Trump Putin Meeting Part 1

In (Vox) Trump and Putin meet next week. Guess which one has an agenda?, writer quotes a senior member of George Bush’s cabinet:

A senior member of George W. Bush’s Cabinet once told me a revealing story about Vladimir Putin. Each meeting, the official said, began the same way: Putin would reach into his suit jacket pocket, remove notecards listing perceived American sins against Russia, and read them one by one. Only then would the substantive discussions begin.

If you have a warped sense of humor,  this is really funny. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, activities which in the West enjoy some delegated authority, such as those of high level diplomats, were rigidly scripted.  Since Vladimir Putin is not so constrained , the notecards are just an affectation. In the Paris peace negotiations, a similar litany of condemnation was Lê Đức Thọ’s opener for the North Vietnamese delegation at every meeting.

We might think that the purpose of this canned spiel is to wear us down. Did Lê Đức Thọ and does Putin understand it is pure irritation? It could actually be for the benefit of Putin or the North Vietnamese. By acting out the litany in speech, it reinforces the belief of the actor.

The Vox article continues with

Put a different way, an experienced and ruthless Russian leader is coming to a pivotal meeting with a clear plan and a clear agenda. An inexperienced and autocrat-loving American president isn’t planning to bring one of his own. That’s a recipe for serious trouble.

In other words, we are afraid that our president may not have understood the lesson of the Yalta Conference, in which an ailing F.D.R. thought he could make Uncle Joe his friend. Vladimir Putin is in no way comparable to Uncle Joe. But Putin has expressed a desire for a new Yalta, which in the West is synonymous with “duped” and “giveaway”. Trump campaigned for better relations with Russia with a seeming lack of awareness of a deeply adversarial relationship. All this drives our fears, even though Trump now seems more willing to respect the cornerstones of U.S. policy. To his credit, he has risked confrontation with Russia  to discourage CW use in Syria.

I don’t think that Trump’s lack of preparedness is a risk factor. It inhibits a  premature jump to specifics. Contrasting with generalities. specifics relate strongly to trust, cheating, and the spirit of the thing. But are we blameless? The Russians blame us for cheating on the promise not to expand NATO eastward. The LA TImes tells the story.

Brookings Institute contradicts this in Did NATO Promise Not to Enlarge?:

Gorbachev replied: “The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. … Another issue we brought up was discussed: making sure that NATO’s military structures would not advance and that additional armed forces would not be deployed on the territory of the then-GDR after German reunification. Baker’s statement was made in that context… Everything that could have been and needed to be done to solidify that political obligation was done. And fulfilled.”

Let’s continue with the assumption that the transcript of of James Baker’s Moscow meeting referred to in the LA Times article, in which he proposed that NATO should /would not expand eastward was not identically reflected in the treaty commitments of German reunification, where it is replaced by  a no-new-military-facilities clause. This would give some rational, though not factual, basis to Putin’s assertion that we cheated.

We give ourselves a pass by virtue of moral superiority. The countries behind the Iron Curtain suffered  during the Cold War. The incorporation of these former vassal states into NATO began in 1997. Quoting (Wikipedia) George F. Kennan et al.,

At that time the decision was criticized in the US by many military, political and academic leaders as a “a policy error of historic proportions.”[59] According to George F. Kennan, an American diplomat and an advocate of the containment policy, this decision “may be expected to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”[60]

Kennan correctly predicted the effect. Why did we cheat? The reasoning may have been unconsciously rooted in the heritage of the French Revolution. Part of classic liberal democracy is the idea that the government interferes minimally with the rights of the citizen. In the recent past, this has been challenged by other ideas, such as community welfare, or that the citizen is in some spiritual sense subsumed by the interests of the state.  Fascism, during the 30’s exemplifies the idea of subsuming the individual to the “national will.”

All of these sentiments are present in modern societies. But the proportions vary. In theory, a U.S. election is a legally sanctioned and sanctified revolution, signifying the right of the body politic to change their government.

By implication, illiberalism is the opposite. Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who many regard as a proto-fascist, has put into words what Vladimir Putin has not bothered to do. Some excerpts of his July 26, 2014 speech (full text at The Budapest Beacon):

...What all this exactly means, Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen, is that we have to abandon liberal methods and principles of organizing a society, as well as the liberal way to look at the world. ...When it comes to a relationship between two human beings, the fundamental view of the liberal way of organizing a society holds that we are free to do anything that does not violate another person’s freedom. ...

Consequently, what is happening today in Hungary can be interpreted as an attempt of the respective political leadership to harmonize relationship between the interests and achievement of individuals – that needs to be acknowledged – with interests and achievements of the community, and the nation. Meaning, that Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not deny foundational values of liberalism, as freedom, etc.. But it does not make this ideology a central element of state organization, but applies a specific, national, particular approach in its stead.

The above approximates very well the unstated, or nonexistent ideology of Putin’s party, United Russia. Critics of both Putin and Orban are usually distracted by allegations or facts of what we in the West define as corruption. But if there is to be any possibility of engagement, the precedence of concerns must be reversed. Regardless of the personal behavior of the person on the other side, he is committed to ideas, ideas clearly opposite our own.

We can recognize, in Orban’s elevation of the state, the germ of Russian fear of “color revolutions.” The individual, who is the subject of the state, must not overthrow the state, which has the same philosophical inviolability as monarchs once enjoyed. To overthrow would sacrifice what is to us a highly mystical idea of community, for example, the diaspora of Hungary or Russia. Ethnocentric nationalism sanctifies the state at the expense of the individual.

So what does this have to do with foreign policy? While Putin’s primary objects of concern are Russia and cultural Russians, ours are people in general. We identified with the formerly oppressed peoples of Eastern Europe, and their fears. They tugged at our human hearts, so we threw them a rope and pulled them in (to NATO.)

So Putin thinks that we cheated Russia, if not literally, then in spirit.

But how do we talk with a Vladimir Putin who thinks we swindled Russia?

To be continued shortly.





Russia Threat; Syrian SU-22 Shoot-down; Euphrates as a Line in the Sand

Following the (Aviation Week) shoot-down of a Syrian SU-22,  Russia now warns (CNBC) that U.S. aircraft west of the Euphrates are targets.

There has been plenty of discussion as to why the Russians might not want to follow through with the threat. There is one reason in the plus column, comparatively weak but worth noting nevertheless. Modern air warfare has an informational component, of data acquired by activating the weapons systems of the enemy, and recording the signals and behaviors that result. There is strong incentive for the U.S. not to exhibit advanced technology, and the corresponding Russian desire to force the exhibition. By such means, valuable engineering data is acquired by each side. More advantage accrues to the side with less advanced technology, in this case, the Russians.

This means that  the U.S. does not want advanced warplanes “painted”, that is, illuminated, by Russian radar. The Russian threat gives a plausible explanation as to why they would paint U.S. planes any time a U.S. plane operates west of the Euphrates. The  recorded radar echoes of U.S. planes  would be used to improve  Russian weapons.

Now, the important stuff.  It seems beyond prediction how the Syria conflict will turn out.  Possibly providing a rare glimpse of intentions, the  Russians have drawn a line in the sand, the Euphrates River.  The line has some sense. It conforms to previous Russian intimations that they don’t care who runs eastern Syria. It could be taken as a definition of the region.  Historically, rivers have served as natural barriers to conflict.

We can’t ignore the line, though neither should we over read.  Russian intentions and goals have not remained constant over time.  Hints of this were discussed in Defacto Partition in Syria?,  which quickly became irrelevant with Russian targeting of all anti-Assad forces without discrimination. Whether the Euphrates as a line becomes significant depends upon Assad’s capability to control territory, at what point he would become overextended. His grasp is enhanced by  removal of pressure from ISIS, and  weakened by Coalition support for the SDF.

The east  side of the Euphrates does not have enough carrying capacity for all the Syrians who would want to live free of Assad. In terms of immediately arable land, the carrying capacity would be doubled by the west bank. This is one obvious conflict, if the river-as-a-line were to be taken seriously.

In   Replacing Assad, Part 3,   I wrote,

This is a balance-of-power solution to the statecraft problem. In isolation, it has an immoral sense about it. But in implementation, it would be just a piece of a solution. It corresponds to a geographic partition constrained by economic and defensive viability. There might be little to distinguish from more conventional solutions that partition, except for one thing. Each of the new states must be a client to one of the traditional patrons, the U.S. and Russia. And contrary to the former middle east rivalry, those patrons must work for the mutual benefit of the clients, rather than use them as proxies for their own conflict.

The above comes about with a sandwich arrangement. From the Mediterranean to some line in the Syrian Desert, perhaps the Euphrates, the Alawites rule. East of the line, and continuing without interruption into western Iraq, a Sunni heartland, hostile to Iran’s advances. Further east,  an Iraq co-opted by Iran. The sandwich is perhaps viewed by the Russians as a durable fracture of the Middle East, politically cohesive yet impotent of national aggression, dependent on three patrons for their uncertain existence. A practitioner of European balance of power politics could not hope for more.

If we take the Russian mention of the  Euphrates as a hint of their strategy, it shines more light on the chronic disability of Coalition Strategy in Syria:  uncertainty of goals. No  political entity in Syria evokes much sympathy.  In the last administration, military support to the opposition was gauged to a level as ineffective as our sympathies. The new goal, “defeat ISIS”, has at least the clarity required to motivate effective military support.

Let’s make a wargame, the kind that Avalon Hill is so good at, called “Conflict in Syria”. The game must have “conditions of victory”, different for each side. By convention, the U.S./SDF is “Blue”, and Russia/Assad is “Red.” In this Blue-versus-Red conflict the conditions of victory could be:

  • Blue: Defeat ISIS, and establish conditions for negotiations between the SDF and Red.
  • Red: Destroy or force the removal of all  Blue forces to east of the Euphrates River.

Even if you have never played a wargame, the asymmetry of the conditions is obvious. When Red has expunged all the blue “counters”, the little cardboard gamepieces, from the area west of the Euphrates, they’ve won. The conditions for Blue are indecipherable, undecidable, and unenforceable. The game would not sell well. Unfortunately, we bought it and we have to play it.

What are the actual Blue conditions of victory in Syria/Iraq?  General H.R. McMaster is currently the primary  Blue strategist,  but is  subject to the political will.  McMaster has extensively studied and written on a previous trap, the Vietnam War. In the case of Vietnam, U.S. extrication involved eventual acceptance (1975), of defeat on all levels.

It  appears that one declared goal, the defeat of ISIS, will be achieved. But in the above, Blue’s conditions are  tied to a political process that is probably impossible.

It has been observed that Red’s forces are much weaker than those of Blue. But the game is evened up by some geography — a line in the sand, the Euphrates River.







Russia-Gate; Robert Mueller’s Role Part 2

We continue from Russia-Gate; Robert Mueller’s Role Part 1, with the question,

  • Is Putin’s Russia good/bad for Russians?
  • Is it good/bad for everybody else?

For Russia itself,  Neutral: Vladimir Putin resurrected a failed nation-state that had attempted to reconstitute itself along the lines of western democracy. His solution,  part of Putin’s Apology, was to co-opt every element of Russian society, including large parts of the criminal class, into a new oligarchic power structure with himself as the ultimate arbiter. He would probably argue that there was no alternative to the extinction of democracy. Since then, the elite have become obsessed, perhaps justifiably, with the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. The obsession has resulted in the reestablishment of a the security apparatus of a police state.

The extinction of democracy, the use of Russian nationalism to destabilize neighboring states, the reestablishment of a pervasive security apparatus, Syria and all the rest, are repetitions of historical themes. Most of us wished for a better history than is being currently written. Russia has not mounted an effective response to social decay. Of late, Putin’s presidency has   been mired in circumstances which are largely of Russian creation. One does not lightly redraw the map of Europe.   Ukraine could have been bought back into the Russian orbit, instead of making it a perpetual enemy.

But Putin rescued a state in extremis. Barely latent, potent centrifugal forces remain a severe threat. Even with considerable mistakes, the strategy of co-opting all classes and interests may have saved Russia from disintegration.  To argue further would require counterfactual histories that, while extremely interesting, would convince no one. On balance, with Russia alive-but-sickly, and in one piece, Putin may have been good for Russia. At least, this is not provably wrong. Hence the verdict: For Russia, neutral, and possibly good.

Effect on other countries, bad: The conglomerate of private commercial and state interests that is today’s Russia, acting in foreign relations as an agent of the Russian state, is subversive and corrosive to foreign states. Resembling la Cosa Nostra’s  buying  politicians and judges, the Russian state goal is to subvert and replace the governments and business interests of foreign countries with power structures answerable to Russia.

Simply  extending the domestic system of the Russian state-business relationship comes as naturally as breathing for the modern Russian businessman. His goals, on behalf of the state, have no name in ideology. He wears no badge. Putin’s political party, United Russia, in the face of no identifiable ideology, has been dubbed “The Party of Power.”

Because Americans are by nature pragmatic, it’s hard for us to see the danger of something as practical as United Russia, which is popular. It’s mildly oppressive. It’s mediocre, uninspiring, but  it genuinely tries to deliver social services, and it grinds up only small numbers of people.

If today’s Russia were a better example, like Scandinavian social services, we might welcome  the import of values. But the Russian level was surpassed by Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Robber Baron period of the 1890’s, Big City politics lingering into the 70’s, and, of course, la Cosa Nostra, are our versions of the modern Russian experience.

Against the backdrop of Russian history, the domestic performance of modern Russian government isn’t too shabby. But the U.S., and all of the West, have better systems, with the E.U. as the absolute pinnacle. The novelty of Russia’s  non ideological subversion is a  particular danger. Because the shape and scope of it is so strange, it has already been encountered without recognition by members of both political parties.

The smallest part of the danger relates to foreign policy, such as whether we should cooperate in Syria,  change sanctions, or defend the borderlands of  Europe.  In the context of a well structured foreign policy, it should concern us no more than than during the rest of the post World War II period. But the greater part, the hidden nine tenths of the iceberg, Valachi’s “second government” awaits the society that embraces Russia without the honed acuity that will take time to develop. It’s hard because the hazard has no name.

The name will come after the history has been written. With it will come awareness and caution. With adequate societal defenses, the Kremlin may eventually reconsider this form of conflict.

Thanks in advance, Mr. Mueller.

Russia-Gate; Robert Mueller’s Role Part 1

In CNN Video,  Erin Burnett Grills  Rep. Dana Rohrabacher about Trump campaign contacts with Russians. Rohrabacher ridicules the concerns, while making counter allegations about Hillary Clinton. Burnett inserts a video clip of John McCain, who calls Vladimir Putin a greater threat than ISIS.

It’s natural that RussiaGate, defined in narrow terms of legal culpability,  has become a political football. Did traitors walk the halls of the executive branch? Who is gonna take the fall? Who is going to the slammer?  The eventual outcome promises Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. The guilty must be punished.

But if we allow ourselves to be captivated by theater, we could miss the keeper, the lesson of all this. It will come out as a history, carefully written by Robert Mueller & associates. The history and anatomy are what everyone needs going forwards to guard ourselves from the strange new hazard of modern Russia.

Though Khrushchev infamously did not say “We will bury you”, it’s a great line. Instead, we buried Cold War Russia. But it is back from the grave, tinged in the eerie phosphorescent glow of the unfamiliar. Back in the day, Russians wore badly fitting suits, ran mostly ineffective networks of “illegals”, and ran proxy wars all over the place. Occasionally, those fortunate enough for a U.S. posting were booted for trading vodka for stereos, which were in short supply in the U.S.S.R. The threat of Soviet Russia was appreciated as a monolith of ponderous mediocrity.

We were supremely conscious of of Russia-the-threat, because, in addition to their badly tailored suits, Russians were, by mutual agreement of us and them, communists. There was virtually 100% agreement that we didn’t want communism in this country. There was virtual 100% agreement in Russia, at least till the Brezhnev era, that eventually, there would be. Fear of Russia was fear of the Fifth Column, of subversion, of the takeover, of spies, of missiles, A-bombs, submarines, and poisons. It was so easy to understand.

The Russian of today is entirely different from the party automaton of Soviet Russia. The new Russian wants to give you money and presents. He wants to be your friend. He wants you to understand how certain things you might consider doing would be bad for Russia, meaning, no more money for you. But if you make decisions, legislative, composition of the board, shelf offerings, etc., that are good for Russia (and him), he will give you more money. This is the way our national interests, and moral ones also, corrode at the touch of Russia-the-state, acting through their agent, who happens to be your friend.

This has crept up on us with the same shock of discovery of the Italian Mafia as a “second government”, with the raid of Apalachin Meeting of the capos in1957.  In the 1963 congressional hearings, Joe Valachi said,

Nobody will listen. Nobody will believe. You know what I mean? This Cosa Nostra, it’s like a second government. It’s too big.

Is the Russian system, the new nation-state-business-mafia conglomerate, good or bad? There are two answers for two questions:

  • Is it good/bad for Russians?
  • Is it good/bad for everybody else?

Western imperialism makes the need for distinction obvious. European nations pursued domestic prosperity at the expense of other areas of the globe. The Russian motive is completely different: to obtain security by fracturing and subverting perceived rivals. The methods overlap; the British conquest of India was more by adroit politics of subversion than military means.

To be continued shortly.






U.S. Strike on North Korea? Prediction Update

The article NBC: U.S. May Launch Strike on North Korea Nuke Test, uses Franklin’s decision making method, in which the elements of a list of pros and cons are given equal weight. Although Franklin’s method was devised as a personal tool, it can also be used to analyze the decision making of others.

It’s been reported that the C.I.A. is working on prediction computers. Unless the developers rely entirely on unfathomable neural networks,  they must grapple with choosing the right method for the problem, and when to switch.  It is a fascinating problem, because, unlike Bayesian probability theory , the sample space — what you might call the “possible outcomes”, is not rigorously defined. Whether the sample space itself is correct becomes a random variable.

What does this mean to somebody who is nosy about the future? It means that you better not stick to your guns too long. As new information comes along, you should revise your prediction without embarrassment. This is why Franklin’s method is so acceptable here.  If new information morphs the problem, switch without embarrassment to another method. But for now,  Franklin’s method remains the choice, with several changes to the lists:

The Pros

  • Trump’s vow to solve the problem of North Korea.
  • His recent use of force in Syria.
  • The enthusiasm of China state media with the Xi-Trump meeting, in spite of China’s awareness of the above. Hence, the “trading material” reference.
  • Shared dislike of “Fatty Kim.”
  • Possible awareness by South Korea of a grim future with the North.
  • The conventional wisdom that force is off the table. Conventional wisdom is always vulnerable.
  • Two more THAAD batteries ( Reuters: four more launchers) have been deployed, at the very substantial cost of U.S. $1BN each, footed entirely by the U.S.
  • Stalled delivery of the promises of the Trump presidency, with a search for “fungible” alternative achievements.

The Cons

  • A possible attack by the North on the South, with all the ramifications. Countered  by the addition of THAAD batteries.
  • Refusal by the South to face up to the growing threat.

In the mind of the decision maker, the con, “A possible attack…”  is weakened  by the pro, additional THAAD batteries. Since we are trying to fathom a mind, this is entirely subjective. The list modification has nothing to do with actual cost reduction. But neither does it go against actual cost reduction. The domain of prediction is entirely mind.

In Xi-Trump meeting; Long Range; North Korea, it’s suggested that Trump’s concept of achievements is that they are fungible — replacement of unachievable objectives by others that are:

Since Trump’s concept of achievements is that they are fungible, he reconsiders the South China Sea.  There are things you want to keep, and things you want to trade. It’s key to streamlining a business.

In NBC: U.S. May Launch Strike on North Korea Nuke Test, I concluded,

Since the pros have it, 6 to 2, the estimate is that an attack has significant chance. It may have strange aspects.

I did not assign a probability, an “XX percent.” As a member of the Forecasting World Events team, my numbers were weighted with many others — a “transverse ensemble”, so it made sense to do so. But Franklin’s score, formerly 6 pro/ 2 con, is now 8 pro / 2 con.

Hence the chance of a strike on North Korea has increased.

The cheapest secret of prediction is to set aside all the discursive thoughts and discussion that might appear in a news-with-story article. Should the gamble be taken? Is it worth the price and the danger? Would it buy us security? Important as these issues are, they are needless distractions to the predictor.