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The War Party in Washington and the Sanctions Toolkit

Analysts of American foreign policy in the Middle East have long denounced the Israeli lobby for hijacking Congress and tying the President’s hands. However, this is child’s play compared to the publicly financed War Party that is now directing United States policy towards Russia and heading us all into a New Cold War if not nuclear Armageddon.  Read on…

      The War Party in Washington and the Sanctions Toolkit

            by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


Imposition of sanctions against Russian elites has been a solution looking for a problem to fix for several years now. The underlying assumptions of its efficacy are deeply flawed. But the greater problem is who has elaborated and promoted this solution and where the funds for this campaign are coming from.

The ‘phase one’ and ‘phase two’ sanctions which were introduced by both the United States and the European Union acting in lock step in the past week to bar entry into their territories and to freeze the assets of highly placed Russian politicians, businessmen and one journalist may be called the embodiment of this solution. 

When first rolled out several days ago, the sanctions raised quiet amusement in business circles. World stock markets recovered from their initial swoon at the onset of the East-West confrontation over Crimea. The sanctions were deemed far less threatening to world peace and economic recovery than the forward positioning of American military equipment and personnel that had begun prior to decisions made in Brussels and Washington over coordinated responses to the challenge from the Kremlin. They were also deemed to be toothless, amounting to expressions of disapproval and disdain for a bully or ‘thief,’ as the American ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power called Russia in her characteristically inflammatory manner. Insofar as the sanctions were unilateral, they embodied an exclusionary and commanding posture by the West towards a lesser entity beyond its borders, with whom one deals at arms’ length.

Ineffectual or not, these particular sanctions had a long tail that preceded by years the East-West confrontation over Ukraine in general and Crimea in particular. In slightly more timid form they have been applied by the United States against Russia ever since the Magnitsky Act was signed into law by President Obama in December 2012. The sanctions then were said to address perceived egregious human rights violations that led to the death in detention of Moscow lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in the context of tax investigations into his employer, the British-American entrepreneur William Browder. And they reflected a very specific notion of contemporary Russia as a mafia state which could be brought to heel by hitting it at pressure points that had arisen in post-Cold War Russia’s ruling constellation of wealth and power.

Specifically, it was maintained that the Kremlin elites keep their wealth in bank accounts abroad, vacation abroad, send their parents abroad for medical treatment and send their children abroad to be educated. Thus, by cutting off their visas, freezing their assets abroad, they would be deprived of what mattered most to them and would turn against their top leaders, Vladimir Putin in the instance, for betraying their interests, leading, in the preferred scenario, to regime change and, in other scenarios, to a change of behavior at the state level.

The foregoing is exactly what William Browder set out last year before the European Parliament and before the press in his two visits to promote passage of a Magnitsky Act in Europe. I have written about that at length and will not repeat myself.

Indeed, at the time, Browder spoke of a million or more ‘thieves and murderers’ who run Russia and must be punished by the world community.

The first problem with all this is that the view of Russia and of its governing elites does not correspond to reality. It is a malicious lie intended to totally discredit the country and deprive it of its rightful place at the global board of governance. The second problem is that this false premise heads us in one direction:  towards war.

Following Browder’s insistent urgings, under the aegis of the substantial neoliberal ALDE bloc headed by former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and with the wholehearted support of Russophobe politicians from the Baltic States, the European Parliament issued resolutions last year calling for sanctions in response to Russia’s human rights violations. But because the EP has only limited legislative initiative and its recommendations are not binding on the European executive bodies, the effort led nowhere….until now.

Of course, the idea of visa bans and asset freezes as suitable instruments for controlling Mr. Putin’s Russia was not the exclusive intellectual property of Mr. Browder. He had strong allies on Capitol Hill, beginning with the lead co-sponsors of the Magnitsky Act, Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and Congressman James McGovern (D-MA) who worked with might and main to win majorities in both houses and impose a fait accompli on the then reluctant President Obama. It is not for nothing that Cardin is one of the 9 American politicians appearing on Russia’s tit-for-tat entry ban list this week.

And there was a whole constellation of think tanks and politically prominent foreign policy experts who worked hand in hand with Browder on the sanctions issue. None was more important than Neocon author and speaker Robert Kagan, co-founder of the Foreign Policy Initiative, Brookings Institute fellow and husband of puppet master of the Maidan, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.  In these matters Kagan has worked in close cooperation with David Kramer, the director of the government financed pseudo-NGO Freedom House.

All of these personalities have been the organizers of events in Washington to promote sanctions against Russia from the initial lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill going back three years right up to the present day. They form the nexus of what I will call the War Party, which is a bipartisan working group of Neoconservatives (Republicans) and Progressive Internationalists (Democrats) who seek to strengthen American global hegemony at every turn and to punish mercilessly any statesman, any country which dares express a peep of disagreement with this hegemony. Anyone doubting the reality of this improbable alliance which gives a sinister meaning to ‘bipartisan foreign policy’ might consult yesterday’s article in The Washington Post entitled “Clinton and McCain, onetime foes, bond over….Ukraine.”

Given the unique status of Russia on the world stage as vocal critic of American unilateralism, of a unipolar world, of Western cultural domination generally, and given the roots of the Neoconservative movement in anti-Soviet (read anti-Russian) struggle from the late 1970s through the fall of Communism up to time present, the confrontation over Ukraine is the culmination of a long and inevitable process.

On the periphery of the War Party are assorted fellow-travelers and freebooting publicists like chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal. In a typically anti-Russian op-ed essay published in yesterday’s issue of Pravda on the Potomac, Kasparov set out for the n-th time the vision of Russia that the whole War Party subscribes to:

“Western leaders would be wise to follow the money: Sanction the elites who support Putin, go after the family members they use to hide their assets abroad and scrutinize their companies. If existing laws are inadequate to deal with billionaire thugs who enable a dangerous regime, write new ones.”

The language is uniform, the methods proposed are uniform and it is reasonable to assume that the various personalities who have promoted them in the US and then in Europe, are all feeding at the same trough in Washington, D.C.

The ‘punish Russia’ movement has worked through ever changing reasons – the Magnitsky death, Russia’s prisoners of conscience, its anti-gay-propaganda law and now, finally, something its members can sink their teeth into – Russia’s alleged aggression against Ukraine, its ‘theft’ of Crimea.  

The winning over of the European Council, meaning the heads of government and heads of state of all 28 EU members is a stunning success. This is even more true of the leadership position over sanctions that has been assumed by Angela Merkel, who has apparently overturned her country’s Ostpolitik going back several decades and moved to ensure solidarity within Europe including over any shift to ‘phase three’ economic sanctions should Russia move further into Ukraine that would work greatly to the detriment of her own country because of its degree of economic interdependence with Russia.

Let me hazard a guess to dispel the apparent contradiction.  What has changed is not the reading of Russia by Merkel and her peers in London and Paris. For them all, Russia was always seen as existing on another moral plane than Europe, as a kind of contagion to the East. This was crystal clear in her and Nicolas Sarkozy’s treatment of then President Dmitri Medvedev at their Deauville summit in October 2010, when they dismissed all talk of a visa free regime for Russia referring to the need to first cure the country of its mafia infestation.

The newfound backbone in the position of Merkel on sanctions may be traced back to the U.S. Very likely it was American insistence that it would proceed with military options if Europe did not join the sanctions campaign.

As I mentioned above, the European sanctions list includes one Russian journalist, Dmitry Kiselyov, who happens to be one of the country’s most popular television news presenters on his weekly Rossiya 1 program. True, since his appointment by Vladimir Putin last December to head the state office which is the successor to RIA Novosti, Kiselyov is also the top administrator for news dissemination; but he remains a practicing journalist nonetheless.

It would be less sad if the bans on Kiselyov set a precedent.  But they do not. They are just another manifestation of the information blockade against Russia being erected by both Europe and America, a modern day equivalent of the jamming of broadcasts in the Cold War. I direct attention to the exclusion of Russian journalists which Catherine Ashton has practiced in her Ukraine related news conferences.  And the move falls into line with practices in Washington, where Robert Kagan has been leading the fight to discredit Russia’s very successful cable news channel, Russia Today. The past week saw the revelation that the on-line resignation by an American journalist for RT was engineered by Kagan’s Foreign Policy Initiative.

All of the sanctions introduced so far by America and Europe are in themselves just symbolic. Their danger consists in the dreadfully wrong take on Russia as a mafia state bent on imperialist expansion and in the readiness of their sponsors to impose punishment that is manifestly unproductive if not counterproductive. If the threatened economic sanctions follow, they may easily lead to severe economic dislocations that will destabilize the world and could precipitate a war.  

The authors of the next, ‘phase three’ economic sanctions that President Obama will be discussing with European leaders in the coming week during his visit choose to ignore Russia’s ability to respond asymmetrically. This begins with direct damage to the Ukrainian economy that will make default and collapse unavoidable. Russia need only expel in a tit for tat imposition of visas with Ukraine the 3 million Ukrainian workers who contribute $20 billion to their national economy. Next, it can suspend all purchases of Ukrainian goods and services. This would result in the closure of factories in the Donbass, and much further afield. The result would be havoc.

Political scientists are very fond of scenarios. I will not go on further, will not detail the cut-off of energy supplies to Europe or other terribly destructive actions within the scope of Russian options if the West goes ‘nuclear’ and tries to impose financial and other economic exclusions on Russia similar to the Iran sanctions.

Moreover, the Russians have levers to destabilize Southeastern Ukraine politically through referendum demands by the Russian-speaking populations. And they always have the possibility of reversing their cooperative stance over Syria and Iran, which could set in train full-scale proxy wars in those regions similar to the most dangerous days of the Cold War.

Many, myself included, have looked in the past for situations analogous to the threats we face today and have flagged the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, as the confrontation has evolved this past week, it appears we are breaking new ground, that the past is no sure guide to the present and future. 

For these reasons, I am hopeful that the various cool and experienced minds that have come forward into the public forum seeking a way forward, none more constructive than former US Ambassador to Moscow under Reagan Jack Matlock, Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs and NYU professor emeritus Stephen Cohen will come together in a common stand published in full page advertisements in mainstream media in the USA and in Europe, so that our blinkered politicians can be persuaded to face reality and de-escalate their words and their deeds. 

The solution to our existing confrontation will not be more band-aids in the spirit of the ‘re-set.’ It must address the underlying issue of European and global security. It is high time to discard false, propagandistic views of modern Russia and define a worthy place for Russia in the security infrastructure.


              ©Gilbert Doctorow, 2014


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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.


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