Tag: Russia

Putin’s pet president

He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times….Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that…And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.
Why would anyone, never mind the President of the United States, doubt that the Russians meddled in the US election, after ample evidence has become public that they purchased on-line ads and collected and published emails embarrassing to the Democrats?
One explanation is obvious: Trump is concerned that talk of Russian meddling will delegitimize his election, which rests on the shaky foundation of an electoral college victory and a smashing popular vote loss. Nothing bothers this president more than personal slight. His narcissism is his most evident personal characteristic. He can’t admit the obvious, if it reflects badly on himself.
But there is another Trump vice: his passion for money. Trump’s real estate empire is tottering. It depends heavily on Russian money from dubious sources. Putin no doubt controls many of Trump’s Russian investors. Were Moscow to signal, even quietly, that it no longer wanted Russian money flowing to Trump or Kushner real estate, the results would be devastating. To me, this is a much more compelling explanation of Trump’s Russophilia than his concern about legitimacy.
The consequences of Trump’s subservience to Putin include allowing Moscow free rein in Syria, not doing much to push back in Ukraine, and begging for Putin’s help on North Korea. Putin is enjoying his clout: Russian military action in Syria is constrained only by the presence of US troops in the northeast, Russian-supported insurgents in Ukraine remain in control of an important slice of the country, and Putin has made common cause with China on North Korea by asking for the US to suspend its military exercises with South Korea and Japan. I might even think that last idea is a good one if it brings a suspension of North Korean nuclear and missile tests, but so far the Pentagon has prevailed and prevented Trump from giving in.
Trump seems determined to pursue his ill-conceived rapprochement with Putin no matter what. Fortunately there are Republicans in Congress who don’t like that idea and are prepared to make it difficult. The Administration is dragging its feet on implementing sanctions the Congress passed overwhelmingly, but apart from Dana Rohrabacher and a few other members the Russians haven’t yet penetrated deep into the House and very little in the Senate. Influence in the Congress is expensive, compared to Facebook. At $55 dollar per barrel oil, the Russian government doesn’t have deep pockets, even if Putin’s friends are enjoying the luxuries of Trump real estate.
Trump is Putin’s pet president. I can’t wait to see what new tricks he teaches The Donald. This “I believe” one is getting old.
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My strange name

The Russian Ambassador to Serbia, in an interview with Sputnik News, notes that my family name, Serwer, is “strange.”

Indeed it is. Though a name in Kurdistan and Pakistan (it means the leader or the man in front, I am told), my “Serwer” was likely invented at immigration, as all my immediate relatives and their descendants in the US bear that name except for those few who later changed it to “Server.” Apart from Kurds and Pakistanis, I know of no Serwers in the US to whom I am not related.

The name before immigration was Servianski. My ancestors were Jews, as I am, once upon a time from Russia. They left there sometime in the 19th century for the Russian partition of Poland, where they lived near Lake Servi, whence the name. Now a resort spot for middle class Poles near the northeastern town of Sejny, Lake Servi must have hosted a Jewish shtetl once upon a time. Fully half the population of Sejny was Jewish at one point, and there is still a synagogue building there, but no Jewish community. Russian czars, World War I, Stalin, Hitler, and World War II took care of that.

We don’t know whether my antecedents were political refugees or economic migrants, but the family was not unique: many Jews left unwelcoming Russia and Poland in the nineteenth century, then moved on to the United States in the 1890s. Mine arrived not at Ellis Island, which only opened in 1892, but shortly before that at Castle Garden, the facility at the Battery where immigrants were processed earlier.

A colleague has suggested to me that the Russian ambassador’s remark was a thinly veiled anti-Semitic one. I suppose that might be right. But I don’t really care: my views on the Balkans and Russia are shaped mainly by my commitment to liberal democracy and its virtues, not least of which is correct treatment of Jews and other minorities. That virtue holds today, despite the current fashion for ethnic nationalism in both the US and Russia, not to mention the Balkans and other places. I was pleased to see that yesterday’s elections in the US (especially Virginia, New Jersey, and New York) amounted to a massive repudiation of Trumpism and, by implication, Putinism.

Russia’s and Poland’s loss of Jews like my family was America’s gain. The Balkans would do well to remember that when hearing Moscow’s attacks on Americans, Jewish or not. We are the people Russia and other countries drove out, cast off, and enslaved, to their lasting detriment. I am proud of my strange name, which is preferable to one derived from a pretty lake in Russian-occupied Poland that my grandparents fled.

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Weak and getting weaker

President Trump said Saturday en route to Asia that

the reason our stock market is so successful is because of me. I’ve always been great with money, I’ve always been great with jobs, that’s what I do.

None of the these claims are true. Job and economic growth under Trump has been a bit slower than they were s under Obama, not faster. The previous presidency is a major factor in any first 6-10 months of any subsequent presidency, so you can blame that on Obama if you like, but there is no credit due to Trump on both grounds. The stock market is up sharply since Trump’s election, but I’ll only give him credit for that if he takes responsibility for when it falls. The factors determining stock prices are obviously unknown. Trump’s aggressive efforts to eliminate Obamacare and environmental regulations may be part of the story, but the inevitable fall may well erase current gains. Then Trump will no doubt stay silent, or blame Congress and the Democrats.

A president who thinks he determines stock prices is a president unaware of the limits on his power. But we knew that. His tweets this week suggested that the sentence handed down to a soldier who pleaded guilty to desertion was inadequate and that the perpetrator of the terrorist attack in New York City should get the death penalty. The judge in the soldier’s case made clear that it was a previous over-reaching presidential tweet that got the soldier off without prison time. No doubt the courts handling the terrorism case will eliminate consideration of the death penalty for the same reason.

Trump has likewise managed to be counterproductive in other areas as well. The failure to repeal and replace Obamacare is his biggest legislative debacle. The failure to pass his proposed tax cut for business and the rich will be the next. It is likely he will head into the second year of his presidency with no serious legislative accomplishments. His executive actions eliminating environmental and other regulations will be his main achievements, dubious as they may be. They certainly will not bring back coal, as he has repeatedly promised both as candidate and president, but they will still dirty the air Americans breath and the water in the nation’s streams and rivers, not to mention hasten the impact of global warming.

The story is similar in foreign policy, where a president in theory wields more unconstrained power, but Trump has managed to cripple himself by eviscerating the State Department and trying to do everything himself:

Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has undermined the American position in Asia, where the president will visit for the next 10 days. He is demanding that Russia and China help in stopping North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions, something he has given neither one much reason to do. His bravado talk of how strong America is in front of our troops in Japan contrasts sharply with his inability to counter North Korea in any meaningful way, including militarily. No doubt he will pronounce his meetings with Chinese President Xi and Russian President Putin great successes, but the fact remains that neither is willing to do much to restrain Pyongyang.

The President has talked a strong line against Iran but done little or nothing to limit its rise. His decertification of the Iran nuclear deal has so far had no consequences, because everyone understands that we are far better off with the deal than without it. The only serious concerns about it are its “sunset” (expiration) and access to Iranian military sites. To get fixed, both these issues will require major concessions from the US that Trump will be unwilling to make. Trump has done nothing against Iran’s surrogate, Hizbollah, in Syria. Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri’s resignation strengthens Hizbollah’s position there. Not to mention that the war against the Houthis in Yemen is not going well. Iran is far stronger regionally than it was when Trump took office.

The one country in which Trump seems to have a serious impact is Saudi Arabia. His appeal to the Saudis to stop terrorist financing led to Riyadh’s blockade of Qatar, driving it closer to Iran and splitting the Gulf Cooperation Council. That is not the Washington’s advantage. Now he seems to have greenlighted the Kingdom’s crackdown on corruption, leading to the arrest of princes uncomfortable with the meteoric rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Kingdom knows how to turn every phone call from the President into an instrument of royal advantage.

The net effect is clear: the US is weak and getting weaker. This will no doubt continue so long as the president fails to understand the limits on his power.

 

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To the victor…

Moscow has decided to convene a November 18 all-Syria (presumably opposition and government) dialogue in Sochi. Having shaped the military situation on the ground with its air intervention starting more than two years ago, the Russians are figuring they have the clout to shape the political landscape as well. While nominally still committed to the Geneva process and UN Security Council resolution 2254, Moscow wants to short-circuit that laborious effort and try for a quick solution. The Security Council can endorse it after they fact, they figure.

The Syrian government says it will dialogue. It no longer fears the t-word: transition. The Americans will likely not oppose the effort, as they have little interest in Syria once the Islamic State and Al Qaeda are routed. The Iranians and Turks may not be pleased to see the Russians take the lead, but they won’t object either. Turkey is getting what it wants most: a license to keep the Syrian Kurds from lining their entire southern border. Ditto Iran, which wants to keep Bashar al Assad in place as president, as he will allow Hizbollah free rein in much of Syria, including transferring arms from the Iraqi border by land to Lebanon.

The opposition doesn’t like the idea. But it is fragmented and parts will go along to get along, hoping that something decent will emerge from the process, or just hoping to snag some benefits for themselves. The harder-line Islamists and some devoted liberals will likely continue the insurgency against Assad, but they are unlikely to get far any time soon. Both Tehran and Moscow will try to ensure that no significant threat to the regime emerges.

If the more moderate opposition can get itself organized at least in some communities and convince the Russians that local elections should be held even before a new constitution is approved, then some genuine, organic voices of political dissent might emerge. Otherwise, the most organized political force in the country–the Ba’ath party–is likely to win the day, even if national elections are not fixed. Assad won’t get his usual >90%, but he will win and claim democratic legitimacy, no matter how few people vote.

The Russians are figuring they are entitled to determine the political outcome, but they are also trying to avoid responsibility for the reconstruction of Syria. That’s where American indifference needs to give way to determination. Beyond its modest contributions in Raqqa–demining and rubble clearance are all the Americans want to do there–Washington should refuse to foot the bill, or allow the IMF and World Bank to do so, for what is mostly Russian, regime, and Iranian damage to the country’s housing, commerce and infrastructure.

Beyond the political realm, there are no real spoils to speak of in Syria, only a big bill for destruction. As Colin Powell said, you broke it, you bought it. To the victor…

 

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The noose is tightening

The charges unsealed today against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort fulfill many expectations. He was a key adviser to Russian President Putin’s favored president of Ukraine, he was known to have moved a lot of money around the world, and he had failed to register as an agent of a foreign government. His financial sidekick Rick Gates has also been charged. The charges relate in particular to undeclared, laundered income of more than $18 million from the Putin-friendly government of Ukraine

How all this relates to collusion with Russia during the campaign is however not yet clear. At the least, it suggests that Donald Trump was incautious to a fault in making Manafort his campaign chair, just as he was foolhardy in naming Michael Flynn as his national security adviser. But stupidity is not the same as perfidy. Special Counsel Mueller’s job is to nail the highest levels of illegal behavior, not to prove how dumb people are.

The charges against Manafort and Gates will help. Both will presumably be willing to exchange information for lesser charges or at least lesser sentences. But it is not clear how much information they have on perfidy by Kushner or the Trumps, both of whom are involved in what appear to be shady real estate deals in the US and abroad. Were they also laundering money or failing to declare it as income? Have the Russians blackmailed key administration officials by threatening to withdraw their investments or stop their real estate purchases? Trump is always keen to deny having any projects in Russia, but he has not denied having Russian financing in his projects in the US and elsewhere.

Mueller still has a long way to go to get to anyone important still in the Administration. He has however been savvy in these first indictments: Trump isn’t likely to risk pardoning Manafort and Gates, to whom he presumably owes nothing at this point. The only conceivable reason to do so would be to prevent them from talking, which would pretty much confirm Trump’s own malfeasance. Nor can Manafort be described as small fry, or his alleged crimes pooh-poohed by an administration that claims to be serious about law enforcement.

Trump can still try to fire Mueller, but that too would be a de facto admission of guilt. Trump will squirm, but I doubt he can escape. The noose is tightening.

PS: The guilty plea of George Papadopoulos, also made public today, relates much more directly to collusion with the Russians than the charges against Manafort and Gates. The noose is tightening more.

 

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War profits

Last week at the Middle East Institute, Tim Eaton of Chatham House defined “war economies” simply as an economy during wartime, including but not exclusive to the parts of the economy that directly fuel conflict. Eaton was joined by fellow Chatham House experts Lina Khatib and Renad Mansour on October 19 in a panel on “Wartime Economies in the Middle East: A Look into Libya, Syria, and Iraq.” The Middle East Institute’s Paul Salem moderated.

Eaton provided an overview of the economic situation in Libya, identifying four modalities: individuals with goods to sell, those who generate rent money, those who prey on state revenue, and those who receive salaries from external backers. Concerning those who sell goods, one of the main avenues for such activity has long been the smuggling of subsidized products, an industry which persists post-revolution. Criminalized trade, especially in drugs, has also been a major source of revenue, generating $400-$500 million per year. Additionally, since 2013, the movement of people has been included in this category. The biggest industry, however, is still oil and fuel smuggling, which generates about $2.5 billion. 

Rents are another avenue for certain individuals, the money coming from the establishment of checkpoints and the control of territory. This has led to extortion through blockades imposed on roads and oil fields, with such blockades costing the state over $160 billion in the East alone. The state has also been experiencing losses due to those who are able to “prey upon state revenue.” Since 97% of revenue comes from oil and gas trade, Eaton considered this a critical area from which revenue has been taken. These losses have also been augmented due to the discrepancy between the US dollar to Libyan dinar exchange rate both in the official sector, where it is 1.4 dinars, and in the black market, where it is 8 dinars. Those with the means to buy products at the official rate and sell them in the black market have seen major profits. 

Eaton emphasized that all actors in Libya have been benefiting from the conflict, finding ways to take advantage of the country’s situation. Since armed groups have been able to obtain salaries as a result of the conflict, this has encouraged them to maintain the status quo. There is little incentive to find a solution to the conflict or undergo a political process. On a state level, economic difficulties, as well as “administrative chaos” and questions of legitimacy, have hindered the functioning of the three most important state institutions: the National Oil Company, the Central Bank, and the Libyan Investment Authority.

Mansour focused on the effect of economic factors on the survival and functioning of ISIS in Iraq. The international community has tried military and political solutions. The one solution most overlooked has been the economic solution. The key concept here, according to Mansour, is that organizations and individuals are opportunistic: they go where jobs and money are available, such as ISIS. In looking for ways to defeat ISIS, creating alternatives that would allow potential members to survive economically is important. ISIS has three key sources of revenue: trade (goods, oil, antiquities, etc.), fees (through taxation, rents, and licenses), and state resources. Looking to the future, ISIS is now investing in “legitimate industries” such as hotels, pharmaceuticals, and currency exchanges, to maintain their economic power and facilitate a future revival. In response, Iraqi state institutions and international actors have been working on limiting ISIS’s influence. Their flaw, according to Mansour, has been that none of these actors are working together.

Khatib gave an overview of the war economy in Syria, grouping the different areas of the country into three categories: areas under the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, areas besieged by the regime, and areas under regime control. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has been following a similar model to that of ISIS in that they have been investing in formal industries while also setting up private companies to maintain the group’s economic independence. They have also been benefiting from their control of water and electricity in Idlib, collecting charges from residents. There has also been much trade activity between such rebel-held areas and regime areas, which has encouraged both sides to maintain the status quo, much like the situation in Libya.

Besieged areas have also witnessed trade activities, primarily through tunnels operated by middlemen. The government has been manipulating the formal exchange rate, making the rate inside besieged areas higher than elsewhere and consequently accumulating more revenue.

Regime-held areas have experienced much change. Since 2011, the state budget has decreased from $18 to $4 billion, with half now coming from external actors supporting the regime, and inflation has increased by 700%. To evade sanctions, the regime has set up front companies in loyalists’ names. For example, the Syrian Council for Metal and Steel set up in 2015 has contracts with its international partners Iran and Russia. Iran has militias and business-people working for it in the country. Khatib noted that the extent of outside interference has begun to worry the regime, and that true reconstruction, particularly including a return of refugees is not a goal of the state.

A key takeaway from the speakers’ overviews of the topic and the ensuing discussion is that economic alternatives to the present situation–which presents many economic incentives–must be found. The importance of political processes will not surpass the importance of economic security for citizens and state institutions alike. So long as the current situation is more profitable than any alternatives, it will persist.

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