Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. and a Senior Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.
If he has any sense of honor, Rex Tillerson will resign upon returning home from Moscow and leave Trump holding the bag of filth
Moscow today is awaiting the long expected visit of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a visit that was supposed to prepare the way for a Trump-Putin summit, either as a self-standing event or on the sidelines of the next G-20 meeting in Germany. And that summit would consolidate the turn to normalization of relations as Trump had promised in his electoral campaign.
However, the 180 degree turn in the foreign policy of the Trump administration marked by the launch of a missile strike on Syria last Thursday, 7 April changed the expectations for Tillerson’s visit dramatically, to the point where one of the most widely respected political observers, Director of the Near East Institute Yevgeny Satanovsky, declared on prime time television Sunday:
It is not clear why Tillerson is coming. There is no reason at all for him to be received by Putin. Maybe it’s enough for him to talk to Maria Zakharova [spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs], perhaps with Lavrov.
I believe that determination of what Russians know in advance of Tillerson’s visit and how they feel about what they know is very important if we are to make sense of the reception the U.S. Secretary of State is about to receive, and what he may or may not achieve in Moscow.
My observations below on the changing evaluation of the missile attack by official Russia and of the formulation of recommendations on how their President should respond between the seventh and today come from watching the premier news, analysis and political talk shows on the state channel Rossiya 1.
In the following essay, I will take the opportunity as well to share some important facts…and speculations….about the whole episode in Syria which come out of the Russian programming but seem not to have been covered at all by Western media. These begin with the nature of the chemical gas event in Idlib which the United States alleges was perpetrated by the Assad government and which served as the justification for the U.S. strike. From there the facts reach out in various directions, including the lines of US-Russian military cooperation that the Russians have now suspended.
The programs I monitored for the purposes of this report are the talk shows Sixty Minutes, Evening and Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov, News on Saturday with Sergey Brillyov, and News of the Week with Dmitry Kiselyov. Always popular with their Russian audiences on live television, these shows drew in remarkably high visitor rates on the internet as posted on youtube.com, by which I mean between a quarter and half a million visits each.
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When I wrote about the U.S. attack on Syria within hours of the event on the seventh, I remarked that this would put enormous pressure on Vladimir Putin to respond in kind, that we might enter a very difficult period of muscle-flexing by both sides. To be sure, the immediate response of the Kremlin was very restrained. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs simply announced the suspension of the 2015 Memorandum of Understanding with the United States on deconfliction. That agreement put in place communications channels within the region and rules for conduct meant to prevent and/or resolve incidents between the Russian and US-led coalition forces operating in Syria. But as I mused when I wrote that essay, revenge is a dish best served cold and a more definitive Russian response to the first U.S. attack on Syrian government forces would be forthcoming at some time before the end of the month.
In fact, by the evening of the seventh, official Russian perceptions of the seriousness of the challenge posed by the American strike removed that likelihood of escalation.
Already in the early evening of 7 April, the popular Russian state television talk show Sixty Minutes informed its audience about two essential facts regarding the U.S. missile strike. First, that the level of damage inflicted on the Syrian air base at Shayrat turned out to be minimal, totally out of keeping with what one might have anticipated from 59 Tomahawks launched by US naval vessels in the Mediterranean.
Rossiya 1 war correspondent Yevgeny Poddubny presented footage he and his camera crew had taken at Shayrat just hours after the strike. It was clear that the landing strip itself was undamaged, that many hangars were similarly intact, and that the losses were limited to six out-of-date MIG23s that were being reconditioned, to some roadways and structures of minor significance, as well as a small number of Syrian military personnel and civilians killed or wounded. Poddubny noted that not all of the cruise missiles seemed to have arrived at target. Later news broadcasts clarified that only 23 of the 59 reached Shayrat.
The second fact which tempered considerably the account of the attack broadcast to the Russian public the same evening was that the United States had given two hours advance warning to the Russians. This would have enabled them to withdraw any of their military personnel on the site and so avoid casualties that would call for retribution and lead to a direct military confrontation.
But if the sting of the attack and its anti-Russian message were attenuated, there was from the outset some confusion among official Russia over what message the strike was intended to deliver and to whom. There was also a great deal of interest in exploring the reasons for Donald Trump’s policy reversal on Syria, on Russia, interest in identifying the influencers behind the move so as to better understand what might come next and what to do about that.
Already in Sixty Minutes, the first authoritative view on what happened was put forward by Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party. For political reasons, namely his party’s rejection of many policies of the Medvedev government and of the prime minister himself under suspicion of corruption, Zyuganov is a rare guest on Rossiya 1. He was no doubt invited to call the Russian people to unity in the face of the new threats and dangers coming from Washington, and he fulfilled this task dutifully, even if he also used his air time to put in a plug for a change in government to better serve the needs of reindustrialization and greater defense capability. However, his appearance has direct relevance to the questions that concern us here: namely his reading of Trump’s appearance on television announcing the missile strike to the American public. In Zyuganov’s estimation, Trump looked "broken,” in his words, he was now in the thrall of the mafia that had been running the country before his accession to power with all of its anti-Russian fervor. Zyuganov noted that for once Trump was reading his text from a teleprompter and his voice seemed to be unsteady, highly emotional.
The discussion of what motivated Trump to act on Syria was much broader later in the evening on a special edition of the Vladimir Solovyov talk show. As happens often, the microphone was offered first to Vyacheslav Nikonov by virtue of his seniority. Nikonov is chairman of the Duma Committee on Education, but he is better known in international circles for his years at the head of the NGO Russian World, sponsors of the Russian diaspora.
Since the U.S. presidential election in November 2016, Nikonov has appeared regularly on Rossiya 1 as a consistent advocate of Donald Trump in the expectation of very positive changes in U.S. foreign policy. He was now caught out. He said Trump was responding to popular outrage over pictures of children gassed to death featured on U.S. mass media. Once again, it appeared to Americans that Assad was poisoning his own people. However, if the villain in the piece was the media, Nikonov acknowledged that there were aspects that were more generally disturbing, in particular that Russian servicemen could have been on the base under attack. It seemed as if the right hand in America did not know what the left was doing and these contradictions do not bode well.
It bears mention that another senior Russian politician who has been and almost daily visitor to Rossiya 1 programs and to the Solovyov talk shows in particular did not grace any of the programming from the seventh to today. That is nationalist party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who was a strong believer in Donald Trump and good times ahead. Zhirinovsky was also the leading support of Turkish President Erdogan, who has just fallen out of favor in Moscow again following his strong endorsement of the American attack in Syria. On both counts, Zhirinovsky will probably now be sitting out many shows.
Igor Morozov, member of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, reminded the Solovyov audience on Thursday night that the idea of attacking Syrian military infrastructure was not something dreamed up yesterday in the US administration. Its author was General James Mattis when he was U.S. Commander in the Middle East in 2013. Mattis was fired for promoting policies that contradicted President Obama’s then policy of withdrawing from war operations in the region, taking down the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now Mattis is the Secretary of Defense and the cruise missile attack on the Shayrat air force base comes from his playbook.
I mention the observations of Morozov because it is one of many demonstrations on the shows under review that the leading Russian participants, politicians as well as think tank directors, did their homework before coming down to the studio and are well briefed on U.S. politics.
In News on Saturday, Sergey Brilyov remarked on how ineffective the U.S. missile strike was in military terms, suggesting that it must be seen rather as symbolic, as a "signal” And that raised the question of signal to whom? By process of exclusion, Brilyov recommended to his audience two possible addressees: China and the United States itself. For Chinese President Xi, news of the American strike on Syria was delivered by Trump in the course of the state dinner at his Mar a Lago residence in Florida. The blunt warning was that if Xi does not help to rein in the threat posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, the United States would act on its own as it had just done in Syria. But in Brilyov’s view the more important audience for Trump’s gesture was within the United States, within the political establishment, where he was fighting a desperate rearguard battle for his domestic policies against resistance from both hardline Republicans opposed to his foreign policy objectives and the whole of the Democratic Party.
Russia’s most senior news presenter and manager of all news services on the domestic radio and television as well as boss to Margarita Simonyan at RT Dmitry Kiselyov used his News of the Week program on Sunday evening to characterize Trump as "tabula rasa,” without any experience in international politics who was now using America’s vast military potential to create a very dangerous situation.
Among the several segments of his program devoted to the Syrian affair, Kiselyov featured war correspondent Yevgeny Poddubny reporting once again from the Shayrat air base and explaining how it was once again operational. Poddubny also showed off the piles of canisters at the base which appeared in previous telecasts from the air field and were claimed by some Western media to represent the chemical warfare munitions stored there by the Assad regime. He carefully explained that these containers are standard issue and are used to load all kinds of munitions onto fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, so that they have relation whatsoever with chemical weapons which were nowhere to be seen at the base.
Kiselyov detailed at length the about face of U.S. foreign policy on regime change, on joining with Russia to fight terrorism that the attack on Syria last Thursday represented. Now, objectively, the United States was fighting on the side of the terrorists. All of this meant that Trump would fail as a "deal maker” with Russia, that it was improbable he could patch things up with Russia.
Kiselyov called the U.S. President’s action "impulsive” and unsupported by facts. It was done in the context of U.S. domestic political warfare. Trump’s entourage was changing, with Steve Bannon being shunted to one side and his son-in-law Jared Kushner rising in prominence.
Kiselyov reserved special scorn for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nicki Haley. He pulled up on screen both her accusations against Assad and the riposte from Russia’s Deputy Ambassador to the UN Vladimir Safronkov that the United States was afraid of an independent investigation into the chemical incident in Idlib because it would not support their narrative.
Kiselyov concluded his reportage on the US attack with harsh words, condemning what he called a prima facie case of U.S. aggression. It was not a reaction to any concrete event but was taken "due to the total failure of Donald Trump’s policies at home.” It was intended as a demonstration of strength for which a pretext was needed; the pretext was fabricated.
Russia would react with reason and caution: "It is clear no one intends to declare war on the U.S. But we cannot let this whole affair pass without practical response.”
Specifically, he called for the UN Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate the situation in Syria. They are the people who oversaw the removal and destruction of Assad’s chemical arsenal and production facilities, for which they won a Nobel Prize for Peace. Now they should be put back to work.
Finally, Dmitry Kiselyov ran a short interview with Yevgeny Satanovsky that sums up nicely the thinking of his peers: "All U.S. foreign policy actions are based on domestic political considerations. That is why they are so idiotic.”
I close out this survey of Russian state television reporting on the American attack on Syria with the Sunday Evening show of Vladimir Solovyov, 9 April. After pointing to rumors of U.S. plans to destroy the North Korean regime by similar attack, the host kicked off the discussion with a neat summary for his panel of how the U.S. is approaching world governance today: "The U.S. by itself decides which countries can exist, which cannot; which leaders will rule and who must be liquidated. The U.N. Security Council is not needed. The U.S. decides on its own what to do.”
The highest ranking panelist, Alexei Pushkov, was given the microphone to begin the discussion. Pushkov was until September 2016 the chairman of the Duma Committee on Foreign Relations. Now he is chairman of the upper chamber’s Committee on Information. He delivered a programmatic statement that is worth quoting extensively.
Trump is operating in a specific set of circumstances. The harder it is for the U.S. to manage the world, the more it tends to throw international rules to the wind. Trump has little opportunity to escape from the existing policies.
The key question [regarding the chemical gas event at Idlib]: why would Assad use chemical weapons against this small town? He is winning the war. No one in the West has asked this question. Whose interests were served by this chemical event? It is good for American hawks, for McCain, for the neighboring states what want to overthrow Assad. But it holds no advantages for Assad.
We have not long long ago heard Susan Rice and John Kerry say that all of Assad’s chemical weapons were destroyed. So where did Assad get these bombs?
Per ‘The New York Post,’ Tillerson is coming to Moscow to deliver an ultimatum on removal of Assad. If he comes here with an ultimatum, then the talks will head into a dead end. The experience of the last three years shows that the language of ultimatum does not work with Russia.
The microphone was then turned over to Yevgeny Satanovsky who, as leading expert on the Near East, is now very much in demand. On this occasion Satanovsky was less expansive, more specific in his recommendations on what Russia must do now:
Among the other panelists on the Sunday Evening show, I call attention to two whose observations are uniquely valuable in seeing what information and insights were set out on Russian television and only there that have bearing on the whole US-Russian relationship.
First, there was retired Lt. General Yevgeny Buzhinsky, an occasional visitor to these talk shows. He dealt with the question of the forewarning which the Russians received from the United States before the missile launch:
Trump is sitting on two stools. This is very sad. Yes, the U.S. gave us one and a half hours, maybe two hours of advance warning of the attack. But how?
There are several lines of communication between us. There is a Chief of General Staff to Chief of General Staff line, which is very fast. This was not used. Instead they used a line of communcations set up by the 2015 Deconfliction Memorandum of Understanding, at the regional level, between Americans in Jordan and Russians in Syria. The message on the impending attack was sent to the U.S. command in Jordan in the middle of the night and the duty officer was in no rush to forward it to his Russian counterpart in Syria. The duty officer there sent it to Moscow, to the Ministry of Defense, which also did not rush to respond or to pass the message to the Syrians. Net result: the two hours was barely enough for the Russians to take necessary precautionary measures. The Russian Ministry was furious.
No doubt this explains why the first Russian reaction to the whole affair was to suspend the Deconfliction Memorandum.
The last panelist I will cite here, Yakov Kedmi, on a skype link from Tel Aviv, presented to the Russian television audience valuable insights into why the allegations of a Syrian government chemical weapon attack was nothing more than a canard, an unfounded rumor.
Kedmi is a former Soviet citizen, one of the first Soviet Jews to demand, and finally receive permission to leave the country for Israel at the end of the 1970s. In Israel he joined the intelligence services and had a full career. Until three years ago he was persona non grata in Russia. He has since established as niche on Russian television as a valued expert on Middle East security questions.
What is strange here is that if the Syrians used this base to attack Idlib with chemical weapons, then there should be a bunker of such weapons at the base. That would be very easy to detect using the intelligence means available – satellite images, drones, etc.
Israel follows all movements of munitions to and in Syria going to Hezbollah. We know which trucks are carrying what and where. The United States surely knows the same about what interests it.
Yet when speaking of the attack on the base the Americans did not identify any bunker or location for such weapons. Supposedly they are still looking. This shows it is a canard.
As for the Israeli government, they say Amen to whatever stupidities the Americans say. That is the situation in our country.
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Official Russia has finally taken calmly and cynically the interpretation that Donald Trump bombed the Syrian air base on the basis of a manufactured pretext in order to gain the upper hand in his bitter fight with hardline Republicans and the entire Democratic Party over Russiagate, over his domestic political agenda. But then again, this is the country whose leader in the midst of WWII posed the rhetorical question "how many divisions does the Pope have?”
In the United States, cynicism of this order has always gone down badly. By launching the missile attack on Syria and basing his new foreign policy on an outrageous lie, Trump has squandered his political capital with those who voted for him and for his promised pro-détente foreign policy. It is improbable he will be able to win them back. At the same time he has not shed for long the dogs that have been snarling and nipping at his heels. Already John McCain charged that the chemical attack was made possible by Trump’s rejection of regime change in Syria during the campaign.
By loyally carrying the can for his boss, Tillerson is willingly playing the role of his predecessor Colin Powell in the run-up to President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. This, notwithstanding the fact that Powell later publicly admitted that he had been misled by false intelligence.
The moral standing of Donald Trump was never very high, even among his supporters. However, the recruitment of Rex Tillerson to his administration was seen as a victory for decency. Tillerson’s prepared remarks delivered at the opening of his confirmation hearings were crystal clear and bracing. He alluded to his training as an engineer who always followed the facts where they led him. Patently, in this current matter of state importance, indeed a matter which bears on war and peace, Tillerson is doing nothing to establish the facts. He has only one option available to him after he does what he has been told in Moscow today and tomorrow if he is to preserve his honor: to resign his post and leave the dirty bag he was given for Donald Trump to sort out.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017