Dangerous Game: How the Wreckage of Russiagate Ignited a New Cold War

Dangerous Game: How the Wreckage of Russiagate Ignited a New Cold War

It’s been nearly four years since the myth of Trump-Russia collusion made its debut in American politics, generating an endless stream of stories in the corporate press and hundreds of allegations of conspiracy from pundits and officials. But despite netting scores of embarrassing admissions, corrections, editor’s notes and retractions in that time, the theory refuses to die.

Over the years, the highly elaborate “Russiagate” narrative has fallen away piece-by-piece. Claims about Donald Trump’s various back channels to Moscow—Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Alfa Bank—have each been thoroughly discredited. House Intelligence Committee transcripts released in May have revealed that nobody who asserted a Russian hack on Democratic computers, including the DNC’s own cyber security firm, is able to produce evidence that it happened. In fact, it is now clear the entire investigation into the Trump campaign was without basis.

It was alleged that Moscow manipulated the president with “kompromat” and black mail, sold to the public in a “dossier” compiled by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele. Working through a DC consulting firm, Steele was hired by Democrats to dig up dirt on Trump, gathering a litany of accusations that Steele’s own primary source would later dismiss as “hearsay” and “rumor.” Though the FBI was aware the dossier was little more than sloppy opposition research, the bureau nonetheless used it to obtain warrants to spy on the Trump campaign.

Even the claim that Russia helped Trump from afar, without direct coordination, has fallen flat on its face. The “troll farm” allegedly tapped by the Kremlin to wage a pro-Trump meme war—the Internet Research Agency—spent only $46,000 on Facebook ads, or around 0.05 percent of the $81 million budget of the Trump and Clinton campaigns. The vast majority of the IRA’s ads had nothing to do with U.S. politics, and more than half of those that did were published after the election, having no impact on voters. The Department of Justice, moreover, has dropped its charges against the IRA’s parent company, abandoning a major case resulting from Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe.

Though few of its most diehard proponents would ever admit it, after four long years, the foundation of the Trump-Russia narrative has finally given way and its edifice has crumbled. The wreckage left behind will remain for some time to come, however, kicking off a new era of mainstream McCarthyism and setting the stage for the next Cold War.

It Didn’t Start With Trump

The importance of Russiagate to U.S. foreign policy cannot be understated, but the road to hostilities with Moscow stretches far beyond the current administration. For thirty years, the United States has exploited its de facto victory in the first Cold War, interfering in Russian elections in the 1990s, aiding oligarchs as they looted the country into poverty, and orchestrating Color Revolutions in former Soviet states. NATO, meanwhile, has been enlarged up to Russia’s border, despite American assurances the alliance wouldn’t expand “one inch” eastward after the collapse of the USSR.

Unquestionably, from the fall of the Berlin Wall until the day Trump took office, the United States maintained an aggressive policy toward Moscow. But with the USSR wiped off the map and communism defeated for good, a sufficient pretext to rally the American public into another Cold War has been missing in the post-Soviet era. In the same 30-year period, moreover, Washington has pursued one disastrous diversion after another in the Middle East, leaving little space or interest for another round of brinkmanship with the Russians, who were relegated to little more than a talking point. That, however, has changed.

The Crisis They Needed

The Washington foreign policy establishment—memorably dubbed “the Blob” by one Obama adviser—was thrown into disarray by Trump’s election win in the fall of 2016. In some ways, Trump stood out as the dove during the race, deeming “endless wars” in the Middle East a scam, calling for closer ties with Russia, and even questioning the usefulness of NATO. Sincere or not, Trump’s campaign vows shocked the Beltway think tankers, journalists, and politicos whose worldviews (and salaries) rely on the maintenance of empire. Something had to be done.

In the summer of 2016, WikiLeaks published thousands of emails belonging to then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, her campaign manager, and the Democratic National Committee. Though damaging to Clinton, the leak became fodder for a powerful new attack on the president-to-be. Trump had worked in league with Moscow to throw the election, the story went, and the embarrassing email trove was stolen in a Russian hack, then passed to WikiLeaks to propel Trump’s campaign.

By the time Trump took office, the narrative was in full swing. Pundits and politicians rushed to outdo one another in hysterically denouncing the supposed election-meddling, which was deemed the “political equivalent” of the 9/11 attacks, tantamount to Pearl Harbor, and akin to the Nazis’ 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom. In lock-step with the U.S. intelligence community—which soon issued a pair of reports endorsing the Russian hacking story—the Blob quickly joined the cause, hoping to short-circuit any tinkering with NATO or rapprochement with Moscow under Trump.

The allegations soon broadened well beyond hacking. Russia had now waged war on American democracy itself, and “sowed discord” with misinformation online, all in direct collusion with the Trump campaign. Talking heads on cable news and former intelligence officials—some of them playing both roles at once—weaved a dramatic plot of conspiracy out of countless news reports, clinging to many of the “bombshell” stories long after their key claims were blown up.

A large segment of American society eagerly bought the fiction, refusing to believe that Trump, the game show host, could have defeated Clinton without assistance from a foreign power. For the first time since the fall of the USSR, rank-and-file Democrats and moderate progressives were aligned with some of the most vocal Russia hawks across the aisle, creating space for what many have called a “new Cold War.

Stress Fractures 

Under immense pressure and nonstop allegations, the candidate who shouted “America First” and slammed NATO as “obsolete” quickly adapted himself to the foreign policy consensus on the alliance, one of the first signs the Trump-Russia story was bearing fruit.

Demonstrating the Blob in action, during debate on the Senate floor over Montenegro’s bid to join NATO in March 2017, the hawkish John McCain castigated Rand Paul for daring to oppose the measure, riding on anti-Russian sentiments stoked during the election to accuse him of “working for Vladimir Putin.” With most lawmakers agreeing the expansion of NATO was needed to “push back” against Russia, the Senate approved the request nearly unanimously and Trump signed it without batting an eye—perhaps seeing the attacks a veto would bring, even from his own party.

Allowing Montenegro—a country that illustrates everything wrong with NATO—to join the alliance may suggest Trump’s criticisms were always empty talk, but the establishment’s drive to constrain his foreign policy was undoubtedly having an effect. Just a few months later, the administration would put out its National Security Strategy, stressing the need to refocus U.S. military engagements from counter-terrorism in the Middle East to “great power competition” with Russia and China.

On another aspiring NATO member, Ukraine, the president was also hectored into reversing course under pressure from the Blob. During the 2016 race, the corporate press savaged the Trump campaign for working behind the scenes to “water down” the Republican Party platform after it opposed a pledge to arm Ukraine’s post-coup government. That stance did not last long.

Though even Obama decided against arming the new government—which his administration helped to install—Trump reversed that move in late 2017, handing Kiev hundreds of Javelin anti-tank missiles. In an irony noticed by few, some of the arms went to open neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian military, who were integrated into the country’s National Guard after leading street battles with security forces in the Obama-backed coup of 2014. Some of the very same Beltway critics slamming the president as a racist demanded he pass weapons to out-and-out white supremacists.

Ukraine’s bid to join NATO has all but stalled under President Volodymyr Zelensky, but the country has nonetheless played an outsized role in American politics both before and after Trump took office. In the wake of Ukraine’s 2014 U.S.-sponsored coup, “Russian aggression” became a favorite slogan in the American press, laying the ground for future allegations of election-meddling.

Weaponizing Ukraine

The drive for renewed hostilities with Moscow got underway well before Trump took the Oval Office, nurtured in its early stages under the Obama administration. Using Ukraine’s revolution as a springboard, Obama launched a major rhetorical and policy offensive against Russia, casting it in the role of an aggressive, expansionist power.

Protests erupted in Ukraine in late 2013, following President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union, preferring to keep closer ties with Russia. Demanding a deal with the EU and an end to government corruption, demonstrators—including the above-mentioned neo-Nazis—were soon in the streets clashing with security forces. Yanukovych was chased out of the country, and eventually out of power.

Through cut-out organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, the Obama administration poured millions of dollars into the Ukrainian opposition prior to the coup, training, organizing and funding activists. Dubbed the “Euromaidan Revolution,” Yanukovych’s ouster mirrored similar US-backed color coups before and since, with Uncle Sam riding on the back of legitimate grievances while positioning the most U.S.-friendly figures to take power afterward.

The coup set off serious unrest in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking enclaves, the eastern Donbass region and the Crimean Peninsula to the south. In the Donbass, secessionist forces attempted their own revolution, prompting the new government in Kiev to launch a bloody “war on terror” that continues to this day. Though the separatists received some level of support from Moscow, Washington placed sole blame on the Russians for Ukraine’s unrest, while the press breathlessly predicted an all-out invasion that never materialized.

In Crimea—where Moscow has kept its Black Sea Fleet since the late 1700s—Russia took a more forceful stance, seizing the territory to keep control of its long term naval base. The annexation was accomplished without bloodshed, and a referendum was held weeks later affirming that a large majority of Crimeans supported rejoining Russia, a sentiment western polling firms have since corroborated. Regardless, as in the Donbass, the move was labeled an invasion, eventually triggering a raft of sanctions from the U.S. and the EU (and more recently, from Trump himself).

The media made no effort to see Russia’s perspective on Crimea in the wake of the revolution—imagining the U.S. response if the roles were reversed, for example—and all but ignored the preferences of Crimeans. Instead, it spun a black-and-white story of “Russian aggression” in Ukraine. For the Blob, Moscow’s actions there put Vladimir Putin on par with Adolf Hitler, driving a flood of frenzied press coverage not seen again until the 2016 election.

Succumbing to Hysteria 

While Trump had already begun to cave to the onslaught of Russiagate in the early months of his presidency, a July 2018 meeting with Putin in Helsinki presented an opportunity to reverse course, offering a venue to hash out differences and plan for future cooperation. Trump’s previous sit-downs with his Russian counterpart were largely uneventful, but widely portrayed as a meeting between master and puppet. At the Helsinki Summit, however, a meager gesture toward improved relations was met with a new level of hysterics.

Trump’s refusal to interrogate Putin on his supposed election-hacking during a summit press conference was taken as irrefutable proof that the two were conspiring together. Former CIA Director John Brennan declared it an act of treason, while CNN gravely contemplated whether Putin’s gift to Trump during the meetings—a World Cup soccer ball—was really a secret spying transmitter. By this point, Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe was in full effect, lending official credibility to the collusion story and further emboldening the claims of conspiracy.

Though the summit did little to strengthen U.S.-Russia ties and Trump made no real effort to do so—beyond resisting the calls to directly confront Putin—it brought on some of the most extreme attacks yet, further ratcheting up the cost of rapprochement. The window of opportunity presented in Helsinki, while only cracked to begin with, was now firmly shut, with Trump as reluctant as ever to make good on his original policy platform.


After taking a beating in Helsinki, the administration allowed tensions with Moscow to soar to new heights, more or less embracing the Blob’s favored policies and often even outdoing the Obama government’s hawkishness toward Russia in both rhetoric and action.

In March 2018, the poisoning of a former Russian spy living in the United Kingdom was blamed on Moscow in a highly elaborate storyline that ultimately fell apart (sound familiar?), but nonetheless triggered a wave of retaliation from western governments. In the largest diplomatic purge in US history, the Trump administration expelled 60 Russian officials in a period of two days, surpassing Obama’s ejection of 35 diplomats in response to the election-meddling allegations.

Along with the purge, starting in spring 2018 and continuing to this day, Washington has unleashed round after round of new sanctions on Russia, including in response to “worldwide malign activity,” to penalize alleged election-meddling, for “destabilizing cyber activities,” retaliation for the UK spy poisoning, more cyber activity, more election-meddling—the list keeps growing.

Though Trump had called to lift rather than impose penalties on Russia before taking office, worn down by endless negative press coverage and surrounded by a coterie of hawkish advisers, he was brought around on the merits of sanctions before long, and has used them liberally ever since.

Goodbye INF, RIP OST

By October 2018, Trump had largely abandoned any idea of improving the relationship with Russia and, in addition to the barrage of sanctions, began shredding a series of major treaties and arms control agreements. He started with the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which had eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons—medium-range missiles—and removed Europe as a theater for nuclear war.

At this point in Trump’s tenure, super-hawk John Bolton had assumed the position of national security advisor, encouraging the president’s worst instincts and using his newfound influence to convince Trump to ditch the INF treaty. Bolton—who helped to detonate a number of arms control pacts in previous administrations—argued that Russia’s new short-range missile had violated the treaty. While there remains some dispute over the missile’s true range and whether it actually breached the agreement, Washington failed to pursue available dispute mechanisms and ignored Russian offers for talks to resolve the spat.

After the U.S. officially scrapped the agreement, it quickly began testing formerly-banned munitions. Unlike the Russian missiles, which were only said to have a range overstepping the treaty by a few miles, the U.S. began testing nuclear-capable land-based cruise missiles expressly banned under the INF.

Next came the Open Skies Treaty (OST), an idea originally floated by President Eisenhower, but which wouldn’t take shape until 1992, when an agreement was struck between NATO and former Warsaw Pact nations. The agreement now has over 30 members and allows each to arrange surveillance flights over other members’ territory, an important confidence-building measure in the post-Soviet world.

Trump saw matters differently, however, and turned a minor dispute over Russia’s implementation of the pact into a reason to discard it altogether, again egged on by militant advisers. In late May 2020, the president declared his intent to withdraw from the nearly 30-year-old agreement, proposing nothing to replace it.

Quid Pro Quo

With the DOJ’s special counsel probe into Trump-Russia collusion coming up short on both smoking-gun evidence and relevant indictments, the president’s enemies began searching for new angles of attack. Following a July 2019 phone call between Trump and his newly elected Ukrainian counterpart, they soon found one.

During the call, Trump urged Zelensky to investigate a computer server he believed to be linked to Russiagate, and to look into potential corruption and nepotism on the part of former Vice President Joe Biden, who played an active role in Ukraine following the Obama-backed coup.

Less than two months later, a “whistleblower”—a CIA officer detailed to the White House, Eric Ciaramella—came forward with an “urgent concern” that the president had abused his office on the July call. According to his complaint, Trump threatened to withhold U.S. military aid, as well as a face-to-face meeting with Zelensky, should Kiev fail to deliver the goods on Biden, who by that point was a major contender in the 2020 race.

The same players who peddled Russiagate seized on Ciaramella’s account to manufacture a whole new scandal: “Ukrainegate.” Failing to squeeze an impeachment out of the Mueller probe, the Democrats did just that with the Ukraine call, insisting Trump had committed grave offenses, again conspiring with a foreign leader to meddle in a U.S. election.

At a high point during the impeachment trial, an expert called to testify by the Democrats revived George W. Bush’s “fight them over there” maxim to argue for U.S. arms transfers to Ukraine, citing the Russian menace. The effort was doomed from the start, however, with a GOP-controlled Senate never likely to convict and the evidence weak for a “quid pro quo” with Zelensky. Ukrainegate, like Russiagate before it, was a failure in its stated goal, yet both served to mark the administration with claims of foreign collusion and press for more hawkish policies toward Moscow.

The End of New START?

The Obama administration scored a rare diplomatic achievement with Russia in 2010, signing the New START Treaty, a continuation of the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty inked in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Like its first iteration, the agreement places a cap on the number of nuclear weapons and warheads deployed by each side. It featured a ten-year sunset clause, but included provisions to continue beyond its initial end date.

With the treaty set to expire in early 2021, it has become an increasingly hot topic throughout Trump’s presidency. While Trump sold himself as an expert dealmaker on the campaign trail—an artist, even—his negotiation skills have shown lacking when it comes to working out a new deal with the Russians.

The administration has demanded that China be incorporated into any extended version of the treaty, calling on Russia to compel Beijing to the negotiating table and vastly complicating any prospect for a deal. With a nuclear arsenal around one-tenth the size of that of Russia or the U.S., China has refused to join the pact. Washington’s intransigence on the issue has put the future of the treaty in limbo and largely left Russia without a negotiating partner.

A second Trump term would spell serious trouble for New START, having already shown willingness to shred the INF and Open Skies agreements. And with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) already killed under the Bush administration, New START is one of the few remaining constraints on the planet’s two largest nuclear arsenals.

Despite pursuing massive escalation with Moscow from 2018 onward, Trump-Russia conspiracy allegations never stopped pouring from newspapers and TV screens. For the Blob—heavily invested in a narrative as fruitful as it was false—Trump would forever be “Putin’s puppet,” regardless of the sanctions imposed, the landmark treaties incinerated or the deluge of warlike rhetoric.

Running for an Arms Race

As the Trump administration leads the country into the next Cold War, a renewed arms race is also in the making. The destruction of key arms control pacts by previous administrations has fed a proliferation powder keg, and the demise of New START could be the spark to set it off.

Following Bush Jr.’s termination of the ABM deal in 2002—wrecking a pact which placed limits on Russian and American missile defense systems to maintain the balance of mutually assured destruction—Russia soon resumed funding for a number of strategic weapons projects, including its hypersonic missile. In his announcement of the new technology in 2018, Putin deemed the move a response to Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from ABM, which also saw the U.S. develop new weapons.

Though he inked New START and campaigned on vows to pursue an end to the bomb, President Obama also helped to advance the arms build-up, embarking on a 30-year nuclear modernization project set to cost taxpayers $1.5 trillion. The Trump administration has embraced the initiative with open arms, even adding to it, as Moscow follows suit with upgrades to its own arsenal.

Moreover, Trump has opened a whole new battlefield with the creation of the US Space Force, escalated military deployments, ramped up war games targeting Russia and China and looked to reopen and expand Cold War-era bases.

In May, Trump’s top arms control envoy promised to spend Russia and China into oblivion in the event of any future arms race, but one was already well underway. After withdrawing from INF, the administration began churning out previously banned nuclear-capable cruise missiles, while fielding an entire new class of low-yield nuclear weapons. Known as “tactical nukes,” the smaller warheads lower the threshold for use, making nuclear conflict more likely. Meanwhile, the White House has also mulled a live bomb test—America’s first since 1992—though has apparently shelved the idea for now.

A Runaway Freight Train

As Trump approaches the end of his first term, the two major U.S. political parties have become locked in a permanent cycle of escalation, eternally compelled to prove who’s the bigger hawk. The president put up mild resistance during his first months in office, but the relentless drumbeat of Russiagate successfully crushed any chances for improved ties with Moscow.

The Democrats refuse to give up on “Russian aggression” and see virtually no pushback from hawks across the aisle, while intelligence “leaks” continue to flow into the imperial press, fueling a whole new round of election-meddling allegations.

Likewise, Trump’s campaign vows to revamp U.S.-Russian relations are long dead. His presidency counts among its accomplishments a pile of new sanctions, dozens of expelled diplomats and the demise of two major arms control treaties. For all his talk of getting along with Putin, Trump has failed to ink a single deal, de-escalate any of the ongoing strife over Syria, Ukraine or Libya, and been unable to arrange one state visit in Moscow or DC.

Nonetheless, Trump’s every action is still interpreted through the lens of Russian collusion. After announcing a troop drawdown in Germany on June 5, reducing the U.S. presence by just one-third, the president was met with the now-typical swarm of baseless charges. MSNBC regular and retired general Barry McCaffrey dubbed the move “a gift to Russia,” while GOP Rep. Liz Cheney said the meager troop movement placed the “cause of freedom…in peril.” Top Democrats in the House and Senate introduced bills to stop the withdrawal dead in its tracks, attributing the policy to Trump’s “absurd affection for Vladimir Putin, a murderous dictator.”

Starting as a dirty campaign trick to explain away the Democrats’ election loss and jam up the new president, Russiagate is now a key driving force in the U.S. political establishment that will long outlive the age of Trump. After nearly four years, the bipartisan consensus on the need for Cold War is stronger than ever, and will endure regardless of who takes the Oval Office next.

Maximum Failure: Trump’s Convulsive North Korea Strategy Can’t Bring Kim to the Table

Maximum Failure: Trump’s Convulsive North Korea Strategy Can’t Bring Kim to the Table

Through a combination of myopic diplomacy and disastrous personnel picks, President Donald Trump has wasted a chance to fundamentally remake US relations with North Korea, throwing away a “Nixon goes to China” moment in exchange for a confused “maximum pressure” campaign that’s delivered the same failures of previous administrations. Having missed Pyongyang’s year-end deadline to revive stalled talks, the defects of Trump’s North Korea strategy are on full display.

Ditching Detente

On the campaign trail in 2016, then-candidate Trump took unusually dovish stances on North Korea for a Republican nominee. From openly considering whether to withdraw some of the 30,000 American troops stationed in South Korea, to even inviting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for an unprecedented visit to the US, Trump at the very least appeared willing to talk – “an overture that would upend three decades of American diplomacy,” the Times told us.

Even after Trump took office, there were early plans for informal talks with North Korean officials, but the trend would soon die. The meetings were abruptly called off, and the president’s first Defense Secretary, James Mattis, was dispatched to Seoul to assure that no troop withdrawal would take place. Trump’s flirtation with detente was only momentary, but it panicked Washington zealots committed to endless hostility with North Korea, some of whom ended up with jobs in the new administration.

So began months of “fire and fury,” which saw the two sides trading threats, the Pentagon carrying out its regular joint war games with South Korea – rehearsing an invasion of the North – and Pyongyang responding with a variety of weapons tests. Casting aside the friendlier tack put forward on the campaign trail, Trump embarked on a “maximum pressure” campaign, leveraging sanctions and tough rhetoric to push North Korea to bow to the American diktat, disarm and effectively surrender. 

Freeze for Freeze

While the corporate press was focused on the war of words between Trump and Kim, however, a true believer in Korean peace was elected president in South Korea: Moon Jae-in. The new leader would serve as a counterweight to the hawks in Trump’s ear, making for a convulsive US policy which shifted erratically between open hostility and willingness to talk.

Despite the rising tension at the time, President Moon led a successful effort to see the two Koreas compete under the same flag in the 2018 Winter Olympics, a significant step away from Trump’s tweets of “war and annihilation,” and one which was at least tacitly accepted by Washington.

The symbolic victory of the Olympic games created momentum for Trump’s first summit with Pyongyang – the first ever meeting between an American and North Korean leader – held in Singapore in June 2018.  

The meeting was in many ways a success, resulting in a joint statement vowing to continue dialogue on a number of issues, though the North Koreans made it clear from the outset that they would only discuss denuclearization in exchange for trust-building measures from Washington, namely sanctions relief and a security guarantee. 

While the summit didn’t result in full rapprochement, it wasn’t all for naught. The North Koreans returned the remains of American soldiers killed during the Korean War and dismantled a missile engine facility, important small steps toward a truce. Around the same time, a ‘freeze for freeze’ status was adopted, in which Washington would halt its military exercises with South Korea in exchange for a freeze on nuclear and missile tests in the North. Moon, meanwhile, was allowed a freer hand to improve inter-Korean relations.

The Libya Model

A countervailing force would soon challenge Moon’s drive for peace. Hired on as National Security Adviser (NSA) a few months prior to the Singapore Summit, infamous mad bomber and Iraq war devotee John Bolton was instrumental in keeping Trump from making good on his campaign rhetoric, doing his best to ensure US North Korea policy remained sufficiently bloodthirsty.

Bolton is despised in North Korea. He played a role in destroying the Agreed Framework – a Clinton era nuclear agreement later wrecked by the Bush administration – and has openly called for a “preemptive” attack on the Hermit Kingdom. Not long before landing the job as NSA, he penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal making the “legal case” for a first strike.

Weeks ahead of the Singapore summit, Bolton would also invoke Libya as the model for North Korean disarmament. Pyongyang could only take that as a moral threat, all too aware of the grisly fate of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, who gave up his rudimentary nuclear weapons program and was later murdered in US-led regime change plot.

By the time Singapore rolled around, however, Trump decided he could deal with Kim after all and the hawkish NSA was sidelined at the meeting, where he was seen sulking and sour-faced as diplomacy between Trump and Kim hit its peak – but it wouldn’t be Bolton’s final act.

Hawks Triumph in Hanoi

In the leadup to the next US-North Korean summit set for Hanoi in February 2019, a divide in the Trump administration deepened as hawks – led by Bolton – continued to push for the “Libya model.” Ignoring the North’s long-held position that its weapons are solely meant to deter an American invasion, Bolton pushed for rapid denuclearization as a condition for any further dialogue (the standard American poison pill), insisting Kim dismantle the country’s entire program in the space of a year. The demand set “absurd expectations” and amounted to a “deliberate attempt to sabotage all talks with North Korea,” observed Daniel Larison of the American Conservative magazine.

Despite the hawks’ push, there was a glimmer of hope that Hanoi could build on the progress of Singapore. US envoy Stephen Biegun had been put in charge of the talks at this stage, who advocated a step-by-step trust-building process that would see the US cautiously trade sanctions relief for a slow dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.  

The hope was short-lived. In what may have been the highlight of Bolton’s tenure on Trump’s national security team, he would steal the show in Hanoi, persuading the president to scrap Biegun’s more reasonable proposal in exchange for an offer Kim couldn’t possibly accept, once again demanding disarmament before Washington would make a single concession. 

As expected, Kim rejected the “deal” outright, the summit abruptly ended and the nascent peace process cooled. The economic war against North Korea – which never ceased throughout the negotiations – marched on, prompting a few small retaliatory missile tests unrelated to Pyongyang’s nuclear program. While Trump downplayed the importance of the tests, it was a clear sign the ‘bad cop’ approach was doomed to fail.

Kim’s Deadline 

With crippling sanctions continuing to grind down the North Korean economy and populace, and the post-Hanoi peace process stagnated, Kim issued an end-of-year deadline last April to revive the talks. The ultimatum called on the US to come to the table before the end of the year, or else Pyongyang would scrap all progress made since the 2018 Olympic Games, including any freeze for freeze commitments it agreed to during that time.

Seeing the bleak prospects for talks, President Moon soon traveled to Washington to plead with his American counterpart and was once again able to grease the wheels of stalled diplomacy. Less than two months after the visit, Trump would send an unprecedented tweet inviting Kim to a historic meeting at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the physical embodiment of the intractable Korean conflict.

TRUMP TWEET – https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1144740178948493314?lang=en 

Moon’s hard-fought efforts appeared to finally pay off in the summer of 2019, when all three leaders – Trump, Moon and Kim – met for the first time.

The meeting produced mostly symbolic progress – including Trump becoming the first US president to cross the DMZ into North Korea proper –  but it did end with an agreement to form teams for continued talks. Importantly, the American team would again be led by Beigun, not Bolton or Mike Pompeo, the bellicose secretary of state.

Biegun again looked to take a more flexible approach to negotiations, this time proposing a nuclear freeze deal in exchange for sanctions relief. Better yet, the renewed drive for dialogue occurred as Bolton’s influence seemed to be waning in the White House – he was exiled to Mongolia for a meeting during the DMZ-crossing – with expectations that he would soon get the pink slip.

Making Regress

While the DMZ meeting and Biegun’s new proposal appeared to put things back on track, a major obstacle was fast approaching: joint US-South Korean wargames set for August 2019, which the North had long complained were threatening and unnecessarily provocative. Though the US insisted the drills had been scaled down and were purely defensive, Pyongyang denounced them as a breach of the freeze for freeze status established in 2018, reacting with a series of short-range missile tests.

Rumors about a new round of talks swirled throughout the fall of 2019, but the North Koreans had grown increasingly doubtful of the Americans’ good faith, insisting there would only be another meeting if Washington fundamentally changed its attitude. As November rolled by with no new offer, Kim began referring to a “gift” he might send to the US for Christmas, a vague but ominous threat picked up and amplified in the establishment press. 

Much of the progress made in Singapore and at the DMZ had effectively been reversed, leaving the US and North Korea close to where they began when Trump took office, returning to a familiar pattern of threats, military drills and missile tests. 

A New Path

It was clear by December that the US and North Korea would not resume serious talks by Kim’s deadline. With Trump – and Washington – fully absorbed in endless impeachment drama, there was simply no time, leaving many to nervously speculate about what kind of “Christmas gift” Kim might have in store.

Jolly St. Kim didn’t even bother to deliver a lump of coal for his Christmas surprise, however, and the day came and went quietly, despite widespread press predictions of a major nuclear weapons test. In the week between Christmas and the New Year, Kim spent four days meeting with his inner circle, thinking long and hard about how to respond to Trump’s failure to meet his deadline. 

With none of the theatrics anticipated in the US media, Kim soberly unveiled his “new way” for the new year, resigning himself to an immovable status quo in Washington:

“The present situation warning of long confrontation with the US urgently requires us to make it a fait accompli that we have to live under the sanctions by the hostile forces in the future,” Kim said, according to the KCNA.

Though still holding out for the possibility for a return to the freeze for freeze status, North Korea would no longer actively pursue peace talks. Kim had finally given up.

While the United States and North Korea have not yet returned to the height of enmity reached during Trump’s first year in office, it’s clear the strategy of “maximum pressure” has accomplished less than nothing, utterly failing to bring Kim to the table for a comprehensive peace deal, nor even a smaller preliminary one. Far from abandoning its arsenal, Pyongyang is now more confident than ever in its need for a nuclear deterrent – talking appears to get them nowhere. President Moon may now be the best hope for peace on the Korean Peninsula, but with forces in Washington arrayed against him, even he may not be up to the task.

US Killing Civilians in Battle for Mosul

US Killing Civilians in Battle for Mosul

After a brief pause in the effort to liberate the western half of the city from Islamic State control, the American-led operation to retake Mosul has resumed in force.

The pause came after a Mar. 17 coalition air raid that killed up to 270 civilians in Mosul’s al-Jadid district. While still under investigation, US Central Command confirmed a strike was carried out “at the location corresponding to allegations of civilian casualties.”

Spokesman for the US-led coalition, Col. John Dorrian, wouldn’t say when the investigation would be concluded, but said the coalition was carrying out “the most precise air campaign in history.”

The Pentagon acknowledges a total of 352 civilian casualties caused by US operations in both Iraq and Syria—only 14 of which they claim were caused by the Mar. 17 raid—but activists and international monitoring organizations say the figure is much higher. Airwars, a monitor based in London, estimates that the coalition has killed at least 3,000 civilians overall since US operations against ISIS began in Syria in 2014.

The Mar. 17 strike, however, was one among thousands in the ongoing endeavor to expel ISIS from Mosul.

An intense American bombing campaign supports the predominantly Shia Iraqi Security Forces, Kurdish and other militiamen, as well as US troops on the ground, with up to 500 bombs dropped on the city per week in March.

In addition to around 100,000 Iraqis, an estimated 6,000 American military personnel are now stationed in Mosul, as well as over 3,500 Pentagon contractors. Exact troop numbers are difficult to determine, however, since the administration stopped disclosing troop deployments in Iraq and Syria in March. Even when official tallies were available they were not complete, as certain categories of personnel were excluded from the figure.

The expanding presence of Shiite militias in Mosul and the surrounding rural areas has some Iraqi officials concerned about post-war reconciliation with members of the country’s Sunni minority. While parts of the Hashd al-Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilization Units (PMF), were recognized as an official paramilitary force by the Iraqi government in December 2016, the growing network of militia checkpoints has become a source of anxiety for some Sunni Arab villagers.

Retributive sectarian murders were commonplace in the civil war that broke out in the years after the 2003 American invasion, and some excessive militia violence was reported earlier in the fight for Mosul, but the extent of the abuses are difficult to verify in a politically complex environment.

“When the western ISIL positions were first taken by the [Iraqi government], it was a merciless and bloody struggle and the Shia PMFs did a lot of indiscriminate killing and executions,” said a Sergeant 1st Class in the US Special Forces with extensive experience in Mosul who wished to remain anonymous.

However the Sgt., who finished his seventh tour of duty in the Middle East last October, noted that many of those reports were “heavily exaggerated by ISIL and ISIL’s supporters in Baghdad, as well as by Sunni military leaders who tried to co-opt these incidents to make a push for leading the Mosul liberation.” ISIL is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State.

If unwanted Shia military presence in historically Sunni areas continues long after ISIS is expelled from Mosul, Iraq may have a prolonged conflict on its hands.

Timetables for the recapture of Mosul have proven inaccurate since operations commenced last year. Sirwan Barzani, a brigadier general in the Kurdish Peshmerga, initially told CNN the battle would last two months, but after six months of heavy fighting officials appear to have given up on time estimates.

While recent reports put 30 percent of West Mosul back under the control of the Iraqi government—and Iraqi officials estimate less than 1,000 ISIS militants left in the city—the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq is likely still far from over.

“Tal Afar is a huge insurgent stronghold, just like Western Mosul,” the Special Forces Sgt. said. “The Kurds and the [Iraqi government] have been hammering that in advance because they predict that the insurgents will stage another Alamo there. They are of course correct, and quite a lot of damage has been caused in Tal Afar as a result.”

Despite heavy losses among the Iraqi Security Forces, civilians have perhaps seen the worst of the fighting in Mosul. Civilian casualty numbers for the city are hard to come by, but according to data compiled by Iraq Body Count, more than 8,600 civilians are estimated to have been killed in Nineveh Province, where Mosul is located, since the coalition began its current operation in October 2016.

Most of the deaths in Mosul have been caused by ground combat, but American bombs have also contributed to the figure. The excessive civilian death toll has recently prompted the US-led coalition to reevaluate its use of airpower in Mosul’s densely-populated western districts.

American casualties have been low by comparison, with two fatalities since US operations began in Mosul last year and “some number” wounded, Pentagon officials say.

Overall, 355,000 residents have been displaced from the city since 2016 due to the conflict, according to Iraq’s Ministry of Displacement and Migration, while the UN estimates that another 400,000 still live in ISIS-held West Mosul. Severe food shortages and even deaths from starvation were also reported from Mosul’s Old City last March.

The Islamic State first captured Mosul in June of 2014, where, in the city’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the creation of its caliphate. While it had major successes taking territory in its initial surge in 2014, the militant group has recently seen setbacks in both Iraq and Syria, its primary theaters of combat.

Sporadic fighting has taken place in Mosul since it fell to ISIS, but the American-led coalition began providing air support in a 2015 offensive intended to cut off ISIS supply lines and capture the areas surrounding the city. Iraqi forces were expected to launch a full-scale operation to retake Mosul that spring, but the Islamic State takeover of Ramadi, another key Iraqi city, threw that operation off schedule.

Since then, American involvement has steadily ramped up, with increased air support and US military advisors and ground troops deployed to the city in 2016 at the start of the current operation. As the it pushes into Mosul’s western districts, the coalition inches closer to the Great Mosque, perhaps symbolic of the slow but steady erosion of the Islamic State’s foothold in the city.

What’s next for Mosul? The answer to that question will largely depend on future American policy, but with Iraq’s immense political and demographic complexities, conflict appears set to continue, even after the Islamic State is pushed out of its urban strongholds and turned back into an insurgency.


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