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75th Anniversary of “The Long Telegram”: Was George F. Kennan’s Assessment of the Soviet Union Accurate?

Head and shoulders portrait of a balding man, wearing a suit and tie.
George F. Kennan

By Natylie Baldwin, OpEd News, 2/20/21.

February 22nd marks 75 years since George F. Kennan sent his famous “Long Telegram” to the State Department in which he provided an assessment of the Soviet Union that led to the U.S. containment policy of the Cold War. The Cold War, in turn, saw various conflicts, scores of covert operations, regime changes, and a nuclear arms race. 

Conventional wisdom generally has it that Kennan’s assessment of the Soviet government was accurate.  But was it?  And if it wasn’t accurate, why has it been treated as a brilliant analysis that underpinned a policy still characterized as an inevitable necessity?

In order to answer those questions, it is necessary to look at who George F. Kennan was, what the main points of his analysis were and how they have held up to the historical facts, as well as the political context in which his assessment was received.

Who Was George F. Kennan and What Shaped His Thinking?

George Frost Kennan graduated in 1926 from Princeton University with a degree in history.  With an interest in international relations and a knack for picking up languages, he entered the Foreign Service.  The State Department eventually offered to pay for graduate study of Chinese, Arabic or Russian.  Opting for the latter – partly due to his famous namesake cousin’s travels and writings in Siberia – he enrolled in a new program for the study of Eastern European Affairs.   Subsequently, he was stationed in the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) for a period.  By 1929, he was taking Russian history at the University of Berlin and learning the language from a combination of private tutoring and autodidact studies. 

Kennan was a keen observer with an eye for detail, contributing to his writing prowess, which he developed early in his diplomatic career.   He also had a sensitive disposition that sometimes tended toward the dramatic as can be seen from some of his letters and diary entries.  He was plagued with ulcers throughout most of his adult life, along with other ailments, which prompted many months of recuperation away from his assigned locales at various times. 

In the early years of his study of Russia, he leaned toward an Orientalist view of his subject, making sweeping generalizations even to the point of caricature about the nature of Russia, the Asiatic influence and its alien aspects.  During the war, he even admitted to trying to subject Russian history and culture to Freudian psychoanalysis.  Though he would temper this somewhat over the years, this tendency toward oversimplification would still be seen in his Long Telegram. 

By the early 1930’s, Kennan’s growing expertise had gotten the attention of others in the State Department.  When the Roosevelt administration decided to officially recognize the Soviet Union – the result of pressure from the business community as the U.S. had become its #1 importer – ambassador William Bullitt lobbied hard for Kennan to be appointed to set up a new embassy in Moscow.   Despite misgivings about his perceived inexperience, Kennan was given the green light for the job. 

Throughout his tenure in the Soviet Union in the 1930’s, Kennan admittedly had limited contact with average Russians.  However, for most of 1934, Kennan noted a relatively relaxed atmosphere in Moscow.  Upon his return to the country in November of 1935, after months away on medical leave, he discovered many of his American colleagues had left and most of the Russians he had built relations of some kind with were no longer around.  There was also more supervision from Soviet authorities along with an influx of spies at the embassy. 

From 1936 to 1938, Kennan personally observed many of the show trials that were part of Stalin’s violent purges, often serving as US ambassador Joseph Davies’ translator and assistant.  This solidified  Kennan’s inclination toward viewing the Soviet government as morally repugnant and would contribute to his hardline views during and right after World War II. 

Davies – a corporate lawyer, friend of Roosevelt and a contributor to his campaign – was viewed by Kennan and several others in the State Department as a dangerous dilettante who whitewashed Stalin and the Soviet government, reinforcing the president’s misguided policy of engagement with the Soviet dictator.  According to diplomatic historian John Lukacs, who corresponded years later with Kennan about the background of his thinking in the lead up to the Long Telegram, Kennan stated that Roosevelt was naïve for thinking Stalin being treated as an equal would lead to a reasonable post-war arrangement.  Kennan believed that pursuing this policy at the expense of Churchill, whom Roosevelt sometimes gave a cold shoulder to in order to curry favor with Stalin, was a serious mistake and allowed Stalin to triangulate with his wartime allies. 

According to historian Susan Butler in her book, Roosevelt & Stalin:  Portrait of a Partnership, Roosevelt  was playing the long game, motivated to win Stalin’s trust in order to get him to support the United Nations (UN).  After winning the war itself, Roosevelt’s priority was to prevent the devastation of a third world war.  Of course, this was meant to happen within the context of a U.S.-dominated global order. The UN was the vehicle through which that goal was to be pursued. 

Kennan actively opposed Davies and his agenda, now writing from his position in the European Division of the State Department in Washington.  This was after Kennan left Moscow in early 1937 due to mutual antipathy between the two men.  His reports on the Soviet Union were designed to “balance out” Davies’ “overly optimistic” reports to the president.  Eventually, Stalin became aware of Kennan’s writings and perceived them to be attempts to “turn Roosevelt personally against” the Soviet Union. 

After Roosevelt’s death in April of 1945, Ambassador Averell Harriman rushed to Washington to brief Harry Truman on matters relating to the Soviet Union.  He advised the new president that Stalin viewed U.S. restraint as weakness and therefore believed he could operate with a free hand, fearing few consequences from Washington.  Truman, a foreign policy novice, was also taking advice from his friend and anti-Soviet hardliner, James Byrnes. Truman would ultimately make Byrnes his Secretary of State. 

Kennan, for his part, began sending a steady stream of dispatches to the State Department in a Cassandra-like mission to convince top officials of the true nature of the Soviet Union and the implications for how the U.S. should conduct relations with it. 

In May, he wrote a lengthy essay titled “Russia’s Position at the Close of the War with Germany,” in which he acknowledged the challenges the Soviet Union would be facing in the post-war environment.  These included the fact that a significant portion of the country had been destroyed, over-extension if they attempted to take over too much territory in Europe, the logistical difficulties of administering countries with different languages and customs and which felt resentment at the brutal treatment they’d been subjected to during wartime occupation.  But Kennan insisted the Soviet Union had expansionist ambitions and would implicitly have to be contained rather than negotiated with, at least for a period of time.  This theme would appear again in the Long Telegram. 

By late summer of 1945, Kennan was expressing his displeasure with post-war settlement talks, pooh-poohing any concessions to the Soviets.  For example, he opposed U.S. withdrawal of troops from western Czechoslovakia – despite the fact Washington was treaty-bound to do so – arguing that it would show U.S. weakness.  He characterized any economic assistance to the Soviets as simply funds that would be channeled to their defense industry.  In a foreshadowing of the McCarthy era hysteria, he warned of the Soviets potentially cultivating western citizens who could be “trained like pets ‘to heel without being on the leash.’”

By February of 1946, Kennan had reiterated to the State Department his desire to resign.  His intent was to go into academia and perhaps write a book.  The dispatch that would become known as the Long Telegram was his last-ditch effort to make his case about the Soviet Union.

The Long Telegram

The Telegram was precipitated, not by a Treasury Department request for an explanation as to Soviet non-cooperation with the World Bank and IMF as Kennan had claimed, but was a request for an assessment of a speech given by Stalin on February 9th that had alarmed some in Washington.  The speech itself, delivered at Bolshoi Theater on the eve of elections for the Supreme Soviet, was initially not considered by Kennan to be more than a fairly typical propaganda speech by the Soviet dictator.  But it represented an opportunity for Kennan to push his strident perspective once again.   

Kennan’s Telegram ran approximately 5,000 words and was divided into 5 sections – like a sermon, as Kennan himself admitted.  It is also riddled with generalizations about Russian hostility toward the outside world, Asiatic despotism, irrationality, etc.   For example, in Part 2 of the Telegram, Kennan states: 

“Without [Soviet sacrifice of all ethics] they would stand before history, at best, as only the last of that long succession of cruel and wasteful Russian rulers who have relentlessly forced [the] country on to ever new heights of military power in order to guarantee external security of their internally weak regimes.”

While Russia indeed had a thousand year history of autocratic governance, Kennan’s treatment of Russian history ignored the complexities within that history, making it sound like Ivan the Terrible and Stalin were the only leaders Russia had ever had.  He ignored the enlightened rule of Prince Vladimir, the reforms of Alexander II, as well as the difference in the mindset of many modern officials who served under Nicholas II which contributed to his overthrow.  He ignored the fact that the thinking of those who led the February 1917 Revolution (generally more of a social democratic nature) were different than those of the Bolsheviks who supplanted them. 

In the next paragraph, Kennan states: 

“The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth – indeed, their disbelief in its existence – leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another.”

This statement of crude bigotry speaks for itself.  Kennan goes on in the next sentence to suggest Stalin did not have reliable sources of information about the outside world: 

“There is good reason to suspect that this government is actually a conspiracy within a conspiracy; and I for one am reluctant to believe that Stalin himself receives anything like an objective picture of [the] outside world.”

It’s unclear why Kennan thinks being a brutal dictator necessarily precludes intellectual ability – something that had been remarked upon by westerners who had dealt personally and professionally with Stalin – or having a sophisticated diplomatic staff or competent intelligence services.

Professor of history Geoffrey Roberts, in his book Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953, demonstrates that Stalin did in fact have sufficient sources to provide him with a pretty good picture of what was going on in the world.  While his ideology did play a role in his interpretation of events and priorities, he was more than capable of taking a realist approach to international affairs when confronted with limitations on his ability to get what he wanted. 

In Section 3, Kennan warns readers to watch out for a list of actions by the Soviets that could potentially be threatening to the west, including:

“Internal policy devoted to increasing in every way strength and prestige of Soviet state:  intensive-military industrialization; maximum development of armed forces…”

It’s interesting to note that this did indeed happen – in the late 1940’s, after relations between the Soviets and the West broke down and the Cold War was underway.  The Soviet Union had begun demobilizing its military in 1945 when the war ended which Kennan, being the expert, surely should have known.

As an historian, Kennan should have also known that there were plenty of historical examples of Russia pursuing a realist, balance of power approach to foreign policy, regardless of its domestic policies. For a man with such a supposedly brilliant grasp of his subject, not considering the aforementioned nuances about Russia’s past and its leadership would seem to reveal a significant lack of insight. 

But perhaps one could argue that the Soviet Union under Stalin represented something fundamentally different when it came to formulating foreign policy.  Kennan seemed to think so, arguing in absolutist terms in Section 4:

“In general, all Soviet efforts on unofficial international plane will be negative and destructive in character, designed to tear down sources strength beyond reach of Soviet control.  This is only in line with basic Soviet instinct that there could be no compromise with rival power and that constructive work can start only when Communist power is [dominant].”

In Section 5, he reiterates the point that the Soviet Union is irrational and implicitly cannot be reasoned with via negotiations:

“Impervious to logic of reason, and it is highly sensitive to logic of force.”

Obviously, this would provide a convenient justification for U.S. military hegemony and keeping high military budgets.  This approach was also likely to create a self-fulfilling prophecy as the Soviets would predictably view such a buildup as an excuse to justify their own, particularly in light of their recent history of invasion and the death and destruction that accompanied it. 

Kennan was advocating a hard line on the Soviet Union, suggesting the Russians were incapable of honesty or meaningful negotiation and only understood force.   As previously mentioned, Kennan’s experience with Stalin’s show trials during the Great Terror of the mid-30’s contributed to this harsh thinking.  Another factor that reinforced this view was Stalin’s decisions during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. That event hardened Kennan’s position that the Soviets were worthy only of the military aid necessary to defeat the Nazis but not a full political alliance during the war, much less afterward. 

As early as 1941, he suggested a political alliance with the Soviets would be equivalent to condoning the Soviet invasion of Finland and the division of Poland, stating that the Soviets would have to accept the consequences of having collaborated with Hitler and deserved no western sympathy.   Interestingly, Kennan never mentions the events that led up to the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which included Stalin strenuously but unsuccessfully attempting to pursue a military alliance with France and Britain to counter Germany’s stampede through Europe.  Moreover, much of the west had failed to act honorably, appeasing or enabling Hitler’s aggressive ambitions at various points.  One doesn’t have to agree with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but an historian should certainly be aware of and consider the context of this event. 

Kennan also admitted he had no patience for considering the sensibilities of domestic opinion on the conduct of foreign policy, which would have complicated his stance of military aid to the Soviets without an alliance.

An overview of Kennan’s analyses over the course of his service in the State Department, as well as some of his correspondence, shows that he clearly struggled between moralist and realist impulses.  While it is understandable that Kennan (along with Ambassador Harriman), on a human level, felt disgust by the Soviet response to the Warsaw Uprising, the calculations that went into Stalin’s decision turned out to be a bit more complicated than how it was perceived by Kennan and others. 

According to Kennan, considering that Soviet territory had been liberated by this time and the western allies had opened up the long-desired second front, Stalin’s decision to refuse the use of airfields in Ukraine for U.S. and British planes in support of the Warsaw insurgents in mid-August represented a callous and self-satisfied prioritization of the post-war division of Europe to the Soviet Union’s benefit.

However, according to historian Roberts, the backstory to Stalin’s decision was that the Soviet Union had parachuted a liaison officer into Warsaw days before to facilitate the dropping of supplies, but he was captured and killed by the Germans.  This incident had reinforced Stalin’s growing skepticism about the wisdom of the uprising, which had been organized by the Polish Home Army – a wing of the Polish government –in-exile in London (aka AK).  Furthermore, western media had reported the Soviets had encouraged the uprising and then cynically abandoned it. 

Again the reality is more complicated than this narrative.  When the uprising began on August 1st, Stalin thought it may have a chance of success due to the weakening of the German army.  However, as events unfolded, Stalin began to express doubts about its feasibility.  On August 5th, Stalin replied to a message from Churchill about British plans to drop 60 tons of equipment and ammunition to the insurgents.  Stalin told Churchill it was unlikely the insurgents could take over the city in light of the Germans’ four defensive divisions. 

In a meeting with the leader of the Polish government-in-exile on August 9th, Stalin told his interlocutor that he saw the uprising as not “a realistic affair when the insurgents had no guns whereas the Germans in the Praga area alone had three tank divisions, not to speak of infantry.  The Germans will simply kill all the Poles.”

While it became apparent that there were anti-Soviet elements within the uprising, there is no evidence Stalin or the leadership of the Red Army did not make every realistic effort to try to take Warsaw as soon as possible, as some have tried to assert.  After the Germans reinforced their positions in Poland, it became much more difficult for the Soviets to capture Warsaw as quickly as they had originally anticipated.  According to Roberts:

“The uprising did reinforce Stalin’s inclination to capture the city; the problem was that he was unable to do so.  Stalin could, of course, have ordered the Red Army to concentrate all its available strength on the capture of Warsaw.  Even so, it is doubtful  that the city would have fallen very quickly given the time it would have taken to redeploy forces from other fronts and such action would have jeopardized other operational goals that were considered by Moscow as important as storming Warsaw.”

Just prior to the Warsaw Uprising, Kennan wrote a long essay intended for Harriman in which he acknowledged that with the coming defeat of Germany, the Soviet Union would – for better or worse – occupy the most significant place in Europe. In this essay, “Russia – Seven Years Later”, Kennan stated that there was no stable basis for understanding reality in the Soviet Union and few Americans would ever understand this mystery.  This underscores the main problem with Kennan and his analyses of the time.  He implies here that he is one of a very few or perhaps even the only one smart enough to discern the ugly puzzle that is the Soviet Union.  Kennan, not necessarily through any fault of his own, had limitations on his access to the Soviet government and Stalin’s thinking.  He also lacked access to information that would later become available to historians, not only about Stalin’s thinking but about those in his own government.  It is therefore inevitable that Kennan’s analyses and conclusions would likewise suffer from these limitations.  These limitations can be forgiven, but he never seems to acknowledge his necessarily restricted perspective.  Instead he is cocksure in his proclamations, lacking the humility to offer caveats that may have been in order and to prevent his proclamations from being used by militant cold war ideologues – something which he later complained of when attempting to clarify that his containment policy was meant to focus on the political and diplomatic rather than the military. 

How Kennan’s Views Dovetailed with Washington’s New Foreign Policy Consensus

Within weeks of Kennan’s telegram, Winston Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in Missouri.  Though Churchill acknowledged the bravery and sacrifice of the Soviet people, a particular passage in the speech, in which Churchill speaks of an iron curtain behind which the states of Eastern Europe were not just subject to being in the Soviet sphere of influence but were being increasingly subject to Soviet dictatorial control, captured everyone’s attention. Furthermore, Churchill spoke of growing concerns about communist influence in Western Europe and Soviet tensions at the time with Iran and Turkey.  He also invoked the specter of Hitler in connection with not allowing a Soviet Union that admired force and disdained weakness to expand indefinitely. 

A year later, President Truman gave a speech in which he introduced what would become known as the Truman Doctrine.  In the speech, Truman stated that every nation in the world had to choose between alternative ways of organizing society – one based on freedom and elected representative government and the other based on repression and rule by a minority.  Consequently, it was the responsibility of the U.S. to support “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”  He requested aid for the Greek government in its battle with a communist insurgency and for Turkey which was confronted by Soviet claims in the Turkish Straits. 

At this point hardliners in both the U.S. and Britain had determined that the Soviets were pursuing their interests “unilaterally” without consideration for the interests of the western powers.

However, as WWII drew to a close, Stalin had remained hopeful of maintaining the “Grand Alliance” with the U.S. and Britain, though he was aware of the possibility that the western powers might eventually make an accommodation with Germany against the Soviets.  In addition to securing a defensive buffer or “sphere of influence” on the Soviet western border, Stalin’s main foreign policy objective was preventing the re-emergence of Germany as a military power – which he believed could occur within a generation unless it was specifically prevented from doing so.  He also initially showed more openness to what he termed “New Democracy” for the Eastern European states.  

New Democracy was an acknowledgment that a dictatorship of the proletariat was not the only way toward socialism.  Instead the Eastern European countries could evolve toward socialism over the long term.  Stalin believed this was a very real possibility in light of all that he was able to achieve in terms of the Soviet Union’s industrial and social development within the decade before the war.   A peaceful Europe would be needed to facilitate this.  Consequently, Stalin advised the Bulgarian Communist Party in September of 1946 to form the equivalent of a Labor Party comprised of workers and other members of the lower classes.  He told representatives of the Czech and Polish left much the same thing that summer.  By 1947-48, however, the New Democracy experiment collapsed as the Communist Party victories seen in some Eastern European countries had resulted largely due to vote rigging and intimidation, revealing that the ideology was not yet strong enough to compete with right-wing and nationalist sentiments. 

Relations between the Soviets and the western powers eventually deteriorated with distrust increasing on both sides.  As a result, Stalin pursued a more repressive approach and tighter control over Eastern Europe and implemented a cultural crackdown at home – though it was much milder than the purge of the 1930’s. 

The roots of that deterioration of relations lay partly in the response of the U.S. political class to the events in Europe in 1940.  As detailed by historian Stephen Wertheim in his book, Tomorrow the World, foreign policy planners in the U.S. – led by members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) – were alarmed by the Nazi takeover of France in June.  The idea that Britain could also fall was now seriously entertained.  This prompted a major realignment in internationalist thought within the U.S. political class, from a rather restrained hegemony mostly confined to the western hemisphere and support for international law and disarmament, to a world order dominated by U.S. military supremacy.  American national security was broadened to incorporate the objective of not allowing the U.S. to be denied action and influence around the world.  This included free economic exchange with the acknowledgment that “trade would extend no further than force allowed, but force would be committed as far as trade necessitated.” 

The Soviet Union had largely been ignored in these planners’ thinking until the Soviets began turning the tide on the Germans in 1943. It was then recognized that the Soviet Union would emerge from the war as a significant world power that would have to be accommodated to some degree within the new U.S. global order.  It was initially accepted that the Soviets would have a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.  This was permissible as long as enough economic and political openness was afforded to those countries so as not to undermine newly defined U.S. interests.  Additionally, anti-Soviet hardliners, such as Leslie Groves and James Byrnes now occupied influential positions within the Truman administration. 

Interestingly, the Soviets had begun to recognize the dynamics at play in U.S. political thinking as reflected in Soviet Ambassador Nikolai Norikov’s diplomatic telegram of September 1946, considered to be the Soviet counterpoint to Kennan’s Telegram.  Norikov opens his dispatch with:

“The foreign policy of the United States, which reflects the imperialist tendencies of American monopolistic capital, is characterized in the post-war period by a striving for world supremacy. This is the real meaning of the many statements by President Truman and other representatives of American ruling circles: that the United States has the right to lead the world. All the forces of American diplomacy – the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, industry and science – are enlisted in the service of this foreign policy.”

Despite the communist rhetoric, Norikov was not wrong in his assessment of the general goals of U.S. policy in the post-war world.  It should be noted that Norikov’s points were similar to those being made by others in the Soviet leadership and media at the time so they were not touted as special.

Within this backdrop, it is clear that Kennan’s views had been used to justify what was already desired by U.S. supremacists and hardliners in terms of American domination as the Soviet Union was now perceived as a major threat to that agenda.  The pursuit of this policy had already been decided upon and would have gone ahead with or without Kennan’s assessment, but the Long Telegram provided a convenient intellectual foundation for public rationalization.  Kennan, as it turns out, was not driving the policy with his unique acumen but was being used to justify a predetermined policy by the real drivers who resided farther up the political hierarchy.

In the summer of 1946, Kennan embarked on a State Department-sponsored speaking tour of the U.S. to disabuse Americans of any lingering sympathy they may have had for the Soviet Union as an ally during the war.   It was around this time that Kennan began to think of himself as a grand strategist, inspired by reading Edward Mead Earl’s Makers of Modern Strategy.  Earle was an historian and military strategist with the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton.  He was part of the elite northeastern brain trust, which included the CFR planners, which now exerted influence over the State Department.  Kennan also read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and attempted to compare it to current events.  Kennan went on to teach at the newly established National War College.  He published his X article in Foreign Affairs in July of 1947, warning of a messianic and expansionist Soviet Union.  As a member of the newly-created National Security Council (NSC) that same year, Kennan encouraged the establishment of covert operations by the newly-formed CIA, but believed those operations should be subjected to NSC review.   

By 1950, Kennan ironically found himself at loggerheads with Secretary of State Dean Acheson over a NSC memorandum known as NSC-68 that had been drafted by a State Department Policy Planning team headed by Paul Nitze.  Based on the assumption that the Soviet Union was a messianic and expansionist power that could not be negotiated with, NSC-68 called for a massive buildup of economic and military power to counter it – representing an “active” containment rather than a passive one.  The memo was based on greatly exaggerated projections of Soviet power and distorted perceptions of Soviet intent.  Truman initially balked at adopting NSC-68 due to the high cost of implementation but changed his mind after the start of the Korean War. 

Kennan and Acheson also disagreed over Kennan’s support of a no-first-use nuclear policy as NSC-68 called for expansion of not only conventional military power but nuclear as well.  He also opposed the re-arming of Germany, acknowledging years later in a letter that the Soviets had been genuinely “spooked” by our intention to re-arm Germany and have them join NATO.  Stalin perceived these moves as evidence of the U.S. desire to undermine Soviet security and deny his country its rightful gains won through blood in WWII.  But Kennan also believed that Stalin should have realized that NATO would not have been able to mobilize enough forces to actually aggress on the Soviet Union.

Kennan would later admit that the Long Telegram read like an alarmist primer designed to “arouse the citizenry to the dangers of the Communist conspiracy.”

Reflecting how his views had evolved, Kennan told John Lukacs in 1995, regarding the early days of the Cold War: “But the only way to find out whether we could or could not come to some sort of an understanding with [the Soviets] that would reduce the growing military tensions and assure a more peaceful passage of Europe through the postwar period was to test them in reasonably private and realistic negotiations.  If no agreement was possible, then that was that; and then we would plainly have to face the consequences.  But we would not know whether any such understanding was possible or not until we had talked with them.  And this we were never willing to do.”

It was this that made Kennan unique – his willingness to re-think his views and to develop nuance and complexity in his subject of focus.  Unfortunately, by the time this process was well underway for Kennan his influence in government waned.  And, despite the fact that he was treated as a “wise man” by the cultural elite in the media and academia, his wise counsel on contemporary issues of import – such as his warnings against NATO expansion after the Cold War ended – would conveniently be ignored by those making the decisions. 

Bombholed: Matt Taibbi Details How Corporate Media Has Further Degraded Journalism Since 2016

Written and narrated by Matt Taibbi, Bombholed is a short video detailing how the corporate media has further degraded American journalism into a dangerous cartoon of infotainment since the Trump campaign and presidency.

An excerpt from the updated edition of Taibbi’s book, Hate, Inc., which Bombholed is based on, is available at Taibbi’s substack site.

Navalny Protests to Resume Later in the Year; Recent Opinion Polls Show No Significant Increase in Dissatisfaction Among Russians, Putin Retains 64% Approval Rating

Monument to Soviet Workers Moscow.Edited
Monument to the Soviet Worker, Moscow. Photo by Natylie Baldwin, Oct. 2015

An associate of Navalny has announced that further protests will be postponed until the runup to the Duma elections in the summer. According to an RT report:

Lithuania-based Leonid Volkov, once the anti-corruption campaigner’s chief of staff, has been one of the leading organizers of the demonstrations held in a number of cities throughout the country over the past fortnight. However, in a video posted to the Navalny Live YouTube channel on Thursday evening, he said there would not be a repeat of the marches this week.

It is suspected that this move was decided in the midst of smaller protests on the second weekend and no meaningful response to a call for protests in the middle of last week after Navalny’s sentencing.

Meanwhile polling has been released by the Levada Center indicating that, despite many western pundits’ insistence – yet again – that the Putin government is in deep trouble because of a western-beloved rabble-rouser who barely breaks double-digits of popularity, Putin maintains a healthy 64% approval rating:

New research, conducted by the Levada Center – a polling company registered as a foreign agent over receiving Western funding in the past – found that 64 percent of the 1,600 people surveyed backed Putin’s performance, down from 65 percent in the last poll, conducted in November.

Around a third said they didn’t approve of his activities, and only two percent didn’t express an opinion. The president’s support was strongest among those aged 55 and older, but a majority in every age group viewed his time in office as favorable thus far, including 51 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds.

Levada’s polling results were discussed last week by Russia expert Paul Robinson. With respect to Putin’s approval ratings, he said the following:

If there is any reason for Putin to be concerned it is that his approval rating is lower among younger people than older ones. Whereas 73% of people aged 55 or over approve of him, only 51% of those aged 18 to 24 do so. But then again, 51% is still a majority. It would clearly be wrong to say that Russian youth have firmly turned their backs on their president. Overall, therefore, while one can say that Putin has lost ground since the big bump in support he got after the annexation of Crimea, he’s still in a reasonably strong position.

Robinson noted that prime minister Mikhail Mishustin has an approval rating of 58%. After a year on the job, his approval rating is not only respectable but has risen. He then points out the numbers when it comes to questions Russians were asked about their overall satisfaction:

One’s general attitude to life is another. Perhaps Russia support their rulers while quietly growing more and more unhappy with the general state of things. This third chart, which is again based on surveys in January, suggests otherwise, at least in general terms.

Evaluation of the current situation in the country

The black line in the chart shows the percentage of people who think that the country is moving in the right direction, and the blue line the percentage who think the opposite. What it indicates is that despite the troublesome economic situation, Russians generally have a positive outlook, with 49% currently thinking that things are improving, and 40% thinking that they are getting worse.

While there is not a wide disparity in numbers of those who are optimistic and those who are pessimistic, these results don’t seem to support western pundits excited proclamations that the Putin “regime” is taking a serious beating from Navalny’s activities.

The Putin government does seem to be aware that there is dissatisfaction among Russians about the economic stagnation they have been enduring or several years. Ben Aris, a journalist who has been covering Russia fairly since the 1990’s, recently reported that there has been a major meeting to revamp the National Projects infrastructure and investment program, spearheaded by Mishustin and with some of the same people who helped Putin with his economic plan in the first years of his presidency, including Alexei Kudrin and German Gref, among others:

Teams have been set up to deal with the specifics, including: New Social Contract, Client-Oriented State, Aggressive Infrastructure Development, New High-Tech Economy, and National Innovation System, which correspond to five of the 12 tasks in the national projects. A working group headed by a specialised vice-premier is responsible for each segment.

A few details have leaked out from the meeting. The National Innovation System team is headed by Gref, as well as the co-founder of IBS IT Services, Russia’s answer to Germany’s SAP, Sergey Matsotsky and Alexander Galitsky, founder of Almaz Capital Partners, a leading Russian investment fund.

Boris Kovalchuk, the CEO of state-owned power company Inter RAO and the son of Yuri Kovalchuk, co-owner of Rossiya Bank, have been named the top experts for the New High-Tech Economy project, The Bell reports.

The Bell reports that the plan’s documents are full of ideas from the tech sector. The kick-off meeting is called “kick-off” (as a borrowed word from English) in brackets. Mishustin was appointed Prime Minister after transforming the tax service by, among other things, overseeing a hugely successful overhaul of the IT system. Clearly Putin is hoping Mishustin can do for the whole government what he has already done for the tax service.The national projects themselves have been repackaged, renamed and broken into components.

The Bell reports that the three most interesting blocks include: The “New Social Contract”, which envisages the introduction of a universal family allowance – not for everyone, but only for the “needy”, who will have to be identified according to the “know your client” principle. Direct payments and provision of food for the poor should become the components of the new social contract. The materials do not say anything about aid to other categories of citizens in the context of the new social contract.

Law enforcement and judicial system will be reformed to improve confidence and the business climate. One of Russia’s biggest problems holding back faster economic growth is the fact that entrepreneurs don’t trust the courts and property rights remain weak. The upshot is that successful business people are very reluctant to invest and take a defensive position to protect existing businesses rather than taking expansionist positions to grow their businesses. This attitude acts as a brake on growth and once a business gets to the size where it is providing the owner a good living it stops growing.

Putin urged in 2019 to approach judicial and law enforcement reforms “carefully, without revolutions and without waving a sword.” The Bell speculates that these reforms remain very sensitive and a deep root and branch reform is not on the cards.

Another goal in the new look national projects programme is to reduce the state’s share in the economy and at the same time to use the potential of state-owned companies to “accelerate digital development” in an effort to make Russia welcoming for start-ups from all over the Former Soviet Union (FSU).

Read the full article here.

Lev Golinkin: How many western monuments honor fascists, Nazis and murderers of Jews? You’ll be shocked.

SBandera.jpg
Stepan Bandera, Leader of the Ukrainian OUN, terrorist and Nazi collaborator

By Lev Golinkin, The Forward, 1/26/21

The most curious thing about last year’s protests that toppled statues of slavers and colonizers is that the monuments of Holocaust perpetrators didn’t even make headlines.

Yet a Forward investigation reveals there are hundreds of statues and monuments in the United States and around the world to people who abetted or took part in the murder of Jews and others during the Holocaust.

The Nazi collaborators of Central and Eastern Europe weren’t as fastidious at keeping records as their Third Reich allies, which makes it difficult to arrive at a precise number of their victims. As a rough estimate, the Nazi collaborators honored with monuments on U.S. soil represent governments, death squads and paramilitaries that murdered a half million Jews, Poles and Bosnians.

Real the full article here.

Why Navalny’s Recycled Allegations About “Putin’s Palace” Deserve Skepticism

At the time of Alexei Navalny’s arrest upon his return to Russia a couple of weeks ago, he had a video released accusing Putin of having an ostentatious palace in the Black Sea region that was funded with taxpayer money. This is actually a claim recycled from ten years ago from a Russian businessman named Sergei Kolesnikov after he moved to Estonia. The claim was not substantiated at the time and it does not appear to be substantiated now.

Navalny’s flashy and tricked out video includes mock ups of the “palace” based on the floorplans as well as photoshopped images of Putin swimming in the humongous indoor pool.

A Russian-American writer Katya Kazbek who is based in NY has written a thread on Twitter that delves into an analysis of the floorplan in Navalny’s video.  Working with a real estate specialist, she has come to the conclusion that the building in question is likely designed as a luxury resort and not a personal palace of any kind. 

Also, a group of Russian journalists reportedly found the location of the “palace” in question and found only the shell of a building.  According to a report at RT:

Now, however, the very existence of its gilded corridors and plush carpets has been called into question, after a film crew from the Moscow-based Mash news channel paid a visit to the property in Gelendzhik. On Friday, the reporters released their footage on the Telegram messaging service.

Having gained unprecedented access to the site, the journalists weren’t greeted by butlers or security guards, but by “an entrance without a gate,” they said. Instead of a luxurious coastal home, the channel’s editor-in-chief, Maxim Iksanov, described it as “a big pile of concrete.”

….Mash says it gained access with the help of a construction supervisor who has been overseeing work at the site for years. The existence of the house, on Russia’s sunny Black Sea coast, has been known about since 2012, when UK state broadcaster BBC News claimed it could be Putin’s summer bolthole.

At the time, the Kremlin said the allegations were not based on reality, and spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated the denial in response to Navalny’s investigation earlier this month. “I can say straight away that this is a broken record. Many years ago, we had previously explained that Putin does not have any palaces in Gelendzhik,” he said.

Moon of Alabama has an in-depth write up which also reveals the Navalny claims to be suspicious:

Besides that obvious nonsense one has to ask why it would take Putin so long to build a ‘palace’. Kolesnikov said the project started in 2005. Sochi was prepared for the Olympics in just six years. The bridges to Crimea were built within five years of its liberation and the Constantine Palace in St. Petersburg, which Putin in 2001 ordered to rebuild, was re-opened in 2003. It is the Russian president’s official summer residence but also open to the public. When Putin says something should be build it will be build on time and not take sixteen years to end up as an empty concrete shell.

As for the ‘palace’ Navalny describes. It seems to have always been a hotel project. It had run into financial trouble. It several times changed ownership and its construction was at times stopped for years. The Russian construction mogul Arkady Rotenberg now claims to be the current owner of the ‘palace’…

Read the full article here.

Mark Episkopos: The Truth Behind Russia’s Navalny Protests

Navalny Protests in Russia

By Mark Episkopos, The National Interest, 1/25/21

Throngs of protesters took to the streets last Saturday in what the Russian authorities have called “unsanctioned” demonstrations. Nominally, the actions were aimed at protesting the recent arrest of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. But as the day unfolded, the demonstrations took on the form of a generic anti-government protest. The police were dispatched to disperse the crowds, resulting in a slew of violent clashes. There were reportedly 3,500 arrests in total; of the 1,373 arrested in Moscow, over 700 were released over the weekend. Attendance tallies remain somewhat contested. Early reports noted as many as 40,000 protesters had gathered in Moscow alone, but more recent estimates have seen that number revised down to around 15,000 in the capital and thousands more in major Russian cities including St. Petersburg and Vladivostok.

Although far from trivial in scale, the protests sparked by Navalny’s detention appear not to have attracted nearly as many participants as the 50,000-strong anti-government protests of 2019. This deflated attendance is perhaps at least partly the result of preemptive measures taken by Russian authorities. In the days leading up to the demonstrations, Russian officials told students—and their parents—that participation in Saturday’s protests will be recorded and reported to their schools; university students were issued similar warnings.

There is little question that the protests, and the measures taken by Russian police to quell them, have been a thorn in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side. The demonstrations would have been a political liability at any time, but especially in the run-up to Russia’s September parliamentary elections. Not only Navalny’s supporters but potentially any Kremlin opponent can now claim to have been the victim of a repressive regime that criminalizes dissent.

Even so, Washington’s policy approach must incorporate a series of long-overdue truths about the Kremlin and the state of the Russian opposition. First, it is grossly premature to view the Saturday protests as a popular referendum on the Kremlin. There is no compelling evidence that a significant portion, let alone anywhere near a majority, of Russians support the violent overthrow of the Putin government. According to the most recent polling data, President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating sits steadily in the mid-60 percent range. 

Real full article here.

A Closer Look at Russia’s Constitutional Amendments and Supporting Legislation

Vladimir Putin as he is about to give a speech to the Federal Assembly, January 2020.

In January of 2020, Putin gave his annual Address to the Federal Assembly, announcing that amendments would be made to the Russian constitution.  Those amendments have now been written up and passed.  Recent legislation supporting their implementation as well as clarifying how a transition of power will work has also been passed.  Now we can start to get a better picture of what these amendments will mean for Russia’s legal and political system and compare how these changes actually square with what Putin said in his speech. 

Legal History and the Balance between the Executive and Legislative Branches

First, it is important to note the contextual background of law in Russia and the differences as well as similarities compared to what many westerners are used to.   Until the post-Soviet era, there was not a long tradition of Russians being viewed as citizens with individual rights but they were instead granted some degree of social protections and stability in exchange for obedience to authoritarian rule.  There was the concept of group rights and duties in the tsarist era up until the 1860’s and then dependent rights in the Soviet era.  As Jane Henderson, a retired lecturer at the School of Law at Kings College London and author of The Russian Constitution:  A Contextual Analysis, told me in an email exchange: 

“[G]roup rights in this context are rights (and duties) for people because they are members of a particular group, not rights for the group as a single entity. There was little tradition of rights for individuals as individuals…. [In] Soviet times, the theory was dependent rights: that individuals were given rights [primarily social and economic] in return for the duties they performed to the state – made explicit for example in the 1977 USSR Constitution Article 59.”

Indeed no constitution had existed at all in Russia until 1906 – a result of the Russian Revolution of 1905 – and that was effectively revoked in 1917. However, Alexander II – a reformist tsar who outlawed serfdom in 1861 – instituted several legal reforms, including the right to trial by jury with independent judges overseeing cases.  These rights existed in Russia from 1864 until 1917, making Russia unique in that its judicial system was more democratic while the rest of its governmental institutions remained autocratic.  As Professor Bill Bowring, an expert on Russian law at the School of Law at Birbeck College at the University of London, has pointed out, these legal rights only formally came into being in many other European countries at around the same time:  “Russia has, like all its European neighbors, a long and complex relationship with human rights – and with the rule of law and judicial independence, which are its essential underpinning.”

The current constitution of 1993 came about as a result of the dramatic showdown between then-president Boris Yeltsin and the parliament.  Yeltsin had dissolved parliament after members of the legislature refused to continue to allow him to rule by decree and wanted to roll back the many harmful economic policies he had implemented during this period.  They had also threatened to impeach Yeltsin for abuse of power.  Yeltsin ultimately ordered a military attack on the parliament building, leading to hundreds of casualties.  He then suspended the existing constitution. 

In order to prevent any other center of political power from having the ability to confront or challenge the president again, Yeltsin engineered the design of a constitution that provided for a parliament that would be little more than a rubber stamp for the president’s prerogatives.  In Putin’s January speech announcing that there would be constitutional changes, he suggested that the parliament would be granted more authority.  However, upon closer inspection, the changes relating to the balance between the executive and legislative branches of government as they have now been finalized are barely perceptible.  As Henderson explains:

“[T]he idea of the President having direct oversight over certain key federal ministries (such as those dealing with defence, state security, internal affairs, justice, foreign affairs, emergency situations) was enshrined from the very beginning in article 32 of the 1997 Federal Constitutional Law on the Government.*  This oversight is now specified at constitutional level in Article 83 (e-1)…. The State Duma [the lower chamber of parliament] now does have the power of approving ministers, except those in the key ministries just mentioned.  Previously the Duma only had a hand in consenting to the Government Chairman (Prime Minister), under the original version of Article 103(1)(a). Now it also has power over approval of the Government Chairman’s suggestions as to who should be the deputy chairman and the federal ministers (again, apart from those in the key federal ministries). However, it is not clear the extent to which the Duma will review individual ministers, or whether it will merely be put in the position of approving the government as a whole.” [emphasis mine]

Putin did emphasize as the constitutional amendments were being drawn up that Russia – due to its size and complex composition of different cultures and faiths – would have to be governed as a presidential republic and not a parliamentary republic:

“I think that Russia, with its vast territory, with many faiths, with a large number of nations, peoples, nationalities living in the country – you can’t even count, someone says 160, someone 190, you know, needs strong presidential power.”

He reiterated this idea in a speech at the Valdai conference in October. 

The Judiciary

There were also amendments relating to the judicial branch of government.  Since 2000, Putin has overseen the expansion of rights for those accused of crimes as well as introducing more organization within the everyday functioning of the system.  Examples of the former include the rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury, and increased rights to exculpatory evidence.  After certain reforms made by Putin to the criminal code, acquittal rates in bench trials (only heard by a judge) doubled and acquittal rates in jury trials tripled, contributing to a 40 percent drop in the overall  incarceration rate and a 95 percent drop in the juvenile incarceration rate since 2001. 

He also introduced the role of bailiffs and Justices of the Peace (JP’s), improving the efficiency of the justice system.  JP’s are required to be over the age of 25, have a law degree, and pass an exam and a strict security clearance.  They are formally appointed by either regional governors or regional legislative bodies.  It has been established that JP’s demonstrate independence – in other words, they base their decisions on the written law – in the vast majority of cases before them.  Exceptions involve the very small percentage of cases that are politically sensitive, particularly to the Kremlin.  In these instances the JP’s will often go along with power as a matter of being socialized into the system rather than being overtly told to do so. 

Henderson acknowledges that the professionalization of the Russian legal system seems to have improved in recent years, adding:

“[T]here is now a credible group of human rights lawyers, that is lawyers whose profession is to defend human rights cases. This would have been unthinkable, I believe, in earlier eras. I also think particularly younger people – and especially educated young people – will take a different view to those in charge who are of an age which in other circumstances would mean they would be drawing their old-age pension.”

But whether the constitutional amendments that involve changes to the judiciary will support the continued progressive evolution of the legal system or hamstring it is debatable. 

In addition to the hierarchy of courts in which actual cases involving specific parties are litigated – similar to the US hierarchy with a Supreme Court at the top – many European countries have a court that is separate and apart which has the sole objective of reviewing legislation for constitutionality.  That court in Russia is known as the Constitutional Court.  The recent amendments have granted the Constitutional Court the ability to review proposed legislation, not just legislation that has already been passed, for compatibility with the country’s constitution.

While this sounds potentially positive on the surface – being able to get guidance on whether a bill would be considered constitutional before passing it – Henderson sees this as a way for the president to also have an expanded veto power.  Whereas the president did not previously have a veto right if legislation involved a federal constitutional law that was passed with a sufficient number of votes in the parliament, he can now refuse to sign and refer it to the Constitutional Court for review.  Whether the president’s refusal to sign sticks will depend on whether the judges on the Constitutional Court agree that there are constitutional problems with the legislation. 

Judicial independence becomes important in determining whether this process will be an honest review or just a fancy two-step for a president who wants to manipulate the process and sidestep the parliament. 

This brings us to the amendment that now grants the president the right to remove judges via a request to the Federation Council.  Since the parliament currently is – by design, as discussed above – a fairly weak institution relative to the president, the likelihood that the Federation Council will go against a president’s request to remove a judge is low.  As Henderson explains:  “It must be said that as with other judges, removal from the Supreme Court or [Constitutional Court] can only be “for cause,” but this can include vague formulations, such as “bringing the judiciary into disrepute” so might be easily manipulated.”

Another amendment has to do with the Russian constitution trumping international legal decisions.  There are variations around the world as to whether a country has a monist or dualist approach toward international law.  Monist states enforce international laws and treaties as soon as that state signs on.  Dualist states require a process by which an international treaty or law is incorporated into that state’s legal system before it takes force, such as a legislative vote of ratification.  Some countries have a combination of the two.  For example, in the United States, some international laws can be applied directly by the courts and others cannot. 

The 1993 Russian constitution has what many consider to be an “expansive” approach to international law.  For example, Article 15(4) states that:

“Generally recognised principles and norms of international law and international treaties of the Russian Federation shall be an integral part of its legal system. If other rules have been established by an international treaty of the Russian Federation than provided for by a law, the rules of the international treaty shall apply.”[emphasis mine]

There is also Article 17 which states that:

“The rights and freedoms of man and citizen shall be recognised and guaranteed in the Russian Federation according to generally recognised principles and norms of international law and in accordance with the present Constitution.”

This would make it seem that Russian law was to be subordinate to international law.  But Henderson points out that there is room for debate:

“[T]he question is what we mean by a law.  Is it all law of any sort that is adopted within Russia? Or is it merely federal law? Might it include Federal Constitutional Law? It certainly is not obvious that it includes the Russian Constitution….Article 15(4) is definitely still in force, and Russia is adamant that it upholds its treaty obligations. However, Article 15(4) does not expressly say that international treaty might override the Constitution.”

Russia ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHRFF) in 1998 and has been an effective member of the Council of Europe since 1996, which means that Russian citizens can bring a case before the Council’s court, the European Court of Human Rights, if a question arises as to Russia’s enforcement of the rights and freedoms of the ECHRFF.  In order to bring such a case before the European court, a Russian citizen must exhaust all possible remedies in domestic courts first.  

There has been controversy in Russia over cases brought before the European court.  One case involved the shareholders of the Yukos oil company.   The shareholders of Yukos, which was dissolved by the Putin government years ago, had demanded compensation.  After getting no relief in Russian courts, the shareholders brought their case to the European court and won.  The Constitutional Court in Russia ruled in 2017 that abiding by the European court’s decision would violate the Russian constitution because the shareholders would essentially be getting compensated for having engaged in a tax avoidance scheme.

Another issue involved a total ban on prisoners in Russia being able to vote.  It is specifically stated in the Russian constitution that prisoners are denied voting rights.  This, however, contradicted the ECHRFF that Russia had ratified in 1998.  Controversy has erupted in recent years over the contradiction, with some members of the Duma requesting that the Constitutional Court rule on whether submitting to the European court’s rulings and obligations was compatible with the Russian constitution.  The Constitutional Court issued an opinion in 2015 that ECHRFF was compatible in theory with the Russian constitution, but left the door open for further review of any ruling from the European court that might arise from a specific case brought before it. 

The relevant constitutional amendment this year has expanded the power of the Constitutional Court of Russia in this regard.  According to Henderson:  “Following an appeal by one of a limited number of agencies, not only can the Court decide that it is not possible to apply the decision of an interstate agency because it contradicts the Constitution, but also it can refuse to apply such a decision on grounds of being contrary to the “foundations of public order” (whatever that might mean).”

The reference to “public order” is a new and recurring theme with the 2020 constitutional amendments as we shall see below.

The State Council and the Power of Municipal Government

Starting in October Putin submitted several bills that indicate he is setting the practical groundwork for an eventual transition of power. The first was a bill in connection with the State Council.

The State Council was created in 2000 by presidential decree and began as an advisory body to the president to coordinate different parts of government.  It was originally composed of the heads of regional government as compensation for being stripped of immunity and automatic participation in the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament.  Putin took this step to address what he saw as the incorrigible corruption and lack of accountability of the regional governors at the time. Membership in the State Council allowed them a forum to communicate directly with the president but did not necessarily grant any power beyond that.  As reflected in the new constitutional amendments, it is now to become an official executive body. Rather than being ceremonial, it will have the power to set the direction of both domestic and foreign policy, with a likely focus on socio-economic development. 

The constitutional amendments, while granting the president the power to create the body, provided no details about how the president would go about creating the body or filling positions on it. Russian news agency TASS reported the October 14th bill submitted by Putin stipulated that the State Council will serve as an advisory body headed by the Russian president and will include the PM, the president’s chief of staff, speakers of both chambers of parliament, and the regional governors.  Representatives of local municipal government may also be included at the president’s discretion.  Furthermore, according to TASS:

In order to deal with the agenda of the council, the presidium of the State Council will be established. Its composition will be determined by the chairman. Besides, special commissions and working groups will be created in order to organize activity in specific spheres. Representatives of federal and regional government bodies, other state bodies, local governance bodies and organizations can form part of the commissions. Members of specific commissions do not have to form part of the State Council. The chairman and members of the State Council take part in its activity on a voluntary basis.

Members must also have no residency abroad, citizenship outside of Russia, or hold funds in foreign bank accounts.

According to an analysis by Chatham House, the bill submitted by Putin would allow:

“the president to achieve at least three things at once: further de-institutionalize governance structures to give him more flexibility and appointment powers; step back from day-to-day governance while still retaining control; and structure decision-making between his subordinates on national priorities across branches of power and layers of the federation.”

These analysts point out that the State Council became particularly active around the National Projects program in 2018, an infrastructure development project critical to Putin’s plan to increase living standards and quality of life in Russia. Due to the pandemic, the National Project’s goals have been moderated.

The Chatham House analysts have a negative take on the changes which they see as potentially usurping the power of local mayors and officials.

Henderson agrees that there are concerns in this area as the State Council bill is the first piece of post-amendment legislation that includes the term “unified system of public power.” This term was mentioned in Putin’s January speech in relation to creating a system of closer cooperation between the state (legally consisting of central and regional authorities) and local municipal governments that would ostensibly prove more equitable to Russian citizens. The need cited for this included disparities among the municipalities in opportunities and implementation of social rights.  It is a new concept that was incorporated into Chapter 8 of the Russian constitution via the 2020 amendments.  Chapter 8 of the constitution involves the power of local government and the recent amendments added language as Article 132(3), stating: “bodies of local self-government and bodies of state authority are included in a unified system of public authority in the Russian Federation and conduct interaction for the most effective solution of tasks in the interests of the population living on the respective territory.”

As pointed out by Elizabeth Teague in her article “Russia’s Constitutional Reforms of 2020,“ this is inconsistent with another part of the Russian constitution:  “This appears directly to contradict Article 12 of Chapter 1 of the constitution, which reads, ‘Local self-government shall be independent within the limits of its authority. The bodies of local self-government shall not be part of the system of bodies of state authority.’”

It is believed that a likely consequence of this amendment will be the continued watering down of local authority, with the Kremlin now having the power to determine the staffing of local governments that were supposed to enjoy some autonomy.  Considering that Putin stated in his January speech the intent of, “expanding the authority of local government,” this doesn’t bode well.

As for the State Council in particular, what exactly the body will do and how is still somewhat vague and it will remain to be seen how things unfold.   On December 21st, the State Council’s secretary, Igor Levitin, who is also an aide to Putin, said that the Council “in its new format” will better facilitate action among all governing bodies:

“The constitutional amendments introduce a new legal category: the public power… In order to ensure a coordinated operation of all bodies of power, to take their opinion into account during decision-making, special authority is needed. This authority exactly is laid out in the […] law on the State Council….Before the law was adopted, the State Council was a venue for establishment of productive work of the government and the regions…Now, the area of influence is extended. Now, we will build relations between all bodies of public power.”

Similarly, there has been concern raised about the amendment to Article 67 of the constitution that would allow for the designation of “federal territories” which could allow the central government to directly take over and govern large areas of the country with any number of justifications since the wording of the amendment is vague.  This power could conceivably be used to move Russia from a federal system to a unitary system of government. 

Senators for Life

On October 31st, Putin submitted another bill regarding the role of members of the Federation Council, in which the Russian president would have the ability to appoint senators for life and for ex-presidents to apply for such a senatorial seat. According to TASS:

The bill says that senators – representatives of the Russian Federation – are appointed for six years or for life by presidential decrees. The head of state can appoint no more than seven lifetime senators. The appointment of senators is a presidential prerogative, but not a duty, so the president can use it at any time….


The requirements for former presidents are envisaged in a separate clause. A Russian president, who has ended their tenure after a presidential term has expired or in advance, will acquire the status of a senator since the moment of sending an application, with all the required documents attached, to the Federation Council.

Additionally, senators must be over the age of 30, have no residency abroad or citizenship outside of Russia, and have an “impeccable reputation.”  An updated draft of the bill has removed a previous requirement that the outgoing president apply within three months to sit in the Federation Council.  They can now apply at any time.

RT reported additional details on the makeup of the Federation Council pursuant to Putin’s proposed bill:

According to the draft law, “On the procedure for forming the Federation Council,” the body will include two representatives from each of the country’s 85 regions (one [each] from the legislative and executive authorities), a former president of Russia after leaving his post, and no more than 30 representatives chosen by him or her, with up to seven appointed for life.

This obviously provides Putin with another option for political influence after leaving the presidency. 

Immunity for the Departing President

Also in his package of bills, Putin proposed the granting of immunity to all former presidents, including for any crimes allegedly committed before taking office. RT reported on the final bill signed on December 22nd:

“In practice, it means that Putin can’t be taken to court for criminal or administrative offences after leaving the Kremlin. The same rules will apply to Dmitry Medvedev, who held the position from 2008-2012, and all future office holders. The new set-up was included in constitutional amendments, approved by a public vote in June, that made significant changes to Russia’s system of governance.

The bill stretches the previous presidential immunity system back to before the person concerned took office. They will also be excused from arrest or searches as well as questioning by police or investigators. Previously, these protections only covered actions, carried out during the time in office or investigations of actions, connected to presidential duties.”

It might be reasonable to grant some protection to ex-presidents from politically-motivated legal vendettas, but this bill appears to extend the immunity to activities of the ex-president prior to holding presidential office, which seems excessive and hard to justify.  Moreover, the process for lifting immunity, which is allowed for treason or other very serious crimes, is complicated.  As Henderson comments, “It’s quite a tortuous process which must be completed within three months from the original accusation in the State Duma. Whether it would ever be successful is another question.”

Conclusion

Many of the points reflected in the constitutional amendments this year had already been laid out in federal legislation in some fashion in recent years.  The amendments formally codified them into the Russian constitution.  In doing so, the complex and contradictory nature of some of the modifications has been made more obvious for those who take the time to study them. 

What matters most, of course, is what Russians think of these changes. With a 68% turnout in the plebiscite this summer, 78% voted in favor of the amendments.  In 2019, popular opinion in Russia was the highest it had been since 2003 in support of amending the constitution.  Putin was likely aware of the public’s receptivity to such a move.

It must be acknowledged, however, that there are troubling incongruities in how Putin characterized these changes in his January speech and what they actually look like.  This should give one pause, not due to whether such changes will get the approval of critics in the west or not (this shouldn’t be a primary concern to Russians), but whether these changes will actually hold back the progress Putin seemed to be articulating in his January speech, which implied a recognition that Russian society had reached a sufficient level of stability and maturity to begin taking the next steps toward a less rigid and more participatory system.

*Federal Constitutional Laws are a special type of federal law to cover areas specifically mentioned in the Constitution with more detail; they must be passed by a majority of the parliament and signed by the president.

Andrew Bacevich: America’s Defining Problem In 2021 Isn’t China: It’s America

By Andrew Bacevich, The American Conservative, 1/4/21 Excerpt:

…Post-Cold War expectations of a unipolar international order cultivated by the U.S. policy elite have assumed that the universal embrace of democratic liberalism is an inevitability. This is what being “on the right side of history”—a hallucinatory incantation that pervades contemporary American political speech—signifies.

To the extent that China demonstrates the feasibility of creating a stable, prosperous, and flourishing society while flouting liberal democratic precepts, then claims that history has a single right side become untenable. “If universal democratization is not the ultimate endpoint of history,” Hanania pointedly asks, “how can the American role in the world be justified?”

The answer is that it can’t.

The real danger for American elites, then, “is not that the U.S. may become less able to accomplish geopolitical objectives,” although failures on that score, especially since 9/11, are legion. Instead, the danger is that the American people—the ones whose sons and daughters wage war pursuant to geopolitical flights of fancy concocted in Washington—might themselves “begin to question the logic of U.S. global hegemony.”

For elites, then, the ultimate danger is that ordinary citizens might cease to defer. Should the American people embrace an alternative conception of history’s purpose, one not keyed to the pursuit of militarized global primacy, then the authority of national security elites will crumble. With that, hitherto hidden possibilities just might present themselves…

Read full article here.

Kevin Gosztola: British Judge Keeps Julian Assange In Prison, Despite Denying Extradition Two Days Ago

By Kevin Gosztola, 1/6/20

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaks from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy where he sought asylum following an extradition request from Sweden in 2012, on February 5, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

A British district judge denied bail for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange after a hearing in which the prosecution argued he had helped NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden “flee justice” and would abscond if released from the Belmarsh high-security prison.

“As far as Mr. Assange is concerned, this case has not been won,” Baraitser declared. She said the United States government “must be allowed to challenge [her] decision.”

Baraitser referred to the lengthy history of the case and how he “jumped bail” and entered the Ecuador Embassy to obtain asylum in 2012.

She went on to highlight the “huge support networks” he still has “should he again choose to go to ground,” and Baraitser agreed with the prosecution that WikiLeaks’ assistance of Snowden made Assange a flight risk.

Assange has been confined at Belmarsh since he was arrested and expelled from the Ecuador embassy in April 2019. All along, Judge Vanessa Baraitser agreed with prosecutors that he was a flight risk.

“Mr. Assange’s past conduct shows the lengths he is prepared to go to avoid extradition proceedings. If I released him today, he would not return to face these extradition proceedings,” Baraitser declared during a hearing in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was initially intensifying worldwide.

In her ruling on bail, despite evidence of a recent outbreak at Belmarsh, the judge maintained that the facility was properly caring for prisoners and Assange would be safe.

Real full article here.