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Putin’s State of the Nation address: charting a course for a modern Russia

Alexander Mercouris

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Information about President Putin’s State of the Nation address is still coming through as I write this.

Most world attention has been on the various military developments which President Putin outlined.  Though these are dramatic enough the main focus of the address was on the domestic economy.  That is the part of the address I will discuss in this article.

(1) Increase in economic growth rates in the 2020s

President Putin has charted a very ambitious project of increasing per capita incomes in Russia by 50% by the mid 2020s ie. by roughly the end of his next term as President (assuming he is re-elected), which will be in 2024.

Since the government and the Central Bank forecast economic growth to continue to be low (less than 2% per year) up to 2020, that implies a very rapid increase in economic growth rates after 2020.

This is in fact consistent with the recent discussions of the state of the economy published by the Central Bank.

Briefly, the story of Putin’s third term with respect to the economy has been one of the Russian government sorting out various accumulated problems in the economy in order to prepare for a marked but sustained acceleration in the 2020s.

This has required:

(i) a very tight monetary policy to bring inflation down from its historic double digit annual level to the 2-4% annual range which it has achieved now;

(ii) hard work to improve the business climate, with the World Bank assessing that Russia’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ rating has improved from 120th in the world in 2010 to 35th in the world now;

(iii) the introduction of a floating exchange rate for the rouble (achieved in 2014);

(iv) a steady clear up of the banking system, with a policy of closing down bad banks and consolidating the banking sector into a smaller number of strong banks; and

(v) a programme of fiscal consolidation, whereby the national budget is first balanced and then brought into surplus, with the share of oil and gas revenues further reduced, so that the deficit in the budget once oil and gas revenues are take out of account has already fallen from 15% of GDP in 2015 to 7% now, with plans to reduce it further, with the eventual intention of eliminating it entirely.

The Russian government and the Central Bank have explained that the primary reason for reducing and then eventually eliminating the ‘non-energy revenue’ deficit in the budget is so as to make the national budget invulnerable to falls in energy price movements..

These measures have been accompanied with further technical steps to strengthen the financial system, for example by introducing a Russian alternative to the SWIFT interbank payment system (which Russian officials have confirmed over the last few weeks is not merely ready but is actually operating), a Russian debit and credit card independent of Mastercard and Visa (the Mir card) and by the redirection of the Russian state’s borrowing from foreign to domestic sources (ie. towards ‘rouble bonds’ in place of eurobonds), with Russia however taking control of its own eurobond placements.

This period of sorting out the accumulated problems in the economy – some of which extend back to the late Brezhnev era of the mid to late 1970s – is now practically over, with the Russian government and the Central Bank expecting that the process will be concluded by 2020.

Thereafter, it is hoped that the hard work carried out over the period of Putin’s third term will finally bear fruit, with economic growth rates rising sharply, and doing so in a sustainable way.

Needless to say Putin touched on all of this in his speech, stressing that it is the achievement of macroeconomic stability in Russia that makes the very ambitious economic plans he outlined in his address possible

In the last few years, we have enhanced the sustainability of our economy. The dependence of the economy on hydrocarbon prices has been substantially reduced. We have increased our gold and currency reserves. Inflation has dropped to a record low level – just over two percent. Of course, we all understand that the growth of prices for many basic necessities is much higher. This should be strictly monitored by different agencies, including the Anti-Monopoly Service. But on the whole, this low inflation level creates additional opportunities for development. Let me remind you that quite recently, in 2015, inflation was almost 13 percent – 12.9 percent to be exact.

In effect, Russia has formed a new macroeconomic reality with low inflation and general economic sustainability. For the people this is a condition for real income growth and cheaper mortgage loans. For entrepreneurs it means predictability in business and cheaper loans. Business should also adapt to these new macroeconomic conditions. Finally, it makes it possible to attract long-term loans and private investment into large-scale infrastructure projects.

Now we have an opportunity, without speeding up inflation, and maintaining a careful and responsible approach, to gradually cut interest rates and make loans more affordable. I count on the support of the Bank of Russia in that, while making its decisions, implementing monetary policy measures and developing financial markets, it will work in contact with the Government in the interests of the common goal of creating a proper environment for increasing the economic growth rates.

The major driver of faster economic development will be higher investment and increased productivity, with the stable macroeconomic conditions making it possible to achieve at a sustained level a rate of investment in the economy the like of which it has never experienced in the post-Soviet period

Increased investment is the second source of growth. We have already set the task of bringing it up to 25 percent of the GDP, and then to 27 percent. Unfortunately, this goal has not been achieved yet. To ensure sustainable growth, we need to do so at all costs. I hope that the new Government in conjunction with the Bank of Russia will present a concrete plan of action in this area.

A recent study by the Russian Academy of Sciences has suggested that growth rates in the 2020s could be as high as 4-6% annually, which would certainly be necessary if the increase in per capita income by 50% that Putin is talking about by the mid 2020s is to be achieved.

In his State of the Nation address President Putin spoke of achieving this objective as a difficult one but as an attainable one, and spoke of his confidence in achieving it.

Russia must firmly assert itself among the five largest global economies, and its per-capita GDP must increase by 50 percent by the middle of the next decade. This is a very difficult task. I am confident that we are ready to accomplish it.

I would add that if Russia is able to achieve a growth rate of 4-6% in the 2020s then by the mid 2020s its GDP in purchasing power parity terms its economy will be substantially bigger than Germany’s (thus Putin’s comment about Russia “firmly asserting among the five largest global economies”) and by 2030 it could be close to overtaking – and might have actually overtaken – Japan’s.

At that point Russian living standards would also be at least comparable and possibly higher than living standards in most of Western Europe, with all the huge geopolitical implications that flow from that.

(2) Embrace of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

I have previously written about how Russia’s leaders believe that Russia is strategically exceptionally well placed to exploit the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ and how they believe that it plays to Russia’s strengths.

President Putin has spoken about this repeatedly, and in his State of the Nation address he returned to it and discussed it at length

As I said in the past, the state’s role and positions in the modern world are not determined only or predominantly by natural resources or production capacities; the decisive role is played by the people, as well as conditions for every individual’s development, self-assertion and creativity. Therefore, everything hinges on efforts to preserve the people of Russia and to guarantee the prosperity of our citizens We must achieve a decisive breakthrough in this area.

I repeat, a solid foundation has been created for this. Therefore, we can now set and accomplish new tasks. We already have substantial experience in implementing ambitious programmes and social projects. The Russian economy has proved its resilience, and the current stable macro-economic situation opens up new opportunities for surging ahead and maintaining long-term growth.

Finally, the world is now accumulating a tremendous technological potential making it possible to achieve a real breakthrough in improving the people’s quality of life and modernising the economy, the infrastructure and state governance and administration. How effectively we will able to use the colossal potentialities of the technological revolution, and how we will respond to its challenges depends on us alone. In this sense, the next few years will prove decisive for the country’s future. I reiterate, these years will be decisive……

……today knowledge, technology and expertise make the most important competitive advantages. They are the key to a real breakthrough and improved quality of life.

As soon as possible, we need to develop a progressive legal framework and eliminate all barriers for the development and wide use of robotic equipment, artificial intelligence, unmanned vehicles, e-commerce and Big Data processing technology. And this legal framework must be continuously reviewed and be based on a flexible approach to each area and technology.

We have all the resources to promptly implement 5G and Internet of Things technologies.

We need to build our own digital platforms. It goes without saying that they should be compatible with the global information space. This would pave the way to reorganising manufacturing processes, financial services and logistics, including using blockchain technology, which is very important when it comes to financial transactions, property rights, etc. These initiatives have real-world application.

We need to start making or localising key technologies and solutions, including those used in developing the Arctic and the sea shelf, and building new energy, transport and urban infrastructure systems. This is also important in areas related to improving the quality of life, such as cutting-edge rehabilitation tools for people with disabilities.

It is our duty to support high-technology companies, offer start-ups a favourable environment and introduce new industrial solutions. I am talking about a user-friendly infrastructure, taxation systems, technical regulations and venture financing.

Technological development should be firmly rooted in fundamental research. Over the recent years, we have been able to expand research, and are now leading in a number of areas. The Russian Academy of Sciences and Russia’s leading research institutions made a major contribution to achieving this.

Building on the advances made in the preceding years, including in developing the research infrastructure, we need to take our research to a new level. Projects to build cutting-edge mega science research facilities are already underway in Gatchina and Dubna. The Council for Science and Education has adopted a decision recently to build a powerful synchrotron collider at the Novosibirsk Akademgorodok and a new generation collider in Protvino, Moscow Region.

With these facilities, Russia will become one of the world’s leading countries in terms of the capability and performance of its research infrastructure. These units will give a serious competitive edge to Russian research teams and high-technology companies, for example for developing new medications, materials and microelectronics.

Of course, this infrastructure and ambitious research projects will not fail to attract our compatriots and researchers from abroad. In this regard, we need to create a legal framework that would enable international research teams to operate in Russia.

Large research and education centres should begin working to full capacity. They will integrate the possibilities of universities, academic institutions, and high-tech companies. Such centres are already being set up in Kazan and Samara, Tomsk and Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg and Tyumen, Vladivostok and Kaliningrad, and other cities.

It is important to focus them on the implementation of major interdisciplinary projects, including in such a promising field as genome research. A cardinal breakthrough in this area will pave the way to developing new methods for diagnosing, preventing and treating many diseases, and will expand the selection possibilities in agriculture.

We need to reinforce the superiority of the national mathematics school. It gives Russia a strong competitive edge in the age of digital economy. International mathematics centres will also provide platforms for such work. These are already operating in Kazan and Novosibirsk. Following the adopted decisions, we will open more in St Petersburg, Moscow and Sochi.

(bold italics added)

However this enthusiastic embrace of the Fourth Industrial Revolution comes with a sharp warning of what will happen if Russia fails to embrace it

What I will say now has no connection to the domestic political cycle or even the presidential election. No matter who is elected President, each Russian citizen and all of us together must be able to see what is going on in the world, what is happening around us, and what challenges we are facing.

The speed of technological progress is accelerating sharply. It is rising dramatically. Those who manage to ride this technological wave will surge far ahead. Those who fail to do this will be submerged and drown in this wave.

Technological lag and dependence translate into reduced security and economic opportunities of the country and, ultimately, the loss of its sovereignty. This is the way things stand now. The lag inevitably weakens and erodes the human potential. Because new jobs, modern companies and an attractive life will develop in other, more successful countries where educated and talented young people will go, thereby draining the society’s vital powers and development energy.

As I have said, changes concern the entire civilization, and the sheer scale of these changes calls for an equally powerful response. We are ready to provide it. We are ready for a genuine breakthrough.

My confidence is based on the results we have achieved together, even though they may seem modest at first glance, as well as on the unity of Russian society and, most importantly, on the huge potential of Russia and our talented and ingenious people.

In order to move forward and to develop dynamically, we must expand freedom in all spheres, strengthen democratic institutions, local governments, civil society institutions and courts, and also open the country to the world and to new ideas and initiatives.

It is high time we take a number of tough decisions that are long overdue. We need to get rid of anything that stands in the way of our development and prevents people from fully unleashing their potential. It is our obligation to focus all resources and summon all our strength and willpower in this daring effort that must yield results.

Otherwise, there will be no future for us, our children or our country. It is not a question of someone conquering or devastating our land. No, that is not the danger. The main threat and our main enemy is the fact that we are falling behind. If we are unable to reverse this trend, we will fall even further behind. This is like a serious chronic disease that steadily saps the energy from the body and destroys it from within step by step. Quite often, this destructive process goes unnoticed by the body.

We need to master creative power and boost development so that no obstacles prevent us from moving forward with confidence and independently. We must take ownership of our destiny

In other words, a failure by Russia to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution would put the whole future of the country and its independence at risk.

As Putin says, Russia has all the resources and potential it needs in order to embrace it successfully.  It would be an unforgivable disaster if it failed to do so.

At a more practical level, what embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution requires is a sharp increase in funding for education and science, and this was indeed an important part of Putin’s address.

(3) Higher education and science spending

One of the most frequent criticisms of Putin which I hear from Russians is that education and science during his time in power have been neglected, with some Russians making unfavourable comparisons with the high priority education and science were accorded during the Soviet era.

There is some force to this argument, though in my opinion it underestimates the pressure on Putin’s government in determining priorities.

Now that macroeconomic stability is close to being achieved Putin clearly recognises the need to accord more budget spending to education and science and his comments about this were lengthy and detailed

International experts agree that Russia has one of the best primary school systems in the world. We will keep up our proactive efforts to develop general education at all levels. Let me emphasise that every child should have access to a quality education. Equal educational opportunities are a powerful driver in terms of promoting national development and social justice.

We need to shift to completely new education methods, including personalised learning, in order to cultivate in our children a readiness for change and creative curiosity, and teach them to work in teams, which is very important in the modern world, and other life skills applicable to the digital era. We will absolutely support talented teachers who are motivated to pursue continuous professional growth. And, of course, we need to build an open and modern system for school management selection and training. School administrators are the ones in charge of building a strong faculty and productive morale.

We will continue to enhance the comprehensive system to support and develop our children’s creative skills and talents. This system must extend to the entire country and incorporate the resources of such projects as Sirius and Quantorium, as well as extracurricular education centres and children’s creative centres all over Russia.

We need to build a modern career guidance system where schools partner with universities, research groups and successful companies. I propose starting a new early career guidance programme for schoolchildren, Ticket to the Future, from the next academic year. The programme will allow kids to try out real jobs in major Russian companies. We will allocate 1 billion rubles for this project this year alone…..

Technological development should be firmly rooted in fundamental research. Over the recent years, we have been able to expand research, and are now leading in a number of areas. The Russian Academy of Sciences and Russia’s leading research institutions made a major contribution to achieving this.

Building on the advances made in the preceding years, including in developing the research infrastructure, we need to take our research to a new level. Projects to build cutting-edge mega science research facilities are already underway in Gatchina and Dubna. The Council for Science and Education has adopted a decision recently to build a powerful synchrotron collider at the Novosibirsk Akademgorodok and a new generation collider in Protvino, Moscow Region.

With these facilities, Russia will become one of the world’s leading countries in terms of the capability and performance of its research infrastructure. These units will give a serious competitive edge to Russian research teams and high-technology companies, for example for developing new medications, materials and microelectronics.

Of course, this infrastructure and ambitious research projects will not fail to attract our compatriots and researchers from abroad. In this regard, we need to create a legal framework that would enable international research teams to operate in Russia.

Large research and education centres should begin working to full capacity. They will integrate the possibilities of universities, academic institutions, and high-tech companies. Such centres are already being set up in Kazan and Samara, Tomsk and Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg and Tyumen, Vladivostok and Kaliningrad, and other cities.

It is important to focus them on the implementation of major interdisciplinary projects, including in such a promising field as genome research. A cardinal breakthrough in this area will pave the way to developing new methods for diagnosing, preventing and treating many diseases, and will expand the selection possibilities in agriculture.

We need to reinforce the superiority of the national mathematics school. It gives Russia a strong competitive edge in the age of digital economy. International mathematics centres will also provide platforms for such work. These are already operating in Kazan and Novosibirsk. Following the adopted decisions, we will open more in St Petersburg, Moscow and Sochi.

The one point I would make about these plans for higher education and science spending is that they do appear very narrowly focused on turning out more technically qualified workers for the economy.  There is nothing said at all about the humanities, and very little about culture.

I have commented in the past about how the one important constituency in Russia that Putin fails to reach is its large, very articulate and at times absurdly self-important cultural intelligentsia.  This despite the fact that his government provides heavy subsidies to Russian cinema and theatre, and – as he touched on in his address – is actively engaged in museum building.

In my opinion this resentment of the cultural intelligentsia towards Putin is in part the result of his lack of engagement with them, of which his failure to speak about them in his State of the Nation address is another example.

(4) Faster house building

Before discussing this topic, I should say that in my opinion one of the greatest causes of the underestimation of Russia’s GDP relative to those of other developed economies is the undervaluation of Russia’s large and rapidly growing housing stock.

The average price of a home in London is now $680,000, and $300,000 in the Britain as a whole.  Though comparisons with Russia are difficult, with Russians tending to value properties by the cost per metre rather than by the cost per unit, during a recent trip to Moscow I heard that the price of what I suspect was a higher end property in a suburb of Moscow – Russia’s capital and richest city – was below $200,000.

I suspect that high prices in Russia outside Moscow are significantly lower, save in St. Petersburg where a market in luxury homes is apparently emerging, driven it seems mainly by foreign buyers.

Anyway Putin had much to say about the need to increase Russia’s housing stock, with the emphasis in his address being on affordable ie. low end housing

In 2017, three million families in Russia improved their living conditions. Now we need to reach a stable level (I emphasise this: it is the first time in the history of modern Russia) – to a level where at least five million families improve their housing conditions annually. This is a difficult task – to jump from three million to five. We reached 3.1 million last year, but we need to make it five. Yet, it is an attainable goal.

I see three key factors for increasing the affordability of housing. The first is the growth of people’s incomes. I have spoken about this in the past, and we must ensure this. Next, a decrease in mortgage interest rates and, of course, an increased supply in the housing market.

I would like to remind you of something that few people remember, which is that only 4,000 mortgage loans were issued in 2001. Only 4,000. The interest rate was as high as 30 percent, including on foreign currency loans. By the way, half of the mortgage loans were issued in foreign currency. Few people could afford to take out mortgage loans then. Last year, the number of mortgage loans almost reached one million. In December, the average interest rate on ruble loans for the first time decreased to below 10 percent.

We know, of course, that loan terms are individual and may differ from one borrower to another. But we must continue to lower the average interest rate to 7–8 percent. We held long discussions on the figure I should say here. I am sure that the target figure should be 7 percent. In the next six years, mortgage loans must become accessible to the majority of Russian families, working people and young professionals.

Here are some more figures. In the 1950s through 1970s, we annually built approximately 60 million square metres of housing a year. The figure rose to 70 million by the late 1990s. Now we annually build around 80 million square metres of housing every year. We built even more housing in some years, but the average figure is 80 million. We must move forward and reach new heights in this sphere, that is, increase the volume of housing built every year from 80 million to 120 million square metres. This is an ambitious but realistic goal, given new technologies, the experience our construction companies have accumulated, as well as new materials. The rise from 80 to 120 million square metres is what we need and can achieve. I will tell you why: if we want 5 million families to receive new housing every year, we must reach the figure of 120 million square metres.

Those who invest their money in housing projects must be securely protected. We should gradually proceed from unit construction to project financing, when developers and banks, but not people, shoulder the risks.

This is a hugely ambitious housing programme, setting out to improve the housing conditions of five million Russian families each year.

To someone who lives in Britain, where just 184,000 homes were built in England last year (around half the peak levels achieved in the mid 1930s and the mid 1960s) these are staggering figures.

In my experience there is no single more important measure for most people – especially middle and lower income people – when they assess their standard of living than the state of their housing.  If Putin can achieve his target of improving the housing conditions of five million Russian families each year, then he will have made more Russians feel better off each year than any set of statistics can show.

I would add – though Putin did not mention the fact – that the rapid and continuing growth of mortgage lending since 2000 which Putin is referring to in these comments not only shows the immeasurably greater sophistication of the financial system since 2000.  It also greatly strengthens the financial system by providing it with a bedrock of secure mortgage assets which it can leverage in order to make possible higher investment lending.

Obviously this has to be watched closely to avoid the situation which has repeatedly arisen in the US and Britain, where mortgage borrowers repeatedly become over-borrowed, and where excessively low interest rates cause banks to lend to mortgage borrowers in preference to the more productive side of the economy.

However Putin’s comments show that he is aware of this danger, and I would add that the Russian government and the Central Bank’s policy of keeping interest rates positive (ie. higher than the rate of inflation) should allay it anyway.

(5) An infrastructure programme for Russia

In my opinion the single biggest constraint on economic growth in Russia are not the often mentioned ones of corruption, excessive state involvement in the economy, and opacity of laws.  Other economies where these problems arise (and for the record I question whether state involvement in the economy is necessarily a “problem”) have thrived economically despite them.

The single biggest constraint on economic growth in Russia is rather in my opinion the country’s underdeveloped transport and communications infrastructure, which is simply inadequate for such a huge country.

By contrast a visit to China last summer impressed on me the enormous spur to economic growth that China’s massive investment in infrastructure has provided to the Chinese economy.

It would be untrue to say that there have been no improvements to Russia’s communications and transport infrastructure during the Putin era.

The single biggest change – and one whose social importance quite simply cannot be overstated – is that for the first time in Russia’s history the entire population is connected by telephone, with almost 50% of the population now having continuous access to the internet and with more than 70% saying they use the internet regularly, as compared with only 25% who used the internet regularly in 2008.

This in a country where in the 1980s only 20% of the population had personal telephones (though the percentage was much higher in Leningrad and Moscow).

Russia has also witnessed a significant increase in road building and railway construction during the Putin era, and as Putin commented on in his State of the Union address, there has also been a drastic upgrade in the cargo handling capacity of Russia’s port

In 1990, the ports of the Soviet Union had an aggregate capacity of 600 million tonnes, but after the country broke apart, we lost almost half. In the early 2000s, Russian ports could handle only 300 million tonnes. Over the last 17 years, this figure has tripled. In early 2017, the aggregate port capacity in Russia exceeded 1 billion tonnes for the first time in history. As you can see from the charts, this exceeds the level reached by the Soviet Union by more than two thirds. By the way, these are the figures for early 2017, and the capacity currently stands at 1,025 billion tonnes.

Even before today’s State of the Union address the sums allocated for infrastructure development in Russia are staggering

The government is pumping vast amounts of cash into upgrading Russia’s existing ports, railways and roads, or building new sites. By 2030, it is estimated Russia will have spent a monumental $969 billion on infrastructure projects. Over 325 such developments are in the pipeline, helping provide a stronger environment for transport and logistics……

In 2017, Russian Railways (RZA), Russia’s national rail operator, plans to take supply of roughly one million tons of new track. This goes to show the titanic scale of Russia’s rail construction ambitions. By 2030, some $464.2 billion will have been pumped into building fresh railways or existing facility enhancement….

Roads are something of a priority for Russia. Due to its sheer size, the nation needs rugged highways and roads to keep people and goods flowing freely. Over $548 billion has been allocated towards for construction of roads in rural areas, whereas Moscow’s ring road is looking at $1.5 billion in reconstruction investment.

Over 1,000 kilometres of new roads are planned for 2020. 36 individual construction projects, featuring new bridges, are to be implemented before 2030 too, suggesting Russia’s road network will be greatly expanded making road transport an easier, cheaper prospect.

It seems from what Putin said today that the tempo of infrastructure spending is to be increased still further

Overall, in the next six years, we must almost double the spending on road construction and repairs in Russia and to allocate more than 11 trillion roubles for this from all sources. This is a lot; keep in mind that we have allocated 6.4 trillion rubles in 2012–2017, but we need 11 trillion (ie. $193 billion for further road building and repairs over six years – AM)…….

The volume of transit shipments on our railways must grow almost fourfold. This means that Russia will become a global leader in transit shipping between Europe and Asia…..

The Northern Sea Route will be the key to developing the Russian Arctic and Far East. By 2025, cargo traffic along this route will surge tenfold to 80 million tonnes. Our goal is to make it a truly global and competitive transport route. Let me remind you that the Northern Sea Route was used more actively in Soviet times compared to how we have been using it so far. We will definitely develop this route and reach new horizons. I have no doubt about it……

We will renovate and expand the network of regional airports across Russia. In six years, half of the regions will be connected between each other by direct flights. The situation where you had to make a connection in Moscow when flying to a neighbouring region will become a thing of the past. We are already working on this. This includes efforts to develop aviation and airports.

…….we must introduce new technologies for the generation, storage and relay of energy. In the next six years, we plan to attract some 1.5 trillion rubles in private investment for modernising our power generation sector. All power systems throughout the country must convert to digital technology. We must use the so-called distributed generation method to supply electricity to remote areas.

By 2024, high-speed internet will be available throughout the country. We will complete the construction of fibre optic lines in the majority of populated areas with a population of more than 250 people. Small remote towns in the Extreme North, Siberia and the Russian Far East will access internet via a network of Russian satellites.

We will use advanced telecommunications to give our people access to the digital world. As we know, this is more than just modern services, online education and telemedicine, although all this is very important. More than that, people will be able to use digital space to conduct research, organise volunteer and project groups or run companies. In our vast country, this combination of talent, competencies and ideas amounts to a huge ground-breaking resource…..

Though Putin did not specifically mention the fact, it is clear that this huge infrastructure programme dovetails closely with Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road programme

Large Eurasian transport corridors will also be developing. An automobile road that will become part of the Europe – Asia-Pacific corridor is already under construction. Our Chinese and Kazakhstani partners involved in this project together with us have already completed their part. Their sections have already been opened, so we need to speed up our work…..

The volume of transit shipments on our railways must grow almost fourfold. This means that Russia will become a global leader in transit shipping between Europe and Asia…..

Russia must not just become the world’s key logistics and transport hub, but also, which is very important, a global centre for the storage, processing, transfer and reliable protection of large volumes of information, so-called big data.

Overall, infrastructure development must take into account global technological changes. In other words, the projects we are now considering must include practical solutions for combining infrastructure with drones and digital marine and air navigation, as well as use AI to streamline logistics.

There has been much criticism in the Western media not just of Putin’s decision to stand again as Russia’s President but of China’s pending decision to end term limits for its President, enabling Xi Jinping to continue as China’s President beyond his second term.

In my opinion these are not vanity decisions by two insecure and power crazed autocrats as the Western media represents them.

Rather they are joint decisions agreed by the two men and their respective leadership in order to guarantee that the massively ambitious ‘Greater Eurasia’ project which they have jointly sponsored – linking together China and Europe by a gigantic series of road, rail and maritime links constructed across mainly Russia – will be brought into effect.

As to the scale of Russia’s infrastructure programme, its scale of $1 trillion can be compared with $1.5 trillion allocated to President Trump’s infrastructure plan.

There is much talk in the US of how President Trump’s infrastructure plan is utopian.  Unlike President Trump’s plan President Putin’s plan is already being carried out, and already has results to show.  Yet in a much smaller economy it is two thirds the size of President Trump’s supposedly utopian plan.

Will it all happen?

These are very ambitious plans, and there is no guarantee of their fulfilment.  Much could go wrong.

However a starting point is President Putin’s record.  In the 18 years he has been Russia’s leader Russia has transformed.  To assume that it cannot continue to make progress is – depending on one’s perspective – unduly pessimistic or unduly complacent.

As President Putin pointed out in his speech, Russia now possesses the macroeconomic stability and the resources to make change happen.  Provided political stability is maintained, there is no reason why it should not.

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De-Dollarization Tops Agenda at Russia’s Eastern Economic Forum

The Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) was held in Vladivostok on Sept.11-13. Founded in 2015, the event has become a platform for planning and launching projects to strengthen business ties in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Via Strategic Culture

This year, the EEF brought together delegations from over 60 countries to discuss the topic “The Far East: Expanding the Range of Possibilities”. A total of 100 business events involving over 6,000 participants were held during the three days.

1,357 media personnel worked to cover the forum. Last year, the number of participants was 5,000 with 1,000 media persons involved in reporting and broadcasting. The EEF-18 gathered 340 foreign and 383 Russian CEOs. Nearly 80 start-ups from across South-East Asia joined the meeting.

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This year, a total of 175 agreements worth of 2.9 trillion rubles (some $4.3 billion) were signed. For comparison, the sum was 2.5 trillion rubles (roughly $3.7 billion) in 2017.

They included the development of the Baimsky ore deposits in Chukotka, the construction of a terminal for Novatek LNG at Bechevinskaya Bay in Kamchatka and the investment of Asian countries in Russia’s agricultural projects in the Far East.

Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), Mail.Ru Group, Megafon and Chinese Alibaba inked an agreement on establishing AliExpress trade joint venture. Rosneft and Chinese CNPC signed an oil exploration agreement.

The Chinese delegation was the largest (1,096 people), followed by the Japanese (570 members). The list of guests included the president of Mongolia and prime ministers of Japan and South Korea.

It was also the first time Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the event to meet his Russian counterpart. The issue of de-dollarization topped the agenda. Russia and China reaffirmed their interest in expanding the use of national currencies in bilateral deals.

During the forum, Kirill Dmitriev, the head of RDIF, said the fund intends to use only national currencies in its transactions with China starting from 2019. It will cooperate with the China Development Bank.

This “yuanification” is making visible progress with Shanghai crude futures increasing their share of oil markets up to 14 percent or even more. China has signed agreements with Canada and Qatar on national currencies exchange.

READ MORE: Eastern Economic Forum opens new chapter in US-Russia dialogue

De-dollarization is a trend that is picking up momentum across the world. A growing number of countries are interested in replacing the dollar. Russia is leading the race to protect itself from fluctuations, storms and US-waged trade wars and sanctions.

Moscow backs non-dollar trade with Ankara amid the ongoing lira crisis. Turkey is switching from the dollar to settlements in national currencies, including its trade with China and other countries. Ditching the US dollar is the issue topping the BRICS agenda. In April, Iran transferred all international payments to the euro.

The voices calling for de-dollarization are getting louder among America’s closest European allies. In August, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called for the creation of a new payments system independent of the US.

According to him, Europe should not allow the United States to act “over our heads and at our expense.” The official wants to strengthen European autonomy by establishing independent payment channels, creating a European Monetary Fund and building up an independent SWIFT system.

Presenting his annual program, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on Sept. 12 for the European Union to promote the euro as a global currency to challenge the dollar.

According to him, “We must do more to allow our single currency to play its full role on the international scene.” Mr. Juncker believes “it is absurd that Europe pays for 80 percent of its energy import bill – worth 300 billion euros a year – in US dollars when only roughly 2 percent of our energy imports come from the United States.” He wants the raft of proposals made in his state of the union address to start being implemented before the European Parliament elections in May.

70% of all world trade transactions account for the dollar, while 20% are  settled in the euro, and the rest falls on the yuan and other Asian currencies. The dollar value is high to make the prices of consumer goods in the US artificially low. The demand for dollars allows refinancing the huge debt at low interest rates. The US policy of trade wars and sanctions has triggered the global process of de-dollarization.

Using punitive measures as a foreign policy tool is like shooting oneself in the foot. It prompts a backlash to undermine the dollar’s status as the world reserve currency – the basis of the US economic might. The aggressive policy undermines the US world standing to make it weaker, not stronger.

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Putin and Erdogan Plan Syria-Idlib DMZ

What the Putin-Erdogan DMZ decision means is that the 50,000 Turkish troops occupying Idlib will take control over that land, and have responsibility over the largest concentration of jihadists anywhere on the planet.

Eric Zuesse

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As I recommended in a post on September 10th, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan jointly announced on September 17th, “We’ve agreed to create a demilitarized zone between the government troops and militants before October 15. The zone will be 15-20km wide,” which compares to the Korean DMZ’s 4-km width. I had had in mind the Korean experience, but obviously Putin and Erdogan are much better-informed about the situation than I am, and they have chosen a DMZ that’s four to five times wider. In any case, the consequences of such a decision will be momentous, unless U.S. President Donald Trump is so determined for there to be World War III as to stop at nothing in order to force it to happen no matter what Russia does or doesn’t do.

What the Putin-Erdogan DMZ decision means is that the 50,000 Turkish troops who now are occupying Idlib province of Syria will take control over that land, and will thus have the responsibility over the largest concentration of jihadists anywhere on the planet: Idlib. It contains the surviving Syrian Al Qaeda and ISIS fighters, including all of the ones throughout Syria who surrendered to the Syrian Army rather than be shot dead on the spot by Government forces.

For its part, the U.S. Government, backed by its allies and supported in this by high officials of the United Nations, had repeatedly threatened that if there occurs any chemical-weapons attack, or even any claimed chemical-weapons attack, inside Idlib, the U.S. and its allies will instantaneously blame the Syrian Government and bomb Syria, and will shoot down the planes of Syria and of Russia that oppose this bombing-campaign to conquer or ‘liberate’ Syria from its Government. The U.S. has announced its determination to protect what one high U.S. official — who is endorsing what Trump is doing there — “the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11.” He admits it, but he wants to protect them from being bombed by Syria and by Russia.

During recent weeks, the U.S. military has increasingly said that even if the jihadists they’ve been assisting to assemble the materials for a chemical-weapons attack fail to carry it out or to stage one, any attempt by Syrian and Russian forces to destroy the jihadists (which the U.S. side calls ‘rebels’) in Idlib will be met with overwhelming U.S.-and-allied firepower. That would spark WW III, because whichever side — Russia or U.S. — loses in the Syrian battlefield will nuclear-blitz-attack the other side so as to have the lesser damage from the nuclear war and thus (in military terms) ‘win’ WW III, because the blitz-attack will destroy many of the opposite side’s retaliatory weapons. In a nuclear war, the first side to attack will have a considerable advantage — reducing the number of weapons the other side can launch.

If, on the other hand, the DMZ-plan works, then Turkey’s forces will be responsible for vetting any of Idlib’s residents who try to leave, in order to prohibit jihadists and their supporters from leaving. Once that task (filtering out the non-dangerous inhabitants and retaining in Idlib only the jihadists and their supporters) is done, the entire world might be consulted on whether to exterminate the remaining residents or to set them free to return to the countries from which they came or to other countries. Presumably, no country would want those ‘refugees’. That would answer the question.

America’s Arab allies, the oil monarchies such as the Sauds who own Saudi Arabia and the Thanis who own Qatar, and which have funded Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, would then be put on a spot, because if they say “Exterminate them!” then their clergy who have provided the moral imprimatur upon those families’ ownership of those nations, will either be in rebellion or else will themselves become overthrown either by their own followers or else by their monarch — overthrown from below or from above.

Alternatively, after Turkey’s forces in Idlib will have allowed release from Idlib of all who will be allowed out, Syria’s and Russia’s bombers will simply go in and slaughter the then-surrounded jihadists and take upon themselves the responsibility for that, regardless of what the leaders of the U.S. and its allied governments might say.

On the night of September 17th in Syria, there were missile-attacks “from the sea” against several Syrian cities; and those attacks could have come from either Israel’s or America’s ships, or from other U.S.-allied ships. Russian Television bannered, “Russian plane disappears from radars during Israeli attack on Syria’s Latakia – MoD” and reported:

A Russian military Il-20 aircraft with 14 service members on board went off the radars during an attack by four Israeli jets on Syria’s Latakia province, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
Air traffic controllers at the Khmeimim Air Base “lost contact” with the aircraft on Wednesday evening, during the attack of Israeli F-16 fighters on Latakia, said the MOD.Russian radars also registered the launch of missiles from a French frigate in the Mediterranean on the evening of September 17. …
The attack on Latakia came just hours after Russia and Turkey negotiated a partial demilitarization of the Idlib province

If the missiles were authorized by President Trump, then WW III has already begun in its pre-nuclear stage. However, if the attacks were launched by Israel’s Netanyahu, and/or by France’s Macron, without U.S. authorization, then the U.S. President might respond to them by siding against that aggressor(s) (and also against what he used to call “Radical Islamic Terrorists”), so as to prevent a nuclear war.

Late on September 17th, Al Masdar News bannered “NATO warships move towards Syrian coast” and reported “The NATO flotilla cruising off the Syrian coast reportedly consists of a Dutch frigate, the De Ruyter, a Canadian frigate, the Ville de Quebec, and a Greek cruiser, the Elli.” Al Qaeda and ISIS have influential protectors.

Ultimately, the decision will be U.S. President Trump’s as to whether he is willing to subject the planet to WW III and to its following nuclear winter and consequent die-off of agriculture and of everyone, in order to ‘win’ a nuclear war, such as America’s aristocracy has especially championed since the year 2006. The nuclear-victory concept is called “Nuclear Primacy” — the use of nuclear weapons so as to win a nuclear war against Russia, instead of to prevent a nuclear war. That concept’s predecessor, the “Mutually Assured Destruction” or “M.A.D.” meta-strategy, predominated even in the U.S. until 2006. Trump will have to decide whether the purpose of America’s nuclear-weapons stockpiles is to prevent WW III, or is to win WW III.

In Russia, the purpose has always been to have nuclear weapons in order to prevent WW III. But America’s President will be the person who will make the ultimate decision on this. And Idlib might be the spark. Netanyahu or Macron might be wanting to drag the U.S. into war even against Russia, but the final decision will be Trump’s.

The ultimate question is: How far will the U.S. go in order to continue the U.S. dollar as being the overwhelmingly dominant global currency?

—————

Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of  They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010, and of  CHRIST’S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that Created Christianity.

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Russian MoD: Il-20 downed by Syrian missile after attacking Israel’s F-16s used it as cover

Israeli pilots used the Russian plane as cover and set it up to be targeted by the Syrian air defense forces.

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Russia has stated that it “reserves right to response” after claiming that Israel’s actions led to downing of Il-20 by Syrian S-200 missiles.

The Russian military accused their Israeli counterparts for causing the downing of a Russian Il-20 plane by the Syrian air defense forces, which were responding to an Israeli air raid on Latakia.

Via RT


The Russian military say the Israeli raid on Syria triggered a chain of events, which led to the shooting down of a Russian Il-20 plane by a Syrian S-200 surface-to-air missile. Moscow reserves the right to respond accordingly.

On Monday evening four Israeli F-16 fighter jets attacked targets in Syria’s Latakia after approaching from the Mediterranean, a statement by the Russian defense ministry said on Tuesday. The Israeli warplanes came at a small altitude and “created a dangerous situation for other aircraft and vessels in the region”, it said.

The military said the French Navy’s frigate “Auvergne” as well as a Russian Il-20 plane were in the area of the Israeli operation.

“The Israeli pilots used the Russian plane as cover and set it up to be targeted by the Syrian air defense forces. As a consequence, the Il-20, which has radar cross-section much larger than the F-16, was shot down by an S-200 system missile,” the statement said.

The Russian ministry stressed that the Israelis must have known that the Russian plane was present in the area, which didn’t stop them from “the provocation”. Israel also failed to warn Russia about the planned operation in advance. The warning came a minute before the attack started, which “did not leave time to move the Russian plane to a safe area,” the statement said.

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