I write about events, people, money, corruption, tech, business, geopolitics, power, Ukraine, Russia, and trends. My job is to be concise, synthesize, connect dots, and entertain, wherever appropriate, in order to explain the news of the day. I’ve been around the block, covered news around the world, and will offer unique perspectives on the news and newsmakers. I have residences in New York, Toronto, and Paris. I am a columnist with The National Post in Canada, Kyiv Post, UkraineAlert at the Atlantic Council Eurasia Center in Washington D.C., and have written for many other periodicals. At heart I’m a business writer and entrepreneur which is why I rely on facts and figures, not press releases, propaganda, or opinions.
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August 17, 2023
On the morning of June 2, 1979 church bells pealed across Poland as Pope John Paul II stepped from his plane onto the soil of his native country then knelt to kiss its ground. His dramatic gesture of devotion and his crusade against human rights abuses helped demolish the Soviet Union. Polish insurgents were allowed to meet, organize, and pass messages in Catholic churches as their Pope spoke out eloquently against Soviet wrongdoing everywhere. In 2003, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize and declined out of humility. In 2014, he was canonized. By contrast, the current incumbent, Pope Francis, has never directly condemned Vladimir Putin or Russia by name in the 18 months since their horrific war began against the Ukrainian people. Worse, the Pope’s first quoted reaction echoed Kremlin talking points when he suggested that the war was a consequence of “NATO barging at Russia’s gate” and the “international arms industry”. This Pope’s failure to publicly condemn Putin and Russia, and his moral equivocation when pressed, is unforgivable and reminiscent of the Papacy’s tacit acceptance of Hitler and his Second World War.
Pope Francis is creating another “historic mess” because he aims to “show that he is neither on one side or the other,” commented Giovanni Maria Vian, a former editor of the Vatican’s newspaper. The Papal silence is perplexing, given that Catholicism is the largest religion in Europe and that 10 percent of Ukrainians are members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church which recognizes the Holy See. Other religious Ukrainians belong to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine which broke away from its Russian counterpart in 2019, but their worldwide spiritual leader, Patriarch Bartholomew, immediately labelled Russia’s invasion as “unholy and demonic”. And this March, he also directly accused the Russian branch of the Orthodox church and the Kremlin of cooperating “in the crime of aggression and shared the responsibility for the resulting crimes, like the shocking abduction of the Ukrainian children.”
Perhaps Pope Francis refuses to name the predators because one of them is a friend — Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill who also happens to be a former KGB agent and confidante of Putin’s. A few years ago, Forbes Magazine estimated that Kirill’s personal net worth was $4 billion, but this remains unverified. However, he wears $30,000 watches and owns a private jet, a palatial estate, a yacht, and valuable real estate in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Suspicions are that his fortune was accumulated by skimming profits made by his Church in the mid-1990s after it was granted a monopoly to import cigarettes duty-free.
After the February 2022 invasion, Kirill did not condemn it as the worldwide Orthodox Patriarch did, but issued a directive to Russian soldiers that “your task is to wipe the Ukrainian nation off the face of the Earth”. Despite such a shocking pronouncement, Pope Francis told newspapers in Italy a few weeks later that he spent 40 minutes on a zoom call with his friend Kirill and warned him against becoming “Putin’s altar boy”, wrote The Washington Post. He warned him? Surely, the Pope knew that Kirill was a Putin insider and collaborator and had publicly promoted genocide.
One year later, on 30 April 2023, Pope Francis announced that the Vatican was embarking on a secret "peace mission" to try to end the war. In May, President Zelensky flew to meet the Pope to discuss the mission, but left in disgust and tweeted: “I asked [the Pope] to condemn [Russia’s] crimes in Ukraine. Because there can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor. I also talked about our Peace Formula as the only effective algorithm for achieving a just peace. I proposed joining its implementation.”
The next day Zelensky’s advisor Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted a withering condemnation of the Vatican’s inaction, failure to call out the culprits, and use of the Kremlin’s damaging narrative. “The Vatican is primarily about morality. When you call an aggressor by their name. When you harshly and directly condemn mass crimes. When you openly side with a country that is being killed and destroyed without provocation. When you personally defend those who are unconditional victims of Russian aggression. When you call evil, which is Russia, by its name. Only then does Holy Justice emerge.”
One month later Pope Francis personally announced that his peace mission was over because there was no apparent end in sight to the war after his envoy held three days of talks in Moscow. But a Vatican statement followed which revealed that the Pope’s consultations were doomed (or cynical) from the start because they were between the Pope’s envoy and one of President Vladimir Putin's closest foreign policy advisors as well as the odious Patriarch Kirill.
The International Affairs Institute of Italy analyzed why the Pope failed to mediate a deal. It blamed the Pope’s NATO-bashing narrative which aligned him with the Kremlin and portrayed Ukraine’s struggle for freedom and democracy and justice as simply a proxy war between colonial powers. “It denies agency to the Ukrainian people, undermining their ability to be active participants in the conflict and possible negotiations. Instead, it presents Ukraine, and its population of over 40 million, as a mere pawn in the hands of the so-called `great powers’,” it concluded.
So is this Pope tone deaf or co-opted? Is it because he’s not European, but from the Global South where Europe remains resented? Or is it because he’s a Jesuit, an order of priests devoted to education who are often theological “eggheads” that indulge in parsing and dissembling moral issues even when answers are simple and obvious. Such casuistry, or unsound reasoning in relation to moral questions, certainly afflicts this Pope. When asked by an Italian newspaper whether it was right to send weapons so Ukraine could defend itself, he said “I don’t know.” When pushed to castigate Putin and Russia, he responded “I am simply against reducing complexity to the distinction between good guys and bad guys, without reasoning about roots and interests, which are very complex” then added Russia’s war in Ukraine was “perhaps somehow either provoked or not prevented.”
Whatever the underlying causes, his behaviour is inexcusable. The facts are simple: Ukraine was invaded by Russia, its people are being killed, the country is being destroyed, his friend Kirill has called for genocide, and every perpetrator must be condemned and punished. This is not morally debatable.
It’s surprising that, despite the Pope’s dereliction of duty, some members of his flock haven’t lost faith. In August, many young Ukrainians attended the Apostolic Visit by the Pope in Portugal on World Youth Day hoping he would take up their cause. “The Pope said nothing”, remarked Rev. Roman Demush reported The New York Times. He leads the youth ministry office for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. “The war should make us scream, and it silences. He said he was impotent in front of this evil. It’s not enough just to listen — he has to do something. We want the Pope to be clear, in an understandable way, that Russia is a terrorist state.”
June 5, 2023
In January, most Canadians were embarrassed after their federal government announced that four Leopard tanks would be given to Ukraine as it fights for its very existence, as well as Europe’s. Four more came a month later, but these were measly gifts, considering that Canada is wealthy, home to the second largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world, and America has given disproportionately more to Kyiv. It’s also fair to assume that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not phoned President Joe Biden or NATO or Ukraine offering help along the way, or suggesting that Canada will ship substantially more energy to help reduce energy inflation and replace Russian fossil fuels. Trudeau has been in power since 2015 and yet to meet NATO military spending commitments. He also has worrisome connections with China, has impeded Canadian economic growth with his anti-resource policies, and neglected his country’s military. Canada has the longest coastline in the world and a navy smaller than Sri Lanka’s without a presence in a vast Arctic region that it shares with a militarized Russia.
Trudeau has governed for nearly eight years with little more than one-third of the popular vote by forming a coalition with socialist leader Jagmeet Singh, another privileged, professional politician who never met a payroll. Only two in five Canadians approve of their performance, but the electorate is fragmented. Trudeau’s cabinet totals 35 members and none have domain expertise in the positions they hold. Before winning, most were political operatives or environmental radicals, and, collectively, they lack management, finance, business, military, engineering, geopolitical, resource, or economic skills. The result is that Trudeau’s government this year will spend C$17.7 billion, or two-thirds of what it spends on defense, hiring consultants to tell them what to do because they are clueless.
“Canada doesn’t have the Air Force and Navy to protect its borders anymore,” commented American terrorism and cyber warfare expert Clint Watts last year in an interview. This year, Chinese surveillance balloons over Canada had to be shot down by American jet fighters. Canada’s stinginess and foot-dragging on defence poses a threat not only to itself, but to North America and the Western alliance. Trudeau has never met NATO’s 2-per-cent of GDP commitment to defense spending he promised to fulfil in 2015, and told NATO officials he never will, according to the Washington Post.
Canada’s intelligence capability is also considered substandard and penetrable by members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance. In 2019, Canada’s master spy was arrested and charges still remain secret. In 2020, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, David Vigneault, warned publicly that “the greatest strategic threat to Canada’s national security comes from hostile activities by foreign states” and that China presented “a direct threat to our national security and sovereignty”.
Trudeau adheres to Greenpeace directives rather than to international pledges. This has security implications. That environmental organization’s non-sensical anti-nuclear policy (even though nuclear generates zero emissions) was fully embraced by Germany, which made the country dependent on Russia energy as it closed nuclear plants. This gave Putin leverage over Europe and emboldened him to invade Ukraine.
Even so, Trudeau remains a devotee: His Environmental Minister is a former Greenpeace executive, as was his closest friend and former chief advisor. This environmental zealotry has, as occurred in Germany, impaired Canada’s energy sector, stunted development of its world-class resource endowment, and indirectly impeded the free world’s battle against Russia. Washington had to press Canada to increase oil exports after the war, which it did marginally, and now pressures Canada to remove anti-mining constraints because it is the only Western nation with an abundance of undeveloped cobalt, graphite, lithium, and nickel (plus copper and rare earths) that are essential in the future.
In Trudeau’s Canada, these would remain in the ground as would oil, natural gas, and uranium. He has been impervious to offers by allies willing to pay billions for resource development. In August, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz met with Trudeau and offered to pay the cost of building pipelines, ports, and LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) facilities on Canada’s east coast for export to Europe. Trudeau’s response was that there has “never been a strong business case” for Canadian LNG exports, and yet, days later, Scholz signed a massive LNG deal with Australia. In January, Trudeau gave Japan’s leader the same “no business case” story after Tokyo offered to build multiple LNG plants on Canada’s west coast. And in March, Spain’s energy giant Repsol SA withdrew from a planned LNG project in New Brunswick because Canadian federal government obstacles made its LNG project unviable. “Trudeau’s stewardship is a disaster. Like a dream world,” commented New Brunswick’s Premier Blaine Higgs, an engineer and energy expert.
Western Canada is the fourth largest producer of oil in the world — 5.43 million barrels of oil a day and lots of natural gas — and exports most of this to the United States. But it could produce and export much more energy if foreign environmental groups hadn’t spent billions on litigation and lobbying to stymie and strand its oil and gas reserves. In 2017, a pipeline to bring Canadian oil and gas from Western Canada to Eastern Canada’s coast was proposed and killed by Quebec, environmentalists, and Trudeau. If allowed, it would have brought Canadian oil to its eastern regions, where OPEC oil is now imported, and facilitated the creation of an LNG hub in Eastern Canada. The result of cancelling the inter-continental pipeline was that 18 LNG projects were nixed and the only LNG project underway is in British Columbia where it has been delayed and dogged by excessive political, legal, and regulatory interventions.
By contrast, the United States has revolutionized its natural gas industry in response to the Russian war as well as to global demand for cleaner energy. There are more than 140 LNG processing plants and ports in America with more on the drawing boards. America is now the world’s biggest LNG exporter. If Canada’s east-west pipeline hadn’t been sabotaged by Trudeau, environmentalists, and Quebec, the two countries would have replaced all Russian gas exports in Europe by now and helped many developing countries, and Eastern Canada, replace dirty coal-burning power plants with cleaner gas-fired ones.
Trudeau’s slavish adherence to Greenpeace is damaging enough, but his coziness with China has become a national issue in recent weeks. Press reports, based on intelligence leaks, claimed that Beijing meddled in Canada’s 2021 election to help Trudeau’s party. A full-blown public inquiry was demanded but, in response, Trudeau appointed a family friend, David Johnston, to determine whether a public inquiry was warranted. A China booster himself, Johnston predictably stated that a public inquiry was unnecessary and impossible because this would require disclosure of documents in breach of secrecy laws. He then went further and said that he looked at classified documents, found no wrongdoing, but couldn’t say why because he’d signed the Secrecy Oath. It was high-handed and disrespectful.
Naturally, Parliament’s opposition parties demanded Johnston’s resignation, but he refused. Some demanded an in camera judicial inquiry, but have been stonewalled. And Trudeau refuses to comment and or respond to requests that laws be put in place that would require foreign operatives to register and that would prevent election meddling, as Australia and others have done.
This political snafu is only a glimpse into the fact that Trudeau and his Liberals are infested with, and driven by, a business, investment, political, and personal network that is heavily invested and aligned with China. For example, two years ago Beijing kidnapped two innocent Canadian businessmen and canceled billions of dollars worth of trade contracts to force Canada to release a Huawei executive arrested under an extradition warrant by the United States. Trudeau did not retaliate and instead appointed as Ambassador to China another friend, Dominic Barton, who was too close to Chinese officials after serving as Chairman of McKinsey & Company and opening dozens of offices across China. Eventually, the Canadians were released but only after America negotiated a prisoner exchange.
The list of Liberal China lackeys is long. Trudeau’s closest friend and cabinet minister, Francois-Philippe Champagne, bought two apartments in London UK with mortgages from the Bank of China valued at C$1.8-million. He never disclosed this, as required, but confirmed the transactions after they were leaked and never resigned. Trudeau’s Family Foundation has received large sums from Chinese donors. And Trudeau’s mentor, former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, has family connections to Power Corporation of Montreal which has billions in assets in China and close ties to its political and business elites.
Domestically, Trudeau’s Canada loses ground economically. An OECD report in October 2021 predicted that Canada will be the worst performing advanced economy with the worst economic growth from 2030 to 2060. “In other words, Canada will be dead last not only for the next decade, but also for the three decades after that,” concluded the OECD.
Fortunately, Canada remains a pleasant country to live in with sensible gun controls and a good universal healthcare system that predates Trudeau’s tenure. But it’s now a chronic underachiever. Canada suffers from “state capture” by an anti-business Liberal and socialist elite and by foreign countries and non-state players. The country is fragmented, regionally and linguistically, which has led to this weak, anti-business coalition government that stonewalls Canadian voters and doesn’t pull its weight internationally. This is, more than a handful of tanks or an inadequate navy, the greatest embarrassment of all.
June 26, 2023
The bizarre events in Russia over the weekend provide a glimpse into the reality that the country is not a nation, but an empire with warring factions that is run by a mafia. Vladimir Putin has reigned as the “Boss” for 23 years and remained in place by enriching Russia’s thugs, bridling them, and playing one off against another. Under his rule, they have built palaces, stolen the national wealth, become warlords, amassed staggering portfolios, and lived like Czars. But on February 24, 2022, Putin decided to escalate the grift by invading Ukraine to steal more of its resources. Now this war is failing, as is Russia’s economy and Putin’s grip on power. And on June 23, Putin’s inability to control a wartime feud between warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russia’s military brass turned into a full-blown armed mutiny. Prigozhin pulled his mercenaries from the frontline in Ukraine and led a “march for justice” against Putin’s military inside Russia. Putin labeled Prigozhin a “traitor” on national television, ordered his arrest, then instructed his puppet in Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, to make an offer to Prigozhin that he couldn’t refuse: Stand down, charges would be scrapped, and move to Minsk. The crisis ended quickly, but Putin, the Russian Federation, and the war in Ukraine, will never again be the same.
Prigozhin grew up in St. Petersburg, where Putin did, and went to jail as a young man for fraud and theft. He has since become a billionaire oligarch as a result of his connections to Putin and business smarts. More recently, he has become a household word in Russia because of the success of his personal army, the Wagner Group mercenaries, as well as his diatribes on social media against Russia’s generals. He has accused them of poor strategies, corruption, and of using Russian soldiers as cannon fodder. His gutsy stances have made him a populist hero even though he is also a member of the elite. But Prigozhin is different. He’s gone “native” and dons fatigues, is on the frontlines with his mercenaries in the Ukrainian war zone, and excoriates Putin’s generals for drafting young Russians from poor families and regions then sending them to their deaths by the thousands without training or proper equipment.
“The children of the elite smear themselves with creams, showing it on the internet; ordinary people’s children come in zinc, torn to pieces,” said Prigozhin, a reference to metallic coffins. “Those killed in action had tens of thousands of relatives, and society always demands justice and, if there is no justice, then revolutionary sentiments arise.”
Prigozhin warns of revolution but is not a revolutionary. He became a successful chef, then caterer and started a mercenary army that has operated for years surreptitiously around the world on Putin’s behalf. For instance, Wagner helped Putin occupy Crimea and Donbas in 2014, it fought in Syria and various African countries for Moscow for years, and has been involved in the 2022 invasion, fighting alongside Russian regulars in Ukraine. But last year he began to aggressively criticize Russia’s Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, and Chief of General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov and Putin never intervened. This was because he was doing Putin’s dirty work again and blaming the generals for military failures. But Shoigu and Gerasimov struck back by sabotaging the Wagner Group on the battlefield. Prigozhin claimed they withheld ammunition and provided only sub-standard equipment. Then, last month, he alleged that the two actually shelled Wagner troops.
By June, Prigozhin’s success in the battlefield and growing social media presence across Russia and abroad was becoming a threat, so Putin sided with his generals. He ordered Wagner fighters to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense by July 1. This represented a de facto expropriation which is why Prigozhin pulled his troops from the front line in Ukraine on June 23 and marched them into Russia. That night, Putin condemned Prigozhin on state television and ordered Lukashenko to deliver the deal. Putin has not surfaced since June 24, and unconfirmed reports are that he fled Moscow.
A coup or armed conflict was avoided, but damage was done. Putin’s climb-down and capitulation to a man he had just called a “traitor” destroyed his tough-guy image. It’s obvious that he is not the “Boss”, but merely a figurehead who sits atop a rotten system of squabbling and greedy oligarchs. Prigozhin’s stunt also unveiled Russia’s vulnerability. He was able to march two-thirds of the way toward Moscow in a few hours without resistance. His troops also reportedly shot down six Russian helicopters and an IL-22 airborne command-center plane, killing 13 airmen, along the way, without consequences.
Prigozhin backed down and agreed to self-exile, but he’s not going to disappear, except physically. The generals he demanded that Putin fire still remain in power so he will continue to broadcast his criticisms from afar and plot a comeback, either from a dacha somewhere around the world or on a yacht. He will rebuild Wagner and may attract allies inside and outside Russia who want to overthrow Putin and his generals. He may aspire to be President but that is unlikely. He would be thoroughly unsuitable as President, but, unless assassinated, his ongoing crusade will be a catalyst for change inside Russia and serve the interests of Ukraine and the West. Prigozhin has already undermined Russia’s leadership, damaged frontline morale, stirred up the public, and shredded Putin’s concocted narrative that the invasion was necessary because Ukraine and NATO were a threat to Russia’s existence.
There’s little likelihood that a grassroots movement against Moscow will sprout around Prigozhin because it is a reign of terror and because he’s another thug whose forces have killed many Ukrainians and others. But his popularity was rising in polls before his armed mutiny because his rants resonated with civil society, mostly younger people. He also attracted international recognition with his condemnation of the war itself in the days leading up to the confrontation: “The war wasn’t needed to return Russian citizens to our bosom, nor to demilitarize or denazify Ukraine,” he said. “The war was needed so that a bunch of animals could simply exult in glory.”
The weekend’s events may not have brought about regime change, but Prigozhin has already dealt Putin, and Russia as currently constituted, a fatal blow. As the war continues to backfire, Ukraine and its alliance will push harder and so will separatist movements inside Russia who want autonomy or secession. Putin’s weakness is now apparent, and his tenure uncertain, which will also convince neighboring nations and Russian allies to recalibrate their relationship or forge new ones. Most significantly, Putin’s cave-in and cowardice concerning Prigozhin also means that his many “red lines” in this war are meaningless which is why many have been crossed and more should be ignored in future.
It is ironic that Prigozhin has opened a Pandora’s Box about corruption and injustice in a country run by criminals like himself. His lightning attack also raises fears internationally as to how secure Russia’s nuclear arsenal is from seizure by disgruntled factions such as Wagner or others. Experts say the events haven’t altered the security status of Russia’s nuclear weapons, and the West carefully monitors their movement and storage facilities.
But the country is run by gangsters who have upended the world order. Only “100 beneficiaries and several thousand accomplices” own everything, said Mikhail Kodorovsky, an oligarch jailed by Putin in 2005 on trumped-up charges. “Most of these people began their careers in the criminal underworld of St. Petersburg. Despite having now taken control of the Presidency, the group retains every aspect of the criminal ilk from which they came.”
Putin’s Russia is a criminal organization that must be overthrown. And finally, one of its own has told the world, and Russian people, why it must disappear.
Putin's Nuclear Gambit
June 19, 2023
Vladimir Putin’s annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum was as much of a flop as is Russia’s “special military operation” or its economy. The gathering was boycotted by major political and business leaders, and participants were told to bring cash because foreign bank cards no longer work in Russia. The foreign press was banned but this did not stop Putin from ranting for 90 minutes about how well his war and economy were doing and hinting again that Russia might “theoretically” use nuclear weapons. And last week Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Putin intends to blow up Ukraine’s largest nuclear plant to thwart Kyiv’s counteroffensive. When asked to respond to this possibility, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said “we’ll continue to monitor the situation very closely and we don’t see any indications that Russia is preparing the use of nuclear weapons”. But he missed the mark. An occupied nuclear plant that is blown up becomes a nuclear weapon.
The fallout caused by such a bombing would be massive. As shown in the video, a radioactive cloud would spread across many countries - from Russia in the east to Poland in the west - over a 72-hour period. Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Russia would all be affected.
Obviously, cool heads must prevail in the West and nuclear threats have been made by Putin and others throughout the war. But the stakes are too high to simply monitor the situation “closely” or to ignore that a nuclear power plant is a bomb waiting to be detonated. Besides that, a similar warning was issued in October 2022 by Zelensky that Russia intended to blow up a dam to flood a vast part of southern Ukraine. He urged the West to warn Russia against doing so, but nothing was said, and last week the dam was destroyed, poisoning the country’s most important watershed and flooding an area the size of Bahrain. That is why Zelensky’s warning about this nuclear plant must be heeded and international security measures taken immediately to protect the plant and other. Also of concern is that Russia has moved some tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus this week in contravention of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed by Moscow and all nuclear powers.
“I absolutely believe that moving weapons to Belarus demands an unequivocal response from NATO,” said Polish President Andrzej Duda last week before meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. It was eventually deemed “dangerous and irresponsible” by a NATO spokesman.
Placing nukes in Belarus drew a response from Chinese officials who renewed calls for de-escalation and reminded Russia that its leaders, and China’s, had reaffirmed their opposition to nuclear war at their March summit in Moscow as well as in 2022. “In January last year, the leaders of the five nuclear-weapon states issued a joint statement noting that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, and stressed that war between nuclear-weapon states should be avoided and strategic risks reduced," Mao Ning, China's foreign ministry spokesperson, said last week.
And, when asked, President Joe Biden called the transfer “totally irresponsible”.
Russia has occupied the plant for months and last summer allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor its operational safety remotely. But in April, its Director General warned of problems: “We are living on borrowed time when it comes to nuclear safety and security at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. Unless we take action to protect the plant, our luck will sooner or later run out, with potentially severe consequences for human health and the environment.”
In April, the esteemed Scientists for Global Responsibility described potential hazards. “The worst possible scenario is a nuclear strike on a reactor. A direct strike by even the smallest nuclear warhead, for example, a 10 kilo-tonne (kT) ‘tactical’ nuclear warhead – smaller than that dropped on Hiroshima in World War II – would breach the core containment and spread the highly radioactive materials inside. A 10kT nuclear blast and fireball would create a 1km radius zone of major destruction, a crater 25m deep, and would carry radioactive materials into a cloud of 8km altitude and 3km across depositing them underneath and downwind as fallout. The reactor waste products contain long-lasting radioactive isotopes such as caesium and strontium which are readily absorbed into the body or into crops contaminating farmland. This would create a major radiation problem tens to hundreds of times’ worse and much longer-lasting than the nuclear weapon alone.”
The possibility of such a diabolical attack by Russia is not far-fetched, given how Russia has been purposely laying waste to Ukraine. It has planted landmines across an area the size of Switzerland, has displaced at least 11 million people, and destroyed apartment buildings, infrastructure, schools, hospitals, and housing. Last week, Russia blew up the country’s largest dam which will cause decades of environmental damage. But that calamity didn’t stop the counteroffensive, as Russia had hoped, which is why Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that a “desperate” Putin intends to blow up the nuclear power plant downriver. “They constantly need destabilization here, and they want the world to put pressure on Ukraine to stop this conflict,” he said.
Ukraine’s security chief Oleksiy Danilov believes that Putin has launched “a fundamentally new stage of Russian aggression” and that since he “had the hydroelectric power plant blown up on his demand, he's ready to do anything.” The rhetoric coming out of Moscow also ratchets up. On June 14, Russia’s propaganda vehicle RT published a screed by a former Putin advisor named Sergey Karaganov who wrote: “By using its nuclear weapons, Russia could save humanity from a global catastrophe. A tough but necessary decision would likely force the West to back off, enabling an earlier end to the Ukraine crisis and preventing it from expanding to other states”.
Interestingly, Putin advisor, Alexander Dugin (whose daughter died in a car bombing intended to kill him) condemned Karaganov’s suggestion as “irresponsible”. He told journalists at Putin’s Economic Forum "I believe that we are far from having exhausted all the possibilities of victory without the use of nuclear weapons."
Others, such as former Russian diplomat Boris Bondarev, who resigned after last year’s invasion, believe that Putin’s nuclear threats are a bluff. "Today [Putin is] bluffing and we know that he has bluffed about nuclear threats. Ukrainians recovered some parts of their territory, and there was no nuclear retaliation," Bondarev told Newsweek. "If you're afraid of Putin using nukes, then you already lose the war against him and he wins."
The difference is that Putin has already turned a hydroelectric dam into a weapon of mass destruction. He has just crossed a nuclear red line by putting nukes in Belarus in contravention of the non-proliferation treaty. And now he holds Europe hostage by occupying Ukraine’s gigantic nuclear plant which is one missile strike away from becoming the world’s first “dirty bomb”. In response, the West must escalate its support for Ukraine militarily, diplomatically, and economically. Ukraine needs an air force and long-range weaponry. International watchdogs must occupy these plants. And strong pressure must be placed on China and India by their trading partners to issue bold, public condemnations against Putin’s nuclear gambit. Nukes in Belarus and Russia’s occupation of any nuclear plant are unacceptable.
Ukraine's Korea Solution
April 24, 2023
As Ukraine prepares its counter-offensive, the ground beneath the war shifted last week in a positive way. On April 20, a glimpse into a possible solution to the war was delivered in a speech by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. She offered détente with China in order to address the world’s problems together. The next day, on April 21, the Ukraine Defense Contact Group met in Germany and revealed that 230 tanks and 1,500 armored vehicles were headed to Ukraine and that many had been already delivered. The scale of this armored deployment shocked Wagner Group head Evgeny Prigozhin who posted on Telegram that an armed force that size, with 100,000 Ukrainian troops and air defense systems, was bad news for Russia and a “concern” because it indicated “serious opposition”. He and others have criticized Russia’s military as well as Putin’s “maximalist” goals, and an uncharacteristic public dispute has broken out within Russia’s elite. Stopping or toppling Putin may be distant, but China could play a major role in bringing about peace and Yellen offered major incentives for doing so.
On April 20, Yellen’s statesman-like address emphasized that “the world is big enough for both of us” — a phrase that echoed Xi Jinping’s message last year at his summit with Biden. Further, America does not want to “decouple” its economy from China’s. “A full separation of our economies would be disastrous for both countries. It would be destabilizing for the rest of the world,” she said, adding that both should compete fairly and both have a responsibility to work together “on areas of shared challenges for the two nations and the world.”
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Her speech contained an unspoken quid pro quo which is that if China helps terminate Russia’s war against Ukraine, protectionist measures against its economy will be lifted and trade will once more grow. Beijing is Moscow’s most important ally, but is “neutral” and has not endorsed Putin’s war nor provided military assistance. It has also offered to play a peacekeeping role. But Russia expert Stephen Kotkin suggested, in a recent speech in Toronto, that “Xi won’t give up Russia unless it gets something and that’s tech transfers. China gives peace to Europe and gets technology transfers again.”
Bluntly put: Russia for semiconductor chips and other technologies, now denied. Such commercial realpolitik, and a joint diplomatic effort by the two economic superpowers, could potentially end the conflict. “The solution to the war is the US and China getting together to impose an armistice on each side,” said Kotkin, who is a Stalin biographer and professor at Stanford University.
Naturally, the West must continue to stand behind Ukraine and its looming counter-offensive which will determine where and when the time is right to attempt to halt the war. Kyiv’s objective is to expel all Russian troops from its pre-2014 borders, and, psychologically and politically, Moscow’s elites are already starting to feel defeated and alienated. Support for Putin’s “special military operation” erodes even among fanatics like Prigozhin who fear Ukraine’s “tank coalition” counter-offensive.
A two-pronged strategy is underway. The priority is the battlefield and support to Kyiv, but equally important is Yellen’s behind-the-scenes opening gambit offering to bury the hatchet with China and join forces to bring about permanent peace through diplomacy. Germany and others have chimed in with the same request that Beijing become involved. Interestingly, Yellen’s speech was lightly covered by the Western press, but was significant and, more importantly, well-received by the Chinese press.
On April 22, the editorial in Beijing’s Global Times noted that “before US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen laid out the US economic priorities on China, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said China and US commerce officials met in Beijing last week during which the two sides exchanged views on bilateral economic ties. The re-engagement of US and Chinese officials in certain areas such as business and climate could serve as an opportunity for the strained bilateral relations to turn into a positive direction, but Washington needs to show more sincerity for improving the ties, experts said.”
The newspaper also quoted Wu Xinbo, director at the Center for American Studies of Fudan University, who reinforced the need for the US to cooperate with China to solve the Ukraine crisis.
Detente is needed. China struggles and needs a truce with the United States where anti-China rhetoric has heightened. But China’s announced intention to take over Taiwan should be muted or dropped. It is a non-starter militarily and appears to be mostly a rallying cry for a dictatorship that needs to distract attention away from its problems. China has been damaged by the pandemic, lengthy Covid lockdowns, soaring debts abroad, a real estate bubble, reputational damage due to its relationship to Putin, rampant disinvestment by foreign investors, and increasing trade restraints in Europe as well as America. Demographically, China is aging, and the government crackdown on its business empires and entrepreneurs, combined with its inability to access technology, impedes enterprise and economic growth.
This is why Yellen’s olive branch is a welcome, and inspired, initiative, fully endorsed by President Biden. A G2 partnership between the two giant nations would provide a path to halting Putin’s rampage in Europe. “The best outcome is an armistice involving the US and China sooner rather than later. With an demilitarized zone, accelerated security guarantees, Ukraine could become the next South Korea,” said Kotkin.
But China’s involvement is key. “Will Putin keep his word? Never, unless Putin signs the paper in Beijing. I know Washington won’t like that but this is the only solution. If there’s only a ceasefire, Russia will invade Ukraine again. Something must stop Russia from coming back and that’s China. It’s the South Korea solution, one of the most successful countries in the world, where peace has held for 70 years.”
Yellen’s speech never directly addressed the war or a peace-for-chips quid pro quo, but this was the subtext. She emphasized that “it is important that we make progress on global issues regardless of our other disagreements. That’s what the world needs from its two largest economies.”
April 17, 2023
A “bot” named Raluca Zdru from ChatGPT emailed me after my “AI and Frankenstein” newsletter appeared recently. She (or he or it) provided me with results from a public survey taken by ChatGPT’s parent company OpenAI in response to an open letter from 1,000 experts asking that AI (Artificial Intelligence) development be paused for six months for safety reasons. The survey showed that two-thirds of polled respondents agreed that AI development should be stopped for now; 69 percent saw AI as negative for society; and 42 percent said they would vote for a government that paused AI developments. The expert letter had warned of “profound risks to society” and that AI labs were “locked in an out-of-control race to develop and deploy ever more powerful digital minds that no one — not even their creators — can understand, predict or reliably control.” All this concern is well-placed. ChatGPT may not rule the world anytime soon, but a new study by Cornell University predicts that it will replace many jobs, and tasks currently performed by humans, and its results are chilling.
On March 17, Cornell released “GPTs: (Generative Pre-trained Transformers) An Early Look at the Labor Market Impact potential of Large Language Models (LLMs)”. Cornell’s conclusion was that “around 80 percent of the U.S. workforce could have at least 10 percent of their work tasks affected by the introduction of LLMs (Large Language Models) while approximately 19 percent of workers may see at least 50 percent of their tasks impacted. We do not make predictions about the development or adoption timeline of such LLMs.”
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In simple English, ChatGPT is an LLM or a massive database of text data, involving billions of words, that can be referenced to generate human-like responses to your prompts. GPT stands for Generative Pre-Trained Transformers which are the platforms that have been “trained”, at huge expense, to comprehend and answer questions. ChatGPT can also write and perform music and its sister system, DALL-E3, can draw anything based on a natural language description. (I include two samples below).
Cornell’s study states that workers at all wage levels will be impacted, but higher-income jobs will be more at risk than lower-paying ones that involve physical labor or socialization. It added that workers involved in routine and repetitive tasks are at a higher risk but said “considering each job as a bundle of tasks, it would be rare to find any occupation for which AI tools could do nearly all of the work.”
Good to know, but lots of people will find, as time goes on, that so many of their tasks can be performed by GPTs that they will eventually find themselves out of a job. Cornell’s Table 11 lists 34 jobs that are “safe” or that have “no labeled exposed tasks” that are as yet replaceable by GPTs. Table 4 lists those that are at risk.
Those at risk:
Cornell’s quantification methods of “exposure” are complicated, as are the differences between labels such as “Human” or “Model” shown on Table 4, but all is explained in the report here. Simply put, Chart 4 estimates percentages of vulnerability among certain occupations based on differing levels of “model” or “human” interaction. The percentages quantify the proportion of their jobs that are “exposed”, or replaceable by GPTs.
It’s quite mind-bending and not definitive, but you get the idea. These LLMs or GPTs are going to revolutionize so-called “knowledge” work. Of course, this is nothing new. The invention of desktop publishing (that eliminated typesetting, presses, truck deliveries, and newsrooms) or CAD CAM or computer-aided design and manufacturing software have transformed or eliminated many occupations. But the “adoption” of job-robbing skills will vary and is difficult to forecast, as the study noted. For instance, self-driving cars and trucks were slated to replace drivers five years ago and haven’t happened because of software difficulties, regulations, capital shortages, insurance issues, infrastructure obstacles, ethical concerns, politics, and other impediments.
What’s certain, however, is that GPTs will continue to evolve. They began as “primitive” versions that could translate, transcribe text from speech, generate images from captions, or spell and grammar check. But years of human feedback, and billions of dollars, have been invested to train their Large Language Models or LLMs to discern user intent, be user-friendly, and practical. Their next iteration will be to train themselves and to program and control other digital tools such as search engines and APIs (a service that delivers a user request to a system and sends the system’s response back to a user).
“At their limit, LLMs may be capable of executing any task typically performed at a computer,” concluded the study. But there are limitations. As an export noted "I would classify ChatGPT as a smart high school freshman, and I don't want a professional to be a smart high school freshman doing triage at a hospital or intake at a doctor's office or a lawyer's office.”
The arts — from music and drawing — will also be drastically altered, or eliminated. “ChatGPT can generate melodies and chord progressions for a song or even generate entire compositions. Just remember that ChatGPT is a text-based model after all, which means you will need to input some pretty specific information on things like style, instrumentation, and tempo for the bot to work,” according to an article in Music Tech. Open AI’s other “system” — the incredible DALL-E2 — can add images to any text description. Here are two examples: I asked it to create a “Van Gogh version of robots taking over a field” and here’s what it produced within seconds:
Then I asked for “writer robots” and this was produced in seconds:
It’s daunting and disruption will be enormous which is why Cornell cautioned: “Our results examining worker exposure in the United States underscore the need for societal and policy preparedness to the potential economic disruption posed by LLMs and the complementary technologies that they spawn.”
Clearly, governments must get involved by imposing standards and safety measures for all GPTs, a requirement supported by the public survey that OpenAI itself commissioned and sent to me in an email. And they must do this now.
AI and Frankenstein
April 6, 2023
A chilling letter, signed and published by 1,000 computer scientists and technology experts on March 28, warned of “profound risks to society” posed by artificial intelligence (AI). Their admonition was issued weeks after ChatGPT shocked the world with its verbal aptitude followed by GPT-4 that frightened the experts. The thousand technologists called for a six-month pause on AI projects to allow industry to devise safety controls. They claimed artificial intelligence labs were “locked in an out-of-control race to develop and deploy ever more powerful digital minds that no one — not even their creators — can understand, predict or reliably control.” This was widely reported, but the same warning was issued in 2015 by the Future of Life Institute and ignored. This time, Eliezer Yudkowsky, who founded this field known as “general artificial intelligence”, refused to sign the letter and wrote that drastic action was needed immediately. “We need to shut it all down. The most likely result of building a superhumanly smart AI, under anything remotely like the current circumstances, is that literally everyone on Earth will die.”
Some label Yudkowsky an alarmist or an “AI Apocalyptic”, but many agree (including myself) that the unbridled development of AI is a graver threat to humanity than the proliferation of nuclear weapons or the next pandemic. This is because cyber-based super-intelligence, by definition, will surpass humans in a generation then become unmanageable, will replace most workers, and will be used for nefarious purposes. When this happens, mankind will find itself in the same position as Dr. Frankenstein, in the classic 19th century novel, who made a monster in his own likeness and declared famously “it’s alive!”, then realized it was thoroughly uncontrollable.
ChatGPT is a wonder and can answer any question within seconds, in sentences or rhyme, by instantly tapping into data bases then formulating readable answers. It can write code, essentially producing new cyber-based super-intelligence. This “thinking machine” already tests higher than 90 percent of humans on a SAT test, higher than would-be lawyers on the LSAT, and aces the Uniform Bar exam. This “reasoning machine” can search, pattern match, and deduce, but cannot feel. In a few years, AI will upend the world by replacing anyone who writes or speaks words or code to make a living, mathematicians, artists, analysts, doctors, teachers, and engineers. Artificial intelligence will no longer be a tool. It will be the toolmaker.
Even Sam Altman – CEO of OpenAI that developed these CHATbots — admitted that he has concerns. “We’ve got to be careful here. I think people should be happy that we are a little bit scared of this. I’m particularly worried that these models could be used for large-scale disinformation. Now that they’re getting better at writing computer code, [they] could be used for offensive cyber-attacks…but it could be the greatest technology humanity has yet developed”.
But Yudkowsky goes further. He is the head of research at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute in Berkeley California and explained the dangers. “To visualize a hostile superhuman AI, don’t imagine a lifeless book-smart thinker dwelling inside the internet and sending ill-intentioned emails. Visualize an entire alien civilization, thinking at millions of times human speeds, initially confined to computers—in a world of creatures that are, from its perspective, very stupid and very slow. A sufficiently intelligent AI won’t stay confined to computers for long. In today’s world, you can email DNA strings to laboratories that will produce proteins on demand, allowing an AI initially confined to the internet to build artificial life forms or bootstrap straight to post-biological molecular manufacturing.”
Put another way, AI will be able to reproduce.
Currently, development is in the hands of the private sector, concerned with profits, not safety. OpenAI, the creator of these CHATbots, began as a non-profit research entity a few years ago, and was co-founded by Elon Musk. But there was a falling out and the research organization became a corporation that has raised billions to build its technology. Now billions more are being raised by start-ups from venture capital outfits aimed at quickly building even more powerful AI “machines”. This is why, after ChatGPT came out, Musk commented at a conference in Dubai that “one of the biggest risks to the future of civilization is AI.”
Unlike Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, these “thinking machines” are not yet self-aware, but only imitators. However, cautioned computer scientist Yudkowsky, “we do not actually know that. If you can’t be sure whether you’re creating a self-aware AI, this is alarming — not just because of the moral implications of the `self-aware’ part — but because being unsure means you have no idea what you are doing and that is dangerous and you should stop.”
To date, no one has “programmed” empathy or “values” into these software creatures, or knows how to do so, which is another reason why their development must be arrested immediately, he added. “It took more than 60 years, when artificial intelligence was first proposed and studied, to reach today’s capabilities. Solving safety of superhuman intelligence—not perfect safety, safety in the sense of `not killing literally everyone’—could very reasonably take at least half that long. And the thing about trying this with superhuman intelligence is that if you get that wrong on the first try, you do not get to learn from your mistakes, because you are dead. Humanity does not learn from the mistake and dust itself off and try again, as in other challenges we’ve overcome in our history, because we are all gone.”
In engineering terms, artificial intelligence is like a bridge that has been built to carry millions of cars for years, but its design and construction have not included guardrails or been subjected to rules, or regulatory oversight. And AI will become smarter than the humans who try to govern and regulate its operations, or who will be tasked with monitoring and policing it to insure it doesn’t go rogue. “We would need to be super-intelligent ourselves,” engineering professor Roman Yampolskiy told Popular Mechanics. “We are only able to speculate [or regulate] using our current level of intelligence.”
Put another way, it cannot be stopped in a few years.
Yudkowsky concluded: “We are not prepared. We are not on course to be prepared in any reasonable time window. There is no plan. Progress in AI capabilities is running vastly, vastly ahead of progress in AI alignment or even progress in understanding what the hell is going on inside those systems. If we actually do this, we are all going to die.”
The only solution, he wrote, is to “shut it all down” until controls are in place. Then governments and institutions must create a global AI “non-proliferation treaty”. The nuclear version took 25 years to develop, but the world doesn’t have that much time today. Back then, no one could develop a nuclear weapon in their garage, but tomorrow’s AI cataclysm is just one mad computer scientist away from happening. Yudkowsky said a multinational effort must track and limit computing power and development of large-scale systems globally by private entities, governments, or militaries. Further, the agreement must stipulate that members “be willing to destroy a rogue datacenter by airstrike.”
The world is at a crossroads, according to Max Tegmark, President of the Future of Life Institute and a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It is unfortunate to frame this as an arms race. This is more of a suicide race. It doesn’t matter who is going to get there first. It just means that humanity as a whole could lose control of its own destiny.”
Putin's Ethnic Cleansing
March 18, 2023
The March 20 Moscow meeting between China’s President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin was upstaged and ruined on March 17 when the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant to arrest Putin for war crimes involving tens of thousands of Ukrainians. This is a stunning development that demolishes his reputation for all time by accusing him personally of committing despicable acts involving kids, intentionally torn from their families and culture. Large-scale child abuse, based on ethnicity, constitutes genocide, and will most certainly impede any hope of a closer alliance with China. “This is significant and also embarrassing for China”, commented former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and Ukraine expert Kurt Volker, “when it is deliberately trying to position itself as neutral and an honest broker in peace talks. The preamble to China’s proposed peace plan begins with a statement about upholding respect for territorial integrity.”
Of course, the Kremlin immediately rejected the allegations and pointed out that the warrant is unenforceable because Russia dropped its involvement with the ICC in 2014 after its judges condemned the illegal annexation of Crimea. Even so, it has reach. The accused “war criminal” may not be nabbed at one of his palaces or dachas, but he won’t be going to any of the 123 countries that are signatories to the ICC because he will be arrested, incarcerated, and extradited to The Hague to stand trial. These include 18 Eastern European countries, 25 Western European, 33 African, 19 Asia-Pacific, and 28 in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Worse, the day before ICC’s bombshell, a UN-based inquiry provided evidence of Russian war crimes. These involved the mass kidnappings, but also the atrocities against civilians in occupied regions who have been murdered, tortured, and inhumanly incarcerated. The ICC, however, uniquely singled out Putin, and his minister of “child welfare”, and stated: “There are reasonable grounds to believe that each suspect bears responsibility for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population and that of unlawful transfer of population from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation, in prejudice of Ukrainian children.” The pre-trial statement by judges added that Putin failed to “exercise control properly over civilian and military subordinates who committed the acts, or allowed for their commission, and who were under his effective authority and control.”
Putin and Russia have clearly committed genocide under the United Nations’ definition contained in Article II of the Convention: “Genocide is a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, or racial or religious group, in whole or in part.”
Reports are the judges considered issuing secret warrants, but decided that making them public could “contribute to the prevention of the further commission of crimes”. The evidence is overwhelming. Since the first foray and massacres by Russia into Bucha and Irpin outside Kyiv, Ukraine began conducting its own investigations, with the help of 33 other nations. To date, they have documented 74,000 war crimes. In addition, another probe, by the Associated Press (AP) over many months, uncovered the reason why Putin has been indicted by the ICC.
AP reported in October that “Russian law prohibits the adoption of foreign children without consent of the home country, which Ukraine has not given. But in May, Putin signed a decree making it easier for Russia to adopt and give citizenship to Ukrainian children without parental care — and harder for Ukraine and surviving relatives to win them back. Russia also prepared a register of suitable Russian families for Ukrainian children, and paid them for each child who gets citizenship — up to $1,000 for those with disabilities. It holds summer camps for Ukrainian orphans, offers `patriotic education’ classes and even runs a hotline to pair Russian families with children from Donbas.”
AP conducted interviews with family members in Ukraine and Russia and scoured documents and media reports. “Russia’s open effort to adopt Ukrainian children and bring them up as Russian is already well underway, in one of the most explosive issues of the war,” the newswire service concluded. “Thousands of children have been found in the basements of war-torn cities like Mariupol and at orphanages in the Russian-backed separatist territories of Donbas. They include those whose parents were killed by Russian shelling as well as others in institutions or with foster families, known as `children of the state’.”
AP also explained Russia’s cover-up: “Russia claims that these children don’t have parents or guardians to look after them, or that they can’t be reached. But the AP found that officials have deported Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-held territories without consent, lied to them that they weren’t wanted by their parents, used them for propaganda, and given them Russian families and citizenship,” it wrote.
The anguish is unfathomable for the families and the nation itself. Mariupol had a population of 425,681 people in January 2022, but was obliterated by the Russians. “It is absolutely a terrible story,” said a local official Petro Andryushchenko, who claims hundreds of children were taken from that city alone. “We don’t know if our children have an official parent or (stepparents) or something else because they are forcibly disappeared by Russian troops.”
No self-respecting leader or country can support Putin or Russia. For China’s Xi, the timing of these revelations couldn’t come at a worse time and are likely to derail any plans, even covert, to ship weaponry to Russia. The unprovoked invasion of Ukraine makes a mockery of Xi’s avowed belief in territorial integrity. Further, Putin will go down in history, with Hitler and Pol Pot, as a monster who regarded his victim’s children as spoils of war. He, and his rotten regime, are barbaric on an unimaginable scale because, for the first time, their predations have been televised and photographed for all the world to see.
Negotiations with Putin are inconceivable. A cease-fire would be unconscionable because it would allow him to keep what he has stolen from Ukrainians. Peace is not possible. Only defeat or a firing squad will end Putin’s ethnic cleansing. Russia is truly the Evil Empire.
Law, Order, and Tech
February 27, 2023
Anyone who grew up reading Sherlock Holmes or watching Perry Mason, Miami Vice, True Detective, or CSI believes that justice is the result of dogged police work, interrogation aptitude, hunches, shoe-leather policing to knock on doors to find witnesses and uncover evidence, and crime scene clues. But two of America’s most sensational multiple murder cases currently in the courts – a prominent South Carolina lawyer accused of murdering his wife and son and a PhD student accused of murdering four undergraduates in Idaho -- provide an eye-popping glimpse into the technological transformation of policing and prosecutions. What’s changed is that every day all of us leave digital fingerprints everywhere. Our devices, from cellphones to Apple watches, vehicles, surveillance cameras, and doorbells stalk us wherever we go, as a victim or perpetrator. Today, more evidence in minute detail is available than ever before and is accessible to authorities because it is stored, for all eternity, in the “cloud”.
The “Internet of Things” [IoT] has arrived. This is SiliconValley “speak” to describe the electronic architecture that links physical objects with sensors, cameras, recorders, processing ability, software, and bio- and nano- technologies. This linkage allows data to be unearthed and exchanged from cell phones, electronic devices, or systems via the Internet or social media networks. The “IoT” harvests individual information and stores it in gigantic data bases. This Brave New World of connectivity enables thieves or terrorists to pry, spy, steal funds or identities, hack programs to cause chaos, or penetrate financial, infrastructure, defense, or corporate systems. But it also enables law enforcement to more easily find and bring culprits to justice.
Everything is “smart” these days — phones, houses, trucks, watches — except the criminals who get caught if they leave behind traces of their identity such as fingerprints or DNA or are unaware their actions are recorded all the time. Once identified as potential suspects by police, their entire life – from movements to opinions to associations and threats – can be dug up by investigators who access data socked away in some server farm in a remote location under lock and key. The result — as these two murder cases illustrate — is people are being incriminated by smart phones, computers, or “smart” cars which are increasingly computers on wheels.
A cell phone, today, is essentially a mobile “crime scene” because of the trove of information and leads that it provides investigators who are hunting for wrongdoing. Whether belonging to the victim or a perpetrator or a witness, the phone is now central to police work because virtually everyone has one. Every smart phone retains a record of its owner’s or user’s movements, locations based on cellphone towers, conversations (deleted or saved), texts, emails, images, videos, social media, Siri interactions, contacts, detailed records of contacts made, and incoming and outgoing calls, along with a statement of frequency. All this information can be “mined” from phones even if they have been smashed, shot, submerged, or microwaved.
Likewise, cars are a treasure trove of personal information. There is now a new policing specialty known as digital vehicle forensics because cars contain an astonishing amount of information in their onboard computers. A recent case involved a dead man who was found in his car and investigators uncovered a voice recording of the murder suspect telling the victim’s car to play a certain song after a pre-determined time of death. Vehicles are also “telltales” like phones, but are easier for police to access because there are fewer privacy protections for cars.
What follows are details from the two most sensational multiple murder cases in America where technology has been a major player. (Note: Charges have been laid but neither of the accused men have been convicted and I have excluded their names because it’s irrelevant. What’s important in the following narratives is the role played by digital and bio forensics.)
On November 13, 2022, four college students were stabbed to death in the early hours in their rental home in Moscow, Idaho. Police found a fingerprint on the sheath of the murder weapon left behind that allowed their forensic experts to work up a DNA “profile”. A neighbor’s doorbell camera also recorded a white car that was driving in the vicinity before and after the crime. Police decided this unusual activity was suspicious and issued a bulletin to the public asking for the whereabouts of the car. A security guard at a nearby college reported that it was parked at a student residence. The owner was identified but not notified — he was a criminology student — and police scoured video camera footage through the region to track where the car had travelled in the days before and after the crime.
Police surreptitiously, but legally, obtained a search warrant that required the suspect’s cell phone provider to give police access to all his phone data. The search showed he had left his house just before the murders, had turned off his phone for two hours (within which time the murders occurred), then returned home and came back to the site the next morning. In December, the suspect and his father drove the car to their home in Pennsylvania and, after they arrived, the FBI rifled through the family garbage to get DNA samples. They hit a match: DNA analytical results showed that a man living there was 99.9 percent certain to be the father of the person who left his fingerprint and DNA on the knife sheath at the murder scene. His son was arrested the next day.
The other case — the Murdaugh family murders in South Carolina – has also extensively used technology in evidence-gathering. In July 2022, the accused — husband and father of the victims and a prominent lawyer — was charged a year after the murders. Both victims were shot on the family hunting estate at night in front of dog kennels. There were no witnesses and the accused told police that he was not at the kennels in the hours leading up to their deaths. He told police he had napped in the family residence, a football field away, then visited his ailing parents miles away. Gone for a couple of hours, he said he returned home to find his wife and son lying in pools of blood and immediately called 9-11. He told police, after they arrived, that he had just returned home to find them 20 minutes before.
But cellphone data debunked his alibi and placed him at the crime scene minutes before their deaths. The evidence was contained in his son’s cell phone because he had sent a video of his father at the site, time-stamped, on Snapchat to his friends. Once disclosed, the accused abruptly changed his alibi, admitted he had lied, but continued to claim he did not kill them. While damning, this won’t convict him alone because the evidence is circumstantial and the two murder weapons have not been found. But prosecutors have been building a base to the jury that his denial of the murders is unreliable. On the stand, he admitted to stealing millions of dollars from clients and law partners, massive opioid addiction, lying to authorities over the years, and lying that he was napping and not at the kennels the night they died.
In both cases, the importance of technology sleuthing is front and center. Of course, these new tech tools also raise questions about privacy and unreasonable search that will be adjudicated by the courts or by edict. But facial recognition, police body cams, mining data bases, tens of millions of surveillance cameras, and smart devices containing clues are a reality. They have revolutionized the world of law and order profoundly and permanently. And they may even make society slightly safer.
China's Putin Play
February 23, 2023
The last few days has been “Superpower Week” — a lengthy, televised version of geopolitical theater beginning with full-throated support for Ukraine’s struggle by European leaders at the Munich Security Conference between February 17 and 19. The next day President Joe Biden pulled off a dramatic, unannounced appearance in Kyiv pledging “unwavering support”, then, on February 21, he addressed a mass gathering in Warsaw in front of its Royal Palace. That same night, Vladimir Putin took the stage in Moscow to deliver a keynote claiming that Ukraine started the war, even though it didn’t, and that it would last for years. Interestingly, President Xi Jinping of China was missing, nowhere to be seen. Instead, he sent his top diplomat to Munich to communicate China’s desire for peace, then slipped him into Moscow after Putin’s rant to privately meet with him. No fixed date was announced for Xi to meet Putin, as promised, because China’s strategy is to sideline itself from the Kremlin.
The NATO alliance is enormous and powerful — equivalent to 70 percent of the world’s GDP and military strength — while Russia’s only ally is an absent Xi and fellow pariah nation Iran. China distances because it realizes that Putin is not a Superpower, will run out of ammo, will be defeated, and will always remain a geopolitical outcast. But China also equivocates: It does not reject, condemn, or support Russia’s invasion; and strikes a “passive aggressive” posture which consists of abstaining from voting against Russia at the United Nations and of saying nothing.
Such mealy-mouthed behavior is uncharacteristic of hegemons like China, but it is strategic. Russia may fall apart, providing China with an opportunity to snap up Russian regions located in Asia. It is also personal. Putin did not tip off Xi about the invasion ahead of time when they met last year at the Beijing Olympic Games. As Russian troops amassed along Ukraine’s border, the two posed for selfies and declared themselves friends “without limits”. Then a few days later Putin upended modern history and the global economy by invading, raping, and pillaging his innocent neighbor. It was not only embarrassing but costly. China has billions invested in Ukraine and Europe.
Now one year later, the United States and Europe impose sanctions and punish nations providing Russia with direct military assistance. This threat has been heeded by China, as has the fact that America has forged a similar alliance in Asia, called the Quad, which would make an invasion or blockade of Taiwan impossibly difficult or dangerous. Furthermore, China’s customers in Europe demand that China stop twiddling its thumbs and help stop Putin from further murder and mayhem in Ukraine.
In response, China announced it will roll out its “peace plan” on February 24, the invasion’s anniversary when Russia is expected to saturation bomb Ukraine. According to reports, the “plan” is all but pointless because it ignores President Volodymyr Zelensky’s demands that Russian forces withdraw from Ukraine’s borders, Moscow pay reparations, and Russia submits to war-crime tribunals. Bloomberg said China’s plan is a series of aspirations, not concrete measures, such as respect for territorial integrity, security for nuclear facilities, bans on the use of biological and chemical weapons, a ceasefire, and a halt to arms deliveries to Ukraine (not Russia). It’s a complete non-starter.
But that didn’t stop Beijing’s mouthpiece, Global Times, from patting Xi on the back for his peace initiative ahead of time. It wrote: “Experts said [Xi’s top diplomat] Wang's meetings with the top leader and senior officials of Russia show that Moscow values highly its strategic ties with China and is also treating China's idea on the Ukraine issue seriously, and this is proof of China's unique influence for mediation purposes.”
Strategically speaking, China is not a neutral. It is an accomplice. Its energy imports from Russia, along with India’s, have kept the Russian regime afloat. Now Putin badgers them for armaments and this week the Americans accused China of planning to send lethal military aid to Russia. This was denied and won’t happen. If it does, the consequences will greatly damage China.
China’s support for Putin also makes no sense economically, apart from cheap energy, which is why Xi recently made a state visit to Saudi Arabia to secure supplies should Russia fall apart. Beijing “doesn’t need Putin or Russia” and isn’t one of its ten biggest trading partners, said Yale University business professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld. He has chronicled corporate departures from Russia and pointed out that three of the biggest corporate exits from Russia following the attack against Ukraine were Chinese: Sinochem, a state-owned chemical, fertilizer and oil conglomerate; Sinopec, a Chinese oil and gas enterprise; and one of its biggest financial groups, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Limited.
Xi pays lip service to peace but subsidizes Russia with oil purchases. Europeans are angry, after they have stopped buying Putin’s energy at great cost to their economies. They expect Xi to put pressure on Putin to stop this war and if he doesn’t, China’s prospects will suffer. The world’s silent Superpower must finally wade in and end its equivocation. So-called neutrality and trading with the enemy are mutually exclusive. As Apartheid fighter Desmond Tutu wisely stated to fence-sitters years ago: “To be neutral is to back the aggressor”.
NATO: Fight "Fire with Fire"
February 6, 2023
Vladimir Putin’s horrific invasion a year ago took the world by surprise and another attack is expected around its first anniversary. Plans are to throw 200,000 more Russian soldiers into the battle underway in Ukraine’s east in an attempt to overwhelm Ukraine, create a stalemate, whittle down its manpower, and wear down the resolve of its allies. But this Stalinist “human wave” strategy won’t work if the West abandons its “mission creep” strategy, or incremental escalation, and matches Russia’s firepower. This means hundreds more main battle tanks to break through Russian front lines, dozens of fighter jets, and thousands of long-range rockets to wreak havoc behind enemy lines. There is no more time for half measures or delays because Russia theoretically has millions more hapless young men to throw into this “meat grinder” warfare. Brutality must be matched with brutality. As Shakespeare wrote in 1623: “Govern the motion of a kingly eye; Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire; Threaten the threatener and outface the brow of bragging horror.”
This conflict won’t end with negotiations. Someone must win and someone must lose and only defeat will erase Putin from Ukraine. “We don’t see any signs” that Vladimir Putin is “preparing for peace,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in South Korea in early February. “We see the opposite.” Now is the time when the wealthy and powerful Western alliance behind Ukraine must stop asking Ukrainians to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. Russia uses its latest technologies: Ukraine must use the West’s latest and superior technologies. If supplies in Western arsenals run low, then America and Europe must ship their mothballed jets, guns and drones to stop Putin’s genocide, war crimes, and devastation. If not now, when?
Russia’s assets are only a fraction of what is contained in the central bank vaults and military arsenals of Ukraine’s alliance. Putin’s bluffs about red lines, and nuclear threats, should continue to be ignored. He has been weakened in the past year. His horrors have not captured much land and have alienated his allies China and India. European nations are starting to pull their weight, Washington remains resolute, and this week mighty Israel joined the alliance by attacking Iranian drone and rocket factories that supply Russia. It also contemplates sending its Iron Dome technology to close Ukraine’s skies.
Another positive development is that Russia is expected to run out of missiles in three months, due to production problems. Unfortunately, it won’t run out of soldiers anytime soon even though casualties pile up. Estimates now are that 200,000 Russian soldiers, 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 30,000 Ukrainian civilians have died. This is why, paradoxically, the only way to save lives is to dramatically escalate in order to obliterate as many Russian armed forces and facilities as quickly as possible.
Foot-dragging costs lives. Last month, America and NATO responded with 300 main battle tank allocations after months of pleas by Kyiv. Washington recently agreed to send a Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb that will cause catastrophic damage at targets twice the distance now reachable by Ukraine’s current arsenal of rockets, or 94 miles. This places all of Russia’s supply lines within reach, as well as much of Crimea’s. But the West must do more. It must go all in.
Pressure to give Ukraine jets immediately must be applied to France, a laggard in terms of providing military support, and Netherlands who’s outdone most. Both are considering doing so even after the U.S. and Germany declined. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper publicly came out in support of providing U.S. jets, as did The Wall Street Journal in an editorial: “President Biden is saying the U.S. won’t supply F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, but anyone following the war in the past year knows what that means: Ask again later. The Biden Team hems and haws on every new weapon request for Ukraine before it later comes around, and let’s hope the President changes again and offers more military support that helps Ukraine immediately on the battlefield and after the war ends. The Army tactical missile system, known as ATACMS, has a 185-mile range to help push the Russians out of their dug-in positions. These missiles could make a fast difference on the battlefield and give the Ukrainians a fighting chance of putting Crimea in play.”
Underscoring the need for full-on mobilization, and to end mission creep, was a report by the Institute for the Study of War. “Western reluctance to begin supplying Ukraine with higher-end Western weapons systems, particularly tanks, long-range strike systems, and air defense systems, has limited Ukraine’s ability to initiate and continue large-scale counter-offensive operations,” it wrote.
“The way this new military assistance is announced also matters,” wrote former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. “Rather than providing ATACMs in March, Reapers in June, and jets in September, NATO should go for a Big Bang. Plans to provide all these systems should be announced on February 24, 2023, the first anniversary of Putin’s invasion. An announcement of this size will produce an important psychological effect inside the Kremlin and Russian society, signalling that the West is committed to Ukraine’s ambition to liberate all occupied territories.”
The Institute for the Study of War also noted that more of Russia’s suppressed people may be voting against the war with their feet. “The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that it issued over 5.4 million passports in 2022, 40 percent more than in the previous year. The increase in passport applications indicates that social conditioning efforts to bring the `special military operation’ home to Russia and reinvigorate patriotic fervor are not having the desired effect. The Kremlin need not look further than passport statistics to poll domestic attitudes on the Russian population’s desire to fight Putin’s war.”
Ukraine is concerned that the invasion will turn into a lengthy stalemate. One diplomat told a newspaper “if Moscow can create the illusion that we can’t win on the battlefield, then some of our ‘friends’ in the West will start losing their enthusiasm and start pushing us to cut a deal, a bad deal, with the occupiers.” Victory is the only option, as President Volodymyr Zelensky emphasized on British television this week, when he said Putin “doesn’t want negotiations because he doesn't want peace”.
Unable to gobble up Ukraine this year, Putin plays a passive-aggressive game to perpetuate a grinding “stalemate” by throwing untrained bodies at Ukrainian guns. He remains indifferent to the damage inflicted on his country’s economy or reputation or prospects or people. This is why pressure must be increased to prevent a stalemate. Ukraine has brought a knife to a gunfight but cannot continue to do so, now or ever. Its military must become the most lethal in Europe to expel Putin and to protect itself and Europe from another future incursion. Now a year into this catastrophe, it’s obvious that Putin’s end game is not triumph but simply to not lose and to destroy as much of Ukraine as he possibly can. This means the West’s end game must be to demolish his army and regime as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
ChatGPT: Siri on Steroids
January 30, 2023
This newsletter is longer than usual because it explains what ChatGPT is all about and also includes my Q&A interview with the app itself as to what it can do, what it cannot do, and what are some red flags concerning its usage. My interview also demonstrates its remarkable ability to instantaneously summarize information in readable form, including the ability to write poetry about a topic — all within seconds of being asked to do so. But it also raises ethical and other questions surrounding this advanced form of artificial intelligence.
The media hubbub around ChatGPT, and artificial intelligence in general, requires contextualization. As a former investor in software development in Ukraine, I can attest to the fact that this is an astonishing breakthrough, but also that it won’t replace the world’s knowledge workers anytime soon. This is Siri on steroids, a “chatbot” that can comprehend human language questions but can respond with summaries containing sentences — or even in poetry. This has been accomplished by building a platform that has access to a massive data base of words and phrases, then has the operational ability to immediately stitch together a related answer or summation in sentences or paragraphs. ChatGPT is governed by a computerized process, or sets of rules called algorithms. This is also how Google can provide instant translations.
ChatGPT represents another step toward the reality that artificial intelligence will eventually become smarter than humans sometime this century. It will also displace many knowledge workers in decades to come, but for now it is a tool and enhancement for anyone curious about virtually anything as well as for journalists, researchers, teachers, students, and managers. But dangers loom, as with any new technology, and these are made apparent in the series of questions I put to ChatGPT. What follows are my screen-saved queries and its responses, which were immediate:
Then I tested it:
I asked it to give me an opinion about the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, keeping in mind that ChatGPT’s data base is only up to December 2021, before the invasion.
Finally, I asked it to write a poem and within a split second produced this:
It was gob-smacking, but the machine is only as smart, or up to date, as is the data base it relies on as well as the linguistic roadmap its human developers have uploaded. It cannot act or think on its own.
However, based on my years involved with software, Singularity University, and Silicon Valley denizens, it’s clear that ChatGPT is a major step toward reaching “Technological Singularity” — a hypothetical and unknown future point in time when artificial intelligence (or AI) becomes smarter than humans and when machines will cogitate or think. Some predict this will occur by 2029, in some primitive form, but that’s highly debatable. At the moment, however, ChatGPT, and its parent OpenAI (now bought by Microsoft for $19 billion) are leading a race against Google (with its version called LaMDA), Meta (with its Galactica) and dozens more software teams to build machines that comprehend, respond, and think.
Even at this stage, as I noted in my interview, there are red flags. Only a few weeks ago, Meta pulled Galactica after its launch because it was basing answers on racist and dangerous data. This is why on December 10, when ChatGPT was launched, its CEO Sam Altman issued this caveat: “ChatGPT is incredibly limited but good enough at some things to create a misleading impression of greatness. It’s a mistake to be relying on it for anything important right now. It’s a preview of progress; we have lots of work to do on robustness and truthfulness.”
Technology is only as virtuous as are the humans who devise it and use it. It can be weaponized, or used to spread disinformation or hate or terrorism. It is not intrinsically accurate, legal, or moral which is why these new “generative” platforms must be held accountable. Google, for instance, accesses and stores the world’s largest information data base but depends on sources that are traceable — it doesn’t generate, summarize, extrapolate, or concoct its own information.
I think ChatGPT is an important breakthrough and will be invaluable because it can provide instant summaries or drafts or research notes for users. But its output must always be double-checked for accuracy. Even ChatGPT said so.
Germany's World War III
January 23, 2023
Germany, the country that ruined the 20th Century, is damaging the 21st. Berlin’s political decisions facilitated Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and now its politicians slow-walk the military assistance and sanctions needed to defeat Russia. The most recent example is Germany’s refusal to permit the acquisition by Ukraine of 300 German-made Leopard II battle tanks — unless and until America also sends M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. Washington has declined to send the Abrams because the tank is inferior to the Leopard, costly and cumbersome. Even so, Germany insists. But this is not about tanks. It’s about guilt and optics. German politicians worry that it won’t go unnoticed that the last time German tanks moved eastward was in 1941 when Hitler’s “Barbarossa” armada invaded and swept toward Russia using 3,400 tanks that were, like the Leopard II, made by arms giant, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann who was also Nazi Germany’s prime supplier. While eyebrow-raising, these inconvenient historical facts do not justify preventing Ukraine from deploying Leopard tanks to break through Russia’s “Maginot Line” of trenches, landmines, artillery, and cement barriers in its East. In this case, as in others, Germany’s mentality and hesitation have been unhelpful and disquieting.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also refused to lift re-export restrictions on the 15 countries that currently own 2,000 Leopards, many of whom are willing to ship tanks to Ukraine. He worries about Russian retaliation if Germany proceeds on its own, but even after the UK pledged 14 of its big battle tanks to break the deadlock last week Scholz still refused to green light the Leopards. Pressure builds and Poland and other Leopard owners intend to defy restrictions. U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted he was “tired of the s@#$%show surrounding who is going to send tanks and when are they going to send them. To the Germans: Send tanks to Ukraine because they need them. It is in your own national interest that Putin loses in Ukraine. To the Biden Administration: Send American tanks so that others will follow our lead.”
Kyiv remains confident the Leopards will eventually arrive and has already started training operators. And on January 20, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin downplayed Germany’s tank “punt” and announced an impressive platform of smaller tanks, infantry fighting vehicles [IFVs], artillery and weaponry for Ukraine to mount its needed spring counter-offensive. “This is a very, very capable package. The U.S. package represents enough armor to liberate Ukraine or until Putin ends his war of choice.”
On January 22, a German official hinted that Poland could send its Leopards if it requests permission, but damage has been done. Once more Germany is a drag on the alliance at a crucial time. Putin cannot win on the battlefield and has decided to prolong the conflict to discourage allies: He now digs in, murders civilians, threatens nuclear attack, and throws tens of thousands of Russian conscripts into action as cannon fodder in order to freeze the war at a point in Eastern Ukraine that is not far from where he began his second occupation on February 24, 2022. Not coincidentally, on January 17, Putin pal Henry Kissinger issued a statement that recommended talks begin but fighting continue until the “pre-war line” is reached. At that point, a cease-fire can be negotiated, he suggested, along with the future ownership of the Donbas and Crimea. In return, he said he agreed that Ukraine should be allowed to join NATO. This was contemptible claptrap and read like a Kremlin wish list.
Ukraine is assembling an armored division of tanks and IFVs that will be capable of liberating all its territory including Crimea by this summer, said Ben Hodges on January 21, former Commanding General of US Army Europe. “Ukraine will continue building up an armored force – a division or more – that is trained and prepared to serve as the breakthrough formation for the next major offensive phase of the campaign. I’d anticipate that it’ll be at least three months before they’re able to do that. It will be built around Ukrainian armor that they already have or have captured, but Western tanks, IFVs, and artillery will be key to making it lethal. I can’t be confident of the delivery of tanks to complement the IFVs that are now being delivered, but it does seem that the dam is about to finally break on Western tanks.”
Ukraine also needs long-range missiles to isolate Crimea and neutralize Russia’s ability to kill civilians. “Ukraine will never be safe or secure or able to rebuild its economy so long as Russia retains Crimea. Therefore Kyiv cannot accept any negotiated settlement which gives up Crimea, nor should the West... If we are serious about the international rules-based order then we cannot allow the Kremlin to be rewarded for its illegal actions,” added Hodges.
The tank fiasco highlights a major impediment within the alliance as well as within the European Union which is Berlin’s proclivity to put parochial politics ahead of Europe’s or NATO’s best interests — a stance that disqualifies its standing as a leader. Germany has vetoed Ukrainian membership in NATO, hesitated to provide timely financial and military support as well as sanctions, and, worst of all, supported Russia’s Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines. That infrastructure, destroyed by Russian saboteurs recently to frighten Europe about its infrastructure vulnerability, was the center piece of Putin’s European conquest strategy. He intended to use his pipelines to control Europe’s energy, undermine its security, and bypass Ukraine’s gas delivery system to pave the way for an invasion. In essence, his first “attack” against Europe was to co-opt Germany, which he accomplished after decades of living in East Germany as a KGB agent then courting German politicians from inside the Kremlin.
It’s also concerning that Chancellor Scholz is a Social Democratic Party colleague of Gerhard Schroder, a close friend of Putin’s, who served as Chancellor until 2005 then launched the Nord Stream 2 project for Russia in 2011. Schroder is a bon vivant who has become wealthy after serving for years as a director on Putin’s biggest energy corporations. Discredited over the link, Schroder was stripped of some of his Parliamentary privileges after the invasion. But he is close to Scholz’s new German Defense Minister, Boris Pistorius, who reportedly also has a relationship with one of Schroder’s ex-wives.
It’s all very cozy at the top of German politics. Between Schroder’s stint as Chancellor, and Scholz’s, was Angela Merkel who also defended and pushed through Putin’s Nord Stream 2. While doing so, she and her government ignored fierce opposition from Brussels and Washington over the pipeline’s threat to European security, but she displayed the same high-handed behavior that is now underway concerning the tanks. The exasperated European Parliament last week demanded that Germany release the Leopards “without further delay” and its President Charles Michel said “the time is now. Ukraine needs more military equipment. I firmly support the delivery of tanks.”
America has also been guilty of heeding, and acceding to, German wishes. In spring 2021, President Joe Biden backed down from Nord Stream 2 sanctions imposed by Congress to stop the pipeline, at Merkel’s request, months before the invasion. In a powerful Foreign Affairs piece on January 20, chess champion and Putin foe Garry Kasparov, urged Biden to “deliver the knockout punch” and ignore fears propagated by Germans and others that a destabilized, defeated Russia must be avoided at all costs. “The end of Putin’s tyrannical rule will indeed radically change Russia (and the rest of the world) — but not in the way the White House thinks. Rather than destabilizing Russia and its neighbors, a Ukrainian victory would eliminate a powerful revanchist force and boost the cause of democracy worldwide.”
Russia deserves no mercy, and Ukrainians cannot, and won’t, surrender to an evil government that’s abused them for centuries and now executes a genocidal, “scorched earth” armed catastrophe. Nor should the West. Putin must be forced to completely withdraw behind Ukraine’s 1991 borders and Russia forced to pay reparations. Kasparov also urged haste: “This is a make-or-break moment for Ukraine. Biden can turn the tide in Kyiv’s favor by backing up his declarations of support with the delivery of tanks and long-range weaponry. He can also hasten the demise of Putin’s regime, opening up the possibility of a democratic future for Russia and demonstrating to the world the folly of military aggression.”
Once again in history, Germany is on thin ice. Instead of marching in lockstep with the alliance of civilized nations committed to defeating Putin, Berlin falters. It has already fallen for Putin’s dangerous pitches in the past but now retracts into timidity and self-absorption. It is a great nation with incredible talent, but must become a team player. Fooled once, shame on Moscow. Fooled twice, shame on Berlin.
Putin’s Dark Prince
January 9, 2023
The war bodes badly for Putin but he cannot remain Tsar if he loses or surrenders. His health deteriorates. Potential successors within his inner circle vie for the chance to rule a post-Putin Russia and the front-runner in this Game of Thrones is clearly Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ex-convict who made a fortune in the food business and also leads a force of 50,000 mercenaries called the Wagner Group. Unlike other contenders, he has military muscle as well as political influence and is the only oligarch getting richer, not poorer, as a result of the war. As other rich or powerful Russians flee or fall out of windows, Prigozhin remains close to Putin, visits his troops at the front, and criticizes Putin’s military establishment with impunity.
Prigozhin is nicknamed “the chef” because of his lucrative food distribution and catering empire. But in one decade, he has built Wagner which is heavily involved in Ukraine and 27 other countries. He also set up troll farms to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election on behalf of Trump and was sanctioned by Washington. And this year, he came out of the shadows as Wagner’s boss and garnered enormous publicity by getting permission to recruit soldiers from 18 Russian penal colonies to serve for six months in Ukraine’s frontlines in return for amnesty if they survived.
The Wagner Group is brutal and recent footage, unverified, was released online in Russia showing a Wagner execution by sledgehammer of a recruited prisoner who deserted entitled “The hammer of revenge”. Of this, the New York Post wrote: “Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin – the Putin-aligned money man behind the paramilitary Wagner Group and election interference efforts in the US – opined that the title should be changed to `A dog receives a dog’s death’.”
Below is a tweeted video of Prigozhin in camouflage garb about to present a sledgehammer and axe to Wagner soldiers for their bravery in action.
Wagner facilitated the 2014 invasion of Ukraine and also operated clandestinely in Libya, Syria, and throughout Africa to advance Putin’s aims and to provide Putin with plausible deniability. For instance, Wagner’s involvement with Syria’s Bashar Al Assad helped destroy the country and force 7.4 million Syrians to flee to Europe or refugee camps in Turkey or Jordan. Rumors are that Wagner’s payment in Syria included a 25 percent share of its natural gas and oil production and that its African deals also include resource extraction rights. More recently, White House officials claim that Prigozhin’s keen interest in conquering the Ukrainian City of Bakhmut, nicknamed the “meat grinder”, is because he will obtain rights to its sizeable resource wealth.
Prigozhin is now an outspoken proponent of the war. He recently labeled as “traitors” any Russian who opposes the war at home or abroad as well as those who criticize Wagner’s deployment of hardened criminals. “Some traitors are holed up in offices, not thinking about their own people. Some of them use their own business jets to fly to those countries that seem neutral to us so far. They fly away so as not to participate in today’s problems. They are traitors too. Those who do not want PMCs [private military companies] or prisoners to fight, who talk about this topic, who do not want to do anything and who, as matter of principle, do not like this topic, send your children to the front. Either PMCs and prisoners, or your children – decide for yourself."
Another contender inside Russia is Dmitry Medvedev, former President, Prime Minister, and the current deputy chair of the Security Council of Russia. But he’s a playboy who likes the good life and doesn’t have his own army. Then there’s Razman Kadyrov, who heads the Chechen Republic and runs a paramilitary force operating in Ukraine. Chechnya is a tiny Muslim region with 1.5 million whose independence movement was crushed by Putin in the 1990s as brutally as is now the case with Ukraine. Kadyrov commands tens of thousands of troops who fight alongside Wagner and the Russian armed forces and squabbles with both.
Like Prigozhin, Kadyrov publicly attacks Russia’s current military leadership as well as the West. “America is not really a strong enough state for us to regard it as an enemy of Russia. We have a strong government and are a nuclear state. Even if our government was completely destroyed, our nuclear missiles would be automatically deployed. We will put the whole world on its knees,” said Kadyrov recently.
But he’s not Presidential material because he’s not Russian ethnically. Besides, a weaker Moscow will resurrect independence movements throughout the Federation including in Chechnya. Interestingly, Ukraine’s parliament in October declared that Chechnya was also a “temporarily Russian-occupied” land and the victim of “genocide of the Chechen people” by Russia. An unknown number of Chechens already fight with Ukrainians and it’s safe to assume that a weakened Moscow will result in another independence movement there which will preoccupy Kadyrov if he intends to retain power there.
There are reports that another paramilitary force has been organized by one of Putin’s Generals, leading to speculation that Putin’s strategy is to encourage warring factions among rivals to remain President. Whatever the underlying cause, these developments insure a messy post-Putin Russia. “The power of Prigozhin and the strength of Kadyrov is that they have 30,000 [or more] armed soldiers who obey only them,” wrote Andrey Piontkovsky, a Russian analyst. “You can see that on the front, there are a lot of situations and clashes between these structures and the Russian armed forces.”
As Russia loses, Prigozhin is the guy to watch. The Institute for the Study of War in Washington concluded that he “holds a uniquely advantageous position within the Russian state structure and information space that allows him to expand his constituency in Russia more readily than the disgraced Russian higher military command … Prigozhin can freely promote himself and his forces while criticizing Kremlin officials or the Russian Armed Force without fear of pushback.”
Once Putin is gone, all bets are off. His successor may battle on but that’s unlikely as the country disintegrates economically. He may sue for peace but won’t last long for having done so. It may become 1917 all over again with armed factions battling for control, but most likely Russia will sink into political infighting as happened in 1990 and begin to break apart as did the Soviet Union. Whoever controls Russia’s military and nuclear arsenal will become the next Tsar but will rule over a smaller and weakened Russian Federation.
Offense not Defense
December 22, 2022
President Volodymyr Zelensky clearly won the pre-Christmas “shuttle diplomacy” photo-ops that took place this week. The Ukrainian was invited to the White House, met with President Joe Biden, addressed a joint session of Congress, and firmed up more commitments to counteract Putin’s aerial blitzkrieg and genocide. Putin, by contrast, met with his puppet dictator in Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko, who runs a poor nation north of Ukraine. And Putin did not meet in Beijing with his powerful “no limits friend” President Xi Jinping. He sent his sidekick instead, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who snagged a photo-op with Xi but received a rebuke about the war. “China has always decided its position and policy according to the merits of the matter itself, upholding an objective and impartial position and actively pursuing peace and promoting talks,” said Xi. “We hope that all parties concerned will maintain rationality and restraint, engage in comprehensive dialogue and resolve their common concerns in the security field through political means.” Medvedev responded dishonestly by claiming that Russia wanted peace talks as Putin continued bombing civilians.
This week’s frenetic diplomacy has redrawn battle lines. Zelensky has outplayed Putin by obtaining an extraordinary audience with Biden and delivering a speech that drew many standing ovations in Congress. His mission was Churchillian: To cement the alliance, thank Americans for their support, and obtain more weapons in order to shift Ukraine’s military efforts from defense to offense. Biden announced yesterday Ukraine will receive Patriot missiles, which will be able to protect the skies over Kyiv and other cities, but Ukraine also needs tanks, aircraft, and a flood of lethal drones to push the Russians beyond its 2014 borders. “This visit with Biden will make things much worse for Putin. Zelensky will argue that the fastest way to end this war is offense,” concluded former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.
Putin’s “summit” in Belarus raises the odds another invasion will take place from the north using Belarusian forces. Former U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey scoffed at this and said Belarus’s involvement would be inconsequential because it has a “third-rate army and is an impoverished country”. But he said Patriot missiles in Ukraine will make the country “safer because they can stop ballistic missiles … but that alone is not enough”. The “game changer”, he added, will be to give Ukraine weapons capable of “unravelling” the Russian military such as attack drones, tanks, and jet fighter airplanes.
Putin has been outplayed geopolitically, but has more tricks up his sleeve such as thousands more Iranian drones, nuclear threats, hypersonic missiles, and another massive mobilization of “cannon fodder” to throw into battle. On December 21, Russian General Sergey Shoigu announced a further expansion of Russia’s armed forces from 1 million to 1.5 million in three years. The use of such “sacrificial manpower” may not win wars, but it slows down battles and causes more casualties on the other side. For instance, the brutal fight over Bakhmut, in Eastern Ukraine, is now a stalemate: Ukraine kills an estimated 900 Russians daily but these are immediately replaced by another 900 untrained soldiers, according to a Ukrainian government source.
Russia also claims that hypersonic missiles with nuclear warheads are about to be deployed. Hypersonic weapons travel at five to eight times’ the speed of sound, cannot be detected, nor interceded, which creates a clear-cut advantage in any nuclear or missile exchange situation. Putin has tested them, without warheads, but some allies remain skeptical about their functionality in the battlefield. This development is worrisome because the Americans don’t have hypersonic weapons quite yet. Attaining equivalent capability is now a Pentagon priority and recent tests have been promising.
Nuclear attacks don’t concern Zelensky. “There are two issues: The occupation of a nuclear power plant that is already a great threat; and another is the threat of a nuclear attack by Putin. I don’t think this will happen,” said the Ukrainian leader in a recently televised interview. “I have met him [Putin] and he has a desire to live. He loves his life… he even chooses to sit at that ridiculously long table with leaders or with his generals not to catch Covid. He understands that if he presses that button the next step will be a response aimed at him, personally at him. Will he do this? No.”
There are positive developments too. Sanctions are working and polls inside Russia reveal that most people support a peace deal. This week, Canada became the first Western ally to confiscate frozen Russian assets from an oligarch which will be transferred to Ukraine. About $26 million was seized from a Canadian corporation owned by Russian oligarch, and former Chelsea Football Club owner, Roman Abramovich, but the Americans and Europeans are in the process of seizing hundreds of billions more which will help pay for the war. But most beneficial of all is that Ukrainians remain united and optimistic and take care of one another.
In a recent poll, 98 percent of Ukrainians believe they will win the war. Many have returned from Europe. They share accommodation and create shelters for orphaned people and pets. Schools remain open. They decorate bomb shelters and subway stations with Christmas ornaments and Ukraine's Ministry of Defense reassured kids that Santa and his reindeer won’t be shot down by Russian missiles. But winter will be difficult with power, water, and interconnectivity shortages due to Russian bombing.
Zelensky’s visit to Washington DC was historically significant, but underscored the gravity of the situation. His address was reminiscent of the one delivered to Congress by Winston Churchill on December 26, 1941 as Hitler tore through Europe. As then, Zelensky contextualized the struggle as a global one, now including Iran, that threatens America, Europe, democracy, and justice. Like Churchill, he was optimistic and resolute but warned that the war is far from over. Both men spoke from the same podium as their people continue to suffer from months of bombing and face a grim Christmas and winter. Churchill described Hitler’s Axis as “enormous; they are bitter; they are ruthless” and pledged that they “know they will be called to terrible account.”
Zelensky emphasized that Ukrainians don’t want peace, they want victory and are willing to do the dying and killing to get their land back by defeating the Kremlin. But, as both emphasized, the peace cannot be won without more help from Congress. “Your money is not charity, it’s an investment,” he said, and will speed up victory. It was a message, like the one in 1941, that will hopefully be heeded. Because the reality is that, once again, another vile European despot is unleashed and must be vanquished by civilized nations.
PUTIN’S ALTAR BOY
December 12, 2022
Ukraine struck military targets inside Russian territory in recent days, and in early Kyiv December 2 attacked the enemy within by announcing it will ban and sanction Ukrainian-based Orthodox churches and clergy with links to Moscow’s Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. Police raids have discovered suspicious persons, unregistered weapons, and Russian propaganda at churches and monasteries. So far, 33 priests have been arrested. This collaboration is no surprise. Kirill is a confidante of Putin’s and has publicly weaponized his Russian Orthodox Church, and placed his moral authority, behind the Kremlin’s vicious genocide. In April, he issued a directive to Russian soldiers that “your task is to wipe the Ukrainian nation off the face of the Earth”. His support for mass murder has rattled the Orthodox world of 260 million across Europe. The World Council of Churches, representing more than 580 million Christians, condemned Russia’s war as well as Kirill’s "misuse of religious language and authority to justify" it. And Pope Francis, leader of the world’s 1.35 billion Roman Catholics, compared Russia’s slaughter to Germany’s Holocaust and told Patriarch Kirill to stop being “Putin's altar boy".
Patriarch Kirill is also an exceedingly wealthy oligarch and has been sanctioned by several countries for blessing war crimes. He has been Moscow’s Patriarch since 2009 and controlled Ukrainian as well as Russian Orthodox Churches until 2019 when thousands of Ukrainian churches broke away, a move allowed by the over-arching Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew in Constantinople (Istanbul). For 300 years, Ukrainians have paid obeisance to a Moscow Patriarch, but in recent years have realized that many of their churches were “Trojan horses” aimed at enhancing Kremlin influence in their country. The schism enraged Kirill and Putin.
Patriarch Kirill, a former KGB operative like most of Putin’s cronies, has been rewarded handsomely for his services. Forbes Magazine estimated a few years ago that his net worth was $4 billion, but this remains unverified. However, he wears $30,000 watches and owns a private jet, a palatial estate, a yacht, and valuable real estate in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Suspicions are that his fortune was accumulated by skimming profits made by the church in the mid-1990s after it was granted a monopoly to import cigarettes duty-free. He’s also a celebrity with great influence, appears on television regularly, is an oil trader, and a “playboy” who plays the stock markets, races cars, downhill skis, and has a villa in Switzerland. Britain, Canada and others have sanctioned him for his war-mongering and the European Union attempted to do the same but Putin-friendly Hungary vetoed its attempt. The U.S. has not imposed sanctions on him as yet.
Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul openly condemned the invasion as “unholy and diabolical” and Ukraine’s new Orthodox leader, titled Metropolitan Epiphanius, compared Putin to the Antichrist and Adolf Hitler. “The spirit of the Antichrist operates in the leader of Russia, the signs of which the Scriptures reveal to us: pride, devotion to evil, ruthlessness, false religiosity. This was Hitler during World War II. This is what Putin has become today.”
Currently, about 8,000 Orthodox parishes in Western Ukraine now adhere to a Kyiv-based Patriarch, but another 12,000, in the Eastern part of the country where fighting is widespread, remain officially attached to Kirill’s Patriarchate. However, many parishioners have taken the law into their own hands by evicting suspicious or pro-Putin priests. This has placed the Ukrainian government in an awkward position as churches or priests that haven’t distanced themselves from Moscow now demand police protection from angry Ukrainians. They also ask Kyiv to protect their constitutional right to continue their allegiance to the church of their choice. In several regions, the religious divisions are so perilous that some churches have been closed temporarily. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Dec. 2 edict extends the bans and sanctions to any religious organization with links to Moscow. “We will never allow anyone to build an empire inside the Ukrainian soul,” he said.
Putin’s politicization of religion has also spread to America where, according to a recent NPR report in Appalachia of all places, there’s been an uptick in membership at Russian Orthodox Churches by far-right Americans. “They're drawn to what they believe to be conservative views on things like LGBTQ rights, gender equality. Abortion is a really big issue for these folks, the culture wars issues, really," said an analyst. "And so they leave other faith traditions that they don't believe to be as stringent about those issues anymore. For many of them, Putin becomes this sort of king-like figure in their narratives. They see themselves as oppressed by democracy because democracy is really diversity. And they look to Putin because democracy isn't really, as we see right now, an option [in Russia].”
But Kirill is reviled by many Orthodox believers even across the Moscow-affiliated church. Hundreds of priests accuse him of preaching “heresy” and have asked global church leaders to bring him before a tribunal to decide whether he should be deposed. Said one: “Kirill committed moral crimes by blessing the war against Ukraine and fully supporting the aggressive actions of Russian troops on the Ukrainian territory. It is impossible for us to remain in any form of canonical submission to the Patriarch of Moscow.”
Clearly, Kirill’s rhetoric has stoked Putin’s “Holy war” tirades. He has called Ukraine an “inalienable part” of Russia’s “spiritual space.” He denies the legitimacy of the Patriarch in Istanbul as well as the one in Kyiv. Not surprisingly, he wants to conquer the entire faith and make Moscow the spiritual center of global Orthodoxy.
This month, Pope Francis escalated his condemnation of Russia’s war by aptly comparing his war to the Holodomor tragedy, when Stalin starved to death millions of Ukrainians in its eastern regions in 1932 and 1933 in order to, as is now the case, suppress their aspirations for independence. And Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke to the World Council of Churches recently and stated that the Russian Church is encouraging war crimes and no longer represents Christianity’s best values. “No Christian who still possesses his faith, his mind and feelings will be able to see the will of God in this,” he said.