If you want to take a good look at Russia’s actions over the past week or so, you’ll need to start in Austria. Austria, like much of Europe, is consumed with choosing the lesser of two evils between Islamism and Russian influence. For co-dependent (one might, uncharitably, say “emasculated”) EU countries like Austria, it does not appear politically, culturally or diplomatically strong enough to keep both evils at bay. And it has friendlier relations with Moscow than any Islamic entity — Putin had never even met Foreign Minister Karin Kneisslwhen he flew out to attend her wedding. But when the Putin-friendly Freedom Party directs raids on the Austrian “FBI” (technically the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, or Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung, or BVT) unit specializing in “extremism”, is pretty brazen. The raid was carried out by Austrian street cops and netted 19 gigabytes of data, including dirt on right-wing groups with ties to Vice Chancellor and Freedom Party leader Heinz Strache. For one thing, the Freedom Party is in charge of the BVT (which has led to speculation that this was a heavy-handed attempt to replace the BVT’s hierarchy with Freedom Party members). For another, the reasons for the search warrant appear to be rather flimsy — among them are the failure to properly dispose of information scheduled for deletion, and, um, working with the South Korean government to forge blank North Korean passports in Austria as part of a larger espionage operation against the Norks. Not sure what part of the latter was illegal. A court is deciding on it in the next few days and a parliamentary inquiry is scheduled for next month. Answers should be forthcoming.
Biggest under-reported story of the week has to be the compound discovered in New Mexico where five adults were starving and abusing 11 underage children with the intent of developing them into school shooters. Hm. Abused children, remote compound, school shooter training…shouldn’t this be clickbait for every eyeball-starved news organization? Well the adults were, ahem, Muslim. In fact the children of a Brooklyn-based imam. Not just any imam. An unindicted co-conspirator of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Look, reasonable people can agree that Trump is a goon. But can reasonable people also not agree that when the media buries or obfuscates stories like this to fit their own narratives, they don’t do themselves any favors?
The hangover from Helsinki continued this week, meaning most people who were outraged in the first 24 hours after Trump met Putin have now moved on to Tweeting about Justin Bieber’s engagement and Instagramming from the beach to calm their nerves. It’s a pity, because this week was awash in eye-popping stories that didn’t make A1 in the dailies.
Count me as one of those who thought that Trump would, if nothing else, be tough on China. But, in one of the biggest stories of the week, Trump manages to only give Chinese company (and Chinese intelligence enabler) ZTE a slap on the wrist. I was, then, one of those who counted on the bipartisan outrage about his decision resulting in tougher treatment for ZTE. Nope — after heavy lobbying, Congress thought better of that too. So you can expect to see Chinese tech with histories of backdoors, viruses and a direct line to Chinese intelligence in our market soon. This is hardly the only significant Chinese offense being discussed this week. China has been using exit bans for leverage over US citizens (usually of Chinese heritage). The Chinese can and, apparently do, force the ex-pats to cooperate in investigations or coerce their Chinese family members to return to China. This should be a huge story — and, after Congress’ towering feat of cowardice with ZTE, it may have to be for China to be held at all accountable. Don’t bank on it seeing too much daylight, however. The Daily Beast’s Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian explains that both “the Chinese government and Chinese companies, often with close state ties, have retained lobbying and public-relations firms in the Beltway, in some cases hiring former U.S. officials as personal lobbyists.” Want names? How about former House speaker John Boehner, former U.S. ambassador to China Clark Randt, and former CIA Beijing station chief Randall Phillips?
The story of Russian influence in our government is significant (here is this week’s reminder that it doesn’t begin with Trump). But Chinese influence is even more significant…
I’m typing this with one hand, since I need the other to press a frozen steak against my still-sore noggin. Such is the price for enforcing my own deadlines while Trump went to Helsinki (which is the sequel to Trump Goes to London — 18 rating on Rotten Tomatoes! Though my favorite of the European Trump-cation series has always been First Trump, Part II). Bottom line, I have low expectations for this update. Which is a shame, because there were some epic stories on the webs this week.
Westerners generally lack skepticism about the lengths Russian intelligence is willing to go. There are many ways to rectify this, but the most entertaining way is to take a look at the State Department’s files on Soviet active measuresfrom September 1983. Kinda like downing a kale smoothie that tastes like mint chocolate chip, it’s like reading 20 movie plots without realizing it’s a Cold War history book.
Speaking of thrilling reads, what do the hacking of the DNC servers, police brutality in Florida, catfishing, Russian intelligence, doxing and a former Marine have in common? This story. Read it. And buy the movie rights. Seriously.
“M: Sit down, 007. James: Thank you, sir. M: No ill effects? James: None at all, sir. M: Well now that you’re dead, perhaps some of your old friends will pay a little less attention to you for a while. Give you more elbow room. You’ll need it, too.” – You Only Live Twice (1967)”
Journalist Arkady Babchenko had pissed off the Russians many times. Being a former Russian soldier himself doubtless kept him very much in Putin’s gaze. But, according to the Ukranian Security Service (Sluzhba Bespeky Ukrayiny, or SBU), Putin’s Sauron-like eye narrowed on him considerably in early 2018. The SBU informed Babchenko of a credible, Russian-backed threat against his life, at which point Babchenko had three options: take the chance that Russians with the motives, means, opportunity and stated desire to kill him weren’t serious; devise his own plot to foil any attempt on his life; or cooperate with the SBU to stage his death as a means to expose the network behind his potential assassination. We know now that Babchenko chose Door Three. And many bien pensants are in a tizzy. Per Al-Jazeera, a Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) spokeswomen stated that “CPJ takes quite a dim view of law enforcement impersonating journalists. Now, with Arkady Babchenko basically acting as a police asset, one clear damage is to public trust for the media and for journalists.” Former NSA spook John Schindler writes, “playing the Western media for fools and taking advantage of their newfound interest in Russian terrorism abroad was terribly short-sighted….Putin’s regime lies nonstop anyway, and this gives Russia’s rancid lies a smidge of credibility.”
Historically, the countries of the EU have been allies of the US. That’s not to say they didn’t get a little passive-aggressive at times. France, Spain, Germany and Greece could even, at one point or another in the past fifteen years, been classified as a frenemy.
Vladimir Putin, however, would like to make the whole EU our enemy. And he’s doing everything he can to soften the psychological terrain for the EU — whether country-by-country or as a whole — to accept Russia as its single indispensable benefactor and ally. There are disturbing signs that Putin’s efforts are paying off.
We know ISIS is bad because it killed people in San Bernardino and Paris. We know Iran is bad because it’s still developing nuclear weapons. We know Russia is bad…because…well, didn’t Charlie Rose once say something about that? Or was it Seth MacFarlane? Either way, as Americans, we know there is a threat from Putin’s Russia, but many of us (including, of course, Donald Trump) aren’t quite sure why.
Don’t feel bad for sleeping on Russia. Thanks to a hybrid of information operations, psychological warfare and espionage, Russia has evaded the scrutiny afforded ISIS, Iran and even North Korea. But while we had little excuse for our blindness to Russia’s actions in 2012, when Barack Obama laughed at Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia was a preeminent geopolitical threat, we have absolutely no excuse now.