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.

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.

Steven Seagal to run a Russian territory bordering North Korea?

How great would this be if it really happened? Via Max Seddon, FT’s Moscow correspondent:

Steven Seagal is prepared to resolve Vladivostok’s political crisis and step in as governor. “I represent the interests of President Putin,” he says.

And here’s the linked story, after a pass through Google Translate (Vladivostok is the administrative center of the Primorsky Krai region):

Segal announced his desire to become the governor of Primorsky Krai

VLADIVOSTOK, September 26 (Itar-Tass) – RIA Novosti. The actor, businessman and special representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Russian-American humanitarian relations Stephen Sigal said that he would like to become the governor of Primorye.

“With pleasure, I represent the interests of President Putin,” the actor replied to the question of whether he wants to lead the region.

Seagal, who received Russian citizenship in November 2016, reported that his ancestors on the paternal line “from here.” “Every time I want to learn Primorski Krai, see more and become your governor,” added the American actor who arrived in Vladivostok within the framework of the international film festival of the Pacific Rim countries.

The Primorye Electoral Commission, last week, on the recommendation of the CEC of Russia, found the results of the elections of the head of the region invalid. Vrio Governor Andrei Tarasenko said that he believes the decision to cancel the election results is correct. The candidate from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation Andrey Ischenko said that he will challenge the results in three territories – in Ussuriysk, Artem and Nakhodka. He noted that the lawsuits are ready, and some of them have already been filed. The date of the next elections in the region has not yet been appointed, but it is expected that the deputies can approve it until the middle of October.

“Meridians of the Quiet” – the traditional annual festival of cinema in Vladivostok, this year it is held from 21 to 27 September. The president of the festival was the director and producer Alexander Rodnyansky, the main jury included Russian director Alexei German Jr. and Filipino producer Bianca Balbuena.

Over two million people live in Primorsky Krai, which borders North Korea.

Primorsky Krai

Primorsky Krai

Disappointingly, Seagal’s agent later said the actor had been “half-joking”:

Steven Seagal was granted Russian citizenship in November 2016 under a law that allows foreigners to be naturalized in recognition of their services to Russia or their general achievements.

The actor also holds US and Serbian citizenship and thus cannot actually run for a governor’s office, according to Russian laws. While the whole statement turned out to be a “half-joke,” Russian political parties took it quite seriously.

The Communist party (KPRF) said it already has its own candidate for the post of region’s governor, yet it was ready to cooperate with Seagal. Parliamentary spokesman for the communists, Ivan Melnikov, suggested that the martial arts icon might actually have a few ideas on cultivating sports and healthy lifestyle in the region.

Liberal Democrats (LDPR), in turn, said that Seagal was an unlikely fit for the governor’s post, but might be able to lead a “popular militia” of sorts in the region instead. The party, however, was quite suspicious over the statement, and guessed correctly it was a “joke.”

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.”