Ill-Informed

This is an odd thing to say:

The independent Arms Control Association non-profit group criticised Mr Trump’s remarks.

“Mr Trump’s comments suggest, once again, that he is ill-informed about nuclear weapons and has a poor understanding of the unique dangers of nuclear weapons,” the group said in a statement.

“The history of the Cold War shows us that no one comes out on ‘top of the pack’ of an arms race and nuclear brinksmanship.”

An alternative view is that the Cold War shows us that an arms race – specifically Reagan’s Star Wars programme – is exactly what brought somebody out on top of the pack.

Sure there were other factors at play, and perhaps Star Wars didn’t have as much an effect as some claim. But for somebody to state that an arms race had no bearing on who came out on top in the Cold War in the same breath as calling Trump ill-informed is a bit ironic. Perhaps this outfit is like CND and thinks the wrong side won?

As Streetwise Professor has pointed out:

Russia has strained mightily to overcome the decrepitude of its 1990s military, and has managed to recapitalize it sufficiently to make it a credible force. Even after these efforts, however, it can only dimly see the tail of the American military in the distance. If Trump goes into super-cruise mode, Russia’s expenditures will have largely been for nought. Closing the military gap required the US not to compete. Trump made it clear he would compete.

Also, this from the BBC article:

His Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, repeatedly cast Mr Trump during the campaign as too erratic and lacking in the diplomatic skills required to avoid a nuclear war.

She mocked him by saying “a man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes”.

Whereas as things turned out, the electorate were more concerned about a woman who was itching to go to into a shooting war with Russia over a ruined town in northern Syria.

Russia: Not Black and White

Alex K. writes in the comments under this post:

The idea that Russia helped install Trump in the White House is not much different from the Kremlin’s favorite talking point (much parroted on the American left and right), that the 2014 protests in Kiev were nothing but a US-manufactured coup d’etat.

Alex’s comment illustrates the point that finding sensible commentary on Russia is difficult (which is why his own blog is worth reading). I am often told I see things in black and white too often, but when it comes to Russia I find it is others whose views fall into one of the following two categories:

1. Russia is America’s number one enemy, they rigged the US election in order to install their puppet Trump, they are hell-bent on taking over Europe by force and they must be confronted in Syria.

2. Russia is absolutely no threat to Europe, Crimea rightfully belongs to Russia and the annexation was perfectly above-board, they have been forced to launch a war in Eastern Ukraine because of Western plans to encircle them, they are directly threatened by NATO and they have shown us all how things ought to be done in Syria.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of in between, which is a bit depressing. Then again, I’ve always thought people were a bit clueless when it comes to Russia. Insofar as I am concerned, the actual situation lies somewhere in the middle and recognising this is the first step to understand how to deal with Russia.

Russia ought to have been confronted more forcefully, albeit diplomatically, over its annexation of Crimea and the failed attempt to carry out a popular uprising in Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s claims over the strategic value of Sevastopol were always bullshit, as were their claims that US/CIA/NATO/EU backed fascists were about to take over Ukraine at the expense of the ethnic-Russian population. Yes, Russia did have historical claims to Crimea and the majority of the population might have wanted to join Russia, but the way they went about it ought not to have been tolerated. Those claiming parallels between Crimea and Kosovo don’t appear to understand the difference between secession and annexation, and should be ignored. As I have written before, the pro/anti-Russian sides in Ukraine cannot be simply split by language, and nor can they be split by geography. There are no simple solutions, and anyone who thinks there is should be ignored. Ukraine is notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional and is likely to stay that way regardless of whether Russia gets to control the place.

Russia should have been confronted more forcefully, again diplomatically, over the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Perhaps it was the Ukrainian military, but the missile is far more likely to have been fired by a rag-tag pro-Russian militia with the direct support of the Russian military. Finding out the truth ought to have been a priority, but the West caved in to Russian obstructionism and misinformation. If there was one incident for which Putin should have been raked over the coals, this was it. The financial and other sanctions should have been doubled or tripled at that point, but I guess the glorious Western leadership preferred a quiet life and German businesses wanted to keep making money in Russia.

Russia’s “concerns” over NATO exercises in Poland, Estonia, and elsewhere should be roundly ignored as these countries have a far more recent and unpleasant history of being invaded and subjugated by Moscow than vice versa. If Russia doesn’t want Poland defending itself, then they should look at how they’re behaving towards Ukraine. If Russia wants to believe NATO intends to invade them, then let them. But they don’t really believe that any more than they believe half the crap they broadcast on Russia Today.

The constant drive to incorporate more NATO countries into the alliance is unwise, e.g. Montenegro. Nobody in the West is going to risk nuclear war with Russia over Montenegro, and this continuous expansion seems to be driven by organisational empire building rather than defence concerns. This plays straight into the hands of Russia and it’s apologists who whine that NATO is an expansive, offensive alliance that wants to encircle and conquer Russia.

Rather than confront Russia over blatant land grabs in Europe and the shooting down of civilian airliners, some clowns seem to think the West should confront Russia in Syria. Why the fortunes of Syria are of any interest to those in the West I don’t know, save for the fact that we are subject to mass migration of those fleeing the war zones, or at least pretending to. If that is our concern then the priority should have been to end the war as quickly as possible instead of letting it drag out by arming the rebels such that they could not be beaten but also could not prevail. The US/CIA didn’t start the war in Syria, but for some reason Western policy is to insist that Assad goes even though there is nothing even remotely close to an alternative on offer. If we were to jettison this idiotic policy then there is no reason to believe Russia is an enemy of the West in Syria. Sure, their methods might be appalling and we should and could criticise them, but their actual aims – smashing ISIS and restoring Assad to the head of a functioning country – are not wildly different from what anyone sensible in the West wants. So Russia gains “influence” in the Middle East? Let ’em have it.

Could Russia be a valuable ally in the war on terror? Possibly. In some instances yes, others no. They can be relied upon to kick the shit out of Islamists either using a Kadyrov in Chechnya or carpet-bombing in Aleppo, but let’s not kid ourselves that wedding ourselves to Russia and these sort of tactics will yield results to our liking. I think the West should cooperate with Russia in this regard and grudgingly appreciate that they are not squeamish about dealing with Islamists, but I don’t think their assistance is worth giving them a green light to do what they like in Ukraine and the Baltics.

I don’t think Russia is interested in conquering Western Europe, but I do think they might be interested in grabbing more former-Soviet territory if they can get away with it easily, like they did in Crimea. If they get away with more of that, they’ll keep pushing until they meet some resistance. So provide stiff resistance to Estonia, Poland, and others but let’s not get carried away in thinking Russia is some mighty foe that directly threatens America. Russia doesn’t want a war, they want quick and easy results. Making sure they don’t get the latter will prevent the former.

The hysteria over Russia “hacking” the election and Trump being Putin’s puppet is just the latest line excuse the Republicans and Democrats are using to explain why their preferred candidates got soundly beaten by an outsider nobody fancied. As Streetwise Professor explains, Putin is probably slowly realising that Trump winning might not have been to bis advantage after all. He’s going to have a lot more difficulty going up against Mattis and Tillerson than he would whichever shower Hillary would have picked. Trump was not Putin’s puppet and he is unlikely to do Putin’s bidding, but nor is he likely to start giving orders to shoot down Russian planes in Syria and other acts of rank stupidity. If Trump is “soft” on Russia regarding Syria, there is no reason to think that is a green light for Putin to help himself to Estonia. If Trump talks about easing sanctions on Russia in order to secure their help fighting ISIS, this doesn’t mean the US is about to recognise the Crimea as part of the Russian Federation. If the people in the West do have concerns with Russian influence on their politics then maybe they should say something about Germany’s cosy relationship with Russia which run so deep that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was able to take a high-profile job on a Gazprom project mere days after he left office. Nobody said a thing, but now we’re supposed to believe that Trump is compromised? Please.

In other words, the West should deal with Russia by treating each situation and policy separately instead of going for a blanket approach, and understanding that the place is complicated and requires certain nuances that aren’t going to fit in a single line or Twitter comment. Russian interests both align with and oppose Western interests depending on what we’re talking about, and a mature, balanced approach is required to deal with them. Trump’s first step towards achieving this should be to utterly ignore most contemporary commentary on the matter.

The Signs of Brittle Regimes

Some time ago, The Oilfield Expat posted an anecdote followed by an observation:

At one point in my career I was working in a Middle Eastern desert where there were giant posters of the rulers everywhere.  A grizzled American who was on my team made a comment on them:

“See, when you are in a country with pictures of the rulers everywhere, it means the place could go to rat-shit at any minute.  I was in Iran during the Revolution in 1979.  Before the Revolution there were posters of the Shah everywhere…everyone loved the Shah.   Then one morning we woke to find the Shah’s picture replaced by the Ayatollah’s, and now everyone loved the Ayatollah.  Guys were in the office, telling us we needed to leave, who a couple of days before were saying how much they loved the Shah.”

He wasn’t wrong.  If a ruler feels the need to plaster his mug over every building and his goons insist his portrait adorns every office wall, then his grip on power is weak (with one or two exceptions: Thailand’s king is genuinely popular, but then he doesn’t meddle in politics).

I was reminded of this when I read this over at The Dilettante’s place:

Vyacheslav Volodin, Putin’s former deputy chief of staff and current chairman of the state Duma, would support a law that protects the honor and dignity of the Russian president.

Like the giant posters displayed on buildings and ubiquitous portraits in offices, laws banning the mocking of the political leadership is a sign that the regime is brittle. It might be strong in one sense, as brittle things often are; but brittle regimes cannot survive shocks, and what follows a shock is usually absolute chaos.

Some people will look at Putin’s consolidation of power and proposals like the one above and conclude that he is becoming ever-more immovable and Russia’s stature growing. Personally, I think it shows the opposite. As Alex notes:

Back to May 1990:

The Soviet Parliament has given its approval to an ambiguous law making it a crime to “insult” President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The measure recalls the infamous Stalin-era penal code, with its stiff prison terms for anyone convicted of “slandering” the state…

Supporters of the plan to silence critics offer the standard justifications. Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, one of Gorbachev’s top military advisers, argues that insulting the president “weakens our society,” and so cannot go unpunished.

The Soviet Union would last for about 19 more months, until late December 1991. Marshal Akhromeyev killed himself after the failed coup in August 1991. Not that history repeats itself – it seldom does – but occasionally, improbably, it just might. Aren’t these people in high places superstitious?

If a country needs laws like this then it has deeper problems that probably aren’t going away any time soon.

Russians Upset Over Distant Events

It’s good to see Cold War paranoia is back in 2017:

Russia says it views the arrival of more than 3,000 US soldiers in Poland as a threat to its own security.

The troops are part of President Barack Obama’s response to reassure Nato allies concerned about a more aggressive Russia.

It is the largest US military reinforcement of Europe in decades.

Here is a map of Poland and its surrounds:

The distance between the eastern Polish border and the western Russian border is about 500km.  There are entire nations lying between Russia proper and Poland; they might as well complain about the troops in Germany as Poland.

Of course, they may be talking about the Russian enclave around Kaliningrad, in which case it is necessary to note that:

Last October, Russia sent nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to its exclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, followed a month later by Bastion anti-ship missile launchers.

Which presumably don’t threaten anyone, oh no.  They’re for defensive purposes, you see.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the BBC that the move “threatens our interests and our security”.

Perhaps if the Russians would state clearly what their “interests” in Poland and its neighbours were, such agonising would be unnecessary.  And this is just bollocks:

“It’s a third country that is building up its military presence on our borders in Europe,” [Peskov] said. “It isn’t even a European country.”

Poland’s not in Europe?  Where is it then, Africa?

Poland’s Undersecretary of State for Defence Tomasz Szatkowski said the deployment was necessary because of Russia’s “large exercises” next to its border and its “aggressive actions in our vicinity – I mean Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea”.

Ah, finally somebody who is speaking sensibly.

Mr Trump’s nomination for defence secretary – Gen James Mattis – is likely to be asked about the new administration’s attitude to Russia in his Senate confirmation hearing later on Thursday.

Leaving aside Obama’s last-minute posturing, a thousand quid says Mattis fully approves of the troops being in Poland and sees preventing Russia from attempting to annex more of Eastern Europe as being a top US strategic priority in the way that confronting them over Syria most certainly is not.  I can well imagine Trump pushing the Europeans to start paying more for their own defense and rightly so, but I think Putin will be making a very big mistake if he thinks the US is about to abandon Eastern Europe to Russian control.

UPDATE

And whaddya know?

President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees for defence secretary and spy chief have been taking aim at Russia during their Senate confirmation hearings.

General James Mattis, defence secretary nominee, warned Nato was under its biggest attack since World War Two.

Mr Mattis, a retired general and Mr Trump’s pick for Pentagon chief, said Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to divide Nato nations.

“I think right now the most important thing is that we recognise the reality of what we deal with with Mr Putin,” he told the Armed Services Committee.

“And we recognise that he is trying to break the North Atlantic Alliance and that we take the steps… to defend ourselves where we must.

“I think it’s under the biggest attack since World War II, sir, and that’s from Russia, from terrorist groups and with what China is doing in the South China Sea.”

I think we might get to find out fairly soon just how much of a Russian puppet Trump is.  My guess, as I hinted at earlier, is the stance of his administration will be “You can have Syria, but if you start rattling sabres in Eastern Europe, we’ll arm them to the teeth”.

The Myth of Russian Prostitutes

Even rabid lefty journalists seem to think that these latest allegations regarding Donald Trump are bollocks of the first water, but I’m going to put in my two cents anyway:

In the document, a source says Mr Trump hired the presidential suite of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Moscow, where he knew President Obama and Michelle Obama had stayed on one of their officials trips. The source goes on to say that Mr Trump asked prostitutes to perform lewd sex acts on the bed where the Obamas had slept.

“According to Source D … Trump’s perverted conduct included … defiling the bed where they had slept by employing a number of prostitutes to perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him.”

Ah yes, of course.  One can’t possibly have a story taking place in Moscow without prostitutes being involved, be it a poorly-written Hollywood film or what looks like an internet hoax being passed to the CIA who then took it seriously.  Whenever anything slightly dodgy is happening involving Russians, prostitutes must be shoehorned in there somehow.

It seems to be a reputation Russia cannot shake.  I wasn’t in Russia during the 1990s, but from what I heard from those who were pretty much everything that was there was for sale – women included.  During this period the former Soviet Union saw an exodus of young women who went abroad to be mail-order brides, prostitutes, and strippers and thus the reputation was born.  I don’t know when this peaked, but when I arrived in Dubai in 2003 certain clubs were packed with “Russian” prostitutes.  Only they were almost all from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and to a lesser extent Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Moldova.  About a quarter of them were ethnic Russians, the rest Central Asian or mixed.  By the time I left in 2006 their numbers had dwindled and they’d been replaced by Africans and Chinese.  I never went back so I don’t know if there are any there now.

When I went to Sakhalin in 2006 I found a lot of young women who were keen to form relationships with expatriates, and some of those expatriates were two decades older than the girls and sported large beer bellies.  However, even these women were in the minority: most girls on Sakhalin wanted to marry a Russian guy (or Korean if the girl was part of that community).  But I never saw a prostitute the whole time I was there.  I heard there was a kind of brothel catering to Filipino workers somewhere out on the airport road, and there were certainly banyas where prostitutes worked, sort of like the massage parlours in the UK.  And the local paper and presumably websites had plenty of adverts featuring women who promised to show you a good time, but this is hardly unique to Russia as a brief glance at Craigslist would reveal.

I went to Moscow on a business trip once in 2008 and ended up with a group of guys from Gazprom in some high-class strip bar where girls my height wandered around in spangly bikinis and high-heeled shoes made from clear plastic.  By the time I arrived I’d been sick twice thanks to ferocious drinking which took place earlier that night, after which they’d dragged me to a place where I’d drank a whole pot of tea to get me on my feet again.  I must have stayed all of thirty minutes in that strip bar and whilst the girls were undoubtedly for sale, they were hardly throwing themselves at the customers in the manner one sees in gangster films.

In other words, whatever happened in the 1990s is a long time ago and prostitution in Russia – from what I can tell – is not much different from how it is in any European country.  Contrary to what many people think, a trip to Russia will not see eighteen year old stunners throwing themselves at you; the closest you’ll come to that is when one walks into you while uploading photos onto vkontakte.ru on her mobile.  True, the women there are pretty and there are plenty of single ones with whom a relationship is possible (although perhaps not always advisable) but prostitutes they are not.  Nor are Russians particularly into group sex, lewd acts, and other weird stuff that Hollywood likes to portray.

By contrast, I saw a lot of prostitution in Nigeria and in Thailand.  I saw a lot of strip clubs in Melbourne too, which made Blackpool Pleasure Beach look as classy as the US Masters.  Having lived in Russia and France, I don’t see much difference between the two in terms of prostitution, weird sex, and the propensity for wealthy, successful men to like attractive young women.  Nobody would have written about Trump visiting Paris and getting prostitutes to swamp on a bed, but if it takes place in Russia seemingly this is quite normal.

A decent journalist would have known this is a crude, inaccurate stereotype and declined to print the story.  To their credit, most of them did.  Apparently the CIA has taken it seriously though.  Doesn’t that just fill you with confidence?

I don’t like to keep praising Putin, but…

…I’m rather glad an adult has entered the room:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ruled out a tit-for-tat response after the US expelled 35 Russian diplomats amid a row over hacking.

He said Russia would not “stoop” to the level of “irresponsible diplomacy” but would work to restore ties with the US under President-elect Donald Trump.

What was Michelle Obama’s recent remark?  That the White House needs a grown-up in charge?

Well, not long to go now, Michelle.

From Crimea to Syria to Siberia

This story will obviously be overshadowed by yesterday’s murder in Ankara, but I feel it should not be overlooked because it is in some way connected:

At least 48 people have died in the Siberian city of Irkutsk after drinking bath essence, Russian authorities say.

The hawthorn-scented liquid was consumed as if it were alcohol, according to Russia’s Investigative Committee.

Several others are in a serious condition. Two people have been detained over the deaths and police are removing bottles from shops.

Russian media reported that the victims were poor people, aged between 35 and 50, and were not drinking together.

As I have acknowledged on this blog and elsewhere, things have improved massively in Russia over the last ten or fifteen years on almost every measure.  Anyone who denies this has never been there nor is talking to the right people.  However, the rapid and many improvements have come about much the same way as China’s have – by starting from an astonishingly low base.  I suppose this is true for any country, including Britain, France, and the USA, but for Russia (and I suspect China) the situation is far worse: beyond the facade of Olympic Games, Grand Prix, Champions League sponsorships, recapturing of “lost” territories, new tanks, and supposedly brilliant strategic victories in dusty, oil-free corners of the Middle East, Russia still has many serious structural issues.  The obvious ones are the pathetic weakness of Russia’s state institutions, all of which are highly politicised and subject to micromanagement from the Kremlin; Putin’s apparent intention to retain power indefinitely without any sort of succession plan; and the suffocating bureaucracy and corruption which prevents the economy from growing and, more importantly, diversifying.

But under that is the problem that has plagued Russia probably since historians first started writing about it: a huge swathe of the population is desperately poor, they live in appalling conditions, their lives are hopeless, and they deal with it all by drinking to a degree that literally needs to be seen to be believed.  Until you have seen two men in their fifties staggering down the street holding each other up in the manner of teenage revelers in Magaluf, only this is 11am on a Tuesday morning outside a shopping centre, then you won’t know how bad alcohol abuse is in Russia.  Nor will statistics published in a medical journal have the same impact as seeing a man in his mid-thirties walking his kid to school at 8am while swigging out of a bottle of Bochka.

The younger generation of Russians, who make up the bulk of the emerging middle classes, see this and can’t ignore it.  Many of them have parents who only survive because their sons and daughters are paying for proper double glazing, medical bills, food, and utilities.  However, they will have more distant relatives, and their parents will have close friends, who don’t have children to help them and they live cooped up in tiny, decrepit apartments trying to survive on a pathetically low pension that has been destroyed by inflation while a callous local authority run by people wearing Breitlings increases taxes and utility charges without explanation.  And of course there are the sanctions:

Two years of Western economic sanctions have made the situation worse, and analysts say up to 12 million Russians drink cheap surrogate alcohol, including perfume, after shave, anti-freeze and window cleaner.

The Russian government and its cheerleaders abroad are fond of saying the sanctions have had no impact, pointing to various oil deals and aerial bombings as proof that Russia is still a force to be reckoned with.  But the sanctions – or rather, Russia’s bizarre sanctioning itself in response – has driven imported food prices up considerably, leading people to consume the cheaper homegrown staples in greater quantities thus forcing the prices of those up in turn.  For anyone who was dependent on homegrown staples to begin with and couldn’t afford the imported stuff, they will be finding it a lot harder to feed themselves.  This will leave less money left over for drink, so they turn to alternatives.

There are two things that are worth highlighting in this story.  The first is that vodka in Russia is astonishingly cheap, and I mean somewhere in the region of a couple of dollars per litre.  True, it is more like helicopter fuel than Absolut, but it at least comes in a bottle marked vodka and is supposedly fit for human consumption.  But some people can’t even afford this, and so take to drinking bubble bath and other substitutes.  The other surprising aspect of the story is that this took place in Irkutsk.  This city is in the middle of Siberia, but it’s not some backward village adjacent to a uranium mine that closed in 1962: Irkutsk is a regional capital, one of the largest cities in Siberia, has theatres, a university, and industries that are still alive.  When I went there in 2008 I found it a lot bigger, nicer, and smarter than Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (which admittedly wasn’t saying much).  My point is that if this is happening in Irkustk, then it will be much, much worse elsewhere.

So what’s this got to do with Syria?  As I mentioned before, Russians are painfully aware of the state of their country: ask any well-educated, smart, patriotic Russian working in the West if they know somebody – one of their parents’ friends, who may have looked after them when they were kids in the USSR – who is now eking out a miserable existence waiting for death and sees none of the vast wealth that is splashed around Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and the swanky holiday resorts of Europe.  They all will.  Ask them what they think of their parents’ pension, and the inflation of the property taxes compared to the services the municipality is providing, and then ask them what sort of mayor they have running the town and spending those taxes.  Russians might not talk about it voluntarily, but they all know.  There is a reason why the film Leviathan was hated so much, and so many Russians couldn’t bear to watch it.

Russia’s internal problems are likely insoluble, and like many an authoritative leadership they have instead found it easier to rally the country in the face of external threats whether real or imagined.  So much of what Russia does outside its borders – culminating in the seizure of Crimea and securing Syria for Assad – is done to satisfy the craving of its population to see Russia flex its muscles on the international stage because it is too painful to see what is going on within its own borders and, despite the veneer, how little has changed and how much opportunity has been wasted.  I have yet to hear a coherent strategic reason why Russia wanted Crimea or why they consider Syria of such importance, other than their actions in both places boosted Russia’s “prestige” in the eyes of its population (and a handful of foreigners who think whatever Russia does must by default be bad for the West).

It’s an understandable policy, albeit not one which I support and nor do I think it will take Russia to a desirable destination.  Improvements will continue in some areas of that I am sure, as they have been for some time.  But stories like the one coming from Irkustk yesterday, and far worse, will never go away and will continue to shine a light on the reality in Russia no matter how much its government spends on vanity projects and efforts to restore lost pride.

Russian Ambassador Murdered in Turkey

In November 2015 I wrote a post about how Russia ought to tread a little more carefully now they had decided to get embroiled in Middle East conflicts.  My post came shortly after a Russian passenger plane had seemingly been bombed on its way to Saint Petersburg from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, and I said:

It ought not to have escaped Putin’s attention that while he envied America’s occupying the role of sole global superpower, as with all superpowers before them this position comes at a price.

It has taken a while, but Americans have slowly hardened up to this.  Getting anywhere near an American embassy – even in a benign location like Singapore – is extremely difficult these days, and American companies, businessmen, and tourists are flooded with security advice which has led to an overall heightened awareness.

One would hope that Putin thought about this before he intervened with great fanfare in Syria, but in doing so he has now opened up Russia to terrorist attacks by the most fanatical people on the planet.  At home, Russia is probably geared up to deal with this: they inherited the security apparatus from the Soviet Union and have plenty of experience dealing with Chechen terrorism over the years, albeit with mixed results at first.  But abroad, Russia must look like a very ripe target for jihadists based overseas.  I’ve walked past Russian embassies and they are often protected by a crumbling breeze-block wall with a rusty coil of barbed wire fastened on top.

For the first time in a long time, Russians are now seen as the bad guys by a whole swathe of the Middle East, and among their ranks are no shortage of nutcases – including ISIS.

If it turns out this Russian plane was indeed brought down by a bomb put aboard in Sharm el-Sheikh airport (a soft target if there ever was one), then there will probably be more such attacks, and Russia is ill-equipped to prevent them.

I post this now because this story is breaking:

A gunman has shot dead Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, apparently in protest at Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Several other people were reportedly also injured in the attack, a day after protests in Turkey over Russia’s military intervention in Syria.

The camera pulls back to show a smartly dressed gunman, wearing a suit and tie, waving a pistol and shouting.

He can be heard yelling “Don’t forget about Aleppo, don’t forget about Syria” and uses the Arabic phrase “Allahu Akbar” (God is great).

I don’t think I can add much to what I’ve already said, other than there is no way an American ambassador would be in a room with people who haven’t gone through a metal detector and been screened for weapons.

Shock as World Learns Rex Tillerson is an Oil Company Executive!

This is amusing:

Leak reveals Rex Tillerson was director of Bahamas-based US-Russian oil firm

screams The Guardian.

Rex Tillerson, the businessman nominated by Donald Trump to be the next US secretary of state, was the long-time director of a US-Russian oil firm based in the tax haven of the Bahamas, leaked documents show.

Tillerson – the chief executive of ExxonMobil – became a director of the oil company’s Russian subsidiary, Exxon Neftegas, in 1998. His name – RW Tillerson – appears next to other officers who are based at Houston, Texas; Moscow; and Sakhalin, in Russia’s far east.

I’m not sure what the issue is here.  Presumably the dolts at The Guardian had never heard of ExxonNeftegas, unlike pretty much everyone else in the oil industry who pays attention, and thinks it is some sort of shady shell-company set up to launder Putin’s personal cash float, or something.  The reality is a lot less interesting: ExxonNeftegas is merely the consortium set up to operate the Sakhalin I project, as its website tells us:

Sakhalin-1 is comprised of Russian, Japanese, Indian and American participants and is operated by Exxon Neftegas Limited, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil — the world’s largest non-governmental oil and gas company.

Anyone who has spent time in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk would have seen the ExxonNeftegas building on the corner of Prospekts Mira and Kommunistichesky, and they would have encountered lots of young Russians employed by the firm each of whom had a business card with the company name and Sakhalin-1 logo printed on it.  (They may also have encountered a Canadian with more air miles under her belt than Voyager 2.  Let’s see if she’s reading this.)  Secretive it is not.

Maybe The Guardian takes issue with the fact that the information regarding Tillerson’s directorship of ExxonNeftegas had to be leaked for them to find out.  And they would have a point, were ExxonMobil not silly enough to include such top-secret information on their corporate website:

But as The Guardian tells us:

Though there is nothing untoward about this directorship, it has not been reported before and is likely to raise fresh questions over Tillerson’s relationship with Russia ahead of a potentially stormy confirmation hearing by the US senate foreign relations committee.

There is nothing untoward about this directorship, but as Guardian journalists didn’t know about it then it’s a scandal worthy of a newspaper column.

ExxonMobil’s use of offshore regimes – while legal – may also jar with Trump’s avowal to put “America first”.

Fair point, but it might be a bit of a stretch to complain that ExxonMobil isn’t insisting its Russian operations are headquartered in the United States.  The company’s registration in the Bahamas is probably new information to most: I knew about it because I have signed contracts with ExxonNeftegas Limited and their corporate address is stated in them (along with a stipulation that any arbitration will be heard in the courts of New York).  The incorporation in the Bahamas may seem odd, but it is not unusual.

ExxonNeftegas’ counterpart in that corner of Russia is Sakhalin Energy Investment Company (SEIC), which is the operator of the Sakhalin II project.  SEIC is registered in Bermuda, probably for much the same reasons ExxonNeftegas is incorporated in the Bahamas.  SEIC has been majority owned by Gazprom, the government-owned gas company, since 2007.  If there was anything untoward in these consortia being registered outside the Russian Federation on balmy island tax havens, the Russian government would likely have done something about SEIC by now given they have had control of the company for the past 9 years.  That they haven’t suggests there is nothing illegal or improper going on.  As The Guardian reports:

[ExxonMobil] said the oil firm had incorporated some of its affiliates in the Bahamas because of “simplicity and predictability”.

“It is not done to reduce tax in the country where the company operates,” Exxon said. “Incorporation of a company in the Bahamas does not decrease ExxonMobil’s tax liability in the country where the entity generates its income.”

Indeed.  Only among Guardian readers is this a story.

Putin and the Russian Hackers

You’ve gotta be quick around here.  Before I had a chance to write a post on this story, I saw Streetwise Professor had already said everything I was going to.  Never mind I thought, I can emphasise the main point.  Nope, Mick Hartley as already said it:

Well, this must’ve been a chilling moment for Putin:

President Barack Obama has said that he ordered Russia’s Vladimir Putin to “cut it out” in a conversation about email hacking ahead of the US election.

Implying that the Russian president knew about the hacks, Mr Obama said: “Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin.”

The president said he had warned Mr Putin of serious consequences at a summit in September.

A month later, the US accused Russia of meddling in its democratic process.

Feeling the full force of Obama’s wrath there. “You just cut it out, you big bully. Or else….or else….”

It’s another one of his famous red lines, like Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

Obama is cutting an increasingly pitiful figure as his lame-duck Presidency comes to an end.  Who does he think he’s fooling with this “tough talk” when he has just over a month to go in office?

Putin must be laughing his socks off.  Every time he opens a western newspaper he learns that he is the orchestrator of every political development the Establishment classes find upsetting.  There’s an old Jewish joke that goes like this:

An elderly Jewish man is sitting on a park bench reading Reverend Farrakhan’s newspaper. His best friend walks by, sees the paper, and stops — in shock.

“What are you doing reading that crappy newspaper?” he says incredulously.

“Better, you should be reading the Jewish Magazine!”

The elderly man replies, “The Jewish Magazine has these sad and disturbing stories about intermarriage, anti-Semitism, problems in Israel — all kinds of troubles of the Jewish people. I like to read about good news.

In Farrakhan’s paper, he says the Jews have all the money … the Jews control the banks… the Jews control the press … the Jews control Hollywood…the Jews are going to steal Iran oil. With this anti-semite newspaper I get to read about good news!”

I imagine this is how Putin feels these days.

Regarding whether Putin’s army of hackers swung the election for Trump, this article says it all.