A new Russian “socio-political club” called The New Orthodoxy was announced in Moscow in October. Its founders assert that the name originates not in religion, but in the eponymous innovative model of economic development created in the 1930s in the USA which contributed to the country’s recovery from the Great Depression. However, the movement’s religious roots are still evident. According to the list of founders, it includes Lutherans, Old Catholics, the Party of the 10 Commandments, created by evangelical Christians, and other organizations associated with religion – along with the Russian Movement for Democratic Reforms. In its opening declaration, the founders say that the current world crisis is of a “spiritual and moral nature” and they want to work to support peacemaking and disarmament.
It’s quite natural for Christian organizations and movements to appeal for a “return to morality” and support world peace. However, in recent years in Russia, declarations like this would have been used most often for purposes that are not at all peaceful, namely, to accuse the West of ‘aggression’ against Russia and for the veiled support of Russian wars and information operations abroad. Very unusual in this case, they are expressed in the context of criticism of the Russian authorities – and harsh criticism of not only its domestic but also its foreign policy. And this trend, especially in internal Russian political discourse, is relatively new.
In particular, in the program manifesto of the movement, published in mid-November on the Latvian website baznica.info, one of the movement’s co-chairs, Dmitry Pakhomov, outright condemned Russia’s intervention in the internal affairs of the United States and the attempt to poison the Skripals.
“I also express my concern about the negative processes that have accompanied the activities of the Russian Federation in the international arena in recent years. One may confidently assert that the conditional consensus on vital issues on the international agenda, which was reached in the late 1980s and extended in the 1990s, has now been essentially dismantled because of Russia’s political leaders. Just look at the costs of the Skripal case and the obviously unlawful interference of Russian hackers in the 2016 US presidential election,” Pakhomov said in a statement. Also, the co-chairman of the movement expressed full support for the positions of ex-USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev.
People familiar with the political environment in Russia know that even the most sincere and radical opposition members living there often don’t risk criticizing the Kremlin’s foreign policy, much less advocating for the United States. They limit themselves to exposing corruption and other internal Russian problems. The mere act of acknowledging Moscow’s interference in the US election is a topic both dangerous and unpopular in Russian discourse. This kind of attention to foreign policy, especially when combined with a reference to Gorbachev, suggests that the creators of the movement have the backing of some people in the Russian elite who are concerned about the consequences of Russian aggression for Russia itself. Be that as it may, the phenomenon of a Christian opposition itself is, to put it mildly, unusual for modern Russia.
Soviet and Polish precedents
In recent years, there has been a persistent feeling among Russians that only far-right groups and dictatorial regimes mention reliance on ‘moral values’. However, this picture of the world is not entirely correct. For example, due to the infringement of the rights of Protestant and other non-Orthodox denominations in Russia, quite a significant segment of the believers of these churches hold opposition views. Sometimes these views are even expressed in the political space. For example, in 2013, the 10 Commandments party was created. According to its leader, Evangelical Christian Sergei Mezentsev, it includes Muslims, Christians, Jews, and even non-believers. However, at the time Mezentsev stated his opposition rather gently, speaking up only against corruption and the collapse of science, and calling for the revival of the ideas of Christian democracy.
By the way, in neighboring Belarus, the Belarusian Christian Democracy party (BCD) holds a firm opposition line and openly points to Europe as an example to follow. Because of this, the party is subjected to reprisals like the other opposition parties. In 2010, after a protest rally was dispersed on December 19, the party’s co-chairs Vitaly Rymashevsky and Pavel Severinets were thrown into the KGB dungeons, and subsequently sentenced to two years in prison.
Interestingly, some opposition movements even exist in the Orthodox environment in Russia. In Soviet times, the most prominent dissident figure in the church was the priest Gleb Yakunin, one of the authors of an open letter condemning the pressure of the Soviet government on the church and the church leadership’s collaboration with the government. In particular, he called for “the cleansing of the church from the filth that had accumulated in it by the fault of the ecclesiastical authority.” Another uncompromising church dissident, Alexander Ogorodnikov, widely known outside Russia, spent many years in Soviet camps and in practice combined faith and genuine dissidence.
In modern Russia, independent Orthodox media have also been founded and have even thrived by adhering to a strict opposition line on a number of issues. This includes, for example, the famous Orthodoxy and the World portal (Pravmir). In its study of the Orthodox media market, the Meduza website emphasizes that this project is “absolutely independent of the Russian Orthodox Church and any people from the structure of the patriarchate.” The study also notes that the site “is not afraid to publish disgraced priests, which is terribly annoying for the ROC,” and also publishes “columns and problematic articles on the topic… that priests should raise hard questions with power and talk about corruption.”
Indeed, most of the authors of Pravmir supported the protest wave of 2011–12, encouraged its readers to be observers at the elections, and published reports on violations spotted by their observers. Moreover, Pravmir published Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s letter from the penal colony and the comments of human rights activists on this letter. Pravmir also stood up for persecuted members of the LGBT community and even published materials in support of Ukraine’s Maidan protests. This includes, for example, a short article by Archimandrite Cyril (Govorun) ‘Theology of Maidan‘, in which it is noted that “Regarding its values, the Maidan has significantly outgrown the Ukrainian churches – all without exception.” In a word, the Orthodox portal was courageous enough to raise issues that even renowned secular opposition websites would not dare touch.
However, Pravmir did not escape the wave of unprecedented censorship and pressure against independent media, which had become particularly strong by 2014. We can assume it is much easier for the government to put pressure on Christian portals than on secular ones. By trying to maintain the status of a site that offers a complete overview of the situation in the church, large portals cannot afford to lose access to church leaders for interviews and comments. The desire to remain within the orbit of the church automatically implies politicization in the same vein as the church itself is politicized.
In Pravmir’s situation, this tendency was aggravated by two more circumstances: at the end of 2013, the creator of the portal, entrepreneur Anatoly Danilov, suddenly died. Meanwhile, Vladimir Medinsky, Russian minister of culture, became head of the portal’s Board of Trustees. As a result, currently, the site maintains an independent agenda on a number of social issues. However, on the most sensitive political issues, its content now mostly sticks to the official line.
Pravmir has now been replaced as a platform for church dissidence by Akhilla, a project that is much more modest, also but freer, and gives a voice to people who left the church, or had become disillusioned by it, and former priests. The site does not formulate a political position and is devoted to a critical understanding of the ROC. However, some of its authors are not afraid to speak out very strongly on political issues.
Certain Orthodox believers, for example, the well-known priest Yakov Krotov, are quite active on the opposition political scene. The New Orthodoxy’s Dmitry Pakhomov also regularly speaks on Radio Liberty, arguing that Christianity and liberalism are related like “father and son”. Similar initiatives are found in the regions. For example, former Yekaterinburg seminarians Viktor Norkin and Vladimir Golovin became known for attending all the protests of the local dissident movement, including rallies in defence of those accused of ‘offending the feelings of religious believers’ (which is what Pussy Riot were jailed for).
At the same time, the practice of other countries shows that the participation of believers in democratic movements is not only possible but also makes these movements effective, even transforming them from political activism to national uprising.
In particular, it was this effect that was observed in the Polish Solidarity movement, which became a truly popular movement, uniting the trade unions, the liberal intelligentsia and the Catholic Church. The Catholic priest and ‘chaplain of Solidarity’, Jerzy Popeluszko, killed in 1984 by the Polish secret services, is considered to be both a Christian martyr and a Polish dissident hero.
A similar situation arose during Ukraine’s Euromaidan, which combined patriotic and nationalist forces, the liberal intelligentsia and most of the clergy. The Maidan was supported by the priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, some priests of the Moscow Patriarchate, and of the Catholic and Protestant churches, and a number of Muslim and Jewish religious figures. That is why Maidan was not just a liberal protest, but a real popular revolution.
However, an element that is specific to Russia is that the most numerous church (ROC MP) systematically sides with the current government, defending and sacralizing its worst crimes, which naturally causes a negative reaction from progressive Russians. Other churches also do this to some degree, seeing it as their only chance for survival in the current Russian political reality. So it is quite natural that believers of different denominations who disagree with this policy do their utmost to disassociate themselves from church bodies and religious organizations, and are trying to express their opposition views on the political scene.
It is too early to tell whether these political and religious movements have a future in the environment of contemporary Russia. Even if the movement gains the support of some of the pro-government system liberals thanks to its emphasis on traditionalism, it is not yet clear that it can find common ground with the classic liberal dissidents, who are accustomed to viewing with suspicion any references to “spirituality”.
Russia’s interference in the internal affairs of the United States has long ceased to be a “political card,” as it’s usually described in Kremlin discourse. The indictments that are being handed down one after another by both Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Department of Justice show in detail the mechanisms of Russian operations for organizing and financing influence campaigns to manipulate American society. Since tracking hacker attacks and other operations is law-enforcement work, I try here to give a brief overview of the themes in Kremlin attitudes towards the United States as observed in the Russian media and how these themes have evolved over the past two years. Read More
Open Support for Donald Trump
Those who monitored the Russian information space before the US presidential elections were in no doubt: the Kremlin was doing everything it could, if not to support Trump, then at least to attack his opponents. All Russian state-controlled media, inside Russia and abroad, were working to discredit the Democrats. Russian-controlled hackers and WikiLeaks, who published the results of the hacks, also worked against them.
Moreover, Moscow resorted to direct nuclear blackmail, explicitly stating that in the event of a Clinton victory, nuclear war would be almost inevitable. Another type of Kremlin blackmail, directly aimed at supporting Trump, was fanning fears of civil war in the US. As noted by the Washington Post on the eve of the presidential election in 2016, Russia tried to provoke what it terms a “color revolution” in the event of Donald Trump’s defeat, which would eventually inevitably turn into a civil war. Trump, in turn, enthusiastically picked up this theme, threatening in advance not to accept the election result, claiming before the vote had even happened that it was going to be falsified and calling on his supporters to start mass protests.
Even now, the Russian-language US media predict an angry reaction by Trump voters if the impeachment procedure is started, and they often claim that continuing the investigation could lead to violence and disturbances in the streets, and say “everything possible should be done to prevent it.” The fear of a possible civil war in the United States is sometimes thrown into the English-language information space, and some American experts unintentionally broadcast it, often without even realizing that they are playing into the hands of Kremlin propaganda.
Also, the work of numerous Russian trolls, often displaying the American flag, was dedicated to the support of Donald Trump. In addition, the overwhelming majority of the Russian-language media in the United States also took an absolutely pro-Trump position. This even applied to media outlets that positioned themselves as opposition and anti-Putin.
The efforts of the Russian-language press and TV channels in the US cannot be underestimated. For example, the Russian-language RT television channel every day expresses strong support for Trump at his every move, including his anti-media and anti-immigrant stances, relentlessly accuses the Democrats of “resistance” against Trump and planning “to build socialism” in the US, and fans the fears of civil war. Also, the channel tirelessly repeats the claim that “no evidence of Russian influence” on the presidential election 2016 has been found, repeating Trump’s ‘witch hunt’ label for the Mueller investigation.
Meanwhile, the Russian domestic press continues to strongly support Trump. In particular, the business newspaper Vzglyad regularly quotes Trump’s words describing CNN as a source of “fake news,” translates his Tweets about how the “fake media are out of control,” and published its own ‘analysis’ on how “CNN is on the verge of collapse,” and is “trapped in anti-Trump propaganda and negative personnel selection.” This also includes trying to discredit the investigation by the FBI and Mueller and attacking the people conducting it, which echoes the claims circulating in both the extreme right-wing media and Russian media.
Efforts continue to be aimed at the Russian-speaking community. In early March 2017, Ekho Moskvy radio’s website began to post article after article that, while avoiding making excuses for Putin and his policies, nevertheless, in many respects, repeated the Kremlin’s rhetoric about “McCarthyism,” “Russophobia” and “innocent meetings with the Russian ambassador.” Journalist Mikhail Taratuta even called on Trump “to go on the attack,” gave detailed advice on how to attack the Democrats and rejoiced that Trump had “landed a blow on his opponent.” And the author was not at all embarrassed that the “blow” he had in mind was the unconfirmed and subsequently discredited Trump statement that Obama allegedly eavesdropped on his telephone conversations.
Along with this, more and more Russian media outlets have admitted outright that not only Trump’s public rhetoric and declared positions played into the hands of Moscow, but also some of his actions. This became especially obvious in early February 2018, when three events occurred. First, the Trump administration classified the most important part of the ‘Kremlin report’ – the new sanctions list – which blocked the option of directly applying U.S. legislation on countering the laundering of income obtained by criminal means. Second, Trump invited the heads of Russian intelligence services to the U.S. despite them being under sanctions. Third, the notorious memorandum was issued by the head of the Committee on Intelligence of the U.S. House of Representatives Devin Nunes, in which the FBI and the Department of Justice were accused of bias against President Donald Trump. After that, even Russian military analysts could not restrain their joy and crowed that Trump was acting in Russia’s interests.
“The publication of Devin Nunes’ report and the investigation of the materials presented in it portend a major purge of the FBI, other US intelligence services and the DOJ, and a political earthquake in Congress. The intelligence services are the main institutions of American democracy, and if Trump has managed to co-opt them, then the days of the fake globalist press and the Congress that has fallen into imbecility are numbered,” wrote the Military Review, rejoicing that Trump had “gone on the offensive,” wasn’t afraid to openly communicate with Russian intelligence and would soon achieve the complete destruction of the mechanism of the separation of powers, a free media and an independent, law-abiding judiciary. In early June, another Russian analyst, Rostistav Ishchenko, in an article entitled “Thank you, Comrade Trump,” explicitly pointed out that for the rapprochement between Europe and Russia, you must personally thank Donald Trump and only him.
Division of Labor
It is important to note that Trump’s public support from Moscow never stopped, but its format has changed somewhat over time. So, a few months before the mid-term elections to the U.S. Congress, national Russian TV channels and their experts distanced themselves somewhat from support for Trump, handing this task to Russians who had gained American citizenship and achieved a certain weight in the United States, and so could be presented as American experts. They took up the job of explaining to the Russian audience why Moscow would benefit from supporting Donald Trump. The most prominent figures here are the director of the National Interest Center Dimitri Simes and the head of the non-profit organization Russia House in Washington Edward Lozansky. Interestingly, it was Dmitry Simes whom Maria Butina, who was arrested for her activity as a foreign agent, named as one of her curators in the United States. However, Russian military analysts also underscore the importance of Simes for Russia, explicitly calling him in their articles “our friend.”
Recently, Simes became one of the co-hosts of the Big Game political talk show on Channel One, together with Vyacheslav Molotov’s grandson, Vyacheslav Nikonov. In it, he regularly describes the importance and necessity of Trump for Russia (while other co-hosts sometimes voice their doubts, creating the illusion of free discussion). In particular, in a show dated 26 September, fully dedicated to Donald Trump’s speech at the UN General Assembly session, Simes and movie director Karen Shakhnazarov bluntly said that Trump suits Russia because he “is annulling the U.S. as a global empire” following “the example of Gorbachev,” who destroyed the USSR, and is abandoning basic American values.
Edward Lozansky also candidly states in his articles that he expects from Trump a new division of the world together with Russia and China, in other words, a ‘new Yalta’.
This is an option to repeat the meeting in Yalta of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. Of course, there is still Europe, but today it is in such disarray due to the exit of the UK that we can start with a trilateral meeting. The realities are such that it is time to move on to some kind of agreement. The sooner, the better, he says.
At the same time, in programs designed for a wider audience at home, Russian propagandists sometimes do not bother with particular support for Trump. They pump out standard anti-American hysteria, where, for simplicity, all of America’s ‘evil’ actions are blamed on its president.
Before the mid-term elections on 6 November 2018, the topic of a “possible U.S. civil war” once again began to gain momentum in the Russian press, but now it was associated with a possible victory for the Democrats or with protests by them in the event of their defeat. At the same time, it was clear from the tone of the publications in the Russian media that they were counting on complete victory for the Republicans, an angry reaction to which by the Democrats was apparently supposed to increase instability.
However, the expectations of most Russian analysts and propagandists were not fulfilled: the Democrats confidently won a majority in the lower house and, although they lost the Senate elections, their losses there were not major.
Trump’s opponents now have the opportunity to block his legislative initiatives and will also be able to initiate investigations against the president. In addition, the leadership and composition of the Intelligence Committee is now changing, which will allow the American intelligence community to act more freely.
Trump still has the opportunity to appoint people to senior positions in the administration and the judicial system, and his candidates will obviously be approved by the Republican-controlled Senate. Despite all this, neither of the parties have showed any desire to start a civil war.
Russian media have responded to the congressional elections somewhat reservedly, mostly trying to present Trump’s first serious defeat as a victory. They mainly focused on the Republicans holding on to the Senate. Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the State Duma’s international affairs committee, called the election results “a vote of confidence in the policies of U.S. President Donald Trump” and “a kind of indicator of support for his positions.”
At the same time, Slutsky complains that Moscow will not be able to get rid of the investigation into Russian interference.
Political speculation has not ended; Trump’s opponents still have the anti-Russian card up their sleeve. Because of this, unfortunately, no radical changes in Russian-American relations can be expected, he laments.
Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Federation Council International Committee, tried to convince the audience that Trump’s partial defeat would only harm the American system.
“I’m afraid that ultimately the losers will be the American political system, which will become even more unbalanced and unpredictable, even as far as attempts to launch impeachment proceedings, and the part of the world that voluntarily or unwittingly depends on American internal political clashes,” he stated.
At the same time, Kosachev noted that a victory in the Senate “gives considerable cards to the White House,” and without it, “Trump’s foreign policy would be completely paralyzed.” However, like Slutsky, he is worried that the Democrats will head the commissions to investigate Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia in the 2016 presidential election.
In this context, it’s interesting to see yet another article by Mikhail Taratuta on the divide in American society. Here, unlike in previous articles, he no longer shows obvious support for Trump and does not risk giving him advice on how and whom to strike. This seems to indicate that at least some of the Russian media (and, accordingly, the elites behind them) are beginning to move away from direct support for Trump. The newspaper Gazeta.ru, for example, called the election results a loss for Trump.
However, a new player in Russia has made an unprecedented break with the state’s rhetoric. A political club called “New Orthodoxy” states as its aim uniting various Christian denominations and secular public figures, and says that it supports the ideas of liberalism and Christian democracy. Some of its members have previously spoken on Radio Liberty, trying to reconcile Christian and liberal values, which in itself is not at all new for both Europe and the post-Soviet space (for example, in Belarus, the Christian Democratic movement presents tough opposition to the government). However, there is another strange aspect. Even before the election, members of this movement began to openly call on the Russian government to “stop supporting Trump.”
People familiar with the current situation in Russia know that even the most sincere and radical opposition members living in Russia do not risk criticizing the Kremlin’s foreign policy, and they especially do not risk standing up for the United States. Recognizing that Moscow interfered in the American election is a topic both dangerous and unpopular in Russian discourse. Moreover, Christian movements would hardly dare to engage in such freethinking, considering that the Orthodox church has become a major tool of Russian foreign policy. A move like this by the Christian opposition is most likely due to the fact that behind it there is support from a section of the Russian elite that belongs to the ‘system liberals’.
Nevertheless, these timid shoots of departure from the official party line are still marginal, and Kremlin media’s activity in supporting Donald Trump in one form or another has not yet changed radically. But it is obvious that as the president loses his position in the United States, his loyal Moscow allies will easily abandon him and pretend that they have never had anything in common with him.
Call your Senators and Representative and urge them to demand that Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker recuse himself from overseeing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Read More
Trump has forced Sessions’ resignation and installed a Trump lackey, Matt Whitaker as Acting Attorney General, despite views by both liberals and conservatives that the appointment is inappropriate and unconstitutional.
Whitaker has a long and shady history of publicly criticizing the Mueller investigation and acting as a Trump lackey. The nationwide Trump Is Not Above the Law group implemented its “break the glass” protests due to the threat Whitaker presents to the Mueller investigation if he does not recuse, and hundreds of events protesting Whitaker overseeing Mueller were held on Thursday night.
Whitaker needs to be recused from overseeing Mueller investigation.
Else Trump’s picking him is an affront to the rule of law.
Whitaker wrote piece celebrating Comey’s firing and criticizing appointment of special counsel for Russia probe:
Numerous state Attorneys General, former prosecutors and constitutional scholars have demanded that Whitaker recuse from overseeing the Mueller investigation. It seems clear from Whitaker’s previous comments that he is a Trump lackey who has prejudged the outcome and is prepared to cripple Mueller’s probe.
Trump has handpicked an unqualified “Trump loyalist” to strangle Mueller’s investigation of his campaign. Trump is not a king. In America, nobody – not even the president – is above the law.
This is [NAME] and I’m a constituent in [ZIP].
I urge [Sen/Rep____] to demand Matt Whitaker recuse himself from overseeing Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation.
He has publicly & harshly criticized the investigation and is recommending Mueller’s budget be slashed.
Brett Kavanaugh is a U.S. Supreme Court justice. That means now there is a clear five conservative justice majority which could work to systematically gut constitutional rights. But, all is not lost. There are two possible solutions to the Kavanaugh appointment: 1) impeachment; and 2) increasing the number of SCOTUS seats. Impeachment, though, presents serious difficulties. The better solution is the second option: Democrats should seek to increase the number of seats on the Court.
If the Democrats regain the majority in the House of Representatives on November 6, should they consider impeaching Kavanaugh on the basis of his compromised Senate confirmation hearing testimony? They could try, but impeachment will likely fail to result in Kavanaugh’s removal.
The problem is the bifurcated impeachment process under the Constitution. While the House can bring articles of impeachment against a federal judge and officially “impeach” him/her by a simple majority vote, that only means the process moves to the Senate for a trial to determine if removal from the bench is warranted. For Kavanaugh to be removed, 2/3rds of the Senate or at least 67 senators must vote to convict. That will be a difficult hurdle to meet. It would require the election of many more Democrats and the votes of several Republicans. In the current polarized political climate, that seems like an impossible task.
Is there another recourse? Or do we have to wait until conservative justices retire and a Democratic president is in office to appoint more liberal justices? There is another option, and it may provide a stable, effective, long term solution to the problem of an anti-democratic Supreme Court.
Increasing the number of seats on SCOTUS
With Kavanaugh’s appointment, there are currently five solid conservative justices and four liberal justices on the Court. Kavanaugh replaces Anthony Kennedy, who was the swing justice on the Court occasionally siding with the liberal justices to render progressive decisions. Kennedy, for example, wrote the majority decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case in which the Court held that the right to marry is a fundamental due process right which states could not deny to same-sex couples. We have little indication, however, that Kavanaugh could play a similar role as a swing justice. It’s more likely that he could become the most conservative justice on the Court.
Since 1970, Justices have served on the Court for an average of 26 years. Given the relative youth of the conservative justices, Kavanaugh’s appointment could mean a rock-solid conservative majority for at least the next decade, perhaps even longer. While Chief Justice Roberts may evolve to become a swing justice ala Kennedy, that is something that cannot be counted on.
To prevent a firm conservative bloc on the Court from radically rewriting constitutional protections, once the Democrats control Congress and the Presidency, they should pass legislation to increase the number of justices on the Court from the current number of nine. A Democratic president then could appoint at least one new liberal justice to the Court and erase the conservative majority.
Is this even possible as a legal matter? Yes. There is nothing in the Constitution that requires the Court to consist of nine seats. The Constitution is silent about this issue. It has been Congress who has determined the number of seats on the Court. When the Supreme Court was first established in 1789, Congress provided for five associate justices and one chief justice for a total of six justices. Since then, the number of seats on the Court has changed multiple times. The last change occurred in 1869 when the present number of nine was set. Bottom-line, there nothing inherently inappropriate politically about changing the number of Court seats.
A question remains-how many additional seats should be added to the Court? Adding two additional seats to bring the number up to eleven total seats seems entirely reasonable. Eleven is the number frequently suggested when legal commentators starting discussing this possibility immediately after Kennedy announced his retirement. The number is not unusual. When a federal circuit appellate court sits as a full panel, a total of eleven judges hear a case. Thus, if a Democratic president could appoint two additional liberal justices to the Court, that would create a liberal majority.
Adding two seats may be warranted to make up for the seat lost when Mitch McConnell refused to call a vote on Merrick Garland resulting in Neil Gorsuch ultimately being appointed. If Garland had been appointed, even with Kavanaugh’s appointment, the Court would have a 5-4 liberal majority. It may also be warranted to make up for Kavanaugh’s confirmation despite the allegations of sexual assault, his misleading testimony before the Judiciary Committee, and serious questions about his judicial temperament. The “remedy” for those arguably illegitimate appointments would be adding two justices to give liberals a 6-5 majority.
One argument against increasing the number of justices is that, once the number has been changed by one party, that could start a never-ending war in which both parties will change the number of seats whenever they are in power. So, the fear is if the Democrats change the number of seats from nine to eleven this time around, the next time the GOP are in power, they’ll increase the seats from eleven to thirteen to add two conservative justices onto the Court. Then in response, when the Democrats are in power, they would respond by increasing the number to fifteen, and so on. That would be a disaster for the Court. Constantly changing the number of SCOTUS seats would undermine the Court’s stability and legitimacy.
That is a reasonable and legitimate concern.
I offer two responses. The first solution is for Congress to change the number of seats by legislation and then codify that number into the Constitution via amendment. However, that solution is unlikely given the difficulty of the constitutional amendment process.
The second solution? I suggest that the Democrats increase the number of seats by just one to create an even numbered, ten justice Supreme Court. Why? Because a ten justice Court will create ideological balance among the justices, make it difficult to overturn established constitutional rights, lessen polarization between liberal and conservative justices, and make it politically difficult to change the number of seats in the future.
So, let’s say in 2021, the Court remains split with five conservative justices and four liberal ones. An additional seat is added. If a Democratic President is given one additional justice to appoint, that would mean there would be five liberal and five conservative justices on the Court. There would be ideological balance.
If the Court is deciding a case and it splits along partisan lines, it would split evenly, 5-5. What happens when there is a tie between the justices? It means that the lower court ruling is affirmed and there is no binding Supreme Court precedent on the issue. A tie would also mean a Supreme Court decision would not be overruled. If five justices wanted to overrule Roe v. Wade while five justices did not, the tie would mean Roe would be upheld.
A ten justice court effectively requires a supermajority on the Court to render binding precedent. And when the Court is split 5-5 ideologically, for there to be binding Supreme Court precedent, you would need a bipartisan supermajority which includes either one liberal justice or one conservative justice joining the majority. Otherwise, there would be status quo among Supreme Court precedent and lower court rulings would be upheld. For the foreseeable future, then, a ten justice Court would prevent it from radically subverting precedent and engaging in unfettered judicial activism.
Moreover, by increasing the number of seats by only one and creating an even number of justices, the argument that it is a blatantly partisan move is neutralized. The argument would be that the addition of one justice is to make up for the unfair and illegitimate blocking of Merrick Garland’s appointment by the GOP Senate, and therefore is not a partisan power grab, but a move to create balance on the Court. Opponents would not be able to argue that the Democrats are trying to “pack the Court.”
Increasing the seats to ten would also make it politically difficult for future Congresses to change the number of seats. Any attempt to change the number would seem blatantly partisan and either party would need a compelling reason to upset the balance on the Court. There likely would be vigorous political blowback from voters of all political persuasions.
Additionally, along with adding one seat to the Court, the Senate could change its voting procedures as permitted by the Constitution. The Senate could enact two procedural rules to apply in the future: A rule requiring sixty votes in the Senate to change the number of seats on the Court, and a rule requiring sixty votes to confirm a Supreme Court justice. The Senate could also insert a provision that requires a supermajority to change or repeal both of those rules. All of that together would make it procedurally difficult to muster up the votes to change the number of seats on the Court.
Ultimately, for a ten justice Supreme Court to become reality, what is needed is a Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and a Democratic president. It also means starting the conversation now about this issue and laying the groundwork for political support. That means democratic participation & civic engagement. It means calling members of Congress, exercising the right to free speech, vigorously engaging in public discourse, and of course, voting. Implementing a remedy to neutralize an anti-democratic Supreme Court depends on We The People.
The fight for the Supreme Court is not over. It’s only just beginning.
Reginald Oh is Professor of Law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Cleveland State University. He teaches Constitutional Law, Civil Procedure, and Legal Profession. His scholarship has focused on 14th Amendment Equal Protection issues of racial equality and racial discrimination. He has published in the Wisconsin Law Review, U.C. Davis Law Review, and Fordham Law Review.
As its confrontation with the West grows, Russia’s use of the elements of blackmail, both veiled and direct, in its diplomacy is increasing. In general, threats and fear-mongering are some of the main tools of the Putin’s regime, primarily in domestic policy, where they serve as essential means of ensuring the loyalty of the population. However, the Kremlin is not averse to using the same tactics beyond its borders as well, trying to win concessions from Western leaders. Let’s look at the main types of Putin’s blackmail inside and outside Russia.
This is perhaps the oldest and most popular form of blackmail used by the Kremlin against its own population. For the last several years, the state has been persuading Russians that any mass protests, let alone attempts at revolution, will inevitably lead to a bloody civil war, the details of which are vividly described by propaganda. The fear caused by these images is one of the pillars of Kremlin propaganda, not only scaring people off any future attempts to change the government, but also forcing them to consolidate around the “national leader” in the present.
The fear of civil war in Russia is also used as an instrument of pressure on Western leaders. The main argument here is “the unpredictable consequences of chaos in a vast territory that possesses nuclear weapons.” This idea is clearly being pushed in an open letter from Andrei Kortunov to the “composite Washington acquaintance” published on the website of the Carnegie Moscow Center:
“It appears then that current American policy brings Washington away from, not nearer to, its goal of regime change in Russia… Be honest, John, are you able to predict the concomitant global and regional risks, the risks for U.S. interests and security? We both remember well that the world was fortunate in 1991 to avoid violent turmoil in a nuclear superpower state… It’s not at all obvious that the same thing will happen next time. Won’t you agree that the current Russian military-security establishment somewhat differs from the old Soviet nomenklatura and will hardly acquiesce to collective political suicide?” warns the author.
In addition to the threats of civil war in Russia, the Kremlin is actively trying to spread the same fears in other countries, in particular in the United States. As noted by the Washington Post, on the eve of the presidential election of 2016, Russia tried to provoke a “color revolution” in the event of Donald Trump‘s defeat, which would eventually inevitably turn into a civil war. Trump, in turn, gratefully picked up this blackmail, threatening in advance with non-acceptance of the election results, and declared their “falsification” before any vote, calling on his supporters to start mass protests if he loses.
After the election, blackmail with a possible civil war in the United States by Russian propaganda continued, but its goal now was to stop Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller‘s investigation of Russian intervention and to prevent possible impeachment. In particular, in the American Russian-language media, the topic of the inevitable “angry reaction of Trump voters” is being predicted in the event an impeachment procedure is started and it is often mentioned that continuing the investigation could lead to violence and disturbances in the streets, and therefore, “everything possible should be done to prevent it.”
Simply put, the Russian media warns in plain text that even if Trump is really guilty of illegal ties to the Kremlin, law enforcement agencies and Congress shouldn’t attempt to impeach him in order to avoid a “civil war”, and therefore even if the crime is confirmed it should be overlooked. The fear of a possible civil war in the United States is sometimes thrown into the English-language information space, and some American experts unconsciously broadcast it, often without even realizing that they are playing into the hands of Kremlin propaganda.
In fact, the chances of a bloody civil war in Russia itself, much less in the United States, are close to zero. Extremist groups in the United States are certainly strong enough to organize protest actions and even bloody clashes, similar to those observed in Charlottesville in August 2017, but they are not so powerful as to unleash a full-fledged war. In the United States, as in other democratic countries, even with all the conflicts that exist in those societies, there is confidence in the institution of elections, fundamental freedoms are considered to be unshakable, and individual states are fairly independent of the federal authorities in legislative terms. This significantly reduces the influence of political events at the federal level on the lives of ordinary people, and hence it reduces their desire to react violently to these events.
A civil war inside Russia is also unlikely. The mentality of the majority of Russians is characterized by inertia, excessive reliance on the state, a deep-rooted fear of “losing Russia” as a country and an increased level of conformism combined with a low ability to self-organize. Most Russian political scientists are inclined to believe that a regime change in the country will occur not as a result of a sudden revolution, but as a result of the gradual degradation of power, that is, as a result of the change of elites, or, as some would say, a “palace coup”.
Such a coup would certainly lead to the weakening of the elites and consequently a shakeup of the repressive mechanism (or at least the loss of its former legitimacy in the eyes of the population). Such tendencies can lead to an intensification of the protest wave and, as a result, to the need of the new authorities to reckon with popular discontent. However, it is very likely that after certain concessions from the “post-Putin” elites, this discontent will decline, and the main battlefield will not be in the streets, but in the corridors and towers of the Kremlin. In the event of such a scenario, Putin’s propaganda prepared the following type of blackmail – the fear that Putin will be replaced by even more radical followers, who will inevitably increase repression inside the country and make their foreign policy even more aggressive and unpredictable.
Blackmail with the radical successors
This type of threat is not stated directly but spread by subliminal messaging to both Russians and foreigners. Russian TV shows, in which politicians and political scientists call their opponents obscene words, provoke fights and call for the destruction of entire countries; terrorist “militiaman” Girkin-Strelkov, who at the beginning of the Russian aggression in Ukraine was predicted to play the role of the informal people’s leader; military analysts, prophesying that the role of the new opposition leader will be taken up by the left radical and supporter of the continuation of the expansion of Russia in the post-Soviet space Sergei Udaltsov; the head of the Russian Guard, General Viktor Zolotov, who publicly challenged corruption fighter Alexei Navalny to a duel — all this is intended to convince Putin’s opponents that the current Russian president can still be negotiated with, while those who will replace him will be beyond reason.
The fear of a possible military dictatorship in Russia, headed by one of the radical and completely uncontrollable security officials, is a reality among the European establishment. Regardless of whether there will be a change of power in the Kremlin through the official appointment of a “successor” or a coup, it is obvious that the power of the special services in the country is so strong that Putin’s place will most likely be taken by another representative of the recently strengthened security force or, in the best case, someone from the opposition controlled by this clan. However, it is wrong to assume that the power of such a “successor” will be absolute. Any person who takes Putin’s place will not have his charisma, and he will find it difficult to maintain the balance created by Putin between the interests of the oligarchs and the security forces.
In fact, judging by the latest trends in the Russian economy, discontent of the “oligarchic” clan with the current Kremlin’s course is growing. The oligarchs close to Putin came under a double blow – first, from Western sanctions, and secondly, from the Kremlin, which is trying to circumvent the sanctions by nationalizing the assets of those close to it.
This nationalization is carried out under various pretexts, including under the guise of the “financial recovery” and reorganization procedures conducted by the Central Bank. The reason for the implementation of such procedures are violations and even crimes revealed during an audit, but, as financial analysts note, the strangest thing is that criminal cases against former owners are never initiated. Thus, the only logical explanation for this behavior by the authorities is an attempt to remove assets from under the sanctions, without attempting to punish their owners, who, despite all their crimes, have done nothing against Putin personally. Such procedures affected, in particular, Oleg Deripaska, and some other Russian oligarchs.
In turn, the majority of oligarchs are not ready to easily give up their savings to the state that has already brought them so many problems, and therefore, according to media reports, are trying with all their might to withdraw their money not so much from Western sanctions as from the process of nationalization in their homeland. These trends indicate increased friction between Kremlin hawks and the more moderate part of the Russian elites seeking to restore relations with the West and hastily transferring their money out of Russia. The Kremlin, in turn, transparently hints through propaganda programs that Russians who own property abroad are becoming an easy target for recruitment and the FSB can destroy these recruited “traitors” in any country in the world.
Solving all the above-mentioned conflicts is done in a “manual mode” through the Putin-built system. In general, the whole vertical power structure in Russia and the mechanism for resolving many key issues are built in the same mode. After Putin, this vertical will begin to crumble, and the conflicts between the various “power structures of the Kremlin” are likely to escalate. And let’s not forget about the centrifugal tendencies on the part of the regions, which can also manifest themselves “after Putin”, and about the possible intensification of protest mood. The new leader will need to win national trust, and repression alone will not help here.
As noted above, a full-fledged revolution in Russia is unlikely at this stage, but the system will weaken considerably, and security officials will most likely have to make certain compromises with the oligarchs, or perhaps even with some representatives of the liberal opposition. This may not lead to significant changes in Russia at first, but it is likely that such Russia will no longer be able to continue its aggressive foreign policy in the post-Soviet space and interference in the affairs of Western countries. Such a situation can give Western leaders and the democratic opposition in Russia the very “window of opportunity” that some opposition leaders are waiting for.
At this stage, a lot will depend on the position of the West and on whether the leaders of the free world have enough wisdom to accurately support genuine oppositionists, not to declare with ease a new “reset” while the security services in one form or another retain control over the country, not trust pseudo oppositionists and build protection mechanisms that prevent Putinism comeback in any form.
Periodically, Moscow decides to resort to nuclear blackmail as a way to force Western countries to make certain concessions. One of the first threats on this topic was Dmitry Kiselev’s famous statement that “Russia is capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.” The next case of exacerbation of direct nuclear blackmail was observed before the presidential elections in the United States. Then, the leading propaganda media openly stated that a nuclear war in the case of Hillary Clinton‘s victory would be almost inevitable.
For example, in October 2016, Russian programs, one after another, showed TV specials devoted not only to the quality of bomb shelters but also to the technology of anti-missile defense. On the official channel of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, a twenty-minute story was released under the loud title “Obama threatens Russia!”, In which it was directly stated that the USA is “the enemy of humanity”. At the same time, the famous Russian journalist Alexander Sotnikpublished on his page in social networks a post from a woman claiming that children in a Moscow school were being scared with the prospect of a nuclear war with the USA and death in case of Hillary Clinton’s victory in the presidential election.
The latest vivid example of blatant nuclear blackmail is the threat voiced personally by Vladimir Putin in the World Order-2018 film devoted to him. To the direct question of the leader Vladimir Solovyov about the possibility of using nuclear weapons, Putin replied that he was ready to deliver only a “retaliatory strike”. However, he acknowledged:
“Yes, it will be a global catastrophe for the world, but why do we need such a world if Russia is not there?”, in effect openly stating that he is ready to destroy the planet in a nuclear war if he feels a similar threat to his country. It is significant that the film included, as an afterword, the notorious excerpt from the message to the Federal Assembly, in which Putin demonstrates new types of weapons as a “response to the United States on their withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.
Moreover, most analysts agree that we are dealing with a gigantic bluff designed to force the West to make concessions to Russia. The Russian opposition politician Vladimir Milov has the same idea.
“The entire campaign is designed for specific powerful individuals in the United States, those who are particularly sensitive about the issue of cooperation with Russia on nuclear nonproliferation. In America, this theme holds a special place in national security policymaking,” he explained.
According to Vladimir Milov, there is a large stratum of people in the American establishment that is ready to forgive Moscow any antics as long as they continue their cooperation in the nuclear field.
“Putin wants to scare these people, and thus create additional pressure in the highest echelons of US power such that “Making peace with Russia is necessary, otherwise we will lose out on nuclear cooperation. It is in this community that nuclear issues have always been prioritized above all others. It is precisely these specialists that Putin wants to frighten. But, apparently, he no longer scares them,” believes the Russian opposition member.
In addition to direct threats, Russia demonstratively “pours” weapons into the border regions, primarily the occupied Crimea and the Kaliningrad region, without hiding their readiness to use at least tactical nuclear weapons. On December 8, 2017, at the “Ukraine’s Century of Struggle to Secure Independence” conference in Washington, the President of the Potomac Foundation, Phillip Karber, called the nuclear threat from the Crimea to be one of the elements of the Russian “hybrid war”. Leonid Polyakov, former Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine, Chairman of the Expert Council of the Center for Army Research, Conversion and Disarmament (CARCD), also stresses that Russia still refuses to sign the treaty on the reduction of tactical nuclear weapons.
At the same time, on July 7, 2017, the head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Viktor Muzhenko, at the joint meeting of the Military Scientific Council of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the National Academy of Sciences said that Russia was working to restore the capacity to deploy nuclear ammunition in the occupied Crimea. Even earlier, in December 2016, the leader of the Crimean Tatar people, people’s deputy of Ukraine Mustafa Dzhemilevsaid in the European Parliament that the Russians had already brought nuclear weapons to the Crimea.
Belarusian experts also do not rule out that Moscow may achieve the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the region. It seems that the use of tactical nuclear weapons is the only at least remotely realistic threat out of all types of Kremlin blackmail. True, some experts call it a bluff, noting that such intimidation failed in 2015, when, despite all the threats, NATO deployed its troops in the Baltic countries on a permanent basis.
Another type of nuclear blackmail from Moscow is blackmail on behalf of others, that is, the threat to use its influence on individual authoritarian regimes in order to increase the escalation of their confrontation with the West. This includes, first of all, the blackmail of the United States with the North Korean nuclear threat. The first ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of Russia to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, was the first to undertake this thankless mission. During his speeches in Northern California in early December 2017, he repeatedly said that Russia is the largest nuclear power and can help in negotiations with Pyongyang.
“Russia is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and the world’s second largest nuclear power. We are ready to offer our assistance in negotiations with the DPRK, as we too are concerned about the growing nuclear potential of North Korea,” said Antonov, struggling to convey to the audience the idea that the United States cannot do without Russia’s help in resolving the North Korean crisis. By the way, the well-known Russian publicist Andrei Piontkovskylater called this tactic “the Kremlin’s nuclear offshore.” At the same time, the Kremlin did not propose any concrete ways to solve the problem, except for abstract words about “the need for a diplomatic settlement”. The main goal of Putin’s veiled blackmail was only to show the indispensability of Russia in resolving the crisis and the resulting need for the United States to abandon sanctions and restore relations with Moscow.
Then others, including highly respected Russian publicists, began to express the same idea, trying to convey a clear message to the West and China: in case of introduction of full-scale sanctions against North Korea without considering Moscow’s opinion, Russia will use its influence on Pyongyang to strengthen North Korean nuclear blackmail.
Blackmail with terrorist attacks
This type of blackmail is primarily highlighted by the above-mentioned Andrei Piontkovsky, who, in his publications, expressly states that Moscow is using its influence on Islamic terrorists, directing them against the United States in order to later suggest the need for cooperation in exchange for security.
“You must first and foremost cooperate with the Kremlin, otherwise they will continue to blow you up.” That was the narrative developed by Putin’s propaganda and his foreign agents after the Boston Marathon terrorist attack by the Tsarnaev brothers. Any American prosecutor, journalist or politician who wanted to understand the truth about the Tsarnaevs’ terrorist attack, can be assured that “the Boston fuse had been ignited a long time ago” (Novaya Gazeta, April 27, 2013). Before carrying out his act of terrorism, the elder Tsarnaev spent eight months of 2012 in Russia, under the strict control of the FSB. He did not sneak out of Russia to America through some hidden backchannels, but he flew openly through Sheremetyevo airport… Tsarnaev would never have dared to carry out such an act if he had not been absolutely sure that he would be completely safe in Russia, that he was going to friends and handlers,” – said the Russian publicist.
Other experts have repeatedly warned about Russia’s ties with radical Islamists. For example, the president of the Eastern Partnership Institute (Israel), Rabbi Abraham Shmulevich, is certain: the fact that Russia uses ISIS terrorists in its games is beyond doubt. According to him, over the years, Russian security forces have literally forced not only militants from the North Caucasus and other regions of Russia into the Middle East, but even peaceful opposition. The most famous of these figures were the former commander of the riot police of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan Gulmurod Khalimov, who joined ISIS in May 2015, and the Islamic preacher Nadir Abu Khalid (Nadir Medetov), who also swore allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015.
“ISIL relies on the flow of people, especially since Russia supplies them with very valuable personnel. In fact, we have a mutually beneficial alliance between Russian special services and Islamic terrorists. Against this backdrop must be placed the recent terrorist attack in New York, committed by an expatriate from Uzbekistan, and the Tsarnaev brothers, and other terrorist attacks in France… The destabilization of Europe and the increasing flow of refugees to the West are certainly beneficial to Moscow,” explains Shmulevich.
This type of blackmail is the most realistic of all listed. Moreover, certain facts lead one to suspect that Russia, in this case, embodies the same threats that it hints at in talks with disagreeable Western politicians. However, this in no way means that Western leaders should allow themselves to be led by such a “mafia” style of foreign policy. As for the other forms of blackmail, as already noted, almost all of them are a deliberate bluff aimed at intimidating any opponents of Vladimir Putin inside and outside the country.