Later On

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Archive for the ‘War’ Category

Blockbuster NYTimes Story Accidentally Leaked Phone Numbers of Russian Soldiers Criticizing War

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I noticed when Margaret Sullivan was Public Editor — the equivalent of ombudsman — of the NY Times, that neither editors nor reporters would admit they erred. Rarely there would be a single grudging admission, but mostly any criticism was brushed aside, even when the criticism pointed out a flagrant error.

And the Times maintains that attitude. Joseph Cox reports in Motherboard:

A blockbuster investigation from the New York Times in September, 2022, inadvertently exposed the apparent phone numbers of Russian soldiers as well as the apparent civilian family members they were speaking to, Motherboard has learned. Some of these people were providing a frank assessment of the ongoing Ukraine war, and blunt criticisms of their superiors including President Putin himself. The exposure potentially put the people at risk of reprisal from their own government and other third parties.

The news highlights not only the risks phones pose in wartime, but also the security hazards that can be posed by journalists handling leaked information. Last week, for example, dozens of Russian soldiers were killed in an attack by Ukrainian forces; the Kremlin said they were targeted based on cell phone data. “For Russian troops, cellphone use is a persistent, lethal danger,” the Times wrote.

When contacted by Motherboard, the Times initially said that it took steps to delete the metadata but failed to scrub several audio files. It said that the metadata was up for only a “few hours.” 

“Before publication, we worked to remove identifying information from the story. We later learned that some buried metadata was live on the site for a few hours, and took prompt steps to remove it,” Charlie Stadtlander, director, external communications, newsroom, at the New York Times initially told Motherboard in a statement.

Motherboard then found that additional phone numbers and internal notes for fact checkers—which in some cases seemingly included not only the number of the apparent soldier but also the person they were speaking to, as well as their supposed relation—remained online in the article’s source code as of Wednesday afternoon, months after publication. When contacted again by Motherboard, the Times edited the piece to remove that metadata from the source code, and replace it with “null.”

In response to the second request for comment about the further exposure in the source code, Stadtlander provided a nearly identical statement that only removed the “few hours” section..

“Before publication, we worked to remove identifying information from the story. We later learned that some buried metadata was live on the site and took prompt steps to remove it,” Stadtlander wrote.

Motherboard found what appears to be multiple phone numbers in the source code.

Security experts told Motherboard the exposure is dangerous.

“This metadata error is a regrettable and entirely avoidable cockup on the part of the New York Times,” Thomas Rid, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University/SAIS, told Motherboard in an online chat. “The Times says it spent almost two months on translating the recordings—well, it should have spent another 20 minutes on scrubbing the metadata.”

In its investigation, the Times says it . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

11 January 2023 at 4:56 pm

Ancient Greece had extreme polarization and civil strife too – how Thucydides can help us understand Jan. 6 and its aftermath

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Rachel Hadas, Professor of English, Rutgers University – Newark, writes in The Conversation:

The second anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection is upon us. And each new revelation about that brutal mob assault on our government raises a host of fresh questions about what transpired in the days prior to January 6, notably who was involved in planning the events of that day. Why, for instance, did former President Donald Trump reportedly consider a blanket pardon for all the insurrectionists?

An answer to that question and others will surely raise more questions and ultimately reveal the scope of what we still do not, and may never, know. But maybe now, two years on, we finally have the perspective to see that the lie Trump told about the 2020 election – that he won and President Joe Biden lost – is still shredding the fabric of our democracy.

But how do we make sense of it all?

As a professor of English and a student of the classics, I suggest that the insights and objectivity of a historian who lived nearly 2,500 years ago can bolster our understanding of the country’s current plight.

Early in his great work, “History of the Peloponnesian War,” [free ebook version – LG]about the decades-long war (431–404 BC) between Athens and Sparta, Athenian historian Thucydides (460-400 BC) expresses the hope that his “History” would be “judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future.”

Divisions fracture democracies

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thucydides was cited frequently, and for good reason.

In “History,” he devotes a brief passage to the Great Plague that struck Athens in 432. After describing the symptoms, he seems to stand back and comment on the dire damage done by The Plague, not only to people’s bodies but to their behavior – and by extension to the city-state that had prided itself on its democracy. Civic responsibility gave way to a desperate emphasis on individual survival or immediate gratification, and the spirit of cooperation crucial for a working democracy withered. Journalists, historians and professors of classics alike wrote not only about the similarities between the long-ago Great Plague and COVID-19, but also about the timeless force of Thucydides’ insight.

When it comes to an equally celebrated passage on civil war, later in the same work, Thucydides uses the same technique. First he provides a granular description of chaotic factionalism. Then, he stands back and offers a coolly objective assessment of the larger disorders attendant on civil strife. He writes about the civil conflict in Corcyra (modern Corfu) over the broader war between Athens and Sparta over territory and power. The Jan. 6 committee argues that Trump’s election lie sparked civil unrest in the United States and ignited the insurrection.

The causes of civil strife differ, but some of Thucydides’ conclusions about democracy and civil unrest applied to American society two years ago – and still apply now.

It will happen again

Among Thucydides’ trenchant insights, I believe two stand out in our moment.

First is how people . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

7 January 2023 at 6:47 pm

The Skill Involved in Zelensky’s Congressional Address

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At left, a wartime leader appealing to a joint meeting of Congress for further American support, on the day after Christmas in 1941. At right, another wartime leader making a similar appeal, four days before Christmas in 2022. The two images convey some striking differences between the eras. The speeches themselves had striking similarities. (Getty Images.)

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James Fallows, one-time speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, has knowledge and experience regarding political speeches, and his article on Zelensky’s address to Congress is very much worth reading. It begins:

This post starts with some major “staging” choices Volodymyr Zelensky made for his address to Congress this week, including that he would deliver it in English and while dressed in his familiar wartime wear. Then we’ll move to some significant line-by-line aspects of the text itself.

In both parts I’ll be saying that the speech was carefully thought out as a piece of writing, and powerfully presented as a moment in living history. Zelensky could hardly have done more, or done anything more effective, to get his country’s message across.

We often hear about presentations that work on different levels, as appeals to both head and heart. “Tear down this wall,” at the Berlin Wall. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” in bitter January cold from the inaugural stand at the Capitol. “I have a dream,” in August heat from the Lincoln Memorial.

We have no idea of Ukraine’s fate a year or a decade from now, nor of Volodymyr Zelensky’s ultimate place in history. But I think this week’s speech will stand as another important example of combining moment, message, and messenger to remarkable effect.


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The set-up.

Zelensky’s speech came 10 months after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. It came 81 years after Winston Churchill stood in the same place at the Capitol, with the same Constitutional officers (vice president and speaker of the House) seated behind him, to a similar joint meeting of the Senate and House. There he made a similar appeal for assistance, to a United States that, just after Pearl Harbor, had finally entered the war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.1 The photos of the two presentations, above, suggest how much is traditional and constant in American procedures, and how much has changed.

Zelensky’s speech was also part of series he has made to international audiences since the invasion began. The previous ones had all been virtual, over tele-links from Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine, because of Zelensky’s wartime role. In each of them he has argued that Ukraine was the frontline in the battle between dictatorship and democracy, between rule-by-force and rule-of-law.

The official English versions of these speeches, which have all been delivered in Ukrainian, have been notable for their careful craftsmanship. Zelensky and his team knew what allusions to make, what chords to strike, what historical and cultural parallels to draw, when speaking to each of his audiences. I wrote about two of these virtual addresses—to the U.K. Parliament on March 8, and to the U.S. Congress on March 16—soon after they occurred.2

The plain text of this latest speech showed the same deftness and unusual care. Zelensky has someone who is good, and is good in English, working with him. The early speeches had the breathtaking drama of being delivered from cities under attack, much as with Zelensky’s original, history-changing “We are here” short video. This week’s presentation had different drama because of two additional risks he took. Those were: . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

24 December 2022 at 9:29 pm

For Patrick Leahy, The Vietnam War Is Finally Ending

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George Black writes in the New Republic:

It was a late afternoon in mid-November, with the nip of early winter in the air, when I visited the Russell Senate Office Building to meet with Vermont Senator Pat Leahy in his spacious yet surprisingly intimate office, with a sofa and chairs arranged near the fireplace. An aide squatted down beside us to add another log to the fire. Leahy’s wife of 60 years, Marcelle, joined us, carrying a large bouquet of flowers. The couple still convey a strong sense of the people they were in the early years of their marriage—he a small-town lawyer, she a nurse at a local hospital. Leahy showed off photos of their three children and five grandchildren. “I’m not someone who wants to hang the walls with photos of 50 great and famous people I’ve known,” he said. “I’d much rather be surrounded by pictures of family.”

Leahy, who entered the Senate in 1975 and leaves it after 48 years in January 2023, is the body’s longest-serving sitting member. To most Americans, he is probably best known for his decades on the Senate Judiciary Committee and his opposition to the drive by conservative activists to transform the federal courts into an instrument of their ideological agenda. But I’d come to talk to him about something different, something that rarely if ever makes the cable news circuit: the war in Vietnam, the wounds it had left, and the part he had played in healing them. He’s never seen this as a partisan issue, just a matter of simple human decency, being one of those, like Joe Biden, who mourn a lost era of comity in the Senate, in which political adversaries could still reach with respect across the gulf of their disagreements. His work in Vietnam has always been underpinned by that vision, and I wanted to ask him whether, in our current divided state, he could imagine it continuing after his retirement from the Senate at the age of 82.

Vision alone doesn’t get you far in Washington. It has to be turned into legislation, and legislation into dollars and cents. In addition to his role on the Judiciary Committee, Leahy also chairs the Appropriations Committee, which is where the purse strings are untied, and, as he wrote in his recently published memoir, The Road Taken, “few people really ever sifted through the line items to understand what we were doing was actually making American foreign policy.” It’s also why you can’t talk about his work in Vietnam without also talking about his senior aide, Tim Rieser, who has been with him since 1985, and who will retire from his current role in January. Despite his bland-sounding job title—Democratic clerk for the Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations—Rieser has been the master of its arcane mechanics. “A dog with a bone,” Leahy calls him. Given a problem to solve, “He would not stop until every last drop of marrow and morsel of sinew had been licked clean.”

Since 1989, as the United States and Vietnam were taking their first baby steps toward reconciliation, Leahy and Rieser have channeled hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Vietnam, forcing the United States to take responsibility for what former Senate leader Mike Mansfield once called the “great outflow of devastation” from the war: the bodies broken by unexploded bombs; the lives blighted by exposure to Agent Orange; the ongoing threat from “hot spots” contaminated by dioxin, its toxic by-product; and now, at last, some long-overdue aid to help Vietnam recover and identify the remains of its war dead. In the process, they have built the scaffolding of a new relationship, in which bitter enemies, in one of the stranger twists of geopolitics, have been transformed into close working partners and military allies.

Leahy and Rieser have faced no small number of obstacles along the way. For many years, embittered American veterans and recalcitrant anti-Communists in Congress opposed any hint of reconciliation with Vietnam. Progress was often slowed by suspicions on the Vietnamese side and by cumbersome bureaucracies in both governments, and State Department and Pentagon lawyers remain wary to this day of any humanitarian effort that implies an admission of liability. But as Rieser often says, when you run into an obstacle, you redefine it as a problem to be solved, and that process starts with all parties identifying their common interest in finding a solution. There are always common interests; you just have to look for them.


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On January 27, Vietnam will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords, which led, two months later, to the withdrawal of the last American combat troops. Yet the fighting was not over. The Saigon army fought on, entirely dependent on new infusions of military aid from the United States, and this in turn depended on the approval of the Senate.

Of all the “Watergate babies” elected in the 1974 midterms, Leahy, a 34-year-old state’s attorney for Chittenden County, Vermont, was one of the unlikeliest. Vermont, odd as it may seem given the state’s leftish politics today, had never elected a Democrat to the Senate, and its political establishment and leading newspapers were unswerving supporters of the war. Yet Leahy eked out an improbable victory. (Trailing in third place was an equally young civil rights activist, Bernie Sanders, running under the banner of the Liberty Union Party.)

Leahy had always opposed the war. In May 1970, he . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

19 December 2022 at 2:51 pm

No-power Christmas cooking in Ukraine

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I enjoy Webspoon World, and somehow I always thought that it took place in Germany — but no: it’s in Ukraine. So in this most recent episode, they have to deal with power outages:

And they’re good:

Written by Leisureguy

18 December 2022 at 5:00 pm

Russia now openly praising Elon Musk for blocking Ukraine from using Twitter

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Russian propaganda accounts are now openly praising Elon Musk for blocking Ukrainians from Twitter. (Click the link to see the image.)

Written by Leisureguy

15 December 2022 at 1:58 pm

The origins of the US Thanksgiving holiday

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Heather Cox Richardson has a nice explainer on the origins of US Thanksgiving. She writes:

The past week has brought seven mass shootings in the United States. Twenty-two people have been killed and 44 wounded. I’ll have more to say later about our epidemic of gun violence, but tonight, on the night before Thanksgiving, when I traditionally post the story of the holiday’s history, I simply want to acknowledge the terrible sorrow behind tomorrow’s newly empty chairs.

Thanksgiving itself came from a time of violence: the Civil War.

The Pilgrims and the Wampanoags did indeed share a harvest celebration together at Plymouth in fall 1621, but that moment got forgotten almost immediately, overwritten by the long history of the settlers’ attacks on their Indigenous neighbors.

In 1841 a book that reprinted the early diaries and letters from the Plymouth colony recovered the story of that three-day celebration in which ninety Indigenous Americans and the English settlers shared fowl and deer. This story of peace and goodwill among men who by the 1840s were more often enemies than not inspired Sarah Josepha Hale, who edited the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, to think that a national celebration could ease similar tensions building between the slaveholding South and the free North. She lobbied for legislation to establish a day of national thanksgiving.

And then, on April 12, 1861, southern soldiers fired on Fort Sumter, a federal fort in Charleston Harbor, and the meaning of a holiday for giving thanks changed.

Southern leaders wanted to destroy the United States of America and create their own country, based not in the traditional American idea that “all men are created equal,” but rather in its opposite: that some men were better than others and had the right to enslave their neighbors. In the 1850s, convinced that society worked best if a few wealthy men ran it, southern leaders had bent the laws of the United States to their benefit, using it to protect enslavement above all.

In 1860, northerners elected Abraham Lincoln to the presidency to stop rich southern enslavers from taking over the government and using it to cement their own wealth and power. As soon as he was elected, southern leaders pulled their states out of the Union to set up their own country. After the firing on Fort Sumter, Lincoln and the fledgling Republican Party set out to end the slaveholders’ rebellion.

The early years of the war did not go well for the U.S. By the end of 1862, the armies still held, but people on the home front were losing faith. Leaders recognized the need both to acknowledge the suffering and to keep Americans loyal to the cause. In November and December, seventeen state governors declared state thanksgiving holidays.

New York governor Edwin Morgan’s widely reprinted proclamation about the holiday reflected that the previous year “is numbered among the dark periods of history, and its sorrowful records are graven on many hearthstones.” But this was nonetheless a time for giving thanks, he wrote, because  . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2022 at 9:29 am

‘Golden billion,’ Putin’s favorite conspiracy, explains his worldview and strategy

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Charles Maynes reports at NPR:

As the war in Ukraine approaches the nine-month mark, Western governments have repeatedly accused Russia of imperialist expansionism, nuclear blackmail, weaponizing food, energy and winter — and a host of other hostilities that put the welfare of millions at risk.

Yet there’s an increasingly common counternarrative in Moscow that argues it is the West instead that intends to subject the masses to misery.

Welcome to the “golden billion.”

An idea that first emerged in the twilight years of the Soviet Union, the golden billion is a conspiracy theory that posits a cabal of 1 billion global elites seeks to hoard the world’s wealth and resources, leaving the rest of the planet to suffer and starve.

For years a fringe theory in Russia, the idea has been increasingly espoused by President Vladimir Putin and other top Kremlin officials as an attack line against the West amid a breakdown in relations over the conflict in Ukraine.

“The model of total domination of the so-called golden billion is unfair. Why should this golden billion of the globe dominate over everyone and impose its own rules of behavior?” Putin asked in a speech last July.

Putin went on to describe the alleged plot as “racist and neocolonial in its essence” — a way for the West to divide the world into superior and “second-rate” nations.

The Kremlin dusts off an old plot

Theories — and conspiracies — about economic inequality and the cut-throat competition for global wealth and resources are nothing new.

But analysts say the Kremlin has increasingly exploited the golden billion theory to deflect the notion of Russia as isolated and alone amid what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Instead of Russia facing international condemnation over its actions in Ukraine, the theory attempts to place Moscow at the center of . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

21 November 2022 at 5:05 pm

Three guilty as court finds Russia-controlled group downed civilian airliner MH17 in 2014, killing 298 people

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Russia seems to really like to attack civilian targets. Anna Holligan and Kate Vandy report for BBC News:

A Dutch court has found three men guilty of murder for shooting down a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in 2014, killing 298 people.

The court found that a Russian-made missile supplied from Russia and fired by an armed group under Russian control brought down flight MH17.

The men – two Russians and one Ukrainian – were found guilty in absentia and sentenced to life in jail. A third Russian was acquitted.

The missile attack was one of the most notorious war crimes in Ukraine before allegations of atrocities there became an almost daily reality.

Many of the victims’ relatives believe if the world had reacted differently, and taken a tougher stance against Russia eight years ago, the invasion of Ukraine and the geopolitical instability that has followed could have been avoided.

The judges ruled that it was a deliberate action to bring down a plane, even though the three found guilty had intended to shoot down a military not a civilian aircraft.

  • Igor Girkin, the military leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, was convicted of deploying the missile and seeking Russian help
  • Sergei Dubinsky was found to have ordered and overseen the transport of the Buk missile launcher
  • Leonid Kharchenko was found to have overseen the Buk, acting on Dubinsky’s instructions.

Oleg Pulatov was the only one of the four accused to have legal representation at the trial. The judges acquitted him, although they found he knew about the missile.

On 17 July 2014, 298 people, including 80 children and 15 crew, boarded Malaysia Airlines flight 17 to Kuala Lumpur at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.

The plane was cruising at 33,000 feet over Ukraine. It was the early days of Russia’s efforts to control parts of the country.

At the time this was a relatively low-level conflict zone, but f

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Written by Leisureguy

17 November 2022 at 11:05 am

Mural in Kyiv

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From an article in the Guardian.

Written by Leisureguy

12 November 2022 at 4:54 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Ukraine, War

Pathos and Panic: Russians Are Mobilized for an Undeclared War

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A person in Russia who understandably does not want their name used has written a very interesting article in Mother Jones. One point of interest: the trade-off in supportive and effective personal relationships is that no political discussions may occur. The article begins:

Editor’s note: This essay is anonymous in order to protect the writer from potential reprisals.

Russia is not at war, despite what you may have heard. Despite the mobilization of reservists, the stories and images of destruction and death, despite the refugees fleeing. Russia is not at war, as Dmitry Peskov, press secretary of the Kremlin stressed in a recent interview. Instead, it is conducting a special military operation “to fulfill certain goals in Ukraine.” Reservists have had to be mobilized for this special military operation, half a year since it began, because “we have been de facto confronted…with the NATO block and all its logistics capabilities.”

Referring to the Special Military Operation as war is still illegal in Russia, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. It also happens to be illegal to cross into the territory of a neighboring sovereign nation, armed, without a declaration of war. But while people do call the special military operation a war in casual conversations, they rarely question this operation’s legality: not even as men receive their mobilization notices, board buses, and head to the front.

But perhaps those who were mobilized will never cross international borders. By the time they reach the occupied territories, those territories will no longer be foreign—at least in the eyes of Russian law. For there is not only a mobilization drive at hand but also a referendum. People in the occupied territories have been asked to vote on whether to join Russia. Armed soldiers have gone door-to-door with ballot boxes. And on September 30, 2022, Putin welcomed the annexation of four Ukrainian regions as the “will of millions of people.”

Voting makes annexation look democratic.

Meanwhile, in Russia, mobilization has hit closer to home. And it comes with little ideological backing. In St. Petersburg, local newspaper headlines focus on pressing everyday questions: Who will be mobilized? Will the Finnish border close? What will the city budget look like in 2023? Or else they touch on polite distractions: news of the occasional train accident, or tips about how to lose weight. None of it would excite someone to go kill and die on the front lines.

The military draft is a two-step process. First, . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

6 October 2022 at 6:24 pm

She’s a Doctor. He Was a Limo Driver. They Pitched a $30 Million Arms Deal.

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The world has become very strange. Justin Scheck reports in the NY Times (no paywall):

EUREKA, Mo. — After falling out with his partner at a limousine company in the St. Louis suburbs, Martin Zlatev recently sought a lucrative new business opportunity: selling $30 million worth of rockets, grenade launchers and ammunition to the Ukrainian military.

Mr. Zlatev and his new business partner, a local osteopath, took their first crack at international arms dealing. Contract documents and other records obtained by The New York Times show that the deal relied on layers of middlemen and transit across seven countries. And it exists in a legal gray area, designed to skirt the arms-export rules of other countries.

“Time is of the essence,” the pair recently wrote to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense. They outlined a plan to sell American, Bulgarian and Bosnian arms to Ukraine.

Since the Russian invasion in February, the Biden administration has quietly fast-tracked hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of private arms sales to Ukraine, slashing a weekslong approval process to a matter of hours. In just the first four months of the year — the latest data available — the State Department authorized more than $300 million in private deals to Ukraine, government documents show. The department authorized less than $15 million worth of such sales to Ukraine during all of the 2021 fiscal year.

That has helped open another stream of weapons to the Ukrainian battlefront, but it has also enticed new players like Mr. Zlatev and his partner, Heather Gjorgjievski, into a shadowy market. Weapons sold through private brokers are far more likely to end up on the black market and resurface in the hands of American adversaries, according to government advisers and academics who study the trade. Recent experience in Afghanistan and Syria shows that, without strict tracing policies, weapons can end up with terrorist groups or hostile military forces.

These private arms sales are a pittance compared to the more than $17.5 billion worth of machine guns, anti-tank missiles and other security aid the White House has sent to Ukraine. But those deals have stringent tracking requirements to help ensure the weapons go to their intended recipients. Private sales come with less oversight. The sellers, the buyers and the weapons are all kept out of the public eye.

“It’s the Wild West,” said Olga Torres, a lawyer who represents arms exporters and serves on the federal Defense Trade Advisory Group. “We are seeing a lot of people who were previously not involved in arms sales getting involved now because they see the opportunity.”

In recent months, Ms. Torres said, she has consulted with a Texas nonprofit that tried to send weapons to Ukraine without realizing it needed U.S. permission, and a broker who wanted to sell Indian weapons to Ukraine but illegally claim they were American. (She said she did not ultimately represent the broker.)

Just as it has cut the approval time for deals to under a day, the State Department has also accelerated the registration process for new arms dealers. . .

Continue reading. (no paywall)

Written by Leisureguy

6 October 2022 at 4:10 pm

What Russian trolls can tell us about the US

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Anand Giridharadas writes in the Atlantic (no paywall):

n june 2014, Aleksandra Krylova and Anna Bogacheva arrived in the United States on a clandestine mission. Krylova was a high-ranking official at the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia, an ostensibly private company that was connected with Russian intelligence. Bogacheva, her road buddy, a researcher and data cruncher, was more junior. Their trip had been well plotted: a transcontinental itinerary, SIM cards, burner phones, cameras, visas obtained under the pretense of personal travel, and, just in case, evacuation plans.

The women made stops in California, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, and Texas, according to a federal indictment issued years later. Beyond that, their activities are not well known. Their mission, however, is now public knowledge: to gather evidence of conditions in the United States for a project to destabilize its political system and society, using the rather improbable weapon of millions of social-media posts.

In their long conflict with the United States, officials in Russia have many tools of sabotage available to them. But the major investment in the social-media project seemed to reflect a calculation that, of all the vulnerabilities of modern American society, its internal fracturing—countryside against city, niece against uncle, Black against white—was a particular weakness.

Russia’s Internet Research Agency, or IRA, had been founded in 2013 as an industrial troll farm, where workers were paid to write blog posts, comments on news sites, and social-media messages. Late that summer, a job posting appeared online. “Internet operators wanted!” it read, according to the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. “Task: posting comments at profile sites on the Internet, writing thematic posts, blogs, social networks.” Plus: “PAYMENTS EVERY WEEK AND FREE MEALS!!!”

Hundreds of workers toiled in 12-hour shifts at the IRA offices on 55 Savushkina Street. Each had to manage multiple fake accounts and produce message after message—reportedly three posts a day per account if Facebook was their medium, or 50 on Twitter. Managers issued detailed instructions about content and obsessed over page views, likes, and retweets.

In the years ahead, the agency would write more than 6 million tweets, and its posts would attract 76 million engagements on Facebook and 183 million on Instagram. Some posts were outright disinformation; others sought to whip up anger at the truth. But their common aim was to amplify the worst cultural tendencies of an age of division: writing other people off, assuming they would never change their mind, and viewing those who thought differently as needing to be resisted rather than won over.

When the IRA’s project became public knowledge, a simplistic, if seductive, story line grew up around it. “Yes, Russian Trolls Helped Elect Trump: Social media lies have real-world consequences,” read the headline of a Michelle Goldberg column in The New York Times. Aiding Donald Trump was indeed among the IRA’s objectives, but it wasn’t the mission’s focus. “The story of Russian interference was a really damaging crutch for the imagination,” the Russian American writer Masha Gessen told me not long ago. “It was something that allowed us to think about Trump as somebody from outer space—or at least from Russia—as a kind of alien body, but also an alien body from which we’re somehow miraculously going to be liberated.”

In time, a more sobering analysis emerged. The Russian mission, far from dropping something on America from outer space, had been to fertilize behaviors already flourishing on American soil. “The IRA’s goals are to further widen existing divisions in the American public and decrease our faith and trust in institutions that help maintain a strong democracy,” Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, scholars at Clemson University who became prominent analysts of Russia’s campaign, have written. “The IRA has used Trump—and many other politicians—as vehicles to further these twin goals, but it is not about Trump himself.” A report by the research firm New Knowledge provided to Senate investigators described similar goals: “to undermine citizens’ trust in government, exploit societal fractures, create distrust in the information environment, blur the lines between reality and fiction, undermine trust among communities, and erode confidence in the democratic process.”

When I began to read the posts myself, I saw even more clearly how the Russians had gone about this work. They had done more than fan the flames of division. They had encouraged the view that the basic activity of democratic life—the changing of minds—had become futile. The troll farm wanted Americans to regard people with different views as immovable, brainwashed, disloyal, repulsive. “The IRA knows that in political warfare disgust is a much more powerful tool than anger,” Linvill and Warren wrote. “Anger drives people to the polls; disgust drives countries apart.”

Americans didn’t need outside help to see one another in these ways. The culture of the write-off, of mutual contempt and dismissal, could be found everywhere you looked. If anything, this attitude was a rare point of commonality across left and right. The ease with which the Russian government exploited these tendencies is frightening, but it also, perhaps, points to a way out: If Americans are so easily manipulated in the direction of enmity and sniping and rage, might they also be more open to persuasion than we tend to assume? If Russian trolls could pull us apart, can we bring ourselves back together? [I am reminded about the nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty. – LG]

rystal johnson is an actual person, a real-estate agent in Georgia. I spoke with her once on the phone. When I explained that I was looking into how her identity had been stolen and weaponized by Russian intelligence, she hung up and stopped answering my calls.

Johnson tweeted occasionally under the handle @CrystalSellsLA. Her profile photo shows a Black woman in her 30s or 40s with short blond hair. She’s smiling widely, dressed crisply in a black blazer and a white shirt. She looks like someone you would trust to find you a home. She posted a combination of real-estate insights and inspirational quotations. “Resale homes sales R up,” she wrote back in 2012. “As we learned from the recent bubble that burst, a healthy housing market puts many pairs of hands to work.” On another occasion: “Good morning! There is so much we have to be thankful for.” Even Heracleitus made a cameo: “The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think and what you do is who you become.”

In February of that year, a Twitter account with the handle @Crystal1Johnson began to tweet—and it tweeted precisely what @CrystalSellsLA was tweeting. On the first day of 2013, the real Crystal Johnson wished the world Happy New Year—as did her clone. That would be nearly the end of its mimicry, though. The account went silent for two years. And then suddenly it became one of the most influential accounts operated by the IRA’s troll farm.

The second week of December 2015 was tense. Trump, still a relatively new presidential candidate, had proposed “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” Political observers started saying that

Continue reading. (no paywall) 

Written by Leisureguy

6 October 2022 at 3:38 pm

Good Twitter account for news of the war in Ukraine

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Chuck Pfarrer’s Twitter account has up-to-date news and interesting opinions on the way in Ukraine. Sample:

Written by Leisureguy

5 October 2022 at 12:29 pm

Russia is not doing well at all

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As the video points out, it would be foolish to trust Putin’s statements (and statements from the government he controls) regarding how well the Russian economy is doing under the sanctions. Interesting video, worth watching. The official picture is a Potemkin-village view of the Russian economy and GDP. 

Written by Leisureguy

28 August 2022 at 1:02 pm

Why the US Army is worried about TikTok

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Watch this.

Written by Leisureguy

27 August 2022 at 10:51 am

“Slavery and war are tightly connected – but we had no idea just how much until we crunched the data.”

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Monti Datta, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Richmond; Angharad Smith, Modern Slavery Programme Officer, United Nations University; and Kevin Bales, Prof. of Contemporary Slavery, Research Director – The Rights Lab, University of Nottingham write in The Conversation:

Some 40 million people are enslaved around the world today, though estimates vary. Modern slavery takes many different forms, including child soldiers, sex trafficking and forced labor, and no country is immune. From cases of family controlled sex trafficking in the United States to the enslavement of fishermen in Southeast Asia’s seafood industry and forced labor in the global electronics supply chain, enslavement knows no bounds.

As scholars of modern slavery, we seek to understand how and why human beings are still bought, owned and sold in the 21st century, in hopes of shaping policies to eradicate these crimes.

Many of the answers trace back to causes like poverty, corruption and inequality. But they also stem from something less discussed: war.

In 2016, the United Nations Security Council named modern slavery a serious concern in areas affected by armed conflict. But researchers still know little about the specifics of how slavery and war are intertwined.

We recently published research analyzing data on armed conflicts around the world to better understand this relationship.

What we found was staggering: The vast majority of armed conflict between 1989 and 2016 used some kind of slavery.

Later in the article:

Alarming numbers

In our recently published analysis, we found that contemporary slavery is a regular feature of armed conflict. Among the 1,113 cases we analyzed, 87% contained child soldiers – meaning fighters age 15 and younger – 34% included sexual exploitation and forced marriage, about 24% included forced labor and almost 17% included human trafficking.

Read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

23 August 2022 at 12:51 pm

Good brief survey of the state of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

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Written by Leisureguy

23 August 2022 at 10:54 am

Russia’s spies misread Ukraine and misled Kremlin as war loomed

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Greg Miller and Catherine Belton have a very interesting report (gift link, no paywall) in the Washinton Post. It begins:

KYIV, Ukraine — In the final days before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s security service began sending cryptic instructions to informants in Kyiv. Pack up and get out of the capital, the Kremlin collaborators were told, but leave behind the keys to your homes.

The directions came from senior officers in a unit of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) with a prosaic name — the Department of Operational Information — but an ominous assignment: ensure the decapitation of the Ukrainian government and oversee the installation of a pro-Russian regime.

The messages were a measure of the confidence in that audacious plan. So certain were FSB operatives that they would soon control the levers of power in Kyiv, according to Ukrainian and Western security officials, that they spent the waning days before the war arranging safe houses or accommodations in informants’ apartments and other locations for the planned influx of personnel.

“Have a successful trip!” one FSB officer told another who was being sent to oversee the expected occupation, according to intercepted communications. There is no indication that the recipient ever made it to the capital, as the FSB’s plans collapsed amid the retreat of Russian forces in the early months of the war.

The communications exposing these preparations are part of a larger trove of sensitive materials obtained by Ukrainian and other security services and reviewed by The Washington Post. They offer rare insight into the activities of the FSB — a sprawling service that bears enormous responsibility for the failed Russian war plan and the hubris that propelled it.

An agency whose domain includes internal security in Russia as well as espionage in the former Soviet states, the FSB has spent decades spying on Ukraine, attempting to co-opt its institutions, paying off officials and working to impede any perceived drift toward the West. No aspect of the FSB’s intelligence mission outside Russia was more important than burrowing into all levels of Ukrainian society.

And yet, the agency failed to incapacitate Ukraine’s government, foment any semblance of a pro-Russian groundswell or interrupt President Volodymyr Zelensky’s hold on power. Its analysts either did not fathom how forcefully Ukraine would respond, Ukrainian and Western officials said, or did understand but couldn’t or wouldn’t convey such sober assessments to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The humiliations of Russia’s military have largely overshadowed the failures of the FSB and other intelligence agencies. But in some ways, these have been even more incomprehensible and consequential, officials said, underpinning nearly every Kremlin war decision.

“The Russians were wrong by a mile,” said a senior U.S. official with regular access to classified intelligence on Russia and its security services. “They set up an entire war effort to seize strategic objectives that were beyond their means,” the official said. “Russia’s mistake was really fundamental and strategic.”

Ukraine’s security services have . . .

Continue reading. (gift link, no paywall)

Later in the article:

The FSB did not respond to requests for comment.

🙂

Written by Leisureguy

19 August 2022 at 2:43 pm

Behind Enemy Lines, Ukrainians Tell Russians ‘You Are Never Safe’

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Andrew E. Kramer has an interesting report (gift link, no paywall) in the NY Times. The report begins:

They sneak down darkened alleys to set explosives. They identify Russian targets for Ukrainian artillery and long-range rockets provided by the United States. They blow up rail lines and assassinate officials they consider collaborators with the Russians.

Slipping back and forth across the front lines, the guerrilla fighters are known in Ukraine as partisans, and in recent weeks they have taken an ever more prominent role in the war, rattling Russian forces by helping deliver humiliating blows in occupied areas they thought were safe.

Increasingly, Ukraine is taking the fight against Russian forces into Russian-controlled areas, whether with elite military units, like the one credited on Tuesday with a huge explosion at a Russian ammunition depot in the occupied Crimean Peninsula, or an underground network of the guerrillas.

Last week, Ukrainian officials said, the partisans had a hand in a successful strike on a Russian air base, also in Crimea, which Moscow annexed eight years ago. It destroyed eight fighter jets.

“The goal is to show the occupiers that they are not at home, that they should not settle in, that they should not sleep comfortably,” said one guerrilla fighter, who spoke on condition that, for security reasons, he only be identified by his code name, Svarog, after a pagan Slavic god of fire.

In recent days the Ukrainian military made Svarog and several other of the operatives available for interviews in person or online, hoping to highlight the partisans’ widening threat to Russian forces and signal to Western donors that Ukraine is successfully rallying local resources in the war, now nearly six months old. A senior Ukrainian military official familiar with the program also described the workings of the resistance.

Their accounts of attacks could not be verified completely but aligned with reports in the Ukrainian media and with descriptions from Ukrainians who had recently fled Russian-occupied areas.

Svarog and I met over lemonade and cheese pastries at a Georgian restaurant in Zaporizhzhia, a city under Ukrainian control about 65 miles north of the occupied town of Melitopol.

He spoke with intimate knowledge of partisan activities, providing a rare glimpse into one of the most hidden aspects of the war.

The Ukrainian military began training partisans in the months before the invasion, as Russia massed troops near the borders. The effort has paid off in recent weeks as . . .

Continue reading. (gift link, no paywall)

Written by Leisureguy

17 August 2022 at 2:19 pm

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