Boris Nemtsov’s Execution: Real Time Crisis*

Boris Nemtsov’s heart breaking execution provoked more than outrage. Much informed and emotive opinion quickly converged: Putin personally ordered the assassination. The murder’s audacity and brazen proximity to the Kremlin pointed to sanctioned activity. Speculation invoked dark Soviet precedents like Kirov’s 1934 death or (more improbably) 1937’s mass terror.

Boris Nemtsov, Putin, Assassination, Kremlin

Many in the Russian opposition close to Nemtsov (Nemtsov’s own attorney, among others) in grief noted Russian domestic realities frequently are more complex: potential suspects extended beyond one man or the Kremlin. Yet they rightly emphasized even if Putin personally did not order the crime, he is still guilty. He created the domestic propaganda climate targeting opposition leaders.

Here’s our reaction as events unfolded at the time. We called some things decently, could have been more specific on others. We noted Kadyrov’s earlier signs of factional manipulation. We should have underscored Kadyrov’s new national ambitions and tensions with Moscow power ministries. Twitter has limits; the omissions, however, are ours.

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Reuters and general media arrive at similar takes now. Russian sites Slon and Novaya Gazeta offered more detailed reporting a little earlier. Pavlosvky offers a general agreement. As of this writing, we believe the above frame is essentially accurate. Much remains unclear.

Rumors Fly

Putin’s public absence since March 5th ignited mass speculation. Rumors range from ill health, arrival of a new child to forcible detention as a result of factional infighting. The Kremlin promises a public appearance within days.

Putin’s initial lying low made sense if voluntary – regardless of speculation. Nemtsov’s assassination exposed the regime’s structural fissures.

One level is bureaucratic. The FSB and its rival the Ministry of Interior (MVD) energetically pursued the murder investigation; the Investigation Committee (a quasi FBI-like entity) less so. The FSB Chairman announced the arrest of Chechens in previously out-of-bounds (for Russian federals) Chechnya under Kadryov, Putin’s regional protege. Moscow federal authorities long chafed at Putin’s protection over Chechnya. Kadyrov flaunted it by conducting criminal activity in Moscow immune from Russian authorities.

Nemtsov’s death and the Chechnyan angle stoked institutional rivalries. Putin since his 2013 return nurtured the MVD, placing loyalists in charge of its 170,000 troops. Some Putin appointees are considered ‘liberal’ in the Russian context. (Putin staunch supporter Yakunin, as head of the railways, also commands a significant armed force). Putin has criticized the FSB (and thus Chairman Bortnikov) in the past. For example, he blamed them the 2011 opposition demonstrations. He then granted MVD more authority. Bortnikov’s personal announcement that the FSB arrested Chechens for Nemtsov’s death is significant in that context. Are we seeing a new version of the ‘Siloviki War’ from the mid 2000s?

Ideological differences on overall direction are another level. We’ve written here before how Putin attempted in 2014 to triangulate among his hardline ideologues and the more pragmatic as he improvised in Ukraine. Each Putin swing ignited protests. Those closest to the Novorossiya ideological project (and regime proxies such as Malofeev, etc.) find Kadyrov and his Chechen troops useful in Ukraine; others in the Ministry of Defense less so. The Novorossiya advocates feel Putin betrayed Russia with moderation. In parallel, economist Guriev and others in the Kremlin have demanded Putin go further towards a command-type economy (so-called mobilization). They, too, signal Putin’s triangulation is too liberal.

Can Putin forge a new consensus if free to do so? Indications are Putin’s first effort to placate after Nemtsov’s murder failed – grant Kadyrov new, long planned (but not first tier) federal honors, allow FSB et al. a substantial roll-up even in Grozny, and assure Kremlin elites and opposition figures no new violence. Recall that after Putin’s 2012/2013 re-election, he required protracted negotiations to build a consensus and form a new government. He worked then during the good times with a stable elite when the pie was still growing. A similar task today is infinitely more difficult.

Factions continue to leak on each other in various media outlets. Rumors swirl over possible institutions and figures aligning against or for Putin. Sechin, for example, it’s leaked to the Russian press, will retire – prompting immediate denials. Kadyrov is said to be scrambling as well. Sechin and Kadryov traditionally are seen as actual and symbolic pillars of Putin’s authority yet Putin also has criticized Sechin for poor management lately.

It’s therefore no surprise that Putin skipped the annual FSB Board meeting (after also canceling a summit in Astana days earlier) if healthy. Regardless of rumors. To attend would require first resolving stakeholder questions. Similarly, if Putin could travel it’s unlikely he would leave Moscow for Kazakhstan while authority is perceived to be in flux.

Foreign policy is linked beyond ideological fervor. For example, Patrushev, Secretary to the Security Council and former FSB Chairman, highlights the regime’s worst fears about ‘privatizing’ its Ukraine war from February 2014 are coming true. Patrushev acknowledges fighters from Ukraine are now able to plan and conduct “sophisticated terrorism” inside Russia. Eminently predictable from the start; recall Russian border guards earlier reportedly shot at those seeking exfiltration back into Russia from Donbass.

Patrushev, of course, seeks to frame the official agitprop that Ukrainian terrorists in Moscow shot Nemtsov. He’s also underlined the main driver of Moscow’s war: most of the Donbass effective fighters are Russian mercenaries/”volunteers”. The Kremlin has few appealing options: 1) offer likely unworkable one-way permission; 2) increase formal Russian military ratios; or 3) re-calibrate/possibly scale back goals and methods. Each choice demands interrelated political costs at home linked to the regime’s stakeholder struggles. Boris Nemtsov’s murder is forcing the regime collectively to glance at (even if obliquely) some fundamental questions.

Russia’s deepening domestic crisis will tax our analytical community, too. Throughout history, Russian and Soviet domestic politics are usually the main engine for foreign policy. Some Western analysts/commentators may be experiencing their first real protracted crisis – along with many Russians. One hopes we remember to distinguish between advocacy’s emotional tribalism and analysis for informed policy-making.

Frankly, we’re a bit skeptical about that.

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*UPDATED: Thanks to @Lena_Mukhina for noting questions surrounding a news report:

Sechin, Nemtsov, Kadyrov
Sechin calls Kadyrov an ‘ignorant animal’

The news item report apparently was poorly sourced and originates back to an unofficial Twitter account. For completeness, we double checked the Nezavissimaya Gazeta editor’s report on Sechin’s retirement (denied by his representatives) and other items cited above.

Play Russian Apologist Bingo!

We present to you “Russian Apologist Bingo!” Do you feel that apologists for Russian aggression, falsehoods and even lunatic screeds seemingly are everywhere these days? They argue just about anything to defend the Kremlin line. Tactics range from the infamous “Whataboutism” to “change the subject” or purely speculative – such as claims Ukraine tried to shoot down Putin’s plane and hit MH 17 by mistake (never mind Putin was in South America).

All the greatest hits are here. Play, won’t you?

Russia, Bingo, Propaganda

Can you spot all the tricks?

Thoughts On Boston’s Crisis, The New Tribalism And Participatory Meaning

Events in Boston last week illustrate how technology shapes our personal identity. And how little we understand the process. Boston shows us a foretaste of the new tribalism that relies on ephemeral situations and adrenalin to create a sense of belonging. It will change what it means to be an American.

Boston Is Saved By An Angel

What Is The New Tribalism?

First, the definitions. We’ll start with new tribalism is an individual’s sense of self, belonging and loyalty. That sense of self is defined by participating in communal activity responding to an ad hoc event or crisis. Here, it’s a new tribe following a terrorist bombing. This new ‘tribe’ is interesting because its values can supplement traditional ones, at least temporarily.

Doubtlessly you are already asking, ‘So is it really new’? In the past, rallies and concerts might be seen as the forerunners to today’s phenomenon. Certainly true of the Party rallies in the 1930s, for example. And the various ideologies of the now trite ‘happenings’ and ‘sit ins’ in the 1960s, as well as mass spectacles of Woodstock, etc.

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Keeping Up With ‘The Americans’

Pop culture fascination with the covert continues to crest. Under Bush besides the torture porn of ’24’, NCIS began its long run exalting ‘warfighters’ and hierarchical obediance. We endured the Bournes’ editing and celebrated a more brutal Bond.

And it continues. “Homeland” has become a ‘Starbuckian’ touchstone. “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” pull crowds. Even lighter, sillier cable fare like the CW’s “Nikita” and USA’s “Burn Notice” name check espionage argot.

And Comrades, Remember The Paco Rabanne
And Comrades, Remember The Paco Rabanne

So what to make of FX’s new series, “The Americans”? Larval CIA employee Joseph Weisberg (1990-94, no overseas) launched it all. He runs with the 2010 ‘Anna Chapman Spy Ring’ sensationalism but places his ostensibly married Soviet ‘illegal’ couple in Reagan’s 1981 America. The producers add some “Californication”-esque gestures; within the pilot’s first hour the female Soviet spy fellates a hapless presidential confidante, ostentatiously wiping her mouth afterwards and is later shown raped brutally. She also asks said confidante, supra, if he liked her finger up his ass. Quelle shock!

If It’s Phil Collins, It Must Be The 80’s

But is it any good?

When credits rolled, we asked “What did we just see?” It’s all preposterous, of course, as it must be. A show survives if it entertains. Here, the team generously drops gratuitous and titillating details to provide a modicum of verisimilitude – beyond say, “Burn Notice”. Yet for all that “The Americans” likely will be a soap opera.

The Soviet husband likes American malls and wants to defect. The wife is fiercely opposed, clinging to a memory of Moscow in 1962. And their kids! Already their young boy seems to have the hots for the next door neighbor’s daughter. Her dad’s an FBI counter-intelligence agent (yes, really). Oh, and there’s a KGB general. He pops up somehow at the end in D.C. to tell the female spy he’s fighting off extremists in Moscow while defending the motherland.

The atmosphere is the show’s real star and asset. Like Miami Vice, the show wants us to notice the music, style and set decorating. The clothes accurately are post 70s muted browns and not the much later, stereotypical big hair, neon and mullets. (Watch for Members Only jackets in future eps). They’ve gone the extra mile recreating 1981 on a basic cable budget. The music from Phil Collins to Pat Benatar is true to that year’s charts. (The only bum note was using The Who’s ‘Eminence Front’ as the FX TV ad campaign, which was from 1982).

Still, atmosphere can carry only so far. A soap opera requires caricatures acting broadly. The show’s premise and conceit point the other way. And nothing suggests ambition to deconstruct the American self-image through the eyes of its Soviet protagonists. Leaving us with what, precisely?

We doubt we’ll stick around after initial novelty dissipates. Aside from name-check fan service, it feels like Oakland, no there, there. (For that matter, we’ve never been able to sit through a re-watching of the recent “Tinker, Tailor” remake; the original BBC show remains sublime). Many pulp series have overcome inauspicious pilots. Will be interesting to see if we’re given a reason to care in time.

Why Liberals And Non-Rightists Lose The Deficit Hawk War

Striking how today’s Washington deficit and debt debates echo Continental arguments and policies in the 1920s and 1930s. As before, Malthusian linear extrapolation of today’s circumstances leads to a cataclysmic future. Ideology and epistemology fuel and derive sustenance from that apocalypse.

While E.J. Dionne is not often cited here in the bunker, he did sum up the Malthus Cheerleaders well:

The moment’s highest priority should be speeding economic growth and ending the waste, human and economic, left by the Great Recession. But you would never know this because the conversation in our nation’s capital is being held hostage by a ludicrous cycle of phony fiscal deadlines driven by a misplaced belief that the only thing we have to fear is the budget deficit.

A major reason Malthus walks among us again is so few American policy makers are economically literate. And shrink from basic maths. Economists aren’t much better. Consider how ideology as ‘free trade’ ignored mercantilist manipulation from Tokyo, Taipei, Singapore, Seoul and Beijing because ‘consumer welfare’ was the immutable barometer. (Lawyers, too – remember the Chicago School (law and economics) influenced decision that Japan couldn’t dump TVs in America because Japan was a capitalist country and firms don’t do unprofitable things).

MPHG

Adding to difficulties? The federal budget’s opacity and arcana induces a particularly sudden coma. Only the most fanatical (masochistic) dive in. Thus, Paul Ryan’s outsized public presence. And David Walker’s. Who, you ask? A previously obscure U.S. Controller General, he launched his Comeback America Initiative to sound the alarm of budgetary doom without massive and immediate cuts. Omnipresent in D.C. and its Acela Mid Town adjunct, Walker comes perilously close to demanding an emergency government of national deficit reduction act. If you wonder where Joe Scarborough got his talking points (and Mika, too) look no further.

What Ryan and Walker (and les autres) provide are essentially crib sheets for how to sound informed while not really understanding the math, economics or actual budget mechanics. They dodge questions by barraging arcane factoids and posing existential act or die false binaries. They’s also spent years building to this moment. Even if their public notoriety seems overnight. It’s that trifecta – seeming expertise, simple solutions (draconian budget cuts) that people can analogize to their home cheque book, and relentless Malthus meme promotion.

There’re no corresponding figures promoting growth engaged across this full spectrum engagement. Who can and will feed the sound bite news entertainment machines. And walk the halls of Congress, lobbying with hard simplicities. Or taking years to build national grass roots movements.

Bruce Bartlett, for example, as a Republican budget and fiscal analyst long argued for spending restraints under Bush. And was fired for his troubles. He also understands that growth is the solution to debt and deficit constraints. Still, he’s an outlier in most Movement/Republican circles and by temperament and training more wonky than meme political. (Meant as a compliment, Bruce). Krugman has similar but even more profound limits. And so on.

To see E.J. Dionne above write a column is nice. Or the Daily Beast writing that E.J. Dionne wrote that column (albeit showing pretty shoddy understanding of macro-economics 101). This highlights our point. When columns are themselves noteworthy, it underscores the vacancy on the actual political playing field.

Are we wrong? Who’s the champion for a growth-led strategy?

This Isn’t Over Yet, Batman

71 people shot at the Aurora, Colorado midnight show of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Almost instantly, right wing defensive posturing over gun control hijacked a tragedy for squalid politics.

A single reporter on Good Morning America said the shooter belonged to the Tea Party (and quickly corrected). That lone report by a not very credible reporter was all the victim bandwagon needed. The Fox crew energetically speculated without reporting that it all might be related to OWS. Most of the cable teams we glimpsed, especially CNN, appeared almost but not quite celebratory. It is because they have a new cash cow narrative for ratings? Or it’s a temporary reprieve from the bleak and small presidential race? Unknown.
Batman, Aurora massacre, Rush Limbaugh

It’ll be a long time coming before we get reliable information about the shooter and his avowed motives. Pundits laugh at waiting and scramble to tell us what it all means. Most of those writers are clueless about pop culture, movies and genres but are oddly obsessed by them. Much like El Rushbo:

This evil villain in the new Batman movie is named Bane. And there’s now a discussion out there as to whether or not this is purposeful and whether or not it will influence voters. It’s gonna have a lot of people. This movie, the audience is gonna be huge. A lot of people are gonna see the movie, and it’s a lot of brain-dead people, entertainment, the pop culture crowd, and they’re gonna hear Bane in the movie and they’re gonna associate Bain. The thought is that when they start paying attention to the campaign later in the year, and Obama and the Democrats keep talking about Bain, Romney and Bain, that these people will think back to the Batman movie, ‘Oh, yeah, I know who that is.’ There are some people who think it’ll work. Others think you’re really underestimating the American people to think that will work.

“You may think it’s ridiculous, I’m just telling you this is the kind of stuff the Obama team is lining up. The kind of people who would draw this comparison are the kind of people that they are campaigning to. These are the kind of people that they are attempting to appeal to.

This tragedy reminds one of other incidents and losses. We’d like to close by remembering the sacrifice of Officer Johns. You may recall he gave his life to defend Holocaust Museum visitors. And there are others. Does this incident prompt memories for you?

A Neocon’s Views Of American Power In 2012

How does a nation in economic disarray and extricating itself from two military misadventures find itself being goaded by senior officials, presidential candidates and media to start two new wars in Syria and Iran? A key remains the Neocon AgitProp engine and their internal views on American relative and objective power in today’s world. Contrary to popular belief, they didn’t go away.

Popular sentiment attributed to social media and existing strains of humanitarian interventionism ideology propel Obama’s policy as well, notably in Libya and now Syria.

But the Neocons – however diminished – agitate for two new major wars on Middle Eastern littoral. As before, Neocons today are as comfortable as Newt in dismissing the military’s considered opinion when it suits their purpose.

So what do they actually say? And how does it impact current events? Our friend at Global Paradigms examines Robert Kagan’s “The World American Made”. As you’ll see, Neocon infatuation with abstract symbology remains, as does the profound contempt for meaningful empirical analysis:

‘You are not sick,’ is the kind of reassuring message that Robert Kagan is sending to the nation’s foreign policy hypochondriacs aka ‘declinists’ in his new non-fiction book The World America Made, contending that America is in tip-top military and economic health and ready to take care of the rest of the world. He recalls that the same kind of hypochondriacs had complained that America was really, really in decline in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Kagan, as Global Paradigms notes, is a senior advisor to the Romney campaign. But the important take away is that Kagan and many Neocon’s simply don’t believe that the American strategic position has fundamentally changed since 2003. It can get frustrating, as this graph shows:

Indeed, there is an element of the theatre of the absurd in the spectacle of Kagan, the geo-strategist who was the leading intellectual cheer-leader for the decisions to invade Iraq and launch the Freedom Agenda in the Middle East that were so central to the erosion of US global position. He is now lashing out at others for their lack of faith in American power that he had so helped to diminish so much.

The Three Amigos in the Senate, Lieberman, McCain and Graham are pushing for language that some see as trying to force Obama into war with Iran. How much easier to pursue if one believes the U.S. remains a healthy and wealthy unipolar military. Perhaps the Neocons’ greatest success is to convince people they’re not around anymore.

2011’s Top 10 Most Memorable?

We all know the merely ‘great’ moments of 2011. Everyone has their own list.

To wit, the usual suspects: the Kardashian wedding, Weiner’s Tweets, the movie ‘Cowboys and Aliens’, Glenn Beck ‘parting ways’ with Fox, the Beatles’ song ‘In My Life’ used to sell mattresses by Sleepy’s, and so on. Toss in various pedantic finger jabs at the camera by Laurence (‘I was Chief of Staff to the Senate Finance Committee!’) O’Donnell or Rachel (‘Check this out, it is sooo cool. In the 1970s, they actually had LED wristwatches!’) Maddow.

Life defining moments all, surely.

Still, we can sift through the cacophony and seek greater refinement. To kickstart conversation, here’s one stab at a Top Ten:

10. Michele Bachmann
9. ‘Teh Gays’ Invading C-PAC, causing a Counter-Revolution and Coup
8. Khadaffi’s PG-Rated Cher Condi Photo Book
7. Season 2 of ‘Walking Dead’
6. Hewlett-Packard
5. Herman Caine’s Smoking Commercial
4. The Republican Debates (pick your moment)
3. Boehner/Cantor Road Show
2. US/ISI Divorce (and drone war migrating to Africa)
1. The U.S. Default/Debt Debacle/People Realizing Goldilocks Doesn’t Work

Submit your suggestions. Anything missing? What should be here?

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Uncle Pat Sings The Same Old Song

The Drudge Report is hyping Uncle Pat’s latest Spenglerian opus, “End Of An Era: When MTV Began To Play Michael Jackson,” or some such. According to the Drudge summary, it looks like Pat went back to his studio with his producer with one goal: to recapture the punch and power from his halcyon days. Some chapters, like Crisis of the Catholic Church, are particularly riff heavy, recalling the pyrotechnics of his epic Houston 1992 stage show. Perhaps it’s akin to his last will and testament to posterity?

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