WASHINGTON — If you are even a casual consumer of Western media then you know the current top threat to U.S. security according to corporate journalists is Russian aggression.
According to neoconservative politicians such as Arizona Senator John McCain, the Russian interference in last year’s election — which has so far only been shown to be a series of fairly banal Facebook ads that essentially just highlighted the organic chaos of the 2016 campaign — amounts to an “act of war.”
Former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has used similar language, saying the alleged hack of the Democratic National Committee’s’ email servers amounted to a “cyber 9/11.” Even corporate journalists agree with this sentiment, with some columnists like The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty comparing the supposed Russian crimes to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that lead the U.S. into the Second World War.
This kind of hysteria has led down the predictable path of a degradation in U.S.-Russia relations, which both Moscow and Washington agree have hit the lowest point since the Cold War. While the true nature of relations between Moscow and the Trump campaign may never be fully known, one person who agrees with this assessment of a situation reminiscent of the Cold War is the President of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Richard N. Haass, who cited the Russian annexation of Crimea, intervention in Syria, and alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election as a clear indication that we have entered a Second Cold War.
The Council’s role in the U.S. empire
While the name Richard Haass may be relatively obscure, the CFR is well known as the organization that advises neoconservatives and imperialists in top positions in the U.S. government.
With an annual budget $69 million — drawn from a Rockefeller Foundation endowment, sales of Foreign Affairs magazine, as well individual and corporate membership dues (the corporate members primarily being made up of representatives from some of the largest banks, tech companies, media organizations, oil companies and, of course, defense contractors) — the CFR is well positioned to deeply root its influence throughout the government.
Hillary Clinton even illustrated how closely government is intertwined with the CFR during her time as Secretary of State, when she said she was grateful for the group’s Washington branch being so close to her office, allowing her easy access to policy advisers, and later using the Council as a venue to sell her foreign policy during the presidential election. While Clinton may have never had a chance to enact this policy, many of the same Bush-era neocons (the real architects of the Iraq war and machinations against Iran) who supported her during the election have moved on to support Trump, as long as he is serving their agenda on foreign policy questions like “how to counter Russia.”
Much like Clinton, the CFR under the Trump administration is now a major source of pushing the narrative that Russia has, for all intents and purposes, attacked the United States. Unlike Clinton, however, the CFR still has the ability to offer policy recommendations to some of the highest levels of the government.
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One major channel for the foundation to push this influence through is the group of Council members who also serve in the Trump administration, the most notable of whom is National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. McMaster holds the same hawkish positions as his fellow Council members on foreign policy issues ranging from Iran to North Korea and was even recommended to Trump by two other big fans of the Council: fellow neocon Republican Senators McCain and Tom Cotton.
The CFR also has influence beyond such positioning of its members, as the board is made up of some of the top executives from some of the largest foreign policy lobbying firms, defense contractors, universities, banks, investment firms, tech companies, and high-profile members of the corporate media. The spread and influence of the thought that leaks out of the CFR can be seen in clear lines that typically start from the policy papers drafted by the Council’s researchers.
One such report, released in January of this year and titled simply “Containing Russia,” features the CFR’s plan for responding to the alleged threat of Russian aggression in multiple sectors of the national security apparatus. Some of the policy actions recommended in this latest report have already been enacted, and many appear destined to be in the near future, making it seem likely that this report offers a pretty accurate blueprint to be used by the neocons who have overwhelming influence over Trump’s foreign policy.
Much like the Western media (which is influenced by Council board members such as CNN’s Fareed Zakaria), the Council believes that “evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is overwhelming,” according to the report’s authors, Robert D. Blackwill and Philip H. Gordon. The report also alleges the same “crimes” by Russia as have the U.S. intelligence and media communities, with the alleged violations ranging from the obvious tactics — such as hacking the DNC, the supposed “misinformation” distributed by Russian media, Russian bot networks spreading disinformation, and the purchase of Facebook advertising — to the more difficult to prove accusation that Trump colluded with the Russian government during the election.
According to the report’s authors, Moscow “never undertook such a vast, determined, multifaceted effort to affect an electoral outcome in the United States,” even during the height of the Cold War — which calls for extreme measures in response. The report offers these potential responses in four critical areas of U.S. national security policy, which include expanded sanctions, electoral and cyber countermeasures, “European security,” and tweaks to nuclear agreements and arsenals as a means of applying diplomatic pressure on Russia. Some of these policy ideas can already be observed in current policy and others are often peddled in the mainstream media, making it important to break the report down by section and describe the implications of the experts’ policy plans.
Tightening the sanctions regime
The first set of recommendations set forth by the Council’s report cover the sanctions laid out in the package passed by Congress in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). CAATSA was passed by overwhelming majorities in both the House of Representatives (419-3) and the Senate (98-2). Despite this overwhelming bipartisan consensus addressing the growing Russian threat, groups like the CFR have found themselves disappointed that the White House has failed to fully implement the measures in the bill.
The CFR doesn’t just want these existing sanctions fully implemented, they also recommend increasing targeted sanctions aimed at the now-infamous “troll farms” by pursuing the individuals suspected of funding such operations. One example of an individual that would be likely to come under these hypothetical tightly targeted sanctions is Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man known as “Putin’s chef,” who was recently alleged, in the obstruction of justice probe by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, to be behind a Russian internet influence operation based in the United States.
In his latest indictments, Mueller alleged that Russian nationals launched an influence campaign through the purchase of social-media advertisements under the guise of being U.S. citizens. This campaign was alleged to have been directed by a Russian businessman with ties to President Vladimir Putin, which is exactly the type of individual the CFR report recommends future sanctions target as “sources of financing.”
Electoral and cyber countermeasures
The second set of policy prescriptions offered by the CFR report concerns the world of cyber defense and protecting the internal electoral systems in the U.S.
First discussed is the defensive side of cybersecurity in both the public and the private sector in the U.S. and European internet community. As a preliminary step to increase cyber defense, the Council’s report calls on the White House to fully implement the Executive Order on Strengthening the Cybersecurity of Federal Networks and Critical Infrastructure, signed by Trump in May of 2017, which was intended to increase funding to cybersecurity in the wake of the alleged Russian interference.
The report also calls on the federal intelligence networks to cooperate with the private sector — social media companies specifically — by declassifying and sharing enough intelligence information for tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Google to use in formulating their policies. What this means exactly was detailed in another CFR report by Keir Giles, in which proposals were laid out for systems similar to the mass-ridiculed “Prop Or Not,” in which journalists and social media companies partner to flag “bad” information.
Some of these measures have already been employed by some of the internet’s largest companies. The most blatant example was the decision by Twitter to ban Russian state-funded media outlets Sputnik and RT from purchasing ads on their platform; but other changes have also happened behind the scenes, such as Facebook’s new algorithm hiding the majority of independent news and business content or Google’s de-ranking of non-corporate outlets.
These are moves that don’t just hurt Russian media but also sites like MintPress News in their mission to provide countering viewpoints to the U.S. arms industry-influenced media. It has also been noted that these forced registrations have been unfairly applied to Russian state-funded outlets but not to similar organizations, such as Qatar’s Al Jazeera or some Chinese state-run media groups.
Not only does the CFR report agree with these moves, it casually refers to them as “a step in the right direction” — and recommends that NGOs “such as the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Alliance for Securing Democracy platform” participate in more active measures “to help combat disinformation and expose the fact that Russian propaganda networks such as RT and Sputnik are not legitimate journalism outlets.”
The new proposals to handle this task suggested by the CFR include social media companies “more actively policing their networks for disinformation, false news stories, botnets, and false-flag advertising” and taking more sweeping measures in “identifying, labeling, and blocking them where appropriate.”
The defenses of internal Western systems cross over into the existing reality of U.S. elections when the report’s authors discuss adding new provisions to campaign finance law, meant to further highlight any suspected bad information based on which individuals or organizations purchase political ads. The report also goes on to suggest that advertisements sponsored by actors such as Russia be flagged so the audience can see who purchased the ad and what their target audience was. While this would seem like a positive step in adding a much-needed layer of transparency to the workings of U.S. politics, the problem with Council’s assessment (and how these ideas have been put into practice by the likes of Twitter and Facebook) is that these policies are to be hypocritically placed primarily on “Russian” activity.
The CFR report also perpetuated the claims that Russia hacked into 39 states’ voting infrastructure, which hypothetically would have allowed them to change votes. Despite these apparent “Russian hackers” having access to these voting machines, their decision to not actually alter anything has left everyone shockingly short of actual evidence that a security breach occurred. This still doesn’t stop the report from suggesting further investment in specialists to secure polling places, despite the fact that there has yet to be any substantive investigation into the alleged hack to show that these ideas would actually produce results.
While there is certainly need for reform of the U.S. voting system, since it is the U.S government doing the “reforming,” this will likely result in and provide pretext for the further expansion of the security state, as Trump’s proposed massive budget increases to government agencies like the National Security Agency continue to go uncontested by legislators of both parties.
The CFR report also suggests blackmail as a defensive strategy and recommends that the U.S. “covertly release the financial information of Russian government leaders involved in hacking,” and possibly “release other embarrassing information about Putin and his cronies” and use it in a manner similar to information about Putin found in the ‘Panama Papers.’ While the report recommends that Washington “clarify to the Russian leadership that these U.S. measures are defensive in nature and not designed to change the Russian regime,” the authors then go on to say that Putin is unlikely to agree regardless of what the West says.
Offensive responses to Russian aggression
While only some of the defensive policy proposals have been enacted, the above actions alone are enough to bring tension between Russia and the U.S. to dangerous levels. But the CFR report also has plans for offensive strategies that are just as risky.
The offensive strategies described in the report revolve primarily around flexing NATO’s muscle across Europe. This plan starts in Ukraine, with the report calling on the U.S. to continue to refuse to acknowledge the results of the popular Crimean referendum, which annexed the peninsula to Russia, as well as continue to push for the return of the South Ossetia region to Georgia.
On top of just expanding the sanctions related to Ukraine described in the first section of the report, the CFR also recommends that the U.S. continue its buildup with fellow NATO forces in Eastern Europe, where infrastructure is being put in place for a permanent military occupation.
The CFR report (which again, was written in January) also stressed the need for the U.S. to assert naval dominance in the European Seas, something the U.S. Navy has done in the past week in the Black Sea. These already existing CFR-approved actions are also accompanied by other provocative moves by NATO, such as conducting military drills with Ukrainian troops in Georgia.
Have no fear, though — the CFR has its own ideas for escalation in Eastern Europe, recommending the deployment of an additional U.S. armored division in Poland, maintaining at least six fighter squadrons in Europe, deploying more Patriot missile batteries, training civilians in the Baltic States in “invasion preparedness,” and stepping up arms sales to Ukraine from the current low level approved by Trump.
It’s at this point that it should be obvious that the CFR’s main objective is making money for the defense industry, but it also hasn’t forgotten about providing opportunities for oil and gas interests to take European market-share from Russian suppliers. One of the proposals to make this possible is to increase the United States’ domestic production of oil and natural gas for export, as well as construct a new pipeline from “Turkmenistan through Azerbaijan and Turkey to Europe.”
The report also suggests that NATO begin building its own offensive cyber-weapons, which the alliance announced it was considering developing late last year, and calls on the Western nations to continue making hypocritical human-rights condemnations of Russia. The human-rights strategy has yet to be heavily employed by the Trump administration, but has been a recent focus of major U.S. outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times in their favorable coverage of the presidential campaign of Aleksei Navalny, who has openly violated Russian law and was never as popular among Russians as Western media implied.
Nuclear diplomacy as blackmail
If the conventional U.S. tactics aren’t bad enough, the CFR report also proposed returning to a Cold War political tactic tailor-made for Russia: applying pressure through nuclear weapons.
The CFR proposes applying this pressure through two contradictory methods: using nuclear agreements to apply pressure on Moscow while promoting Trump’s increase in the budget for the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The first method of attack by the CFR isn’t likely to be used anytime soon precisely because of the contradictory nature of the second method. Trump has taken up the desire of the CFR to “update the nuclear arsenal” but in doing so has called for the development of the same kinds of missiles for which the CFR analysts want Washington to chastise Moscow. The CFR report instead proposes the idea that rather than developing these new intermediate-range missiles, the Trump administration should merely continue to spend money on increasing conventional missile defense systems across Europe.
The report also calls on the U.S. to apply economic pressure and possible sanctions against nations that purchase missile technology from Russia. It isn’t clear whether the report only meant missile technology as it applies to longer-range missiles or whether that also includes defensive systems like the Russian S-400 system recently purchased by Turkey. If the CFR did mean to also impede the defensive systems deals, it seems this has already been put into practice, as Turkey’s purchase has caused the U.S. to weigh possible sanctions on Ankara for purchasing the Russian-made system, which is incompatible with U.S.-made NATO equipment.
How the CFR plans for Trump to continue increasing the nuclear budget while still negotiating with Russia for arsenal reductions remains unclear. What is clear is that the CFR and the neocons in the Trump administration still seem to think the U.S. is unopposed in setting global rules. The policies of Trump, as well as those of Obama before, have put the U.S. on the back-foot with less power over global trends than any previous time in the post-war period. No matter what combination of CFR strategy gets mixed with Trump’s own designs, it is likely both are going to learn a hard lesson about their diminishing global influence.
Top Photo | Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, listens as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Sept. 8, 2010. (AP/Alex Brandon)
James Carey is journalist and editor at Geopolitics Alert. He specializes in the Middle East and Asian affairs.
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