Op-Ed | Trump’s Foreign Soulmates

Alexei Bayer and Bill Humphrey for The Globalist: “Look at commodities-export strongmen like Chavez and Putin if you want to understand Trump.”


Foreigners see Donald Trump as one of those outlandish characters the New World periodically produces and then thrusts upon the international stage.

It is, however, far more than a bewildering one-man show. The rise of Trump underscores that we are witnessing a split of the United States of America into two distinct nations.

It is, perhaps, a return to form for a country that has often split politically (and once militarily) between its economically developed regions and its farm- or mineral-driven regions.

One of those two nations remains closer to the image that America has projected toward the outside world for nearly two centuries – an industrialized, highly innovative nation and a modern society that is open, liberal, tolerant and democratic.

The other America is once again displaying the characteristics of a commodity-exporting nation, as it did for much of U.S. history.

Poor role models worldwide

It is therefore only logical that — in order to understand Trump and above all the folks who cast their votes for him – it is fitting to look at other modern commodity-export-dependent nations, such as oil-rich Russia, Venezuela and so on.

Commodity exporting nations are a mess everywhere – from Algeria and Azerbaijan to Zambia and Zimbabwe.

They live off the distribution of free-flowing revenues which require a strong state. Friends and family of those who control the distribution obviously get a lot more. These nations tend to be ruled by charismatic strongmen who safeguard the interests of their cronies while feeding nationalist rhetoric to the masses.

Naturally, the masses hate immigrants and outsiders, because they represent additional mouths to be fed by crumbs from the strongman’s table. They are full of disdain for neighbors who aren’t fortunate enough to have natural resources in their soil.

Commodity exporters don’t need representative democracy, appointing their leaders by popular acclaim and very often for life. Read more

Even Russia’s tigers can’t stop invading neighboring countries

_78109801_tigerA tiger closely associated with Vladimir Putin has crossed into China, sparking fears of an international incident if something terrible happens on the other side of the border:

Virile, canny and possessed with a boundless appetite for red meat, Kuzya, a 23-month-old Siberian tiger, would seem the perfect mascot for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who had a personal hand in reintroducing Kuzya to the wild in the Russian Far East in May.

It turns out that Kuzya, like Mr. Putin, has territorial ambitions, which this week drew him across the frigid Amur River that separates Russia and China. His arrival set off a diplomatic incident of sorts when it became clear that “President Putin’s tiger,” as one Russian newspaper put it, was facing possible peril on the Chinese side of the border.

On Friday, wildlife officials in China’s far northeast were scrambling to ascertain Kuzya’s whereabouts after his Russian minders, tracking him by radio transmitter, expressed concern that he could end up in the hands of poachers — not an unlikely outcome given the steep price a rare Siberian tiger can fetch on the Chinese black market.
At $10,000 a carcass, the incentive for poachers is hard to resist.

One final must-quote line from the New York Times:

The tiger recovery effort has been one of Mr. Putin’s pet projects.


Is Odessa the next target of Russia’s information war?

The footage and photos coming out of (the predominantly Russian, major Black Sea port city of) Odessa over the weekend are pretty crazy.

A few weeks after Putin referred to Odessa as historically Russian, pro-Russian protests began in the city, leading to fights with Ukrainian nationalists, as police stood by and watched. Dozens were killed in the Friday clashes and the transitional national government in Kiev began intervening to kick the Odessa’s police force into doing its job.

These deaths now appear to have been the result of a bad combination of Russian-speaking armed protesters and frustrated, young Ukrainian nationalists on parade for unity (en route to a soccer game) amid increasing military tensions in the eastern part of Ukraine. Shots were fired at the unity rally, and the parade participants fought back. Barricades were put up by the pro-separatist side and nationalists began throwing bricks at them. A government building where some of the Russians were barricaded caught fire, resulting in most of the deaths.

Today, approximately 1,300 pro-Russian activists in Odessa arrived at a police detention center to “liberate” about 70 of their comrades arrested during the Friday protests.

The cycle we have seen previously in pro-Russian breakaway zones of other countries, and again this year in Crimea and the three “separatist” eastern oblasts, has been: Russian speakers begin agitating against the national government, leading to violent clashes or claims of being threatened, followed by Russian special forces arriving to stir up more trouble and secure military sites, concluding with Russia “considering” how to respond to protect “innocent” people. And then Russia usually invades and takes control. This system of information war creates a context and narrative “justifying” Russian intervention (a practice the U.S. is not above).

Thus, Russian Ukrainian deaths in Odessa may open a new front in Vladimir Putin’s drive to retake all of “New Russia” from the the country’s imperial days. If successful, such an annexation would link the Russian Federation overland, through Donetsk and all of the southern coast of Ukraine, to Russian-occupied Crimea and Russian-occupied Transdniestria in neighboring Moldova.

Ukraine could find itself suddenly landlocked after nearly a century of being identified strongly with the Black Sea coast and Black Sea naval activities, much like naval power Austria-Hungary suddenly losing its coasts and ships at the end of 1918, when World War I ended.

Putin’s slam dunk

vladimir-putinSeeing Putin slowly building a tenuous and highly suspect case to justify seizing half of Ukraine to protect Russian interests must be what it feels like for the whole rest of the world every time the U.S. starts one of its messaging blitzes to justify invading some place.

But he’s practically flying solo — with state media just following his improvised lead until they buy their own propaganda. He’s a one man messaging army!

Why couldn’t the sequester have reduced our Beltway Pundit Class by 10% across the board? Clearly we don’t need so many. Just one charismatic ex-spy with a flair for media spin would have done the trick.

Oh shoot, I just described George Tenet, didn’t I?

In TV townhall, Putin widens Ukraine claims

In a televised townhall forum, Vladimir Putin today put an arc of land including all of Eastern Ukraine and southern Ukraine — all the way to Odessa — on the chopping block, alluding to its role as a Russian imperial frontier zone from the 18th century onward. This would (by cutting Ukraine off from the sea) link Russia by land all the way to Russian-occupied Crimea and Russian-controlled Transdniestria region of Moldova.

Here’s the strongest quote, as translated by the New York Times:

“The question is to ensure the rights and interests of the Russian southeast. It’s New Russia. Kharkiv, Lugansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in czarist times, they were transferred in 1920. Why? God knows. Then for various reasons these areas were gone, and the people stayed there — we need to encourage them to find a solution.”

For a labeled map of some of these regions, see our earlier post “Ukraine Crisis Map (as of April 12, 2014)”. I have not yet labeled Odessa on there (since it hadn’t come up before), but it’s located near Moldova close to the Dniester River and is a major Ukrainian port on the Black Sea coast.

The Times analysis argues that this is a deliberate rhetorical step up:

Mr. Putin’s use of the historical term “Novorossiya” or “New Russia” [from the Tsarist era] to refer to southeastern Ukraine, which he had not emphasized previously, suggested that he was replicating Russia’s assertions of historical ties to Crimea before the occupation and annexation of the peninsula.

Putin’s neo-imperialism is really starting to become more and more transparent. Another reason to drop the “new Cold War” chatter.

Below is a map of Novorossiya, circa 1897.

Credit: Dim Grits - Wikimedia

Credit: Dim Grits – Wikimedia

Putin highlights Russian enclave in Moldova

In a statement from the Russian presidency summarizing a call to President Obama today, Russia highlighted the Russian-dominated Transdniestria as an area of concern for Russia right now (much like Crimea was an area of concern right before they invaded it). NYT:

The Kremlin, in its statement, also drew attention to Ukraine’s blockade of Transnistria, a breakaway, pro-Russian region of Moldova, that has relied on land access through Ukraine for crucial imports.

The Kremlin said the blockade is causing “significant complication of the living conditions of people in the region” impeding their mobility and economic activity and urging negotiations.

This will fuel more speculation in line with the recent suggestion by NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove that the Russian Army may be positioning itself for another intervention on the other side of Ukraine and Crimea, in the Transdniestria region of Moldova.

For a complete background dossier on the Transdniestria/Moldova situation, see “Get to know a geopolitical flashpoint: Moldova”.

Putin’s Yes-And Crimea Adventure

vladimir-putinRepublicans are so convinced Russia always has been and always will be the American archenemy that they consistently exaggerate Russian (or previously Soviet) capacities and strategic brilliance.

Today a high school student told me he’d been hearing a lot in the news about how Vladimir Putin is a master military strategist. It’s not a huge surprise he’d have heard that, what with the greek chorus-like presence of American Republicans all over the media slamming Russia (and the Obama Administration in the same breath) over this purportedly diabolical invasion.

The reality is that this Crimean adventure can pretty much only backfire on Putin over the mid- to long-term. Only U.S. Republicans (and their like-minded intellectual supporters) think this invasion is brilliant chess. As Domin Tierney in an article entitled “Putin’s Improv Act” in The Atlantic argues, it’s entirely possible (indeed, likely) that Putin is winging it — wait for it — just like the Soviet leadership on Afghanistan.

If the Japanese in 1941 and the Americans in 2003 were willing to start major, high-risk wars with little regard for the finale, isn’t it conceivable that Putin began a more limited intervention in Crimea without a careful plan?

Perhaps we’ve bought into Moscow’s mythos about the president who hang-glides with Siberian cranes, rides with the Night Wolves motorcycle gang, and dives for ancient Greek vases in the Black Sea. Like the Dos Equis character, Putin is the most interesting man in the world.

Or, more likely, we’ve fallen victim to a very human bias. One of the core ideas in psychology is the fundamental attribution error. We often explain our own behavior as being “situational” or driven by external forces we can’t control. But we explain other people’s behavior as being “dispositional” or propelled by their deep-rooted character. When the United States acts, we’re responding to events. When Putin acts, he’s following his twisted nature and a clear agenda.

It’s absolutely possible — and Tierney provides plenty of supporting evidence to back the notion that this was far from planned — that this is just one giant improvised response to rapidly evolving events on the ground. Yes, and.

The bad part is that a situation of people reacting hastily to events but assuming the other side is reacting with a well-developed plan is a good way to get the world embroiled in a major war.