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Ukraine: Scapegoat of NATO expansion

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19 mins read

Nearly a year in, the war in Ukraine has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and brought the world to the brink of, in President Joe Biden’s own words, “Armageddon.” Alongside the literal battlefield, there has been a similarly bitter intellectual battle over the war’s causes.

Commentators have rushed to declare the long-criticized policy of NATO expansion as irrelevant to the war’s outbreak, or as a mere fig leaf used by Russian President Vladimir Putin to mask what former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently called “his messianic mission” to “reestablish the Russian Empire,” in a Washington Post opinion piece. Fiona Hill, a presidential adviser to two Republican administrations, has deemed these views merely the product of a “Russian information war and psychological operation,” resulting in “masses of the U.S. public… blaming NATO, or blaming the U.S. for this outcome.”

Yet a review of the public record and dozens of diplomatic cables made publicly available via WikiLeaks show that U.S. officials were aware, or were directly told over the span of years that expanding NATO was viewed by Russian officials well beyond Putin as a major threat and provocation; that expanding it to Ukraine was a particularly bright red line for Moscow; that such action would inflame and empower hawkish, nationalist parts of the Russian political spectrum; and that it could ultimately lead to war.

In a particularly prophetic set of warnings, U.S. officials were told that pushing for Ukrainian membership in NATO would not only increase the chance of Russian meddling in the country but also risked destabilizing the divided nation—and that the United States and other NATO officials pressured Ukrainian leaders to reshape this unfriendly public opinion in response. All of this was told to U.S. officials in both public and private by not just senior Russian officials going all the way up to the presidency, but by NATO allies, various analysts and experts, liberal Russian voices critical of Putin, and even, sometimes, U.S. diplomats themselves.

This history is particularly relevant as U.S. officials now test the red line China has drawn around Taiwan’s independence, risking military escalation that will first and foremost be aimed at the island state. The U.S. diplomatic record regarding NATO expansion suggests the perils of ignoring or outright crossing another military power’s red lines and the wisdom of a more restrained foreign policy that treats other powers’ spheres of influence with the same care they extend to the United States.

An Early Exception

NATO expansion had been fraught from the start. The pro-Western, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin had told then-U.S. President Bill Clinton he “[saw] nothing but humiliation for Russia if you proceed” with plans to renege on the verbal promises made years earlier not to extend NATO eastward, and warned that this move would be “sowing the seeds of mistrust” and would “be interpreted, and not only in Russia, as the beginning of a new split in Europe.” Just as containment architect George Kennan had predicted, the decision to go ahead with NATO expansion helped inflame Russian hostility and nationalism: The Duma (the Russian parliament) declared it “the largest military threat to our country over the last 50 years,” while the leader of the opposition Communist Party called it “a Treaty of Versailles for Russia.”

By the time Putin became president the day before the new millennium, “the initial hopes and plans of the early ’90s [were] dead,” a leading liberal Russian politician declared. The first round of NATO enlargement was followed by the organization bombing Yugoslavia in 1999, which was done without the UN Security Council authorization, and triggered Russia to cut off contact with the alliance. By 2000, the revised Russian national security strategy warned that NATO’s use of force beyond its borders would be seen as “a threat of destabilization of the whole strategic situation,” while military officers and politicians started claiming “that if NATO expands further, it would ‘create a base to intervene in Russia itself,’” the Washington Post reported.

Ironically, there would be one exception to the next two decades’ worth of rising tensions over NATO’s eastward expansion that followed: the early years of Putin’s presidency, when the new Russian president defied the Russian establishment to try and make outreach to the United States. Under Putin, Moscow reestablished relations with NATO, finally ratified the START II arms control treaty, and even publicly floated the idea of Russia eventually joining the alliance, inviting attacks from his political rivals for doing so. Even so, Putin continued to raise Moscow’s traditional concerns about the alliance’s expansion, telling NATO’s secretary-general it was “a threat to Russia” in February 2001.

“[I]f a country like Russia feels threatened, this would destabilize the situation in Europe and the entire world,” he said in a speech in Berlin in 2000.

Putin softened his opposition as he sought to make common cause with then-President George W. Bush administration. “If NATO takes on a different shape and is becoming a political organization, of course, we would reconsider our position with regard to such expansion, if we are to feel involved in the processes,” he said in October 2001, drawing attacks from political rivals and other Russian elites.

As NATO for the first time granted Russia a consultative role in its decision-making in 2002, Putin sought to assist its expansion. Then-Italian President Silvio Berlusconi made a “personal request” to Bush, according to an April 2002 cable, to “understand Putin’s domestic requirements,” that he “needs to be seen as part of the NATO family,” and to give him “help in building Russian public opinion to support NATO enlargement.” In another cable, a top-ranking U.S. State Department official urged holding a NATO-Russia summit to “help President Putin neutralize opposition to enlargement,” after the Russian leader said allowing NATO expansion without an agreement on a new NATO-Russia partnership would be politically impossible for him.

This would be the last time any Russian openness toward NATO expansion was recorded in the diplomatic record published by WikiLeaks.

Allies Weigh In

By the middle of the 2000s, U.S.-Russian relations had deteriorated, partly owing to Putin’s bristling at U.S. criticism of his growing authoritarianism at home, and to U.S. opposition to his meddling in the 2004 Ukrainian election. But as explained in a September 2007 cable by then-President of New Eurasia Foundation Andrey Kortunov, now director general of the Russian International Affairs Council—who has publicly criticized both Kremlin policy and the current war—United States mistakes were also to blame, including Bush’s invasion of Iraq and a general sense that he had given little in return for Putin’s concessions.

“Putin had clearly embarked on an ‘integrationist’ foreign policy at the beginning of his second presidential term, which was fueled by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and good relations with key leaders like President Bush” and other leading NATO allies, Kortunov said according to the cable. “However,” he said, “a string of perceived anti-Russian initiatives,” which included Bush’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and “further expansion of NATO,” ultimately “dashed Putin’s hopes.”

What followed was a steady drumbeat of warnings about NATO’s expansion, particularly regarding neighboring Ukraine and Georgia, much of it from Washington’s NATO allies.

“[Former French presidential diplomatic adviser Maurice] Gourdault-Montagne warned that the question of Ukrainian accession to NATO remained extremely sensitive for Moscow, and concluded that if there remained one potential cause for war in Europe, it was Ukraine,” reads a September 2005 cable. “He added that some in the Russian administration felt we were doing too much in their core zone of interest, and one could wonder whether the Russians might launch a move similar to Prague in 1968, to see what the West would do.”

This was just one of many similar warnings from French officials that admitting Ukraine and Georgia into NATO “would cross Russian ‘tripwires’,” for instance. A February 2007 cable records then-French Director General for Political Affairs Gérard Araud’s recounting of “a half-hour anti-U.S. harangue” by Putin in which he “linked all the dots” of Russian unhappiness with U.S. behavior, including “U.S. unilateralism, its denial of the reality of multipolarity, [and] the anti-Russian nature of NATO enlargement.”

Germany likewise raised repeated concerns about a potentially bad Russian reaction to a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine and Georgia, with then-Deputy National Security Adviser Rolf Nikel stressing that Ukraine’s entry was particularly sensitive. “While Georgia was ‘just a bug on the skin of the bear,’ Ukraine was inseparably identified with Russia, going back to Vladimir of [Kyiv] in 988,” Nikel recounted, according to the cable.

Other NATO allies repeated similar concerns. In a January 2008 cable, Italy affirmed it was a “strong advocate” for other states’ entry into the alliance, “but is concerned about provoking Russia through hurried Georgian integration.” Norway’s then-Foreign Minister (who is now the prime minister) Jonas Gahr Støre made a similar point in an April 2008 cable, even as he insisted Russia mustn’t be able to veto NATO’s decisions. “At the same time he says that he understands Russia’s objections to NATO enlargement and that the alliance needs to work to normalize the relationship with Russia,” reads the cable.

Almost Complete Consensus

The thinkers and analysts that U.S. officials conferred with likewise made clear that the anxieties of Russian elites over NATO and its expansion, and the lengths they might go to counteract it. Many were transmitted by then-U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns, who is presently Biden’s CIA director.

Recounting his conversations with various “Russian observers” from both regional and U.S. think tanks, Burns concluded in a March 2007 cable that “NATO enlargement and U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe play to the classic Russian fear of encirclement.” Ukraine and Georgia’s entry “represents an ‘unthinkable’ predicament for Russia,” he reported six months later, warning that Moscow would “cause enough trouble in Georgia” and counted on “continued political disarray in Ukraine” to halt it. In an especially prescient set of cables, he summed up scholars’ views that the emerging Russia-China relationship was largely “the by-product of ‘bad’ U.S. policies,” and was unsustainable—“unless continued NATO enlargement pushed Russia and China even closer together.”

Cables record Russian intellectuals across the political spectrum making such points again and again. One June 2007 cable records the words of a “liberal defense expert Aleksey Arbatov” and the “liberal editor” of a leading Russian foreign policy journal, Fyodor Lukyanov, that after Russia had done “everything to ‘help’ the U.S. post-9/11, including opening up Central Asia for coalition anti-terrorism efforts,” it had expected “respect for Russia’s ‘legitimate interests.’” Instead, Lukyanov said, it had been “confronted with NATO expansion, zero-sum competition in Georgia and Ukraine, and U.S. military installations in Russia’s backyard.”

“Ukraine was, in the long term, the most potentially destabilizing factor in U.S.-Russian relations, given the level of emotion and neuralgia triggered by its quest for NATO membership,” stated the counsel of Dmitri Trenin, then-deputy director of the Russian branch of the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a Burns-authored February 2008 cable. For Ukraine, he said prophetically, it would mean “that elements within the Russian establishment would be encouraged to meddle, stimulating U.S. overt encouragement of opposing political forces, and leaving the United States and Russia in a classic confrontational posture.”

Indeed, opposing NATO’s enlargement eastward, particularly in Ukraine and Georgia, was “one of the few security areas where there is almost complete consensus among Russian policymakers, experts and the informed population,” stated a cable of March 2008, citing defense and security experts. Ukraine was the “line of last resort” that would complete Russia’s encirclement, said one defense expert, and its entry into NATO was universally viewed by the Russian political elite as an “unfriendly act.” Other experts cautioned “that Putin would be forced to respond to Russian nationalist feelings opposing membership” of Georgia, and that offering MAP to either Ukraine or Georgia would trigger a cut-back in the Russian military’s genuine desire for cooperation with NATO.

From Liberals to Hardliners

These analysts were reiterating what cables show U.S. officials heard again and again from Russian officials themselves, whether diplomats, members of parliament, or senior Russian officials all the way up to the presidency, recorded in nearly three-dozen cables at least.

NATO enlargement was “worrisome,” said one Duma member, while Russian generals were “suspicious of NATO and U.S. intentions,” cables record. Just as analysts and NATO officials had said, Kremlin officials characterized NATO’s designs on Georgia and Ukraine as especially objectionable, with the Russian Ambassador to NATO from 2008 to 2011, Dmitry Rogozin, stressing in a February 2008 cable that offering MAP to either “would negatively impact NATO’s relations with Russia” and “raise tension along the borders between NATO and Russia.”

Then-Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin “underscored the depth of Russian opposition” to their membership, a different March 2008 cable stated, underlining that the “political elite firmly believes” “that the accession of Ukraine and Georgia represented a direct security threat to Russia.” The future, Karasin said, rested on the “strategic choice” Washington made about “‘what kind of Russia’” it wanted to deal with—‘a Russia that is stable and ready to calmly discuss issues with the U.S., Europe and China, or one that is deeply concerned and filled with nervousness.’”

Indeed, numerous officials—including then-Director for Security and Disarmament Anatoly Antonov, who is currently serving as Russia’s ambassador to the United States—warned pushing ahead would produce a less cooperative Russia. Pushing NATO’s borders to the two former Soviet states “threatened Russian and the entire region’s security, and could also negatively impact Russia’s willingness to cooperate in the [NATO-Russia Council],” one Russian foreign ministry official warned, while others pointed to the policy to explain Putin’s threats to suspend the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. “CFE would not survive NATO enlargement,” went a Russian threat in one March 2008 cable.

Maybe most pertinent were the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, at the time a veteran diplomat respected in the West, and who continues to serve in the position today. At least eight cables—many, though not all of them, written by Burns—record Lavrov’s expressions of opposition to expanding NATO to Ukraine and Georgia over the course of 2007-2008, when Bush’s decision, over the objections of allies, to publicly affirm their future accession led to a spike in tensions.

“While Russia might believe statements from the West that NATO was not directed against Russia, when one looked at recent military activities in NATO countries… they had to be evaluated not by stated intentions but by potential,” went Burns’s summary of Lavrov’s annual foreign policy review in January 2008. On the same day, he wrote, a foreign ministry spokesperson warned that Ukraine’s “likely integration into NATO would seriously complicate the many-sided Russian-Ukrainian relations” and lead Moscow to “have to take appropriate measures.”

Besides being an easy way to garner domestic support from nationalists, Burns wrote, “Russia’s opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia is both emotional and based on perceived strategic concerns about the impact on Russia’s interests in the region.”

“While Russian opposition to the first round of NATO enlargement in the mid-1990s was strong, Russia now feels itself able to respond more forcefully to what it perceives as actions contrary to its national interests,” he concluded.

Lavrov’s criticism was shared by a host of other officials, not all of them hardliners. Burns recounted a meeting with former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, a Gorbachev protégé who had negotiated over NATO’s first expansion with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who warmly eulogized him years later as a pragmatist. The U.S. push for MAP for Georgia and Ukraine “‘infuriated’ Russians and threatened other areas of U.S.-Russia strategic cooperation,” Primakov had said, according to Burns, mentioning Primakov was asked later that day on TV about rethinking Crimea’s status as Ukrainian territory. “[T]his is the kind of discussion that MAP produces,” he said—meaning that it inflamed nationalist and hardline sentiment.

“Primakov said that Russia would never return to the era of the early 1990s and it would be a ‘colossal mistake’ to think that Russian reactions today would mirror those during its time of strategic weakness,” Burns’s cable stated.

This went all the way to the top, as U.S. officials noted in cables reacting to a famously strident speech Putin gave at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007, which saw Putin assail NATO expansion and other policies as part of a wider, destabilizing U.S. abuse of its sole-superpower status. Putin’s tone may have been “unusually sharp,” Primakov told Burns, but its substance “reflected well-known Russian complaints predating Putin’s election,” shown by the fact that “talking heads and Duma members were almost unanimous” in supporting the speech. A year later, a March 2008 cable reported then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s farewell, two-hour-long meeting with Putin, in which he “argued strongly” against MAP for Ukraine and Georgia.

Putin’s Exit

Any illusions this stance would evaporate with Putin leaving the presidency were quickly dispelled. Such warnings continued and, if anything, grew more intense after Putin was replaced by his liberal successor, Dmitry Medvedev as president of Russia, whose ascent sparked hopes for a more democratic Russia and an improved U.S.-Russian relationship.

Under Medvedev, officials from the Russian ambassador to NATO and various officials in the foreign ministry to the chairman of the Duma’s international affairs committee made much the same warnings, cables show. In some cases, as with Karasin and Lavrov, it was the same officials making these long-standing complaints.

Medvedev himself “reiterated well known Russian positions on NATO enlargement” to Merkel on his first trip to Europe in June 2008, even as he avoided bringing up MAP for Ukraine and Georgia specifically. “Behind Medvedev’s polite demeanor, Russian opposition to NATO enlargement remained a red-line, according to both conservative and moderate observers,” one June 2008 cable reads, a view shared by a leading liberal analyst. Even critics to his right read Medvedev’s words as “an implicit commitment to use Russian economic, political and social levers to raise the costs for Ukraine and Georgia” if they moved closer to the alliance. The cable’s author, then-Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow Daniel Russell, concluded he “agree[d] with the common wisdom.”

By August 2008, following the war with Georgia, Medvedev started to sound a lot more like his predecessor, threatening to cut ties with the alliance and restating grievances about encirclement. A cable from after the end of the five-day war between Russia and Georgia—which an EU-commissioned report would later blame the Georgian government for starting—stated that “even the most pro-Western political experts” were “pointing the finger at the U.S.” for jeopardizing the U.S.-Russian relations, with U.S.’s dismissal of Russia’s concerns over, among other things, NATO expansion being a key part of their analysis. Echoing Burns, one analyst argued that Russia finally felt “strong enough to stand up to the West” when it ignored its concerns.

Those concerns were central at a roundtable of Russian analysts months later— a January 2009 cable showed—who explained to a group of visiting U.S. congresspeople Russians’ “deep displeasure” with the U.S. government, and stressed the “bitter divorce” between Russia and Georgia would be even uglier with Ukraine. Pushing MAP for the country “helped the ‘America haters come to power’ in Russia and gave legitimacy to the hard-liners’ vision of ‘fortress Russia,’” said one Russian analyst.

Increasingly, cables show, such warnings came from liberals, even those who hadn’t previously viewed NATO and the United States as Russia’s chief threats. An August 2008 cable described a meeting with Russian Human Rights Ombudsman Ambassador Vladimir Lukin—described as “a liberal on the Russian political scene, someone disposed toward cooperation with the U.S.”—who explained Medvedev’s post-war recognition of the independence of Georgia’s breakaway regions, which he had at first opposed, as a security-driven response to NATO’s drift toward Russia’s borders. Because escalations like the 2008 U.S.-Poland missile defense agreement showed anti-Russia actions “would not stop,” he said, “Moscow had to show that, like the U.S., it can and will take steps it deems necessary to defend its interests.”

The cable concluded that Lukin’s views “reflect the thinking of the majority of Russian foreign policy elite.”

Selling NATO to Ukraine

Other than Burns—whose Bush-era memos warning of the breadth of Russian opposition to NATO expansion and that it would provoke intensified meddling in Ukraine have become famous since the Russian invasion—U.S. officials largely reacted with dismissal.

Russian objections to the policy and other long-simmering issues were described over and over in the cables as “oft-heard,” “old,” “nothing new,” and “largely predictable,” a “familiar litany” and a “rehashing” that “provided little new substance.” Even NATO’s ally Norway’s position that it understood Russian objections even as it refused to let Moscow veto the alliance’s moves was labeled a case of “parroting Russia’s line.”

U.S. officials were similarly dismissive of explicit warnings—from Kremlin officials, NATO allies, experts and analysts, even Ukrainian leadership—that Ukraine was “internally divided over NATO membership” and that public support for the move was “not fully ripe.” The east-west split within Ukraine over the idea of NATO membership made it “risky,” German officials cautioned, and could “break up the country.” Ukraine’s three leading politicians all “took foreign policy positions based on domestic political considerations, with little regard to the long-term effects on the country,” one said.

Those very politicians likewise made clear public opinion wasn’t there, whether anti-Russian former Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ogryzko of Ukraine, or more Russian-friendly former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych—later misleadingly painted as a Kremlin puppet and was ousted as president in the 2014 Maidan protests—who boasted to a U.S. diplomat that support for NATO had jumped under his tenure. In response, the cables show, NATO officials pressed Ukrainian leaders to take a firm public stance in favor of joining, and discussed how to persuade Ukraine’s population “so that they would be more favorable [toward] it.” Ogryzko later disclosed to Merkel “that a public education campaign is already underway,” and that Ukraine “had discussed the issue of public education campaigns with Slovakia and other nations that had joined NATO recently.”

This came in spite of acknowledged risks. Cables record liberal Russian analysts cautioning “that [then-Ukrainian President Viktor] Yushchenko was using NATO membership to shore up a Ukrainian national identity that required casting Russia in the role of enemy,” and that “because membership remained divisive in Ukrainian domestic politics, it created an opening for Russian intervention.”

“Experts tell us that Russia is particularly worried that the strong divisions in Ukraine over NATO membership, with much of the ethnic-Russian community against membership, could lead to a major split, involving violence or at worst, civil war,” Burns wrote in February 2008. Russia, he further wrote, would then “have to decide whether to intervene; a decision Russia does not want to have to face.”

Despite the dismissive attitude of many U.S. officials, parts of the U.S. national security establishment clearly understood Russian objections weren’t mere “muscle-flexing.” The Kremlin’s anxieties over a “direct military attack on Russia” were “very real,” and could drive its leaders to make rash, self-defeating decisions, stated a 2019 report from the Pentagon-funded RAND Corporation that explored theoretical strategies for overextending Russia.

“Providing more U.S. military equipment and advice” to Ukraine, it stated, could lead Moscow to “respond by mounting a new offensive and seizing more Ukrainian territory”—something not necessarily good for U.S. interests, let alone Ukraine’s, it noted.

Warnings Ignored

Nevertheless, in the years, months, and weeks that led up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, successive U.S. administrations continued on the same course.

Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO has “deepened over time,” the alliance itself says today. By the war’s outbreak, the country frequently hosted Western troops at a military base, Ukrainian soldiers received NATO training, it planned two new NATO-linked naval bases, and has received unprecedented sums of U.S. military aid, including offensive arms—a former President Donald Trump policy his liberal predecessor had explicitly rejected, out of concern for provoking a disastrous response from Moscow. Three months before the invasion, Ukraine and the United States signed an updated Charter on Strategic Partnership “guided” by Bush’s controversial Bucharest declaration, which both deepened security cooperation between the two countries and supported Ukraine’s membership aspirations, viewed as an escalation in Moscow.

As U.S. military activity has increased in the region since 2016, sometimes involving Ukraine and Georgia, NATO-Russian tensions have ratcheted up too. While Moscow publicly objected to U.S. missions in Europe that experts feared were too provocative, NATO and Russian forces have experienced thousands of dangerous military encounters in the region and elsewhere. By December 2022, with fears of invasion ramping up, Putin told Biden personally that “the eastward expansion of the Western alliance was a major factor in his decision to send troops to Ukraine’s border,” the Washington Post reported.

None of this means other factors played no role in the war’s outbreak, from Russian domestic pressures and Putin’s own dim view of Ukrainian independence to the copious other well-known Russian grievances toward U.S. policy that frequently appear in the diplomatic record, too. Nor does it mean, as hawks argue, that this somehow “justifies” Putin’s war, any more than understanding how U.S. foreign policy has fueled anti-American terrorism that “justifies” those crimes.

What it does mean is that claims that Russian unhappiness over NATO expansion is irrelevant, a mere “fig leaf” for pure expansionism, or simply Kremlin propaganda are belied by this lengthy historical record. Rather, successive U.S. administrations pushed ahead with the policy despite being warned copiously for years—including by the analysts who advised them, by allies, even by their own officials—that it would feed Russian nationalism, create a more hostile Moscow, foster instability and even civil war in Ukraine, and could eventually lead to Russian military intervention, all of which ended up happening.

“I don’t accept anyone’s red line,” Biden said in the lead-up to the invasion, as his administration rejected negotiations with Moscow over Ukraine’s NATO status. We can only imagine the world in which he and his predecessors had.

This article is distributed by Globetrotter in partnership with the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord.

Ana Montes: Perfect Cuban Agent

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7 mins read

Ana Belen Montes, the most effective and damaging Cuban spy known to have penetrated U.S. intelligence, was a major warrior in the long nasty war between the United States and its communist neighbor. On Jan. 6, after serving 20 years of a 25 year sentence for espionage, she was released from a maximum security prison, perhaps drawing the curtain on the deadly clandestine conflict involving efforts by Cuban exiles and their U.S. allies to reverse the revolution led by Fidel Castro.

By the time of her arrest in 2001, Montes had been a mole inside the Defense Intelligence Agency for 17 years, feeding U.S. secrets to Cuba during the civil wars in Central America, where Cuba and the U.S. military backed opposite sides in conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Even as the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its lifeline of economic and military support for Castro’s regime,  Montes rose in rank and importance in the DIA. She became the agency’s chief analyst in charge of processing U.S. intelligence about the island, earning the sobriquet, “Queen of Cuba,” both for her unrivaled expertise and her imperious manner.

There have been worse breaches of U.S. national security, notably Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, whose spying for the Soviets inside the CIA and FBI led to the deaths and imprisonment of a good number of the CIA’s Russian sources. But Montes’ spying unquestionably dealt devastating blows to U.S. human intelligence and surveillance operations inside Cuba, especially during the 1990s, when Cuban exiles based in Miami were launching what may have been their last concerted effort to overthrow Castro. At least four U.S. agents operating inside Cuba were arrested as a result of information provided by Montes, according to damage assessments conducted after her arrest. 

Jim Popkin, an investigative journalist and former senior editor for NBC News,  tells the story of Ana Montes and the counterintelligence agents at the National Security Agency, DIA and FBI who finally caught her in his engaging and solidly reported book, Code Name Blue Wren, released only a few days before Montes was freed this month. Spy cases are notoriously difficult to write about, especially those involving the spies working for U.S. adversaries. The existence of a mole inside a major intelligence agency is by definition an egregious failure, and such institutions rarely are eager to share the details of a debacle on the scale of Montes’s penetration of the DIA. 

As a lead Cuba analyst in her everyday work at the agency, Montes drafted reports arguing for a softer U.S. policy toward the regime. Popkin, citing his sources, calls her recommendations “disinformation”, but—perhaps ironically—her analysis of Cuba’s deteriorated military capability and conclusion that Cuba no longer posed a significant threat to U.S. national security in the 1990s put her in respectable company. Similar conclusions would become mainstream in policy circles and lead to the eventual rapprochement with Cuba and resumption of diplomatic relations by the Obama administration in 2015.

Popkin seems to have interviewed all the major actors involved in the multiyear counterintelligence operation that —finally—led to her arrest in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attack. (The decision to move against her was accelerated when FBI investigators learned Montes had been promoted and given a major role in the  DIA team planning and selecting targets for the U.S. war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.)

Montes was a “true believer,” to borrow the term used by one of the counterintelligence agents who caught her—which differentiates her from better known U.S. moles who turned coat mostly for money. Her parents were from modest families in Puerto Rico, and Ana began the process of radicalization in 1977 during a trip to Spain where her boyfriend was a young leftist who had experienced the worst years of the dirty war in Argentina, Popkin writes.

A gifted academic studying at the prestigious School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University School in Washington, she opposed the Reagan administration’s sponsorship of the Contra fighters seeking to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. A Puerto Rican friend—who also happened to be a Cuban agent—encouraged her to go to Havana, where she was recruited by the regime’s intelligence service, originally with the sole idea of supporting the Nicaraguan cause. Popkin mentions that, according to evidence gathered after her arrest, Cuba helped Montes pay off student loans and buy a laptop, but otherwise did not pay her to spy.

One of the most fascinating stories in the book is that of a Cuban-American woman at the secretive National Security Agency who gathered details about the unidentified mole (who turned out to be Montes) by decrypting Cuban radio messages. For example, the messages revealed that the suspected spy had visited the U.S. Guantanamo military base at a certain date, had bought a Toshiba laptop computer, and that Cuba had paid off the agent’s college loan.

The NSA official, given the pseudonym Elena Valdes, doggedly pursued the spy chase for three years, leading to the identification of the DIA as the penetrated agency and the arrest of Montes on Sept. 21, 2001. She first briefed the FBI, which is the primary U.S. agency in charge of counterintelligence. After two years, convinced the FBI was getting nowhere, Elena stepped outside established procedure and, in essence, went behind the FBI’s back. She wrangled an invitation to visit DIA headquarters, and there presented  her packet of decrypted messages to a secure meeting with DIA counterintelligence official Chris Simmons, who showed the kind of investigative enthusiasm she felt was missing at the FBI.

Simmons quickly spotted a clue that would upend the investigation. One of the messages said the unidentified spy had access to something called “safe” as part of his or her work in the unidentified U.S. agency. “Holy shit,” Simmons said. “SAFE” was the acronym for the DIA’s classified database of analyst reports and other investigative materials shared with the CIA and other agencies. The clue meant the spy had to be working at the DIA itself. 

“You’ve been looking in the wrong place,” he exclaimed. “That person has got to be in this building.”

The breakthrough reinvigorated the official FBI investigation. The search now narrowed to the DIA staff, Ana Montes was identified from the other clues, put under surveillance, and taken into custody. 

Inexplicably, Popkin omits a key player in this spy vs spy drama. While Montes was spying inside the DIA for Cuba, the CIA also had a mole inside Cuba’s own intelligence apparatus.  Rolando Sarraff Trujillo was a cryptology specialist in Cuba’s DGI, the intelligence directorate, and he knew the codes Cuba used to communicate with its spies in the United States. He had been recruited to work for the CIA sometime in the 1990s and remained in place, providing the encryption information that allowed the CIA and NSA to crack the code on intercepted shortwave messages. It was his codes that allowed Elena at NSA to read Ana Montes communications with her Cuban handlers. Sarraff was caught by Cuba’s DGI counterspies and imprisoned in 1995.

The omission in Popkin’s book is curious, because it points to the larger context of how the decades of hostility between Cuba and the United States gave way finally in 2014 to what amounted to a ceasefire. The Obama administration negotiated a renewal of diplomatic relations, allowed Cuban exiles to send money to relatives on the island and relaxed travel  restrictions. The truce after a half century of hostility left in place the economic embargo, but introduced an interlude (albeit brief) of almost friendly relations, during which hundreds of thousands of American academics and curious tourists flocked to Cuba, before Donald Trump canceled the detente.

As part of the warming of relations, President Obama negotiated a spy swap.  A U.S. government contractor, Alan Gross, who had been arrested in Cuba in 2009 for smuggling military-grade communications equipment into the country, was languishing in prison in poor health. Washington had always denied Cuba’s charges that Gross was a spy, but saw an opening to spring Sarraff.  The United States was holding three men who had been arrested in 1998 as part of the so-called Wasp network, a group of Cubans spying on militant anti-Castro groups in Florida.

To break the impasse, Cuba agreed to release Gross on “humanitarian grounds” and to exchange Sarraff for the three Wasp spies held by the United States. In announcing the swap, President Obama, referring obliquely to Sarraff, said the unnamed spy was “one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba.” More relevant to the odd lapse in Popkin’s story, U.S. intelligence officials issued a statement saying the exchanged spy’s information had led to the detection and conviction of Cuban spies working in the United States, not just the members of the Wasp network but also Ana Montes. Spytalk editor Jeff Stein, writing for Newsweek at the time,  was one of several reporters to confirm Sarraff’s identity and the link between his cryptography work for the CIA and Ana Montes’ arrest.)

Other than that, Popkin has produced a fine piece of reporting and writing on an intricate, and largely overlooked, spy-vs-spy case. My only other quibble is that he gives barely a nod to the sordid history of the conflict between the United States and Cuba, marked by the U.S. sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, the Soviet Union’s secret deployment of nuclear missiles in 1962, which brought the world to the brink of war, and dozens of U.S. plots to assassinate Castro in the 1960s. Perhaps reflecting the attitudes of his hardline sources, Popkin expresses disgust not only for  Montes’s betrayal of her country but also for her leftist friends, notably a prominent SAIS professor whom he ungraciously dismisses as an apologist for Cuba.

Neglecting that history, he is unable to do justice to the remarkable evolution of U.S. relations with Cuba, during and after the time Ana Montes was active, culminating in Obama’s peacemaking with the post-Fidel Castro regime. (He turned over power to his brother Raul in 2006.)  Popkin’s portrayal remains stuck in the anticommunist tropes of many decades ago, when Cuba and its Soviet ally did indeed present a clear and present danger, certainly from the point of view of the United States.

I admit: Mine is perhaps the complaint of a Latin Americanist, grasping for the wider framework of the spy story, rather than the book Popkin actually wrote.  That said, Popkin’s Code Name Blue Wren is unquestionably the most complete telling of this fascinating spy saga and the story of a occasionally brilliant and always morally complicated  woman who decided to spy against her country. 

Source: SpyTalks

Brazil: US Sponsored Coup d’état against Public Verdict

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The coup attempt is underway in Brazil by supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro. Today, a far right mob numbering in the thousands stormed the headquarters of the Supreme Court, Presidency, and Congress of Brazil in the capital and ransacked them. They are calling for military intervention against the government of president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva of the progressive Workers Party, who defeated Bolsonaro in democratic elections held last year.

Right now, Jair Bolsonaro is in the United States, having fled here right before Lula assumed office last Sunday. Anderson Torres, formerly Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister who was appointed the Minister of Public Security of the capital city Brasilia last week, is also in the United States. Torres appears to have played a key role facilitating today’s attack, and Bolsonaro has clearly been intentionally laying the political basis for such a coup attempt for months with his false claims of election fraud. Neither should be given safe haven by the government of the United States – they should face justice in Brazil for their crimes.

Brazil’s Congress, Presidential Palace, and Supreme Court headquarters are located in a single plaza in Brasilia, whose governor is a Bolsonaro supporter. A mob of thousands with the apparent assistance of some elements of the security forces gathered today and marched on the plaza. Gleisi Hoffmann, the head of the Workers Party, stated that, “The [Federal District] government was irresponsible in the face of the invasion of Brasília and the National Congress. It is a crime against democracy.”

Lula was out of the capital, assisting victims of flooding in the city of Araraquara. Several hours after the attack, he addressed the nation and announced that he was mobilizing federal security forces to reestablish order and defend democracy in the face of this outrageous assault. “Those people we call fascists, the most abominable thing in politics, invaded the [presidential] palace and Congress,” Lula said, and denounced the, “incompetence and bad faith of the people who take care of the security of [Brasilia]”. Earlier in the day, Minister of Justice Flávio Dino pledged that, “This absurd attempt to impose their will by force will not prevail.”

Bolsonaro appears to be isolated internationally, but not because he is an opponent of the United States and other imperial powers — even the Biden administration and other western governments know that openly supporting a Bolsonaro putsch, just after his electoral defeat, would only further destabilize and discredit imperialism in Latin America and worldwide.

This coup attempt comes as Brazilian politics is at a crossroads. From 2019 through the end of last year, Bolsonaro’s government has pursued policies that caused disaster after disaster in Brazil. He is responsible for criminal mismanagement of the Coronavirus pandemic, anti-worker economic policies, massive environmental destruction, and much more. He has promoted vicious, deadly racism targeting Afro-Brazilians and Indigenous Brazilians, and espouses disgustingly bigoted views against women and LGBTQ people.

Bolsonaro’s fascistic tendencies have deep roots in Brazilian politics – he is a supporter of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985, which was an ally of the United States. Lula emerged as a national political figure as an opponent of this murderous regime, and the people’s movements of Brazil remain determined to defend hard-won democratic rights.

Bolsonaro’s rise to power was made possible by the parliamentary coup that removed the Workers Party from power in 2016. Then-president Dilma Rousseff was impeached from office on trumped-up charges by the right wing-controlled Congress. And in a plot that has now been exposed to the public, right-wing prosecutors and judges conspired to manufacture bogus corruption charges against Lula, the most popular political figure in the country who had led the first Workers Party administration from 2003 to 2010. In 2018, Lula was sent to prison on these completely baseless accusations. This prevented him from participating in that year’s presidential election, where all the polls predicted him prevailing over Bolsonaro.

But thanks to a mass movement of people in Brazil, joined by supporters the world over, Lula was freed from prison in 2019. He won last year’s presidential election, pledging to rebuild the country after the devastation of the Bolsonaro years, implement social programs to tackle hunger and poverty, and pursue an independent foreign policy that supports the unity of Latin America. The events of today are a desperate attempt by the far right to overturn the democratic will of the majority of Brazilians.

[Article based on the statement issued by the Party for Socialism and Liberation]

When is the Monroe Doctrine going to die?

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Although Humanity has evolved a lot up to date, contemporary U.S. administrations continue to use in their relations with Latin America a policy whose beginnings date back to 1823.

Time and again, they use it as a basis for justifying their actions: the much-used Monroe Doctrine, but it’s better known as “America for the Americans”, sought in its beginnings to ensure Washington’s dominion over lands that were colonies of European metropolises, such as Spain.

Almost two centuries after this idea was first put forward, in the 21st century, the then U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, in a speech before the Organization of American States (OAS) in 2013, declared the Monroe Doctrine dead when he assured that its era was over.

Five years later, in September 2018, speaking at a high-level debate in the UN General Assembly, then U.S. President Donald Trump “revived” it.

Here in the Western Hemisphere, we are committed to maintaining our independence from the intrusion of foreign powers, he said in reference to the support that China and Russia were giving to several Latin American nations.

According to Trump at the time, formal U.S. policy since President James Monroe (1817-1825) dictates that “we reject the interference of foreign nations in this hemisphere and in our own affairs”.

With the stroke of a pen, the words of Kerry, who was part of Barack Obama’s cabinet (2009-2017), were erased, while Joe Biden was at that time the Vice President of the United States.

In January 2021, Biden assumed the presidency of the North American nation and many questions arose as to what his position would be towards Latin America and the Caribbean during the next four years. After all he had campaigned to improve relations with Cuba which Trump had buried under 243 additional sanctions.

Would he re-bury the Monroe Doctrine, and what policies would guide his relations with the region? The questions are many, as are the expectations.

America vs Western Hemisphere

First, we should go back to the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson (in power from 1801 to 1809), who formulated the idea of the “Western Hemisphere” to refer to the American continent.

In short, he postulated that the populations of the American hemisphere, from north to south, have a special inherent, unique and natural relationship among themselves, well-differentiated qualitatively and separated from their links with the extra continental world, explained Cuban researcher Raúl Rodríguez.

But in reality, this doctrine is based on the phrase:

The American continents, because of the free and independent condition they have assumed and maintain, should no longer be considered as susceptible to future colonization by any of the European powers.

Reworkings  and Adjustments

The Monroe Doctrine is one of the many means by which the United States has been expanding its hegemonic eagerness over the Latin American and Caribbean region since the early stages of its existence as a nation, Rodriguez pointed out. Over the years, he added, this policy has been reworked and adjusted.

Such is the case of Pan-Americanism, highly questioned by Cuban National Hero José Martí, since it was constituted as a way of institutionalizing imperialist domination over Latin American peoples at the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century.

This is maintained in the context of the transition to the imperialist stage in the United States and continues to the present day, including the creation of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, in 1947, and the OAS, in 1948, the expert explained.

Both are pillars of the system currently comprising the Inter-American Development Bank and a multitude of other entities.

More recently, said Rodriguez, the idea of the Western Hemisphere has formed the conceptual basis for other regional summits and periodic meetings of heads of state and government that have been held regularly since the Summit of the Americas in Miami in 1994.

Currently, the fundamental feature of the validity of the Monroe Doctrine is the strengthening of the inter-American system, with emphasis on its economic, political, institutional and military components.

All this in order to consolidate a bloc to counteract the economic and technological ascendancy of China and the political, diplomatic and scientific challenge represented by Russia, said the Cehseu director.

In addition, the aim is to unify and extend the model of representative democracy and market fundamentalism, that is, the U.S. capitalist model as a formula for the entire continent, he stressed.

Remember that the region of the world that inspired the first doctrinal formulation of foreign policy in the United States—Monroism—was, precisely, Latin America.

Therein lies the old pretext that the powerful neighbor to the North protected the interests of our countries against the appetites of the old European colonial powers.

But now they revive it in a new form to argue objections to the Chinese and Russian presence in the continent and, as it is clear, what is really at stake is will the U.S. hegemonic grip prevail in the geopolitical dispute taking place in Latin America, said Rodriguez.

Old Policies that Refuse to Go Away

Also almost 200 years ago, U.S. President James Polk concurrently decided in 1846 that his country’s “manifest destiny” was to expand, and he waged war against Mexico.

Mexico lost more than half of its territory to the Americans, who took over the lands that now make up California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.

Then, in 1898, U.S. President William McKinley invaded Spanish colonies in the Caribbean, such as Cuba and Puerto Rico (the latter territory remains to this day).

And lets not forget that Haiti, Dominican Republic, Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua, Guatemala… are on the long list of countries that were invaded and occupied by Washington.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has backed military coups in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, and more recently in Venezuela and Bolivia, as revealed by its own analysts.

When Trump invoked the Monroe Doctrine in 2018 by name, experts in the area warned that the mere mention of that policy awakened the historical memory of the repression from numerous military and economic interventions promoted by Washington in Latin America.

Historically, it is just a given that the leaders of the North American nation perceive Latin America as a sort of extension of their territory, the so-called “backyard”.

Given their geographic location, the countries of the area are the closest source of raw materials and natural resources, and also in geopolitical terms, they are considered important for the national security of the United States, according to Jorge Hernandez, a Cehseu specialist.

U.S. interests in the region are based on a geopolitical conception and the need to build a sphere of influence, that has been the perspective once the U.S. nation reached the imperialist stage, he said.

Invasions, interventions, the establishment of military bases, the plundering of natural resources, interference in the internal affairs of other countries, subversion plans, sanctions and blockades… are elements of Washington’s strategy, which is repeated, with one variant or another, throughout history, both distant and recent.

Source: Cuba en Resumen

The Global Battle No One Can Win: China and the US Face Off

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China is dealing with a number of serious issues. After decades of economic growth its trajectory is stalling. The people are openly rebelling against COVID-19 policies, clampdowns on freedom of speech, the treatment of minorities, and President Xi Jinping’s insistence on serving an unprecedented third term. 

Those setbacks are not in question. 

Here’s a real question: Do these developments imply that China is going to miss its goal of replacing the United States as the world’s economic superpower? 

That certainly is not what I’m hearing from my friends in Latin America. According to an Ecuadorian cabinet minister who asked to remain anonymous 

Latin American countries possess many natural resources, but we don’t have the technological or financial capabilities to exploit them. China offers hope. We would rather accept help from China than the States. After all, China has never invaded a Latin country or backed coups and assassinations against our elected officials; the US has a history of doing both.

During my time as an EHM, one of our primary goals was to defeat the Soviet Union for world superpower domination. The US supported brutal dictators like Chile’s Pinochet, Indonesia’s Suharto, and Iran’s Shah if they pledged allegiance to the US and allowed our corporations to exploit their nations’ resources. We justified coups and assassinations under the pretense that we were defending democracy and capitalism – when in fact we were promoting a predatory system that made the rich and powerful richer and more powerful. 

Then all that changed. My new book describes what China’s economic hit men have learned from the successes and failures of the US’s EHMs. China has beaten the US to become the largest investor and/or largest trading partner in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. China took advantage of the US’s mistakes. From the new book:

The US and its allies won the Cold War, the Berlin Wall crumbled, and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Lacking the leverage of an alternative superpower, lower-income country leaders grew more vulnerable to US EHM tactics. Neoliberalism proliferated. Resentment grew as these leaders felt exploited by Washington’s hawkish politics and corporate greed and their impotence to counteract it.

Although the Soviet Union had collapsed, the US EHM strategy continued in full force. In what can only be described as misguided arrogance, the US fumbled. China grabbed the ball. The book continues:

It occurred to me that I and my fellow EHMs had been overly confident that the world wanted us, our corporations, and our military. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that high level of confidence became hubris. China’s EHMs were not about to make the same mistakes. They were playing to the pride of other countries and promoting the prosperity that would accompany the interconnected trade routes (touted as China’s New Silk Road).

US media pundits are quick to point out that China has suffered setbacks. Following the pandemic, China’s economy has faltered. Beijing has been heavily criticized for its treatment of minorities and its aggressive actions toward Hong Kong, Tibet, and Taiwan. Many of the projects it has financed and built in other countries have been poorly engineered and constructed. President Xi’s consolidation of power during the 20th Congress in October 2022 has raised serious concerns among many countries that China is becoming an Orwellian, militarized dictatorship. The list goes on and on. However, at the same time, China has quietly continued to establish itself as the globe’s newest economic power center. 

The New York Times cited China’s recent diplomatic activities as one example: 

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, a dapper man in well-pressed suits, keeps up a relentless travel schedule, more than 30 countries so far this year, to places big and small: island nations in the Pacific, Central Asia on China’s western periphery and, often, Africa.

He is the campaigner for the global ambitions of his boss, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, carrying the message that Beijing will not be pushed around, least of all by the United States. . . .

In a not-so-subtle way, Mr. Wang is setting up a fight for Asia, with China in one corner and the United States in the other.

“China’s argument is that Asian problems should be solved by Asians,” said Bilahari Kausikan, former foreign secretary of Singapore, who has been with Mr. Wang in closed-door diplomatic meetings. “The argument also says that the U.S. is an unreliable troublemaker.” 

Regardless of whether China or the US wins the war for global hegemony, the fact is both countries are promoting a degenerative Death Economy that is consuming and polluting itself toward destruction.  There are no winners on a dead planet. The US and China can compete on many levels and disagree about many issues, but we must stop ravaging our mutual home, Earth. 

Macron’s US visit tells Europe’s alienation

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The state visit by French President Emmanuel Macron to the United States stands out as a signpost of the alignments taking place against the backdrop of the historic churning in the world order. The two leaders went to extraordinary lengths to display bonhomie but how far that impressed  the two statesmen — Macron, an erudite mind and the most vocal European statesman on his continent’s integration and strategic autonomy vis-a-vis the US, and Biden, a veteran of international diplomacy — time will show.

Macron already marked his profound difference with the US stance on Ukraine, a topic that dominated his visit, in a remark in Paris on Saturday after his return, during an interview for the French channel TF1. Macron said, 

“We must think about the security architecture, in which we will live tomorrow. I am talking, in particular, about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s words that NATO is approaching Russia’s borders and deploys weapons that could threaten it. This issue will be a part of the peace discussions, and we must prepare for what will come after [the Ukrainian conflict], and think how we could protect our allies and, at the same time, provide Russia with guarantees of its own security, once the sides return to the negotiation table.” 

Macron made the above remark as the countdown begins for an expected large-scale Russian winter offensive in Ukraine. 

While the Joint Statement issued after Macron’s visit shows that the US and France are on the same page in their criticism of Moscow’s conduct of the war in Ukraine, the nuances in the respective articulation by the two leaders during their joint press conference cannot be missed. 

Biden, of course, tore into Putin, personally holding him responsible, but Macron held back. Interestingly, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also may have marked his distance from Biden by initiating a call with Putin on Friday, his second in a row in successive months. 

The readout from Moscow highlighted that while Scholz criticised Russia’s conduct of the conflict, he went on to discuss other issues with Putin and they agreed to keep in touch. 

Both France and Germany are greatly concerned about a possible escalation of the war in Ukraine whereas the US is focused on supporting Kiev “for as long as it takes.” 

Macron highlighted France’s 3-pronged approach: “Help Ukraine resist”; “Prevent any risk of escalation in this conflict”; and, “make sure that, when the time comes, on basis of conditions to be set by Ukrainians themselves, help build peace.” But Biden was categorical that “there is one way for this war to end the rational way: Putin to pull out of Ukraine.”

Macron maintained  that “We need to work on what could lead to a peace agreement, but it is for him [Ukrainian president Zelensky] to tell us when the time comes and what the choices of the Ukrainians are.” 

Macron indirectly stressed the need for flexibility, saying, “If we want a sustainable peace, we have to respect the Ukrainians to decide the moment and the conditions in which they will negotiate about their territory and their future.” 

Curiously, Biden never once mentioned Zelensky, whereas, Macon openly commended “the efforts of President Zelensky to try and find a way, a path to peace while leading the heroic resistance.” 

Macron stressed, “I believe, very much need to continue to engage with him [Zelensky] because there is a genuine willingness, on behalf of Ukraine, to discuss these matters.  And we acknowledge it, and we commend it.”  

Apart from Ukraine, as expected, Macron’s main concern was the recent Inflation Reduction Act, a $369 billion package of subsidies and tax breaks enacted by the Biden Administration to boost American green businesses, which, from a European perspective, constitutes a protectionist measure that encourages companies to shift investments from Europe and incentivises customers to “Buy American”. 

Only a month remains before the final provisions of the US law enter into force on January 1. Germany and France have hit back by joining forces to back a French push for a more subsidy-based EU industrial policy. 

At the White House talks with Macron, Biden conceded that there were “glitches” in the roll-out of America’s multi-billion-dollar package of green subsidies. To quote Biden, “There’s tweaks that we can make that can fundamentally make it easier for European countries to participate and, or be on their own, but that is something that is a matter to be worked out.” 

The remark, perhaps, allows Macron to claim a takeaway from his visit. But how far Biden’s words get turned into practice remains to be seen, as chances of Congress amending the law is debatable, especially as Republicans are set to take narrow control of the House. 

Clearly, the Biden-Macron meeting does not include a breakthrough on Europe’s concerns. Biden’s basic stance is that “United States makes no apology,” since the IRA legislation aims to “make sure that the United States continues… not to have to rely on anybody else’s supply chain. We’re — we are our own supply chain.” 

Macron noted that he had “some very frank discussions.” He stressed, “France simply did not come to ask for an exemption or another for — for our economy but simply to discuss the consequences of this legislation… We will continue to move forward as Europeans.  And we’re not here simply, really, to ask for ‘proof of love’.”  

The Americans are making a fortune from the Ukraine war — selling more gas to Europe at vastly higher prices and boosting arms exports to NATO countries who have supplied military hardware to Ukraine. The EU countries are suffering when the war in Ukraine is tipping them into recession, with inflation rocketing and a devastating squeeze on energy supplies threatening blackouts and rationing this winter.

The greening of America at the cost of European industry casts  shadows on the Indo-Pacific strategy. The recent visits by Scholz and Charles Michel, president of the European Council, to Beijing in quick succession underscores that the tensions in the transatlantic alliance as a fallout of the Ukraine war have a spillover effect. 

Macron’s visit to Washington showed that France’s main interest lies in “building resilience in the Pacific Islands.” Apropos China, the Biden-Macron joint statement had nothing new to announce. It resorted to a balanced formulation that the US and France will “continue to coordinate on our concerns regarding China’s challenge to the rules-based international order, including respect for human rights, and to work together with China on important global issues like climate change.” 

On Taiwan, the joint statement simply reaffirmed “the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Conceivably, the crushing defeat Tsai Ing-wen suffered in the recent Taiwanese local elections had a sobering effect. 

At any rate, in their respective opening remarks at the press conference on the Indo-Pacific strategy, while Biden limited himself to an anodyne remark or two, Macron simply glossed over the subject.

Beijing must be quietly pleased that Michel picked Thursday for his visit. President Xi Jinping appreciated the EU’s ‘“goodwill of furthering relations with China.” Xi noted that the more unstable the international situation becomes and the more acute challenges the world faces, the greater global significance China-EU relations take on.

The EU’s foreign policy is at a juncture on whether to confront or cooperate with China. Global Times wrote that Michel’s visit “sent a signal that represents rational voices, that is, refusing to follow the US and treat China primarily through a political and ideological perspective…What the US wants is hegemony, but Europe wants survival, and the EU cannot achieve that without China.”

The bottom line is that as the conflict in Ukraine escalates, the neocons in the Biden Administration may feel elated, but the incipient tensions in the transatlantic relations can only aggravate. 

The G20 is dead. Long live the G20

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The seventeenth G20 Heads of State and Government Summit held in Bali, Indonesia, on 15–16 November stands out as a consequential event from many angles. The international politics is at an inflection point and the transition will not leave unaffected any of the institutions inherited from the past that is drifting away forever. 

However, the G20 can be an exception in bridging time past with time present and time future. The tidings from Bali leave a sense of mixed feelings of hope and despair. The G20 was conceived against the backdrop of the financial crisis in 2007 — quintessentially, a western attempt to burnish the jaded G7 by bringing on board the emerging powers that stood outside it looking in, especially China,  and thereby inject contemporaneity into global discourses. 

The leitmotif was harmony. How far the Bali summit lived up to that expectation is the moot point today. Regrettably, the G7 selectively dragged extraneous issues into the deliberations and its alter ego, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), made its maiden appearance in the Asia-Pacific. Arguably, the latter must be counted as a fateful happening during the Bali summit. 

What happened is a negation of the spirit of the G20. If the G7 refuses to discard its bloc mentality, the cohesion of the G20 gets affected. The G7-NATO joint statement could have been issued from Brussels or Washington or London.  Why Bali? 

The Chinese President Xi Jinping was spot on saying in a written speech at the APEC CEO Summit in Bangkok on November 17 that “The Asia-Pacific is no one’s backyard and should not become an arena for big power contest. No attempt to wage a new cold war will ever be allowed by the people or by the times.” 

Xi warned that “Both geopolitical tensions and the evolving economic dynamics have exerted a negative impact on the development environment and cooperation structure of the Asia-Pacific.” Xi said the Asia-Pacific region was once a ground for big power rivalry, had suffered conflicts and war. “History tells us that bloc confrontation cannot solve any problem and that bias will only lead to disaster.”

The golden rule that security issues do not fall within the purview of G20 has been broken. At the G20 summit, the western countries held the rest of the participants at the Bali summit to ransom: ‘Our way or no way’. Unless the intransigent West was appeased on Ukraine issue, there could be no Bali declaration, so, Russia relented. The sordid drama showed that the DNA of the western world hasn’t changed. Bullying remains its distinguishing trait.

But, ironically, at the end of the day, what stood out was that the Bali Declaration failed to denounce Russia on the Ukraine issue. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey give reason for hope that G20 can regenerate itself. These countries were never western colonies. They are dedicated to multipolarity, which will ultimately compel the West to concede that unilateralism and hegemony is unsustainable. 

This inflection point gave much verve to the meeting between the US President Joe Biden and the Chinese President Xi Jinping at Bali. Washington requested for such a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit, and Beijing consented. One striking thing about the meeting has been that Xi was appearing on the world stage after a hugely successful Party Congress. 

The resonance of his voice was unmistakable. Xi underscored that the US has lost the plot, when he told Biden: “A statesman should think about and know where to lead his country. He should also think about and know how to get along with other countries and the wider world.” (here and here)

The White House readouts hinted that Biden was inclined to be conciliatory. The US faces an uphill challenge to isolate China. As things stand, circumstances overall work to China’s advantage. (here , here and here)

The majority of countries have refused to take sides on Ukraine. China’s stance amply reflects it. Xi told Biden that China is ‘highly concerned’ about the current situation in Ukraine and support and look forward to a resumption of peace talks between Russia and China. That said, Xi also expressed the hope that the US, NATO and the EU ‘will conduct comprehensive dialogues’ with Russia.   

The fault lines that appeared at Bali may take new forms by the time the G20 holds its 18th summit in India next year. There is reason to be cautiously optimistic. First and foremost, it is improbable that Europe will go along with the US strategy of weaponising sanctions against China. They cannot afford a decoupling from China, which is the world’s largest trading nation and the principal driver of growth for the world economy. 

Second, much as the battle cries in Ukraine rallied Europe behind the US, a profound rethink is under way. Much agonising is going on about Europe’s commitment to strategic autonomy. The recent visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to China pointed in that direction. It is inevitable that Europe will distance itself from the US’ cold war aspirations. This process is inexorable in a world where the US is not inclined to spend time, money or effort on its European allies.

The point is, in many ways, America’s capacity to provide effective global economic leadership has irreversibly diminished, having lost its pre-eminent status as the world’s largest economy by a wide margin. Besides, the US is no longer willing or capable of investing heavily in shouldering the burden of leadership. Simply put, it still has nothing on offer to match China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This should have had a chastening influence and prompted a change of mindset toward cooperative policy actions, but the American elite are stuck in the old groove.

Fundamentally, therefore, multilateralism has become much harder in the present-day world situation. Nonetheless, the G20 is the only game in town to bring together the G7 and the aspiring developing countries who stands to gain out of a democratised world order. The western alliance system is rooted in the past. The bloc mentality holds little appeal to the developing countries. The gravitation of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia toward the BRICS conveys a powerful message that the western strategy in conceiving the G20 — to create a ring of subaltern states around the G7 — has outlived its utility. 

The dissonance that was on display in Bali exposed that the US still clings to its entitlement and is willing to play the spoiler. India has a great opportunity to navigate the G20 in a new direction. But it requires profound shifts on India’s part too –away from its US-centric foreign policies, coupled with far-sightedness and  a bold vision to forge a cooperative relationship with China, jettisoning past phobias and discarding self-serving narratives, and, indeed, at the very least, avoiding any further descent into beggar-thy-neighbour policies.

Nothing can Substitute Face to Face – Xi to Joe

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Chinese President Xi Jinping said on Monday here during a meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Joe Biden, that as leaders of two major countries, they need to set the right course for bilateral ties.

From the initial contact and the establishment of diplomatic relations to today, China and the United States have gone through 50-plus eventful years, with gains and losses as well as experience and lessons, Xi said.

Noting that history is the best textbook, the Chinese president said that the two sides should take it as a mirror and let it guide the future.

Currently, the state of China-U.S. relations is not in the fundamental interests of the two countries and their people, Xi said, adding that it is not what the international community expects from the two countries either.

As leaders of two major countries, Xi said, the two presidents need to play the leadership role, set the right course for the China-U.S. relationship and put it on an upward trajectory.

A statesman should think about and know where to lead his country. He should also think about and know how to get along with other countries and the wider world, he added.

Emphasizing that in this time and age, great changes are unfolding in ways like never before, Xi said that humanity is confronted with unprecedented challenges.

“The world has come to a crossroads. Where to go from here? This is a question that is not just on our mind, but also on the mind of all countries,” Xi said, noting that the world expects that China and the United States will properly handle their relationship.

Noting that his meeting with Biden has attracted the world’s attention, Xi said that the two sides should work with all countries to bring more hope to world peace, greater confidence in global stability, and stronger impetus to common development.

Xi said that he stands ready to have a candid and in-depth exchange of views with Biden on issues of strategic importance in China-U.S. relations and on major global and regional issues, adding that he also looks forward to working with Biden to bring China-U.S. relations back to the track of healthy and stable growth to the benefit of our two countries and the world as a whole. 

Source: Xinhua

Does the U.S. Chip Ban on China Amount to a Declaration of War in the Computer Age?

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548 views
6 mins read

The United States has gambled big in its latest across-the-board sanctions on Chinese companies in the semiconductor industry, believing it can kneecap China and retain its global dominance. From the slogans of globalization and “free trade” of the neoliberal 1990s, Washington has reverted to good old technology denial regimes that the U.S. and its allies followed during the Cold War. While it might work in the short run in slowing down the Chinese advances, the cost to the U.S. semiconductor industry of losing China—its biggest market—will have significant consequences in the long run. In the process, the semiconductor industries of Taiwan and South Korea and equipment manufacturers in Japan and the European Union are likely to become collateral damage. It reminds us again of what former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said: “It may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal.”

The purpose of the U.S. sanctions, the second generation of sanctions after the earlier one in August 2021, is to restrict China’s ability to import advanced computing chips, develop and maintain supercomputers, and manufacture advanced semiconductors. Though the U.S. sanctions are cloaked in military terms—denying China access to technology and products that can help China’s military—in reality, these sanctions target almost all leading semiconductor players in China and, therefore, its civilian sector as well. The fiction of ‘barring military use’ is only to provide the fig leaf of a cover under the World Trade Organization (WTO) exceptions on having to provide market access to all WTO members. Most military applications use older-generation chips and not the latest versions.

The specific sanctions imposed by the United States include:

  • Advanced logic chips required for artificial intelligence and high-performance computing
  • Equipment for 16nm logic and other advanced chips such as FinFET and Gate-All-Around
  • The latest generations of memory chips: NAND with 128 layers or more and DRAM with 18nm half-pitch

Specific equipment bans in the rules go even further, including many older technologies as well. For example, one commentator pointed out that the prohibition of tools is so broad that it includes technologies used by IBM in the late 1990s.

The sanctions also encompass any company that uses U.S. technology or products in its supply chain. This is a provision in the U.S. laws: any company that ‘touches’ the United States while manufacturing its products is automatically brought under the U.S. sanctions regime. It is a unilateral extension of the United States’ national legal jurisdiction and can be used to punish and crush any entity—a company or any other institution—that is directly or indirectly linked to the United States. These sanctions are designed to completely decouple the supply chain of the United States and its allies—the European Union and East Asian countries—from China.

In addition to the latest U.S. sanctions against companies that are already on the list of sanctioned Chinese companies, a further 31 new companies have been added to an “unverified list.” These companies must provide complete information to the U.S. authorities within two months, or else they will be barred as well. Furthermore, no U.S. citizen or anyone domiciled in the United States can work for companies on the sanctioned or unverified lists, not even to maintain or repair equipment supplied earlier.

The global semiconductor industry’s size is currently more than $500 billion and is likely to double its size to $1 trillion by 2030. According to a Semiconductor Industry Association and Boston Consulting Group report of 2020—“Turning the Tide for Semiconductor Manufacturing in the U.S.”—China is expected to account for approximately 40 percent of the semiconductor industry growth by 2030, displacing the United States as the global leader. This is the immediate trigger for the U.S. sanctions and its attempt to halt China’s industry from taking over the lead from the United States and its allies.

While the above measures are intended to isolate China and limit its growth, there is a downside for the United States and its allies in sanctioning China.

The problem for the United States—more so for Taiwan and South Korea—is that China is their biggest trading partner. Imposing such sanctions on equipment and chips also means destroying a good part of their market with no prospect of an immediate replacement. This is true not only for China’s East Asian neighbors but also for equipment manufacturers like the Dutch company ASML, the world’s only supplier of extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography machines that produces the latest chips. For Taiwan and South Korea, China is not only the biggest export destination for their semiconductor industry as well as other industries, but also one of their biggest suppliers for a range of products. The forcible separation of China’s supply chain in the semiconductor industry is likely to be accompanied by separation in other sectors as well.

The U.S. companies are also likely to see a big hit to their bottom line—including equipment manufacturers such as Lam Research Corporation, Applied Materials, and KLA Corporation; the electronic design automation (EDA) tools such as Synopsys and Cadence; and advanced chip suppliers like Qualcomm, Nvidia, and AMD. China is the largest destination for all these companies. The problem for the United States is that China is not only the fastest-growing part of the world’s semiconductor industry but also the industry’s biggest market. So the latest sanctions will cripple not only the Chinese companies on the list but also the U.S. semiconductor firms, drying up a significant part of their profits and, therefore, their future research and development (R&D) investments in technology. While some of the resources for investments will come from the U.S. government—for example, the $52.7 billion chip manufacturing subsidy—they do not compare to the losses the U.S. semiconductor industry will suffer as a result of the China sanctions. This is why the semiconductor industry had suggested narrowly targeted sanctions on China’s defense and security industry, not the sweeping sanctions that the United States has now introduced; the scalpel and not the hammer.

The process of separating the sanctions regime and the global supply chain is not a new concept. The United States and its allies had a similar policy during and after the Cold War with the Soviet Union via the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM) (in 1996, it was replaced by the Wassenaar Arrangement), the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Control Regime, and other such groups. Their purpose is very similar to what the United States has now introduced for the semiconductor industry. In essence, they were technology denial regimes that applied to any country that the United States considered an “enemy,” with its allies following—then as now—what the United States dictated. The targets on the export ban list were not only the specific products but also the tools that could be used to manufacture them. Not only the socialist bloc countries but also countries such as India were barred from accessing advanced technology, including supercomputers, advanced materials, and precision machine tools. Under this policy, critical equipment required for India’s nuclear and space industries was placed under a complete ban. Though the Wassenaar Arrangement still exists, with countries like even Russia and India within the ambit of this arrangement now, it has no real teeth. The real threat comes from falling out with the U.S. sanctions regime and the U.S. interpretation of its laws superseding international laws, including the WTO rules.

The advantage the United States and its military allies—in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, and the Central Treaty Organization—had before was that the United States and its European allies were the biggest manufacturers in the world. The United States also controlled West Asia’s hydrocarbon—oil and gas—a vital resource for all economic activities. The current chip war against China is being waged at a time when China has become the biggest manufacturing hub of the world and the largest trade partner for 70 percent of countries in the world. With the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries no longer obeying the U.S. diktats, Washington has lost control of the global energy market.

So why has the United States started a chip war against China at a time that its ability to win such a war is limited? It can, at best, postpone China’s rise as a global peer military power and the world’s biggest economy. An explanation lies in what some military historians call the “Thucydides trap”: when a rising power rivals a dominant military power, most such cases lead to war. According to Athenian historian Thucydides, Athens’ rise led Sparta, the then-dominant military power, to go to war against it, in the process destroying both city-states; therefore, the trap. While such claims have been disputed by other historians, when a dominant military power confronts a rising one, it does increase the chance of either a physical or economic war. If the Thucydides trap between China and the United States restricts itself to only an economic war—the chip war—we should consider ourselves lucky!

With the new series of sanctions by the United States, one issue has been settled: the neoliberal world of free trade is officially over. The sooner other countries understand it, the better it will be for their people. And self-reliance means not simply the fake self-reliance of supporting local manufacturing, but instead means developing the technology and knowledge to sustain and grow it.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

Stop World War III – Now

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750 views
3 mins read

In 1799, Marshall Alexander Suvorov led a Russian army and all its cannons across the Alps in the dead of winter.  A plaque near Gotthard still commemorates this epic military feat.

In March 1814, Russia’s emperor Alexander I entered Paris at the head of his Imperial Guard, ending Napoleon’s rule.

In 1945, Russian forces under Marshalls Zhukov and Konev fought their way into Berlin. The Red Army destroyed 75% of all German and Axis forces.

Russians are great warriors.  They are courageous, often heedless of death, and masters of the art of war. 

So, what has happened to the Russian Army in Ukraine?  It has fought poorly, moved at the speed of ox carts, blundered around and suffered heavy casualties and heavy loss of armored and air forces.

Start with Russia’s military hierarchy. It’s led by a civilian, Sergei Shoigu, a crony of Putin and a man without any military training or experience. But he’s loyal to Putin.

He reminds me of poor, old Egyptian field marshal, Abdel Hakim Amer, Nasser’s buddy, who misled his nation’s armed forces into the 1967 catastrophe.  When Israeli warplanes attacked, using US satellite data, Amer was smoking dope in his airplane.

Putin was a KGB officer. He had no military background beyond ruthlessly crushing the second Chechen uprising – with US help.  Chechen chief Ramzan Kadyrov has blasted Shoigu and called for his head.  There has been far too much political interference with Russia’s military. 

Putin wanted a limited ‘military action,’ not a full-scale war against what was not so long ago an integral part of Russia.  Hence the once formidable Red Army was kept on a leash, deprived of Russia’s most modern weapons, and ordered to go easy on the rebellious Ukrainians.

Russia’s artillery, the Queen of battle, ran out of ammunition.  The Red Air Force was ordered not to risk its expensive Sukhoi fighter-bombers.  Its space-based targeting was jammed or degraded by the US and NATO.

Equally important, the conflict in Ukraine has already turned into a mini-World War Three as the US and its key allies struggle to deliver the coup de grace to the Russian federation.

This war is not about freedom for Ukraine – as potent western propaganda incessantly tells us.  It’s about crushing the last remnants of former Soviet power and turning the fragments into docile mini states dominated by Washington and London.

Since CIA overthrew Ukraine’s pro-Russian regime in 2014 – which cost an estimated $50 billion – Moscow and Kiev have been at daggers drawn.  Putin’s Russia refuses to recognize Ukraine as an independent state.  Kiev, backed by tens of billions of dollars and a massive arsenal of arms from the west, rejects Russian hegemony.

The US wants to see the Balkanization of Mother Russia. The next targets may be Russia’s Far East or the Russian Urals.  The war party in Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike, appears determined to crush the life out of what’s left of Russia and achieve the strategic goal of America’s neocons of eradicating any potential military opponent of absolute worldwide US power.  Once Russia is laid low, China will be the next target – in fact, it likely already is.

The Biden administration has already poured close to $100 billion of aid and huge amounts of arms into Ukraine, a staggering and risky sum for a nation with a $31 trillion deficit. Add billions more from Canada and US allies in Europe who would prefer to see this war end.

The current wave of high inflation has been ignited in large part by Washington’s reckless spending over Ukraine. This is money the US Treasury does not have, and must borrow, fueling roaring inflation.

A decade ago, President Putin proclaimed that Russia would cut conventional military spending and increasingly rely on nuclear arms. 

Yet we are surprised now that the Kremlin is rattling its nuclear weapons. We should not forget that before the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine held and produced substantial numbers of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. These were supposedly all junked, but Ukraine probably holds a few nukes in secret.

Meanwhile, western forces are openly operating in Ukraine against Russian forces.  The full panoply of US power is witnessed there:  space intelligence and air-born intelligence; naval operations blocking the Russian Black Sea Fleet; vast amounts of artillery, electronic warfare, conventional land warfare conducted by special units from Poland, the US, Britain and Germany. 

As this column has been saying for years, the prime duty of the United States, the world’s premier power, is to avert any possible nuclear confrontation in Eastern Europe.  Diplomacy, not more arms, is the answer.

The answer is clear: stop trying to draw Ukraine into NATO, stop trying to fragment Russia. Let the rebellious Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine join Russia if they so desire.  Pull western forces out of the region and resume quiet diplomacy.  Let France lead this sensible effort.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2022