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Impressions of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum: Intense Diplomacy amidst Russian Self-Confidence

SPIEF forum shows Russian leadership in a confident mood as it charts paths forward in diplomacy and for the national economy.

Alexander Mercouris




Thanks to the generosity of RT TV and Peter Lavelle I had the great good fortune to attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (“SPIEF”) in St. Petersburg which has just ended. 

I shall be writing a series of reports about my impressions of SPIEF.  However in this short report I will concentrate purely on the atmosphere.

This is the second time I have attended SPIEF.  The previous occasion was in May 2014 in the immediate aftermath of the Crimean Crisis and whilst the war in the Donbass was in active preparation.  Though the collapse in oil prices and the devaluation of the rouble that went with it had still not come about there was a clear sense of a recession coming and the mood as I remember it was nervous and embattled.  Europe’s political leadership collectively boycotted the Forum and though there was a sizeable contingent of European business people present they seemed to all come from one country – Germany – and were clearly there more for purposes of damage limitation – to protect their investments and their businesses – than for any more ambitious purpose.  They were also keeping as low a profile as possible. 

The Chinese by contrast were there in force, led by a senior member of the Chinese Politburo, and in the absence of the Europeans and the Americans they completely dominated the discussions.

The contrast this time could not have been greater.  Though many of the same German business people I remember from 2014 were there again, the other Europeans who had previously stayed away were there this time in force with Renzi of Italy and Sarkozy of France – the latter widely expected to be the next French President – taking an extremely prominent role (the Germans were indirectly represented by EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker).  In fact the Forum was a fascinating study in European diplomacy with meetings not just between Putin and these leaders but with contacts between the Russians and the Europeans being re-established at all levels, with business people and officials from both sides at last actively talking to each other.

If the Europeans were present in force and feverishly busy, the Asians were also there though where it was the Chinese who dominated in 2014 the focus this time was very much on the Eurasian Economic Union with Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan along with Renzi and Sarkozy the star guest.  As I will explain more fully in subsequent reports, the Eurasian Economic Union far from being relegated by the Russians in importance was the centre-piece of Putin’s speech to the plenary session, and is if anything for the Russians growing in importance.

As for the (relatively) lower visibility of the Chinese by comparison with 2014, this is actually misleading since it was for the first time made fully clear at this year’s Forum to what extent the whole project for the Eurasian Economic Union – though led by the Russians – actually revolves around the Chinese.  Suffice to say that it was during the plenary that Putin announced his forthcoming visit to China on 25th June 2016.

Whilst the Russians were engaging in active diplomacy with all ends of the Eurasian continent – with the Europeans, the Central Asians and the Chinese – one powerful community of states was prominent by its absence.  This was the Anglosphere with the US and its Anglophone allies – including I am sorry to say the British – almost wholly absent.  The few British representatives I encountered made a brave show.  However they could not make up for the absence of any significant British political heavyweights there.  As a British citizen it pains me to admit what is fast becoming the unavoidable truth: not since the fifteenth century has Britain been less important in European and world affairs.  The fact the British seem unaware of their slide into irrelevance makes the fact for me even more painful.

As for the US, quite apart from their constant repetition of the mantras of how “isolated” Russia has become and what an international “pariah” it is, their refusal to recognise Russia’s importance is perhaps best set out in this quite remarkable comment of President Obama’s made during his recent interview with The Atlantic:

“You don’t see him (Putin – AM) in any of these meetings out here helping to shape the agenda. For that matter, there’s not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important.”

Any outside observer in St. Petersburg during the days of the Forum would have come away with precisely the opposite impression.  Not only were the Russians at centre stage, setting the agenda at a major international gathering taking place on their own soil, but the US was nowhere present. 

What makes this US exclusion particularly bizarre is that it was entirely self-inflicted.  Not only were no US political leaders or diplomats present but the US business community under orders from the White House stayed away.  Or pretended to, since I heard well-informed reports that big US companies which under pressure from the White House had refused invitations to attend the Forum had nonetheless sent representatives to St. Petersburg, who quietly met with Russian officials and business people not at the Forum itself but in the city’s restaurants, hotel lobbies and cafes. To such lengths of skullduggery have the citizens of the world’s greatest superpower been reduced to by the actions of their own government!

In the absence of any official US presence the US point of view – to the extent that it was aired at all – would have been communicated by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, who is known to be especially close to the US, and who I suspect was performing the same service for Obama and Kerry that the EU’s Jean-Claude Juncker was performing for Merkel and Steinmeier.

Though inevitably it was the international diplomacy that captured most of the attention, for the Russians much of the discussion at the Forum centred on the situation in their own economy.  The most heavily attended panel I attended was one on economic policy at which the speakers were Kudrin, Nabiullina and Siluanov.  The other side of the economic policy divide, consisting of supporters of a more controlled economy like Glazyev and Degtyarev, was also well-represented.  Needless to say the panels where these questions of economic policy were discussed were attended overwhelmingly by Russians rather than foreigners.

I shall discuss some of the themes that came out of these discussions in detail in later articles.  Here all I would say is that there was an unmistakeable and dramatic shift in the mood compared with 2014.  Whereas in 2014 the sense was of an economy on the brink of recession – though no-one in May 2014 could have imagined the oil price collapse and the devaluation that were to come – the mood this time was strongly upbeat, with a palpable sense of the corner having been turned and of the worst being well and truly over. 

This change in the mood was most obvious in the persons of Kudrin and Nabiullina.  Where both had been very much on the defensive in 2014, with Kudrin constantly talking about himself and Nabiullina coming over as shy and intense, on this occasion both were brimming with confidence with Nabiullina especially – for all the criticism she has come under – cutting a commanding figure.

In summary, the mood this year at SPIEF was of a country emerging from a period when it had been forced onto the defensive and which is now preparing itself for fresh advances both in its foreign policy and in its economic life.  Moreover, contrary to what is sometimes said, it has a clear idea of where it wants to go.  Though everyone expects a Hillary Clinton Presidency, there is quiet confidence any problems it causes can be successfully managed and that the period for the country of the greatest danger has passed.

In saying this I should stress that this was the mood in the Forum itself.  Outside the Forum it may be different.  Pressure of time meant I had no opportunity to gauge popular feeling outside the Forum, though St. Petersburg from what I briefly saw of it seemed vibrant enough.  However there is usually a time lag between the return of an upbeat mood amongst a country’s leadership and that of its general population, and I have no reason to doubt that is true in Russia as it is everywhere else.  However on the assumption nothing goes dramatically wrong over the coming weeks, we should certainly be seeing a recovery in public confidence by the time of the parliamentary elections later this year.



The End Of The US Unipolar Moment Is Irreversible

The United States is in the terminal phase of its unipolar moment.



Authored by Federico Pieraccini via The Strategic Culture Foundation:

The past weeks have shown how part of the American establishment is weighing the pros and cons of the Trump administration’s strategies around the world. I have a strong feeling that in the coming weeks we will see the destabilizing effects of American politics, especially towards its closest allies.

A disastrous flip of events appears to be on its way, in case Trump were to lose the November midterm elections (the House and Senate elections). If this were to happen, the Trump administration would probably exploit the Russia gate conspiracy claiming that Moscow had now acted in favour of Democrats. Trump could argue that Moscow was disappointed by the lack of progress in softening US sanctions against Russia; indeed, by Trump’s measures against Russia (expulsions, sanctions, property seizures) and its allies (China, Iran and Syria).

Trump would not hesitate to claim Russian interference in the midterms to aid the Democrats, citing intelligence reports. He would say that Russia aims to create chaos in the US by placing roadblocks in the way of attempts to “Make America Great Again” and handing the House and Senate to the Democrats. He would use the electoral defeat to blame his accusers of getting aid from Russia. In doing so, he would be accelerating the implosion of his administration in an all-out war with the establishment. The mainstream media would dismiss Trump’s accusations against the Democrats of collusion with Russia as a conspiracy theory of an unravelling presidency. All this, summed up, would lead to the Democrats having majority in both houses, easily proceeding to the impeachment of Trump.

Italy is piggybacking on the US, operating side by side with Washington to expand its role in North Africa, especially in Libya. However, Rome will have to offer something in return to please Trump. Evidence points to the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) as the quid pro quo, the US encouraging Italy to complete it in order to put pressure on Germany’s North Stream II project and undermine Russian gas deliveries to the EU. I have the impression that the only card available for Italy to play (and which interests Trump) is an endorsement of Washington’s positions on Iran, given that Italy already shares in common with Washington differences with Paris and Berlin on many issues. In this sense, Conte’s words about US intelligence info on the JCPOA paves the way for further decisions:

“”I didn’t take a specific stand. I said we are willing to evaluate the necessity to take more rigorous stances if the (nuclear) accord is shown to be ineffective. We are waiting to have elements of intelligence, Italy would like to evaluate it with its EU partners”

As evidence of Washington’s failed strategy towards Iran, India continues to buy crude oil from Iran, increasing the amount in the last month by 52%. China is also increasing its importation from Iran. Meanwhile, Iran is working with other countries to circumvent the US dollar in order to sustain their mutual trade within a new framework of agreements. Washington is especially disappointment with New Delhi, with American officials continuing to reiterate that India’s intentions align with Washington’s. Since November, with the imposition of counter-sanctions on countries that continue to work with Iran, Washington’s bluff will become evident to everybody, much to the disappointment of the Trump administration.

In the meantime, relations between Canada and Saudi Arabia have almost completely broken down on account of human rights. Ambassadors have been expelled and there is a continuing war of words, with trade between the two countries being brought to a stop. This is the latest example of the divisions manifesting themselves within the Western elites, with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration being in opposition to the likes of France, Germany and Canada.

What is also clear is that the issue of energy is central to Washington’s strategy. Between criticism of the German Nord Stream II and invitations to Italy to finish the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, it is clear that both the Trump administration and the policy makers of the deep state are strongly concerned about what actions allies and enemies could take to overcome the pressure brought to bear by Washington on the issues of energy, Iran, and sanctions. This shows that the US is very fearful of de-dollarization, especially coming from its allies.

Bypassing sanctions with currencies other than US dollar, or creating creative finance structures that bypass the SWIFT payment system, are the only means of maintaining relations between countries in spite of Washington’s sanctions. The US strategy is limited in the short term and certainly harmful in the long term for US Dollar financial hegemony.

That Washington’s allies are even entertaining such possibilities places US financial hegemony at great risk in the long run. This worries the American deep state a great deal, even without Trump, who in any case will not be in charge past 2024 (should he be re-elected in 2020).

One of the points of greatest tension is precisely this strategic difference between the Trump administration and the policy makers in the deep state (AKA Langley and Foggy Bottom). While the former can increase the pressure on allies (through NATO, the JCPOA, TTIP and TPP) to obtain immediate solutions and benefits, the latter must above all consider the effects in the medium and long term, which are often harmful for US interests. The imposition of sanctions on Iran, and the obligation of European allies to comply with this directive, is a prime example.

Another of Washington’s strategies revolves around the price of oil. The United States would have no problem seeing the price of crude oil skyrocket. Secretly, many in the administration hope that Iran will take the first false step by closing the Strait of Hormuz (Teheran will not make this move as things stand now); some even hope that the crisis between Canada and Saudi Arabia will have some impact on the cost of crude oil.

Even trade war and tariffs should be seen as part of Trump’s short-term strategy to demonstrate to his base that something is being done against countries that he thinks are taking advantage of the United States. In reality, Trump knows, or should know, that there is no way of stopping China’s growth, a result of globalization that has been the engine of free-market capitalism, making the western elite richer than ever before. Trump deceives his base with trade wars and tariffs, but in the long run the costs will be borne by American consumers, many of whom are Trump’s voters.

Trump thinks in the very short term, constantly aiming to present himself before his electors with a list of ticked boxes ( Peter Lavelle of Crosstalk gets trademark of this definition), confirming that he is fulfilling his electoral promises. In this way he hopes to win the midterms in November. To succeed in this endeavor, the economy must pick up to a gallop (for now this is happening thanks to a series of tax cuts and the continuous pumping of easy money from the Fed) and he must put pressure on his allies as well as aggressively confront Iran, Russia and China through sanctions, cutting energy supplies and forcing Tehran to negotiate once again the nuclear agreement.

What many analysts struggle with when trying to analyse Donald Trump is that there is no overarching strategy uniting his actions into a coherent policy. Trump acts extemporaneously, often with a very short strategic outlook and for internal political motivations.

Nevertheless, if there is something that worries the deep state, it is the long-term impact of tariffs, trade war, sanctions and impositions on allies; or, to put it most simply, de-dollarization. If there is anything that scares the Trump administration, it is remaining entangled in a destabilizing war with Iran that would lead to the early end of the Trump presidency and destroying its legacy, as Bush’s legacy was destroyed by Iraq.

In all this uncoordinated and inconsistent behaviour, there is the hope of a major rise in the price of oil that would help slow down China’s growth and transform the US shale-gas industry into an ultra-profitable business, further boosting the US economy and allowing Trump to present further evidence to his base of his ability to improve their lives.

The United States is in the terminal phase of its unipolar moment and is struggling to come to terms with the downsizing of its role in the world. Its ruling elite cannot accept the prospect of sharing power, preferring to oppose by all means possible the transition to a world order involving more powers. If this situation is already complex for any superpower enough to manage, a president has been elected who has little regard for compromise and mediation.

Ultimately, in addition to an obvious problem in defining Washington’s role in the world over the next few years, the United States finds itself with a president who is in almost open warfare with an important part of the US establishment. The deep state is still living on the hope of impeaching Trump to halt the loss of US influence, deluding themselves that things can return to how they were at the height of the unipolar moment in the 1990s.

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America’s Lengthening Enemies List

17th years in Afghanistan and America’s list of enemies continues to grow.

Patrick J. Buchanan



Authored by Patrick J. Buchanan

Friday, deep into the 17th year of America’s longest war, Taliban forces overran Ghazni, a provincial capital that sits on the highway from Kabul to Kandahar.

The ferocity of the Taliban offensive brought U.S. advisers along with U.S. air power, including a B-1 bomber, into the battle.

“As the casualty toll in Ghazni appeared to soar on Sunday,” The Wall Street Journal reported, “hospitals were spilling over with dead bodies, corpses lay in Ghazni’s streets, and gunfire and shelling were preventing relatives from reaching cemeteries to bury their dead.”

In Yemen Monday, a funeral was held in the town square of Saada for 40 children massacred in an air strike on a school bus by Saudis or the UAE, using U.S.-provided planes and bombs.

“A crime by America and its allies against the children of Yemen,” said a Houthi rebel leader.

Yemen is among the worst humanitarian situations in the world, and in creating that human-rights tragedy, America has played an indispensable role.

The U.S. also has 2,000 troops in Syria. Our control, with our Kurd allies, of that quadrant of Syria east of the Euphrates is almost certain to bring us into eventual conflict with a regime and army insisting that we get out of their country.

As for our relations with Turkey, they have never been worse.

President Erdogan regards our Kurd allies in Syria as collaborators of his own Kurdish-terrorist PKK. He sees us as providing sanctuary for exile cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan says was behind the attempted coup in 2016 in which he and his family were targeted for assassination.

Last week, when the Turkish currency, the lira, went into a tailspin, President Trump piled on, ratcheting up U.S. tariffs on Turkish aluminum and steel. If the lira collapses and Turkey cannot meet its debt obligations, Erdogan will lay the blame at the feet of the Americans and Trump.

Which raises a question: How many quarrels, conflicts and wars, and with how many adversaries, can even the mighty United States sustain?

In November, the most severe of U.S. sanctions will be imposed on Iran. Among the purposes of this policy: Force as many nations as possible to boycott Iranian oil and gas, sink its economy, bring down the regime.

Iran has signaled a possible response to its oil and gas being denied access to world markets. This August, Iranian gunboats exercised in the Strait of Hormuz, backing up a regime warning that if Iranian oil cannot get out of the Gulf, the oil of Arab OPEC nations may be bottled up inside as well. Last week, Iran test-fired an anti-ship ballistic missile.

Iran has rejected Trump’s offer of unconditional face-to-face talks, unless the U.S. first lifts the sanctions imposed after withdrawing from the nuclear deal.

With no talks, a U.S. propaganda offensive underway, the Iranian rial sinking and the economy sputtering, regular demonstrations against the regime, and new sanctions scheduled for November, it is hard to see how a U.S. collision with Tehran can be avoided.

This holds true as well for Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Last week, the U.S. imposed new sanctions on Russia for its alleged role in the nerve-agent poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the British town of Salisbury.

Though the U.S. had already expelled 60 Russian diplomats for the poisoning, and Russia vehemently denies responsibility — and conclusive evidence has not been made public and the victims have not been heard from — far more severe sanctions are to be added in November.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is warning that such a U.S. move would cross a red line: “If … a ban on bank operations or currency use follows, it will amount to a declaration of economic war. … And it will warrant a response with economic means, political means and, if necessary, other means.”

That the sanctions are biting is undeniable. Like the Turkish lira and Iranian rial, the Russian ruble has been falling and the Russian people are feeling the pain.

Last week also, a U.S. Poseidon reconnaissance plane, observing China’s construction of militarized islets in the South China Sea, was told to “leave immediately and keep out.”

China claims the sea as its national territory.

And North Korea’s Kim Jong Un apparently intends to hold onto his arsenal of nuclear weapons.

“We’re waiting for the North Koreans to begin the process of denuclearization, which they committed to in Singapore and which they’ve not yet done,” John Bolton told CNN last week.

A list of America’s adversaries here would contain the Taliban, the Houthis of Yemen, Bashar Assad of Syria, Erdogan’s Turkey, Iran, North Korea, Russia and China — a pretty full plate.

Are we prepared to see these confrontations through, to assure the capitulation of our adversaries? What do we do if they continue to defy us?

And if it comes to a fight, how many allies will we have in the battles and wars that follow?

Was this the foreign policy America voted for?

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In Private Meeting, Facebook Exec Warns News Outlets to Cooperate or End Up Dying in ‘Hospice’

“Anyone who does care about news needs to understand Facebook as a fundamental threat.”

The Duran



Via Common Dreams

During a closed-door and off-the-record meeting last week, top Facebook executive Campbell Brown reportedly warned news publishers that refusal to cooperate with the tech behemoth’s efforts to “revitalize journalism” will leave media outlets dying “like in a hospice.”

Reported first by The Australian under a headline which read “Work With Facebook or Die: Zuckerberg,” the social media giant has insisted the comments were taken out of context, even as five individuals who attended the four-hour meeting corroborated what Brown had stated.

“Mark doesn’t care about publishers but is giving me a lot of leeway and concessions to make these changes,” Brown reportedly said, referring to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “We will help you revitalize journalism… in a few years the reverse looks like I’ll be holding hands with your dying business like in a hospice.”

As The Guardian reported on Monday, Facebook is “vehemently” denying the veracity of the comments as reported by The Australian, referring to its own transcript of the meeting. However, Facebook is refusing to release its transcript and tape of the gathering.

Brown’s warning about the dire prospects for news outlets that don’t get on board with a future in which corporate giants like Facebook are the arbiters of what is and isn’t trustworthy news comes as progressives are raising alarm that Facebook’s entrance into the world of journalism poses a major threat to non-corporate and left-wing news outlets.

As Common Dreams reported in July, progressives’ fears were partly confirmed after Facebook unveiled its first slate of news “segments” as part of its Facebook Watch initiative.

While Facebook claims its initiative is part of an effort to combat “misinformation,” its first series of segments were dominated by such corporate outlets as Fox News and CNN.

Reacting to Brown’s reported assertion that Zuckerberg “doesn’t care about publishers,” Judd Legum, who writes the Popular Information newsletter,argued, “Anyone who does care about news needs to understand Facebook as a fundamental threat.”

“In addition to disputed quote, there are also Facebook’s actions, which are fully consistent with the quote,” Legum added. “We desperately need to develop alternative delivery mechanisms to Facebook.”

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