Sunday, 11 October 2020

Russia and us

Putin's Palace
Putin's Palace


I recently read Catherine Belton's Putin's People. I can recommend the book about how the ruling class in today's Russia came to be and how it is interacting with the West. 

I do not agree with everything journalist Catherine Belton writes there. Still, I think she presents a huge amount of insights and hypothesis from which we can start many interesting discussions. Her statements should be considered in political circles in the EU, in Britain and in the rest of the West. 

Other specialists on Russia like Mark Galeotti have a different stance, they consider Putin's Russia is above all an adhocracy and they think the siloviki, the members of the security apparatus in Russia, are not that powerful and rather a bunch of improvisers. 

For me, the discussion whether Putin and his cronies came and remain in power as part of a master plan conceived by the  KGB  or whether the current situation is the result of a chain of trials and errors by some thuggish clan is less interesting than getting to know more details about what the siloviki have been up to in general.

Michael Kimmage wrote a rather negative review of Belton's book, which you can read it here. I bought the book after reading that review, I agree with some of Kimmage's points and yet I still found the book invaluable. Perhaps it is because I think most people can discern what is sheer speculation, what falls into the realm of cliches and what are actual facts or very probably facts. When I read a book that is on politics I do not expect to find a single idea explaining how some part of the universe came to be but get some pieces of concrete information and some possible explanations I can judge upon. 

You can watch some interviews with Belton in English here and here and in Russian here. I particularly liked the interview in Russian as the one doing the interview is taking the view of a Russian. You can read a more positive review on the book here and another one here by Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin. You can find many more on the Web on your own.

Some of the things I like, in no particular order:

  1. there are references galore one can check out. Even if there are many anonymous sources and a lot of statements from individuals who are clearly biased against the ones in power in Russia now, there are also a lot of other sources one can delve into in order to judge by oneself
  2. there is a lot of information about Igor Sechin, the Gazprom man.
  3. Gazprom appearance and expansion is explained in full detail. Admittedly, there is too much of a Khodorkovsky perspective but again, I think any person who has been interested in Russia for some time can separate the wheat from the chaff here.
  4. there are interesting pieces about the role of former Stasi members in the relationships between Europe and Russia. It is not only Matthias Warnig but Martin Schlaff and some others.
  5. also some background on Nikolai Patrushev.
  6. one can also read a lot of interesting information about the Beslan and Moscow Hostage crises
I liked less the final chapter, on how several characters linked to the Russian security services and how they were lobbying in the USA, in particular helping Trump to gain power. I do think Trump is more than compromised when it comes to Russia: many loans to his companies can be traced back to Russia, Trump's state of mind makes him love strongmen like Putin, he has repetedly show his man-love to Putin in a way that has been very embarrassing for the US intelligence agencies, to say the least. Still, the whole chapter seemed like a bit disconnected from the rest. One could have said there there are just as useful and often unconscious fools within the EU or Britain. Why a whole chapter for Trump? I am sure the current Russian government still would prefer for Trump to be re-elected but the last chapter should perhaps have been more general or have gone more into a discussion about what policies the West can develop.

As others mentioned, Belton gives a lot of credit to her contact Pugachev. She mentions a recording with his voice that was discovered after he left his house. I would be a bit careful about any recording, whatever its content.

As Kimmage wrote, Belton does not discuss much of the latest blunders the Russian regime has made. That is definitely a pity.

For those interested in what the siloviki are doing in Syria or Venezuela: you will find nothing of it in the book (there is only one single reference to the money Russia has loaned to Venezuela, for instance). Still, the book is very insightful and even more so for Venezuelans who want to have the big picture and who want to see where the Chavista regime is getting some of its ideas and support from. Igor Sechin, for instance, has big stakes in Venezuela and this book shows you a lot of where he is coming from. The money laundering parts are also very illuminating to understand how all these regimes work.

All in all, Belton's book is worth reading.


Sunday, 7 June 2020

Are the Putinists weaker or stronger now in Venezuela?

A few months ago Putin changed his ambassador in Venezuela. The new one is the Armenian Russian Sergey Melik-Bagdasarov. The one before was Vladimir Zayemski (Wikipedia Spanish here).  Zayemski was an old school Brezhnev apparatchik. In fact, he started working as a "translator" at the Soviet embassy in Costa Rica back in 1974 and he became ambassador in the back then democratic Venezuela in 1976. He stayed there until 1979 and did the usual tour of a Soviet diplomat. He became again ambassador to Venezuela in 2006, while it was being transformed into a dictatorship with Cuban and Russian help. While Zayemski was a quiet albeit very loyal Putinist - remember Russia has never known the difference between State, government and ruling party - he was rather quiet and pretended to follow the rules. You would not see him on Twitter sending messages Trump-style. He would give some interviews to El Universal, a Venezuelan newspaper that became neutralized by the regime years ago, he would talk to Putin's largest organ abroad, RT, and he would give interviews to the Russian Kommersant. I have written about him earlier.
Parrot in a jail in Cuba

The current ambassador, Melik-Bagdasarov, keeps on tweeting in a rather chatty, clumsy way...but die-hard Chavistas follow him and parrot him.

Last year Russian journalists in exile published in English an article about why Putin is meddling in Venezuela so much. Things haven't changed: if Venezuela becomes democratic, Cuba's dictatorship falls and that would be a sign for a lot lot more.

Bear in mind: I will from now on try to differentiate more and more between Putinists and Russians. Not all Russians are Putinists and not all Putinists are Russians. It is true Russia has never known a democracy - unless we talk about Veliki Novgorod's times, but then that was a city-state -. But more and more Russians are starting to think their country deserves better.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Los matasueños de Venezuela: cómo vencerlos


Ahora la gigantesca mayoría de los venezolanos cree que la dictadura chavista seguirá durante mucho más tiempo de lo que pensábamos.
La liebre y la tortuga
¿Cómo hemos llegado aquí? Ha sido un camino largo. El chavismo lo ha logrado


  • al poder usar y desperdiciar el mayor boom petrolero de la historia, 
  • al poder aprovecharse del descalabro de los últimos años de la época democrática que lo precedió, 
  • al contar con el apoyo y, más aun, la dirección de las fuerzas de seguridad cubanas y con el régimen de Putin, entre otras cosas. 

Pero el chavismo también aprovechó numerosos errores de la oposición: las fuerzas opositoras que surgieron tras la llegada al poder del caudillo Chávez eran ante todo caraqueños que desconocían casi por completo al resto del país, que pensaban que Caracas conformaba la mayoría de Venezuela. Casi todos los líderes nuevos tenían poco poder retórico o eran relacionados con las clases pudientes de otrora en Venezuela. Ante todo la oposición pecó y sigue pecando por pensar a corto plazo: ahora sí, sí vamos a sacar al chavismo. Se trata de ahora. Y el chaviso usó esto vez tras vez. 

Cada año desde 2014 se ha repetido la misma historia: comienzan protestas en los primeros dos o tres meses y luego se produce una nueva ola de emigración. El chavismo ha generado la mayor emigración que se haya vivido en América Latina en un país que había sido conocido por muchas décadas como el país por excelencia de inmigración no solo para otros países latinoamericanos.

Actualmente el chavismo está siendo asesorado y en parte dirigido por fuerzas cubanas y rusas. En particular las fuerzas del poder en Rusia y Cuba han aprendido de sus pérdidas de finales de los ochenta y los noventa.

¿Vamos a comenzar a debatir cómo hacer las cosas de manera diferente, más inteligente?

Este año comenzaré a bloguear más.


Saturday, 25 May 2019

Russia's hybrid war: a Norwegian perspective


I just finished a book by Norwegian journalist Øystein Bogen. The book came up last year, its Norwegian title, Russlands hemmelige krig mot Vesten, means "Russia's secret war against the West".  It is still only available in Norwegian but I  really hope it gets an English translation soon. It presents a comprehensive analysis of how Putin's Russia is carrying out disinformation campaigns, massive hacking and more aggressive attacks in the West. I have read a lot of things about Russia since I was a child and I always keep an eye for those things but I learnt a lot, even in cases I thought I had read enough already.

Bogen presents a short but very solid historical background of how the Soviet Union was carrying out its desinformation wars in the West. Osten goes into interesting details about how USSR did this. For instance, the KGB worked with obscure newspapers in India to start writing AIDS was "in reality a biological weapon that came from US labs". This lie ended up spreading to Africa and then to the whole world. The Soviet Union also worked with sympathizers in the West, something its follower, Russia of Putin, keeps on doing through obscure think tanks and politicians of both the extreme right and extreme left.

Here a few of the topics covered in this book:

  • How the propaganda machines RT and Sputnik work
  • How the Russian intelligence services carried out the attack on Estonia in 2007, what came up before and afterwards there (among many things, what happened to Eston Kohver)
  • How the invasion of Crimea and the Donbass war were prepared and how Russia carries out a propaganda war against Ukraine
  • How the Russian intelligence services tried to influence things in Montenegro
  • How the extreme right and the extreme left in Europe are used to destabilize the West
  • How the Russian campaign for Trump and against Clinton was carried out and what precedents there were in the USA
  • How Russia used the migration crisis in Europe to destabilize the West (an example that comes up is the way it let thousands of refugees go all the way across Russia to Northern Norway and Finland)
There is also a chapter with the general references to the Litvinenko case but also to many other murders (briefly mentioned on BBC here). There were details I was not aware of like how Henry Kissinger became a lobbyist for Putin.

And there are a couple of chapters on how Russia is meddling in Norway, Sweden and Finland. The only thing that might be a challenge for most English readers in this book is that there are a couple of chapters mostly dealing with Russia's attacks in Scandinavia and no Scandinavian readers might lose focus when things are not so much about themselves.

Bogen presents both sides of the story - or more as there are often more than two - and also his own account and analysis. He has been there and up there. He offers a wealth of sources.The book is very well documented, with sources from the Russian side and from every Western country mentioned.

Those who have read my blog for some time know I have followed Russian events for many years. I can tell you: Osten knows what he writes about. You might want to check out Mr Bogen's appearances in English online. Those of you who read Norwegian should try to check out his books if you have not done so before (most Norwegians will know he works at TV2).



Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Los rusos interviniendo con poco dinero


Los venezolanos debemos estar muy pendientes sobre lo que quiere hacer el régimen ruso actual en Venezuela. Los rusos tienen Novichok, tienen sus agentes, tienen su órgano propagandístico RT, sus bots. Tienen sus armas. Aun así, no podrán impedir que nuestro país organiyce elecciones libres, limpias y que volvamos a la democracia y a un camino de desarrollo disponible. Pero si queremos que este cambio ocurra lo más pronto posible, debemos entender a ese país del este.

PIB per capita de algunos países (Banco Mundial)

Como pueden ver en el gráfico anterior, el producto interno bruto per capita de los rusos es muy inferior al de Italia - el PIB total de Italia, evidentemente, es superior al ruso pese a que Italia tiene muchas menos personas y menos recursos naturales). También pueden ver allí cómo otros países otrora bajo el control soviético -y por consiguiente ruso- han sobrepasado a Rusia: es el caso de Polonia, es el caso de los tres países bálticos Lituania, Latvia y ante todo Estonia. Solo Ucrania (no está en este gráfico) aun tiene un PIB per cápita inferior al ruso, pero eso en gran parte se debe a la guerra que Rusia mantiene en la frontera oriental de Ucrania.

Pese a que Rusia per cápita tiene una productividad bastante modesta para los países desarrollados, sigue queriendo intervenir en el mundo de manera muy agresiva. Las razones de esto son complejas:
  • reacción a la expansión de la OTAN, 
  • reacción a las sanciones de Occidente por el Anschluss ruso de Crimea, 
  • esta expansión posibilita a Rusia vender más de sus principales productos: armas.
  • métodos de ganar dinero de muchos de los oligarcas, muchos de los cuales están conectados al servicio secreto ruso y al aparato militar
El gobierno ruso cree que si mantiene las manos de Occidente ocupadas con un montón de regiones en crisis, desde Venezuela hasta Siria, puede ganar espacio en la competencia internacional.

Pueden ver algunos artículos en español sobre cómo los rusos procuran ganar influencia en África.

El actual embajador ruso en Venezuela es un viejo diplomático que ya trabajaba en la misma embajada hace cuarenta años, en tiempos de la nacionalización y la mayor prosperidad de nuestro país. Él sabe muy bien cómo el país ha degenerado pero sus intereses son los intereses del gobierno ruso. El gobierno ruso quiere arriesgar mucho.

En mi opinión la mejor manera de interactuar con los rusos es informar, informar muy bien al mundo entero de las intenciones rusas, del nivel de ataques a los derechos humanos en Venezuela, del horrible nivel de corrupción en Venezuela, de cómo Venezuela se ha estado hundiendo mientras casi toda América Latina va avanzando...y en declarar a los rusos que si quieren ver los miles de millones que han gastado en Venezuela su mejor apuesta es apoyar el regreso a la democracia.

No olvidaremos lo que hagan los rusos, sea lo que hagan de mala o de buena fe.
La economía rusa en los próximos años enfrenta grandes desafíos. Es mejor que se ocupen de arreglar su país que de apoyar una dictadura atroz en Venezuela.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Where is Maduro going to go?

First of all: we need to be cautious. Maduro is going to cling to power a little bit more. This is not 1989 Eastern Europe. Venezuela is not Czechoslovakia, Putin is not Gorbachev who cared about human rights and stuff but rather an ex KGB who feels humiliated by the West and China's GDP is more than 20 times what it was back then and it is a country looking for good colonies. There are lots of people around Maduro who are not only guilty of crimes against humanity but also a lot who are actually involved in drug trafficking and other stuff that might have repercussions even if the new government puts in place a very generous amnesty law. Big Chavistas know they might not have such a quiet life as their counterparts in Eastern Europe back in the nineties because they have made enemies everywhere.
Yanukovich lives close to Moscow but he speaks Russian better than Maduro, Cabello or Flores

Let's see Maduro's options very soon:

1) Staying in Venezuela as a normal citizen: this would mean he would need to have lots of security guards around him all the time and yet he won't be able  to move much: even if no one would touch him, he would be booed everywhere he went all the time, at the very least.

2) Going to Cuba: a lot of people take this as the more likely option but they forget Cuba's regime is largely counting on Venezuela's blood to survive. When Chavismo falls - and it will fall - Castristas will have other concerns. They definitely do not want Maduro there.

3) Going to Mexico: this might be an option if Maduro decides to go to some hacienda in some remote area of Mexico and the current president, lefty Obrador, gives him also protection round the clock.

4) Going to some country in Western Europe: this is possible but probably less so than option 3. First of all: Maduro and his people would not be able to keep up with their lifestyle without getting noticed and Venezuelan expats would make his life difficult: Cilia Flores would not be able to go shopping just lik that in the streets of Zurich or Paris. There are too many Venezuelans there and we live in the Age of the Mobile.

5) Going to Russia: this seems like an option as there are fewer Venezuelans there, Putin still has control of the country even if his popularity is going down. Still, I still cannot picture him spending his days in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, surrounded by mostly Russian speaking people. 

6) The same goes for Belarus but much more so than Russia.

We need to try to picture all this so that we can understand Maduro´s state of mind. Take into account that this is also in the minds of dozens and dozens of other Chavistas. 

I am currently not saying anything more. He has to go. Democracy must finally arrive to Venezuela as it arrived to the Czech Republic, to Estonia, to Eastern Germany. We need to show Maduro that if he tries to stay in Venezuela even though nobody wants him is going to be for him much worse than options 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 10000.

At this moment I think Maduro's best options are Mexico or Russia.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

El embajador de tiempos soviéticos en Venezuela del siglo XXI


Vladímir Fiódorovich Zayemski es el embajador de Rusia en Venezuela desde hace tiempo. Tiene 66 años. Hace unos días un periodista del períodico de asuntos comerciales Kommersant lo entrevistó sobre el tema de Venezuela y el hombre regurgitó la típica propaganda putinista. Pueden ver la entrevista en ruso aquí.
Este era Brezhnev, no el embajador actual de Rusia en Venezuela, pero hay que tener en cuenta que el embajador ya trabajaba en el servicio diplomático soviético en esos tiempos

Entre otras cosas, dio la usual interpretación putinista-chavista de la Constitución de Venezuela y sobre las condiciones según las que Guaidó asumió la presidencia de nuestro país. 

Dijo, en buen estilo soviético, que muchos medios de comunicación no habían mencionado que aparte de los miles de opositores que marcharon el 23 de enero también hubo "marchas masivas en apoyo de Nicolás Maduro en Caracas y otros sitios". Todos los que vivimos o tenemos familiares y amigos en Venezuela sabemos que eso es una vil mentira.

Zayemski aseguró al periodista que las inversiones rusas no corren peligro (es algo que se menciona con frecuencia en la prensa rusa, no las violaciones a los derechos humanos en nuestro país). Dijo que se seguía en la cooperación "en el campo petrolero, de armamento, agropecuario". También dijo que en el país vivían actualmente unos 800 rusos. 

Uno tendría que preguntarse qué hacen tantos rusos allí.

La mayoría de la información que hay sobre él está en ruso. Si visitan su página de Wikipedia leerán, entre otras cosas lo siguiente:

  • estudió en el Instituto Estatal de Relaciones Exteriores de Rusia en tiempos de Brezhnev
  • fue empleado de la embajada de la Unión Soviética entre 1976 y 1979, en tiempos de CAP I y cuando aun mandaba Brezhnev en su país
  • fue empleado del departamento para asuntos de América Latina del Ministerio de relaciones exteriores de la URSS
  •  fue segundo secretario de la embajada soviética en México (81-86)
  • fue primer secretario en el Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores,
  • estuvo luego en EUA para encargarse de asuntos latinoamericanos y de la OEA
  • fue mano derecha del ministro de relaciones exteriores Ivanov del 94 al 96
  • Del 96 al 98 encabezó el departamento de Asuntos Internacionales del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores (sinceramente no sé qué hacen esos, parece un ministerio dentro de otro)
  • Del 98 al 2002 estuvo en la representación rusa en Nueva York para Naciones Unidas
  • Del 2002 al 2004 fue director del Departamento para América del Norte en el Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Rusia
  • Del 2004 al 2009 director del Departamento de Asuntos Internacionales en el Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores
  • y a partir de 2009 ha sido embajador de Putin en Venezuela, Haití y República Dominicana.

Hace años escribí ya sobre cómo los soviéticos entrenaban a los miembros del Partido Comunista venezolano, entre ellos de la familia chavista Faría, en métodos de terrorismo.