US-Russia tensions flare up on multiple fronts

by M. K. Bhadrakumar*

Amidst the escalating tensions with China, the United States should have kept the troubled relationship with Russia on an even keel. But the opposite is happening. For the first time since the presidential election in Belarus on 9 August, Washington has openly sided with the protests in Minsk and dared Russia to intervene.

Berlin has simultaneously announced that the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned by Novichok nerve agent.1 Curiously, Germans went public with the explosive information without even notifying Moscow first. Presumably, the US was in the loop, given Navalny’s standing in Russian politics.
   Most certainly, Washington and Berlin have moved in tandem over Belarus and Navalny respectively. A major confrontation is brewing. The warning over Belarus came at the level of the US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun who conveyed a harsh message to the Kremlin via the cold war era megaphone Radio Liberty:
   “The last four years have been very challenging for US-Russian relations, but it is possible that it could be worse. And one of the things that would limit the ability of any president, regardless of the outcome of [the US presidential election in November], in developing a more cooperative relationship with Russia, in any sphere, would be direct Russian intervention in Belarus.”2
   Within hours, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stepped in “demanding an immediate end” to the Belarus government’s moves to curb the protests and warning of “significant targeted sanctions” in consultation with Washington’s transatlantic partners.3
   This is a direct challenge to President Vladimir Putin who had stated last week that Russia is obliged to intervene in Belarus under the Russia-Belarus Unity Pact of 1998 and the Collective Security Treaty. (See my blog Anatomy of coup attempt in Belarus, August 30, 2020.)4
   The US intention is to put Russia on the dock with the simultaneous diplomatic offensives on two fronts. The Russian ambassador to Germany was summoned to the foreign ministry in Berlin a few hours ago;5 meanwhile, the protests in Minsk are enjoying a fresh lease of life.
   The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov today condemned the “attempts made by several foreign states” to fuel the protests in Minsk and noted “a rise in NATO activity near Belarusian borders.”6 The Russian and Belarusian intelligence agencies are in touch.
   The Belarus foreign minister Vladimir Makei visited Moscow today for talks with Lavrov. The chiefs of the General Staffs of Russia and Belarus discussed on the phone today “the state and the prospects of bilateral military cooperation and also the pace of preparations for the Slavic Brotherhood joint drills.”7 A visit by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka to Moscow is expected shortly.
   While the Navalny affair is more of the stuff of propaganda to smear Russia’s reputation in the western opinion,8 Moscow will focus on the Belarus situation. Putin underscored last week that amongst the former Soviet republics, Belarus “perhaps is the closest, both in terms of ethnic proximity, the language, the culture, the spiritual as well as other aspects. We have dozens or probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of direct family ties with Belarus and close industrial cooperation.”9
   Lavrov didn’t mince words when he hit back today, “Moscow will provide an adequate and firm response based on facts to those who are trying to derail the situation in Belarus…(and) to turn the republic away from Russia and undermine the foundations of the Union State.”10
   What is Washington’s game plan? Indeed, it suits President Trump’s campaign if his administration is seen as hanging tough on Russia. In substantive terms, Washington probably chose to go on the offensive considering that Russian intelligence has zeroed in on the CIA blueprint to stage a colour revolution in Belarus.
   In fact, there has been a dizzying array of standoffs involving Russia in the most recent days. The US and Russian military clashed six days ago when a vehicle forming part of a Russian convoy in north-eastern Syria rammed an American armoured vehicle injuring 4 US soldiers,11 prompting Biden to taunt Trump, “Did you hear the president say a single word? Did he lift one finger? Never before has an American president played such a subservient role to a Russian leader.”
   On 31 August, the US military announced that over the next 10 days it will be conducting live-fire exercises just 70 miles from Russian border. On 28 August, the US flew six nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over 30 NATO countries in a major show of force. Two of them flew over the Black Sea and were intercepted by two Russian fighter jets, which crossed within 100 feet of the nose of one of the bombers, reportedly disrupting its ability to maintain its bearing.
   On 27 August, the Russian guided missile submarine Omsk surfaced off the coast of Alaska and participated in live-fire exercises in the Bering Sea. Also on 27 August, NORAD sent two F-22 jets to intercept three groups of Russian military maritime patrol aircraft off the Alaskan coast.
   With growing signs of Russia digging in, the Plan B over Belarus is surfacing. Both Belarus and Navalny are noble causes that come handy for Washington to rally Europe and re-establish its transatlantic leadership, which has been in tatters lately with the EU, France, Germany and UK joining Russia and China to block the Trump administration’s attempt to impose “snapback” sanctions against Iran.12
   Above all, Washington feels frustrated that its clumsy attempts to create daylight between Russia and China have floundered. China has voiced support for Lukashenka; the Sino-Russian juggernaut is puncturing holes from all sides in Trump’s maximum pressure strategy against Iran.
   In a feature article entitled „China, Russia Deepen Their Ties Amid Pandemic, Conflict with the West“13, Radio Liberty recently listed several new Russia-China economic projects in the pipeline to boost the relations further.
   These include one of the world’s largest polymer plants that Russia is building in Amur, near the Chinese border costing $ 11 billion in collaboration with China’s giant Sinopec Group; commencement of natural gas supply to China through the 2,900-kilometer Power Of Siberia pipeline14; plan to start work on a second pipeline, Power Of Siberia 215; plans to more than triple Russian gas deliveries to China; new scientific cooperation testing vaccines for COVID-19; concerted “de-dollarisation” plan aimed at limiting the use of dollar in bilateral transactions and so on.     •

14 “Power of Siberia” is a natural gas pipeline from the Russian republic of Yakutia and the Irkutsk oblast to the Pacific coast, which has been under construction since 2014. On 2 December 2019, the first 2,157 km long section from the deposit Tschajandinskoje (Yakutia) to Blagoweschtschensk went into operation, bringing the first export volumes to China. (Wikipedia) (editor’s remarks)
15 In May this year, Russian gas giant Gazprom has announced to begin a feasibility study for its “Power of Siberia-2” pipeline project that would pump up to 50 billion cubic meters of natural gas to China per year via Mongolia. 
( (editor’s remarks)

Source: of 2 September 2020

M. K. Bhadrakumar has worked for about three decades as a career diplomat in the service of the Indian Foreign Ministry. He has served as ambassador to the former Soviet Union, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany and Turkey. His texts mainly deal with Indian foreign policy and events in the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and Pacific Asia. His blog is called “Indian Punchline”.



Belarus is a special case

“Most important, Moscow will not be prescriptive. Putin has supported Lukashenka’s proposal to draft a new constitution and hold fresh presidential and parliamentary elections, but transition should be lawful and orderly. This Russian approach has been already evident in Kyrgyzstan (2005) Turkmenistan (2006), and Uzbekistan (2016). Even in the case of Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004 and 2014), Russia didn’t oppose  transitions but the West turned them into geopolitical contestations to instal anti-Russian regimes.
   However, a caveat must be added. Putin also underscored that Belarus is a very special case. He said, in a clear reference to the US, ‘some forces would like to see something different happening there (Belarus). They would like to influence these processes and to bring about the solutions that would suit their political interests.’ Russia cannot afford to see such nefarious designs succeed in Belarus.”

M.K. Bhadrakumar, “Anatomy of coup attempt in Belarus”, of 30 August 2020

“Accusations against Moscow were hasty and unfounded”

“Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented on the alleged poisoning of Russian government critic Alexei Navalny, in which Moscow is said to be involved – and stressed Russia’s interest in the clarification of the case. Asked by journalists whether there were people and forces in Russia who could benefit from ‚poisoning’ Navalny, Peskov said: ‘I cannot answer the question of who could benefit from poisoning this person. I don’t think anyone could benefit at all – if you look at the situation simply objectively. That should probably be the starting point,’ said the Kremlin spokesman.
   Referring to the statement by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who stated on Wednesday (1 September) that Navalny had been the victim of a crime and should have been silenced, Peskov pointed out that there had not yet been any dialogue between Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin on this matter. He also made it clear that there was currently a lack of information regarding the cause of Merkel’s claim that Navalny had been poisoned. According to the Kremlin spokesperson, Russia is interested in clarifying the case. ‘We want this, for this we need information from Germany. This information is not available to us at present. Both the Kremlin and our doctors and specialists have been trying to clarify this situation since day one. And you would have to be deaf not to notice it,’ Peskov added.
   Earlier, Peskov had already called for full cooperation with Germany in the Navalny case. On 27 August, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office had addressed the German judicial authorities and asked the German doctors responsible for the case to provide information on the treatment and the findings on the patient Navalny. According to the Kremlin, accusations against Moscow were hasty and unfounded.”

Source: of 3 September 2020

(Translation Current Concerns)

The tone is becoming partly warmongering“

“Presumption of innocence, logic and common sense seem superfluous when it comes to opinion making against the Russian government. We know this from the Skripal affair. In the case of Navalny, too, all doubts have already been dispelled, if German politicians and journalists are to be believed. According to the media, the German government considers it ‘beyond doubt’ that Navalny was poisoned with the chemical nerve agent Novichok. A special laboratory of the Bundeswehr would have detected this. Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of an ‘attempted poisoning’ of one of Russia’s leading opposition members: ‘He should be silenced.’ The current tenor of many media is that the attempted poisoning must be followed by a reassessment of the relationship’ between Germany and Russia, while at the very least a stop to Nord Stream 2, which is being demanded, and further sanctions. The tone is becoming partly warmongering.”

of 3 September 2020

(Translation Current Concerns)

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