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Between nuclear weapons, election-time informational warfare, and the conflict in Syria, we’re dancing on the edge of a volcano, says professor Richard Sakwa

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. In the past two weeks relations between Russia and the United States have dramatically deteriorated. First the US broke off talks with Russia over cessation of hostilities in the bombing campaign in Aleppo in Syria. Russia then disengaged from a critical nuclear armament negotiations related to a treaty that had been in place since 2000 as a part of a post-Cold War disarmament framework. Now more recently, White House Press Secretary Josh Ernest said that US is considering a response to alleged Russian hacking of US political groups such as the DNC. Here’s a clip of John Kerry, Secretary of State, alleging that Russia has been engaged in war crimes in Syria, truly escalating things. JOHN KERRY: Russia and the regime owe the world more than an explanation about why they keep hitting hospitals, medical facilities, and children, and women. These are acts that beg for an appropriate investigation in war crimes. PERIES: Then here’s what the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson had to say about Russia-US relations and alleged cyber hacks. SPEAKER: I would also like to comment on what is now happening with Russia-US relations. I do this with great regret because there’s no good news here. We regret we observe how Washington continues to destroy mutual relations. What we hear on a daily basis about Russian hackers is simply a lie. Nobody has seen them but everyone already knows of them. PERIES: Joining us to discuss how serious the deteriorating circumstances between Russia and US are, is Richard Sakwa. He is professor for Russian and European politics at the University of Kent and an associate fellow of the Russian and Eurasian program at Chatham House. He has published widely on Soviet Russian and post-Communist affairs. His upcoming book is titled Russia Against the Rest: Pluralism and the Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order. Thanks so much for joining us Richard. RICHARD SAKWA: My pleasure. PERIES: Richard, at the surface it looks like relations between Russia and the United States are heavily deteriorating and we can add the additional component of UK now who’s been authorized to engage the military exercises that’s been going on over Syria if they’re feeling threatened by it. These are the airstrikes that are going on in Syria. Is the situation as bad as it sounds? SAKWA: It’s probably worse. I think that we are, the world as a whole, is balancing on the edge of a volcano. You may know that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists argue that we are now their doomsday clock at 3 minutes to midnight and that’s about as bad as it’s ever been. Like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Wall going up in 1961. So it’s extremely bad and the worst thing is that there’s actually no particular sign. No sign of it possibly getting better in the near or even immediate future. One of the things that makes it particularly dangerous now is that the old Cold War systems that had been put in place after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 have largely been dismantled. So you could argue, and I would certainly argue, it’s not a new Cold War. It’s far worse. PERIES: Richard, let’s take one of these at a time. First let’s take the situation where the United States is accusing Russia of being involved in the email hacks that are going on in order to influence US elections. Is there any legitimacy to these allegations, and what is the response of Russia here? SAWKA: Well, the response is clearly negative to say that. But nothing’s [inaud.]. I would have to say that the case is not [certain]. It doesn’t mean to say that Russia isn’t involved. But so far there’s been no evidence. It’s so hard to prove these things. In this case we know, for example, the hack of the Democratic National Committee, that there’s a fellow called Guccifer 2.0 was involved from Romania. You may say that’s got nothing to do with Russia but he’s got a Russia site and he’s got Russian language skills. So it’s completely, so far the evidence is circumstantial. Those specialist agencies who claim Russia’s responsible argue that Russia’s got the technical capacity and the motivation to do it. Certainly that’s the case but it’s unproven. Whether it actually will shake the American election, I’m not sure. For example, what was revealed? The huge amount that was revealed that the DNC was covertly supporting Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders. It’s damaging. So I think we should be careful not to shoot the messenger here but look at the message. It’s quite damaging I think if that was the case. In fact it was the case that what was meant to be an impartial body was demonstrably not impartial. I think that’s a scandal to be investigated. PERIES: Richard, whenever there is a US election underway, they would like to have the threat of war hovering over them, and Russia and China as enemies of the state is conveniently evoked. How much of these tensions are just posturing in light of the election coming up, or is there real evidence of these hacks? SAKWA: It’s certainly a lot of posturing. I think that in this case it’s not a sort of [crisis] that immediately threatens the United States in offense of the United States specifically coming under attack. So I don’t think that the benefits of incumbency will be deserved from tracking Russia, China, anybody else. However, the level of [rhetoric], informational warfare, and mutual condemnation have reached unprecedented levels. I don’t think it’s just connected with the presidential levels. It’s been gathering pace for at least 2 or 3 years. And the worst thing is that this is taking place under the watch of President Obama, and he’s a man who’s clearly rational, very calm, very collected. Yet if this is how bad it can get under an intelligent, calm individual like Obama, imagine what it could be under any possible alternative successor. PERIES: Richard, there’s been a much ado about how the president of Russia, Putin, prefers to have a Trump presidency over a Hillary Clinton presidency. What do you make of that? SAKWA: I think Russia faces the choice that we all face. Certainly US citizens face. That is choice between two candidates who both have huge negatives. From the Russian perspective of course, Hillary Clinton has long been very antagonistic to Putin himself. They’ve get on very bad. I think they’ve got mutual contempt for each other plus her political baggage goes back quite a long way. Yes, she was involved in Obama’s [reset] early on in 2009-2010. But soon after that added to relations deteriorating quite badly. And even in the second presidential debate on Sunday, she once again talked about Russian aggression which is very strange since in Syria and elsewhere it’s the inability to come to terms has led into a situation in which it’s not a question of aggression it’s a question of just trying to find a way out. On the other side of course, Trump is no gift, I think, to anybody. I think Russian analyst as much as anybody else understands that his positions are unstable, even though he occasionally has said things that will please Moscow. For example, that NATO is obsolete. But very soon after that, he backtracked and actually said NATO’s absolutely essential. So therefore everybody knows it’s very hard to deal with Donald Trump. PERIES: Richard, let’s turn to Syria. The situation in Syria is intensifying since the talks between the US and Russia have broken off for the time being and the situation in terms of engaging Russian airstrikes in Syria by the UK military RAF. What do you make of all of this and is there any end in sight to this intensification? SAKWA: Well on the one side, the British debate just recently, and Boris Johnson our foreign minister’s comments, I think just typical bombast and bluster. I think the most–I mean, talks fortunately I think are at least starting, to give credit to him, and they’re going to a meeting in Switzerland I think this coming weekend. So hopefully that’ll start a diplomatic process again. The thing is that there’s so many things going on that as you say, it’s difficult to get a handle on it. One of the things which we should really–and obviously the situation in Aleppo’s absolutely awful. But then if you track back a little bit when you had the ceasefire, what happens? The United States attacked the forces at Deir al-Zour, which was a stationary position. There’s been a stalemate there for over 2 years. The United States perfectly well knew where the Syrian forces were. So the fact to say that it was an accident by their attack is farfetched. It may be the case in which case it’s incompetence. What it meant was in one minute nearly 100 Syrian soldiers died. It meant the Islamic State took over the position that they’ve been trying to get for a long time, including the air field at Dei Al-Zour. So basically, Russia believes that the United States is trying to push all Syrian forces out from [inaud.]. that’s one thing that’s a background thing. As for that convoy which was attacked, again we don’t know. It may have been a Russian force. May have been a Syrian force. But there’s no signature–if it had come from above you’d actually have shell holes below. But it was probably attacked from the side. In other words, it was probably some sort of Islamic State or militant attack. So again that’s not proven. So time after time after time when they have these accusations. Of course it’s awful in Aleppo. But you go back last year when Russia started the air bombing campaign on the 30th of September last year, what did the United States do? It immediately transferred over a thousand TOW anti-tank weapons to the militants in Syria to attack and defeat the Soviet Syrian army. It was quite extraordinary. In other words, what could have been as it were let the state however unpleasant or sad the regime may have been, it could have put an end to the [inaud.] for Syrian people. Instead of which, the United States rushes in arms to intensify the conflict and [conflagration]. And as I said we can track back over and over again all the way to Hillary Clinton’s call for the overthrow of the Assad regime soon after the first demonstrations back in 2011. That’s unbelievable. Have they learned nothing after Libya, after Syria, after Iraq, after Afghanistan even? So it’s a complete breakdown of the situation. And I think even though the situation is dreadful, I think that this here [inaud.] at the moment is utterly hypocritical because at the same time the west is imposing sanctions on Syria which across the country hospitals, and schools and all other facilities have no genuine access to medicines. Tens of thousands of people are dying and suffering because of western sanctions on Syria today. PERIES: Alright Richard we’re going to wrap up this segment for now but we’ll have you back to continue this discussion. Thanks for joining us. SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network, I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Joining us again to discuss Russia-US relations is Richard Sakwa. He is Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent and an Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House. He has published widely on Soviet, Russian and post-communist affairs. His upcoming book is called, Russia Against the Rest: Pluralism and the Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order. Richard, good to have you back. RICHARD SAKWA: My pleasure. PERIES: Richard in this segment, let’s take up the issue of how serious it is for the Russians to have withdrawn from the nuclear disarmament treaty and what all of this means. SAKWA: In and of itself, Russia’s withdrawal from the Plutonian Disposal Agreement of 2000 isn’t that important, in and of itself. What it means is that both the, in that agreement, United States and Russia committed themselves to disposing of 34 tons of weapon’s grade plutonium. What they had to do was to mix it with uranium to establish a mixed oxide, this thing called MOX, which can be used in nuclear power plants. Russia built its MOX plant, its quite expensive, but it did it, and have been disposing of stuff. The United States was building one, I think in North Carolina. And then a couple of years ago, because of cost over [inaud.] Obama decided not to build it and instead of which United States said it can dispose of the plutonium by diluting it and burying it in New Mexico. Which means that theoretically, it could be fished out again at a later stage — its quite hard but it could be done. I think that US explanation does make sense but given the lack of trust. Russia simply couldn’t believe that the mighty super power, the United States was not capable of not building this MOX power plant and therefore suspected that there was something deeper going on. This comes in the back of the suspension of the other agreement, which was this attempt from the agreement on Cooperation in Nuclear-and-Energy-Related Scientific Research, which the US suspended in 2014. This was a very very useful channel of communication between US Department of Energy and its similar Russian bodies. So, the whole thing is dangerous. Not so much in and of itself, but when nuclear cooperation between the world States to nuclear powers is suspended and I think that puts everything in jeopardy. And its symbolic, if nuclear creation are put into this pot now of mutual suspicion and recriminations, then I think the exception is [inaud.] situation. This was pointed out by Mikhail Gorbachev, the person who actually just was celebrating the anniversary of meeting Reagan in Reykjavik in 1986, which committed both countries in the end, ultimately, to establishing a nuclear-free world. Instead of which, we’ve got a world on the brink of having nuclear politics back very much on the agenda. I think it’s a symptom of just how dangerous the [inaud.] situation is. PERIES: Now, turning to the domestic situation in Russia, does these tensions with the United States help or hinder President Putin in Russia? SAKWA: He doesn’t need it. There’s a lot of arguments to say that anti-Americanism is a way of uniting the people behind him. But there’s also a crux to it. I think that Russian people, just anybody, wants to get on – I’m not pleased to say it – a situation of tension. But what it does mean — it isn’t just Russian politicians exploiting the tension — the tension is genuine and structural, if you like, systemic. And it comes from the failure after the end of the Cold War to establish a genuinely inclusive security system. So, I’d hope the situation, of course, means that given international tensions, there is [inaud.] for liberalization at home. And of course both sides — Russia and the United States — have ramped up the sort of informational warfare, this propaganda style and of course Russians when they get involved in such a campaign, they do it with a certain gusto just as [inaud.]. In this US presidential election, most candidates have done so, as well. PERIES: Professor Sakwa, I thank you so much for joining us today, and look forward to having you back very soon, as these tensions rise. SAKWA: Thank you. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Richard Sakwa is Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent and an Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House. He has published widely on Soviet, Russian and post-communist affairs. Recent books include The Crisis of Russian Democracy: The Dual State, Factionalism, and the Medvedev Succession; Putin and the Oligarch: The Khodorkovsky - Yukos Affair; Putin Redux: Power and Contradiction in Contemporary Russia and Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands. He is currently working on his latest book called Russia against the Rest: Pluralism and the Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order.