Bit of a risk for a few bitcoins

I am reading from various reports that the Wannacry ransomware attack that has laid bare the deficiencies in the IT security of the NHS has also affected many Russian companies, not least Sberbank and the Russian railways.

Sberbank is a state-owned company. A lot of the most skilled and prolific hackers and IT security experts are Russian, many of whom will be living in Russia. Depending on whose toes have been trodden on at Sberbank or the other affected companies, some nasty people might well be deploying considerable resources in trying to find out the origins of this software. If so, don’t be surprised if those responsible are found. And then found again, some months later, badly decomposed in a shallow grave in a forest.

I doubt anyone will have much sympathy.

Share

Russian ship sinking: it’s all relative

Not the Russian navy’s finest hour:

A Russian naval intelligence ship sank off Turkey’s Black Sea coast on Thursday after colliding with a vessel carrying livestock and all 78 personnel on board the navy ship were evacuated, Turkish officials said.

The rescued crew members of the Russian ship Liman were in good health after the collision with the Togo-flagged Youzarsif H, Turkey’s Transport Minister Ahmed Arslan said.

The incident took place in fog and low visibility 18 miles (29 km) from Kilyos village on the Black Sea coast just north of Istanbul.

A spokesman for Hammami Livestock which owns the Youzarsif H said there had been no loss of life on board the vessel. “It is considered a slight hit, for us,” he told Reuters in Lebanon, adding he had no information about the cause of the collision.

So, a lot of Russian surveillance equipment lost but no cows. I refer to this article as an excuse to cite my favorite story regarding the Russian navy: the Dogger Bank Incident.

The Dogger Bank incident (also known as the North Sea Incident, the Russian Outrage or the Incident of Hull) occurred on the night of 21/22 October 1904, when the Russian Baltic Fleet mistook a British trawler fleet from Kingston upon Hull in the Dogger Bank area of the North Sea for an Imperial Japanese Navy force and fired on them. Russian warships also fired on each other in the chaos of the melée. Three British fishermen died and a number were wounded. One sailor and a priest aboard a Russian cruiser caught in the crossfire were also killed. The incident almost led to war between Britain and Russia.

Why the hell would the Russians think a British trawler in the North Sea was a Japanese warship? Because:

The Russian warships involved in the incident were en route to the Far East, to reinforce the 1st Pacific Squadron stationed at Port Arthur, and later Vladivostok, during the Russo-Japanese War. Because of the fleet’s alleged sightings of balloons and four enemy cruisers the day previously, coupled with “the possibility that the Japanese might surreptitiously have sent ships around the world to attack” them, the Russian admiral, Zinovy Rozhestvensky, called for increased vigilance, issuing an order that “no vessel of any sort must be allowed to get in among the fleet”, and to prepare to open fire upon any vessels failing to identify themselves. With ample reports about the presence of Japanese torpedo boats, submarines and minefields in the North Sea, and the general nervousness of the Russian sailors, 48 harmless fishing vessels were attacked by the Russians, thousands of miles away from enemy waters.

As military blunders go, this one is hard to beat. As The Times said the next day:

“It is almost inconceivable that any men calling themselves seamen, however frightened they might be, could spend twenty minutes bombarding a fleet of fishing boats without discovering the nature of their target.”

Hitting a boatload of cattle in fog off Turkey seems almost professional by comparison.

Share

Getting it Wrong on Russia

Back in February I lamented the fact that finding sensible commentary on Russia is difficult because when it comes to that particular nation, people’s views fall into one of the following two categories:

1. Russia is America’s number one enemy, they rigged the US election in order to install their puppet Trump, they are hell-bent on taking over Europe by force and they must be confronted in Syria.

2. Russia is absolutely no threat to Europe, Crimea rightfully belongs to Russia and the annexation was perfectly above-board, they have been forced to launch a war in Eastern Ukraine because of Western plans to encircle them, they are directly threatened by NATO and they have shown us all how things ought to be done in Syria.

A recent article in The Spectator is a good case in point:

What amazes me is that if you bring up Russia in America and Europe today, people react the way academics used to back in the 1930s if one criticized Stalin and his purges. Fifty to 100 million died in the gulags, and lefties the world over turned a blind eye; now you say one nice thing about Putin and you’re toast.

That is true, and worthy of discussion.

Towards the late-1980s, the Soviet ambassador to Athens befriended my father, the coldest warrior of them all, and convinced him that all Gorby wanted was to conduct business with the West. He also reminded him what Georgi Arbatov had told dad when he had been a guest of the government during the Moscow Olympics of 1980: the greatest danger Russia faced was not America and the West but the 40 million Muslims within the Soviet Union.

I can only assume the author cites the opinion of his Dad’s mate because he believes it is true. It’s clearly bollocks. The greatest predictable threat to Russia in the 1980s was a nuclear war with America; the greatest unknown threat turned out to be the collapse of the USSR. Presumably the author thinks the words hold true today, but even that’s a tough sell. Considering their numbers, Russia has encountered very little trouble of the Islamist variety from Tatars, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tadjiks, Ingush and other Muslims from the former Soviet Union. The obvious exception is with the Chechens but their push for independence and the two subsequent wars were driven as much by nationalism as Islamism (and the Chechens have always been troublemakers from Moscow’s point of view). Over time the Chechen separatists became out-and-out Islamic terrorists, but they don’t represent the biggest danger to Russia. And it’s worth pointing out that a lot of the hardcore fighters in Chechnya were foreigners, and that the most feared “Chechen” fighters who joined ISIS seem to be ethnic Russians who converted to Islam.

Either way, Russian and former-Soviet Muslims are not and never were the greatest danger facing Russia. If we want me to say what I think that is, I’d go for the insistence of its leaders to concentrate power around themselves, weaken institutions, crush any opposition, and leave no succession plan making chaos more likely each time the regime changes every generation or two. Couple that with a populous and resource-hungry China on its distant borders.

One hundred years ago, after the Tsar’s murder, westerners thought of Russia as a savage, benighted land yearning to become a second America. That was a crock, if ever there was one. Russians are a spiritual people who yearn to connect with Christ, not Wall Street.

I don’t think this chap has spent much time in Russia or around Russians. It would take one to be willfully blind not to notice how much rampant consumerism, paid for with credit cards and bank loans, has gripped Russians. A few text messages passed between family members at Easter doesn’t change that.

After the collapse of communism, America committed its greatest mistake until the Iraqi invasion 11 years later. Instead of listening to George F. Kennan, a Russian expert and diplomat extraordinaire, and to Richard Nixon, who both advised helping the new state financially as well as politically, Uncle Sam heeded neocon siren voices and encircled Russia via Nato.

And just like that, we get the full, unalloyed, Kremlin take on things. It’s hard to know where to begin. The Americans did attempt to help Russia financially and politically: they poured in billions to stop the country from collapsing completely, secure its nuclear weapons, strengthen its institutions, and get a grip on an AIDS epidemic among many other things. As things turned out the economic advice was extremely naive in that they didn’t anticipate the degree to which Russians would murder one another while transforming their economy, but that can hardly be blamed on the Americans. Sure, there was a lot of asset stripping, theft, and other dodgy practices being carried out by individuals, some of whom had state backing, but to say the Americans didn’t try to help Russia after the collapse of the USSR might as well be taken from Putin’s Top Ten List of Things to Blame on America.

What annoys me about these sort of articles is they assume Russians themselves have no agency, as if they bear no responsibility for their own situation, and are always at the mercy of the US. To counter this, I’ll refer to this post from 2007 in which I list the business-related murders in the first part of 2000 alone, a decade after perestroika. Did Americans tell them to behave like this? No. This is simply how Russians behave, American advice or not.

And this:

Uncle Sam heeded neocon siren voices and encircled Russia via Nato.

Oh please. Again, this is straight out of the Kremlin book of propaganda. The Nato expansion was more about a bureaucratic organisation wanting to increase its headcount and footprint more than a grand strategy to encircle Russia. Had America wanted to destroy Russia in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, they would have done so. As I said here:

By historical standards Russia, as part of a collapsing empire which had been defeated after a long and often bloody struggle against an ideological, military, and political enemy that remained strong, got off awfully lightly.

Now I will concede that some Nato actions – the bombing of Serbia, for example – might be construed as offensive and give Putin & Co some cause for concern, but the idea that Nato represents any sort of threat to Russia is laughable. I am quite sure that the Russians themselves don’t believe it either, no matter how much they repeat it for political purposes.

Neocons then doubled down on their folly by convincing an idiotic president and his poodle Tony Blair to invade Iraq. A trillion dollars and hundreds of thousands of dead later, not a single neocon has been jailed or tried for their crimes. But Putin has been demonised by those same neocons and their networks, and by newspapers such as the Mexican-owned New York Times.

So the idiocy of the Iraq War makes Putin off-limits for criticism? I agree that the neo-cons have no moral ground on which to criticise Putin, but it doesn’t make them wrong. Not that I think they are right either, but the premise is daft.

The Nato expansion into the former Soviet block is now being called a ‘tragic mistake’ by those of us not taken in by neocon propaganda. There was bound to be an authoritarian backlash in Russia as a result.

And there we have the Russians’ lack of agency again. Incorporating the Czech Republic into Nato in 1999 simply forced Putin to embark on aggressive, anti-western policies in 2007.

And then there is the monstrously corrupt privatisation, sanctioned by a drunken Yeltsin. (Chelsea fans and other beneficiaries in London and New York should put up a statue of the drunk. Swiss and Bahama-based bankers pray for him daily.)

The author  appears not to realise that the person he is praising and his entourage are the prime beneficiaries of this monstrously corrupt privatisation. Does he think Putin and Roman Abramovich are enemies? But again, note how a drunk Russian presiding over a corrupt privatisation programme from which ruthless Russian gangsters benefited is something to be blamed on foreigners.

Of course, there is a reason for all this nonsense, and it is contained in a paragraph near the start of the article:

I’ve recently been reading rather a lot about RT. My friend, the film director James Toback — who directed the greatest movie of all time, Seduced and Abandoned — tells me it is the only news channel he watches in New York. I may be biased against the BBC and American networks because of their hypocritical claim of impartiality (as impartial as Saudi clerics judging a Jewish smuggler), but I love RT as it doesn’t do fake news. And, unlike American broadcasters, it has a sense of humour.

Russia Today doesn’t do fake news? Right.

The author has made the same mistake most people do when commenting on Russia: they have (rightly) understood that the Western, mainstream media is wrong, biased, or both and stumbled across Russia Today. They have then, for reasons unknown only to themselves, abandoned all skepticism and accepted without question what they see and hear from the Kremlin-run channel. I have noticed a similar thing with some of my friends on Facebook: they have realised that the BBC is unreliable and so start posting quotes from Zerohedge, as if they are any more truthful.

The idea that perhaps the situation with Russia is complex, each issue must be viewed separately, and the truth lies somewhere between the BBC/CNN and RT escapes most contemporary commentators. Perhaps Putin isn’t benign, but maybe he’s not quite like Saddam Hussein either. Sure, Russia might have legitimate concerns over Nato’s behaviour, but that did not compel them to embark on land-grabs and launch an insurrection in East Ukraine. There is some middle ground here, but boy do I feel like I’m ploughing a lonely furrow through it.

(As an aside, some advice for the author after reading this passage:

And speaking of girls, at our last summer party, towards the end, when I was well fuelled, I met Olga, a very pretty Russian who works for Russia Today. Olga has perfect manners, something her male counterparts are not famous for, and is well spoken and graceful. Even the MoMC thought her too good for me when they met at my birthday party.

For those of us who have spent time in Russia, few things come across as more nauseating than a middle-aged Western man, having encountered a Russian woman for the first time in his life, telling people about it.)

Share

The Referendum in Turkey

So Turkish citizens at home and abroad have decided they want a presidential system of government rather than a parliamentary one. This makes them more like France than Britain. So far so meh.

The change has been pushed by the incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who spent eleven years as prime minister. The change has been sold on the basis that Turkey is facing various threats – terrorism, separatists Kurds, refugees, a civil war next door – and without these changes things will only get worse. The campaign for change was run not merely on the basis that an executive president will be able to better manage these issues, but that Erdoğan was uniquely placed to deal with them personally. The result was not so much a reflection of Turkey’s desire to be ruled by a president as much as a desire to be ruled by Erdoğan himself.

I say this because the result surprised me. Erdoğan has always polled around the 51-52% mark and because of this many people believed the same split would occur in this referendum. But referenda are not elections. Elections are between two or more candidates and one must make a choice, often while holding one’s nose. A referendum usually has nothing to do with the individuals involved, and a fine example of this was Brexit: nobody wanted Nigel Farage as a Prime Minister and UKIP did not poll particularly well in General Elections. But people still voted to leave anyway, because the issue of EU membership was detached from ordinary party politics and the individuals who represent them. Initially I thought this might be the same in Turkey, only to be proven quite wrong when the results came out. It is looking obvious that the constitutional changes being voted on were inextricably linked to Erdoğan himself.

There’s nothing new here, and the number of parallels that can be drawn between Erdoğan and others is long. The most obvious is with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. He managed to sidestep presidential term limits in 2008 by moving to prime minister, taking his powers with him and installing a puppet in the form of Dmitry Medvedev as president, before the two swapped positions again in 2012. Since at least 2007, Putin has drummed up fears of Russia facing terrible threats, mainly in the form of alleged Western plots to encircle and then dismember Russia (possibly massacring all its people in the process), that he is uniquely placed to deal with. Putin has positioned himself such that Russia is Putin and vice versa, and without him the entire nation will be at the mercy of nefarious foreigners who (for some reason that is never quite explained) hate Russia and Russians. This sort of rhetoric plays well in Russia, and Putin is genuinely popular as a result (although how much, in the absence of a free press and a decent opposition, is open to question). Russians have always been ready to buy into the idea that foreigners want them destroyed and throughout their history they have been happy to be ruled by an authoritarian strongman and adopt a siege mentality, eating raw potatoes and shivering in the dark in defiance of their enemies who, if we’re honest, barely know they exist.

Erdoğan seems to be adopting a similar approach. He has ramped up the rhetoric against the West, promoting himself as the natural leader of the Islamic world and determined to make Turkey a force to be reckoned with. While Putin fancies himself as the next Catherine the Great, Erdoğan wants to be seen as the next Ataturk (or possibly an Ottoman Sultan). In other words, he’s a man in search of  a legacy, and I’ve written about this before:

So what of Putin’s legacy? If Russia hangs onto Crimea, which it probably will, it might warrant a note in a history book somewhere (offered as much prominence as Khrushchev’s transfer of the peninsula in 1954, which few knew about until recently). But it’s hardly the stuff to warrant a mention alongside Katherine the Great or Ivan the Terrible. As I said at the beginning of this post, the modern-day politician (of which Putin is one, no matter how much he wishes he belonged to another era) just doesn’t think big enough to create a proper legacy. In the grand scheme of things, the annexation of Crimea is mere fiddling, and expensively at that.

Like his predecessors, Putin found even with seemingly unlimited political power, plenty of popular support, and no opposition that Russia was fiendishly difficult to change. It has not become the great power that he wanted, feared and respected by all. Addressing the issues of corruption, collapsing demographics, alcoholism, an economy dependent on oil and gas exports, and a largely conscripted military have all proven to be beyond Putin’s capabilities and probably anyone else’s as well. With the exception of the Crimean land grab, very little has changed in Russia since 2008 that is not directly attributable to the waxing and waning of the global economy and the oil price. There is a lot of inertia in a nation and they are often resistant to change (ask the French): Putin has proven that it takes a lot more than an authoritarian strongman with plenty of angry rhetoric to take a country in a new direction in the twenty-first century.

I suspect Erdoğan will find much the same thing. Indeed, I’d say his job is only just beginning. He’s put himself forward as the man who will solve the twin issues of Kurdish separatism and jihadist terrorism single-handedly and the nation has given their approval for him to do so. Well, good luck with that. All eyes on you, old chap. And unlike Putin he doesn’t have anywhere near the popular support that his Russian counterpart enjoys: his referendum scraped through 51% to 49% and the three largest cities voted No. If he isn’t delivering results soon he might find himself somewhat under siege himself. Sure, he can crack more heads and throw more people in jail and increase the hyperbole against the West and the half of the country that don’t support him, but that will only make his job more difficult. And he also faces the challenge of keeping Turkey’s economy growing while all this is going on. I suspect foreign investors are already nervous of putting money into a place where an all-powerful president is now railing against the EU and banging the Islamist drum ever-louder. Like Putin, much of his popularity will depend on how much he can keep ordinary Turks convinced their lives are getting better under his rule, and that for most people means jobs and money. It is true that much of Turkey is shit-poor and this will not be a difficult feat to pull off, but Turkey has no real history of hunkering down for a lengthy siege against imaginary outside enemies bent on their destruction and taking the lifestyle hit that this entails. By contrast, one would be forgiven for thinking Russians have to adopt this pose in order to feel fully alive.

My guess is not much will change in Turkey. Sure, opposition politicians will find their heads cracked and journalists will be chucked in jail and the state institutions will become thoroughly corrupted. But it’s not like this wasn’t happening before. What sort of freedom of expression did Communists or Islamists enjoy under the old regime? Not that I like either group, but there’s not been a fundamental shift here, merely the targets of the police batons have changed. The more Erdoğan tries to build his “legacy”, the more he will get bogged down in intractable problems that lie deep within Turkish society and he will begin to make a serious of blunders which, thanks to his lofty new position, will have his name all over them. Erdoğan doesn’t even have the luxury of being a new face that can expect a honeymoon period of a few years. As I said before:

There are limits to what people can do in office, and that is often driven by time. A two-term president in the US is usually in charge of a very tired administration in the final couple of years, regardless of how good they’ve been beforehand. Even New Labour’s supporters were glad to see the back of Tony Blair after 10 years as Prime Minister; Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street a tired shadow of the vibrant woman who had entered almost 12 years previously; and despite the economic boom and rise in living standards Australia enjoyed under 11 years of John Howard, the population felt they were in need of a change when they kicked him out. The optimum period in office for a leader in a modern democracy is approximately 7-8 years, after which their administration is plagued by various scandals, stumbling policies, tired rhetoric, and a population that has gotten tired of seeing the same damned face on the TV every night and could use a change. Even the Soviet leaders eventually departed, unable to fulfill any more promises or bring about change in the way they could when they first took over. With the exception of Stalin, few missed them.

Personally, I think he’s got a mountain to climb, one of his own making. If his current politics are anything to go by, he’ll do extremely well not to destroy the economy and usher in a lengthy period of stagnation and decline making him a figure in the vein of Hosni Mubarak. His idea that Turkey can adopt a belligerent attitude to the EU, US, as well as its regional neighbours such as Iran and Russia are delusional: a combination of any of those could make life extremely difficult for him, and if they really wanted to they could crush him pretty quickly. A mischievous foreign power could start arming the Kurds, for example, something nobody has been willing to do – yet. God knows what thoughts run through Trump’s head on any given day, but Turkey’s membership of Nato – even assuming the alliance survives – is becoming ever-more questionable, and if the country lurches towards Islamism some senator might find a bill to cease supplying Turkey with weapons to be a vote winner. Who will Erdoğan buy his equipment from then? Russia? China?

There is a chance Erdoğan turns Turkey into the next Venezuela or Iran, but frankly, who cares? Since the end of the Cold War Turkey’s strategic importance has dwindled, and other than the refugee issue (which can easily be solved if politicians so desire) the future of the West is not in any way dependent on Turkey. Sure, it’s a bit shit for the 49% who didn’t want this but it’s up to them to get themselves out of this mess. One of the big mistakes I think people are making, including a lot of Turks themselves, is believing Erdoğan’s support is made up exclusively of backward, conservative, uneducated peasants in the centre of the country. We heard the same remarks levelled at Leave voters after Brexit and Trump voters after the US presidential election. I suppose it is comforting to say that all of those who are educated, intelligent, and have been exposed to international systems all voted No in the Turkish referendum, but I have a hard time believing that 49% of the oh-so-clever part of the population lost to the 51% who are farmers who can’t read or write. The truth is that, like Trump and Leave voters, there will be plenty of Turks who are smart, educated, and well-travelled who – for various reasons – support Erdoğan. The Turks who voted No might want to find out who those people are and understand those reasons before throwing their toys out of the pram.

For me, the real danger lies in what I’ve written about before:

I hope I’m wrong about this, but Erdoğan may well have made the mistake moderate left wingers made time and time again: they purged the opposition of right-wingers but failed to notice the hardcore Communists sneaking up on their left flank, and by the time they realised the danger they were being stood against a brick wall facing a machine gun. In his hurry to neuter his political opponents and boost his support, Erdoğan may have done away with the very people he now needs to tackle extremism within Turkey and allowed extremists elements to infiltrate those institutions on which the survival of the Republic depends.

By far the biggest problem facing Turkey in the wake of this referendum is not Erdoğan but the one who succeeds him. It might be that, if people are fed up with him and want things to go back to how they were, all of these changes will be undone by the next guy who will reinstate the parliamentary system. That is the best thing that can happen. The worst thing that can happen is extremists think Erdoğan has not gone far enough in turning Turkey into an Islamist basket-case and get rid of him, and a headcase takes over with all these shiny new powers to play with. Then you’ll start seeing even Yes voters tossed in jail (or worse) by the thousand and they’ll learn a harsh lesson about the limits of presidential power. They’d not be the first ones.

Share

The BBC on Beslan

From the BBC:

Beslan school siege: Russia ‘failed to prevent’ massacre

Given a massacre happened, I’d say so, yes.

In the siege, Chechen separatists took more than 1,000 hostages, the vast majority of them children.

It ended when Russian security forces stormed the building. Survivors say the troops used excessive force.

In all seriousness, and acknowledging that the siege would have been an enormous challenge for even the world’s most proficient counter-terrorism force, the Russian response was absolutely shambolic in the most woeful sense of the word. It made Nord-Ost look like Operation Entebbe.

And this:

Presumably the chap who does the bylines is Irish.

Share

Pointless Anger at the UN

From the BBC:

Syria war: Anger after Russia vetoes resolution at UN

Anger?

Russia has vetoed a draft resolution at the UN Security Council that would have condemned last week’s alleged chemical attack in Syria and demanded that Damascus cooperate with investigators.

The resolution was presented by the US, UK and France, who reacted angrily to Russia’s decision.

It was the eighth time Russia has protected its ally at the council.

Why is anyone angry at this? It was an absolute certainty that Russia was going to support its ally Assad and veto any resolution, if anyone was surprised – let along angered – by this then they ought to be fired immediately for being so unimaginably stupid that euthanasia becomes a serious consideration.

There’s no point being angry at Russia: they have made it clear they support Assad and either don’t believe he used chemical weapons or don’t care that he did. And there’s no point in being angry at their wielding a veto, this is what all the permanent members do when their allies are ganged up on (justifiably or not).

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley condemned Russia’s action: “You are isolating yourselves from the international community every time one of Assad’s planes drop another barrel bomb on civilians and every time Assad tries to starve another community to death,” she said.

So what’s new? If you don’t like how the system works, then change it or walk away. All this latest resolution has done is provide an opportunity for people to go on a jolly to New York and to demonstrate how useless the United Nations is. Again.

Share

Trump and Nato

What’s Trump up to now?

US President Donald Trump has said Nato is “no longer obsolete”, reversing a stance that had alarmed allies.

Let me just park that there for a second and quote a paragraph from ZMan’s latest offering:

Another thing about Trump  that makes him an extreme outlier in national politics is that he is not an ideologue. Most of our politicians are quite stupid. All of their intellectual energy is focused on the endless scheming and game playing that is politics. What passes for ideology in American politics is really just a laundry list of policies aimed at buying votes from interest groups. That’s why they sound like robots. They stick to the script, even in the face of a public revolt, because that’s the safe and easy way to do it.

That’s not Trump. He is not married to any policy. In the campaign, he would regularly say something one day and then take it back two days later when it proved to be unpopular. It is safe to assume, for example, that Trump has zero interest in health care. He’ll sign off on anything that is popular with the voters. He’s also willing to dump a bad policy without worrying a bit about being called a hypocrite or inconsistent. Trump is practical about these things. If it does not work, he tosses it aside and moves onto to the next thing.

This will be terribly frustrating for partisans, but Trump is a goal oriented guy.

I don’t disagree with any of that, and I think it is a good thing that the United States finally has a President who might borrow the words of Keynes and say “when the facts change, I change my mind.” Of course this would mean that Trump is also prone to manipulation by vested interests (and many believe this is happening right now over Syria), but I think on balance it is better to have a flexible President who listens to his advisers rather than a narcissist like Obama who is convinced he’s the smartest one in the room and is interested only in his “legacy”.

But that doesn’t mean that everything Trump changes his mind on is good, though. Let’s get back to his remarks on Nato:

Mr Trump has repeatedly questioned Nato’s purpose, while complaining that the US pays an unfair share of membership.

Nato was formed for one purpose: keeping the Soviets out of western Europe. If we assume the Russia inherited Soviet regional policies along with their embassies, nuclear weapons, and permanent seat on the UNSC, that means Nato exists to keep the Russians out of western Europe.

There are some people who believe there is nothing to fear from Russia and nobody in the west should bat an eyelid if Putin & Co go around invading neighbours and annexing peninsulas, and that is fair enough. In that case, Nato has no reason to exist. There are others, like me, who think Russia’s regional ambitions are a concern and Nato should continue in the role it was originally formed to play. It is important to understand that confronting Russia over, say, the annexation of Crimea or sabre-rattling on the Estonian border is very much consistent with an overall aim of keeping Russia out of western Europe. It is better this confrontation happens in the east at an early stage than on the borders of Austria and Germany later on when the west has no choice and the Russians have the wind at their backs.

However, if this is the purpose of Nato then it is imperative that each of its members pulls its weight and commits itself fully to the military and diplomatic aims of the organisation. If they continue to do what most of them have done for the past few decades, i.e. rely on the Americans to provide 99% of the military capability and sit there carping about American warmongering while at the same time undermining them diplomatically by doing cosy business and political deals with the Russians then the organisation, as Trump originally said, really is obsolete and should be wound up pronto. I was hoping Trump’s statement would force the Nato member states to carefully consider where their long-term interests lay and to decide the future of the alliance accordingly.

But this:

At a joint press conference with Mr Stoltenberg, Mr Trump said: “The secretary general and I had a productive discussion about what more Nato can do in the fight against terrorism.

“I complained about that a long time ago and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism.

“I said it [Nato] was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”

How the hell is Nato useful in the fight against terrorism? From what I can tell, most terrorism we see in the western world today is a result of two things:

1. Failed Muslim-majority states in the Middle East and elsewhere.

2. Extremely poor government policies in western countries which border on negligence if not outright treason.

Nato is of absolutely no use in tackling either of these. I don’t even think the assault on Afghanistan that kicked the Taliban out of power should have been a Nato mission: a “coalition of the willing” would have been good enough. Sure, there was some symbolism there but all it achieved was to muddy the waters as to what Nato’s purpose is. Things were already rather opaque when the organisation was used to attack Serbia over Kosovo: regardless of the rights and wrongs of that mission, it should never have been carried out under the banner of Nato. It allowed the Russians to claim, with some justification, that Nato is not merely a defensive organisation (although I don’t believe for one second they genuinely think it represents an offensive threat to Russia).

In short, Nato ought only to exist to fight Russians trying to get their mitts on western Europe (or roll tanks over its allies and up to its borders); if the member states don’t want that then it is obsolete. Shying away from its primary purpose by pretending it can be used to fight terrorism doesn’t change this analysis, regardless of what Trump is now saying.

Earlier this week Nato welcomed Montenegro as its 29th member nation.

Which is as much proof of the organisation’s obsolescence as you need.

Share

Syria: Fuck the lot of ’em!

So the US has decided to throw a few Tomahawk missiles at the airbase from which Syria launched the planes which delivered the alleged chemical attack a few days ago.

A small part of me is thinking yeah, good. While Obama mumbled and wrung his hands and talked tough before backing down and blaming everyone else, Trump has at least shown he has the balls to make a decision. On a fundamental level, nobody is going to convince me that throwing missiles at murderous dictators, especially those who have most probably used chemical weapons on their own people, is a wholly bad thing. I had similar feelings about the Iraq War, unrelated to whether and why I supported it: kicking the shit out of the Saddam Hussein’s supposedly invincible army in a matter of days, killing his sons, and seeing him hanged in an amateur fashion from some scaffolding were, taken in isolation, things of which I approved heartily.

But that aside, I’m not overly impressed with this latest attack. As I said yesterday, Assad is there to stay: he cannot be dislodged while the Russians are supporting him. Provided he has Russian support he can, pretty much, gas who he likes. Or not. What he does or doesn’t do is up to him. I doubt anyone believes the US’ claim that this strike has limited Assad’s ability to carry out further strikes. Airfields can be repaired in hours and new planes ordered from Russia in days. If the Syrian government really wants to carry on with such attacks, it can.

What is missing is how this strike fits into an overall strategy. Yes, there is something to be said for rapid, decisive action but not if there is no coordinated followup that makes sense. It would be far better for Trump’s administration to have understood exactly what they are dealing with as regards Russia and Syria and come up with a long-term plan which puts the interests of America and its allies first and doesn’t involve making things worse or putting their citizens in harm’s way. I suspect the reason this hasn’t happened is because any such plan would involve staying the hell away from the whole mess and keeping a beady eye on Russia elsewhere. Once the western media starts filling up with pictures of dead babies and weeping relatives, a plan of this nature becomes politically unacceptable and the leadership starts lobbing missiles to show they are doing something.

Personally, I don’t think it’s completely the politicians’ fault. Having read this morning’s papers and social media, there are plenty of people – both in the Estalbishment and among the general public – who want the West (i.e. the US with some “help” from Britain) to “stop” Assad from committing any more humanitarian abuses. These voices are numerous and loud enough that politicians cannot ignore them, even if they wanted to. It is a simple fact that a policy of “fuck the lot of ’em” is not politically acceptable in the West right now.

Personally, I wish it was. Not because I wouldn’t want to help civilians being gassed by their own government, but because I honestly cannot see a solution to this. Every course of action I can think of other than “fuck ’em” has an almost zero chance of succeeding in its aims and a very high chance of making things worse. Were any Russians killed in this airstrike? I seriously hope not. I don’t have much time for the policies of the Russian government, but I really don’t want to go to war with Russia. Whether we like it or not, Russia is a permanent member of the UNSC and if they are okay backing a dictator who is using chemical weapons on his own people then what the hell are we supposed to do? The only thing I can think of is to get the hell out of that useless organisation ASAP. I’m sure Trump can do something with the HQ on Manhattan’s East Side.

What I don’t get is how people can’t see that. Back in October I wrote a post about changing my mind on a major issue.

I supported the Iraq War for several reasons, one of which was I thought the Iraqis deserved the chance to be free of Saddam Hussein and run their country without him.  I genuinely thought they would seize the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that Arabic people are not incompatible with democracy and, so thankful that Saddam Hussein is gone, they would make a pretty decent effort to make things work.

Instead they tore each other apart and did everything they could to demonstrate that those who dismissed them as savages that needed a strongman to keep them in line were right all along.  I think this was probably the most depressing aspect of the whole shambolic affair.

This is not 2003. We know from bitter, bloody experience what happens when we try to make things better by intervening with the military in that part of the world (or any). Iraq was a disaster, so was Libya. Syria we barely got involved in, thanks to a majority of sensible MPs who said “enough is enough”, but if we had there is little chance we’d not be neck-deep in a quagmire by now.

When we got involved in Iraq, supposedly to help the Iraqi people, the entire Arab world detested us, including those we ostensibly came to help. As I said here:

The US-led intervention in Iraq was deemed a “war on Muslims” and the Americans and their allies demonised in every possible way by locals and foreigners alike for how they executed the war and handled the aftermath. They were not just criticised, which would have been more than justified, they were made out to be a rogue nation, carrying out atrocities on a scale not seen since World War II. This was bollocks on stilts.

But the demonisation worked.  Well done.  America and its allies were detested, and eventually they left. Only a short time later when people wanted them to come back to prevent yet more butchery, they politely declined.  Instead the locals got an altogether different military turning up, one whose savagery surpasses anything the Americans could dream up never mind get away with, and whose population back home would be completely unconcerned if indeed they bothered to learn about it.

At what point are Western populations going to realise that we are hated in the Middle East, probably by the very fathers of the children who were gassed and now crying out for our help? It has been demonstrated, time and time again, that when we try to do the right thing we are hated even more. Parts of the Arab world thought they would rather have the Russians than the Americans, and now they have the Russians. How is this our fault?

It’s not through moral principle that I am saying this, it is from practicality based on fourteen years of recent, bloody experience: Assad is a monster, the Russian government is showing the world exactly what they are like by backing him, and the Syrian people are suffering terribly, but there is nothing – nothing – we can do about it. It is a terrible indictment on the state of the world, but a policy of “fuck the lot of ’em” is the only workable one on the table right now. It’s high time our leaders started taking it seriously.

Share

Let’s Stop Kidding Ourselves Over Syria

On the gassing of children in Syria:

US President Donald Trump has condemned the killing of dozens of civilians in northern Syria in an apparent chemical weapons attack by Syria’s air force.

It was an “affront to humanity”, he said, adding: “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies… that crosses… many lines.”

Well, we knew Assad was capable of doing this as he’d done it before. There are quite a few on the alt-right and elsewhere who seem to think the West should not be involved in Syria because Assad isn’t that bad and he’s the only one who can keep control. I think Assad has proved he is pretty bad, but in all honesty he is the only one who can keep control, and there is no alternative. This doesn’t mean the West has to like him or work with him or give him the time of day, but it does mean that there is precious little they can do about it – gassed children or not.

He did not mention Russia, Syria’s ally, which says chemical weapons in rebel hands may have been released.

Does he have to? Russia has made it perfectly clear that Assad is their man. They probably sold him the weapons we’re talking about.

But America’s envoy to the UN accused Russia of covering up for Damascus.

“Time and time again Russia uses the same false narrative to deflect attention from their ally in Damascus,” Nikki Haley said during a heated UN Security Council debate in New York.

Hinting at possible unilateral action by the US, she added: “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”

And finally we get to the real story, the utter ineffectiveness and uselessness of the UN. Other than to provide cover for dictators gassing children, and allowing those same dictators to help pass resolutions condemning Israel’s existence, what purpose does it serve?

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Russia to “think carefully” about its continued support for President Assad.

Vice-President Mike Pence said “all options are on the table” regarding Syria.

This is actually sensible. Obama and Kerry, in displays of staggering stupidity, would routinely announce what the US was not considering whenever they were faced with a crisis such as this one. I am hoping that the US is not really considering military action over this, but there’s no need to tell everyone that, is there? But no doubt this will be presented by some sections of the media as Trump gearing up for war.

In an interview with Fox News, he added: “The Russians are in a close working alliance with the Assad regime in Syria, and the time has come for them to keep the word that they made to see to the elimination of chemical weapons so that they no longer threaten the people in that country.”

They were never going to keep their word: stop being so idiotically naive. Instead, understand what sort of regime Putin is running and learn to deal with it.

Only last week, Ms Haley said the US was no longer prioritising the removal of President Assad, a shift in US policy from the Obama era.

The US is no longer prioritising the tried, failed, and impossible? That’s good news.

A chemical weapons expert, Col Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, told the BBC the Russian version of events was “pretty fanciful”.

Well, yes. But so what? We knew that years ago.

I still have no idea what the West hopes to achieve by getting all outraged about this. Russia’s intervention has guaranteed Assad’s survival, and they don’t appear to be in the least bit interested in reining in any excesses on his part. Short of all-out war with Russia, which nobody wants, there’s nothing the West can do. Yes, it is terrible, but so is all-out war with Russia. Despite the conspiracy-mongers on the internet who think the CIA started the uprising against Assad, and despite the idiotic, half-arsed attempts to arm jihadists and “moderate” rebels by Obama, very little of what is happening can be blamed on the West. The blame lies solely at the feet of Assad and Russia.

If the West really wants to do something about it they ought to start by withdrawing from the United Nations, thus removing from these regimes the legitimacy the organisation grants them. The priority of Western governments should be protecting their own countries such that a shit-show like the one in Syria does not impact on their citizens at home. It’s bad luck for the Syrians, particularly the parents of the kids who’ve been gassed, but what is the alternative? In the absence of all viable solutions to help others it’s about time Western governments started focussing on the wellbeing of their own citizens and, possibly, a handful of foreigners who are not habitually on record saying they absolutely detest them and everything they stand for.

Share

The Baltic States and Brexit

Sometime last year I got into a rather heated exchange with a Latvian lady on the subject of Brexit. I think she’d done what I described here: raise a subject on which it was a near certainty I’d agree with her, only I didn’t. She seemed to think that those who voted to Leave were completely idiotic and that a matter of such importance should not have been put to a popular vote; she thought such issues are too complex for ordinary people to understand and that is why we elect representatives to handle such matters on our behalf.

It is not an unusual view to hold, but what interested me was that it came from a Latvian. Had this conversation not come at me so quickly I might have asked her whether Latvian independence from the Soviet Union ought not to have been decided at the discretion of the representatives of the Latvian SSR and their masters in the Supreme Soviet back in Moscow. After all, the issue of Latvian independence from the USSR was no less complicated and fraught with potential pitfalls than Britain exiting the European Union, so perhaps it would have been better to leave it up to the representatives of the people rather than the people themselves? Okay, there is the issue that the Latvian people’s representatives were not elected, but then nor were those demanding independence.

I couldn’t help but be a little cheesed off that somebody, whose own people demanded independence from a supranational political system they didn’t want and never asked for, and who personally enjoys the benefits of that independence, would be so critical about British people wanting similar independence (as they see it).

What makes this interesting is that the Baltic States aren’t quite out of the woods yet. They are fully paid-up members of the EU, having received enormous funding to get their infrastructure and institutions up to scratch – with quite some success, I would add. However, they all share concerns that Russia might have designs on some or all of their territory and after the seizure of Crimea and the abysmal attempt to do the same with Eastern Ukraine, people are wondering whether Putin & Co aren’t trying to restablish their Soviet spheres of control. If that is the case, the Baltic states aren’t going to get very far asking the EU for help: the Germans would sell them down the river if it means Siemens didn’t lose its operating license in Russia, and the French probably don’t even know the Baltics are part of the EU. The Poles would make a lot of noise but not be able to do much about it; the Netherlands was unable to raise as much as a squeak when the Russian military shot down a plane full of Dutch citizens; and everyone else is flat broke or has an army that could carry out manoeuvres in a pub car park, including armour.

In other words, the Baltic states are completely reliant on Nato to keep the Russians out, which in this case means the United States. However, in diplomatic terms (and probably  a token military one as well) it also means the Brits. If we can imagine a scenario in a few years time when the Russians are massing tanks and troops on the borders of Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania on some pretext and revving the engines noisily, Britain will be one of the countries they will be pleading with to intervene (meaning, persuade the United States to intervene). How Britain responds ought very much to depend on how the Baltic states behaved during the Brexit negotiations.

It is a given that these countries are minnows in the EU and will be desperate not to rock any boats, but nevertheless the future threat from Russia might focus their minds a bit, particularly on the issue of sovereignty and independence. If the Baltic states decide to vote in favour of hardball tactics designed to punish Britain’s insolence for voting to leave, many Brits – including this one – may be forgiven for thinking independence and self-rule aren’t really important to the Baltic peoples after all. So if Putin does come a-knocking one day, don’t look at us for help: you’re on your own.

Whereas if they vote down any attempt to punish Britain, and make certain gestures towards recognising Britain’s right to withdraw and govern themselves from now on, then they will be demonstrating that these are principles that they do still hold dear themselves, and perhaps they are worth putting ourselves in harms way for.

In short, I think the behaviour of the Baltic States during the Brexit negotiations will be interesting and worth watching closely. If I were Theresa May I’d be reminding the respective leaders of their Soviet past and the Russian army nearby, and having a quiet chat about the principles of democracy, freedom, and sovereignty. Or, to save the busy woman’s time, she could just send each of them a link to this post and they could let us know their stance in the comments.

Share