A Closer Look at Russia’s Constitutional Amendments and Supporting Legislation

Vladimir Putin as he is about to give a speech to the Federal Assembly, January 2020.

In January of 2020, Putin gave his annual Address to the Federal Assembly, announcing that amendments would be made to the Russian constitution.  Those amendments have now been written up and passed.  Recent legislation supporting their implementation as well as clarifying how a transition of power will work has also been passed.  Now we can start to get a better picture of what these amendments will mean for Russia’s legal and political system and compare how these changes actually square with what Putin said in his speech. 

Legal History and the Balance between the Executive and Legislative Branches

First, it is important to note the contextual background of law in Russia and the differences as well as similarities compared to what many westerners are used to.   Until the post-Soviet era, there was not a long tradition of Russians being viewed as citizens with individual rights but they were instead granted some degree of social protections and stability in exchange for obedience to authoritarian rule.  There was the concept of group rights and duties in the tsarist era up until the 1860’s and then dependent rights in the Soviet era.  As Jane Henderson, a retired lecturer at the School of Law at Kings College London and author of The Russian Constitution:  A Contextual Analysis, told me in an email exchange: 

“[G]roup rights in this context are rights (and duties) for people because they are members of a particular group, not rights for the group as a single entity. There was little tradition of rights for individuals as individuals…. [In] Soviet times, the theory was dependent rights: that individuals were given rights [primarily social and economic] in return for the duties they performed to the state – made explicit for example in the 1977 USSR Constitution Article 59.”

Indeed no constitution had existed at all in Russia until 1906 – a result of the Russian Revolution of 1905 – and that was effectively revoked in 1917. However, Alexander II – a reformist tsar who outlawed serfdom in 1861 – instituted several legal reforms, including the right to trial by jury with independent judges overseeing cases.  These rights existed in Russia from 1864 until 1917, making Russia unique in that its judicial system was more democratic while the rest of its governmental institutions remained autocratic.  As Professor Bill Bowring, an expert on Russian law at the School of Law at Birbeck College at the University of London, has pointed out, these legal rights only formally came into being in many other European countries at around the same time:  “Russia has, like all its European neighbors, a long and complex relationship with human rights – and with the rule of law and judicial independence, which are its essential underpinning.”

The current constitution of 1993 came about as a result of the dramatic showdown between then-president Boris Yeltsin and the parliament.  Yeltsin had dissolved parliament after members of the legislature refused to continue to allow him to rule by decree and wanted to roll back the many harmful economic policies he had implemented during this period.  They had also threatened to impeach Yeltsin for abuse of power.  Yeltsin ultimately ordered a military attack on the parliament building, leading to hundreds of casualties.  He then suspended the existing constitution. 

In order to prevent any other center of political power from having the ability to confront or challenge the president again, Yeltsin engineered the design of a constitution that provided for a parliament that would be little more than a rubber stamp for the president’s prerogatives.  In Putin’s January speech announcing that there would be constitutional changes, he suggested that the parliament would be granted more authority.  However, upon closer inspection, the changes relating to the balance between the executive and legislative branches of government as they have now been finalized are barely perceptible.  As Henderson explains:

“[T]he idea of the President having direct oversight over certain key federal ministries (such as those dealing with defence, state security, internal affairs, justice, foreign affairs, emergency situations) was enshrined from the very beginning in article 32 of the 1997 Federal Constitutional Law on the Government.*  This oversight is now specified at constitutional level in Article 83 (e-1)…. The State Duma [the lower chamber of parliament] now does have the power of approving ministers, except those in the key ministries just mentioned.  Previously the Duma only had a hand in consenting to the Government Chairman (Prime Minister), under the original version of Article 103(1)(a). Now it also has power over approval of the Government Chairman’s suggestions as to who should be the deputy chairman and the federal ministers (again, apart from those in the key federal ministries). However, it is not clear the extent to which the Duma will review individual ministers, or whether it will merely be put in the position of approving the government as a whole.” [emphasis mine]

Putin did emphasize as the constitutional amendments were being drawn up that Russia – due to its size and complex composition of different cultures and faiths – would have to be governed as a presidential republic and not a parliamentary republic:

“I think that Russia, with its vast territory, with many faiths, with a large number of nations, peoples, nationalities living in the country – you can’t even count, someone says 160, someone 190, you know, needs strong presidential power.”

He reiterated this idea in a speech at the Valdai conference in October. 

The Judiciary

There were also amendments relating to the judicial branch of government.  Since 2000, Putin has overseen the expansion of rights for those accused of crimes as well as introducing more organization within the everyday functioning of the system.  Examples of the former include the rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury, and increased rights to exculpatory evidence.  After certain reforms made by Putin to the criminal code, acquittal rates in bench trials (only heard by a judge) doubled and acquittal rates in jury trials tripled, contributing to a 40 percent drop in the overall  incarceration rate and a 95 percent drop in the juvenile incarceration rate since 2001. 

He also introduced the role of bailiffs and Justices of the Peace (JP’s), improving the efficiency of the justice system.  JP’s are required to be over the age of 25, have a law degree, and pass an exam and a strict security clearance.  They are formally appointed by either regional governors or regional legislative bodies.  It has been established that JP’s demonstrate independence – in other words, they base their decisions on the written law – in the vast majority of cases before them.  Exceptions involve the very small percentage of cases that are politically sensitive, particularly to the Kremlin.  In these instances the JP’s will often go along with power as a matter of being socialized into the system rather than being overtly told to do so. 

Henderson acknowledges that the professionalization of the Russian legal system seems to have improved in recent years, adding:

“[T]here is now a credible group of human rights lawyers, that is lawyers whose profession is to defend human rights cases. This would have been unthinkable, I believe, in earlier eras. I also think particularly younger people – and especially educated young people – will take a different view to those in charge who are of an age which in other circumstances would mean they would be drawing their old-age pension.”

But whether the constitutional amendments that involve changes to the judiciary will support the continued progressive evolution of the legal system or hamstring it is debatable. 

In addition to the hierarchy of courts in which actual cases involving specific parties are litigated – similar to the US hierarchy with a Supreme Court at the top – many European countries have a court that is separate and apart which has the sole objective of reviewing legislation for constitutionality.  That court in Russia is known as the Constitutional Court.  The recent amendments have granted the Constitutional Court the ability to review proposed legislation, not just legislation that has already been passed, for compatibility with the country’s constitution.

While this sounds potentially positive on the surface – being able to get guidance on whether a bill would be considered constitutional before passing it – Henderson sees this as a way for the president to also have an expanded veto power.  Whereas the president did not previously have a veto right if legislation involved a federal constitutional law that was passed with a sufficient number of votes in the parliament, he can now refuse to sign and refer it to the Constitutional Court for review.  Whether the president’s refusal to sign sticks will depend on whether the judges on the Constitutional Court agree that there are constitutional problems with the legislation. 

Judicial independence becomes important in determining whether this process will be an honest review or just a fancy two-step for a president who wants to manipulate the process and sidestep the parliament. 

This brings us to the amendment that now grants the president the right to remove judges via a request to the Federation Council.  Since the parliament currently is – by design, as discussed above – a fairly weak institution relative to the president, the likelihood that the Federation Council will go against a president’s request to remove a judge is low.  As Henderson explains:  “It must be said that as with other judges, removal from the Supreme Court or [Constitutional Court] can only be “for cause,” but this can include vague formulations, such as “bringing the judiciary into disrepute” so might be easily manipulated.”

Another amendment has to do with the Russian constitution trumping international legal decisions.  There are variations around the world as to whether a country has a monist or dualist approach toward international law.  Monist states enforce international laws and treaties as soon as that state signs on.  Dualist states require a process by which an international treaty or law is incorporated into that state’s legal system before it takes force, such as a legislative vote of ratification.  Some countries have a combination of the two.  For example, in the United States, some international laws can be applied directly by the courts and others cannot. 

The 1993 Russian constitution has what many consider to be an “expansive” approach to international law.  For example, Article 15(4) states that:

“Generally recognised principles and norms of international law and international treaties of the Russian Federation shall be an integral part of its legal system. If other rules have been established by an international treaty of the Russian Federation than provided for by a law, the rules of the international treaty shall apply.”[emphasis mine]

There is also Article 17 which states that:

“The rights and freedoms of man and citizen shall be recognised and guaranteed in the Russian Federation according to generally recognised principles and norms of international law and in accordance with the present Constitution.”

This would make it seem that Russian law was to be subordinate to international law.  But Henderson points out that there is room for debate:

“[T]he question is what we mean by a law.  Is it all law of any sort that is adopted within Russia? Or is it merely federal law? Might it include Federal Constitutional Law? It certainly is not obvious that it includes the Russian Constitution….Article 15(4) is definitely still in force, and Russia is adamant that it upholds its treaty obligations. However, Article 15(4) does not expressly say that international treaty might override the Constitution.”

Russia ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHRFF) in 1998 and has been an effective member of the Council of Europe since 1996, which means that Russian citizens can bring a case before the Council’s court, the European Court of Human Rights, if a question arises as to Russia’s enforcement of the rights and freedoms of the ECHRFF.  In order to bring such a case before the European court, a Russian citizen must exhaust all possible remedies in domestic courts first.  

There has been controversy in Russia over cases brought before the European court.  One case involved the shareholders of the Yukos oil company.   The shareholders of Yukos, which was dissolved by the Putin government years ago, had demanded compensation.  After getting no relief in Russian courts, the shareholders brought their case to the European court and won.  The Constitutional Court in Russia ruled in 2017 that abiding by the European court’s decision would violate the Russian constitution because the shareholders would essentially be getting compensated for having engaged in a tax avoidance scheme.

Another issue involved a total ban on prisoners in Russia being able to vote.  It is specifically stated in the Russian constitution that prisoners are denied voting rights.  This, however, contradicted the ECHRFF that Russia had ratified in 1998.  Controversy has erupted in recent years over the contradiction, with some members of the Duma requesting that the Constitutional Court rule on whether submitting to the European court’s rulings and obligations was compatible with the Russian constitution.  The Constitutional Court issued an opinion in 2015 that ECHRFF was compatible in theory with the Russian constitution, but left the door open for further review of any ruling from the European court that might arise from a specific case brought before it. 

The relevant constitutional amendment this year has expanded the power of the Constitutional Court of Russia in this regard.  According to Henderson:  “Following an appeal by one of a limited number of agencies, not only can the Court decide that it is not possible to apply the decision of an interstate agency because it contradicts the Constitution, but also it can refuse to apply such a decision on grounds of being contrary to the “foundations of public order” (whatever that might mean).”

The reference to “public order” is a new and recurring theme with the 2020 constitutional amendments as we shall see below.

The State Council and the Power of Municipal Government

Starting in October Putin submitted several bills that indicate he is setting the practical groundwork for an eventual transition of power. The first was a bill in connection with the State Council.

The State Council was created in 2000 by presidential decree and began as an advisory body to the president to coordinate different parts of government.  It was originally composed of the heads of regional government as compensation for being stripped of immunity and automatic participation in the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament.  Putin took this step to address what he saw as the incorrigible corruption and lack of accountability of the regional governors at the time. Membership in the State Council allowed them a forum to communicate directly with the president but did not necessarily grant any power beyond that.  As reflected in the new constitutional amendments, it is now to become an official executive body. Rather than being ceremonial, it will have the power to set the direction of both domestic and foreign policy, with a likely focus on socio-economic development. 

The constitutional amendments, while granting the president the power to create the body, provided no details about how the president would go about creating the body or filling positions on it. Russian news agency TASS reported the October 14th bill submitted by Putin stipulated that the State Council will serve as an advisory body headed by the Russian president and will include the PM, the president’s chief of staff, speakers of both chambers of parliament, and the regional governors.  Representatives of local municipal government may also be included at the president’s discretion.  Furthermore, according to TASS:

In order to deal with the agenda of the council, the presidium of the State Council will be established. Its composition will be determined by the chairman. Besides, special commissions and working groups will be created in order to organize activity in specific spheres. Representatives of federal and regional government bodies, other state bodies, local governance bodies and organizations can form part of the commissions. Members of specific commissions do not have to form part of the State Council. The chairman and members of the State Council take part in its activity on a voluntary basis.

Members must also have no residency abroad, citizenship outside of Russia, or hold funds in foreign bank accounts.

According to an analysis by Chatham House, the bill submitted by Putin would allow:

“the president to achieve at least three things at once: further de-institutionalize governance structures to give him more flexibility and appointment powers; step back from day-to-day governance while still retaining control; and structure decision-making between his subordinates on national priorities across branches of power and layers of the federation.”

These analysts point out that the State Council became particularly active around the National Projects program in 2018, an infrastructure development project critical to Putin’s plan to increase living standards and quality of life in Russia. Due to the pandemic, the National Project’s goals have been moderated.

The Chatham House analysts have a negative take on the changes which they see as potentially usurping the power of local mayors and officials.

Henderson agrees that there are concerns in this area as the State Council bill is the first piece of post-amendment legislation that includes the term “unified system of public power.” This term was mentioned in Putin’s January speech in relation to creating a system of closer cooperation between the state (legally consisting of central and regional authorities) and local municipal governments that would ostensibly prove more equitable to Russian citizens. The need cited for this included disparities among the municipalities in opportunities and implementation of social rights.  It is a new concept that was incorporated into Chapter 8 of the Russian constitution via the 2020 amendments.  Chapter 8 of the constitution involves the power of local government and the recent amendments added language as Article 132(3), stating: “bodies of local self-government and bodies of state authority are included in a unified system of public authority in the Russian Federation and conduct interaction for the most effective solution of tasks in the interests of the population living on the respective territory.”

As pointed out by Elizabeth Teague in her article “Russia’s Constitutional Reforms of 2020,“ this is inconsistent with another part of the Russian constitution:  “This appears directly to contradict Article 12 of Chapter 1 of the constitution, which reads, ‘Local self-government shall be independent within the limits of its authority. The bodies of local self-government shall not be part of the system of bodies of state authority.’”

It is believed that a likely consequence of this amendment will be the continued watering down of local authority, with the Kremlin now having the power to determine the staffing of local governments that were supposed to enjoy some autonomy.  Considering that Putin stated in his January speech the intent of, “expanding the authority of local government,” this doesn’t bode well.

As for the State Council in particular, what exactly the body will do and how is still somewhat vague and it will remain to be seen how things unfold.   On December 21st, the State Council’s secretary, Igor Levitin, who is also an aide to Putin, said that the Council “in its new format” will better facilitate action among all governing bodies:

“The constitutional amendments introduce a new legal category: the public power… In order to ensure a coordinated operation of all bodies of power, to take their opinion into account during decision-making, special authority is needed. This authority exactly is laid out in the […] law on the State Council….Before the law was adopted, the State Council was a venue for establishment of productive work of the government and the regions…Now, the area of influence is extended. Now, we will build relations between all bodies of public power.”

Similarly, there has been concern raised about the amendment to Article 67 of the constitution that would allow for the designation of “federal territories” which could allow the central government to directly take over and govern large areas of the country with any number of justifications since the wording of the amendment is vague.  This power could conceivably be used to move Russia from a federal system to a unitary system of government. 

Senators for Life

On October 31st, Putin submitted another bill regarding the role of members of the Federation Council, in which the Russian president would have the ability to appoint senators for life and for ex-presidents to apply for such a senatorial seat. According to TASS:

The bill says that senators – representatives of the Russian Federation – are appointed for six years or for life by presidential decrees. The head of state can appoint no more than seven lifetime senators. The appointment of senators is a presidential prerogative, but not a duty, so the president can use it at any time….


The requirements for former presidents are envisaged in a separate clause. A Russian president, who has ended their tenure after a presidential term has expired or in advance, will acquire the status of a senator since the moment of sending an application, with all the required documents attached, to the Federation Council.

Additionally, senators must be over the age of 30, have no residency abroad or citizenship outside of Russia, and have an “impeccable reputation.”  An updated draft of the bill has removed a previous requirement that the outgoing president apply within three months to sit in the Federation Council.  They can now apply at any time.

RT reported additional details on the makeup of the Federation Council pursuant to Putin’s proposed bill:

According to the draft law, “On the procedure for forming the Federation Council,” the body will include two representatives from each of the country’s 85 regions (one [each] from the legislative and executive authorities), a former president of Russia after leaving his post, and no more than 30 representatives chosen by him or her, with up to seven appointed for life.

This obviously provides Putin with another option for political influence after leaving the presidency. 

Immunity for the Departing President

Also in his package of bills, Putin proposed the granting of immunity to all former presidents, including for any crimes allegedly committed before taking office. RT reported on the final bill signed on December 22nd:

“In practice, it means that Putin can’t be taken to court for criminal or administrative offences after leaving the Kremlin. The same rules will apply to Dmitry Medvedev, who held the position from 2008-2012, and all future office holders. The new set-up was included in constitutional amendments, approved by a public vote in June, that made significant changes to Russia’s system of governance.

The bill stretches the previous presidential immunity system back to before the person concerned took office. They will also be excused from arrest or searches as well as questioning by police or investigators. Previously, these protections only covered actions, carried out during the time in office or investigations of actions, connected to presidential duties.”

It might be reasonable to grant some protection to ex-presidents from politically-motivated legal vendettas, but this bill appears to extend the immunity to activities of the ex-president prior to holding presidential office, which seems excessive and hard to justify.  Moreover, the process for lifting immunity, which is allowed for treason or other very serious crimes, is complicated.  As Henderson comments, “It’s quite a tortuous process which must be completed within three months from the original accusation in the State Duma. Whether it would ever be successful is another question.”

Conclusion

Many of the points reflected in the constitutional amendments this year had already been laid out in federal legislation in some fashion in recent years.  The amendments formally codified them into the Russian constitution.  In doing so, the complex and contradictory nature of some of the modifications has been made more obvious for those who take the time to study them. 

What matters most, of course, is what Russians think of these changes. With a 68% turnout in the plebiscite this summer, 78% voted in favor of the amendments.  In 2019, popular opinion in Russia was the highest it had been since 2003 in support of amending the constitution.  Putin was likely aware of the public’s receptivity to such a move.

It must be acknowledged, however, that there are troubling incongruities in how Putin characterized these changes in his January speech and what they actually look like.  This should give one pause, not due to whether such changes will get the approval of critics in the west or not (this shouldn’t be a primary concern to Russians), but whether these changes will actually hold back the progress Putin seemed to be articulating in his January speech, which implied a recognition that Russian society had reached a sufficient level of stability and maturity to begin taking the next steps toward a less rigid and more participatory system.

*Federal Constitutional Laws are a special type of federal law to cover areas specifically mentioned in the Constitution with more detail; they must be passed by a majority of the parliament and signed by the president.

Andrew Bacevich: America’s Defining Problem In 2021 Isn’t China: It’s America

By Andrew Bacevich, The American Conservative, 1/4/21 Excerpt:

…Post-Cold War expectations of a unipolar international order cultivated by the U.S. policy elite have assumed that the universal embrace of democratic liberalism is an inevitability. This is what being “on the right side of history”—a hallucinatory incantation that pervades contemporary American political speech—signifies.

To the extent that China demonstrates the feasibility of creating a stable, prosperous, and flourishing society while flouting liberal democratic precepts, then claims that history has a single right side become untenable. “If universal democratization is not the ultimate endpoint of history,” Hanania pointedly asks, “how can the American role in the world be justified?”

The answer is that it can’t.

The real danger for American elites, then, “is not that the U.S. may become less able to accomplish geopolitical objectives,” although failures on that score, especially since 9/11, are legion. Instead, the danger is that the American people—the ones whose sons and daughters wage war pursuant to geopolitical flights of fancy concocted in Washington—might themselves “begin to question the logic of U.S. global hegemony.”

For elites, then, the ultimate danger is that ordinary citizens might cease to defer. Should the American people embrace an alternative conception of history’s purpose, one not keyed to the pursuit of militarized global primacy, then the authority of national security elites will crumble. With that, hitherto hidden possibilities just might present themselves…

Read full article here.

Kevin Gosztola: British Judge Keeps Julian Assange In Prison, Despite Denying Extradition Two Days Ago

By Kevin Gosztola, 1/6/20

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaks from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy where he sought asylum following an extradition request from Sweden in 2012, on February 5, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

A British district judge denied bail for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange after a hearing in which the prosecution argued he had helped NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden “flee justice” and would abscond if released from the Belmarsh high-security prison.

“As far as Mr. Assange is concerned, this case has not been won,” Baraitser declared. She said the United States government “must be allowed to challenge [her] decision.”

Baraitser referred to the lengthy history of the case and how he “jumped bail” and entered the Ecuador Embassy to obtain asylum in 2012.

She went on to highlight the “huge support networks” he still has “should he again choose to go to ground,” and Baraitser agreed with the prosecution that WikiLeaks’ assistance of Snowden made Assange a flight risk.

Assange has been confined at Belmarsh since he was arrested and expelled from the Ecuador embassy in April 2019. All along, Judge Vanessa Baraitser agreed with prosecutors that he was a flight risk.

“Mr. Assange’s past conduct shows the lengths he is prepared to go to avoid extradition proceedings. If I released him today, he would not return to face these extradition proceedings,” Baraitser declared during a hearing in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was initially intensifying worldwide.

In her ruling on bail, despite evidence of a recent outbreak at Belmarsh, the judge maintained that the facility was properly caring for prisoners and Assange would be safe.

Real full article here.

1978: Muhammed Ali Talks About His Trip to the Soviet Union

Muhammed Ali in Russia, 1978

Description: Soviet Autobiographies with William Mandel on KPFA radio: recounts Muhammed Ali interview about his experience in Russia in 1978. Mandel reads from an interview with Ali about his trip to Russia in which he discusses his impressions of everyday Russians and other Soviets, their freedom to worship, his meeting with Brezhnev, prejudice, comparisons to the U.S. and more. Approximately first 15 minutes of the audio show. Shout out to Our Hidden History on Twitter for bringing this to my attention.

https://t.co/l2rUWzIHHz?amp=1

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: How Biden Can Achieve a First in Arms Control: A Verifiable Nuclear Warhead Freeze

By James E. Doyle, 12/15/20, The Bulletin

In October, the Wall Street Journal reported that the United States and Russia were nearing an arms control agreement that would freeze the number of nuclear warheads on each side and extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for a year.

Although the report proved to be incorrect in its conclusion that Russia and the United States were about to reach their first nuclear arms control agreement in more than a decade, the simple fact that the United States and Russia were formally negotiating an extension to New START was grounds for optimism. What was most remarkable was that the sides were discussing a verifiable freeze on the total number of nuclear warheads in their arsenals. This has never been done before. In fact, neither side has ever told the other how many nuclear warheads it possesses.

Nuclear arms control agreements up to now have only directly limited the nuclear warhead delivery vehicles (land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles, and aircraft) and not the warheads themselves. New START, for example, limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads deployed by each side to 1,550 and the number of deployed delivery vehicles to 700. It entered into force in February 2011 and will expire in February 2021 unless both sides agree to extend its duration by up to five years. New START does not, however, cover thousands of non-deployed or non-strategic nuclear warheads on both sides. That is, a warhead is considered a warhead under the treaty only if it is deployed—even though each side has thousands that are not deployed.

October was a long time ago. Since then, negotiations led by the Trump administration have collapsed, and Joe Biden has become the president-elect. All indicators suggest he intends to extend New START without any new conditions.

But that does not rule out the possibility of an agreement to freeze or reduce warheads in follow-on talks. If such an agreement were reached—one that allowed both sides to know their total nuclear warhead inventories, and to verify a cap or reduction to those inventories—it would be a political, technical, and diplomatic achievement unprecedented in the history of nuclear arms control.

The incoming Biden administration is likely to pursue a world with fewer nuclear weapons and perhaps sketch the first steps on a road to zero. Verifying warhead inventories and their eventual dismantlement is essential to this objective. Overcoming the political and technical challenges of warhead arms control is a daunting task that will require expanded and sustained effort.

Fortunately, scientists and strategic planners in several nations possessing nuclear weapons have been investigating the practical requirements of nuclear warhead arms control for more than 25 years, and much progress has been made. Several candidate technologies and procedural approaches for verifying the storage and dismantlement of nuclear warheads exist. However, these potential solutions need further technical development to be successfully used in the context of a future international treaty. To make nuclear warhead arms control a reality, President-elect Biden’s national security team will need to launch a strategic verification initiative and coordinate the cooperation of the US interagency community and key international partners.

The challenges of warhead arms control. It remains profoundly in the security interests of the United States, Russia, and the rest of the world to aggressively develop a safe and reliable means to verify a potential nuclear weapons freeze and additional reductions to global nuclear arsenals. First, because of their immense destructiveness, the effects of nuclear weapons cannot be limited to the nations that use them in a potential conflict. The use of even a handful of nuclear weapons would cause worldwide human suffering. The risk of nuclear war remains unacceptably high and has been joined by a nexus of global threats, such as pandemics, climate change, and terrorism, against which nuclear weapons provide no defense.

Second, the United States and Russia, as members of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, are obligated along with all nations possessing nuclear weapons (except India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea, who are not party to the treaty) to work toward the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

Third, 50 nations have already declared their willingness to make the possession of nuclear weapons illegal under international law. They did so by ratifying the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty will enter into force in January 2021. None of the states possessing nuclear weapons has joined the treaty. However, as more countries join on and become bound by its terms, the more powerful their argument will be that their millions of citizens are being unjustifiably endangered by the tiny minority of states that claim the right to possess and use nuclear weapons.

Thankfully, the number of nuclear warheads in the world has declined significantly since the Cold War, down from a peak of approximately 70,300 in 1986 to an estimated 13,410 in early 2020. Nearly all of these reductions in nuclear warheads have been unverified—they were declared to have taken place by the countries that built them, but never confirmed by any international authority.

There is reasonable confidence that the Russian reductions have indeed taken place because US officials have been able, by means of national intelligence, arms control inspections, and other cooperative agreements, to verify the dismantlement of thousands of missiles, submarines, and bomber aircraft that once carried the larger arsenals of warheads. The outside world has also been able to observe with satellite and other imagery the movement of highly secure convoys of trains and trucks taking surplus nuclear warheads to national storage sites and dismantlement factories. Additionally, Russia sold the United States hundreds of tons of highly enriched uranium that came from retired and dismantled nuclear warheads. Finally, these same intelligence capabilities enable US officials to see that Russia has not added to its stockpile of fissile materials for the construction of new warheads.

But there is still a good deal of uncertainty regarding Russia’s total inventory of nuclear warheads and whether it plans to manufacture more. Nor are US officials sure how many nuclear warheads are possessed by China, India, France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Israel, or North Korea—and these countries, in turn, cannot independently verify the United States’ declarations of its warhead inventories.

Continue reading here.

Will Climate Change Provide an “Opportunity” for Russia?

Park in Moscow, Russia; photo by Natylie Baldwin, October 2015

Building upon some themes from my last post, I wanted to talk about some concerns that were triggered by another article pertaining to Russia, this time about whether there will be “opportunities” for Russia in connection with climate change.

The article in question takes one supposed benefit of climate change – warmer temperatures in some parts of Russia – and divorces it from the other effects that will likely come from climate change. Of course, this is not how ecology works as the natural world is an interconnected system. Sudden and extreme climate change will, among other things, also bring about new disease outbreaks in humans, animals, trees, and crops. How much will these new disease outbreaks cost Russia? There is no mention of this by the author. Furthermore, the Russian government has recently acknowledged that the effects of climate change are occurring in Russia at a rate that is 2.5 times the global average due to its geographical location. It also admitted that it will take enormous amounts of money to mitigate the likely infrastructure damage that will result in the coming years.

I understand that a lot of us are happy to see any western media articles that provide even a remotely positive characterization of Russia. Unfortunately, this particular article seems to be more in the tradition of trying to put a smiley face on climate change so that people will be lulled into thinking we don’t really have to do much about it, that we won’t have to significantly change our economic system or lifestyle in any meaningful way because scrappy farmers and capitalists will use technology to solve the problem. Corporate interests want people to think like this so we can keep the party that benefits them going as long as possible. As I reiterated in my last post, U.S. corporations are legally organized to maximize profit with no concern for the costs to humanity or the environment. As many articles over the past couple of years show, many climate scientists have stated that the rate and intensity of the problem is worse than they’d thought. This is simply not sustainable. As Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

This reminds me of the concept of progress traps – how new technologies that are supposed to facilitate progress often create several new problems that then have to be addressed, often with more technology, creating a vicious cycle. This was discussed by historian/anthropologist Ronald Wright, in his book A Short History of Progress. In that book, “Wright illustrates how various cultures throughout history have literally manufactured their own end by producing an overabundance of innovation and stripping bare the very elements that allowed them to initially advance.”

Wright discusses the basic principles of his book in the interview below:

This is all to say that I’m deeply skeptical of the idea that the profound challenges of climate change are going to provide real “opportunities” for any country. It is much more likely that it will be a matter of which countries can do better damage control.

Putin Says He Hopes AI Could Not Run a Country, But Russia & Other Nations Still Pursuing AI Use in War

In early December, Russian president Vladimir Putin participated in a video conference about the future role of artificial intelligence (AI). During that conference, when prompted with a question about whether AI could run the country someday, Putin said he hoped not and explained the shortcomings of AI. As reported by the private Russian news agency, Interfax, here was his response:

AI has neither a heart, nor soul, nor compassion or conscience, Putin said.

“All these components are extremely important in people who are vested by their citizens with special powers to make and implement decisions to the benefit of the country,” he said.

At times, presidents do have to make decisions which may not seem quite rational at first glance, Putin said. “They have to be based on history, culture, current practices, the aspirations and expectation of the country’s citizens. These social sector decisions sometimes seem irrational in the area of pension security, health care, and other spheres of human activity,” he said.

“For a human president, they seem and are justified, because he makes decisions in the interests of living human beings, not machines,” he said.

AI could be a good helper and teacher for anyone, including the head of state, Putin said.

“The role and significance of AI in public administration will doubtlessly grow. I’m very hopeful, Afina, that your colleagues will make relevant decisions with the realization of their responsibility, should they work with heads of state,” he said.

Putin made some very good points about the limitations and even dangers of AI, which I don’t think are being considered nearly enough. I have heard it stated very succinctly that AI would make the perfect psychopath – having an intellect of sorts but none of the components that most human minds have that serve as potential brakes on destructive behavior.

I had a Lyft driver engage me in a conversation about AI several weeks back. He seemed to be – as many others are – enamored of the potential of AI to perform all sorts of neat tricks in our post-modern world. But he didn’t discuss any of the possible problems. I finally asked him how it would be possible to program empathy or holistic human experience into a machine. He admitted he didn’t know. I also asked him if he thought that human morality was keeping up with the pace of its technological advance. He confessed that he thought it wasn’t.

While it’s never fun to play the role of Debbie Downer, I was glad that I may have chastened his enthusiasm for AI long enough to think the implications through more thoroughly. It’s something that modern humans seem to have a real blind spot about. We’re very good at thinking to our short-term advantage and getting taken in by the bright and shiny and easy gratification, but not so much about the long-term, larger context, unintended consequences, etc. We also have institutions that encourage this kind of poor thinking, such as corporations that are legally structured to maximize profits with little-to-no concern for the long-term human and environmental consequences.

Unfortunately, Putin’s expressed understanding of the problems of AI hasn’t stopped Russia from pursuing AI in the context of war aka killer robots.

Granted, the nature of international military competition and the constant advancing of policies by the U.S. and NATO that unnecessarily increase tensions on Russia’s borders, surely contributes to this policy decision. The U.S. is certainly not shying away from the potential use of killer robots either.

However, the potential dangers of the use of autonomous AI machines by any country in this context should concern us all. Peace and human rights activists sounded the alarm about this in 2014 with an open letter signed by dozens of activists, including numerous Nobel Peace Prize winners, on the eve of a United Nations conference in Geneva, Switzerland that year to discuss the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), otherwise known as the Inhumane Weapons Convention, stating that the use of such technology in war was “unconscionable.”

In 2017, a high-ranking U.S. military general testified before the U.S. Senate that such weapons should be limited in warfare. Common Dreams reported at the time:

Gen. Paul Selva spoke about automation at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying that the “ethical rules of war” should be kept in place even as artificial intelligence (AI) and drone technology advances, “lest we unleash on humanity a set of robots that we don’t know how to control.”

The Defense Department currently mandates that a human must control all actions taken by a drone. But at the hearing, Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) suggested that by enforcing that requirement, which is set to expire this year, the U.S. could fall behind other countries including Russia.

Of course, General Selva ran with the Russia-as-bogeyman framing and suggested that other countries didn’t necessarily have the same moral compass that the U.S. did in such matters. While the U.S.’s track record in foreign and military matters for decades makes this notion tragically laughable. it is refreshing to hear a military man say that there should be limits on the use of this technology: “‘I don’t think it’s reasonable for us to put robots in charge of whether or not we take a human life,” Selva told the committee.”

Around the same time, Elon Musk also publicly sounded the alarm about this technology before a meeting of U.S. state governors:

Days before Gen. Selva’s hearing, Musk spoke at the National Governors Association about the potential for an uncontrollable contingent of robots in the future.

The inventor acknowledged the risks AI poses for American workers, but added that the concerns go beyond employment. “AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization, and I don’t think people fully appreciate that,” Musk said.

He urged governors throughout the U.S. to start thinking seriously now about how to regulate robotics—before AI becomes an issue that’s out of humans’ control.

The very concept of AI arose out of the reductive idea of thinking about the human mind as an information processing unit or a computer. The problems with this framing of the human mind were discussed by Professor Theodore Roszak in a 1986 book called The Cult of Information. Roszak was a professor of psychology at Cal State Hayward (now called Cal State East Bay).

I graduated from Cal State Hayward and my father before me studied psychology there and took a class with Roszak in the 1970’s, which is how I came to be introduced to his work – which also included the development of the field of eco-psychology. Roszak was a brilliant but underrated thinker and in the video below he discusses the problems with using the model of a computer or information processing unit to understand the human mind. He makes some interesting and prescient comments about AI as well as this technology potentially having control of our nuclear arsenal.

Putin’s End of Year Press Conference

© Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS

Putin held his annual end of the year press conference by video on Thursday. Putin took questions on a number of issues, from the Covid pandemic to how US-Russia relations might fare with the incoming Biden administration. You can read the transcript at the Kremlin website or you can read the highlights from TASS here.

The Middle East Eye: US Sanctions Have Caused Iranians Untold Misery – And Achieved Nothing

man passing case of bottles
Photo by mostafa meraji on Pexels.com

By Negar Mortazavi and Sina Toossi, Middle East Eye, 12/7/20

“My young cousin passed away last week,” an Iranian Twitter user recently lamented. “She needed medication for her cancer that doctors said can’t be found.”

The tweet tragically went on: “Maybe she’d be alongside her little daughter now if she had this medicine and not under a pile of cold dirt.”

These heartbreaking words are from journalist Katayoon Lamezadeh, one of thousands of Iranians who have taken to social media to speak of how sanctions have upended their lives. Their stories reflect the devastating human costs of US economic sanctions that are often ignored by Washington’s foreign policy elite and largely unknown to the American public.

The assassination of Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is the latest in a long-running pressure campaign against Iran by the US and its allies such as Israel. However, in the case of sanctions, it is ordinary Iranians who are paying the biggest price. 

The onslaught of sanctions and covert actions on Iran during the Trump era has not elicited concessions from the Iranian government, but it has caused immense pain inside Iran. Today, Iran’s population is being crushed by the twofold blows of US sanctions and the Covid-19 crisis, all while under the yoke of an increasingly repressive government.

Read the full article here.

Stephen Wertheim, Author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy, Talks to Mehdi Hasan About Biden’s Foreign Policy Challenges

I’m not as optimistic as Wertheim is but this was an interesting conversation from a mainstream news program, considering that Wertheim is with the Quincy Institute – a think tank that advocates for a more restrained foreign policy.

I’ve heard good things about Wertheim’s book, Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy. It has been added to my ever-expanding to-read list. I’m not sure when I will get to it but, in the meantime, here are some excerpts from a review of the book by Daniel Larison at The American Conservative:

The U.S. embarked on a program of global supremacy eighty years ago, and American political leaders and policymakers chose this path much earlier than is commonly believed. To that end, they invented a myth of an “isolationist” America during the 1920s and 1930s, and that myth has been used ever since as the justification for dominance. In the earliest days of WWII before the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. policy planners were already imagining a world order with the U.S. at its apex, and they made sure to redefine internationalism so that it applied only to supporters of this new strategy.

Wertheim’s account of this period is compelling and insightful. It is a short volume, but it is very rich in detail. Policy planners were already discussing a U.S. role in terms of supremacy and domination in late 1940. Even before the U.S. was formally at war with the Axis, U.S. planners were drawing up proposals for what one analyst simply described as “world domination by the United States and the British Empire acting in close and continuous collaboration.” The blueprint for America’s postwar role was already being drafted before the U.S. entered the war. The objective, as Wertheim says, was “to maintain armed primacy,” and this was already the goal in 1941 before Japan attacked. This is very different from the standard interpretations of the period, as he makes clear: “Rather than react defensively and belatedly to an objective threat, as most narratives of this period presuppose, U.S. elites did almost the opposite. They expanded their definition of national security, deeming the United States to possess an overriding interest in avoiding ‘isolation’ within the Western Hemisphere.”

Global supremacy was not the logical or inevitable culmination of American history. It was the result of a series of contingent decisions that U.S. policymakers made during the 1940s that laid the foundations for U.S. foreign policy thereafter, and it required the complete reimagining of America’s place in the world.

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

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