Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Nuclear Grand Bargain Unlikely but Talk of It May Serve Moscow’s Interests

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 18 – Donald Trump’s unexpected suggestion that he might lift sanctions against Russia imposed for Moscow’s invasion and occupation of portions of Ukraine if Moscow agreed to new reductions in nuclear weapons has been met with some unexpected responses.

            On the one hand, as Ukrainian analyst Vitaly Portnikov notes, it has sparked the first serious criticism of Trump by Russian officials who did not even wait until he was inaugurated to condemn this proposal (

            And on the other, as Russian analyst Andrei Piontkovsky notes, talk about nuclear disarmament now can serve Moscow’s purposes much as the accord Washington reached with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev after Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008 (

            Each of these arguments merits consideration.

            Portnikov writes that many Ukrainians and supporters of Ukraine so Trump’s move as harming Kyiv’s interest by suggesting that the incoming US president is prepared to overlook what happened there in pursuit of an issue of more direct concern to the new nationalist leader in Washington and his followers.

            But then something happened which neither Trump nor many commentators could have reasonably expected: Putin’s spokesman rejected the idea out of hand, a rejection that was repeated by the usual suspects in Moscow who said inter alia that “we will not trade away our sovereignty and such a conversation would be precisely about that.”

            The reason for this reaction, the Ukrainian commentator argues, is that “it is simpler for Putin to leave the Donbass than it is to begin talks about arms reductions.”  He is in the first instance “president of the siloviki” and those people are “certain” that any arms reducitons would work against Russia’s national interests.

            “Russian generals, who support the Putin regime, are convinced that they are fighting not with the Ukrainians but with ‘the Yankees.’ And they view Trump’s declaration as a clever move, one that promises to end certain sanctions in exchange for opening a gap in Russia’s defenses.”

            “I do not doubt that none of this came into Trump’s head,” Portnikov continues.  He simply said what seems to him a self-evident truth – namely that there are too many nuclear weapons and that they should be reduced in number. But he is “a neophyte” in such matters and has never studied the problems of disarmament or the nature of the Russian regime.

            And thus, Portnikov says, Moscow rejected his idea, because, according to some Russians, “Trump simply doesn’t understand what he is talking about” or because, according to others, the incoming American president somehow “wants to deceive Putin ‘himself.’” Such attitudes are going to make any dialogue difficult if not impossible.

            But Piontkovsky for his part reads what has occurred in a completely different way, albeit one that may contain within it as does Portnikov’s approach, clues to how bilateral relations between Moscow and Washington are likely to develop in the coming months.

            According to the Russian analyst, Trump couldn’t have come up with the idea about ending sanctions in exchange for new cuts in nuclear weapons.  He simply hasn’t focused on the nature of those weapons or what they mean.  And that suggests, Piontkovsky argues, that the Kremlin itself was behind the proposal that its spokesman then rejected.

            Getting someone else to propose something that it plans to use even if it initially rejects it are part and parcel of “an old trick regularly used by Moscow propaganda.”  While the Russian military recognizes as does the American that more deep cuts are unlikely if mutually assured destruction is going to continue to work, talk about them can be politically useful, especially if any “agreements” are vague and subject to radically different interpretations.

            There is an obvious precedent for such an approach: the Obama-Medvedev agreement, which “Moscow needed because it gave it superpower status, covered over Russian aggression against Georgia and led to the declaration of a reset. And all that seemed to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Obama a new step toward his ludicrous goal of doing away with all nuclear weapons.

            Consequently, Putin may hope to use talk of such an accord for similar purposes even if the initial reaction of his spokesman and backers is strongly negative. After all, that may be for one domestic constituency; talking about achieving agreement especially if it leads to the lifting of sanction works for another.

‘Trust Doesn’t Arise Overnight, But It Can Disappear Just That Quickly,’ Estonia’s Imbi Paju Warns

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 18 – The trust that underlies the culture of any country and its ties with another is something that cannot be created in an instant; but the twentieth century has shown that it can be destroyed just that quickly, the reason behind current fears over talk about a new division of the world, according to Imbi Paju.

            Paju, an author and filmmaker who has explored the issues memory and forgetting in such works as Memories Denied, Fear Was Behind Everything: How Estonia Lost Its History and How to Get It Back, and Sisters Across the Gulf of Finland: Watching the Pain of Others, makes that argument in a new essay (

            Today, the media are full of stories that Putin and Trump will divide up the world into spheres of influence, something that inevitably frightens those like the Balts who have been victims of such divisions in the past. And there is also the sense that now “money and the power associated with it will begin to determine everything.”

            Paju continues: “It may become the case that anyone from the West can go become adviser to some undemocratic leader and lobby to become a shareholder in the dividing up of the world. There are enough examples in history of how immoral, bribed individuals are capable of doing anything for money.”

            Given this, she says, the question with which Sigmund Freud wrestled his entire life is once again at the center of discussions: can culture, in the broadest sense of shared knowledge and a social conscience, save the world? Or is it fated to be suppressed again by the powerful and the wealthy.

            Tragically, she notes, “humanistic studies are being driven out of European universities, slowly and quietly, so that we don’t even realize how the world is becoming more black and white. No need to think too much! There is no need for books and reflection to lead people to philosophical wisdom.”
“In 1940, Estonia was occupied and Soviet forces began stripping Estonians of their Western mentality and memory by destroying books. Freud’s works were hacked to pieces as well. A total of approximately 26 million works was destroyed. During the great deportations of 1949, as people were deported to Siberia, the last personal libraries were burned in ovens.”
                Not surprisingly,  many collaborated because “conformity is a survival strategy,” but to become widespread, Paju argues, the ground must be prepared by grinding culture down “with terror” and fear. “Trust does not develop overnight, but it can disappear overnight, as those who have lived through occupations, violent regimes and wars can attest.”

            Russia too has been a victim of the same thing. Before World War I and the 1917 revolutions, “Russia’s cultural figures, scholars and doctors who felt at ease in the capitals of Europe and soaked up ideas there were excellent cultural mediators …the world belonged to everyone. Everyone went where they pleased … even a passport wasn’t necessary.

            But Bolshevik and Nazi totalitarianism destroyed that common culture, leading Freud to conclude at the end of his life that culture couldn’t block the appetitive and destructive urges of the masses and his friend Stefan Zweig to recognize that these masses were being drawn to the centers of power and that neglect and indifference to culture also kills.

            Are we capable of using culture to “keep a lid on humanity’s drive toward destruction”? That is again the central question of our time. As some have pointed out, “books are incapable of preventing war,” and as others have noted, the shibboleths and networks of the divided world of the Cold War are returning. Does this reflect “a death wish” on the part of people?

            Today, the Estonian author says, we must ask ourselves: “can we manage with the help of culture to keep our base instincts in check?” That is no easy task as the banality of evil Hannah Arendt spoke of “hasn’t gone anywhere” and Julia Kristeva’s observation that cultures wrongly developed can not only die but kill.

            Paju concludes that despite this, she very much hopes that “with the help of culture,” the world “can avoid a great dividing up of the world.” But for that to happen, all of us need not only a deep knowledge of culture but the courage to organize its support and to speak truth to power in its defense.

Heads of Regions and Republics Kremlin Finds Wanting May Lose Their Territories as Well as Their Positions, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 18 – Confronted by a new “revolt of the governors,” Vladimir Putin may soon launch a counter-attack, experts say, removing those who he judges “ineffective” for whatever reason and then amalgamating their regions or republics with neighboring regions led by ostensibly “more effective” rulers, who may be less than thrilled by such new burdens.

            According to the Khakas Republic news portal, “in the next two years, the administrative map of the Russian Federation may be changed,” with the leaders of some being ousted and their regions or republics combined with stronger neighbors. Among the first is likely to be Khakasia, which would be folded into Krasnoyarsk Kray (

            It cites the conclusions of a study prepared by specialists on Russian regions that just appeared on the Club of Regions portal ( They suggested that Putin may use the current economic crisis to eliminate from four to as many as 20 of the federal subjects of the Russian Federation.

            “The process of optimizing expenses on the administrative apparatus,” that report said, “will be accompanied by a cadre bloodbath: the weaker governors will literally find the ground pulled out from under them.”

            Kaluga governor Anatoly Artamonov argued last week that Moscow’s budgetary policies, by reducing the number of donor regions, was driving this process. No federal subject now wants to remain a donor and thus has reason to hide its successes or not pursue new ones (

            (Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov not only has complained out this Moscow policy but has led a revolt of donor regions and republics against its continuation ( and

            The new wave of regional amalgamation, the Club of Regions experts say, is likely to begin first in the capitals with the cities and the surrounding regions being combined.  But then, they say, it is likely to be extended to Tyumen which will become a single federal subject rather than a matryoshka one with the Khanty-Mansiisk and Yamalo-Nenets districts within it.

            Later, they continue, this process will lead to the unification of Chelyabinsk oblast with Sverdlovsk oblast into a kray, the combination of the Khakas republic with Krasnoyarsk, the unification of the Altay republic with the Altay Kray, and the absorption into Khabarovsk Kray of both the Amur Oblast and the Jewish Autonomous District.

            The governors who would lose their jobs and lose their territories not surprisingly are very much opposed, the experts continue, but so too are some of those who would gain territory. In many cases, they say, they would be given more responsibilities without the resources needed to carry them out.

            If all this happens, it would make the restart of Putin’s efforts a decade ago to reduce the number of federal subjects, some of which have proved successful but some of which have been failures and remain deeply unpopular with those who were absorbed, especially in the two Buryat districts which were never given the help Moscow promised.