Two main points for this post regarding Russia and Ukraine. One is that, as most readers will be aware, Russia has declared a new phase of operations, which according to the Russian video brief is to concentrate on consolidating Russia’s territorial gains in Donbas.
This is being presented by Western media as evidence that the invasion so far has been an unmitigated disaster for Moscow. That’s obviously not true. An unmitigated disaster would be one in which Russia, after suffering some apparently significant personnel and equipment losses (I remain wary of going with either side’s numbers on that), had no territorial gains to consolidate.
But Russia does have territorial gains to consolidate. If Ukraine’s government in Kyiv wants to retake the territory, it will have to go on the offensive to do so. I can’t predict the decision that will be made about that, but I can predict that going on offense would be as costly for Ukrainian forces as it has been for Russia’s. Zelensky may or may not be willing to buy that cost, especially with no outcome guaranteed as long as Ukraine has to do all the fighting, and is hampered by Russian defenses in any attempt to use Ukrainian air assets for ground support in Donbas.
The media seemed to be surprised that Russia would initiate this phase of operations by striking a fuel facility in Lviv. The age of complete media ignorance about war is nothing if not mildly entertaining: attacking the fuel facility is about denying Ukrainian forces fuel, and thus shaping the battle space in Russia’s favor. The Russians would prefer not to face a Ukrainian counteroffensive, or at least prefer to delay it as long as possible.
Moreover, having undertaken a “Sitzkrieg” in eastern Ukraine, Russia now has troops in essentially static positions exposed and needing constant defense inside Ukraine. To not need active tactical defenses, Putin would have to withdraw his troops back over the border again. We can expect more attacks on rear-echelon infrastructure in western Ukraine.
There is a lot more to say about the current situation, but we’ll save it for later. (OK, one stray mention of the theme about disaster for Russia. The theme doesn’t make sense in juxtaposition with Joe Biden’s stream of excited utterances about chemical or nuclear warfare, U.S. troops being in Ukraine, and how Putin can’t remain in power in Russia. That’s an awful lot of jittery alarmist verbiage about such a dead bear. If things are so bad for Russia, deliver the coup de grace already and end this thing. But the “disaster” theme does make sense if it’s going to be used shortly to excuse letting Russia keep Donbas. Biden’s chorus of sycophants can frame it as a big victory for smart power that Russia suffered a mighty cataclysm while gaining only Donbas. And the U.S. and NATO can conveniently not have to do anything except stand by while Kyiv accepts Putin’s terms.)
The second point is that we are seeing commonality of will and expectations in NATO breaking down as we speak. Regular readers know this was the main outcome I predicted before the invasion. It’s happening, and I don’t see a prospect of turn-around. Once decisions are made to re-up national-level security measures in the Allied nations of Europe, those decisions won’t be lightly reversed.
The prism through which this is especially visible at the moment (aside from NATO being unable so far to just deliver some MiG-29s to Ukraine, out of fear of Russia) is missile defense. Missile defense is of special significance because it’s been the main thing the alliance could agree and adopt a common purpose on over the last 20 years.
It’s unraveling now. In the spirit of “Ready Room,” I’m just going to copy in comments I made earlier in an email, regarding Germany’s decision to look at the Israeli Arrow 3 for national missile defense. That’s a very big shift in NATO policy dynamics (again, see my link above for more discussion of that in predictive articles from February and January), and the UK is taking a fresh look at bolstering independent national missile defense as well.
Here are the ruminations from my email:
This is certainly a tribute to the quality Israel achieves in air and missile defense.
But it’s more than that. It’s a tacit acknowledgment that NATO’s political will to defend its members from missile attack may well fail.
Germany is theoretically covered by the NATO tiered air and missile defense concept. All of NATO Europe is, at least partially (Norway and Iceland may not have full coverage vs. a given launch because of geometry.) The Aegis ships that patrolled the Black Sea before Russia invaded Ukraine are part of that, as is Aegis Ashore in Romania. (And the X-band radar in Israel, for that matter, along with the Patriots in Northern Europe.) It’s a good system. It can’t defend the US and Canada from ICBMs that come in from the east (i.e., from Iran or on a mid-latitudes approach from Russia or a submarine in the Atlantic). But it can defend most of Europe.
But look what happened with the invasion of Ukraine. Russia drove the (relatively) lightly defended Aegis ships out of the Black Sea. Aegis is formidable in its native environment, the blue-water ocean, but no ship can hold out forever unaided against all the assets of a huge continental land power.
(This is obviously something we don’t make announcements about, but the writer here confirmed that the last BMD Aegis on patrol in the Black Sea, the destroyer USS Porter, left shortly before the invasion. It’s in there if you scroll down or search on “Porter.”)
The Black Sea Aegis patrollers are NATO’s assets for shooting down IRBMs launched at Europe from Iran or Central-Western Russia. One set of SM-3 launchers in Romania couldn’t handle the whole load of a barrage from the east, and in any case Romania would have the wrong geometry vis-à-vis missiles launched from very far north in Russia. This is why Russia routinely – constantly – harasses the US Aegis ships in the Black Sea. [Note/addendum: that’s not just to try and scare our ships away. It’s to keep them distracted and force them to put as much Aegis power into air defense as into BMD readiness, a splitting of the mission with real consequences for event effectiveness.]
If Obama had left the original plan he canceled in 2009 in place, there would have been ground-based interceptors like the ones we have in Alaska and California operational in Poland by 2015. Between that and Patriots in Northern Europe (plus a handful of other national assets, such as the S300s in former Warsaw Pact territory) to deal with the SRBMs (e.g., Iskander), the IRBM threat would be covered as much as the state of the art allows – for all of Europe, not just the southern portion of it. Even Norway and Iceland would have IRBM protection. Some of the coverage would be redundant with the afloat Aegis assets, which were to be present and employed for lower-tier intercept and battle management. North America would also have an eastern-oriented ICBM intercept capability (ascent-phase/mid-course, which is what you want anyway).
But Russia is proving that the Obama alternate plan can be canceled by Russian action. It’s essential to understand what’s going on here. All the talk of NATO unity is simply papering over seams that had to start unraveling once Putin was allowed to invade unresisted. He didn’t have to invade NATO to start breaking up NATO.
It was clear when Biden approved Nord Stream 2, and then pulled his punches on the more proximate decisions about it (and other sanctions measures) since mid-Feb, that the Biden US was going to act against the NATO Alliance’s military interests, or at least delay action long enough for operational events to produce facts on the ground.
Now Germany is seeking a national missile defense that doesn’t rely on NATO priorities and decisionmaking. Britain is too. It was one thing to whine and snipe at the US for being old fuddy-duddies about NATO defense back when it was clear that our will was to actually defend NATO.
But that’s no longer clear.
An additional element of this point: there’s no telling when or if we’ll get back to patrolling Aegis BMD ships in the Black Sea. Russia can keep things from getting back to “normal” for quite a while. They may never reset to what they were; the status quo ante would now have to be forced and then enforced, because the former stasis has been fully broken. However Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is resolved, the result will be an agreement – in effect, if not in name – on something new.
Obama’s alternative plan for NATO missile defense is thus disrupted for the foreseeable future. As the former POTUS would say, that’s YU-UGE. Of course nations like Germany and the UK are scrambling for their own arrangements now.
One general note on current arrangements breaking up. Some of them need to. I don’t think it’s a positive thing at all that Ukraine is having to suffer invasion, or that national sovereignty and our stabilizing assumptions about the importance of respect for borders are under attack. But I do think it’s past time to revisit the nature and purpose of the UN and NATO, among other institutions. The key to America having options, and being everyone’s favorite ally in such a time of transition, is America recovering strength, principle, and purpose. Cleaning up our own house is Job One.
The good news is that the way to do that is to just do what we do best. Foster liberty and hope for the common man, and stop paying government to think up ways to collectivize him, extort him, and extract rent from him. The common man will do the rest.
Of biolabs and viruses
Again, in the Ready Room spirit, this will not be a fully-formed goddess of wisdom passage springing from the brow of Zeus. It will be, as above, a couple of points.
One is something I tweeted about this weekend. The connection of Hunter Biden’s Rosemont Seneca investment firm to Metabiota, which was involved with the biolabs in Ukraine and for which Biden raised millions in capital, poses an important question.
Hunter Biden has no more qualifications, background, or expertise in the commercial side of bioscience than he has in the natural gas industry. Moreover, throughout the period when he was running this operation, he was a cocaine addict whose private life seems to have gotten steadily less stable and gratifying. I can’t spend much time looking at the images people keep posting from his laptop on social media, because it’s too sad and kind of icky – but one thing I know, and imagine others do too: no one is happy living that way. This was not someone in charge of his life, working on his own dreams and priorities.
So the question is whose idea it was for Hunter’s investment firm to raise funds for Metabiota, and why. In terms of motive and plan, Hunter is not the droid you’re looking for. Someone else was supplying those.
To really answer that, we’d have to be sure exactly what Metabiota was doing. “Creating bio-weapons” is a simplistic and overhyped claim, without actual proof that bio-weapons were being worked on. We don’t have that. Officially, Metabiota was concentrating on epidemiological research.
Observe that the company got research grants from Anthony Fauci’s NIAID in 2008, 2009, and 2016.
The founder of Metabiota, Nathan Wolfe, is what we might call a celebrity virologist (a very small category of professional), who published a popular-press book on pandemics, The Viral Storm, in 2011 (see reviews here and here). The Lancet review, in particular, highlights the book’s argument that pandemics can be predicted and even preempted. One deduces enthusiasm about the possibilities of heroic measures in bioscience and public health for a somewhat morally denatured but putatively “safer” future for the human species.
As Stephen McIntyre informs us, Wolfe actually has a connection to Ghislaine Maxwell, whose TerraMar ocean conservation project he showed an interest in (he’s described as a “celebrated marine expert” at the link).
And he’s married to Lauren Gunderson, frequently touted as America’s “most produced living playwright” (perhaps best known for the popular I and You from 2013). Wolfe has made appearances as a lecturer and panelist at the Aspen Institute; Ms. Gunderson wrote a new play in 2020 that’s about her husband and his work in virology, entitled The Catastrophist. These threads intertwined when the Aspen Institute hosted a science-and-policy-oriented kickoff event for The Catastrophist in February 2021.
All of this has a “niche” feel to it, to be sure (although it has Wolfe running in the usual-suspect circles of the Davos stratum). But something that crossed paths with this history thematically, if in no other way, has been nagging at me. I haven’t had time to research it thoroughly, but it’s worth thinking about.
It’s the second point under this heading, and it’s about the TV series The Last Ship (Hank Steinberg, Michael Bay), aired by TNT on a recurring limited-series basis from 2014 to 2018. The original novel the series was loosely based on, by William Brinkley, came out in 1988 and was about a U.S. Navy destroyer that survived the destruction of 80% of the world’s population in a nuclear exchange. The 2014 series turned the nuclear exchange into a devastating viral pandemic.
I thought that was merely interesting until a couple of days ago, when reporting came out about COVID-19-related efforts to field “contagious vaccines,” which could be left to propagate in the population through routine human contact and eventually spread around the earth without injections being necessary.
In The Last Ship TV series, the story line had the crucial researcher on the surviving ship develop a vaccine that could spread through respiratory contagion. A little research turned up real-world background: this is a concept with limited application so far, and hasn’t been implemented, strictly speaking, in the form envisioned in the Last Ship script. The so-called “oral polio vaccine” works on a similar concept, but isn’t exactly the same thing. Read more here.
We should pause to note that propagating a vaccine through respiratory contagion, as it’s discussed in the current professional literature, would pretty much remove the formality of consent from the vaccination process. In The Last Ship, the killer virus has been so dreadful that people are depicted (to the extent their sentiments are shown) as being grateful for such a convenient remedy.
But that one-sided view ignores the 20th century’s history of gruesome experimentation with toxins and viruses on humans. The premise of the Geneva convention on this matter doesn’t come in for serious moral discussion (which may be why the script restricts the basis of contagion for the vaccine to very close respiratory contact. The virology researcher, Dr. Rachel Scott, having “infected” herself with the vaccine, requests consent from people whom she has to get very close to and breathe on, from inches away, in order to transmit it).
It’s a notably utilitarian view of mankind as a herd that may need to be peremptorily “administered,” including being infected with life-altering biological substances, for its collective good.
It seems noteworthy that the story idea for The Last Ship was sold to TNT in 2012, the year after Nathan Wolfe’s Viral Storm made its little splash. Interestingly, as well, the main production company involved, Channel Road Productions, which was incorporated in 2007 during the run of Hank Steinberg’s Without a Trace series (2002-2009), seems to have been awakened from a hiatus for that launch. Steinberg registered himself as CEO for the company in July 2012, at the same time TNT greenlighted the Last Ship pilot.
The latter isn’t at all surprising, of course. It indicates a turning point in the company’s fortunes at the time of the Last Ship pilot sale, presumably because of the sale. But in the context of other projects undertaken by Steinberg, and by co-executive producer Michael Bay, and the timing of all these virus- and pandemic-related outbursts from the culture, it’s still…interesting.
The culture ponies up
In 2007, Nathan Wolfe founded a non-profit called the Global Viral Forecasting Institute. According to a legacy website, the GVFI was “initially founded as an organization focused on the study of infectious diseases, their transmission between animals and humans, and the risk involved with their global spread.” (This is the initiative Google and the Skoll Foundation awarded $11 million to for research on a “pandemic early warning system.” If you need help thinking that through, start with contact-tracing – a natural angle for Google, which is all about data on you.)
In 2014, however (three years after publication of Wolfe’s Viral Storm), those areas of research were “shifted to Metabiota, an independent company that focuses on risk analysis associated with such diseases.”
This was at the same time, of course, that Hunter Biden hooked up with Metabiota, bringing the $500,000 investment by Rosemont Seneca and the firm’s capital fundraising effort. Emails from the Biden laptop, reviewed by the New York Post, indicate that “Hunter introduced Metabiota to officials at Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company where he was a board member, for a ‘science project’ involving biolabs in Ukraine.”
The Post continues: “A memo from a Metabiota official to the then-vice president’s son in 2014 said the company could ‘assert Ukraine’s cultural and economic independence from Russia.’”
Notably, these features applied to Metabiota in 2016 when it was awarded a NIAID grant in that fiscal year.
But the shift in emphasis at Wolfe’s non-profit, which was renamed Global Viral in the 2014 transition, is equally interesting. Its new research charter is described as “focusing on innovative and disruptive research in Ecology, Biodiversity and Public Health.” Under current programs, GV’s Boundaries of Life (BoL) program is described thus: “The Boundaries of Life (BoL) Initiative seeks to uncover highly divergent forms of life on earth and in doing so to advance microbiology and fundamental unanswered questions in biology…”
The BoL program asks: “1) What are the fundamental parameters and bounds of life? 2) Has life originated more than once? 3) How likely is life to exist elsewhere in the universe?”
GV’s site states the major goals as follows: “The project’s primary objectives are to chart the currently unmapped diversity of nucleic acid-based life and to develop and deploy assays for the detection of shadow life in a range of specimens from earth.”
GV’s research emphasis on the emergence of forms of life is curiously echoed in a strange TV series project Hank Steinberg was working on in 2016. The series was to be called Dawn; it was described as follows by Nick Venable at Cinema Blend: “With a plan to be as epic as possible, Dawn will be set in prehistoric times and will center on a tribe of Neanderthals whose existence changes forever once they come across a family of Homo Sapiens. The tribe struggles with survival and carrying on their normal way of life, but that obviously won’t be the easiest thing to do. At this crossroads of progress and species liquidation, the show seeks to explore the answers behind the question of what being a human really means.”
We can assume the story line was to focus on the action and moral conflicts of human (or Neanderthal) drama more than on the science of primeval life, biology, and encounters between species. But Steinberg’s scripts for The Last Ship crammed a lot of virology and epidemiology into a similar dramatic concept, and the opportunity to do something of like character in Dawn, with “progress and species liquidation,” is obvious. The pilot was actually filmed, according to actors and production workers involved, but if Hulu aired it there doesn’t seem to be a record of that.
A few years later, in the time of COVID-19 when Lauren Gunderson was composing The Catastrophist about her husband, Last Ship executive producer Michael Bay brought out the 2020 feature drama Songbird, the premise of which is that “By 2024, the COVID-19 virus has been mutated into COVID-23 and the world is in its fourth pandemic year. In the United States, people are required to take temperature checks on their cell phones while those infected with COVID-23 are taken from their homes against their will and forced into quarantine camps, also known as ‘Q-Zones’ or concentration camps, where some fight back against the brutal restrictions. In these camps, the infected are left to die or forcibly get better.”
(If the arts seem to you to have been abnormally hyper-ready to weigh in on COVID-19, you’re not the only one with that perception.)
In 2020, with public leadership both in the U.S. (Trump) and globally still emphasizing “flattening the curve” while we sprinted to a vaccine, the theme of an endless viral mutation cycle, with routine temperature checks and COVID camps as a way of life, hadn’t emerged in the real world yet. I confess to paying no attention at all to Songbird’s debut in December 2020, but if I had, I would have regarded it as disjunctively dystopian. Its themes were ahead of their time, at a minimum by months; it took the inauguration of a new president to turn America’s expectations dark and pessimistic – at least as formulated by the media and policymakers. Songbird got poor reviews and anemic viewing in a COVID-hobbled streaming release.
Where did Bay and his screenwriters get their dramatic framework of pessimism and darkness? They were making their film in mid-2020, well before instances of their purportedly inexorable self-reinventing virus and lash-wielding dystopia were cropping up in the real world. What possessed Bay to prophesy in 2020 exactly the draconian COVID-19-policy misery that emerged so unnecessarily in 2021?
There’s a feel to all this of enthusiasts spending their lives weaving stories about glorious pandemic heroism and great pandemic tragedies. This stands out to me because the idea of such drama doesn’t scratch any itch I have. It’s very noticeable that it seems to scratch the itches of others.
From the arts side of the culture, everyone remembers the 1995 movie Outbreak (Wolfgang Petersen), in which Dustin Hoffman gives us the least-credible impersonation of a U.S. Army officer in the history of cinema as his team defeats an engineered virus that’s slaughtering people in droves. Ultimately, defeating the virus requires Hoffman and Cuba Gooding, Jr. to steal a military helicopter and force an Air Force bomber (a Vietnam-era C-123, used often to deploy Agent Orange, that hadn’t been in service for over a decade when the movie was made) to abort its mission of incinerating a town in California. In today’s nihilistic mindset, it’s probably a cop-out that the story ends happily with a cure for the Ebola-like virus, and the survival and apparent reconciliation of Hoffman’s character and his ex-wife (Rene Russo).
Fewer people would remember 2011’s Contagion (Stephen Soderbergh), which I saw mainly because it had Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, and Jennifer Ehle in it. It was much more somber than Outbreak, and suffered much from the absence of helicopter-bomber confrontations and jokey side-gags.* About 15 minutes in, it was clear that there would be no suspense to keep us awake. The star-laden vehicle (Matt Damon, Jude Law, the list goes on) unfolds in an unrelieved sequence of death, double-dealing, and discouragement. Bats are involved.
So Contagion was no Outbreak. But it was an accurate preview – in 2011 – of the one-note, scripted, morality-play approach of public policy to COVID-19.
The movie story, as fiction, had the luxury of being a pretense from the outset; it could dictate the terms of its virus’s character and progress, where enforcing a common perspective on COVID-19 has required manipulating public perception (or, depending on how you see all the conflicting signals about it, leaving the signals and perceptions chaotic and confused).
What strikes me is that, consciously or not, at least some of the people who’ve bought into the Story of COVID, and who continue to flog and administer it, seem to be living out a contemporary fantasy of pandemic-disease heroism.
Juxtaposed with that sense, details like the eruption of pandemic-disease tales in A-list treatments for big screen and small, along with virologist Nathan Wolfe’s highly successful playwright wife writing a play about him, and Nathan Wolfe being the guiding light of both Metabiota and Global Viral, and the latter pursuing research on “shadow life” and the potential for emerging or even unsuspected species, while the former gets funding through the good offices of Hunter Biden as it descends on Ukraine with a view to “asserting Ukraine’s cultural and economic independence from Russia,” and each of these things other than the theatrical angle mapping back to government-funded public policy operations…are all, shall we say, arresting.
Consider those details in light of this final one: Nathan Wolfe was named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader in 2010.
This next news goes in the same category. (The tweet is part of an informative thread also linked above.)
Not to pick on Dr. Wolfe, who is hardly the only or principal actor here. But the sense of aspiring pandemic heroism expands to the sense of a Davos-ready script trying to write the human future to diverge from the species’ past, including at the molecular level of nucleic acids and shadow life (which, who knows, may not be “found” so much as “planted”).
But also including – again, through the good offices of Hunter Biden’s capital fundraising – establishing Ukraine’s cultural and economic independence from Russia, along the way.
The whiff of drama being manufactured behind a curtain is strong. I can recommend contemplating these developments, in their collective impact, and then listening again to President Biden’s oddly uncalibrated shouting about how Putin can’t remain in power.
None of this has the feel of being naturally occurring. It’s more like an episode of The Twilight Zone.
* I note that The Last Ship was a compelling series because it moved on from the narrow pandemic-fighting-heroism theme to an aftermath of human devastation, with its story horizon broadened to suspense, action, political puzzlers, moral problems, and stubborn hope, the stuff of enjoyable drama. No one would have signed up to watch an episode of Contagion week after week.
Feature image: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Felix Garza Jr. (Via Wikimedia Commons)