• US-Russian Relations: What matters but isn’t covered in all the tabloid news

    Russia’s interference in America’s 2016 election matters. So do any possible connections to the Trump campaign

    But the media’s obsession with those issues is missing other major developments in US-Russian relations

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    The news about US-Russian-European relations goes far beyond the 2016 election interference and possible connections to the Trump campaign.

    On the international stage, Vladimir Putin has skilfully played a very weak hand, while the US misplayed its own for 8 years. Putin has taken an economy the size of Italy’s and returned it to status as an international power.

    It is Iran’s major outside supporter and a major player in Syria, where, in return for supporting the Assad regime, it has acquired major bases.

    It has used Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas for political leverage.

    And it has effectively offered to step in and assist North Korea if they want assistance beyond China’s.

    But he can only stay in power by running a corrupt kleptocracy, in close alignment with the oligarchs, with everything stage-managed from Moscow.

    That’s a good way for him to stay in power, but it is a terrible way to grow a diverse, modern economy. Over the long run, the Russian economy will continue to sputter as the US grows.

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    What has the Trump Administration done to cope with Putin internationally?

    The media focus has been entirely on US weakness, especially Trump’s mixed statements about NATO and his inexplicable reluctance to recognize the threat from Russia in clear, unambiguous language. There has been some focus on the recent cease-fire in Syria, too.

    But there is much more to the story. And all these other developments put pressure on a Kremlin ill-equipped to handle it.

    NATO

    On NATO, as I have noted, Trump is now a firm supporter but he still wants two major changes: a focus on terrorism and fair-share payments from European partners, as they promised. One reasonable interpretation of his threats to back away from NATO is that they are meant to get Europe to pay up.

    Poland

    In Poland, Trump did more than make a speech (a very good one in my opinion, a very bad one in the opinion of Democrats). He also agreed to an important arms sale the Obama Administration had refused.

    In a move set to counter Russia’s reinforcement on NATO’s borders, Poland and the U.S. have agreed that Warsaw will purchase the American-made Patriot air defense missile, the Polish government announced Thursday.

    Although Poland is a long-term advocate for more U.S. military presence in Europe, Russia’s decision to deploy Iskander missile systems on its borders in November made the demand for assistance more urgent. The S-400 surface-to-air missiles and nuclear-capable Iskander systems are set to be delivered in Kaliningrad, Russia’s exclave bordering Poland. –Newsweek, story here

    Ukraine

    Totally missing from news coverage is the startling news that Ukraine is now openly seeking NATO membership–understandable, given the Russian threat, but an open insult to the Kremlin, which refused even to let Ukraine strike a trade deal with the EU.

    The Reuters story is headlines: “Pledging Reforms by 2020, Ukraine Seeks Route into NATO

    [Ukraine’s] President Petro Poroshenko, whose country is fighting a Kremlin-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, revived the prospect of NATO membership during a visit by NATO Secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg who himself used the occasion to call on Moscow to withdraw its troops from Ukraine.

    “Ukraine has clearly defined its political future and its future in the sphere of security,” Poroshenko speaking to reporters alongside Stoltenberg.

    “Today we clearly stated that we would begin a discussion about a membership action plan and our proposals for such a discussion were accepted with pleasure.”

    Russia, deeply opposed to enlargement of NATO toward its borders, weighed in quickly, saying the prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine would not promote stability and security in Europe. –Reuters

    It’s unclear how NATO will approach this or what the Trump Administration will say (or even if it will speak with one voice).

    But the very fact that Ukraine has raised the NATO issue is sure to be a major irritant in US-Russian relations.

    Energy

    The Russian economy depends on oil revenues, and so does the Kremlin to retain support from oligarchs.

    The problem is that energy prices are under permanent, long-term pressure from the US, where shale technology is getting more and more efficient. The US is now a major (and growing) energy exporter, and Trump is doing everything he can to ramp up production and ramp down prices.

    The impact on Russia is not his primary concern here. He’s more concerned with the positive impact of lower prices on the US economy. But the impact on Russia is real, nonetheless, and Trump means to exploit it.

    On his recently completed trip, the president said:

    Let me be clear about one crucial point. The United States will never use energy to coerce your nations, and we cannot allow others to do so,” Trump said at a press conference flanked by European leaders. “You don’t want to have a monopoly or a monopolistic situation. –CNBC story here

    Trump did not name Russia, but everyone understood his message. After all, Russia had cut gas supplies to Europe in 2008 over a Ukraine dispute. Trump was saying, in effect, that we intend to stop that blackmail by giving you an alternative supplier.

    Bottom Line

    The possible connections between Russia and the Trump campaign are worth a thorough investigation, as Mueller is doing.

    But don’t be mislead by Democrats’ talking tough: they did little to buttress Central European defenses during the Obama years. Pres. Obama had no intention of increasing US hydrocarbon production, if he could prevent it. (He couldn’t, thanks to new technology.) Lower energy prices it contradicted his broader concerns about fossil fuels and global warming. Fracking technology beat his regulatory onslaught, just as it beat the Saudis’ attempt to drive them out of business with low energy prices.

    For all Trump’s inexplicably warm language about Putin, his actions tell a different story. He’s selling arms to Poland, pressuring Europeans to pay up for NATO, unlocking American oil reserves to lower prices over the long-term, and working to ween Europe from Russian natural.

    Taken together, these actions put enormous pressure on a Kremlin underperforming economically, highly dependent on oil prices, and overstretched by its foreign commitment.

     

     

     

  • What Is Trump’s Russia Policy? Who Knows?

    Trump: Putin said Russia didn’t do it. I accepted this.

    Trump: We must work closely with Russia. (on Cyber Security, too?)

    Trump in Warsaw: We will defend the West against threats from an expansive Russia.

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    Nikki Haley: We know it was the Russians. Everyone knows it was the Russians.

    Nikki Haley: We don’t trust Russia, never will.

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    Trump: US and Russia agree not to meddle in each others domestic affairs.

    Tillerson: Russia must restore Ukraine territory.

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    Comment: Well, thanks. That clarifies things.

    There are not only too many hands on the driver’s wheel, there’s no clear sense of where this car is going.

    Strategic ambiguity is fine–as long as the ambiguity is in their head, not yours.

     

    Hat tip to Michael Lipson

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Saturday, July 8

    Articles chosen with care. Comments welcomed. Linked articles in bold purple

     The main stories come out of the G20 meetings in Hamburg.

    • Anti-capitalist riots in the street by extreme left and anarchists
      • Comment: Idiots with nihilist agenda
    • Trump has very long 1-on-1 with Putin
      • Full range of issues, beyond US election meddling, with focus on Syrian cease-fire and division of territory there after ISIS defeat
    • Trump has China’s Xi on schedule on 1-on-1 today
      • North Korea is top of the agenda, of course, but also trade
    • Ivanka briefly sits in for Pres at G20 meeting on Africa alongside world leaders  (Washington Post) (Comment: A nothingburger; still, it should have been the Sec. of State sitting there)

    Comment: We won’t know the results (as opposed to the agendas) of the Putin and Xi meetings until the effects on the ground are seen, beginning next week. The fact that Putin and Trump met without advisors is interesting, too. It indicates how serious the leaks are. The US cannot trust anybody to be in room.

    Comment on Silences at G20: This was supposed to be a showcase for German leader, Angela Merkel. She has been overshadowed by Putin, Xi, Trump, and rioters. Second, we have heard little so far about the shared challenges of Islamic terrorism and vast immigration flows from North Africa and the Middle East.

     US B1 bombers fly over South Korea as heads-up to North Korea after its ICBM test  (CNN)

    Comment: The signal is “the US can easily can incinerate you.” The problem is, if we launch a military attack, the North Koreans can kill large numbers in Seoul. Moreover, the Chinese might come in to prevent a Korea unified under American leadership.

    There are no good US options here. My guess is that the US starts to up financial sanctions on all North Korean trading partners, including Chinese banks.

     Venezuela’s top opposition leader released from prison to house arrest  (CNN)

    Comment: The country is tottering toward civil war, and oppo leader Leopoldo Lopez is a threat to the regime. The surprise here is that he did not die in prison.

     Chuck Schumer skewers Rex Tillerson over Russian meddling in US election  (The Hill)

    “For Secretary Tillerson to say that this issue will remain unresolved is disgraceful,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. “To give equal credence to the findings of the American Intelligence Community and the assertion by Mr. Putin is a grave dereliction of duty and will only encourage Russia to further interfere in our elections in the future.” –The Hill

    Comment: Schumer is correct. This issue is not “unresolved.” His base loves it; it reinforces their view that Trump is illegitimate. But voters are interested in forward-looking solutions to real problems in the economy, foreign policy, etc. Schumer knows that, of course, but he has to toss red meat to the base. 

     Morgan Stanley: Renewables will be the cheapest power source within three years (Business Insider)

    Numerous key markets recently reached an inflection point where renewables have become the cheapest form of new power generation.

    A dynamic we see spreading to nearly every country we cover by 2020. The price of solar panels has fallen 50% in less than two years (2016-17). –Morgan Stanley via Business Insider

     K-12 Education: Betsy DeVos takes hard line on enforcing federal laws, surprising states who thought she would support local control (New York Times)

    The basic issue is an Obama-era law, replacing No Child Left Behind, that requires “ambitious” educational goals to meet federal standards. How much latitude will the Washington’s Dept. of Ed. give states to determine for themselves what it “ambitious”?

    “It is mind-boggling that the department could decide that it’s going to challenge them on what’s ambitious,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who worked in the Education Department under President George W. Bush. He called the letter “directly in opposition to the rhetoric and the promises of DeVos.” –quoted in New York Times

    Comment: Conservatives as well as liberals are concerned about this issue. They weren’t surprised by Washington’s heavy hand under Obama; they don’t expect it under DeVos and fear they may be getting it.

    Alternative possibilities are that

    • Lower-level officials did this without DeVos’ approval (the person who wrote it is a Democratic advocate for charter schools, appointed by DeVos)
    • The Dept. is actually enforcing the law, as written, until Congress rewrites it

    José Luis Cuevas, a Dark Master of Mexican Art, Dies at 83 (New York Times)

    Comment: He was continually greeted by folks at the bar singing: 

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  • Trump’s Powerful Speech in Poland (my column at Real Clear Politics)

    President Trump’s speech in Warsaw was the best statement yet of his foreign policy.  It

    • Showed a clear-eyed recognition of the threats from Russia and radical Islam,
    • Promised continued U.S. engagement in Europe, and
    • Offered to support Poland against Moscow.

    He wrapped it all in a full-throated defense of Western civilization and its achievements.

    To the people of Central Europe, who live under the Kremlin’s threatening shadow, it said, “We hear you. We believe you. And we will work with you to defend something precious.”

    The column is here (link) at Real Clear Politics.

  • Russia enters the North Korea issue–against the US

    What that means and why Putin did it

    Yesterday, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley spoke very strongly against North Korea’s nuclear program and ICBM tests, which violate more than a dozen resolutions from the UN Security Council.

    Today, the US began circulating a statement to Security Council members to impose new sanctions on Kim Jong Un’s regime.

    Russia nixed it behind the scenes, arguing that the missile launch had not be verified as an intercontinental missile, even though North Korea said it was and the US verified it. (Report here at the Washington Times)

    Comment: Should make for an interesting meeting between Trump and Putin this week.

    Three larger possibilities:

    1. Russia is signaling Pyongyang that, if China offers less than full-throated support, then Moscow is ready to become a much more important ally.
    2. Putin probably wants to know what Trump will offer in other areas, probably Syria, in exchange for backing the resolution
    3. The Russians are still furious with what Obama did after the 2011 UN resolution about Libya; they think that, after the resolution passed, the US and NATO went beyond their promises on military action; hence, they don’t want to give the US an open door now

     

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Thursday, July 6

    Articles chosen with care. Comments welcomed. Linked articles in bold purple

     Poland gives Trump enthusiastic greeting. Why? 

    Radio Poland gives part of the answer: He says US stands firmly behind “mutual defense” commitment

    Comment: The main answer is that they perceive him as tough and ready to deter Russia, which the Poles (understandably) see as militarily aggressive and expansionist. 

     Rep. Steve Scalise, who survived assassination attempt, back in intensive care for infection  (CNN)

    He barely survived the initial injuries, was recovering well until this setback, which puts him in “serious” condition in the ICU

     Anarchists, left-wing radicals plan massive demonstrations in Hamburg, site of G20 meetings  (Washington Post)

    Up to 100,000 protesters [plan to] turn the old merchant city into a site of a global contest over capitalism, the environment and ethnic nationalism. . . .

    Warning of violence, security officials say the demonstration could draw as many as 8,000 members of the militant left, from Germany and beyond. Among its participants will be  “black bloc” demonstrators with anarchist sympathies who wear dark clothes and cover their faces. Authorities said their concerns mounted following the discovery of materials used to prepare molotov cocktails, along with knives, slingshots and baseball bats. –Washington Post

    Comment: Peaceful protests are fine, of course, but not violent one. Those should be contained, with arrests leading to stiff sentences. People who organized the violence should be dealt with harshly by the courts.

     Japan and Europe agree on broad outlines of huge trade deal  (Washington Post)

    will cover nearly 30 percent of the global economy, 10 percent of the world’s population and 40 percent of global trade. –Washington Post

    Comment: The Post says it is aimed at Trump. Partly true. But it is also aimed at Brexit. But its main aim is simpler than these strategic ploys: it is aimed at increasing income in Europe and Japan.

     Air pollution reduces solar power output  (KUOW)

    The story began with a Duke scientist noticing the Taj Mahal had to be cleaned every few years because of pollution deposits.

    Bottom line: cleaning the solar panels regularly helps.

    Comment: It seems to obvious; I was struck that scientists seem not to have noticed it earlier. 

     Green-tech auto company promised a lot of jobs, got a lot of state money, but didn’t deliver. Now Mississippi wants $$ back. (AP)

    Clinton friend and now Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe was CEO of this company when this doozy was pulled off.

    Comment: The problem with targeted subsidies is that they always favor insiders. That’s true even when the projects succeed.

     “Israel’s high-tech industry is brimming with products that have made the jump from military application to civilian markets,” beginning with Iron Dome air-defense technology (CNBC)

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  • ZipDialog Roundup for Wednesday, July 5

    Articles chosen with care. Comments welcomed. Linked articles in bold purple

     US confirms North Korean missile was ICBM, showing progress toward launchers that can hit continental US  (New York Times)

    The administration followed up that warning on Wednesday morning with a joint military exercise in which United States and South Korean forces fired ballistic missiles in the waters along the Korean Peninsula’s east coast.

    But North Korea reaffirmed Wednesday that it would never deviate from its determination to bolster its nuclear and missile abilities as long as the United States’ “hostile policy” and “nuclear threat” persisted. –New York Times

     US vows it will ‘never accept a nuclear North Korea’ after new missile test  (Fox News)

     These Pyongyang tests leave US with few options, NYT says

    A North Korean ability to reach the United States, as former Defense Secretary William J. Perry noted recently, “changes every calculus.” The fear is not that Mr. Kim would launch a pre-emptive attack on the West Coast; that would be suicidal, and if the North’s 33-year-old leader has demonstrated anything in his five years in office, he is all about survival. But if Mr. Kim has the potential ability to strike back, it will shape every decision Mr. Trump and his successors make about defending America’s allies in the region.

    So, the options (according to the David Sanger article in the NYT) are

    • Containment
    • Stronger Sanctions
    • Threaten Preemptive Strikes
    • Negotiations

    None work very well, Sanger says, and the tougher ones carry high risks.

    Comment: My hunch is that the US will try the first three and not show any interest in negotiations unless Kim really begs for it.

     Putin and Trump will meet at upcoming G20 summit. But the Russian controversy in the US limit Trump’s ability to maneuver (Washington Post)

    If Trump attempts to loosen sanctions against Russia for its involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine or its interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Congress could defy him by pursuing even stronger penalties. And if he offers platitudes for Putin without addressing Russia’s election meddling, it will renew questions about whether Trump accepts the findings of his own intelligence officials that Russia intended to disrupt the democratic process on his behalf.

    “The president is boxed in,” said Nicholas Burns, who was U.S. ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush. “Why would you give Putin any kind of concession at the first meeting? What has he done to deserve that?” –Washington Post

     US Manufacturing picks up, signals positive future for US economy (Bloomberg) 2.9%  monthly gain.

    American factories powered up in June at the fastest pace in nearly three years, with robust advances in production, orders and employment that indicate a firming in the economy, data from the Institute for Supply Management showed Monday. –Bloomberg

     Tesla, introducing its first mass-market car this week, plans to introduce an all-electric, long-haul truck in September (Seeking Alpha)

    Trucking is a highly competitive industry, driven almost entirely by cost, cost, and cost. . . .  If Tesla can build a world-beating semi-truck that also delivers lower overall per mile cost, it might disrupt another industry. –Seeking Alpha

    The common wisdom in the trucking industry is that “electric trucks” aren’t possible.

     We need a “Netflix of Knowledge,” says TechCrunch

    They highlight four elements that are needed:

    1. Aggregation, so content is in one place
    2. Curation, so relevant content is available to you
    3. Personalization
    4. Creation, especially the unlocking of tacit knowledge

    With as much as half of all current jobs going away in the next 10-12 years, let’s adopt the following mission: making learning accessible and feasible for every single employee. –TechCrunch

     

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  • ZipDialog Roundup for Saturday, June 17

    Articles chosen with care. Comments welcomed. Linked articles in bold purple

     Sailors missing after US destroyer collides with container ship off Japan  (Washington Post)

    The cause of the collision is not yet know. The US ship is not in danger of sinking but needs to be towed back to port. The container ship is safe, as well.

    Comment: Somebody screwed up big-time.

     Obituary: Helmut Kohl, Chancellor who reunited Germany after fall of Berlin Wall (New York Times)

    Comment: Kohl knew that integrating East Germany would be difficult and costly, but he also knew that the chance for a reunited Germany might not come again. With US support (from George H. W. Bush), he overcame behind-the-scenes objections from France and England. The US brushed aside Soviet objections to integrating all Germany in NATO. Actually, the Soviets were ambivalent because they did not want a rich, powerful, united Germany to have an independent military. In short, Kohl presided over a world-historical change.

     Lawsuit threatened to recover records Comey “unlawfully removed” from the FBI (Fox News)

    Conservative watchdog Judicial Watch is calling on Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe to recover and release federal records and memos it claims were “unlawfully” removed by former Director James Comey, threatening the FBI with a lawsuit should the bureau not comply. –Fox News

    Comment: To me, these records are unambiguously US public documents and ought to be returned and released unless they contain classified materials–in which case the FBI will simply leak them to the New York Times or Washington Post.

     Amazon to buy Whole Foods, which will continue to operate under its name  (Wall Street Journal, subscription)

    Analysts said they expect Amazon eventually to use the stores to promote private-label products, integrate and grow its artificial-intelligence-powered Echo speakers, boost Prime membership and entice more customers into the fold. . . .

    Whole Foods has come under fire as traditional grocers offer more natural and organic items, which are Whole Foods’ mainstay. Its shares had lost nearly half their value since a 2013 peak, and sales at stores open at least a year had slumped. –WSJ

    Comment: I think the key here is going to be home delivery.

    Amazon’s goal is to provide us every good and service without our leaving home.

     Speaker Paul Ryan: Stand back and let Robert Mueller do his job  (Washington Examiner)

    Comment: He’s smart and Donald Trump would do well to follow it unless there is concrete evidence of malfeasance or vast overreach by Mueller’s office. That’s also Rod Rosenstein’s job at the Justice Department

    But there is a problem in the potential scope of Mueller’s inquiry, which blends counter-intelligence (no limits) with possible US criminal violations.

     Miami Herald: Trump’s new Cuba policy is too much for some, not enough for others  (Miami Herald)

    Neither side in the emotional debate — those who favor a more hardline approach and those who favor the former Obama administration approach — got exactly what they wanted from Trump, although those who favor a middle ground that aims at sanctioning the Cuban military while not hampering Cuban Americans’ ability to travel and send money to relatives on the island may be most pleased. –Miami Herald

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