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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Though Russian and Western officials repeatedly claim they don’t want a return to Cold War-era hostility, both sides have renewed sanctions and toughened their military posture in recent days.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday extended for an additional year his country’s ban on most food imports from the European Union, two days after the 28-nation Western bloc announced that its sanctions on Russia will be prolonged to the end of January 2016.

The tit-for-tat embargoes — which hurt the countries imposing them as well as those targeted — show the intractability of the conflict in Ukraine that prompted the measures last year.

The EU and the United States cut off Russian access to international financial institutions nearly a year ago and have blacklisted dozens of Kremlin officials and business kingpins seen as fomenting the violence in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 6,400 people.

The European and U.S. sanctions on Russia have been renewed as the Western allies try to pressure Putin to refrain from supporting separatist rebels in the neighboring country that, like Russia, was part of the Soviet Union before its 1991 breakup.

Putin claims the pro-Russia separatists are independently waging war against the Kiev government but Western satellite imagery and the confessions of captured Russian soldiers bolster Ukrainian leaders’ accusations that Moscow is orchestrating the rebellion.

“Russia is actively and massively fueling this conflict,” Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. forces in Europe, told the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Tuesday, according to excerpts of his briefing released Wednesday. Disputing Putin’s claim that any Russians in the Ukraine battle are there at their own volition, Hodges said “these are not volunteers or mercenaries; they are trained, equipped and uniformed active-duty Russian soldiers.”

Hodges’ briefing to the Vienna-based European security agency coincided with a meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany in Paris in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to rescue the Feb. 12 peace plan hammered out in the Belarus capital of Minsk but repeatedly violated in recent weeks.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that the four top diplomats committed their countries to ensuring that the Minsk accord doesn’t completely collapse. But he alluded to “powers who would like to destroy this process,” an apparent reference to the United States, which is not party to the informal negotiating forum known as the Normandy Four.

Urban combat and artillery exchanges ebbed after the Minsk agreement was signed four months ago by Ukraine’s warring factions and endorsed by Putin, who pledged to use his influence with the separatists to end the bloodshed. But the lull in heavy fighting was mostly due to harsh winter weather and the seas of mud that followed in early spring, as artillery exchanges escalated after the mud dried last month and tanks and armored vehicles could maneuver again.

European leaders endorsed their sanctions extension on Monday after concluding that Putin hadn’t done enough to fulfill his pledge to work for peace in Ukraine.
The Russian government sent a request to Putin on Tuesday to prolong Moscow’s ban on food imports from European Union countries, going the Western bloc one better by extending the retaliatory ban through June 24, 2016.

Russia and the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization have also stepped up arms production and deployment in moves each side claims were prompted by the other’s aggressive actions. Putin announced last week that at least 40 new nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles will be added to Russia’s defenses by the end of this year, and NATO plans to position new forces and weaponry in Eastern European allies’ territory to guard against any threat of Russian hostility.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, on a tour of NATO’s Eastern European flank this week, has said that tanks, armored vehicles and other military hardware would be deployed to member countries made nervous by Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis. Carter said the equipment would be moved to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria — all former Soviet republics or satellites that Moscow still considers part of its “sphere of influence.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AFP Photo/Alexei Nikolsky

Many Democrats are getting nervous about the upcoming presidential election. Ominous, extensively reported articles by two of the best in the business—the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin and The Atlantic's Barton Gellman—outline Boss Trump's plot to keep control of the White House in 2021 no matter how the American people vote.
Trump is hardly making a secret of it. He's pointedly refused to commit to "a peaceful transfer of power."

"Well, we're going to have to see what happens," is how he answered the question. He added that after we "get rid of the ballots"—presumably mail-in ballots he's been whining about for weeks--"there won't be a transfer, frankly. There'll be a continuation."

Of course, Trump himself has always voted by mail, but then brazen hypocrisy is his standard operating mode. If you haven't noticed, he also lies a lot. Without prevaricating, boasting, and bitching, he'd be mute. And even then, he'd still have Twitter. He recently tweeted that the winner "may NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED" because mail-in ballots make it a "RIGGED ELECTION in waiting."
Gellman gets this part exactly right in The Atlantic: "Let us not hedge about one thing. Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance. Not during the Interregnum and not afterward. If compelled in the end to vacate his office, Trump will insist from exile, as long as he draws breath, that the contest was rigged.
"Trump's invincible commitment to this stance will be the most important fact about the coming Interregnum. It will deform the proceedings from beginning to end. We have not experienced anything like it before."
No, we haven't. However, it's important to remember that Trump makes threats and promises almost daily that never happen. Remember that gigantic border wall Mexico was going to pay for? Trump has built exactly five miles of the fool thing, leaving roughly two thousand to go.
His brilliant cheaper, better health care plan? Non-existent.
On Labor Day, Boss Trump boasted of his unparalleled success in strong-arming Japan into building new auto-manufacturing plants. "They're being built in Ohio, they're being built in South Carolina, North Carolina, they're being built all over and expanded at a level that we've never seen before."
Not a word of that is true. Two new plants, one German, another Swedish have opened in South Carolina, but construction began before Trump took office. Auto industry investment during Barack Obama's second term far exceeded Trump's. His version is sheer make-believe.
But back to the GOP scheme to steal the election.
First, it's clear that even Trump understands that he has virtually no chance of winning the national popular vote. He's been polling in the low 40s, with no sign of change. To have any chance of prevailing in the Electoral College, he's got to do the electoral equivalent of drawing to an inside straight all over again—winning a half-dozen so-called battleground states where he defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 by the narrowest of margins.
At this writing, that looks highly unlikely. The latest polling in must-win Pennsylvania, for example, shows Trump trailing Joe Biden by nine points. That's a landslide. Trump's down ten in Wisconsin, eight in Michigan. And so on.
So spare me the screeching emails in ALL CAPS, OK? Polls were actually quite accurate in 2016. Trump narrowly defeated the odds. It can happen. But he's in far worse shape this time. Furthermore, early voting turnout is very high, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans two to one.
Hence, The Atlantic reports, "Trump's state and national legal teams are already laying the groundwork for post-election maneuvers that would circumvent the results of the vote count in battleground states."
The plan is clear. Because more Democrats than Republicans are choosing mail-in voting during the COVID pandemic, Trump hopes to prevent those ballots from being counted. Assuming he'll have a narrow "swing state" lead on election night, he'll declare victory and start filing lawsuits. "The red mirage," some Democrats call it.
"As a result," Toobin writes, "the aftermath of the 2020 election has the potential to make 2000 look like a mere skirmish." With Trump in the White House urging armed militias to take to the street.
Mail-in votes take a long time to count. Things could definitely get crazy.
True, but filing a lawsuit to halt a Florida recount was one thing. Filing suits against a half dozen states to prevent votes from being counted at all is quite another. Public reaction would be strong. Also, winning such lawsuits requires serious evidence of fraud. Trumpian bluster ain't evidence.
The Atlantic reports that GOP-controlled state legislatures are thinking about sending Trumpist delegations to the Electoral College regardless of the popular vote winner—theoretically constitutional but currently illegal.
Fat chance. If that's the best they've got, they've got nothing.
Anyway, here's the answer: Vote early, and in person*.

[Editor's note: In some states, receiving an absentee ballot means that a voter can no longer vote in person* or may have to surrender the absentee ballot, including the envelope in which it arrived, at their polling place. Please check with your local election authorities.]