The U.S.-Russia "phony war": How Washington warmongers could bring us from stalemate to catastrophe

One of two outcomes is likely: Another long Cold War, or a great power conflict

Published August 8, 2015 11:30PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Junko Kimura-Matsumoto/Maxim Shipenkov/AP/Dmitry Lovetsky/Photo collage by Salon)
(Reuters/Junko Kimura-Matsumoto/Maxim Shipenkov/AP/Dmitry Lovetsky/Photo collage by Salon)

The Ukraine crisis and the attendant confrontation with Russia assume a “phony war” feel these days. As in the perversely calm months between the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the Blitzkrieg into the Low Countries the following spring, nothing much seems to be happening.

No one took comfort then—a fog of anxiety suffused everything—and no one should now. One almost prefers it when Washington politicians and other temporarily important people are out there grandstanding and warmongering. At least part of what is occurring is visible, even as the whole never is. Now one sees almost nothing, and we get an idea of what the historians mean when they describe the queasiness abroad during the phony war period.

A formidable file of political, diplomatic and military reports has accumulated by drips and drops of late, and it strongly suggests one of two things: Either we are on the near side of open conflict between two great powers, accidental or purposeful and probably but not necessarily on Ukrainian soil, or we are in for a re-rendering of the Cold War that will endure as long as the original.

One cannot look forward to either, the former being dangerous and the latter dreary. But it has to be one or the other, barring the unlikely possibility that Washington is forced to accept a settlement that federalizes Ukraine, as Europe and Moscow assert is sensible.

It is hard to say when this thought came to me, but it has to be since Secretary of State Kerry’s May meeting in Sochi with President Putin and Sergei Lavrov, his foreign minister. That session seemed to mark a dramatic turn toward sense at the time and won much applause, including here. But things have deteriorated ever since.

“Kerry is now sidelined on Ukraine, it seems, since his four hours with Putin last May,” a prominent Russianist wrote in a personal note 10 days ago. “Another escalation by the war party—headed, I think, by [Vice President] Biden, [Senator] McCain, et al.”

That did it for me. We are not quite back to square one, but we are not far from it. It is almost certainly clearer to Russians and Europeans than it is to Americans, but Washington acquired a forked tongue after the Minsk II ceasefire was signed last February, and the warmongers are trampling those favoring a negotiated settlement at this point.

A month after Kerry’s one-day visit to Sochi, Senator McCain pitched up in Kiev yet again to deliver another of his “shame” speeches. Europeans should be ashamed, he said, for insisting on a diplomatic settlement in Ukraine and not doing enough to back Kiev’s troops. That week, the Senate approved a bill authorizing the Pentagon to send Kiev an additional $300 million worth of defensive weapons.

McCain is one of those many on Capitol Hill who have no clue where shame lies in Ukraine. A coup Washington cultivated, producing a patently incompetent administration in Kiev openly dependent on violence-worshipping Nazi nostalgists? Six thousand dead and counting? A purposeful and absolutely pointless revival of tensions across Russia’s western borders? No shame here, Senator?


A few days ago came news that American soldiers are to begin training the Ukrainian army this autumn. Given the Pentagon has been training the Ukrainian national guard since April, it is not too much to say Americans have assumed de facto control of the Ukrainian defense apparatus. And no wonder, given the well-known problems of corruption and incompetence in Ukraine’s military and a lack of will among troops when ordered to shoot their own countrymen.

This is the new micro picture. In the course of a few months, Pentagon and State have re-upped their effort to encourage the Poroshenko government to resolve its crisis with rebellious citizens in the east of Ukraine on the battlefield—foursquare in opposition to Franco-German efforts to fashion a negotiated settlement in concert with Moscow.  Washington thus fights two fronts in the Ukraine crisis, a point not to be missed.

As to the macro picture, it now shapes up as very macro indeed.

As noted in this space a few weeks ago, Defense Secretary Carter made a grand sweep through the frontline nations where NATO will now maintain battle-ready materiel. Here are the numbers behind the display: NATO has increased military exercises in close proximity to Russia’s western border from fewer than 100 last year—already an aggressive number—to more than 150. Reconnaissance flights and airborne exercises bumping up to Russian airspace have increased nearly tenfold.

NATO’s European missile defense system, while altered during Obama’s first term, proceeds apace—if you can believe it, still under the pretense that it is intended to protect the Continent from short-term missiles fired from Iran. Who is this fig leaf intended to fool, you have to wonder. I doubt even Tom Friedman takes it seriously.

Is the Russian military in an expansionary mode? You bet: new missile defense systems, a rapid reaction force increasing to 60,000, new tank and artillery units, air force upgrades. The country’s borders start to bristle, and for the same reason they did during the Cold War decades: Russia’s perception of a NATO threat on its borders is altogether realistic. Only ideologues given to subjective reasoning and allergic to historical causality—not to mention maps—could possibly think otherwise.

*  *  *

The timing here is remarkable. Kerry, the Europeans, Russians and Chinese signed an historically important accord governing Iran’s nuclear program on July 14. Obama thereupon praised Putin for his cooperation—and it was key in getting the deal done. Lavrov, as Kerry recognizes, is a gifted diplomat.

Two weeks and two days later Treasury names 26 more Russian individuals and companies to its sanctions list. So far as I can make out, this was entirely out of the blue, in response to nothing.

“Treasury Department officials made no reference to the Iran deal in their announcement, or in a conference call with reporters,” the Times reported. I am sure they did not. They described the list as a “routine step,” The Times added. I am sure it was not.

The usual explanation for these things—bureaucratic muddle, officials in one cabinet silo declining to cooperate with those in another—does not plug in this time. I put this move down to either (1) another sop to Washington warmongers, (2) a good-cop, bad-cop routine the administration is trying on, (3) another skirmish in which the Kerry camp failed to prevail, or (3) an outmoded notion of impunity wherein American officials think they can do anything to anybody and there will be no comeback.

Ditto the latest on Malaysian Flight MH-17, downed on Ukrainian soil last year, and the ongoing nonsense concerning foreign-funded NGOs operating in Russia. Let us take these in order.

The Netherlands-led investigations into the downing of MH-17 have been unconscionably, not to say suspiciously, long in coming. The technical report on cause is due this October; the one assigning responsibility could run into next year. There can be only one reason the U.S. and other Western powers insisted on a Security Council vote last week nominally intended to name a tribunal to prosecute the guilty. Creating such a tribunal was out of the question, as was clear in the circumstances; the purpose was to prompt the Russian veto Moscow had made perfectly clear it would exercise.

Ask yourself: Why else require Security Council action when one of the five permanent members advised the other four it would not accept it?

We had our cue immediately after the crash. Kerry took the lead in vigorously, incessantly and irresponsibly insisting that Russian-supported insurgents had brought the plane down with a Russian-made missile. Any other explanation was cast as outside the tent of the permissible: It was deranged or advanced in the service of the Kremlin or flew in the face of plain facts, never mind there were almost none established.

This was politics from the start, in short. Were it otherwise, we all would have confined ourselves to mourning as proper inquiries proceeded.

Who is involved in the inquiries as we have them? The Netherlands leads Malaysia, Ukraine, Australia and Belgium. Fair enough the Malaysians are in on this, but I will qualify the point in a minute. Without qualification, what in hell is Ukraine doing investigating an incident in which it may possibly be implicated? It is already on paper accusing Russia of responsibility—a prima facie disqualifier.

As to the Australians, way too Cold War-ish for my money. The Belgians are a minor power but a cooperative Western power all the same.

As you may have guessed, I have no patience with the charade wherein ideology and politics do not animate this question. In my view, the truth of the MH-17 incident was doomed from the first by both.

Having a large number of victims among the dead does not qualify any nation to participate in an investigation. In a rational world this would disqualify them. Malaysian Airlines owned and flew the plane: Yes, Malaysians ought to be part of the inquiry—maybe even direct it. But a proper inquiry would be comprised of internationally recognized investigators, forensic scientists and jurists precisely from disinterested nations with records of non-ideological judgments.

Julie Bishop, the Australian foreign minister, after the vote: “The veto is a mockery of Russia’s commitment to accountability.”

Bert Koenders, the Dutch foreign minister: “I find it incomprehensible that a member of the Security Council obstructs justice.”

Samantha Power, Washington’s U.N. representative: “Russia has tried to deny justice to the 298 victims on that plane.”

See what I mean? Rubbish from fools rushing in. None of these statements holds up as anything more than hyperbole for the peanut gallery. It is all pretend. Yet these nations, notably the U.S., propose to help determine who sits on a criminal tribunal.

Here is Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. envoy, after the vote: “Political purposes were more important for them than practical objectives.” With no apologies, I find this the truest thing said on the occasion.

Russia has since advanced its own proposal for a way forward on the MH-17 incident. It advocates what it has wanted all along: to internationalize the investigation by way of greater U.N. involvement beyond the Security Council. It wants a special envoy named, and it wants transparency by way of organization and working methods. It does not ask to participate in the inquiry. And it is critical of delays in the Dutch-led efforts.

I will say this simply: This is a rational proposal. I make no reference whatsoever to its origin in reaching my conclusion.

*  *  *

Washington, proving the point about consistency and dull minds, never tires of criticizing Moscow, Putin in particular, for its (or his) treatment of foreign-funded NGOs. Since 2012, they have been required to register as foreign agents—exactly as the U.S. requires. Alert readers will recall how this ruling is repeatedly used to advance the demonization of the Russian leader. The “foreign agents” bit is put down as a Stalin-era cover to suppress well-meaning people trying to do honorable things.

“MOSCOW, July 22—The MacArthur Foundation is closing its offices in Russia after more than 20 years of grant-making here, becoming the latest casualty of new restrictions meant to limit the influence of foreign organizations in Russia.” So wrote the New York Times two weeks ago.

Think about this. MacArthur set up shop in Moscow during the Yeltsin years, when hyper-hubristic Americans thought they were going to remake all of Russia in their own image. Yeltsin had no objection, but unless you are unable to connect any dots at all you will recognize this as a problem—an accumulating disruption. Stephen F. Cohen’s book in this period, “Failed Crusade,” explains this in startling detail.

What kind of organizations is MacArthur going to fund? Its website says it “works to defend human rights.” The Times says it backs “civil society organizations.” I do not know about you, but when American do-gooders utter buzzwords like “human rights” and “civil society” I am immediately wary of the intent. So are Venezuelans, Russians and numerous others.

MacArthur is one of 12 NGOs and NGO-funders placed on a kind of watchlist last month; they could be required to close operations if their activities are deemed undesirable. Watchlist became “blacklist” in a matter of a few paragraphs in the Times account—a term the Times has a lot of nerve using—but never mind.

Others on it are George Soros’ Open Society Institute (“…aims to shape public policy to promote democratic governance,” its website explains), Freedom House (a notoriously russophobic Cold War subversion machine) and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which began humbly enough doing community work in Flint, Michigan, but is now up to its knees in “civic activism” and “civil society development” in Russia and the former Soviet satellites. A project Mott funded in June studies “citizen protests, demonstrations, and discontent” in these nations. Just trying to do the right thing, per usual.

What business do the MacArthur Foundation or any of these other institutions have “shaping public policy in Russia?” How many people other than Americans are phony enough to fold deregulated private enterprise and free-market economics into a definition of human rights? We Americans may be drowsy from the lullaby of our excellent intentions always and everywhere, but the conceit is preposterous. It is best to understand it in context and with a brief history in mind—the kind our media will never supply.

My jaw hit the edge of my desk when I saw Freedom House listed among the NGOs unfairly (the baseline assumption) placed on Moscow’s watchlist. As many readers will know, this group has gone around the world annually since the Cold War decades rating all nations as “free,” “partly free,” or “not free.”

“Freedom in the World,” wherein this stuff is published, is a blunt instrument, fair to say. So is “Freedom of the Press,” another annual index. I love the 2015 map in the latter book: All Western nations are colored green, having a free press. Apart from Japan, Papua New Guinea, Ghana, Uruguay and a few specks in the Caribbean, there is no free press anywhere else on the planet.

Even if you agree with these assessments, Freedom House is problematic, to put the point too mildly. Cuba has long accused it of being a C.I.A. front, which is only administratively untrue: It routinely takes funds from the Agency for International Development, another U.S. government organization and a longtime conduit for money deployed in the service of foreign subversions.

A few years ago the Financial Times reported that State had used Freedom House as a conduit to fund “clandestine activities” in Iran. “Far more often than is generally understood,” the FT quoted Freedom House as asserting, “the change agent is broad-based, non-violent civic resistance—which employs tactics such as boycotts, mass protests, blockades, strikes and civil disobedience to de-legitimate authoritarian rulers and erode their sources of support, including the loyalty of their armed defenders."

Paraphrase: We’re into coups. Straight to the point, Freedom House started sending A.I.D. funds to Ukrainian “civil society” NGOs, which did years of advance work prior to last year’s coup, as early as 2004.

All of these groups claim to be independent of government, but as Freedom House’s history illustrates, this means only that Washington has outsourced certain of its unpublicized policy functions. The Ford Foundation, the granddaddy of all colluding NGOs, remains infamous for putting itself at the C.I.A.’s disposal since the ethically retarded John J. McCloy ran the shop in the 1950s and ’60s. At the Cold War’s height, McCloy has two or three Ford executives permanently assigned to manage liaison with the agency.

An incident last year caught my eye as an illustration of how this computes out on the ground.

Last August Moscow expelled one Jennifer Gaspar, a 43-year-old lawyer resident in St. Petersburg for a decade. Gaspar was been active in the “foreign agent” corner of the NGO scene and is married to Ivan Pavlov, a human-rights lawyer who founded and now runs the Institute for Information Freedom Development (a name I appreciate for its spooky Cold War ring).

The institute’s latest financial report is here. Take a look at where it gets his money: A.I.D.; the National Endowment for Democracy, which is also in the coup business and is funded by Congress; Open Society; MacArthur; and Ford.

Last week, Moscow took its first action against an American NGO, declaring the N.E.D. undesirable. Here one sees how the game plays out.

No one seems to dispute the N.E.D.’s mission to destabilize governments not to Washington’s liking. The media’s trick—and they are ever-faithful to it—is simply not to describe the mission. Carl Gershman, the N.E.D.’s president, is on the record saying the agency’s work is to funnel funds to opposition groups in countries such as Russia and Venezuela. The autumn prior to the coup in Kiev he described Ukraine as “the biggest prize.”

Responding to Moscow’s ruling that the N.E.D. has to go, Gershman wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post saying it is “the latest evidence that the regime of President Vladimir Putin faces a worsening crisis of political legitimacy.”

Huh? The guy has an approval rating of nearly 90 percent. This, you see, is how the game plays out—as much as anything else a charade to keep Americans comfortable as their taxes finance subversions.

Here is my take on this whole NGO scene in Russia. Whatever good foreign NGOs may do—and there is some or even much, surely—they should indeed go home. Three reasons.

One. These groups were as drunk on ideological righteousness during the 1990s as Yeltsin was on vodka. This party is over. If a single point above any other can be assigned to Putin, it is that Russia is no longer a free-for-all. Again, Cohen’s “Failed Crusade” tells the story.

Two. To assume Russians need American help in achieving social justice, a vibrant public sphere, a free press and an orderly democratic process is simply the height of silliness. These are all questions Russians are competent to decide upon and will. The flip side here: America is in crisis precisely because it has none of the above.

Three. NGOland has long, long been too polluted with mal-intended missions for any foreign power reasonably to tolerate such agencies on their soil. And they slip more mickeys into their drinks now than ever, it would appear. A lot of people, in and out of NGOs, seem to think—or believe, faith-like—that destabilizing Russia is a good idea. Sensible people know otherwise.

I still honor Sukarno, the charismatic Indonesian, for his remark in 1964, by which time he was fed up with Washington’s covert efforts to foment the blood-soaked political purge and insurrection that would depose him three years later: “Go to hell with your foreign aid,” the Bung, as he was affectionately called, told Americans. Time and again it seems to apply.

*  *  *

Who knows how long our phony war with Russia will last? It is hard to see through the fog, but I find in it one source of comfort.

Washington has been stymied in Ukraine, and may not have a next move. The client regime is too weak and unskilled, the economy is destroyed, European objections to a military solution too strong, and Russian resolve too firm. Hence this summer doldrum.

This column predicted American failure and retreat in Ukraine soon after hostilities between Kiev and the eastern regions broke out in the spring of last year. I hold to this. The eventual question, not yet ready to be posed, is how big a mess Washington will make as it withdraws. History provides no pleasing answer.


By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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