Just When You Thought Corporate Media Couldn’t Get Any Lower; Putin Cautiously Optimistic on Syria Settlement; Back Channel Communication Line Between Trump & Putin?; Kiev Breaks Transport Ties with Donbass, Poroshenko Sidelined?; North Korea FUBAR

(Photograph of large Soviet hatch ship Poltava on its way to Cuba, September 15, 1962, leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis; photo courtesy of National Security Archive)

Just when you thought the corporate media couldn’t get any lower with its shenanigans, along comes Ruth Marcus, the deputy editor of the Washington Post, who recently tweeted the following:

So excited to be watching The Americans, throwback to a simpler time when everyone considered Russia the enemy. Even the president.

So, according to Ms. Marcus, we should all be waxing nostalgic for those good old days when fall-out shelters were a thing and we all were scared shitless of scenarios like those portrayed in Fail-Safe or The Day After.   Instead of spending her days heavily medicated and weaving baskets at the nearest mental institution, this woman is the deputy editor of the second most widely read newspaper in America – and no one at the paper bats an eye at such moral and intellectual bankruptcy displayed publicly by one of its own.

Political comedian Jimmy Dore (a much edgier version of Jon Stewart) deconstructs the tweet, Ms. Marcus and some of the reaction to it by the likes of Glenn Greenwald and others  here.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhJwt_awaWM

Meanwhile, Putin – during a March 10th joint press conference with Turkish president Erdogan – announced that he was cautiously optimistic about a political settlement of the Syrian war.   RT provided the following details:

“As for the prospects [of the settlement in Syria], we must say frankly that the situation remains complicated. There are a lot of uncertainties; a lot of contradictions in the region and in the country itself – in Syria,” Putin said after the talks with Erdogan in the Russian capital on Friday. “Therefore, I want to express cautious optimism that by joining efforts with other solid players, including the US, we will be able to effectively contribute to the strengthening of the ceasefire regime and, on its basis, to move towards a full-fledged political settlement,” he said.

The Russian leader stressed that peace in Syria and the whole region can only be achieved if Syrian territorial integrity is restored. “For peace and calm to remain in the region and the rebuilding of Syria to begin, the principle of the territorial integrity of states must be respected, and in this sense the restoration of the territorial integrity of Syria is – in our view – a paramount condition for a full-fledged settlement in this country,” he said.

Erdogan echoed Putin’s words by saying that “both in Syria and in Iraq, the territorial integrity of the countries is our main goal. We can’t tolerate the division of these territories.”

The Russian leader has praised the level of cooperation between the Russian and Turkish militaries and intelligence agencies in Syria. “Mainly due to the active role of Russia and Turkey, it became possible not only to achieve cessation of hostilities between the government forces and the opposition, but to start direct, concrete negotiations between the warring sides in Astana,” he said. “Because of the coordinated actions by Russia, Turkey and Iran, the ceasefire in Syria is generally being observed. The level of violence has decreased,” Putin added.

Erdogan also called the meetings in Astana, Kazakhstan where the Syrian ceasefire was agreed earlier this year “an additional factor, making the process launched in Geneva more effective.”

The Turkish president said that both Ankara and Moscow “want to cooperate with the (US-led) coalition on liberating the city of Manbij” in northern Syria on the River Euphrates.

However, the Russians, Turks, Iranians and (above all) the Syrians, may end up regretting the suggestion of cooperation with Washington in Syria.  Pentagon sources have acknowledged that Washington is considering sending 1,000 more ground troops to Syria in the coming weeks.  This follows its alleged bombing of a Syrian mosque during evening prayers, killing dozens and wounding many more, just outside of Aleppo.

In an interesting article from Russia expert Gilbert Doctorow, it is speculated that there could be a back channel line of communication being developed between Trump and Putin in response to the fact that Trump is encountering too many political obstacles to any plan for detente between the world’s nuclear superpowers:

From the Sunday CNN interview of Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, we got a sense of how the Kremlin views the anti-Trump feeding frenzy now going on in the U.S. media and especially the attempt to portray Russian “meddling” as the reason that Trump won. Peskov called these assertions the “demonizing of Russia,” a situation to which Russians cannot be indifferent.

But the sentiment was much less negative on some of the leading news programs in Moscow, including channel Rossiya 1’s weekly news wrap-up delivered by Dmitry Kiselyov, who heads the news services on all Russian state radio and television channels, and Vladimir Solovyev’s political talk show, which brought together some of the country’s top legislators and leaders of key policy think tanks.

General to General

Both the Kiselyov news program and the Solovyov talk show drew attention to a development that was covered in the U.S. and Western press but with little or no interpretation so that it was easily missed: the meeting in the southern Turkish resort of Antalya of senior military officers of Turkey, the United States and Russia to discuss coordination of their military actions in northern Syria, where they are operating in close proximity and often at cross purposes. The meeting involved the Turkish Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford and Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

From the Russian standpoint as revealed by Solovyov’s guests, the meeting went very well and the only glum participant leaving the meeting was the Turkish general. The Americans and Russians seem to have been in agreement over how to keep the U.S.-sponsored Kurdish fighters — so resented by the Turks — in the forefront of the assault on the ISIS “capital” at Raqqa, and, as a corollary, how to sideline Turkish ambitions of capturing a sphere of influence in northern Syria using Turkish troops and local Turkmen proxies.

Elsewhere in the Solovyov program, panelists hinted that there also are ongoing talks between Trump’s people and various Russian institutions. But the Antalya military contact — involving top generals for the first time since the deep slide in U.S.-Russian relations in 2014 over the Ukraine crisis — bears more attention.

Trump appears to have concluded that the way forward in relations between the U.S. and Russia is to make progress out of sight of the media. Whereas bringing Russia into the U.S.-run anti-Islamic State coalition meeting in Washington would have invited the U.S. media’s brickbats, a summit of generals in a provincial coastal town of Turkey could be far more productive and produce much less controversy. It is not for nothing that the press is now complaining that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is inaccessible. That follows the desires of the Oval Office, which prefers a “just get it done” approach.

Trump can also expect the greatest loyalty in the U.S. government’s hierarchy from the military as well as fewer leaks from holdovers hostile to any rapprochement with Russia. Indeed, many senior U.S. officers had constructive relations with their Russian counterparts for years on crucial issues such as supplying U.S. troops in Afghanistan and in sharing intelligence on terrorism. That was disrupted by the coalition of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists dominating the State Department and holding top political jobs at the Pentagon. So Trump has removed many of President Obama’s political appointees and has turned more to the military high command.

A friend and fellow-Russia watcher – one who’s been at this for far longer than I have, keeps insisting in response to my many laments about our current president, that on this issue he’s being crazy like a fox.  Perhaps she will turn out to be correct.   Maybe Trump or Putin is taking a cue from Kennedy and Khrushchev who started a back channel correspondence in 1961.  Both leaders then knew that they had to do so quietly, out of the limelight and doing an end run around certain hawks in both of their respective camps who would have viewed such cooperation as alarming or even traitorous.

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In response to the Donbass leaders’ announcement that they had seized and nationalized certain industries in their territory, the Kiev government has announced the suspension of all transport links to Donbass.

Russia’s TASS news agency reported the following:

KYIV – Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council has decided to suspend all transport services with the territories of Donbass not controlled by Kiev, the council’s head, Alexander Turchinov, said at the meeting of the presidential administration.

….Turchinov said the ban will be in force until points 1 and 2 (ceasefire and withdrawal of weapons) of the February 2015 Minsk peace deal are implemented and the seized enterprises return to Ukraine’s jurisdiction,

Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, National Police, National Guard and Security Service have been ordered to halt all movement of cargos through the contact line by rail links and vehicles.

It was also recently announced by the Kiev government that the blockade by ultra-right nationalists of coal from the Donbass had now been officially sanctioned.  Analyst Alexander Mercouris observed that the latter announcement, along with another involving further sanctions against Russia, were not made by Poroshenko.

The decision to legalise the blockade of Donbass was announced by Alexander Turchinov (pictured), who is the head of Ukraine’s National Defence and Security Council, and who is a significant figure in Ukrainian politics in his own right, whilst the request to Ukraine’s Central Bank to propose sanctions on Russian banks operating on Ukrainian territory was also made by Turchinov on behalf of Ukraine’s National Defence and Security Council, which he heads.

It may be that Ukraine’s legal and constitutional system makes Ukraine’s National and Defence Council the appropriate body to make these sort of decisions, though Ukraine’s chaotic legal and administrative structure and the notorious indifference of Ukrainian leaders to legal and administrative rules makes that a less than convincing argument to make.

However even if that were the case a statement from Poroshenko – the country’s leader and the nation’s President – explaining to the Ukrainian people the reasons for these important decisions and justifying the hardship they will cause, whilst making it clear that the decisions originate with him and that they have his full support, is the least one would expect in the circumstances.

Indeed the correct thing would surely be for the actual announcement of these decisions to have been made by Poroshenko himself, at the very least through the publication of a public statement issued in his name, or (much better) by way of a televised address to the Ukrainian nation.

….It could be that Poroshenko did not make the announcement today because he is embarrassed by the weakness on his part that it shows, and because his own website shows that he was giving assurances only yesterday to an EU official that Ukraine was about to do something totally different.

If so then that reminds me of the way Ukraine’s previous President, Viktor Yanukovych, failed to announce his decision to delay implementation of Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU, leaving the announcement to his Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov.  At the time I thought this was a act of extraordinary weakness on Yanukovych’s part, and in fact it set the pattern for his pusillanimous behaviour during the subsequent Maidan protests, which eventually caused his overthrow.  If Poroshenko is now behaving in the same way, then it speaks extraordinarily poorly both of him and of his prospects as Ukraine’s President.

However there has also to be the further possibility that the reason Poroshenko did not announce the decisions today is because ultimately he didn’t make them.  Indeed his comments to the EU official might even suggest he was resisting the idea of a total blockade as recently as yesterday, possibly because of EU pressure.

If so then Turchinov’s announcements today suggest that Poroshenko has been shunted aside, and that key decisions such as the decision to legalise the blockade of the Donbass are now being made without him.

In that case then that would suggest that Poroshenko’s authority as Ukraine’s President is seeping away, and that he is no longer fully in control, just as the Russian military move on Pristina in June 1999  during the Kosovo conflict, made without any order from Boris Yeltsin, was a clear sign that his authority as Russia’s President was seeping away.

This comes a few days after reports appeared in the Russian media claiming that Yulia Tymoshenko, Poroshenko’s long time enemy and bitter political rival, is making another visit – this time in secret – to Washington where early in February she had a brief meeting with Donald Trump, which looked to me like a case of Trump sizing up his options, and considering her as a possible alternative to Poroshenko.  Suffice to say that I do not think it was a coincidence that on returning to Ukraine Tymoshenko immediately sought to oust Ukraine’s government by proposing a vote of no confidence in Ukraine’s parliament, a move which by using procedural devices the government however managed to block.

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(North Koran missile launch, March 6, 2017; https://consortiumnews.com/2017/03/08/north-korea-fears-regime-change-strike/)

In other foreign policy news, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced on March 17th that “all options are on the table” in response to North Korea’s recent firing of missiles, which is part of its continuous posturing and to show its progress toward the development of missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.  This follows a Chinese official’s warning recently, comparing the U.S. and North Korea to “accelerating trains coming toward each other.”

One of the U.S.’s foremost experts on North Korea is Bruce Cummings who was interviewed on Democracy Now!, along with Christine Ahn, a peace activist on the Korea issue.  An except follows:

CHRISTINE AHN: Well, I’m concerned that we have a situation in South Korea that is essentially a political vacuum until the next progressive president comes into power. And we have a Trump administration that has said that it’s, you know, undertaking a Korea policy review, which has ranged from he’s willing to sit down with Kim Jong-un and have a hamburger to preemptive strikes. And what really worries me is, while these military exercises may be routine, you know, the South Korean media just reported that the U.S. has deployed a team of Navy SEALs, that basically took out Osama bin Laden. You know, it includes unmanned aircraft that could basically completely destroy Pyongyang. That could be a signal. That’s one way, since there is no communication between the two countries. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Deployed where?

CHRISTINE AHN: To the Korean Peninsula as part of these regular exercises. And that’s all under this Operation Plan, you know, 5015, that includes decapitation of Pyongyang’s leader. And so, I think that there has been this perception—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, includes decapitation of the leader?

CHRISTINE AHN: Yeah, that’s basically taking out the North Korean leader. And I think that there is a perception in this country that—that regime collapse is imminent and that all it will take is a military action to conduct it. And when has regime change ever been successful? And what would be the likelihood for the millions of South Koreans right across the DMZ and the innocent civilians? But it would engulf the entire region into a very dangerous regional conflict—Russia, China, Japan, the United States. By being part of mutual defense treaties, it will engulf the entire region. Five of those—of the top 10 countries in terms of their military capacity and defense spending are in that region. It’s a tinderbox. And so, we really need to understand that the Korean conflict is at the root of that. And so we have to really seriously pressure our government. I mean, it’s obviously—how do we, you know, pressure the Trump administration, that seems to not have a clue about Korea? But we have to. I think it’s a very dangerous situation, and we have to be very vigilant.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Professor Bruce Cumings, what about this? You have the Chinese officials issuing this warning. You have people in the United States deeply concerned that when you have a very unpopular president, and they’re having—embroiled in trouble at home, that he might want to focus attention elsewhere, on an enemy outside, and the idea that North Korea could become that country, a country that the U.S. engages militarily. Do you think there’s any possibility of this?

BRUCE CUMINGS: I actually don’t think the Trump administration can get its act together to appoint high people in the State Department, high officials in the State Department and the Pentagon. I don’t know how they can start a war in Korea or decapitate Kim Jong-un. I think the situation is actually worse, in the sense that over the last year or so there’s been a bipartisan, inside-the-Beltway consensus that most of our methods for dealing with North Korea—sanctions, cap on their tests, talking with them—those things have not worked over the years. They’re still building their arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles, and so some sort of force may be necessary, either to take out those missiles preemptively or to force an end to the Kim Jong-un regime. The Council on Foreign Relations, last October, published a paper on North Korea, where it came very close to saying the U.S. might have to use force to change the regime in North Korea. So we’re not talking about Donald Trump and a bunch of yahoos; we’re talking about a consensus in Washington.

Also, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement was very important, I think unprecedented. I’ve never heard a high Chinese official say that we’re moving toward a collision on the Korean Peninsula, that it’s like two trains rushing toward each other. Furthermore, over the weekend, William Perry, the former defense secretary and Bill Clinton’s roving ambassador for North Korea in the late ’90s, also said that he thought a train wreck was coming.

The simple way to handle this is the way Jimmy Carter did in 1994, when it looked like Bill Clinton was about to launch a preemptive attack on North Korea. And he just basically cut through all the bull in our relations with North Korea, going back decades, and flew to Pyongyang to talk to Kim Il-sung. And out of that came a complete freeze on North Korea’s plutonium facility for eight years. For eight years, they had no access to any bomb-making materials, 24/7 controls on that facility.

So, if Donald Trump wants to share a hamburger with Kim Jong-un, that’s a very good idea. But the idea of using force against North Korea, when even their artillery, 10,000 guns north of Seoul, conventional artillery, can take out a city that has a third of the South Korean population, you just really have no military option on the Korean Peninsula. But unfortunately, a lot of folks in Washington haven’t gotten that straight.

Jonathan Marshall also provided very important context in a recent article:

Mentioned only in passing — if at all — in most news stories was the context for the latest of Pyongyang’s seemingly random acts of aggressive militarism.

Korea experts had in fact long predicted that the North would — as it does every year — undertake “military provocations” to protest the start of the latest annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises on March 1. The same day those exercises began, the Wall Street Journal reported ominously that “an internal White House review of strategy on North Korea includes the possibility of military force or regime change to blunt the country’s nuclear-weapons threat.”

A North Korean diplomat condemned the latest joint exercises as “massive” and “unprecedented in size,” saying, “It will certainly jeopardize peace and stability in the region and drive the situation in the Korean peninsula to the brink of nuclear war.”

His rhetoric had more than a little factual basis. South Korea’s defense minister confirmed that the exercises are similar in scale to those held last year. With more than 300,000 South Korea and 17,000 American troops, 2016’s war games were the largest in the region’s history.

Although officials in Washington and Seoul invariably characterize the maneuvers and simulations as “defensive” and “non-provocative,” last year’s exercises reportedly included“rehearsals of surgical strikes on North Korea’s main nuclear and missile facilities and ‘decapitation raids’ by special forces targeting the North’s leadership.”

Taking part in the exercises was a naval strike group led by the nuclear-powered supercarrier USS John C. Stennis, along with the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS North Carolina, stealth F-22 fighter aircraft, nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers, and Marine special forces who practiced amphibious landings.

Those forces represent exactly the capabilities that informed military analysts say would be used if Washington decided to unleash a preemptive, surprise “surgical strike” against North Korea’s nuclear forces and command and control centers.

Dangerous Precedents

Viewing that array of forces in the light of past “U.S. attacks on Libya and Iraq and Serbia,” leaders in Pyongyang last year understandably saw “the potential for a U.S. attack,” remarked Bruce Klinger, a Korea analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, at the time.

“They know the history of the Marine Corps,” he added, “so they would see a large presence of Marines on the peninsula as possibly a prelude to an attack or an invasion — especially when it’s coupled with the presence of B-52s and nuke-capable submarines.”

 

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