Those in the forecast impact zone and under warnings should really be wrapping up preparations and getting out. While a bit behind the forecast, Ida is still organizing and has every potential to be a Cat 4 at landfall. Updated Key Messages regarding Hurricane Ida (en Español: Mensajes Claves). If you’re in New Orleans (NOLA), a wobble one way or the other is the difference between some wind damage, and swimming for your life. Don’t bet on it.
It’s well known that the Louisiana coast is home to hundreds of facilities associated with the petrochemical and related industries. Modern life requires it – the amount of hazardous materials required to manufacture the things we want and drive our machines is enormous. But the extent isn’t clear until your map it out and start looking at the potential for toxic spills due to hurricane damage. This map shows the 11am forecast track and sites containing hazardous materials. Each icon indicates a facility, red is at highest risk of materials getting off-site.
That’s over three hundred facilities at risk. Of course, some only have relatively small quantities, but some contain thousands of pounds or gallons of pretty toxic stuff. One of the lesser known aspects of the Katrina cleanup was the thousands of workers out in chem-suits (and think about being out in the Louisiana summer in a chemical protection ensemble) trying to sop up the mess. Although with the damage and human suffering it might be overlooked, this is another aspect of hurricane and disaster planning that is essential in the planning, response, and recovery process. Clicking on one point at random gives us America’s Styrenics LLC, with an estimated 12 percent structure damage …
The other aspect is of course economic. This morning’s post noted the potential impact on oil and gas production, but a lot of the other things like plastics that are so essential in our society are made from petrochemicals, and those are in shutdown and may not, depending on the track, come back for weeks or months. Many of these facilities are very specialized bits of engineering and the parts have to be custom made. Something else to consider …
Unlike most hard-core partisans or overly cynical observers, I’m reluctant to accuse a politician of outright lying. Usually politicians manage to find some shred of truth in which to wrap their falsehoods, and many statements are assumption dependent, so you while you can often say something is wrong or false, you have to be careful about saying something is a lie, which goes to intent. Accusing a politician of lying is also inflammatory and doesn’t help the public discourse. But there is little room for nuance here: President Biden lied when he said Afghanistan was “never about nation building.” It was *always* about nation building, and he was an integral part of developing that policy.
The proof is easily seen in the October 2001 Bonn Agreement, which was the key legal basis for our intervention. That agreement is cited in UN Security Council Resolution 1386 and other documents authorizing the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and specifically says in the list of requests, to …
Urge the United Nations, the international community, particularly donor countries and multilateral institutions, to reaffirm, strengthen and implement their commitment to assist with the rehabilitation, recovery and reconstruction of Afghanistan, in coordination with the Interim Authority;
Multi-billion dollar legislation such as The Afghanistan Freedom Support Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-327, S. 2712) that was passed by Congress on November 15, 2002 and signed by the President (Bush II) on December 4, 2002 went through Biden’s senate committee. While many of the press releases have been lost or scrubbed from official USG web sites, some are still out there in various forms such as as at this State Department release from 2003, at a reliefweb link. Note the extensive list of reconstruction and capacity building projects. Resource inventories were made, roads and buildings constructed, institutions created.
So it seems the intervention was explicitly about “Nation Building” from the very beginning. Of course it was; the problem with Afghanistan all along was that it had no functional central government that could prevent groups like Al Qaeda from using it as a base. Biden, as a Senator and Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in 2001-2003, knew this. As Vice President during Obama he was involved in many of the additional capacity building efforts (aka “nation building”) during that period, such as the creation of a US style Central Bank system. Unless he is becoming senile (which would be a different, perhaps worse concern), there is little room to wiggle here: he lied.
Before someone points to all of Trump’s lies, that’s sort of irrelevant. He didn’t campaign on being a reality based leader. Even Trump’s followers admit he has a sometimes difficult relationship with the truth, so when he said something that was clearly false, it’s not like he ever actually promised to tell the truth. Most rational people had no hope or expectation that Trump would be truthful; and, of course, the media has been harping on Trumps “lies” for years. With Biden there may not have been a lot of hope, but there was an expectation of some level of honesty with respect to the big things. And the really sad part is Biden didn’t have to lie about this. He could (and should) have just concentrated on how the current situation got out of hand, and left the big picture of why the nation building didn’t work to a more appropriate occasion. But I guess he (or his speechwriters) just couldn’t resist trying to shift the blame. It was an opportunity to be a statesman. He failed.
I’ve been a bit surprised at the negative coverage of Biden’s performance this last week (even CNN has been harsh), we’ll see how long this new media fairness remains. But fair or not, the collapse of the US intervention in Afghanistan, and the President’s clearly self-serving and misleading statements have made a bad situation in the US worse: mistrust of politicians.
Over the last 20 years I have done numerous flights for Veterans Airlift Command (aka “Hero Flights”) taking wounded vets and their families back and forth to specialized medical treatment (since our Government can’t be bothered to do that), not to mention suffering the effects of TBI’s myself partly due to service in places like Afghanistan and Iraq nearly 40 years ago. It’s nice people say “thank you for your service,” but what those who serve in the military/foreign service/intelligence world really want and deserve is for their sacrifice to mean something. They want the world to be a better place because of what they – and more importantly those who lost their lives – went through.
The betrayed feeling among military veterans has been building, and the last 72 hours poured gas on it. Biden’s speech Monday obviously didn’t help. Will that have political and social impacts? I don’t know, but it certainly could both directly and indirectly. The Soviet involvement in Afghanistan has often been cited as one of the elements in the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the bitterness of the Afgansty (Afghan Vets) were an important social factor in that collapse. The state of Afghanistan on their departure is arguable; the Soviets certainly made a better job of it than the US has. The Soviets left in 1989, the government didn’t fall for three years, whereas our client state fell before we were even out of the country. In the Soviet Union, the impacts at home due to the perceived loss of credibility and treatment of veterans, coming on top of the mistrust created by events like Chernobyl, were all factors in destroying the credibility of the Party and when the economic stress of reform hit home the system collapsed.
Is COVID America’s Chernobyl? Is Afghanistan America’s, um, Afghanistan? As Mark Twain is alleged to have said, “History never repeats itself, but it rhymes.”
Somehow trust in our key political institutions must be restored. I’m not sure how that can happen given the deep endemic corruption in both political parties, fed by the ratings driven media system. But ultimately it’s up to you, the voters, to not stand for having leaders like Trump and Biden on the ballot – much less in office. Politicians won’t change until they are punished more for being misleading than they are for being honest. Demand the truth – not just from the other side, but especially from your own, and be adult enough to realize that often you won’t like it.
Infrastructure resiliency is an important area of my research, and disruptions to infrastructure come from both natural and human actions. There is no need to mention the critical nature computers and networks play in modern society. The disruption to the essential Colonial Pipeline oil and gas distribution system got a lot of news a few weeks ago, and now the attack on the JBS food distribution company is causing disruptions and a lot of angst. Let’s look at three aspects of this: the impact of the disruptions themselves, the infrastructure security implications, and the role of both state sponsored and freelance cybercriminals.
First, the impact of the disruptions. Like with the Colonial Pipeline attacks, the JBS impacts should be transitory – but will probably end up being worse than it should be due to human behavior. Like the irrational pandemic inspired toilet paper runs last year, there will likely be a lot of spot shortages as people change their normal buying habits, creating a temporary supply shortage. Although modern logistics methods like warehousing-in-transit have reduced the safety margin, what people don’t think about is that supplies and distribution systems have slack build in to account for disruptions – and disruptions happen all the time due to maintenance, weather, and so forth. But that is all based on normal buying habits. When you horde or stockpile, you break that assumption, creating artificial shortages. Assuming the system is back online in the next day or so, price spikes and outages should be transient, but like disruptions from storms, may take a week or two to settle down. My guess is that if nothing breaks that shouldn’t, this will again have been a brief disruption.
As for the infrastructure implications, it’s an almost intransigent problem. It takes time to develop and deploy infrastructure. Even with fixed hardware, the firmware and software than runs on it takes time to develop, test, and deploy – and of course it is the ability to do remote upgrades and software changes that is the underlying cause of the problem in the first place. If you can access it to use it, much less upgrade it, you can probably hack it. The old DoD “Orange book” on computer security said the only secure computer was one that was unplugged with the hard drive removed. So while a lot can be done to improve security, ultimately there is no way to create a system that is both usable and completely secure against a determined, intelligent attacker. So like most things, the trick is to balance the two – maintain usability, but make it hard enough to keep out the amateurs, and have international standards, laws, and policies in place to deter and punish those who exploit system vulnerabilities.
And therein lies a key problem: governments use cybercriminals.
There is a love/hate, sometimes incestuous relationship between intelligence agencies, IT security companies, and cybercriminals. A not insignificant amount of the malware floating around was either developed, enhanced, or allowed to continue in play due to the action (or inaction) of intelligence agencies – including some well known episodes involving US intelligence agencies. Ironically, some of the most effective malware currently in circulation goes back to a hack of NSA and the release of their toolkit (ARS technica link). In addition, Agencies have been known to discover exploits, but because they are using them, don’t report them to operating system and software developers. IT and cyber security firms have been known to be complicit, in one at least one known case not fixing a hole until after No Such Agency had finished an operation requiring the exploit. And of course the need for computer virus protection, OS upgrades, cybersecurity consulting, etc. is a profitable business.
So it was remarkably hypocritical for President Biden to say that Russia bears responsibility for the hacks because the hackers (who in both cases seem to have only been after money) happened to be based there. Of course, President Putin didn’t really help matters when he “joked” …
“Hackers are free people, like artists: (if) they are in a good mood, they (get) up in the morning and draw. So hackers, if they wake up and read that something is happening in interstate relations and if they are patriotic, then they begin to make their contribution,” Vladimir Putin said.
Of course he went on to deny that Russia was sponsoring or exploiting hacking. While there have been cyberattacks in Russia, the security services pretty much hunts the criminals down and kills them. It is clear to these guys that if you’re going to do this, do it elsewhere. I’m not advocating that kind of quick “justice”, and the tolerance of domestic criminals who keep their crime offshore is something nations-states shouldn’t do, but in fairness it is absolutely not limited to Russia; the US is infamous for it with respect to other kinds of crimes, particularly essential and profitable but environmentally damaging enterprises.
In summary, treating cyber criminals as serious, dangerous criminals no matter where they are based or where their crimes are committed, is essential. Today one can kill with a computer by harming cyber infrastructure almost as easily as one can kill with a bomb. Therefore, as has been attempted with mixed success with nuclear weapons and biological warfare, nation-states need to put together frameworks to limit and prosecute the use of computer viruses and cyber attacks. That will be difficult – the system of international law and norms of behavior is in shambles (in no small part due to US actions over the last two decades, but that’s another story). The US, which pioneered these techniques, should take the lead in renouncing them and working with the international community to address the problem rather than hypocritically screaming about it in public all the while creating and using them in private (the US approach), or joking about it in public, making sure it doesn’t happen at home, but allowing it to occur elsewhere (the Russian approach).
One of the more catastrophic artifacts of America’s sharply split political system is that instead of one side being right and one side being wrong, both parties seem to be forced by their activists in to adopting positions that are driven by fringe ideology instead of rational thought as to how to solve any given problem. The looming climate crisis (which is really a complex energy/financial system crisis) is a perfect example. Which is worse? Hard to say, but let’s take a look at the two biggest delusions: there is no climate change, and renewables will save us.
I’ve been involved in climate research for over 25 years, and as a scientist it still stuns me that anyone can possible say anthropogenic climate change is a hoax, or some kind if leftist plot, or whatever. I’ve blogged about this before. The data across interlocking disciplines like meteorology, oceanography, biology, geology/geophysics, all point in the same direction. You can argue over the details, and what to do about it, but you can’t argue over the big picture: humans have changed the earth’s climate system, and it is likely to enter a period of rapid change over the next century that will most likely prove highly disruptive both to humans and the natural world. However, as someone with a background in the geopolitical world, denying human impacts on climate doesn’t surprise me a bit – in fact, given how the crisis came to light, it was inevitable.
Some of the more outspoken scientists doing early research on climate really screwed up. I understand that they feared for the future and felt they needed to raise the alarm, but they overstepped the bounds of the role of scientists. Many of them in the public eye (such as James Hansen) crossed the line between science and partisan politics by advocating specific actions based on their political leanings. By the mid to late 1990s the impression had been firmly fixed in the minds of many politicians as well as members of the public that the science was politically biased. Combined with the religious component (as I discussed in the link above), this created a circumstance where the science wasn’t trusted. While it would have been a hard job to navigate the complex energy, financial, and societal response required by human impacts on climate, this false impression of political bias in the science has created an almost intractable situation.
The situation on the Progressive side of the spectrum isn’t any better. By any rational metric the proposals floating around for the Green New Deal are technological fantasies, and are based more on restructuring society than the realities of trying to address the climate crisis. Take one small technical detail about so-called renewable energy: solar panels and wind turbines (much less batteries) are advanced electronic devices. They take a lot of Rare Earth Elements(REE) to make, and that presents two huge problems: 1) Mining and processing REE’s is an environmentally destructive process, basically being strip mining with lots of toxic (even radioactive) waste (more so than mining Uranium), not to mention using a lot of water. 2) Depending on how you crunch the numbers, there aren’t enough known REE’s on the planet for even a third of our present energy needs.
If it wasn’t so delusional and going to end so badly it would be mildly amusing to hear people rant about how fossil fuels are limited and using them is environmentally damaging, then in the next breath preach about the cleanliness and potential for solar or wind – which are by the same measures just as resource limited and environmentally destructive.
So what do we do? Like most things, anyone who says they have “THE” answer is, well, delusional. This is a very complex problem that crosses so many aspects of society. It won’t be easy, and it will take time – time we are running out of if we haven’t already. As I noted above, I think for the most part scientists should keep out of the political process. However, if I were acclaimed Imperator Caesar, Princeps Senatus, Tribunicia Potestas, Pontifex Maximus (which is the only way I’d take on the job), I think I could put together an approach to start down the path to a solution. But nobody presently in power would like it. The first thing I’d do is completely rework the system of global governance. The climate crisis is ultimately a failure of governance – and it isn’t the worst threat we face in that respect (I am convinced that the worst threat to humanity – and the environment – is conflict/war and the collapse of the complex system of resource allocation/distribution needed to sustain nearly eight billion humans). As for energy and resources, there really isn’t much choice for wide scale reduction of emissions given our present technology: immediate widespread use of nuclear for electricity generation, combined with a crash program for fusion and the development of a sustainable, high energy density method of powering transportation systems. There are other complex changes that need to be made, all of which will take time and some serious rethinking of how society functions. In other words, to fix this, the technology will piss off Progressives, and the social changes will piss off the Neoconservatives. So I just don’t know how our present angry, bifurcated political system can come up with a good plan without an outside force like a benign Emperor to make the two sides behave.
Yes, climate problem is a crisis, and we’ve wasted at least 25 years we really didn’t have to start dealing with it. But we need to sort out the technology and have a clear rational, compassionate path forward before upending our economy and society. Going down the wrong path will kill as many if not more people, and be at least as destructive to the environment, as doing nothing.
Complex discussions like the situation in Ukraine are difficult when limited to 800-1000 word screeds even with links to other content. I’ve received some critical questions and feedback on the previous post, and they deserve answers – and that will take lots of words. I hope those who don’t like my positions on this topic will take some time to read and think about these replies. You may ultimately not agree, but I hope you don’t dismiss these arguments out of hand, and this helps you see that there is perhaps another legitimate side to this conflict that is not based on misinformation or devious Russian propaganda. So here goes …
Ultimately, most of the criticisms seem to be from a perspective based on what I feel is a misleading “periodization.” Periodization is a concept that foreign policy experts and historians use to define the relevant scope of time needed to understand a given issue or circumstance. In other words, when does history start for the purpose of an explanatory narrative around which we can formulate an appropriate course of action? Unfortunately, far too many people (such as our politicians and the vast majority of the so-called US “Russia experts” who say things like “dishonesty is in Russian DNA”) drag history along with them like Jacob Marley’s chains. This clinging on to the past ends up not informing the present, but contaminating it. Of course, the opposite can be just as true – if you abbreviate history too much, you risk losing needed context. Finding that balance is usually hard. But it is the first step in understanding our crisis in relations with Russia.
The key question is: Are Russian actions unprovoked, or are they a response to prior western actions?
Many of the critical replies I’ve received cite episodes from the Soviet era. But the Soviet Union is gone 30 years now. Is it valid to apply Soviet era actions to Modern Russia? I argue that by and large it is not, and we need to let the Soviet Union remain in the Dustbin of History. Unlike most foreign policy situations, in this case I think periodization is fairly straightforward: the breakup of the Soviet Union provides a reasonable starting point. It was messy in some ways but also a relatively “clean” slate in others with a new form of government, and an unusual opportunity to build a more open, democratic society with a new economic system that did not require the trauma of a hot war to initiate.
By 1991/1992, Russia was on its knees, and we had two options: help them stand up and join the western family of nations as an equal, integrated partner to try to overcome ghosts of the past, or try to maintain a superior position, keep Russia down, and prevent Russia from ever becoming a potential adversary again. It is obvious to me that the West, lead by the US, took that latter path. I think Russia tried at first to take the path of cooperation and integration, but in the face of the lack of Western acceptance felt it had to respond, and we have now reverted to tit for tat responses to various actions where each side takes a provocative action then uses the response as justification for further actions. But lets rewind the clock to 1991 and see how things evolved.
I read a recent comprehensive analysis that documents how hundreds of billions of dollars of assets were looted from the Former Soviet Republics (FSR) and transferred into the Western financial system. This looting of the FSR caused major distortions in both the economy and social fabric of Russia. On top of that, the US conducted a massive interference campaign in internal Russian politics. The Yeltsin campaign in 1996 was essentially run by the Clinton White House and Democrat operatives. I have some of the campaign materials from that election. Yeltsin was by then becoming a drunk, incompetent, corrupt, barely conscious figurehead. But he was rinsed through a Western style advertising campaign and made presentable. The level of fraud was epic, and the US (via IMF) ensured that the Russian Government got a loan to be able to pay wages and benefits just in time for the election. It is widely accepted that election was stolen with US assistance.
Russians have not forgotten this – with good reason. They also see how the US continues to pump money into “opposition” (either US friendly or simply disruptive) political parties, and US Diplomats are often seen openly and directly (and, btw, in violation of international norms) participating in political rallies. They also see how the US and international media pump up marginal figures like Navalny, and fuel divisive internal issues like LGBTQ rights to try to create internal turmoil. They also saw what happened in Ukraine, where the “transparent and honest elections” (per OSCE and PACE observers) in which the US did not like the outcome were overthrown in 2014 by a US instigated coup. Russia also learned a lesson that was quickly implemented in retaliation: social media can be used to rapidly inflame existing social divisions so as to create turmoil that can be used in the furtherance of external agendas.
From an international relationship perspective, when the Soviet Union was dissolved a number of new agreements were made as to the conduct of relations between the west, Russia, and the other FSR, and Russia was designated as the “successor state” to various arms control agreements made during Soviet times like ABM, IRBM, and so forth. Who violated them first? The answer is pretty clear: it was the west lead/pushed by the US.
During the 1990’s, Russian weapons development activities were at a standstill, and military deployments minimal. But despite the “peace”, US R&D actually accelerated in the fields of developing new strategic weapons, as well as expanded NATO eastward, and continued aggressive exercises and flights along the borders of Russia to which Russia could not respond. By the early 2000’s, and the election of Bush II, the US was arguably directly violating both the ABM and IRBM treaties. The west had clearly violated the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances and associated side agreements on NATO expansion, and was actively interfering in the elections in all of the FSR successor states, including gross interference in Ukraine (in direct violation of that agreement) as well as the previously noted interference in Russian internal politics.
Has Russia subsequently violated these agreements? Not sure that matters – if Party A abrogates an agreement, then Party B is generally no longer obligated to follow it, but let’s say for discussion purposes that Russia has subsequently violated these agreements. Would Russia have violated those agreements had the US not taken advantage of the situation and acted as it did? We will never know, but I suspect not. I have been to Russia and had extensive contacts in the international community throughout the key period of 1991 to 2014. At first there was a great deal of excitement at the opportunity to peacefully spin down the Cold War and join with the West in a constructive relationship. But as the 1990’s evolved into the mid 2000’s, that excitement turned to resentment within Russia.
That’s more extended background and the context (periodization) within which I view the situation. Now some answers to some specific questions I’ve received over the last day or so … questions (often consolidated or paraphrased) in bold:
But you know as well as I, patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile. — Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander
My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right. — Senator (former Civil War General) Carl Shurtz, 1871
Hopefully everyone reading this is aware that tensions between the US and Russian governments are at the worst level in their 30 year history. If you include the Soviet Union, then global tensions are the worst since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (which you shouldn’t unless you mean the risk of peer-on-peer nuclear war; despite the fact that many in the US Government are blindly stuck in that mode of thinking, Modern Russia is definitely not the Soviet Union). While the Cuban Crisis is before my time, I was there during the late cold war, including the 1983 Able Archer incident.I feel the situation now is far more dangerous. During the Cold War, both sides wanted to avoid outright war, and made sure that conflicts that could lead to a war were defused. Although there were NUTS (Nuclear Utilization Targeting Strategy) on both sides, MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) was the rule of the day, and nuclear escalation was unthinkable except in response to a nuclear attack. Today that situation has changed. In a level of hubris that would make any writer of a Greek Tragedy green with envy, policy planners in the US now believe that tactical nuclear weapons can be used and contained to regional conflicts without risk to the US “homeland” or escalation to an all global exchange. This was the rationalization for the deployment of the W76-2 warhead, which I discussed in this post last year. I won’t repeat the insanity of that move other than to say that it totally ignores Russian doctrine and makes the world a far more dangerous place. And it has painted the US into a tactical and doctrinal corner that can only end poorly. One key reason for the relative stability of the Cold war is that each side would rather lose a conventional conflict or crisis that lay outside its borders rather than risk nuclear war. In the current Ukraine crisis, that safeguard no longer seems to exist for several reasons.
As always, you need background and context to understand this situation, which means lots of words. I wrote a piece on this back during the impeachment circus. Even that longish overview glossed over several topics such as the vital gas pipelines that cross Ukraine, and the nearly completed Nordstream 2 pipeline system that further bypasses it. Those gas pipelines are of increased importance given the connections to the Ukraine energy sector by key people in the Democratic Party, as well as the fact that the US wants to maintain influence and control over Europe’s energy resources. It argues that European dependence on cheaper Natural Gas from Russia creates a security risk for Europe. Of course, one could also argue that dependence on US LNG (which costs many times that of pipeline gas) creates an equally dangerous dependence on the US, given it’s predilection for sanctions as a weapon, as well as reduces European competitiveness in the global economy by more costly energy sources. So the bottom line is that while much is made about Democracy or the sanctity of national borders (something the US seems to have a highly selective view about, given allies like Saudi Arabia), like many if not most things this is at heart about economics and the control of resources.
There is so much misinformation and misleading perspectives (propaganda?) about the current crisis in the US and western media. You’ve been told that Russia has built up considerable forces on the border of Ukraine. That’s absolutely true. But did you know that it could be argued that the US and NATO started this round of escalation by moving nearly 40,000 troops into countries bordering Russia as part of an “exercise” (Defender 2021, which is running in conjunction with other ongoing operations)? And that Ukraine, believing that NATO will support their adventures, has been moving forces to the border of the disputed regions for weeks to take advantage of the exercise, has been shelling civilian targets, and otherwise violating the Minsk 2 agreements and associated cease fires that were meant to try to bring a negotiated settlement to the crisis? Did you know Ukraine effectively declared war on Russia last month? And that Ukrainian officials have actually intimated they are hoping for a provocation that will trigger a Russian reaction, knowing they will lose badly in any conflict, just to draw in US and NATO forces? In context, the Russians moving forces to their border are perfectly reasonable. I doubt the US would merely watch if a hostile Mexico mobilized their military, then allowed China to put tens of thousands of troops on the Rio Grande …
The current situation is especially risky because the present Ukrainian government feels it can provoke Russia since the US “has its back.” They have good reason to believe that – the current President and other US leaders have have business connections to Ukrainian oligarchs and have publicly stated their support. Many in the US Government, coming from a neoconservative background, want to “put Russia in its place” and expand US economic hegemony by restricting European options with respect to energy as noted above. Others in the Democratic party are angry over the mostly mythical “election interference” in 2016 and 2020, hypocritically ignoring the tens of billions of dollars the US has spent “promoting” (and subverting when it doesn’t suit US interests) democracy in Russia and Ukraine. So there is pressure to “look and act strong.” Yet strategically and tactically a US/NATO intervention would probably not go well, and may well lead to the use of nuclear weapons unless the US would be willing to lose a conventional conflict. And since the nuclear threshold has been lowered with systems like the W76-2, and the US fundamentally does not understand (or believe) Russian nuclear doctrine, the US might think it can use tactical devices without a corresponding use against the US. It is almost certainly wrong.
A discussion of the “correlation of forces” in Ukraine from a military perspective is complex. Sober analysts on both sides realize that the public pronouncements of both sides are optimistic for public consumption, the reality is that while probably not as simple as they might want it to be, Russia could easily wipe out the Ukrainian military (and supporting NATO units if they chose to help) if the conflict were to be kept confined to that theater. If it became a wider scale conflict, Russia could not easily (and by all indications has absolutely no desire to) “take over Europe” militarily. It could very probably not only successfully defend itself against NATO but inflict considerable pain should the conflict widen. Here the risks are enormous: Russia would be on the front lines, and militarily it would be inevitable that strikes would be made on Russian soil. However … Russia now has the ability to strike the US “homeland” with conventional weapons as well as infrastructure and financial system assets, which it might well do. How would Americans react to that? Badly and jingoistically, I would assume. But most likely Russia would not strike the US homeland directly out of fear of escalation unless serious casualties were inflicted inside Russia itself, and try to keep the conflict European by only attacking US assets in Europe or other theaters like Near East Asia. This raises the question of what the US would do at that point: would it accept the loss of Ukraine and a frozen conflict or try to “win” using tactical nuclear weapons? If the latter, which some in the US military and State Department advocate, it would almost inevitably result in a global nuclear exchange if a nuclear strike of any kind were to occur on or near Russian soil (per clearly stated Russian doctrine). A frightening but all too plausible scenario.
But will the US go to war over Ukraine? The Ukrainians believe so. However, while I think the Russiphobia in Washington knows few bounds, I’m not so sure. It would actually suit US interests just fine to have Ukraine start a war with Russia and lose. Russia would occupy Donbass (the disputed region – there are no signs Russia wants anything much to do with the Nazi infested realms west of the Dniper). This would be an epic angst-fest for the Washington Elites, and would likely completely alienate Europe from Russia economically. The new “Iron Curtain” (this time raised by the US) would likely ensure European subservience and dependence on the US for the foreseeable future. The remaining 70 percent or so of Ukraine would almost certainly be incorporated in NATO, and the Military Industrial Complex (which already sucks up over half of the US discretionary budget) would enjoy a massive influx of even more money. Win-win. Well, except for the vast majority of people in Ukraine who just want to live their lives, or the majority of Americans who don’t own Lockheed-Martin stock and selfishly want things like health care, roads, and schools. Russia too sees benefits to a short, sharp conflict that “resolves” the Donbass situation. It has been festering for years, with ethnically Russian speaking people caught in the crossfire of this unnecessary conflict. Russia also seems to be giving up on any relationships with the west, and especially with the US. So the three sides – the US, Ukraine, and Russia – have all pretty much given up on a peaceful solution; one of the three actively wants war (Ukraine), one wants a war but likely won’t back its nominal ally (US), and the other (Russia) isn’t willing to be intimidated and thinks it can win if it has to.
Unknown in all of this is what the other regional players (especially Turkey and Iran) would do. And of course there is the China wildcard – no question of their military involvement, but it would present them with many geopolitical and economic opportunities. An already unstable world will become even more dangerous.
During the late Cold War, there were a number of analysts who actually understood both the Soviet Union as well as the Russian People. Today, there seem to be far fewer US policymakers who have such an understanding. The public misunderstanding is even worse. There are certainly no voices like the late Stephen Cohen trying to foster an understanding of them. As I noted in a previous post, we have a bad situation where those voices that are heard are often personally biased. Worse, a situation has been created that you can’t even cite many authoritative Russian sources or contrary opinions (even to point out their errors, much less when they have a valid point to make) without being deplatformed and silenced in the primary modes of communications these days, the social media giants of Facebook and Twitter. There are several commentaries I would love to link to here to try to get across the profound misunderstandings that Americans have about what is going on in Russia and vice versa. I can’t – this post would be blocked. And, yet, the “country” that the above quotes speak of protecting is either unaware of this impending catastrophe, or else actively cheering it on under the influence of a “news” media that largely parrots official government statements with virtually no critical thought, much less investigation or context.
So in (not so) short, we are in a very dangerous situation, and the burden for stepping back from the edge falls squarely on the US. It is well past time to declare in no uncertain terms that this government (that of the United States of America), is on a morally and ethically wrong path in its relations with Russia, one that is in violation of a wide swath of agreements and assurances, and from a purely practical standpoint is dangerous and puts global stability and the lives of millions at risk. So what to do?
First, the US needs to stop baiting Russia, and accept it is a world player. Drop the moralizing – while the US had moral credibility during the Cold War, it has squandered that precious advantage and needs to rebuild it by adhering to international norms of behavior before it calls out others. IMNSHO, the simple fact is that the situation in Donbass and Crimea between Russia and Ukraine was largely created and inflamed by the US for crass geopolitical reasons. There is no direct US strategic security interest, and if it were not for US backing, the parties would have sorted this out long ago. Second, the US needs to stop trying to control the world. Those days were fleeting, the US mismanaged that window in the 1990’s, made it worse in the 2000’s, and it needs to accept – and more importantly, influence and benefit – a multi-polar world, or be left behind. Third, the US needs to honestly and seriously create a internal situation where it is not so dependent on exploiting a global economic system that it can’t control. That last will be the most difficult, but is the most essential, because that fragile system creates the circumstances where the US feels it needs to run everything or risk destruction.
I know that many of you are worried about the environment, energy, the pandemic, civil rights, or whatever the media inflamed issue of the day seems to be. None of that matters if we blow ourselves up over artificially generated, great power gamesmanship and selfish, hubris driven geopolitical conflicts. Russia absolutely isn’t perfect, or righteous, but in this case it is the US that is in the wrong and has been for some time.
But by far the biggest concern is the potential for a major conflict to erupt in Ukraine. Despite rhetoric that on the surface seems geared towards defusing the situation (such as Biden’s offer to meet Putin), under the surface all sides are preparing for war, and all four major parties (the US, Ukraine, the DPR/LPR, and Russia) believe the situation is in their favor. Three of them are right. But we all know who loses: the average person caught up in the conflict zone … more on the situation in Donbass/Ukraine later this week.
There are reports that water levels in both the Unit 1 and Unit 3 reactors at the wrecked Fukushima Nuclear Plant are falling as a result of additional damage from the earthquake a few weeks ago. (Nobody really knows what is going on in Unit 2, the sensors are offline.) This is Not Good(tm), since that water is essential for keeping the damaged reactors cool during the long decommissioning process, and it indicates further damage to the primary containment system. This is requiring Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO, the owners of the reactors) to pump in more water to try to keep levels up. That means even more contaminated water coming out that has to be captured and stored or otherwise dealt with, and there just isn’t any place to put it. TEPCO received preliminary permission to slowly release the contaminated water offshore (to allow for dilution), but there is fierce opposition both by local fishermen and the international community and a final decision has not been made. The problem is, that decision might well be moot with this new damage: they will have to do controlled releases, because it’s about to get out of control. And, given the roughly 1.4 million gallons already stored, any additional quakes could result in a massive uncontrolled release. It’s a classic difficult decision: do you accept small harm over a long period of time from the slow releases, or risk massive catastrophe of an uncontrolled failure while you figure out something smarter to do.
In reading “news” stories lately, not to mention various comments in social media about topics ranging from politics to COVID vaccines, I was struck again by the power of binary thinking, as well as how perceptions are manipulated by asking (and answering) the wrong question. Another frequent related problem is making assertions that are perhaps true, but presented out of context in such a way as to create a false perception. This usually results in the two “sides” talking past one another and a shouting match ensues; there is no shared worldview to even begin a discussion.
Here’s a concrete example regarding vaccines: In skimming a discussion about mRNA vaccines it was said by one advocate that there is no evidence or “mechanism” they cause birth defects. The problem is, that’s “true” as far as it goes but also misleading. Pregnancy was a specifically excluded condition during the trails reported so far, and all of the documentation submitted to the FDA said it was not assessed. As for mechanism, there are in fact several potential mechanisms where something could go wrong, given the rapid and complex cell division that occurs during the early stages. Is it rare? Possible or impossible? Probable? Likely? We just don’t know – there is no evidence. Last time I looked at least 18 people had become pregnant during the trials and are being closely monitored, but that’s a very small sample size, and until the children are several years old, it can’t be said for sure that there were not problems. It was also said no long term side effects have been reported. That is true but highly misleading: the vaccines were only developed less than a year ago, so there hasn’t been enough time for any long term effects to develop or reach a statistical threshold. So therein lies the problem – saying “there is no evidence” when there have been very limited (or no) studies is absolutely not the same thing as saying “there have been detailed studies an no problem was found.” That’s a distinction that is lost on many people.
For the record on this subject, here is what CDC says as of 7 January 2021: Based on how mRNA vaccines work, experts believe they are unlikely to pose a specific risk for people who are pregnant. However, the actual risks of mRNA vaccines to the pregnant person and her fetus are unknown because these vaccines have not been studied in pregnant women. We know COVID19 presents risks to pregnant women, so if in a high risk group (like a health care provider) it might make sense to be vaccinated with an mRNA vaccine despite the unknowns. Work from home and sensible about social distancing, etc? Maybe best to wait. It’s not an easy call, based on an objective view of the available data.
Again, this isn’t to be anti-vaccine. There are rational risk-benefit arguments for some, and over time as more data is collected and if the early results hold up, increasingly large segments of the population to take these vaccines. What bothers me is that people present it as a binary, “no brainier” choice. It’s just not that straightforward and it is hubris to assert that it is.
Unfortunately there is no shortage of hubris, exaggeration, and binary thinking in order to sway opinions in our public dialogue these days. I could cite many examples, from election fraud (it probably didn’t impact the results, but that’s not the point: the US election system is broken, with deep structural flaws such that it doesn’t meet standards it imposes on other countries), to social debates like LGBTQ issues or abortion or climate change or …
In short, it takes objectivity and careful analysis to reach good conclusions. This is especially hard given the political parties benefit from a sharply divided electorate, advocates for various issues minimize or are even blind to potentially adverse consequences, and demand you “take a stand”, and of course the media industry profits from the noise and drama all that creates. Please don’t feed that process, and try to understand that many situations are not sound-byte simple.
In short, life is complex. Don’t fall into the trap of absolutes.
First, I would urge everyone not to focus on wobbles in the numbers. It really offends me how the media are saying things like “the US has more cases than any other country!” That is either gross ignorance and incompetence, or else misleading and irresponsible fear mongering (my bet is the former). For example, the US is reporting 216,722 cases, Italy 110,574. Leaving aside the difference in testing (who is tested, availability of testing, etc), the simple fact that Italy’s population is only around 60 million, vs. the US at over 330 million, comparing the two without adjusting for the fact the US is over five times the size of Italy is silly. On a per-capita basis, to exceed Italy the US would have to have over 600 thousand cases – assuming we are even measuring the same thing (and we are not). I started to do a plot of this and it was boring; you can barely even see the US points on a properly scaled plot yet.
Here’s the latest chart, which plots the mortality rate per 10,000 people so they are somewhat comparable. As previously discussed, these things move slowly, and day to day wobbles have to be viewed with caution. The good news it is does look like Spain is starting to “turn the corner” in the curve; Italy *might* have started to turn as well – we need another couple days of data to confirm. Any chart can be clicked to embiggen …