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

Tag: Vladimir Putin

Russia Is Preparing for War

I don’t think there’s much question about it. Even if they think it’s unlikely, Russia thinks war is possible enough that preparatory steps are required.

Citing routine drills, Russia has even moved missiles within striking range of NATO targets, into the Kaliningrad enclave bordering Poland and Lithuania.

Meanwhile, CNN informs us that:

“Moscow abruptly left a nuclear security pact, citing U.S. aggression, and moved nuclear-capable Iskandar missiles to the edge of NATO territory in Europe. Its officials have openly raised the possible use of nuclear weapons.”


This tension is spilling out into territory beyond the U.S. as well, as reports show the  European Union is less likely to ease sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine, now that Russia has intensified air strikes on E.U. and U.S.-friendly rebels in Syria. They are even considering more punitive steps.

…Press Secretary Josh Earnest said this week the U.S. was considering a “range” of “proportional” responses to alleged Russian hacking of U.S. political groups like the DNC. The accusation from Washington, CNN reports, came after the Syrian ceasefire talks broke down when U.S. officials suggested Russia should be investigated for war crimes.


This is all profoundly stupid and unnecessary. Crimea and the Ukraine are not worth a war with Russia. (Especially Crimea, which was part of Russia for centuries, and whose population, as best I can tell, genuinely did want to join Russia.)

Unlike everyone else in Syria, Russia was invited by the recognized Syrian government. And no Western nation should have much of an interest in destabilizing Syria. There are reasons for the Gulf Arabs, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey have such an interest, but not the West. Furthermore, to note the blitheringly obvious, there are NO “moderate” rebels of any significance in Syria. If Assad, nasty as he is, loses, an awful Islamic state will be set up in Syria.

The evidence of Russian interference in the US election is circumstantial at best, and even if they have given Wikileaks some documents, so the fuck what? All the documents released by Wikileaks are real documents, the information they reveal is what matters. The US has interfered far more extensively in a long list of other countries’ elections, including in Russia’s.

Let us remember, Russia still has enough nuclear weapons to destroy civilization multiple times over. So does the US. The Russians have been quite explicit that if they start losing a conventional war, they WILL use tac nukes, and it is a short step up from there to strategic nukes.

Over Syria? Over the Ukraine and Crimea, which were part of Russia for centuries and are clearly in their sphere of influence?

Clinton is an uber-hawk. Hillary has said that Putin is echoing Hitler in the 30s. She also called for a no-fly zone in Syria, after Russia was there.

Apropos of “rhetoric,” if you sincerely say someone is Hitler in the 30s, gobbling up territory, you are saying “only force can stop him.”

This is deranged. This is insane. This is potentially genocidally insane.

I hope that Clinton and other Western leaders are just spewing rhetoric, but I also know that that rhetoric is leading to real, concrete actions, like moving weapons and men to the borders of NATO; real sanctions which are doing real harm, and so on.

Contrary to what many seem to think, you can back yourself into a war (see World War I). We can’t afford to back into a war with Russia.

(Update: the “return of officials story” is wrong and I have removed it.)

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I Will Take Your Squealing over Litvinenko’s Assassination Seriously if You Have Criticized Obama’s Drone Assassinations

So, a retired British judge came out with a report saying Putin probably approved the death by radioactive tea of ex-Russian spy Litvinenko. Which means “almost certainly.”

And there is much brouhah.

And I yawn.

Because the difference between killing Litvinenko and the American drone assassination program under Bush and Obama, is that Bush, and especially Obama, have assassinated a LOT more people than Putin has.

No one with sense can take these arguments seriously any more. You cannot claim anything but tribal identity politics when your argument is, “Don’t do what we do.”

Hypocrisy doesn’t even cover it.

A good world requires that we don’t do things that are wrong, even if we think there is some short term advantage to it.  Certainly Putin was wrong, but “killing less people is better than killing more.”


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Bad Russians Decide to Ignore European Human Rights Court

Human rights are good, Russians are bad:

President Vladimir Putin has signed a law allowing Russia’s Constitutional Court to decide whether or not to implement rulings of international human rights courts.

The law, published on Tuesday on the government website, enables the Russian court to overturn decisions of the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) if it deems them unconstitutional.

President Putin must be a terrible person. Human rights!

The law comes after the ECHR ruled in 2014 that Russia must pay a 1.9 billion euro ($2.09 billion) award to shareholders of the defunct Yukos oil company

So, Europe used the ECHR to inflict two billion dollars of losses on Russia for doing something that it would take a great deal of intellectual contortion to say is a human rights violation.

Putin replied by taking away jurisdiction from “human rights courts” over Russia.

When you abuse your powers and use them unfairly, those who can will take those powers away from you. This is known as legitimacy. Now, when/if Russia does something that is actually a human rights violation, with respect to gays, for example, the ECHR will be able to do nothing.

This abuse of power is a constant refrain from the West. The US Treasury simply putting people and nations on terrorist lists and denying them access to the international banking system is an example, and its result is a serious effort by China and Russia to build a payments system which bypasses the West.

Abuse the power, and those who can will take that power away from you.

Then, we have the use of NGOs to perpetrate undercover activities, as when innoculations in Pakistan were used as cover for the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, bibles were smuggled in to North Korea under NGO as a pre-run for smuggling other items, or when democracy building has been used to overthrow governments.

The damage done to our ability to actually care for people through NGOs has been cataclysmic: They are no longer regarded as neutral actors, but as fair game.

While I have a theoretical belief in internationalism, at this point, absent some environmental issues, I would greatly support a return to the Westphalian system. If it isn’t happening in your country, it is none of your business. The theoretical justification for intervention is strong, but the post WWII history of intervention has shown that it almost always makes things worse.

Mind you own damn business. People who invest in Russian companies take their goddamn chances, and even if it is illegal, it is not a human rights issue. Investor rights do not equal human rights.

At this point, I would scrap every free trade agreement in the world post GATT, and every tribunal that comes with them.  The IMF and the World Bank are disgraces which have done far more harm than good; just get rid of them. All jurisdiction, other than some basic naval, aerospace, and environmental law ends at a country’s borders. If you don’t like another country’s laws, don’t go there, and don’t do business with them.

Then we can start over and create international bodies which aren’t set up primarily to protect American sovereignty and to enrich “investors” and oligarchs.

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Putin’s Secret Intent and How It Relates to Syria

Apparently Putin is difficult to understand:

Vladimir Putin Official Portrait

Vladimir Putin

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, created in 1949 to contain the Soviet Union, said it’s not sure what Putin is trying to achieve with either his actions in Ukraine or his weapons program.

“We cannot fully grasp Putin’s intent,” the alliance’s top military commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, told Congress in April, according to the Defense Department’s website. “What we can do is learn from his actions, and what we see suggests growing Russian capabilities, significant military modernization and an ambitious strategic intent.”

I first studied economics back in the early eighties. The discussion of trade was perfunctory; trade was not considered particularly important to the US economy because, with the exception of oil, the US could produce pretty much everything it needed, and–just as importantly–most of what it wanted.

Modern orthodoxy maintains that trade makes one strong. This is fundamentally incorrect. Trade is necessary at times as a bootstrap up for industry, or to get things you truly cannot make yourself, but it can make you weak. The more you trade, the more vulnerable you are.

Russia is vulnerable. Putin turned Russia around by concentrating on hydrocarbon production and selling it to foreigners.

Commodity production is always a bad deal. No matter how rich it makes you, commodity prices are always boom or bust, and are always subject to technological obsolesence.

So, Russian defense spending:

Defense and the related category of national security and law enforcement now eat up 34 percent of the budget, more than double the ratio in 2010.

Putin signed documents creating what he called the “industrial battalions” program, which will give thousands of draftees the option of working in defense enterprises instead of joining the regular military.

After years of chronic funding problems for weapons makers, Russia has started to prepay for the goods and services it buys from the more than 1,300 organizations and 2.5 million people that make up the defense industry.

This is not hard to understand.

What part of Russian industry is most technologically advanced and does the world demand the most?


Russia needs to diversify what it exports. Military goods are the obvious market for which to do so. Really, there are only three sources for military goods: the West, China, and Russia.

Russia appears to have begun this strategy about 2012, before the oil price crash, the Ukraine, and so forth, but their vulnerability to oil price crashes was obvious. That the US was continuing to try to destabilize Russia’s near abroad and draw it into NATO was obvious as well.

Now, Syria.

What’s the problem with buying your weapons from the US?

Unless you’re a core US ally, the US is unreliable. If your government changes in ways the US doesn’t like, or if you are an enemy of  US core partners (Israel, Saudi Arabia, etc.), they will cut you off from parts and ammunition at the drop of a hat, as well as canceling pre-paid orders.

But: The US was able to say that they had the best equipment. No one could compete.

What is happening in Syria is a demonstration that Russia can be counted on to help its allies—meaning its customers. It is a demonstration that Russia’s new weapons, and particularly its cruise missiles and airpower, are comparable to US product, and maybe, even in the case of its most advanced fighter/bomber, better.

It is a demonstration that if you buy Russian you aren’t buying crap that US-supplied forces can roll right over any more.

The Syria issue is a trade policy issue.

That is not to deny the geopolitical element to it, there certainly is one. But most analysts are not catching that this is also economic policy in action.

Shove Russia against a wall, impose sanctions, drive down the price of oil, and of course they will reach for what else they do well, and can sell.

The failure to anticipate this, the failure to understand this at the highest possible levels of NATO, when Putin had been telegraphing his strategy for years, is a terrible indictment of our “leadership”‘s competence.

Now, add to first class armaments and reliable supplies, a proper payments and banking system with China’s aid. Add China’s industrial goods and willingness to build infrastructure, and you have a second vertical capable of supplying virtually everything the West can do, and one which doesn’t care about the internal politics outside its near-abroad.

That new world isn’t quite here yet, but it’s almost.

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Ukraine’s Unelected Government Imposes IMF Austerity

This is perhaps best article on what actually happened in the Ukraine and Crimea: the story is a little different than what you’ve been hearing on TV or reading in the newspapers, at least if you’re in most of the West.  The author does leave out some bits (like the Tatars boycotting the Crimean referendum), but overall it’s accurate.

Meanwhile the new PM in the Ukraine is imposing IMF austerity measures, like removing subsidies on Gas (50% increase) and cutting pensions (50%) cut. He says he’s on a Kamikazee mission.  That’s because he’s not elected, so he can do thing that an elected leader could never do.

Which is to say: there is a coup, backed by a popular uprising in the capital, which puts in place an unelected government, which does things that elected governments repeatedly refused to do.  The East and South of the country, which voted in the last elected government, is unhappy with this.

It’s really hard to conclude that Crimea didn’t do the right thing for most of their population by joining Russia.  50% increase in natural gas prices and 50% cut in pensions?  Would you stand still for that? Oh, and the average pension in the Ukraine is—$160/month.  $80 after it’s cut.

The last government may have been a bunch of corrupt assholes, but it’s hard to conclude that taking Russia’s deal of 15 billion dollars and subsidized gas wasn’t, actually, a better deal for most Ukrainians than approximately the same amount of money from the West + IMF austerity.  And these are only some of the measures: the civil service will be slashed, the government natural gas company will be privatized (meaning even higher prices down the road), the ban on selling agricultural land to foreigners will be lifted, and so on.

The EuroMaidan’s legacy won’t just be losing Crimea, it will be turning the Ukraine into Greece.

If I were Crimean, I would have voted yes in the referendum. Russia’s a corrupt oilarchy run by a near-dictator, but it has a stronger economy and better standard of living than the Ukraine, and that’s before the IMF gets through with the Ukraine.

I don’t know what Putin’s going to do.  If NATO membership were truly off the table, he’d be best served by doing nothing more.  Let the Ukrainian’s destroy their own economy through IMF austerity, and in a few years, at least the eastern half of the country will be begging to join Russia.

However, if NATO membership is on the table, and it seems to be, Putin may feel he has no choice to invade.  Problem is, after the West lied to Gorbachev about not expanding NATO, could Putin believe any Western promises if they were given?

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Western and Russian Hypocrisy on Crimea

Perhaps the most tiresome part of the Crimean move to join Russia is the rhetoric on both sides.  On the Russian side, we have Putin, who has long railed against states being broken up, starting with Kosovo; on the other side we have the Americans and Europeans nattering on about how no state can be broken up when they broke up Serbia, forcibly removing Kosovo from it.

States can be broken up—when it suits the West, or Russia.  But when the West does it, we hear a heck of a lot less caterwauling

I remain unconvinced that starting a new cold or hot war, or imposing significant sanctions and suffering the Russian retaliation, is worth keeping Crimea in the Ukraine, when the majority of its population most likely wants to leave and it was part of Russia for centuries.  The sheer hysteria of the Western response bores me: this is not the end of the world, unless we make it such.

It is also not about whether Obama is “tough enough to stand up to Putin”.  As Sean-Paul Kelley has repeatedly pointed out, that’s infantilizing.  There are actual issues here, around NATO expansion, around whether States can be broken up and when, around Russian economic ties to Europe; around the fact that Ukraine is practically a failed state; around the strong neo-Nazi presence in the new Ukrainian government; around the IMFs intention to impose terrible austerity on the Ukraine; on whether protesters have the right to overthrow a government and expect the rest of the country to accept it; and so on.

There interests at play here: oil and natural gas for Europe; Russian money for London; Russian military orders for France; American access to Afghanistan through Russian territory; Syria; the implicit deal for the Russians not to arm insurgents around the world with SAMs which can take out American drones; and so on.

These are issues that should be discussed, not whether Obama is “tough”.  What is in America’s interest, Russia’s, the Ukraine’s, Crimea, and the people in the Ukraine who don’t want to be part of a Ukraine run by the protesters?

Oh, and were the snipers who killed all those people and led to the fall of the government actually government snipers?

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“Consequences” for Russia over the Ukraine

Obama and Kerry have both told Russia there will be consequences for their actions in the Ukraine.

The question is “what consequences?”  The only thing the West can do which would really hurt Russia and Putin is strong financial sanctions: freeze Russian accounts, institute a trade embargo, etc—the full Iran treatment.

The problem is that Europe needs Russia’s natural gas and oil and Britain, aka. London, aka. The City, needs Russian money.  London is awash in Russian cash, and the London Real Estate market would most likely crash if real financial sanctions were put on Russia.  Since real-estate and financial games are the only thing keeping Britain afloat, this is a total no-go: completely unacceptable to Britain.

Germany, meanwhile, will find any sanctions on energy completely unacceptable.  They can’t replace all that natural gas before next winter, even if the US agrees to sell American natural gas to Europe.

The Russians, to put it crassly, have paid their bribes.  They have made the right people in England, and Europe, rich.  On top of that they supply something Europe absolutely must have: hydrocarbons.

Further, if real sanctions, like the Iranian ones were applied to Russia, the price of oil and natural gas would spike so high the world economy would go into a tailspin, even before one considers the spin-off financial effects.  Russia would then orient hard to China, who in no way would go along with such sanctions, and while the initial affect would be massive, in time, all that would happen is that Russia would now firmly be a Chinese client state.

Many have noted that the ruble is dropping relative to the dollar and the Euro and say that “markets” are punishing Russia.  They aren’t, because oil and natural gas prices have increased, and Russia doesn’t get paid for hydrocarbons in rubles.  In fact, the crisis will probably make Russia money.

The intermediate sanction would be Visa restrictions on Putin’s closest associates, along with freezing their accounts.  The problem with that is that Putin has plenty of ways to retaliate, starting with not letting the US get its gear out of Afghanistan when the Afghan government kicks the Americans out.  (Getting that gear out through Pakistan will be much harder, dangerous and much more expensive.)

China, of course, is the actual threat to American hegemony.  It is also the country that the Ukraine should actually be going to for help, not to the West.  More on that in future posts.

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The World Through Vladimir Putin’s Eyes

Vladimir Putin Official PortraitThe Sochi Olympics have put the spotlight on Russia, and there has been great excorciation of Russia for its discrimination against gays, and much mockery for the problems with the Games, such as one of the five Olympic rings not opening, Wifi that doesn’t work, bathrooms with two toilets in the same room and so on.

What is interesting about this is that there are so many minor problems.  Do you remember these issues during the Beijing Olympics?


And, if you’re older, like me, do you remember them from the Moscow 1980 Olympics?


In 1980 USSR, the Russians could still put their fingers down and make things work. Oh, to be sure, wherever the Politburo and the best of the KGB wasn’t watching, it was a mess, but if they concentrated their efforts on one place, things got done.

Whatever problems the USSR had by 1980, let alone by the time it fell, for many Russians, it was better than what came after.  Putin believes this:

When Igor Sechin was working as President Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff a decade ago, visitors to his Kremlin office noticed an unusual collection on the bookshelves: row after row of bound volumes containing minutes of Communist Party congresses.

The record stretched across the history of the party and its socialist predecessor — from the first meeting in March 1898 to the last one in July 1990, a year and a half before the Soviet Union collapsed, Bloomberg Markets will report in its March issue.

Sechin regularly perused the documents and took notes, says Dmitry Skarga, who at the time was chief executive officer of Russia’s largest shipping company, OAO Sovcomflot.

“He was drinking from this fountain of sacred knowledge so that Russia could restore its superpower status and take its rightful place in the world,” Skarga says.

Sechin’s back-to-the-future fascination with his country’s communist past is something he shares with Putin, who, soon after coming to power in 1999, restored the music (though not the lyrics) of the Soviet-era national anthem and later described the collapse of the USSR as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.

Why does Putin believe this?  It seems like nonsense to most Westerners.  But if you’re Russian, and you remember the 90s, you remember a time when rapacious oligarchs seized control of the country, the population went into sharp decline, where there wasn’t enough food and where hot water was a luxury denied to many.

You remember constant humiliations at the hands of the West, as they carved up Russia, the USSR and the Warsaw Pact, and you remember that NATO kept expanding East even though Bush Sr. had promised Russia that wouldn’t happen.

The 90s were terrible.  As bad as the late USSR was, the 90s were worse.

The sardonic joke was “everything the Communists told us about Communism was a lie.  Unfortunately, everything they told us about Capitalism was true.”

To put it simply, privatization, known as shock doctrine, was a huge failure in Russia.  It led to control over the economy being in the hands of a few rapacious oligarchs, none of whom didn’t routinely use coercion and violence to get their way, it led to a collapse in population, life span, of oil production… of everything.

If this was capitalism… why would the Russians be impressed?

And meanwhile, in Chechnya, the Russian military couldn’t even put down an insurrection.  The Red Army may have failed in Afghanistan, but in the provinces of the USSR, well, no.

So Putin gets in charge, and he looks at what privatization; what shock doctrine has done to the country, and he think that the USSR is better.  So he makes examples of some of the oligarchs, re-nationalizes the key parts of the economy, including oil and high tech production, as well as those parts which can’t compete.

Peskov says, “for example, in shipbuilding it’s absolutely pointless to carry out privatization,” he says. “You can privatize enterprises, but they won’t be competitive; they will be doomed to failure. So consolidating the assets under the state’s wing is the only way to preserve key sectors of the economy.”

Next he turns on Chechnya and he wins his war, he crushes the Chechens, then he pours billions into rebuilding their capital.  Bear in mind, this is sold as an “anti-terrorist” war, just like Iraq and Afghanistan were sold to Americans.  Remember how popular Bush was as a “war president”?

Putin starts bringing countries which were once part of the USSR under the Russian umbrella again, and tries to slow the advance of NATO and the EU East towards Russia’s border.

So what Putin has done is look at the results of the collapse of the USSR: the economy trashed, population declining, oligarchs stealing, Russia humiliated, a major insurrection in the South, and he’s reversed them.  The economy may not be brilliant, but it grows fast for most of the 2000s.  Oil production grows and exceeds USSR production, and pays for more than 50% of the government’s budget.  Population stops declining.  Unemployment drops, and is lower than in some European nations.

Perhaps state capitalism, which is what Putin is doing is “inefficient”, but it’s supplying jobs and it’s paying the government’s bills.

And Putin is genuinely popular.  In the last few years there have been demonstrations, but while Putin’s reelection wasn’t fair, it doesn’t appear to have been stolen.

Why?  If you remember the 90s, and most people do, Putin has demonstrably made most Russians better off and strengthened Russia.  And very few Russians are crying tears for what he’s done to the oligarchs, all of whom are little better than Mafia dons themselves.

If you’re Vladimir Putin, you think you’ve done a great job.  You think that the West are a bunch of flaming hypocrites who hate Russia, as well.  Look at all the screaming about human rights during these Olympic Games.  While there was some about China in 08, it was magnitudes less.  And if China doesn’t discriminate against gays, well, they certainly are at least in the same league as Russia when it comes to human rights abuses.

Besides, who can take the US, which invaded Iraq based on lies, which tortured, which has the world’s largest assassination program and whose NSA runs a surveillance state which in certain respects would make the Stasi blush, while imprisoning much of its black male population, and bailing out private actors to the tune of trillions of dollars to lecture anyone else?

To Putin, Western lectures look like sheerest hypocrisy.  The West, in its banking scandals, proved itself as corrupt as Russia, and on a much larger scale. In Iraq it proved that it would brutalize non-Western populations for no reason.  In Greece it has driven its own population into penury, and all through the West the surveillance state rises, and people continue to lose their rights.

Meanwhile Russia’s unemployment rate is better than most Western nations.

None of this is to deny that Putin is not an evil man, and though I don’t know if he’d put it that way himself, I doubt he has any misconceptions about the fact that he’s a strong man; a man on horseback and a man who has committed innumerable war crimes, while ruling through fear and intimidation as well as popularity.

Russia’s got problem, big ones, and Sochi has highlighted them.  Putin has failed to transition the economy from resources, and he has not kept corruption under limits: corruption is one thing, that the system can’t be made to work in high profile circumstances like Sochi, is another.

But when your economy is more than 50% reliant on oil, it’s almost impossible to stop corruption or to transition off of resources.  Resource economies are corrupt, period, because whoever has control of the resources makes so much more money than everyone else, and people will do anything to get near the money spigot, while those who do control it can buy anyone they want.

In this resource economies are similar to financialized ones. In both cases, there is a money spigot, and you are either attached to it, or you aren’t. If you are, life is great. If you aren’t, well, not so much.

So, if there is a money-spigot, do you want it controlled by oligarchs, or by government?  Which devil is worse?  The Russian answer, Putin’s answer, is government.  Right now the West’s answer is oligarchs.

Neither is right, of course, but that’s another essay.

For now, look at Russia, and the world, and try to see them through Putin’s eyes.

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