Tag Archives: Vladimir Putin

The Russian government is not America’s friend

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on foreign cyber threats, on Capitol Hill in Washington. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on foreign cyber threats, on Capitol Hill in Washington.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

TOM REGAN: SUMMONING ORENDA
January 7, 2017

Let’s be perfectly clear about this: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government are not America’s friends. They are not friends of democracy, nor are they really interested in promoting any sense of peace in the world – at least a balanced peace. Russia is primarily interested in undermining Western democracy as much as it can without firing a shot … at the west. (Countries like the Ukraine and maybe the Baltic states, that’s a different matter.)

Vladimir Putin, official photo

Vladimir Putin, official photo

Russian hacking of the US election is well known. But as the hearing on Capitol Hill showed this week, it’s not just computer hacks and digital break-ins that Putin is relying on. There is also the classic Russian tactic of disinformation (practiced by many nations but done particularly well by Russia) that it is using to promote its agenda around the world, often with the help of “useful idiots” (defined as “a person perceived as a propagandist for a cause whose goals they are not fully aware of, and who is used cynically by the leaders of the cause.”) These include right-wing pro-Trump sites that seek to undermine any legitimate reporting about Russia activities, and promote Trump’s position that Russia is being unfairly targeted.

How Russia is dealing with accusations against its troops and those of its ally, the Syrian government, in the recent siege of Aleppo provides a clear example of this tactic.

Russia’s propaganda machine has worked hard to influence opinion in the West about what happened Aleppo. This propaganda takes several forms – for instance stories that depict news about civilian deaths in Aleppo as made up by anti-Kremlin forces, often found on numerous pro-Kremlin and far-right sites. These sites constantly allege that videos shot in Aleppo, by nonpartisan international organizations that graphically depict the carnage in the city, never actually happened but were manufactured to undermine Russia and the Syrian government.

More interesting is how these Kremlin-generated stories have been picked up by right-wing and alt-Reich sites that supported Donald Trump in the recent US presidential election. Eager to echo anything of Trump’s positions, these sites have become vehicles for the Kremlin to promote its own version of the events.

If you really want to get to the main engine of Russian disinformation in the West, you need to look at RT, or Russia Today. Billing itself as a “news” channel, RT is little more than a mouthpiece for Vladimir Putin. It is owned lock, stock and barrel by the Russian government.

A quick Google search will reveal a trove of RT stories over the past year about how “corrupt corporate media” in the West is promoting fake news about civilian casualties in Aleppo. In contrast, RT features stories about how civilians are so happy to be freed from the grip of the “terrorists” after the Syrian government forces recaptured Aleppo that they are literarily dancing in the streets. You would hardly know any civilians were killed at all.

If Putin can create even a seed of doubt in people’s minds about what really happened, then legitimate news stories from or about Aleppo become suspect. This is part of the overall assault on journalism practiced not just by the Kremlin but by anyone who wants to make sure that its own version of the story is the main one, even if it is nothing more than a tissue of lies.

Friday’s story in the Washington Post, reporting that US intelligence agencies captured audio of senior Russian official celebrating the victory of Donald Trump, shows that these officials believe that Russia will now have a “useful idiot” in the White House, a prospect that should concern any American. And Trump’s response to the Russians interference, no doubt approved by Putin himself, of calling into question the work of his own intelligence officials, is worrisome.

Not to the Russians, though. Things could not have worked out better. Putin and his minions will continue to try and undermine Western democracies and their allies. Don’t be surprised if you start to see a lot more fake news in places like Canada, Britain, and European countries. Expect more hacking attacks. Putin is a self-serving egotist and brutal dictator, but he’s not dumb. He senses weakness. He knows that Russia really can’t take on the combined military strength of the West, so he must ty to weaken it in any way he can.

Putin wants sanctions relaxed so he and his friends can make more money. He wants to rebuild a greater Russia, without the West interfering with his plans for the Ukraine or Georgia, or with his menacing moves towards the Balkans. He wants his way and he will do what he can to accomplish that.

The only advice is to be alert. Believe nothing that comes out of Russia, or from its propaganda outlets like RT. If we who care about Western democracy want to protect our democracies from being turned upside down, the next few years (four to be exact starting January 20th with Trump’s inauguration) will be crucial.

Copyright Tom Regan 2016

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

Further reading:

Office of the Director of National Intelligence Statement on Declassified Intelligence Community Assessment of Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections

From the news release: “On December 9, 2016, President Barack Obama directed the Intelligence Community to conduct a full review and produce a comprehensive intelligence report assessing Russian activities and intentions in recent U.S. elections. We have completed this report and briefed President Obama as well as President-elect Trump and Congressional leadership. We declassified a version of this report for the public, consistent with our commitment to transparency while still protecting classified sources and methods.”  Read the entire declassified document here: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf

 

Related on F&O:

 

Why Putin Fears a President Clinton, TOM REGAN: SUMMONING ORENDA, October 15, 2016

Putin, Grand Master of the Great Game, awaits next opponentJONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs, October 1, 2016

Insight: The road to Aleppo – how the West misread Putin, By Tom Perry, Laila Bassam, Jonathan Landay and Maria Tsvetkova, February, 2016

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Tom Regan Tom Regan is a journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. He worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92, and is a member of the advisory board of the Nieman Foundation for journalism at Harvard.

Return to Tom Regan’s page 

 

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Putin, Grand Master of the Great Game, awaits next opponent

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
October 1, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, in this October 20, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/ Files

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, in this October 20, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/ Files

When the new United States president moves into the Oval Office early next year, at the top of her foreign policy priorities will be what to do about Vladimir Putin.

Forget the various manifestations of Islamic extremism. Their outrages may be dramatic, but they are, when all is said and done, only irritants committed by a small bunch of mad mullahs and their deranged followers.

Forget the demented Teletubby in North Korea. Kim Jong-un’s tottering regime will implode or be swatted out of existence before it becomes a real danger.

Even concerns about China’s Xi Jinping and his fantasies about recreating the glory days of the Middle Kingdom surrounded by obsequious vassal states can be put on the backburner for the moment. The most pressing concerns for China’s president are the faltering economy and a citizenry ever more willing to take to the streets to display its unhappiness with the terminally corrupt Communist Party.

In contrast, the Russian President is a clear and present danger.

Every now and then the fog of daily life lifts and there is a clear picture of our moment in history. This week is one such.

Two events have brought into sharp relief what many have known about Putin, but which many others – Donald Trump springs to mind – have preferred to overlook.

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The purposeful bombing of hospitals and relief operations in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo shows the value Putin puts in the strategic use of terror and brutality.

And Moscow’s response to evidence presented this week by investigators showing Russia’s involvement in the July 2014 shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is the latest example of Putin’s mastery of disinformation and capitalising on the weaknesses in the western media.

Putin has every reason to feel emboldened by his dealings with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union and recent U.S. Presidents. In every confrontation he has either forced a stalemate or won a significant victory.

Putin came to power in Russia in August 1999, and used the eight years of the George W Bush presidency to quietly stabilise the country internally, reassert state Kremlin control of the oligarch economic tsars, and begin to rebuild its military power after the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this he was aided by the ease with which Bush was flattered into silence, and the Washington administration’s preoccupation with Islamic extremism and the ill-fated invasion of Iraq after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Putin also had his own Islamic problems in Chechnya, where he honed his predilection for the strategic usefulness of unrestrained brutality in the crushing of the capital Grozny in 2000. In 2003 the United Nations called Grozny “the most destroyed city in history.” But with the West’s attention fixed on Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, no one was ready to push the point with Putin.

Bush was halfway out the door in 2008 when Putin made a move that directly confronted the U.S. and NATO. The Black Sea republic of Georgia, a former Soviet satellite, was leaning heavily towards joining the EU and NATO when, early in 2008, two predominantly ethnic Russian enclaves, South Ossetia and Abkhazia sent a request to Moscow to have their independence recognized. Tensions increased and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili unwisely inflamed the situation in the apparent hope of engaging NATO in the sqabble.

NATO and Bush did not bite. Putin – now taking a temporary and constitutionally-required break from the presidency as Prime Minister – invaded Georgia. Saakashvili’s troops were easily overcome and the West did nothing. The two enclaves remain Russian reserves.

Putin learned from his Georgia escapade that the West’s trip wire for intervention is set very high – in part because of the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently in Libya. There is plenty of room closer to the ground for Putin to pursue his objectives of securing Russia’s borders and re-establishing its influence without triggering any meaningful push-back from the West.

Barack Obama came to the U.S. presidency in 2009 with a predilection to get his country out of the wars in which it had been embroiled by Bush. Obama was therefore just as determined to avoid embarking on new ones. With that mindset, it was foolish of him to box himself into a corner in the early months of the Arab Spring in 2011 by saying that any further use by the regime of President Bashar Assad of chemical weapons against rebels would be a “red line” demanding outside intervention. When Assad tested Obama’s resolve with further gas attacks, and Washington backed down, the message echoed around the Middle East, and nowhere louder than in the Kremlin.

The stage was set for Russian intervention in the Ukraine.

In February 2014, protesters in Kiev who wanted closer ties to Europe and NATO forced the resignation and flight of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who had been democratically elected in 2010. Almost immediately, Moscow began organizing armed groups among the pro-Russian and ethnic Russian populations in the Crimea peninsular and eastern Ukraine. This was the first outing of the “little green men,” the heavily armed and well-trained groups without any national insignia, but who it is now certain are Russian special forces. In mid-March a referendum was held in Crimea, which backed becoming part of Russia. The international community has not approved Russia’s takeover of Crimea, but that is now an established reality.

So is the Russian presence among the anti-Kiev rebels in eastern Ukraine. There is now yet another de facto buffer state in the chain created by Putin to protect Russia from the eastward push of the EU and NATO. At the eastern end are the two enclaves in Georgia. In Moldova is Transdniester, an enclave occupied by Russian troops. This territorial dispute effectively blocks any moves towards EU or NATO membership by the Chisinau government.

No wonder then that NATO allies are now focussed on the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, where there are also large Russian minorities from these countries’ days in the Soviet Union. Troops are being deployed from other parts of NATO to these countries to deter Putin from again using his skills at asymmetrical warfare to create another buffer zone along Russia’s north-western border.

For the moment, Putin is more interested in Syria, where he sent forces last year to back besieged President Assad. Putin’s campaign is going well. It now seems inevitable that any political settlement will involve Assad, and that he will probably remain in power, at least in the western and economically most important part of Syria. Indeed, the battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial hub when the country is functioning, suggests Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies may well win outright the war against rebels backed by the U.S. and its Gulf State allies.

Two weeks ago Putin and the Obama administration agreed on a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to rebels holed up in the eastern part of Aleppo. But it soon became evident that Putin, Assad and Iran only intended the pause to be a piece of psychological warfare and an opportunity for their forces to prepare for the final assault.

The demoralising effect on the besieged rebels can only be imagined. They knew the United Nations had relief columns all lined up, that they were prevented by Damascus from proceeding, and that one was destroyed by Russian or regime warplanes.

Then came the purposeful bombing of hospitals and relief organizations by regime or Russian bombers. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was incandescent with rage this week. He called the attacks “war crimes” and said “such attacks are often deliberate to aggravate suffering and force people from contested territory.”

That is indeed the purpose, and in all likelihood it will work within the next few days. Putin knows he can do whatever he likes without any serious repercussions, especially not from the U.S. He no longer bothers to portray Russia as a mediating force in the Syrian conflict. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has flatly admitted that there is no point now in trying to negotiate a ceasefire process with Moscow.

Putin’s willingness to use the most brutal methods of warfare against civilians to achieve a strategic aim has been matched by plunging levers into another weakness in Western society.

That fissure was described succinctly by Edward Lucas, a senior editor at The Economist magazine. “Russia has really grasped the post-truth environment,” he wrote. “And they will lie about things absolutely brazenly. They understand the weakness of our media in the post-Cold War environment: that we prioritize fairness over truth.”

(Putin’s great fan, Donald Trump, has also recognized the value of the brazen lie and that the media, especially the U.S. media, is so dedicated to fairness and balance that it would not call him out. In the final days of the presidential campaign, that seems to be changing.)

Putin comes from the culture of the old Soviet secret police and intelligence service, the KGB, of which he was an officer. KGB officers were masters of disinformation and spreading confusion by the planting of fabricated, but marginally plausible stories.

These old skills have been relearned and redeployed under Putin. On the allegations that in July 2014 Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was downed killing all 298 people on board by a Russian 9M38 missile fired from a Buk anti-aircraft system stationed in rebel-held eastern Ukraine, Moscow has mounted a massive disinformation campaign. It has put out doctored photographs and satellite images, trying to make the case that the airliner was either shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet, or by an anti-aircraft missile fired from territory controlled by the Kiev government. Dutch investigators – they headed the inquiry because the flight originated at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport – conclusively exposed the Russian duplicity this week. The Buk system was tracked coming over the border from Russia into eastern Ukraine and then being taken back after downing the Malaysia Airlines plane. The only remaining questions are who exactly oversaw the operation, which may well have been a mistake. The real target was probably Ukrainian air force cargo planes. The Dutch have the names of 100 suspects.

Yet even with this evidence Moscow continues with its denials. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zarkharova, said in response to the report: “The conclusions of the Dutch Prosecutor’s office confirmed that the investigation is biased and politically motivated.”

Putin is using the same retort to charges that Russia is involved in the bombing of hospitals and relief organizations in Syria. Russian spokesmen have denied that either their or Syrian warplanes have been involved in the destruction of relief convoys or medical centres, even though it is only their planes that have been operating in those areas.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has sown more confusion by blaming the U.S. and its allies for derailing the ceasefire. Peskov said the breakdown was caused by the U.S. failure to separate the so-called “moderate” rebels, backed by Washington and the Gulf States, from extremist groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al Nursa), which recently shifted allegiance from al-Qaida to the Islamic State group.

This is nonsense. A major problem in attempts by Washington to co-ordinate with Russia attacks on the extremist Islamic State group and its allies has been that Moscow and Assad see all the rebels as terrorists and are indiscriminate in trying to slaughter them.

Putin would undoubtedly be delighted to see Donald Trump in the White House; a man with whom he appears to share attitudes towards the truth.

And then there’s all those unanswered questions about how much Russian oligarch money is propping up the Trump real estate empire, if such an empire actually exists. Trump’s disdain for NATO and most U.S. allies is also a great boon for Putin. He won’t have to sow confusion in the ranks of Russia’s adversaries if the President of the United States is willing and able to do it for him.

Hilary Clinton will be an entirely different challenge for Putin. From her record, she is a more willing interventionist than Obama. And when one looks at the record of women who have risen to government leadership in democracies – Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher – they can be more willing to back their country’s interests with military might than their male counterparts.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact, including queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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Insight: The road to Aleppo – how the West misread Putin

 

By Tom Perry, Laila Bassam, Jonathan Landay and Maria Tsvetkova
February, 2016

BEIRUT/WASHINGTON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Last July, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seemed to be losing his battle against rebel forces. Speaking to supporters in Damascus, he acknowledged his army’s heavy losses.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, in this October 20, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/ Files

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, in this October 20, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/ Files

Western officials said the Syrian leader’s days were numbered and predicted he would soon be forced to the negotiating table.

It did not turn out that way. Secret preparations were already underway for a major deployment of Russian and Iranian forces in support of Assad.

The military intervention, taking many in the West by surprise, would roll back rebel gains. It would also accelerate two shifts in U.S. diplomacy: Washington would welcome Iran to the negotiating table over Syria, and it would no longer insist that Assad step down immediately.

“That involved swallowing some pride, to be honest, in acknowledging that this process would go nowhere unless you got Russia and Iran at the table,” a U.S. official said.

At the heart of the diplomacy shift – which essentially brought Washington closer to Moscow’s position – was a slow-footed realization of the Russian military build-up in Syria and, ultimately, a refusal to intervene militarily.

Russia, Iran and Syria struck their agreement to deploy military forces in June, several weeks before Assad’s July 26 speech, according to a senior official in the Middle East who was familiar with the details.

And Russian sources say large amounts of equipment, and hundreds of troops, were being dispatched over a series of weeks, making it hard to hide the pending operation.

Yet a senior U.S. administration official said it took until mid-September for Western powers to fully recognise Russia’s intentions. One of the final pieces of the puzzle was when Moscow deployed aircraft flown only by the Russian military, eliminating the possibility they were intended for Assad, the official said.

An earlier understanding of Russia’s military plans is unlikely to have changed U.S. military policy. President Barack Obama had made clear early on that he did not want Washington embroiled in a proxy war with Russia. And when the West did wake up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, it was short of ideas about how to respond.

As in Ukraine in 2014, the West seemed helpless.

French President Francois Hollande summed up the mood among America’s European allies: “I would prefer the United States to be more active. But since the United States has stepped back, who should take over, who should act?”

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Russian warplanes fly in the sky over the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia, Syria, in this January 28, 2016 file photo. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki /Files

Russian warplanes fly in the sky over the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia, Syria, in this January 28, 2016 file photo. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki /Files

SIGNPOSTS

In July last year, one of Iran’s top generals, Qassem Soleimani, went to Moscow on a visit that was widely reported. The senior Middle Eastern official told Reuters that Soleimani had also met Putin twice several weeks before that.

“They defined zero hour for the Russian planes and equipment, and the Russian and Iranian crews,” he said.

Russia began sending supply ships through the Bosphorus in August, Reuters reported at the time. There was no attempt to hide the voyages and on Sept. 9 Reuters reported that Moscow had begun participating in military operations in Syria.

A Russian Air Force colonel, who took part in preparations and provided fresh details of the build-up, said hundreds of Russian pilots and ground staff were selected for the Syria mission in mid-August.

Warplanes sent to Syria included the Sukhoi-25 and Sukhoi-24 offensive aircraft, U.S. officials said. In all, according to U.S. officials, Russia by Sept. 21 had 28 fixed-wing aircraft, 16 helicopters, advanced T-90 tanks and other armoured vehicles, artillery, anti-aircraft batteries and hundreds of marines at its base near Latakia.

Despite this public build-up, the West either played down the risks or failed to recognise them.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sept. 22 that Russian aircraft were in Syria to defend the Russians’ base – “force protection” in the view of U.S. military experts.

At the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 28, the French announced their own first air strikes in Syria.

“The international community is hitting Daesh (Islamic State). France is hitting Daesh. The Russians, for now, are not doing anything,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius Fabius said at the time.

The next day Russia announced its strikes in Syria.

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Souvenir plates depicting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Russia's President Vladimir Putin are seen among other items for sale in old Damascus, Syria, February 8, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Souvenir plates depicting Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin are seen among other items for sale in old Damascus, Syria, February 8, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

WARNINGS

One former U.S. official, who was in government at the time, told Reuters that some U.S. officials had begun voicing concern that Russia would intervene militarily in Syria two weeks before the bombing began.

Their concerns, however, were disregarded by officials in the White House and those dealing with the Middle East because of a lack of hard intelligence, the former U.S. official said.

“There was this tendency to say, ‘We don’t know. Let’s see,'” recounted the former U.S. official.

Yet between October and December, American perceptions shifted, as reported by Reuters at the time.

By December, U.S. officials had concluded that Russia had achieved its main goal of stabilizing Assad’s government and could maintain its operations in Syria for years.

“I think it’s indisputable that the Assad regime, with Russian military support, is probably in a safer position than it was,” a senior administration official said.

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Souvenir plates depicting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Russia's President Vladimir Putin are seen among other items for sale in old Damascus, Syria, February 8, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Souvenir plates depicting Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin are seen among other items for sale in old Damascus, Syria, February 8, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

DIPLOMATIC U-TURN

At that point, the U.S. pivoted to the negotiating table with Russia and Iran. Officials say they had few other options with Obama unwilling to commit American ground troops to Syria, aside from small deployments of Special Operations forces, or provide U.S.-backed opposition fighters with anti-aircraft missiles.

In Munich on Feb 12, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced an agreement for humanitarian access and a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, far short of a ceasefire.

“Putin has taken the measure of the West… He has basically concluded, I can push and push and push and push and I am never going to hit steel anywhere,” said Fred Hof, a former State Department and Pentagon Syria expert now at the Atlantic Council think tank.

Today, U.S. officials sound a far different note than in the early days of the uprising against Assad when they said his exit must be immediate. Now, with the war entering its sixth year, they say they must push the diplomatic possibilities as far as possible and insist Kerry is fully aware of what Russia is doing to change facts on the ground.

In congressional testimony on Wednesday, Kerry acknowledged there was no guarantee the “cessation of hostilities” would work, adding: “But I know this: If it doesn’t work, the potential is there that Syria will be utterly destroyed. The fact is that we need to make certain that we are exploring and exhausting every option of diplomatic resolution.”

For the rebels, the reality is bleak.

Government forces have closed in on the city of Aleppo, a major symbol of the uprising. Their supply routes from Turkey cut, rebels in the Aleppo area now say it may only be a matter of time before they are crushed altogether.

“We are heading towards being liquidated I think,” said a former official in a rebel group from the city.

Other fighters remain determinedly upbeat, saying Assad is only gaining ground because of Russian air power and he will not be able to sustain the advances.

For Syrians living under government rule in Damascus, Moscow’s intervention has inspired a degree of confidence. They credit one of the calmest periods since the start of the war to the death of rebel leader Zahran Alloush, killed in a Russian air strike on Christmas Day.

There are few foreign visitors these days. Bashar al-Seyala, who owns a souvenir shop in the Old City, said most of his foreign customers are Russians. His shop had just sold out of mugs printed with Putin’s face.

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Additional reporting by John Irish, Arshad Mohammed, Lesley Wroughton, Warren Strobel, Lou Charbonneau and Mark Hosenball; Writing by Giles Elgood; editing by Janet McBride)

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Moldova Teeters on Edge of Ukraine Turmoil

459px-Gheorghe_Ghimpu_arboreaza_Tricolorul

Deputy Gheorghe Ghimpu replaces the Soviet flag on the Parliament with the Moldovan flag on April 27, 1990. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

The global focus on Ukraine should expand to include Moldova, warns International Affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe Polls suggest that only 44 per cent of Moldovans favour EU membership, while support for a customs union with Russia has grown from 30 per cent a few months ago to 40 per cent now. Moscow’s opaque intentions are adding to anxiety in Moldovia that if civil war breaks out in eastern Ukraine, it will spill over, he writes. An excerpt of today’s column:

As the West fixates on what Vladimir Putin is doing in eastern Ukraine, perhaps not enough attention is being paid to his other hand, which is hovering greedily over neighbouring Moldova.

Moldova and its three-and-a-half million people, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine behind the north-west shore of the Black Sea, has not had an easy time since it reluctantly emerged as an independent nation in 1990 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is the poorest country in Europe.

It got off to a bad start when independence led almost immediately to a civil war when the pro-Russian people of Transdniestr – that long sliver of Moldova lying east of the Dniester River – rebelled against the possibility of the country joining Romania. Intervention by Russian forces – 1,500 of them are still there – brought a peace deal in 1992, but Transdniestr and its 500,000 people remain a breakaway region, yearning either for recognized independence, a customs union with Moscow or absorption by Russia. The takeover of the Ukrainian province of Crimea, just round the Black Sea coast from Moldova, by Putin has encouraged many of Transdniestr’s people to hope that they may be next on the Russian President’s shopping list.

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Putin vs Obama: who is in step with the times?

As the world focuses on Ukraine and the dispute between Russia and the “West,” let’s take a step back for a wider view. Democracy — as a system of representative and accountable governments, operating under the rule of law mediated by an independent judiciary – is struggling or under threat in much of the world, from former Soviet satellite states now in the European Union to the Caribbean to the countries washed by an Arab Spring that has largely failed to blossom. International affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe looks at the big picture. Excerpt of his new column:

One of the more unfortunate pronouncements by United States President Barack Obama in this Ukraine embroglio was that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, had put himself “on the wrong side of history.” Obama was not explicit, but his case appears to be that by intervening in the majority ethnic Russian eastern Ukraine, especially Crimea, Putin is pushing against advancing international values of respect for nation states, popular sovereignty and the rule of law. Yet as one looks around the world it seems it is Putin, far more than Obama, who is step with the times.

Log in first* to read the column, Putin more in tune with the times than Obama. Other recent Manthorpe columns on Ukraine and the state of global democracy include Beijing, not Moscow, is the home of imperialism, Europe carries blame for the Ukrainian violence, and Arab Spring still waiting to blossom.

*Jonathan Manthorpe’s columns are available with a modest subscription or a $1 site day pass to all work on Facts and Opinions. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes.

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Chinese imperialism ignored amid Ukraine-Russia debate

The outpouring from the West of shock and outrage over Russia’s actions in Ukraine has been … “entertaining,” writes international affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe. The reaction to Russia is especially bizarre given there really is a colonial, expansionist power afoot in the world – and Russia may well be one of its targets.

The sound and fury aimed at Russian President Vladimir Putin in the last few days has been vastly entertaining. But it was evident from the start that, as Ukraine sank into internal chaos, Putin would ensure the security of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the continuation of the 1997 agreement under which Moscow maintains a naval base at Sevastopol in the Crimea. Yet other events on the other side of the world in the last few days should have alerted American Secretary of State John Kerry, Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird and all the preened diplomats of the European Union that there is a would-be imperial power at work, a power which already occupies large colonial possessions and is hungry for more. That power is not Russia, but China.

Log in to read the column, Beijing, not Moscow, is the home of imperialism.*

*Jonathan Manthorpe’s columns are available to monthly subscribers or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes.

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