All posts by natyliesb

Pathetic Saudi Shenanigans; Putin-Trump Joint Statement on Syria; Russia-Iran Economic Ties Increase While Russia Reiterates Support for Iran Deal; Economic Figures for Russia Generally Bode Well; US Wasted $5.6 Trillion on War

starving Yemeni child

A three-year-old child who suffers from severe acute malnutrition stands on a hospital bed shortly after being admitted to a facility in Yemen. (Photo: Giles Clarke, U.N. OCHA/Getty Images)

 

Kicking off this post is a discussion of the many tragic and/or pathetic shenanigans of the Saudi royal leadership – namely Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) who has effectively been given free reign by King Salman.  Last week, several members of the Saudi royal family who were perceived to be rivals of MBS were arrested, with one reportedly killed.

Simultaneously, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri read what appeared to be a forced resignation of his post from inside Saudi Arabia – a country that he has dual citizenship with and has many close business ties to.

According to renowned international journalist Pepe Escobar, the arrests were part of a supposed “anti-corruption” program with a commission headed by MBS:

Right on cue, the commission detains 11 House of Saud princes, four current ministers and dozens of former princes/cabinet secretaries – all charged with corruption. Hefty bank accounts are frozen, private jets are grounded. The high-profile accused lot is “jailed” at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton…..A top Middle East business/investment source who has been doing deals for decades with the opaque House of Saud offers much-needed perspective: “This is more serious than it appears. The arrest of the two sons of previous King Abdullah, Princes Miteb and Turki, was a fatal mistake. This now endangers the King himself. It was only the regard for the King that protected MBS. There are many left in the army against MBS and they are enraged at the arrest of their commanders.”

To say the Saudi Arabian Army is in uproar is an understatement. “He’d have to arrest the whole army before he could feel secure.”

Of course, the Saudi army is nothing to brag about as shown by their horrible performance in the Yemen war (more about that later).  Escobar points out, among other things, that MBS is seeking total control of Saudi media:

Prince Miteb until recently was a serious contender to the Saudi throne. But the highest profile among the detainees belongs to billionaire Prince al-Waleed Bin Talal, owner of Kingdom Holdings, major shareholder in Twitter, CitiBank, Four Seasons, Lyft and, until recently, Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp.

Al-Waleed’s arrest ties up with a key angle; total information control. There’s no freedom of information in Saudi Arabia. MBS already controls all the internal media (as well as the appointment of governorships). But then there’s Saudi media at large. MBS aims to “hold the keys to all the large media empires and relocate them to Saudi Arabia.”

Escobar also discusses the economic problems that MBS is trying to address, how his approach is bound to fail, and why an internal conflict will likely continue on and possibly escalate:

As the regime’s popularity radically tumbled down, MBS came up with Vision 2030. Theoretically, it was shift away from oil; selling off part of Aramco; and an attempt to bring in new industries. Cooling off dissatisfaction was covered by royal payoffs to key princes to stay loyal and retroactive payments on back wages to the unruly masses.

Yet Vision 2030 cannot possibly work when the majority of productive jobs in Saudi Arabia are held by expats. Bringing in new jobs raises the question of where are the new (skilled) workers to come from.

Throughout these developments, aversion to MBS never ceased to grow; “There are three major royal family groups aligning against the present rulers: the family of former King Abdullah, the family of former King Fahd, and the family of former Crown Prince Nayef.”

Professor Amal Saad, in an interview with TRNN’s Aaron Mate, discussed the geopolitical motives of MBS’s actions with respect to the forced resignation of Hariri:

ISIS has been dislodged from the region, Nusra has lost a lot of territory in Lebanon and in Syria, and therefore, Saudi Arabia basically panicked, over and above its losses in Yemen, and it’s been failing miserably in Yemen, as everyone can testify to with this latest blockade and their total desperation to strangulate Yemen. The resistance of the Houthis there is a formidable obstacle for them in their quest for regional domination. They have failed in every single arena that they have thus far fought. And today, by the way, let me say this before I forget, Nasrallah pointed out something quite interesting. He said, and this is something we know now, we know obviously now that Saudi Arabia is pressuring Israel to invade Lebanon, and he said they’ve even been offering it millions of dollars to that effect, but he said that in 2006, Saudi did the exact same thing, that Saudi was in part, not responsible, because Israel has its own calculations and would have launched a war anyway, but Saudi was definitely persuading it back then to wage war on Hezbollah and was actively supporting that war.

So Saudi Arabia has been lobbying for this for quite some time now, and I think it became even more necessary when it saw that all its cards in the region have been played and are of no use to it anymore. This latest tactic, this is a last resort, I think. There’s nothing else that they can do to stand in the way of Hezbollah’s growing influence. They can’t do anything vis-a-vis Iran, and it’s purely an act of desperation, I believe, to, Imagine how desperate a state must be to this openly, and very crudely, kidnap the prime minister, their own ally, of another state. That’s pretty desperate in my mind.

Saad points out how the Saudi policy to try to limit Hezbollah’s increasing power and influence is backfiring as the image of the organization’s leader (Nasrallah) has only increased as a result of the Saudi-provoked incident:

As we saw today, Nasrallah in his speech was defending Lebanon’s constitution, Lebanon’s institutions, its procedural legitimacy. He was behaving like a statesman. He was calling. He was speaking in the language of a state. His discourse is identical to President Michel Aoun, who’s been calling for exactly the same. So Hezbollah has now been further legitimized inside Lebanon on the popular level. Politically, it’s emerged much stronger. At the same time, Nasrallah even actually defended Sunni rights in Lebanon. He said, “Why are you depriving Sunnis of their leader?” So it’s really ironic that what Saudi Arabia has done is marginalize Sunnis, when it’s been accusing Iran and Hezbollah of marginalizing them or disempowering them. It’s gone and done that itself by kidnapping their leader and denying him any future political role.

With regard to the war on Yemen, which has caused the biggest cholera epidemic seen in recent history, destroyed much civilian infrastructure, and has put the country on the brink of mass starvation, Saudi Arabia chose to implement a full blockade of the nation, preventing any aid from reaching the population.  The Saudi government has since partially lifted the blockade, according to some sources, but whether that will have any substantive effect on the suffering is open to question.

As regular readers are probably already aware, the U.S. government is enabling the Saudi war on Yemen, including help with in-flight refueling of warplanes and provision of weapons.   Col. Lawrence Wilkerson recently spoke to TRNN’s Sharmini Peries of his attempts to lobby Congress to support legislation ending U.S. support of the war in Yemen:

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Larry, give us a sense of what they’re telling you when you’re on the Hill about this unconditional support for Saudi Arabia’s war.

LARRY WILKERSON: You’d be amazed, Sharmini. I have gotten answers from staffers and members that range the gamut from, “Well, this is just a niche issue.” That’s a direct quote. “This is just a niche issue.” My response, of course, was, “500,000 people dying is a niche issue?” Well, not a lot, and get them a little off guard with that kind of response, to a response such as this, “Well, I always go with my committee chairman.” That is, the committee of jurisdiction. “So, if Ed Royce is going to go against this, I’ve got to go against it, too.” This is the war power. This is your nation using bombs, bullets and bayonets to kill the citizens of other nations and, oh, by the way, put its own men and women in harm’s way too.

This is the war power. This is the ultimate power, and you bow to your committee of jurisdiction? Come on, Mr. Congressman. You can do better than that. To an answer like this one that I got, “Well, Iran’s there.” My response, “Iran wasn’t there until the Saudi-UAE coalition attacked and we supported them.” “Well, Iran is there now, so we’ve got to fight them. The Saudis are doing our dirty business for us.” Why do we have to fight Iran in Yemen? What is it that Iran is doing in Yemen that’s destabilizing, and destabilizing in a way that threatens U.S. national security interest? “Well, Iran always does that.” Are you kidding me, Congressman? Can’t you think more critically than that? Can’t you think more analytically than that? Iran is not always going against U.S. interest. Iran, in this case, is going against U.S. interest, if they are, because we are supporting the Saudi coalition that’s waging this brutal war.

You just wouldn’t believe it, Sharmini. The first reaction I have is that they don’t know what they’re talking about. The second reaction I have is that they’re venal, they’re cruel, they’re brutal. The third reaction I have is, they’re ignorant, they’re just not willing to look at the issues. And the fourth reaction I have is that they’re in obeisance to the military-industrial complex, which, if you’ll look at the contribution charts, does, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing and so forth does contribute a heck of a lot of money to these people’s campaigns. And so with a little war like this, what’s a little war as long as it maintains me in power?

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After a brief meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN conference last week, Trump and Putin issued a joint statement on Syria, stating that the conflict has no military solution and that settlement must be reached through negotiation as part of the ongoing Geneva peace process pursuant to the UN Resolution 2254.  According to RT:

 

The joint agreement was worked out in advance by officials from both nations, and agreed upon by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian news agencies report, citing Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

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Before the ASEAN conference, Russia reinforced its cordial relations with Iran.  First,  Putin met with French PM Macron and together they publicly reiterated their support for the Iran nuclear deal, which is under fire in Washington.

Russia also had a meeting with Iran and Azerbaijan in Tehran in which billions of dollars worth of deals were made, including a contract worth $30 billion between Russian oil company Rosneft and Iranian oil company NIOC.   The three countries also signed onto an “understanding” that they would jointly develop gas fields in the near future, which would provide gas to India, among others.

At this meeting, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini suggested that Russia and Iran work together to dump the U.S. dollar in all bilateral trade as a way to evade sanctions.  According to RT, Khameini said the following:

“By ignoring the negative propaganda of the enemies, that seek to weaken relations between countries, we can nullify US sanctions, using methods such as eliminating the dollar and replacing it with national currencies in transactions between two or more parties; thus, isolate the Americans,” he said on Wednesday at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tehran.

Meanwhile, Russian engineers with Rosatom have begun working on building Iran’s second nuclear reactor, Bushehr 2.

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More positive economic figures have been coming out of Russia.  It’s GDP has risen to 1.7%, amid a stabilized ruble,  and its year-on-year car sales have shown a 17% increase.

Furthermore, Russia’s Ease of Doing Business Score has gone up again.  Alexander Mercouris at The Duran reports:

In a further sign of Russia’s steadily improving business climate, Russia’s Economics Minister Maxim Oreshkin has announced that Russia has moved up the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings from 40th to 35th in the world.

That puts Russia behind only the advanced economies of the West and some (though not all) of the top economies of the Far East.  Russia now has by a substantial distance the best ranking economy for ease of doing business amongst the BRICS.

By way of comparison, Russia’s ranking for ease of doing business was 120th in the world in 2010.  The radical improvement in the business climate is therefore a relatively recent phenomenon and is the direct consequence of sustained and concerted action by the Russian government.

However, on the down side, The Moscow Times recently reported that outlying towns in Russia are having serious budget difficulties and are turning to the major central cities for help.

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In the wealthiest nation in history, our politicians tell us that we can’t afford universal health care and free college tuition – things that other industrialized nations that do not have as large an income as we do manage to provide their citizens.  So where is all that tax money that we fork over every April going?

Well, since 9/11, it’s gone into that budget sinkhole known as the “War on Terror.”   As reported by Common Dreams, the Costs of War Project at the Watson Institute (Brown University) has calculated that $5.6 trillion has been spent directly and indirectly:

new analysis offers a damning assessment of the United States’ so-called global war on terror, and it includes a “staggering” estimated price tag for wars waged since 9/11—over $5.6 trillion.

The Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Center says the figure—which covers the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan from 2001 through 2018—is the equivalent of more than $23,386 per taxpayer.

The “new report,” said Paul Kawika Martin, Peace Action’s senior director for policy and political affairs, “once again shows that the true #costofwar represents a colossal burden to taxpayers on top of the tremendous human loss.”

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In the near future, I will be posting a book review on a compelling book I’m reading called Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership by Susan Butler.  It’s chock full of interesting historical tidbits and reads like a novel.  Those interested in Roosevelt, Stalin, WWII and the origins of the Cold War will find it a fascinating read.

Reflections on China and the Eurasian Century

Russia-China Tandem Changes the World

(https://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2017/10/24/russia-china-tandem-changes-world.html)

As my co-author and I suggested in our book, America’s power is waning. This is consistent with the historical fate of all empires, mainly because empire is not a sustainable system.   As events in Syria over the past two years have shown, Washington’s uni-polar moment is over.  This is not to say that the U.S. isn’t still very powerful in many respects or that its demise is complete.  The collapse or disintegration of an empire is a process and exactly how long it takes and the details of how it plays out are difficult to predict.

As the disintegration of the U.S.’s unipolar power occurs, a void will develop (indeed is developing) and some other power or combination of powers will inevitably move to fill the void.  As it stands, it appears that the void will likely be filled by something that resembles a multi-polar world with Eurasia taking the lead role.  China, set to be the leading economy within the next 10 years – indeed is already the leading economy with respect to some measures – has developed an alliance with Russia and is taking steps to implement its One Belt One Road initiative, also known as the New Silk Road, that envisions a cooperative economic network throughout Eurasia that covers at least all of the territory of the old Silk Road.

The success of this project requires the ability to defend oneself from aggressive competitors who are stuck in a zero-sum mentality of geopolitics (i.e. Washington and allies/client states that it can continue to coerce into doing its bidding).  It also requires the finesse to prevent and/or subdue any ethnic, cultural or religious divisions within various states or potential conflicts between states that could be stirred up or exploited by aggressive (and desperate) outside powers.   Russia’s military technology and diplomatic skill complement China’s economic power in terms of helping the Eurasian project to succeed, which will in turn, benefit Russia’s economy and security.

In this post I want to take a closer look at some aspects of China that will hopefully give the reader some more insight into the mindset and governance of that country and its role in shaping Eurasia, as well as how Washington is likely to respond to its own decline and Eurasia’s rise.  The first source of insight is a Ted Talk by political science and businessman Eric X. Li.  Li demystifies some of the inner workings of how China governs its people which will cause many to rethink what they’ve been taught about political democracy, particularly how it is practiced by the West and whether it is the only legitimate or the most effective system of governance.   Here are some excerpts from Li’s talk:

In the last 20 years, Western elites tirelessly trotted around the globe selling this prospectus: Multiple parties fight for political power and everyone voting on them is the only path to salvation to the long-suffering developing world. Those who buy the prospectus are destined for success. Those who do not are doomed to fail. But this time, the Chinese didn’t buy it. Fool me once… (Laughter) The rest is history. In just 30 years, China went from one of the poorest agricultural countries in the world to its second-largest economy. Six hundred fifty million people were lifted out of poverty. Eighty percent of the entire world’s poverty alleviation during that period happened in China.In other words, all the new and old democracies put together amounted to a mere fraction of what a single, one-party state did without voting…..

….Yes, China is a one-party state run by the Chinese Communist Party, the Party, and they don’t hold elections. Three assumptions are made by the dominant political theories of our time. Such a system is operationally rigid, politically closed, and morally illegitimate. Well, the assumptions are wrong. The opposites are true. Adaptability, meritocracy, and legitimacy are the three defining characteristics of China’s one-party system. Now, most political scientists will tell us that a one-party system is inherently incapable of self-correction. It won’t last long because it cannot adapt. Now here are the facts…..

…Now, Westerners always assume that multi-party election with universal suffrage is the only source of political legitimacy. I was asked once, “The Party wasn’t voted in by election. Where is the source of legitimacy?” I said, “How about competency?” We all know the facts.In 1949, when the Party took power, China was mired in civil wars, dismembered by foreign aggression, average life expectancy at that time, 41 years old. Today, it’s the second largest economy in the world, an industrial powerhouse, and its people live in increasing prosperity. Pew Research polls Chinese public attitudes, and here are the numbers in recent years. Satisfaction with the direction of the country: 85 percent. Those who think they’re better off than five years ago: 70 percent. Those who expect the future to be better: a whopping 82 percent. Financial Times polls global youth attitudes, and these numbers, brand new, just came from last week. Ninety-three percent of China’s Generation Y are optimistic about their country’s future. Now, if this is not legitimacy, I’m not sure what is. In contrast, most electoral democracies around the world are suffering from dismal performance. I don’t need to elaborate for this audience how dysfunctional it is, from Washington to European capitals. With a few exceptions, the vast number of developing countries that have adopted electoral regimes are still suffering from poverty and civil strife.Governments get elected, and then they fall below 50 percent approval in a few months and stay there and get worse until the next election…..

….There’s a vibrant civil society in China, whether it’s environment or what-have-you. But it’s different. You wouldn’t recognize it. Because, by Western definitions, a so-called civil society has to be separate or even in opposition to the political system, but that concept is alien for Chinese culture. For thousands of years, you have civil society, yet they are consistent and coherent part of a political order, and I think it’s a big cultural difference.

A point made by Li in that last paragraph reminded me of a point point made by Vladimir Putin during his first address to the Federal Assembly in which he cited the need for a meaningful civil society to help develop Russia and address the many problems it faced at the time, including massive poverty and crime, the need for reform of the economy and the armed forces, and the worst mortality crisis since World War II.  But Putin implied that the best chance for success was for the state and civil society to work together, stating that there was a “false conflict” between the two.

This shows that not only do Russia and China have many views in terms of geopolitics that are simpatico but also attitudes on the relationship between the state and civil society.   These views, of course, are anathema to the average westerner who has internalized that political democracy as it is practiced – particularly in the U.S. with its strong libertarian streak – is the best and only legitimate way for human beings to govern themselves.  Any other approaches are dismissed as inferior and in need of eventually being destroyed and replaced by the western model.   If the people living in another country don’t agree with this, then it is believed that they are the equivalent of ignorant children who must be forced to grow up and eat their broccoli.

Li also mentions that China has achieved the impressive and unprecedented feat of lifting hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty within the last 30 years.  Progressive economist Mark Weisbrot, who works for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, reiterated this success in a recent interview with the Real News Network and compared what China did to what other developing countries did that was less successful:

We looked at this recently in one of our papers and you have these statements from politicians as well, President Obama in his last speech at the United Nations said that over the last 25 years, the number of people living in extreme poverty has been cut from nearly 40% of the world to under 10%. Now that’s World Bank statistic and there’s a lot of dispute over that. But even taking it at face value, if you actually look at what happened since 1990, two-thirds of that extreme poverty reduction was in China. And if you go back a little further from 1981 to 2010, 94% of that net reduction in people living below the extreme poverty line was in China. And even the part that wasn’t in China, a lot of that was the result of China’s growth and importing. Increased imports from developing countries and increased investment as China became the largest economy in the world.

Chinese globalization’s done very well. China’s income per person has multiplied 21 times since 1980. The fastest economic growth in history. But if you look at what they did, most of it’s the opposite of what these Washington institutions and what even President Obama was describing as globalization in his speech. They had foreign investment, but they controlled it. And they still have it. They control it to fit with their own development plans. They have technology transfer as much as they can get. They have performance requirement. Require foreign investing firms to do certain things that promote local management skills and things like that. Export promotion. They have a mostly state controlled financial system for most of this period, and still quite a bit today. Their central bank isn’t independent, which is one of the main thing Washington pushes.

This is the kind of globalization they had, and the rest of the developing world is very different. You have this indiscriminate opening to international trade and capital flows. You have the central bank being independent of the government so it’s not really a subject of public control. It’s more the response of the financial sector. They got rid of these industrial and developing policies that used to be successful, and were successful in China. And all this other financial deregulation and other deregulation. And if you look at what happened in these last 25 years in the vast majority of developing countries outside of China, the ones that did the kind of globalization that President Obama and all these officials at the IMF and the World Bank are talking about and calling a success, and the media usually calls a success, they did very badly overall.

This is not to say that China is invincible or that it will continue at the breakneck speed it has in past years.  As economist Jack Rasmus reports, the Chinese government recognizes that another global financial crisis is on the horizon, which will slow China’s growth and force it to continue addressing internal problems it still has with speculation, among other things:

The past year the US and global ‘real’ economies have enjoyed a moderate recovery. Much of that has been due to China stimulating its economy to ensure real growth in anticipation of the Communist Party’s convention, which has just ended. China’s president Xi and central bank (Peoples Bank of China) chair, Zhou, have announced, post-convention, that China’s real growth will slow and have warned a global ‘Minsky Moment’ (i.e. financial crisis) may be brewing. China will now try, once again, to tame its shadow bankers and speculators who have been feeding China’s debt and bubbles, and prepare for the global financial instability that is brewing.

Moving back to the arena of geopolitics, journalist Finian Cunningham in a recent article contrasted the visions expressed recently by Chinese president Xi and U.S. president Donald Trump and pointed out the obvious about who Putin is more closely aligned with:

Two very different faces of world leadership were on display this week. In Beijing, President Xi Jinping delivered a bold, outward-looking vision of Chinese global leadership. Meanwhile, in Washington President Donald Trump was embroiled in yet more egotistical infighting and tawdry claims of media lies.

Addressing the 19th congress of China’s Communist Party, 64-year-old Xi was reelected for a second five-year term. He is being talked about as the greatest Chinese leader since Mao Zedong who led the country’s founding revolution in 1949. With dignified composure, Xi spoke to the Great Hall of the People about “a new era of modern socialism… open to the world.”

….“No country can alone address the many challenges facing mankind; no country can afford to retreat into self-isolation,” Xi told delegates during a three-and-half-hour address.

Reuters again: “Xi set bold long-term goals for China’s development, envisioning it as a modernized socialist country by 2035, and a modern socialist strong power with leading influence on the world stage by 2050.”

….Contrary to American leadership and Trump in particular, Chinese characteristics of global leadership are not marked by knuckle-dragging domination, militarism and aggression. The emphasis from the Chinese leader is on global cooperation and multilateralism. In short, a peaceful and prosperous world.

Contrast that to Trump’s tirade before the UN General Assembly last month when he rhetorically swaggered and threatened nations with “total destruction”.

In that regard, Russian President Vladimir Putin shares the same leadership qualities as China’s Xi. No wonder the two leaders are visibly comfortable when they meet publicly, as they have done more frequently than any other two current heads of state. Quietly, with dignity, the two men seem driven to create a more progressive, peaceful world of co-development and co-existence – in spite of American proclivities to create a world of chaos, conflict and hegemony.

Sadly, it seems safe to say at this point that the American elites have no meaningful or constructive solutions for the U.S.’s myriad domestic problems or its diminishing geopolitical fortunes.   As mentioned earlier in this post, Washington seems stuck in a zero-sum mentality, tilting at the windmills of its former glory days.  It is therefore likely that Washington will continue to see the potentially constructive moves of China and Russia in Eurasia as a threat to be conquered or sabotaged rather than an opportunity to participate to the degree it can in a win-win arrangement that does not rely on full-spectrum dominance of the world and the narcissistic imposition of its “values” and mores on everyone else.

Foreign affairs writer and Russia expert Gilbert Doctorow has penned an analysis analysis of the “Russia-China tandem” explaining how the Eurasian project need not be a threat in any objective sense of the term for Washington, but that the chance of Washington’s recognition of this fact is slim:

Much of what Western “experts” assert about Russia – especially its supposed economic and political fragility and its allegedly unsustainable partnership with China – is wrong, resulting not only from the limited knowledge of the real situation on the ground but from a prejudicial mindset that does not want to get at the facts, i.e. from wishful thinking.

….The chief reason for the many wrongheaded observations is not so hard to discover. The ongoing rampant conformism in American and Western thinking about Russia has taken control not only of our journalists and commentators but also of our academic specialists who serve up to their students and to the general public what is expected and demanded: proof of the viciousness of the “Putin regime” and celebration of the brave souls in Russia who go up against this regime, such as the blogger-turned-politician Alexander Navalny or Russia’s own Paris Hilton, the socialite-turned-political-activist Ksenia Sochak.

Although vast amounts of information are available about Russia in open sources, meaning the Russian press and commercial as well as state television, these are largely ignored. The sour grapes Russian opposition personalities who have settled in the United States are instead given the microphone to sound off about their former homeland. Meanwhile, anyone taking care to read, hear and analyze the words of Vladimir Putin becomes in these circles a “stooge.” All of this limits greatly the accuracy and usefulness of what passes for expertise about Russia.

….By contrast, today’s international relations “experts” lack the in-depth knowledge of Russia to say something serious and valuable for policy formulation. The whole field of area studies has atrophied in the United States over the past 20 years, with actual knowledge of history, languages, cultures being largely scuttled in favor of numerical skills that will provide sure employment in banks and NGOs upon graduation. The diplomas have been systematically depreciated.

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The result of the foregoing is that there are very few academics who can put the emerging Russian-Chinese alliance into a comparative context. And those who do exist are systematically excluded from establishment publications and roundtable public discussions in the United States for not being sufficiently hostile to Russia.

….What we find in Kissinger’s description of his accomplishments in the 1970s is that the American-Chinese partnership was all done at arm’s length. There was no alliance properly speaking, no treaty, in keeping with China’s firm commitment not to accept entanglement in mutual obligations with other powers. The relationship was two sovereign states conferring regularly on international developments of mutual interest and pursuing policies that in practice proceeded in parallel to influence global affairs in a coherent manner.

This bare minimum of a relationship was overtaken and surpassed by Russia and China some time ago. The relationship has moved on to ever larger joint investments in major infrastructure projects having great importance to both parties, none more so than the gas pipelines that will bring very large volumes of Siberian gas to Chinese markets in a deal valued at $400 billion.

Meanwhile, in parallel, Russia has displaced Saudi Arabia as China’s biggest supplier of crude oil, and trading is now being done in yuan rather than petrodollars. There is also a good deal of joint investment in high technology civilian and military projects. And there are joint military exercises in areas ever farther from the home bases of both countries.

Doctorow goes on to reiterate what I stated in a blog post months back – that any ideas by Kissinger or the late Brzezinski to try to break up the Russia-China partnership with the promise of better relations with Washington were delusional due to the economic, military and diplomatic ties that had developed in the recent past between the two countries, as well as the recognition by the leadership of both countries that any promises made by Washington were unreliable to put it magnanimously.

But unlike me and some other analysts, Doctorow believes that we are seeing the emergence, not of a multi-polar world, but another bipolar world with the U.S. and its western allies on one side and the Eurasian powers of Russia and China on the other.   He believes that this bipolar world will be the geopolitical paradigm of the foreseeable future and that it may not be such a bad thing as it will at least provide some kind of balance in place of the uni-polar world that saw one nation running through the world like a bull in a china shop.

However, a bipolar world with the U.S. remaining as the main power on one side presupposes that the U.S. will continue to have a stable enough political system to carry out a coherent foreign policy and an economic system robust enough to continue to underpin its military domination and serve as a coercive instrument to keep other “allies” in line.   No one knows how long that will be the case.

Ukraine No Closer to Being Sweden; Independent Report from North Korea; Senate Intel Committee Admits No Evidence of Hacking or Collusion

Monument of Peter the Great, St. Petersburg, Russia

The U.S. Congress moved closer to sending more “defensive” arms to Ukraine with the passage of the latest National Defense Authorization Act passed last month.  James Carden provided more details at Consortium News:

Indeed, last month’s National Defense Authorization Act shows that – if nothing else – McCain and Graham are as good as their word: the recently passed defense appropriations bill provides for $500 million, including “defensive lethal assistance” to Kiev, as part of a $640 billion overall spending package.

The aid comes at a good time for the embattled Ukrainian President Poroshenko, whose approval rating hovers around 16 percent. In a bid to stave off the possibility of a far-right coup d’etat, Poroshenko is back to banging the war drums, promising, well, more blood.

In a little covered speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Sept. 19, Poroshenko promised that “American weapons will help us liberate the Donbas and return Ukrainian territories.” He also noted that Ukraine spends roughly 6 percent of its GDP on defense, “a figure,” he observed, “much bigger than the obligation for the NATO members.”

Clearly Washington’s condemnation of governments that wage war “against their own people” remains selective, contingent upon who is doing the killing and who is doing the dying. In this case, it would seem that Russian-speaking Ukrainians simply don’t rate.

Meanwhile, a new report by Sergiy Kudelia of Baylor University outlines the extrajudicial violence, including torture and murder, occurring on both sides with respect to the conflict in Donbass.   These brutal activities are often carried out by ultra-right and Neo-Nazi proxies (Azov Battalion and Right Sector) on the Kiev side:

For most of its twenty-five years of independence, Ukraine has been classified as a “partly free” state with a medium level of restrictions on civil liberties.[2] However, since 2014, its score on the “political terror scale” has increased from medium to high, indicating that “murders, disappearances, and torture are a common part of life.” While this deterioration can be partially attributed to widespread human rights abuses on rebel-held territories, the application of physical coercion has also become a standard element of Ukraine’s counterinsurgency tactics.

As an index created by V-Dem project shows, violence committed by government agents in Ukraine for the last three years has been at the highest level since the country’s independence (see Figure 1). Reports by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) remain the single most extensive source of information on physical integrity rights violations in Ukraine committed by government agents and their affiliates. The first evidence of enforced disappearances in Donbas by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) was reported in August 2014 with new episodes cited in every report since then. By August 2016, OHCHR concluded that the “Ukrainian authorities have allowed the deprivation of liberty of individuals in secret for prolonged periods of time.” Human rights monitors established that there is “a network of unofficial places of detention, often located in the basements of regional SBU buildings” not only in towns of Donbas, but also in Kharkiv, Odesa, Zaporizzhia, Poltava, and other cities. The authorities relied on volunteer battalions, particularly Azov and DUK Right Sector, to capture separatist suspects and interrogate them at their military bases before transferring them into government custody. Incommunicado detention has become an ordinary practice before suspects are officially registered in the criminal justice system. Some of the victims were taken into custody again immediately after their official release from prison and held in secret locations without charge, often for prisoner exchanges.

Continue reading the report, including graphs and charts here

Those same Neo-Nazis were freely marching through cities of Ukraine by the thousands recently to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which colluded with Nazi Germany in the massacre of tens of thousands of Poles and Jews during WWII.   Canadian Russia expert, Patrick Armstrong, summed up events for Ukraine in a recent post on his blog:

UKRAINE. Another coup in the making? Demonstrations kicked off by a torchlight paradeDemands (at the moment) are a new election law for parliamentarians, an anti-corruption court, ending parliamentary immunity. Signed by Tymoshenko and Saakashvili among many others including some of the nazi battalions. Perhaps not coincidentally, an investigation into fraud committed by President Poroshenko has been opened. Did the coal from Pennsylvania actually come from RussiaNuclear fearsAnother huge ammunition dump fire. The collapse continues.

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The U.S. continued its provocative behavior this past week with more military drills near South Korea as a North Korean official publicly stated how close to war the U.S. and North Korea are:

As the U.S. completes military drills off of South Korea’s eastern coast, a top North Korean official warned on Monday that “nuclear war can break out at any moment” and that the tensions that have escalated amid President Donald Trump’s threats have propelled the two countries to “the touch-and-go point.”

North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations said in his address to the U.N. General Assembly’s disarmament committee that the U.S. has not subjected any other country to “such an extreme and direct nuclear threat” in several decades.

It has also been revealed that the North Korean government made an attempt through a letter sent via diplomatic channels to Australia to get assistance in de-escalating tensions with Washington. The Australian government was apparently dismissive of the letter. Alexander Mercouris provided the following analysis (along with the full text of the letter at this link):

Australia seems to have entirely misread the letter as well as totally misunderstanding its context. The letter represented the DPRK’s attempt to create a bridge of dialogue between Pyongyang and one of America’s closet allies in the Pacific. For all of the speculation about whether North Korea is prepared to engage in dialogue, this letter proves once and for all that not only is North Korea willing to speak with traditional partners like Russia, but that Pyongyang is also capable of reaching out to US allies in an attempt to foment the same. The fact that Australia refused to read behind North Korea’s typically robust rhetoric to understand the wider context of the letter, represents a clear failure of basic human intelligence.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the name of Eva Bartlett who has done fearless independent reporting from Syria, exposing much of the propaganda and misinformation that western corporate media and politicians have fed us for years.  Ms. Bartlett participated in a recent fact-finding trip to North Korea and has published a wonderful photo-essay on her visit, including some of the country’s successful infrastructure, education, culture and entertainment, and a health care system so well-functioning that it is “the envy of the developing wold”.  She also has quotes and photos from everyday North Koreans who are proud and resourceful, turning the average American’s view of North Korea as a gray dungeon where everyone is miserable and suffering on its head.

Propaganda and history aside, what we hardly ever see in articles on North Korea is the human side, some of the faces among the 25 million people at risk of being murdered or maimed by an American-led attack.

From August 24 to 31, 2017, I was part of a three-person delegation that independently visited the DPRK, with the intent of hearing from Koreans themselves about their country and history.

As it turned out, we heard also about their wishes for reunification with the South, their past efforts towards that goal, their desire for peace, but their refusal to be destroyed again. Following are snapshots and videos from my week in the country, with an effort to show the people and some of the impressive infrastructure and developments that corporate media almost certainly will never show.

Some sample photos:

The Mangyongdae Children's Palace in Pyongyang is a sprawling extra-curricular facility offering children lessons in sports, dance and music (Korean and non), foreign languages, science, computers, calligraphy and embroidery, and more. Around 5,000 children daily attend this facility. They may indeed be the most talented children in Pyongyang and surroundings, but encouraging the growth of talent is something done worldwide. Unlike in many Western nations, in the DPRK lessons are free of charge.

The Mangyongdae Children’s Palace in Pyongyang is a sprawling extra-curricular facility offering children lessons in sports, dance and music (Korean and non), foreign languages, science, computers, calligraphy and embroidery, and more. Around 5,000 children daily attend this facility. They may indeed be the most talented children in Pyongyang and surroundings, but encouraging the growth of talent is something done worldwide. Unlike in many Western nations, in the DPRK lessons are free of charge.

 Pyongyang's Science and Technology Center, completed in 2015, is an expansive structure heated by geothermal energy, and with drip irrigation-watered live grass on inside walls. Its more than 3,000 computers are solar powered, the library has books in 12 foreign languages, and a long-distance learning program enables people from around the country to study and earn a degree equivalent to that of in-university studies.

Pyongyang’s Science and Technology Center, completed in 2015, is an expansive structure heated by geothermal energy, and with drip irrigation-watered live grass on inside walls. Its more than 3,000 computers are solar powered, the library has books in 12 foreign languages, and a long-distance learning program enables people from around the country to study and earn a degree equivalent to that of in-university studies.

The Okryu Children's Hospital is a six-story, 300-bed facility across from Pyongyang's towering maternity hospital. U.S. sanctions on the DPRK prevent further entry of machines like the pictured CT scan. While defiantly proud of the health care system, Dr. Kim Un-Song spoke of her anger as a mother: “This is inhumane and against human rights. Medicine children need is under sanctions.”

The Okryu Children’s Hospital is a six-story, 300-bed facility across from Pyongyang’s towering maternity hospital. U.S. sanctions on the DPRK prevent further entry of machines like the pictured CT scan. While defiantly proud of the health care system, Dr. Kim Un-Song spoke of her anger as a mother: “This is inhumane and against human rights. Medicine children need is under sanctions.”

See full photo-essay here

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“There are concerns that we continue to pursue. Collusion?  The committee continues to look into all the evidence to see if there was any hint of collusion.  Now, I’m not going to even discuss any initial findings because we haven’t any. ” -Committee Chairman Senator Richard Burr

This statement after going down the laundry list of all the thousands of pages of documents that have been reviewed, the hours of testimony heard, etc. over the course of an investigation that has gone on for a year or more, kind of says it all, don’t you think?

Mike Whitney has a full write-up over the Unz Review on just how absurd this has all become.

Are the US & Russia Headed for a Clash in Syria?; Economic Numbers Slow, Steady and Positive for Russia; Critiques of PBS’s “The Vietnam War”; Delegation of NY State Senators Visit Moscow, Find Things to Want to Emulate

American Embassy in Moscow; photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, 2015

With the recent exposure of the Pentagon scheme in which weapons are being funneled from Eastern Europe to Syria, using a falsified paper trail, it is obvious that Washington is still keen on trying to achieve a partition of Syria as a Plan B to its failed regime change policy by backing various opponents of the Syrian government, namely the Kurds.   It is therefore unsurprising, although still disturbing, that the Russian Foreign Ministry has released satellite footage from Eastern Syria that appears to show the U.S. military cooperating with jihadist groups like ISIS.  A transcript from the Ministry of Defense, which was released along with the video, reads:

#US Special Operations Forces (#SOF) units enable US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (#SDF) units to smoothly advance through the ISIS formations.

Facing no resistance of the ISIS militants, the #SDF units are advancing along the left shore of the #Euphrates towards #Deir_ez_Zor.

The aerial photos made on September 8-12 over the ISIS locations recorded a large number of American #Hummer vehicles, which are in service with the #America‘s #SOF.

Go to Russia Insider’s write-up to view the video and images.   An excerpt from their article follows:

The shots clearly show the US SOF units located at strongholds that had been equipped by the ISIS terrorists. Though there is no evidence of assault, struggle or any US-led coalition airstrikes to drive out the militants.

Despite that the US strongholds being located in the ISIS areas, no screening patrol has been organized at them. This suggests that the#US_troops feel safe in terrorist controlled regions.

Analyst Tom Luongo discusses other disturbing events in Syria that seem to portend Washington continuing its failed strategy of backing nefarious elements in Syria to achieve a partition – to which Putin will continue to successfully counter in his Judo-esque manner:

The sides are now very clear.  They were always clear to the astute.  They are now fully out in the open with this week’s events.

It is the U.S./Israel/Saudi Arabia versus Russia/China/Iran with the EU and Turkey trying to change sides while still receiving NATO money.

On Tuesday, an attack on a Russian military police position by Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Qaeda in Syria) was repulsed by Russian Spetznaz and close air support forces.

….What’s important here is that the Russians believe the U.S. was behind the attack, which was no small thing.  It was designed to sow chaos in Idlib and stop the advance of the Syrian Army and its allies (Russia, Iran and Hezbollah) from crossing the Euphrates River.

….Now that there is clarity of the U.S.’s position through the re-consolidation of power by the Deep State, Putin will not hesitate to make bolder and bolder moves to cripple U.S. ambitions in the region.  It means that clashes like these are going to continue to happen with increasing frequency and severity.

Read his full analysis here

Mike Whitney also has a compelling analysis out about how this is potentially the most dangerous moment of the Syrian war as Putin will be forced to consider how much he will concede in order to placate Washington and avoid a serious confrontation as the two nuclear superpowers find themselves “cheek to jowl” in the same area of Syria.  Washington seeks to keep a foothold through an oil-backed Kurdistan and Russia supports the SAA in re-taking the most critical parts of the nation.

This blog will, of course, continue to follow events in Syria.

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Old Arbat Street, Moscow; photo by Natylie Baldwin, May 2017

Russia is still on a gradual but positive trajectory out of its recession. First, it was just announced that Russia’s grain harvest will again break records and will likely keep the country in its position as the number one exporter of grains.  Of course, this is also good for Russia’s domestic food security.

Second, BNE Intellinews has reported that retail sales are up, along with wages, and unemployment has fallen below 5% for the first time since 2014 – although it never reached over 6% through the recession.

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PBS has been broadcasting a much ballyhooed multi-part special by Ken Burns called “The Vietnam War.”  I have not had a chance to watch the series yet, but based on what I do know about the war and the critiques of trusted journalists and analysts, it sounds like it’s a whitewash that will likely not encourage Americans to meaningfully ponder its imperialist militarism or the profound consequences of its actions in Vietnam on several million Vietnamese in addition to the scarring of the land and continual suffering from illicit weapons used on that nation.

Chuck O’Connell, professor of sociology at UCI, has  great critique up at Counterpunch:

After watching Episodes One and Two of the Burns and Novick Vietnam War series, I am reminded of the old adage asserting a valuable point for students of history: the class that controls the means of material production controls also the means of mental production.  Listening to the narrator scroll through the list of financial sponsors cautioned me to lower my expectations that the series would break away from the predictable liberal narrative that has been dominant in discussions about the Vietnam War.

What is that liberal narrative? It is a bundle of intertwined claims: Vietnamese opposition to the French and then the Americans was motivated by a nationalist desire for independence, the Saigon government of the South was a legitimate government, the rebellion of the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam against the U.S. supported Saigon regime was directed by the communist Hanoi government of the north, the military conflict in Vietnam was thus a civil war, and U.S. military involvement in support of the South was the result of a series of mistakes by American political leaders. It’s a narrative that has a certain plausibility not least because it has been repeated over and over for fifty years.

A more comprehensive scholarly reading of history produces a more accurate narrative: First, without discounting the significance of nationalism in Vietnamese society, a more important factor in the war was the goal of land reform offered by the communists to the peasants who comprised the majority of the population. The military struggle was in large part a social revolution against the landlord class and its foreign backers. Second, the Saigon regime that emerged after the failed French war of re-conquest was a U.S. creation financed and managed by the Americans who built its military and prodded it into fighting against the Vietnamese revolutionary forces. When an army such as the South Vietnamese Army is funded and trained by a foreign power to maintain the foreigner’s domination of that same country, that army is not fighting a civil war – it is fighting a war of counterinsurgency and is essentially an army of collaborators.  Third, the National Liberation Front was an autonomous Southern political entity that emerged from the failure of the Hanoi government to press a fight against the southern regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. Dominated by communists it was in liaison with Hanoi as the North gradually gave greater assistance to the rebels’ efforts. Fourth, the U.S. involvement was not the result of a series of mistakes but was the result of a series of deceptions and provocations made by every U.S. administration running from Harry Truman all the way to Richard Nixon on the basis of the perceived political-economic imperatives of advanced capitalism in Southeast Asia. Let me amplify these points.

Read the full article here

Next is John Pilger’s critique.  As regular readers of this blog may recall, Pilger is one of my journalistic heroes.  He was an on-the-ground journalist (and truth-teller) in Vietnam and, along with his photographer, was the first western journalist to report on the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia.   He has been reporting on the ground in various conflicts and speaking truth to power for decades, from Southeast Asia to the Middle East and elsewhere.

Pilger’s critique can be found at Consortium News.  An excerpt follows:

In a society often bereft of historical memory and in thrall to the propaganda of its “exceptionalism,” Burns’s “entirely new” Vietnam War is presented as an “epic, historic work.” Its lavish advertising campaign promotes its biggest backer, Bank of America, which in 1971 was burned down by students in Santa Barbara, California, as a symbol of the hated war in Vietnam.

Burns says he is grateful to “the entire Bank of America family” which “has long supported our country’s veterans.” Bank of America was a corporate prop to an invasion that killed perhaps as many as four million Vietnamese and ravaged and poisoned a once bountiful land. More than 58,000 American soldiers were killed, and around the same number are estimated to have taken their own lives.

I watched the first episode in New York. It leaves you in no doubt of its intentions right from the start. The narrator says the war “was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War misunderstandings.”

The dishonesty of this statement is not surprising. The cynical fabrication of “false flags” that led to the invasion of Vietnam is a matter of record – the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” in 1964, which Burns promotes as true, was just one. The lies litter a multitude of official documents, notably the Pentagon Papers, which the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg released in 1971.

There was no good faith. The faith was rotten and cancerous. For me – as it must be for many Americans – it is difficult to watch the film’s jumble of “red peril” maps, unexplained interviewees, ineptly cut archive and maudlin American battlefield sequences. In the series’ press release in Britain — the BBC will show it — there is no mention of Vietnamese dead, only Americans.

Read Pilger’s full article here

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Park in Moscow, Russia; photo by Natylie Baldwin, October 2015

It’s always nice to end a blog post on a positive note.  According to Sputnik News, a delegation of state senators from New York recently visited Moscow and found much to admire and even emulate in the Russian capital:

MOSCOW (Sputnik) – The delegation of New York state senators, which is currently visiting Moscow, is impressed by the city’s way of governance and wants to implement some of its innovative decisions for running of New York City, member of delegation Diane Savino told Sputnik on Thursday ahead of a meeting at the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation in Moscow.

“We were really quite surprised to see how well the city of Moscow is run … So we are hoping that we can learn some stuff and bring it back to NYC and maybe implement some of really smart stuff that they have done here in the past few years,” Savino said.

….Last year, Moscow was included on the list of the world’s best cities, according to a survey by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and BAV Consulting companies. The key metrics for the survey comprised the levels of influence in terms of politics, economics, infrastructure, innovation, culture, entertainment, as well as the access to public education, public health and other points.

Russia Proposed Full Normalization of Relations to Trump Administration; Civilian Deaths & Injuries in Donbas Amid Russian Proposal for UN Peacekeepers to Protect OSCE Mission; Putin Orders Refusal of US Dollars at Russian Seaports as Venezuela Drops Dollar and Russia & China Tag Team to Sidestep Dollar; Washington to Expand Green Zone in Kabul as Pentagon Caught Falsifying Weapons Transfers to Syria

Church on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg; photo by Natylie Baldwin, May 2017

In mid-September CNN reported that Russia had proposed a full restoration of diplomatic ties and a path toward normalization of relations with Washington in the early days of the Trump administration:

Russia offered a plan to the United States for a full and immediate move toward normalization — or a restoration of diplomatic ties — in the opening weeks of President Donald Trump’s administration, the Kremlin confirmed Wednesday.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that “of course” Russia floated proposals such as this one to the US.

“Moscow systematically advocated for a resumption of the dialogue, for an exchange of opinion and for attempts at finding joint solutions,” Peskov said. “But, unfortunately, it saw no reciprocity.”

As we all know, these proposals went nowhere as Putin’s spokesman said.  So much for Trump being in Putin’s pocket.   The article went on to state that the proposals were submitted through various diplomatic channels at various points.

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Sputnik News has reported that, according to the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (OSCE SMM),  68 civilians have been killed and over 300 injured since the beginning of this year in the Donbas region.

Recently, Russia proposed to the UN Security Council a plan for UN Peacekeepers to accompany and protect the OSCE SMM, a proposal that was supported by Germany, Austria, and the Donetsk People’s Republic.    According to The Duran:

Russia has formally submitted a draft resolution to the United Nations which calls for the deployment of UN peacekeepers to Donbass in order to shield officials from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from violence.

Austria which currently chairs the OSCE welcomed the Russian proposals, according to an official cited by TASS.

Germany’s Foreign Minister also welcomed the move saying that if implemented, it could lead to a detente between Europe and Russia, paving the way for the eventually lifting of anti-Russian sanctions which the EU has enforced since 2014.

The move which calls for UN peacekeepers to engage in direct dialogue between the leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics as well as the Ukrainian regime in Kiev was met with a generally positive attitude by the leaders of the Donbass Republics who have pledged to carefully review the final proposals in a spirit of cooperation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin who first discussed the proposals at the 9th annual BRICS summit in Xiamen, described Russia’s aims in the following way,

“I consider the presence of peacekeepers, or rather people who would provide security for the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) mission, absolutely appropriate, and see nothing wrong with it”.

Unsurprisingly, the proposal is facing opposition from Kiev.  As international law expert, Alexander Mercouris, explains:

However for the same reasons that Putin made the proposal Ukraine opposes it.  Just as the Russians want to secure a ceasefire in the Donbass, so Ukraine adamantly opposes a ceasefire since that might increase pressure on Ukraine to fulfil the political provisions of the February 2015 Minsk Agreement, which are totally unacceptable to Ukraine.

Beyond this there are two points about Putin’s proposal which the Ukrainians must find especially infuriating.

The first is the demand in Putin’s proposal that the remit of the UN peacekeepers be agreed through direct negotiations between the Ukrainian government and the authorities of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics.

Direct talks between the Ukrainian government and the authorities of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics were in fact envisaged by the February 2015 Minsk Agreement, which Ukraine has signed.  Such direct talks have however never happened.  The Ukrainian government adamantly opposes them since it correctly sees such talks as conferring legal recognition on the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics as parties to the conflict, thereby admitting that it is an internal Ukrainian conflict (as the Russians say) and not a case of aggression against Ukraine by Russia (as the Ukrainians say).

It is, therefore, unlikely that this plan will be implemented unless enough pressure can be placed by the rest of Europe on Kiev.  I’m uncertain of what kinds of pressure that Europe will realistically impose on the Ukrainian government.  It depends on how truly tired of the Ukrainian mess and the attendant sanctions that Germany and other major players are.  I don’t see them having reached their breaking point yet, however, so this situation will probably continue to limp along as it is – unfortunately for the people of the Donbas who will continue to suffer.

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According to Russian media, Putin has ordered legislation to mandate Russian seaports to stop accepting the U.S. dollar as payment for goods, instead requiring that the ruble be the main currency of trade.   RT reports:

The proposal to switch port tariffs to rubles was first proposed by the president a year and a half ago. The idea was not embraced by large transport companies, which would like to keep revenues in dollars and other foreign currencies because of fluctuations in the ruble.
Artemyev said the decision will force foreigners to buy Russian currency, which is good for the ruble. 

Zerohedge had the following comment on the announcement:

While Russia’s stated motive for the unexpected redenomination of trade at some of its largest trading hubs has to do with domestic economic policies, there is speculation that the timing of this decision has been influenced by the recent diplomatic fallout between the US and Russia, the result of which would be an heightened demand for the ruble, especially since it is rather complicated to find alternative sources for Russia’s largest export by a wide margin: crude.

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government has announced that it has dropped the petrodollar and will now trade its oil in yuan:

In response to sanctions from Washington, Venezuela has started reporting its oil prices in Chinese yuan, going against the international trend of listing prices in US dollars.

On Friday [September 15th], the weekly Oil Ministry bulletin published its prices for September in yuan, rather than the US dollar. The price-per-barrel posted on Friday was 306.26 yuan, or $46.76 on the more commonly-used exchange rate, up from last week’s price of 300.91 yuan, or $46.15.

“This format is the result of the announcement made on September 7th by the President [Nicolas Maduro]… that Venezuela will implement new strategies to free the country from the tyranny of the dollar,” the Venezuelan Oil Ministry said in a statement.

The decision to move to Chinese currency was made last week as a way to get around the sanctions imposed on Venezuela by the US government in August, which froze some Venezuelan assets and prohibited American citizens from doing business with the country.

Maduro, who is already facing Washington-supported opposition in the country that is contributing to instability, had better make sure he has a competent and trustworthy security apparatus to protect him since he has made the bull’s eye on his back much bigger with this announcement (see Hussein and Qaddafi).

China, for its part, is making time with a lot of countries who are tired of Washington’s shenanigans.  Beijing has recently bought out Qatar’s stake in the Russian state-owned oil company, Rosneft. Qatar purchased the share just last year and now, due to its rivalry with Saudi Arabia, which is trying to economically squeeze Qatar, the country is looking for a quick cash infusion.  Enter China which has its own reasons for the purchase (or bailout, depending on one’s perspective) as explained by financial blogger, Tom Luongo:

Fast forward to today, and Qatar is suffering under heavy pressure from the Saudis blockading their business, the U.S. put stringent sanctions on European banks doing business with the Russian oil and gas sector, and China is being targeted by the Trump administration on multiple fronts. So, while the economics of this deal vis-à-vis Rosneft’s current share price do not make much sense, as Mr. Pirro pointed out, there is a lot more at stake for all involved then simply a few hundred million in share arbitrage that could change in a few days.

China is stepping in here to save not only Intesa, the Italian bank that floated most of the financing for the deal, but also Qatar which gets a major cash infusion in much-needed dollars. Russia further integrates into China’s oil trading system in Shanghai, including the much-discussed futures contract convertible to gold. This disentangles the deal with respect to the new round of US sanctions. In fact, this is a perfect pivot away from those sanctions. Remember, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin made a not-so-veiled threat the other day towards China’s banks and expulsion from the SWIFT system.

Noted geopolitical and financial writer, F. William Engdahl, writes over at New Eastern Outlook, that Russia and China – with their steady purchases of gold – appear to be slowly putting in place the foundation of an alternative international trade currency based in Eurasia:

For several years it’s been known in gold markets that the largest buyers of physical gold were the central banks of China and of Russia. What was not so clear was how deep a strategy they had beyond simply creating trust in the currencies amid increasing economic sanctions and bellicose words of trade war out of Washington.

Now it’s clear why.

China and Russia, joined most likely by their major trading partner countries in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), as well as by their Eurasian partner countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are about to complete the working architecture of a new monetary alternative to a dollar world.

Read the full article here

Journalist Pepe Escobar’s report from the BRICS conference supports this theory.   Escobar writes for the Asia Times that it was Putin’s speech that evidenced that Russia and China are getting serious on providing an alternative to the petrodollar:

And then, Putin delivers the clincher; “Russia shares the BRICS countries’ concerns over the unfairness of the global financial and economic architecture, which does not give due regard to the growing weight of the emerging economies. We are ready to work together with our partners to promote international financial regulation reforms and to overcome the excessive domination of the limited number of reserve currencies.”

“To overcome the excessive domination of the limited number of reserve currencies” is the politest way of stating what the BRICS have been discussing for years now; how to bypass the US dollar, as well as the petrodollar.

Beijing is ready to step up the game. Soon China will launch a crude oil futures contract priced in yuan and convertible into gold.

This means that Russia – as well as Iran, the other key node of Eurasia integration – may bypass US sanctions by trading energy in their own currencies, or in yuan. Inbuilt in the move is a true Chinese win-win; the yuan will be fully convertible into gold on both the Shanghai and Hong Kong exchanges.

The new triad of oil, yuan and gold is actually a win-win-win. No problem at all if energy providers prefer to be paid in physical gold instead of yuan. The key message is the US dollar being bypassed.

Read his full report here

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Washington now plans to “massively” expand the Green Zone in Kabul, Afghanistan, another sign, along with the planned deployment of thousands more soldiers there, that the U.S. intends to stay in the country indefinitely.

Not only does Washington plan to further extend what’s already the longest-running American war in history in Afghanistan, but a new investigative report shows that it’s not giving up on continuing to destabilize Syria with sneaky schemes to transfer weapons to the east of the country.  As Zerohedge reports:

A new bombshell joint report issued by two international weapons monitoring groups Tuesday confirms that the Pentagon continues to ship record breaking amounts of weaponry into Syria and that the Department of Defense is scrubbing its own paper trail. On Tuesday the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) produced conclusive evidence that not only is the Pentagon currently involved in shipping up to $2.2 billion worth of weapons from a shady network of private dealers to allied partners in Syria – mostly old Soviet weaponry – but is actually manipulating paperwork such as end-user certificates, presumably in order to hide US involvement.

The OCCRP and BIRN published internal US defense procurement files after an extensive investigation which found that the Pentagon is running a massive weapons trafficking pipeline which originates in the Balkans and Caucuses, and ends in Syria and Iraq. The program is ostensibly part of the US train, equip, and assist campaign for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, a coalition of YPG/J and Arab FSA groups operating primarily in Syria’s east). The arms transfers are massive and the program looks to continue for years.

Syrian Army Close to Liberating Entire Country, Diplomatic Negotiations Ongoing; Russia-Turkey Relations on Upswing; Two Russia Experts Counter Myth of Putin “Rehabilitating Stalin”

US-backed forces on collision course with Syrian Army in ‘race for Deir ez-Zor oilfields’

Iran’s Press TV has reported that, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is now in control of 85% of the country and operations are underway to liberate the remaining 15% from jihadist terrorists.  With respect to the ongoing battle to free the eastern city of Dayr al-Zawr (aka Deir ez-Zor), the Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman, Lieutenant General Aleksandr Lapin stated:

“Currently the operation to free the city is ongoing. The Syrian military will soon finish off” Daesh terrorists, who “used to occupy the city’s neighborhoods,” he added.

Lapin stated that Kalibr cruise missiles, launched from the Black Sea escort vessel, Admiral Essen, had destroyed Daesh’s command posts and communication networks; an effective move that disrupted control of the terror group’s units in Dayr al-Zawr province.

“Over 450 terrorists, five tanks and 42 pickups, with heavy machine guns, were liquidated during the operation,” he said.

The province in which Deir ez-Zor is located happens to be oil-rich and RT reports that there is a race between the SAA and US-backed forces of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to liberate the area:

Last Tuesday, the Syrian military backed by the Russian air force finally broke the IS (Islamic State, formerly ISIS/ISIL) siege of Deir ez-Zor from the west following a cruise missile strike on terrorist positions.

The advance to clear the remaining terrorists progressed at a steady pace, and by Saturday, Syrian government forces smashed the IS blockade of the military airport which for three years had served as the only lifeline to the city.

Following Damascus’ strategic victory, and while its forces continue to squash pockets of IS resistance in the west of the city, the US backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) swiftly announced on Saturday a separate offensive east of Deir ez-Zor. SDF forces raced to Deir ez-Zor which lies only 140 km south-east of Raqqa, where the US-led coalition is conducting its main offensive against ISIS.

Elaborating on the competitive nature of the two groups in capturing the city near the Iraqi border, the RT report continues:

According to Almasdar, both forces are apparently aiming to block each other’s path to the city of Albukamal on the Euphrates river which lies near the border with Iraq.

“As we get closer to Deir ez-Zor and you have these forces converge upon one another, the importance of [communication] between the Russians and the coalition, SDF and the regime becomes more important,” [Army Colonel Ryan] Dillon was quoted as saying by Foreign Policy magazine.

….The SDF has meanwhile promised not to attack Syrian government forces.

“We have clear instructions that after Daesh is eliminated, we should not act against the forces of the [Bashar Assad] regime or against the Russian, Iranian forces or the Hezbollah movement, which are allied with it,” SDF spokesman Talal Silo told Sputnik Monday.

As the SDF military offensive to expel IS and secure parts oil rich province continues, tribal figures aligned with SDF have already proposed measures to form their own form of government. Tribal figures on Monday called for “establishing a preparatory committee that will discuss the basis and starting points for a Civil Council for Deir ez-Zor.”

This sounds like it could serve as a staging ground for a future attempt at a partition of the country, which would be the next best thing for Washington in light of the fact that its attempt at regime change has failed.  As discussed further down in this post, control of the oil fields would provide a carved out autonomous region (most likely a Kurdish one) with economic viability.

However, much of the armed opposition seems to begrudgingly acknowledge that they have lost the war as they have agreed to participate in the next round of peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran.

A recent article in Asia Times explains how Washington has also been forced to yield to Russia on the issue of southern Syria, which is sensitive for Jordan and Israel:

Southern Syria is a sensitive topic for all players in the Syrian conflict, in part because it impacts directly on Israeli national security. This explains why none of them has been willing to grasp it at either the Astana or Geneva talks, leaving Trump and Putin do the high politics.

At the G20, they agreed on the principle of the new zone, and that it would encompass the border city of Daraa, along with al-Quneitra, the principle town in the occupied Golan Heights, and extend all the way up to al-Suwaida in the Druze Mountains, 100 kilometers south of Damascus.

The zone’s objective is multi-faceted. First and foremost, it would free the Syrian-Jordanian border from all “non-state players” – in other words Hezbollah troops and southern Syria branch of ISIS, known as the Khalid Ibn Al Waleed Army.

Secondly, it would provide ample space to relocate millions of Syrian refugees who have been living in Jordan since 2011. And thirdly, it would satisfy the demands of President Trump, who has insisted on a safe zone to protect civilians, even if it is not named as such.

The de-conflict zone would also be off-limits to the Syrian Army. No tanks, warplanes, or soldiers will be allowed to enter.

The zone’s sovereignty would still be in the hands of the Syrian state, but it would be under the supervision of a civilian authority, rather than a military one. Members of the armed opposition would, in theory, be pardoned, and allowed to keep their light arms for use against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria.

Damascus would, meanwhile, be entitled to hoist its official flag, and to re-open state-run schools and police stations. It would also get full control of Syria’s borders with Jordan, which will be vital for bilateral trade.

Read the full article here.

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If one were to have tried to predict the future of Russia-Turkey relations a year ago, one would have been hard-pressed to come up with the present state of affairs between the two nations.   Diplomatic and economic cooperation are going in a positive direction as both nations, along with Iran, are acting as guarantors of the peace being hammered out in Astana (one of several channels of talks but the most publicly prominent one).  As retired diplomat MK Bhadrakumar has written on his website, Indian Punchline:

The geopolitics of the Middle East is witnessing a tectonic shift with the emergence of a Turkish-Iranian axis that would have seemed unbelievable until recently. The 3-day visit by Iran’s chief of general staff General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri to Turkey last week was the first such event in Iran-Turkey relations since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. During Bagheri’s visit, the two countries signed a military agreement on August 17. Turkish President Recep Erdogan disclosed on Monday that he held discussions with Bagheri on possible joint Turkish-Iranian military actions against Kurdish militants.

“Joint action against terrorist groups that have become a threat is always on the agenda. This issue has been discussed between the two military chiefs, and I discussed (with Bagheri) more broadly how this should be carried out,” Erdogan said. Turkey and Iran have strong convergence in preventing the emergence of an independent Kurdish entity in the region in Iraq or Syria. Both countries are battling Kurdish separatist groups within their own borders.

What lends urgency for the two countries to cooperate is their shared suspicion that the US and Israel are possibly stepping up their longstanding project to establish an independent Kurdistan in the region, with an ulterior agenda to create for the long-term an exclusive preserve for pushing their interests on the regional map. The US has refused to pay heed to Turkey’s concerns and has armed and equipped the Kurdish militants in northern Syria. The US Special Forces and Kurdish militia are jointly conducting the on-going offensive on Raqqa, which used to be the capital of the ISIS. Washington spurned a Turkish offer to undertake the operations on Raqqa, an Arab Sunni region, and instead preferred the non-Arab Kurdish militia as its ally.

The US objective seems to be to seize control of the oil fields in the region adjacent to Raqqa, which would ensure the economic viability of a Kurdistan entity in northern Syria. Turkey fears that the next step by the US would be to launch operations in northern Syria along Turkey’s borders with a view to carve out a contiguous Kurdistan, which would have access to the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey rightly apprehends that a Kurdistan as next-door neighbour would put intolerable strain on its integrity and stability.

….However, the emergent Turkish-Iranian axis has a much bigger backdrop. For a start, implicit in it is a hint by Turkey that it is conclusively ending its support for the Syrian rebel groups. Turkey and Iran have been working together on the Russian initiative to create de-escalation zones in Syria. Again, Russia has been steadily strengthening its bilateral cooperation with Turkey and Iran respectively in the recent years. Thus, the Turkish-Iranian military cooperation is crystallising under an overarching Russian umbrella, so to speak, that aims at the stabilization of the Syrian situation. In effect, therefore, one could say that a Russian-Turkish-Iranian triangle is in the making to end the Syrian conflict and bring about a Syrian settlement.

This has far-reaching implications because the Russian-Turkish-Iranian triangle is also showing signs of spreading its wings beyond the Syrian problem to encompass a broad-based regional cooperation that has potential to impact the power dynamic in the Middle East as a whole. Thus, a week ago, Russian, Turkish and Iranian companies signed a $7 billion deal to drill for oil in Iran. Similarly, after much delay, Iran and Russia are moving toward the implementation of their swap arrangement whereby Iran is expected to supply from next month 100000 barrels of oil per day to Russia and in return Russia will be exporting to Iran goods worth $45 billion annually. On the other hand, Russian-Turkish economic cooperation is expanding rapidly. Indeed, the finalization of the $2 billion deal last month for acquiring the S-400 Triumf anti-ballistic missile system from Russia signifies a strategic shift in Turkish foreign policy, Turkey being a NATO power and an ally of the US.

Bhadrakumar goes on to discuss the unpredictable and often thorny history of relations among the three countries.  Continue reading here.

In late August Sputnik published two articles on the progress of negotiations on the Turkstream natural gas pipeline project.  Russia is discussing overland passage with Bulgaria, Greece and Italy to connect the pipeline from Russia to Turkey.  Additionally, Russia’s state-owned gas giant, Gazprom, is in negotiations with the Turkish government to finalize plans for the Turkish portion of the pipeline.

And last but not least, Russia and Turkey seem close to finalizing a deal for Turkey to purchase the S-400 anti-missile system.   As Nikolai Pakhomov writes over at the Lobelog:

If any single arms deal can capture the shifting nature of Russian cooperation in the post-Cold War era, it is the pending sale of S-400 air defense systems to Turkey that now looks increasingly likely to happen.

The S-400 is an advanced integrated system capable of simultaneously tracking 300 targets and striking them from up to 250 miles away. The fact that Russia would consider shipping them to Turkey—a longtime member of NATO, and once considered to be the alliance’s southeastern bulwark against the Soviet Union—would have been unthinkable even two decades ago.

Yet today the two countries are on the verge of completing a $2.5 billion deal that would pass two Russian-made S-400 systems to Turkey, along with Moscow’s promise to help Ankara build two more at home using Russian technology. On August 25, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News that the last hurdle to finalizing the deal was approval by the executive committee of Turkey’s defense industry.

If indeed finalized, the sale would signal new realities for Russia, Turkey, and Europe in several crucial ways. For one, it would confirm Turkey’s drift away from the West, which Russia has deftly used for its benefit. More broadly, it would underscore just how much the essence of Russian strategic partnerships has evolved from the Cold War period, changing the very nature of its confrontation with the West.

Full article here.

I’m pretty sure it’s safe to assume that Russia will be providing a modified version that cannot be reverse-engineered or otherwise endanger their own security interests with the S-400 system.

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Readers are probably all too familiar with the claims repeatedly made that Putin is an aspiring Stalin or, at the very least, is rehabilitating the image of Stalin in Russia.  I myself saw no indication of this on either of my visits to Russia, which included Moscow, St. Petersburg, Krasnodar, and three cities in Crimea.  In that time, I saw one hand-painted plate with Stalin’s image in the gift shop of the lobby of the Cosmos hotel.  And one lone Stalin impersonator on a street corner in Krasnodar.  No one was flocking to him.

During my recent trip to Russia, as part of my research on the centennial of the Russian Revolution, I asked a cross-section of Russians I encountered what their views of Stalin were.  A few condemned him unequivocally, a couple thought his contribution to the Soviet Union was largely positive, but most gave him kudos for leading the country to victory over the Nazis in WWII (known in Russia as The Great Patriotic War) while acknowledging and disliking his excessive political repression.   I also have written about how Putin played a major role in getting the Monument to the Victims of Repression approved, which will be unveiled later this year in Moscow.

On a recent trip to Moscow, British Russia expert, Paul Robinson, discussed his conclusions about this myth of Putin rehabilitating Stalin:

Last week, a few colleagues and I had the opportunity to assess how true this may be. On Sunday morning we visited the Sretenskii Monastery in downtown Moscow. Like many other institutions of the Orthodox Church, it was destroyed during the Soviet era. In November 2013, a decision was made to rebuild it, and just a little over three years later, in May 2017, the new church in the centre of the monastery was consecrated.

sretensky
Sretenskii Monastery, Moscow

When we tried to go into the main church building, we found that only the basement chapel was open; the bulk of the church was closed as they were still working on the marble and one of the staircases. Fortunately, one of my colleagues was able to persuade somebody to let us in anyway and give us a guided tour. What we heard was quite remarkable.

The land on which the Sretenskii monastery stands used to belong to the Soviet secret services (known successively as the Cheka, OGPU, NKVD, MGB, and KGB), whose headquarters, the Lubyanka, is not far away. During the Great Terror, executions took place on the monastery grounds, our guide told us. Even today, all the buildings around the monastery remain in the possession of the post-Soviet security service, the FSB. The monastery is, therefore, surrounded by the organization which in a previous guise once tried to destroy Christianity in Russia.

The resurrected Sretenskii monastery is devoted to the New Martyrs – those thousands of Christians murdered by communists following the 1917 revolution. The new church’s decoration reflects this. Around the dome, for instance, are depictions of key saints of the Russian Orthodox Church, among whom are Emperor Nicholas II and his family, symbols of suffering at the hands of Bolshevism.

….In May of this year, Vladimir Putin attended the service at which the church was consecrated. Our guide spoke of Putin as the former head of the FSB, the successor organization to the Soviet secret services who executed the New Martyrs. Our guide implied that by coming to the service, Putin in effect repented on behalf of those secret services and asked for forgiveness. There is little doubt in my mind that Putin understood perfectly what his presence symbolized and what message he was sending.

Read the full post and see the beautiful accompanying photos of the monastery here.

Russia expert Gordon Hahn further discusses the conflict between the positions (often taken by the same pundits who decry both Stalin and the influence of the conservative Russian Orthodox Church) that Putin wants to revive Stalinism and is also a supporter of the Church:

The Russian Orthodox Church, which the same sources who charge the Putin administration with supporting and privileging in relation to other of Russia’s religions, carries out a permanent campaign against Stalin.

….The above demonstrates that a political battle between various forces is ongoing in Russia, as in other countries, over the country’s past and present. This is not just a battle that the soft authoritarian Putin allows to rage, it is a reflection of political pluralism and free, limited albeit, speech. Just as the Putin administration lets communists rehabilitate Stalin, so too he allows both the Church as well as liberals to criticize the dictator and engage in the country’s politics within limits that protect his own rule. At the same time, the Putin regime has undertaken a campaign of de-Stalinization itself, while avoiding the extremes of historical revisionism and political whitewashing. Part of the policy is informed by foreign states, including Western states, use of Stalinism to demean Russia and Russians.

Full article here.

 

Tensions with North Korea Back Up; BRICS Meeting in China; Kremlin Moves Toward Domestic Investment in Advance of 2018 Elections

H01 north korea

https://www.democracynow.org/2017/9/5/headlines?utm_source=Democracy+Now%21&utm_campaign=a7f4e4cab0-Daily_Digest&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_fa2346a853-a7f4e4cab0-191485825

Less than 2 weeks after firing an intermediate range ballistic missile over Japan, for which the UN Security Council condemned it, North Korea has now tested what is purportedly a hydrogen bomb (unconfirmed) in its latest show of force in the game of posturing and bluster between Washington and North Korea.   This comes just days after the U.S. and South Korea concluded their annual war games near the North Korean border.   Democracy Now! reported the following:

On Monday, the U.N. Security Council met to address the test. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley accused North Korea of “begging for war.” President Trump tweeted, “The United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea.” Experts say this proposal is next to impossible, since ceasing trade with China, Brazil, Germany, Mexico and other countries would be an economic catastrophe for the U.S.

Trump also blasted South Korea for being open to initiating peace talks with the North, tweeting, “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!” Trump is also preparing to withdraw from a trade agreement between the U.S. and South Korea.

Russian president Putin and the newly elected president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, both publicly condemned the latest North Korean action after a telephone conversation on Monday; both also reiterated that only diplomatic means can bring about a resolution to the problem.  Putin also had some interesting comments on the tension in the Korean peninsula that he delivered this past Friday during his press conference at the end of the BRICS meeting in China (more on that meeting further down in this post).  An excerpt of the comments were provided by RT:

“It is necessary to push the issue to a dialogue between all interested parties. All participants in this process, including North Korea, should not have any of these considerations that are associated with the threat of destruction, but, on the contrary, all parties to the conflict should get on the path of cooperation”.

“As I told my colleagues yesterday, they (North Koreans) will eat grass but will not stop their program as long as they do not feel safe. What can restore their security? The restoration of international law“.

In response to Trump’s threat of more sanctions, including on any nation that does any kind of business with North Korea, Putin said:

“Of course, it is ridiculous to put us on one sanctions list with North Korea and then to ask to help them with sanctions exercises against North Korea”.

Continuing his remarks about the dangers of further escalation of the tensions and refusing to turn toward a serious negotiated settlement of the crisis on the Korean peninsula:

“It is necessary to take steps to be engaged in a dialogue with all the concerned parties. It is necessary that all the participants of the process, including North Korea would not have any fears related to the threat of the devastation, but instead all the parties to the conflict should take the path of cooperation.

Warmongering would not bring any positive result in such conditions. It could result in a global catastrophe and to a huge number of casualties“.

With respect to Washington’s heavy-handed treatment of the Russian consulate and its staff in Washington D.C., New York, and particularly, the San Francisco consulate, which was ordered to be evacuated within 2 days and possession taken by the Americans earlier this month, Putin said the Russian government was planning on bringing legal action:

“First of all, I will instruct the Foreign Ministry to go to court, we’ll see how effectively the vaunted American judicial system works”.

The portion of the Vienna Conventions that have been violated by Washington are summarized by Canadian Russia expert Patrick Armstrong:

DIPLOMATIC PROPERTY. A complete violation of the Vienna Convention: “Article 22. The premises of a diplomatic mission… are inviolable… The host country must never search the premises…”. Washington has set a precedent that will come back to bite it: what’s to stop any country that thinks it’s on Washington’s target list from doing the same? Incredible. Who’s in charge?

But Putin saved his scrappiest comments for the overall political culture in Washington and how increasingly frustrating it is to deal with the level of ignorance and hubris there:

“It is difficult to have a dialogue with people who confuse Austria with Australia. You can do nothing about it. That seems to be the level of political culture of a certain part of the American establishment.

….the American nation, the American people, America is really a great country, a great nation… of such people with such a low level of political culture”.

Sounds like Putin is getting about as frustrated with Washington as he was in 2007 at the Munich Security Conference where the Russian president had the audacity to tell a room full of western power brokers to their faces that the emperor had no clothes.   Read the transcript of this oldie-but-goodie speech by Putin here or, better yet, if you have time, watch the video with subtitles here .   Most of his points are still valid today and this speech is a contributing factor in why the political class in Washington hates Putin.

Despite the depressing mood regarding the North Korea issue, a delegation from North Korea has arrived in Vladivostok, Russia for the Eastern Economic Forum (consisting of Russia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Mongolia and the Koreas).  The South Korean president will also be arriving.   Adam Garrie at The Duran provided the following details:

The Forum is an event designed to enhance economic partnerships and cooperation between multiple Asian nations including Russia, China, Japan, Vietnam and the Korean states.

This year’s summit occurs days after North Korea tested what is thought to be a hydrogen-weapon. Russia and China have both condemned the move and support UN sanctions against Pyongyang, but are equally opposed to further crippling unilateral sanctions from Washington.

With many suspecting that North Korea would boycott the event, Russian officials have confirmed otherwise, stating that the North Korean delegation is already in Vladivostok.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is to arrive shortly along with the South Korean delegation. While the Korean crisis is set to dominate discussions that would otherwise have been reserved for discussing trade and economic matters, it is not yet clear if the North and South Korean delegations will interact at any level.

Many suspect that Russian President Vladimir Putin who hosts the event will attempt to conduct dialogue with the representatives of both Korean states in order to try and de-escalate regional tensions.

Can Putin pull another rabbit out of his diplomatic hat like he did with Syria a few years ago?  Hard to say, but hope springs eternal.

To round out suggested reading on the North Korea issue this week, are two articles:

1)  Robert Parry provides important contextual background on why the North Korean leadership would find it more rational than ever to pursue a nuclear weapons program in light of the fates of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Qaddafi – both of whom gave up their WMD programs and were subsequently liquidated and their respective countries plunged into havens for terrorists and low living standards.  Read his latest article How “Regime Change” Wars Led to Korea Crisis; and

2)  Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell and foreign affairs analyst, discusses how our relations with North Korea devolved from a negotiated plan in the early 1990’s for North Korea to give up its nascent nuclear program to today’s conditions of no negotiation and increasing nuclear threats by both sides.   Read Wilkerson’s North Korea Crisis Paved by Clinton-Era Pols, GOP Naysayers. 

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At the BRICS summit in China last week, it was announced that China would contribute 500 million yuan for a technology and cooperation plan for the group of “developing” countries.  According to Euronews:

China will give 500 million yuan (64 million euros) for a BRICS economic and technology cooperation plan.

Chinese President Xi Jinping says there will also be the equivalent of a further 3.3 million euros for projects at the BRICS countries’ New Development Bank.

The announcement comes amid questions over the relevance of BRICS and China’s commitment to its New Development Bank (NDB) in light of the Belt and Road initiative and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

The Duran is also reporting that high-speed rail connecting future members of the One-Belt-One-Road project in Eurasia was discussed in the context of BRICS:

With BRICS members discussing the feasibility of using investment capital from the BRICS Development Bank to jointly finance Russian High Speed Rail, it becomes ever more clear that the BRICS bloc functions best when cooperating with other regional endeavours including One Belt–One Road, the Eurasian Economic Union which was founded by Russia as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation which aims to create enhanced security cooperation between member states.

The CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, Kirill Dmitriev has stated,

“We discussed the Eurasia high-speed railway project with partners within the framework of the (BRICS) summit. We are now looking at it more actively, and see that RZhD (Russian Railways) already has significant progress on the model which shows more interesting yield now. We see investors’ growing interest to this project”.

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Monument to the Soviet Worker, Moscow, Russia; photo by Natylie Baldwin, October 2015.

Veteran journalist of Russian economic affairs, Ben Aris is reporting over at BNE’s Intellinews that the Russian government is reducing its military spending and allocating more of its budget to domestic needs.  This, combined with the country coming out of its recession, is designed to restore confidence and optimism in time for the presidential elections next year.

With the presidential election now only a year away, which Russian President Vladimir Putin, virtually unopposed, is expected to easily win, the Russian government has changed its budgetary focus and boosted social spending to soften up the electorate.

Budget spending increased by over 6% year on year (y/y) in the first six months, which meant real growth was rather moderate. Russian GDP adjusted for seasonal and calendar factors rose 2% y/y and declined 0.6% month on the month in July, state development bank Vnesheconombank (VEB) said in a research note on August 24.

Social spending, however, increased by about 10%, even when omitting the one-time payout to pensioners at the start of the year. Budget spending in the housing sector as well as in different sectors of the economy turned to notable growth after some years of decline. Even with a slightly less severe restraint, the spending track on education remained weak, while spending on healthcare declined. The zero-growth line on administration spending seen last year remained in place, outlines the Bank of Finland Institute for Economies in Transition (Bofit).

And the increase in social payment comes not a moment too soon. While the economy has been starting to show visible signs of growth, this has yet to trickle down to the man in the street. Real incomes have started to rise, but the more important real disposable incomes (the extra money Russians have to spend on themselves) only turned positive in June – and even then its growth remains anaemic.

In addition to direct social spending, Putin has also approved $2.5 billion to be allocated for upgrading the Trans-Siberian rail system. According to Asia Times:

Russian has approved US$2.5 billion to expand and modernize the Trans-Siberian and Baikal-Amur railways as part of a larger rail project to boost economic growth and exports from the country’s Far East region that borders the Pacific Ocean.

President Vladimir Putin has given the green light for the government to allocate money from the National Welfare Fund for this stage of the railway expansion project, which could eventually cost $9.5 billion.

Russian Railways (RZD) will cover $5.1 billion of the total cost of the project, which was first approved by the government’s transport commission back in 2014. The state will foot the rest of the bill.

About $1.7 billion will be allocated in 2017 and the rest next year to commission 580 kilometers of additional main lines and upgrade signaling on 680 km of railway and 43 crossings. It will include renovation of 90 railway stations.

“It is expected that the Russian budget over 30 years will receive $8.2 billion” from the added infrastructure, the rail operator said in a statement on its website.

“The project will allow additional cargo volume of up to 66 million tons a year, which will contribute to the development of industrial enterprises in the region, create new jobs, and the necessary economic conditions for effective and sustainable development of Siberia and the Far East.”

Modernization of the railways will increase Russia’s export opportunities, Mikhail Blinkin, director of the Transport Economics and Transport Policy Institute at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, said in an interview.

 

Latest on North Korea Confrontation; Iran – We Can Restart Nuclear Program Within Hours if More Sanctions Imposed; New Polls – U.S. Danger to World; Syrians Return Home

China, North Korea

North Korean soldiers chat as they stand guard behind national flags of China, front, and North Korea on a boat anchored along the banks of Yalu River, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, on June 10, 2013.JACKY CHEN/REUTERS; http://www.newsweek.com/china-north-korea-preemptive-strike-649802

 

According to a poll released last Friday, 80% of Americans are worried at the escalating militaristic rhetoric with North Korea.  CommonDreams reports on the Axios poll:

Commissioned by Vote Vets, a left-leaning political action group which advocates on behalf of U.S. veterans, the poll shows that Americans are both paying attention to—and increasingly worried about—the tensions stirred by President Donald Trump’s bluster and threats towards North Korea and fears that Pyongyang may itself try to launch a nuclear attack.

The new poll arrives after Trump on Thursday said maybe his recent threats to bring down “fire and fury” against North Korea were not “tough” enough and ahead of upcoming (and large-scale) U.S.-South Korean war games which foreign policy analysts warn will only exacerbate tensions.

For its part, China has announced its position in terms of intervening in any conflict:  if North Korea acts first, it will be on its own; however, if Washington attacks North Korea, China will step in on behalf of the isolated country.   According to Newsweek:

China will remain neutral if North Korea fires missiles at United States territory first, but should the U.S. launch a pre-emptive strike, as it has suggested it might, North Korea’s chief ally would come to the North’s aide. While not direct government policy, that verdict of how the country should react amid the unfolding nuclear threats from the U.S. and North Korea is contained in an editorial in the influential Communist Party–run Global Times newspaper Friday.

“China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten U.S. soil first and the U.S. retaliates, China will stay neutral,” read the editorial. “If the U.S. and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.”

As reported by ZeroHedge, China and Russia have come up with a plan to resolve tensions in the Korean peninsula as the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced recently:

In a glimmer of hope that a military conclusion to the North Korean crisis may yet be averted, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that “Russia does not accept a North Korea that possesses nuclear weapons”, cautioned that there is an “overwhelming amount of over-the-top belligerent rhetoric on North Korea’s nuclear and rocket programs from Washington and Pyongyang”, but most importantly said that there is a joint Russian-Chinese plan to defuse the North Korean crisis, according to which North Korea would freeze its missile tests, while the US and South Korea would stop large scale exercises.

“Russia together with China developed a plan which proposes ‘double freezing’: Kim Jong-un should freeze nuclear tests and stop launching any types of ballistic missiles, while US and South Korea should freeze large-scale drills which are used as a pretext for the North’s tests.”


It was not clear if Russia or China, had floated this plan with the US or S. Korea prior; the most likely answer is no.

Hoping that “common sense will ultimately prevail“, Lavrov said that North Korea had once signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but then withdrew from it. The result is a nuclear-armed N.Korea which Russia refuses to accept: “Now North Korea claims that it has legal rights to make nuclear weapons and has already done so,” he said. “But you know our position: we don’t accept the fact that North Korea could possess nuclear weapons.”

 He added that both Russia and China have a “range of proposals” aimed at preventing what could become “one of the deepest conflicts” and a “crisis with a big number of casualties.” (emphasis in original)

Of course, reasonable plans for compromise that North Korea would be willing to accept have been offered to Washington before and rejected.   An interview with Noam Chomsky a few months ago discusses this history.  So, the chances of such a compromise being accepted by Washington now does not look optimistic, even though South Korea has announced its intentions to go all out to prevent any war with North Korea as it knows the damage it would suffer from any military attack unleashed by the North.   The new president of South Korea, who campaigned as a peace candidate, made the following public remarks earlier this week, according to the Economic Times of India.

“There must be no more war on the Korean Peninsula. Whatever ups and downs we face, the North Korean nuclear sitaution must be resolved peacefully,” said Moon in opening remarks at a regular meeting with senior aides and advisers. The remarks were provided by the presidential Blue House.

The following day, Moon made comments in a televised speech, intimating that Washington and South Korea had an understanding that no military action was desired and none would be taken without South Korea’s permission.

Moon, in a televised speech Tuesday on the anniversary of World War II’s end and the Korean Peninsula’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, said Seoul and Washington agree that the nuclear standoff should “absolutely be solved peacefully.” He said no U.S. military action on the Korean Peninsula could be taken without Seoul’s consent.

Moon said the North could spur talks by stopping nuclear and missile tests.

“Our government will put everything on the line to prevent another war on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said. “Regardless of whatever twist and turns we could experience, the North Korean nuclear program should absolutely be solved peacefully, and the (South Korean) government and the U.S. government don’t have a different position on this.”

Reportedly, General Joseph Dunford met on Monday with top South Korean security officials and subsequently made comments that don’t seem to totally line up with Moon’s understanding, which seems to be based more on wishful thinking.

For some depressing context as to why North Korea feels the need to defend itself against any possible aggression from Washington, watch the following video where Jimmy Dore discusses how the U.S. military utterly flattened the entire country and killed millions of civilians during the Korean war.  The devastation was so massive that General MacArthur said it made him “vomit.”  An accomplishment that the DOD still brags about on its twitter account.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Crf7dubJ3k

And just to add an ironic twist to this whole story, the New York Times has reported that the source of the advanced missiles that have enabled North Korea to make sudden gains in its weapons system is none other than our democracy-loving good buddies in Ukraine.   ZeroHedge  wrote of the expose:

According to the report, analysts who studied photographs of Kim Jong-un, inspecting the new rocket motors concluded that they derive from designs that once powered the Soviet Union’s missile fleet. “The engines were so powerful that a single missile could hurl 10 thermonuclear warheads between continents.”

Since the alleged engines have been linked to only a few former Soviet sites, government investigators and experts have focused their inquiries on a missile factory in Dnipro, Ukraine, on the edge of the territory where Russia is fighting a low-level war to break off part of Ukraine. During the Cold War, the factory made the deadliest missiles in the Soviet arsenal, including the giant SS-18. It remained one of Russia’s primary producers of missiles even after Ukraine gained independence.

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With North Korea taking up so much attention – attention that was once obsessively focused on Russia – it’s easy to forget about the third country that was the target of the recent sanctions legislation passed by Congress and reluctantly signed by Trump.  Iran is none too happy about having new sanctions levied on it – in addition to still having some of the original sanctions that were supposed to be lifted as a result of the agreement with the P5+1 still in place – after holding up its end of the bargain as recently certified by the Trump administration.

Iran’s first announced response, via legislation passed by its parliament (the Majlis), was to put more funding into its ballistic missile systems and its Revolutionary Guards.   Alexander Mercouris provides some interesting insight into the nature of these particular sanctions on Iran and how they have huge potential to backfire:

It should be said that the latest US sanctions on Iran – which basically target certain individuals and companies in Iran, and which attempt to block arms to and by Iran – are pinpricks.

The arms blockade on Iran the US is now trying to impose is especially absurd since the only countries which have shown any interest in selling sophisticated arms to Iran are Russia and North Korea, whose arms companies the US is already sanctioning, and which has no reason therefore not to sell arms to Iran.

 

Unsurprisingly the Russians have reacted to the sanctions – both those imposed on Iran and those imposed on themselves – by offering to step up their arms sales to Iran.  Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin – the Russian official who supervises Russia’s arms industries – recently visited Iran, where he supposedly offered the Iranians SU-27 and MiG-35 fighters (the Iranians supposedly said no because they want SU-35s and SU-30s instead).

Needless to say if North Korea were ever to offer to sell its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons technology to Iran – as it now has every incentive to do – the development of Iran’s ballistic missiles and – conceivably at some point – nuclear weapons would also accelerate rapidly.

Seriously, who writes this stuff?

An additional response has come from reform president Rouhani, who has staked his political reputation on the negotiated agreement with Washington against domestic hardliners who don’t trust Washington as far as they can sling a piano.   In a speech before the Majlis, Rouhani stated that Iran could restart its nuclear program and exit the agreement if any further sanctions were implemented.

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With all of these antics, would it be a surprise if citizens of the world still believed that the U.S. was the most dangerous nation in the world as was reflected in a WIN/Gallup poll several years back? Well, according to a new survey, not only does the world still think this, even more think it than before.   Russia analyst Patrick Armstrong summed up the latest survey findings:

THE THREAT. Pew has an international survey out asking about leading security threats. The following NATO members name US power as a greater threat than Russian or Chinese: Canada, Germany, Greece, Spain and Turkey. USA is named first by 19 countries, China by 9, Russia by 7. This is a competition that the US has won every time out of the gateAnd rising. Interesting, eh? And after all that propaganda, too. NATO StratCom needs more money!

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In a bit of good news, the UN announced that hundreds of thousands of Syrians have returned home to Homs and Aleppo after the cities were liberated from jihadist terrorists earlier this year.   Al-Masdar News reported :

BEIRUT, LEBANON (4:40 A.M.) – According to a study by the International Organization for Migration (a United Nations body), some 602,759 displaced Syrians have been returned to their homes of which about two-thirds of that number specifically resettled in Aleppo Governorate.

The period of time the study accounts for is from January to June 2017.

Of the 602,759 returned Syrians, approximately 84 percent were internally displaced and the remaining sixteen percent were displaced in Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan.

The study found that two of the biggest regions that had seen the resettlement of displaced Syrians were the provinces of Aleppo and Hama in which 405,420 and 75,209 people (respectively) were returned.

Furthermore, regarding Aleppo Governorate, the UN report specified that 97 percent of all returned people actually settled into their original homes. The remaining three percent were said to be renting, living in abandoned households or staying in informal refugee camps.

So if 97% of these people have been able to return to their original homes already, then either the destruction wrought by the Syrian and Russian governments in the battle of Aleppo was greatly exaggerated or there has been a very intense rebuilding program.

Either way, I’m happy for the Syrian people who are going home and will hopefully be able to pick up the pieces of their lives.

North Korea

Why does North Korea hate the US?

http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/09/politics/north-korea-donald-trump/index.html

Since there has been so much escalating rhetoric with the North Korea situation, I’ve decided to devote this post to that topic.  On Monday, North Korea’s spokesperson at the ASEAN conference criticized the latest sanctions that were unanimously passed by the U.N. Security Council:

Bang Kwang Hyuk: “Is our nuclear possession a threat to the world, or is it just a threat to the United States? We want to make it clear that the worsening situation on the Korean Peninsula, as well as the nuclear issues, were caused by the United States.”

It has been reported that the sanctions will decrease North Korea’s income from exports by approximately 1/3 (or ~$1 billion).   However, Lawrence Wilkerson provided some context of the impact of the sanctions during a recent interview at the Real News Network:

LARRY WILKERSON:  …but let’s face it, North Korea, as you’ve just described it is a place where these sorts of sanctions that the United States thinks it can use against very sophisticated, basically industrial or post-industrial economies, simply don’t have any impact, particularly when the two staples, the real things that North Korea needs to survive and regime survival is all they’re really interested in, are the heavy fuel that China provides them and the hard currency that they earn from the relationships they have with everyone from proper Chinese authorities to the Triads in China, the criminal gangs with whom they deal.

Wilkerson goes on to describe how negotiations might be pursued between Washington and North Korea:

The real message here has come somewhat sotto voce but nonetheless it has come from Tillerson and his comments recently and also from the president of South Korea. Those comments indicate that both men, Tillerson and the president are interested in talking with North Korea. The statements they’ve made reflect knowingly and smartly and wisely the program that former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry suggested in an interview with Senator Sanders on the latter’s radio show recently. That is that we have to negotiate. We have to talk. We have to have something we can give them, and they have to have something they can give us.

A suggestion would be that the exercises in August we plan with the South Koreans for example, we would forgo those, we would not have them, in exchange for North Korea’s not doing any more nuclear tests or perhaps even any more ballistic missile tests in addition to that. That would be a good beginning. Then we could start talking about what North Korea is really concerned about and that is the fact they think the United States is going to attack them. They think these exercises on the peninsula are very provocative in that sense, and I would too, if I were in Pyongyang. I’m not excusing the criminality of this regime in Pyongyang. I’m just stating what is reality.

In an interview with Amy Goodman, investigative journalist Allan Nairn reiterated the same points about the rationale for North Korea’s position:

ALLAN NAIRN:  ….In many ways, Kim Jong-un is—comports himself like a crazy person, as does Trump, but there is an underlying rational incentive for the North Korean regime to get nuclear weapons, as [Director of National Intelligence Dan] Coats just acknowledged. You know, they always say there are no good options regarding North Korea. Well, there are no good military options. But as part of their goal of regime survival, one thing that the North Korean regime has always said is that they have two principal goals. One is to stop the U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which are provocative. And, two, end the Korean War. There’s an armistice now, but the Korean War is not formally over. That’s the kind of thing that, if the U.S. were serious, it could sit down on the table and—at the table and negotiate.

Nairn goes on to comment on President Trump’s statement this week that appeared to threaten North Korea with a nuclear attack. Subsequently, North Korea threatened the island of Guam.

Trump’s statement was:

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening, beyond a normal statement. And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before. Thank you.

Nairn’s comment:

In more rational times, what Trump said yesterday would be an article of impeachment. There’s been a lot of talk of impeachment from some people up to now, for things like Trump’s crimes, like racism, injustice, stupidity, regarding the threat of climate change, all sorts of things. But, in a sense, all of those things fit within the normal parameters of the U.S. presidency. Lots of U.S. presidents, at one time or another, have engaged in talk and activities like that, although none so intensively as Trump. But with what he’s doing now, provoking North Korea, risking actual destruction of part of the U.S., he is violating the system’s rules on its own terms. He’s committing an actual threat against U.S. national security. And you would think that in just pragmatic political terms in Washington, that is the kind of thing that could be grounds for impeachment. But as long as he sits in that chair, it’s true, the commanders are obligated to obey his order.

To add to the tensions, the Washington Post has reported that anonymous intelligence sources say there is an intelligence report stating that North Korea has the capability of weaponizing a miniature nuclear bomb with ICBM’s that could reach the western coast of the United States.   However, journalist Tim Shorrock, who has written extensively over decades about North Korea and just returned from a 2-month stint in South Korea, has expressed skepticism of the WaPo report in an interview with Aaron Mate at the Real News Network:

TIM SHORROCK: First of all, let’s go back to the report you mentioned at the top of the hour, which was this defense intelligence report that was leaked to the Washington Post today and reported on by three of their better reporters. I’m a little surprised by this report, because for one thing it’s clearly not the collective conclusion of the entire intelligence community. It’s someone in the DIA and there’s no real analysis of what they say. They just say it has this miniature warhead that they can now put on a ICBM. Well, they’ve said that before in years past. It hasn’t proven to be true and I’m wondering why this is coming out right now. That seems very dangerous on the face of it. Someone is trying to push, someone within the administration, within the intelligence community is pushing for a military response by leaking this kind of report.

It doesn’t have the full discussion that you usually see in intelligence reports, so I’m very skeptical of it for that reason. Going back to the sanctions, I mean, it was pretty surprising to see China and Russia vote for these very severe sanctions, which as Nikki Haley described on Sunday, over the weekend these sanctions will cut North Korea’s exports by at least 1/3 and cut very deeply into their one earnings. They could be very damaging sanctions, but what the US media never seems to pick up is what the Chinese and both the Chinese and the Russians say to the United States, which is, “Okay. We’re going to vote for these sanctions and help enforce these sanctions, but you, the United States, must proceed on a path of dialogue and negotiations to resolve this. This will not be resolved by sanctions and tough words alone.”

Sounds like Russia and China are still hoping against hope that the decisionmakers in Washington have some kind of reason that can be appealed to if they just say the right words and throw them a bone.   I’m wondering if that hope is misplaced.

Rex Tillerson appeared to be attempting to soothe international nerves after Trump’s aggressive comments on North Korea, only to have Defense Secretary Mattis undermine them with more aggressive rhetoric.  ABC News had the following details :

Speaking earlier Wednesday on his way home from Asia, he [Tillerson] credited Trump with sending a strong message to the North Korean leader on the “unquestionable” U.S. ability to defend itself, so as to prevent “any miscalculation.” Tillerson insisted the U.S. isn’t signaling a move toward military action, while it pursues a policy of sanctions and isolation of North Korea.

“Americans should sleep well at night,” Tillerson told reporters. He added, “Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”

No sooner had Tillerson ratcheted down the rhetoric than Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ratcheted it back up.

Echoing Trump’s martial tone, Mattis said North Korea should stand down its nuclear weapons program and “cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.” As seldom as it is for a president to speak of using nuclear missiles, the reference to the “destruction” of a foreign people is equally rare.

So who to believe?   And how much clout does Tillerson have in the administration against the more aggressive members like Mattis, McMaster and Trump (at times) himself?  How much longer will Tillerson remain as Secretary of State?  Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tillerson is gone by the end of the year.

New Sanctions Tit-for-Tat with European Twist; Trump Pulls Plug on Support for Syrian Rebels; Gareth Porter, Scott Ritter & Stephen Gowans on Background of Syria Intervention; Corporate Media’s Lamenting of End of Support for Salafist Rebels

Palace Square, St. Petersburg, Russia; photo by Natylie Baldwin

On July 27th, a new round of sanctions against Russia were passed by both houses of Congress with only a handful of legislators opposing.  The new sanctions include penalties against foreign entities that do business with Russian fossil fuel companies.  The sanctions were enacted with “election interference” used as the primary justification.   Trump, who would be facing an override of any veto, is expected to sign it.   The first part of Russia’s response was swift – booting out hundreds of American diplomats from the country and allowing only the same number of diplomats as those currently allowed to serve in the United States from Russia. CommonDreams reported the following details:

Members of the U.S. diplomatic staff in Russia will be expelled in the coming weeks, following an order on Friday by the Russian Foreign Ministry. The move was made in response to a new economic sanctions bill that passed in both houses of the U.S. Congress.

Russia said it would also seize two properties used by the U.S. Embassy by next week. Reuters cited a report by Russia’s Interfax news agency saying “hundreds” of employees would be affected, by the exact number was not clear.

….The new sanctions would impact the Russian energy and financial sectors, and the European Union has expressed concerns that they could also affect European companies involved in the building of a new pipeline from Germany to Russia.

On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he “very much regrets” the strained relations between the U.S. and Russia, and accused the U.S. of displaying “boorish behavior” and “anti-Russia hysteria.”

The Russian foreign ministry called allegations that it meddled in the 2016 election “an absolutely invented pretext.”

Just prior to the passing of the legislation, it was condemned by the EU president, Jean-Claude Junker, the French Foreign Ministry and the German Foreign Office, citing the undermining of European energy security, economic interests and violation of international law.

Reuters reported on July 31st that the German economic minister had stated that the EU should consider counter-measures:

BERLIN (Reuters) – New sanctions against Russia proposed by U.S. lawmakers and which could harm European firms violate international law and the European Commission should consider counter-measures, the German economy minister was quoted on Monday as saying.

“We consider this as being against international law, plain and simple,” Brigitte Zypries told the Funke Mediengruppe newspaper chain. “Of course we don’t want a trade war. But it is important the European Commission now looks into countermeasures.”

The German government and business leaders have said the new sanctions passed this month by the U.S. House of Representatives could prevent German companies from working on pipeline projects [Nordstream 2] that they say are essential to Germany’s energy security.

Pepe Escobar provided his analysis of, not only the provocation of European allies that the legislation will be responsible for, but how some of its provisions will effectively cripple any attempts by Trump (or any future president) to normalize relations with Russia:

Trump will be required to justify to Congress, in writing, any initiative to ease sanctions on Russia. And Congress is entitled to launch an automatic review of any such initiative.

Translation; the death knell of any possibility for the White House to reset relations with Russia. Congress in fact is just ratifying the ongoing Russia demonization campaign orchestrated by the neocon and neoliberalcon deep state/War Party establishment.

Economic war has been declared against Russia for at least three years now. The difference is this latest package also declares economic war against Europe, especially Germany.

That centers on the energy front, by demonizing the implementation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and forcing the EU to buy US natural gas.

Make no mistake; the EU leadership will counterpunch. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission (EC), put it mildly when he said, “America first cannot mean that Europe’s interests come last.”

Escobar reported on further retaliation set to be implemented by Russia:

Kommersant has reported that Moscow, among other actions, will retaliate by banning all American IT companies and all US agricultural products from the Russian market, as well as exporting titanium to Boeing (30% of which comes from Russia).

As British Russia expert, Richard Sakwa pointed out in an interview with the Real News Network, Washington is making a feeble attempt to force Europe to abandon its current reliable, economical and geographically close source of natural gas from Russia and buy fracked gas from the U.S.:

In the short-term, this works to the advantage of the fracking gas lobby, because they were talking specifically about being able to fill the gap, perceived gap or possible gap, in European gas markets, by exporting, selling LNG, liquid of natural gas. That may be to their advantage of the gas fracking industry.

Sakwa goes on to explain how this may be a bridge too far with most of western Europe:

It’s the European companies who are hopping mad at the moment, to be absolutely honest, but just in this last few months, the German exports to Russia have gone up 20%, despite sanctions. What this is doing is going back to the 1980’s when the Reagan administration tried to stop the building of the [inaudible 00:10:30] and the West [inaudible 00:10:32] gas pipelines to Western Europe in the first place. Then, posed quite severe sanctions, but the Germans refused to accept it. Now, what’s happening, this is going to drive a wedge between Europeans and the United States.

He also goes on to say how, based on his recent visits to Russia, he is privvy to how much pressure Putin is under, from Russians across the political spectrum, to intensify his response to progressively more provocative actions by Washington that have accumulated over the past several years:

…these sanctions are a declaration that US law is universal across the world. It isn’t just affecting US companies, it’s affecting any company initially, even which had a slight involvement in an economic energy project in which a Russian company was involved. After discussion, it went up to where Russian companies got about 35% engagement. It’s quite draconian, so it’s why I say, yes it’s [incremental 00:07:35] in some ways, but it’s a huge jump at the same time. I don’t know what has [seized 00:07:41] Congress in imposing these draconian measures, and this is only the beginning of the response.

This is the first element. Putin himself is trying to keep these down, but he has been under enormous pressure. I was in Saint Petersburg a few weeks ago and even people with [inaudible 00:08:03] liberal views were saying, condemning Putin for not having reacted to Obama’s provocations at the end of December last year. He has done the minimum really to satisfy Russian public opinion who is, as you can imagine, over the last few months, just getting fed up with this, what they perceive to be craziness coming out from Washington.

Listen to or read the transcript of the full interview with Professor Sakwa here.

So the question is:  how angry is Europe, led by Germany, and how far are they now willing to go to oppose Washington’s folly and assert their own interests?  Escobar is talking about the possibility of a German-Russian entente:

And that bring us to the “nuclear” possibility in the horizon; a Germany-Russia alignment in a Reinsurance Treaty, as first established by Bismarck. CIA-related US Think Tankland is now actively discussing the possibility.

As anyone who has followed my previous writing, including my half of the Ukraine book, will know, since the time of the British empire, the thought of a German-Russian alliance has given Anglo-American imperialists the willies (see Alford Mackinder and the late Zbig).  If Washington insists on giving Germany the proverbial finger in terms of its economic interests, the Eurasian Century may get a quicker jumpstart.  More from Escobar:

The Russia-China strategic partnership is extremely attractive to German business, as it smoothes access via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). According to the business/political source, “the US is at war with China and Russia (but not Trump, our President) and Germany is having second thoughts about being nuclear cannon fodder for the US. I have discussed this in Germany, and they are thinking of renewing the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. No one trusts this US Congress; it is considered a lunatic asylum. Merkel may be asked to leave for the leadership of the UN, and then the treaty would be signed. It will shake the world and end any thought of the United States being a global power, which it isn’t anymore.”

Will Germany really stand up to Washington this time?

Vladimir Putin eating popcorn

https://memegenerator.net/Vladimir-Putin-Eating-Popcorn 

It’s not a foregone conclusion by any means.  Time will tell.

In the meantime, the deputy Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergei Ryabkov, told ABC News in an interview after the sanctions legislation had passed Congress that Russia may have to consequently consider alternatives to the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency.

Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, stated during a lengthy press conference on August 2nd, that he and President Trump are disappointed with the sanctions but feel that the overwhelming congressional support means that they are stuck with them.  However, Trump and Tillerson tend to try to work around them while continuing to pursue improved relations with Moscow:

I think the American people want the two most powerful nuclear nations in the world to have a better relationship. I don’t think the American people want us to have a bad relationship with a huge nuclear power. But I think they are frustrated, and I think a lot of this reflects the frustration that we’ve not seen the kind of improvement in the relationship with Russia that all of us would like to see.

….The action by the Congress to put these sanctions in place and the way they did, neither the President nor I are very happy about that. We were clear that we didn’t think it was going to be helpful to our efforts. But that’s the decision they made. They made it in a very overwhelming way. I think the President accepts that, and all indications are he will sign that, that bill. And then we’ll just work with it, and that’s kind of my view is we’ll work with it. We got it. We can’t let it take us off track of trying to restore the relationship.

Nikolas Gvosdev has written an interesting article over at the National Interest, speculating on how Trump could avoid enforcing the sanctions in the manner that Congress would like, citing the notorious “signing statement” as one of several options Trump could potentially use to downplay the effect of the sanctions, giving himself wriggle room to de-escalate:

Congressional legislation in the area of foreign policy is always tricky, because while Congress can mandate and fund, it is the president who chooses the manner, style, speed and pace of execution. After all, Congress could authorize and all-but-insist upon the shipment of “defensive weapons” to Ukraine, but it could not compel President Barack Obama to actually deliver arms.

Both Obama and President George W. Bush routinely used “signing statements” when presented with pieces of congressional legislation which had provisions that they opposed if they were not prepared to veto the entire bill. Bush and Obama have left President Donald Trump a bipartisan precedent of a chief executive using such statements to effectively reinterpret the intent of congressional legislation, particularly in designating congressional mandates as “advisory” when they believed that Congress was infringing on their Article II authority. This is not to suggest that Trump can simply negate sanctions on his own authority, but he can easily spell out in such a document how he understands the legislation and how he plans to carry out its provisions.

Read the full article here.

Meanwhile, Russia has just signed a $2.5 billion deal with another Washington-sanctioned nation to provide train cars for Iran’s extended and upgraded rail infrastructure, partly in anticipation of its role in China’s New Silk Road initiative.  According to Forbes:

Russia and Iran signed a $2.5 billion deal on Monday to start up a much-needed rail wagon production operation. The agreement was forged between the Industrial Development and Renovation Organization of Iran (IDRO) and Transmashholding, who is Russia’s largest rail equipment supplier. The two sides will set up a new joint venture, which will be 80% owned — although completely funded — by the Russian partner.

Iran is currently in the midsts of what could be called an infrastructure building bonanza. Emerging from decades of sanctions which left much of the country’s transportation infrastructure descending into proverbial ruins, Iran has embarked upon a near complete rebuild of its highway and rail networks. The country is expected to add on 15,000 kilometers of new rail lines in the next five years alone — a rapid expansion which is going to require 8,000-10,000 new wagons each year.

Reinvigorating the transport sector is a key part of Iran’s vision to leverage its geographic position to become a vibrant hub of trans-Eurasian trade, which plugs nicely into China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Russia’s continued economic activity in the post-Soviet neighborhood. Iran is also a core partner, along with Russia and India, in the emerging North-South Transport Corridor, which seeks to create a multimodal trade route that would cut the lead time between cities on the west coast of India and St. Petersburg in half, and has also worked out its territorial squabbles with Russia over the Caspian Sea.

Well, it sure doesn’t sound like Russia and Iran are wasting any time weeping over Washington’s scorn.  They’re moving on with mutually beneficial projects in their own neighborhood.

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Added on to the very short list of positive things Trump has done, the U.S. program supporting rebels (via the CIA) in Syria has been suspended.   There are some reports that Trump was motivated to do so after being made aware of the sickeningly notorious video of CIA-backed rebel group Nour al-Din al-Zenki beheading a Palestinian-Syrian boy.   ZeroHedge has a write-up about this that relies primarily on a report written by a man who works for a Neocon think tank in Washington.  It was originally published at the Weekly Standard, which is a Neocon publication. Therefore, this should be viewed with some degree of skepticism until it can be independently verified.   Quoted below is the gist of the article:

Trump wanted to know why the United States had backed Zenki if its members are extremists. The issue was discussed at length with senior intelligence officials, and no good answers were forthcoming, according to people familiar with the conversations. After learning more worrisome details about the CIA’s ghost war in Syria—including that U.S.-backed rebels had often fought alongside extremists, among them al Qaeda’s arm in the country—the president decided to end the program altogether.

Ben Norton, writing for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), observed how the corporate media again showed its tendency to carry water for Washington’s warmongers, by lamenting Trump’s decision to end the program:

If one only read corporate media reporting, however, you would likely think that the termination of the CIA program was an abject tragedy. Spin doctors at major news outlets depicted the Trump administration’s decision as variously a spineless concession to the evil Russian puppet master and/or a wretched abandonment of a supposedly noble US commitment to “freedom and democracy.”

The Washington Post (7/19/17) took the lead with the article “Trump Ends Covert CIA Program to Arm Anti-Assad Rebels in Syria, a Move Sought by Moscow,” which framed the development almost entirely as a concession to the Kremlin. It cited Charles Lister, a hawkish analyst who has for years lobbied for US-led regime change in Syria. “We are falling into a Russian trap,” lamented Lister, who works for think tanks funded by the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, and never fails to toe the line.

Western corporate media compliantly echoed the Post‘s talking points: TheGuardian (7/20/17) declared “Donald Trump Drops CIA Program in Syria ‘in Bid to Improve Russia Ties’”; USA Today (7/20/17) said, “Trump’s Cutoff of Aid to Syrian Rebels Marks Victory for Assad, Russia and Iran”; “Donald Trump Ends Covert CIA Aid to Syrian Rebels in ‘Win’ for Russia,” the Telegraph (7/20/17) added.

The Washington Post‘s resident unofficial CIA PR rep, David Ignatius (7/20/17), practically boasted that “CIA-backed fighters may have killed or wounded 100,000 Syrian soldiers and their allies over the past four years.”

A top US general later made it clear that the halt of the CIA operation was not about Russia. But this mattered little to the Fourth Estate; the “Kremlin plot” seed had already been planted.

The idea that it might actually be good to end a program that even establishment think tanks conceded empowered Al Qaeda and other jihadist militant groups in Syria, regardless of what Russia desires, was never entertained.

Now seems like a good time to review how Washington got involved in trying to foment regime change in Syria from 2011 on.  Two excellent articles discussing this background have recently been published.  The first is by the award-winning independent Middle East journalist, Gareth Porter, and appeared in the American Conservative – an outlet that is ideologically more in line with the Edmund Burke tradition of conservatism and supports a mostly non-interventionist foreign policy.

An excerpt:

One of the keys to understanding its origins is that the program was launched not because of a threat to U.S. security, but because of a perceived opportunity. That is always a danger sign, prompting powerful national-security bureaucrats to begin thinking about a “win” for the United States. (Think Vietnam and Iraq.)

The opportunity in this case was the rise of opposition protests against the Assad regime in spring 2011 and the belief among national security officials that Assad could not survive. The national-security team saw a shortcut to the goal. Former Obama administration official Derek Chollet recalled in his book The Long Game that Obama’s advisers were all talking about a “managed transition” and urging Obama to publicly demand that Assad step down, according to Chollet. What that meant to Obama’s advisers ws bringing pressure from outside, including providing arms to the opposition.

That was wishful thinking not only in regard to the willingness of an Alawite-dominated regime to hand over power to its sectarian foes, but in regard to the assumed Iranian willingness to go along with toppling the regime. Not one of Obama’s advisers had sufficient understanding of regional dynamics to warn the President that Iran would not allow of Syrian ally to be overthrown by an opposition supported by Sunni states and the United States.

But the decisive factor in pushing the administration toward action was the pressure from U.S. Sunni allies in the region—Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar—which began in autumn 2011 to press Obama to help build and equip an opposition army. Turkey was the leader in this regard, calling for Washington to agree to provide heavy weaponry—including anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles—to the rebel troops that didn’t even exist yet, and even offering to invade Syria to overthrow the regime if the U.S. would guarantee air cover.

In the ideology of the national security elite—especially its Democratic wing—regional alliances are essential building blocks of what is styled as the U.S.-sponsored global “rules-based order.” In practice, however, they have served as instruments for the advancement of the power and prestige of the national security bureaucracies themselves. The payoffs of U.S. alliances in the Middle East have centered on the military bases in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar that allow the Pentagon and the military brass to plan and execute military operations that guarantee extraordinary levels of military spending. But enormous Saudi arms purchases and the financing of any covert operations the CIA doesn’t wish to acknowledge to Congress have long been prime benefits for those powerful organizations and their senior officials.

(Emphasis mine).  Read the full article here

The second article is from former weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, also published at the American Conservative and goes into the details of how weapons were funneled to “rebel” groups in Syria starting in 2011, after Qaddafi was illegally overthrown and murdered in Libya:

The train and equip mission of the CIA in Syria can be traced back to the spring of 2011, when a revolution broke out in Libya against the dictatorial rule of Muammar Gadhafi. Backed by NATO airpower, anti-regime fighters were able to establish control over large areas inside Libya. The CIA began a program to train and equip these fighters, supplying weapons to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who in turn shipped these weapons to Libya, where they were turned over to Libyan rebels. (This circuitous route was chosen to avoid the U.S. being in violation of a UN embargo against weapons deliveries to Libya.)

In August 2011, in the aftermath of the capture of the Libyan capital of Tripoli by rebel forces, Qatar began diverting arms originally intended for Libya to Turkey, where they were turned over to rebel forces that had, since June of 2011, been fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. These rebels were grouped together under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an ostensibly secular resistance group that  was in reality controlled by the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that had been crushed by Bashar al-Assad’s father back in the early 1980’, and was operating in exile in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. While the CIA was not directly involved in this activity, CIA personnel in Libya and Turkey monitored these shipments to make sure no sensitive weaponry, such as hand-help surface-to-air missiles, made their way into Syria. This effort, which involved billions of dollars of arms, including those provided by the United States for the express purpose of aiding Libyan rebels, continued through 2012 and into 2013. (The U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, who was killed in an attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, was involved in coordinating these weapons transfers.)

As the fighting in Syria expanded in scope and scale, the number of anti-regime combatant organizations increased. The FSA took on an increasingly Islamist character, and many of its fighters defected to more extreme organizations, such as al-Nusra (an Al Qaeda affiliate). Many of the CIA-provided weapons being shipped by Qatar through Turkey made their way into these Islamist units, with the unintended result being that the U.S. was actively arming Al Qaeda and other extremist entities openly hostile to American interests. In an effort to control the flow of weaponry into Syria, President Obama authorized the CIA to formally take over the process of training and equipping Syrian rebels. This operation, known by its codename, Timber Sycamore, was run out of Turkey and Jordan with the full support of both governments.

Read the complete article here

Of course, designs on Syria by Washington did not start in 2011.  As Stephen Gowans (author of  Washington’s Long War on Syria) details in a presentation available below, it has been going on since the Cold War.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HOgPsZkCM8

Note:  Gowans’ presentation begins approximately at the 10 minute mark.