Friday News Analysis — September 14, 2018: Russian Geopolitical “Brigandry” & the Trump Fatigue propelling the Blue Wave

First of all, we want to extend our thoughts and prayers to those affected by Hurricane Florence and its impact on the Carolinas. As a reminder, please heed the warnings of your local officials and weather forecasters. To support those affected by the storm, you can donate at the following links to the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Fund.

In this week’s analysis, Michael looks at how Russia’s behavior—notably the Skirpal poisoning—resembles more the geopolitics of piracy than traditional international relations. Dan looks at how the Trump White House seems to step on its own success and how this fuels both Trump fatigue and a tailwind for Democratic Congressional candidates.

Finally, as always, we wrap up with some important stories from the week that you may have missed.

Sergei Skripal & the Russian Strategy of Political Criminality

Russian President Putin meeting with the patriotic NightWolves Russian biker gang (Russian Government Photo)

The Russian government appears to be continuing to press against the norms that govern the relations between nations. Two ongoing stories received important updates this week — one admittedly very sketchily reported — that demonstrate risk acceptant behavior by the Kremlin, both risk in terms of the execution of covert operations and risk of blowback for violations of the generally accepted principles that govern the international system. These risks, however, are part of a strategic vision that Russia has adopted to try and amend the power structure of the world to be more favorable to Moscow.

On September 5, UK Prime Minister Teresa May gave the House of Commons an update on the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian military officer and British intelligence asset Sergei Skripal (for more information about the details of the alleged assassination attempt, check out the write-up I did last month here). PM May reported that British police had identified two suspects in the attack and conclusively linked them to the Russian military intelligence service. The UK government also revealed formal charges against the two suspects and requested that the Russian government cooperate with their investigation, including extraditing the men to the UK. Unsurprisingly, the Russian government has shown a disinclination to acquiesce to the UK’s request. On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the two men “civilians, not criminals,” and state television produced a truly risible video of the two men proclaiming their innocence (Or was it the same men? Vox notes that the two men in CCTV stills and the two men in the video look … mostly similar).

In the interview, the men tried to explain their itinerary by saying that they tried to visit the Salisbury cathedral, but were deterred by snow on their first try. The press has pointed out that the snow story is nonsense, the suspects claim to have gotten lost walking a short distance to an easily visible landmark, and they have a surprisingly detailed knowledge of the 215th-largest metropolitan area in the UK (or at least its Wikipedia page). This disinformation campaign shows an Orwellian commitment to the idea of truth, but the attempt did cause American intelligence community toreassess the security of former intelligence assets living in the United States since it underscores the brazen steps that the Russian government is willing to take to settle scores with its enemies.

The second story involves the series of mysterious medical episodes among diplomats and their families at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. The affected personnel developed symptoms similar to mild concussions, leading to speculation that they could be targeted by some kind of electromagnetic radiation. On Tuesday, NBC News reported that Russia is the main suspect, but that the evidence is not yet conclusive enough for an official accusation. The State Department said that they have not determined who is responsible for the attack. I would not want to speculate about the likelihood that NBC News has this exactly right, but it fits into the framework of risk-acceptant Russian behavior that is also visible in the Skripal assassination attempt.

Writing in War on the Rocks earlier this year, Michael Kofman described Russia’s strategy of “raiding and international brigandry.” In a world where conventional armed conflict is impossible — because of the United States’s distinct military advantages and the risk of global thermonuclear war — Russia has adopted a strategy by which the Kremlin seeks to impose costs on the United States. The modern world is full of groups and systems that are buttressed by American power. International relations scholars refer to this as the “hegemonic provision of public goods.” Free navigation on the high seas is a classic example: in the 17th and 18th centuries, when many European powers vied for control of the trade routes through the Caribbean Sea,privateering and piracy flourished as no single power had the ability to stop them. Later, as first the Royal Navy and later the U.S. Navy achieved dominance in the region, the pirates were eliminated and free navigation ensured.

Russia is not trying to violently overthrow the international system and replace it with one led from Moscow, as was the case in the early phases of the Cold War, but it is using an intentional sort of criminality — what Kofman calls brigandry — to make the aspects of American hegemony more expensive. Western intelligence services will find recruiting Russian assets more difficult if potential sources think that their eventual retirements in the English countryside could be interrupted by Russian assassins. Intelligence officers tend to work under official cover in embassies abroad, so making Foreign Service careers less appealing by assaulting diplomats makes intelligence collection more difficult. This is just one area where Russia is seeking to impose costs by brigandry. Others include encouraging violence in Syria to promote refugee flows, using cyberattacks and disinformation to take advantage of political disunity, and undermining international sanctions against bad actors like North Korea. If, under pressure from raiding behavior by Russia and other challenges, the United States decides to reduce its provision of public goods (as may in fact be happening), Russia will find it easier to create a sphere of influence and finally bring America’s unipolar moment to an end.

Trump Fatigue & the Crest of the Blue Wave

President Trump signing the Section 232 national security tariffs on steel & aluminum imports into effect on March 9th (White House Photo)

This week, Bloomberg News highlighted the historical divergence between the performance of the economy and President Trump’s approval ratings. Since the Reagan Administration, no president has had such high net disapproval while the economy has been performing so well.

Any president would be crowing about these economic numbers — as President Trump has at times — but he has also drowned out a lot of his administration’s successes with his own scandals, statements, and Tweetstorms. For example, this week, even as preparations were being made for the landfall of Hurricane Florence, the discussion was diverted by the president’s tweets contesting reports commissioned by the Puerto Rican government that claim that nearly 3,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria last summer.

There is also the muddling of the economic picture in some of the White House’s own statements and policies. In Bob Woodward’s Fear, the president is described as dismissing economic data about the benefits of trade with a because-I-believe-so mentality. While unemployment is at near-record lows, the White House raises the specter of job losses from international trade or immigration. Perhaps the Trump Administration should look in the mirror before blaming the press for suppressing the administration’s successes.

This begins to affect the size of the much-discussed “blue wave” this fall where the edge of the Trump base is beginning to show signs of cracking. A key geographic bastion of support for Trump has been the cities of the Midwest where white, blue-collar workers from deindustrialized cities switched from regularly voting for the Democrat on the ballot. This week’s NPR/Marist poll shows that support for the GOP is starting to falter — especially because of trade war concerns.

For many GOP candidates, this puts them in the awkward position of allaying concerns about the economic policies of their party’s leader, when they were policies they didn’t even want in the first place. On the campaign trail, GOP Congressional candidates have to explain away tariff uncertainty or trade retaliation instead of talking up the benefits of tax cuts and deregulation. Combined with the rancorous nature of GOP internal politics, many GOP incumbents chose retirement.

Those voters joining the “blue wave” also look for candidates who will be a check on some of the Trump policies. Concerns about the administration’s immigration restrictions, environmental deregulation, scandals surrounding the administration, and, most of all, worries about healthcare policy turn off older, college-educated voters.

Even the Trump base seems less engaged than it once was. Rallies appear to be less well attended and more repetitive, and the hot button issues like the NFL anthem controversy no longer resonate like they once did.

Perhaps President Trump could use some advice from reality-TV star Trump — some story lines grow stale when they extend into the next season.

Stories You May Have Missed

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Mystery Surrounds Leak on International Space Station

Super-Typhoon Mangkhut impacts Philippines, threatens Hong Kong

Volkswagen Ends Production of the Iconic Beetle

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