An Alternative Explanation to the Skripal Mystery

An alternative explanation to the mystery surrounding the poisoning of Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter may involve a possibility that neither the British nor Russian governments want to talk about, as Gareth Porter explores.

By Gareth Porter  Special to Consortium News

For weeks, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have insisted that there is “no alternative explanation” to Russian government responsibility for the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury last month.

But in fact the British government is well aware that such an alternative explanation does exist. It is based on the well-documented fact that the “Novichok” nerve agent synthesized by Soviet scientist in the 1980s had been sold by the scientist–who led the development of the nerve agent– to individuals linked to Russian criminal organizations as long ago as 1994 and was used to kill a Russian banker in 1995.

The connection between the Novichok nerve agent and a previous murder linked to the murky Russian criminal underworld would account for the facts of the Salisbury poisoning far better than the official line that it was a Russian government assassination attempt.

The credibility of the May government’s attempt to blame it on Russian President Vladimir Putin has suffered because of Yulia Skripal’s relatively rapid recovery, the apparent improvement of Sergei Skripal’s condition and a medical specialist’s statement that the Skripals had exhibited no symptoms of nerve agent poisoning.

How a Crime Syndicate Got Nerve Agent

The highly independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta has published a detailed account of how Russian organized crime figures obtained nerve agent in 1994 from Leonid Rink, the head of the former Soviet government laboratory that had synthesized it.

The newspaper gleaned the information about the transaction from Rink’s court testimony in the 1995 murder of prominent banker Ivan Kivelidi, the leader of the Russian Entrepreneurs’ Round Table, an organization engaged in a conflict with a powerful group of directors of state-owned enterprises.

Rink testified that after the post-Soviet Russian economic meltdown had begun he filled each of several ampoules with 0.25 grams of nerve agent and stored it in his own garage. Just one such ampoule held enough agent to kill 100 people, according to Rink, the lead scientist in the development of the series of nerve agents called Novichok (“newcomer” in Russian).

Rink further admitted that he had then sold one of the ampoules in 1995 to Artur Talanov, who then lived in Latvia and was later seriously wounded in an attempted robbery of a cash van in Estonia, for less than $1,800.

In 1995, some of that nerve agent was applied to Kivelidi’s telephone receiver to kill him, as the court documents in the murder case reveal. Police found that there were links between Talanov and Vladimir Khutsishvili, who had been a board member of Kivelidi’s bank, according to the Kivelidi murder investigation. Khutsishivili was eventually found guilty of poisoning Kivelidi, although it was found that he hired someone else to carry out the poisoning.

But that wasn’t the only nerve agent that Rink sold to gangsters. Rink admitted in court in 2007 that he had sold four of the vials to someone named Ryabov, who had organized crime connections in 1994. Those vials were said to have been seized later by Federal Security Police.

But the investigation of the Kivelidi murder found that vials had also fallen into the hands of other criminal syndicates, including one Chechen organization. Furthermore, Rink testified that he had given each of the recipients of the nerve agent detailed instructions on how it worked and how to handle it safely.

The Mystery of the Non-Lethal Nerve Agent

The newly-revealed story of how organized crime got control of hundreds of doses of lethal nerve agent from a government laboratory sheds crucial light on the mystery of the poisoning in Salisbury, especially in light of the timeline of the Skripals on the day of the poisoning and their unexpectedly swift recovery.

Reports of their activities on March 4 show that they were strolling in central Salisbury, dining, and visiting a pub for several hours before collapsing on a park bench sometime after 4 pm.

The announcements of Yulia’s rapid recovery on March 28 and that Sergei was now “stable” and “improving rapidly” about a week later appears to be in contradiction with the British insistence that they
were poisoned by a Russian government intelligence team. The Novichok-type nerve agent has been characterized as quick acting and highly lethal.

But the official Russian forensic investigation in conjunction with the Kivelidi’s murder, as reported by Novaya Gazeta, concluded that the Novichok did not take effect instantaneously but generally took from one and a half to five hours.

The Russian government has now made an official issue of the fact that the nerve agent used in the poisoning proved not to be lethal. In his news conference on April 14 Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Swiss Spiez Laboratory, working on the case for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), had found traces in the Skripals’ bloodsample, of the nerve agent BZ, which was never developed by Soviet scientists but was in the arsenals of the United States and Britain.

Lavrov also acknowledged that the lab had in addition found traces of “A-234”–one of the nerve agents in the Novichok series – “in its initial state and in high concentration”. Lavrov argued that had the assassins used A-234 nerve agent, which he noted is at least eight times more deadly than VX nerve gas, it “would have killed the Skripals.”

But if the poisoning had been done with some of the A-234 nerve agent that was sold by Rink to organized crime figures, it probably would not have been that lethal.

Vil Mirzayanov, the counter-intelligence specialist on the team that developed Novichok and who later revealed the existence of the Novichok program, explained in an interview with The Guardian that the agent lost its effectiveness. “The final product, in storage, after one year is already losing 2%, 3%,” Mirzayanov said, “The next year more, and the next year more. In 10-15 years, it’s no longer effective.”

Exposure to even a large dose of such a normally lethal poison more than 25 years after it was first produced could account for the apparent lack of normal symptoms associated with exposure to that kind of nerve agent experienced by the Skripals, as well as for their relatively speedy recovery. That lends further credibility to a possible explanation that someone with a personal grudge against Sergei Skripal carried out the poisoning.

An Absence of Nerve Agent Symptoms?

Also challenging the official British line is a statement by a medical specialist involved in the Salisbury District Hospital’s care for the Skripals revealing that they had not exhibited any symptoms of nerve agent poisoning.

Stephen Davies, a consultant on emergency medicine for the Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the Salisbury District Hospital, wrote a letter published in The Times on March 16 that presented a problem for the official British government position. Davies wrote,“[M]ay I clarify that no patients have experienced symptoms of nerve-agent poisoning in Salisbury, and there have only ever been three patients with significant poisoning.” Obviously, Sergei and Yulia Skripal were “patients” in the hospital and were thus included in that statement.

The Times made the unusual decision to cover the Davies letter in a news story, but tellingly failed to quote the crucial statement in the letter that “no patients have experienced symptoms of nerve-agent poisoning in Salisbury” or to report on the significance of the statement.

To rule out the possibility that Davies intended to say something quite different, this writer requested a confirmation or denial of what Davies had written in his letter from the press officer for the Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust, Patrick Butler. But Butler did not respond for a week and then refused directly to deny, confirm or explain the Davies statement.

Instead Butler said in an email, “Three people were admitted and treated as inpatients at Salisbury District Hospital for the effects of nerve agent poisoning as Stephen Davies wrote.” When he was reminded that the letter had actually said something quite different, Butler simply repeated the statement he had just sent and then added, “The Trust will not be providing any further information on this matter.”

Butler did not respond to two separate requests from the writer for assistance in contacting Davies. The refusal of the NHS Foundation Trust to engage at all on the subject underlines the sensitivity of the British government about nerve agent that didn’t work.

There are many individuals in Russia whose feelings about Sergei Skripal’s having become a double agent for Britain’s MI6 – including former colleagues of his – could provide a personal motive for the poisoning. And it is certainly plausible that those individuals could have had obtained some of the nerve agent sold by Leonid Rink that entered the black market.

Neither the British government nor the Russian government is apparently eager to acknowledge that alternative explanation. The British don’t want it discussed, because they are determined to use the Salisbury poisoning to push their anti-Russian agenda; and the Russians may be reluctant to talk about it, because it would inevitably get into details of a secret nerve agent research project that they have claimed they closed down in 1992, despite Rink’s testimony in the court case that he was still doing some work for the Russian military until 1994.

Gareth Porter is an independent journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. He is the author of numerous books, including Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (Just World Books, 2014). 




Trump Attacks Syria With Chemical Experts on the Way

President Trump ordered airstrikes on Syria as a team of experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was about to arrive on Saturday to determine whether a chemical weapons attack had even occurred, Joe Lauria reports. 

By Joe Lauria  Special to Consortium News

President Donald Trump on Saturday (Syria time) ordered air strikes against Syria in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack last weekend outside Damascus.

“I ordered the United States armed forces to launch precision strikes on targets associated with the chemical weapon capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad,” Trump said from the White House.

The strikes were carried out together with Britain and France, he said.  CNN reported explosions at a research facility near Damascus. At a news conference later, Pentagon officials said this “phase” of the missile strikes against three so-called chemical research targets, one in the center of the Syrian capital, were completed and “no additional attacks are planned.”

U.S. officials said Russia had been told of the military operation but Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told the press briefing Friday night (Washington time) that Moscow was not informed of the Syrian targets. Russia had vowed to shoot down incoming U.S. and allied missiles as Russian military personnel are embedded with the Syrian Arab army at various locations in the country.

U.S. military analysts say the U.S. wanted to avoid hitting Russian targets, but once unleashed, military action can lead to unintended consequences.

Pentagon officials said they only had reports that Syrian, but not Russian, anti-missile defenses had been engaged. Whether any U.S. missiles or planes were hit would be made plain on Saturday morning in Washington, they said.

OPCW Team Was on the Way

A team of experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was on its way to Syria after accepting an invitation from the Syrian government to study soil and other samples in Duma, the Damascus suburb where the alleged attack took place.

It’s not clear whether the U.S.-led operation would complicate their mission as the team was due to arrive later on Saturday. It is also not certain whether the timing of the U.S.-led attack was intended to prevent the team from gathering evidence to prove whether or not chemicals were used. The OPCW does not assess blame.

Trump had threatened earlier in the week, in perhaps his strangest Tweet yet, to send “smart” and “clean” missile strikes into Syria to attack “Animal Assad.” He also blamed Russia for supporting Assad, which may have been intended to get critics, who accuse him of being a Putin puppet, off his back. Indeed this latest display of American militarism may also be driven by Trump’s anti-Russian critics.

Trump had backed off his threat when it was revealed that his aides had not yet agreed to the attack.

In April 2017 the U.S. fired 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase that Washington believed was used to carry out a chemical attack. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis later said the U.S. did not have concrete evidence that Syria was responsible.

No Proof Made Public

Likewise no public proof has been offered that Syria was behind the alleged chemical attack last weekend in Duma, where as many as 70 people may have been killed.

The gas allegedly used in the Duma attack is chlorine. In 2014 Syria was certified by the OPCW to have given up its entire chemical weapons arsenal in a deal with the United States and Russia. The chemicals were destroyed on a U.S. Navy ship.

Chlorine, however, is not on the OPCW list of banned chemicals, and is not classified as a chemical weapon. Any country, including Syria, is allowed to possess it, but cannot use it as a weapon. U.S. officials know this but say incorrectly that Russia had failed to give up chemical stocks that were on the OPCW banned list. The military strikes were, as usual, egged on by influential U.S. pundits, some masquerading as reporters. Christiane Amanpour said on CNN after the attack was launched that Russia had stopped President Obama from attacking Syria by agreeing to eliminate its chemical weapons.

“The allies have been forced into this,” Amanpour said, adding that they had no choice. “Russia promised that they would remove Syrian chemical weapons but they have chlorine,” she said, clearly uniformed that it was a joint-U.S.-Russia operation and that chlorine is not classified as a chemical weapon.

Consortium News this week published two pieces calling on Trump to obtain evidence of Syria’s guilt and legal authorization before launching an act of war. The U.S. has neither demonstrated that it is acting in self-defense nor did it get U.N. Security Council approval, making tonight’s actions clearly illegal. Nor has Trump received authorization from Congress, making it illegal under U.S. law. Several Congressmen complained of this after the attack, but Dunford told the Pentagon briefing that Trump acted legally because U.S. interests were involved.



Liars Lying About Nearly Everything

Donald Trump turns out to be a pretty good liar, even if he frequently has no idea what he’s talking about, says Phil Giraldi in this commentary. But the prize for lying has to go to the British.

By Phil Giraldi

At least since the time of Marcus Tullius Cicero in the late Roman Republic everyone has certainly understood that politicians lie all the time. To be sure, President Donald Trump has been exceptional in that he has followed through on some of the promises he made in his campaign, insisting periodically that he has to do what he said he would do.

Unfortunately, those choices he has made to demonstrate his accountability to his supporters have been terrible, including moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, threatening to end the Iran nuclear agreement and building a wall along the Mexican border. Following through on some other pledges has been less consistent. He has increased U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan and turned the war over to the generals while also faltering in his promise to improve relations with Russia.

The potential breakthrough offered by promising exchanges during phone calls to Vladimir Putin have been negated by subsequent threats, sanctions and expulsions to satisfy hysterical congressmen and the media.

Concerning Syria, Trump last Tuesday said “I want to get out,” promising to pull U.S. troops out very soon, but was quickly brought to heel by pressure from Congress and a phone call from Israeli Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu that compelled him to change his mind within 24 hours. Israel wants chaos in Syria and its instrument of choice is the American military. Netanyahu has Congress to do his bidding and, for whatever reason, appears to also have Trump under his thumb.

A Pretty Good Liar

So Donald Trump turns out to be a pretty good liar, even if one has to take into account the fact that he frequently has no idea what he is talking about. But the prize for lying at a high level has to go to the British as related to what has been going on both in the Middle East, with Russia, and also in Britain itself.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair was the first master at dissimulation in 2002 when his intelligence chief Sir Richard Dearlove told him that the Bush White House had decided on war and “the intelligence and facts were being around the policy” regarding Iraq, meaning that it was ignoring the information that did not support its desire to create a pretext for invading the country and removing Saddam Hussein.

Blair presumably could have derailed the ill-fated invasion by refusing to go along with the venture, which was a war crime, but instead he fully supported George W. Bush in the attack. He thereby had a hand in America’s worst foreign policy disaster ever. In 2016 an official British government inquiry determined that Bush and Blair had indeed rushed to war together. The Global Establishment has nevertheless rewarded Tony Blair for his loyalty with Clintonesque generosity. He has enjoyed a number of well-paid sinecures and is now worth in excess of $100 million.

Creating a Foreign Crisis

Moving along to the present, we have Prime Minister Theresa May. May has been in serious trouble, politically speaking. After losses suffered in the recent parliamentary elections, she is clinging to power and is increasingly unpopular even within her own Conservative Party. So what do you do when you are in trouble at home? You create a foreign crisis that you have to deal with.

If you are someone as venal as former American President and bottom feeder Bill Clinton you accomplish that end by firing off a few cruise missiles at a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan and at some mud huts in Afghanistan. If you are May, you up the ante considerably, coming up with a powerful enemy who is threatening you, enabling you to appear both resolute and strong in confronting a formidable foe. That is precisely what we have been seeing over the past month relating to the alleged poisoning of former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

There is quite a bit that is odd about the Skripal case. Even the increasingly neoconnish Guardian newspaper has conceded that “the British case [against Russia] has so far relied more heavily in public on circumstantial evidence and secret intelligence.” And secret intelligence, so called, has all too often been the last refuge of a scoundrel whenever a government is selling snake oil to the public. In this case, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson rushed to judgement on Russia less than forty-eight hours after the Skripals were found unconscious on a bench in Salisbury, England, too soon for any chemical analysis of the alleged poisoning to have taken place.

Blaming the Kremlin, Again

May addressed Parliament shortly thereafter to blame the Kremlin and demand a Russian official response to the event in 36 hours, even though she had to prevaricate significantly, saying that the apparent poisoning was “very likely” caused by a made-in-Russia nerve agent referred to by its generic name Novichok. She nevertheless rallied the backbenchers in Parliament, who responded with a lot of hearty “Hear! Hear!” endorsements.

When Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn attempted to slow the express train down by suggesting that it might be wise to wait and see what the police investigation uncovered, he was hooted down. The British media was soon on board with a vengeance, spreading the government line that such a highly sensitive operation would require the approval of President Vladimir Putin himself. The expulsion of Russian diplomats soon followed.

One of the strangest aspects of the Skripal case is that daughter Yulia was released from hospital on Tuesday. She has been held incommunicado and is being “protected” in a secret location by the British government. It is

impossible to know if she wants to return to her life in Russia and is being held against her will, not so much to protect her as to silence her.

Sergei is no longer in critical condition. A cousin Viktoria Skripal has offered to fly in from Moscow to provide support for her family, but was denied a British visa. Russian television aired a recording of a phone call between the two cousins in which Yulia said that she was disoriented but improving and that neither she nor her father had suffered permanent damage from the poisoning. The call ended abruptly and Viktoria Skripal believes that it was scripted by the British government on a controlled phone line.

Repeated requests by Russia to obtain a sample of the alleged nerve agent for testing have been rejected by the British government in spite of the fact that a military grade nerve agent would have surely killed both the Skripals as well as anyone else within 100 yards. As the latest British account of the location of the alleged poison places it on the door handle of the Skripals’ residence, the timetable element is also unconvincing. That means that the two would have spent three hours, including a stop at a pub and lunch, before succumbing on a park bench. Military grade nerve agents kill instantly and this one is said to be 8 times more powerful than VX.

A request to have the testing done by the politically neutral Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is in progress, but there is little enthusiasm from the British side, which does not want a Russian observer to participate in the process. The May government has already established its own narrative and certainly would have plenty to lose if the whole affair turns out to be fabricated. And fabricated it might have been as the nerve agent, if it actually exists, could have been manufactured almost anywhere.

The head of Britain’s own chemical weapons facility Porton Down has contradicted claims made by May, Johnson, and British Ambassador in Moscow Laurie Bristow. The lab’s chief executive, Gary Aitkenhead, has testified that he does not know if the nerve agent was actually produced in Russia, a not surprising observation as the chemical formula was revealed to the public in a scientific paper in 1992 and there are an estimated twenty countries capable of producing it. There are also possible stocks of Novichok remaining in independent countries that once were part of the Soviet Union, to include Russia’s enemy du jour Ukraine, while a false flag operation by the British themselves, the CIA or Mossad, is not unthinkable.

Orwellian Govspeak

The resort to official Orwellian govspeak by the British is remarkable throughout the process, but is particularly painful reading regarding the treatment of the Skripals’ pets, two guinea pigs and a cat. A spokesman for the Department of the Environment reported that “The property in Wiltshire was sealed as part of the police investigation. When a vet was able to access the property, two guinea pigs had sadly died. A cat was also found in a distressed state and a decision was taken by a veterinary surgeon to euthanize the animal to alleviate its suffering. This decision was taken in the best interests of the animal and its welfare.”

So the presence of squadrons of technicians and cops in the residence did not permit anyone to take a minute to feed the cat and guinea pigs. And the cat was killed as a purely humanitarian gesture – it’s “best interest” was apparently to die. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Finally, the best argument against the British government’s evasions about what took place in Salisbury on March 4 remains the question of motive.

The British would have one believe that Putin personally ordered the killing of a former British double agent who had been released from a Kremlin prison in a spy swap and who was no longer capable of doing any damage to Russia. He did that in spite of the fact that he had an election coming up and would be the host of the World Cup in the summer, an event that he would want to go smoothly. So he deliberately shot himself in the foot on both counts, allegedly because he wanted to send a message to traitors and also because he just can’t help himself since he is a vindictive KGB type whose impulses are pure evil. Does that make sense to the reader? It doesn’t to me.

An earlier version of this article was published on the Unz Review.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.




U.S. Establishment: Nixing Arms Control

Trump’s new National Security Adviser John Bolton has been instrumental in launching wars and scrapping arms control treaties – just the man for the job as the U.S. embarks on a new arms race with Russia, Ray McGovern sardonically observes.

By Ray McGovern

John Bolton’s appointment as national security adviser to President Donald Trump is the latest blow to hopes for a less confrontational U.S.-Russia relationship that would include new talks on arms control. Mutual trust is now hanging by a very thin thread.

One wag suggested to me that the Bolton appointment should not really come as a surprise, since it fits the recent Washington pattern — if White House chaos can be considered a pattern. For Kremlin leaders, though, White House zig-zags are no laughing matter. Let’s try to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine how the unfolding of recent events may have looked to them.

On March 1 in his state-of-the-nation address, President Putin revealed several new strategic weapons systems that Russia developed after the Bush/Cheney/Bolton administration abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had been the cornerstone of strategic stability for the previous 30 years. (John Bolton is included in that august company because, as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, he was Vice President Dick Cheney’s enforcer to put the kibosh on the ABM Treaty.)

You would not know it from the “mainstream media,” but in that same speech Putin offered to “sit down at the negotiating table” and “work together … to ensure global security” — taking into account the strategic parity Moscow claims.

Referring to what he called “our duty to inform our partners” about Russia’s claimed ability to render ABM systems “useless,” Putin added: “When the time comes, foreign and defense ministry experts will have many opportunities to discuss all these matters with them, if of course our partners so desire.”

One “Partner” So Desires

On March 20, two days after Putin was re-elected President of Russia, President Trump decided to congratulate the winner — as is the custom — without insulting him. For this he was excoriated by mainstream media for squandering the chance to point his finger, once again, at alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Sitting atop Mark Landler’s New York Times article that day was this headline: “Trump Congratulates Putin, but Doesn’t Mention Meddling in U.S.”

That was not Trump’s only offense. He also disregarded instructions to berate Putin with the evidence-and-logic-free accusation that Moscow poisoned, for no apparent reason, a former Russian spy and his daughter living in the UK. Landler lamented, “Instead, Mr. Trump kept the focus of the call on what the White House said were ‘shared interests’ — among them, North Korea and Ukraine — overruling his national security advisers …”

Parsing the NYT

The Times’ initial report included “arms control” in the headline and quoted Trump: “We had a very good call … We will probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control.” It was not long, however, before the NYT pared down that last sentence to “We will probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future.”

Landler did include (buried in paragraph 25 of 29) the following: “During their call on Tuesday, a senior official said, Mr. Trump told Mr. Putin he had been concerned by a recent speech in which Mr. Putin talked about Russia developing an “invincible” intercontinental cruise missile and a nuclear torpedo that could outsmart all American defenses.”  But Landler (or his editors) took pains to omit any mention of Trump’s actual reaction in suggesting an early summit to discuss arms control.

Parsing what is allowed to appear in the NYT (sometimes in altered iterations) is not very different from the “Kremlinology” tools that we analysts used to apply, back in the day, to eke insights out of the turgid prose in Pravda, Izvestiya, and other Soviet media. 

Moreimportant, how the NYT played Trump’s reaction to Putin’s re-election — specifically, his swiftly excised suggestion of an arms control summit, probably did not escape notice among present-day Russians who do analysis of U.S. media. It requires little imagination to conclude that for the U.S. Establishment, for which the NYT is a mouthpiece, arms control is off the table, despite anything the President may have said.

Lots of $ For Arms Dealers

There are a lot of powerful people making a lot of money profiteering from arms manufacture and sales, with a portion of the profits going to senators and representatives in Congress, who get re-elected and then oblige by appropriating still more funding for what Pope Francis warned Congress are the “blood-drenched arms traders.”

On March 26 President Trump ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats the U.S. identified as intelligence agents and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle, in response to Russia’s alleged role in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, the former Russian spy now living in England. Russia responded tit for tat, expelling 60 U.S. diplomats and closing the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. Russian culpability for the poisoning is far from proven.

Doesn’t Make Sense

Writing on March 28, Gary Leupp, history professor at Tufts University, put it this way: “Why follow up that cordial call [the congratulatory one] to Putin with the expulsion of so many diplomats? What the hell. Doesn’t make sense.” Leupp worries that as President Trumps political situation deteriorates, “he will be more prone to lean on his generals … while also heeding the horrific Bolton. This is a very bad situation.”

Another encomium came this week from author Daniel Lazare who pretty much summed it up:

“John Bolton is without doubt a dangerous man. Not only did he champion the war against Saddam Hussein, but, even before U.S. troops had set foot in Iraq, he told Israeli leaders that the next step would be to take out Syria, Iran, and North Korea, a goal he has pursued with single-minded consistency ever since. For Bolton, the aim is to create a growing cascade of Third World wars so as to propel the U.S. into a position as unchallenged military dictator of the entire globe.  The more numerous the conflicts, the more he’s convinced that the U.S. will come up on top.”

Bolton’s Return

There is great — and justified — concern that John Bolton will have the President’s ear and reinforce Trump’s worst inclinations. A Yale law school graduate, Bolton has not shown much respect for the law. His record places him toward the top of the list of “crazies,” the sobriquet we all used for those who later became known as neoconservatives. I discussed this background in a recent interview on Intercepted. (See 16-minute segment beginning at minute 35.)

Back in the day, I recalled, when I was working at CIA in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, we didn’t talk about neocons, we talked about “crazies.” We noted that George H.W. Bush was careful in keeping “the crazies” in check, giving them positions in government with prestigious job titles but where they couldn’t do great harm to the country.

When George Bush, Jr. came in, he put the crazies in positions of power. Under John Bolton’s influence, George W. Bush took the extreme step of scrapping the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which was the bedrock for strategic stability since 1972 when it was signed. Bolton was also one of the prime movers behind the Iraq invasion.

Despite Trump calling the Iraq war “a big fat mistake,” apparently he now admires Bolton for his many Fox News appearances, and he is, of course, the darling of the “blood-soaked arms traders.”

Negotiating Style

Let me add one new vignette regarding his negotiating style: A senior U.S. diplomat recently shared with me that, when Bolton was Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, a colleague diplomat provided a rather revealing insight into Bolton’s attitude toward international treaties.

That colleague had just returned home from arms control talks between Bolton and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mamedov, and described how surreal and embarrassing it had been to hear Bolton lecture Mamedov about how international treaties are worthless, with the Russian arguing strongly that treaties are important and should be taken seriously.

Just the guy for the job. Strap yourself in.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief.  He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).




The Rush to a New Cold War

From the Archive: The U.S. and Russia are expelling dozens of each other’s diplomats, bringing bilateral relations to a new low. In this 2015 interview with Dennis Bernstein, the late Robert Parry explained the origins of the New Cold War.

By Dennis J. Bernstein (first published June 29, 2015)

A new Cold War has taken shape between nuclear-armed Russia and the United States with very little public debate, just a return to hostile rhetoric and military moves and counter-moves over Ukraine, an issue that journalist Robert Parry has followed over the past year and a half.

Parry, a longtime Washington-based investigative reporter and editor of Consortiumnews.com, was interviewed about the crisis by Dennis J. Bernstein for Pacifica Radio’s Flashpoint program.

DB: It looks like the U.S., with Barack Obama leading the charge, has entered what you call “the second cold war.” What do you mean by the second cold war?

RP:  There has been a sharp increase in tension, obviously, between the United States and Russia. We’ve seen a very divergent way of looking at the problem. The United States and mainstream media have taken a very propagandist view of what occurred in Ukraine. The Russians have taken a very different view, which, perhaps to our amazement, is more accurate than what the United States is saying.

Because of these two divergent narratives, the countries have essentially plunged back into a cold war, where there’s a lot of hostility, threats of military escalations, with the U.S. sending military teams to essentially parade along the western border of Russia. Some of those countries are NATO allies, and others, like Ukraine, may want to become a NATO ally.

So these tensions are building up, that oddly don’t have much direct connection to U.S. national interests, but have become a kind of cause celebre in Official Washington where everyone just wants to stand tough against the Russians and bash Putin. It’s become almost a self-perpetuating dynamic.

The Russians have taken a very different perspective, which is that the United States is encroaching on its borders and threatening them in a strategic manner. They also look at what happened in Ukraine very differently. They see a U.S.-backed coup d’etat in February 2014 that ousted an elected president and put in a regime that is very supportive of free market, neoliberal policies, but also includes very strong right-wing elements, including neo-Nazis and far-right nationalists. A crisis was created and tensions continue to spiral out of control.

DB: Let’s talk about the origins of this cold war rhetoric. First, we have Barack Obama leading the charge. He has become a real cold warrior, hasn’t he?

RP: He’s certainly allowed some of his underlings to use very aggressive rhetoric against the Russians, particularly Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who led the charge in supporting the coup in Ukraine in early 2014.

DB: When you say coup, most people don’t know that occurred. Was there a coup?

RP:  Of course there was. There was an armed uprising that involved some very far right neo-Nazi militias that had been organizing and penetrating into what became the Maidan protests against the decision by the elected President Yanukovych not to go ahead quickly with an association with the European Union. That became increasingly violent; including some mysterious sniper attacks killing police and demonstrators, and getting the two sides to go at each other.

There was a political effort on Feb. 21, 2014, where Yanukovych agreed to reduce his powers and have early elections so he could be elected out of office. It was signed by three European countries to guarantee it. The next day there was a coup. These right-wing groups surged forward, seizing buildings, and Yanukovych barely escaped with his life.

Very quickly, despite the very unconstitutional nature of this change of power, the United States and European Union recognized this as legitimate. But it was obviously something the ethnic Russians, especially those in the eastern and southern Ukraine, found objectionable. They were the bases of support for Yanukovych, so they began to rise up, and this coup d’etat then merged into a civil war.

DB: You have previously said the U.S. played an active role in this coup.

RP: There’s no question. The U.S. was supporting, through the National Endowment for Democracy, scores of political organizations that were working to overthrow the elected government. There were other U.S. entities, like USAID, as well as members of the U.S. government. Sen. John McCain went to Kiev, spoke to this very right-wing group, and said the U.S. supports you and what you are doing.

Then there was the famous phone conversation that was intercepted between Assistant Secretary of State Nuland and Ambassador Jeffrey Pyatt where they discussed who was going to take over after the change of power. Nuland put forward that Yatsenyuk “is the guy,” who after the coup became the prime minister. There were all the markings of a coup d’etat. More neutral observers, who have looked at this, including the head of the Stratfor think tank (George Friedman), have called it the most obvious coup he’s ever seen.

That was the reality, but the U.S. news media and U.S. government chose to present it in a very different way. The Yanukovych government just left the scene, or something, is how the New York Times presented it. That wasn’t real, but that’s how they sold it to the American people.

We have two very distinct ways of looking at this. One is the ethnic Russians of Ukraine who saw their president violently overthrown, and the other is the western Ukrainians, backed by the U.S., and in some degree the European Union, saying they got rid of a corrupt leader, through a revolution, if you will. That became the core problem between the U.S. and Russians. Instead of finding common factual points to agree on, there are these two distinctly different narratives about what went on there.

DB: In Germany, recently, Obama himself carried this forward.

RP: Obama has been all over the map on this. In May, he sent Secretary of State Kerry to meet with President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov in Sochi, Russia. Those meetings, by all accounts, went very well in that Kerry was looking for Russian help on a variety of international problems, including Syria, Libya, the Iranian nuclear talks, and so forth. These are areas where Putin has been very helpful in the past in terms of U.S. policy. There was a general meeting of the minds, it seemed.

But after Kerry returned, Obama seemed to swing back, to go more with his hardliners. That was followed by the recent G7 Summit in Bavaria, at which Obama pushed for a continuation of economic sanctions against Russia. He continued to blame Russia for all the problems of Ukraine. He pretended that the Russians were the problem for why the Minsk 2 Peace Accord had not been going forward, even though the accord was essentially Putin’s idea that he sold to the Germans and the French. It’s really the Kiev regime that has tried to derail the Minsk 2 agreement from the very time it was signed.

Yet Obama took aggressive positions in Bavaria, including personal insults directed at Putin. Now we are back into this idea that we must have a confrontation with Russia. We’re seeing this play out not just at the government level, but now also at the media level. At the more popular level, the New York Times and other major news organizations essentially are acting as propaganda agents for the U.S. government, by simply conveying whatever the government says as fact, and not something to be checked out.

DB: You are saying this as somebody who is based outside the Beltway, correct?

RP: No, I’m actually inside the Beltway.

DB: Good, I feel better now that you’re in there. Where could this kind of policy lead? You’ve expressed concerns that we are dealing with two major nuclear powers. We have a man in Russia who will not be fooled with public relations, given that he was a master of it as head of the KGB. So where is this going?

RP: It has very dangerous possibilities. One hopes, of course, that cooler heads will prevail. But we see that when people paint themselves into corners, they sometimes don’t want to get into the embarrassment of getting themselves out. The more rhetoric and propaganda you throw into this, the harder it is for people to come to some common ground, reach an agreement and work things out.

There’s been this idea among the neoconservatives in Washington, for some time now, that the real goal here is to oust Putin. As Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, said back in 2013, Ukraine is “the biggest prize.” But he made clear that it was simply a stepping-stone to removing Putin as the President of Russia, doing some sort of regime change in Moscow.

What the neocons often fail to understand, as we’ve seen very painfully in places like Iraq, is they think things are going to be easy, they can simply put in somebody like Chalabi in Baghdad and everything will work out fine. But that often isn’t the way it goes. In the case of Russia, the great danger is that if the U.S. could destabilize Russia, somehow create a political crisis there, it’s very possible that instead of an easily manipulated person like Yeltsin, there would be a super hard-line nationalist taking over, taking a harder line than Putin. Then you can get into a situation where a nuclear confrontation would become a very real possibility.

To deal with that kind of dangerous reality and be reasonable, the U.S. needs to realize that the ethnic Russians in Ukraine have a legitimate beef, and they are not simply part of a Russian invasion or aggression. Both sides have some argument here. All the truth does not rest in Washington DC and I would argue that less of it rests in Washington DC. If you don’t deal with people honestly and straightforwardly, and try to understand their concern, a manageable crisis can turn into one that spins out of control.

DB: I have always thought that to some degree that the New York Times and Washington Post, on foreign policy issues, particularly East and West, have often acted as a wing, an arm, a public relations division of the State Department. Is that getting worse?

RP:  Yes, it’s been a problem. In 2002 and 2003, the Washington Post and New York Times essentially led the drive for believing that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and the only answer was to invade Iraq. We’ve seen what that led to. The great irony here is that as much as the Washington press corps pretends it stands for truth and all these good things, there was virtually no accountability assessed upon people who misreported that story.

It’s true that there’s safety in numbers. All the important journalists got the story wrong and almost none of them were punished. They were allowed to go on, many in the same positions that they held then. Michael Gordon is still the Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times. He was one of the co-authors of the famous aluminum tube story, that these tubes being used for nuclear centrifuges, when they weren’t fit for that at all. Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post, said as flat fact that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction back in 2002 and 2003. He’s still in the same job.

There’s a problem of no accountability, so many of these news organizations go from one catastrophic inability to report honestly about what is going on in the world, to the next. Now they’ve upped the ante to a possible confrontation between nuclear-armed Russia and nuclear-armed United States. We are now back into the cold war mentality. The New York Times had a piece this week essentially suggesting that anybody who doesn’t go along with the U.S. version of events must be working for Moscow.

We are starting to see McCarthyism rear its ugly head as well. Once you get into these kinds of propaganda wars, anyone who challenges or questions them has their patriotism questioned. We saw that somewhat in Iraq when people who questioned the WMD story early were called Saddam apologists. Now we’re seeing something similar happening. If you point out some of these inconvenient facts that don’t make the Kiev regime look too good, you’re accused of being a stooge of Moscow.

DB: I am concerned that this kind of policy is going to continue. And it’s not Saddam Hussein now, but Vladimir Putin, who has extreme experience, about how to play public relations games. And he has a nuclear arsenal, so it’s a whole different game here.

RP: The American propaganda barrage has not at all swayed the Russian people and government. Of course, the U.S. says they are all being propagandized by Russia Today and other Russian networks. Frankly, one can argue with some ways some things have been reported by RT or other Russian sources, but they have been doing a more accurate, on-the-ground job than the U.S. press corps has been.

You can point to a number of egregious major mistakes made by the major U.S. news organizations. The New York Times went along with a bogus photograph from spring 2014 supposedly showing Russian troops in Ukraine. It turned out that some of the photographs were misrepresented and did not show what they were supposed to show. They [the Times writers] were forced to retract that.

You can point to factual errors on both sides, but it’s not something where the U.S., as the New York Times tries to present it, is perfect and hasn’t presented anything improperly, while the Russian media are all lies and propaganda. It’s not true. But it’s getting to the point where you cannot be a reasonable person, or look at things objectively, because you are pushed into taking sides.

That’s where journalism is a very dangerous thing – especially here. There was a lot of dangerous reporting during the cold war that in some cases pushed the two sides into dangerous confrontations. That can happen again. We were lucky to escape the ’60s without a nuclear war. Now we are rushing ourselves back into something that William Polk, a writer and former diplomat of the Kennedy administration, has called a possible Cuban missile crisis in reverse.

This time we’re the ones pushing our military forces onto the Russian border, rather than the Russians putting missiles onto a place like Cuba. We know how Americans reacted to that. Now the Russians are facing something very similar.

Dennis J. Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.  You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net.




Austin Bombings, Russophobia and the Law of Immutable Vulnerability

The Austin bomber offered a frightening reminder how vulnerable the U.S. is to asymmetrical attacks – something that should be kept in mind as U.S. leaders exacerbate tensions with Russia and other targeted regimes, writes David Hamilton.

By David Hamilton

Austin’s bomber revealed many things. Despite being inexperienced and not terribly bright, he terrorized a major city, stretched police resources to their limit, significantly disrupted commerce and grabbed worldwide headlines. He doubtless also caused the CEOs at UPS and Fedex to have nightmares.

Try to imagine what a very smart person with some professional training in explosives, ideological motivation and a strategic plan might be able to do, especially with a small and skilled support group.

The crucial factor is that significant targets are so limitless and far-flung that they simply cannot be secured. Forget blowing up random people while on surveillance cameras, what about those electric power lines crossing the desert to the far horizon? The power grid is flagrantly exposed. What about flyovers?  Or the petro-chemical plant sitting beside the ship channel? Any bridge? Or Edward Abbey’s idea of a boat bomb floated against Glen Canyon Dam? Our ubiquitous, complex and crumbling infrastructure and our open society provide unguarded targets ad infinitum.

The immutable vulnerability cannot be eliminated by military means. We cannot patrol below every power line and bridge. No border wall will matter, just another target. Besides, our principal enemies are internal, not an alien invasion. The Austin bomber was not a Russian.  Nor was Timothy McVeigh or the perpetrators at Parkland HS or at the Pulse nightclub or at the Mandalay hotel Las Vegas or at Sandy Hook Elementary, all terrorist attacks by white male Americans with no criminal record who probably considered themselves Christians.

There is no military means to fully guarantee our security. It is statistically irrefutable that having guns increases one’s likelihood of getting shot. Our safety will instead be primarily dependent on how we treat others, as human beings and as a nation.

But there are those who are actively trying to convince us that Russia, among others, is our existential enemy and we should obsessively worry about them instead of the real factors affecting our lives.  These war mongers are thereby promoting a distraction from what is truly meaningful in the interest of winning our support for future U.S. aggressions, specifically war with Russia, Iran and Syria in Syria, U.S. instigation of regime change taken to its logical conclusion.  Considering the actors involved, at the end of that path could await mutual annihilation.

The essential issue is simply power; the ability to control others for one’s own advantage.  The US capitalist elite is trying desperately to maintain their post WWII crusade for world dominance in the face of other growing power centers and despite the ineptitude of the Insane Yellow Clown leading them.  They are particularly alarmed over the growth of Russia and China, their developing alliance and their expanding influence and stature worldwide relative to the U.S.

We might reasonably ask why the US doesn’t settle for a multi-polar world of mutually respectful global citizens.  The answer would unfortunately be that doing so would be totally out of character for those who actually make the decisions in our country.  Old habits of asserting hegemony die hard.

Before we allow our government and its compliant media to cast some country into the role of being our adversary, we might wish to ponder just why that country is our existential enemy whose subjugation merits risking the annihilation of all past human achievement along with our progeny.

Want real security?  There is clearly one most effective way to get it.   Don’t make enemies.

Today, our “liberal” media heap daily scorn on Russia and its president Putin while slavishly befriending the autocratic religious fanatics that compose the Saudi monarchy.  How have I missed a comparable outpouring of disgust at Russian homophobia and the Saudi law allowing execution by stoning for “homosexual behavior”? Would one rather be gay in Moscow or Mecca?  Could the Saudi’s being annual multi-billion dollar benefactors of the owners of the US military-industrial complex be linked to the conscious campaign to convince us of the diabolical nature of all things Russian?

To be a peace activist at this time requires continuous pushback at the concerted propaganda campaigns perpetually being conducted in the U.S. corporate news media and among their collaborating politicians to demonize their next prospective victims; currently Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea along with other various non-state actors, usually Muslims or leftists.

Regardless of how reprehensible one considers the domestic policies of these “enemy” nation’s leaders, there is literally nothing worth risking Armageddon. Without complete nuclear disarmament, human survival requires that diplomacy take place. That requires talking to other nuclear powers in a non-adversarial manner, especially between the two nuclear super-powers who together possess over 90% of all such weapons.




Acceptable Bigotry and Scapegoating of Russia

Exclusive: The scapegoating of Russia has taken on an air of bigotry and ugliness, based largely on Cold War-era stereotypes. In this article, Natylie Baldwin counters this intolerance with some of her positive impressions having traveled the country extensively.

By Natylie Baldwin

Over the last year and a half, Americans have been bombarded with the Gish Gallop claims of Russiagate. In that time, the most reckless comments have been made against the Russians in service of using that country as a scapegoat for problems in the United States that were coming to a head, which were the real reasons for Donald Trump’s upset victory in 2016.  It has even gotten to the point where irrational hatred against Russia is becoming normalized, with the usual organizations that like to warn of the pernicious consequences of bigotry silent.

The first time I realized how low things would likely get was when Ruth Marcus, deputy editor of the Washington Post, sent out the following tweet in March of 2017, squealing with delight at the thought of a new Cold War with the world’s other nuclear superpower: “So excited to be watching The Americans, throwback to a simpler time when everyone considered Russia the enemy. Even the president.”

Not only did Marcus’s comment imply that it was great for the U.S. to have an enemy, but it specifically implied that there was something particularly great about that enemy being Russia.

Since then, the public discourse has only gotten nastier. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper – who notoriously perjured himself before Congress about warrantless spying on Americans – stated on Meet the Press last May that Russians were uniquely and “genetically” predisposed toward manipulative political activities.  If Clapper or anyone else in the public eye had made such a statement about Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, Jews, Israelis, Chinese or just about any other group, there would have been some push-back about the prejudice that it reflected and how it didn’t correspond with enlightened liberal values. But Clapper’s comment passed with hardly a peep of protest.

More recently, John Sipher, a retired CIA station chief who reportedly spent years in Russia – although at what point in time is unclear – was interviewed in Jane Mayer’s recent New Yorker piece trying to spin the Steele Dossier as somehow legitimate. On March 6, Sipher took to Twitter with the following comment: “How can one not be a Russophobe? Russia soft power is political warfare. Hard power is invading neighbors, hiding the death of civilians with chemical weapons and threatening with doomsday nuclear weapons. And they kill the opposition at home. Name something positive.”

In fairness to Sipher, he did backpedal somewhat after being challenged; however, the fact that his unfiltered blabbering reveals such a deep antipathy toward Russians (“How can one not be a Russophobe?”) and an initial assumption that he could get away with saying it publicly is troubling.

Glenn Greenwald re-tweeted with a comment asking if Russians would soon acceptably be referred to as “rats and roaches.”  Another person replied with: “Because they are rats and roaches. What’s the problem?”

This is just a small sampling of the anti-Russian comments and attitudes that pass, largely unremarked upon, in our media landscape.

There are, of course, the larger institutional influencers of culture doing their part to push anti-Russian bigotry in this already contentious atmosphere. Red Sparrow, both the book and the movie, detail the escapades of a female Russian spy. The story propagates the continued fetishization of Russian women based on the stereotype that they’re all hot and frisky. Furthermore, all those who work in Russian intelligence are evil and backwards rather than possibly being motivated by some kind of patriotism, while all the American intel agents are paragons of virtue and seem like they just stepped out of an ad for Nick at Nite’s How to be Swell.

The recent Academy Awards continued their politically motivated trend of awarding Oscars for best documentary to films on topics that just happen to coalesce nicely with Washington’s latest adversarial policy. Last year it was the White Helmets film to support the regime change meme in Syria. This year it’s Icarus about the doping scandal in Russia.

Similarly, Loveless, the new film by Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev (director of Leviathan) is being reviewed – as Catherine Brown points out – by writers from the mainstream American media in a predictably biased fashion. The film focuses on the disintegration of a married Moscow couple’s relationship and the complicated web of factors involved which have tragic ramifications for the couple’s 12-year old son.

American reviewers manage to paint the factors detailed in the film that are prevalent in most modern capitalist cities (e.g. being self-centered, materialistic and preoccupied with technological gadgets) as somehow uniquely Russian sins. They also ignore a prominent character in the film that defies their negativity about modern Russia – a character that represents altruism and the growth of civil society in the country.

A common theme in all this is that Russia is a bad country and Russians can’t help but be a bunch of good-for-nothings at best and dangerous deviants at worst. Indeed, according to media depictions, sometimes they manage to be both at the same time. But what they don’t manage to be is positive, constructive or even complicated. Sipher knows that the average American has been deluged with this anti-Russian prejudice, as reflected in his challenge at the end of his initial tweet about the largest country, geographically at least, in the world: Name something positive.

Countering the Negative

Most people know, at least in the abstract, that few individuals or groups are purely good or bad. Most are a complex combination of both. But many – including those who normally consider themselves to be open-minded liberals – have allowed their lizard brains to be triggered by the constant demonization of Russia in the hopes of taking down Trump whom they deem to be a disproportionate threat to everything they hold dear. So as a counterweight to all the negative constantly pumped out about Russia and to take Sipher up on his challenge, I will list some positive things about Russia and the contribution of the country and its people to the world.

Contemporary Russia’s Domestic Policy

Russia has one of the most educated populations in the world, universal health care for its people, a home ownership rate of 84%, strong gun control laws, no death penalty, 140 days of guaranteed maternity leave for women at 100% salary, and Moscow was just voted the 4th safest megacity in the world for women.

And, despite claims that are often repeated in corporate media and even by many in the alternative press, Russia has independent and critical voices in the print media. Even on television, which is heavily influenced by the Kremlin, the Western position is often given airtime by either pro-Western Russian critics or Westerners themselves. During both of my visits to Russia (in 2015 and 2017) I interviewed a cross-section of Russians who all confirmed that they had access to Western media through both satellite and the internet. Furthermore, while violence against journalists is a concern, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, journalist murders have decreased significantly under Putin compared to the era of Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.

Am I saying that Russia is a utopia without any problems? No. Like most countries, it has plenty. Most Russians, including Putin, admit this. These problems include still significant poverty rates, comparatively low productivity and life expectancy, and corruption. But it is important to note the direction of trends, which are mostly positive since Putin took over. Under his leadership, poverty rates have been cut in half, life expectancy has increased by several years – especially among men who had suffered the worst mortality crisis since WWII, crime has dropped, pensions have increased and are paid regularly, the unemployment rate has been around 5% for years, great investments in infrastructure and agriculture have been seen along with development throughout the country.

And that development has not just been seen in Moscow and St. Petersburg – the latter city which, by the way, culturally and architecturally rivals those in France and Italy.

There are plenty of medium-sized cities throughout Russia that are becoming well-developed and culturally engaging. As one example, during my 2015 trip, I visited Krasnodar, located in the Black Sea region. The rate of civic construction in the city during 2014 surpassed even Moscow. As a consequence of the challenges of this rapid development, the public felt that decisions were not being made with sufficient feedback from residents, several of whom got together and created a group called the Public Council which eventually found ways to get city authorities to listen to their concerns.

The group had received significant media attention, networked with youth groups and infrastructure specialists, and received foreign experts in urban planning, public arts, transportation and city marketing. They have also organized periodic clean-up and renovation days, which are sponsored by local businesses that donate use of equipment. Currently, they are working on the creation of protected green zones, including one that connects all of the city’s hiking paths and another to connect its 16 lakes. They have received no opposition from the Russian government and have elicited the interest of other cities who want to model their approach to local issues.

While in Krasnodar I met a dozen or more professionals, from lawyers to engineers and doctors, who lived in the city and were part of another civic group engaged in charitable, conservation and youth programs. At one point, I took a walking tour of the city. In terms of architecture, I saw the old and the new side by side, including a large shopping center that was built around a large tower that had been there for generations that local residents saved from destruction by the mall planners, a square with controversial fountains, and a main thoroughfare that was closed to auto traffic, allowing pedestrians free reign. Couples – including some of mixed race, parents pushing baby strollers, and bicyclists – all wound their way through the streets as both Russian and American music was piped in and building walls on one side of the street for a stretch displayed delicate illustrations of Russian history.

Fifteen hundred miles away in the Ural mountain region, the city of Yekaterinburg – named after Catherine I – has the infamous distinction of being the place where Czar Nicholas II and his family were massacred by the Bolsheviks in 1918. On the site where the family’s bodies were exhumed, a magnificent Russian Orthodox Church has been erected and dedicated to the last royal family. Nearby is the Yeltsin Library, denoting the Russian Federation’s first President, although his legacy is not popular in Russia today.

The city is also home to a wide variety of precious metals and gems, along with a thriving economy. According to Sharon Tennison, an independent program coordinator who has traveled there numerous times over the past 15 years, hundreds of new apartment blocks can be seen on the outskirts of the city to accommodate the recent economic and population growth.

Yekaterinburg has a bustling cultural life that includes an opera house, a ballet, numerous theaters and museums, as well as dozens of libraries. In this respect, the city has continued its preoccupation with the classical arts as in Catherine’s period.  At the same time, many modern Russian rock bands with a distinctive sound have formed there (known as Ural rock).

The city also has a low rate of violence and crime.

As the New York Times and NPR like to point out and generalize out from, there are some rural and industrial areas in Russia that still need attention and investment. However, there are other towns in the countryside that are doing well.

Russia’s Contributions to the World

Russia has made many cultural and humanitarian contributions to the world.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, imperial Russia produced some of the most renowned figures in the world of arts. These include writers, such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, whose works are often cited by American readers as among the greatest of all time; great composers include Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff.

The country also has a rich history of pre-Soviet philosophers who debated questions of politics, history, spirituality and meaning. One of the most famous is Vladimir Solovyev, classified as belonging to the Slavophile school but distinguished from his fellow Slavophiles by his openness to and integration of several lines of thought.

He acknowledged the intuitive as well as the rational. He was friends with Dostoyevsky but had disagreements over Orthodoxy since Solovyev was an advocate of ecumenism and healing the schism between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Furthermore, he is credited with influencing Nicolai Berdyaev, Rudolf Steiner and the Russian Symbolists, among others. He admired the Greek goddess Sophia who he characterized as the “merciful unifying feminine wisdom of God.” Solovyev was adept at integrating several spiritual strands, such as Greek philosophy, Buddhism, Kabbalah, and Christian Gnosticism.

Solovyev was famous for his debates with Slavophile contemporary, Nicolai Fedorov. In these and other writings, questions about morality and technological progress, how much humans should control nature, and prioritizing which problems to invest man’s resources in solving were all given great consideration by Solovyev and are still relevant today, in both Russian society and the larger world.

It is interesting to note that, of all the early Slavophile philosophers, Putin chose Solovyev, the one who was the least strident and most open to the synthesis of differing values and viewpoints, as part of his assignment of books for Russia’s regional governors to read a few years back. Of course, that didn’t stop several western pundits – who showed they knew virtually nothing of Solovyev but perhaps some cherry-picked and out-of-context tidbits they’d found online – from distorting his writings, which naturally had to be horrible because Putin recommended them.

Moving on to the 20th century, it should not be forgotten that the Soviet Union bore the brunt of defeating the Nazis during WWII, losing 27 million people, and saw a third of their country destroyed in the process.

In the 21st century, Russia provided significant aid to Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. They also provided safe transport to Yemeni-Americans out of that devastated country after the U.S. State Department effectively abandoned them in 2015.  Russia provided medical aid to 60,000 people affected by the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014.  Last September, Russia provided 35 tons of aid to earthquake victims in Mexico.

For someone who spent years in Russia as a professional expert working for the U.S. intelligence community, John Sipher is either not well-informed on his subject or is intentionally being disingenuous when it comes to the suggestion that Russia has done nothing positive, whether under Putin’s governance or before.

The Purpose of Scapegoating Russia

In early 2017, journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes published a book called Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. Largely based on interviews with insiders from Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential campaign, the book was an attempt to analyze why she lost. The insiders agreed that Clinton had trouble providing a plausible explanation to voters as to why she was running other than that she simply wanted to be president. They also noted her trouble connecting with average Americans and her failure to campaign in certain rust belt areas that Trump ultimately got support in. The book also states that within 24 hours of Clinton’s loss, members of her campaign had decided to home in on the excuse of “Russian interference” to explain away her humiliating defeat.

In addition to a bloc of Clinton’s supporters continuing to push this excuse for her loss and the ratings motive that channels like CNN and MSNBC have in continuing to milk the scandal, there is also Robert Mueller’s investigation which has dragged on for over a year.

The most notable thing about the Mueller investigation to anyone who takes a sober look at it is its constantly evolving purpose. First, the purpose of the investigation was to find any evidence to support the allegation that Russia had hacked into the DNC’s emails. When no substantial evidence could be found to support that allegation, the purpose evolved into collusion between Trump and Russia to steal the election on behalf of Trump.

When no substantial evidence could be found to support that allegation, the purpose evolved yet again into Russia influencing the election on behalf of Trump, possibly without his knowledge or participation. When no substantial evidence could be found to support that allegation and all that could be found was a paltry number of social media ad buys – many of which were purchased after the election or advocated conflicting positions or didn’t even have anything to do with the election, the purpose became “sowing discord.”

After all of this, we have an indictment against 13 private individuals who worked for a “troll farm” that had been exposed several years ago and is run by a caterer with no proven orchestration by Putin or the Kremlin. Mueller also knows that this indictment will never be legally tested because the 13 individuals will never be extradited and stand trial.

After all the shrieking and howling 24/7 for close to a year and a half that Trump was an illegitimate president installed by the Kremlin, this is the best Mueller and the mainstream Democrats can come up with. It’s pretty obvious by now that this investigation has simply been feeding into the media and Democratic Party circus mentioned above rather than uncovering anything substantive with which to impeach Trump.

The 2016 election showed that the Democrats faced a sleeping giant that had been awakened – one that the Democratic Party had helped to create for decades by enabling lower living standards, outsourcing of good-paying jobs, the proliferation of low-wage jobs, unaffordable education, lack of health care coverage, public health problems, and decrepit infrastructure.

Consequently, there was a demand for meaningful policies that would help average Americans, policies that polls show they want.  But mainstream Democrats will not deliver on such policies, like $15/hour minimum wage, Medicare for All, and pulling out of our wars and investing the money saved in jobs and infrastructure. They won’t deliver on these things for the same reason that Republicans won’t deliver on them: because their donors don’t want them to. But they are not going to admit that to the American people who were going to keep demanding, so they needed a scapegoat and a diversion.

It’s a cheap trick that the political elite is using to appeal to the basest instincts of their fellow Americans while shoring up support for their most reckless tendencies in the area of foreign policy.

Natylie Baldwin is co-author of Ukraine: Zbig’s Grand Chessboard & How the West Was Checkmated, available from Tayen Lane Publishing. Since October of 2015, she has traveled to six cities in the Russian Federation and has written several articles based on her conversations and interviews with a cross-section of Russians.  Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various publications including Consortium News, The New York Journal of Books, The Common Line, and the Lakeshore.  She is currently submitting her first novel to agents and finishing a second.  She blogs at natyliesbaldwin.com




How the Russian Presidential Election Race Looks in its Final Days

Following up on his Feb. 24 article, “First Impressions of Russia’s Upcoming Presidential Election,” independent political analyst Gilbert Doctorow takes a close look at how the election is shaping up in the days before the vote.

By Gilbert Doctorow

The candidates for the presidency in Russia’s election this Sunday are now in the home stretch.  Not much has changed in the past several weeks as regards the standings of each in the polls of voter sympathies. Vladimir Putin holds the lead, way out in front, with nearly 70% of voters saying they will cast their votes for him. The candidate of the Communist Party, Pavel Grudinin, has held on to second place, at just over 7% despite suffering some severe setbacks over revelations of his bank accounts held abroad. And third place, with just over 5% goes to the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the LDPR.

Liberal candidate, Ksenia Sobchak, who positioned herself to catch the protest vote “against all,” has about 1.5%. The remaining four candidates – Sergei Baburin, Maxim Suraikin on the Communist Left and  Boris Titov, Grigory Yavlinsky on the Liberal Right – have fractions of one percent of the electorate committed to them.

Candidate Putin appears on track to achieve the 70:70 target that his campaign team set for him, meaning a turnout on election day of 70% of the electorate, of which 70% vote for Putin. Such results would support a claim to popular validation of his domestic and foreign programs for the coming six years. It would give him a free hand for substantial reworking of the cabinet, which, rumor says, may come in the days immediately ahead.

However, the campaign is about process as much as it is about results, and at that level there is a great deal  which merits consideration because of what this electoral campaign says about the condition of Russian democracy today and where the country is headed.

The campaign has had several dimensions, some of which require that you be physically present to experience them, others of which can be followed from remote, as I have done. For total immersion, one would have to follow the various candidates around the country as they have visited factories, hospitals, farms and all manner of locations to speak and meet with voters. This has been done daily by the Russian media, and so some feel for it can be acquired remotely. For a further broadly based understanding, one would have to pick up the print media at newsstands and tune in to the major federal radio stations which have allocated time to the candidates under rules established by the Central Election Commission. All of this I and others watching from abroad have missed.

What has been available to us outside the country is all of the televised debates, since they were posted on YouTube often within minutes of their broadcast on air. That and campaign materials posted on Russian social media, which I will discuss below. All of this constitutes invaluable material to see the impressive extent of pluralism, free speech and media access allowed in Putin’s Russia to his challengers, however slight their share of voter support may be. That in itself is quite a revelation.

Nonetheless, the purpose of the analysis which follows is to reach a fair-minded understanding of the processes under way, not to hand bouquets to the incumbent or to anyone else. Following that guiding principle, I will highlight not only the high degree of democratic freedom in evidence but also the thumb on the scales in favor of the ruling party.

The Debates: Some Observations

When I wrote my first impressions of the campaign on February 24, just after the first televised debate, the full strategy of holding debates and their format were not known to any of us, including the candidates themselves, as I deduce from the bitter complaints they made over the early hour of the broadcast, over its being taped rather than going out live, over there being no face to face dueling, just a couple of minutes time to respond to questions pitched by the presenter to each of them separately.  On that first day, the candidates were outraged that the subject for the debate was foreign relations, when as it turned out, none but Zhirinovsky has much experience or knowledge or interest in foreign policy – their programs being constructed strictly around domestic policy and the economy in particular.

To be sure, it is peculiar that the candidates were kept in the dark about the procedures and format, for which the Central Election Commission is to blame. As we subsequently saw, these debates had formats that varied in some important ways from channel to channel, including the issue of live versus taped broadcast.

Over the course of the nearly three weeks of debates, changes came about in format that were initiated by the candidates themselves, beginning with Ksenia Sobchak, who was quickest off the mark and most determined not to be told how to behave by the very people she urges the electorate to vote against as a played out generation. Specifically, Sobchak was the first to do what any experienced public figure regularly does on interview programs or talk shows: ignore the question and use the microphone given to her to speak directly to voters about what she considered important. She was not censored, the tapes were not cut and thereafter such a possibility was stated by presenters on some of the debates so that other candidates could avail themselves of the same option. Few did.

Sobchak definitely added color and at times scandal to the entire debating process. In this respect, she was fully the match of nationalist party candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky who has for decades has had exactly that niche position to himself in electoral politics and in talk shows.  The other candidates were not dull, but were far more polite, and so less newsworthy.

Part of Zhirinovsky’s bag of tricks as television personality has always been his dress code. At times he has come to interviews and talk shows looking formal in a business suit, but very often he has worn firetruck red sports jackets or other attention-grabbing outfits.  Here again, Ksenia Sobchak has done the same in the debates, changing her coiffure, changing her clothes to project different policy positions in her electoral platform. On one day she wore a sweat shirt with big anti-war legend to support what she had to say on how Putin is the war party, whereas she stands for good neighborly relations with all and redirection of Ministry of Defense spending to domestic infrastructure needs.

Along the way, Sobchak has taken some very unpopular stands, particularly with respect to Crimea and what she calls the illegitimate Russian occupation there. This has cost her dearly. Polls show that with a bit more than 1% ready to vote for her, 80% of the electorate say they would never vote for her, making her the most unpopular of all the candidates in the race. However, one can have no doubt that Sobchak and her advisers hold the view that it is better to be hated than to be unknown.

At 36, she has plenty of time ahead to choose policies that will be more in line with the broad population and at that point everyone on the stage with her will have retired.  My clear conclusion is that this race has shown Sobchak as the person to watch in the Duma elections of 2021 and in the next presidential race of 2024.

Looking back at the whole series of debates, it is clear now in retrospect that the organizers intended to give all candidates the opportunity to set out broad platforms touching upon every major sector of domestic and foreign policy. On separate days the following issues were featured on each of the channels:

  • foreign policy
  • youth, education and development of human potential
  • development of the regions
  • development of industry and especially the military industrial complex
  • demography, motherhood and childhood
  • health, the social sphere and provisions for the handicapped
  • the Russian national idea

It is essential to remember that equal time was granted to all, that all were invited to participate in person or by proxy regardless of their actual support levels in the population. In the United States such equal access may occur during the primaries in each party, but is choked off once party nominations for the two main parties, Democratic and Republican are closed, with only their respective nominees invited to debate on national television. If the Russian practice were applied to the U.S., it would be as if the Greens and Libertarians were debating with Democrats and Republicans, along with candidates of other still smaller parties with miniscule numbers of registered voters.

The Russian debates were held not only on the two leading news channels, Rossiya-1 and Pervy Kanal, but also on the less watched but still important federal channels Public Broadcasting (ORT) and Television Center (TVTs), both of which posted some debates on YouTube.  There were televised debates as well at the regional level to which some candidates sent proxies. One on the Ryazan station of Rossiya-1 for example dated 14 March was posted to YouTube. By their presence or absence, the candidates themselves made it fairly clear that they valued above all Rossiya-1 and Pervy Kanal, and these are the channels that I monitored.

From among these many posted videos, I have decided to highlight here the debates from 13 March,  the next to the last day of such televised debates. I think it is preferable to drill down on one day than to skim the surface on several weeks of shows. Moreover, the debates of the 13th on the two leading channels are useful to highlight some very specific Russian features of the country’s political class across the board.

In Pervy Kanal, the subject of the day was relations between the federal capital, Moscow, and the regions. The candidates were unanimous in decrying the present situation, which has not successfully addressed and perhaps has even aggravated over the past couple of decades the very large discrepancies between the “donor regions” of Moscow and a handful of other regions enjoying budgetary surpluses, the best salaries in the country and extensive public services and amenities versus the “deficit regions” which are more than 80% of the federal regions, all in chronic need of funding from the central government, struggling with heavy debts to credit institutions and where the salary levels and public services are many times below those of the donor regions.

For this, the Communist Left candidates found cause in the privatization of state assets that led to plundering of resources and removal of wealth from where it is generated to Moscow and beyond to offshore accounts. The Liberal Right candidates found fault with excessive concentration of budgetary decision making and political power in Moscow, resulting in provincial governors waiting in the corridors of the Ministry of Finance to get handouts to be spent as Moscow directed, not in accordance with local priorities.

Of course, both Liberals Sobchak and Yavlinsky hammered home the need for local mayors and governors to be elected by those whom they govern, not appointed by the Kremlin from among apparatchiki. The issue is valid and highly relevant to whether/how Russia can become dynamic as an economy and as a polity.

And it also was of considerable value to the voter to hear from Boris Titov that fellow liberal Ksenia Sobchak was caught in a contradiction over her support for greater financial independence of the regions, given that her announced preference for Finance Minister should she win the election is Alexei Kudrin, who formerly served under Putin in this capacity, was always and remains in favor of centralization while disparaging local control of finance as likely only to feed corruption and misuse of power.

In passing, this discussion on Pervy Kanal brought out a number of other very important failings of the Putin years as they affect the broad population.  One in particular is worth mentioning:  the limited nature of “gasification” of the countryside, which is not more than 60% of the population. It was noted that Gazprom has earned 600 billion euros in the past decade largely from exports but has invested only 10 billion euros in bringing gas to the households of Russia itself.  The point is painful to the whole rural population of the country which has to cope with the difficult logistics of bottled gas for cooking and wooden logs for heating.

The Rossiya-1 debate of March 13 highlighted the special characteristics of Russia’s political class whatever their policy orientation. This typology is not unique, but special and on the Continent, it is closest, perhaps, to France.  By this I mean the high intellectual achievements of all the candidates. Two of the candidates, Sergei Baburin and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, hold Ph.D. degrees. All seven are well educated in terms of general culture, well-read and appreciative of wit and the ability to draw lessons from literature in fellow candidates whose political positions they otherwise may ridicule.

The topic for the Rossiya-1 debate, “culture, art and preservation of historical memory” was particularly amenable to honest discussion among the candidates. The show which resulted in many ways resembled more a drawing room scene from a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky novel than a political debate in the closing phase of a presidential election race. The candidates were unanimously scathing in their criticism of the current management of culture by Minister Medinsky even if their perspectives on the reasons for the unacceptable state of things are diametrically opposed, ranging from the intrusive and corrupting influence of power and wealth in the appraisal of the Communist Left as opposed to the Liberal Right’s underlining mediocracy resulting from the stultifying influence of a bureaucracy directing and financing culture without the participation of sponsors from the broad base of the business community.

The salon nature of the discussion in which candidates even hastened to support the critiques of the status quo leveled by others was heavily encouraged by the demeanor of the “moderator,” Vladimir Solovyov who, for this debate handled himself not according to the script of the CEC, that is, as a detached timekeeper and referee to keep the debaters within order, but instead as he usually does on his own talk shows, intervening and guiding the discussion while expressing his personal opinions.

It was fascinating to observe the common cultural heritage of all candidates regardless not only of political views but of personal wealth and life experience. In this regard, one or another of the Communist-minded candidates, otherwise critical of the bourgeoisie and oligarchy, were treated with respect similarly to that shown to the consumptive Socialist youth Hippolyte Terentiev by the very proper and aristocratic General Yepanchin and his wife and daughters in The Idiot who took him in during his final weeks.  And surely one of the most exceptional moments in this electoral campaign was the lengthy citation by Pavel Grudinin’s proxy Maxim Shevchenko of the conversation between Christ and the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, all to make a point about power and art in the Russian mind.

In my “first impressions” and in the transcript of the first televised debate on the Pervy Kanal state network that I issued a couple of days later, I suggested that the Russian campaign is all high-level, intellectual combat in an agora of ideas, which to American ears in particular would be a day and night contrast with the tawdry spectacle of mudslinging and ad hominem argumentation that constituted the 2016 American presidential race.

However, my initial impressions did not take in what was excised from the first debate when it was posted on YouTube: namely a vicious exchange between two candidates, Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Ksenia Sobchak, which may just have sunk lower than even the Clinton-Trump debates. Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, often justifies the arch remark that what is fully prohibited is also permitted. In the full, uncut video, a pirated version of which of course found its way onto the internet within hours, we hear Zhirinovsky describe Sobchak, who was at a lectern just next to his, as a “streetwalker,” if I may be allowed a euphemism. In response to which, she doused him with the water in her drinking glass.

A less enjoyable and more irritating problem with the first televised debates which fit precisely the habits of Russian political talk shows, such as the moderators of these debates otherwise host, was shouting down speakers and boisterous heckling. Here again, the most egregious offenders were precisely Zhirinovsky and Sobchak.  Be that as it may, a technical solution was eventually implemented at least on the Pervy Kanal so that by the last debates only one selected candidate had a live microphone at a time.

This obvious and easy to implement solution ensuring unhindered speech by each candidate was not implemented at Rossiya-1 for reasons that are unclear. The result was a second shameful incident marring the record of the debates in what was the very last round on Rossiya-1 yesterday, 14 March. Moderator Vladimir Solovyov claimed he could do nothing towards the end of the show when all 6 male candidates simultaneously subjected Sobchak to verbal abuse for her “fifth column” positions with respect to the national defense and her betrayal to American interests in her latest interview with CNN. Sobchak walked out of the studio in tears just minutes before the curtain came down.

Absence of Putin

One distinguishing feature of the debates was the absence of the President, who chose to neither participate in person, nor to send a proxy.

As it turned out, the absence of Putin from these debates was entirely justified by the utterly unruly behavior and scandals at times during the series.  Moreover, had the President or his representative been present he would have been the subject of attack from all seven challengers in unison, a very unfair situation for him and not very enlightening for the electorate.

At the same time, it is very clear that those managing the incumbent’s campaign were exploiting every legal means to dominate, indeed to overwhelm all his opponents taken together with high quality viewer and listener time singing his praises and arguing for more of the same in the coming six years. These legal means included the delivery of his annual address to the Federal Assembly, the Russian equivalent to the State of the Union address of the American President, in the midst of the electoral campaign, on March 1. This gave Vladimir Putin two hours on all the airwaves to set out what is in effect a program for his next term.

Another device used to put the President before the electorate in a privileged manner was the launch in the past week of two new, sophisticated and full-length documentary films about Vladimir Putin. One, entitled “World Order 2018” features the popular talk show host Vladimir Solovyov as Putin’s interlocutor or interviewer.

As we have seen, Solovyov was also the moderator of the debates on the channel Rossiya-1. The film itself is professional if not brilliant. It contains a number of good sound bites from Putin, such as his recollections of his first visit to Germany in 1992 as an assistant to St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak. As he explains here, their meeting with Chancellor Helmut Kohl provided Putin with material that he later used to advantage when he returned to Germany in 2002 as Russian President and delivered a speech to the Bundestag. There are also interesting remarks by Putin about the days immediately following the coup d’etat in Kiev on February 22, 2014 and the behavior of the U.S. And I would point to Putin’s comments about relations with Turkey and about the special Turkish interest in the Crimean Tatars.

The second documentary, simply entitled “Putin,” was produced by the professional film maker Andrei Kondrashov, who is in the President’s election campaign team. Kondrashov is no newcomer to Putin promotion. In March 2015, on the first anniversary of the reunification of Crimea with the Russian Federation, he launched the entertaining “Crimea, A Way Home,” which featured dramatic footage of the way Putin and his security team rescued deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych from almost certain capture and execution by the radical nationalists. With the help of excellent visuals, Kondrashov’s new film gives us the family history of the Putins in the countryside of the Tver region, interviews with those who knew Vladimir Putin in his youth and at turning points in his career, all told with great human warmth.

To avoid violation of the federal regulations on a candidate’s using the federal television channels for unfair free publicity, these documentaries were released onto the Russian social networks Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, where they apparently have won a large audience. In its first week, “World Order” is said to have found 15 million viewers.  Meanwhile, sound bites from these documentaries were picked up by the major news programs of the federal channels as “news,” pure and simple. Legal, to be sure, but aggressive campaign devices.

To this we can add Vladimir Putin’s interview with Megyn Kelley of CNN in his capacity as President, not candidate, filmed in part immediately following his delivery of his address to the Federal Assembly on 1 March and in conclusion the next day on his visit to Kaliningrad. From start to finish, this filmed interview shows Putin as projecting strength. We see this in his blunt rejection of U.S. allegations of Russian electoral interference in 2016 coming out of the Mueller indictments.

We see it still more clearly in his lengthy explanation of the military hardware part of his March 1 address, showing off Russia’s new cutting edge technology nuclear weapons systems and claiming full restoration of strategic parity with the United States. Who could ignore his wry smile over how the vast sums which the United States had spent developing global ABM systems for the sake of a first strike capability were now demonstrably money thrown out the window.

More generally, there is an issue over the way that leading news programs on the federal channels have become pro-Putin voice boxes.  Nowhere is this more true than in Dmitri Kiselyov’s News of the Week shows on Sunday evenings.

In my “First Impressions” article, I remarked on Kiselyov’s 15-minute segment on 17 February devoted to Communist candidate Pavel Grudinin. That was an expanded version of what was being reported in the news bulletins on Rossiya- and Pervy Kanal daily. The objective was to discredit the underlying claims of Grudinin’s candidacy, namely that his profitable Lenin State Farm complex in the Moscow suburbs, paying wages double the national average and providing cheap housing, free day care, free medical care for his employees is the model he intends to  generalize all over the country to bring socialist welfare to every home.

Kiselyov directed attention to the complaints filed against Grudinin by elderly pensioners who say they were defrauded by Grudinin in the 1990s when he essentially privatized the state farm and deprived some of its members of their stake in the land assets.  Kiselyov further argued that the prosperity of Grudinin’s farm comes not from the strawberries it cultivates in great quantities for the Moscow market but from land transactions including rentals and sales from the highly desirable territory it owns in the sought after metropolitan area.  A third line of attack focused on the villa and other residence owned in Latvia by Grudinin’s son, whose wife had acquired Latvian citizenship. These were described as “emergency airport” facilities for the candidate in case he ever felt the need to leave Russia in a hurry.  Kiselyov closed his commentary with a recommendation to Communist Party president Zyuganov that he withdraw support from the non-Party Grudinin before he does irreparable damage to his party and thereby also harms Russia’s young democracy.  The whiff of sarcasm there and condescension was pungent.

This singling out of the Communist Party candidate for attack by state television news acting as investigator was patently unfair. That kind of sleuthing and exposure should have been done by the other candidates, not by the State. Nonetheless, as it turned out Kiselyov’s and Russian state television’s focus on Grudinin’s moral weaknesses was not unjustified.  He was finally “nailed” in an unrelated matter impugning his integrity and the whole claim of the Left to be morally superior to the corrupt and oligarch-infested regime of Vladimir Putin and the United Russia Party.

It was discovered that contrary to Grudinin’s declarations to Zyuganov and to the federal electoral commission when applying for registration of his candidacy, Grudinin has some 13 bank accounts in Switzerland holding assets close to a million dollars, as well as some 5 kilograms of physical gold worth a couple of hundred thousand dollars.  This was confirmed in writing to the Central Election Commission (CEC) by UBS Bank in Switzerland. The CEC decided not to disqualify Grudinin, as was their option, but could be highly provocative and destabilizing. They merely will post these accounts abroad on the highly visible list of assets owned by each of the candidates at every voting station. But the damage was done to Grudinin’s reputation among the Party faithful. Grudinin stopped entirely appearing on the debates and sent only proxies.

The scandal also damaged the reputation of Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov for failure to do due diligence. One almost certain consequence of these elections will be Zyuganov’s retirement from office and the coming to power in the Communist Party of young blood.

A word of explanation about the lists of candidate assets: this has become a tradition in Russian federal elections within the concept of full transparency.  At each polling station voters can read about the holdings of the candidates and their immediate family as regards assets in banks, apartments and other real estate, and cars among other property categories.  In this regard, two liberal candidates, Ksenia Sobchak and Boris Titov, will stand out for their personal wealth valued at more than one million euros.  However, both are supporters of the free market with its rewards, whereas the Communists make a virtue of wealth redistribution and equality.

It is unlikely there will be any great surprises in the election’s outcome on 18 March, but it would be a mistake to conclude that the whole exercise is a farce.  Russia’s young democracy is a work in progress. The debates and other procedures of the electoral campaign are evolving, even if the content – namely credible and experienced candidates for the nation’s highest office – remains unsatisfactory.  Partly this results from the concentration of political power in Moscow and the still rudimentary self-government across the country that would normally develop future leaders.  This will have to be addressed in Putin’s final term in office if there is to be a handover of power in 2024 to a worthy successor.

The balloting itself will be another test of the consolidating mechanisms of democracy.  The Kremlin says it has done everything possible to ensure fair and transparent elections.  Advanced technology has been put in place to make every polling station accessible online, so that electoral monitoring by remote is a reality. Moreover, on a pilot basis the Russians have deployed what they say is block-chain technology to make the voting hack-proof.

As an international election observer serving with an NGO, I expect to see firsthand the results of these efforts to reassure Russians and the world at large that democracy is on the move in Russia. I will issue a report on what I see in the days immediately following the election.

Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published in October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide.




Intel Committee Rejects Basic Underpinning of Russiagate

The assumption underpinning Russiagate – that Vladimir Putin preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton – is not supported by the facts, according to “Initial Findings” of the House Intelligence Committee, as Ray McGovern reports.

By Ray McGovern

Let’s try to make this simple: The basic rationale behind charges that Russian President Vladimir Putin interfered in the 2016 U.S. election to help candidate Donald Trump rests, of course, on the assumption that Moscow preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton. But that is wrong to assume, says the House Intelligence Committee, which has announced that it does not concur with “Putin’s supposed preference for candidate Trump.”

So, the House Intelligence Committee Republican majority, which has been pouring over the same evidence used by the “handpicked analysts” from just the CIA, FBI, and NSA to prepare the rump Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) of Jan. 6, 2017, finds the major premise of the ICA unpersuasive. The committee’s “Initial Findings” released on Monday specifically reject the assumption that Putin favored Trump.

This puts the committee directly at odds with handpicked analysts from only the FBI, CIA, and NSA, who assessed that Putin favored Trump – using this as their major premise and then straining to prove it by cobbling together unconvincing facts and theories.

Those of us with experience in intelligence analysis strongly criticized the evidence-impoverished ICA as soon as it was released, but it went on to achieve Gospel-like respect, with penance assigned to anyone who might claim it was not divinely inspired.

Until now.

Rep. K. Michael Conway (R-Texas), who led the House Committee investigation, has told the media that the committee is preparing a separate, in-depth analysis of the ICA itself. Good.

The committee should also take names — not only of the handpicked analysts, but the hand-pickers. There is ample precedent for this. For example, those who shepherded the fraudulent National Intelligence Estimate on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq 15 years ago were named in the NIE. Without names, it is hard to know whom to hold accountable.

Here’s the key ICA judgment with which the House committee does not concur: “We assess Putin, his advisers, and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump over Secretary Clinton.” Not to be picky, but if House investigators have been unable to find enough persuasive evidence to convince them that “Putin’s supposed preference” was Trump, there is little reason to take seriously the ICA’s adolescent observations — like Putin held a “grudge” against Clinton because she called him nasty names — and other tortured reasoning in an Intelligence Community Assessment that, frankly, is an embarrassment to the profession of intelligence analysis.

I recall reading the ICA as soon as it was published. I concluded that no special expertise in intelligence analysis was needed to see how the assessment had been cobbled together around the “given” that Putin had a distinct preference for Trump. That was a premise with which I always had serious trouble, since it assumed that a Russian President would prefer to have an unpredictable, mercurial, lash-out-at-any-grievance-real-or-perceived President with his fingers on the nuclear codes. This – not name-calling – is precisely what Russian leaders fear the most.

Be that as it may, the ICA’s evidence adduced to demonstrate Russian “interference” to help Trump win the election never passed the smell test. Worse still, it was not difficult to see powerful political agendas in play. While those agendas, together with the media which shared them, conferred on the ICA the status of Holy Writ, it had clearly been “writ” to promote those agendas and, as such, amounted to rank corruption of intelligence by those analysts “handpicked” by National Intelligence Director James Clapper to come up with the “right” answer.

Traces of the bizarre ideological — even racial — views of Intelligence Dean Clapper can also be discerned between the lines of the ICA. It is a safe bet that the handpicked authors of the ICA were well aware of — and perhaps even shared — the views Clapper later expressed to NBC’s Chuck Todd on May 28, 2017 about Russians: “[P]ut that in context with everything else we knew the Russians were doing to interfere with the election,” he said. “And just the historical practices of the Russians, who typically, are almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor, whatever, which is a typical Russian technique. So, we were concerned.”

Always Read the Fine Print

What readers of the intelligence assessment might have taken more seriously was the CYA in the ICA, so to speak, the truth-in-advertising cautions wedged into its final page. The transition from the lead paragraph to the final page — from “high confidence” to the actual definition of “high confidence” is remarkable. As a reminder, here’s how ICA starts:

“Putin Ordered Campaign To Influence US Election: We assess with high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election, the consistent goals of which were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. …”

But wait, the fair warning on page 13 explains: “High confidence … does not imply that the assessment is a fact or a certainty; such judgments might be wrong. … Judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that show something to be a fact. Assessments are based on collected information, which is often incomplete or fragmentary, as well as logic, argumentation, and precedents.”

Questionable Logic

The “logic” referred to rests primarily on assumptions related to Trump’s supposed friendliness with Putin, what Clinton Campaign Manager John Podesta called in 2015 a “bromance.” It assumes that Trump has been more than willing to do the Kremlin’s bidding from the White House, whether due to financial relationships Trump has with the Russians, or because he “owes them” for helping him get elected, or whether he is being blackmailed by “the pee tape” that Christopher Steele alluded to in his “dodgy dossier.”

This is the crux of the whole “treason” aspect of the Russiagate conspiracy theory – the idea that Trump is a Manchurian (or as some clever wags among Russiagaters claim, a Siberian) candidate who is directly under the influence of the Kremlin.

Even as U.S.-Russian relations drop to historic lows – with tensions approaching Cuban Missile Crisis levels – amazingly, there are still those promoting this theory, including some in the supposedly “progressive” alternative media like The Young Turks (TYT). Following Putin’s announcement on developments in Russia’s nuclear program earlier this month, TYT’s Cenk Uygur slammed Trump for not being more forceful in denouncing Putin, complaining that Trump “never criticizes Putin.” Uygur even speculated: “I’m not sure that Trump represents our interests above Putin’s.”

This line of thinking ignores a preponderance of evidence that the U.S posture against Russian interests has only hardened over the past year-plus of the Trump administration – perhaps in part as a result of Trump’s perceived need to demonstrate that he is not in “Putin’s pocket.”

The U.S. has intensified its engagement in Syria, for one thing, reportedly killing several Russians in recent airstrikes – a dangerous escalation that could lead to all-out military confrontation with Moscow and hardly the stuff of an alleged “bromance” between Trump and Putin. Then there was the Trump administration’s recent decision to provide new lethal weapons to the Ukrainian military – a major reversal of the Obama administration’s more cautious approach and an intensification of U.S. involvement in a proxy war on Russia’s border. The Russian foreign ministry angrily denounced this decision, saying the U.S. had “crossed the line” in the Ukraine conflict and accused Washington of fomenting bloodshed.

On other major policy issues, the Trump administration has also been pushing a hard anti-Russian line, reiterating recently that it would never recognize Crimea as part of Russia, criticizing Russia for allegedly enabling chemical attacks in Syria, and identifying Moscow as one of the U.S.’s major adversaries in the global struggle for power and influence.

“China and Russia,” the administration stated in its recent National Security Strategy, “challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” In the recently issued Nuclear Posture Review, the U.S. identifies Russia as a “contemporary threat,” and has a chapter outlining “A Tailored Strategy for Russia.” The document warns that Russia has “decided to return to Great Power competition.”

How does this in any way indicate that Trump is representing “Putin’s interests” above “ours,” as Uygur claims?

In short, there is no evidence to back up the theory that Putin helped Trump become president in order to do the Kremlin’s bidding, and no one pushing this idea should be taken seriously. In this respect, the Republicans’ “Initial Findings” – particularly the rejection of “Putin’s supposed preference for candidate Trump” have more credibility than most of the “analysis” put out so far, including the Jan. 6, 2017 ICA that has been held up as sacrosanct.

Democrats Angry

The irrepressible Congressman Adam Schiff, Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee, and his fellow Democrats are in high dudgeon over the release of the Committee’s “Initial Findings” after “only” one year of investigation.  So, of course, is NBC’s Rachel Maddow and other Russiagate aficionados.  They may even feel a need to come up with real evidence — rather than Clapperisms like “But everyone knows about the Russians, and how, for example, they just really hated it when Mrs. Clinton called Putin Hitler.”

I had the opportunity to confront Schiff personally at a think tank in Washington, DC on January 25, 2017. President Obama, on his way out of office, had said something quite curious at his last press conference just one week earlier about inconclusive conclusions:  “The conclusions of the intelligence community with respect to the Russian hacking were not conclusive” regarding WikiLeaks.  In other words, the intelligence community had no idea how the DNC emails reached WikiLeaks.

Schiff had just claimed as flat fact that the Russians hacked the DNC and Podesta emails and gave them to WikiLeaks to publish.  So I asked him if he knew more than President Obama about how Russian hacking had managed to get to WikiLeaks.

Schiff used the old, “I can’t share the evidence with you; it’s classified.” OK, I’m no longer cleared for classified information, but Schiff is; and so are all his colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee.  The Republican majority has taken issue with the cornerstone assumption of those who explain Russian “hacking” and other “meddling” as springing from the “obvious fact” that Putin favored Trump.  The ball is in Schiff’s court.

Last but not least, the committee’s Initial Finding that caught most of the media attention was that there is “no evidence of collusion, coordination, or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians.” This, of course, poured cold water on what everyone listening to mainstream media “knows” about Russian “meddling” in the 2016 election. But, in the lack of persuasive evidence that President Putin preferred candidate Trump, why should we expect Russian “collusion, coordination, conspiracy” with the Trump campaign?

Ah, but the Russians want to “sow discord.” Sounds to me like a Clapperism.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.  During his 27-year career at CIA, he was Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief under Nixon, Ford, and Reagan.  He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).




Trump Promotes Longtime Russia Hawk Just as Russiagate Loses Momentum

The fact-free and logic-challenged allegations of Trump-Russia collusion have further lost credibility with the appointment of a virulently anti-Russia hawk to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Caitlin Johnstone points out.

By Caitlin Johnstone

Rex Tillerson, whose hotly scrutinized ties to Russia have been a centerpiece of Rachel Maddow’s conspiratorial ravings for many months, has been fired. Replacing him as Secretary of State will be Mike Pompeo, who has been a consistent and longstanding Russia hawk for years, going so far as accusing President Obama of endangering America by simply agreeing to meet with Vladimir Putin in 2015.

Like pretty much everything that happens anywhere ever, this occurrence is being cited as evidence of collusion between Donald Trump and the Russian government.

“Tillerson Fired by Trump Hours After Blaming Russia for Chemical Attack in U.K.,” blared a headline from the increasingly pro-establishment Intercept, referring to a comment Tillerson had made about the plot hole-riddled claims of the UK government that a Russian double agent had been poisoned by the Kremlin.

“By firing Tillerson one day after he publicly stated that Russia behind a WMD attack on British soil, we now have proof Trump is colluding with Putin,” tweeted Vanity Fair editor and tentacle porn connoisseur Kurt Eichenwald. “I don’t know if he did in the election. But he is doing it NOW in front of our eyes. He is Kremlin-owned.”

“Interesting that Tillerson’s ouster came one day after he very publicly broke with the official WH line and said the poisoning of Sergei Skripal ‘clearly’ came from Russia,” said a popular tweet from The Atlantic‘s Natasha Bertrand.

“WH saying Tillerson was informed Friday, but State Dept statement today seems to indicate he just found out today. Which *really* makes one wonder about the role of the Russia statement yesterday,” chimed in MSNBC’s Chris Hayes.

This is plainly stupid, and the exact opposite is likely the case. Rex Tillerson had been making comments against Russia throughout his brief career as Secretary of State just like Pompeo and many others in Trump’s cabinet, recently blaming Moscow for chemical attacks in Syria and warning of future interference in US elections in the 2018 midterms. He was not replaced by a far more virulently anti-Russia hawk because he sided with the establishment narrative on Russia as he had many times before.

For his part, Trump told reporters “it sounds to me like it would be Russia” in response to questions about who was responsible for the UK poisoning, and cited differences with Tillerson on the Iran nuclear deal as a reason for his firing. If you take Trump on his word (not that I am suggesting anyone should ever do such a thing), his administration is likely to side with the UK on any escalations it chooses to make against the Russian Federation, and he fired Rex Tillerson because this administration and its allies want to advance a more aggressive agenda against Iran.

And that could very well be among the reasons for Tillerson’s firing; Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did reportedly talk “Iran, Iran, and Iran” in their recent meeting. It could also have something to do with the possibility that Pompeo is being groomed for a 2020 presidential candidacy, as sources have reportedly told WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange.

I think another possibility worth considering is the timing of the fatal blow the Russiagate narrative has suffered as House Intelligence Committee Republicans officially ended their investigation with the conclusion that there is no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion, and no evidence that Vladimir Putin tried to help Trump win the election. The Mueller investigation still continues, as does the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer stating that “We have a responsibility to get to the very bottom of what happened in the 2016 elections and to report on those findings in an unbiased way. If the House isn’t going to do it, the Senate must.”

But going by what we’re hearing from the Senate Intelligence Committee it looks like their investigation might be heading in the same direction, with Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr telling CNN on Monday that he’s seen no evidence of collusion either.

“I’ve read a lot about it, but haven’t seen any,” Burr said.

It is worth weighing the possibility that now that the American public has been paced into supporting new cold war escalations with Russia, the Russiagate psyop which was used to harness rank-and-file Democrats’ fear of Trump to inflame fears of Putin is no longer necessary, and is now being let go in place of more brazen hawkishness. As far as the US intelligence community and its allies are concerned, Russiagate’s only purpose has been to manufacture public support for escalations against Russia to secure strategic regions and ultimately hobble the Russia-China tandem, and that scaffolding can safely be removed if Russia hysteria no longer requires fear of Trump collusion to be sustained.

The soulless Mike Pompeo would be a fine overseer of that agenda, and as Secretary of State, the position Hillary Clinton used so effectively to spearhead the decimation of Libya, he’d be in an excellent position to do so.

Also noteworthy is the fact that Trump just promoted a torture supporter in Mike Pompeo and an actual torturer in his replacement as CIA Director Gina Haspel, yet leading Democrats are largely concerned that the administration won’t be “tough” enough.

“If he’s confirmed, we hope that Mr. Pompeo will turn over a new leaf and will start toughening up our policies towards Russia and Putin,” said Chuck Schumer, arguably the most powerful Democrat in America, who recently sparked controversy for citing religious voodoo in defense of the oppression and warmongering of the Israeli state.

This administration is continuing and expanding all of Bush and Obama’s most bloodthirsty agendas, and if it attacks Iran it will likely surpass both of them in terms of psychopathic bloodshed, and yet they’re worried he’s not “tough” enough. They criticize Trump for weakness over his willingness to meet for peace talks with Kim Jong Un after feigning shock at his obnoxious tweets about the North Korean leader, and they blast him for being too cuddly wuddly with Russia despite this administration’s already having caved to the longstanding neoconservative agenda to arm Ukraine against Russia, killed Russians in Syria as part of its insane regime change occupation of that country, adopted a Nuclear Posture Review with greatly increased aggression toward Russia and blurred lines between when nuclear strikes are and are not appropriate, sent war ships into the Black Sea “to counter Russia’s increased presence there,” forced RT and Sputnik to register as foreign agents, expanded NATO with the addition of Montenegro, assigned Russia hawk Kurt Volker as special representative to Ukraine, shut down a Russian consulate in San Francisco and thrown out Russian diplomats.

In short, both parties appear to be doing everything in their power to get as many people killed as possible, and nobody seems to have their foot anywhere near the brake pedal. Heads up.

Caitlin Johnstone is a rogue journalist, poet, and utopia prepper who publishes regularly at Medium. Follow her work on FacebookTwitter, or her website. She has a podcast and a new book Woke: A Field Guide for Utopia Preppers. This article was re-published with permission.