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Yves here. Readers have been discussing escalating tensions with Russia actively in the comments section. This Real News Network interview provides a sobering assessment of where things stand. Because RNN provided a rush transcript, it has some typos, in the form of the omission of apostrophes. I cleaned it up as best I could so forgive any I overlooked.
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. Heres 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 heres 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 whos been authorized to engage the military exercises that’s been going on over Syria if theyre 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, lets take one of these at a time. First lets 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 nothings [inaud.]. I would have to say that the case is not [certain]. It doesnt mean to say that Russia isnt 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 hes got a Russia site and hes 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 hes a man whos 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. Theyve get on very bad. I think theyve got mutual contempt for each other plus her political baggage goes back quite a long way. Yes, she was involved in Obamas [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 NATOs 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 ministers 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 theyre going to a meeting in Switzerland I think this coming weekend. So hopefully thatll 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 Aleppos 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 theyve 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 youd 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 Clintons 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 were going to wrap up this segment for now but we’ll have you back to continue this discussion. Thanks for joining us.