"On the Russian home front do you feel that the country is at war?"
By Gilbert Doctorow, gilbertdoctorow.com (July 31, 2023)
After three weeks of travel around Northwest Russia, keeping an eye on the people and circumstances of daily life around me, my answer to the question in the title is ‘yes and no.’
On the one hand, the consumer society is going strong. Supermarkets are well stocked. Within Europe, Russia had the lowest rate of inflation in the food products sector during the past month: zero percent. When you read about export bans of one commodity or another, such as the ban on rice exports just imposed today by the Kremlin, the reason is found in the external world, not within Russia itself. The Kremlin was reacting to the ban on rice exports recently announced in India, which drove up global prices and would have led to Russian sales abroad of rice needed at home if the markets were left to their own devices.
Meanwhile we are told that the grain harvest in Russia this season may well show a record surplus, notwithstanding all the climatic abnormalities globally and within the Russian Federation. Russia represents 20% of world grain supplies, Ukraine, just 5%. In this light, Russia can easily meet world needs even if Ukraine does not export one bushel of wheat.
In one very important consumer market sector, automobiles, the reorganization of supply away from Europe and towards China has been almost seamless. The high-end cars from the PRC are more in evidence in St Pete by the week. On the main roads leading into the city, I see new Chinese brand dealerships opening here and there. I have ‘test driven’ these cars in taxi fleets and they are really impressive, not just to me as a passenger but from the remarks of drivers.
To be sure, the ruble is weak and various consumer electronics companies have announced price rises to come on devices imported from the West. This weakness has causes relating to the shift in the hydrocarbons trade from Western Europe to Asia, where contract settlements are not denominated in dollars. Hence there are fewer dollars and euros put up for auction on the Russian domestic bourse and the price of these currencies has followed the bidding.
Otherwise, despite the weak ruble I am each day surprised at how imported sea bass from Turkey or imported French premium quality Burgundy wine is on sale in the Petersburg supermarkets at prices less than half what we pay in Belgium for similar goods.
On the other side of the issue, one would have to be blind not to understand that the country is at war, considering the now omnipresent recruitment advertisements urging men to sign up as ‘contract’ soldiers for the war. I say ‘men,’ because the advertising billboards, posters and television ads are all addressed to males. They tell the reader that “combat is a man’s job.”
The appeal is openly and unapologetically sexist. But it also only accentuates the positive: ‘join your peers,’ etc. Judging by the models in these ads, men signing up would appear to be in their mid to upper 20s, with a second tranche in their 40s and 50s.There is no hint whatsoever that those who do not sign up are shirkers, cowards or pansies.
You see a lot more recruitment advertisements in St Petersburg and environs than you see actual soldiers in uniform. In my outlying borough of Pushkin, we have several military academies and so in the morning you can catch sight of a platoon doing their morning run. But that is nothing new.
The other day when riding a commuter train we were seated just across from a young soldier in his early 20s. Whereas the sartorial image of these guys used to be sad sack maybe a decade ago, I can say that this fellow’s uniform was very smart looking. And he had a self-assured demeanor.
What you do not see is any military bearing arms in civilian milieu.
Notwithstanding the appeal to Alpha males, television news reports also tell us that women are serving in armed forces. We see occasional interviews with women air force pilots. But the overriding theme with respect to women is that they serve as doctors or nurses who may treat wounded soldiers in the field on their way back to hospitals in central Russia. They are saving lives, not taking lives.
Meanwhile, for those who can bear watching war news on television, the narrative has been changing, especially in the past week. Until then, news of the material damage and bodily harm caused by daily Ukrainian bombardment of Donetsk city and other towns in the Donbas took up much of the news bulletins. Now the accent is on the destruction Russian forces are dealing out to the Ukrainians as Kiev directs larger scale attacks and brings into play its strategic reserves, especially in the Zaporozhie region. The new Ukrainian offensive appears to be no more successful than previous probing maneuvers in breaking though the dense Russian defense lines.
Russian military experts on the leading talk shows who showed great reserve about predicting the future course of the conflict lest Russians be overconfident a week ago now appear radiant and ready to confide that the Ukrainians never got the equipment they needed to make their counter-offensive a success.
As I noted in a recent essay, the Russian military command has been biding its time until it is certain that Ukraine was already committing its reserves to battle and would soon run dry. Now that time is approaching. We see that the Russians are opening an offensive in the northeast, in the Kharkov region.
There is good reason to believe that the Russian advance around Kharkov is yielding results. In the past week there was talk of starting reconstruction work in the border region of Belgorod, where the Ukrainians had made armed incursions six weeks ago from Kharkov and had destroyed or damaged a large swathe of residences by artillery strikes. The cry went up in Russia to take Kharkov and put an end to these calamities. Evidently the Russian military is succeeding in silencing the Ukrainian guns.
Against this background of the changes in the correlation of forces in Russia’s favor, I am stunned that U.S. and other observers and commentators are not taking note. A very good example of this blindness or ignorance was an article put out in the past week by owner-publisher of The Nation Katrina vanden Heuvel and James Carden, who may be said to represent the supposedly enlightened views of Progressive Democrats in the United States. The co-authors called for peace talks based on compromises by both sides to the conflict. In particular, Ukraine would accept neutrality and Russia would pay war reparations. War reparations!
These authors like so many talking heads in the West do not have the necessary linguistic skills to access Russian news sources on their own. They depend wholly on propagandists in the State Department for the raw facts from which they can spin their reasonable compromises. I humbly submit that this war will either end on Russia’s terms or it will escalate thanks to American miscalculations and obstinacy to the point of a nuclear exchange that puts the survival of humankind in peril.
Meanwhile Secretary of State Antony Blinken is telling reporters that the dangers of human extinction from nuclear war are no greater than the dangers humanity faces from climate change. Goebels would be proud of him.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2023