What starts in Ukraine may not stay in Ukraine: How war could affect Southwest Florida

Ukrainian soldiers train at US Marine Corps Camp Lejeune in 1998. The US-Ukrainian military relationship stretches back decades. (Photo: US DoD)

Jan. 26, 2022 by David Silverberg

In Southwest Florida, the crisis over the Ukraine may seem like a “quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing.”

That’s the way British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain described the dispute between a democratic Czechoslovakia and Nazi Germany in 1938.

The Czechoslovak government was pressured to give up parts of its territory to appease Adolf Hitler and once he had those pieces he swallowed the rest of the country whole. A full-scale world war eventually followed.

Today Vladimir Putin is endangering Ukraine, threatening war to get his demands met. It seems like a very close replay of Hitler’s moves on Czechoslovakia.

Two of the most knowledgeable Ukraine-Russia analysts have put forward their evaluations of the situation.

Alexander Vindman, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel, was director for European Affairs at the National Security Council when in 2019 he blew the whistle on President Donald Trump’s improper political demands on the Ukrainian government. He offered his take on the current situation on Jan. 21 in the magazine Foreign Affairs: “The Day After Russia Attacks: What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond.”

Fiona Hill was an intelligence officer on Russian and Eurasian affairs for presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and served on the National Security Council under Trump. In a clinical and steely performance, she too testified against Trump’s improper use of his office during his first impeachment hearings. Her article appeared on Jan. 24 in The New York Times under the headline: “Putin Has the U.S. Right Where He Wants It.”

Both call for a strong, robust American response and in particular urge the United States to take the initiative and not just react to Putin’s moves. Hill believes Putin has a much larger goal: to kick the United States out of Europe altogether, allowing Russia to dominate the continent. Both warnings are scary, insightful and deserve heeding.

But why should anyone in Southwest Florida care? It’s not as though Naples is on the front lines or Russian tanks will be rolling into Fort Myers. No matter what happens on the frosty plains of Ukraine, Southwest Florida will still have its sun and beaches.

As World War II demonstrated 80 years ago, conflicts in faraway lands have a way of impacting even places very remote from them, especially in today’s interconnected world. What is more, shooting wars have a nasty tendency to spread their effects in unexpected and uncontrolled ways, especially the longer they go on.

Southwest Florida has already seen how a large, overarching crisis can affect daily life in countless everyday ways. The COVID pandemic emptied store shelves, disrupted travel, upended the supply chain and sowed deep and passionate political divisions over health precautions and vaccinations.

COVID is an assault by an impersonal force of nature; a war in Ukraine that expanded into a US-Russian conflict—presuming that it remained non-nuclear—would be the result of human decisions but would be no less and in some ways, even more impactful.

So how could a hot war in Ukraine immediately affect residents, retirees and tourists in Florida’s Paradise Coast?

Gas prices

United States officials are already negotiating with oil producers to make up for shortfalls in oil supply should Russian oil exports be shut off, either by the Russians or Western blockades.

While Southwest Florida doesn’t get its gasoline from Russia, a global tightening of supply would send prices at the local pumps higher—potentially much higher.

Indeed, gasoline supplies could be so straitened that Floridians—and all Americans—could see the return of gas lines reminiscent of the oil embargoes of the 1970s.

If the scarcity persists, US oil companies could again start eyeing oil drilling and exploitation in eastern Gulf of Mexico or under the Everglades and this time there would be little political will to stop them, even if it would take years for Florida oil to make a difference.

Cyber disruption

The Russians have mastered the art of the cyberattack as a weapon of war. Prior to what the military calls “kinetic” assaults they have launched major electronic onslaughts. They’ve done this in Estonia, Georgia and they just did it in Ukraine, one reason that the alert level of an imminent invasion went up so urgently.

As the Internet has broken down national boundaries, so it has dissolved protective barriers. Cape Coral, Fla., is as vulnerable to cyber-attack as Kyiv. It is not as likely to be a deliberate target since it holds no strategic interest or assets. Nonetheless, should war break out, it might experience collateral damage along with the rest of the United States.

Just how interconnected the electronic world is, was brought home to this author during the 2018 congressional campaign of Democrat David Holden in Southwest Florida’s 19th Congressional District. Staff discovered that the campaign website was being monitored from Moscow—and not just from Moscow but by someone in the Arsenal building, a very secure and secret spot in the very heart of the Kremlin complex. The campaign contacted US authorities. The incident proved that even a place as obscure, remote and strategically insignificant as Southwest Florida could find itself under a watchful Russian eye.

If war breaks out, every time there is an interruption in digital service, whether of the Internet, wi-fi, cable television or telephone, Southwest Floridians may be left wondering whether it’s the result of a technical glitch, a random accident or a deliberate attack. They will not know how long it will last. It will make the web of connectivity that binds us together unstable and affect virtually every human activity. It will make commerce, communications and control extremely difficult and in many cases impossible.

A key cyber vulnerability will be in the banking and financial system. If this system is disrupted, credit card transactions might not go through due to downed networks. Access to bank accounts may be blocked. Electronic payments and income may become erratic and undependable.

Stock market crash

Collier County, Fla., tops the country’s midsize markets in numbers of people who get passive income from stocks, bonds and investment, with Lee County a close second, according to a report from the US Chamber of Commerce. That passive income is dependent on a healthy and robust stock market.

Over the past weeks, the New York Stock Exchange has experienced precipitous plunges as a result of war jitters. If war actually breaks out it might crash on the scale of 1929. We might see halts in trading as circuit breakers kick in to stop free-falls. There could be massive losses of wealth that could have a very direct effect on Southwest Florida residents.

Inflation, already high but expected to decline later this year, could climb higher, eroding everyone’s purchasing power.

Supply chain disruption

The world is already dealing with supply chain disruptions caused by COVID. Shoppers in local stores are seeing empty shelves where once items like cream cheese or paper products or frozen vegetables were once plentiful. During the early days of the pandemic the rush was on for face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and toilet paper.

Depending on the scale and scope of a Ukrainian war, supply chains might be disrupted around the world.

Russian attacks on cyber infrastructure combined with extremely high military demand for key elements like steel or silicon could result in scarcity in a wide variety of goods at the retail level, including here in Southwest Florida. However, it’s impossible to predict with any precision which goods might be affected or where scarcity might emerge.

Travel disruption

Anyone who has traveled, especially by air, has experienced travel delays due to weather or other unexpected obstacles. The COVID Omicron surge was a major disruptor, felling flight crews and introducing unpredictability into airline schedules and flights.

A US-Russian conflict could compound that with deliberate Russian efforts to disrupt air corridors, interfere with commercial aviation or confuse navigation systems on the ground or in the air.

Social media disinformation

As the Mueller Report detailed, Russian operatives substantially interfered in the 2016 election (especially in Florida), helping to put Donald Trump in office. They are now practiced and proficient in the use of American social media to achieve political and strategic aims. After all, the word “disinformation” is originally a Russian word (дезинформация).

A US-Russian conflict would likely see a tsunami of Russian-aided social media and Internet propaganda and disinformation aimed at confusing, misleading and dividing Americans.

A unique local aspect of this is the Florida presence of two major American pro-Russian sympathizers, Donald Trump and Michael Flynn. On Jan. 24, Flynn penned an op-ed in the conservative Western Journal that was characterized by Forbes magazine as voicing support for a Russian invasion. It presented the Russian viewpoint on Ukraine.

It will likely be impossible for Americans to wall themselves off from these efforts but with public discernment, skepticism and the efforts of social media platforms to responsibly weed out false and misleading disinformation, perhaps the impact can be kept to a minimum.

Avoiding the inevitable

Nothing in human affairs is inevitable except death and taxes. Even the most seemingly unstoppable force can be stopped if it’s controlled by human decisionmaking. War is one of these kinds of events.

A diplomatic solution in Ukraine is entirely possible although the alignment of forces doesn’t favor it at the moment. Putin simply doesn’t regard Ukraine as an independent country. He attempted to dominate it through subterfuge, first by putting his own candidate in the Ukrainian presidency, then by backing breakaway areas and competing regional governments. He put his own candidate in the American presidency to aid and abet these efforts but that puppet is now gone from power. His efforts to date have not yielded the desired result.

Now he’s left with either threatening physical force or using it on a massive scale.

The United States and its NATO allies recognize Ukraine as a separate, independent state and treat it that way. This irreconcilable difference is what is fueling the current crisis.

Though seemingly mild-mannered and quiet, President Joe Biden long recognized the Russian threat. In particular he had an early awareness of the danger presented by Russian corruption, bribery and subversion as a state tool to buy agents and defeat obstacles to its ambitions. The US government is taking action to thwart those efforts.

Obviously, a win-win-win (Ukraine-Russia-US) diplomatic solution would be the most desirable for all parties. However, if conflict breaks out, there exists the very real possibility that a Russian invasion could be thwarted, that Russian cyberattacks could be stopped and a successful counteroffensive launched. Americans could unite in defense of their country. Russia could suffer cyber damage as great or worse than any inflicted on the United States. Its economy could be shattered. Ukraine, the United States and NATO could emerge victorious—but at a cost in lives and treasure and all this amidst an ongoing pandemic.

There is no telling at this point how the Ukraine crisis will resolve itself. But only 80 years ago history provided an example: appeasement of Hitler did not work.

Appeasement of Putin will not work now. There come times when the forces of law and democracy must stand firm to survive. That’s true in international affairs and it’s true in domestic affairs.

Like an earthquake or a tsunami, the aftershocks from a Ukraine conflict will reach Southwest Florida in one form or another. This is not a “quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing.”

In this time and place that “faraway country” is right next door. And those “people of whom we know nothing” are our neighbors.

*  *  *

For further reading about post-Soviet Russia and the rise of Vladimir Putin (both available in the Collier and Lee county public libraries), see:

Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West by Catherine Belton.

From Cold War To Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia by Michael McFaul.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

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The Rooney Roundup and Mario Monitor: Mum on Mueller — and Rooney and Bernie agree (?!)

07-26-19 Sanders-RooneySen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who introduced the Raise the Wage Act in the Senate and Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), one of only three Republicans who voted for it in the House.

520 days (1 year, 5 months, 5 days) since Rep. Francis Rooney has met constituents in an open, public town hall forum.

July 27, 2019 by David Silverberg

Congress has now adjourned for its August recess, so it’s time to look back at the activities of Southwest Florida’s two representatives since our last Rooney Roundup and Mario Monitor in April.

This period provided a very mixed bag. Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) proved to be something of an odd and unpredictable maverick. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) continued his record of unimaginative, party-line votes.

When it came to the testimony of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the highlight of this period, neither of Southwest Florida’s representatives expressed an opinion—probably a wise course. While other members of the Florida delegation, some of them members of the Judiciary or Intelligence committees, were quite vocal, neither Rooney or Diaz-Balart, sat on the relevant committees, so they weren’t in the room.

There was a lot of action on the issue of Southwest Florida’s environment, so much so that it will be the subject of a subsequent Rooney Roundup and Mario Monitor.

But here, some highlights from the past two months of congressional activity.

Rooney stands with Bernie Sanders (What?!)

In a surprising vote at odds with President Donald Trump’s position, the Republican Party and his own conservative record, on July 18 Rooney voted in favor of raising the national minimum wage to $15 per hour.

The bill, the Raise the Wage Act (House Resolution (HR) 582), passed by a vote of 231 to 199. Rooney was one of only three Republicans to vote in favor of the measure. (The others were Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-1-Pa.) and Chris Smith (R-4-NJ)). Diaz-Balart opposed it.

The bill increases the minimum wage over a six-year period by amending the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. After the first and second years the wage’s economic impact will be assessed by the General Accounting Office.

In a statement, Rooney explained his position: “This 6-year gradual increase brings the minimum wage in line with inflation. The 6-year increases avoid disruptive changes to the workplace. Earlier this week I offered an amendment, which was rejected, to establish a ‘purchasing power parity option’ which would allow states and cities to adjust the wages for local conditions. What $26 buys in Ft. Myers may cost $50 in New York City.  While this would have been a better option, the bill that passed will provide the gradual increases necessary to improve worker pay, keep up with inflation and mitigate the wage inequality which has increased over the last 20 years.”

In January, the bill was introduced in the Senate as Senate 150 by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described democratic socialist and Democratic candidate for president. It has not yet been reported out of committee.

Two-year budget deal

In another dissent from the Trump line, on July 25, Rooney voted against the two-year budget deal worked out by President Donald Trump and House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) in a rare, bipartisan bit of cooperation.

The bill, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 (House Resolution (HR) 3877), stabilizes the budget process and wards off possible government shutdowns over raising the national debt ceiling. It sets the budget at $1.37 trillion and suspends the debt ceiling until July 31, 2021.

Trump endorsed it in a tweet: “House Republicans should support the TWO YEAR BUDGET AGREEMENT which greatly helps our Military and our Vets. I am totally with you!” The House duly passed it by a vote of 284 to 149. As of this writing it has gone to the Senate where it was expected to be passed and the President was expected to sign it—although with this president, one never knows until the ink dries.

Diaz-Balart voted for it along with 64 other Republicans. But it was more than Rooney could stomach.

“This budget act fails the American people, especially our children and grandchildren,” he raged in a statement. “Saddling future generations with insurmountable debt instead of making the hard decisions on spending is irresponsible legislating. Just a campaign cycle ago, Republicans across the country ran on a platform of balancing our budget and eliminating our debt. I intend to continue my opposition to out of control Washington spending.”

Humanitarian standards for detainees

Both Rooney and Diaz-Balart voted against the Humanitarian Standards for Individuals in Customs and Border Protection Custody Act (HR 3239) on July 24.

Among a variety of standards of care for detainees, it requires US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to conduct a health examination for every person it takes into custody and provide health care for those who need it. It also requires that detainees have access to drinking water, toilets, sanitation and hygiene products.

The bill passed by a vote of 233 to 195 along party lines. It is likely to die in the Senate.

Rooney skipped an earlier vote on June 25 to provide emergency funding to relieve conditions on the US southern border (HR 3401), which passed the House 230 to 195 and ultimately became law. Diaz-Balart voted against it.

Fallout from disaster relief vote

On June 3, Rooney voted against the Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act, 2019 (HR 2157), a $19.1 billion spending bill that provided emergency funds for disasters around the country. In Florida it was particularly critical for the panhandle, which had been devastated by Hurricane Michael. Diaz-Balart voted for it.

Rooney voted against it because he said it was fiscally irresponsible. In this he was joined by Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.)

Rooney’s vote created a political storm of its own in Florida where the relief bill was not only popular but deemed essential. The rest of the Florida delegation, both Republican and Democrat, voted for the bill (with the exception of two members who were absent, Reps. Alcee Hastings (D-20-Fla.) and Frederica Wilson (D-24-Fla.)).

“If I was in their district, I’d vote ‘em out,” Jimmy Patronis, Florida’s Republican chief financial officer told reporters in Tallahassee immediately after the vote. “Those individuals that do not realize the harm and suffering that’s happening in Northwest Florida and the recovery that we’re trying to endure right now, for them to put themselves over the better good of the recovery of other citizens in the United States is shameful. Unfortunately, it’s a round world and they’ll probably get what’s coming to them somewhere, somehow.”

When the House leadership was struggling to move the bill, Rep. Neal Dunn (R-2-Fla.), who represents hard-hit Panama City, took to the floor to denounce members who blocked it.

“For those upset at the cost, OK, spending in Washington is a problem, but are you actually willing to make an empty gesture about balancing the federal budget on the backs of Americans who have lost everything?” he said.


Other votes

Predictably, Rooney voted:

  • Against holding Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress;
  • Against condemning President Donald Trump’s racist comments attacking four members of Congress;
  • Against the National Defense Authorization Act;
  • Against protecting Dreamers.

In the next Rooney Roundup and Mario Monitor: Southwest Florida’s swamp meets Washington DC’s swamp.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg

Trump, Florida, Russia: Tracking the Sunshine State in the Mueller Report

Trump t-shirt seller at Germain Arena rally 9-19-16

A seller peddles a t-shirt at a Trump campaign rally at Germain Arena, Estero, Fla., Sept. 19, 2016. The Mueller Report has revealed that Russians organized rallies for Trump in August 2016.     (Photo by author)

April 19, 2019 by David Silverberg

Russian election interference efforts in Florida were numerous and extensive during the 2016 presidential election campaign, according to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Report (technically, Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election).

The big initial news in Florida was that a Russian hacker tried to penetrate at least one Florida county’s election system. The scramble is now on to identify the county.

However, there are references to Florida events, people and places throughout the 448-page document.

Here, in the order they appear, are summaries of those references.

Aug. 20, 2016: Florida rallies

The Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian organization chiefly responsible for covertly interfering in the US election through social media, organized rallies for Trump throughout the country using front organizations. The report describes their modus operandi:

“The IRA organized and promoted political rallies inside the United States while posing as U.S. grassroots activists. First, the IRA used one of its preexisting social media personas (Facebook groups and Twitter accounts, for example) to announce and promote the event. The IRA then sent a large number of direct messages to followers of its social media account asking them to attend the event. From those who responded with interest in attending, the IRA then sought a U.S. person to serve as the event’s coordinator. In most cases, the IRA account operator would tell the U.S. person that they personally could not attend the event due to some preexisting conflict or because they were somewhere else in the United States. The IRA then further promoted the event by contacting U.S. media about the event and directing them to speak with the coordinator. After the event, the IRA posted videos and photographs of the event to the IRA’s social media accounts.”

Three of these rallies were in New York, a series were held in Pennsylvania and a series were held in Florida. “The Florida rallies drew the attention of the Trump Campaign, which posted about the Miami rally on candidate Trump’s Facebook account,” states the report. The IRA-organized Florida rallies occurred on Aug. 20, 2016 and were called “Florida Goes Trump!” and were billed “a patriotic flash mob.” At least 17 rallies were attempted.

(During the campaign, Trump held two rallies in Southwest Florida, one at the then-Germain Arena in Estero on Sept. 19, 2016 and the other at the Collier County Fairgrounds on Oct. 25, 2016.)

Nov. 2, 2016: Disseminating Russian disinformation

As the report states:

“Among the U.S. ‘leaders of public opinion’ targeted by the IRA were various members and surrogates of the Trump Campaign. In total, Trump Campaign affiliates promoted dozens of tweets, posts, and other political content created by the IRA. Posts from the IRA-controlled Twitter account @TEN_ GOP were cited or retweeted by multiple Trump Campaign officials and surrogates, including Donald J. Trump Jr.”

One of these Trump Jr. retweets was an allegation that Democrats were committing voter fraud in Florida: “RT @TEN_GOP: BREAKING: #VoterFraud by counting tens of thousands of ineligible mail in Hillary votes being reported in Broward County, Florida.”

June 15, 2016: Releasing hacked e-mails

On June 14, the Democratic National Committee publicly announced that its e-mail server had been hacked. Apparently in response, the following day the Russian unit (Unit 74455) of its military intelligence service, the GRU, began releasing the stolen e-mails under the persona Guccifer 2.0. Releases were grouped around specific themes such as key states—like Pennsylvania and Florida.

The report also states: “On August 22, 2016, the Guccifer 2.0 persona transferred approximately 2.5 gigabytes of Florida-related data stolen from the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] to a U.S. blogger covering Florida politics.” The blogger’s name is not mentioned in the report.

November 2016: The attempted hack of Florida election officials

In November 2016 GRU officers sent over 120 e-mails to Florida election officials in a spearphishing effort—specifically targeting the officials with false e-mails that would open their systems to exploitation. “The spearphishing emails contained an attached Word document coded with malicious software (commonly referred to as a Trojan) that permitted the GRU to access the infected computer,” states the report.

It was through this technique that at least one Florida county’s election system was hacked. Since release of the report, the media and Florida officials have been seeking the name of the county.

Spring, 2016, Henry Oknyansky/Henry Greenberg

In the spring of 2016 a Florida-based Russian approached the Trump campaign and political activist and provocateur Roger Stone with an offer to sell damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

As stated in the Report:

“In the spring of 2016, Trump Campaign advisor Michael Caputo learned through a Florida-based Russian business partner that another Florida-based Russian, Henry Oknyansky (who also went by the name Henry Greenberg), claimed to have information pertaining to Hillary Clinton. Caputo notified Roger Stone and brokered communication between Stone and Oknyansky. Oknyansky and Stone set up a May 2016 in-person meeting.

“Oknyansky was accompanied to the meeting by Alexei Rasin, a Ukrainian associate involved in Florida real estate. At the meeting, Rasin offered to sell Stone derogatory information on Clinton that Rasin claimed to have obtained while working for Clinton. Rasin claimed to possess financial statements demonstrating Clinton’s involvement in money laundering with Rasin’s companies. According to Oknyansky, Stone asked if the amounts in question totaled millions of dollars but was told it was closer to hundreds of thousands. Stone refused the offer, stating that Trump would not pay for opposition research.”

According to the Report, Rasin was trying to make money by peddling the information and getting a cut if the information was sold. Despite his statements that he had worked for Clinton, there’s no evidence he ever did, according to the Report.

Despite being a director or registered agent for a number of Florida companies and having a Florida driver’s license, the Special Counsel’s office was unable to locate Rasin.

The Rasin-Oknyansky effort may have been separate from official Russian interference efforts, according to the Report.

July 27, 2016, Trump’s Doral, Fla., press conference.

It was at this Doral, Fla., press conference that President Donald Trump made his infamous remark: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” There are repeated references to this press conference throughout the report, starting on page 18. As the Report notes: “Within five hours of Trump’s remark, a Russian intelligence service began targeting email accounts associated with Hillary Clinton for possible hacks.”

Mar-a-lago, Palm Beach, Fla.

President Trump’s Mar-a-lago resort figures several times in the Report.

It was here in the Spring of 2016 that Paul Manafort was hired as campaign manager, initially without pay.

It was also at Mar-a-lago that on Dec. 29, 2016 the Trump team first learned of President Barack Obama’s imposition of sanctions on Russia for election interference and the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats.

Numerous members of the Presidential Transition Team, including Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus and K.T. McFarland, who was slated to become deputy national security adviser, were at the resort.

There was an exchange of e-mails about the impact of the sanctions. National Security Advisor-designate Michael Flynn was in the Dominican Republic and spoke by phone with McFarland. Flynn told McFarland that he would be speaking to Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. He did so that evening and urged the ambassador not to allow the situation to escalate by retaliating. The following day, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced there would be no retaliation.

Conclusion: Russian efforts past and future

It remains to be seen if the Florida county where Russian spearfishing succeeded will be revealed. But what the Mueller Report really brings out was the depth and breadth of the Russian election interference effort. With Florida a key battleground state and the home of Mar-a-lago, there was considerable Russian effort expended here.

Most importantly, the Mueller Report is a critical warning for the 2020 election: Florida is in the crosshairs. The Russians will be back.

Liberty lives in light
© 2019 David Silverberg