Trying to Make Sense of the Russian Thing

There’s something knocking me out about this story that Rachel Maddow blew open on Monday. If you don’t have 20 minutes to watch the video, let me recap it for you.

Deutsche Bank was fined $425m last month by the Federal government for helping Russian oligarchs (and members of Putin’s family) launder $10b out of Russia. They did it through branches in Moscow, New York, and Cyprus.

Now, the current chairman of the Bank of Cyprus is the previous chairman of Deutsche Bank, a man who left his job under a cloud of allegations.  After he left Deutsche, he was made chairman of the Bank of Cyprus by its major shareholders, one of whom is a close personal friend of Putin’s.

Another major shareholder is known as the King of Fertilizer and is among the richest men in Russia. As Maddow makes clear, this man’s divorce (the most expensive divorce in history, by the way) caused him to hide aspects of his vast fortune from his soon-to-be ex-wife. One of the ways he did this was to purchase incredibly expensive real estate, including an incredibly gaudy mansion in Palm Beach, Florida. Its seller? Donald Trump. Trump sold it to the Russian oligarch for $100m, the most ever paid for a private estate in the U.S. at the time. Trump had purchased the mansion at auction just two years prior for $40m. Trump did not move into the mansion, and it stayed empty for two years. Then he sold it at a $60m profit to the Russian King of Fertilizer.

This Russian billionaire, as Maddow says, “does not have much of an American profile, but he does have one important American connection.” Remember, he is among the largest shareholders of the Bank of Cyprus. The two vice-chairmen of that bank, the ones who put the former chairman of Deutsche Bank in charge, are the close personal friend of Putin I mentioned above and an American named Wilbur Ross, who the single largest shareholder of the Bank of Cyprus.

Let’s make this clear for a moment. Wilbur Ross is the single largest shareholder of a bank whose other major shareholders include close personal friends and former KGB associates of Putin’s and a chairman who came from a bank that our Federal government just fined for more than half a billion dollars for helping Russian billionaires smuggle money out of Russia. Joining Ross and Putin’s friends and former KGB associates at the Bank of Cyprus is the Russian King of Fertilizer, “who did this inexplicable deal that Donald Trump miraculously stumbled into, that netted [Trump] $60m for doing basically nothing.”

Wilbur Ross is a major connection between President Trump and a whole slew of Russian oligarchs, including former members of the KGB and close, personal friends of Putin’s.

And Wilbur Ross was confirmed Monday night as our new Commerce Secretary.

One more note: At the same time as this “inexplicable deal” for $60m fell into Donald Trump’s lap, he was in debt to Deutsche Bank for $40m.

Again — follow this: Donald Trump owes Deutsche Bank $40m, which means Deutsche Bank needs $40m. Where are they going to get that money from? From Trump. But where is Trump going to get that money? If only they both knew someone who could give Trump $40m, someone who was looking to hide a lot of money somewhere and who could do it without Trump having to do anything for it.

But honestly, can anyone get $40m without having to do anything? And can anyone get $40m from a Russian oligarch without having to do anything, Russian oligarchs being essentially the world’s scariest loan sharks?

Now connect this to what we learned from that infamous dossier back in January, the non-salacious elements of which — “that the Russians had been ‘cultivating, supporting, and assisting’ Trump for years” — seem to be checking out. The New Yorker claims that, “Some officials believe that one reason the Russians compiled information on Trump…was that he was meeting with Russian oligarchs who might be stashing money abroad.”

Okay, that’s all incredible, right? It’s the exact link people have been looking for  between Trump and the Russians; Wilbur Ross, our new Commerce Secretary and an old friend of Trump’s, is the nexus.

But what Maddow’s story seems to imply is that this is all about money. Trump finds himself in massive debt to a Russian oligarch — a debt that has been laundered as a real-estate transaction, but debt nonetheless. From there though, it seems a bit of a jump to say that, partly in order to pay back that debt, Donald Trump got himself elected President of the United States, from whose perch he could repay that debt a thousand times over (which actually, now that I think about it, is probably the kind of interest that a Russian oligarch would charge, right?).

But why? What’s the point from the oligarch’s perspective? What does Russia actually expect to get for its money? Is it just more money?

Three days ago, Glenn Greenwald published a story on his websiteThe Intercept. The story is a deep read of the New Yorker article I linked to above, whose author, by the way, was the first guest Maddow spoke to after her segment.

Greenwald is an incredible journalist. He is the person Edward Snow contacted when he wanted to be assured of reaching an ethical and independent journalist, and the work he accomplished with Snowden resulted in him being given a George Polk Award for National Security Reporting.

In his recent article, Greenwald highlights “five uncomfortable truths about U.S. and Russia.”

First, Hillary Clinton promoted a much more aggressive stance toward Russia than Obama did, and “Russian experts…feared that Clinton…was so eager for escalated U.S. military action in Syria…that a military conflict with Russia was a real possibility.”

This is not simply to say that Hillary was more willing to fight Russia than Obama was. It’s also to say that “the leading accommodationist of Putin was named Barack Obama.” Clinton agreed with virtually all of the Republican candidates that the United States should be more aggressive towards Russia, to the point that Clinton was willing to put our Air Force into direct conflict with Russian airplanes, via the establishment of a No-Fly Zone in Syria.

Second, the relationship between Russia and the United States is at its lowest point in my lifetime. I was raised in the era of Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, and I came of age during Yeltsin’s free for all. Putin has been in power for close to twenty years, and while it hasn’t been a great relationship, it’s never been as bad as it is today.

What I love about Greenwald is that he refuses to accept “the singular message of the U.S. Patriotic Media,” and so in his article, he embeds a long monologue from Noam Chomsky, who explains that, from Russia’s perspective, it’s the West who has been acting aggressively since the end of the Cold War, expanding NATO right up to Russia’s borders, despite Presidents Reagan & Bush having told Gorbachev that it wouldn’t do so. Remember,  Russia had spent much of the twentieth century defending itself from German invasions, so it’s probably not keen on having NATO (of which Germany is now a member) butting right up against it.

Remember the Ukraine? This is a country that NATO was actively trying to recruit into its orbit. It’s also a country that is geopolitically important to Russia. Not only does the Ukraine offer Moscow a pipeline to the southern seas, but it also serves as a physical buffer between Russia and the West. If the Russians allowed Ukraine to join NATO, they’d lose a major chunk of their own great wall.

In the monologue, Chomsky also notes that President Obama recently placed “a missile defense system” in Romania. He explains that strategic analysts on all sides believe that what’s called “missile defense” is really an offensive weapon. The U.S. placing missles in Romania is like the Russians placing missiles in Cuba: a highly aggressive action.

In short, things are not good between the U.S. and Russia, and not all of it is Russia’s fault.

Third, Greenwald points out that the American media refuses to ask the question of whether the U.S. tries “to manipulate Russian politics [in] the way Russia now stands accused of…”. He notes how openly proud American advisors were after helping Boris Yeltsin get elected President back in 1996, and he questions why more American journalists don’t follow this particular lead in their reporting. What is it that holds them back?

Fourth, Greenwald notes that “the U.S. government still has provided no evidence of its theories about Russian hacking.” Greenwald is not saying that this evidence does not exist, but given the stakes, he believes that the American public ought to be more skeptical of any claim that pushes two nuclear powers closer to armed conflict with one another.

He also notes that the information we’re receiving about virtually all of this is coming from anonymous officials in the “agenda-driven, disinformation-dispensing intelligence community,” the same community that was hijacked by Republican elites to make the U.S. invade Iraq more than a decade ago.

Fifth, “fixating on Russia continues to be used to distract from systemic failures of U.S. elites.”

This is where it gets damning for the Democrats.

First, by arguing that Trump’s rise to power in the United States is only due to his connections with Russian oligarchs, Democratic elites (made up of the mainstream corporate media, their friends in the financial sector, and the politicians they all pay for) call into question Trump’s right to call himself an American, just as Trump did to Obama.

But the elites aren’t doing it just to be ironic. By calling Trump’s loyalty into question, they call into question the loyalty and intelligence of all the people who voted for him, millions of whom who were moved to vote on the off-chance that President Crazy would bring some kind of — any kind of — radical change to the “neoliberal policies [that] destroyed [their] economic security and future…”

If the Democratic elites can discredit Trump’s loyalty and focus our attention on the foreign scapegoat of Russia (much like the Republicans tried to discredit Obama’s loyalty and focus our attention on the foreign scapegoat of ISIS), then they won’t have to address the systemic failures of their own economic policies.

So where does that leave us?

Maddow’s report connects at least one solid strand (or as she calls it, a thick rope) between President Trump and the oligarchs of Russia. But Greenwald’s analysis wants us to question why we should even care in the first place.

What’s really at stake here?

Is it something as simple as money? If the elites can distract us with a foreign scapegoat, then they can continue to distribute the wealth of our nations upward. If they can drive our two powers into a second Cold War, then all of them — especially the intelligence officials and weapons manufacturers — can continue to have jobs and continue to afford their houses and swimming pools. And if they can succeed at actually defeating Russia somehow, then they can secure its oil for use in the ever-coming age of global scarcity or in their ever-coming war with the underclass.

Russia, meanwhile, gets a U.S. President (however they got him) who will work to counteract the aggression plainly espoused by the anointed leader of the Democratic elites (and plainly disavowed by her upstart challenger on the left). If they can fight off the Western elite, then the Russian oligarchs can continue distributing the wealth of their nation into their bank accounts in Cyprus. But to do that, they need to make sure the United States lifts its sanctions and protects the secrecy of its dealings so that Western businesses (such as Exxon) can continue to funnel Western money into Russia. They also need to make sure that the United States has someone else on whom it can focus its natural aggression (aggression caused by its economic pain), someone such as ISIS, “the terrorists,” and/or Muslim and Hispanic immigrants.

What does Trump get out of it, though? He gets to have the biggest name in the entire world, have everyone on the entire planet constantly be talking about him , and get easy access to some of the finest looking women money can buy; oh, and he can also get paid while doing it.

But what’s blowing my mind after connecting all these dots is how much it doesn’t fucking matter. Oh, it matters in the sense that it could lead to the destruction of everything and everyone I love, whether through a nuclear war with Russia, the deconstruction of every environmental gain of the past forty years, or the loss of fundamental legal rights and protections. Of course it matters; of course it does.

But it doesn’t matter in the sense that both of those fucking jokers we could have elected in November were representatives of a class of human beings whose daily experiences are so different from the rest of us in the 99%.

Trump represents Russian oligarchs; Clinton represented American ones.

Either way, we were getting robbed.

Fuck, I miss Bernie.