What is Putin afraid of on Ukraine?

About a hundred thousand Russian troops are amassed along Russia’s border with Ukraine, ready to invade the country on Vladimir Putin’s command. Whether this actually happens is problematic and it may amount to a lot of saber rattling.

Since 2014, when Ukraine peacefully elected a democratic leader and legislature, it has petitioned to join NATO. It’s choice of democracy was worrisome; but its desire for NATO membership is what Putin is really worried about. Over the decades, Russia’s formerly closely-aligned states on its west have mostly aligned themselves with the West and joined NATO.

His worry about Ukraine joining NATO is not too hard to figure out, as there is more than a millennium of history that shows Russians and other empires can and will invade Eastern Europe and leave behind a lot of death, misery and carnage. Borders in this area of the world are quite fungible. Countries like Prussia and empires like the Holy Roman Empire controlled large swaths of these countries in the past. They are gone, but instead of Mongrel hordes, it’s now mostly Russia which is the threat. Russia likes satellite states on its west to act as a buffer between it and the republics of Europe.

You may have heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Back then the United States was acting a lot like Russia is now. When a foreign threat got too close to our shores, it became unacceptable. The Soviets then wisely withdrew after a tense standoff, and Cuba went back to being officially communist but not a real threat to our national security. Short range nuclear missiles in Cuba though were a real threat for which there was almost no time to react.

Subsequent U.S. presidents have remained exceptionally paranoid. Ronald Reagan’s CIA replaced freely elected governments in Central America with mostly despotic banana republics that we controlled. Reagan eventually sent in the Marines to occupy Grenada in the far West Indies because its citizens had some socialist leanings. Grenada is about 1500 miles from the United States mainland.

From Russia’s perspective, the West is encroaching on it. Since 2004, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia have joined the European Union. All these countries are on or near Russia’s borders. Most of these countries also now belong to NATO. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are no longer Russian buffer states. Basically Belarus and Ukraine are the only ones left for Russia. Imagine if Mexico, the Bahamas, Bermuda and most of the Caribbean were socialist or communist states. We’d be just as alarmed as Russia, if not more.

Ukraine though is culturally and ethnically very tied to Russia; much the way Canada feels tied to the United States because we (mostly) share the same language and dominant ethnicities. If Canada became a communist state, we’d probably feel what Putin is feeling now. We’d be deeply alarmed. Eastern European states want to belong to both the European Union and NATO because they want protection from Russia, which has a history of invading or controlling them. They also like the taste of freedom that comes from being democratic states.

So it’s not surprising in the least that Putin is very alarmed. He wants assurances that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO. If it is, there’s no reason short range missiles can’t be placed there, able to lob missiles at Russia before it can do much in the way of responding to them. He’s feeling cramped in.

Here in the West we wonder what all the fuss is about. I doubt very much that Joe Biden wants to change Russia’s system of government, which is a de-facto autocracy with the illusion of free and open elections. He wouldn’t mind if it happened, but Russia is too big an entity to invade. If it happens, it will happen from within. The United States though is in favor of stable and democratic governments, well, at least some of us are. The Republican Party is of course working hard to subvert democratic government here because demographics are turning against them. Republicans are now completely comfortable with autocracy, providing they are in charge, and many don’t want to lift a finger to help Ukraine.

Putin doesn’t want real democracy in Russia. They tried, sort of, after the end of the Cold War, but communists were quickly replaced with oligarchs. It’s no wonder our Republican party seems so friendly to Russia as it is effectively a party captured by oligarchs. It’s no wonder that Donald Trump wanted to align the United States with Russia, as he felt much more comfortable with autocrats and oligarchs. The whole idea of representative democracy has never agreed with him and, increasingly, with the bulk of his party.

Putin’s interest is likely mostly self-serving. He’s an oligarch worth at least tens of billions, but if Russia were to become truly democratic, it’s likely his wealth and status as an oligarch would go as well. But he likely does read Russia correctly, in that it’s a generally deeply conservative country. Democracy is not likely to fit it well, or at all.

As for what Russia will do, my betting is that no troops will invade Ukraine. But I do expect we’ll see some low level cyber warfare instead, which can probably be attributed to Russia but will mysteriously be missing the electronic footprints to prove it. The United States and its allies are likely to respond in kind.

Occam’s razor makes Trump’s treason look obvious

Back in 2002, when I started this blog, I was looking for a theme. Occam’s Razor obviously came to mind since I thought it would have a largely intellectual bent. It best explained where my head was at, since the principle that the simplest solution was the most likely one is borne out in so many aspects of life. There wouldn’t be many posts on this blog though if I only discussed Occam’s Razor. Today though I return to my original theme to state what looks painfully obvious to me: Occam’s Razor plainly tells us that our president is a traitor.

There are other explanations out there but even for Donald Trump these other explanations look ridiculous. For example, I could go with the solution that he is a reflexive narcissist and such a complete dunderhead that even he has no idea that he is a traitor. I can’t discount this altogether but while Trump is pretty dumb and incredibly self absorbed, he’s not that dumb. If he is, well his narcissistic personality disorder is one for the textbooks.

Yesterday’s widely panned press conference after his two-hour “summit” with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki though should have made even the most partisan Trump supporter reel. Even for them, it should have been one of those “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” moments. Trump is so eager to please Vladimir Putin that he will take his word that the Russians had nothing to do with trying to influence the 2016 elections and throw the entire U.S. intelligence community under the bus if necessary.

Just late last week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted twelve Russians for hacking into our election systems and political party websites at the behest of the Russian Federation, which is to say at the behest of Vladimir Putin. He identified them by name. A federal grand jury confirmed these indictments. This means in the unlikely event these people come to trial the evidence against them is solid. This evidence was accumulated by our intelligence agencies. Rest assured they have the goods on them and could prove their guilt in a court of law. This is because we have a vast (though at times imperfect) intelligence system that collected voluminous data on them. It’s so voluminous that Putin is likely astonished by its breadth and specificity and is wondering what spies he has in his government.

While these twelve are likely beyond the reach of our government, the same can’t be said about Mariia Butina, a Russian who arrived here a few years ago on a supposedly student visa and who was arrested yesterday for attempting to set up back channels between the Russian Federation and the Trump campaign. It’s not like there is any question about her guilt. She did a great job. Ask Donald Trump Jr. Ask the NRA, which met with her and apparently illegally channeled Russian money into its election fund to elect Trump. At least we have custody of Butina. It’s unlikely she will be a free woman again, at least not for many decades.

When following a trail, sometimes you only have a few breadcrumbs to go on. In the case of Trump’s collusion and treason there are large turds (and scattered Chicken McNugget containers) every ten feet along this trail.

It’s all in plain sight. (“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Later that very day, the hacking began.) Doubtless Robert Mueller is piecing it all together and I doubt he is breaking a sweat finding the evidence. But also ask yourself: what would you want from a U.S. president if you were Vladimir Putin? Would you want a president that would try to break up NATO as well as the G7? Someone that would start trade wars and call our closest neighbor Canada an enemy? That would okay Russia’s annexation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine? That tacitly supports Russia’s support for Syria? Can you name one thing that Trump has done that Putin would find offensive?

It’s not hard to see how Trump was compromised. We know for a fact at Russian oligarchs kept him in wealth through the Great Recession through loans via Deutsche Bank, facilitated by soon to be former Justice Kennedy’s son. (Curious that he resigned after he had appointed his law clerks for next year.) Trump looks up to his hips in money laundering, mostly by Russian oligarchs paying inflated prices for his condos, likely at the insistence of Putin. No Russian agent had to break a sweat trying to compromise him; the only thing he smells is money and like a bloodhound he follows it with single-minded focus.

Whether explicitly or implicitly, Trump has been compromised and has been used by the Russians for a long time. They simply could not have picked a better Manchurian president. Russian intelligence plays a long game. They baited him decades ago, fed his vanity and ego and played his family like a fiddle. They also played the Republican Party by feeding its obsessions and vanities. We saw this when they changed the party’s platform on Russia and Ukraine. No other explanation comes even close to being plausible.

Republicans are in denial but I’m betting that the astute ones know they are supporting a traitor. Many of them don’t care. They are democratic in name only; and freedom is a principle that only applies to people in their socioeconomic class. Like Trump, most of them love the idea of an authoritarian government, as long as they are in charge and thus feel some kinship with a dictatorial regime. Trump sees Putin and a Russian alliance as part of a great white hope strategy. By aligning with other bigots he can perhaps make America white again and use Russian resources to do it.

The only problem is that he swore to uphold the constitution of the United States and its derived laws. He’s obviously doing the exact opposite. Because of this, he should be impeached and convicted, but this depends on a Republican Party with a spine it no longer possesses. It’s quite possible though (yet still unlikely) that after a disastrous midterm they will finally inhale the smelling salts and throw this bloated orange bastard overboard. After impeachment and removal, he should be tried for being the traitor that he is and has been.

This isn’t going to end well

Trump is back from Europe. First up on his agenda: rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs, or what amounts to the same thing. From press reports Trump will be doing some staff reorganization and probably creating a “war room” with the mission of managing the White House message on this Russian thing.

It’s not hard to guess that Trump will have a hard time finding staff to fill his war room. In fact, staff may be forced to work there, which will give them additional incentive to resign. Some people will go willingly. Trump’s lawyer will happily bill $500/hour on this fruitless mission. If he’s doing his job he won’t so much be managing the message as trying to keep Trump from getting investigated and indicted for crimes like obstructing justice.

Yes, because safely back in the White House again, Trump has resumed his Twitter habit and that means he is busy destroying the message of the day like he has in the past. It turns out that Trump is his worst enemy. Much of what we know about Trump’s dubious behavior came right out of his own mouth or placed into his Twitter feed on his own stubby fingers. He lacks the ability to stop making things worse for him. His lawyers are doubtlessly suggesting he just shut up and have staff do all his Twitter posting, as Obama did. Now there’s some real message control, but don’t expect this to be part of Trump’s war room strategy. Staff has already tried many times to get his hands off his smartphone, but he won’t let it go.

Speaking of letting go, the most important person to fire is his son-in-law Jared Kushner, to who Trump has delegated the “actually trying to get stuff done” part of governing. And Jared’s been busy, such as meeting with the Russians last December to try to set up a “private channel” for communicating with the Kremlin. This may result in criminal charges but the good news for Russia is they don’t really need a back channel. Trump is happily doing their bidding. In Europe he was busy not affirming the United States’ traditional commitment to NATO, which is #1 on the Kremlin’s list of things they would most like to see happen. They have been trying to get rid of NATO since the start of the Cold War. That’s because it works. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has put two and two together: the United States is no longer a reliable partner, so Europe has to go it alone. It will be a lot harder of course without U.S. resources and maybe impossible. What really upsets Trump is not NATO. What upset him is that Germany has a trade surplus with the United States. WTF?

As for Kushner, like Trump he has zero governmental experience as is true of much of Trump’s administration and boy does it show. Trying to create a back channel with Russia was so weird and bizarre even the Russian government blanched. Kushner has become Trump’s wrecking ball, convinced that this means he is somehow smarter than anyone else. Essentially you have an administration refusing to play by the rules and in fact adhere to the law much of the time. Ethics mean nothing to them.

In my previous life I was a civil servant. We got ethics training and every year ethics retraining. I was a dutiful civil servant but some of it seemed very weird. For example, I needed my boss’s approval to do adjunct teaching. And while I worked at the U.S. Geological Survey, to prevent a conflict of interest I was required by law not to own any energy stocks and certain energy-related mutual funds, even though I was not a geologist and could offer no insight into where hidden deposits of oil and minerals might be. Once a month we had to deal with the credit card Nazis who poured through use of our government credit cards dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s. As a supervisor I had to sign off on my employees’ expenses and make sure every damn line item was charged to the appropriate account and was a legitimate government expense. My failure to do so was not only a bad idea; it could put me in prison.

None of this seems to bother the White House. Send guests to stay at Trump hotels? Sure, who cares about this Emolument Clause thing? To protect Trump, the Secret Service has already spent $35,000 renting golf carts at his Mar-a-lago resort. They are paying whatever his managers decide to charge them. The signal this sends the rest of the government is appalling: graft is okay now. The reason the civil service was set up was to get rid of the cronyism, and yet Trump appoints his family to senior positions despite lack of qualifications. He does this without a care in the world about how unethical this is and how bad of an example this sets to the rest of the civil service. He’s definitely running the government like a business, as if it’s his business, so why not use the government to enrich himself? Some other businessman would do the same thing, he figures.

Then there is the more dicey issue of Trump’s mental health. It’s already been noted that he’s become a simpleton. In interviews ten or twenty years ago he used complex words and sentences and had a long vocabulary. This seems beyond him now. His sentences don’t quite qualify as sentences and amount to a run-on stream of consciousness. He’s losing his marbles. So it’s not weird in the least that he tweeted yesterday that he wants to spend a lot more on health care when his own presidential budget proposes to drastically cut healthcare spending, mostly for the poor. He has obviously not read his own budget because he can’t read anything in depth. He hasn’t absorbed even the few bullet points staff gave him on his budget. This is not the usual political cognitive dissonance. This is something worse: he’s too bored, incurious and uninterested and obviously largely unable to deal with the nuance and complexity of running the government. So we get budgets that look like it came from the House Tea Party caucus.

This is dysfunction on a massive scale. It’s incredibly dangerous to our country and the longer Trump stays in power, the worse it is likely to get. He is emboldening our enemies if not actively collaborating with them. This is not a train teetering on the rails. His government is entirely off the rails and the engineer and his staff are all clearly drunk in the locomotive.