US and Russia developing new short-range nuclear weapons. Democracy wobbles in Africa. Timor-Leste and Australia close to treaty. Theresa May in trouble a year out from Brexit. By Hamish McDonald.

Trump’s FBI claims aided by Russian bots

South Africa’s deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa (left), and president, Jacob Zuma, before a cabinet meeting last week.
South Africa’s deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa (left), and president, Jacob Zuma, before a cabinet meeting last week.
Credit: Thulani Mbele / Sowetan / Gallo Images / Getty Images

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 long-range 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 short-range 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 “low-yield” 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 no-confidence, 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 “swearing-in” 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.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 10, 2018 as "Trump’s FBI claims aided by Russian bots".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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