John Helmer: As Merkel and the EU Look Wobbly and Obama’s Syrian Misadventure Misfires, Will Putin Be the Last Man Standing?

Yves here. This is a provocative piece. If you’ve been reading the Anglo/European press for the last two years, Putin was supposed to be over by now. Western sanctions and low oil prices were deemed to be certain to put his back to the wall and force regime change, or at least so weaken him as to allow the US to enter into yet another one of its “change the strategic game board” ploys, which has a tendency to leave failed states in its wake.

Yet Putin, head of what is a second-tier country in economic terms has been punching above his weight geopolitically, and now has organized a coalition in the Middle East that looks as if it will deny the US an objective on which it has staked a lot of its reputation, as well as treasure, namely, getting Assad out of Syria. What happened?

Helmer looks at the US efforts against Putin as part of a large frame, that of the US trying to make sure that oligarchs friendly to its interests were influential in Russia. Putin’s success in reining them in thus was a direct threat to US power.

While that is a key piece of the puzzle, and one that is typically ignored, the case can be made that Putin has also been able to take advantage of US overreach in the Middle East. Blowback from the Middle East has now hit a crisis point thanks to the refugee crisis pitting European countries against each other and undermining support of the EU project. This upheaval following revelations of US spying on European leaders and citizens (and failing to act the slightest bit apologetic about it and take remedial action) means that US credibility is almost certainly at a much lower ebb than our press or that of our toadies allies in the UK would admit. In other words, a hubris-addled US badly misread the larger stakes and its degree of influence, giving Putin the opportunity to take ground.

By John Helmer, the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to direct his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. Helmer has also been a professor of political science, and an advisor to government heads in Greece, the United States, and Asia. He is the first and only member of a US presidential administration (Jimmy Carter) to establish himself in Russia. Originally published at Dances with Bears

Since the US started the regime dominoes falling in Kiev in February 2014, the Polish regime has already toppled, and the French one is doomed – President Francois Hollande will be defeated by every one of the candidates now running to succeed him, including Marine Le Pen of the National Front. The British Prime Minister David Cameron can postpone his day of reckoning, but on the margins of Europe, not inside. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel has less time, fewer supporters. When Merkel topples, she will take the European Union (EU) into the shambles with her.

Russia, under constant attack by the US, Germany, France and Britain in the war to overthrow President Vladimir Putin, is now the only European country to show more, not less voter support for the incumbent leadership. It is also the only one with the capability to repel unwanted migration; convert its economy to domestically sustainable growth; and defeat its foreign enemies by force. The war to defend Europe from Russia is destroying Europe, fast.

When there is international war, international capital is obliged to become national. Historically, this transformation has been enforced by Elizabethan-type naval privateering, Napoleonic-type blockades, Trading with the Enemy statutes, or US-type sanctions. During these episodes international capitalism ceases to exist except as black marketeering or smuggling. The regulation (reform) of international markets becomes subordinated to national capital interests, so national cronies are bound to win over international reformers.

US and EU sanctions of the type introduced since March 2014 (individual, sectoral, scalpel, stealth) represent one front in the US-EU war against Russia. This form of warfare puts a stop to the internationalization of capital, such as US dollar pricing in commodity trade; the clearing role of US banks; and money transfer systems like SWIFT, Visa, and Mastercard. It requires Russia (China, India too) to nationalize their capital institutions, instruments, and apparatchiki.

The introductory justification for US sanctions as an attack on the “crony circle” around Putin was camouflage for a strategy of regime change, not a campaign for the clean-up of international capital abuses, tax avoidance, corruption. Extra-territorial prosecution by the US of corruption and crony capitalists is a warfighting tactic, not a business policy nor a jurisprudential doctrine. It is applied against “enemies”, such as Dmitry Firtash, but not against “friends”, such as Yulia Tymoshenko.


The disclosure last week of memoranda by US Government lawyers to President Barack Obama, justifying the planned assassination of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, confirms what is obvious in the war against Russia. “There was also a trump card,” the New York Times reports. “While the lawyers believed that Mr. Obama was bound to obey domestic law, they also believed he could decide to violate international law when authorizing a covert action, officials said.”

Force isn’t the only violation of domestic US law that can be employed abroad. Bribery is an ancient tool of state strategy; it is certainly not a monopoly of the Kremlin, nor of the White House. The ancient Roman empire, and the Byzantine empire which followed it for three times as long, illustrate the obvious. Paying money to neutralize your enemies, or to persuade them to be friends, is far more cost-effective, predictable, and less risky than deploying large standing armies capable of putting down local rebellions, cross-border raids, or invasions. For an accounting of the cost to the US of the unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, read this.

It is just as obvious that standing armies and their weaponry cannot defend borders or territories in depth without internal tax collection systems to pay the forces’ bill. In the last years of the Soviet Union, the Politburo in Moscow unsuccessfully tried armed intervention in Lithuania, then Azerbaijan. But they swiftly gave up the force option, and abandoned the effort to enforce direct rule. They took longer to be persuaded to abandon the means to keep the rouble zone of the former Soviet states intact through a single central bank and a common system of rouble financing.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, instead of the military, administrative and financial controls of the old system, the Kremlin used (created) the Russian oligarchs to restore a significant measure of its previous influence. Not as directly nor as obviously potent as the Communist Party, KGB security, the Gosbank apparatus, and the Red Army commands had been before 1991; notwithstanding, the oligarchs were effective in restoring personal influence with the Central Asian governing elites, obtaining thereby unique means to anticipate and neutralize such threats to Russian state interests as may have been in contemplation. The Russians were able to do this by paying cash — at a minuscule fraction of the old Soviet price.

James-GiffenThe US employed exactly the same means, both inside the Russian Federation, and inside the former Soviet Union. The case of the US Government’s prosecution of James Giffen (right) for bribing high officials in Kazakhstan is exemplary. Giffen’s defence in a New York federal court against charges of foreign bribery and corruption was that he was acting on behalf of the CIA. The federal judge upheld the defence and dismissed the prosecution, saying: “Suffice it to say, Mr. Giffen was a significant source of information to the U.S. government and a conduit of secret information from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He undertook that effort as a volunteer and was one of the only Americans with sustained and reliable access to the highest levels of Soviet officialdom…These relationships, built up over a lifetime, were lost the day of his arrest. This ordeal must end. How does Mr. Giffen reclaim his reputation? This court begins by acknowledging his service.”

In the Russian sphere of influence, the oligarch system (including the state energy corporations) has been successful in assuring the Kremlin’s strategic interests in Armenia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. It has been less successful, though still positively supportive, in Belarus. It has been unsuccessful in Georgia and Ukraine.

In these countries, once the US opted to use force – never mind whether this took hybrid or proxy forms – the Kremlin was obliged to react with counter-force. The defeat of US force in Georgia in August 2008 led to the much greater use of US force in Ukraine in 2014. In Ukraine the substantial asset holdings, energy supply controls, and political clientelism which Russia, its state banks and the Russian oligarchs had established in Ukraine proved unguarded and impotent when the US used force to overthrow the regime of President Victor Yanukovich. Once that occurred, inside the Kremlin Putin lost the balancing effect of his “internationalist” and “business” factions, and was obliged to follow the course predicted and mapped out, not by the siloviki (as they were customarily understood), but by the General Staff and the intelligence services. The consequence has been a quiet revolution noone outside Russia has noticed.

The Russian oligarch system (aka Russian crony capitalism) was first designed to keep a weak, corrupt, American client, President Boris Yeltsin, in power. It then turned out to be well suited to the projection of Russian economic power abroad and to the expansion of Putin’s domestic support after he had eliminated threats from the front rank of the oligarchs – Vladimir Gusinsky, Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The system was volatile and competitive, but stable until the point when the US used force for regime change in Russia.

From then on it has become obvious the system lacks political clout in the countries and markets where the Russian oligarchs had tried convincing the Kremlin they were powerful. Mikhail Fridman had, continues to keep, valuable assets in Ukraine, but no political power when it came to the crunch last year. Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov are among the richest men living in the UK; they have proved impotent as British capital joined forces with the US to attack Putin. Alexander Lebedev owns two London newspapers and a television station, but his son Evgeny uses these media to bite the hand that has fed him. Mikhail Prokhorov, Alexander Abramov and Vagit Alekperov, the oligarchs with the largest capital commitments in the US, have failed to put up the resistance which their peers from other countries show, when the US Government or Congress turns hostile.

These oligarchs have proved they are maladapted for war-fighting. That’s because they have been internationalizing their capital, and in so doing making themselves hostage to the instruments of US and European war-making. Three Russian political figures have understood this, and said so publicly – the deputy prime minister for defence, Dmitry Rogozin (below, left); sometime presidential advisor Sergei Glazyev; and Colonel Igor Girkin (Strelkov, right)), proponent of the Novorussian war.


All three are on the US-EU sanctions lists.

Through the collapse of the international commodity trade and the cutoff of their international financing, the indebtedness of the oligarchs has resulted in their virtual nationalization by the Russian state banks. Individually, oligarchs remain for as long as Putin and the security services judge them to be patriotic and loyal; and on condition they accept their new role as state trustees rather than entrepreneurial capitalists.

Rearguard resistance, like that of Igor Zyuzin of Mechel towards the takeover of his bankrupt coal-mining and steel group by Sberbank, is the exception proving the rule. More exemplary is Oleg Deripaska’s recent conversion of Rusal, the aluminium monopoly, from global exporter of commodity metal to vertically integrated manufacturer for the domestic market of bauxite ore to aluminium window-frames; for the details, read this.

Then there is the case of Alexei Mordashov. The last time Putin called in the oligarchs for marching orders was over dinner at the Kremlin on December 19, 2014. Here’s the guest list; Mordashov was seated alphabetically on Putin’s right. A month later, on January 19, he met Putin (below) at the Kremlin for a more intimate discussion.


The partial Kremlin transcript records Mordashov as telling Putin he is content to be focusing on Russia nowadays – indeed, he said, he is making more profit because of it. “Last year, we increased our production volume slightly: steel production went up by about 2 percent. Overall, we achieved good indicators, you could say, the world’s leading indicators in terms of such important factors as production profitability and net debt volume. At the same time, we did a great deal of work abroad, but came to the conclusion that our future lies primarily in Russia, in the Russian market, and our production here is most efficient. We sold the North American division and are focusing almost entirely on our Russian assets. This has led to a fairly high profit level.” For an accounting of the several billion dollars Mordashov invested in the US, instead of Russia, and then lost, read this.

“We believe our future lies primarily in the Russian market,” he went to say what he has no alternative but to acknowledge. “Right now, there is a lot of talk about the difficult times and so on. But I think that what is happening now, in spite of some serious difficulties, also represents good potential for growth. In other words, what is happening is a serious correction to the macroeconomic indicators, but on the other hand, these events are making national production more competitive.”

Mordashov doesn’t make these trips to Putin’s office just to kowtow. He usually asks for permission to spend money abroad; for what happened after Putin granted his request in May 2006, click to read. On January 19 last, this appears to have been no exception. The Kremlin transcript breaks off with Putin saying: “Good. Thank you.” Did Mordashov go on to say that he wants to spend more than a billion dollars buying shares in Tui, the London-listed, German-headquartered tourism group? Mordashov’s spokesman in Moscow won’t answer, but the evidence appearing in Germany suggests that Mordashov asked for permission, and Putin gave it.

According to the German reports, which have been repeated in the Moscow business media, in August Mordashov lodged an application with the German anti-trust regulator to buy 12% of the shares of Tui, to add to his existing stake of 13%. The German report appeared on August 21; the Russian report on September 4. Mordashov told the German government he is acting through a Cyprus company called Unifirm. The proposed purchase of 71 million Tui shares would cost Mordashov £859 million ($1.3 billion) at the current market price. Without revealing the cost, he also told a Moscow newspaper: “I can and I want to [increase my shareholding], I think. I think that I will not pass the threshold of 30%, after which I would be required to make an offer to shareholders. My desired package – 20% to 25%, depending on the situation.” This is the largest single investment by a Russian oligarch offshore, which Putin has personally authorized since he publicly announced he is forbidding it. What next?

The American war – including the Ukraine front, the Syrian front, the North African front – cannot be supportable for long in Europe because the costs are too great for country budgets to pay, and for domestic constituencies to tolerate. The refugee crisis demonstrates that the spillover of these American wars is breaking up every form of European accord and consensus decision-making, threatening thereby all the governing parties, and most of the opposition parties across Europe. The Putin system of governance is better adapted now than the European system of governance for protracted war, although the domestic costs are heavy.

Cronyism in US governance is also maladaptive in the present situation. This is because no American ruler can implement any undertaking he makes, either to friend or foe, so US war gambits cannot be agreed on with allies (as the Afghanistan, Iraq and Libyan wars once were). Nor can negotiated peace settlements with rivals or adversaries be stable.

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  1. Clive

    If you squint a little, the “Russian oligarch system” bears more than a superficial similarity to the various patronage, bribery, clientism and ego massage schemes operated by the British to maintain the Empire. While utterly corrupt — and corrupting — it was nevertheless remarkably effective for a remarkably long period of time. And hugely, hugely cheaper than trying to keep a lot of boots on the ground.

    It did however require a long-term approach and a degree of subtlety. Not, it has to be said, qualities which the U.S. / EU give the impression of possessing in spades.

    1. financial matters

      The US is definitely acting clumsily on domestic and foreign policy.

      Domestically with all the social service cuts. On foreign policy, Syria may be the tipping point of neoliberal/neoconservative policy.

      I hope though that we don’t continue to devolve into a system of bribery of the 1% to try and maintain stability. I think it would be more stable to bribe the 99% with better social services and jobs.

  2. Steve H.

    Sergei Glazyev and Col. Lawrence Wilkerson are two of my go-to sources for lay-it-on-the-table assessments of international power, politics, and economics. Did not know one was on the sanctions list.

  3. Michael Hudson

    So Barack Obama emerges as the great Russian protectionist of the century, bringing to Russia what the Republicans brought to America after the Civil War: a focus on the domestic market, not free trade.
    I guess this will be the one saving grace for Obama’s reputation, otherwise tarnished by his support for the TPP and TISA. At least for the post-Soviet sphere he’s a protectionist, and has done everything he can to push Russia along these lines to save itself and regain its former status.

    1. different clue

      One hopes the Russian politiconomic leadership/thinkership can understand this opportunity AS an opportunity.

      One further hopes that over the next few-couple decades, that American national-economic patriots can gain enough exposure and power to restore protectionism to America also. And co-operate with Mexican and Canadian economic patriots to help/let those two countries re-protectionise their national political-economies also.

  4. Crazy Horse

    Intriguing article that has the ring of truth about it, at least to someone who lacks the information to actually know how the Russian political/economic system functions.

  5. Synoia

    Interesting. Sanctions on Russia have protected its domestic economy, and reinforced the sovereignty of the Russian state.

    Just the opposite of TPP and TTIP, which destroy domestic economies, and elevate corporations above the sovereignty of the member states.

    Another own goal for the US Foreign Policy elite (or in American Football, a turnover resulting in a touchdown)?

  6. Gio Bruno

    It seems that Russia’s ability to grow it’s own food, exploit abundant natural resources, educate it’s citizens (technologically, at least), and know how to implement its’ military might (when necessary) is an important pre-condition to maintaining it’s focus on domestic economy.

  7. Ishmael

    I would not be surprised at some time in the future, the northern European nations are going to swing away from screw-up US to ally themselves with Russia. There is a long history of that. Even though European Russia is mainly Slavic there are Germanic ties (Russia comes from the Scandanavian word Rus). The northern countries will get all the land and minerals they will need to grow their industry and Russia will get technology. The United States is so weakened manufacturing and resource wise it has nothing to offer any more except fiat currency. Then the dollar will lose it luster and maybe reserve standing. The trillion dollars of capital coming in a year will disappear and the US will fact either a deep and icy depression or hyperinflation. It does not matter if it has the Federal Reserve or was on MMT it will be in deep do do! Of course after Putin who is next to rule Russia!

    When the Soviet Union fell the US missed its biggest opportunity for greatness, but we had Bill Clinton in the White House and he sent some Harvard Professors over who only knew how to rape and pillage.

  8. Malcolm MacLeod, MD

    I feel that it’s apparent that the pendulum of progress is falling away from the United States, and
    it is certainly about time. This nation is becoming horrific.

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