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By John Helmer, Moscow

In medieval sheep-herding practice it was customary to hang a bell around a single sheep in the flock to alert the shepherd to where they were heading. The shepherd used to castrate the bellwether ram first, so his bell didn’t ring needlessly. Doubts about his leadership of the flock are natural. Bellwethers in our time are still considered, sardonically, to be sheep who lead the shepherd. Are there Russian bellwethers now, and what are their bells telling?

Stanislav Belkovsky (right) has been well-known among Russian media pundits as a bellwether of the  political directions of the security services whom he knew best, seriously not sardonically. But the war which commenced in 2014 has taken Belkovsky by surprise, as it has most of the state media corps.  His view of President Vladimir Putin is that he, too,  was unready – “a lightweight… simply inadequate in scale to the challenges facing Russia.” Warfare, especially infowar, generates so many bells – all the warfare services castrate and run their own bellwethers (Vladimir Solovyov, Vladimir Pozner, Alexei Pushkov, Margarita Simonyan). So there isn’t much of a direction an independent bellwether can run in.

Belkovsky has been ringing his bell in the direction the rest of the flock isn’t running. President  Putin, he repeats, is responsible for starting all the wars in which Russia is presently engaged, including the annexation of Crimea in 2014; the trolling in the US presidential election of 2016; the attack on the Skripals in 2018; and the current war on the theological front in which the Russian Orthodox Church aims to crush the breakaway patriarchs in Constantinople and Kiev.  

According to the tolling of Belkovsky’s bell, this is World War IV. It reflects, he says, Putin’s “concept of the total loneliness of Russia in the world. Meaning: we cannot have allies/partners. But thanks to the authoritarian regime and the steadfastness of the Russian Federation, the people — that’s us — will stay put, watch, survive.”

At the regional elections in September 2018, Belkovsky detected   “a sharp failure of United Russia and the relative success of systemic opposition parties. Representatives of the Liberal Democratic Party became the governors of the Khabarovsk Krai and Vladimir Oblast; the Communist Party actually won in the Primorye Krai and Khakassia Republic. All the quasi-opposition forces represented in the State Duma have increased their representation in the regional legislative assemblies.”

“Moreover, the funny thing is that extra-parliamentary parties, whose existence we did not quite recognize, have seriously rushed forward and upwards. For example, the Communists of Russia,  considered an insignificant spoiler of the Communist Party, broke the 5% barrier and slipped into the Legislative Assembly of Khakassia (8.01% of the vote); in Ulyanovsk (5.83%) and Rostov (5.06%);  Nenets Autonomous Okrug (5.29%). The phantom Party of Pensioners for Social Justice received 9.29% in the elections to the Smolensk regional duma. In the same Nenets [Okrug], 5.5% of the vote was for Homeland, headed at the federal level by the State Duma deputy, Alexei Zhuravlev.”

Belkovsky’s conclusion: “the entire rat race is irrelevant. In September the subjects of the Russian Federation voted, not for specific party brands and for a few well-known candidates for governors, but against. Against the government and its policy in all possible forms and manifestations.”

Belkovsky is certain China won’t be joining Russia in its strategic loneliness. “Chinese banks have ceased to serve Russian customers. Now there is a huge epidemic of deaths of Russian customers in Chinese banks*, because China, although formally it has not joined the US sanctions against Russia, has in fact partially joined. Now China, also for example, has reduced oil purchases from Iran by 500,000 barrels per day — this is almost half of the reduction in Iranian exports which the US is seeking. De facto, this means that China is following in the wake of the US – [China’s] main goal is to become the deputy of the US on the world stage, and not to displace the US from the position of global leader.”

Another Belkovsky certainty.  “World War IV will not happen. That’s because it’s already under way. Since February 2014 [Kiev regime change]. On the initiative of our Federation. But this is not a classic Carl von Clausewitz war. Not like the First and Second World Wars. This is a hybrid war. Where it is not accepted officially to declare war and to enter a hostile (or  adjacent) territory. There are ‘troops by proxy’ — private armies, not formally controlled by any state. Technology coups…Initially, the most important task of the hybrid Russian war was twofold: a) to bring chaos to Western democracy, showing the weakness and vulnerability of the political institutions of the Euro-Atlantic area; b) to [compel] the United States and Co to sit at the Russian negotiating table on the new fate of the world (Yalta-2).”

Putin is to blame for all the war fronts, including the latest one. “The plot of the story about the Ukrainian Church’s autocephaly and the rupture of the Russian Orthodox Church with the Ecumenical Patriarchate is already known to all who are interested… Strictly speaking, the [Russian Orthodox Church] is the Stalin Church. It cannot be considered the full legal successor of the Russian/Russian Church of the previous epochs. The ROC officially says otherwise, of course…”

“Everything changed after the annexation of Crimea. It became clear that the Russian and Ukrainian people are never brothers. This means that a separate Ukrainian Church cannot be avoided… So Vladimir Putin can consider himself quite rightly as the political and spiritual sponsor of the Ukrainian autocephaly…”

“And this loneliness concept was verbalized by Putin’s assistant Vladislav Surkov in the Spring 2018 article in the journal Russia in Global Politics. ‘The wonderful words never said by Alexander III —  Russia has only two allies, the Army and the Navy’.  This is perhaps the most lucid metaphor of Russia’s geopolitical loneliness, which is long overdue to be accepted as [Russia’s] fate. The list of allies can, of course, be expanded to [one’s] taste: workers and teachers, oil and gas, the creative class and patriotic bots, General Frost and the Archangel Michael… The meaning of this will not change: we are our own allies.”

Several years before Surkov got to it, Putin made his own direct reference to Alexander’s remark in April 2015, read this

In medieval sheep-herding practice the castrato ram who ran in the opposite direction to the flock usually turned into roast mutton. Russian assessments of Belkovsky have identified his shepherds as Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky; for details, read this.    

Belkovsky in London: left, with Boris Berezovsky; right, with Mikhail Khodorkovsky (the man in the middle is unidentified). For details of the Khodorkovsky programme discussed with Belkovsky in London in November 2015, read the Izvestia report of November 11, 2015.

Belkovsky is a jester, not a bellwether, according to this assessment of how to read him.   “To Belkovsky some listen with pleasure, some with disgust. Why? Perhaps because in Russia it is easier to take the position of a fool in relation to the hierarchy of the [Church],   and to power in general — it is easier to declare yourself a reformer (atheist is not fashionable at all), who have come from the outside.”

A Moscow-based western media source describes Belkovsky’s positions as predictable.  “His job has been to create pressure on Putin. Early on he was successful, but then he was cut loose. So he has had to look for new sponsors. Berezovsky was one. Now they are Khodorkovsky and the Americans. His talent is knowing the background and the mind-set so he can come up with a plausible framework of how the political leaders he doesn’t have contact with are thinking. This makes him a good reader of tea leaves. Also, he’s trying to sow discord.”

[*] Over ten days since this piece was published, no source in Russian banking or Russian commodity trade with China has been found who believes there is evidence to substantiate this claim. 

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