Comprehending Today’s Russia

The U.S. government and mainstream media present Russia as a dangerous aggressor that must be resisted and punished, but American citizens who toured Russia in May found a very different reality, reports Rick Sterling.

By Rick Sterling

For over two weeks this May, a delegation of 30 Americans visited seven regions and ten cities across Russia. Organized by Sharon Tennison of the Center for Citizen Initiatives. The participants began in Moscow with several days of meetings and visits, then broke into smaller groups going to cities including Volgograd, Kazan (Tatarstan), Krasnodar (near the Black Sea), Novosibirsk (Siberia), Yekaterinburg and the Crimean cities Simferopol, Yalta and Sevastopol.

Red Square in Moscow with a winter festival to the left and the Kremlin to the right. (Photo by Robert Parry)

After these regional visits, delegates regrouped in St Petersburg to share their experiences. Following is an informal review with conclusions based on my observations in Kazan and what I heard from others.

–Western sanctions have hurt sectors of Russia’s economy but encouraged agricultural production.

Exports and imports have been impacted by Western sanctions imposed in 2014. The tourist sector has been hard hit and education exchanges between Russia and the U.S. have been interrupted or ended. But the sanctions have spurred investments and expansion in agricultural production. We were told that farmers are saying “Don’t lift the sanctions!”

Some Russian oligarchs are making major infrastructure investments.

For example, billionaire Sergei Galitsky has developed Russia’s largest retail outlet, the Magnit supermarket chain. Galitsky has invested heavily in state-of-the-art drip irrigation green houses producing massive quantities of high quality cucumbers, tomatoes and other vegetables, which are distributed via the supermarkets throughout Russia.

–There has been a resurgence of religion in Russia.

Russian Orthodox Churches have been revitalized and gold leaf glistens on the church domes. Muslim mosques have also been refurbished and rebuilt. A brilliant new mosque is a prominent part of the Kremlin in Kazan, Tatarstan. There are many Muslim in Russia. This research puts the number at ten million though we heard estimates much higher. We saw numerous examples of interfaith unity and cooperation, with Muslim Imams working side by side with young Russian Orthodox priests. We also heard stories of how churches had been used as prisons or food warehouses during the Stalin era.

Russia increasingly looks east.

The Russian emblem of a double-headed eagle looks both east and west; it is a Eur-Asian country. While Europe is still important politically and economically, Russia is increasingly looking to the east. Russia’s “strategic partner” is China – economically, politically and militarily. There are increasing numbers of Chinese tourists and education exchanges with Russia. In the United Nations Security Council the two countries tend to vote together. Huge investments are planned for the transportation network dubbed the “Belt and Road Initiative” connecting Asia with Europe.

–Russia is a capitalist country with a strong state sector.

Government is influential or controls sectors of the economy such as public transportation, military/defense industry, resource extraction, education and health care. State-owned enterprises account for nearly 40 percent of overall employment. They have universal health care in parallel with private education and health care facilities. Banking is a problem area with high interest rates and the failure/bankruptcy of numerous banks in the past decade. We heard complaints that foreign multinational companies can enter and control sectors of the economy, drive out Russian competitors and take the profits home.

The luxury Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Moscow

–There is some nostalgia for the former Soviet Union with its communist ideals.

We met numerous people who speak fondly of the days when nobody was super-rich or horribly poor and when they believed there was a higher goal for society. We heard this from people ranging from a successful entrepreneur to an aging Soviet-era rock musician. That does not mean that these people want to return to Soviet days, but that they recognize the changes in Russia have both pluses and negatives. There is widespread disapproval of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the economic chaos of the 1990s.

–There is a range of media supporting both government and opposition parties.

There are three major TV stations controlled by and supporting the government. Along with these, there are numerous private stations criticizing the government and supporting various opposition parties. In print media, the majority of newspapers and magazines are critical of the government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin answering questions from Russian citizens at his annual Q&A event on April 14, 2016. (Russian government photo)

–Public transportation is impressive.

The streets of Moscow are jam packed with new cars. Meanwhile, underground there is a fast, economical and efficient subway system. which is the most heavily used in Europe. The Moscow metro carries 40 percent more passengers than the New York subway system. On major routes the trains arrive every 60 seconds. Some of the stations are over 240 feet underground with the longest escalator in Europe. Inter-city trains such as the Sapsan (Falcon) take passengers between St. Petersburg and Moscow at 200 kilometers per hour. Despite the speed, the train is smooth and quiet. It’s an interesting way to view rural Russia as one passes ramshackle dachas, cute villages and abandoned Soviet-era factories. A major new transportation project is the bridge between Krasnodar and the Crimean peninsula. This short video portrays the design.

–Putin is popular.

Depending on who you ask, Putin’s popularity seems to range between 60 and 80 percent. There are two reasons: First, since he became leader the economy has stabilized, corrupt oligarchs were brought into check, and the standard of living dramatically improved. Second, Putin is credited with restoring international respect for Russia and national pride for Russian citizens. Some say, “During the 1990s we were a beggar nation.” Russians have a strong sense of national pride and Putin’s administration has restored that.

Some people think Putin deserves a break from the intense pressure and workload. That does not mean everyone likes him or is afraid to say that. Our official Moscow guide took delight in showing us the exact spot on the bridge outside the Kremlin where she believes Putin had one of his enemies assassinated. Other Russians we spoke with mock these accusations, which are widely believed in the West. As to the accusations that Putin is a “dictator,” about 75 students in Crimea openly laughed when they were asked about this Western belief.

Current Political Tension

–Russians are highly skeptical of accusations about Russian “meddling” in the U.S. election.

One foreign policy expert, Vladimir Kozin, said “It’s a fairy tale that Russia influenced the U.S. election.” They contrast the unverified accusations with clear evidence of U.S. interference in past Russian elections, especially in the 1990s when the economy was privatized and crime, unemployment and chaos overwhelmed the country. The role of the U.S. in “managing” the election of Boris Yeltsin in 1995 is widely known in Russia, as is the U.S. funding of hundreds of “non-governmental organizations” in Ukraine prior to the 2013-2014 violence and coup.

Time magazine cover recounting how the U.S. enabled Boris Yeltsin’s reelection as Russian president in 1996.

–There is a strong desire to improve relations with the U.S..

We met numerous Russians who had participated in citizen exchanges with the U.S. in the 1990s. Almost universally these Russians had fond memories of their visits and hosts in the U.S. In other places we met people who had never met an American or English-speaking person before. Typically they were cautious but very pleased to hear from American citizens who also wish to improve relations and reduce tensions.

–Western media reports about Crimea are hugely distorted.

CCI delegates who visited Crimea met with a broad range of citizens and elected leaders. The geography is “stunningly beautiful” with mountains dropping to beaches on the Black Sea. Not reported in the West, Crimea was part of Russia since 1783. When Crimea was administratively transferred to Ukraine in 1954, it was all part of the Soviet Union. Crimeans told the CCI delegates they were repelled by the violence and fascist elements involved in the Kiev coup. Bus convoys from Crimea were attacked with injuries and deaths following the Kiev coup.

The new coup government said Russian was no longer an official language. Crimeans quickly organized and held a referendum to secede from Ukraine and “re-unify” with Russia. With 80 percent of registered voters participating, 96 percent voted to join Russia. One Crimean stated to the CCI delegates, “We would have gone to war to separate from Ukraine.” Others noted the hypocrisy of the West which allows secession votes in Scotland and Catalonia, and which encouraged the secession of Croatia, but then rejects the overwhelming vote and choice of the Crimean people.

A map showing Crimea (in beige) and its proximity to both the Ukrainian mainland and Russia.

Sanctions against tourism are hurting the economy of Crimea yet the public is confident in its decision. The Americans who visited Crimea were overwhelmed with the warm welcome and friendliness they received. Because of the sanctions, few Americans visit Crimea and they also received substantial media coverage. In reaction, political officials in Ukraine accused the delegates of being “enemies of the Ukrainian state” and put their names on a blacklist.

–Russians know and fear war.

Twenty-seven million Russians died in World War II and that experience is seared into the Russian memory. The Nazi siege of Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg) reduced the population from 3 million to 500,000. Walking through the cemetery of mass graves brings home the depth of suffering and resilience of Russians who somehow survived a 872-day siege on the city. Memory of the war is kept alive through commemorations with huge public participation. Citizens carry poster-size photographs of their relatives who fought or died in World War II, known as the “Immortal Regiment.” In Kazan, the march involved 120,000 persons – 10 percent of the entire city population – beginning at 10 a.m. and concluding at 9 p.m.. Across Russia, millions of citizens actively participate. The marches and parades marking “Victory Day” are more solemn than celebratory.

–Russians see themselves being threatened.

While Western media portrays Russia as “aggressive,” most Russians perceive the reverse. They see the U.S. and NATO increasing military budgets, steadily expanding, moving up to the Russian border, withdrawing from or violating past treaties and conducting provocative military exercises. This map shows the situation.

Some of the estimated 12 million Russians who took part in Immortal Regiment parades across the country over three days in May 2016. (RT photo)

–Russians want to de-escalate international tensions.

Former President Mikhail Gorbachev said to our group, “Does America want Russia to just submit? This is a country that can never submit.” These words carry extra significance because it was Gorbachev who initiated the foreign policy of Perestroika which led to his own sidelining and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev has written about Perestroika as follows: “Its main outcome was the end of the Cold War. A long and potentially deadly period in world history, when the whole humankind lived under the constant threat of a nuclear disaster, came to an end.” Yet we are clearly in a new Cold War and the threat has re-emerged.

Despite three years of economic sanctions, low oil prices and an intense information war in the West, Russian society appears to be doing reasonably well. Russians across the spectrum express a strong desire to build friendship and partnership with the U.S. At the same time, it seems Russians will not be intimidated. They don’t want war and won’t initiate it, but if attacked they will defend themselves as they have in the past.

Rick Sterling is an investigative journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He can be contacted at rsterling1@gmail.com

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Libya’s Link to Manchester’s Tragedy

Whenever a horrific terror attack hits the West, the media/political etiquette rejects any linkage between the atrocity and the West’s wars in the Arab world, a blackout now applying to the Manchester bombing, notes John Pilger.

By John Pilger

The unsayable in Britain’s general election campaign is this: The causes of the Manchester atrocity, in which 22 mostly young people were murdered by a jihadist, are being suppressed to protect the secrets of British foreign policy.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi shortly before he was killed on Oct. 20, 2011, in Sirte, Libya.

Critical questions – such as why the security service MI5 maintained terrorist “assets” in Manchester and why the government did not warn the public of the threat in their midst – remain unanswered, deflected by the promise of an internal “review.”

The alleged suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, was part of an extremist group, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, that thrived in Manchester and was cultivated and used by MI5 for more than 20 years. The LIFG is proscribed by Britain as a terrorist organization, which seeks a “hardline Islamic state” in Libya and “is part of the wider global Islamist extremist movement, as inspired by al-Qaida.”

The “smoking gun” is that when Prime Minister Theresa May was Home Secretary, LIFG jihadists were allowed to travel unhindered across Europe and encouraged to engage in “battle”: first to remove Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, then to join al-Qaida affiliated groups in Syria.

Last year, the FBI reportedly placed Abedi on a “terrorist watch list” and warned MI5 that his group was looking for a “political target” in Britain. Why wasn’t he apprehended and the network around him prevented from planning and executing the atrocity on May 22?

These questions arise because of an FBI leak that demolished the “lone wolf” spin in the wake of the May 22 attack – thus, the panicky, uncharacteristic outrage directed at Washington from London and Donald Trump’s apology.

The Manchester atrocity lifts the rock of British foreign policy to reveal its Faustian alliance with extreme Islam, especially the sect known as Wahhabism or Salafism, whose principal custodian and banker is the oil kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Britain’s biggest weapons customer.

This imperial marriage reaches back to the Second World War and the early days of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The aim of British policy was to stop pan-Arabism: Arab states developing a modern secularism, asserting their independence from the imperial West and controlling their resources. The creation of a rapacious Israel was meant to expedite this. Pan-Arabism has since been crushed; the goal now is division and conquest.

The ‘Manchester Boys’                                                   

In 2011, according to Middle East Eye, the LIFG in Manchester were known as the “Manchester boys.” Implacably opposed to Muammar Gaddafi, they were considered high risk and a number were under Home Office control orders – house arrest – when anti-Gaddafi demonstrations broke out in Libya, a country forged from myriad tribal enmities.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denouncing the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 12, 2012. (State Department photo)

Suddenly the control orders were lifted. “I was allowed to go, no questions asked,” said one LIFG member. MI5 returned their passports and counter-terrorism police at Heathrow airport were told to let them board their flights.

The overthrow of Gaddafi, who controlled Africa’s largest oil reserves, had been long been planned in Washington and London. According to French intelligence, the LIFG made several assassination attempts on Gaddafi in the 1990s – bankrolled by British intelligence. In March 2011, France, Britain and the U.S. seized the opportunity of a “humanitarian intervention” and attacked Libya. They were joined by NATO under cover of a United Nations resolution to “protect civilians.”

Last September, a House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee inquiry concluded that then Prime Minister David Cameron had taken the country to war against Gaddafi on a series of “erroneous assumptions” and that the attack “had led to the rise of Islamic State in North Africa.” The Commons committee quoted what it called President Barack Obama’s “pithy” description of Cameron’s role in Libya as a “shit show.”

In fact, Obama was a leading actor in the “shit show,” urged on by his warmongering Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and a media accusing Gaddafi of planning “genocide” against his own people. “We knew … that if we waited one more day,” said Obama, “Benghazi, a city the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”

The massacre story was fabricated by Salafist militias facing defeat by Libyan government forces. They told Reuters there would be “a real bloodbath, a massacre like we saw in Rwanda.” The Commons committee reported, “The proposition that Mu’ammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence.”

Destroying Libya

Britain, France and the United States effectively destroyed Libya as a modern state. According to its own records, NATO launched 9,700 “strike sorties” of which more than a third hit civilian targets. They included fragmentation bombs and missiles with uranium warheads. The cities of Misurata and Sirte were carpet-bombed. Unicef, the U.N. children’s organization, reported a high proportion of the children killed “were under the age of ten.”

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton honor the four victims of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, at the Transfer of Remains Ceremony held at Andrews Air Force Base, Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, on Sept. 14, 2012. [State Department photo)

More than “giving rise” to Islamic State — ISIS had already taken root in the ruins of Iraq following the Tony Blair and George W. Bush invasion in 2003 — these ultimate medievalists now had all of north Africa as a base. The attack also triggered a stampede of refugees fleeing to Europe.Cameron was celebrated in Tripoli as a “liberator,” or imagined he was. The crowds cheering him included those secretly supplied and trained by Britain’s SAS and inspired by Islamic State, such as the “Manchester boys”.

To the Americans and British, Gaddafi’s true crime was his iconoclastic independence and his plan to abandon the petrodollar, a pillar of American imperial power. He had audaciously planned to underwrite a common African currency backed by gold, establish an all-Africa bank and promote economic union among poor countries with prized resources. Whether or not this would have happened, the very notion was intolerable to the U.S. as it prepared to “enter” Africa and bribe African governments with military “partnerships.”

After losing control of Tripoli, Gaddafi fled for his life. A Royal Air Force plane spotted his convoy, and in the rubble of Sirte, he was captured and sodomized with a knife by a fanatic described in the news as “a rebel.”

Having plundered Libya’s $30 billion arsenal, the “rebels” advanced south, terrorizing towns and villages. Crossing into sub-Saharan Mali, they destroyed that country’s fragile stability. The ever-eager French sent planes and troops to their former colony “to fight al-Qaida,” the menace they had helped create.

On Oct. 14, 2011, President Obama announced he was sending Special Forces troops to Uganda to join the civil war there. In the next few months, U.S. combat troops were sent to South Sudan, Congo and the Central African Republic. With Libya secured, an American invasion of the African continent was under way, largely unreported.

Selling Weapons  

In London, one of the world’s biggest arms fairs was staged by the British government. The buzz in the stands was the “demonstration effect in Libya.” The London Chamber of Commerce and Industry held a preview entitled “Middle East: A vast market for UK defence and security companies.” The host was the Royal Bank of Scotland, a major investor in cluster bombs, which were used extensively against civilian targets in Libya. The blurb for the bank’s arms party lauded the “unprecedented opportunities for UK defence and security companies.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits with British Prime Minister Theresa May in the White Room No. 10 Downing Street in London, U.K., on July 19, 2016. [State Department Photo]

Last month, Prime Minister Theresa May was in Saudi Arabia, selling more of the £3 billion worth of British arms, which the Saudis have used against Yemen. Based in control rooms in Riyadh, British military advisers assist the Saudi bombing raids, which have killed more than 10,000 civilians. There are now clear signs of famine. A Yemeni child dies every 10 minutes from preventable disease, says Unicef.The Manchester atrocity on May 22 was the product of such unrelenting state violence in faraway places, much of it British sponsored. The lives and names of the victims are almost never known to us.

This truth struggles to be heard, just as it struggled to be heard when the London Underground was bombed on July 7, 2005. Occasionally, a member of the public would break the silence, such as the east Londoner who walked in front of a CNN camera crew and reporter in mid-platitude. “Iraq!” he said. “We invaded Iraq. What did we expect? Go on, say it.”

At a large media gathering I attended, many of the important guests uttered “Iraq” and “Blair” as a kind of catharsis for that which they dared not say professionally and publicly. Yet, before he invaded Iraq, Blair was warned by the Joint Intelligence Committee that “the threat from al-Qaida will increase at the onset of any military action against Iraq. … The worldwide threat from other Islamist terrorist groups and individuals will increase significantly”.

Just as Blair brought home to Britain the violence of his and George W Bush’s blood-soaked “shit show,” so David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, compounded his crime in Libya and its horrific aftermath, including those killed and maimed in Manchester Arena on May 22.

The spin is back, not surprisingly: Salman Abedi acted alone; he was a petty criminal, no more than that; the extensive network revealed last week by the American leak has vanished. But the questions have not.

Why was Abedi able to travel freely through Europe to Libya and back to Manchester only days before he committed his terrible crime? Was Theresa May told by MI5 that the FBI had tracked him as part of an Islamic cell planning to attack a “political target” in Britain?

In the current election campaign, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has made a guarded reference to a “war on terror that has failed.” As he knows, it was never a war on terror but a war of conquest and subjugation. Palestine. Afghanistan. Iraq. Libya. Syria. Iran is said to be next. Before there is another Manchester, who will have the courage to say that?

John Pilger is an Australian-British journalist based in London. Pilger’s Web site is: www.johnpilger.com. His new film, “The Coming War on China,” is available in the U.S. from www.bullfrogfilms.com

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