Both sides cracking
Russia is not the only major power that is feeling the strain, argues Daniel Lazare . The US is too
Russia cracked wide open last week - but the United States of America continued crumbling as well.
Although not as dramatic as Yevgeny Prigozhin’s would-be coup on June 24, events in Washington showed that destabilizatsiya is not limited to the Russian Federation alone. The action started on June 21, when the House of Representatives voted along party lines to censure Adam Schiff - a California congressman who for years led the charge against Donald Trump for allegedly colluding with Russia, thereby turning himself in Republican eyes into a latter-day Joe McCarthy, albeit with a Democratic twist.
A day later, the Republican-controlled House Ways and Means Committee released testimony by a pair of federal whistleblowers that government higher-ups tried to squelch an investigation into tax fraud by Hunter Biden, the president’s troubled 53-year-old son. Among other things, the witnesses laid bare a stunning WhatsApp message that Hunter allegedly sent a Chinese businessman named Raymond Zhao in July 2017, six months after Joe Biden stepped down as vice-president and just a few months before he began putting out feelers about a presidential bid in 2020. The message said:
I am sitting here with my father and we would like to understand why the commitment made has not been fulfilled. I am very concerned that the chairman has either changed his mind and broken our deal without telling me or that he is unaware of the promises and assurances that have been made have not been kept. Tell the director that I would like to resolve this now before it gets out of hand, and now means tonight. And, Z, if I get a call or text from anyone involved in this other than you, Zhang, or the chairman, I will make certain that between the man sitting next to me and every person he knows and my ability to forever hold a grudge that you will regret not following my direction ... I am sitting here waiting for the call with my father.
The chairman is Ye Jianming, a high-ranking businessman who founded a Chinese energy company known as CEFC, while “Zhang” apparently refers to Tian Zhang, co-owner of Hudson West III - a firm that CEFC used to funnel money and credit to Hunter and his uncle James, the president’s younger brother. Whether or not Hunter was telling the truth about his father sitting at his side is unknown. But the message at least raises the possibility that the elder Biden was in on a scheme to pressure CEFC into transferring more than $5 million to Hunter’s account - something it did within days.
The testimony suggests other things as well:
- that the Biden administration engaged in unlawful recriminations against tax investigators for delving too deeply into Hunter’s affairs;
- that Biden’s 2019 claim that “I have never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings” was flat-out false;
- and that charges that prosecutors have one standard for Democrats and another for Republicans are not easily dismissed.
One of the whistleblowers - a 14‑year veteran of the Internal Revenue Service named Gary Shapley - testified that superiors blocked his requests for warrants to search a guest house on Joe Biden’s property in Delaware, in which Hunter was staying, to go through his emails, or to search a storage room that he maintained in northern Virginia. All are routine in IRS investigations, he said, yet the answer he got back was that the “optics” were not good, even though “there was more than enough probable cause for the physical search warrant”.
“Hunter Biden still has not reported approximately $400,000 in income from Burisma” - the Ukrainian oil company that hired him for a lucrative no-show job in order to curry favour in Washington - “and has not paid the tax due.” Yet, even though the bill comes to around $125,000, Shapley said he was warned that he would be committing “career suicide” if he tried to go after the money or file charges. As he told the committee,
For over a year, I’ve had trouble sleeping and wake all hours of night thinking about this. After some time, I realized it was because I subconsciously knew they were not doing the right thing, but I could not fathom concluding that the United States Attorney’s Office or DOJ Tax [department of justice tax division] were in the wrong ... My choice was to turn a blind eye to their malfeasance and not sleep or to put myself in the crosshairs by doing the right thing.1
He chose the latter by going public. For Republicans, his testimony about blocked search warrants was especially galling since the DOJ sent more than two dozen FBI agents last August to raid Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago, Florida, in search of secret documents without even bothering to notify his attorneys. It is further evidence from their perspective that the old rule still applies - one law for me, another for thee.
So last week’s Washington fireworks are a reminder that civil war is growing not in one country, but in two. The structural roots of Prigozhin’s rebellion are clear. In a state that is little more than a federation of semi-autonomous oligarchs, it was inevitable that Vladimir Putin would fall back on semi-autonomous militias like Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, once the Russian military bungled the assault on Kiev in the opening weeks of the invasion.
Yet Prigozhin’s only reward after suffering brutal punishment in the battle of Bakhmut was to see his militia folded into the same Russian military that he had been forced to rescue. It was ‘unfair’, which is why he rose in revolt not against the tsar (heaven forbid, since the tsar is god’s anointed!), but against evil advisors leading Putin astray - people like minister of defence Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff.
But the structural roots of growing political warfare are equally clear in the US: an overstretched empire, an economic slowdown that just will not quit, a 236-year-old constitutional structure still reeling from the January 2021 attempted coup d’état, plus partisan hatreds that have no place to go but up. Since it is a fight between equally reactionary forces, workers have no interest in siding with one or the other - just as Russian workers have no interest in siding with Prigozhin or the general staff.
The Schiff censure is especially illustrative as to why. The congressman from Tinsel Town - yes, Hollywood is part of his southern California district - is a neocon whose pro-war record has been nonpareil since entering Congress in 2001. He voted for the “authorization to use military force” in the wake of 9/11, which gave president George W Bush unchecked power to launch a war on terror across the globe. He voted for the 2003 invasion of Iraq - a vote he later blamed on the intelligence agencies for providing false information about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, even though millions of anti-war protestors could have told him at the time that the charges were phony through and through. In 2009, he co-sponsored a resolution slamming a UN report on Zionist-Hamas violations of international law as “irredeemably biased” against Israel, even though the report was even-handed to a fault.
When Barack Obama came out in support of Saudi Arabia and its criminal air war against Yemen in March 2015, Schiff patted him on the back. The Obama administration “made the right decision”, he said. “The military action by Saudi Arabia and its partners was necessitated by the illegal action of the Houthi rebels and their Iranian backers.” Eight years later, the upshot according to the UN is one of the greatest humanitarian crises on earth - a war-torn country of 34 million in which 80% of the population is unable to put food on the table without outside help.2
Finally, Schiff urged Obama in 2016 to veto a UN Security Council resolution criticising Israel for building Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, while in 2018 he parted ways with fellow Dems by backing Trump’s request for a two-year, 11-percent boost in military spending.3
None of which bothers Republicans a bit, needless to say. What does bother them, however, is that Schiff, as the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, repeatedly trumpeted findings by MI6 veteran Christopher Steele that Russia was using a secret sex tape to blackmail Donald Trump and force him to do its bidding. “Is it a coincidence that the Russian gas company Rosneft sold a 19% share after former British intelligence officer Steele was told by Russian sources that Carter Page was offered fees on a deal of just that size?” he asked in March 2017 with regard to an unpaid foreign-policy advisor who supposedly profited from his Trump connections. “Is it a coincidence that Steele’s Russian sources also affirmed that Russia had stolen documents hurtful to secretary Clinton that it would utilize in exchange for pro-Russian policies that would later come to pass?”4
It was all baloney. As special prosecutor, John Durham told a congressional committee last week: “There is not a single substantive piece of information in the dossier that has ever been corroborated by the FBI or, to my knowledge, anyone else.” All we know is that the Hillary Clinton campaign secretly paid Steele to cook up his dossier that the FBI then used to obtain secret search warrants against Page - who, by the way, never received a penny from Rosneft. But Schiff barrelled on regardless. In March 2017, he told TV viewers that he could not “go into particulars, but there is more than circumstantial evidence now” that Trump had colluded with Russia to win the election. “The Russians offered help, the [Trump] campaign accepted help,” he declared in December. “The Russians gave help, and the president made full use of that help.” In April 2018, he said that a Republican finding of no collusion “was unsupported by the facts and the investigative record”.
This was after a parade of top Obama officials secretly told the intelligence committee that they had no evidence of collusion whatsoever. As James Clapper, Obama’s director of national intelligence, testified in July 2017, “I never saw any direct empirical evidence that the Trump campaign or someone in it was plotting/conspiring with the Russians to meddle with the election.” Yet, once Democrats won control of the House a year later and made Schiff the intelligence committee’s new chairman, he was in a position to keep such testimony under wraps. And so he did for two full years in order to keep the collusion scandal going.5
The only thing that is clear is that there is a direct line from Schiff’s fulminations at the start of Russiagate to the beginning of hostilities in February 2022. “The United States aids Ukraine and her people, so that we can fight Russia over there and we don’t have to fight Russia here,” he told Congress in January 2020. Such words took on a new meaning when Russian forces crossed the border two years later in the face of relentless US-Nato provocations.
The destabilisation effort that Schiff helped initiate back in 2017 continues to wreak havoc on both sides of the divide - in Russia and America too. Both sides are cracking, as the war wears on.