By Zach Dorfman, Sean D. Naylor and Michael Isikoff, Yahoo News, 9/26/21
In 2017, as Julian Assange began his fifth year holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London, the CIA plotted to kidnap the WikiLeaks founder, spurring heated debate among Trump administration officials over the legality and practicality of such an operation.
Some senior officials inside the CIA and the Trump administration even discussed killing Assange, going so far as to request “sketches” or “options” for how to assassinate him. Discussions over kidnapping or killing Assange occurred “at the highest levels” of the Trump administration, said a former senior counterintelligence official. “There seemed to be no boundaries.”
The conversations were part of an unprecedented CIA campaign directed against WikiLeaks and its founder. The agency’s multipronged plans also included extensive spying on WikiLeaks associates, sowing discord among the group’s members, and stealing their electronic devices.
…No politician or member of the U.S. foreign and security establishment has ever even attempted to explain why Russian involvement in Ukraine — with its territorial issues, its huge Russian minority, and deep historic, cultural, and emotional ties to one another — somehow implies Moscow’s desire to attack Poland or Romania, which contain no Russian minorities or territorial disputes. The justification for this belief in the Washington establishment is instead based on little more than memories of the 1940s, together with an assumption of innate, blind Russian tendencies to aggression.
Moreover, as far as Ukraine itself is concerned, the suggestion of a resemblance between U.S. “deterrence” there and deterrence in Poland and Romania is based on a very dangerous misconception. Romania, Poland, and the Baltic States are NATO members, covered by the Article 5 guarantee in the NATO Treaty whereby the United State is legally obliged to fight for them if they are attacked.
Ukraine is not a NATO member, and even if a U.S. administration were willing to make an immediate offer of membership, this would certainly be blocked by the other European NATO partners. The United States is not therefore legally bound to defend Ukraine, and already proved in 2014 that it would not in fact do so in any conflict with Russia (just as it failed to fight for Georgia in 2008). A promise of U.S. “deterrence” in Ukraine is therefore essentially a lie — and a very dangerous one, if a Ukrainian government were to believe it and act accordingly.
The Baltic States are in a somewhat special category. Unlike Poland and Romania, they were part of the USSR and they contain large Russian ethnic minorities. However, no territorial dispute exists between Russia and the Baltic States. Russia has certainly complained strongly against the partial disenfranchisement of these minorities in Latvia and Estonia (contrary to both promises made to Russia before independence and to basic principles of the European Union), but it has never on any occasion threatened to invade them. There have been cyber-attacks, probably with Russian state backing or encouragement — but these cannot be deterred by stationing U.S. troops in the Baltic. Nor have the Baltics given Russia any excuse to invade, because ethnic relations there, though sometimes tense, have always been overwhelmingly peaceful.
And once again, nobody in Washington who has written on potential Russian aggression against NATO members has ever explained what Russia could possibly hope to gain from such an attack, and whether any benefit would outweigh the immense risks and losses involved: the danger of nuclear war, shattering economic crisis, crippling sanctions, a consolidation of the U.S.-European alliance against Russia, and the end of Russian gas exports to Europe.
And for what? Occupied territories constantly roiled by massive public unrest or even guerrilla warfare, and the expenditure of colossal amounts of money that Russia does not have? If Soviet proxies failed to govern the Baltic States and Eastern Europe in the 1980s, why on earth would Moscow think that it could govern these countries today? It cannot be stated too strongly: the idea of a Russian conventional attack on NATO is the product of a combination of sincere paranoia and cynical military-industrial manipulation in the West; while other forms of “non-conventional” Russian pressure cannot by definition be deterred by new U.S. conventional forces…
By Natylie Baldwin. Originally published by Oped News, 9/19/21.
We hear a lot about Russia being a dictatorship under Vladimir Putin. It is said frequently by U.S. media commentators that there is no democracy, free media, or substantive rule of law in the country. The reality is much more complicated. Moreover, what Russians actually think about these aspects of their country and what the historical context of democracy is in Russia is rarely explored in any depth.
The History of Russian Dictatorship and Democracy
A 2015 poll by the western-funded Levada Center revealed that 66 percent of Russians feel free and 68 percent don’t believe it is likely that Russia will return to dictatorship. Russians have a thousand year history of authoritarian rule and they know what real dictators act like. Despite the relentless focus most western media has on the travails of a small group of liberal oppositionists who are actually unpopular in Russia, life under Putin represents the most democratic period (however flawed) in Russian history, excerpt for very brief periods after the February 1917 Revolution and the perestroika/glasnost period under Mikhail Gorbachev. The former lasted less than a year and the latter about 5-7 years.
Prioritizing Social Justice
Most American politicians and commentators tend to assume that a democracy must be a system similar to what the U.S. has which reflects neoliberal American values. This means a free market economy with a political system that favors the individual and minimal socioeconomic protections from the state. Russians, however, prioritize values differently and this affects what democracy will look like to them.
Surveys consistently show that Russians value social justice over individual achievement and political rights. In 2014, Russians were asked whether they would rather live in a society that prioritized social equality or individual attainment of success. Over 60 percent chose the former. Another Levada poll from this month revealed that only 16 percent favor a western style democracy compared to 49 percent who favor a system more like the Soviet one. Furthermore, 62 percent favor an economic system based on state planning and redistribution compared to 24 percent who prefer a free market economy. Russian youth also support a robust socioeconomic system provided by the state. In focused surveys, one of a handful of things Russians across the political spectrum agreed on included the need for strong welfare state programs.
Agreement on these points among traditionalists, Putin supporters, youth and liberals underscores that these values don’t simply reflect a throwback to the communist era – although that is a factor for some older people who have positive memories of the state social programs of that period. There is a long history of valuing the collective good that predates communism. In fact, the collective is mentioned in the Kremlin’s new National Security Strategy as an important traditional value. Though the Soviet lifestyle may have been austere with few consumer goods compared to the U.S., in the context of Russian history, the era represented great material progress for the average Russian who had previously toiled as a peasant.
Sharon Tennison, founder of the citizen diplomacy group Center for Citizen Initiatives, has traveled regularly all over Russia since 1983 and described the Russian ethos on democracy and social justice:
“Most [Russians] are interested in something akin to a social democracy with elected leaders, social services such as free and excellent education for all (including higher education), some form of dependable public health care along with private health care for those who can afford it, and a high level of classical culture nationwide… .Democracy is developing in Russia, but it always will be laced with socialism.”
The Legal System
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 acquiescence 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, which meant that citizens were granted socioeconomic rights in exchange for performing their duties to the state.
Russia’s first constitution came about as the result of the Russian Revolution of 1905. But it was effectively revoked in 1917, along with several legal reforms instituted by Tsar Alexander II in 1864, including the right to trial by jury with independent judges overseeing cases.
The current constitution of 1993 resulted from the dramatic showdown between then-president Boris Yeltsin and the parliament. Yeltsin had dissolved parliament after members refused to continue to allow him to rule by decree, threatening impeachment for abuse of power. The confrontation ended with a military attack on the parliament building, leading to hundreds of casualties. Yeltsin then suspended the existing constitution.
In order to prevent any future such challenge to presidential power, Yeltsin engineered the design of a constitution with a defanged parliament that would essentially serve as a rubber stamp for the president’s prerogatives. This event, along with the economic devastation and criminal chaos that marked Yeltsin’s rule, meant that the period of democratic possibility begun under Gorbachev had largely evaporated.
Though it doesn’t fit with the overly simplistic portrayal in western media, Putin did begin a process of expanding the rule of law and broadening individual legal rights during his first two terms as president.
He oversaw the implementation of 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 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 Justices of the Peace (JP’s) into the system. JP’s act as judges in the lowest tier of courts and preside over approximately 75 percent of civil cases and 45 percent of criminal cases, with most of the latter resolved through plea bargaining. A years-long academic study of Russia’s court system showed that JP’s demonstrate independence and base their decisions on the written law in the vast majority of cases. Exceptions involve the very small percentage of cases that are politically sensitive, particularly to the Kremlin.
There have been setbacks in recent years, especially regarding public protests and foreign-funded NGO’s. However, most civil society work is actually funded domestically. Sarah Lindemann-Komarova, a community organizer in Siberia who studies Russian community activism and funding, explains that the vast majority of civil society groups in Russia are unaffected by the crackdown: “For most community development groups and actually most NGOs it was never an issue. Very few organizations got western support and even fewer now.”
A few foreign-funded media outlets have been harassed or forced to shut down, and the legal criteria for potentially being labeled a foreign agent as an individual journalist is very broad. The Presidential Council on Human Rights is proposing amendments to soften the law by only allowing the designation to originate from routine government inspections rather than reports from individuals and organizations.
In spite of this, overt censorship in Russia is still fairly limited. A variety of opinion is represented in domestic Russian print media, including criticism of Putin and the government. Even on pro-government Russian TV, which is mostly consumed by older citizens, it is not unusual for a pro-Western viewpoint to be included on political talk shows. And Russians still have access to Western media through both the internet and satellite.
In short, skepticism is warranted when we encounter the overly simplistic manner in which Russia is often portrayed by much of the U.S. political class and establishment media. Russians have their own ideas about what constitutes the kind of society they want to live in.
After four years of intense anti-Russia sentiment in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 election, U.S.-Russia relations don’t appear to be faring much better under the new Biden administration as both Russia and the United States have officially accused the other of cyberattacks on infrastructure this year. Meanwhile, Western media has provided frequent stories on the plight of Russian oppositionist Alexey Navalny. Natylie Baldwin interviewed Sharon Tennison this past spring to get a different and more in-depth perspective on U.S.-Russia relations, as well as Russia’s history, culture and politics. Tennison is president and founder of the Center for Citizen Initiatives, an organization that began leading citizen diplomacy delegations between the U.S. and Russia in 1983 amidst the heightened threat of nuclear war. She is also the author of The Power of Impossible Ideas: Ordinary Citizens’ Efforts to Avoid International Crises. Since then, she has traveled numerous times each year to different parts of Russia and has seen first-hand the transformation of the perestroika era of Mikhail Gorbachev, the end of the Cold War, the tragedy and chaos of the 1990s, and the gradual social improvements of the Putin era. She also discusses the importance of citizen diplomacy in times of heightened tensions between the nuclear superpowers.
Natylie Baldwin: How did you first end up going to the Soviet Union in 1983 and how has your citizen-to-citizen diplomacy work evolved in Russia?
Sharon Tennison: I can give you one American’s experiences and memories from having traveled throughout the USSR and the newly developing Russia since 1983. Later there were several groups who began to explore different parts of the “enemy country.” We had no academic training in Russian history and simply used our eyes and ears to interpret that vast country and its people, which is very different from the U.S. We simply wanted to get to know “the enemy” and to do whatever we could to prevent nuclear war. I had grown increasingly fearful of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s and again in the early 1980s.
In 1982 I asked several friends if they wanted to go to the USSR to see the “enemy.”
We found a travel agent and, like automatons, we began to move forward. On September 16, 1983, filled with apprehension, we boarded a plane for the USSR. Surprisingly, we found no enemy there, only human beings like ourselves, frightened of nuclear war and thinking that the U.S. would start World War III. We were shocked. We were also surprised that no one interfered with us when we jumped off of their official tour buses and took off in unplanned directions. We learned with our own eyes and ears what was happening in the huge city of Moscow and Leningrad.
Looking back, I’m sure they were watching us, but no one interfered even when we visited with strident Jewish Refuseniks or walked into an old Baptist church which was full of worshippers (mostly babushkas and their grandkids).
Upon coming home we decided we must take a second trip. Unexpectedly even to ourselves, we began creating numerous delegations annually. Americans began calling us to take delegations, such as an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group who wanted to take their message of sobriety to Russians. Gorbachev ascended to power in 1985. He gave permission for us to take AA delegations across the USSR.
In 1988 we began Soviets Meet Middle America (SMMA) where we brought 400 unofficial Soviet citizens in couples or threesomes to cities across America. They lived in homes and discussed U.S.-Russia relations around the breakfast table. The unexpected Gorbachev/Reagan era emerged in 1989 with the Berlin wall coming down.The USSR fell apart, republics split off and became new countries, all rejecting Communism, as did Russia. They struggled to get rid of top-down leaders and govern themselves.
During Russia’s tragic 1990s and equally difficult 2000s, CCI trained thousands of Russia’s young entrepreneurs how to develop their first micro businesses. We assisted Russian environmental groups to clean up weapons dumps, sent tons of vegetable seeds to small private farmers, started AA chapters across Russia, and brought more than 6,000 Russian entrepreneurs to the U.S. from 71 Russian regions for industry-specific business internships. We worked with over a hundred U.S. Rotary clubs across America to train these young men and women, which resulted in our entrepreneurs starting their own Rotary clubs across Russia. Through these years CCI earned the trust of both the U.S. and Russian governments.
Something a little bit lighter for today’s post. I have recently discovered this YouTube channel which takes paintings and photos of historical figures and, using computer enhancement, colorizes them and provides expressive motions such as blinking and smiling. With some female images, they will even alter makeup and hairstyle to give the viewer an idea of what the person may have looked like in modern times. It’s kind of cool and creepy at the same time. In this short video, Grand Duchess Maria – one of Tsar Nicholas II’s four daughters – is given the enhanced image treatment.
By Anna Massoglia and Julia Forrest, OpenSecrets, 8/20/21
In the months leading up to the U.S. ending its 20-year war in Afghanistan and the Taliban gaining control of the country, major defense companies were awarded contracts in Afghanistan worth hundreds of millions of dollars and spent tens of millions lobbying the federal government on defense issues.
The Department of Defense issued nearly $1 billion dollars in contracts to 17 companies related to work in Afghanistan that was set to continue past the May 1 withdrawal date.
It’s unclear what will happen with some of those contracts as the U.S. evacuates operations in Afghanistan.
Texas-based defense contractor and construction firm Fluor received contracts of at least $85 million this year for work in Afghanistan. The company recently said it will “continue to do everything we can to repatriate all employees required to leave Afghanistan.” Fluor spent over $1.4 million on lobbying in the first half of 2021, around $115,000 more than the firm spent in the same period in 2020.
In May, defense contractor Leidos was awarded a $34 million government contract to continue providing logistics support services for the Afghan Air Force and the Special Mission Wing. The U.S. Army Contracting Command awarded Leidos an initial $727.89 million contract on Aug. 17 in 2017. Leidos spent $1.18 million on lobbying in the first half of 2021.
On March 11, the Defense Department signed a contract with Salient Federal Services for information technology infrastructure in Afghanistan, a deal worth approximately $24.9 million and set to be completed in March 2022.
It’s not yet known if these contracts will be voided now that the situation has drastically changed in Afghanistan.
The following day, the Defense Department signed a contract with Textron for $9.7 million in force-protection efforts in Afghanistan, an effort that was expected to be completed by March 2022, long after even Biden’s planned withdrawal date. Textron spent $4.47 million lobbying in 2020 and has already spent $2.4 million in 2021.
Maryland-based defense support services conglomerate Amentum Services was awarded more than $305 million in defense contracts mentioning Afghanistan since 2008. The Department of Defense awarded DynCorp International, which was subsumed by Amentum in 2020, more than $4 billion in defense contracts mentioning Afghanistan since 2008.
Amentum Services, which was awarded tens of millions of dollars in government contracts in 2020 alone, spent $980,000 on lobbying the federal government on defense issues in 2020 and another $340,000 in the first half of 2021.
Security contracts worth $68.2 million with Aegis Defense Services, a private security service organization, were also slated to be completed in 2023 and 2026.
The Congressional Research Service found that the Defense Department also obligated more money on federal contracts during the 2020 fiscal year than all other government agencies combined with around 31% of its contracts going to the five companies.
People with ties to the defense industry have also been in positions to influence decision-making about the withdrawal from Afghanistan — including Retired General Joseph F. Dunford and former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who are two of three co-chairs on the congressionally-chartered Afghanistan Study Group.
The majority of plenary members on the Afghanistan Study Group, which advised President Joe Biden to extend the originally-negotiated May 1 deadline for withdrawing from Afghanistan, also have ties to the defense industry. A couple of those members include former President Donald Trump’s principal deputy director of national intelligence, Susan M. Gordon, and Stephen J. Hadley, former President George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser…
Two US veterans, Matthew Hoh and Daniel Sjursen, explain how the war in Afghanistan was lost, Afghans suffered, and military contractors profited — all while the American public was kept in the dark. Guests: Danny Sjursen. Retired US Army officer, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. His latest book is “A True History of the United States.” https://twitter.com/SkepticalVet
Matthew Hoh. Former Marine and State Department official who resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan over U.S. policy in September 2009. Now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. https://twitter.com/matthewphoh
Jeff Hawn is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of International History at The London School of Economics and Political Science. His research focuses on the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis and the post-Cold War international order.
On June 21 2021, the Russian prosecutor general’s office added the New York-based Bard College to its growing list of undesirable foreign organizations. In practice, this will mean Bard will be unable to continue its long-running partnership with St. Petersburg State University which has helped thousands of U.S. and Russian students undertake educational exchanges. Placing Bard on its list of undesirable foreign organizations is the latest step by the Russian government to limit avenues for cultural, diplomatic, and educational exchange with the United States. The U.S. government has done little to counteract these limitations, a trend that will be counter-productive in the long term.
The United States is engaged in an active and often hostile competition with Russia, but, instead of investing in building a robust network of Russian experts, Washington has neglected to invest in the field. The damage is well documented. In 2012, Title VIII funding, which authorizes federal money to be directed to Slavic language training and advance research, was cut sharply from $4.5 million to $3 million per year. This is part of a growing trend in the United States that applies across government, academia, and NGOs, where, despite increased confrontation with Moscow, knowledgeable experts are competing for ever fewer resources.
George Kennan, the oft-cited dean of Russian studies in the 1940s and 1950s, argued that, in order to actually understand Russia, you needed to get Russian mud on your boots. In other words, it’s not enough to read about the country, but rather it’s important to live there and understand its complex and often misunderstood history and culture.
The experience of the Cold War seemed to prove Kennan right. Having had only a few dozen Russian experts in the 1950s, by the 1990s the United States boasted several hundred across government and academia. Yet many had never had the opportunity to visit Russia, and thus their perceptions of its foreign and domestic policies were not necessarily well grounded. Hence, for many years U.S. experts believed the Soviet Union was more viable than it truly proved to be.
The collapse of the USSR inflicted an additional blow to Russian studies in the United States. An overconfidence and deep misunderstanding of the implications of the death of communism led the U.S. talent pool on Russia to dry up. That pool has not been replenished despite increasing tensions with Russia. The fault lies largely with the U.S. government’s priorities.
Unlike the 1950s, there has been no increase of funding for Russian studies and indeed the macro trends in Washington seem to act more to deter those who want to engage in Russian studies rather than encourage them. The outsourcing of background checks for security clearance to lowest-bid contractors means that would-be Russian experts applying for entry-level federal positions face daunting obstacles. Even if they are somehow able to navigate the highly dysfunctional hiring process, they still face a very arduous clearance ordeal that can result in disqualification, often on the grounds of concern over foreign contacts or connections acquired during educational or cultural exchanges. The lesson for would-be Russian scholars is: why bother trying to cultivate expertise if it will only serve to disqualify you?
That is not to say Washington is bereft of genuine expertise. But the increasingly polarized environment that rewards jingoism and punishes nuanced analysis means that many experts have been left on the sidelines.