July 25, 2016 by AK
British journalist Laurie Penny on herself and Milo Yiannopoulos:
I’m a radical queer feminist leftist writer burdened with actual principles. He thinks that’s funny and invites me to his parties.
And a good time was had by all.
July 25, 2016 by AK
I have argued that some of Trump’s views on allies, trade, and the USSR/Russia, can be traced to his opinions shared with the media 25-30 years back. He’s not as volatile as mainstream opinion has it but he can improvise moves to make the opposition freeze in resigned amazement.
That could be a major foreign policy asset. Consider Trump’s recent NATO comments:
Sanger: Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don’t think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?
Trump: I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do.
Which is a smart response considering that Moscow’s strategy is based on the assumption the West would mostly play by the rules known to both sides in advance. Its true meaning could have been, “We won’t start a conventional war against Russia but we have safer ways of retaliating that cannot be discussed at this point for obvious security reasons.”
(Or, “I don’t really know but there must be a way out – there always is.”)
Regrettably, Trump then mounted one of his hobby horses, “some NATO members are free riders,” and muddled things up somewhat:
If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes [we’ll protect them]… Well, I’m not saying if not. I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.
This bit is not particularly encouraging for the Baltics, but I doubt that Trump is concerned about Estonia not paying its fair share – last time he was concerned about Germany and Japan not doing that. If he gets hybrid war right, it would outweigh all his prior equivocations.
July 24, 2016 by AK
As far as Ukraine is concerned, the Kremlin’s propaganda has been surprisingly well-received in diverse quarters, as evidenced by comments both at the left-leaning Crooked Timber and on pro-Trump sites. The same probably applies to Moscow’s Syrian narrative, but I cannot estimate with acceptable precision how far it deviates from the truth, since the truth is evasive in that conflict. In the Ukrainian case, I simply know that the Ukrainian revolution of 2013-14 was not a bloody fascist coup, and that’s truth enough for me.
There must be still limits on how wide and deep that propaganda can reach into the minds of politically aware Americans and Europeans. I hear that RT is practically agitating for Donald Trump – and cannot believe it. If Moscow seriously thinks that shouting its support for Trump from the rooftops is going to help, rather than hurt, his electoral prospects, one wonders whether its preference for Trump is rooted in sound judgment.
It might well be that most Russians like Trump more than HRC and would still like him without the propaganda. If I understand correctly, most Russians – regardless of political views – mistrust and despise self-professed champions of ethics and would rather deal with honest cynics. Naturally, Trump comes across as a pravdorub, a man who tells it like it is and doesn’t preach and lecture. (Plus, his anti-immigrant stance resonates with the Russian masses.) In contrast, the average Russian pair of eyes perceive Secretary Clinton as a hypocritical old woman who has spent her life scrambling for the presidency – first for her husband, now for herself. She even tolerated her husband’s multiple affairs to keep him afloat as a politician, an unacceptable duplicity.
But whether most Russians trust Trump or not would have nothing to do with the actual stance of a hypothetical Trump administration on the global issues that matter to both countries.
July 23, 2016 by AK
I’ve seen suggestions that “Russian government hackers” (sic) are responsible for the latest big digital break-in, that of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
I don’t know much about hackers, but how do you make one into a “government hacker” – don’t they mostly work pour l’amour de l’art? Isn’t hacking a viscerally libertarian, even anarchist, activity? Can you cultivate the requisite sort of destructive creativity at some secret FSB facility?
I’m sure that talented hackers are far from an endangered species in Russia, but how does one trick or force them into enthusiastically targeting what one (a spook? a Geopolitician?) wants broken into? And if there’s a know-how, how come the US hasn’t mastered it?
July 23, 2016 by AK
If one must play a game of “geopolitics” with Moscow, being able to make unpredictable moves could be the winner. So far, it’s worked like this:
“OK, I’ve broken the rules again. Whatcha gonna do?”
“Go ahead. But if you cut Swift off, it will be a declaration of war.”
“Not touching Swift but slapping your oligarchs. They’ll get angry and kick out Putin.”
“Wow. You guys are clever.”
And so on. At every turn, Moscow knows broadly what to expect and braces up for it. Sanctions are hurting but feel like a manageable chronic disease.
Apart from the sanctions, the West must have made behind-the-scenes moves. We might have been able to glimpse some, such as corruption scandals and leaks from offshore. But has the US used much of the information it is supposed to have gleaned over years of global electronic surveillance? Has it ever broken the rules of the new global game in a big, nasty way, and hit the opponent below the belt?
In well-reared girls and boys, guilt and the instinct to obey the rules are reflexes, ineradicable ghosts in the machine.
(Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities.) One of the male characters in this unfolding tragicomedy grew up in the streets – or, rather, in the well-like yards – of Leningrad. On the other side of the stage, someone is getting called “the Bad Boy of US Foreign Policy.” Despite having been properly reared in his time, he seems remarkably free from the sense of guilt and the obedience instinct. Could he be the only antagonist with a chance for a fast win?
July 23, 2016 by AK
Zia Weise reports on politico.eu about the ongoing purges in Istanbul:
It is easy to laugh this off as baseless paranoia, but stories abound of men calling the police on their government-criticizing wives, of village headmen keeping lists of suspicious residents, and neighbors informing on each other.
In Düzce, a town halfway between Istanbul and Ankara, a 60-year-old man was arrested on Thursday after a passer-by noticed him throwing away a box, in which the police later discovered books written by Fethullah Gülen.
Sounds familiar, and no better for that. The worst sign, perhaps, is the secrecy of the investigation and trials. According to a young lawyer defending a judge arrested by the regime, “everything is secret. We’re not even allowed to see most of the files.”
The unexpected section of the piece is this bit at the end:
…a water-seller… tells me his son spent his compulsory military service at the side of Akin Öztürk, the former Air Force commander named as the failed coup’s mastermind. “A few years ago, my son was his cook and taster… He always had to taste his food, the commander was so afraid of being poisoned.”
If true, it says something important about the mood in the army if the former head of its most prestigious branch, the air force, lived in fear of being poisoned. If true.
July 22, 2016 by AK
Consider this alt-history passage:
Ivan the Terrible once said: “I’m guilty of my son’s death because I didn’t hand him over to the doctors in time” when they were on the road and he [the son] fell ill. They were going from Moscow to Petersburg.
We should remember [our] history and shouldn’t allow anybody to rewrite it.
So speaks the current governor of the Oryol region, Vadim Potomsky. Now he admits the mention of Petersburg was a slip but insists that Ivan IV did not kill his son Ivan, who was poisoned with mercury.
No eyewitness testimony is extant on Ivan Ivanovich’s death. Exhumed in the 1960s, the tsarevich’s skull was found disintegrated; in his bones, mercury, arsenic and lead were found in abnormally high concentrations. Poisoning is not an impossible hypothesis by itself, but the picture of Ivan IV and his son traveling to St. Petersburg 120 years before its founding propels it to a different class.
What does it have to do with Oryol? In 1566, Ivan IV ordered to build a fortress against raids by Crimean Tatars at the site of the present-day city. It was razed during the civil and Polish wars of the early 17th century (the residents fled to Mtsensk – yes, that one) and Oryol was only rebuilt in 1636, under czar Mikhail.
These little details aside, it’s been the governor’s conceit that Oryol should have a statue of Ivan the Terrible as its founder. Now it turns out that Potomsky’s idea of Ivan IV is by any measure unorthodox – but then so should be the statue.
July 21, 2016 by AK
I learned of Robert Amsterdam when he was representing Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Yukos as their international lawyer. Amsterdam’s relentless criticism of Russia’s legal system, which he witnessed in action at the first Yukos trial in 2003-4, was spot on but too few cared to listen back then. He remained a vocal critic of Putinism for the next decade but his greatest contribution to the debate – as I believe now with the benefit of hindsight – was drawing attention specifically to the unfairness and perversity of Russia’s criminal procedure.
That’s why I was somewhat surprised to learn that Amsterdam was hired by the Turkish government to help it fight against Fethulla Gülen’s network in US courts, including, apparently, the court of public opinion. Most lawyers cannot afford to turn down clients with deep pockets. That’s understood – but Amsterdam is not strictly keeping his anti-Gülenist views to the courtroom.
From a recent AP report:
A federal judge on Wednesday [June 29, 2016] dismissed a lawsuit alleging that a reclusive Muslim cleric in Pennsylvania orchestrated human rights abuses in his native Turkey, ruling the claims did not belong in U.S. courts.
Turkey’s government funded the civil suit against Fethullah Gulen as part of a crackdown on the cleric and his movement by President Recep Erdogan.
It claimed Gulen ordered sympathetic police, prosecutors and judges in Turkey to target members of a rival spiritual movement critical of his teachings…
The legal action was filed in December  on behalf of three men who claimed Gulen sympathizers in Turkish law enforcement planted evidence, fabricated search warrants, conducted illegal wiretaps and ultimately arrested and detained the men on trumped-up charges.
This is not so surprising if one has been listening to Dani Rodrik and Gareth Jenkins, but missing is any mention of the Gülen-Erdoğan alliance that only broke down in late 2013. It seems that Erdoğan was OK with Gülenists in law enforcement as long as they were attacking their joint adversaries, including various seculartists. It was only when Gülen’s associates accused Erdoğan’s family members of corruption that an all-out war began between the two camps.
July 20, 2016 by AK
The frenzied, absurd, profligate “urban redevelopment” underway in Moscow under Mayor Sergei Sobyanin fills me with a low-grade, drone-like dread of what’s to come. Throwing money to the wind seldom if ever resolves itself into respectable austerity: abject misery is the default outcome.
What irks me particularly is the mayor’s fascination with granite. His team wants to have granite benches in the city center. Not just hard but also cold – in a city where winter lasts for eight months.
They are also replacing regular concrete street curbs with granite ones – everywhere, it seems. Granite looks better, no doubt, especially the pink granite I’ve seen in some parts of Moscow. Also, Washington, DC, has granite curbs – 70% more expensive than concrete but supposed to last for five decades or more. By the logic of Moscow city officials, this means that public funds are best spent on total curb replacement.
July 19, 2016 by AK
The great Russian urine scam of the 2010s, as reported by the press and the anti-doping watchdog WADA:
Before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia created a storage bank of clean, frozen urine. (BBC)
The report noted evidence that FSB agents created a way to remove the caps from urine sample bottles, previously thought to have been tamper-proof, in order to swap dirty samples for clean ones. Security agents and Russian doping officials passed the bottles to each other through a “mouse hole” in the wall of a Sochi laboratory… (FT)
Russian secret agents — referred to as ‘magicians’ by deputy sports minister Nagornykh — had worked out a way to circumvent the tamper-proof bottles… [One of them] posed as a sewer engineer to access the Sochi laboratory… (DM)
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, what brought down the sprinkle swappers? Easy: “all the bottles had scratches and marks” on the inside, easily detectable with a common optical microscope. A truly epic embarrassment, in every way and aspect.
Appendix 1. Pocket-picking, they say, requires pianistic digital dexterity and even greater tactile sensitivity – skills that cannot be acquired overnight but take years of apprenticeship to develop. The lower ranks of the underworld once recognized the pickpockets as an aristocracy, but to grandmasters of fraud and laundering they are but agile bottom-feeding fishlets. As for wannabe pickpockets looking to eke out a dirty living without the pain of lengthy training, these are doomed to failure and contempt.
Appendix 2. Nigel Cawthorne’s description of a scene from New Say Never Again, a Bond movie:
…Bond is set upon by a large thug. After an extended fight, Bond throws a beaker of caustic liquid in the man’s face. He reels back, impales himself on broken glassware and falls dead. The label on the beaker reads: ‘James Bond – urine sample.’