Putincare: Russia’s Alternative to Obamacare

Posted October 31st, 2013 at 1:11 pm (UTC+0)
4 comments

Mmmm. Kasha for Breakfast, yum, yum. VOA Photo: James Brooke

With Obamacare dividing America, I thought it my patriotic duty to do a firsthand, between the hospital sheets, investigation of Putincare.

So, here is my report, straight from frayed bed linens stamped Mинистерство Zдравоохранения – Health Ministry.

My weekend at the Cancer Ward did not have the drama of Solzhenitsyn’s 1967 novel. But it had its moments.

The Soviet Union had a two-track health system – for the Party elite, and for the masses. Modern Russia has a two-track system – for cash paying patients, and everyone else.

For me, it all started one year earlier, in Aug. 2012.

I noticed an odd cyst on a normally hidden body part.

Alarmed, I took the classic expat step: off to the American Medical Center!

Foreigners like the American Medical Center and its rival, the European Medical Center, because (a) pretty trilingual nurses, and (b) pretty English language invoices that foreign insurance companies swallow without squawking.

The hospital names seem to be labels for marketing to Moscow’s 1 percent. As at the Porsche dealership down my street and at the Tiffany outlet up the street, the arrival of a foreigner is an unexpected bonus.

These successful clinics are champions in charging. I once visited EMC to kick a bad cold. Ninety minutes later, I spun out the revolving glass door, my wallet $800 lighter. Their smooth technique put Moscow subway pickpockets to shame.

So when I visited the urologist at AMC, I turned down his offer of a full body MRI. The doctor and I had a bit of a communication problem. He said he had not spoken English in two months. My medical Russian has its limits. After several lab tests, I got prescriptions.

Before Putincare: note black hair: Photo: NYTimes/ Gene Maggio

Before Putincare: note black hair: Photo: NYTimes/ Gene Maggio

Four months later, the problem continued unchanged. I went back to the same department at the AMC. But there was a new doctor. Where was the first doctor? After a bit of questioning, I learned that first doctor had been let go for “mistakes.”
Great, I thought.

Plok! Plok!
The new doctor was snapping on his rubber gloves.
This exam seemed to get off the track.
He started to talk about his upcoming road trip.
Driving down California’s Route 1 through Big Sur.
Renting the car alone. Pause.
I suggested that he might start his trip in San Francisco. He might find a nice traveling companion there.
More tests. No MRI. More prescriptions.

Two months later, no progress.
So I switched to the European Medical Center.
Two visits. More tests. No MRI. More prescriptions. No progress.

Finally, in August, I got a reminder from a place where Moscow’s cosmopolitan male elite get essential health tips – the medical ads posted above the urinals in the international terminal at Domededovo Airport.

On my return to Moscow, I Googled around for a normal Russian testing clinic.

Google took me to a street behind the Moscow Zoo. There I found Klinika Zdorovye (Health), and Rustem Gafurov, a quiet, businesslike doctor.

Klinika Zdorovye is efficient: tests on the spot, pay by cash, and get lab results by email.

But, in my case, Dr. Gafurov called me in for my results.

All was ok, but for one test.

He used a phrase you do not want to hear in any language: предварительно раковые клетки, or “pre-cancerous cells.”

(Gee, thanks AMC and EMC for wasting my time and money. You can keep the $1,542. But can you give me back my wasted year?)

Dr. Gafurov set up an appointment with a Moscow cancer clinic.

Maybe because it was August, I decided to take the all-Russian road and to surrender my private parts to Putincare.

After Putincare: Moscow's golden fall foliage distract from silver hair. VOA Photo: James Brooke

After Putincare: Moscow’s golden fall foliage fails to distract from hair turned silver. VOA Photo: James Brooke

I did a little internet research on the hospital. It was the same one where Soviets interned Lee Harvey Oswald in October, 1959, after he tried to commit suicide in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. I figured it must be elitnii. Right?

It helped enormously that Anna Klintsova, a Russian-American scientist friend, was visiting. She guided me through the obstacle course of building passes, paying in advance, and meeting doctors who did not use email or cell phones. The PhD on her card got some respect. She translated into English the fine points of photodynamic therapy.

On one hand, Putincare is stuck in the 1970s. My file was a swelling batch of papers, updated by blue pen, and ceremoniously hand carried from office to office. On the other hand, all the professionals had solid Western exposure.

The head anesthesiologist talked excitedly about her upcoming trip to San Diego for an anesthesiology congress. (It sounded like none of the participants would be falling asleep – ha ha).

Her main question was: “Don’t they have fotodinamicheskaya terapia in the United States?”
To which I replied huffily: “This is not “meditsinskiy turizm.”
I added proudly: “I live here.”
My heart sank when I detected her rolling her eyes.

Check-in time came in early October – a mere five weeks after the original diagnosis.

I arrived with my big bag, prepared for a weekend of urban camping. I had been told to bring knife, fork, spoon, plate, mug, cup, and bottled water. I added a comfy pillow, battery powered radio, and a 3-meter extension cord for my laptop.
(I soon discovered: veefee nyetu– no wifi).

The female martinet manning hospitals admissions looked at my bag.

She vetoed it. It was slishkom bolshoi – too big.

After seven years in Moscow, I have learned when to turn on the outrage. And when to save the energy. After 45 minutes of quietly reading my newspapers, I noticed that the admissions room had emptied out.

Me and my big bag rolled in for our Russian Hospital Adventure.

Soon, I was settled into my room and getting acquainted with my new roommate, Sergei. He was a gregarious patent lawyer with a disconcerting circular scar in the center of his forehead.

At 4 pm, I was summoned to the office of the operating doctor.

She brusquely informed me that I had four hours to buy three flasks of photodynamic therapy radachlorine for $1,300 cash. In all of Moscow, there was only one pharmacy that had radachlorine in stock. It was 30 kilometers away, on the highway to Warsaw.

I turned on the irritation, dialing it to medium high. In a concession, she personally telephoned the pharmacy and reserved three flasks in my name.

Scrounging up $1,300 in cash on a four-hour deadline is not easy. Two weeks earlier, I had lost my Citibank card in a mob scene at the opening of Russia’s first Krispy Kreme donuts store. (Different story.)

But, in post-Soviet Russia, hospital lobbies are equipped with cash machines. Robbers in Moscow recently bashed open a cash machine at a vocational college. They stole the ruble equivalent of $51,000. Cash machines in hospitals probably are stocked with triple that amount – and are replenished daily.

By using my Visa card, I milked the money machine for $1,300. Of course Visa pocketed another 6 percent – 3 percent for cash, plus 3 percent for a foreign transaction.

Later, a Russian friend telephoned around discovered that I could have bought three flasks of radachlorine for $800, if I had ordered in advance. Three weeks earlier, the doctor had mentioned that I would have to buy radachlorine. But she did not write out a prescription.

(Hmm, could that be why the pharmacy wanted the name of the referring doctor? But, hey, do you want to irritate the doctor who is going to drill your private parts for 10 minutes with the Photodynamic Therapy Light Beam?)

That evening, Sergei announced he was not going to spend the night in the hospital because they only had state-controlled TV and he wanted to watch “TV Rain,” the opposition channel. So he stomped off.

Peeking from my covers, I thought: whatever.

All alone that night, I had a nightmare of Dr. Demento training her Blue Krypton Laser Canon at my private parts, and repeating in a steely shriek: “There will be no deformatsiya! There will be no deformatsiya!”

The next morning, the A Team arrived. I was rolled, in a few meters, from 1983 to 2013 – the Photo Dynamic Therapy Room.

Danil, the congenial red-haired anesthesiologist greeted me and launched into a long anekdot in Russian about a 100-year-old American man driving in Nebraska, a highway patrolman, and sex. All the while, he prepared two large syringes. I thought: whatever.

One hour later, I was rolled back into Room 1, my room where patients supply their own soap and toilet paper.

Sergei was back. He helped the nurse push my frozen lower frame between the Ministry of Health sheets.

The next two days were a bit of a blur.

Ksenia brings coffee -- a contraband item in hospital that ran on tea. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Ksenia brings coffee — a contraband item in hospital that ran on tea. VOA Photo: James Brooke

There was the nurse who expected all patients to hobble to meals, juggling trays and catheters in the food line. Then, there was Lovely Saida, the nurse from Dagestan with bewitching coal black eyes who came only once to draw blood. (Come back, come back, I have more!)

And there was Sergei who turned out to be a compulsive talker who just would NOT shut up. I would pointedly announce that I was going to take a nap, or bury my face behind a newspaper tent, and he would rattle on and on, not skipping a beat. (If any foreigner wants an intensive conversational Russian language partner, drop me a line).

Sergei also was incredibly generous. His treatment was postponed, so he gave me two large sacks of fresh fruit, which I took home and consumed: grapefruit, apples, bananas, oranges, grapes, plums, and lemons.

On the visitor front, Natasha and Olga begged off on coming to the Cancer Ward. Victoria left for a month in Brussels. Vera brought a chocolate bar, sat one meter from my bedside, and looked tense and pale.
Ksenia brought coffee, chicken wrap and tiramisu.

My exit interview with the doctor was brief. She suggested that I take it easy for a month. She said there was a 95 percent probability that I am cured.

She neglected to mention that healing involves excruciating pain.

(Note to cross cultural researchers: outpatient pain control may not be a high priority of Putincare.)

Three weeks later, I drove to the Zoo neighborhood to get a second opinion from Klinika Zdorovye. Dr. Gafurov was out. But his colleague, Dr. David Arutunyan, was up to speed on my case. He gave me a clean bill of health.

And he said the checkup was free.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Kremlin to US Government Workers: We Welcome Your Secrets

Posted October 14th, 2013 at 7:47 pm (UTC+0)
Comments are closed

In the Cold War days, Soviet spies in the United States faced tough tasks – identifying high value targets, and then persuading them to hand over America’s secrets.

Today’s Kremlin has entered the modern age: Advertise!

Edward Snowden (third from right) receives the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence Award alongside UK WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison (second from right), who took Snowden from Hong Kong to Moscow, and the US government whistleblowers who presented the award (left to right) Coleen Rowley (FBI), Thomas Drake (NSA), Jesselyn Raddack (Department of Justice) and Ray McGovern (CIA) on October 9, 2013 in Moscow. Photo: Sunshine Press via Ria


Russia’s English-language international media is giving glowing coverage to four U.S. government whistleblowers who came to Moscow to give an award to Edward Snowden, the fugitive leaker from the National Security Agency.

RIA Novosti posted the above handout photo from Sunshine Press, the WikiLeaks media arm. The caption helpfully identified the former employer of each visiting American: CIA, FBI, NSA and Department of Justice.

Russia Today, the Kremlin channel that speaks English, lavished a 15-minute segment on “The Fabulous Four.”

The little known Sam Adams Award got Oscar treatment on RT, the Kremlin’s English-speaking TV channel. The American award honors US Government employees who speak out against preceived government abuses. Photo: RT/ Semyon Khorunzhy

Hint, hint.

Why not just string a banner between two Kremlin towers, reading in English: “American Secrets Welcome Here!”

The appeal to American government workers to break their confidentiality oaths is, of course, dressed up in the Kremlin’s new concern that the United States should become more transparent, democratic and accountable.

Lost in fuzzy think is the point that this passion for transparency, democracy, and accountability stops at Russia’s 98,061 kilometer border. If the American visitors stick around Moscow long enough, they will start hearing Russian parliamentarians sneering at Washington for “exporting democracy.”

Smart people planned the Snowden award dinner well in advance, aimed at the mid-October international award season.

As any Russia state TV viewer knows, Moscow’s most famous American resident had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Snowden was also a finalist for the EU’s Sakharov Prize for human rights.

At a Moscow dinner Oct. 9, Robert Drake (ex-NSA) hands to Edward Snowden (ex-NSA) a candlestick, symbolic of the Sam Adams award, which seeks to illuminate dark corners. Still from WikiLeaks video.

But outside of state TV land, the realpolitik men at the Kremlin seemed to suspect that Snowden was not going to get either award. Their political instincts were correct. On Oct. 10, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who took a Taliban bullet for girls’ education, won the Sakharov Prize. And on Oct. 11, the Nobel Peace Prize went to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Stealing a march on these minor awards, Snowden received the Sam Adams award in Moscow on the night of Oct. 9.

Despite the whistleblowers’ declared attachment for transparency, we do not know where their dinner was, or who paid for the American attendees’ air tickets, visas and hotel rooms. Judging by the portrait of Catherine the Great in the background, and the sound of one person clapping in an otherwise empty hall, it appears that the award dinner was in a state-owned hotel.

Three of the four visiting Americans are past recipients of the Sam Adams award, which is named after a former CIA analyst who charged that enemy troop strength estimates were politically manipulated during the Vietnam War. While it honors Snowden as a whistleblower, U.S. officials counter that whistleblowers reveal information only after trying to go through official channels. They say Snowden does not qualify for whistleblower protections because he made no such effort before leaking secrets.

Anyhow, the photos — tightly cropped for the small gathering — show a jolly group. Snowden looked sharp in a well-fitting dark suit. His traveling companion, Sarah Harrison, looked svelte in black silk.

Elbowed aside by Sarah Harrison, or a Russian Mata Hari? Only three months ago, Russian spy Anna Chapman (photo) signaled she was looking for a meaningful relationship with Edward Snowden. Photo: Ria Novosti/Grigory Sysoev

Harrison may have elbowed aside Anna Chapman, the voluptuous red-haired Russian “sleeper agent” deported from the United States in 2010. Last June, she tweeted a marriage proposal to Snowden shortly after he arrived here. More recently, when a NBC reporter gingerly asked her about that tweet, she stomped out of the interview, saying that she did not want to talk about her personal life.

But that could – just maybe – have been an act. After she tweeted about Snowden, search hits soared again to her 2010 black lingerie photo spread in Russia’s Maxim magazine. The Kremlin’s subtle signal to lonely American male government workers: “Hey, Mr. Cubicle, come on over to Moscow with your US Gov. laptop. You are going to be batting way out of your league on Friday nights!”

So far, it has been impossible to get Snowden’s side of the story.

Although an advocate of transparency, Snowden has given no interviews since arriving in Moscow here four months ago. His two ‘public’ meetings have been carefully staged events – with handpicked NGOs and now with three fellow winners of his new award.

The visiting Americans later gushed about Snowden on RT, the English channel.

Jesselyn Radack, a former Department of Justice adviser, said Snowden “looked great. He seemed very centered and brilliant, smart, funny, very engaged.”

Ray McGovern, a former CIA agent, called Snowden “an extraordinary person” who “has made his peace with what he did, is convinced that what he did was right.”

Coleen Rowley, a former FBI agent, praised Snowden as “very centered.”

Thomas Drake, a former NSA executive who had voiced concerns about privacy violations by the agency, said: “Russia, to its credit, recognized international law and granted him asylum.”

Lon Snowden, left, speaks to The Associated Press in Moscow on Oct. 10, the day of his arrival in the Russian capital. Earlier Lon Snowden told Russian television that his son, Edward, is not planning to return to the United States. Edward Snowden’s lawyer Anatoly Kucherena listens at right. Photo: AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Then the Russian press latched on to Lon Snowden, the father of Edward, who arrived in Moscow the day after the award ceremony. Lon Snowden has received a multiple entry visa for Russia. He made a point of thanking Russian President Vladimir Putin for giving his son asylum.

Lon Snowden was escorted around Moscow by his son’s lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, a man who is close to the Kremlin.

During an interview with Rossiya 24 television, Kucherena signaled that the Kremlin expects a payoff for its charm campaign.

“I am absolutely convinced that there will be more people like Edward,” Kucherena said in Russian. “And it will happen in the near future because young people who are raised in the democratic United States, no doubt cannot and will not put up with the lies that are being told by its leaders.”

Rossiya 24 did not mention that Kucherena serves on the oversight board for the FSB, the successor intelligence agency to the KGB.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Greenpeace Pirates? Russia Loses Another International PR War

Posted October 9th, 2013 at 5:05 am (UTC+0)
1 comment

In Moscow, a Greenpeace activist in a polar bear suit holds a placard, reading “Gazprom Is Arctic Threat” in a protest Oct 5 against the jailing in Murmansk of 30 from the Greenpeace Boat “Arctic Sunrise.” One charged with piracy is freelance photographer, Denis Sinyakov, a staff photographer until last year for Reuters Moscow. Photo: Reuters///Maxim Shemetov

After Pussy Riot and “Gay propaganda,” the Kremlin now marches resolutely towards another international public relations defeat — this time with Greenpeace.

To the Kremlin, Greenpeace activists are not trespassers, they are pirates.

Piracy charges have been filed against everyone who was on the Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise, on Sept. 18. On that day two activists attempted to board Gazprom’s lone offshore drilling rig in the Arctic. They wanted to raise a banner reading: “For a Clean Arctic.” In Russia, piracy convictions carry prison terms of up to 15 years.

One year ago, protests erupted across Europe and the United States, after three young women received two year jail terms for carrying out a 90-second “Pussy Riot” protest in Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral. (One was later freed on probation). Then, a few months ago, protests again erupted again over Russia’s new law banning any gay “propaganda” that might reach the eyes and ears of Russians under 18 years of age.

Now, we start the season of the Greenpeace saga.

The Kremlin did not grasp a key media element: the cunning Greenpeacers crewed their boat with 18 different nationalities. The Arctic Sunrise was a floating United Nations.

From the far side of the globe: in Sao Paulo, Brazil, protesters on Oct. 5 hold signs in Portuguese that read “Free the 30″, and “Free Ana Paula.” Ana Paula Alminhana Maciel is the Brazilian Greenpeace activist charged with piracy. Photo: AP/Andre Penner

Kremlin strategists come from the school of state-controlled journalism. Consequently, they missed a basic element of Journalism 101 in the West: look for the local angle.

Now held in Russian jails and charged with piracy are crewmembers from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and the United States.

Don’t be surprised if there is regular coverage – and stinging anti-Kremlin editorials — in such far flung newspapers like Folha de Sao Paulo, The Toronto Globe and Mail, and The Australian. You may not be familiar with these newspapers, but rest assured that they are very well known by the Foreign Ministries of Brazil, Canada and Australia.

On Saturday, Greenpeace’s international machinery swung into action. The group said that it held 100 “Free the Arctic 30” protests around the world. They say the one in front of the Russian embassy in London drew 800 people.

So far, the Kremlin’s attitude is: Who cares?

In Hong Kong, Greenpeace activists demonstrate in front of the Russian consulate general. Photo: AP/ Vincent Yu

The day after the protests, Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft, the state oil company, told reporters, referring to Greenpeace protesters: “See who is paying them, who is their sponsor.”

Greenpeace responded by saying their sponsors are their 2.9 million members and contributors worldwide.

Sechin’s comments reflect an interesting cynicism about environmentalists. RT, the Kremlin-controlled television channel has aired numerous reports highly critical of fracking, a shale gas extraction technology developed in the U.S. that is spreading to Europe, threatening Gazprom’s export gas markets.

But in today’s highly integrated world, the Kremlin’s dismissive views of world public opinion seem quaintly out of date.

Kremlin realpolitik geo-strategists say that good will and “friendship” do not count in relations between countries. That is just as well, because the Kremlin has successfully raised its “ill will” with its neighbors.

In Paris, Greenpeace activists demonstrate near the Russian embassy. Last year, it was Pussy Riot. Last month, it was Gay Propaganda. The Putin administration sees little cost in international criticism. Photo: AP/Remy de la Mauviniere

Since 2007, the Pew Research Center has annually surveyed people in 38 countries to determine their attitudes toward other countries. The median of respondents expressing positive attitudes towards Russia has gradually fallen, hitting 38 percent this year. (By comparison, the median of favorable attitudes towards the US was 63 percent).

In the European Union, Russia’s largest trading partner, negative views of Russia were held by half or more people in France, Italy, Poland and Spain. Germany led the pack. Sixty percent of Germans polled in March and April of this year said they had negative views of Russia. (By comparison 43 percent of Americans had negative views of Russia).

Once again, the Kremlin may ask: So what?

How about $15 billion in fines, for starters?

European hostility toward Russia has helped spur a European Union anti-monopoly suit against Gazprom for price fixing in its gas sales to Europe. Brussels is preparing to lodge charges by the end of this year.

Fines could go as high as $15 billion, or 10 percent of Gazprom’s revenues.

Filing piracy charges against 30 Greenpeace activists – half of them from EU member countries – is not smart strategy as the Kremlin prepares to stand before European judges to defend Gazprom’s dominance of European gas markets.

Lost in the piracy controversy is Greenpeace’s key assertion: that a major oil spill in the Arctic Ocean will be virtually impossible to clean up.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Russia’s Potemkin Arctic Conference?

Posted September 26th, 2013 at 7:17 pm (UTC+0)
Comments are closed

Forbidden Photo? Airprt Police were dismayed to find reporters taking souvenir pictures of each other at Salekhard Airport. Here VOA photographer, Vera Undritz (hooded, top) prepares to descend into first snowstorm of the year. VOA Photo: James Brooke

There were two hours to go Wednesday afternoon at the international conference “The Arctic – Territory of Dialogue” when the organizers, The Russian Geographical Society, announced that all foreign correspondents had to get out of the Russian Arctic by sundown.

With the internet shutting down and four buses lined up to ferry all foreign journalists to the airport, the “Territory of Dialogue” suddenly started to look like a Potemkin conference.

We had gathered in Salekhard, a three-hour, 2,000 kilometer flight northeast of Moscow, to cover a 2-day meeting of Arctic experts from Russia, Canada, Alaska, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

Given the time invested and distance traveled, many of the Moscow-based foreign correspondents planned to stay on in Salekhard and do news features.

As a brilliant Arctic sun illuminated the first snow of the season, a Chinese TV crew intended to film this city of 45,000, an oil and gas boom town. A Danish newspaper reporter planned to explore, checking out the museum on the native Nenets people and the Baby Mammoth monument. He wanted to have his picture taken straddling a line representing the Arctic Circle, which cuts through Salekhard. The VOA team planned to do a story on reindeer herding, the clean up of military debris from an Arctic island, and the historical remains of gulag camps, where prisoners once labored on the “Railroad of Death.”

But, as the Arctic light started to fade, Vera Orlova, spokesman for the Russian Geographical Society, would have none of it. She was pumped from winning not so hidden battles with other Russian organizers. They had argued that the foreign reporters should stay in Salekhard for more than 30 hours.

Approved photo: the setting Arctic sunlight gives a yellowish tint to several reindeer stationed outside the Forum conference hall. Yamal has the world’s largest concentration of reindeer. These may have been too old for the trail — or resting up prior to seasonal work for Santa. VOA Photo: Vera Undritz

“Salekhard is in a border zone, and you do not have permission to stay here beyond Wednesday evening,” she said, as journalists started shoveling their papers into their new blue “Dialogue” gift shoulder bags.

Does this mean the “Dialogue” is over? I asked her.

“This is an absolutely normal procedure,” Orlova, a Muscovite, responded, referring to a sporadically enforced law regarding border regions. “We received permission to stay in the border territory of Salekhard specifically for those days you have come for the conference.”

Salekhard, on the Ob River, is actually over 1,000 kilometers by boat from the international waters of the Arctic Ocean. Locals say the “border’ law seems to have been extended to Salekhard largely to protect an energy boomtown from southern job seekers, people would not be prepared to deal with the potential fatal challenges of living in the Arctic.

Pressed on this, Orlova said such visitor restrictions are common around the Arctic.

At the Arctic Forum, Russian Nenets dancers capture the traditional welcoming spirit of peoples of the High North. VOA Photo: James Brooke


The “but everyone else does it” argument is fast becoming a shopworn justification for many authoritarian regulations of the Putin era.

The United States registers foreign-funded NGOs as “foreign agents.” (Wrong). European nations have already adopted laws banning “gay propaganda.” (Wrong). Towns around the Arctic expel foreigners who do not carry special visitors permits (Flat wrong).

As a reporter and as a tourist, I have visited Arctic communities in Iceland, Greenland, Canada and Alaska. I have always found Northern peoples to be welcoming and hospitable. They are invariably pleased that visitors would have come such long distances to visit their worlds.

No one once asked me if I had a permit to visit and stay in their community. To many of the hospitable and helpful people I met, I am sure the idea would have been unthinkably rude.

Ok, the one Arctic Ocean nation, I have not visited is Norway. But they seem mighty hospitable to Russians these days.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg a relaxed Arctic border summit last June. Presumably, they had border zone permits. Photo: Reuters

Last year, Norway and Russia started a visa free system for the 9,000 Norwegians and 45,000 Russians living within 30 kilometers of their Arctic border. Residents can cross and stay visa-free in the other country for as long as 15 days.

The impact of this creative thinking is as blindingly clear as Arctic sunshine on snow covered tundra. The Barents Observer website reports that 300,000 border crossings are forecastfor this year, triple the level of four years ago. As a result, $30 million is being invested to dramatically expand the lone Norway-Russia border crossing.

A similar boom is taking place at Russia’s two border crossings with Finnish Lapland. Last year, these two checkpoints registered 349,721 crossings, up 36 percent year over year. This is the biggest jump in a wider surge of Russians visiting Finland.

Finland’s consulate in St. Petersburg reportedly holds the title of the world’s busiest consulate. Travel experts forecast that there will be 20 million Russian visits to Finland in 2017.

In light of this Northern hospitality and mutual flexibility on visas, the Salekhard debacle seems out of step with modern times. Security officials undoubtedly argue – with a straight face – that Salekhard has a unique strategic value.

Viewed through bus windows, Salekhard looks like a pleasant place. But surrounded by thousands of kilometers of empty tundra, Salekhard has a hard time posing as a strategic choke point. It is not Gibraltar or Istanbul. This recalls a comment reportedly made by Henry Kissinger in 1984, during the Falklands War. Kissinger described Argentina’s geostrategic importance as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.”

It is odd that the Russian Geographical Society, a group devoted to widening horizons and opening minds since its founding in 1845, would now devote its energies to closing doors.

It is sad that the Society, which has benefitted from almost two centuries of hospitality extended by Arctic peoples, would not have absorbed some of the rules of the road in the High North.

Sitting in the Yamal Air plane waiting for takeoff, I called a Russian contact in Salekhard to cancel a TV interview. Her parting words: “Come on back!”

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Russia’s Future in Central Asia: Mall Cop in A Chinese Shopping Center?

Posted September 23rd, 2013 at 6:37 pm (UTC+0)
Comments are closed

Looking back 10 years from now, the most important news of Sept. 2013 may not be Moscow and Washington jousting over Syria’s civil war. It may well be China quietly locking down massive quantities of Central Asian oil and gas.

While the world worried about Syria, China’s President Xi Jinping deftly moved through Russia’s old imperial backyard, signing almost $100 billion in energy deals — $15 billion in Uzbekistan, $30 billion in Kazakhstan, and an estimated $50 billion in Turkmenistan.

Stopping in Astana, Kazakhstan’s futuristic capital, Xi pasted a political label on these Chinese-funded business deals. He called it a new “Silk Road Economic Zone.”

The man on the right now supplies half of China’s imported gas. He is Turkmen President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov. He and his top customer, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended a ceremony Sept. 4 marking start of gas production at a massive new Turkmen field that will allow this Central Asian nation to supply one third of all of China’s gas needs by 2020. Photo: AP


Evoking the old Silk Road that once brought Chinese silk and porcelain to Europe, he said: “I can almost hear the ring of the camel bells and smell the wisps of smoke in the desert.”

Of Central Asia’s five former Soviet republics, the Chinese president concentrated on the three blessed with vast oil and gas reserves. He added Kyrgyzstan to his itinerary, to attend a regional security meeting and to sign a $1.5 billion deal to build a second pipeline to transship Uzbek and Turkmen gas to China.

China’s leader skipped energy-deprived Tajikistan, leaving this nation bordering Afghanistan to the Russians. Russia stations 6,000 soldiers in Tajikistan, its largest foreign military deployment. Moscow is laboring to strengthen Tajikistan’s border defenses in advance of NATO’s planned pullout from Afghanistan next year.

While Xi pursues his new “marching westwards” policy, he defers to Russia on security issues in Central Asia, a region administered by Moscow for about 150 years, until 1991. This month, Xi carefully followed protocol, breaking his Central Asia tour with a trip to St. Petersburg to consult with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 Summit meeting. (Two days after this meeting, Novatek, a major Russian gas producer, announced that Chinese banks will help finance a $20 billion natural gas project in Russia’s Arctic.)

China’s shopping spree through Central Asia’s energy bazaar was so striking that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov felt compelled to give a press briefing in Moscow. As China signed “strategic partnerships” with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, the Russian diplomat assured Russian reporters: “Our Chinese friends recognize the traditional role our country continues to play in this region, so we do not see any regional rivalry problems.”

“Central Asia is an important area of Russia-China relations,” he said in the middle of the Chinese leader’s 10-day tour. “We are not competing with each other in Central Asia, but are adjusting our policies to reflect mutual interests.”

In Astana, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev (R) and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping applaud after launching on Sept. 7 yet another Chinese-financed pipeline that will bring more Central Asian gas to the Middle Kingdom. Photo: Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov

“As you know, the Russian and Chinese economies mutually supplement one another,” Morgulov continued. “China possesses sizable financial resources. Russia possesses experience, technologies, industrial skills and historical relations with the region.”
That sounded like wishful thinking.

When the Chinese president was in St. Petersburg, Rosneft, the Russian state oil company confounded expectations and failed to announce a contract to build an oil refinery in Tianjin, China. The next day, Kazakhstan announced that China will build a refinery in Kazakhstan. (Russia has not built a new refinery from the ground up in Russia since the Soviet era).

China had bargaining power. On Sept. 7 China’s state oil company CNPC bought a $5 billion stake in Kazakhstan’s new Kashagan oil field. Four days later, the first oil started flowing from the field, rated the largest in the world outside of the Middle East.

China seems happy to delegate to Russia the task of policing Central Asia. On the Russian side, Central Asia arouses popular interest only when politicians complain about Russia’s growing dependance on migrant workers from Central Asia. Almost one quarter century after the Soviet collapse, a generation of Russians has grown up with little experience in Central Asia. Vladimir Frolov, a government relations expert wrote recently in The Moscow Times of Russia’s new generation: “They want integration with Europe, not with Central Asia.”

Chinese President Xi is happy to let Russian President Vladimir Putin take the lead on police work in Central Asia. Russia is bolstering Tajikistan’s southern border in preparation of the pullout of NATO troops from Tajikistan: Photo: AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko

With Russia providing security, China is free to concentrate on forging a massive east-west trade relationship, flowing through new, Chinese-financed pipelines and highways.

Trade between China and Central Asia hit $46 billion last year. At the time of the Soviet collapse, in 1991, it was virtually zero. Now, that figure is more than half of the $88 billion in Chinese-Russian trade recorded last year.

It’s clear that China’s leaders believe that energy delivered through land pipelines is more reliable than energy delivered through shipping lanes.

Last year, Turkmenistan shipped to China 21 billion cubic meters of gas – just over half of all of China’s gas imports.

Under the deals signed a few days ago by Xi, Turkmenistan’s gas flow is to triple by 2020. Much of the gas will flow from Galkynysh, a field on the border with Afghanistan. Inaugurated by the Chinese president, this gas field is calculated to hold 26.2 trillion cubic meters, making it one of the world’s largest.

Energy economists calculate that by 2020, Turkmenistan will supply over one third of all gas consumed in China. It is a long way for Turkmenistan, once seen as a backwater assignment for employees of the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Oil and Gas Industry.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

With Syria, Can Russia’s President Move from Vlad the Impaler to Putin the Peacemaker?

Posted September 17th, 2013 at 8:25 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

Vladimir Putin’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, has a rare smile this week. Will it last?
Photo: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Vladimir Putin seems to enjoy being demonized by the West. In recent months, he has earned his share: bullying gay people, cracking down on democrats, throwing girl rockers in jail, and emerging as number one friend to Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

In Syria, Putin just performed the old Soviet trick — helping to create a standoff, then winning international applause for performing diplomatic magic tricks to solve it.

By leaning heavily on its client, the Assad regime, Moscow has maneuvered Damascus into admitting for the first time that it possesses chemical weapons and then signing the international treaty banning their production and use.

Now, if the script holds, Syria is to release an inventory of its chemical stocks and production facilities by the end of this week, and to destroy them all by the middle of next year. This ambitious project involves about 1,000 tons of poison, located in 50 sites sprinkled across a landscape gripped by war.

For those who have been on the beach, the game changing event was the Aug. 21 use of sarin gas against five opposition-controlled communities near Damascus. Rockets were fired at a time to achieve maximum mortality – at 2:30 in the morning when residents were sleeping and when nighttime temperatures were falling. That kept the gas low to the ground, creeping into bedrooms. Within 24 hours, more than 1,400 people were dead and thousands more injured.

This attack triggered the threat of American military response. That prompted the Kremlin to make its diplomatic moves. Undoubtedly, we will now watch plenty of cheating by Damascus on the destruction timetable.

But now the $64 question is Moscow is about a next step: Will the Kremlin pressure its Syrian ally to negotiate a political end to Syria’s costly civil war?

In coming days, the conversation on the ground will change in Syria. Commanders on both sides will negotiate local ceasefires, safe passage corridors, the entry of foreign chemical weapons disposal experts and, possibly, international peacekeepers.

If the fighting takes a pause, the thinking goes, Russia could next push its Syrian clients to forge a political solution.

After 14 years of rebuilding Russia, does President Putin want to remain an embittered leader of a former superpower, carping from the sidelines? Or become the responsible leader of great nation cooperating for a solution?

The most realistic solution for Syria may be to cut the country in half.

Syria’s borders were artificially drawn in 1916 by French and British diplomats bent on carving up the collapsing Ottoman Empire. One century later, today’s diplomats could create a Syrian rump state based around the Alawites, the current rulers. The rest could become a Sunni-majority hinterland, with a port on the Mediterranean. Syria’s Kurds could potentially join their Turkish or Iraqi cousins.

It would not be pretty. But the division of Cyprus is not pretty. And it has kept Turks and Greeks from killing each other there for almost 40 years.

For those who worship on altar of nationalism, this is heresy. But states come and go. Where today are Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and the Soviet Union? Syria itself briefly abdicated sovereignty, forming a political union with Egypt, from 1958 to 1961.

Advocates of a political solution take false comfort in the feel good mantra that “there is no military solution in Syria.” Oh, no? Here is a short list of civil wars that had military solutions: English (1651), American (1865), Russian (1922), Spanish (1939) and Chinese (1949) and Angolan (1992).

A military solution to Syria would probably mean doubling or tripling today’s human toll: 110,000 dead, 2 million refugees, and 4 million displaced people inside Syria.

Why would President Putin expend political capital to break eggs and create a new omelet in Syria?

For Americans, Syria’s civil war is as distant and exotic as a civil war in Indonesia.

For Russians, it is uncomfortably close.

For 350 years — from 1568 to 1918 — Russia fought 13 wars with Turkey, then known as the Ottoman Empire. During the entire Romanov dynasty, Russian Czars were either at war with Turkey, or preparing for one.

This constant grinding of civilizations – between Christian Orthodox north and Islamic south – paused in 1952, when Turkey joined NATO.

But 25 years ago, as the Soviet Union started to collapse, the Muslim inhabitants of southern Russia’s Caucasus Mountains began to rise up.

During the 19th century, Russians called them ‘Mountain Turks.’ Their religion, dress, culture, loyalties, and in some cases, Turkic languages, pointed south, to Istanbul. (Until Soviet repressions of the 1920s and 1930s, some of the world’s best literary Arabic was spoken in the mountains of Dagestan.)

Czarist Russia saw the Caucasus as a northern, rough-edged frontier of the Ottoman Empire. When Russia completed its colonial conquest of the Caucasus in the 1860s, its pacification program included loading survivors on boats and shipping them to Turkey. Some ended up 1,000 kilometers south of the Caucasus, in Syria, which was part of the Ottoman Empire.

Fast forward 150 years, and Moscow today faces in Syria a historically familiar alliance of foes: Turkey, Sunni Syrians, and hundreds of volunteer fighters from Russia’s Caucasus. Russia backs the opposing Shia alliance, which stretches from Iran to Alawite Syria and to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

As Putin plays geopolitical chess, he may ponder: does a total military victory by Syria’s Alawites benefit Russia?

A Sunni Syrian defeat would send hundreds of thousands of more Sunni refugees pouring into Turkey, a migration that could poison modern Russian-Turkish relations. Today, Russia is Turkey’s biggest trading partner. This year, both countries committed to tripling trade flows to $100 billion.

A Sunni Syrian defeat would release hundreds of Russian jihadi fighters to bring the war home. Although Russian muftis and political leaders, all salaried by the Kremlin, regularly speak in favor of Assad, they are on shaky ground. About 95 percent Russia’s Muslims are Sunni.

Or will Russia’s foreign policy default to dour and sour? Syria will be the test.

The low level insurgency in Russia’s Caucasus is not news — because it is old. But it remains real. As of Sept. 16 of this year, insurgent attacks took the lives of 77 Russian police and soldiers in the Caucasus. By contrast, during the same nine months, 98 American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, a country with five times the combined population of Russia’s four troubled Caucasus republics.

President Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, warn repeatedly that chaos in Syria will have a destabilizing impact on Russia’s Caucasus.

Now that Russia has managed to achieve a chemical arms agreement in Syria, maybe the time has come for the Kremlin to use its influence for a political settlement to the civil war in Syria.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Russia is Best Positioned to Control Syria’s Chemical Frankenstein

Posted September 9th, 2013 at 10:16 am (UTC+0)
Comments are closed

In a training exercise, Syrian soldier aims his Ak-47 while protected by a Soviet-made Model ShMS nuclear-biological-chemical warfare mask. Photo: H.H. Deffner

Western experts are right to be wary of Moscow’s sudden offer to bring Syria’s chemical warfare program under international controls, leading to its destruction.

Throughout Syria’s civil war, Moscow kept its head in the sand on the issue.

On Monday, just as Russia’s offer was taking embryonic shape in Moscow, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said in Washington: “In the past two months, Russia has blocked two resolutions condemning the use of chemical weapons that did not even ascribe blame to any party. Russia opposed two mere press statements expressing concern about their use.”

But if the Kremlin really wants to help, Russia is in the best position of any nation to identify, catalogue and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

Thirty years after the Soviet Union helped to set up Syria’s chemical weapons program, the Kremlin should have the best knowledge of the players, locations and materials.

From 1963 to 1991, an estimated 50,000 Syrians studied in Soviet Union. Of these, about 10,000 studied at Soviet military academies.

During this period, the Soviet Union sold – or gave – Syria $26 billion in military equipment.

Today, Syria’s military uses MiG fighter jets, T-64 tanks, Scud missiles, Mi-8 helicopters, Pantsir air defense systems, Amur submarines, and Kalashnikov rifles.

Happier times:Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s President, greets Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, at the presidential retreat in Sochi, Russia on Aug. 21, 2008. Five years later to the day, poison gas killed over 1,400 people and injured thousands more in a Damascus suburb. Photo: Kremlin

Despite this cornucopia of military hardware, Syria lost land wars or battles to Israel in 1967, 1973 and 1982. After the 1982 defeat, Syria started to build a chemical weapons program to try to reach military parity with Israel.

According to multiple sources, the recipes for the poisons, the equipment for the laboratories, the blueprints for the production facilities, the rockets for delivery systems, and the experts for training, came almost entirely from Soviet Union.

Some assistance came from Czechoslovakia, then an Eastern Bloc nation under Soviet control. Since the beginning, the precursor chemicals have been bought in Western Europe — large chemical brokerage houses in Holland, Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany. Many of the chemicals have dual uses – civilian and military.

“Russia keeps stressing that it is against the use of chemical weapons, but we know the Syrian arsenal dates back to the days of the USSR,” Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told reporters in Warsaw last week. 
“It’s Soviet technology.”

The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union gives contemporary Moscow a layer of deniability.

Even Pentagon Spokesman George Little said last week: “The Syrian regime has a decades-old, largely indigenous, chemical weapons program.”

He said that after U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel apparently went a bridge too far in congressional testimony. Asked by a Congressman where Syria gets its chemical weapons, Hagel had responded: “Well, the Russians supply them.”

On Friday in a corridor at the G-20 meeting, VOA reporter Danila Galperovich asked Presidential Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov about Hagel’s charge. Ivanov replied: «бредом сивой кобылы», a phrase commonly translated as “bull—-.”

Ivanov, who served for six years as Russia’s defense minister, added : “Until recently, I was the chairman of the government commission on export control, which exists precisely to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, including chemical, biological weapons. So I know what I’m talking about.”

Syria’s chemical weapons program started going native in the 1990s.

But there are hints that Russian involvement in Syria’s chemical program continued after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

In the 1990s, a frequent visitor to Damascus was Russian General Anatoly Kuntsevich, ironically an advisor to Russian President Boris Yeltsin on eliminating chemical weapons.

Maybe there soon will be Syrian winners of this Russian medal for reducing chemical weapons threat. Medal is named after Col. General Vladimir Pikalov, who headed the Soviet Chemical Forces, then led Russia’s chemical weapons disposal program. There are unconfirmed reports that Pikalov visited Syria after the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, wrote of Kuntsevich’s missions: “The chemical weapons expert allegedly established connections with leading members of the Syrian regime, received large amounts of money from them and, in exchange, provided them with details on how to manufacture VX, a powerful chemical agent. He reportedly also shipped 800 liters of chemicals to Syria that were required to produce the poison gas.”

Kuntsevich’s activity stopped in 2003 when he died unexpectedly on a flight from Damascus to Moscow.

In August, 2010, another retired Russian general, Yuri Ivanov, died in murky circumstances. Ivanov, who had served as deputy director of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, disappeared from a coastal Syrian town when he was reportedly on his way to meet Syrian military intelligence officers. His body was found several days later in Turkey.

In both cases, there was press speculation that the men were killed by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.

For Israel, Syria’s chemical weapons capability is not a parlor game. After Syria and Iraq built large chemical weapons arsenals in the 1980s and 1990s, Israeli built what may be the world’s largest civil defense program: sensors, sirens and gas masks for each of Israel’s 8 million people.

About 20 percent of Israel’s population is Russian speaking. In theory, Russia could draw on this population to gather even more intelligence on Syria’s chemical weapons program.

Most importantly, there are undoubtedly many alumni of Soviet military schools working for Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre, the agency that oversees the nation’s chemical weapons program.

President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, stands at the top of Russia’s intelligence pyramid. If he wanted to, he could make public tomorrow a list of personnel and locations involved in Syria’s program.

But Russia’s public approach had been: ‘hear no evil, see no evil.’

After Radoslaw Sikorski proposed that Russia move to control Syria’s chemical program, Russia’s foreign ministry responded: “As concerns the Polish foreign policy chief’s idea that Russia should take on the responsibility for the Syrian chemical arsenals’ safety, such a presumption cannot fail to cause perplexity. Responsibility for safety of these chemical weapons lies with the government of a sovereign Syria, and nobody else. Neither internal nor external forces should try to prevent the performance of this mission or intervene in this process.”

Washington had taken note of Russia’s hands off attitude toward Syria’s chemical weapons program.

Two centuries later, Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel rings true in Russia’s relationship with Syria’s chemical weapons program. In this Hollywood rendering, the eccentric scientist Victor Frankenstein seeks to soothe his powerful creation.

Last week at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Senator Tim Kaine sharply criticized Kremlin policy.

“It is hard to read their actions and come up with any conclusion other than the current government of Russia is pro use of chemical weapons against civilians,” said Kaine, a Virginia Democrat. “We should make them wear being pro-chemical weapons like a rotting carcass around their neck in every instance we can. So that, at some point, they’ll ask themselves the question: Do we really want to be the nation that is pro use of chemical weapons against a civilian population?”

Thirty years ago, Soviet scientists created Syria’s Frankenstein.

But now the chemical monster has escaped the lab, Russia may be best positioned to bring it back under control.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Kremlin Forgets: One Century Ago Russian Soldiers Were Top Victims of Poison Gas

Posted August 31st, 2013 at 10:02 pm (UTC+0)
6 comments

Russian politicians and analysts worked overtime this week trying to create a cloud of doubt around the Aug. 21 chemical attack in Damascus.

Back to the future? Soldiers prepared for combat in World War I. One century later, will gas masks become necessary in Syria’s civil war?

On Friday, the White House report drew on extensive intelligence information to present this picture: Syrian forces carried out chemical weapons attacks on sleeping Damascus suburbs, killing 1,429 civilians, including 426 children.

On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters: “While the Syrian army is on the offensive, saying that it is the Syrian government that used chemical weapons is utter nonsense.”

One century ago, Russia’s elites were better educated on the realities of poison gas as a military weapon.

In World War I, czarist officers drew on Old Testament analogies to warn their soldiers of “Dima Kaina” – “the Smoke of Cain.”

In contrast to the romance of this World War One recruiting poster, poison gas attacks became a major preoccupation for Russian soldiers and nurses. This one reads, “Eyes, not Bullets, Can Break a Heart.”

While the mustard gas of Ypres on the Western Front is far better known today, the first massive use of gas as war weapon took place against Russian soldiers in January 1915. German units fired 18,000 artillery shells filled with liquid xylyl bromide tear gas on Russian positions west of Warsaw, during the Battle of the Bolimov.

Gas masks were developed for Army dogs

By the time World War I ended, the biggest victim of poison gas attacks was Russia.

Russia lost 56,000 soldiers to gas – 63 percent of all WWI gas fatalities. Russia recorded 419,340 soldiers injured by gas, 34 percent of the total recorded by all nations. (Source: “Weapons of War – Poison Gas,” Michael Duffy, worlwarone.com)

During WWI, the Western Front had better painters than the Eastern Front.

Ninety-five years to the day before the Damascus attack, John Singer Sargent, an American painter, was with British soldiers on Aug. 21, 1918 when German units barraged the positions with mustard gas. From sketches and notes, he painted “Gassed.” This nearly life-size oil painting was voted picture of the year by the Royal Academy of Arts in 1919. It now hangs in London’s Imperial War Museum.

In his oil painting “Gassed,” American painter John Singer Sargent captured British soldiers making their way to a field hospital after a German mustard gas attack on Aug. 21, 1918. In Damascus, 95 years later to the day, Syrian leaders gassed their own people, killing over 1,400. Photo: Imperial War Museum, London

Of equal impact on public opinion were Britain’s war poets, Siegfried Sassoon and his friend Wilfred Owen.

In 1917, while recovering from war wounds, Owen wrote ‘Dulce et Decorum est.’ He called it “a gas poem.”

Here is an excerpt:

“Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . .

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.


In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”

After the war, in 1919, British soldiers fired poison gas against Bolsheviks in Northern Russia, and in 1921 the Red Army used poison gas against peasant militias in the Tambov Rebellion.

International revulsion over the use of gas in warfare prompted governments to meet in Geneva to draw up the one of the modern world’s first arms controls agreements. Known as the Geneva Protocol, the agreement went into effect in February 1928. It carried this formal title: Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare.

Gas masks were improvised for horses.

Two months later, the protocol was signed by the Soviet Union, successor state to Czarist Russia, World War I’s largest victim of poison gas.

Forty years later, in 1968, the Geneva Protocol was signed by Syria. Syria’s defense minister at the time was Hafez al-Assad, father to Syria’s current president, Bashar al-Assad.

As president during the 1980s, Hafez al-Assad, presumably with Soviet assistance, built up a powerful chemical weapons arsenal.

In the last two years, his son, Bashar, has steadily escalated attacks on his political opponents – from beating demonstrators to shooting them, from shelling residential neighborhoods to dropping bombs from warplanes.

In recent weeks, Bashar al-Assad’s forces apparently carried out limited chemical weapons attacks. Response from the West was muted. Russia’s state-controlled TV and think tanks suggested that opposition forces were gassing themselves in order to win international support.

Now, Bashar al-Assad has taken the next step in his ruthless logic: checking the wind, and then gassing sleeping residents on the eastern edge of his capital.

If Washington undertakes punitive strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s military, Russian chattering class might take a break from attacking the United States.

Instead, as Russia prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of Russia’s August 1914 entry into WWI, Russians might find it interesting to contemplate the fact that their own soldiers were the first victims of modern gas warfare.

In that case, the “fog of war” was real – and deadly.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Snowden’s Kremlin Connection

Posted August 26th, 2013 at 7:23 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

Edward Snowden spent one month in Hong Kong at the The Mira. The website announces: “The Mira Hong Kong equals matchless indulgence for the young-at-heart modern traveller. With its hip interiors, innovative cuisine, crisp amenities and uniquely passionate service culture, the hotel has created a new benchmark.” On June 21, a U.S. arrest warrant cut short Snowden’s stay. According to officials in Moscow, he packed his bags and moved across Victoria Harbor to the Russian Consulate. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said WikiLeaks paid for Snowden’s hotel bill in Hong Kong — probably around $10,000. Photo: WiNG

Friday, June 21, was the hottest day of the year in Hong Kong – a sweltering 34 degrees. But it was also a hot day for Edward Snowden, the leaker of American secrets hiding out in China’s Special Administrative Region.

In Washington on that day, U.S. federal prosecutors made public allegations of unauthorized communication of classified and national defense information, both charges under the Espionage Act.

In Hong Kong on that day, Snowden received a one-way ticket to Moscow, on Aeroflot, Russia’s state-controlled flag carrier. On that day, he celebrated his 30th birthday in the safety of his new refuge – the Russian Consulate General in Hong Kong.

Located on the 21st floor of a steel and glass skyscraper, the Russian Consulate offered more than a stunning view of Victoria Harbor – it offered shelter from an American arrest warrant.

For two days and two nights, Snowden stayed at the 17-room Russian Consulate before being whisked by car in the early morning hours of Sunday, June 23, for the 10-hour Aeroflot flight to Moscow.

For two days before flying to Moscow, Edward Snowden took refuge in the offices of the Russian Consulate General in Hong Kong, located on the 21st floor of the Sun Hung Kai Centre, a 53-story building that overlooks Victoria Harbor. Photo: WiNG

That is the picture that emerges in a front-page article Monday in Moscow’s Kommersant newspaper, based on Russian sources, and from my own interviews with Western sources here.

From the start of Snowden’s Russia saga, Russian officials claimed that they were surprised by Snowden’s arrival June 23 at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport.

“It is true that Mr. Snowden arrived in Moscow, and it really came as a surprise to us,” President Vladimir Putin told reporters in Finland on June 25. “Any accusations against Russia (of aiding him) are ravings and rubbish.”

Later, Russia’s president called Snowden an “an unwanted Christmas present.”

Sources in Moscow differ on how Snowden ended up in the care of Russia.

Some say the Chinese wanted to get rid of Snowden and advised him to try the Russians. Others say Russian officials contacted Snowden at The Mira, the luxury hotel where he was staying in Hong Kong. Another version is that Snowden took a cab from The Mira, passed through the tunnel under Victoria Harbor, got out at the curb of the Sun Hung Kai Centre skyscraper, took an elevator to the 21st floor, and then knocked on the door of the Russian Consulate.

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, said on June 24 that WikiLeaks paid Snowden’s hotel bill in Hong Kong and bought the Aeroflot ticket for him with a Hong Kong-Moscow-Havana itinerary.

Assange, founder of the group that specializes in publicizing confidential U.S. government communications, has a special relationship with RT, the Kremlin-funded television channel. Last year, RT hired Assange to host a political talk show. The channel, which used to be called Russia Today, gives heavy – and invariable favorable — coverage to Assange, Snowden, and the other American leaker in the news, Bradley (he prefers Chelsea) Manning.

Edward Snowden at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on July 12, flanked by an unidentified translator on his left, and Sarah Harrison of Wikileaks on his right. Photo: Human Rights Watch

On Monday, Kommersant and other Russian media dwelled on why Snowden never used the second half of his Aeroflot ticket, from Moscow to Havana. The Russian press said that Moscow was stuck with Snowden because Washington pressured Havana to refuse him.

To many in Moscow, Havana has been curiously quiet on the Snowden affair. Soviet-generation Russians remember Cuba as the nation that welcomed American airplane hijackers well into the 1980s.

But change comes even to Cuba, ruled for the last half century by the Castro brothers. In June, President Raul Castro turned 82. Apparently, Cuba’s new generation wants a fresh start with Washington. For Havana, giving refuge to America’s most wanted man is a throwback to the 1960s.

Snowden spent almost six weeks Moscow’s busiest international airport, reportedly in the transit area.

Snowden’s stay at Sheremetyevo Airport was handled very professionally. There were no leaks, no emails to reporters, and no late night telephone calls to his girlfriend in Hawaii. About 3.5 million passengers flowed in and out of the airport during that time, but there were no credible Snowden sightings.

His legal limbo dragged on, according to one Western source here, because Alexander Bortnikov, director of Russia’s FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, hinted to Washington that a spy trade might be possible.

The mystery surrounding Snowden also kept Moscow at the center of international news attention for six weeks.

The sole sighting was on July 12, at a carefully choreographed meeting that a select group of NGOs had at the airport with Snowden and Sarah Harrison, his WikiLeaks traveling companion.

One invitee at that meeting was Anatoly Kucherena, the man who became Snowden’s lawyer and spokesman. It was Kucherena who advised Snowden to drop his asylum requests to other countries – 20 at best count. He should focus on Russia.

Mission Accomplished: On August 1, Edward Snowden, former NSA employee, received his Russian asylum visa. Photo: AP


Snowden’s lawyer has an interesting background.

Two years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin picked Kucherena to serve on Russia’s Public Chamber, a government oversight body. Putin, a former KGB Colonel, also chose Kucherena to serve on a board that oversees the FSB.

On the Snowden case, Kucherena’s legal advice proved solid. On Aug. 1, Snowden was granted one-year asylum in Russia. That day, he and Sarah Harrison left the airport. They have not been seen in public since.

Within hours after Snowden’s departure, WikiLeaks issued a statement thanking the Russian Government. Assange added: “This is another victory in the fight against Obama’s war on whistleblowers. This battle has been won, but the war continues.”

Two months ago, on June 25, just after Snowden arrived in Moscow, the South China Morning Post published an interview that had taken place earlier in Hong Kong. In the interview, Snowden said that early this year he took a pay cut and joined Booz Allen Hamilton, the contractor with the National Security Agency. He said his sole purpose was to steal the U.S. government’s cyber spying secrets.

Now that Snowden and his four NSA laptop computers are in the safekeeping of the Kremlin, one question begs an answer: when exactly did the Kremlin enter Snowden’s life?
————-
UPDATE: Fidel Castro denies that Cuba buckled to US pressure.
If true, whose hidden hand kept Snowden off the June 24 Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Havana?

BUENOS AIRES, August 28 (RIA Novosti) – Fidel Castro, the former leader of Cuba, has denied Russian media reports that US fugitive intelligence contractor Edward Snowden stayed in Russia rather than fly to Havana because Cuba succumbed to US pressure to deny him entry.
“I admire the courage and justice of Snowden’s statements with which he, in my opinion, provided a service to the world,” Castro wrote in an article published Wednesday night on Cuban internet portal Cubadebate. “What I do not agree with is that anyone, regardless of his credentials, spoke on behalf of Cuba.”
The Russian daily Kommersant reported Monday, citing sources, that Cuba, under pressure from the US, would have denied landing to a Moscow-Havana flight if Snowden were on board.
Dismissing the report as a “lie,” Castro went on to say that the US “always tries to pressure the United Nations, other governments and private organizations around the world.” Cuba, he said, having resisted America for 54 years, remains ready to resist “as long as it takes.”

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Georgia and Russia: Rekindling an Old Love Affair?

Posted August 15th, 2013 at 4:56 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

Russian photographer Vera Undritzov likes… Georgian politicians. (Here with Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.) VOA Photos: James Brooke

When I first visited Georgia, on a reporting trip, in September 1991, I arrived in Tbilisi armed with four years of college Russian — and gung ho to use it!

To my dismay, the independence-minded residents of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic had spray painted out all public signs in Russian and were jamming all Russian language radio and TV broadcasts.

Georgia’s relations with Russia went from bad to worse, culminating in the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. As a legacy of this war, thousands of Russian troops remain in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway Georgian provinces that add up to 20 percent of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory.

Five years later, there are no diplomatic relations between Georgia and Russia. Although Russia joined the World Trade Organization last year, it openly flouts rules by banning imports of Georgian fruits, vegetables, and, until last month, wine and mineral waters.

…Georgia’s saperavi red wine…


To loosen things up, Georgia unilaterally dropped visa requirements for Russians 18 months ago. But Georgians still have to get visas to visit Russia. They are issued from the old Russian Embassy in Tbilisi, which operates under a diplomatic fig leaf: Russian Federation Interests Section at the Embassy of Switzerland.

Despite these obstacles, the flow of Russian tourists to Georgia this year is expected to hit half a million. Russians are the fastest growing segment in Georgia’s fast growing tourism industry. From a recent position at the back of the pack, they are suddenly second only to Turks.

Operating as “charters,” the twice-a-day flights from Moscow to Tbilisi have occupancy rates this summer that range from packed to sold out.

The VOA team was lucky to get seats on the once a day flight from Moscow to Batumi, Georgia’s Black Sea port. There are now three flights a week from Moscow to Kutaisi, Georgia’s second largest city. (If you don’t know where Kutaisi is, get with the program. It now has flights to Minsk, Kharkiv, Ukraine, and Katowice, Poland. Flights are being negotiated to London and Stockholm.)

…Georgian baklazhan (caucasian tomato and nut ragout wrapped in eggplant)


On Aug. 7, Russia and Georgia agreed to restore normal car, bus and truck traffic. Road traffic between the two neighbors had been suspended by Russia in 2006.

“It is good they are not coming on tanks,” grumbled Alexander Rondeli, a Tbilisi think tank president who has sour memories of the August 2008 war, when Russian troops cut the country in half.

For Russians visiting Georgia, there is the mild thrill of ignoring continued official Russia’s frostiness about Georgia. More important, there is the pleasure of re-discovering the age old Georgian hospitality, history and cuisine that their mothers and grandmothers told them about. To steal an old Canada advertising line to Americans, Georgia for Russians is: “Friendly, familiar, foreign and near.”

In return, Georgian wine started flowing back into Russia this summer.

Earlier this year, the well-salaried wine tasters at Russia’s Consumer Protection Agency solemnly “inspected” Georgian wines. No matter that people have been enjoying Georgian wines since 5,000 BC. No matter that, after the Russian wine boycott of 2006, Georgian wines successfully entered markets in 50 countries around the world. With great ceremony, Gennadi Onishenko, Russia’s top consumer watchdog, solemnly announced that 65 Georgian winemakers had passed his test.

…Georgia’s Black Sea Coast — here with VOA video journalist Austin Malloy outside Batumi


As I write, Moscow supermarkets happily charge $60 for a Georgian wine that retails in Tbilisi for $6. This price gouging fiesta may be short lived. By the end of this year, Russia may import as many as 5 million bottles of wine from Georgia.

Behind wine bottles flowing north and tourists flowing south, there is a new pragmatism.

Without saying so openly, the leaders of Russia and Georgia have agreed to disagree on the issue of the two breakaway regions controlled by Russian troops. The Russians have dug in, and show no sign of pulling out.

…and Georgia’s orthodox faith

Faced with this reality, Georgia’s pragmatic prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has focused on deliverables – wine and tourists. In his interview with VOA last week, Ivanishvili was welcoming to Russian visitors – whether speaking in Georgian on camera, or speaking in Russian while strolling the gardens of his estate on the shores of the Black Sea.

Just the day before, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had shared with an RT television reporter his view of prospects for relations between Russia and Georgia: “In this regard, I am a total optimist. I’m convinced that everything will be fine. Our peoples aren’t enemies.”

Back in Tbilisi, where there are still no signs in Russian, an entrepreneurial Georgian friend sounded me out about his idea for a journalism venture in Moscow: a monthly travel magazine — in Russian on Georgia. The goal would be to re-introduce a new generation of Russians to Georgia.

Sounds like a winner to me.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

About

About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

Categories

Calendar

December 2014
M T W T F S S
« Mar    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  

VOA Blogs