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Ukraine: A Game of Chicken

It is quite possible for soldiers to cross a frontier “by accident on an unmarked section,” and that is how Moscow explains the capture of a group of Russian paratroopers on Ukrainian territory last weekend. Poor lambs, they just wandered across the border by mistake. When they get home, they’ll have to be sent on a refresher course in cross-country navigation.

The flaw in this story is that the ten captured Russian soldiers, from the 331st Regiment of the 98th Guards Airborne Division, were caught in a group of unmarked vehicles THIRTEEN MILES inside Ukraine. That’s a third of the way from the Russian border to the besieged rebel city of Donetsk, and it’s really hard to explain away as a navigational error.

Besides, there is plenty of other evidence (though no other video interviews with captured Russian troops) to show that there is now a three-pronged Russian offensive underway in eastern Ukraine. There are probably fewer than a thousand Russian regular army troops on Ukrainian territory at the moment, but their purpose is clearly to stop the collapse of the pro-Russian rebels and reverse the momentum in the ground war.

Last week the Ukrainian forces finally cut the last remaining road from Russia to the besieged city of Luhansk, shortly after a large convoy of Russian trucks violated Ukrainian sovereignty and drove up that road to deliver “humanitarian” aid to the city. The rebel forces have now launched a counter-offensive to reopen the road, and Russian self-propelled artillery units have entered Ukraine in the Krasnodon area to support their attacks.

Another Russian force, including tanks, crossed the border on 24 August thirty mi. south of Donetsk, the capital of the other rebel province, and is trying to open a corridor to that city. (The captured paratroopers were part of that force, which is currently stalled near Ilovaisk.) And on 25 August a column of Russian armour crossed into Ukraine well to the south, heading west along the coast of the Sea of Azov towards the port city of Mariupol.

This last incursion, presumably an attempt to open a third front and relieve the pressure on the two besieged cities, has now occupied Novoazovsk, about twenty km. east of Mariupol. The Ukrainian forces say they destroyed a dozen armoured infantry carriers there, but in the end they were driven out. Russian helicopter gunships also killed four Ukrainian border guards and wounded three others in an attack on a border post east of Luhansk on Tuesday.

It’s not yet all-out war between Russia and Ukraine, but there is no doubt that Ukrainian forces are now in direct combat with Russian troops on several fronts. Russia still officially denies all this, of course, but its denials are not meant to be believed. Rather than see the separatist forces that Moscow has sponsored in the two eastern Ukrainian provinces simply collapse, Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to escalate the conflict.

The message is that Russia will do whatever is necessary militarily to keep the rebellion alive. But is that really true? Putin is now just one step short of a full Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, and Russia is already suffering serious economic sanctions. Take that last step, and it’s back to the Cold War – a war that Russia would ultimately lose, and it wouldn’t take forty years this time either.

Today’s Russia has only half the population of the old Soviet Union, and it is no longer a major industrial power. Without its oil and gas exports, its citizens would be as poor as Ukrainians. If NATO started to take the “Russian threat” really seriously and re-armed itself accordingly, Russia simply couldn’t keep up militarily – and even trying would wreck its fragile economy. In the end, that would probably bring Putin down.

Putin presumably understands this at some level, but his pride, and his desire to restore Russian power, won’t let him just accept defeat. So the current escalation is best seen as his next move in a game of chicken: can he frighten the West into making a deal that saves his face and turns Ukraine back into a political and economic dependency of Russia? The answer is: probably not.

Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, certainly does not intend to go back to the old days. When he called a parliamentary election last week, he was effectively declaring that Ukraine will continue to be a sovereign and centralised state, not the neutered and decentralised state that Moscow wants – and that it will keep its options open on joining the European Union and even NATO (though neither of those options is currently on offer).

The problem with games of chicken is that each player must demonstrate his willingness to go all the way, even though going all the way is crazy. The first one to give way to an attack of sanity loses. The only way to avoid a disastrous smash-up and still not lose is for both players to go sane at exactly the same time. That is what diplomacy is for, but so far it isn’t working.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9.  (“This…Tuesday”; and “Today’s…down”)

Mare Nostrum

The last time “Mare Nostrum”(Latin for “Our Sea”) was used as a political slogan in Italy, Mussolini’s fascists were claiming dominance over the entire Mediterranean. This time it’s different. It’s the name of the operation the Italian navy is running to save asylum seekers from drowning on the dangerous voyage in open boats from North Africa to Italy.

In a seaworthy vessel with a working engine and a reliable compass, it’s a ten-hour crossing and not very dangerous at all. In a leaky, massively overcrowded wreck that was scavenged somewhere along the North African coast by the people smugglers and sent off to Italy after a few rudimentary repairs, it can be a death sentence. An estimated 20,000 people went down with their boats before reaching Italy in the past ten years.

The most recent victims, on 23 August, barely made it half a mile off the Libyan coast before their boat sank, leaving 170 people in the water. The Italian navy does not operate in Libyan territorial waters, and the Libyan coast guard station near Qarabouli, east of Tripoli, has no ships of its own. The coast guards borrowed a couple of fishing boats, but only sixteen people were still alive by the time they got there.

The boats usually founder in international waters, however, and then it’s the Italian navy’s job. Operation Mare Nostrum began in October, 2013, and since then over 80,000 people have been pulled from these sea-going death traps (though most were not actually sinking at the time) and safely landed in Italy. Last weekend, the Italian navy rescued almost 4,000 more.

This policy honours Italy’s humanitarian traditions – but since all the people who are saved claim political asylum on coming ashore, setting in motion a legal process that can last for years, the Italian navy is actually increasing Italy’s problem as the first port of call for over half the undocumented immigrants entering the European Union.

Most of them have a good case for claiming asylum: a large majority of the people reaching Italy are refugees from war and tyranny in Syria, Eritrea, and Somalia, with smaller number from various West African countries. Nor do they really want to stay in Italy, which is going through a prolonged economic crisis and has very high unemployment. They would rather move on to more prosperous EU countries further north.

But international law says that refugees must claim asylum in the first safe haven they reach, and in the case of the EU that is almost bound to be Italy, because it is so near to Africa and because the post-Gaddafi chaos in Libya means that there is no control over boats leaving the Libyan coast.
Italy is now getting more than half of the EU’s entire refugee flow – probably well over 100,000 this year – and all of those people must stay in Italy. It’s expensive, it’s politically poisonous, and the country’s facilities for looking after these refugees are being overwhelmed. Yet Italy’s’s EU partners seem quite content to leave Italy to bear the burden all by itself.

With almost all of the Fertile Crescent now in a state of war, and new flows of refugees starting as a result of the fighting in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, the numbers are going up fast. Five Italian warships are dedicated full-time to Operation Mare Nostrum, and on many occasions in the past few months they have picked up more than a thousand people in one day. This situation cannot last.

Italy has made no threats to stop the rescues and let the refugees drown. “We do not want a sea of death,” said Rear-Admiral Michele Saponaro, who runs the operation from the naval command centre. But Rome is losing patience with its do-nothing EU “partners”, and there is another way to address Italy’s problem.

The Schengen Treaty does not include Britain and Ireland, which opted out, and four new EU members have not yet complied with its terms – but 22 of the EU’s 28 members allow free movement across their borders for legal residents of all the Schengen countries. This includes Italy, of course. So in theory if Italy just gives the asylum seekers an ID card and a document saying they have permanent residence, then they’ll leave for greener pastures.

“We’ll just let them go,” said Interior Minister Angelino Alfano last May. “We want to clearly say to the EU that they either patrol the Mediterranean border with us or we will send all those who ask for asylum in Italy where they really want to go: that is, the rest of Europe, because they don’t want to stay in Italy.”

A previous Italian government briefly made the same threat back in 2011 and then the rift was papered over, but Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s new government seems to mean business. Italy not only wants its partners to contribute money and ships to Operation Mare Nostrum; it also wants them to share the job of looking after the refugees AND NOT LEAVE THEM ALL IN ITALY.

The EU is famously bad at making hard choices, but it’s finally going to have to face up to this one.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 9. (“Most…coast”; and “With…last”)

The United States of Tatooine

“Tatooine” is, you will surely agree, a pretty stupid name for a planet, but there are so many Star Wars fans that some unfortunate world is bound to end up being called exactly that. Let’s just hope that its inhabitants, if there are any, never find out. On the whole, though, giving more user-friendly names to newly found planets orbiting other stars is a good idea.

There is, for example, a potentially habitable “exoplanet” only sixteen light years from here that is currently known only as Gliese 832c. As any real estate agent could tell you, it would attract a lot more attention if you renamed it “Nirvana”.

There are gazillions of stars, and only around three hundred have proper names (Antares, Procyon, Sirius) in any language. Some of the other bright ones are named after the constellation they are in, with a Greek letter or a number to indicate which one they are (Alpha Centauri, 61 Cygni). But most are just a number in a star catalogue. Jerome Lalande’s, published in 1801, had 47,390 stars, Henry Draper’s, published in 1918, listed 225,300.

Gliese 832 was named in a list of 3,803 “nearby” stars (up to 72 light years away) first published by Wilhelm Gliese in 1957, and updated several times since. The “c” was added when Gliese 832 was discovered to have planets two months ago. All very sensible and orderly, but not very romantic. So the International Astronomical Union called in the consultants, and the result was (pause for trumpet flourish) a competition!!

The NameExoWorlds contest, announced last year, will give the global public an opportunity to give more exciting or at least more memorable names to about 300 planets circling other stars. Starting next month, a site will open on which astronomy clubs and other non-profit organisations can register with the IAU, and in October they will be asked to pick 25 or 30 of these planets for the first round of naming.

Starting in December, these clubs and organisations can propose names for the planets and their host stars (only one planet per group), and in March the general public can rank the proposals in an online vote. They’re expecting more than a million votes.

The winning names will be announced at the IAU General Assembly in Honolulu a year from now – and Tatooine will certainly be one of the winners, provided that George Lucas gives his permission. (There might be a copyright issue.) But Vulcan will not be one of the names (sorry, Trekkies) because he was a Roman god, and names of religious figures aren’t allowed.

The IAU’s naming rules are the most interesting part of the exercise. Names may not be longer than sixteen characters, they should only be one word, and they must be pronounceable in some known language (though not necessarily yours). They shouldn’t be rude, they must not be of a commercial nature, and the names of pets are not acceptable.

Most importantly, they cannot be the names of living individuals, nor the names of individuals, places or events principally known for political, military or religious activities. Which would have caused a lot of problems if the rule had already been in force during the last big round of naming places.

Imagine that the IAU’s rule had been in force in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, when European sailors and settlers were sprinkling names on all the “new lands” in the Americas and Australasia. No New England, no Melbourne, and certainly no El Salvador. No Sao Paulo, no Los Angeles, and no Sydney.

The southernmost Australians dealt with the problem in 1856 by changing their island’s name from Van Diemen’s Land (he was a former governor of the Dutch East Indies) to Tasmania (Abel Tasman was simply an explorer, and safely dead by then). But New Zealand would not pass muster on the word count, and New South Wales is simply ridiculous.

Waterloo in Canada will have to go, as will Washington (both the city and the state) in the United States, and they’ll have to do something about Bolivia too. But the biggest problem will be what to do about the Americas: two entire continents called after an individual who was still alive when they were named.

Amerigo Vespucci, originally from Florence, moved to Spain in 1492 and subsequently became involved in organising various voyages of exploration to the “New World” for the kings of both Spain and Portugal. In 1507 he was credited by the German geographer Martin Waldseemuller with discovering that these lands were not part of Asia, as Columbus had originally believed, but a huge separate land-mass between Europe and Asia.

On his world map of that same year, therefore, Waldseemuller named that land-mass “America”, after the Latin version (Americus) of Vespucci’s first name. But Amerigo Vespucci was still alive – he didn’t die until 1512. The name caught on, as it happened, but Waldseemuller broke the IAU rules.

It’s never too late to fix a mistake, but what shall we call the place instead? I know. How about the continents of North Tatooine and South Tatooine? And, of course, the United States of Tatooine.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11 . (“There…225,300″; and “The southernmost…ridiculous”)

“China’s Chechnya”: Terrorism in Xijiang

It’s not really “China’s Chechnya” yet, but the insurgency in Xinjiang is growing fast. Incidents of anti-Chinese violence are getting bigger and much more frequent. Since March, 176 people have been killed in six separate attacks on Chinese police and government officials, local collaborators and ordinary Chinese residents of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in northwestern China, and the authorities don’t seem to have a clue what to do about it.

The Uighur attackers have mostly used knives or explosives in their attacks (guns are hard to get in China), but nobody has suggested that they are so technologically backward that their bombs come with long, trailing fuses that have to be lit by hand. Yet Chinese police in Xinjiang last month seized tens of thousands of boxes of matches.

“The confiscation has enabled us to strengthen controls over important elements of public security and thus eliminate potential security threats,” said the Kashgar police. The police website in Changji declared that they had acted “to ensure matches would not be used by terrorist groups and extremist individuals to conduct criminal activities.” No disrespect intended (well, maybe a little), but these are not serious people.

The rebels, on the other hand, are very serious people. Like most independence movements of the colonial era, they believe that you have to take the war to the homeland of the “oppressor” if you can. One of those recent attacks was not in Xinkiang but in Kunming in southwestern China, where a band of eight knife-wielding Uighurs killed 29 ordinary Chinese citizens and wounded 143 in the main railway station.

Another standard tactic in this sort of war is the use of violence to deter one’s own people from collaborating with the colonial power. On 30 July Jume Tahir, the imam of China’s largest mosque, in the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang, was stabbed to death just after leading early morning prayers. His crime? Praising Communist Party policies and blaming the rising tide of violence on  Uighur separatists and extremists.

The Uighurs are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, and the official Chinese line blames the separatist violence on foreign Islamists who are stirring up the local people. The separatists themselves say that it is a legitimate response to Chinese oppression, and in particular to the Chinese government’s policy of flooding Xinjiang with Han Chinese immigrants in an attempt to change the territory’s demographic balance. The truth, as usual, is more complicated.

Xinjiang (literally “New Territory) was conquered by Chinese troops in the 1750s, but the population mix did not change. In the early 19th century a census reported the population as 30 percent Han Chinese (almost all living north of the Tian Shan mountains) and 60 percent Uighurs, Turkic-speaking Muslim farmers who accounted for almost the entire population south of the mountains. The rest were Kazakhs, Huis, Mongols and others.

The Uighurs had grown to 75 percent of the total population by the 1953 census, with many by then living north of the mountains. The Han Chinese had fallen to only 6 percent. But now, thanks to large-scale immigration, the Chinese are back up to fully 40 percent of Xinkiang’s population, while the 10 million Uighurs are down to 45 percent.

In other words, the numbers will support almost any argument you want to make, if you choose your census dates carefully. But it is certainly not true that Han Chinese people are newcomers to Xinjiang, and it is probably not true that the Chinese government has a policy of encouraging Han immigration to reduce the Uighurs to a marginal minority.

Chinese officials themselves say that they are trying to develop the Xinjiang economy and raise local living standards, with the (unstated) goal of making people so prosperous and content that they will not even think of “betraying the motherland” by seeking independence. It’s just that a developed economy requires job skills that are not plentiful among the Uighurs, so large numbers of Han Chinese are drawn in to do those jobs.

Beijing’s officials make the same argument about Tibet, and they are probably being sincere about their intentions there too. They just have a huge cultural blind spot that makes it almost impossible for them to imagine how all this feels to the average Uighur who sees more and more Chinese coming in and getting all the good jobs

Add in all the resentment about the brutal assaults on the Uighurs’ culture and religion that happened during the Cultural Revolution – and continue in a minor key even today, thanks mainly to ignorant government officials who have never before lived outside an exclusively Chinese cultural context. And now there is also a radical Islamist ideology available, for those who are thinking about rebellion.

So now it’s getting really serious in Xinkiang: the last big incident, on 28 July, saw hundreds of Uighurs storm a police station and government offices armed with knives and axes. 59 of the attackers were killed and 215 arrested, while 37 (presumably Chinese) civilians were murdered. When you have organised groups doing violence on this scale, you are already in a low-level war.

It will probably never be as bad as Chechnya, and it is very unlikely that Xinkiang will ever be independent, but it may be a long and ugly counter-insurgency war, with many deaths. At least they’ve got the matches under control.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 11. (“The confiscation…people”; “Another…extremists”; and “Beijing’s…jobs”)