It’s been a rough summer for the Russian heartland. First there were floods and wildfires that ravaged parts of Siberia. Now, over the past 10 days there have been two deadly explosions. The first was at an ammunition depot in Achinsk (also in Siberia), which resulted in one dead and 7 injured with thousands evacuated from the vicinity. The second was an explosion in the White Sea that has killed 7 and seriously injured at least 6 more.
That last incident off the northern coast of Russia involved the release of radiation that led to a spike in local levels in the immediate aftermath. Democracy Now! has reported 7 resultant deaths that it’s suspected that the explosion may have been a test of a nuclear powered cruise missile gone wrong. ZeroHedge provided the following details:
Russia’s state nuclear agency has said five of its staff members were killed at a military testing site in northern Russia, reportedly when the liquid propellant rocket engine exploded during tests on a sea platform. Some reports say it may have involved a top secret weapon that was part of Moscow’s hypersonic arsenal. Russia is pursuing hypersonic missiles as a nuclear deterrent, as Putin himself has recently verbalized.
Ankit Panda, with the Federation of American Scientists, gave a more nuanced analysis:
“Russian authorities have confirmed the involvement of radioactive materials in the accident, but not the specific weapons system that was being tested,” says Ankit Panda at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. “It’s important to clarify that the radiological event in this case is not due to the presence of nuclear weaponry, but what may be a prototype nuclear propulsion unit for a cruise missile.” He believes the difficulties and dangers of such a system mean it may never see deployment.
Officials with the nearby Russian city of Severodvinsk stated that radiation levels had gone up right after the explosion, but that statement – which contradicted initial Russian Defense Ministry claims that there was no release of “harmful chemicals” or any change in radiation levels – have allegedly been scrubbed from public media, which doesn’t make for good optics.
There are also reports that in the wake of the incident frightened locals have been buying up iodine pills, depleting supplies.
The Daily Mail reported that the 6 additional casualties were suffering from radiation poisoning and other injuries. Images were presented of ambulances racing through Moscow with drivers in full hazmat style gear transporting the victims to a special treatment facility in the capital.
New Scientist is reporting that monitoring shows any radiation leaks released by the incident have not spread beyond Russia.
Memorial services were held for the nuclear engineers on August 12th.
This is another tragic reminder that the only way we can prevent these kinds of accidents while saving humanity and the planet from the scourge of nuclear weapons and their byproducts is to negotiate them out of existence.
The U.S. has often had a complicated relationship with Russia. During our civil war, Czar Alexander II sent naval support to the Union forces and enjoyed an amiable correspondence with Abraham Lincoln. As the 19th century transitioned into the 20th, various missionary style ideologues had been projecting a combination of their own hopes and fears onto imperial Russia. This was perhaps most reflected in the writings of the first George Kennan, an explorer and journalist who initially had sympathy for the vast and mysterious nation at the outer edges of Europe, but then turned hostile and actively championed a revolutionary overthrow of the czarist government.
Then we were allies in WWI but it didn’t take long for hostility to set back in as the Bolsheviks took the reins of power, pulled out of the war and seized certain assets, threatening western political and corporate interests. Along with the British, Washington militarily supported counter-revolutionary forces and a cold war of sorts soon emerged in which Washington refused to officially recognize the Soviet government until 1933.
We were again allies, this time against the Nazi juggernaut in WWII. And again, the partnership didn’t last as Roosevelt died in office, which brought a foreign policy ignoramus with a dubious psychological profile into the White House. Truman facilitated poor decisions that paved the way for the next Cold War and a dangerous nuclear arms race.
After Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated an end to that Cold War, Bill Clinton broke the promises made to Gorbachev that in exchange for allowing a reunified Germany into NATO, the military alliance would not move “one inch east” further toward Russia’s borders.
Then the Bush II administration gave the Neocons – whose hatred of Russia is part of what defines them, in addition to conflating Israel’s interests with Washington’s – the freedom to start their nihilistic campaign of destroying whole countries in order to save them, normalizing the ideas of overt war and brutality. Obama continued to harbor just enough Neocons in the State Department to grease the wheels of the Ukraine Crisis in 2013-2014.
And we’ve all seen just what a quick and thorough job the establishment did of using Trump as a punching bag for even suggesting in polite company that we should try to have good relations with Russia.
Of course, it hasn’t just been the United States that has had a strange mix of fascination and hostility toward Russia. Europe’s imperial powers competed with each other for years, with the British Empire and the Russian Empire engaged in the Great Game for most of the 19th century.
However, despite the major advancements made by Russia in the eras of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, Russia had still lagged behind its western European counterparts in terms of industrialization and development. From the mid-nineteenth century on, Russia was catching up, enjoying impressive growth rates, industrializing quickly and building railroads, etc. It was part of an eastward pattern of advancement among European countries. The British, the French and the Germans/Prussians figured that it was just a matter of time before Russia would have its moment in the sun and be the major power. All it needed was reasonably competent leadership.
Even though Russia had lagged behind, its awesome potential was apparent to any one who cared to look. Its vast size and prodigious resources alone were formidable.
Fast forward to today. Its vast size – the largest country geographically in the world – and its prodigious resources are still there. But now, having overcome its historical issues with poor agricultural policies, it also has the ability to feed itself, a highly educated citizenry, and the industrial infrastructure to support a space program as well as a sophisticated nuclear and defense system. It has the ability to build cars, trucks, and airplanes completely within its own borders. Unlike many countries in the world, it has very little external debt and major gold reserves. It is weathering the sanctions against it better than Iran or Venezuela.
Given all of this, it is clear that with smart leadership to guide it competently over a period of time, Russia has the potential to be a real force to be reckoned with.
I imagine this has something to do with why a former diplomat said that once it became known that Putin was going to become president of Russia in 2000, “the knives were drawn” in Washington.
After last Wednesday night’s debate, there was a lot of buzz about Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s symbolic public spanking of Senator Kamala Harris for her disturbing record as former District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California. Gabbard took the opportunity to challenge Harris on this topic by hijacking the moderator’s question, which was a request for Gabbard to expound on her pre-debate comment about Harris’s attack on Biden’s race record.
Another pre-debate assertion that Gabbard made about Harris that I wish the moderators had asked her to expound on was that Harris doesn’t have the temperament to be commander in chief.
As shown in the debates, Harris has trouble keeping her emotions in check, easily becoming hostile and angry (if we want an improvement on Trump, this ain’t it). Moreover, she had no substantive rebuttals when challenged on both her anemic health care plan and her problematic political record. This shows that she doesn’t think well on her feet and doesn’t respond well when challenged by a smart and assertive foe.
This combined with the fact that Harris is taking Wall Street and corporate PAC money, makes it obvious that Harris will have neither the inclination nor the backbone to stand up to the foreign policy “blob” if she were to become president.
When Harris did comment on foreign policy it was during the first debate in which she attacked Trump’s actions from the right, mindlessly repeating establishment talking points that reflected no depth of thought. This included the criticisms that Trump wasn’t sufficiently insulting and patronizing enough during past meetings with Putin and that meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un was nothing more than a “photo op” that granted legitimacy to a dictator.
In keeping with this mindset, and to compensate for her lack of a counter-argument during the debate, Harris went on the attack against Gabbard in the media afterward. She brought up Gabbard’s meeting with Assad in 2017 and used it in an attempt to smear Gabbard as being unworthy of serious consideration.
What’s most problematic is the reason why Gabbard’s actions with respect to Syria in 2017 are supposed to be automatically viewed as so beyond the pale that even mentioning them is intended to delegitimize Gabbard and shut down conversation.
Indeed within 24 hours Gabbard had to take several others to the proverbial woodshed, particularly an MSNBC anchor who also attempted to beat Gabbard over the head about her Assad meeting.
Gabbard’s response to the anchor is clearly a frustrated attempt to explain the basic principles of diplomacy. It’s profoundly disturbing when many candidates running for the highest office in the land – and the “journalists” covering them – don’t understand what diplomacy even is.
When the very concept of diplomacy has become an anachronism with its definition having to be explained and its benefits not self-evidently understood, we’re in serious trouble.
If previous administrations hadn’t believed in diplomacy, we would not have negotiated arms control treaties with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In fact, we wouldn’t even have negotiated an end to the Cold War at all if diplomacy was considered verboten. Would Americans have been better off if our politicians had been too sanctimonious to conduct that diplomacy?
Ronald Reagan believed that refusing to talk to your adversaries – as the Neocons believed – was a sign of weakness, not of strength. This prompted Reagan to negotiate with Gorbachev against the advice of Neocons in his administration. Do the Democrats really want to position themselves to the right of Reagan?
To Harris – and any other candidate running for the presidency – the question needs to be asked: if you don’t believe in talking to adversaries, then how do you propose to avoid or deescalate tensions that could lead to war?
If one believes in diplomacy and the constitution, then Gabbard had every right to go on a fact-finding mission to Syria in 2017 and should not only not apologize for it, she should more fully explain why it was a patriotic thing to do.
First, her trip has been mis-characterized as some kind of lone rendezvous with Assad. The fact is that Gabbard met with a range of Syrians, including segments of the opposition, and did not seek a meeting with Assad but accepted one when it was offered in order to get the perspective of as many Syrians as possible. Second, she showed willingness to talk to an adversary, which demonstrated that she has the skills and mindset necessary to conduct diplomacy. Though it should be noted, she was not attempting to officially negotiate on behalf of the U.S. government during this meeting, so it would not be a violation of the Logan Act, a constitutionally dubious law under which only two people have ever been charged and no one has ever been convicted. Third, as other analysts have pointed out, Congress is a separate and co-equal branch of government that has a duty to perform a check on the executive branch, especially about an issue of such gravity as war and peace – an issue that the executive branch has a long and documented history of lying about (e.g. Gulf of Tonkin, Iraqi WMD, Qaddafi’s Viagra-fueled imminent genocide, etc.). Those lies have resulted in the deaths of millions of people, including tens of thousands of Americans, and the destabilization of entire regions. None of this has been in the interest of the majority of Americans.
As a member of Congress, Gabbard had a responsibility to find out what was really going on in Syria – a country that the U.S. was intervening in.
Although most people will vote primarily based on more immediate domestic issues, a government cannot continuously deal with the outside world with hyper-militarized violence and not expect that to bleed back into the home front. Many issues of major concern are directly connected to our martial foreign policy: lack of financial resources for domestic investment to improve American lives, the militarization of our police force, the fetishizing of guns, the debasing of our culture with desensitization to and glorification of violence, as well as destruction of the environment*.
Since presidents have wide latitude in the conduct of foreign policy and their actions will potentially affect the lives of thousands or even millions (in the case of nuclear weapons, billions), a presidential candidate must demonstrate some understanding of foreign policy and how best to protect the interests of Americans. That means understanding diplomacy and how it works.
*The Pentagon is the biggest institutional guzzler of fossil fuels on the planet and a major emitter of GHG’s.
This kind of reminds me of Putin in 2009 paying a last-minute visit to a factory in Pikalyovo after getting a note from a local trade union leader about a plant that had been closed down due to squabbling among the owners, leaving most of town’s residents out of work and with dysfunctional infrastructure. Putin showed up and reamed the owners of the factory, including Oleg Deripaska. Putin basically told the owners to get off their duffs and get the factory re-opened so the locals could go back to work, otherwise the factory would be taken out of their control. After a sheepish Deripaska had to be persuaded to sign an agreement promising he’d do what he was supposed to do, he started to walk off with Putin’s pen. Putin exclaimed: “And give me my pen back.” A video of the whole thing went viral on YouTube.
Putin recently flew out to the Irkutsk area of Siberia in the aftermath of terrible floods that destroyed many homes, leaving people stranded with complaints that local officials were making access to any assistance difficult and confusing. This video gives you a window into why Putin is still popular among many Russians. Contrast Putin’s taking the time to personally talk to dozens of local people who gathered to ask him for help (and having his aides take down everyone’s name and number for follow-up) with Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina or Obama’s handling of the Gulf oil spill or Trump’s handling of the hurricanes in Puerto Rico. I’m also thinking of a recent incident in which a poor homeless woman encounters New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio at a gym and tries to ask him about doing more to help the homeless. He refused to address her question and gave her the brush off.
Does anyone know of any western leader who would take this kind of time and show this kind of patience in listening to scores of citizens’ problems? I wish they would, but most would likely exchange a few words with a handful for a photo op and leave.
Of course, this was video-taped with a reporter shadowing Putin to get it all down for public consumption on the news. Putin will be happy for the PR points, but if that’s all he was after, he wouldn’t have taken this much time. And, like the results of Putin’s intervention with the factory in Pikalyovo 10 years ago, I imagine he will follow up with Irkutsk in September like he promised to ensure that there have been results.
Another point to consider is that bureaucrats lower down the food chain often serve as an obstruction to getting things done, whether it’s implementing reforms or discharging their duties in a conscientious manner. Either they are complacent or they intentionally obstruct for their own reasons. This problem has existed to varying degrees since the czarist era. This is a partial reason for why Putin has to periodically go out into the field and give local officials and business owners the equivalent of a swift kick in the pants by either publicly shaming them and/or threatening to take action against the footdraggers.
Note: I’ve been including a lot of videos of Putin’s speeches, interviews and activities recently to show readers original material so they can see and hear Putin directly and judge for themselves, since most of our media and politicians spin Putin as simply a “thug” and a “brutal dictator” with no redeeming qualities.
Siberia has also been suffering from an unprecedented number of wildfires. In a telephone conversation yesterday with Putin, Trump offered U.S. assistance in fighting the fires in Siberia. Putin said he would take advantage of the offer if it became necessary. He also said that he took the gesture as a positive sign that bilateral relations could potentially be re-built between the two nations.
At a recent conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in Venezuela (I must admit I didn’t know that it still existed), the Grayzone’s Anya Parampil interviewed Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov. Among other interesting things, he discussed the fact that Washington, with its abuse of financial and economic sanctions, is actually provoking many nations of the world to find a way to supplant the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency. I think the phrase is cutting off one’s nose to spite their face. The remarks about the U.S. dollar are around the 15-minute point in the interview.
The arrogance and solipsism displayed by the editors of the New York Times never fails to amaze me. After spending almost 3 years doing their part to push a conspiracy theory in which Russia was the devil to blame for the fact that we have Trump, which just represented an escalated level of the vilification that has been heaped on Putin and Russia in stages since 2003, the New York Times finally decided in a July 21st oped that just maybe Washington should now try to sorta kinda saddle up to Russia just a tiny bit because…you know, China.
Allow me to provide a short explanation to the out-of-touch NYT editors about why Russia will not be trusting Washington any time soon and has decided that it will likely get better results from the continued strengthening of relations with other important and influential countries.
First, there is the matter of the western corporate media, which is the mouthpiece for the political class, pushing accusations of every incredible crime against Russia’s leader short of cannibalism, and characterizing the Russian people as being inherently dishonest and so primitive that a significant percentage of them are still going to the bathroom in the bushes.
More importantly, however, there are the actual policies that Washington has implemented against Russia since Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated the end of the Cold War, after which Washington chose to take a triumphalist attitude, seeking to press its foot on a supine Russia’s chest as it flexed its muscles in the middle of the ring while the crowds lapped it up.
As readers of this blog are well aware, Secretary of State James Baker, along with other prominent members of the leadership of the western world, promised Gorbachev in early 1990 that in exchange for allowing a reunified Germany into NATO, the military alliance would not move “one inch east” further toward Russia’s borders. This promise was crucial in getting Gorbachev’s agreement as Germany had marched into Russia through the Polish-Ukrainian corridor twice in the first half of the 20th century, the second time resulting in the deaths of 27 million Soviets and the utter destruction of a third of the USSR during WWII.
In 1999, against the advice of knowledgeable diplomats and others, Bill Clinton broke that promise and welcomed Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the alliance.
In 2002, George W. Bush unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, one of three legs of the nuclear arms control arrangements between the two nuclear superpowers, in order to pursue a possible first strike advantage over Russia, upsetting the strategic nuclear balance.
In 2004, NATO was expanded further with the entry of seven new members, including the Baltic states right on Russia’s western border.
In 2006, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during a visit to Moscow, had a heated exchange with Putin about the eventual entry of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Putin explained that Ukraine was a culturally and ethnically divided country and pushing Ukraine into NATO would likely set off a negative cascade of consequences that would ultimately be detrimental to both Ukraine and Russia. He warned Rice that such a move would amount to “playing with fire.” Two years later, in a cable back to Washington, then ambassador to Russia, William Burns, relayed a conversation with Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in which Lavrov reiterated that Ukraine in NATO was a red line for Russia, presciently citing the possibility that exploiting Ukraine’s divisions on behalf of NATO expansion could lead to a civil war and Russia would be faced with having to choose whether or not to intervene – a decision Lavrov said Russia did not want to make.
In 2013-14, the democratically elected leader of Ukraine was pushed out in an illegal coup, actively supported by Washington with neo-Nazis acting as the muscle, that brought an anti-Russian government into power. Crimea, which had historically been part of Russia since the late 18th century with a majority of its population comprised of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, also had an important naval base on its coast called Sevastopol. Crimea/Sevastopol had been administratively moved by Khrushchev in 1954 from Russia to Ukraine, with no one yet foreseeing the future breakup of the USSR. In 1991, as Ukraine gained its independence, Crimea remained with Ukraine as an autonomous region and Russia retained its naval base in Sevastopol via a leasing agreement with Kiev. As events unfolded on the Maidan in February of 2014, the Russian government feared that NATO could move in on its naval base in Sevastopol.
Earlier this year, with U.S.-Russia relations at an all-time low amidst the constant media rants of Trump being an agent of the Kremlin with Robert Mueller in the role of Mighty Mouse on his way to save the day, the Trump administration announced its unilateral withdrawal from the INF Treaty, the second leg of the nuclear arms control stool.
The New START Treaty, the third and last remaining leg of the stool, which expires in 2021, does not look like it’s long for this world either.
At this point, it’s no wonder that Russia would decide to turn toward constructive working relationships with other countries and multilateral institutions that aren’t controlled by Washington, such as China, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), SCO, the Chinese Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank, and others.
China is the world’s other major economic power and the leadership in both Russia and China have publicly described the relationship between the two countries as a “strategic partnership.” And the ties seem to be strengthening all the time. According to news recently aggregated by Russia Matters, Russia and China have stepped up joint military practices:
Russian and Chinese bombers conducted their first long-range joint air patrol in the Asia-Pacific on July 23.
To reinforce the strategic importance of Russian-Chinese relations, the day after these maneuvers, the Chinese government published a “white paper” in which it promised to further increase military cooperation between the two countries. More from Russia Matters:
Releasing a new defense “white paper” on July 24, China vowed to step up military cooperation with Russia and accused the U.S. of undermining regional stability, the Wall Street Journal reported. The Sino-Russian military relationship, in contrast, plays “a significant role in maintaining global strategic stability,” the paper said.
Though it aspires to have the leadership role in the region, unlike Washington, China generally does not appear to adhere to a zero-sum mentality in its relations with other nations, opting to focus on investing in mutually beneficial economic projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union is working with the BRI, as is Europe, many of the central Asian countries, Iran and Pakistan. In order for this ambitious project of a modern, high-tech trade route on land and sea that parallels the old Silk Road, China and its partners need a stable Eurasia with a developed infrastructure. Therefore, peace is in all these players’ interests.
As for those who say that ties between the two countries are undermined by China’s potential future designs on Russian territory, I see no substantive evidence that China would do anything of the sort in connection with Russia – a nuclear superpower and, as Obama even begrudgingly admitted before leaving office, is the world’s second most powerful military. There is simply no reason to believe that China’s leadership is stupid or crazy enough to think such a move would be in their interests. It’s not the 1960’s with loose cannons like Khrushchev and Mao at the helm.
Moreover, what Tao Wang of Yicai Research Institute stated at the East Asia Forum three years ago about the Russian-Chinese relationship is still relevant:
….China and Russia are still complementary economies. One is rich in resources and high military technology, while the other is good at mass manufacturing and rich in cash. This complementarity is well demonstrated by their partnership in Central Asia, where China provides investment in resource-rich yet unpredictable countries while Russia ensures the stability of ruling regimes.
So the question becomes: what does Washington really have to offer Russia at this point that would be worth them seriously considering throwing themselves into the Washington camp at China’s expense?
The only truly valuable things that Washington could offer are 1) meaningful nuclear arms control negotiations, and 2) putting a freeze on NATO expansion. Unfortunately, I don’t see either of these things happening in Washington any time soon. Even if Trump decided he really wanted to pursue these things, there is no one around him that could competently conduct negotiations and the infrastructure for meaningful diplomacy – as opposed to the “everything for me and nothing for you” approach that Washington mistakes for diplomacy – is non-existent right now.
But even more than that, why in the world would Russia trust any agreement that Washington got them to sign when it repeatedly breaks agreements whenever it wants? If there’s one thing that Washington has been a smashing success at since the end of the Cold War, it would be convincing the rest of the world that its word isn’t worth 2 cents.
Too many people in the insulated political class in Washington (I’m looking right at you, NYT editors) continue to see the world as a bad facsimile of a professional wrestling show where the goodies and the baddies can switch sides from week to week with just a change of costume and a ham-handed change of narrative at their direction. In the real world, when you’ve spent years pitching diplomacy out the window and systematically destroying any modicum of trust, it works a little differently.
On July 1st, the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM), concluded its 87th annual conference during which they unanimously adopted a new resolution called Calling on All Presidential Candidates to Make Known Their Positions on Nuclear Weapons and to Pledge U.S. Global Leadership in Preventing Nuclear War, Returning to Diplomacy, and Negotiating the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons”. According to United for Peace and Justice, the resolution calls on “all Presidential candidates of all political parties” to make these “priority issues in the 2020 Presidential campaign”.
The resolution acknowledged the profound dangers of the recent abrogation of the INF Treaty and called on all candidates to pledge to get back into the agreement, officially renounce a first strike policy, abide by the NPT obligation of nuclear powers to work toward disarmament, and reverse Washington’s opposition to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – a treaty supported by virtually all countries of the world except for the current nuclear powers.
United for Peace and Justice described the USCM as:
[T]he nonpartisan association of 1,408 American cities with populations over 30,000, has unanimously adopted Mayors for Peace resolutions for 14 consecutive years. Resolutions adopted at annual meetings become USCM official policy.
As noted in this year’s resolution, “Mayors for Peace is working for a world without nuclear weapons and safe and resilient cities as essential measures for the achievement of lasting world peace, and has grown to 7,756 cities in 163 countries and regions, with 215 U.S. members.”
In a recent post, I expressed skepticism about a Levada Center poll reported on by western media claiming that 10 percent of Russians had been tortured by Russian law enforcement authorities. This post was forwarded by my mentor, Sharon Tennison, to her large network of followers, which includes both Russian and American professionals, including members of academia, law, journalism, retired diplomatic personnel and others who are interested in her three decades of work fostering good will, understanding and citizen-to-citizen ties between the U.S. and Russia. Last week, Sharon posted some important feedback on my post from a Russian-American lawyer, Igor Brusil, who was able to review the original report by the Levada Center. He was also able to speak to the authors of the Levada Center report for clarification on the methodology used. Here is what he reported back:
Yesterday and today I received three emails from the individuals involved in the Levada Center’s survey on torture. These emails clarified what was meant as “torture” in the context of that survey. However, it became clear to me that the key question – “what exactly happened to you that you consider to have been torture” – was not answered by the survey. In fact, such a question was not even posed to the responders.
First, according to Levada Center, it approached the survey from the standpoint of “torture” as this term is defined in the UN Convention Against Torture, which may be found at https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/cat.aspx. In that document “torture” is defined in Article 1 as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”
Second, it appears that another, more expansive, understanding of “torture” was at play, as described on page 44 of the Levada report. According to page 44, “torture” includes verbal abuse, threats of extortion and other non-physical acts, as well as threats directed at third persons.
Third – and more important – is that those respondents (all 356 of them), who said they had been “tortured” relied on their own understanding of torture. Even more interesting is that Levada did NOT ask those 356 individuals what exactly happened to them that the respondents regarded as “torture.”
I find it curious that those 356 individuals could not even agree on what acts constitute torture. For example, as shown in Table 32 on page 56 of the report, of those “tortured” respondents only 54% regard the use of electrical shock, wet towels and cellophane bags as torture; 73% regard acts like “rape and physical violence that leads to trauma” as torture; and 41% regard verbal abuse as “torture.”
Considering that there may have been up to three understandings of torture at play (one – UN Convention, two – explanation on page 44, three – whatever the respondents thought), the study would have been stronger, in my view, if Levada had asked its respondents to list specific acts of their alleged torture and then applied the same definition of torture to those acts. However, as the survey stands now, it suggests that about 10% of those who had “a conflict” with law enforcement subjectively regard at least some of the acts of law enforcement as torture, but we do NOT know what those acts are.
You may print my initial comment on this survey and follow it up with this summary of the responses I have received from Levada. I think that any intelligent analysis of a survey requires that we know the survey’s methodology and assess its validity in light of the limitations of the methods used.
IGOR A. BRUSIL, Esq.
The Brusil Law Group, Ltd.
In a glimmer of hope, a Brussels-based think tank that is funded by the Soros Foundation along with Sweden, Norway, Finland, France, Canada and Australia (among others), has issued a report on the Ukraine conflict that acknowledges what some of us have been saying for a long time: the Donbass rebels are not Russian puppets, but mostly Ukrainian citizens who executed an uprising due to legitimate grievances in the aftermath of the 2014 coup in Kiev.
The International Crisis Group recently published Rebels Without a Cause: Russia’s Proxies in Eastern Ukraine. According to academic Russia expert Paul Robinson – who brought this report to my attention in a recent blog post:
“The ICG’s report is based on interview[s] with ‘rebels, Russian fighters, former and current Russian officials, and de facto republic officials, as well as analysis of public statements and other open sources.’ It is very clear about the origins of the war in Donbass, telling readers that:”
The conflict in eastern Ukraine started as a grassroots movement. … demonstrations were led by local citizens claiming to represent the region’s Russian-speaking majority. They were concerned both about the political and economic ramifications of the new Kyiv government and about moves, later aborted, by that government to curtail the official use of Russian language throughout the country.
The fact that a western organization is acknowledging this represents a significant change in the narrative, which up to now has insisted that the Donbas rebels were mostly Russians who had spilled over the border (or Ukrainians who were controlled by Moscow) to cause trouble for the new “democracy revolution” government in Kiev.
I’d like to think that this may portend a willingness on the part of some of the political class in the west to work toward the resolution of this conflict in particular and a lowering of tensions with Russia in general. The conflict in the Donbass or with Russia more generally is not in the interests of the people of the west, much less the people of Ukraine or Russia.
With that thought in mind, I’m pleased to report that the latest behind-the-scenes negotiations have resulted in the successful brokering of a ceasefire on the contact line in the Donbas, with both sides having pulled back. According to the OSCE report of July 18th:
BRATISLAVA, 18 July 2019 – OSCE Chairperson-in-Office and Slovak Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Miroslav Lajčák welcomed the new recommitment to an unlimited ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, starting from 21 July at 00 hrs. 01 min. (Kyiv time), as agreed at the meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group held in Minsk on 17 July.
Chairperson Lajčák stressed that this development constitutes an urgently needed and significant step, particularly considering the rising number of civilian casualties along the contact line reported by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM). Noting the importance of ensuring the sustainability of the ceasefire in order to avoid the failures of previous recommitments, the Chairperson-in-Office underlined that maintaining the ceasefire is as crucial as the recommitment itself. “A meaningful ceasefire needs to be permanent and irreversible. I urge all sides to live up to their commitments, and finally establish a comprehensive, sustainable and unlimited ceasefire, which can open the door for the peaceful resolution of the conflict,” Lajčák said.
Lajčák noted that this recommitment builds on the positive developments in the recent process of disengagement of forces and hardware from Stanytsia Luhanska, which has been facilitated and monitored by the SMM, as well as in concrete plans to finally repair the bridge –a crucial daily crossing point for thousands of people in the Luhansk region and badly damaged by the conflict. “I particularly welcome the common understanding reached by the sides yesterday in Minsk regarding the need to start repair work on the bridge at Stanytsia Luhanska. These repairs are urgent; they need to happen without delay. The people on the ground have suffered for too long already. And, we need to use this momentum to take even more positive steps forward,” he stressed.
The following day, Ukrainian president Zelensky announced the details of a possible prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia. The AP reported:
KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s president on Friday outlined the details of an impending prisoner swap with Russia, saying that Kiev is willing to release a jailed Russian journalist in exchange for a Ukrainian film director.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s statement comes at the end of the week of shuttle diplomacy, with the Russian and Ukrainian human rights ombudswomen holding talks both in Moscow and in Kiev. The flurry of activity around imprisoned Russians and Ukrainians follows last week’s first telephone call between Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin….
….Zelenskiy said in televised comments Friday that Ukraine could release journalist Kirill Vyshinskiy, who has been in jail for a year on treason charges, if Russia releases film director Oleg Sentsov from a Russian prison colony. Sentsov is serving 20 years in a Russian prison for allegedly plotting acts of terrorism.
I will keep an eye on this development and post any updates if the exchange actually takes place.
Zelensky’s Servant of the People party appears to have won yesterday’s snap parliamentary elections, according to exit polls, but did not win an outright majority. Andriy Purbiy, an avowed neo-Nazi who has served as the speaker for the past several years, will now be out of office. [Update: Zelensky’s Servant of the People party did, in fact, win a majority in the Rada, which gives Zelensky much more room to implement whatever program he wants – NB]
And now for a splash of cold water…
In a recent article, Russia expert Nicolai Petro discussed an incident that doesn’t bode well for the idea of Zelensky resisting the inevitable pressure he’s going to get from the ultra-nationalist elements in Ukraine who won’t stand for any agreement with Russia or reconciliation with the Donbas. A major Russian TV station and a Ukrainian TV station had planned to hold direct people-to-people talks between the two countries but were forced to cancel it due to threats of violence:
On July 7 the Russian television channel Russia-24 and the Ukrainian television channel “NewsOne” announced that they would hold a two-hour live studio discussion called “We Need to Talk” on July 12. NewsOne explained its initiative as a response to the fact that “today in Ukraine roughly 70 percent of people expect direct political discussions with Russia.” It also recalled that during the late 1980s space bridges between Phil Donahue and Vladimir Pozner had “laid the beginnings for contacts between peoples who, thanks to their politicians, found themselves in a Cold War.” Within 24 hours, however, the show was cancelled. Organizers cited “direct physical threats to journalists and their families,” as the reason they had been forced to abandon their attempt to “organize a space for the discussion of nonpolitical questions through the efforts of ordinary people who had never questioned the territorial integrity of Ukraine, without politicians and odious propagandists.”
Needless to say, if this program had been allowed to proceed it could have potentially laid the groundwork for reconciliation between the two neighbors. Perhaps the fact that extremists sabotaged such an effort is not a surprise, but the reaction by various government representatives – including Zelensky – is disturbing. Petro goes on:
The mere idea of engaging in a dialogue with Russians was attacked by nearly every political party. The prime minister said it “played into the hands of the enemy.” The speaker of parliament demanded that the Ukrainian Security services respond immediately to this “brutal violation of Ukrainian law.” The National Council for Television and Radio said it would meet in extraordinary session to consider revoking NewsOne’s broadcasting license. The prosecutor general stated that there was ample legal reason for doing so, and for his part initiated a criminal investigation of NewsOnes owners for support of terrorism and treason. With a bit of Orwellian flair, the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine issued a statement that, while affirming the rights of Ukrainian journalists, declared its “outrage” at the idea of any interaction with “a Russian propaganda channel.”
Such a reaction was more or less expected from the Old Guard that had just been thrashed electorally, but how did the new president respond? He recorded a video and posted it on the Internet, calling the attempt at dialogue “cheap and risky PR-hype on the eve of the elections.” Instead of a televised discussion among average people, Zelensky challenged Putin to sit down with him and four other world leaders—Trump, May, Macron and Merkel—to talk about “who Crimea belongs to and who is ‘not there’ in Donbass.”
It seems to me that Zelensky had an opportunity here to show some leadership, but failed. By agreeing with the suggestion that merely talking to average Russians – whom most Ukrainians have familial ties with – was “cheap” and “risky PR” he is reinforcing the idea that Russians are inherently not to be trusted and an enemy. Instead of allowing a space to be opened up for Ukrainians and Russians to see and talk to each other as regular human beings, he dismissed it out of hand.
As stated in a previous post, if Zelensky is to have any prayer of achieving a positive resolution of the Donbas conflict and a modus vivendi with Ukraine’s next door neighbor – as he promised to do and earned him the election victory, he’s going to have to take on some heavy opposition. The only way he can hope to work around that opposition is by motivating average Ukrainians to have his back. The people-to-people talks could have been a tool on behalf of that if he’d had the savvy to recognize it.
On June 19th, Oliver Stone conducted an interview with Putin at the Kremlin. Topics included a heavy focus on Ukraine, as well as touching on U.S. politics and U.S. tensions with Iran.
I’d like to include below a direct quote from Putin in this interview about nationalism. I’ve heard many American pundits and politicians call Putin a nationalist, which I’ve always found to be a disingenuous characterization of him. Putin is what I would call a sovereigntist. He believes unequivocally in national sovereignty and in Russia’s right to be an independent nation that freely makes its own decisions in its perceived interests – engaging in multilateralism when appropriate, but as a respected equal. This is not nationalism in the commonly understood meaning of the word, which denotes a form of national chauvinism – the idea that a country (or ethnic group) is superior to others and has the right to do what it wants at anyone else’s expense. I have never heard Putin say anything that suggests this kind of ideology – unless he’s being quoted out of context, which happens frequently in the west. Moreover, there are real nationalist politicians in Russia, namely Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the LDPR Party. Putin has had public disagreements with Zhirinovsky and those like him. Here is the quote – emphasis is mine:
Vladimir Putin: In general nationalism is a sign of narrow-mindedness but I do not want to offend Mr Medvedchuk [Ukrainian politician and negotiator].
Another excerpt of this interview that I’d like to include involves Iran. I’ve heard several analysts – typically those who do not have a very deep understanding of Russia – claim that Russia would benefit from a U.S. war or continued tensions with Iran. This is nonsense. Whatever short-term benefits Russia might get in the form of fossil fuel economics or other items mentioned, it would pale in comparison to the the larger problems that a conflict in the area would cause: further destabilization of the Middle East – which is much closer to Russia’s backyard than the U.S., and intensified sectarian conflict and increased risk for terrorism that Russia does not want to infect it’s Muslim region in the Caucasus. Here is what Putin had to say about this, preceded by Stone’s question:
Oliver Stone: Continuing that theme of strategy of tension, how is Russia affected by the US-Iranian confrontation?
Vladimir Putin: This worries us because this is happening near our borders. This may destabilize the situation around Iran, affect some countries with which we have very close relations, causing additional refugee flows on a large scale plus substantially damage the world economy as well as the global energy sector. All this is extremely disturbing. Therefore we would welcome any improvement when it comes to relations between the US and Iran. A simple escalation of tension will not be advantageous for anyone. It seems to me that this is also the case with the US. One might think that there are only benefits here, but there will be setbacks as well. The positive and negative factors have to be calculated.
Read the transcript of the full interview here.
It was reported on July 11th, that Putin had his first direct conversation via telephone with new Ukrainian president Zelensky. According to RT, the call was initiated by Zelensky and focused on possible future negotiations on the Donbas conflict. However, it seems that Putin was irritated by Zelensky’s suggestion that the Normandy format be modified to include the U.S. and outgoing UK Prime Minister Theresa May who would likely be out of office by the time of any such talks:
The two presidents also touched upon the idea of continuing the talks in the ‘Normandy format’, which includes French and German leaders alongside those of Russia and Ukraine. Earlier, Zelensky urged Putin to talk in person in a video address he released on Monday. Yet, he also said that he expects the leaders of the US, the UK, Germany and France to chaperone him during such a meeting.
Zelensky’s decision to invite the outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May prompted Putin to chide the Ukrainian leader. Putin particularly asked in what capacity she would be present at the talks, which are unlikely to take place before she leaves her post.
It doesn’t seem like Zelensky – an actor and complete political novice – is doing a good job of earning Putin’s respect so far, acting like he needs to be babysat if he’s going to talk to the Russian president. Granted, Trump was also an entertainer with no political experience, but he at least tried to give the impression that he was going to be his own man. Zelensky doesn’t come across as very confident in holding the office that he voluntarily pursued.
The Kremlin put out a very short summary of the phone call:
At the initiative of the Ukrainian side, Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky .
They discussed issues of settlement in the south-east of Ukraine and joint work on the return of persons held on both sides. An agreement was reached to continue this work at the expert level.
The possibility of continuing contacts in the “Norman format” was also discussed.
We’ve all heard the claims from the MSM and self-serving politicians and pundits that Putin is rehabilitating his “favorite” Soviet/Russian leader, Josef Stalin. But genuine unbiased experts on Russia know that this isn’t true.
Putin has publicly condemned Stalin’s crimes numerous times, most notably in 2007 when he visited Butovo, a mass grave outside of Moscow that holds the bodies of over 20,000 who were shot dead during the height of Stalin’s purges from 1936 – 1938. Putin’s comments, as reported by Reuters, after the visit:
“We know very well that 1937 was the peak of the purges but this year was well prepared by years of cruelty,” Putin said beside a mass grave after laying flowers at a memorial.
Putin said such tragedies “happen when ostensibly attractive but empty ideas are put above fundamental values, values of human life, of rights and freedom.”
“Hundreds of thousands, millions of people were killed and sent to camps, shot and tortured,” he said. “These were people with their own ideas which they were unafraid of speaking out about. They were the cream of the nation.”
Moreover, in October of 2017, Putin attended the opening of the Wall of Grief Monument to the Victims of Repression in Moscow – a monument specifically dedicated to the victims of Stalin’s repressions and a project that he helped get approved. An excerpt of his comments follows:
“Millions of people were branded as enemies of the people, were executed or crippled, underwent torture in prisons and forced deportations,” he said. “This terrible past cannot be erased from the national memory. And certainly cannot be justified by whatever imaginary greater good of the people…
…. “The persecution campaign was a tragedy for our people, our society, a ruthless blow to our culture, roots and identity. We can feel the consequences now and our duty is not to allow it to be forgotten.”
Recently, the Washington Post and The Guardian both ran articles pushing the claim yet again that Putin – in his admiration for Stalin – is seeking to rehabilitate his image in Russia and whitewash his crimes. British Russia expert Paul Robinson, with some research assistance from Russia-based journalist Bryan MacDonald, refutes these accusations:
The more important questions are whether the Post and the Guardian are right that a) Stalin is being rehabilitated in Russia, b) this is the fault of the Russian state, and of Vladimir Putin more personally, and c) allowing the possibility of any ‘heroic’ achievements by the Soviet state – most notably victory in the Second World War – inevitably leads to a whitewashing of Soviet repression. Fortunately, in his Twitter thread Bryan points us to a document which provides an answer, namely a statement issued yesterday by the Permanent Commission on Historical Memory of the Council of the President of the Russian Federation. It’s worth translating this in full [note: I have copied in bold only the first few paragraphs which I think are the most relevant – Natylie]:
We have heard that monuments to I.V. Stalin are being constructed in towns in Russia.
Those of our fellow citizens and those political forces, who are prepared to forget and even justify the death and deprivation of freedom of millions of our compatriots, incite both bitterness and sympathy. Those who were victims of political repression, the deportation of peoples, collectivization, and the Holodomor, were often the best in the country. These repression are firmly connected to the name of I.V. Stalin.
And those who erect monuments voluntarily or involuntarily justify these repressions. These fellow citizens of ours are also victims of that regime: they’ve lost their sense of sympathy for our deeply suffering country.
We do not call for the establishment of monuments to I.V. Stalin on private plots of land to be banned. But civil servants of all levels must know that it is impermissible to allow state or municipal land or buildings to be used for this purpose. Such acts not only contradict morality and respect for our deceased, innocently suffering predecessors, but also contradict official state policy.
In answer to our questions above, what this makes clear is that a) yes indeed, there are moves afoot to rehabilitate Stalin, but b) the Russian state isn’t too fond of these and is pushing back against them, and c) it’s perfectly possible to take pride in the Soviet victory in the Second World War while condemning Stalinist repressions – the idea that celebration of wartime victory inevitably morphs into rehabilitation of Stalin simply isn’t true.
Russians in general have a complicated view of Stalin’s legacy, with his popularity waxing and waning over the years. According to a 2017 Levada poll, 46 percent of Russians had a positive view of Stalin and 43 percent had a negative or indifferent view of him. The majority of respondents in a 2016 poll characterized Stalin as a tyrant and acknowledged that his repressions led to “millions of casualties among innocent Soviet citizens.”
A new poll conducted by Pew in May and released last week, shows that a majority of U.S. war veterans, along with a majority of Americans in general, don’t believe that the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria have been worth fighting. A graphic representing the results is here:
Bryan MacDonald relayed the results of a recent survey of Russians from the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The survey asked Russians their view of democracy and Russia’s relations with the west. According to the results: 48 percent of Russians want a change in their country’s governance and 62 percent believe that some form of democracy is necessary, but western-style liberal democracy was not looked upon as desirable for Russia as 45 percent thought it would bring “chaos and destruction” to their country. As for overall relations with the west, only 24 percent thought they could ever be friendly as opposed to distrustful.
This leads me to believe that my long-standing view of Washington’s foreign policy being counter-productive and in need of a change is as true as ever. Rather than throwing our weight around and bullying the rest of the world to accept our definition of democracy at the end of a gun barrel, we should get our own house in order and provide a more inspiring example to everyone.
The people actually living in a country know better than we do what kind of government and economic system will work best for them, according to their culture and history.
We’ve all known that certain someone in our families or neighborhoods, etc. who constantly dominates, meddles and thinks they know what’s best for everyone else. They also tend to pontificate constantly and never shut up long enough to learn from anyone else.
We should strive not to be that person in the form of a country.
On July 12th, a rocket propelled grenade attack was launched at a TV station in Kiev that was scheduled to air an award-winning documentary by Oliver Stone called Revealing Ukraine. The documentary attempts to follow Ukraine’s path from independence in 1991 to today. It included information from Dr. Ivan Katchanovski, a Canadian-Ukrainian academic who has done the most thorough analysis of the Maidan sniper attacks in February of 2014. As readers of this blog may recall, Katchanovski’s work discredits the Maidan government and Washington’s account – which the MSM has accepted without question – that the scores of people, both protesters and police, killed on the Maidan on March 21st, were murdered by the forces of the Yanukovich government. Katchanovski’s work shows that the deadly shots came from buildings that were controlled by the Maidan forces.
Katchanovski said the following regarding the attack:
#Ukraine TV cancels US documentary broadcast after #Terrorist attack & threats by far right to attack it, by Prosecutor General to launch state treason & terrorism financing investigation & by National Television & Radio Broadcasting Council to sanction it
#Ukrainian TV channel is shelled from grenade launcher in order to prevent its broadcast today of US #Documentary by @TheOliverStone. It would reveal involvement of #Maidan snipers in Maidan massacre. Would there be any reaction from US government?
Apparently there were threats of stopping the broadcast of the documentary prior to the attack:
The National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting of
#Ukraine states that it would monitor this US #documentary and threatens sanctions against a popular Ukrainian news TV channel for showing it
Footage of the attack is below. There are no reported casualties.
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Desir, immediately condemned the attack:
“I condemn the attack on channel 112 Ukraine premises today in Kyiv. Hopefully nobody was wounded but such violence and threats against media cannot be tolerated. This is an unacceptable act of intimidation which could have had dramatic consequences,” Désir said, welcoming the swift response of law enforcement officials in the case.
“I call on the Ukrainian authorities to thoroughly investigate this attack, and to bring those responsible for this crime to justice,” Désir said.