Once again, the Obama Administration has chosen a critical moment to launch new provocations against Russia. On the very day that the Geneva talks were to begin, seeking a ceasefire and end to the five-year Syrian war, a prominent Obama Administration official publicly attacked Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Jan. 25, BBC Panorama aired a documentary, accusing Putin of stealing billions from Russia and running a personal mafia. The "star" attraction in the broadcast was Adam Szubin, a top US Treasury Department official, in charge of the implementation of US sanctions, including the sanctions against Russia. Szubin retailed dubious claims about Putin, and, to make matters worse, two days after the show was broadcast, President Obama's press spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that Szubin was speaking for the Administration's view of Putin and Russia.
Needless to say, the Szubin stunt resonated in Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov immediately confronted Secretary of State John Kerry, demanding to know why the US Administration was out to sabotage the fragile efforts at Syrian peace with such a public display of diplomatic chicanery. Kerry was clearly caught completely off guard and felt that he had been, once again, sandbagged by others in the Administration who clearly have a different agenda.
The US Administration's backing for Szubin's public outburst was seconded, just days later, by the latest rant from European Command head Gen. Philip Breedlove ("Strangelove?") who once again declared that Russia is America's most dangerous enemy. The new Pentagon budget, unfurled by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, made clear that the gravest strategic threat to US interests is coming from Russia and China. Carter is pushing for a $1 trillion budget line to modernize the US strategic triad.
Even some of Carter's closest colleagues are warning that these actions by the Obama Administration are putting the danger of strategic conflict back on the front burner–25 years after the end of the Cold War. Former Defense Secretary William Perry has gone public, through a recently published memoir and through a series of high profile public appearances, warning that we are closer to a thermonuclear conflict with Russia–whether by "accident" or by pre-meditation–than at any time in his memory. And he was a young nuclear weapons analyst on the team assessing the Soviet moves of nuclear weapons into Cuba back in 1962.
It is well-known that the point person for the Obama Administration on Ukraine is Victoria Nuland, a veteran of former Vice President Dick Cheney's Bush Administration war room. Szubin comes from the same background. A Justice Department official in the immediate post-9/11 era, he was tapped for the Treasury Department by Hank Paulson and put in charge of Bush Administration sanctions in the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a post he held from 2006-2015, when he was promoted to Undersecretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (he is still Acting Undersecretary because his confirmation has been frozen since April 2015).
In this fragile and highly charged environment, words matter.