Active Measures

It’s hard to ignore Paul Krugman.

Leading lights of the neo-con foreign policy establishment – people like Anders Aslund and Anne Applebaum – are doing double-takes as they find themselves re-tweeting a recent column by the left-wing economist, in which Krugman wonders aloud whether Donald Trump might be working for Vladimir Putin.

To be fair, Krugman doesn’t actually say that Trump is an agent of the Kremlin. Instead, he points out the ways in which Trump’s politics – his disregard for the rule of law, his knee-jerk reactionism, his moral and financial corruption – resemble Putin’s. And then he points out the very real ties that some members of Trump’s team, particularly campaign manager Paul Manafort, have to the Kremlin (and to numerous other odious governments around the world). And, Krugman says, it stinks.

The real hack job in what is becoming something of a trend in American punditry, though, belongs to Franklin Foer. Writing in Slate, Foer pieces together evidence and observation in ways that are suggestive but nothing more than that, then accompanies them with sinister black-and-white images of Putin peering  over Trump’s shoulder; you’ve got to read the fine print to find out that they’re “photo illustrations” (i.e., photoshopped). “In the end,” Foer writes, “we only have circumstantial evidence about the Russian efforts to shape this election—a series of disparate data points and a history of past interference in similar contests. But the pattern is troubling, and so is the premise.”

Foer and Krugman are wrong.

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Don’t Look Now

The UK Companies House has begun releasing its ‘beneficial owners’ registry – technically, ‘People With Significant Control‘ of enterprises registered in Britain. The data are a bit of a bear to work with, and, if you’re a Russianist, hardly worth the trouble.

Out of the nearly 11,000 entries in the registry to date, only four have Russian nationality, of whom two are domiciled in Russia, one in Switzerland and one in Ukraine. And none of them are particularly noteworthy. The same goes for the companies they control, although perhaps the names Huxby Ltd, Direkt Finanz AG Ltd, European Oil Trading Management Ltd and Unimarket International Ltd will have more meaning to others than they do to me.

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Everything Is True and Nothing is Possible

Let this be a lesson to those who think that Donald Trump cannot win.

The decision by a majority of British voters to leave the European Union is not a rejection of Brussels; most British voters know little of how the EU works and care even less. Nor was it a rejection of Westminster (a good chunk of which supported Brexit), or of the elite (public school boys Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage won the day).

This was something more: Brexit is a rejection of the political community as such.

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Russia’s Trickle-Up Economy

Somebody might want to remind Anton Siluanov that Russia’s got elections coming up.

United Russia – the ruling ‘party of Putin’ that isn’t allowed to use the Russian president’s name or likeness as it campaigns to keep control of the State Duma in September – has never been less popular than it is now. And it’s no wonder: While Putin gets the credit for Crimea, Syria and restoring Russians’ pride in their country, United Russia gets left holding the flag for the flagging economy. And so uninspiring are the party’s leaders, that Putin’s handlers are evidently concerned that United Russia’s unpopularity might rub off on the president himself; hence the ban on even using Putin’s name.

But Finance Minister Anton Siluanov doesn’t have time for the niceties of electoral politics. He’s got an economy to run. And in a statement today, he’s made it abundantly clear that improving the welfare of ordinary Russian citizens – the sort who usually vote for United Russia – isn’t among his top priorities.

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Object Lessons

In 1987, when I was a sixth-grade pupil at Hope Valley Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina, our social studies teacher asked us a question: What do you hate most about our school?

“The homework!” someone shouted, inevitably.

“The cockroaches in the cafeteria!” someone else added.

“The food in the cafeteria!” followed, and it was, I think, probably worse than the roaches.

At the age of 11, we had begun learning about politics and had watched, if memory serves, a documentary about Solidarity in Poland. On their example, we wrote down all of our gripes and signed our names, put it in an envelope and addressed it to the principal. Then we got out cardboard and markers: “Down with dodgeball!” “Fix the lights!” “Improve the food!” That afternoon, when the bell rang after recess, we didn’t return to our classroom. Instead, we got out our signs and began marching in circles around the flagpole. Twenty minutes later, an exasperated secretary came out to tell us that, if we would only go back to class, the principal would be happy to meet with us in the morning to discuss our demands.

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It’s Not the Economy, Stupid

The New York Times has gotten better, of late, at infographics. And they’ve gotten better at covering Russia, too. But somehow, their attempt today to combine the two was less than impressive.

In an effort to explain Russia’s economic downturn in five simple charts, the Times noted the following:

  1. Russia’s been running a budget deficit, with a negligible interruption, since 2009;
  2. Russia is heavily dependent on hydrocarbons, and now is a very bad time to be dependent on hydrocarbons;
  3. The ruble is weak, squeezed by sanctions and the fact that now is a very bad time to be dependent on hydrocarbons;
  4. They’re spending too much money on the military; and
  5. Their reserves are running low.

All of this is true, but little of it matters. For one thing, despite the deficit Russia’s fiscal position is comparatively strong; it has very little debt, and some other superpowers have been running deficits for decades and getting long just fine, thank you. For another, oil prices will eventually bounce back. A weak ruble will eventually spur import substitution and a manufacturing revival. And the situation with the reserves, while worse than it used to be, isn’t as bad as it might look.

I could go on, but that’s not the point. The point is that Russia does have a serious economic problem – and it’s got very little to do with the economy.

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Out On a Limb

There was one piece of political news in Russia today, not two.

The one piece of political news was that somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 Muscovites turned out to mark the murder of Boris Nemtsov. If you missed the pictures – and they are striking – take a look. We can have a debate about whether or not this is going to lead to anything, but these are not pictures of apathy. These are pictures of a slow but steady burn.

All of that is just a long way of saying that Ramzan Kadyrov’s statement that he wants to step down as President of Chechnya is not news. I may be taking an analytical risk here, but I am absolutely convinced that Kadyrov is, quite simply, taking the piss.

To see why, all you need is a simple thought experiment. If you’re reading this, chances are you know quite a bit about Russia. Gather up all your knowledge, all your insight, and try to answer this question: Who could replace Kadyrov in Grozny? Any ideas?

No, I didn’t think so.

The uncomfortable truth is that it’s easier to imagine someone replacing Putin than it is to imagine someone replacing Kadyrov. And that’s the point Kadyrov is trying to make. It doesn’t matter if Yashin thinks Kadyrov’s done, or if Bortnikov thinks Kadyrov’s done, or even if Kadyrov thinks he’s done. The overwhelming likelihood is that he’s not going anywhere.