If we are to understand the policy options being considered by Russian elites, including by the occupant of the Kremlin, we must understand in depth the contempt and derision with which they speak of the U.S. today in media directed at the home audience
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Amidst all the hullaballoo in U.S. media over alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections and ongoing threats to American democracy, the broad public may be forgiven for not noticing that the U.S.A. is day by day massively interfering in the Russian presidential campaign with a view to turning elites and the electorate against the front-runner, Vladimir Putin, and at the same time at discrediting the entire process. These are not allegations: they are verifiable facts that can be spotted in the daily news, but they go unobserved because they appear separately, each with its own separate plausible explanation, and the media never connect the dots. I have in mind such details as
- the pending announcement on 29 January of new U.S. sanctions against Russian individuals and companies in implementation of the Russia sanctions law overwhelmingly passed by Congress last August, and said to be in response to a broad list of Russian offenses ranging from electoral interference and cyber attacks, to the occupation of Crimea and supporting the insurrection in south-eastern Ukraine (Donbas), to supporting the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria
- the announcement that President Trump will receive in the White House anti-Putin presidential candidate, glamor television presenter and darling of U.S. freedom fighters Ksenia Sobchak
- the expulsion of the Russian Olympics team from the forthcoming Games in Korea in retaliation for alleged systematic doping practiced in the Sochi Winter Olympics, followed by the ban a couple of days ago by the World Olympics Committee on individual Russian athletes without any explanation or justification whatsoever– athletes who just happen to be the highest rated among those who agreed to go in the Games as non-state participants, followed by a ban on fans showing the Russian flag in the venues of competition
- the insistence by Rex Tillerson the other day that U.S. armed forces in Syria will stay there until the Assad regime goes, and that they are training what will be a 30,000 man force consisting of Kurds and Arabs located in the border region between Syria and Turkey, Syria and Iraq, all in violation of Syrian territorial integrity and sovereignty that Russia guaranties by word and by the full power of its military
- the ongoing flow of U.S.-made lethal weapons and dispatch of trainers to Kiev that are part of a $350 million U.S. package of aid to back Ukraine’s still low level war against Russia
And while the American and European publics do not connect the dots, the Russians do so daily on their political talk shows watched by millions. They draw conclusions that are very important. Important because those conclusions define Russia’s reading of what they now openly call their “number one enemy,” the United States of America, the identification of its strengths and more particularly its weaknesses. These conclusions precondition and set limits on what the Kremlin can and should do to respond.
It is sheer madness for Americans to ignore these realities, as is today the case. So long as the conduct of U.S. policy towards Russia remains in the hands of those who guided it under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, people who believe that Russia can be broken by “non-kinetic” means, we are on a trajectory to precisely kinetic solutions, meaning armed conflict, in which who strikes first may also strike last. And for precisely the same reasons of unwillingness to penetrate the Russian psyche, and see what makes them tick, it is more likely that the Russians will strike first when we cross their final red line.
But I am rushing ahead. Let us step back for a moment. In what follows, I will set out highlights from the discussion of relations with the United States on the Evening with Vladimir Soloviev political talk show of 24 January 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7oqDAN8kIE . The Soloviev show, with its mixed format of panel discussions and one-on-one interviews with the host, is broadcast several days a week and is a must-see for the country’s chattering classes. Participants include some of the country’s best minds from among ranking Duma members in the committees charged with international affairs in the Near and Far Abroad, the heads of think tanks and Moscow university departments, as well as distinguished foreign guests.
The lead discussion of the Soloviev show on the 24th was clearly triggered by remarks the day before from Andrei Kostin, the head of VTB, one of Russia’s leading state-owned banks, who gave an interview in Davos to the Financial Times denouncing U.S. policies and referring in particular to new coming sanctions. To quote the Times:
The head of a leading Russian bank has warned of ‘the growing threat of military conflict’ in Europe and said that if the US slapped more economic sanctions on institutions in Moscow it would be ‘a declaration of war.
Andrei Kostin, chief executive of VTB, told the Financial Times that his biggest concern was the ‘dangerous’ situation being created by the build-up of arms in Europe, which risked an ‘accident’ between Nato and Russian forces.
…Any economic sanctions against institutions, personally I say it would be like declaring a war. I see no reason why the Russian ambassador should stay in Washington any longer after that or the American ambassador staying swimming in cold water in Moscow.
On the 24th, speaking in the meeting rooms to participants and in the corridors of the Davos forum to Russian media, Kostin fleshed out his remarks further. We read the following on the RBC news and television portal, Russia’s equivalent of Bloomberg, in an article entitled “Kostin declared the start by the West of a ‘war’ to change the President of Russia. The war of sanctions.” https://www.rbc.ru/politics/24/01/2018/5a683da79a7947187688f039
I think that with the help of sanctions they want to exert great pressure on Russia, so that the RF changes its government, president for someone more acceptable to them… This is really an extreme, full-scale attack on Russia, on Russian society, with great pressure on the economy. It is a very big economic war. And I am speaking seriously, we will take this very seriously, Kostin explained.
This heavy dose of food for thought was taken up with alacrity by Vladimir Soloviev and his guests. The sharpest, most outspoken analysis was offered up precisely by the participant with least reason to hold back and be diplomatic, Yakov Kedmi, the Israeli guest who has recently become a regular on the show.
Kedmi is a former Soviet citizen who was among the pioneers in the late 1970s movement of dissidents-refuseniks demanding and ultimately receiving the right to emigrate to Israel, all of which enjoyed the support of the U.S. government at the time. In Israel he made a career in one of the intelligence services. Even after his retirement, Kedmi remained persona non grata in Russia until several years ago, when, under the rubric of “social activist” in Israel he was invited back and began appearing on the talk shows.
From apologist for American policy Kedmi has morphed into a scathing critic of what he sees as idiotic and destructive policies pursued by the United States in his home region, the Middle East, as demonstrated most recently by the U.S. arming its Kurdish protégés in Syria at the border with NATO ally Turkey, sparking the present Turkish armed incursion into Syria for a “clean-up” of Kurdish terrorists. More broadly, Kedmi has unconcealed scorn for the United States political and military leadership from its moron President straight down to the governing elites. He is aligned with the analysis offered by Russian nationalist party leader in the Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who regularly says on the Soloviev show that the United States foreign policy has one objective: to stir things up, here, there, everywhere so as to maintain its hegemony amidst chaos and confusion.
Kedmi also is uncomprehending of the mild response of official Russia to the downpour of insults and humiliations sent its way from the United States. He chose to use his air time on the show of 24 January to shake the Russians from what he sees as passivity, turn-the-other-cheek mentality and feeble counter-measures, all of which encourage further U.S. aggression, in his view.
Said Kedmi, there is no way you can mollify the United States by meeting one or another of their demands. They are waging all-out war on Russia in sports, in politics and in economics. The only dimension in which they do not wage war on you is military – because they do not dare. You have to respond strongly to every offensive action.
At this point, Soloviev intervened and replied to Kedmi directly, saying that everyone in this studio views the United States in the same way as he, as the enemy, without illusions. The question is what the Russians can and should do about it.
This led to a discussion that roughly paralleled what I have seen in other recent talk show broadcasts on Rossiya-1: expressions of self-satisfaction that Russia has the military wherewithal to go into any armed conflict with the United States that may be called for, but that, for the time being, the best thing is “to keep its powder dry.” The only immediate change should be to jettison the language of “our partners” when speaking about the United States and NATO, and speak clearly in open language about “our adversaries.”
But we should not end our analysis at this point, because if we are to understand the policy options being considered by Russian elites, including by the occupant of the Kremlin, we must understand in depth the contempt and derision with which they speak of the U.S. today in media directed at the home audience. In anticipation of the objection that such talk is only intended to flatter the Russian public and deflect attention from real weakness, I insist that the widespread repetition of given appraisals of Americans and their country, the repetition of the Russians’ pride in their unique position as defenders of national sovereignty in a world till now cowed by American bullying, can and likely will be translated into action if the Kremlin is cornered by American actions that go a step too far by miscalculation arising from distinctly American ignorance and illusions.
Recent Russian television programming presents an image of the United States as cowardly. The LGBT issue is exploited to make the point that the U.S. has gone soft, that its military officers are pansies. To general amusement, Sixty Minutes this past week showed a photo of a recent wedding at West Point of two pilots, both males. The happy couple is shown on the steps before the chapel, framed by fellow cadets with raised swords as called for traditional nuptials. The studio camera then panned the Russian show participants to record their discrete smirks.
But it is not only Americans who are held in contempt: the same goes for the parameters generally used by our political scientists to measure power in the world and it goes for the war materiel in the U.S. arsenal compared to Russian equivalents.
The participants of the Soloviev show insist that Western measures of world pecking order based on GDP are wrong. Yes, we do not have 13 trillion dollars GDP, the Russians say. There we are not on an even footing with the USA or China. However, what really counts is sheer military strength, and there we, the Russian Federation, are equal or superior. Russian weaponry is now battle tested. It works demonstrably well. Russian anti-missile, anti-aircraft systems are the best in the world, which is why the Turks have bought the S-400 and others are shopping with us. We have as many aircraft carriers (1, the Kuznetsov) as we need for our missions abroad, and juxtaposition with the U.S. fleet is not relevant. Our latest generation jet fighters are as good or better than the American F-35 while costing 5 times less per unit.
This talk on the 24th complements perfectly perceptions of the US that I have seen repeatedly on other programming of Rossiya-1, the main news broadcaster of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Kiseliev’s News of the Week, and the talk shows 60 Minutes hosted by Olga Skabeyeva and Yevgeni Popov:
-that the US has not won a large war in decades
-that the US is mired in Afghanistan in the longest war of its history, where a pull-out would be followed very quickly by the return to power of its nemesis, the Taliban
-that over its history Russia has won out in crucial wars against Sweden, against Napoleon and against Nazi Germany during which the enemy went all out to destroy Russia. The United States today is not ready to risk its fate in a direct fight and throw all its resources against Russia, hence the non-kinetic challenges
The key question then for Russian elites is how to respond. Here again, the participants of Vladimir Soloviev’s talk show on 24 January were more precise, more open in their remarks than we see on other news and talk shows, but essentially in line with the inchoate sentiment there.
Till now this has been to maintain a superior air, to show condescension towards the Americans as they experience what is seen as a kind of male midlife crisis or female onset of menopause: the American monopolar world is ending de facto as other countries are rising in strength, and the US efforts to hold onto its hegemonic position become more desperate by the day.
Then there is the view that Donald Trump’s “America First” policies are doing more to undermine American global hegemony than anything that Russia could undertake. Best to sit tight and watch the U.S.A. crumble before our eyes. Trump’s speech before the Davos globalists tomorrow, Friday, 26 January is expected to give further momentum to European and world-wide contempt for his country, opening the way for Russia to ascend without a fight. As a demonstration of the validity of this approach, one of Soloviev’s guests pointed to the recent vote in the UN General Assembly condemning Donald Trump’s announcement on the move of the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In that vote, the U.S. allies all abandoned it, leaving it with the support only of Kosovo and one other insignificant state.
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All of these newly confirmed perceptions among Russian elites have taken shape at the same time as there is a new reading of Russia emerging among American elites.
We note that the United States seems to have finally come around to the realization that it is in a full-blown new Cold War with Russia, which it long denied. This is confirmed by a report just issued by the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations (see analysis by Professor Stephen Cohen in his most recent radio dialogue with John Batchelor https://www.thenation.com/ article/the-american- bipartisan-policy- establishment-declares-its- second-cold-war-vs-russia- after-years-of-denying-it/.
It appears that the U.S. perception of Russia has changed in a cardinal manner from but several years ago when Senator McCain spoke of Russia as a gas station masquerading as a country, when President Obama said it was just a bullying regional power, not a global player. From nothing, Russia has now emerged as a global competitor alongside China, an ideological foe and the main security threat facing the United States.
However, from our survey of Russian elite opinion as expressed on the leading political talk shows, it seems that the U.S. establishment does not see that the new competition is with a very different opponent than the Soviet Union and that we can very easily now stumble into a hot war like no other in human history.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018
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Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/ For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg