The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Category: Vladimir Putin

Russia Is An Imperial State While America Is A Plutocratic Oligarchy

An oligarchy, as we use the word today (the dictionary definition is different) is rule by the rich, because they are rich. (A feudal king may be rich, but his power is not primarily a result of his wealth, but rather his wealth is primarily a result of his power.)

As I have written a number of times before, Russia is NOT a plutocratic oligarchy. America, on the other hand, is. What wealthy American elites want is what they get, and what ordinary people want they don’t get: this was shown clearly by the Princeton Oligarchy Study.

When Putin took control of Russia he broke the oligarchs.

In the summer of 2000, Putin met in the Kremlin with about two dozen of the men regarded as the top oligarchs. The meeting was closed, but reports later said he made them a sternly clear deal: Stay out of politics and your wealth won’t be touched…

By then, Berezovsky had already begun criticizing Putin. Within months, he left Russia for the United Kingdom and was granted asylum in 2003. Ten years later, he was found dead in his home; a disputed post-mortem examination said he appeared to have hanged himself.

Gusinsky, whose media holdings were critical of Putin and even satirized him, was hauled into jail amid an investigation of misappropriated funds; within weeks, he agreed to sell his holdings to an arm of Russia’s state natural gas monopoly, and he left the country.

Khodorkovsky, regarded as Russia’s richest man at the time, lasted longer, establishing the Open Society reformist group and showing increased political ambitions. But he was arrested in 2003 when special forces stormed onto his private plane and spent a decade in prison on convictions of tax evasion and embezzlement before Putin pardoned him and he left Russia.

I remember reading an article where one of the oligarchs shut down a factory and there was great protest. Putin not only forced the oligarch to re-open the factory, he was there when the oligarch made the announcement, glaring at him and treating him with contempt.

The oligarchs are not in control of Putin or the Russian government (though they have some influence at the provincial and civic levels.)

Now the AP article points out something very smart: that Putin is creating a new group of oligarchs loyal to him, by giving them resources seized from foreign countries leaving Europe. Smart to notice, and smart of Putin, though his successors may regret it. In a way this is very similar to feudalism, though it involves money and resources not armed men and land.

The new oligarchs will be loyal to Putin and probably this successor. Their children may well not be loyal to Putin’s successor’s successor, however, and that person will have to show the whip hand or cut a deal, or both. If they ever succeed in taking control of the government (and they will eventually if the system continues) then it will be very bad for Russians, same as oligarchic control of the US has been very bad for Americans. A “King” often uses the commons against the nobility and thus supports the commons to some extent, a king who is ruled by the nobles acts with them against the commoners.

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Let’s add another data point: Russia has vastly ramped up its military production. The US could not do so, the companies who make the weapons said they’d do it, but have been very slow about it because they make more money that way. In Russia, however, in 2022, Medvedev, Putin’s lieutenant stated:

“The goal has been set for a scrupulous execution of the government’s defense contracts in all of its key parameters, [and] prevention of disruptions in the supply of equipment,” he wrote on Telegram. “Attention has been drawn to the fact that all contractors could be held to account, including on criminal charges… Supervision over the execution will continue.”

Although I can’t find it, in another case he gathered them together and explained to them what Stalin did to those who didn’t make production quotas.

You can’t get clearer, or more threatening than that.

Russia’s weapon manufacturers serve the state. They make a profit and those who run them are allowed to become rich, but only if they meet their quotas.

Russia is a modern imperial system, similar to the early Roman one. The governors are hand chosen by Putin from his loyalists (he likes ex-bodyguards) and the bourgeoisie serve him. When Wagner rebelled, not one governor supported their rebellion, even in the first 24 hours when they seemed to be doing well.

America is an oligarchy, Russia has an emperor. The emperor is old, and the question is who will be his successor, which is why key lieutenants like Medvedev and Kadyrov (the governor of Chechnya) are competing in loyalty and fervor.

Both countries have elections, in both countries the elections have little effect most of the time, though their existence does allow the possibility of change thru them. In America, the leader changes, but since Reagan, the fundamental policies haven’t. In Russia, well, Putin is always re-elected, though it is also true that he has always been popular in Russia, with his opposition a minority.

Indeed, that opposition, largely urban professional types, are weaker now than ever, with many of them leaving Russia due to the war.

Putin, like the kings we discussed above, uses the commons against the nobility, to help keep them in check. He does care about his popularity.

So, again, the US is a nominal democracy which is actually a plutocratic oligarchy, and Russia is a nominal democracy which is actually an imperial system without family succession.


Wagner Chief Prigozhin Dies

His private jet “crashed.” I must say it’s a nice change from falling out of a window, though still a standard (those who have reason to believe powerful people want them dead should not fly in private planes.)

There were other people in the plane and they may not have “had it coming” (I don’t know) but Prigozhin was a piece of human garbage whose prison sentence was, for among things, choking awoman so he could rob her.

I won a bet with a friend on this, who thought that Prigozhin couldn’t be taken out without causing a clash with his troops.

This is classic: what Putin did was separate Prigozhin from his loyal troops so he wouldn’t have to fight them all, then take him out. The delay was to let those Wagner members who were still loyal to Prigozhin realize the loss. (The remains of Wagner will now mostly be integrated into the military.)

Prigozhin had to killed or put in prison. Putin could not allow him to be seen to prosper after he launched a coup attempt, however abortive that attempt was. Others might get the idea they could take a run at the king and if they failed, no big deal.

Remember that Prigozhin received no support from the Russian establishment: not one governor or senior official; no military support (hardly surprising after he alienated them by attacking a senior officer and constantly denigrating them.)

Prigozhin was a fool, he thought he was bigger and more popular than he was, and he paid the price.

Putin’s “weakness”, such as it is, comes from the simple fact that he is old and everyone knows nature will force him to leave at some point. He doesn’t have another twenty years at the top, and he has no obvious designated successor, so people are starting to jockey to replace him and for those who aren’t in the running, to pick sides, as you often can’t remain neutral. That said, his polling remains good, the military is loyal enough, and while there are some economic issues, they aren’t (yet, or perhaps ever) such as to cause him concern.

Remember the rebellion trifecta: an elite faction, the enforcer class unwilling to intervene, and a popular faction. Prigozhin tried to neutralize the enforcers by attacking while most of the pointy part of the military was at war, but he didn’t get any of it.

A palace coup remains possible, but at least for now, anything else is very unlikely.

“You come for the king, you best not miss.”

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Putin’s Control of Trump and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty

There is a meme in the resistance that Trump is Putin’s “puppet.”

This meme’s explanatory power is weak.

Take Trump’s announcement that he will pull the US out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty: This isn’t something Russia, or Putin, wants.

Trump admires Putin, and Putin provided some support for Trump’s election, hoping that would lead to the reduction or removal of sanctions (spoiler: it didn’t), but Trump doesn’t do everything Putin wants, or not do everything Putin doesn’t want.

What Russia wants, simply put, is a sphere of influence and to feel secure within that sphere of influence. This desire isn’t a particularly comfy desire if you’re near Russia (and weak–Europe is not weak). But it is no worse the US’s desire to have a sphere, as any Caribbean, Latin American, South American, many Asian, European, African, Middle Eastern nations have learned.

In fact, it’s a lot less scary unless you’re close by.

Russia doesn’t have 800 bases around the world. It has invaded, sanctioned, and overthrown less countries than the US in the last 30 years, and so on.

That doesn’t mean Putin is a good guy, or Russia is a “good” nation, but it’s certainly less evil, in terms of external body count and, heck, even internal numbers of people locked up, than the United States.

“Lesser Evil” isn’t much of a rallying cry, as the Democrats refuse to learn, but it does mean that when the US treats Russia as the horrible evil enemy, it falls flat.

The US is in what looks like serious decline. Rather than interfering in every one else’s business, it should mind its own business. If there is a formal defensive alliance: Live up to it. Otherwise, butt out. A great deal of evil in the world would be weakened and likely defeated, if the US would simply stop propping it up. This is true of Saudi Arabia and Israeli apartheid (and yeah, it is now formally apartheid whatever pretense otherwise) as well as many other evils.

A “good” country in the world helps other nations, doesn’t injure other nations and doesn’t support evil nations, but does not, as Adams said, go looking for monsters to slay.

Grant to others the right of self-determination. Do not support evil. Do not interfere in internal affairs. Do defend actual allies. That is all.

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Fools Russians Where Angels Fear to Tread

(NB: post by Mandos.)

Recent events suggest that, whatever they may have originally thought, the Trump administration is in the process of being pulled back into the overall historical attractor of US policy regarding Russia. The Russian establishment had made no secret of its preference for Trump and its belief that Trump was a person with which they could deal on a more even footing, a politician in a mold they understood, etc.

I’m not here to argue whether or not Trump (or Flynn) is some kind of Russian plant, an issue that seems to be occupying many others.  I gather that conclusive evidence on this matter has yet to be produced and that it so far lies in the realm of (negative) wishful thinking.  However, Russian policy-makers are already voicing disappointment that Russia-favorable entities in the Trump administration are increasingly weakened. The US state, particularly its intelligence community, are deeply set up for conflict with Russia, for better or for worse, and it turns out that the White House is only part of a large infrastructure, and any fantasies of an election resulting in a vast purge and house-cleaning were just that: fantasies. The intelligence community still believes to its core in the necessity of containing Russia.

However, one thing that is different now is the position of Western social liberals. Unfortunately, Russia had decided to back in spirit, if not always materially, movements that are identified with various strains of nationalist conservatism that are hostile to the goals and beliefs of social liberals. This is not only in the USA, but especially so in Europe, with the on-going rise of the Le Pens, the Wilders, and other groups in the world. Once upon a time, social liberal groups were principally parochial movements which were relatively indifferent on foreign policy questions regarding Russia, and to a very large extent also overlapped with anti-war movements — and so were once at odds with the intelligence community.

However, the apparent desire of Russia to return to a world of ordinary nation-state politics, and therefore its willing appearance (at minimum) of siding with conservative nationalist movements, have led to many social liberals now viewing Russia as mortal threat to their projects, and therefore, having a plausible motive to try to subvert political movements like that of Trumpism to their aims.  In this situation, social liberals (or “identity politics” movements, or whatever you want to call them) will quite rationally stake out a position that the devil you know (American intelligence forces) are better than the devil you don’t (Vladimir Putin). This is not helped by the appearance of things like Russia loosening its laws on domestic violence.

While social liberals have not lately been winning elections on their platforms (most notably, in the USA due to the Electoral College structure), it would be a mistake to assume that these groups have no power whatsoever. In fact, they have broad and deep bases of popular support (merely electorally inefficient), and those bases are being pushed into the arms of forces hostile to Russian interests. The combination of Cold War-style intelligence community conservatism with popular social liberalism is one that is likely to lead to an even more hostile neo-Cold War posture on the part of the Western establishment in the medium-term, unless in the short term Trumpism can generate the political competence required to coerce the establishment in the other direction.

For its part, Russia has been attempting to play, in the “further abroad”, a soft power role given that its other options are not effective. It is attempting to play the part of a rival global hegemon without actually being a hegemon. It does not currently have the cultural or technological reach to do so.  While it operates a technologically advanced, developed economy, it is still highly dependent on natural resource development and export. That means that the risks accruing from a strategy of using cultural divisions in the currently hegemonic Western social order are high: should social liberals gain the upper hand due to the inability of nationalist populism to operate the levers of state effectively, they will be confirmed in a resolve for further containment and suppression of a Russia that took sides against them.

Trump and the Taming of the Oligarchs

Some years ago, I read an article about a Russian oligarch who had wanted to close a factory in a Russian town in which the factory provided the only real jobs.

The people complained to Putin, and some time later Putin appeared on stage in the town with the oligarch. With an eye on the oligarch, Putin explained that the jobs would be kept in the town.

Putin’s speech was described as being cold and contemptuous towards the oligarch.

When Trump convinced Carrier to keep some, not all, jobs, in America, he did so largely through bribes.

What will be interesting, however, is to see how much he makes people bow.

Putin broke some oligarchs and allied with others, but the important thing to understand about Putin’s relationship with Russian oligarchs is that Putin is the senior partner. He is in charge. They can do well, even very well, but if they challenge him, he will force them to bow–or break them.

(For the record, I have less than zero sympathy for the oligarchs; I know how they made their money.)

We all, I presume, remember the picture of Romney meeting Trump, begging for the Secretary of State job (which he didn’t get). I suspect Trump really did want to give the job to Romney, simply so he could force Romney to bow on a regular basis, but Trump’s loyalists hated Romney too much.

Meanwhile, the tech oligarchs have all also met with Trump. He was gracious, but they came to him, despite their clear opposition of him.

One of the issues in the US is that its oligarchs think they don’t have to serve the public good. Apple and other companies have billions stored overseas, they dodge taxes, and they move jobs overseas at the drop of a hat.

They also think they don’t have to bow to the President.

Now Trump cares somewhat about Issue (by which I mean jobs, not tax dodging), but he’s going to care a lot about Issue #2 (bowing to the President). And Bannon cares a lot about both, because Bannon despises America’s oligarchs and wants to see them humbled.

Trump, well, Trump likes power. He wants to be loved by the mob, oh yes, but he values loyalty greatly, and, if crossed, he likes breaking people.

So I expect to see a number of oligarchs and other powerful people made examples of, forced to bow–indeed, forced to kneel.

If Trump wants to get his way, this is necessary. He needs these people to do some things they don’t want to do (make less money by bringing jobs back to the US), and they’ll need to be scared of him.

They need to be personally scared. They need to believe they personally aren’t immune from his power.

Trump will enjoy this. Bannon, if I read him correctly, will enjoy it even more.

Under Trump, oligarchs will do well, even very well. But not if they don’t bow. He wants some crumbs for ordinary Americans, and he needs the oligarchs to give them.

So one of the ways I will know if Trump is going to be successful (i.e., get his people enough goodies to get his second term, and the accompanying adulation) will be by watching the “kneeling to bribes” ratio, and seeing what Trump does to those companies who refuse to cooperate.

Be very clear on this, folks. This is something about which most people are complete idiots.

There is nowhere to go.

The rich cannot actually move their companies overseas. Where are they going to go? Europe will regulate them even harder (see all the problems Google is having). They don’t want to live in China or Russia, and China and Russia are the only countries strong enough to tell America to bugger off. Plus, of course, Putin and the Chinese Communist party won’t just make them kneel, they’ll make them get down on their bellies and grovel like worms.

No one else can stand up to America. Oh, Europe could, if it had its act together, but it doesn’t; and it wants regulation that repel oligarchs. Tax havens are a joke; they exist because the great powers want them to exist, and the second the Treasury cracks down on them, they will go away.

So if Trump wants to put the screws on, he can–especially if he’s smart about it. You make an example of a few people, you reward the others for cooperating, and soon they’re all bowing and scraping.

That’s how it works.

Let’s see if Trump knows how to play the game.

(And, for the record, no, this isn’t good. But the financial crisis proved we already have rule of men, and that this rule is to be used solely to enrich the few and immiserate the many. Rule of law will continue to disappear. I have no sympathy for most of the US’s oligarchs, because, while not as outright nasty as Russia’s oligarchs (on average–some of them are just as bad), they are almost all truly bad people who have strangled the US, and the world, to get where they are.)

The games are on, Caesarism continues its rise. It’s what Americans voted for and elites worked hard to create the conditions for it. Crying over it is like crying over physics.

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