Vladimir Putin

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If I’m not mistaken, the economist Tyler Cowen guessed post-election that Donald Trump would initially throw some bloody red meat to his base before moderating, which certainly hasn’t been the case. A 70-year-old sociopath simply isn’t going to metamorphosize. The 45th President has instead, in the early days, combined the propaganda of Putin with the paranoia of McCarthy. It’s likely to be the most extreme Administration of our lifetimes.

In a Bloomberg View column, Cowen wisely dissects Trump ordering Sean Spicer and other aides to speak astonishing lies directly into cameras. It’s a loyalty test and also a nihilistic gambit to obscure truth, allowing a radical agenda to be jammed through as soon as possible. With a cabinet full of James G. Watts, folks decidedly unfriendly to science and environment, that will mean many shocks to the system. It would also seem to offer China an amazing opportunity to become the long-term global leader in renewables.

Another BV piece, one by Leonid Bershidsky, draws parallels between Trump and Putin, particularly in image-making, though the writer differentiates between the two personalities, believing the Russian dictator’s cooler head gives him an advantage over the angst-ridden American.

Two excerpts follow.


From Cowen:

Trump specializes in lower-status lies, typically more of the bald-faced sort, namely stating “x” when obviously “not x” is the case. They are proclamations of power, and signals that the opinions of mainstream media and political opponents will be disregarded. The lie needs to be understood as more than just the lie. For one thing, a lot of Americans, especially many Trump supporters, are more comfortable with that style than with the “fancier” lies they believe they are hearing from the establishment. For another, joining the Trump coalition has been made costlier for marginal outsiders and ignoring the Trump coalition is now less likely for committed opponents. In other words, the Trump administration is itself sending loyalty signals to its supporters by burning its bridges with other groups.

These lower-status lies are also a short-run strategy. They represent a belief that a lot can be pushed through fairly quickly, bundled with some obfuscation of the truth, and that long-term credibility does not need to be maintained. Once we get past blaming Trump for various misdeeds, it’s worth taking a moment to admit we should be scared he might be right about that.•


From Bershidsky:

The parallels began in earnest with Trump’s pre-inauguration news conference, when Alexei Kovalev, known for debunking Russian government propaganda, compared the event to Putin’s circus-like annual meetings with the press. The piece resonated with Western journalists, who are not used to being denied questions by the president and also expect that he will be nice to them. It also resonated with their Russian colleagues, who have been dealing with carefully staged press appearances and punitive access restrictions since Putin’s first term in power. 

Over the weekend, Trump press secretary Sean Spicer all but invited comparisons to his Russian counterpart by offering “alternative facts” about the inauguration crowd’s size. With a straight face, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, has denied the involvement of Russian troops in Crimea and eastern Ukraine and claimed that a $620,000 watch he wore was a present from his wife, an Olympic figure skater.

Trump’s preference for inviting his supporters to potentially tough rooms is shared by Putin as well. Earlier this month, Russian-language social networks throbbed with reports that several people kept reappearing in various meetings between Putin and “ordinary Russians.” One of them, Larisa Sergukhina, was revealed to be a small-business owner working on government contracts. Even if, as Putin loyalists argued, the same people were legitimately invited to several meetings in a particular region, Putin’s travels are carefully staged in a time-honored Russian tradition that dates back — at least — to Prince Grigory Potemkin. No group of people allowed to come close to Russia’s leader is ever random, and you’ll never see anyone heckling or berating Putin on television there. Everybody’s always happy to see him.

The budding resemblance between Trump and Putin is, of course, unsettling to Americans. They are not used to a leader behaving like a czar. But Putin doesn’t do his czar act because he likes it.•

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Of all the intel contained in the Trump dossier, the piece that may be most surprising (if true) is that Russia was “cultivating and supporting” the Reality TV host for five years in the belief, it would seem, that he had a reasonable chance of becoming President. It’s not likely Trump himself had any idea that his candidacy would last more than a couple of months. If Vladimir Putin really knew the unlikely eventual winner was a solid bet to land in the Oval Office, he should have placed a large wager in Las Vegas two years ago and used the winnings to simply purchase America.

The part that’s least shocking (if true) is that if Trump behaved in any sexually embarrassing or illicit way while in Moscow, the Russians have tape of it. Kremlin kleptocrats rule in good part through intimidation, threatening not only to poison the body but also the name. Once they have dirt on you, you become part of the game, one in which they always make the rules. There have long been rumors of movie actors being secretly filmed in unlawful, compromising positions in Russia–a couple of stars in particular come to mind–so having the goods on a high-profile American businessman and celebrity is something that could come in handy even if he never stepped foot in the White House.

That Putin was directly involved in hacking our elections seems beyond question. The uncertainty is whether there will emerge a smoking gun directly linking the Trump campaign to the Kremlin. It would probably be more surprising if it turns out there was no contact between the two sides.

In a London Review of Books piece, former UK diplomat Arthur Snell doesn’t dismiss the dossier while warning that some parts are sturdier than others. “A small number of the reports appear to contain well-sourced, triangulated intelligence,” he writes. “That does not make them true, but the reader may usefully assume their likelihood while considering wider evidence.”

An excerpt:

The dossier’s most explosive report claims that ‘the Russian authorities had been cultivating and supporting … TRUMP for at least five years,’ and that ‘the TRUMP operation was both supported and directed by Russian President Vladimir PUTIN.’ The same report makes allegations of Trump’s ‘sexual perversion’ (Trump is supposed to have paid prostitutes to urinate on a bed that had been slept in by Barack and Michelle Obama), which the Russians apparently documented in order to possess useful kompromat (compromising material). It explains that two separate sources have attested to a long-term Russian plan to support Trump. One of those sources is a senior figure in the Russian Foreign Ministry, another is a ‘former top level Russian intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin’. They affirmed the existence of the Russian plan, the report says, while in conversation with ‘a trusted compatriot’. This is an important detail, because it tells us they weren’t speaking to the British author of the report and spinning a line for his benefit, but also because it implies that the chain of information is long, which can easily lead to misunderstandings. A third source, also a Russian official, comments on the Trump operation without demonstrating any specific knowledge about how it was conducted, thereby supplying only limited corroboration. There’s a further allegation that ‘the Kremlin had been feeding TRUMP and his team valuable intelligence on his opponents.’ This claim is made by the Foreign Ministry source and confirmed by another source, described as a ‘close associate’ of the President-elect, who organised Trump’s visits to Moscow and accompanied him on them. The Russians might have confected the allegations and fed them to Steele in order to discredit Trump; but that argument can’t account for why one of Trump’s own people repeated them, unless we suppose he had been suborned by the Russians.

The allegations of a Russian campaign to support Trump are examples of strategic intelligence. The claims about Trump’s unusual sexual activities in a Moscow hotel suite, on the other hand, are tactical: the incident either occurred or it didn’t. The report mentions four different sources referring to it. The ‘close associate’ who arranged the Moscow trips is one. It’s also claimed that the incident was ‘confirmed [by another source] … S/he and several of the staff were aware of it at the time and subsequently.’ This source appears to have had some connection with the hotel where the incident took place, and is said to have introduced one of the intelligence company’s team to ‘a female staffer at the hotel … who also confirmed the story’. All the other sources in the dossier have had their gender obscured to make it harder to identify them, so this female staffer, we can assume, was a one-off contact used to verify the hotel story rather than an established source. Finally, the Kremlin-based former intelligence officer mentioned earlier is reported to have said that ‘TRUMP’s unorthodox behaviour in Russia’ gave the authorities sufficient material for blackmail.•

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Having spent several decades profiting from a corrupt system, Newt Gingrich feels it proper to rail against the “elites.” No, not the elites like him–the other elites. They’re terrible!

Gingrich has been selling the same narrative as many on the right, arguing that Hillary Clinton, that snob, lost because she didn’t listen to “real” Americans, mythical creatures he’s heard about on Fox News, though she managed to earn nearly 2.9 million more votes than her opponent, even with the Wikileaks and FBI shenanigans.

Today, he’s the same morally bankrupt policy salesman as he was during the ’90s, when he overlooked his own dicey domestic situation to castigate Bill Clinton for his infidelities and push the Family Values platform. Gingrich has always been very concerned with the plague of our citizens on welfare–working to punish them with particularly Draconian measures–though he’s never seemed particularly bothered by corporate welfare. The Washington lifer has spent his political career trying to take a little more away from people who have the least.

On the same day the President-Elect deemed NATO “obsolete,” Gordon Repinski of Spiegel published an interview with the Former Speaker of the House in which he confidently claimed the U.S. relationship with NATO under the incoming Administration would not change dramatically. Maybe not, but it might be good if these boys could get on the same page.

In the Q&A, Gingrich makes the Trumpian gambit of defending the Russians hacking our elections by criticizing America. Yes, this is the genius who during the 1980s compared President Ronald Reagan to Neville Chamberlain for merely meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev. So fluid are Gingrich’s politics and so often on the wrong side of history.

An excerpt about Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin:

Spiegel:

Let’s talk about Russia again: The American intelligence agencies made a clear assessment about Russian disruptions in the U.S. election campaign. Can Washington tolerate this kind of behavior?

Newt Gingrich:

Well, as you know, Obama was even eavesdropping on your chancellor. You know, countries often do such things. I know of nothing the Russians did which had any effect on the American election.

Spiegel:

The Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain have a totally different view on the information and have called for a strong American reaction.

Newt Gingrich:

I’m a little tired of people who have very big moral positions and very small power in reality. I think the cost for taking on the Russians would be very high. I just want to know how they’re going to do it. I don’t see that we would do more than make noise. I think Putin has already gotten used to the idea of Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, making noise — it just doesn’t seem to impress Moscow at all.

Spiegel:

Trump frequently mentions his sympathy for Vladimir Putin. Can you describe why Vladimir Putin seems to be so appealing to Donald Trump?

Newt Gingrich:

No, not really. I think he thinks of Putin as being a strong person, and I think he thinks of himself as being a very strong person. But I don’t think in any way that he thinks of the Putin government as a desirable model.•

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For many of us the idea of a tyrant in the White House is unthinkable, but for some that’s all they can think about. These aren’t genuinely struggling folks in the Rust Belt whose dreams have been foreclosed on by the death rattle of the Industrial Age and made a terrible decision that will only deepen their wounds, but a large number of citizens with fairly secure lifestyles who want to unleash their fury on a world not entirely their own anymore.

I was in a coffee shop in New Jersey yesterday (not in a downtrodden area) and listened to a casually dressed man in his sixties have a loud phone conversation about the incoming Trump Administration. He laughed gleefully as he talked about how the new President would crush the protesters, jail journalists and chase Mexicans and Muslims from the nation at gunpoint. There were sexist obscenities hurled at Hillary and Chelsea Clinton and also Katy Perry, who supported the Democratic nominee. He didn’t seem to be a computer-friendly Facebook user but a likely Limbaugh listener who wanted to Make America White Again. You could say this was an isolated incident, but I had conversations with hundreds of Trump supporters over the last year from the Tri-State area and Florida, people with decent jobs or good pensions, who expressed the same. They wanted to roll back the advances of women and people of color and “stand up for white people,” hoping to somehow silence or imprison a reality that now seems foreign to them. That doesn’t take a village but an autocrat.

In “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” an excellent New York Review of Books essay by Masha Gessen, the writer addresses the spooky parallels between Russia and this new U.S., as we begin what looks to be a Trump-Putin bromance. An excerpt:

I have lived in autocracies most of my life, and have spent much of my career writing about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. I have learned a few rules for surviving in an autocracy and salvaging your sanity and self-respect. It might be worth considering them now:

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization. This will happen often: humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable. Back in the 1930s, The New York Times assured its readers that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was all posture. More recently, the same newspaper made a telling choice between two statements made by Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov following a police crackdown on protesters in Moscow: “The police acted mildly—I would have liked them to act more harshly” rather than those protesters’ “liver should have been spread all over the pavement.” Perhaps the journalists could not believe their ears. But they should—both in the Russian case, and in the American one. For all the admiration Trump has expressed for Putin, the two men are very different; if anything, there is even more reason to listen to everything Trump has said. He has no political establishment into which to fold himself following the campaign, and therefore no reason to shed his campaign rhetoric. On the contrary: it is now the establishment that is rushing to accommodate him—from the president, who met with him at the White House on Thursday, to the leaders of the Republican Party, who are discarding their long-held scruples to embrace his radical positions.

He has received the support he needed to win, and the adulation he craves, precisely because of his outrageous threats. Trump rally crowds have chanted “Lock her up!” They, and he, meant every word. If Trump does not go after Hillary Clinton on his first day in office, if he instead focuses, as his acceptance speech indicated he might, on the unifying project of investing in infrastructure (which, not coincidentally, would provide an instant opportunity to reward his cronies and himself), it will be foolish to breathe a sigh of relief. Trump has made his plans clear, and he has made a compact with his voters to carry them out. These plans include not only dismantling legislation such as Obamacare but also doing away with judicial restraint—and, yes, punishing opponents.

To begin jailing his political opponents, or just one opponent, Trump will begin by trying to capture of the judicial system. Observers and even activists functioning in the normal-election mode are fixated on the Supreme Court as the site of the highest-risk impending Trump appointment. There is little doubt that Trump will appoint someone who will cause the Court to veer to the right; there is also the risk that it might be someone who will wreak havoc with the very culture of the high court. And since Trump plans to use the judicial system to carry out his political vendettas, his pick for attorney general will be no less important. Imagine former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie going after Hillary Clinton on orders from President Trump; quite aside from their approach to issues such as the Geneva Conventions, the use of police powers, criminal justice reforms, and other urgent concerns.•

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Among the many vile, disgusting things about the Presidential campaign of Donald Trump is the love for autocrats expressed by the candidate and his followers. In exchange for a few words of flattery directed at the hideous hotelier, Vladimir Putin has been treated as if he were a hero rather than the preening capo he is. The thugocrat is celebrated for being “strong” when he’s actually foolishly leading his country into the past, trying to make Russia great again in a way that will never work. Sound familiar?

From Courtney Weaver at the Financial Times

From his perch in southern California, Jeff Grimord knows Vladimir Putin is no saint.

A 71-year-old executive recruiter in Newport Beach, Mr Grimord acknowledges the Russian president is often accused of “nasty things”. “Journalists who criticise him are found dead. A little bit of him is still a communist at heart.” Yet despite it all, he cannot help but feel enamoured of the Russian strongman.

“I think he’s the only leader of a large, major country that stands out these days,” Mr Grimord, a supporter of Donald Trump, explained in a recent interview. “He acts like he’s acting in his country’s interest and makes no bones about it.” 

Among the many curveballs of the US election, here is one more to add to the list. After years by being pilloried by western leaders, criticised by human rights groups and targeted by sanctions, Vladimir Putin has a small but sizeable fan club in certain corners of the US, particularly among voters who back Donald Trump. Perhaps more improbably, that fan club appears to be growing.•

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Vladimir Putin is friends to many deeply evil people, some in a minor way and others on a grander scale, so it would be no surprise if he were to add Donald Trump to the list. The DNC email hack and leak may have been very well perpetrated by the Kremlin, and perhaps enemy cyberterrorism could even prove a tipping point in the American election. Certainly it’s sickening for an aspirant to the White House to be “sarcastically” encouraging espionage against our country, but as Masha Gessen argues in the New York Review of Books, the sickening rise of the vulgar, fascistic clown to GOP prominence, perhaps even the Presidency, is the handiwork of U.S. citizens, not foreign powers. He was made in America. The writer also considers what four years of Trump rule would be like.

Gessen’s opening:

In the earlier months of the Donald Trump campaign, many people I knew asked me to comment on the similarities between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Recently I have been asked to comment on direct connections between Trump and Putin. And now, with the release of nearly 20,000 emails apparently stolen from the Democratic National Committee’s email server by Russian hackers, has come the suggestion that Putin may actually be interfering in the US election to help get Trump elected. These ideas—that Trump is like Putin and that he is Putin’s agent—are deeply flawed.

Imagine that your teenage child has built a bomb and has just set it off in your house. The house is falling down all around you—and you are blaming the neighbor’s kid, who threw a pebble at your window. That’s what the recent Putin fixation is like—a way to evade the fact that Trump is a thoroughly American creation that poses an existential threat to American democracy.•

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Vladimir Putin has chased off his political enemies–the ones he hasn’t killed–just as readily as he’s made outside investors quickly retreat, wary of his tilt toward totalitarianism. One of the dispossessed, the former billionaire banker Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is biding his time in London until Putin’s ouster or death, assembling if not a shadow government then at least an ever-expanding “cabinet” of experts that might someday replace the Kremlin kleptocracy with a modern, uncorrupted state. The sweep of history is often uncooperative, however, so there’s no guarantee these men and ladies in waiting will ever be called to duty. Even if Khodorkovsky’s moment does arrive, perhaps his years in prison and abroad have made him estranged not only from his country’s land but also its modern spirit.

Masha Gessen, who’s consistently filed some of the very best analysis of Putin’s reign, interviewed the exile for Vanity Fair “Hive” and penned another great piece. An excerpt:

Soon after he was released from prison, Khodorkovsky came to the conclusion that Russia was not ripe for an armed revolution—and that, in any case, violent revolution would bring far more suffering than it could possibly alleviate. I sensed a hint of disappointment when Khodorkovsky laid out this conclusion for me in November 2014. He really does believe that armed struggle is the only threat that, in the present moment, could truly influence the regime. It was armed struggle, or the threat of it, that toppled the oligarchic government of Ukraine, in 2014. But most anti-Putin Russians are not prepared to make that kind of sacrifice. “And I think people do have the right to live a quiet life in our country,” Khodorkovsky admitted. “Things suck, but life goes on. And people go on, and accumulate a little bit of capital—apartments and things. And I guess as long as people can go on living like that, it would be wrong to break it. Russia has broken enough lives already, of enough of its citizens.” Khodorkovsky’s own life is a vivid example, and not the worst: his company was effectively confiscated by the state; his billions have been reduced to millions; many of his former employees are in prison; many more are in exile; one is dead; and Khodorkovsky himself cannot go home.

If there is no potential for immediate armed struggle, he acknowledged, “this regime cannot be toppled. It will continue moving along its own trajectory.” The trajectory cannot be indefinite. Like all closed systems, the regime will eventually come to an end—if only because Putin himself will eventually die. The question is, What happens then?

It could be 20 years from now, at which point Khodorkovsky will be in his 70s. He told me that he never said that his project would be completed in his lifetime: “Just because we may not see cold fusion in our lifetimes is no reason not to work on it.” His own plan is to devote the next 10 years preparing Russia for its next chapter: creating a network of many thousands who have a wide range of skills and experience working together. Quoting another Putin opponent in exile, Garry Kasparov, Khodorkovsky said, “We are running a marathon that can at any moment turn into a sprint.” He went on, “And when the starter pistol goes off, as can happen at any moment, society must know that there is a team capable of assuming the role of government. If we are not that team, then there will be another team that takes over. And if the other team doesn’t exist, then we descend into a crisis of governance.” That is the sad story of regime change almost everywhere.

Khodorkovsky’s math is straightforward: “Right now there are about two million people on the state payroll in Russia, including roughly 600,000 who actually work in the federal government. Out of those, tens of thousands will be lost”—in the transition to a new regime—“and will need to be replaced. Some of these people will have worked in key positions. This means that we need several thousand people, if not tens of thousands of people, who are capable of playing a political role that goes beyond technical competence: we need people who will be able to direct the process of transitioning to a new direction.”

The goal is twofold: first, to assemble an army of civilians who are capable of performing all the tasks that need doing in a country; and second, to find ways, in a nation where the public sphere has been effectively destroyed and communication severely restricted, to publicize the existence of such people and create an atmosphere of trust and goodwill around them, even as those of them who are physically in Russia are being silenced, marginalized, discredited, and killed.•

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The ideal of leadership in the soft-serve brain of Donald Trump is Vladimir Putin, a swaggering capo with nuclear capabilities, John Gotti topped by a Ushanka, a Bond villain painted so broadly that even the hideous hotelier, who understands politics in the same way that Elmer Fudd understands rabbits, can sort of get it.

Trump has long lusted for a piece of real estate in Russia to call his own, hoping to land his brand in a state known for suspect, remorseless dealings among oligarchs. For 25 years, it’s been a country of the gaudiest capitalism, a place seemingly made for a mogul who dines on vanilla ice cream and shits gold paint.

Putin, a 20th-century leader stuck in the wrong era, is forcing his nation into a past that no longer exists, fiddling while the oil burns. It’s no shock he’s pulling hard for a strongman wannabe in Trump to win the White House. What is bad for us is good for him, or at least that’s the plan.

In a smart Slate piece, Franklin Foer masterfully traces Trump’s lengthy flirtation with Moscow. An excerpt:

One of the important facts about Trump is his lack of creditworthiness. After his 2004 bankruptcy and his long streak of lawsuits, the big banks decided he wasn’t worth the effort. They’d rather not touch the self-proclaimed “king of debt.” This sent him chasing less conventional sources of cash. BuzzFeed has shown, for instance, his efforts to woo Muammar Qaddafi as an investor. Libyan money never did materialize. It was Russian capital that fueled many of his signature projects—that helped him preserve his image as a great builder as he recovered from bankruptcy.

The money didn’t come directly. Hunting for partners with cash, he turned to a small upstart called the Bayrock Group, which would pull together massive real estate deals using the Trump name. Its chairman was a former Soviet official named Tevfik Arif, who made a small fortune running luxe hotels in Turkey. To run Bayrock’s operation, Arif hired Felix Satter, a Soviet-born, Brighton Beach–bred college dropout. Satter changed his name to Sater, likely to distance himself from the criminal activity that a name-check would easily turn up. As a young man, Saterserved time for slashing a man’s face with a broken margarita glass in a barroom brawl. The Feds also busted him for a working in a stock brokerage tied to four different Mafia families, which made $40 million off fraudulent trades. One lawsuit would later describe “Satter’s proven history of using mob-like tactics to achieve his goals.” Another would note that he threatened a Trump investor with the prospect of the electrocution of his testicles, the amputation of his leg, and his corpse residing in the trunk of Sater’s car.
“Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment,” Trump said. “We will be in Moscow at some point.”

What was Trump thinking entering into business with partners like these?•

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Historically, Mussolini may be the template for the odious Donald Trump, but on the contemporary world stage, he most resembles Vladimir Putin. Russia’s swaggering, macho coward makes loud noises to drown out the death rattle of outdated foreign and domestic policies lifted from the twentieth century. The American idiot may be a make-believe mafioso as opposed to Putin’s very real murderous thug, but the similarities are still disconcerting. Of course, in addition to not realizing Putin a poisoner and pistolman by proxy, Trump seems to not have noticed the Russian president is on increasingly shaky ground. 

From the Economist:

JUBILANT crowds waved Russian flags; homecoming pilots were given fresh-baked bread by women in traditional dress. Judging by the pictures on television, Vladimir Putin won a famous victory in Syria this week. After his unexpected declaration that the campaign is over, Mr Putin is claiming credit for a ceasefire and the start of peace talks. He has shown off his forces and, heedless of civilian lives, saved the regime of his ally, Bashar al-Assad (though Mr Assad himself may yet prove dispensable). He has “weaponised” refugees by scattering Syrians among his foes in the European Union. And he has outmanoeuvred Barack Obama, who has consistently failed to grasp the enormity of the Syrian civil war and the threat it poses to America’s allies in the Middle East and Europe.

Look closer, however, and Russia’s victory rings hollow. Islamic State (IS) remains. The peace is brittle. Even optimists doubt that diplomacy in Geneva will prosper (see article). Most important, Mr Putin has exhausted an important tool of propaganda. As our briefing explains, Russia’s president has generated stirring images of war to persuade his anxious citizens that their ailing country is once again a great power, first in Ukraine and recently over the skies of Aleppo. The big question for the West is where he will stage his next drama.

Make Russia great again

Mr Putin’s Russia is more fragile than he pretends. •

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“Thuggish kleptocracy upheld by state-sponsored murder” is probably the way I’d describe Russia under Vladimir Putin, a capo with nuclear capabilities whose odious criminal record will only grow in retrospect, when the much-needed autopsy is finally performed. If Nixon had a “credibility gap,” Putin has an incredible, gaping one. No one knows precisely where all the bodies are buried, only that there’s death in the air, mixed with the scent of oil pulled from yesterday’s wells. 

In a New York Review of Books piece, Masha Gessen tries to make sense of it all, wondering if the term “mafia state” is the most apt description. The opening:

Is Russia a fascist state? A totalitarian one? A dictatorship? A cult of personality? A system? An autocracy? An ideocracy? A kleptocracy? For two days last week, some of the best Russian minds (and a few non-Russians) met in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, to debate the nature of the Putin regime and what it may turn into when Putin is no longer in power, whenever and however that may come to pass. The gathering was convened by chess champion and politician Garry Kasparov, who, like the overwhelming majority of the roughly four hundred participants, is living in exile. People came from the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Malta, and the Baltic states, but Vilnius was chosen for its geographic and symbolic proximity to Russia.

“Part half-decayed empire on ice and part gas station,” a description offered by political scientist Lilia Shevtsova, was probably the most colorful, but the current fashion among the Russian intellectual class is to call Russia a “hybrid regime,” one that combines elements of dictatorship and democracy. Unlike just about all other available definitions of Putinism, this one contains a kernel of hope: it suggests that the regime’s tiny democratic elements can be strengthened and used to weaken the dictatorship part.•

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Outside of North Korea, perhaps only Donald Trump is unconvinced of the treachery of Vladimir Putin, a capo with nuclear capabilities. When the Russian tyrant is someday gone from the kleptocracy, the evil he administered, both in plain sight and beneath the surface, will be tallied and described, and it will likely be even worse than feared. The body count won’t be Stalinesque, but the horrible intent will be similar.

His royal heinous is so awful that no one even looks twice at this point when the Kremlin is implicated in political assassination. We’ve crossed that threshold. 

The opening of Julia Ioffe’s New York Times Magazine pieceAlexander Litvinenko and the Banality of Evil in Putin’s Russia“:

Today, a retired British High Court judge named Robert Owen published 328-page report on the 2006 death in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a former agent of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the F.S.B. Nine years after Litvinenko went bald and wasted away in a London hospital bed, from poisoning with a rare radioactive isotope, Owen’s report found that there was “strong circumstantial evidence of Russian state responsibility” and that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the head of the F.S.B. likely sanctioned the murder.

It’s a salacious tale of revenge and espionage, straight out of a John le Carre novel: an F.S.B. man turned whistleblower meets in a posh London hotel with his former colleagues, who slip polonium 210 into his green tea. Investigators find a clump of debris laced with the radioactive stuff in a sink drainpipe a few floors above, near where one of the F.S.B. men was staying. The other suspected assassin gave Litvinenko’s wealthy benefactor, the banished oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a T-shirt that said, “nuclear death is knocking your door [sic].”

And yet, in Russia the report merited little more than a yawn.•

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Donald Trump, the pre-diabetic potentate of Apartheid America, is impressed with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s rule has made his country stink worse than Lenin’s corpse. “At least he’s a leader,” says America’s aspiring flabby strongman, which is like saying that at least the captain of the Titanic was a “steerer.”

From Colin Campbell at Business Insider:

Scarborough pointed to Putin’s status as a notorious strongman.

“Well, I mean, it’s also a person who kills journalists, political opponents, and invades countries. Obviously that would be a concern, would it not?” Scarborough asked.

“He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader,” Trump replied. “Unlike what we have in this country.”

“But again: He kills journalists that don’t agree with him,” Scarborough said.

The Republican presidential front-runner said there was “a lot of killing going on” around the world and then suggested that Scarborough had asked him a different question.

“I think our country does plenty of killing, also, Joe, so, you know,” Trump replied. “There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing going on. A lot of stupidity. And that’s the way it is. But you didn’t ask me [that] question, you asked me a different question. So that’s fine.”

Scarborough was left visibly stunned.•

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Former Carter Administration National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose daughter, Mika, is a liberal Margaret Dumont employed to prevent Joe “Gummo” Scarborough from being absolutely the dumbest person in the room, spoke to Sebastian Fischer and Holger Stark of Spiegel about the contretemps with Russia. Brzezinski’s technically correct in labeling the West’s stalemate with Russia a new Cold War, but let’s not use that term as if had the same meaning as it did during the Soviet days. Russia is still nuked-up, sure, and Ukraine is of great concern, but the pre-Glasnost standoff was a completely different order of magnitude. The opening:

Spiegel:

Mr. Brzezinski, are we seeing the beginning of a new Cold War between Russia and the US?

Zbigniew Brzezinski:

We are already in a Cold War. Whether it will become hot is fortunately still less than likely.

Spiegel:

The last Cold War lasted more than 40 years. Will it last that long this time around?

Zbigniew Brzezinski:

I don’t think so. Things move much more rapidly. Pressures from the outside are more felt internally. If this continues, and if Ukraine doesn’t collapse, domestic pressures in Russia will force whoever is in charge to explore alternatives. Hopefully, Putin is smart enough to know that it’s better to explore alternatives ahead of time and not too late.

Spiegel:

Is he smart enough?

Zbigniew Brzezinski:

That’s very hard to say. He has what’s called “smarts” in American, which is a kind of instinctive smartness. He has a real sophistication. I wonder why he’s almost deliberately antagonizing more than 40 million people in a country next door which, until very recently, were not driven by any hostility towards Russia.

Spiegel:

Do you think it is right for the US to send heavy weaponry to Eastern Europe and the Baltic states?

Zbigniew Brzezinski:

Do you think it is right to send troops and weapons into a sovereign country and start up a limited war after having seized a larger portion of it?

Spiegel: 

You are talking about Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Zbigniew Brzezinski:

You have to see both sides.•

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The assassination of Boris Nemtsov, who could almost, if not quite, pass for noble in the confusing welter of modern Russia, was a clap of thunder in the night. By sunrise, the murder made just as little sense. Was he a victim of the authoritarian state or those who opposed its power and viewed him as a useful sacrifice? Either way, his blood flows toward the Kremlin, and not just because of his proximity to the palace when gunned down. From Keith Gessen at the London Review of Books:

For years now there has been speculation about a ‘party of war’, which periodically stages provocations in order to push the president into decisive action. The party of war was said to have manoeuvred Yeltsin into Chechnya and, more conspiratorially still, to have blown up the apartment buildings in Moscow in 1999 to push Putin into Chechnya in his turn. The party of war may also have sent Igor Strelkov and his merry band of murderers into eastern Ukraine last spring, to turn an inchoate set of local protests into the beginnings of a civil war. But does the party of war actually exist? We’re unlikely ever to know, even after all the archives have been opened and all the email accounts hacked. It is, however, a useful concept, even if its only function is to describe one part of Putin’s mind that’s in dialogue or competition with another. It would explain why Putin sometimes goes forward and sometimes steps back. And it gives at least a small space for hope, since if there’s a party of war there is also, presumably, a party of peace, and it might just win.

I always thought that Nemtsov would make it, that he would be shielded from the vengeance of the system in part because he was Nemtsov. He had a PhD in physics, but he wasn’t a serious thinker, nor did he pretend to be one. You could never tell if he was speaking out because he believed what he was saying or because he couldn’t stand being ignored. Or if he kept getting arrested at opposition rallies because he considered it an act of conscience or because he liked getting his picture taken (sometimes, when they arrested him, the police tore his shirt, and you could get an extra glimpse of his tan). Did he hate Putin because of what he’d done to the country, or because he felt cheated out of his birthright by their shared mercurial surrogate father, Boris Yeltsin? He was a narcissist, and there was his way with young women. On the last night of his life, he went with his girlfriend, a Ukrainian model called Anna Duritskaya, to a nice restaurant in the upscale mall just across Red Square from the Kremlin. Then they walked in the rain across the bridge towards his apartment.

Who knows why people do the things they do? Who knows why Nemtsov kept fighting for some kind of change in a country to which he himself had brought a lot of pain? And neither do we know exactly why they killed him. But it’s clear that it wasn’t for his human flaws, or for his contribution to the economic catastrophe of the 1990s. He was killed for his opposition to the war. Since the start, critics have been warning that the war in Ukraine would eventually come home to Moscow. No matter who pulled the trigger on the bridge, it has.•

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I always say that the matter with Kansas is Kansans. Yes, sometimes while we’re busy with our lives our elected officials do things that the majority didn’t anticipate, but in the bigger picture I think we get pretty much what we deserve–what we desire, actually. That’s not the case in every country, but I do believe it to be true most often in America. 

In analyzing Russia under Putin in a new Politico piece, Keith Gessen feels the same, arguing the state isn’t being led wayward by a rogue, but that he’s representative of the will of Russia, and history would not have unfolded otherwise had a different leader emerged at the time of Putin’s rise in 2000. An excerpt:

The other popular candidate to replace Yeltsin was Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow. Luzhkov had become popular through his regular-guy image—he was short, chubby and plain-spoken and often wore a little peasant’s cap—and his ability to attract foreign and domestic investment to Moscow. In this he significantly out-competed the potentially better-situated former capital, St. Petersburg, which during the reign of Anatoly Sobchak and his right-hand man Vladimir Putin experienced an embarrassing run of dissolution, disinvestment, and outright criminality. Despite his success as Moscow mayor, Luzhkov was also fabulously corrupt—his wife, Yelena Baturina, went into the construction business and just happened to emerge as the first female billionaire in Russia—and in the end not particularly good at solving some of Moscow’s most pressing problems, like congestion. (Instead of investing in public transport, Luzhkov eliminated traffic lights and rammed through more roads, to little avail.) He was also a rabid Russian nationalist who had a nasty habit of declaring that Crimea was actually part of Russia. He particularly liked saying this while visiting Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea fleet shared territory with the Ukrainian fleet. It got to the point where the Ukrainian authorities declared Luzhkov persona non grata and refused him entry to the country.

These were the leading contenders for the presidency in early 1999. The calculus changed in the fall of that year when the relatively unknown Putin was appointed prime minister and the Yeltsin-friendly Channel One began a masterful defamation campaign against both Luzhkov and Primakov. Then the apartment bombings took place, serving as a pretext for another round of war with Chechnya. Putin was no longer a short, squeaky-voiced  unknown but a wartime leader, and he was duly elected in (early) elections in March 2000.

The point is, even if Putin hadn’t come out on top, the other candidates were also nationalists who lamented Russia’s loss of superpower status.•

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Vladimir Putin is a Western capitalist by another name no matter the pose, but unlike of the Cold War Soviet Union, which was ideologically opposed to the United States but usually more glacier than inferno, he’s a reactionary given to ad-hoc governance–and that’s dangerous. Paul Sonne, the Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, gets to the heart of the matter in a very lucid AMA at Reddit. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

I think that the question that is on everyone’s mind is: How close are we to a full scale armed conflict that has Russia on one side and the EU/US on the other?

Paul Sonne:

Very good question. I don’t think we’re there yet. Though the risk is real. It has become a much more pressing question amid the debate over whether the US should or should not provide lethal arms to Ukraine (so far Washington has said it has provided only non-lethal aid). Those who are against providing weapons have warned of the possibility of sort of sleepwalking into a full-scale confrontation with Russia, because if the weapons do not serve as a deterrent, and Russia escalates in response by providing equally powerful weaponry to the rebels, then what does the US/EU do? The good news is that I do think EU and US leaders are aware of this risk, which is probably why we have yet to see any weapons deliveries.

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Question:

How noticeable an effect are the Western sanctions having? Are they affecting everyday life for the average Russian?

Paul Sonne:

Though the main reason Russia’s currency has plummeted is the plunge in oil prices, I think it’s fair to say that the sanctions were a contributing factor – and most every Russian is certainly feeling the effects of the ruble’s stark devaluation. Russia’s response to the sanctions (banning an array of foodstuffs from the EU and the US) has been felt in supermarkets. Some higher-end stuff (such as Italian mozzarella) is now unavailable, but that affects only a smaller slice of the population. The broader population has felt a rise in food prices more generally.

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Question:

What is your impression of the Russian people and their perception of the crisis in Ukraine? Do you find that many are heavily influenced by Russian State Media?

Paul Sonne:

Yes. Polls repeatedly show that Russians are indeed heavily influenced by state television. You can find an article on one of those polls here.

The effects are palpable. For example, even though most of the rest of the world believes Russia-backed rebels downed MH17, polls show that the bulk of Russians believe the airliner was downed by Ukrainian forces – something Russian state television has been alleging since minutes after the crash.

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Question:

in your opinion, is another cold war or worse likely in the near future?

Paul Sonne:

We’re already seeing a level of confrontation between Russia and Europe/US that is reminiscent of the Cold War. But we’re not going to see a return of the same thing, because the world is different, more globalized and connected. One of the key differences is that Russia doesn’t have an explicit opposing ideology in the way that the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. Much of the Cold War was directed by the concept that democracy had to triumph over communism – it was not just a geopolitical confrontation but also a battle over how countries and the world should be run. Though the Kremlin of late has tried to emphasize how much Russia’s ideology differs from European liberalism, it’s not a full-scale articulation of an alternative system. What we see in Russia today is more a modified version of what you see in Europe or the US, not a completely different way of organizing society as you had in the Soviet era.•

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President Obama’s foreign policy strategy has long been clear: sanctions, containment, diplomacy, no boots on the ground unless absolutely necessary and a reluctance to arm those fighting regimes we dislike for fear that weaponry will eventually be used against us. David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy, sees flaws in this mindset, though he gives the President credit for the relatively brisk U.S. economic turnaround in the wake of the Great Recession. A few exchanges follow from the Reddit AMA Rothkopf just conducted.

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Question:

Off the top of your head, greatest threat to world peace?

David Rothkopf:

It is tempting to say that the greatest threat to world peace is inequality or imbalances that create deep social tensions. That can certainly be a contributing factor. But just as often the threat is a leader or group that seeks to take advantage of instability or lack of order. Right now, there are many places in the world that are at risk on that front…because the international system lacks many of the stabilizing elements that have helped preserve peace in the past.

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Question:

What do you feel has been the Obama administration’s biggest foreign policy success thus far? Biggest failure or missed opportunity?

David Rothkopf:

The biggest success of the Obama administration has been helping to engineer the U.S. economic recovery. The biggest failure has been an unwillingness to address–with a clear strategy–threats to stability in the Middle East and Ukraine.

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Question:

Assuming there is no congressional veto override of the existing temporary agreement, what are the chances of a lasting nuclear enrichment agreement between Washington and Tehran between now and the end of the Obama administration? Could Iran be trusted to keep such an agreement if one is made?

David Rothkopf:

On Iran, a deal is likely between the US and Iranian government. Whether it actually constrains the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons in the long run is another issue–but it is certainly a goal worth trying to achieve. That said, Iran has caused a lot of problems for three decades without having any nuclear weapons and the deal will not do much to address that aspect of its foreign policy.

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Question:

Is inaction, allowing the stalemate in Syria and Iraq to solidfy, more dangerous than overreaction?

David Rothkopf:

Inaction against IS is dangerous…as is action without a coherent strategy (which is what we currently have). Big winners to date are Iran, Assad, IS in places where the Syrian and Iraqi governments have alienated their people, and the Kurds, who, in the end, will have the state they deserve to have. (Though it will surely take too long to get there.)

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Question:

What is Russia’s/Putin’s end-game?

David Rothkopf:

Strengthening Russia via seizing every international opening to do so…because a.) they seek to return Russia to the status it deserves in their minds and b.) because they are so hopeless at addressing their domestic economic issues at home. Much of it is very much a “wag the dog” or “bread and circuses” initiative, seeking to distract from their failures at governance, demographic crisis and, recently, the pressures associated with a downturn in the price of oil.

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Question:

If you had to grade Americans as a whole on their knowledge of world events, what would be the grade and why?

David Rothkopf:

F. Because the average American citizen spends precious little time thinking about global affairs, we don’t teach it very well in the schools–we don’t even really teach things like geography or civics any more. And too many people get their information from websites and cable networks that cater to one political view…people hear like-minded voices and don’t get enough of a range of views.•

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Mikhail Gorbachev is all over the map when considering the current state of Russia–afraid of nuclear war, believing Russia is still mostly democratic, regretful of the breakup of the Soviet Union, opposing of sanctions–but who could blame him? Under Vladimir Putin, who will be judged even more harshly by history once all his skeletons surface, Russia is playing a dangerous twentieth-century game in the twenty-first century, ignoring that the rules have changed. An excerpt from a new Gorbachev interview conducted by Matthias Schepp and Britta Sandberg of Spiegel:

Spiegel:

Michael Sergeyevich, few contributed more to ending the Cold War than you. Now it is returning as a result of the Ukraine crisis. How painful is that?

Mikhail Gorbachev:

It gives one a feeling of déjà-vu. Perhaps that would even make a good headline for this interview: Everything appears to be repeating itself. There was a time for building a Wall and a time for tearing it down. I’m not the only person to thank for the fact that this wall no longer exists. (Former Chancellor) Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik was important, as were the protests in Eastern Europe. Now, new walls are being built and the situation is threatening to escalate. I do, in fact, see all the signs of a new Cold War. Things could blow up at any time if we don’t act. The loss of trust is disastrous. Moscow no longer believes the West and the West doesn’t believe Moscow. That’s terrible.

Spiegel:

Do you think it is possible there could be another major war in Europe?

Mikhail Gorbachev:

Such a scenario shouldn’t even be considered. Such a war today would inevitably lead to a nuclear war. But the statements from both sides and the propaganda lead me to fear the worst. If one side loses its nerves in this inflamed atmosphere, then we won’t survive the coming years.

Spiegel:

Aren’t you overstating things a bit?

Mikhail Gorbachev:

I don’t say such things lightly. I am a man with a conscience. But that’s the way things are. I am truly and deeply concerned. …

Spiegel:

As general secretary of the Communist Party, you fought for glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) in your country. Has everything that you pushed for during your political life fallen into ruin under Putin?

Mikhail Gorbachev:

I take an entirely different view. Glasnost isn’t dead and neither is democracy. A new generation has grown up in Russia under entirely different conditions — and it is much freer than in the Soviet Union. The clock can no longer be turned back. Nothing has fallen into ruin.

Spiegel:

Yet Russian leadership is more authoritarian than it has been in a long time.

Mikhail Gorbachev:

What do you mean by “a long time”?

Spiegel:

Since pre-Gorbachev times in the Soviet Union. There are once again limits on the freedom of opinion and the press, and elections aren’t free.

Mikhail Gorbachev:

Then we have the same view of things. Since then, I have become an old man and I have a long journey behind me. When I became a member of the Communist Party, I wrote an essay called: “Stalin, our war glory, Stalin inspires us, the youth.” Today I support those who fight against venerating Stalin.

Spiegel:

Putin is limiting democracy, but a majority still appears to be satisfied with his leadership. Why?

Mikhail Gorbachev:

When Putin moved into the Kremlin, he inherited a difficult legacy. There was chaos everywhere. The economy was crippled, entire regions wanted to secede. There was a threat of Russia disintegrating. Putin stopped this process and that will remain the greatest achievement of his time in office. Even if Putin hadn’t managed to achieve anything else, he will always be credited with that. Yes, he does sometimes resort to authoritarian methods. I have often spoken out against this. That’s also why I opposed him taking office for a third term.•

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Russian oligarchs are generally thought to tacitly approve of Vladimir Putin despite his devastating recent impact on the economy, having been so enriched by his chronic kleptocracy, but that’s not necessarily so of former oligarchs. Once one of the wealthiest people in the world, the erstwhile oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 on charges of fraud and later jailed for nine years. It may be difficult to imagine big business in post-Soviet Russia free of fraud, but Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment was clearly motivated by Putin’s political gamesmanship. Now a free man with a much-diminished-but-still-impressive bankroll, the petrol plutocrat these days identifies more with his recent political-prisoner status and speaks openly of Putin’s ouster. From Neil Buckley at the Financial Times:

“Then he makes a startling admission, telling me that before his arrest, he had — as was rumoured at the time — held talks with deputies from Putin’s ruling United Russia party and other political groups about constitutional changes were Putin to step down as president in 2008, at the end of his second term. The idea was to make it ‘safe’ for Putin to leave office, by reducing the power of any future president and increasing that of parliament. Khodorkovsky, who was briefly a deputy energy minister in the Yeltsin era, says the politicians he was talking to suggested that he should be interim prime minister, to conduct that reform. As he tells it, he was ready to do so, if the next president wanted him.

Did Putin know about this? Was this why he was arrested?

‘Putin knew, but I don’t know if [my arrest] was because of this. It was a whole set of reasons. Of course, he was afraid. He feared I might organise a revolution. You know, I didn’t have that kind of idea then. But I do now.’

He is not planning an actual revolution, he quickly adds: his supporters in Russia do not want it, and it would be dangerous since the country is not, he believes, ready for political change.

Russia is, however, undergoing a severe economic crisis. Combined with a plunging oil price, western sanctions in response to Russian intervention in Ukraine have helped bring about a rapidly devaluing rouble, rising inflation and recession. Some suggest that Putin, despite Ukraine-boosted approval ratings, could fall victim to the problems.

A few days after our conversation, the Russian currency goes into an even more serious meltdown. But Khodorkovsky cautions against over-estimating the impact of the crisis, saying Russia’s reserves should be sufficient to get through its difficulties. A popular uprising is possible but unlikely; the street protests of 2011 proved shortlived.

‘Economic crisis won’t decide anything by itself, unless society understands that there’s an alternative,’ he says. ‘And that’s what we’re trying to show people.’

If things continue to deteriorate, the Russian president could, says Khodorkovsky, be forced from power in various ways, including a palace coup by his entourage. ‘We don’t know of a single authoritarian regime that is eternal, still less one that’s not based on any ideology. There’s the question of whether we’ll live to see this or not, but there’s a chance we will.’ He laughs.”

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  1. Did the millions of Americans newly receiving health insurance via the Affordable Care Act create well-paying jobs?
  1. Did the sanctions against Putin cause countries to buy products from the U.S. that they normally got from Russia, leading to our companies hiring more workers?

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Putin the profligate, who’s led Russia in frittering away two vital decades, when the country could have remade and modernized itself with Soviet Era oil money before the supply dwindled and prices collapsed, is well chronicled. Putin the plunderer, the plutocrat, the Kremlin kleptocrat, has also been profiled, but not nearly as often, as retribution for bringing such trespasses to light is heavy. From Rajan Menon’s New York Times book review of Putin’s Kleptocracy by Karen Dawisha: 

“He may cop to being an authoritarian (he boasts of building a strong state), a nationalist (he wears a cross, preaches patriotism and praises the Orthodox Church) and an empire builder (he brags about retaking Crimea and is unapologetic about seeking a sphere of influence). But the accusation that he’s a common crook, or even an uncommon one, is different — and a charge he doesn’t treat lightly. That’s why Russian reporters avoid it, especially as political controls have tightened, and why Dawisha’s original publisher, Cambridge University Press, declined to print the book on the advice of its lawyers worried about the possibility of legal action.

The true tragedy is that corruption, state-sponsored, energy-driven and totaling hundreds of billions annually, has mortgaged Russia’s future. Freedom has withered. Money for the investments urgently needed to make Russia innovative and prosperous has been diverted to enrich a few.

Alas, that’s what kleptocracies do.”

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Vladimir Putin is a twentieth-century figure trapped in the wrong age, a man out of time, seemingly making shit up as he goes along, and now he’s really stepped in it, though because of his absolute rule there have been thus far no consequences for him, just for the country. From the Economist:

“MALINA, a trendy restaurant in a city south of Moscow, was empty on a recent Thursday evening. ‘A crisis,” the manager explained nervously. Some meat and fish dishes were missing. ‘Sanctions,’ he added with a sigh. The signs of a country in the economic doldrums are visible in Moscow, too. Tour operators are going out of business; shops and small businesses are up for sale; LED displays outside bureaux de change send spirits sinking.

Russia’s economy is teetering on the verge of recession. The central bank says it expects the next two years to bring no growth. Inflation is on the rise. The rouble has lost 30% of its value since the start of the year, and with it the faith of the country’s businessmen. Banks have been cut off from Western capital markets, and the price of oil—Russia’s most important export commodity—has fallen hard. Consumption, the main driver of growth in the previous decade, is slumping. Money and people are leaving the country.

This is not the mid-1980s, when a collapse in the oil price paved the way for perestroika and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Nor is it 1998, when the country defaulted on its debts. While the overall mood is clearly depressed, it is a long way from panic. Russia’s total foreign debt is just 35% of GDP; it has a private sector which can be surprisingly agile and adaptable and is contributing some growth by substituting things made at home for imported goods; most importantly, it has a floating exchange rate that mitigates some of the oil-price shock.

But the oil-backed consumption-led economy which has provided nearly 15 years of growth (it took a stumble in 2008-09, during the global financial crisis) has hit the buffers.”

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In a Financial Times essay, economist Tim Harford finds a link no one else was looking for: the scorched-earth strategies which drive both Amazon and contemporary Russia. An excerpt:

“Brad Stone’s excellent book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, paints Amazon’s founder to be a visionary entrepreneur, dedicated to serving his customers. But it also reports that Bezos was willing to take big losses in the hope of weakening competitors. Zappos, the much-loved online shoe retailer, faced competition from an Amazon subsidiary that first offered free shipping and then started paying customers $5 for every pair of shoes they ordered. Quidsi, which ran Diapers.com, was met with a price war from “Amazon Mom.” Industry insiders told Stone that Amazon was losing $1m a day just selling nappies. Both Zappos and Quidsi ended up being bought out by Amazon.

When the weapons of war are low prices, consumers benefit at first. But the long term looks worrying: a future in which nobody dares to compete with Amazon. Apple is a striking contrast: the company’s refusal to compete aggressively on price makes it hugely profitable but has also attracted a swarm of competitors.

Consider a grimmer parallel. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the chain store. Georgia, Ukraine and many other former Soviet states or satellites must consider whether to seek ties with the west. In each case Putin must decide whether to accommodate or open costly hostilities. The conflict in Ukraine has been disastrous for Russian interests in the short run but it may have bolstered Putin’s personal position. And if his strategy convinces the world that Putin will never share prosperity, his belligerence may yet pay off.

I feel a little guilty comparing Bezos and Putin. My only regret about Bezos’s Amazon is that there aren’t three other companies just like it. I do not feel the same about Putin’s Russia.”

 

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Russia’s field war with Ukraine and financial one with the West has led to a symbolic skirmish between Vladimir Putin and American-born fast-food franchises. This counter-glasnost at the McDonald’s counter will make the country a little healthier in one sense and much unhealthier in another. It’s a move stuck in the twentieth century, as is much of Putin’s leadership. From Masha Gessen at the New York Times:

“Last week, the Russian consumer authority announced that it would shut down several McDonald’s restaurants in Moscow, including that famous flagship. The authority cited health-code violations, but it has long been known to wield its power almost exclusively to political ends: It banned wine imports from Georgia when relations with Russia soured, and dairy products from Belarus when the normally pliant neighbor edged westward. Since those first McDonald’s closures in Moscow, the authorities have shut down the chain’s restaurants in several other Russian cities. The other 420-plus McDonald’s outlets in Russia may not be around much longer.

But with this, McDonald’s has reclaimed its symbolic role in Russia. A quarter century ago, the opening of its first branch in Moscow symbolized that Russia was taking down barriers between itself and the Western world. It also symbolized the end of four decades of enmity between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. (no matter if the company that initially ran the Moscow restaurant was based in Canada rather than the United States). The same process is now occurring in reverse.

The Russian government is shutting down a symbol, not a business. Back in 1999, as soon as NATO planes started bombing Serbia, protesters stormed the McDonald’s in the center of Belgrade, breaking windows and looting the restaurant. The Russian state is following roughly the same logic today: Regardless of who owns it, McDonald’s serves as a symbol of America and the West, against which President Vladimir Putin has declared war.”

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When Vladimir Putin went aggressive with Ukraine, he was heralded by some in this country as appearing “strong” and President Obama as seeming “weak,” although you’d have to be pretty simple to view things that way. Putin was sticking his foot in it but good–his ass, too–becoming ensnared in a quagmire the way the U.S. did when invading Iraq, leaving himself wide open for things to career out of control (like MH-17 being shot down). Putin was a 20th-century leader adrift in the 21-st century, a visitor from the past trying to commandeer the future, and that never turns out well.

One passage from the new long-form Economist interview with Obama, which focuses on his dealings with Russia and China:

“The Economist: 

Because that is the key issue, whether China ends up inside that system or challenging it. That’s the really big issue of our times, I think.

President Obama: 

It is. And I think it’s important for the United States and Europe to continue to welcome China as a full partner in these international norms. It’s important for us to recognise that there are going to be times where there are tensions and conflicts. But I think those are manageable.

And it’s my belief that as China shifts its economy away from simply being the low-cost manufacturer of the world to wanting to move up the value chain, then suddenly issues like protecting intellectual property become more relevant to their companies, not just to US companies.

One thing I will say about China, though, is you also have to be pretty firm with them, because they will push as hard as they can until they meet resistance. They’re not sentimental, and they are not interested in abstractions. And so simple appeals to international norms are insufficient. There have to be mechanisms both to be tough with them when we think that they’re breaching international norms, but also to show them the potential benefits over the long term. And what is true for China then becomes an analogy for many of the other emerging markets.

The Economist:

What about the people who are just outright difficult? Russia being the obvious example at the moment. You tried to ‘reset’ with Russia. Angela Merkel spent the whole time telephoning Vladimir Putin. To what extent do you feel let down almost personally by what’s happened?

President Obama: 

I don’t feel let down. We had a very productive relationship with President Medvedev. We got a lot of things done that we needed to get done. Russia I think has always had a Janus-like quality, both looking east and west, and I think President Putin represents a deep strain in Russia that is probably harmful to Russia over the long term, but in the short term can be politically popular at home and very troublesome abroad.

But I do think it’s important to keep perspective. Russia doesn’t make anything. Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity. The life expectancy of the Russian male is around 60 years old. The population is shrinking. And so we have to respond with resolve in what are effectively regional challenges that Russia presents. We have to make sure that they don’t escalate where suddenly nuclear weapons are back in the discussion of foreign policy. And as long as we do that, then I think history is on our side.”

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