Europe/Americas update: May 8-11 2017


I don’t have much to add to the conflagration over Donald Trump’s decision to fire the guy investigating his possible ties to Russia–I recommend Benjamin Wittes and Susan Hennessey on this if you’re not already oversaturated about it. But I do think it’s worth understanding how the banana republicification of our government affects how America is perceived abroad. If you read this blog regularly then you’ll know that I believe America already has, in technical terms, a metric buttload of problems related to general hypocrisy–on human rights, on use of force, on military deployments, all manner of things. We have major credibility problems when we talk about these issues. This shit isn’t helping any of that.

It also doesn’t help that we’re led by people who are stupid enough to fire the FBI Director investigating Trump-Russia ties the day before Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is supposed to visit the White House. Or that they’re stupid enough to invite the Russian foreign minister into the Oval Office with a photographer, then pretend to get angry when that photographer’s photographs go public, and think anybody is actually going to believe they’re really angry about that. It’s a steady comedy of the absurd and/or craven with these people and, you know, that’s not a good look.


On Tuesday, Foreign Policy’s Kate Brannen wrote that Steve Bannon was gunning, apparently via his gang of dipshit white nationalist fake news boosters, to get National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster fired:

The first story aimed at weakening McMaster came Sunday from blogger Mike Cernovich, whose reporting has served as a conduit for the alt-right wing of the White House to air its grievances and get ahead of policies it doesn’t like. Cernovich has pushed conspiracy theories and threatened to smear members of the Trump White House if Bannon is ever removed. Still, the White House has given him press credentials, and he attended a White House briefing last month.

In a May 7 blog post, Cernovich suggested McMaster had become too big for his britches and that Trump intended to put him in his place at a meeting between the two on Monday. Trump’s daily schedule for Monday included a meeting with McMaster at 10 a.m. in the Situation Room.

Cernovich is intent on portraying McMaster as a crony of retired Gen. David Petraeus, which, in this depiction, means a fan of big counterinsurgency campaigns that require billions of dollars and thousands of ground troops. Cernovich’s list of McMaster’s wrongs include that he’s pushing “for a ground war in Syria and massive new surge in Afghanistan,” which, according to the source familiar with the White House’s internal deliberations, does not accurately portray the policy option McMaster is proposing. It does, however, reflect Bannon’s characterization of it, as well as his own isolationist foreign-policy views.

McMaster may well be fighting a losing battle here, but he reportedly is about to get a pretty significant victory. Politico reported on Wednesday that Army Reserve Major General Ricky Waddell is set to replace former Fox News personality K.T. McFarland as McMaster’s deputy. McMaster has wanted McFarland out since he got the job, seeing her as an unqualified ideologue put in place by fellow ideologue Michael Flynn, McMaster’s short-lived predecessor. But Trump likes McFarland, so this was reportedly a source of tension between him and McMaster and one major reason why McMaster might be on his way out. If Trump has finally acquiesced to McFarland’s replacement, then it’s a sign that McMaster may not be in as much jeopardy as the Bannon crowd wants you to think he is.


Today in the Orthodox Republic of Russia:

A Russian court on Thursday gave a suspended three and a half year jail sentence to a blogger who was detained after he played the Pokemon Go video game inside a Russian Orthodox church last year.

Ruslan Sokolovsky was found guilty of inciting religious hatred after posting a video on YouTube where he is seen playing Pokemon Go on his cell phone in the church.

In the video, which contains strong language mocking Christianity, Sokolovsky likens Jesus Christ to a Pokemon character and says he had decided to play the popular game inside the church because he had seen a news report saying people who did so could be fined or jailed.

Vladimir Putin’s theocratic bent, whether genuine or politically motivated, is one of the least discussed aspects of his reign, but it’s also one of the things that endears him to the right-wing in America.

On the plus side, Moscow was reportedly “cautiously optimistic” after Lavrov’s meeting with Trump today. All else aside, cordial relations between the world’s two largest nuclear states isn’t a bad thing. On the minus side, things are still very tense around the Baltic states, where NATO has deployed assets in response to a Russian buildup in the area and there are concerns about Russia’s (and Belarus’s) major Zapad military exercises scheduled for September. Defense Secretary James Mattis visited Lithuania on Wednesday to affirm America’s NATO commitment to defend the country in the event of Russian aggression.


Reuters published an interesting report on Thursday on the direct role Moscow has played in controlling the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, based on interviews with three former rebel leaders. They allege that Putin aide Vladimir Surkov has served as the Kremlin’s point man, and he’s been responsible for installing rebel leaders and monitoring and directing their activities via his proxies. If true it indicates a level of Russian involvement in the insurgency that the Kremlin has never been willing to acknowledge or even hint at.


The ongoing political crisis in the Czech Republic (which we’re all calling by the wrong name, by the way) took on a new dimension on Wednesday, when “tens of thousands” of people protested in Prague against Finance Minister Andrej Babiš and President Miloš Zeman. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has asked Zeman to dismiss Babiš from the cabinet, ostensibly over investigations related to the billionaire Babiš’s past financial dealings, but since Zeman likes Babiš a whole lot more than he likes Sobotka, he’s dragging his feet and says he’ll take the case to the country’s constitutional court, even though the legality seems pretty clear and Zeman is obliged to sack Babiš. Zeman is arguing that dismissing a minister from a coalition government should dissolve the coalition, which would mean (slightly, they’re already scheduled for later this year) early elections, which Sobotka doesn’t want.

What makes these protests interesting is that polling suggests Babiš’s ANO party is the most popular one in the country and will defeat Sobotka’s ČSSD party in the next election, which would probably make Babiš the country’s new PM. The protests, presumably organized by Sobotka’s people, are meant to convey the sense of a strong public opposition to the man who will most likely win the country’s next election. He can’t be that unpopular.


Angela Merkel looks like she’s going to be the last woman standing amid the wave of political turnover sweeping through major Western states. Her Christian Democrats have won two state elections so far this year over their main challenger, the Social Democrats, and they look set to win a third, in North Rhine-Westphalia, on Sunday. At this rate, Merkel’s party should easily outpace the Social Democrats in national elections in September.



European Union Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told the Irish parliament on Thursday that Brexit would not lead to the return of a hard border with Northern Ireland. I’m not sure how it could not lead to the return of a hard border, but what do I know? Amid the EU’s many problems, one of its pluses is that it reduces tensions around territorial disputes like Northern Ireland and Gibraltar. Brexit is going to raise those tensions again, inevitably.


Protests against the Maduro government are continuing and, to be honest, kind of reached a new low on Wednesday:

Young Venezuelan protesters lobbed bottles and bags of feces at soldiers who fought with tear gas on Wednesday to block the latest march in more than a month of nationwide protests against socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

The extraordinary scenes, in what was dubbed the “Shit March” on the main highway through Caracas, came as thousands of opposition supporters again poured onto the streets decrying Venezuela’s economic crisis and demanding elections.

To be fair, there are worse things those protesters could be throwing, so I guess shit isn’t that bad. Maduro’s plan, such as it is, for surviving this situation seems to be to ride out this surge of protests and hope oil prices rise enough that the Venezuelan economy sort of gets back on track, at which point Maduro can call his planned constituent assembly and rewrite the constitution to bypass the opposition controlled legislature. Rube Goldberg is looking at this and thinking “man, that’s a bit much.” Maduro doesn’t have much international support behind him, which isn’t surprising but does probably limit the amount of time he can hold off the opposition, particularly if the protester body count continues to rise–it’s up to 39 at this point.


The smaller of Colombia’s two long-standing Marxist insurgent groups, ELN, said today that it doesn’t expect to reach a peace deal with the government before next year’s elections. The larger of those two insurgent groups, FARC, reached a peace deal in November, ending its involvement in the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running war (it’s been going on since 1964).


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