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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full article here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full article here.

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

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

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

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

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

sretensky
Sretenskii Monastery, Moscow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full article here.

 

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

H01 north korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

China, North Korea

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Seriously, who writes this stuff?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Korea

Why does North Korea hate the US?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump’s statement was:

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

Nairn’s comment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Germany really stand up to Washington this time?

Vladimir Putin eating popcorn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full article here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

(Emphasis mine).  Read the full article here

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

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

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

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

Read the complete article here

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

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

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

Polls: What Americans Really Think of Russiagate and Charges of Trump Collusion; What Americans Care About vs. What Corporate Media Covers; How Does Syria Ceasefire Potentially Affect Iran and Why is Netanyahu Opposing it?; Pepe Escobar Discusses Syria’s Role in New Silk Road Project; Trump Jr.’s Emails – A Tempest in a Teapot or a Real Scandal?; Craig Unger’s Russian Mafia Claims

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

After months and months of being inundated with charges that Donald Trump and/or his campaign colluded with the Russian government to install him somehow as a Manchurian candidate in Washington – by hacking the election, facilitating the publication of true information that put candidate Hillary Clinton in a negative light, or clandestine meetings with various Russians (all of whom are assumed to have direct connections to the Kremlin/Putin because, after all, every Russian has connections to the Kremlin/Putin just like every American is personally connected to the White House/Obama/Clinton/Trump), there are some actual polls trying to ascertain what Americans really think of this media obsession and the charges proclaimed daily.

According to a June, 2017 Harvard-Harris poll, 62% of voters don’t think there is any hard evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia; 74% of Independents and 68% of Democrats believe the constant focus on this story is diverting attention away from other critical issues like the economy, healthcare and jobs; 64% of those polled said the constant flogging of this story by the media and politicians is hurting the country and 56% thought the media and Congress should move on.

Another Harvard-Harris poll from May found that 65% of Americans believe the mainstream media publishes a significant amount of  “fake news.” The partisan breakdown was:  80% of Republicans, 60% of Independents, and 53% of Democrats.   An annual Gallup poll conducted in the latter part of 2016 revealed that only 32% of Americans trust the media.

(Thanks to Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report for writing about both of these polls recently)

Speaking of the media, a Bloomberg graphic was recently brought to my attention revealing the top issues that Americans care about compared to the amount of corporate media coverage given to each.  The graphic is telling:

So why does the media insist on giving a disproportionate amount of coverage to an issue that has largely been unsubstantiated at the expense of issues that the American people care far more about. Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi gave his perspective in a recent interview with Aaron Mate of the Real News Network:

From the media standpoint, I think what people have to understand is that a lot of this is about money. The Russia story sells incredibly well and cable networks that traditionally have not made a lot of money are making a lot of money with this story. So I understand that the relentless emphasis on the Russia story makes a lot of sense from the networks’ point of view because it creates among viewers this impression that the fate of the nation may be decided any minute. This is like they’re selling it as a kind of Watergate sequel, so you have to tune in every night. Not just on election night, you have to keep tuning in. I almost understand it more coming from the media.

​It’s the political class that I understand less because their sort of relentless emphasis on this Russia story is a huge bet that I don’t know whether it’s going to pay off. I think they’re doing this at the expense of making a cogent argument on policy grounds against Trump, and they’re also forcing the resistance to be synonymous with this Russia story. So in order for the resistance to have meaning, the conspiracy has to be true. It would make a lot more sense if there was a resistance that was based upon opposition to Trump’s healthcare policies or his environmental views, all of which are totally repugnant.​

We’ve seen poll numbers consistently throughout the last six or seven months that Democratic voters just aren’t as excited about this policy-wise as the Party is. The Party is much more obsessed with this than their voters are. From a media standpoint of view, again, I understand it because people will tune in, but I don’t think that politically it’s necessarily a smart move to do what they’re doing because Democrats, if there’s one thing that has been clear about the election and what happened last year is that they have to reinvent themselves. They have to find a new way to talk to America. The Russia story is just delaying that process in my mind.

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More analysis is coming out about the ceasefire agreement that resulted from the Putin-Trump meeting in Hamburg earlier this month.  Many details were not initially being made public and some that were supposedly dripping out were confusing.  Foreign policy journalist Ben Norton was interviewed recently at the Real News Network and offered the following commentary:

The exact details of the agreement are secret, and this was made by President Trump and President Putin without really the input even of the Pentagon, so many of the details are being leaked slowly, but what is very clear from the get-go is that this is an agreement about weakening Iran and containing its influence inside Syria. It looks like Russia has gone along with this so far. We will see what Russia’s response will be in the future, and there have also been questions about the fact of whether or not this is actually enforceable, but the general analysis that we’ve seen so far based on some internal leaks is that this agreement creates four so-called “de-confliction zones” inside Syria.

There actually are significant concerns that have been echoed by establishment pundits that this is paving the way for the partition of Syria. Right now, there is already a kind of de facto partition, but it looks like this ceasefire, if it holds, may lead to an actual political partition of the country, so according to the details we have so far, Iran and Iranian-backed groups including Hezbollah, which had been playing a lead role in the fight in Syria, especially against ISIS, are forbidden from the southwest of the country, and this was an agreement that was made between the U.S., Russia, Jordan, and Israel.

Jordan is officially part of the ceasefire agreement. Israel is not technically part of it, but internal sources told Foreign Policy Magazine that Israel is playing a role in the negotiating process, and Jordan and Israel, which see Iran as their mortal enemy, do not want Iran and its allies to have any influence inside Syria, especially in the areas near their borders. The Golan Heights, which have been illegally occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, are not going to be … They’re already Israeli-occupied territory where Islamist rebels have been fighting, including Al-Qaeda, but this is going to be an area near the border of Israel that is completely off-limits, and Russia says that it’s going to agree so far. Whether or not this is going to be able to be enforced is unclear.

Russia has fairly good relations with Iran, which is seen as an important part of the future One Belt, One Road (or New Silk Roads) Eurasian economic project.  Furthermore, Iran agreed to increase some food imports to Russia with respect to the sanctions in 2014 and Russia is encouraging Iran’s entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).   So it strikes me as strange that Russia would agree to anything that would seriously undermine Iran in Syria, especially given their large role in helping the Syrian government regain control of rebel-held areas.  I also don’t believe that a partition of Syria would be perceived by Russia to be in the interests of Russia or Syria.  However, if this only pertains to limiting Iran in this one part of Syria in order to placate Israel for the time being, I could maybe understand it.

But no less than Israeli PM Netanyahu himself is complaining publicly about the ceasefire deal.   Robert Parry at Consortium News reports that the Israeli leadership, along with their Neocon minions in Washington, are trying to sabotage the ceasefire deal and are clinging to their receding hopes for regime change in Syria and beyond:

….After meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Sunday, Netanyahu declared that Israel was totally opposed to the Trump-Putin cease-fire deal in southern Syria because it perpetuates Iranian presence in Syria in support of the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Netanyahu’s position increases pressure on Trump to escalate U.S. military involvement in Syria and possibly move toward war against Iran and even Russia. The American neocons, who generally move in sync with Netanyahu’s wishes, already have as their list of current goals “regime changes” in Damascus, Tehran and Moscow – regardless of the dangers to the Middle East and indeed the world.

At the G-20 summit on July 7, Trump met for several hours with Putin coming away with an agreed-upon cease-fire for southwestern Syria, an accord that has proven more successful than previous efforts to reduce the violence that has torn the country apart since 2011.

But that limited peace could mean failure for the proxy war that Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other regional players helped launch six years ago with the goal of removing Assad from power and shattering the so-called “Shiite crescent” from Tehran through Damascus to Beirut. Instead, that “crescent” appears more firmly in place, with Assad’s military bolstered by Shiite militia forces from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

In other words, the “regime change” gambit against Assad’s government would have backfired, with Iranian and Hezbollah forces arrayed along Israel’s border with Syria. And instead of accepting that reversal and seeking some modus vivendi with Iran, Netanyahu and his Sunni-Arab allies (most notably the Saudi monarchy) have decided to go in the other direction (a wider war) and to bring President Trump along with them.

So, if Israel is going to remain dangerously recalcitrant in its position with respect to Syria, then what motive would Russia have for making concessions in regard to Iran’s position?  I understand that Russia wants to have friendly relations as much as possible with all countries in the Middle East, but Russia’s interests most often align more closely with Iran’s recently than with Israel’s.   Moreover, Iran has shown less inclination toward aggression (haven’t invaded another nation in hundreds of years) and less inclination toward back-stabbing than Israel.  And, finally, Syria has been an ally of Russia since the Soviet era.

Pepe Escobar, within his larger analysis of how China is providing humanitarian aid and is set to provide much of the rebuilding in post-war Syria in anticipation of the country being an important hub in the New Silk Road (which, again, would imply a unified Syria), had this to say about the recent ceasefire deal:

A possible scenario out of what Putin and Trump negotiated in Hamburg – that was not relayed by either Lavrov or Tillerson – is that the ceasefire in southwestern Syria, assuming it holds, could mean US peacekeeping forces in effect sanctioning the creation of a demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the Syrian Golan and the rest of the country.

Translation: the Golan de facto annexed by Israel. And the “carrot” for Moscow would be Washington accepting Crimea de facto re-incorporated into the Russian Federation.

That may sound less far-fetched than it seems. The next few months will tell if this is indeed a plausible scenario.

Interesting.  But I’m not holding my breath that that scenario would work.  The Golan Heights would be costly for Syria to give up, materially, symbolically and security-wise.  This would be a heavy concession made in the hopes that the Trump administration would be able to overcome the immense resistance in Washington to any acceptance of Crimea as Russian – that’s assuming that Trump could be trusted to be tenacious in trying to push it through in the first place.  This strains credulity for me.

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Earlier this month, it was reported – with the usual sensationalism reserved for anything remotely connected to Donald Trump, his campaign and Russia – that Donald Trump, Jr. held a meeting in June 2016 with a Russian attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya, at the suggestion of eccentric music promoter, Rob Goldstone, with the impression given that Ms. Veselnitskaya had information about Hillary Clinton that would be useful to the Trump campaign.  Apparently, this was a come-on to get the meeting with someone close to one of two candidates who would be the next president in order to lobby against the Magnitsky Act.   No information was offered about Hillary Clinton and the meeting did not last long.  NBC News provided the following details:

Donald Trump Jr., the eldest son of the president, acknowledged Sunday that he met with a woman who turned out to be a Kremlin-connected lawyer during the 2016 presidential election — after being told she allegedly had information that could help his father’s presidential campaign.

Moscow said Monday, however, that it was unaware of who the lawyer is.

The New York Times first reported on Saturday that Donald Trump Jr. met with the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, prompting him to respond with a short statement confirming that the meeting occurred.

He said he attended “a short introductory meeting” with Veselnitskaya, where the topic of conversation was primarily about adoption. He added that the topic was not a campaign issue at the time and that there was no followup conversation.

Subsequently, Trump Jr. released all the emails relevant to the meeting to the public, reportedly after Julian Assange advised him to do so as a preemptive move, but with the suggestion to have them published by Wikileaks.

One thing that struck me in the emails was the reference to Veselnitskaya as the “crown prosecutor.”  No such position currently exists in Russia and would not have existed in the last 100 years since Russia ceased to be a monarchy in 1917.  I have not seen any evidence that Veselnitskaya works for the Kremlin.  I have heard that she has represented people connected to the political class in Russia, but so what?  There are many attorneys who have represented people associated with the political class in Washington but that doesn’t mean they are official representatives of the White House or Congress.   But this is the level of ignorance and misinformation pushed about how things work in Russia in order to keep resuscitating the Russiagate story every time it appears to be on life support.

Veselnitskaya  has recently claimed that William Browder is behind the sensationalizing of the meeting with Trump Jr. in order to keep the Magnitsky Act – which is predicated upon Browder’s version of the whole Magnitsky affair and his role as a victim in it, a version that has recently come into serious question by journalists and researchers – on the books:

Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, who has become a poster child for the mainstream media’s claims of collusion between the Trump administration and the Kremlin, agreed to speak to RT on the streets of Moscow.

The attorney, who met with Donald Trump Jr. during his father’s campaign for the presidency, said she knows who was behind the “mass hysteria” related to the meeting. She accuses Magnitsky Act lobbyist William Browder of masterminding the disinformation campaign, aiming to harm her as revenge for a defeat he suffered in a U.S. court in 2013 at the hands of a team of lawyers that included Veselnitskaya.

“I have absolutely no doubt that this whole information [campaign] is being spun, encouraged and organized by that very man as revenge for the defeat he suffered in the court of the Southern State of New York in the ‘Prevezon’ company case,” she said.

In 2013, Veselnitskaya was one of the lawyers who represented Cyprus-based holding company Prevezon, owned by Russian businessman Denis Katsyv, in its defense against allegations of money laundering. The case was settled with no admission of guilt by Prevezon.

“He wasn’t able to convince the court with his lousy human tragedy that actually never happened, about the fate of a dead man – who he only learned about after his death,” Veselnitskaya said, referring to the 2009 death of Russian lawyer [sic] and auditor Sergey Magnitsky in a Moscow detention center.

In a recent interview with Democracy Now!, attorney and journalist Glenn Greenwald stated that nothing in the emails constitutes a smoking gun:

Now, what the Democrats are saying is that the Trump administration and their defenders in the media at Fox News and the like are, quote-unquote, “moving the goalposts” by saying, “Well, this only shows that Trump Jr. was willing to get information from the Russian government about Clinton, but it doesn’t show there was actual criminal collusion.” To me, it seems as though the people who are moving the goalposts are the Democrats. The claim all along, the reason why there’s talk of impeachment, the reason why there is a special prosecutor, the reason why people want to see Trump and his associates criminally prosecuted, is because of the claim that they committed crimes by colluding with the Russians with regard to the hacking. That’s what Harry Reid has always said. That’s what John Podesta has always said. That has always been the Democratic claim. This newest evidence doesn’t in any way suggest that. What it suggests instead is that Donald Trump Jr. was told that the Russian government had incriminating evidence about Hillary Clinton and wanted to give it to him. And he said, “Well, I’d love to get it. I’d love to have it.” Now, I guess there’s some sense that it’s wrong for a political campaign to take dirt on your adversary from a foreign government. I don’t think it’s illegal at all to do that, but there’s a claim that it’s somehow sort of immoral.

And here’s what I don’t understand. The Steele dossier that everybody got excited about, that claimed that the Russians had incriminating videos of Trump in a Moscow hotel and other dirt on Trump, that came from somebody who was getting first paid by Republicans and then by Democrats, going to Moscow and getting dirt about Donald Trump from Kremlin-affiliated agents in Moscow. In other words, he went to Russia, talked to people affiliated with the Russian government and said, “Give me dirt about Donald Trump,” and then, presumably, got it and put it in the memo. Similarly, there’s an amazing Politico article from January of this year that describes how allies of the Clinton campaign, including somebody being paid by the DNC, met with officials of the Ukrainian government, which was desperate to help Hillary Clinton win and Donald Trump lose, and get information incriminating about Trump from Ukrainian officials. In other words, Ukraine was meddling in our election by giving Democrats incriminating information about Trump.

….So, I want to hear the standard that we’re supposed to use to assess Trump Jr.’s actions. Is it that it’s wrong in all cases to get incriminating information about your opponent from a foreign government? In which case, why is it OK for the Democrats to do it with Ukrainian officials or for their investigator to go to Moscow and get dirt on Trump? Or is it some other standard that distinguishes what Trump Jr. did in this case versus what Democrats did with the Steele dossier and with Ukraine? And I just don’t see this distinction.

Read the full interview with Greenwald here.

The Politico article Greenwald referenced is here.

Readers will have to draw their own conclusions as to whether there is a real scandal here.

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A final item I’d like to address on this week’s post is a recent piece by investigative journalist Craig Unger called “Married to the Mob:  What Trump Owes the Russian Mafia.”  This came to my attention via an interview with Unger that Amy Goodman did on Democracy Now!.

Now, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if investigations into Trump turn up run-of-the-mill corruption about the president.  However, a few things raised red flags with Unger’s claims.  First of all, I noted in Unger’s background that he’s done many exposes and books digging up dirt on Republicans.  That’s fine, but he never seems to expose anything by the Democrats and that makes me wonder.  If he’s a non-partisan muckraker, are we supposed to think he suddenly takes long sabbaticals that coincide with when Democrats are in office? There’s never anything to report on what Democrats might be up to that would be less than honest?

Also, he talks about the Russian mafia as far back as the early 80’s when it was still the Soviet Union.  And I had to ask myself:  did Russia have what we would consider to be “the mafia” operating in the Soviet Union in the 1980’s?   And, of course, he recycles the discredited Karen Dawisha claims of Putin running a “mafia state.”  So, I asked my mentor on Russia, Sharon Tennison, who has been traveling all throughout Russia since 1983 when it was indeed still the Soviet Union, about these claims by Unger.   Here is what she had to say:

In the late 80S, Russians called anyone whom they distrusted “the mafia.”  It was a derogatory term loosely used. Then in 1990 as sharp young men in Moscow began grabbing Soviet enterprises and illegally privatizing them to themselves, they became  a mafia of sorts – again a loosely used term.  Simultaneously, a group of high risk young Russian guys began extracting money from Russians who had started microbusinesses. They demanded monthly payments for “protection” from these fledgling new businesses. If owners didn’t pay up, they torched their businesses. This was Russia’s real street mafia. This went on until the late 90s when many were getting killed by entrepreneurs so most of them decided to stop and go into business for themselves;  at the street level,  Russia’s  petty bureaucrats became known as “mafia” themselves because they extracted additional rubles beyond the normal fees for registering the entrepreneurs’ businesses or any official claim for which they could get extra money for themselves. This went on under the table up until 2005.

Back to 1996 – some of the most aggressive street mafia “went upstairs” to big businesses and continued their racket work. Many were killed.  Some of the murders of that time were later attributed to Putin. This was sheer fabrication.  Putin was busy doing registrations and joint ventures in St. Petersburg (he was deputy mayor)—and was known for being the only public official in the  Marienskii City Hall who didn’t  “Get rich on his seat” (Russian term for not making extra money off of one’s position.

There is no such thing today as a “Russian mafia state.”  Putin has put many lower level and higher level bureaucrats behind bars and is still bringing others to trial.  Slowly this is cleaning up Russia’s internal corruption, likely for the first time in centuries.

Chris Hedges Interviews Matthew Hoh About Status of Afghanistan War; Jimmy Dore Deconstructs CNN’s Whitewashing of Libyan War

Chris Hedges Afghanistan

Image courtesy of Dandelion Salad blog

 

On this week’s episode of On Contact, Chris Hedges takes an in-depth look at the 16-year-old conflict in Afghanistan with Matthew Hoh, a Marine Corps veteran and diplomat who resigned his State Department post in Afghanistan in protest over the war. RT Correspondent Anya Parampil looks at the decades of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

Watch this important interview here:

https://dandelionsalad.wordpress.com/2017/07/15/chris-hedges-and-matthew-hoh-afghanistan-war-keeps-going-because-the-money-keeps-flowing-in/

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A few days ago, Jimmy Dore did a show deconstructing how misleading a recent CNN segment on what’s going on in Libya was.   CNN started it’s timeline after the overthrow of Qaddafi and conveniently left out how the various militias fighting for control of the country emerged and who has been backing them.

As Dore shows, it’s not like this important contextual information isn’t out there.  Hillary Clinton’s emails, which were voluntarily released at the beginning of 2016, revealed that the desire to overthrow the Qaddafi government (which had always allowed women’s rights and had achieved the highest standard of living in all of Africa with a welfare state that would put Scandinavia to shame) was primarily driven by then-French president Nicholas Sarkozy who wanted to acquire control of Libyan oil, maintain influence in the former French colonies of Africa, and to stop Qaddafi’s plan to establish a gold-backed currency that would have provided African economic independence.   The emails also show that western special ops agents were in country at the beginning of the protests, creating provocations.   Genocide by NATO-backed “rebels” against black Libyans who were considered to be loyal to Qaddafi are also documented.

Watch Dore’s brilliant critique of the CNN report here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECko3KDC2w8

Trump & Putin’s Meeting at the G20 Summit Results in Ceasefire Agreement for Southwest Syria; China & Russia Issue Joint Statement re Tensions on Korean Peninsula; Iraq Government Declares Victory Over ISIS in Mosul; New Academic Study Says Hillary Lost Voters in Areas Most Affected by War Casualties

US President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany July 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria

US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the their bilateral meeting at the G20 in Hamburg, Germany July 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria

Trump and Putin finally met for the first time at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany this past Friday.  And, while it can’t be characterized as a major breakthrough, it did manage to exceed the paltry expectations that many had, myself included.   First, it was noted by Tillerson that the two leaders seemed to have a good rapport and the meeting went well past the allotted time of 30 minutes, clocking in at around 2 hours and 15 minutes.   Reportedly, the issues of alleged Russian hacking of the U.S. presidential election, Ukraine, cyber-security, terrorism and Syria were all addressed.  The last of which resulted in a ceasefire in the southwestern area of Syria.  But those who rely upon the corporate media or even the pseudo-alternative media (e.g. Huffington Post) would be hard-pressed to know this since most of the coverage mentioned the allegations of Russian hacking being discussed but either omitted the part about the Syria ceasefire or buried it at the bottom of the article.

Did the editors of these outlets think that the ceasefire was not newsworthy?

One of the few outlets that did headline the Syria ceasefire development was the Associated Press:

HAMBURG, Germany (AP) — The United States and Russia struck an agreement Friday on a cease-fire in southwest Syria, crowning President Donald Trump’s first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is the first U.S.-Russian effort under Trump’s presidency to stem Syria’s six-year civil war.

The cease-fire goes into effect Sunday at noon Damascus time, according to U.S. officials and the Jordanian government, which is also involved in the deal.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who accompanied Trump in his meeting with Putin, said the understanding is designed to reduce violence in an area of Syria near Jordan’s border that is critical to the U.S. ally’s security.

It’s a “very complicated part of the Syrian battlefield,” Tillerson told reporters after the U.S. and Russian leaders met for more than two hours on the sidelines of a global summit in Hamburg, Germany.

Of the agreement, he said, “I think this is our first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria.”

It should be remembered, however, that the Obama administration, working via then-Secretary of State John Kerry, also worked out a ceasefire deal in Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov last September, which was later torpedoed by the Pentagon’s “accidental” bombing of a heavily monitored airbase where Syrian army troops had been stationed for a long period of time.

Given how zealous members of the deep state have been to sabotage any move by Trump toward detente by keeping the empty accusations of Russiagate at high pitch, folks should be very cautious in their optimism for the long-term success of this recently agreed ceasefire.   Attempts to sabotage it will likely become obvious in the near future.

Ex-CIA analyst and expert on Russia/Soviet Union, Ray McGovern, reminds readers of this in his analysis of the Putin-Trump meeting and the Syria ceasefire at Consortium News:

With the ceasefire in tatters, Kerry publicly complained on Sept. 29, 2016: “Syria is as complicated as anything I’ve ever seen in public life, in the sense that there are probably about six wars or so going on at the same time – Kurd against Kurd, Kurd against Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sunni, Shia, everybody against ISIL, people against Assad, Nusra [Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate]. This is as mixed-up sectarian and civil war and strategic and proxies, so it’s very, very difficult to be able to align forces.”

Only in December 2016, in an interview with Matt Viser of the Boston Globe, did Kerry admit that his efforts to deal with the Russians had been thwarted by then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter – as well as all those forces he found so difficult to align.

“Unfortunately we had divisions within our own ranks that made the implementation [of the ceasefire agreement] extremely hard to accomplish,” Kerry said. “But it … could have worked. … The fact is we had an agreement with Russia … a joint cooperative effort.

“Now we had people in our government who were bitterly opposed to doing that,” he said. “I regret that. I think that was a mistake. I think you’d have a different situation there conceivably now if we’d been able to do that.”

….As the new U.S.-Russia agreed-upon ceasefire goes into effect on Sunday, Putin will be eager to see if this time Trump, unlike Obama, can make a ceasefire in Syria stick; or whether, like Obama, Trump will be unable to prevent it from being sabotaged by Washington’s deep-state actors.

According to Democracy Now!, so far the ceasefire appears to be holding since it went into effect on Sunday afternoon:

Monitoring groups say a ceasefire brokered by Trump and Putin for parts of southwest Syria does appear to be holding, as a new round of U.N.-sponsored peace talks open today in Geneva. The territory covered by the ceasefire includes rebel-held areas of Daraa, where opposition officials say weeks of intense bombing by the Syrian government stopped after the ceasefire took effect Sunday. However, fighting continues in other parts of the country, including in Raqqa, where the journalistic group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently says 23 civilians were killed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and shelling by U.S.-backed forces over the weekend.

As journalist and geopolitical analyst, Pepe Escobar, pointed out in his thoughts on the meeting, this was actually only one in a series of diplomatically critical meetings that Putin participated in.  Several days earlier Putin met with Chinese leader Xi on which they agreed upon several important geopolitical points:

And then, there’s the big story of the G-20 in Hamburg, which actually started three days earlier in Moscow, in a full-fledged official summit between Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Xi repeatedly extolled the “strategic alliance”, or “the fast-growing, pragmatic cooperation”, or even the “special character” of China’s ties with Russia.

Putin once again pledged to support the New Silk Roads, or One Belt, One Road initiative (Obor), “by all means”, which includes its interpenetration with the Eurasia Economic Union (EEU).

The Russian Direct Investment Fund and the China Development Bank established a joint $10 billion investment fund.

Gazprom and China’s CNPC signed a key agreement for the starting date of gas deliveries via the Power of Siberia pipeline; December 20, 2019, according to Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller. And that will be followed by the construction of Power of Siberia-2.

They kept discussing a military cooperation roadmap.

And at a closed Kremlin meeting the night before their official summit, in which they clinched yet another proverbial raft of deals worth billions of dollars, Putin and Xi developed a common North Korea strategy; “dialogue and negotiation”, coupled with firm opposition to the THAAD missile system being installed in South Korea.

Alexander Mercouris has posted the entire Joint Statement by Russia and China on the North Korean situation, along with his own comments, here.

Just prior to Xi’s meeting with Putin,  the Chinese leader proclaimed the best period of Sino-Russian relations in history in an interview with the Russian state media outlet TASS.   The comments were reported in the Chinese media outlet Xinhua as follows:

BEIJING, July 3 (Xinhua) — Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday said China-Russia relations are at their “best time in history,” and expressed hope the Group of 20 major economies (G20) will continue their support for multilateral free trade and leadership in innovation-driven growth.

….China and Russia have built high-level political and strategic mutual trust, Xi said, noting that China and Russia have completely resolved their border issues left over from history, turning the 4,300-km boundary line into a bond of friendship between the two peoples.

“Our two countries have built a high level of political and strategic trust,” Xi said, adding that the two nations are each other’s most trustworthy strategic partners.

“I believe the visit will lend new impetus to the growth of bilateral relations,” said Xi.

Xi said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin both think China and Russia should deepen economic and trade cooperation so as to reinforce their interests bond and better benefit the two peoples.

“Economic cooperation and trade is the most wide-ranging area in our practical cooperation and enjoys great potential,” Xi said, adding that the structure of China-Russia economic cooperation and trade continues to improve and quite a few new areas of growth have emerged.

China is also set to play a dominant role in the re-construction of Syria as reported yesterday by Syria’s state media outlet SANA:

Syrian Ambassador in Beijing Imad Mustafa said that Chinese companies are expected to play a big role in the reconstruction phase in Syria after the end of the crisis, pointing out that the Syrian government will give top priority to Chinese companies in investment and reconstruction opportunities.

Media Recklessness

Stephen Cohen gives his commentary on the Hamburg meeting in an interview with Tucker Carlson, lamenting the corporate media’s narrative of constantly demonizing Putin and Russia and creating an atmosphere in which any attempt by President Trump to constructively work together with Russia on mutual interests and to decrease tensions between the world’s nuclear superpowers is either pilloried and sabotaged or ignored.   Watch the 5-minute video here

The excellent foreign policy journalist Max Blumenthal goes over the history of the corporate media’s dangerously disingenuous coverage of the war in Syria as well as U.S.-Russia relations.  Watch the video or read the transcript here.

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The Duran reports , along with other media outlets, that the Iraqi government has now regained full control over the ISIS stronghold of Mosul:

The Iraqi army has won the battle of Mosul.  Though ISIS has resisted with fierce determination, and has held the Iraqi army off for 9 months, the last buildings in Mosul’s Old City still under ISIS control have now been freed.

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Reason Magazine has written an article about an academic study done by a political science professor at Boston University and a law professor at University of Minnesota, Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen, showing that Hillary Clinton’s support of war policies cost her support in areas that were most affected by military casualties in America’s myriad wars:

A new study attributes Donald Trump’s victory last year to communities hit hardest by military casualties and angry about being ignored. These voters, the authors suggest, saw Trump as an “opportunity to express that anger at both political parties.”
The paper—written by Douglas Kriner, a political scientist at Boston University, and Francis Shen, a law professor at the University of Minnesota—provides powerful lessons about the electoral viability of principled non-intervention, a stance that Trump was able to emulate somewhat on the campaign trail but so far has been incapable of putting into practice.

 

The study, available at SSRN, found a “significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump.” The statistical model it used suggested that if Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin had suffered “even a modestly lower casualty rate,” all three could have flipped to Hillary Clinton, making her the president. The study controlled for party identification, comparing Trump’s performance in the communities selected to Mitt Romney’s performance in 2012. It also controlled for other relevant factors, including median family income, college education, race, the percentage of a community that is rural, and even how many veterans there were.

“Even after including all of these demographic control variables, the relationship between a county’s casualty rate and Trump’s electoral performance remains positive and statistically significant,” the paper noted. “Trump significantly outperformed Romney in counties that shouldered a disproportionate share of the war burden in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Spotlight on Corporate Media Malfeasance on Syria, Russia, etc.; A Few Facts About Russia; Leader of Afghan Taliban Says U.S. Occupation is Main Obstacle to Peace; Trump & Putin to Meet at G20

Seymour Hersh

Renowned investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has published a report detailing how President Trump ordered the Tomahawk missile strike in Syria this past April even though he received reporting from his intelligence and military advisers that stated there was no concrete evidence at the time that the Assad government was guilty of a sarin (or any intentional chemical) attack in the rebel town of Khan Sheikhoun.  Hersh wrote:

The available intelligence made clear that the Syrians had targeted a jihadist meeting site on April 4 using a Russian-supplied guided bomb equipped with conventional explosives. Details of the attack,  including information on its so-called high-value targets, had been provided by the Russians days in advance to American and allied military officials in Doha, whose mission is to coordinate all U.S., allied, Syrian and Russian Air Force operations in the region.

Some American military and intelligence officials were especially distressed by the president’s determination to ignore the evidence. “None of this makes any sense,” one officer told colleagues upon learning of the decision to bomb. “We KNOW that there was no chemical attack … the Russians are furious. Claiming we have the real intel and know the truth … I guess it didn’t matter whether we elected Clinton or Trump.“

…..To the dismay of many senior members of his national security team, Trump could not be swayed over the next 48 hours of intense briefings and decision-making. In a series of interviews, I learned of the total disconnect between the president and many of his military advisers and intelligence officials, as well as officers on the ground in the region who had an entirely different understanding of the nature of Syria’s attack on Khan Sheikhoun. I was provided with evidence of that disconnect, in the form of transcripts of real-time communications, immediately following the Syrian attack on April 4. In an important pre-strike process known as deconfliction, U.S. and Russian officers routinely supply one another with advance details of planned flight paths and target coordinates, to ensure that there is no risk of collision or accidental encounter (the Russians speak on behalf of the Syrian military). This information is supplied daily to the American AWACS surveillance planes that monitor the flights once airborne. Deconfliction’s success and importance can be measured by the fact that there has yet to be one collision, or even a near miss, among the high-powered supersonic American, Allied, Russian and Syrian fighter bombers.

Read Hersh’s full article at Die Welt.   While nothing in this article should be a surprise to anyone who has been reading this blog for any length of time, it is nonetheless important to have the details and confirmation from a reputable journalistic source like Hersh.   It’s a sad commentary that this kind of investigative reporting has become so rare in the U.S.  One must ask themselves why, after the Bush administration ended, Hersh has had to publish at the London Review of Books and Die Welt.

Moving right along on the topic of pathetic mainstream (corporate) media in the U.S., Glenn Greenwald has written another great primer on the latest installment of horrible reporting on Russia and “Russiagate.”  Since it never ends, the few good journalists have to keep track of the misinformation and counter it on a regular basis.   In this latest piece, Greenwald discusses the larger context of the recent resignations of 3 journalists at CNN – one a Pulitzer Prize winner who was formerly a regular for the NYT – due to sloppy journalistic practices in writing an article that relied on one anonymous source with respect to allegations that Trump associate Anthony Scaramucci was tied to a Russian investment bank that was being probed by Congress.  The story turned out to be bogus and, as I noted previously, the concept of due diligence in contemporary corporate reporting is apparently considered to be out of fashion, something only pedantic un-hip nerd types and old maids who purse their lips would insist on.

From Greenwald:

In announcing the resignation of the three journalists — Thomas Frank, who wrote the story (not the same Thomas Frank who wrote “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”); Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Eric Lichtblau, recently hired away from the New York Times; and Lex Haris, head of a new investigative unit — CNN said that “standard editorial processes were not followed when the article was published.” The resignations follow CNN’s Friday night retraction of the story, in which it apologized to Scaramucci.

….BUT CNN IS hardly alone when it comes to embarrassing retractions regarding Russia. Over and over, major U.S. media outlets have published claims about the Russia Threat that turned out to be completely false — always in the direction of exaggerating the threat and/or inventing incriminating links between Moscow and the Trump circle. In virtually all cases, those stories involved evidence-free assertions from anonymous sources that these media outlets uncritically treated as fact, only for it to be revealed that they were entirely false.

Read Greenwald’s entire skewering of the corporate media’s reporting here.

But, as a producer at CNN admitted in a recent video, there is no proof of any of the Russiagate accusations but it is constantly hammered on at the media outlet because it gets great ratings.  Watch the video here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdP8TiKY8dE

But CNN isn’t the only mainstream outlet that’s finally being forced to acknowledge it’s less than stellar journalistic record on “Russiagate.”  As Robert Parry reports, the New York Times just issued a retraction of its repeated claim that all 17 intelligence agencies signed off on the “assessment” – note that an assessment is not at all the same thing as an intelligence estimate.  In fact, only the CIA, NSA, FBI and the DNI signed off on the estimate earlier this year about Russia’s supposed hacking of the election.  Furthermore, only a handful of cherry-picked analysts from those few agencies contributed to the assessment.

On Thursday, the Times appended a correction to a June 25 article that had repeated the false claim, which has been used by Democrats and the mainstream media for months to brush aside any doubts about the foundation of the Russia-gate scandal and portray President Trump as delusional for doubting what all 17 intelligence agencies supposedly knew to be true.In the Times’ White House Memo of June 25, correspondent Maggie Haberman mocked Trump for “still refus[ing] to acknowledge a basic fact agreed upon by 17 American intelligence agencies that he now oversees: Russia orchestrated the attacks, and did it to help get him elected.”

However, on Thursday, the Times – while leaving most of Haberman’s ridicule of Trump in place – noted in a correction that the relevant intelligence “assessment was made by four intelligence agencies — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. The assessment was not approved by all 17 organizations in the American intelligence community.”

The Times’ grudging correction was vindication for some Russia-gate skeptics who had questioned the claim of a full-scale intelligence assessment, which would usually take the form of a National Intelligence Estimate (or NIE), a product that seeks out the views of the entire Intelligence Community and includes dissents.

The reality of a more narrowly based Russia-gate assessment was admitted in May by President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Obama’s CIA Director John Brennan in sworn congressional testimony.

Parry has just been awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism for his steady and astute reporting and analysis at Consortium News.   He was awarded the prize in London on June 27th by another iconic journalist (whom I’ve admired since reading his book Heroes in college), John Pilger.  Here is an excerpt of Pilger’s comments when he presented Parry with the award:

There are too many awards for journalism. Too many simply celebrate the status quo. The idea that journalists ought to challenge the status quo — what Orwell called Newspeak and Robert Parry calls “groupthink” — is becoming increasingly rare.

 

More than a generation ago, a space opened up for a journalism that dissented from the groupthink and flourished briefly and often tenuously in the press and broadcasting. Today, that space has almost closed in the so-called mainstream media. The best journalists have become – often against their will – dissidents.

The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism recognizes these honorable exceptions. It is very different from other prizes. Let me quote in full why we give this award:

“The Gellhorn Prize is in honor of one of the 20th century’s greatest reporters. It is awarded to a journalist whose work has penetrated the established version of events and told an unpalatable truth – a truth validated by powerful facts that expose what Martha Gellhorn called ‘official drivel.’ She meant establishment propaganda.”

Martha was renowned as a war reporter. Her dispatches from Spain in the 1930s and D-Day in 1944 are classics. But she was more than that. As both a reporter and a committed humanitarian, she was a pioneer: one of the first in Vietnam to report what she called “a new kind of war against civilians”: a precursor to the wars of today.

She was the reason I was sent to Vietnam as a reporter. My editor had spread across his desk her articles that had run in the Guardian and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A headline read, “Targeting the people.” For that series, she was placed on a blacklist by the U.S. military and never allowed to return to South Vietnam.

She and I became good friends. Indeed, all my fellow judges of the Martha Gellhorn Prize  – Sandy and Shirlee Matthews, James Fox, Jeremy Harding — have that in common. We keep her memory.

She was indefatigable. She would call very early in the morning and open up the conversation with one of her favourite expressions – “I smell a rat.”

Martha Gellhorn – this is what a real journalist looks like

When, in 1990, President George Bush Senior invaded Panama on the pretext of nabbing his old CIA buddy General Noriega, the embedded media made almost no mention of civilian suffering. My phone rang. “I smell a rat,” said a familiar voice.

Within 24 hours Martha was on a plane to Panama. She was then in her 80s.  She went straight to the barrios of Panama City, and walked from door to door, interviewing ordinary people. That was the way she worked – in apartheid South Africa, in the favelas of Brazil, in the villages of Vietnam.

She estimated that the American bombing and invasion of Panama had killed at least 6,000 people.

She flew to Washington and stood up at a press conference at the Pentagon and asked a general: “Why did you kill so many people then lie about it?”

Imagine that question being asked today.  And that is what we are honoring this evening. Truth-telling, and the courage to find out, to ask the forbidden question.

Robert Parry is a very distinguished honorable exception.

Read the full speech here.

Speaking of war reporting.   Adam Johnson at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has written a great piece on how corporate media outlets all characterize the U.S. as being the hapless humanitarian that is constantly being “sucked into” or “stumbling into” wars against its will.   They are mediasplaining to us rubes how the political class in Washington consists of a bunch of well-meaning clowns who bumble around not knowing what to do with all that humanitarian concern welling out of them so they are slipping and sliding around and if others get hurt, well, gee shucks, we’re just a great big well-meaning dufus.

Sliding,” “stumbling,” ”sucked into,” “dragged into,” ”drawn into”: The US is always reluctantly—and without a plan—falling backward into bombing and occupying. The US didn’t enter the conflict in Syria in September 2014 deliberately; it was forced into it by outside actors. The US didn’t arm and fund anti-Assad rebels for four years to the tune of $1 billion a year as part of a broader strategy for the region; it did so as a result of some unknown geopolitical dark matter.

When US empire isn’t reluctant, it’s benevolent. “Initially motivated by humanitarian impulse,” Foreign Policy‘s Emile Simpson (6/21/17)  insisted, “the United States and its Western allies achieved regime change in Libya and attempted it in Syria, by backing rebels in each case.”

“At least in recent decades, American presidents who took military action have been driven by the desire to promote freedom and democracy,” the New York Times editorial board (2/7/17) swooned.

“Every American president since at least the 1970s,” Washington Post’s Philip Rucker (5/2/17) declared, “has used his office to champion human rights and democratic values around the world.” Interpreting US policymakers’ motives is permitted, so long as the conclusion is never critical.

Johnson goes on to contrast this with how other nations’ actions are characterized, like Russia.

Russia isn’t “drawn into” Crimea; it has a secret “Crimea takeover plot” (BBC, 3/9/15). Putin doesn’t “stumble into” Syria; he has a “Long-Term Strategy” there (Foreign Affairs, 3/15/16). Military adventurism by other countries is part of a well-planned agenda, while US intervention is at best reluctant, and at worst bumfuzzled—Barney Fife with 8,000 Abrams tanks and 19 aircraft carriers.
Johnson’s full article can be read here.

 

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I’ve noted a lot of polls, surveys and statistics that have come my way recently that readers may find interesting or enlightening about the Russian economy or Russian attitudes toward various things.

1) According to Russia’s Finance Ministry, Russians’ real incomes rose by 3% in May;

2) Despite that increase – and Russia’s official exit from recession this year – many Russians still worry about wages, the economy overall, and health care – which is undergoing a process of streamlining and reform that has prompted dissatisfaction in some quarters;

3) After suffering one of the worst mortality crises of any nation in peacetime during the 1990’s, Russia is enjoying its 3rd year in a row of natural population growth;

4) The vast majority of Russians – 86% – have no desire to leave Russia and relocate to another country;

5) Russians view the U.S. and Ukraine as the most hostile nations toward them and just over half see no sign of improvement in U.S.-Russia relations on the horizon.

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At the close of Ramadan recently, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, declared that the main obstacle to peace in his country was the U.S. occupation:

“Americans should understand that continuation of war in Afghanistan, upsurge of bombardment … will never usher in success for them. The Afghans are not a people to kowtow to someone,” he said.

The fact is, all occupiers eventually pack up their tents and go home. The only variable is how long the occupier continues his folly and how much death and destruction he is going to be responsible for before the light bulb goes on.

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And to wrap up today’s post, it has been reported by Russia’s TASS news agency, that Putin and Trump will meet for the first time at the upcoming G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany on July 7 – 8.   The AP further reports that some of Trump’s advisers say the president is eager for his first meeting with his Russian counterpart.
How the actual meeting goes between Trump, who is notoriously unpredictable, and the calm, cool and collected Putin (who doesn’t impress easily) is anyone’s guess.  Should be interesting to watch video of it.

 

U.S. Shootdown of Syrian Plane, Russia’s Response; Oliver Stone’s 4-Part Interview of Putin; Europeans Express Displeasure at Latest Round of Sanctions on Russia; Comey Says NYT Article False, But NYT Still “Newspaper of Record”?

(Photo: mashleymorgan/flickr/cc)

On Sunday, a U.S. fighter jet shot down a Syrian military plane over Raqqa.  In response, Russia has severed the deconfliction channel between the U.S. and Russian militaries and said any threatening and unauthorized aircraft in Syrian airspace could be targeted.  As Commondreams reports :

In what is being characterized as an act sure to further escalate already alarming tensions between the United States, Syria, and Russia, an American fighter jet shot down a Syrian warplane over Raqqa on Sunday, prompting Moscow to cut off its deconfliction channel with the U.S.

“As of June 19 this year, the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation has ended its interaction with the U.S. side under a memorandum for preventing incidents and providing for safe flights during operations in Syria and demands that the U.S. command carry out a careful investigation and report about its results and the measures taken,” a statement from Moscow reads.

The Defense Ministry continued:

The shooting down of a Syrian Air Force jet in Syria’s airspace is a cynical violation of Syria’s sovereignty. The US’ repeated combat operations under the guise of ‘combating terrorism’ against the legitimate armed forces of a UN member-state are a flagrant violation of international law, in addition to being actual military aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.

The U.S. decision to shoot down the Syrian warplane—which, according to American officials, was retaliation against the plane’s bombing of nearby U.S.-backed ground troops—came “on the same day that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps launched several midrange missiles from inside Iran at targets in Syria, hoping to punish Islamic State forces responsible for last week’s terrorist attacks in Tehran,” the New York Times reported.

  • The move, the Times noted, marks “the first time the American military has downed a Syrian aircraft since the start of the civil war in 2011.”

  • The Pentagon issued a statement: “The coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to defend coalition or partner forces from any threat.”

  • According to the Associated Press, the Pentagon’s efforts to de-escalate following the strike do not appear to have been successful: “Russia says it will treat US-led coalition planes in Syria, west of the Euphrates, as targets after US downed Syrian jet.”

  • Here is what the Russian Defense Ministry said: “Any aircraft, including planes and drones of the international coalition, detected in the operation areas west of the Euphrates River by the Russian air forces will be followed by Russian ground-based air defense and air defense aircraft as air targets.”

Since then, CNN has reported that the U.S. has also shot down an Iranian drone near At Tanf in Syria.

Due to the recent progress that the Syrian army is making, with help from Iran and Russia, to retake most of the country from jihadists, this is likely a provocation designed to get Russia to overreact in the hopes that it will take its eye off the ball and the progress will be sabotaged.  Of course, the Russian leadership is not that stupid and Washington should know this by now.  Washington simply can’t accept that its unquestioned hegemony is coming to an end and consequently is flailing around dangerously.  For more context, Mike Whitney provided the following analysis over at Counterpunch:

On June 10, the Syrian Army blitzed across an arid stretch of countryside in southeastern Syria to reach the Iraqi border for the first time in three years. The move,  which caught US war-planners off guard, prevents US-backed rebels from moving north from al Tanf to join the fight against ISIS in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. More important, the move makes it impossible for Washington to achieve its broader strategic objective of consolidating its territorial gains into a contiguous landmass along the Euphrates River.  Washington wants to control the eastern part of the country so it can continue its attacks on the regime while overseeing the construction of gas pipelines from Qatar to Turkey. The prospects of that plan succeeding are now greatly in doubt due to the surprise advance of the SAA.

Aside from the humiliation of being caught flat-footed by a Syrian Army that has been battered by 6 consecutive years of war,  Washington has allowed loyalist troops to seize a swath of land that splits US proxies on the ground and establishes a critical land corridor connecting Damascus to Baghdad to Tehran, a Shia superhighway that allows for the transport of commercial goods, people and weapons from east to west. Washington wanted to avoid that linkage at all cost, but simply wasn’t prepared to respond. Now any attempt to reverse the situation will involve crossing SAA lines which increases the probability of a direct confrontation with Russia. This is why it is essential to pay attention to events on the ground as they take place. The US and Russia are basically cheek-to-jowl on a topsy-turvy battlefield where any miscalculation could have grave consequences.

This latest move by the Syria Army has only added to Washington’s frustration. Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the creation of four “de-escalation zones”  on May 5, the so called Axis of Resistance (Russia, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah) has been marching eastward along three parallel tracks with the clear intention of liberating cities captured by ISIS and reestablishing Syria’s sovereign borders.  It’s been a hard-fought slog, but the progress has been steady and ISIS has been pushed back or beaten wherever they’ve been met.

At the present pace, the fight against ISIS could be over in a matter of months, but that doesn’t mean the hostilities will end. No one really knows whether the Turks,  the Kurds or the US-backed militias will agree to withdraw from the territories they’ve captured during the war, but the general consensus seems to be that they won’t. In fact,  the US has actually  accelerated its operations in order to grab as much land as possible before ISIS is defeated. Here’s a clip from an article in the New York Times that helps to explain what’s going on:

“American-backed forces have begun an assault on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s hub in northern Syria, and signs are that they could capture the long-sought target with relative ease. Yet the militant group’s commanders, who have already withdrawn their toughest forces from the city, and most everyone else in Syria’s multifaceted war are looking ahead to an even more decisive battle in the south.

There, a complex confrontation is unfolding, with far more geopolitical import and risk. The Islamic State is expected to make its last stand not in Raqqa but in an area that encompasses the borders with Iraq and Jordan and much of Syria’s modest oil reserves, making it important in stabilizing Syria and influencing its neighboring countries.

Whoever lays claim to the sparsely populated area in this 21st-century version of the Great Game not only will take credit for seizing what is likely to be the Islamic State’s last patch of a territorial caliphate in Syria, but also will play an important role in determining Syria’s future and the postwar dynamics of the region.

With the stakes so high, the United States, Iran and Russia are all scrambling for advantage. They are building up their forces and proxy fighters and, increasingly, engaging in inflammatory clashes that threaten to escalate into a larger conflict…..

What is really at stake are even larger issues. Will the Syrian government re-establish control of the country all the way to its eastern borders? Will the desert straddling the Syrian-Iraqi border remain a no man’s land ripe for militant control? If not, who will dominate there — forces aligned with Iran, Russia or the United States? Which Syrian factions will wield the most influence?” (“Beyond Raqqa, an Even Bigger Battle to Defeat ISIS and Control Syria Looms”, New York Times)

Repeat: The outcome of the battle for east Syria will determine “the postwar dynamics of the region.”

Robert Parry, with his usual sharp eye, points out that not only is this an incredibly reckless move by the Pentagon but it is not in the U.S.’s long term interests:

The [recent Wall Street] Journal editorial criticized Trump for having no strategy beyond eradicating ISIS and adding: “Now is the time for thinking through such a strategy because Syria, Russia and Iran know what they want. Mr. Assad wants to reassert control over all of Syria, not a country divided into Alawite, Sunni and Kurdish parts. Iran wants a Shiite arc of influence from Tehran to Beirut. Mr. Putin will settle for a Mediterranean port and a demonstration that Russia can be trusted to stand by its allies, while America is unreliable. None of this is in the U.S. national interests.”

But why isn’t this in U.S. national interests? What’s wrong with a unified secular Syria that can begin to rebuild and repatriate refugees who have fled into Europe, destabilizing the Continent?

What’s the big problem with “a Shiite arc of influence”? The Shiites aren’t a threat to the United States or the West. The principal terror groups – Al Qaeda and ISIS – spring from the extremist Saudi version of Sunni Islam, known as Wahhabism. I realize that Israel and Saudi Arabia took aim at Syria in part to shatter “the Shiite arc,” but we have seen the horrific consequences of that strategy. How has the chaos that the Syrian war has unleashed benefited U.S. national interests?

And so what that Russia has a naval base on the Mediterranean Sea? That is no threat to the United States, either.

But what is the alternative prescription from the Journal’s neocon editors? The editorial concludes: “The alternative would be to demonstrate that Mr. Assad, Iran and Russia will pay a higher price for their ambitions. This means refusing to back down from defending U.S. allies on the ground and responding if Russia aircraft or missiles attempt to take down U.S. planes. Our guess is that Russia doesn’t want a military engagement with the U.S. any more than the U.S. wants one with Russia, but Russia will keep pressing for advantage unless President Trump shows more firmness than his predecessor.”

So, rather than allow the Syrian government to restore some form of order across Syria, the neocons want the Trump administration to continue violating international law, which forbids military invasions of sovereign countries, and keep the bloodshed flowing. Beyond that, the neocons want the U.S. military to play chicken with the other nuclear-armed superpower on the assumption that Russia will back down.

I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me how any of our interventions since WWII were really in the long-term interests of the average American.   And I certainly can’t fathom how risking a nuclear war over Syria would be.   But then, hey, maybe I’m the crazy one.

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As you may have heard, Oliver Stone did a lengthy and in-depth interview with Putin which aired as a 4-part series recently on Showtime.  As you may also have heard, Stone has taken a lot of heat for even attempting to allow Putin to speak at length for himself, put it out for public consumption and allow Americans to draw their own conclusions without the usual gatekeepers of how to think inserting themselves into it.  Of course, that is exactly what the NYT, Washington Post, and a plethora of talking heads who are passed off as journalists on the network and cable news shows did by shrieking condemnations of the series either through editorials or hostile interviews of Stone.  The subtext was always “if you’re a right-thinking person you will not bother watching this at all.  And if you do watch it, you should be ashamed to admit it in polite company.  It would sort of be like admitting you’re a pedophile or a long-time celibate.  Just don’t.”

One of the more serious and respectful interviews of Stone was by Amy Goodman at Democracy Now!.   You can watch or read the transcript here:

https://www.democracynow.org/2017/6/14/oliver_stone_interviews_putin_on_us?utm_source=Democracy+Now%21&utm_campaign=f0ae52757f-Daily_Digest&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_fa2346a853-f0ae52757f-191485825

You can also watch the entire 4-part series by Stone here:

Part one https://vimeo.com/222012543

Part two https://vimeo.com/221567261

Part three https://vimeo.com/222016191

Part four https://vimeo.com/222019557

Transcript of The Putin Interviews here:
http://skyhorsepublishing.com/titles/13188-9781510733428-putin-interviews

Official Showtime series site:
http://www.sho.com/the-putin-interviews#/closed

Earlier this month, Robert Parry and Consortium News awarded Stone the Gary Webb award for courage in taking the flack for making controversial but necessary documentaries, including interviewing several leaders that Washington opposed (Huge Chavez, Fidel Castro, Vladimir Putin, etc.) and allowing the other side of the story to be told.  Video and transcript of Stone’s remarks can be viewed here:

https://consortiumnews.com/2017/06/14/oliver-stone-receives-gary-webb-award/

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Last week, congress passed a new round of sanctions on Russia (and Iran) for interfering in the election, actions in Syria and Ukraine, the heat wave in the southwest, Mickey Rourke’s bad plastic surgery….oh, wait.  Sorry.  In any event,  Austria and Germany wasted no time in crying foul, stating that the U.S. had no right to interfere in Europe’s economic affairs with Russia, especially in regards to its energy deals with its neighbor.   Zerohedge had more details:

Less than a day after the Senate overwhelmingly voted to impose new sanctions against the Kremlin, on Thursday Germany and Austria – two of Russia’s biggest energy clients in Europe – slammed the latest U.S. sanctions against Moscow, saying they could affect European businesses involved in piping in Russian natural gas.

Gabriel and Kern also accused the U.S. of having ulterior motives in seeking to enforce the energy blockade, which they said is trying to help American natural gas suppliers at the expense of their Russian rivals. And they warned the threat of fining European companies participating in the Nord Stream 2 project “introduces a completely new, very negative dimension into European-American relations.”

In their forceful appeal, the two officials urged the United States to back off from linking the situation in Ukraine to the question of who can sell gas to Europe. “Europe’s energy supply is a matter for Europe, and not for the United States of America,” Kern and Gabriel said. The reason why Europe is angry Some Eastern European countries, including Poland and Ukraine, fear the loss of transit revenue if Russian gas supplies don’t pass through their territory anymore once the new pipeline is built.

Alexander Mercouris commented on Merkel’s remarks the next day reinforcing the criticisms of the sanctions:

For instance, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, former FBI Director James Comey cast doubt on a Feb. 14 New York Times report titled “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence.

”The article, which relied on “four current and former government officials,” said that “Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election” and that “the intercepts alarmed American intelligence and law enforcement agencies, in part because of the amount of contact that was occurring while Mr. Trump was speaking glowingly about the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin.”

Comey was asked about the report during an exchange with Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho.

RISCH:  I remember, you — you talked with us shortly after February 14th, when the New York Times wrote an article that suggested that the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians. This is not factual. Do you recall that?

COMEY: Yes.

RISCH: OK. So — so, again, so the American people can understand this, that report by the New York Times was not true. Is that a fair statement?

COMEY: In — in the main, it was not true.

Later in the hearing, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, asked Comey: “Would it be fair to characterize that story as almost entirely wrong?” To which Comey replied: “Yes.”

Looks again like NYT didn’t do due diligence like real journalists are supposed to do.  Instead, they just took the word of government officials (anonymous ones at that) and ran with it as though it were correct.  Where have we seen this before?  How about with claims that Iraq had WMD?  How about the genocide that was claimed to be going on in Yugoslavia in 1999?  How about the Gulf of Tonkin incident?  How about Qaddafi ordering Libyan troops to commit mass rape while pumped up on Viagra and targeting civilians in 2011?  All of these turned out be bogus and in not one of these instances did the NYT sufficiently question the government narrative and rush to war.   Hey, it only resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and destruction of entire countries.   Easy come, easy go when you’re the “newspaper of record.”