The ultimate road/rail trip

Trans-Siberian road map

Source: CNN

It would have be the fanciful, proposed railway and superhighway connecting New York to London via the Bering Strait. With high-speed rail, I reckon that you could hurtle from one city to the other in about three days (read to the end for how I calculate that).

From the article:

At a Russian Academy of Science meeting in March, Vladimir Yakunin, the 66-year-old head of Russian Railways, unveiled detailed plans for what may seem like an impossible infrastructure project. Yakunin proposed engineers could build a high-speed railway through the entirety of Siberia, dubbed the Trans-Eurasian Belt Development (TEPR)—the final destination of which would be the mouth of an underwater tunnel crossing the Bering Strait. Highway, too, could be constructed adjacent to the tracks, effectively making ground transportation possible from Anchorage to Moscow—or for that matter, New York to Paris. Or, if we’re going to go there, Miami to Johannesburg.

“This is an inter-state, inter-civilization, project,” The Siberian Times reported Yakunin saying at the meeting. “It should be an alternative to the current [neo-liberal] model, which has caused a systemic crisis,” by which he means an economy based on investing in derivatives and stock buybacks and, in consulting engineer and infrastructure expert Dr. Hal Cooper’s words “things that are easy to do on your computer, but which don’t benefit the real world.” The idea is to instead focus on reviving economic forces that revolve around building something—and in this case a very big, maybe impossibly ambitious something—in the physical world.

Impossible? Of course not. But very, very expensive:

Of course, in order to do this, approximately 12,500 miles of road and new railway would have to be built starting at Russia’s eastern border—which would include the 520 miles between the frigid shores of Nome, Alaska, and Fairbanks, the northernmost point of the Alaskan Highway. And then there’s that 55-mile Bering Strait tunnel itself, which has been priced at somewhere between $25 billion and $50 billion. And what Dr. Hal Cooper calls the “Worldwide Railroad Network” in a 2007 report could range from between one and $1.5 trillion which, Cooper notes, “will be the equivalent of what the United States will spend in total on the Iraq War, for which there will be no measureable benefit to anyone.”

Estimated cost of the US “war on terror” through FY 2019: $5.9 trillion, or about four Worldwide Railroad Networks.

Interestingly, the idea has a long history:

Dreams of bridging the East and West across the Bering Strait have been percolating since the 19th century. Cooper told me that as early as 1846, then-Colorado territorial governor William Gilpin invested in a study to build railway up to northern Alaskan shores. And, it turns out, even decades after being ousted from office, Gilpin was still publishing plans for the “Cosmopolitan Railway” which would fuse together all continents chiefly via the Bering Strait.

The real problem is organizing the resources and manpower to get it done, which requires both political will and a population that is able and motivated to work together on difficult projects. This is becoming more rare. The last man walked on the Moon in 1972, and the Concorde supersonic flights that zipped passengers across the Atlantic in three and a half hours were discontinued in 2003.

The next question, then—which has been on the table now for 150 years—is whether anyone would be willing to invest in a project that could collectively cost trillions of dollars and whose anticipated economic yields would be a generation away.

According to back-of-the-envelope calculations by CNN, the proposed superhighway from New York to London would stretch about 12,910 miles. Assuming high-speed rail could be built along this entire length, with trains running at the average speed of the Shanghai to Beijing bullet train service (181.4 mph), then we’re talking about a rail trip of 71.2 hours, or just under three days.

If the trains could run at the top speed of the Shanghai Maglev Train, or 268 mph, then you could expect to blast from New York to London in just over 48 hours. Now, would that not be the world’s most awesome trip?

UPDATE: China is also mulling a high-speed rail project across the Bering Strait. Of course!

The Monroe Doctrine in action

Breaking Bad territory

The US is reasserting the Monroe Doctrine in Venezuela, and some countries are not happy about this:

Russia and China pushed back against the U.S. recognition of Venezuela’s opposition leader as president and warned against further inflaming the political crisis in the Latin American country, which relies on billions of dollars in investments from the two countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed support to President Nicolás Maduro in a telephone call in which he said he favored peaceful dialogue to resolve the crisis, the Kremlin said Thursday.

[…]

China, another major investor in Venezuela, said it was highly concerned about the situation in Venezuela and warned against military intervention.

[…]

Beijing has extended some $55 billion in energy-related loans alone to Venezuela, according to calculations by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Unable to come up with hard currency to service these loans, Caracas has been paying in discounted barrels of oil—but struggled even to do that after prices collapsed in 2014. China agreed to extend an additional $5 billion credit line to Venezuela in September, 2018.

Russia has invested a total of over $4.1 billion in Venezuela. In addition to the two countries’ trade and joint investment in oil and gas projects, they are also cooperating on the military front: Russia provides Kalashnikov rifles, helicopters, anti-aircraft missile systems, and jet fighters to Caracas, and is building a Kalashnikov production plant in Venezuela that is expected to open this year. The WSJ article might have added that Russia sent a pair of nuclear-capable strategic bombers to Venezuela last month.

The US is being condemned in some quarters for, in effect, appointing a president for Venezuela. The reality is that the world tends to operate more along the lines of a collection of drug cartels than the principles of international law, and the US is not going to allow its two main geopolitical rivals to meddle in its neighborhood indefinitely. Like Walter White in that great scene in Breaking Bad, the US is telling Russia and China to stay out of its territory.

Refresher on the Monroe Doctrine:

In his December 2, 1823, address to Congress, President James Monroe articulated United States’ policy on the new political order developing in the rest of the Americas and the role of Europe in the Western Hemisphere.
President James Monroe

The statement, known as the Monroe Doctrine, was little noted by the Great Powers of Europe, but eventually became a longstanding tenet of U.S. foreign policy. Monroe and his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams drew upon a foundation of American diplomatic ideals such as disentanglement from European affairs and defense of neutral rights as expressed in Washington’s Farewell Address and Madison’s stated rationale for waging the War of 1812. The three main concepts of the doctrine—separate spheres of influence for the Americas and Europe, non-colonization, and non-intervention—were designed to signify a clear break between the New World and the autocratic realm of Europe. Monroe’s administration forewarned the imperial European powers against interfering in the affairs of the newly independent Latin American states or potential United States territories. While Americans generally objected to European colonies in the New World, they also desired to increase United States influence and trading ties throughout the region to their south. European mercantilism posed the greatest obstacle to economic expansion. In particular, Americans feared that Spain and France might reassert colonialism over the Latin American peoples who had just overthrown European rule. Signs that Russia was expanding its presence southward from Alaska toward the Oregon Territory were also disconcerting.

[…]

As Monroe stated: “The American continents … are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” Monroe outlined two separate spheres of influence: the Americas and Europe. The independent lands of the Western Hemisphere would be solely the United States’ domain. In exchange, the United States pledged to avoid involvement in the political affairs of Europe, such as the ongoing Greek struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire, and not to interfere in the existing European colonies already in the Americas.

TLDR: “This is ARE hemisphere.”

Let’s you and them fight

As usual in geopolitics, there is more going on behind the scenes than some of the more breathless news reports would suggest:

The Russian forces currently in Syria will take action to restrain Hezbollah and Iranian activity there, according to understandings reached by Israel, the United States, Jordan and Saudi Arabia with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a Jordanian official confirmed to Israel Hayom.

The understandings are the product of behind-the-scenes diplomatic talks that were underway prior to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision this week to withdraw American forces from Syria.

According to the terms of the understanding, Russia will continue to give Israel the freedom to strike Hezbollah and Iranian targets and weaponry that threaten the “balance of power” in Syria. According to the Jordanian official, it was these understandings between Trump and Putin that paved the way for the U.S. decision to pull its forces from Syria.

Other high-ranking Jordanian officials have confirmed that Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia are working together to contain the threat posed by Iran and Hezbollah’s presence in Syria. Several of them emphasized that U.S. officials had made it clear that U.S. intelligence agencies would increase cooperation with Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, particularly on sharing intelligence, in a joint attempt to counter Iran’s attempt to create a contiguous Shi’ite corridor from Tehran to Beirut.

It looks like the Middle East is increasingly going to have to sort itself out, with a little help from nearby Russia. The consequences are hard to predict, but the US withdrawal from Syria almost certainly reduces the risk of conflict between the US and Russia, as well as between the US and its NATO ally Turkey, which threatened earlier this month to launch an offensive against the US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria.

Movie review: “Hunter Killer”

3/4 stars  ★★★☆

Hunter Killer movie

Hunter Killer is a highly entertaining military thriller starring a US nuclear-powered attack submarine, with Gerard Butler in a supporting role as its clenched-jawed, maverick commander. Featuring much underwater badassery, as well as black ops on land and scenes of Gary Oldman yelling, the movie shows you what could happen when a lethal, 7,000-ton tube deep in the Arctic Ocean is tasked with averting WWIII.

The B-movie plot is way over the top, and involves a coup d’état against the Russian president by a rogue general who for some reason wants to trigger a war with the US. Commander Joe Glass of the fictional USS Arkansas takes radical action to prevent such a stupid conflagration – helped by a cheesy team of Navy SEALS who parachute onto the Kola Peninsula and literally rescue the deposed Russian head of state.

The dialogue is entirely forgettable, there is no character development, and the plot has more holes than a leaky deep-diving craft. The movie is also comically earnest; I detected one attempt at a joke, which fell flat. Having said that, the fast-moving action and sheer awesomeness of the advanced military hardware on display kept me fully engaged. The cinematography and production design are excellent and you really get to experience life on board a submarine.

The movie has a quaint 1980s vibe to it, like a Jane Fonda workout video. Filmed in the summer of 2016, Hunter Killer feels like it was lifted out of the Cold War years, hearkening back to a simpler time when superpower conflict was still a thing. From a propaganda standpoint, the movie is excellent PR for the US Navy, and I am not being snide when I say that it’s hard to imagine a stronger argument for wanting to stuff yourself into a deadly submersible cylinder and blow sh*t up.

It’s also a feel-good story, in which brave Americans and Russians work together to take down the bad guys and restore peace on earth. I was curious to know what Russian audiences would think of it, but it appears Russia’s Ministry of Culture has not yet approved the film for cinemas. However, I did find this rather negative review on a Russian news site. Sample courtesy of Google Translate:

But everyone has forgotten about the “Red Sparrow” with Jennifer Lawrence in the role of a Soviet spy, as another American director shot an even more outspoken “cranberry”. Before the premiere of the film “The Hunter-Killer” remnants of a few days, and Western film critics are already wondering how this can be removed altogether.

Good president and bad minister

“The killer hunter” is a nonstandard “cranberry,” at least the director at least tried to make the film not look like that. That is why he portrayed the Russian president Zakharin as a mild liberal of the Gorbachev era. A scapegoat made insidious Minister of Defense Durov, who just personifies the canonical Soviet “villain.” “Occurs when he was, but without a hard reactionary official“ cranberries ”would be incomplete. […]

The film is punctuated with scenes of battles using modern military technology. There are missile defense systems, submarines and tankers. This is a tribute to the creators of “Fast and the Furious” technically savvy viewers.

Cranberries? Apparently, the terms refers to Western stereotypes of Russia. According to a blogger:

The term ‘klyukvification‘* mentioned in the headline is formed from the word ‘klyukva’ [2] (i.e. cranberry in Russian) + ‘fication‘ (as in mystification). As I wrote in my post:

This word is often used in Russia in a non-literal meaning to describe foreign (negative) stereotypes concerning Russia and Russians or some specific Russian cultural products (films, books, music videos, etc.) which are ‘klyukved’ on purpose by their creators in order to be appreciated by the Western media and public.

And here is a pictorial example of what he calls “high-concentration klyukva”:

Klyukva

Western stereotypes of Russia

My feeling is that the Russians in Hunter Killer are more stock action-movie characters than stereotypical Russians. And there are no bears or matryoshka dolls to be seen.

PS – This is hilarious:

Saw it at a whim while passing a cinema and had a few hours to kill.

Was it directed by Michael Bay? Or the Fast and Furious guys? Why were all the Russians speaking English? Why was the camera spinning around Admiral Dude and Gary Oldman while they were having a normal conversation? Why was Captain Gerald Butler so bizarrely dramatic in a speech immediately upon getting on board? Also, did he actually do anything in the movie besides listen to various Russian dudes?

Also also, at the start, he was in Scotland hunting, then in Scotland at a US Navy Base, then his XO asked if he had a good trip from Portsmouth, which is in England? Am I getting that all right?

But yeah, it was dumb… but fine. 3 stars.

PPS – What’s with all the British actors playing Americans these days? The Scottish Gerard Butler as a US Navy submarine commander, English Gary Oldman as a US Navy admiral, English Toby Stephens as a US Navy SEAL commander… they do a great job with accents, so I can’t complain. It’s just interesting.

Greg’s foreign media doctrine

The US is getting tough on Chinese state-owned media. But is it enough?

The Justice Department ordered two leading Chinese state-run media organizations to register as foreign agents, according to people familiar with the matter, as U.S. officials ramp up efforts to combat foreign influence operations and toughen their stance on a variety of China policies.

The DOJ in recent weeks told Xinhua News Agency and China Global Television Network—known as CGTN now and earlier as CCTV—to register under a previously obscure foreign lobbying law that gained prominence when it was used in the past year against associates of President Donald Trump, including Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, the people said.

The DOJ order comes as Washington and Beijing are involved in an escalating trade conflict, with China announcing on Tuesday it would retaliate for the U.S. tariffs unveiled Monday on $200 billion in Chinese goods. […]

The Justice Department told the senators it couldn’t comment on any potential continuing investigations and wrote that not all state-controlled media would necessarily be required to register as foreign agents, such as those that run news bureaus in the U.S. to report on events for an audience in their home countries.

“Unless there is an effort by the state-controlled media organization to use its reporting in the United States to target an audience here for purposes of perception management or to influence U.S. policy, there would probably be no obligation for it to register under FARA,” a DOJ official wrote in a letter dated Feb. 20 that was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

It’s unclear whether Chinese media organizations like Xinhua and CGTN have significant audiences in America (although some of their messaging is clearly aimed at Americans). It’s also unclear what (if anything) separates normal “journalism” from “perception management,” and it’s unclear why media outlets such as Xinhua and Korea’s KBS America should be registered as foreign agents but not, say, the BBC.

The guidelines for FARA registration seem very vague. Another issue is that FARA-registered media entities are not required to stop producing content, including for American audiences (although they are required to disclose their funding and activities and pay a fee). Some laud this as a positive transparency measure, while others denounce it as a troubling assault on journalistic freedom, and yet others wish FARA had more teeth.

The whole situation is complex, murky, and unsatisfactory to a lot of people. I propose cutting through all the complexity by applying the principle of reciprocity. Quite simply, the US should treat foreign media outlets the way their respective countries treat US media outlets. For example, since China bans the publication and printing of foreign newspapers and magazines for sale in the mainland, the US should not allow China Daily to be sold from newspaper boxes on the streets of America’s major cities:

China Daily New York

(Benjamin Chasteen/The Epoch Times)

And since China would never allow CNN, for example, to broadcast US foreign policy propaganda on Beijing’s giant Sky Screen, neither should Xinhua be allowed to broadcast Chinese foreign policy propaganda on a huge LED screen in Times Square:

Xinhua Times Square

(The Nanfang)

The same principle would apply to Russia, in whose capital city you allegedly can’t find a major foreign newspaper. (It should be pointed out that Russia’s attempts to control and limit foreign media predate the Kremlin’s recent move to label foreign media outlets as foreign agents, ostensibly in retaliation for the US doing the same to RT and Sputnik Radio.)

Besides being irreproachably fair, this policy would also expose the severe hypocrisy of any authoritarian governments that complain that their media outlets are being muzzled in the US, since the US would simply be mirroring the restrictive policies of those governments. Optimistically, this could even prompt some authoritarian governments to relax their controls on US media to regain their American footprint.

Now, this policy would do little to curb the Russian information warfare and influence operations that so terrify America’s political and media elites, as social media is the main battlefield for those alleged activities, carried out by armies of invisible trolls and bots. The rule of reciprocity hardly makes sense in the context of Twitter and Facebook. But that’s another story for another day.

Russia debate

Peter Hitchens makes a compelling argument that British diplomacy towards Russia is leading to a new Cold War. The opening statement by his debate opponent Rupert Wieloch is also worth listening to. Unfortunately it seems that the rest of the debate is not available on YouTube.

Here’s the first clip:

I’ve transcribed some of the highlights:

People say that Asia begins at the Ural Mountains. Well, technically it does, but really it begins at Moscow. It is a frontier city. This is a country which has been invaded by Tartars, by Mongols, by Poles, by Swedes, by Poles again, by the Germans, by the Germans, by the Germans again, by us, by the French, repeatedly, over and over again. It has no natural defenses… The Ural Mountains… are not particularly impressive. There is no real barrier. They live in constant, realistic fear of invasion. Their second city, now Saint Petersburg, was within living memory besieged by an invading army to such an extent that a large number of its population died of starvation. And you can go there and visit the enormous graves, and these are the people who are the grandfathers and great uncles and great aunts and grandmothers of people now living.

Understand this, and you begin to understand perhaps why Russians have a rather different attitude towards the world than we do, being surrounded conveniently by large stretches of deep salt water; or than the Americans do, who have the Pacific on one side, and the Atlantic on the other, and Mexico at the bottom, and Canada at the top. How nice, in comparison to having China on one side, and Germany on the other, and the Middle East at the bottom, which is what the Russians have to put up with. So please bear this in mind when discussing attitudes towards Russia. […]

This country [Britain] has no borders with Russia. We barely trade with them. We have no actual interests which clash with theirs. They don’t pay us much attention. We have no particular reason to be at war with them. And yet, here we are, at the moment, in a country where the government and its military leaders and its secretary of state and of defense and many of its journalists constantly, to my mind almost obsessively, go on and on and on about the Russian danger. […]

Since the collapse of the Soviet regime, which I witnessed, the Moscow government, under whatever name you care to give it, has relinquished control, without any significant bloodshed, of 800,000 square miles of territory — 700,000 square miles of territory in Europe, and another who knows how many in Central Asia — and it has lost control of something like 180 million people in the same period.

During the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the European Union and its military wing, NATO, has gained control over 400,000 square miles and over 120 million people. How is it, under those circumstances, that Russia can conceivably be classified as an aggressive power? Which one is the expanding power, which one is the diminishing one? The forces of NATO are 10 times the size of those of Russia. Russia’s gross domestic product is approximately the size of that of Italy. This is not a major country. […]