Biden Administration Enacts Sanctions on Russia’s Sovereign Debt, Expels 10 Diplomats, Kremlin Does Not Believe Summit Offer Was Genuine; Ukrainian Leaders Continue Bellicose Rhetoric

American Embassy in Moscow; photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, 2015

In retaliation for alleged interference in the 2020 election and the SolarWinds hack – for which no evidence was provided to the public to substantiate the blame being placed on Russia – the Biden administration announced yesterday that new sanctions would be enacted against Russia, along with the expulsion of 10 diplomats. According to the White House release announcing the sanctions:

Treasury issued a directive that prohibits U.S. financial institutions from participation in the primary market for ruble or non-ruble denominated bonds issued after June 14, 2021 by the Central Bank of the Russian Federation, the National Wealth Fund of the Russian Federation, or the Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation; and lending ruble or non-ruble denominated funds to the Central Bank of the Russian Federation, the National Wealth Fund of the Russian Federation, or the Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation. This directive provides authority for the U.S. government to expand sovereign debt sanctions on Russia as appropriate.

A report by Axios provided more details:

-The package of sanctions will bar U.S. banks from buying Russian government bonds directly from the the country’s central bank, sovereign wealth fund and ministry of finance beginning June 14, complicating Russia’s ability to raise money in international capital markets.
-Six Russian technology companies will be sanctioned for providing support for Russian intelligence’s cyber activities, while 32 entities and individuals will be designated for their role in the Kremlin’s election interference campaign.
-Ten intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover in the U.S. will be expelled.
-In partnership with the European Union, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada, the U.S. will also sanction eight individuals and entities for their role in Russia’s ongoing occupation of Crimea.

It appears that U.S. banks and other investors can still buy Russian bonds in the secondary market.

The administration emphasized that these sanctions were not connected to charges of Russians paying bounties to the Taliban for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan – a report that was never substantiated and was even undermined by further reporting. The administration said the Bountygate claims would be dealt with through diplomatic and military channels.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova made the following comments in response to the latest move by Washington, as reported by Sputnik News:

“Such a course, as has been repeatedly stressed, does not serve the interests of the people of the world’s two leading nuclear powers, which bear historical responsibility for the fate of the world,” the spokeswoman said.

“In his telephone conversation with the Russian president, Joe Biden expressed interest in the normalization of Russia-US relations. But the actions of his administration [today] testify otherwise,” Zakharova added.

US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan has been summoned for what are expected to be “difficult” talks, Zakharova said.

She also indicated that US actions Thursday have cast doubt on the practicability of the use of the dollar and the reliability of Western-controlled payment systems.

Some have observed that these punitive measures coming days after the offer of a summit from Biden makes it look like the offer was not sincere and the Biden administration actually hoped it would not be accepted.

Others have raised doubts that members of the administration would allow Putin to observe in person how compromised Biden is in terms of his cognitive ability.

Meanwhile, representatives of the Ukrainian government continue to talk tough. The Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, stated on Thursday that in order to maintain its national security Ukraine would have to either obtain NATO membership in the near future or it would consider acquiring nuclear weapons:

“Ukraine has no other choice: either we are part of an alliance such as NATO and are doing our part to make this Europe stronger, or we have the only option – to arm by ourselves, and maybe think about nuclear status again. How else can we guarantee our defense?” Melnyk added.

The day before that, Leonid Kravchuk – the first president of post-Soviet Ukraine and the representative of the country for the Trilateral Contact Group consisting of Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE – stated, in the context of citing support from the west in any conflict with an aggressive Russia:

“A citizen, a patriot, and a warrior are all part of one. And today I see how people’s awareness is rising in many regions, where people are starting to say that we need to be ready for anything. By saying so, I want to convey to Russia so that they realize, so that the Kremlin realizes, that it will be no parade. If they dare, if they turn insane and go to war against Ukraine, this will mark the start of a large-scale conflict that could escalate into World War 3. It will be no easy movement, as they experienced in Crimea.”

Shout out to Rick Rozoff of Stop NATO who has been monitoring the tensions between Russia and Ukraine. It was through his informative blog that I found out about the above two statements from the Ukrainian ambassador and Kravchuk, respectively.

U.S. Cancels Deployment of Warships to the Black Sea, 4/14/21

The US has canceled a planned deployment of two US Navy destroyers to the Black Sea, Turkish officials and media reports said on Wednesday.

The US frequently sends warships into the Black Sea, but the planned deployment that Turkey announced last week would have come against the backdrop of heightened tensions in the region between Russia and Ukraine. On Tuesday, Russia warned against the deployment.

According to AFP, Turkish diplomatic sources said a US warship was expected to pass through the Bosphorous Strait, which connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, on Wednesday, but the passage did not occur.

Read full article here.

De-Escalation Between Russia and Ukraine/NATO?

There have been a lot of developments in the past couple of days with respect to the high tensions between Ukraine – with its NATO cheerleaders on one side and Russia on the other. Let’s recap what has happened since February.

First, in February, according to respected analyst Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center: “Zelenskiy ordered troops (as part of the rotation process) and heavy weapons (as a show of force) to go near to the conflict zone in Donbas. He did not venture out as far as Poroshenko, who dispatched small Ukrainian naval vessels through the Russian-controlled waters near the Kerch Strait in late 2018, but it was enough to get him noticed in Moscow.”

At the beginning of March, the Zelensky government banned three opposition media outlets with the justification that they were pro-Russian and therefore essentially a source of enemy disinformation. Then on March 24th, Zelensky signed a decree approving a strategy to reintegrate Crimea and the Russian naval base at Sevastopol into Ukraine. Reporting by Telesur at the time stated:

On March 24, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed the Decree 117/2021 approving the “strategy of disoccupation and reintegration of the temporarily occupied territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the Sevastopol city.”

In practical terms, Ukraine’s decision could trigger actions leading to an armed conflict with Russia in which the United States or other Western countries could become involved.

What’s more, on April 1st, the commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces admitted that Ukraine had sent troops to the areas in question:

During an extraordinary session in the Parliament held on April 1, the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Army Ruslan Khomchak said that his troops are present in the “temporarily occupied areas… containing 28 enemy tactical groups.”

“Our armed forces are prepared to give an adequate response both to an escalation of the conflict and to an aggravation of the political-military and strategic-military situation on the border of Ukraine,” he stressed.

As summarized in my post from last week, ceasefire violations in the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine have greatly increased in recent weeks and Russia has amassed troops and military equipment in Crimea and near the border of eastern Ukraine in response to Ukraine’s moves. Moreover, U.S. diplomatic and military leaders were decrying Russian “aggression” and offering “unwavering support” for Ukraine.

(Keep in mind that these tensions are occurring amidst the backdrop of NATO’s Defender Europe 2021 exercises – or war games, depending on your point of view – in the region, including the Balkans and the Black Sea areas).

Late last week, it was reported that the U.S. would be sending two warships, the USS Donald Cook and USS Roosevelt, to the Black Sea. They are set to arrive today and tomorrow. Additionally, the U.S. Navy planned on flying recon flights over the area near Crimea. In response, Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergei Ryabkov, publicly stated that NATO forces should stay away from Crimea. According to reporting yesterday by the UK’s Daily Mail:

Russia warned the US to keep its warships away from Crimea ‘for their own good’ as it accused Washington and NATO of turning the region into a ‘powder keg’ amid soaring tensions on the Ukraine border. 

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called Washington’s decision to deploy two ships to the Black Sea ‘a provocation’ designed ‘to test our nerves’ as he branded the US ‘an adversary’ of Russia, ramping up a war of words between the two nuclear-armed superpowers. 

Furthermore, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made a surprise visit to Russian troops near the Ukrainian border and stated that the Russian military would be ready to act in response to any escalation. RT reported:

Two detachments of the Russian Army, along with three airborne units, are ready to act in the event tensions with the West escalate into full-blown fighting, Moscow announced on Tuesday following a surprise inspection of troops.

After paying a visit to the soldiers, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu told journalists that the personnel met the standards required for the situation. “The troops have shown full readiness and ability to fulfill the tasks of ensuring the country’s military security,” he said. “Currently, these associations and formations are engaged in drills and exercises.”

Shoigu said that the redeployments had taken place “in response to the military activity of the alliance that threatens Russia.” The move comes amid escalating tension with the US-led NATO bloc and after bloody fighting in eastern Ukraine between Kiev’s forces and two breakaway republics.

Biden initiated a phone call with Putin yesterday to discuss the situation and offered to have a summit where the two leaders could meet in a third country. There is no confirmation yet as to whether Putin has agreed to the summit, but he reportedly reiterated the Minsk agreements as the basis for settlement of the conflict.

According to Trenin’s analysis from yesterday of the tensions, Russia’s actions include a desire to let Washington and Ukraine know that if they want to play with fire, there is a high chance of getting burned:

The Russian military massed troops along the entire Russo-Ukrainian border, from the north to the east to the south. It did so visibly and made sure that Western observers could analyse the manoeuvres and conclude that they might not necessarily be a drill. Some reports, for example, spoke of field hospitals being brought to the border. In making its move, Moscow was pursuing several objectives:

To intimidate and deter Ukraine’s leaders, whom the Kremlin regards as inexperienced and irresponsible (in Kozak’s disparaging words, “children with matches”);

To send a message to the United States urging Washington to take better care of its wards, lest they get America itself into trouble (there were repeated references to the Mikheil Saakashvili syndrome, referring to the then Georgian leader launching an attack in 2008 against the Russian-protected breakaway region of South Ossetia in the belief that he would be supported by a US military intervention, which never came);  

To convince the Germans and the French that supporting everything that Ukraine says or does carries a cost for Europe;

To reassure the people of Donbas that Russia will not abandon them to the Ukrainian army should it attack the two enclaves. 

During the crisis, Kozak, who is also the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, essentially repeated President Vladimir Putin’s earlier stern warning that a Ukrainian offensive in Donbas would spell the end of Ukrainian statehood.

Having made their points by means of actions on the ground, the Russians were then available to discuss the situation, both with German and French political leaders and the top US military commander. In those conversations, they dismissed out of hand all European criticisms about the troop movements on their own territory and only engaged in a detailed professional discussion with the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, simply to help him avoid a dangerous miscalculation. 

Unfortunately, this situation and the dangerous implications have not been getting the attention they deserve in US media. One exception was Tulsi Gabbard appearing on Tucker Carlson Tuesday night.

Ted Galen Carpenter: How the National Security State Manipulates the News Media

Central Intelligence Agency Seal

By Ted Galen Carpenter,, 3/9/21

An especially dangerous threat to liberty occurs when members of the press collude with government agencies instead of monitoring and exposing the abuses of those agencies. Unfortunately, collusion is an all-too-common pattern in press coverage of the national security state’s activities. The American people then receive official propaganda disguised as honest reporting and analysis.

The degree of collaboration frequently has reached stunning levels. During the early decades of the Cold War, some journalists even became outright CIA assets. Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein’s January 1977, 25,000-word article in Rolling Stone was an extraordinarily detailed account of cooperation between the CIA and members of the press, and it provided key insights into that relationship. In some cases, the “journalists” were actually full-time CIA employees masquerading as members of the Fourth Estate, but Bernstein also confirmed that some 400 bona fide American journalists had secretly carried out assignments for the ClA during the previous 25 years. He noted that “journalists provided a full range of clandestine services – from simple intelligence gathering to serving as go-betweens with spies in Communist countries. Reporters shared their notebooks with the CIA. Editors shared their staffs.”

A December 26, 1977, investigative report in the New York Times described the scope of the CIA’s global campaign to influence opinion through media manipulation. “In its persistent efforts to shape world opinion, the C.I.A. has been able to call upon” an extensive network “of newspapers, news services, magazines, publishing houses, broadcasting stations and other entities over which it has at various limes had some control. A decade ago, when the agency’s communications empire was at its peak, [it] embraced more than 500 news and public information organizations and individuals. According to one CIA official, they ranged in importance ‘from Radio Free Europe to a third‐string guy in Quito who could get something in the local paper.’” The CIA funded those foreign “journalistic assets” generously…

…Reforms enacted in the late 1970s after investigative hearings by the Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Sen. Frank Church (D-ID), supposedly brought an end to such CIA penetration of the press. However, evidence of recent media-intelligence agency collaboration suggests that while the manipulation may have become more subtle, it has not gone away. A startling September 2014 exclusive report in the Intercept confirmed that the problem of excessively close ties between the CIA and certain prominent journalists is not a merely a historical artifact….

Read full article here.

Dmitri Trenin: No Emotions or Illusions: The Future of U.S.-Russian Relations

American Embassy in Moscow; photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, 2015

By Dmitry Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 3/30/21

Following U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent comment indicating that he considers his Russian counterpart a killer, Russia recalled its ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, back to Moscow for consultations: an unprecedented step in the history of Russian-American relations. But even before this, bilateral relations were in need of a reassessment, one free of the emotions and illusions stirred up by the presidential clash.

Emotions compel Russia to escalate the confrontation with the United States, or even turn the fight against U.S. global domination into the central idea of Russia’s foreign—and to some extent domestic—policy. This positioning harks back to Cold War–era Soviet policy, but it’s not practicable with Moscow’s current shortage of resources.

Furthermore, overextension in foreign policy was one of the factors that led the Soviet Union into crisis in the 1980s. Letting off emotional steam through rhetoric—which is what we are seeing for now—is less dangerous, of course, but also entirely unproductive.

There is an illusion that Russia can still prove something to the United States, bring Washington to its senses, and force the United States to respect Russian national interests on the basis of a global Russian-American understanding: some sort of a grand bargain. These illusions have faded over the past four years, but the Russian elites still haven’t completely let them go.

We need to recognize that three decades after the collapse of the USSR, the mindset of Soviet-American détente and “equal, mutually beneficial cooperation” is hopelessly outdated. Furthermore, Russia’s foreign policy suffers from its fixation on relations with the United States.

Setting aside emotions and illusions, there are at least ten realistic objectives for Russia’s foreign policy.

First, continue to ensure that any incidents involving Russian and U.S. or NATO troops, aircraft, or ships are avoided or quickly resolved. This is why lines of communication exist, and these lines appear to be in good order. The main goal in U.S.-Russian relations for the foreseeable future is to prevent an unintentional armed conflict.

Second, reinforce the combined nuclear and non-nuclear deterrence of the United States as the cornerstone of Moscow’s independent position with respect to Washington. Deterrence—not arms control agreements—is the foundation for strategic stability and the guarantee of Russia’s very existence. While a costly quantitative arms race should be avoided, in the current conditions, deterrence is not limited to nuclear weapons, but increasingly involves outer space and cyberspace.

Third, begin talks on strategic stability, bearing in mind that the subject of these talks is extremely complicated, and that Washington will try to negotiate from a position of strength. This means that Russia and the United States are unlikely to reach an agreement during the five years that the recently extended New START agreement will remain in effect. Russia must therefore be ready to uphold strategic stability without an international agreement framework.

Continue reading here.

The Situation in the Donbass

DPR Troops at Victory Day Rehearsal in Donetsk, 2015; Wikipedia

There have been recent reports of intensified fighting near the line of contact in the Donbass area of eastern Ukraine between Kiev forces and Donbass rebels who are supported by Russia. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission reported a rise in ceasefire violations at the end of last week from 89 to nearly 500. There are accusations back and forth of new attacks by Kiev forces on Donbass and a military buildup in Russia near the border with eastern Ukraine. According to reporting from RT yesterday:

Speaking to journalists on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that a series of military clashes in the Donbass region was a cause for concern. “Unfortunately for us,” he said, “the reality on the line of contact is quite frightening, and not just one, but many, provocations by the Ukrainian Armed Forces are taking place.”

Kiev insists that Russia is building up troops near the shared border and blames separatists, who have previously received support from Moscow, for breaking a ceasefire. “Russia’s current escalation is systemic, [the] largest in recent years,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dimitry Kuleba said in a statement issued earlier this week. Kiev officials last week said that four of its soldiers had been killed by shelling during clashes with rebels in the east of the country.

Andrey Rudenko, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, denied that Moscow had anything to gain from an increase in tensions. “I am sure that all the talk about some upcoming conflict between Ukraine and Russia is an example of another fake spread primarily by the Ukrainian authorities,” he said. “Russia is not interested in any conflict with Ukraine, let alone a military one.”

Some western outlets are reporting on admittedly unverified footage that purports to show Russian forces moving tanks and other military equipment into the Donbass and Crimea. The Pentagon’s press secretary, meanwhile, has repeated claims from Kiev that 4 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the Donbass, blaming it on Russian operations.

According to Russian news agency TASS, the Donetsk People’s Republic has claimed that the four Ukrainian soldiers died as a result of a mine explosion during an inspection. Russian media also states that “The Ukrainian command also transported military equipment and personnel in an eastern direction in February-March 2021 by railroad.”

Yesterday, President Biden spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart by phone for the first time and, according to reporting by the WSJ, was partly to add to calls from other important figures in Washington seeking to bolster Ukraine amidst what is being characterized as Russian aggression:

With Russia’s military mobilizing along Ukraine’s borders, Mr. Biden’s call is the latest of a flurry of efforts to reassure Kyiv. Earlier this week, there were calls between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and their Ukrainian counterparts.

On Monday, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan held a phone conversation with Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak.

One of those previous calls, by Defense Secretary Austin, included promises of “reaffirmed unwavering US support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.”

It is worth remembering that part of the backdrop of these increased tensions is Ukraine’s plans to build two military bases in the Black Sea area with financial backing from the UK, a NATO member. In fact, the project was officially announced at NATO headquarters in Brussels in February. According to an article from Stars & Stripes:

The Navy destroyers USS Porter and USS Donald Cook have been operating with allies and with Ukraine’s navy in the Black Sea since January. On Tuesday, both warships, along with a P-8A reconnaissance plane, joined with two Turkish frigates and F-16 fighters in an integrated surface, air and subsurface warfare drill. On Wednesday, the destroyers departed after 17 days, one of the Navy’s largest deployments in the Black Sea in recent years.

This is in addition to NATO member Turkey’s assistance to Ukraine against the Donbass.

As for whether Kiev will move ahead with an all out offensive to regain control over the Donbass – something that Russia would not allow to happen and would thus trigger a military reaction – plenty of people are speculating that Kiev would do so under the belief that Washington would step in and defend Kiev militarily. This is reminiscent of then Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili’s belief in 2008 that Washington would have his back when he decided to attack Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia in order to take back the breakaway region. Consequently, he was left in the lurch and got his rear end handed to him by the Russian military. The political class in Washington has no problem setting others up to achieve its own ends regardless of the cost to the lackey who is foolish enough to play this role. There are numerous reasons why the blobby swamp creatures might want to create a provocation in the hopes of getting Russia labeled yet again as the aggressor: to keep it isolated with more sanctions, one last desperate attempt to kill Nordstream 2, undermine a tendency in Berlin and Paris to work toward some kind of reconciliation with Moscow, etc.

I can’t emphasize enough how utterly stupid and insane this would be. But both DC and Kiev have shown that they can do stupid and insane quite well, so it can’t entirely be ruled out.

Analyst Anatoly Karlin wrote recently that he thinks there is an increased chance of an all-out military conflict in Donbass due to military equipment being moved in through the port of Odessa in Ukraine recently from the U.S.:

The other reason is that quite a few people I know who are connected with the Donbass are near certain about a coming conflict to an extent that I don’t recall seeing in years (this excerpt from a discussion featuring Igor Strelkov on Sergey Zadumov’s show is not unrepresentative). Expected timeline appears to be late April to July.

I spoke 2 days ago with independent journalist and documentary filmmaker Regis Tremblay who is currently in Russia and has his own sources in the Donbass. He told me the following;

I can assure you that the situation all along the Ukrainian Donbass and Crimean borders is extremely tense and volatile. The US is putting heavy pressure on Ukraine to attack and take back The Donbass and Crimea. The US, Turkey, and NATO have been delivering heavy artillery and supplies to Ukraine via Odessa’s seaport, and the airport in Kiev. These “supplies” along with US, Canadian, French, and Turkish advisors is VERY expensive. Is it a bluff? If it is it’s a very expensive one.

A US general has been there along with special ops troops from the US, France, Turkey, and Canada are there and have been as trainers and advisors.

It has been widely reported by Kiev, that Ukraine has posted some 100,000 troops along the border of Ukraine, Donbass and Crimea. Last night President Zelinsky went on TV and declared that Ukraine would attack and take back The Donbass and Crimea, and it was then all over Russian TV news.

In response, Russia has sent several thousand troops to Crimea and to Russia’s border with The Donbass. Russian state media has confirmed the troop movement within Russia’s borders. Russia is ready and on high alert.

I personally do not think this is just another bluff. From what I am hearing from [my] sources, this is extremely dangerous.  I went on a video shoot today with several Crimeans…not one of them thinks this situation is dangerous…just more bluffing. I couldn’t disagree more. When two armies are positioned just kilometers apart and the Kiev side keeps violating the truce and killing civilians, anything could result in that “shot heard round the world.”

I do hope this is another big bluff, but even if it is, it is still extremely reckless. There can always be dangerous unintended consequences when you play chicken, especially with a nuclear superpower.

Aid Worker’s Eyewitness Account of First Siege of Fallujah in April of 2004

A U.S. Marine from the 1st Marine Division mans an M240G machine gun outside the Fallujah city limits in April 2004.
By United States Marine Corps photo by lance corporal Kenneth E. Madden III / Released –, Public Domain,

In the summer of 2004, I went to a peace activist’s house in Berkeley to hear Jo Wilding, a British aid worker who had been in Iraq in the leadup to the U.S. invasion and during early parts of the occupation (February and March of 2003 and November 2003 to May 2004), speak about what she saw. Her presentation covered several different aspects of the U.S. invasion, its aftermath and how different segments of the Iraqi population viewed it, ensuing war crimes, etc. I had gotten permission to interview Wilding afterward. Unfortunately, I have since lost the interview transcript. But I do have the transcript (below) of parts of Wilding’s presentation which was originally published at the Peace Gazette newsletter for the Mt. Diablo Peace & Justice Center in Walnut Creek, California in September/October of 2004. Warning: there are some graphic descriptions of war violence. – Natylie

Having gone once it kind of became part of me, so I went back and arrived the 15th of February 2003. It was very difficult to have open conversations with people because there was so much surveillance. You would manage to have conversations with people riding in the back of a taxi or walking on a crowded street.

There had been a huge amount of damage from the 1991 bombing. Under the sanctions, Iraqis couldn’t replace the sewage system because they weren’t allowed to buy machinery or technical supplies, so there was 500,000 tons of raw sewage being dumped into the fresh water sources every day, and people were hugely affected by that. The river is so polluted, especially in the north and near Kurdistan where people have no other water source. They’re drinking really toxic water.

There were really terrified kids. A leading authority on child trauma who came to Iraq said there was probably not a child in Iraq who wasn’t suffering from some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder – bed wetting, aggression, lack of concentration, nightmares, that kind of thing. We had three months worth of funding from USAID and we wrote a report which stated that the actions of the coalition forces were making the children’s trauma worse with bombing at night and going on violent house raids. Our funding was removed and the facility was converted into a center for torture victims of Saddam. Something that was making the coalition look bad was not funded, but if it was something that was focusing on the old government being bad, it was funded.

With the [traveling] circus, we did a show and we would play games. We had a huge bit of red fabric with which we would play parachute games. It taught the kids things like cooperation and communication skills and, instead of just looking at them, we played with them. At one refugee camp close to Shoula there were seventy-five families and a lot of them have a lot of children. They had mostly come up from the south. The kids were asking for blankets because it gets really cold at night in Iraq. People over there were saying that as much as they needed to rebuild the infrastructure, they also needed the psychological reconstruction – they needed some kind of healing process to start.

The second time we went, the girls were a bit more outgoing than the first time; one was just begging to be picked for cat-and-mouse. But there was one little boy called Abdullah and he had a bandage around his head and was scared of everything, just kept hiding behind his mom. It took a really long time for him to just come out of himself and be comfortable around us. We had this little game every time I came where he’d put something on my chair and run away. He just kind of started to come out much more, and kind of remembered what it was like to be a child and to just play.

Especially with the kids who came from Fallujah, you’d give them something to draw with and they’d draw pictures of planes dropping bombs on houses and tanks and things exploding. Their heads are so full of this violence that when you give them something imaginative to do, playing or drawing, that’s what comes out.

You regularly have exploding car bombs and roadside bombs. Often, the U.S. troops start shooting in an area where there has been a roadside bomb and sort of just open fire at random and kind of shoot everywhere, which causes a lot of civilian casualties. I remember seeing ongoing house raids and random arrests. The troops would surround the village and arrest all of the men, and often some of the women as well, especially if the man they were looking for wasn’t there. And then, when they would find out later that it was the wrong house, they would go back and go, “sorry, wrong house,” but they would never let the family members out of prison and they would never give them any compensation for the damage to the property.

People coming out of the prisons have been telling all kinds of stories of torture and abuse. One of the things that hasn’t yet come out in the news is that there are other forms of torture. People are talking about toenails being pried off, not being allowed to sleep, not being given water and enough to eat, being kept in these overcrowded tents. Some of the people said there were rumors of a mass grave under the prison. In one of these big white tents that holds about 300 people, they saw something and went down a few feet and found recently dead bodies from post-Saddam time. Bush has been saying that they want to knock down Abu Ghraib and, of course, that would be sealing up (or destroying) all kinds of forensic evidence.

The pictures from Abu Ghraib didn’t surprise anyone, but what made people angry was that Bush didn’t apologize. He said this isn’t the real America, but he never said I’m really sorry that this happened.

Iraqis were really angry because they had been promised this de-Baathification process. What started to happen was that Baathists were starting to be put back into positions of power. The former members of Mukabarat, the secret police [under Saddam] were being recruited into the new police. Iraqis were seeing all of their former oppressors being given back their positions of power. Promises had been made and gone back on. For months people had been told that there’s no jobs, and suddenly they’ve got 6,000 jobs for old Baath party members.

…The people who were really abused under Saddam, especially people in the south, were patient with the occupation. They were willing to accept having the troops there if it was a means of getting rid of Saddam. Anything was better than Saddam. What they found was that the U.S. troops were not going to leave after all, and that most of the reconstruction wasn’t being done.

The things that are being built – it’s not schools, it’s not hospitals, it’s not roads, it’s military bases. I don’t agree with invading a country as a means of liberating it from someone. There was a whole other array of options that were not explored. But I would say there was a window of opportunity when the U.S. could have isolated the people fighting them by doing a good job for the rest of the country. But they just didn’t see that and now just about everybody in Iraq is opposed to the occupation.

…(After the siege of Fallujah began), they gave us some bandages and bags of water. There were six internationals and six Iraqis and we went in through a desert road because U.S. troops had blocked off the road in. We get to the clinic and it wasn’t an ordinary doctor’s clinic. It wasn’t actually a hospital, but because there were so many casualties and because the U.S. troops had sealed off the main hospital and closed it down, there were a lot of other places operating as field hospitals.

Within about five or ten minutes of us arriving there, a family was brought in. There were two children. They both had bullet wounds in their heads and an old woman who was also injured by a bullet. The family said they had been leaving their house to flee Baghdad, and they had been shot by a U.S. sniper. All three of them died. They had no anesthetic because it wasn’t equipped to be a hospital. The blood bags were stored in a drinks fridge and they were warming them up under the pack in the toilet. It was just an absolutely desperate situation. The doctors had not slept properly in over two weeks since the bombing had started…

…The ambulance was clearly marked. It had “AMBULANCE” written in English across the front, a blue flashing light. It had a siren wailing. As we were driving through the American-held part of town, a shot was fired at the ambulance. We stopped and waited, thinking it was just a warning shot and we’ll be able to move in a minute. And they just opened fire on the ambulance. Countless people were being killed in Fallujah. Lots of people were burying bodies in their homes because they couldn’t take them anywhere. Whole families were living in houses that were bombed. The Pentagon actually issued a statement saying I was lying about our ambulance being shot at. What they say is that, if ambulances are shot, it’s because ambulances get used to transport guns and fighters and they get fired on from ambulances. There’s not actually a single documented case. They haven’t given a single example of when it happened…

…We went off to go get some sick people from one of the houses. As we got to the house, there was a man lying face down in the road and when we turned him on his back, his whole chest had been completely destroyed and so it was pretty clear that he had been shot in the back – shot through the trunk. I mean straight through his heart. The scopes on a sniper rifle are incredibly good and I’m sure it was possible to see that that old man didn’t have a gun in his hand…

…We weren’t being forced to invade that town. The four people that were killed in Fallujah were mercenaries: they were people on military missions; they were armed; they were former Special Forces that were sent in to kill people in Fallujah.

…The people who were fleeing from Fallujah were basically trapped at the checkpoints. The soldiers said: well, we’ll let women and children out. So they had this bunch of men stuck in Fallujah who wanted to leave and the fear was that there was going to be an intensified massacre once most of the women and children had left. So we tried to argue this point with the soldier and he said, “No, we want to keep them all in there because we can kill them all more easily.”

…They basically dehumanized people in Fallujah. They saw them as targets, not has human beings. If you talk to any soldiers, they will tell you that this is all sort of trained into them at the beginning of basic training…

…I would never say that leaving Saddam in place was a good idea. But things have become much worse for Iraqi women. They’re now walking around wearing hijabs. It was coming from fundamentalist groups who were at that point wielding quite a lot of power. They [U.S. troops] closed down Al-Sadr’s newspaper because it criticized the U.S. occupation, but he had been threatening women and labor organizations for a long time. [The women’s] main concern was security. They’d say we just need to feel safe walking down the street and we need to be able to feed our children, send our children to school and know that they’ll be okay. And a lot of girls had stopped going to school because of the fear that [rape] would happen to them, so they’re just being kept at home. So many women have just disappeared into their homes.

…Usually at the end of my talks I give a list of things that people can do – trade union solidarity I think is a really important one. They’ve got a thirty-five year gap. They’ve never really been able to have independent trade unions. Doing direct actions that are really disruptive at the offices of these companies that are making the contracts. And I think it is really an important thing to start telling people about the draft.

Review: Memoirs of a Russianist, Volumes I & II

Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume II by Gilbert Doctorow

Russia analyst and author Gilbert Doctorow has written a 2-volume memoir that takes the reader on a journey through his years as a Russia specialist.  Starting with college and graduate work in Russian history at two Ivy League universities followed by decades of business management and consulting work, Doctorow provides a rare peek into the last days of the Soviet Union and the chaotic transition of the Russian Federation as someone who had a front row seat.  In the process, he dispels many of the myths that persist among widely-published journalists and Russia watchers today.

Both volumes are structured in a unique manner in that roughly the first half to two-thirds sets out the narrative while the remainder consists of the reproduction of a variety of documents to buttress Doctorow’s account.  These include excerpts of diary entries and correspondence with friends and family members during the relevant periods, as well as summaries of newspaper articles noted as significant at the time. 

The first volume primarily covers Doctorow’s early life and education.  Born and raised in the U.S., Doctorow’s grandparents were Russian emigres.  His family background fostered a curiosity about Russia and he studied the country and its history at both Harvard and Columbia, including taking courses under the notorious Richard Pipes.  Ironically, Doctorow viewed most of the Ivy League professors he encountered as “closed-minded” and “complacent,” but he did at least find Pipes to be a colorful lecturer. 

Upon graduating with a PhD, Doctorow prepared to be a professor himself but fled the profession after suffering “stage fright” in front of a classroom.  Having traveled through Western and Eastern Europe on a fellowship, Doctorow received another fellowship that enabled him to study for a year at the state archives in Leningrad and Moscow from 1971-72.  It was during this time that he met Larisa, a young Russian writer who would become his wife. 

To earn a living, Doctorow got a consultancy job for U.S. companies with major industrial projects at the time in the Soviet Union.  Thus began a career that would span through the 1990’s working in management and consultancy positions for companies, mostly in the food processing, liquor and agribusiness industries, throughout Europe and Russia.  In addition to the business savvy that he would acquire as he went, his knowledge of the language and culture of Russia would serve him well professionally.

Some of the unique obstacles to doing business in general in the Soviet Union included the Jackson-Vanik law which made commerce dependent upon Jewish emigration levels, constant surveillance, “random assaults” on foreigners, bureaucratic conflicts and control, lack of incentive for innovation and focus on quantity rather than quality in production goals.  More specifically, problems in the food processing industry that Doctorow spent a significant amount of time in included poor availability of packaging and refrigeration.  This was despite the fact that Soviet leaders genuinely seemed interested in improving the quality and variety of food products for their citizenry.

From 1989 to 1993, Doctorow helped in the building up of UPS in Russia.  The transportation logistics were greatly improved by the fall of the Berlin Wall not long after he started.  As someone on the ground during this important period of transition to a privatized market economy, Doctorow observed very low levels of competence and ethics in the business community in general.  He specifically mentions the challenge of constantly changing customs and regulations which affected delivery times that were an integral aspect of success for UPS.  This type of problem was a recurring theme during Doctorow’s business life in 1990’s Russia:

“One hears of the mafia and extortion, the racket.  One hears of the rapacious tax authorities.  These are indeed frightening aspects of the Russian business predicament.  But what is more general and more dangerous is the entire legal environment, the welter of contradictory laws, administrative circulars, etc. which makes for a totally confusing situation, where one’s rights and obligations are unclear and where only one thing is certain: you are always in violation of one or another regulation.” (pp. 178-179)

Though admittedly a learning curve in how to conduct business efficiently and honestly was to be expected in a country that had little history of it, these challenges were part of a much larger issue with corruption, major societal instability, and the exploitative mentality of western political leaders and business advisers:

“Those political commentators today who speak with such nostalgia about the democratic Russia of Boris Yeltsin as contrasted with today’s supposedly authoritarian Russia are either shamefully ignorant of the realities of daily life back then or are simply vile propagandists for whom the truth has no relevance to their “end justifies the means” mindset.” (p. x)

Doctorow recounts many episodes that characterize the violence of this era in Russia.  One is a gangland murder on the steps of the Hotel Ukraina in which Doctorow was staying at the time as he often did during a period in Moscow.  Around the same time, a pub up the street was bombed because the owner did not pay protection money.

Doctorow also discusses the 1996 murder of Paul Tatum, an American hotelier who had a stake in the Moscow Radisson and was gunned down outside the building.  His naked body laid across the medical examiner’s table was broadcast on television news that evening in what many interpreted as a part warning/part gloating spectacle.   It was one murder in a larger pattern of business contract disputes being regularly resolved via deadly violence and whether one was a Russian or a westerner didn’t matter.  In this case, Doctorow suggests the perpetrators acted “in the spirit of national assertiveness encouraged by then Moscow mayor [and later candidate as a possible successor to Yeltsin] Yuri Luzhkov.” (p. xiii)

While attending a dinner party to celebrate Victory Day with his in-laws in St. Petersburg in 1995, Doctorow relayed one relative’s experience serving in Chechnya as a pathologist for the military.  His job was to examine and identify the war dead amid the utter devastation of the capital of Grozny.  After completing his service, he and those he served with were all treated for “shell shock” before release.   This young man told Doctorow and the other guests that the war seemed to have been needlessly prolonged for political reasons.

There was also the desperate poverty contrasted with the nouveaux riches elite.  A diary entry from mid-January of 1994 noted during a visit to Moscow that western newspapers were celebrating the accord between Yeltsin and Clinton while prices for food and other necessities continued to increase – at that point by 30% within two months.  Filthy streets lined with beggars and desperate Russians selling items that no one wanted were observed, along with a “malevolence” that permeated the political atmosphere.

This atmosphere was too often exacerbated by the kind of westerner drawn to 90’s Russia who, needless to say, wasn’t going to put in the hard work of building a business infrastructure that would provide stability and integrity.  According to Doctorow, they were typically young men looking for sexual adventure and/or were recent graduates in Slavic language/literature with  the intention of going back home to teach, but ended up drawn into lucrative business opportunities without having the relevant skills or experience. 

In one instance he speaks of a predatorial western journalist who became a pimp and “made a fortune serving the sexual appetite of a Russian business tycoon in St. Petersburg.” (p. xvi)

There are some brighter points as well.  Doctorow mentions some honest western businesses who managed to successfully navigate the scene and provide products and services in the country.  He also regularly speaks of the high quality cultural life he enjoyed in both Moscow and St. Petersburg as a result of his work in the luxury goods industry and his wife’s work as a cultural writer – plays, opera, ballet, etc.  For several years during the 90’s he was involved with the Russian Booker Prize, a sister project of the British literary prize that ran in Russia from 1992 to 2017.  The Booker Prize model used rotating juries to determine winners in order to ensure diversity and openness to different styles and voices.  He has an interesting story to tell about when Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s organization took over as financial sponsor of the prize from 2002 to 2005. 

He also observed the emergence of a fledgling middle class that ate and dressed better and looked healthier, noting that those under the age of 40 seemed to be better able to find ways to adjust to the changing times – however chaotic they were.    

While this memoir is very lengthy, I overall highly recommend it for those interested in getting a close-up look at what occurred in the 1990’s in Russia as well as some insights into the latter days of the Soviet Union by someone who was there and carefully documented his experiences and observations.  The more casual reader can choose what areas he or she wants to focus on in terms of the business aspect of the story or the contextual social and political background. 

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

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