Streetwise Professor

December 18, 2014

The Madness of Tsar Vlad, Annual Press Conference Edition

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:13 pm

Putin gave his annual press conference today. It turned into a 3 hour and 10 minute marathon, which is pretty much par for the course.

Several times before I have pondered whether Putin is mad, or just feigning madness. I had been favoring the feigning alternative, but today’s event tilts the scales heavily to the “truly nuts” verdict (as @libertylynx has been arguing for some time).

Why do I conclude that? Here’s why:

You know, at the Valdai [International Discussion] Club I gave an example of our most recognisable symbol. It is a bear protecting his taiga. You see, if we continue the analogy, sometimes I think that maybe it would be best if our bear just sat still. Maybe he should stop chasing pigs and boars around the taiga but start picking berries and eating honey. Maybe then he will be left alone. But no, he won’t be! Because someone will always try to chain him up. As soon as he’s chained they will tear out his teeth and claws. In this analogy, I am referring to the power of nuclear deterrence. As soon as – God forbid – it happens and they no longer need the bear, the taiga will be taken over.

We have heard it even from high-level officials that it is unfair that the whole of Siberia with its immense resources belongs to Russia in its entirety. Why exactly is it unfair? So it is fair to snatch Texas from Mexico but it is unfair that we are working on our own land – no, we have to share.

And then, when all the teeth and claws are torn out, the bear will be of no use at all. Perhaps they’ll stuff it and that’s all.

So, it is not about Crimea but about us protecting our independence, our sovereignty and our right to exist. That is what we should all realise.

QED.

I think said bear is not snacking on berries and honey, but is grazing on magic mushrooms, for he is clearly hallucinating.

The paranoia is palpable: “someone will always try to chain him up! They will declaw and defang him!” Note too the explicit nuclear threat.

You know the “they” is the United States. The speech is shot through with paranoid and critical ravings about the US. Nothing is Russia’s fault. Certainly nothing is Putin’s fault. The country’s torments are attributable to the US, first and foremost.

The statement about “high-level officials” lamenting the unfairness of Russia having sole access to Siberia is also a shot at the US. Here Putin is recycling an urban myth that he first trotted out in 2007. In the telling, Madeleine Albright (a has-been high-level official) allegedly uttered these words. Here’s the story:

When Alexander Sibert told President Vladimir Putin that former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had said Siberia held too many resources for Russia alone, Putin dismissed the statement as “political erotica.” Albright might have found “political fantasy” more appropriate.

Putin said he was not aware of the comment, Albright denies ever making it, and no one else seems able to provide any evidence that she did.

But this hasn’t stopped Putin and others from attributing these thoughts to foreign figures who they say wish Russia harm.

Sibert, 70, a mechanic who works at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Novosibirsk, brought up the purported statement in a question during Putin’s annual call-in show last month.

“I know some politicians entertain such ideas in their heads,” Putin replied, adding that Russia was able to and would protect its natural resources. [How does he know that? Just wait! All will be revealed.]

The only problem is that Albright, who is now a principal at the Albright Group strategic management and lobbying firm, denied through a spokeswoman that she ever entertained the idea.

“I did not make that statement, nor did I ever think it,” she said.

On Tuesday, Sibert was unable to provide a source for the alleged quote, or even a guarantee that he had heard it.

“I don’t know. I might have made a mistake,” he said by phone from Novosibirsk. “But I don’t think I did.”

But wait. It gets better!

In perhaps the strangest part of the story, there are those who argue that it doesn’t matter what Albright said — they know what she was thinking.

Boris Ratnikov, a retired major general who worked for the Federal Guard Service, said in a December 2006 interview with government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta that his colleagues, who worked for the service’s secret mind-reading division, read Albright’s subconscious a few weeks before the beginning of the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999. [So now we know how Putin knows what is in the heads of foreign leaders.]

[Read the rest of the story. It adds even more ludicrous details.]

In other words, Putin is regurgitating a story that was proved to be bullshit seven years ago. A story that he himself dismissed once as “political erotica.” (Weird choice of words, that, especially given that Madeleine Albright is involved <shudder>). A story allegedly based in part on the security services’ “mind reading division.” You cannot make up this stuff. Go ahead. I dare you to even try.

He flogged the tiresome story (which as fantastical as the Albright one) that Nato violated a pledge not to expand to the east:

It is not now that this happened. You are an expert on Germany and on Europe. Didn’t they tell us after the fall of the Berlin Wall that NATO would not expand eastwards? However, the expansion started immediately. There were two waves of expansion. Is that not a wall? True, it is a virtual wall, but it was coming up. What about the anti-missile defence system next to our borders? Is that not a wall?

You see, nobody has ever stopped. This is the main issue of current international relations. Our partners never stopped. They decided they were the winners, they were an empire, while all the others were their vassals, and they needed to put the squeeze on them. I said the same in my Address [to the Federal Assembly]. This is the problem. They never stopped building walls, despite all our attempts at working together without any dividing lines in Europe and the world at large.

I believe that our tough stand on certain critical situations, including that in the Ukraine, should send a message to our partners that the best thing to do is to stop building walls and to start building a common humanitarian space of security and economic freedom.

You have to hand it to Putin, he is generous, letting 300+ million Americans live in his head, rent free. But I for one hate what he’s done to the place.

There was also a weird interlude where a slurring reporter from Kirov asked why stores were more likely to stock Coke and Pepsi than kvas, the fermented, putrid Russian drink. (In the summer it is sold by vendors from large wheeled tanks that could well be used to hold diesel or pesticide at other times of year.) Putin made a crack suggesting the man was drunk, which was a faux pas because his slurring was due to multiple strokes, rather than overindulging the kvas as Putin suggested. Putin then slurred Coke: “I do not know whether Coca-Cola is a harmful drink, but many experts say it is [harmful] for children”. Whatever.

As for the substance of the speech, it was tediously unoriginal, a 280 minute spinning of the hamster wheel. The Ukrainian government was overthrown by a coup. Russia’s population is growing. Blah blah blah.

He gave no hint of backing down in Ukraine.

He did acknowledge economic difficulties (how could he not?) but minimized them. He actually suggested there is a pony in there somewhere in the economic manure pile in which Russia currently finds itself: it will give the country an opportunity to diversify.

Like we’ve never heard that before. Hasn’t happened yet. Won’t happen anytime soon. The hamster wheel will just spin faster.

Putin grudgingly conceded the crisis could last for two years, at most, but the country’s massive reserves would prevent catastrophe: the markets certainly disagree. After that, things will be hunky-dory:

However, it is equally certain – and I would like to stress this – that there will be what experts call a positive rebound. Further growth and a resolution of this situation are inevitable for at least two reasons. One is that the global economy will continue to grow, the rates may be lower, but the positive trend is sure to continue. The economy will grow, and our economy will come out of this situation.

How long will this take? In a worst-case scenario, I believe it would take a couple of years. I repeat: after that, growth is inevitable, due to a changing foreign economic situation among other things.

Growth is inevitable! Well, eventually the economy will grow, but by how much? Post-2009, growth has been moribund. Absent another reversal in energy price trends, growth after the current crisis is likely to be moribund as well, given that it is almost inevitable that the institutional and legal changes necessary to encourage growth will not be forthcoming while an aging Putin is in power.

In sum, Russia is ruled by an autocrat with a tenuous (at best) connection to sanity, and who is not going to change policy one whit despite almost total isolation abroad and looming economic catastrophe at home. An deranged autocrat with the largest nuclear arsenal in the world-a fact that he never misses an opportunity to remind us of. Since he will only get more insane, the next months and years will be fraught indeed.

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December 13, 2014

Khodorkovsky As a Russian Cincinnatus? Cynical Machiavellian is More Likely.

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:41 pm

It has been almost exactly a year since Putin pardoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The ex-oligarch now lives an exile existence in Zurich. Of late, he has been much more vocal in expressing his views on Putin and Russia’s future.

Take for example this piece from Bloomberg that appeared yesterday. Khodorkovsky muses about Putin’s situation, given the oil price and sanctions-induced economic straits Russia finds itself in. He openly suggests that a coup is a real possibility:

“Putin has far less room to maneuver financially, which creates difficulties for him, and as a result the cost of any mistakes he may make could be critical,” Khodorkovsky, 51, said in an interview in Zurich, dressed casually in a sweater, jeans and sneakers. “For Putin, even $120 a barrel for oil is a problem because, with his system of rule, he can’t survive without the revenue from raw materials growing every year.”

. . . .

There’s at least a 50 percent chance that Putin won’t last the next decade, according to the former tycoon, who pins his hope on a coup by the Russian leader’s inner circle because in his view elections won’t bring about any transfer of power.

“I believe that the problem for Putin will come from within his own entourage,” he told Bloomberg yesterday. “For my country, it would be better if things happened this way than through clashes on the streets, as a palace coup would spill less blood.”

Knowing Khodorkovsky’s background, it is plausible that he is playing a Machiavellian game here, ostensibly pontificating about possible outcomes, but really intending to bring about that outcome, and using his words to advance that objective.

One interpretation is that he is waging psychological warfare against Putin. Note his remark regarding Putin’s entourage. He is stoking Putin’s paranoia and attempting to start a clan war, and believe me, especially where Khodorkovsky is concerned, Putin is paranoid: his reactions to Khodorkovsky can only be described as Pavlovian, and don’t think for a nanosecond that Khodorkovsky doesn’t know that.

If the coup comes to pass, Khodorkovsky can ride in as the white knight. He is plainly volunteering for the role:

In a scenario that Khodorkovsky acknowledges isn’t more than an outside possibility, this could open the chance for him to come back to Russia to head a transitional government that would steer the country for two-to-three years before stepping down after a free and democratic vote.

How generous and public spirited of him. Of course, in Russian history “transitional governments” tend to be transitions between one autocracy and another. Further, I understand completely time inconsistency and (non-)credible promises: it’s likely that two-to-three years would turn into twenty-or-thirty. At the end of the second or third year, one can imagine the excuses: “My work is not finished. The enemies of the people are still there and will return if I leave.” I cannot see him as a Russian Cincinnatus.

In other words, when predicting the future (a reprise of 1917) he is saying what he wants to come to pass. He is trying to hurry that along, and the economic crisis (or impending economic crisis) is an opportunity for him. The old Russian revolutionary idea of “the worse, the better” could well apply here.*

Like Putin, Khodorkovsky is an opportunist. He perceives that current events have created that opportunity. (I think it is likely that his conversion to becoming an advocate for corporate transparency and western-style governance was also opportunistic, rather than a Road to Jerusalem conversion: he realized that was the way to make Yukos attractive to a western supermaj0r buyer/investor.)

All that said, I believe-and wrote here often-that Khodorkovsky’s prosecution was a travesty of justice. Indeed, he was persecuted rather than prosecuted. His experience from 2003-2013 demonstrates the arbitrariness and evil of the Russian system under Putin.

But Khodorkovsky was not an angel. No man could have risen to where he did, and amassed the fortune that he did, in the Russia of 1990s without being utterly ruthless and without scruple. What probably set Khodorkovsky apart was that he is also incredibly intelligent. He is also very charismatic. I know two people who worked with him closely who are in awe of him. He clearly had a mesmeric influence on them. Putin’s palpable fear of the man also speaks volumes about his intelligence and personal magnetism. Ruthlessness married to charisma married to intelligence is a very dangerous combination.

Even if Khodorkovsky’s currently expressed sentiments are sincere, and he is not speaking out as part of a scheme to become Russia’s savior, if his scenario comes to pass it is highly doubtful that his lofty principles would survive a few months in power. A post-coup or post-revolutionary Russia would have no real institutions to check him. He would be surrounded by enemies. Russian politics has always been highly personalized and a-institutional. Every force would press him towards autocracy, personalized rule, and a cult of personality.

So as much as I sympathize with what he suffered, and as much as I would welcome the fall of Putinism, I don’t trust Khodorkovsky, nor do I think he is the man to lead Russia to the promised land, or even to its border. (And remember Moses never entered Canaan.) Indeed, I can readily see him using his martyrdom as a way of advancing his personal ambitions, and believe that many are blind to that possibility.

(Some of those who work for his foundation, and presumably believe in his agenda, are also passionate defenders of Urkaine against Putin’s predations. How can they be blind to his indifference to Ukraine?)

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps Khordorkovsky is not attempting to influence events in Moscow from Lenin’s old neighborhood in Zurich. Perhaps he is just commenting as an intensely interested bystander to historic events.

If that’s so, he’s delusional. The idea that he would be welcomed as a leader who could achieve national reconciliation in the aftermath of a coup (let alone a revolution) is farcical. He is widely reviled in Russia. It would be interesting to see who is more hated: Gorbachev or Khodorkovsky. He is viewed as one of the pirates of the 1990s, indeed as the most dangerous of the lot. I would wager more people than not believe he got his just desserts in Chita (and elsewhere) after 2003. His only role could be as a behind-the-scenes wire puller.

What’s more, Khodorkovsky is delusional in his appeals to Russian liberals, and his appeals to the west to support Russian liberals. There are hardly any Russian liberals left in Russia. Maybe a few hipsters in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and a few pathetic hangers on here and there. Indeed, Russian liberals are widely despised, and inextricably linked with the traumas of the 1990s. They are viewed as thieves themselves, or accessories to theft-including Khodorkovsky’s.  Navalny’s nationalist rhetoric has a far greater resonance than Khodorkovsky’s liberal language.

Reading some things he has said recently also make me wonder about his connection with reality. Notably this:

Is there hope of being able to effectively deal with this threat? There is, and it stems from the very nature of the Russian bureaucracy, which is generally rational and apolitical. There are many people in the Russian establishment who are sober-minded, think rationally and, on the whole, are oriented towards European values. But today these people are being forced to submit to a political will that has been formulated by a criminally corrupt minority whose only goal is to hold on to power.

Russian bureaucrats are “rational and apolitical”? Who knew? Venal and corrupt is more like it, and quite comfortable operating in an arbitrary autocratic system. After all, the Party of Crooks and Thieves is first and foremost the party of the bureaucratic nomenklatura. “Sober-minded”? That is risible, both figuratively and literally. And as for their “on the whole [being] oriented towards European values”, I don’t think I’ve read anything so absurd in some time. The Russian bureaucracy is Muscovite to the core.

Indeed, these statements (and most of the rest of the speech in which they are found) are so ridiculous that it must be that Khodorkovsky recognizes they are, and hence is willing to say anything to achieve some purpose. The goo-goo nature of his specific recommendations (e.g., the promotion of cultural and educational exchanges between Russia and Europe) only reinforce that impression.

In sum, I view Khodorkovsky in the role of the serpent. Putin is a malign force, but there is too much in Khodorkovsky’s past and character to have any faith that he will fundamentally change Russia.

The fundamental problem is that Putin is far more symptom than cause. He is the current personal manifestation of a national culture and political system and tradition. It is hard to imagine any way of leaping the chasm from personalized, autocratic governance to a system built on strong institutions and the rule of law. The fundamental paradox is that no man-Khodorkovskyor anyone else-is likely to be able to do that.

In other words, we don’t have a Putin problem: we have a Russia problem. We are likely to have it for, well, pretty much forever.  And Mikhail Khodorkovsky is not the man to solve that problem, even if he is sincere in his statements that he wants to.

*This phrase is often attributed to Lenin, but is more likely traceable to Nikolay Chernyshevsky. It was used by Plekhanov in a newspaper article in July, 1917 that Lenin responded to.

 

 

 

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December 4, 2014

The Hamster Wheel From Hell: Putin’s Presidential Speech Edition

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:58 pm

Putin gave his annual Presidential address today. It was the by now familiar combination of anti-American paranoia, historical fiction, hyper-nationalism, and economic idiocy.

The most notable thing about the speech is how much in Putins head the US is. Everything that ails Russia originates in the US. A sample:

Speaking of the sanctions, they are not just a knee-jerk reaction on behalf of the United States or its allies to our position regarding the events and the coup in Ukraine, or even the so-called Crimean Spring. I’m sure that if these events had never happened – I want to point this out specifically for you as politicians sitting in this auditorium – if none of that had ever happened, they would have come up with some other excuse to try to contain Russia’s growing capabilities, affect our country in some way, or even take advantage of it.

The policy of containment was not invented yesterday. It has been carried out against our country for many years, always, for decades, if not centuries. In short, whenever someone thinks that Russia has become too strong or independent, these tools are quickly put into use.

However, talking to Russia from a position of force is an exercise in futility, even when it was faced with domestic hardships, as in the 1990ies and early 2000ies.

We remember well how and who, almost openly, supported separatism back then and even outright terrorism in Russia, referred to murderers, whose hands were stained with blood, none other than rebels and organised high-level receptions for them. These “rebels” showed up in Chechnya again. I’m sure the local guys, the local law enforcement authorities, will take proper care of them. They are now working to eliminate another terrorist raid. Let’s support them.

Let me reiterate, we remember high-level receptions for terrorists dubbed as fighters for freedom and democracy. Back then, we realised that the more ground we give and the more excuses we make, the more our opponents become brazen and the more cynical and aggressive their demeanour becomes.

Despite our unprecedented openness back then and our willingness to cooperate in all, even the most sensitive issues, despite the fact that we considered – and all of you are aware of this and remember it – our former adversaries as close friends and even allies, the support for separatism in Russia from across the pond, including information, political and financial support and support provided by the special services – was absolutely obvious and left no doubt that they would gladly let Russia follow the Yugoslav scenario of disintegration and dismemberment. With all the tragic fallout for the people of Russia.

In Leninist terms, the US is Who, Russia is Whom.  The object, not the subject. Putin even blames the US for Chechen terrorism. The last paragraph is a great example of Putin’s historical distortions. In fact, the US was deathly afraid of a chaotic, Yugoslavia-like break up of a nation with thousands of nukes and massive stocks of chemical weapons: recall that Bush I even opposed the breakup of the USSR, let alone Russia.

The irony, of course, is that whereas Putin (and Russians generally) imagins that every American goes to bed at night and wakes every morning scheming to subjugate Russia and rob it of its riches, the truth is that 99+ percent of all Americans couldn’t care less about it. That’s a truth Putin and other Russians just can’t handle. So they construct this alternate reality in which the US is obsessed with Russia.

 

The cooperation on “the most sensitive issues” that Putin’s mentions involved mainly the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which involved the US spending billions of dollars in Russia to secure nukes. Moreover, the Russian Federation assumed the USSR’s Security Council seat (with its veto), and was admitted to international organizations such as the G-8 for which it was manifestly unqualified.

Putin’s historical revisionism did not stop there. He elevated Crimea to a central-indeed holy-place in Russian history:

All of this allows us to say that Crimea, the ancient Korsun or Chersonesus, and Sevastopol have invaluable civilisational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.

The equation of Crimea to the Temple Mount is, well, original. It is bizarre that Putin makes the “Temple Mount” sacral for Muslims, and puts them ahead of Jews. Yes, al Aqsa mosque is on what the Jews (with abundant historical and archeological support) claim to be the site of their Temple, but Islam’s veneration of the site has nothing to do with it being the “Temple Mount”, and indeed, there is an active campaign to deny that this was the site of the Jewish temple.

A good rule for reading the speech is to play the opposite game: take what Putin says, and interpret it the opposite way. There are far too many cases of this to cover them all, so I’ll just mention a couple of the greatest hits:

  • “We will tell the truth to people abroad, so that everyone can see the real and not distorted and false image of Russia.” (That’s what RT does, for sure!)
  • “We will actively promote business and humanitarian relations, as well as scientific, education and cultural relations.” (Tell to the “foreign agent” NGOs, the British Counsel, etc.)
  • “We will do this even if some governments attempt to create a new iron curtain around Russia.”
  • “We will never enter the path of self-isolation, xenophobia, suspicion and the search for enemies.” (My favorite, by far. Every word an inversion of the truth. This is the official Russian government translation. The New York Times quotes Putin as saying “paranoia” instead of “self-isolation, xenophobia.” Either way, pure gold.)
  • “The most important thing now is to give the people an opportunity for self-fulfilment. Freedom for development in the economic and social spheres, for public initiatives is the best possible response both to any external restrictions and to our domestic problems.” (Look at the rising flight of Russians to points west, because the opportunity for self-fulfillment in Russia is minimal.)
  • “Conscientious work, private property, the freedom of enterprise – these are the same kind of fundamental conservative values as patriotism, and respect for the history, traditions, and culture of one’s country.” (Yeah. Russia. The land of private property and free enterprise.)
  • “Finally, it’s crucial to abandon the basic principle of total, endless control.”

I could go on. And on. And on.

Some commentary I read said that Putin did not mention anti-corruption efforts, but this isn’t true. He did, but very obliquely:

A huge economic reserve is lying on the surface. It is enough to look at government-financed construction projects to see this. At a recent forum of the Russian Popular Front, examples were cited of funds being invested in grandiose buildings or the construction costs of same-type – I want to emphasise this point – facilities, differing several times over, even in neighbouring regions.

I believe that it is necessary to phase in a system of a single technical contracting authority, and centralise the preparation of standard projects, construction documentation and the choice of subcontractors. This will make it possible to overcome the existing disparity in construction costs and ensure significant saving of public funds spent on capital construction projects, between 10 percent and 20 percent. This practice should be extended to all civil construction projects financed from the federal budget. I instruct the Government to submit relevant proposals.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister and I discussed this topic. Of course, there are some pitfalls here, and knowing what they are, it is important to avoid them, move with caution, implement several pilot projects in several regions and see what happens.

However, leaving the situation as it is today is no longer an option. As I said earlier, construction costs of similar facilities in neighbouring regions differ many times over. What is this?

Diversion or embezzlement of budget funds allocated for federal defence contracts should be treated as a direct threat to national security and dealt with seriously and severely, as in the suppression of the financing of terrorism. I mention this for a reason.

I don’t think there is anything to hide or gloss over here. We have just held our traditional meeting in Sochi under the leadership of the Defence Ministry, combat arms and services commanders and leading defence company designers.

On certain positions, prices double, triple or quadruple, and in one case they grew 11 times. You realise that this has nothing to do with inflation or with anything, considering that practically 100 percent of funding is provided in advance.

In other words, state construction projections and defense contracting are rife with corruption. But Vlad has it under control. He has decreed more intensive oversight of contracting. That’s never been tried before, surely, and just as surely will work like a charm.

Putin acknowledged the fraught economic situation, including the Ruble’s decline. In that fine demagogic tradition, he rounded up the usual suspects: speculators:

Today we are faced with reduced foreign exchange proceeds and, as a consequence, with a weaker national currency, the ruble. As you are aware, the Bank of Russia has switched to a “floating” exchange rate, but this does not mean that the Bank of Russia has withdrawn from controlling the exchange rate, and that the ruble may now be the object of unchecked financial speculation.

I’d like to ask the Bank of Russia and the Government to carry out tough and concerted actions to discourage the so-called speculators from playing on fluctuations of the Russian currency. In this regard, I’d like to point out that the authorities know who these speculators are. We have the proper instruments of influence, and the time is ripe to use them.

At this point, Central Bank head Nabiullina was probably looking for sharp objects to jab into her carotid artery. The “proper instruments of influence”-presumably burning reserves to buy Rubles and hiking interest rates-will dent Russia’s reserves and hammer its already reeling economy.

Hilariously, the moment Putin mentioned the Ruble, it resumed its inexorable decline, going from 52.65 before he opened his mouth to 54.45 (more than 3 percent) by the end of the trading day.

Putin recognized the inflationary impact of the Ruble’s decline, but he has a solution! Controlling prices:

Of course, a weaker ruble increases the risk of a short-term surge in inflation. It’s imperative that we protect the interests of our people, first and foremost, those with low incomes, and the Government and the regions must ensure control over the situation on the food, medicine and other basic goods markets. I’m sure this can be done without any problem, and it must be done.

Yes. It can be done “without any problem,” just like it has been since Diocletian.

Putin also mentioned capital flight, and proposed a complete amnesty to those repatriating their money, no matter how dirty it is:

Of course, it is essential to explain to the people who will make these decisions what full amnesty means. It means that if a person legalises his holdings and property in Russia, he will receive firm legal guarantees that he will not be summoned to various agencies, including law enforcement agencies, that they will not “put the squeeze” on him, that he will not be asked about the sources of his capital and methods of its acquisition, that he will not be prosecuted or face administrative liability, and that he will not be questioned by the tax service or law enforcement agencies. Let’s do this now, but only once. Everyone who wants to come to Russia should be given this opportunity.

We all understand that the sources of assets are different, that they were earned or acquired in various ways. However, I am confident that we should finally close, turn the “offshore page” in the history of our economy and our country. It is very important and necessary to do this.

Somehow I doubt that anyone who spirited any ill-gotten gains-or even honestly-gotten gains-out of Russia will put much faith in those assurances, so don’t look for the money to start flowing east anytime soon.

The last half of the speech focused on economics, and presented a laundry list of goals without anything resembling even an outline of how to achieve them. Productivity growth, diversifying the economy, import substitution, high tech exports, and on and on and on. But unless Putin gets some ruby slippers or finds a genie who grants unlimited wishes, none of this is going to happen. This part of  the speech was just another spin of Putin’s Hamster Wheel From Hell.

Nothing in the speech should be a surprise. Putin has no economic ideas, and just repeats the same nostrums year after year after year. In foreign policy, he is doubling down on truculence and confrontation. In other words, stagnation at home and aggression abroad. The foreign adventures will rest on a crumbling economic foundation. Collapse is inevitable. The only problem is that Putin can wreak much havoc and inflict much harm before the inevitable occurs.

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November 30, 2014

The Battle of Franklin: Sublimely Valiant Sacrifice in the Service of a Bad Cause

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — The Professor @ 4:11 pm

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Franklin, one of the most brutal and intense combats of the entire Civil War.

The battle was the pivot of Hood’s Nashville Campaign.  November, 1864 saw the bizarre phenomenon of the two major armies in the Western Theater, Sherman’s Armies of the Tennessee and Georgia, and Hood’s Army of Tennessee, marching in opposite directions. Sherman embarked south on his March to the Sea, and John Bell Hood launched a desperate lunge north, hoping to reach the Ohio River and accomplish . . . something. Just what he could have accomplished is a mystery, as the logistical obstacles alone made the campaign a forlorn hope.

That said, Hoods campaign started well. He deftly outmaneuvered John Schofield, commander of the largest force that Sherman left behind to hold northern Georgia and Tennessee. Schofield’s force consisted primarily of his XXIIIrd Corps (grandiloquently referred to as the Army of the Ohio) and the IVth Corps (of the Army of the Cumberland). Schofield retreated to Columbia, TN, on the Duck River and dug in. Department Commander George Thomas ordered Schofield to retreat to Franklin on the Harpeth River, but before he could do so, Hood stole a march and outflanked him. Schofield had to retreat precipitously from Columbia, but Hood was in position to cut him off near Spring Hill.

In events still shrouded in mystery, the Confederates did not close the trap at Spring Hill. Two rebel divisions remained in place within sight of the Columbia Pike, along which Schofield’s men were marching for their lives. Some Unionists unwittingly wandered into the Confederate lines to light their pipes in the burning fires. While the Confederates waited, Schofield slipped by and made it to Franklin.

The bridge over the Harpeth being destroyed and needing repair, Schofield had his men dig a semicircular line of entrenchments with its flanks anchored on the Harpeth. Due to a confusion in orders, one division (Wagner’s) remained a half-mile in front of the Federal main line. Well, two brigades did, anyways. The third, under irascible Emerson Opdycke, who thought the order idiotic, continued to march into the Federal lines, collapsing exhausted near the Carter House a few hundred yards fro the trenches.

Hood awoke  to find that Schofield had escaped. He excoriated some of his corps and division commanders, including Frank Cheatham and Patrick Cleburne, arguably the most able soldier in his army, for their failure to destroy the fleeing Federals. He urged his troops forward in pursuit.

There is some controversy about his mental state. Some, notably Wiley Sword (whom I know slightly) claim that Hood was enraged, and intent on punishing his army for its failure to attack with vigor at Spring Hill. Others, including Eric Jacobsen and Hood biographer Stephen Hood (a distant relative of the general) vigorously dispute this. Regardless, Hood’s subordinates, including the often inebriated  Cheatham, expressed unease at attacking a dug in Schofield, but Hood dismissed their objections, claiming that he would have to fight them somewhere, and it was better to do so in Franklin before they were able to retreat to the formidable fortifications in Nashville, to which Federal reinforcements were rushing from the west and north. He believed that these were the best odds he could hope to face, as bad as they were.

The assault was over two miles of open ground. It would have been blasted to oblivion well before it closed with the Federals, but for those two Union brigades sitting alone, 1000 yards in front of the main works. Cleburne’s division overlapped and overwhelmed Wagner’s isolated troops, who broke and ran. Up went a cry from the Confederates: “Follow them into the works!” With Wagner’s Yankees and Cleburne’s Rebels all mixed together, the Federals in the trenches held their fire and Cleburne’s men were able to surge over the earthworks between a cotton gin and the Carter House.

Enter Opdycke. The cantankerous Ohioan led his veteran brigade of Ohio and Illinois regiments in a wild countercharge that slammed bodily into the panting Confederates in the grounds around the Carter House. A swirling melee ensued. Opdycke emptied his pistol, then used the butt as a hammer to bash a Confederate over the head. In brutal hand-to-hand fighting, Opkycke’s men pushed back the Confederates, but only to the ditch at in front of the Federal lines. There ensued a battle reminiscent of the struggle at the Bloody Angle at Spottsylvania. Men at the rear would load muskets and pass them forward to soldiers who would thrust them over the top of the trench and fire them at point blank range into their enemies’ faces. When one would fall, his body would be pulled back and some other hardy soul would shoulder forward to take his place. Muskets with bayonets attached were hurled over the earthworks like javelins.

The primal combat extended into the night. The muzzle discharges flashed in the dark until the firing petered out, due to the mutual exhaustion of the adversaries.

While the face-to-face killing went on between the Cotton Gin and the Carter House in the center of the Union lines, the Confederates mounted large assaults on either flank. These attacks were shot down by the well protected Federal veterans, secure behind their stout earthworks.

The Harpeth bridge being repaired, Schofield’s men faded away from their works under the cover of darkness and the exhaustion of their adversaries, and wearily made their way north to Nashville.

The battered and spent Confederates awoke to visions of a holocaust. Dead men were heaped in the ditch in front of the Federal earthworks. Windrows of dead lay in fields over which the Confederates had charged.

But the dead were mainly on one side of the works: the Confederate side. Southern casualties were appalling, totaling about 1750 dead and nearly 4000 with disabling wounds. These represented about 40 percent of the attacking force. The size of the attacking force was larger than the Pickett-Pettigrew charge at Gettysburg, and the total casualties were larger as well.

Among the Confederate dead were six generals: Cleburne, Adams, Granbury, Gist, Strahl, and Carter.

Union losses were trivial by comparison, with less than 200 dead and about 1000 wounded, with a disproportionate share of those losses suffered by Wagner’s hapless troops. The Federals behind the earthworks suffered hardly at all.

The Army of the Tennessee dragged itself to Nashville, which it was utterly incapable of assaulting given its shrunken numbers and the city’s formidable defenses. Hood’s men dug a miserable line south of Thomas’s and sat, unable to go forward and unwilling to go back. Federal reinforcements flowed into the city, and after a two week pause (which drove Grant crazy), Thomas attacked and hammered Hood’s hopeless men in a two day battle that destroyed the Army of Tennessee as a fighting force.

But the fate of Hood’s army had been sealed  in the fields south of Franklin. The Confederate assault was insanely brave, all the more so because as veterans the men knew the fate that likely awaited them. It was a valiant sacrifice, but it was also a tragic waste made in the name of a bad cause.

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November 26, 2014

Obama: Preferring Micromanaging Failure to Delegating for Success

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 9:41 pm

In a sign of the impending apocalypse, I am sorry to see Chuck Hagel depart as Secretary of Defense, because what it says about the prospects for combat operations in the Middle East, and military matters generally. I have been harshly critical of the man as being completely overmatched by the demands of the job. Alas, he was too competent and too assertive for Obama.

The initial story put forth by the administration was that this was planned, something that had been under discussion for some time. Which is patently bologna, given that the administration had no one waiting in the wings to stop into Hagel’s position: a planned transition would be much smoother than this, where the leading candidates are at pains to make clear that they have no interest. (More on this below. Compare this mess to the process of Holder’s resignation and the quick naming of a successor.)

In fact, the real reasons for Hagel’s axing are plainly obvious. He had questioned the coherence of the administration strategy in Syria. He has made statements about the dangers posed by ISIS that patently contradicted Obama’s “JV” characterization and the president’s desired softly-softly approach in Iraq and Syria. He agreed with the uniformed military and imposed a quarantine on service personnel returning from Ebola-stricken reasons. Brought into to oversee substantial budget cuts, he began to support the Pentagon’s position that the military was becoming dangerously underfunded.

In other words, he showed some spine, and pushed back against Obama and his coterie in the White House and the NSC in particular.

I am also quite sure that there is a near insurrection under way at the Pentagon, due to deep differences over the conduct of the campaign against ISIS and funding of the military. Obama wants to reassert control over the building.

Obama has now blown through three SecDefs. Two of those-Gates and Panetta-have blasted Obama for his micromanagement exercised through the White House/NSC staff. Hagel was supposedly similarly frustrated.

And indeed, the very limited nature of the campaign in Iraq and Syria provides compelling evidence of that. No serious military person would carry out this campaign in this way. There are no ground troops  to identify targets and call in air strikes. The number of sorties is laughably small, a small fraction of those mounted even during the relatively limited Serbian operation, let alone in Gulf Wars I and II. Hell, the shambolic Syrian air force is mounting more strikes than the US. (I have seen suggestions that the low number of strikes reflects the fact that the US military is overstretched. If this is true, the budgetary constraints have created a true crisis when a war ravaged Syrian military can operate at a more intense tempo.)

Obama has allegedly expressed frustration that the military has not come up with “creative solutions” to the challenges in Iraq and Syria. He has prevented them from implementing the techniques developed through long experience which have been deployed with great success ever since the campaigns in Europe in WWII, and which were perfected since the mid-1980s’ AirLand Battle concept was introduced. Apparently Obama cannot accept that military realities cannot be wished away to satisfy his personal opposition to the deployment of robust force, and particularly to the deployment of any combat personnel on the ground.

The miserly approach  to the application of force in Iraq and Syria is epitomized by what is occurring in the crucial city of Ramadi. It is a strategic location in Anbar, and ISIS, which already controlled about half of it, has launched an attack to capture the rest. Its assault has reached the government center. The town is at serious risk of falling.

Any ISIS concentration provides  the perfect opportunity to employ air power: this is what has happened at Kobani. But even though the US is only launching 20 or so strikes a day in theater, it can’t spare anything for Ramadi: it launched a single attack on a checkpoint on the outskirts of town while the center was under a serious assault. The embattled Iraqis are begging for air support, but it’s not forthcoming:

“The governorate building has been nearly cut off,” said a Baghdad security official in direct contact with the operations command for Anbar, the province where Ramadi lies. The official said that Islamic State forces had cut roads to the Iraqi Army’s 8th Division base to the west and the road to Habaniyya airbase to the east. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

. . . .

Local security forces and tribesmen initially succeeded in resisting the Islamic State’s newest advance, but commanders on the ground say a lack of continuous air support and reinforcements has made it impossible to hold that territory.

Ahmed Mishan al Dulaimi, a Ramadi police lieutenant, said that coalition airstrikes had been critical to stopping the Islamic State’s initial assault but that the strikes had stopped. “We were told (the aircraft) were occupied” with other fronts.

“If the coalition doesn’t continue targeting the nests of Daash, everything that we’re doing now will just be in vain,” he said, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State.

For the want of a nail.

And now the Pentagon is leaderless. Ominously, the two leading candidates, Senator Jack Reed and former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy have withdrawn their names from consideration.

And is there any wonder? It is plain that Obama is hostile to and suspicious of the Pentagon. It is equally plain that those sentiments are repaid with interest. Who wants to be in the middle of that?

Moreover, it is abundantly clear that even though his micromanagement has been widely criticized, and that the results of this micromanagement have been nearly catastrophic, Obama is intent on maintaining a tight control over military operations and the budget, exercised through such lightweights as Ben Rhodes and Susan Rice: there are more munchkins in the White House (and the NSC) than there were in Oz. Hagel’s firing shows that Obama will brook no dissent. Only a cipher would be willing to work under these conditions. It is a sobering thought that Hagel wasn’t enough of a cipher to satisfy Obama.

The decline in talent at the upper echelons in an aging, lame duck administration is inevitable: Obama’s management of the Pentagon makes that decline even more pronounced. To think that we will pine for the likes of Chuck Hagel. My God.

Obama clearly prefers micromanaging failure to delegating for success. But perhaps that’s not fair. Perhaps Obama believes that letting the military devise and implement a plan that would have a realistic chance of defeating ISIS will lead to other consequences that he considers worse than the current fiasco. I shudder at the thought.

 

 

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November 20, 2014

How Do You Know That Zero Hedge is a Russian Information Operation? Here’s How

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:41 pm

I have frequently written that Zero Hedge has the MO of a Soviet agitprop operation, that it reliably peddles Russian propaganda: my first post on this, almost exactly three years ago, noted the parallels between Zero Hedge and Russia Today.

A few days ago ZH ran a post that illustrates perfectly how it spews Russian propaganda that slanders the United States and other enemies of Russia, such as Ukraine: “Ukraine Admits Its Gold Is Gone: “There Is Almost No Gold Left In The Central Bank Vault.”

The lurid post highlights a statement by the head of Ukraine’s Central Bank, to the effect that almost all the gold in Ukraine’s official reserve is gone. It states that this is news, a stunning revelation, which confirms a story that ZH reported a few weeks after the triumph of Maidan: that soon after Yanukovych fled, the gold had been spirited out of the country in the dead of night by airplane. It closes by stating the the disappearance of the gold occurred at the time that US State Department official Victoria Nuland was in Kiev. The implication is obvious. The US stole it:

In any event, now that the disappearance of Ukraine’s gold has been confirmed, perhaps it is time to refresh the “unconfirmed” story that a little after the current Ukraine regime took power the bulk of Ukraine’s gold was taken to the United States.

Wow. Quite a tale.

And one that overlooks crucial details. Most importantly, the Ukrainian CB’s “admission” of that the vaults are empty is not news. At all. A mere few days after Yanukovych fled, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yatsenuk disclosed that the country’s gold reserves had been looted:

Speaking in parliament, Yatsenyuk said that the former government had left the country with $75bn of debts. “Over $20bn of gold reserve were embezzled. They took $37bn of loans that disappeared,” Yatsenyuk said. “Around $70bn was moved to offshore accounts from Ukraine’s financial system in the last three years,” he claimed. [Emphasis added.]

The US dispatched  FBI and Treasury investigators to assist Ukraine in an investigation.

Funny how ZH left out that history, which appeared in virtually every mainstream publication at the time, and made it seem for all the world like the Ukrainian Central Bank’s revelation hit the world like a thunderbolt, nine months after Yanukovych’s flight. That distortion of history makes it plain that the ZH story is not information, but an information operation.

Shortly after Yatsenuk disclosed the theft of the gold, stories started appearing on the web, first on a Russian website, claiming that the gold had been spirited out the country: including on ZH, which quoted the Russian web story. This obviously serves a Russian purpose: it presents a counter-narrative that blames the theft of the gold not on Yanukovych, or the Russians, but on the new Ukrainian government and the United States.

This is the classic Soviet/Russian agitprop MO that I noted 3 years ago. A story appears in an obscure publication, typically outside the US or Europe, where it has been planted by Soviet/Russian intelligence. It is then picked up by another, more widely read publication, in Europe or the West. Maybe it works its way through several additional media sources. It then gets disseminated more widely in the west, sometimes making it to prestige publications like the NYT.

In the era of the web, the information weapon needn’t make it that far. Getting into a widely-read web publication like Zero Hedge which is then linked by numerous other sources and tweeted widely ensures that the lie goes viral.

ZH is an important transmission belt moving the story from Russian propagandists/information warriors to western news consumers. It happens a lot. This is a particularly egregious example, but the transmission belt runs almost daily. ZH is as much a part of Putin’s information warfare as RT. If you follow closely enough, it’s as plain as the nose on your face.

So why does anyone take Zero Hedge seriously? And believe me, many do. Many people who should know better.

And what is the US’s counterstrategy? Marie Harf’s Twitter account. I say again: we are so screwed.

 

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November 17, 2014

Obama Draws Another Red Line–On Pluto

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 10:12 pm

Obama has identified a condition under which he would commit ground troops to fight ISIS: if ISIS gets a nuke.

The headline on the YouTube video is misleading. Read literally, it means that Obama has identified an ISIS nuke as a necessary condition for a commitment of US ground troops. He has instead stated a sufficient condition. There may be other sufficient conditions. Perhaps he would commit ground pounders if ISIS were to ally with space aliens whose ship landed in the Syrian desert. Or maybe if ISIS creates a zombie army. So an ISIS nuke isn’t necessary, exactly.

But it’s clear that Obama is making it plain that he would only contemplate ground troops under the most extreme circumstances. He has drawn a red line, without using the term. And learning from his Assad-uses-chemical-weapons red line blunder, he has drawn this one so far, far away that the probability it will be overstepped is vanishingly small, certainly in the two years remaining to Obama’s presidency. This red line might as well be on Pluto. Which is exactly Obama’s intent.

A reasonable interpretation of Obama’s remarks is that even though nukes are beyond the pale, chemical and biological weapons are not.

Note that the ground operation that Obama envisions is a commando raid to secure the weapon, rather than a persistent troop presence.

Further note the supercilious tone with which he delivers his statement. As if it as a nearly unbearable impertinence for someone even to broach this question.

There is a continuum of ways in which ground troops can be deployed. Obama’s scenario is about at one endpoint of that continuum. Moving close to the other endpoint, no one has seriously raised the possibility of deploying a force even remotely resembling what was on the ground in Iraq from 2003-2011. The deployments that Dempsey and Odierno and others have mooted are not far from Obama’s proposal, but would facilitate the two main pillars of American strategy, such as it is: an air campaign and relying on local troops to roll back ISIS. Ground controllers and special forces are tremendous force multipliers in an air campaign, especially when intelligence is hard to come by and avoidance of civilian casualties is vital and the battlefield is very complex. Moreover, the effectiveness of Iraqi and Kurdish troops would be greatly increased if US advisors were present at the front, at the battalion level and below. Training them in bases at the rear and then having US advisors wave goodbye as they send them off to get their asses kicked, again, is an exercise in futility. Every Iraqi battalion needs American officers embedded, and special forces should deploy with Iraqi troops at the point of the spear. These Americans can provide tactical guidance, buck up wavering Iraqis, collect intelligence, and facilitate coordination between ground units and between ground units and coalition air forces.

But no. Obama’s mulish insistence on no ground troops absent nukes/aliens/zombies substantially hampers the effectiveness of the limited resources he has grudgingly committed to the battle. He has imposed irrational limits on an already limited strategy and operational concept.

It would be reasonable to conclude that he wants to fail, because the constraints he has imposed make failure highly likely.

 

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November 1, 2014

Laying the Groundwork for the Next Phase of Putin’s Novorossiya Campaign: The Price of Pusillanimity

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:04 pm

Ukraine held successful, and remarkably pro-Western, elections last Sunday. The result was a rebuke to Putin, and provided further proof of the adage that you catch more flies with sugar than with gall. Tomorrow, the rump/puppet statelets of Donetsk and Luhansk will hold Soviet-style sham elections, which the Kremlin will duly recognize in violation of the Minsk Protocol signed in September.

Ominously, there are numerous reports of an escalation in the intensity of combat throughout eastern Ukraine (the cease-fire being something of a joke, of course). Further, there are reports of movements of large quantities of new Russian equipment, including SAMs (e.g., S-300s) and MLRS systems considerably more advanced than the scattershot Grads that have been used indiscriminately. There are also indications that the fractious and thuggish rebels are being replaced at key points by Russian regulars.

Something is building here. The timing likely reflects the conscription cycle that led to the faux withdrawal some weeks ago that gave faux hope to those in the west who saw what they desperately wanted to see. Moreover, the passivity of the West, and the distraction of Obama by ISIS (not that he was ever really engaged with Ukraine anyways) give Putin every confidence that another strike would be met with indignant blasts of hot wind from the west, and little else. His prize of Crimea (My precious! My precious! to Gollum-Putin: it’s basically all he has to show for his Herculean labors this year)  is also barely supportable now without access to supplies from the mainland, but will be all but isolated when the slender thread of waterborne transport is frozen shut in a few weeks. Putin needs to open the land routes through the Ukrainian mainland. This requires taking Mariupol, and then continuing to advance west to Kherson.

Russia has markedly increased the intensity of its aerial aggression against Nato countries (including Turkey, which is interesting) and Japan. (Over the summer it carried out mock nuclear strikes on Denmark (!!!) , like those simulated against Sweden and Poland in previous years.) It has bullied Finnish research vessels. (For someone who fulminates about the expansion of Nato, Putin is its best recruiting sergeant.)  It recently tested two nuclear missiles, a Bulava SLBM (which is apparently finally over its serious teething problems) and a Topol ICBM. Putin’s recent rantings in Valdai included sort-of veiled nuclear threats and warnings that “the bear isn’t asking anyone for permission.”

These are all warnings to the west to stand back and not even think about interfering when Putin mounts the next phase of his Novorossiya campaign, likely in the next 10 days-two weeks. These are the wages of the west’s feckless dithering for the past 9 months. This is the price of pusillanimity.

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October 24, 2014

The Madness of Tsar Vlad

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:22 pm

Today Putin appeared at the Valdai Discussion Forum, and gave a performance that raises serious doubts about his sanity.

He ranted against the west, and the US in particular:

“Statements that Russia is trying to reinstate some sort of empire, that it is encroaching on the sovereignty of its neighbours, are groundless,” the former KGB spy declared in a speech delivered standing at a podium, without a smile, in a ski resort in mountains above the Black Sea city of Sochi.

Listing a series of conflicts in which he faulted U.S. actions, including Libya, Syria and Iraq, Putin asked whether Washington’s policies had strengthened peace and democracy.

“No,” he declared. “The unilateral diktat and the imposing of schemes (on others) have exactly the opposite effect.”

He denied the US is a democracy, and expressed his befuddlement at the electoral college. (Note to Vlad: It’s worked for 225 years.) All that was missing was a rant about hanging chads. He accused the US of organizing a coup in Ukraine and supporting Islamic terrorists. He made not-so-veiled nuclear threats. And on and on and on.

My favorite was his statement that Occupy Wall Street was “choked in its cradle.” He’s just pissed that his influence op fizzled. (I remind you that The News Agency Formerly Known as Russia Today, AKA Putin’s Agitprop Network, was constantly hyping Occupy. As was his pilot fish-or is it more than that?-Zero Hedge.)

It was truly a bizarre performance, chock full with paranoia and resentment.

It follows soon after an interview by former FSB head Nikolai Petrushev that blamed the CIA for everything under the sun, most notably events in Ukraine, which he said was a coup by “self-described Nazis”(!). Fellow ex-KGB mouth breather (but hey, he did sport some bitchin’ flairs back in the 70s) Sergei Ivanov has made similar statements lately.

Thus the question (which I have posed before): is Putin genuinely mad, or is he, pace Machiavelli, “simulating madness at the right time.” Is he pissing purple, or chewing the scenery in an attempt to intimidate a feckless west, who could use his insanity as a justification for leaving hime a wide berth?

Although I don’t discount embellishment, I think he is unhinged at his core.

First, he is under tremendous pressure. Crimea was a bloodless triumph, but the follow on in the rest of Ukraine has turned into a bloody, expensive, and largely unsuccessful mess. Instead of sweeping to an easy victory that would net him all of Novorossiya and subject Ukraine to his control, he has had to fight a nasty campaign that has netted him only the blasted remnants of an already shambolic rump piece of Sovokistan, also known as the Donbas. He has earned the intense enmity of the vast bulk of the Ukrainian population. At best, by freezing the conflict he can prevent Ukraine from developing into a “normal” (i.e., westernized) country (something that horrifies Putin), but he cannot incorporate it into a New Russian Empire, except at ruinous cost.

What’s more, Russia’s already creaking economy is under tremendous stress. Part of that stress is due to the inexorable working of sanctions, which have deprived his cherished national champions of access to western capital, and his energy companies access to needed technology. A bigger part of that stress is attributable to a global growth slowdown that has caused oil prices to fall by about 20 percent. These economic stresses deprive him of the resources needed to underwrite his ambitions. Moreover, they create tremendous divisions and anger within the elite, thereby complicating his task as the chief balancer. If they go on long enough, they will create another front: popular anger, or at least resentment and a piercing of the perception of universal popularity.

Second, Putin comes by his paranoia and anti-US resentment honestly. It has been on display for years, too long and too often to be an act. It comes naturally to a KGB man, and was reinforced by relentless indoctrination in the service: read the Patrushev interview to see a rather comprehensive statement of this world view.

Third, dictators and autocrats almost inevitably succumb to madness and paranoia. They are surrounded by sycophants whose obsequiousness feeds a sense of omnipotence and omniscience. Cults of personality feed this sense even more. They rule by intimidation and fear, and hence hear no dissenting voices. There is no institutional check on their power. All of this means that there is no pushback on crazy, so craziness metastasizes.

Such a man is unlikely to be appeased, and difficult to deter. Reducing the dangers he poses requires chipping away at his capabilities, and confronting him with power that he cannot overcome.

Recently an (incredibly campy) art exhibition in Moscow compared Putin to Hercules. (Given Hercules’ goatish omnisexuality and Putin’s homophobia, this is rather amusing.) But I think another ancient parallel is likely to be more apt: Sampson. Putin is unlikely to go quietly into that dark night, and if he is doomed he is likely to try to bring down everything around his ears. The problem is that backing off will just create a vacuum that he will fill, and just defer the inevitable reckoning. It is unlikely that conflict with him can be avoided, because he will seek it out. How do you appease the paranoid?

As bad as the Middle East is, the real existential threat in the world right now is Putin. (Heaven forfend, but I actually agree with George Soros.) He has 4,500 nukes, and he knows how to use them.

That he’s mad, or at the very least wants to be viewed as being mad, makes that the most daunting challenge the United States and the West face. Given the Lilliputian leaderships in the US and Europe, that is not a comforting thought.

 

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October 23, 2014

Watch This If You Want to Understand Why We Are Where We Are in Iraq

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:08 pm

As you might guess, I’m usually not a big Frontline fan, given its rather monotonous lefty line on most issues. But I have to take my hat off to Frontline’s Losing Iraq. It presents a very balanced retrospective on events beginning with the fall of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad in 2003. Given the divisiveness of the topic, this is quite an accomplishment.

It is, unsurprisingly, a depressing picture. The bulk of the program focuses on the Bush years, but the most damning parts address the Obama administration’s willful mishandling of a bad but improving situation.

There are few heroes here. Generals Keene and Petraeus come off quite well. Perhaps because they tell their own stories. Rumsfeld and Bremmer come off terribly, which is only accurate. The picture on Bush is very mixed. His misjudgments and mistakes are discussed in full, and there were many: the de-Baathification and disbanding of the Iraqi army stand out. Yes, these were mainly Rumsfeld moves, but Bush signed off. But he is given credit for his courageous decision to double down-or as Petraeus put it, go all in-on the Surge. This redeemed a seemingly hopeless situation, and created the possibility for a good outcome in Iraq. Good by Middle Eastern standards, anyways. Overall, Bush comes off flawed, but human and earnest, and dedicated to doing the best for the country, by his lights. One odd thing is that Colin Powell is completely absent: I don’t even recall his name being mentioned.

One fascinating part relates to Bush and Maliki. Maliki was the accidental leader of Iraq, dredged from obscurity by an administration desperate for an Iraqi face to lead a government so that America could cede control of the country to the locals. Maliki demonstrated some of the tendencies that would later contribute to the current catastrophe, but through a combination of carrots and sticks, and perhaps most importantly, Bush’s personal attention, he was nudged in a more constructive direction and did not indulge his worst sectarian impulses. He wasn’t great, but by the standards of the Middle East, he could have been a lot worse.

Everything changed once Obama assumed office. The most telling scene in the film is from Obama’s speech at Camp Lejeune a mere 4 weeks after assuming  office. Obama acknowledged that Iraq had become a passably peaceful place. But instead of understanding that this peace had been hard-won,  was incredibly fragile, and required continued American military and political engagement to sustain, Obama asserted that the conditions were now right for the US to withdraw. He treated the peace as an inheritance, an endowment, rather than a tender thing that required continued nurturing.

One could spend much time contemplating why he arrived at this conclusion. It was a convenient excuse for him to do what he wanted-to get shed of Iraq, like yesterday. Moreover, to conclude otherwise would have required him to acknowledge that Bush had been right about the Surge, but as we know, Obama reflexively believed-believes-that everything Bush did was wrong, and perhaps evil.

The documentary points out that everyone in the national security establishment opposed Obama’s decision. Everyone believed that it was imperative for the US to retain military force in the country. But Obama decided otherwise and overruled them all.

The chagrin of the military is vividly captured in the face of Robert Gates when Obama completed his remarks and walked over to shake Gates’s hand. Those on stage during a presidential speech, especially one delivered in triumphal tones, are usually smiling and happy. But Gates’s face was stern and tense. You know he hated  being there. You know he believed that Obama was making a tragic mistake. You also know that Obama made a point of seeking him out first to assert his authority, and to make plain to the world that the defense department and the military were going to salute and execute, even though they believed to a man that the policy was a disaster in the making.

The most damning part of Losing Iraq is the recapitulation of the failed attempt to negotiate a Status of Forces agreement with Maliki. Well, failed attempt is not the right phrase, for the documentary makes it clear that Obama had no intention of getting an agreement. He made a demand-that the Iraqi parliament vote to immunize American troops against prosecution-that he knew-knew-could not be met. He made an offer that Iraq had to refuse, which is exactly what Obama wanted, because he wanted out of Iraq, come what may. Iraq of course did refuse, and we are witnessing what has come.

The film quickly covers the aftermath of the American withdrawal. Left completely on his own, Maliki indulged his sectarian devils. He gutted  the Iraqi military by placing reliable Shia cronies in all major command posts: the objective was not creating an effective military force, but creating one that would not pose a coup threat. Most crucially, he cut off the Sunni tribes in Anbar, thereby undoing what Petraeus had achieved at such cost. Into that chaos, ISIS plunged, to its profit.

This is why we are where we are. Yes, the invasion of Iraq was a blunder of historic proportions. But after doing the typical American thing of doing the right thing after trying everything else, the situation was stabilized and showed some promise. But Obama threw it all way out of arrogance, pique, and ideological blindness.

Losing Iraq is painful watching, but it is necessary watching if you want to know why we are where we are, and why that is not a good place to be.

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