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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Treason? Perhaps, but not on the part of Donald Trump

I see that Donald Trump’s summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki has caused liberals and Never Trumpers to go into absolute meltdown, even by their usual standards. The word “treason” is being thrown around like confetti, along with calls for impeachment which, to be honest, would be made if Trump wore mismatching socks.

So what’s Trump supposed to have done? Handed over billions of dollars in cash to America-hating loons in return for giving up nuclear weapons? Taken a seat on the board of a Russian state-owned energy giant? Accepted hefty donations from foreign powers to a charity he controls? Nope, none of that:

At a news conference after the summit, President Trump was asked if he believed his own intelligence agencies or the Russian president when it came to the allegations of meddling in the elections.

“President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be,” he replied.

US intelligence agencies concluded in 2016 that Russia was behind an effort to tip the scale of the US election against Hillary Clinton, with a state-authorised campaign of cyber attacks and fake news stories planted on social media.

This is interpreted by Trump’s opponents as him “siding” with Putin against his own country. What is missing among the outrage I’m reading is an acknowledgement that this is nothing new. Here’s a news report from last November:

President Vladimir Putin feels insulted by allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US election, Donald Trump has said after meeting him briefly at an Asia-Pacific summit in Vietnam.

“You can only ask so many times… he said he absolutely did not meddle in our election,” the US president said.

Mr Putin later dismissed the allegations as “political infighting”.

The US intelligence community has already concluded that Russia tried to sway the poll in favour of Mr Trump.

President Trump has refused to acknowledge a reported assessment by the CIA and other intelligence agencies that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the run-up to last year’s presidential election.

So nothing has changed, allowing me to merely repeat what I said back then. 

You don’t actually need to trust Putin an inch to believe he is telling the truth that he didn’t try to swing the outcome of the US election. None of this passed the smell test from the beginning, and the whole think reeked of an effort to explain Hillary’s catastrophic loss and an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency. I always suspected Putin found all of these accusations highly amusing; other than the usual shit-stirring that Russia’s spy agencies have been involved in since the Soviet times, exploiting divisions in US society to sow chaos as part of their zero-sum rivalry with America, I very much doubt Russia had any involvement in the US election. For one thing, it’s never been explained why Putin would have preferred Trump to Clinton.

But more importantly, who can blame Trump for sitting on the fence here? Both the FBI and Department of Justice disgraced themselves during the election with regards to Hillary Clinton, and Obama spent eight years politicising other branches such as the IRS. Moreover, Trump’s efforts to “drain the swamp” have been met with ferocious opposition from what people call the Deep State, or (a term I prefer) the Permanent Government, i.e. those who have done extremely well from the status quo and for whom Trump represents an existential threat. Is the CIA part of this? Of course it is. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Trump could probably get a warmer reception walking into a branch of the Russian government in Moscow than an American one in DC. I’d even go so far as to say parts of the American government represent a far greater political and even mortal danger to Trump than Putin does. If you were Trump, who would you believe? Putin – who at least doesn’t pretend to have America’s interests at heart – or known liars in the American government who have sworn to remove Trump from office using fair means or foul? That’s a tough one.

Let me take a guess. Perhaps Trump has realised the entire American political establishment wants him gone and is doing everything they can to undermine and remove him; half the American electorate has gone into meltdown and, a year on from his election, are calling him a white supremacist Nazi when they’re not screaming at the sky; and supposedly intelligent and educated foreigners, particularly Europeans, are acting in a spectacularly immature manner over Trump while their own countries descend into chaos. Standing out from all this is Putin who, for all his faults, is remaining reasonably calm, acting like an adult, and not throwing around childish insults. Little wonder Trump is taking him more seriously than anyone else.

The lessons that ought to be drawn from this are that if you demonise your own president and try to bring him down, he will take his friends where he finds them; and if you insist on acting like a child, the adults in the room will ignore you and talk among themselves. Thus far, the reaction seems to indicate the exact opposite.

It appears Trump’s opponents are still reluctant to change course. What I find annoying is Russia’s actions did warrant a robust international response – the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of eastern Ukraine, the shooting down of MH-17 – but nobody did anything other than impose middling sanctions (which European countries immediately sought to undermine). The same people who were too scared to confront Russia then are now calling Trump treasonous for not holding Putin’s feet to the fire over the same issues in Helsinki. They are also wholly in denial of the fact that, regardless of his words, Trump’s actions have done more to harm Russia than anything his predecessor did, and he doesn’t appear to be letting up. Sure, he didn’t object to Russia having a free reign in Syria but that’s hardly detrimental to American interests, and don’t forget the Americans killed several hundred Russian or Russian-backed forces in the country when they made the mistake of messing with a US military run by James Mattis. And skeptical though I might have been about Putin ordering the novichok hit on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, the response of Trump’s administration was no less robust than any other nation and considerably more so than some. Odd behaviour indeed for a bought-and-paid-for Russian puppet.

The explanation is simple. Other than a bunch of neocons and Russian émigré lunatics like Max Boot, Julia Ioffe, and Garry Kasparov who want the US to launch a full-scale war on their former countrymen, this isn’t about Russia at all. As it’s been since the night of the election, it’s simply another vehicle with which Trump’s political opponents are trying to unseat him, and avoid their having to admit Hillary was a lousy candidate. As I wrote back in February:

What this is, and always has been, is an attempt to save Hillary Clinton’s face. She lost the election fair and square because she was an appalling candidate, and rather than accept it, her supporters are prepared to wreck already fraught relations with a serious geopolitical rival to spin this ludicrous narrative. The damage this woman has done to the USA is incredible, and still it continues, yet everyone blames Trump. There are people out there, some of whom laughably call themselves conservatives, who believe this latest indictment is proof that Russia is at war with the United States.

Yesterday Politico ran a piece saying Putin’s “hacking” of the 2016 election was the equivalent of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The actions of some branches of the government – particularly the FBI, Department of Justice, and possibly the CIA – meet the definition of sedition without question, and if they’d done it in previous eras the individuals involved would have been jailed for life or possibly even executed. Yet we’re supposed to believe that Trump, when speaking at a press conference, committed treason and plunged America into its darkest moment since its founding? These people are utterly deranged.

The irony is the American establishment’s refusal to accept that Donald Trump is president and Hillary Clinton lost is doing far greater and longer lasting damage to the USA than anything Putin, or indeed his Soviet predecessors, could have wished for in their wildest dreams. Whatever America’s greatest threat is, it isn’t Russia and Putin; it lies much, much closer to home.

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Among the Russians

A few weeks ago I made the following remark in relation to the FIFA World Cup:

Russia seems to be doing a good job of hosting the tournament with visitors being rather surprised to find happy, welcoming people interested in having fun instead of granite-faced thugs with shaved heads waiting to slaughter LGBTs in the streets. Not for the first time have foreigners discovered individual Russians are a lot different from how they are collectively portrayed.

It seems the media are now having to explain themselves:

England fan shames British media,” was one of many headlines of a similar nature to appear in Kremlin-friendly news outlets in Russia over the past couple of weeks. The story referenced a tweet from England fan Matt Maybury, who on returning from a trip to the World Cup wanted to complain about the “clear propaganda against the Russian people” in the British media. Russia was an “absolutely class country”, he wrote, at odds with what the media had led him to believe.

The tweet went viral, and was covered by multiple Russian television stations and news websites as proof of the British media’s lies.

Good.

So did the British media get Russia wrong? Well, perhaps a bit.

What, if anything, does the British media get right?

The fans who did come have been impressed by the positive atmosphere: the street parties, the surprisingly lax police presence, the good-natured welcome from the majority of Russians, and the hot weather and cheap beer.

It’s almost as if the media was making judgements of a country they’d never even been to.

Along with most Russians, I’ve been surprised by just how great the atmosphere has been, but I always expected Russia to put on an excellent World Cup. I was a Moscow correspondent for more than a decade, and have seen the city and country change beyond recognition in that time. I’ve been telling anyone who will listen for some time that most fans who came to Russia would be likely to have a great time.

Did you write any columns saying this, or did you know in advance they’d be rejected because they didn’t fit the “Russia is evil” narrative?

Blaming the media is the easy way out, however. There is certainly some terrible coverage of Russia, and some blinkered “experts” with an axe to grind. It is true that if you only read the British tabloids about Russia, you would get a skewed picture, but the same could be said for many subjects.

Oh, so it’s the tabloids that have been demonising Russia since Trump’s election, is it? Not the preferred organs of the chattering classes and wannabe ruling classes? Presumably if we only read The Guardian and The Times we’d have a balanced view, although how Oliver Kamm’s deranged rantings about Russia would help with that I don’t know.

We’re not a travel guide, and it’s not our job to remind everyone that you can get a great flat white in Moscow or have a fantastic night out in St Petersburg every time we write about the difficult issues and abuses.

Because British newspapers rarely write about travel, lifestyle, and holiday destinations. All those supplements which drop out of the main paper on a weekend concern only matters of news and current affairs.

Russia’s bad press is largely of its own making – for years, it has been easier for officials to bray about Russophobia than to show a different side of the country.

In other words, The Guardian’s view of a country is wholly based on government propaganda instead of, say, what reporters see when they get there. What was the Moscow correspondent’s job then, to watch state TV all day? I suppose at least they’re being consistent: back in the Soviet days The Guardian would lap up government propaganda and ignore reality on the ground, and I guess nothing has changed.

It’s a valiant effort by The Guardian to defend their and other’s media coverage of Russia, which has proven in the wake of the world cup to be so inaccurate, but they’ve still not understood their greatest error. Early on in Colin Thubron’s wonderful Among the Russians, he writes:

I never again equated the Russian system with the Russian people.

Thubron went to Russia in the 1980s when it was still part of the Soviet Union and travel to the country was heavily restricted. What excuse the international media in 2018?

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Trump, Schroeder, and Germany

Back in December 2005 I mentioned this story:

Officials including Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov presided over the ceremonial welding of the first section of pipe at Babayevo in Russia’s Vologda region, where the Baltic link will diverge from an existing trunk pipeline and head for the coast.

Gazprom has teamed up with Germany’s E.on and Wintershall, part of BASF, to build the pipeline and is looking for a potential fourth partner, although it will retain a controlling stake of 51% in the project.

The onshore section of the pipeline will run 917 kilometres to the port of Vyborg, close to Russia’s second city of St Petersburg. The 1200 kilometre subsea link will terminate at Greifswald in Germany.

This was the Nord Stream pipeline, which –  unlike several other proposed piplelines carrying Russian gas – actually got built and was commissioned in 2011. This pipeline was highly controversial, not least because of environmental objections but because it was seen by some former Soviet states – mainly Ukraine, but the Baltic states also raised concerns – as a means of isolating them politically from western Europe: if Ukraine could be bypassed for gas supplies, who cares what happens to it?

No sooner was the Nord Stream pipeline approved when the chap signing for the Germans, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, left office and became a director in the Nord Stream consortium. As I said at the time:

This stinks to high heaven. Unsurprisingly, the European press has raised barely a murmur over this. Can you imagine the noise that would be made if the US signed an historic deal to export Alaskan crude to China, and George W. Bush took the reigns of the pipeline consortium weeks after leaving office?

It is absolutely appalling that so little noise was made about Schroeder taking this job weeks after approving the project, but in the 13 years since I’ve realised these sort of ethics are par for the course in Germany, and nobody dares criticise. Remember: what’s good for Germany is good for the EU.

In late 2017, Gerhard Schroeder was elected chairman of Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft. Shroeder also remains on the board of Nord Stream, which has been pushing heavily for a second pipeline bringing Russian gas to Germany. In among all the squawking about Putin’s interference in the US election, supposedly killing people with Novichok in Salisbury, annexing Crimea, invading eastern Ukraine, and his forces shooting down civilian airliners nobody seems to be asking quite what a former German chancellor is doing working for him. Instead, we’re all supposed to be concerned that Trump is Putin’s puppet despite no evidence for this and an awful lot to the contrary.

Gerhard Schroeder was obviously employed by the Russians to wield political influence in Europe – particularly Germany – and they seem to be getting their money’s worth. I could barely imagine the outrage if Tony Blair was working for Putin’s government, engaged in back-door efforts to minimise the damage of sanctions and other responses to Russian aggression, but this is Germany so they get a free pass. Until now:

It was Trump’s mentioning the role of a former German chancellor – Schroeder – that pleased me the most. Everyone knows Germany is freeloading off the US for its defence needs, but few realise quite how embedded Germany is with Russia, the enemy they’re asking America’s help in defending against. If this were France people might not mind so much because France doesn’t self-righteously lecture everyone else and posit itself as the world’s arbiter on sound business practices, environmental legislation, and ethical governance. But Germany does all that, and then some, while engaging in the most brazen, self-serving hypocrisy. Fortunately, Trump’s remarks have been picked up in the US:

If you think Trump’s past business connections to Russian figures are troubling, you probably ought to be livid about how former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s has decided to become the chief lobbyist for Vladimir Putin in Europe.

The Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins wrote earlier this year that Schroeder is exactly the kind of wealthy, well-connected, influential figure acting on behalf of Russia that U.S. sanctions are supposed to target:

Germany’s allies and its European Union partners, including the quietly frantic Poles and Balts, can’t quite refer to Mr. Schroeder as a Putin agent nestled in the heart of Germany’s political and business elite. His name doesn’t appear on any U.S. government list. Section 241 of last summer’s sanctions law required the U.S. Treasury to identify the ‘most significant senior foreign political figures and oligarchs’ behind the Putin regime. These descriptors would seem to apply to Mr. Schroeder but it remains diplomatically impermissible to say so.

Germany is broken, and beyond repair while Merkel remains in charge and the majority population are steeped in anti-Americanism (which long predated Trump). The best thing Trump could do is disband NATO and create a new defence alliance which countries could apply to join if they wished, and be screened for reliability. Germany – as an independent nation – would then have to stump up for its own defence or take its chances with Russia. This has gone on for too long.

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