Vladimir Putin

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The truth was supposed to set us free.

There are more facts readily available to people in our age than ever before. It’s not even close. But the powerful tools that disseminate these bits of knowledge can also be repurposed to obliterate truth, to make all things seem equal, to even make the worse seem the better.

Prior to social media going viral, America already had built an infrastructure amenable to disinformation and conspiracy theories, with Fox News and right-wing radio not selling conservative policy but offering distortions and racial dissension. The Internet immensely broadened the stage for such ill-intended players, making room for Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos to deliver a meteoric impact on the center from the deepest and darkest corners of the fringe. Donald Trump was even able to exploit this new abnormal to activate a racist base all the way to the White House, with, of course, copious aid from Russia.

In regards to those Russians: We pale in comparison to them in weaponizing the new Information Age, as Putin’s Kremlin, a regime leading its country into many other kinds of disaster, has been able to successfully use our inventions to organize the new rules of engagement, utilizing social media not only to spread messages helpful to its cause but also in mobilizing the complicit and unwitting in other nations to do its bidding. It’s a virtual-and-actual hybrid aimed at disturbing the world, and even the Kremlin has to be shocked by how wonderfully well it’s worked thus far. It couldn’t have occurred without numerous Americans in high positions being duplicitous, but it also wouldn’t have been possible without our new tools.

The opening of Jim Rutenberg’s New York Times Magazine piece “RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War“:

One morning in January 2016, Martin Steltner showed up at his office in the state courthouse building in western Berlin. Steltner, who has served for more than a dozen years as the spokesman for the Berlin state prosecutor, resembles a detective out of classic crime fiction: crisp suit, wavy gray hair and a gallows humor that comes with having seen it all. There was the 2009 case of the therapist who mistakenly killed two patients in an Ecstasy-infused session gone wrong. The Great Poker Heist of 2010, in which masked men stormed a celebrity-studded poker tournament with machetes and made off with a quarter-million dollars. The 2012 episode involving the Canadian porn star who killed and ate his boyfriend and then sent the leftovers home in the mail. Steltner embraced the oddball aspect of his job; he kept a picture of Elvis Presley on the wall of his office.

But even Steltner found the phone calls he received that morning confounding. They came from police officers from towns far outside Berlin, who reported that protests were erupting, seemingly out of nowhere, on their streets. “They are demonstrating — ‘Save our children,’ ‘No attacks from immigrants on our children’ and some things like that,” Steltner told me when I met him in Berlin recently.

The police were calling Steltner because this was ostensibly his office’s fault. The protesters were angry over the Berlin prosecutor’s supposed refusal to indict three Arab migrants who, they said, raped a 13-year-old girl from Berlin’s tight-knit Russian-German community.

Steltner, who would certainly have been informed if such a case had come up for prosecution, had heard nothing of it. He called the Berlin Police Department, which informed him that a 13-year-old Russian-German girl had indeed gone missing a week before. When she resurfaced a day later, she told her parents that three “Southern-looking men” — by which she meant Arab migrants — had yanked her off the street and taken her to a rundown apartment, where they beat and raped her.

But when the police interviewed the girl, whose name was Lisa, she changed her story. She had left home, it turned out, because she had gotten in trouble at school. Afraid of how her parents would react, she went to stay with a 19-year-old male friend. The kidnapping and gang rape, she admitted, never happened.
 
By then, however, the girl’s initial story was taking on a life of its own within the Russian-German community through word of mouth and Facebook — enough so that the police felt compelled to put out a statement debunking it. Then, over the weekend, Channel One, a Russian state-controlled news station with a large following among Russian-Germans, who watch it on YouTube and its website, ran a report presenting Lisa’s story as an example of the unchecked dangers Middle Eastern refugees posed to German citizens. Angela Merkel, it strongly implied, was refusing to address these threats, even as she opened German borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants. “According to Lisa’s parents,” the Channel One reporter said, “the police simply refuse to look for criminals.”

The following day in Berlin, Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party held a protest at a plaza in Marzahn, a heavily Russian neighborhood. The featured speaker was an adult cousin of Lisa’s, who repeated the original allegations while standing in front of signs reading “Stop Foreign Infiltration!” and “Secure Borders!” The crowd was tiny, not much more than a dozen people. But it was big enough to attract the attention of RT, Russia’s state-financed international cable network, which presents local-language newscasts in numerous countries, including Germany and the United States. A crew from the network’s video service, Ruptly, arrived with a camera. The footage was on YouTube that afternoon.

That same day, Sputnik, a brash Russian-government-run news and commentary site that models itself on BuzzFeed, ran a story raising allegations of a police cover-up. Lisa’s case was not isolated, Sputnik argued; other refugee rapists, it warned, might be running free. By the start of the following week, protests were breaking out in neighborhoods with large Russian-German populations, which is why the local police were calling Steltner. In multiple interviews, including with RT and Sputnik, Steltner reiterated that the girl had recanted the original story about the kidnapping and the gang rape. In one interview with the German media, he said that in the course of the investigation, authorities had found evidence that the girl had sex with a 23-year-old man months earlier, which would later lead to a sexual-abuse conviction for the man, whose sentence was suspended. But the original, unrelated and debunked story continued circulating, drawing the interest of the German mainstream media, which pointed out inconsistencies in the Russian reports. None of that stopped the protests, which culminated in a demonstration the following Saturday, Jan. 23, by 700 people outside the Chancellery, Merkel’s office. Ruptly covered that, too.

An official in the Merkel government told me that the administration was completely perplexed, at first. Then, a few days later, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, held a news conference in Moscow. Bringing up Lisa’s story, he cast doubt on the official version of events. There was no way, he argued, that Lisa left home voluntarily. Germany, he suggested, was “covering up reality in a politically correct manner for the sake of domestic politics.” Two days later, RT ran a segment reporting that despite all the official denials, the case was “not so simple.” The Russian Embassy called Steltner and asked to meet, he told me. The German foreign ministry informed him that this was now a diplomatic issue.

The whole affair suddenly appeared a lot less mystifying. A realization took hold in the foreign ministry, the intelligence services and the Chancellery: Germany had been hit.

Officials in Germany and at NATO headquarters in Brussels view the Lisa case, as it is now known, as an early strike in a new information war Russia is waging against the West.•

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Jesse Ventura has decried how stupid Americans are, but without so many dummies, would he even have a career?

Pat Buchanan has been called the precursor to Trump because of their shared white nationalist platforms, but Ventura is more precisely the orange supremacist’s spiritual forefather despite being five years his junior. Like Trump, Ventura crawled from the wreckage of U.S. trash culture, pro wrestling and talk radio, to win a major public office (Minnesota governor) by utilizing off-center media tactics to portray himself as some sort of vague “outlaw truth-teller” while running against the “establishment.” He was an “anti-candidate” who made politics itself and the mainstream media his enemies and the public got swept up in the rebellious facade of it all. His great joy in the process seemed to be that his upset victory, to borrow a phrase from Muhammad Ali, “shocked the world,” as if surprise and entertainment were the goals of politics and not actual good governance.

After a dismal term in office, Ventura bowed out of politics and fashioned some sort of career from Reality TV (just like Trump), peddling asinine conspiracy theories (another thing he shares with Trump) and making appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show (yet one more similarity with Trump.) He did these things in part to make money but also because he’s an exhibitionist in need of a surfeit of attention. Sound familiar?

Now both men seem to have the same boss—an often-shirtless guy named Vladimir—as Trump suspiciously refuses to say a bad word about the adversarial nation that greatly helped his candidacy, and Ventura has decided to marry his egotistical horseshit to anti-Americanism on RT, Putin’s propaganda channel. The checks must be clearing because the fake wrestler announced on the inaugural episode that Russian interference in our election is fake news. “Where’s the proof?” Ventura asks. He’ll no doubt remain in a state of disbelief even should Robert Mueller provide copious documents and recordings. The murderous dictator that employs him will demand it.

· · ·

An excellent Daily Beast report by Ben Collins, Gideon Resnick, Kevin Poulsen and Spencer Ackerman uncovered another aspect of the Kemlin’s extraordinary influence on the U.S. election, in the form of the Facebook group “Being Patriotic,” which promoted pro-Trump rallies in numerous U.S. cities. The opening:

Suspected Russia propagandists on Facebook tried to organize more than a dozen pro-Trump rallies in Florida during last year’s election, The Daily Beast has learned.

The demonstrations—at least one of which was promoted online by local pro-Trump activists— brought dozens of supporters together in real life. They appear to be the first case of Russian provocateurs successfully mobilizing Americans over Facebook in direct support of Donald Trump.

The Aug. 20, 2016, events were collectively called “Florida Goes Trump!” and they were billed as a “patriotic state-wide flash mob,” unfolding simultaneously in 17 different cities and towns in the battleground state. It’s difficult to determine how many of those locations actually witnessed any turnout, in part because Facebook’s recent deletion of hundreds of Russian accounts hid much of the evidence. But videos and photos from two of the locations—Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs—were reposted to a Facebook page run by the local Trump campaign chair, where they remain to this day.

“On August 20, we want to gather patriots on the streets of Floridian towns and cities and march to unite America and support Donald Trump!” read the Facebook event page for the demonstrations. “Our flash mob will occur in several places at the same time; more details about locations will be added later. Go Donald!”

The Florida flash mob was one of at least four pro-Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton demonstrations conceived and organized over a Facebook page called “Being Patriotic,” and a related Twitter account called “march_for_trump.”  (The Daily Beast identified the accounts in a software-assisted review of politically themed social-media profiles.)

Being Patriotic had 200,000 followers and the strongest activist bent of any of the suspected Russian Facebook election pages that have so far emerged. Events promoted by the page last year included a July “Down With Hillary!” protest outside Clinton’s New York campaign headquarters, a September 11 pro-Trump demonstration in Manhattan, simultaneous “Miners for Trump” demonstrations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in October, and a pro-Trump rally outside Trump Tower last November, after his election victory.•

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Vladimir Putin is good at being a troll, a spoiler and a poisoner, but he’s piss-poor at running a country. The future does not belong to him. Even in the present, as he basks in the disruption of democratic elections and toys with Donald Trump like the cornered rat he is, Russia is falling behind the world by many vital measures. His aggressions, actual and virtual, have provoked numerous nations to enforce sanctions on his state, which ensures the backpedaling will only increase. There’s just so long you can live on aging oil wells and kleptocracy, and in trying to Make Russia Great Again, Putin has made it into a low, lawless joke. 

Like a Silicon Valley startup guru or an Oxford intellectual, Putin has decided that Artificial Intelligence is a grave threat to the world and the country that emerges as world leader will rule the globe. In his bottomless beneficence, the capo with nuclear capabilities promises Russia will selflessly share AI with the world the way it does bots should his nation emergence victorious in this new arms race. He’s full of shit, and, oh, Russia isn’t winning that contest.

Most likely no one single nation will outpace all others, as it’s not a zero-sum game. There will likely be a few “winners” and they will have burdens and responsibilities that go far beyond nuclear power. 

The opening of James Vincent’s Verge piece:

Russian president Vladimir Putin has joined the war of words concerning the international race to develop artificial intelligence. Speaking to students last Friday, Putin predicted that whichever country leads the way in AI research will come to dominate global affairs.

“Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind,” said Putin, reports RT. “It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

The development of artificial intelligence has increasingly become a national security concern in recent years. It is China and the US (not Russia) which are seen as the two frontrunners, with China recently announcing its ambition to become the global leader in AI research by 2030. Many analysts warn that America is in danger of falling behind, especially as the Trump administration prepares to cut funding for basic science and technology research.

Although it’s thought that artificial intelligence will help boost countries’ economies in a number of areas, from heavy industry to medical research, AI technology will also be useful in warfare. Artificial intelligence can be used to develop cyber weapons, and control autonomous tools like drone swarms — fleets of low-cost quadcopters with a shared ‘brain’ that can be used for surveillance as well as attacking opponents.

Both China and the US are currently researching this technology, and in his speech on Friday, Putin predicted that future wars would be fought by countries using drones. “When one party’s drones are destroyed by drones of another, it will have no other choice but to surrender,” said the Russian president, according to the Associated Press.

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Trump should fear cases being built against him by Robert Mueller and state Attorney Generals, but perhaps what should horrify him most is a case of buyer’s remorse on the part of the Kremlin.

The Putin-Trump bromance was never about any personal respect–at least not on the part of the Russian dictator. Sanctions by America and European nations stemming from the aggression against Ukraine have done serious damage to the country’s banking sector. Strong, often-illicit support for Trump by the Kremlin was supposed to harm the U.S. at the minimum and potentially elect a friendly and compromised figure–which, amazingly, is what happened. The more successful outcome was supposed to result in the removal of all sanctions.

As has happened so often with Trump in his business career, his payments have thus far not yet materialized. Even worse for his budding relationship with the murderous dictator, the President was cowed into signing a fresh sanctions bill that had overwhelming bilateral support. In addition to Dmitry Medvedev lashing out at the Trump’s “total impotence,” Putin’s propaganda outlet RT also struck back.

Here’s RT strongly supporting Trump’s Youngstown yuckfest on July 26, prior to his reluctantly signing a bill enacting new sanctions against Russia.

Today, just after the bill signing, RT published a strikingly critical opinion piece by John Lee that would have been right at home in Mother Jones. 

Whether this essay is a stern warning to Trump or a “Dear John” letter, time will tell, but any revenge on Trump by the Kremlin will be executed in such a way as to most injure America, not just its President.

Two excerpts from Lee’s op-ed:

When Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States we clung to fragile hope. We hoped he could morph from the wild, aggressive and boorish candidate into a moderately good president.

After he vanquished Hillary Clinton, I was one of those who hoped that he might bring a fresh approach to politics in a stagnant, divided and risk-averse Washington. He couldn’t really be that bad, could he?

Millions of American voters and I were wrong. He really is that bad.

It seems an eon ago if we cast our thoughts back to the turn of the year, but there was actually some optimism about the Trump presidency.

When Bill Clinton’s Democratic presidency was engulfed in controversy almost 20 years ago, the Republicans unsuccessfully tried to have him impeached. The savage battles that raged over Clinton – a president who embarrassed the nation – poisoned Washington. DC became rabidly bipartisan and never recovered its moderation. Democrats opposed Republicans and vice versa for the sake of it. And nothing could be done, business ground to a halt. President Barack Obama, though in comparison to Trump a credit to his country, never fulfilled his promise. The Republicans blocked his projects. He failed in his promise to fix broken politics.

Trump capitalized on this paralysis. In the post-crash recovery, the forgotten white working man turned to Trump and voted for him, to expel the establishment candidate Hillary Clinton and her like from Washington. Many minority groups backed Trump too.

Last year Republicans secured majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Trump had everything going for him.

Perhaps he could drain the Washington swamp.

Perhaps he could bring a businessman’s efficiency to getting Washington working again. Most of all he promised to drain the swamp. Perhaps Trump, outsider with no political experience, could finally fix American politics in a way that Obama couldn’t.

This week, barely eight months after Trump’s inauguration, the poll ratings of the reality TV star turned president hit rock bottom. Trump isn’t great on detail, but the former TV personality will understand ratings.

Now 61 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Donald Trump is doing. The national poll was conducted by the highly regarded Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and is fascinating when you drill down into the numbers. It is an appalling indictment of the US Commander in Chief that 62 percent believe Trump is not honest.

And, most damagingly, 50 percent of white voters with no college degree disapprove of the president. Since seven percent didn’t express an opinion in this section just 43 percent approve of him.

Not only is America as a whole resoundingly turning on Trump, his key support base the blue collar worker of the Rust Belt is turning on him too.

America, that brash nation, is embarrassed. A majority of respondents said they were embarrassed by their president.

Now in the latest round of leaks, it appears he can’t even observe decorum in what are supposed to be routine phone calls with world leaders.

The broken politics of Washington’s near past is now being shattered under Trump.

· · ·

One is tempted to call Sean Spicer Trump’s “long serving” Communications Director such is the impact he has made. Spicer only lasted 183 days. I met him at the White House during the St Patrick’s Day Irish American event, and even then he looked haunted. He got off to a rocky start when he tried to defend Trump’s strange claims about the crowd at his inauguration and didn’t recover. He had become a feature of the Saturday Night Live comedy TV program in that short time. Quite something for a press officer.

Spicer opposed the appointment of Anthony ‘the Mooch’ Scaramucci as another Communications Director.

Scaracmucci, a New York financier who is friends with Trump, opposed Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

Priebus was fired. Former Homeland Security chief John Kelly was brought in to replace Preibus. He demanded Scaramucci be got rid of so the Mooch was fired after ten days.

In those ten days, Scaramucci had brought further shame and dishonor to the White House with an expletive filled interview with a journalist.

As I watch this ludicrous, juvenile farce play out it occurred to me that all these people have become household names.

I asked myself a question. Had any of Barack Obama’s communications directors made any impact on US national consciousness or the global media landscape? Do you recall Obama’s communications directors Ellen Moran, Anita Dunn, Dan Pfeiffer, Jennifer Palmieri or Jen Psaki with any great alacrity? But the world knows Spicer and the Mooch.

Similarly Preibus and John Kelly are now well known. Obama’s three chiefs of staff – Bill Daley, Jack Lew and Denis McDonough were, well, hardly known outside political circles.

It is because the White House has become a grotesque, excruciating freak show that these people and their infighting and tit for tat leaking are receiving any notice. The circus and its clowns are important for two reasons. Firstly, because they represent the president, leak on his behalf and defend his behavior and twitter rants. And secondly, they represent the type of management style he favors.•

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Terrorists act as they do, irrationally and violently, because they’re weak, and under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia has become something of a de facto terrorist state (in addition to an autocratic one), even if many of its “imported” attacks are virtual. The Kremlin capo is a dumb thug leading his country into disaster, economic and otherwise, and only an utter buffoon could be impressed by his macho, swaggering incompetence.

Enter Donald Trump. The current American President has long been entranced by Putin’s “strength,” in part because he wanted to get his tiny fingers on lots of rubles and also because he’s a simpleton who can only comprehend blunt, overt behavior absent any subtlety. Only when compared to someone as gormless as Trump can Putin seem the mastermind. They are both worst-case scenarios for their countries.

“We imagine the villains of history as cunning strategists,” Masha Gessen writes in her New York Times op-ed, asserting that yesterday’s Fascist “geniuses” were actually figures who used enormous personalities, media savvy and fortunate timing to compensate for their many flaws. A close study of Trump’s most obvious twentieth-century predecessor, Benito Mussolini, reveals that Il Duce was a vulgar, murderous clown who couldn’t even make the trains run on time, despite the popular historical narrative. Gessen believes Trump’s ineptitude won’t ultimately be what prevents U.S. autocracy, should such an outcome be thwarted. It may even aid his attempt at authoritarianism, she writes.

As Jesse Ventura, another unlikely politician who ascended on persona and media know-how, used to say: “The scum always rises to the top of the water.” Well, maybe not always, but it’s often not the best and brightest who find themselves in possession of tremendous power. 

An excerpt:

A careful reading of contemporary accounts will show that both Hitler and Stalin struck many of their countrymen as men of limited ability, education and imagination — and, indeed, as being incompetent in government and military leadership. Contrary to popular wisdom, they are not political savants, possessed of one extraordinary talent that brings them to power. It is the blunt instrument of reassuring ignorance that propels their rise in a frighteningly complex world.

Modern strongmen are more obviously human. We have witnessed the greed and vanity of Silvio Berlusconi, who ran Italy’s economy into the ground. We recognize the desperate desire of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to be admired or at least feared — usually literally at his country’s expense. Still, physical distance makes villains seem bigger than they are in real life. Many Americans imagine that Mr. Putin is a brilliant strategist, a skilled secret agent turned popular leader. 

As someone who has spent years studying Mr. Putin — and as one of a handful of journalists who have had an unscripted conversation with him — I can vouch for the fact that he is a poorly educated, under-informed, incurious man whose ambition is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world. To the extent that he has any interest in the business of governing, it is his role — on the world stage or on Russian television — that concerns him. Whether he is attending a summit, piloting a plane or hang-gliding with Siberian cranes, it is the spectacle of power that interests him.

In the past few months, Americans too have grown familiar with the sight of a president who seems to think that politics consists of demonstrating that he is in charge. This similarity is not an accident (nor is it a result of Russian influence). The rejection of the complexity of modern politics — as well as modern business and modern life in general — lies at the core of populism’s appeal. The first American president with no record of political or military service, Donald Trump ran on a platform of denigrating expertise. His message was that anyone with experience in politics was a corrupt insider and, indeed, that a lack of experience was the best qualification.•

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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.

______________________________

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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