Welcome to 2017: getting on with it

It’s the last day of January and I swore I wasn’t going to keep writing these “new year” pieces past the end of the month. The thing is, between family situations, deadlines, and–to be completely honest–a low grade case of burnout, I just haven’t been as prolific as I thought I would be. So to sum up the new year, and in what I readily admit is a cheat, here are a few things to watch for the next 11 months.


If you believe that Russia rigged last fall’s election to put Donald Trump in office, then you already know that Moscow is expecting big things in the coming year. If, like me, you’re a skeptic who is inclined to think that something fishy went down but would like to see more evidence, then…well, you should still probably know that Moscow is expecting big things, because their optimism isn’t just about the new president. But expectations have a way of leading to disappointment, and at the moment Russia is staring a pretty big one right in the face.

There’s been little that Vladimir Putin has wanted more than to return Russia to the Great Power table in world affairs, and–whatever else you may think about it–his decision to intervene in Syria has done just that. It’s Russia–not the US, or the UN, or the EU–that is calling the diplomatic shots with respect to the Syrian civil war now. It’s the one scheduling peace talks, deciding who gets to attend, and writing draft constitutions for a post-war Syrian state. This is a far cry from where Moscow was as recently as 2014, when it was eating the back of the international community’s collective hand over its actions in Ukraine, to say nothing of where it was 20 years ago (i.e., in full, shock doctrine-induced collapse). So you have to hand it to Putin–in addition to securing Russian interests in Syria, the main reason for the intervention, he now owns an entire regional war. The downside for him is that, well, he now owns an entire regional war, and his attempts at ending said war in a way that involves negotiations and not more human carnage aren’t looking so hot at the moment, what with no new Astana talks planned and the next scheduled round of talks in Geneva having been postponed. If Putin wants to be seen as a major power-broker, he’s going to have to find a path toward settling the war that he chose to adopt. But so far, settling the war in Syria has been much easier said than done.

Now, if there is anything that Vladimir Putin wants more than Russia’s return to Great Power stature, it’s a fix for Russia’s ailing economy. He’s undoubtedly looking to Trump to end US sanctions against Russian oligarchs and corporations, but I think he’s savvy enough to realize that Trump can’t do that immediately and will need to be seen getting something from Moscow in return. In the meantime, though, Putin scored a pretty substantial win last year when he reached a deal with OPEC to cut oil production in an effort to raise prices. That should help…unless prices get high enough to reactivate the American fracking industry in a major way. But in the meantime it should provide some benefit to the Russian economy as the sanctions issue unwinds itself.

How the sanctions issue unwinds itself will have a big impact on another situation related to Russia, which is the disposition of Ukraine. It’s entirely possible that Putin will, at some point this year, drop most/all of his direct support for the Ukrainian rebels and push for some kind of peaceful but destabilizing deal between the rebels and Kiev. Fighting has actually started heating up in eastern Ukraine over the past couple of days, but that could be isolated or it could be that one or the other side is trying to strengthen its position in advance of potential settlement talks. Putin’s objectives in Ukraine–red meat for his base and instability in Kiev–have been met, and if he wants to give Trump a “win” to cement their ties, this wouldn’t be a bad one. At the same time, though, even if the conflict in Donbas is settled there’s still the fairly giant, but largely ignored, matter of Crimea to discuss. Russia isn’t going to give it up, but neither is Kiev likely to drop its claim on the peninsula, and the international community is going to have to take this head-on at some point because, well, the annexation was a pretty substantial blow to ~70 years of post-war international consensus on wars of conquest.

Russian provocation in the Baltics in 2017 also bears watching. As in eastern Ukraine I think Putin might be inclined to take it easy here, for now, as a concession to Trump, but he’s likely to expect that Trump will downsize Washington’s NATO commitment to the Baltic states.


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A brief update on the Ft. Lauderdale shooting

We know considerably more about Esteban Santiago, the man who killed five people at the Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport yesterday, and the emerging picture suggests a man with some sort of profoundly violent mental illness. Santiago, 26, was a combat engineer in the National Guard in Puerto Rico and then Alaska before being discharged last year for “unsatisfactory performance.” He served in Iraq in 2010-2011 and family members apparently began noticing troubling changes in his behavior when he came back:

His aunt, Maria Ruiz Rivera, tells The Record of New Jersey that after he returned, she noticed changes in his mental health.

“He lost his mind,” Ruiz Rivera told the newspaper in Spanish. “He said he saw things.”

In October he was reported to Anchorage police twice on domestic violence allegations, and it’s really past time for us to have a conversation about the links between DV and later mass violence. At some point after that, Santiago walked into an FBI office in Anchorage and variously said that he was being mind-controlled by a US intelligence agency and that he was being influenced by ISIS. He was taken to a mental facility for observation but an investigation turned up nothing to connect him to ISIS or any other terrorist organization.

The mere mention of ISIS is obviously enough to send people into a frenzy, and the absence at this point of any motive at all (he may have been mentally disturbed, but something motivated him to carry out this particular attack in a place that was not, for somebody living in Alaska, a target of opportunity) is the big question mark surrounding this whole event. But barring the discovery of something more than the ravings of a seemingly disturbed individual, there’s not much to go on if you’re looking to label this Islamic terrorism. And I’ll stick to that even if ISIS winds up taking credit for the attack, because, frankly, there’s no reason to take their word for it.

The fact that Santiago flew from Anchorage with his gun in checked luggage specifically to carry out this attack is going to raise some questions about gun control or at least allowing guns on planes. While second amendment issues aren’t a focus of this blog I would like to suggest that maybe, just maybe, it ought to raise some red flags when a man flies on his own from Alaska to Florida with no luggage at all other than the gun he checked. I guess there might be circumstances under which that can be explained, but in general it probably warrants some kind of special attention.

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“Multiple people” dead in Ft. Lauderdale airport shooting, developing

About an hour ago there was a mass shooting at the Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in south Florida. The shooter is reportedly in custody but police are saying that “multiple people” have been killed–I’ve seen reports that say three and others five, but obviously this is a very fluid situation and it doesn’t make much sense to talk about hard facts right now. Nothing is known about the shooter’s motive but of course terrorism is high on the list of possibilities. The airport is shut down, as you might expect, but flights that were already on the tarmac seem to be taking off–I imagine there’s not much else you can do in that regard.

I’m in and out today but I’ll try to update this post when I can and as more information comes in.

UPDATE: The shooting reportedly took place at a baggage claim area in Terminal 2. I note this only because we may see some renewed calls for moving airport security to a location outside the airport building, a ridiculous security theater idea that would do nothing but relocate targets of opportunity to a slightly different location.

UPDATE 2: Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) is doing the cable news rounds, saying that the shooter has been identified as Esteban Santiago and that he was carrying some kind of military ID. In my opinion it’s still too early to assume this is necessarily accurate, even coming from a US Senator. He was using a single handgun and went through three magazines before lying down for police to arrest him. Hard to know what to make of that. Was he trying to commit suicide by cop? If so he’s been confounded. The fact that he apparently made no effort to escape suggests he wasn’t all that concerned whether or not he survived, but on the other hand it appears he wasn’t prepared to kill himself.

CNN is doing its standard crisis “shoot raw video and have the anchor just vamp over it” thing, and there have been some scenes of people running out of buildings and assuming cover positions in the last 20 minutes or so that haven’t yet been fully explained. Reportedly somebody heard what sounded like gunshots somewhere in the airport, and so people evacuated in response, but I don’t know any more than that. Seems at this point like a false alarm.

UPDATE 3: Santiago has been officially identified as the shooter. He reportedly flew in from Alaska–where, according to his family, he’d been receiving some kind of psychiatric treatment–with the gun in his checked bag.

There doesn’t appear to be much more to say at this point so I’m going to move on from this post. There’s no indication as yet that Santiago had any connection to any domestic or overseas terrorist network of any kind, which puts this case kind of outside the usual scope of this blog. I do think it would be worthwhile to consider what, if anything, really separates someone like this from a “lone wolf terrorist” like Omar Mateen, other than a superficial religious distinction overlaying a shared desire to kill people. But examining that in any detail is probably best left for another time.

A good con is all in the prep work

Hey, kids, if you want to know how to seed the ground for a bit of a wintertime con job, check out what Vladimir Putin is saying today:

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday of the risk of Ukraine siphoning off Russian gas destined for Europe, the Kremlin said.

In a statement, it said that in a phone call the two leaders agreed that talks would be held involving the Russian energy ministry, gas giant Gazprom and the European Commission on the issue.

Putin said the risks of unsanctioned gas siphoning by Kiev had increased because of expectations of a cold winter.

Most of the gas sold by Russia to European countries flows along pipelines crossing Ukraine. Russian gas accounts for over a third of gas consumption in the EU.

Now, look, I am no civil engineer, if that’s even the right kind of engineer in this case, but it seems to me like if you really wanted to cause some more problems for a neighboring country that still isn’t towing the appropriate line, you could suggest to other countries that the natural gas they’re buying from you could, you never know, be siphoned off by the country in question. Better keep an eye on that, folks. Then, who knows, maybe you muck around a little with the amount of gas you actually pump and, when somebody complains, you say “hey, it’s not me; I warned you about these guys siphoning gas out of the pipeline.”

Likely this is not a deception that could hold water for very long, but even the possibility that it could might be enough to get the country with which you’re screwing to finally agree to find the money, somehow, to pre-pay you to for some gas of their own, which is really what you’re after. Anyway, just a little something to keep an eye on.


It’s a bad time to be a separatist leader in Ukraine

Notwithstanding whatever arrangements European leaders are concocting in their occasional summit meetings, the conflict in eastern Ukraine is still very much alive, albeit frozen. Literally, come to think of it, given the approach of another Ukrainian winter. Separatists in the Donbas are tired after three years of war, but they’re entrenched, and they’re still getting Russian support, and they don’t seem inclined to make any concessions to Kiev. Kiev, meanwhile, won’t move on promises to decentralize authority or allow elections in the east until some concessions are made, in particular until the separatists relinquish control over their sections of the Ukraine-Russia border to the government. The separatists don’t trust Kiev to keep its word, and so they have no interest in conceding the border. Like I said, it’s frozen.

But something did happen a couple of weeks ago to one of the best-known separatist leaders. Well, at least he used to be one of the best-known separatist leaders:

Arsen Pavlov, the commander, who went by the nom de guerre Motorola after the brand of walkie-talkie he preferred, was blown up as he rode the elevator in his apartment building on Sunday in Donetsk, the larger of the rebels’ two urban strongholds in eastern Ukraine, Russian news accounts said.

Each side blames the other for the killing: Ukrainian officials said Russian special forces had been purging the charismatic but unpredictable early leaders of the rebel movement, while the separatists said Ukrainian assassins were operating behind their lines.

The leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, threatened retaliatory attacks in other parts of Ukraine, but those haven’t materialized yet. But here’s the really interesting bit: Pavlov isn’t the first rebel leader to die under similar circumstances. In fact there has been a string of these kinds of incidents:

Pavlov is the latest separatist commander, and among the most prominent, to die in mysterious circumstances since the conflict first erupted. As the war in eastern Ukraine drags on, with the death toll at around 10,000 and no real end in sight, leaders of the areas known as the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) have been meeting their demise in apparently safe surroundings, far from the dangers of the battlefield.

Last month, the former prime minister of the LNR, Gennady Tsyplakov, purportedly “committed suicide” in detention after separatist authorities rounded up dozens of regime figures who were perceived to present an internal threat and accused them of plotting a coup. LNR officials claimed that he had hanged himself in his cell because he was so consumed with guilt over “the gravity of his crime.”

Just days earlier, a separatist field commander, Yevgeny Zhilin, was gunned down in a Moscow restaurant. Last December, Pavel Dremov, a Cossack battalion commander, was assassinated by car bomb just hours after celebrating his own wedding. Earlier that year, Aleksey Mozgovoy, the founder of the Ghost Brigade, a pro-Russian militant battalion in the LNR, was killed in a roadside ambush of mines and machine guns in a stretch of land he regarded as his private fiefdom. Alexander Bednov, a commander known as “Batman,” was killed during an attack on his convoy on Jan. 1, 2015. And these are just the most notable figures; analysts say there have been at least a dozen more such deaths.

Occam’s Razor would say the culprits are the Ukrainian government and/or any of those right-wing militias whose existence they’re always trying to hide. Indeed, a video has surfaced of four guys identifying themselves as Ukrainian neo-Nazis and claiming to have killed Pavlov, though as you might imagine there are some doubts as to its authenticity. But these killings, or at least some of them, could also easily be the result of intra-rebellion rivalries (Pavlov was apparently a big player in the Donbas scrap metal business who could have been killed by a competitor), and it’s also entirely possible that the Russians are behind them. Indeed, the sophistication with which some of these hits have been carried out suggests Russian, more than Ukrainian and far more than rebel, involvement.

But why, you ask? Well, the theory goes that, partly because the conflict is now mostly frozen, Russia is trying to class up the Donbas so that it can ease itself out of direct involvement. Ideally, they’d like to establish Donbas autonomy as a foregone conclusion in international talks, put the onus on Ukraine to make it happen, and then withdraw with their mission mostly accomplished and begin arguing for a lifting of international sanctions. But the international community is going to be reluctant to push for eastern Ukrainian rights so long as the separatists are led by people who are suspected of committing war crimes over the past couple of years. Pavlov happens to have been suspected of committing war crimes, and the fact that he had a high profile but, reportedly, not a big base of support within the separatist community, made him an ideal candidate to get knocked off. It may also be that Russia wants to get rid of rebel leaders who might balk at whatever peace deal Russia finally negotiates with Ukraine/France/Germany/whomever, though there’s no indication that Pavlov specifically would have been a risk to try something like this.

Regardless of the culprit, it seems likely that attacks on separatist leaders are going to continue, and while the leaders who are being killed might have threatened to escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the fact that they’re being violently taken out also threatens to escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The longer Kiev and the rebels both refuse to budge, the better the chances become that this war will come unfrozen.


Erdoğan’s plan may finally be coming together

You’ve probably noticed that Turkey has been flexing its regional muscles a bit lately. They’ve invaded Syria and are currently pounding America’s Kurdish proxies north of Aleppo–which may seem confusing if you’re still under the assumption that Turkey and the US share anything more than a very nominal NATO alliance. They’ve also effectively invaded northern Iraq under the guise that they were invited, and are currently lobbying to be included in the Mosul offensive–though it remains to be seen if President Tayyip Erdoğan’s “you’re not fit to clean my toilets” charm offensive will win Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi over.

We’re seeing this assertive regional policy for a number of reasons (containing the PYD/YPG in northern Syria, asserting Turkey’s long-held view that Mosul is part of its near abroad, a bit of typical international dick-measuring, etc.), but the main reason is that Erdoğan believes an assertive regional policy will help him increase his support back home, and thereby help him finally push through a constitutional amendment to increase the formal powers of the office he holds, the Turkish presidency. This cause, though it’s faced setbacks in the past and has kind of been pushed under the radar a bit, is the driving force behind pretty much everything Erdoğan does. It’s his ultimate goal.

And it looks like he’s closer than ever to finally achieving it. Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman reported a couple of days ago that Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is planning to hold a referendum in April on constitutional changes that would transform Turkey’s government from a parliamentary system with a relatively weak president to a presidential system on steroids, in which most of the power rests with the executive–or, in other words, with Erdoğan. I say “presidential system on steroids” because while, for example, the US operates under a presidential system, what Erdoğan has in mind is something far more like Russia, where the president has virtually total authority over every part of the government.

AKP has been reluctant to push for a referendum in parliament because even with its current 317 seats, it’s still short of the number of votes it would need to either institute changes outright (367 seats) or call for a referendum (330 seats). But, as Zaman reports, help may be on the way: Continue reading

Three’s a crowd

Speaking of Libya, it looks like a country that desperately needs to subtract a national government has added one instead:

But late on Friday the head of the former Tripoli-based Government of National Salvation, Khalifa Ghweil, proclaimed its reinstatement from the offices of a key consultative body of the GNA.

His announcement added to the confusion surrounding the political situation in the oil-rich country, which is riven by power struggles and under the control of various militias who often switch allegiances.

The capital appeared calm on Saturday with no sign of any unusual military presence, including around the Council of State whose offices were stormed on Friday.

The last yours truly heard of Khalifa Ghweil, he was attempting to take back an announcement that his government was disbanding in favor of the UN-approved Government of National Accord. But his government had lost most of its supporting militias to the GNA and Ghweil seems to have had no choice but to go dark. But now?


So far there have only been sporadic reports of violence in Tripoli, but things could get much worse very fast. This could be a real test for the GNA, which mostly sauntered in to Tripoli and assumed control there without ever really dealing with the rival government it was displacing. For a while that rival government seemed to have disappeared, but now it’s clear that it never went anywhere.

I’m not sure why Ghweil came back now, but maybe he’d finally had enough of watching Khalifa Haftar establish his own virtual dictatorship in eastern Libya without earning so much as a slap on the wrist from the international community for defying the GNA. Haftar, you may recall, seized control of four of Libya’s largest oil ports last month, but the oil is mostly flowing again and there are signs of a warming between Haftar and the GNA. To wit: Fayez al-Sarraj, the leading figure in the GNA and the man who would be serving as Libya’s interim prime minister if the GNA were officially running the country–it can’t do so unless/until the parliament in Tobruk, which is effectively controlled by Haftar by whatever means necessary, votes to approve it–said after the oil port seizure that Haftar would be “represented” in a new Libyan government.

The UN’s envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, has gone farther than that, saying that Haftar should be put in command of a unified Libya’s unified armed forces. This might be very acceptable to Haftar, but talk about playing with fire. For one thing, Haftar would surely use this post to try to run the country, just as he’s used his position as the commander of the Tobruk parliament’s army to run the Tobruk parliament. For another thing, is there any reason to think that the militias currently supporting the GNA would be willing to put themselves under Haftar’s command? If they were, then what the hell has all this fighting been about?