Archive for March, 2018

Kemerovo and the Circles of Ugliness


You may have heard of the tragic event I am about to describe, or not. If you have heard about it in English, then, chances are, what you have heard is part of a programmatic anti-Russian hatchet job. Normally, I would be reluctant to write about it; it is generally best to make celebrations public and tragedies private. But in this case a great number of people, at different levels, have attempted to profit and to extract benefits from this tragedy, generating a gigantic cloud of black smoke far greater than that generated by the event itself.

This truly ghastly tragedy unfolded last Sunday, March 25, in Kemerovo (stress is on the first syllable), Kuzbass Region, Siberia. A fire at the Winter Cherry shopping and recreation center claimed the lives of 64 people, including 41 children. Only 27 bodies have been identified; others await genetic analysis. The injured number 79, 12 of whom remain hospitalized; 67 have been discharged and will be treated as outpatients. Victims’ families and each of the injured have been given 1 million rubles by the regional government (17350 USD). In addition, the major owner of the center, the entrepreneur Denis Shtengelov, has promised to pay out 3 million rubles for each deceased. All victims have also been assigned a doctor and a psychologist to follow their case to rehabilitation.

Russians are inured to tragedy. The harsh climate and the long winters, accompanied by snowed-in, icy roads, frequent whiteout conditions and the like cause a lot of transportation accidents. Terrorist attacks have claimed their share of victims. But this incident really shook people to the core, and the outpouring of grief has spanned the entire country; first, because its cause wasn’t nature or war—it was a man-made disaster—and second, because so many victims were children, who simply showed up on Sunday for a day of fun. Spontaneous memorials went up all across the country, from Vladivostok in the east (5400km from Kemerovo) to St. Petersburg in the west (4100km), and across the world. Along with the outpouring of grief and support, respect was been paid to the heroes of this tragedy, both dead and living. Tatiana Darsalia, an English teacher, led her own daughter out of the burning building, then ran back in to save other children; she did not survive. Dmitry Polukhin, a cadet in the Emergencies Ministry, managed to grab a hold of and carry outside three children at once—a boy and two girls; he survived.

This, then, is the core of the tragedy—all perfectly human and understandable. After a great deal of grief, and much support from the outside, Kemerovo will eventually heal. But around this tragedy, as soon as it occurred, was set in orbit a veritable asteroid cloud of human ugliness: beastly soulless predatory humanity attempting to derive some scant personal or group benefit from the deaths of children. English lacks good words to describe such people; all it has is vulgar Anglo-Saxon expletives and mealy-mouthed imitations of long-dead Latin. Just labeling such people won’t work; instead, I will sort these orbiting human flaming turds into orbits—Circles of Ugliness, I will call them—the way Dante Alighieri famously assigned sinners to circles of Hell—and perhaps I will even bestow upon them some some suitably medieval eternal torments.

At the very center of this set of Circles of Ugliness may lie a black hole: the fire may have been arson. (It may also have resulted from an accidental short circuit; the investigation is not complete). But if it was arson, a leading theory is that it started in a play pit in a children’s playroom. The pit was filled with styrofoam blocks, and someone (no suspects yet) may have set one of them on fire. The fire then quickly spread to the entire pit, the synthetic ropes that hung over it, the burning ropes spread it to the walls and the rest of the space, and from there throughout the structure.

But it could have been just a stupid little pyromaniac playing with a cigarette lighter he (most likely a boy) picked up somewhere. Lots of young boys are pyromaniacs; they usually get over it if given the chore of burning brushwood. When I was around six and doing dishes, my attention became drawn to a ventilation grille above the kitchen sink. And so I placed a chair on the kitchen counter, climbed up on it, took out the grille and looked inside. It was dark inside the ventilation shaft, so I found a box of matches. Then, when the dust lining the ventilation shaft burst into flame, I got to watch a beautiful orange towering inferno going all the way up the tower block while reflecting that the good life may have ended before it even started. And then the fire burned itself out. But if this turns out to have been a premeditated act of arson, then the perpetrator deserves no less than to be stuck inside a black hole for all of eternity.

The First Circle of Ugliness we encounter is peopled with all those responsible for the deplorable state of fire safety at the Winter Cherry. The automatic fire alarm system was deactivated, and had been for days. It was shut down because of false alarms, and no attempt was made to repair it. When, after the fire started, an attempt was made to activate it manually, nothing useful happened. The forced air ventilation system was not shut down and circulated toxic smoke throughout the building. Emergency exits were locked; evacuation corridors were paneled with flammable materials. Stairwells were not sealed off against smoke ingress and were insufficient for evacuating the building without the use of elevators and escalators, which failed when the electricity shorted out. According to some reports, security personnel were either less than helpful or actually counterproductive.

Who exactly is guilty of this, and to what extent, will be the result of one of the most thorough criminal investigations in Russian history. Lots of people are sure to get jail time; fire regulations will be redrafted; not just in Kemerovo, but throughout the country, fire regulations and inspection procedures will be tightened. Numerous officials at the municipal level (one of the largest remaining pockets of corruption in Russia) will either get jail time, get axed, or get the shakes at the very thought of taking a bribe instead going through with the official inspection and licensing process. The investigation will take at least five months to complete; the trials will take even longer. But we can be quite sure that it will be thorough, complete and exemplary because the person who ordered it and will oversee it is Putin himself. At one of the televised meetings he referred to the fire safety inspection report for the burned-down building, which was approved “without comments.” Outraged, he turned to the head of the investigative committee, and said, “Find out who signed this, and report to me.” “Yes, sir!”

Those who populate this Circle of Ugliness do not deserve any eternal torments: the full weight of administrative and criminal law, brought to bear upon them by a suitably incensed and wrathful Putin, will be quite enough, I am sure! And here, if I may be so bold, is a bit of a silver lining to this black cloud: there is a good chance that these 41 children will not have died for nothing. Their loss will provide the impetus of a thorough overhaul of public safety and municipal governance, making a repetition of such an incident far less likely.

The next Circle of Ugliness is occupied by a giant gas planet—a sort of Uranus of Ugliness—along with a large set of turd-like satellites. This giant stinking ball of swamp gas is a Ukrainian goes by the name of Yevgeny Volnov (real name Nikita Kuvikov), and he is most likely in the employ of the Ukrainian Ministry of Information Policy. Shortly after the fire was first reported, Volnov started placing calls to morgues in Kemerovo. Impersonating an officer of the Russian Emergencies Ministry, he started asking morgue officials how many corpses they can accept, and ordering them to prepare to accept large numbers of them—hundreds. Of course, the fake news that hundreds of corpses may be on the way quickly leaked out of the morgues. Within hours, the people on the street were questioning public officials and claiming that they were lying to them about the number of people killed. The officials responded by forming groups of citizen volunteers and dispatching them directly to the morgues to conduct an audit. The numbers matched the official reports, and this Ukrainian attempt to foment public unrest on top of a tragedy was quelled.

But this did not end the matter, because now social media activists took over. Various celebrities, some with many thousands of followers, took to Facebook, Twitter and other social media platform, and spread these lies far and wide. Quite a lot of these people did this more or less unthinkingly; others were simply seeking to boost their popularity on social media at the expense of the victims of this tragedy; yet others, who consider themselves members of the opposition, tried to exploit it to undermine public trust in the authorities. But while the truth may set you free, lies can easily become a self-made prison, and those who spread these lies, whether unwittingly or with an intent to harm, soon found themselves in the middle of a public relations fiasco. It was then pointed out that some of them, celebrities especially, had such a large number of social media followers that legally they could be considered mass media organizations, which are responsible for fact checking and can be held criminally liable for spreading false information, especially in a time of crisis, where it can cause a panic or social unrest. Notably, it was only then that many of them chose to issue public retractions and to apologize.

I have a truly medieval eternal torment for the miscreant Volnov and for all those who echoed his fake news: I consign them to an eternity in the Ukraine.

As a side-note, this experience demonstrates something peculiar about social media. Consider new hospitality platforms such as AirBNB, or the various car-sharing schemes, or even trading sites such as Ebay. They are all based on the principle that public trust is based on public reputation. Tear away the veil of anonymity, make everyone’s reputation public, make everyone trivial to instantaneously locate and identify, and suddenly much risk goes away and cooperation becomes less expensive. Nobody ever flags down a taxi any more, and is never heard from again; now you use a smartphone app, and it tells you who the driver is, the driver who you are, and the dispatch service about both of you, your location and your destination. This automatically puts everyone on best behavior.

Social media is the exact opposite. There are no criteria for establishing a reputation except notoriety, and any method to increase that notoriety (that doesn’t run afoul of some rudimentary guidelines against “hate speech” or “incitement to violence” and the like) is perfectly suitable. What’s more, there is no reason to think that social media platforms are the least bit interested in building social capital or anything of the sort; all they are interested in is selling your data (and maybe some ads). And some, such as Facebook, deserve a Circle of Ugliness all of their own. What should we do with it? In this, I echo Voltaire: “Écrasez l’infâme!” (Crush the loathsome thing!)

The last Circle of Ugliness is peopled by Western media mouthpieces, such as Leonid Bershidsky, who took this opportunity to bang out a particularly vile piece of trash for Bloomberg. Apparently, their motto is “make hay while the sun is shining,” and it’s a sunny day for them any time there are a lot of dead Russian children. His logic is beyond reproach: See, dead Russian children; ergo, Putin is a vile dictator. What eternal torment would you suggest for people who use a tragedy involving dead children to fill your eyes and ears with garbage and your head with faulty ideas—all for a chance to lick the hand of their corporate master? I am sure you can think up something perfectly medieval if you put your mind to it. Go ahead and give it a try, then! Or we can just condemn them all to an eternity in the Ukraine. Your choice.

Killing Diplomacy


There is the famous aphorism by Karl von Clausewitz: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” This may be true, in many cases, but it is rarely a happy outcome. Not everybody likes politics, but when given a choice between politics and war, most sane people will readily choose politics, which, even when brimming with vitriol and riddled with corruption, normally remains sublethal. In relations between countries, politics is known as diplomacy, and it is a formal art that relies on a specific set of instruments to keep countries out of war. These include maintaining channels of communication to build trust and respect, exercises to seek common ground, and efforts to define win-win scenarios to which all sides would eagerly agree, including instruments for enforcing agreements.

Diplomacy is a professional endeavor, much like medicine, engineering and law, and requires a similarly high level of specialized education. Unlike these other professions, the successful exercise of diplomacy demands much greater attention to questions of demeanor: a diplomat must be affable, personable, approachable, decorous, scrupulous, levelheaded… in a word, diplomatic. Of course, in order to maintain good, healthy relations with a country, it is also essential that a diplomat fluently speak its language, understand its culture and know its history. Especially important is a very detailed knowledge of the history of a country’s diplomatic relations with one’s own country, for the sake of maintaining continuity, which in turn makes it possible to build on what has been achieved previously. Complete knowledge of all treaties, conventions and agreements previously entered into is, obviously, a must.

Sane people will choose politics over war, and sane (that is, competently governed) nations will choose diplomacy over belligerence and confrontation. An exception is those nations that cannot hope to ever win the game of diplomacy due to an acute shortage of competent diplomats. They are likely to strike out in frustration, undermining the very international institutions that are designed to keep them out of trouble. It then falls upon their more competent counterparts in other nations to talk them off the ledge. This may not always be possible, especially if the incompetents in question can’t be made to appreciate the risks they are taking in blindly striking out against their diplomatic counterparts.

If we look around in search of such incompetently governed nations, two examples readily present themselves: the United States and the United Kingdom. It is rather challenging to identify the last moment in history when the US had a Secretary of State that was truly competent. To be safe, let’s set it as January 20, 1977, the day Henry Kissinger stepped down from his post.

Since then, US diplomatic history has been, to one extent or another, a history of fantastic blunders. For example, as far back as 1990 US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie told Saddam Hussein, “[W]e have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait,” in effect giving the green light to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and setting off the cascade of events that has led to the current sad state of affairs in the region. Another highlight was Hillary Clinton, whose only credentials had to do with a sort of fake noblesse, stemming from her marriage to a former president, and who used her position as Secretary of State to enrich herself using a variety of corrupt schemes.

Among the lower ranks of the diplomatic corps, most ambassadorships went to people with no diplomatic education or experience, whose only qualifications had to do with electoral fundraising on behalf of whoever happened to occupy the White House and other partisan political considerations. Few of these people are able to enter into a meaningful dialogue with their counterparts. Most are barely able to read a programmatic statement of policy from a piece of paper handed them by a staffer.

In the meantime, the UK establishment has been gradually decrepitating in its own inimitable post-imperial fashion. Its special relationship with the US has meant that it had no reason to maintain an independent foreign policy, always playing second fiddle to Washington. It has remained as a US-occupied territory ever since World War II, just like Germany, and, deprived of its full measure of sovereignty, could allow its international organs to slowly atrophy from disuse. The benefit of this arrangement is that it has allowed the collapse of the British Empire to proceed in slow motion—the slowest and longest collapse in the long history of empires.

What little competence there was left gradually drained away in the course of the UK’s temporary dalliance with the European Union, due to end next year, during which most of the rest of UK’s sovereignty was signed away by treaty, and most questions of international governance were relinquished to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. And now, at the end of this long process of degeneration and decay, we have in the person of the Foreign Minister a clown by the name of Boris Johnson. His equally incompetent boss Theresa May recently saw it fit to very loudly and publicly violate the terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention to which the UK is a signatory.

To recap, Theresa May claimed that a certain Russian-cum-British spy living in the UK was killed using a nerve agent made in Russia, and gave Russia 24 hours to explain this situation to her satisfaction. Russia is likewise a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and had destroyed all 39,967 metric tons of its chemical weapons by September 27, 2017. On that occasion, The Director-General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, stated: “The completion of the verified destruction of Russia\’s chemical weapons programme is a major milestone in the achievement of the goals of the Chemical Weapons Convention. I congratulate Russia and I commend all of their experts who were involved for their professionalism and dedication.” The US is yet to destroy its stockpiles, preferring to squander trillions on useless ballistic defense systems instead of living up to its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Here is precisely what Theresa May did wrong. Under the terms of the CWC, the UK was obligated to provide Russia with a sample of the nerve agent used, along with all related evidence uncovered in the course of the investigation. After that, the treaty gives Russia 10 days to respond. Instead, May provided no evidence, and gave Russia 24 hours to respond. When Russia formally requested to see the evidence, this request was refused. We can only guess at why she refused, but one reasonable supposition is that there is no evidence, because:

• May claimed that the nerve agent was Novichok, developed in the USSR. In order to identify it, the UK experts had to have had a sample of it. Since neither the USSR, nor Russia, have ever been known to export it, we should assume that it was synthesized within the UK. The formula and the list of precursors are in the public domain, published by the scientist who developed Novichok, who has since moved to the US. Thus, British scientists working at Porton Down could have synthesized it themselves. In any case, it is not possible to determine in what country a given sample of the substance was synthesized, and the claim that it came from Russia is not provable.

• It was claimed that the victims—Mr. Skripal and his daugher—were poisoned with Novichok while at a restaurant. Yet how could this have been done? The agent in question is so powerful that a liter of it released into the atmosphere over London would kill most of its population. Breaking a vial of it open over a plate of food would kill the murderer along with everyone inside the restaurant. Anything it touched would be stained yellow, and many of those in the vicinity would have complained of a very unusual, acrid smell. Those poisoned would be instantaneously paralyzed and dead within minutes, not strolling over to a park bench where they were found. The entire town would have been evacuated, and the restaurant would have to be encased in a concrete sarcophagus by workers in space suits and destroyed with high heat. None of this has happened.

• In view of the above, it seems unlikely that any of what has been described in the UK media and by May’s government has actually taken place. An alternative assumption, and one we should be ready to fully test, is that all of this is a work of fiction. No pictures of the two victims have been provided. One of them—Skripal’s daughter—is a citizen of the Russian Federation, and yet the British have refused to provide consular access to her. And now it has emerged that the entire scenario, including the Novichok nerve gas, was cribbed from a US/UK television drama “Strike Back.” If so, this was certainly efficient; why invent when you can simply plagiarize.

• This is only one (and not even the last) in a series of murders and assumed but dubious suicides on former and current Russian nationals on UK soil that share certain characteristics, such the use of exotic substances as the means, no discernible motive, no credible investigation, and an immediate, concerted effort to pin the blame on Russia. You would be on safe ground if you assumed that anyone who pretends to know what exactly happened here is in fact lying. As to what might motivate such lying—that’s a question for psychiatrists to take up.

In considering all of the above, healthy skepticism is called for. All we have so far is an alleged double murder, no motive, doubtful means, over 140 million suspects (anyone who’s Russian?), and public statements that amount to political theater. As far as repercussions, there is very little that the UK government can do to Russia. They kicked out a few dozen Russian diplomats (and Russia will no doubt reciprocate); the Royal Family won’t be attempting the World Cup in Russia this summer (not a great loss, to be sure); there are also some vague threats that don’t amount to anything.

But that’s not what’s important. For the sake of the whole world, (former) great powers, especially nuclear ones, such as the US and the UK, should be governed with a modicum of competence, and this show of incompetence is most worrying. The destruction of public institutions in the US and the UK has been long in the making and probably can’t be undone. But the least we can do is refuse to accept at face value what appear to be blatant fabrications and provocations, demand compliance with international law, and keep asking questions until we obtain answers.

Migrants Wanted—for What?


In their stirring rendition of “In the Year 2525” (based on the 1969 tune by Zager and Evans) Laibach predicted: “Rivers of people flow like blood.” But there is no reason for us to wait that long; it is happening already, and has been happening for some time. Already in 2017 over a quarter of a billion people were displaced from their native lands, wondering the globe in search of refuge. Much of this had to do with the increase in failed states. Back in 2013, I wrote:

“The World Bank publishes a list of nations lacking effective sovereignty. In 1996 there were eleven entries; in 2006 there were twenty-six. Not a year goes by that another nation-state does not get shunted to the weak/defunct track: last year it was Libya; this year, Syria. How far behind is Greece?… It is too early to tell whether the increase in nonviable nation-states is linear or exponential, but a simple projection shows that if this trend continues to accelerate at the same rate there will be zero viable nation-states left by 2030 or so.” [p. 150, The Five Stages of Collapse, New Society Publishers, 2013]

Since then, Syria has recovered somewhat, and refugees are going back to Damascus, while Libya is still in chaos. In the meantime, Yemen has definitely joined the defunct column, thanks to Saudi/US bombing and blockade. And the Ukraine is definitely nearing failed-statedom, with a majority of its population either fleeing or living in poverty and with armed groups of nationalist thugs running rampant. Under the careful tutelage of the US government, its Central American protectorates of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador remain crime-riddled basket cases, generating a steady flow of migrants, and anyone in the US who points out that perhaps doing something about the huge population of homeless people (especially in California) should take priority over helping strangers from faraway lands get shouted down as racist-fascist-whatever. Venezuela is in full-blown collapse under the weight of US sanctions, while propaganda mouthpieces in the US claim that its problem is socialism. But the rapid progression nation-states toward failed-statedom has slowed down somewhat since 2014, and I think I know why.

Read more…

A Dry Run for Russian Democracy


Warning: the first part of this essay may sound like a jubilant hymn to Russia and a paean to Vladimir Putin. Rest assured that I am not expressing opinions here; these are the facts. It just so happens that these facts accentuate the positive. But I have no wish to eliminate the negative, and will get to all of that in due course.

On March 18 Russia held presidential elections. Everybody (with a brain) fully expected Putin to win, but hardly anyone expected him to win this big, or with this high a turnout: 67.47% of the eligible voters turned up at the polls; of them, 76.67%76.69% voted for Putin. In case you are still wondering whether Crimea is part of Russia (trust me, it is) the turnout there was 71.53%, of whom 92% voted for Putin. And in the once separatist republic of Chechnya the turnout was 91.54%. Record turnouts were also observed outside of Russia, among the very large Russian diaspora. Over half of all Russians voted for Putin.

Equally notable was the manner in which the elections were run: the process was public and transparent, using paper ballots counted by hand. Polling places were equipped with video cameras. Ballot-stuffing, which was a problem with previous elections, was detected in a couple of places, and the tainted results were disqualified. While during previous elections people could only vote where they were registered, now they could declare their location and vote wherever they found themselves, even at airports if they happened to be traveling. While the previous presidential elections in Russia were followed by a wave of protests, with numerous people complaining about fraud at the polls, this time these voices were scarcely heard. And while in previous elections opposition candidates got considerable traction among the Western-leaning educated elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg, this time the entire country was quite uniformly pro-Putin.

Clearly, the Russians are politically engaged, and clearly the vast majority of them trust and like Putin. It is easy to understand why. During the last decade of the last century Russia came close to being destroyed, but its fortunes turned around dramatically right at the turn of the century. Most Russians can see that their country has made a rapid recovery from its previous setbacks. It is indisputable that Russia is now a far more stable and prosperous country, and Putin can and does take credit for that. Under his watch Russia has withstood the collapse in oil and gas prices, fought off terrorist onslaughts, resisted Western provocations and sanctions, and has decisively won the arms race against the United States (and can now cut its defense spending). Russia has made progress toward regaining its stature as a major world power.

Given his wonderful record and the high level of trust and respect he has earned, Putin could simply rest on his laurels, but that’s not what he plans to do. Instead, he wants to dramatically improve the well-being of all Russians and to have them achieve true greatness. So far, he has managed to fashion Russia into a “normal country”; now he wants to lead it to outright triumph. This, I believe, is what is behind the record turnout and his equally record-setting landslide victory: for once, the Russian people are actually inspired and optimistic about their future. The one pocket of pessimism I have been able to detect is in Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s cabinet. In the televised images of its post-election meeting the ministers looked very somber and somewhat crestfallen. Those who have been complaining about fifth-columnists within the Kremlin can take heart: perhaps, after Putin’s reinauguration in May, he will ask for their resignations.

So far so good. But to what extent was this election about electoral choice, which is the essence of democracy? Sure, just the exercise of everyone showing up and demonstrating their approval and trust in their fearless leader is a good way to legitimize and bolster the leader’s authority and a great morale-booster. But aren’t the people supposed to decide something by voting—something more important than “I’ve decided to go and vote for Putin”?

And what does a vote for Putin actually mean, in terms of choice? Who picked him to begin with? Well, it turns out that Putin is a happy accident. Boris Yeltsin named him as his successor, and you could quite reasonably joke that Yeltsin was drunk at the time and didn’t remember why he did that. But you could also surmise that Putin was picked for his renowned savvy in money-laundering and offshoring the ill-gotten gains of Russian oligarchs (his previous job back in St. Petersburg) and for his clever use of his KGB connections (from his job before that) to “settle questions.” Remember, this was a time when the endlessly clever people who get paid to sit around and drink coffee over at the Pentagon imagined that “Russian mafia” was an emerging global threat. The oligarchs must have liked Putin, and Yeltsin, in keeping with his “leave no oligarch behind” program, did whatever they wanted him to do.

What they got instead was a pig in a poke. The oligarchs thought that they had recruited another faithful servant who, just like Yeltsin, would keep the state weak and facilitate their shameless plunder. Instead they got a steel-willed technocrat and a true Russian patriot who quickly manifested an awesome power to conjure up creative new ideologies. Instead of subservience, the oligarchs got his “doctrine of equidistance,” according to which money≠power. (An oil baron by the name of Mikhail Khodorkovsky ran afoul of it, thinking that he could parlay his wealth into political power, and ended up cooling his heels in prison.) Instead of somebody who would look the other way while they ran roughshod over Russian society, they got his “dictatorship of the law,” a significantly strengthened Russian state, and the once fearsome Russian mafia melted away like hoarfrost after sunrise. And the Russian oligarchy’s plan to seamlessly meld into Western elite society using their expropriated wealth, leaving Russia behind as a withered husk, ran headlong into Putin’s plan to reestablish “multipolarity” and to force other nations, even the United States, to treat Russia as an equal. This resulted in Western sanctions, which sent many oligarchs scurrying back to Russia and repatriating their funds under an amnesty program, lest they be frozen.

And so Putin, for Russia, is just a happy accident. Given that happy accidents are in general far less frequent than unhappy ones, a question arises: How can Russia reliably produce another Putin when the time comes? It is definitely a good thing that Russia has six years to answer this question, because this last presidential election, as well as all the previous ones, has conclusively demonstrated that Russian electoral politics are not the answer—at least not yet. Let’s look at Putin’s “competition” (in quotes because, judging from the results, it was more of an exhibition).

The one who garnered the most votes was Pavel Grudinin, nominated by the Communists (although he wasn’t a member) instead of their perennial presidential candidate and leader Gennady Zyuganov, who is getting rather long in the tooth. Grudinin failed to disclose his foreign bank accounts, or the fact that his son resides abroad, disqualifying him from holding the top secret clearance required of a Russian president. Nevertheless, he managed to get 15% or so of the vote.

Next in line was the nationalist perennial presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is quite formidable, very entertaining, but also rather frightening because he is forever threatening to rain fire and brimstone on Russia’s enemies both foreign and domestic. Nevertheless, he is definitely qualified to serve as president—or to serve on your firing squad, because he is also a good shot, and you can be sure that he won’t accidentally miss all of your vital organs and leave you writhing in pain while you bleed out slowly. You can regard him as Russia’s presidential insurance, giving Russia’s enemies an excellent reason to wish for Putin’s good health, because Zhirinovsky is standing by, ready to make them say “ouch!” a lot.

And then we have a sort of winner, but not of the presidential sort: Xenia Sobchak. She is the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, who was the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg, co-author of Russia’s constitution, and Putin’s friend and mentor. She is a fully paid-up member of Russia’s “golden youth” and pretty much does whatever she wants—like run for president. Don’t laugh, she got over 1% of the vote! She has dabbled in reality television, the fashion industry, this and that, is married to an actor, has a year-and-a-half-old son and is rumored to be pregnant.

She made me laugh because she lost Crimea even before she got her name on the ballot by declaring that she does not approve of Crimea being part of Russia. Recall that Crimea has been part of Russia since 1783, was “gifted” to the Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 in violation of the Soviet constitution, and then voted to rejoin Russia in 2014 after the Ukraine’s government was overthrown in violation of the Ukrainian constitution: a rare instance of two constitutional violations canceling each other out.

Her slogan was “against all”: she saw herself as a one-person alternative to the entire Russian political system. Neither she nor her supporters saw the obvious logical flaw with this platform: if she were truly “against all” then, to be consistent, she would have to campaign for people to vote against all—including her. What she meant, of course, was “against all except me.” Now that would have been a wonderful slogan, had she managed to explain what it was that made her so uniquely magic. Instead, she complained bitterly about everyone else. I believe that her presidential campaign was actually a clever merchandising operation. Maybe it had something to do with marketing eyeglass frames: she appeared to switch eyeglasses more often than most women change panties. There were some other kinds of “product placement” going on too.

Everybody else got less than 1%, but I will give them honorable mention anyway. There was the perennial liberal candidate Yavlinsky, who gave his rationale for running again this time (a hopeless cause given Russians’ overwhelmingly unfavorable view of liberalism) as “I just really wanted to talk to some voters.” Then, in no particular order (because I don’t care) came the über-capitalist Titov, the über-Soviet Suraikin and the über-Russian Baburin. Titov ran on a pathetically hilarious slogan of “So, what about Titov?”

All of the candidates save Putin (who intelligently stayed above the fray) participated in several interminable rounds of “debates” whose format precluded all intelligent discussion. All candidates were given a few minutes to spout their programmatic gibberish while others tried to shout them down. At one point they ganged up on poor Xenia so hard that they made her cry. The only time they got to talk to Putin was after the election, when they were all invited to a sort of “thank you for playing” meeting at the Kremlin, and where they all appeared dignified, conciliatory and grateful.

This was all good, clean fun (except for making Xenia cry; that was mean) but it doesn’t answer the essential question, which is: How can Russia find another Putin to elect president in six years? One of the most important reasons why the Soviet Union failed was the inability of its political elites to recruit and promote talent, causing it to degenerate into a dour, ossified, senile gerontocracy. This fact is currently very well understood in Russia, and a serious effort is underway to appoint young, promising governors and to put young people with leadership potential into positions of ministerial responsibility. Whether these efforts produce the intended result will become clear six years from now. A lot can happen in the intervening years—both good and bad—but at the moment the project to “make Russia great again” appears to be firing on all cylinders.

False Flags for Newbies


Britain is in a media frenzy over the recent poisoning of the former Russian intelligence service colonel turned British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England. British PM Theresa May demanded that Russia explain itself, claiming that they were poisoned using a nerve agent called “Novichok” (Russian for “Newbie”) that was a product of Soviet biological weapons research. It is no longer produced and the destruction of its stockpiles has been verified by international observers. However, its formula is in the public domain and it can be synthesized by any properly equipped chemical lab, such as Britain\’s own Porton Down, which, incidentally, is just an 18-minute drive from Salisbury.

May provided no evidence to back up her claims of Russian complicity in the attempted murder. Russia\’s Foreign Ministry has requested that Britain turn over all available evidence to back up its accusation of chemical weapons use (under the terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention Britain must do so within 10 days) but Britain has refused. Therefore, Russia\’s FM Sergei Lavrov has announced that Russia will not be responding to such baseless allegations.

An important key to spotting a false flag is that the “knowledge” of who is to blame becomes available before any evidence is in. For example, in the case of the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH-17 over Eastern Ukraine, everyone in the West was convinced that “pro-Russian separatists” were to blame even before the means could be established. To this date, it isn’t understood how they could have done it given the equipment they had at their disposal. In this case, Russia was accused almost immediately, while British FM Boris Johnson was quick to volunteer that Britain should not send its team to the World Cup in Russia this summer, disclosing the real reason behind the assassination attempt.

Is there anything new and different behind this latest provocation? Not really; it seems like a replay of the Litvinenko assassination back in November 2006. The choice of an exotic poison (Polonium 210), the lack of evidence (the British claimed that compelling circumstantial evidence exists but haven’t provided any), and the instantaneous leap to “blame Russia” are all the same. The Russians offered to prosecute whoever is responsible if only the British would provide them with the evidence, but the British have failed to do so.

Giving the British story the benefit of the doubt, let’s see what would compel Russia’s secret services to go after Skripal. In Russia, he was convicted and sentenced for treason, then pardoned and released to the British in a prisoner exchange that included ten Russian spies who had worked in the US, including the rather memorable Anna Chapman. It is a very important rule of the spy business that those released in a spy swap are never acted against; if this rule were violated, the resulting bad faith would make spy swaps impossible to negotiate. Thus, if the Russian authorities were to order the hit on Skripal, this would not just be immoral and illegal. That would be neither here nor there, since there are instances where raison d’état obviates the need for such scruples. Worse than that, such behavior would have been unprofessional.

Then there is the question of timing. Russia’s presidential elections will take place in just a few days, on March 18. This is a particularly inopportune time to cause an international scandal. What possible urgency could there have been behind killing a pardoned former spy who no longer possessed any up-to-date intelligence, was living quietly in retirement, and at that moment was busy having lunch with his daughter? If the Russian government were involved in the poisoning, what possible reason could have been given for not waiting until after the election?

The attack on Skripal is by no means an isolated incident; there have been multiple suspicious murders of high-profile Russians within the UK for which no adequate explanation has been given. There is a consistent pattern: a strange murder; an instantaneous leap to “blame Russia”; and an attempt to exploit the incident politically. It would be beneficial to put this incident in context, but that would require a much longer article.

You would be justified in thinking that none of this makes much sense. Given the dearth of evidence, to make sense of this story we are forced to indulge in a bit of conspiracy theory. However, if a conspiracy theory is what it takes to produce the simplest, most elegant and most internally consistent explanation, then that in itself can be considered as circumstantial evidence for the existence of a conspiracy. My simple and consistent explanation, expressed in a single sentence, is as follows:

Under direction from their colleagues in the US, and closely following a script previously worked out in the Litvinenko case over a decade ago, the British secret services, in close coordination with the British government and the press, poisoned Skripal and his daughter using a nerve agent obtained from Britain’s military research base at Porton Down in order to obtain an excuse to compromise the World Cup games in Russia this summer and also to create a scandal immediately before the Russian presidential election.

This is deplorable, of course, but there is a silver lining to this cloud as far as Russia is concerned: Britain (and, by association, the US) will now have a much harder time recruiting double agents from inside the Russian government, since their recruitment prospects will now know that they will remain vulnerable even if they escape, or are pardoned and exchanged. Clearly, the British consider them disposable and see it fit to kill them in exotic ways, then to exploit the incident for political purposes.

As far as Skripal himself… well, that’s just a really sad story: reputation ruined, life ruined, living in exile, wife dead from cancer, son dead from liver failure, and now this. All for the sake of serving as a warning unto others, which is: Don’t trust the Anglos, for they are devious and without shame.

Better Nukes for a Safer Planet


A lot of people seem to have lost the thread when it comes to nuclear weapons. They think that nuclear weapons are like other weapons, and are designed to be used in war. But this is pure mental inertia. According to all the evidence available, nuclear weapons are anti-weapons, designed to prevent weapons, nuclear or otherwise, from being used. In essence, if used correctly, nuclear weapons are war suppression devices. Of course, if used incorrectly, they pose a grave risk to all life on Earth. There are other risks to all life on Earth as well, such as runaway global warming from unconstrained burning of hydrocarbons; perhaps we need to invent a weapon or two to prevent that as well.

Some people feel that the mere existence of nuclear weapons guarantees that they will be used as various nuclear-armed countries find themselves financially, economically and politically in extremis. As “proof” of this, they trot out the dramaturgical principle of Chekhov’s Gun. Anton Chekhov wrote: “Если вы говорите в первой главе, что на стене висит ружье, во второй или третьей главе оно должно непременно выстрелить. А если не будет стрелять, не должно и висеть.»” [“If you say in Act I that there is a gun hanging on the wall, then it is a must that in Act II or III it be fired. And if it won’t be fired, it shouldn’t have been hung there in the first place.”]

And if you point out that we are talking about military strategy and geopolitics, not theater, they then quote Shakespeare’s “All the world\’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances…” and believe that it is QED. Now, I happen to agree wholeheartedly with Chekhov, when it comes to dramaturgy, and I agree with the Bard as well, provided we define “the world” as “the world of theater,” from which the worlds of geopolitics and nuclear physics are both dramatically different.

Let me explain it in terms that a drama major would understand. If there is a nuclear bomb hanging on the wall in Act I, then, chances are, it will still be hanging on that wall during the final curtain call. In the meantime, no matter how many other weapons are present on stage during the play, you can be sure that none of them would be used. Or maybe they will be, but then the entire audience would be dead, in which case you should definitely ask for your money back because this was billed as a family-friendly show.

Back in the real world, it is hard to argue that nukes haven’t been useful as deterrents against both conventional and nuclear war. When the Americans dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they only did this because they could do so with complete impunity. Had Japan, or an ally of Japan, possessed nuclear weapons at the time, these attacks would not have taken place. There is a considerable body of opinion that the Americans didn’t nuke Japan in order to secure a victory (the Japanese would have surrendered regardless) but to send a message to Joseph Stalin. Stalin got the message, and Soviet scientists and engineers got cracking.

There was an uncomfortable period, before the USSR successfully tested their first atomic bomb, when the Americans were seriously planning to destroy all major Soviet cities using a nuclear strike, but they set these plans aside because they calculated that they didn’t have enough nukes at the time to keep the Red Army from conquering all of Western Europe in retaliation. But in August 29, 1949, when the USSR tested its first atomic bomb, these plans were set aside—not quite permanently, it would later turn out—because even a singular nuclear detonation as a result of a Soviet response to an American first strike, wiping out, say, New York or Washington, would have been too high a price to pay for destroying Russia.

Since then—continuously except for a period between 2002 and two days ago—the ability of nuclear weapons to deter military aggression has remained unquestioned. There were some challenges along the way, but they were dealt with. The Americans saw it fit to threaten the USSR by placing nuclear missiles in Turkey; in response, the USSR placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Americans didn’t think that was fair, and the result was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Eventually the Americans were prevailed upon to stand down in Turkey, and the Soviets stood down in Cuba. Another threat to the deterrent power of nuclear weapons was the development of anti-ballistic weapons that could shoot down nuclear-tipped missiles (just the ballistic ones; more on that later). But this was widely recognized to be a bad thing, and a major breakthrough came in 1972, when the USA and the USSR signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Over this entire period, the principle that kept the peace was Mutual Assured Destruction: neither side would provoke the other to the point of launching a nuclear strike, because such a move was guaranteed to be suicidal. The two sides were reduced to fighting a series of proxy wars in various countries around the world, which were so much the worse for it, but there was no danger of these proxy conflicts erupting into a full-scale nuclear conflagration.

In the meantime, everybody tried to oppose nuclear proliferation, preventing more countries from obtaining access to nuclear weapons technology—with limited success. The cases where these efforts failed testify to the effective deterrent value of nuclear weapons. Saddam Hussein of Iraq didn’t have any “weapons of mass destruction” and ended up hung. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya voluntarily gave up his nuclear program, and ended up tortured to death.

But Pakistan managed to acquire nuclear weapons, and as a result its relations with its traditional nemesis India have become much more polite and cooperative, to the point that in June of 2017 both became full members of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, along with China, Russia and other Eurasian nations. And then North Korea has made some breakthroughs with regard to nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles, and as a result of that the US has been reduced to posturing and futile threats against it while South Korea has expressed some newfound respect for its northern neighbor and is now seeking rapprochement.

In 2002 the prospect of continued nuclear deterrence suffered a major setback when the US pulled out of the ABM treaty. Russia protested this move, and promised an asymmetrical response. American officials ignored this protest, incorrectly thinking that Russia was finished as a nuclear power. Since then, the Americans spent prodigious amounts of money—well into the trillions of dollars—building a ballistic missile defense system. Their goal was simple: make it possible to launch a first strike on Russia, destroying much of its nuclear arsenal; then use the new American ABM systems to destroy whatever Russia does manage to launch in response. On February 2, 2018 the Americans decided that they were ready, and issued a Nuclear Posture Review in which they explicitly reserved the right to use nuclear weapons to prevent Russia from using its nuclear deterrent.

And then, two days ago, all of that came to a happy end when Vladimir Putin gave a speech in which he unveiled several new weapons systems that completely negate the value of US missile defense shield—among other things. That was the response the Russians promised to deliver when the US pulled out of the ABM treaty in 2002. Now, 16 years later, they are done. Russia has rearmed with new weapons that have rendered the ABM treaty entirely irrelevant.

The ABM treaty was about ballistic missiles—ones that are propelled by rockets that boost the missile to close to escape velocity. After that the missile follows a ballistic trajectory—just like an artillery shell or a bullet. That makes its path easy to calculate and the missile easy to intercept. The US missile defense systems rely on the ability to see the missile on radar, calculate its position, direction and velocity, and to launch a missile in response in such a way that the two trajectories intersect. When they cross, the interceptor missile is detonated, knocking out the attacking missile.

None of the new Russian weapons follow ballistic trajectories. The new Sarmat is an ICBM minus the “B”—it maneuvers throughout its flight path and can fly through the atmosphere rather than popping up above it. It has a short boost phase, making it difficult to intercept after launch. It has the range to fly arbitrary paths around the planet—over the south pole, for instance—to reach any point on Earth. And it carries multiple maneuverable hypersonic nuclear-armed reentry vehicles which no existing or planned missile defense system can intercept.

Among other new weapons unveiled two days ago was a nuclear-powered cruise missile which has virtually unlimited range and a nuclear-powered drone submarine which can descend to much larger depths than any existing submarine and moves faster than any existing vessel. There was also a mobile laser cannon in the show, of which very little is known, but they are likely to come in handy when it comes to frying military satellites. All of these are based on physical principles that have never been used before. All of these have passed testing and are going into production; one of them is already being used on active combat duty in the Russian armed forces.

The Russians are now duly proud of their scientists, engineers and soldiers. Their country is safe again; Americans have been stopped in their tracks, their new Nuclear Posture now looking like a severe case of lordosis. This sort of pride is more important than it would seem. Advanced nuclear weapons systems are a bit like secondary sexual characteristics of animals: like the peacock’s tail or the deer’s antlers or the lion’s mane, they are indicative of the health and vigor of a specimen that has plenty of spare energy to expend on showy accessories.

In order to be able to field a hypersonic nuclear-powered cruise missile with unlimited range, a country has to have a healthy scientific community, lots of high-powered engineers, a highly trained professional military and a competent security establishment that can keep the whole thing secret, along with an industrial economy powerful and diverse enough to supply all of the necessary materials, processes and components with zero reliance on imports. Now that the arms race is over, this new confidence and competence can be turned to civilian purposes.

So far, the Western reaction to Putin’s speech has closely followed the illogic of dreams which Sigmund Freud explained using the following joke:

1. I never borrowed a kettle from you
2. I returned it to you unbroken
3. It was already broken when I borrowed it from you.

A more common example is a child’s excuse for not having done her homework: I lost it; my dog ate it; I didn’t know it was assigned.

In this case, Western commentators have offered us the following:

1. There are no such weapons; Putin is bluffing
2. These weapons exist but they don’t really work
3. These weapons work and this is the beginning of a new nuclear arms race

Taking these one at a time:

1. Putin is not known to bluff; he is known for doing exactly what he says he will do. He announced that Russia will deliver an asymmetric response to the US pulling out of the ABM treaty; and now it has.

2. These weapons are a continuation of developments that already existed in the USSR 30 years ago but had been mothballed until 2002. What has changed since then was the development of new materials, which make it possible to build vehicles that fly at above Mach 10, with their skin heating up to 2000ºC, and, of course, dramatic improvements in microelectronics, communications and artificial intelligence. Putin’s statement that the new weapons systems are going into production is an order: they are going into production.

3. Most of Putin’s speech wasn’t about military matters at all. It was about such things as pay increases, roads, hospitals and clinics, kindergartens, nurseries, boosting retirements, providing housing to young families, streamlining the regulation of small businesses, etc. That is the focus of the Russian government for the next six years: dramatically improving the standard of living of the population. The military problem has already been resolved, the arms race has been won, and Russia’s defense budget is being reduced, not increased.

Another line of thought in the West was that Putin unveiled these new weapons, which have been in development for 16 years at least, as part of his reelection campaign (the vote is on March 18). This is absurd. Putin is assured of victory because the vast majority of Russians approve of his leadership. The elections have been about jockeying for a second place position between the Liberal Democrats, led by the old war horse Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the Communists, who have nominated a non-communist oligarch businessman Pavel Grudinin, who has promptly disqualified himself by failing to disclose foreign bank accounts and other improprieties and now appears to have gone into hiding. Thus, the Communists, who were previously slated for second place, have burned themselves down and Zhirinovsky will probably come in second. If Americans don’t like Putin, then they definitely wouldn’t like Zhirinovsky. Putin is practical and ambivalent about “our Western partners,” as he likes to call them. Zhirinovsky, on the other hand, is rather revenge-minded, and seems to want to inflict pain on them.

At the same time, there is now a committee, composed of very serious-looking men and women, who are charged with monitoring and thwarting American meddling in Russian politics. It seems unlikely that the CIA, the US State Department and the usual culprits will be able to get away with much in Russia. The age of color revolutions is over, and the regime change train has sailed… all the way back to Washington, where Trump stands a chance of getting dethroned Ukrainian-style.

Another way to look at the Western reaction to Russia’s new weapons is using Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. We already saw denial (Putin is bluffing; weapons don\’t work) and the start of anger (new arms race). We should expect a bit more anger before moving on to bargaining (you can have the Ukraine if you stop building Sarmat). Once the response comes back (“You broke the Ukraine; you pay to get it fixed”) we move on to depression (“The Russians just don’t love us any more!”) and, finally, acceptance. Once the stage of acceptance is reached, here is what the Americans can usefully do in response to Russia’s new weapons systems.

First of all, Americans can scrap their ABM systems because they are now useless. Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had this to say about it: «То, что сегодня создаётся в Польше и Румынии, создаётся на Аляске и предполагается к созданию в Южной Корее и Японии — этот \”зонтик\” противоракетной обороны, получается, \”дырявый\”. И не знаю, зачем за такие деньги теперь этот \”зонтик\” им приобретать.» [“What is being built in Poland and Romania, and in Alaska, and is planned in South Korea and Japan—this missile defense ‘umbrella’—turns out to be riddled with holes. I don’t know why they should now buy this ‘umbrella’ for so much money.”]

Secondly, Americans can scrap their aircraft carrier fleet. All it’s useful now for now is threatening defenseless nations, but there are much cheaper ways to threaten defenseless nations. If Americans are still planning to use them to dominate sea lanes and control world trade, then the existence of hypersonic cruise missiles with unlimited range and drone submarines that can lurk at great ocean depths for years make the world’s oceans off-limits for American navy’s battle groups in the event of any major (non-nuclear) escalation because now Russia can destroy them from an arbitrary distance without putting any of their assets or personnel at risk.

Lastly, Americans can pull out of NATO, which has now been shown to be completely useless, dismantle their thousand military bases around the world, and repatriate the troops stationed there. It’s not as if, in light of these new developments, American security guarantees are going to be worth much to anyone, and America’s “allies” will be quick to realize that. As far as Russian security guarantees, there is a lot on offer: unlike the US, which is increasingly seen as a rogue state—and an ineffectual and blundering one at that—Russia has been scrupulous in adhering to its international agreements and international law. In developing and deploying its new weapons systems, Russia has not violated any international agreements, treaties or laws. And Russia has no aggressive plans towards anyone except terrorists. As Putin put it during his speech, «Мы ни на кого не собираемся нападать и что-то отнимать. У нас у самих всё есть.» [“We are not planning to attack anyone or take over anywhere. We have everything we need.”]

I hope that the US doesn’t plan to attack anyone either, because, given its recent history, this won’t work. Threatening the whole planet and forcing it to use the US dollar in international trade (and destroying countries, such as Iraq and Libya, when they refuse); running huge trade deficits with virtually the entire world and forcing reserve banks around the world to buy up US government debt; leveraging that debt to run up colossal budget deficits (now around a trillion dollars a year); and robbing the entire planet by printing money and spending it on various corrupt schemes—that, my friends, has been America’s business plan since around the 1970s. And it is unraveling before our eyes.

I have the audacity to hope that the dismantling of the American Empire will proceed as copacetically as the dismantling of the Soviet Empire did. (This is not to say that it won’t be humiliating or impoverishing, or that it won’t be accompanied by a huge increase in morbidity and mortality.) One of my greatest fears over the past decade was that Russia wouldn’t take the US and NATO seriously enough and just try to wait them out. After all, what is there to really to fear from a nation that has over a 100 trillion dollars in unfunded entitlements, that’s full of opioid addicts, with 100 million working-age people permanently out of work, with decrepit infrastructure and poisoned national politics? And as far as NATO, there is, of course, Germany, which is busy rewriting “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles” to be gender-neutral. What are they supposed to do next? March on Moscow under a rainbow banner and hope that the Russians die laughing? Oh, and there’s also NATO’s largest Eurasian asset, Turkey, which is currently busy slaughtering America’s Kurdish assets in Northern Syria.

But simply waiting them out would have been a gamble, because in its death throes the American Empire could have lashed out in unpredictable ways. I am glad that Russia chose not to gamble with its national security. Now that the US has been safely checkmated using the new Russian weapons systems, I feel that the world is in a much better place. If you like peace, then it seems like your best option is to also like nukes—the best ones possible, ones against which no deterrent exists, and wielded by peaceful, law-abiding nations that have no evil designs on the rest of the planet.