Rus­sian bots spread Trump’s mes­sage. Lat­est US nu­clear re­view. Democ­racy in Africa.

The Saturday Paper - - The Week Contents - Hamish McDon­ald

It’s a wild ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say Don­ald Trump and Vladimir Putin have a lot in com­mon.

Putin has ma­nip­u­lated the ju­di­ciary to get his most dan­ger­ous chal­lenger, Alexei Navalny, knocked out of next month’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, leav­ing only a dummy al­ter­na­tive. But while Trump wanted to see Hillary Clin­ton locked up, he couldn’t achieve that. Putin re­lies on his in­ter­nal se­cu­rity ser­vice, the FSB, to co­erce and if nec­es­sary elim­i­nate ri­vals and crit­ics. Trump failed to get the near­est United States equiv­a­lent, the rather more scrupu­lous FBI, to do sim­i­lar duty, so he’s now try­ing to destroy con­fi­dence in the agency as a pre­lude to get­ting for­mer FBI chief Robert Mueller sacked from his in­quiry into Rus­sian elec­tion med­dling.

But they get along, and Putin’s ap­pa­ra­tus jumps in to help Trump when it can. As Trump con­gres­sional acolyte Devin Nunes was ask­ing Trump to de­clas­sify his memo al­leg­ing that a par­ti­san ca­bal in­side the FBI was push­ing the Rus­sian in­quiries, the Twit­ter hash­tag #re­leasethe­memo went vi­ral. An in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Politico web­site finds Rus­sian bots were de­ployed to am­plify the tiny US alt-right ac­counts where the mes­sage started. It’s called com­pu­ta­tional pro­pa­ganda, a fac­tor that is now part of pol­i­tics.

Strangelove re­turns

But where the Trump–Putin meet­ing of minds gets re­ally dan­ger­ous is the sub­ject of nu­clear weapons. Some­what over­shad­owed by the re­lease of the Nunes memo, the Pen­tagon pub­lished its lat­est nu­clear pos­ture re­view that shows the US ready for a new race with Rus­sia to de­ploy small, more use­able nu­clear weapons as well as up­dat­ing the old big ones.

This came out just be­fore the lat­est strate­gic arms lim­i­ta­tion treaty came into full force on Mon­day, lim­it­ing the US and Rus­sia to 1500 de­ploy­able war­heads apiece, more than enough to en­sure mu­tual de­struc­tion along with most of the rest of hu­man­ity.

The Pen­tagon says its hand has been forced by Putin’s mod­ernising of strate­gic nu­clear forces, in­clud­ing lon­grange bombers, sub­ma­rine-launched mis­siles and other new in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal weapons. One is said to be a trans-oceanic tor­pedo that could re­lease ra­dioac­tiv­ity along an enemy coast­line.

In ad­di­tion, the Rus­sians are de­vel­op­ing new in­ter­me­di­ate and short­range nu­clear weapons, which do not vi­o­late the strate­gic arms agree­ment but do run counter to a sep­a­rate pact ban­ning “theatre” nu­clear weapons. Rather than call­ing Moscow out on this, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion prefers to build its own.

Work is pro­gress­ing al­ready on an air­craft-launched nu­clear cruise mis­sile. The Pen­tagon is now propos­ing a “lowyield” nu­clear war­head to be fit­ted on bal­lis­tic and cruise mis­siles launched from sub­marines. Pro­po­nents say this will act as a de­ter­rent, as new Rus­sian doc­trines see small nu­clear weapons be­ing used in con­ven­tional con­flicts. But the new pos­ture re­view has the US also us­ing them in some cir­cum­stances, such as re­spond­ing to a dis­abling at­tack on com­mu­ni­ca­tions and power sys­tems. The crit­ics say the new weapons, along with doc­trines about their use, will dan­ger­ously blur the mar­gin between con­ven­tional and nu­clear con­flict.

When Barack Obama en­tered the cur­rent strate­gic arms treaty, known as New START, eight years ago he saw it as a step to­wards fur­ther re­duc­ing and then elim­i­nat­ing nu­clear weapons. The treaty ex­pires in 2021, and now it looks like a turn­ing point back into the Strangelo­vian world. Trump is edg­ing the US into a $US1.2 tril­lion spend on new nu­clear weapons over the next 30 years, on the premise that the threat of their ex­is­tence will mean they will never be used. The long-suf­fer­ing Rus­sian pop­u­la­tion is for­go­ing their wel­fare for the same.

Zuma mill

Tense days in the parts of Africa that share with us the Bri­tish tra­di­tions of democ­racy and law.

In South Africa, the par­lia­men­tary speaker felt it nec­es­sary to post­pone the state of the na­tion ad­dress due from Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma on Thurs­day. The rul­ing African Na­tional Congress has been racked by pres­sures to get the scan­dal-hit Zuma to quit be­fore risk­ing a vote of no­con­fi­dence, and to hand over to his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, so the ANC im­age can be re­fur­bished ahead of next year’s elec­tions.

In Kenya, the gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Uhuru Keny­atta dis­con­nected three pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion sta­tions when they started broad­cast­ing a mock “swearingin” cer­e­mony of Op­po­si­tion Leader Raila Odinga in a Nairobi park, then re­fused a Supreme Court or­der to let the sta­tions re­turn to the air­waves. Just last year Kenya was be­ing praised for its ad­her­ence to the rule of law when the court nul­li­fied the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion re­sult and or­dered a new vote. Keny­atta duly won this one as well, helped by a boy­cott called by Odinga, who now says he has been anointed as “the peo­ple’s pres­i­dent”.

In Zim­babwe, Pres­i­dent Em­mer­son Mnan­gagwa, sworn in af­ter the army ended Robert Mu­gabe’s 37-year rule in Novem­ber, says elec­tions will be held within “four to five months”, and they will be “free, cred­i­ble, fair and in­dis­putable”. Mnan­gagwa has been on a charm of­fen­sive with the West and says he’s not at all like his nick­name “The Crocodile”.

Mar­itime union

Ti­mor-Leste is press­ing ahead to sign a new treaty on the mar­itime bound­ary with Aus­tralia on March 6, ac­cord­ing to the Por­tuguese news agency Lusa, de­spite the gov­ern­ment be­ing in care­taker mode since Pres­i­dent Fran­cisco “Lú-Olo” Guter­res dis­solved par­lia­ment on Jan­u­ary 26 and called fresh elec­tions.

The two gov­ern­ments an­nounced agree­ment last year af­ter talks su­per­vised by a con­cil­i­a­tion panel of the In­ter­na­tional Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion at The Hague, but de­tails were kept con­fi­den­tial. Lusa says the main fea­ture is that Ti­mor-Leste has got the me­dian line bound­ary it has long sought, and a greater share of rev­enue from the big Greater Sun­rise un­der­sea gas field.

But it has still not got the east­ern lat­eral bound­ary shift that would give it full ju­ris­dic­tion over Greater Sun­rise, Lusa in­di­cates, and the agree­ment leaves open the ques­tion how the field would be de­vel­oped. Lusa re­ports an in­cen­tive for Dili to drop its pref­er­ence for a risky pipe­line to Ti­mor’s south coast, with its rev­enue share go­ing up from 70 per cent to 80 per cent if it agrees to con­nect to ex­ist­ing pipe­lines to Dar­win across shal­lower wa­ters.

May day closer

The Bri­tish are about to en­ter the last year be­fore their exit from the Euro­pean Union takes ef­fect, and Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May seems flum­moxed by the task of ne­go­ti­at­ing a de­par­ture that won’t dam­age the Bri­tish econ­omy.

Ev­ery time she hints at a set­tle­ment that would leave Bri­tain in much the same po­si­tion in the sin­gle Euro­pean mar­ket as now, with an open bor­der in Ire­land, the hard­line Brex­i­teers on her back bench (and within her cab­i­net) jump up and down about “Brino” – Brexit in name only.

Her im­me­di­ate dis­patch to the po­lit­i­cal tum­brils is only avoided by the thought, among the more sen­si­ble and younger Tories, of who might be in­stalled in­stead. Boris John­son, the clown­ish for­eign sec­re­tary, is one pos­si­bil­ity, pip­ping Ru­pert Mur­doch’s friend Michael Gove, but firm­ing in the bet­ting is Ja­cob Rees-Mogg, an even more retro fo­gey.

Should it come to this, each side of Bri­tish pol­i­tics would be led by a fig­ure re­garded by the other side as a car­i­ca­ture, with Labour headed by Jeremy Cor­byn, the al­lot­ment-cul­ti­vat­ing old dag who wants to re­na­tion­alise the rail­ways and per­haps re­think Brexit. Much to the hor­ror, no doubt, of the old Bri­tish Em­pire guard here and else­where, the el­e­va­tion of John­son, Gove or Rees-Mogg would give Cor­byn a lay-down mis­ère to

• win any elec­tion held soon.

South Africa’s deputy pres­i­dent, Cyril Ramaphosa (left), and pres­i­dent, Ja­cob Zuma, be­fore a cab­i­net meet­ing last week.

HAMISH McDON­ALD is The Satur­day Paper's world ed­i­tor.

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