Kremlin’s World War III Propaganda Meltdown Shows Putin Is Cornered
MOSCOW—Russia these days may look frightening to Americans, who hear often of election meddling and poisoning among other ill deeds. But consider for a moment the view from the other side of the divide, or at least the view presented to Russians by their television sets.
The looming potential for World War III has become a regular topic on Russian state propaganda shows. Night after night, Vladimir Soloviev, who is often described as the Kremlin’s top propagandist, and his guests condemn the West’s “economically suffocating” strategy of imposing sanctions and suggest war is the logical outcome.
The conclusion reached by Soloviev and his guests is that the country’s politicians and titans of business should break all ties with the West, including communicating with their relatives. A long history of grievances spills out; Soloviev says the conflict between Russia and the West started in the 13th century: “They believe we are barbarians and they are civilized, so they have a right to point out to us how we should live and behave.”
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The show, which is broadcast nightly on state channel 1, heats up quickly. This week, Sergei Kurginyan, a pro-Kremlin political expert close to the secret services, accused the West of tearing Russia apart by creating a fifth column in the Far East, where thousands of Russians have been marching in anti-Putin rallies for two months. Putin’s nemesis Alexei Navalny was out East bolstering the opposition rallies when he was poisoned with a deadly nerve agent.
Kurginyan has been consistently criticizing the Russian elite for pursuing naïve dreams about becoming part of European society: “Our elites have grown together with Europe through family connections, children, grandchildren. But in the current situation they will have to tear these connections apart. That will be terribly painful but you will have to do that,” he said.
A popular newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda announced in plain language on Friday that: “The world is under a threat of the Third World War over the Russian COVID-19 vaccine.”
The paper claimed the European Union and the U.S. were furious about Russia selling millions of doses of its vaccines to Brazil and Africa.
The Russian nationalist publication Tsargrad claimed an invented military victory on Friday. “NATO Exercises Failed: Russian Ships Scared Americans and Ukrainians Away.”
What caused this latest storm of anti-Western state propaganda?
This week, the U.S. imposed new commercial restrictions on Yevgeniy Prigozhin, known as “Putin chef,” and his companies some of which are linked to the Wagner mercenary army and U.S. election interference. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also suggested this week that the order to poison Navalny came from senior Russian officials, the pressure grows on Putin to explain Navalny’s poisoning on face yet more sanctions. Both the European Union and Britain are also preparing sanctions against Putin’s partner in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, after a violent crackdown on the opposition and a fraudulent election.
The age-old theme of a “conflict of civilizations” between East and West has been resurfacing on state media outlets. It is this undercurrent that is the at core of the West’s issues with Russia, the propaganda outlets insist.
If the West continues to punish Vladimir Putin’s allies with economic sanctions and block Russian movement around the world, they say, Moscow will come up with a new strategy that does not involve the West. “We have not sent forces to Ukraine, to Kyiv only for the sake of our relations with Europe; by the new strategy we would deploy the forces and surely our allies in Turkey and China would respect us for such a strong decision,” prominent Kremlin-aligned political analyst Sergey Markov tells The Daily Beast.
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The propaganda outlets portray Putin and his allies withdrawing from the worl, as if in a besieged castle, to isolate and defend themselves.
Russia’s ability to respond in kind with sanctions is limited. A few weeks ago, the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov imposed sanctions against Pompeo after the U.S. state department sanctioned members of his family. But this was widely seen as little more than a joke since Pompeo has no property or bank accounts in Chechnya. Still, the story made the Russian-speaking news. Olga Skobeyeva, a host of one of the more popular political talk shows 60 Minutes, praised Kadyrov’s “cool” sanctions.
Germany and France are demanding from the Kremlin an investigation of last month’s poisoning of Navalny with a Soviet-era chemical weapon, Novichok. But two decades of Russia’s modern history show how strongly Putin resists any demand imposed by the West. Instead, they are ramping up the propaganda. “They say, ‘Oh, you once again want to tear us apart, here is our answer to you—and Putin comes out with a speech about the most powerful hypersonic weapon,” a commentator on independent Rain TV, Pavel Lobkov, told The Daily Beast.
Last weekend, on Russia’s Day of the Gunsmith—an obscure holiday which is usually ignored—Putin went on television to discuss Russia’s latest nuclear weapons. They can reach anywhere in the world, he said. The Avangard hypersonic glide vehicles can wipe out a territory the size of Texas or France, viewers were told. Putin blamed the U.S. for the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic-Missile treaty back in 2002. “We had to create these weapons in response to the U.S. deploying a strategic missile defense system, which in the future would be able to actually neutralize, nullify our entire nuclear potential,” Putin said.
On Friday, Putin asked the White House for a truce on the “information war,” which is laughable since Western intelligence agencies say the Kremlin has already been targeting the 2020 presidential election. Nonetheless, Markov explains that Moscow is expecting incoming rhetorical fire during the height of the American election season: “Russian intelligence has informed Vladimir Putin earlier this year of rough attacks on him personally coming up,” he said. “That might happen during the U.S. elections, the conflict might enter a hot phase, so it is time to buy canned food.”
Read more at The Daily Beast.
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AI Weekly: Amazon went wide with Alexa; now it’s going deep
Amazon’s naked ambition to become part of everyone’s daily lives was on full display this week at its annual hardware event. It announced a slew of new Alexa-powered devices, including a home surveillance drone, a suite of Ring-branded car alarm systems, and miscellany like an adorable little kids’ Echo device. But it’s clear that Amazon’s strategy has shifted, even if only for a product cycle, from going wide to going deep.
Last year, Amazon baked its virtual assistant into any household device that could accommodate a chip. Its list of new widgets with Alexa seemed a mile long, and this included a menagerie of home goods like lamps and microwaves. The company also announced device partnerships that ensure Alexa would live on some devices alongside other virtual assistants, tools to make it easier for developers to create Alexa skills, networking devices and capabilities, and wearables. It was a volume play and an aggressive bid to further build out its ecosystem in even more markets.
This year, Amazon had fewer devices to announce, but it played up how it made Alexa itself better than ever. That’s the second prong of the strategy here: Get Alexa everywhere, then improve the marquee feature such that the experience for users eclipses anything the competition offers.
As is always the case at these sorts of events, Amazon talked big and dreamy about all the new Alexa features. Users will find out for themselves whether this is the real deal or just hype when Amazon rolls out updates over the course of the next year (they’re landing on smart home devices first). But on paper and in the staged demos, Alexa’s new capabilities certainly would seem to be a step closer to the holy grail of feeling like speaking to a virtual assistant is just like talking to a person.
That’s the crux of what Amazon says it’s done to improve Alexa, imbuing it with AI to make it more human-like. This includes picking up nuances in speech and adjusting its own cadence, asking its human conversation partner for clarifications to fill in knowledge, and using feedback like “Alexa, that’s wrong” to learn and correct itself.
Amazon is particularly proud of the new natural turn-taking capabilities, which helps Alexa to understand the foibles of human conversation. For example, in a staged demo, two friends talked about ordering a pizza through an Alexa device. Like normal humans, they didn’t use each other’s names in the conversation, they paused to think, they changed their minds and adjusted the order, and so on. Alexa “knew” when to chime in, as well as when they were talking to each other and not the Alexa device.
At the event, Rohit Prasad, VP and head scientist for Alexa, said that this required “real invention” and that the team went beyond just natural language processing (NLP) and embraced multisensory AI — acoustic, linguistic, and visual cues. And, he said, those all happen locally, on the device itself.
This is thanks to Amazon’s new AZ1 Neural Edge processor, which is designed to accelerate machine learning applications on-device instead of in the cloud. In the event liveblog, Amazon said: “With AZ1, powerful inference engines can run quickly on the edge—starting with an all-neural speech recognition model that will process speech faster, making Alexa even more responsive.” There are scant few details available about the chip, but it likely portends a near future where Alexa devices are able to do more meaningful virtual assisting without an internet connection.
Given the utter lack of information about the AZ1, it’s impossible to say what it can or can’t do. But it would a potential game-changer if it was able to handle all of Alexa’s new tricks on devices as simple as an Echo smart speaker. There could be positive privacy implications, too, if users could enjoy a newly powerful Alexa on-device, thereby keeping their voice recordings away from Amazon’s cloud.
But going deep for Amazon isn’t just about a more humanlike Alexa; it involves pulling people further into its ecosystem, which Amazon hopes is the sum of adding device and service ubiquity to more engaging user experiences.
Part of that effort centers on Ring devices, which now include not just front-door home security products but also car security products and a small autonomous drone for the inside of your home. They’re essentially surveillance devices — and taken together, they’re an ecosystem of surveillance devices and services that Amazon owns, and that connects to law enforcement. You can buy into it as deeply as you want, creating a surveillance bubble inside your home, around your home, and on board your vehicles regardless where you’ve parked them. The tension over Ring devices — what and who they record, where those recordings go, and who uses them for what purpose — will only be amplified by this in-home drone and the car alarm and camera.
Whether going deep or going wide, what hasn’t changed is that Amazon wants to be omnipresent in our lives. With every event’s worth of new devices and capabilities, the company takes a step closer to that goal.
Taiwan’s armed forces strain in undeclared war of attrition with China
By Ben Blanchard
KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan (Reuters) – Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen visited a low-key but critical maintenance base for fighter jet engines on Saturday, offering encouragement as the Chinese-claimed island’s armed forces strain in the face of repeated Chinese air force incursions.
This month alone, China’s drills have included its jets crossing the mid-line of the sensitive Taiwan Strait and exercising near the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands in the South China Sea.
Beijing regards Taiwan as a wayward province and has never renounced the use of force to bring the democratic island under its control.
Taiwan’s air force has repeatedly scrambled to intercept Chinese jets. Though they have not flown over mainland Taiwan itself, the flights have ramped up pressure, both financial and physical, on Taiwan’s air force to ensure its aircraft are ready to go at any moment.
Visiting the Gangshan air base in southern Taiwan’s Kaohsiung, Tsai received a detailed account of how the maintenance crew is making sure Taiwan’s F-16 and other fighters are operating at peak performance.
She appeared slightly taken aback when told the cost of one small component for the F-CK-1 Ching-kuo Indigenous Defence Fighter was T$380,000 ($13,000).
Speaking later to sailors at the nearby Zuoying naval base, Tsai promised to be the strongest backer of the island’s armed forces.
“If there was no backup or help from you all, the military’s steadfast combat strength would be greatly reduced,” she said.
Taiwan’s air force is dwarfed by China’s, and the strain of the multiple sorties on Taiwan’s armed forces have begun to show.
Taiwan’s Defence Ministry this month said the “dramatic increase” in the threat level, along with the aircraft being “middle-aged” had led to a huge increase in maintenance costs not originally budgeted for.
Saldik Fafana, 21，a trainee air force engineer at the Gangshan base, said he had noticed an impact recently. “There is more work,” he told reporters.
‘CONSTANTLY ON EDGE’
Taiwan is revamping its fighter line-up.
The United States last year approved an $8 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, a deal that would bringing the island’s total to more than 200, the largest F-16 fleet in Asia.
Premier Su Tseng-chang expressed concern on Wednesday about the cost of the tensions with China.
“Each time the communist aircraft harass Taiwan, our air force takes to the skies, and it is extremely costly. This isn’t only a burden for Taiwan, but quite a big one for China too,” he said.
One Taiwan-based diplomat, citing conversations with security officials, said China appeared to be waging a campaign of attrition with its frequent fly-bys.
“China is trying to wear out Taiwan’s pilots by keeping them constantly on edge,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Taiwan’s Defence Ministry, in a report to parliament last month, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters, said China’s flights over the narrow strait’s mid-line were aimed at reducing Taiwan’s response time.
This has put “enormous pressure” on Taiwan’s frontline responders, it said.
Chinese flights to Taiwan’s southwest, including at night, are “an attempt to exhaust our air defences”, the ministry added, warning that if these become regular fixtures, they will “increase our burden of response”.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by William Mallard)
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