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Michael Brenner. Hypersonic Russia. COVID-19

Michael Brenner
Personal page: http://peacefromharmony.org/?cat=en_c&key=775


Deep Scan. Intellectual essay.


Dear Michael,

Thank you very much for your in-depth analysis in your highly intellectual article revealing the reasons for the stalemate of the American government in the situation with Covid-19, which we were happy to publish in two places: https://peacefromharmony.org/?cat=en_c&key=936 and

https://peacefromharmony.org/?cat=en_c&key=922 . I read it with pleasure, admiring your intellect and courage of judgment!

You are fair, stressing that militaristic democracy, which spends 60% of the budget o­n militarism, has been virtually helpless in the face of a pandemic. This is your key quote:

«In the present era, Americans exhibit a certain schizophrenia in their attitude toward ‘big government.’ Their support for lavish funding of the military is unqualified. At more than $1 trillion annually (including Intelligence expenditures and long-term benefits), it represents roughly 60% of all discretionary spending budgeted by Washington. It puts the squeeze o­n health, education, environment protection and all other social needs. Yet, no candidate for elected office dares to say a word that conveys other than unwavering dedication to keeping these allocations in place

Friendly, good health and new creative successes,

Dr. LeoSemashko



Глубокий анализ. Интеллектуальное эссе.

Дорогой Майкл,

Большое спасибо за ваш глубокий анализ в вашей высоко интеллектуальной статье, раскрывающей причины тупика американского правительства в ситуации с Ковид-19, которую мы были счастливы опубликовать в двух местах: https://peacefromharmony.org/?cat=en_c&key=936 и https://peacefromharmony.org/?cat=en_c&key=922 . Я читал ее с наслаждением, восхищаясь вашим интеллектом и смелостью суждений!

Вы справедливы, подчеркивая, что милитаристская демократия, которая тратит 60% бюджета на милитаризм, практически оказалась беспомощной перед пандемией. Это выражает ваша ключевая цитата:

«В нынешнюю эпоху американцы проявляют определенную шизофрению в своем отношении к «большому правительству». Их поддержка щедрого финансирования вооруженных сил безоговорочно. На более чем 1 триллион долларов в год (включая расходы на разведку и долгосрочные выгоды) это составляет примерно 60% всех дискреционных расходов, предусмотренных Вашингтоном. Это ставит под угрозу здоровье, образование, защиту окружающей среды и все другие социальные потребности. Тем не менее, ни один из кандидатов на выборные должности не осмеливается сказать ни слова, которое выражает не только непоколебимую приверженность сохранению этих ассигнований

Дружески, крепкого вам здоровья и новых творческих успехов,

Лев Семашко





Friends & Colleagues

This commentary appeared earlier this week as an 'AP Insight' that is published by the Ambassadorial Partnership LLP  in Great Britain (www.ambassadorllp.com)



Michael Brenner




A crisis such as the COVID-19 epidemic serves as a stress test for the system – a dye inserted and circulated to highlight its functioning in terms of efficiency and capacity. The relevant system is the national polity for that is where the locus for meaningful action resides. Of particular interest are the Western democracies. Serious questions already had been looming as to the degree to which the state retained the authority, as well as competence, to address effectively collective need and collective challenges. They are especially salient in the United States where the movement to reduce government, to privatize public institutions, and to free markets from regulation have reshaped the relationship between the institutionalized commonweal and its component parts.


The response to the COVID-29 crisis brings into sharp relief some of the practical consequences of this trend – as deepened under the rule of the Trump presidency and his obedient Republican allies in the Congress.  First, a fair judgment as to overall performance comes from Dr. Anthony S Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who pronounced:


“The system does not, is not really geared to what we need right now … It is a failing.” He explained that the nation’s public health system would have proven inadequate, and lagged in response, even if a responsible person who recognized the danger had been in the White House. That assessment refers to two shortcomings: 1) the availability of medical supplies and facilities which has been hurt by budgetary cuts going back to the 2008-2009 financial crisis (albeit not as extreme as those imposed in the United Kingdom); and 2) structural weaknesses.As to the latter, the fundamental truth is that the United States has no integrated, national public health system. That is due in part to the federal features of the American government. Public health responsibilities are spread among states, counties and municipalities with Washington playing a role as a financial underwriter and coordinator in times of emergency (in theory). That condition has been aggravated by the abolishment of some of those coordinating mechanisms and the appointment of unqualified, inept officials as political patronage.


It is essential that we bear in mind the larger context. Health care in the United States is organized as a private for-profit system supplemented by poorly funded public facilities. The same holds for health insurance with the twin exceptions of MEDICARE (for the aged) and MEDICAID (for the indigent). The Obama innovations did not change this reality – a hodge-podge of organizations and programs. It o­nly put in place some new rules and some money to extend minimal coverages provided by private corporations.  These arrangements mean that the system is designed so as to respond to the needs of individuals rather than the needs of the public as a whole. In America, the word “public” – as in public health, public education or public welfare – means a sum total of individual needs, not the common good.* From this perspective, the operative norms of the American government have an affinity to the country’s underlying political philosophy.


Both dimensions of the country’s polity did shift significantly toward the ‘collective/public interest’ end of the continuum with the New Deal. It can be reasonably argued that a consensus prevailed, indeed, took deeper root, over the next forty years. A right to a decent standard of living was declared to be inherent in o­ne’s citizenship – not determined by social status, or the vagaries of capitalist markets.  Its reversal represents an abandonment of that principle. The turning-point was punctuated by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, an historic phenomenon which has received relatively little attention – much less explanation. Its neglect in academic as well as political circles reveals the near totality of its success. With the United States serving as model, mentor and increasingly as agitator, the movement has spread across the Atlantic with Britain being the leading emulator thanks in good part to Margaret Thatcher. It is no coincidence that the response of the government in Westminster to the COVID-19 epidemic so closely resembles that in the United States – this despite marked differences in political constitution and structure of public health institutions.


Do these features of public life in the United States preclude, or at least strongly militate against, a more incisive, concerted strategy for managing natural crises? Obviously, the character of political leadership figures prominently in the equation. In the immediate aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt managed to get 100,000 blankets along with other supplies to the city within 4 days. An approximate performance might be beyond the capacity of today’s Washington government, but it surely can do better than what we’ve seen over Katrina, Puerto Rico and now COVID-19. That said, current American conceptions of the federal government will have to change for there to be a marked shift in preparation for, and management of national crises. Unless the state is generally viewed as the custodian of the collective welfare, and the instrument for exercising the collective will, capabilities will continue to lag behind the needs of prudent contingence planning. 


In the present era, Americans exhibit a certain schizophrenia in their attitude toward ‘big government.’ Their support for lavish funding of the military is unqualified. At more than $1 trillion annually (including Intelligence expenditures and long-term benefits), it represents roughly 60% of all discretionary spending budgeted by Washington. It puts the squeeze o­n health, education, environment protection and all other social needs. Yet, no candidate for elected office dares to say a word that conveys other than unwavering dedication to keeping these allocations in place. As to the federal government’s role in bolstering big business, in particular the financial sector, there is similar equanimity toward the deployment of governmental powers and dollars to aid those in distress. Moreover, the Federal Reserve concerns itself with the well-being of the entire financial sector. Earlier this month, it poured $1.5 billion into financial markets to keep them o­n a steady keel while reverting to a drastic Quantitative Easing strategy that gave banks near unlimited access to funds at 0% interest. That has now risen to $4 billion as enabled by the just passed Stimulus package. These steps have evoked no protest from the characteristically reticent Democratic opposition or the mainstream media.


Will the COVID-19 crisis have lasting effects o­n the body politic of the United States – or elsewhere in the West? Most likely, the net effect will be a strengthening of the status quo and those interests who are its principal beneficiaries. The calls for national unity, for solidarity, for working together, all carry the subliminal message that any conflict or contestation threatens the ‘war’ against the virus. Democrats and neutrals have absorbed the message -  they are obeying a self-imposed injunction against laying blame for the feckless reaction, and consequent casualties, at the door of the deranged sociopath in the White House. Nor do they challenge frontally the reactionary ideology that has brought the United States into the cul-de-sac in which we are stuck.

Already, the American presidential campaign is losing its edge as it gets overlaid by the avalanche of COVID coverage. Trump’s attempt to arouse xenophobic emotions, by labelling it the “Chinese virus” is a foretaste of what is to come as he seeks to obliterate his own gross failings with a new narrative. Meanwhile, he and Congressional allies are redoubling their campaign to press their reactionary agenda. Signs of a similar logic unfolding are evident in Great Britain, Italy, and – less blatantly – in France. They most likely will succeed in the short run. The ‘X’ factor in the equation is the seemingly inescapable prolonged recession that is in the offing. That can o­nly aggravate the conditions that sparked the so-called “populist’ political rebellions of recent vintage. Some expressions of ‘populist’ sentiment were progressive, others reactionary. The former were stifled by the Democratic Party leadership in concert with the Establishment press. The latter were adopted by the Republicans. The pattern most probably would repeat itself; the fragile artifice of communalism produced by the Corona epidemic looks too thin to contain another assault by the turbo-charged Right.


Michael Brenner           






Michael Brenner



 Friends & Colleagues

An oddity of our times is the cavalier manner by which analysts of public issues ignore acquired understanding and history. Their motto seems to be: the world begins anew when I first take note of it. We have seen this phenomenon in the rolling discussion of responses to the Great Financial Collapse. For many, Keynes might as well never have existed and the experiences of the 1930s juxtaposed to the post-war period never occurred. Yet, the faith in the tried-and-failed persists.

These days, it is nuclear issues reawakened by Russia’s hypersonic weapons, the Iran question, and the growing North Korean capability that are getting treated as something novel under the sun. At the same time, our most senior commanders are talking publicly about war with Russia or North Korea – emboldened by President Trump. The concentrated examination of the logic and psychology of nuclear strategy over the years produced analysis of remarkable sophistication. It acquired further authority by the experience of the past 70 years. Yet, today self-proclaimed experts and pundits take exceptional liberties that reflect neither focused thought nor history nor any awareness whatsoever that the matters they freely pronounce o­n have been addressed previously in a thorough-going fashion.

his essay is restricted to the Russian nuclear issue. Attached is a more extensive review of what we have learned since 1945 as applied to present and prospective circumstances. It was composed some years ago; so some of you may have seen it.

Michael Brenner




Deployment of Russia’s hyper-sonic missiles is causing heartburn in the West. Media headline the news as a dramatic breakthrough o­n a par with the first Sputnik. ‘Experts’ are rushed into play like those self-styled pundits pronouncing when the initial exit polls appear o­n election day. Pentagon officials assure us that the United States is at the top of the nuclear game and able to respond to (if not exactly match) anything that the Russians can put out there.


98% of all this instant reaction is “fog-horning.” It simply signals that something big and important is out there even though we don’t have a clear picture of its actual shape or dimensions - or its significance. That’s normal. What counts is moving swiftly to the “searchlight’ stage of close observation and hard thinking. Whether analysts, official or otherwise, get there is problematic. We’re out of practice when it comes to serious strategic appraisal. After all, we’ve been flailing about in Afghanistan for almost two decades with no realistic aim or evaluation of the chances of achieving it by whatever means at whatever cost. The disorientation o­n Syria is even greater. There, we haven’t as much as figured out who are the ‘bad guys’ and who are the ‘good guys’ – except for ISIS. If you can’t differentiate friend from foe for want of rigorous strategic analysis, your actions are predictably erratic – little more than the expression of mental fibrillations. The same can be said for the rest of the Missile East.

The Washington consensus is sure about o­ne thing: Russia is a mortal enemy. We sanction the Russians, we denounce the Russia, we coerce our European partners into ostracizing them, we conjure frightful images of Vladimir Putin while ignoring just about everything he says (as if they were Hitlerian rants). Still, no o­ne seems able to provide a crisp formulation of what the Russian threat is – other than getting in our way in places where we demand to have full sway: Syria, Libya, Iran, Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia. Of course, we also accuse them of working relentlessly to undermine American democracy. Yet, that remains debatable as does everything that bears the dubious label of “Washington consensus.” Anyway, whatever miniscule role the Kremlin might have in the accelerated unravelling of the American Republic, it barely registers amidst the hammer blows struck by the Trump craziness, his enablers, and a largely compromised, abject resistance.

Understandably, it is not that easy to overlook nuclear weapons. It wasn’t that long ago that many of us were tormented by the dread of a prospective Armageddon, when the Cold War carried manifest dangers, when the air was thick with hostility and menace. Those acute fears gradually faded over the 40 years of the nuclearized Cold War. We came to live with the Bomb – if not to love it. Subsequently, concerns shifted to the risks associated with nuclear weapons proliferation among less stable states in more fraught places.


The reasons for this sedating were three-fold. Above all was the “balance of terror.’’ Leaders among the major nuclear powers absorbed the fundamental truth that not o­nly was the notion of “winning” a nuclear an oxymoron – but also that any use of nuclear weapons inexorably would escalate into acts of collective suicide. The survivors would envy the dead – as Nikita Khrushchev o­ne said. That conviction became formalized in the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Second, it was reified by a number of treaties and understandings: START I,II (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT), the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, introduction of the Hot Line between the White House and the Kremlin, and the several arms reduction accords signed when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in Moscow. Their collective purpose was to ensure that no conceivable advantage might be gained that would jeopardize – however slightly – the balance of nuclear power, i.e. the assurance that any resort to nuclear weapons was tantamount to the death of civilization.


Finally, a number of technological developments reinforced Mutual Assured Destruction: the deployment of submarine launched ballistic missiles - SLBM (immune to location and possible destruction in a ‘first strike’ – thereby, guaranteeing a retaliatory capability); improved controls that reduced the chances of an ‘accidental’ or miscalculated launch; and the moratorium in placing ballistic missile defenses around major population centers that could have the effect of removing their ‘hostage’ status. The last has turned out to be a largely redundant measure since the strenuous efforts of the Pentagon/NASA as well as their Soviet/Russian counterparts to devise a workable BMD all have come up well short of producing anything meaningful.

Unfortunately, two policy developments have awakened the nuclear issue from its somnambulance. o­ne is Washington’s abandonment of arms control treaties that were important parts of the nuclear stability package. George Bush removed us from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (while observing its provisions), and effectively voided restrictions o­n ballistic missile defense in the vain hope of countering remote threats from prospective nuclear powers (Iran), bolstering the sense of security of some East Europeans (a non-solution to a non-problem) and – frankly – to get under the Russians’ skin. Barack Obama had neither the conviction nor political courage to reverse those retrograde moves.


Under Donald Trump, there has been a comprehensive plan to break free of all manner of restrictive commitments – military, diplomatic or economic. Deployment of regional BMD systems directed at Russian, Chinese and North Korean forces has been expanded despite their demonstrated efficiencies (one version could not even protect Saudi oil complexes or U.S. air bases in Iraq from primitive Iranian missiles).

The other troubling development concerns the modernization of nuclear arsenals by both the United States and Russia. President Obama committed us to a trillion-dollar program to refine and upgrade American warheads and delivery systems over the next 20 years. The strategic rationale is obscure. The Russian hypersonic missile development is a parallel development. In a purely technical sense, they obviously are “ahead” of us. And that irritates the hell out of the American security establishment.

Does being “ahead” have any practical meaning, however? Is there a genuine contest for advantage that translates into their gaining an upper hand in some sense or other? The clear answer is “NO!” It is strategically meaningless. Why? Because it in no way alters the logic of Mutual Assured Destruction.

Theoretically, there are o­nly two imaginable ways to do that. The most significant would be development/deployment of a massive, truly effective BMD system that shields population centers and other critical, high value sites from retaliatory attack. That has shown itself to be impossible – even if the initiator of an attack succeeded in reducing the other side’s retaliatory forces by some significant fraction. A totally disarming first strike in principle could be the second method logically to qualify MAD. It cannot be done, though. Fortunately. The combination of SLBMs, cruise missiles, and increased warhead lethality makes the idea of a disarming first strike a pipe dream of military strategists disengaged from reality.  Hypersonic weapons do not change that calculus.


Accuracies of MIRVed warheads were lowered to 100 feet many years ago. (CEP, or Circular Error Probability = 50% chance of landing within radius) Reducing that to 20 feet, therefore, is pointless – the silo is destroyed either way unless its missile has been “launched o­n warning” (tripwire automaticity as ultimate assurance of retaliatory strike).  Similarly for missile defense. Then, there is the question of an incoming missile’s speed. Current ICBMs that may give 18 minutes warning do not permit any defensive measures to be taken. If they arrive o­n target within 6 minutes, there is no additional benefit to the attacker. Today’s missiles that follow a straight trajectory cannot be intercepted – with or without their distracting decoys. The fact that ‘swerve’ capable hypersonic missiles can mambo their way to the target adds nothing to their effectiveness. Anyone who tells you that the Russians gain a strategic advantage thereby is lying – either in order to extract larger sums for R & D from the Treasury or to accentuate irrational fears of Russia.


Finally, no reasonably sane leader would risk national suicide for a o­ne percent chance of getting away with a first strike and surviving retaliation. There is no stake worth even contemplating it. Indeed, that logic holds even were there an impossible 50% chance of pulling it off.

Today, the United States and Russia are not engaged in a life-or-death struggle for world domination or for ideological vindication. Ascribing anything like that notion to Vladimir Putin is simply a sign of mental derangement – ours, not his. The same holds for the super-power competition between the United States and China.

So, if this line of reasoning is compelling, why did Russia’s leaders bother with investment of great sums to produce hyper-sonic missiles? The answer is a matter of speculation. Doubtless, technological and bureaucratic momentum has much to do with it. These sorts of log-term programs take o­n a life of their own – just as they do in Washington. The is no more reason for the United States to squander a trillion dollars in refining our nuclear arsenal as two successive administrations have committed us to doing.

In Russia’s case, there likely is another factor at work. Historically, Moscow leaders have exaggerated American technical capabilities; they have something of an inferiority complex o­n this score despite their own remarkable accomplishments. It is particularly acute in the nuclear realm – most especially in regard to ballistic missile defense. This goes back to Nixon’s proposed Safeguard system, followed two decades later by Reagan’s Star War’s plans. Neither of which in actuality had the potential to alter the strategic balance.  This free-floating strategic anxiety should be placed in historical perspective. There is a touch of paranoia in the Russian strategic mind – engraved by the events of the 20th century.

Some of this sentiment is conveyed by Putin’s remarks in announcing the deployment of hypersonic missiles: “We’re used to being in the position of catching up. That no longer is the case. Russia is the o­nly country that has hypersonic weapons.”

To some unknowable degree these neuralgic points in the Russian psyche have been stimulated by the aggressive American program to surround Russia with BMD systems. “Might it just be conceivable that the United States could perfect them, make it work, and somehow jeopardize the credibility of our nuclear deterrent? Why are they expending so such money and effort? Why do those BMD sites make the Poles and Baltics feel more secure when they are in fact militarily useless and it makes no sense for us to attack them?” Informed analysis suggests that the answer is negative to all these questions.

The alternative explanation: U.S. leaders are inclined to do feckless things; they are strategically obtuse.

The broader lesson is that there is truth to the old adage: “Russia never is as strong as it seems; Russia is never as weak as it seems.” We wrote it off as a world power in the 1990s and never since made the proper adjustment. That perception may have contributed to the glaring failure of the United States’ Intelligence community in missing Russia’s remarkable break-throughs in weaponry, just as it missed the movement into Syria in 2015.

It’s intelligence that counts more than Intelligence.


© Website author: Leo Semashko, 2005; © designed by Roman Snitko, 2005