Streetwise Professor

January 25, 2020

Riddle Me This: If All Roads Lead to Putin, Why is the Boot of US Sanctions on the Windpipes of Putin’s Pals?

Filed under: Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 12:04 pm

If you thought the Trump-Putin narrative was put out of our misery by Robert Mueller’s drooling performance back in May, you’d be wrong. The Democrats try to resuscitate it daily: one of Nancy Pelosi’s mantras is “all roads lead to Putin.”

Adam Schiff and Gerald Nadler brought up Russia repeatedly in their drone strike of an impeachment presentation before the Senate. And by drone strike, I don’t mean something explosive, like blowing up Soleimani: I mean they droned on and on and on.

Schiff demonstrated just how little he and his ilk actually know about Russia and Putin. Schiff drew laughs when he said Trump had made a religious man out of Putin:

“‘Thank God,’ Putin said, ‘Thank God nobody is accusing us anymore of interfering in U.S. elections, now they’re accusing Ukraine,’” Schiff said.

One may question the sincerity of Putin’s public religious displays, but one cannot dispute that he has repeatedly and consistently expressed religious sentiments, utilized religious symbolism, and has attempted to increase the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russian life. All long before Donald Trump was even a candidate. But apparently Schiff and the idiots who laughed with him (rather than at him) have a mental image of Putin as a godless commie. But we’re supposed to take their alarums about Trump and Putin seriously.

This continuing attempt to bring the Trump-is-Putin’s-puppet narrative back to life is utterly futile. They would have better luck giving CPR to King Tut’s mummy.

It is futile because it is completely untethered from reality. Trump administration policy towards Russia has been as harsh, or harsher, than Obama administration policy (even after the farcical “Reset”). Nordstream II is one example. Perhaps the best example is the suffocating sanctions that have been imposed on some of Putin’s inner circle and closest friends.

My friend Ivan Tkachev, a journalist at RBC, has been writing about the sanctions issue. This recent piece looks at the implications of the Finnish court decision against one of Putin’s closest friends, his judo buddy Boris Rotenberg.

If you aren’t familiar with it, RBC is one of the last–if not the last–major independent news outlets in Russia. It is definitely not a Kremlin organ, or a monkey to an organ grinding Putin. Putin tolerates it, as many canny authoritarians do, because he wants information that comes from outside the echo chamber. RBC is supposedly at the top of Putin’s reading pile every morning.

As an illustration of Ivan’s independence–and courage–he put idiotic western journalists (who swallowed the Sechin/Rosneft/Putin line) to shame in his coverage of the farcical Rosneft “privatization.” (I made a modest contribution to Ivan’s reporting, but I did it from the safety of Houston–not Moscow.)

So Ivan is not one to carry the Kremlin’s water, or that of oligarchs like Rotenberg, by exaggerating or distorting the severity of the Trump Treasury Department’s sanctions. Read the article, and you see that this sanctions regime places a heavy boot on the windpipe of people like Rotenberg, Deripaska, and Viktor Vekselberg:

2. It turns out that Russian oligarchs blacklisted under the US sanctions regime are cut off from the entire Western financial system, not just the American one. There are many examples of this ‘toxic’ extraterritorial effect of US secondary sanctions. For instance, Vekselberg’s and Oleg Deripaska’s frozen bank accounts in Cyprus; frozen dividends on Bank of Cyprus shares owned by Vekselberg; forced sales of private jets by the Rotenberg brothers and Deripaska. If we take into account that Chinese banks (despite the mythologised Russian-Chinese friendship) are extremely cautious about working with blacklisted Russians (as representatives of Russia’s Central Bank admitted in late 2018), it turns out that Russian oligarchs blacklisted under US sanctions are isolated from virtually the entire global financial system.

3. Moreover, the risk of secondary sanctions does not depend on the currency in which payments to or from SDNs are made; in the context of primary sanctions US dollar payments are a decisive factor, but secondary sanctions can be imposed regardless of the currency. In the case of Rotenberg, attempts were made to transfer payments in euros but the banks refused to execute the transactions.

The gravamen of the article is that banks around the world–even Chinese ones–are petrified by the scourge of secondary sanctions. If you want to do business in the US, or in dollars with anyone, you will not deal with anyone on the sanctions list in dollars–or in dinars or bolivars or . . . in bubblegum cards or wampum.

Indeed, although the sanctions formally restrict only “significant” transactions with those under ban, what counts as “significant” is in the eye of the US Treasury. The risks to a bank are so great that it’s wiser to engage in no transaction at all–even something as trivial as processing payment of a Rotenberg’s electric or trash bills.

Just as one may question the sincerity of Putin’s religiosity, one may question whether this administration’s sanctions on prominent Russians close to Putin reflect Trump’s sincere beliefs. But one cannot question that these sanctions exist, and are extremely punishing to the Putinites that they target.

But people like Pelosi and Schiff don’t even question: they pretend that they don’t exist. And this demonstrates that there is no doubt whatsoever about their insincerity, and fundamental dishonesty.

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January 16, 2020

Putin’s New Plan: Assuring That All Roads Continue to Lead to Him–In Russia, Anyways

Filed under: Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 8:13 am

Yesterday, Vladimir Putin (to whom, of course, all roads lead–just ask Nancy) proposed (which is equivalent to announcing) major changes to the Russian constitution. The most important element of his plan is a reduction in the powers of the presidency that has so assiduously built up over the past decades.

This is of course due to the fact that Putin is barred from another term in office, and resorting to some dodge like the “castling” maneuver that made the hapless Dmitry Medvedev president for a term would be too problematic even for Putin. So he is basically saying: “If I can’t be president, no one will be.”

This is not to say that Putin is going away, of course: far from it. He is basically playing a divide-to-rule strategy. The plan splits up the president’s powers, assigning some to the Duma and likely others to the heretofore advisory State Council. Furthermore, he imposes constraints on who can become president, eliminating anyone who has lived abroad in the last 20 years or holds dual citizenship. Since this group includes a wide swath of the Russian elite, the plan culls the heard of potential serious challengers to him, challengers who would likely attempt to reassemble the powers of the presidency were they to assume it.

This fragmentation of power plays perfectly to Putin’s strengths. Even in the current system his primary role, and source of power, is managing contending clans within the Russian elite. He is the balancer, the mediator. The mafia don ruling over squabbling mafiosi.

Fragmenting power actually increases the demand for mediation services. Under his plan, he will remain the essential man, and indeed become even more essential because under it there will be more disputes and more disputants.

So Pelosi’s phrase is apt, though her application to Trump is not: in Russia, all roads lead to Putin, and this new plan is designed explicitly to keep it that way.

Perhaps the diminution of his formal powers will impede his effectiveness as a mediator. But maybe not: a strong case can be made that he’s not a successful balancer because he’s president, but he’s president because he’s a successful balancer. The need for someone to play that role, and his unchallenged effectiveness in playing it, will remain. The formal appurtenances are of secondary importance.

In other words–no surprise here–Putin is designing a system that will perpetuate his role in a highly personalized, de-institutionalized political system.

Many Russians will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief, as this reduces the uncertainty surrounding his leaving the presidency in 2024. But their relief is only temporary, as this merely kicks the can down the road, and as we know, roads in Russia are horrible.

That is, this plan only defers answering the question: who replaces Putin? Maybe this maintains stability while he is alive–and sentient–but his life will end, and his physical and mental powers are likely to decline substantially before that time. What then?

The post-Putin transition was almost guaranteed to be a chaotic and vicious power struggle because of the highly personalized and de-institutionalized nature of the system he created. If anything, his proposed alternative is even more personalized and de-institutionalized because he will play the same functional role, but in an even less formalized structure. This, combined with the creation of new fiefdoms (e.g., by empowering the Duma) is likely to make the succession struggle even more fraught.

As the old commercial said: you can pay me now, or pay me later–with the implication that paying later will be far more expensive. So it will be in Russia, as in oil filters.

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December 23, 2019

At the Russians’ Feet and Trump’s Throat: Germany’s Nordstream 2 Hypocrisy

Filed under: China,Energy,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 1:46 pm

Last week, Trump signed into law a bill authorizing sanctions against any company involved with the construction of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline. Almost immediately thereafter, Ted Cruz sent a letter to Swiss company Allseas, which is laying pipe, stating that they were at risk of sanctions unless they ceased these operations. Almost immediately after that, Allseas announced that it was suspending work.

And almost immediately after that, Angela Merkel lost her shit:

“We are against extraterritorial sanctions, and not just since this decision yesterday — we also have this problem with a view to Iran,” Merkel told German lawmakers, referring to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from a deal between world powers and Iran meant to curb concerns over Tehran’s nuclear program and the imposition of new sanctions.

“I see no alternative to conducting talks, though very firm talks, (to show that) we do not approve of this practice,” Merkel said during a regular question-and-answer session in parliament. “We will see how things go with Nord Stream.”

You want talks, Angie baby? Talk to the hand.

I liked the part about Iran especially. Maybe she’s miffed because the secondary sanctions make it harder for Germany to help Iran finish the job the Germans started.

There has been a lot of bleating about how this American policy is intended to advance American economic interests, specifically US natural gas producers and LNG exporters. Maybe so, but any such criticism from Germany is an extreme case of projection, given its obsession with promoting German exports, including at the expense of the Greeks, etc.

There has also been a lot of bleating about how this is an attack on an American ally, and Nato. Well, as I’ve written ad nauseum, Germany is a pretty horrible ally of the US, and has been the biggest deadbeat in Nato for years. It spends chump change on defense, and as a result has an air force with few operational aircraft, a navy with few operational ships (and at times no operational submarines), and an army that trains with broomsticks.

Indeed, it is Germany’s persistent failure to pull its weight–hell, to pull Belgium’s weight–in Nato that no doubt makes Trump relish sticking it to them.

Payback is a bitch, Angela.

Further, the bleating about this being an attack on Europe, and Nato, is a particularly bad joke, given that large swathes of Europe and Nato detest Nordstream 2, and view it as Germany selling them out to the Russians. Poland is particularly outspoken on the issue:

“Despite the involvement in the Nord Stream 2 project of companies from some EU countries, this pipeline has never been a European or EU project,” said Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski, quoted by the PAP news agency.

“Instead, it remains an instrument for the realisation of Russian economic and, potentially, military policy.”

And it also undercuts Ukraine. You know, the country that Trump allegedly screwed for political gain, and for which Merkel constantly sheds crocodile tears.

That is, the Germans are even more two-faced than usual when it comes to alliances. Their idea of an ideal ally is someone who does what they want and lets them do what they want. Everyone else is an enemy.

The Russian (and Ukrainian) aspect of the story requires Merkel and other Trump critics to give Fitzgeraldian demonstrations of first-rate intelligence, i.e., holding two opposing thoughts in mind while retaining the ability to functoin These people tell us that Trump is in Putin’s thrall. But rather than acknowledging that he has implemented an avowedly anti-Russian policy (and the US has constantly harped on this aspect of Nordstream 2) by sanctioning the pipeline, the Germans and other euroweenies pivot to criticizing Trump for daring to trample on their sovereignty and harming European businesses.

As Churchill said, the hun is either at your feet or at your throat. Here, Germany is at the Russians’ feet, and at Trump’s throat–for having the audacity for going for a Russian economic jugular.

And they are singularly clueless in their failure to recognize that this duplicity is exactly why Trump DGAF about their objections to his policy.

It’s interesting to note that this dispute echoes one of the few serious disagreements between Thatcher and Reagan. In 1982, the Reagan administration was adamantly opposed to the construction of pipelines to export gas from Siberia to western Europe. (Ironically, these pipes are now the ones that are the source of chronic friction between Ukraine and Russia.) Despite her stalwart anti-Soviet policies, Margaret Thatcher supported the pipeline, on purely economic grounds: a UK firm located in economically depressed Scotland was a supplier to the pipeline, and almost two thousand jobs would be lost if they pulled out.

Reagan disagreed on broader geopolitical grounds. But back then, secondary sanctions were not an arrow in the American quiver–and Reagan probably would have shrunk from imposing them on the US’s closest ally. So the pipeline went forward.

Though not without Reagan getting a measure of revenge. The Soviets wanted US software to operate the pipeline, and of course they couldn’t obtain it through legitimate channels. So they tried to steal it, like they had stolen a lot of US technology before. The Reagan CIA was onto this, however, so they allowed the Soviets to steal software that turned out to be a Trojan horse. After a few months of operation, the Trojan kicked in, and completely disrupted the operation of the pipeline–and indeed caused an explosion on the pipeline in Siberia. The explosion was so large it could be seen from space, in what was supposedly the largest non-nuclear human-caused explosion ever.

Now I doubt that Trump would give a go-ahead to blow up Nordstream 2, given that the catastrophe would be in the Baltic, rather than the Siberian wastes.

But I am sure that there are days when he is tempted, given Merkel’s hypocrisy.

Which brings a thought to mind. Another source of bitter contention between the US and Germany is Huawei, which Merkel stubbornly insists on allowing to participate in Germany’s 5G rollout despite the extreme security risks that it poses. If Germany indeed flouts the US’s objections, and there is a subsequent failure in the German 5G system, it would be quite reasonable to collude that this wasn’t an accident, comrade.

Remember, Angela. You reap what you sow.

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November 23, 2019

The Judo Discount?

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:06 pm

Gazprom has recently sold two blocks of treasury shares, amounting to 6.5 percent of its equity, at substantial discounts. The most recent sale, of a 3.6 percent stake, was at a whopping 11 percent discount.

The sale was to a single buyer. Had to be a pretty well-heeled dude to come up with the mere $3 billion purchase price. (Was it all cash? Or did some accommodating state bank fund a big chunk of the deal?)

The lucky single buyer’s name has not been disclosed, but rumor has it that it is Putin’s longtime friend and judo buddy, Arkady Rotenberg. He would definitely count as well-heeled.

As I’ve said for years, folks: judo is the path to riches. At least in Russia.

The behavior of Gazprom’s stock price has been rather strange. Yes, it dropped about 2.5 percent on the news of the discounted sale, but this drop mirrors almost exactly the rise in price on the day prior to the announcement.

While looking at the stock price, I noted that Gazprom’s market cap is now . . . . drum roll, please . . . . $85 billion. LOL. I remember they halcyon days of 2007 and 2008 when Gazprom management bragged it would be the first trillion dollar company.

Only off by two orders of magnitude. Could happen to anyone.

But it’s not surprising it happened in Russia, where the to-my-friends-everything-and-to-my-enemies-the-law essence of the Putinism has succeeded only in consigning the country to becoming an increasingly irrelevant blip on the world economy.

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Putin’s Anti-Fracking Jeremiad: Using a Green Aura to Blind the Gullible to Russia’s Technological Limitations and the Consequences of His Adventurism

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:38 pm

Vladimir Putin is deeply concerned about the environment, especially about the environmental ravages of evil American technology, notably fracking:

Speaking of the United States, Putin had plenty of words for them as well, accusing the U.S. of ignoring the negative environmental externalities of the nation’s mass-scale shale oil and gas production (fair enough) calling the process “barbaric” and proclaiming that Russia will never use fracking as a means of oil and gas extraction. “We will never frack,” Putin told a representative from Total SA during Moscow’s Russia Calling! conference on Wednesday. “We don’t need to develop shale oil at all. First, we don’t need to increase the supply of oil to world markets, and we have enough oil we can get from the Arctic shelf.” He added, “In spite of all of the economic benefits, we do not need it and we will never do this.”

Well, Putin does have a (rather mysterious) candidate degree in “economic science” from the St. Petersburg Mining Institute, so perhaps he is qualified to give disquisitions on externalities (never mind the plagiarized thesis!). But the externalities lingo was no doubt put into Putin’s mouth by Charles Kennedy (whoever the-F he is). If Putin’s reference to barbarism had anything to do with the environmental impacts of fracking, he was merely blowing smoke up the you-know-what of the environmental movement in the West.

No, if Putin thinks that anything about shale and fracking are barbaric, it is the fact that they have raped and pillaged the oil price on which he and Russia are so dependent, and have created the US LNG industry which constrains Russian market power in European gas markets.

In other words, if there is anything green behind what Putin said, it’s greenbacks, not nature.

As for environmental impact, drilling and producing in the Arctic Shelf is far more environmentally problematic than shale production via fracking.

Putin’s anti-fracking jeremiad is also undermined by Gazprom Neft’s endeavors in this area. It’s also worth nothing that Russia’s Bazhenov layer (which Gazprom Neft is focused on) is arguably the largest shale resource in the world. The impediment has been technology, a problem exacerbated by sanctions, now going on their 6th year.

You can bet that Putin would not be lamenting the barbarities of fracking if Russia had the capability to do it. He is merely trying to rationalize Russia’s technological inability to exploit its shale resources, an inability exacerbated by the consequences of his foreign policy adventurism.

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If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again, Right Vova?

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

At a ceremony where he gave awards to scientists fried by the explosion of a Skyfall missile to the wives of the deceased, Russian President Vladimir Putin said: “We will certainly be perfecting this weapon regardless of anything.”

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!

“Regardless of anything.” Rather scary thought, considering what has already happened.

What is particularly scary is not the fact that so far, the weapon has been far from perfect–apparently failing every test. No, what is scary is the fact that if the weapon is perfected, it is certifiably insane.

But Vova evidently puts great stock in it. It will ensure Russian “sovereignty and security for decades ahead,” he says.

And oh yeah: “Simply possessing these unique technologies is the most important, solid guarantee of peace on the planet.”

World peace. Sounds like Vladimir is practicing for the Miss Universe contest. Can’t wait for the swimsuit competition.

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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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