Monday, 17 March 2014

Ukraine crisis

Much has been said about the crisis in the Ukraine and much criticism leveled at the Russian state, Putin in particular, over its invasion / occupation / interference in Ukraine's affairs; and criticism has been leveled at comments in the blogosphere, by those ill equipped to comment on international affairs or strategy - as if this was the preserve of journalists in the traditional media.  I'm talking about you, David Aaronovitch.

Much as I enjoy David Aaronovitch's articles in The Times newspaper, I take exception to his dismissal of alternative points of view in relation to the Russian action in Ukraine - by all means use your skill to demolish opposing arguments with facts, reasoning and logic, but the valid points you make are diminished by categorising alternative viewpoints as: "There’s the irritate-your-neighbour “Putin’s got a point” brigade", "The amateur strategists", "The Ladybird Book demographers".   I might be all of those things, but I also have a viewpoint.  Right. Here's my two penneth worth:
I was supportive of the popular will to rid Ukraine of its corrupt and incompetent leader Yanukovich. I was glad to see the back of him, and as far as I can judge from interviews I saw on TV before his ousting, so were of some of the Russian population in Crimea. I don't think any of the population of Ukraine want to see one set of crooks replaced by another set of crooks whatever their orientation - pro EU or pro Russian. I'm sure that all they want is an end to their economic woes, an end to corruption and an improvement in their political freedoms.

I'm certainly not anti-west, and I'm not Putin apologist either, but I do have a certain sympathy for the Russian position in this matter, although I don't exactly agree with all of the actions they have taken nor do I believe the propaganda they are putting out for justifying their actions. I can't pretend to know what their endgame is, what they are hoping to achieve or whether they are trying to annex Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine (or whether they will stop at that).

I do think that the actions in Crimea are no more or less illegal than the takeover by the protesters of the Ukrainian government in Kiev (and the ousting of Yanukovich).  Very few countries - and certainly not Russia - would tolerate an unstable country on their doorstep especially when it seems that their is an overt courtship by western countries and institutions (NATO and EU) to bring Ukraine under its sphere of influence and control.  Ukraine is a failed state: it is bankrupt;  it is not politically and culturally cohesive; the protesters might have been united in their hatred of Yanukovich, but they were so divided themselves, there was no guarantee they could have put up a serious democratic challenge to Yankovich's presidency in the elections originally scheduled for later this year.

It seems entirely logical and legal that Russia beefed up the protection of its military assets in the Crimea, however much they over-egg the pudding on the threat from Ukrainian extremists.  But I think the Russians are right to feel an existential threat to their sovereignty. Since the end of the Cold War, despite promises from the US not to make a single step eastwards, the EU and NATO has steadily advanced eastwards.  On its western borders, Russia is now flanked by NATO countries (Belarus and Ukraine being the exception).  One by one, the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and former client states of Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czech republic, Slovakia have become NATO members and part of the EU.

In addition, the US and EU have long been interfering in the affairs of former Soviet republics, encouraging anti-Russian sentiment and political movements, in countries such as Ukraine and Georgia.  They stir things up but pay no heed to the consequences.  They lack the military clout or political will to follow through with their meaningful support to these countries / opposition movements in their hour of need.  Neither side can bale out Ukraine economically and there is no appetite for any military confrontation with Russia.
Remember the Balkans in the 1990s?   Germany and the EU were keen to encourage Croatian independence and separatist movements - Germany was the first to recognise Croatia as an independent country.  But they stood by and watched while Yugoslavia broke up and a humanitarian crisis of grave magnitude unfolded. Same with the Kurds in Iraq. And with the Arab spring - especially Syria (although Russia's intervention here was self-serving and morally repugnant).  

The West needs to wake up to the fact that by trying to get Ukraine under is sphere of influence, by encouraging it into the EU or NATO, it has in fact handed a huge chunk of territory to Russia - which Russia grabbed from under their noses via a stealthily executed coup d'état.

Crimea votes to re-join Russia

The hastily held referendum in Crimea on re-joining Russia has resulted in a vote in favour of the Crimea re-joining the Russian Federation.  As a consequence, Crimea's parliament has today formally declared independence from Ukraine and asked to join the Russian Federation.

All I've heard from the UK, US governments and the EU is sour grapes about the result - I have not heard a single credible argument that what has happened is illegal or undemocratic.  William Hague this morning was again talking in "generic" terms of  Russia's actions being unacceptable and discussing (with EU counterparts) of targeted sanctions against specific individuals in the Russian and Crimean leadership.

The timing was questionable, it was done against the backdrop of a large Russian military presence - but the referendum was not conducted at gun-point.  As John Simpson, foreign correspondent of the BBC, remarked on the radio this morning - the result (97% in favour) may be on a par with Kim Jong-Un's election result, but this was no North Korean style vote.  He also remarked on the obvious joy of Crimean population at the result and that this apparently represented the majority will of the people.  The result greeted with scenes of jubilation, street parties and rock concerts.

The referendum had long been planned for this year but was brought forward - no doubt to capitalise on the uncertainty of events in the rest of the Ukraine and the weakness of the authorities in Kiev, as well as uncertainty as to the ability of the Ukrainian state to control all its territorial integrity.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Russia House movie quotations

Just said this to my boss today: Do you expect me to roll over and play nice doggy? The italics represent a quote that I managed to slip in to a heated conversation we were having. It comes from the scene where British intelligence are trying to recruit Barley. 

Barley - "I thought we are all supposed to be chums together nowadays"
Ned - "Oh my dear Lord"
Walter - "because this year it suits them to roll over and play nice doggy, because this year they are on the floor anyway, you ninny!  All the more reason to spy the living daylights out of them, kick 'em in the balls every time they get to their knees"
Barley - "well that's where I disagree, I'll back my Russia against yours any day.  I'm sorry Ned, no go"

That reminds me, I actually used that last line 20 odd years ago to a previous boss when I was turning down an offer of a dubious secondment "I'm sorry . . . No go". It occurred to me that perhaps this could be a new quest, rather just than "bagging" locations from the movie, I could try to use quotes from the film and slip them into everyday conversations. But thinking about it, I already do use quite a few phrases already':

"No, not even a tickle old boy"
"Who the hell is that"
"Could turn around and bite us right in the ass"
"Sounds like a crock of shit"

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Ukraine - a country on the edge

.. literally  - at the western edge / border of the Russian Empire -  y Krayinye - borderlands.  But its present problems are caused, in no small part, by the continued legacy of Stalin's "poison pill" nationalities policy - a term used by Paul Goble of the Azerbaijjan Diplomatic Academy in Baku in his 2008 article

The Ukraine has strong historical links to Russia, and is considered perhaps the birthplace of Russia itself, with Kiev being the capital of the Medieval Kievan Rus empire.  After the collapse of the Kievan Rus empire, the area was divided, occupied, fought over, by a variety of  invaders: Poles, Lithuanians, Cossacks, Russians, Turks.  This happened over many centuries until it was eventually subsumed by the Russian Empire, by and large, by the 18th century - but its territory was by no means fixed by that point.

Under the Russian Empire, a policy of assimilation and Russification occurred in Ukraine as it did throughout the empire.  National identities were discouraged and even suppressed.  With the advent of the 1917 revolution, the Communists vowed to correct the age-old oppression of the 100+ minority nationalities that existed within the Russian borders.  They officially recognised equality and sovereignty of all the peoples of Russia; their right for self-determination,  including secession or independence; freedom of religion; and free development of national minorities and ethnic groups on the territory of Russia.  The first line of the Soviet National anthem celebrated this "unbreakable union of free-born republics"

However, as with everything else in the Soviet Union, such nominally positive policies were negated / upturned by the exigencies of power and the effecting (or effectuation if there is such a word) of communist dictatorship.   Stalin subverted the nationalities policy by drawing up internal borders designed to create tensions between ethnic groups, ensuring there was always a local minority that would do Moscow's bidding in return for being protected by the Soviet centre.

The borders of these "independent" republics and "autonomous" regions did not often make sense in terms of their ethnic make-up, historic nationhood or cultural integrity.  The leaders of the Soviet republics or autonomous regions were often a representative of the ethnic majority of that area, but their deputy would be an ethnic Russian and a higher ranking member of the communist party - to ensure the local leader did Moscow's bidding.  The state apparatus and the hierarchy of the Communist Party were very closely linked.  You couldn't rise through the ranks of the state bureaucracy unless you were a member of the Communist Party.

Paul Gole claims that this system worked only so long as there was coercion.  He describes the structure as a "poison pill" - a description of business arrangements that make it difficult, if not dangerous, for anyone to try to takeover or even change the basic arrangements of another firm.  In terms of the Soviet union, Gole contends, Stalin's system "ensured that anyone who sought to dismantle his totalitarianism would have to cope with ethnic anger and borders that guaranteed it would likely get worse".

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Soviet republics became independent nations - preserving their the Soviet-defined borders and ethnic composition.  As we have seen with Georgia and now with Ukraine, where a sizeable ethnic minorities exist, tensions have risen (and been exploited) through ethnic divisions leading to fault lines in the territorial integrity of these nations.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Shukhov radio tower in Moscow - 94-ish today

On 14 March 1920 work began on the construction of the Shukhov radio tower in Moscow.  It is in need of some repair as it has been reported to be in an unsafe state - there has also been some talk of pulling down.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Sisley 1988 Moscow Tour Advertising Campaign GQ

As promised in my blog post: I have dug out the original pictures and re-scanned them and put them here:

The Sisley "Moscow Tour" adverstising appeared in one of the earliest editions of GQ magazine, which was first published 25 years ago.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Putin playing Mr Benn, again

Mr Putin, in explaining the presence of troops in Russian military uniforms in Crimea, told journalists: “You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform.”  Hmmm perhaps a shop where, as if by magic, the shopkeeper appears, wearing a Fez?  That explains everything! (See Http:// which describes the book by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy: "Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin".  This books tries to identify the real Mr Putin from his various personalities, and compares his staged managed action man escapades to the adventures of 70s cartoon character Mr Benn.)

True identity of the unmarked troops in Crimea revealed

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Ukraine - send in the clowns

John Kerry - verbose and incoherent tit at the best of times, off to Kiev to save the day;  President Barack Obama states that "no country has a right to send in troops to another country unprovoked." - kettle, pot;  a Downing Street aide unintentionally reveals the approach of the UK Government to the Russian action in Ukraine by leaving his notes visible to the long lenses of press photographers - apparently we're not going to do anything but talk tough in "generic" terms.  With this shower, is it any wonder that Putin thinks he can act with impunity.

Morten Morland cartoon
Morten Morland cartoon for 03.03.14 for The Times