The Porton Down Troll

So, not knowing much about Porton Down — the British military-linked science facility helping to investigate the Salisbury attack and that identified the nerve agent used on Sergei Skripal as the Russian/Soviet “Novichok” compound — I went to the font of all knowledge: Wikipedia.

Here’s the first line of Porton Down’s Wikipedia entry as it currently stands:

Porton Down is a United Kingdom science park, situated just northeast of the village of Porton near Salisbury, in Wiltshire, England.”

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Pay Attention

Maybe I’ve missed something, but as best I can tell most Americans – indeed, most in the West in general – aren’t aware of the fact that, two weeks ago, US troops repelled a Russian attack in Syria, killing maybe as many as several hundred people (and losing none of their own).

Here’s the contemporaneous report from CNN. If you read Russian, though, you’ll learn a lot more from Pavel Felgengauer’s article today in Novaya Gazeta.  In a nutshell: On 7 Feb., a unit of pro-Assad troops including some number of Russians – most likely from the ‘Vagner’ private military co (Russia’s version of Blackwater) – moved on an oil facility near Deir ez-Zor, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces.

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More is Less

There’s a phrase in Russian – which I’m sure I’ve written about before – that warns against paying too much attention to “the average temperature in the hospital” (средняя температура по больнице, an indicator of patients’ aggregate health that is easily measured but generally meaningless). It’s a phrase that comes increasingly to mind every time I read or hear that Russia’s economy is set to grow by 2% of GDP this year: that figure might make Economy Minister Maksim Oreshkin feel good about his stewardship, but it masks quite a range of ailments.

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The Media & the Messages

In today’s Russia, in a context of institutional breakdown and politically enforced atomization, it is not, as Marshall McLuhan has famously suggested, the medium that allows for the extension of human beings across space and time. It is the messages those media carry that matter. Put more succinctly: The messages make the media.

That, in a nutshell, is the argument of a brief essay I was invited to contribute to a symposium on ‘The Press Under Attack’ for Mobilizing IdeasThe rest of the essay is here.

All Against All

It’s official: Ksenia Sobchak is running for president of Russia.

Her words, not mine:

I know I’m a controversial figure. I’m a journalist, a blonde in chocolate, the daughter of a reformer, a member of the coordinating council of the Russian opposition. I might not be your candidate, but my participation in these elections on the terms I’ve described is good for voters and healthy for Russia’s political system.

In her announcement-cum-manifesto published in Vedomosti, Sobchak declared that she’s not for the annexation of Crimea – and not against it. “I’m outside the rigid frameworks of politics,” she wrote. Russia, she says, should be a European country, a democratic country, a federation, an open economy with a strong welfare state, free of propaganda, secular, and rid of the corruption that currently besets it.

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In The Bud

People trying to sound smart about Russian strategy like to use funny words, like zugzwang (what happens in chess when you’re obliged to make a move that will inevitably hasten your own defeat) or kuzushi (the knack in judo of getting your opponent off-balance). Mostly, of course, this is shorthand for “I don’t really know what’s going on, but here’s something that sounds good.”

Funny, then, that people who usually go in for this kind of analysis are so easily kuzushied. (Or zugzwanged? I forget.) Case in point:

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