A New Syria
Apr. 2, 2019
A few days ago, an Ilyushin IL-62M liner carried over a hundred Russian soldiers and officers to Caracas. Symbolically, they made a stopover in Syria, as if saying that Venezuela is the next country after Syria to be saved from ruin and dismemberment. The military mission was led by the Head of General Staff, General Tonkoshkurov (“Thin-Skinned”, a name that would thrill Vladimir Nabokov).
‘Don’t you dare, exclaimed John Bolton, meddle in the Western Hemisphere! Hands off Venezuela! It is our back yard!’ The Russians didn’t buy it. Some time ago they tried to object to the US tanks being positioned in Estonia, a brief drive from St Petersburg, and all they’ve got was preaching that sovereignty means sovereignty, and Estonia does not have to ask for Russian permission to receive American military assistance. Now they repeated this American sermon verbatim to John Bolton and his boss. Get out of Syria first, they added.
This is a new level in the Russian-American relations, or should we say confrontation. For a very long time, the Russians convinced themselves that their liking for the United States was mutual, or at least would be returned one day. However, this stage is over, the scales fell off their eyes and they finally realised America’s implacable enmity. ‘These Russians are really dumb if it dawned on them only now’, you’d murmur. It is enough to read comments to the New York Times piece regarding Mueller’s exoneration of Trump to learn that hatred to Russia is a staple diet of American elites, on a par with love to Israel. That’s where we are.
But Russians had an opposing tradition. Russians had had tender feelings for the great nation beyond the ocean in the days of Tsars, in the Soviet days, and even more so in post-Soviet years. They liked America’s derring-do, its hardy pioneers, farmers, jazz, Hollywood. They compared American “Go West, young man” with their own exploration of Siberia. They compared their fast-growing cities to Chicago. Khrushchev admired the corn and called upon his people to compete with America peacefully. Russian Westernised educated classes (“intelligentsia”) sided with the US during Vietnam war and through the Middle East wars.
This love for America had been so entrenched that there were (practically) no Russian/Soviet movies with American villains. That’s right – there is no equivalent to Rambo’s antagonists, or to Igor of classic horror. Americans in Russian films are good guys – with a very few exceptions of B-movies. ‘We don’t trust Russia; we never will. They’re never going to be our friend… We’re going to kick them every single time.’- these memorable words of Nikki Haley had no Russian counterpart, and this sentiment wasn’t known in Russia.
Now it is likely to change. The latest Russian action movie The Balkan Line presented a Russian commando team operating in Bosnia and Kosovo against NATO allies, Kosovo organ-harvesting Islamists – along the lines of the Turkish thriller The Valley of the Wolves. It came out timely, at the anniversary of the Belgrade bombing, the most traumatic event for post-Soviet Russians. When Clinton ordered the bombing of Russian ally and coreligionist Serbia, despite Russian pleas and intercession, the Russians understood that their regime change had brought calamity on their heads. Russian PM Primakov learned of Clinton decision en route to Washington, and he ordered his plane to make a U-turn over the Atlantic. In a few months, Putin took over the Russian presidency, and Russia began its more assertive, but still America-friendly course.
However, the US insisted on treating Russia as a defeated state, like Iraq after Saddam or Japan in 1945. That was too much. Russians could accept being treated as a vassal, but an important vassal, a vassal to pay heed and listen to. The support of Islamist insurgency in Chechnya or encouragement of Georgian aggression was not the way an upright suzerain may treat his vassal. The link snapped.
Until recently, we had Putin’s version of what went wrong – it was presented in his interviews with Oliver Stone. Now we have the American version, and amazingly, it isn’t different as facts go. The American version of events had been presented by William J Burns, a veteran American diplomat and the Ambassador to Moscow. It had been summarised by Vladimir Golstein of Brown University:
1. Russia was expected to act like US obedient junior partner.
“America thought that Moscow would eventually get accustomed to being our junior partner, and grudgingly accommodate NATO expansion even up to its border with Ukraine. Alas, President Bill Clinton’s push for the eastward expansion of NATO reinforced Russian resentment.” – Surprise, surprise!
2. Russia expected a quid pro quo for its support of the US in the wake of 9/11, but “Putin fundamentally misread American interests and politics. The Bush administration had no desire—and saw no reason—to trade anything for a Russian partnership against alQaeda. It had little inclination to concede much to a declining power.”
3. Americans paid no attention to Russian warnings. The ambassador tells of Putin warning him to hold back the maverick Georgian president from attacking Russian clients, but this warning had been ignored.
4. The US-led regime change in Libya “unnerved Putin; he reportedly watched the grisly video of the demise of the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi—caught hiding in a drainage pipe and killed by Western-backed rebels—over and over again”. Apparently, at that point Putin understood finally that there is no way to survive unless he asserts Russian position. After the RussiaGate, enmity between the old adversaries rose to unprecedented heights.
Non, Je ne regrette rien, and in particular I do not regret that Russian-American relations have gone from bad to worse. The world needs balance, and Russians do provide a counterweight to the heavy-handed Uncle Sam. The worst time in recent history was around 1990, when Russia practically ceased to exist as an important factor of international politics. Then, the US stormed over Panama and Iraq, bombed Belgrade, created al Qaeda, and destroyed its own working class. If uppity darkie bus driver Maduro would try to say ‘no’ to Washington in 1990s, he would be kidnapped, arrested, tried for, say, child abuse or drugs trafficking and jailed for thirty years. The then Russian president Yeltsin wouldn’t even notice between his drunken bouts that Venezuela had reverted to direct colonial rule.
Fortunately, Russia and the US are barely on speaking terms, and countries wishing to escape the imperial diktat have a choice. Venezuela is on the line. President Maduro stressed that the Russian military advisers’ visit had been arranged for a long time in advance. Though technically true, during the last month the Russian position changed noticeably. When the US blocked Venezuelan bank accounts, Maduro said they moved their accounts to the Russian GazPromBank. The Russian oilmen were visibly unhappy about his revelation. I spoke to a top manager of an oil company who bewailed the incautious words of Maduro. “Our bank will come under the US sanctions, and we shall be ruined, – he said. – Why couldn’t Maduro keep his mouth shut? We would manage his account, but quietly, without challenging Americans”. Other important Moscow officials said that Venezuela is lost anyway, and it’s better to forget about it.
But the visit of Venezuelan Vice President Señora Delcy Rodriguez to Moscow had changed the mood. This elegant and dynamic lady is an excellent and convincing speaker. She made a star appearance in press conference with Sergey Lavrov. In a few well-chosen words she unmade the web of lies woven around her country. Despite sanctions, Venezuela lives better than its neighbors Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras. There are six million Colombian economic and political refugees in Venezuela; and they do not want to go back to their country. They prefer to suffer in socialist Venezuela. Now, when thousands of Central Americans are trekking to Rio Grande, the US should take care of them instead of worrying about Venezuela. The current exodus occurs in the most obliging client-states of Washington. We also learned that the US stole $31 billion of Venezuelan assets and gave 1 (one) billion to the Random Guy they appointed as Venezuelan President.
For a few days, Russia hesitated. The proponents of a pro-American line are quite powerful in Moscow, and they called for dropping Caracas. They reminded people of a real and imminent danger: the US can block Russian dollar assets and forbid all dollar transactions for Russian companies. This sort of warfare had been tried against North Korea and Iran with devastating effect.
Russians expect this move; for this reason they beef up their gold reserves and sell their US bonds and obligations. They expect it to happen, sooner or later, but they would rather postpone it as long as possible.
However, despite this treat, Putin decided to support Venezuela’s Maduro. Thus a new level in the hybrid war had been broken. Venezuelans had moved the headquarters of their oil company to Moscow, and defiant Russia has accepted them.
The US immediately responded by cyber-attacking Venezuelan power stations and causing an extensive blackout.
It is probably the first large-scale cyber-attack upon the infrastructure of an enemy. The destruction of Iranian centrifuges by means of Stuxnet was still limited in scope and did not interfere with the general economy. The Venezuela electric grid had been recently updated and extensively modernised by the big international company ABB. When the upgrading was done, the company said in its press release that now Venezuela has the best and most advanced electric equipment. Apparently, the most advanced equipment is more vulnerable to cyber threats.
Every Washington-organised regime change in Latin America usually included an attack on the power grid (for instance, removal of Chile’s Allende), but until now the adversary had to dirty his hands physically, by sabotaging power stations and transmission lines. Now they have learned how to do it from outside, from Miami. Venezuelans noticed that the first warning of their blackout had been made by Marco Rubio: “Marco Rubio announced hours before the blackout that “Venezuelans will live the most severe shortage of food and gasoline,” revealing he had knowledge that some kind of shock would happen in the next few hours.” The Moon of Alabama also accepts the cyber-attack explanation, though hedges it by reminding that ‘shit happens’, and the US has also experienced blackouts.
I asked a Russian expert on cyber warfare, and he told me that a cyber-attack on infrastructure is feasible. He connected it with the US struggle against the Chinese communication giant Huawei: it is the only major manufacturer that provides no backdoor for NSA spying operations.
Russians decided to give Venezuela a helping hand. They had sent cyber experts, a military mission; they buy Venezuela’s oil and break American boycott of the Bolivarian republic. They also help Iran to go through sanctions.
Russians have few ambitions. They do not want to rule the world, or even to dominate their neighbors. They do not want to fight the Empire. They would be content to be left in peace. But if pushed, and now they are being pushed, they will respond. In Russian view, even the most hostile American politicians will desist before the Doomsday collision. And if not, let it be.
Israel Shamir can be reached at email@example.com