Going Off-Script in St. Petersburg

Last month’s St. Petersburg International Economics Forum (SPIEF) served as a showcase to the world that Russia is anything but isolated by American belligerence. Filled with thousands of businessmen cutting deals with the Russian state, it provided a platform for Russia to reshape the dominant western narrative that Russia is an international pariah. In an effort to recast the pariah storyline, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a short post-Soviet history lesson to his esteemed interlocutor Charlie Rose. Among his numerous points—let’s call them claims to humor those who still believe in objective journalism—were the following:

* After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the “bipolar system went into oblivion,” the U.S. was in a state of “euphoria” in which it explored new “geopolitical spaces.” It perceived a “vacuum that needed to be filled” in Eastern Europe, and soon expanded NATO eastward to the front porch of the Russian Federation, recolonizing the nations that had just escaped the Warsaw Pact.

* Conversely, in the Middle East, the U.S. perceived an jihadist pestilence where there was a vacuum, and promptly destroyed Iraq, like a hegemonic Quixote battling windmills. Imperial Vlad drily noted that Iraq was empty of Al-Qaeda terrorists before the United States invaded and created a real stability vacuum—one soon filled by ISIS.

* Another “geopolitical space” America explored to the great detriment of almost all involved was the Ukraine, where it fomented a neo-fascist coup that deposed a corrupt but democratically chosen leader. Putin repudiated the idea of trying to split Ukraine from Russia, given the nations’ common ethnic heritage, and common energy, transportation and legal infrastructures.

* Finally, the Russian president distilled his comments to a singular objection: to the West’s destabilizing and illegal invasion of sovereign nations. Citing Syria, he insisted that only the Syrian people can rightly overthrow their president, Bashar al Assad, not foreign powers.

Following this brief seminar on sovereignty and the causes of chaos in the Middle East, the venerable Rose—as if he had heard nothing Putin said—immediately inquired whether Putin would urge Assad to step down, reflecting the chief imperial aim of the West. Putin again clarified his point, saying that the U.S. was trying to dictate terms to Russia about Russia’s interests, and that Russia ought to be able to determine what was in its own interests. Seemingly confused, Rose asked for clarification. Putin finally added that Russia “will not be talked into ultimatums.”

The Debrief

Following the panel sessions, Rose himself was interviewed by Judy Woodruff on PBS. As always in the Mainstream Media (MSM), the fundamental point of a debrief is to recast a topic for American audiences. In this instance, the goal was to paint Putin as a delusional and irresponsible leader, blaming every nation but his own for chaos in the Middle East. The visual framework of the interview drove home the point. The PBS show opened on a grave and despairing Woodruff sitting in front of a giant Photo-shopped graphic of Putin “Pointing Fingers” at NATO and the United States. By itself, the image represented Putin as little more than a buffoon. But in the larger context of the anti-Russian media narrative, another meaning forms: Putin as a capricious ruler, incapable of accepting responsibility for his own behaviors, which have escalated tensions across the European continent.

Once the graphic illustration had done its job, the doyen of table talk went to work. Rose essentially characterized Putin as a posturing revanchist anxious to restore Russian glory. He said that Putin was wont to “rattle the sabre” and very much “wants to be respected” and wanted Russia to be “a big-time player” in the world. This hazily adumbrated portrait usefully serves the West’s storyline: Moscow isn’t acting to defend itself against Western provocations, but is simply responding to the egotistical whimsy of a ruler gone rogue. To sinsofempirehis credit, however, Rose did twice concede that Putin wanted to “talk,” a consistent position of Moscow’s that has consistently escaped American media coverage.

As with all respectable propaganda, the general picture broadcast by PBS is partly accurate. Putin does blame the West for its divisive role in the Middle East and Ukraine. He also challenges its relentless quest to establish global hegemony, with Russia and China, among others, either incorporated into the U.S. system as compliant serfs, or watch their power foreclosed by an encircling U.S. military.

But these grievances are rarely broached in the American press. In the place of investigative journalism, Rose lazily adopts the standard Washington tale that Putin is essentially an insecure despot foolishly trying to reassert Russian imperialism. As ever, Washington is the silent participant in the scenario, an innocent bystander forced to respond to Slavic bellicosity on behalf of threatened peoples. Once this workmanlike narrative architecture is in place, the makeshift PBS interview is swiftly ended and Rose, one might imagine, is whisked off to a lavish meal and boozy bonhomie alongside his mainstream media (MSM) cohorts.

The Missing Links

But what of the West’s behavior—that unexplored subject? The West has aggressively incorporated Eastern European states into NATO—understood by any serious geopolitical analyst as a direct provocation to Russia—and spent billions to foment coups in Georgia and Ukraine. But since installing its pro-Washington, pro-NATO, and pro-austerity government in Kiev, the West has done nothing but beat its chest on the borders of the Russian Federation, prompting a dangerous Russian response just as the Kiev putsch prompted the Crimean secession. Among the recent (this year) war games carried out by NATO countries in the East:

* NATO’s “Saber Strike” initiative, in which 6,000 troops from 13 nations parachuted into Poland and frantically assembled Howitzers on the ground while Thunderbolt jets roared menacingly overhead. All this was described afterwards as a tremendous display of fearlessness and resolve by a breathless NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg for a sycophantic European press.

* NATO’s BALTOPS naval games in the Baltic Sea, in which hundreds of Swede, Fin, British and American troops made an amphibious landing in Poland as fighter jets and gunships provided aerial coverage. Fourteen NATO allies participated in all. NATO’s “Supreme” Allied Commander (for) Europe, General Philip Breedlove, was exhilarated by the stunning display, calling it an “amazing exercise” that showed NATO was ready for “the new security situation.” It might be noted that this “security situation” is one entirely of NATO’s own making. No doubt Breedlove, Stoltenberg, and other paranoiacs in the West ascribe the heightened tensions as a response to Russian imperial “saber rattling,” to use the threadbare phrase that keeps surfacing in banal media fictions.

* Recent NATO war games in the Black Sea nicely bookended the Baltic exercises, perhaps giving Moscow a sensation of being surrounded. The Black Sea displays featured six vessels from the U.S. (two), Germany, Turkey, Canada, and Italy porting some 750 metric tons of heavy weaponry across the sea to Georgia, to bolster the eastern front, as it were, in a nonexistent war that may soon become a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, the Black Sea isn’t exactly a calm body of water. The Montreux Convention from 1936 had to be penned to insist that military ships from non-Black Sea states (Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania) could only remain in the sea for three weeks, and then had to leave. The U.S. and NATO have snickeringly circumvented the convention by simply rotating ships in and out of the Black Sea through the Turkish Straits every few weeks, thus maintaining a permanent presence in the foreign body of water. Interestingly, as all of these restless vessels of war pass through the Bosphorus, they cruise past the former Constantinople. It was Constantine himself who, witnessing the slow disintegration of his beloved Roman Empire, sought to consolidate and restore it under the banner of a Christianity used to ruthlessly stamp out dissent—a scenario not unlike that of our own epoch, in which another imperial system in decline seeks to sustain its hegemony using a faith in free markets to subdue and pillage vulnerable societies.

* We’d be remiss not to mention NATO’s “Noble Jump” exercise, in which soldiers across Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Norway, Slovenia, Poland and Portugal—acting as the relatively new “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force”—readied themselves for conflict within 48 hours. This evidently proved to all and sundry that it could instantly respond to any threats emerging from, say, Moscow.

* Aside from these NATO rituals, the U.S. has been busily adding new technology to its Aegis missile defense system as part of its “Aegis Ashore” program in Romania. The new system takes out ballistic and cruise missiles thanks to some clever new technology upgrades from Raytheon and Lockheed (Quick, check your imperial aggression mutual fund for a friendly spike). One has to wonder if placing defensive shields in provocative locations increases the odds of having to use them (and then order a new shipment)?

* Also, President Obama, our beloved peacemaker, after discovering during a barnstorming tour around Europe that NATO members had no money, allocated $1B of American taxpayer dollars to bolstering NATO’s Eastern front. Curious how much Obama cares for Eastern Europeans and wants to rescue them from the Dostoevskian phantom that haunts their dreams. Yet when it comes to rescuing his fellow Americans from dismal futures bereft of gainful employment, he is content to consign their fate to the “free market” and redirect his attentions back to the “grand chessboard.”

All of this elaborate posturing comes on the heels of a joint “Dragoon Ride” around Eastern Europe by U.S. and NATO troops. More than a thousand “Stryker” vehicles rolled through the Baltics and Eastern Europe into Germany, projecting, in the words of Comrade Stoltenberg, fearlessness and resolve. (As a side note, military nomenclature must be the modern equivalent of face paint, which Native Americans used not only for ritual, but also for making themselves look terrifying in battle.)

That’s the collective military message coming from the West. Granted, many of these drills are held annually, but they have also been expanded: more troops sent to Eastern Europe, heavier weaponry deployed along the Russian border, larger ship deployments for floating war games. All of these not-so-subtle upgrades overshadow any of the standard boilerplate about improving “interoperability” between NATO nations.

Rapid Response Propaganda

All of these actions have been handed a patina of legitimacy by Western leaders. Secretary of State John Kerry calls these moves part of the “assurance plan” for the “forward states.” (Most if not all U.S. Eastern European actions fall under the umbrella of “Operation Atlantic Resolve,” a campaign for the always popular military platitudes of peace, security and “territorial integrity.”)

Secretary General Stoltenberg is a little more colorful than Kerry, defending the NATO activity by accusing Russia of, you guessed it, “sabre rattling” and regularly claiming that NATO must make Russia understand it is serious about protecting its Eastern members. As though they were under the slightest threat of unprovoked aggression. Putin recently suggested that one would have to be clinically insane to think Russia would attack NATO. Small consolation, though, when one considers the recent performances of men like Kerry, Breedlove, Stoltenberg, and especially Stoltenberg’s predecessor, the arch warmonger Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Rasmussen led NATO—an organization without a valid mandate—to an unprecedented level of intervention, including the criminally destructive attack on Libya. He was also instrumental from a public relations perspective in ratcheting up European anxiety about a revanchist Russian empire. Nor should we omit U.N. Ambassador Samantha “Russia has to stop lying” Power and her steady drumbeat of provocations.

Moscow And Friends Respond

Perhaps Washington hoped it might intimidate Russia and China and a slew of other countries into submitting to its dictates. But that has hardly been the case. Moscow has, of course, responded in kind to the West’s military moves: it has made provocative flights over the USS Donald Cook as a kind of deliberate warning; announced its intention of moving nuclear weapon systems closer to its border in Kaliningrad; promised to produce 40 new nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); shifted Iskander ballistic missile systems into Crimea; and shadowed U.S. ships in the Black Sea with its signals intelligence vessels, though this is routinely done by both sides.

The Russians also provided another response to Western action: after many Western countries, for the first time, opted out of the Moscow Victory Day parade commemorating the Allied victory over the Nazis, Russia marched alongside China during the celebration, also a first. It would be hard to imagine a clearer signal to Washington that China and Russia are partnering to fend off Western imperialism.

But it isn’t only Russia and China merging forces against Western neocolonialism. Independent-minded nations in Eurasia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America are joining up to reject Washington’s economic hegemony. Russia’s Gazprom has inked one natural gas deal with Germany and is negotiating another with Turkey, both of which will be devastating to Washington’s plan to isolate the Russians from Europe. Moreover, China and Russia have inked multi-decade energy agreements this year. Moscow is also partnering with Caracas to double Venezuela’s oil production over the next few years. Saudi Arabia signed a raft of agreements with Russia during SPIEF. Several Western European countries have leapt at the chance to join the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The BRICS have likewise formed a global development counterpart to the IMF and World Bank. And on it goes, moving us toward either a multi-polar world or a world of multiple conflicts.

The Faltering Plotline

Putin joked that Rose was a “true American” when he parroted State Department talking points on Assad’s removal. But Putin is wrong. Charlie Rose consistently peddles anti-American views. Certainly a majority of Americans aren’t clamoring for more war, less prosperity, nuclear confrontation, subversion of democratic institutions, or bankrolling violent coups. Nor are they anxious to risk the blood of thousands of low-income American teenagers lured into service by the promise of adventure or money or an often-misguided patriotism.

But these are the policies that reliable flacks like Rose continue to air on Washington’s behalf. Just look at the lineup of neoconservatives that shuffle through Rose’s tenebrous studio on a weekly basis, where they rehearse their deceits with little to no challenge from their host. There’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who laughingly dismissed a question from Rose on whether she might trust Putin. More comically, she seems to consider herself trustworthy. Don’t forget Mike Rogers, the fear-mongering former Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who peddled the Snowden-as-Russian-spy story to anyone with a microphone. Then there’s Henry Kissinger, the war criminal from the Nixon administration who, like George W. Bush, walks freely around America collecting plaudits and ovations from brainwashed elites.

It was also Kissinger who, quite candidly, said that terrorists were simply those who opposed the new world order imposed by the West. This is a chilling admission from an architect of U.S. foreign policy. Fortunately, it is a position that is being rejected by an increasingly large contingent of freethinking nations that refuse to be “talked into ultimatums.”

Jason Hirthler is a writer, communications specialist, and author of  The Sins of Empire: Unmasking American Imperialism, now available on Amazon. He lives in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.