“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly-flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.”
“Anarchy is like custard cooking over a flame; it has to be constantly stirred or it sticks and gets heavy, like government.”
Tom Robbins, from “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”
Victoria Nuland has kept a comparatively low profile since her part in the still-unfolding grotesque failure to mastermind Ukraine, at America’s intervention, into a ‘prosperous western-leaning market democracy’ at Europe’s expense. She made a cameo appearance, smiling and nodding and handing out bread and buns to the revolutionaries at the ‘Euromaidan’ on Kiev’s Independence Square, and almost immediately thereafter was recorded in the act of colluding with United States Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt to hand-pick the incoming revolutionary government. The EU was a bunch of twittering incompetents who would never get anything done, so fuck them – America would show them how to grease the guillotine with the fat of tyrants. Then she appeared in a Chevron-sponsored press conference for the National Press Club, at which she was a guest speaker, and announced that since 1991 the United States had invested $5 Billion in ‘democracy promotion’ in Ukraine. I had to listen to nearly the whole speech to verify that fact was in there, through exhortations that the hand-picked-by-America revolutionary government constituted the ‘principles and values that are the cornerstones of all free democracies’, but when she got to the part about how she had personally ‘witnessed the appalling violence when Yanukovich turned his riot police on demonstrators as they sang hymns and prayed for peace’, my stomach revolted and I nearly blew chunks over my monitor. Dear God. I guess a saucepan for your head and a club studded with nails are important accessories for demonstrators these days when they know they’re going to be singing hymns and praying for peace.
Anyway, shortly after that debacle, she shuffled off to her coffin full of graveyard dirt in the basement, and stayed away from sunlight. She only recently emerged, and the alert eye of reader rkka spotted her delightful piece for Foreign Affairs magazine, entitled “Pinning Down Putin; How a Confident America Should Deal With Russia”.
In fact, it’s worth including rkka’s take on it, upon having read it.
“She laments how Vladimir Putin has for twenty years repeatedly slapped away Uncle Sam’s extended open hand, offered in the purest desire for friendship with Russia…She does admit one US mistake, tearing up the ABM Treaty in 2002, but the rest of it is one long whine about Putin.
Her policy prescription: spend uncountable trillion$ the US has to borrow building up US military capability, unify all NATO allies to resist disinformation, hold up the renewal of the new START Treaty conditioned on Russian concessions on Russia’s short & medium range nuclear strike systems & new conventional capabilities, forge a united NATO & EU front on Ukraine with the US participating in the negotiations, and then offer a future Russian government a return to non-substantive participation in Western institutions like the G-7 and NATO-Russia Council as well as a few miniscule economic inducements…In other words, the same offer to Soviet/Russian leaders since Brezhnev: major substantive Soviet/Russian concessions in return for vague assurances of future Western goodwill.”
Having read the piece myself, I frankly doubt I can do any better than that, but I’d like to go over it anyway, because I would like to examine some aspects of it in considerably greater detail.
By way of introductory remarks, I should like to point out the comedic irony of Ms. Nuland’s “Confident America” which is going to “pin down Putin” sharing page space with “America’s Democratic Unraveling: Countries Fail the Same Way Businesses Do, Gradually and Then Suddenly.” It has apparently been some considerable time since Ms. Nuland looked out the window. Oh, the article itself is a complete crock, blaming America’s descent into the maelstrom as a regrettable consequence of Trump’s dictatorial rule, which is comparable to – if we indulge in any more irony, we are going to turn into broccoli – those of Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin. But few in the milieu of American politics could have failed to notice that an anarchist commune in Seattle has declared independence from America, and Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, whose spine is of purest tofu, has ceded control of a seven-block center of downtown Seattle to them. As if that were not enough, he has gotten involved in a Twitter flame war with that veteran Tweeter, Donald Trump, accusing him of being “totally incapable of governing”.
Two incongruities here, which should inspire thought; one, what Ms. Nuland asserts is a ‘confident’ America is actually up to its nipples in domestic conflict. It should not, under the present circumstances, aspire to ‘pin down’ anyone stronger than Bernie Sanders. Two, where exactly is Ms. Nuland on this domestic revolt? I can remember a time when even if she was asleep, her spider-sense would have detected anyone whispering “independence”, and she would have flown to the scene on her broom, if no faster transport was available, to distribute baked goods and encouragement. As it is, it looks as if nobody has noticed that the declarers of independence in Seattle embody the principles and values that are cornerstones of all free democracies.
Just before we leave the whole Black Lives Matter thing and move on with the subject article, I would like to note that protests around the world – Paris, Toronto, Berlin, London – involving thousands upon thousands of people express solidarity with the movement and global shock and dismay at the state of public order in the USA. America is in no position to be lecturing the world. About anything. If America still feels strong and confident, it might not have too solid a grasp on reality.
So, let’s get to it.
The bullshit actually starts right at kickoff time, but I’ll pass on Ms. Nuland’s first paragraph of stage-setting musings. It’s perfectly true that Russia is viewed from a variety of perspectives, and if she omits to mention the USA is as well, and is certainly not admired by all as a sterling example of global citizen, we’ll put it down to artistic license. Let’s get straight into her characterizations of fact.
Just before the jaw-dropping allegation that Putin has ‘played a weak hand well’ only because the USA and its allies have let him, she purports some facts; low oil prices, the coronavirus pandemic and Russians’ ‘growing sense of malaise’ bring new risks for the Kremlin.
That so? I submit the American energy industry must be feeling a little malaise itself. Consider; Russia’s budget balances with oil at around $40.00 a barrel. As of yesterday, West Texas Intermediate (WTI) was at $37.39, and Brent at $40.18, for future deliveries: the WTI figure for July, and Brent for August. Cheerful American sources have told us before now that America’s break-even price is in the high 30’s. That’d make it slightly under Russia’s.
And I call bullshit. The current price is in the high 30’s, and slightly better. But the US operational rig count, according to OilPrice.com, was 279 as of yesterday (199 oil, 78 gas), down from 969 this time a year ago. BP will write off $17.5 Billion in assets. Whiting Petroleum, Vista Proppants & Logistics LLC (a private equity-backed supplier of fracking sand), Extraction Oil & Gas, Diamond Offshore Drilling, Weatherford International and California Resources all declared bankruptcy, Weatherford International for the second time in a year. Chesapeake Energy is expected to join them this week. BP slashed 10,000 jobs, which was accompanied by similar cuts at Chevron. Royal Dutch Shell announced voluntary layoffs. The United States lost 100,000 jobs in the energy industry since February, about 45,000 of them in Texas. Massive pipeline company Enbridge announced its intention to concentrate its asset mix in future on natural gas and renewables. Quite the picture of despondency, I think you would have to agree.
Show me a similar picture of ruin in Russia.
Well, I’ll tell you a measurable difference right off the top – Whiting Petroleum and Diamond Offshore Drilling, who recently declared bankruptcy, and Chesapeake Energy who is on the verge of doing so, all paid out millions in executive bonuses before going belly-up and waiting for the US government to print more money so it can bail them out. Meanwhile, in Russia, the state will take an extra $10 Billion in revenues from the oil companies, owing to the way they are taxed. This will be spent on state projects, part of a forecast $71 Billion in new spending, none of it borrowed. The Russian economy is forecast to contract by about 6% this year. The US economy expects an almost-identical contraction of about 5.7% over 2020, although the drop in the second quarter is expected to be about 40%.
The difference there is in the details. Russia is sitting on a half-trillion-dollar National Welfare fund, saved for emergencies like this, and has government debt equivalent to about 15% of GDP. The Fed in the USA is printing more than $2 Trillion in new money this quarter. To put that in perspective, it has only created about $8 Trillion in new money between 2008 and now. And it has a government debt equivalent to 106% of its GDP. In fact, there are credible indications that America is desperate to get more dollars into circulation in hopes of maintaining its status as the world’s reserve currency.
Well, I went on about that for much longer than I meant to. Coronavirus. As of today, the United States has 115,980 deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. The Russian Federation has 7,478. Washington’s position on the per-capita discrepancy is that Russia must be lying about its deaths. At the same time, there is broad substantiation that the United States is deliberately overcounting its own deaths. Which is, not to put too fine a point on it, lying about your coronavirus deaths. Should Russia exaggerate its numbers, too, to make Washington happy? Both countries are carrying out extensive testing, and there is a pretty solid dataset emerging that a high number of people test positive and are completely unaware they have the virus, and are not bothered by it at all. Exaggerating the death count makes the virus appear to be much deadlier than it actually is. Who would benefit from that? Well…
“Erroneous data unduly scare people about the risks of the disease. It keeps the country locked down longer than necessary, which destroys peoples’ lives and livelihoods in many other ways. Exaggerated fears of the virus endanger lives by keeping people from obtaining treatment for other medical problems. It also makes it impossible to accurately compare policies across countries.”
Who wants to prolong the lockdown – the Kremlin? Or the Democrats, to increase frustration with Trump? Is it a coincidence that New York, an unassailable Democratic stronghold, admitted to exaggerating new active cases by 50% in April, by adding 3,700 additional people who were presumed to have died of the coronavirus but had never tested positive? Here is a tip, completely free of obligation – take it or ignore it as you wish. Leave Trump unsupervised for five minutes without a ball gag and his thumbs tied together, and he will make an idiot of himself. You do not need to make up shit.
Russian malaise where Putin is concerned? Ah ha ha hahahaha. Putin’s approval rating in Russia has never dipped below 60%. Obama’s approval rating slid below 60% after only 6 months in office, and couldn’t reach that altitude again without going on oxygen. Trump’s started out below 50% and remained remarkably consistent, suggesting that both those who worship him and those who loathe him have not changed their minds at all. Which points to two fairly-obvious conclusions – a Trump electoral victory, and a continuing divided America.
Jeez; that’s only one paragraph. This is going to be as long as The Satanic Verses – we’d better get a move on. What else you got, Ms. Nuland?
Whoever wins the upcoming US presidential election should try again with Putin, she says. You know something? I hope I am not jumping the gun here, but I’m going to mention now, when we’ve really just started, two things that are conspicuous by their absence in Ms. Nuland’s piece – the return of Crimea to Ukraine’s control, and the shooting down of MH-17. Not mentioned. At all. Yet on the occasion of both occurrences. the United States was in such a rage that it vowed it would carry out no negotiations with Russia until Crimea had been returned to Ukraine, and the shooting down of MH-17 was the trigger for sanctions by the USA and all its allies, many of whom had been quite reluctant before that. Actually, what America vowed was no relaxation of sanctions until Crimea was returned to Ukrainian control, but it’s pretty hard to imagine any constructive negotiations between the two while the USA maintains its sanctions policy and bullies its allies not to weaken. Now that I think about it, the Nord Stream II pipeline was not mentioned, either, although the American position is that it must not be completed, and the USA will sanction any company which helps Russia do so as well as any international regulator who approves it for operation. Are these issues just the sort of thing that can be talked out by old friends? As if.
The new President (whom I think has a pretty good chance of being the old president, as in the current one), she says, should “resist Putin’s attempts to cut off his population from the outside world and speak directly to the Russian people about the benefits of working together and the price they have paid for Putin’s hard turn away from liberalism.” The part about speaking directly to the Russian people sounds to me like an argument for the re-insertion of ‘democracy-promoting’ American NGO’s to Russia. And it might even be that the USA is going to shoulder the burden of those agencies being forced to register as foreign agents, because it is a certainty they are not going to be given a free hand to proselytize as they once could. And, ummm… what are these benefits of liberalism Ms. Nuland is hinting at? Because the last big blaze of liberalism in Russia was the ‘reforms’ of the 90’s, when Jeffrey Sachs and the Harvard Boys brought their ‘shock therapy’ to Yeltsin’s country. And it was a shock; not much doubt about that. Hyperinflation hit 2,500 percent, the life expectancy of Russian males fell by six years, many people had their life’s savings wiped out, and a powerful cadre of oligarchs seized private control of what had been state assets, for pennies on the dollar. I think it is safe to say many, many Russians remember their introduction to liberalism, and are not particularly eager to renew their acquaintance. Does liberalism promise prosperity? It might, but they’ve heard that before. How does liberalism stack up against this wage growth under the current leadership?
What did US wages look like over the same time period? I’m glad you asked.
Maybe someone should speak directly to the American people, and advise them what the United States government’s hard turn away from liberalism has cost them.
Over the next two decades, Russians would steadily relinquish more and more of their rights—freedom of expression and assembly, political pluralism, judicial fairness, and an open economy (all of which were then new, tenuous, and unevenly shared)—in exchange for the stability of a strong state, a return to oil-fueled growth, and the prospect of middle-class prosperity.
Oh, oh. I see a problem right away. Article 29 of the Russian constitution. To wit, Paragraph 1;
Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought and speech.
And Paragraph 3;
No one may be coerced into expressing one’s views and convictions or into renouncing them.
And Article 31;
Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to gather peacefully, without weapons, and to hold meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets.
The west, and especially the USA, always makes a big deal about having to obtain a permit to hold a rally, march or demonstration. Do you have to do that to hold any of those events in New York? You sure do. Meanwhile, although the western press regularly squawks that the rights of Russians are being trampled upon by the oppressive government, how much of a lawyer would you have to be to get somebody off who genuinely and demonstrably did not violate the constitution?
And just, you know, while we’re here perusing the Russian Constitution, take a look at Article 24, Paragraph 1.
It shall be forbidden to gather, store, use and disseminate information on the private life of any person without his/her consent.
Protections which are characterized more by their absence than their observance in the Land Of The Free.
Western governments generally looked the other way as Putin’s methods for reestablishing control became increasingly Soviet during his first decade in power: closing down opposition newspapers and TV stations; jailing, exiling, or killing political and economic rivals; and reestablishing single-party dominance in the parliament and regional governments.
I do like to see a professional bullshitter spit on their hands and bear down. There is no evidence at all of Vladimir Putin killing political rivals, and jailing of oligarchs such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky was supported by the ECHR, in that it agreed he could not argue the charges against him were political simply because his being jailed was convenient for the government, while there was significant and verifiable evidence of criminal activity. Newspapers and TV stations start up and close down all the time, Not so much in the United States, of course, where media corporations went from 50 in 1983 to 6 in 2011. In that year, those six companies controlled 90% of what Americans read, watched or listened to.
Say – you know what establishes single-party dominance in parliament and regional governments? Popularity. They have these things called advance polls – you probably even have them in your country – and the way it works is, surveys in advance of the vote are conducted and those surveyed tell pollsters who they plan to vote for. And that’s how the vote comes out, time after time. If Putin is forecast to win with 72% of the vote in presidential elections, for example, the actual result is usually well within the margin of error. Show me any time when it was not. The USA does not like this, because it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to carry out regime change where the vote is not even close.
For the most part, the United States and its allies encouraged Russia in its pursuit of the third goal, bringing Moscow into the World Trade Organization and creating the G-8 and the NATO-Russia Council.
Gosh, that kind of smells like bullshit a little bit, too, because according to the World Security Network, the USA was the last major country to put up obstacles to Russian entry to the WTO. They actually say so, in so many words:
The United States is the last major country to put up obstacles to Russian entry to the WTO.
Not only that, Senator Bill Frist claimed that “Russia’s disregard for the rule of law, human rights violations and other “anti-democratic” tendencies “color the position of the United States.”
Human rights – really, Bill? Seriously? I know, let’s have a quick geopolitics quiz. Who can think of a grotesque human-rights scandal that happened just two years before ol’ Bill claimed to be all about human rights? Tick tick tick…need a hint? Iraq. Tick tick tick….happened in a big prison run by the USA. Tick tick tick…starts with ‘Abu’, and ends with ‘Ghraib’. That’s right, just two years before Bill Frist’s soliloquy on the sanctity of human rights, American soldiers were piling naked Iraqi men into human pyramids, making them stand motionless on a box in the belief that if they moved they would be electrocuted, and leading them around on dog leashes while they were smeared with filth.
As if that were not hypocrisy enough, countries which appeared on various sanctimonious western lists of world’s poorest and world’s most oppressive countries had been WTO members in good standing since the mid-90’s. Including the Arab monarchies, and I would have to really think about it if asked to name something less democratic than a country in which potential rulers are limited to sons of the same father. Feel free to help me out, Ms. Nuland.
Both Democratic and Republican presidents worked closely with U.S. allies to prevent Putin from reestablishing a Russian sphere of influence in eastern Europe and from vetoing the security arrangements of his neighbors. Here, a chasm soon opened between liberal democracies and the still very Soviet man leading Russia, especially on the subject of NATO enlargement. No matter how hard Washington and its allies tried to persuade Moscow that NATO was a purely defensive alliance that posed no threat to Russia, it continued to serve Putin’s agenda to see Europe in zero-sum terms.
First of all, we might as well just say ‘presidents’, because on foreign policy and the use of military force there is virtually no difference between Republicans and Democrats. There’s an illusion of choice, but it basically boils down to a Democratic preference for ‘targeted strikes’ such as Obama’s ‘drone wars’, while Republicans like to roll in with the full enchilada and flatten the place. Any American born in the past 20 years has never known a time when the USA was not at war, regardless of who was president. Any American who was born after 1984 has seen America at war for at least half of his or her life.
NATO was formed to ‘thwart the threat of Soviet expansion into Western Europe’. Russia formed the Warsaw Pact group in reaction to NATO admitting a rearmed West Germany into its ranks. That alliance was dissolved March 31st, 1991. When the Warsaw Pact dissolved, considering that NATO incorporated all the non-Soviet Warsaw Pact countries despite western promises to advance no further eastward than Germany, NATO was essentially a military alliance in search of a mission. It messed about for awhile pretending it was needed to counter global terrorism, before focusing on reframing a generally-friendly Russia which was its partner in many international organizations as a sinister threat that required not only NATO readiness, but a lot more money plowed into it.
But few in Washington considered it an option to slam the door on the new democracies of central and eastern Europe, which had worked for years to meet NATO’s rigorous admission standards and were now clamoring for membership.
As I pointed out 5 years ago, aspiring members could clamor for membership all they liked – knocking on the door doesn’t mean a thing – you had to be invited, and by unanimous consent, in accordance with Article 10 of the NATO charter;
“The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty. Any State so invited may become a Party to the Treaty by depositing its instrument of accession with the Government of the United States of America. The Government of the United States of America will inform each of the Parties of the deposit of each such instrument of accession.”
The emphasis also notes that unanimous agreement is contingent on factors such as a straight-faced contention that admitting the member country will contribute to the collective security of the North Atlantic area. At the time it was admitted – by unanimous consent, apparently – Latvia had 1,250 soldiers and three tanks. None of which had sufficient amphibious capability to protect the North Atlantic; salt water is hard on tanks. That ‘they followed us home, so we had to keep them’ trope is popular with western diplomats, and they like to strum on it for all it’s worth. Please note also to whom prospective applicants must direct their applications.
Moreover, it quickly emerged from polling in countries the United States wanted to see added to NATO that many of them were far more interested in joining the EU than NATO, and that their enthusiasm was mostly founded in optimism about economic advancement. They were far less inspired when questions got around to how willing they would be to contribute a sizable portion of their GDP to raising internal forces for NATO. The polling organization – the United States Information Agency (USIA) – claimed 83% support in Poland for joining NATO. But when the question, “Would you be willing to spend more money on the military in order to meet NATO standards?” was dropped into the mix, 74% said “No” against 16% “Yes”.
Putin has always understood that a belt of increasingly democratic, prosperous states around Russia would pose a direct challenge to his leadership model and risk reinfecting his own people with democratic aspirations. This is why Putin was never going to take a “live and let live” approach to former Soviet lands and satellite states.
Russian opposition to NATO adding former Warsaw Pact and Soviet countries like beads on a rosary was confined to verbal objections, which were ignored. The United States continued to prod countries who had not yet applied, such as Ukraine and Georgia, announcing it intended to add them, and the only thing that stopped that from happening is language in the NATO charter which prohibits the acceptance of nations with ongoing territorial disputes. And this is what it looks like right now in the King of Democratic, Prosperous States. I don’t think Putin would have too much difficulty persuading rational Russians that they don’t want that kind of prosperity. And wasn’t Ukraine supposed to be an example to Russians that would persuade them to accept western offers to make them prosperous, too, if they would only overthrow Putin? How’s that working out? Let’s look at average monthly wages, year-over-year, for the last 25 years.
Despite Putin’s power moves abroad, 20 years of failing to invest in Russia’s modernization may be catching up with him. In 2019, Russia’s GDP growth was an anemic 1.3 percent. This year, the coronavirus pandemic and the free fall in oil prices could result in a significant economic contraction. International sanctions deter serious foreign investment in Russia from most countries except China. Putin’s insistence on tight state control and on the renationalization of key sectors of the economy has suppressed innovation and diversification. Russia’s roads, rails, schools, and hospitals are crumbling. Its citizens have grown restive as promised infrastructure spending never appears, and their taxes and the retirement age are going up.
Despite its galloping anti-Russian bias and propensity for quoting ‘experts’ whose only qualification is their acute Russophobia, The Moscow Times is forced to admit Russian government investment in infrastructure is huge; $96 Billion over 6 years. As Ms. Nuland was kind enough to point out, the country is under an intense sanctions regime by the United States which is aimed at making life sufficiently miserable for the Russian people that they will beg for American mercy. From Newsweek;
“The measures under consideration in Congress—known as the Defending American Security From Kremlin Aggression Act—seek to deter further Russian interference in elections by effectively cutting off the country from the world economy.”
And that was as punishment for alleged Russian interference in the American elections, which the Mueller investigation failed to substantiate just about as catastrophically as an attempt to prove cooked pasta is an effective substitute for steel.
This is the Moscow skyline. Looks quite the underdeveloped third-world shithole, doesn’t it?
Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the United States a D+ grade for infrastructure. If you were awarded a D+ grade in Finding Your Way Home, how many times in a week do you think your mother would have to come and pick you up from somewhere that was not where you live? D+ is not a good grade. ASCE estimated the US government would have to spend $4.6 Trillion – with a ‘T’ – over the next decade, just to bring things up to acceptable.
Look, it’s getting late, and we’re going to have to wrap things up. I’d love to go on countering Ms. Nuland’s arguments, but I think a fairly consistent pattern has been established here. Let it suffice to say that this objective
“The first order of business is to restore the unity and confidence of U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia and end the fratricidal rhetoric, punitive trade policies, and unilateralism of recent years”
is going to consume enough of America’s time and energy – without, by any means, any assurances of success, especially if Loopy Orangeman serves another term in office at the helm of the drifting Death Star – that it will not be able to spare much energy for more fake rapprochement overtures to Russia. Not very many in Russia are upset enough by American sanctions to solicit American nation-building expertise, while European nations just look at each other in stunned dismay at each new advance on American assholery.
If you were planning on handing out bread and muffins on Red Square, I wouldn’t start laying in bulk flour just at this point.