Saturday, March 24, 2018

Is Hostility Towards Russia Part of a Grand Strategy?

Those who know me or who have read my blog or Facebook posts, know that for a long time I have lamented the fact that since the end of the Cold War leaders in the West (US, NATO, EU) have done everything in their power to exclude Russia from integration into their network of alliances, trade organizations etc. Instead they have sought to isolate and demonize Russia, as if the Cold War had never ended. Indeed in recent years it has seemed that there has been a concerted effort to revive and heat up the Cold War.  To me this has always seemed a foolish and dangerous policy, and I have often wondered what lies behind it. The aim of this blog is to suggest a reason for the hostility to Russia.  I am not saying that it has been in place from the outset, but rather that it has emerged as part of a ‘Grand Strategy’, especially since the turn of the century, when the presidency of Boris Yeltsin was succeeded by that of Vladimir Putin.  Perhaps it was on the back burner following 9-11 when Islamic fundamentalism took centre stage, but I suspect that in the minds of strategic thinkers it has been there all along.  

Under Putin's presidency, Russia has recovered somewhat, from the depths to which it sank following the collapse of the USSR and the Yeltsin presidency,  and is now showing much more confidence in international affairs.  After seeing duplicitous Western behaviour in the invasion of Iraq, and the intervention in Libya under the false claim of protecting civilians, Russia has shown itself now ready to stand up and challenge what it sees as violations of its own interests.  The protracted conflicts in Ukraine and Syria resulting from this have helped in bringing the relationship  between Russia and the West to new lows.  

Was this sad deterioration of relations inevitable?  While Russia doubtless bears some responsibility, I think few can deny that the West has done everything in its power to goad and humiliate Russia. Is there a reason behind this strategy? Or is it just an old Cold War reflex?  Or an attitude in Washington that cannot tolerate any government unwilling to bend the knee to the American hegemon?  Or the need of the military industrial complex to have a potent enemy in order to justifiy the bloated defense budget?  Probably all of these play a part.  But since this approach to Russia has continued under both Democrat (Clinton, Obama) and Republican (Bush) presidencies, and since Trump’s pre-election intention of establishing better relations with Russia has caused so much outrage, one must ask if there are other reasons. 

Here I offer a speculative answer.  It is something that struck me on reading the following article on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  

China is currently investing enormous sums into creating a single economic area throughout the  Asian landmass by means of building transport infrastructure, increasing trade and by establishing cultural linkages.   The Silk Road Initiative involves creating transportation links (railroads, highways) along the ancient silk roads that linked Europe with China, and the Maritime Silk Road Initiative involves creating ports and infrastructure along the sea routes through the China Sea and Indian Ocean, to the Middle East.  There is also a project to develop the North East Passage sea route, through the Arctic, north of Siberia.  

Of course Asia is a cultural-historical concept, not a geographical one, in the physical sense, at least.  Physically there is one Eurasian landmass, and not only would the Belt Road Iniative link China with Central Asia, it would link China with Europe.  Imagine China linked with Western Europe by high-speed rail links. The trade opportunities between Europe, advanced in high-tech, and China with its manufacturing power and large population, would be tremendous. 

Russia would straddle the trading routes and with its vast natural resource base it would provide resources and energy to both termini.  It also has the brain power and would have the potential to experience rapid industrial and technological development. 

It would be the Heartland Theory of geographer Halford Mackinder realized. For Mackinder, The World Island was the Eurasian landmass.  He opined in 1904

who rules the World-Island commands the world.’

In this picture, the US is nowhere to be seen.  It could conceivably, in the long run, find itself relegated to an isolated, debt-ridden, backward-looking country, with a massive and unaffordable military (and a poorly educated and over-armed citizenry) relying on rust-bucket technologies and polluting energy sources.   

But if Europe could be quarantined from connection with China and the rising industrial power of East Asia, America’s nightmare could be avoided, or at least delayed.  And a way to do that would be to keep Europe and Russia locked in Cold  War attitudes of mutual suspicion and hostility towards one another.  Under this scenario, the best US strategy might be to ramp up hostility towards Russia, goading it by advancing NATO to its frontiers, tearing up arms control treaties and encouraging ‘colour revolutions’ in neighbouring states.  

This is pretty much what has happened since the end of the Cold War.  Rather than trying to bring Russia into the fold, US  policy has been the exact opposite.  Maybe there has been more thought behind this strategy than I had credited - maybe it is not just a knee-jerk Cold War style hostility to all things Russian?  If Europe can for ever be kept at daggers drawn with Russia, the dynamics of the world game would be US-Europe vs. China-Russia rather than the US vs. an integrated World Island.  

Please note I am not trying to praise the political systems in either Russia or China.  And I would certainly prefer to live in a Western democracy than either of them.  But trading connections could and should increase prosperity and opportunity for all sides.  And it should be able to happen without compromising our freedoms and values.  

But I am afraid that the US with its constant militarism, rising deficits and reliance on borrowed money, coupled with its inward looking threat of protectionism, has taken a seriously wrong turn.  

In spite of America’s bad choices, Europe doesn’t necessarily have to follow.   I don’t expect much from Brexit-absorbed Britain under Theresa May’s Tories, but I do wonder when other European powers, in particular Germany, will wake up and see that their interests don’t necessarily rise and fall in the west. The sun, after all, rises in the east.  It sets in the west.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Cronyism set to reach new heights.

George W. Bush was often thought of as epitomizing crony capitalism.  But Donald J. Trump carries cronyism to a new height.  Not only is Trump himself and family (Ivanka, Jared et al.) using their positions for personal gain, he has made appointments to cabinet positions of people friendly (if not an actual part of) the industries they are supposed to regulate.  

Thus we have the Environmental Protection Agency run on behalf of polluters, an Interior Department run by people who want to loot federal land, an Education Department run by the for-profit schools industry.

And now he is making trade policy which will benefit those who have the ear (and pockets) of people in power.   As Paul Krugman writes:

“There’s a reason we have international trade agreements, and it’s not to protect us from unfair practices by other countries. The real goal, instead, is to protect us from ourselves: to limit the special-interest politics and outright corruption that used to reign in trade policy”.   

Krugman points out that there usually are many more people hurt by tariffs than by those who benefit.  But those who benefit have the ear of the policy makers. It is interesting that steel (along with aluminum) are the first products subject to import duties.  I heard former Reagan Budget Director, David Stockman, on the radio yesterday saying that the steel industry has been a major crybaby for years, perennially trying to get Government help for the industry.

Before WWII, “Tariff policy used to be one of the dirtiest, most corrupt aspects of politics both in the U.S. and elsewhere” (Krugman).

Following the repeal of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, under FDR, temptations for these crony special deals vanished.  But cronyism is one of the defining characteristics of Donald Trump.  It’s not surprising that he’s moving to impose tariffs.

A House Divided.

We would do well to pay heed to the old enmities bubbling up in our politics: it is not that we are on the verge of another civil war, but that the Civil War never truly ended. With the exception of slavery itself, what divided the United States then divides us still today.”

These are the words of Manisha Sinha, historian of the Abolitionist movement and the Civil War.

Interesting to note, though, that while the divisions are pretty much the same, the positions of both major US parties have done a 180 degree switch.  In the 1860s, the Democratic Party was the party of the southern slaveholders and their conservative northern allies (“doughfaces”) while the Republicans were liberal on abolition and the political rights of black Americans.

One Man’s Democracy Promotion is Another’s Meddling.

Did you ever wonder who produced and paid for all of the banners and signs (printed in English) seen at anti-government demonstrations in places as diverse as Iran, Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, Georgia etc.   Well it’s a good bet that the National Endowment for Democracy played some part in it.  

The NED, founded in 1983, was the brainchild of Reagan’s CIA director William Casey to (in the words of the late Robert Parry) “take over CIA programs that attempt to influence foreign elections by promoting the selection of candidates who supported U.S. policy and would ‘do what the U.S. government tells them to do.’”  

The NED has a budget of $180 million from US Government, and distributes grants to supposedly promote democracy.  It is prohibited from engaging in partisan political activities and from ‘promoting democracy’ in the USA; also it is required to receive approval for all grants from the State Department prior to dishing them out. But this didn’t prevent it from financing opposition factions in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Venezuela, not to mention Ukraine and Iran. Did you ever wonder where the $5 billion that Victoria Nuland bragged about spending on the 2014 overthrow the corrupt (but elected) government of Ukraine, came from.?  It’s a good bet that the NED had something to do with it.

Meddling in other countries elections (like those pesky Russians did to deny Hillary the throne). Heaven forbid!

Dereliction of Duty?

Dereliction of Duty.  

This was the title of a book by current National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster.  It’s thesis (and it indeed grew out of the author’s PhD thesis) was that during the  Vietnam War, the Joint Chiefs of Staff displayed a dereliction of duty by becoming politicized and acceding to the wishes of then President Johnson and his civilian advisers. I haven’t read the book but it sounds a lot like a professional soldier trying to shift the blame for a lost war - the old ‘stab in the back’ excuse, which the military leadership of losing sides have leaned upon in the past, the most notable being the German high command during the Weimar years following WWI (and eagerly seized upon by Adolf Hitler).  Besides in a democracy is not the military supposed to be subordinate to the elected government? 

Anyway the following article

suggests that McMaster, since assuming the National Security position in Trump’s cabinet, has himself been derelict in his duty of standing up to the mercurial President.  In other words, he has become politicized and failed to perform the duties expected of the leadership position.  

There have been rumours of McMaster being given the boot by Trump.  Was he perhaps behind the neutering of son-in-law Kushner?   Or is it perhaps Chief of Staff John Kelly (another right-wing general) who eased out both Steve Bannon and Kushner and has now got his sights set on McMaster?  

Shakespearean intrigue indeed.  I wonder which of the Bard’s tragedies would best lend itself to being set in Trump’s Washington?

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Whose Ox is being Gored?

When is an independence movement with the aim of secession legitimate and when not?   

The secession of Kosovo from Serbia was deemed legitimate by Western powers (and brought about by the intervention of NATO troops).  But the secession of Crimea from Ukraine was deemed illegitimate and labelled as an 'Russian invasion' by the US and many EU allies.

South Sudan's breakaway from the former country of Sudan was OK (they have lots of oil).  But the Iraqi Kurds vote on independence was nixed by almost everyone (even though they have oil too).  

Slovakia was allowed to peacefully divorce the Czech part of their former country while the disintegration of Yugoslavia was encouraged by the West, as was the break up of the Soviet Union.  

But the reaction to Catalunya's intention to hold a referendum on independence was met by condemnation throughout the EU.   Official minds don't seem to have changed much even after the thuggish behaviour of the Madrid government and its goons in the paramilitary Guardia Civil.

I can't imagine a more spectacular own goal than the one scored on Sunday by the Madrid government of Mariano Rajoy. 

If the referendum had been allowed to proceed peacefully, it seemed quite possible that the independence proposal would have been rejected.  Even if it had been approved by a slim majority, independence would still have been a long way off.  

But the heavy handed tactics of the Guardia (who by the way were the hated instrument Franco used to maintain his dictatorial power for decades - including outlawing the Catalan language) has proved a disaster for the cause of a unified Spain.  I imagine few of the people who would have voted 'No' in a peaceful poll, would have risked confronting the goon squads.  And the result - 90% in favour and a propaganda disaster for Rajoy, with pictures of police swinging batons and elderly ladies with bleeding faces. 

And again I imagine that many people who would have voted 'No' will have changed their minds after yesterday's debacle revealed the true nature of Rajoy's government.  

I believe Rajoy's party leads a minority government - following a second election, in 2016, after the first, in 2015,  failed to produce a party capable of forming a government.  His People’s Party only won the confidence of the Cortes when the Socialist Party abstained from voting on  the initial confidence vote.  So his hold on power in Madrid must be pretty tenuous.  Let's hope some of the other parties in the Cortes (Ciudanos Unidos or the Socialist Party of Spain?)  will combine to kick this mediocrity into oblivion.  By the way, this is not the first unwise and belligerent policy that Rajoy has backed - he was Deputy Prime Minister in the government of Jose Aznar, when the latter went ‘all in’ in backing George W. Bush’s illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003.  

However I don’t hold out much hope of the Madrid government falling over the Catalunya issue.  Apparently most of Madrid’s leading newspapers and opinion makers have come out strongly against Catalunya.  So I fear that the rift between it and the rest of Spain will grow, leading to a very uncertain future.  This could also lead to renewed calls for independence for the Basque provinces, and possibly even from Galicia - the home province of Mariano Rajoy and the late dictator Francisco Franco. 

Along with the Spanish government, the EU in its failure to condemn the violence of the National Police and the Guardia Civil, has not come out of this very well. Perhaps the conflict between Catalunya and Spain will be a crisis for the EU of greater magnitude than Brexit.  Who knows?   And by the way if Britain has the right to leave the EU (which clearly it does), then should not Catalunya have the right to leave Spain?  

The answer to this one seems to be, as perhaps with all issues of secession, "It depends on whose ox is is being gored."  

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Magnitsky, Browder and Russia-gate.

Remember the Magnitsky case and the US Magnitsky Act which imposed sanctions upon a number of Russians associated with the Putin government? 

Magnitsky died in custody in Russia and US hedge fund operator William Browder brought the case to Western attention alleging that Magnitsky died at the hands of corrupt Russian officials, who were involved in fraudulently stealing assets from Browder's hedge fund.  Browder' claims were quite widely aired and it all added to the ramping up of US-Russia tensions and the demonization of Putin. I recall seeing an extended piece on the subject on CBC's flagship news program The National.  It was followed by an interview with Browder, who presented himself as a friend of Magnitsky, outraged by his treatment, and seeking justice. It was all quite convincing.  

Well it seems that things may not be quite the way Browder claimed.  Indeed it may have been Browder himself who was acting fraudulently.   This was alleged in a film made by Russian filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov, a known critic of Vladimir Putin.  He intended to make a film about the affair, which would indict Putin and his allies.  To quote from an article by Robert Parry: 

However, the project took an unexpected turn when Nekrasov’s research kept turning up contradictions to Browder’s storyline, which began to look more and more like a corporate cover story. Nekrasov discovered that a woman working in Browder’s company was the actual whistleblower and that Magnitsky – rather than a crusading lawyer – was an accountant who was implicated in the scheme.

So, the planned docudrama suddenly was transformed into a documentary with a dramatic reversal as Nekrasov struggles with what he knows will be a dangerous decision to confront Browder with what appear to be deceptions. In the film, you see Browder go from a friendly collaborator into an angry adversary who tries to bully Nekrasov into backing down.

But not many people have seen the film.  It has been so far fairly successfully repressed by Browder's lawyers and other players in the US including the Washington Post.  The full details can be found in Parry's article.

But what is interesting is that this story intersects with the so-called Russia-Gate Trump story, in that Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr.  was also involved in the Magnitsky story.  So more may be coming out about the Magnitsky case.

I have no idea about what really happened with Browder, Magnitsky and the Russian authorities,  but I have an uncomfortable feeling that once again we are being sold a bill of goods by the corporate media.  They have certainly failed to present both sides of the story.  

More can be found on Nekrasov's film here in an article by Gilbert Doctorow.