Alexander Mercouris on the Helsinki Summit; Russians Pessimistic re US-Russia Relations; Scott Ritter’s Analysis of Mueller Indictment of GRU Agents; Russia Works with France on Humanitarian Aid to Syria While Announcing Return of 100,000 Refugees; World Cup Tourists Inject $1.5 Billion into Russia

Church on Spilt Blood, Built at site of reformist Czar Alexander II’s 1881 assassination. St. Petersburg, Russia; Photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, 2015

Alexander Mercouris cuts through the hyperbole and provides a detailed analysis of what actually went on at the Helsinki Summit between Putin and Trump.  Some pertinent excerpts include the following regarding rumors of a “grand bargain” to sell out Iran in Syria to appease Israel, the Gulf states and Washington, which was always a fairy tale:

On the subject of Syria, in the weeks leading up to the summit there were some media reports suggesting that Donald Trump was coming under pressure from Israel, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates to agree a deal at the summit with Putin whereby Russia would be granted sanctions relief and possibly even recognition of Crimea, US troops in Syria would be withdrawn, and in return the Russians would agree that Iranian forces would be expelled from Syria.

The Russians were clearly worried by these reports.  Not only did they go out of their way to deny them, but Putin and Lavrov held talks in Moscow on 12th July 2018 with Ali Akbar Velayati, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s Special Adviser on International Relations, in order to reassure the Iranians that they were not true.

….Contrary to what some people are saying, I think it is most unlikely that Putin would have given Netanyahu any assurances that Russia would act to rein in Iranian activities in Syria.If Netanyahu asked Putin for such assurances (which I also think unlikely) Putin would almost certainly have told him what the Russians always say when faced with requests for such assurances: Iran and Syria are sovereign states and Russia cannot interfere in arrangements two sovereign states make with each other.

I suspect that the source of some of the stories about a ‘grand bargain’ between Putin and Trump involving the role of the Iranians in Syria is the regular discussions the Russians have with the Israelis, the Iranians and the Syrians whereby the Russians routinely pass on to the Iranians and the Syrians Israeli concerns about the presence of Iranian forces in Syria in particular locations as well as Israeli concerns about specific actions which the Iranians take.

….The Russians are not engaged here in discussions over some sort of ‘grand bargain’ to remove all Iranian troops from Syria, which as I have said they would see as counterproductive and impossible.  Rather they are engaged in the classic diplomatic exercise of conflict prevention: keeping the Israelis, the Iranians and the Syrians informed about each other’s moves and red lines in order to prevent an uncontrolled escalation of the conflict between them, which might risk an all-out war, which nobody wants, and which the Russians are doing their best to prevent.

Recent reports of an understanding between the Israelis, the Iranians and the Syrians supposedly brokered by the Russians whereby Iranian forces agreed not to participate in the Syrian army’s ongoing military operations in south west Syria close to the Israeli occupied Golan Heights are a case in point.

The Iranians and the Syrians  agreed to this, not because the Russians forced them to but because it is in their interest to.  The Syrian army does not need Iranian help to defeat the Jihadis in southwest Syria so keeping the Iranians away from the area allows the Syrians to clear the area of the Jihadis without risking a military confrontation with Israel.

As I have stated previously, Russia will continue to leave the door open to Washington for cooperation in areas of mutual interest, while continuing to balance beneficial relations with those in its backyard, including Israel, Iran, and China – the latter two of which offer many potential benefits in the coordinated New Silk Roads and related trade relations.  Russia will not agree to sell out Iran or China for any deal with Washington which has little of concrete value to offer while having demonstrated repeatedly that it breaks agreements whenever it decides.

Neither will Russia agree to further Israel’s interests at the expense of its own or those of another nation with which it has good relations.   Russia is too sophisticated of a diplomatic player to fall into such traps that would ultimately do nothing to further its long-term interests.

Further on in Mercouris’ analysis, he explains what the point of this summit really was and how many of the knuckleheads who pass for journalists and political analysts in the mainstream media were simply feeding into the clueless memes about Russia and Trump in their predictions and coverage.  I will quote him generously in his apt explanation:

A fundamental prerequisite for any successful negotiation is for the two parties to the negotiation to know each other’s minds so that a modicum of trust and understanding – essential if any agreement is to be reached – can be established between them.

As a businessman Trump knows this very well.  He therefore needed to meet with Putin in a lengthy one-to-one encounter in order to get to know Putin properly so as to see whether Putin is in fact the sort of person he can negotiate and eventually do a deal with.

That is the reason why Trump insisted that his first meeting with Putin should take the form of a one-to-one encounter.

That by the way is absolutely standard practice in negotiations – both commercial negotiations and diplomatic negotiations – with leaders of negotiating teams often meeting privately in one-to-one meetings in order to get to know each other better to see whether a deal between them is even possible.  Once a proper relationship between them is established the full negotiating teams can be brought into the negotiations in what in diplomacy are called ‘plenary sessions’.  Needless to say it is during the plenary sessions – with each side’s experts present – that the details are discussed and ironed out.

Not only is this standard practice in negotiations – Putin does it all the time – but it is simply not true as some people are suggesting that there was no one else present in the room when Putin and Trump met with each other.

Both Putin and Trump obviously had interpreters present.  Trump doesn’t speak Russian and Putin speaks English badly.  The job of the interpreters – who are full time state officials – is not just to interpret what the leaders say to each other but also to prepare a written transcript (a “stenographic record”) of what they said.

Once this transcript is written up – something which normally takes no more than a few days – it is circulated to senior officials including in the U.S. case to the U.S. President’s two most important foreign policy advisers, Bolton and Pompeo.  By now it is highly likely that Bolton and Pompeo have already seen and read through the transcript, and that they therefore know exactly what Putin and Trump said to each other.

Since the one-to-one meeting was first and foremost a “get-to-know” you session, no binding agreements would have been reached during it, and neither Putin nor Trump – each in their own way an experienced negotiator – would ever have imagined that they would be.

Russians were not impressed by the summit or its potential to improve relations between the two nations in the future.  According to the Moscow Times reporting on a state-sponsored poll of Russians about the summit and US-Russia relations, half of Russians were pessimistic about the future of bilateral relations while a large majority believes the U.S. is aggressive and untrustworthy:

Ahead of the summit, 52 percent of Russians told the state-run VTsIOM polling agency that they believed the political meeting would fail to improve bilateral ties.

Forty-eight percent of Russians surveyed two days after Putin sat down with Trump at the summit said they expected U.S.-Russia relations to stay the same, while 38 percent said they were optimistic about an improved relationship.

An overwhelming majority of respondents agreed with the assessment that the U.S. is an “aggressive” country that “meddles in the affairs of other states” and “isn’t trustworthy.”

Meanwhile, according to a poll by The Hill/HarrisX , 61% of Americans think it is in the U.S.’s interests to have better relations with Russia and 54% support Trump’s proposal to have a follow-up summit with Putin in Washington later this year.   However, the White House has just announced that the meeting will be postponed until 2019, after Mueller completes his investigation.

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Former weapons inspector Scott Ritter provided an excellent overview of the recent indictment of GRU agents accused of being responsible for the “hack” of the DNC emails and John Podesta’s emails at TruthDig.

He points out how an indictment isn’t proof of a prosecutor’s case, only a listing and narrative of the accusations with enough information to argue probable cause – a far cry from evidence sufficient to convince beyond a reasonable doubt.  There is the old adage that a competent prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich and Ritter elaborates on how that adage is relevant to this particular indictment, which Mueller likely assumes – like the previous indictment of the employees of the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency – will never actually go to court where the claims would have to be proved and the evidence presented in open court with the accused having the opportunity to respond:

There is one major problem with the indictment, however: It doesn’t prove that which it asserts. True, it provides a compelling narrative that reads like a spy novel, and there is no doubt in my mind that many of the technical details related to the timing and functioning of the malware described within are accurate. But the leap of logic that takes the reader from the inner workings of the servers of the Democratic Party to the offices of Russian intelligence officers in Moscow is not backed up by anything that demonstrates how these connections were made.

That’s the point of an indictment, however—it doesn’t exist to provide evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, but rather to provide only enough information to demonstrate probable cause. No one would, or could, be convicted at trial from the information contained in the indictment alone. For that to happen, the government would have to produce the specific evidence linking the hacks to the named Russians, and provide details on how this evidence was collected, and by whom. In short, the government would have to be willing to reveal some of the most sensitive sources and methods of intelligence collection by the U.S. intelligence community and expose, and therefore ruin, the careers of those who collected this information. This is something the government has never been willing to do, and there is much doubt that if, for some odd reason, the Russians agreed to send one or more of these named intelligence officers to the United States to answer the indictment, this indictment would ever go to trial. It simply couldn’t survive the discovery to which any competent defense would subject the government’s assertions.

Robert Mueller knew this when he drafted the indictment, and Rob Rosenstein knew this when he presented it to the public. The assertions set forth in the indictment, while cloaked in the trappings of American justice, have nothing to do with actual justice or the rule of law; they cannot, and will never, be proved in a court of law. However, by releasing them in a manner that suggests that the government is willing to proceed to trial, a perception is created that implies that they can withstand the scrutiny necessary to prevail at trial.

And as we know, perception is its own reality.

Despite Rosenstein’s assertions to the contrary, the decision to release the indictment of the 12 named Russian military intelligence officers was an act of partisan warfare designed to tip the scale of public opinion against the supporters of President Trump, and in favor of those who oppose him politically, Democrat and Republican alike. Based upon the media coverage since Rosenstein’s press conference, it appears that in this he has been wildly successful.

But is the indictment factually correct? The biggest clue that Mueller and Rosenstein have crafted a criminal espionage narrative from whole cloth comes from none other than the very intelligence agency whose work would preclude Rosenstein’s indictment from ever going to trial: the National Security Agency. In June 2017 the online investigative journal The Intercept referenced a highly classified document from the NSA titled “Spear-Phishing Campaign TTPs Used Against U.S. And Foreign Government Political Entities.” It’s a highly technical document, derived from collection sources and methods the NSA has classified at the Top Secret/SI (i.e., Special Intelligence) level. This document was meant for internal consumption, not public release. As such, the drafters could be honest about what they knew and what they didn’t know—unlike those in the Mueller investigation who drafted the aforementioned indictment.

A cursory comparison of the leaked NSA document and the indictment presented by Rosenstein suggests that the events described in Count 11 of the indictment pertaining to an effort to penetrate state and county election offices responsible for administering the 2016 U.S. presidential election are precisely the events captured in the NSA document. While the indictment links the identity of a named Russian intelligence officer, Anatoliy Sergeyevich Kovalev, to specific actions detailed therein, the NSA document is much more circumspect. In a diagram supporting the text report, the NSA document specifically states that the organizational ties between the unnamed operators involved in the actions described and an organizational entity, Unit 74455, affiliated with Russian military intelligence is a product of the judgment of an analyst and not fact.

If we take this piece of information to its logical conclusion, then the Mueller indictment has taken detailed data related to hacking operations directed against various American political entities and shoehorned it into what amounts to little more than the organizational chart of a military intelligence unit assessed—but not known—to have overseen the operations described. This is a far cry from the kind of incontrovertible proof that Mueller’s team suggests exists to support its indictment of the 12 named Russian intelligence officers.

If this is indeed the case, then the indictment, as presented, is a politically motivated fraud. Mueller doesn’t know the identities of those involved in the hacking operations he describes—because the intelligence analysts who put the case together don’t know those names. If this case were to go to trial, the indictment would be dismissed in the preliminary hearing phase for insufficient evidence, even if the government were willing to lay out the totality of its case—which, because of classification reasons, it would never do.

Read the full article here

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Last week, France and Russia began coordinating the delivery of humanitarian aid to parts of Syria devastated by the war.  RussiaFeed reports:

Yesterday, some 50 tonnes of medical aid was sent to eastern Ghouta in Syria as part of an agreement reached between France and Russia to coordinate humanitarian aid in the war torn Middle Eastern country.

…..It is hoped that if the operation is successful, further cooperation could be developed in the area of getting aid to areas of Syria which have been liberated and are back under the territorial control of Assad’s government in Damascus. Up until this point, the aid has been utilized in the Raqqa region in northeastern Syria under the occupation of French and American military forces.

A few days later, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that 100,000 refugees have been repatriated to Syria since January.    Euronews reported the following details:

According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, 101,976 refugees have been returned to Syria since January–232,792 “since the start of [the ministry’s] operation”, and 1,417,385 in total since 2015.

Additionally, 336,500 more places have been prepared around the country for receiving and accommodating refugees, the Russian Ministry of Defence stated. The statement detailed a report of ongoing infrastructure reparations, as well as medical assistance and food supplies.

With the aid of Turkey, Iran, and the Russian Centre for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides, Syria has recovered territory previously occupied by rebel groups and oversees ceasefire compliance, allowing, finally, for the return of refugees.

“It is estimated that more than 1.7 million Syrians have expressed a desire to return home from eight countries,” the ministry stated. The largest number of potential returnees come from Lebanon, followed by Turkey, Germany, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Denmark, and Brazil.

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The hysterical levels of anti-Russia sentiment in the media and Washington did not stop Russia from gaining a PR benefit and an economic infusion of $1.5 billion from the recent World Cup tournament.   According to the Financial Times (behind paywall):

Russia is already enjoying a World Cup windfall of positive international PR and a surge in national pride after staging a widely praised tournament and seeing its team defy rock-bottom expectations. The event also gave its economy a welcome shot in the arm, the country’s top bank said on Thursday.

Visiting football fans spent $1.5bn during the one-month tournament, according to state-owned lender Sberbank.

Moscow had hoped to use the event to defy western nations that have sought to diplomatically isolate Russia following its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its alleged meddling in the 2016 US election.

The country welcomed foreign fans with visa-free travel and spruced-up host cities, and a notable relaxation of heavy-handed policing encouraged street parties and a carnival atmosphere, fuelling celebrations that saw bars run out of beer and cafes open all night.

Sberbank said in a research report that its network alone had serviced 899,000 foreign bank cards from 194 countries during the month-long tournament, with one Chinese bank card used to make purchases in 11 different cities.

Fast-food outlets and restaurants saw spending of Rbs6.2bn ($98m), Sberbank said, with hotels accounting for Rbs5bn — though the real figure was likely to be far higher given that accommodation was also bought in advance or through foreign travel agents.

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