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A Russian-German thaw? Merkel heads for Moscow

As crises build up around her, Angela Merkel sends Putin “particularly warm greetings” and prepares trip to Moscow.

Alexander Mercouris

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel, facing a possibly difficult election in Germany later this year, is travelling to Moscow on 2nd May 2017.

Merkel has been a regular visitor to Moscow, and speaks with Russian President Putin on the telephone more often than any other EU leader.  However their relationship hit rock bottom when the Ukrainian crisis exploded in 2014, and has been fraught ever since.

Suffice to say that the last occasion when Merkel visited Moscow was in the fraught run-up to the Minsk Agreement in February 2015.  When German SPD leader and Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Bavarian Minister-President and CSU leader Horst Seehofer, visited Moscow in October 2015 and February 2016, she made little attempt to hide her disapproval.

This time the mood is completely different.  Not only is Merkel herself going to Moscow, but her journey there has been well prepared in advance by the same duo of Gabriel and Seehofer who earned her displeasure by going to Moscow in October 2015 and February 2016.

Both Gabriel (now Germany’s Foreign Minister) and Seehofer have just visited Moscow over the course of the last week, and this time both have made it clear that they have done so with Merkel’s full backing.

Gabriel was there first, meeting with Putin in the Kremlin on 9th March 2017.

During this meeting Gabriel not only confirmed Merkel’s intention to travel to Moscow, but informed Putin that Germany’s new President and previous Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is also intending to go to Moscow soon.  The Kremlin’s summary of his comments to Putin shows they were both extremely relaxed and remarkably warm

It is wonderful that you found the time for this exchange and dialogue. I already had a substantial discussion on various subjects with Sergei Lavrov today.

I also think, and you are quite right, that despite the various difficulties before us, we do have the task of ensuring peace and stability in Europe. This is not easy, but it is something that is worth the effort.

It is with pleasure that I will pass on your best wishes to the Federal Chancellor, and I too hope that the opportunity will come up for her visit. I think that the Federal President [President-elect Frank-Walter Steinmeier] also plans to visit. We therefore have every reason to be confident in our bilateral relations’ stability.

A few days after Gabriel’s visit Horst Seehofer also turned up, leading a strong delegation from Bavaria, which first met with Lavrov and various Russian business leaders.

Seehofer eventually met with Putin in the Kremlin on 16th March 2017.  To grasp the change in the atmosphere between this visit and his previous visit of a year ago, it is sufficient to compare what Seehofer said to Putin on this occasion with what he said a year ago.

Here is what Seehofer said a year ago

We have come here from the free state of Bavaria, which traditionally has very intensive ties with Russia, and we want to maintain these ties.

Bavaria is part of the federal government. We are part of the government coalition, and we think it our duty, the duty of our hearts and souls, to put a bit more trust back into our relations. We think this is essential in today’s situation, looking at what is happening in the world.

I am very pleased that you said today that we are not coming here as plotters. Never in the run-up to any of my previous visits to other countries, have I heard as much untruthful and inaccurate information as I have this time.

Compare that with the words Seehofer said to Putin during their latest meeting

I am very pleased to see that trade relations between Bavaria and Russia are developing so well. Let me thank you too for the fact that during our last meeting, you allowed us to hold talks and work at the federal level, which we are doing. Of course, we are continuing our cooperation with our partner city, Moscow.

Allow me to convey particularly warm greetings from our Federal Chancellor [Angela Merkel]. She reminded me several times that I was not to forget to do this, and said that she would visit you in early May.

We therefore have an excellent opportunity to continue the good relations that have become a tradition between Bavaria and Russia. Some of my predecessors even piloted the plane themselves on the way here and landed safely. My direct predecessor, Edmund Stoiber, as we counted today, visited Moscow around ten times.

(bold italics added)

In February 2016 Seehofer went to Moscow under a cloud, complaining to Putin that he was being called a plotter.  In March 2017 he came bearing warm greetings for Putin from Merkel herself.

Seehofer’s comments confirm that the initiative for Merkel’s forthcoming trip to Moscow came from her.  Moreover Merkel’s repeated requests to Seehofer to make sure that he remembered to pass on her “particularly warm greetings” to Putin is a clear sign that she wants to carry out at least some repairs both to Germany’s relationship with Russia and her own broken relationship with Putin.

What explains this reversal?

Firstly it should be said that Merkel’s policy positions have little to do with ideology and everything to do with her wish to secure her position in Germany and to remain Chancellor.  Thus where before 2014 she followed the policy of engaging with Russia, which Germany had followed since the Ostpolitik era of the 1970s, and which has much support in Germany especially within its business community, in 2014, when it suited her politically, she reversed course and took a hard line against Russia of a sort that would have been countenanced by no previous German leader since Adenauer.

If Merkel is now softening that line, it is because she thinks her position as Chancellor would benefit from her doing so, not because she has any strong convictions about the matter.

As to why Merkel might think that, at its simplest, with crises (eg. Brexit, Le Pen, the refugee crisis, relations with Turkey, Poland, Grexit etc) rapidly building up all around her, Merkel – rather like Erdogan in June 2016 – probably has come to realise that with a difficult election coming she needs to start solving problems more quickly than she is causing them.  With her other problems both intractable and largely beyond her control it is understandable why she might be looking to improve relations with Russia where at least some progress is possible.

Having said this, there are three pressing issues that must be causing Merkel concern, and which may explain why she is looking to mend at least some fences with Moscow now.

The first is the rapidly deteriorating situation in Ukraine.  Some time ago one of Merkel’s aides let slip that Merkel regards the crisis in Ukraine as by far the biggest crisis she faces, and that it is the one that keeps her awake at night.

With the situation in Ukraine going rapidly from bad to worse, it is understandable if Merkel wants to talk about it with Putin to see how the crisis might be contained.  The fact that she was on the receiving end of a furious lecture from Putin a short while ago during the military crisis in Avdeevka will have spelled out to her how important it is as the situation in Ukraine deteriorates that she keeps her lines of communication to Putin open.

Significantly criticism of Putin and Russia over Ukraine from Merkel and other Western leaders has been surprisingly muted over recent weeks, even as Russia recognises the validity of the documents issued by the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, and even as the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics have nationalised Ukrainian businesses located on their territories in retaliation for the Ukrainian transport blockade.

Another fact that is probably causing Merkel to reconsider her hardline policy towards Russia is the coming of Donald Trump.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Donald Trump is not going to be driven from the White House because of the ‘Russiagate’ scandal, and Merkel must calculate that once he has put this essentially fake scandal behind him he will be able to press ahead with his stalled plan for detente with Russia.

Certainly Merkel will have noticed – even if most Western commentators have not – that since Trump arrived in the White House the US and Russian militaries have been quietly talking to each other, and have even been quietly cooperating with each other in Syria.

If the drive for detente between the US and Russia is renewed, perhaps in the summer, then Merkel does not want to be left high and dry, clinging on to an anti-Russian policy the US is no longer intent on.

To understand the importance of relations with the US to Merkel’s actions, it is only necessary to recall what happened to Seehofer after he returned to Germany following his trip to Moscow in February 2016.  Shortly after his return the US delivered him a brutal public snub when the US delegation to the Munich security conference led by the neocon hardliner Victoria Nuland, Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, boycotted a public dinner Seehofer hosted on behalf of the Bavarian government.

Merkel will want to avoid any such snub, and as the self-proclaimed ‘Queen of Europe’ she will not want to be left out in the cold if the US and Russia start edging closer to each other.  Her trip to Moscow is therefore in a sense her taking out insurance in case (as remains likely) US-Russian relations start to improve in the summer.

Lastly Merkel must be concerned that the issue of sanctions – to which her reputation and her authority are now tied – has now become an issue in the French elections, and will probably before long be an issue in the Italian elections whenever they happen.  If she is to continue to hold the line on sanctions, as is essential for her prestige, she has to give at least the appearance of negotiating with Moscow so as to hold out the hope to her increasingly restive European partners and to the German business community that they will one day be lifted.

Merkel therefore has multiple good reasons to reach out to Putin and go to Moscow now.  Whatever else she is, she is above all an extremely skilled politician, and the fact she is going to Moscow is a clear sign that she senses a turn in the wind.

The Russians for their part will be willing to receive her.  From their point of view a rapprochement with Germany, the single most important country in Europe and a major trading parter, is worth the price of her visit.

The Russians will receive Merkel with all their customary courtesy.   They will listen to (and record) attentively what she says.  They may even conclude some agreements with her.

They will not however trust her.  The experience of what happened in 2014, when the Russians thought they had an understanding with Merkel over how to handle the Ukrainian crisis only for Merkel to back a Ukrainian army offensive in the Donbass and then slap sanctions on Russia when it began to go wrong, is not one the Russians are going to forget.  Nor is Putin likely to forget the terrible things Merkel has said about him.

Behind the smiles and the smooth words there will be continued mistrust and the Russians will be very much on their guard.

By now the Russians have learnt that if it is wise to hold your enemies close and your friends even closer, in the case of Merkel it is wisest to hold her closest of all.

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High-ranking Ukrainian official reports on US interference in Ukraine

It is not usually the case that an American media outlet tells the truth about Ukraine, but it appears to have happened here.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The Hill committed what may well have been a random act of journalism when it reported that Ukrainian Prosecutor General, Yuriy Lutsenko, told Hill.tv’s reporter John Solomon that the American ambassador to that country, Marie Yovanovitch, gave him a “do not prosecute” list at their first meeting.

Normally, all things Russia are covered by the American press as “bad”, and all things Ukraine are covered by the same as “good.” Yet this report reveals quite a bit about the nature of the deeply embedded US interests that are involved in Ukraine, and which also attempt to control and manipulate policy in the former Soviet republic.

The Hill’s piece continues (with our added emphases):

“Unfortunately, from the first meeting with the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, [Yovanovitch] gave me a list of people whom we should not prosecute,” Lutsenko, who took his post in 2016, told Hill.TV last week.

“My response of that is it is inadmissible. Nobody in this country, neither our president nor our parliament nor our ambassador, will stop me from prosecuting whether there is a crime,” he continued.

Indeed, the Prosecutor General appears to be a man of some principles. When this report was brought to the attention of the US State Department, the response was predictable:

The State Department called Lutsenko’s claim of receiving a do not prosecute list, “an outright fabrication.” 

“We have seen reports of the allegations,” a department spokesperson told Hill.TV. “The United States is not currently providing any assistance to the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO), but did previously attempt to support fundamental justice sector reform, including in the PGO, in the aftermath of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. When the political will for genuine reform by successive Prosecutors General proved lacking, we exercised our fiduciary responsibility to the American taxpayer and redirected assistance to more productive projects.”

This is an amazing statement in itself. “Our fiduciary responsibility to the American taxpayer”? Are Americans even aware that their country is spending their tax dollars in an effort to manipulate a foreign government in what can probably well be called a low-grade proxy war with the Russian Federation? Again, this appears to be a slip, as most American media do a fair job of maintaining the narrative that Ukraine is completely independent and that its actions regarding the United States and Russia are taken in complete freedom.

Hill.TV has reached out to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine for comment.

Lutsenko also said that he has not received funds amounting to nearly $4 million that the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine was supposed to allocate to his office, saying that “the situation was actually rather strange” and pointing to the fact that the funds were designated, but “never received.”

“At that time we had a case for the embezzlement of the U.S. government technical assistance worth 4 million U.S. dollars, and in that regard, we had this dialogue,” he said. “At that time, [Yovanovitch] thought that our interviews of Ukrainian citizens, of Ukrainian civil servants, who were frequent visitors of the U.S. Embassy put a shadow on that anti-corruption policy.”

“Actually, we got the letter from the U.S. Embassy, from the ambassador, that the money that we are speaking about [was] under full control of the U.S. Embassy, and that the U.S. Embassy did not require our legal assessment of these facts,” he said. “The situation was actually rather strange because the funds we are talking about were designated for the prosecutor general’s office also and we told [them] we have never seen those, and the U.S. Embassy replied there was no problem.”

“The portion of the funds, namely 4.4 million U.S. dollars were designated and were foreseen for the recipient Prosecutor General’s office. But we have never received it,” he said.

Yovanovitch previously served as the U.S. ambassador to Armenia under former presidents Obama and George W. Bush, as well as ambassador to Kyrgyzstan under Bush. She also served as ambassador to Ukraine under Obama.

Former Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who was at the time House Rules Committee chairman, voiced concerns about Yovanovitch in a letter to the State Department last year in which he said he had proof the ambassador had spoken of her “disdain” for the Trump administration.

This last sentence may be a way to try to narrow the scope of American interference in Ukraine down to the shenanigans of just a single person with a personal agenda. However, many who have followed the story of Ukraine and its surge in anti-Russian rhetoric, neo-Naziism, ultra-nationalism, and the most recent events surrounding the creation of a pseudo-Orthodox “church” full of Ukrainian nationalists and atheists as a vehicle to import “Western values” into a still extremely traditional and Christian land, know that there are fingerprints of the United States “deep state” embeds all over this situation.

It is somewhat surprising that so much that reveals the problem showed up in just one report. It will be interesting to see if this gets any follow-up in the US press.

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Bercow blocks Brexit vote, May turns to EU for lifeline (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 112.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss Theresa May’s latest Brexit dilemma, as House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, shocked the world by citing a 1604 precedent that now effectively blocks May’s third go around at trying to pass her treacherous Brexit deal through the parliament.

All power now rests with the Brussels, as to how, if and when the UK will be allowed to leave the European Union.

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Via Bloomberg


Theresa May claims Brexit is about taking back control. Ten days before the U.K. is due to leave the European Union, it looks like anything but.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow’s intervention, citing precedent dating back to 1604, to rule out a repeat vote on May’s already defeated departure deal leaves the prime minister exposed ahead of Thursday’s EU summit in Brussels.

Bercow, whose cries of “Orrdurrr! Orrdurrr!’’ to calm rowdy lawmakers have gained him a devoted international following, is now the pivotal figure in the Brexit battle. May’s team privately accuse him of trying to frustrate the U.K.’s exit from the EU, while the speaker’s admirers say he’s standing up for the rights of parliament against the executive.

If just one of the 27 other states declines May’s summit appeal to extend the divorce timetable, then the no-deal cliff edge looms for Britain’s departure on March 29. If they consent, it’s unclear how May can meet Bercow’s test that only a substantially different Brexit agreement merits another vote in parliament, since the EU insists it won’t reopen negotiations.

Caught between Bercow and Brussels, May’s room for maneuver is shrinking. Amid rumblings that their patience with the U.K. is near exhaustion, EU leaders are girding for the worst.

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President Putin signs law blocking fake news, but the West makes more

Western media slams President Putin and his fake news law, accusing him of censorship, but an actual look at the law reveals some wisdom.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The TASS Russian News Agency reported on March 18th that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed off on a new law intended to block distorted or untrue information being reported as news. Promptly after he did so, Western news organizations began their attempt to “spin” this event as some sort of proof of “state censorship” in the oppressive sense of the old Soviet Union. In other words, a law designed to prevent fake news was used to create more fake news.

One of the lead publications is a news site that is itself ostensibly a “fake news” site. The Moscow Times tries to portray itself as a Russian publication that is conducted from within Russian borders. However, this site and paper is really a Western publication, run by a Dutch foundation located in the Netherlands. As such, the paper and the website associated have a distinctly pro-West slant in their reporting. Even Wikipedia noted this with this comment from their entry about the publication:

In the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis, The Moscow Times was criticized by a number of journalists including Izvestia columnist Israel Shamir, who in December 2014 called it a “militant anti-Putin paper, a digest of the Western press with extreme bias in covering events in Russia”.[3] In October 2014 The Moscow Times made the decision to suspend online comments after an increase in offensive comments. The paper said it disabled comments for two reasons—it was an inconvenience for its readers as well as being a legal liability, because under Russian law websites are liable for all content, including user-generated content like comments.[14]

This bias is still notably present in what is left of the publication, which is now an online-only news source. This is some of what The Moscow Times had to say about the new fake news legislation:

The bills amending existing information laws overwhelmingly passed both chambers of Russian parliament in less than two months. Observers and some lawmakers have criticized the legislation for its vague language and potential to stifle free speech.

The legislation will establish punishments for spreading information that “exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia.”

Insulting state symbols and the authorities, including Putin, will carry a fine of up to 300,000 rubles and 15 days in jail for repeat offenses.

As is the case with other Russian laws, the fines are calculated based on whether the offender is a citizen, an official or a legal entity.

More than 100 journalists and public figures, including human rights activist Zoya Svetova and popular writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya, signed a petition opposing the laws, which they labeled “direct censorship.”

This piece does give a bit of explanation from Dmitry Peskov, showing that European countries also have strict laws governing fake news distribution. However, the Times made the point of pointing out the idea of “insulting governmental bodies of Russia… including Putin” to bolster their claim that this law amounts to real censorship of the press. It developed its point of view based on a very short article from Reuters which says even less about the legislation and how it works.

However, TASS goes into rather exhaustive detail about this law, and it also gives rather precise wording on the reason for the law’s passage, as well as how it is to be enforced. We include most of this text here, with emphases added:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law on blocking untrue and distorting information (fake news). The document was posted on the government’s legal information web portal.

The document supplements the list of information, the access to which may be restricted on the demand by Russia’s Prosecutor General or his deputies. In particular, it imposes a ban on “untrue publicly significant information disseminated in the media and in the Internet under the guise of true reports, which creates a threat to the life and (or) the health of citizens, property, a threat of the mass violation of public order and (or) public security, or the threat of impeding or halting the functioning of vital infrastructural facilities, transport or social infrastructure, credit institutions, energy, industrial or communications facilities.”

Pursuant to the document, in case of finding such materials in Internet resources registered in accordance with the Russian law on the mass media as an online media resource, Russia’s Prosecutor General or his deputies will request the media watchdog Roskomnadzor to restrict access to the corresponding websites.

Based on this request, Roskomnadzor will immediately notify the editorial board of the online media resource, which is in violation of the legislation, about the need to remove untrue information and the media resource will be required to delete such materials immediately. If the editorial board fails to take the necessary measures, Roskomnadzor will send communications operators “a demand to take measures to restrict access to the online resource.”

In case of deleting such untrue information, the website owner will notify Roskomnadzor thereof, following which the media watchdog will “hold a check into the authenticity of this notice” and immediately inform the communications operator about the resumption of the access to the information resource.
The conditions for the law are very specific, as are the penalties for breaking it. TASS continued:

Liability for breaching the law

Simultaneously, the Federation Council approved the associated law with amendments to Russia’s Code of Administrative Offences, which stipulates liability in the form of penalties of up to 1.5 million rubles (around $23,000) for the spread of untrue and distorting information.

The Code’s new article, “The Abuse of the Freedom of Mass Information,” stipulates liability for disseminating “deliberately untrue publicly significant information” in the media or in the Internet. The penalty will range from 30,000 rubles ($450) to 100,000 rubles ($1,520) for citizens, from 60,000 rubles ($915) to 200,000 rubles ($3,040) for officials and from 200,000 rubles to 500,000 rubles ($7,620) for corporate entities with the possible confiscation of the subject of the administrative offence.

Another element of offence imposes tighter liability for the cases when the publication of false publicly significant information has resulted in the deaths of people, has caused damage to the health or property, prompted the mass violation of public order and security or has caused disruption to the functioning of transport or social infrastructure facilities, communications, energy and industrial facilities and banks. In such instances, the fines will range from 300,000 rubles to 400,000 rubles ($6,090) for citizens, from 600,000 rubles to 900,000 rubles ($13,720) for officials, and from 1 million rubles to 1.5 million rubles for corporate entities.

While this legislation can be spun (and is) in the West as anti-free speech, one may also consider the damage that has taken place in the American government through a relentless attack of fake news from most US news outlets against President Trump. One of the most notable effects of this barrage has been to further degrade and destroy the US’ relationship with the Russian Federation, because even the Helsinki Summit was attacked so badly that the two leaders have not been able to get a second summit together.

While it is certainly a valued right of the American press to be unfettered by Congress, and while it is also certainly vital to criticize improper practices by government officials, the American news agencies have gone far past that, to deliberately dishonest attacks, based in innuendo and everything possible that was formerly only the province of gossip tabloid publications. The effort has been to defame the President, not to give proper or due criticism to his policies, nor credit. It can be properly stated that the American press has abused its freedom of late.

This level of abuse drew a very unusual comment from the US president, who wondered on Twitter about the possibility of creating a state-run media center in the US to counter fake news:

Politically correct for US audiences? No. But an astute point?

Definitely.

Freedom in anything also presumes that those with that freedom respect it, and further, that they respect and apply the principle that slandering people and institutions for one’s own personal, business or political gain is wrong. Implied in the US Constitution’s protection of the press is the notion that the press itself, as the rest of the country, is accountable to a much Higher Authority than the State. But when that Authority is rejected, as so much present evidence suggests, then freedom becomes the freedom to misbehave and to agitate. It appears largely within this context that the Russian law exists, based on the text given.

Further, by hitting dishonest media outlets in their pocketbook, rather than prison sentences, the law appears to be very smart in its message: “Do not lie. If you do, you will suffer where it counts most.”

Considering that news media’s purpose is to make money, this may actually be a very smart piece of legislation.

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