Email This Post - Print This Post Print This Post

By John Helmer, Moscow

In the armchair warrior’s version of game theory played with and without nuclear weapons, there’s a special place for the calculation of strategic deterrence that’s called tit for tat. President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump agreed between themselves that in the tit-for-tat game between the Kremlin and the White House, anticipating, reciprocating and deterring are best achieved by cooperating.

That word was used nineteen times in the presidents’ news conference. It appeared nine times in Putin’s opening statement; four times in Trump’s opening statement; and six times in Putin’s answers to questions.

Because the two sides had agreed in advance not to issue an official communiqué revealing (to Trump’s adversaries at home) what they had agreed, these remarks were staged in front of the cameras instead. Cooperation was the obvious point of agreement. However, since they left Helsinki, lower-level American officials and their media – Russian officials and their media,  too — have replaced tit for tat for shit for shat. That’s information warfare jargon for opening the mouth and talking drivel. (more…)

Email This Post - Print This Post Print This Post

By Eric van de Beek and Max van der Werff, Amsterdam*

Max, a year ago we looked back extensively on three years of MH17. Which are for you the most important events and developments over the past year?

Without any doubt the liability of the Russian Federation claimed by the Netherlands and Australia and then the first real firm denial by President Vladimir Putin. The positions on what really happened can no longer be reconciled and both parties cannot go back any more. (more…)

Email This Post - Print This Post Print This Post

By John Helmer, Moscow

President Vladimir Putin’s side of the brunch table at the Helsinki summit almost matched President Donald Trump’s side. Seven sets of knives, forks and spoons;  six officials, one interpreter, matching lieutenant-generals. The odd man out — that’s to say in — was Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman. Peskov’s White House counterpart, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was excluded.  Peskov wrote notes during the delegation meeting; his contribution became public during the press conference of the two presidents which followed. (more…)

Email This Post - Print This Post Print This Post

By John Helmer, Moscow

Robert Mueller (lead image), the special US prosecutor of crimes of espionage between Moscow and Washington, picked July 13 to issue his indictment of twelve alleged Russian military intelligence officers for doing their jobs on evidence collected by US intelligence officers doing their jobs.

The Russian crime alleged by Mueller in Paragraph 1 of the indictment  was  “large-scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” The US crime, revealed by Mueller but unindicted so far by the Russian General Prosecutor, was large-scale cyber operations to interfere with Russian state security.

Mueller could not have picked a more auspicious date if he weren’t an ignoramus on the history of autocracy and democracy, European and American. For it is one day later, on July 14, when every year France celebrates the start of the French Revolution. The reason for the celebration is the end of abuse of power by kings and pretenders to state authority, and their replacement by the democratic rule of law. That revolution, like the annual celebration, isn’t quite over.  

What Mueller did this year was to issue what was called, before July 14, 1789, a lettre de cachet – a letter with the royal signet or seal.  In the French practice, this was a combination of indictment, conviction, and order for arrest, confiscation of property,  and punishment of an individual, who had no right in law to know the charge against him; prove the evidence;  appeal the sentence.

The Mueller indictment of twelve officers of the Russian military intelligence agency, GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff) is a fresh US-Government style lettre de cachet. It names the men accused, their crimes,  and the punishment.  The penalties include “upon conviction [the twelve] shall forfeit to the United States any property, real or personal, which constitutes or is derived from proceeds obtained directly or indirectly as a result of such violation, and any personal property that was used or intended to be used to commit or to facilitate the commission of such offense.”   

Mueller has neither the power nor the intention of trying the accused, or the particulars of his lettre,  in an American court of law. This is why on July 13 he intended to violate the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution, first introduced in Philadelphia on June 8, 1789, just a month before the lettre de cachet lost its power in Paris.  The Fifth Amendment says noone shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” (more…)

Email This Post - Print This Post Print This Post

By John Helmer, Moscow

In a ruling issued on June 28 and now publicly available, the Chief Magistrate of England, Emma Arbuthnot, has dismissed an application by Russian prosecutors for extradition of Andrei Votinov. He is charged in Russia with fraud against the Rosneft subsidiary, the Tuapse Oil Refinery. The 33-page judgement is a rare test in an international court of the reputation of Igor Sechin, chief executive of Rosneft.   

Arbuthnot rejected allegations by Votinov that Sechin was persecuting him or that Sechin had played an improper role in Rosneft’s audit and subsequent complaint of fraud.  She dismissed Votinov’s claim that he was being targeted by Sechin because he had “stood against Rosneft’s political support for the regime.”

The judge also rejected the claims by a British academic, Richard Sakwa, who testified on Votinov’s behalf to the court  that the case had been fabricated against him,  motivated by personal vindictiveness on Sechin’s part and by Votinov’s political views.

Nonetheless, Arbuthnot dismissed the extradition request by the Russian prosecutors and released Votinov. Because of “the prominent role of the complainant [Rosneft] in this case and the false statement given by a senior investigator [Murat Tkhakakhov] ,” Arbuthnot wrote in her judgement, “I find the facts in this case lead me to the conclusion that this is one of those exceptional cases where the defendant [Votinov] has shown there is a real risk that he will suffer a flagrant denial of justice if he were to be extradited to the Russian Federation.” (more…)

Email This Post - Print This Post Print This Post

By John Helmer, Moscow

Until the moment in April, when the US Government attacked Oleg Deripaska and his companies, including Rusal, the state aluminium monopoly,  his revenues, earnings and profits were looking up, and not only because the aluminium price had been rising. The electricity sale revenues of EN+ were also climbing, even though production of electricity was flat. Profits, most of which flow as dividends to Deripaska and his associates, might have been even greater,  EN+  reported last month to the London Stock Exchange, if not for the reduction of water flow down the Angara River and into Lake Baikal.  Less water through the sluices to the turbines means less electricity and aluminium; that means less profit in Deripaska’s pocket.

EN+ blames the water problem on the weather. Rivers Without Boundaries (RWB), a leading non-governmental organization devoted to protecting Lake Baikal and the river systems which feed it, announced last week that EN+ is to blame for water flow policies which threaten the lake with a combination of flooding in the wet season and reduced waterflows in the dry.  “[The] long-lasting negative social and environmental impacts which go unmitigated for decades,” says Evgeny Simonov of RWB, “are a far greater threat posed by En+ Group to the global security and well-being of the population of Russia than the alleged political implications of its owner’s activity.”

RWB is also charging that last December Deripaska was behind a federal government decree which puts a stop to 16-year old standards for the water volumes entering Lake Baikal from the Angara River.  This decree, signed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on December 27, permits a much wider fluctuation in the lake’s minimum and maximum water levels than the Russian government and its experts judged  environmentally safe in 2001.   Medvedev’s decree allows Deripaska to divert more river water into his turbines in the dry season, and release more water in the flood season.

And there’s the rub. Until Deripaska’s profit prospects and share value collided with the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC),  the biggest threat to his profit line was the declining water levels of the river system passing through the Angara River cascade and hydropower complex, and thence to the falling water level of Lake Baikal. For remedy, Deripaska had persuaded the Kremlin to save his profit last December by allowing him to continue generating more hydropower and delivering less water than is good for Lake Baikal. (more…)

Email This Post - Print This Post Print This Post

By John Helmer, Moscow

President Vladimir Putin (left) has appointed his deputy chief of staff Sergei Kirienko (right) “Hero of Russia”, the highest award for personal valour in the table of Russian state decorations.   

Kirienko’s career includes presiding as prime minister over the 1998 default by the Russian  treasury, the only sovereign default since  repudiation of the tsar’s debts in 1918. More recently as head of Rosatom, Kirienko directed the failure to persuade the corrupt South African government to buy $50 billion worth of nuclear reactors.  The money involved in these feats was heroic in value, but until now Kirienko has not been judged to have performed pluckily enough in medallion terms.

Exactly which of Kirienko’s feats have warranted the hero award have not been disclosed publicly because the Putin decree remains a state secret.  Kremlin sources have told the state news agency Tass and other Russian media the decree was signed by Putin early in March, and remained secret until this week.

Asked to explain why Kirienko’s courage should be classified, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said  yesterday : “I do not comment on this message”.  Which is a reminder of the tale of the priest, the donkey, and the press. (more…)

Email This Post - Print This Post Print This Post

By John Helmer, Moscow

The Routledge Handbook of Russian Foreign Policy is a 450-page compendium by academics who earn modest livings in think-tanks at places in North America or Europe like Louisville, Hamburg, San Francisco, Rhode Island, Edinburgh, West Virginia, South Carolina, Southern California,  Newcastle, Uppsala, Tartu, and Helsinki. In the book Russian academics in Russia are outnumbered by the westerners by 26 to 8; all are on small state-paid livings led by Andrei Sushenkov, programme director at the Valdai Discussion Club. That 14-year old think-tank is financed by the Kremlin information chief Alexander Gromov and the president’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov.  

The handbook proprietor,  once a well-known 19th century London publisher, is now the US  conglomerate Informa. It operates on the principle of Gresham’s Law – the more information you produce for sale, the less likelihood you will be outsold by the truth.  The Valdai Discussion Club and other think-tank creations in Moscow have been described by President Vladimir Putin as a “propaganda machine” to compete with their Anglo-American counterparts. To a Kremlin sponsored journalist, their output is “political marijuana smoke.”    

The handbook writers must be approaching retirement because they dedicate their work “to the younger generation of scholars of Russian foreign policy”.  The book begins: “The importance of studying Russian foreign policy (RFP) today is as great as ever.” By page 450 this is neither more  obvious, nor less.   (more…)

Email This Post - Print This Post Print This Post

By John Helmer, Moscow

When cynical and unscrupulous men are desperate, they become as predictable as if they were principled. The difference between such men is hard to tell.

Not since the Alaska Purchase of 1867 have the rulers of Moscow and Washington been as desperate to sell something to each other for a price the press and public opinion on both sides are unprepared to calculate or accept.  When President Vladimir Putin (lead image, left) and President Donald Trump (right) meet in a fortnight, this price will be a secret both of them will agree to keep to protect themselves from adversaries at home more powerful than they are themselves.

With two weeks still to go for preparations, so far only the terms the US side intends to table are in the public domain. No Russian government official, think-tank expert, or reporter has published an account of what the Russian terms will be.

During the Kremlin meeting last week between Putin and Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, one clue was visible. This was the appearance of the Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on the Russian side of table, alongside the president’s foreign affairs advisor Yury Ushakov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Shoigu wasn’t matched by a military officer or Pentagon counterpart on the American side of the table. So Shoigu wasn’t present to speak. He was there to listen, and to report to the General Staff what the US side is proposing – and not less significant, what Putin had to say. Shoigu’s presence was a signal that on the Russian side, the military do not quite trust the president — their own, not the other one. (more…)

Email This Post - Print This Post Print This Post

By John Helmer, Moscow

Early this month a Chinese reporter asked President Vladimir Putin for an intimate detail of his life noone had requested (or been given) before. Asked how much time he spends on exercise each day, Putin replied: “Every day I spend about 2–2.5 hours doing sports. I go to the gym, I swim, sometimes I get out on the mat, if I have sparring partners, and sometimes I play hockey.”

The amount of time surprises European sources; they believe Putin, now 65 years of age, is setting something of a world record among heads of government or state. Moscow observers claim the number of Putin’s sport hours includes at least a half-hour undressing and dressing, perhaps his daily ablutions too. Even discounting that time, the sources remark it is more than twice the recommended exercise norm at Soviet sanatoriums built in Lenin’s and Stalin’s time to restore workers’ health from poisonous occupations at mines and smelters, and raise their productivity on going back to work.

A newly published book from London  is a portrait of the decline of these institutions in contemporary Russia, before they disappear entirely, their worker and pensioner clientele with them. A federal Health Ministry doctor observes that as the retirement age is stretched out by eight years for women (new target 63), five years for men (target 65, Putin’s age), state spending for the physical welfare to make the distance is being cut back. Several millions will not reach the sanatorium; they will have gone to the cemetery instead.  

This is a policy of cutting the state budget for pensioners by preserving the money in the  pension,  but culling the numbers of those living long enough to receive it. The ideology of the Soviet sanatorium has been liquidated; the real estate is being privatized; the surviving clientele redirected into fat reduction and cosmetic treatments for juvenescence.   (more…)