A new bloc on the block

Sergey Karaganov

Sergey Karaganov

The day (in 2000) when Putin suggested that Russia would be willing to join NATO if it was treated as an equal partner seems like a very long time ago. Of course, the offer was never made, and NATO proceeded to expand eastward to within 100 miles of St Petersburg.

In retrospect, shutting Russia out of the Western alliance was a colossal mistake, possibly one of the great strategic blunders in all of history. Because now Russia is hellbent on forging an alliance with China:

Russia’s view of China has shifted significantly over the past five years. Moscow has abandoned any hope that the Chinese economy is an example it might emulate. Instead, foreign policy experts now talk of how Russia can use China to further its geopolitical goals.

There was no doubt at Valdai that China knows how to do economic growth, and that Russia does not. Russia’s elite — always so ready to resist any sign of Western hegemony — have no problem admitting China’s economic superiority. Their acceptance reminded me of the way Britain gave way to the United States as the world’s dominant economic power.

Seen from Moscow, there is no resistance left to a new alliance led by China. And now that Washington has imposed tariffs on Chinese exports, Russia hopes China will finally understand that its problem is Washington, not Moscow.

In the past, the possibility of an alliance between the two countries had been hampered by China’s reluctance to jeopardize its relations with the U.S. But now that it has already become a target, perhaps it will grow bolder. Every speaker at Valdai tried to push China in that direction.

Both Russia and China have obvious shortcomings, but the fact is that the US, Russia and China are the world’s foremost military powers; and an alliance of two of those powers against the third could prove to be a geopolitical game-changer.

This alliance, if it becomes concrete, would overturn how we do global politics. Imagine an international crisis in which Russia and China suddenly emerge as a single bloc. The impact would be considerable, and to some extent unpredictable: Psychologically, in the mind of the West, it would combine the fear associated with Russia with the apparent invulnerability of China. Washington would feel under attack; Europe, intimidated and unsettled.

The old Continent would also face the threat of a split between Western Europe and the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, which could turn their focus east under the influence of a cash-happy China ready to invest in the region.

The author, a former Europe minister for Portugal, describes a scary meeting between former Putin adviser Sergey Karaganov and some Chinese officials and think tank people:

There, a number of Chinese participants said they doubted Russia’s assertions that the world is in the midst of a new Cold War.

Karaganov dedicated himself to convincing them otherwise, arguing with increasing passion that China is deluding itself if it thinks issues between Beijing and Washington can be conveniently resolved to the benefit of both sides.

If Beijing places its bets on peace and cooperation, the great Chinese adventure will come to an end, and China will have to live in the shadow of the U.S. for another generation — perhaps forever, Karaganov said. Chinese authorities, he argued, have no more than five years to make a decision.

The clock is ticking.

Russia doubles down in Venezuela

The overthrow of Maduro may not go *quite* as smoothly as the US State Department is probably hoping it will:

Private military contractors who do secret missions for Russia flew into Venezuela in the past few days to beef up security for President Nicolas Maduro in the face of U.S.-backed opposition protests, according to two people close to them.

A third source close to the Russian contractors also told Reuters there was a contingent of them in Venezuela, but could not say when they arrived or what their role was.

Russia, which has backed Maduro’s socialist government to the tune of billions of dollars, this week promised to stand by him after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself president with Washington’s endorsement.

[…]

Yevgeny Shabayev, leader of a local chapter of a paramilitary group of Cossacks with ties to Russian military contractors, said he had heard the number of Russian contractors in Venezuela may be about 400.

But the other sources spoke of small groups.

The contractors are believed to be linked with Russian paramilitary organization the Wagner Group, which has also sent forces to Ukraine and Syria. It would, of course, be suboptimal for the US to end up in a shooting match with Russian mercenaries in Venezuela. If that happened, it would not be the US’s first rodeo with Russian clandestine forces. Last February, the US killed 200-300 pro-government forces in Syria, many of which were believed to be Russian mercenaries linked to Wagner Group.

The strategic landscape and stakes are a bit different for Russia now, since Venezuela is on the other side of the Atlantic rather than in Russia’s backyard.

Hypersonic race

Russia says it has conducted another successful test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile:

Moscow’s hypersonic glide vehicle, dubbed Avangard, has been in development for three decades and can travel at least five times the speed of sound, or about one mile per second.

The weapon, which the U.S. is currently unable to defend against, is designed to sit atop an intercontinental ballistic missile. Once launched, it uses aerodynamic forces to sail on top of the atmosphere.

Sources familiar with U.S. intelligence reports assess that the Russian hypersonic glide vehicles are equipped with onboard countermeasures that are able to defeat even the most advanced missile-defense systems. The weapons are also highly maneuverable and, therefore, unpredictable, which makes them difficult to track.

The US appears concerned:

The Defense Department is looking to step up its development of hypersonic weapons — missiles that travel more than five times faster than the speed of sound — DOD leaders said at the National Defense Industrial Association-sponsored “Hypersonics Senior Executive Series” here today.

“In the last year, China has tested more hypersonics weapons than we have in a decade,” said Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. “We’ve got to fix that.”

Russia also is involved in hypersonics, Griffin said. “Hypersonics is a game changer,” he added.

If Russia were to invade Estonia or China were to attack Taiwan tomorrow, Griffin said, it would be difficult to defend against their strike assets. “It’s not a space we want to stay in,” he told the audience.

An emerging alliance

China Russia military exercises

Harvard Kennedy School’s Graham Allison ponders the rapidly solidifying alliance of convenience between Russia and China:

Given these structural realities, the prospects for a Chinese-Russian alliance in the longer run are undoubtedly grim. But political leaders live in the here and now. Denied opportunities in the West, what alternative do Russians have but to turn East? Moreover, while history deals the hands, human beings play the cards, even sometimes practicing a quaint art known in earlier eras as diplomacy. The confluence of China’s strategic foresight and exquisite diplomacy, on the one hand, and U.S. and Western European clumsiness, on the other, has produced an increasingly thick and consequential alignment between two geopolitical rivals, Russia and China.

In international relations, an elementary proposition states: “the enemy of my enemy is a friend.” The balance of power—military, economic, intelligence, diplomatic—between rivals is critical. To the extent that China persuades Russia to sit on its side of the see-saw, this adds to China’s heft, a nuclear superpower alongside an economic superpower.

American presidents since Bill Clinton have not only neglected the formation of this grievance coalition; unintentionally but undeniably, they have nurtured it. Russia emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 with a leader eager to “bury Communism,” as Boris Yeltsin put it, and join the West. The story of how we reached the depth of enmity today is a long one, strewn with mistakes by all parties. The Clinton administration’s decision in 1996 to expand NATO toward Russia’s borders, Kennan observed, was the “most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.” He predicted that the consequence would be a Russia that “would likely look elsewhere for guarantees of a secure and hopeful future for themselves.”

The growing Sino-Russian alignment is economic, diplomatic, and most worryingly for the US, military in nature:

Most American experts discount Sino-Russian military cooperation. Commenting on this year’s unprecedented military exercise in which 3,000 Chinese soldiers joined 300,000 Russians in practicing scenarios for conflict with NATOin Eastern Europe, Secretary of Defense Mattis said: “I see little in the long term that aligns Russia and China.”

HE SHOULD look more carefully. What has emerged is what a former senior Russian national security official described to me as a “functional military alliance.” Russian and Chinese generals’ staffs now have candid, detailed discussions about the threat U.S. nuclear modernization and missile defenses pose to each of their strategic deterrents. For decades, in selling arms to China, Russia was careful to withhold its most advanced technologies. No longer. In recent years it has not only sold China its most advanced air defense systems, the S-400s, but has actively engaged with China in joint r&d on rockets engines—and UAVs. Joint military exercises by their navies in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, the South China Sea in 2016 and the Baltic Sea in 2017 compare favorably with U.S.-Indian military exercises. As a Chinese colleague observed candidly, if the United States found itself in a conflict with China in the South China Sea, what should it expect Putin might do in the Baltics?

Pushing Russia away from the Western alliance and into China’s arms was phenomenally stupid, a foreign policy catastrophe for the ages. On the other hand, it’s probably time for the US to wind down its imperial meddling in Eurasia and focus on problems closer to home. The China-Russia rapprochement will certainly hasten that process. And being a regional, rather than a global, power isn’t so bad.

Russia-Ukraine spat

So, Russia and Ukraine are all over the news again. Apparently the Russian coast guard intercepted and boarded three Ukrainian ships – two patrol boats and a tug – that were trying to pass through the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov, destined for Mariupol. Ukraine says Russia rammed the tugboat and fired on the other two ships, wounding a number of sailors. Russia also took 24 crew into custody. In addition, Russia parked a tanker under the Crimean Bridge, the new bridge spanning the Kerch Strait, effectively blocking traffic through the narrow waterway.

Here’s a map of the sea:

Sea of Azov

Note that the Sea of Azov is divided between Russian and Ukrainian control; it is not international waters.

As is often the case in today’s insane world, establishing the facts of what happened is not easy because the two parties to the dispute are saying opposite and mutually exclusive things. Ukraine claims that the vessels followed the safe passage protocols, hailing the Kerch authorities and asking permission to pass through the strait as they were supposed to do, but received no response.

Russia, however, says that the ships did not hail the Kerch port for permission to pass through and did not respond to hails from Russian authorities as they approached Russian territorial waters on the eastern side of the strait. The Russians claim that the ramming took place in their undisputed territorial waters.

One side must be lying, and I have no idea which side that is. Neither, in all probability, do you. There is another way of looking at the situation though, and that is by asking: Cui bono? It’s hard to imagine that Putin would have moral qualms about escalating hostilities with Ukraine, if he felt it was in Russia’s (or his own) interests to do so.

In that respect, this article from bne IntelliNews is interesting. The author does not appear to have a pro-Putin bias, as he is sharply critical of Russian policy towards Ukraine. As he sees it, though, the big beneficiary of this military clash in the Sea of Avoz is not Putin, but Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko:

With presidential elections now only four months away, Poroshenko is trailing badly in the polls at least 10 percentage points behind his nemesis opposition leader, former prime minister and head of Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party Yulia Tymoshenko, and unlikely to make it to the second round after the poll on March 31, 2019, let alone win. Ukraine watchers admit that he has failed to deal with corruption, failed to solve any of the journalist murder cases, failed to jail anyone responsible for the deaths during the Euromaidan protests and in general failed to deliver on the promise of the Revolution of Dignity. Ukraine is now the poorest country in Europe and recent polls say 85% of the population believe the country is going in the wrong direction.

A sharp military showdown with Russia, a strongman image of decisive action in the face of an external enemy, the imposition of martial law (and the potential ability to cancel the elections at will) and the opportunity to wear his military uniform in public often is exactly what Poroshenko needs to rescue his campaign. Indeed, these were exactly the tactics Putin used to bolster his flagging support in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimea, and later led to a sweeping victory with a record margin in the Russian presidential elections in March. If Ukraine didn’t provoke this clash then Poroshenko has just had an extraordinary piece of political luck – and for this reason alone the question must be asked.

The whole piece is worth reading. Until the true facts of this murky military dispute come to light (if they ever do), Americans should remain agnostic about which side is to “blame” and extremely skeptical of calls for a stronger US response. The absolute last thing the US needs right now is to get sucked into another miserable, pointless conflict far from home.

Russia to verify moon landings

Buzz Aldrin moon July 1969

I always thought this looked fake

It’s time someone cleared this up once and for all:

The head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency has said that a proposed Russian mission to the moon will be tasked with verifying that the American moon landings were real, though he appeared to be making a joke.

“We have set this objective to fly and verify whether they’ve been there or not,” said Dmitry Rogozin in a video posted Saturday on Twitter.

Rogozin was responding to a question about whether or not NASA actually landed on the moon nearly 50 years ago. He appeared to be joking, as he smirked and shrugged while answering. But conspiracies surrounding NASA’s moon missions are common in Russia.

“Novichok spymaster” dies

GRU director Igor Korobov

GRU director Igor Korobov

The twisty Skripal affair takes another turn as the head of Russia’s GRU, who is viewed as the mastermind of the poisoning, is reported dead:

One of Russia’s highest ranking spies and the powerful head of military intelligence has died “after a long and serious illness,” a Defense Ministry spokesperson told the news agency RIA Novosti. Gen. Col. Igor Korobov, the 63-year old head of Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate (GRU), was reported dead early Thursday morning; currently there’s no reports of foul play though officials did not reveal specific details or the circumstances of his death.

Crucially Korobov had been dubbed by the West the “Novichok spymaster” — as the Russian GRU chief ultimately blamed for the Salisbury attack as well as the downing of MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, which the Kremlin in turn had blamed on pro-Kiev national forces.

Korobov had for two years been under US sanctions, added by US Treasury in December 2016 related to allegations of Russian hacking and “efforts to undermine democracy”. Ironically, however, he was seen at times as a cooperative ally in Washington’s “war on terror” efforts since 9/11. […]

What’s the real story here? As usual… who knows? But here’s a possible clue:

Korobov had been ill since early October, when reports revealed he was severely reprimanded by President Putin himself over mishandling accusations surrounding the alleged Salisbury poison attack the West pinned on Russian intelligence.

The Daily Mail reports:

President Vladimir Putin personally gave a dressing down to the head of Russian spy agency GRU over ‘deep incompetence’ shown in the Salisbury poisonings and other international operations.

GRU chief Col-Gen Igor Korobov, 62, reportedly emerged shaken and in sudden ‘ill health’ after his confrontation with the furious Russian president.

As for the “deep incompetence”: the once-fearsome GRU is apparently not sending its best.

The definition of literary failure

It can’t get much worse than this:

We spoke about a scene at the end of the film, when Dovlatov has had yet another story rejected and has failed even at conformism, unable to produce a minimally suitable poem for a trade publication for Soviet oil workers.

Ouch!

Sergei Dovlatov was a Russian author who was unable to publish in the Soviet Union and only achieved recognition after emigrating to the US in 1979. Here’s a trailer for the movie that the article is talking about:

Being an unpublishable writer in the Soviet Union:

In “Dovlatov,” German, Jr., presents that feeling of trauma with a tinge of romance—the poetry readings in cramped living rooms, the accumulation and discarding of both lovers and vodka bottles with equal listlessness, the long, uneventful, repetitive days with nothing to do but debate art and literature—a black hole that sucks up one’s energy and best years.

Spy fail

Burn After Reading GRU

Suspected GRU operative

The GRU, what happened to you?

It must go down as one of the most embarrassing months ever for Russia’s military intelligence.

In the 30 days since Theresa May revealed the cover identities of the Salisbury poison suspects, the secretive GRU (now GU) has been publicly exposed by rival intelligence agencies and online sleuths, with an assist from Russia’s own president.

Despite attempts to stonewall public inquiry, the GRU’s dissection has been clinical. The agency has always had a reputation for daring, bolstered by its affiliation with special forces commando units and agents who have seen live combat.

But in dispatching agents to the Netherlands who could, just using Google, be easily exposed as graduates of an elite GRU academy, the agency appears reckless and absurdly sloppy.

In response to the surreal interview with the Skripal poisoning suspects, I wrote: “I thought Russian intelligence operatives were supposed to be smart? What is going on here?” It gets worse:

[…] And then came Thursday’s bombshell: four men outed by Dutch investigators for attempting to hack into the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (as well as Malaysia’s investigation into a downed jetliner).

The alleged spies were caught carrying enough telephones to fill an electronics store. Moreover, like all meticulous Russians on a business trip, they held on to their taxi receipts from GRU headquarters.

At a glance, it’s hard to square such ridiculous incompetence with the idea that Putin and his operatives are crafty enough to destroy Western democracy. In any case, the GRU’s epic fails do seem to indicate the declining value of human intelligence in the age of the internet.

Putin doesn’t like Skripal much

Of that we can be reasonably certain:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has labelled poisoned ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal a “traitor” and a “scumbag”.

In a speech, he complained that the media were treating Mr Skripal as “some kind of human rights defender”, insisting he had betrayed his country.

Mr Skripal and his daughter survived an attack in Salisbury, which the UK says was carried out by two agents of Russian military intelligence.

But a British woman died in another poisoning that police say was linked.

UK authorities believe Mr Skripal’s door in the southern English city was targeted with the nerve agent Novichok.

It was sprayed from a modified perfume bottle that was later picked up and given to Dawn Sturgess, who died in July, they say.

Last month, President Putin insisted that the suspects named by UK police were civilians not criminals, and urged them to come forward. They later gave a televised interview.

Now, this doesn’t prove that Putin had him poisoned, of course, although the evidence appears to point in that direction. But then there’s this strange report that Skripal himself rules out the idea of Moscow’s involvement:

The former employee of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), who was poisoned in Salisbury, UK, said he does not believe that the Russian special services could have been involved in the attempted murder. He said this in a statement to BBC journalist Mark Urban, who published an excerpt of the conversation in his book called The Skripal Files.

The reporter was able to talk to Skripal when the ex-colonel regained consciousness. The book says that the intelligence officer had to go through a difficult process of psychological adaptation.

Urban claims that Skripal refused to believe in the Kremlin’s involvement in what happened. Moreover, the former GRU colonel said he supported Russia’s policy, such as the reunification of the Crimea and Russia. However, Skripal did not say what his theory was regarding the incident.

And then there is the absolutely bizarre, hilarious televised interview mentioned above, in which the two poisoning suspects protest their innocence to RT. It really needs to be seen (or read) to be believed:

RT interview Boshirov Petrov

What were Petrov and Boshirov doing in the UK?

Petrov: Our friends have been recommending that we visit this wonderful city for a long time already.

Boshirov: It’s a touristic city. There’s a famous cathedral there, the Salisbury cathedral. It’s famous not just in all of Europe, it’s famous all over the world I think. It’s famous for its 123-metre spire, it’s famous for its clock, the first clock made in the world that still runs.

Petrov: In fact, we planned to go to London and let loose, so to speak, it wasn’t a business trip. We planned to go to London and in Salisbury in one day. In England on March 2 and March 3 there was a transport collapse – snow so powerful – we couldn’t get back.

Petrov: We were there three days. We came on March 2, we looked at the train schedule.

Boshirov: We planned to go for one day and look around. Salisbury is a normal touristic city.

Petrov: We came to Salisbury on the March 3, we were there for, we tried to walk around the city, but since the city was covered in snow, we were able to only for a half an hour, we got wet.

Boshirov: No media, no TV channels are showing that on that day, the third, there was a collapse in that city, a snow collapse, it was impossible to go anywhere, we got wet to the knees.

Petrov: Of course we went to visit Stonehenge, Old Sarum, the cathedral of the Virgin Mary, but it didn’t work out because it was slush, as we’d say in Russian, total slush. We got wet, returned to the train station and went back on the next train.

What did they do in Salisbury?

Boshirov: We were drinking hot coffee because we had gotten all wet, on the third we spent no more than an hour there.

Petrov: The trains were going with big gaps because of the transport collapse, we went back to London and continued our travels.

Boshirov: We walked around London. On the third yes (an hour in Salisbury).

Petrov: It wasn’t possible to go anywhere. On March 4 we returned because London had thawed out, it was warm weather.

Boshirov: The sun was shining.

Petrov:We wanted to visit Old Sarum and the cathedral, we decided to finish this task on March 4. To visit them.

Boshirov: To see this famous cathedral, to look at Old Sarum. We saw them.

Petrov: On March 4 we saw them, but again around lunch snow started, that’s why we left early.

Boshirov: The cathedral is very beautiful, there are lots of tourists there, there are lots of Russian tourists, there are lots of Russian-speaking tourists there.

Petrov: There should be many photographs (with us). Of course we took pictures.

Boshirov: We were sitting in the park, we were sitting in a cafe and drinking coffee. We were walking around and enjoying this English Gothic, this beauty.

Petrov: For some reason they’re not showing this. They’re only showing us at the train station.

Did they visit Sergei Skripal’s house?

Petrov: Maybe we went by there.

Boshirov: Do you know where the Skripals’ home is? I don’t.

Petrov: If we would have known where it was.

Boshirov: Maybe we passed by it, maybe we didn’t pass by it, I don’t know, I hadn’t heard. I hadn’t heard this surname, I didn’t know anything about them before this situation, this nightmare with us started.

Did they have Novichok in a perfume bottle?

Boshirov: No.

Petrov: I think this is total nonsense.

On and on it goes, like a bad Coen brothers movie. A total PR disaster for these guys and for Putin. I thought Russian intelligence operatives were supposed to be smart? What is going on here?

The complexities and unknowns of the Skripal affair are way above my pay grade, but it is entertaining to watch.