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US quietly massing special forces on Russia’s border

The Pentagon now has close to 70,000 special forces troops compared to Russia’s roughly 30,000

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(The Nation) – They are very concerned about their adversary next door,” said Gen. Raymond Thomas, the head of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), at a national-security conference in Aspen, Colorado, in July. “They make no bones about it.”

The “they” in question were various Eastern European and Baltic nations. “Their adversary”? Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Thomas, the commander of America’s most elite troops—Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets among them—went on to raise fears about an upcoming Russian military training event, a war game, known as “Zapad” or “West,” involving 10 Russian Navy ships, 70 jets and helicopters, and 250 tanks. “The point of concern for most of these eastern Europeans right now is they’re about to do an exercise in Belarus…that’s going to entail up to 100,000 Russian troops moving into that country.” And he added, “The great concern is they’re not going to leave, and…that’s not paranoia…”

Over the last two decades, relations between the United States and Russia have increasingly soured, with Moscow casting blame on the United States for encouraging the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine a year later. Washington has, in turn, expressed its anger over the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following the Russo-Georgian War of 2008; the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine after pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych was chased from power; and interference in the 2016 US presidential election. There have been recriminations on both sides over the other nation’s military adventurism in Syria, the sanctions Washington imposed on Moscow in reaction to Crimea, Ukraine, and human-rights issues, and tit-for-tat diplomatic penalties that have repeatedly ramped up tensions.

While Zapad, which took place last month, is an annual strategic exercise that rotates among four regions, American officials nonetheless viewedthis year’s event as provocative. “People are worried this is a Trojan horse,” Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who commands US Army forces in Europe, told Reuters. “[The Russians] say, ‘We’re just doing an exercise,’ and then all of a sudden they’ve moved all these people and capabilities somewhere.”

Russia is not, however, the only military power with “people and capabilities” in the region. In passing, SOCOM’s Thomas also mentioned the presence of other forces, troops that he readily admitted the public might not be aware of. Those soldiers were—just as he feared of the Russian troops involved in Zapad—not going anywhere. And it wasn’t just a matter of speculation. After all, they wear the same uniform he does.

For the past two years, the United States has maintained a special-operations contingent in almost every nation on Russia’s western border. “[W]e’ve had persistent presence in every country—every NATO country and others on the border with Russia doing phenomenal things with our allies, helping them prepare for their threats,” said Thomas, mentioning the Baltics as well as Romania, Poland, Ukraine, and Georgia by name.

Since 9/11, US Special Operations forces (SOF) have grown in every conceivable way from funding to manpower, the pace of operations to geographic sweep. On any given day, about 8,000 special operators—from a command numbering roughly 70,000 in total—are deployed in around 80 countries. Over the course of a year, they operate in about 70 percent of the world’s nations.

According to Major Michael Weisman, a spokesman for US Special Operations Command Europe, elite US forces have deployed to 21 European countries in 2017 and conducted exercises with an even larger number of nations. “Outside of Russia and Belarus we train with virtually every country in Europe either bilaterally or through various multinational events,” he told TomDispatch.

The number of commandos in Europe has also expanded exponentially in recent years. In 2006, 3 percent of special operators deployed overseas were sent to the continent. Last year, the number topped 12 percent—a jump of more than 300 percent. Only Africa has seen a larger increase in deployments over the same time span.

This special-ops surge is also reflected in the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program, overseas missions designed to prepare American commandos in a variety of war fighting skills while also strengthening relations with foreign forces. In 2012, special operators conducted 29 JCETs on that continent. Last year, the number reached 37, including six in Bulgaria, three in Estonia, three in Latvia, three in Poland, and three in Moldova.

The United States has devoted significant resources to building and bolstering allied special-ops forces across the region. “Our current focus consists of assuring our allies through building partner capacity efforts to counter and resist various types of Russian aggression, as well as enhance their resilience,” SOCOM’s Thomas told members of the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year. “We are working relentlessly with our partners and the Department of State to build potency in eastern and northern Europe to counter Russia’s approach to unconventional warfare, including developing mature and sustainable Special Operations capabilities across the region.”

This year, US commandos could be found in nations all along Russia’s borders. In March, for example, Green Berets took to snowmobiles for a cold-weather JCET alongside local troops in Lapland, Finland. In May, Navy SEALs teamed up with Lithuanian forces as part of Flaming Sword 17, a training exercise in that country. In June, members of the US 10th Special Forces Group and Polish commandos carried out air assault and casualty evacuation training near Lubliniec, Poland. In July, Naval Special Warfare operators took part in Sea Breeze, a two-decade-old annual military exercise in Ukraine. In August, airmen from the 321st Special Tactics Squadron transformed a rural highway in Jägala, Estonia, into an airstrip for tank-killing A-10 Thunderbolts as part of a military drill. That same month, US special operators advised host-nation commandos taking part in Exercise Noble Partner in the Republic of Georgia.

“Working with the GSOF [Republic of Georgia’s Special Operations forces] was awesome,” said Capt. Christopher Pulliam, the commander of the Georgia Army National Guard’s Company H (Long-Range Surveillance), 121st Infantry Regiment. (That, of course, is a unit from the American state of Georgia.) “Our mission set requires that we work in small teams that gather specific intel in the area of operations. The GSOF understand this and can use our intel to create a better understanding of the situation on the ground and react accordingly.”

The United States isn’t alone in fielding a large contingent of special-operations forces. The US Defense Intelligence Agency estimates that Russia’s Spetsnaz (“special purpose”) troops number around 30,000, a sizable force, although less than half the size of America’s contingent of commandos. Russia, SOCOM’s Thomas told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year, is “particularly adept at leveraging unconventional approaches to advancing their interests and it is clear they are pursuing a wide range of audacious approaches to competition—SOF [special operations forces] often present a very natural unconventional response.”

Indeed, just like the United States and myriad militaries around the world, Russia has devoted significant resources to developing its doctrine and capabilities in covert, clandestine, and unconventional forms of warfare. In a seminal 2013 article in the Russian Academy of Military Science’s journal Military-Industrial Courier, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov explained the nature of modern hybrid warfare, including the use of elite troops, this way:

In the twenty-first century we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template.… The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.… [t]he broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures…is supplemented by military means of a concealed character, including carrying out actions of informational conflict and the actions of special operations forces.

Spetsnaz troops have indeed played a role in all of Russia’s armed interventions since 2001, including in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, GeorgiaUkraine, and Syria. During that same span, US Special Operations forces have been employed in combat in AfghanistanIraqPakistanYemenSomaliaLibyaSyriaNiger, and the Central African Republic. They have also had a presence in JordanKenyaDjibouti, and Cameroon, among other countries to which, according to President Trump, US combat-equipped forces are currently deployed.

In an interview late last year, retired Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland, chief of US Army Special Operations Command from 2012 to 2015 and now the Senior Mentor to the Army War College, discussed the shortcomings of the senior military leadership in regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the “bad national policy decisions…that shaped US campaigns in those theaters,” and a reliance on a brand of conventional-war fighting with limited effectiveness in achieving political goals. “[I]t is important to understand why SOF has risen from footnote and supporting player to main effort,” he added, “because its use also highlights why the US continues to have difficulty in its most recent campaigns—Afghanistan, Iraq, against ISIS and AQ [Al Qaeda] and its affiliates, Libya, Yemen, etc. and in the undeclared campaigns in the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine—none of which fits the US model for traditional war.”

US Special Operations Command Europe failed to answer TomDispatch’s questions about those “undeclared campaigns” on Russia’s doorstep, but more public and conventional efforts have been in wide evidence. In January, for example, tanks, trucks, and other equipment began arriving in Germany, before being sent on to Poland, to support Operation Atlantic Resolve. That effort, “designed to reassure NATO allies and partners…in light of the Russian intervention in Ukraine,” according to the Congressional Research Service, began with a nine-month rotation of about 3,500 soldiers from the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, who were replaced in September by 3,300 personnel and 1,500 vehicles from the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, which would be deployed to five countries. Earlier this month, Russia’s Defense Ministry complained that the size of the US contingent in the Baltics violates a Russian-NATO agreement.

Late last year, a group of active-duty and retired senior military officers, former ambassadors, academics, and researchers gathered for a symposium at the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, DC, titled “Russian Engagement in the Gray Zone.” Conducted via Chatham House rules—that is, in accounts of the meeting, statements could not be attributed to any specific speaker—the Americans proceeded to vilify Russia both for its bellicosity and its underhanded methods. Among the assessments: “Russia is always at a natural state of war and it prioritizes contactless war”; “Russia de-emphasizes kinetic activities and emphasizes the indirect/non-lethal approach”; and “Russia places a priority on subversion.”

The experts at NDU called for a comprehensive campaign to undermine Russia through sanctions, by courting “disenfranchised personnel” and “alienated persons” within that country, by developing enhanced cyber-capabilities, by utilizing psychological operations and “strategic messaging” to enhance “tactical actions,” and by conducting a special-ops shadow war—which Gen. Charles Cleveland seems to suggest might be already underway. “[T]he United States should learn from the Chechnya rebels’ reaction. The rebels used decentralized operations and started building pockets of resistance (to include solo jihadists),” reads a synopsis of the symposium.

“SOCOM actions will need,” the NDU experts asserted, “to be unconventional and irregular in order to compete with Russian modern warfare tactics.” In other words, they were advocating an anti-Russian campaign that seemed to emphasize the very approach they were excoriating Russia for—the “indirect/non-lethal approach” with a “priority on subversion.”

In the end, Russia’s much-feared “West” war game, in which Spetsnaz troops did participate, concluded with a whimper, not a bang. “After all the anxiety, Russia’s Zapad exercise ends without provocation,” read the headline in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes on September 20.

For months, while Russia insisted its war game would involve fewer than 13,000 soldiers, the United States and its allies had warned that, in reality, up to 100,000 troops would flood into Belarus. Of those Russian troop levels, Lt. Col. Thomas Möller, a Swedish military observer who attended Zapad, said, “We reported about 12,400.” Of such exercises, he added, “This is normal military business as we do in all countries with armed forces. This is not training for attacking anyone. You meet the enemy, you stop the enemy, you defeat the enemy with a counterattack. We are doing the same thing in Sweden.”

Indeed, just as Möller suggested, more than 20,000 troops—including US Special Operations forces and soldiers from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Lithuania, Latvia, Norway, and Sweden—had gathered in his country during the Zapad exercise for Aurora 2017. And Sweden was hardly unique. At the same time, troops from the United States, Bulgaria, Canada, Estonia, Georgia, Italy, Lithuania, Moldova, Norway, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom were carrying out Rapid Trident, an annual military exercise, in neighboring Ukraine.

What message was the United States sending to Russia by conducting training exercises on its borders, Catherine Herridge of Fox News asked Gen. Raymond Thomas in Aspen? “That’s a fascinating question because I am—I try to appreciate the adversary’s optic to—I realize that a way to gauge a metric if you will for how well we’re doing,” the SOCOM chief replied, somewhat incoherently.

Herridge was, of course, asking Thomas to view the world through the eyes of his adversary, to imagine something akin to Russia and its ally Syria’s conducting war games in Mexico or Canada or in both countries; to contemplate Spetsnaz troops spread throughout the Western Hemisphere on an enduring basis just as America’s elite troops are now a fixture in the Baltics and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

In the end, Thomas’s take was understated in a way that undoubtedly wouldn’t have been the case had the roles been reversed. “I am curious what Putin and his leadership are thinking,” the special-ops chief mused. “I think it was a little unnerving.”

Credit: Nick Turse

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Foreign Banks Are Embracing Russia’s Alternative To SWIFT, Moscow Says

Given its status as a major energy exporter, Russia has leverage that could help attract partners to its new SWIFT alternative.

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Via Zerohedge


On Friday, one day after Russia and China pledged to reduce their reliance on the dollar by increasing the amount of bilateral trade conducted in rubles and yuan (a goal toward which much progress has already been made over the past three years), Russia’s Central Bank provided the latest update on Moscow’s alternative to US-dominated international payments network SWIFT.

Moscow started working on the project back in 2014, when international sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea inspired fears that the country’s largest banks would soon be cut off from SWIFT which, though it’s based in Belgium and claims to be politically neutral, is effectively controlled by the US Treasury.

Today, the Russian alternative, known as the System for Transfer of Financial Messages, has attracted a modest amount of support within the Russian business community, with 416 Russian companies having joined as of September, including the Russian Federal Treasury and large state corporations likeGazprom Neft and Rosneft.

And now, eight months after a senior Russian official advised that “our banks are ready to turn off SWIFT,” it appears the system has reached another milestone in its development: It’s ready to take on international partners in the quest to de-dollarize and end the US’s leverage over the international financial system. A Russian official advised that non-residents will begin joining the system “this year,” according to RT.

“Non-residents will start connecting to us this year. People are already turning to us,”said First Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Russia Olga Skorobogatova. Earlier, the official said that by using the alternative payment system foreign firms would be able to do business with sanctioned Russian companies.

Turkey, China, India and others are among the countries that might be interested in a SWIFT alternative, as Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed out in a speech earlier this month, the US’s willingness to blithely sanction countries from Iran to Venezuela and beyond will eventually rebound on the US economy by undermining the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency.

To be sure, the Russians aren’t the only ones building a SWIFT alternative to help avoid US sanctions. Russia and China, along with the European Union are launching an interbank payments network known as the Special Purpose Vehicle to help companies pursue “legitimate business with Iran” in defiance of US sanctions.

Given its status as a major energy exporter, Russia has leverage that could help attract partners to its new SWIFT alternative. For one, much of Europe is dependent on Russian natural gas and oil.

And as Russian trade with other US rivals increases, Moscow’s payments network will look increasingly attractive,particularly if buyers of Russian crude have no other alternatives to pay for their goods.

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US leaving INF will put nuclear non-proliferation at risk & may lead to ‘complete chaos’

The US is pulling out of a nuclear missile pact with Russia. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty requires both countries to eliminate their short and medium-range atomic missiles.

The Duran

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Via RT


If the US ditches the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), it could collapse the entire nuclear non-proliferation system, and bring nuclear war even closer, Russian officials warn.

By ending the INF, Washington risks creating a domino effect which could endanger other landmark deals like the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and collapse the existing non-proliferation mechanism as we know it, senior lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev said on Sunday.

The current iteration of the START treaty, which limits the deployment of all types of nuclear weapons, is due to expire in 2021. Kosachev, who chairs the Parliament’s Upper House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that such an outcome pits mankind against “complete chaos in terms of nuclear weapons.”

“Now the US Western allies face a choice: either embarking on the same path, possibly leading to new war, or siding with common sense, at least for the sake of their self-preservation instinct.”

His remarks came after US President Donald Trump announced his intentions to “terminate” the INF, citing alleged violations of the deal by Russia.

Moscow has repeatedly denied undermining the treaty, pointing out that Trump has failed to produce any evidence of violations. Moreover, Russian officials insist that the deployment of US-made Mk 41 ground-based universal launching systems in Europe actually violates the agreement since the launchers are capable of firing mid-range cruise missiles.

Leonid Slutsky, who leads the Foreign Affairs Committee in parliament’s lower chamber, argued that Trump’s words are akin to placing “a huge mine under the whole disarmament process on the planet.”

The INF Treaty was signed in 1987 by then-President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The deal effectively bans the parties from having and developing short- and mid-range missiles of all types. According to the provisions, the US was obliged to destroy Pershing I and II launcher systems and BGM-109G Gryphon ground-launched cruise missiles. Moscow, meanwhile, pledged to remove the SS-20 and several other types of missiles from its nuclear arsenal.

Pershing missiles stationed in the US Army arsenal. © Hulton Archive / Getty Images ©

By scrapping the historic accord, Washington is trying to fulfill its “dream of a unipolar world,” a source within the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

“This decision fits into the US policy of ditching the international agreements which impose equal obligations on it and its partners, and render the ‘exceptionalism’ concept vulnerable.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov denounced Trump’s threats as “blackmail” and said that Washington wants to dismantle the INF because it views the deal as a “problem” on its course for “total domination” in the military sphere.

The issue of nuclear arms treaties is too vital for national and global security to rush into hastily-made “emotional” decisions, the official explained. Russia is expecting to hear more on the US’ plans from Trump’s top security adviser, John Bolton, who is set to hold talks in Moscow tomorrow.

President Trump has been open about unilaterally pulling the US out of various international agreements if he deems them to be damaging to national interests. Earlier this year, Washington withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear program. All other signatories to the landmark agreement, including Russia, China, and the EU, decided to stick to the deal, while blasting Trump for leaving.

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Kiev ‘Patriarch’ prepares to seize Moscow properties in Ukraine

Although Constantinople besought the Kiev church to stop property seizures, they were ignored and used, or perhaps, complicit.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The attack on the Eastern Orthodox Church, brought about by the US State Department and its proxies in Constantinople and Ukraine, is continuing. On October 20, 2018, the illegitimate “Kyiv (Kiev) Patriarchate”, led by Filaret Denisenko who is calling himself “Patriarch Filaret”, had a synodal meeting in which it changed the commemoration title of the leader of the church to include the Kyiv Caves and Pochaev Lavras.

This is a problem because Metropolitan Onuphry of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which is canonically accepted and acts as a very autonomous church under the Moscow Patriarchate has these places under his pastoral care.

This move takes place only one week after Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople unilaterally (and illegally) lifted the excommunications, depositions (removal from priestly ranks as punishment) and anathemas against Filaret and Makary that were imposed on them by the hierarchy of the Moscow Patriarchate.

These two censures are very serious matters in the Orthodox Church. Excommunication means that the person or church so considered cannot receive Holy Communion or any of the other Mysteries (called Sacraments in the West) in a neighboring local Orthodox Church. Anathema is even more serious, for this happens when a cleric disregards his excommunication and deposition (removal from the priesthood), and acts as a priest or a bishop anyway.

Filaret Denisenko received all these censures in 1992, and Patriarch Bartholomew accepted this decision at the time, as stated in a letter he sent to Moscow shortly after the censures. However, three years later, Patriarch Bartholomew received a group of Ukrainian autocephalist bishops called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the USA, who had been in communion with Filaret’s group. While this move may have been motivated by the factor of Bartholomew’s almost total isolation within Istanbul, Turkey, it is nonetheless non-canonical.

This year’s moves have far exceeded previous ones, though, and now the possibility for a real clash that could cost lives is raised. With Filaret’s “church” – really an agglomeration of Ukrainian ultranationalists and Neo-Nazis in the mix, plus millions of no doubt innocent Ukrainian faithful who are deluded about the problems of their church, challenging an existing arrangement regarding Ukraine and Russia’s two most holy sites, the results are not likely to be good at all.

Here is the report about today’s developments, reprinted in part from OrthoChristian.com:

Meeting today in Kiev, the Synod of the schismatic “Kiev Patriarchate” (KP) has officially changed the title of its primate, “Patriarch” Philaret, to include the Kiev Caves and Pochaev Lavras under his jurisdiction.

The primate’s new official title, as given on the site of the KP, is “His Holiness and Beatitude (name), Archbishop and Metropolitan of Kiev—Mother of the cities of Rus’, and Galicia, Patriarch of All Rus’-Ukraine, Svyaschenno-Archimandrite of the Holy Dormition Kiev Caves and Pochaev Lavras.”

…Thus, the KP Synod is declaring that “Patriarch” Philaret has jurisdiction over the Kiev Caves and Pochaev Lavras, although they are canonically under the omophorion of His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine, the primate of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Philaret and his followers and nationalistic radicals have continually proclaimed that they will take the Lavras for themselves.

This claim to the ancient and venerable monasteries comes after the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate announced that it had removed the anathema placed upon Philaret by the Russian Orthodox Church and had restored him to his hierarchical office. Philaret was a metropolitan of the canonical Church, becoming patriarch in his schismatic organization.

Representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate have clarified that they consider Philaret to be the “former Metropolitan of Kiev,” but he and his organization continue to consider him an active patriarch, with jurisdiction in Ukraine.

Constantinople’s statement also appealed to all in Ukraine to “avoid appropriation of churches, monasteries, and other properties,” which the Synod of the KP ignored in today’s decision.

The KP primate’s abbreviated title will be, “His Holiness (name), Patriarch of Kiev and All Rus’-Ukraine,” and the acceptable form for relations with other Local Churches is “His Beatitude Archbishop (name), Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus’-Ukraine.”

The Russian Orthodox Church broke eucharistic communion and all relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate over this matter earlier this week. Of the fourteen local Orthodox Churches recognized the world over, twelve have expressed the viewpoint that Constantinople’s move was in violation of the canons of the Holy Orthodox Church. Only one local Church supported Constantinople wholeheartedly, and all jurisdictions except Constantinople have appealed for an interOrthodox Synod to address and solve the Ukrainian matter in a legitimate manner.

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