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).
Economics: The economic implications of this kind of global shipping is often hidden. During the studies of the deepening of the Savannah harbor, and periodically since, the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) trots out economic analyses of the “benefits” of the port. I’ll be blunt: these “analyses” are misleading – even bogus. One key problem is that all the numbers about local jobs or regional impact overlooks the lost manufacturing jobs, and the distortion of the US economy from a balanced producer/consumer economy in to a consumer dominant economy supported by a service sector. This is one of the factors behind the increasing levels of disparity in income in the US, and the depressed middle class sector in the country: those middle class, manufacturing and repair service type jobs disappear since cheap goods means it is more “cost effective” to import and replace rather than repair them when they fail or break. Of course, it is only “cost effective” if you ignore the resources wasted in a throw-away world, but that is a different issue.
You’ll notice when GPA reports statistics, they talk about containers and tonnage exported, rather than the overall value of imports vs exports. If you run the numbers that way, billions of dollars a year (and therefore tens of thousands of manufacturing and related jobs) flow out of the US to foreign countries, some hostile such as China. In other words, China is treating the US like an extractive colony – but the US goes along with it because US based companies profit from the somewhat lower retail prices, even though the average person sees only marginal benefits. Ten or even 20% lower prices doesn’t mean much if your neighbors are either out of work or working lower paying jobs, or your taxes are high to cover social costs. You have to look at the whole society impacts – not just narrow sectors.
One of the reasons behind the American Revolution was that Great Britain restricted certain kinds of manufacturing in the Colonies. It makes sense from a colonial/control standpoint: extract the raw materials, force the colonies to buy the finished products. That way the net value is not equal – money flows out of the colony and enriches the mother country, and makes the colony dependent on them. China has been doing this to the US for at least three decades now – and we’re actually cooperating with our own subjugation.
Resiliency: Lost in the discussions over the ports and global commerce discussions are the social stability aspects, in that a mostly consumer based economy is vulnerable and ultimately unsustainable. The COVID pandemic came very close to crashing the US economy and even stability of the society. Critical supplies such as plastic tubing almost ran out because no US companies make them, and the global system of moving goods and supplies came to a standstill with the quarantines and shutdowns. In the past a disruption might cause a rise in prices, but many critical goods are no longer manufactured in the US. The loss of supply lines – be it due to natural disaster or geopolitical instability – can rapidly spin in to a crisis since there is diminished or nonexistent ability to replace the lost sources of those goods.
Underlying all of this is a philosophical meta-question: what is the purpose of an economy? In the US, the purpose of the economy is primarily geared to create shareholder profit. Human factors such as the dignity of work, providing a sustainable livelihood for the average person, and social stability are all lost in the pursuit of maximum quarterly profits. The celebration of the arrival of the Marco Polo is that distorted worldview writ large.
So for a variety of reasons, the global system of commerce that has evolved in to massive transfer of the manufacture of goods that could be made anywhere to a few areas like China (generally with exploited/oppressed workers), all in the name of increasing profit margins, has created a hidden global crisis that could for a variety of reasons trigger a collapse of the economy – with societal turmoil following close behind.
Rather than celebrating, at least we should be mourning, and better yet protesting if we had any sense.
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.
It’s been super busy and I’ve been swamped trying to reset things after major changes my organizational landscape, but we continue to have the usual share of doom stalking the Earth: it’s hurricane season in the southern hemisphere, there have been a couple of significant earthquakes. The SARS-COV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 continues to be doing fine (humans not so much), and of course there is something happening in Washington DC today …
There are three active tropical cyclones in the Southern Hemisphere, two “invest” areas, and another invest area in the Philippines(!). Most of these are fairly weak systems, but Cyclone Eloise has just made landfall in Madagascar and is headed towards the African Mainland. The forecast models, as well as the official forecasts from MetoFrance (who are responsible for this area) and the US Joint Typhoon Warning Center, show it strengthening into a hurricane before the second landfall. Here’s the impact estimate …
There has been a rash of earthquakes causing moderate damage over the last week. The two most significant are a series of quakes in San Juan province of Argentina, and a major earthquake causing significant damage near Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nearly 100 are known dead, while humanitarian situation among survivors in Indonesia is becoming of concern. Damage in Argentina seems mostly confined to infrastructure.
COVID continues a slow burn through the population. It has been over a year since the first warnings were raised, and I have a longish post under construction looking back on the early predictions, as well as where we seem to be going from here. Hopefully will get posted in the next day or so, reviewing some of the latest data. It’s not good, and while it’s not the black death, it is still killing a lot of people who would not otherwise have died, and anyone who says otherwise is wrong. Period. That said, there are some interesting trends in mortality from other causes (such as influenza, which is almost non existent this year).
Due to the inauguration, the normal weekly data update won’t be out until tomorrow, which will give us our first mostly complete look at the 2020 mortality data, so the post will likely be on Friday. To rant once again, there is NO REAL TIME DATA ON COVID19! The “death counters” on TV are bogus. Johns Hopkins (the source most are using) is doing a great job, but the daily totals, especially of mortality, are very noisy estimates. This is a slow moving disaster; it takes a couple of seeks for all of the mortality data to be compiled.
It still astonishes me that people can’t seem to get grip on this thing, and how politicized it has become. Of course, it shouldn’t; sadly the reaction of people and what policies they want to enact are pretty predictable based on party. And like most things a balanced approach would do far better than either extreme. We’ll see how the “new” Administration does. Speaking of which …
The Biden Administration takes over today. A lot of things will likely become more orderly, and while their domestic polices are not accepted by almost half of the population, the rollout and implementation will be well organized given the long government pedigrees of the President and his various appointees. And given the fact the US media is largely on their side, stuff will get done and things will certainly appear to be better. But I’m extremely concerned about Foreign Policy. This group, lead by Blinken, Rice, Powers, and the new torturer in chief, Avril Haines, are responsible for inflaming many of the world’s trouble spots such as in the Middle East (especially Syria and Libya). They are largely responsible for the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, and advocate policies that are likely to create further dangerous conflicts. Unfortunately, much of that will be “under the radar” as the US public and media focus on the domestic situation.
Administrative note: I’m no longer cross posting any politically focused posts on either Facebook or Twitter. The environment just isn’t conducive for rational discussion, and I don’t want the Enki FB page to become yet another site where people I don’t know engage in poo throwing contests 😛 … I’m happy to discuss the political implications of various doom we face (and most of them do involve politics), but we need to keep the anger and emotion to a minimum, and try to keep things based on all the facts (not just the ones that support some particular point of view). All that said, the new year is starting off much better (organizationally, if not funding wise) than the last, and the reorganization should finally start to be seen in better stuff on the Patreon page and web sites any day now 🙂
Iota was downgraded to a tropical depression as of the 4am forecast this morning Wednesday 18 Nov). But that isn’t really the storm – although a Category 4 at landfall, the biggest impacts are inland due to landslides and flooding across northern Nicaragua and south/central Honduras. Communications is limited, and there are many areas that remain cut off from the floods caused by Hurricane Eta two weeks ago. This is a multi-phase, ongoing disaster that will only get worse as the weeks go on. Tens of thousands of people are in shelters in Nicaragua and Honduras, so it is likely there will be a spike in COVID cases in these countries in the days to come. Here is the present tropical analysis:
There is concern that the low pressure center forming off the coast of Panama, and the approaching tropical waves, will dump even more rain in the already saturated regions hit by Eta and Iota. It is very possible that we are looking at damage and, ultimately, deaths approaching the levels not seen since Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
There will be important foreign policy implications and decisions resulting from these storms. In the past, the economic privation and deterioration in the security status of Central American countries resulting from natural disasters triggers waves of migration towards the US. It is certain that (as seems likely at the moment) this will coincide with a relaxation in immigration restriction by an incoming Biden administration. While many try to put this in clear-cut humanitarian or homeland security positions the two political parties in the US have staked out, it’s not so straightforward. For one thing it ignores the impacts migration have on the original countries, something pro-immigration advocates tend to overlook. It is also destabilizing because many of those who leave are those who are the foundation of the economy. Then there is the danger of the migration routes themselves, and the exploitation of the migrants by gangs that fosters those criminal enterprises. Some countries encourage immigration because they see it as reducing their burden by getting the “surplus” poor populations out of the way – often “double dipping” by accepting US aid, but letting the security situation deteriorate so people leave anyway. All told, my position is that while we need to treat those who reach our borders with dignity and all humanitarian consideration, we should be aggressively supporting, stabilizing, and building up the countries of Central America so that people can (and will want to) remain in their homelands. We need to spend at least as much attention to economic development and assistance as we do to “security” (drug control) issues, which sadly is the prism through which the region is viewed. A comprehensive stabilization plan will be better for the region long term, as well as the United States.
The remains of Iota are probably going to end up in the East Pacific. The chances of it reforming are low at the moment. Aside from the low in the Caribbean noted above (20% chance) NHC also has an area in the central Atlantic tagged with a 20% chance for tropical development in the next 5 days. Even if something does get organized out there, while it might have winds approaching TC criteria, it will not likely be a real tropical system – it’s getting late in the year for that kind of thing out in the Atlantic.
Numerous potential flashpoints of doom out there … but nothing as of this morning above the “that might get bad soon.”
Tropics: Typhoon Kujira is off of Japan, no threat to land. Tropical Depression 18-E is off the coast of Mexico, again no threat to land. Closer to home (well, mine 🙂 ) a system is moving across the Caribbean that the global models are showing spinning up in a few days as it approaches the Yucatan Peninsula. NHC gives this a 50% chance of forming something in the next five days. Some of the usual suspects are already flogging the potential for the system to spin up. Here is what the GFS model is showing for next Wednesday, a sort of organized depression/minimal storm approaching the Mexican coast, and a second thing trying to spin up behind it …
but … models don’t always do so great in this kind of situation. They are getting better, but 7-10 days just isn’t there yet for anything other than entertainment purposes. A couple of things to keep in mind – note there is no “X” on the NHC map, just a diffuse area where something might form. Second, no discrete model runs or INVEST area ID has been assigned yet. The Tropical Weather Outlook doesn’t have the majik words “interests in <name of some area> should monitor the progress of this system.” So unless you are a die hard weather junkie, you’ve got plenty of other stuff to worry about!
Like the debate tonight between the raging dumpster fire and the older well worn house that looks comforting from the outside but has bats in the attic, rats in the cellar, and an ax murderer living in the spare bedroom.
Or the continuing slow burn of the COVID-19 Pandemic. I posted on this yesterday, and nothing I’ve seen in the last month or so says there is any progress – or significant new threats. As I write this the talking head on the radio news said “we have hit 1 million deaths, one fifth of those in the US.” Which is total bullcrap for reasons I’ve discussed before (globally there is a huge undercount; the US is about 5% of global population and if you take in to account the horrible reporting in most of the world, is about 5% of deaths, not 20%). Guess he doesn’t read this blog. Sigh.
The economy continues to send up flares, red flags, warning lights, and Edvard Munch style screams. But Congress is deadlocked over the aforementioned election thingee, there is no coordinated plan to try to stabilize things, so the ongoing collapse of key aspects of the economy like small businesses continues. The wave of potential defaults is on the verge of becoming a tsunami, and when that hits the over-leveraged capital markets, Bad Things Will Happen.
In the geopolitical world, Donbass, Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, Greece-Turkey, and Libya all continue to smolder. The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is especially dangerous and tragic, given the involvement of Turkey in another potential attack on Armenians (which has a long and tragic history). It is one of many complex “frozen” conflict areas like Ukraine and the Balkans that were suppressed during Soviet times, but have flared up since. Why does this matter to you? The various tangle of alliances and obligations can rapidly drag outsiders in. Oh, did I mention oil? Because oil is involved as well … of course.
Oh, and Tampa Bay winning the Stanley Cup? Which sign of the apocalypse is that?
So we wait and see what happens. There’s always stuff to worry about, and it is best to be proactive when we can. But if you have a family emergency plan (always keep a week of emergency food, containers you can fill with water on short notice, and a contact plan), a weather radio, and are taking COVID precautions (masks when going to enclosed spaces, distance, good hand hygiene), you’ve got most of the bases covered, so enjoy life and don’t worry about all the might be’s until they become “probably”s …
On Friday the 18th of September, America lost one of its few clear voices of sanity in the field of Russia Policy. His passing would likely be overlooked in normal times, but with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg the same day, it has been lost in the noise. He deserves better. Chances are you’ve never heard of Dr. Cohen, much less been given the opportunity to hear his cogent, unbiased analyses unfiltered. Yet had his voice been widely heard, and his sage advice followed over the last three decades, the world you live in would likely be a far better, more stable place.
Dr. Stephen F. Cohen was a Professor of Politics and Russian studies at Princeton and later New York University. His 1969 Doctoral dissertation and early work was on a topic many would consider obscure, the ascension of Stalin over other “founding fathers” of the Soviet Union such as Bukharin. That work, backed by careful scholarship, asserted that the totalitarian style of Stalin was not an inevitable consequence of Leninism, much less Marxism. That may seem obscure and irrelevant, but it laid the stage for a fresh view (some would say revisionist) of Soviet Politics and, later, for how one looks at the post Soviet era and the emergence of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
I discovered Dr. Cohen when one of his books was recommended to me by one of my mentors, an old OSS guy who was fond of saying “never confuse the Soviet Union with Russia” – advice that many modern Russia analysts need to take to heart. Cohen’s 1984 book Rethinking the Soviet Experience was a bit of a slap in the face to someone raised on talk of the “Evil Empire.” It forced me to reconsider much of what I thought about Russia and the Soviet Union, and was part of a process that has led to a life-long interest in Russia as something more than comic book villains, but a country and people with a vast and complex history and who need not be our enemy. During the 1980’s and early 1990’s Dr. Cohen was often heard in the US media due to his knowledge of and contacts with Mikhail Gorbachev.
But that began to change in the mid 1990’s. Cohen clearly saw that Yeltsin and his American advisers (the so-called “Harvard Boys”) were setting up a disaster by enabling the plundering of the natural resources of the old Soviet Union, generating massive profits for the west and enriching a few Oligarchs while plunging the rest of Russia into a 1930’s style depression complete with gangsters and shoot-outs in the streets of Saint Petersburg. To say his warnings were unpopular among US leaders intoxicated with their new “hyperpower’ status, and international banks with eyes focused on short term profits is an understatement. His cautions over the eastward expansion of NATO and attempts to manipulate the emerging democracies in the former Soviet Block were likewise ignored. Over time he was called on less and less to opine on Russia, although he frequently appeared in Russian sources to try to explain America’s view on Russia.
In the his last decade, Cohen was virtually unheard in the major US Media. Although he continued to write for The Nation, that is almost certainly due to the fact his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, was editor and publisher (her reflections are here). His position on Ukraine that the west bears considerable responsibility for the turmoil there, and pointing out that many of our so-called “allies” are corrupt and rife with Nazi heritage and ideology did not fit the narrative of a popular, democratic, anti-Russian uprising that many want to portray. The last straw was probably his view that Russia’s responses in Ukraine are rational and perhaps even justified. By 2015, on the rare occasions his views were presented, it was only to be ridiculed, and phrases such as “Putin’s Apologist” were often used. Yet his views on Putin were nuanced, and take in to account the fact that a majority of Russians still support him over the restoration of order and financial security he restored after the catastrophic impacts of the Yeltsin era. Putin’s policies are sometimes at odds with what the US wants, but to point out they are rational from a Russian perspective is not necessarily to agree with them. It is simply to try to understand them, which is the only way to formulate realistic responses. Calling Cohen an apologist is just an excuse to ignore his arguments. It is disingenuous in the extreme, and dangerous because it implies that it is wrong to try to explain or understand a world leader or power opposed to the US.
The by-line of my blog is “You’re Doomed. Here’s why.” This is rarely more true than with this article. The way that calm, careful, “revisionist” analyses that challenge mainstream thought are systematically excluded from public debate (and often even internal government policy consideration where such open debate is vital) is a key reason why American foreign policy is so often unsuccessful. When discussed at all – often during some crisis – Americans are usually presented with simplified, grossly biased depictions of foreign policy situations. The comic-book caricatures of foreign leaders like Vladimir Putin never lends itself to the kind of nuanced approaches that are often called for. The New York Times was kind enough to run an editorial today as an example. These life or death matters deserve clear, informed debate. For the views of a brilliant analyst like Dr. Cohen to be insulted, marginalized, then finally ignored, is a key reason why this country is potentially headed towards a cataclysmic confrontation with Russia. It is a tragedy, avoidable if more would insist on considering nuanced views about the world like those provided by Steven Cohen.
Вечная Память (may your memory eternal), Dr. Cohen.
For those of you living on the Georgia Coast, if you’ve ever wondered what an “INVEST” area looks like, just go look out the window! The US National Hurricane Center has tagged the system at the end of the stalled cold front over the area as having a 70% chance of gaining enough tropical characteristics to become s system in the next five days. Here is what the GFS model shows it looking like Monday morning as a developing storm offshore …
Nothing to freak out about, it the models are taking it offshore between the US and Bermuda, should stay offshore from the Canadian Maritimes as well.
There are three other areas in the Atlantic; one is over the Windward Islands and is forecast to move through the southern Caribbean; it may be a threat to the Central American coast in a few days. Two other waves coming off of Africa, just like every other week in the summer. Chances are not high for formation in the next 5 days and even if so, way too early to tell where they will end up. Here’s the NHC depiction:
A potentially powerful typhoon is forming in the West Pacific. Typhoon Maysak is currently forecast to pass through the East China Sea and hit Okinawa on the way to South Korea (with some potential impacts to the other southern islands of Japan. On the present track, the storm will also make landfall in North Korea, which was hit last week by Typhoon Bavi. Bavi weakened considerably before landfall, and for what it’s worth, the PDRK reported minimal damage. Interestingly, given recent reports as to his health, state media showed Kim Jong Un himself out inspecting damage.
On the current track (shown below) Maysak would be a very damaging storm, upwards of $50 Billion in impacts. However, JTWC has been too strong with landfall intensity this year, so I’m expecting far less impacts that this track indicates. Internal modeling has it more like $12-$15 Billion. We’ll seen how it developed this week …
While attention is focused on Laura, another storm is headed for landfall tomorrow, one that may have regional implications for Asia, and perhaps global stability as well. Typhoon Bavi (WP092020) is entering the Yellow Sea as a strong typhoon, equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane. Here’s is a shot from JPSS:
While Bavi is expected to decrease intensity before landfall, it will sideswipe South Korea, potentially causing upwards of over a billion dollars of impacts. In a 1.6 Trillion dollar economy, that hurts but it’s not a huge hit, under 1% of GDP. The landfall in North Korea, on the other hand, could prove to be a bigger problem. Here’s the forecast impact swath:
While the dollar value is technically lower (maybe $800 Million using a wild guess at Purchasing Power Parity), any kind of economic calculation for the PDRK is doomed with uncertainty. The functioning of the internal economy of North Korea is not really amenable to these kinds of calculations. The best we can come up with is the impacts would be on the order of 10% of functional GDP (the equivalent of a two TRILLION dollar storm for the US – or 200 times worse than a Sandy or Katrina). But it’s worse than that, because it is likely to cause extensive agricultural damage to a country that is always on the verge of famine and starvation. Combined with the swirling rumors of a leadership change, the situation is ripe for a crisis. In the past, the PDRK has lashed out during leadership changes and natural disasters to get attention and blackmail the international community in to providing aid, as well as create a crisis to solidify support. China is watching this carefully as well – the last thing they want or need are thousands of North Koreans trying to force their way across the border. All in all, this is a potential humanitarian and foreign policy crisis in the making …