When Donald Trump was more anti-NATO than Vladimir Putin

Michael Weiss writes: Michael Morrell, a former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, broke dramatically with the protocol of most ex-spies when he used spook parlance to describe Republican nominee Donald Trump as “an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation,” albeit in the course of endorsing Hillary Clinton for president.

The colloquial term for the sort of person Morrell was talking about is “useful idiot,” someone enlisted in the Kremlin’s cause through sympathy, or shared interests, or, indeed, ignorance, without actually intending to be a pawn. But, as Putin certainly knows, the problem with useful idiots is that they tend to be insecure and erratic, whereas witting agents are tutored in how to be disciplined and self-controlled.

Trump is too illogical and self-contradictory to be of much use to a hostile foreign power except as a naturally occurring battering ram against the very institutions and beliefs that power would like to see weakened or destroyed. Trump’s opponent (whom Putin assuredly does not want to see inhabit the White House) and U.S. democracy at large are the truer objects of a Russian state-run information and cyber-espionage program. That Trump’s vulgar and demoralizing campaign is ripping apart America on the path to making it “great again” is simply an added bonus for the former KGB colonel.

Without dismissing the gravity of the Trump-Putin alignment, what our reporting makes clear is that the Republican does genuinely admire the Russian, but the feeling is not necessarily mutual. Putin has been discreet, if not cryptic, in his characterization of Trump. (See the next installation in this series for more.) One might say the relationship between the two is that of an amateur authoritarian taking cues from an aloof and bemused professional, but the performance delivered, to any outside observer, looks more like an oblivious farce than a credible imitation. [Continue reading…]

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Spooked by Russia, tiny Estonia trains a nation of insurgents

The New York Times reports: Her face puffy from lack of sleep, Vivika Barnabas peered down at the springs, rods and other parts of a disassembled assault rifle spread before her.

At last, midway through one of this country’s peculiar, grueling events known as patrol competitions, she had come upon an easy task.

Already, she and her three teammates had put out a fire, ridden a horse, identified medicinal herbs from the forest and played hide-and-seek with gun-wielding “enemies” in the woods at night.

By comparison, this would be easy. She knelt in the crinkling, frost-covered grass of a forest clearing and grabbed at the rifle parts in a flurry of clicks and snaps, soon handing the assembled weapon to a referee.

“We just have to stay alive,” Ms. Barnabas said of the main idea behind the Jarva District Patrol Competition, a 24-hour test of the skills useful for partisans, or insurgents, to fight an occupying army, and an improbably popular form of what is called “military sport” in Estonia.

The competitions, held nearly every weekend, are called war games, but are not intended as fun. The Estonian Defense League, which organizes the events, requires its 25,400 volunteers to turn out occasionally for weekend training sessions that have taken on a serious hue since Russia’s incursions in Ukraine two years ago raised fears of a similar thrust by Moscow into the Baltic States.

Estonia, a NATO member with a population of 1.3 million people and a standing army of about 6,000, would not stand a chance in a conventional war with Russia. But two armies fighting on an open field is not Estonia’s plan, and was not even before Donald J. Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, said European members of NATO should not count on American support unless they pay more alliance costs.

Since the Ukraine war, Estonia has stepped up training for members of the Estonian Defense League, teaching them how to become insurgents, right down to the making of improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s, the weapons that plagued the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another response to tensions with Russia is the expansion of a program encouraging Estonians to keep firearms in their homes. [Continue reading…]

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Vladimir Putin’s campaign to seduce, subvert and screw over Western democracies — including ours

The Daily Beast reports: The golden domes would look at home on Moscow’s Red Square. There are five of them, onion-shaped and glistening in the sun, each one bearing a cross — potent symbols of the Russian Orthodox Church. But here in front of them flows the Seine River. Behind them rises the Eiffel Tower. Down the street is the French foreign ministry, known as the Quai d’Orsay.

That much you can see.

What French and other Western intelligence agencies have been concerned about as they watched the building go up over the last six years is what you don’t see when you look at the just-inaugurated Holy Trinity Cathedral and Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Center.


French journalist Nicolas Hénin in his new book La France Russe notes that the building abuts an apartment used (at least until recently) by the French Secretary General of Defense and National Security, as well as the mail service of the French presidential palace.

An inter-ministerial note on the state of France’s intelligence agencies cited by Hénin observed that the cathedral domes, made of composite materials, could hide sophisticated listening devices, and since the “cultural center” enjoys diplomatic immunity, there’s no obvious way to get inside to look.

According to other sources, the French are now employing active countermeasures, just in case, and several Western embassies and enterprises have checked to make sure there is no line of sight contact between them and the domes.

It’s a strange spectacle, an obvious outpost of Mother Russia, even if all its aspects are benign, which was assumed to be the case when then-President Nicolas Sarkozy approved its construction in 2010. But since then, “benign” has become a word hard to associate with the Kremlin. So when Russian President Vladimir Putin was supposed to open the center here this month, the current French president, François Hollande, said he wouldn’t attend, and if he talked to Putin at all, his office declared, it would be about war crimes in Syria. Putin decided to postpone his visit more or less indefinitely.

Perhaps this seems like crazy neo-Cold War paranoia. High-tech spookery hiding behind onion domes on the Left Bank? Yet almost anything seems possible at a time when Putin has been using every conceivable means at his disposal to extend Russian influence and disrupt or discredit Western democracy in Europe, and, indeed, in the United States.

If there is a new cold war chill, it’s coming from the east. [Continue reading…]

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NATO and Russia playing dangerous game with military build-up

The Guardian reports: It has been billed as Nato’s biggest military build-up on Russia’s borders since the cold war. Britain is sending fighter jets next year to Romania. The US is dispatching troops, tanks and artillery to Poland. Germany, Canada and other Nato countries also pledged forces at a meeting on Wednesday of defence chiefs in Brussels.

The move comes after Russia has been busy deploying hardware of its own. Earlier this month, Moscow said it was stationing nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, Russia’s Baltic exclave. This week, two Russian warships armed with cruise missiles slipped into the Baltic sea.

Meanwhile, the hulking Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov has been belching its way through the Channel en route to Syria. Spain said Moscow had withdrawn a request to refuel on Spain’s north African coast, amid western suspicions the Russian fleet will be used to flatten civilians in Aleppo.

Nato’s apparent goal here is to deter future acts of aggression on European territory by Vladimir Putin’s revanchist Russia. After a period in which Nato has seemed slow to react, and lacking in backbone, the alliance is now sending out a robust message. As the US defence secretary, Ash Carter, put it this week, these deployments are all about deterrence. [Continue reading…]

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Britain, U.S. sending planes, troops to deter Russia in the east

Reuters reports: Britain said on Wednesday it will send fighter jets to Romania next year and the United States promised troops, tanks and artillery to Poland in NATO’s biggest military build-up on Russia’s borders since the Cold War.

Germany, Canada and other NATO allies also pledged forces at a defense ministers meeting in Brussels on the same day two Russian warships armed with cruise missiles entered the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Denmark, underscoring East-West tensions.

In Madrid, the foreign ministry said Russia had withdrawn a request to refuel three warships in Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta after NATO allies said they could be used to target civilians in Syria.

The ships were part of an eight-ship carrier battle group – including Russia’s sole aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov – that is expected to join around 10 other Russian vessels already off the Syrian coast, diplomats said.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the troop contributions to a new 4,000-strong force in the Baltics and eastern Europe were a measured response to what the alliance believes are some 330,000 Russian troops stationed on Russia’s western flank near Moscow. [Continue reading…]

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Anger as Spain prepares to let Russian warships refuel on way back to Aleppo bombing

The Guardian reports: Spain is facing criticism for reportedly preparing to allow the refuelling of Russian warships en route to bolstering the bombing campaign against the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo.

Warships led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov are expected to take on fuel and supplies at the Spanish port of Ceuta after passing through the Straits of Gibraltar on Wednesday morning.

Spanish media reported that two Spanish vessels, the frigate Almirante Juan de Borbón and logistical ship Cantabria, were shadowing the warships as they passed through international waters, and that the Admiral Kuznetsov, along with other Russian vessels and submarines, would dock at Ceuta to restock after 10 days at sea. [Continue reading…]

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Cold war 2.0: How Russia and the West reheated a historic struggle

The Guardian reports: Gen Sir Richard Shirreff remembers the moment he realised Nato was facing a new and more dangerous Russia. It was 19 March 2014, the day after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

Shirreff, then deputy supreme allied commander Europe, was at Nato’s military HQ in Mons, Belgium, when an American two-star general came in with the transcript of Putin’s speech justifying the annexation. “He briefed us and said: ‘I think this just might be a paradigm-shifting speech’, and I think he might have been right,” Shirreff recalled.

The Russian president’s address aired a long list of grievances, with the west’s attempts to contain Russia in the 18th to 20th centuries right at the top.

Putin said: “They have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact. This happened with Nato’s expansion to the east, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders.”

He warned that Russia would no longer tolerate such pressure: “If you press the spring it will release at some point. That is something you should remember.”

Warnings of a return to cold war politics have been a staple of European debate for three years, but in recent weeks many western diplomats, politicians and analysts have come to believe the spring has indeed been released. Russia is being reassessed across western capitals. The talk is no longer of transition to a liberal democracy, but regression. [Continue reading…]

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Putin’s strategic aim is to fracture the West

Rachel Rizzo and Adam Twardowski write: After Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 caught the United States off guard, Western observers have since struggled to understand Russian strategic decision-making. The apparent disconnect between Russia’s strategic gains and economic costs in theaters such as Ukraine and Syria leaves more questions than answers about “what Putin wants,” and how he perceives Russia’s interests. Alarmed by this uncertainty, a growing chorus of influential voices has warned that unless NATO shores up its land and maritime capabilities in Europe, it risks inadvertently inviting Russia to make a land-grab of NATO’s eastern territory. While NATO must prepare for such a scenario and reassure nervous eastern allies, Putin is probably not looking to rebuild Russia’s imperial frontiers or start a war with the United States, nor is he interested in or capable of reestablishing Russia as a global power like the Soviet Union was. Most analyses about “what Putin wants” miss the mark. Putin realizes that in an era when Russia’s internal challenges dramatically limit its ability to project power, Russia’s security depends not on rolling tanks across the borders of the NATO alliance, but instead on fracturing the West and paralyzing decision-making among Western leaders. Russia’s apparent success in exploiting these fissures within the Alliance is thus the greatest threat the United States and its NATO allies face from Moscow.

A more difficult question to answer, however, centers around why exactly Putin has used this strategy and plunged Russia’s relationship with the West into the worst crisis since the Cold War. Part of the consensus seems to be that Putin is resentful of Russia’s fall from global power and that he craves respect from the United States. Others blame the United States for stoking Russian insecurity by expanding NATO eastward to Russia’s western border. Still others focus on the dynamics of Russia’s internal political landscape, stressing that Putin’s ability to sustain his grip on power depends on promoting an intense nationalistic mentality amongst Russians. In reality, Putin is probably motivated by a combination of all these factors. What is clear, however, is that Russia is intent on honing sophisticated capabilities in the cyber and information domains to sew division in the West and fracture the unity of the transatlantic alliance.

How exactly does Russia carry out its policy of fracturing the West? A new report from CSIS on the Kremlin’s influence in Central and Eastern Europe explains that Russia seeks to advance its geostrategic objectives in part by “weakening the internal cohesion of societies and strengthening the perception of the dysfunction” of the West. By shaping the decision-making apparatus of certain countries through the exploitation of weak state institutions and the identification of allies sympathetic to Russian interests, Moscow believes it achieves more than it could through traditional military campaigns, and at much lower cost. Putin has taken this well-known playbook, which includes disinformation campaigns designed to discredit Western institutions and sew doubts about official narratives of Russian behavior, and found new ways to apply it in the West. Recently, footprints of this approach can be seen throughout the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey purges NATO military envoys after failed coup

Reuters reports: Turkey has fired hundreds of senior military staff serving at NATO in Europe and the United States following July’s coup attempt, documents show, broadening a purge to include some of the armed forces’ best-trained officials.

In a classified military dispatch seen by Reuters, 149 military envoys posted to the alliance’s headquarters and command centres in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Britain were ordered on Sept. 27 to return to Turkey within three days.

Most were dismissed from service on their arrival, arrested and imprisoned, according to a Turkish military official at NATO and two farewell letters sent by departing Turkish officials emailed to colleagues at NATO and seen by Reuters. [Continue reading…]

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Is Russia pulling Turkey away from the West?

Mustafa Akyol writes: A binational meeting was held in Moscow Oct. 2, bringing together Ahmet Tunc — an adviser of Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Ankara and a strong supporter of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — and Aleksandr Dugin, a “special representative” of President Vladimir Putin. In the meeting, Dugin made the sensational claim that he himself helped save Turkey from the military coup by informing Turkish authorities about some “unusual activity” in the military July 14, a day before the coup attempt. He also claimed that the coup plot took place “because Erdogan had begun to turn toward Russia.”

Dugin also urged his Turkish guests to reconsider the orientation of their country. “You know, they are not welcoming Turks to Europe,” he said, in reference to Turkey’s unpromising bid to join the European Union. “Yet while Europe’s doors are closed to you, Russian ones are open.”

If Dugin were an ordinary Russian political scientist, these words would not mean much. But he is widely acknowledged as a major ideologue of the Putin regime. Western media outlets have dubbed him “Putin’s brain” and the “prophet of the new Russian Empire.” He is known for promoting “Eurasianism,” which seems to be “a scheme for uniting all the global enemies of liberalism under Russian leadership.” [Continue reading…]

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How Turkish ground forces, backed by NATO, could lead a humanitarian intervention in Syria

David Owen writes: The argument that diplomacy has failed in Syria and that the best thing to bring the suffering to an end in Aleppo would be a quick victory for Bashar al-Assad is too pessimistic. We need to recognise that the diplomacy has never faced up to the need for an initial partition or zones of influence involving neighbouring states on the path to an eventual unified settlement in Syria.

Between 2012 and 2014, Turkey was ready to create a protected area in Syria for refugees, but for various reasons this was never supported by Nato. Turkey was understandably very reluctant to move militarily across the border into Syria on its own. When Russia extended an airfield close to Latakia, not far from the naval port it has had in Syria since 1971, and put sophisticated aeroplanes in to protect Assad’s forces, everything changed. Turkey shot down a Russian plane and felt threatened by Kurdish forces pushing along its border with Syria. Turkish relations also became very strained within Nato, particularly with the US over strategies for dealing with Islamic State and the EU over refugee policies and human rights. Turkey responded perfectly reasonably by defusing tensions with Russia.

In this period the Russians militarily achieved their objective, reinforced by Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and Iranian forces, of winning back control of the key roads linking Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea for Assad. These forces, as a consequence, are back in control of this area, including Hama, which has become a Russian zone of influence.

Only Turkey is in a political and military position to intervene on the ground over Aleppo and it is demonstrating this at present by attacking Isis. Turkey can now, because of changed circumstances, create a crucial balancing factor in Syria by taking urgent humanitarian action with its troops and air power in relieving the siege of Aleppo. Under the UN charter, even if the security council is blocked by a Russian veto, Turkey has a regional locus and a measure of legitimacy, having taken large numbers of Syrian refugees. [Continue reading…]

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British MPs deliver damning verdict on David Cameron’s Libya intervention

The Guardian reports: David Cameron’s intervention in Libya was carried out with no proper intelligence analysis, drifted into an unannounced goal of regime change and shirked its moral responsibility to help reconstruct the country following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, according to a scathing report by the foreign affairs select committee.

The failures led to the country becoming a failed a state on the verge of all-out civil war, the report adds.

The report, the product of a parliamentary equivalent of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, closely echoes the criticisms widely made of Tony Blair’s intervention in Iraq, and may yet come to be as damaging to Cameron’s foreign policy legacy.

It concurs with Barack Obama’s assessment that the intervention was “a shitshow”, and repeats the US president’s claim that France and Britain lost interest in Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown. The findings are also likely to be seized on by Donald Trump, who has tried to undermine Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy credentials by repeatedly condemning her handling of the Libyan intervention in 2011, when she was US secretary of state. [Continue reading…]

Chris Stephen writes: When Nato went to war against Gaddafi in the revolution, the US took a back seat, with Britain and France sharing the leading role. But with the revolution over, Cameron walked away.

In London, few parliamentary debates on Libya were called by the government or the opposition, even though British bombing had done so much to create the country’s new order.

When last year the foreign affairs select committee called on Cameron to give evidence in its inquiry into British planning in Libya, he informed them he had no time in his schedule.

Meanwhile, diplomats insist that Libyan leaders of all persuasions have shut out offers of support. Memories of domination by outside powers leave Libyans suspicious of the motivations of foreigners, and offers to help build a modern state were spurned.

London finally woke up to Libya last year, with people smugglers taking advantage of the chaos to build a booming business – and with Islamic State on the march.

The UK, along with the US and Italy, is a prime mover behind the troubled government of national accord (GNA), created by a UN-chaired commission last December. Unelected and largely unloved, the GNA has failed to create a security force of its own, relying instead on militias that are also busy fighting each other.

The capture of key ports by the powerful eastern general Khalifa Haftar this week may have sealed the fate of this new government, now deprived of oil wealth.

All of which leaves Libya, in the words of Britain’s special envoy, Jonathan Powell – a veteran of Blair’s meeting with Gaddafi – veering towards becoming “Somalia on the Mediterranean”. [Continue reading…]

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