(Regime) Change of Heart

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This administration is starting to make me want to burn my political science degree; what is the point if you can’t even predict what the hell the White House is going to do? Well…more on that later…believe it or not the White House is actually acting rationally…

But for now lets cover the basics. Assad, wanting to strengthen his grip over a shattered country after years of bloody civil war, pulled out chemical weapons. Casualties were modest in comparison to the atrocities his armed forces committed with conventional munitions, but taboos are taboos. Trump denounced Assad and followed up with a surprise attack on a Syrian air base Thursday night. Needless to say Assad and Russia are NOT happy. Russia has apparently pulled a lot of its muscle out of Syria (sure?) but they still maintain a presence and they are coming hot off of a campaign that saved the Assad regime. Trump threatens now to undo what Russia has worked hard to create.

The first question on everyone’s minds: will we fight we Russia? Probably not, although this could definitely turn into a Cold War style proxy war. Russia wouldn’t risk going toe-to-toe with the United States anywhere, even Syria. The Kremlin is making the usual rounds, claiming that the “[U.S. is violating the holy virtue of state sovereignty by aggressively targeting Syria].” We might expect the Kremlin’s propaganda output, and Putin’s popularity, to gain support. On the ground Russia is likely to continue arming Syria with defensive capabilities (ABMs are being moved in) to slow or defy American efforts. Abroad Russia is likely to try and create more hotspots to annoy America and generate issues where they can claim legitimate success. I guess now we’ll see just how well the latest upgrades of Russian armaments stack against NATO’s tried and true war machines. Weapons and conflict are the exports of great powers.

The next question: will the U.S. commit to Syria? This remains to be seen. Personally I would be surprised if Trump committed. He was largely isolationist during his campaign, but of course I suppose if that was a true policy stance he would never have had missiles launched anyways. The danger now is whether or not everyone else will commit. The media seems to be backing Trump in this move. Congress, meanwhile, has formed a typical response; shirking their constitutional obligations to declare war and ignoring a great opportunity to weaken the imperial presidency they are generally falling in line. Marco Rubio was on CNN today framing the action against Syria much as Bush did for Iraq. He claims that Syria has been sheltering terrorists and has WMDs, a dangerous combination. One of these claims is warranted: Syria does apparently have WMDs. But the charge of harbouring terrorists is specious, especially given that Assad was in the final stages of his war against terrorists (and rebels, and everyone else, but still the terrorists were included in that). Hard to believe that about a year ago Marco Rubio was butting heads with Trump and trying to keep his head above water. At least one thing is consistent about Trump: he can run roughshod over less formidable personalities. Another factor that isn’t in Assad’s favor is NATO, which will likely stand by the U.S. The neo-liberal establishment would love another try at regime change.

So why did Trump act? Did he have a change of heart? Did images of children convulsing as they choked on Sarin gas move him? Seems unlikely. Trump isn’t much of a humanitarian; this is the guy who wanted to ban Syrian refugees because they might be terrorists. His real rationale is (surprisingly) selfish.

Trump is, if nothing else, a master of manipulation and deflection. By attacking Syria he just pulled out the oldest card in the Presidency’s deck. I did a statistical analysis of it in undergrad, it’s a concept explained and developed by one of my personal political science role models, John Mueller of OSU: the rally ’round the flag effect. The phenomenon is rather simple. Crisis happens->political support for the president soars! History has plenty of examples ranging from Pearl Harbour to the Caribbean Crisis to 9/11. Usually the crises are exogenous (Pearl Harbour and 9/11) in that they are perpetrated by foreign actors. Obviously these exogenous events pose an existential threat and quickly galvanize the public. Can a president manufacture a crisis of their own? I would argue yes. Kennedy chose to turn the Cuban Missiles into a crisis. I would argue that a president’s ability to manipulate and emphasize danger is a key component of phenomenon; framing and forming a decision and then selling it to the public is paramount. In this case Trump took a foreign, not a domestic crisis (Assad gassing people) and took action. Or perhaps the action he took to bomb Syria is itself the crisis. I suppose its stupid to view the two acts as unrelated. Assad created a crisis by gassing people, Trump had to decide whether or not to escalate.

Trump escalated, and it made good political sense for him to do so (for now). The public and media, not to mention other branches of government, tend to oblige the president and rally at first. Amidst bad ratings, allegations of Russian collusion, and a host of other scandals, Trump had an easy decision. Launching tomahawk missiles distracts the public from the other issues, boosts public support (we love our military) and wipes away the shadow of Russian interference. Trump just openly defied Putin’s interests-the public will no longer pay much mind to stories of election interference. This move also makes Trump seem tough. Critics of Obama are bound to see Trump as much more tactically sound, for the time being.

In my last post I talked about Putin’s “silver bullet.” Interfering in the U.S. elections was a win-win because it would weaken Hillary and enervate U.S. foreign policy. Of course, Putin was too successful. Trump ended up winning and we all thought he was shackled by the Russian electoral taint. Apparently this backfired for the Kremlin though, as Trump had to get out from under this scandal and fast (hence he bombs Syria).

Bombing Syria was, in a way, Trump’s “silver bullet.” Will this solve all of his issues, or will it end up being “too” successful and start creating unintended consequences. I fully expect Trump’s ratings to soar, or at least increase, but for a brief while. The wind, in the form of the media, Congress, and NATO, is at his back. But meanwhile as some American’s may celebrate being tough on Assad and Russia, others may cower at the prospect of conflict with Russia, however unlikely. Here is a man widely feared for his mercurial, unpredictable nature. Everyone said he would pick random fights, now some of their fears may be warranted. Meanwhile he risks isolating his own dedicated coalition even further. He couldn’t replace Obamacare or go after Clinton, now he is launching foreign interventions against the darlings of the alt-Right.

Trump is playing with fire here, and it could go any way depending on how he follows up. Bush was in a very similar situation (faced with the choice of undertaking regime change). Of course, Bush was way more popular. Personally I am hopeful that we will not move into Syria. I remember 9/11. I remember getting out of school early and all the fear and confusion. America was attacked by a mysterious enemy, there was a genuine crisis at hand, and almost everyone rallied behind Bush. I don’t see that here. We weren’t attacked. The only thing people are scared of is Russia and Trump’s temper. Trump is already highly unpopular, and the internet is vocally pointing out his hypocrisy (he lambasted Obama on Twitter for wanting to attack Syria). The main reason why Trump’s attempt to create a “rally ’round the flag” moment is bound to fail may be because of recent memory. Bush used a rally to launch a war that ended up damning his legacy. If Trump uses a more specious rally to try and prop up his already failing popularity he may up being less successful and popular than Bush.

Trump ran on the grounds of curbing this establishment and ending the U.S.A.’s neo-liberal commitments; I guess now we’ll see just how serious he was…Only one thing is clear, that Trump doesn’t really have any clear commitments or plans.

Meanwhile we’ll see how serious the Kremlin is…

Putin’s Silver Bullet

I was wrong-as were a great many people. Earlier I predicted that Putin and Trump would work together and be friendly. I anticipated that Congress would drag their feet, but overall I thought that the symbolic power vested in the imperial presidency would be sufficient to let Trump repair relations. So far Trump hasn’t made any overtures towards Russia-but you can’t blame me for ultimately failure to predict Trump’s foreign policy, which will remain hazy and undefined for the near future.

Trump’s inability to quell tensions with Russia can largely be attributed to his increasingly precarious position. Every week seems to bring new allegations of some lackey having contact with Russia. To repair relations with Russia would fuel further speculation and cut even deeper into Trump’s legitimacy.

The degree of the Kremlin’s involvement in the election is still up for debate, but it seems all but confirmed that Russia flexed its cyber muscle to publish DNC records and Clinton emails. Until recently I thought the reason for this was obvious: Russia wanted Trump to win in order to gain advantages. Trump wanted a weaker NATO. Trump wanted broad support against ISIS. Trump was willing to lift sanctions and concede several points on Ukraine. But with new information and happenings I think the real reason for Russia’s hacking is more sinister, brilliant, and carefully calculated then I could have imagined…

Trump’s potential for collaboration or assistance was an afterthought; sure it is nice to have a pro-Russia leader in the White House but ultimately it was foolhardy on my part to think that Russia would have left things to chance so carelessly. Everyone acts like Trump and Putin are best friends or bedfellows, but in reality Trump was just a pawn in a much more intricate game.

The ultimate goal of Russia was, quite simply, to generate as much conspiratorial hysteria as possible to undermine U.S. foreign policy. They, like everyone else, probably anticipated a Clinton victory and were taking steps to avoid the worst possible outcome (for them) of a popular neo-liberal regime taking hold of the White House. How do you best disarm a potential Clinton White House? Well it wasn’t exactly hard. Clinton was already attracting serious heat from critics of her foreign policy (from the left) and her private email servers/Benghazi (from the right). The fact that the DNC conspired against Bernie Sanders only gave Russia more fuel to throw on the fire.

Exerting its powerful cyber capabilities and honed propaganda arms, the Kremlin was able to dig up dirt and ensure that it spread; the ravenous mainstream media and far-right kooky media couldn’t help themselves to such scoops. Trump naturally took this bait and, with his awesome powers of public spin and straight talk, made a great mouthpiece. Contacts with Russia among people in the Trump camp who would later be tapped for positions may have also helped this process along, more on that later though…

The end goal of Russia was to ensure that Clinton would be under massive public scrutiny if she won. Her legitimacy would have been just as questionable as Trump’s is now, and Russia’s ministers would be able to capitalize on this. If you listen close enough you can hear the arguments Russia had lined up: “American politics are just as corrupt as anywhere else!” Imagine all the dirt they may have been holding on her for once she was elected. But none of that came to pass. To the surprise of Russia and everyone else, Trump won somehow.

What motives did Russia have? Revenge for sanctions and Obama/Clinton policies? Sure! Weaken the liberal establishment and empower the right around the world? Yes! Weaken America’s ability to take action and form policy? Again, seems rational. Maybe, just maybe they could give Trump enough to win or at least make things close. A Trump victory would be huge for Russia; while they could not be sure of what Trump would do it was probably obvious to them that he would either help them (unlikely) or be completely ineffectual on account of his lack of experience and hugely controversial status (more likely). Could Russia lift sanctions and get all of its policy goals? That was a little harder to pull off, but helping Trump could only further undermine the liberal order and weaken NATO and the EU as populists gained momentum in Europe and around the world.

Regardless of what happen, it would be a win-win for Moscow. In the worst case scenario they would have to confront Clinton, albeit enervated by a divided and critical populace. In the best case (some said impossible) scenario, they would just have aided in Trump’s victory. This is Putin’s silver bullet, piercing the heart of the American polity at a critical, transformative moment. While it was carefully forged and aimed, the Kremlin probably could not have guessed how effective it was going to be. Look at where we are now! Trump’s popularity is less than 40% (and falling), and the man can’t get anything done. The State Department is all but empty. Confidence in government is shaken. America is becoming excessively divided-the very nature of truth and fact itself is being brought into question.

Meanwhile the liberal post-war order as a whole is being drawn into question. A lot of liberals in America like to imagine that Putin and Trump have some sort of relationship-this is falsehood. Russia has no further need to do anything. They pulled off a stunning coup in the U.S. election, all that is left is to watch America falter. Now their attention is likely turning to Europe. With France facing a tight election with Marine Le Pen (a far right nationalist) at the top of heap the EU is on the brink. Marine Le Pen just called today for sanctions against Russia to be dropped; at this point she is Russia’s best hope of lifting the devastating sanctions (read: she is the best chance the Putin regime has of continued survival).

Meanwhile American Russophobia is approaching McCarthy levels, although this is warranted. Russia fed the right-wing news of Clinton’s many shortcomings and the right ran with it. The Republicans and alt-Right have both been active participants in this propaganda campaign, twisting it for their own ends. Of course they didn’t operate in a vacuum; Russia forged ties with several of them, or so it seems. The increasing ties between Russia that many of Trump’s inner circle had are coming to light with frightening regularity. Essentially Russia’s information warfare has proven to be highly effective in neutralizing America; faith in the DNC and Clinton faltered, meanwhile ties forged with Right wingers have ensured that Trump’s regime can’t get off the ground.

The end product is that America is eating itself. Russia has freedom of movement to apply greater pressure to its areas of interest and undermine the liberal order. A couple interesting loose ends remain however. For starters, it does not seem that America will lift sanctions. Trump remains too weak to condemn sanctions; doing so would only deepen allegations of collusion with Russia. The Kremlin likely identified that America would have not lifted sanctions no matter what happened. Another loose end is the degree to which right wingers and Russia actively collaborated. I doubt that the Kremlin was dumb enough to directly involve Trump (why would they want to give America a chance to impeach its president and get its house in order), but evidently their tendrils are deep enough to severely weaken the administration as a whole.

There is no camaraderie between Trump and Putin. There is no long game Russia is playing to try and get its way. At the end of the day Putin just had a great opportunity to throw a wrench in American politics, slowing us down tremendously in the process, and he took it. Now we just have to deal with the issue of extracting the bullet and it doesn’t seem like their will be any anesthetic. We have a long, agonizing surgery ahead of us that will no doubt test our democratic resolve, not to mention leave a permanent scar. Trump himself can play a major role in fixing things if he were to take a harder stance against Russia and encourage greater transparency. This seems unlikely from a rash egoist, especially one who pushed the body politic straight into the bullet’s trajectory.

One has to admire the beautiful, elegant simplicity with which Russia has duped us. This isn’t some clunky reptilian ploy, such as that Brezhnev utilized to start the Soviet-Afghan War; this is a wise move made by a shrewd operator, fiendish in conception and straightforward in execution. The tragedy is that we made it so easy for them. The political parties ran bad horses, and we let ourselves get so partisan that we only noticed the true extent of the damage when it was too late. Well, now its too late.

 

The Paper Bear

Russia is great. Russia is strong. Russia can annex neighbors at will. Russia has enemies going to great lengths to contain it. Russia can influence and affect the U.S. elections. Some say Russia even has good old-fashioned kompromat on the President. Putin is great and reigns over his country with an iron fist. Nukes are great. The T-14 Armata is great! Russia’s propaganda outlet is flooding us with fake news!

We hear all of this every single day in some way as part of the liberal/conservative agenda to flare up U.S.-Russian tensions. Even Trump thinks Russia is great, although he wants different policy outcomes than the establishment.

But is any of this true? Is Russia actually great? 

This is a big question, but I think we can make headway by assessing, individually, Russia’s strengths with a skeptical mind. Afterwards we can take Russia’s unique weaknesses into account.

1. Military Assets

When most of us think “power” we think hard-power. What individual military assets does Russia have? Well, Russia has an excellent military. They make great tanks, lovely firearms, good planes, and the best-and probably only-assault helicopter in the world. Technically they could do very well in a fight, but its improbable to the point of impossibility that they would ever actually wage war against a state of comparable power. Against the United States/NATO Russia would most likely do poorly. Our military hardware is much higher quality, and our personnel is more dedicated, disciplined, and organized than Russia if the stories are to be believed. Russia has done a lot to clean up their act, but if Chechnya is any indication there are still serious issues (granted, we have issues of our own too, although not to the degree that Russia has).

The main benefit of all this hardware isn’t combat though, but rather retail. Russia sells a lot of military hardware to allies, bolstering profits and alliances. Right now they are in the process of upgrading, as they have been perpetually doing for decades. Undoubtedly Russia will pose a greater threat with their new generation of “smart” weapons, but they will be able to make a decent profit. First though they actually have to finish upgrading, which may have to wait until sanctions are lifted and the economy recovers.

2. Nukes

Ok, you got me. This is a Russian strength. They have the nuclear triad and enough a-bombs and throw weight to glass the planet, not to mention Dr. Strangelove-style doomsday machine. Lets face it though, you don’t need many nukes. France, China and Great Britain (and Israel) arguably get more utility out of their decidedly smaller nuclear programs, and Russia would have to contend with these powers, in addition to the United States, in the event of nuclear exchange. Nukes are so useful that they, well, useless. Even if the U.S. is far ahead in MIRV and ABM technology, Russia still has enough of a second-strike capacity to stalemate any foe.

One could say that Russia has too much of a second-strike capacity though. Russia maintains a massive arsenal and they are looking to update and even increase their arsenal, undoubtedly at immense cost to themselves. The point of diminishing returns definitely factors into nuclear arsenals. Luckily for Russia, Trump aims to “rebuild” America’s nuclear stockpile, so at least they aren’t alone in wasting money.

3. Leadership

According to Trump, Russia has great leadership with Putin at the helm. Most people would probably begrudgingly admit that Putin is smart and that autocratic systems tend towards greater efficiency and consistency in terms of carrying out policy. Putin has a clear vision for Russia and the skills and abilities to guide it.

But I would say a lot of people fundamentally misinterpret Putin and the nature of his power. Firstly, most people falsely believe that Putin has conquest on his mind. In reality Putin is guided by the same cautious, patient logic that Kennan laid bare in regards to the Soviet Union. Putin’s methods for trying to carve out a Russian sphere of influence are based more on soft-power than actual hard power: the threat is a little more technical than we would like to admit.

Secondly, Putin isn’t the all-powerful master of Russia. Stop thinking of Stalin, think of Brezhnev: Putin is a master of managing bureaucracy and people. There are a lot of powerful, disparate interests in Russia, and Putin just happens to be perfectly suited to balancing them and forging a solid policy. Putin is still very powerful, and little happens without his knowledge. Furthermore, I don’t believe some of the more idealistic commentators who believe that Russian elites or the public are looking to replace him. But I do know that Putin has to deal with internal squabbles in his cabinet just as any other president does, and he is worried about some of the unrest in his Russian. Putin’s foreign policy is built out of weakness, not strength.

4. Economics

Russia has a lot of oil, timber, and natural gas. They don’t export much else, but their resources do give them a lot of leverage over neighbors. Smart neighbors would just switch away from natural gas though, leaving Russia high and dry. To a certain extent resources cause more problems, as they make economic diversification difficult. Medvedev was unable to modernize the economy during his tenure. With oil prices low and sanctions Russia has experienced some pains recently, although Trump’s administration promises a reversal of fortunes.

Russia is also riddled with corruption. Putin and his supporters grow enormously wealthy, meanwhile the average Russian is struggling to make ends meet. This does not spell either success or stability, forcing the Kremlin to reassess its priorities.

5. Demographics

Russia has a pretty substantial population, and the Russian people are historically extremely hardy. However, their population isn’t exactly the healthiest. The national disease, alcoholism, has taken a grim toll on families and the birthrate of Russia is pitiful. Russia has failed to address either of these issues and a miracle solution is unlikely to crop up any time soon.

6. Soft Power

Soft power refers to a nation’s ability to influence other countries through indirect means. Here Russia’s national orientation is a double-edged sword. Their corruption, human rights abuses, and reputation carry little sway among the West or Western leaning countries, and their status as the Soviet heir scares neighbors throughout Eurasia. On the other hand, the fact that they are a powerful rogue* state that stands up to the West with endless whataboutisms makes them a poster-child of illiberal democracies. Russia meshes well with certain historical allies (i.e. Syria), other “rogue” states (Iran), and other nationalist regimes (Turkey). Putin’s example provides a modern for other anti-Western leaders so, in this way, Russia is actually more powerful. Ironically, for all their military hardware, soft power is much more promising.

Beyond this anti-West nationalism though, Russia really lacks a broad ideology that made the Soviet Union so much more dynamic (this article by Reddaway has a section dealing with this-he claims that Russia merely has an “amorphous patriotism,” hardly meaningful in comparison to the Soviet Unions lofty ideological goals). Russia’s soft power is only in play when the United States and Russia are at odds: without tension with the West Russia’s soft power evaporates).

The Final Count

So what does Russia really have going for it. Most of their assets are either useless, inflated, or offset by other liabilities. Russia isn’t really as “back” as we would like to think they are; Russia just redecorated itself and wants us all to buy the facade.

With our fears allayed we must ask: who would have us believe that Russia is a threat? What agendas are at play here?

For the liberals/conservatives: They want to drum up Western support against Russia, inflate the defense budget, and use the threat from Russia to levy pressure against Putin and his allies. I think these policy goals are really a mixed bag. On the one hand Russia would make a great ally in the war against terror, and we cannot deny that Russia has a sphere of influence. On the other hand though Russia is a highly corrupt, anti-democratic regime that tramples on human rights and shows blatant disregard for human rights. Of course, America has plenty of “allies” who are un-democratic, so the ideological justifications for our foreign policy (and fear mongering) don’t hold water. The Russian threat has also been inflated especially to help enervate Trump; while Russia certainly lent him a hand, their influence is being unduly overblown.

For Trump its about critiquing the Obama camp. He believes that Russia is strong and that Russia has many great assets-That they would make an ideal ally! He set his position up to be diametrically opposed to the establishment’s stance on Russia, and also because him and Putin share nationalistic claims to power. With Trump ensconced in power we may expect détente with Russia, although it may not come smoothly.

Lest we forget, the Kremlin is also encouraging as much awe as they can. Putin wants to drum up patriotism and a fortress mentality because it means higher approval from Russians. High ratings, combined with grandiose great power politics, distract everyone (foreign and domestic) from the real problems facing Russia. Putin smartly realizes that if Russia ACTS like a great power and is SEEN as such by foreign countries that Russia will effectively BE a foreign power. At the end of the day the calculus doesn’t matter: power is in the eye of the beholder.

*I hate the designation of “rogue” states. I firmly stand by the definition that all great powers-Russia, the U.S., China, etc-are rogue states. To quote Thucydides: “the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must.” Surely other states, such as Iran, Israel, and N. Korea, can also be considered rogue. Either way, rogue is a purely relative term to describe anyone who deviates from international norms or consensus.

A Week of Tragedies

2016 is gaining a reputation as a year of obituaries. Just today we lost actress Carrie Fisher and one of my favorite novelists, Richard Adams. I don’t think 2016 is necessarily cursed, but it is a coincidence that so many major figures have died.

Russia has had an unfortunate week, and just before the holidays no less.

Andrey Karlov

In a brazen assassination, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, was gunned down on December 19th at an art exhibition. The killer was a well groomed, well dressed Turkish national who was obviously skilled with a handgun. He shot down Karlov as stunned people looked on, took pictures, and recorded him. His motivation is apparently still in question, as are his potential ties to terrorist cells, but I think that this was a lone wolf attack. The rationale of the killer is pretty obvious given the speech he gave as Karlov lay dead where he called out Russia for their policy on Syria and their backing of Assad in the taking of Aleppo. There is great mistrust towards Russia and Assad in Turkey among refugees, radicals, and others. A great many people were alarmed by the assassination, with some drawing comparisons to the murder of Archduke Ferdinand and saying that war between NATO and Russia was imminent. The truth could not be farther; this tragedy will reinforce the trend of growing relations between Moscow and Ankara. Far from the nadir of Turkey shooting down a Russian plane, the two countries have become increasingly co-dependent since terror attacks and a coup attempt rocked Turkey. Erdogan used these opportunities to crack down on dissidents, and Putin used them to forge new ties with Turkey. Karlov strengthened the binds of Russia and Turkey in life…and in death.

Alexandrov Ensemble

A freak accident gutted the famous “Red Army Choir” as they were flying to Syria to perform at a military base. Their bombastic harmonies and passionate solos brought life to the Russian national anthem and just about every other song they did. Their plane went down off the coast of Sochi into the Black Sea. This was a freak accident that I learned about late Christmas Eve, and its a real tragedy with so much talent lost. In addition to the 64 members of the ensemble, 28 others travelling with them perished. Russian authorities have located the crash site and black box to confirm a mechanical failure.

Shadows of the Kremlin: A Tale of Cyberwarfare and Bureaucratic Reprisal

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“…There will be no lies. We will honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else.” ~ President-elect Donald J. Trump

Russia exercised its cyber muscle to influence the U.S. 2016 election. At least that is what the CIA, FBI, and everyone else, myself included, thinks. Liberals are wasting no time in calling Trump a puppet of Putin. Meanwhile the Trump camp denies any sort of aid from Russia. Conservatives are saying that this is just a liberal attempt to discredit Trump.

I would argue that these groups are in denial to some extent. I have no doubt that Russia involved itself in the electoral process, but I would scarcely call Trump an agent of the Kremlin. Furthermore, it is not just liberals who are attempting to weaken Trump: Democrats, the GOP, and bureaucracy are all capitalizing on the hacking.

Now, actually proving Russian involvement in the election is a difficult prospect. Throughout history Russia has proven to be a master of misdirection. The Soviets were experts of making their dirty hands appear clean and their successors are even better at this. Putin is, if anything, great at manipulating people and opinions (a trait he shares with the late Brezhnev). This is standard operating procedure: the West plays the role of accuser, Russia denies any involvement whatsoever and demands that the West prove its claims. The people who would argue that Russia is innocent are either ignorant, Russia-sympathizers, or paid propagandists of the Kremlin.

The hacking allegations follow the pattern and will continue to do so. The United States’ intelligence agencies will claim that Russia was involved but will furnish no evidence. There could be a few reasons for this. It may be that there simply is no evidence! Maybe Russia wasn’t actually involved (which seems unlikely) or perhaps Russia is just good at covering their tracks (which we would never admit). More likely they have found tangible evidence but don’t want to reveal it because doing so would expose weaknesses in the Russian cyberwarfare engine that we would prefer to be left exposed. In failing to provide proof, the CIA will only polarize domestic debates about potential hacking while allowing Putin to win more prestige  among his people for calling out the West on its constant need to vilify Russia. Regardless, I assume they have a good reason for keeping quiet on details.

Ultimately there will always be an air of mystery around the Russian interference. What is clear though is that their will be consequences, and soon. Obama’s 12/16 press conference brought up the prospect of cyberwarfare. He is still hesitant to employ an attack, both for fear of starting an escalating cycle of conflict and out of a desire to keep U.S. capabilities a secret, but I imagine we will see an attack of some sort before January 20th, 2017. Obama has authorized at least one cyberattack-against North Korea during the Sony debacle-and he will have less reservations about starting a full-scale cyberwar with the knowledge that his successor is on good terms with the Kremlin. Putin would be unwilling to annoy his ally, Trump, and wouldn’t retaliate once Trump is sworn in. We may very well see an attack on January 19th so as to minimize the Russian window for a response.

Cyberwarfare is a new and complicated field. It is certainly scary, with targets ranging from private emails up to infrastructure, finance sectors, and security agencies. While it lacks the raw collateral damage of atomic weapons the cyberattack could very well be the WMD of the future, and it could be even more common than other, conventional WMDs.  It could certainly cause much more mass “destruction” than chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons in much more short order. Of course, the novelty of cyberwarfare is precisely what may keep any cyber-engagement limited. At what point does cyberwarfare deliver diminishing returns? How do you judge one nation’s capabilities against your own? Are there any gains to be had by crippling an enemy’s infrastructure during peace time? Is it worth the retaliation that will follow?

I think a retaliatory cyberattack from the U.S. won’t lead to a tremendous amount of escalation for these reasons. Russia’s attack was admittedly small; quite frankly they may have done a service by exposing the rigging of the primary process by the DNC and revealing what information Hillary dealt with on her private server. Intervening in the electoral process of a democratic nation is heinous, let us not disguise that fact, but what measure is such an action when the Democratic Party itself tried to fix the election in Hillary’s favor? The Russian hacks and the information they revealed helped me decide to support third-party candidate Jill Stein, but they weren’t a more significant factor than Hillary’s neo-liberal tendencies. A lot of liberals act as if Trump could not have won without Putin, ignoring the real factors for his victory-Trump’s charisma, dark horse status, and economic platform juxtaposed with Hillary’s unpopularity-at their own peril.

It is feasible that Russia (or the corporations running polling machines) could have directly intervened in the results in Michigan and Wyoming, but there have been no claims made to this effect. I don’t think Russia would have used its capabilities for anything so direct either; the Kremlin places a premium on preserving plausible deniability and therefore prefers indirect, sophisticated methods. Lets face it, their hacking was only an indirect factor of Trump’s victory, and it would have been useless without the context Trump created with his campaigning.

A U.S. retaliation will therefore be small: perhaps we will target a crony of Putin’s. We will likely be unable to dig up any dirt on Putin himself given that we couldn’t even directly implicate him in the Mossack-Fonseca leaks, but in any case we would definitely not want to launch a direct attack against Putin.

As for Trump being a puppet of the Kremlin: this is bogus. Trump admires Putin’s strongman approach to leadership and heaped praises on Putin as part of a strategy to increase criticism of Obama and, by extension, Hillary. Beyond cooperating on security matters I don’t see much other reason for the two to get along. I do appreciate the irony of a populist leader coming to power by praising and receiving minor aid from Russia, a historic rival of the United States. Sure, Putin has gained some political capital with Trump, but I don’t expect that Trump will march to the beat of Moscow’s drum. Most Americans still have profound distrust of Putin; they perceive him as expansionist (incorrectly), dangerously cunning (well-founded), or as an enemy of human rights (also on-point). Combine popular opinion with the mistrust of Russia found in the GOP and you find that Trump will be quite limited in what he can achieve regarding Putin. At the very least though Moscow is happy to have a friend, and placed enough of a premium on Trump to undergo hacking in his favor.

However, one cannot deny that these accusations do work to delegitimize Trump to a certain degree, even if hacking did not directly contribute to his victory. So often we look at the motives of big men-Obama, Trump, or Putin-we also need to consider the bureaucracy and their goals! Quite frankly, Trump is terrifying to the American bureaucracy. He has ignored the advice of the intelligence community or the State Department, and his cabinet choices and stated policy goals of “draining the swamp” are reminiscent of перестройка (perestroika! “restructuring”). Professional bureaucrats and federal employees are directly threatened by Trump. The desire to send a message to Trump is partly responsible for the current emphasis on hacking.

The intelligence community wanted to show, and has shown, that it still has the ear of the House, the Senate, the media, and other groups, not the least of which is the Electoral College. The bureaucracy exists as a sort of 4th branch of government. While they may not have constitutional powers to take advantage of, they have certain de facto powers that they can use to help boost or balance against the Presidency. Several members of the Electoral College are actually looking more into the allegations before they formally cast their votes. It is a long shot that this will keep Trump from the magic 270 needed to win the Presidency, but it will cut into his lead and is indicative of division. Already, the Trump-Right Wing/GOP coalition is showing signs of stress. Trump will also have a harder time seeking rapprochement with Russia on his own without losing political capital with these allegations floating around. I still think the “Trump Thaw” will take place, but it will be much more difficult for Donald to pull off. Regardless, the left’s fear of an ultimate, all-powerful GOP-Trump coalition is bogus. Trump may have goals to drain the swamp and use his “electoral mandate” to force through reforms (some of which are good), but he seems to have forgotten that the swamp* has its own agenda and is clearly willing and able to fight back. Trump runs roughshod over federal agencies at his own peril; already they are working to shackle him.

Putin may aided Trump in a tense election, but ironically he may have only helped to weaken his apparent ally. Yet again, continued division and tension in Washington would serve Moscow more than Trump ever could.

Meanwhile we hold our collective national breath, preparing our own cyberattack.

*Please note that by referring to the bureaucracy as the swamp I don’t mean to demean them. Quite frankly I think that they are doing an invaluable service for Constitutional democracy by trying to balance against Trump.

Our Man in Havana: Castro

The kill-proof man died yesterday. Age did what a Cuban dictator, Cuban exiles, and CIA ploys never could. Loved and reviled by many, Castro was one of the giants of modern history. A true Cold Warrior, he rubbed shoulders with superpowers. Any Cold War historiography would be incomplete without the thick haze of his cigar smoke permeating the discussion.

Having long languished under the Spanish, at the turn of the 20th century the Cuban Revolution was more or less hijacked by the global Spanish-American War. America played an integral role in the Spanish defeat (somewhere in the chaos the immortal Cuba Libre libation was born) but the American victory precluded a Cuban one. The Monroe Doctrine, manifesting as the Platt Agreement, reared its head and left the young Cuban state hamstrung. Cuban still had some self-determination and there were some elections, but the shadow of the hegemon hung over the island. The United States had become an imperial power, and its economic and political influence could not be understated. Corruption and cronyism pervaded the Cuban state. Power was eventually seized by Fulgencio Batista, one time elected president, who brutally suppressed the Cuban peoples and unabashedly cozied up to the Americans.

Cubans were understandably tired of foreign meddling and dominance, and the time was ripe for revolution. Fidel Castro became their champion. A tall, dark, and handsome lawyer, Castro pushed for a Batista-free Cuba. Waging a difficult guerrilla war, often against impossible odds, Castro somehow managed to pull it off. At first America didn’t know how to treat Castro. Pictures of a trip Castro took to the United States seem to show joy and good will. Eventually though Castro chose to adopt the standard nationalist leader package that Mosadeq had previously subscribed to: land reform. Suddenly American interests, legal or otherwise, were challenged in Cuba. America gradually began to posture itself against Castro; concurrently Castro began to more closely align himself with Communist interests.

I don’t think that it is fair to just view Castro as a Communist. First and foremost he was a nationalist motivated by the cause of Cuban independence, not unlike Ho and Vietnam. Communism was a matter of expedience and security. In a world where Cold War us-them mentalities were becoming entrenched it was dangerous to be in favor of land reform, especially in the U.S. economic and political sphere of influence. Castro was always left leaning; mutual suspicions born of ideology, action, history, and geopolitics meant that relations could only sour. Thus was born the Soviet-Cuban alliance.

Khrushchev dedicates a chapter of his memoirs to the “Caribbsky Crisis.” He writes that at first Fidel was ambivalent towards the USSR, not even bothering with diplomatic relations, perhaps out of fear of attracting US attention too early. Fidel’s brother, Raul, and right-hand man, Che, were committed Communists but Fidel himself was not there yet. Gradually Fidel shifted more and more to the left, increasingly nationalizing industries and promoting socialism, leading many Cubans to leave for Miami. Gradually America got more and more concerned, and the CIA made getting rid of Castro their number 1 priority. The newly impaneled Kennedy was told of an invasion that was originally planned under the Eisenhower administration. Cuban exiles were to invade Cuba with American air support. JFK gave his blessings to this project; meanwhile Cuba was beginning to receive USSR arms. Eventually the Bay of Pigs invasion took place. For Castro and the Soviets it was a tremendous victory. Kennedy did not authorize the use of air power given bad weather, so the invasion was a humiliating and huge US defeat that cast doubt on Kennedy’s presidency.

JFK won in part because he was tough on Communism, and he could not politically afford to let this defeat go by without responding. Castro and Khrushchev became increasingly paranoid; the Soviet Premier was worried that Cuba would have trouble defending from a true invasion since it was sausage-shaped. He was also firmly committed to defend Cuba. A Communist country on the doorstep of the USA was too good to pass up. Castro was a bright spark in the Communist world. Dynamic, handsome, tall, regal, and outspoken, he was a perfect idol for the Communist movement. He was an example of success against Western intervention, and gave hope to third world countries in Latin America and beyond. Khrushchev needed him. Cuba broadcast Soviet power and supremacy. Here was the proof in the pudding that the USSR could outstrip the US. Khrushchev was also looking to cement the USSR’s position in the Communist movement ever since Mao left the Soviet camp. A confrontation with a Cuban setting was inevitable at this point.

So Khrushchev bought oceangoing tankers from Italy, much to NATO’s chagrin, and began to ship arms and troops to Cuba. Wanting to make a statement, and wary of American missiles on his own doorstep in Turkey, Khrushchev decided to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. He sold his idea to Castro and then plans were underway. Cuba had no direct control over the missiles, the Soviets provided all the supplies and manpower. The Americans finally caught wind of it late in 1962 and decided to take action. Some pressured Kennedy to pursue peace, others wanted blood; fortunately JFK decided to impose a “quarantine” (calling it a blockade would have made it an act of war) and wait to see what the Soviets were going to do. Khrushchev tried to continue installation and run the blockade, but ultimately gave up and negotiated to publicly withdraw the missiles in exchange for secret promises from Kennedy that missiles in Turkey would be disposed of and that Cuban safety was guaranteed.

Khrushchev may have taken a tremendous loss of prestige but he achieved what he set out to do and ultimately considered the Crisis a strategic victory. Unfortunately his colleagues in the Politburo did not agree. Castro was not exactly pleased with the result: he likely did not feel safe without nuclear missiles guarding his country. Ultimately the Soviet commitment to protect Cuba and keep the US out held firm, but Castro could not have foreseen such a result.

People love to look at Khrushchev and Kennedy during the Crisis, but Castro was not a passive party. He was the head of a fledgling nation with his own agenda to take care of. Imagine being in Castro’s position. The superpower 90 miles north wants you dead and the other superpower wants to install nukes in your country to protect you. You accept the nukes but now armageddon is apparently at your doorstep. Regardless of ideology, the Cuban people you love and protect are at ground zero for World War III. Castro walked an interesting middle road. He resisted Che’s radical calls to initiate nuclear conflict to ensure the destruction of capitalism at all costs. He likewise resisted backing down or surrendering, taking the initiative to shoot down a US spy plane, risking WWIII in the process. The conflict was made all the more dangerous by the fact that the Soviet missiles on Cuba were already operational, which Kennedy did not know at the time. Castro may not have gotten his desired outcome of retaining nuclear weapons, but Cuban security was nonetheless somewhat assured.

After the feelings of betrayal subsided (and once Khrushchev was out), Cuba would resume normal relations again with the Soviet Union, receiving support and aid. Castro embodied defiance, sending fighters abroad to bolster the cause of Communism and urging on Latin American nationalism. He became a symbol for nationalists and Communists the world over. Cuba has the distinction of being the only Communist country to achieve some 1st World standards: its education and health care systems are incredible. However, Cuba struggles economically, in part because of a continued US embargo and a loss of Soviet support following the 91′ collapse. Russia continues to remain a friend of Cuba and Obama has tried to reset relations with Cuba, although Trump’s victory leave everything in the air. Cuba does have a difficult human rights record and an apparently corrupt regime continually comes under withering criticism from Cuban exiles.

Watching how Trump approaches Cuba will be interesting. Without Fidel a thaw is possible; Fidel remained firmly anti-US even during the 2015 Obama visit.  Personally I advocate a total thaw on Cuban relations: tourism, economic co-development, and free exchange of ideas will be the surest way to democratize Cuba at this critical point in time. However, America must be wary to approach Cuba on its own terms: forcing Cuba to change or make concessions, as Trump would do, will only continue a legacy of bitterness and resentment. We may have forgotten about Cuba, but they have not forgotten about us. Human rights are the central issue here, for both sides. Will Cuba be willing to improve their standards? Will we be willing to improve ours by disavowing Guantanamo? Seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened. If rapprochement with Russia is possible then thawing with Cuba is not off the table.

Regardless of how you judge Castro, he was one of history’s giants. Fidel was a smart, capable man with a clear vision, the firm willpower to make it reality, and the charisma to bend a nation and captivate imaginations worldwide. He spread hope. He spread fear. With cigar in hand, he changed the world in his own way. Being the father of a nation is a messy business.

The Trump Thaw

I never really went to bed on Tuesday. I stayed up until 1:30AM watching. Despite all polls, despite a confident Democratic party, despite all of our fears, hopes, and expectations, the stars aligned and the seemingly impossible happen. Well in retrospect it isn’t so unbelievable, but it is still shocking nonetheless. We could go into why Clinton lost for hours. We could spend days trying to figure out what this election means for women, African-Americans, immigrants, intellectuals, Muslims, LGBTQ individuals, and so on. Quite frankly, nobody here or abroad knows what is going on. Trump ran a campaign heavy on criticism and light on policy. His real viewpoints and ideologies remain to metastasize. Personally I don’t even think Trump knows what he is doing yet. The election surprised him most of all.

But Russia knows exactly what this all means. Putin was quick to extend congratulations and cooperation. Russia’s ultra-nationalist fringe candidate, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, held a party at the Duma to celebrate. Even Gorbachev was happy at the prospect of a Trump presidency. And why wouldn’t they be? After years of sanctions and Western opposition Russia finally has a reprieve: one of Trump’s few stated, plausible policies is relaxation with Russia.

Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, U.S.-Russian relations have more or less collapsed. Disarmament initiatives, cooperation against terror, and the NATO-Russia council fell apart. Crippling sanctions were placed against Russia by the West, and these have had a substantial impact on the Russian economy. Russia has responded in kind with continued support of Ukrainian separatists, military involvement in Syria, cyber intrigue, and pressure on NATO states. Tensions between Washington and Moscow have risen to the point where media outlets have been falsely advertising World War III and discussing nuclear preparedness. Many were paranoid about Russian conquest of Ukraine or the Baltic States, two completely unfounded fears.

At the start of this election both the GOP and Democrats were anti-Russian. Hillary wanted to continue Obama’s policies and perhaps create a no-fly zone. Meanwhile the Republicans were calling for greater preparation and increased military presence in Eastern Europe. I remember quite clearly when Ben Carson suggested that he would consider all viable options to stop Russia, including nuclear weapons. This bluster resonated well with  conservative voters who had long criticized Obama’s policy as too soft on Russia, and yet they ultimately chose the softest candidate on Russia, Donald J. Trump. It turns out that Trump’s economic and nativist message mattered more to people than foreign policy.

But now we are faced with an interesting question: can Trump manage to revive relations with Russia? Undoubtedly he wants to, and Putin would certainly be willing to oblige him. But can he actually do this? How far can he go? Here is where everything gets fuzzy. Trump is building his cabinet with many people who were tough on Russia, and the Senate and House are both controlled by the Republican Party who, just a brief while ago, were calling for a harder reaction against Russia. Trump and the Party differ over a number of issues, and this is one of them.

Of course, foreign relations are increasingly the domain of the imperial presidency. Trump has plenty of room to visit with Putin, work out deals, and his word carries a tremendous deal of symbolic weight. Trump is willing to end sanctions and acknowledge Russian sovereignty over Crimea, and he has unlimited opportunities to work towards this effect. I think that the GOP, for all their jingoism towards Russia, will be happy to let Trump heal relations with Russia. It would mean a symbolic break with past policy; why would Republicans pass up a chance to try to bury Obama’s legacy? Russia may become a bargaining chip for other disagreements between Trump and “his” Party, but I think Trump will be able to deliver on his only tangible and realistic policy goal.

Let’s call it: the Trump Thaw. You heard it here first folks. I searched, it seems like people use the words “Trump” and “Thaw” and “Russia” in a sentence but not as I have. Some people say “Trump Thaw” as a phrase to discuss GOP acceptance of Trump. Well that is ok, I have another name picked out if Trump Thaw doesn’t stick. Maybe we could try: Trumptente! Kremelania? Should we give them a power couple name? Is Vladonald catchy enough? Maybe we should move on…

How will the healing process take place? Here is where things get interesting. Trump and Putin are similar in  some ways. I believe they are both masters of symbolic action: read their body language, look at how Putin arrays his foreign policy and reigns over opposition, look at how Trump managed to win an election. Far from Trump being a madman who says anything and everything, I think he has very carefully cultivated and acted out this part. Putin and Trump are also used to negotiating with businessmen: Trump makes deals and Putin took out the oligarchs. So how will these wily cats approach each other? I can imagine Trump going to Putin, although it would be a very powerful statement if Putin set foot on American soil. Regardless, the Thaw will occur, and a meeting will make a profound impact.

Of course, Russia isn’t just happy about immediate direct benefits of a Trump presidency. The Kremlin is also going to benefit from the ripple effect Trump will have on Ukraine, NATO, and the EU.

Regarding Ukraine, this is a massive defeat for them. Ukraine lost its strongest backer when Trump won the election. It was a little sad to see Poroshenko acknowledge the Trump victory by saying that he hopes for cooperation. I do not see this happening. Ukraine may be at the mercy of Russia, again.

NATO, long-standing opponent of Russia in Europe, it also placed at risk by Trump’s election. Trump called for an end to NATO bandwagoning. He was unwilling to enforce Article V (collective defense) unless allies paid their fair share. For some allies this wouldn’t matter, but a significant amount of NATO members do not contribute their due amounts to the alliance, especially since NATO was used by Bush in an attempt to legitimize US entry into Iraq and Afghanistan. The question of what to do with NATO is trickier to call. Trump may be able to repair US-Russian relations, but convincing the GOP to abandon a longstanding and important alliance would be far more difficult, especially with the GOP in control of the Senate (our treaty affirming arm) and the House (our budgetary arm). I believe that NATO will remain well-funded by the United States, and we may even see the reconvening and strengthening of the NATO-Russia Counsel and renewed attempts to push NATO “out of area” in the fight against terrorism. NATO members are still paranoid though. Estonia’s pro-Western coalition collapsed following the U.S. election: they had a wide list of issues beforehand but Trump’s victory may have been the death knell. Ironically Estonia was one of the most fervant supporters of NATO and they have paid for their membership in human life and monetary contributions.

How can the US election possibly affect the European Union? Well, setting aside the fact that NATO and the EU are interrelated, the election still has a great deal of salience. Viewed in a broader context, the Trump surprise is the second big step in a Western realignment towards nationalism and populism. Remember months ago when we all thought that Brexit was going to fall flat? We all know how that went, and all the questions that raised for the EU. Now with Trump’s victory these movements are gaining more and more legitimacy. France seems next on the chopping block. Hollande’s regime has self-immolated. The next prospective election of France seems to be a toss-up between former President Sarkozy, a candidate mired in intrigue and corruption, and the face of the ultra-right, Marine Le Pen. Does this seem at all familiar to our election? Well, one detail is off: this time the female candidate is the nationalist. France has never had a female leader, so who knows what might happen. Marine Le Pen’s campaign though is energized by the Trump win-the wind is at her back. If France goes the nativist route it could shock the EU. Russia would like this.

It isn’t hard to see why Putin, Zhirinovsky, and Gorbachev celebrated: Trump’s election is tantamount to a Russian foreign policy coup.

I don’t agree with a lot of what Trump does and says. Likewise, his apparent nativism and anti-intellectualism is a big turn off. But I have to say that he does understand Russia better than any other candidate. He was the only person saying that Russia does not have designs against Ukraine (beyond the unspoken reality that Ukraine is and will remain in Russia’s sphere), and I can finally see my dream of renewed Russian-U.S. relations aimed at bolstering international security achieved. I can also say with absolute certainty that Putin will remain in power now at least until 2024. Putin likely had his upcoming 2018 election secure, but with the lifting of sanctions, peace with the West, and tangible, legitimized victory in Ukraine he will be riding high as usual (barring any extraordinary circumstances). The more things change…