even in the face of international pressure (case in point, Syria). So far, such a strategy seems to be working in Russia’s favor.

Russia-Egypt relations in hindsight

The Soviet Union and Egypt enjoyed close ties during the 1960s and early 1970s, when the Arab country was led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Egypt’s president became popular in the Soviet Union both for his economic program and foreign policy, in which he was often critical of the West. Along with military support, the Soviets assisted Nasser with economic aid and helped to construct the Aswan High Dam along the Nile. In 1964, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during his visit to Cairo awarded Nasser with the highest Soviet decoration – the Hero of the Soviet Union. After the death of Nasser, the new president, Anwar Sadat began to turn the country towards the West. In July 1972, he expelled roughly 20,000 Russian military advisers stationed in Egypt. Bilateral relations have never fully recovered.
In the November 14th talks, Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian foreign minister, said Cairo was looking to “reactivate” an old relationship with Russia. “We want to give a new impetus to our relations and return them to the same high level that used to exist with the Soviet Union,” Fahmy said following a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.
General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s army chief and defense minister, told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, that the visit indicated the continuation of “historic strategic relations via starting a new era of constructive, fruitful cooperation on the military level”, the state news agency reported. Additionally, for the first time since 1992, a Russian warship docked at the Egyptian port of Alexandria. The arrival of Russia’s flagship cruiser, Varyag, likely marks the resumption of joint naval maneuvers between the two countries. During their visit Russian diplomats and their Egyptian counterparts discussed military collaboration (arms supplies) and agreed to hold joint military drills to counter terrorism and piracy, said Shoigu. Nabil Fahmy said in an interview with Russia’s state-owned RT television channel that aired prior to the meeting on Tuesday, “the issue of purchasing new Russian weapons should be carefully examined.”
To some extent, Russian arms deals resumed back in the 2000s when Moscow upgraded the systems it had supplied to Egypt in 1960s and early 1970s: the S-125 Pechora surface-to air missile system (in the Pechora-2M version), the Kvadrat surface-to-air missile system (which received the missiles and some control elements from the modern Buk complex) and the self-propelled anti-aircraft Shilka weapon systems. The latter were upgraded with portable infrared surface-to-air Igla systems. Egypt also received new medium-range Buk-M1-2 and short-range Tor-M1E. The total volume of military trade between Russia and Egypt is not large by world standards, but nonetheless significant, $1.852 billion from 2005 to 2012 (19.4% of supply to Egypt), second only to the United States with $6.865 billion (71.8% of the total).
According to Russian media reports, the Russian Defense Minister might have also discussed the supply of modern weaponry to Egypt such as MiG-29 fighter planes, air defense systems, and anti-tank missiles – a package worth up to $4 billion.11 However, no agreement or pact on arms sale has been concluded so far. Russia’s supplies are contingent on Egypt’s ability to finance the purchases. “The economy will not permit major weapons purchases,” said Safwat el-Zayyat, a former general. “Policies in the region depend on the man in power, and that can change very easily.” After the coup and in the situation of unsettled government, Egypt’s economy remains unstable and the government is borrowing money from its neighbors (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait). Thus, there is a big question mark over the prospect import of relatively expensive Russian armaments.
“We are ready to help Egypt in all the fields where it seeks cooperation,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. Sergei Lavrov and Nabil Fahmy discussed perspectives for trade and economic cooperation. “Russia is preparing offers, which include cooperation in the energy sector and heavy industry, the procurement of building and transport equipment…”. Besides, Russia is a major exporter of wheat, which Egypt desperately needs in light of the ongoing economic disruption.
Finally, the Russian and Egyptian foreign ministers discussed the situation in Syria and the elimination of chemical weapons there. Sergei Lavrov emphasized Egypt’s role in solving the Syrian crisis.


Recently, some commentators have claimed that Russia’s revival of Cold War-era friendships with Middle Eastern states, long a part of the American sphere of influence, are a sign that Cold War rivalries are back. Realistically, however, such comparisons with the Cold War are laughable, at best. Most importantly, Russia is no longer a superpower. With an economy basically reliant on natural resources, Russia’s economic growth has stagnated. Today, its GDP is only about 15 percent of the United States. Additionally, Russia’s population is fleeing the country.

Second, Moscow is rapidly losing its influence in the so-called “zone of privileged interests”- namely the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Several Central Asian former Soviet republics, the Ukraine, and Georgia have all opted to sympathize with the European Union rather than ally with Russia. China is expanding westwards and plans to rent 5 percent of Ukrainian agricultural land. How coincidental it is that Chinese Xi Jinping has recently concluded a ten day-long journey throughout Central Asia, signing a series of economic agreements with the local republics, clearly drawing Central Asia closer to China – and away from Russia?
Driven by its historically imperialist ambitions (inherited from the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union), Russia is reaching out to the Middle East, seeking to take on a role of mediator, thereby boosting its, inter alia, international prestige. So far, Russian diplomatic mediation efforts have been a failure. Allying with very unpopular Assad regime, Moscow is further alienating nearly all the major powers in the region- Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia. Thus, as the Washington Post article highlights, Russia is increasingly despised throughout the Middle East. If any of the Arab states happen to deal with Russia these days, Egypt in our case is such an example, they must do so out of sheer pragmatic interest, namely, the desire to purchase arms. Russia also has an interest in commercial deals with Middle Eastern customers such as Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, but the arms trade turnover with them should not be overstated. The major foreign contracts on weapons supplies have largely gone to China and India. Overall, Russia’s trade with the Middle East still represents a smaller portion of its overall trade volume than its trade with India, China, or the European Union.
Moscow’s current interests in the region are more political/strategic than economic in nature. Russia’s aims to restore its image as a powerful player and a mediator, a country that not only shares a similar religious tradition, due to the large Muslim minority of Russia, but also will not attempt to pressure Middle Eastern states towards democracy (unlike the West). Another strong motivation for Moscow to actively engage with the Middle East is the urgent need to improve its image among its own citizens. In the ongoing protest movements in Russia one can clearly recognize methods and technology the rebels used in the Arab states. The idea of replication of the Arab Spring in Russia with a popularly organized opposition is of great concern to Putin. If Russia loses its two last major client states in the region, Iran and Syria, it will appear that Russia has lost its influence in the Middle East, and that Russia has lost its credibility both at home and abroad. These concerns explain why Russia’s rapprochement with Egypt appears to have considerable momentum.