Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘Russia’

Trump’s foreign affairs

I was thinking about this comment by Josh Marshall

One of the first bits of news that attracted attention to this possible link was a Trump campaign effort to soften the GOP platform’s plank on Russia and Ukraine at the GOP convention.

I think this fits the development of my thinking, more or less, but it leaves something out. As someone who nothing of the personalities involved, I was already primed to think there was something important and odd about Trump’s connections to Ukraine in particular by the reporting on his hiring of Paul Manafort to advise his campaign in March 2016, and Manafort later becoming campaign manager in April. I remember very clearly thinking, how peculiar that someone with so much foreign experience is guiding a US presidential campaign. And someone who has been working in Ukraine, of all places. Within the context of US politics, which is usually so parochial, an operative who had gone off to work for Eastern European oligarchs and Third World dictators seemed inherently corrupt, like many of the figures that Trump associated with in New York real estate who had slipped across the border from shady dealing into outright criminality, and could no longer be seen in respectable society.

I interpreted it as a sign of Trump’s inability to attract normal campaign operatives to his strange ethno-nationalist insurgency. But then there was this 28 April article by Franklin Foer in Slate:

Some saw the hiring of Manafort as desperate, as Trump reaching for a relic from the distant past in the belated hope of compensating for a haphazard campaign infrastructure. In fact, securing Manafort was a coup. He is among the most significant political operatives of the past 40 years, and one of the most effective…
Manafort has spent a career working on behalf of clients that the rest of his fellow lobbyists and strategists have deemed just below their not-so-high moral threshold. Manafort has consistently given his clients a patina of respectability that has allowed them to migrate into the mainstream of opinion, or close enough to the mainstream. He has a particular knack for taking autocrats and presenting them as defenders of democracy. If he could convince the respectable world that thugs like Savimbi and Marcos are friends of America, then why not do the same for Trump? One of his friends told me, “He wanted to do his thing on home turf. He wanted one last shot at the big prize.”

Electric guillotines

Just reading The Vanquished, Robert Gerwarth’s history of the violence that followed the ostensible end of the First World War. He has this to say about the atrocity rumours that circulated about the Bolsheviks:

Although the reality of the civil war was so terrible that it hardly needed any embellishment, fantastical stories about Lenin’s regime flourished and drifted westwards: of a social order turned upside down, of a never-ending cycle of atrocities and retribution amid moral collapse in what had previously been one of the Great Powers of Europe. Several American newspapers reported that the Bolsheviks had introduced an electrically operated guillotine in Petrograd designed to decapitate 500 prisoners an hour… The Bolsheviks, or so it was suggested [in the British press], had ‘nationalized middle- and upper-class women, who might now be raped at will by any member of the proletariat. Orthodox churches had been turned into brothels in which aristocratic women were forced to offer sexual services to ordinary workers. Chinese executioners had been recruited by the Bolsheviks for their knowledge of ancient oriental torture techniques, while inmates in the infamous Cheka prisons had their heads stuck into cages filled with hungry rats in order to extort information.

It seems that there are three things that escalate the ordinary horror of despotic violence into extraordinary horror, all of which are touched upon here:

  1. Violation of the natural order, particularly of a sexual nature.
  2. Upwelling of arcane, precivilised, non-European presumptively diabolic culture.
  3. Abuse of modern technological means toward barbaric ends.

I’m particularly fascinated by the last, represented by the “electrically operated guillotines”, which prefigure the genuine industrialised slaughter of the Holocaust. More than the scale of the killing — which could be achieved by other means — it is the industrial precision that unsettles people, and makes the Holocaust unique. Or, perhaps better said, makes us want to see it as unique.

It’s hard to disentangle these feelings about the Holocaust, which is what makes the electric guillotines so useful: It’s not that this would have been all that exceptional, to kill 500 prisoners in an hour, and you wouldn’t need anything as unusual as an electrically operated guillotine. (It’s not even clear to me how electricity would accelerate a guillotine significantly.) But the combination of electricity, then the prime symbol of modernisation, with mass execution, was shocking.

Defending the fraud

From the perspective of normal human psychology, everything about the Trump-Putin interaction seems off. As I remarked before, if Trump were really a Russian agent, you would expect Putin to advise him to be less conspicuous in advocating Russian interests, simply to preserve his usefulness.

On the other hand, imagine Trump as a naive businessman with generally russophile leanings. (I don’t know, maybe he read The Gambler at an impressionable age, and modeled his life on it.) He’s had no significant contact with the Russian leadership, but he once met Vladimir Putin at a beauty pageant, thinks he praised him (mistakenly), and thinks he could do some good for the world by relaxing tensions with the world’s second-largest nuclear power. He is convinced that he deserves to be president, but privately unsure the world will acknowledge his greatness. Now he receives intelligence briefings giving strong evidence that the Russians are attempting to interfere with the election in his favour. What would he do? Before the election maybe he keeps quiet and tries to suppress or discredit the claims. But you would expect him to be seething with fury, that the Russians threaten to taint his election. The help they’re giving is marginal, but the blowback is potentially enormous. It’s like a referee intentionally calling an unwarranted penalty in a football match. It probably won’t change the result, but it makes the favoured side look terrible. To do that without consent is an act of aggression against those you’re ostensibly helping. (more…)

Assets

Against all odds, all political sides in the US are converging toward agreement. Here was a headline from the left-wing Daily Kos that seemed extreme three weeks ago:

Former spy reports Kremlin cultivated Trump as an asset for 5 years

And here is Donald Trump, speaking yesterday at a press conference:

If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what folks, that’s called an asset

Donald Trump is not a Russian agent

If he were, they would surely order him not to blow his cover by so blatantly promoting Russian interests.

I realise I’m clutching at straws here…

бесплатная парковка

(Free parking)

A proposal for a partial unified theory of Trump scandals.

There has been considerable speculation about whether Donald Trump’s $916 million loss from 1995 may be something other than unadulterated “economic genius” (as Rudolf Giuliani called it, because that’s what you usually call it when someone manages to lose nearly a billion dollars in a single year). In particular, some commentators have suggested that these were not real losses, but an example of  “debt parking”: Instead of allowing the losses in his bankruptcy to be written off (in which case, the debt write-down would count as income, cancelling the tax benefit of the loss) it got transferred to an offshore entity controlled by Trump

But here’s another possibility: What if the offshore entity is not controlled by Trump, but by Vladimir Putin and/or the Russian state. Since he hasn’t gone through personal bankruptcy, the debt remains valid, and the creditor can choose to demand repayment at any time. They would essentially own him. That would explain a lot.

Thinking out loud

Trump is now predicting massive voter fraud, usually something you do after you’ve lost. There’s a theory that people tend to accuse others of what they are ashamed of planning or having done themselves. I don’t think he has any shame, or that he’s strategic enough to be planning anything so complicated himself. But his backers? How hard would it really be for a top-notch state hacking operation in, say, Russia, to crack the locally organised election computer systems?

Plus ça change: Partition of Poland edition

If you wanted to refer to a paradigmatic example of wanton brutality in international affairs, the invasion and division of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 would likely spring to mind. That’s why I was struck by the 1903 remark on the Boer War cited by Richard Toye in his book on Churchill’s imperialism:

Bourke Cockran, Churchill’s Irish-born politician friend, thought the war to be “the greatest violation of justice attempted by any civilized nation since the partition of Poland.”

I suppose now you could say, “the partition of Poland was the greatest violation of justice since the last partition of Poland.” You’d leave out the “civilized nation” bit, not exactly because Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union wouldn’t qualify, but because the concept no longer seems to have much explanatory power.

A tricky judgement call for the advertising agency

So you’re the head of the Adobe account, seeking to convince customers that Photoshop is a professional level software tool accessible to the masses. It’s used for important work by experts! It makes news! So now, the question is, do you seek an endorsement based on this news report (from Der Spiegel)?

Russland macht noch immer Kiew für den Abschuss von Flug MH17 verantwortlich. Doch die Fotos, die ukrainische Luftabwehrsysteme in dem Absturzgebiet zeigen sollen, sind offenbar gefälscht. Laut Experten hat der Kreml mit Photoshop manipuliert.

[Russia still claims that Kiev is responsible for shooting down flight MH17. But the photos that supposedly show Ukrainian air defence systems in the area of the crash are blatantly fake. Experts say the Kremlin manipulated them with Photoshop.]

Divorce or start a world war?

I recently read Christopher Clark’s celebrated book on the initiation of the First World War, The Sleepwalkers. There was a lot in it that was new to me. I’ve never seen an account — even a German account — that portrayed Germany as such a passive, almost innocent and peace-seeking, participant in the events of 1914. Although Clark disclaims an attention to fix blame, I felt very clearly that his account put the blame on French and Russian scheming, with Serbians playing a devious supporting role, and the Austro-Hungarians hapless bunglers.

I was struck by his portrayal of the alliance system as reasonably haphazard and fluid, kind of a square dance where nations just stayed with the partners they happened to be with when the music stopped. In particular, the alliance between Russia and the UK seemed to reflect a common pathology in personal relations:

In the light of continuing Russian pressure on Persia and other peripheral imperial territories, there had been talk of abandoning the Anglo-Russian Convention in favour of a more open-ended policy that would not necessarily exclude a rapprochement of some kind with Germany. This never became Foreign Office policy, but the news that Russian mobilization had just triggered German counter-measures at least temporarily foregrounded the Russian aspect of the growing crisis. British policy-makers had no particular interest in or sympathy for Serbia. This was a war from the east, sparked by concerns remote from the official mind of Whitehall.

We’ve all known couples like this. They’ve been together for years, comfortable but never quite committed. Then a crisis comes, and they have to decide: Do we get married or split up. And often they marry, because splitting just seems too frightening. It usually doesn’t end well.

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