On Trump’s withdrawal from Syria

So Donald Trump has decided to pull US forces out of Syria, and people are upset. Some are opposed because they are neo-cons who think America should be fighting wars anywhere and everywhere to spread peace and democracy, while others don’t like it just because it’s Trump. This tweet is an interesting example of the reaction:


If the goal of the US military in Syria is to protect Israel, the Kurds, and Iraqi Christians this should have been stated before their deployment as part of a clear and transparent policy. This never happened. Instead, US troops turned up in unspecified numbers which the public gradually got to hear about as they took part in various actions. Certainly Congress was never consulted, as they are supposed to be (although that requirement is laughable these days). We were told various stories, one of which was that US forces were in Syria to support rebels opposed to Bashar al Assad, another was they were there to fight ISIS. But there was never a clear policy as to why they were there, nor any indication of what would constitute victory. As usual, US troops were in a foreign country for an unspecified purpose seemingly indefinitely. What should be upsetting people is there were US forces in Syria under these conditions to start with, not that Trump is pulling them out.

Trump is quite correct here:

Firstly, Trump is right that ISIS – being a shadow of what they were a few years back – are mainly a local problem in a military sense. I have few doubts Russia can handle any threat posed by ISIS to Assad’s government. One of the points many people don’t like to acknowledge is Russia made short work of the various rebel groups, mainly because they didn’t pussyfoot around with how they went about it. They’ll do the same with ISIS.

Secondly, America has no strategic interest in Syria whatsoever. People talk all sorts of nonsense about surrendering the Middle East to Russia, often in the same breath they condemn Trump for being too close to the Saudi Crown Prince. It also overlooks the rather large US military base in Qatar and the strategic alliances they have with the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain. So what if Russia establishes itself in Syria? Assad has always been aligned with Russia, and I can’t for the life of me think why Russia is so invested in the place other than for some vague notion of prestige and as a handy place to test and sell weapons systems.

Now consider this tweet:


Who cares if Iran and Russia “claim a victory”? Over whom? The US is withdrawing from the battlefield because the Commander in Chief doesn’t know why they’re there or what constitutes victory. Who are they supposed to fight in the coming years? Russians?  I’ve seen some pretty daft justifications for keeping an army deployed overseas in perpetuity, but doing so in order to deny others from claiming a non-existent victory surpasses all others.

What is also laughable is the idea that Russia, Iran, and Turkey are in a grand alliance whose nefarious plans were only thwarted by the presence of US forces. One thing is certain, and that is neither Russia or Turkey are going to allow Iran to do whatever it likes in Syria. I wrote before about how Israel has little to fear from Russia, who might play a useful role in keeping Iranian ambitions in check. And if Israel can’t handle Iranian forces fighting in Syria because 2,000 US soldiers stationed nowhere near their borders have been withdrawn, they have serious problems indeed. Rather than a coordinated effort between Russia, Iran, and Turkey to threaten US interests – whatever they may be – and Israeli security, I expect we’ll see non-stop squabbling, scheming and backstabbing with the occasional military engagement thrown in for fun. I have little doubt that Turkey will seize the opportunity to flatten the Kurds, and personally I’d have been happier if Trump had been a lot tougher with Erdogan on several issues. But with the best will in the world, any attempt to support an independent Kurdish state will end in disaster; I see no reason why the US shouldn’t give them weaponry to make the Turks think twice, though.

Finally, Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria seems to have come at the price of James Mattis, the US Secretary of Defence. In his resignation letter to Trump he said:

My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.

Meaning, he disagrees with Trump on how he sees the role of the US military in future. A lot of people are saying this is a body-blow for Trump, and losing a man like Mattis is a big loss for any organisation, but I’m not so sure. Mattis is one hell of a soldier and probably knows everything there is too know about winning wars, but it is not his job – nor his expertise – to determine the political direction in which US forces are applied now or in future. As I understand it, his job is to advise the president on military possibilities and, once strategic political decisions have been made, to make the military decisions necessary to achieve the desired outcomes. In other words, Mattis might be quite happy for the US to stay deployed in Syria forever and “advance an international order” but that’s irrelevant to his duties.  His job is to win battles in Syria, not decide whether the US is involved there and for how long.

So while it is quite right for Mattis to resign at the end of his tenure if he is unconvinced by Trump’s political approach, one must remember that Trump ran on a platform of not using US military power to “advance an international order”. Indeed, that seems to be a policy many Americans, and an awful lot of foreigners, really wish America would abandon. Unless, it seems, it’s Trump making the decision, in which case bombing people is good again.

UPDATE

See this from the BBC:

The Trump administration is planning to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan, US media say.

Reports, citing unnamed officials, say about 7,000 troops – roughly half the remaining US military presence in the country – could go home within months.

Analysts have warned that a withdrawal could have a “devastating” impact and offer Taliban militants a propaganda victory.

Better stay for another 17 years then, eh? I remember when the likes of the BBC were against American military adventurism.

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Conflicts of interests

Nothing in this report surprises me:

A rift was growing between Britain and key allies yesterday as European diplomats pushed back on calls for a firmer response to Russia’s weekend naval clash with Ukraine. The fracture in the Western alliance sets the stage for tense exchanges when European, US, and Russian leaders meet at a G20 summit in Argentina later this week.

Anyone want to guess where the fault lines lie? Here’s one side:

Britain, Poland, and the Baltic States have urged other members of the EU 28 to impose extra measures when existing sanctions against Russia are renewed in December.

The calls have been backed by the US.

And here’s the other:

France and Germany, which brokered a ceasefire and tentative peace accord between Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and Petro Poroshenko, the leader of Ukraine, in 2015, are understood to fear such a move could split the bloc and further inflame tensions.

So much for solidarity over the Skripal poisoning, then. One of the most bizarre spectacles in recent times has been the European media and its gullible consumers portraying Merkel and Macron as standing up for Europe against the Putin bogeyman, while Trump is portrayed as a Russian puppet. Yet whenever it comes to actual policy, Germany and France fall over themselves to avoid anything which might damage the commercial interests of their major firms in Russia, and the same media utters not a peep.

Regardless of what the correct approach to Russia is, the double-dealing on the part of Germany and France – saying one thing, doing the other – is inexcusable. Last week Macron was saying he wants an EU army to protect against, among other things, Russian aggression. Merkel’s approach to NATO, Trump, and Russia requires contortions which are seriously impressive for a woman of her age. The hypocritical, self-serving behaviour of France and Germany who, when it suits them, demand ever-more cooperation and integration from smaller EU states is one of the strongest arguments in favour of Brexit.

On that subject, I’m reminded of something I wrote in a post in April last year:

The Baltic states are completely reliant on Nato to keep the Russians out, which in this case means the United States. However, in diplomatic terms (and probably  a token military one as well) it also means the Brits. If we can imagine a scenario in a few years time when the Russians are massing tanks and troops on the borders of Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania on some pretext and revving the engines noisily, Britain will be one of the countries they will be pleading with to intervene (meaning, persuade the United States to intervene). How Britain responds ought very much to depend on how the Baltic states behaved during the Brexit negotiations.

I’ve noticed that Estonians and Lithuanians have said very little during the Brexit negotiations, and the Latvians have been urging caution. I’m sure it’s occurred to them that with Britain out of the EU they suddenly become a lot more vulnerable to malign Russian influence, be it commercial or even military.

This is why I think the EU will ultimately fail. The European continent, and the islands off it, do have genuine shared interests and concerns but the EU is structured along very different lines. These conflicts are now coming to a head, and at some point in the near future people are going to be asked hard questions as to which alliances matter most to them. I expect it will take some pretty ugly scenes before they find an answer.

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A Crimean-shaped thorn in Russia’s side

I can’t claim to know anything about what’s going on in the Black Sea with those Ukrainian and Russian boats:

Sunday’s naval clash was off the coast of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. Russian coastguard ships opened fire before special forces stormed the Ukrainian vessels. Between three and six Ukrainians were injured.

Ukraine said it was a Russian “act of aggression”. Moscow said the ships had illegally entered its waters.

What I do know is that Russia is probably not playing a very smart game here. When I was in Perth I spoke to a Russian who was adamant that Russia had no choice to annex Crimea in order to prevent NATO warships from being within striking distance of their Black Sea coast. Now you could hold an entire seminar on the delusions Russians subject themselves to when justifying their seizure of Crimea, but I wasn’t going to start arguing geopolitics during a social visit. As I’m fond of saying these days, politics shouldn’t interfere with friendship.

Instead, I said that regardless of the rights or wrongs of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, this will be a thorn in their side for generations to come. There are certain historical events which occur between two peoples at a particular time which one party is able to use as a stick to bash the other in perpetuity. Both the relative size of the parties and the timing are crucial, which allows a certain narrative to form which, regardless of actual facts, never goes away. Russia’s mistake was stealing land from a weaker neighbour at a time when Russia was itself weak and also generally disliked. When Stalin’s USSR annexed land from their neighbours, they were strong enough to brush off criticism and people’s attention was focused elsewhere in any case. Similarly, China’s land and sea grabs don’t seem to have become a stick which their enemies use to beat them, at least not effectively.

But the narrative has formed that Russia illegally annexed Crimea and is illegally occupying it. Even if their administration of the territory is eventually recognised by the international community, this will be an issue Ukrainians and those opposed to Russia’s ambitions will use to thwart them indefinitely. Ukraine is a complete dysfunctional basket case and will in all likelihood stay that way, whereas in 10, 20, 30 years time Russia might have reformed enough to want to play a more positive political, diplomatic, and commercial role around the world. Frankly, nobody knows what Russia’s future holds but it’s at least possible that whoever succeeds Putin might want to involve Russia more in global business, for example. They’re likely to find that, despite any character reforms they’ve undergone, a well-funded and influential lobby group will pop up at every point and turn and say “Ah, but Crimea”.

A good comparison is with Turkey and the Armenian genocide. No matter what Turkey tries to do, there is a small but effective body of Armenian lobbyists who say “Ah, but the genocide”. Like Russia with Crimea, Turkey decided to massacre the Armenians when they were too weak to set the narrative, losing the war months later and being occupied by foreign armies. It probably never occurred to the Turks that, a hundred years later when anyone with even memories of the event is now dead, the issue would be thrown in front of them like a tank trap every time they want to do anything in the US or Europe. I suspect most Turks wish they’d just left the Armenians alone.

The other similarity between the two cases is that neither issue can be resolved. No apology from Turkey can bring back dead Armenians, and I suspect even now the Russian presence in Crimea is so entrenched it can never be returned to Ukraine without enormous upheaval and more human rights abuses. But this is the beauty of it from a fanatic’s point of view: an insoluble moral objection is perfect, because it’s a club that can be used to beat your opponent again and again. Sure, this isn’t exactly productive from the point of view of the person wielding the club, but fanatics aren’t normally motivated by progress. I’m reminded of a comment I read recently from someone who’d spent a few minutes listening to an Irishman rant about the British:

“So what are you going to do, keep protesting until the last 600 years didn’t happen?”

Like the Armenians and Irish, Ukrainians have little to lose by throwing a spanner in the works of their larger neighbour’s ambitions in protest at their perceived historical beastliness (look at the behaviour of the Irish over Brexit, for example). Ukraine won’t suffer for it, and they’ll find plenty of support from whoever Russia has managed to make an enemy of that week. I reckon that, like the Turks with the Armenians, Russians will one day believe Crimea is a lot more trouble than it’s worth and they should have left it well alone. Where this will leave Putin’s reputation among Russians as a geopolitical strategic genius I don’t know.

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Banged Up Abroad

A friend, who earns too much to be seeking a coveted research assistant spot at this organ, sends me this story:

A 52-year-old American man is facing up to 20 years in a Russian penal colony after placing an online order for a cleaning product that contains a chemical banned by Moscow.

Gaylen Grandstaff, a former fireman from Topeka, Kansas, was arrested in July last year by customs agents who raided the Moscow flat where he lives with his Russian wife, Anna. He has had bail applications rejected, most recently this week, and has been held in brutal detention facilities. His trial for drug smuggling began in August and is expected to last until next summer.

The rest is behind the paywall, so let’s go here instead:

In the evening of July 19, 2017, Grandstaff and his wife Anna were at home in the north of Moscow, when a courier from the EMS service brought them a parcel from an online store. In June, a man ordered peptides there for cell regeneration and a metal cleaner.

Instead of the order in the box, the couple found two bottles of mineral water “Senezhskaya” and the magazine “Customs”. Later it turned out that the courier was not real – they were a disguised customs officer who participated in the “controlled delivery” operation.

A few minutes later eight people came to the Grandstaff: customs officers, several witnesses, an interpreter and a lawyer. After midnight, the investigator appeared with a decision to initiate criminal proceedings.

Grandstaff was accused of smuggling narcotic drugs on a large scale (part 3 of Article 229.1 of the Criminal Code). In the cleaning agent purchased through the Internet, gamma-butyrolactone was added to the list of drugs banned on the territory of Russia. It can be used as a psychotropic substance.

My initial reaction is that this chap has upset someone important, who has found a way to clobber him. It could also be the Russians want an American in jail to use as a bargaining chip with Trump, but this individual doesn’t really fit that profile and the story is hardly making the rounds in the US, or indeed anywhere (BBC Russia covered the story here but they didn’t run it in English.) Or maybe it’s exactly as reported?

It may also be tempting to use this story to highlight the callousness of the Russian judicial system, but frankly if there is one country whose authorities positively delight in jailing people for decades because of minor infractions of bizarre laws which run into thousands of pages governing what you can take where and how, it’s the United States. Probably the most comforting thing Mr Grandstaff has right now is the fact he’s dealing with Russian prosecutors and not the US Department of Justice. Some comfort.

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Manage the people you have

Underneath yesterday’s post, Bardon wrote the following:

I don’t like Ilya either and think that he should be shown the door. How long has that loser being getting away with it, is all I can say about the useless idiot.

So let me elaborate on the situation on Sakhalin Island in 2007, which will be fairly typical of most non-western countries. There is a thing called Local Content Legislation which makes it a legal requirement on the part of all foreign entities to hire a certain percentage of locals. If the locals are uneducated, unskilled, and untrained it doesn’t matter: it is the foreign company’s responsibility to provide the necessary training to allow them to do the job. If there are no locals around because the site is in the middle of nowhere, you must hire them elsewhere and bring them to site. In the early days, it was possible to employ a whole bunch of locals as drivers or in other lowly positions, but the authorities soon got wind of this and started looking at job categories and average salaries.

Even before 2007 companies in Sakhalin were under enormous legal pressure to hire more locals in more senior positions. At the height of the Sakhalin I and II construction projects (which were running simultaneously), there were tens of thousands of people working on them, both locals and foreigners. The population of Sakhalin is around 500,000 of which about a third live in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the regional capital. To say there were serious labour shortages is an understatement, and thousands of Kazakhs, Turks, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Azeris, Brits, Americans, Australians, Nepalese, Dutch, Indonesians, Filipinos and another forty nationalities were brought in to man the projects. Russians were brought from the mainland by the thousand, particularly those from the Krasnodar region who had experience on the Caspian Pipeline Consortium. Kazakhs were also favoured because they spoke Russian and had experience from the Tenghiz and Karachaganak projects.

In short, any Russian under 50 on Sakhalin who was not mental, in jail, or a raving alcoholic was in high demand (so about half the male population, then). Added to that was the problem that foreign companies needed most of their Russians to speak English, which reduced the labour pool even further. This is why all the foreign companies on Sakhalin at that time were stuffed full of teachers: they were the first ones they identified who could speak English, and any technical skill or other competence came further down the list of requirements. Much further.

So while we had some very good Russians working for us, we also had some pretty average ones who you couldn’t do much about because the law didn’t allow a foreigner to do the job and there were no better Russians available. It is in such situations a manager is really tested. Any idiot can fire someone and hire another, but it takes skill to manage a team with a whole range of individuals and understand that these are the people you have to work with. A common mistake a lot of modern managers make is to believe replacing people is a bigger part of their job than effectively managing those they have. When a new manager of Plymouth Argyle football club takes over, he doesn’t sell the whole team and demand the club buys Ronaldo and Messi. Instead he looks at the team he has and tries to get the very best out of them, and he’ll only sell a player once they’ve been shown they can’t fit the team and a better replacement is available. Now I understand some managers have the luxury of being able to fire people and immediately replace them, but let’s not pretend this requires any great talen t.Another way of putting it is you manage the team you have, not the one you wished you had; I was stuck with Ilya and had to work with him. In the main he did a reasonable job, could be relied upon for the most part, and brought in more money than he cost us. Indeed, by the standards of Sakhalin Island in 2007 he was a pretty good employee.

The other thing every manager had to be wary of on Sakhalin was the labour law. The Russian labour code is notoriously strict, and getting rid of people for performance issues required several steps with the involvement of HR, each properly documented. Even then, local employees used to take foreign companies to the local labour courts, who would delight in ruling in favour of their own (this was in stark contrast to when a Russian would take a Russian company to court, and get laughed at). This meant you would only fire an employee as a last resort, when the damage they have wrought is so great you have no choice. Usually, the way of getting rid of a bad employee was to make their job a bit rubbish and, with the labour market being what it was, wait for them to get a better job with another company on more money. The exception was if they were drunk at work, in which case they would always resign rather than have the reason for dismissal entered in their labour book for future employees to see.

In summary, firing Ilya on Sakhalin Island in 2007 wasn’t really an option, even if it were a good idea. Instead I was required to manage him. Imagine.

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At last, some proper information

Now this is more like it:

Two Russian nationals have been named as suspects in the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

The men, using the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, are thought to be officers from Russia’s military intelligence service, the PM said.

The Metropolitan Police said the two men arrived at Gatwick Airport from Moscow on 2 March and stayed at the City Stay Hotel in Bow Road, east London.

On 4 March they travelled to Salisbury – having also visited for reconnaissance the previous day – where Mr Skripal’s front door was contaminated with Novichok.

Officers believe a modified perfume bottle was used to spray the door.

The pair flew from Heathrow to Moscow later that night.

See, this is what was missing during the outrage 6 months ago: evidence. Instead, we had the PM telling everyone it was most definitely Russia behind the attack, based on “intelligence information” and the fact the substance was created in the USSR and a Russian lab the most likely source. Now we have two named individuals and their movements, the British government position looks a lot more credible. However, it’s come rather too late. Here’s the explanation why:

The BBC’s security correspondent Gordon Corera said he understood the authorities identified the pair “a while back” and “may also know their real names” and had hoped by not making this information public, they could intercept them should they continue to travel.

I don’t buy this. The Russians might have bungled this hit, but I doubt they let their assassins wander around the world willy-nilly in the immediate aftermath. I suspect it’s more likely they were told to sit tight in Moscow for at least a year. I’m more inclined the reason this is being released now is because they’ve only just worked all this out, and didn’t have half this information back in March. This is interesting though:

Police said Ms Sturgess and Mr Rowley were later exposed to Novichok after handling a contaminated container, labelled as Nina Ricci Premier Jour perfume.

Mr Rowley told police he found the box containing the small bottle and an applicator – all found to be counterfeit – in a charity bin.

He tried to put the two parts together and got some of the contents on himself. His partner Ms Sturgess applied some of the contents to her wrists and became unwell.

Again, this sort of information – how, where, and when – is important when establishing credibility. Thus far, this is the first time the public has been told anything other than “trust us”.

Speaking in the Commons, Prime Minister Theresa May said the government had concluded, from intelligence provided by UK agencies, that the men were part of the GRU intelligence service.

The poisoning was “not a rogue operation” and was “almost certainly” approved at a senior level of the Russian state, she said.

Sorry, but Theresa May has no way of knowing this. If anyone claims to know the intricate workings of the Russian state, including the degree with which government bodies wander off the reservation, they’re either lying or they subscribe to the all-seeing all-knowing Putin fallacy. The biggest problem I have with Putin ordering this attack is I don’t see any upside for him; yes, I’ve heard all the reasons multiple times, and I find none of them convincing. I’m also skeptical that when the Russian government gets its top assassins to knock someone off, they bungle it. There’s probably a lot more to this story than anyone outside of Russia knows, but I guess it doesn’t matter now.

He said there was little expectation that the pair would end up in a British court, but releasing the evidence would instead add pressure with the intention of “deterring Russia from doing something similar again”.

Oh yes, because the Russians are big on shame, it features large in their culture. For example:

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov told reporters the names of the Russian suspects “do not mean anything to me”.

He seems rattled.

The CPS is not applying to Russia for the extradition of the two men, as Russia does not extradite its own nationals.

Indeed, it’s in the constitution. Funny how Russia occasionally looks after its citizens rather better than free, enlightened nations like the UK.

The UK will meet the UN security council to discuss the case on Thursday.

Mrs May also said Britain would push for the EU to agree new sanctions against Russia.

But BBC diplomatic correspondent James Landale said many European countries would be “reluctant to tighten the screw on Russia”, fearing a loss of trade and energy.

Well indeed. Germany, for instance, has spent years sucking up to Russia and currently believe it is in their interests to side with Vladimir Putin over Donald Trump. Perhaps the real motivation behind Putin ordering a brazen Novichok attack was to see who would come to Britain’s aid, and who Germany and the EU would back. If so, it worked a charm.

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Some Puppet

Oh:

So how does this fit the Trump-is-a-Putin-puppet narrative? Or are we to believe the US Secretary of State says things like this in order to mask Trump’s pro-Russian policies like, erm, trying to get Germany off Russian gas and pay more for NATO?

Here’s my theory: Trump isn’t beholden to Putin.

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Russia to Iran: know your place

This is interesting:

Russia is working to move Iranian forces and their proxies 100 km. from the Syrian border with Israel, a senior diplomatic official said Monday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov.

The Israeli official said Jerusalem’s goal is to remove Iran from all of Syria, and if Moscow wants to deal in the first phase with the buffer zone, then that is fine, “but that does not satisfy us even in the first phase, because they [Iran] have weapons [in Syria] that go beyond that range.”

It’s interesting because Russia appears to be in a position to agree with Israel how close to their border Iranian proxy forces go. There were no Iranians in the meeting; presumably they were waiting outside the door to get their instructions from Lavrov once he emerged.

As it happens, Israel rejected the offer:

“We will not allow the Iranians to establish themselves even 100 kilometers from the border,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, according to an Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Israel’s air force will not cease its operations to protect Israeli citizens as long as Iranian forces possess the capability to fire long-range missiles at Israeli targets,” the senior official said. Location in Syria does not matter, because long-range weapons are positioned well outside the 100-kilometer zone.

“Iran wants to turn Syria into a second Lebanon,” he noted. “And we’re determined to prevent that,” rather than wait until Iran has hundreds and thousands of missiles in Syria.

I’ve said before that Russia could have a positive role in keeping the peace between Israel and Iranian forces in Syria, and their latest offer seems to support that theory. Relations between Russia and Iran have always been rocky, based more on common enemies and a need to buy and sell weaponry than mutual friendship. If we assume Russia wants to be top dog in Syria once Assad regains control of the place, they need to send a clear message to the Iranians to fall into line. Furthermore, there was this:

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov chastised Iran on Monday for calling for Israel’s destruction during a panel discussion in Moscow where Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was sitting with him on the dais.

“We have stated many times that we won’t accept the statements that Israel, as a Zionist state, should be destroyed and wiped off the map. I believe this is an absolutely wrong way to advance one’s own interests,” Lavrov said in Moscow at the Valdai International Discussion Club conference entitled “Russia in the Middle East: Playing on All Fields.”

I expect this brought considerable comfort to Israeli ears, probably more so than anything said by Barack Obama over his two terms. Despite the rhetoric emerging from Iran’s leadership, they have very few friends right now and can’t afford to fall out with Russia. Russia knows this, which is why they’re ordering them around. I don’t see this as a bad thing.

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Montenegro and Article 5

This is another example of Donald Trump using bone-headed language but making a valid point nonetheless:

Carlson questioned why the US should have to defend Montenegro, as required by Article 5 of the NATO treaty.
Trump responded: “I’ve asked the same question. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. … They are very strong people. They are very aggressive people, they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you are in World War III.”

Now his characterisation of Montenegrin people is unhelpful and irrelevant, but in classic Trump style he raises a point most people would rather not discuss.

Article 5 of the NATO treaty requires the whole alliance to come to the aid of any member that is attacked. This made sense when a coalition of large and small western European countries were facing off against the Warsaw Pact: the Soviets had to understand that were they to invade Germany or Norway, America would step in. Taken to its logical conclusion, Article 5 meant the alliance was willing to risk nuclear war with the Soviet Union in the event any one of them was attacked. During the Cold War this made sense, but now?

Supposing Russia decides to attack Montenegro. Are NATO’s member states really going to attack Russian forces, triggering a massive conventional war that could easily go nuclear within days? Would the various electorates be behind this? Now if France or Germany was invaded, then yes, despite everything I reckon enough Brits, Americans, Danes, Spaniards, and Dutch would think this was worth fighting over. But Montenegro?Does anyone even know the first thing about the place? Or Albania? Sorry, but I’m not sure I want to enter into a global nuclear war with Russia because Albania’s been attacked. Yet this is what the Article 5 of the NATO treaty requires, and Trump is raising serious questions over its suitability almost 30 years after the end of the Cold War.

Darmanovic took a generous view of Trump’s comments, suggesting the US President was making a broader point. “I think President Trump actually did not speak on Montenegro. He spoke on 2% on financing and contributing to NATO, and Montenegro was just picked up as an example — maybe because we are one of the tiniest countries in the alliance,” the foreign minister said.

Now Montenegro joined NATO in June 2017 when Trump was president, so it happened on his watch. Of course, his opponents are leaping on his remarks to claim they have undermined NATO by casting doubt on whether member states are fully committed to triggering Article 5 in all cases, but this is just shooting the messenger. The real doubt was cast as soon as countries like Albania and Montenegro were admitted to the alliance, and it’s high time western leaders both civilian and military acknowledged that.

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The Damage Being Done

To begin with, I’m not surprised by this:

Two weeks before his inauguration, Donald J. Trump was shown highly classified intelligence indicating that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had personally ordered complex cyberattacks to sway the 2016 American election.

The evidence included texts and emails from Russian military officers and information gleaned from a top-secret source close to Mr. Putin, who had described to the C.I.A. how the Kremlin decided to execute its campaign of hacking and disinformation.

Mr. Trump sounded grudgingly convinced, according to several people who attended the intelligence briefing. But ever since, Mr. Trump has tried to cloud the very clear findings that he received on Jan. 6, 2017, which his own intelligence leaders have unanimously endorsed.

Putin may be a lot of things, but one cannot imagine he is sloppy about security within his inner circle. Now it is possible that Trump was shown correspondence containing Putin’s personal orders to disrupt the US election, but the most prudent course of action would be to treat it with heavy skepticism. This is especially the case if you believe, with good reason, the people showing it to you have an agenda all of their own, their interests are polar-opposite to yours, and they are not averse to lying through their teeth even under oath.

If the US did have a “top-secret source close to Mr. Putin” it is a valuable asset indeed, and not one which would get mentioned in a New York Times article in order to make Trump look bad. Or would it? That’s the problem – we have former FBI Director James Comey running around shooting his mouth off, former CIA Director John Brennan doing the same thing, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper spilling the beans on this latest story – and all of these men still have their security clearances intact. The quantity of classified material which has been leaked to the press by America’s various intelligence agencies is staggering, and it’s being done for one reason only – to hurt Trump. So keen they are to land a solid blow they’re even prepared to blow the cover of a highly-placed asset in Russia on the front page of the New York Times. Is this not reason enough for Trump to treat them with extreme distrust, and the information they’re providing with skepticism? I’d say it is.

One thing is for sure, no employee of Putin’s intelligence apparatus either current or former is turning up on live television or leaking classified documents to the press. If Putin is making Trump look foolish at every point and turn as his opponents claim, well, that might have something to do with it. Unlike the Americans, the Russians take things like operational security rather seriously and if they’ve read the NYT this morning you can imagine they’ll find it interesting. Which brings me onto this story:

US President Donald Trump has rejected a proposal made by the Russian leader Vladimir Putin that Russia be allowed to question US citizens.

The White House earlier said it would consider it but now says Mr Trump “disagrees” with the suggestion.

The offer was made at a summit of the two leaders. In return, Mr Putin suggested he might allow access to 12 Russians indicted by the US.

The idea of allowing a foreign power to quiz US citizens sparked outrage.

So the US indicted twelve Russian citizens, but when Russia shows (an almost certainly retaliatory) interest in American citizens, outrage ensues. If there’s one aspect of America I really don’t like is their complaining when another country does what they do as a matter of course – such as meddling in elections. Americans seem to think they have a monopoly on certain aspects of international relations; the most egregious example for any Brit is the one-way extradition agreement Blair signed with the US, supposedly for tackling terrorism but ended up being used to extradite British businessmen who’d broken no US laws on US soil. But I digress.

Anyway, what’s happened here is obvious, and it stems back to Mueller’s decision to indict twelve Russian intelligence officers for supposedly hacking the DNC’s servers and distributing stolen information with the intent to influence the 2016 election. Now if you read the indictment it is incredibly detailed to the point you have to wonder what kind of amateurs the Russians have working for them. Now perhaps the Russian intelligence services employ hackers who are so inept they cannot cover their tracks and a year or two after the deed they are named in an indictment which details who, when, and how each attack was made – even though the FBI admitted they’ve not actually seen the compromised machines, and never even asked to. Instead, they relied on a private, third-party outfit called Crowdstrike to do the forensics. Note also the indictment accuses these Russians of releasing stolen emails to the public: apparently leaking classified information is a crime after all, but only when Russians do it.

So do I think the Russians illegally accessed DNC information? Yes, of course, along with every other man and his dog. Firstly, the leak of the DNC emails may well have been an inside job from a disgruntled Bernie Bro upset at Hillary’s antics during the primaries. Secondly, John Podesta, the Chairman of Hillary’s campaign, had his Gmail account broken into via a simple phishing operation, and rumours persist that his password was “password”.  Thirdly, you had Hillary Clinton’s unauthorised bathroom server which was almost certainly compromised from the minute it was installed by highly competent IT professionals working for every foreign government with an interest in the US. For those who claim it was secure, the fact that Hillary’s IT guy turned to Reddit to ask for advice suggests otherwise.

What Mueller’s indictment looks like, to me at least, is an attempt to save face by pretending the DNC’s appallingly lax security was the result of a highly sophisticated hacking operation by the Russian government. There is absolutely no chance the Russians are going to hand over the twelve named persons, which is why Mueller can allege whatever he likes in the indictment: he’s never going to have to prove it, but it serves its purpose as a political tool. At this point, I think the American political establishment isn’t far short of going to war with Russia in order to avoid having to admit the Democrats were a shambles and Hillary an appalling candidate; it really is quite staggering the lengths to which they’re going here – and at what cost! As I said before, regarding an earlier indictment:

Whereas I suppose Putin has found much of this genuinely amusing up to now, this indictment changes things. The individuals named are in Russia and so unlikely to be arrested, but the intent is there. Putin has often accused foreigners working for NGOs in Russia of interfering in politics, shutting down various organisations in the process. He was rightly criticised for this, but it’s hard to see why Russians should tolerate Americans doing political work in Russia if Americans believe disparaging Hillary Clinton on Facebook is an offence worthy of FBI indictment. If Putin chooses to do so he could start making life very difficult for Americans in Russia now, and the American government wouldn’t have a damned leg to stand on. Those who may find themselves languishing in an icy cell on dubious charges of political subversion can thank Hillary Clinton, her insatiable ego, and her thoroughly corrupt supporters for their predicament.

It is therefore unsurprising that, during Trump’s meeting with Putin, this happened:

In what President Trump called a “tremendous” gesture, Mr Putin said he would let US prosecutors interview the 12 Russians in exchange for Russian access to US nationals the Kremlin accuses of “illegal actions”.

The individuals are related to Russia’s case against the financier Bill Browder, a fierce Putin critic who was instrumental in the US imposing sanctions in 2012 on top Russian officials accused of corruption.

Mr Browder told the BBC he was glad President Trump “isn’t going to hand me over to President Putin”.

But he added: “I’m a little amazed that this whole conversation has taken place over a three-day period when Trump should have immediately rejected it, as any other head of state would have.”

Russia was also seeking to interview Michael McFaul, another Putin critic who was US ambassador to Moscow under President Obama.

What Putin is doing is saying:

“So you’ve indicted twelve Russian citizens, eh? Well, since we’re here, there’s a couple of blokes on your side I’d like a word with. How about it?”

Putin knows full well Trump will not and cannot accept this proposal of a quid pro quo, but it serves to remind folk that two can play this game. Unfortunately, the reaction of Trump’s opponents shows they’ve utterly missed this point, instead preferring to believe Trump committed treason by not immediately rejecting it. As it happened, Trump said he’d think about it, spoke with his staff, then said “no”. Naturally, his opponents believe he only said this because of the level of outrage on Twitter, but if anyone thinks this is the criteria on which Trump bases decisions, they’re pretty dumb.

What’s amused me about this is the reaction from the aforementioned Michael McFaul:

Now since leaving his post as US ambassador to Russia, McFaul has spent most of his time on Twitter making partisan remarks about Trump and slagging off Putin. For example, here’s what he said six days before the Helsinki meeting:

He has also written a book about his time in Moscow in which he alleges Putin has been personally harassing him. Is this appropriate? For a political hack, yes. For a former ambassador, perhaps less so. Now McFaul can expect the full protection of the US from Russia, and he has that – he is not going to exchanged in a swap with the twelve indicted Russians, that will never happen. But what amuses me is he expects Trump – the man who he has spent over a year bitching about publicly – to leap to his defence the minute Putin mentions his name. Look at these Tweets, one day apart:

I’d like to think that Trump had McFaul’s tweeting habits in mind when Putin first mentioned his name and thought “this is obviously bullshit, but let’s make him sweat a few days”. The moral of the story, which smug gits like McFaul will never learn even now, is that you should not deliberately make enemies of people you may later rely on to defend you beyond what is required by law or duty. This is especially true if you’ve been working in Russia in any capacity.

Thanks to the efforts of people like McFaul and the various US intelligence agencies, America’s relations with Russia are in absolute tatters. The one person trying to keep everyone sane – in part so he can continue with robust anti-Russian policies not related to Hillary losing the election – is Donald Trump. For that, he is accused of treason and being Putin’s puppet. The long-term damage this is doing to America cannot be understated, and history will not look kindly on those who are wreaking it.

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