Message from Moscow

In a shocking development, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked successor has won election with 70% of the vote.

OK, so much for the sarcasm.  Russia, rich in natural resources, will remain a power to be reckoned with for the years ahead.  How does an informed investor to try to stay on top of what’s happening in the Kremlin?

One of the best ways is a means of communication that dates back almost to the founding of the Soviet Union — shortwave radio.

Time was that Radio Moscow’s English-language service had a unique role — an essential source of information for the U.S. intelligence community that happened to be equally accessible to the armchair Kremlinologist.  And it still is.

When the Soviet Union collapsed (I remember it well, living far from family on Christmas Day 1991, turning on Radio Moscow and hearing an announcer declare “The Soviet Union has ceased to exist” — pretty cool), Radio Moscow was renamed the Voice of Russia.  These days it seems a more low-budget operation — I hear thicker accents and more mangled syntax than I recall in the late 80s and early 90s — but after the Yeltsin years, VOR has without a doubt assumed the role of its predecessor: as a vigorous mouthpiece for the Kremlin.

That’s been in clear evidence the last couple of weeks, as Kosovo declared independence from Serbia — the country Russia has historically seen as a sort of Slavic little brother.  Two weeks ago, VOR ran a report about how Kosovo’s pending secession was warming the hearts of Basques in Spain, Corsicans living under French rule, and a bunch of other European secessionist movements I didn’t even know existed.  The subtext was clear — European governments supporting Kosovar independence had better watch out, lest the secessionist bug spread to their own countries.

The message was hammered home again — with more force — after the actual declaration last week.  A commentary by VOR’s Yevgeny Krishkin approvingly cited an opinion piece by analyst Sergio Romano in Italy’s Corriere della Serra that sees the hand of Washington behind the Kosovar secession [emphasis mine]:

Since the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia collapsed, Washington has been trying to persuade the former republics to join NATO and the European Union.  They need it to threaten Russia’s national interests, and to prevent European members from developing a common European policy, stresses Sergio Romano.  In other words, Kosovo has not been busy setting its own strategic goals.  This is the question of American dominance…

There’s a lot of insight packed into these awkward sentences.  They reinforce what a lonely few U.S. commentators like Pat Buchanan have been warning about — that for all the talk of Putin’s belligerence, Russia feels profoundly threatened by NATO’s expansion onto Russia’s doorstep, indeed into former Soviet territory.  It feeds straight into Russia’s deep-seated historical fear of invasion from its west — attacks by Napoleon and Hitler would probably do that to a people over the course of a couple centuries.

It’s something which a wise U.S. president would do well to keep in mind.  Alas, our current president insists on building an anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic.  And listening to last week’s final Democratic debate offered little reason to believe the opposition party will act any with more prudence.

And so, the wise investor concerned about what’s up in Moscow might consider sinking $150 into a decent portable shortwave radio.  Yes, the Voice of Russia has an English-language website, but trying to navigate it is almost hopeless.   Go straight to the source.

Unfamiliar with shortwave?  Pick up a copy of Passport to World Band Radio, the indispensable guide to both shortwave programming and equipment, and a pleasure to read in its own right.  Want to dip your toe in the water?  Listen to the weekly Shortwave Report podcast.  It’s a half-hour compendium of news and commentary from the major international broadcasters that still transmit in English to North America — VOR, China Radio International, Radio Havana Cuba, and Radio Netherlands.

However you listen, the Voice of Russia will be an important source of insight into the thinking of Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev for a long time to come.