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A RAND Review of Russia: Did Push Come to Shove?

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A RAND Review of Russia: Did Push Come to Shove?

by John Kendall Hawkins

Back in 1971, portions of the Pentagon Papers were leaked to the press by RAND corporation war planner Daniel Ellsberg. The papers detailed the American military involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1967, from the Truman Administration through to LBJ's. The gist of the many volumes of reading was that the Pentagon had drawn the conclusion that Vietnam was not a winnable war and that it would be best to get out while the gettin was good. We now know that the gettin out was evil, full of stubborn intransigence, political cowardice, the most unpopular draft since Lincoln's Civil War call-up, the country's first, and involved deviant plans by Richard Nixon to steal victory from Ho Chi Minh by nuking North Vietnam into submission (Ellsberg describes the date set in his 2017 book The Doomsday Machine, and writes that bombing was called off because of a nationwide strike against the war on the day set for the bombing.) It was some reading.

But Ellsberg more recently said that had he his druthers he would have released Pentagon papers of more active value -- details of America's war plans to essentially take out Russia, maintaining a first strike capability and willingness to use nukes, even when the USA had a 10-1 ratio of ICBMs and knew where Russia's two ICBMs were located, and they planned to take out China, too, while they were at it, even if the Chinese were not direct belligerents. Like the War on Terror, we were then keyed in on destroying the only significant alternative economic system in the world -- Communism -- to make the planet safe for economic growth in the wallets of the fat cats. Like the song goes, Capitalism is 'hungry like the wolf' and needs action.

The American nuclear war plans were far more frightening than the Nam worries, writes Ellsberg in Doomsday, and involved mad frames of thinking that led Ellsberg to describe his viewing of the film Dr. Strangelove as "essentially a documentary." Ellsberg knew whereof he spoke, as he fesses up to being an important political agitator in the lead-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and describes almost-zany activities among the H-bomb builders, including bets being laid by scientists on whether the fusion bomb scheduled for its first test would blow up the world or not. Back in the early 70s, Ellsberg knew way too much about The Plans and his knowledge led to Henry Kissinger describing him as "the most dangerous man in America" who had to be stopped "at all costs," and Ellsberg feared for his life. Doomsday is also a sobering read after which you'll be getting shitfaced at the military risks that have taken place behind the public's back, no knowledge and no consent.

In the last few days, I've read another RAND report that is its own way a serious indictment of the aggressive maneuvering by the US to take down the Russian nation-state by means of a series of chess piece moves designed to "extend" Russia's ability to respond to the dekes and weaken their core, especially economically by means of sanctions that would eventually force Vladimir Putin from office. The 12-page brief of a report, Overextending and Unbalancing Russia, is no Pentagon Papers or detailed nuclear war-planning effort, but it offers up to military and executive-level analysts, such as the president's National Security Council (NSC), a series of "nonviolent, cost-imposing" options for degrading Russia's ability to respond to the US meddling in their affairs and checking their economic expansion into Europe.

You could describe the exercises as a form of political gain-of-function, designed to tease out reactions, reveal weaknesses, and provide useful intel on how to weaken the Putin regime without necessarily firing a shot. The brief opens with a summary of the state of contemporary Russia and the nature of the enemy:

Today's Russia suffers from many vulnerabilities -- oil and gas prices well below peak that have caused a drop in living standards, economic sanctions that have furthered that decline, an aging and soon-to-be-declining population, and increasing authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin's now-continued rule. Such vulnerabilities are coupled with deep-seated (if exaggerated) anxieties about the possibility of Western-inspired regime change, loss of great power status, and even military attack.

Although the brief summarizes options and the likelihood of success if such options were implemented, it's a bit misleading to call them non-violent, given the potential for politically-guided "miscalculation."

The document describes an array of cost-imposing measures, including Economic, Geopolitical, Ideological and Informational, Air and Space, Maritime, and, Land and Multidomain. The measures weigh up the Likelihood of Success in Extending Russia. Benefits, Costs and Risks for each option. For instance, under Economic the RAND brief looks at expanding US energy production; imposing deeper trade and financial sanctions; increasing Europe's ability to import gas from suppliers other than Russia; and, encouraging the emigration from Russia of skilled labor and well-educated youth. The brief then graphically displays the likelihood of success of each option:

RAND report on overextending and unbalancing Russia (economic options)
RAND report on overextending and unbalancing Russia (economic options)
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This is a pretty typical representation of the information and the reader is urged to have a gander of the fuller information and graphs to glean a sense of the machinations.

Similarly, and just as relevant, the Air and Space (and Nuclear) cost-imposing options have tactical and strategic strengths and weaknesses to consider. For instance, the brief notes that the US and it allies in Europe (i.e., NATO) could "reposture" bombers and jets:

Deploying additional tactical nuclear weapons to locations in Europe and Asia could heighten Russia's anxiety enough to significantly increase investments in its air defenses. In conjunction with the bomber option, it has a high likelihood of success, but deploying more such weapons might lead Moscow to react in ways contrary to U.S. and allied interests.

But the Russians could also re-position their own weapons in such a way to thwart and terrorize NATO members, such as Poland. Here's a snapshot excerpt of such options.

RAND report on overextending and unbalancing Russia (aircrafty amd nukes)
RAND report on overextending and unbalancing Russia (aircrafty amd nukes)
(Image by RAND)
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So, we can see, according to RAND war planners, that deploying additional nukes has a high probability of successfully "extending" Russia's resources in defense or counter-offense, but it has a high risk of having payback consequences. The question prompted by such option-benefits analysis is to what degree such chess moves, since the 2019 report, have provoked the Russians into throwing a certain degree of caution to the wind by invading Ukraine and telling the US that "it can do stuff, too," as Obama put it during his lame duck months as president in late 2016, when he seemed to be deliberately locking incoming president Trump into an anti-Russian posture, including the accusation, still unproved, that Russia significantly "meddled" in the 2016 elections. Who knows, but maybe had Hillary (Hanson) taken the ice for the Chiefs, instead of Trump, Vlad Putin, naked on horse back from the waist up, might have ended up like Gaddafi, naked from the waist down and sad-dam-ized. Russia is certainly not unaware of these RAND plays -- the most significant being, at this stage, economic sanctions, with their high benefit/high risk ratios. The Russians have addressed the impact. In a report by Sergey Glazyev, an academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and advisor to Putin, wrote a response piece on February 25, 2022, Sanctions and Sovereignty, in which he realistically addresses the US reliance on making adversary economies scream Uncle Sam. Glazyev writes,

For Russia, as for other countries subject to US sanctions, the dollar has become a toxic currency. By tracking all dollar transactions, US punitive authorities can block payments, freeze, or even confiscate assets at any time...

Glazyev recalls how back in 2014, the year of the coup in Ukraine, the Obama administration worked similar sanctions on Russia. He continues,

Since 2014, when, with the connivance of the regulator, currency speculators brought down the ruble exchange rate through market manipulation, the latter has been used by sanctioners as a fail-safe fuse for macroeconomic stability" [such speculation was effective] the ruble nearly halved, Obama said with satisfaction that "the Russian economy has been torn to shreds." But this happened not because of the sanctions, but because of the connivance of the Bank of Russia, which left the exchange rate at the mercy of international speculators on the recommendation of Washington financial institutions. (p.4)

Russia has since then, and even before, been determined to limit the American influence in the future. Thus, under the RAND brief, if the US chooses to go after Putin and Russia with economic sanctions as cost-option, then, as Glazyev explains, Russian can offset this decision that brings risks to the US by inspiring nation-states to find ways around the SWIFT system to avoid the domination by bank squeeze-freeze. Glazyev reports that

Russia has its own system for transmitting electronic messages between banks - the Financial Message Transfer System of the Bank of Russia (SPFS), as well as its own payment system for Mir bank cards, which is interfaced with the Chinese Union Pay (CUP) system and can be used for cross-border payments and transfers...

The Chinese have initiated a new payment system in CUP and even presumed, stalwart pro-American Europeans are looking to get around American keyboard tyranny with an alternative "European money fund" inspired by the way the US trashed the Iranians with economic sanctions despite a deal Europeans had worked out with the Shiite heads. Indeed, the SWIFT blitzkrieg is seen by Russia, and other "adversaries," as an act of war. So, not only are nation-states beginning to collude on alternatives to dealing with SWIFT, but, as if looking for payback for the mutilating effects of the US-controlled global economic stranglehold on their societies, but are seeking to replace the US dollar as the world reserve currency. The Chinese are pushing their BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- four continents seeded) to mortify the Americans. Should such a switch to a new reserve currency take place, the American global hegemony would be doo-dah. As Kishore Mahbubani, the ex-ambassador to the UN from Singapore, cited Indian banker Ruchir Sharmain in his recent book, Has China Won? (review):

Reserve currency status had long been a perk of imperial might-and an economic elixir. By generating a steady flow of customers who want to hold the currency, often in the form of government bonds, it allows the privileged country to borrow cheaply abroad and fund a lifestyle well beyond its means...As a result of this status, paper money can be printed up whenever needed - essentially IOUs bought up by foreign investors and countries, such as China, who if they ever cashed in could make the US government insolvent overnight.

This is a position many envious nation-states secretly hold. Why them? They're not so special or "exceptional" any more. The US, like some latter day Nebuchadnezzar, must see the writing on the Great Wall: It's a lot to take in. The Chinese are the real enemy, some pundits say, echoing in short bursts what Kishore Mahbubani says over the length of Has China Won? At Haaretz today, David Rosenberg argues in "Ukraine war: Putin is dangerous, but China is the West's real enemy," that China represents a deeper threat to the US. He writes,

The Chinese challenge doesn't make such good television, nor does it raise the moral hackles of the world as Russia has, because it eschews the showy Putin's aggressiveness" But China is much more dangerous because for much of the last three decades it has abandoned the collectivist vision in all but name in favor of capitalist one - not a liberal capitalism but a sui generis mix of free market economics combined and efficient, goal-directed government. (p.4)

Indeed, the Chinese operation seems clean and efficient compared to the corrupt ways of the world's premiere democracy. This Chinese abetting has not escaped the Biden administration's attention. In the last few days they have warned the Chinese not to assist the Russians in getting around sanctions. In the Guardian today American officials wring their hands over the likelihood that China is in the fray. T he piece begins:

China has already decided to provide Russia with economic and financial support during its war on Ukraine and is contemplating sending military supplies such as armed drones, US officials fear.

This represents an unforeseen cost-option result for the Americans. It gets worse. According to a Newsweek article today, "China's Behind-the-Scenes Role in Ukraine War," China is a virtual partner in the invasion, not merely an abetter. Writes the piece's author Gordon Chang,

Beijing is, in addition, making its financial system available to Russian institutions as the U.S. and Europe cut them off, so expect Russian banks to soon join the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System, China's version of SWIFT. Russians, after Visa and Mastercard pulled out of their country, can now sign up for China's UnionPay card...

China was clearly involved in Vladimir Putin's planning for the invasion. Beijing persuaded Moscow to postpone its attack until the Beijing Winter Olympics ended, according to The New York Times. The Olympic flame was extinguished February 20. Russia invaded February 24.

Clearly, this is a cooperative effort, similar to one the US might make with one its special friends -- say, Saudi Arabia or the UK. One question the MSM should be asking is: What does China get out of this support for Russia? What do they gain? What do they risk? China has also astutely made economic buddies with Venezuela and its oil supply, stepping when after the US, once again, placed savage sanctions on the nation-state after it chose to nationalize its oil industry. China is their number one export customer. Greg Palast noted in an interview I had with him last week that if the US would lift their sanctions on Venezuela the market move could lower gas prices immediately and "bring Russia to its knees." But after the US has made ordinary Venezuelans scream, what would be the incentive for them to do so? Getting back to Glazyev, he makes it clear that Russia will not only weather the US sanctions, but will be better off, in the long run -- the that which does not kill me makes me stronger principle at work -- by forcing Russia to find or create an alternate transaction system. He concludes Sanctions and Sovereignty by noting:

We need serious investments in R&D in order to accelerate the development of our own technological base in the areas affected by sanctions - primarily the defense industry, energy, transport and communications. It is necessary to complete the de-dollarization of our foreign exchange reserves by replacing the dollar, euro and pound with gold...Try to create a broad international coalition for the restoration of the norms of international law, including the norms of the WTO and the IMF, which Western sanctions shamelessly violate with their sanctions and trade wars.

The US sanctions hurt real people on the streets of Moscow, but also, in return, their own people as soaring prices 'tear to shreds' their household budgets and job prospects. Even ouchier, we learn from The Intercept that the Saudis are colluding with the Russians to drive gas prices up. The RAND report suggests a planned determination to "take out" Putin and own Russia. But the caution implied in the risk for each move seems to have been ignored, as so many warnings have in the past to residents and the Pentagon from Ellsberg's leaked papers on. Since mid-2020, when Trump's NATO disdain had left the alliance feeling dissed by the US, with his groan in an interview with the NYT's Maggie Haberman and David Sanger that "NATO is obsolete" and that it should have been reconfigured toward protection from terrorism in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and that NATO nations weren't paying their fair share of their respective GDPs on defense. This disapprobation led the newly elected Joe Biden to go to Europe (virtually) to backslap and announce that America was back, receiving less enthusiasm than he was expecting. The RAND options and Glazyev's Sanctions and Sovereignty are attempts to frame a rational approach to dealing with an adversary that, even if wild in their intentions, are at least delineated and calculable. Some of the MSM has been attempting to paint Putin as a "madman," pushing Europe and America toward Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) with his invasion and nuke-sword brandishing, but you could argue that he's no crazier than the American politicians who crow, "Nothing says f*ck You like a Biden on the board of Burisma" or "We've torn their economy to shreds" (Obama) or "The bombing begins in five minutes" (Reagan) or "They would nuke China at the same time they nuke Russia" (Ellsberg). While we're at it, clearly it's madness to play lap stenographer to a hound dog just because he's wearing blue suede shoes. In the meantime, folks are getting exercised in Europe, at US prompting. There has been a discussion about NATO moving nuclear weapons from Germany into Poland, a move that the Brookings Institute has called "a truly bad idea," citing, among other things, the significantly increased vulnerability to Russian attack, as well as the provocative implication of such a move. Meanwhile, the previously politically inexperienced Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has called for a dangerous no-fly zone to be implemented. He has welcomed the influx of a "foreign legion" of fighters to help repel Russian soldiers, and vodka soldiers of ruble fortune. Both the NATO side and the Russian side, have begun mobilizing private armies to the nation-state to make a buck and have some fun. Poland, a NATO country, has also offered to send MiGs to Ukraine, but so far the offer has been rebuffed. And there are those who fear that NATO could be pulled into direct contact with Russians as the result of false flag or other operations gone bad that saw Russians "accidently" bomb a NATO country. And a headline from the paper of record that says it all: "NATO Countries Pour Weapons Into Ukraine, Risking Conflict With Russia." A sideshow to this big top event is the relative popularity of the two political leaders -- Putin and Biden -- in their respective countries. Each has unfavorability ratings needing propping up. Two separate Newsweek pieces on how the Russian invasion has affected their popularity suggest that each has, so far, gained from the incursion-and-response game the old rivals have played for several decades. In "Vladimir Putin's Approval Rating Gets Boost: Poll," Newsweek tells us:

The Russian leader saw an increased approval rating from 69 percent in January 2022, to 71 percent in February, 2022. That is the highest Putin's approval rating has hit in Levada Center polling since May 2018, when he scored a 79 percent approval rating.

Likewise, in "Biden's Russia Response Is Giving Him a Boost. Can He Make It Last?" In Biden's case, was facing severe criticism from Republicans and some Democrats for his seemingly haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as a weakening political edge -- his infrastructure bill not half the mandate it used to be -- the invasion has helped him regain some posturing ability; he's old Joe poolside facing off against an unruly Corn Pop again. In the immediate future, the stakes are higher for Biden. The Congressional House is in real danger of coming under the control of Republicans with anticipated wins in the midterm elections in the Fall; that would not only make Biden essentially a lame-duck unable to get new legislation through Congress, and potentially put a Supreme Court judge nomination process at risk of a fatal stall, but could see Biden face impeachment payback for, of all things, corrupt arrangements of the Biden family with Ukrainian and Chinese magnates. In addition, progressives have called for his impeachment for the atrocious way he froze Afghanistan money and was said to be thinking of using the assets to finally pay off survivors of 9/11. That Counterpunch piece begins,

On February 11th, US President Joe Biden announced that the United States will steal seven billion dollars of Afghanistan's currently frozen assets. This act of theft guarantees the collapse of Afghanistan's central bank, and an increase in instability and the starvation of perhaps the most stricken people on earth.

(Expect Glenn Greenwald to pick up on this angle.) Again, the money blitzkrieg. So, Biden may be gone by the time that Putin's reelection comes up in 2024. And the punishment Americans feel at the pump and marketplace over the next couple of years while gas prices remain high and Big Oil reaps windfall dollars with no intervention by the government could breed serious enough resentment to reseat the Clown Show in 2024. And bring visions of a horror re-match between Trump and Hillary (who is considering another go) in 2024. Maybe Putin's already won?

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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