MOSCOW—In May, Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a bill of stunning recklessness that seems specifically designed to destroy what remains of relations between the United States and Russia. The legislation’s very name—the “Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014”—is a misnomer, for its provisions, if enacted, would dramatically heighten tensions between Moscow and Washington. By foreclosing the option of doing what we really need to do—launch a serious dialogue with Russia about how to end the Ukraine crisis—it would deepen the conflict there, augment the human misery spreading as a result, and shove us to the brink of war. In fact, the bill is already doing damage to the prospect of peace by serving Kremlin propagandists as a manifesto of U.S. intent to force Russia to its knees and humiliate its leader. It presents an ultimatum to the Kremlin that no head of state, least of all the famously supercilious Vladimir Putin, would accept.
The Russian Aggression Prevention Act is just a proposed bill, for now. But if the Republicans take the Senate (and retain the House of Representatives) in November’s midterm elections, the legislation shows the direction in which Congress will push President Obama as the current standoff intensifies. Elections aside, the measure represents a hardline approach that the White House is warming to—at a pivotal moment in the months-long crisis when the Ukrainian military is advancing on the pro-Russian rebel stronghold of Donetsk, and Russian troops are massing on the border. Corker’s document reveals a grave, even inexplicable (in light of history) misapprehension of how to deal with an assertive Russia.
Ever since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which put Russia’s socialist, expansionist regime at loggerheads with much of the world for most of the 20th century, the West, and especially the United States, has struggled with a confounding question: What to do about Russia? In the 1970s, the Nixon administration found an answer: détente, a policy predicated not on threats, but on dialogue. Russia is too big, too resource-rich, too vital (as an energy supplier to Europe), and too technologically advanced to disregard (or “isolate” as Obama has said he hopes to do). Its nuclear arsenal alone—the only such arsenal capable of destroying the West—imposes an imperative: dialogue, as distasteful as that may be to many. In short, if Russia and the United States are quarreling, global peace is under threat.
Corker’s bill purports to offer a “strategic framework for United States security assistance and cooperation in Europe and Eurasia,” but in fact directs the president to take a number of measures that would imperil both objectives. According to the legislation, the United States and NATO would, in violation of the 1997 Founding Act (concluded between the alliance and Russia), permanently station troops in the alliance member states of Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, and “accelerate” (in an unspecified way) “European and NATO missile defense efforts.” (There is much to specify here, since in 2009 the Obama administration, facing strong criticism from Russia and public opposition in the Czech Republic and Poland, the proposed host countries, scaled back plans for missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe.) Unprecedented “major non-NATO ally status” is to be accorded to Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. Military aid is promised to Ukraine, and cryptic verbiage about providing “defense articles or defense services” leaves open the possibility of doing the same for the other two former Soviet republics.
This Video Congress needs to see:There are many other troubling provisions, but significantly, the bill instructs the president to block Russian assets and dramatically broaden sanctions against Russia if the Kremlin does not withdraw its military from Crimea and the Ukrainian border, and cease destabilizing the Ukrainian government’s control over its eastern regions. It also directs the U.S. secretary of state to “increase efforts [to] … strengthen democratic institutions and political and civil society organizations in the Russian Federation”—which sounds an awful lot like helping NGOs in Moscow promote regime change. (If Putin harbored any doubts that such NGOs were in the pay of the United States and working to subvert him, the bill neatly resolves them.) The act’s chief clauses would come into force if Putin doesn’t reverse course on Ukraine within seven to 30 days from its enactment.
How would the Russian president react to such an ultimatum? The former FSB chief, whose 14-year tenure in the country’s highest offices has bristled with televised displays of manliness and derring-do, would never submit to it. Sanctions have so far done nothing but consolidate domestic support for him and his Ukraine policy. Truly damaging economic restrictions would foment more anti-Western (and, specifically, anti-American) hostility and strengthen Russians’ conviction—generated by the virulent propaganda streaming forth endlessly over Kremlin-controlled airwaves—that the West is ganging up on Russia and bent on destroying it. Indeed, this perception is already widespread, and has taken root among many Russians who were previously indifferent to politics or hostile to Putin, whose popularity now stands at 87 percent.
The military measures the act proposes are positively dangerous. Providing Western arms, intelligence, and military advisors to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova—all of which are clashing or have clashed with Russia—would make possible scenarios hitherto unimaginable. If American-made bombs or bullets supplied to Ukraine, for example, end up killing Russian troops, or if American intelligence helps Ukraine score significant victories against Russian-backed separatists, Putin would have to respond or risk appearing weak. Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine have never formed part of a Western political, military, or economic alliance, though they have participated in NATO’s symbolic Partnership for Peace program. With the exception of Georgia, they do, however, belong to the Russia-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States. Just what these countries would bring to the United States and NATO besides trouble is hard to see.
Beyond the Russian Aggression Prevention Act, the Obama administration has shown little aptitude for dealing with the crisis in Ukraine, imposing sanctions that have not prompted Putin to quit Crimea or stop supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine, and spouting rhetoric that has only hardened Putin’s determination to not back down.
What would such a dialogue entail? For starters, the president and his secretary of state need to stop issuing gratuitously derogatory statements about Russia (calling it weak, a regional power that “doesn’t make anything,” out of touch with the 21st century, and so on) and cease proclaiming their desire to “make Russia pay.” Obama and John Kerry may be largely correct or justified in their assertions, but such words are a gift to Kremlin propagandists. They only serve to inflame Russian passions against the United States, and thereby deprive Putin of the option of changing policy without suffering humiliation.
The fact remains that Russia for centuries was a major power (and may become one again). Its “national ego” befits a country with a thousand-year past—a nation that played the dominant role in defeating the Nazis and underwent, in the space of a few decades, a transformation from a backward agricultural land to a nuclear superpower that launched the first satellite, dog, man, and woman into space.
Obama’s lengthy and ineffectual phone conversations with Putin (a feature of the standoff’s first months) should also be scrapped in favor of behind-the-scenes diplomacy. The staffs of the White House and State Department need to talk quietly to their Russian counterparts about concrete, realistic objectives that culminate in a deal with Russia that benefits all parties involved, including Ukraine. A U.S.-Russia summit should be the goal, and presented as such to the Kremlin. I am not the first to issue a call for an Obama-Putin summit: the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a group established to contest the intelligence used by the Bush administration to justify its invasion of Iraq, did so in May.
What would a deal look like? In keeping with the advice of former Secretary of State Henry Kissingerand National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, the United States should commit to not inviting Ukraine to join NATO, and thereby preserving for the country a status of neutrality identical to that enjoyed by Finland. The architect of America’s containment policy, the diplomat George Kennan, from the start opposed NATO expansion to the east, warning two decades ago that such a move would lead to “a new Cold War, probably ending in a hot one, and the end of the effort to achieve a workable democracy in Russia.” (In 2002, I also made the case in this magazine against enlarging the alliance.) The United States should take Putin at his word that the possibility of NATO membership for Ukraine prompted him to annex Crimea in March, and surely motivates him to support separatists in eastern Ukraine now.
Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion are legitimate. The alliance, after all, was created with one purpose: countering Soviet military might. In 2008, NATO member countries jointly declared that they welcomed “Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO,” adding that “these countries will become members of NATO.” The prospect, however distant, of NATO troops, tanks, missiles, and intelligence-gathering operations eventually being stationed a few hundred miles south of Moscow, and of Russia losing access to its sole warm-water port in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, can only alarm the Kremlin.
Obama needs to formally rescind the NATO members’ declaration welcoming eventual Ukrainian and Georgian membership. In return for such a commitment, Russia must stop aiding separatists and destabilizing Ukraine, and allow the country to pursue its own path to democracy and economic prosperity. Ukraine would, in effect, to the benefit of all parties, be “Finlandized”—that is, neutral. There is nothing negative in the term. Finland shares a long land border with Russia, of which it once was a part, and with which it now enjoys normal relations.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea will prove the most intractable issue for negotiators. Support for autonomy from Kiev and alliance with Russia has flowed through politics in the peninsula since 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev “gave” it, without consulting the Crimeans, to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. (Crimea had been part of Russia since 1783, when Empress Catherine the Great invaded it and ended its stint as a Tatar khanate.) In 1991, 93 percent of Crimeans voted in a referendum to re-establish the Crimean Soviet Socialist Republic. Three years later, eight out of ten Crimeans voted in another poll to retain their republic after the Ukrainian government had abolished it. A new referendum is now called for—one under the auspices of the United Nations. If NATO membership for Ukraine is off the table, it seems doubtful Putin would object, though Russian access to Sevastopol’s port might prove a sticking point. (From the fall of the Soviet Union until its annexation of Crimea in March, Russia leased the port from Ukraine, and could possibly do so again.) The United States, though, needs to be prepared to accept poll results favoring union with Russia.
Once a deal is struck, Obama needs to meet Putin for a summit and signing ceremony. Given the apparent personal animosity between the two leaders, this will be a delicate affair. Obama stands to lose the most politically, given his stated aspirations to put Russia in its place. Putin, however, may welcome it; he will have disabled the NATO threat at no cost to Russia. The prestige and recognition associated with summits should assuage his ego, surely bruised by the Obama administration’s rhetoric.
If Obama decides to forgo the path of diplomacy with Russia and continue with punitive measures alone (as the Republicans’ Russian Aggression Prevention Act would have it, and as the president himself seems set on doing), he needs to explain how the United States and Europe will manage in the long term without a working relationship with Russia, a country that is key to resolving critical conflicts in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere. Most of all, he needs to explain by what strategic or moral calculus he has decided to risk the fate of our planet. The time to start talking is now.
The Latest in the New Cold War
My Money’s on Putin
“History shows that the United States has benefited politically and economically from wars in Europe. The huge outflow of capital from Europe following the First and Second World Wars, transformed the U.S. into a superpower … Today, faced with economic decline, the US is trying to precipitate another European war to achieve the same objective.”… Sergey Glazyev, Russian politician and economistAugust 13, 2014 "ICH" - "Counterpunch" - The United States failed operation in Syria, has led to an intensification of Washington’s proxy war in Ukraine. What the Obama administration hoped to achieve in Syria through its support of so called “moderate” Islamic militants was to topple the regime of Bashar al Assad, replace him with a US-backed puppet, and prevent the construction of the critical Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline. That plan hasn’t succeeded nor will it in the near future, which means that the plan for the prospective pipeline will eventually go forward.
“The discovery of the world’s largest, known gas reserves in the Persian Gulf, shared by Qatar and Iran, and new assessments which found 70 percent more gas in the Levantine in 2007, are key to understanding the dynamics of the conflicts we see today. After a completion of the PARS pipeline, from Iran, through Iraq and Syria to the Eastern Mediterranean coast, the European Union would receive more than an estimated 45 percent of the gas it consumes over the next 100 – 120 years from Russian and Iranian sources. Under non-conflict circumstances, this would warrant an increased integration of the European, Russian and Iranian energy sectors and national economies.” Christof Lehmann, Interview with Route Magazine
Why is that a problem?
It’s a problem because–according to Dr. Lehmann–”Together with the Russian gas… the EU would be able to cover some 50 percent of its requirements for natural gas via Iranian and Russian sources.” As the primary suppliers of critical resources to Europe, Moscow and Tehran would grow stronger both economically and politically which would significantly undermine the influence of the US and its allies in the region, particularly Qatar and Israel. This is why opponents of the pipeline developed a plan to sabotage the project by fomenting a civil war in Syria. Here’s Lehmann again:
“In 2007, Qatar sent USD 10 billion to Turkey´s Foreign Minister Davotoglu to prepare Turkey´s and Syria´s Muslim Brotherhood for the subversion of Syria. As we recently learned from former French Foreign Minister Dumas, it was also about that time, that actors in the United Kingdom began planning the subversion of Syria with the help of “rebels”’ (Christof Lehmann, Interview with Route Magazine)In other words, the idea to arm, train and fund an army of jihadi militants, to oust al Assad and open up Syria to western interests, had its origins in an evolving energy picture that clearly tilted in the favor of US rivals in the region. (Note: We’re not sure why Lehmann leaves out Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or the other Gulf States that have also been implicated.)
Lehmann’s thesis is supported by other analysts including the Guardian’s Nafeez Ahmed who explains what was going on behind the scenes of the fake civil uprising in Syria. Here’s a clip from an article by Ahmed titled “Syria intervention plan fueled by oil interests, not chemical weapon concern”:
“In May 2007, a presidential finding revealed that Bush had authorised CIA operations against Iran. Anti-Syria operations were also in full swing around this time as part of this covert programme, according to Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker. A range of US government and intelligence sources told him that the Bush administration had “cooperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations” intended to weaken the Shi’ite Hezbollah in Lebanon. “The US has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria,” wrote Hersh, “a byproduct” of which is “the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups” hostile to the United States and “sympathetic to al-Qaeda.” He noted that “the Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad, of Syria”…Apparently, Assad was approached by Qatar on the pipeline issue in 2009, but he refused to cooperate in order “to protect the interests of [his] Russian ally.” Had Assad fallen in line and agreed to Qatar’s offer, then the effort to remove him from office probably would have been called off. In any event, it was the developments in Syria that triggered the frenzied reaction in Ukraine. According to Lehmann:
According to former French foreign minister Roland Dumas, Britain had planned covert action in Syria as early as 2009: “I was in England two years before the violence in Syria on other business”, he told French television:
“I met with top British officials, who confessed to me that they were preparing something in Syria. This was in Britain not in America. Britain was preparing gunmen to invade Syria.”
… Leaked emails from the private intelligence firm Stratfor including notes from a meeting with Pentagon officials confirmed US-UK training of Syrian opposition forces since 2011 aimed at eliciting “collapse” of Assad’s regime “from within.”
So what was this unfolding strategy to undermine Syria and Iran all about? According to retired NATO Secretary General Wesley Clark, a memo from the Office of the US Secretary of Defense just a few weeks after 9/11 revealed plans to “attack and destroy the governments in 7 countries in five years”, starting with Iraq and moving on to “Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran.” In a subsequent interview, Clark argues that this strategy is fundamentally about control of the region’s vast oil and gas resources.”
(“Syria intervention plan fueled by oil interests, not chemical weapon concern“, The Guardian)
“The war in Ukraine became predictable (unavoidable?) when the great Muslim Brotherhood Project in Syria failed during the summer of 2012. …In June and July 2012 some 20,000 NATO mercenaries who had been recruited and trained in Libya and then staged in the Jordanian border town Al-Mafraq, launched two massive campaigns aimed at seizing the Syrian city of Aleppo. Both campaigns failed and the ”Libyan Brigade” was literally wiped out by the Syrian Arab Army.There were other factors that pushed the US towards a conflagration with Moscow in Ukraine, but the driving force was the fact that US rivals (Russia and Iran) stood to be the dominant players in an energy war that would increasingly erode Washington’s power. Further economic integration between Europe and Russia poses a direct threat to US plans to pivot to Asia, deploy NATO to Russia’s borders, and to continue to denominate global energy supplies in US dollars.
It was after this decisive defeat that Saudi Arabia began a massive campaign for the recruitment of jihadi fighters via the network of the Muslim Brotherhoods evil twin sister Al-Qaeda.
The International Crisis Group responded by publishing its report ”Tentative Jihad”. Washington had to make an attempt to distance itself ”politically” from the ”extremists”. Plan B, the chemical weapons plan was hedged but it became obvious that the war on Syria was not winnable anymore.” (“The Atlantic Axis and the Making of a War in Ukraine“, New eastern Outlook)
Lehmann notes that he had a conversation with “a top-NATO admiral from a northern European country” who clarified the situation in a terse, two-sentence summary of US foreign policy. He said:
“American colleagues at the Pentagon told me, unequivocally, that the US and UK never would allow European – Soviet relations to develop to such a degree that they would challenge the US/UK’s political, economic or military primacy and hegemony on the European continent. Such a development will be prevented by all necessary means, if necessary by provoking a war in central Europe”.This is the crux of the issue. The United States is not going to allow any state or combination of states to challenge its dominance. Washington doesn’t want rivals. It wants to be the undisputed, global superpower, which is the point that Paul Wolfowitz articulated in an early draft of the US National Defense Strategy:
“Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defense strategy and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.”So the Obama administration is going to do whatever it thinks is necessary to stop further EU-Russia economic integration and to preserve the petrodollar system. That system originated in 1974 when President Richard Nixon persuaded OPEC members to denominate their oil exclusively in dollars, and to recycle their surplus oil proceeds into U.S. Treasuries. The arrangement turned out to be a huge windfall for the US, which rakes in more than $1 billion per day via the process. This, in turn, allows the US to over-consume and run hefty deficits. Other nations must stockpile dollars to purchase the energy that runs their machinery, heats their homes and fuels their vehicles. Meanwhile, the US can breezily exchange paper currency, which it can print at no-expense to itself, for valuable imported goods that cost dearly in terms of labor and materials. These dollars then go into purchasing oil or natural gas, the profits of which are then recycled back into USTs or other dollar-denominated assets such as U.S. stocks, bonds, real estate, or ETFs. This is the virtuous circle that keeps the US in the top spot.
As one critic put it: “World trade is now a game in which the US produces dollars and the rest of the world produces things that dollars can buy.”
The petrodollar system helps to maintain the dollar’s monopoly pricing which, in turn, sustains the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. It creates excessive demand for dollars which allows the Fed to expand the nation’s credit by dramatically reducing the cost of financing. If oil and natural gas were no longer denominated in USDs, the value of the dollar would fall sharply, the bond market would collapse, and the US economy would slip into a long-term slump.
This is one of the reasons why the US invaded Iraq shortly after Saddam had switched over to the euro; because it considers any challenge to the petrodollar looting scam as a direct threat to US national security.
Moscow is aware of Washington’s Achilles’s heel and is making every effort to exploit that weakness by reducing its use of the dollar in its trade agreements. So far, Moscow has persuaded China and Iran to drop the dollar in their bilateral dealings, and they have found that other trading partners are eager to do the same. Recently, Russian economic ministers conducted a “de-dollarization” meeting in which a “currency switch executive order” was issued stating that “the government has the legal power to force Russian companies to trade a percentage of certain goods in rubles.”
Last week, according to RT:
“The Russian and Chinese central banks have agreed a draft currency swap agreement, which will allow them to increase trade in domestic currencies and cut the dependence on the US dollar in bilateral payments. “The draft document between the Central Bank of Russia and the People’s Bank of China on national currency swaps has been agreed by the parties…..The agreement will stimulate further development of direct trade in yuan and rubles on the domestic foreign exchange markets of Russia and China,” the Russian regulator said.The attack on the petrodollar recycling system is one of many asymmetrical strategies Moscow is presently employing to discourage US aggression, to defend its sovereignty, and to promote a multi-polar world order where the rule of law prevails. The Kremlin is also pushing for institutional changes that will help to level the playing field instead of creating an unfair advantage for the richer countries like the US. Naturally, replacing the IMF, whose exploitative loans and punitive policies, topped the list for most of the emerging market nations, particularly the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) who, in July, agreed to create a $100 billion Development Bank that will “will counter the influence of Western-based lending institutions and the dollar. The new bank will provide money for infrastructure and development projects in BRICS countries, and unlike the IMF or World Bank, each nation has equal say, regardless of GDP size.
Currently, over 75 percent of payments in Russia-China trade settlements are made in US dollars, according to Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper.” (“De-Dollarization Accelerates – China/Russia Complete Currency Swap Agreement“, Zero Hedge)
According to RT:
“The big launch of the BRICS bank is seen as a first step to break the dominance of the US dollar in global trade, as well as dollar-backed institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, both US-based institutions BRICS countries have little influence within…It’s clear that Washington’s aggression in Ukraine has focused Moscow’s attention on retaliation. But rather than confront the US militarily, as Obama and Co. would prefer, Putin is taking aim at the vulnerabilities within the system. A BRICS Development Bank challenges the IMF’s dominant role as lender of last resort, a role that has enhanced the power of the wealthy countries and their industries. The new bank creates the basis for real institutional change, albeit, still within the pervasive capitalist framework.
“This mechanism creates the foundation for an effective protection of our national economies from a crisis in financial markets,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said.”
(“BRICS establish $100bn bank and currency pool to cut out Western dominance“, RT)
Russian politician and economist, Sergei Glazyev, summarized Moscow’s approach to the US-Russia conflagration in an essay titled “US is militarizing Ukraine to invade Russia.” Here’s an excerpt:
“To stop the war, you need to terminate its driving forces. At this stage, the war unfolds mainly in the planes of economic, public relations and politics. All the power of US economic superiority is based on the financial pyramid of debt, and this has gone long beyond sustainability. Its major lenders are collapsing enough to deprive the US market of accumulated US dollars and Treasury bonds. Of course, the collapse of the US financial system will cause serious losses to all holders of US currency and securities. But first, these losses for Russia, Europe and China will be less than the losses caused by American geopolitics unleashing another world war. Secondly, the sooner the exit from the financial obligations of this American pyramid, the less will be the losses. Third, the collapse of the dollar Ponzi scheme gives an opportunity, finally, to reform the global financial system on the basis of equity and mutual benefit.”Washington thinks “modern warfare” involves covert support for proxy armies comprised of Neo Nazis and Islamic extremists. Moscow thinks modern warfare means undermining the enemy’s ability to wage war through sustained attacks on it’s currency, its institutions, its bond market, and its ability to convince its allies that it is a responsible steward of the global economic system.
I’ll put my money on Russia.
Mike Whitney lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.