Category Archives: US Foreign Policy

It’s official where it counts: bin Salman did personally order Jamal Khashoggi’s murder

Yesterday, CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed the U. S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the 11 phone calls Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman made to the assassination squad leader before, during and after the brutal killing of the Saudi journalist at the country’s Istanbul Consulate.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tennessee (above), said after the meeting, he believes if the crown prince were put on trial, a jury would find him guilty in “about 30 minutes.” He reflects the cross-party views of all the members of the committee on this subject.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who originally demanded the briefing with Haspel, said there is “zero chance” the crown prince wasn’t involved in Khashoggi’s death.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, the leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, agrees with his republican colleagues that a strong U. S. reaction to Khashoggi’s death is necessary and backs legislation to end all U. S. support for the Saudi coalition waging war in Yemen.

These developments aligns the United States legislative and intelligence institutions with Turkey, while the Pentagon and the White House continue to back Saudi Arabia; the Pentagon in virtue of using the Syrian Kurds as a tool for its now almost automatic “jobs for the boys” military expansionism on Turkey’s borders. However, the Pentagon and Trump appear to be at odds, as Trump attacks the currently absurd levels of military expenditure.

“Trump Stands Up for Saudi Arabian Values”

NYT editorial, Nov 20, 2018

President Trump confirmed the harshest caricatures drawn by America’s most cynical critics on Tuesday when he portrayed its central objectives in the world as panting after money and narrow self-interest.

Ignoring the findings of the C.I.A., Mr. Trump said in a muddled statement released by the White House that, in effect, no matter how wrong the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, no matter where true responsibility lay, he would not stand up to the Saudi regime. He would not take any chance of risking its supplies of money, oil and help in the Middle East by holding the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, accountable for the killing.

The president made clear his commitment to the use of the exclamation point, if not to truth and justice: “It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”

Mr. Khashoggi, a resident of Virginia though not an American citizen, was a columnist for an American newspaper, The Washington Post. It did not serve the safety of journalists or Americans abroad that President Trump could not summon even a modicum of lip service to condemn the abomination of dispatching a hit team equipped with a bone saw to throttle and dismember Mr. Khashoggi for daring to criticize the crown prince. The crown prince, who is 33, is an ally and kindred spirit to Mr. Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

At the outset of his statement, Mr. Trump declared, “The world is a very dangerous place!” Indeed. He is making it more so by emboldening despots in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The killing, revealed in all its inhuman detail by a Turkish audio recording and followed by a stream of lies revising previous lies from the Saudi regime, seemed to reflect arrogance of a rising breed of autocratic rulers impervious to shame or moral judgment. Mr. Trump is confirming them in their impunity.

In simplistic and often inaccurate terms, the statement reflected Mr. Trump’s view that all relationships are transactional, and that moral or human rights considerations must be sacrificed to a primitive understanding of American national interests — or as he put it, “America first!” “We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” the president declared. “In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

Mr. Trump’s first reference to Mr. Khashoggi came only after a long riff about Iran, which Mr. Trump depicted, remarkably, as solely responsible for the war in Yemen. With disregard for the abundant evidence that Saudi Arabia has waged an indiscriminate air campaign that is responsible for a humanitarian disaster, he claimed that the Saudis would “gladly” withdraw if Iran did, and would provide humanitarian assistance. That was followed by a passage on the tens of billions of dollars in arms sales and investment Mr. Trump claims he has extracted from Saudi Arabia — claims that are vastly overblown.

When Mr. Trump did briefly note Mr. Khashoggi’s murder — “a terrible one” — the president repeated Saudi slanders that the journalist was an “enemy of the state” and an Islamist, disingenuously adding that this did not affect his thinking. It’s not the first time Mr. Trump has suggested that this is not someone for whom America should jeopardize its interests.

In the absence of leadership from the president, it falls to Congress to take action and protect America’s standing in the world. Mr. Trump knows he is on a collision course with the legislature: His statement concludes with a challenge to members of Congress who “for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction” to go ahead and try.

Mr. Trump was referring to a swelling bipartisan demand to use the leverage of arms sales to punish Saudi Arabia. His words are above all a gauntlet cast to Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has vacillated between principled opposition and craven support for President Trump.

A few hours after the White House released the president’s statement, Mr. Graham issued a rebuke. I firmly believe there will be strong bipartisan support for serious sanctions against Saudi Arabia, including appropriate members of the royal family, for this barbaric act which defied all civilized norms,” he said. “While Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of the crown prince — in multiple ways — has shown disrespect for the relationship and made him, in my view, beyond toxic.”

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the causes of human rights, justice and truth demand that no one in Saudi Arabia, certainly not the crown prince, escape accountability.

Your move, Senator Graham.

The White House Saudi Arabian Conundrum

The action last week went as follows:

*The CIA confirms that bin Salman ordered the killing, dismembering and dissolution of Jamal Khashoggi

*The White House floats the idea to Ankara that attempted 2016 Turkish coup-leader Fethulla Gülen could be extradited to Turkey for trial; a potentially explosive move given that Gülen’s career has been inextricably linked with the CIA so far.

*Ankara refuses, however, to link the two matters under any circumstances, confounding Turkey’s critics, who maintain that the Turks are using the Khashoggi case in a self-interested ploy to obtain money from Saudi Arabia and political concessions from the US. The possibility that this case is helping Turkey reshape the future of the Middle East has so far escaped the purview of Western commentators.

*The White House takes the extradition of Gülen off the table and now mulls the fate of bin Salman. The White House’s search for an escape route for bin Salman appears to be an exercise in ruthless logical consistency. If the United States embraces, in Trump’s words, a ‘killer’ as Egyptian leader, what’s not to like about bin Salman?

The US and the UK are taking over from bin Salman

The US is calling for a Yemen ceasefire within the next 30 days – not later, says Mattis. The Pentagon will ground the Saudi Air Force. The State Department (Pompeo) has made the formal US call for the ceasefire.

Ahmed bin Abdelaziz, King Salman’s brother has returned to Saudi Arabia from London with MI6/SAS protection. Bin Salman (MBS)’s Blackwater bodyguard has been told to stand down.

Gina Haspel’s visit to Ankara has confirmed Trump administration’s worst fears

Trump tells reporters at the White House that the “Saudis”…  ‘had a very bad original concept. It was carried out poorly, and the cover up was one of the worst in the history of coverups.’ Trump hits the nail on the head about the Khashoggi case and why it is so damaging for Saudi Arabia and, by association for Trump: its planning reeks of hubris and sheer stupidity, while the cover-up is even worse. ‘Whoever thought of that idea is in big trouble, should be in big trouble’, he says. The language is ominous.

As usual Trump, having all facts, says he wants to get all the facts on Khashoggi’s killing before agreeing with Erdoğan’s assessment that the whole thing was premeditated murder. The idea is that CIA Director Gina Haspel has to report back, although she has already communicated that there is evidence on tape that bin Salman was micromanaging the murder as it took place.

This is why Pompeo is revoking the visas and imposing sanctions on those identified as the killers that, in his words, ‘ work for ministries and at the royal court. These penalties will not be the last word on the matter from the United States. We’re making very clear that the United States does not tolerate this kind of ruthless action to silence Mr. Khashoggi, a journalist, through violence.’

Pompeo echoes Trump’s position that Washington is still awaiting all the facts, promising further response. But Trump and Pompeo are not waiting on information from Erdoğan. They are addressing King Salman and his new advisers, putting pressure on them to distance themselves from MBS and choose a new Crown Prince. That’s who they are really waiting on.

Meanwhile, MBS’s planned speech at the (fake) investor conference (Davos in the desert) is summarily cancelled. Instead various other speakers allude to the ‘tragedy’ in Istanbul and the fact that actions such as Khashoggi’s murder ‘are not in the Saudi DNA.’ Sorry, but they are: the Saudi state in its three historical manifestations since the 18th century have been extremely violent affairs.

Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, having forged a close personal relationship with MBS to pursue their aggressive policies in the Middle East, especially towards Palestinians and against Iran, would be the last to want to see him go. However, MBS is now tainted goods, and the longer he stays the worse it will be for Trump. Trump’s Middle East policy is essentially dead. It is unlikely that any other Saudi Royal will follow MBS’s soiled path, crafted over some years by Mohamed bin Zayed (MbZ) through Otaiba, his Ambassador in Washington.

Battle for Iraq: Blowback from US Presidential Envoy’s threat to Sunni Iraqi MPs

As tensions now shift from Northern Syria to Northern Iraq, US Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk personally calls every Sunni MP in the Iraqi Parliament demanding their vote for Haidar el-Abadi’s leadership in the current political negotiations, and threatening them with “removing US security protection” from their constituencies in the event of no compliance.

“One wonders what removing security protection is supposed to mean” muses MP Kotaiba al-Jabbouri in the video clip above, who added that the reaction of the Sunni MPs, including himself, was to throw their lot in with the Coalition for Development , which comprises Hadi al-Amiri’s “Conquest Alliance” and Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law” party.

The Coalition for Development is the pro-Iranian bloc which now seeks to exceed the 162 seats of the self-proclaimed “ruling bloc” that comprises the “Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform”  headed by Muqtada al-Sadr, and includes Haidar el-Abadi‘s “Victory Alliance”, from which 22 MPs have defected since the proclamation. So its rule is now far from assured, especially after the blowback from McGurk threats.

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.

Trump’s policy of destabilisation of Iran. But who ultimately is going to destabilise who?

Picture of Shah Ismail Safavi (Safawy or صفوی)  riding into Tabriz in front of his red coated Qizilbash militia to crown himself Shah in 1501 AD.

If, according this site, a US-Israeli war against Iran is out of the question, then what do Trump’s aggressive tweets against Iran actually amount to? It is not a hidden secret that the U.S. and Israel have been supporting anti-régime protesters for at least a decade, and that clandestine networks in Iran have been created by the US to provide Western media outlets with news stories about disruptions in Iran. Obama failed to shake the Iranian régime using those methods, which were partly designed to be a build up to a potential war.

Not that after the debacle in Iraq, such a war was ever realistic in international-diplomatic terms, but whatever potential was there became less and less feasible at time went on. In the final Obama days we find Iranian militias fighting against ISIS-DAESH in Iraq alongside US troops. Furthermore, Obama never said a word against the excesses of Iranian militias in Syria. Iran’s regional strength merely increased over the years, and its presence as a dominant force in four Arab capitals – Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana’a – was a stupendous testament to the inevitable unintended consequences of sheer idiotic unthinking policy. It was the total failure of the bellicose US/Israeli stance towards Iran, which led to Obama’s surprise phone call to Rouhani (as he was leaving the UN Building in Sept 2013 to take a flight back home after the General Assembly that year), which in turn would lead to the JCPOA (Iran nuclear) 5+1 agreement.

Having blithely withdrawn from the JCPOA, and begun a new campaign of sanctions and bullying against Iran, Trump is metaphorically at war with Iran now. But any casual observer of US policy in the Middle-East will understand that “bringing democracy” to Iran is hardly the priority of those (Israel, Saudi and UAE) who are currently driving Trump’s policy on Iran. Trump’s crazily aggressive tweeting and Pompeo’s pompous announcement of yet another anti-régime Farsi channel, bringing the total of anti-Iran channels broadcasting now to 301, only add up to a policy objective of destabilisation per se. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and UAE simply want to see Iran brought down to the chaotic level of Syria, and Iraq, in order to  “defang” it.

The problem they will find is that Iran is socially differently constituted to both those poor benighted countries. Just a little historical reading going back to how the Safavids reacted to Ottoman expansion (see picture above) and how that created the new type of (anti-Sunni, Shi’a) Iran that we have today, might not only give them pause for thought, but frighten them into altering their policies. However, policy makers dealing with this issue are not the reading type it seems. Nor are they thinking types either, for only a little research into Iranian methods of power-projection (demographic change through ethnic cleansing and formation of ideological militias) clearly evident in Iraq, Syria and Yemen today, demonstrates the brutal continuity of the Safavid system.

Smiling Iraqi politicians doing deals with Saudi Arabia, and Muqtada al-Sadr’s earlier visits to Mohamed bin Salman, seem clearly to have lifted Saudi expectations that they might be able to exert some new influence on the country. That is a pipe dream. Not only will Iraq stay firmly within the Iranian sphere of influence, but this site predicts that, as the US and Israel proceed with a policy of maximum destabilisation of Iran, Iran will respond by massively destabilising Saudi Arabia, sending a brittle self-undermining Saudi régime crashing, and bringing with it an accelerating end to US influence in the Middle East.

That is what Rouhani means when he says that, while blocking the Straits of Hormuz and thus causing the collapse of financial markets worldwide is quite within Iran’s power, it isn’t relevant to the current situation as it is playing out. There is no conventional war underway. Instead, we have a war of ideas, one where the US has long since lost its capacity and its power. The US having properly sullied, degraded and betrayed the ideas of the Enlightenment, it will be Safavid medieval ideas that will win the day.

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.