A clip of police violence outside of FSB headquarters in Moscow. (YouTube)
The Russian security services that protect the regime of President Vladmir Putin have little tolereance for dissent.
At a demonstration against political repressions on March 14, Moscow police arrested nearly 50 protesters. Trying to navigate Russia’s strict rules on public assemblies, the activists staged a series of “one-person pickets” outside the Federal Security Service headquarters in the capital. According to the website OVD-Info, the authorities arrested 49 people, including three teenagers. The news website MBK Media reported 43 arrests, including the arrests of well-known opposition activists Sergey Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhaev, as well as 78-year-old human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov.
Officers beat several activists when arresting them. The police used force against demonstrators and concealed their faces with masks, refusing to identify themselves by their names or badge numbers. One adolescent protester suffered an asthma attack during his arrest and was denied medical attention. According to the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, another demonstrator was removed from a police van and transferred to an ambulance. The detainees were later processed at four different police stations, where they were denied access to lawyers.
Journalists from the investigative website Proekt say they began receiving threats after they started looking into the operations of Russian mercenaries and political strategists in Africa and the Middle East. Proekt says it has reason to believe the combatants and consultants in question may be working for Evgeny Prigozhin, the Russian catering magnate who has been linked to businesses that produce “Internet trolls” and online fake news, as well as the “Wagner” private military company.“
After the Israeli government’s decision to bar Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from visiting Israel and Palestine, the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders rallied around the two congresswomen, and the Israeli government did not favor to its supporters in the party.
With a blatant show of support for President Trump’s strategy of racial polarization, Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu not only signaled his government’s support for Trump in the 2020 election. He also served to unify an often-fractious Democratic party around a more anti-Israel message that resonates across the party’s left-center spectrum.
Israel’s early intervention in the 2020 campaign is not like the more subtle underhanded approaches that President Putin and his Russian agents used to help the Trump campaign in 2016. Netanyahu’s gambit isn’t the IRA troll factory exposed by Robert Mueller. In Israel’s case, the prime minister is troll factory.
The social media binary tends to divide Democrats into two hostile camps on the question of foreign interference in the 2020 election. Centrists and their cable TV spokesmen, see Russia state interference as the primary threat, while leftists deprecate Russia’s secret and extensive efforts to help Trump and complain that Saudi and Israeli interference is actually much greater.
The partisans of this war do their best to convince each other and the public that the differences in the party are apocalyptic: Rachel Maddow is “Russia conspiracy theorist.” No, Tulsi Gabbard is “a Russian agent.” In reality, there’s less of a contradiction than the rhetoric suggests.
It should now be clear that the Russian, Israeli and Saudi governments are all authoritarian regimes that are seeking to keep authoritarian Trump in power. All of these governments–and their intelligence services–intend to “interfere” in the United States 2020 presidential election, that is to say, they will take secret action in order to secure a second term for Trump.
The Pro-Trump Axis
It is not “anti-semitic” to say that Netanyahu is scheming against American democracy. It is not a “hoax” to say Putin (and operatives like Yevgeny Prigozhin) want to hobble Democrats and help Trump. It is not a “conspiracy theory” to say the Saudis run influence operations in Washington. Rather, there is abundant evidence that the three pro-Trump powers will likely extend covert assistance to the man in the White House.
To be sure, Israeli, Russian, and Saudi interests diverge in some areas. Russia has no interest in the U.S-Saudi-Israeli campaign against Iran. When Trump claimed Iran shot down a U.S. drone in international air space, Russia sided with Tehran. Russia state media promotes Tulsi Gabbard. Israeli and Saudi media demonize her.
But the pro-Trump axis has enough commonalities that Democrat need not bicker about the details. Putin and Steve Bannon, apostle of Trumpism, are making common cause with the populist right in Europe. So is Netanyahu.
Their methods can be lethal. Two GRU officers were dispatched to assassinate turncoat agent Sergey Skripal; Saudi intelligence officers were involved in the liquidation of regime critic Jamal Khashoggi. The Israelis assassinated five Iranian nuclear scientists.
And they have infrastructure. Just as Israel has a burgeoning spy ware industry fostered by the Israeli intelligence services, so Russia’s GRU has created at least two hacking units to wage cyber war. Both act in their own national interests, against Trump’s opponents in the United States.
Thanks to Netanyahu, it has never been more respectable for Democrats to criticize Israel. From the corporate Obama-Clinton center to the progressive and bleeding-edge socialist left, Israel is now under fire. The disgrace of a president and a prime minister who prevented an American representative from visiting her 90 year old grandmother for the sake of racist political advantage is something that Democrats can agree on.
To be sure, the Israel lobby remains powerful in the party. Many Democrats in Congress are on record with doubts about the legitimacy and the viability of the BDS (Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment) movement. But after Omar and Tlaib’s exclusion, the critical tone about Israel grew notably harsher this week.
The travel ban undermines Democrats who say the Israeli government policy isn’t racist. The only two U.S. representatives forbidden from visiting Israel/Palestine are women of color. How do the 41 Democratic representatives who have travelled to Israel explain that? They suddenly face the question: will they stand up to Israel racism?
Maybe. Maybe not. Nonetheless, the party’s rhetoric is gravitating, once again, toward the formulation of a certain plainspoken Jewish guy from Vermont “Opposing Netanyahu’s policies is not ‘hating the Jewish people,” Bernie Sanders tweeted Thursday.
The Israel-friendly Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand denounced the Israel’s action as “dangerous.” Booker emphasized the danger of Trump’s racist rhetoric. Gillibrand called it “un-American.”
Pete Buttigieg used the p-word–Palestine–rarely heard in the party’s pro-Israel discourse in 2016. When Buttigieg went to Gaza in 2018, he repeated the talking points of the Israel lobby and the Israeli security forces. Now he speaks, like Sanders, of reconciling the interests of America, Israel, and Palestine..
The banning of Omar and Tlaib was “appalling,” said Julian Castro. “An affront to American values,” said Kamala Harris. Jay Inslee called it “state-sanctioned Islamophobia.” No one among the Democrats uttered the a-word-=-“apartheid.” But they’re saying American and Israeli values are distinct, which is new.
Two of the weakest tweets came from Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke. They responded to Trump’s claim that Israel would be showing “weakness” by admitting the two congresswomen. The Minnesota Senator and former El Paso congressman countered that Trump is showing “weakness” by (in Gillibrand’s words) “exporting intolerance.” It’s more convoluted than convincing.
Joe Biden, who has a been getting a lot of grief for his gaffes, didn’t distinguish himself with the claim that Israel “shares our democratic values.” The banning of Omar and Tlaib was a very clear statement that the current Israeli government does not share the democratic values of the Democratic party in 2020.
That’s the issue, whether Biden likes it or not, and it’s not cutting Israel’s way. To the contrary, the Democratic party is more anti-Israel than it was a week ago, and the triple threat of Israeli-Russia-Saudi interference in 2020 is clearer than ever.
National Security Correspondent for NPR Greg Myre’s article analyzes the background of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man dubbed “Putin’s Chef,” and his role in the Russian government.
“He epitomizes a real renaissance man in contemporary Russia, which is to say that he runs some very high-end restaurants,” said Angela Stent, the head of Russian Studies at Georgetown University and author of the forthcoming book Putin’s World.
“He also runs Wagner, one of the largest mercenary private military groups in Russia,” she added. “His troops are in Syria, they’re in Ukraine, they’re in a number of other places, where they are fighting in the Russian state’s interest.”
Because Prigozhin and others like him are not formally part of the government, the Kremlin can distance itself and deny they are acting on behalf of the Russian state.
You’ve heard of Blackwater, the private military company, that the Bush administration deployed in Iraq . Erik Prince, the founder of the notorious, since renamed firm, has tried to persuade President Trump to privatize the war in Afghanistan by hiring his new PMC to wage war on the Taliban.
The same phenomenon can be seen in Russia where President Vladimir Putin has deployed a PMC known as Wagner to advance his foreign policy goals.
Now The Bell, a reliable and independent Russian news site, has new details about how Wagner emerged as Putin’s instrument. As in with Trump and Prince, Putin and the founder of Wagner are friends.
The story has yet to appear on The Bell’s English-language site so I’m quoting from Meduza, another reputable Russian news outlet.
The Bell has released an extensive report that aims to document the rise of the private military company (PMC) “Wagner,” in which the caterer and restaurateur Evgeny Prigozhin reportedly plays a leading role. Prigozhin’s ties with the Russian president have earned him the nickname “Putin’s Chef,” and multiple journalists have confirmed that the Wagner PMC has been involved in conflicts from southeast Ukraine to Syria.