Enigmas, Wrapped in Riddles

The fine new biography Mikhail Gorbachev: His Life and Times (Norton), by William Taubman, of Amherst College, is just what we don’t need today. An interesting and decent man, Gorbachev steered the Soviet Union into its transition in 1985, then made a mess of it, turning a collapsing economy over to Boris Yeltsin after an attempted coup in 1991. Recognized with a Nobel Prize for Peace, Gorby was a hero everywhere but his own country.

If you’re interested in the part Gorbachev played in easing tensions between superpowers in the 1990s, read instead The End of the Cold War 1985-1991 (Public Affairs, 2015), by Robert Service. The high degree of trust and cooperation that unexpectedly developed between Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, and their seconds, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Secretary of State George Shultz, is the real story.

Otherwise, lean forward and pay attention to the present day.

The manner of the closing of the Russian consulate in San Francisco and trade missions in Washington and New York, represented a significant escalation in the tit-for-tat diplomatic penalties of the last two years. This time the Russians were given two days to clear out before their San Francisco buildings were searched by US security services – hence the black smoke emanating from the consulate fireplace.

Five quite different issues are wrapped up in almost every story about Russia these days.

  • Donald Trump’s unacceptability as president to a wide segment of the electorate is almost always present.
  • The possibility exists that members of the Trump family and some associated with the Trump campaign colluded with various Russians to defeat Hillary Clinton. That the president himself might have sought to obstruct an investigation of his campaign’s practices is the focus of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation for the Justice Department.
  • That Russian government-sponsored interference in the 2016 US presidential election took place, with a view to damaging the Clinton candidacy, now seems beyond doubt, though few believe it was decisive. Whatever went on is part of a much larger story about the advent of what has become known as hybrid warfare, pioneered by the United States, Russia, China, Iran, Israel, North Korea, and various non-state terrorist groups. The Russians say the US employed its techniques in support of various “color revolutions” on Russia’s borders. The US accuses Russia of all manner of tricks in, as one commentator for the government’s Radio Free Europe  puts it, “a widespread effort to undermine, corrupt, and cripple the institutions of liberal democratic governance” around the world.”
  • A loose coalition of interests is devoted to painting Vladimir Putin in the worst possible light, for one reason or another. The problems Russia faces building out its economy are thus obscured.  We could do with a good deal more economic and business coverage, in the manner of this story by Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky, or this one, by Andrew Higgins, of The New York Times.
  • Finally, the military-industrial complex in the United States is quietly seeking to foment a new high-tech arms race. A new array of smaller tactical nuclear weapons is the latest hot-button issue.  Missile defense is a hardy perennial. And, of course, NATO remains the largest arms market in the world. There is even less coverage of this aspect of things.

Disentangling one element of the story from another takes plenty of time and focus.   The current fever will subside one day.  Let’s hope it doesn’t take a war to bring it down.

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Economic Principals went off half-cocked three weeks ago when it sought to draw attention to the presumed availability of Federal Reserve Board vice chair Stanley Fischer to replace Janet Yellen should she be denied the opportunity – or prefer not to serve – a second term as chair

Fischer resigned last week after three years as a member of the board of governors, citing “personal reasons.”  Fed-watcher Tim Duy speculated that “a serious health issue” may be involved. May blessings attend the Fischer family.  He would have made a terrific chair.

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