Europe/Americas update: February 6 2019



With the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Vladimir Putin wants his military to develop “invincible” hypersonic missiles as a threat/deterrent to the United States. Or at least he wants people to think that’s what he wants his military to do. With Russia’s economy perpetually in tatters there’s little reason to think that the military has a lot of extra money lying around to start developing devastating new super missiles.

There’s some reason to think that Putin is losing his touch with the common Russian:

It is not just young people. Putin continually paints a picture of Russia as a land full of hardworking, uncomplaining, loyal citizens. In his last speech to parliament he spoke of “Thousands, literally thousands of our experts, outstanding scientists, designers, engineers, passionate and talented workers have been working for years, quietly, humbly, selflessly, with total dedication. There are many young professionals among them. They are our true heroes, along with our military personnel who demonstrated the best qualities of the Russian army in combat.”

The trouble for Putin is that fewer and fewer Russians actually fit that stereotype. And increasingly he is getting into fights with real Russians who want to complain about government policies. Last September, when he visited the Zvezda shipyard in the Russian Far East, the president got into an argument with the workers there about their salaries. (The transcript of their conversation in which Putin massively overestimated what they were paid was subsequently removed from the Kremlin website).

As the political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya remarked in 2015, “Putin has stopped being a champion of the people and become a champion of the elite.” Recently he has accused long-distance truck drivers of idleness, defended raising the pension age and increasing utility prices, and spoken out in favor of paying top managers vastly higher salaries than those of their workers.


With Greece now on board, North Macedonia should be a full member of NATO by the end of the year, which is great news if you still think NATO is an important institution but certainly not great news for Moscow:

“One of Putin’s main hopes has been that NATO would go away or become fragmented,” said Stephen J. Flanagan, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation in Washington. North Macedonia’s accession, he said, “kind of undermines the Russian narrative.”

Of course, the reason NATO hasn’t gone away and in fact has doubled in size since the end of the Cold War is…well, that’s kind of the rub, isn’t it? The institution doesn’t seem to have ever developed a new rationale itself apart from antagonizing Russia. I’m old enough to remember there being serious, important questions about what purpose the NATO alliance still served and whether its existence, let alone expansion, was really necessary after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but nobody ever seems to have bothered answering them. We just plowed right ahead.


Italy’s deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, decided to troll French President Emmanuel Macron by meeting with leaders of the “Yellow Vest” protest movement on Tuesday. The French government didn’t find it terribly amusing:

“This new provocation is not acceptable between neighbouring countries and partners in the European Union,” a French foreign ministry spokesman responded in a daily online briefing.

“Mr Di Maio, who holds government responsibilities, must take care not to undermine, through his repeated interferences, our bilateral relations, in the interest of both France and Italy.”

Italy’s populist leaders are unsurprisingly not big Macron fans.


Some “Yellow Vest” leaders are trying to transition their protest movement into a political party that will field candidates for the European Parliament later this year, though that by no means seems to be a universal sentiment among organizers. Nevertheless, polling indicates that if they do run candidate they’ll siphon votes from both the far left and far right opposition to Macron, which would ironically help Macron’s MEP candidates.

Macron himself seems to be regaining a bit of his shattered popularity, but so far only enough to get him into the mid-30s in opinion polling. His “grand debate” plan to travel the country arguing with people seems to be winning him a bit of support, even though he’s repeatedly made it clear that he’s not actually going to listen to any of the complaints about his pro-wealthy economic policies.


Theresa May arrives in Brussels on Thursday for more Brexit negotiations, and already things are going great:

Tusk’s “special place in hell” comment caused Brexiters in the UK to absolutely lose their shit on Wednesday, calling it “out of order” and chastising Tusk for his “arrogance,” etc. Bear in mind that many of these people are the same ones who refer to EU leaders as Nazis on the regular, so they’re not really in a position to scold anybody else for intemperance. Anyway, the upshot is you shouldn’t expect any big breakthroughs out of May’s trip.



Venezuelan soldiers have blockaded the Tienditas Bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, in an effort to prevent opposition leader/self-declared president Juan Guaidó from bringing in a large shipment of humanitarian supplies. The truck convoy carrying the aid is reportedly on the road and could reach the bridge by Thursday morning. A standoff there would be the latest and possibly most volatile flashpoint yet in the Venezuelan political crisis. President Nicolás Maduro has rejected humanitarian aid as demeaning (he’s apparently been selling off Venezuela’s gold reserves by the dozens of tonnes to try to make ends meet) and has to reject it in this case because to allow this convoy into the country would be to legitimize Guaidó on some level. Naturally the people who will be hurt here are Venezuelans who really could use that aid, but probably won’t get it because it’s been thoroughly politicized, by Maduro in part but moreso by Guaidó and the Trump administration.

Guaidó is setting up a fund in the United States so that he can hold on to Citgo’s revenue. Citgo is owned by Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA, and so because the US recognizes Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president its income gets to go to him instead of back to Caracas. The Trump administration is trying to force Citgo to appoint a new board of directors friendly to Guaidó, but the PDVSA plans to fight that in court. Cutting Maduro off from that money is part of the administration’s strategy to starve him of the resources he’s been using to prop up his government. Now it’s talking about lifting US sanctions on military officers who go over to Guaidó’s side in an effort to put together a full blown military coup.


The death toll from Mexico’s January 18 gasoline pipeline explosion has risen to 128.


By the end of the year the Pentagon will probably have spent about $1 billion on meaningless political stunts at the US-Mexico border. You know we really need to give those folks a bigger budget.

The State of the Union address was yesterday, and as I said yesterday I just don’t care. If you want a roundup of what Donald Trump said on foreign policy matters, Foreign Policy has a decent one. His total omission of climate change was more important than anything he actually said.

Instead of worrying about the speech, I’d recommend reading Gunar Olsen in The New Republic on the problem with relying on Congress to rein in this or any other president’s martial urges. While it’s important for Congress to reassert itself on foreign policy and especially on matters of war and peace, the fact is that Congress has historically been just as pro-war as the executive:

You’ve probably heard the refrain on Congress and war powers, presented perennially as a cure-all for toxic conflicts ever since the Vietnam era. The last time our government formally declared war was in 1942, and since then the legislative branch has acted like a feckless “bystander” to wars initiated by the executive, and must now “reclaim,” “reassert,” or “take back” its war powers from the increasingly “unlimited authority” of the “imperial” president. It’s in the Constitution: only Congress, per Article I, Section 8, has the power to declare war. 

This argument typically gives the impression that, if only proper procedure were followed, the United States would have avoided any number of disastrous entanglements—Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and more. The problem is that it’s not borne out by historical evidence.

Contrary to Beltway commentariat consensus, American bellicosity is not merely the result of uncontrolled executive branch war-making. Often forgotten is the fact that Congress has mostly supported the United States’ wars, usually with great enthusiasm. Legislators have the constitutional authority to stop and deliberate the president’s wars, but have historically been unwilling to exercise it.


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