Earlier today, a Russian Il-20 was shot down during a missile attack in Latakia province in Syria, killing all 15 Russian service members on board. The Russian Ministry of Defense officially blamed Israel whom it claims attacked Syria and did not warn Russia until “one minute before” the assault began, using the Russian plane as “cover” to avoid the Syrian defense system shooting its planes down. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also declared that he had spoken to his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, and informed him that Russia “won’t leave Israeli actions unanswered.” NBC Newsreported:
According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the Israeli F-16 jets carrying out the airstrikes used the Russian plane as a cover to allow them to approach their targets on the ground without being hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire.
Moscow said said Israel did not warn Russia of its operation in the area until one minute before the strike.
However, according to Antiwar.com’s news gathering on the incident, there is some question as to whether the Russian plane could have been shot down by France’s missiles:
US officials reported they had knowledge of the incident, but they tried to blame it on Syrian anti-aircraft fire, which was fired at the incoming missiles. This seems to try to avoid the possibility of a US ally having shot down a Russian plane.
It doesn’t, however, make sense. Syrian anti-aircraft forces are all Russian-made, and carefully integrated with the Russian forces operating in the area. Between that and the Russian plane operating 35 km off the coast, it doesn’t seem plausible that a stray Syrian shot would’ve brought the plane down.
….Syrian state media conceded that they had no way of confirming who was attacking, though an early statement from the Syrian Army said it was an Israeli attack that came from inside Lebanese airspace. They claimed two soldiers were killed in the attack.
RTreported that Putin’s first public comments on the incident, during a press conference in Moscow, indicate that he is, for the time being, assuming it was accidental:
“When people are dying – especially under such circumstances – it is always a tragedy,” President Putin said during a joint press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Moscow on Tuesday.
Responding to a reporter’s question as to whether the incident in Latakia could be compared to the downing of the Russian Su-24 by Turkey in 2015, Putin said the two situations were “different.”
Ankara “deliberately downed” the Russian jet, he explained, while the Il-20 incident “looks like a chain of tragic circumstances, because the Israeli plane didn’t shoot down our jet.”
….Russia will investigate the incident, Putin said, adding that Moscow will boost security of Russian troops in Syria following the incident. He said that these will be “the steps that everyone will notice.”
In more positive news from Syria, Russia and Turkey have reportedly reached a deal wherein a buffer zone will be created in Idlib, pushing the terrorist “rebels” further toward the Turkish border, making the planned offensive in the town unnecessary for the moment. Antiwar.com reported:
….In the meantime, this will both mean an end to the Syrian and Russian airstrikes against the province and put rebel artillery farther away from the rest of the country, limiting civilian casualties. Whether a deal results afterwards is anyone’s guess, but there still appears to be little interest in direct talks on either side.
Reports from Democracy Now! and other media say that the leaders of North Korea and South Korea, who are currently meeting for their third summit, are hoping to issue a joint declaration that officially ends the Korean war. Washington, of course, is opposed to this move, wanting to use the official ending of the war as a potential carrot to entice North Korea to make numerous concessions first.
Within the past week, a liaison office was opened in the city of Kaesong, north of the DMZ, to facilitate further diplomatic relations between North and South as a permanent channel of communication.
Over the past several years, I’d often wondered why peace groups didn’t push a campaign to divest from the military-industrial complex and companies that profit off of war and death, similar to campaigns to divest from fossil fuels or Israeli companies that profit from the Palestinian occupation. Well, peace group Code Pink is finally pushing for such a campaign and to get the ball rolling, they’ve published a report called War Profiteers: the U.S. War Machine and the Arming of Repressive Regimes. Code Pink co-founder and co-author of the report, Medea Benjamin, was interviewed by the Real News Network about the issue:
BEN NORTON: You also point out that support for the arms industry in the U.S. is bipartisan. This is not just a Republican issue. And you mentioned in the report that a major beneficiary of President Obama’s record military spending was the company General Dynamics. The CEO of General Dynamics, Lester Crown, and his Chicago family, you write, played a critical role as career-long patrons and fundraisers for Obama’s rise to power. So can you talk a bit more specifically about this kind of revolving door between Washington and these lobby groups and the arms industry? And then also these arms industry fund many politicians from both parties.
MEDEA BENJAMIN:That’s right. It’s really the military-industrial-congressional complex that Eisenhower talked about back in 61, but gone wild. And when you look at the fact that every single congressional district in this country has some kind of piece of a weapon being manufactured there, both as a way to push the Congressional official to say, well, this is about jobs, but also as a way to bribe those officials. About 55 percent of the lobby money coming from the weapons industry is going to Republicans; 45 percent is going to Democrats. So it is certainly bipartisan. And given the examples that you gave, we could give a lot more to show the revolving door where there are high-level people from these companies that are actually not only supporting the wars, but cheerleaders for the wars, helped manufacture the excuses to go to war, as they did in the case of Iraq.
And unfortunately, I think down the road we’ll find out examples of how they are creating the animosity with Iran right now that might take us down that road. When the CEO of Boeing was asked about how he felt with the new sanctions that the Trump administration imposed nixing a $20 billion deal that he was negotiating with Iran, he basically said, we’ll make more money from the conflict. And when you look at the stocks of these companies you see every time there is an uptick in the war there is an uptick in their profits.
Return to Moscow is Tony Kevin’s memoir of his two times spent in Russia, first as Australia’s ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1969-71 and a one-month trip to contemporary Russia in 2015 – covering Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Nizhny Novgorod.
In chapter one, Kevin touches on his reasons for returning to Russia: to see things he knew were off limits to him during his Cold War posting, exploration of important cultural icons – namely, renowned Russian writers – and the hope of balancing out all the misinformation about Russia that is largely rooted in Washington’s Cold War triumphalism.
“Of course it [Russia] is a nation that still faces huge challenges. But is it really our place to tell Russians how to run their country, to ‘mark their report card’? Maybe we in the West have fallen into the habit of thinking of Russia in condescending, derogatory ways? Even serious Western discussion of policy towards Russia is now too often framed in disparaging language. I expressed the hope that my trip and the planned book to come out of it might make a little dent in this hard shell of prejudice.”
Kevin moves on in Chapter 2 to discussing his time as ambassador during his mid-twenties in Soviet-era Moscow, where he lived in a small “closely guarded” flat in an “enclosed diplomatic compound” with his first wife.
Kevin described their home in Moscow, a glaring contrast to what he was used to as a middle-class Westerner:
“The West already seemed far away. Our new home at apartment 32 was a small, cockroach-ridden third floor flat. Two bedrooms, a semi-partitioned living/dining area, a small kitchen, a bathroom and a windowless storeroom. We had old and tired flatpack Scandinavian furniture inherited from my predecessors, on drab and worn-out carpet. Our building faced onto an identical building across a narrow bare courtyard of dead grass and muddy dirt, supposedly a children’s play area but filled with old dog droppings. The entire compound was surrounded by a high chain wire fence. Stony-faced policemen on 24-hour guard duty at the single gate noted all comings and goings and interrogated anyone who might dare to visit us. Our Russian-language teacher, Lydia Melnikova, and our maid, Lydia Zvyagintseva, were sanctioned regular visitors with security passes, but it would have been a brave Russian who tried to visit us without one – they would have been halted, refused admittance to the compound and interrogated. It was, we were told, all for our own security.”
Kevin, by default, joined the small community of western diplomats and their wives to create some semblance of a social life outside of work, mostly American and British counterparts with whom he shared language and who also enjoyed larger and nicer homes. Other than dinner parties, small get-togethers and picnics (when weather permitted) at a couple of parks, and ski trips in the winter, their choices for excursions were limited indeed during the closed-off Communist era. Consequently, the embassies created their own choirs and reading and crafts groups to provide social activities.
He describes the murky professional expectations he and his colleagues attempted to navigate in the Cold War and how they were laughably (in retrospect) impossible to accomplish within the fear-based confines they lived within:
“We diplomats – on both sides – had a peculiarly ambiguous mandate. We were not soldiers or spies, but we were not merely official post-boxes and visit facilitators either. Our task was to try to understand the adversary world, to connect with it professionally as diplomats, to learn as best we could how it worked and where we thought it might be going, to engage with it in mutually advantageous political and trade dialogues as policy allowed, but not to succumb to its attractions whatever they might be. We had to become close, but not too close. We could not do our jobs by skulking fearfully in our embassies: we had to try to get out and engage with the rival world. The art was in finding safe and productive modes of engagement. It was a delicate balance. I am not sure in retrospect that my embassy did it very well – I think we suffered from an excess of caution – but that was the Cold War game we Australian diplomats tried to play.”
Kevin also describes his very limited interactions with the Soviet people as the diplomats are quickly schooled in all the “no go” areas, which prevents them from taking the metro or driving freely:
“I soon reconnoitered a quite pleasant four-kilometer walking route from our flat in Kutuovsky Prospekt to the chancery compound in Kropotkinsky Pereulok. I tried to stay fit through walking it regularly to and from work, summer and winter. It passed close by the Kievsky Voskal railway station, a major station for west-bound trains, then crossed the Moscow River over a road bridge, and then through a chilly pedestrian underpass under the major Sadovaya ring road that encircles the city, and out into the historic and prestigious Kropotkinskaya district. Near the Kievsky station, I would pass a sleazy vodka bar where I avoided the occasional groups of drinking men standing or sitting in the street; and a basic café where one could occasionally drop in for a warming snack of boiled or fried pelmeny (spicy Siberian pork dumplings). There was a florist shop on Sadovaya not for from the Residence, to buy the occasional bunch of flowers for Valerie.” (pp. 44-45)
He does provide a few examples of some rubbing of elbows with the natives – some awkward and some more productive – at concerts, symphonies, ballets or poetry readings. Classical music was considered safe and diplomats were provided “regular privileged tickets” at cheap rates due to the strong subsidization of “high culture” by the state.
“Orchestral concerts in Moscow concert halls were easy to get into, and always excellent. Concertgoer behavior was strange: in the intervals, people seemed disinclined to mingle and chat. They formed up into serried ranks of purposeful walkers, who promenaded briskly around the huge lobbies for the duration of intervals in linked-arm groups, always on the move. If people recognized one another, they gave little sign of it. There was hardly any chitchat. I realized, years later, that this was a vestige of prudent practice from the Stalinist terror years. People had learned not to risk casual conversation with acquaintances or strangers in public places, for fear they might be compromising themselves by being seen to be friendly with someone who might already be under security police surveillance.
Thankfully, Bolshoi Theater audiences were more cosmopolitan and relaxed. One could sip a glass of Soviet wine or cognac or beer and eat an open sandwich during intervals in one of the theater bars, and usually find people to greet – fellow diplomats, and sometimes Russians from the Foreign or Trade Ministries who were more used to Western-style socialization.” (pp. 47-48)
He also notes the parochial and disdainful attitude that he and his colleagues displayed toward Soviet era culture:
“We were fundamentally incurious about Soviet or Russian – the terms were synonymous – culture and life. Some of us would allow ourselves to respect the imagined Russia that might have been, had it not been knocked off balance by the communist takeover in 1917. We felt sure that there was no possibility whatsoever of turning the clock back to that more refined, Orthodoxy-based, philosophically reflective pre-communist Russia, the Russia of Tolstoy and Turgenev and Chekhov and Tchaikovsky, that we had learned about in our pre-posting study of Russian history and culture. We could allow ourselves to love this imagined Russia, while despising the Russia where we got up and went to work in our embassies each day.” (pp. 47-48)
With respect to his visit to Nizhny Novgorod, Kevin spends several pages discussing his admiration for Soviet nuclear physicist, “father” of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, and reluctant dissident Andrei Sakharov, who was a public face of the gradual relaxation of repression in the Post-Stalinist era of the Soviet Union.
Kevin explains Sakharov’s evolution as an unapologetic key player in developing a weapon that he viewed as a necessary deterrent to Washington ever being able to wipe out the Soviet Union or blackmail it with a first-strike capability. As Kevin notes, Sakharov did not assume that Washington had eternal, if any, “good will” that could be depended upon to protect his people. However, over time, Sakharov recognized that peaceful coexistence was necessary and more safety measures needed to be put in place to assure that nuclear war would not initiate due to error or misunderstanding. He helped to create some of those safety measures that were eventually implemented, such as a hotline between the U.S. president and the Soviet premier, early warning systems of accidental launches, and mutual agreement not to use “tactical” nuclear weapons that could quickly escalate into full-scale nuclear war.
By the late 1960’s, he was attempting to use his influence to urge the Soviet leadership to enter into bilateral agreements with Washington to ban the development of anti-ballistic missile systems, fearing the consequences of such a development on the balance of nuclear power. When an article he wrote explaining his reasoning behind supporting such a ban was prohibited from publication in the Soviet Union, Sakharov developed the article into a more comprehensive piece on world political and environmental challenges that needed to be addressed. This was initially published via samizdat – the secret and informal dissemination of political writings in the Soviet Union – and then was smuggled out and published in the West.
This angered the Soviet leadership which quickly punished Sakharov by prohibiting him from any future military research, while employing social and professional isolation and official media attacks against him as a traitor. In 1980, after publicly protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he was sent into “internal exile” in Gorky, which was a closed city. He could not leave, meet with or correspond with foreigners (including professional colleagues and members of his own family who lived abroad), and was subjected to constant surveillance and harassment.
In 1986, Gorbachev relaxed some of the surveillance and communication prohibitions on Sakharov and eventually released him from internal exile. However, Sakharov did not stop protesting government policies he disagreed with until his death in 1989.
The descriptions of the Soviet era all contrast sharply with Kevin’s 2015 visit. In modern-day Moscow he finds a vibrant, developed, open and culturally-rich city.
He provides several vignettes of his open conversations with Russians and convivial social interactions – facilitated all the more, he admitted, due to his attempts to speak to Russians in their own language, which were received well regardless of the rustiness of his skills:
“The old Moscow of the 1960’s seemed a distant bad memory. This was a bright, elegant European city now, and it was all accessible. Having some Russian helped me enormously to overcome initial feelings of strangeness as I moved around the city, and opened all doors for me. …The dourness and unfriendliness that Western visitors so often speak of encountering in Russia melts away, if one can succeed in communicating in Russian even a little. Initially guarded faces relax and light up in smiles.” (pp. 90-91)
Kevin later travels to the city of Yekaterinburg, the fourth largest in the country, located in the Ural Mountain area, and the site of Czar Nicholas II and his family’s final exile and massacre.
“From my mid-town hotel, the Tsentralnaya, I walked up a main street where the deposed former Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed by volunteer firing squad on 16 July 1918 at the height of the Civil War. White forces were advancing on Yekaterinburg. Moscow feared that if it the Whites rescued the Tsar, he might become a rallying point of invigorated resistance. Unwilling to risk moving the royal family again, Moscow ordered all of them killed in their house of imprisonment. They were secretly shot overnight by volunteer firing squad in a cellar, their bodies smuggled out in carts and hidden in unmarked country pits.
And yes, I wept at the immediacy of the dreadful memory of this atrocity inflicted on innocent people. I wept for Tsar Nicholas and his young family. In no way did they deserve this cruelty.” (pp. 145-146)
I must acknowledge that I understood Kevin’s reaction there even though I’ve studied the horrible conditions in which many Russians lived prior to the 1917 revolution and can understand their resentment of Nicholas II’s governance and wanting him removed. In studying Nicholas II, his character and his rule, it was tragic to realize that if he’d perhaps found himself living as a simple merchant or farmer, he may have been recognized as a decent enough man – he was mild-mannered and genuinely seemed devoted to his family and loved animals. But he was horribly ill-equipped to deal with the historical role that had been thrust on him and it greatly magnified his character flaws – indecisiveness, gullibility in allowing himself to be influenced by the wrong people, willfully insulated, etc. – and led to terrible consequences for many.
Museum in Moscow with exhibit of Russian Revolution; photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, May 2017
I recall on my visit to the exhibit of the Russian Revolution Centennial at the Russian History Museum in Moscow last May, coming across a case full of artifacts that included one of the handguns used in the massacre of the Czar’s family as well as a letter written by one of the participants. I asked our museum guide if any of the participants in the execution of the Czar’s family ever expressed any remorse for the murders, particularly of the Czar’s kids. He replied without hesitation, “No.” He explained that the participants believed that they were doing the right thing in the bigger picture, much as Kevin explains their rationale above.
Yekaterinburg is also the city where the recently-unveiled museum honoring Boris Yeltsin is located. According to Kevin, the museum is not as much of a white-wash as one might expect. Among the most interesting tidbits included the history of Yeltsin’s feud with Gorbachev that reflected, not only the huge differences in their political attitudes but in their basic temperaments and personalities as well:
“Gorbachev and Yeltsin had hated each other since their first clashes in 1987. They were like chalk and cheese – Gorbachev the crafty, risk-averse, cold and at times arrogant contingency planner, versus Yeltsin the romantic, impetuous, charismatic force of nature. Their personal feud was now being played out on an epic national battlefield of two competing visions: the old communist hierarchy-driven Soviet Union, versus Yeltsin’s dream of a new democratic, populist Russia. Gorbachev had aroused public hopes and expectations for change, but had failed to deliver. Now Yeltsin was openly challenging him – though ironically, they shared many similar political values and long-term goals.” (p. 150)
Of course, we all know that Yeltsin’s vision won out. We also know that Yeltsin’s populist values turned out to be largely for show as he ended up personally corrupt and led post-Soviet Russia into a form of gangster capitalism while working hand-in-glove with western “advisers” to accomplish it. And, as Kevin importantly points out, Yeltsin is ultimately responsible for Russia’s current constitution that invests the Russian presidency with so much power with a weak legislative branch. This came about after Yeltsin ordered the parliamentary building destroyed when the legislative body legally challenged his abuses in 1993. Putin inherited this constitutional arrangement and no doubt benefits from it, but he did not create it.
After Yekaterinburg, Kevin visits several more sites. The choice of locations was often inspired by a renowned Russian writer having lived there. During his description of these visits, he provides interesting and informative expositions on novelists Leo Tolstoy, Boris Pasternak and poet Alexander Pushkin.
At one point, Kevin provides a history of the Slavs and the formation of Kiev Rus and how it evolved into modern Russia. He also gives the best summation I’ve read of the long-running historical debate between Slavophiles and westernizers for the future of Russia, explaining that there are two branches of Slavophiles. I think his discussion of Slavophilism is worth quoting extensively:
“Slavophiles affirm that Russia has a unique culture, fundamentally defined by its core Slav ethnicity, Cyrillic language, Orthodox Christianity and Tsarist imperial history. All these things, they say, set Russia firmly apart from the mainstream Western European identity, based on the Roman Empire, Romanic alphabet, Catholic and Protestant Christianity, and the Enlightenment. Russia did not experience these things at first hand. Its destiny, they say, is inevitably different.
Slavophilia can be narrowly chauvinistic, centered on race-based doctrines of Slav exceptionalism. This ethnically based version of Slavophilia has historically been linked with a sense of cultural identity and political ‘duty of care’ for the related smaller Slav nations in the Balkans: Bulgarians, Serbians, Macedonians and so on. Russia’s sense of guardianship over the welfare of these Slav peoples under Turkish or Austro-Hungarian imperial rule was a major factor in pre-1914 European imperial tensions building up to World War I.
There is also a more expansive, more ethnically pluralistic version of Slavophilia, a more culturally based Russophilia as I call it, that draws strength from Russia’s history of successful absorption into the Tsarist ‘Empire of all the Russias’ of so many non-Slav peoples…Under this more inclusive ‘imperial’ interpretation of Slavophilia, Russian civilization has been an inspiration and a boon to surrounding peoples who have through the Tsarist Empire come under its beneficent political and cultural influence. This is not a dissimilar view to the nineteenth-century British Empire view of its benign global mission – ‘the white man’s burden’ – or the French Empire’s self-proclaimed ‘mission civilisatrice.’
With one important difference: Russia’s growing colonial empire was always advancing into contiguous places and nations, often with pre-existing advanced cultures like the Georgians and Armenians, Central Asian Islamic states, or the Tatars. So there was always a degree of respect for Russia’s imperially absorbed former neighbors…Russians as imperialists did not usually display the blatant racism of the old British Empire. They were developing a Russian form of multiculturalism over centuries of expansion, and their literature, music and art clearly shows this.” (pp. 121-22)
Kevin sums up his views of contemporary Russia and why he finds it a fascinating country with much to offer the world, rooted in its unique culture and historical experience:
“More than any other nation, Russians have to ask themselves big existential questions about their recent history, not only about the two revolutions in 1917 that their great-grandparents lived through, and the Stalinist horrors their grandparents experienced, but now also about their parents’ and their own struggles, privations and disappointments during late communism and the 1985-2000 de-communisation smutnoye vremya as well….I admire Russia’s seriousness of purpose. This is a country ready to confront big questions. It is not a trivial or superficial or small-minded country. The Russian language itself is a wonderful instrument, a most beautiful and subtle language with the finest gradations of meaning, in expressing verbs of emotion especially. And the music, the art, the literature – how could one not love this country, the more one comes to know it?” (pp. 20, 35)
In terms of the future of U.S.-Russia relations, he laments the disdain, derision and personal hostility openly expressed among participants in what are supposed to be serious policy discussions at western conferences. This was on full display at one such conference that took place in Riga, Latvia in 2015. Kevin described the panel as unbalanced in its negative depictions of the country and the overall tone as objectifying Russia rather than seeking to understand it.
He also sees the ignorance and ideological blinders of many western politicians and media voices – many of whom consider themselves liberal – as a dead end in dealing constructively with Russia:
Western liberal hawks and their media voices are used to ignoring contradictions in their case. On the one hand, they allege that Putin wants to return to a revived Soviet Union, with communist-style authoritarian government and state control of the economy; on the other hand, that he and his inner circle are united by nothing but corruption and naked greed. Both things cannot be true, and probably neither is true…..No one needs to orchestrate such sustained Western media contempt for “Putin’s Russia.” It now almost writes itself, it is universal, and Russians are well aware of it. I am struck by the sheer volume and repetitiveness of this information warfare across so many dimensions of media, an echo-chamber effect that overpowers the senses, numbing people in the West who know better into a sort of dull acceptance, on lines of Orwell’s Animal Farm: “Oh well, yes, two legs good four legs bad, if you say so.” (pp. 244, 247)
Overall, Kevin has provided a refreshingly fair-minded assessment of Russia, with an appreciation for its cultural gifts and a healthy respect for its difficult history, without over-romanticizing the country or ignoring its challenges. I highly recommend it for laypeople who are new to seeking insight into contemporary Russia.
I will be giving a presentation on post-Soviet Russia and U.S.-Russia relations at the Mount Diablo Peace and Justice Center in Lafayette, California on Sunday October 14, 2018 at 2:00 pm. More details to come.
This past Friday, Aleksander Zakharchenko, the charismatic leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, was killed in a bomb blast at a café in Donetsk City. The Moscow Timesreported the following:
Zakharchenko, who led the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic since 2014, “received injuries incompatible with life as a result of an explosion in the center of Donetsk,” the separatist administration said in a statement.
….Russia accused Ukraine of assassinating the separatist leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, to try to unleash a renewed war in eastern Ukraine, but Kiev said it had nothing to do with the blast and blamed separatist infighting.
Here is the OSCE report, dated August 31st, on the assassination:
At 17:27 on 31 August in Donetsk city, the SMM heard an undetermined explosion less than 200m north-north-east from the Mission’s residence on Pushkina Boulevard. The explosion occurred in Separ restaurantlocated in a park next to 13 Pushkina Boulevard. The Mission saw that the area around the restaurant had been fenced off. A senior member of the armed formations told the SMM that in the explosion Alexandr Zakharchenko had suffered fatal injuries, another member of the armed formations had been severely wounded and nine other people had sustained injuries. SMM staff was not harmed.
According to analyst Anatoly Karlin, the interim replacement for Zakharchenko is no one to get excited over:
Vice Premier Dmitry Trapeznikov has been appointed Acting Head of the DNR. He has close ties with Alexander Khodakovsky, whose enthusiasm for the Novorossiya cause has never been particularly high, and both men are connected to the Donbass oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel take to the stage during a meeting at the German government guesthouse in Meseberg. Photo: AFP/Sergey Guneev/Sputnik
Inimitable geopolitical reporter Pepe Escobar reported last week for the Asia Times that an insider at the recent meeting between Putin and Merkel outside of Berlin, focused on Nordstream 2, confirmed that a summit will be held later in the year between France, Germany, Turkey and Russia. Escobar comments on the interests of each of the players in such a summit:
As confirmed to Asia Times by diplomatic sources, a top summit featuring Germany, Russia, France and Turkey is on the way. Call it an expanded Eurovision – with Turkey included due to (wobbling) NATO membership.
Ostensibly, the summit would be on Syria – according to the Kremlin. That does not cut it – as Syria is already being discussed in detail in Astana by Russia, Iran and Turkey.
….The fact is multinational sherpas are already working on it. In parallel, the finance ministers of Turkey and France not only agreed to confront sanctions on Turkey, but to come up with further bilateral economic cooperation. Sun King Macron is dying for his star turn at The Tariffed to go platinum.
….The Nord Stream 2 angle proved that Putin and Merkel broadly agree on Baltic geoeconomics. They also agree on preserving the JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal. And yet Merkel adds a conditionality that comes straight from the Beltway: Germany is “following Iran’s activities with concern, be it the missile program or the situation in Syria.” You can take the girl out of exceptional tariffs, but you can’t take exceptionalism out of the girl.
….And then there’s Sanctioned superstar Erdogan and his unpredictable outbursts: The hammer of the gods / We’ll drive our ships to new lands / To fight the horde, and sing and cry / Valhalla, I am coming!
What’s certain for now is that an IMF bailout of Turkey simply won’t happen; Erdogan can’t possibly sell it to his local audience. Options on the horizon come down to Qatar – $15 billion in investments already committed – and China ready to deepen Turkey’s connectivity to the New Silk Roads/Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
During the Obama administration, Cold War 2.0 was launched on Russia by transposing the old Iron Curtain across the intermarium, from the Baltic to the Black Sea. A post-Maidan anti-Russian Ukraine – which borders the Black Sea – is a central part of the strategy.
Yet now Turkey provides Moscow with the perfect opening to smash the geopolitical chessboard and destroy the concerted offensive – which includes key elements from relentless NATO expansion to sanctions as no holds barred economic war.
Meanwhile, Forbes columnist Steve Hanke wrote a piece suggesting the benefits of a gold bloc for U.S.-sanctioned countries Iran, Turkey and Russia. Hanke explained how the institution of a currency board backed by gold would work:
In 1997, Bob Mundell predicted that “Gold will be part of the structure of the international monetary system in the twenty-first century.” As has often been the case, Mundell’s prediction might just be prescient. Indeed, Iran, Russia, and Turkey could, and just might, make Mundell’s prediction a reality. One foolproof way to do that is via gold-based currency boards. Currency boards have existed in more than 70 countries, and a number are in operation today. Countries with such monetary institutions have experienced more fiscal discipline, superior price stability, and higher growth rates than comparable countries with central banks.
A currency board is a monetary institution that only issues notes and coins. These monetary liabilities are freely convertible into a reserve currency (also called the anchor currency) at a fixed rate on demand. The reserve currency is a convertible foreign currency or a commodity chosen for its expected stability. For reserves, such a currency board holds low-risk, interest-earning securities and other assets payable in the reserve currency.
By law, a currency board is required to maintain a fixed exchange rate with the reserve currency and hold foreign reserves equal to 100% of the monetary base. This prevents the currency board from increasing or decreasing the monetary base at its own discretion. A currency board system is passive and is characterized by automaticity.
Hanke goes on to provide a successful example of such a currency board – during Russia’s civil war between 1918 and 1920:
Currency boards’ perfect record includes the National Emission Caisse, established in northern Russia in 1918 during Russia’s civil war. The Caisse issued “British ruble” notes, backed by pounds sterling and convertible into pounds at a fixed rate. The father of the British ruble was none other than John Maynard Keynes, a British Treasury official at the time.
Despite the civil war, the British ruble never deviated from its fixed exchange rate with the pound. In contrast to other Russian rubles, the British ruble was a reliable store of value. Naturally, the British ruble drove other rubles out of circulation. Unfortunately, its life was brief: The National Emission Caisse ceased operation in 1920 after allied troops withdrew from Russia.
Any readers who are more well-versed in economics than me can feel free to share their opinions in the comments section about this.
Dimitri Alexander Simes has written an interesting article for The National Interest on what young Russian adults’ opinions are of Putin, his governance of Russia, what they’d like to see changed and how likely they are to engage in significant protest. Simes draws on opinion polls by the independent (translation: western funded) Levada Center, Russian state polls, analyses by other Russia experts and his own interviews with young adult Russians. An excerpt of Simes’ findings:
Surveys of public opinion indicate that Putin enjoys strong support among Russia’s youth. In December 2017, the Levada Center, the country’s foremost independent polling agency, found that 86 percent of Russians between the ages of eighteen to twenty-four approved of the Russian president. Similarly, a poll conducted by the state funded Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) after the Presidential election in March 2018 showed that 67.9 percent of Russian voters aged eighteen to thirty-four cast their ballots for Putin. Like members of older generations, many young Russians credit the Kremlin leader for restoring the country’s geopolitical status after the fall of the Soviet Union. “Thanks to [Putin] Russia overcame the consequences from the collapse of the USSR and rose to a new level,” stated Ekaterina Nikitina, a journalism student.
However, these numbers should not be taken as a sign that Putin’s policies go unchallenged by the Russian youth. Most of the young Russians that I spoke with heavily criticized their country’s president. A major complaint is that Putin’s unwillingness to step aside prevented a transition of power. “A President should not turn into a Tsar, and the country under [Putin] is moving towards the time when there was a Tsar,” said Mikhail Sein, a video-blogger and journalist. Another area of concern among those interviewed is that the Russian president is evolving into an ever more reactionary figure. Anastasia Labunets, a social activist for the Communist Party, bemoaned that Putin “began as a moderate liberal reformer and gave big hopes, but became a typical authoritarian leader in the end.” Finally, the Kremlin’s recent moves in the social sphere inspired chagrin. Referring to Putin’s broken promise to not raise the pension age, Sofia Malakhova, a book illustrator, asked “How can one feel about a person who directly stated that under his rule the pension age would not be raised?”
It also the case that Putin’s personal popularity does not translate to satisfaction with the Russian political system as a whole. Early last year, the Higher School of Economics, one of Russia’s leading universities, conducted a survey of over six thousand students from 109 different universities. The researchers found that young Russians have a low level of trust for most government officials. A list of the top eleven professions that Russian students most distrust includes Members of the Duma (66 percent), members of regional parliaments (65 percent), mayors (62 percent), and governors (61 percent).
The same study pointed to a widespread feeling amongst the Russian youth that there are serious problems in the country and that meaningful change is necessary. Of those surveyed, 69 percent are worried about the uncertainty of their Russia’s future and 75 percent supported political reforms in addition to economic ones. At the same time, 48 percent of the respondents opposed changes that would fundamentally alter the existing system. The rising generation of Russians, although dissatisfied with many facets of the status quo, lacks major revolutionary aspirations.
….While some of the young Russians that I talked to were very politically engaged, most confined their political activity to checking the news. A similar conclusion is reached by the study from the Higher School of Economics, which shows that 64 percent of Russian students would not be willing to take part in a demonstration and that 72 percent deem protests as an ineffective means to achieve political change.
When reading that last paragraph, I couldn’t help but think that I’ve pretty much lost faith in protests as an effective means of change here in the U.S. It seems to have turned into a feel-good spectacle that doesn’t translate into much concrete progress. Government officials seem to just go on their merry way and do what they want, regardless of opinion polls or protests suggesting they want something very different than what they’re getting. Perhaps Russian youth do want to see positive changes but are still trying to figure out how to make it happen without wasting time and energy on ineffective methods and not wanting to make the same “mistakes” that previous Russians made with revolutions that resulted in some progress but at the cost of much blood, horror and upheaval. Lots of thoughtful people everywhere are still trying to figure out this conundrum.
As for my own experience talking to young people in Russia, I was impressed by their engagement with the world and their concern about how to achieve peace, create a system of economic justice, and protecting the environment. However, I must acknowledge that the youth I heard from were from fairly well-off families who were sending their kids to private schools, and kids that lived in medium to large cities. I get the sense that the young adults that Simes spoke to were of the urban variety as well. It would be nice to hear what Russian youth from small towns, rural areas or poorer backgrounds think.
The National Security Archive (project of George Washington University) just released formerly classified government documents revealing that, during the height of the Cold War, Washington’s nuclear war plan included instructions to implement an attack that would render both the Soviet Union and China as no longer viable societies:
U.S. nuclear war plans during the Johnson administration included the option of a retaliatory strike against nuclear, conventional military, and urban-industrial targets with the purpose of removing the Soviet Union “from the category of a major industrial power” and destroying it as a “viable” society. This is one disclosure from a Joint Staff review of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) obtained via a Mandatory Declassification Review request by the George Washington University-based National Security Archive and posted on our site today.
The document, the Joint Staff’s review of SIOP guidance in June 1964, showed continued acceptance by policymakers of the cataclysmic nuclear strike options that had been integral to the plan since its inception. Accordingly, the SIOP set high damage requirements—95 percent for the top priority nuclear targets—ensuring that it remained an “overkill” plan, referring to its massively destructive effects. Prepared and continually updated by the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, the SIOP has been characterized by some as a “doomsday machine.”
U.S. nuclear war planning drew on Cold War assumptions about the danger of a Soviet surprise attack against the United States. The possibility that deterrence could fail and that U.S.-Soviet conflict could break out made U.S. defense officials seek attack options “capable of execution under all reasonably foreseeable conditions under which hostilities may begin.” For such purposes, the SIOP included a retaliatory option in the event of a Soviet surprise attack and a preemptive option in the case of intelligence warning of an imminent Soviet attack
The U.S. government has never declassified any version of the SIOP, forcing researchers to rely on ancillary documentation to shed useful light on elements of the plan. The Joint Staff review posted today [8/24/2018] is the latest such evidence.
As Robinson points out, an academic attempted a serious look at western sanctions against Russia since 2014 and how Russia has responded to them. Connolly, a professor at the University of Birmingham, also has taken the time to try to understand – at least, to some degree, how Russia’s economy actually works – thus providing a better contextual understanding of the actual effect of the sanctions, which are likely not the effects intended by Washington policymakers who, as I’ve harped on previously, are dangerously ignorant of the nation to which they’re forming policy and approaches to. As Robinson notes:
According to the University of Birmingham’s Richard Connolly, however, ‘do sanctions work?’ is the wrong question, or at least it’s a question that can’t be answered until other questions have been answered, most notably ‘what is the effect of sanctions on the targeted country?’ And to answer that question you have to consider other ones, such as ‘how exactly do sanctions impact the targeted country?’ That in turn requires one to investigate in depth the political and economic structure of the target to understand how it operates and how it responds to external pressure. Every country is different, and operates according to a set of ‘intricate relations’ between the state, its citizens, and the various institutions within it. As yet, however, studies of the sanctions imposed on Russia have not sought to take these into account, leading to simplistic analyses. As Connolly says in his new book Russia’s Response to Sanctions, ‘Policymakers and other public figures prone to making hyperbolic statements about the state of the Russian economy today, and then using those statements as a basis for formulating policy and attitudes towards the country, often appear to do so without the aid of even a rudimentary understanding of Russia and its economy.’
Robinson gives us a look into how Connolly provides interesting insight into aspects of Russian political economy, particularly rent sharing, that are critical to anyone who wants to understand Russian political economy in general as well as those formulating policies that will determine future relations:
According to Connolly, the key feature of Russia’s economy is that profits earned in those parts of the economy which are globally competitive (primarily, though not exclusively, energy industries, and which Connolly calls Sector A) are redistributed by the state to support industries which are not globally competitive (Sector B) through direct subsidies, preferential access to credit, and so on, in other words through what economists call ‘rent sharing’. This sustains a fairly large domestic industrial base (contrary to criticisms that Russia doesn’t produce anything), but one which exports very little and focuses on the domestic market. It also ties the state (as the rent redistributor) and domestic producers together in complex networks of dependency, while making the state the primary actor in the economy (thus making it more accurate to talk of Russian political economy than just economy).
Although, as is pointed out, this has costs in terms of efficiency and innovation, it has had its advantages in terms of dealing effectively with the West’s tendency to use its economic might in a punitive fashion:
Connolly argues that the Russian state has responded in three main ways to sanctions: 1) securitization of the economy; 2) import substitution/localization, 3) diversifying its external economic links.
The first of these means that the Russian government has increasingly looked at the economy through the lens of national security, and been willing to experience some economic costs in order to enhance that security. Securitization has also inclined it further towards the other two measures (import substitution and diversification) in order to decrease Russian dependency on the West.
In his sections on the energy, defence, and financial industries, Connolly shows how import substitution and diversification have worked in practice. In the oil and gas industries, for instance, Russia has been highly dependent on imports of foreign technology to assist in the more difficult resource extraction projects. To address this deficiency, Connolly reports that ‘the government allocated considerable financial resources to support the development of energy extraction equipment in Russia’, as well to projects such as the Zvezda shipbuilding complex in the Far East. At the same time, it began to purchase more and more technology from China and other non-Western sources. The strategy was thus not ‘deglobalization’ but ‘reglobalization’.
Similar patterns can be observed in the defence and financial sectors. For instance, to compensate for the loss of Ukraine as a supplier of crucial components, large sums of money were invested in creating alternative Russian sources of supply. At the same time, Russia increased defence cooperation with China. Likewise, in response to Western financial sanctions, the Russian state moved to provide direct support to Russian banks and to help large cooperations like Rosneft pay their foreign loans. It also developed alternatives to the SWIFT electronic payment system and Western credit rating agencies and introduced the Mir credit card to replace VISA and Mastercard, while seeking out new sources of capital in non-Western states.
According to Robinson, Connolly effectively argues that, in spite of some short-term discomfort, Russia has been able to successfully counter the worst possible effects of western sanctions and even encourage the stimulation of alternative economic investment that will strengthen agriculture and some industry and finance.
After explaining how Russia has actually responded to western sanctions, Connolly turns to the question of how effective those sanctions have been in terms of what their presumed intent was – to cause significant economic harm to Russia, with the idea that this would encourage political revolt that would endanger Putin’s government. The answer, not surprising to anyone who has followed this blog, is that Washington has once again – in its hubris and ignorance – been hoisted on its own petard:
First, it has created a system that ‘is less vulnerable to external pressure’ than that which existed before, in that it is more independent from the West. Second, it has accelerated a shift in Russia’s place in the global economy towards the East. This obviously has political ramifications which Connolly does not explore. Somewhat perversely, Western sanctions have reduced, not increased, Western leverage over Russia. This is probably permanent.
On that note, Nicolai Petro recently published an op-ed in The National Interest in which he discusses how the excessive use of sanctions to punish nations who don’t do what they’re told by Washington and it’s merry band of sycophants, has been largely ineffective in changing behavior more to Washington’s liking as it tends to rally the citizens of the target country around their leader and harden their resolve.
According to Petro, since sanctions are largely ineffective, Washington’s overuse of them must be rooted in something else.
The best way to think about the role of sanctions in American foreign policy is to regard it as an addiction.
Think about it. The inability to change the behavior of even the most rinky-dink nations must be enormously frustrating to those at the helm of the world’s lone superpower. This leads, not surprisingly, to the search for ways to assuage this sense of failure and reassure Americans of their perpetual global dominance. Sanctions fit the bill perfectly. First, because they can be sold as an alternative to war. Opponents of sanctions can thus be portrayed as either warmongers or pacifists, depending on their political profile. Second, since no meaningful measures of success or failure are ever discussed, success is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Thus, whatever happens can be attributed to sanctions —if it suits the government. Politicians can hardly be faulted for the eagerness with which they embrace sanctions. They offer the perfect escape from the real, but tedious, world of diplomatic negotiation.
Eventually, however, the political “high” provided by sanctions wears off. The nastiness of the world intrudes, and once again politicians become desperate for another fix. Friends try to warn Americans that Washington’s increasingly erratic behavior is beginning to hurt them as well, but how can they understand the burdens that America must bear as Leader of the Free World? Eventually, as Americans’ view of the world shrinks to the confines of the Washington Beltway, nothing but their own media-driven reality matters. Sanctions now provide the only semblance of calm, the only relief that politicians can rely on, and so resort to them becomes habitual.
A few weeks ago, Kentucky senator Rand Paul took a trip to Russia and met with members of the Russian legislative body as well as Mikhail Gorbachev and others. During that visit, he invited Russian lawmakers to visit with their counterparts in Washington. Reportedly, the Russians accepted the invitation but I’m not aware that a date has been confirmed as to their visit.
Paul wrote an article for The Atlantic recently about the aspect of his trip involving his visit with Gorbachev. In the following excerpt, he tells of the former Russian leader’s epiphany about the dangers of nuclear weapons and why the pursuit of nuclear disarmament was so important to him:
On my recent trip to Russia, I spent an hour with Mikhail Gorbachev. I told him that in the West we are grateful that he and President Ronald Reagan defied Cold War orthodoxy to significantly reduce our countries’ nuclear arms. And I asked him whether there was a moment in his life when he’d realized that he might shape history.
He paused a moment and then recounted how as a young man, he had watched a film on the devastation that would occur with nuclear war. He and the other young officials in the room looked at each other in shock as the film concluded.
Gorbachev recalled the scene: “Even though I am not a believer, I responded, ‘Oh my God!’” From that moment, Gorbachev said, he decided to use every opportunity that came his way to prevent a nuclear holocaust.
Even more recently, Paul spoke to the Foreign Relations Committee about what he thinks could be offered as “a carrot” in negotiations with Russia – namely, agreeing that Ukraine and Georgia will not join NATO. Here is a short video of what he said from CSPAN:
Former USAID project officer and “adviser” on economic development in the former Soviet Union (which is likely not to his credit) Josh Cohen has written about the leaked memo of what Putin planned to discuss with Trump at their Helsinki meeting last month. Cohen acknowledges that Putin’s reflected desire to extend the START treaty that expires in 2021, take steps to reaffirm the 1987 INR Treaty, and implement risk reduction measures between NATO and Russia in Eastern Europe where their respective militaries have had run-ins, is a very good sign for negotiating the most important security aspects of U.S.-Russia relations.
A leaked Russian document published by Politico this month revealed that during their July 16 summit in Helsinki, President Vladimir Putin presented Trump with a series of proposals related to nuclear arms control, as well as other measures to reduce the risk of military conflict between the U.S. and Russia. Putin’s proposals promote American interests, and Trump should respond positively by directing his administration to begin immediate discussions with their Russian counterparts.
First, Putin suggested that Washington and Moscow extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) — a step that many high-level American, European and Russian nuclear experts have called for. New START would limit the total number of deployed strategic warheads each side can deploy to 1,550 — still more than enough to destroy each other and the planet many times over.
New START also contains a number of valuable verification and confidence-building measures. Each side is permitted up to 18 short-notice on-site inspections each year, as well exchanges of telemetry and other data. New START also established a Bilateral Consultative Commission to meet at least twice a year in Geneva. Both are critical confidence-building measures that reduce the risk of surprises and misunderstandings. Put simply, extending New START is in America’s national interest because it reduces the risk of nuclear war.
U.S. politicians should make sure their priorities are straight, set aside petty partisan politics, and respond constructively to the offer made by Putin, which is totally in keeping with Putin’s past numerous overtures toward Washington.
After all, if everyone dies in a nuclear war, no one will be left to give a damn who lost the 2016 election.
Apparently, something close to this sentiment is shared by many of my fellow Americans according to a recent Gallup poll.
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 Timesreporting 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.
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.
Last week, France and Russia began coordinating the delivery of humanitarian aid to parts of Syria devastated by the war. RussiaFeedreports:
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. Euronewsreported 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.
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.
Note: Video will be posted as soon as it is available at the Consortium News website. Other speakers at the event included Sam Parry (Robert’s son), Norman Solomon, Dennis Bernstein, Ann Wright, and Consortium’s new editor, Joe Lauria.
I’d like to thank everyone for coming today. I’d also like to thank the organizers for inviting me to speak at the tribute to a man who was very inspirational to me.
My own interest in foreign affairs began in college. Not long after I graduated, 9/11 happened. I joined the local peace movement to oppose our post-9/11 wars. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the media is a big part of the problem.
The myth we’re taught is that our democracy is underpinned by a media that serves as a watchdog on the government and other powerful institutions – a noble fourth estate.
But when it comes to issues of war and peace, the media rarely – if ever- serves as a questioner of government claims, performing due diligence on a matter of life, death and destruction of societies.
We saw the mainstream media’s gross negligence with Iraq, Libya and other examples stretching much further back. We are now seeing the same thing happen with the world’s other nuclear superpower, Russia.
I grew increasingly concerned about the degree of recklessness by U.S. political elites who supported the coup in Kiev – completely disregarding Russia’s security interests on its border.
I began to dig deeper into post-Soviet Russia and U.S.-Russia relations. I realized just how distorted and lacking in context the narrative Americans were being given was.
During this time, one of the sources I relied on, among others, was Robert Parry and Consortium News.
I also connected up with Sharon Tennison – an independent writer and program coordinator with over 3 decades of experience on the ground all over Russia, including citizen to citizen diplomacy during Cold War I.
She became my mentor and we traveled to Russia in October of 2015 for two weeks where I was able to speak to a cross-section of Russians in several different cities on a range of issues. We traveled to Crimea where I interviewed a range of Crimeans about what happened in late 2013 and early 2014.
At this point, I had researched and co-authored a book about the Ukraine crisis – providing historical and contextual background of U.S.-Russia relations, as well as writing articles for a couple of alternative outlets. I tried submitting articles about my on the ground observations and interviews in Crimea to several other “alternative” outlets in the hopes of getting this information out to a wider audience. After all, not many American writers had actually been to Crimea and could provide on-the-ground perspectives. But I was having little luck.
Somehow I got hold of Robert Parry’s email address and submitted to him. Within 48 hours my article was posted, with many others to follow.
I was even more pleasantly surprised when a couple of weeks later I received a check in the mail for my work – which is a big deal for independent writers these days. The money I earned from my articles at Consortium helped finance a return trip to Russia in 2017 and more articles.
Bob said that journalism required the acknowledgment that there were usually 2 sides – and possibly more – to every story and that Americans needed to hear both sides. It’s critical to have an informed citizenry with a reasonable understanding of issues in a democracy.
This is especially true with issues most average Americans don’t have practical experience with, such as international policies, policy relating to other countries. In order to conduct a rational foreign policy, one must understand the other country’s point of view – it doesn’t mean one must agree with it, but we must know how the other side perceives its own interests so we can determine what they may be willing to risk or sacrifice on behalf of those perceived interests. Further, it’s essential to determine areas of common interest and cooperation.
Understanding that viewpoint means understanding the other side’s history, geography and culture. The MSM has not provided this crucial service or provided a platform for those who can with respect to Iraq, Libya and many of the other nations with whom we’ve gone to war. The so-called experts they consult often have conflicts of interest, nefarious agendas, and often lack an objective understanding of the nation about which they are writing or talking. This has certainly been the case when it comes to reporting on Russia – a country with which the stakes are potentially much higher.
One source of mine who has spoken to State Dept. personnel in the recent past about their experience and expertise on Russia said that these diplomats admitted that they had been shuttled around to different countries in different regions – from Latin America to east Asia – before landing at their Russia post where they were suddenly expected to work and make decisions regarding that country with no knowledge of its history, traditions or culture. This is also true with mainstream journalists who cover Russia.
Canadian Russia expert Patrick Armstrong got a similar response when he spoke to a former Treasury Dept. official who’d been involved with implementing the sanctions against Russia. He was told: “The bottom line is that the US government has a very shallow bench on Russia. And so they end up acting more-or-less at random.”
As Armstrong commented, “”Shallow bench”? More of an echo chamber in which people at the top expect to hear what they want to hear and are told it; reinforced by a news media full of people paid to believe what they believe.”
Robert Parry referred to these phenomena as careerism and groupthink. He argued that it was ruining journalism and the important role it’s supposed to play in our democracy. And there are examples everywhere.
When our most experienced academic expert on Russia, Stephen Cohen, can hardly get an interview on CNN and cannot get an op-ed published by NYT or WaPo, but a neocon ideologue like Michael Weiss – who has no on the ground experience or educational credentials about Russia – can be hired as a commentator by CNN on the subject – it’s not just sad, it’s dangerous.
When someone like Rachael Maddow – who we know from her past investigative reporting knows better – has allowed herself to be used as a cartoonish purveyor of anti-Russia propaganda while virtually ignoring coverage of more immediate issues facing average Americans and distracting them away from confronting the Democratic Party’s failures and dishonesty, it’s dangerous.
Our media, like our political system, is in deep crisis. Indeed these two crises reinforce each other as both our media and our political system are corrupted by money and have been largely reduced to cheap spectacle.
According to polls, large majorities of Millenials have contempt for these establishment institutions. They are open to and looking for alternatives to these broken systems.
This makes Robert Parry’s legacy and the space for genuine investigative journalism that he fostered at Consortium News more important than ever. With strong leadership and the continued quality of long form journalism from its current and new contributors, we can make a much needed difference at this critical time.
The sky erupts with missile fire as the U.S., U.K. and France launched an attack on parts of Damascus, the capital of Syria, early Saturday in retaliation for Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons last weekend. (Photo: Hassan Ammar / AP)
A team from the OPCW was due to arrive in Syria to investigate the alleged chemical weapons attacks in Douma on Saturday, April 14th. However, that is the morning on which Washington, in coordination with France and the UK, decided to launch around 100 missiles into Syria. Russia analyst and former British military officer, Paul Robinson had a good summary and analysis of the strikes at his blog :
What stands out for me is the choice of weapons in this attack: long-range missiles. The Brits, for instance, fired their missiles from close to their airbase on Cyprus. They didn’t come close to Syria. It seems that they were afraid of Syrian and Russian air defences, and they weren’t prepared to go to the effort of suppressing them, which would have required a long and costly campaign and would have run the danger of getting them into a war with the Russians. The Russian Ministry of Defence says that its own air defences didn’t get involved but that those of the Syrian army shot down 71 of the 103 missiles fired. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (not normally noted for promoting pro-Assad propaganda) claims that 65 were shot down. The Americans are currently denying this. The truth is hard to determine. It may be that the Western allies are right to be fearful of the Syrian/Russian air defence system. Or maybe not. What is clear, though, is that they don’t seem to be willing to take the chance. They also don’t want to get too deeply involved. So, they have limited themselves to firing a few missiles in an utterly pointless manner, while making some wild claims that this would ‘set back Syrian chemical weapons programme for years.’
This is playing at war. Unfortunately, it is symptomatic of how the Americans and the Brits wage war nowadays. They can’t resist getting involved, but the outcome doesn’t matter to them enough for them to commit the resources, and make the sacrifices, required for a successful outcome. So, in Afghanistan they committed themselves enough to stir up the locals, to flood the country with money which boosted corruption and filled the coffers of the Taliban, and generally to make everything worse, but not enough to win (which would have required a simply enormous amount of resources). In Libya, they did just enough to push the country into chaos, but not enough to put it back together again. In Syria, they’ve pumped in enough weapons and money to thoroughly mess the place up (and in the process supply a whole bunch of people who really aren’t their friends), but not enough to overthrow Assad. And so on.
Now, to be fair, it’s a sign of some intelligence that they haven’t gone any further than they have. It would have been completely disproportionate to have done so. We must welcome the fact that in attacking Syria, they limited themselves to a symbolic gesture and stayed well clear of Russian targets. As I said in my last post, achieving the objective of regime change would require enormous destruction. It’s a good thing that our leaders aren’t prepared to go that far. The problem is, though, is that if they want to succeed that’s how far they have to go. If they’re not prepared to do so, they shouldn’t get involved at all in the first place. Unfortunately, they just can’t stop themselves. Consequently, they end up playing at war, failing time after time, while causing a lot of death and destruction in the process.
Robinson makes an excellent point. These actions seem to just be an excuse to waste huge amounts of money on arms and to destroy countries whose leaders don’t comply with our wishes or are in the way of our geopolitical and economic desires. There is certainly no will to stabilize or install a functioning government because, as Robinson points out, it would require too much investment in terms of human resources, which would also risk major casualties.
However, the bad will and distrust that builds as a result of these repeated actions and the propaganda that leads up to them has created a dangerous atmosphere between nuclear superpowers whose military personnel are in close proximity. What if there is a slip-up in the “choreography” of these launches supposedly designed to avoid hitting any Russian targets? What if Russians dial up the hotline to find out what’s going on and are put on hold for nearly a half hour as the Russian military claimed happened in 2016 when the Syrian army was hit in Deir Ezzor? Why do we want to take it that far? And why does our leadership keep saying and doing reckless things that the Russians have to allegedly provide a face-saving out for?
As for Russia’s response to this illegal attack on its ally without even waiting for the results of an investigation that might actually substantiate the allegations against the Syrian government, Russia analyst Gilbert Doctorow wrote the following:
For the Russians there could only be outrage. They were on the receiving end of what was a publicly administered slap in the face to President Vladimir Putin, who was named and supposedly shamed in Trump’s speech for providing support to the “animal” Assad. Putin had been calling upon the U.S. and its allies to show restraint and wait for the conclusion of the OPCW investigation in Duma.
Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, repeated after the attacks Moscow’s prior warning that there would be “grave consequences” for the U.S. and its allies. These were not spelled out. But given Putin’s record of caution, it would be surprising if Moscow did anything to exacerbate the situation.
That caution left the U.S. exposed as an aggressor and violator of international law. Since we are in a New Cold War, habits from the first Cold War are resurfacing. But the roles are reversed today. Whereas in the past, it was Washington that complained to high heaven about the Soviet military intervention in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, today it is Russia that will go on the offensive to sound off about US aggression.
But is that all we may expect? I think not. Putin has a well-earned reputation as a master strategist who takes his time with every move. He also knows the old saying that revenge is a dish best served cold. He has frequently advocated “asymmetric” responses to Western moves against Russian interests. The question of counter moves had already been on his mind since the U.S. Treasury introduced new and potentially harsh economic sanctions on Russia with effect from April 6.
In fact, Russian legislators were busy preparing to introduce in the Duma on Monday a bill empowering the Russian president to issue counter-sanctions. These include an embargo on the sale of critical components to the U.S. aircraft industry which is 40 percent dependent on Russian-sourced titanium for production of both military and civilian planes. There is also the proposed cancellation of bilateral cooperation in space where the Russians supply rocket engines used for U.S. commercial and other satellite launches, as well as a total embargo on sales of U.S. wines, spirits and tobacco in the Russian Federation.
Aside from the withdrawal of titanium sales, these and other enumerated measures pale in significance to the damage done by the U.S. sanctions on the Rusal corporation, the world’s second largest producer and marketer of aluminum, which lost $12 billion in share value on the first day of sanctions. But that is to be expected, given that the United States is the world’s largest economy, measuring more than 10 times Russia’s. Accordingly its ability to cause economic damage to Russia far exceeds the ability of Russia to inflict damage in return.
The only logical outcome of further escalations of U.S. economic measures would be for Russia to respond in the one area where it has something approaching full equality with the United States: its force of arms. That is to say, at a certain point in time purely economic warfare could well become kinetic. This is a danger the U.S. political leadership should not underestimate.
Considering the just inflicted U.S. insult to Russia by its attack in Syria, Moscow may well choose to respond by hitting U.S. interests in a very different location, where it enjoys logistical superiority and also where the counter-strike may be less likely to escalate to direct crossing of swords and the unthinkable—possible nuclear war.
A number of places come to mind, starting in Ukraine where, in an extreme reaction, Russia has the option of removing the regime in Kiev within a 3-day campaign, putting in place a caretaker government until new elections were held. That would likely lead to armed resistance, however, and a Russian occupation, which Moscow neither wants nor can afford.
Speaking of the restraint showed by Putin, I keep making the point that many pundits and politicians keep accusing Putin of being aggressive, yet they are constantly banking on Putin’s restraint in the face of a never-ending series of provocations. Is there not some irony here?
Our corporate mainstream media did its usual despicable job of largely egging on the militarism. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) provides the gory details here and here. Doctorow, in another article, followed the European media on the Syria attack and reported more variety of coverage and viewpoint, especially in Germany (which declined to participate in the attack) and Euronews:
The Die Welt online edition today discusses how the United States and Europe used the mission to test the battleground effectiveness of some of their latest weaponry.
Frankfurter Allgemeine has two feature articles, neither of which follow the American media agenda and might be said to show some independence of thought. One article presents and defends the notion that the weekend attacks showed the Pentagon is “the last bastion of Sense” in the Trump administration. What they think of the President is self evident. Meanwhile the other article tells us that despite the attacks Syrian President Bashar Assad will not give in and is holding to his chosen course, while the Russians are said to be counting on opening a strategic dialogue with the USA over arms control.
….To be sure, the most remarkable departure from the US media track that I note in Europe yesterday and today is on the television, specifically on Euronews. The company’s motto is “Euronews. All Views.” Nice sounding and usually irrelevant, but not this weekend. To be sure, the US, UK, French government accounts of what they achieved are given full coverage in each hourly news bulletin. But at the same time, the Russians are given what appears to be equal time to set out their totally diametrically opposed positions: on whether any chemical attacks at all occurred in Douma, Eastern Goutha, on the violation of international law and of the UN Charter that the Allied attack on Syria represented, on its being “aggression,” on its link to the Skripal case.
In fact, on Saturday Euronews exceptionally gave nearly complete live coverage to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as he spoke in Moscow to the 26th Assembly of the Council of Foreign and Defense Policy. During this talk, Lavrov divulged the findings of the Swiss laboratory which had examined samples of the chemicals gathered in Salisbury in relation to the Skripal poisonings, findings which he said pointed not to Novichok, as was reported by Boris Johnson, but to a nerve agent developed by the United States and produced also in Britain. Lavrov likened the faked attack in Salisbury to the faked chemical attack in Douma.
Letting the Russians deliver extensively their views on what happened in Syria without commentary by their own journalists might be considered extraordinary by Euronews or any other European broadcaster’s standards, for which the public can only be grateful.
My mentor, Sharon Tennison, was in Washington DC in the lead-up to the strike on Syria. Here is the atmosphere she reported:
Mood in Washington, April 8 – 13: The immediate possibility of war between Syria and Russia was on TV screens in hotel lobbies and congressional waiting rooms and tensions were felt behind closed doors in nearly every meeting. It felt like our capital was completely “locked down.” No one wanted to mention their positions on current issues. I’d never before experienced our capital like this.
Simultaneously, young families visiting Washington were innocently enjoying historic monuments, etc. In impromptu inquiries, I asked if they were paying attention to politics and got nonchalant answers back. Apparently they were unaware of the current situation. How could they not be aware? Maybe they view TV news as hyped up fictional TV programs? What a disconnect!
“No, I will not tell you about war. It is disgusting and should never happen,” Lena recalled her father telling her when she was a child and would ask him to tell her tales of his experience in the Great Patriotic War – as WWII is known in Russia, which took the lives of 27 million Soviets. Lena, a wife, mother, and teacher of English and German, who is originally from Western Ukraine and lives in Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountain Region of the Russian Federation, was the first of four ladies from Russia to speak at the RMMA event in Walnut Creek, California on April 5th.
In her opening remarks, she explained the reason for her involvement in the program. it was her father’s words that had inspired Lena to work for peace and the prevention of war.
Prior to Lena’s comments, Sharon Tennison of the Center for Citizen Initiatives introduced the evening’s 4 visitors from Russia and the history of the program that had brought them there.
Tennison’s earlier program in the 1980’s, during the first Cold War, brought groups of non-Communist Party Soviet citizens to visit Americans across the United States. The Soviet visitors stayed in the homes of volunteer Americans for several days during their stay in a particular city. During their visit, the Soviet citizens would meet community leaders, members of the media, business people and average Americans – who could all see for themselves that, in most important ways, these were just people like them. Groups of Americans had already visited the Soviet Union for the same people-to-people outreach, which had enabled Tennison to network with Soviet citizens.
With tensions between the West and Russia at an all time high in the post-Soviet era, Sharon has resurrected the idea. After visiting Atlanta and two cities in Texas, the four Russian ladies were now touring the San Francisco Bay Area.
The second lady was Tatyana, who has lived in Crimea all of her life, the daughter of a Ukrainian mother and a Russian father. She teaches English and history. I met Tatyana during my trip to Crimea in October of 2015 . For her opening, she spoke of the monument that was just erected in Yalta to FDR. Yalta was, of course, the location of the famous conference of the “Big Three” (FDR, Stalin and Churchill) as WWII was winding down in 1945. She wanted to remind others of the wisdom of FDR, who as U.S. president during WWII, was allied with the Soviet Union and treated the country and its leadership with respect, and hoped to work toward a peaceful post-war coexistence, despite ideological differences.
The third lady was Natasha from Krasnodar, a mother and business woman with experience in the agricultural industry. I had also met Natasha on my October 2015 trip.
The fourth speaker was Ilyana, a wife, mother and hydro-engineer from St. Petersburg.
Lena, Tatyana, Natasha and Ilyana all took over an hour’s worth of questions from the audience, which filled the conference room, with probably 60 or so in attendance. The most heated topics seemed to be the Crimea issue and internal Russian politics – particularly gay issues, media/propaganda and Putin.
When Tatyana attempted to provide a local, on-the-ground experience of what happened in Crimea during and after the Maidan protests and the illegal deposing of the democratically elected president of Ukraine at the time (Yanukovich) – which did not comport with the mainstream western media depiction – one woman in the front row shook her head and made it clear that she was not very open to Tatyana’s narrative.
When the subject of the recent presidential elections in Russia in which Putin won ~76% of the vote, an even better showing than was expected, a couple of audience members suggested that the elections were not free and fair.
Lena explained that there were 7 parties in Russia and that Putin ran as an independent. All four ladies attempted to provide the audience with an explanation of why Putin is so genuinely popular in contemporary Russia, describing the chaos, criminality and massive poverty of the 1990’s (referred to by many Russians as “the crazy 90’s”) and the stability, lack of external debt, economic resurgence, decline in street crime, and renewed pride that the Putin era had brought. One of the ladies, who admitted she did not vote for Putin, agreed that there was not yet a credible alternative to the current Russian leader.
In response to more questions about the allegedly poor state of human rights in Russia, Lena explained that each region of Russia had an advocate for human rights and children’s rights that citizens could appeal to. The advocate would investigate the cases and serious issues were brought straight to the attention of the Russian president.
One member of the audience asked about the political opponents of Putin who seemed to mysteriously end up dead. All of the ladies expressed skepticism at the claims of Putin being behind the deaths and cited the lack of evidence provided to substantiate the claims. After pointing out that Russia was a very wealthy country with abundant natural resources, Ilyana asked the audience, “Who has an interest in portraying Putin this way?”
Naturally, the issue of media and propaganda came up with suggestions by one audience member that the Russians were subjected to propaganda. The ladies explained that there was a diversity in the Russian print media and that Russians had access to international media, including American, via satellite and internet. Ilyana asked the audience to consider the following: “Who owns your media? Do these owners have interests? What are their interests?”
In response to another question on this, Tatyana explained that the New York Times Moscow bureau would periodically come to Crimea to report. But they would talk only to a few people who represented about 5% of the viewpoint in Crimea, but they portrayed it as though it represented 100%. “You see, they did not lie, but they distorted.”
One audience member pointed out that our revered NYT had promoted on its front pages what amounted to government-sourced gossip about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that led to a million deaths and the destabilization of an entire region. He also added a cautionary note about believing unsubstantiated claims of political murders in far-away foreign countries. “What if someone from another country believed the rumors and gossip about the Clintons being behind the death of Vince Foster and Seth Rich without evidence presented?”
On the topic of propaganda, Lena stated: “I don’t think I’m brainwashed. I live in Russia [and know what it is like there]. I don’t want to leave my country. But I also have a son here in the U.S. and a grandson and a lovely daughter-in-law. My heart is with you [America], but it is also with Russia.”