Friday, August 12, 2016

August 12, 2016 - Tensions spike between Russia and Ukraine after terror plot, and other stories

Tensions spike along Crimean border after alleged Ukrainian terror plot
This past weekend, Russia claimed to foil a terror plot against the Crimean territory and accused the government of Ukraine of orchestrating. Tensions rose after this event. Now, the Ukrainian military has moved troops near the Ukraine-Crimea border and placed troops on the highest level of combat readiness, in an apparent show of force.

It goes without saying that Ukraine's military would be no match against Russia's if a conflict breaks out, so it's not obvious what the build-up is meant to achieve. Ukraine, for its part, has also claimed that Russia is building up forces on the Crimean side of the border.

Naturally, the US government (and much of the media) has treated Russian claims of a Ukrainian terror plot with a heavy dose of skepticism. And rightly so, as it is clearly an extreme and dangerous allegation. (One wishes the US media treated extreme accusations against Russia, say by a leading presidential candidate, with the same degree of skepticism, but that's not likely to happen anytime soon).

Having said that, it would be wrong to dismiss Russian claims out of hand. It's not clear how they concluded that the Ukrainian government itself was behind the plot, but it at least seems likely that a terror plot did occur. Assuming so, Ukrainian nationalists of some variety are the most likely culprits, though there's no particular reason to assume they are formally associated with the government.

The existence of a terror plot is credible largely because Russia has no obvious incentive to make it up. After all, Russia already annexed Crimea. And it has had many plausible opportunities / excuses since the Ukraine coup to launch a formal invasion of Ukraine in the past if it wanted to do so. It has no need to fabricate such pretexts.

Moreover, there is a history of sabotage against Crimea since the annexation. Last fall, for instance, power lines in Ukraine that carry power to Crimea were blown up, causing major power outages on the Crimean Peninsula.

(It's also worth noting that the article cited above is a delightful example of media double standards. In it, the culprits of the sabotage were referred to as nationalists or activists. Can you imagine if someone bombed key power infrastructure in the United States? Somehow I don't think they would downplayed as simple activists. But as long as it's targeting Russia, apparently blowing things up is an acceptable form of political speech (!).)

Whatever the facts are on the alleged terror plot, the resulting tensions are an incredibly dangerous situation.

Another reminder that governments lie, but this time it's a good thing (you know, sort of)
Yesterday, we noted that official economic data produced by the US government deserves a heavy dose of skepticism.

Today, we're reminded that official assessments of the undeclared war on ISIS warrant skepticism as well.

The results of two Congressional investigations into manipulated military intelligence were just released. The long and short of it is that senior US military officials distorted intelligence in the ISIS war to portray a more positive and successful narrative than the facts warranted. It's also not a partisan attack, as both Republicans and Democrats came to this same basic conclusion.

This may explain why progress in the war has seemed so slow in coming. US military officials consistently proclaim that the war effort is working, even as, nearly two years into it, "success" has remained elusive. ISIS still holds Mosul and significant territory in Iraq; Al Qaeda remains a dominant force in Syria (and works closely with US-backed groups, which is awkward); and suicide attacks still occur, generally in the Middle East, but occasionally in the West as well.

Ironically, the dishonest pronouncements on the war are probably a blessing in disguise. Because if the US government acknowledged the war was not working, it would surely insist on doing and bombing even more than it does currently. Thus far, the official narrative of progress has probably prevented more civilians and American troops from being put in harm's way; for that at least, we can be grateful.

Hillary Clinton embraces protectionism
Hillary Clinton took another bold step to outcompete Donald Trump on the critical issue of economic pandering policy. At a rally in Michigan, Clinton recently declared her support for using "targeted tariffs" against foreign countries.

Given the populist disdain for international trade, the new rhetoric is not altogether surprising. It is however, somewhat depressing as this is an area where a center-left politician like Clinton would usually side with the conventional economic wisdom on trade--namely that it offers net benefits. It also shows the influence that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have had on American politics.

Of course, massively complex free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are not synonymous with true free trade. And the fact that Clinton's new position could scuttle the deal after election could offer a small consolation prize. Her new support for protectionist policies, however, represent another threat to a US and global economy that can scarcely withstand it.

For more, read our longer take on this story, the benefits of trade, and why the US presidential race seems like a constant race to the bottom.

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