Streetwise Professor

March 22, 2015

Russia: The Travis Bickle of Nations

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 4:02 pm

It’s been quite a week for Russia. In a documentary about Crimea, Putin said he would have put Russian nuclear forces on alert had the west contested his anschluss. Further, the Russian military deployed nuclear capable Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers to Crimea, and Iskander nuclear capable missiles to Kaliningrad. They launched massive maneuvers in the Northern and Western Military Districts, and threw another hissy fit over very small, largely symbolic US operations in the Baltics and Poland. Latvia accused its gentle giant neighbor of sending submarines to probe its waters, and Sweden claimed that one-third of Russian “diplomatic” personnel were intelligence agents engaged in preparations for Russian military action against its western neighbor. (Remember the Great Northern War and Charles XII!) Quite a week!

But they weren’t done! They saved the best (by which I mean worst) for last, when the ambassador to Denmark threatened the tiny Scandinavian nation’s navy with nuclear annihilation for having the temerity to incorporate its air defense frigates (of which it has a grand total of 3) into the Nato anti-missile defense network. Talk about overkill: nuclear weapons to target 6500 ton frigates? Really? What, does Russia doubt the accuracy of its conventional weapons, so it has to go with the close-counts-in-horseshoes-and-nukes theory?

Actually, you know that’s not it. It is just another example of Russia channeling its inner Travis Bickle. You know, the title character from Taxi Driver, played by Robert De Niro. “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talking… you talking to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talkin’ to?” [whips out nuclear weapon concealed inside sleeve].

The only question before the house is whether this is all an act intended to intimidate the neighbors into acceding to Russian demands, or they are descending into madness under the stress of events, just like Travis. I honestly don’t know, but don’t discount the second possibility altogether.

Regardless, it is apropos that this occurred right around the time of the death of Singapore’s  Lee Kwan Yew, who said “Russia has an enormous nuclear arsenal, but what else?”

One particularly disturbing aspect of this is that Vanin is not one of the real mouth breathers. He is a career foreign service man, who was once closely associated with the Yeltsin “family” and Roman Abramovich while serving as Chairman of the State Customs Committee. He was deeply involved in the Three Whales scandal. Three Whales was a FSB-connected furniture shopping center that was running a smuggling operation. The State Customs Service launched an investigation, which set off a war between Vanin’s people and the siloviki. Vanin was one of the casualties, losing his job when Putin reshuffled the organization of various ministries in 2004.

So the guy rattling the nuclear saber against a nation of 5.6 million people that was last a military power in the 10th and 11th centuries is not one of Russia’s real siloviki thugs. Comforting thought, eh?

The Pentagon, Nato and the Europeans are fretting about how to deal with Russia’s hybrid warfare. (Note I omit Obama from that list: I doubt he gives a damn.) They need to give more thought to the real reason why hybrid warfare can work: it is conducted under a nuclear shield wielded by madmen, or those who are content to give a portrayal  of one that de Niro could appreciate.

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March 14, 2015

Где Влад? High Temperature? Room Temperature? Coup-ed Up?

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:38 pm

As of this moment, Vladimir Putin has not been seen in public for more than 9 days: you can keep up to the minute track here. Of course this has set off a flurry of speculation about his condition-or his fate. I obviously have no better idea than anyone else, but I’ll just lay out some possibilities.

  • He’s ill, with a condition ranging in severity from a bad cold to a coma, or in the limiting case, he’s dead.
  • There is an attempt to oust him. (Of course, illness and ouster are not mutually exclusive: a physically weakened Putin is a tempting target, and a dead one obviously requires a replacement with multiple contenders making a play.) Anders Aslund hypothesizes that Putin and Sechin, backed by the interior ministry and its forces, are locked in a death struggle with Sergei Ivanov, Russian nationalists, and the FSB. Andrei Illarionov claims that the generals are out to oust Putin. The Nemtsov murder is seen as a catalyst or symptom of these events. One theory is that the FSB is furious with Putin giving Kadyrov a free rein, and is trying to pin the murder on Chechens in order to strike at Kadyrov. It is worth noting that Sechin has been subject to public criticism lately, including by Putin. That could signal some attempt to reallocate power and property that could lead all of the various contending clans to take to the mattresses. Who knows?
  • Putin is playing possum, feigning incapacitation in order to see whether anyone thinks this is an opportunity to seize power. That would be a good way for a paranoid man to smoke out threats.

The Kremlin’s ham fisted handling of the publicity (reporting on meetings that have yet to occur, and releasing photos and video from a meeting that likely occurred before Putin submerged) is only fueling the speculation.

As for illness, it would have to be pretty bad to induce him to go incommunicado for so long, given the angst this is creating. Julia Ioffe argues that Putin cannot even admit to having a cold, as this would puncture the aura of invincibility that he needs to rule successfully. Given the choice between admitting to a cold, and doing something that leads to wild speculation that he’s lying on a cold slab (speculation that can be destabilizing), I would think he’d load up on the DayQuil, make a few public appearances, and bluff his way through. So if it is illness, it would likely be severe.

And if it isn’t, and Ioffe is correct, just think of what that means about Russia’s political system, and its future. A system whose stability depends on the illusion of an invulnerable leader is doomed to collapse with probability one, because the illusion is just that-a chimera. Putin isn’t getting any younger, and Russian men are not noted for their longevity: for most, their old age begins in the early-to-mid-60s, if they are lucky enough to make it that long. So before too long, Putin will suffer a serious health problem, with all the uncertainty that entails in a personalized system with no tried and stable succession mechanism and which has a vast security apparatus that just might be tempted to seize power.

A power struggle in the Kremlin is a possibility, but the dogs are always fighting under the carpet. It’s hard to determine whether anything out of the ordinary is going on now. Isn’t it interesting how Kremlinology is making a comeback?

As for a coup, I’m skeptical. If that was occurring, or had happened, you would expect to see a noticeable increase in military and OMON activity in the capital. A big increase. Either as a defensive measure by Putin, or as a movement by the plotters, or both. No such movement has been reported.

In the absence of information, people are putting dark interpretations on unremarkable events: minds seem to need to fill in blanks.  For instance, last night Twitter was ablaze with speculation about what was going on in Red Square. Semis were seen driving to the square, and there were pictures of bleachers and some sort of construction work. Theories trying to connect this to Putin’s disappearance ran rampant. But the explanation was simple: the outdoor ice rink near GUM was being taken down. (Is there rampant speculation when the Rink at Rockefeller Center is taken down?)

Another kerfuffle: the flag that normally flies over the Kremlin was absent. A sign! An omen! Whatever. If there’s a coup you’ll know soon enough.

This is just Russia living up to Churchill’s aphorism: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. This makes it extremely susceptible to bouts of severe unpredictability, which is a sobering prospect given its aggressive tendencies and massive arsenal (especially its nuclear arsenal). Given the lilliputians in the US and Europe who are responsible for reacting to such a spasm this is not comforting. Meaning all I have to say is: Vlad! Get well soon!

That’s especially true because anyone who replaces Putin is likely to be as bad, or worse. That’s especially true if he’s ousted by a coup, because that’s a process of the survival of the baddest.

In other words, we don’t have a Putin problem. We have a Russia problem. Putin is a symptom of a political system that will survive him, and will evolve, but likely into something worse.

 

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March 13, 2015

Obama’s Telling Shift on the Legislative Role in Diplomacy

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:03 pm

@libertylynx points out a very interesting contrast. The awful developments in Iraq over the last several years, most notably the rampage of Isis and the dramatic expansion of Iranian influence in the country, are directly attributable to Obama’s decision to withdraw all US military forces.  He did so after failing to negotiate a Status of Forces agreement with the Maliki government. This occurred primarily because of a particular demand that Obama made of Maliki: namely, that the Iraqi premier get his parliament’s approval of any agreement. Obama stated that such approval was necessary to make the deal credible and viable. He said legislative buy in was essential. Of course, this did not happen, and almost certainly Obama knew it would not happen. This gave him the pretext to bug out.

Fast forward 3-4 years. Whereas Obama had insisted on Iraqi legislative approval of a deal with the US, now Obama is dead set against letting the American legislative branch have any say whatsoever in a deal with Iran. So much for the need for legislative approval to give a deal credibility.

Obama obviously has no principled view of the role of the legislature in foreign policy. He didn’t want a Status of Forces agreement, so he insisted on Iraqi legislative approval because he knew it would not be forthcoming. He desperately wants a deal with Iran, so he adamantly opposes American legislative approval because he knows it is not likely to happen. His views on legislative involvement in diplomacy are not principled, but merely instrumental and change with the circumstances.

Indeed, not only is Obama not shutting out Congress, he is actively demonizing it in the most demagogic fashion for having the temerity to insist on having a voice. When he said that Senate Republicans were making common cause with “hardliners” in Iran, he was basically dog whistling, and his attack dogs responded with alacrity, accusing the Republicans-including the leader of the effort, Tom Cotton, a Marine combat veteran-of treason. The new  cry, advanced by another of the administration’s transparent social media manipulation campaigns is #GOPWantsWar.

A typical Obama false choice. His claim is that the only alternative to the specific deal he is “negotiating” is war. Think about that for a moment. It presumes that (a) absent any deal, Iran will proceed hell bent for a nuclear weapon, and (b) a nuclear Iran is such a dangerous regime that it must be prevented from acquiring the bomb, by war if necessary.

But apparently such a regime is a suitable negotiating partner, will adhere to any deal, and will eschew its nuclear ambitions even though a deal will effectively take both economic and military coercive measures off the table. Moreover, Iran clearly has hegemonic ambitions in the region, and a deal will give them greater resources to achieve them.

It is therefore by no means clear that a deal will reduce the likelihood of war. In my view, it is likely that the reverse is true. Moreover, those opposing a deal-who include many Democrats, as well as most Republicans-are advocating measures other than war, notably an increase in economic pressure, to force the Iranian government to forego its nuclear ambitions, and to limit its ability to achieve that capability. #GOPWantsWar is therefore a slur of the most scurrilous sort.

It gets worse, actually. Obama, claiming to be embarrassed for the Republicans, lies shamelessly about what the letter the 47 Republicans wrote. The Republicans never suggested that Obama was untrustworthy.

Further, catch this: “For them to address a letter to the Ayatollah who, they claim, is our mortal enemy . . . .” That is, Obama asserts that it is merely a Republican claim that Iran is an enemy of the US. The implication is clearly that Obama believes that it is not. That explains a lot.

I don’t believe Obama wants war, though I do believe that a soft deal with Iran like the one that is apparently imminent makes it more likely. I don’t believe in the slightest that he wanted Isis to run amok in Iraq, but his misjudgments and Machiavellian maneuvers made this outcome possible.

It is necessary to turn away from questioning motives, and to focus on substance. And I will close by noting that those who are most aggressive in questioning the motives of their opponents are the ones who believe they cannot prevail on the merits.

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March 10, 2015

Resource Rents, Russian Aggression, and the Nature of Putinism

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,History,Military,Russia — The Professor @ 9:00 pm

This nice piece from the WaPo points out the link between oil prices and Russian aggressiveness:

From this perspective, Russia is not so much an insecure superpower as it is a typical petrostate with a short-term horizon that gets aggressive and ambitious once it accumulates substantive oil revenues. Back in the early 2000s when the price of oil was $25 a barrel, Putin was a friend of the United States and didn’t mind NATO enlargement in 2004. According to Hendrix’s research, this is exactly how petrostates behave when the oil prices are low: In fact, at oil prices below $33 a barrel, oil exporters become much more peaceful than even non-petrostates. Back in 2002 when the Urals price was around $20, in his Address to the Federal Assembly Putin enumerated multiple steps to European integration and active collaboration aimed at creating a single economic space with the European Union among Russia’s top priorities. In 2014 – with the price of oil price around $110 – Putin invaded Ukraine to punish it for the attempts to create that same single economic space with the E.U.

I made these basic points eight years ago, in a post titled “Cocaine Blues.”

The graph depicts Gaddy’s estimates of the energy rents accruing to the Soviet–and Russian–economy. Each of the two spikes in the graph corresponds to a period of Soviet/Russian adventurism. The first shot of oil/cocaine during the 1970s oil shock fueled Soviet aggressiveness around the world. The second oil/cocaine shot–the post-2003 runup in oil prices–is powering Putin’s recent revanchism.

There were some follow up posts on the same theme.

This post from Window on Eurasia quotes a Russian social scientist who disputes the importance of oil prices in explaining Russian behavior in the Putin era. Instead, Vladislav Inozemtsev identifies the lack of formal institutions as the characteristic feature of Putinism.

But these things are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, another SWP theme from about this same time period (2007-2008) is that Russia is a natural state in which Putin uses control over resource rents to maintain a political equilibrium. Resource rents permit personalized rule and impede the development of formal, impersonal institutions.

In other words, in Russia, resource rents, and especially oil/energy rents matter, both for its political structure and evolution, and its behavior as an international actor.

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March 9, 2015

Obama Channels Woodrow Wilson in His League of Nations Phase

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:09 pm

I have compared Obama to a previous progressive president enamored of executive power and impatient with checks and balances: namely, Woodrow Wilson. Obama is now moving into the League of Nations phase of Wilson’s presidency, intent on ramming through a foreign policy deal in defiance of intense Senate opposition.

Actually, this comparison is unfair. To Wilson. At least he submitted the treaty to the Senate for ratification. It failed because he refused to compromise on Article X. Obama in contrast, refuses to involve Congress in any way, least of all by submitting any agreement for ratification. He scorns the very idea.

Today Obama stooped to a new low. In response to a letter from 47 Republican senators warning him that without ratification, Obama’s deal with the mullahs would not bind a future president or Congress, Obama responded by questioning their loyalty: “It’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran.”

Really. The hardliners oppose a deal because it might put a speed bump in the way of their race to develop an atomic weapon and the means to deliver it. The Republicans oppose the deal because they believe that the deal would not go nearly far enough to prevent, or even seriously delay Iran’s building of the bomb.

See the difference? I knew you could. That people with radically opposed objectives both attack a proposed agreement doesn’t mean it is just right. Indeed, the hardliners’ opposition validates the Republicans’ fear that the mullahs are hell-bent on getting the bomb as soon as possible.

Obama would be wise to heed the lesson of Wilson, whose obstinacy and refusal to compromise prevented him from achieving his the legacy-building agreement he craves so intensely. But we know that is not in his nature. It is not in the prog nature.

On the subject of Iran, I’ve been pondering the last couple of days what Putin wants to see here. My sense is that he would actually prefer that Obama fail. Another nuclear power on Russia’s borders cannot be a comforting thought. What’s more, Russia has long harbored imperial ambitions in Iran: the more insane nationalist elements in Russian (e.g., Zhirinovsky) are quite open in their ambitions to move south into Iran. A nuclear Iran would make those ambitions even less realistic than they already are.

But the main factor, at least in the short to medium term, is oil and gas. A deal that would expedite the elimination of sanctions that have limited Iran’s oil sales, and which have kept its gas almost completely out of reach, would be adverse to Russia’s economic interests. A substantial increase in Iranian oil output would put considerable downward pressrun prices. The elimination of sanctions would open Iran’s vast gas reserves. In not too long, this gas could flow to Europe, where it would compete with Gazprom’s.

It’s hard to see an upside to Russia in a deal. Meaning that Putin will be trying to find a way to scupper it. Which will give Obama an opportunity to accuse the Republicans of being in league with Putin as well as the mullahs.

 

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March 2, 2015

True Genius, or Sputtering Incoherence?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 6:06 pm

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “[t]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” By this standard, Obama and his foreign policy team must be far into the right tail of the MENSA distribution, because they are able to hold about 10 opposed ideas in mind.

For instance, the operation against Tikrit is a vital step in the campaign against Isis, but the US is not involved. In part it is not involved because Iran and Shia militias are taking the lead in the offensive there, and the US has grave, grave concerns about growing Iranian influence-control, really-in Iraq and elsewhere in the region (e.g., Yemen). We are so concerned about Iran, in fact, that we are negotiating-I use the term loosely, because it usually involves both give and take, and we are just giving-a deal that would give Iran a clear path to becoming a nuclear power. Once it becomes a nuclear power, of course, it will have dramatically enhanced capability to exert its power in the entire Middle East. Even before it gets the bomb, sanctions will be ended, giving Iran the economic wherewithal to support terrorism and extend its influence the region. (Kerry is in Geneva with his buddy, the Iranian foreign minister Javad. They’re on a first name basis, you see. I wonder if they’re reminiscing about the old days. You know, the American Embassy; the Marine Barracks; Khobar Towers; supplying Iraqi terrorists with shaped charge IEDs to kill Americans. Good times. Good times. The list of topics is endless.)

Meanwhile, Obama has long said that he wants to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Not only is he negotiating a deal that will create a new nuclear power, Iran’s acquisition of the bomb will set off a race by the Saudis, Turks, Egyptians, etc., to get it too.

Further, Obama wants to get the Sunnis in Iraq, and Sunni nations in the Middle East, on board to fight Isis. All the while he is standing aside while Iran and Shia militias, whom the Sunnis hate with the heat of 1000 suns, operate pretty much at will in Iraq.

But I’m not done!  The administration also has a soft spot for the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood (witness its continued hostility to Sisi in Egypt, who tossed out the MB), despite the fact that the Brotherhood views Shia as subhuman.

Another part of the administration policy-supposedly-is to support “moderate” Syrian opposition fighters. Who is the opposition opposed to? Iran’s biggest ally: Assad. What’s more, the first group of fighters that we were supporting were rolled over by an Al Qaeda-linked group, and switched allegiances. In response, Obama’s “Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL” (how does he fit that on his business card?) Gen. John Allen (ret.), says that the US will protect moderate Syrian opposition fighters “when the time comes.” I’ll bet that’s a real enticement to enlist. Somehow, I get the vision that the protection that will be offered is an honor guard at a mass burial, because when the time comes it will be too late.

Of course, this is not genius. It is drooling incoherence. The administration has more foreign policy personalities than Sybil. Simultaneously attempting to pursue wildly contradictory, and indeed mutually exclusive, policies, which will inevitably result in a train wreck of historic proportions.

At the root of this is Obama’s Ahab-like pursuit of a deal with Iran. That is the primary source of incoherence. Why he harbors this obsession, I do not know. I cannot think of a good reason. I can think of many bad ones, including some very, very bad ones.

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February 27, 2015

Is Nato a Threat to Russia? If Only.

Filed under: Economics,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:53 pm

Putin and Lavrov and the Russian leadership  routinely rant about Nato and the threat it poses to Russia. They demand that Ukraine pledge not to join Nato as a condition for a resolution of the Russian invasion of the country. Sadly, numerous “realists” in the West just as routinely repeat and rationalize the Russian fears, and blame the current parlous state of Russo-Western relations on the post-1991 eastward expansion of Nato. (Yeah. I’m looking at you Stephen Walt and Ian Bremmer.)

This raises the question: Are the Russians and their Western apologists serious? If so, it calls into question their mental state.

The idea that Nato qua Nato poses a threat to invade Russia is risible. Hell, Nato’s ability to defend its eastern marches is quite uncertain.

Even if one ignores the fact that Nato has no intent to engage in a land war against Russia, on the basis of military capability Russia would have nothing to fear from Nato even if it was hard on Russia’s borders. Virtually all of Nato’s ground combat power is embodied in American units, which have almost totally withdrawn from Europe to CONUS. They pose no threat to Russia from Fort Hood or Fort Stewart or Fort Riley or Fort Bliss, and even if they moved into Poland-and hell, into Ukraine-they would not threaten Russia. Their numbers are insufficient, and the logistic obstacles of attacking Russia  are beyond daunting.

As for the rest of Nato, it as become a mockery of a military alliance. Only France spends more than 2 percent of GDP on defense. The Germans have stinted on defense: its military expenditures are closer to 1 percent of GDP than the Nato “standard” (honored more in the breach than the promise) of 2 percent. They have sold off a large portion of their modern armor. Recent reports state that a large fraction of its aircraft are inoperable. A particularly shocking story states that a supposedly elite unit attached to Nato’s rapid reaction force had to train with broomsticks at a recent exercise, due to the lack of machine guns. As for the Dutch, Belgians, and other assorted Lilliputians, they couldn’t threaten anybody.

Out of area operations are unthinkable. Even modest efforts in Libya (carried out almost entirely by airpower) and Africa (e.g., Mali) were dependent on US airlift, refueling, and reconnaissance assets.

European navies are similarly shrunken and incapable of projecting power.

Yes, the US has the capability of inflicting huge damage on Russia, but other Nato countries enhance that capability not by one whit. And virtually all of that capability is based in the United States proper.

So why are the Russians always on about Nato? Do Putin and the military realize that the alliance presents no danger, but just hype the threat because it gulls the domestic hoi polloi and credulous Westerners? Or are they so paranoid that they see threats where none exist?

I think it may well be some of both, but more of the former. By claiming Nato is a military threat, Russia gets to play the victim, an act which many at home and abroad fall for, and which provides a cover for the real reasons for Russia’s hostility. Putin et al fear the West, but more because they know that Russia cannot compete against it economically, politically, and culturally. They want to exploit, in a colonialist way, the ex-Soviet space. Ukraine was a classic example. Corrupt ties between Russia and Ukraine enriched Russian and Ukrainian thugs alike. Maidan threatened all that.

Note that what precipitated the crisis with Russia was not a Ukrainian move towards Nato-that was not on the table, and the very idea did not garner majority support in the country last year. Rather, it was Ukraine’s move towards greater economic integration with Europe that sparked Putin’s ferocious reaction. In addition to threatening the loss of markets for Russia’s non-competitive products, greater integration with Europe would have helped nudge the country down the path towards better governance and less corruption. This threatened the interests of Russia’s kleptocracy (over which Putin reigns) as as much as it did Ukraine’s. To that must be added an indirect threat that the example of an ex-Sovok republic moving towards political and economic modernity would  pose to a retrograde Russia.

At least that’s what I think is the most likely explanation for Russia’s unrelenting drumbeat against Nato. But I cannot rule out rampant paranoia. The Nemtsov murder also betrays considerable paranoia, as the opposition poses no real political threat to Putin.

What I can rule out metaphysically is that Nato is an actual military threat to Russia. To quote Patton, European forces in Nato couldn’t fight their way out of a piss-soaked paper bag even if attacked, let alone pose an offensive threat to a vast continental nation like Russia. And the Americans are very, very far away. Which means that Russian ranting about Nato is either camouflage for their well-grounded insecurity about their ability to compete economically, socially, and politically with the West, or the product of colossal paranoia, or both.

Regardless, it means that the only way that Russia can conceive of co-existing with the West is along the lines of the Yalta model, with the only question being where the lines are drawn. The sooner the West recognizes this, and moves beyond its romantic notion of a “special”, or even non-adversarial, relationship with Russia, the better. But the persistence of these romantic ideas even in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine and the threat of more in the Baltics and elsewhere suggests that this won’t happen soon enough.

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Putin Reenacts the Kirov Assassination

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:15 pm

Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov has been gunned down literally in the dark shadows of the Kremlin’s spires.

Just when you thought that Russia could not become more twisted and disturbing, something like this happens.

With a chutzpah that puts  OJ Simpson’s pledge to track down the real killers to shame, Putin announced that he is putting his Chekist skilz to work and taking personal charge of the investigation. This is to ensure that no mistakes are made that could result in the identification of the real executioners. There are frames to be fitted.

Through his creature Peskov, Putin denounced the crime as a “provocation,” fulfilling a prediction I had made on Twitter only moments before that he would use this killing to eliminate many enemies, not just one. This assassination will not be a two-fer. It will be an N-fer. Nemtsov will not be the only enemy eliminated: his death will be the pretext for eliminating many more, on the model of “for my friends, everything: for my enemies, the law!”

The narrative will be that this was part of a plot to blacken Putin’s name, and every-and I mean every-perceived enemy foreign and domestic will be implicated. Numerous, mutually contradictory conspiracy theories will be advanced and pursued simultaneously. These will permit the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of myriad Putin enemies, and the intimidation of many more.

In other words, we are going to see a reprise of the Kirov murder, which Stalin exploited to justify the purges that began soon thereafter. Note the similarity:

“Comrade Stalin personally directed the investigation of Kirov’s assassination. He questioned Nikolayev at length. The leaders of the Opposition placed the gun in Nikolayev’s hand!” (Barmine, Alexander, One Who Survived, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1945.)

Why Nemtsov? He had long been a thorn in Putin’s side, authoring (along with Vladimir Milov) several white papers accusing Putin of gargantuan corruption. Recently, he had been an outspoken opponent of the war in Ukraine. He was organizing a peace rally to take place Sunday, and was allegedly on the verge of releasing another white paper documenting Russian participation in the Ukraine war.

Perhaps the anti-war activities and revelations about Putin’s lies about Ukraine were the proximate cause of Nemtsov’s killing. But I think that the murder serves a far larger purpose for Putin. It eliminates a gadfly, yes, but Nemtsov was hardly a threat. But a la Stalin and Kirov, the murder gives Putin a pretext to unleash a full-scale repression.

Will Obama, Merkel, and the other assorted cringers finally be forced to face up to the reality of what they are dealing with in the Kremlin? Call me a cynic, but I seriously doubt it.

Do not underestimate how bad things can get in Russia. And consider this happy thought. Stalin wasn’t embroiled in an international confrontation, and didn’t have nukes, when Kirov was killed (likely on his orders). Putin is, and does.

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February 24, 2015

Incoherence on Display: The FSB Head Transformed From Interlocutor to Persona Non Grata in a Week

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:22 pm

John Kerry has criticized Russian actions in and lies about Ukraine. He hinted that further sanctions could be forthcoming, and that the head of the FSB could be targeted.

Wait a minute. Just last week the head of the FSB was considered a worthy participant in the debate on the subject of terrorism: he headed the Russian delegation to the Countering Violent Extremism Summit. How ludicrous, and schizo, is that? The guy goes from interlocutor to persona non grata in a period of mere days. To quote Casey Stengel: can’t anybody here play this game?

Any sanctions forthcoming will likely have the opposite of the intended effect. Putin will interpret them as demonstrating a lack of seriousness, a token response meant to keep up appearances, rather than as a serious challenge. He will view such actions as a green light, not a yellow let alone a flashing red. He will understand that he faces an irresolute, incoherent, and timorous opposition, and will act accordingly.

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Omar the Storyteller Edits His Tale Yet Again

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 3:02 pm

Omar the storyteller is back at it, with another eager scribe, this time from the Guardian. The basic contours of his tale remain the same, but a crucial detail has shifted yet again, and the story has gotten yet more elaborate. Most annoyingly, he still escapes any serious questioning about the problematic features of his narrative.

The crucial detail that changes relates to Kayla Mueller’s denial that she was his wife:

After being interrogated, beaten and released, Alkhani returned to Aleppo – not Raqqa, as previously reported – to try win Mueller’s release, claiming she was his wife for more leverage. When allowed to see her briefly, she appeared unhurt and a little plumper. She cried. Apparently unaware of his ruse, she denied being his wife, foiling the plot.

In previous tellings, al Khani and Mueller had planned the marriage ruse for the very purpose of using in the event that they were taken captive. So she forgot? That would be pretty remarkable. In another telling, Omar hypothesized that she denied being his wife to save him. In another telling, he didn’t know why she denied it. The many versions of this crucial detail in the story raise some serious questions about Omar’s veracity. Not that anyone from he steno pool has bothered to point out these inconsistencies to him.

The story of the reason for their trip to Aleppo has become more elaborate. Versions 1.0-3.0 (I work from memory: the story has more versions than Windows) had him going to repair the broken WiFi at the Medicins sans Frontiers hospital in Aleppo. This time is is not going to fix it, he’s installing the whole damn thing:

Instead of taking photographs, Alkhani says his mission was to bring and install internet equipment at a hospital run by aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), using IT skills he learned while working with foreign journalists in Damascus several years earlier, he said.

Funny that he never mentioned that before. It’s not like “bringing and installing internet equipment” is a small detail, and it certainly entails much more effort and planning that a quick trip to fix a connection. I also wonder whether he enhanced the magnitude of the task and dropped in the the stuff about his IT skilz  because of questions that some people (cough, cough) had raised about why MSF would have relied on him, and why he would have run such huge risks to be a repair guy.

Another key change in detail. In previous versions, he ventured to the center of the Isis snake pit-al Raqqa. In this version, he went to Aleppo. Something of a difference, and not the kind of detail one would forget. Why the change? Has someone expressed incredulity that he could waltz into Raqqa-which Isis runs with a  crazed, bloody grip-so he is backing off from that claim?

Further elaborations include Mueller venturing into Aleppo in a hijab to conceal her identity, which she discarded in the hospital because she felt so at ease there. Funny he left that out before.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Of course, like all of the other reporters hanging on Omar’s every word, the Guardian’s Rory Carroll apparently did not ask one serious question along the lines of what I posted earlier. Nor did he point out the inconsistencies and progressive growth in the tale, even though such increasing vividness is often a major tell of a fabrication.

Most importantly, Carroll did not ask how it was possible that al Khani emerged unscathed from the Isis snake pit not once, but twice, despite his high profile in the Syrian resistance and extensive contact with western journalists. Hell, Isis can’t even get along with Al Qaeda, let alone the other disparate branches of the Syrian resistance, and is deeply suspicious of westerners and contacts with them. What magic words did Omar utter to convince them that he wasn’t a spy? Must have been pretty powerful words, given the paranoia and hatred that characterizes Isis.

In other words, another story, and no sense of being closer to the actual truth. The reverse, actually.

One more word about the Mueller murder. Her family blames the Obama administration’s ransoming Beau Bergdahl for making Isis more obdurate in its negotiations for Kayla’s release. Not that you’ll see this get much attention, given how it makes Obama look bad in multiple ways.

And speaking about Bergdahl, a few weeks ago there were reports that the Army had reached a decision regarding a court martial. The Pentagon threw a fit, and since then there has been radio silence. The Army has more than enough time to decide how to proceed. The lack of action reeks of command influence and the subversion of military justice for political reasons.

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