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Ukraine: Stupidity in Action

16 April 2014

Ukraine: Stupidity in Action

It’s all too easy to imagine the high-level meeting in Kiev where the Ukrainian government decided on its next move. It probably sounded a bit like this: “Very well, gentlemen, we are agreed on our strategy for dealing with the Russians. First we will figure out exactly what they are trying to force us to do. And then we’ll do it.”

Of course, it sounds stupid when you put it like that, but this does appear to be the Ukrainian strategy in a nutshell. Or as Ukrainian Security Service General Vasyl Krutov put it, “They [separatists] must be warned that if they do not lay down their arms, they will be destroyed.”

As I write this, the first reports are coming in of Ukrainian troops trying to take back control of occupied government buildings in the east of the country by force. This cannot be done without killing people. And that is exactly what the Russians want.

The provisional government of Ukraine does have a serious problem in the east, of course. It is trying to organise a national election in less than six weeks’ time that will produce a government whose legitimacy nobody can question. There may be a referendum on constitutional reform at the same time. It will be harder to do that credibly if government buildings in half a dozen eastern cities are occupied by armed men.

On the other hand, if Russia’s President Vladimir Putin really wants to seize control of eastern Ukraine, or even all the parts of Ukraine where there are significant numbers of Russian-speakers, what he needs is a pretext. It’s already clear from Russian official statements what that pretext would be: that the “fascist puppet government” in Kiev is “killing its own citizens” just because they are Russians or Russian-speakers.

It is doubtful that all or even most of the heavily armed men in the occupied buildings are actually Ukrainian citizens. There was no separatist political organisation in the east before the revolution that was capable of producing hundreds of volunteers with military training, wearing identical uniforms and carrying identical Russian-made weapons, and using them to seize multiple targets in different cities simultaneously.

It looks like Crimea all over again: a lot of the “local militia” there were also really Spetsnaz (Russian special forces). But there is a big difference: the Donbas, the region where Donetsk and the other affected cities are located, does not contain a civilian majority that actually wants to be ruled by Russia. If it did, the pro-Russians could just come out in non-violent crowds, like the protesters did in Kiev, and take control of the region peacefully.

The Crimean tactics won’t work in the Donbas, because most people there see themselves as Ukrainian even though they speak Russian on a daily basis. So there are no peaceful mass protests demanding “unification” with Russia, and the small groups of armed men who have seized buildings in various cities will only provide a usable pretext for a Russian invasion if some of them are killed by Ukrainian government forces.

The truth, mercifully withheld from the soldiers in the occupied buildings, is that they are there to provide some martyrs – and when they die, Spetsnaz or not, they will be portrayed as local people killed by the government in Kiev. Then the Russian forces will move, to “save” the oppressed Russian-speakers of eastern Ukraine from the fascists in Kiev.

So why is the Ukrainian government going to provide Putin with exactly that pretext by attacking the buildings in question? It would be inconvenient, but quite possible, just to blockade them, leave them in Russian hands and carry on the election around them. Or, if the authorities in Kiev find that too embarrassing, then just cut off the water and wait for the occupiers to come out peacefully. A week or two should be enough.

You would think that the government in Kiev, which came to power itself by mainly non-violent means, and finally won when the Yanukovych government discredited itself by the massive use of force, would understand the importance of not killing people. You would, it appears, be wrong to think that.

Maybe this conclusion is premature. Maybe, when the “volunteers” occupying the government buildings don’t flee at the first shots – and they won’t; these guys are professionals – the Ukrainian troops will be ordered to stop. Common sense could yet prevail. But the Kiev government has been doing the wrong things in the east for so long that a last-minute change of heart seems unlikely.

And by the way, could somebody please explain to the Central Intelligence Agency why the optics of sending John Brennan, the director of the CIA, to Kiev last Sunday were so bad? And why swatting the critics away by saying that it was just a “routine” visit made matters worse?

Governments that are “routinely” visited by the head of the CIA are usually puppet governments. Though to be fair, in this case it’s not so much a puppet government as a very stupid government.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 9 and 12. (“Of course…destroyed”; “The truth…Kiev”; and “Maybe…unlikely”)

Seymour Hersh Strikes Again

14 April 2014

Seymour Hersh Strikes Again

Why would anyone believe Seymour Hersh? True, he’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who broke the story of the massacre committed by US Army troops at My Lai in 1968 during the Vietnam War, and revealed the torture and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by US military police at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. But he’s getting old (77), and he’s a freelancer, and he won’t even disclose the name of his key informant.

Whereas the US government has hundreds of thousands of people working for it just gathering and analysing intelligence, and the American media are famed worldwide for their brave defence of the truth no matter what the cost. Besides, has the US government ever lied to you in the past?

So we obviously should not give much credence to Hersh’s most recent story. It alleges that the poison gas attack in Damascus last August that killed more than a thousand people, and almost triggered a massive US air attack on Syria, was not really carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical regime (which the US wants to overthrow)

It was, Hersh says, a false-flag operation carried out by the rebel Al-Nusra Front with the purpose of triggering an American attack on Assad. If you can believe that, you would probably also believe his allegation that it was the Turkish government, a US ally and NATO member, that gave the jihadi extremists of al-Nusra the chemicals to make sarin (nerve gas) and the training to carry out the mass attack in Damascus.

Hersh even says that it was General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told President Barack Obama just days before the American strikes on Syria were due to start that the evidence was not strong enough to justify an American attack on the Syrian regime.

The rest of the story we already know. Obama postponed the attack by deciding, quite suddenly, that he had to get Congressional support for it. Then he cancelled it entirely once the Russians gave him the face-saving alternative of getting Assad to hand over all of his chemical weapons for destruction. There is no chance of an American attack on Syria now. But could Hersh’s back-story be true?

Not one American paper or magazine was willing to print Hersh’s story, so it was finally published in the most recent issue of the London Review of Books. The US media are still studiously ignoring the story, and the Turkish government and various branches of the US government have naturally all issued indignant denials. But the official story never made any sense at all.
By last August it was clear that Assad’s regime would eventually win the civil war unless there was some radical change in the situation (like an American bombing campaign against it). So Assad’s survival depended on not giving the United States any reason to attack him.

Barack Obama had already said that any use of poison gas by the Syrian regime would cross a “red line” and trigger an American attack. In mid-August there were United Nations inspectors in Damascus to look into two much smaller attacks earlier in 2013 that seemed to involve poison gas. And we are asked to believe that at that precise moment Assad thought it would be a neat idea to kill one or two thousand innocent civilians in the city with poison gas.

So who did it? The obvious question to ask was: Who stands to benefit from this attack? – and the answer was certainly not Assad. He would not have done this unless he was very stupid, and being wicked does not make you stupid. Whereas the rebels had every reason to do it, in order to suck American firepower in on their side.

But I must admit that it felt very lonely making this argument at the time. I had no evidence that al-Nusra, or any other rebel group, had carried out the attack. I just said that motives matter, and that Assad had no plausible motive for doing it. And of course I couldn’t say where the rebels would have got their chemical weapons from, if they did it. Hersh says: the Turks.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister for the past eleven years, has backed the Islamist rebels in the Syrian civil war from the start, and he will be in deep trouble if they lose. They WILL lose, unless either Turkey or the United States comes to their aid militarily.  Erdogan would obviously rather have the US Air force do it rather than his own armed forces. So he had a good motive for giving the rebels the poison gas.

Hersh says that he has been told by a former senior official in the US Defense Intelligence Agency that that is what happened.  You can read the details on the website of the London Review of Books. And yes, he’s old, but that just means he has been getting it right about a lot of different things for a long time.

He’s just a freelancer, but that’s why people with a whistle to blow trust him to get the story out. And no, he hasn’t got confirmation from three separate named sources. That’s not how whistle-blowing works. But he is Seymour Hersh, and I strongly suspect that he is right.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 11 and 14. (“Not…all”; “But…Turks”; and “He’s right”)

Ukraine: How To Avoid a War

9 April 2014

Ukraine: How To Avoid a War

On one hand, eastern Ukraine appears to be slipping out of the government’s control, as pro-Russian groups seize control of official buildings in big eastern cities like Donetsk and Luhansk and demand referendums on union with Russia. They almost certainly do not represent majority opinion in those cities, but the police stand aside and people who support Ukrainian unity are nervous about expressing their opinions in public.

On the other hand, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, has just announced that the EU, the United States, Ukraine and Russia will all meet somewhere in Europe next week to discuss ways of “de-escalating the situation in Ukraine.” That will be the first time that Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has agreed to meet with a representative of the Ukrainian government.

So is this crisis heading for a resolution or an explosion? It still depends on whether Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks that the annexation of Crimea is enough compensation for the humiliation he suffered when his ally in Kiev, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown by a popular revolution. And clearly Putin hasn’t yet decided that himself.

Rationality says take your winnings to the bank and quit the game while you’re ahead. Putin’s action has guaranteed that almost any imaginable Ukrainian government will be hostile for the foreseeable future, but the NATO countries will be willing to forget about Crimea after a while if he goes no further. Does he really want the United States, Germany, France and Britain as his enemies too?

Yet the temptation is there. Putin’s agents are everywhere in eastern Ukraine, he has 40,000 troops ready to go at a moment’s notice just across the frontier, and all the Russian navy’s amphibious assault ships are now in the Black Sea – he could grab the Ukrainian coast all the way west to Odessa at the same time. The Ukrainian army would fight, but could not hold out for more than a day or two, and NATO would not send troops. Why not do it?

There are lots of good reasons not to. Putin would face a protracted guerilla war in Ukraine (he would call it “terrorism”, of course). He would find himself in a new Cold War that Russia would lose much faster than it lost the last one: it has only half the population of the old Soviet Union, and now depends heavily on Western markets for its modest prosperity.

He would find new NATO military bases opening up in various countries on Russia’s borders that joined the alliance for safety’s sake, but have so far not allowed  foreign (i.e. American or German) troops to be based permanently on their soil out of consideration for Russian anxieties. He really shouldn’t even consider grabbing Ukraine, but he is a man with a very big chip on his shoulder.

So what sort of line should the Europeans, the Americans and the Ukrainians be taking with Russia next week? This is about hard power, so appeals to sweet reason are pointless. “Sanctions” are also irrelevant: this has now gone considerably beyond the point where gesture politics has any role to play. The economic and strategic prices that Russia would pay need to be big and they need to be stated clearly.

But at the same time, Russia’s own legitimate concerns have to be addressed, and the main one is its fear that Ukraine might some day join NATO. That requires a firm commitment that Ukraine will be strictly neutral, under international guarantee. Russia will also try to get a promise that Ukraine will be “federalised”, but that is none of its business and should be rejected.

In the meantime, the shambolic Ukrainian provisional government needs to get a grip: not one of its leading figures has even visited the east since the revolution. In particular, it needs to take control of the police in the east (whose commanders were mostly Yukanovych’s placemen), and restore the chain of command from Kiev to the local municipalities.

Then it will be relatively easy to take back the occupied government buildings without violence. Just stop all movement in or out, turn off the water, and wait. None of this stuff is rocket science, but it’s not being done, and so the situation gets steadily worse.

Finally, money. Russia, under relatively competent authoritarian rule, has a GDP per capita of about $14,000. Ukraine, after a quarter-century of incompetent and sporadic authoritarian rule, has less than a third of that: $4,000 per head. It helps that Russia has a lot of oil and gas, but the contrast is huge, and Ukrainians are aware of it – especially in the east.

Ukraine needs lots of money, in a hurry, to stay solvent while it holds an election (on 25 May) and sorts itself out politically. And if all that is done, then maybe Putin will settle for Crimea and put up with the prospect of having to live next door to a neutral but democratic Ukraine.

Otherwise, it’s going to get quite ugly.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“In the meantime…in the east”)

The Return of the Dictators

6 April 2014

The Return of the Dictators

“I prefer death to surrender,” said Pakistan’s former military dictator, Pervez Musharraf,  on 1 April to the special court that is trying him on five counts of high treason, but it’s a reasonable guess that he’d prefer exile to either of those options. The real puzzle is why he ever left his comfortable exile in England in the first place.

In theory Musharraf, who seized power in Pakistan in 1999 and finally gave it up under great pressure in 2007, could face the death penalty if he is found guilty, but in practice he is protected by the Important Persons Act, an unwritten law that operates in almost every country. High political office is a club, and the members look after one another.

Nevertheless, Musharraf is being greatly inconvenienced by the trial, and last week the Taliban nearly got him with a roadside bomb near Islamabad. Doubtless he missed Pakistan, but what bizarre calculation could have led him to go home and put himself in the hands of his many enemies?

Musharraf said he was coming home to run in the 2013 election, which was delusional in the extreme. There was little reason to believe that many Pakistanis would want to vote for him after living under his arbitrary rule for eight years. There was no reason at all to think that he would not be disqualified from running in the election and put on trial for grave crimes.

Yet Musharraf is not alone. Other ex-dictators, far nastier than him, have succumbed to the same delusion and gone home convinced that they would be welcomed back. Another recent case is Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who took over as Haiti’s dictator at 19 when his father “Papa Doc” died in 1971 and ruled it until he was overthrown by a popular revolt in 1986.

Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere when he took power, and still the poorest when he lost it, but he took an alleged $120 million with him into exile in France. His dreaded Tonton Macoute militia murdered thousands and drove hundreds of thousands into exile, and many of them were massacred in the revolution that ended his rule, but he lived on in Paris in great luxury.

Eventually Duvalier’s spendthrift ways and an expensive divorce got him into financial difficulties, but just going back to Haiti was not going to fix that. Yet he went home in 2011, after a quarter-century in exile. He said he was “just coming to help,” whatever that meant, but he arrived just as the recently elected president was facing charges of election-rigging, which led some to speculate that Duvalier still had political ambitions.

He was arrested and charged with embezzlement, human rights abuses, and crimes against humanity. Three years later the courts are still pursuing him on those charges, but in the meantime he is frequently seen lunching in the bistros of Petionville, and has even been welcomed at the same events as the current president, Michel Martelly. It’s safe to say that he will not die in jail.

And then there was Jean-Bedel Bokassa, president of the Central African Republic, later known as Emperor Bokassa I of the Central African Empire. He was a brutal soldier who had served in the French colonial army, and seized power from his country’s first president (a cousin) in 1966. For the next thirteen years he ruled the country with great violence and practically bankrupted it.

The mass murder of schoolchildren and rumours of cannibalism finally moved the French to intervene militarily and overthrow Bokassa in 1979 while he was travelling abroad. He was sentenced to death in absentia in 1980 for the murder of many political rivals – but he returned from exile in Paris in 1986, seemingly confident that he would be welcomed with open arms.

He was put on trial and sentenced to death again – in person, this time. But the following year his sentence was commuted to life in prison, and in 1993 he was set free. In 2010, President François Bozizé issued a decree rehabilitating Bokassa and calling him “a son of the nation recognised by all as a great builder.”

Two things are odd about this phenomenon of ex-dictators confidently returning to the scene of the crime. One, obviously, is their belief that they are still loved (as if they ever really were). But that is less strange than it seems, for during their time in power very few people dared to tell them anything else.

What’s much more curious is the fact that the countries they misruled eventually find it necessary to forgive them. They do this not so much out of sympathy for the man who committed the crimes, but rather out of a need for the nation’s history not to be merely a meaningless catalogue of blunders and misdeeds.

Musharraf may have come back a bit too early to benefit from instant forgiveness, for some of the people he hurt have not yet retired. But he will not face really serious jail time or the death penalty, because Pakistan’s army would not permit it. And he will be forgiven by Pakistan’s historians and myth-makers in the end, because somehow or other the history has to make sense.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10 and 11. (“And then…builder”)