All posts by Number9

Iran Shoots Down MQ-4C Triton Drone

The unit cost of the  MQ-4C Triton is about $183M, more than an F-35, approximating the cost of an F-22. It is a very expensive airplane. It is not a stealth system. The loss exposes a vulnerability in the method of deployment. Although lives are not at risk, cumulative losses would represent a significant hit to the defense budget.

So the loss must be addressed, either by substitution of a different surveillance system, or by deterrent action.

This is an opportunity to review the argument for deterrent in the form of a deniable response, as discussed in Iran Fires Second Shot in New Tanker War; Counter Strategies? A suitable response would be:

  • Deniable by the U.S.
  • Embarrassing for Iran to admit.
  • Expensive to Iran, emphasizing symmetry of loss.



CNN Editorial, Meredith McCarroll, Anthony Bourdain listened; Appalachia’s Three Percent

Appalachia, “heartbreaking and beautiful”, in Anthony Bourdain’s words, is the subject of Meredith McCarroll’s CNN editorial, “Anthony Bourdain listened to the voices ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ ignored.” She leaves the phrase, absent allusion to social decay, untouched by criticism. About Bourdain, she writes, “When he said, “But this is not a poverty porn show. Do not pity the people here,” I listened up.” Yet McCarroll’s attitudes, encoded in the habits of narrative writing, are hard to parse. Implicit to her living-it point of view is a scale grading to counterpoint, with the mid-scale note of Bourdain, the sympathetic the-outsider. Her counterpoint is J.D. Vance.

Her vulnerability comes “with that strange feeling of pride turned to instant shame”, when the burden of failure is pinned squarely on the shoulders of the fallen. Unfocused on failure, with native experience of this society as a whole, McCarroll’s Appalachians are mostly survivors, in full possession of their humanity; proud soldiers of life, with the fallen still deserving our respect.

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, of attitude as old as Max Weber’s, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is sternly focused on the stereotypical images of shame, and there are plenty of fallen. The paradoxical images of these skillful writers almost forces choosing sides in the argument of whether-free-will-exists. Appalachia, like most other places, manifests the full spectrum of achievement, depravity, and everything in between, so the only coherent question is the collective one: Is the place—can a place– be responsible for its statistics?

Both McCarroll and Vance weave spells that paralyze the search for explanations outside the realm of morals, ethics, and feelings. These things are part of the essence of what makes us human. Yet when we look for explanations of why things are as they are, we might forget how abjectly vulnerable all of us are to things of inhuman scale. Suppose that in some spaceship, the oxygen supply goes bad, and everybody asphyxiates. It might be food for a confessional drama with the intensity of the best modern works, yet utterly unable to touch the inhuman cause of their demise. There might be human drama in the reason the oxygen supply came to fail, as might eventually be dredged from the 737-Max disasters. But there might not; the cause might remain inscrutable and unreproducible. What is inexplicable becomes an act of God, exempt from human culpability, a statistic, a shoulder shrug.

A dilemma is framed, which can only exist as a dialog internal to the bodies of thought called the liberal arts. Resolution comes from the borderlands of that compendium. It is not a particularly bitter pill, unless one isolates one’s self with ivory tower ferocity. It comes from the study of cities, which with a bit of irony, are the theaters, physical and otherwise, for the performative arts of Bourdain, and the narrative arts of McCarroll and Vance. Cities exist for social interaction as well as commerce.

The form and viability of a city depend upon the physical circumstances and imagination of the builders. Lewis Mumford’s The City in History (Harcourt, 1961) may be first to systematize, going beyond title to trilogize the city as the work of man, yet organic, more or less, in relation to the environment. Upon this relationship, success is predicated. Mumford may in the end succumb to the lure of perfect harmony, but you don’t have to “take your Mumford straight”, as successor Sibyl Moholy-Nagy puts it, to imbibe the gem of the book. Long after Socrates drank the hemlock, Mumford chooses to pick a bone, and it is well worth picking.

Quoting Mumford, “In the ‘Phaedrus’, Socrates declares that the stars, the stones, the trees could teach him nothing: he could learn what he sought only from the behavior of ‘men in the city’. That was a Cockney illusion: a forgetfulness of the city’s visible dependence upon the country, not only for food, but for a thousand other manifestations of organic life, equally nourishing to the mind; and not less, we know now, of man’s further dependence upon a wide network of ecological relations that connect his life…”

Mumford continues with “Regression to Utopia”. Contrary to romantic depiction, Hellenic cities were dowdy, dysfunctional, unsanitary habitats. Rather than confront, revise, and rebuild, Greeks tuned out with philosophies of increasingly mystical cant. Better cities would await the cultural hybridization of the glorious Hellenistic cities, many in exemplary harmony with the environment. Even without mythic statuary, strong analogy applies to Appalachia. It could displace arguments based on morals, blame, and destiny.

As a leftover from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, sociology held considerable sway in public debate into the 80’s. The NY Times archive holds an article from September 27, 1981, titled “SAVING APPALACHIA: WAS $15 BILLION WELL SPENT?”, which contains all kinds of quantitative references absent from the narratives of story tellers and performers. In particular: “Because only about 3 percent of the land area of Pike County, with its booming rural population of 81,000, is level enough to support buildings,…”

Except on a very small scale, this is an unalterable fact of the entire region. One might be tempted to think there must be a technological solution – building tricks, special concrete, but there is not. And if one should, for some perverse reason, at great cost, decide to build on a steep hill, one would find that even rock-strewn hills creep downwards. All it takes is a fraction of an inch per year for a building to become unsound in decades. But suppose, as is sometimes the case with public works, as it was with New Orleans, that we decide to build a factory on as hillside, anyway.

Factories were once vertical structures, still visible in many urban areas, but no longer used for large scale industry. Before central heating and cheap energy, vertical aspect enabled recovery of waste heat from industrial processes in lower storeys to heat upper storeys. Mechanical power to drive machinery was delivered from a central steam engine by belts and shafts. Vertical aspect became a hindrance with the development of the electric motor, which enabled the flow-through factory. The preferred factory became a single storey structure, frequently of immense acreage. Flat acreage.

This may have been recognized. The article states, “One theory was that corporations would not bring in the small manufacturing plants needed to diversify the coal-based economy without ‘urban amenities’ for plant managers and their families.” But in analogy with Mumford’s study of habitats, there was no organic reason to put a small manufacturing unit in an out-of-the way place unless, figuratively, it used a lot of wood.

McCarroll’s Appalachia is the victim of predation. Vance’s is guilty as charged. Bourdain’s is people who dream and feel like the rest of Americans, with regional differences small compared to our common core. It sounds more like a trial than a description of circumstance.

Somewhere in these rich sketchbooks of humanity, it should be noted, if only as a nonliterary, unpoetic footnote, that only 3% of the land is flat.

(CNN) Condolences to Anderson Cooper

On the passing of Gloria Vanderbilt, an artist, which means she fell in love with the Moon, as did Li Bai, the poet.

(click to enlarge)

Twenty five years ago, walking on Central Park West, an individual, who I vaguely recognized but could not name, gifted me the smile of a stranger. That gift of a stranger,  who turned out to be Anderson Cooper, is rare on the streets of New York City.

A small thing, but not forgotten.




Coalition Against Iran; Logical Positivism and Self Interest

In Iran Sanctions; Bolton on Regime Change, I wrote

This gives the a priori probabilities:

          • chance of negotiations = 28%
          • chance of positive outcome to sanctions = 14%

From Iran warns U.S., Israel of revenge after parade attack; Missile Attack on U.S. Forces?,

This is really  just a recapitulation of Carl von Clausewitz. The enemy will react. Tactical and diplomatic brilliance are required to cause the enemy to choose the path of our choice, not his. Quoting (italics mine),

“But everything takes a different shape when we pass from abstractions to reality. In the former, everything must be subject to optimism, and we must imagine the one side as well as the other striving after perfection and even attaining it. Will this ever take place in reality?”


But it is necessary for us to commence with a glance at the nature of the whole, because it is particularly necessary that in the consideration of any of the parts their relation to the whole be kept constantly in view.

The relation to the whole is the sanctions ecosystem, and the willingness of U.S. allies to embrace the result, a need for a military coalition to keep the oil moving out of the Gulf. In misuse of logical positivism (show me the money) Germany and Japan voice skepticism of Iran’s responsibility for the tanker attacks, because it’s their veins that get cut.

While keeping up the logical positivism in public, Russia, in the first favor to the U.S. since record-keeping began, has refused the S-400 to Iran. (Bloomberg) Russia Rejected Iran S-400 Missile Request Amid Gulf Tension. Of course, Russia may not be unhappy with the price support from keeping Iranian oil off the market. There are also intimations that Russia is also concerned about Iranian expansion via Hezbollah in Syria.

Since the decided U.S. policy is  to derail Iranian expansionism by the use of economic pressure, with the possibility of military conflict, can  we can improve our game? (CNN)  US policy toward Iran is all stick and no carrot. Consider an active shooter, who might be a religious fanatic,  barricaded inside a house. Do you just toss a phone inside, and yell, “Pick up the phone and we’ll negotiate your surrender terms”?  It doesn’t work this way; a trained hostage negotiator is called in, perhaps a team, so they can go at it 24/7. With an informed psychological approach.

Diplomacy, and diplomacy backed by power, is not usually so enlightened, unless Henry Kissinger is involved. Instead, it appeals to the imagined self interest of the adversary. From Checklist for Middle East Foreign Policy; When to Hold & When to Fold,

      • To think one correctly identifies the adversary’s most important self-interest, and that it will act according to that interest, is usually wrong. (Sanctions.)

There is an alternative to the volitional, conscious, overtly coercive approach. “Carrot and stick” oversimplifies. Without entirely abandoning the current U.S. coercive approach, consider ways in which it could be elevated to the exalted Iranian level of manipulation.

From Iran Sanctions; Bolton on Regime Change,

With such dismal odds for the success of sanctions, this is another opportunity to suggest B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning, referenced in Russia, proposed Syria cooperation with United States; Is Russia a Rational Actor? and related articles.

If you’ve read about the Skinner Box, your reaction may have been that it is too hard to implement in practice, requiring major revisions of U.S. administrative law. With Iran, it’s much easier, because the primary export is oil. Simply take charge of Iran oil sales.

In steps,

  • Take charge of sales.
  • Induce a state of learned helplessness.
  • In return for good behavior, restore empowerment by degrees.

This will not appeal to those who think in terms of finality. But on how many occasions has history gifted us with beneficent finality? With the salting of Carthage?





Iran Fires Second Shot in New Tanker War; Counter Strategies?

(Reuters) Latest on suspected attacks on tankers in Gulf of Oman.

(CNN) Gulf of Oman tankers hit in suspected attack.

Japan Prime Minister Abe is currently in Tehran, negotiating with Supreme Leader Khamenei. Although the destinations were not direct to Japan, one of the ships has a Japanese owner. While CNN states that both cargoes are related to Japan, Reuters identifies one as going to a Taiwan refiner.

As before (see Iran Fires the First Shot in New Tanker War) the question is who did it? Two arguments can be made:

  • The ships were en route from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-led alliance  would not attack vessels engaged in commerce with them. By exclusion, this implicates Iran.
  • Iran’s foreign minister implies (CNN: Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said “suspicious doesn’t begin to describe” the incident coinciding with Abe’s visit.) that Iran would not attack ships related to Japan while Abe is visiting. Iran would like us to at least be confused and hesitant by advancing the argument that by excluding Iran, this implicates the  Saudi alliance.

This appears to be an opportunity for Iran to press the new Tanker War with a fortuitous veil of obfuscation provided by Abe’s visit. It’s plausible as it stands, but there is more: Abe’s overture to Khamenei on behalf of Trump  was rejected. (Reuters) Iranian leader tells Japan’s Abe Trump “not worthy” of a reply to message.

The coincidence of Abe’s visit is an Iranian finger gesture; the  attacks are Iran’s second shot of the New Tanker War.

Response. In comparison to the previous attacks, this conclusion of Iranian responsibility has come quickly. The attacks show that deniable aggression has an important adjunct role in diplomacy, viewed by an adversary as promoting the favorable resolution of a conflict without the danger of full-scale war.

Deniable tactics, though much harder to execute than conventional responses, have been used by the U.S. in the past. They may be useful now, to symmetrize the sense of damage between the two sides, while reducing the chance of escalation. Note:

  • Losses by Iran are not necessarily measureable in dollars. Subjective measures of loss of standard of living may be more appropriate.
  • For Iran’s maritime traffic to be put at risk, Iran has to have something to lose.  This could be  as simple as overlooking off-the-books smuggled oil, but there has to be something. You can’t choke a dead man.
  • In selection of targets for deniable strike, little substitution can be made of military targets in place of economic. The Iranian military myth involves a lot of endurance against pain and loss. A possible exception is Iran’s main naval facility, proximal to the tanker attacks.

Deniable tactics present at least the possibility of conflict resolution without progression to a hot-war situation, which would also have an uncertain end point.




Trump’s remark stuns CNN panel: ‘Whose side is he on?’

CNN Video: Trump’s remark stuns CNN panel: ‘Whose side is he on?

Kim Jong Un ordered the murder of his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, who is newly suspected by some of being a CIA informant.

President Trump’s statement on video seems to mean that Kim Jong-nam would not have been  recruited as a spy if he had anything to do with it, implying that it was wrong to do so. It wasn’t wrong,.

The CNN panel was unanimously appalled that Trump would take a side opposite the CIA. For the sake of making it interesting, I’d like to be on that panel. Since I wasn’t invited, consider these thoughts, and marvel at how I reconcile the delicate contradictions.

I’m a big fan of the CIA., and the intelligence community in general. I’m delighted if in fact the CIA recruited Kim Jong-nam, and dismayed if they lost an agent. If the allegation is true, it raises a question of CIA tradecraft. It’s bad to lose an agent right after meeting.

The assassination was first ordered in 2010. So N. Korean agents must have been on Kim Jong-nam’s tail for a long time.  (Guardian) How North Korea got away with the assassination of Kim Jong-nam.

My calculus of lies:

  • It’s bad to lie to the electorate  or an ally.
  • Lying to get out of a wedding you don’t want to go to is not nice, but not criminal.
  • It’s good to lie to a small child to cushion an emotional blow.
  • If you lie to a good person for a good purpose, you’d better be right.
  • It’s fine to lie to a criminal, or suspected criminal, for a good purpose. This is actually codified in police work, as “necessary deception.”

So there are many types of lies, but the CNN panel didn’t mention this. Are lies a black-and-white ethical question?

It’s fine to lie to Kim Jong-un, as much and as often as necessary. It looks like Trump is trying to schmooze him. The CNN panel may be using an appropriate lie  as confirmation of their opinions of Donald Trump. This is the wrong row to hoe.

Al Gore “invented the Internet.” Joe Biden says that if he’s elected, “we’re going to cure cancer.” I doubt Joe will have anything to do with it. These may be  lies or self deception but they drop with little notice. They confirm none of our opinions, though most  would like Joe to cut the bullshit.

The best thing about schmoozing is that it is one of the few ways one can build trust when one cannot think of an honest compliment. Diplomacy still requires a personal touch. It is  overrated, but undeniably true.

The worst thing to say about schmoozing Kim Jong-un is that it will not work, at least in the short term. To be susceptible to schmoozing, the victim has to be culturally prepared for it. Since Kim Jong-un comes from another culture, where flattery blends into social torture,  he isn’t susceptible.

Kim Jong-un is 35 years old. It is possible that if sanctions are successfully maintained for decades, qualities of age may emerge in his outlook. In a future of weakness, he could have some regard for schmoozing long past.

CNN, if you’d like an occasional dissonant note, I’m your man.






(CNN)Russia, in rare U-turn after public anger, drops case against journalist

But the future of Ivan Golunov is not bright. See Juan Guaido Watch Your Back; Trump says ‘Russia has to get out’ of Venezuela Part 2.

The chance that Golunov will be mercifully allowed to  live out his life are close to nil. While he has escaped a violent death in a Russian prison, three alternative fates come to the fore:

  • Violent murder.
  • Poisoning resulting in disability.
  • Poisoning resulting in death.

Based on extrajudicial actions since 2000, there is an apparent pattern to the choices:

  • For the traitor, death by poison. (Skripal, Litvinenko.)
  • For the  political nuisance  with the possibility of a following, and a potential martyr, incapacitation by poison, which avoids martyrdom. (Vladimir Kara-Murza , Viktor  Yushchenko et al.)
  • If perceived to be a threat by the criminal component of the Kremlin, violent death typically results, the fate of so many Russian investigative journalists, and Sergei Magnitsky.

Poison, the high technology of murder, requires state sanction that even the criminal elements of the Kremlin cannot freely obtain. Hence the resort to violence, disappearance, or imprisonment with violent death caused by other inmates.

As previously noted, I discount theories that make Vladimir Putin the prime mover of the lethal outcomes of journalism. The most that can be certainly said is that he has made a Faustian bargain. In some cases, such as Golunov, he may be responsible for a temporary reprieve.

(CNN) A Russian journalist was arrested on drug charges. The backlash has blindsided the Kremlin

(CNN) A Russian journalist was arrested on drug charges. The backlash has blindsided the Kremlin.

Joseph Conrad’s 1905 essay, Autocracy and War, speaks to us now. About Russia,

...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...

Don’t waste your time blaming Vladimir Putin for it. There are two possibilities, that he approves of the (CNN) arrest of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, or that he disapproves. These choices have little difference in effect. Some Western analysts think he can reach down like the finger of God into the bureaucracy. His power is far more conditional than that. It’s a bargain with Conrad’s take on Faust’s Devil.

We generally frown on making a bargain with the Devil, the substance of the ever-popular Faust tale. But what if it’s the only game in town?

Hypersonic Strategies, Part 6

Disclaimer. The Strangelovian nature of what follows is disturbing. I can’t change that.

It takes a nuke  to kill a nuke. It did, before the advent of hit-to-kill, and it may again, if BB’s, gumballs, and miniature projectiles don’t work. A nuke only has to get near.

In the 1960’s the technology for a hit-to-kill EKV did not exist. Computers of our experience were the stuff of sci-fi. Solid state cameras did not exist; imaging relied on large, bulky special purpose vacuum tubes that you cradled in your arms, and which shattered if dropped.

The leap to active electronically scanned radars had been made, but in the form of installations of massive size and expense. Since AESA radars rely on intensive computing to form the beam and analyze the echo. tracking simultaneous targets was limited to small numbers. The primitiveness of control theory was an obstacle to guiding the interceptor in flight.

So post war, defense against strategic strategic bombers and missiles centered on detonating a small nuke in the vicinity of the incoming. This included actual operational systems. The Sprint ABM used the W66 nuke.  The Air-2 Genie, deployed until 1985, required no guidance at all; against a manned bomber, a thousand feet was close enough. Collateral damage to the defended region was a concern, so a group of volunteers stood hatless beneath the only air-burst test of Genie, of  a 1.5 kiloton W66 warhead. Film here, with on-site live commentary resembling a Rose Bowl parade: Genie Test.

How could a nuclear explosion be so  harmless to the observers, located 3 – 4 miles directly underneath?

  •  In a ground burst or near-ground burst, the highly radioactive fission products mix with soil, building materials, and everything else, to produce a radioactive mix of heavy particles that falls to earth with heavy local concentration. This is lethal.
  • In a high air burst, if the blast radius does not touch ground,  there is no crater.  The fission products do not mix with heavy particles, so instead of concentrating locally, they diffuse through the atmosphere. It adds to the global burden of radioactive fallout, the lesser of two evils.
  • The 3 -4 miles of atmosphere provided effective gamma and neutron shielding. Since they were never  in close proximity to the fission products,  doses to the observers were described as negligible, at least according to the standards of the time.
  • It was a small warhead, a W66. Directly beneath an air burst, there is a zone in which the blast wave is attenuated. This combination could have resulted in further moderation of the blast effect experienced by the observers.

So if a 1.5 kiloton warhead is such a nothing-burger, how does it destroy an incoming round? There are several ways.

A “chain-reaction” is central to the A-bomb. A lump of plutonium or uranium is imploded (squashed) into a compact form.  A neutron splits an atom (fission),  yielding two or three more neutrons, which split more atoms. Provided there is  a big enough lump of plutonium or uranium (critical mass), the numbers look good. Heat is liberated. As long as the numbers look good, this continues. It continues until all that heat makes an explosion.

The air burst of a small anti-missile warhead has small blast effects. But it produces neutrons. If the nearby aggressor warhead absorbs some of those neutrons, its own  lump heats up. If it heats up enough, it melts, at least a little. This deprives it of precision, so it cannot “assemble” to produce a high-order detonation. The effective radius for the Genie was thought to be about 900 feet.

As with the ideas of making holes in a hypersonic warhead with a pack of BB’s or gumballs, the challenge is destroying a device without knowing exactly how it is made. Neutrons are thought to be universal and inescapable. This was the original motivation for the neutron bomb. But for the sake of completeness, consider a countermeasure.

Neutrons, unlike gamma rays, can be shielded by light elements. Borated polyethlene is sold commercially for this purpose.  The fission end of the aggressor nuke could be enclosed in a bucket of this stuff.  The bucket has to be open-ended so it does not interfere with the fusion secondary. At the cost of some weight, a bucket 11 centimeters  (4.3 inches) thick  would halve the effective distance of the Genie’s neutron burst. A future Avangard could be constructed partly of boron nanotubes, a material providing both structural strength and neutron shielding.

In the early ABM era, the  destructive pure energy pulse gained traction as a compliment to neutrons. A nuke produces both. In our universe, photons are the carriers of both information and radiant heat. X-rays, gamma-rays, visible light, and the warmth of an infrared lamp are all the same to physics. Although the W66 warhead of the Genie and Sprint does not make a big bang at high altitudes, it  releases a lot of energy. Different wavelengths (“colors” of light) in the pulse have different penetrating power. The visible part of the pulse heats up the aggressor surface. Perhaps this can be withstood, but a significant fraction of the energy is in the form of X-rays, penetrating the structure and melting the insides.

A caveat. Outside the atmosphere, the pulse travels long distances, attenuated only by the inverse square law. The range sharply decreases inside the atmosphere.  We could use charts to study how far each range of radiation travels, but it gets complicated. We know from  the Genie air burst experiment that 3 -4 miles of air rendered the observers safe from harm.

A good rule of thumb is that a physical gadget, with notable solid state exceptions, resists damage at 10,000 times the dose of the human observers. The inverse square law says 150 feet for 10,000X the dose. But the inverse square law does not directly apply, because atmospheric absorption is the stronger effect.  For instance, soft X-rays attenuate with only a few feet of air at sea level.

A wild-ass guess of the effective radius of hard X-rays, at 80,000 feet, for a Genie-style W66 warhead, is some number under 100 meters. The exact distance is hard to pin down, because the effects increase  rapidly as the distance decreases.  The different “colors” of the pulse are advertised to have these effects:

  • Hard X-rays, to which Avangard is partially transparent, would heat the interior beyond tolerable levels, possibly melting the structural plastic.
  • Infrared and visible light create thermal effects that would destabilize the craft, and shock waves that might destroy it.
  • X-rays and gamma rays damage semiconductors, rendering the circuits that follow inoperable.
  • The warhead has an electrical power supply, without which it cannot detonate.
  • Without working guidance and control systems, the vehicle tumbles out of control, with destruction from aerodynamic forces and heating in the wrong places.

Besides hard X-rays, Avangard must also deal with EMP, neutrons, other “colors” of energy such as infrared, and even some blast. Enough brickbats to kill any gadget – we hope.

We still haven’t gotten to directed energy weapons. To be continued shortly.










(CNN) US and Russian warships nearly collide in the Pacific

(CNN) US and Russian warships nearly collide in the Pacific. Quoting Carl Schuster,

“Putin clearly has ordered the Russian Navy to pressure the USN whenever opportunities exist. It may possibly be a show of political support for China while Xi is in Moscow, but more likely to signal that Russia is willing to challenge the US dominance on the world stage and at sea,” he said.

More specific reasoning can be applied.   Russia and China share a long land border, with the seeds of conflict:

  • Sino-Soviet border conflict of 1969, which was coupled with the request of the Brezhnev government to pre-emptively strike China with nuclear weapons. (Telegraph) USSR planned nuclear attack on China in 1969.
  • Sino-Soviet conflict of 1929, directly about control of the Chinese Eastern Railway, built originally as as Russian concession. It became emblematic  of conflict over business concessions and seizures of territory that comprise much of the current eastern border of Russia.
  • The root of it is the three way contest between Japan, Russia, and China for Manchuria, with the cheating of China codified in the Unequal Treaties.

The weakness of the Qing dynasty was  obvious in the inability to assert control over northern Manchuria, which became the plaything of Russia-Japan rivalry. Until 1860, Vladivostok was part of China.  One of the historical constants of relations between land powers, modified, perhaps only temporarily, by nuclear weapons, is lust for land, and the patriotic urge to regain what was seized. It is so common a theme, historians have a word for it, revanchism.

It is safe to say that in the inner recesses of diplomatic thought, China has a revanchist urge. Vladivostok will one day (again) be part of China, as surely as Taiwan. Russians can hardly repress their fear, except with reassuring thoughts about their first-use doctrine for nuclear weapons. In the long run, it won’t help. Russia is too poor and too corrupt to resist China’s money. There will be a “second government”, like the one alluded to by Joe Valachi, which will become the first government.

But that is not the Kremlin’s immediate concern, which is the dire absence in Russia of anything resembling industrial development, in a country where the 2013 male life expectancy is 65.1 years. Partly as a result of sanctions,  mounting disapproval threatens survival of  the Kremlin leadership.

Atavism has an unfortunate, continuing relevance for international relations. Two cavemen with clubs could have the notions that follow. Business suits and ties make it  harder to see.

Due to Western sanctions, the Kremlin finds itself dependent for investment on the country that could conceivably replace it with a Beijing-based power structure. One has only to look at the colonial exploitation of China for the mechanics. Between nations, fear is usually symmetrically opposed by fear. Russia needs to convince China that they don’t want to do to China what China would like to do to Russia.

Hence the naval demonstration, a metaphorical brandishing of a spiked caveman’s club, a way of saying, “Russia will not stab you in the back if you have a fight with the U.S.”  The corresponding guarantee, that China will not take back Vladivostok, is not forthcoming. It’s just a matter of time.