Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Will Putin Push for a New Cold War?

by Tom Maertens

Tom Maertens served as National Security Council director for nonproliferation and homeland defense under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and as deputy coordinator for counterterrorism in the State Department during and after 9/11.

Several media sources have suggested recently that we are heading towards a new cold war with Russia.

Vladimir Putin once termed the breakup of the Soviet Union the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century," and indeed, he appears intent on reestablishing a Russian empire.

He even asserted to Obama in 2009 that Russia is entitled to a “sphere of influence” in Ukraine…and elsewhere, too, apparently: since 2008 Russia has invaded Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia), Transnistria (Moldova) and subverted and then annexed Crimea.

Putin has admitted the “green men” in Crimea were Russian troops, there “to prepare for the referendum,” which later produced the expected Soviet-era results: 93% of Crimeans “voted” for annexation.

Putin’s next target was Ukraine, where Russian-supported “separatists” took over several towns, declared independent republics, and then called for Moscow’s help.

In reality, the “separatist leaders” -- Igor Girkin, Igor Bezler, Nikolai Borodai, Alexander Zakharchenko, Vladimir Antyufeyev, and others -- are Russians with military intelligence backgrounds who specialize in subversion.

Putin’s gambit backfired when a Malaysian airliner was shot down with a Russian-supplied SA-11. The evidence overwhelmingly incriminates the rebels, as virtually every Western news-gathering source and Western government agrees. The rebels initially claimed credit for shooting down a Ukrainian AN-26 cargo plane. Once they discovered it was a civilian airliner, they changed their story.

The Kremlin-controlled media repeated their claim and the subsequent flip-flop thirty minutes later. The Russian media have replayed the other separatists’ claims as well, including that the U.S. shot the plane down, and Igor Girkin’s bizarre contention that the plane had been flown on autopilot with rotting corpses pre-loaded in Amsterdam as a provocation.

Andrei Malgin, a journalist under Soviet leaders from Brezhnev to Gorbachev, labeled the Kremlin’s Ukraine propaganda campaign “deliberate lies” in The Moscow Times, writing “they have truly reached a new low.”

Such propaganda goes unanswered because Putin has closed down most of the free press and put the opposition in jail – the ones, that is, who didn’t mysteriously die.

Putin’s regime has particularly targeted critical journalists, such as Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasia Baburova, Natalia Estemirova, Georgy Gongadze and Paul Klebnikov, all of whom were killed in circumstances implicating the regime. The lawyer Sergei Magnitskiy tried to recover money stolen by Putin’s cronies and was imprisoned on trumped-up fraud charges. He died in prison.

According to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, Russia is as corrupt as Pakistan, and is apparently rotting from the head down. The international press has reported on Putin’s energy company holdings, which have been estimated at $60 billion, and on his four yachts, fleet of airplanes, 20 homes, and his collection of gold watches.

Alexander Litvinenko had alleged corruption and malfeasance while Putin was running the FSB, and was assassinated in London for it. The British are seeking to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, a former FSB/KGB colleague of Litveneko and now a member of parliament, for the crime.

Putin’s FSB was widely believed behind the two 1999 explosions in Moscow that were blamed on Chechens and used to justify the second Chechen war – which catapulted Putin into the prime minister’s job. The incriminating evidence came when operatives with FSB license plates and FSB IDs were caught by local police planting a third bomb in Ryazan, 100 miles south of Moscow. The FSB later claimed the event was a “training exercise,” even though a live detonator was left behind that matched the ones used in Moscow.

Putin’s campaign against Chechens was extensive: two Russian agents were convicted by a court in Qatar in 2004 of murdering the former president of Chechnya, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, with a car bomb in Doha.

Anna Politkovskaya, who survived several assassination attempts, wrote in 2006 that: “We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss … if you want to go on working as a journalist, it's total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death, the bullet, poison, or trial….” In her case, it was several bullets.

Russia’s land grabs were the first forceful change of borders in Europe since the end of WWII, and, together with the shootdown, have alarmed Europeans. Their response, along with the US, was to impose tough financial and economic sanctions, while seeking to negotiate a political solution on Ukraine. Russia imposed import restrictions of its own but has agreed to talk. Meanwhile, Russia continues to send military equipment into eastern Ukraine.

The key question is whether Putin will allow his proxies there to be defeated, as is currently happening, or save face by sending in the Russian army. That would send relations into a deep freeze, a new cold war.

This article was published in the Mankato Free Press, August 26, 2014. Mr. Maertens is co-editor of Vox Verax.

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