Streetwise Professor

July 17, 2018

In Helsinki, Trump Declares That This Is War to the Knife–Against His Domestic Enemies

Filed under: China,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:04 pm

Even by the standards of the last two years, the hysteria that erupted over Trump’s statements in the press conference with Putin in Helsinki were off the charts.  Benedict Arnold! Treason! Traitor! Impeachment! On CNN some supposed ex-Watergate lawyer compared it to Kristillnacht. I suppose if we wait a few hours it will become the latter-day equivalent of Auschwitz.  I’m only surprised that I haven’t seen it compared to the Hitler-Stalin Pact.  Give it time!

The most disgusting comparisons in my mind were to Pearl Harbor and 9/11, suggesting that what Trump did would have been analogous to sitting down with Tojo after Pearl Harbor or Osama after the Twin Towers went down.

Reality check.  Pearl Harbor death toll: 2403. 9/11 death toll: 2996. 11/8/16 death toll: zero.  1,117 American sailors were vaporized, drowned, or incinerated on the USS Arizona alone on 12/7/41.  Anyone comparing Russian hacking to those catastrophes is completing lacking in perspective, not to say mental balance, and is willing to make the most outlandish comparisons out of partisan spite.  Especially inasmuch as spy games have been going on since time immemorial, and between the US and Russia/USSR for decades.  What transpired in 2016 is par for the course. Where’s the outrage been all these years?

And is the US supposed to go to war with a nuclear power over hacking? For that is the implication of the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 analogies.  That is not just lacking in perspective–that is utterly deranged.

And what is the hysteria about, in the end?: mere words.  Nothing of substance transpired at the summit–as could have been expected.  The overwrought fears that Trump would totally capitulate on Syria, or recognize the Russian seizure of Crimea, or sell Ukraine down the river turned out to be imaginary.  There were just anodyne statements about working toward common goals, which will likely result in nothing.

How would things have been different, or be different today, or tomorrow, or next year, had Trump aggressively chastised Putin publicly about the alleged interference in the 2016 election?  No different at all, except that the hysterics would have had to find something to be hysterical about.   And I guarantee you: they would have.

What would Putin have done had Trump called him out?  First, he would have denied.  As he apparently did when Trump brought it up.  Second, he would have responded with a litany of sins that the US has committed against Russia, in which he would no doubt include the 2011 elections in Russia. After all, the man is the master of whataboutism and bald face denials of the obvious.  Why would you expect any different yesterday?

“Did so!”  “Uh-uh.” “Stay out of our politics!” “You did it first!”

That would have been edifying.

Which would leave us where, exactly? Right where we are today.

And if the failure to say sufficiently condemnatory words about Russian interference is treasonous, what is the failure to do anything about it when it was happening, in full knowledge that it was happening?  Which is exactly what the Obama administration did–by its own admission.  Would the hysterics have given Trump a pass if he had imitated Obama and told Putin to “cut it out”?  Yeah.  Right.  This also suggests an utter lack of seriousness.

What I find most deeply disturbing about this is that the Russia/Putin fetish is distracting attention from a real strategic threat.  By every measure–economic, military, geopolitical–China is a more dangerous power than Russia.  Indeed, even if you emphasize cyberattacks as the primary threat, China is likely far more dangerous than Russia, although amnesia about things like massive penetration of the F-35 program or the OPM hack (which compromised the personnel records of every federal employee) seems to be epidemic.  And it is not as if China does not, and has not, attempted to interfere in US elections.  (Johnny Chung, anybody? Maria Hsia? Buddhist Temples?)

Chairman Xi must be beside himself in glee that the US is tearing itself apart over Russia, a declining power, to the neglect of China, a rising one.

Perhaps Trump could have spared himself some of the attacks had he been more critical–though I am doubtful that he could have done anything short of killing Putin that would have placated the critics.  But no doubt Trump knew that.  No doubt he knew that having a summit at all would put him in a vulnerable situation.  Certainly he was aware that the indictment of the 12 Russian GRU personnel was a trap set by elements in his own Justice Department.

Yet Trump had the summit, and indeed pushed to have it, and said what he did at the press conference, knowing the likely fallout.  Why?

Of course the anti-Trump theory is that he is in Putin’s thrall, either because of genuine admiration or blackmail.  But this does not comport with much of his actual behavior in office, which includes killing hundreds of Russians in Syria, opening declaring an energy war, browbeating Nato to spend more on defense directed at Russia specifically, blasting the Germans about NordStream II, and on and on.  Further, what is the likelihood that there is some deep dark secret that only a few Russians know?

I think the more likely explanation is that Trump deliberately provoked his frenzy in full knowledge of the consequences, to prove that he will not back down, and that he will not validate his critics by acquiescing to their demands.  It was a typically Trumpian in-your-face-what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it moment.

The only other person I have seen with a similar take is James S. Robbins:

The easiest thing to do politically would be to avoid Russia. The president did not have to attend this summit meeting, especially with the midterm elections months away and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s expected report looming. He could have simply avoided both the issue and the optics.

But Donald Trump did not become president by doing the easy or expected thing. His political M.O. is to disrupt the opposition by owning the downside. A summit with Vladimir Putin is the perfect Trumpian way to say to his frantic critics that he couldn’t care less what they think. And it may force some of the more thoughtful ones to begin to consider the possibility that President Trump is right, and the entire Russian collusion narrative has been a lie.

I seriously doubt the last sentence.  Or at least, I doubt that there are any critics who are both frantic and thoughtful (and the former greatly outnumber the latter).  But it is pretty clear that Trump has signaled that this is war to the knife–against his domestic political enemies–and he is not capitulating.


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July 10, 2018

To Those Hysterical Over Trump’s Jacksonian Resurgence: Internationalist, Heal Thyself

Filed under: Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 5:42 pm

As Trump wings his way east, first to a Nato summit, and then to a meeting with Putin in Helsinki, the commentariat and political class in the United States and Europe are on the brink of–another?–psychotic event.  The meeting with Putin in particular has triggered panic.

One recurrent theme is that Putin and Trump have similar views on the “rules based, institutions based, international order.”  Therefore, they are effectively allies and jointly a threat to the peace and stability of the world.  The title of one piece in Bloomberg summarizes the angst: Putin is Trump’s brother from another Motherland.

As a factual matter, it is true that both Putin and Trump challenge the existing post-Cold War consensus.  But since they reach that destination by very, very different routes, the similarities are far more superficial than the differences.  Furthermore, the consequences of this apparent convergence are likely to be far less dire for the United States than the angst-ridden claim.

It is only natural that Putin challenges the existing order.  After all, he presides over the main successor state to the Soviet Union, and much of the existing order was designed explicitly to contain and neuter the USSR.  Furthermore, the collapse of the USSR left Russia marginalized,  at best, which does not comport with Russia’s deeply held views that it is a great power–a view that Putin holds, clearly.  Russia also has a truly Westphalian mindset, which holds that the internal affairs of any nation are its business alone, and not subject to the meddling of others–or the “international community” at large.  Indeed, the one multilateral organization that Russia supports–the United Nations–receives its approbation precisely due to the fact that it can be used to derail international efforts to interfere in the internal affairs of states–including pariah states.  Putin’s revisionism is therefore readily understood.

Trump’s is more complicated, and reflects a longstanding divide in the United States.  Much of the criticism of Trump from the American establishment–including the part of the establishment that considers itself conservative, and indeed the sole legitimate voice of conservativism–is therefore a manifestation of longstanding divisions in American politics, which (a) caused his election, and (b) is why it is becoming less hyperbolic to talk of a new American civil war.

The best template to explain and understand this is Walter Russell Mead’s division of American foreign policy thought into Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, Jeffersonian and Jacksonian schools.  The establishment is decidedly Hamiltonian and Wilsonian.  As Mead–and I–noted from the onset of Trump’s emergence–he is the avatar of the long marginalized, and indeed scorned, Jacksonian America.  The establishment thought that this component of the American polity had long since been condemned to obscurity, and views its resurgence with the fright of a horror movie character seeing The Mummy or Jason Voorhees come back from the dead.

Jacksonians challenge virtually every aspect of the Hamiltonian-Wilsonian consensus.  The foreign policy establishment–whether Neocon or liberal internationalist–believes that America has some grand mission abroad, to bring democracy, peace, equality, freedom, or economic progress, or some combination thereof, to the rest of the world.  Jacksonians (and Jeffersonians) do not believe in such missionary work, and indeed are quite skeptical of it.  In the words of John Quincy Adams (ironically Jackson’s political foe and bête noire) “she [the US] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Jacksonians are deeply patriotic, and believe that theirs is the greatest nation in the world, but that it should lead by example and not attempt to impose by force or more subtle forms of coercion or blandishments its views, beliefs, or mores on others.

This leads them to be deeply skeptical of international engagements, let alone conflicts, when US interests are not directly threatened.  And unlike internationalists, they define American interests narrowly.

On this score, recent history is strongly supportive of Jacksonian skepticism.  As in so many aspects of life, the past quarter century–or perhaps to date it more precisely, since the fall of the USSR in 1991–has demonstrated the incompetence of the architects of internationalist policies, the infeasibility of these policies, or both.  This period has been marked by a litany of bloody, expensive failures, of which Iraq and Libya are the most conspicuous (but not only) examples.  Interestingly, these failures were the responsibility of different parties, different administrations, and different mindsets (Neocons on the one hand, “responsibility to protect” on the other), and differing degrees of international buy-in, but these different parts of the establishment shared a belief that the exercise of American power could make the world a better place by destroying monsters abroad.  The experiences strongly suggest that these beliefs were utterly mistaken.

(A confession: I supported the war in Iraq.  In retrospect, it was the worst misjudgment of my life. One of the main challenges of writing this post is to not overlearn from that mistake.)

Putin was adamantly opposed to US/European action in Libya, but he was prime minister at the time and Medvedev acquiesced to American and European pressure.  Give the devil his due: regardless of his motivations, Putin’s (and Lavrov’s) diagnosis of the consequences of that intervention were far more accurate than, say, Hillary’s, or pretty much any member of the US or European foreign policy “elite.”

Given this woeful record, what person in his right mind would NOT be skeptical of a deeper intervention in Syria, say, with the objective of regime change?  Syria makes Game of Thrones look simple by comparison.  Yet few things attract the foreign policy establishment’s ire like Trump’s oft-expressed desire to withdraw from Syria, or at least sharply limit American involvement there to destroying ISIS.

And given this woeful record, deep skepticism about the competence of the establishment, and the desirability of messianic interventions even if guided by a competent establishment, is well-justified.

Which leads me to reiterate a theme that I have written about for going on three years now: if the established elite hates Trump, and the Jacksonian resurgence that he personifies, they have no one–no one–to blame but themselves.  No one has brought more discredit to the beliefs of the establishment than that self-same establishment.  Internationalist, heal thyself.

Jacksonians also prize sovereignty and independence, and bridle at attempts to subordinate the US to international bodies, or tie it down in alliances with nations whose interests are less than fully aligned with America’s–especially when the US pays a disproportionate share of the expense.  And especially when the alleged allies repay the effort and expense with endless ankle biting and carping criticism.

Here is where Trump’s criticism of Nato resonates.  That Nato nations free ride on US defense expenditure is beyond dispute.  Trump calls the Europeans out on this, and they squeal like stuck hogs–and the US foreign policy establishment squeals right along with them.

More implicit in Trump’s criticism is a question about the purpose of Nato in 2018.  It had a purpose in 1949.  It had a purpose in 1990.  What is its purpose now?  Trump is effectively daring it to find one.

The UN and many other international bodies are often opposed to the US, and even the alliances (especially with Europe) seem to consist of Lilliputians intent on tying down the American Gulliver.  This also rankles independent and sovereignty-minded Jacksonians.  Global progressives think that the US is a malign force that needs to be suppressed and controlled by international bodies.  That also grates intensely on patriotic Jacksonians.

Jacksonians—and many Hamiltonians—are also justifiably critical of an omnipresent nanny state that regulates every aspect of human existence.  This is why his criticism of the EU is justified, and why many Americans nod in agreement.  And why many Europeans also agree, even though intense social pressure forces them to mute their criticism.  Jacksonians also value democracy, and hence are not enamored with the profoundly anti-democratic EU (whose motto appears to be: “you will vote until you get it right”).  So European outrage at criticism of the EU is music to my ears.

The Trump—Jacksonian—critique of the foreign policy establishment in the US and abroad therefore has much merit.  And again, the very reason that Trump is in a position to challenge the elite consensus is that the elite has failed time and again to deliver on its promises.  It is a legend in its own mind.  In reality, not so much.

The Hamiltonian side of me is most disturbed by Trump’s stance on trade.  But even here one can see his point.  It is farcical to characterize the current world system as one of free trade.  Real free trade would not involve byzantine agreements that only a mandarinate can interpret.  China is profoundly protectionist.

I think that Trump is a mercantilist, and that represents a deep intellectual error.  But many of his critiques of China in particular, and to a lesser degree the Europeans, have some basis in fact.  Whether trade wars are the best way to redress what Trump criticizes is anther matter.

Given all this, I discount the shrieks of the establishment—heavily.  One can object to some of Trump’s specific criticisms.  You can criticize his methods.  But if he is a barbarian at the gates, the city that fears he is about to sack it is vulnerable because of its own profound internal failings.

Which brings me back to Putin.  One of the standard attacks against Trump is that by sharing a distrust of the current international system with Putin, Trump is strengthening Putin and weakening the United States.

I am of course no Putin booster (as 12 years of posts amply demonstrate), and think it is desirable to contain Russian influence.  But to believe that Trump’s challenge to the prevailing consensus empowers Putin and disempowers the United States is to engage in the same kind of zero sum thinking that I have criticized Putin for in the past.

Indeed, Putin should be careful what he asks for.  A replacement of the multilateralist international system with a more independent, unilateralist—and Jacksonian–United States will not necessarily redound to Putin’s benefit, and may be his worst nightmare.  The increase in American defense spending, and the aggressive promotion of US energy, are antithetical to Putin’s interests.

At best, the reorientation of US policy may give Putin more freedom of action in places like Syria—to which I say, good luck with that, and welcome to it.  It may also empower Russia to some degree in the near abroad, but even there Russia’s fundamental—and increasing—weaknesses (economic, demographic) will limit the damage it can do.

But fundamentally the US shares few interests with Russia, and has many opposing interests.  America unbound, more unilaterally assertive where it views its true interests to lie, and not distracted or enervated by efforts in peripheral areas, is more threatening to Russian interests in the long run than a Clinton administration would have been.

Further, Trump’s more benign view of Russia may reflect an assessment that Russia is not truly a great power, given its economic, demographic, institutional, and social limitations.  In terms of capability, and arguably intentions, China represents a more pressing challenge to the US, and focusing on Russia represents a foolish diversion of resources and division of efforts.  That is, Trump may be less cultivating Putin than patronizing him.

In sum, the post-Cold War world order has been vastly oversold.  The encomiums heaped upon it reflect intentions—and self-congratulation–far more than results.  Putin challenges it for his reasons.  Trump challenges it for very different reasons.  Arguably both are acting in their national interests.  A meeting between these two challengers to the existing order could not have occurred unless that order had failed, fundamentally.  The hysteria surrounding it is a testament to the failure of the hysterics, not the success of what they are defending.



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July 7, 2018

No, Putin is Not a Genghis Wannabe Pinin’ for the Hordes. это Россия.

Filed under: Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 9:42 pm

The WSJ embarrasses itself with this silly Yarosov Trofimov “think piece”  titled “Russia’s Turn to Its Asian Past.”  I say “think piece” in quotes because that’s what it pretends to be, but there really isn’t a lot of thought in it.  It is a farrago of random quotes and facts about Russian history that actually betrays little actual knowledge of Russian history.

Trofimov’s basic thesis is that spurned by the West, Russia is increasingly looking east, and moreover, “some Russians” (how many, out of a population of ~140 million he doesn’t say) look favorably on the Golden Horde.  Indeed, the piece is illustrated with a drawing of Putin as Genghis Khan–and even though Trofimov didn’t choose the illustration, he did speak approvingly of it on Twitter.

Trofimov’s “evidence”?  Well, Putin laments Russia’s lost empire, for one thing.  This is hardly a new phenomenon: Gaidar wrote a book about a decade ago titled “Collapse of Empire” which starts out discussing the lost empire syndrome and how it has haunted Russian consciousness since 1991, and which argues that Russia won’t progress until it gets over that loss.  Gaidar noted that this was accompanied by widespread resentment of the West, and ambivalence–or worse–about where Russia fit in.

For another, “Now Russia is increasingly looking East, toward an uneasy alliance with an illiberal and much more powerful China, and—in recognition of the country’s increasingly Muslim makeup—with nations such as Turkey and Iran.”  This is just great power politics.  In what represents continuity, rather than change, a leadership that believes in multipolarity, rejects globalism, has a decidedly Westphalian worldview, and views the US as its primary rival is looking for like-minded allies, who happen not to be in the West.  Go figure.  This doesn’t make Putin a Genghis wannabe pinin’ for the Hordes.

Trofimov assembles quotes from assorted people who claim Russia is rejecting the West due to various slights, real and perceived.  Again, in a nation of 140+ million people, you can find people–even well-known ones–who can express all sorts of views.  Moreover, again, it’s a long way from saying that Russians generally think that they’ve been making a huge mistake for the past, oh, several centuries blaming Russia’s relative backwardness on the “Mongol (or Tatar) Yoke.”

Trofimov’s lack of seriousness is best illustrated by his treating seriously one person in particular–Aleksandr Dugin, whom Trofimov describes as “the leading voice of this Eurasianist movement in Russia today.”  OK: I dare you to name the second leading voice.  One would probably be very hard-pressed to do so, which indicates just how marginal this movement is.

Dugin is a fringe figure to whom Putin paid some attention years ago, but his fifteen minutes of fame is long over.  He is now basically an outcast, having been fired from Moscow State University in 2014 for saying “kill them all” when asked what should be done with Ukrainians.  Giving Dugin any credence would be akin to emphasizing the importance to American contemporary thought of some Neoconfederate who once was a professor until he was driven from the academy for his lunatic ravings.

And oh, it’s not like Eurasianism is a new thing.  The current strain is sometimes referred to as “Neo-Eurasianism”, to distinguish it from the earlier version that flourished for a time in the emigre community after the Revolution (of which Nikolai Trubetzkoy was probably the most well-known advocate).  There are differences, of course, but the key commonality is that Eurasianism old and new emphasize Russia’s apartness from the West, and attribute it largely to its unique geographic position.

Having seen Dugin portrayed as some Svengali-like figure to Putin by those who view the Russian president as a bogey man, I have learned that anyone who gives him any importance whatsoever is unlikely to have anything insightful, or even interesting, to say.

The most amusing piece of “evidence” Trofimov presents is “a small theme park reconstruction of Sarai Batu”, “the Horde’s razed 15th century capital.” Whatever!

The most annoying thing about Trofimov’s article is its utter lack of historical perspective.  He acts as if Russian ambivalence and hostility towards the West is a new thing.  As if Russian questioning of its relationship to the West is something that has developed in the second half of the Putin era.  As if it is a novelty for some parts of the Russian intelligentsia and political class to reject the West and insist that Russia carve out a distinct place in the world and develop its distinct–and superior–society.

Hardly.  It is in fact a very old thing, and represents a major theme in Russian history.  Trofimov says that what is happening now is “an attempt to undo the westernizing approach that has dominated the Russian state going back all the way to Czar Peter the Great, three centuries ago.”  In fact, there have been such attempts ever since, well, the time of Peter the Great (e.g., the Old Believers who rejected Peter’s changes to bring the Russian Orthodox Church’s rituals in line with those of the Greek).  The subsequent centuries have seen see-sawing debates between Slavophiles and Westernizers.  Virtually everything that Trofimov cites as indicating some great new reversal of Russia’s progressive arc to the West in fact has echoes in the writings of the Slavophiles in the mid-19th century, and in those of their successors over the years.  They have never gone away.

Indeed, a Russian much admired in the West for his stand against the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, was essentially a Slavophile who was hardly a lover of the West.  Ironically, one of the criticisms leveled against Solzhenitsyn when he returned from exile in 1994 is that he had nothing new to say about Russia, but was merely recycling old Slavophile thinking:

WHEN Alexander Solzhenitsyn set foot on Moscow soil July 21 after 20 years of forced exile, the influential Russian literary journal, Novy Mir, was already preparing to publish his programmatic tract, “The Russian Question at the End of the 20th Century.”

The lengthy article, which examines Russian history since the 17th century and sums up the writer’s historio-philosophical views, is “as significant as his celebrated 1990 essay ‘How to Rebuild Russia,’ ” Novy Mir editor Sergei Zalygin excitedly told the Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

But what new ideas does Mr. Solzhenitsyn truly bring to his Russian brethren? Surprisingly few. In fact, the man acclaimed as Russia’s greatest living writer presents almost nothing that hasn’t been heard before, either from him or the host of Russian nationalist Slavophiles dating back to the 19th century. Indeed, the 40-page essay is permeated with familiar principles such as “healthy isolationism,” antidemocratism, nationalism, and xenophobia.

Thus, to the extent that there are anti-Western intellectual currents in Russia, and that some in Russia (particularly among the intelligentsia) are advocating Russia turn its back on the West, this represents historical continuity, rather than discontinuity.

And it is particularly important to emphasize that this is now, and has always been, much more of a parlor game for intellectuals than something that has affected Russian government, policy, or statecraft.  Indeed, if anything–now and in the past–the direction of causation has been from international setbacks to intellectual ferment, than it has been from intellectuals’ ideas to Russian policy, whether under tsars, commissars, or presidents.

Trofimov actually acknowledges this, but then throws it aside:

It’s not clear to what extent the Kremlin believes its own propaganda. While resentment over Russia’s diminished stature is a key motivator of Mr. Putin’s behavior, so far Russia’s decision-making has been driven largely by opportunism rather than by a grandiose civilizational shift. “I don’t think Putin is thinking in terms of historical mythologies,” said Mr. Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council. “I don’t think he needs an ideological grounding for his policies.”

Actually, it’s quite clear: it doesn’t believe it at all.

In sum, all this chin pulling over “who lost Russia?” or “is Putin a new Stalin/Genghis?” is vapid.  It is an offshoot of the End of History fantasies that accompanied the end of the Cold War, and which posited that the entire world would converge to the liberal Western model, particularly that epitomized by the US.  The competing Clash of Civilizations view made much more sense at the time and has certainly stood the test of events much better.  No one lost Russia because Russia was never the West’s to lose.  It has always been a self-consciously distinct civilization that has constantly struggled to define its relationship to the West.  The current intellectual debates within Russia, and the nature of Russian policy towards the West and the rest of the world, are continuations, not departures.  History rhyming, as it were.

The current obsession with Putin in the West obscures that fundamental fact.  Putin could get killed by a falling house tomorrow and very little would change.  It wouldn’t be like the death of the Wicked Witch of the East leading to the liberation of the Munchkins. Russia would be Russia.  The changes in Russian policy and mindset would be superficial, at best.  Russia would continue its centuries-long attractive-repulsive relationship with the West.  Russia would continue to have strong authoritarian tendencies and an abiding suspicion of its neighbors.

Unfortunately, the Trofimov piece, like so many others, completely lacks this historical context, and leaves one with the impression that what is happening now in Russia is something extraordinary.  It’s not: it’s very ordinary, in the Russian scheme of things.  But by giving the opposite impression, articles like this create false perceptions about current events, and false expectations about how things may change in the future, or how American or European policies could materially impact how things evolve.

There’s an old expression: это Россия.  That’s Russia.  Often said with a shrug, indicating resignation about things that have always been so, and are unlikely to change.  Yaroslav Trofimov hasn’t identified something new.  He’s basically described something quite old: это Россия.  Would more people understand that was the case.

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June 18, 2018

Putin’s Very Useful Idiots

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:28 pm

This article is of interest primarily because it represents an inversion of, a retreat from, and a repudiation of, the collusion narrative:

[Former CIA Moscow station Chief Dan Hoffman] points to the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting, which he says was a deliberately discoverable Russian operation.

“I think what Vladimir Putin was thinking is the best way to soil our Democratic processes, link the Trump campaign in some conspiratorial way, because it’s Russia, back to the Kremlin.”

Two years on from that meeting, President Donald Trump and his team are still being investigated over allegations of Russian collusion.

. . . .

Mr Hoffman says the Trump Tower meeting has the Russian President’s fingerprints all over it.

“It wasn’t meant to be a clandestine operation, that’s the last place he would ever do that. There’s too much security, too much press, too many people there,” he said.

“What I think Vladimir Putin was doing, was deliberately leaving a trail of breadcrumbs from Trump Tower to the Kremlin.

“I see the full spectrum of Russian intelligence operations and frankly, if the media can find something that Russia did, like the meeting at Trump Tower, then it was meant to be found.”

. . . .

Mr Hoffman believes Mr Putin’s intention was to spark a media frenzy.

“[It was] kind of like a poison pill. Eventually the media will expose them,” he said. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, the politicians and journalists (and special prosecutors?) who have freaked out about the Trump Tower meeting are the ones who fell for Putin’s machinations. It is the politicians and journalists (and special prosecutors?) who have been Putin’s instrument in destabilizing American democracy.  It is they who have been Putin’s pawns, not Trump.  In their unreasoning hatred of Trump, they fell right into a trap that Putin laid.

This was my first reaction to the Trump Tower meeting “bombshell” back in 2017.  It’s not that complicated to figure this out–there would have been no reason for the meeting if Trump had been colluding with Putin all along.  It is the allegations of collusion that have advanced Putin’s interest, not collusion itself–and setting up a meeting like that in June, 2016 was an obvious way of stoking those allegations.  But to see someone from the CIA endorse this rather obvious logic is quite interesting.  It signals that the collusion story is effectively dead, and never should have drawn a breath in the first place.

Von Mises (not Lenin) wrote that communists called western liberals who were “confused and misguided sympathizers” for the USSR “useful idiots.”  (This phrase is typically attributed to Lenin.) Today’s western media and establishment politicians are fully deserving of the epithet.  But they do the 1920s and 1930s-era unwitting dupes for Lenin and Stalin one better: rather than being sympathizers (confused or otherwise) they advance the objectives of someone they claim to despise in every way, and in so doing they damage the very thing they claim they are protecting. Given this, “useful idiot” seems rather generous, doesn’t it?

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June 6, 2018

Putting Germany First

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 1:24 pm

Angela Merkel is set to challenge Donald Trump’s America First agenda at the G-7, presumably to the strains of Deutschland über alles.

This is just another illustration of Germany’s utter lack of self-awareness, because criticizing America First is rather jarring coming from Merkel and her country’s political elite, which espouses Germany First in all but the slogan.  But actions speak louder than words.

Consider the record of the last few weeks.  The German elite threw an absolute tantrum at the prospect of an anti-EU government in Italy, and strongly backed the Italian president when he rejected such a government.  The German budget minister, Guenther Oettinger said “The markets will teach the Italians to vote for the right thing.”

This was yet further evidence of German tone-deafness, because the backlash against his remark, and the real possibility that the Italian reaction would be to have another vote that would strengthen the populists even more, unleashed another market meltdown. This forced the EU, led by Jean-Claude Juncker, to go into damage control mode and force Oettinger to apologize and to get German politicians to put a cork in it generally, lest they do even more damage.

Oettinger, in other words, had committed a gaffe.  That is, he said exactly what he really believed–and you know that the German establishment believes exactly the same.

Another case in point.  Completely oblivious to the optics of Germany and Russia cooperating to benefit at the expense of the Poles (e.g., the three partitions, Molotov-Ribbentrop), Merkel and Germany are unwilling to give the time of day to the Poles’ objections to the Nord Stream II pipeline. Germany has also been extremely critical of Poland’s democratically elected government, and is leading the charge in the EU to cut aid to Poland (and Hungary) for “violating the rule of law.” Like the Italians, the Poles apparently just got it wrong when they voted and are in need to Teutonic guidance.

Altogether now: “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, Über alles in der Welt . . . ”

I’ve already mentioned in a previous post the obliviousness of Germany’s anger at Trump for interfering with its ability to do business with a state that has vowed-repeatedly-to exterminate Israel.  Yes, Angela did criticize Khamenei’s characterization of Israel as a “cancerous tumor” that Iran would eliminate, but again, actions speak louder than words.  Germany’s preferred policy–a continuation of the JCPOA, with a bonanza of European (and especially German) investment in and trade with Iran-would do far more to assist Iran in realizing its objective than Merkel’s words will impede it.

Merkel is apparently of the belief that she’s not advancing German interests.  Oh, no! She’s the defender of the “liberal international order”:

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Mr. Obama that she felt more obliged to run for another term because of Mr. Trump’s election to defend the liberal international order. When they parted for the final time, Ms. Merkel had a single tear in her eye. “She’s all alone,” Mr. Obama noted.

What self-sacrifice!

Tell me: just exactly where does Iran fit into the “liberal international order”? Russia? China? All of these are avowedly opposed to that order, and say so at every opportunity.  All are clearly revisionist powers. But in her hatred for Trump (and likely for the US generally), Merkel is more than willing to reach out to them.  Subjectively, Angela is all about the “liberal international order.” Objectively, quite the opposite.

You may dislike Trump’s America First/MAGA agenda and rhetoric.  But it does have one thing all over Merkel’s: honesty.

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May 27, 2018

Alice in Swampland: Paging Lewis Caroll

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:02 pm

It is alternately amusing and nauseating to watch the shocked! Shocked! reactions to Trump’s accusation that the FBI (and likely the CIA and perhaps other tentacles of the octopus) spied on his campaign (i.e., on him).  Perhaps only Lewis Caroll could do justice to the verbal contortions:

 “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Only to the Masters of the Word in the swamp could a counterintelligence operation, complete with a codename, NOT be considered “spying.” Further, it is clear that Trump was the target of this counterintelligence (i.e., spying) operation, rather than the beneficiary of its protection (as some of the swamp things would have us believe). If US intelligence believed that the Russians were running an operation against Trump, rather in league with him, they would have informed him.  They didn’t. Hence, they believed he was the enemy.  Not that complicated.

The most satisfying thing about all this is is that whenever anyone engages in such semantic pettifoggery, and obsesses over definitions rather than substance, it is an admission of defensiveness, the inability to win an argument on the merits, and indeed, guilt.

Basic facts are usually robust to variations in the words used to describe them–which is precisely why Trump can be persuasive to many people (most of whom do not live by words) despite his verbal imprecision.  If a particular claim can only be made by playing Humpty Dumpty, and making a simple three letter word like “spy” mean exactly what you want it to mean, that’s a pretty strong indication that your claim is wrong, and moreover, you are making it in extremely bad faith.

The crucial issue here is how this will play with the public.  My inclination–and perhaps this is wishful thinking–is that most Americans are like Alice, looking askance at swamp-dwelling Humpty-Dumptys.

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May 24, 2018

Gazprom and Its Connected Contractors: The Credit Mobilier Scheme, With Russian Variations

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,History,Russia — The Professor @ 6:05 pm

A couple of SWP friends were kind enough to send me a copy of the swan song of one Alex Fak, an erstwhile senior analyst at Sberbank.  Alex lost his job because he committed a mortal sin: telling the truth, in this instance about the monstrosity that I have savaged for years–Gazprom.

Alex said that the oft-heard question “why does Gazprom do such stupid things?” is off base because it presumes that the company is run in the interest of shareholders: if it were, its unmatched record of value destruction would indeed be stupid.  However, Mr. Fax opined that the company’s actions over the decades are definitely not stupid if you evaluate them from the perspective of its contractors, who make massive amounts of money building obscenely negative NPV projects.

Why does this persist, in the Putin era, which allegedly cracked down on oligarchic thievery? Well, one reason is that the biggest contractors happen to be owned by–wait for it–the two biggest friends of Vova: Gennady Timchenko (a hockey buddy) and Arkady Rotenberg (a judo buddy).*  Putin did not eliminate oligarchs, so much as replace them with his cronies.  Calling out such connected men by name is no doubt why Mr. Fax is an ex-Sberbank analyst.  And saying this kind of thing puts him at risk of being an ex-person.

The Gazprom MO described by Mr. Fak  represents a continuation of, and a mega-sizing of, the bizness model of the 1990s, when the “red directors” of state-owned firms tunneled out huge amounts of funds by having their firms buy supplies and services at seriously inflated prices from firms owned by their relatives.

Indeed, in the pre-Cambrian days of this blog–2006(!)–I hypothesized that Gazprom and its contractors were in effect a Russian version of Credit Mobilier, the construction firm that the Union Pacific hired to build the railroad.

The WaPo article also mentions that Gazprom’s pipeline construction costs are two to three times industry norms. To me this suggests a Credit Mobilier-Union Pacific type situation, where inflated prices for materials and equipment flow into the pockets of companies owned by Gazprom managers. Just thinkin’.

Thomas C. Durant was the president of the Union Pacific–and the major shareholder in Credit Mobilier.  The UP paid Credit Mobilier around $94 million, and Credit Mobilier incurred only about $50 million in costs to build the UP.   The Gazprom arrangement is somewhat different given that neither Timchenko nor Rotenberg are executives at the Russian gas giant, but the basic idea is very similar. (I also noted early on that Transneft, the oil pipeline monopoly, operates on the same model.)  Gazprom and its contractors operate on the Credit Mobilier model, with Russian variations.

Once upon a time Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller boasted that he would make Gazprom the world’s first trillion dollar company.  Today it’s market cap is south of $55 billion.  Hey! anybody can be off by two orders of magnitude, right?

This is not surprising, because maximizing value to shareholders is not, nor has it ever been, the objective of Gazprom.  The objective is, and always has been, to divert resources to the politically connected via wasteful capital expenditures (that happen to be the revenues of the likes of Timchenko and Rotenberg).  Alex Fak understood this, and paid the price for shouting that the emperor had no clothes.

Both Gazprom and Rosneft are world leaders in destroying value, rather than creating it.  But this is a feature, not a bug, given the natural state political economy of Russia, which prioritizes rent creation and redistribution to the elite. And this is precisely why Russia’s pretensions to great power status rest on economic quicksand.  That should be blindingly obvious, and I am sure that Putin understands this at some level.  But revealed preference suggests that he values enriching his friends more than implementing the economic changes that would make his nation economically and militarily competitive.

*The sums tunneled from Gazprom to Timchenko make me laugh when I think about the oft-repeated allegation that oil trader Gunvor (half-owned by Timchenko) was a source of massive personal wealth for Putin (via Timchenko).  There was much more money to be made much closer to home, and completely outside the scrutiny of bankers and regulators.

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May 19, 2018

Step Right Up! See the Amazing Anti-Trump Contortionists Defy the Laws of Anatomy and Reason!

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 4:46 pm

If you’ve been asking yourself where all the carnival barkers and side-show contortionists have gone, wonder no longer! They have joined the elite media and vast swathes of the US bureaucracy, especially intelligence and federal law enforcement.

The examples are uncountable, but two are of particular moment today.  The first relates to Operation Telling the Truth Slowly (Very Slowly), which relates to a counterintelligence operation mounted against the Trump campaign.  You’ll remember that the original response, 14 months ago, to Trump’s allegation that he had been “wiretapped” was outraged denial.  Said denials no longer being plausible have required massive contortions to create a new narrative.  The barkers at the NYT are promoting the show, based on leaks from US law enforcement and intelligence.   Well, yes, a US intelligence asset located in Britain was sent out to contact Carter Page and George Papadopolous, because of their suspect Russian ties.  Michael Flynn was also targeted because despite his vitriolic anti-Russia rhetoric in a book, he shared a table with Putin once at an RT function.

But this wasn’t a campaign directed at the Trump campaign! Oh–quite to the contrary! According to the whatever-is-worse-than-execrable-and-then-whatever-is-worse-than-that James Clapper, with the WaPo serving as chief barker now, this was intended to PROTECT Trump from insidious Russian influences.  Which of course had to be accomplished by never telling him that his hangers on were being investigated.

There is widespread speculation about who the individual pointed at Page and Papadopolous was.  The Republicans in Congress are demanding to know the name, which has sent the deep staters and their barkers (e.g., Ben Witless, I mean Wittes) into paroxysms of rage.  Krugman went so far as to assert that demanding the revelation of this name is treason.

Um, the NYT article has released leaked information about just about everything about the guy but his shoe size.  (That’s probably tomorrow’s exclusive.) . Certainly every intelligence agency in the world from whom we would want to protect his identity already knows who he is–and did so probably even before the leaks.  So it is beyond superfluous to conceal his identity–except to buy the FBI and CIA and others some time and perhaps the chance to cover their sorry asses.

I actually take comfort in their rage.  It means they are very, very afraid.

What is interesting is Carter Page’s silence.  All he has to say is: “I met the following people”–and let the frenzy begin!  He wouldn’t be disclosing any intelligence, because he would not represent, nor would he know, who was a US source.  That he remains silent suggests he is scared.

Or of course some intrepid journalist could ask him (perhaps dropping a name like, I dunno, Stefan Halper)!

I know.  I’m so droll.

One last thing on this.  The conventional reporting, especially on the pro-Trump side, is that there was a spy in the campaign.  This is misleading (based on what we know) and they should stop saying so NOW to avoid providing a convenient straw man for the anti-Trumpers to knock down.

I think what happened is more analogous to The Sting, or another classic con.  Someone was sent to set up a mark.  In this case, the marks were Page and Papadopolous,  After they were set up, they could serve as a pretext to mount a counterintelligence operation that wormed into the Trump campaign via their communications, and the communications of everyone they communicated with.

The second contortion act, involves yesterday’s meeting between Merkel and Putin.  Now,  non-contortionists with a modicum of sense of shame and intellectual consistency would blast her for meeting with their alleged arch enemy, whom they claim happens to be the root of all evil in the world.  But, what is clear is that despite all of their ravings about Putin as part of their jeremiads against Trump, that in their minds Trump is the arch enemy and the root of all evil in the world.   Putin is just a convenient stick to beat him with, and when that stick doesn’t work, they will pick up another.

But instead she is being lionized, and being credited for reasonably working with Putin to oppose Trump’s anti-Putin measures (such as threatening to block Nord Stream) and Trump’s move on the Iran deal.  FFS, if Trump had met with Putin the anti-Trump lot would be barking that  it is because he was selling out the West, and that he is the equivalent of the South Seas Cannibal.  Merkel is making cooing noises at Russia and Putin–primarily out of her narcissistic pique at Trump–and saying how important it is for Germany to have a good relationship with Russia.

Merkel says to applause that good relations with Russia are important to Germany.  Which is exactly what Trump has said about Russia and the US–only to have this thrown back in his face as evidence of his being Putin’s pawn.

If Trump said or did any of these things the barkers would be screaming. SELLOUT.  TRAITOR. COLLUSION. IMPEACH HIM–THEN BURN HIM AT THE STAKE!

And tell me: how is Making America Great Again anti-western?   If anything, it is a muscular assertion of Western primacy by a Gulliver who is unwilling to be tied down by Europutians.  I would argue that in fact, Germany is far less part of the West than the US, and has been since before Arminius slaughtered three Roman legions in the Teuteborg Forest.  (I may well write a post on this.  Suffice it to say that German thought has always been decidedly opposed to Anglo-Saxon, French, and Italian thought, and two world wars show exactly how and why.) Meaning that making America great again is far more pro-Western than Making the EU Great ever will be, given that it is a crypto-socialist Trojan Horse for German ambitions.

I also note that Merkel is–get this–reaching out to Xi as an ally on free trade.

No, really.

This is such utter bullshit that even my 800 SAT score scatalogical vocabulary is utterly inadequate to do it justice.  Yet all of the carnival barkers not only eat it up, they regurgitate it.  (This also happened in spades at Davos.)

So we see why all the contortions are necessary.  Every argument must be bent and twisted and contorted in order to support the anti-Trump crusade, even though doing so violates the rules of logic, the rules of evidence, and basic human decency.

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May 17, 2018

Rosneft: The Farce Continues

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 7:22 pm

Remember when the Russian government said it was going to privatize a piece of Rosneft? Hahahaha. That is so 2016–please try to keep up!  In its announcement of “Rosneft 2022” the company proposes to buy back about $2 billion in shares, which is just about 20 percent of the piece sold off in 2016–no, wait–2017–no, wait–2018.  Adding even more hilarity is that the buyback plan was apparently at the insistence of Qatar, the last buyer standing which agreed to buy most of the shares initially privatized, much to the relief of the banks (Intesa and unnamed Russian ones) who were wearing a big piece of the risk.

I’m guessing that this was one of the terms Qatar laid down to absorb the entire hand-me-down stake for the original 2016 price, even though in Euro terms Rosneft’s shares are substantially lower today (despite a rallying oil price!)

Quite the vote of confidence there, eh?  Well, not that that’s surprising.  The conspicuous failure of any Chinese buyer to step into the shoes of disgraced CEFC tells you just how much confidence Rosneft inspires these days.

I am hard pressed to recall such a farcical series of events involving a major company.  If this one of  Russia’s state champions, just think of the shape the palookas are in!

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Today’s Adventures in Trumpland

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

The WSJ reports that the Trump administration has told Germany that the US would restart talks on a trade deal with Europe if Germany pulls the plug on support for the Gazprom-led Nord Stream project.  I find the linkage rather odd, but we’re talking the Trump administration here, and moreover, it may well be a brushback pitch after all of the German-led Eurowhining about the US: “Think it’s bad now? Let’s see what it’s like when I put my mind to it.”

One EU official responded as follows:

“Trump’s strategy seems to be to force us to buy their more expensive gas, but as long as LNG is not competitive, Europe will not agree to some sort of racket and pay extortionate prices,” an EU official said.

I could perhaps take this seriously, were it not for the fact that Germany forces its own citizens to pay “extortionate prices” for power produced by outrageously uncompetitive means as a result of its idiotic energiewende policy.

How extortionate? How uncompetitive? The article claims that US LNG would cost about 20 percent more than Russian gas.  Well, Germans pay approximately 50 percent more for power than the average across the EU, and EU-wide average prices are about double the US average.

In other words, Europe has its own energy extortion racket in place, and doesn’t want to let in any Americans.

The other interesting aspect to this story is that it is yet another example (I’ve lost count of the number) of the alleged Putin pawn Trump taking a major shot at the Russians.  The Russians are not pleased:

The Kremlin shot back immediately as spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the U.S. efforts “a crude effort to hinder an international energy project that has an important role in energy security.”

“The Americans are simply trying crudely to promote their own gas producers,” he said.

All I can say is that if Trump was bought, he sure as hell didn’t stay bought.  Not that any of those who have invested their entire being in the Trump-Russia collusion narrative will bother to notice.

Speaking of the obsessed and delusional, yesterday represented an all time low in the dishonesty of the inveterate Trump haters.  In a meeting with law enforcement officers, Trump called members of the brutal Salvadoran gang MS-13 “animals,” but the media and many politicians widely asserted that he was referring to immigrants as a whole.  If you read the transcript, it is clear that only someone who is deeply and deliberately dishonest could make such an assertion.

The fallback position of these reprobates is that well, MS-13 members are people too, so it is wrong to call them animals.

All right, if that’s what you think–prove it.  Invite a few to move in with you, and you can discuss the nuances of “kill, rape, and control” (“mata, viola, controla“) which just so happens to be the MS-13 motto. (Some say that “rob” is part of the motto too.)  If you’re real nice, they just might honor your request not to bring those icky guns into your house, and will just bring their machetes instead.  After a few verses of Kumbaya, I’m sure that your common humanity will shine through, along with some light illuminating the hole in your neck where your head used to be.

Of course, that will never happen.  Those who are preening and posing would never dare even enter the neighborhoods where MS-13 and similar gangs operate, let alone invite them into their houses.

Further: by defending these beasts, our better thans are condemning decent and innocent people whom they claim to care about to their depredations.

This is the worst kind of moral posing by the worst kind of poseurs.  These are twisted partisan hacks pretending to be moral titans. To let their rank partisanship utterly blind them to the reality of evil, and to ignore those who will have to suffer from that evil, is appalling beyond words.

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