Thursday, 28 August 2014


I'm going to experiment with Twitter.

My account is @JCassian1  (I hope).

Longer posts will still be here.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Strelkov and Berezin: modern Don Quixotes? Fantasy in East Ukraine

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare...

(W.B. Yeats: Meditations in Time of Civil War)

For all their professed contempt for the West, Strelkov and Co. seem to get a lot of their ideas from Hollywood. Strelkov’s conspiracy theory about the MH17 being full of corpses was straight from the TV series Lost. Now Strelkov’s deputy, Fyodor Berezin, has been taking his Matrix DVDs a bit too seriously, judging by a bizarre interview in Novaya Gazeta. He claims we are all just computer programmes and Strelkov may never have even existed.

There is a strange overlap between the war in eastern Ukraine and fantasy literature. Before he became a rebel bigwig, Berezin was a hack writer, who published dozens of pulp novels. Back in 2009, Arsen Avakov, now the Ukrainian interior minister, chaired the ''Star Bridge'' International Science Fiction Festival in Kharkiv. He noticed that a lot of the new Russian fiction in the military fantasy genre was about future conflict in Ukraine, including Berezin's Ukrainian Front, which imagines a confrontation between Russia and NATO in the Donetsk and Luhansk area. Other examples included Battlefield: Ukraine by Giorgi Savitsky and Russian-Ukrainian Wars by Alexander Sever. This led Avakov to ask: did the Russians want a war?

Last December, Strelkov himself published a children's fantasy novel, which could easily be seen as an allegory of the coming showdown between true Russian patriots and their treacherous Slav brethren, i.e. the Ukrainians. The title translates literally as The Detective of Castle Heldiborn (or maybe The Detective Story of Castle Heldiborn). It tells the tale of the inhabitants of Castle Heldiborn and their incessant wars with just about everybody else. Strelkov writes:

The masters of the castle – the knights of Heldiborn – were then, as now, terribly warlike. And this is no surprise. In those days there was not a trace of any fascinating sciences or arts. Ships did not cross the sea… What was left for the noble people to do? If foreign wars arose, they would journey to the border with the army of the Imperator; if there were none, they would fight their neighbours – knights like them. Or they would start all kinds of rebellions. It goes without saying that we, the keepers of the castle, the Ist-Limesy, helped our masters in everything they did and followed their example.

The Ist-Limesy are fantastic creatures based on the domovoi, a household spirit in Russian folklore (traditionally more famous for mischief-making than patriotic violence). The deadly enemies of the Ist-Limesy are their fellow domovie, the Piff-Paffs - nasty, treacherous creatures who help the knights of the evil Castle Buffenzig. Renata Lis sees a clear analogy between the Piff-Paffs and the Ukrainians. Castle Heldiborn is the sacred land which must be defended: Rus', Russia or the Soviet Union.

I predict that one day some Russian satirist - a Pelevin or a Sorokin - will produce an updated, blackly comic version of Don Quixote based on the current events in Ukraine. The hero, the Knight of the Sad Countenance Igor Strelkov, and his loyal Sancho Panza Fyodor Berezin will have their heads crammed full of cheap sci-fi and jingoistic Russian military history. Only this time, they won't be tilting at windmills, but shooting down civilian airliners. And this time it will be for real.

(Much of the information in this post came from Renata Lis in Rzeczpospolita and Oleg Khlebnikov  in Novaya Gazeta).

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Strelkov dead?

I was going to post about Strelkov's children's novel, but it can wait.

According to the Moscow journalist Yulia Latynina , the Russian warlord and author of The Mystery of Castle Heldiborn is no more.

She claims the Ukrainian army learned Strelkov's daily routine, including the location of his favourite Donetsk restaurant and the motel in Snezhne where he slept, and heavily shelled the area. Strelkov was fatally wounded.

I don't know how accurate this report is, but Strelkov has not been seen in public recently. On Friday it was announced that he was taking a month's holiday, a peculiar thing to do for the commander of a city under siege. He was also said to have left for Russia so he could train the army of "Novorossiya". None of this makes much sense, although Strelkov's deputy Fyodor Berezin has an even weirder explanation: Igor Strelkov may never have existed at all. But I'll save that for a later post.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Strelkov: more biographical details

Renata Lis has published a long article in the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita, which pieces together some more biographical details about the mysterious Igor Strelkov. Here are a few of her findings:

Strelkov models his distinctive look on the Russian General Alexander Arkadyevich Suvorov (as painted by the Prussian artist Franz Krueger). This is not the famous Suvorov of the Napoleonic Wars, but his grandson who took part in the crushing of the Polish uprising of 1830-31.

Strelkov fought in Transnistria, Bosnia and the two Chechen wars.

His friend Mikhail Polikarpov wrote a book about their adventures in Bosnia, Russian Wolves. Strelkov appears as the character Monarchist, obsessed with the Russian Civil War and happily shelling the houses of "Turks" (i.e. Muslims) with a mortar. (Recently, the Bosnian media has alleged that Strelkov was a comrade of the Serbian paramilitary Boban Indic and took part in rapes and killings in Visegrad).

In the late 1990s, Strelkov published The Bosnian Diary of Igor G. (i.e. Igor Girkin = Igor Strelkov).  Both Visegrad and Boban Indic are mentioned. The author tells of his delight at seeing Orthodox churches from the time of the White Russian emigration in Belgrade and his contempt for Serbs who fail to live up to his Pan-Slavic ideals.

In Moscow Strelkov belonged to the Markov Club, a military re-enactment society named after the White general Sergei Markov. Strelkov was even more fascinated by another White general, Drozdovsky, who famously marched across Ukraine, from the Romanian town of Iasi to the Don. [NB: Lis doesn't mention it, but Drozdovsky's men later allegedly buried him in a secret grave near Sevastopol].  Strelkov spent such a fortune on his hobby that Lis suggests this may have been the reason his wife left him. One of the biggest expenses was a heavy machine-gun, which Strelkov used in re-enactments of the Russian Civil War and both World Wars. He preferred to play the role of junior officers.

By most accounts, Strelkov is a teetotaller. In Polikarpov's novel, the Strelkov character uses the radio handle "Vodka", but this is probably ironic. Although the Russian military re-enactment clubs are notorious for their heavy drinking, Strelkov abstained and chose non-drinkers as part of his machine-gun crew.
Next post: Strelkov's fantasy novel for children

Thursday, 24 July 2014

More Putin fans: Assange and Livingstone...and Ollie Stone

Looks like Julian Assange has become a Flight MH17 truther. WikiLeaks is retweeting the Russia Today version of events (via Oliver Bullough).

On the far left, ex-London mayor Ken Livingstone is also following the Putinist line. Not much of a surprise there.

Update: Another one of the usual suspects has joined the Flight MH17 truther club. It's JFK director Oliver Stone (see his twitter feed). Stone's 2009 documentary South of the Border was recently broadcast (several times over) on Russia Today. If I was a conspiracy theorist, I'd be starting to see a pattern here...

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The anti-fascist Putin still has passionate admirers on the European Far Right

Not least Nick Griffin, who has just resigned as the head of the British National Party. Unlike their continental counterparts, the BNP have performed poorly in recent elections and Griffin has decided to fall on his sword. But, before doing so, he sent a message of support to Putin's Russia ("the last bastion of our race on the planet"), vowing to protect it against the neo-con plot to drag it into World War Three*:
Third, as you all know, I am following up my successful and historic intervention in Cameron’s attempt to drag Britain into war in Syria, with a very much harder campaign to expose and resist the latest neo-con campaign to herd the public into confrontation and conflict with Russia.

During my term as your British National Party MEP, I made many contacts at an international level, connections with whom I am now working to build a pan-European campaign for peace and to resist the utter evil of those who seem hell-bent on plunging us into another world war, against the last bastion of our race on the planet.
(* I'm not linking the BNP site. You can Google it if you like).

Elsewhere, earlier this month the Hungarian fascist party Jobbik (link) "submitted a motion to the Hungarian National Assembly in order to issue a resolution to condemn the Eastern Ukrainian genocide conducted upon the orders of the Kiev government, along with the Western supporters of the massacre, as well as to promote Hungarian-Ruthenian autonomy in the Lower Carpathian Region". As the provider of the link, Leonid Ragozin asks, (I'm guessing, rhetorically), "Who funds Jobbik? Sorry to keep asking this question several years in a row."

France's Front National have been copying Putin's line on the Malaysian airlines disaster almost to the letter. Google the statement by FN spokesman Aymeric Chauprade entitled "Tragédie du Vol MH-17 en Ukraine: oui à une enquête internationale, non à la diabolisation de la Russie" (Tragedy of Flight MH-17 in Ukraine: yes to an international inquiry, no to the demonisation of Russia!"). The gist of the statement is: no one should jump to conclusions because finger-pointing at Russia is completely unfair, especially when it puts French arms sales at risk, but pointing the finger at Ukraine is quite all right.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

...or yet another scenario

Or, and this is likely to be the preferred option, [Putin] will try to have his cake and eat it too: by saving face inside Russia and also avoiding further isolation abroad by “freezing” the conflict. In this scenario, Moscow would call for immediate cessation of hostilities, a ceasefire, and an international “peace conference” that would include the EU, US, Russia, the “self-defense forces” and Ukraine. In the meantime – and it could be a very, very long time – the rebels will remain in control of the territories they hold today.

          (Leon Aron at AE Ideas)

Putin is just brazen enough to attempt to play the peacemaker and honest broker over Ukraine. Even at this late stage, I bet he thinks he can switch from being arsonist to fire chief. After all, it worked for him last year when he successfully stepped in to protect his ally Assad from paying the price for gassing civilians. I can well imagine him thinking it's worth trying the same trick again to save his own bacon.

On the other hand, I can equally imagine Putin going for another option Leon Aron mentions:
After new sanctions are imposed, Putin may very well decide that having paid the price he might as well double down by sending regular troops to save his proxies and help them hold Luhansk and Donetsk.
As Aron says, "Stay tuned!"

What will Putin do next?

Putin's subdued response to the disaster is ominous. It reminds me of his reaction to the overthrow of Yanukovych. For days he said or did little, then he invaded Crimea.

Since Thursday, the Russian propaganda machine been flailing, lacking clear direction from the very top, pumping out various incoherent conspiracy theories which are poor even by Russia Today's low standards. Perhaps it merely shows the Russian security services disinformation department doesn't work weekends and hasn't yet got round to forging the requisite evidence implicating Ukraine. But I think it demonstrates the Putinists are still waiting for their lord and master to decide which line he will take.

Some scenarios for the future:

1. Putin and his cronies will try to drag the crash investigation out as long as possible, be as obstructive as they can, then reject any findings they dont like. Russia may even present the results of its own alternative enquiry. Putin has lost control of reality, but not of the Russian media. Maybe that's enough for him. Obviously, this scenario is highly plausible.

2. Putin will back down, give up his support for the separatist rebels and leave Ukraine in peace. To which my reaction is: yeah right.

3. Putin will do something really extreme and stupid, like he did with the annexation of Crimea, because he can't back down now. I have a horrible feeling this might be what he's planning.

The story so far - how we got here

(This is my personal view of the "logic" that led to the Malaysian airline disaster)

The surreptitious empire: the secret policeman's neo-imperialism

Many Russians feel deep imperial nostalgia for the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Unfortunately for them, Russia doesn't have the resources to resurrect the Soviet Union; it can only do so in a weakened, surreptitious form: for example, the Eurasian Union. Enter Vladimir Putin, who has claimed the biggest tragedy in his life was the break-up of the USSR. As a secret policeman, his instincts are to do everything covertly and deny the truth when challenged. He's the ideal architect of a surreptitious empire.

Putin's aim is not to send the tanks in, as in 1956 or 1968, but to create compliant puppets in Russia's neighbours. If they get uppity, then he foments civil war and sends covert military backing.

Ukraine is a vital element in this project: it is by far the largest ex-Soviet state apart from the Russian Federation. If it can't be made to do Putins bidding and evolves in a Western direction then the other ex-Soviet states might follow its example and turn away from Russia. It was vital to punish Ukraine for rejecting Putin's puppet Yanukovych.
How to read the mind of Vladimir Putin

Incidentally, its possible that Putin thinks of the European Union as America's surreptitious empire. He thus thinks it is deeply unfair he can't have his own equivalent, the Eurasian Union. One way of getting an insight into the way Putin thinks is to look at what he accuses others of doing. He offers a classic study in psychological projection. For instance, he believed the Euromaidan protesters must have been Western agents because that's how he himself would have arranged matters in a parallel situation.
Building a superpower on a budget
Putins plan to build Russia into a superpower on the cheap has gone horribly wrong because he has been forced to work with shoddy materials. Most of his covert actions rely on irregular forces. As the name suggests, irregulars are difficult to control and lack military discipline. There's a good reason why they have a notorious reputation for massacres and extra-judicial killings in civil wars (the Black and Tans, the various militias in Lebanon in the 70s and 80s or in the former Yugoslavia in the 90s). They are often nothing more than hooligans and gangsters with guns, drunk on a mixture of alcohol, the ability to push civilians around and extreme nationalism. The third of those is the most dangerous intoxicant of them all, as we've seen with Igor Strelkov.
Pyrrhic victory in Crimea

Putin has also stoked up extreme nationalism among the Russian public. His easy victory in Crimea now looks like a Pyrrhic one which has led to a fatal escalation of the war. Putin's home audience craves more success just as Putin is hungry for the high the opinion poll boost gave him. He should have left things at the annexation of Crimea, but he couldn't. He had to try his hand at Eastern Ukraine. However, over recent weeks the Ukrainian armed forces have been gaining ground against the so-called Peoples Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. If those puppet states collapse, then Putin has lost control of Ukraine and lost the war. The jingoists will not be happy and may not be forgiving. The Eurasian Union project will have suffered a massive blow. Yet Putin can't send the conventional Russian army in; he still has to rely on the irregulars and cross his fingers that his agents in Eastern Ukraine are able to rein in their excesses. The irregulars can't win against the Ukrainians with the basic weaponry at their disposal. In particular, they are vulnerable to Ukrainian air superiority. Some time in the last few weeks Putin made the fatal decision to entrust the irregulars with highly sophisticated anti-aircraft missile systems. He must have realised what a gamble he was taking. The results have been as predictable as Putin's unconvincing denials of all responsibility.

Just a passing thought

This is probably just one of those trivial "separated at birth" coincidences, but does anyone else see a passing physical resemblance between Igor Strelkov and Gavrilo Princip, the man who shot Archduke Franz-Ferdinand a hundred years ago this summer and started World War One?

Compare: Princip; Strelkov.

Has Strelkov - a fan of histrical re-enactment - deliberately cultivated a "Princip moustache" or is that just standard old-fashioned Slavic military "facial furniture"? Strelkov has yet to acquire the haunted look Princip displays in most of his surviving photos, but I imagine he's been pretty camera-shy since Thursday.

Princip and Strelkov are both bumbling terrorists but the Russian is unlikely to precipitate World War Three, however much that would flatter his ego.

Kursk 2

All the glitter and multi-billion dollar gloss of the Sochi Olympics have long since tarnished. With the Malaysian air disaster, Putin is showing the same face to the international community as he did to the Russian public when the Kursk submarine sank in 2000 with the loss of 118 crew:
Carefully staged photo-ops aside, the Russian leader cut an unimpressive figure in public: tetchy, foul-mouthed and unsympathetic. If trouble brewed, he disappeared. When the Kursk, one of the most advanced vessels in Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet, sank after a botched torpedo launch, Mr Putin stayed on holiday for a week. When he was finally asked by an American television interviewer what had actually happened (Russian naval officials had blamed everybody and everything but their own incompetence), Mr Putin seemed to find it impossible to show sympathy, distress or contrition. He grimaced and said simply ‘it sank’. (Edward Lucas, The New Cold War)
Clearly, Putin does not care too much about his image in the world media any more. He's now exclusively playing to a homegrown audience via a media which is almost wholly under his control. Elsewhere, the mask has slipped and the KGB mediocrity underneath is showing through.

Friday, 18 July 2014


It looks like separatist leader/Russian agent Igor Strelkov's boasts about downing a plane yesterday were genuine.

Also, from a profile of Strelkov on the New Yorker blog:
Like the radical nationalists and neo-imperialists in Moscow, who have easy access to the airwaves these days, Strelkov has a singular point of disagreement with Putin: the Russian President hasn’t gone nearly far enough; he has failed to invade and annex “Novorossiya,” the separatist term for eastern Ukraine. Pavlovsky said that people like Strelkov and his Moscow allies are as delusional as they are dangerous, somehow believing that they are taking part in grand historical dramas, like the Battle of Borodino, in 1812, or “the novels of Tolkien.”
“Strelkov is well known for leading historical reënactments of Russian military battles, like you have in the States with the Civil War reënactors,” Pavlovsky said. “It used to be a fantasy world for people like him, but now they have a realm for their imaginations.”
warned about Putin handing sophisticated weaponry to pumped-up nationalist thugs on Dilettante's Winterings  back in May. It took no great powers of prophecy on my part and if I could see what was likely to happen then so could a "great statesman" like Putin. I put the ultimate responsibility for the tragedy on Vladimir Putin, the man who armed and incited these troglodytes.

My speculation based on what we know already: The separatists acquired at least one BUK missile launcher at the end of June. Basic training takes several weeks. They wanted to show the Ukrainian armed forces they could shoot down Ukrainian aircraft at any height. A few days ago they managed to hit a Ukrainian Antonov at 20,000 feet. The downing of the Malaysian airliner was a demonstration of rebel firepower that went horribly wrong.

PS: There are now allegations that Strelkov is spinning a conspiracy theory that whole thing was staged and the plane was full of bodies which were already dead. Someone should have told him about Occam's razor before he came up with an excuse like that.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Demonstrators storm the presidential palace in Abkhazia

There have been serious protests in the separatist republic of Abkhazia (de jure belonging to Georgia but de facto under Russian control). This time the demonstrations are against the Kremlin-backed government. Unlike South Ossetians, who have been agitating for union with Russia, I get the impression Abkhazians would really like to be independent from both Georgia and Russia.

It will be interesting to see if this is just a flash in the pan. If not, I wonder how Putin will handle it.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Provisional results - brief post

Looks like Poroshenko has won by a landslide.

The "fascist" candidates Oleh Tiahnybok and Dmytro Yarosh earned a combined total of 2.4% of the vote. Where now for Putin's "anti-fascist" propaganda campaign?

Somehow I doubt Putin will cheerfully accept the result. We'll see what his new rhetorical angle is in the coming days.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

"Prince Charles's comparison of Putin to Hitler 'risks an international scandal'..." saying out loud what everyone is thinking. Hint: if you don't want to be compared to Hitler, don't behave like Hitler in 1938. And go easy on the Mein Kampf quotes.

I remember when Charles refused to shake Idi Amin's hand at Jomo Kenyatta's funeral in 1978. As a kid, I couldn't understand why everyone else was sucking up to this monster. A few months later, Amin annexed part of Tanzania. The Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere responded by invading Uganda and overthrowing Amin. This earned Nyerere the condemnation of the Organisation of African Unity, which - as far as I know - had offered no criticism of Amin when he was killing tens of thousands of his own people. Such is international diplomacy. I'm well aware that international - or interpersonal - relations cannot exist without large doses of hypocrisy, but there is a limit and sometimes straight-talking is refreshing. An overdose of diplomacy can be fatal too. In the case of the Organisation of African Unity, decades of twofaced behaviour earned it such a reputation as a dictators' club that eventually it had to be disbanded and replaced by the African Union.

(NB: I'm also aware Charles shook Robert Mugabe's hand by mistake at Pope John Paul II's funeral in 2005.)

Saturday, 17 May 2014

What a surprise

Putin's satrap in Crimea Aksyonov has banned the Crimean Tatars from commemorating the 70th anniversary of their deportation tomorrow. All demonstrations in Crimea are forbidden until 6 June, to "protect the summer holiday season".

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Ukraine 2014, Iran 1946. A different world?

The People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk remind me of a little-known incident in the early history of the Cold War when Stalin encouraged the creation of two separatist republics - in Iran.

Everyone is familiar with Stalin's imperial expansion westwards into Central Europe in the wake of the Second World War, but his attempt to extend the Soviet Union southwards into the Middle East around the same time is mostly forgotten.

In August 1941 the USSR and Great Britain invaded Iran after the country's ruler, Reza Shah, had shown pro-Nazi leanings. Iran had long been the focus of Russian and British competition for spheres of influence. During the wartime Allied occupation, Soviet agents sounded out local feeling in north-west Iran. There were in fact far more Azeris in Iranian Azerbaijan than Soviet Azerbaijan and there was also a sizeable Kurdish minority in the region. Many Iranian Azeris also sympathised with the pro-Communist Tudeh Party. The Soviets explored the possibility of provoking secessionist movements which would then allow them to absorb the region into the USSR. 

The Allies had agreed to evacuate Iran when the Second World War came to an end  and British and American forces duly left after the fall of Japan, but Stalin wanted to see if he could hold onto territory in the north-west. He encouraged local nationalists to establish two separatist states, the People's Republic of Azerbaijan and the (Kurdish-dominated) Republic of Mahabad, provoking the so-called Iran Crisis of 1946, one of the first major events of the Cold War. The "people's republics" were protected by Soviet troops and policed by Soviet secret agents.

Of course, Stalin had no interest in the well-being of local Kurds and Azeris. After all, in the 1930s he had deported Soviet Kurds en masse to Kazakhstan. His interest in north-west Iran had more to do with the area's potential oil wealth. If he could get hold of this without a land grab, then all well and good. Stalin now offered the Iranian prime minister Qavam a deal. In the words of the historian Vladislav Zubok:
Stalin and [his foreign minister] Molotov acted as a "good-cop, bad-cop" team: on the one hand they dangled before Qavam the promise to act as mediators between Tehran and the separatist regimes; on the other hand, they pressed the prime minister to grant oil concessions to the Soviet Union.
Soviet interference was provoking immense anger among Iranian nationalists. Qavam decided to outsmart Stalin and play for time. The deadline for foreign armies to evacuate Iran expired in early 1946 but Soviet troops did not budge from the north-west. However, the USSR was now clearly in breach of international agreements. Qavam went straight to the newly-formed United Nations, pleaded his case and won American backing. Stalin had not predicted the strength of US feeling on the issue. In the end, pressure from the Americans meant that Stalin gained nothing. The Soviet army withdrew from the republics but Stalin got no oil. Left to their fate, the separatist republics were soon crushed, the Azeri leaders fled to the USSR, and the Kurdish leaders were caught and hanged. Ultimately, all Stalin had achieved was to push Iran into the American sphere of influence, where it would stay until 1979; and even after 1979, Revolutionary Iran would refuse to ally with the Soviet Union.

Stalin's attempted blackmail of Turkey around the same time also backfired. In 1945 he demanded the Turks accept joint control of the Straits of the Dardanelles with the Soviet Union and dropped strong hints that if he didn't get the deal, he had his eyes on historic Georgian and Armenian lands in eastern Turkey (although here there were no attempts to set up separatist republics). This provoked massive protests in Istanbul, which the Soviet ambassador Vinogradov suggested should be presented to the West as evidence of a "fascist threat" (ring a bell?). However, Ankara refused to give in to Stalins demand's and turned to the USA. In 1952, Turkey joined NATO.

Finally, I can't resist quoting a paragraph from Vlasdislav Zubok's A Failed Empire: the Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev:
Stalin's methods reveal a recognizable pattern. Each time, the Soviet leader sided with expansion-minded subordinates and effectively mobilized jingoist sentiments in the Soviet bureaucracy. The Soviets acted uniltaterally, under the camouflage of secrecy and denial. They exploited the presence of the indigenous revolutionary and nationalist movements but preferred to create movements under their control in order to further their goals. Although Stalin preferred to stay within the framework of great power diplomacy, he constantly tested its limits. This pattern allowed Stalin to achieve impressive tactical victories in Central Europe and the Far East. The Kremlin ruler, however, did not realize that every such victory wasted Soviet postwar political capital in the United States. Ultimately, it exhausted the potential for Stalin's diplomacy.
It was a long time ago and a different world, but much of that description sounds oddly contemporary.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Always ask on a first date: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?"

I forgot just how much of a self-parody the Guardian punditry pages really are. The paper sends decent journalists like Shaun Walker to dodge bullets in Ukraine, but its opinion section - especially the notorious Comment Is Free - is full of ludicrous Pilgering or lifestyle fluff like this article about "OKComrade", a dating site for "socialists, communists, and anarchists wherever they might be."

The article advises wouldbe couples: "Always ask on a first date: are you a Tory?"
Mainstream dating sites take ideology into account, but taboos against talking politics mean that major differences can be hidden for months or even years.
That's why it's always worth hiring a private detective to make sure your potential spouse isn't guilty of Trotskyite deviationism.

It concludes:
Perhaps OKComrade offers us more than a date – it invites us to find ways of applying our principles to our relationships. By consciously, and compassionately, dating fellow leftists, we're taking a step towards creating a shared culture. This is a powerful blow against alienation, and an optimistic sign that another world is possible.
Or maybe it's just a lonelyhearts service for metropolitan poseurs. Check out the proles in the picture. "More Chablis?" "Why, comrade, I don't mind if I do."

Pundits and politicians on Ukraine and the case of John Pilger

(This is an expansion of a comment I left at The Dilettante's Winterings ).

As if by magic, every UK politician or journalist who has expressed any sympathy for Putin’s position on Ukraine has been someone whose opinion or character I already deeply distrusted long before this crisis began: George Galloway, the Guardian’s Seumas “Shameless” Milne, Peter Hitchens, Nigel Farage, Alec Salmond and – I was glad to learn today – Simon Jenkins, a journalistic jack-of-all-trades with an uncanny ability to pick the wrong side on almost every debate he touches.

AK has pointed out this sorry article by one of the usual suspects, John Pilger. I'll use examples from it to show what these "thinkers" have in common:*

1. They are highly dogmatic and have a boundless and unwarranted confidence in their own wisdom. They regard their lifetime of looking at the world through ideological blinkers as "experience". Their shtick is reducing the enormous and confusing complexity of the real world to a few simple doctrines which explain everything. In plain English, they are bigots.

2. At the core of their dogma is often the belief that everything that's wrong with the world (or the UK) can be explained by a single, underlying cause, a kind of "Great Satan". For leftists like Pilger, this is inevitably the USA; for Farage and UKIP, it is the European Union; for the loonier Scottish nationalists, it is Westminster. Pilger has no doubt who's to blame for the Ukraine crisis:
For the first time since the Reagan years, the US is threatening to take the world to war. With eastern Europe and the Balkans now military outposts of Nato, the last "buffer state" bordering Russia – Ukraine – is being torn apart by fascist forces unleashed by the US and the EU.
3. A belief that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Anyone who opposes the Great Satan must be good. If they have committed any crimes then either the Great Satan made them do it (Pilger: " If Putin can be provoked into coming to their aid...") or the Great Satan has done worse ("whataboutery"). For Pilger, Putin is a victim of the USA and its evil press:
All are subjected to a western media campaign of vilification – think Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, now Vladimir Putin.
4. A lack of concern about the resulting incoherence. Pilger is a self-styled anti-imperialist who is prepared to defend Russian imperialism and adopt the vocabulary of Putinist propaganda wholesale and unquestioningly: "Kiev junta", "a country where Ukrainian Nazis backed Hitler", "Nato's military encirclement" (remind me, when did China join NATO?).

5. Intellectual laziness disguised as profundity. These pundits rarely bother with the messy business of looking at concrete facts. Familiarity with foreign languages and in-depth background knowledge can be dispensed with in favour of "world-historical" generalisations. Facts that destroy their dogmas are illusory, they miss the "bigger picture", detail is pure surface, "epiphenomenal" (to use the Marxist cant term). News reports that contradict their world view can be dismissed as "manufacturing consent" or brainwashing by the "MSM" (mainstream media). This is often accompanied by a penchant for conspiracism. Behind the scenes, pulling the strings are the CIA, Mossad, Brussels, NATO, the Elders of Zion or the Freemasons. Pilger refers to "US-orchestrated attacks on ethnic Russians in Ukraine." Access to this "secret knowledge" flatters the sympathisers among their readership, who pride themselves that they are among the elite few who have seen beyond the surface to the dark truth lurking beneath. Here's Pilger pulling the trick:
Why do we tolerate the threat of another world war in our name? Why do we allow lies that justify this risk?The scale of our indoctrination, wrote Harold Pinter, is a "brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis", as if the truth "never happened even while it was happening".

5. Nostalgia for the simpler, bygone world of their youth. In Pilger's case, the excitement of Vietnam-era radicalism. No wonder they find it easy to empathise with Putin, with his dream of returning to the good old days of the Russian Empire.

6. I imagine newspapers employ these bloviators because their intellectually lazy bigotry matches the intellectually lazy bigotry of a substantial section of their readership. Either that or because they act as "trolls", generating artificial controversy. Controversy generates publicity and publicity generates sales. This would explain the entire career of Julie Burchill (assuming anything can).

*Jenkins is the possible exception here. I've never worked out what he actually believes in. "Dinner party contrarian" is the best explanation of his attitude I've seen.

Postscript: No doubt I could spend paragraphs and paragraphs analysing the multiple idiocies of Pilger's screed. I've been looking in vain for a reference to "non-Russian" Ukrainians as anything but Nazis and Ukraine as anything but a "buffer state" or a potential "CIA theme park". Ukrainians obviously have no right to decide their own destiny free from Putin. The Crimean Tatars don't even figure in the article. I imagine Pilger regards himself as a proud anti-racist. On this evidence, that's another delusion.

There's the obligatory leftist why-oh-whying: "Why do we tolerate the threat of another world war in our name? Why do we allow lies that justify this risk?" We're only missing the standard refrain "We are all guilty, we are all prostitutes"...but few of us are media whores as brazen as John Pilger who got paid for writing this trash.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Tuesday thoughts

So the fake referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk went ahead with (literally) predictable results and the local paramilitary leaders are waiting for the new Vladimir the Great to gather in the Russian lands and present them with their campaign medals. As I wrote in a previous post, Putin may not necessarily do this. This whole crisis has been engineered by Putin to punish Ukraine for trying to break away from his influence. He's not after territory; what he wants is to make Ukraine ungovernable, and he has achieved this goal. He can keep Donetsk and Luhansk at arm's length just as Milosevic did with Republika Srpska. He can even try to pose as a peacemaker, hoping Western countries' indifference, spinelessness and greed will eventually lead them to accept him in this role for the sake of an easy life.

The danger for Putin is that the momentum of events will wrench control out of his hands. He's let the nationalist genie out of the bottle and he won't be able to put it back in. He may think he can deny association with what now happens in Donetsk and Luhansk, but Milosevic thought he could distance himself from the actions of Mladic and Karadzic and ultimately the wider world did not believe his excuses.

The kidnappings of the OSCE and Red Cross members may not have been random thuggery but part of a deliberate plan to scare off international organisations. Mindful of Yugoslavia, Putin does not want UN peacekeepers involved, not unless he can have the kind of scenario we've seen in Abkhazia and South Ossetia where the "UN peacekeepers" were essentially the Russian army in disguise. International involvement in stabilising eastern Ukraine is probably not an option now.

More later (maybe)...

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Tens of thousands of Georgians die fighting for Crimea

No, not in 2014, but in 1941-42. I think the following extract from Donald Rayfield's  Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia puts some perspective on Putin's attempts to co-opt the "Great Patriotic War" for his sleazy brand of Russian imperialism, especially when that imperialism is directed against countries such as Ukraine and Georgia which suffered massively in the conflict:
In the first few months of the war, 100,000 Georgians were sent to the front: almost all were killed or imprisoned in German POW camps where life expectancy was short. When the Germans took the Crimea, especially during the battles for the Kerch peninsula between December 1941 and May 1942, Georgian losses, shot or drowned, were monstrous, thanks to the might of the German army, Stalin's utter disregard for human life, and the blunders of Lev Mekhlis, the Red Army's loathed political commissar. Some 550,000, most Georgian males aged 18-45, were drafted into the Red Army; 300,000 did not return - a demographic catastrophe which crippled Georgia for the rest of the century. (In 1940 the population was about 3.6 million; in 1945 about 3.4. At the pre-war birth rate, the population ought to have grown by half a million: wartime losses, including higher infant and morbid mortality, were about 700,000, or 20 per cent of the population).

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Think of a number

I'm trying to guess what the result of the polls on Sunday will be. Somehow I doubt it'll be the modest "Syrian" 97% we saw in Crimea. Judging by the choice of the term "People's Republic" for Donetsk, I think some of these Eastern Ukrainian votes will come closer to a "North Korean" 100%. The separatist paramilitaries will want to prove they are even more Russian than the Crimeans.

Looking at this photo of the current leadership of the "Luhansk People's Republic" we can expect the actual business of vote-counting will be a long process involving the removal of shoes and socks.

Will Putin acknowledge the result? He won't necessarily have to. As I've noted before, Armenia has never officially recognised the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh even though the Armenian president Robert Kocharyan had been president of the breakaway region. Putin's game is plausible deniability - with very little emphasis on the "plausible".

Hmmm 2

No, I don't know what Putin is playing at either.

As far as I remember, it took Slobodan Milosevic years before he pretended to disown Republika Srpska. Putin looks like he's disowning the "People's Republic of Donetsk" before it's even been born. Or is he? Who can say? Some might call this an example of Putin's cunning but, as Lawrence Freedman points out in his book Strategy, once you've earned a reputation for cunning nobody trusts you. Take Odysseus, for example. With his ruses and wiles and backtrackings Putin is losing credibility - even among his balaclavaed supporters in eastern Ukraine it would now seem. On the other hand, cunning always works on willing dupes. Maybe Putin is gambling that plenty of Western businessmen will be gagging for a "reset" once all this nasty Crimea business has been forgotten.

Update: The separatists aren't listening and are proceeding with the referendum. All that time and effort printing fake ballot papers is not going to go for nothing. To quote Duck Soup:

Ambassador Trentino: I am willing to do anything to prevent this war.
Rufus T. Firefly: It's too late. I've already paid a month's rent on the battlefield.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Astonishing if true: "only 15% of Crimeans voted for annexation"

Forbes is reporting that the "President of Russia’s Council on Civil Society and Human Rights" has accidentally leaked the true figures for the Crimean referendum:
The website of the “President of Russia’s Council on Civil Society and Human Rights” posted a blog that was quickly taken down as if it were toxic radioactive waste. According to the Council’s report about the March referendum to annex Crimea, the turnout was a maximum 30%. And of these, only half voted for annexation – meaning only 15 percent of Crimean citizens voted for annexation.
To make sure no one misses this: 
Official Kremlin results: 97% for annexation, turnout 83 percent, and percent of Crimeans voting in favor 82%. 
President’s Human Rights Council results: 50% for annexation, turnout 30%, percent of Crimeans voting in favor 15%.

The uses of literacy?

In Moscow someone has hung a poster outside the Dom Knigi bookshop denouncing a group of opposition figures as a "fifth column" which supports the "junta in Ukraine" and blaming them for the deaths in Odessa. The group includes the blogger Alexei Navalny, the politician Boris Nemtsov, the singers Andrey Makarevich and Yuri Shevchuk (note the Ukrainian name), and the writers Dmitry Bykov (who is Jewish) and Boris Akunin (who is Jewish and Georgian). I don't think the ethnicities are irrelevant. "чужие среди нас!" screams the poster. "Strangers (or foreigners) are among us!"

Behind them the bookshop advertises the works of Ivan Turgenev and Alexander Herzen, two 19th-century writers associated with the moderate tradition of Russian political thought. Had they been alive today, I have little doubt they would be starring on that poster with the other "national traitors".

Monday, 5 May 2014

Another date for the diary

Sunday 18 May is the seventieth anniversary of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars. Last year, Simferopol City Council tried to ban the Day of Remembrance, but an estimated 35-40,000 Tatars turned up for a commemoration in the central square.

Today Crimea's new Russian masters have threatened to prosecute the 5000 Tatars who marched in support of the their leader Mustafa Cemilev when he was refused entry at the new border.

You can imagine what's likely to happen in Simferopol in two Sundays' time.

That means the next three weekends promise to be flashpoints (9 May - Victory Day: 11 May - "referendum" in "Donetsk People's Republic"; 18 May - Crimean Tatar deportation commemoration; 25 May - Ukrainian presidential elections).

Yugoslavia comparisons

Many comparisons have been made between the situation in Ukraine in 2014 and the outbreak of war in Yugoslavia in 1991, i.e.

Russia = Serbia (and Montenegro)
Ukraine = Croatia

Some rough figures to give you an idea of the relative scale:

Population of Russia = approx. 143 million
Population of Serbia and Montenegro = approx. 11 million
In other words, Russia has about 11 times the population.

Population of Ukraine = approx. 45 million
Population of Croatia = approx. 4.5 million
In other words, Ukraine has about 10 times the population.

So this war has the potential to be on 10 or 11 times the scale of the Serbian-Croatian conflict.

Also worth remembering: Ukraine has about the same population as Spain. So far the conflicts in the European ex-Soviet Union have taken place in much smaller countries (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova).

History repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second time as tragedy.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

The philosophy of Vladimir Putin: heads I win, tails you lose

One difference between Putinism and Jobbik is that Turanism is keen on Turkic peoples such as the Tatars. Yesterday, the Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Jemilev (your spelling may vary) was denied entry to Crimea. Five thousand of his followers accompanied him to the border post at Armyansk, where he was turned away.

In other news three activists have been arrested in Kaliningrad for flying the German flag from the local FSB building and demanding the region's entry into the European Union.

It's difficult to complain about the "historic injustice" of Crimea's transfer to Ukraine in 1954 without other people bringing up such matters as Kaliningrad or Karelia or the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944. Putin is the typical cherry-picking nationalist who regards every Russian territorial gain as fair, natural and irreversible and every Russian territorial loss as a crime against humanity.

Anti-fascist fascism (more thoughts)

This article by Jan Fleischauer has been doing the rounds. Fleischauer compares Putin to Mussolini:
A search for the right historical analogy should focus on the events of Rome in 1919 rather than Sarajevo in 1914. It won't take long for those who step inside the world of echo chambers and metaphors that color Putin's thinking to identify traits that were also present at the birth of fascism. There's Putin's cult of the body, the lofty rhetoric of self-assertion, the denigration of his opponents as degenerates, his contempt for democracy and Western parliamentarianism, his exaggerated nationalism.
It's not a new comparison (ahem). However, I've just been reading Yegor Gaidar's thoughts on post-imperial nostalgia and the greater difficulty territorially integrated empires have letting go compared with maritime empires. Budapest 1920 (and Budapest 2014) might offer an even closer analogy than Rome 1919. Just as there are plenty of Russian nationalists mourning the collapse of the USSR, some of their Magyar counterparts are still cut up about the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And Putin feels their pain.

In the aftermath of the First World War, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory at the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians were reduced to ethnic minority status in neighbouring countries. This loss of historic land caused many Hungarian nationalists to feel such a revulsion for Europe that they turned to a Eurasian ideology, Turanism, which claimed the Magyars were possessors of a unique culture, a superior blend of East and West. Fears of Hungarian irredentism were so great that Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia formed the Little Entente, an alliance to guard against Budapest's claims on their territory.

Eurasian ideas appeal to Jobbik, the Hungarian Far Rightists who maintain a close but ambiguous relationship with the ruling Fidesz party and who gained 20% of the vote this April. And - surprise, surprise - Jobbik appeals to Vladimir Putin and his friends, as Mitchell A. Orenstein explains:
In Hungary, for example, Putin has taken the Jobbik party under his wing. The third-largest party in the country, Jobbik has supporters who dress in Nazi-type uniforms, spout anti-Semitic rhetoric, and express concern about Israeli “colonization” of Hungary. The party has capitalized on rising support for nationalist economic policies, which are seen as an antidote for unpopular austerity policies and for Hungary’s economic liberalization in recent years. Russia is bent on tapping into that sentiment. In May 2013, Kremlin-connected right-wing Russian nationalists at the prestigious Moscow State University invited Jobbik party president Gabor Vona to speak. Vona also met with Russia Duma leaders including Ivan Grachev, chairman of the State Duma Committee for Energy and Vasily Tarasyuk, deputy chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources and Utilization, among others. On the Jobbik website, the visit is characterized as “a major breakthrough” which made “clear that Russian leaders consider Jobbik as a partner.” In fact, there have been persistent rumors that Jobbik’s enthusiasm is paid for with Russian rubles. The party has also repeatedly criticized Hungary’s “Euro-Atlantic connections” and the European Union. And, more recently, it called the referendum in Crimea “exemplary,” a dangerous word in a country with extensive co-ethnic populations in Romania and Slovakia. It seems that the party sees Putin’s new ethnic politics as being aligned with its own revisionist nationalism.
Of course, the Hungarian Far Right are relatively impotent. They don't have the resources to send "little green men" to Transylvania or Vojvodina. They are forced to take out their post-imperial frustrations on their own national minorities, Jews and gypsies. This loses them the sympathy of Guardianista types who have no problem showing understanding for Putin's irredentist fantasies and his annexation of Crimea. They also have little access to hydocarbons and are not big in the banking sector, so there's nothing there to attract practitioners of Realpolitik. But if Jobbik needs a shoulder to cry on, luckily Vladimir Putin is there to offer support.


Friday, 2 May 2014

Odessa live

The journalist Howard Amos is tweeting events in Odessa live (including photos).

38 dead in Odessa (I expect that toll will go up). Unknown number of dead in Sloviansk.

Maybe this weekend will be the time things spiral into war.

You can never be too pessimistic in your predictions when Putin's involved.

Crunch month (2)

The journalist Luke Harding, who has just left Donetsk, comments, "There is every possibility Russia will invade. The crunch moment will come after the separatist 'referendum' on May 11, and before May 25."

That long weekend from Victory Day on Friday 9th to the Donetsk "referendum" on Sunday 11th could be when it all reaches boiling point. Putin is planning to visit Crimea on the 9th too.

Ukraine has to retake control of the "People's Republic of Donetsk" before the 11th to stop the "referendum" going ahead. Equally, Russia has until the 25th to ensure that no undisputed vote can take place in eastern Ukraine. It needs to provoke such massive disruption that the legitimacy of the result will be called into question.

South Ossetia scenarios by Thomas de Waal

Article by the Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal on whether Putin and Co. are likely to try it on in Georgia. The Russian deputy Leonid Slutsky has been sniffing around South Ossetia, which is bad news as he's previously shown a similar interest in Crimea and Gagauzia:
Georgians are nervously worrying about a new wave of Russian pressure tactics against them, designed to halt the planned signing of a European Union Association Agreement in June. But at the moment the only news in Georgian-Russian relations is the continued thaw: the renewal of trade and talk of the restoration of a direct air link. 
So one wise Georgian politician told me the government is also bracing itself for another Russian tactic: a charm offensive in which Moscow offers Tbilisi a new deal over South Ossetia in return for Georgia renouncing its European path. 
If either of these scenarios come to pass we can be sure of one thing: ordinary South Ossetians will not be consulted about what the Russian leadership intends for them.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Nuts in May

Putin shares Lenin's opinion that liberty is precious, so precious it must be rationed. Judging by a couple of marches in Russia today, it's a lot easier to get your hands on a freedom of speech ration card if you're an ideological nutjob.

First, the Russian Communist Party was out in force, waving flags celebrating Marxism-Leninism's extensive repertoire of tyrants, psychopaths and rapists from Lavrenti Beria to Kim Jong-Un.

If that didn't float your boat, elsewhere in Moscow there was another demonstration by a collection of Far Right nationalists waving flags with an extensive repertoire of symbols that kind of look like swastikas but don't quite go all the way. I thought all the Nazis were supposed to be in Kyiv, but here they are proclaiming "Russia for the Russians...and Ukraine for the Russians" etc. etc. There were even a few shouts of "National socialism!"

However, in a perfect illustration of the horseshoe theory, it was the Communists rather than the fascists who carried banners comparing Obama to a monkey. Classy.

Crunch month

May will be a hot month in Ukraine, whatever the weather. 

The war of nerves

The Kyiv government is looking wimpish at the moment, especially compared to macho Moscow. In the east it is behaving like Gandhi* while the "little green men" and their gopnik friends are acting like terrorists. This is partly down to the uncertain loyalties of the security forces in the "pro-Russian" regions". More importantly, I imagine Washington is advising Kyiv to avoid giving Moscow any pretext for intervention and telling it to hang on until the end of the month when elections will grant it legitimacy. But by then the Kyiv government's inaction might have discredited it in the eyes of voters.

There's a lot in the diary before we get to the end of the month though and, remember, Moscow can't keep its army on alert on the Ukrainian border indefinitely. You can certainly expect a furious war of words to blow up on 9 May about the "Great Patriotic War". It's "Victory Day" in Moscow, but only "Memorial Day" in Lviv Oblast. Expect Russian journalists to be sniffing round Western Ukraine for the slightest mention of Bandera and the UPA so they can whip themselves into a frothing fury about the "Neo-Nazis" in Kyiv. The media will contain lots of jingoistic polemics in which World War Two began in 1941 and the only member state of the Soviet Union was Russia.

Then we have the European elections on 22 May, when European Far Right parties will do pretty well and receive warm congratulations from Putin.

Blurred lines

Kyiv is probably following Washington's advice but do Obama and Kerry have a plan?  Again, May will show us. The latest sanctions were pretty weak. The case against stronger sanctions is the need to keep something in reserve in case Russia actually invades Ukraine. Exceptionally tough sanctions might even encourage Putin to go ahead and send the tanks in anyway. Is this a red line or another Syrian-style blurred line? Does Obama's foreign policy amount to anything more than "not being George W. Bush"? Ultimately, not being Nixon didn't work out too well for Jimmy Carter.

Eat yourself fitter

Putin's Russia is like a morbidly obese man who thinks he can cure himself by eating even more,. Moscow hopes land grabs will solve its internal problems. After all, it's worked so well in the past in Russia. As Napoleon (allegedly) said, all great empires die of indigestion. What is the mission of the Putin empire anyway? To achieve international pariah status and create an impoverished rust belt from Volhynia to Vladivistok?

The good European

It's a real tragedy that the "bad European" Lech Kaczynski died at Smolensk four years ago while the "good European" (and Gazprom's little helper) Gerhard Schroeder is celebrating his 70th with a special friend from the Kremlin. Kaczynski's "political incorrectness" with regard to Russia and Germany now look likes factual accuracy. Talking of diplomacy, word is Brussels' stocks of "grave concern" are dangerously low and may run out before the end of the month.

*Update: OK, so they appear to have ditched the Gandhi act this morning (Friday).

Friday, 18 April 2014

Humpty Putin

"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,' " Alice said. 
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!' " 
"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected. 
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." 
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." 
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all." 
(Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Putin has been acting like Humpty Dumpty throughout the crisis. First he claimed there were no Russian troops in Crimea; yesterday he said there were - although there are definitely none in eastern Ukraine. No, sirree.

The "peace deal" will break down over such semantics. "Illegal groups" in Ukraine must disarm. To Putin, this will mean Pravy Sektor and Maidan groups in general. Given that he doesn't regard the Kyiv government as legitimate, he can also widen the definition to cover the Ukrainian army. He can use Yanukovich, the "legitimate" president, to validate the actions of ex-Berkut and other paramilitaries in the east if necessary. He can continue to deny the "little green men" have anything to do with him while expressing concern for their human rights. If such rights are violated, wouldn't that be an illegal action? The Duma has granted Putin the right to intervene in Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians so if the Russian army rolls over the border then by Putin's logic it would not constitute an "illegal group". Well, at least he's ensured everybody can have a weekend break, although I doubt too many Putinist apparatchiks will be holidaying in Crimea.

Thursday, 17 April 2014


I'm still trying to work out what Russia's cunning plan is behind this "peace deal". I'd be surprised if it lasts much longer than the Easter weekend.

Vladimir "Darth" Putin on Twitter has an explanation:

"A cynic'd think that my plan is to cash in on the market bounce this'll cause, sell, go back to meddling & then start shorting stock."

Funny, but nowhere near as rib-tickling as Edward Snowden on the Putin Show today. Yes, Edward, Russia is not a surveillance state and you are not a useful idiot.


I've just been reading Yegor Gaidar's book about the last days of the Soviet Union, Collapse of an Empire. Gaidar is discussing why the break-up of the USSR was so much less bloody than the simultaneous dissolution of Yugoslavia.  He believes it was down to the presence of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Secondly, Boris Yeltsin, whatever his other faults, was no Slobodan Milosevic and was careful not to use "Great Russian" nationalist rhetoric to boost his popularity. However, some lesser Russian politicians of the time were less restrained:
The threat that events would unfold in the post-Soviet space as they had in Yugoslavia was real. On August 26, 1991, Pavel Voshchanov , the press secretary to the Russian president, warned that the borders of Russia and the republics (excluding Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) could be “reevaluated” if they did not sign a Union agreement. The statement suggested Russian pretensions to territory in northern Kazakhstan, Crimea, and part of left-bank Ukraine. Voshchanov’s words elicited an angry response from the leaders of Kazakhstan and Ukraine: they saw it as blackmail. Moscow mayor Gavriil Popov made even greater territorial claims on Ukraine on August 27 and 28, 1991. They extended beyond Crimea and part of the left bank to Odessa and the Transdniestr.
These forgotten speeches have a worryingly familiar ring. In his televised Q & A today Putin mentioned "Novorossiya" and talked of Russia being unjustly deprived of its share of strategic Black Sea coastline. Landlocking Ukraine would also handicap the state economically and allow Russia to link up with Transnistria.

Maybe Gaidar was over-optimistic and Russia has indeed found its own Milosevic after a twenty year period of grace. Ominously, Kyiv no longer has nuclear weapons to make Putin think twice about indulging in Greater Russian pretentions.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

What kind of war?

I haven't decided yet whether I think Russia will invade eastern Ukraine. I have a horrible feeling Putin might settle for stirring up a civil war. There's obviously a small number of Russian special forces already in the east. They're there to coordinate the activities of the far larger number of pro-Russian thugs with Kalashnikovs, who may be good at beating up journalists and swaggering around with RPGs but are too dumb to be left in charge of intellectual things like tactics and strategy. The hope is that their provocations - or a violent Ukrainian government response - will incite locals to rebel against Kyiv.

Some commentators believe Putin will be content when he's achieved a federalised, Finlandised Ukraine. I have a nasty suspicion this won't be enough. Putin really wants to extinguish the memory of Euromaidan. He won't be happy until he has a puppet (Yanukovych or equivalent) back in charge on the Dniepr. He also needs to humiliate Ukraine, the largest of the ex-Soviet republics (apart from Russia, of course), and make an example of it to bring the others into line. A bloody civil war would achieve this.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Tweet from Tikhon Dzyadko:  "The simple logic of the current Russian government: in any incomprehensible situation speak about the Great Patriotic War and call anyone who doesn't agree with you a fascist."

I wonder when Prussia stopped getting mileage out of its part in defeating Napoleon?

Defender of the faith

Tom Nichols on Twitter: "Putin likes to be seen wearing an Orthodox cross, but has no trouble making war on his Orthodox brethren - on Palm Sunday."

To be fair, Putin never had many qualms about making war on his Orthodox brethren in Georgia. Now he's turned on his fellow East Slavs.

Let's not forget that one of Putin's alleged reasons for supporting Bashar al-Assad is to protect Eastern Christian minorities in Syria from violence.

Russia's other fifth column abroad

Putin doesn't just have the "little green men" working on his behalf. As Edward Lucas explained back in 2008:
Russia represents a powerful fifth column of a kind unseen during the last Cold War. Once it was communist trade unions that undermined the West at the Kremlin’s behest. Now it is pro-Kremlin bankers and politicians who betray their countries for thirty silver roubles. Western investment in Russia has already created a lobby for good relations with the Kremlin in the City of London, in German big business and in the energy industry across Europe. That is reinforced by the billions of dollars of Russian investment pouring into Western Europe and North America. When Russian tycoons – who these days run their businesses at the Kremlin’s bidding – own big stakes in the West’s biggest companies, they are no longer outsiders, but insiders. Russia is becoming a giant, nuclear-armed version of Saudi Arabia: a country so rich and powerful that even association with Islamic extremist causes does not bring Western disfavour.
There's a rumour that George Osborne is the staunchest opponent of sanctions against Russia in the UK Cabinet. This wouldn't surprise me as I've always thought he was an odious little creep.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

This is just appalling.

Sorry for the lack of sophistication in this comment but this can no longer be alleviated by black humour and sarcasm.

History repeats itself...

...but only at weekends when the cast of the Putin show can get the time off.

This guy is certainly earning his overtime. He must need the money to pay for all the kit he bought from an average Russian high street store.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Predicting the predictable

Nostradamus would have an easy life in modern Russia...

According to these reports some Crimeans have proposed changing the name of Simferopol to Putino. I predicted such a move last month. "Putino" also happens to be the Esperanto word for "prostitute". (I saw one tweet saying the name should be "Liliputin").

I'm still mildly disappointed that I only predicted a 96% result in favour of Crimean annexation. If I'd done more research I would have seen Putin had been copying his buddy Assad. The Russian economy must be in such a parlous state it can't even manufacture its own statistics any more.

News roundup

Putin's partition of Ukraine is running to script with "locals" in the east calling for independence. Be patient. Demands for annexation by the new Saint Vladimir will follow shortly. It's the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact all over again without the inconvenience of Ribbentrop.

So how is British TV reporting the imminent dismantling of one of the largest countries in Europe this morning?  BBC and Sky News headlined with the death of Peaches Geldof and are giving us rolling coverage of the Oscar Pistorius trial. Voyeurism into private grief is now serious news. It was down to Al Jazeera English to begin its bulletin with events in Ukraine.

In a parallel universe, Russia Today led with the news that Russian security forces have taken time out from their busy amateur dramatics schedule in Ukraine to kill Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov again. I make that the third time his death has been reported so far this year. This just proves the superiority of Putin's agents over American special forces, who did a sloppy job and only killed Osama Bin Laden once.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

UN vote

The UN has voted to declare the annexation of Crimea illegal. Only ten members backed Russia. They break down as follows: rogue states (North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Zimbabwe); chronically anti-US Latin American countries (Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua); and only two ex-Soviet republics (Belarus and Armenia). I'm guessing Lukashenka must have very mixed feelings However, it's easier to understand why Armenia might be more more enthusiastic. In addition to winning extra Russian aid, Armenia is probably hoping to get Putin to approve its claim to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic exists in a strange limbo, only recognised by other unrecognised states (Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia). Even the Republic of Armenia has not officially acknowledged its independence. Despite this, some of the most prominent members of Armenia's governing elite were politicians in Nagorno-Karabakh, including the current president Serzh Sargsyan and the former president Robert Kocharyan (who had previously been president of NK). Maybe they think it's a good time to unfreeze the conflict with Azerbaijan, especially now that Azerbaijan's main ally Turkey is busy with Syria - as well as banning Twitter and Youtube. Of course, this will all depend on whether it fits Putin's grand strategy.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Sorry, I've been too busy to write a substantial post recently.

Meanwhile, it looks like Putin is taking a breather too - at least on the surface. I imagine he will consolidate in Crimea and remove the remaining Ukrainian troops there before proceeding to the next stage of military action (assuming there's going to be one). He has two months to undermine the credibility of the interim government in Kyiv. Expect plenty of smears and black ops (such as leaking private phone calls).

Putin's unpredictability will help him in the short term. In the long run, it will simply turn Russia into a bigger version of North Korea, feared but not respected. Having an opportunist and blatant liar like Putin as an ally must be looking a less and less attractive prospect for potential partners around the world.


Elsewhere, Window on Eurasia is a blog with some fascinating posts. The latest are on the Kremilin's anti-Western mythology, the problem of the Crimean Tatars and the dilemmas of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

How to punish Putin

Alexey Navalny in the New York Times (in case anyone hasn't seen it already). Short version: the West should attack the Russian officials who really count (Putin's inner circle and the media oligarchs) as well as investigating Russian financial corruption in the EU and the US.

In the long term, Putin has undermined both the unity of the Russian Federation...
What is truly alarming in Mr. Putin’s rash behavior is that he is motivated by the desire for revenge against the Ukrainian people for revolting against a Kremlin-friendly government. A rational actor would know that the precedent of holding a local referendum to determine sovereignty is risky for Russia — a federation of more than 80 disparate regions, including more than 160 ethnic groups and at least 100 languages.
...and his unique selling point in the outside world:
There is a common delusion among the international community that although Mr. Putin is corrupt, his leadership is necessary because his regime subdues the dark, nationalist forces that otherwise would seize power in Russia. The West should admit that it, too, has underestimated Mr. Putin’s malign intent. It is time to end the dangerous delusion that enables him.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Tuesday's analysis

The next phase of the Ukraine crisis has begun. Now the task is to remove Ukrainian troops from Crimea, ideally by proving resistance is futile but using paramilitaries to intimidate the stubborn into surrender. One nasty development would be if Ukrainian soldiers are taken hostage to use as a bargaining chip in any further conflict in eastern Ukraine.

As I outlined yesterday, Putin will treat Ukraine the same way Russia and its partners treated the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the eighteenth century, although this time the process will be a hell of a lot faster. The principle is "give a dog a bad name and hang him". Russian provocateurs will try to create as much anarchy in Ukraine as possible. Russia will then step in to stabilise the "failed state", claiming the conflict on its doorstep is a danger to its own security as well as complaining the rights of ethnic Russians are being violated (Catherine the Great used concern about Eastern Orthodox believers as a pretext to intervene in Poland).

Putin is a blatant liar and he doesn't feel bad about it. Putin started as a spy and he's never stopped thinking like one. In spying, deceiving others is a patriotic duty not a sin. There is nothing wrong in lying to foreigners to benefit Russia. Putin has been a liar from his first days in office, from the apartment block bombings of 1999 to the claim he would not annex Ukraine on 4 March this year. As Edward Lucas has said, the real mystery is why Westerners have consistently failed to get this. Humouring Putin over the Litvinenko murder was abject cowardice and the debate in the Western media over whether Medvedev would serve a second term as president was always laughable. Diplomacy and naivety are not synonyms. Western foreign policy needs to get real.

Putin is more Mussolini than Hitler. Yes, Putin has copied some of Hitler's moves, but so did Il Duce. Badly. I've already noted the similarities between Putins PR and Mussolinis propaganda, although Putin lacks any Latin flamboyance (he prefers to pose topless by an icy lake rather than cavorting on a sunny Adriatic beach). Huge levels of corruption? Check. Mafia permeates society? Check. Failing battle for births? Check. Militarism without an adequate military? Check.  Like Fascist Italy, Putinist Russia is a self-pitying bully with a massive inferiority complex, whining that other European powers and the USA have failed to show it proper respect and compensating with displays of macho aggression. Unfortunately, in hindsight it's amazing how seriously Britain and France treated Mussolini in the 1930s. Although they protested the invasion of Ethiopia, they were too timid to impose real sanctions on Italy (oil embargos, blocking the Suez Canal to Italian troop ships) for fear of pushing it into the arms of Nazi Germany. World War II quickly exposed Mussolini's pretentions and Cold War II might do the same for Putin.

Cold War II is different from Cold War I. Russia now has no major allies. Putin tried to reach out to China and India in his speech but I doubt they'll want to damage their relations with the USA and the EU to back his opportunism.

Putin probably believes Cold War I never really ended. The 1990s were simply a period of Russian tactical withdrawal forced on it by temporary weakness. No territorial or other treaties signed with its neighbours during this time are necessarily binding because Russia was effectively "acting under duress". The independence of Ukraine is just a two-decade anomaly in the long history of the Russian Empire. This is reflected in the way the independence of the Baltic states between the world wars is portrayed in Russian schoolbooks.

On economic sanctions, the question is: will Russia jump rather than wait to be pushed? I can imagine Putin seizing the initiative by declaring Russia will leave of its own accord before the G8 meets next week.

The cause of nuclear disarmament is pretty much dead. Iran will look at what happened to Ukraine after it gave up its nukes in the 1990s and think, "No thanks, we re better off getting tooled up."

RT comedy - this Strait has no Bering on geopolitics

Last night I glimpsed a Russia Today presenter explaining why Russia was no threat to the USA because the two countries were nowhere near each other. The map behind her didn't show Alaska as American territory.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Rumours of war

I'm just reading Edward Lucas' The New Cold War, published back in 2008 and I'm amazed how much of this crisis was predictable even back then (Lucas is bringing out a revised "I told you so" edition in April).

Maybe everyone reading this blog is aware of this already but Lucas pointed out this passage from Vladimir Socor reporting back in 2008:
According to a witness account, Putin told Bush that Ukraine was “not a real nation,” that much of its territory had been "given away" by Russia, and that Ukraine would “cease to exist as a state” if it joined NATO. In that case, Putin hinted, Russia would encourage secession of the Crimea and eastern regions of Ukraine...

Putin's speech

Preliminary thoughts

Look how Putin used the twofold rhetorical camouflage I described yesterday:
*on the one hand, he appeals to Great Russian nationalism and Soviet nostalgia (Crimea has always been an inalienable part of Russia, Kyiv was the birthplace of Rus') and fear of fascism (the "Banderites" took control in Kyiv)
*on the other hand, he hijacks Western discourse about democracy, human rights and international law: we will protect the rights of the Crimean Tatars; the Crimean Tatars were victims of historical injustice (by my beloved USSR, but let's not mention that fact); the inevitable Kosovo analogy crops up; respecting the will of the Crimean people is democracy in action; respecting Russian opinion polls about protecting ethnic Russians is also democracy in action.

Putin really does want to reconstruct the USSR, maybe not as a proper political entity but as a sphere of influence. He doesn't want anyone meddling in "Russia's backyard" and this definitely includes Ukraine. There was a high level of anti-NATO paranoia, especially about the idea of NATO in Sevastopol (he kept repeating the mantra "Crimea and Sevastopol"). The dissolution of the USSR was an historical injustice. Yeah, we cut some territorial deals in the 1990s but they don't count any more; we only made them because we were weak at the time.

Putin is trying to depict Ukraine since 1991 as ungovernable and anarchic, in need of the stability only Putinist Russia can provide. Hypocritically, he has thrown his "anti-Orange" puppets like Yanukovych under the bus. (A thought: this is how Poland-Lithuania's neighbours partitioned the country in the 18th century: Russia, Prussia and Austria interfered with and undermined Polish democracy then portrayed the Commonwealth as a dangerous anarchic region which needed to be absorbed into the strong, centralised states which surrounded it).

A lot of anti-Western paranoia: the West has been menacing Russia since the 17th century.

Talk about a "fifth column of national traitors" really ominous. Expect further crackdowns on dissent in Russia.

Further thoughts

Putin made no concessions to the West. No de-escalation. Appeals to China and India. It's obvious Putin is not afraid of the EU, only NATO (count the NATO references in his speech). So far, the EU's response has been feeble and divided.

The "fifth column of traitors" may have particular relevance to dissenters within Crimea. A Crimean Tatar has already been murdered. The 3% of dissenters who did not boycott the referendum and voted against secession had better watch their backs. Putin's buddy Hugo Chavez showed the way with his "Tascón list" back in 2003-2004, where he tried to punish anyone who had signed a petition calling for a referendum to remove him. The list of petitioners was used to sack people, ruin careers, deny bank loans and otherwise intimidate opponents. Under international pressure, Chavez officially abandoned its use in 2005, but surreptitiously continued it. Maybe Aksyonov and his gangster friends will try to figure out who voted against them and proceed accordingly. Or perhaps that's too much effort and they'll just beat up anyone flying a Ukrainian flag and any Tatar who gets "uppity".

Some more links

The Chinese view

Nicu Popescu on the Chinese view of Ukraine :
The Chinese strongly disapprove the Russian military intervention in Ukraine at several levels. Russia is an opportunistic supporter of the principle of state sovereignty: it resists military or political interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, or Syria, but practices such interventions in Georgia and Ukraine, while piling up pressure on other post-Soviet states. China is more consistent in its respect of sovereignty as it does not support or practice open military interventions, though it can still be tough with its neighbours. 
The easy recourse by Russia to military means of power projection is also worrying for the Chinese with regard to Central Asia. It is not unimaginable that a country like Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan face a messy succession when their current ageing leaders have left the political stage. The question from a Chinese perspective is then: if such an intervention can take place in Ukraine, why should it not happen in Kazakhstan, too, provided there is a pretext for that?
But China doesn't approve of the Euromaidan uprising either. Countries with pickled revolutionaries on display (Lenin, Mao) are always the most disapproving of genuine popular revolutions (the same would hold true for Venezuela but unfortunately Chavez rotted before he could be mummified).

Russia's propaganda machine

Alan Yuhas on Putin's stirring of anti-fascist hysteria :
Fear of fascists goes a long way in Ukraine, which suffered in the second world war. By definition, fear (“Fascists are coming for your family!”) and confusion (“Fascists? Are there fascists? What’s a fascist?”) matters much more in propaganda than truth (not so many fascists). It doesn’t have to make sense – in fact it’s better if it doesn’t. Incoherent theories of a gay, Jewish, Muslim fascist conspiracy in Kiev don’t matter so long as they’re riling someone up, like a man in Simferopol who told the Guardian: “I mean, I am all for the superiority of the white race, and all that stuff, but I don’t like fascists.”
Moldova worried Transnistria might be next

David Kashi in "International Business Times":
Like Ukraine, Moldova was in talks with the EU over a trade association agreement. Unlike Ukraine, though, Moldova did not succumb to Russian pressure, and signed the association agreement. 
Before the signing of the trade agreement in November, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin visited Moldova and threatened the country with economic sanctions. 
"Energy is important, the cold season is near, winter on its way,” he said, as quoted by several news agencies. “We hope that you will not freeze this winter.” 
Threatening to cut off natural gas supplies is an old tactic Moscow continues to use. In 2006 and 2009 Russia cut supplies to Ukraine over price disputes.  
More recently, Rogozin said that any actions taken to “hinder the communications of Transnistria with the rest of the world will be a direct threat to the security and constitutional freedom of 200,000 citizens of Russia permanently living in Transnistria,” he said on Twitter, as reported by Interfax. He added that Russia will never forget that “it is the guarantor of constitutional rights of its citizens.” 
Last Thursday, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė said in Brussels that Moldova and other countries may be Russia’s next target.
(I might add more links during the course of the day)


Monday, 17 March 2014

More on Putin's federated Ukraine fantasy

Mark MacKinnon in Canada's Globe and Mail:
.. statements from Moscow on Monday left little doubt that Mr. Putin’s aims extend well beyond Crimea. What he apparently wants to see in Ukraine is a broken, weak neighbour, one left at Moscow’s mercy. 
A statement posted by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday called for the new government in Ukraine to “urgently” adopt a new “federal constitution.” 
That reads like code for reinventing Ukraine along the lines of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country that is a collection of loosely united mini-states. It’s not hard to envision what that might look like in Moscow’s vision for Ukraine: an autonomous republic in the Russian-speaking east of the country along the lines of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 
Grouped perhaps around the cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Lugansk, such a mini-state would naturally look east to Moscow and – of course – ensure that Ukraine never joins the European Union or NATO. For good measure, Russia might even push for Russian-speaking cities in the south of Ukraine (such as Odessa, Kherson and Mykolaev) to be added to this Russkaya Respublika, or to be grouped into another mini-state over which the Kremlin would have influence.
Kyiv will almost certainly say no to any such proposal.
Clearly, the leaked document was never meant to be an offer the West could accept, or even a starting point for serious diplomacy. It was an illustration of Mr. Putin’s anger over the revolution in Kiev, which he views as a Western-sponsored coup d’etat in a country he considers part of Russia’s historic sphere of influence. 
The note Mr. Lavrov presented to Mr. Kerry is akin to a kidnapper’s ransom note, a list of what it will take to keep Mr. Putin – who obviously believes he’s in total control of the situation – from hurting his victim, the country of Ukraine.


So the EU and US sanctions are targeting the ideological clowns in Putin's circus, including Rogozin (mentioned on this blog yesterday) and Surkov (mentioned by AK here ). No financial bigshots, so no real pain - and the weirdo ideologues will probably take these measures against them as a compliment.

Latest rumour is...

...Putin will don his "reasonable mask" again. Showing "humanitarian concern" for pro-Russians, he will press for a federal Ukraine, more autonomy for eastern regions, language rights for russophones. This will allow him to insert some Putinist stooges and Russian nationalist firebrands into local government in the east, effectively hampering Kyiv's ability to take a strong line against Moscow and enabling Putin to interfere in Ukrainian internal affairs on a whim.


Russian strategy and its rhetorical camouflage

Russia aims to rebuild its power in the ex-Soviet Union by responding to separatist movements in two ways. Here's Norman Davies writing in 2008:
When separatists dare to operate within Russia's frontiers, they are to be extirpated without mercy. When they surface on the territory of Russia's neighbours in the so-called "Near Abroad", and especially in the vicinity of vital pipelines, they are to be encouraged.
Compare the fates of Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and - now - Crimea with that of Chechnya. Putin recently made spreading separatist views within the Russian federation a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in jail.

Russia covers up its real strategy in its "Near Abroad" with two kinds of rhetorical bluster:

1. For home consumption, Russia mobilises the anti-Nazi narrative of the Great Patriotic War, drawing on a mixture of popular jingoism and paranoia about foreign powers. This is stoked up by the Putin-controlled media. As we have seen, this anti-fascist fascism doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

2. For foreign consumption, Russia hijacks Western humanitarian interventionist ideas such as R2P ("Right to Protect") and engages in "whataboutery". "What about Kosovo" is a particular favourite? Unfortunately, this does not fit the chronology. NATO's intervention in Kosovo was in 1999. The "frozens conflicts" in Transnistria began in 1990-1992; South Ossetia 1991-92; Abkhazia 1992-93. The First Chechen War was 1994-96. If there hadn't been Kosovo, Russia would have cited US interventions in, say, Grenada and Panama. The Crimean invasion has exposed the sham of Russia's humanitarian interventionism. The only "humanitarian crisis" in Crimea was created by Putin and his fake "security forces".