Trump-Putin breach: real or charade?

This week's unnerving incident in which US jets intercepted two Russian bombers off the coast of Alaska leaves us wondering how to read events. Russia sent the two "nuclear-capable" bombers to within 100 miles of Kodiak Island April 17, prompting the US to scramble two F-22 stealth fighter jets from Elmendorf Air Force Base. The US and Russian craft were side-by-side for a full 12 minutes, until they crossed out of the US Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). (The Telegraph, April 18) This came as ExxonMobil was seeking a waiver from US sanctions against Russia to move ahead with its Black Sea venture with Rosneft. The decision rested with the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), while Secretary of State (and ex-Exxon CEO) Rex Tillerson is officially recusing himself from any matters involving the company for two years. Still, it is counterintuitive (at least) that OFAC turned down the waiver April 21. (NYT, April 21; Fox Business, April 19)

Then there was Trump's absurd claim to the Wall Street Journal April 12 that "Korea actually used to be a part of China." This is apparently a talking point he picked up from Chinese leader Xi Jinping during their meeting in Florida days earlier. "He then went into the history of China and Korea," Trump related. "Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you're talking about thousands of years…and many wars. And Korea actually used to be a part of China. And after listening for 10 minutes, I realized that it's not so easy."

An official with the foreign ministry in Seoul of course responded by saying Trump's comment was "historically untrue" and "not worthy of a response." Public Radio International tries to mince the matter by pointing out that at various times Korean kingdoms were tributary states of the Chinese empire. But that's not the same thing as "part of China." PRI may wish to get up to speed on the difference between sovereignty and suzerainty

In an editorial, China's Global Times got its licks in at Seoul for daring to take offense at this historical revisionism, writing that Trump's comment has "launched a new wave of nationalism" from South Korea. The op-ed notes that there is no record of Xi's supposed history lesson and said Seoul should ask Washington for an explanation, not Beijing. It then goes on to hedge: "The Korean Peninsula had been intertwined politically, culturally and economically with China in different parts of history. Historians from both sides hold different opinions toward the nature of such a relationship." (Shanghaist, April 21)

In any case, these "historical" questions are intensely politicized in a region of growing tensions, and we are left wondering if Trump committed a clueless flub or was sending a coded message. We were similarly left wondering after Trump famously took a phone call from Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen after his election. Is he really that dumb, or is there some method to the madness? Operating on the latter thesis, the politics seem to have done a complete 180 between the two incidents: from intentionally humiliating China (presumably in anticipation of cozying up to Russia) to cozying up to China (possibly in response to an actual breach with Russia). We note that Trump's April 4 missile strikes on an air-base of Russia's Syrian client state came precisely as he was meeting with President Xi.

So we are left wondering: Is Trump's breach with Putin real, or is all this part of an elaborate charade to throw Congress off the scent of ongoing Trump-Putin collusion? We frankly aren't sure which hypothesis is worse. While the prior of course threatens global catastrophe, the former means continued consolidation of the Trump-Putin fascist world order. In any case, even if it is all a charade, global catastrophe is not to be ruled out. Events have a habit of taking on a life of their own. See 1914.

  1. North Korea blasts China: another sign of Trump-Xi convergence?

    A North Korean media statement blasting China may be further indication of a Trump-Xi convergence, leaving Pyongyang feeling betrayed. "A neighboring country has recently been unable to say a single word about the US sending an unprecedented amount of strategic assets to waters near the Korean Peninsula and pushing the circumstances to the brink of war, and it has been openly threatening to do something to us," the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in an April 21 column titled “Is it really that great to dance to another's tune?" While the column used the expression "neighboring country," the context makes clear that this was aimed at China. The "other" obviously refers to the US. (Hankyoreh)

    And China's Global Times immediately responds with an editorial noting that Beijing's proposed a "double suspension" (of North Korea's nuclear and missile activities and of US-South Korea joint military exercises), has gone nowhere, as "neither of the parties has been listening."

    Sounds like, at a minimum, Beijing has run out of patience with Pyongyang.

  2. Trump dumps Comey….

    The NY Times reports that Trump as just sacked James Comey as chief of the FBI, ostensibly over "over how he disclosed the investigation into Mrs. Clinton." We read this as another sign that Trump's falling-out with Putin is real and not just a charade to throw Congress off the scent… First Flynn, then bombing Assad's airfield, now this…. Pretty elaborate for a charade… Comey was in on the Trump-Putin conspiracy from early on. The more covnentional reading, that Trump is trying to torpedo the investigation of his Putin links, doesn't really contradict that.

  3. Lavrov, Kissinger do White House

    Just one day after sacking Comey, Trump hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the White House—a pretty blatant move. Maybe they're trying to patch things up after all. And also passing through that day was none other than old Henry Kissinger, perhaps in his longtime role as deal-broker… (NPR, CNN, TPM)

  4. Lavrov spills the beans?

    With unbelievable chutzpah, Sergei Lavrov actually told a reporter in Washington: "It is humiliating for the American people to realize that the Russian federation is controlling the situation in America." But he followed up by saying: "I believe that politicians are damaging the political system of the US, trying to pretend that someone is controlling America from the outside." (Axios, May 10)

    So which comment was sarcastc and which one are we supposed to believe?

  5. Exxon sues feds over fine for Russia deal

    Exxon is suing the US government, blasting as "unlawful" and "capricious" a $2 million fine levied against the company by OFAC for its joint venture with Russia's Rosneft. (Reuters) What chutzpah. Note that the fine is chump change for Exxon—what the company makes in a matter of hours. But also note that this is OFAC acting presuambly not on White House orders. In other words, the federal bureuacracy doing its job…. In other words, the "deep state" that we're all supposed to hate. Hooray for the Deep State, I say!