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Where's Waldo?

There are two ways to find one's bearings in the maze of allegations over Russian collusion in the West. The first is to evaluate each piece of breaking news with respect to the tangled skeins of conspiracy that both sides and hundreds of pundits tirelessly launch. The second approach is to understand Russia's objectives from first principles, and from them evaluate each piece of information in relation to the Kremlin's interests.

Unless there's some easy way to find Waldo it's easy to become a victim of disinformation. The quickest way to identify the character is to become familiar with his signature. The unfailing signature of a Putin stooge is he promotes the Kremlin's interests. What are those interests?

Common sense suggests Russia's three most immediate priorities are a) keeping its energy industry profitable; b) maintaining a military posture of intimidation in Europe; and c) keeping Assad in Syrian power and evicting the U.S., in cooperation with Iran, from the region. It will be readily apparent that achieving these goals will serve the interests of Putin. Conversely, their defeat or frustration is necessarily a setback for him. Find the man or men who back those goals and you've got Waldo.

It may be useful to examine the prospects of each of these Russian goals at the present time.

The future of Russian oil isn't very bright under current trends. As CNBC noted in March 2018: "[T]he United States will dominate the oil industry for the next 5 years, International Energy Agency forecasts." If this continues it will beggar Putin, or at least straiten his circumstances. He would certainly welcome a reduction in American oil production.

Current American military increases must dampen Russia's military prospects in the European theater. In the words of the Los Angeles Times in February 2018: "Trump Proposes Huge Increase in Military Spending." This can hardly be welcome to Putin:

The budget blueprint, combined with a defense boost that Congress approved last week, would increase Pentagon accounts for weapons, troops, training and for nuclear arms programs run by the Energy Department by more than $74 billion, a 10% increase over current spending levels.

Trump's budget plan was released weeks after the Pentagon issued a national security strategy that called for a shift away from battling terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State, and retooling the military to deter and, if necessary, fight nuclear-armed adversaries such as Russia, China or North Korea.

Russia's position in Syria was recently threatened by national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who "called for further U.S. action against Russia as punishment for crimes in Syria, in a fiery address at an event marking the seventh year of the Syrian Civil War." Only a few days ago, UN ambassador Nikki Haley warned of action unless Russia, Syria and Iran honored a ceasefire in Syria. While some skepticism has been expressed over whether the U.S. can effectively checkmate Russia in Syria, the Washington Post reports the administration lobbying the Saudis in just such an endeavor.