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Don’t Risk War With Russia

Washington rushes to court open conflict with Moscow against every rational interest.
putin looks on

Back in the good old days of the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) would do whatever it could to discredit the Soviet Union. We used to place articles in friendly newspapers exposing Soviet human rights violations, arrange for Russian front companies to buy technology that had been tampered with so that it would damage assembly lines when put into place, and send money and samizdat publications to groups like Solidarity that were opposing the communists. But there was a real war going on, even if it was tepid, and because the two sides were in dead earnest it was anything goes and more was always better.

Today, more than 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there are many indications that Washington is slipping into a new and completely unnecessary confrontation with Moscow, only this time it is not being run largely out of sight by the CIA. Much of the new conflict is being conducted openly, with sanctions and resolutions by Congress, regular appearances in unstable regions overseas by senior state department officials and politicians, and trainings in new media political organizing funded by quasi non-governmental organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

This is not to suggest that there is not a covert side to it all. The funding and training of opposition groups frequently take place outside of the country being targeted, meaning that the players and their sources of income are carefully hidden from sight. The actual training and organizing are frequently carried out by a private contractor rather than any agency linked to the U.S. government, increasing the plausible deniability of an official connection.

And much intergovernmental activity and links to important corporate components in the private sector are often arranged with a wink and a nod, without leaving any paper trail and avoiding any downstream accountability. That is exactly how $5 billion of U.S. taxpayer-provided money has been wasted on developing what passes for pluralistic democracy in Ukraine but might more properly be described as “regime change.” Such overt interference in other countries’ internal politics also explains why governments in Cairo, Moscow, and elsewhere have forced a number of foreign consultants working locally on NED’s dime to go home.

The rights and wrongs of Russian policy towards Ukraine have been discussed ad nauseam in The American Conservative as well as virtually every other forum dedicated to foreign and security policy. Let it suffice to say that Moscow has definite security concerns relating to ongoing NATO expansion, particularly the most recent ham-handed attempts to bring Kiev into the “Western” fold. It has as well strong historical and national defense related ties to Crimea. Even if one believes that Vladimir Putin is evil incarnate and seeks to reacquire Eastern Europe, one must concede that the argument over what is taking place should not be reduced to bumper sticker slogans. Unfortunately that is precisely what the United States Congress and to a lesser extent the White House are seeking to do.

Former Congressman Ron Paul of Texas has noted some of the overt maneuverings taking place to heighten tension with Moscow. He is particularly scathing regarding the U.S. House Resolution 758, entitled “Strongly condemning the actions of the Russian Federation, under President Vladimir Putin, which has carried out a policy of aggression against neighboring countries aimed at political and economic domination,” which was passed on December 4th just before Congress recessed for Christmas. There were only ten votes opposed to the motion.

Paul describes the bill as “16 pages of war propaganda that should have made even neocons blush, if they were capable of such a thing” and observes that the resolution might provoke “a war with Russia that could result in total destruction.” H.R. 758 condemns Russia for invading Ukraine without producing a shred of evidence that that is what took place, blames Moscow for shooting down MH-17, condemns the selling of arms to the Syrian government, accuses Russia of invading Georgia in 2008, and claims Moscow “illicitly acquir[ed] information” about the U.S. government through computer hacking while also “distorting public opinion” through its controlled media outlets. The resolution urges Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to disarm separatist rebels in the country’s eastern provinces and calls on President Barack Obama to provide the Ukrainians with weapons and training to that end, meaning that American soldiers might well be on the front line of what is generally regarded as a civil war.

In response to those who might ask why the United States is getting involved at all, the resolution affirms that it is because Russian involvement in the Ukraine “poses a threat to international peace and security.” As Ron Paul notes, seldom have there been so many lies, half-truths and distortions packed into one House Resolution. Indeed, many of the accusations being made regarding Moscow’s alleged bad behavior could more credibly be leveled against Washington.

As bad as the openly promoted war against Moscow is, there is also a secret conflict that some have referred to as a “stealth war.” It has been described as “an attack on the international market for Russian corporations, and on the international currency and security clearance systems on which the market depends.”

To that end, there have been some reports suggesting that the United States Treasury Department has been discreetly putting pressure on major European lenders to urge them to avoid acquiring Russian equity or debt because such transactions are currently legal but might become illegal with a new round of tightened sanctions, making Moscow a very bad risk, financially speaking. Whether a tightening of sanctions is likely or not is largely irrelevant as financial institutions are risk averse and any warning of potential problems produces an instant retrenchment. A Lloyds Banking group withdrawal from a refinance involving Russian oil conglomerate Rosneft in May has been attributed to U.S. pressure.

Russia’s economy is indeed struggling, partly due to sanctions, but more due to the fall in the price of oil. Russia considers existing sanctions to be illegal but has so far failed to take steps against them. It is, however, likely that if sanctions are strengthened there will be litigation over breaches of contract, which would hurt all parties involved and only benefit a handful of international law firms.

More to the point, sanctions will not change Russian policy, because for Moscow Ukraine is a vital interest, and using them as a sword of Damocles style threat, as Secretary of State Kerry has done, is only likely to poison the atmosphere, making genuine rapprochement unobtainable. The United States has a great deal to lose if Russia chooses to go tit-for-tat in responding to both the overt and secretive attacks on its economy. Moscow has been cooperative with both Washington and the Europeans regarding tracking the financing of terrorist groups, proliferators, and drug cartels. It will be unlikely to continue that cooperation if it perceives a Western willingness to act against its own financial institutions and economy. It could even revert to its pre-2003 standard operating procedure of looking the other way when criminal proceeds were deposited in its banks, which made it at that time a haven for money laundering.

Moscow has also cooperated politically over how to deal with Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Russia could unilaterally break sanctions on oil purchases from Tehran and start selling weapons to Damascus, including up to date air defenses that could bring down U.S. warplanes. It could ease restrictions on trade with North Korea. At the United Nations, it might use its veto selectively to impede American-backed initiatives.

Using both open and hidden initiatives to push Russia into a corner from which it cannot escape is not good policy. As Ron Paul has noted, to do so is to invite war. And there are historical analogies that demonstrate what might develop. Trade embargoes and restrictions on oil sales to Japan in 1940-1941 contributed both to Tokyo’s expansion in Asia in search of alternative resources and eventually led to Pearl Harbor. It is not wise to provoke a powerful enemy unless a vital national interest is at stake, which is not the case with Ukraine and Crimea.

The ire directed at Russia by both Congress and the White House, ably assisted by the mainstream media, is irrational, and official Washington should reconsider the error of its ways and step back before it creates a situation that will be disastrous for all parties involved.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.



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