Putin’s Next Move; Winter in the West

The coming winter will be pivotal in the world order, perhaps leading to a renewed division of the world between east and west. If Putin uses natural gas as a weapon,  Europe will, after a few very difficult years, replace Russia by the U.S.  The immense infrastructure of a natural gas liquefaction plant (LNG) is already under construction in New Orleans.

This would, truly, be equivalent to a “new world order”, with North America and Western Europe in one camp, once again. Russia would suffer the fate of the male spider after mating, the conglomerate with China forming an immense inland power. India might finally align with the West. Oceania would cower in fear. Perhaps Putin is not as intelligent as we would hope.

A shark cannot swim in reverse. Putin also seems incapable of this maneuver. Different opinions have been expressed as to why. Some Russian commentators attribute it to Putin’s personality, while I see it rather as a consequence of the power structure he has ascended (“Putin, rodeo bull rider.”) The actual cause does affect the estimate of his degree of working intelligence. If he can’t back up because of a personality flaw, then estimates of his actions must substantially consider options which we, as external observers, consider self-defeating. If he can’t back up because of political constraints, then we may more anticipate elements of surprise and creativity.

Although not decided between the two, consideration is given here to the second possibility. Realizing that the world order he could usher in is not conducive to the survival of Russia, he looks for a creative way to swim in reverse. So here is an open source intelligence solution to a prediction problem. It is not based on secret cables, confidences, or spies, or mind reading, but is an independent creative exercise that could approximate Putin’s thinking:

  • Donetsk is about 40 miles from the Russian border.
  • The Russians have moved small units and rocket batteries with the range to hit Donetsk to the border.
  • As the Ukrainian Army attempts to encircle Donetsk, the huge rates of fire of these weapons is used to establish a salient that includes part of Donetsk. The situation is  unfavorable to the Ukrainians, with high casualties and inadequate logistics.
  • The salient becomes a semi permanent part of the situation.
  • Putin keeps the gas flowing and everybody warm, except, of course, for the Ukrainians.

The salient would have several uses. It would provide the rebels with a feeling of accomplishment. The gradual reduction of the salient in return for the lifting of sanctions would provide time to reprogram the tiny brains of the rebels into thinking they have done something for Russia. It might also become a permanent feature, a “Berlin Corridor.” Those rebels who resist reprogramming could be properly disposed of.

Were the U.S. to provide the Ukraine with targeting information on Russian tactical weapon emplacements, the cost to Russia of maintaining the salient might reach an impractical level.  Here, it can only be noted that, in the history of U.S. Presidents, there has never been a President who was tops at both domestic and foreign affairs.




El Sisi, the next Ataturk

Let us start in the usual trivial manner, toying with the neoteric facts of the moment. Whether Hamas ordered the kidnapping and murder of  three Israeli teens has been curiously clouded by BBC reporter Jon Donnison, He alleges that Mickey Rosenfeld, head of Israel’s national police, told him that the West Bank cell responsible for the crimes does not receive direct orders from Hamas.

In an unguarded moment, Rosenfeld may have extrapolated from what he knows to what he doesn’t. In the absence of a solved crime, the statement, if made at all, is based on intelligence, and possibly extrapolation. Intelligence is seldom equivalent to fact, and extrapolation distances it further.

From the moment to the hour…

With the explosion of the ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the kick of the murders, Hamas saw what it hasn’t seen in a long time: motion, and fluidity, like the soil liquefaction that accompanies an earthquake. The Hamas leadership apparently realize that their 10,000 rockets and miles of tunnels are, at best a blasting cap. But even with liquefaction, there have to be some explosives lying around, in the form of a mobilizable pan-Arab proclivity toward violence.

Unfortunately for Hamas, this is absent. News organizations are reporting the “deafening silence” of Arab nations with respect to the Israeli incursion, and even more-than tacit support.  The  origins of of this attitude might be expected to be opaque, but this time, they are quite traceable, possibly to their origins.  In January  Egypt articulated the intent to destroy Hamas (Reuters).

Now the open source intelligence hound picks up another scent. El-Sisi intends to modernize Egypt. The parallels with Ataturk are striking.  He asks, rhetorically, (NY Times) “You want to be a first-class nation?” he asked of Egyptians, in a leaked recording of an off-the-record conversation with a journalist-confidant. “Will you bear it if I make you walk on your own feet? When I wake you up at 5 in the morning every day? Will you bear cutting back on food, cutting back on air-conditioners?”…“People think I’m a soft man,” he added. “Sisi is torture and suffering.”

El-Sisi is talking the talk and walking (or bicycling) the walk. Like Ataturk, he is taking on the religious establishment, with the military watching his back. The rest of the Arab World finds little alternative. When you’re caught between the ISIS, Iran and Al-Sisi, who do you choose?

Proceeding from the hour to the day…

Modernity is the word of the day. Egypt resumes leadership of the Arab World. Hamas, aware of the tick of the clock, gambles. But one wonders: Do they see the mortality of their cause, or must they perish with it?




Jon Donnison


Jon Donnison

Vladimir Putin, Child of History

One day, as a consequence of  inevitable demographics, China will own all of Siberia.  The most populous, most dynamic nation shares a 2,607 mile border with one of the most sclerotic. Russia’s shrinking population continues to be decimated by multi-drug resistant TB, AIDS, and alcoholism. The male life expectancy is only 64 years, and Russia has more drug addicts than any other country. The Vanity Fair article pulls it all together with horrific details. Only 30% of babies are born healthy, the rest likely victims of maternal alcoholism and drug abuse.

All this signifies a deeply unhappy people, so unhappy that, paradoxically, they don’t realize how miserable they really are. Putin’s “success” is an increase of the birth rate marginally above the replacement level.  But since the desire to procreate is so weak, and so challenged by the sense of physical and emotional privation, the sanctions now announced will eventually have a lethal effect on Russia. What remains of the middle class knows it, and is jumping ship.

Prior to the ascent of modern sociology, the only cure for national malaise was a stiff dose of some kind of nationalistic psychology: lebensraum (living room), manifest destiny, racial purity, cultural superiority , and what they call in Southeast Asia, “communalism”, the proclaimed right of an ethnic group to a hunk of territory and the right to be their own instruments of torture and corruption.

In the multicultural West, we are continually surprised that anyone would think this way, but even in Japan, mothers instinctively gather their children at the approach of a foreigner. Racial superiority is such an attractive notion that, during the period of Japan’s Asian colonialism, it was promulgated as an instrument of political control, this Japanese export readily absorbed by the Korean psyche. The most mild form of the infection is ethnic chauvinism, with the dark companion of xenophobia. The sense of “us” versus “other”, rooted in evolutionary sociobiology,   is such an effective instrument of manipulation  that practically no politician outside the West can resist the seductions.

The West has partially succeeded in elevating principles above ourselves. But as abstractions, principles require what child psychologist Jean Piaget called “the age of formal operations.” In preceding mental ages, the dominant thought processes are more instinctive, with the young mind in the process of uptake of what  Vilfredo Pareto termed persistences and derivations, the mental furnishings of childhood that underpin all but the most sophisticated  adult mind.

To Putin’s credit, many of his attempts to doctor his very sick patient are based on modern  sociological  and behavioral notions. The ban on public profanity, and restrictions on media containing pornography, violence, and profanity seem puzzling when we forget that the patient is in the ER. If you were defibrillating a patient, would you offer him a smoke?

So the modern Putin is at his wit’s end. For a thousand years prior, Russians were born into dark, cold  poverty, fought life’s struggles to eat and stay warm, multiplied their descendants, and descended with the Sign of the Cross into the black chernozem soil. Yet now, when with central heat,  flush toilets, and easy food, things should be better, Russians are failing to continue.

Perhaps all of us oscillate between modern and primitive, between scientific mindset and what gathers at the opposite pole: sensual and spiritual. What ails Russia? Is it too cold? Too dark? Too vast? In what chalice does the Russian spirit reside?  Gathering steam with the analogies, the body of the individual has been called the chalice of the spirit. But is the Russian corpus a complete, functioning body? Or is it crippled by exclusions? Does it need fields of waving grain? Ports of warm water, facing into the sun?

These are the thoughts of any leader of any country when the picture darkens. By the solitary light of the weak lamp, when the window’s view is the blackness of night,   in the trenches of 1918, or in the wake of a bond default,  these thoughts grow, acquiring a kind of poetry that makes them seem beautiful, even when they are not, and contain the germs of great cruelty.  In most harmless form, the “Volk” sing national anthems, such as “America, the Beautiful.” In the most harmful, genocide. In the intermediate, the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines MH-17 becomes a tolerable cost of a “greater goal.”

This is one element of the mental childhood of Vladimir Putin, something hardly exclusive to him. His study of great world leaders reveals other mental childhoods, lauded by historians into  mistaken greatness. Conquerors are parasites.  But Putin’s own childhood stems from the tragic history of Russia, which became penultimately tragic in World War II. He was born in the post-war years, young enough to learn fresh from his elders of the genocide that came from within and without. To Putin, “Teutonic hoards” is not simply a quaint expression. As a student of history, he doubtless knows that the roots of Naziism start not with Hitler, not with Nietzsche or Strauss, but with the Teutonic Knights, whose genocidal proclivities date to circa 1200 A.D. One has only to dig a little to discover that “convert by the sword” actually meant genocide.

After World War II, the fear of a resurgent Germany was shared by the victors. The Western response was the Morgenthau Plan. The Russian response was creation of the satellite states behind the Iron Curtain. With the advent of the Cold War, the Morgenthau Plan, recognized as an invitation to Communist takeover, was replaced, for Western Europe, by a plan of redevelopment, the Marshall Plan,and the gradual political rehabilitation of West Germany. But the pain inflicted on the Russians had been too great for a similar gesture. It can only be appreciated in the context of their numbness to the self-inflicted horrors instigated by Joseph Stalin. It is little noted that Stalin didn’t kill anybody. He simply told others to.

So, from his early childhood, Putin inherited the terrible emotional scars of his elders. As a young man, in Piaget’s “formal age”,  in the employ of the KGB, his acquisitions continued on a more sophisticated plane. In those days, a primary responsibility of the KGB was the defense of the satellite states against subversion by the West. East Germany, especially, was the bar to the ghosts of the past,  the Teutonic Knights. After all, eight hundred years of history does not vanish in an eye blink.

It is hard to believe that Putin is still fighting that war, but it compellingly explains why, in violation of all the rules and instincts of balance-of-power politics, he seems blind to the indefensible 2607 mile border with China. By all tenets, he should seek alignment with countries that do not share land borders.

There is precedent for this in the mating habits of spiders, in which the male is almost inevitably eaten by the female after mating, as a good source of protein. But as Putin’s nervous system is larger than that of a spider, a more complex explanation seems required. Russian history provides one prior example: the Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact, signed in 1939. Twenty-two months later, Germany invaded Russia in a surprise attack, with disastrous consequences. In the West, this “Pact” is used as a classroom example of misplaced trust granted by one dictator to another. It is frequently generalized to, “Dictators trust other dictators.”

Perhaps they do. We really can’t know how someone like Putin, to whom democratic institutions are a foreign novelty, regards the Western democracies. The chaos,  self-negation, contradictions, and inefficiencies hide (we hope) a remarkable capacity for self-regeneration. But it seems that a mixture of contempt for Western values,  perceived to include hedonism and low tolerance for economic dislocation, have fueled a Molotovian mindset.

The strategy of gnawing away at Ukraine via a low intensity conflict might have worked, but all small conflicts are tinder for greater ones. In history yet to be written, MH-17 will be noted as the end of the “Peace Dividend.” And why? Because Vladimir Putin, Child of History, is fighting the wrong war. The most brilliant minds cannot ensure, by diplomacy, coercion, or otherwise, that the Teutonic Knights will not some time in the future spring back to life. But in his obsession with their ghost, and with the “spiritual sickness” of Russia, Putin has been nudging dogs that should be left to sleep.

Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.






Important Iraq Question

The media has observed that two of the three  “domestic” parties of the Iraq sitution, the Sunnis and the Shi’ites, seem incapable of acting in their own self-interest, even in the face of an increasingly mortal threat discussed in a Reuters article.

An obvious question presents: Is this incapability mainly a consequence of the fathomless depths of human stupidity, of a brinksmanship  primarily of domestic origin, or is this the ruthless use of proxies, with Iran as the primary suspect?

Iran’s presence is huge. But, tempering, to conclude that Iran is the cause of the failure of compromise to occur would be a form of abduction. The classic example of abduction is, “The grass is wet, so it must have rained.” Depending upon the circumstances, it could be a very good guess, or a very bad one.

Fencing a problem is one of the basics of the predictor’s toolkit. In this instance, the question takes a very general, nonspecific form. At the very least, the absence of an obvious open-source answer underscores the limitations of the news media.

From previous posts, you may surmise that I think I know the answer to this question. I have a bias, but predicting is best served by holding all the possibilities in mind at once. True facts are rare, distinguished mostly by omission in discussion.

Putin Not Blinking

Reuters says, “Russia’s Putin not blinking in ‘last chance saloon’ ” Suppose he finally has religion, and wants to do the right thing.  Some of the problems in doing this are discussed in “Putin, rodeo bull rider“, and “Putin’s paramilitary problem“.

Putin cannot seal the border by standing there with a gun. He has to find people who are willing to do this. The Russian soldiers now there have exchanged bear hugs and Russian kisses with their comrades in arms, the paramilitaries. So, as far as this task, their loyalty to Putin, as opposed to the romantic, nationalistic “Russian People”, is questionable.

So while Putin appears to be doing nothing, it is entirely possible that he is already asking around for individuals who would be willing to clean up this situation in return for some money. Putin’s billions come in handy. Of course, he would like to get the job done as cheaply as possible.

The shoot-down of MH-17 provides an important sales point to prospective recruits to this duty. They are saving Russia’s honor, not betraying her, by isolating paramilitaries who are now identified, to use a favorite Soviet expression, as “renegades”. But there is still an organizational task. Individuals enticed to this duty  must be formed into units, promises made for future rewards, a command hierarchy formed, transport arranged, and the existing Russian Army units must be moved out of the way.

As discretely as this may be accomplished (or not), the impact on political liberties will be severe for years to come. The affair defies burying by state propaganda.  Containing the threat to Putin’s legitimacy will severely impact the social media climate. The Ukraine will periodically resurface like the unwelcome dead of Tiananmen_Square.


Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17

Although it is popular to blame the rebels for the shoot-down, it may have been done by the Russians themselves. By this line of reasoning, the airliner was mistaken for a Ukrainian military transport plane.

Quoting Reuters, “But Russia kept up pressure on Kiev over the cross-border shell incident. A Russian newspaper, citing a source close to the Kremlin, said on Monday that Moscow was considering the possibility of pinpoint strikes on Ukraine in retaliation.

It’s the kind of small-scale, pushbutton atrocity we have become inured to. For why Putin does not seem touched, see “Putin, Rodeo Bull Rider.”

Putin, rodeo bull rider

With the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17, you may be wondering, “When is that cruel man Putin going to find his heart and put a stop to this?” It is doubtful that he can. Putin is riding a bull, and if he gets off, he will get stomped.

In 2007, I asked a young Russian woman to name Putin’s greatest achievement. She replied, “Staying alive.” A few years before then, Moscow was like Chicago in the 30’s. That it is not today is the result of some very sophisticated measures of control, discussion of which would be a digression.

But in spite of examples to the contrary in domestic politics, people tend to view Russia as a “Game of Thrones”, with Putin the  Czar of all Russia. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Russia lacks a political class that even loosely fulfills Will Roger’s description of the U.S. Congress, it has an economic class, the “Oligarchs”, who wear both hats.  When Putin ascended, power was concentrated in a mere seven of them. He has managed to considerably increase the number, which, in Russia, counts for progress.

Perhaps our worst fears of Putin’s negativity towards political pluralism will come to pass, but he sends top students abroad, particularly to the U.K., where they will inevitably become infected with ideals. Why would Putin accept the risk of infection, when they can learn to program in Java at home?

Possibly, it is because Putin really would prefer, on his eventual departure, to hand the country over to an advanced political class, of the type formerly nurtured here by the “Eastern Intellectual Establishment.” I miss those days. But there is a gap approximating a generation. Russia runs on money. The whole of the oligarchic structure is composed of elements that would devour every living, moral thought in the country. The only institution that could conceivably serve as a moral gap-filler is the Orthodox Church.

Much has been made of Putin’s hidden billions, with the spin of hidden fortune, hidden aggrandizement, hidden corruption. Now, look at the man. Do you see him dripping with bling, and gals on the arm? Are there rumors that he sleeps, as did Gandhi, with seven virgins? His style is all of a piece with Warren Buffet’s.

When I wrote a paper about Putin’s character, I omitted mention of a hidden fortune, not because I disbelieved it, but because I could not find a citation without the word, “rumor.” But it is certainly plausible that it exists, and it is large. One plausible reason accompanies the existence of the billions: to buy Russia back.

But, you say, he has Russia. What does he need to buy? The fortune may be real, but the idea that he rules Russia truly is an illusion. If a collusion of oligarchs attempts to remove him, the money is to buy the country back. The price would be huge, but, as we have seen, he is a providential planner. And at stake, literally, is the Soul of All Russia.

This is why, in the administration of a domestically oriented President with a not-so-great foreign policy record, the policy of sanctioning the oligarchs is brilliant. If and when the oligarchs decide, military disengagement with the rebels will occur. But they have a problem. By now,  the oligarchs have gotten the message that, if they betray the rebels, some people who are handy with guns and have long memories will obtain what they call justice. It would be hard to distract these disaffected people, because it is hard to become fat, happy, and lazy in Russia. Life is just not that easy there.

If Putin and his inner circle decide to do the right thing, they are then faced with arranging the mysterious disappearances, accidents, falling down stairs, getting run over by cars, etc., of hundreds of people. These days, arranging even one unfortunate accident can take years.


Centrifuges; an alternate explanation

Parisa Hafezi,  Reuters Bureau chief in Tehran, has written “Iran election tactics drive nuclear deal timetable

The discipline of predicting requires that one hold all possibilities in the mind at once. Favoritism towards one’s own  theory is deadly to the process.

Hafezi says Khamenei’s speech is viewed by Iranian analysts as an election tactic, to prevent Rouhani from being perceived, just before the election,  as saving the country. She says this is important to Khamenei to prevent the moderates from gaining too much political power.

So now we have two explanations. Hafezi’s is political/tactical. Mine has a strategic, geopolitical flavor.

Which is right? Could Khamenei have in mind a mix of strategy and tactics, in an as yet undecided, fuzzy-logic kind of way? I know that’s how I decide about what snack to eat.

“Pentagon’s big budget F-35 fighter ‘can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run’”

The author of the article, “Pentagon’s big budget F-35 fighter ‘can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run“, has a remarkable background: writing graphic novels, and articles for “Danger Room”, “Wired”, and “Popular Science.” We can thank the designers of the plane that they have other stuff to read.

This kind of so-called reporting makes me mad, because the editors of Reuters, CNN, et al. have a choice. They can find someone with the requisite background to “dumb-down” the technicals to make a little bit of it accessible to the public, or they can select a member of the general public to write the piece. Increasingly, they choose the latter. It took thousands of engineers millions of man-hours to design the plane, which is now described to us by a writer of graphic novels.

As it happens, I have some background in detecting airplanes. Mr. Axe needs to take a few graduate courses in stochastics, followed by a few in prediction/estimation, Kalman filtering, read Itzak Bar-Shalom’s book on data fusion, study noise identification, of which I wrote a few of the very few published papers on the subject, and then progress to the modern literature on the subject, available in the IEEE journals.

And then, only then, if Mr. Axe can put down his crayons, will he begin to understand the problem of detecting this airplane. The secret sauce is that the planes are designed to fly in minimums of pairs, and more recently, with an F-15 as company, because it, too, has specialized capabilities.

Our adversaries have very smart people, so it would surprise me if anything I said here verged on classified information. Nevertheless, since I have the background, it is possible that I have figured some things out. The last time I presented a conference paper, there were some pretty attentive PRC lurkers. So I will not say as much as I know.

As for Mr. Axe, I am sure his ability with crayons exceeds my own. With those instruments in his hands, he is invincible.


Intel9's world view

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!