"The two (Trump and Clinton) cannot greet one another on stage, cannot say goodbye to one another at the end. They barely can get out the texts that have been prepared for them by their respective staffs. Repeating on stage what one may have said in the locker room."
"Billions of people around the world conclude with one word: Disgrace!"
- Vladimir Zhirinovsky - prominent Russian politician, leader of a major party in parliament.
The American public is now experiencing mass paranoia that is called Russia-gate. Obnoxious and dangerous as this officially encouraged madness may be, it is, alas, nothing new. As from 9/11, the same kind of group hypnosis was administered from the Nation’s Capital on the body politic to serve the then agenda of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, turning back civil liberties that had accrued over generations without so much as a whimper from Congress, our political elites and the country at large.
This time the generalized paranoia started under the nominally left of center administration of Barack Obama in the closing months of his presidency. It has been fanned ever since by the centrists in both Democratic and Republican parties who want to either remove from office or politically cripple Donald Trump and his administration, that is to say, to overturn the results at the ballot box on November 8, 2016.
Foreign policy issues are instrumentalized for domestic political objectives. In 2001 it was the threat of Islamist terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world attacking the American homeland. Today it is the alleged manipulation of our open political system by our enemies in the Kremlin.
Fear and alarm close minds to reason and facts. But in the case of our ongoing obsession with Russia there is more at stake than the careers of present-day victims of a McCarthyite witch-hunt.
Americans are wont to forget that there is a world outside the borders of the USA and that others follow closely what is said and written in our media, especially by our political leadership and policy elites. They forget or do not care how the accusations and threats we direct at other countries in our domestic political squabbling, and still more the sanctions we impose on our ever changing list of authoritarians and other real or imagined enemies abroad might be interpreted there and what preparations or actions might be taken by those same enemies in self-defense, threatening not merely American interests but America’s physical survival.
In no case is this more relevant than with respect to Russia, which, I remind readers, is the only country on earth capable of turning the entire Continental United States into ashes within a day. In point of fact, if Russia has prepared itself for war, as the latest issue of Newsweek magazine tells us, we have no one but our political leadership to blame for that state of affairs. They are tone deaf to what is said in Russia. We have no concern for Russian national interests and “red lines” as the Russians themselves define them. Our Senators and Congressmen listen only to what our home grown pundits and academics think the Russian interests should be if they are to fit in a world run by us. That is why the Senate can vote 98-2 in favor of making the sanctions against Russia laid down by executive order of Barack Obama into sanctions under federal legislation as happened this past summer.
There is in the United States a significant minority of journalists and experts who have been setting out the facts on why the Russia-gate story is deeply flawed if not a fabrication from the get-go. In this small but authoritative and responsible field, Consortium News stands out for its courage and dogged fact-checking and logic-checks. Others on the side of the angels include TruthDig.com and Antiwar.com.
The Russia-gate story has permutated over time as one or another element of the investigation into Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with the Kremlin has become more or less promising. But the core issue has always been the allegation of Russian hacking of DNC computers on July 5, 2016 and the hand-over of thousands of compromising documents to Wikileaks for the purpose of discrediting putative Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and throwing the election to Donald Trump, who had at that time nearly clinched the Republican nomination.
Perhaps the most significant challenge to the official US intelligence story of Russian hacking released on January 6, 2017 was the forensic evidence assembled by a group of former intelligence officers with relevant technical expertise known as VIPS (Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity). Their work, arguing that the attack on the DNC computers was an inside job by someone with access to the hardware rather than a remote operation by persons outside the Democratic Party hierarchy and possibly outside the United States, was published in Consortium News (“Intel Vets Challenge ‘Russia Hack’ Evidence”) on July 24, 2017.
The VIPS material was largely ignored by mainstream media, as might be expected. An editorial entitled “The unchecked threat from Russia” published by The Washington Post yesterday is a prime example of how our media bosses continue to whip up public fury against collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin even when, by their own admission, “no conclusive proof has surfaced.”
The VIPS piece last July was based on the laws of physics, demonstrating that speed limitations on transfer of data over the internet at the time when the crime is alleged to have taken place rendered impossible the CIA, NSA and FBI scenario of Russian hacking In what follows, I will introduce a very different type of evidence challenging the official US intelligence story of Russian hacking and meddling in general, what I would callcircumstantial evidence that goes to the core issue of what the Kremlin really wanted. Let us consider whether Mr. Putin had a motive to put his thumb on the scales in the American presidential election.
In the U.S., that is a slam-dunk question. But that comes from our talking to ourselves in the mirror. My evidence comes precisely from the other side of the issue: what the Kremlin elites were saying about the US elections and their preferred candidate to win while the campaign was still going on. I present it on a privileged basis because it is what I gathered on my several visits to Moscow and talks with a variety of insiders close to Vladimir Putin from September through the start of November, 2016. Moreover, there is no tampering with this evidence on my part, because the key elements were published at the time I gathered them, well before the US election. They appeared as incidental observations in lengthy essays dealing with a number of subjects and would not have attracted the attention they merit today.
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The evidence I present draws principally on what I saw and heard as a panelist in political talk shows on Russian domestic television during the given period in 2016, when Russian news services were heavily focused on the drama playing out in the United States. Their country featured as the single most mentioned and discussed foreign policy issue before American voters, and that stirred up keen interest among ordinary Russians in the American candidates, in the debates and in the outcome of the process on November 8.
Political talk shows are a very popular component of Russian television programming on all channels, both state-run and commercial channels. They are mostly carried on prime time in the evening but also are showing in mid-afternoon, where they have displaced soap operas and cooking lessons as entertainment for housewives and pensioners. They are broadcast live either to the Moscow time zone or to the Far East time zone. Given the fact that Russia extends over 9 time zones, they are also video recorded and reshown locally at prime time. In the case of the highest quality and most watched programs produced by Vesti 24 for the Rossiya One channel, they also are posted in their entirety and in the original Russian on youtube, and they are accessible worldwide by anyone with a computer or tablet phone using a downloadable free app.
I underline the importance of accessibility of these programs globally via live streaming or podcasts on simple handheld gadgets. Russian speaking professionals in the States had every opportunity to observe much of what I report below, except, of course, for my private conversations with producers and panelists. But the gist of the mood in Moscow with respect to the US elections was accessible to anyone with an interest. As you know, no one reported on it at the time. American media simply were not interested in knowing what Russians were thinking since that might get in the way of their construction of what Russians should be thinking.
The panelists appearing on these different channels come from a rather small pool of Russian legislators, including chairmen of the relevant committees of the Duma (lower house) and Federation Council (upper house), leading journalists, think tank professors, retired military brass. The politicians are drawn from among the most visible and colorful personalities in the Duma parties, but also extend to Liberal parties such as Yabloko, which failed to cross the threshold of 5% in legislative elections and received no seats in parliament.
Then there are very often a number of foreigners among panelists. In the past and at the present, they are typically known for anti-Kremlin positions and so give the predominantly patriotic Russian panelists an opportunity to cross swords, send off sparks and keep the audience awake. These hostile foreigners coming from Ukraine or Poland are Russian speakers from their childhood. The Americans or Israelis who appear are generally former Soviet citizens who emigrated, whether before or after the fall of Communism, and speak native Russian.
However, in the period under examination, for the sake of giving the Russian public a more nuanced understanding of the issues raised by the candidates in the US elections, the various channels exceptionally invited a handful of Americans, myself included, who were known to be seeking accommodation with Russia in line with Donald Trump’s electoral promises and whose Russian fluency was acquired at university, not from mother’s milk. During this brief honeymoon period, we were very actively pursued by all channels, each of which has producer’s assistants on the lookout for fresh candidates to present to their audiences.
“Freshness” is an especially valued commodity in this case, because there is a considerable overlap in the names and faces appearing on these talks whatever the channel. For this there is an objective reason: nearly all the Russian and even foreign guests live in Moscow and are available to be invited or disinvited on short notice given that these talk programs can change their programming if there is breaking news about which their audiences will want to hear commentary. In my own case, I was flown in especially by the various channels who paid airfare and hotel accommodation in Moscow as necessary on the condition that I appear only on their shows during my stay in the city. That is to say, my expenses were covered but there was no honorarium. I make this explicit to rebut in advance any notion that I/we outside panelists were in any way “paid by the Kremlin” or restricted in our freedom of speech on air.
During the period under review, I appeared on both state channels, Rossiya-1 and Pervy Kanal, as well as on the major commercial television channel, NTV. The dates and venues of my participation in these talk shows are as follows:
September 11 – Sunday Evening with Vladimir Soloviev, Rossiya 1
September 26 - Sixty Minutes with Yevgeni Popov and Olga Skabeyeva, Rossiya 1
November 1-2, Time Will Tell with Artyom Sheinin, Pervy Kanal and The Meeting Place, NTV
November 8-9 Time Will Tell.
For purposes of this essay, the pertinent appearances were on September 11 and 26. To this I add the Sixty Minutes show of October 20 which I watched on television but which aired content that I believe is important to this discussion.
My debut on the number one talk show in Russia, Sunday Evening with Vladimir Soloviev, on September 11was invaluable not so much for what was said on air but for the exchange I had with the program’s host, Vladimir Soloviev, in a five minute tête-à-tête in the guests’ lounge before the program went on air.
Soloviev obviously had not yet read his guest list, did not know who I am and stood ready to respond to me when I walked up to him and unceremoniously put to him the question that interested me the most: whom did he want to see win the US presidential election. He did not hesitate, told me in no uncertain terms that he did not want to see Trump win because the man is volatile, unpredictable and….weak. Soloviev added that he and others do not expect anything good in relations with the United States in general whoever won. He rejected the notion that Trump’s turning the Neocons out of government would be a great thing in and of itself.
As I now understand, Soloviev’s resistance to the idea that Trump could be a good thing was not just an example of Russians’ prioritizing stability, the principle “better the devil you know,” meaning Hillary. During a recent chat with a Russian ambassador, someone also close to power, I heard the conviction that the United States is like a big steamship which has its own inertia and cannot be turned around, that presidents come and go but American foreign policy remains the same. This view may be called cynical or realistic, depending on your taste, but it is reflective of the thinking that comes out from many of the panelists in the talk shows as you will find below in my quotations from the to-and-fro on air. It may also explain Soloviev’s negativism.
To appreciate what weight the opinions of Vladimir Soloviev carry, you have to consider just who he is. That his talk show is the most professional from among numerous rival shows, that it attracts the most important politicians and expert guests is only part of the story. What is more to the point is that he is as close to Vladimir Putin as journalists can get.
In April, 2015 Vladimir Soloviev conducted a two hour interview with Putin that was aired on Rossiya 1 under the title “The President.” In early January 2016, the television documentary “World Order,” co-written and directed by Soloviev, set out in forceful terms Vladimir Putin’s views on American and Western attempts to stamp out Russian sovereignty that first were spoken at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007 and have evolved and become ever more frank since.
Soloviev has a Ph.D. in economics from the Institute of World Economics and International Relations of the USSR Academy of Sciences. He was an active entrepreneur in the 1990s and spent some time back then in the USA, where his activities included teaching economics at the University of Alabama. He is fluent in English and has been an unofficial emissary of the Kremlin to the USA at various times.
For all of these reasons, I believe it is safe to say that Vladimir Soloviev represents the thinking of Russian elites close to their president, if not the views of Putin himself.
On September 27, I took part in the Sixty Minutes talk show that was presented as a post mortem of the first Trump-Clinton debate the day before. I direct attention to this show because it demonstrates the sophistication and discernment of commentary about the United States and its electoral process. All of this runs against the “slam-dunk” scenario based on a cartoon-like representation of Russia and its decision makers.
The show’s hosts tried hard to convey the essence of American political culture to their audience and they did some effective research to this end. Whereas French and other Western media devoted coverage on the day after the debates to the appearance of the American presidential candidates and especially to Hillary (what else attracts comment from the male world of journalism if not a lady’s hair styling and sartorial choices), ‘Sixty Minutes’ tweaked this aspect of the debates to find politically relevant commentary.
To make their point, presenter Yevgeny Popov came on stage in a blue suit and blue tie very similar in coloring to Trump’s, while his wife and co-presenter Olga Skabeyeva was wearing a garment in the same red hue as Hillary. They proceeded to note that these color choices of the candidates represented an inversion of the traditional colors of the Democratic and Republican parties in American political tradition. And they took this a step further by declaring it to be in line with the inversion of policies in the electoral platforms of the candidates. Hillary had taken over the hawkish foreign policy positions of the Republicans and their Neoconservative wing. Donald had taken over the dovish foreign policy positions normally associated with Democrats. Moreover, Donald also had gone up against the free trade policies that were an engrained part of Republican ideology up until now and were often rejected by Democrats with their traditional financial backers from among labor unions. All of these observations were essentially correct and astute as far as the campaigns went. It is curious to hear them coming from precisely Russian journalists, when they were largely missed by West European and American commentators.
As mentioned above, foreigners are often important to the Russian talk shows to add pepper and salt. In this case, we were largely decorative. The lion’s share of the program was shared between the Russian politicians and journalists on the panel who very ably demonstrated in their own persona that Russian elites were split down the middle on whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton was their preferred next occupant of the Oval Office.
The reasons given were not what you heard within the USA: that Trump is vulgar, that Trump is a bigot and misogynist. Instead the Russian Trump-skeptics were saying that he is impulsive and cannot be trusted to act with prudence if there is some mishap, some accidental event occurring between US and Russian forces in the field, for example. They gave expression to the cynical view that the positions occupied by Trump in the pre-election period are purely tactical, to differentiate himself from all competitors first in his own party during the primaries and now from Hillary. Thus, Trump could turn out to be no friend of Russia on the day after the elections.
A direct answer to these changes came from the pro-Trump members of the panel. It was best enunciated by the senior politician in the room, Vyacheslav Nikonov. Nikonov is a Duma member from Putin’s United Russia party, the chair of the Education Committee in the 6th Duma. He is also chair of a government sponsored organization of Russian civil society, Russian World, which looks after the interests of Russians and Russian culture in the diaspora abroad.
Nikonov pointed to Trump’s courage and determination which scarcely suggest merely tactical considerations driving his campaign. Said Nikonov, Trump had gone up against the entire US political establishment, against the whole of corporate mainstream media and was winning. Nikonov pointed to the surge in Trump poll statistics in the couple of weeks preceding the debate. And he ticked off the 4 swing states which Trump needed to win and where his fortunes were rising fast. Clearly his presentation was carefully prepared, not something casual and off-the-cuff.
During the exchange of doubters and backers of Trump among the Russians, one doubter spoke of Trump as a “non-systemic” politician. This may be loosely interpreted a meaning he is anti-establishment. But in the Russian context it had an odious connotation, being applied to Alexei Navalny and certain members of the American- and EU-backed Parnas political movement, and suggesting seditious intent.
In this connection, Nikonov put an entirely different spin on who Trump is and what he represents as an anti-establishment figure. But then again, maybe such partiality runs in the family. Nikonov is the grandson of Molotov, one of the leading figures who staged the Russian Revolution and governed the young Soviet state.
Who won the first Trump-Clinton debate? Here the producers of Sixty Minutes gave the final verdict to a Vesti news analyst from a remote location whose image was projected on a wall-sized screen. We were told that the debate was a draw: Trump had to demonstrate that he is presidential, which he did. Clinton had to demonstrate she had the stamina to resist the onslaught of 90 minutes with Trump and she also succeeded.
The October 20 program Evening with Vladimir Soloviev, which I watched on television from abroad, was devoted to the third Clinton-Trump debate. My single most important conclusion from the show was that, notwithstanding the very diverse panel, there was a bemused unanimity among them regarding the US presidential electoral campaign: that it was deplorable. They found both candidates to be disgraceful due to their flagrant weaknesses of character and/or records in office, but they were also disturbed by the whole political culture. Particular attention was devoted to the very one-sided position of the American mass media and the centrist establishments of both parties in favor of one candidate, Hillary Clinton. When Russians and former Russians use the terms “McCarthyism” and “managed democracy” to describe the American political process as they did on the show, they know acutely well whereof they speak.
Though flamboyant in his language the nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the LDPR Party, touched on a number of core concerns that bear repeating extensively, if not in full:
“The debates were weak. The two cannot greet one another on stage, cannot say goodbye to one another at the end. They barely can get out the texts that have been prepared for them by their respective staffs. Repeating on stage what one may have said in the locker room.
Billions of people around the world conclude with one word: disgrace! This is the worst electoral campaign ever. And mostly what we see is the style of the campaign. However much people criticize the USSR – the old fogies who ran it, one and the same, supposedly the conscience of the world.
Now we see the same thing in the USA: the exceptional country – the country that has bases everywhere, soldiers everywhere, is bombing everywhere in some city or other. They are making their ‘experiments.’ The next experiment is to have a woman in the White House. It will end badly.
Hillary has some kind of dependency. A passion for power – and that is dangerous for the person who will have her finger on the nuclear button. If she wins, on November 9th the world will be at the brink of a big war…”
Zhirinovsky made no secret of his partiality for Trump, calling him “clean” and “a good man” whereas Hillary has “blood on her hands” for the deaths of hundreds of thousands due to her policies as Secretary of State. But then again, Zhirinovsky has made his political career over more than 30 years precisely by making outrageous statements that run up against what the Russian political establishment says aloud. Before Trump came along, Zhirinovsky had been the loudest voice in Russian politics in favor of Turkey and its president Erdogan, a position which he came to regret when the Turks shot down a Russian jet at the Syrian border, causing a great rupture in bilateral relations.
The final word on Russia’s electoral preferences during the October 20 show was given by the moderator, Vladimir Soloviev: “There can be no illusions. Both Trump and Clinton have a very bad attitude to Russia. What Trump said about us and Syria was no compliment at all. The main theme of American political life right now is McCarthyism and anti-Russian hysteria.”
This being Russia, one might assume that the deeply negative views of the ongoing presidential election reflected a general hostility to the USA on the part of the presenter and panelists. But nothing of the sort came out from their discussion. To be sure, there was the odd outburst from Zhirinovsky, who repeated a catchy line that he has delivered at other talk shows: essentially that the USA is eating Russia and the world’s lunch given that it consumes the best 40% of what the world produces while it itself accounts for just 20% of world GDP. But otherwise the panelists, including Zhirinovsky, displayed informed respect and even admiration for what the United States has achieved and represents.
The following snippets of their conversation convey this very well and do not require attribution to one or another participant:
“America has the strongest economy, which is why people want to go there and there is a lot for us to borrow from it. We have to learn from them, and not be shy about it.”
“Yes, they created the conditions for business. In the morning you file your application. After lunch you can open your business.”
“America is a very complex country. It does not pay to demonize it. We have to understand precisely what we like and do not like. On this planet there is no way to avoid them. Whoever becomes president of the USA, the nuclear parity forces us to negotiate and reach agreement.”
“The US has opened its doors to the most intelligent people of the world, made it attractive for them. Of course, this builds their exceptionalism. All directors, engineers, composers head there. Our problem is that we got rid of our tsar, our commissar but people are still hired hands. The top people go to the States because the pay is higher.”
How are we to understand the discrepancy between the very low marks the panelists gave the US presidential race and their favorable marks for the US as an economic and military powerhouse. It appears to result from their understanding that there is a disconnect between Washington, the presidency and what makes the economy turn over. The panelists concluded that the USA has a political leadership at the national level that is unworthy and inappropriate to its position in the world. On this point, I expect that many American readers of this essay will concur.
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Ever since his candidacy took off in the spring of 2016, both Liberal Interventionists and Neoconservatives have been warning that a Donald Trump presidency would mean abandonment of US global leadership. They equated Donald’s “America First” with isolationism. After all, it was in the openly “isolationist period” of American political history just before the outbreak of WWII that the original America First slogan first appeared.
However, isolationism never left us, even as the United States became engaged in and eventually dominated the world after the end of the Cold War. Even today more than half of the US Senators do not possess passports, meaning they have never been abroad, barring possible trips to Canada using their driver’s licenses as ID.
And for those Americans who do travel abroad, the world outside US borders is all too often just an object of prestige tourism, a divertissement, where the lives of local people, their concerns and their interests do not exist on the same high plateau as American lives, concerns and interests. It is not that we are all Ugly Americans, but we are too well insulated from the travails of others and too puffed up with our own exceptionalism.
It is not surprising that in the US foreign policy is not a self-standing intellectual pursuit on a chessboard of its own but is strictly a subset of domestic policy calculations, and in particular of partisan electoral considerations. Indeed, that is very often the case in other countries, as well. The distinction is that the US footprint in the world is vastly greater than that of other countries and policy decisions taken in Washington, especially in the past 20 years of militarized foreign-policy making, spell war or peace, order or chaos in the territories under consideration.
As regards the Russian Federation, the ongoing hysteria over Russia-gate in particular, and over the perceived threat Russia poses to US national interests in general, risks tilting the world into nuclear war.
It is a luxury we manifestly cannot afford to indulge ourselves.