Category Archives: Russia

The future now beckons a free Idlib, while US Kurdish proxies move against Iran

As this site has predicted for some time, Erdoğan convinced Putin of the need to de-escalate military threats in Idlib, through a combination of arming opposition forces, reinforcing Turkey’s positions,  and organising a major diplomatic offensive to bring Western powers behind Turkish policy. The presidents of Russia and Turkey may have agreed yesterday to create a “demilitarised zone” around Idlib, but this outcome was far from obvious after the Tehran summit broke up on September 7th.

Putin’s sudden cooperative stance at Sochi, and his emphasis now on the importance of Russian trade relations with Turkey, means that he had not fully taken into consideration the extent to which Turkey was willing to go to support the opposition to Assad and the dangers that posed to the Syrian régime if an assault on Idlib had led to counter-attacks in Aleppo and Hama, widening the war once again and exposing the régime’s threadbare nature. The survival of Assad is essential for the presence of Russian bases in Syria, and so is the continuation of the myth spun by Russian media that he has somehow won the war, even if he controls less than 50% of Syrian territory, all of it an economic basket-case.

The economic burden that Assad’s Syrian region poses for Russia is clear from the unsuccessful road show Putin recently promoted in Western capitals for the reconstruction of Syria. If Idlib had caused a Russo-Turkish split once again, not only would the Assad victory myth be fatally undermined but Russian economic plans in Turkey would also have to be put on hold; whether Turkstream, the Akkuyu power plant, or the wider project for dedollarisation of Russian trade in general that its currently good relations with Turkey is making possible.

The same kind of scenario holds for Iran. Its latest supportive announcement in favour of the Russian-Turkish deal, follows the relief felt by the Iranian government over the Turkish rejection of anti-Iranian US sanctions. It also perceives the economic opportunities offered by Turkish trade and Turkey’s centrality to the dedollarisation project as crucial to its national interest. Iran also helped to sway the balance of forces away from an assault on Idlib, and encourage the withdrawal of Syrian régime forces. It is also clear to Iran, with the unprecedented Western-backed Israeli attacks on Syria taking place, that the real threats to its national security have little to do with Idlib or indeed Turkey.

The agreement between Russia and Idlib is extremely important for the survival of the political rather than military solution to Syria’s future. Much of the pro-Russian media and assorted liberal commentators have always argued for the military option, for the crushing of the opposition to Assad, and now they maintain that Assad is merely biding his time. That is false. Assad would have come off the worse for a confrontation with Turkey, even with Russian air cover. The new Russo-Turkish agreement is turning point for the Arab Spring, a revival of the hopes for which is now making liberal commentators furious.

The details of the Sochi agreement are that a 15-20km wide buffer zone in Idlib jointly policed by Russian and Turkish forces is to come into force by 15 October, involving the “withdrawal of all radical fighters” including the ex-al-Qaeda Hay’at Tahrir el-SHAM (HTS). Erdoğan and Putin also agreed on the withdrawal of “heavy weaponry from this zone,” including tanks, multiple launch rocket systems, and rocket launchers, much of which had recently been supplied by Turkey anyway, in preparation for the upcoming attack. Now all this will be withdrawn to Turkish territory once again, and the radical groups moved to the Jarablus region of Syria, on the border with Syrian Kurdistan. Turkish intelligence (MİT) has now bought time to sift through the individuals in all those groups to be able weed out the foreign fighters and more dangerous elements during relocation.

War drums in Iraq: While the US makes agreeable noises about this new Russo-Turkish agreement, it is hardly overjoyed at the strengthening of those relations and of the Turkish position in northern Syria. The idea that there is any active US backing for a ceasefire in Idlib and a political solution in Syria is further misdirection from liberal commentary. US belligerence is merely taking a new turn, as tensions in the region now shift from Northern Syria to Northern Iraq, where Iran is facing increasing military pressure from US proxies.

It has become clear that US control in Syrian Kurdistan is viewed by the Pentagon as a launchpad for the re-taking of Northern Iraq with the help of the alphabet-soup of various Kurdish proxies. US Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk’s presence in Irbil during the negotiations for the formation of the next Iraqi government is evidence enough. Current US-backed Iraqi prime minister Abadi, whose future in those negotiations is uncertain as a result of his soaring unpopularity in the Iraqi street, is trying to curry favour with the US during this process by acting to bolster Kurdish positions in Iraq against Turkish incursions targeting the PKK.

Russia wakes up: slamming the brakes on the Assad fantasy

After the Turks sent massive arms shipments to the (anti-Assad) opposition group National Liberation Front (NLF), organised by the Turkish armed forces, and after Western powers, led by Britain, backed Erdoğan’s stance on Idlib in no uncertain terms, Putin has invited the Turkish president for an urgent meeting in Sochi this coming Monday, to discuss his proposals for clearing Idlib of the ex-al-Qaeda group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

It must be clear to Putin that after the capture and arrest of Yusuf Nazik by Turkish intelligence (MİT), in an undercover operation in the Syrian régime stronghold of Latakia, Turkish support for the NLF will last for ‘at long as it takes’ for the Syrian opposition group to win out against Assad. Things have changed dramatically with the public arrest and confession of Nazik, who is a Syrian intelligence operative involved in in a bomb attack in Reyhanlı, Hatay Province, on 11 May 2013, planned by Assad, which killed 53 people.

What is clear to Putin now is that Turkey will use this publicity as justification for its long-standing negative stance on Assad, and that it is likely that the Turkish armed forces will exact revenge for a bombing, which is not the first atrocity Assad organised against Turkish interests over the years. Furthermore, in the current Syrian scenario, and as Turkey is positioned with 12 concrete-reinforced bases around Idlib, its armed forces are perfectly positioned to deal a major military defeat on Assad’s forces. This could cause the total unwinding of a threadbare régime that still fantasises about nailing all of Syria under its rule. That is, if Russia is not careful.

But all the signs are that Russia is being careful. Quite apart from the call for the urgent Sochi meeting with the Turkish president, a sudden withdrawal of the “Tiger Forces”, an élite unit of Syrian régime forces under direct control of Russia and led by Brigadier Suhail Hassan, has been announced. The unit withdrew from the northern Hama countryside of Idlib Province, back towards the desert countryside of Suwayda.

 

The battle of Idlib: Russia vs. Turkey?

Turkey’s IHH send 20 trucks of aid to Idlib

Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander, Major İbrahim Majbour spoke to Yeni Şafak about developments following the Tehran summit. The FSA has been organised by Turkey for the purposes of defending specifically the Idlib region, under the umbrella of Jabhat al-Wataniyya lil-Tahrir (National Liberation Front/NLF).

In a dramatic turnaround, the Turkey government decided not to withdraw these elements from the region. This had been planned in order to isolate Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS), weaken them and encourage substantial sections of the ex al-Qaeda organisation to surrender. By blacklisting HTS, Turkey declared their intension to respond to Russian concerns about threats to their airbase at Khmeimim from units infiltrated by Western intelligence personnel. However, it became clear at the Tehran summit that Putin planned for a comprehensive attack on all fighting forces in the Idlib region.

Seeing that Russia and Iran had begun to flout the principles of the Astana peace process, with a wide ranging air and ground assault, the Turkish government has decided to confront the attacks, and to allow the FSA/NLF to remain to do the same. The fast paced action is now essentially pitting Turkish-backed forces against Russia and Iranian-backed forces.

Majbour pointed out that Russia is redeploying the same tactic it used against Daraa in the southwest, noting that Russia is currently trying to divide Idlib into five different regions through its intensified bombardment aimed at severing all links between them. However, the FSA/NLF has prepared for this, according to Majbour, and has planned a defence strategy based on differences between Idlib and Daraa from the geographic and strategic standpoints.

Furthermore, as mass demonstrations in central Idlib, Taftanaz, Kafranbel and Maaret al-Numan called for a Turkish invasion force to enter Idlib, Majbour says: “We once again saw the true intentions of Russia and Iran during the Tehran summit. Turkey has the strongest hand both on the table and on the ground because it is the only side that wants reconciliation without bloodshed.”

The people of Idlib are behind Turkey. For months, demonstrations have been held in every town and village. The whole world sees Turkey’s intense efforts. Those who want a show of force through bloodshed will realize that they will not actualize their goals.”

We were able to arrest dozens of instigators through the ongoing intelligence efforts of Turkey’s Idlib observation posts and opposition headquarters. There’s a large number of cells attempting to get people to surrender and spread chaos. There are cells that serve not only the PKK and Daesh, but also Russia and Iran. There have been 80 blasts over the past 10 days in Idlib. Simultaneously, the same provocations are ongoing in the axis of Jarabulus, Azaz, Afrin and al-Bab.”

Majbour added that as a mark of respect for Turkey’s diplomatic efforts,  the FSA/NLF had so far not mounted any attacks, noting that as soon as battle breaks out, the opposition forces had the capacity in fact, not only to defend their positions, but to counter-attack and overrun Latakia, Hama and Aleppo.

Clearly, while the Turkish government worked towards a compromise with Russia on sorting out the extremists from the moderate opposition forces in Idlib, plans were afoot all along in the event that Russia would reject that effort and tar all non-régime forces with the same brush, a point that stands out in the statements by Turkish presidential advisor, İbrahim Kalın.

If Majbour sees differences between the Idlib battlefront and all the previous confrontations with the Syrian régime, this is only partly due to the opposition’s determination and the well-laid battle plans that would seem now to enable the coordination of all opposition groups. The main reason for the difference is the fact that Idlib backs directly onto Turkish soil, and now that Turkey feels threatened by a new wave of refugees, it will ensure uninterrupted logistical supplies to opposition forces, for as long as it takes. So, the people of Idlib effectively have what they called for when they called for a Turkish invasion force. No more is necessary.

Iranian hubris at the Tehran conference was in evidence as Rouhani, taking Putin at his word that Russia would help Syrian régime and Iranian militias overrun Idlib, stated blandly that the next step was to remove American forces from Eastern Syria. The Syrian régime is threadbare and their Iranian backers will not be able to deal with organised resistance. How long will it take Putin to realise that he has made a mistake by not listening to Turkey on this matter? How long will it take for a tactical mistake to turn into a strategic one?

The Tehran summit 7 September: Idlib

Sept 8: Assad drops barrel bombs on Khan Sheikhun, South Idlib Province, where he previously used chemical weapons

As Russia, Turkey and Iran sit down to discuss the future of Idlib today, there are a few facts to keep in mind which I have reiterated over and over.

Assad is an unreconstructed bloodthirsty and vengeful tyrant. He uses chemical weapons. The Russians rely on his régime to keep their military bases in Syria open. They spin and lie  (convincingly) through their media outlets (RT) about his use of chemical weapons.

Russia has in its sights thousands of Chechen, Dagestani, and Tatar jihadis of Russian origin who fight with HTS, who are hiding amongst the civilians population, and will not surrender. Russia is the prime mover in the prospective fight in Idlib.

Russia has already conducted airstrikes to pressure Turkey ahead of the summit, and Turkey has responded by blacklisting HTS to indicate its willingness to cooperate in rooting these elements out, and to differentiate them from the Free Syria Army (FSA) elements organised by the Turks under the umbrella Jabhat al-Wataniyya lil-Tahrir (National Liberation Front/NLF).

Only the considerable diplomatic pressure by the Turks, given the important economic relationship it has with Russia, has so far kept the lid on the advance on Idlib. It is also clear that the only relatively free and prosperous areas in Syria today are those in the north under Turkish control.

There is no sense among Syrians that Turkey, whatever its national interests, will ever let up on its efforts to counter the destruction meted out by Assad on his own people. Only Turkey, it seems, is looking out for the future of Syria’s children.

 

The Idlib Showdown: five to midnight

The Russian are meeting with the Turks and Iranians in Tehran on Friday. The Russians have begun limited airstrikes to soften up Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS) positions (above picture). These have been pinpointed by Turkish Intelligence (MİT), with raids beginning after Turkey blacklisted the organisation, in a final move pressuring it to disband and surrender to them. The Russians are impatient because of the repeated drone attacks by HTS on the Khmeimim airbase, and are the prime movers of the new phase of military operations in Syria.

On the other hand, the Syrian régime forces backed by Iranian militias are so far holding off on a major attack and engaging only in limited shelling. They are awaiting, it seems, the outcome of the Tehran summit. Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s interventions with the US to hold off an American response has resulted in rumblings and threats from Trump against the Syrian régime and a full UNSC meeting on the subject of Idlib. The French are also pressuring to stave off an attack by Assad.

The likely outcome is for limited strikes and advances and a slow strangulation of the HTS units that refuse to surrender. The Iranian economy is heavily dependent on Turkey and this is already showing in Iran sensitivity towards Turkish demands. With the Turks ensconced in their positions around Idlib, their vision of a province surviving the crisis to go on to prosper in the manner of the northern Syrian areas of Al-Bab, Jarablus and Afrin, and avoid an apocalyptic fate similar to that of Aleppo, Raqqa and Mosul, is become more likely with every passing day.

What happened in those last three historic Arab cities – cities that will now limp into the future as a mere shadow of their former selves- has taught us that there is little difference between the scorched earth military tactics of the Americans and the Russians. The future of Syria will lie with the Syrians both in Turkey and in the Turkish controlled areas of northern Syria, who have been given an economic future by the Turkish nation. The power of the Syrian people must become an economic not a military one.

Showdown in Idlib: the Media War

RT is conducting a sustained campaign to pre-empt a chemical attack supposedly being organised by Western-backed forces in Idlib Province by elements within the rebel fighting force, Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS).

However, Jabhat al-Wataniyya lil-Tahrir (National Liberation Front/NLF), reported a convoy of vehicles carrying barrels containing chemical materials being transferred by the Syrian régime from Damascus to the countryside of Hama. A statement issued today by its spokesman, Naji al-Mustafa specified that 10 barrels left the “155th Brigade” barracks near Damascus last night, unloaded in warehouses in the town of Kitlun, and then transferred to another unknown place. NLF is the Turkish-backed umbrella group that merged  Ahrar al-Sham, the Syrian Hawks and the Free Syrian Army amongst others.

This statement comes after persistent Russian warnings of impending chemical attacks in the province of Idlib by rebel factions together with elements from the “Civil Defense” (White Helmet) units. The head of the Russian-Syrian Reconciliation Center, Alexei Siganakov, claimed that members of the White Helmets had transported a large load of toxic substances to a store in the town of Sarqab, under the control of Ahrar al-Sham. Earlier the White Helmets had also been identified by the Russians as associated with planned chemical attacks on Kafrzita and Jisr al-Shughur.

Al-Mustapha maintained that Russian announcements were fabrications that boded ill for local populations. Russia was thus fronting the Assad régime’s preparations for a chemical attack against civilians, as it had already done in previously documented events in Idlib Province and eastern Ghouta, with a sustained media campaign through RT news to soften up international opinion ahead of any atrocities. In an interview with Einab Baladi (The Grapes of my Country news site) yesterday, the director of the Civil Defense units, Raed al-Saleh, echoed al-Mustapha’s warnings about these Russian tactics, and rued the fact that they were not in a position to counter the media dominance of RT’s campaign.  

However, looking more closely at events, it looks like Russia rather than the Assad régime is the prime mover in the Idlib showdown. In of themselves, the latter’s threats against an area increasingly controlled by Turkey are empty without -that is -Russian agreement with Turkey on the diplomatic front. The Russian media campaign is also warning US/UK/French operatives working with and in HTS, of its planned eradication, as part of the same deconfliction protocol that the US/UK/France used during the last rocket attack. HTS has consistently opposed integration into the NFL, and poses a threat to nearby Russian bases because of itslinks with US, British and French intelligence. 

In fact, Russia is currently negotiating with the Turks about the best way to go about ending what Lavrov is now calling an “abscess“. The Turks have made their point that, in the case of Idlib Province, there cannot be the same kind of dumb scorched earth approach used so far in Syria. Their talks with Iran are reinforcing the point. But Russia is putting pressure on Turkey about HTS, and certain limited areas have been cleared by the Turks for an advance by Assad régime forces, one of which is al-Shughour bridge (Jisr al-Sughur), to allow the securing of the approach to the Khmeimim airbase on behalf of the Russians. In today’s world of sanctions, however, both Russian and Iranian geoeconomics depend crucially on Turkey, and weight will continue to be given to Turkish strategic concerns. The final picture will not emerge until the Russia-Turkey-Iran summit in Tehran on Sept 7th.

*N.B.: update in post: Sadr wins the recount: nothing changes but the mood sours (update)

 

The Syrian War: Showdown in Idlib

While a semblance of peace reigns over Idlib’s marketplace, Syrian government forces are striking the Turkmen Mountains in northwestern Syria’s Latakia province, with Assad himself threatening a major offensive to retake Idlib Province, at least rhetorically. Not long ago on July 31, the Russian president’s envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, had made it clear on the sidelines of the Astana 10 conference that ‘Any large-scale operation in Idlib is out of the question.’ However, Sergey Lavrov, in a visit to Turkey yesterday said, despite warnings by the Turkish government that an uncontrolled offensive would be catastrophic, that ‘Syria has a right to defend itself against militant groups’.

Despite the apparent disagreement, things are not what they seem. Turkey, with Russian and Iranian consent, has set up “observation posts” around Idlib’s conurbation of some 3 million people, most of whom are displaced persons (IDPs) from other parts of Syria, now threatened once again by Assad’s army. Apart from the observation posts dividing Afrin from Idlib to the north, a front has been established facing Syrian government forces from El-Eis south of Aleppo to Kafr Sijnah and Qalaat al Madiq to the south of Idlib (north of Hama), and back up on the western side up to Jisr al-Shoughour. Furthermore, these positions have been heavily fortified with massive prefabricated concrete (being delivered below), and it doesn’t look as if  the Turks intend to move anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Turkish security officials have been negotiating for some months now to integrate the various fighting groups spread across Idlib Province into an organized defence force under their control. But Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS or the Institution for the Liberation of the Levant), previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front) when it was still a declared al-Qaeda affiliate, has, typically, been refusing to cooperate.

Furthermore, elements from within HTS have been making and sending armed drones to cause damage at the Russian airbase at Khmeimim, which has made the subject of HTS’ dissolution a matter of heated debate between Russia and Turkey. While Turkey has recently been having more success at reducing the numbers of HTS’ followers, hardcore elements have broken away to form a new group called Tanzim Horass el-Din which, in virtue of its name (Organisation for the Protectors of the Religion) seems to be declaring an inflexible conservative stance. The al-Jazeera video below summarises these and other related events.

So while Russia is expressing its impatience with the situation in Idlib in its support for the threatened advance by Assad’s forces, the Turks continue to insist that the campaign be stopped. Presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın told reporters at a press conference today: ‘We are calling for the immediate termination of the operation into Idlib. Referring to Turkey’s role in the Astana  process, he said: ‘ As a guarantor country, we are working to avoid the mistakes carried out by the [Assad] régime in other parts of Syria, like Deraa and Homs, in Idlib.’ This is a diplomatic way for the Turks to say that they are not moving, and that the Russians have to give them more time to get the situation in Idlib under control. It is understood, however, that Russia’s change of tone conveyed in Lavrov’s statement yesterday is a necessary threat in the interests of speeding things up with recalcitrant fighters on the ground.

Meanwhile, it is the next round of the Astana process in Tehran that will be decisive in all these respects (including Assad’s advance) since, undoubtedly, the Iranians will be bringing into the mix the question of trade with Turkey, in trying to overcome the difficult new sanctions environment .

Putin Trump Summit (2)

What does the Putin-Trump summit come down to? Trump’s pro-Israeli policy is essential to the domestic survival in US politics of a politician with a multitude of enemies, not least within the ranks of his own security bureaucracy. At a time when Israel and Iran are facing off in South-West Syria, his anti-Iranian rhetoric is a vital part of this (singularly narrow) survival strategy. What Trump has to trade with Putin are the new type of sanctions on Russia oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska in particular, concocted by US Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin.

Trump is meeting Putin to ask him to push Iran out of Syria, in exchange for which he will relax sanctions against Deripaska. As an aside, despite the fact that Trump will want to make this trade anyway, it looks like the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in their stunning stupidity, seem to want to give Trump generous (and unnecessary) inducements to make this anti-Iranian policy happen.

Putin’s desperation to rescue Deripaska, on the other hand, is absolutely clear. Despite the latter’s catastrophic mismanagement of the Russian aluminium industry so far, Putin seems willing to endanger the ecology of Lake Baikal (above), the largest freshwater lake on the planet, to save Rusal (the aluminium company). Nationalization is not an option due to the dependence of the Russian state, and Putin’s personal power, on the web that the oligarchs have created between the homeland and their offshore colony, woven as it is into the economies of the colonial powers – US, UK, and France.

So far Russia has succeeded in imposing its will on South-Eastern Syria on behalf of Assad, but severing Iran’s establishment of its strategic base in South-West Syria, territorially contiguous with Southern Lebanon and the territory of (Nasrallah’s) Hezbollah, is quite another matter. Russia’s leverage on Iran does not quite go that far.

However, could Russia solve this by getting Trump to give Turkey a waiver on trading with Iran? On the one hand, a reduction in the presence of Iranian military hardware in South Syria wouldn’t be that problematic for an Iranian régime that has already “demographically reconfigured” Damascus and its suburbs with new loyal (paramilitary) populations ready to do Iranian bidding at any time in the future, should the need for a military build-up arise. On the other hand, ensuring a continuing trade with Turkey is vital for Iran. Although this is in Turkish interests as well, nevertheless, at a time when Turkish bankers are paying a heavy price in US courts for breaking previous US sanctions on Iran, Iran cannot absolutely guarantee this lifeline without Russian pressure on Trump.

Neither would Russia mind consolidating control over Assad, whose régime they helped Iran rescue from annihilation, by fielding a greater Russian military police presence in the Damascus area, and ensuring no further chemical attacks that Russia would then have to spend time and effort spinning as fake news/red flags in the media. In fact, Russia would consolidate its role by acting as a policeman to keep Israel and Iran “apart” in Syria, and give Israel the guarantees it needs. If Russia removes Iran from the Syrian theatre entirely, it would undermine its own status and power in that respect.

Looking generally at the Syrian situation, it then becomes clear that the trumpeted resurgence of Assad and the idea of a unified Syria under his rule is a total mirage. For a start, Trump is concerned only with South-West Syria and Israel. He won’t withdraw US troops from North-East Syria. Despite his statements to that effect, he doesn’t have the power to convince the Pentagon and the CIA to make any move in that regard.

The US security state clearly failed to dislodge Erdoğan in the July 2016 attempted coup, and it watches with dismay as the Turkish military establishment built links with Russia by buying the S-400 air defense systems. So, it will continue to want a permanent point of pressure on Turkey in Syrian Kurdistan to guarantee that its interests in general, and the facilities open to it on Turkish soil (at İncirlik [airbase near Adana] and Kürecik [X-band early warning radar near Malatya]) in particular, are maintained. The Turks are obdurate, and US forces have already previously experienced periods of expulsion (as after the Cyprus invasion), despite Turkish membership of NATO.

The deal with Turkey that Russia will, therefore, broker after this summit, would also consolidate the Turkish position in Idlib, which the Turks are adamant to defend against any incursion by Assad anyway, to prevent a further displacement of refugees towards its borders. Syria, despite the rhetoric, will remain divided. On the house of cards that have been stacked up in the benighted country by foreign powers, today’s geopolitics depend.

Putin Trump Summit (1)

Moscow-based commentator John Helmer compares the probable agenda of the Putin-Trump summit to the sale of Alaska to the US at the end of the last century. He draws a picture where geopolitical concerns are interwoven with the financial interests of élites, while the outsized class of Russian oligarchs, when not murdering and suing each other, cut deals variously with US, UK and French politicians, to enable them to rule Russia from their mansions in the West. Putin himself walks a fine line between the opposing interests of the military-industrial complex, which he helped rebuild, and represented by its power centre (the “Stavka“), on the one hand, and of the neoliberal élite led primarily by Dmitry Medvedev and Alexei Kudrin, who defend the interests of the oligarchs in mother Russia itself, on the other.

Most startling has been Putin’s reappointment, after his recent re-election as president, of Medvedev and Kudrin to some of the most important posts in his government. It is significant that he did this after US Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin’s announced his intention to sanction Oleg Deripaska, the most important link between Putin and the class of oligarchs. The reappointments of the neoliberal politicians tests Putin’s credibility with the population of Russia at large, who elected him, to say the least. Not, therefore, being Putin’s first choice of cabinet, he clearly appears to need the help of these Kremlin-entrenched Western allies in the difficult negotiations ahead with Mnuchin and his boss Trump. Trump, for his part, is in no better domestic position himself, and Russiagate is the least of his problems. A March 2018 Congressional Report, puts him at the centre of the Russian international oligarchic system, by pointing out the ‘… credible allegations as to the use of Trump properties to launder money by Russian oligarchs, criminals, and regime cronies’. The two presidents thus have a lot to talk about, or so it seems.

So in the run-up to the Helsinki summit, Helmer writes: ‘When cynical and unscrupulous men are desperate, they become as predictable as if they were principled. The difference between such men is hard to tell.

Not since the Alaska Purchase of 1867 have the rulers of Moscow and Washington been as desperate to sell something to each other for a price the press and public opinion on both sides are unprepared to calculate or accept.  When President Vladimir Putin (lead image, left) and President Donald Trump (right) meet in a fortnight, this price will be a secret both of them will agree to keep to protect themselves from adversaries at home more powerful than they are themselves.

With two weeks still to go for preparations, so far only the terms the US side intends to table are in the public domain. No Russian government official, think-tank expert, or reporter has published an account of what the Russian terms will be.

During the Kremlin meeting last week between Putin and Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, one clue was visible. This was the appearance of the Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on the Russian side of table, alongside the president’s foreign affairs advisor Yury Ushakov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Shoigu wasn’t matched by a military officer or Pentagon counterpart on the American side of the table. So Shoigu wasn’t present to speak. He was there to listen, and to report to the General Staff what the US side is proposing – and no less significant, what Putin had to say. Shoigu’s presence was a signal that on the Russian side, the military do not quite trust the president — their own, not the other one.

Tsar Alexander II’s decision to sell the Alaskan colony to the US started with the military defeat the Russians suffered during the Crimean War, which ended in 1856. The military weren’t to recover against the Ottoman Turks for another twenty years. In the interval, the tsar had debts to cover from his Crimean losses, as well as from the indemnity Alexander paid to Russian landowners for their loss of serfs in the emancipation of 1861.

Developers of eastern Siberia believed that if Alaska were sold, they could divert its state cashflow into investment schemes in the Amur territory. Also, the imperial treasury could ill afford the subsidies required for the Russian American Company, which had failed to turn otters, seals and whales into profit-making for Alaska. So the assessment in St. Petersburg was that if gold were to be discovered in Alaska, as it had been already in California, the American rush would overwhelm the Russian defences and the territory would be lost. Selling before the forfeit seemed prudent at the time.

A decade was required to raise the price from $5 million the Americans offered to $7.2  million, the figure which the Russians accepted; about $110 million in current money. In the process, the Russian Ambassador in Washington arranged bribes for US officials and journalists, as well as kickbacks for himself, and so encouraged a policy of a sale at any price; US Secretary of State William Seward was also on the give and take. As was the Russian custom then and now, the proceeds of the Alaska deal were shared among those closest to the sell-out.

For the Putin-Trump meeting the only non-negotiable point on the Russian side is Crimea; its status as a Russian territory will not be discussed. Concessions are negotiable on the other warfronts.

The Kremlin’s position on the war in the Donbass is to play for time enough to gauge what Petro Poroshenko’s successor (Yulia Timoshenko) as Ukrainian president will settle for after the election next March. If the US does not back an escalation of operations by the Ukrainian military, including  the use of the newly supplied US Javelin anti-tank missile, then the Russian offer will be to secure the Novorussian forces in place and exchange non-offensive undertakings.

On the Syrian front, Putin has already demonstrated his readiness to withdraw Russian air and ground forces – before the US and its allies have made a reciprocal move.

“Comrades,” Putin told a Kremlin ceremony for graduating cadets last week “over the past years a great deal has been done to develop the Russian Armed Forces. The Russian Army demonstrated its increased potential and coordination when it fought terrorists in Syria. It is now up to you and your comrades-in-arms to make full use of this operation in your military training. As you know, we started the withdrawal of our forces during my visit to Khmeimim. The withdrawal carries on as we speak: 13 aircraft, 14 helicopters, and 1,140 personnel were withdrawn over the past few days. All these people were tested in combat. You and your comrades-in-arms will have to make full use of this experience…”

The problem for the Russian military is that they believe US military undertakings at the field  level, and at the political level, cannot be trusted. Consequently, they doubt Trump or his White House staff can command,  even if they wish to control, the operations in Syria of the CIA  or the Israelis. In such a situation, Shoigu’s post at the meeting with Bolton was to ensure that Putin left no opening for a US offer that may lead to Russian casualties in the field.

Bolton himself conceded after the meeting that in Syria the US is looking to reduction of Russian support for Iranian operations, not Syrian ones. “There are possibilities,” Bolton claimed on television on Sunday, “for doing a larger negotiation on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria and back into Iran which would be a significant step forward… I don’t think Assad is the strategic issue. I think Iran is the strategic issue. It’s not just their continuing nuclear weapons program, it’s  their massive support for international terrorism and their conventional forces in the Middle East and I would say there – this is something that the two presidents will want to discuss at length because I think President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the misbegotten Iran nuclear deal, reimpose our sanctions begin to put much more pressure on Iran is having an effect on their decision making.”

Denuclearisation of the Middle East is an impossibility. Although Putin has committed Russia to continuing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA) for cutting Iran’s capacity to defend  itself with nuclear weapons,  there is no Russian commitment to denuclearising Israel, or restricting US nuclear-armed operations from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, targeted at Iran and Syria. What is left for Putin to negotiate are short-term expedients to limit the likelihood of US-backed Israeli, Saudi or other attacks on Iranian territory. Again, the problem for the Stavka – as the Russian military command is known – is that political undertakings by the US and its allies are consistently proved to be worthless. Political concessions by Putin are therefore regarded as letting down Russia’s guard, with the risk of escalating adversary operations and Russian losses, tactically now,  strategically for the future. From the point of view of the Stavka, deterring the Americans with ready military force is the only effective position from which Putin can negotiate.

“It is important”, a Kremlin-financed think-tank, the Valdai Discussion Club,  cautioned last week, “that the decisions taken at the summit are to be exercised, not sabotaged, as the American side has done a number of times. This is the only way to lay the foundation for future Russian-American relations, where not only Washington, but also Moscow will benefit.”

Disengagement of forces to reduce the likelihood of accidental clashes and fatalities is easier to announce than to implement if there continues to be a steady advance of US naval missile and ground-based Aegis missile batteries in the Black Sea and the Baltic. What then can be negotiated between Trump and Putin on this; on NATO readiness exercises and forward force deployments; and on the eroding limits of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) for the positions of the two side?

Naturally, it’s not for the Stavka to discuss in public the price they are planning to inflict on the Americans and their allies if they keep moving forward. Instead, military and security analysts in Moscow were asked what terms of a military or security type, in any operational theatre around the world, they think Putin can offer the Americans at the summit. They were also asked to say what they believe are the priorities Putin will want to negotiate in exchange with Trump. If they know, they won’t answer.  One source went so far as to say he isn’t going to make any comments at the moment — and requested this be off the record.

The Trump attack on NATO allies for failing to spend more of their domestic budgets on military undertakings is read in Moscow as an opening to less costly escalation by the European powers, especially Germany and France. Relegating the British is also a tactical objective on the Russian side; Moscow sources believe this is best left to the British themselves to accomplish as they have been doing. Undermining Germany’s control of the European Union is a tactical objective on the American side. Moscow sources think Trump is too incompetent to match Putin on this score; the smaller European powers are all moving in a less Russia- threatening direction, they note.  Those which remain hostile are within a stone’s throw of Russian forces – much too close to survive an engagement if they push too provocatively.

The conclusion, according to the state news agency Tass reporting an editorial of Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “Moscow and Washington won’t be able to resolve their key military differences on Syria and Europe in the near future. The forthcoming meeting between Putin and Trump will be apparently devoted to searching for some insignificant compromises and concessions…”

Popular support for Putin is sustainable so long as the military confrontation with the US is acute. For Trump, it’s the reverse – if he appears to be reducing the risks of war with Russia, China, or North Korea, his domestic support rises. Putin’s domestic support evaporates on the widespread voter perception that he and the officials he appoints run the economy for the benefit of the oligarchs, and are rewarded corruptly for this policy.

It is also the near-universal Russian conviction that there is no policy which the government has decided which is not pursued for corrupt reasons. This is what has made the recently announced decisions to increase value-added tax from 18% to 20%, and to extend the retirement age from 60 to 65 (for women from 55 to 63)  bellwether issues for the president and the voters. For Putin’s support among voters is the default position — if not Putin, the alternative would be worse — except in the war conditions which the Americans have created.

There is now no Russian business source in Moscow, London, Geneva or Berlin who doesn’t understand this, along with their western lawyers, bankers, insurers, and wealth managers. “So long as the oil price stays up and Trump makes enemies of the Germans and the Chinese,” a veteran international banker to Russian corporations acknowledges, “Putin has a margin for manoeuvre. His reappointments of exactly the same men as he’s trusted for years to govern the country show he doesn’t trust anyone else in Russia for the future. In the medium term this means sclerosis. But right now Putin must keep happy the two powers which, if they get angry, threaten him – the military and the oligarchs. It takes American and British stupidity, and of course their media, not to see this.”

Russian businessmen advertise in the press; their foreign advisors don’t talk publicly at all.  What they agree among themselves is that they are expecting  Putin to look for a way he and Trump can agree on a return to the business as usual in which they used to be comfortable.  Foreign Minister Lavrov claimed on June 29 in an interview with a London television channel: “I have mentioned sanctions only in the context of the deterioration of relations. We are not pleading to remove them. It is not our business, it is for those, who introduced sanctions, to decide whether they want to continue or whether common sense would prevail.”

Lavrov also conceded: “we would not mind them lifted.”

Since the Kremlin assessment is that Trump is too weak politically to attempt this, and Putin is hard-pressed by the oligarchs to save their businesses in Russia and their fortunes abroad, the question that is being considered for a private exchange between Putin and Trump is a modern-day version of the Alaska Purchase. Today, the offshore Russian colony is of vastly greater wealth than Alaska ever was to the imperial tsar. Alaska fetched a small fraction of the value of Russia’s national income in 1867. The offshore Russian colony today is almost equal in value to the national income.  This is how it looks on the map:

GROWTH OF THE RUSSIAN COLONY OF EL DORADO, 2000-2015
Types of Russian private wealth as a percentage of national income

Figure 4:  Novokmet, Filip, Thomas Piketty, and Gabriel Zucman.2017. From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia 1905-2016.

How this capital in cash, real estate, shareholdings, and other assets  was first generated at the start of the Yeltsin administration, and then transferred offshore during the Putin administration, can be followed here:

RUSSIAN TAKE-OFF FOR THE TOP 10% INCOME-EARNERS, 1990-2015  

Figure 11a: Novokmet, Filip, Thomas Piketty, and Gabriel Zucman.2017. From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia 1905-2016.

Today’s offshore colony isn’t for sale to the Americans, for it’s already been bought and sold – not only to the US, but to the UK and the other capital havens of Europe and the Caribbean.

The US economic war against Russian finance and against the oligarchs and their interests is severing the flow of cash between the homeland and this colony, and between the colony and its host, the international capital market. This is not yet total war. The British have attacked Roman Abramovich’s residency permit for London, but welcomed the Otkritie Bank fraudsters Vadim Belyaev and Boris Mints.  The US has barred Oleg Deripaska and Victor Vekselberg from their homes in New York, Washington, and Connecticut, but left Abramovich undisturbed at his addresses in Manhattan and Aspen.  Last week the French abandoned all effort to prosecute Russians for money-laundering and released Suleiman Kerimov to move between Moscow and Cap D’Antibes as he pleases, along with his partner, German Gref, the chief executive of Sberbank.

“We would not mind,” says Lavrov, who has been particularly close in the past to Deripaska, and at present to Alexander Vinokurov, “to build up our own capacity in key sectors of economy, security and other areas on which an independent state depends. In the recent years, we have learned a lot, including the fact that in these issues you cannot rely on the West. You cannot rely on Western technologies, because they can be abruptly stopped at any moment. You cannot rely on the items, which are essential for the day-to-day living of the population, coming from the West, because this could also be stopped.”

An obvious option, the nationalization of these key sectors is not the Kremlin’s policy, not even when the banks have been looted and the manufacturers have lost their export markets. Also, despite repeated public commitments to deoffshorization,  recovering Russia’s offshore wealth is not Putin’s policy.

How far Trump will withdraw on the economic warfare front [which was launched in retaliation for the Stavka’s March announcement of new weaponry. -ed.] and support Putin with the oligarchs on these points is certain to be tested, oligarch sources believe. They expect Putin to ask Trump what  shareholding for Deripaska’s companies will satisfy him for the April 6 sanctions to be modified,  and at least part of their business returned to normal. Trump’s conversation with Putin on the Deripaska sanctions will be kept secret at least until the US Treasury has agreed to rule on Deripaska’s application for sanctions relief in August for some of his companies, in October for others. In the interval, the market value of such inside information may be more difficult to keep secret in Moscow.

When cynical and unscrupulous men are desperate, they become as predictable as if they were principled. The difference between such men is hard to tell.’

Read Helmer’s original article here.

 

Russia continues to spin Assad’s way out of any blame for chemical attacks

Further evidence of Russia’s continued cover-up of Assad’s atrocities emerges as France’s broadcasting regulator warns the French arm of Russia Today (RT) over a news report that dubbed over the voices of Syrian civilians with words they had not said. It noted that the testimony of a Syrian witness had been dubbed with a voice saying “words that bore no resemblance with what he had said”.

The CSA added that another witness had been dubbed with a voiceover saying that local residents had been ordered by militant group Jaysh al-Islam to simulate the effects of a chemical attack, “but the testimony did not mention any particular group”. France’s Audiovisual Council (CSA) accused the state-backed broadcaster with “failures of honesty, rigour of information and diversity of viewpoints”.

The news report, aired on 13 April, “contested the reality of chemical weapons attacks in the Syrian region of Eastern Ghouta.” The CSA further said the report demonstrated “an imbalance in analysis” of the situation in Syria and that “on a subject this sensitive, the different points of view should have been expressed”.