Daily links: Fentanyl and state failure

China is the main source of the insanely potent synthetic opioid fentanyl in the US, which killed more than 27,000 people in the 12 months through November 2017. “The biggest difficulty China faces in opioid control is that such drugs are in enormous demand in the US,” an official of China’s equivalent of the DEA is quoted as saying. The Opium Wars in reverse?

The trade deficit has sliced $457.2 billion off the US economy’s cumulative inflation-adjusted growth, or 14.33%, from the start of the recovery in mid-2009 through the first quarter of 2018, according to last week’s revised GDP figures. But we are told that trade deficits don’t matter.

Britain is probably not going to run out of food in the event of a “no deal” Brexit. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that the British government cannot guarantee food security for its people, and seemingly expects the food industry to take all the responsibility for stockpiling goods. Meanwhile, the food industry has absolutely no plans to do this.

A simulation models the release and spread of a moderately lethal and moderately contagious virus. It kills off 150 million people over the course of 20 months, including 15 to 20 million people in the US.

Over 100,000 Russians marched last month in the city of Yekaterinburg to mark the centennial of the slaughter of the Romanov imperial family by rabid Communists.

Duterte publicly destroys more than A$8 million worth of contraband luxury cars in the Philippines:

Daily links: Geopolitics and Tom Cruise

US teams up with Japan and Australia to invest in Asian infrastructure projects. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has competition.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces $113 million in new technology, energy and infrastructure projects in emerging Asia as part of Trump’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy.

Generals from the rival Koreas meet at the border to ease military tensions.

But there’s still a long and difficult road ahead with North Korea. “Washington and Pyongyang, however, are not the only players. Racing against a clock of its own, Seoul will aim to drive Trump and Kim toward an early trilateral summit to declare an end to the Korean War as a first step toward peace, fueled by President Moon Jae-in’s determination to go down in history as the peacemaker.”

Professor Stephen Cohen points out that in early 1986, President Ronald Reagan met alone with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for about two and a half hours, during which they discussed abolishing nuclear weapons, paving the way for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which was signed a year later.

Behind-the-scenes on Tom Cruise’s HALO jump from a C-17 military aircraft at 25,000 feet for the latest Mission: Impossible movie. HALO means high altitude, low open (i.e. the parachute is deployed at below 2,000 feet).

Reminds me of this incredible scene from Moonraker.

Tom Cruise is “our last remaining movie star.”

Daily links: Movies, Mars, and ancient nematodes

Steel Rain movie

Steel Rain

A large underground lake of liquid water is discovered on Mars.

Two Russian nematodes are brought back to life after being frozen for nearly 42,000 years, making them the oldest living animals currently on earth.

European astronomers track a star travelling through the gravitational field of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, and it exhibits gravitational redshift, confirming Einstein’s predictions.

Massive, brutal vivisection of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, via a series of YouTube videos deconstructing the film’s appalling writing. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. The franchise will never recover from this.

Review of the South Korean spy thriller Steel Rain. I watched this on a flight from Seoul to New York. It’s good.

David Goldman challenges American complacency about China’s rise.

Russia liquidates more than 84% of its US Treasury holdings in the two months through May 31, leaving experts puzzled.

China targets the Bay Area

Is Silicon Valley the soft underbelly of the US? “There’s a full-on epidemic of espionage on the West Coast right now,” according to this article in Politico.

Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election has given Putin’s regime an outsized role in the national conversation on espionage. But talk to former intel officials, and many will say that China poses an equal, if not greater, long-term threat. “The Chinese just have vast resources,” said Kathleen Puckett, who worked counterintelligence in the Bay Area from 1979 to 2007. “They have all the time in the world, and all the patience in the world. Which is what you need more than anything.” (China’s Embassy in Washington, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Because of California’s economic and political importance, as well as its large, well-established, and influential émigré and Chinese-American communities, the People’s Republic places great weight on its intelligence activities here, said multiple former intelligence officials. Indeed, two told me that California is the only U.S. state to which the Ministry of State Security—China’s main foreign intelligence agency—has had a dedicated unit, focused on political intelligence and influence operations. (China has had a similar unit for Washington.)

And if California is elevated among Chinese interests, San Francisco is like “nirvana” to the MSS, said one former official, because of the potential to target community leaders and local politicians who may later become mayors, governors or congressmen. Their efforts are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

There are some extraordinary revelations about alleged Chinese espionage and influence activities in San Francisco, including the suspected co-opting of local power broker Rose Pak by Chinese intelligence. The article also reveals that Chinese officials are believed to have bused in 6,000 to 8,000 J-Visa holding students from across California to disrupt anti-Beijing protests in San Francisco during the 2008 Olympic torch relay. There’s much more, so read the whole thing.

Russia says Browder associates donated $400,000 (not $400M) to Clinton campaign

Putin said at yesterday’s press conference in Helsinki that business associates of Bill Browder “have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia. They never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States, and yet the money escaped the country. They were transferred to the United States. They sent huge amount of money, $400 million as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.”

I was struck by that shocking claim, which The New York Times tried but was unable to verify.

Well, now it appears that either Putin misspoke, or his statement was mistranslated. The actual alleged figure is $400,000, according to the Russian Prosecutor General. Here’s the story in Russian. Since I cannot read Russian, below is an except of the story after being run through Google Translate. I can’t find any references to this story in English:

Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a news conference on Monday after talks with US President Donald Trump in Helsinki that Browder’s business partners illegally earned more than $ 1.5 billion in Russia and sent $ 400 million to Hillary Clinton’s election campaign.

“Later, the president asked us to correct his reservation, which he made yesterday, not 400 million, but 400,000, but that’s quite a huge sum,” the representative of the Prosecutor General’s Office said.

You read it here first in English.

UPDATE: Correction, you read it here second. Looks like I missed this English-language report by TASS:

The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office is ready to send a request for the questioning of staffers of US intelligence services and public officers within the framework of a criminal case against Hermitage Capital founder William Browder, prosecutors’ spokesman Alexander Kurennoy told a briefing on Tuesday.

“Within the framework of a probe into a criminal case against William Browder and his criminal group, we are ready to send another request to the US competent agencies for a possibility to question these staffers of US special services, some other public officers of the US and a number of entrepreneurs in order to later charge them with the crimes committed by Browder,” Kurennoy said.

Browder has transferred $400,000 to accounts of the US Democratic Party, Kurennoy said.

“Browder’s criminal group funneled $1.5 billion from Russia into tax havens. Of this sum, at least $400 million was transferred to the Democratic Party’s accounts. Afterwards, our president asked us to correct the sum for $400,000 from $400 million,” Kurennoi said.

Bill Browder

Bill Browder

From the NY Times:

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia made a surprise offer to Robert S. Mueller III, the special prosecutor investigating Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, at the news conference on Monday concluding the summit meeting between him and President Trump.

The Kremlin, Mr. Putin said, would allow Mr. Mueller and his team to travel to Russia and be present at the questioning of 12 Russian military intelligence officers the special counsel indicted last week for hacking into the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee and the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

In exchange, however, the United States would have to permit Russian law enforcement officials to take part in interrogations of people “who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia.” He singled out one man: William F. Browder.

A London-based financier who led a global human rights crusade against the Kremlin that has resulted in sanctions being leveled against numerous Russian officials, Mr. Browder, 54, is a source of deep frustration for the Kremlin, which has gone to great lengths to shut him down. In May, he was arrested and briefly detained in Spain by officers acting on a Moscow-issued Interpol red notice, the sixth the Russians have filed against him. […]

“Business associates of his have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia,” Mr. Putin said. “They never paid any taxes. Neither in Russia nor in the United States. Yet the money escaped the country. They were transferred to the United States. They sent huge amounts of money, $400 million, as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.”

Additionally, Mr. Putin declared, “we have solid reason to believe that some intelligence officers accompanied and guided these transactions.”

Mr. Putin offered no evidence to support his claims about money moving to the Clinton campaign, let alone with assistance from intelligence officers. […]

It was not clear from where Mr. Putin derived the $400 million figure, or whether he was referring to the Ziffs or possibly other donors as well. Former Clinton campaign officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Here’s Browder’s full response to the press conference.

What did Putin have in mind by making such an extraordinary allegation — the only really surprising aspect of the event? I expect we’ll find out.

Daily links: Putin, Ortega, and Kubrick

Axios describes the Russian president as “an enemy of the United States,” which is interesting because I wasn’t aware that Congress had declared war on the Russian Federation… and I doubt Axios would use such inflammatory and hysterical language to describe the president of China which, you may recall, has been accused of all sorts of damaging cyber espionage against the US, including stealing private information on tens of millions of government employees and other Americans.

Don’t mess with Florida: Trump reportedly read Putin the riot act over a campaign video illustrating nuclear missiles raining down on the state.

Russia to consider lifting a four-year-old ban on US adoptions. A good sign?

A lost, nearly complete Stanley Kubrick screenplay has been found, and it sounds sorta creepy.

An estimated 350 people have been killed in protests against Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega since April. It’s curious how little media attention the events in America’s backyard tend to receive.

At least 42 people, all believed to be Chinese tourists, died when their ferry in Thailand capsized. The Thai defense minister alleged that the ferry was illegally operated by a Chinese firm, concluding that “The Chinese did it to the Chinese,” then later walked back his comments.

Nightlight data and fuzzy math

This is almost a little too pat to be entirely convincing… but it makes sense that authoritarian regimes would have more ability, if not more incentive, to manipulate, exaggerate and outright make up statistics than democracies:

China, Russia and other authoritarian countries inflate their official GDP figures by anywhere from 15 to 30 percent in a given year, according to a new analysis of a quarter-century of satellite data. […]

“The key question that the paper tries to tackle is whether the checks and balances provided by democracy are able to constrain governments’ desire to manipulate information or, more specifically, their desire to exaggerate how well the economy is doing,” Martinez said via email. “The way I try to answer the question above is by comparing GDP (a self-reported indicator, prone to manipulation) and nighttime lights (recorded by satellites from outer space and much harder to manipulate) as measures of economic activity.” […]

For the world’s freest democracies — places such as the United States, Canada and Western Europe — a 10 percent increase in the average intensity of nighttime lighting in a given year correlated with, on average, a 2.4 percent increase in year-over-year GDP. Less free and open countries, however, reported larger GDP gains for the same percent change in nighttime lighting. And the least-free countries of all showed huge increases in annual GDP relative to the freest countries, working out to between a half and a full percentage point of extra GDP for the same light increase.

One question that comes to mind: Is it possible that countries where personal consumption accounts for a relatively small share of GDP (e.g. China) are able to grow more “darkly” than countries where personal consumption plays a larger role (e.g. the US)? The idea being that factories might give off less light per capita at night than, say, driving to a restaurant or staying up late watching Netflix in a brightly lit house. (I have absolutely no idea whether this is the case.) Likewise for economies where the services sector plays a greater role (think of all those computer screens and florescent-lit offices). Glancing at the paper, it appears the author has already accounted for just those possibilities, and that the autocracy bias is still strong even when controlling for differences in economic structure.

Of course, it’s not exactly surprising that China manipulates economic data rather liberally; this is a country where the official population figure could be off by 90 million.

Lying about chemical weapons

Britain’s Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has accused foreign secretary Boris Johnson of being less than entirely honest about who poisoned former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter:

Labour has called for an investigation into whether Boris Johnson “misled” the public over Russian involvement in the Salisbury nerve agent attack.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn earlier implied the foreign secretary had exaggerated the findings of the UK’s defence laboratory, Porton Down. […]

Labour said in an interview given to German TV last month, Mr Johnson said that “people from Porton Down” were “absolutely categorical”, adding: “I asked the guy myself. I said ‘are you sure?’, and he said ‘there’s no doubt’.”

But on Tuesday the Porton Down laboratory said it could not verify the precise source of the Novichok nerve agent used, although it did say it was likely to have been deployed by a “state actor”.

Labour called on the prime minister to launch an investigation into whether Mr Johnson broke the ministerial code.

A state actor. Hmm. That’s a far cry from pinning the blame on Putin, as so many are keen to do.

The truth about these matters is often hard to establish. What is clear, in this case, is that we simply do not know who poisoned Skripal, and with what motive.

Naturally, that won’t stop the absurd saber-rattling, mass expulsions of Russian diplomats, and crazed ramping up of tensions with the world’s number two nuclear power. Why let rational thought get in the way of that?

On the Skripal poisoning

Richard Sakwa, a Russia expert at the University of Kent, has some thoughts about the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter:

These are the circumstances and the consequences, but the whole affair raises many troubling questions. Is the case so clear-cut that the authorities in Moscow, and possibly Putin personally, ordered the assassination? After all, Skripal, a former GRU (Russian military intelligence) officer who had been recruited by the British intelligence agency, MI6, and had then worked as a double agent, had been part of a prisoner swap in 2010, and had lived openly in Salisbury every since. Why would the Russian authorities want to kill him? How would it benefit them, especially in conditions where relations are so bad anyway? If they wanted him killed, there are easier ways – unless of course it was for the demonstration effect, and to alienate the British government even more. These may well be considerations among parts of the Russian security elite, angry at Skripal’s betrayal of a reputed 350 Russian agents. As well as motive, there is also the question of timing. Why now, just weeks before the Russian presidential election of 18 March, when Putin won by a landslide for a fourth term. […]

Let us assess the various theories in turn. The official British government position, outlined by prime minister Theresa May in the House of Commons on 12 March, is that either the Russian state was responsible, or that the authorities had lost control over the nerve agent, identified now as part of the Novichok family of nerve agents. These, May insisted, were the only two plausible explanations. Later, British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, on 16 March alleged that Putin had personally ordered the killing, and then on 18 March he told the British media that Russia had secretly accumulated chemical and biological weapons. He hinted that the British government had information that the order had come directly from the Kremlin. […]

Although the public sphere is full of accusations, none of these cases [Alexander Litvinenko, Boris Berzovsky and Boris Nemtsov] has been demonstrated to lead back to the Kremlin. In fact, the argument could be made that these deaths, and others, were ‘provocations’; in the sense that they reflected factional fighting in Moscow and the regions (notably Chechnya), and were ways of signalling threats to the Kremlin to force it to adopt certain policies and not others. […]

Unless serious evidence to the contrary emerges, I would be deeply sceptical that Putin took a personal interest in killing Skripal. What would he gain! Such a version only makes sense if two conditions hold: that Putin has nothing better to do than go around killing opponents who long ago have lost any relevance; and the Russian state is out to subvert the West. As the British foreign office put it in a propaganda video, Russia was out to ‘undermine world order’. This of course is the version repeated in the British mass media, including from some formerly respectable newspapers – but it is nonsense. […]

Novichok [the nerve agent] had been developed in Shikhany in central Russia, and according to the whistle-blower Vil Mirzayanov, it was then tested in Uzbekistan. In the early 1990s controls of weapons stores had been notoriously lax, and social media have repeatedly suggested that some could have found its way to Kazakhstan and Ukraine. The material could have been smuggled out of the country by unknown parties, possibly criminals. It is also not too difficult to reconstitute the agent in a laboratory. Britain sent a sample of the Salisbury material to the OPCW, but Russia also requested a sample, as it is entitled to do under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which came into force in 1997. The British refused.

And here is an excerpt from Prime Minister Theresa May’s official statement:

Mr Speaker, on Monday I set out that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Novichok: a military grade nerve agent developed by Russia. Based on this capability, combined with their record of conducting state sponsored assassinations – including against former intelligence officers whom they regard as legitimate targets – the UK Government concluded it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for this reckless and despicable act. And there were only two plausible explanations. Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country. Or conceivably, the Russian government could have lost control of a military-grade nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

A number of things jump out at me here:

  • The PM did not conclusively blame the Russian government, but rather said it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible. The statement allows for the possibility that Russia had simply lost control of its stockpile of Novichok. That’s, again, the official position of the British government. By that logic, some other actor could have conceivably carried out the attack, without Putin’s knowledge.
  • Sakwa offers an additional four or five possible explanations for the attack, most of which seem plausible to me.
  • The French government was initially skeptical of the idea of Russian culpability, accusing May of “fantasy politics.” That’s pretty interesting.
  • The British summoned the Russian ambassador and demanded an explanation for the poisoning, but refused to provide the Russians with samples of the nerve agent so they could conduct their own investigation. This is a bit like asking someone when he stopped beating his wife. Imagine how this would be perceived by the Russian side if, in fact, they did not order the attack.
  • The question of motive remains unanswered. It’s hard to see what Putin would have to gain by carrying out a chemical weapons attack on British soil, and thereby significantly ramping up tensions with NATO. That would not appear to be in Putin’s or Russia’s interests. It could be argued that Putin wanted to “send a message” — but then, what message? Don’t mess with us? If so, the ploy has backfired miserably, as Britain seems to have decided to mess with Russia a whole lot more.

It’s very easy to give in to hysteria on this issue, and jump to conclusions before all the relevant facts are in. Given the stakes involved — potential war with a nuclear power — I would suggest that it’s very dangerous to do so.