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North & South Korea Re-establish Direct Hotline, Diplomatic Meeting in Works

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After months of off-and-on blusterous exchanges between President Trump and the North Korean leader, North Korea reached out directly to the South Korean president requesting direct diplomatic talks.  Subsequently, Kim Jong-un “ordered the reopening of a hotline with south Korea’s leaders – bringing the biggest thaw in relations between the two Koreas in years,” according to Democracy Now!

Arrangements are underway for a meeting between the two governments in Pyeongchang, South Korea, near the DMZ, on Tuesday January 9th.  Meanwhile, this past Thursday, the United States and South Korea agreed to delay military exercises in the area until after the Winter Olympics, which are being hosted by South Korea.

One of the foremost experts on North Korea, Bruce Cumings was interviewed by Amy Goodman and clarified what the North Korean leader and his government have actually said about its nuclear arsenal and why they may feel they’re in a good place to make a conciliatory gesture toward the South:

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, it’s very important, and particularly the tone of Kim Jong-un’s statement, which was very conciliatory toward the South and was followed up by a high official who was even more conciliatory, talking about North Korea’s hopes for the South Korean Winter Olympics going well. And, of course, Kim Jong-un offered to send a delegation to the Olympics. This is in great contrast to, for example, the 1988 Olympics, which the North Koreans tried to disrupt with terrorist attacks. So, it’s a very good sign.

And I would add that Kim Jong-un did say he had a big button with a lot of nuclear weapons, but he very clearly said that North Korean nuclear weapons are for defensive purposes and would not be used unless North Korea was attacked. And secondly, he said something that North Korean officials have been saying for the last six months without a lot of attention. And that is words to the effect that their nuclear program is nearly completed, which would mean they don’t have to test so much. They tested a great deal in 2017, particularly missiles, and then a very large H-bomb test last September. So, I think, on all three counts, this was generally a welcome statement, a conciliatory statement.

While it is a good sign for the moment that North and South Korea have agreed to talks, no one should be naive enough to assume that Washington policymakers will simply allow peace to break out on the Korean peninsula, even if that is what all parties who live there want.  In response to these developments, Aaron Mate (who is doing excellent work) at the Real News Network  interviewed journalist Tim Shorrock, who has reported on the Koreas for decades and lived in the area, for his insight into these latest developments.  The following excerpt is insightful:

It’s a very good sign. It’s a very good sign that North and South Korea have opened this communication line and then on Tuesday, they’re going to talk because North Korea has, you know, that Kim Jong-un said in his January 1st speech, that North Korea would be interested in sending a delegation to the Olympics, which are going to happen in February in South Korea.

They’re going to talk about that and hopefully, it will lead to some other kinds of negotiations between the two sides. I think it’s very hopeful, but I don’t think the United States has much to do with it. If you read the official line on this in the New York Times and the mainstream press, and you read these quotes they bring up from Republican and Democratic foreign policy people, there’s a lot of disinterest in this. There’s a thinking that South Korea is sort of operating on its own, as if it’s not a real independent country. That’s a real danger here.

AARON MATÉ: Well, Tim, one of those quotes, I’m going to read to you is from Daniel Russel, speaking to the New York Times. He was a former assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration. He says, “It is fine for the South Koreans to take the lead, but if they don’t have the U.S. behind them, they won’t get far with North Korea. If the South Koreans are viewed as running off the leash, it will exacerbate tensions within the alliance.”

That’s not Trump’s Twitter account, that is a former Obama administration official, talking about South Koreans as “running off the leash.” What is he referring to there?

TIM SHORROCK: Well, he and most other national security people in Washington, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, basically see South Korea as an appendage of the United States. And South Korea is on a tight leash, the U.S. basically, controls South Korea. It’s a very illuminating comment I think. Extremely arrogant. It just underscores the arrogance of America towards both Koreas since 1945.

Daniel Russel, of course, he’s also the same guy who, during the Obama administration, said if Kim Jong-un obtains super weapons, he will die instantly. Obama and his people made similar threats against North Korea. They just didn’t do it quite as loudly, like on Twitter, that Trump has done.

That’s what I’m talking about. That’s sort of underscoring this … The U.S. thinks that, well, South Korea can only do what we tell them to do. Moon Jae-in has been very, very frustrated since he was elected president, last May, because he ran on a platform of trying to defuse the situation by having negotiations and having direct talks with North Korea.

He began his presidency by proposing military talks and also talks so divided families could meet. North Korea rebuffed him because North Korea feels that South Korea is too close to the United States, and is basically a pawn of the United States.

In that sense, I think, Kim Jong-un, reaching out to the Moon Jae-in government and saying, “Let’s have some discussion,” shows that maybe the two Koreas are going to, you know, can move in their own direction and try to defuse this situation.

By the way, the last talks between them were in 2005, so it’s actually a little bit longer than you said at the top of the show. The last talks were with the Park Geun-hye government, who was overthrown and was impeached. Those talks hardly went anywhere because the South Korean government at that time, had such a hard line against North Korea.

I think this, there’s real opportunity here, but there’s also danger that people like Daniel Russel and his equivalent, and the Trump administration, can really throw a cold water on this and turn it, and try to torpedo any kind of discussions that go on.

Speaking of North Korea and the larger context of U.S. imperialism, I had lunch with a friend a few weeks ago who, aware of my study and writing on foreign affairs, asked me why the U.S. government would want to be so aggressive on North Korea.  Unlike the Middle East, there were no resources to control and no ideological divide with another rival superpower like during the Cold War – i.e. nothing about dominoes.

I don’t think I gave a particularly articulate response at the time.  But when I thought about it more later, I realized that I would have had to explain the overall dynamics of power, what it does to those who get a taste of it, and find that they can wield it for decades with nothing and no one to provide a check on them.

Despite the dangerous myths that get propagated in U.S. culture about winning it, the Cold War ended because the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, chose – in the face of major problems at home, a quagmire in Afghanistan, and a huge military burden – to peacefully dismantle the Soviet empire and call the troops home from Afghanistan and Eastern Europe.  As far as I’m aware, this is unprecedented in human history.  No empire in decline or crisis has ever chosen to gracefully relinquish it in order to focus their resources on domestic reform.  We can certainly debate how successful Gorbachev was in the long-run with domestic reform, but the fact that he handed the leaders of the other superpower, the U.S., with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to follow his lead and negotiate a peaceful international order – not to mention, an economic peace dividend that could have led to a more vibrant and equitable U.S. society – has significant implications.

The first is how the leadership of a supposedly sclerotic and authoritarian system like the Soviet Union could have allowed a humane reformer like Gorbachev to take power.  Yet, in the supposedly more open, democratic and free U.S. the most moderate proponent of reform, Bernie Sanders – who would never advocate for the U.S. to close all of its ~700 military bases around the world, completely withdraw from all of its current wars and focus on domestic reform, engineering a soft landing for its imperial decline – is blocked from even running for president.  This, despite the fact that the U.S. is also in crisis as approximately half of Americans are effectively poor while our military budget dwarfs the next half dozen or so nations combined and has continually increased under both Democratic and Republican administrations since the end of the Cold War – even though we’ve had no plausible threat to the homeland and no one seriously challenging our domination until very recently.

There is a quote by Chalmers Johnson in his book, The Sorrows of Empire, about the proliferation of America’s hundreds of military bases around the world since the end of WWII and how it didn’t stop with the end of the Cold War:

There is something else at work, which I believe is the post-Cold War discovery of our immense power, rationalized by the self-glorifying conclusion that because we have it, we deserve to have it. The only truly common elements in the totality of America’s foreign bases are imperialism and militarism – an impulse on the part of our elites to dominate other peoples largely because we have the power to do so, followed by the strategic reasoning that, in order to defend these newly acquired outposts and control the regions they are in, we must expand the areas under our control with still more bases.

To maintain its empire, the Pentagon must constantly invent new reasons for keeping in our hands as many bases as possible long after the wars and crises that led to their creation have evaporated. As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee observed as long ago as 1970: “Once an American overseas base is established it takes on a life of its own. Original missions may become outdated but new missions are developed, not only with the intention of keeping the facility going, but often to actually enlarge it.” (p. 152)

And this leads to an even greater implication – about the nature of unfettered power itself.  Those who are attracted to power in the first place tend to either have poor character or psychological pathologies.  When such a person then gets a taste of more and more power, it becomes like a drug – they want more and more.  It is never enough.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, those controlling policy in the U.S. no longer had another country or alliance of countries to serve as a check on them.  They could simply dictate to the rest of the world how things would be.  Any nation that did not want to agree to the U.S.’s dictates – even if it was justifiably perceived to be against its interests to go along with U.S. dictates – would be bombed or invaded (e.g. Hussein and Qaddafi, both of whom wanted to trade oil in currency other than dollars, among other dangerously independent policies, and had given up their WMD programs at the behest of the West) and the country destroyed.  Or, in the event that the nation in question has a nuclear arsenal or a military large enough to inflict significant casualties or damage on the U.S./NATO, then bogus sanctions are employed in an attempt to bleed the nation (e.g. Iran, North Korea and Russia).

The U.S., since the end of the Cold War, doesn’t know how to conduct diplomacy.  Firstly, when was the last time we had a Secretary of State (remember the Department of State is supposed to be the Department of Diplomacy) who talked like a diplomat?  Colin Powell’s craven performance at the UN peddling propaganda to enable Washington’s illegal invasion of Iraq?  Hillary Clinton leading the charge to bomb Libya and cackling gleefully at the torture and murder of Qaddafi on camera?  John Kerry at the podium in September of 2013 chomping at the bit to bomb Syria on what turned out to be dubious claims?

Secondly, there is the intolerance of the mainstream (corporate) media and among government officials (from whom they often take their lead) for attempts to understand a competitor nation’s perspective.  A good recent example is, of course, Russia.  In order to successfully conduct diplomacy, it is imperative that one have an understanding of one’s opponent or competitor’s worldview.  This doesn’t mean one has to agree with it, but understanding it allows officials to determine how that nation perceives its own interests and what it might be willing to sacrifice in order to protect those perceived interests.   None of that can be ascertained without having an understanding of the other nation’s history, culture and geography  – which all shapes its worldview.

In order to successfully conduct diplomacy then government officials must have genuine quality experts advising them on other nations.  As Gilbert Doctorow pointed out in a recent article, the post-Cold War crop of Russia experts is abysmal as reflected by mediocrities and ideologues like Celeste Wallander and Michael McFaul.  This has led to profound miscalculations about Russia’s motives and capabilities with respect to Syria  as well as Ukraine, and its resilience in the face of sanctions.

But then why conduct diplomacy or teach the skills needed to do so when you can instead bully what you want out of everyone because…well, because you can?  And, after a while, you have developed a sense of entitlement to do so.  It’s barely thought about any more than breathing.  It is simply the way things are done.  And when a whole military-industrial-complex exists to profit from it, there is even less incentive to ever end it.

So it should come as no surprise that the U.S. is acting aggressively and with profound ignorance about North Korea.  Trump and those he has surrounded himself with don’t bother with smooth pretenses like human rights or democracy promotion to justify the essential violence and hubris of imperial aggression they preside over.

As Jimmy Dore keeps saying, Trump is a symptom not the problem itself.  He has simply pulled the mask off for all the world to see the unvarnished truth of the systemic ugliness of Washington policy.

 

National Security Archive Releases Declassified Docs Proving Once & For All that Gorbachev Was Lied to About NATO Expansion; Russia Offers to Mediate Israel-Palestine Conflict After U.S. Declares Jerusalem Capital of Israel; U.S. Government to Send Arms to Ukraine While European Leaders Call for Dialogue; Iran Reportedly Close to Joining Russian-Led Eurasian Economic Union

Front Left of Monument to Siege of Leningrad, St. Petersburg; photo by Natylie Baldwin, May 2017

 

Declassified documents have now been published by the National Security Archive (a program of George Washington University) that evidence once and for all that Gorbachev was, in fact, lied to by Washington about NATO expansion during negotiations to allow reunification of Germany.

Here is an excerpt of the write-up that accompanied the publication:

The documents show that multiple national leaders were considering and rejecting Central and Eastern European membership in NATO as of early 1990 and through 1991, that discussions of NATO in the context of German unification negotiations in 1990 were not at all narrowly limited to the status of East German territory, and that subsequent Soviet and Russian complaints about being misled about NATO expansion were founded in written contemporaneous memcons and telcons at the highest levels.

The documents reinforce former CIA Director Robert Gates’s criticism of “pressing ahead with expansion of NATO eastward [in the 1990s], when Gorbachev and others were led to believe that wouldn’t happen.”[1] The key phrase, buttressed by the documents, is “led to believe.”

….The first concrete assurances by Western leaders on NATO began on January 31, 1990, when West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher opened the bidding with a major public speech at Tutzing, in Bavaria, on German unification. The U.S. Embassy in Bonn (see Document 1) informed Washington that Genscher made clear “that the changes in Eastern Europe and the German unification process must not lead to an ‘impairment of Soviet security interests.’ Therefore, NATO should rule out an ‘expansion of its territory towards the east, i.e. moving it closer to the Soviet borders.’” The Bonn cable also noted Genscher’s proposal to leave the East German territory out of NATO military structures even in a unified Germany in NATO.[3]

….Not once, but three times, Baker tried out the “not one inch eastward” formula with Gorbachev in the February 9, 1990, meeting. He agreed with Gorbachev’s statement in response to the assurances that “NATO expansion is unacceptable.” Baker assured Gorbachev that “neither the President nor I intend to extract any unilateral advantages from the processes that are taking place,” and that the Americans understood that “not only for the Soviet Union but for other European countries as well it is important to have guarantees that if the United States keeps its presence in Germany within the framework of NATO, not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction.” (See Document 6)

I don’t think it gets much clearer than that.  Read the complete analysis and see the documents here.

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After the Trump administration received near-unanimous opprobrium from the UN General Assembly for officially declaring Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, it seems to be no longer feasible to pretend that Washington is anything close to a credible mediator in the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Of course, in reality, they have not been for decades as one cannot be a neutral arbiter when arming one side to the tune of $3-4 billion a year, enabling that side to implement its brutal and illegal occupation of the other.

Into the void, Russia has stepped, with its deputy UN envoy declaring that Russia stands ready and willing to serve as a mediator of the seemingly intractable conflict, after a UN Security Council Resolution condemning Washington’s move and demanding its withdrawal was vetoed by the U.S.:

Moscow is ready to become a new mediator in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Russian deputy UN envoy Vladimir Safronkov said. He also added that Russia is ready to host direct talks between the two sides.

Russia is ready to become “an honest mediator” in the Middle Eastern peace process, Nebenzia said at the UN Security Council meeting, after a resolution on Jerusalem demanding the US decision recognizing it as the Israeli capital be withdrawn was vetoed by Washington.

In my opinion, Russia, China, the UN or some combination thereof would be more credible mediators.

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The Trump administration, on a roll with its dumb foreign policy moves, has agreed to send arms to the Ukrainian government, which will serve no purpose but to potentially inflame the situation in the Donbass.  Daniel Larison of The American Conservative summed it up best:

As I said last month, Trump would be a fool to arm Ukraine, so it comes as no surprise that this is what he has decided. While the U.S. isn’t giving Ukraine everything it was asking for, it is still recklessly throwing weapons at the problem. Russia will view this as a provocative act on our part, and it will respond with its own aggressive measures before long. When these weapons fail to have the desired effect, the drumbeat for sending more and more advanced weapons will start. Trump has already shown how easily he can be led by his advisers to endorse needlessly destructive measures. The U.S. will find itself caught in a fruitless and unnecessary competition with another major power that has far more at stake in the conflict. Because it has more at stake, Russia will always outmatch whatever support the U.S. provides, and so by adding more weapons to the mix the U.S. is simply fueling a conflict that it should be trying to resolve peacefully.

Meanwhile, there has been an increase in the fighting in the Donbass, which of course, motivated German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron to reiterate that the Minsk 2 Agreement was the only solution to the problem (as opposed to armed conflict) but publicly put the pressure on Russia to stop it.  This is despite the fact that the Minsk 2 Agreement requires Kiev to take the next steps in resolving the crisis, which it has steadfastly refused to do for a long time.

As a goodwill gesture, both sides agreed to a prisoner release which took place on December 27th.  The OSCE Chairperson-in-office Karen Kneissl made the following statement:

“Allowing such a significant number of people, who have been held on both sides, to return home before the New Year and Orthodox Christmas is a very welcome development. Today’s exchange is not only a humanitarian act but also a helpful step in confidence-building. We encourage the sides to continue their efforts to improve the life of people directly affected by the conflict”, said Chairperson-in-Office Kneissl.

….Kneissl and Greminger stressed that today’s exchange of prisoners, together with the lower number of ceasefire violations during the last several days, represent a step forward.

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Wrapping up this post, I wanted to share what international journalist Pepe Escobar reported recently at the Asia Times about Iran joining the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as soon as February, with other countries possibly poised to follow suit:

….In a parallel development, Iran is bound to join the EAEU as early as February, according to Behrouz Hassanolfat, director of the Europe and Americas Department of Iran’s Trade Promotion Organization, as quoted by the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

….As much as Beijing in relation to its BRI [One Belt, One Road Initiative], Moscow has been on a charm offensive to enlarge the EAEU. Turkey – already on board the BRI – is a possible EAEU candidate for the near future, as well as India and Pakistan.

Springtime in Russia (May 2017)

This is an unpublished travel essay about my trip to Russia this past May.  – Natylie

Me in Moscow,

 

The first thing one sees to their right as they begin the descent down into Moscow’s largest airport is the sun glistening off the Moscow River surrounded by lots of greenery.  It gave me the pick-up I needed after an exhausting 24 hours of minimal sleep, being crammed on several airplanes and literally running from one end of an airport to another because my first flight was almost 2 hours late and nearly made me miss my connection.

 

We were blessed with sunny weather in the Russian capital, which was a welcome change from the rain and dreariness at both New York and Paris.

 

After departing the airport, I had to snicker in the back seat of our cab as my travel companion, who had never been to Russia before, became frazzled over the high speeds and improvised lanes that one sees on some of the major roads in Moscow.  Our taxi driver, a young military veteran who works in the veterinary profession and drives for extra money on the weekends, kept getting an earful from my friend but took it in stride.

 

Having settled in later that evening, I heard music at various times out in the distance from our apartment, alternating between classical piano and a lady’s voice singing.  I couldn’t pinpoint exactly where it was emanating from, but it was pleasant nonetheless.

 

On Sunday morning, just before 10:00 am, as I was sitting in the kitchen drinking my tea, enjoying the breeze through the open window on another sunny day, I heard the lovely sound of church bells ringing followed by a beautiful piano sonata.

View from apartment on New Arbat Street, Moscow, Russia; photo by Natylie Baldwin

 

About a half hour later, I ventured out to the street where many spectators were standing along the sidewalk waiting for the procession to pass by in rehearsal for Tuesday’s Victory Day Parade.  Lots of families were out with little ones in tow and babies were being pushed in strollers as I made my way to a small grocery a couple of blocks down to buy a few necessities.

 

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By Tuesday, the weather was not holding up so well.  Part of the parade route included New Arbat which is the street our apartment was located on, so I headed outside about a half hour or so before the start time and braved the cold.  I was able to find a good vantage point to watch and take pictures, having decided that I wouldn’t walk all the way over to Red Square, reasoning that it would be too crowded and I likely wouldn’t be able to get in for a good view.  I later learned my intuition was correct and that only people who have permission can actually get into the square on Victory Day – probably officials, foreign dignitaries and special guests.

Victory Day, Moscow; photo by Natylie Baldwin, May 2017

 

More people came out to line the damp streets as the time drew near.  Lots of families, people with their phones out ready to snap pictures, and a smattering of individuals waving Russian flags thronged the edge of the modest barricades and tape that separated the spectators from the road.  In terms of security, the atmosphere was fairly low-key.  Police officers were stationed every 25-30 feet. At one point I spotted an officer on the roof of one of the buildings across the street surveying the scene.  When I looked up again a while later he was gone.

 

Many officers wore wind breakers and some had on rain coats.  City officers generally don’t carry guns. There was no riot gear.

 

As people waited, earnest Russian music spilled out of loudspeakers.  Then the music stopped and a brief announcement was made.  A short motorcade of military officers in their crisp uniforms drove by about 5 minutes before the rest of the procession of tanks and other military vehicles began their ride down the street.  Some soldiers in the procession waved to the cheering crowds as they rode by, sometimes honking their horns.

 

The holiday celebrations concluded with a fireworks display at 10:00 pm, which I watched from our kitchen window as the balcony was too crowded with other residents from our floor of the building.  Fireworks could actually be seen in different parts of the city, but the largest display lit up over Red Square and the Kremlin.

 

According to a recent survey by the independent Levada Center, 76 percent of Russians planned on celebrating Victory Day this year.  Interest and participation was relatively equal among Russians, regardless of age, education or income level, which is unsurprising given the effects of the Great Patriotic War – as WWII is known here – on the former Soviet Union.  The Soviets lost about 27 million people fighting off the Nazis – 17 million of them civilians – and one third of their country was destroyed in the process.  General Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs of what he saw when he went into the Soviet Union in 1945:

 

When we flew into Russia, in 1945, I did not see a house standing between the western borders of the country and the area around Moscow. Through this overrun region, Marshal Zhukov told me, so many numbers of women, children and old men had been killed that the Russian Government would never be able to estimate the total.

 

Although many Americans and Europeans have been bombarded with the America-centric rhetoric of the U.S. winning WWII in Europe, it was not controversial in the aftermath to acknowledge that the Soviet Union had, in fact, broken the Nazi Wehrmacht, likely saving many American lives by bearing the brunt of the fighting as one of FDR’s advisers had talked him into going into North Africa in late 1942, which significantly delayed the U.S. opening up a western front attack on Germany.

 

Russia solemnly commemorates Victory Day each year with elaborate parades in major cities, like Moscow and St. Petersburg.  The Russian president gives a speech before the Moscow parade and the parade is followed by the Immortal Regiment Rally in which Russians march through the streets carrying photos of family members who fought and/or died in the Great Patriotic War.

 

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I met my guide Natasha outside of the apartment at 10:00 am to begin our all-day tour of Moscow. We went around the corner to the bus stop across the street from the American Embassy.  The bus took us close to our first destination of the day.

 

The Gulag Museum is a large red rectangular building with numerous windows covered with closed wooden shutters.  This is the first unsettling clue of what awaits inside.

Entrance to Gulag Museum, Moscow, Russia; photo by Natylie Baldwin

 

The Museum, which was moved to this area from its former location closer to central Moscow a couple of years ago, is now open to individual visitors for self-guided tours, whereas before only group tours were accommodated.  Natasha explained to me that this new iteration of the Museum was more elaborate, having been designed by professionals for a more realist atmosphere and the addition of more artifacts from the actual prison camps.

 

In the first dimly-lit room was a large four-sided frame with about 8 to 10 actual doors from Gulag cells affixed to three of the four sides.  Each door included a card, in both Russian and English, stating which camp the door was from. The worn and pock-marked doors were made of wood, metal, or a combination of both. Most had a small square window that opened out in the middle, presumably for the passing of food.  All had sliding bars and heavy locks.  The fourth side of the frame was open and I could see the interior of the doors – the side the prisoners saw for hours, months or years – that is, when they weren’t toiling in the extreme cold.

 

Various artifacts from the Gulag prisons could be seen hanging on the walls of this same room, such as a prisoner’s shirt, a small lantern from a cell, metal beds and benches, and a pair of handcuffs.

 

On one wall was a schematic illustration of one of the gulag prison camps before it was constructed.

 

In the next room were several glass cases.  One displayed fragments of letters written by the prisoners on cloth, typically parts of clothing, as they were provided no paper. Another displayed pieces of wood with messages written on them by the prisoners, demonstrating their need to communicate with anyone who might see it.  One case had items that had been made by some female prisoners, such as a utility box and shoes, constructed from whatever materials they could get their hands on.

 

In another room was a long table with photos and biographies of prisoners who survived the camps and wrote about the experience.  A copy of some of the books written appeared in front of the author’s picture.  Of course, the most recognizable was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

 

The second to last room I was in had 3 video screen displays on one wall.  The middle screen had a continually scrolling list in white against a black background of the names of those who’d been executed directly during the Great Purge of 1936-38.  This would have been 700,000 to 750,000 people out of the 1.5 million that were arrested during that period.

 

The screen on the left had photos and a brief description of certain prisoners along with the dates of their arrest and execution.  These people were engineers, teachers, military officers and other average people – all of whom had been declared “enemies of the people.” I stopped to study the faces of a few of these individuals – one man in particular stood out to me because of his sad eyes.  I wondered if the photos were taken at the time of arrest (did he know his fate?) or if they were just everyday photos that may have been available.

 

The screen on the right had portions of actual lists of those to be arrested and executed projected on to it.

 

The last room I was in had a large television with video interviews playing of several elderly people who’d survived the prisons, discussing their ordeals, particularly their feelings about what life was like after they were released, including the process of becoming “rehabilitated.” Many mentioned being faced with possible ostracism for having once been imprisoned and the subsequent decision of whether to hide their past or not.  One woman recalled her apprehensiveness at telling her future husband, fearing rejection.  However, his respect for her only increased after learning of what she’d endured.  Another woman said that the legacy of her imprisonment was that she lived a life of fearlessness, “What could I possibly be afraid of after what I’d been through?”

 

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin and gradually released all of the prisoners, shutting down the Gulags and implementing a program of re-integration.  Khrushchev later admitted that he’d had much blood on his hands from the Stalin era, but that he and many others knew that if they resisted they likely would have also been executed.

 

One of the explanatory panels in the exhibit had stated that Stalin’s goal was to “destroy the possibility of political opposition, to nip non-conformity in the bud.”

 

Natasha and I sat on the bench in front of the television talking about the video when a young man from Kazakhstan briefly joined in our discussion.  Upon realizing that I was American he politely asked me some things about the United States, including Guantanamo prison.  I answered his questions as best I could. He also mentioned that there were people in Kazakhstan – a part of the Soviet Union at the time – who lived in the old buildings there that had constituted some of the Gulag prisons.  When Natasha and I expressed surprise at this, he simply replied that the buildings were sturdy so people put them to use.

 

Exhausted, we finally left the museum and went over to the old Arbat street, a charming area that had been closed to auto traffic in the 1990’s and turned into a pedestrian thoroughfare with shops, gardens, restaurants and sculptures.  We passed by the Pushkin monument comprised of statues of the poet and his wife.

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

We stopped for lunch at a Russian buffet style restaurant and I asked Natasha her opinions about the Revolution, what alternatives (if any) might have prevented the Bolshevik coup in October of 1917 and the subsequent repressions, culminating in Stalin’s “concentration camps” and mass murder.  We discussed Nicholas II’s tragic incompetence and whether the February Revolution, led by social democrats, would have had potential if it had been allowed to run its course.

 

We also talked about the Monument to Victims of Repression, aka The Wall of Grief, which will commemorate Stalin’s victims.  I had originally requested to see this monument as part of the tour but was told that it would not open until October 13th, which is the officially designated day of remembrance for victims of repression in Russia.

 

Reportedly, Putin played a key role in getting this monument approved. Despite Western depictions of Putin as a dictator, he must arbitrate among different powerful factions when making his decisions.  I imagine there were some factions that weren’t too keen on this monument.

 

Most Russians, in fact, do not view Putin as a dictator since they know what real dictators look and act like.  A Levada Center poll from last year reveals that 66 percent of Russians consider themselves to be free and do not believe Russia will return to dictatorship.  Generally, the Russian president is seen as a strong and effective leader.  I remember speaking to a group of professionals in Krasnodar during my first visit who insisted that a strong leader was needed to get things done.  But they also insisted that the leader needed to be accountable to the people and their needs.  As reflected in Putin’s consistent approval rating above 80% – even according to independent polls – over the past few years, apparently most Russians believe he meets this criteria.  This is not to say that Russians are totally uncritical of Putin either or that they are afraid to express any criticism of him – that was not my experience during either of my visits.

 

Moreover, Russians are an educated people with just over half of the population holding a college degree – compared to about a third of Americans – and everyone I spoke to on both trips acknowledged that they have access to western media through satellite and the internet – though they were bemused by the west’s cartoonish portrayal of their country and their leader.  Simply writing Russians’ generally positive views of Putin and the progress Russia has made since the 1990’s off to government propaganda would be a mistake.

 

With regard to Stalin, Natasha mentioned that there is a segment of Russians who don’t want to talk about the repressions or want to downplay them.  In her view, this is explained by the fact that many average Russians participated in or enabled the repressions, including reporting other Russians, not because they suspected them of a real crime, but due to personal vendettas, jealousy, or the hope of acquiring someone’s property.  “Many Russians have someone in their family or circle who were victims and many have someone in their family or circle who were the enablers.  It’s the latter group that doesn’t want to condemn Stalin’s repressions.”

 

According to interviews I conducted in person and questionnaires answered by Russians I networked with during my visit, most credit Stalin with the industrial buildup and leadership necessary to save the Soviet Union from the Nazis, while acknowledging the brutality and excesses.

 

400 artists competed for the opportunity to design the Wall of Grief.  The winner, Georgy Frangulyan, has designed a bronze wall that will have the names and figures of the victims.  The Wall of Grief monument will cost around 400 million rubles and will be placed in the center of Moscow at the intersection of Sakharov Avenue (named after the famed Soviet dissident Andrey Sakharov) and the Garden Ring.

 

After lunch, we visited a park where the Elbe Monument was located.  Dedicated in April of last year, the Elbe Monument commemorates the meeting up of the US and Soviet armies on a broken bridge over the Elbe River near Torgau in Germany on April 25, 1945.

Elbe Monument, Moscow, Russia; photo by Natylie Baldwin

 

The monument was much smaller than I expected and was one of several sculptures by the same artist at this location.  Right next to the Elbe Monument is a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln shaking hands with his contemporary Alexander II.  Alexander II, the reformist Czar, freed the serfs in Russia in 1861 and Lincoln freed the slaves by 1865. Alexander II had also sent naval support to the Union during the Civil War.   Both were later assassinated.

 

Courtyard of Museum of Contemporary Russian History, Moscow, Russia; photo by Natylie Baldwin

 

We then took the Metro to another part of Moscow to go to the Museum of Contemporary Russian History which had a special exhibit on the Russian Revolution  A bright young man guided us through the exhibit while Natasha translated.  We concluded with an interesting conversation among the three of us about what might have averted the Revolution, Lenin’s motivations, what fueled his fanaticism, and whether he knowingly received assistance from the Germans for his journey from western Europe back to Russia in April of 1917 after which the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government.  Subsequently, the Bolsheviks signed a peace treaty with Germany under terms that were widely seen as humiliating to Russia.

 

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The next day we took a 4-hour train ride to St. Petersburg.  The train was clean, modern and fast.  After settling in, I looked out the window to watch the scenery, which included a lot of open land, with birch forests and salt marshes.  There was a stretch where dachas dotted the landscape, some so diminutive and colorful they reminded me of dollhouses.

 

We originally planned to visit the Hermitage on our first full day in St. Petersburg but since the weather was nice we decided to go sightseeing instead.

 

My friend and liaison, Misha, a native of the city known as The Venice of the North, drove us around to some key landmarks.  One of these was a park that included the Immortal Flame, which commemorates the Great Patriotic War. The Immortal Flame was framed with an abundance of roses that had been recently laid down for Victory Day. An older man on a bike stopped for a moment to pay his respects, while a pair of young women quietly snapped photos with their phones.  I walked around with my camera and saw families on picnics and couples strolling by.

The eternal flame at memorial park in St. Petersburg, Russia; photo by Natylie Baldwin

 

After a short walk near the Aurora ship on the dock of the Neva river where an old man sat playing the accordion and a handful of Russians dressed in imperial era costumes milled about, we stopped for lunch at a Georgian restaurant at the request of my travel companion.  The restaurant was named after a Georgian painter of the primitivist school and the interior was elaborate, with a mural on one wall exemplifying his style, a fountain and fancy furniture.

The big finale for our day’s sightseeing was a river boat ride throughout the Neva, which is surrounded by numerous architectural delights, such as the Winter Palace (aka the Hermitage), the Peter and Paul Fortress where the remains of the last imperial family (who have been canonized by the Orthodox Church) are interred, the Admiralty building, and numerous other historical sites.  It was cold and windy, especially on the first leg of the ride, but well worth it to see the grand city that Peter the Great decided would be built on a marsh, a city intended to rival the finest of Europe in terms of art and architecture.   My travel companion, a retired journalist who has been all throughout Europe, including France and Italy, remarked:  “I just can’t get over this city.  I think Peter outdid them all.”

Peter & Paul Fortress as viewed from Neva River, St. Petersburg, Russia; photo by Natylie Baldwin

Like his 20th century counterpart, Stalin, Peter meant to drag what was perceived to be a lagging nation kicking and screaming into modernity.  The human toll of making this magnificent city a reality is estimated to be in the thousands.

 

I was tired from the day’s outing but had my first formal interview on the Russian Revolution scheduled with an 86-year old retired engineer who’d worked in the shipping industry. This was part of my project to interview a cross-section of Russians to get their views on the 1917 Revolutions since it was the centennial anniversary.

 

I had formulated a series of questions to ask my interview subjects:  were the Revolutions overall positive or negative for Russia and why, what did they think of Nicolas II, Lenin, Stalin, etc.

 

This gentleman had given interesting answers about the Revolutions, his assessment of Nicolas was typical – he was weak, incompetent and completely ill-equipped to deal with the historical moment he’d been faced with, and he offered some thought-provoking points about Lenin, though he clearly was not a fan of the Bolshevik leader.

 

However, he lingered a long time on the issue of Stalin, elaborating more on this question than any of the others.  At one point, his hands gripped the corners of the table.  I was debating whether to ask if anyone in his family had been affected by the mass repressions.  On the one hand, it is a legitimate question in terms of my research, but another part of me cringes when a question goes beyond discussing something in the abstract and crosses over into personal territory that will dredge up something painful.

 

My dilemma soon resolved itself as he began the story on his own about how his father had been taken away in the night when he was 7 years old.  His parents had decided not to wake him to say goodbye.  When he got up the next morning and went to his parents’ room, his father was simply gone and the bookshelves had been sealed off with wax.  The rest of the family was exiled to a city far away from Leningrad.  They were originally told that his father had been imprisoned incommunicado, but they found out years later that he’d actually been executed on the charge of conspiring against “Comrade Stalin.”

 

I was mystified by the sealing off of the bookshelves and asked if there was any explanation for this.  He explained that his father was a talented mathematician and geologist, had written several books and had a leadership role in several scientific societies.  When an individual was arrested, any items of particular value were confiscated.  Since his father was an intellectual and a writer, his books were taken and the bookshelves rendered unusable.

 

Before I realized it, 2 1/2 hours had gone by since we arrived at his apartment.  I recall one moment, after we’d gotten through the worst parts of the interview, looking out the window at the first signs of dusk.  The clock beside the window indicated it was 9:30 pm.

 

As we concluded our discussion, I expressed my condolences for what had happened to his family and my appreciation of his taking the time to talk with me about such a painful subject.  He admitted that it was painful but that it needed to be talked about.  He wanted to ask me a few questions as well.  I realize that many Russians have very few, if any, interactions with Americans and when they do encounter one they are often curious and inquisitive.  So I’m no longer surprised when this occurs. He asked me about certain aspects of what happened on 9/11 and what priority Americans currently placed on countering Islamic terrorism.

 

On the way back to the apartment, Misha and I discussed the interview and the difficult history of Russia in the 20th century.  He told me that many Russians expressed shock when the archives were opened up and the ugly truth of the Stalin era started to come out into the open.  But he said that he’d known about it because his grandfather had told him of the repressions when he was 15.  Misha lamented how crazy it was for the leadership of a country to kill and imprison the most intelligent, educated and talented members of society – the very ones who had the skills to contribute to the nation’s development.  The next day, after he’d thought about it some more, he told me: “We have a very complicated history and it becomes hard to love a country when you know about such bad things.  But it is still our country and we have to learn to do that.”

 

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Our second day of sightseeing began with a pretty blue and white church called the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral, located only a couple of blocks away from where we were staying.  It was often used by sailors and naval officers who would come to pray and receive blessings before embarking on a journey.  The main church was open only at certain times and was mainly for the seafaring folks.  Another smaller church building off to the side was open at all times and received anyone.

St. Nicholas Cathedral, smaller chapel, St. Petersburg, Russia; photo by Natylie Baldwin

 

The church is still in use and a section is cordoned off for tourists and sightseers in which they can view the magnificent interior of gold and artwork.  Only churchgoers are allowed to go beyond this point.  I watched Russians light candles and pray.  One woman kissed an icon as is customary in the Russian Orthodox religion.

 

We then made our way over to the Church on Spilled Blood, which I’d been anxious to visit so I could see the interior.  On my last visit I’d seen the splendid outer part of the church but didn’t have time to go inside.  I’d heard that the mosaic artwork on the inside was amazing and was determined to see it this time.

 

Since this was a Sunday and the weather was unusually gorgeous, the church was packed, so I kept my visit shorter than I normally would have as trying to maneuver my way within crowds tends to wear me out. But I was not disappointed by the church’s interior.  The rich imagery on the walls and ceiling was beautiful, along with the set of marble steps that led to the altar and the canopy that covered the actual spot where Czar Alexander II had fallen when he was assassinated in 1881.  The church was built as a memorial to him.

Church on Spilt Blood, Built at site of reformist Czar Alexandaer II’s 1881 assassination. St. Petersburg, Russia; Photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, 2015

 

Before being mortally wounded by a bomber from the terrorist revolutionary group Narodnaya Volya, the reformist czar had decided on a decree that would have set Russia on the road from an autocracy to a constitutional monarchy.  But the assassin got to the czar before the decree was issued and his son, Alexander III, made no pretense as to reform, so the idea languished until the 1905 revolution when Czar Nicholas II would cede some power to a parliament – if only on paper.

Palace Square in St. Petersburg where thousands of starving peasants gathered to petition the Czar and plead for justice but were gunned down by the Czar’s forces, known as Bloody Sunday, triggering the first Russian Revolution of 1905

 

Putin Has Telephone Talks with Several World Leaders, Including Trump; Change of Leadership of LPR in Donbass; Turkey Plays Footsie with Russia as Further Alienation with West Sets In; US Has Spent $8 Trillion on IWOT While Tripling Number of Bombs Dropped in Afghanistan; Is NATO a Paper Tiger?

Popular billboard of Putin in Crimea that reads:  Crimea.Russia.Forever

Putin held telephone talks with numerous leaders in the Middle East last Tuesday, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

According to the Kremlin press service report of the talks between Putin and Israeli PM Netanyahu, topics discussed included the sharing of mutually beneficial security information and progress in the fight against terrorism in Syria.  Due to the wording, I’d say that there was no new agreement reached on the situation in Syria, in which Israel has given assistance to jihadist rebels in the past.  Israel does not see the maintenance of the Assad government as in its interest.  The current right-wing Israeli government wants to see any governments that support the Palestinian cause cast aside in order to pursue a program of forcing the Palestinians to accept whatever terms the Israelis want to offer for “peace” – which means Israel not allowing any viable Palestinian state or independence.

Next, Putin had a conversation with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Sisi.  The two leaders discussed the final phase of routing terrorists from Syria and a joint nuclear energy project.  From the Kremlin press service:

“Vladimir Putin informed the Egyptian leader in detail about the Russian assessments of the latest developments in the situation in Syria in the context of the final stages of the military operation to destroy terrorists in that country and discussed the results of the recent talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad,” press service of the Russian president said.

Moreover, Russian President and Egyptian Leader have discussed in phone talks on Tuesday major joint projects, including in the nuclear energy sector, press service said.

“The topical issues of the bilateral agenda were touched upon, with focus on the implementation of major joint projects, including in the nuclear energy sector. The sides reaffirmed mutual satisfaction with the overall development of friendly Russian-Egyptian relations,” the statement said.

Putin then got on the horn with the Saudi king.  Syria, again, was a major topic of conversation.

“The leaders continued the exchange of views on the situation in the Middle East region and discussed issues related to the prospects for a long-term settlement of the Syrian conflict in light of recent successes in the fight against terrorist groups there,” the press service said in a statement.

According to the statement, the Russian president noted that the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, to be held in Sochi, will give impetus to the intra-Syrian contacts and to the settlement of the Syrian conflict in general, as well as stimulate work under the UN aegis in Geneva.

The Kremlin press service also said in a statment that Putin has informed all of his counterparts about the Monday meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, as well as about the main issues on the agenda of the upcoming summit of the countries-guarantors of the Astana process  — Russia, Iran and Turkey — in Sochi on November 22.

On the following day, Putin had a 1-hour phone conversation with President Trump in which Syria and Ukraine apparently comprised the majority of the discussion.   ZeroHedge reported the following:

According to ABC, president Donald Trump spoke for more than an hour Tuesday by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Syria, Iran, North Korea and Ukraine were on the agenda, the White House said.

The Kremlin echoed the White House, and said that the two leaders discussed “a number of topics”, including the Syrian crisis, the North Korean nuclear problem and the situation in Afghanistan as well as the Ukrainian crisis. Putin briefed Trump in the phone call about his talks with the Syrian leader and plans for a political settlement in Syria.

Putin stressed that there were no alternatives for full implementation of the Minsk agreements on peaceful settlement of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.

“Considering the crisis situation in southeastern Ukraine, the Russian president pointed out the absence of a real alternative for the unconditional implementation of the Minsk accords signed on February 12, 2015,” the statement said.

Speaking of Ukraine, as winter approaches the UN and other aid organizations are highlighting the plight still experienced by many in the Donbass, due to the “frozen” conflict there.  Euronews provided the following details:

Various aid organizations and volunteers help the population affected by the protracted conflict. Food, medicine, clothes are often collected and delivered here by Ukrainians from every corner of the country.

There are still inaccessible areas. In the cold winter months the need for aid only increases.

A Christian mission from Dnipropetrovs’k oblast’ brings bread and spiritual literature to Krasnogorovka, located around 1 km from the frontline. Aid is aimed at the most vulnerable sections of the population. Euronews previously reported the example of a social bakery project, based in Marinka, where the situation remains tense. Locals are regularly subjected to the sound of explosions and gunfire and forced to hide in underground cellars for safety.

Marina, a resident of the village of Kamyanka, in the Volnovakha district in Donetsk oblast’, said she was afraid to return home the day she spoke to Euronews as she could hear heavy explosions in the fields nearby. Earlier, when her village was shelled, she had lost her hearing, only partially recovering since. A house in neighbouring Hranitne was damaged at the end of September.

Freedom of movement in the region continues to be restricted. The waiting time at roadblocks installed by the Ukrainian army and the separatists stretches to many hours, causing enormous human suffering as the roadblocks lack even basic facilities. Searches, interrogations, long lists of banned products provoke frustration and anger among the local population. With the winter season approaching, the roadblocks’ working hours have been shortened by both sides furthermore.

“Thousands of people are without electricity, gas and water, as the ongoing conflict continues to take a heavy toll on critical civilian infrastructure crisscrossing the contact line”, says Ertugrul Apakan, the Chief Monitor from OSCE, whose Special Monitoring Mission has worked in Ukraine since 2014.

In the midst of this, Igor Plotnitsky, the leader of the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) for the past couple of years, has apparently been forced to resign and temporarily fled to Russia as former minister of state security Leonid Pasechnik has now taken over the leadership of the republic.  Russia expert Paul Robinson reported the following on his blog:

Plotnitsky, meanwhile, has been appointed the LPR’s representative in negotiations over implementation of the Minsk Agreements, which he signed, and which are meant to provide a blueprint for an eventual peace settlement in Ukraine. What does this all mean?

The Russian online newspaper Vzgliad has a few ideas. According to an article by Pyotr Akopov, stories of treason in high places are false, and the LPR is secure. Akopov adds that, ‘merger with the DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic] is currently impossible’ and could happen only in the event of a renewal of large-scale military operations. Plotnitsky’s involvement with the Minsk negotiations doesn’t mean very much, as the negotiations are not going anywhere. And finally, recent events won’t change the relationship between the Russian Federation and the LPR. In short, after a brief flurry of excitement, everything will return to the way it was a week ago. It was all much ado about nothing.

Akopov comments also that the events in the LPR show that ‘Russia supports and helps the republics [LPR and DPR] in all sorts of ways, but in no way leads them.’ To make his point, Akopov quotes a response Vladimir Putin gave to a questioner who suggested that Moscow is in total charge of the rebel Ukrainian republics: ‘You’ve got it wrong … these guys are really stubborn … they’re difficult.’ The Vzgliad article concludes that ‘If Moscow was in charge of Lugansk, it wouldn’t have let the conflict among the republic’s leaders develop into open confrontation.’ Having said as much myself in a recent post, I concur.

Robinson provides more context and discussion on the complicated client-patron relationship between Russia and the Donbass here.

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Upon discovery that he was named on an “enemy chart” during a recent NATO drill in mid-November, Turkish president Erdogan pulled Turkish troops out of the exercise in Norway.  According to ZeroHedge:

The president said he was informed about the issue by Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar and EU Affairs Minister Omer Celik.

 “They told me that they are withdrawing our 40 soldiers from there [Norway],” Erdogan said.

“I told them to do that immediately. There can be no alliance like that.”

While the NATO powers increasingly tick off the Turkish leadership, Russia has been deftly filling the void with a pending sale of the S400 anti-missile shield, cooperation on Turkstream, etc.  According to Al-Monitor‘s sources, Russia’s wooing is paying off:

Nihat Ali Ozcan, a consultant with the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, believes Russia is indeed laying the groundwork to recast the Turkish public’s perception of the United States, the European Union and NATO. “No wonder we are overwhelmed with Russian-origin news, some factual and some manufactured according to the need of the day,” he told Al-Monitor.

“Putin’s team is competent — not a bunch of pompous imbeciles — and under the management of a former intelligence man and [with] a wisely designed strategy,” he added. Ozcan, an academic and retired major with the Turkish armed forces, underlines that the West’s contradictory policies and populist narratives against Turkey are also driving the Turkish public toward Russia.

My personal opinions match those of Ozcan and are backed by the results of a poll, “Turkey’s Foreign Policy: Research on Public Perceptions,” released by Kadir Has University in July. The poll showed “combating terror” was seen by 44.2% of respondents as the biggest problem for Turkish foreign policy. The Syrian war was second, with 24.6%.

Moscow, which is aware of these two sensitivities, skillfully paints the United States as the leading threat in terror and on Syria issues, while managing to keep a low profile in the media regarding its own relations with the Kurdistan Workers Party and its supposed Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party — both of which Turkey considers terrorist groups. In this annual poll, one striking finding was that the percentage of the Turkish public that perceives Russia as a threat dropped from 34.9% in 2016 to 18.5% in 2017.

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The air force is now on track to triple the number of bombs being dropped in Afghanistan – the nation that officially began Washington’s War on Terror after 9/11/01.  As the longest U.S. war on record – and Afghanistan being no closer to a Taliban-free, terrorist-free oasis of liberal democracy, heroin-free flourishing economy and women’s rights – it will likely just represent flushing more money down the toilet that already has sucked up ~$8 trillion.  Democracy Now! reports:

This comes as a new report from Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates that the U.S. wars since the 9/11 attacks in 2001 will cost up to $8 trillion in interest payments alone over the coming decades. Their report says the U.S. has already spent $4.3 trillion on the wars—and that the U.S. will be paying trillions of dollars in interest on the war debt for decades to come.

To get some perspective on just how much money we’re talking about here, go here to get an idea of what $1 trillion looks like.

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To conclude this week’s post, I wanted to share an excerpt from a thought-provoking article from Canadian Russia expert Patrick Armstrong entitled NATO:  A Dangerous Paper Tiger.  Considering the fact that NATO can’t even beat some goat herders in flip-flops in Afghanistan, the points made in this article sound plausible to me.

Some Russians are concerned that there are today more hostile troops at the Russian border than at any time since 1941. While this is true, it is not, at the moment, very significant. The Germans invaded the USSR with nearly 150 divisions in 1941. Which, as it turned out, were not enough.Today NATO has – or claims to have – a battle group in each of the three Baltic countries and one in Poland: pompously titled Enhanced Forward Presence. The USA has a brigade and talks of another. A certain amount of heavy weaponry has been moved to Europe. These constitute the bulk of the land forces at the border. They amount to, at the most optimistic assessment, assuming everything is there and ready to go, one division. Or, actually, one division equivalent (a very different thing) from 16 (!) countries with different languages, military practices and equipment sets and their soldiers ever rotating through. And, in a war, the three in the Baltics would be bypassed and become either a new Dunkirk or a new Cannae. All for the purpose, we are solemnly told, of sending “a clear message that an attack on one Ally would be met by troops from across the Alliance“. But who’s the “message” for? Moscow already has a copy of the NATO treaty and knows what Article V says.

In addition to the EFP are the national forces. But they are in a low state: “depleted armies” they’ve been called: under equipped and under manned; seldom exercised. The German parliamentary ombudsman charged with overseeing the Bundeswehr says “There are too many things missing“. In 2008 the French Army was described as “falling apart“. The British Army “can’t find enough soldiers“. The Italian army is ageing. Poland, one of the cheerleaders for the “Russian threat” meme, finds its army riven over accusations of politicisation. On paper, these five armies claim to have thirteen divisions and thirteen independent brigades. Call it, optimistically, a dozen divisions in all. The US Army (which has its own recruiting difficulties) adds another eleven or so to the list (although much of it is overseas entangled in the metastasising “war on terror”). Let’s pretend all the other NATO countries can bring another five divisions to the fight.

So, altogether, bringing everything home from the wars NATO is fighting around the world, under the most optimistic assumptions, assuming that everything is there and working (fewer than half of France’s tanks were operationalGerman painted broomsticksBritish recruiting shortfalls), crossing your fingers and hoping, NATO could possibly cobble together two and a half dozen divisions: or one-fifth of the number Germany thought it would need. But, in truth, that number is fantasy: undermanned, under equipped, seldom exercised, no logistics tail, no munitions production backup, no time for a long logistics build up. NATO’s armies aren’t capable of a major war against a first class enemy. And no better is the principal member: “only five of the US Army’s 15 armoured brigade combat teams are maintained at full readiness levels“. A paper tiger.

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 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 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.