Moving Into The New Year With Molotov and Ribbentrop


In 1939, the Soviet Union formally allied with Nazi Germany and agreed on how to split up the countries located between them. Immediately after, Germany invaded Poland. It is generally thought to be the beginning of World War II. Russia did not acknowledge the existence of the secret protocol on dividing Europe until 1989.

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Cartoon by David Low in the Evening Standard depicting Hitler greeting Stalin after the invasion of Poland, 

But that is not what Vladimir Putin wants you to believe. No, it was dastardly France, United Kingdom, the United States, and others who joined up with Hitler first at Munich, leaving the poor Soviet Union with no choice! Putin has mentioned this in several speeches, and in the last several weeks, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has joined in.

And they’re dissing diplomats who disagree with them.

The nations Russia has accused of starting World War II are pushing back.

Even Germany…

And, of course, a lot more from amateur and professional historians on Twitter. If you ever wanted to learn more about the beginnings of World War II, this is your big chance.

It’s hard to know what is motivating this propaganda storm from Russia. Here’s a person I trust.

That’s a little unclear, but I think the second sentence is intended to say that when Russia wants to use WW2 to gain friends, it usually talks about its sacrifices rather than the war’s origins.

There is speculation, as you see in the Dalsjö tweet, that it’s in preparation for some sort of military action from Russia. I tend to doubt that – Russia doesn’t need that kind of trouble right now. OTOH, Putin has been feeling cocky about his new weapons designed to deter the United States.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

Long Read: The 84-Day Hold On Aid To Ukraine

This is an important article. The broad story it tells isn’t new: Donald Trump held back Congressionally appropriated funds for Ukraine, in contravention of law and recommdations by the Departments of Defense and State. What is new is the detail of how that was done, an attempted legal justification, and who was eager to help him.

News reports about the administration now usually give information about the sources the reports are based on. In this case, it was

Interviews with dozens of current and former administration officials, congressional aides and others, previously undisclosed emails and documents, and a close reading of thousands of pages of impeachment testimony[.]

Here’s a short summary. Lots more details in the article. Basically, Trump decided to withhold the money; White House lawyers tried to construct a justification; civil servants and even some of Trump’s appointees tried to talk him out of it; his messenger boys went to the departments to work it out; and, when the whistle was blown, Trump gave it up. All this time, Rudy Giuliani was meeting with Ukrainian officials and others; this was not known to all participants at the time.

Robert Blair, Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor to Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, was a key player along with Mulvaney. Mulvaney brought him along when he moved to the White House. On December 23, he was named Special Representative for International Telecommunications Policy, although he will also continue to serve in his previous role.

On June 19, Blair called Russell T. Vought, the acting head of the Office of Management and Budget, and told him to hold up the aid. Trying to understand the reason for the holdup, Vought’s staff searched the internet and found an article in the Washington Examiner that might have set off the President. In a normal White House, a decision like this would have been made in consultation with experts from the Departments of State, Defense, and Treasury. In fact, State and Defense had already certified sending the funds to Ukraine as appropriate.

The career official in the budget office in charge of the funds was Mark Sandy. He phoned other officials in the budget office and Defense Department to try to understand what was happening. It was not a normal request. He was concerned that it might violate the Impoundment Control Act, which prohibits the President from holding up money Congress has appropriated.

A month later, on July 18, William Taylor, acting Ambassador to Ukraine, and other officials learned about the hold in a meeting. Taylor testified to Congress that he was astonished. On the same day, administration sources called four Congressional staffers and urged that they look into the hold.

A week later, Trump famously telephoned Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelinsky and asked for a favor. Ninety minutes after the call, the budget office sent an email to the Pentagon saying not to spend the money. Ukrainian officials were beginning to get word that something was up.

In late July, Sandy’s authority over the funds was removed and given to his boss, a political appointee. Defense Department officials were becoming impatient. Deadlines were approaching by which portions of the money had to be spent, or it would be lost.

Backed by a memo saying the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the State Department all wanted the aid released, Mr. Bolton made a personal appeal to Mr. Trump on Aug. 16, but was rebuffed.

On Aug. 28, Politico published a story reporting that the assistance to Ukraine had been frozen. After more than two months, the issue, the topic of fiery internal debate, was finally public.

Mr. Bolton’s relationship with the president had been deteriorating for months, and he would leave the White House weeks later, but on this front he had powerful internal allies.

On a sunny, late-August day, Mr. Bolton, Mr. Esper and Mr. Pompeo arrayed themselves around the Resolute desk in the Oval Office to present a united front, the leaders of the president’s national security team seeking to convince him face to face that freeing up the money for Ukraine was the right thing to do.

Through this time, White House lawyers were trying to develop a legal justification for the hold. Then came the whistleblower’s report, at the end of August. Shortly after, the hold was lifted.

Many questions remain unanswered, like who knew about Giuliani’s activities and when they knew; how long the shakedown was in progress before the hold; and how Trump came to his ideas about Ukraine. Once again, it was civil servants who tried to hold firm against inappropriate actions.

In addition to Trump’s corrupt use of government funds to force Zelensky into helping his election campaign, holding up those funds and causing uncertainty in the Ukrainian government benefits Russia.

The specifics in this article will be helpful in making a case that Mulvaney and other officials must be called as witnesses in the Senate impeachment trial.

Cross-Posted to Balloon Juice

Amateurs Take Down Disinformation Network

On Twitter, one of the people I follow and interact with is Steffan Watkins, who follows ships and airplanes. Many sites follow ships and airplanes, and Steffan follows those sites to make sense out of who and what are going where. For example, Steffan knew a government plane was on its way long before we were told that President Trump was in Afghanistan.

He has recently been debunking stories about Russian ships and submarines off the east coast of the United States. This is a perennial story and is sometimes even true! Just as American ships and submarines do, Russian ships travel in many places in international waters. What they don’t do is dock at Mar-a-Lago.

Some of those stories come from real reporters who don’t understand what’s going on and repeat a version of something that is true but trivial. Sometimes their stories are based on dodgy websites that deliver deliberate disinformation, laundered through repetition and rumor.

Steffan doggedly checks out those news stories and sets them straight. That usually means that he debunks them, but occasionally he says yes, that Russian ship is off the coast in international waters on a normal patrol. Not once has he found the more sensational stories to be supported.

That’s what he was doing a couple of weeks ago and found a website that consistently was producing junk news stories and stealing stuff from other sites. They also advertised Trump merchandise.

That intrigued a couple of Israeli hackers, Noam Rotem and Ran Locar, who decided to check the website out. That link has all the detail for the more computer-savvy among us. Here’s their bottom line:

We found a network of dozens of websites operated by an affiliate marketer. Some of the websites pushed pro-Trump/anti-Clinton fake-news meant to use patriotism in order to sell unofficial Trump merch to Trump supporters. The technical aspects of the operation allowed us full visibility into not only the operators, but also the unwitting customers.

Many of the web addresses were registered by the same person, identified as Jackson Lin, through a company called Extreme Wisdom. Another company linked to some of the sites is Alabama company Click Wu LLC. They have been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for advertising on Facebook. The pages have been taken down from Facebook.

Although Rotem and Locar say the motivation is money, it could be that or disinformation or both. It’s part of the stream of junk that flows through social media. It’s particularly  encouraging that a bunch of amateurs exposed it. Now I’d like to see a bigger news operation take it up.

For the rest of us? Be careful what you share or retweet. Know your sources.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

North Korea's Christmas Present

Back in May, I argued that Donald Trump’s tactic toward North Korea would be to pretend he didn’t hear what was happening as long as he could. I call the tactic “LALALALALA I can’t hear you” and tweet that with news that Trump is keeping it going.

It’s a dangerous tactic, and a number of my national security colleagues have been raising concerns about it. Kim Jong Un has set a deadline of the end of the year for…something. He hasn’t said exactly what, but he has been testing missiles, and his officials have been making unfriendly statements. Kim has said that he is not waiting for the end of the year and has a “Christmas present” for Trump.

Trump’s response so far: LALALALALA and a couple of “Rocket man” tweets. He continues to say that his good friend Kim would not violate the “strong deal” they agreed on in Singapore.

The Singapore statement commits neither North Korea nor the United States to any actions. At most, it might be said to be a statement of principles. And it contains the phrase “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” which, to North Korea, means a vague future in which the United States leaves South Korea so that the North feels safe enough to give up its nuclear weapons. Trump and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, use the phrase to mean that North Korea must give up its nuclear weapons before they will even discuss lifting sanctions.

The phrase has historically been used in its North Korean meaning, so they have the better of that argument.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has been threatening the South Korean government. In late November, he demanded that South Korea pay five times what it has been for the presence of American troops in that country. In response, South Korea threatened to end intelligence cooperation with the United States and Japan, but backed away from that threat. Although Trump has focused more on his impeachment since then, his demand for more money from South Korea is consistent with his misunderstandings of how alliances work and their benefits to the United States. If he continues to insist on that payment, he will lessen his leverage for negotiating with North Korea.

North Korea has been testing missiles throughout the year. They recently did an engine test that could be for an ICBM that could reach the United States or for a satellite launch. The test was different in a number of ways from earlier tests, but satellite photos of the site don’t contain enough information to fully diagnose it.

All these threads could dovetail in the next few weeks. The negotiations with North Korea are going nowhere, although Special Envoy Stephen Biegun has optimistically suggested he’s ready to meet. North Korea has said that that time has passed. They are getting ready for what they hope will be an impressive weapons test, more likely missile than nuclear.

A further complication has just appeared. China and Russia have drafted a United Nations Security Council resolution that proposes that the Security Council lift sanctions on North Korean exports of seafood and textiles. It also proposes lifting the ban on North Korean workers abroad and would terminate a 2017 requirement that all North Korean workers be repatriated by next week. If the resolution goes to a vote, it will put the US in a difficult position. If the US vetoes, we are the bad guys. If we allow it through, the result is worse than the offer Trump refused at Hanoi.

Trump and Pompeo have shown no sign of movement from the position that North Korea must disarm itself of its nuclear weapons before they will even talk. What Biegun has said so far does not contradict that.

How long can Trump continue with LALALALALA I can’t hear you? We may find out in the next two weeks.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

Disinformation Is Coming To A Computer Near You

With the 2020 election coming up, we can expect plenty of disinformation in our news feeds. Disinformation originates in many places – Russia and homegrown United States. It filters up into what we would like to think of as reliable news sources. Those sources, because of their desire to believe that “both sides” have equal claim to truth, can be manipulated.

I’ll continue to post about recognizing that disinformation, because it’s up to all of us to make sure that what we’re sharing is truthful.

The New York Times has a big article from Josh Owens, who worked for Infowars and now says he regrets it. Another article, on Britain’s struggle with Russia over the poisoning, on British soil, of two people with a nerve agent by Russians, contains information about how the Russians use disinformation.

The Times article depicts Alex Jones as violent and demanding that his employees generate outrageously fear-producing stories. Nothing that Infowars touches should be considered reliable. Respectable news organizations should trace stories to their origins and reject anything that has been pushed by Infowars unless it has completely independent backing.

One of the stories Infowars pushed was that Fukushima radiation was showing up on the west coast of the United States. The responsible media dealt reasonably well with that, although it took some time. Here’s what the Washington Post reported in 2014. But I also saw (and debunked) a lot of sharing on social media of maps that weren’t of radiation levels and the dramatic video of radiation measurements on a California beach.

Russian and Republican disinformation flood the zone with alternative stories, designed to turn people off by making it too difficult to figure out what’s right so that people give up. “They’re all liars.” or “Nobody can really know.”

After the Skripals were poisoned and the British government began putting out information to its citizens, the Russian government jumped in, attacking the British information for apparent contradictions and offering up multiple explanations of the incident. The point was to make people doubt their own government. The Atlantic article lays this out in full detail for the Skripal incident.

What can you do?

First, stop thinking “They’re all liars.” or “Nobody can really know.” I know it’s cool to be cynical, but in doing that, you’re giving up your ability to think critically and make good choices and probably helping to muddy the waters for others.

Second, know who supplied the material you’re sharing on social media. Most of us don’t have time or aren’t set up to trace material back to its Russian or Infowars roots. So if you don’t know that the material came from a reliable source, don’t share it. Just don’t.

Third, if you’re concerned about something you’ve seen, check with an expert. Snopes fact-checks many of the memes you may see. Washington Post has a fact-check column. FactCheck.org is another good resource. You can ask me about science-related stuff.

There is such a thing as fact. You can find it. Or at least avoid spreading disinformation.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice