A Ukrainian Miracle of the Wrong Kind

This story is nuts:

The authorities in Ukraine have been sharply criticised for faking the murder of a Russian dissident journalist in Kiev.

An official from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said Ukraine was spreading “false information”.

Reporters Without Borders said it was “part of an information war”.

Babchenko’s wife said on Tuesday she had found her husband at the entrance to their apartment block with bullet wounds in his back, and he was reported to have died in an ambulance later.

But on Wednesday there were gasps at a Kiev press conference when Babchenko entered the room.

“There was no other way,” he said.

I don’t know whether this course of action was essential to keep Babchenko from being killed; if so, then it was worth it. If it was just to catch the bloke who ordered the hit, then I’m a little more skeptical. Whatever the case, it is appalling PR.

It is quite reasonable to blame much of the chaos in Ukraine on Russian interference, not least the low-level war going on in the east of the country. But nobody can deny that Ukraine is a dysfunctional mess regardless of their meddlesome next door neighbour. The most damning thing about Russia’s annexation of Crimea was how easy it all was. I understand the Ukrainians didn’t want to risk mass bloodshed and a full-scale Russian invasion by fighting back, but the fact remains the place was completely undefended in the first place. A half-competent military could defend Crimea from a few dozen little green men flown or shipped in, but Ukraine fell far short of even that and lost the whole peninsula within hours. For all the outrage about what Russia did, few seem concerned that it was Ukrainian complacency, corruption, and incompetence that allowed it to happen.

The other undeniable fact is Ukraine has been independent for for 27 years and hasn’t shown the slightest sign of being anything other than a dysfunctional, heinously corrupt state mismanaged by squabbling factions each looking to further their own ambitions and enrich themselves. I remember the hope at the time of the Orange Revolution in late 2004; what followed was years of bickering and backstabbing and a confusing merry-go-round of leaders, one of whom ended up in jail. Things were also hopeful when Ukraine hosted the 2012 UEFA European Championship jointly with Poland, but things appear to have only gone backwards. It would be almost unthinkable to hold a major tournament in Ukraine now.

It’s a shame because the Ukrainians I know seem okay, and they obviously have competence at the individual and company level, but on a national scale they seem to be a perpetual basket case. Even their ability to resurrect dead Russian journalists isn’t going to help them with that.

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What Tommy Robinson and Mikhail Khodorkovsky have in common

The Secret Barrister gives what I assume is an accurate legal perspective on the arrest and imprisonment of Tommy Robinson. Here’s his third paragraph:

While, as we’ll see below, the reasons for the postponement order appear sound, the consequence of preventing fair and accurate reporting by responsible journalists was that there was no factual counterpoint to the selective and inaccurate details of Yaxley-Lennon’s situation that were inevitably flooded through social media by his knuckle-dragging cheerleaders, not least his racists-in-arms across the pond. Thus sprung a (largely unchallenged and unchallengeable) narrative of Tommy The Brave being arrested outside court for no reason and imprisoned in secret by the deep state, culminating in petitions for his release and a Nazi-themed march on Downing Street.

One needn’t read any further to understand the purpose of The Secret Barrister’s post is not only to inform readers as to the legal situation, but to make sure everyone knows that he is a decent, right-thinker, and not some nasty oik like those who support Tommy Robinson. He would have been able to make the same legal points without prefacing them with a paragraph of virtue-signalling, but why waste an opportunity to polish your right-thinking credentials and further cement your position in polite society? Besides, if you’re going to write about Tommy Robinson and not criticise him, people might think you’re on his side and that would never do. Better to include some boilerplate progressive buzzwords as a shield against such accusations.

There’s a lot of this going on, and from some unexpected sources too. Personally I don’t know if Tommy Robinson broke the law, but from what the experts are saying it seems he did and he was either stupid or trying to martyr himself. But as I wrote in my previous post, that is largely beside the point. I could open up any news site right now and point to flagrant breaches of the law which go unpunished by the authorities (here’s one), because it’s either too much trouble or the perpetrators are members of a protected class. On the flip side of the same coin I could also find examples of people who haven’t done much wrong but nevertheless are clobbered by the authorities: I understand that Lauren Southern, a Canadian right-wing provocateuse who looks as though she weighs 50kg soaking wet, is banned for life from entering the UK.

When the ruling classes want to dispose of someone inconvenient, they don’t just shoot them and dump their body in a well. There has to be some semblance of a justice system being applied; even Stalin’s high-ranking victims were subject to show trials. Now I don’t think Tommy Robinson is a victim of a Stalinist show trial, but it serves as a reminder that the underlying reason for a person being punished is not always the one the prosecuting state says it is. A better example is the trial and incarceration of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the dismemberment of Yukos, the oil company he founded. There was absolutely no doubt that Khodorkovsky had engaged in serious financial improprieties, tax evasion, and general gangsterism and probably had blood on his hands as well. However, as his defenders pointed out quite reasonably, everyone who’d risen to the position of oligarch in ’90s Russia had done exactly the same and often much more and much worse, and some of these men were Vladimir Putin’s best pals. So why Khodorkovsky?

Why, indeed. The reason, as everyone knew, was that he had dared dip his toe into the political arena and threaten Putin’s rule, so he put the entire machinery of the state into action to see that Khodorkovsky was ruined. It was a highly selective use of the justice system, and even Khodorkovsky’s fiercest critics admit privately that the tax evasion was just an excuse, his real crime was threatening the ruling powers. However – and this is crucial in the context of Tommy Robinson – the Russian government made damned sure to publicise Khodorkovsky’s unsavoury past and to emphasise that the crimes he’d committed were real. They did so to ensure his defenders were hamstrung from the start and the public on the side of the state. After all, the rule of law is important, is it not? And Khodorkovsky clearly broke the law, so why should he go free? This is the actual view most Russians take of the matter, yet the chattering classes in the west saw him as some sort of martyr.

I still maintain the reason Tommy Robinson was arrested is because he is an ongoing embarrassment to the ruling classes and he is representative of what they fear most: the ugly, ignorant masses not getting with the programme. Like Khodorkovsky, the fact that he broke the law is largely beside the point, because the law is applied so selectively in modern Britain, and often applied for nakedly political purposes. And like Putin did with Khodorkovsky, the British state has successfully managed to get most people agreeing with the incarceration of Robinson, stroking their chins and earnestly reminding us of the rule of law. I admit, it’s been a neat little operation. Here’s so-called conservative journalist Stephen Pollard:

Again, this is more virtue-signalling than anything else, letting his readers and progressive colleagues know he doesn’t associate with those thick, dishonest Tommy Robinson supporters, thus ensuring he’s not cast out of polite society. Anyone who doesn’t think there is a class issue to all of this is willfully blind: barristers and Oxford educated Metropolitan journalists sneering at the plebs who are simply too stupid to understand what “Tommy the Brave” has been arrested for is, as with so much else, simple snobbery.

There is much to learn from this episode, and it ties in nicely with what the ZMan said recently about Ben Shapiro, the American conservative commentator:

These edgy guys serve as a palace guard, maintaining the line between what is and what is not acceptable. Their job is to make sure that none of the bad think from the outer dark creeps into the thought of the orthodoxy.

Unlike a guy like Peterson or a Sam Harris, Shapiro is just another grifter from Conservative Inc. He’s the edgy band your parents said was OK, hoping you would not start listening to the stuff they thought was dangerous.

Like all of Conservative Inc., he is for free speech that pays him well, but otherwise sides with Antifa against his competition. He’ll never talk about the fact that corporate America is willing to sponsor an Antifa convention in Chicago, but coordinates their efforts to prevent VDare from holding a private gathering.

Someone recently said on Twitter they find Shapiro’s constant policing of the boundaries of right-wing political discourse tiresome. The reaction from Shapiro showed the remark had struck a nerve, and we’re seeing a similar policing action from the right in the UK. The likes of The Secret Barrister, Stephen Pollard, and other supposedly conservative commentators aren’t right wing or even conservative in any meaningful sense, they’ve simply chosen to wear that label while coming out in support of the status quo from which they are likely doing very well indeed. They wouldn’t dare say anything outside the Overton window because they’d lose their spot in whatever social circles they mix in, and almost every genuine conservative policy now falls well outside it. But at the same time, they want to present themselves as representatives of conservative opinion and to do that they must police the boundaries of acceptable discourse and ensure they’re not outflanked on any issue. This is why, when anyone appears bearing genuinely right-wing opinions, they’re subject to character assassinations by the moral guardians of conservative thought.

The real damning fact is that it has fallen to Tommy Robinson to take on the failings of the ruling class, and nobody has stepped up to help him. Where are all the supposed middle class conservatives who say they’re fed up with authoritarian halfwits like Cameron and May leading their party into oblivion? Where are all the MPs who claim they want to see real conservative leadership which can take on the left and roll back the damage wrought by decades of progressive policies? Yes, Tommy Robinson is naive enough to get himself jailed, and he’s not a very slick operator; yes, we know that, but why’s he left to do it all on his own? Why haven’t these oh-so-clever barristers and journalists not taken up the genuine issues he’s cack-handedly trying to draw attention to?

The reason is because what passes for middle and upper class right wing conservatism in Britain is nothing of the kind. Ask yourself, what have they conserved? And who have they put in office since New Labour got kicked out? They’re simply a branch of the establishment, or at the very best they’re enablers of the ruling classes, more interested in feathering their own nests and maintaining the cosy status quo than bringing about change or addressing Britain’s myriad issues. If they couldn’t bring themselves to support what Tommy Robinson is trying to do, they could at least have kept their mouths shut and not do the government’s job for them. Next time you ask why Theresa May is Prime Minister, or why Brexit is being derailed, or why Britain is continuing down the road of identity politics and progressivism, there’s your answer.

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Not just corrupt, impotent too

Now there’s a surprise, eh?

The missile that downed a Malaysia Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine in 2014 belonged to a Russian brigade, international investigators say.

For the first time, the Dutch-led team said the missile had come from a unit based in western Russia.

All 298 people on board the Boeing 777 died when it broke apart in mid-air flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

It was hit by a missile fired from rebel-held territory in Ukraine. Russia says none of its weapons was used.

But on Thursday Wilbert Paulissen, a Dutch official from the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), told reporters: “All the vehicles in a convoy carrying the missile were part of the Russian armed forces.”

He restated the JIT’s conclusion that the plane had been destroyed by a Russian-made Buk missile, adding that it had been supplied by the country’s 53rd anti-aircraft brigade in Kursk.

The bulk of this was known at the time of the incident. There were only three possibilities as to the origins of the missile:

1. Russian forces

2. Russian-backed militias in Ukraine

3. Ukrainian forces

The Ukrainians quickly stated they don’t possess this missile system, ruling out their culpability. My guess was the Russians had, with staggering irresponsibility, given the business end of a Buk anti-aircraft system to some poorly trained militia operating on Ukrainian territory who’d shot down the plane by mistake. However, I believed part of the system was still controlled by Russian forces, who would give the militia the nod to engage any targets. As it turns out, it was operated by Russian forces all along, and it was they who shot the plane down.

At a news conference in the Dutch city of Utrecht, the investigators also showed social media pictures which they said traced the route the missile convoy had taken to reach eastern Ukraine.

Shortly after the incident some investigators online worked out using mobile phone footage and satellite images exactly where the missile had been fired from. Nobody showed any interest, and the silence from what passes for western leadership over this incident was deafening. The Oilfield Expat explains why:

Considering the magnitude of the event, it is remarkable how quickly the world brushed it under the carpet and moved on, particularly the Dutch who lost the greatest number of citizens in the incident. But there are good reasons for this: it suited the interests of European and American politicians to do so.

For those who thought the shooting down of MH17 would prove to be a Lusitania event in the crisis in east Ukraine, proving beyond doubt the nature of the Russian government which the west is facing, it would have seemed unbelievable at the time that barely 6 weeks later Russian armour would be moving en masse into Ukraine whilst EU and American leaders repeat the same empty, lame, and downright pathetic bleating about “de-escalation” that has done nothing but embolden Putin thus far.

It is blatantly obvious in whose interests Obama, Merkel, Hollande, etc. are acting over this Ukraine crisis: their own. And I don’t mean their citizens, or their country, I mean their own personal interests. Any support they may receive from their citizens or corporations is purely coincidental, although in the case of Germany it is clear that Merkel’s interests have been identical to those of certain favoured German companies with large operations in Russia all along. She damned near admitted as much.

This is wholly consistent with these same individuals sucking up to Iran, and now even cosying up to Putin in the aftermath of Trump’s nixing the deal. So much for solidarity with Britain over the Skripal poisoning, eh? But it’s not just cynical commercial interests that caused the disgraceful silence over the shooting down of MH-17, it was also cowardice. There were reports doing the rounds that Putin was visibly shaken when news reached him of MH-17 being shot down, no doubt fearing a serious backlash. However, within a day or two he was back to his usual swaggering self, confident no response would be forthcoming, and the tidal wave of disinformation began. Quite simply, the feckless leaders in the west didn’t want to make any tough decisions. Here’s The Oilfield Expat once more:

In reality, the EU leaders are a bunch of shyster politicians who give a shit about one thing: their political position, and by extension the powers they wield and the personal fortune they amass. Like all politicians, they are a bunch of backstabbing, duplicitous, untrustworthy c*nts who you wouldn’t trust to look after a wet breeze block, let alone guarantee the safety and security of a nation of people they don’t know and give less of a shit about. The Ukrainians have probably worked this out by now, only it’s too late. The Baltic States should also be waking up to reality and realising that they are on their own and always were. There were times when this fecklessness wouldn’t matter so much as the US could be relied upon to step in when required (as they eventually did in the Balkans), but the current occupant of the White House is so out of his depth and so wrapped up in preserving his image that he makes the EU leadership look Napoleonic by comparison. The collective language of this gaggle of incompetents over the Ukraine crisis screams “Oh why did this have to happen on my watch? Why won’t the problem just go away?”

They want the status, salary, and trappings of power that come with the position but don’t want to take the decisions and carry the responsibility that comes with it.

At the time of the incident – and not much has changed, at least on one side of the Atlantic – the western leadership was not only corrupt, but impotent too. The results of the investigation will only serve to illustrate this fact.

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When the Unserious meet the Serious

This:

is more an indication of the intellect and general knowledge of British MPs than a criticism of the Israeli ambassador. Whether or not you agree with the IDF’s use of live rounds and accept Hamas’ claims of the number of dead and that some were children, shooting people with rifles under those circumstances is hardly the epitome of an unmeasured and indiscriminate military response. Machine-gunning them would be a lot worse, strafing them from the air even more so. When the Russian army took Grozny in 1999-2000, this is how they went about it:

The Russian strategy in 1999 was to hold back tanks and armored personnel carriers and subject the entrenched Chechens to an intensive heavy artillery barrage and aerial bombardment before engaging them with relatively small groups of infantry, many with prior training in urban warfare. The Russian forces relied heavily on rocket artillery such as BM-21 Grad, BM-27 Uragan, BM-30 Smerch, ballistic missiles (SCUD, OTR-21 Tochka), cluster bombs and fuel air explosives. (The TOS-1, a multiple rocket launcher with thermobaric weapon warheads, played a particularly prominent role in the assault). These weapons wore down the Chechens, both physically and psychologically, and air strikeswere also used to attack fighters hiding in basements; such attacks were designed for maximum psychological pressure.

This was the result:

If asked, perhaps the Israeli ambassador would cite the above as an example of what he thinks “unmeasured and indiscriminate” looks like. More likely, though, he’d have referred to Russia’s bombing of Aleppo in 2016:

The effects of Russia’s bombing campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo — destroying hospitals and schools, choking off basic supplies, and killing aid workers and hundreds of civilians over just days — raise a question: What could possibly motivate such brutality?

Observers attribute Russia’s bombing to recklessness, cruelty or Moscow’s desperate thrashing in what the White House has called a “quagmire.”

But many analysts take a different view: Russia and its Syrian government allies, they say, could be massacring Aleppo’s civilians as part of a calculated strategy, aimed beyond this one city.

The strategy, more about politics than advancing the battle lines, appears to be designed to pressure rebels to ally themselves with extremists, eroding the rebels’ legitimacy; give Russia veto power over any high-level diplomacy; and exhaust Syrian civilians who might otherwise support the opposition.

This is not to excuse what the IDF are doing on the border with Gaza (although personally I don’t see they had any other option). It is merely to point out that British MPs accuse Israel of unrestrained and indiscriminate brutality only because they are utterly ignorant of what the genuine article looks like, even when there are recent examples of it. Either that, or they’re lying.

Whichever it is, it comes as no surprise Russia refused to take them seriously over the Skripal affair. You don’t have to like anyone’s policies or behaviour very much to realise the world is rapidly dividing into politicians and nations that are serious, and those that are not. Russia and Israel are clearly on one side; MPs like Wes Streeting are very much on the other.

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Europe’s choices over Iran

A response from Germany following Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday that Europe can no longer count on the United States to protect it, urging the continent to “take destiny into its own hands.”

“It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us, but Europe must take its destiny in its own hands. That’s the task of the future,” she said during a speech honoring French President Emmanuel Macron, according to Agence France-Presse.

This will be music to the ears of many Americans, who are wondering why the US remains committed to defending Germany from…well, who? Russia? Germans have made it quite clear they prefer Putin’s Russia to Trump’s America, and who else is there? Oh, but wait:

German defense spending will fall far short of levels demanded by President Donald Trump’s administration for years to come, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s defense minister said.

Those levels are actually NATO commitments; Trump’s demand is merely that Germany meets them. The problem Germany has is that it is dependent on the US for security (assuming it is actually required) and hates it, but they don’t hate it enough to reach in their pockets and pay for it themselves. Like a spoiled teenager who hates the rules in their parent’s house, they don’t want to move out either because that would involve hardship.

What will be interesting is the response of Germany, France, and the UK to this:

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif was in Moscow on Monday, as Russia tries to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive in the wake of Washington’s pullout, pushing it into rare cooperation with Europe.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was scheduled to discuss how to try to save the nuclear deal with Zarif, the Interfax news agency reported.

Zarif’s tour also took him to Beijing at the weekend and will see him visit Brussels later in the week, as the international backers of the 2015 accord scrabble to save it.

“The final aim of these negotiations is to seek assurances that the interests of the Iranian nation will be defended,” Zarif said at a news conference with Lavrov.

Lavrov, meanwhile, said Russia and Europe had a duty to “jointly defend their legal interests” in terms of the deal.

A few months ago, Russia was accused – perhaps fairly – of conducting a chemical weapons attack on British soil, and there were expulsions of diplomats and lots of tough talk from European leaders about solidarity with Britain. Then a few weeks ago Russia’s client in Syria allegedly used poison gas against civilians and everyone went mental, with Britain and France joining the US in launching missile strikes against targets in Syria. Russia was a pariah nation run by a gangster regime, we were told, so it’s going to be very interesting whether the commercial interests of European businesses consign all this rhetoric to the dustbin. It’s going to be particularly interesting to see what Britain does, given Boris Johnson and Theresa May’s recent criticism of Russia. At least nobody is pretending it’s about nuclear security any more.

Something the media has failed to mention is the difficulty of doing business in Iran even without US sanctions in place. I can’t find the link now (Google search results are swamped by recent developments) but a few years ago one of the big Chinese companies effectively walked away from an Iranian oil and gas project having utterly failed to make any progress, citing the intransigence of the locals as the primary reason. Anyone who has read the history of Iran, particularly the bit concerning Britain’s dealings with Mohammad Mosaddegh over BP, will get a clear idea that doing business there is fraught with difficulties, not least because the Iranians are severely tough negotiators. There has been nothing preventing Chinese, Russian, or Turkish firms making hay in Iran in the absence of American and European countries for decades, but they haven’t, and for good reasons.

One of the main problems facing western companies concerns the ownership of Iranian companies. As is to be expected under such a regime, pretty much every major company is in some way owned by the government or powerful individuals connected to it. In many instances it is the The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which controls the company. From Wiki:

IRGC first expanded into commercial activity through informal social networking of veterans and former officials. IRGC officials confiscated assets of many refugees who had fled Iran after the fall of Abolhassan Banisadr’sgovernment. It is now a vast conglomerate, controlling Iran’s missile batteries and nuclear program but also a multibillion-dollar business empire reaching almost all economic sectors. Estimates have it controlling between a tenth and around a third of Iran’s economy through a series of subsidiaries and trusts.

The Los Angeles Times estimates that IRGC has ties to over one hundred companies, with its annual revenue exceeding $12 billion in business and construction. IRGC has been awarded billions of dollars in contracts in the oil, gas and petrochemical industries, as well as major infrastructure projects.

Last October Donald Trump sanctioned the IRGC as a terrorist organisation, independently of the nuclear deal. Leaving aside the difficulty of executing major projects in Iran without falling foul of US sanctions on the IRGC, can you imagine having an IRGC-owned company as a partner or contractor? Would they carry out the work as per the contract? To whom would you turn if they didn’t? It’s hard enough doing business in Russia with companies run by well-connected gangsters; now imagine what it’s like contracting with the private army of the Ayatollahs.

Major European nations risk creating an enormous political and security rift with the US over this Iranian nuclear deal, all for the benefit of a handful of companies who reckon they can make money in Iran. The way they’re talking, and the way it’s being reported, you’d think the money was already in the bank. It’s not, and probably never will be. Politicians should heed this point.

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Can Russia act as peacemaker between Israel and Iran?

One of the interesting things about the Israeli attack on Iranian forces in Syria is the relative silence from the Russians. The first thing it shows is that Russia has no interest in adding its forces to those of Iran in some sort of unified effort, which is undoubtedly a good thing for everyone except the Iranians on the ground in Syria. Both Russia and Iran have a shared interest in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, but that doesn’t imply there is much cooperation between the two. Russia wants to retain Syria as a client state for geopolitical bragging rights, a customer for arms sales, a testing ground for weapons, and as a victory in their ongoing zero-sum struggle with the USA. Iran wants to throw its weight around the region and threaten Israel from over the border.

In that latter regard, Russia has no major beef with Israel and little interest in helping Iranian forces menace it from Syrian soil. Indeed, Russia would probably be pleased to see Iranian forces getting pummeled in Syria by Israeli planes were it not Russia’s air defence systems that were supposed to stop that sort of thing. There’s a good article on Israel’s strengthening ties with Russia in the face of Iranian attacks here, which includes the following on weapons sales:

The Israeli prime minister had a number of talking points he wanted to ensure were well-delivered to the Russian side, said a source in the Kremlin familiar with the Putin-Netanyahu meeting. The source, who spoke with Al-Monitor not for attribution, said the first point, a minor one, was Russia’s potential delivery of S-300 missile systems to Syria. Even before Netanyahu’s visit, Israel was signaling to Russia that Israel didn’t favor the delivery.

Moscow had said it was leaning toward not providing Syria with the missiles, but after a US-led strike on Syria last month, Russia isn’t ruling out the idea. Many observers interpreted a bombastically worded statement from Russia as an actual intent to deliver the weapons, but Russia probably considered it more as a deterrent against potential foreign strikes and a bargaining chip in talks with Israel and, possibly, with the United States.

If Moscow indeed goes through with the S-300 delivery, Israel will tolerate it as long as Russians maintain control over the system. If, however, the Syrian military plans to operate the missiles, Israel will have a stronger reaction, but probably not an extreme one.

“The entire Syrian air defense system is based on Soviet- and Russian-made arms. The S-300 is a more powerful system and we wouldn’t have liked its appearance. But as much as we are ready to [take on] Syrian defenses, we would be ready to see how to tackle the S-300,” former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said.

Ya’alon also revealed that there is a “hotline” between the Russian Khmeimim air base in Syria and the Israeli Kirya command center in Tel Aviv. Ya’alon served as Israel’s defense minister from 2013 until May 2016 and helped establish the deconfliction phone line shortly after Russia began its campaign in Syria. The line is thought to have helped prevent a number of serious incidents.

This probably puts Russia in a unique position to act as peacemaker between Israel and Iran:

Russia has been acting as a “political shrink,” listening to complaints and fears that Israelis and Iranians have and prescribing them prescriptions of sorts to alleviate their grief. It’s a heavy burden, but also a political resource for Russia and its regional policies. Russia also has its own interests, including in Syria, that are not necessarily aligned with those of Israel or Iran. Taking sides would be folly.

As Sean Guillory says:

Personally I don’t think this is a bad thing.

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Sprightly Veterans

I came across this story on Twitter, which I’ve translated using Google:

During the Victory Day parade, Vladimir Putin’s guard firmly pushed the veteran of the Great Patriotic War, who was walking next to him, from the president. After that, Putin personally approached him and suggested going to the Alexander Garden and laying flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

If you follow the link you can watch a video of the events unfold, and you can clearly see this man in uniform being manhandled by a goon in a suit. If this veteran of the Great Patriotic War was 18 in May 1945 he’d be 91 now. I must say, for a man that age he looks awfully sprightly – almost all the British or American WWII vets are wheelchair bound (George Bush Snr. for example, who is 93 years old).

The victory celebrations in Russia underwent somewhat of a revival during Vladimir Putin’s rule and are now seen as much as a celebration of his new, assertive Russia as anything else. But the veterans played an important symbolic role at the parades and other celebrations (Defender of the Fatherland Day, for example), without whom the whole thing would have looked a bit like something a South American dictatorship might have put on. Provided the link to the defeat of the Nazis can be maintained it remains authentic, and the presence of veterans reinforced that. But what happens when the veterans have all died off?

Life expectancy in Russia for men is just shy of 65 for men, and was even lower for those who lived through the war. It is frankly quite incredible that any Russian war veteran should even be alive now, let alone wandering alone and unaided alongside Putin’s entourage and able to withstand a shove from a security guard without falling over. I don’t know if the whole thing was staged, but I am pretty sure that whoever this man in uniform is, he wasn’t wearing one during the Great Patriotic War. I’ll be interested to hear what story gets told about him in the coming days, and how many Russia-watchers repeat it uncritically.

UPDATE

Apparently the veteran is one Dmitri Sirkachev and born in 1924, making him 94. All I can say is that he is in incredibly good shape for a man of that age. I suspect we’re going to be seeing WWII veterans at these parades for a decade or two yet.

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The Death of Maxim Borodin

This is pretty awful:

A Russian investigative journalist who wrote about the deaths of mercenaries in Syria has died in hospital after falling from his fifth-floor flat.

Maxim Borodin was found badly injured by neighbours in Yekaterinburg and taken to hospital, where he later died.

Being a journalist in Russia is not especially dangerous. Being a journalist in Russia and writing about things which concern powerful people is incredibly dangerous, bordering on suicidal.

Local officials said no suicide note was found but the incident was unlikely to be of a criminal nature.

Uh-huh. One minute he’s exposing the clandestine use of Russian mercenaries in Syria, the next he’s just fallen off a balcony. Could happen to anyone.

However, a friend revealed Borodin had said his flat had been surrounded by security men a day earlier.

Vyacheslav Bashkov described Borodin as a “principled, honest journalist” and said Borodin had contacted him at five o’clock in the morning on 11 April saying there was “someone with a weapon on his balcony and people in camouflage and masks on the staircase landing”.

Borodin had been looking for a lawyer, he explained, although he later called him back saying he was wrong and that the security men had been taking part in some sort of exercise.

Many a time have I come home to find people with weapons on my balcony and masked, camouflaged men in the stairwell conducting an exercise. Yeah, this is all perfectly normal.

In recent weeks, the journalist had written about Russian mercenaries known as the “Wagner Group” who were reportedly killed in Syria on 7 February in a confrontation with US forces.

Maxim Borodin was phenomenally brave in investigating this story but, like Anna Politkovskaya, you’ve got to wonder if it was worth it. I don’t know who is behind the Wagner Group but you can be sure they are nasty, brutal, and well-connected. Going anywhere near an outfit like this and raising awkward questions was bound to end badly, and sadly it has.

The story is a useful reminder that Russia is a violent, lawless place in many respects and not every high-profile murder is carried out on the orders of Putin. Putin must take a lot of the blame for presiding over the conditions which allow journalists to be murdered with impunity in Russia, but it’s worth noting he is a product of the same culture, not its architect. Murders don’t occur in Russia because Putin allegedly has people murdered; any murders ordered by Putin occur in a culture where murdering people is routine. There’s a difference, and I think this was missed during the Skripal affair when it was assumed Putin simply must have been behind it. Now he probably was, but there was also a fair chance he wasn’t, which those unfamiliar with Russia utterly failed to even consider. It has become an article of faith among western reporters that Putin is responsible for the murder of Politkovskaya, and they go so far to directly charge him with the murder of journalists. The sad truth is any number of people would have wanted Politkovskaya dead, and Putin might not even have been one of them. We’ll never know.

The other noteworthy point to this story is that Maxim Borodin was genuinely brave and attempting to uncover a story which is in the public interest. Contrast this with western journalists who are mainly propagandists for the ruling classes yet are forever congratulating one another on their bravery, despite facing nothing more perilous in their day-job than a burned lip from an over-hot latte. I wonder how well a journalist like Borodin would go down in a western media outfit? Not very well, would be my guess.

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Professionals at Work

From the BBC:

A woman who was partially sucked out of a window of a US passenger plane after an engine exploded in mid-air has died.

Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 made an emergency landing in Philadelphia after a window, wings and fuselage were damaged. Seven passengers were injured.

Initial findings say an engine fan blade was missing. In a recording, one of the pilots can be heard saying “there is a hole and someone went out”.

That’s the background. Now listen to this conversation between the female pilot and an air traffic controller at Philadelphia airport:

You can hear the pilot struggling to contain the emotion in her voice, but she does a tremendous job of keeping calm. The guy in the tower is as cool as ice, and that’s due to professionalism and training rather than the fact he’s safe on the ground and not up there in a crippled plane. That the pilot, Tammy Jo Shults, managed to handle this situation brilliantly perhaps ought not to surprise:

Shults applied for the Air Force after she graduated. She wasn’t allowed to test to become a pilot, but the Navy welcomed her. She was one of the first female fighter pilots in the Navy’s history, and the first woman to fly F-18s. She later became an instructor.

She’s now an American hero, and deservedly so. I suspect Trump will shortly be hanging a medal around her neck and saying something well-meaning but cack-handed as he does it.

I find the calmness with which Shults and her interlocutor handle the situation almost mesmerising, but I often find that when watching a real professional go about their job. Oddly, the scene I most enjoyed from the the film Captain Phillips is when the corpsman aboard the US Navy ship examines Tom Hanks for the first time. The way she went about giving him direct, clear, and repeated instructions with completely calm, professional body-language made me think this was a very good actress. Or:

Tom Hanks claimed that the scene of Captain Richard Phillips’ medical examination was improvised on the spot with real-life Navy Corpsman Danielle Albert, who was told to simply follow her usual procedure.

Which explained it. A friend later told me he’d also been struck by the same scene. Calmness is vital to thinking clearly, and the best way to remain calm is to follow an established procedure and practice as much as possible. If you panic you’ll make mistakes and, panic being highly infectious, you’ll cause other people to make mistakes too.

A Russian friend was flying from Paris to Lagos with Air France once, and a Nigerian lady started having some sort of seizure in her seat. The passengers alerted the stewardess who, frankly, had no idea what to do and her body language let the entire aircraft know it. The passengers began to get agitated, and the stewardess (who was not joined by a couple of others) go the lady to lie down in the aisle. Then she started going into convulsions, and the stewardesses started to panic. They called the head steward, a Frenchman, who arrived and immediately panicked himself. The passengers lost control of themselves and started screaming and shouting. Somehow the air crew regained control of the situation, the woman stopped flapping around, and she got back to her seat. My Russian friend was very unimpressed, and said he had little confidence the pilots would do much better under duress. Given Air France’s safety record, nor have I.

By contrast, I was once flying Aeroflot from Moscow to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk when my companion ate the wrong thing in the in-flight meal and had an allergic reaction. Her throat began to swell and her breathing got difficult. Normally she carries medicine with her, but either didn’t have it with her or forgot where it was. I alerted the stewardess – the usual slim woman with bleached-blonde hair and painted nails – who took one look and asked my companion firmly what she’d eaten. She asked a few more questions, never raising her voice, then calmly told her colleague to fetch the medicine chest. My companion’s face was swelling up and she was breaking out in spots. A helpful chap in the seat behind thought she was simply airsick and offered her a tumbler of cheap cognac, which I still laugh about today. The stewardess returned with the medicine chest, they confirmed with my companion that it was the correct one, and gave her the tablets. Within a few minutes everything was back to normal, and only those sat nearby had any idea anything had happened. Aeroflot might be the butt of a lot of jokes, but the air crew knew their stuff and didn’t panic, and you can be damned sure the pilots wouldn’t either even if they plane had lost a wing, was upside down, and on fire.

I’ve noticed in my professional life that Frenchmen are prone to panicking under pressure, and letting their emotions get the better of them. By contrast, I don’t think I ever saw a Russian man panic, and there are numerous videos of Russians walking nonchalantly away from horrific car crashes and this legendary one of a pilot lighting up a cigarette after ejecting from his MiG-29. That’s not to say Russians never panic and Frenchmen always do, but propensity to panic is probably cultural in part, and training is needed to overcome it.

Whoever they may be, I find something awesome about a professional calmly going about his or her business, especially in a situation which would render most people unable to function at all. That might be because absolute professionalism is something I don’t see as much as I should. Clearly, the Americans flying planes and manning control towers still have it in spades. Good for them.

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Story Changed

From the BBC:

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog is to meet in the Hague and discuss the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the UK.

The emergency session was called by Russia, who denies being behind the attack and wants the UK to share evidence.

But the UK government says the only “plausible explanation” is that Russia is to blame.

Yes, this is what the government said from the beginning. They took a sample, sent it off to Porton Down – an indisputable centre of excellence for chemical warfare – who identified the substance as Novichok, which could only have come from Russia. Yup, this is what I remember quite clearly. Oh, hang on:

On Tuesday the UK’s Porton Down laboratory said it could not verify the precise source of the nerve agent used against Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

Ah.

The laboratory, which has previously identified the substance as a military-grade Novichok nerve agent, said it was likely to have been deployed by a “state actor” but said it was not their job to say where it was manufactured.

Right, this is beginning to piss me off. Now Porton Down’s position is perfectly reasonable and doesn’t mean anything in itself – their job was almost certainly to identify the substance not to speculate as to where this particular batch may have been manufactured. But this is not what the public was led to believe. Within a day or two of Porton Down getting involved their name was invoked by government ministers who heavily implied it was their experts who confirmed it almost certainly came from Russia. So where did they get this idea from?

The UK says further intelligence led to its belief that Russia was responsible.

Now this isn’t unreasonable in itself and the intelligence may be 100% accurate. But this is not what we were told. Why is this only coming out now, a month after the event and several weeks after Russia was issued with ultimatums and threats, plunging us neck-deep into a diplomatic row we’ve dragged around thirty other countries into?

To me, there is a big difference between:

Our experts at Porton Down have analysed the substance and concluded it is a nerve agent of the Novichok family, and could only have come from Russia.

and:

Our experts at Porton Down have analysed the substance and concluded it is a nerve agent of the Novichok family. Intelligence sources say it could only have come from Russia.

Whereas I don’t doubt the impartial expertise of the chaps at Porton Down, British intelligence hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in recent years. What form does this intelligence take? How much was it subject to interpretation? How much political pressure was brought to bear on the analysis? The British government has implied the source of manufacture has been determined by scientific analysis rather than intelligence sources. In other words, they have mislead the public.

Here’s what I reckon’s happened:

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog is to meet in the Hague and discuss the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the UK.

The emergency session was called by Russia, who denies being behind the attack and wants the UK to share evidence.

As a member of the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Russia has the right to request an emergency meeting of the body.

Among other things, it wants to know what kind of evidence the UK has provided to the OPCW, which inspectors visited the site of the attack in Salisbury, who they met and where the samples are being analysed.

The OPCW expects to receive the results of its own independent laboratory tests within a week.

Until now, everyone has been led to believe the Russian connection was made by Porton Down. The independent testing by the OPCW is likely to confirm the substance is Novichok, but will not be able to say where it was manufactured. At this point, the Russians will ask those at Porton Down “Then how did you know?” Anticipating this, Porton Down has distanced itself from making any Russian connection, forcing the government to come clean.

I have said right from the start that Theresa May’s government has handled this affair spectacularly badly. They’ve rushed to judgement for political reasons without getting their ducks in a row. Probably the best thing I can say at this point is that it doesn’t surprise me in the least.

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