Streetwise Professor

October 22, 2019

Mom! Vova’s Been Playing With Nukes Again!

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 5:14 pm

So my original hypothesis that the mysterious nuclear incident in Russia last summer was due to a malfunction in the nuclear-powered cruise missile has been confirmed, at least to the satisfaction of the US government. I was wrong in surmising, however, that the failure occurred at launch.

Instead, apparently the missile made an unplanned hole in the ocean during a test flight over a year ago, and has been killing time (and probably fish!) sitting on the bottom since. When the Russians attempted to raise it, the reactor went critical, and kablooie!

Sounds like they have a few bugs to work out.

Actually, it sounds like the entire idea is harebrained, and extremely dangerous to boot. It doesn’t work, and when it doesn’t work there is the risk of a nuclear incident.

Putin’s fascination with wacko weapons like this is a far, far greater concern than hobgoblins like Russian bots and Facebook ads that haunt Hillary’s dreams–and those of most of the left and the mainstream media. But the reporting on this has been scant, while we hear non-stop about fantastical theories of Russian election influence.

It’s seriously concerning that Vova is playing with crackpot nukes. But our establishment is utterly lacking in serious people to address these concerns. Instead, they are too preoccupied with riding their hobby horses and foaming at the mouth over Trump.

I’m sure it will all turn out swell, don’t you?

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October 14, 2019

Syria: To the Victor Goes the Spoiled

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 3:00 pm

The shrieking and rending of garments du jour emanates from Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from the path of a Turkish-backed invasion of northeastern Syria.

What, pray tell, is the US supposed to do? Resist a vastly superior force armed with heavy weapons, artillery, and air support with 1,000 light infantry and support troops? Did these people attend the George Armstrong Custer School of Warfare?

Oh, I forgot. Custer didn’t have air support at Little Bighorn. The US has the most powerful air force in the world. Maybe if we ask really nice the Turks will allow us to use the Incirlik airbase to launch bombing strikes against them.

Or is the US supposed to go large, and bulk up its forces sufficiently to fight Turkey in northern Syria? Riddle me this, military geniuses: just how would they get there?

Putting aside their tactical and logistical inanity for now, the critics of Trump’s move focus on two issues: the betrayal of the Kurds who fought ISIS in Syria, and the supposed surrender of American strategic interests in Syria.

As for the first issue, with respect to ISIS, the interests of the US and the Kurds of the YPG were aligned: both were enemies of ISIS. Yes, the YPG assisted in the US in its fight against ISIS, but it is equally fair to say that the US assisted the Kurds in their fight against ISIS. It was an alliance of convenience, and completely transactional.

That alignment of interests does not extend to supporting the Kurds in their conflict with Turkey. Yes, Erdogan’s Turkey is a colossal pain in the ass, and is at best a frenemy to the US, but it is not in US interests to engage in an outright war with Turkey, either directly, or by proxy, to advance the interests of the Kurds in their generations-long conflict with Turkey.

Along these lines, the key thing to keep in mind in the Middle East generally, and Syria in particular is: everyone sucks. Everyone. Everyone is awful. Sometimes the interests of awful group X align with the US, and we work with them (often to our regret). But that doesn’t change the fact that they are awful. This dew-eyed romanticism about the Kurds ignores this cardinal rule.

With respect to the second issue, I read drivel like: “Now that Trump made the US a bystander in Syria, Turkey and Russia are in the driver’s seat.” Or “US allied Kurds strike deal to bring Assad’s troops into Kurdish areas, dimming prospect for further US presence in Syria.”

They say this like these are bad things! Bystander sounds good to me, given the alternative of wading in. Syria is a dystopian hellhole that makes Westeros (after Daenerys’ flyover!) look like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I want to stand as far away from that as possible. Who in their right mind thinks otherwise?

Seriously: I want someone to make a coherent case that lays out the American national interest in Syria, and what is the price of achieving it. The first principle of war is “the objective.” So, just what is the American objective in Syria?

Destroying ISIS was arguably a legitimate interest. The current chaos may work to ISIS’s advantage, but is addressing that issue even possible given the potential for force-on-force conflict between Turkey and Syria, and thus potentially between Turkey and Syria’s patron, Russia? Who are we going to fight? Turkey? Russia? Syria? All of the above?

Are you people using a single brain cell?

This crowd is also freaking out that Putin and Erdogan may benefit from the US withdrawal. I seriously find it hard to imagine how both would benefit, precisely because they are on the opposite side of what is going on at this moment, with Syrian army forces moving to confront Turkish-backed forces. If they succeed, what will Erdogan do? Most likely, by reinforcing his proxy forces with Turkish formations. If they fail, what will Putin do? Probably reinforce Syrian forces with Russian ones, and provide heavy air support. Which will certainly kill Turks. Thus, the most likely outcome will be conflict between Russia and Turkey.

So how are Erdogan and Putin both going to come out on top? How are both going to be in the driver’s seat?

Apropos Henry Kissinger and the Iran-Iraq War: it’s a shame they both can’t lose. But maybe Kissinger is wrong, and they both will!

And we really shouldn’t care who “wins.” For here, to the victors will go the spoiled. Syria is a wrecked country with few prospects of seeing peace, let alone prosperity, in the foreseeable future. Or forever.

I laughed out loud when I read some idiot write that Putin desires eastern Syria’s oil riches. Some riches. Before the recent unpleasantness, in 2010, Syria produced a grand total of 385,000 barrels per day. Compared to Russia’s ~10 million. Syria has always been an oil pygmy. And the meager resources it had before the civil war have been wrecked, and will take billions of dollars to restore.

Yet it is this kind of “analysis” that we hear repeatedly.

If Putin and Erdogan and Assad want to fight over this rotted corpse, why should we care?

Let’s say the US magically vanquishes Assad, Russia, and Turkey. Then what?

Anybody taken a look at Iraq lately? Yeah, that’s gone and is going so great we can surely magically heal Syria. There is no upside for the US in Syria. It is a distraction, and a potentially costly one, from the potential for peer conflicts with China, and yes, Russia. We’ve already pissed away trillions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wasted tens of thousands of American lives in those places. The last thing we should do is add to the butcher’s bill and the financial cost.

The problem with Trump’s critics on this–and other things, especially in foreign policy–is that they don’t evaluate the real choices, the real trade offs. They engage in nothing but magical thinking that bears no relationship to the ugly reality on the ground. They apparently have some ideal outcome in mind (the US vanquishes Putin and Assad and makes Syria a beacon of hope in the Middle East) but have no clue on how to achieve that outcome.

The fact is that Syria is a place where angels fear to tread. But we surely have a surfeit of fools who are willing to rush in regardless.

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October 1, 2019

Bill Barr Attempts to Hold the Unaccountable to Account, and the Unaccountable Like It Not Even a Little Bit

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 1:19 pm

On my flight back from Geneva, I watched Argo, the Ben Affleck film about the rescue of 6 Americans who escaped the embassy in Tehran when it was taken over by Iranian “students” in 1979, and who hid out in the Canadian embassy.

The hero of the movie is Tony Mendez, a CIA exfiltration expert. Yay! CIA! CIA!

The only problem is that the only reason that Mendez was needed to pull off the miracle escape was that the CIA failed utterly in its primary mission: intelligence. The agency was completely blindsided by the Iranian revolution, and had indeed specifically told President Carter that Iran was NOT in a pre-revolutionary situation. Right before the actual revolution toppled the Shah.

If the CIA had done its job, Tony Mendez wouldn’t have been needed to do his. The abject failure of his organization to perform its primary function competently was the predicate for his heroism.

This is only one of the CIA’s colossal failures. Off the top of my head, I can think of: the massive overestimate of the size of the Soviet economy, the (not unrelated) failure to foresee either Gorbachev or the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, being gobsmacked by India’s atomic test, 911, the various Iraq War fiascos, and the failure to predict Saddam’s incursion into Kuwait.

Mendez was awarded the Intelligence Star, the highest honor that a US intelligence agency person can receive. And justly so.

But what about all of those whose failures paved the way for his medal? Did they pay any professional price at all for their failures?

I seriously doubt it. They all probably just worked their way down the belly of the bureaucratic snake, getting advancement on schedule before retiring with full benefits.

The primary source of bureaucratic dysfunction–and as the record shows, the CIA has been dysfunctional since its founding–is a lack of accountability. There is little price for failure, no matter how egregious that failure might be.

There is an even more sinister aspect to that lack of accountability, an aspect that is particularly important for intelligence agencies, and which has also been demonstrated time and again.

An intelligence service like the CIA must operate in secrecy, but that secrecy makes accountability almost impossible. That, in turn, allows agency personnel–especially at the highest levels, where secrecy is greatest, and who have powerful political connections–to engage in crimes, and political machinations, with little risk of being detected, and even less of being held to account.

But it gets worse. Access to vast amounts of very sensitive information gives intelligence agency personnel incredible power through blackmail, or the threat of blackmail. I am reminded of this story about German Chancellor Conrad Adenauer, from Paul Johnson’s Modern Times:

He had little affection beyond his own family circle and his closest associate was Hans Globke, co-author of the Nuremberg Laws, who ran the Chancellery and Adenauer’s private intelligence service. ‘And who knows’, Adenauer would smirk, ‘what Herr Globke may have in his safe?’

Before our eyes we are witnessing the consequences of the unaccountability of the CIA (and the FBI), and its vicious response to anyone who dares attempt to hold it accountable. Trump, and latterly his Attorney General, William Barr, are currently under relentless assault from leakers in the “intelligence community,” aided and abetted by their house organs, notably the Washington Post and New York Times, for their temerity in investigating the events that culminated in the Mueller probe. (I’m old enough to remember when the WaPo and NYT were in high dudgeon about the misdeeds of the CIA and FBI. Good times!)

Funny, isn’t it? I’m also old enough to remember being told that attempts to subvert American elections were a crime of the first order, and that no stone should go unturned and no lead unfollowed in the attempt to investigate and punish such actions.

But that apparently only applies to things that might implicate Trump.

I’m also old enough to remember that attacking an investigation was an admission of guilt, cuz “if you have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from an investigation.”

That is so 2018! Now the “intelligence community” and its schooling pilot fish are utterly freaking out over Barr’s diligent efforts to delve into the machinations that surrounded the 2016 elections. Hey, if you have nothing to hide, dudes . . .

When someone screams: “DON’T DIG BEHIND THE GARAGE! WHY ARE YOU DIGGING BEHIND THE GARAGE?” it’s a good bet that there’s something buried behind the garage.

Barr currently has not just a shovel, but a power shovel behind the garage in Langley, and other places around the world, where the US intelligence agencies skulked in the shadows in 2016. And it has them completely freaking out, and fighting back with every weapon at their disposal.

So keep digging Bill. And the louder they scream, bring in more heavy equipment.

Maybe Barr’s attempt to bring the intelligence agencies to account is a Quixotic task. I hope not. It is impossible to exaggerate how much is at stake here.

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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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