All posts by natyliesb

William Arkin: AS WASHINGTON DC FACES CORONAVIRUS SPIKE, SECRET MILITARY TASK FORCE PREPARES TO SECURE THE CAPITAL

Ready to protect the U.S. capital: The 106th Aviation Battalion prepares to leave for Washington D.C. on March 12th. PUBLIC DOMAIIN

By William Arkin, Newsweek, April 16, 2020

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser yesterday ordered a one-month extension of the state of emergency, as cases in the region grow at a rapid pace. Federal officials in the nation’s capital expect a New York-like epidemic in the District, Maryland and Virginia, one that could potentially cripple the government.

“No one wants to talk evacuation, especially when there’s nowhere to go,” says a senior military officer working on continuity of government planning; he requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the record.

But a little-known military task force charged with evacuating Washington has already been activated, a task force charged with the most sensitive government mission of “securing” Washington in the face of attackers, foreign and domestic—and if necessary, moving White House and other key government offices to alternate locations.

Activated on March 16, Joint Task Force National Capital Region (JTF-NCR) is chartered to “defend” Washington on land, in the air, and even on its waterfronts. The special task force, the only one of its kind in the country, demonstrates how there are two sides of government preparedness. The public face, and even the day-to-day work of most men and women assigned to JTF-NCR, is the same as it is everywhere else in the country—medical support, delivering supplies, manning health-check stations.

But behind the scenes, JTF-NCR is responsible for what the military calls “homeland defense”: what to do in the face of an armed attack on the United States, everything from guarding Washington’s skies to preparing for the civil unrest that could occur if a nuclear weapon were detonated in the capital. But most immediate, JTF-NCR is charged with facilitating continuity of government, particularly moving civil and military leaders to secret locations were the order given to evacuate the city.

Ever since National Guards started to activate countrywide, Pentagon officials have insisted that men and women in uniform are not conducting secret missions and that they will not administer or enforce “stay at home” quarantines. The Pentagon has also rejected reports, including articles in Newsweek, about martial law or other extreme contingency plans, arguing that the Guard remains under strict control of state governors, while federal troops support civil agencies like FEMA.

And yet the activation of Joint Task Force National Capital Region, including almost 10,000 uniformed personnel to carry out its special orders, contradicts those assurances. JTF-NCR is not only real and operating, reporting directly to the Secretary of Defense for some of its mission, but some of its units are already on 24/7 alert, specially sequestered on military bases and kept out of coronavirus support duties to ensure their readiness.

Continue reading here.

Russia Estimated to Approach its Covid-19 Peak Next Week; Oil Deal Reached with OPEC+ as Russia Prepares to Ride Out Economic Downturn

A pretty good article by Judy Twigg appeared in recent days in the National Interest which details the time frame in which the likely peak for Covid-19 cases will occur. The article also delves into Russia’s geography, demographics and health care system and how these will likely factor in to the length and severity of the pandemic there. Here is an excerpt:

Over the past two weeks, Russia’s leadership has started to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously. As of April 9, 11,917 Russians were reported to be infected, based on over a million conducted tests, and the numbers are doubling every two to three days. Key national experts are predicting the timing of Russia’s peak for April 17–21, with infections not falling off significantly until early to mid-June. The government appears to be bracing for the worst. Currently, twenty thousand hospital beds, both public and private, are being prepared in Moscow alone.  

So far, Russia’s epidemic is heavily Moscow-centric, but it’s shifting noticeably to hot spots in other parts of the country. The identified case load outside Moscow has climbed from 29 percent to 34 percent of all infections just over the last few days, and that’s with testing activity skewed heavily toward Moscow and a few of the natural resource-rich regions of Siberia and the Far East. The relatively low number of confirmed cases in St. Petersburg—408, as of April 10—may have something to do with only forty thousand tests having been performed there. 

In terms of sheer numbers of reported tests performed and per-capita coverage of testing, Russia is one of the top countries. The quality and coverage of that testing, however, is unclear. Tests are being processed at 190 public laboratories around the country as well as a handful of private labs and clinics. New Russian-produced tests are said to be under development to deliver results more rapidly and precisely. There are numerous anecdotal reports, however, of people hospitalized with pneumonia without being tested for coronavirus, even though their conditions clearly indicate they might be infected. A Higher School of Economics survey conducted on April 4–5 found that half of Russians think the authorities are understating the actual number of infected people, while only 12 percent find the official statistics reliable. 

It’s not that the Kremlin is systematically and maliciously manipulating the books, taking in one set of numbers and then reporting out something different. The reality is surely more nuanced, having to do with factors like the criteria established for testing, and with the incentive structure at the lower levels of the system to report bad news.

Continue reading here.

In light of the worldwide economic slowdown caused by the pandemic and the resulting slump in oil demand, OPEC+ – which includes OPEC, Mexico and Russia – agreed to cut oil production by about 10%. The agreement reportedly happened after intervention by the United States in the negotiations. According to AP:

American officials have gotten involved with OPEC in the past, making phone calls or attempting to sway a deal during international crises and unusual circumstances. The intervention has typically been in response to high prices; instead, in the current situation, oil prices dropped more than 60% since the start of the year…

…Mexico stalled the negotiations by refusing to cut more than 100,000 barrels a day of production, when OPEC was asking for double or triple that amount. Trump said the U.S. would help by shouldering the cuts that Mexico was unwilling to make….

“They had to agree to give something like a cover story, a diplomatic cover, so that the other parties in OPEC, who whether they liked it or not were going to have to accept these terms, would be able to do so without a loss of prestige,” said Kevin Book, managing director at Clearview Energy Partners.

Trump’s statements also signaled that the U.S. views Mexico as an important partner in the integrated North American energy market, said Amy Myers Jaffe, senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations, who also saw it as an important policy move. “I think it will serve the president well on every count,” including border issues, she said.

The economic slump and steep reduction in oil prices is expected to reduce Russia’s GDP by .5 to 1% this year when it was expected previously to enjoy a modest rise. But due to the conservative macroeconomic policies the Russian government oversaw over the past several years due to western sanctions, the country is in a reasonable position to weather the storm. Chris Weafer, an economic analyst who has lived and worked in Russia for years explained the possible future scenarios:

.Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government has spent the last three years meticulously, i.e. at a painfully slow pace, preparing a fiscal and industrial strategy that the president hopes will lead to sustained economic recovery. More than that, his ambition is to also use these programs to improve social conditions. This means he would have greater public support for whatever succession strategy he chooses in 2024, as opinion polls show that support for the president has become closely linked with economic wellbeing…

…The big policy and spending decisions will likely be made after the summer when, presumably, there is a better sense of the damage caused, both domestically and globally, by the pandemic. By then the oil price trend should also be clearer. If both look favorable, then expect few major changes to the current recovery strategy. But, if the oil price remains well below the breakeven and is in danger of staying there into 2021, then we can expect big changes to spending plans and to economic, social and political expectations. Putin would not approve a budget deficit for two years in a row because of the risk of financial erosion and leaving the country vulnerable to future sanctions risk.

Existing sanctions, while acting as a positive catalyst initially, are proving a big drag on inward investment. Investors are reluctant to engage more with Russia because of perceived reputational and business risk. That is certainly slowing the pace of recovery and increasing the financial burden on the federal budget. Hence, it is the size of oil tax receipts that matters more over the medium term than additional sanctions.

Longer term, investment flow is critical for the development of any economy. Russia can make progress during the remainder of Putin’s current term, and come very close to the ambitious economic and social targets he has set, if the oil price recovers and COVID-19 is dealt with in 2020.

Read full article here.

Latest on Covid-19 in Russia; China Sends Aid – “We Won’t Forget Our Friends Who Helped Us”

The Covid-19 pandemic is hitting Moscow the hardest by far, with the capital accounting for over half of the national total of 12,000 by this past Friday. Reports indicate that Moscow hospitals are now at maximum capacity. AFP reports:

Moscow’s hospitals and ambulance service are working at peak capacity after a sharp rise in those hospitalized with serious coronavirus complications, a senior city official said Friday.

The densely populated capital with more than 12 million residents has the largest outbreak in Russia, with 7,822 confirmed coronavirus cases out of a national total of almost 12,000.

The number in Moscow’s hospitals has doubled since last week and more than 85% of these patients have pneumonia, deputy mayor Anastasia Rakova was quoted as saying on the city virus task force’s Telegram account.

Moscow is not sending people with mild symptoms to hospitals. Those who test positive are monitored through online video consultations.

The city has been on lockdown since the end of March and the mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, is predicting that they have not approached the peak yet.

A new hospital to specifically treat Covid-19 patients, with 500-bed capacity, has been under rush construction and is scheduled to open later this month.

Last week Putin announced that health care workers would receive a pay raise for the duration of the pandemic in recognition of their hard work and sacrifice. More on this and the status of the Covid-19 response in the country can be found in the video below:

China, meanwhile, sent a team of medical experts to Russia on April 11th to assist with the pandemic, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced. According to a TASS news agency report, the Chinese ambassador to Russia, Zhang Hanhui made the following public remarks:

“We won’t forget our friends who helped us. We are ready to do everything possible to help them overcome this crisis. We will express our full gratitude for helping us during a difficult time,” he said.

The ambassador reminded that at the start of the epidemic, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a telegram to Chinese leader Xi Jinping with words of support, after which Russia sent a military plane with 23 tonnes of medical goods to China. “Now that our friends in the north are facing an epidemiological crisis, we must do our duty,” he said, noting that on April 2, China sent 26 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Russia.

Why You Should Be Skeptical of the Demonization of China

It started well before the Covid-19 pandemic, but it is sure being ramped up in the wake of the virus. The demonization of China has been seen for years now in the corporate media, particularly among conservatives. It was part of the inspiration for the rise in right-wing populism that led to Trump’s victory in 2016.

Many working-class Americans had carried a smoldering anger for years about the corporate trade deals that saw millions of manufacturing jobs – for decades the backbone of an economy that was based on production of real goods – taken overseas. Permanent normal trade relations with China translated into over 2 million manufacturing jobs going to China which helped to underpin that country’s lifting of millions of its citizens out of poverty. This was perceived to be at the expense of the American worker. This is not an unjustified view.

However, the hard truth is that the Chinese government did not hold a gun to the economic elites’ heads in the United States, forcing them to relinquish millions of living wage jobs for Americans. The economic elites in the United States willingly did so due to greed and no sense of loyalty to their fellow Americans. Patriotism is for the rubes according to the elites who do not see themselves bound by such quaint notions.

It is much easier for FOX news personalities, Rising co-host Sagaar Enjeti and others, to portray China as some uniquely evil country than to hold American elites to account for their betrayal, along with the corporate media’s role from the 1990’s on in legitimizing corporate free trade as a law of nature not to be questioned.

As for China itself, it is definitely an authoritarian country. However, it is governed in a more complicated manner than the overly simplistic characterization provided by US corporate media outlets and politicians. China’s leadership does have a certain degree of accountability to its people, but it’s not via elections, which westerners see as the only viable means of political accountability. In the TED Talk below, Eric X. Li explains how China is actually governed, why the country has been able to achieve so much in a relatively short period of time, and what forms of accountability the Chinese leadership is held to in the absence of formal elections. Li points out that western analysts don’t have a familiar box in which to place China:

Another criticism we often hear about China’s authoritarianism is its alleged treatment of millions of Muslim Uyghurs in its Xinjiang province. But where are these stories of Chinese Uyghur repression coming from and how credible are they? In a recent in-depth report published at The Grayzone, investigative journalists Max Blumenthal and Ajit Singh detail how these allegations have been amplified based on threadbare evidence:

The claim that China has detained millions of ethnic Uyghurs in its Xinjiang region is repeated with increasing frequency, but little scrutiny is ever applied. Yet a closer look at the figure and how it was obtained reveals a serious deficiency in data.

While this extraordinary claim is treated as unassailable in the West, it is, in fact, based on two highly dubious “studies.” 

The first, by the US government-backed Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, formed its estimate by interviewing a grand total of eight people.

The second study relied on flimsy media reports and speculation. It was authored by Adrian Zenz, a far-right fundamentalist Christian who opposes homosexuality and gender equality, supports “scriptural spanking” of children, and believes he is “led by God” on a “mission” against China.

As Washington ratchets up pressure on China, Zenz has been lifted out of obscurity and transformed almost overnight into a go-to pundit on Xinjiang. He has testified before Congress, providing commentary in outlets from the Wall Street Journal to Democracy Now!, and delivering expert quotes in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ recent “China Cables” report. His Twitter bio notes that he is “moving across the Atlantic” from his native Germany.

Blumenthal and Singh go on to explain how the credibility of these claims suffer as the sources for them are exposed to scrutiny.

The “millions detained” figure was first popularized by a Washington, DC-based NGO that is backed by the US government, the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD).

In a 2018 report submitted to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – often misrepresented in Western media as a UN-authored report – CHRD “estimate[d] that roughly one million members of ethnic Uyghurs have been sent to ‘re-education’ detention camps and roughly two million have been forced to attend ‘re-education’ programs in Xinjiang.” According to CHRD, this figure was “[b]ased on interviews and limited data.” 

While CHRD states that it interviewed dozens of ethnic Uyghurs in the course of its study, their enormous estimate was ultimately based on interviews with exactly eight Uyghur individuals

….Thanks to questionable sources like the CHRD, the United States government has accused China of “arbitrarily detain[ing] 800,000 to possibly more than two million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims in internment camps designed to erase religious and ethnic identities.”

….In its mounting pressure campaign against China, the US is not only relying on CHRD for data; it is directly funding its operations. As Ben Norton and Ajit Singh previously reported for The Grayzone, CHRD receives significant financial support from Washington’s regime-change arm, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

I have written in my first book and on this blog about the National Endowment for Democracy and its genesis as the government agency created by congress in the wake of the Church Committee hearings which exposed the deadly operations of the CIA that outraged the American public: “In 1983, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was born and Allen Weinstein, who helped write the legislation that brought it into existence, admitted in 1991, ‘A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.’”

Blumenthal and Singh discuss the second major source for the Uyghurs in concentration camps claims against China:

The second key source for claims that China has detained millions of Uyghur Muslims is Adrian Zenz. He is a senior fellow in China studies at the far-right Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which was established by the US government in 1983.

The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation is an outgrowth of the National Captive Nations Committee, a group founded by Ukrainian nationalist Lev Dobriansky to lobby against any effort for detente with the Soviet Union. Its co-chairman, Yaroslav Stetsko, was a top leader of the fascist OUN-B militia that fought alongside Nazi Germany during its occupation of Ukraine in World War Two. Together, the two helped found the World Anti-Communist League that was described by journalist Joe Conason as “the organizational haven for neo-Nazis, fascists, and anti-Semitic extremists from two dozen countries.”

Today, Dobriansky’s daughter, Paula, sits on the board of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. A former Reagan and George HW Bush official and signatory of the original Project for a New American Century document, Paula Dobriansky has become a fixture in neoconservative circles on Capitol Hill.

From its office in Washington, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation agitates for regime change from Venezuela to the periphery of China, advancing the “double genocide” theory that rewrites the history of the Holocaust and posits communism as a deadly evil on par with Hitlerian fascism.

Read the full article here.

Like Russia, China is a country on the other side of the world with a different history, culture and geography. It doesn’t have the same interests as the United States. It’s also a major economic power. It is therefore a competitor to the United States. But a competitor doesn’t necessarily have to be an enemy to be vilified. I don’t see the genuine problems between the United States and China as being insurmountable, but instead they could be managed with courage and skillful diplomacy. But as I’ve explained in regard to managing relations with Russia, diplomacy requires an understanding of the other nation’s perceived interests and what shapes them. For some insight into how the U.S. military posture in Asia – which the Pentagon is now quietly requesting $20 billion more for – may look from China’s perspective, check out award-winning journalist John Pilger’s documentary “The Coming War on China”:

Unfortunately, for a significant segment of our political class, the world is a Manichean place in which any other country who has the capability of pursuing national interests that are separate from the United States, must be met with a mobilization for war and the propaganda framing to support it, which the defense industry and the corporate media profit from. This represents an immature, arrogant and entitled mindset that is a holdover from our 3-decades long stint of being able to dominate much of the globe with our economic power, petrodollar and 700+ military bases. That domination is not sustainable and is in the process of collapsing. It is time for our political class to accept it and adopt a more mature outlook in which we manage our problems with competitor nations with sophisticated diplomacy and a dose of humility.

Covid-19 Exposes Utter Failure of National Security State to Protect Americans

In this brief video, retired army colonel and historian Andrew Bacevich, president of the non-interventionist Quincy Institute, discusses how Covid-19 has exposed the failure of the U.S. national security state’s priorities in the post-Cold War era.

In terms of how the national security state failed in its handling of the pandemic, Scott Ritter explains in a recent article for The American Conservative that the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) – a body within the larger U.S. intelligence apparatus – failed in its most basic duties. First Ritter explains what the NCMI is and provides an example of how it can work successfully:

Included in this budget is a small, specialized intelligence unit known as the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), which operates as part of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The mission of the NCMI is to serve as the lead activity within the Department of Defense (DoD) “for the production of medical intelligence,” and to prepare and coordinate “integrated, all-source intelligence for the DoD and other government and international organizations on foreign health threats and other medical issues to protect U.S. interests worldwide.”

For a small agency, the NCMI packs a large punch in terms of the overall impact of its product. For example, in April 2009—two months prior to when the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially declared the global outbreak of H1N1 influenza a pandemicNCMI published an intelligence product, known as an “Infectious Disease Risk Assessment,” which predicted that a recent outbreak of the Swine Flu (H1N1) would become a pandemic. 

The positive work done by the NCMI in relation to the H1N1 outbreak contributed to the creation of the 2012 “National Strategy for Biosurveillance,” designed to help facilitate a full-time institutionalized process for obtaining timely and accurate insight on current and emerging biological risks. President Obama himself noted the critical role played by “accurate and timely information” during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic that enabled decision makers, including himself, to “develop the effective responses that save lives. 

Then Ritter describes how the NCMI completely dropped the ball on the coronavirus:

The NCMI’s job, [Air Force Col. Dr. Anthony M.] Rizzo noted, is predictive in nature—not to explain what is happening, but rather “what we believe is going to happen.” To do this, NCMI has access to the resources of the totality of the intelligence community, including intercepted communications, satellite imagery, and sensitive human intelligence, including covert sample collection.

The coronavirus was clearly part of the NCMI’s remit. And yet its first Infectious Disease Risk Assessment for COVID-19 was issued on January 5, 2020, reporting that 59 people had been taken ill in Wuhan, China. This report was derived not from any sensitive intelligence collection effort or independent biosurveillance activity, but rather from a report issued to the WHO by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, dated January 5, 2020.

The next day the CDC warned American citizens to take precautions if traveling to China, followed a day later with the activation of a COVID-19 incident management team within the CDC Emergency Management System. This, however, is not the kind of predictive analysis that U.S. policymakers needed if they were going to get ahead of the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike 2009, when the NCMI provided a full two months heads up about the threat of a Swine Flu pandemic, in 2020 the Trump administration was taking its cues from the WHO, which waited until January 30, 2020 to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). The NCMI had been relegated to a mere observer, having failed in its mission to provide timely, predictive analysis of pending epidemiological threats.

Read the full article here.

In a recent article by Ken Klippenstein for The Nation, it is brought out that the Pentagon had predicted in a 2017 report that a respiratory virus was likely to cause a health crisis in the United States within the coming years. Furthermore, the Pentagon assessed that the federal government had insufficient equipment to handle such a crisis, such as ventilators, masks, etc.:

Despite President Trump’s repeated assertions that the Covid-19 epidemic was “unforeseen” and “came out of nowhere,” the Pentagon was well aware of not just the threat of a novel influenza, but even anticipated the consequent scarcity of ventilators, face masks, and hospital beds, according to a 2017 Pentagon plan obtained by The Nation.

“The most likely and significant threat is a novel respiratory disease, particularly a novel influenza disease,” the military plan states. Covid-19 is a respiratory disease caused by the novel (meaning new to humans) coronavirus. The document specifically references coronavirus on several occasions, in one instance saying, “Coronavirus infections [are] common around the world.”

The Nation article quotes a retired intelligence official, Denis Kaufman, who said that some agencies within the intelligence community had warned of a possible pandemic but that administration officials had ignored it:

Denis Kaufman, who served as head of the Infectious Diseases and Countermeasures Division at the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2014 to 2017, stressed that US intelligence had been well-aware of the dangers of coronaviruses for years. (Kaufman retired from his decades-long career in the military in December of 2017.)

“The Intelligence Community has warned about the threat from highly pathogenic influenza viruses for two decades at least. They have warned about coronaviruses for at least five years,” Kaufman explained in an interview.

“There have been recent pronouncements that the coronavirus pandemic represents an intelligence failure…. it’s letting people who ignored intelligence warnings off the hook.”

The bottom line is that the national security apparatus of the United States, including all of those serving in the executive branch of government who are privy to such information, failed in connection with a real threat to the average American’s security while being preoccupied with and investing gobs of resources into countering foreign bogeymen.

Putin in Self-Quarantine as Hospital Administrator He Came in Contact with Tested Positive for Covid-19; In 2nd Address to the Nation, Putin Announcs Work Holiday Extended Through End of April, Some Regions Permitted to Take Stronger Measures Amidst Pandemic; Kremlin Denies Trump’s Claim of Imminent Deal Between Russia & KSA on Oil

Putin Gives 2nd Address to Russia on Covid-19 Crisis

It was recently announced that Putin is under self-quarantine at his residence outside of Moscow after learning that a hospital administrator he came in contact with last week had tested positive for Covid-19. As reported by Zerohedge (emphasis in original)

On Tuesday it was revealed that Denis Protsenko, the head doctor at the infectious diseases hospital treating coronavirus patients in Moscow, tested positive for COVID-19.

Just a week ago Dr. Protsenko was photographed shaking hands with President Vladimir Putin, during the Russian leader’s visit to the hospital, where he donned a full protective Hazmat suit to visit patients. But during most of his interaction with Protenko, Putin wasn’t wearing the protective gear. 

Putin’s office now reports he’ll conduct his duties remotely, in self-isolation after the exposure. “The president prefers these days to work remotely,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the press just before Putin was due to hold a cabinet meeting by videoconference Wednesday.

After a surge in confirmed cases of the virus earlier this week, Putin gave a second address to the nation on Thursday regarding the Covid-19 crisis (see video above). In that address he announced that the paid work holiday would be extended through the end of April. According to Bryan MacDonald’s report at RT:

Putin said the peak of the coronavirus epidemic is yet to come both globally and in Russia. Moscow, which is the hardest hit Russian city, announced almost 600 new confirmed cases on Thursday. 

“I’ve made a decision to extend the time off until the end of the month, that is, until April 30 inclusively, while maintaining wages for employees,” the President said.

According to Putin, the combination of isolation regimes and holidays will allow Russia “to buy time for proactive measures.” However, he conceded it’s too early to talk about turning the tide of infections. 

Putin also announced that, depending on circumstances, some regions will be allowed to implement tighter restrictions with respect to countering the spread of the virus.

“More stringent restrictions must be observed somewhere, while somewhere else, where there is a high level of preparedness, local, point solutions will be enough now,” the president said, calling for the need to take into account specific regional features.

The Russian regions will receive additional powers to decide which methods to choose to fight the novel coronavirus, Putin said.

“The constituent regions and heads of the regions will get additional authorities by my orders. Before the end of this week, they are to define the concrete set of preventive measures optimal for their territories from the point of view of ensuring the health and safety of the people, as well as stability of the economy and key infrastructure,” Putin said.

There are reports that Russian economists quoted in the Russian media have suggested that the month-long holiday may lead to billions of dollars in losses and numerous company failures, with the country’s largest retail association predicting millions of job losses in that sector along with major debt defaults from shopping centers across Russia.

One final note: The Kremlin has officially denied that talks have occurred between Russia and Saudi Arabia on oil, which undermines a claim Trump made via a tweet yesterday that a deal – which would help the U.S. shale industry by letting up on the recent nosedive in oil prices – was imminent between the two countries. According to the Moscow Times, which quoted the Russian Interfax news agency:

“No, there was no conversation,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Interfax news agency, adding that “so far” there were no plans for such talks, after Trump said the Saudi crown prince had spoken to Putin and he expected them to agree on a cut in oil production.

Kremlin Announces Stricter Measures to Combat Covid-19 as Putin Postpones Vote on Constitutional Amendments & Orders Higher Tax Rate on Wealthy; Putin Offers Medical Aid to U.S., Trump Accepts

In order “to avoid endangering the health of Russian citizens due to an unfavorable epidemiological situation,” Putin signed a decree last week postponing the national vote on the proposed amendments to the country’s constitution, which were originally scheduled to take place on April 22nd. The new date will be determined later and announced via another decree. According to the Russian news agency TASS:

Putin stressed during his address to the Russian nation earlier on Wednesday that ensuring public safety and health is a top priority. “I believe that the vote needs to be postponed to a later date. We will see how the situation unfolds in the regions and in the country on the whole, and will make a decision on a new date based on expert opinion,” he emphasized.

On the same day, Putin outlined a package of measures intended to stabilize the economic situation in Russia amid the pandemic. The measures included a 15% tax on Russian wealth being parked outside of Russia. RT reported Putin’s comments as follows:

“Currently two-thirds of such funds, and, in fact, this is the income of specific individuals (as a result of various kinds of schemes of the so-called optimization), are subject to a real tax rate of only 2 percent. While citizens, even with small salaries, pay income tax of 13 percent. This is, to say the least, unfair. Therefore, I propose for those who withdraw their income in the form of dividends to foreign accounts, to provide a tax rate on such dividends of 15 percent.”

Putin added that Russia is prepared to “withdraw from agreements on avoiding double taxation with countries which disagree with these measures.”

Putin also announced tax and loan deferments for small and medium sized businesses for the next six months as restaurants and cafes have now been ordered closed. VAT would be excluded.

“I consider it necessary to provide tax deferrals for all taxes for small and medium-sized businesses, with the exception of VAT, for the next 6 months. In addition to such deferrals, a deferment on insurance contributions to social funds should be given to micro-enterprises,” he said on Wednesday during his televised address to the.nation over coronavirus spread.

SMEs, as well as microenterprises, which find themselves in the most difficult situation, should receive loan deferments from banks for the next six months, Putin said .

“As for bank loans, small and medium-sized companies, microenterprises, which find themselves in a difficult situation, should receive loans deferments for the next 6 months,” he said. According to him, small and medium-sized enterprises now face objective difficulties – decline in orders and in revenue. He noted that such companies need help to continue their activities, and therefore to keep their employees.

All social benefits over the next six months would remain without need for periodic confirmation of eligibility during that time, an additional 5,000 rubles will be provided for each child under the age of three from April through June to families receiving maternity benefits, benefits for children aged three to seven will begin earlier, and unemployment insurance and sick leave at least equal to the minimum wage will be provided at least through the end of the year.

Starting this week, Moscow is on lockdown with residents only allowed out of their homes to obtain groceries and medical care. Essential workers will need official permits to move around. According to RT correspondent Murad Gazdiev:

Only people with city-issued “quarantine passes” (doctors, officials, store workers etc) will be allowed to move around the city (to and from work).

As of last Friday, the number of cases in the country had risen by almost 200 to 1.036, with 4 deaths. By Monday, there were 1,840 confirmed cases with 16 deaths. 194,353 people, mostly Russians returning from abroad, were in medically supervised quarantine.

Other legislation related to the pandemic has passed the Russian parliament, including laws that provide for fines on those who are caught breaking the quarantine as well as harsh punishments of those who disseminate false information or fake cures for the virus. The media watchdog for the OSCE raised the following concerns:

VIENNA, 31 March 2020 – The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, expressed his deep concerns today about amendments to the Russian legislation, imposing up to five years in prison, for spreading false information about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The amendments were approved by the State Duma and by the Federation Council of the Russian Federation today. They toughen liability and punishments for the dissemination of false information that could threaten the life and safety of citizens. They were made both in the Code of Administrative Offenses and in the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. The amendments include punishments for the spread of false information about measures that the authorities take to ensure the safety of the population and territories.

“I share the concern of the Russian Duma to combat the dissemination of false information related to the current health crisis,” the Representative said. “However, the amendments to the Code of Administrative offense and to the Criminal Code, as envisaged, pose a risk of undue restriction on the work of journalists and of self-censorship for media actors trying to inform the public.”

“I call for a greater consideration of the principles of necessity and proportionality in the new amendments. The amendments should also clearly guarantee that the right of the media to report on the pandemic will not be constrained by the new legislation, which should only aim at combating intentional disinformation that is detrimental to citizens’ health. The media and independent journalists have an important role to play in the fight against disinformation, especially online, and they should not be unduly restrained in their reporting on the pandemic,” said Désir.

In a telephone call on Monday with Trump, Putin offered pandemic-related medical aid to the U.S., which Trump accepted. Here is what RT reported yesterday (emphasis mine):

A cargo plane loaded with medical supplies and protection equipment may depart for the US by the end of Tuesday, the Kremlin said, after a phone call between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The issue of protective gear was raised during the Monday phone talks, with Putin asking if the US needed help and Trump accepting, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday.

Moscow suggested the aid in anticipation that the US will be able to return the favor if necessary, once its manufacturers of medical and protective equipment catch up with demand, Peskov said.

Iranian President Appeals Directly to American People to End Sanctions in Fight Against Pandemic

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Tasnim News.

On March 20th, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani made a direct appeal to the American people to end the sanctions against Iran so that it can provide better assistance to its citizens in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. The virus has hit the Persian country particularly hard with over 35,000 confirmed cases and over 2,500 deaths as of Saturday. Over the last week, the UN and several countries throughout the world, including Russia and China, have called on the U.S. to end the sanctions on humanitarian grounds in the midst of the pandemic.

Rouhani sent the following message via his official website:

In the Name of God, the Compassionate the Merciful

On behalf of the great Iranian nation, I write to the people of the United States of America on the occasion of the Iranian New Year (Nowruz). The coronavirus outbreak has endangered the health of—and even presented a considerable threat to—humanity with no distinction as to nationality, or gender or religious backgrounds. This presents an opportune moment to further contemplate our common pains and our human principles. 

Today, all of humankind feels apprehensive toward the future; a future threatened in every aspect; be it health, business, and even social relationships and the way of life. The level of unpredictability and uncertainty is simply unprecedented. It is self-evident that our success in what is likely to be a long fight depends on the spiritual and heartfelt affinity of all human beings. The international defense that we have to mount will not be successful without camaraderie on the part of the whole of humankind. Today, instead of soldiers belonging to different armies, human soldiers, donning similar unicolor uniforms belonging to no particular country, are selflessly and altruistically at war against the enemy of humans across the globe. In this common fight, we all belong to one front. We all seek to prevail over our common enemy: a deadly virus. With this enemy, in contrast to other issues, we have no difference of views, and we do not diverge on its nature, its definition and its destructive consequences for the whole of humanity.

Full message here.