Play your own game and strike where it hurts


February 27, 2015 by AK

Apart from discussions of whether the US should make use of its military potential in certain parts of the world, there is also disagreement on where it should do so, and in what order of priority. I have heard calls for Iran or ISIS to be prioritized over Ukraine – even though a direct military intervention in Ukraine is not on the cards – and worse, for Ukraine to be left to Putin’s mercy in order to neuter Iran and ISIS.

David Goldman aka Spengler believes, like Putin, that Ukraine is “barely a country, rather an amalgam of provinces” and advocates partition. At the same time, he wants the US to get directly involved in Iran because – with Russia’s help, triggered by the alleged US interference in Ukraine – Iran is growing into a credible, immediate, existential threat to Israel.

Likewise, Alan Dershowitz believes that “Iran is so much more dangerous than ISIS,” which is but “a passing blip.” Dershowitz mercifully leaves out Ukraine, but that does not change the big question, Should the US give priority to protecting Israel, or Kurdistan, or Ukraine, and will protecting two or three at once overstretch the US military?

The fact that the ayatollahs have ruled Iran for 35 years is an abomination, of course, and the fact that the strict recent sanctions have not yet brought them down is a depressant to anti-Putin hopefuls. But Goldman’s suggestion that, in order to win the geopolitical chess game, Americans should sacrifice Ukraine and attack Iran is simply wrong.

Because… because you don’t play with cheating partners. Because a Russian saying goes, “Offer him a finger and he’ll bite off your hand.” Because confronting him can slice a few knots while compromising will leave behind more tangles. And because Ukraine is close to home.

A partner of the state


February 26, 2015 by AK

Matthew Schofield reported for McClatchy last week:

A Russian newspaper claims to have an official government strategy document outlining the invasion of Ukraine that was prepared weeks before the Ukrainian government collapsed last year…

…Muratov [Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief] said that… he could with some confidence speculate that the authors included Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofayev [sic]… Muratov said the document was passed from Malofayev to aids of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who then approved of the plan.

Also see Paul Goble on the same Novaya Gazeta report.

Now Novaya has made this “strategy document” public and The Interpreter has uploaded a translation.

I have no idea if that “analytic note” played any role in the planning and conduct of Russia’s hybrid interference in Ukraine. Was it the controlling opinion or merely one of many concurring ones? Further, I would not call Malofeyev a first-rank oligarch like, say, Abramovich, Deripaska or Prokhorov; rather, he’s a “young”, “new” oligarch from the past decade, a man who came into the money in Putin’s, rather than Yeltsin’s, time – but not one of Putin’s inner circle.

This said, my question is, how did this 40-year-old amass several hundred million dollars in less than a decade? I have discussed one source of Malofeyev’s fortune in this post. Was it all won like that? When a private Russian company steals a loan from a state-controlled Russian bank and goes unpunished by Russian authorities, it must be a particular, privileged, specially designated company. A special-purpose vehicle. And a very special purpose.

On probabilistic loophole artistry


February 24, 2015 by AK

In weak imitation of Archimedes, let’s talk mathematics in the time of war. I had some formal training in the subject but lately I’ve grown fond of popular books explaining basic concepts of math and science. A good explanation can be of great educational value – I’m always looking for better ways to explain math my own child – and, besides, I am normally able to check whether the author is being rigorous enough.

Years ago, I bought The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow, probably at a US airport bookstore, but only got down to reading it last December. Mlodinow is a physicist and a co-author of Stephen Hawking’s, an accomplished scientist and an effective writer.

The subject matter of The Drunkard’s Walk is likely unoriginal. The history of probability and statistics part is textbook stuff. Bayesian logic, the Gaussian distribution, the central limit theorem and the numerous fallacies have long been known to students of the field. But as I’ve just said, I believe that every book that explains at least one important and/or fine point better than its predecessors deserves to be printed. A popular book that explains a wider range of topics in a manner accessible to the general public should also be welcomed. Mlodinow’s book surely gave me plenty to think about.

Here’s what Mlodinow writes about a relatively minor but interesting episode from the O.J. Simpson trial. It concerns Alan Dershowitz, the man alternatively called “a highly talented and honorable advocate, and a fearless public intellectual” and “the obsequious loophole-artist for such fragrant clients as Claus von Bulow and OJ Simpson,” and Jeffrey Epstein more recently.

The prosecution made a decision to focus the opening of its case on O.J.’s propensity toward violence against Nicole. Prosecution spent the first ten days of the trial entering evidence of his history of abusing her and claimed that this alone was a good reason to suspect him of her murder. As they put it, “a slap is a prelude to homicide.” The defense attorneys used this strategy as a launch pad for their accusations of duplicity, arguing that the prosecution had spent two weeks trying to mislead the jury and that the evidence that O.J. had battered Nicole on previous occasions meant nothing. Here is Dershowitz’s reasoning: 4 million women are battered annually by husbands and boyfriends in the United States, yet in 1992, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, a total of 1,432, or 1 in 2,500, were killed by their husbands or boyfriends. Therefore, the defense retorted, few men who slap or beat their domestic partners go on to murder them. True? Yes. Convincing? Yes. Relevant? No. The relevant number is not the probability that a man who batters his wife will go on to kill her (1 in 2,500) but rather the probability that a battered wife who was murdered was murdered by her abuser. According to the Uniform Crime Reports for the United States and its Possessions in 1993, the probability Dershowitz (or the prosecution) should have reported was this one: of all the battered women murdered in the United States in 1993, some 90 percent were killed by their abuser. That statistic was not mentioned at the trial.

From what I have since read, Dershowitz appears to have made that argument not directly to the jury but to the judge, in a brief prepared for a preliminary hearing. Later, however, he repeated it on TV and in his book about the trial. He argued that the evidence of O.J. beating his wife should be excluded because it could easily prejudice the jury. According to Dershowitz, its statistical value was negligible, therefore it was merely character evidence, which is normally inadmissible at the trial stage. The lawyer claimed, correctly but irrelevantly, that very few wife-beaters go on to become wife-killers. But its statistical value was not insignificant, as Mlodinow explains.

As early as 1995, I. G. Good of Virginia Tech (in Nature [pdf]), Jon Merz and Jonathan Caulkins (in Chance Magazine), and John Allen Paulos of Temple University (in The Philadelphia Inquirer) explained – in slightly divergent ways – how Dershowitz got that one wrong.

It’s also explained in this presentation [PDF] by prof. Richard Gill of Leiden University (not to be confused with the forensic DNA guru Peter Gill), who played a major role in the exoneration of Lucia de Berk.

Prince Dunduk


February 23, 2015 by AK

Language Hat discusses The Broken Cubit-Ruler: An Annotated Treatise by the St. Petersburg literary scholar Samuil Lurie:

…I’m rather at a loss as to what to say. It’s a brilliant and brilliantly written book… and ordinarily I’d urge you to read it, but 1) it’s heavily allusive and ironized… 2) it’s about a forgotten figure who’s never going to regain even the modest prominence he deserves, so why bother… and 3) it’s sad, sad, sad — it’s one thing to read fiction about pathetic characters ground down endlessly by fate, but when it’s a real person with real kids he’s trying to support, it leaves you feeling miserable.

Lurie’s work, in two words, is about the editor, writer, and translator Nikolai Polevoy getting crushed by the reactionary minister of education Sergei S. Uvarov and the progressive, rebellious critic Vissarion G. Belinsky. The former was a highly controversial character, a classicist in the service of a despot as it were.

Pushkin called Uvarov a “great villain”: see this comment by Language Hat for more details on the meaning of the Russian word podlets. It was not Uvarov’s homosexuality per se that angered Pushkin. My feeling is that Russian high society of Pushkin’s time was only mildly homophobic and not sanctimoniously Victorian in its attitudes to gay relationships. But it did not go well with people like Pushkin when Count Uvarov had his reputed paramour, Prince Dondukov-Korsakov, appointed Vice President of the Academy of Sciences: the Prince, in contrast to the Count, was not qualified for the post.

In 1835, Pushkin called Dondukov “an idiot and a bardache” in his private diary. Pushkin’s ire was inflamed not by Dondukov’s “deviance” but his insistence on censoring the poet’s work. Also in 1835, Pushkin penned a famous epigram against Dondukov, asking “why is the man occupying a seat at the Academy?” and explaining, “because he has a butt.” The next year, 1836, Pushkin apparently made piece with Dondukov, who nonetheless went down in Russian history as “Prince Dunduk,” pronounced “doon-dook.”

An open secret


February 22, 2015 by AK

Actually, Russian media outlets have published interviews with Russian soldiers who have fought on the separatists’ side in Donbass. For instance, this illustrated account of a 22-year-old (ex-)marine from Sakhalin Island appeared on the site of Radio City Sakhalin in late January. More recently, the business newspaper Kommersant has sent its correspondent to Donbass and published his dispatches, which include conversations with Russian soldiers at Debaltsevo.

To be clear, the young man from Sakhalin said he had completed military service and was working a civilian job at the time he left for Ukraine. The soldiers in the other story are serving in the Russian army under a contract – they are not conscripts – but at that moment they were “on vacation”. I suppose their heavy weaponry was “on loan” then.

Interestingly, this is how the guy from Sakhalin explained what was then the most recent success of the separatist force, the taking of the Donetsk airport. The pro-Russians, according to him, had greater flexibility compared with the old-style Ukrainian army:

Hell knows. But the army [presumably Ukrainian] has a ‘square’ thinking (‘roll what’s square and carry what’s round’) and they give out these orders… Yes, we have our command central but we have none of this stuff, ‘or else you get court-martialed’ when nobody cares. People fight the way they want.

I’m not sure an NCO or a junior CO of 22 is in a position to judge but he might be repeating the views of his senior comrades-in-arms. He’s referring to a common view of the Soviet army (and its offspring) as a theater of the absurd where everything is done in the most stupid and convoluted way imaginable – in peacetime. He’s also hinting that Ukrainian generals, being essentially Soviet generals, don’t care if their orders are realistic and overuse the threat of a court martial.

The price of access to faux-royal bodies


February 21, 2015 by AK

In their cynicism about Putin, western diplomats are making the Ukrainian crisis worse, according to Mary Dejevsky.

Can one be “too cynical” in assessing Vladimir Putin? When I started this blog twelve yeas ago, I avoided too much cynicism and ended up with wishful thinking. There comes frequently a temptation, according to Pushkin and Pasternak, “to look at things without fear in the hope of glory and goodness” but there are times when cold-headed despair is the most natural response to the shattering of illusions.

Mary Dejevsky is a highly experienced journalist, no doubt, but note that she is a “a member of the Valdai Group, invited since 2004 to meet Russian leaders each autumn.”

Access. Some journalists (and stock analysts) would pay any price – some pay by leaving all standards at the door – for access to a highly-placed VIP. Some would go to bat for Satan himself to be allowed a standing spot in his sulfurous ambit. The VIP of this story, VVP, is hardly a Byronian fiend, rather a petty one in the Screwtape-Wormwood mold, yet he is not without his toadpiping acolytes.

Guess who’s the baddest guy now


February 20, 2015 by AK

The popular Russian observer Stanislav Belkovsky on Lukashenko’s new role after the multilateral talks in Minsk.

Belkovsky. – Alexander Grigoryevich is the principal beneficiary of these meetings.

Koroleva. – Recall how he was called the principal dictator, Europe’s last dictator.

Belkovsky. – No more: he has resigned this holy office and handed it over to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. It was the most important objective of the whole system of Minsk negotiations, which were proposed by Alexander Grigoryevich; he has achieved what he wanted. He is not the worst in Europe now. Europe and NATO can press him to their loving bosom. Just as he desired.

Still a dictator, just not Europe’s last.

The Kremlin’s No. 1 hostage


February 20, 2015 by AK

Writing about hostages of the Russian state, I neglected to mention the number one hostage: the Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko*. She was fighting with the Ukrainian army in 2014 when she was captured or kidnapped by the separatists and/or their Russian handlers. Savchenko was later moved to Moscow and charged with murder: she is accused of directing the artillery fire that killed two Russian reporters in summer 2014.

The whole thing is a screaming outrage. Smearing a POW who defended her country with a double murder charge is so beyond the pale, so dishonorable, so unmartial – and so typically KGB.

*Savchenko is referred to as Nadezhda in the Russian-language media, in keeping with the Russo-Ukrainian tradition of localizing first names. Hers means “faith.”

Church vs. TV in Russia and Italy


February 19, 2015 by AK

Edward Luttwak wrote in his 1969 classic, Coup d’État:

Though most male Italians seldom or never go to church, Italian women are keen and regular churchgoers. Italy being a democratic country where women have the vote, it is obvious that if the organized Church is willing to direct its followers to vote for a particular party, that party will gain the bulk of the women’s vote before it even opens the electoral campaign. The Church has generally been willing to give such specific directions, and one particular party has benefited: the Democrazia Cristiana (DC)… It is hardly surprising therefore that the Church has been able to dominate the DC and that, through the DC, it has influenced every aspect of Italian national life.

As in Italy in the 1960s, most Russian churchgoers are female, but in 2013, only 14% of Russians visit religious services once a month or more often. My rough estimate is the the split between Eastern Orthodox churchgoers and other faithful is 12% to 2%. The share of people who visit places of worship every week is probably less than 5%. Besides, political sermonizing, for all I know, is unusual in the Russian Orthodox church.

Television is the Kremlin’s number one propaganda conduit. A bishop speaking on TV may have greater influence on public opinion than all the sermons of priests under his supervision.

Hostages of corrupt states


February 18, 2015 by AK

Yesterday, the Moscow City Court affirmed the trial court’s verdict and sentences in the case against opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg. Alexei Navalny received a suspended sentence of 3.5 years but Oleg Navalny, who is already in jail, was sentenced to a 3.5-year prison term. Alexei Navalny is now technically free from house arrest but there are two more “investigations” that could result in new charges against him any time.

This is old-school hostage taking, Oleg imprisoned in lieu of Alexei. Stalin would sometimes stop short of jailing or shooting some popular old Bolshevik but jailed a less known member of his family, such as wife or brother.

This second Navalny trial stemmed from bogus charges that a firm owned by the brothers Navalny somehow defrauded the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher. Although Yves Rocher has withdrawn all allegations against the brothers, leaving the state with no case to prosecute, no facts can avert the outcome of a politically important court case in Putin’s Russia.

The first Navalny trial, in which both Alexei Navalny and his business associate Petr Ofitserov – another hostage of the Russian state – received suspended sentences, was somewhat more elaborately constructed, although the charges were also trumped up. The Russian authorities used the same judicial trick against Navalny and Ofitserov as Italians did against Knox and Sollecito: they introduced spurious claims as “judicial facts” because those claims had been accepted by another court in another, rubber-stamping trial.

Suppose there’s a burglary in my apartment block and the guy living next door in my hallway confesses to it. He asks for an “accelerated” trial, which means a reduced sentence for him and no disputes between the parties. The suspected burglar makes a statement to the court: “I broke into that flat but not alone: I was with the guy who lives across the hallway.”

The judge writes it into his ruling, and bingo! it’s a “judicial fact” now that your neighbor not only committed burglary but did that together with an “unidentified” person.

Except that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to identify that person: the guy across the hall, that’s you. In Navalny’s first trial, the role of the burglar was played by Vyacheslav Opalev, a Kirov businessman who was pressured by the police and prosecutors into implicating “others”.  In the Knox-Sollecito case, the likely sole killer (and burglar), Rudy Guede, got a reduced sentence in a “no-contest” trial. The judge accepted the prosecutor’s claim – uncontested by anyone – that Guede had not acted alone, and it acquired the status of an unassailable “judicial truth.”

Not that Russian courts need to go into such legalism to convict: they only do so in high-profile cases. Their Italian colleagues shroud the absurdity of their reasoning in fleshy fantasy novels known as “motivation reports”; written in mellifluous Italian, these works of judicial fiction (or shall I say, masterpieces of judicial handwaving?) may impress a gullible foreigner, but not for long.


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