Russian hopes dashed: Whatever hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin may have had for a more workable relationship with the Trump administration have been “trumpled,” so to speak. This came through loudly and clearly in acerbic remarks by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov in an interview Friday with The National Interest.
Ryabkov lamented the sad state of Russia-U.S. relations, while pointing, not very subtly, to China as Russia’s ace in the hole. He was simply acknowledging that what the Soviets used to call “the correlation of forces” has changed markedly, and strongly implied that the U.S. should draw the appropriate conclusions.
No amateur diplomat, Ryabkov used unusually sharp, almost certainly pre-authorized, words to drive home his message:
“We don’t believe the US in its current shape is a counterpart that is reliable, so we have no confidence, no trust whatsoever. So our own calculations and conclusions are less related to what America is doing … we cherish our close and friendly relations with China. We do regard this as a comprehensive strategic partnership in different areas, and we intend to develop it further.”
In other words: We Russians and Chinese will stand together as the US tries to paint both of us as arch-villains, all the while isolating itself and painting itself into a corner.
Sic Transit Trust
Putin has come to accept that potent forces favoring high tension with Russia – the Military-Industrial-Congressional-Intelligence-Media-Adademia-Think-Tank complex (MICIMATT, if you will) – are far stronger than any president; and that, in that context, trying to cultivate a relationship of personal trust with a president, may be largely a waste of time.
The system in which Putin spent his early life put a premium on what the Soviets called yedinonachaliya, meaning leadership by a person at the top who is fully empowered to make decisions and have them carried out by subordinates – or else. Putin’s personal experience working successfully with President Barack Obama in early September 2013 to head off wider war on Syria [more on that later] may have deceived him into assuming that presidents of the United States can exercise that kind of power, at will. And, if that were the case, personal dealings at the very top were the preferred way to untie Gordian knots – and even cooperate for mutual advantage.
In the years since, the notion was fully dispelled that a US president is completely “his own man” and is rather hemmed in by the MICIMATT – and particularly by its Security State component with entrenched, exceedingly powerful intelligence and law enforcement agencies. President Donald Trump calls this reality the “Deep State.”
Trump with Big [Oral] Stick
There must be a Siberian equivalent to the expression “All hat, no cattle.” If there is, I can almost hear it coming from the Kremlin in reaction to some of Trump’s rhetoric, like his remarks on May 23 in an interview with journalist Sharyl Attkisson:
“What am I doing? I’m fighting the deep state; I’m fighting the swamp…If it keeps going the way it’s going, I have a chance to break the deep state. It’s a vicious group of people. It’s very bad for our country.”
Trump has not hesitated to name the Deep State actors that he keeps in his sights – ex-FBI Director James Comey; ex-CIA Director John Brennan, and ex-National Intelligence Director James Clapper, for example – but, so far, he has shied away from actually taking them on. He has even thrown a few of his closest supporters under the bus – like House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes when Nunes tried to send criminal referrals to the Justice Department.
Thus, it remains an open question whether Trump will allow the various investigations now under way to bring indictments. This is no parlor game; these would be very serious moves, with consequences hard to predict. If it turns out that the president does have some cattle and decides to put them into play, those he labeled “a vicious group of people” will be fighting back tooth and nail.
RIP: The Russian ‘Hack’ of DNC
Trump may act this time because he was personally the target of the Russiagate affair. Recently revealed evidence is in his favor. Although the latest proof was released three and a half weeks ago, most Americans are unaware that the cornerstone of Russiagate, the charge that Russia hacked into the Democratic National Committee computers, has crumbled. Always evidence-impoverished, the accusation has now been shown to be evidence-bereft by the sworn testimony of the technical expert, Shawn Henry, the head of CrowdStrike. This is the cyber-security firm chosen and paid for by the Clinton campaign and the DNC (with Comey’s blessing) to investigate the so-called Russian hack.
Asked on Dec. 5, 2017, behind closed doors by then-ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff to provide “the date on which the Russians exfiltrated [hacked] the data from the DNC,” Henry replied, “… there are times when we can see data exfiltrated, and we can say conclusively. But in this case … we just don’t have the evidence that says it actually left.”
It was only under extreme pressure from the acting director of National Intelligence that Schiff, now chair of the House Intelligence Committee, released the transcript of Henry’s Dec. 5, 2017, testimony on May 7. The Democrats knew for more than two years that the Russian hack was a lie but continued telling it.
But now we know. Better late than never? Not really.
If a Tree Falls in the Forest …
If bombshell testimony like that of Henry is not reported by The New York Times or other Establishment media, as has been the case since May 7, who can hear the tree fall – or the bombshell explode? How many Americans know that the White House has been right about at least one thing – that the charge that Russia “hacked the DNC” is not supported by any evidence that can bear close scrutiny?
I suppose it is true that most Americans would prefer not to know that, but you do not need a PhD to understand the inevitable consequences of letting this all go with a “So what?”
If The New York Times is successful in suppressing bombshells like Henry’s testimony, it can suppress anything it deems “not fit to print.” Let’s conduct an experiment: Please FaceTime a couple of friends – preferably those who still read the Times – and ask if they know that there is zero concrete evidence that the Russians, or anyone else, hacked the DNC; then closely watch their expression. If they send the men in the white coats to knock on your door, you’ll know why.
The Times, of course, just won a Pulitzer Prize for its array of Russia-bashing articles. Not to be outdone, Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice told Fox News on Sunday that she “would not be surprised to learn that the Russians are fomenting” and “funding extremists on both sides” of the current protest demonstrations in the US Typically, Rice cited no evidence, merely saying, “based on my experience this is right out of the Russian playbook.”
Rice told Fox, “I’m not reading the intelligence these days.” But who, I ask, needs intelligence when you have The New York Times? Perhaps she found guidance in its March 10 story, “Russia Trying to Stoke US Racial Tensions Before Election, Officials Say.” Or maybe she was one of the Times’ sources for that story, which would amount to the kind of WMD-style, circular/false-confirmation-to-a-fare-thee-well approach, not uncommon to spreading “news” in Washington.
You cannot say we have not been warned. After all, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Trump last October “All roads lead to Putin.” Not to overlook the insight of another amateur specialist on Russia, Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO), who claims, “Vladimir Putin wakes up every morning and goes to bed every night trying to figure out how to destroy American democracy.” And didn’t those lawyers testify preposterously to Schiff’s impeachment committee that, “We had better fight the Russians over there in Ukraine, so we don’t have to fight them here”? when even during the height of the first Cold War no one seriously contemplated Soviet troops invading US soil.
‘Bad Guys’ Forever
I imagine that Kremlin officials read the Times as closely as I used to read Pravda back in the day – to discern what is missing, as well as the significance of what does make it into print. Russia’s leaders must be aware that the Times and most other Establishment media are so deeply invested in Russian “hacking,” that the faux-story is simply too big to fail. Besides, it has proven all too easy to lead Americans to believe that, in effect, the U.S.S.R. still exists and is ruled by “bad guys” bent on aggression.
By now, Putin must realize it is an uphill, Sisyphus-like challenge to disassociate today’s Russia from the Soviet Union. Five years ago, he gave it the college try. On April 16, 2015, he alluded to that dark period, addressing “the ugly nature of the Stalin regime” and the reaction that persists to this day. He conceded:
“[It] “may not be very pleasant for us to admit. But in truth, we, or rather our predecessors, gave cause for this. Why? Because after World War II, we tried to impose our own development model on many Eastern European countries, and we did so by force. This has to be admitted. There is nothing good about this and we are feeling the consequences now.”
It is likely to be a mix of sang froid and skepticism on Putin’s part, as he watches political developments in the US in the coming months, against the background of what he has experienced with US counterparts in recent years.
Obama-Putin Tête-à-Tête Brings Results
On Sept. 4, 2013, the day before Obama arrived in St. Petersburg for a G-20 summit, Putin on live TV accused then Secretary of State John Kerry of lying the day before in congressional testimony on Syria. Kerry had continued to blame Syria for the sarin attack, played down the role of al-Qaeda among the rebels, and exaggerated the strength of the “moderate” rebels. With unusual bluntness, Putin said that Kerry “is lying; he knows he is lying; this is sad.”
Obama, too, was being informed at the time that Kerry was stretching the truth well beyond the breaking point. The president knew this from briefings by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs; by National Intelligence Director Clapper; and by us, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. This may help explain why the president did not ask Kerry to accompany him to St. Petersburg; why he chose to work out the deal personally with Putin; and why he chose to keep Kerry completely in the dark for five days.
At a London press conference early on Aug. 9, 2013, Kerry had been asked whether there was anything Assad could do to prevent a U.S. attack. Kerry answered dismissively that Assad could give up his chemical weapons, but “he isn’t about to do that; it can’t be done.” Later that day Kerry got word from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that, oops, the deal could be done – and was about to be announced.
By happy coincidence, that same evening I had an unusual opportunity atop the CNN building in Washington to watch neocons like Paul Wolfowitz and Joe Lieberman vent their frustration over Obama “chickening out” and squandering the golden chance to get the U.S. into direct war in Syria. [ See the sub-section Morose at CNN in “How War in Syria Lost Its Way.”]
Obama, it turns out, was proud at having gone against the advice of virtually all of his advisers to stop the juggernaut rolling downhill to war. Two years later, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, Obama bragged at having been able to defy what he called “the Washington playbook” in calling off the attack on Syria.
Trust Is the Exception, Not the Rule
Putin had to learn the hard way that the circumstances in September 2013 were sui generis. Putin was able to offer Obama a deal he could not refuse, in order for Obama to extract himself from a very difficult position. Without Kerry or other advisers looking over his shoulder, Obama was able to take advantage of the offer despite the prevailing war lust – not only among the neocons, but among Obama’s own advisers.
Just six days after his successful meeting with Obama, Putin put a hopeful gloss on prospects for improved relations with Washington: “My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust,” Putin wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Sept. 11, 2013.
The Russian president was basking in the glow of having (1) gotten Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to agree to surrender Syrian army chemical weapons for UN-supervised destruction, (2) personally persuaded Obama to agree, and (3) helped prevent military escalation in Syria – which neither Putin nor Obama wanted. The deal was very much in Obama’a interest, taking the wind out of the sails of most of Obama’s advisers, including Kerry, who did nothing to disguise their lust for an open U.S. attack on Syria.
US forces were in place. The planned attack would be “justified” as retaliation for a sarin gas attack near Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013. Kerry led the charge against Syria’s al-Assad, repeatedly blaming him despite abundant evidence that the sarin attack was a false-flag ploy – whether Kerry knew it or not – designed to mousetrap Obama into ordering a Baghdad-style “shock and awe” on Syria.
The immediate reaction of US officials to this op-ed should have helped keep everyone’s hopes down. Indeed, the reaction proved to be a harbinger of things to come – taking the form of a Western-sponsored coup in Ukraine, sanctions, and, of course, Russiagate.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), then chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee spoke for many Washington insiders by saying, “I was at dinner, and I almost wanted to vomit.” [For more on this topic, see Consortium News‘s “Rewarding Group Think on Syria,”]
Nor did the hardliners’ chagrin over the lost opportunity for war on Syria dissipate much in subsequent years. Sen. Bob Corker, (R-TN), who followed Menendez as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, was one of the most outspoken critics of Obama’s decision to cancel the planned attack on Syria in 2013. On Dec. 3, 2014, Corker complained bitterly that, while the US military was poised to launch a “very targeted, very brief” operation against the Syrian government for using chemical weapons, Obama called off the attack at the last minute.
Corker’s criticism was scathing:
“I think the worst moment in US foreign policy since I’ve been here, as far as signaling to the world where we were as a nation, was August a year ago when we had a 10-hour operation that was getting ready to take place in Syria but it didn’t happen. … In essence and – I’m sorry to be slightly rhetorical – we jumped in Putin’s lap.”
The events of autumn 2013 are a case study in itself. Putin garnered a great deal from the unique experience of dealing personally with an Obama-in-need. Putin then found, as a result of his subsequent dealings with Obama and Trump, that he had to rearrange his thinking about how much power a US president actually has when it comes to confronting the entrenched Security State – even if a president’s desire to improve relations is authentic.
Social Media as ‘Proof’
The Russian president understood, as the years went by, that ordinarily Obama would defer to the “Washington playbook” and the MICIMATT. And so would, most times, Trump.
But the neocons got even with Putin for his key role in cheating them out of doing shock and awe on Syria. To an appreciable degree, that accounted for the neocon boldness in carrying out the coup in Kiev a half-year later, and in their contrived exploitation of the terrible loss of 298 lives on MH17, blaming the Russians sans any convincing proof.
As with the 2013 sarin attack near Damascus, so too in the case of MH17, Kerry emphasized that “social media” are an “extraordinary tool.” Right. But equally useful for deception as for truth. The lame attempts of various imaginative (but not imaginative enough) folks, many of whom seem to be employed by Western intelligence services to use their imaginations in applying “social media” to the MH17 affair, are transparent to any discerning observer.
While he kept blaming the Russians, Kerry never produced the evidence he told NBC’s David Gregory he had three days after the plane went down. Here’s Kerry to Gregory on July 20, 2014:
“We picked up the imagery of this launch. We know the trajectory. We know where it came from. We know the timing. And it was exactly at the time that this aircraft disappeared from the radar.”
Remember: In the wake of the shoot down of MH17, the US successfully pressured many other countries to impose economic sanctions on Russia.
Agreements at the Top Thwarted
On Syria, Putin witnessed the lack of yedinonachaliya in the US political and military system. At the behest of Putin and Obama, Kerry and Lavrov worked very hard for 11 months to arrange a ceasefire. One was signed Sept. 9, 2016. On Sept. 17 US aircraft bombed fixed Syrian Army positions killing between 64 and 84 Syrian army troops; about 100 others wounded — evidence enough to convince the Russians that the Pentagon was intent on scuttling meaningful cooperation with Russia.
Here’s Lavrov on Sept. 26:
“My good friend John Kerry … is under fierce criticism from the US military machine. Despite the fact that, as always, [they] made assurances that the US Commander in Chief, President Barack Obama, supported him in his contacts with Russia (he confirmed that during his meeting with President Vladimir Putin), apparently the military does not really listen to the Commander in Chief. … It is difficult to work with such partners. …”
A month later Putin publicly lamented: “My personal agreements with the President of the United States have not produced results.” Putin complained about “people in Washington ready to do everything possible to prevent these agreements from being implemented in practice” and, referring to Syria, decried the lack of a “common front against terrorism after such lengthy negotiations, enormous effort, and difficult compromises.”
In sum, Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov’s remarks on Friday strongly suggest that at this juncture the Russian leadership does not put much store in commitments by Washington – including those that may come from the president. For the next few months, at least, Moscow will be in a passive, wait and see posture. With so much mutual work to do – particularly on arms control – this is a pity.
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). This originally appeared at Consortium News.