Marcy Winograd & Medea Benjamin: Meet the Senate Nuke Caucus, Busting the Budget and Making the World Less Safe

By Marcy Winograd & Medea Benjamin, Responsible Statecraft, 5/26/21

Democrats might control the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government right now, but a small Republican-dominated Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) Coalition exercises outsized influence in a frightening campaign for nuclear rearmament. 

The coalition, comprising six senators from states that house, develop, or test underground land-based nuclear weapons, is pushing a wasteful and dangerous $1.7 trillion, decades-long plan to produce new nuclear weapons, some with warheads 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

While the 1980s witnessed the nuclear freeze and a mass movement to demand nuclear disarmament between the U.S. and Soviet Union, the 1990s gave birth to the missile caucus, the Congressional engine careening the U.S. into a renewed nuclear arms race.

All but one of the members of this caucus is a Republican from a deep red state — including North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and South Dakota — that didn’t vote for Joe Biden. Members of the Senate ICBM Coalition are Co-Chairs John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.); John Barrasso (R-Wyo.); Steve Daines (R-Mont); Mike Lee (R-Utah); and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).

The lone Democrat, Tester, a third-generation farmer and former elementary school music teacher, wields a critical gavel as Chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, a committee that will write the appropriations bill for military expenditures. Tester told the D.C.-based Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance this year that he was committed to keeping new nuclear weapons production “on track.”

Read the full article here.

Foreign Policy Magazine Publishes Ridiculous Article on Putin by College Student Majoring in Math

Every time it seems like the US media can’t get any worse with its reporting and analysis of Russia, some writer or editor manages to plumb the depths of suckery even further, dumbing down their readers and viewers even more in the process.  This time it’s Foreign Policy Magazine.

On June 1st, the outlet published the article “Putin’s Imperial Palaces Are a Manchild’s Dream: The Russian leader isn’t the macho genius of Western fantasy” by Konstantin McKenna.  

But the article is too clever by half. McKenna is not even someone who claims to have any personal expertise or on-the-ground experience with the country other than apparently having an emigre mother who is originally from Russia. He is a college student from Tennessee who is majoring in math and once co-wrote a fantasy novel with his mother.  He was welcomed as a contributing writer to Foreign Policy because he had a connection with someone on Twitter.  

So what did McKenna have to offer in his article about Putin that the editors of Foreign Policy thought was so compelling?  

Let’s start with the article’s opening: “Ever since his accession, Westerners have been fascinated by the macho image of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The shirtless, horseback-riding, karate-chopping leader became a meme.”

This introduction doesn’t exactly instill confidence in what is to come. First of all, Putin doesn’t practice Karate, he practices Judo. Furthermore, as usual in the US press, everything Putin does only matters within a western interpretation. It likely isn’t that Putin has been playing macho to the cameras to impress a western audience. When Putin took over Russia, the mortality rate for Russian men was poor with life expectancy at around 64. During the collapse of the 1990’s many men had succumbed to what we would now refer to as diseases of despair:  alcoholism, heart attacks, suicides and homicides. During my first visit to the country, Russians told me they liked the fact that Putin had provided a positive image for men to aspire to – one who was fit, active, didn’t smoke, and drank very little. If Foreign Policy got a writer who actually had some substantive understanding about Russia’s post-Soviet past, this context might have been provided. Instead the reader is given a shallow depiction of Putin’s actions based on the same old tired tropes. 

As the title implies, a good chunk of the article is spent going into detail about Alexei Navalny’s video about “Putin’s Palace” and providing a sort of psychoanalysis of Putin based thereon. McKenna takes the Navalny-as-saintly-opposition-threat-to-Putin’s-rule narrative at face value, though it’s been documented via polling that Navalny is seriously unpopular within Russia. The palace that is supposedly owned by Putin is a claim recycled from ten years ago. It was unsubstantiated then and it remains so today.  When two reporters visited the site of the “palace” after the Navalny video was released, it turned out to be an incomplete skeleton and the images in the video are a mockup of what the place is supposed to look like when finished. There’s no evidence this building has ever belonged to Putin. Nevertheless, the Navalny narrative is treated as flat fact in the Foreign Policy article with no attempt to convey that these assertions are disputed and largely speculative. 

Another example of the poor quality of the article’s analysis involves the following:

These are token offerings to the persistent Russian notion that leaders, however brutal their origins, have to be cultured. Nekulturny (“uncultured”) cuts in Russian in a way that has little equivalent in English; not only does Russian respect for the arts run deep, but so does the fear of being seen by others as a peasant. Soviet leaders were fierce autodidacts. Putin, however, although born into an upper-middle-class Soviet family, appears to have none of the aspirations for learning and the taste of a spoiled, rich teenager.

This paragraph is filled with biographical inaccuracies and out-of-context generalizations about Russian culture. Putin’s family of origin was lower middle class, not upper. Renowned scholar of Russia and Putin biographer Richard Sakwa described Putin’s childhood apartment as a fifth-floor flat shared “with two families…The sink and gas cooker were in the corridor, without hot water or a bathroom, and of course there was no lift.”

As for having none of the aspirations for learning, Putin has a law degree, regularly rattles off tons of statistics on any number of issues, and engages in hours-long Q&A sessions with no notes, but somehow the implication here is that he’s an intellectual midget.  

According to another Russia scholar and Putin biographer, Allen C. Lynch, the Russian president historically lived modestly. There have been many attempts over the years to accuse Putin of being a secret billionaire but, as with so many accusations leveled against him, there’s that pesky problem known as evidence. None is ever provided.  

So much for that fact-checking that Foreign Policy touts on its “writer’s guidelines” page.

I don’t fault McKenna for this, but the magazine’s editorial team. I’m aware that editors often want a unique angle, but typically the writer must have some sort of direct experience or acquired knowledge of the issue they are writing about in order to be given valuable space at a reputable outlet in which competition to get published is stiff. McKenna’s Foreign Policy bio says simply: “Konstantin McKenna is a writer in Tennessee.” There is no mention of any personal direct knowledge or experience he has about Russia or international affairs. In fact, the piece reads like it was written by someone who has not been to Russia in the past ten years (if ever) and is regurgitating the same superficial and factually questionable commentary that can be found in any mainstream US media outlet. 

Mainstream journalism is in the midst of a crisis of credibility that has been chipping away at the average person’s trust over the course of years. When it comes to reporting on Russia in particular, mainstream outlets have bungled it repeatedly. We just endured 3-4 years of incessant Russiagate claims that never panned out, we have individuals with questionable expertise who are consistently wrong continually being given media space, and we’ve been subjected to the equivalent of modern day phrenologists reading every conceivable pathology into Putin’s gait, health, hobbies, etc. 

None of this has contributed an iota of genuine knowledge or insight into the world’s other nuclear superpower for the average US media consumer. No one I talk to who relies solely on the mainstream US media for their news has a clue about what Russia is really like or why Russians perceive their interests the way they do. Liberal Democrats think Russia is the nightmare that lives inside Masha Gessen’s head and conservative Republicans think Putin is some kind of Russian version of Pat Buchanan.  

Unfortunately, this is to be expected when outlets who fancy themselves as “serious” and “respected” rely on lazy write ups like McKenna’s that simply repeat sensationalist rumors about Russia and its leadership.

Alan MacLeod: The Notorious London Spy School Churning Out Many of the World’s Top Journalists

Dept. of War Studies, Kings College of London

By Alan MacLeod, Mintpress News, 6/4/21

LONDON — In a previous investigationMintPress News explored how one university department, the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, functions as a school for spooks. Its teaching posts are filled with current or former NATO officials, army officers and intelligence operatives to churn out the next generation of spies and intelligence officers. However, we can now reveal an even more troubling product the department produces: journalists. An inordinate number of the world’s most influential reporters, producers and presenters, representing many of the most well-known and respected outlets — including The New York TimesCNN and the BBC — learned their craft in the classrooms of this London department, raising serious questions about the links between the fourth estate and the national security state.

Read full article here.

Gilbert Doctorow: A Reductionist Approach to the Forthcoming Biden-Putin Summit in Geneva

By Gilbert Doctorow, 5/30/21

…Most recently, Biden was in line with fellow Democrats in condemning the Russian imprisonment of opposition activist Alexei Navalny. In short, the Democrats, and Biden at their helm, had made Russia into the great villain behind most every development domestically or internationally harmful to American interests. The culmination was Biden’s confirmation a little more than a month ago to a television reporter that Putin “is a killer.”

So why is Joe Biden pressing ahead with a meeting so early in his tenure in office? We are told that the objective is to achieve “greater stability” in bilateral relations. But I have not heard from our commentators what stability is to be addressed. In the brief essay which follows, I will attempt to fill that void. In doing so, I will ignore all the aforementioned agenda items, which I consider to be little more than a distraction to draw public attention away from the essence of the forthcoming meeting, from what is driving the American side since it is simply too embarrassing for hubristic American elites to swallow this truth.

In my reductionist approach, the summit has one driver behind it, namely to put a cap on an arms race that the United States is losing, if it has not already irrevocably lost, and to prevent the adverse shift in the strategic balance against America from getting still worse. The side benefit would be to strike down planned military expenditures budgeted for well over a trillion dollars to modernize the nuclear triad alone. This would thereby free funds for the massive infrastructure investments that Biden is presently trying to push through Congress.

In saying this, I am not guessing or engaging in wishful thinking. I am basing myself on facts that go back to March 2018. These facts are not being marshalled today by my peers, firstly because foreign policy commentators in the public domain tend not to have memories that go back more than a month or two, and secondly because the facts themselves were officially suppressed at the time and never appeared in the mainstream media. What publication there was occurred in the so-called alternative media, by the efforts of myself and a few other contrarians, as I will detail below….

Read full article here.

Navalny’s Revolutionary Zeal Feeds Global Headlines but Most Russians Prefer Stability & Steady Change Using Local Civic Activism

FILE PHOTO. Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia. © Getty Images / Sefa Karacan

By Natylie Baldwin, RT, 5/29/21

Alexey Navalny, the West’s favorite Russian opposition figure, is loved abroad, but remains a divisive figure within the country. However, that doesn’t mean Russians don’t want change, and there is plenty of local civic activism.

Navalny has risen to prominence internationally over the past six months, widely characterized overseas as a pro-Western liberal democrat who is being persecuted because he represents a popular and genuine threat to President Vladimir Putin’s government. However, polling from Levada, a pollster which has received Western funding and is considered a “foreign agent” in Russia, tells a different story, showing that 56% of Russians disapprove of the opposition figure’s activities (in journalism, politics & activism) with 19% sympathetic to his work.

In the political sense, only 2% of Russians would support Navalny if he were to run for the presidency. By contrast, 56% of voters, 28 times more, are ready to support another term for Putin, if an election were held now.

That said, the president’s relative popularity doesn’t mean there aren’t Russians who have genuine grievances.  These typically involve things that affect the standard of living in the country, like economic security, local infrastructure and environmental issues. Wages and standard of living conditions have stagnated or even decreased in Russia since 2014, because of a combination of factors, including sanctions, increased investment in the military (which was reduced again in 2017), the Covid-19 pandemic, and the government’s decision to continue favoring macroeconomic stability, with relative austerity for average citizens.

A significant number of those polled believe that attending his protests was prompted more by that kind of dissatisfaction than by support for the divisive Navalny; a majority of Russians are opposed to his actions.

Elena Bezrukova, a political scientist at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, found that most of the protest participants she’d interviewed in January gave “standard of living” as a driving force for their participation.

The majority of those she spoke to initially singled out Navalny as the main reason for protesting. “But,” she said, “poverty and low living standards were the most frequent answer to questions about general issues.” In addition, she believes that a combination of factors unrelated to the opposition figure have been driving civil unrest. “People have been affected by coronavirus fatigue, inflation, lower wages and the risk of losing their jobs,” Bezrukova added, “all of which create a general public alarm.”

However, this feeling of unease does not translate into any meaningful desire by Russians to overthrow the government.  Surveys indicate that, although a significant number are willing to voice displeasure with socioeconomic problems, they are much more inclined to sign a petition or to contact local officials than to engage in unauthorized street protests…

Read full article here.

Anatol Lieven: How to Avoid a Conflict in Belarus

Belarusian Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich

Excellent analysis here on social, political, economic and geopolitical realities of Belarus, and why US policymakers need to show judiciousness and discernment in how they handle the current situation. – Natylie

By Anatol Lieven, Responsible Statecraft, 5/25/21

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko forcing down an international commercial aircraft in order to arrest an opposition journalist seems to indicate increasing desperation. Ever since last year’s highly suspect elections reconfirmed Lukashenko in power, he has faced repeated street protests, which considerable police repression has failed to end.

The first U.S. and European response must obviously be to impose appropriate sanctions on Belarus. The question of what is “appropriate” should however be conditioned by the memory that in 2013, Washington and its European allies forced the plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales back home to land in Vienna, where Austrian police searched for the U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden. This incident caused similar protests from Latin American countries, Russia, and China that the West is now directing against Belarus. It should be another lesson for Washington to avoid creating precedents for breaking international law unless it wants other countries to follow suit.

Beyond the immediate question of how to respond to Lukashenko’s latest move looms a far larger one: should the protests in Belarus intensify and the Lukashenko regime fall — whether overthrown by the protestors, or ousted in a coup by disgruntled security officials from within the regime itself — how should Washington and the West react?
Above all, the West must avoid repeating the outcome of the 2014 revolution in Ukraine: civil war, Russian intervention, steep and prolonged economic decline, a bitterly divided society, and a country stuck in permanent suspension and semi-paralysis between Russia and the West. So if the proposed summit between Presidents Biden and Putin goes ahead next month, establishing mutual ground rules for managing the Belarusian crisis should be high on the agenda.

On the one hand, the United States should oppose violent repression by the Lukashenko regime, gain some understanding with Moscow that it, too, should discourage a harsh crackdown, and seek to open up a path to greater real democracy in Belarus. On the other hand, any U.S. strategy that fails to recognize both vital Russian state interests in Belarus and the necessity for Minsk of maintaining close economic and social links to Moscow will risk a catastrophic failure and a betrayal of the interests of the Belarusian people.

Relations between Lukashenko and Putin have frequently been strained, and they have no personal affection for each other. It does not seem likely that Moscow would want to make any great sacrifice to save the Lukashenko government as such. Nor would it be inclined to back ferocious repression in order to save that regime for its own sake. It is a quite different matter however when it comes to preventing Belarus from becoming a Western ally against Russia.

A glance at the map and the slightest knowledge of history should make the reasons for Russia’s stance obvious. The Belarusian border is only 300 miles from Moscow, and Belarus has been the principal route for Western invasions of Russia since the 16th century. It would be as if Canada were to threaten to join an anti-American military alliance.
The Russian government has made clear this is an absolute red line, with the clear implication that, in the last resort, Russia is willing to resort to armed force to prevent Belarus following Ukraine into military, economic and geopolitical dependence on the West. And if Russia does intervene militarily, it won’t be possible for Moscow to break off bits of Belarus, as in the case of Ukraine in 2014. Belarusian political geography does not permit this. The Russian army would have to occupy the whole of Belarus, and in the process march right up to the borders of NATO countries Lithuania and Poland..

The result would be a new and immense crisis between Russia and the West, probably involving the redeployment of very considerable numbers of U.S. troops to Europe and the complete economic isolation of Russia from the West. Such a crisis would also involve a greatly increased possibility of accidental clashes and collisions between Russian and NATO aircraft and ships. None of this would remotely serve Washington’s interests, let alone of the American middle class to whom the Biden administration has ostensibly dedicated its foreign policy…

Read full article here.

Putin’s Notions of Russian Spiritual and Moral Values Explained: An Interview with Nicolai Petro

Center on National Security, 5/13/21

Vital Interests: Nicolai, thanks for joining us today on the Vital Interests forum. We have had several conversations on this forum dealing with Russia but it would be good to delve into this topic some more. You’re a perfect person to talk to having just come back from Europe where you spent time in Ukraine and Italy and can provide us with fresh insights. 

Recently President Putin gave his annual state of the nation address to the Russian Federal Assembly. He talked about the spiritual and moral values which sustain Russia and distinguish it from other nations which were forgetting about these essential values. This struck me as an interesting statement by Putin and worth exploring. From your informed perspective what are the spiritual and moral values that Putin is referring to that define Russian society today?

Nicolai Petro: Since 2013 Putin has focused particular attention on Russia’s heritage as a multicultural nation. In his September 19, 2013 speech at the Valdai Conference he emphasized multiculturalism at a time when his counterparts in the West were disavowing it. He later made a distinction between multiculturalism and pluriculturalism, defining Russia as a pluricultural society. 

The distinction as I understand it is that multiculturalism encourages individual cultural self identification, whereas pluriculturalism emphasizes the need for cultural collectives to retain their cultural identities within the larger community. To make the distinction clear to your readers, the United States would be an example of a multicultural society. The European Union, by contrast would be an example of the pluricultural society because it says, “Look you Catalonians, you Corsicans, you Welsh – you have an identity that should be encouraged and recognized as a positive social value even though you don’t have statehood.” The distinction is apparent even in their respective mottos: “Out of Many, One” for the United States, and “United in Diversity” for the European Union…

Read full interview here.

Quincy Institute Debate – NATO Expansion: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone?

The Ukrainian government has issued a new request for an Action Plan leading to NATO membership, even as the situation on the ground between Ukrainian and Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine has deteriorated badly, as have U.S.-Russian relations. This panel will examine the wisdom of further NATO expansion, ask what should be the correct role of NATO in defending U.S. and European security, and whether NATO ambitions and America’s military role in Europe need to be scaled back. 

The discussion took place on Tuesday, May 11th and featured former U.S. Ambassador Jack F. Matlock, former British Ambassador Sir Rodric Quentin Braithwaite, and author and former U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski. Quincy Institute Senior Research Fellow Anatol Lieven moderated.

Analysis & Book Reviews on U.S. Foreign Policy and Russia

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