The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Why does Russia care about our politics?

An op-ed in today's New York Times provides more context to help understand Josh Marshall's observation in my last post. Former Obama deputy secretary of state and former Biden national security adviser Antony Blinken says that Russia is actually very weak under Putin, so putting a wedge between their two biggest threats—The E.U. and the U.S.—gives them breathing room:

When it comes to sowing doubt about democracy and fueling dissension among Americans, Mr. Putin is eating our lunch. And Russia retains the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, with new weapons in the works that Mr. Putin saw fit to brag about during last week’s state of the nation speech — even if his rhetoric far outpaced their technical reality.

But elsewhere, Russia’s adventurism is feeding a growing, gnawing case of indigestion. And it masks a deep-set rot in Russia itself. Mr. Putin is a masterful painter of facades. But his Russian village looks increasingly less Putin and increasingly more Potemkin.

NATO is more energized than it has been in years — not because of President Trump’s browbeating, but in response to Mr. Putin’s aggression. The alliance now has forces on regular rotational air, land and sea deployments along Russia’s border, and its budget is increasing, in part with a sustained infusion of funds from the United States. The European Union has revived the idea of strengthening its own defense capacity, spurred on by Mr. Putin’s threats and Mr. Trump’s rhetorical retreat from America’s commitment to Europe’s defense. Europeans are getting more serious about energy security. They are multiplying new routes, connections and sources for fuel and renewable power. That’s making it harder for Mr. Putin to use oil and gas as strategic levers. American-led sanctions, despite Mr. Trump’s reluctance to impose them, have done real, sustained damage to Russia’s economy.

As for keeping Russia’s fist on Ukraine’s future, Mr. Putin has managed to alienate the vast majority of its citizens for generations. Systemic corruption is now a bigger bar to Ukraine’s European trajectory than is Moscow.

Keep in mind, one of the principal aims of Russia's interference with our government is to get rid of the sanctions we imposed on them when they invaded our ally Ukraine. They could get the sanctions reduced or eliminated by ending their occupation of Crimea, of course, but that would expose Putin's fundamental weakness.

Authoritarian governments are corrupt, full stop. The whole point of authoritarian systems is to protect thieves from the rule of law. Russia has been in this state for more than 20 years now. Let's not follow them.

Setting up lunchtime reading

Over the weekend I made a couple of minor updates to Weather Now, and today I'm going to spend some time taking it off its Azure Web Role and moving it to an Azure Website. That will (a) save me money and (b) make deployments a lot easier.

Meanwhile, a number of articles bubbled up overnight that I'll try to read at lunchtime:

Back to Azure deployment strategies.

Who is Reality Winner?

Kerry Howley, writing for New York Magazine, profiles the "terrorist [with] a Pikachu bedspread:"

In those first months on the job, the country was still adjusting to Trump, and it seemed possible to some people that he would be quickly impeached. Reality listened to a podcast called Intercepted, hosted by the left-wing anti-security-state website the Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill and featuring its public face, Glenn Greenwald, and listened intensely enough to email the Intercept and ask for a transcript of an episode. Scahill and Greenwald had been, and continue to be, cautious about accusations of Russian election meddling, which they foresee being used as a pretext for justifying U.S. militarism. “There is a tremendous amount of hysterics, a lot of theories, a lot of premature conclusions being drawn around all of this Russia stuff,” Scahill said on the podcast in March. “And there’s not a lot of hard evidence to back it up. There may be evidence, but it’s not here yet.”

There was evidence available to Reality.

The document was marked top secret, which is supposed to mean that its disclosure could “reasonably be expected” to cause “exceptionally grave damage” to the U.S. Sometimes, this is true. Reality would have known that, in releasing the document, she ran the risk of alerting the Russians to what the intelligence community knew, but it seemed to her that this specific account ought to be a matter of public discourse. Why isn’t this getting out there? she thought. Why can’t this be public? It was surprising to her that someone hadn’t already done it.

The classified report on the Russian cyberattack was not a document for which Reality had a “need to know,” which is to say she wasn’t supposed to be reading it in her spare time, let alone printing it, and were she to print it for some reason, she was required to place it in a white slatted box called a “burn bag.”

Why do I have this job, Reality thought, if I’m just going to sit back and be helpless?

Reality folded up the document, stuffed it in her pantyhose, and walked out of the building, its sharp corners pressing into her skin. Later that day, President Trump fired James Comey, who had been leading an investigation into Russian election-meddling. Reality placed the document in an envelope without a return address and dropped it in a standing mailbox in a strip-mall parking lot. Court documents suggest she also sent a copy to another outlet, though which one we don’t know.

For a bad decision she made at 25, she may spend most of her productive years in prison. And in the current climate of secrecy and surveillance, it's hard to see how she can even defend herself against the charges.

Her trial is set for March.

Understanding Vladimir Putin

Julia Ioffe knows more about Russia than just about any other American journalist. Writing in the current Atlantic magazine, she analyzes and explains what Putin really wants:

Putin had always been suspicious of democracy promotion, but two moments convinced him that America was coming for him under its guise. The first was the 2011 nato intervention in Libya, which led, ultimately, to the ousting and gruesome lynching of the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. Afterward, many people who interacted with Putin noticed how deeply Qaddafi’s death troubled him. He is said to have watched the video of the killing over and over. “The way Qaddafi died made a profound impact on him,” says Jake Sullivan, a former senior State Department official who met repeatedly with senior Russian officials around that time. Another former senior Obama-administration official describes Putin as “obsessed” with Qaddafi’s death. (The official concedes, “I think we did overreach” in Libya.)

The second moment was in November 2013, when young Ukrainians came out onto the Maidan—Independence Square—in the capital, Kiev, to protest then-President Viktor Yanukovych pulling out of an economic agreement with the European Union under pressure from Putin. The demonstrators stayed all winter, until the police opened fire on them, killing some 100 people. The next day, February 21, 2014, Yanukovych signed a political-reconciliation plan, brokered by Russia, America, and the EU, but that night he fled the capital. To Putin, it was clear what had happened: America had toppled his closest ally, in a country he regarded as an extension of Russia itself. All that money America had spent on prodemocracy NGOs in Ukraine had paid off. The presence of Victoria Nuland, a State Department assistant secretary, handing out snacks on the Maidan during the protests, only cemented his worst fears.

Regime change in Libya and Ukraine led to Russia propping up Bashar al-Assad in Syria. “Not one more” is how Jon Finer, former Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief of staff, characterizes Putin’s approach in Syria. It also led inexorably to Russian meddling in the U.S. election: Russia would show the U.S. that there was more than one regime-change racket in town.

Fear of collapse is also why Russian propaganda is intent on highlighting the bloody aftermath of revolutions the world over. Things may not be great in Russia now—the country has struggled mightily since 2012—but, the country’s news programs suggest, things can always get worse.

It's a long article, but worth the read. And Ioffe is a delight to read.

Blah day

I'm under the weather today, probably owing to the two Messiah performances this weekend and all of Parker's troubles. So even though I'm taking it easy, I still have a queue of things to read:

I will now...nap.

Russia is screwing with everyone

Following up on my post this morning, here is the New Republic's analysis of Russian cyber-warfare tactics and strategy:

Western democracies are uniquely susceptible to this form of attack. The key insight of autocratic governments like Russia’s may be the recognition that democracies have a weakness: They are open societies committed to free speech and expression. That characteristic is and continues to be exploited. What’s more, other countries are already aping these techniques in their own struggles. Russia is the world’s most open cyberwarfare aggressor—but it’s far from the only one. IranIsraelNorth Korea, and the United States, and perhaps other countries, are all active. These conflicts often play out between familiar rivals: Russia and the United States, Iran and Israel, North and South Korea. It may be that information warfare simply reinforces old rivalries. But at the same time, it will likely have a deep and lasting impact on the fabric of the societies that come under attack. When social media and information itself are weaponized, the bonds of trust in society and within institutions are undermined, and the task of assuring information integrity becomes a matter of national security.

The question is how the West can maintain the core values of freedom of speech and the free flow of information while protecting itself from the constant presence of malevolent geopolitical actors. For centuries, Eastern European countries such as Estonia relied on walls, watchtowers, and fortresses to keep out invaders. The United States became the world’s most powerful country in part because it was insulatedfrom foreign threats by vast oceans on two sides. In the internet age, those traditional borders are less effective. To survive in the era of information warfare, the West will have to create new, safer borders capable of withstanding cyberattacks. Blockchain technology, the underlying protocol of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, might, for example, function as a sort of digital fortress protecting the secure exchange of information online. Whatever form these defenses take, democratic countries will have to focus more resources on finding and spreading potent and reliable technologies, whether in partnership with private companies, or in government cyber labs in Estonia or the United States. But we will also have to accept the sobering reality that these attacks, like guerrilla warfare and suicide bombings, aren’t going away. They are the new costs of living in a connected world.

Freedom is expensive. But it's better than any alternative.

Why did Trump meet Putin alone?

The Post's Aaron Blake has three possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive:

1. There is something nefarious going on

If there is something nefarious going on, a private, undisclosed conversation that was reportedly out of earshot of other world leaders would be a great place to do it. And given the Russian government's and Trump's track records, it's not like we're going to get a straight answer on what they talked about.

2. Trump is oblivious to how this might be perceived

I've framed many of Trump's actions under the rubric of Adam Carolla's “Stupid or Liar” theory before. This reason would be the “stupid” part of that equation.

3. Trump is simply addicted to causing controversy and/or sees it as a GOP base play

[A]t this point, Trump and his team have to be wondering: What's the payoff? What is he really getting out of it? Trump's approval rating is the lowest in modern presidential history, the GOP-controlled Congress hasn't passed any signature legislation, his party split on one of his major promises on the health-care bill, and all Trump has to show for it is a mostly intact group of Republican voters who say they still like him.

I'm betting on all three, though #2 may be the root cause.

Europe's worst case scenario

We have a child in the White House. And European leaders are saying they can no longer rely on the United States:

Trump’s speech alone is likely a sufficient explanation. But I suspect there’s an additional element. Most of the major European and NATO leaders had already met Trump in Washington – Merkel, May, Gentiloni, Trudeau and others. But I suspect in meeting as a group, over a more extended period and in a context specifically focused on Europe and NATO there was a further realization that what they are watching from across the Atlantic is no act. Indeed, Trump appears more impulsive and erratic in person than on TV. Rather than growing into the job he’s growing into the role of aggressor.

Another, perhaps more critical realization, is suggested in this Twitter thread by Max Fisher of the Times: That is, it’s not just that Trump is greedy or impulsive or unreliable, indifferent to the North Atlantic alliance but that he is positively against it. He and Vladimir Putin are in a de facto alliance against ‘Europe’ or to put it less geographically, the liberal internationalist state system which has rested on and built out from the United States and Western Europe.

I've imagined the damage that Trump can do to the world, and I am seeing how what I've imagined is coming to pass. I hope Europe is stronger than they have seemed so far.

Mueller appointed special counsel

Surprising everyone in Washington last night, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate the Trump campaign's possible ties to Russia. The Washington Post sees this as really bad news for the president:

“The risk is that you lose control of your agenda,” added Robert Luskin, a Washington white-collar attorney who represented Karl Rove in the Plame investigation, as well as a pair of Clinton senior officials during Whitewater. “It’s an enormous distraction. It’s an energy suck. As long as the clouds hang over a presidency it becomes much more difficult to get anything else done.”

This is why White House officials and GOP leaders in Congress have so strongly resisted a special counsel until now.

The FiveThirtyEight blog has a balancing view:

Although the simple case is that Mueller’s appointment is not welcome news for Trump — the White House was surprised by the announcement — it does have some plausible benefits for the president, especially in the near term. The Russia investigation had been dogging the Trump administration, and his firing of Comey had turned into a debacle.

Trump can now say there is an independent investigation going on, by someone he did not personally appoint and who is not beholden to his party. And Mueller has very strong credentials. The president and his team, in theory, can turn the focus to governing, while deferring questions about the investigation. And maybe Comey, who appears to have notes of every conversation he has had with the president, will share them with Mueller and not The New York Times.

But:

Mueller’s appointment ensures that the Russia controversy won’t just go away — at least not anytime soon. And he could gravely threaten Trump’s presidency if he finds clear, improper connections between the president’s campaign and Russian officials. There was a reason that Republicans on Capitol Hill and the Trump administration were trying to stop the appointment of a special counsel. Prosecutors with broad authority to investigate can cause major problems. Just ask Bill Clinton.

Greg Sargent simply says "Trump is totally delusional about what’s happening to him right now."

On the other side, Fox News is downplaying the appointment, reporting that Mueller and Comey have had a "long, close relationship." Otherwise they seem more preoccupied with Roger Ailes' death ("and his legacy of free speech"). And I'm not going to look at the far-right reactions just now.

So is this a good development? We'll see.

This fake news is from Donbass, dumbass

Laura Reston at New Republic has a good piece on how the Soviets Russian government is doubling down on its disinformation campaign against Western democracies:

One of the most recent battles in the propaganda war took place on January 4, less than a week after President Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the Kremlin’s meddling in the U.S. election. The Donbass International News Agency, a small wire service in Eastern Ukraine, published a short article online headlined “MASSIVE NATO DEPLOYMENT UNDERWAY.” Some 2,000 American tanks were assembling on the Russian border, the agency reported. The United States was preparing to invade.

The story was a blatant fabrication.

Such tactics were pioneered during the Cold War, as the Soviet Union worked covertly to influence political dialogue in the West. From KGB rezidenturas scattered around the world, a small division called Service A planted false stories in newspapers, spread rumors, and worked to stir up racial tensions. In 1964, a KGB front group helped Joachim Joesten, a former Newsweek reporter, publish a sprawling conspiracy theory about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, which later became the basis for Oliver Stone’s JFK. In 1983, Russian operatives planted a story in a small Indian newspaper claiming that the U.S. government had manufactured the AIDS virus at a military facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland—and Soviet wire services then trumpeted the story all over the world. As U.S. officials later explained in a report to Congress, “This allows the Soviets to claim that they are just repeating stories that have appeared in the foreign press.”

The internet has enabled the Kremlin to weaponize such tactics, making propaganda easier to manufacture and quicker to disseminate than any guided missile or act of espionage. Russian operations like the Internet Research Agency have employed hundreds of bloggers to mass-produce disinformation in the form of misleading tweets, Facebook posts, and comments on web sites ranging from The Huffington Post to Fox News. “Since at least 2008,” Peter Pomerantsev, a Russian media expert, observes, “Kremlin military and intelligence thinkers have been talking about information not in the familiar terms of ‘persuasion,’ ‘public diplomacy,’ or even ‘propaganda,’ but in weaponized terms, as a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert, and paralyze.”

Meanwhile, our deranged President this morning openly threatened private citizen James Comey on Twitter, which should give everyone pause.