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Joint Investigation Team on MH-17: Why the case is still open

A disregard of Russian technical evidence, a failure to produce US evidence, and a heavy reliance on social media, video, radio intercept, and eye-witness evidence originating from Ukraine, leaves the case open.

Alexander Mercouris

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As widely anticipated the so-called Joint Investigation Team (JIT) investigating the circumstances of the shooting down of MH17 delivered a preliminary report on Wednesday 28th September 2016 which said that MH17 was shot down by the east Ukrainian militia from a location near the town of Snezhnoe with a BUK missile supposedly smuggled to them from Russia.

This theory has been in circulation since almost immediately after MH17 was shot down.  It relies heavily on social media reports and videos of a BUK missile launcher supposedly being moved around eastern Ukraine.  Some of this evidence is also backed by claims by eye-witnesses, and radio intercepts.

The first point to make about the investigation that published these findings on Wednesday is that its instigator is Ukraine.

Ukraine as the country in whose airspace MH17 was shot down has the right to set up an inquiry to look into the facts of the tragedy, and that is what it did.  It also invited a selected group of other countries to join its inquiry, and that is what happened. 

That Ukraine is the instigator of this investigation is confirmed by UN Security Council Resolution 2166 of 21st July 2016, whose paragraph 4 reads as follows:

“(The Security Council) recognises the efforts under way by Ukraine, working in coordination with ICAO and other international experts and organisations, including representatives of States of Occurrence, Registry, Operator, Design and Manufacture, as well as States who have lost nationals on MH17, to institute an international investigation of the incident, and calls on all States to provide any requested assistance to civil and criminal investigations related to this incident.”

(bold italics added)

In other words this is a Ukrainian investigation which certain other countries, namely the  Netherlands, Australia and Malaysia – all allies of the US and of Ukraine – were invited to join, and which they agreed to join. 

Contrary to some claims, this is not an investigation set up by the Security Council, which merely “recognised” Ukraine’s intention to set it up. 

Russia was not invited to join the investigation, and has played no role in it. 

Reports say it was the Ukrainians who carried out most of the field work, and who produced most of the evidence.  The nature of the evidence presented on Wednesday confirms that this is so.  It is the sort of evidence that could only have come from Ukrainian sources.

The countries which agreed to join the investigation were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement which gave Ukraine the right to veto publication any findings of the investigation.  The fact Dutch officials have taken the lead in presenting the findings of the investigation and appear to have played a significant role in it, should not obscure the fact that it was Ukraine that set up the investigation, and which mainly conducted it.

At the time the investigation was set up Ukraine was or ought to have been a suspect in the case.  MH17 was shot down in its airspace at a time of armed conflict. Its military possess the means to shoot aircraft such as MH17 down, and there was at the very least a possibility that they might have shot it down.

Any investigation set up by a suspect in a case in which the suspect continues to play a major role by definition cannot be impartial or independent. This investigation therefore is not impartial or independent.  The fact certain countries agreed to join an investigation set up by Ukraine in such circumstances amounts to a presumption on the part of those countries of Ukraine’s innocence and of others’ guilt.  The fact the report adopts Ukrainian political language (for example the east Ukrainian militia are called “separatists”) is a sign of this.

The report is therefore best understood as what it actually is: a presentation of the prosecution case in the case Ukraine wants to bring against the people it accuses of shooting down MH17.  What has happened is that Ukraine has brought in the help of outside countries – first and foremost the Netherlands but to a certain extent also the US – to lend its case credibility and to strengthen some of its technical aspects.

A  separate investigation into the tragedy was also carried out by the Dutch Safety Board, which reported last year.  This investigation was conducted under the aegis of the International Civil Aviation Organisation. 

This investigation also receives mention in Resolution 2166, whose preamble reads in part as follows

“Stressing the need for a full, thorough and independent international investigation into the incident in accordance with international civil aviation guidelines, noting in this regard the crucial role played by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in aircraft accident and incident investigations, and welcoming the decision by ICAO to send a team to work in coordination with the Ukrainian National Bureau of Incidents and Accidents Investigation of Civil Aircraft in this investigation, following a request for assistance by Ukraine to ICAO and others”.

The Dutch Safety Board investigation said that MH17 was shot down by a BUK missile but failed to identify the precise launch point, and did not name those responsible for launching the missile. 

It is often claimed that the Dutch Safety Board was prevented by paragraph 3.1 of Annex 13 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation (which says that “it is not the purpose of this (investigation) to apportion blame or liability”) from identifying the launch point and from saying who was responsible for the launch of the missile.  This is to confuse the question of “blame and liability” – which depends on circumstance and intention – with the wholly separate question of cause.

The Dutch Safety Board decanted the question of the location of the launch point and the identity of those responsible to the team that reported on Wednesday.  It is difficult to avoid the feeling that this was done because as the Dutch Safety Board investigation was carried out under ICAO rules the Russians were parties to it and had a right to submit evidence and receive and comment on the findings.  By contrast since the Russians have no role in the investigation which reported on Wednesday, they were frozen out of its work. 

I have discussed the Dutch Safety Board report at length.  Briefly in my opinion it suffered from two fundamental flaws. 

The first was the failure to discuss the verified presence of Ukrainian BUK missile launchers in the area where MH17 was shot down.  Here is what I had to say about that

“The elephant in the room that the report refuses to see is however the Ukrainian BUK missile launchers we know from Russian satellite imagery were present in the area at the time of the tragedy.

Attempts to discredit the Russian images of these launchers have been made by the Ukrainian authorities and by Bellingcat. They have ended in abject failure. The presence in the area at the time of the tragedy of these launchers is incontrovertible.

The report in fact admits that the Ukrainians were known before the tragedy to have had anti-aircraft systems capable of shooting down MH17 in the area. The report does not however say that some of these were BUK missile launchers.

The report makes no reference to these launchers though their relevance to the question of how MH17 was shot down is all too obvious.

The silence about the Ukrainian BUK missile launchers contrasts oddly with the report’s lengthy discussion of the anti-aircraft systems the militia was believed to possess before the tragedy took place. Inconclusive speculations about militia anti-aircraft systems were apparently considered more worthy of inclusion in the report than incontrovertible evidence of the presence of Ukrainian BUK missile systems, despite the fact that it was a BUK missile that shot MH17 down, and despite the fact the Ukrainians have a previous history of shooting down civilian airliners with such missiles.

As it happens the report confirms that neither the Dutch nor it seems the intelligence agency of any other Western power believed before the tragedy that the militia possessed anti-aircraft systems capable of shooting MH17 down, even though other Ukrainian aircraft had been shot down in the previous days over the same area, and even though the area was under the close observation of Western intelligence agencies.

The silence in the report about the Ukrainian BUK missile launchers continues the pattern of Western silence about these launchers that has been evident ever since the Russians first revealed them in their intelligence presentation of 21st July 2014. It is doubtful that more than a tiny fraction of the Western public knows about them. If it did it would radically alter the Western public’s view of the tragedy.”

The second arguably even more fundamental flaw was the way the evidence of Almaz-Antey, the Russian company which manufactures the BUK missile system, was misrepresented

“The single greatest flaw of the report is its failure to take heed of the Russian technical advice – specifically that of Almaz-Antey – even though it is the properties of a Russian weapons system – the BUK missile of which Almaz-Antey is the manufacturer – which is being discussed.

In the case of Almaz-Antey insult is added to injury by the way its advice is misrepresented in the report so as to make it seem that Almaz-Antey has corroborated the Dutch Safety Board’s view that the missile was launched from within the 320 square kilometre area the Dutch Safety Board identifies as the probable launch area. Almaz-Antey actually pinpoints the launch point as being outside this area, but the report makes no mention of the fact.

Even if Almaz-Antey’s objectivity as a Russian state company is doubted, its expertise as the BUK missile’s manufacturer ought to grant its opinion a measure of attention and respect. It should at the very least be the subject of comment and discussion, even if it is in the end rejected.”

Almaz-Antey has pinpointed the launch site not in the 320 square kilometre area from where the Dutch Safety Board says the missile was launched, but from a different area near the village of Zaroshchenskoe near Shakthorsk where Russian military satellite imagery has shown a Ukrainian BUK missile launcher present at roughly the time of the tragedy.

The investigation team which reported on Wednesday has repeated and compounded these flaws. 

It has nothing to say about the Ukrainian BUK missile launchers, whose presence is not acknowledged.  As for Almaz-Antey’s evidence about the launch point being Zaroshchenskoe, that was summarily dismissed by Wilbert Paulissen, the Dutch chief investigator, with these words

“From the wealth and diversity of the other evidence gathered by the JIT, we have no doubt whatsoever the conclusions that we’re presenting today are accurate and that conclusion is that on 17 July flight [2014] MH17 was shot down by a Buk missile, shot from farmland in Pervomaiskiy and the system was brought in from the Russian Federation territory and then returned to the Russian Federation afterwards.”

This fails to address the scientific basis of Almaz-Antey’s evidence.  Instead what Paulissen is in effect saying is that because his team has a “wealth and diversity of other evidence” they feel they can just ignore it.

As to what that “wealth and diversity of other evidence” is, that became all too clear during the presentation on Wednesday: a mixture of social media reports, intercepted radio communications, videos, and eye-witness testimony, all of which must ultimately come from Ukrainian sources, and most of which has been in the public domain for a long time.  Scientific evidence is discussed in the report but barely featured in the press conference and goes unmentioned in most Western media reports.  As Almaz-Antey somewhat acidly commented

“In today’s event the JIT presented the conclusions it has arrived at so far. In the course of the presentation the technical aspects of the investigation were not touched upon. Practically none of them was mentioned.”

Almaz-Antey continues to complain that its expert advice – unparalleled in this field – is going unheeded

“As early as in May, when the documents were turned over to Dutch experts, we understood that they were unlikely to be used for certain reasons. That is why the Russian side sent classified documents to the International Technical Commission on July 29, 2015 and submitted the main characteristics, which correspond to a model used by Almaz-Antei. The commission did not take account of that document.”

Almaz-Antey also says that because its evidence is being ignored the entire model of the tragedy upon which the team is working is wrong

“the entire model was from the outset built for only one version that the missile flew towards the airliner [i.e. from the Snezhnoye settlement].  The full-scale experiment as well as all the previous and subsequent experiments made the Almaz-Antey experts to conclude that the Dutch version of a missile exploding on a head-on course was unreliable. There is a whole number of factors, the unreliable damages in the first place, which prove that.”

This has been the consistent pattern from the earliest days of the tragedy.  The Russians have made public and have provided both teams of investigators – the Dutch Safety Board and the investigators who reported on Wednesday – with reams of technical evidence including scientific tests, satellite imagery and radar pictures.  The fate of this evidence is however to be either misrepresented or ignored.

Meanwhile the US, which immediately after the tragedy claimed to have evidence that pinpointed the location of the missile launch, and which said it was in “militia controlled territory”, refuses to make public the evidence upon which it made that assertion. 

The team on Wednesday claimed the US concurs with its finding the missile was launched from militia controlled Snezhnoe and has provided a statement that supposedly explains the reasons why it on the basis of the evidence in its possession it came to this conclusion.  However since the US has not disclosed the evidence upon which this reasoning is based there is no way to corroborate this.   Instead we are asked to accept that the fact the US has shown its evidence to Dutch intelligence (which agrees with its analysis) is corroboration enough.

In a bizarre twist the US is now actually saying that it is the findings of the team which are corroborating its assertions

“The Team’s interim findings corroborate Secretary Kerry’s statement in the days following the tragedy that MH17 was shot down by a BUK surface-to-air missile fired from Russian-backed, separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine.”

(bold italics added)

Whilst it is difficult to know quite what to make of this, on the face of it it suggests that the claims the US made in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy about the launch point were not as conclusive or as factually based as the US led everyone to think they might be.  Why if they were would they need the team’s “corroboration”?

Regardless of that, the current position is that whilst the Russians provide a deluge of technical evidence, and the US publishes none, the team which reported on Wednesday bases its conclusions principally on information originating from Ukrainian sources.  This of course includes the eye-witness, radio intercept, video, and social media evidence etc.

Most of this evidence has already been in the public domain for some time, where it has been vigorously contested.  There is for example much argument about the interpretation of some of the radio intercept evidence, much of which does not seem to be very conclusive, and which is capable of being interpreted in different ways.

Some more nuggets of evidence were produced on Wednesday, but I have no doubt they will be quickly contested as well. 

To get a flavour of what is coming, consider the dispute over which party was in control of Zaroshchenskoe, the village near Shakhtorsk from where Almaz-Antey says the missile that shot down MH17 was launched. 

The team on Wednesday supported longstanding Ukrainian claims that on the day of the tragedy Zaroshchenskoe was under militia control.  Since they base their findings on information the Ukrainians give them they could hardly do otherwise.  The claim incidentally appears to be largely based on a radio intercept from June 2015, which would be almost a year after MH17 was shot down.  One might have expected more weight on such a subject to be placed on Ukrainian military records.  Regardless, this claim has been strongly disputed by others who have produced a mountain of evidence which they say proves that Zaroshchenskoe was in fact under Ukrainian control. 

Realistically there was no possibility that a team set up by Ukraine would implicate Ukraine, and no possibility Western leaders and the Western media, with their credibility on the line, would ever press for a truly independent inquiry that might have come to that conclusion.

At this point it is worth reiterating that the presentation on Wednesday does not have the status of a court judgment or a board of inquiry report.  Instead it is a presentation by prosecutors of parts of the case they intend to bring in the (unlikely) event of a criminal case being brought against those they accuse of shooting MH17 down.  That by definition makes the presentation provisional and open to challenge, and especially given Ukraine’s involvement accounts for its structural bias.

If the claim by the team the militia was responsible for shooting down MH17 was a foregone conclusion, have we nonetheless learnt anything new from the evidence they have provided?

Until this evidence is thoroughly and independently examined I cannot say.  However I have to say I doubt it.  None of the new evidence presented on Wednesday looked to me especially compelling.  Radio intercept evidence is always subject to interpretation, eye-witness evidence is rarely reliable, and despite the team’s earnest protestations that the video evidence is reliable, there have been too many cases in the past where that has turned out to be not so.  As for the technical evidence, that is being fiercely challenged by Almaz-Antey, whose expertise in this field is unmatched. 

The fact that the Western media’s reporting of the presentation on Wednesday was so understated – none of the British newspapers made it anything close to a headline story – suggests that they too found the case they heard less than compelling. 

I suspect part of the problem was that so much of this evidence was already known – and was already known to be hotly contested – that in the end it could not be completely persuasive.

The key problem however is that the most important evidence of all simply wasn’t there. 

This is the evidence the US says it has which supposedly pinpoints the launch point, and which in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy the US claimed proved it was the militia which launched the missile that shot down MH17.

Not only does the US continue to refuse to publish this evidence, but it has never given a really satisfactory reason why it refuses to do so. 

If the evidence is so highly classified that it cannot be released – as is often said (though not to my knowledge on the record by US officials) – then the US should never have spoken of it at all.  By doing so the US foreclosed the possibility of a truly open-minded inquiry whilst denying the militia the possibility to refute what is said to be the strongest evidence against them.

There is also the problem that the US has in the past published evidence when it suits it.  The US for example did so in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war. That evidence turned out to be wrong, a fact which means that few today are prepared to take US claims about its evidence on trust, something the US seems to struggle to understand. Certainly relying on another NATO intelligence agency – in this case Dutch intelligence – to give the US’s evidence its support will convince few people.

Regardless, given that the US has a previous history of releasing this sort of evidence, it needs at the very least to provide a satisfactory explanation of why it is not doing so now if it is going to persuade the doubters.  This is especially so given that the very high stakes in this case make it difficult for many people to believe the US would not have found some way to publish at least some of its evidence if it really wanted to.

In the absence of this evidence the sort of evidence that came from the team on Wednesday looks too much like an attempt to piece together a case that was supposed to have been already proved in the days immediately after the tragedy to convince the skeptics and still the doubts.  The selective way in which some of the facts were presented in what ultimately was the prosecution’s presentation of its case, and the State Department’s rush to claim the team’s findings corroborate its original assertions (rather than the other way round) is only going to reinforce those doubts. 

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Sergey Lavrov SLAMS new US sanctions over Skripal case

Ruble continues to tank under the spectre of looming American sanctions imposed on the basis of circumstantial evidence and insinuation.

Seraphim Hanisch

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TASS News Agency reported on Sunday, 12 August that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov slammed the US Department of State’s accusation against Russia regarding the attack on Sergey and Yuliya Skripal in Salisbury, England earlier this year.

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The State Department made the decision to impose new and very painful sanctions against Russia based on this premise.

This new round of sanctions is hitting the Russian economy very hard. The Ruble slid against the dollar from about 63 rubles on Thursday to more than 67.6 rubles as of 1:30pm UTC (Greenwich Summer Time) on Sunday.

Foreign Minister Lavrov had this to say:

“I think that all who know even a little bit about the so-called Skripal case, understand the absurdity of the statement in the official document of the US. Department of State that the US has established it was Russia behind the Salisbury incident.”

TASS went on to outline the circumstances:

On Wednesday, the US Department of State said in a statement that Washington was imposing new sanctions on Moscow over its alleged involvement in the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the British city of Salisbury. The first round of sanctions will take effect on August 22, while a second round may be introduced in 90 days in case Russia fails to meet certain conditions, the State Department said. Moscow has on numerous occasions rejected all the allegations about its involvement in the Salisbury incident.

The current round of sanctions goes into effect on 22 August, and is directed as follows, according to Bloomberg.com:

The initial round of these sanctions will limit exports to Russia of U.S. goods and technology considered sensitive on national security grounds, including electronics, lasers and some specialized oil and gas production technologies, according to a State Department official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity Thursday. The official said the action could block hundreds of millions of dollars in exports. Waivers will be allowed for space-flight activities and U.S. foreign assistance.

Under the 1991 law — invoked previously only against North Korea and Syria — a second, far more extensive round of sanctions would follow later unless Russia meets conditions including providing assurances it will no longer use chemical or biological weapons and will allow on-site inspections to verify it has stopped doing so, the official said.

Russia Thursday repeated its denials that it has the weapons or used them and held out little hope for compromise.

The added sanctions could include a downgrading in diplomatic relations, blanket bans on the import of Russian oil and exports of “all other goods and technology” aside from agricultural products, as well as limits on loans from U.S. banks. The U.S. also would have to suspend aviation agreements and oppose any multilateral development bank assistance.

The additional sanctions also could be averted if Trump declared that waiving them would be in the U.S. national interest, a politically risky move in light of criticism that he’s been too soft on Russia on issues including interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.

The action by the US State Department is being viewed as an internal political counterattack against US President Donald Trump in response to his overtures to President Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki Summit in July of this year. In that summit, the two leaders had very frank discussions that looked incredibly positive for the prospect of a true thawing out of the troubled relations between the two great world powers.

However, the event appears to have drawn out the elements within the American power establishment which presently comprises most of Congress and almost all of the news media. Even some conservative media outlets joined briefly in condemning Mr. Trump for “selling out” to Vladimir Putin by saying he had no reason to believe Russia would interfere with the American elections.

While Mr. Trump tried to politically backpedal this remark, the die had been cast and now much of this establishment has invested their time and energy into branding Mr. Trump a traitor to the USA. In a similar vein, as reported by Jim Jatras in his piece here, US Senator Rand Paul also made overtures that were warmly received by Russian senators, and now he too, has been marked as a traitor.

In that light, plus even British media acknowledgement that there is no hard evidence whatsoever that ties the Russian Federation to the poisoning of the Skripals or the second couple in Amesbury more recently, it is clear that all deductions have been made on spurious reasoning and no hard facts.

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War is coming – to the United States and to the world

The all-but-inevitable Second American Civil War is likely to be fought away from US soil if the globalists have their way.

Seraphim Hanisch

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Jim Jatras’ piece, reposted in The Duran framed the political mess that Donald Trump – and the United States –  is in, extremely accurately:

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First US President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and appears to make some progress towards his stated goal of putting ties between Washington and Moscow on a positive course. Immediately, all hell breaks loose. Trump is a called a traitor. The “sanctions bill from hell” is introduced in the Senate. Trump is forced on the defensive.

Next Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky visits Moscow, where he meets with Putin and gives him a letter from Trump proposing moderate steps towards rapprochement. Paul also talks with Russian Senators and invites them to come to Washington to continue the dialogue. Immediately, all hell breaks loose. Paul is called a traitor. The State Department “finds” the Russians guilty of the using illegal chemical weapons (CW) in the United Kingdom and imposes sanctions. Trump is forced even more on the defensive.

It is debatable how much of the US government Trump actually controls. This is the crux of the problem.

One President and one US Senator standing alone against all the Democrats and almost all Republicans in both Houses of Congress. Standing alone against a media culture dominated in the West by interests along the lines of cultural Marxism and anti-Christianity at any and all costs.

The truly fearsome power of the globalists appears to have the upper hand.

President Trump and President Putin are both dedicated and brilliant men. They have been trying to make a difference despite the enormous power being brought to bear against them. Rand Paul, for his part is also contributing to this.

The effort to marginalize President Trump has met with great success, though not total. The Russiagate investigation may be coming to its end; certainly a lot of information has revealed that the matter of election interference was never a Republican, much less Trump-related, phenomenon.

But the matter continues not to die.

The changes in prosperity and economic growth in the United States are astounding, especially in light of former President Obama’s insistence that it could never happen.

But the midterm elections approach, and there is not a clearly resounding wave to get more people who are on the Trump Train so to speak to continue to make and widen the impact of domestic change, as well as geopolitical change.

The inevitable outcome appears to be only one thing: War.

This war will be the Second American Civil War. 

While it must be said that the attribution of fault made is utterly incorrect, the New Yorker piece linked above does correctly list five conditions that set the table for such a conflict:

[Keith] Mines [with the US State Department] cited five conditions that support his prediction [of a new American civil war]:

  • entrenched national polarization, with no obvious meeting place for resolution
  • increasingly divisive press coverage and information flows
  • weakened institutions, notably Congress and the judiciary
  • a sellout or abandonment of responsibility by political leadership
  • the legitimization of violence as the “in” way to either conduct discourse or solve disputes

It is not hard to see how these conditions have come to be so in the US.

The only problem is that it is very unlikely to be fought in the United States. It is likely to end up in Europe, Russia, Ukraine, perhaps parts of the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia.

We might well be faced with the prospect of a “government in exile” as Mr. Trump and those supporting his viewpoints are forced to flee the US.

The ideological viewpoints about Russia are not very important to many American people, but the home front will pit two sides that are both destined to lose.

One side is the ideological Left – like those people we consider “loony California liberals”, whose belief in open borders and the rejection of any sort of Christianity-based or traditional family values will cause their side to eventually implode.

The other side is what we might call the “right” or the Americans that support President Trump. However, they too are somewhat influenced by the very pervasive anti-Russian propaganda and it is likely that this group will be divided within itself, though they will be allied against the left.

For this reason, this opposition group will also suffer from a great deal of internal weakness.

This would normally lead to a bloody and protracted conflict. However, the greater danger with this lies in the pervasive power of the Western Media. It is extremely likely that the media will work to deflect attention from the true nature of the war and incite American forces to strike at Russia in some sort of direct, or by-proxy military action.

The picture the American people will be presented with is that Russia is trying to take over the world, when in reality Russia is simply trying to hold her own territory and her own ways.

Is there a way to stop this?

Yes. There is a way to stop it. The election of President Trump bought the US and the world a bit of time because Mr. Trump is so dynamic that it is difficult to truly stop him. The hallmark of his presidency is success in just about every aspect he has paid attention to.

But what he needs is congressional support.

It is very unlikely that the upcoming 2018 midterm elections offer a chance to create a truly pro-Trump agenda majority in Congress. But it can raise the number of dissenting voices to a number greater than one (Rand Paul). A strong vocal bloc of senators and representatives that speak with one voice about this issue could be enough to break through the wall of censorship of the American media. It could give voice to millions of Americans who also believe that this fight is coming, and who want to stop it.

Avoidance of this war will certainly not happen if establishment candidates or worse – liberal Democrats – win the midterm. With such a situation, the President will be marginalized greatly, and the rhetoric against Russia as a scapegoat will only increase.

The outcome is mercilessly logical.

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Saudi Crackdown On Canada Could Backfire

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not apologizing for his country’s call that the Saudis release human rights activists.

The Duran

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Authored by Tsvetana Paraskova via Oilprice.com.


Like many spats these days, the Saudi Arabia/Canada one started with a tweet. Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland called for the release of Samar Badawi, a women’s rights activist who is the sister of jailed blogger Raif Badawi, whose wife is a Canadian citizen.

The arrests had taken place in OPEC’s largest producer and leading exporter Saudi Arabia, which has amassed its wealth from oil and now looks to attract foreign investors as it seeks to diversify its economy away from too much reliance of crude oil sales.

Canada’s foreign ministry’s global affairs office urged “the Saudi authorities to immediately release” civil society and women’s rights activists.

Saudi Arabia—often criticized for its far from perfect human rights and women’s rights record—didn’t take the Canadian urge lightly. Saudi Arabia expelled the Canadian ambassador, stopped direct Saudi flights to Canada, stopped buying Canadian wheat, ordered Saudi students and patients to leave Canada, froze all new trade and investment transactions, and ordered its wealth funds to sell their Canadian stock and bond holdings in a sweeping move that surprised with its harshness many analysts, Canada itself, and reportedly, even the U.S.

The Saudi reaction shows, on the one hand, the sensitivity of the Kingdom to criticism for its human rights record. On the other hand, it sent a message to Canada and to everyone else that Saudi Arabia won’t stand any country meddling in its domestic affairs, or as its foreign ministry put it “an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom.”

The Saudi reaction is also evidence of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s harsher international diplomacy compared to the previous, ‘softer’ diplomacy, analysts say. Saudi Arabia is also emboldened by its very good relations with the current U.S. Administration, and picking a fight with Canada wouldn’t have happened if “Trump wasn’t at the White House,” Haizam Amirah-Fernández, an analyst at Madrid-based think tank Elcano Royal Institute, told Bloomberg.

The United States hadn’t been warned in advance of the Saudi reaction to Canada and is now trying to persuade Riyadh not to escalate the row further, a senior official involved in talks to mediate the dispute told Bloomberg.

The row, however, will not affect crude oil exports from the Kingdom, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih has said, adding that Riyadh’s policy has always been to keep politics and energy exports separate.

Canada imports around 75,000-80,000 bpd of Saudi oil, and these barrels can easily be replaced, CBC quoted analyst Judith Dwarkin as saying earlier this week. The chief economist of RS Energy Group referred to this amount as “a drop in the bucket” at less than a tenth of Canadian crude imports compared with imports from the United States, which amount to about 66 percent of the total. The United States could easily replace Saudi crude thanks to its growing production, Dwarkin said.

Still, the strong Saudi message to Canada (and to the world) is not entirely reassuring for the investor climate in Saudi Arabia, which is looking to attract funds for its economic overhaul and mega infrastructure projects worth hundreds of billions of dollars each.

“The Saudi leadership wants to drive home a message that it’s fine to invest in Saudi Arabia and bring your money to Saudi Arabia, but that there are red lines that should not be crossed,” Riccardo Fabiani, a geopolitical analyst at Energy Aspects, told Bloomberg, but warned that such strategy could backfire.

Analysts are currently not sure how the feud will unfold, but Aurel Braun, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Toronto, told Canada’s Global News that Saudi Arabia is unlikely to back down and reverse all its retaliatory measures without getting something back from Canada.Related: The Unforeseen Consequences Of China’s Insatiable Oil Demand

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not apologizing for his country’s call that the Saudis release human rights activists.

“We have respect for their importance in the world and recognize that they have made progress on a number of important issues, but we will, at the same time, continue to speak clearly and firmly on issues of human rights, at home and abroad, wherever we see the need,” Trudeau told a news conference this week.

The economic impact of the Saudi retaliation on Canada is unlikely to be large, but the fact that Saudi Arabia is whipping the oil wealth stick to punish economically what it sees as “blatant” interference with its affairs is sending a message to other countries, and a not-so-positive message to foreign investors.

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