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Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Russians are Coming

“The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming!” was the hue and cry of the eponymous 1966 film in which Carl Reiner headed an all-star cast. In this classic Cold War satire, a Russian submarine runs aground on the shore of a sleepy coastal American town leading its inhabitants to believe they’re being invaded. A half-century later, the Cold War is now back on for real and the Russians are popping up on our television screens and in the Trump White House.

We’ve seen Gen. Michael Flynn resign as national security advisor after lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian ambassador  Sergey Kislyak . We’ve seen Attorney General Jeff Sessions recuse himself after lying to Congress about his meetings with the Russian ambassador. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner met with Kislyak at Trump Tower after the election. Carter Page, a Trump campaign foreign policy advisor, claimed he didn’t have any contacts with Russians, at least not “outside of Cleveland” during the Republican Convention. Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort resigned when his lobbying work for the pro-Russian government in Ukraine came to light and he was implicated in a scandal involving payments from a Ukrainian political party aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The infamous dossier compiled by former MI6 intelligence agent Christopher Steele alleges Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen met with Russian officials in August 2016. The New York Times reports Cohen discussed a plan to give Russia long-term control over Ukrainian territory it seized in 2014, in a meeting with Russian-born developer Felix Sater and Ukrainian politician Andrii Artemenko.

It’s beginning to sound as if the Russians are already here. Then there’s Trump’s Secretary of State, former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who has a history of close business ties with Putin during his 40 years with America’s largest oil company. Before becoming Exxon-Mobil’s chairman and CEO, Tillerson was the corporation’s head of operations in Russia. He made many deals with Russia, among them one in 2011 that gave Exxon-Mobil access to Russian Arctic oil in exchange for allowing state-owned Russian oil company OAO Rosneft to invest in Exxon-Mobil’s overseas operations. In 2013, the same year the Kremlin gave Tillerson a coveted Order of Friendship award at a Moscow banquet where he sat beside Putin, Tillerson cut a deal with Russia to pump oil out of 60 million acres of Russian territory. But there was one snag: the oil flowed through pipelines in Ukraine, which placed a heavy tax on it. The following year, Russia invaded Ukraine, seizing the Crimean peninsula and taking control of the sea ports, enabling it to transport the oil by sea, tax-free.

President Obama placed sanctions on Russia in response, curtailing oil production from all but three of the 60 million acres. Tillerson complained the sanctions were “harmful.” Flynn discussed the sanctions with the Russian ambassador following the election. Putin, whom Rachel Maddow says is arguably the wealthiest man in the world, is rumored to own a substantial interest in Rosneft. The Steele dossier speculates the Russians may have offered Trump a 19.5 percent stake in Rosneft through secret Cayman Island accounts. Lifting the sanctions would bring in an additional half-trillion dollars in oil revenue – flowing tax-free through Ukraine.

At present, the Russian affair is a jigsaw puzzle but the pieces are rapidly coming together and the picture is taking shape. It involves some of the world’s wealthiest men, America’s largest oil company, Russian spies and diplomats, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and his closest associates, trillions of dollars… And a plot more convoluted and unbelievable than a Russian submarine beaching itself on the shore of a small American town.

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