The infernal patron of HR chiefs and corporate strategists

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May 1, 2016 by AK

Donald Rayfield, the British historian and the author of Stalin and His Hangmen, reviews On Stalin’s Team by Sheila Fitzpatrick:

Two myths lie behind Stalin’s rehabilitation in Russia. One is that he won the second world (or “great patriotic”) war — though many historians conclude that the Russian people, helped by generous US supplies, won despite Stalin’s vacillation between inaction and wasteful enterprise. The other myth is that of Stalin as a great personnel manager… Stalin’s “team” members certainly worked long hours, mostly at night, and trembled with fear lest their leader find them underachieving — but a more counterproductive way of governing a state would be hard to imagine.

All of which seems pretty much self-evident to me. As I’ve tried to say in this comment and this post, Stalin gradually learned from his entry-level blunders during WWII, but the human cost of his learning curve was enormous. The myth of Stalin as an HR divinity requires, at least, some explanation for the great purge of the armed forces in the late 1930s, which left them without a functional officer corps. Fighting the best land army in Europe when half your own junior officers could barely, if at all, read a map was an avoidable challenge, to put it mildly.

Victor Suvorov has suggested that Stalin attempted to rid the army of the officers beholden to Civil War thinking or just too conservative… because a large-scale invasion into Europe was on his plans. It is supremely odd, then, that the great strategist did not think of the preemptive attack his aggressive plans were bound to provoke and his debilitating decimations were certain to invite.


“Good sense and absurdity… in such close vicinity”

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May 1, 2016 by AK

On the subject of Putin and Trump (see my earlier posts 1, 2, 3), Prof. Snyder also writes:

As Putin understands perfectly well, the president of the United States has standing in Russia, and enjoys far superior power to the president of Russia, only insofar as he or she mobilizes the moral and political resources of a rule-of-law state.

Standing among the Russian intelligentsia, agreed. Putin understand that the US president has moral authority among the Russian intelligentsia on these grounds. For Putin himself, for his clique, and for the Russians who keep voting for him, the US president has superior power because, and as long as, the US has superior weapons and a superior economy. That advantage may have been due to the rule of law (or, say, to the Americans’ ruthlessness in dealing with native tribes) but that’s a consideration of the second order.

There’s also a flaw in Prof. Snyder’s methodology shared by some other observers of American politics. He’s taking Trump – a populist in the heat of a ferocious fight against his party’s entrenched cadres – literally at his word. But Trump comes from a big-mouth New York tradition where individual words mean nothing: it’s the whole picture – the deal that these individually meaningless words help shape – that really matters. It is but a moralistic Midwestern conceit that Trump’s fleeting half-praise for Putin revealed a previously imperceptible rot in his character or set in stone the course for his potential presidency.

A significant portion of Trump’s voters see Putin as a patriot defending his country against Muslim terrorists and interminable poison-tentacles growing straight out of George Soros’ head. Most of them are good-natured people who worship liberty, not tyranny, but for various reasons, mostly plain ignorance, are relying on a funhouse mirror for a worldview. It is them that Trump is wooing: why should he care about Putin at this stage of the campaign?

If Trump gets to be president, though, is there a greater honor than beating an opponent you once praised as your equal? If Trump were truly a narcissist, triumphing over Putin would be give him the greatest satisfaction in his life, unlike, say, pouncing the king of Saudi Arabia into sand. This is not to deny that Hillary Clinton is much more experienced and perfectly merciless. The question, though, is whether she will be motivated to use a greater range of means with greater vigor against the invader of Ukraine than has Obama. There is also the possibly debilitating Benghazi legacy exacerbated by the email server disaster.

Besides, situational alliances are sometimes just that: marriages of convenience. Not only Israel, which cannot afford to be picky, but the US is still cordially attached to Saudi Arabia. It is an ugly alliance that does not disqualify Israel or the US from being liberal democracies. De Valera’s shade of sympathy for Hitler was hardly a valid argument against Irish republicanism. Aneurin Bevan’s claim that the British, in 1942, had “more confidence in the sagacity of Voroshilov and Timoshenko than in that of Winston Churchill” did not expose the NHS as a Communist plot. The interesting part will be not so much the composition of the temporary new alliances, whether in US or international politics, as the eventual outcomes of these new realignments.


The Kremlin’s candidate? Surely you’re joking, Mr. Crowley

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April 30, 2016 by AK

Why would a TV channel owned and financed by an unfriendly country support a US presidential candidate? In the case of RT, I can think of five reasons:

  1. The Kremlin thinks RT’s support can help Trump win. That’s naive or delusional or both, but still possible.
  2. Putin is trolling Americans for the fun of it.
  3. Putin’s team wants more instability and conflict in the US, including violent clashes between anti-Trumpists and Trumpists. Recall the gloating with which RT covered Ferguson.
  4. The Kremlin actually prefers Clinton so pretends to support Trump to sink him. Perhaps the Kremlin thinks it can blackmail HRC with stolen files or something.
  5. RT bosses think, for whatever reason, that pro-Trump coverage pleases Putin, but are getting no feedback from him.

What’s the net takeaway from all this? I like (3) and (5) the most at the moment, but cannot rule any of the others.


I knew it was going to happen

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April 30, 2016 by AK

I spent some time reading up on Jeffrey Epstein’s case in early 2015, when Prince Andrew and Alan Dershowitz were briefly dragged into it. Later in 2015, I thought that sooner or later, either Donald Trump or Bill Clinton or both would get accused of an unsavory association with Epstein, or worse. Now it has happened.

What’s amazing about Jeffrey Epstein is how quickly he went from a nobody to a billionaire – faster than any Russian oligarch – and how miraculously he avoided federal charges of paying minors for sex. He could have face ten years for each count but instead served 13 months in prison – allowed to leave during the day – and a year of house arrest.

Two of Epstein’s victims sued in 2008 to have his non-prosecution deal with the feds invalidated. A third attempted to join the suit in 2014, naming Prince Andrew and Alan Dershowitz among her abusers. The judge denied her motion to join and struck the prince’s and the lawyer’s name from the record. However the public was reminded on the occasion that Prince Andrew remained a buddy of Epstein’s after his downfall, and Dershowitz both flew on Epstein’s private jet many times and helped to secure the deal that protected Epstein from federal prosecution.

Epstein was spectacularly successful in bonding socially to prominent people from various exalted circles, from scientists to politicians. If Lawrence Summers and Stephen Pinker were listed in his phone book (the “little black book”), small wonder that so were Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. Epstein let Clinton use his private jet for flights to Africa for his charity operation, and was a donor to the Clinton Foundation.

The lawsuit against Trump mentioned by the DM looks rather phony at first glance. Who’s behind it? Time will tell.


Paul Manafort is not responsible for Yanukovych’s abuse of power

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April 29, 2016 by AK

Following the 2010 presidential election in Ukraine, which saw Victor Yanukovych prevail over Yulia Tymoshenko, Anne Applebaum wrote in Slate:

The only thing that has remained consistent over the past four years is the democratic process itself… Six years after the Orange Revolution, Ukrainian political culture remains open, unpredictable, and interesting — so much so that formerly prominent Russian journalists have now moved to Kiev to ply their trade. “The difference between Russian politics and Ukrainian politics,” one of them told the New York Times, “is the difference between a cemetery and a madhouse.”

After praising Ukraine’s political culture, Applebaum wrote that Yanukovych’s election was a logical, democratic, legitimate outcome:

…Two parliamentary elections and one presidential election have been held since the Orange Revolution, and he has won them all. The Ukrainians are not an illogical people: The only real advantage of democracy is that it enables people to throw out leaders they don’t like. When the various “orange” coalitions failed to deliver the expected reforms, the Ukrainians took full advantage of their voting power to throw them out. Anyone else would do the same.

When Franklin Foer is demonizing Paul Manafort for helping Yanukovych to get elected in 2010, his judgment is colored by the events of the 2013-14 revolution and by the knowledge we now have, or believe we have, about the inner strings and purses of Ukrainian politics. A foreign consultant cannot be expected to have known but a small fraction of all this in 2009-10. Foer cites Der Spiegel on Yanukovych:

Viktor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine, served the commercial interests of an oligarch with whom he has close ties — at the expense of his own country. And, in doing so, he also did Moscow a favor.

Well said. The same applies to about every pre-Maidan president and PM of Ukraine, including Yulia Tymoshenko. Actually, the Spiegel piece had a narrow focus: it accused Yanukovych of changing Ukraine’s position at the arbitration proceedings in Stockholm to accommodate Firtash. Most importantly, it looked into events after the January-February 2010 election: Manafort played no part in them.

Perhaps the perfectly ethical choice in 2010 would have been to stay away from Ukraine altogether. But if one had to pick sides in the 2010 presidential election in Ukraine, one would have to choose between Tymoshenko, a corrupt statist with strong ties to Moscow, and Yanukovych, a corrupt politician of no particular persuasion with strong ties to Moscow.  Tymoshenko was the smart, pseudo-Westernized populist; Yanukovych, the not-so-smart, redneck populist.

Manafort picked Yanukovich and won – in a political culture that was “open, unpredictable, and interesting” according to Applebaum.

Fair enough for me. Manafort did not advise Yanukovych on how to eviscerate his country’s shaky institutions, not could be certain Yanukovych would choose that course. Foer is suggesting to the reader, by analogy, that Trump would destroy the institutional foundations of American democracy with Manafort’s help, à la Yanukovych. Any buyers?

All this does not cancel out the properly troubling part of the profile, with names like Jonas Savimbi. That’s a very different kind of monster, bloodier than anyone involved in Ukrainian politics.


What are Trump’s sources on Ukraine?

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April 28, 2016 by AK

It may prove unfortunate if Donald Trump’s view of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has truly been influenced, or even shaped, by people like Paul Manafort, a former adviser to Yanukovych, and Carter Page, a former Merrill Lynch banker and fund manager with ties to Gazprom and Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk.

Manafort’s past services to Yanukovych are not a big deal by and in themselves. However, if Manafort picked up the habit of looking at the world through the eyes of a tentatively pro-Russian and definitely corrupt president of Ukraine, that’s hardly good news.

Likewise, if Page’s experience working with Gazprom left him with a view of Ukraine as a sleazy client and a scheming partner, he may have difficulty looking at the country from other angles, more important to understanding its predicament. His friendship with Victor Pinchuk, the son-in-law of former president Kuchma, could also be problematic because of Pinchuk’s business ties with Russia, even though the oligarch is hardly a Russian stooge.

On the other hand… Franklin Foer asks at Slate:

Why would Paul Manafort so consistently do the bidding of oligarchs loyal to Vladimir Putin?

Because there were no anti-Putin oligarchs in Ukraine until very recently: all the Ukrainian moguls had major business interests in Russia. Petro Poroshenko tried to break that debilitating bond when he supported the 2013-14 revolution, and was elected president shortly. But he still owns a candy factory in Russia – he has been unable to sell it at an acceptable price, unsurprisingly.

The gas import contract that Timoshenko signed with Russia in 2009 (amended in 2010) was no better deal for Ukraine than Firtash’s arrangement. After the Maidan, Ukraine has tried to have it voided but it cannot just go away magically unless international courts rule in Ukraine’s favor.

In other words, there were no good oligarchs in Kyiv before the 2014 revolution, which was one of the reasons it happened.


Compared with “nucular,” “TanZAYnia” is no big deal

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April 27, 2016 by AK

I have little patience with people mocking Trump for saying Tan-ZAY-nia rather than Tan-zah-NEEah. Fifteen years back, some of these folks bent over backwards to prove that George W. Bush’s “nucular” was exactly the way true and genuine Americans had pronounced the word since Enrico Fermi loosed a torn-up piece of paper into the radioactive wind near Alamogordo.

I knew the capitals of most African countries by heart at age six, so I don’t think I qualify as a redneck – yet Tan-ZAY-nia is the first thing that comes to mind at seeing the word in print, since it rhymes neatly with Albania and Lithuania and Romania. It’s simply natural. On second thought, OK, perhaps it’s Tan-ZAH-nia. Only then, I would vaguely recall having heard Tan-zah-NEEah, an attempt at imitating the Swahili pronunciation.

It’s an artificial name created in the 1960s, when Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged to form the new country. I have seen old posts at various forums claiming that people in Africa, even in Tanzania itself, say it in all sorts of ways, including Trump’s way. I’m willing to bet that millions of English speakers, not all of them rednecks, also pronounce it like Trump. [Added later. Actually, I knew at least two students from Tanzania back at graduate school in the US but for the life of me cannot recall how they pronounced the name of their country.]

In contrast, “nucular” is a sign, at least, of a certain lack of refinement, disappointing in a graduate of Yale and HBS and the scion of an unmistakably patrician family. (Akin to an educated Russian, unless from the South, saying zvOnit’.) It’s a marker: you grew up privileged and went to the best schools but were too lazy to learn the basics.


Prof. Snyder, Trump, Putin, and Moshe Katsav

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April 27, 2016 by AK

Going back to Timothy Snyder’s piece, what about the top man in the Kremlin? Last December, Putin said this about Trump (in The Guardian‘s translation): 

He is a very colorful and talented man, no doubt about that… He says that he wants to move to another level of relations, to a deeper level of relations with Russia. How can we not welcome that? Of course we welcome it.

Here, “colorful” stands for the Russian word that literally means “bright” but does not have the “intelligent” connotation. Bright as the sun or a stage light is bright: easily noticeable. “Flamboyant” does not fit because it adds something that was not there.

The actual meaning of the passage hinges on the speaker’s way of saying it. Sometimes, hearing or seeing Putin speak, I feel he is inwardly smiling a little cynical smile. As if saying — in this particular case, “you know what I really mean, Donald: colorful like a clown, talented as an entertainer – we none of us are perfect.” Or, perhaps, “what a joke you are, you stupid Americans, a buffoon like that leading the race.”

Once you discern that sickly sneer inside, you recognize the double bottom line to the man’s statements. (It is a manner of thought and speech found among Russians of far greater learning and refinement than P.: a perverse kind of secularized yurodstvo, completely removed from its ethical motivation.)

Consider Putin’s remark about Israel’s then president, Moshe Katsav, made ten years ago. To quote The Guardian again, Putin said to Ehud Olmert, who was visiting Moscow as the PM:

Say hi to your president – he really surprised us. He turned out to be a strong man, raped 10 women. I never would have expected it of him. He has surprised us all, we all envy him!

What’s the message below the surface here? “Your president turns out to be a rapist, hmmm… I’m not saying it’s that bad – I’m no hypocrite – after all, we all envy him, ten women is no mean feat – but guys, don’t tell us you’re without sin. After all, your president is a rapist.” (To Israel’s credit, Katsav is doing time for his sexual exploits. Olmert has been convicted of corruption.) It’s a familiar narrative weaving the Christian theme of human fallenness with the spymaster’s view of other people’s weaknesses as exploitable vulnerabilities.

In other words, it’s not at all obvious what Putin really thinks about Trump vs. Clinton, although I am pretty sure, based on an unsubstantiated hunch, that he fears Madam Secretary like very few other people.


Prof. Snyder, Trump and Putin

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April 27, 2016 by AK

In his latest NYRB piece, Timothy Snyder lists a number of Russian “politicians” supportive of Trump. They turn out clowns of varying colors; none of them operators to be reckoned with. Particularly amusing is Snyder’s naming Alexander Dugin as “the leading Russian fascist ideologue and a very important media presence in Russia.”. Technically, of course, the historian is correct: Dugin is an important media presence – in the sense that, say, Sasha Baron-Cohen used to be in his Ali G manifestation.

Most pro-Kremlin America-watchers have something in common. They worship power and strongmen in particular. They don’t believe in values, other than as a weapon wielded by hypocrites. They prefer Republicans to Democrats – particularly aggressive, straight-talking Republicans to mild-mannered, politically correct, human rights oriented Democrats. Less obviously perhaps, they feel that Russia is bound to lose Cold War II within the next eight years. With that in mind, they would rather surrender to Trump (as a surrogate Reagan) than to a female commander-in-chief. They also fear Hillary Clinton as a senior member (in their imagination) of a sinister global(ist) cabal, an efficient, ruthless and extremely hypocritical string-puller.

The only interesting bit quoted by Snyder is Pushkov’s stratagem: Trump “can lead the Western locomotive right off the rails.” That pretty much encapsulates the Kremlin’s great hope and its operating approach. They are hoping with all their hearts that Kaczynski, Le Pen, the British Euroskeptics, and Trump will wreak enough havoc on the West so Russia would call the shots in the brave new world. That view is simply delusional, rooted in what some Russians call a reverse cargo cult: the wishful-thinking belief that Western institutions are as dysfunctional and Potemkinite as the institutions of post-Yeltsin Russia.


Weev in Abkhazia? Say it isn’t so!

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April 26, 2016 by AK

This happened on the eve of Hitler’s birthday, April 20:

Printers at several universities across Germany produced anti-Semitic leaflets… after hackers appeared to break into their computer systems, according to university officials…

At the University of Hamburg, the leaflets were anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic: The New York Times has quotes that leave no doubt as to their content. Ironically, the spokesman for the University of Tübingen was advised by the police not to make public the exact messages printed out so that he would not inadvertently break the law by proliferating hate speech.

Also according to The New York Times, “In the United States, several colleges reported similar breaches in March…”

Those attacks were covered by The Washington Post:

A notorious white supremacist computer hacker has claimed responsibility for sending anti-Semitic fliers to networked printers at several universities across the country, a coordinated cyberattack that included the University of Maryland and Princeton among thousands of targets.

The hacker was Andrew “weev” Auernheimer, convicted in 2012 of “one count of identity fraud and one count of conspiracy to access a computer without authorization” in the AT&T vulnerability affair. (More on his trial here.) I recall that he was represented on appeal by Orin Kerr, the prominent Fourth Amendment lawyer and scholar and Volokh Conspiracy contributor. An appeals court reversed his conviction in 2014.

But what happened next? According to Pando, Auernheimer moved in with an Alawite girlfriend and settled in Beirut. Then he moved to Serbia or some other location in the Balkans. In March, The WaPo reported:

Andrew Auernheimer, 30, a self-proclaimed Internet troll and white supremacist, told The Washington Post that he carried out the attack from his home in Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia, as part of a new effort to distribute his message.

I have doubts about his self-reported countries of residence. I think the guy needs to keep the public’s attention focused on himself so he keeps visiting, or says he is visiting, relatively exotic locations but does not really settle there. But suppose for a moment that he is telling the truth and Abkhazia is truly his new long-term location.

The guy obviously needs his head fixed – perhaps a classical education might help. On the other hand, he is a talented provincial with a major grudge against the US government. He is particularly good at finding security holes in complicated systems. Any sensible government would want to have this sort of hacker for an ally, not an adversary.


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