I’ve had a number of people here in Romania as well as from the Republic of Moldova ask me if the ongoing conflict in Ukraine is going to spread and possibly affect them, especially as some of the local media has been drumming up the threat of an armed conflict. I’ll tell you right now what I told them: you have nothing to worry about.
In fact, the whole thing will be over in less than a month. There won’t be a war or an invasion. Ukraine will remain being an independent country and no Russian troops are going to set foot in either Romania or Moldova.
But how do I know that?
Over the years here in Romania I’ve met a lot of interesting people. Last year the SMG and I were looking to help our homeless friend Ishti find a new place to live, especially after the fiasco detailed in my post Cine Joaca Sa Traiasca.
We ended up finding him a room in a small but cozy apartment belonging to a kindly elderly man whom I will call Mr. A. After dealing with the lunacy of Ishti’s former landlords, Mr. A was an extremely pleasant surprise as he was the polar opposite, a kindly, intelligent man who wasn’t even renting out his room for money but because his wife had passed away and he wanted a little company.
Mr. A wasn’t rich but he had everything he needed in his little apartment, where he could spend his time visiting friends and family in between polishing his surprisingly good cooking skills. The rent was quite affordable (200 lei a month) and so we felt quite good about having found Ishti a better place to live.
Despite my imperfect Romanian, right away I bonded with Mr. A. It was clear that despite his advanced age that he was no ossified Communist in his thinking. He had lots of stories to tell (and a steady supply of top-notch tuica) and I found myself going over there to visit him at least once a week to eat his delicious food and talk to him. He had some health problems and his vision wasn’t what it used to be (he had trouble reading the tiny print on his mobile phone) but his mind was definitely as sharp as a tack.
While there were never any problems with Mr. A, after a while it became clear that Ishti wasn’t functioning very well in his new role as a young man with a full-time job and the responsibility of living indoors with a landlord. Soon he began to start missing work and staying out late and having his money “go missing”. Ishti also had an enormous debt to the city for a variety of infractions (most of which involved being caught riding the bus without a ticket). Ultimately he ended up losing his job and as of right now he’s homeless once again.
But before it was all over, Mr. A volunteered to help try and fix the situation. Far from being just a disinterested landlord, he was thrilled at the opportunity to have something to do. I know he made several trips to talk to Ishti’s employer and other people in order to try and help Ishti. Instead of being a bored old pensioner with nothing much to do besides gossip and tend to his plants, now he had a mission once again.
He’d dress up in his modest but elegant clothes, hat and cane, and head out into this city that he knew so well. Mr. A had that gift of knowing exactly what to say to a person, sharing a laugh and a joke here, dropping a serious word there, all the time with a wink and a glimmer in his eye that let you know that he had instantly sized you up and knew exactly who you were.
I knew right away that he had to have been more than just a simple repairman, which is the “cover story” he’d given me when we first met. He was far too intelligent and far too perceptive to have spent his entire working life under Communism as a simple wrench monkey, a grunt employed to twist a few lugnuts and call it a day. I asked him once if he had been involved in any kind of intelligence work and he laughed it off but I could see by the gleam in his eye that he was loving the fact that I had even asked that question.
During this period when we were all trying to fix Ishti’s problems and keep him at his job, I got the surprise of my life when Mr. A. showed up at my door completely unannounced. He didn’t have my mobile phone number and I’d certainly never told him where I lived (not even Ishti knew that). I don’t have a job here in Romania and I’m not a citizen so I don’t exactly appear in a lot of databases. I never carry any ID (hence my arrest a few weeks ago) and I don’t get any (postal) mail so there’s no way he ever saw my address written down anywhere.
True, it’s not a major secret where I live (and two television crews have been in here to film me) but Mr. A didn’t just get the general area correct – he marched right up to my bloc and rang my apartment directly.
I asked him later how he had found me and he just laughed and cut me another slice of his delicious homemade cake. It was clear he had enjoyed every minute of the mission, able to once again rely on his tradecraft, and tracking me down had been a real pleasure for him.
I didn’t mind that he had found me. I was just surprised that anyone had the capability of doing it in an elegant and refined way, not relying on “SIGINT” and databases and electronic snooping but doing it the old-fashioned way, using their brains.
It had been so long since I’d seen anyone with those kind of skills that it was a real pleasure for me to meet someone who could do it.
Smarter than the CIA
While I never tell any falsehoods (outright lies) on this blog, I do sometimes purposefully gloss over the truth. Usually I do it for editorial purposes (remove “extraneous” bits so that the story flows more smoothly) but occasionally I leave something out as a kind of deliberate misdirection.
A case in point is my post Me and the CIA in which I stated:
Nowadays the majority of SIGINT is done by other agencies and the CIA is horrifically inept at obtaining HUMINT. They do still have a kind of primacy over information gleaned from the other 15 agencies but many people, from Tim Wiener to former CIA directors speaking on the record have admitted that 80-90% of its “intelligence” comes from public sources.
In other words, if you read a lot of newspapers, you’re about 90% as well informed as the CIA. Nonetheless, the CIA loves its cloak-and-dagger reputation and still covets its position as being the one to condense this information into acronym-filled reports that it can then give the president. A blogger (such as me) doing that on their own time just doesn’t have the same sexy mystique.
Again, that’s all true. But if you read a lot of newspapers and you can think clearly than you are actually far better informed than the CIA. And yes, that includes me and folks like Mr. A (who doesn’t even own a computer) and about two dozen journalists/bloggers that I know of in the English-speaking world.
That’s a rather bold statement to make. I don’t have access to any secret databases or clandestine spies anywhere. Fuck, I don’t even use encrypted email and I don’t know any whistleblowers like Snowden or Manning. So how is it that people like me can be better informed than multibillion dollar secret spy agencies?
The answer is not an increase in the quantity of information but in the quality. The CIA, for all of its thousand of spies and satellite intercepts and billions of gigabytes of computer data still failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Every major newspaper said it, so much so that the CIA went to great lengths to deny it on their own website:
In the aftermath of the political breakup of the Soviet Union, charges that CIA was oblivious to the deteriorating economy and corroding societal conditions that set the stage for the breakup have taken on the aura of conventional wisdom. The New York Times, for example, asserted in an editorial on 22 October 1995 that: “The CIA considered the Soviet Union an economic power when it was actually an economic wreck.”
The CIA did not forecast the breakup, either in timing or form, with the same sense of inevitability that is touted in many of the retrospectives critical of CIA’s assessments. The Agency did predict that the failing economy and stultifying societal conditions it had described in so many of its studies would ultimately provoke some kind of political confrontation within the USSR. The timing of this confrontation, however, depended on the emergence of a leadership to initiate it, and its form depended on the specific actions of that leadership.
In other words, “we knew there might be trouble but we didn’t know how it would play out”. Of course not. As usual, they hedged all their bets and laid out a variety of scenarios, purposefully so vague that no matter what happened, the Soviet Union breaking up or remaining intact, they still would have been “right”.
Of course this is the same CIA who also believed that the Soviet Union was scheming to fake its own collapse and that the Soviets had a secret plan to test nuclear weapons on the moon.
Don’t just take my word for it. Michael Hayden, who was once the head of the CIA, recently wrote an article entitled Why We Keep Getting Putin Wrong, talking about how the CIA, as recently as 2008, once again failed to accurately understand what Russia (under President Putin) was planning and what Russia was going to do.
As recently as February 27, 2014, again the CIA said Russia had “no plans” to send troops to Crimea. Here we are just a week later and the Russian military is in de facto control of the Crimean peninsula.
So why do they keep getting these things wrong? Beyond their innate stupidity, there’s another reason.
Human beings do not think logically. They have a way of thinking that psychologists call “cognitive bias”. One of the most common is what’s called confirmation bias.
Let’s say you believe that the Russians (or specifically President Putin) are “bad”. If you do, you’re going to look at every piece of data you have, whether that’s newspaper reports, information from spies or data from satellites and interpret it as “further proof” that the Russians are bad.
A classic case of this was the recent Victoria Nuland telephone intercept. A single member of the Russian government, Dmitry Loskutov, posted a tweet to the video. The western media (who luv the Twittah) latched onto the story and within 24 hours the official State Department spokesperson was blaming Russian intelligence agencies for recording and then publishing the telephone conversation.
The only problem is that I, and anyone with a computer and access to the internet, could see that this wasn’t true. Dmitry Loskutov’s original tweet that set off this firestorm was a link to a copy of the video, not the original. The guy Loskutov was linking to was apparently a big fan of the FC Spartak football team (from Moscow) and it’s not too hard to guess that Loskutov was probably following him because Loskutov is a fan of the team too.
How the Spartak fan found out about the original video is unknown but it clearly was coming to him secondhand from somewhere else (most likely a “social media” network – the original poster of the file was a Russian speaker in Ukraine) because his link was to a reposted version of the file that was posted several days after the original file. Neither the Spartak fan nor Luskotov were apparently even aware of the original file but I and plenty of other people on the internet easily found the original file.
So there you see, a single tweet from a minor Russian government aide, linking to a later copy of a file, got interpreted by the American government as “proof” that the Russians were behind the whole thing. That is confirmation bias. The State Department was embarrassed (yet again) by a leak, heard that a Russian was involved (based on a single tweet) and then tied this very weak circumstantial evidence into “proof” that the Russian government was behind the whole thing.
If you want to believe something, you can always find “proof” to back up your belief. That might work out for you in your personal life but when it comes to intelligence agencies and governments it’s a recipe for disaster.
Note: if you want an extremely detailed analysis of just how often intelligence agencies are wrong, and how irrelevant even “correct” analysis are to geopolitical considerations, click here. I will however repeat the warning that the author himself gave:
Obama’s speech on the NSA and surveillance is a lengthy paean to the crucial importance of “secret information.” The entire “intelligence” industry is founded on the belief that “secret information” is an absolute necessity for the survival and well-being of the United States. To one degree or another, most adult Americans share this belief.
It’s a lie — a vicious, cruel, murderous lie. I have written many, many articles about the fraud of “intelligence” over a period of almost ten years. I have often been astonished that very few people seem to understand in any meaningful way what I’m talking about. Even those people who I know have read at least two of three of my essays, and who have expressed their agreement with my argument, usually forget that argument the next time “intelligence” becomes an issue of debate and importance.
Like Mr. Silber, I doubt that most people reading my words will believe me. Nonetheless, we’re both right.
Those who know
I’m very proud of the article I wrote on Romania’s history during World War I entitled Die Stadt Bukarest ist von meinen Truppen besetzt, which heavily featured the role that the American ambassador, Mr. Charles Vopicka, played during those turbulent times. Later I got a very nice message from his granddaughter thanking me for what I had written and I thanked her on behalf of both Romania and America for all the good work he had done.
Similarly, way back in 1956 a young American university student was reading the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky and decided to take the unusual step of learning Russian so that he could read the texts in the original. Later he enrolled in the State Department with the goal of becoming the American ambassador to the Soviet Union, something he finally achieved in 1987.
That man’s name is Jack Matlock, Jr.. Much as Vopicka was able to use his German to understand the culture and power players in his time, Mr. Matlock was able to understand Russia and Russian culture because he actually spoke the language (unlike Victoria Nuland, who can’t even say спасибо correctly).
Mr. Matlock is now retired but fortunately for us, he has a blog. Here is his response to the Nuland telephone intercept:
As a friend and admirer of both Russian and Ukrainian peoples and culture, I have been following the dramatic events in Kyiv since November with both sympathy for the Ukrainian protesters and concern that none of the offers from the outside will actually help them solve their most fundamental long-term problems. However, I took some limited comfort from reports that Washington would defer to and support the European Union in its efforts to guide Ukraine to a better future.
Assistant Secretary Nuland’s comments to Ambassador Pyatt reveal that this may not be the case. It would seem that the United States may be competing with representatives of the European Union for influence on the composition of a new Ukrainian government. If that is in fact the policy of President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, I believe it needs to be re-assessed without delay.
Of course Mr. Matlock was right. Ukrainian President Yanukovich’s original deal was to include two opposition figures (Yatsenyuk and Klitschko) in his government. Thanks to Nuland and Pyatt (with a heavy assist from Jeff Feltman), the deal was turned down. Several other compromises were similarly rejected (including one offer to hold elections in the near future) until a questionable “impeachment” of Yanukovich occurred.
Yanukovich managed to get to Russia, where he (even today) continues to claim he’s the legitimate president. Now Ukraine has an interim, unelected “government” which is only partially recognized and is about to run out of money. The interim “government” then passed an emergency measure to no longer recognize minority languages (including both Russian and Hungarian) and then shit popped off in Crimea, leading to what we have here today.
I should add here that beyond all the noise of what’s going on in Crimea and to a lesser extent Donetsk and Odessa, last night I was watching a stream of tweets urging Hungarians in Zakarpattia to reject the Kiev interim “government” as well.
Now Russia looks to be in full control of Crimea while the EU and USA are divided on what to do, as you can read about here.
How did this all manage to go so badly for the EU and the USA? There are about 20 different “players” involved in all of this, ranging from peaceful pro-EU “Euromaidan” activists to neo-nazi Svoboda to the lunatics of Praviy Sektor to the national governments of Poland, Russia and the United States. So why does Russia seem to be calm and confident while the “pro-western” coalition is rapidly falling apart?
Last night in Romania was the middle of the afternoon in New York and an intrepid reporter that I’ve known for years was ensconced, as usual, in the United Nations building, tracking events. He was puzzled by a remark that State Department chief Kerry said about (the Republic of) Moldova and I was happy to help clear up the matter.
The American government is clearly trying to claw their way out of this mess. Little old Iurie Leanca (the Prime Minister of Moldova) was in Washington, ostensibly to get a pat on the head for his government’s decision to “be closer” to the European Union but found himself being used as a pawn in this game. Leanca made a neutral statement thanking Washington for its paltry 5 million bucks in promised aid and then Kerry turned up the dials and said that Russia was “pressuring” Moldova, referring to Transnistria.
Likewise, last Sunday, Romanian President Traian Basescu also included Washington’s talking points in a press conference that I doubt anybody saw. You can see just how confused Basescu is by repeating what was given to him to say (my translation and editing):
The situation in Ukraine is not currently a direct threat to Romania’s security.
At the same time, Romania notes that a new frozen conflict in Crimea, similar to the ones in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, Ossetia and Transnistria, is of the nature to increase regional instability and it is implicit that these tensions could possibly lead to armed conflict.
Because of this, Romania believes that its security is at risk in the medium and long-term [by the crisis in Ukraine].
First of all, it’s South Ossetia that’s the “frozen” conflict because North Ossetia is doing just fine as part of Russia (minus the 2004 Beslan incident). As for the others on his list, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and Transnistria, none of these have changed significantly in years. Nothing’s going on there even today nor is there even the slightest indication that they will. Basescu is just spouting empty rhetoric because a) he’s a loyal American ally and b) he’s close personal friends with the mayor of Chisinau, Dorin Chirtoaca, who has a deep personal loathing for the Transnistrian government.
Leurca however would never say anything so openly anti-Russian as he knows quite well what his situation is (PM with the support of a shaky coalition of pro-Russian and pro-EU factions). Basescu has already repeatedly shown how much he loves speaking “for” Moldova, so much so that Mihail Formuzal, head of the Gaugaz minority in Moldova, declared Basescu persona non grata for his constant interference in Moldovan politics.
But whether it’s Crimea, Transnistria or Nagorno-Karabakh, there’s one curious connection to them that seems to get overlooked by most politicians and analysts. All of them have a natural geographic isolation.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a valley ringed by mountains, technically inside Azerbaijan but controlled by Armenia and the ethnic Armenians who live there. Crimea is a peninsula, a distinct landmass that has a majority Russian population. Transnistria is (almost) entirely the slice of land inside Moldova between the river Nistria (hence the name) and Ukraine. Abkhazia, likewise, is the northwest tip of the Republic of Georgia with a rugged natural border.
Funny enough, almost all “frozen” conflicts are of this nature. There’s a natural desert border between Somaliland and Somalia (proper). There’s another desert border between Western Sahara and Morocco. Kashmir has a rugged mountain border between itself and both India and Pakistan. Taiwan is separated from the Chinese mainland by water.
That’s how I know that Russian de facto control (but not outright annexation) of Crimea is going to continue for the long term, that Chirtoaca and Basescu are never going to see Transnistria disappear (or RM join with Romania) and that the Russians will stop at Crimea and not send any troops anywhere else in Ukraine.
Sounds almost too simplistic and yet geography plays a far larger role in geopolitics and history than most people would care to admit.
There is going to be a hell of a lot of small-scale chaos in the near future. I’ve already seen on Youtube where people are marching around in various Ukrainian cities, supporting everything from Russia to the EU to waving flags with Stalin’s face on them. There will be scuffles, windows broken, a few fires set and some ugly racism.
Russian troops won’t advance past the Crimea or the Black Sea, exactly where they are today. Crimea will hold a referendum on March 30 and will then have enough legal cover to have the presence of Russian troops, which will be called peacekeepers, on its soil without the US or anyone else (including Kiev) being able to do anything about it. Legally, Crimea will remain autonomous and part of Ukraine.
Other regions of Ukraine may also become more autonomous but the country won’t be dissolved, broken up or militarily occupied. Some kind of permanent government will get elected along with cries of fraud and malfeasance. The United States will continue its policy of empty threats and bluster and a few Russian officials might get their travel visas revoked or bank accounts frozen but otherwise there won’t be any major economic sanctions.
Ukraine will sink deeper into poverty and there will be food shortages, especially when the grain harvests are far less than the original (pre-conflict) estimates. Once all the western financing gets sorted out (IMF loans), Ukraine will sink further into debt and everybody who can leave will leave to find work elsewhere (which certainly won’t be in the European Union).
In a few months it’ll all be over but the shouting and the majority of the world will have forgotten about it. Nuland, Pyatt and interfering western billionaires like Soros and Pierre Omidyar will continue their efforts to demonize Russia and pretend to prop up democracy in Ukraine, fooling millions of poor Ukrainians into believing that America is their friend.
And then a new crisis will occur somewhere else, a natural disaster, a scandal, and only a few people will remember anything about what happened in 2014, just like few people today have any clue about what happened in Ukraine 10 years ago other than the fact that the color orange was involved.
These are my predictions, which is why I’ve been telling my Romanian and Moldovan friends that they have nothing to worry about. Go read a book or watch a movie. Eat an ice cream or take a walk in the park.
The fools are still in charge but geography and indecisiveness are going to preserve the peace this time, thank god.