Foreign Policy Thinking in the State Dept. & in the Democratic Party: Interview with Former State Dept. Russia Adviser James Carden

James Carden

James Carden, a journalist, analyst and former Russia Adviser in the Obama State Department, discussed foreign policy thinking at Foggy Bottom and in the Democratic Party in an email exchange with me earlier this week. His full biography appears at the end of the interview.

NB: How did you gain your expertise on Russia?  How did you come to be a Russia adviser in the State Department in 2011?

Carden: I came to be a Russia adviser at State via the Franklin Fellowship, a program for people in mid-career who wanted to make a contribution to the US. I had just gotten back from a post graduate semester (after having received my master’s at Johns Hopkins SAIS) at the equivalent institution in Moscow, where I took courses on Russian language and other courses on Russian foreign policy. It was eye-opening. I was in the foreigners program, only one other American was with me and it was clear there was something a bit “off” from the start. The only other American in the class, a fellow student – and Russian-fluent, unlike me –  from Columbia, told me that the dean or associate dean – took her aside and informed her, to our great amusement – that they “knew” she and I were CIA. 

My response was basically “I wish, having a salary and health care would be nice.” 

NB:  Your service in the State Department was under Hillary Clinton – at least, in the beginning.  What was the attitude toward Russia and Ukraine at that time and what was your experience like?

Carden: I actually thought that for the most part (with one important exception) that the FSOs [Foreign Service Officers] were, well, many of them were neutral toward Russia. The political appointees were okay -or at least the ones I ran into.  But I began to wonder:  why this lack of any real thought as to the country [assignment]. Or countries – after all, the Russia desk shared a suite of offices with the  desks that covered a number of former Soviet states. The answer was that, with the exception of the desk head, these people didn’t know a thing about Russia either. Not their fault. But that’s how the foreign service is set up. You have expertise in, say, China? You will spend the a lot of your working life in, say, Latin America. It makes no sense. 

NB:  Were you able to ascertain if then Vice President Joe Biden had any special knowledge of or interest in Ukraine that would explain why he became the administration’s point person after the Ukraine Crisis broke out?

Carden: No. I had left by then. I think it actually is reflective of Obama’s deep disinterest in European affairs that he had appointed Biden as his point man on such a pivotal issue as Ukraine. It seemed to me then that Obama had outsourced his policy on the Ukrainian crisis to his assistant secretary of state Toria [Victoria] Nuland and the then-Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, with disastrous results. 

NB:  With respect to the impeachment process we’ve been watching unfold, it seems that the Democratic Party establishment is emphasizing a Cold War framing regarding Ukraine and Russia.  What are your thoughts on this?

Carden: I’m not particularly surprised. Part of the problem is personnel, many of the people advising these politicians working on the Hill or in the DNC can’t even reach back, try as they might, to 1989. What does 1989 mean to you and me? Well, obviously the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. What does 1989 mean to the average staffer? They have no memory of the first Cold War and consequently no conception of how the current one might be even more fraught with danger.

Part of it of course is the old adage ‘where you sit is where you stand,’ So take Adam Schiff, Schiff has defense industry interests in his district, gets campaign cash from them and consequently  – as a very good article in Jacobin laid out recently – has never met a war he didn’t like. 

The underlying reason for the party’s embrace of the cold war mentality though has, of course to do with the 2016 election. Had it gone the other way – as it could have had the Clinton campaign bothered to make a few more trips to Michigan and Wisconsin – we wouldn’t have heard much more about the much vaunted Russian intervention. But she lost and her team took the issue of Russian interference (which, I’m sorry, was negligible) blew it up and ran with it in order to deflect blame from themselves. Now Robbie Mook runs a ‘disinformation’ course up at Harvard. What a world.

NB:  What do you think is the biggest obstacle within the government to the improvement of US-Russia relations? What role do the following factors play:

a.  poorly trained “Russia experts”?

b.  ideology – particularly, Neocon and Humanitarian Intervention?

c.  influence of the military-industrial complex

 Carden: If this is a multiple choice I would say “d” – all of the above. ‘

NB:  You wrote a very interesting article recently that was published at the American Conservative called “Meet the Cold War Liberals”.  In it, you discuss some of the leading Democratic candidates – who are considered progressive, including Bernie Sanders – and their foreign policy ideas as they’ve publicly discussed them.  There seems to be a common theme emerging of the U.S. and democracies of the world in a struggle against an axis of “authoritarian” governments.  This is problematic on a lot of levels. For example, it continues the deeply ingrained idea that we have to have a bogeyman to fight and to reinforce our moral superiority over.  Although this framing of democrats vs. authoritarians may play better to those who consider themselves to be liberal, it partly has its roots in neoconservative ideology.  Influential Neocon writer Robert Kagan also said we needed to shift focus to the “newly confident” authoritarian governments of the world – referencing Russia and China – in a 2008 interview with Peter Beaumont of The Observer.  Neocons have now insidiously embedded themselves in both major parties.  In this same interview, Kagan stated his support of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy and claimed that he wanted to be called a “Liberal interventionist” rather than a Neocon.  What are your thoughts on this?  

Carden: Well. Between the neocons and liberal hawks – it’s a distinction without a difference. And you see that the two war-happy wings of both parties have shaped our politics in the Trump era: the neocons see in their mirror image liberal hawks like Samantha Power and Susan Rice, and, above all, Hillary Clinton. They’re simply different sides of the same coin. But since the day Trump took office, liberals have really taken to heart the old (and wondrously wrong) adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But you would have to be pretty silly to actually believe something like that. And yet, mainstream Democrats, unable to get over the fact that Hillary lost the election, have become what they have long claimed to despise.

NB:  Though Sanders says some laudable things in his Westminster address (e.g. budget priorities, addressing our internal problems, expanding diplomacy), why does he seem to be embracing this framework of us against the authoritarians?  Do you think it portends a Sanders administration possibly being lulled into a regime change intervention if it’s framed as “supporting democratic forces” against authoritarians?  Supporting “democratic forces” in other countries that we deem insufficiently democratic will no doubt be construed by the target country as interference in its internal affairs.  It is also seems to be right out of the playbook of the CIA and NED in terms of facilitating coups.  What do you think?  

Carden: I can’t names names here but I’ll tell you this: last year I was on Capitol Hill and ran into one of my sources, a very, very pro-Bernie kind of person. We got to talking about the upcoming presidential race and Bernie came up. I was quite surprised when this person told me, without much pushing, that they thought, whatever Bernie’s merits as a person, as a Congressman, as a potential president, that Bernie would quickly and easily be captured by what President Obama called “the Blob.” That has stayed with me. Nevertheless, I will happily vote for Mr. Sanders in the general, as I did when I wrote him in on Election Day 2016. 

I think part of the reason Sanders has embraced the us vs them mindset is because of his advisors who come out of progressive activism and right now, as we have seen, its very in vogue among that set to say, “well, we’re not for regime change wars but we will take a hard line against the global authoritarians like Putin, Orban and Xi because they don’t share our enlightened politics.” It kind of a way to look ‘serious’ in front of the entrenched foreign policy establishment of which, of course, they desperately want to be a part but will never admit to their peers on Twitter. I would say it is this that worries me most about a potential Sanders presidency. It’s a way that will allow the liberal hawks to enter through the back door.

NB:  Sanders regularly reinforces the Russiagate framework, calls Putin a “brutal dictator” and doesn’t seem to have a very good understanding of contemporary Russia – the world’s other nuclear superpower.  He has, however, called for arms control diplomacy.  What do you think a Sanders administration might be like in terms of U.S.-Russia relations?

Carden: Better on arms control but pretty bad elsewhere. It’s nice that Bernie’s campaign makes the right noises now and again, but really, running around and taking selfies with Pussy Riot is a pretty bad sign. What next: Ambassador William Browder? Spare me. 

It seems like he could use a tutorial from someone like Stephen F. Cohen. Barring that, I wouldn’t expect much in the way of progress in US-Russian relations until (if?) Putin leaves the stage. But then, of course, we’ll make the same mistakes we always do: we’ll over-personalize/idealize the new Russian leader as ‘our kind of guy’ and then be inevitably disappointed when it turns out he actually doesn’t want American troops on his borders and pursues geopolitical interests that conflict with ours. Then the downward spiral of demonization and cold war will renew itself. Sanders will make a lot of noise about Russia’s kleptocrats and oligarchs but probably not push the issue of NATO expansion or missile defense, so on that score, he will be far superior than someone like Biden or Klobuchar.

NB:   A recent article by Joe Biden in Foreign Affairs, seems to suggest that he would generally continue the Bush-Obama policies.  Of course, he played a key role in legitimizing the 2014 coup in Ukraine and has been a big supporter of Russiagate.  What do you think a Biden administration would be like for U.S. foreign policy in general and U.S.-Russia relations in particular?

Carden: Disaster – on both counts. Biden will toe a much harder line on Russia, he will ratchet up tensions between Kiev and Moscow and likely push the issue of NATO expansion which is currently a dead letter – at least among the Europeans. 

He’ll take a tougher line on NATO expansion and will likely allow our policies to be dictated out of Kiev, Warsaw and Riga. There will be a lot of disingenuous talk about the glories of the Revolution of Dignity [a reference to the western spin on the 2014 coup in Ukraine], lots about Russian information warfare and not too much about how to identify areas of cooperation – after all, how can you cooperate with a criminal like Putin anyway? This, by the way, will likely be the policy of any of the Democrats except for Sanders or by some miracle, Gabbard.

NB:  As an alternative guideline for a more constructive foreign policy, you bring up FDR’s “Good Neighbor Policy” involving the UN and its original vision of the equality of all nations whose sovereignty would be respected.  Can you explain a bit more about this policy, its historical context, and why it might be good to look to this now as a way out of our destructive interventionist foreign policy?  

Carden: It was spelled out by FDR in his 1933 inaugural address and then his secretary of state Cordell Hull gave it the further imprimatur of official US policy toward Latin America at the Montevideo Conference later that year which produced the so-called Montevideo Convention which, among other things, pledged that the signatories not interfere in each other’s domestic affairs. Seems to me to be an eminently sensible way out of our current predicament. I would argue that it is informed by the best traditions of US foreign policy going back to John Quincy Adams and George Washington. 

NB:  Putin has made public comments recently about the five permanent security council members of the UN coming together and working cooperatively on peace and other pressing global issues.  He also referenced the original spirit of the UN.  Do you think there would be receptivity in Moscow to a Good Neighbor type policy as a possible foundation for improved U.S.-Russia relations?  

Carden: I think the Good Neighbor policy is premised on the validity of Westphalia, so yes, I think it would be welcomed by both Russia and China. If you look at the public statements of Sergey Lavrov, for instance, you see broad outlines – or echoes – of that rather sensible policy of non-interference. It would be a nice change to hear an American politician recall that tradition rather than bleat on about the ‘liberal international order’ which of course is not liberal, international or orderly. 

James W. Carden served as an adviser on Russia policy at the US State Department. A contributing writer at The Nation, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Quartz, The American Conservative and The National Interest. He is executive editor for the American Committee for East-West Accord. He serves on the Board of the Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy.

Putin Submits Draft Law Amending Constitution to Parliament; PM Mishustin Has New Cabinet & New Spending Order

On January 20th, Putin submitted the draft law to the Duma amending the Russian constitution. There is a summary of the draft law in English on the Kremlin’s website, which is what I’ll be using to discuss the draft law, along with some supplemental sources. I’m also including additional commentary I’ve found from trusted sources who have access to the more complete and detailed Russian version.

The first few paragraphs reiterate the restrictions for individuals running for president of Russia and other major federal offices such as prime minister, cabinet members, members of parliament, regional governors, judges, etc. These include restrictions on dual citizenship and residency and, for the president, continuous residency in Russia for at least 25 years.

As has been pointed out by others, these requirements effectively prohibit the children of the current political class from running for major office in Russia since most of them have studied and/or lived in the U.S. or Europe and have therefore had long-term residency in a foreign country.

Putin mentioned a couple of changes in his Address to the Federal Assembly earlier this month that I did not go into in my previous analysis. This included the requirement that Russia’s constitution take precedence over international law if the two are in conflict. Putin’s draft law stated the following:

To protect national sovereignty, it is proposed in the draft law that the decisions of interstate bodies based on the provisions of international treaties signed by the Russian Federation shall not be implemented in Russia if their interpretation contradicts the Constitution of the Russian Federation.

With respect to the expanded responsibilities of the parliament – consisting of the Federation Council (upper chamber) and the Duma (lower chamber) – the draft law summary states:

To make interaction between the representative and executive branches of power more effective, to strengthen the role of the State Duma and parliamentary parties, as well as to enhance the responsibility of members of the Government, it has been proposed that the Constitutional provisions on the procedure for appointing the Prime Minister and deputy prime ministers of Russia be amended to stipulate that candidates for these posts are appointed by the President following their approval by the State Duma.

A similar procedure has been proposed for the appointment of the heads of ministries whose operation is supervised by the Government.

Interestingly, there is some debate on what kind of qualitative change this represents. Professor Paul Robinson has looked at the full Russian draft submission and made some comparisons between what the current constitutional language is and what it will be changed to:

As said, Putin had suggested that in the future it would be the Duma not the president who would do the choosing. Now we know the details, and it turns out that the reality will be rather different.

This is what the current Russian constitution says (Article 111.1):

The Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation shall be appointed by the President of the Russian Federation with the consent of the State Duma. [Председатель Правительства Российской Федерации назначается Президентом Российской Федерации с согласия Государственной Думы.]

This is what the document submitted to parliament proposes that Article 111.1 should now read:

The Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation shall be appointed by the President of the Russian Federation after confirmation of his candidature by the State Duma. [Председатель Правительства Российской Федерации назначается Президентом Российской Федерации после утверждения его кандидатуры Государственной Думой.]

In short, the only change is that the prime minister will be appointed by the president ‘after approval’ rather than ‘with the consent’. How is that any different?? I have to say that I struggle to see the significance of the change.

The real question, then, is where this candidate for Prime Minister will come from – from the president, as now, or from the Duma? If it’s the former, then real power stays where it is. If it’s the latter, then you can genuinely start talking about ‘responsible government’. A proposed amendment to Article 111.2 provides the answer. At present the article reads:

The proposal on the candidate to the post of the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation shall be submitted not later than two weeks after a newly-elected President of the Russian Federation takes office or after the resignation of the Government of the Russian Federation or one week after the State Duma rejects the candidate.

The amendment to Article 111.2 proposes that it should now read:

The proposal on the candidate to the post of the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation shall be submitted to the State Duma by the President of the Russian Federation [my emphasis] not later than two weeks after a newly elected President of the Russian Federation takes office or after the resignation of the Government of the Russian Federation or one week after the State Duma rejects the candidate or after the President of the Russian Federation has resigned his duties or the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation has retired.

The words that I have emphasized in the quotation above clarify the situation: the name of the candidate for prime minister will be submitted ‘to the State Duma by the President of the Russian Federation’. In other words, everything will remain as it was, only now the Duma ‘confirms’ the candidate rather than gives its ‘consent’.

This doesn’t sound like much of a change. I’ll have to keep an eye on whether there are any further consultations on this with the working group that was assembled to confer on the constitutional changes or any other tweaks that will be made before the changes go into effect.

Putin emphasized in his Address to the Federal Assembly, and reiterated in his recent remarks, that though there may be room to expand some of the parliament’s authority, it is appropriate for Russia to remain 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.”

I noticed in this English summary of the draft submission there is nothing about any changes to the terms of the presidency – specifically, removal of the word “consecutive” in regards to the two term limit. However, Robinson stated that the change is indeed in the complete Russian version of the submission:

This will change Article 81.3 so that instead of reading, ‘One and the same person may not be elected President of the Russian Federation for more than two consecutive terms’, it will say, ‘One and the same person may not be elected President of the Russian Federation for more than two terms’ – i.e. the word ‘consecutive’ will be removed.

The draft law also gives the Federation Council the authority to investigate and remove judges for incompetence or corruption if the president recommends it:

In addition, the Federation Council is to have the power to terminate the powers of judges of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Russia, the judges of the courts of cassation and appeal upon the recommendation of the President of Russia, if they are found guilty of acts that defame the honour and dignity of judges, as well as in other cases described in the federal legislation according to which the said persons can no longer perform their duties.

Furthermore, the draft law allows the Constitutional Court to review proposed legislation for constitutionality prior to passage into law:

The role of the Constitutional Court is to be strengthened by giving it the power to analyse, at the request of the President of Russia, compliance with the Constitution of laws adopted by the two houses of the Federal Assembly before they are signed by the President.

As promised the draft law codifies that the state is responsible for providing basic social justice measures:

To protect the social rights of citizens and ensure equal opportunities for them throughout the country, Article 75 of the Constitution is to be complemented with provisions setting forth the minimum wage in the amount not lower than the subsistence minimum of the economically active population throughout the country, guaranteeing the indexation of pensions, social benefits and other social payments, and setting out the basic principles of nationwide retirement benefits.

Another change involves the State Council, which is currently an advisory body to the president to coordinate different parts of government and advise on critical issues. It is now to become an official executive body. Bloomberg described the changes in a recent report as follows:

At the moment, that body is a gathering of regional and national leaders headed by Putin but with largely ceremonial powers. Under the proposed changes, the Council’s role would for the first time be written into the constitution and a special federal law.

The State Council would have the power to “set the main directions of the domestic and foreign policy of the Russian Federation and the priority areas of socio-economic development,” according to the draft. The body would be formed by the president, although the proposed amendments give no indication how that process would take place.

Of course, there is speculation that Putin could keep a role after 2024 as the head of this body.

The Duma unanimously passed the submitted changes on January 23rd. Shortly afterwards, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed to the press that Russians will vote on the changes and will have the final word:

“We primarily don’t view this vote as just a simple formality,” Peskov added. “If people believe that it is not expedient [to introduce amendments to the constitution] then that’s what it is. It is not a formality, it is indeed a vote for or against,” he stressed.

Prime Minister Mishustin now has a new cabinet in place, with some of the major players keeping their posts, such as Sergey Lavrov as Foreign Minister, Sergey Shoigu as Defense Minister, and Anton Siluanov as the Finance Minister.

Mishustin has also released a new budget order. The following details, which are reported by The Moscow Times, reinforce my suspicion that Medvedev was replaced – in large part – because he’d been ineffective in implementing important economic plans:

Russia’s new government looks set to revise the country’s ultra-conservative economic policy in favor of more spending, a boost to welfare payments and increased investment.

Mikhail Mishustin, who President Vladimir Putin appointed last week to replace Dimitry Medvedev, instructed his new cabinet Wednesday to revise the state budget – the latest version of which was passed only a few weeks ago.

An announcement on the government’s website said the amendments to the budget would help realize the goals outlined by Putin in his state-of-the-nation address last week, where he said Russia should boost its growth rate to above 3%, increase the level of investment in the economy and improve the livelihoods of Russians, who have seen their incomes squeezed for five of the last six years.

The report points out that strict macroeconomic policy over the past several years has placed Russia’s economy in a stable position with low inflation, budget surpluses and an increase in international reserves, but it has come at the cost of growth and higher incomes.

…. To potentially pave the way for higher spending, Putin stripped his Finance Minister Anton Siluanov – the man who had overseen Russia’s frugal budget policies – of his position as First Deputy Prime Minister Tuesday evening, replacing him with the president’s former adviser, Andrey Belousov. While Siluanov will officially remain in charge of Russia’s budget, Belousov’s appointment “could raise some eyebrows among investors, given his state interventionist positions,” Deutsche Bank’s Peter Sidorov said in a research note.

Now Putin realizes it’s time to shift gears and that it’s safe to do so. As I’ve written before, the Russian president is well aware that the population wants to see improvements in income and living standards. A significant portion of Putin’s Address to the Federal Assembly earlier this month also discussed increases in maternity benefits in order to create and sustain incentives toward pushing up the lagging birthrate. Bloomberg has reported that Putin is now proposing spending the equivalent of $65 billion on support for maternity and poverty benefits.

The U.S. President Now Has Access to “Usable” Nukes – What Could Go Wrong?; Russian FM Says U.S. F-35’s Detected Near Iranian Border on Night of Tehran’s Missile Attack on U.S. Bases in Iraq; U.S. Military to Send 20,000 Troops to Europe in February

William Arkin has written a disturbing report for Newsweek detailing how 2019 legislation passed has now allowed for “usable” nukes to be rolled off the assembly line. He explains how 10 days before Trump took office, the U.S. military had run an exercise in which a conflict erupted between Iran and the U.S.. The war games culminated in a decision by the president of whether to use a mini nuke after Iran had used chemical weapons against U.S. Marines.

Though the United States has never made any public or explicit nuclear threat against Iran, in the past year, it has deployed a new nuclear weapon which increases the prospects for nuclear war. The new nuclear weapon, called the W76-2, is a “low yield” missile warhead intended for exactly the type of Iran scenario that played out in the last days of the Obama administration. Military sources directly involved in nuclear war planning say there has been no formal change in war plans with regard to Iran under the Trump administration, but the deployment of what they say is this “more usable” weapon, changes the nuclear calculus.

In exclusive reporting for Newsweek, four senior military officers say they doubt that the now six-month standoff with Iran could escalate to nuclear war. But they each note the deployment of the new Trident II missile warhead explicitly intended to make the threat of such an attack more credible, and point it out as a little understood or noticed change that increases the very danger. They argue that the new capability should give Tehran pause before it contemplates any major attack on the United States or its forces. But all four also add, very reluctantly, that there is a “Donald Trump” factor involved: that there is something about this president and the new weapons that makes contemplating crossing the nuclear threshold a unique danger.

Read the full article here.

Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Russia had detected the presence of 6 American warplanes near the western Iranian border right after Iran fired ballistic missiles at the American base in Iraq.

Citing Lavrov’s statement, the aviation publication Avia.Pro reported that the Russian Foreign Minister claimed his country’s armed forces were able to track the presence of the F-35 jets because of their air defense systems in the Middle East region….

…According to Avia.Pro, if Lavrov’s claims are in fact true, that would mean the U.S. warplanes were likely on the western border of Iran….

…“The fact that U.S. stealth fighters found Russian air defense systems means that Russia has complete control over the F-35, even outside the Middle East ,” a specialist told Avia.Pro.

The U.S. military has decided that it’s latest display of weenie-waving will begin in February when it will move 20,000 troops to Europe for the largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War. The Hill reported lasted month that troops will be in Germany and Poland, among other areas, in May:

U.S. Maj. Gen. Barre Seguin said the exercises, centered in Germany, will underscore the U.S. commitment to NATO, according to the news service.

“This really demonstrates transatlantic unity and the U.S. commitment to NATO,” said Seguin, who serves as deputy chief of staff for strategic employment, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.

As part of the exercises, the U.S. Army will assess its preparedness to move soldiers overseas to the Netherlands and Belgium and then east through Germany and Poland. After joining U.S. personnel stationed throughout Europe and 18 other NATO allies’ military forces constituting around 37,000 troops in all, the U.S. forces will return to the U.S.

But more recently, a representative of the U.S. military stated the troop movements from the U.S. to Europe will begin in February

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Moves Doomsday Clock to 100 Seconds to Midnight

The Doomsday Clock

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists today moved its infamous Doomsday Clock – representing the dangers of nuclear war and climate change to humanity – from 2 minutes to midnight to 100 seconds to midnight. Below are excerpts from the statement the Bulletin released explaining the decision. I have focused on the parts of the statement relating to the danger of nuclear weapons:

Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.

In the nuclear realm, national leaders have ended or undermined several major arms control treaties and negotiations during the last year, creating an environment conducive to a renewed nuclear arms race, to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and to lowered barriers to nuclear war. Political conflicts regarding nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea remain unresolved and are, if anything, worsening. US-Russia cooperation on arms control and disarmament is all but nonexistent….

….The world is sleepwalking its way through a newly unstable nuclear landscape. The arms control boundaries that have helped prevent nuclear catastrophe for the last half century are being steadily dismantled.

In several areas, a bad situation continues to worsen. Throughout 2019, Iran increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, increased its uranium enrichment levels, and added new and improved centrifuges—all to express its frustration that the United States had withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), re-imposed economic sanctions on Iran, and pressured other parties to the Iran nuclear agreement to stop their compliance with the agreement. Early this year, amid high US-Iranian tensions, the US military conducted a drone air strike that killed a prominent Iranian general in Iraq. Iranian leaders vowed to exact “severe revenge” on US military forces, and the Iranian government announced it would no longer observe limits, imposed by the JCPOA, on the number of centrifuges that it uses to enrich uranium.

Although Iran has not formally exited the nuclear deal, its actions appear likely to reduce the “breakout time” it would need to build a nuclear weapon, to less than the 12 months envisioned by parties to the JCPOA. At that point, other parties to the nuclear agreement—including the European Union and possibly Russia and China—may be compelled to acknowledge that Iran is not complying. What little is left of the agreement could crumble, reducing constraints on the Iranian nuclear program and increasing the likelihood of military conflict with the United States.

The demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty became official in 2019, and, as predicted, the United States and Russia have begun a new competition to develop and deploy weapons the treaty had long banned. Meanwhile, the United States continues to suggest that it will not extend New START, the agreement that limits US and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and that it may withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which provides aerial overflights to build confidence and transparency around the world. Russia, meanwhile, continues to support an extension of New START.

The assault on arms control is exacerbated by the decay of great power relations. Despite declaring its intent to bring China into an arms control agreement, the United States has adopted a bullying and derisive tone toward its Chinese and Russian competitors. The three countries disagree on whether to pursue negotiations on outer space, missile defenses, and cyberwarfare. One of the few issues they do agree on: They all oppose the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which opened for signature in 2017. As an alternative, the United States has promoted, within the context of the review conference process of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), an initiative called “Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament.” The success of this initiative may depend on its reception at the 2020 NPT Review Conference—a landmark 50th anniversary of the treaty.

US efforts to reach agreement with North Korea made little progress in 2019, despite an early summit in Hanoi and subsequent working-level meetings. After a North Korean deadline for end-of-year progress passed, Kim Jong Un announced he would demonstrate a new “strategic weapon” and indicated that North Korea would forge ahead without sanctions relief. Until now, the willingness of both sides to continue a dialogue was positive, but Chairman Kim seems to have lost faith in President Trump’s willingness to come to an agreement.

Without conscious efforts to reinvigorate arms control, the world is headed into an unregulated nuclear environment. Such an outcome could reproduce the intense arms race that was the hallmark of the early decades of the nuclear age. Both the United States and Russia have massive stockpiles of warheads and fissile material in reserve from which to draw, if they choose. Should China decide to build up to US and Russian arsenal levels—a development previously dismissed as unlikely but now being debated—deterrence calculations could become more complicated, making the situation more dangerous. An unconstrained North Korea, coupled with a more assertive China, could further destabilize Northeast Asian security.

As we wrote last year and re-emphasize now, any belief that the threat of nuclear war has been vanquished is a mirage.

Read the full statement here.

Founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock two years later, using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet. The decision to move (or to leave in place) the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is made every year by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 13 Nobel laureates. The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and disruptive technologies in other domains.

Kiev Government Tells Israel to Sit Down & Shut Up About Glorification of Nazis in Ukraine

The Times of Israel has reported that Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel told the Israeli government recently to “butt out of the debate about honoring of Nazi collaborators.”

The Ukrainian ambassador was reacting to criticisms of the post-coup government’s toleration of a segment of influential Neo-Nazis, having gotten streets named after Ukrainian Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, who was responsible for the massacre of thousands of Jews and Poles during WWII. Monuments have also been erected to Bandera and his fellow traveler Andryi Melnyk. The Times of Israel provided the following details:

Last week, Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine, Joel Lion, and his Polish counterpart Bartosz Cichocki wrote officials an open letter condemning the government-sponsored honoring of Stepan Bandera and Andryi Melnyk, two collaborators with the Third Reich.

The two have written on the subject before. In 2018, Lion wrote that he was shocked at an earlier act of veneration for Bandera, saying: “I cannot understand how the glorification of those directly involved in horrible anti-Semitic crimes helps fight anti-Semitism and xenophobia.”

Ukrainian diplomats had previously refrained from commenting publicly about Lion’s protests.

The veneration of Nazi collaborators, including killers of Jews, is a growing phenomenon in Eastern Europe, where many consider such individuals as heroes because they fought against Russian domination.

In a previous post, I quoted the Russian independent journalist, Yasha Levine, regarding a monument in connection with WWII he saw in Kiev during a trip in late 2018. At first glance, Levine thought some of the symbols looked dubious. When he got close enough to read the actual inscription, he saw that the monument – just a short distance away from Maidan Square – was glorifying members of the OUN/UPA who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war and took part in massacres of thousands of Jews and Poles. These war criminals were being heralded as heroes on behalf of Ukrainian independence.

From a distance, the exhibit looked unremarkable — one of those harmless national heritage displays you can find in any European historic city center. But as I got within reading distance, I saw that there was nothing harmless about it. The exhibit wasn’t just showcasing historical Ukrainian symbols, it was celebrating and promoting one of the bloodiest fascist movements in Eastern Europe: the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and its paramilitary offshoot, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (OUN/UPA) — groups that had played a central role in the genocide of over a million Ukrainian Jews during World War II.

These groups were notorious for their savagery. Their goal was to create a racially pure, fascist state that was free from Poles, Jews, and Russians. To achieve their aims, their leaders pledged allegiance to Adolf Hitler and received training from Nazi Germany. Many of their members had volunteered for the Ukrainian Waffen-SS division, joined Nazi auxiliary police battalions, and helped the Nazis administer occupied Ukraine. Aside from killing Jews, the OUN/UPA organized the slaughter entire Polish villages. Survivors of their atrocities told gut-wrenching tales. They cut babies from wombs, smashed children against walls in front of their mothers, hacked people to death with scythes, flayed their victims, and burned entire villages alive….

….Naturally, all this dark and bloody history was left out of the exhibit. Instead it spun a superficial revisionist tale, presenting Nazi collaborators and mass murderers as heroes and liberators. A big component of the whole thing was a series of agitprop woodcuts that glorified the struggle of OUN/UPA soldiers against both the Nazis and the Reds and pushed the fiction that these groups were not bent on genocide but were involved in liberating all the peoples of the Soviet Union from totalitarian oppression. They were multicultural! Tolerant!

I stood looking at the exhibit in shock.

This was more than just whitewashing. This was straight up Nazi collabo glorification and Holocaust revisionism — an extreme reinterpretation of Ukrainian history that has long been pushed by the country’s fascist movements and the influential Ukrainian nationalist diaspora in the United States and Canada.

But even more disturbing was who was included on the list of official sponsors of the exhibit: Radio Liberty.

For those who may not recall from the Cold War days, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (now consolidated and known as RFE/RL) were U.S. government funded media targeting the Soviet/Russian population. Levine continues:

As I leaned in for a closer look, I saw that it was produced by the Ukrainian government. Specifically: the Institute of National Memory, a state-funded organization closely linked to country’s top spy agency, the Security Service of Ukraine. What’s more: it had the backing of the United States. An info panel running along the bottom of one of the large displays proudly listed Radio Liberty — the U.S. government’s Ukrainian-language propaganda outlet — as a “media partner.”

Holocaust revisionism? Glorification of mass murderers and Nazi collaborators? Right out in the open in the center of Kiev? And endorsed by our very own government? What the hell was going on?

It’s not like the fascist and genocidal history of the OUN/UPA is open to interpretation. In the last decade, a huge body of amazing historical research has come out on the topic. Groups like the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Simon Wiesenthal Center both consider the OUN/UPA to be being major players in the genocide of Jews in Ukraine and have consistently criticized Ukraine’s attempts to erase and deny this history.

So why is a major federal agency funded by Congress helping push this revisionist Nazi bile on the Ukrainian people?

Nazis and Neo-Nazis have openly paraded around the streets of Ukraine since the overthrow of Yanukovich in 2014. Here are a few examples that can be found on YouTube:

Here is one in Mairupol from December, 2015:

Another one from April, 2016 in Ivano-Frankivsk:

And another from October, 2017 in Kiev:

The Nazi Azov battalion – leading all of these marches – was a battalion that fought against the Donbas rebels in the east of Ukraine. They were mobilized and used in the early fighting to compensate for the fact that most of the Ukrainian army draftees did not have the stomach to attack their fellow Ukrainians. The Azov battalion has since been officially incorporated into the Ukrainian national guard and has even received U.S. military aid and training.

Remember this next time someone tries to tell you that the Kiev government represents the good guys who must be given American weapons. Beware of national security state propagandists testifying before congress, comparing the Ukrainian government to the American revolutionaries.

Personally, I find this to be a total denigration of the memory of our WWII veterans, including both of my grandfathers, who were fighting against this disgusting and dangerous ideology (along with Japanese imperialism). At least, that’s the narrative we’ve all been given, right?

But then again, it wouldn’t be the first time that the U.S. government buddied up to Nazis after WWII. Look into Operation Paperclip.

Putin Proposes Changes to Constitution at Address to Federal Assembly; Medvedev Resigns, Head of Russia’s Tax Service Named New Prime Minister – What’s Going On?

Russian President Vladimir Putin Preparing to Address the Federal Assembly, January 2020.

There’s been a major shakeup this week in domestic Russian politics. It kicked off with Putin’s annual address to the Federal Assembly earlier this week, which usually happens in the spring, not in January. Among other topics, Putin announced changes he wanted made to the Russian constitution, which he had telegraphed during his December Q&A. This was followed by prime minister Dmitry Medvedev’s resignation (along with his cabinet) and the appointment of Mikhail Mishustin as his replacement.

However, before we delve into the details of this turn of events, it’s important to review what Putin’s priorities have been for Russia since he came to power, which will help to place these latest events into a larger context.

As I’ve discussed many times before, Russia was on the verge of being a failed state in 2000 when Putin took the helm. There were crises in every major area of state governance: the military was in shambles, the economy had collapsed, crime was rampant, massive poverty pervaded the country, and Russians were experiencing the worst mortality crisis since World War II.

Having studied Putin’s governance and how Russia has fared over the two decades in which he has ruled, it’s clear that he’s had three main priorities for Russia in the following order:

  1. Ensuring Russia’s national security and sovereignty as an independent nation. In previous writings, I’ve explained the importance of national security to Russians as a result of their history and geography;
  2. Improving the economy and living standards for Russians; and,
  3. The gradual democratization of the country.

These three priorities are reflected in this week’s Address to the Federal Assembly, the equivalent of the U.S. president’s annual state of the union. Putin reiterated to his audience that the first priority of national security and state sovereignty had been secured:

For the first time ever – I want to emphasise this – for the first time in the history of nuclear missile weapons, including the Soviet period and modern times, we are not catching up with anyone, but, on the contrary, other leading states have yet to create the weapons that Russia already possesses.

The country’s defence capability is ensured for decades to come, but we cannot rest on our laurels and do nothing. We must keep moving forward, carefully observing and analysing the developments in this area across the world, and create next-generation combat systems and complexes. This is what we are doing today.

Putin goes on to emphasize that success on this first priority enables Russia to focus even more seriously on the second priority:

Reliable security creates the basis for Russia’s progressive and peaceful development and allows us to do much more to overcome the most pressing internal challenges, to focus on the economic and social growth of all our regions in the interest of the people, because Russia’s greatness is inseparable from dignified life of its every citizen. I see this harmony of a strong power and well-being of the people as a foundation of our future.

In light of the abysmal living conditions that Putin inherited in 2000, he did a remarkable job over the next decade of cutting poverty, improving infrastructure, restoring regular pension payments as well as increasing the amount, raising wages, etc. Russians, whether they agree with everything Putin does or not, no matter how frustrated they may get with him regarding particular issues, are generally grateful to him for this turnaround in their country. This progress on his second priority has underpinned his approval ratings, which have never dipped below the 60’s.

But his comments during his address reflected mixed success currently as economic conditions for Russians have stagnated over the past few years. One contributing factor has been the sanctions imposed by the west in response to Russia’s reunification with Crimea as a result of the 2014 coup in Ukraine. Putin has done a respectable job of cushioning the Russian economy from the worst effects of the sanctions and even using them to advantage with respect to import substitution in the agricultural and industrial sectors. However, polls of the population have consistently shown over the past 2-3 years that Russians are losing patience with the lack of improvement in living standards.

Another problem that is limiting economic progress is the pattern of local bureaucrats not implementing Putin’s edicts. For example, in his 2018 and 2019 addresses, Putin laid out an expensive plan for economic improvement based on infrastructure projects throughout the country as well as improving health and education. Budget allocations were made for these projects and the funds released, but many have only been partially realized. Confirming what has been reported in some quarters, Putin complained about the deficiencies in the roll-out of these policies during his address.

I believe this is connected to the subsequent resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev who will now step into the newly created role of Deputy Chairman of the Security Council, while his cabinet remains in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed. Medvedev has not been particularly effective as prime minister and has been very unpopular over the past several years as suspicions of corruption have swirled around him. He is also problematic ideologically as he has always embraced neoliberal economic policy which has no traction with most of the Russian people due to the experience of the 1990’s when neoliberal capitalists ran amok. He also lacks the charisma and creative problem-solving skills of Putin.

But in all fairness, no prime minister will have an easy job in Russia if significant changes are needed or a transition is still in progress. Throughout Russia’s history, whenever leaders wanted to reform the system, they’ve always encountered the problem of implementation in terms of the bureaucracy. Whether out of malevolence, fear of losing perceived benefits, inertia, or incompetence, bureaucrats lower down the chain don’t always put the reforms effectively or consistently in place. Putin has complained at various times of local bureaucrats’ intransigence and its negative effects on average citizens whom they are supposed to be serving.

Not much is known about Medvedev’s immediate replacement, Mikhail Mishustin, except that he is a former businessman and has served as head of Russia’s Tax Service since 2010. In his capacity leading the tax agency, he is held in positive regard, credited with modernizing and streamlining the historically onerous tax collection system.

The third priority of Putin has been gradual democratization of the country. Putin is often characterized in the west as an autocrat and a dictator. However, as I’ve written before, there are many democratic reforms that have been implemented under Putin’s rule that are often ignored by western media and analysts. It is not that democracy has not been a priority for Putin, it’s that it was to be subordinated to the other two priorities. Putin, as well as many other Russians, have been nervous about possible instability. With their history of constant upheaval over the past 120 years – two revolutions, two world wars, numerous famines, the Great Terror, and a national collapse – this is understandable.

Putin inherited a system of governance that featured a strong president and a weak parliamentary system as reflected in the 1993 constitution ushered in by Yeltsin – the origins of which are explained here. Putin has used this system effectively throughout his 20 years in power – 16 of them as president – to try to solve the various crises mentioned earlier. Such strong, centralized power is necessary when a state is dealing with multiple existential emergencies.

At this point, I think Putin realizes that Russia, though it still has significant problems to be addressed, is no longer in a state of emergency. Therefore, it is no longer necessary to keep quite the same level of power concentrated in the office of the presidency, which is open to abuse by future occupants. Here is what Putin said about this:

Russian society is becoming more mature, responsible and demanding. Despite the differences in the ways to address their tasks, the main political forces speak from the position of patriotism and reflect the interests of their followers and voters.

The constitutional reforms Putin goes on to discuss include giving the parliament the right to appoint the prime minister and his/her cabinet, no foreign citizenship or residency of major office holders at the federal level (president, prime minister, cabinet members, parliamentarians, national security agents, judges, etc.), expanding the authority of local governmental bodies, and strengthening the Constitutional Court and the independence of judges. He also mentioned codifying certain aspects of socioeconomic justice into the constitution:

And lastly, the state must honour its social responsibility under any conditions throughout the country. Therefore, I believe that the Constitution should include a provision that the minimum wage in Russia must not be below the subsistence minimum of the economically active people. We have a law on this, but we should formalise this requirement in the Constitution along with the principles of decent pensions, which implies a regular adjustment of pensions according to inflation.

In other words, Putin realizes that the system as it is currently constructed has outlived its usefulness and some modest changes are needed to keep the country moving forward. Despite the constant nonsense that passes for news and analysis of Russia in the west, civil society is alive and well in Russia. Putin is aware of the citizen-led initiatives that have been occurring throughout the country to improve local communities and it appears that he is ready to allow more space for this new participation of average Russians to solve problems for which the official bureaucracy seems to be stuck:

Our society is clearly calling for change. People want development, and they strive to move forward in their careers and knowledge, in achieving prosperity, and they are ready to assume responsibility for specific work. Quite often, they have better knowledge of what, how and when should be changed where they live and work, that is, in cities, districts, villages and all across the nation.

The pace of change must be expedited every year and produce tangible results in attaining worthy living standards that would be clearly perceived by the people. And, I repeat, they must be actively involved in this process.

How these changes will actually be instituted and what the results will be is, of course, unknown at this time. Putin suggested that the eventual package of constitutional amendments will be voted on by the Russian people. It also appears that Putin will indeed step down at the end of his presidential term in 2024, but it is still very likely that he will remain in an active advisory role.

Unlike the knee-jerk malign motives that are automatically attributed to anything Putin does by the western political class, I see this as a calculated risk that Putin is ready to take to make further progress on his second and third priorities for Russia.

Retired Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter: Pompeo “Lying Through His Teeth” on Iran

This is Aaron Mate’s interview this past weekend with Scott Ritter about the recent tensions with Iran. Keep in mind that Ritter is a Republican and a retired Marine Corp. intelligence officer. He’s not a “fringe lefty.” I’ll be cross-posting an interview with a more lefty Iran expert next week.

From the archive:

But he’d never lie about Iran, now, would he? Nah, only deranged left-wing conspiracy theorists would even suggest that.

Putin, Merkel & Macron All Agree Iran Nuclear Deal Should be Preserved, Call for Restraint on All Sides Moving Forward

On Saturday, the Russian president had a lengthy meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel regarding Nordstream II and several issues pertaining to the Middle East, particularly the recent events involving Iran, Iraq and the U.S.

RT reported on the meeting and subsequent joint press conference by Putin and Merkel:

President Vladimir Putin and Chancellor Angela Merkel have agreed that preserving the Iran nuclear deal is a matter of “tremendous importance” stressing that the agreement should be kept by all means necessary.

Both leaders believe that the 2015agreement, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), still can and should be preserved, despite the latest spike in tensions sparked by the US assassination of a top Iranian general.

Speaking to journalists in Moscow following her meeting with Putin, Merkel said that “everything must be done to keep the JCPOA going” and vowed to use “all the diplomatic tools to help this agreement.”

Putin also described the deal as “tremendously important” and said that both Moscow and Berlin agree that all parties need to “come back to the deal.”

…Putin further expressed hope that a special-purpose vehicle called INSTEX Europe, created to facilitate trade with Iran and circumvent US sanctions, would soon “be up and running” and that European nations “would deliver on their promise to create an independent mechanism free of the dollar influence.”

So far, Europe’s endeavors in this area have not been particularly successful. The mechanism was originally created in early 2019, but was apparently limited to what the European nations called high-priority “humanitarian goods,” such as food and medical supplies. Meanwhile, European companies have been in no rush to trade with Iran, out of fear of losing the American market as a result of possible sanctions.

This follows agreement between Putin and French president Macron that all steps should be taken to preserve the Iran nuclear deal as China, Russia and Europe are all guarantors of the agreement.

Merkel and Putin also agreed that the latest sanctions from Washington on the Nordstream II gas pipeline carrying Russian natural gas to Germany will result in a delay of a few months, but will not block the finalization of the project. They further called for a ceasefire in Libya and peace talks in Berlin, buttressing such calls recently announced by Putin and Turkish president Erdogan.

Watch the full press conference here:

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin hold joint press conference after meeting this past Saturday.