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Maria Butina & Your Next Russian Date

I feel a little sorry for Maria Butina. (Reuters) Exclusive: Accused Russian agent Butina met with U.S. Treasury, Fed officials. But CNN, always keen on human interest stories, takes the cake with The Russian accused of using sex, lies and guns to infiltrate US politics.

Unlike Anna Chapman, Butina was not directly controlled by the SVR. Her effective controller was Alexander Torshin,  long a member of the Kremlin’s inner circle. Torshin is widely believed to be a Kremlin representative of the Kremlin criminal faction, or “clan”, as the Russians say. (Bloomberg) Mobster or Central Banker? Spanish Cops Allege This Russian Both.

But unlike Chapman, who was not a productive spy, Butina was working the system with panache, netting Paul Erickson, a former Reaganite.  Erickson’s sentiment has plenty of company. Dana Rohrbacher, with his strange Russian affinities, was also a Reaganite. (NY Times) He’s a Member of Congress. The Kremlin Likes Him So Much It Gave Him a Code Name.

But as Butina’s espionage job description was not inked in the blood of the SVR, she may have not understood where she stood  on the scale of grays that leads from mere affinities to espionage. Quoting CNN,

In a search of their property, a prosecutor said, they found a note in Erickson’s handwriting titled: “Notes on Maria’s Russian patriots-in-waiting organization.” A second note referred to a Russian spy agency, reading: “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?” The context of the notes is not clear.

Irrespective of who received  the FSB offer, this casualness is not in accord with meticulous secrecy of the  professional spy. It has shades of   the reckless amateur, like the latter behavior of Andrey Lugovoy, who four years after poisoning Alexander Litvinenko, sent Boris Berezovsky (Telegraph) a tee shirt with an explicitly threatening message. Butina even told (CNN)  the Senate Intelligence Committee that  Konstantin Nikolaev was paying her. What kind of spy testifies truthfully to a U.S. government committee?

Butina sounds more like a girl desperate to escape from Siberia, and willing to sell her soul to do it. But in the U.S., many forms of soul-selling are indictable offenses.

It appears that while Torshin managed Butina’s  job,, Konstantin Nikolaev managed the money. (USA Today) Report: Alleged spy Maria Butina paid by Russian billionaire Konstantin Nikolaev. She was kept on a tight leash. (CNN):

Butina fretted about her finances while in school and told colleagues she had a scholarship that covered her tuition but not her living expenses, according to one person who knew her. In addition to her internship, she held part-time jobs on the American University campus, a university spokesman confirmed.

CNN quotes an unnamed friend:

Butina, who had told classmates she hoped to one day open a consulting firm in Washington, mentioned that all of her dreams were disappearing. She said it was no longer safe for her to return to Russia, either.

We have this distillation:

  • Butina was being squeezed financially, by inadequate financial support from the Russians.
  • She had the notion that returning to Russia would not be safe. Only an explicit threat, of Russian origin, could reverse the expected reward for service to the Russian state.
  • She contemplates an offer from the SVR to become a spy, with a note to that effect in her apartment.


  • Butina is likely the victim of  manipulation by the Russians, to force her to accept SVR employment. Perhaps the  next step of her “development” involved transitioning to secure work habits and clandestine communications. So they wanted to squeezer her into becoming  a “real spy”.
  • She did not understand the legal difference between a domestic political operator/lobbyist, and an agent of a foreign power. The job activities can be so similar,  the differences  blur. It all depends on who you’re working for.
  • To work for the SVR, which she may have been resisting in spite of severe pressure, she would have had to give up something that she didn’t want to part with. What was it? The burial of her identity beneath a rigid mask?

In factual comparison, she may be a little less gray than Harry Dexter White, or the numbers of communist sympathizers in government between the 30’s and the 50’s, the lingering overhang of a romantically viewed Russian Revolution. Yet people are still arguing about whether White was a spy.

So why prosecute Maria Butina? These reasons contend in the mind of a prosecutor:

  • A strong FARA case. The F.B.I. is very reluctant to submit a case to federal prosecutors unless it’s very strong. Winning is part of the mystique that serves as a deterrent, and keeps  strong the incentive for the defendant to plea-bargain.
  • A conviction, even a plea-bargain, strengthens future cases against unnamed U.S. citizens, of whom one is likely Paul Erickson.
  • To raise awareness of Americans in politics. That friendly Russian could be a Russian agent.  The prosecution, or follow-on cases, must serve as a cautionary tale.

A cautionary tale of what? It would be easier if we had a word for it. The word “treason” has had some play recently. But in the U.S. prosecutions for treason have been restricted to strongly symbolic political offenses, with the Constitutional requirement of two witnesses to the same act.

So those who spy, conspire, or subvert are prosecuted under a miscellany of other statutes, for which there is no single bad word. “Betrayal” might be general enough, but it has no legal meaning. The offenses in this article are all covered by FARA, the Foreign Agents Registration Act. But the name of the act sounds more like a technical violation than betrayal of your country.

At least two former Reaganites, former warriors of the “Evil Empire”, have been caught up in this moral confusion, It should be no surprise that some Republicans a generation younger than Dana Rohrbacher and Paul Erickson are naive about the dangers.

What’s missing is the equivalent of a stop-look-listen rule for interacting with Russians. The confusion has to do with Russia’s current dual nature. In place of Bolshevik  romance, it has a decent domestic government, compared to what came before. It has a system of state capitalism that superficially resembles our own.  The similarities serve as a cover for a foreign policy of subversion in the West.

The case of Maria Butina has lurid aspects. As with Anna Chapman, it involves the attraction of influential men on the basis of power, ego, gain, and sex, cloaked as “mutual interest”. Once you understand the approach, it’s very easy to recognize.  But political operatives, professional spin artists, are themselves strangely vulnerable in their search for the edge that will take them to the top.  The Butina story is an old one, but it has value in deterrence.

To all members of the political strata, three word of advice. Ironically, they were coined by a Reaganite:

Just say no.


Trump Denies Russian Election Hacking; of Godfathers and Mafia

I don’t usually comment on U.S. strategy, but to write nothing would be a statement in itself.

The Russians hacked the election. This is a fact. So why did Trump choose to deny it on the most visible platform on the planet, a summit? It’s been described as  “inappropriate”, “a betrayal of  our values”, or “a win for Putin”. On the mild side, it has been speculated to be “some kind of carrot”,   a form of positive reinforcement for Putin’s better behavior. John Brennan calls it treason: Former intel chiefs condemn Trump’s news conference with Putin.  Dan Coats has put his job on the line:  Trump clashes with intelligence chief over Russian threat.

Prediction is not about reading minds. In place of it, we have empathy, not the emotionally expressive kind, but the kind that enables one to “get inside somebody’s head.” It amounts to running another person’s thought processes inside one’s own brain. It does not lead to infallible understanding, but it gives the predictor an edge over someone to whom the person in question is a complete black box.

I recognize a possible explanation for Trump’s words in his career as a real estate developer in NYC, particularly before Rudy Giuliani cleaned the place up. In the 70’s and 80’s, behind the fancy facades of Midtown, there lurked the Mafia. Everything that had to do with construction, the Mafia raked off from. Everything that had to do with permitting, politicians raked off from. Even inside Trump’s own organization, there was the threat that money for a purpose, such as buying loyalty, would end up in the hands of the rapacious.

At the time, it was said that the Mafia owned the sidewalk you walked on. Even today, the Mafia has a strong presence in the concrete business. To avoid having your concrete “watered”, you had to make the right friends. To have your garbage collected, you had to have the right friends. To avoid having your building vandalized in myriad little ways, to avoid union “trouble”, you had to have the right friends. The Italian Mafia lingers with a lower profile. But organized crime, and the threat it poses to real estate, and the many unions involved, will never go away. This was what Trump had to grapple with in his crucible years.

There is an address popular among leaders to those that they command: “I expect the best of you”, or, “I hope you will live up to my expectations.” The root of it is the idea that trust is a gift, which the recipient will try not to devalue. It’s about personal connection. Shades of this can also be seen in Trump’s approach to Kim Jong-un. (Politico)  Trump praises Kim Jong Un as ‘very honorable’.

Dealing with the Mob, there is no law. There is only personal connection. This is is the origin of what some have called Trump’s overly personal presidency.  This is behind Trump’s desire for personal loyalty of members of his administration. If you wanted to heal relations with Don Corleone, how would you approach him?

I wouldn’t have suggested exonerating Putin. On the other hand, beating Putin over the head, as a matter of principle, or to deter what is already happening again, has been shown ineffective.  Yet on the other hand, Trump could argue it’s a throwaway, a gesture he can give without material consequence. If this is so, Trump will continue to support the efforts of the intelligence community to disrupt the next wave of Russian hacking.

Dan Coats, stand strong.


Trump-Putin Summit; Calling out CNN & Reuters

On the eve of the summit, the journalism of CNN and Reuters does not measure up to the event.

The CNN front page displays “Analysis: Putin reached goal befoe the handshake”, which links to With Putin, Trump insists he’ll be ‘different’ Quoting,

Vladimir Putin has stood the test of time through four American presidents, but from Donald Trump he is looking for one thing in particular: to be elevated on the world stage, away from global isolation...That goal has been achieved before their first handshake here.

According to the CNN theory of world history, which ranks in eminence with Arnold Toynbee, the crucial factors of historical turns are fetes and “optics”  Their justification is the famous work, “World History Through the Lens of PR, Volume I”, which proves that the History of the World is just one photo op after another.  Just as Reuters captured the recent North Korea events as a series of handshake photos.

Reuters has attempted a bit more sophistication by counting the official phone calls made by Trump and Putin. This is justified by  “World History Through the Lens of PR, Second Edition”

The only problem is, that book does not exist. It’s BS. The idea that the Trump-Putin meeting has “optical” significance, with Putin the automatic “winner”, seems to be universal. Quoting from (Reuters) Trump and Putin to hold first summit talks as twitchy West looks on,

“We can say confidently that Putin’s political risks are lower than those of President Trump,” said Andrey Kortunov, head of RIAC, a Moscow think-tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry….“Putin has less to lose and more to gain because he does not have a domestic opposition, a potentially hostile legislature, and is not begin investigated like Trump.

Even the Russians “believe.” This leaves no one in either camp to be influenced in any way, unless you count watchers in sports bars, who are likely to forget it in their alcoholic haze. Things which are universally believed are not likely to be true. Especially, ideas like prestige.

So the summit has been turned into a Simon Cowell talent competition about who has the best singing dog. Scroll back recent history, and try tracing the flow of history in terms of media events. You won’t find it.

Both CNN and Reuters have fallen into a trap,  interpreting events in terms they are familiar with. CNN knows media, so they interpret the summit optically. Reuters is primarily a business information service, so they offer “business statistics” about Trump and Putin.

Optics is relevant to domestic politics.  Business statistics are relevant to economics. The statistics of who calls who is relevant to the NSA and DHS, but not to the Reuters reader. How does this kind of journalism help the CNN or Reuters reader understand foreign affairs?  Answer: Not at all. The real issues are buried by puff pieces.  Both Reuters and CNN have done excellent pieces. But this is not their finest hour.

For a list of the issues that deserve exploration in journalism, read Trump-Putin Summit; An Executive Summary; The Oldest Russia Analyst.

I’m waiting with breathless anticipation for  the next handshake photo or cakewalk.

I think I’d rather tune out and watch Carson’s singing dog contest instead.





Trump-Putin Summit; An Executive Summary; The Oldest Russia Analyst

Imagine for a moment that I am tasked with authoring an executive summary for the upcoming Trump-Putin summit.  There isn’t room for historical justification or the semi-literary style so popular with foreign policy journalism. And it has to be self contained, so I can’t tell POTUS to go read Kennan’s Long Telegram. Instead, here’s a quote from the first modern Russia analyst:

...From the very first ghastly dawn of her existence as a state, she had to breathe the atmosphere of despotism, she found nothing but the arbitrary will of an obscure Autocrat at the beginning and end of her organization. Hence arises her impenetrability to whatever is true in Western thought. Western thought when it crosses her frontier falls under the spell of her Autocracy and becomes a noxious parody of itself. Hence the contradictions, the riddles, of her national life which are looked upon with such curiosity by the rest of the world. The curse had entered her very soul; Autocracy and nothing else  in the world has moulded her institutions, and with the poison of slavery drugged the national temperament into the apathy of a hopeless fatalism...

These are the words of  the first modern Russia analyst,Joseph Conrad, from “Autocracy and War“, quoted from page 44 of The North American Review, Vol. 181, No. 584, July 1905. You might know Conrad better for Lord Jim, Nostromo, or Heart of Darkness. But with apologies to Vladimir Putin, these words from 1905, if not literally true today, are the foundation of modern Russia. And much of the foundation shows through cracks in the facade. Conrad was interested in Russia because the land of his birth, Poland, was the plaything of Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Mind these words, and don’t fall under the spell:

Western thought when it crosses her frontier falls under the spell of her Autocracy and becomes a noxious parody of itself.
  • Russia’s   ruler, Vladimir Putin, is a romantic nationalist, torn between a reverence for the past that Conrad condemns and a future that, with increasing urgency,  he wants to bring to Russia – but on his own terms.
  • Putin is not Russia. He is a product of Russia,  half-modern and half traditional. He has not yet reconciled the two. His power is based on balancing constituencies; his freedom to act is overestimated in the West.
  • Russia is not Putin. Russia is better described as the ghost of Conrad’s description. But as with all things about people and nations, there are many descriptions, useful in spite of errors.

In 1953,  following the death of Stalin, collective leadership was restored to the Soviet Union. Until 1985, with the death of Konstantin Chernenko,  the Soviet government was characterized by bureaucratic  inertia, what foreign affairs wonks call “policy.” The Soviets were more inclined to continue a behavior than to suddenly change or innovate. Collective leadership deprived the Soviet Union of tactical flexibility. The elderly, collective leadership did not approve of  Khrushchev’s playing  poker with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he was deposed as premier in 1964.

  • Putin has tactical flexibility that the old system of collective leadership lacked.
  • The stability of Russia is not based on tradition. It’s based on Putin.
  • Because stability is provided by the role of one person, agreements could come undone very quickly.
  • Russian foreign policy identifies the U.S. as the strongest state. So it is Russia’s goal to reduce the power of the U.S. Many aspects of Russia’s foreign policy are explained by traditional balance of power.
  • There are various explanations for Russia’s hostility towards the West:
    1. Recreate the Iron Curtain as a tier of buffer states.
    2. Hold onto Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
    3. Eastward expansion of NATO. George F. Kennan was emphatic about it at the time it occurred. It may be Kissinger’s pov also.
    4. Putin’s  traditional mindset, and the strong presence in government of former KGB. By this line of thought, it would have occurred anyway.
  • The collective leadership of the Soviet Union was composed of professional  politicians. In the new Russia, these are replaced by KGB, industrialists, and  organized crime.
  • In the Soviet Union, the KGB was subservient to the collective leadership and the party. In Russia, the KGB is the leadership.
  • The rate of assassinations on foreign soil, and the broad use of poisons against external and internal opponents, is new.  Although the Soviet Union used poisons, the  leadership had a normal human fear of them.
  • Putin can’t back up, or he becomes vulnerable to Russian nationalists.
  • Putin can’t be placated, because he is not Russia.
  • Russia is a natural resource state, subject to the “oil curse” of civil corruption.
  • Russian business practices are not compatible with national security.
  • By reducing the mobility of Russian assets, sanctions are a helpful counter to subversion cloaked as economic activity.

How can we avoid the “spell” described by Joseph Conrad,. which is thinking we understand the place? We could avoid the illusion entirely with a simple stratagem: Watch and wait for a change in behavior. Russia engages in many inimical activities, including  subversion, assassination, and unsafe intercepts, with no measurable benefit to Russia. Cessation of these activities would convey meaning that words cannot.

But since it is Russian dogma to subvert a stronger power, what is the catalyst for change? The reasoning that the U.S. is the greatest threat is  moronically outdated: The U.S. gives strength to Europe, the historical source of threats.

It’s not something that can be solved by a summit.  I’ve suggested that the Skinner Box approach, rapid fire carrot-and-stick, might be a help. Kissinger pioneered “linkage” for the same purpose. This could change the way Putin, consummate tactician, plays the game, but not the game itself.

Only the rise of China can do that. At some point in the future, Russian strategists will identify China as the greater threat. This prediction, about two adjoining land powers that were at war in 1969,  has more historical precedent than any other.

In the meantime, play the game.

Iran/MEK Bomb Plot; Assassinations; Russia Comparison

Edit: CNN) Two people poisoned by same nerve agent used on ex-spy, police say. Read down.

The tally of arrests in the Iranian bomb plot against the MEK has reached six: (VOA) Iran Diplomat Arrested in ‘Plot’ to Bomb Opponents in France.

We can now understand Mike Pompeo’s May statement about Iranian ops in Europe. (Slate) Mike Pompeo Says Iran Is Carrying Out “Assassination Operations” in Europe. What Is He Talking About? He was talking about the elaborate covert preparations made by Iran’s Quds Force in advance of actual assassinations, creating networks of operatives,  provision of weapons, safe houses, surveillance of targets, and escape routes.

For some insight into the real world complexities, John le Carré ‘s The Little Drummer Girl is a fictional but  well informed (le Carré has  an intelligence  background) account of a Mossad operation against a PLO assassin in Europe in the 70’s. A dry, factual account of the assassination of Leon Trotsky is given by Pavel Sudoplatov in his autobiography, Special Tasks.

As with a spy network, the elaborate network created to support assassinations is typically discovered by a dangling thread, poor tradecraft, visibility, or  pattern that does  not disclose the full extent. A network is typically followed for years without arrests, with observations of a few operators progressively  leading to the discovery of others. Only imminent threat forces investigators to take action, possibly leaving undetected operators in place.

The exception to careful planning is post breakup Russia. While at their best, Russians still excel at the undetectable murder, their reputation has been sullied by high profile embarrassments, amateurish exploits involving high tech poisons, such as the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko,  and the contamination of half of Salisbury with Novichok A-234. It suggests that, contrary to the almost automatic “Putin approved…” theory of assassinations, there are multiple entities in Russia that initiate, including the SVR, and multiple entities that execute, including possible freelancers.

This hypothesis has just received a little extra support from  (CNN) Two people poisoned by same nerve agent used on ex-spy, police say.  This is likely the result of bungling; the Russian operatives seem to have had a poison leakage problem. Tales of the old KGB reveal they had their share  of drunks and bunglers. But  at the institutional level, they strove for perfection. There would have been consequences; the operatives would have been cashiered.

As with the recent misadventure of Russian mercenaries in Syria (Newsweek: ‘A Total F***up’: Russian Mercenaries in Syria Lament U.S. Strike That Killed Dozens), and the Litvinenko hit, this implies  multiple entities, not inherited from the Soviet Union, with varying degrees of competence, which may not be in complete  control of the Kremlin. A sentence from one of Putin’s speeches following his reelection appeals to “the clans”, not to take actions that damage Russia.

If you dig into the subjects of the above  paragraphs, you’ll notice that these operations come in three noxious flavors:

  • With the use of simple  means, such as bombs and hand weapons, an operation requires a large footprint, with elaborate logistics, deception, concealment, and elaborate preparations for escape.
  • With exotic poisons, the fact of murder can be concealed. An operation can have a small footprint, as with Litvinenko and the Skripals.
  • At the height of the dark art, the Russians commit murders that speak as unsolvable crimes, such as (my opinion)  the death of Mikhail Lesin (see Mikhail Lesin, a Kremlin Hit, a Theory, Part 1, Part 2, and Takeaway) and (my opinion) the death of Gareth Williams.

Iranian operations have been of the first category, requiring large footprints vulnerable to discovery and interdiction. The disadvantage of discussion  in advance of  public disclosure is the broad suspicion of political motive. Quoting The Slate,

It appears that the secretary, who was CIA director until a month ago, was either revealing some classified information or relying on some fairly sketchy reports in his charges against Iran. Given the stakes of this conflict, he should reveal what evidence he’s relying on.

This Pompeo could not do, without compromising  operations to trace and dismantle the Quds networks. But even in May, Pompeo’s assertion was highly plausible. As a Quds Force policy, assassination has been institutionalized for decades, and is widely employed. See  (The Diplomat) Did Iran Really Plan a US Hit Job? and  (WaPo) U.S. officials among the targets of Iran-linked assassination plots.

From 1979 to 1992, Iran may have had the most active assassination program  operating in the West of any sovereign state.  The total number of hits is not definitively known. A low count (Wikipedia, List of Iranian assassinations) of 18 includes only high profile political figures. A count of  162 given in (Iran Human Rights Documentation Center) No Safe Haven: Iran’s Global Assassination Campaign includes Iranian expatriates for whom political motive may exist but is not obvious. The murder of Gelareh Bagherzadeh had all the appearance of an assassination. The alleged perpetrator, Ali Mahwood-Awad Irsan, is (Chron) currently on trial for what appears to be an honor killing.

Iran and Russia share the distinction of running the only assassination programs now threatening the West. Russian means tend towards the sophisticated, with operations varying from sophisticated to amateurish-as-if-by-freelancers.  Iran’s methods are more conventional, hand weapons and explosives. requiring larger, more vulnerable footprints. But there are no amateurs among the Quds Force.