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'..."

...by 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).