Streetwise Professor

September 3, 2019

Rogozin the Ridiculous: Like a Bad Kopec, He Keeps Turning Up

Filed under: Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:29 pm

A few months ago long-time commenter Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break inquired of the whereabouts of one of my favorite whipping boys, Rogozin the Ridiculous. Well, he’s reappeared! And not in a good light! (I’m sure you are all shocked, shocked!)

Apparently RtR was playing the typical role of a dog fighting under the carpet, but the battle has become public. Rogozin’s replacement as Deputy Prime Minister (Rogonotcop having moved to head Roscosmos) came out blasting his predecessor for massive corruption and mismanagement in the construction of the Vostochny Cosmodrome, something I wrote about when the stores about this first appeared:

A series of corruption scandals, cost overruns and mishaps at Russia’s new Vostochny Cosmodrome have brought long-simmering questions about the leadership of the country’s space agency into public view.


“The situation is unacceptable for everyone, including the construction of the first stage and the second stage” of the space center, Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov told Vedomosti newspaper in an interview published Monday, adding that the Defense Ministry may take over part of the work.

Rogo’s response? Basically “eta Rossiya”:  “It’s always been this way: some build, while others criticize. It’s part of the business.”

Truth be told, Rogozin’s building left a lot to criticize: inspectors found a “critical defect” on a launchpad in November (two years after it became operational!). And of course the corruption was epic:

The Prosecutor General’s Office has opened a series of criminal cases after uncovering 10 billion rubles ($150 million) in losses during construction at Vostochny. In one sparkling example of corruption, a contractor accused of stealing 4 million rubles was detained in Minsk, Belarus, while driving a Mercedes covered in Swarovski crystals.

Corruption is apparently rife at Rogozin’s new gig:

Alexei Kudrin, the head of Russia’s Audit Chamber, told lawmakers last year that he had found 760 billion rubles ($11.4 billion) of financial violations in Roscosmos’s books, including several billion that had been “basically stolen,” describing the space agency as “the champion in terms of the scale of such violations.” Roscosmos said the criticism related to a 2017 audit, before Rogozin’s appointment.

I’m totally sure he clean that right up!

Rogozin is like a bad kopec: he always keeps turning up. So never fear, EX-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break, I’m sure I’ll have an opportunity to write about him again.

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August 31, 2019

Americans’ Realistic Response to a Fight For Freedom in Hong Kong

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:22 pm

Hong Kong has been convulsed by anti-government protests for weeks. Protestors have numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and are facing increasing violence from Chinese authorities. The atmosphere is heavy with fears of a fierce crackdown by Beijing, along the lines of Tiananmen Square, a little more than 30 years ago.

Hong Kong protestors are literally wrapping themselves in American flags (redolent of the replica of the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen). Some are even donning MAGA hats and pleading for the US to come to their aid.

But Americans’ responses to all this are decidedly muted, and many appear to be paying little attention to the truly historic events in Hong Kong. This has led many to wonder why. Tyler Cowen hypothesizes that Americans are too obsessed with their own inter-tribal political wars to pay attention:

Sadly, the most likely hypothesis is that Americans and many others around the world simply do not care so much anymore about international struggles for liberty. It is no longer the 18th or 19th century, when one democratic revolution provided the impetus for another, and such struggles were self-consciously viewed in international terms (a tradition that was also adopted by communism). The 1960s, which saw the spread of left-wing movements around the world, embodied that spirit. So did the anti-Communist movements of the 1980s, such as Solidarity, which overcame apparently insuperable odds to help liberate Poland and indeed many other parts of Eastern Europe.
In contrast, I hear no talk today about how the Hong Kong protesters might inspire broader movements for liberty.
Instead, Americans are preoccupied with fighting each other over political correctness, gun violence, Trump and the Democratic candidates for president. To be sure, those issues deserve plenty of attention. But they are soaking up far too much emotional energy, distracting attention from the all-important struggles for liberty around the world.
It’s 2019, and the land of the American Revolution, a country whose presidents gave stirring speeches about liberty and freedom in Berlin during the Cold War, remains in a complacent slumber. It really is time to Make America Great Again — if only we could remember what that means.

With all due respect to Tyler, I think the answer is far different: Americans are far more realistic than he is.

This realism is the bitter fruit of the idealism of the post-Cold War world, and in particular, attempts to advance liberty around the world.

Let’s look at the record. And a dismal record it is.

Start with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to a burst of euphoria and a belief that this would cause liberty to spread to the lands behind the Iron Curtain. The result was far more gloomy.

There were a few successes. The Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary. Not coincidentally, the successes and quasi-successes occurred in places that had been part of the Catholic and Protestant west. Outside of that, the states of the FSU and other Warsaw Pact states lapsed back into authoritarianism, usually after a spasm of chaos. (Ukraine went from authoritarianism to chaos to authoritarianism and then to a rather corrupt semi-chaos.)

In particular, the bright hopes for Russia faded rapidly, and after a decade of chaotic kleptocracy that country has settled into nearly two decades of authoritarian kleptocracy. Moreover, Americans (and westerners generally) soon wore out their welcome, in part because of their condescension in dealing with a reeling and demoralized yet proud society, in part because of their complicity in corruption (and yes, I’m looking at you, Harvard), and in part because their advice is firmly associated in Russian minds with the calamity of the 1998 economic collapse. Yes, you can quibble over whether that blame is justified, but that’s irrelevant: it is a reality.

Countries where Color Revolutions occurred (e.g., Georgia) also spurred western and American optimism and support. But hopes were soon dashed as these countries too slipped back into the mire, rather than emerging as beacons of liberty.

I could go on, but you get the point.

Let’s move forward a decade, to Afghanistan and Iraq. In both places, there was another burst of euphoria after brutal regimes were toppled. Remember purple fingers? They were a thing, once, what seems a lifetime ago.

Again, hopes that freedom would bloom were soon dashed, and both countries descended into horrific violence that vast amounts of American treasure and manpower were barely able to subdue. And again, especially in Iraq, the liberators were soon widely hated.

The lesson of Iraq is particularly instructive. The overthrown government was based on a party organization with a cell structure that was able to organize a fierce and bloody resistance against the Americans and their allies. The attitudes of the population meant far less than the determination and bloody-mindedness of a few hard, ruthless men.

Let’s move forward another decade, to the Arab Spring. The best outcome is probably Egypt, which went from an authoritarian government rooted in the military to a militant Muslim Brotherhood government and back to military authoritarianism. In other words, the best was a return to the status quo ante. The road back was not a happy one, and the country would have been better without the post-Spring detour into Islamism.

Elsewhere? Humanitarian catastrophes, like Libya and Syria, that make Game of Thrones and Mad Max look like frolics. Enough said.

Given this litany of gloomy failures, who can blame Americans for extreme reluctance to engage mentally or emotionally with what is transpiring in Hong Kong? They are only being realistic in concluding it is unlikely to end well, and that the US has little power to engineer a happy ending.

And what is the US supposed to do, exactly? The country is already employing myriad non-military instruments of national power in a strategic contest with China. Again, the “trade war” is not a war about trade: trade is a weapon in a far broader contest.

Military means are obviously out of the question. And let’s say that, by some miracle, the Chinese Communist Party collapses, and the US military, government agencies, and NGOs did indeed attempt to help secure the country. How would that work out? Badly, I’m sure.

The country is less culturally intelligible to Americans than Russia, or even the Middle East, and not just because of the language barrier, but because of vastly different worldviews. China is physically immense and has the largest population in the world. Chinese are extraordinarily nationalist, and it is not hyperbole to say that the Han in particular are racial supremacists. Years of CCP propaganda have instilled a deep hostility towards the US in particular, and many (and arguably a large majority of) Chinese blame the west and latterly the US of inflicting centuries of humiliation on China. A collapsed CCP would not disappear: it would almost certainly call on its revolutionary tradition and launch a fierce and bloody resistance. People in Hong Kong may be flying American flags now, but I guarantee that in a post-Communist China, there would be tremendous animosity towards Americans.

When you can’t do anything, the best thing to do is nothing. Some of the greatest fiascos in history have been the result of demands to do something, when nothing constructive could be done.

The American diffidence that Tyler Cowen laments reflects an intuitive grasp of that, where the intuition was formed by bitter experience.

I despise the CCP. It is, without a doubt, the greatest threat to liberty in the world today. It is murderous, and led by thugs. I completely understand the desire of those with at least some comprehension of a different kind of government, and a different way of life, to be rid of it. I am deeply touched by their admiration for American freedom–something that has become increasingly rare, and increasingly besieged, in America itself.

But there ain’t a damn thing I, or even the entire US, can do to make that happen.

Ironically, I guarantee any American involvement in a putative post-CCP China would only contribute to internecine political warfare in the US.

The situation is analogous to that in 1946, when George Kennan wrote the Long Telegram. Confronting (prudently) and containing China is the only realistic policy. After years of delusional policies that mirror imaged China, the Trump administration is finally moving in that direction, and has achieved considerable success in creating a consensus around that policy (the deranged Democratic presidential candidates and those corrupted by Chinese money excepted, both of whom are siding with China at present, because Bad Orange Man and moolah).

But even there we have to be realistic. For even after containment achieved its strategic objective, and the USSR collapsed, it did not result in a new birth of liberty east of the Niemen and the Dneiper. Nor should we expect that to happen on the Yangtze or the Yellow if containment consigns the CCP to the dustbin of history.

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August 27, 2019

It Was Almost Certainly a Petrel Nuclear Powered Cruise Missile That ‘Sploded in Severodvinsk

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 5:40 pm

The odds that what blew up in Russia on 8 August had a nuclear reactor, rather than an isotope battery power source, are becoming increasingly strong. Specifically, four isotopes associated with nuclear fission, strontium-91, barium-139, barium-140, and lanthanum-140, have been detected.

Norwegian nuclear safety expert Nils Bøhmer says the information removes any doubts about the explosion’s nuclear nature.
“The presence of decay products like barium and strontium is coming from a nuclear chain reaction. It is proof that it was a nuclear reactor that exploded,” Bøhmer says.

He explains that such a mixture of short-lived isotopes would not have been found if it was simply an “isotope source” in a propellant engine that exploded like Russian authorities first said.

. . . .

Several public statements from Russian officials in the days after the accident, which happened on a barge offshore from Nenoksa test site, claimed the failed test involved an “isotope source of a liquid-fueled propulsion unit.” That triggered speculations it could have been a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). Such isotope sources are previously known to come from lighthouses in the remote Arctic regions and space satellites.


“Had it been an RTG none of these isotopes would have been detected,” Bøhmer says.

Some still express doubt it was a nuclear powered Petrel cruise missile, because the initial explosion allegedly involved a liquid fuel rocket, and Petrel is allegedly launched using a solid fuel rocket. But there is no definitive proof that Petrel uses solid fuel rockets, and Russia has a well known preference for liquid fuel rockets. Indeed, perhaps the reason for the test is unsatisfactory performance of the solid fuel engine.

The mooted alternatives, the Poseidon nuclear submersible drone, or a seabed launched version thereof, don’t fit the facts. Although it is speculated that Poseidon will have a nuclear power plant (a closed cycle nuclear gas turbine or a pressurized water system), it would not require liquid fueled rockets, being essentially a torpedo that operates under water.

The bottom line is that the Russians almost certainly lied about the type of weapon that exploded. (This is my shocked face. No! Really!) Moreover, the weapon is most likely the Petrel, because that puts together a rocket and a nuclear reactor, and the alternative candidates don’t.

I wonder, though not very hard, if this will give Putin and his military people second thoughts about pursuing this weapon. Given his personal investment in it, and his apparent paranoia about US missile defenses, I doubt it. In fact, he’ll probably redouble the effort.

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August 21, 2019

Crazy Like an (Arctic) Fox?

Filed under: China,Energy,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 5:38 pm

Donald Trump recently unleashed yet another tsunami of ridicule by suggesting that the US should buy Greenland, a Danish possession. There he goes again! The idiot! The fool! What a ridiculous idea!

Trump responded by pointing out that Greenland is a strategic place. And he’s right.

And you know who thinks it’s incredibly strategic?: Vladimir Putin, and the Russian defense establishment. Under Putin, Russia has poured extensive resources into an attempt to dominate the Arctic. It has been building bases in the region at a fevered pace, and is imposing restrictions on ships using the northern sea route. It is attempting to grab as much of the Arctic seabed as possible, because of the potential energy resources it contains. Putin himself has said the Arctic “the most important region that will provide for the future of Russia.” Putin wants to turn the Arctic into a Russian lake.

Further, the strategic importance of this region is greater, the more you believe in climate change, or the stronger you believe it will be. Considerable warming would turn the Arctic into one of the dominant shipping routes in the world.

So by expressing an interest in Greenland, Trump is making a move that poses a direct, and serious, threat to Russian interests. Replacing a geopolitical pipsqueak (Denmark) that has a seat at the table in all negotiations in the Arctic, and which cannot utilize Greenland for any military purpose, with Putin’s bugbear–the US–would be a real blow to him. In Soviet lingo, it would dramatically shift the correlation of forces in the Arctic. That’s a big deal. For Putin especially.

Greenland is also a potential source of rare earths, currently a Chinese near-monopoly (and one of their most powerful “trade war” weapons), so US control would be antithetical to Chinese interests as well.

The irony is just too, too much. I guarantee that those who are ridiculing Trump most intensely also believe absolutely that he is Putin’s puppet, and are also fervent believers in the existential threat of anthropomorphic climate change. Yet they are so blinded by their prejudices and obsessions that they cannot see that the latest object of their ridicule proves how unhinged they are.

I am sure Putin does not think Trump’s gambit is the least bit amusing. But I am equally sure that he takes great solace in the fact that–yet again–he can rely upon a cavalcade of useful idiots who will act in his interest by attacking Trump all the while believing that they are actually fighting against Putin.

The US military has been raising concerns about Russian initiatives in the Arctic for some time. Trump apparently has been listening, and has come up with an out-of-the-box, color-outside-the-lines idea that of course appears ludicrous to the dreary, narrow, conventional minds that inhabit the media, political, and government establishments.

If this indicates that Trump is crazy, all I can say is that we need more crazy. And now.

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August 20, 2019

I Call BS on the Russian Explanation for the Severodvinsk Explosion: I’m Sure You’re Shocked

Filed under: Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 2:30 pm

Note: I wrote this Saturday, but was unable to post because of a technical problem at the site. No doubt those damned Russkies were trying to silence me 😛 I’ve only made slight edits, and added the part about Norwegian detection of iodine. Some of what is posted here anticipated discussions in the comments on Sunday and Monday.

In my original post on the Severodvinsk explosion I expressed puzzlement at the Russian explanation that they were testing an “isotope power source for a liquid-fueled rocket engine.”  I did some research to address my ignorance, and found, indeed, that radioisotope rocket engines are a thing.  The problem is that this thing is inconsistent with the closure of nearby waters due to the presence of toxic rocket fuel (allegedly from the explosion) and the mention of “liquid rocket fuel” in the explanation.

Radioisotope rocket engines work by using the energy released from the decay of radioactive isotopes to heat a solid material (the “capacitor”).*  When the capacitor is sufficiently hot, fuel is passed over it.  The capacitor heats the fuel.  The hot gas is vented out through a shaped nozzle, which accelerates it (exploiting the Venturi Effect), creating thrust.

The motor generates a greater pulse (the thrust produced with respect to the amount of propellant exhausted per unit time) than the Space Shuttle Main Engines.  But it generates far less power.  Further, it is fuel limited, and thus does require fuel which limits its utility as a source of continuous propulsion.  Thus, its main application is as rocket thrusters in space, not launching projectiles or powering aircraft or missiles in the atmosphere.  All of the applications of this source of power that I have seen relate to space in some way.

But here’s the thing: whereas conventional rocket engines operate by combustion (i.e., stored chemical energy is released as the result of the burning of the rocket fuel) radioisotope rockets do not.  The fuel is not burned, just heated. Hydrogen has advantages and disadvantages as a fuel for such rockets, but crucially there is no need for conventional rocket fuel, which is nasty stuff—toxic when it isn’t blowing up.

Which is why I call bullshit on the Russian story that specifically mentions “a liquid-fueled rocket engine.”  Conventional liquid rocket fuel combusts—big time.  Even if the Russians were to say that the liquid fuel was liquid hydrogen, that would not explain the alleged release of toxic rocket fuel in quantities sufficient to require the closure of beaches and fishing areas.  And why wouldn’t the Russians say it was a hydrogen explosion? The huge explosion also suggests highly explosive rocket fuel. 

Put simply: a radioisotope propulsion system cannot explain a release of radiation and toxic, combustible liquid rocket fuel. An explosion of a Petrel, or something like it can. The Petrel needs a rocket booster, and hence rocket fuel. The missile’s ramjet is powered by a nuclear reactor.

The Norwegians also reported they detected a release of radioactive iodine. This is consistent with the destruction of a reactor with a fissile fuel source, but not with the explosion of a radioisotope propelled vehicle.

One last thing cements my suspicions.  In their move along, nothing to see here explanation, the Russians said that NASA has developed an isotope power source (“Kilopower”).  Yes, Kilopower is a low power (1kW, with plans to go to 10kW) engine intended to generate electricity for spacecraft. (No rocket fuel, or any fuel for that matter, required!)  So it is almost impossible to imagine it, or anything remotely like it, blowing up, or even being around anything that would blow up, as happened in Severodvinsk. 

But “the Americans do it!” is an excuse right out of the old Soviet playbook. It is a convenient cover story, and one used repeatedly in the past.  Which suggests that they have something the Americans are not doing to cover up.  When this is added to the glaring inconsistency involving rocket fuel and radioisotope rocket engines, the circumstantial case that a Petrel/Skyfall accident is to blame for Severodvinsk becomes very strong indeed.

*It is sickly amusing to note that although the most commonly mentioned power source is Plutonium, Polonium (of Litvinenko infamy) has also been suggested.

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August 11, 2019

Did the Petrel Blow Up Real Good?

Filed under: Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 9:02 pm

In Russia, August, not April, is the cruelest month (though July can be pretty bad too). Recent Augusts have been pretty benign, though: no ferry sinkings or rash of drownings or major fires. This year, however, August (and July) appear to be returning to form, with an explosion at a Siberian ammo dump, raging forest fires (again in Siberia), and last week, an explosion at a missile test in Severodvinsk, in far northern Arkhangelsk. This all followed the sinking of a highly secretive submarine in July.

The first announcement of the Severodvinsk event was puzzling. There was a spike of radiation that had people in the area scurrying to pharmacies to get iodine. There was an announcement of an explosion during the test of a rocket engine. But conventional rocket engines don’t release radiation when they explode, so whence the radiation? Upon reading, the only thing I could think of was that there was a mishap in the testing of Russia’s insane nuclear powered Буревестник (Burevestnik or “Petrel”) cruise missile, of which Putin is so fond.

Since the explosion, the Russians have been telling the truth slowly, and although they have not come out and said it was the Petrel (“Skyfall” in Nato nomenclature) that blowed up real good, everything they have said tends to confirm that suspicion. Oh yeah. Seven people died. Not two. And five of those seven, yeah, they worked for Rosatom–Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation. And yeah, there was an explosion in “isotope power source for a liquid-fueled rocket engine.” (Come again?) A nuclear fuel vessel was anchored nearby, and emergency personnel evacuating the injured wore hazmat suits: the ship had been present at the time of a previous test of the Petrel.

The Dvina Bay has been closed due to alleged pollution from rocket fuel, and the Russians claim that the explosion occurred during the testing of a liquid fuel rocket motor, but this does not rule out that the Petrel was involved: conventional rockets would be used to launch the weapon and give it sufficient velocity for a nuclear powered ramjet mechanism to operate. (Though it is interesting that liquid fuel is involved: even the US’s insane nuclear ramjet Project Pluto utilized safer solid fuel rockets for liftoff. Perhaps the use of liquid fuel is not surprising: Russia’s still in development RS-28 Sarmat ICBM is also liquid-fueled.)

Although in a 1 March, 2018 speech Putin touted the missile as having virtually unlimited range, your results may differ. By a lot:

Russia is preparing for a special operation to find a missile that fell into the Barents Sea. This was reported by CNBC. The American television channel refers to intelligence data. Allegedly the missile with a nuclear power plant was lost during the tests in November 2017. The missile launches themselves were conducted four times, from November 2017 to February 2018. In all four cases, it ended in failure. The longest of the tests lasted about two minutes. The rocket flew about 35 kilometers and fell, according to TASS.

There were supposedly “moderately successful” tests (meaning they didn’t blow up, apparently) in late-2018 and January of this year.

In his March, 2018 speech, and in subsequent remarks Putin has betrayed a Hitleresque fascination with wonder weapons like the Petrel and the Poseidon nuclear torpedo. Hitler’s fascination arose from his realization that American and Soviet industrial might and population advantages made the odds against Germany prevailing in man-on-man, plane-on-plane, tank-on-tank combat vanishingly small. Putin’s focus on wonder weapons likely has a similar motivation.

These projects betray an inordinate fear of US missile defenses (if only they were so effective as to negate Russia’s ICBM arsenal–apparently Reagan’s ghost still haunts them), and something approaching panic at the recognition that the gap between American and Russian military potential is widening inexorably. * Falling behind in symmetric competition, Putin and his military establishment are turning instead to competing asymmetrically. These efforts are in the nuclear sphere, because the Russians recognize that nuclear weapons are their only source of strategic power, leverage, and relevance.

Putin’s pets Petrel and Poseidon are thus signals of weakness and doubt, wrapped up in bravado. They are unlikely to change the strategic balance in any serious way, and so far Petrel has evidently been far more dangerous to its developers than its intended targets. Not that you can expect an admission of that anytime soon.

*The use of liquid fuel in the RS-28 ICBM also likely reflects Russian fears of US missile defenses. Defeating missile defenses by using heavy parallel separation warheads requires much greater thrust that is more reliably delivered with liquid-fueled rockets. Reliance on such rockets may also reflect constraints on Russian capacity to produce solid-fueled rockets, due to the lack of critical materials.

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July 11, 2019

Putin Stands Aloof While Rosneft and Transneft Duke It Out

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:50 pm

Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes are noted for their vicious internecine battles between the lords of various economic fiefdoms: Nazi Germany presents a classic example (and perhaps a good thing too, because these battles crippled German war industry). Not-quite-totalitarian Russia is seeing such a battle today, over the fallout from the Druzhba pipeline fiasco. Pipeline operator Transneft and oil producer and refiner Rosneft are at it hammer and tong over the issue:

Russian state-owned pipeline monopoly Transneft launched a broadside at Rosneft on Monday, publicly criticising the oil producer for dragging its feet over oil quality controls and making unsubstantiated damages claims.
Transneft said that Rosneft had been unwilling to help resolve a contaminated oil crisis in the Russian Druzhba export pipeline which began in late April and that the oil producer was seeking compensation from it without any grounds.
Rosneft did not immediately responded to a request for comment.

For his part, Putin is steering clear:

The dispute between Rosneft and Transneft (TRNF_p.MM) is not a matter for Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene in because it is a corporate matter, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday.

As if Putin never got involved in corporate matters before. Hell, this is supposed to be his job. As I have pointed out for well over a decade, Putin’s primary function in the Russian “natural state” has been to be the balancer, the adjudicator of conflicts within the Russian economic elite, and the distributor of rents among them.

So why is he standing aloof? His power has eroded to the point that he can’t dictate or even negotiate a settlement? Or does he actually quite like economic titans bashing out each other’s brains, thereby distracting them from scheming against him?

I’m guessing the latter. After some more weeks or even months of Tokarev and Sechin bashing one another, he’ll swoop in and graciously broker a solution.

An aside on Transneft’s criticism of Rosneft dragging its feet on “oil quality controls.” To me that is an implicit accusation that the massive contamination wasn’t caused by a handful of mopes currently enjoying the hospitality of a Russian prison, but was the result of something Rosneft did (or didn’t do). Given the volumes involved, that’s quite plausible.

And if true, it would make Sechin’s demand for compensation, and his praise for the operators of Rosneft’s German refinery, truly awesome examples of chutzpah. But we all know that chutzpah is one thing Sechin is expert at. Or should I say the one thing?

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July 6, 2019

Underwater Russian Roulette

Filed under: Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:18 pm

When my grandfather was barely 17, his mother signed a paper saying he was 18 (he was a hillbilly with no birth certificate, which gives rise to another story I may tell sometime), and he left Burr Oak, Ohio to join the Navy. He went to electrician’s school, and was assigned as an electrician’s mate on a submarine, the USS K-2 (submarine #33 in the US Navy), on which he served in 1921-22. (The K-2 was laid-up the next year.)

As you can see, she was a tiny thing, displacing 400 tons on the surface, and a little over 500 tons submerged.* My grandfather’s stories of his service on her were pretty harrowing. 1920s submarines were not for the faint of heart.

Even so, if given the choice, I would serve on the K-2 circa 1920 than on a modern Russian sub. Since Soviet days, the Soviet/Russian sub force has experienced a litany of accidents, many of them fatal: here is a list of those since 2000. The most notable of these incidents, and the one with the highest death toll, was of course the Kursk, about which Putin famously and laconically said: “It sank.”

Well, this week Putin didn’t have to say exactly those words about another sub, but there was a fatal incident aboard a Russian boat, reported to be the Losharik, reputedly a super-deep diving research and intelligence vessel.

Given the very secretive nature of the sub’s purposes and missions, and the inherent secretiveness of the Russian state, we know very little beyond a few details. These include that there was a fire that killed 17 aboard. (The standard crew of this class is estimated at 25, so arguably the fire killed 2/3s of those on board.) That the surviving crew was able to seal off the affected compartments, and eventually extinguish the blaze. And that’s about it.

It’s one thing for a dry dock carrying a decrepit hulk like the Kuznetsov to sink. It’s another for one of the most elite units in the Russian Navy to suffer such a catastrophic event. It does not speak well of the condition and readiness of the Russian Navy generally.

There are also some curious details. Reportedly 7 of the 17 killed were captains “of the first rank” (the equivalent of an O-6 in the US Navy). I know the Russian Navy (especially the nuclear sub force) is officer-heavy (and indeed, the entire complement of the boat is apparently officers), but that’s an insanely high number. Most US major combatants (including SSNs, SSBNs, and DDGs) are commanded by commanders (O-5), and others have a single captain, who is CO. What were 7 (or more) captains, plus two Heroes of Russia, doing on board? Was it holding some sort of ceremony? Or was it engaged in activities that were of intense interest to the higher ups?

Another possibility is enlisted ratings, and even junior and mid-grade officers, are not deemed sufficiently qualified and trustworthy to crew such an important vessel. But if they are not given substantial responsibility as lieutenants, how can one be confident in the captains? Is the Russian Navy so paranoid about security that they don’t trust anyone but the very senior, to serve on top-secret ships?

Also, are senior officers the best suited to handle the vital, but more narrow tasks that western navies entrust to well-trained, specialized ratings? If not, depending on the very senior to perform these tasks may increase the risk of things like fatal fires.

I doubt we’ll learn much more about the Losharik. But what we do know, especially in light of the record of Russia’s silent service, reinforces the very real perception that anyone in that service plays a submerged version of Russian Roulette every time his boat casts off.

*My grandfather took dozens of photos in his time on the K-2. I am going to digitize them and will post them when I do.

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June 24, 2019

Vova Phones It In

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 3:13 pm

Vladimir Putin held his annual marathon phone-in session last week. Although Vova was taking the calls, he was the one who was clearly phoning it in. By all accounts his performance was bored and listless, and largely unresponsive to the economic and environmental (as in garbage disposal) concerns expressed by many callers.

Putin’s answers to questions regarding declining living standards bordered on the pathetic, and definitely revealed he has no answers and can offer no serious succor. The best he could do is to tell Russians that things aren’t as bad today as they were in the 90s.

If the key to success is setting low expectations, Putin certainly succeeded! Perhaps the only current world leader who is doing worse than Russia’s in the 90s is Maduro.

As for explanations, the best Putin could offer was sanctions, and low oil prices. The sanctions excuse is somewhat amusing, given that Putin had previously claimed that sanctions not only wouldn’t hurt/weren’t hurting Russia, they would actually rejuvenate the Russian economy by encouraging the development of import-substituting industries. Insofar as oil prices are concerned, Putin’s answer only underlines the failure of Russia under his watch to develop outside the resource extraction sectors.

None of this should be surprising, and I have predicted such a trajectory. Maximum Leaders get old. They get tired. They get bored. They run out of new ideas and don’t have the energy or inclination to generate them. They begin to prefer a quiet life and to abhor change and innovation. Even they get captured by vested interests who strongly favor maintaining the status quo. Moreover, authoritarian leaders like Putin inevitably become progressively more isolated and out-of-touch because they are surrounded by sycophants, and deprived of feedback from elections, a free press, and open debate.

We are witnessing the senescence of Putin, and Putinism. The most grave concern–for Russians mainly, but for the rest of the world too–is that another inherent feature of authoritarian systems like the one in Russia is that the current leader has no interest in creating a system of succession: indeed, he has an interest in NOT creating one. As he continues to age, or if he dies suddenly, the battle to succeed him will intensify, and inevitably destabilize Russia (with spillover effects around the world).

This brings to mind two closing thoughts.

First, if you think Putin is bad, you should shudder at the type who will prevail in the struggle to succeed him. (Such person will almost certainly emerge from the shadows of the security services or their allies, and you will likely not have heard of him.)

Second, for years Putin’s political hole card has been “I have given you stability.” But ironically, his creation of an increasingly ossified system creates the conditions for a resurgence of instability–perhaps as bad as the 90s–upon his demise, or even his enfeeblement.

So it is more accurate to say that Putin has perhaps delayed instability, and guaranteed that the instability will be all the more intense when it inevitably reappears.

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June 15, 2019

If They Didn’t Have Double Standards, They’d Have No Standards At All

Filed under: Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:09 pm

Just when I think politics could not get any more retarded, I’m proven wrong. The latest example being the meltdown freakout over Trump’s statement that he would listen to “dirt” on an opposing candidate passed on by a foreign source.

The mind boggles. Those melting down and freaking out are Democrats to the last he, she, and xe of them. (Mitt Romney et al are basically eunuchs who follow the lead of the Democrats who unmanned them, and whose approval they crave.) They are all die hard Hillary supporters.

This would be the Democratic Party that actively solicited compromising information on Trump and Trump campaign figures from the Ukrainian government. Last time I checked, Ukraine was not the 51st state. Or even the 58th.

This would be the Hillary Clinton whose campaign hired a foreigner to solicit foreigners–Russians, no less, rather than the benign Norwegians whom Trump referred to in his answer–to collect dirt on Trump.

And alleged information passed on by Alexander Downer (who speaks with a funny accent and so I’m pretty sure he’s a furriner) was apparently totally copacetic.

A consistent application of the standards implicit in the meltdown freakout would require those melting down and freaking out to demand the banning of the Democratic Party and Hillary’s incarceration.

Consistent application. Sometimes I crack myself up. If these people didn’t have double standards, they’d have no standards at all.

A few other observations. Does truth matter? That is, should the information provided be ignored and even criminalized merely because it is from a foreign source, even if it is true?

Hypothetical. A source within the FSB provides documentation showing that while honeymooning in the USSR a certain candidate for president agreed to become a source for the KGB, and had in fact regularly provided information to the KGB and then the FSB in the past 30+ years. Is that information to be suppressed, merely because of the source? Isn’t it meddling in an election to keep this information secret? (Any reasonable definition of the word “meddling” would involve an action that affects the outcome of an election, and keeping information secret can impact the outcome just as much as its revelation. Which is precisely why candidates want to suppress compromising information.)

Indeed, some information can only come from foreign sources. So it’s better to accept an increased risk of electing someone who canoodled with foreigners, than to accept information that would disclose such canoodling, because the information came from the foreigners that s/he canoodled with?

The controversy over the DNC emails suggests that truth is not a relevant consideration. The veracity of those emails, and the damaging information in them, were never disputed. Yet their release was supposedly scandalous, and sufficient in the minds of many to rule them out of bounds for discussion.

Moving on. Isn’t the obsession with the foreign-ness of the source of the dirt, oh, I dunno, kinda nationalist? Isn’t it passing strange that people who are willing to accept the illegal immigration of every last Guatemalan to the US (transportation courtesy of a Mexican drug cartel) believe that it is utterly unacceptable for a campaign to accept information provided by a Norwegian or whoever who may never set foot on the fruited plain nor see the amber waves of grain? So citizenship should be totally irrelevant for residency and employment and receiving government benefits, but it is determinative when it comes to who can provide information on political candidates to rival political candidates?

That makes sense how, exactly?

Isn’t it also implicit in the obsessive focus on the citizenship of the provider of information that it’s totally OK for Americans to meddle in elections by passing on damaging information to opposing campaigns?

I could go on, but contemplating the outpouring of sanctimonious hypocrisy for too long makes my head hurt. Suffice it to say, the louder the scream, the more execrable the screamer.

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