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Syria: The Russians Were Right

“The Russians had a more realistic analysis of the situation than practically anybody else,” said Lakhdar Brahimi, the former United Nations Special Envoy to Syria. “Everyone should have listened to the Russians a little bit more than they did.”

Brahimi was referring to the Russian offer in 2012 to end the growing civil war in Syria by forcing the country’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to leave power. The Russian proposal went before the UN Security Council, but the United States, Britain and France were so convinced that Assad was about to fall anyway that they turned it down. Why let the Russians take the credit?

So Assad is still in power, several hundred thousand more Syrians have died, and millions more have fled. But Brahimi’s comments are still relevant, because the Russians are still right.

Finally, very reluctantly, the United States is coming around to the long-standing Russian position that the secular Baathist regime in Syria must survive, as part of some compromise peace deal that everybody except the Islamist extremists will accept (although nobody will love it).

Such a deal back in 2012 would have involved the departure from power of Bashar al-Assad himself, and it could still do so today. He’s mostly just a figurehead anyway. He was living in England, studying to be an optometrist, until the death of his elder brother made him the inevitable heir to the presidency that his father, Hafez al-Assad, had held for thirty years.

It’s the Baathist regime’s secular character that makes it so important. Its leadership is certainly dominated by the Alawite (Shia) minority, but it has much broader popular support because all Syria’s non-Muslim minorities, Christian and Druze, see it as their only protection from Islamist extremists. Many Sunni Muslims, especially in the cities, see it the same way. They also see it as the one Arab government in the region that has always defied Israel.

The deal that the Russians could have delivered in 2012 would have ditched Bashar al-Assad but left the Baathist regime in place, while compelling it to broaden its base, dilute Alawite influence, and stop torturing and murdering its opponents. An over-confident West rejected that deal, while its local “allies”, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, gave weapons and money to the Islamist rebels who aimed to replace the Baathists with a Sunni Muslim theocracy

Fast forward to 2015, and by mid-summer the Islamist forces, mainly Islamic State and al-Qaeda, control more than a third of Syria’s territory. The exhausted Syrian army is retreating every time it is attacked (Palmyra, Idlib, etc.), and it’s clear to Moscow that all of Syria will fall to the Islamists unless Russia intervenes militarily. So it does.

When the Russian air force started attacking the Syrian rebels on 30 September last year, Western propaganda went into high gear to condemn it. Russian President Vladimir Putin “doesn’t distinguish between ISIL (Islamic State) and a moderate Sunni opposition that wants to see Mr Assad go,” said US president Barack Obama. “From (the Russian perspective) they’re all terrorists – and that’s a recipe for disaster.”

All America’s sidekicks said the same thing. “These (Russian) military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more radicalisation and extremism,” said France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US and Britain in a joint statement on 2 October.

The Russians simply ignored the Western propaganda and went on bombing until they had stopped the Islamist advances and stabilised the front. Then they proposed a ceasefire.

The brutal truth is that there is no “moderate Sunni opposition” in Syria any more. Almost all of the remaining “moderate” groups have been forced into alliances with al-Qaeda’s local franchise, the Nusra Front, and the deal that the Russians might have brokered in 2012 is no longer available. The ceasefire they proposed in late 2015 deliberately left the Islamist groups out – and the United States (better late than never) went along with it.

That ceasefire has now been in effect for more than three months, and although there are many violations it has significantly lowered the level of violence in Syria. In the longer term, the Russians might be able to produce sufficient changes in the Baathist regime (including Assad’s departure) that some of the non-Islamist fighting groups might break their alliances with al-Qaeda and accept an amnesty from Damascus.

Maybe even the Islamist-controlled areas can be re-conquered eventually. Or maybe not: it’s a bit late for a peace settlement that preserves Syria’s territorial integrity. But at least the US State Department has finally abandoned the fantasy of a “moderate” rebel force that could defeat both the regime and the Islamist rebels in Syria, and instead is going along with the Russian strategy.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has wisely given US Secretary of State John Kerry equal billing in the ceasefire initiative, and there has been no crowing in Moscow about the Americans finally seeing the light.

Great states never admit mistakes, so there will be no apology from Washington for all the anti-Russian propaganda of the past year. But it is enough that the US government has actually changed its tune, and that there is a little bit of hope for Syria.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 10 and 14. (“Such…years”; “All…October”; and “Maybe…strategy”)

Russians in Syria: Mission Accomplished

He wasn’t standing on an aircraft carrier with a banner saying “Mission Accomplished” behind him, but Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was a lot more credible than former US president George W. Bush when he declared his country’s military intervention in the Middle East a success. And most of the Russian forces in Syria are going home after only five months, not the eight years that American troops stayed in Iraq.

“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” said Putin on 14 March. And it has indeed been a remarkably intelligent and successful intervention.

The Russians said right from the start that it would be a limited operation both in scope and in time, and that their goal was not to help the Assad regime reconquer Syria but to restore the military stalemate in the civil war as the necessary preliminary to a ceasefire and peace talks. And that is exactly what they did.

Western media were surprised by Putin’s announcement on Monday, but only because they had come to believe their own governments’ propaganda. If you have convinced yourself that the evil Russians are backing the evil Syrian regime in order to extend its evil rule, and that the preferred Russian tactic is the deliberate bombing of hospitals and schools, then you are bound to be bewildered when reality intrudes.

The real reason for the Russian air campaign in Syria was not to “reestablish Russia as a major player” in the great power game, or to demonstrate the effectiveness of their new-generation weapons to potential buyers overseas, or to maintain their access to a small naval base on the Syrian coast. All these petty explanations were offered by Western politicians and journalists who diligently ignored the obvious reason for the intervention.

Last summer, the Syrian army was at the breaking point. If it cracked then the whole Assad regime would go under, and all of Syria would fall under the control of the Islamist extremists of the loathsome “Islamic State” and of the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda. (By 2015 the “good” rebels fighting Assad were only a small fraction of the opposition forces.)

A triumphant and vastly expanded “Islamic State” was definitely not in the national interest of Russia, which has an 8 percent Muslim minority and is not that far away from Syria. So the Russian air force was sent in to save Assad from defeat – but not to win him a decisive victory.

Even with Russian air support, the Syrian army was too weak to destroy all the rebel forces and retake the whole country. Moscow just wanted to make sure that the Islamists didn’t win, and to push the other rebels back far enough to make them understand that they couldn’t win either. Then it would call for a ceasefire and a peace conference that specifically excluded the Islamists.

Russian aircraft carried out more than 9,000 combat sorties in five months, according to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, and helped the Syrian army to regain control over 10,000 sq. km. of lost territory. That done, Moscow started pushing hard for ceasefire talks between the Assad regime and the non-Islamist rebels.

Both sides needed to be pushed, so Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov enlisted the aid of US Foreign Secretary John Kerry to put pressure on the rebels. Meanwhile he started twisting the arm of Bashar al-Assad, who sometimes fantasised aloud that with enough Russian help he might one day reunite Syria by force – and Lavrov’s main tool of persuasion was the prospective withdrawal of the Russian air force.

Each great power delivered its Syrian partners to the ceasefire talks, and the ceasefire was agreed two weeks ago. Both great powers agreed that the two parts of Syria controlled by the Islamists (al-Nusra in northwest Syria, “Islamic State” in the east) would be excluded from the talks, and would remain legitimate targets for attack.

And both parties also agree that Assad will not be allowed to stonewall and simply refuse to discuss the question of his own departure from power as part of a compromise peace settlement. That is why Moscow has made an early announcement of Russia’s troop withdrawal (without any published timetable): to make Assad understand Moscow’s real position.

Russia doesn’t care whether Assad stays in power personally in Syria, although they would clearly like to see a friendly government in Damascus that continues the long-standing alliance with Moscow. In fact, they see Assad as a brutal and inflexible man who should be replaced by a more acceptable figure when it is safe to do so.

But it will probably not be safe to do that until the Islamist-controlled territories are isolated, blockaded and besieged, so Assad will remain in power for a while yet.

It has been an elegant diplomatic operation backed by a very precise and effective military strategy. There is still a chance that it could all go wrong, but the Russians may have actually given Syria a chance for a decent future.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Western…intervention”)

A Doomsday Machine, or the Next Best Thing

“Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret,” said Dr Strangelove to the Soviet ambassador in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film of the same name. Fifty years later, it would appear that the Russians have finally watched the movie.

In Kubrick’s film, a rogue American air force commander orders a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union – but he doesn’t know that the Russians have built a Doomsday Machine that will automatically explode and spread lethal radioactive contamination all over the world if American nuclear weapons land on the USSR. So everybody dies.

Moscow doesn’t want the United States to make the same mistake in real life, so it has just let us know that it is building a mini-doomsday machine. It wouldn’t destroy the whole world, just a half a continent or thereabouts – like, say, all of the United States east of the Mississippi River, or all of China within 1,500 km of the coast.

It is awkward to say this sort of thing through diplomic channels – “I have the honour to inform Your Excellency that we can now destroy half of your country with only one explosion” – so the preferred method is to get the word out by an accidental “leak”. In this case, the leak occurred on 10 November in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where President Vladimir Putin was meeting with his senior military officers.

A cameraman for state-owned Channel One television “accidentally” filmed a general studying a poster of a new weapon called “Status-6”, a giant torpedo (a “robotic mini-submarine”, the poster called it) that can travel up to 10,000 km at high speed carrying a huge payload – like, for example, a truly gigantic thermonuclear weapon. And the film clip was broadcast all over Russia before the “mistake” was discovered.

The text on the poster was clearly legible. The “oceanic multi-purpose Status-6 system,” it said, is designed to “destroy important economic installations of the enemy in coastal areas and cause guaranteed devastating damage to the country’s territory by creating wide areas of radioactive contamination, rendering them unusable for military, economic or other activity for a long time.”

“It’s true some secret data got into the shot. Therefore it was subsequently deleted,” said President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. But the complete text and a cutaway diagram of the Status-6 are now available on a hundred websites, and the Kremlin doesn’t seem particularly upset.

Indeed, the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta later reported details of the weapon, without showing the diagram, and speculated that it would carry a gigantic cobalt bomb – just like the Doomsday Machine in “Dr Strangelove”, although a little smaller.

The explosive core of the warhead would be a massive thermonuclear bomb – perhaps as big as 100 megatonnes, almost twice as big as any bomb ever tested. Around this core would be wrapped a thick layer of cobalt-59, which on detonation would be transmuted into highly radioactive cobalt-60 with a half-life longer than five years.

“Everything living will be killed,” the paper said. Konstantin Sivkov of the Russian Geopolitical Academy helpfully explained to the BBC Russian Service that a warhead of up to 100 megatons would produce a tsunami up to 500 metres high, which together with the intense radiation would wipe out all living things up to 1,500 km deep inside US territory.

This is crazy talk, but the Russians have always lived in fear that the United States might somehow develop the ability to destroy Russia without suffering serious retaliation. And the truth is that the American military have never stopped looking for some way to do exactly that.

Back in the 1950s, when US Strategic Air Command really could have destroyed the Soviet Union with impunity, physicist Andrei Sakharov (later the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize) actually proposed a weapon rather like System-6 so that Russia could take revenge from the grave.

The latest US gambit is anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defences to be based in Eastern Europe, allegedly to defend against nuclear missiles coming from Iran.

But Iran doesn’t have any nuclear weapons, and it may never get them. Yet the American ABM system is going to be deployed in Poland and Romania in the near future. Moscow is therefore convinced that the whole project is really intended to shoot down its own missiles shortly after launch.

There is no realistic possibility that the American ABM defences could really destroy all or even most of Russia’s missiles, but that is exactly what Putin is saying to his generals on the sound-track just before the TV clip focusses on System-6.

System-6 is not scheduled to be operational until 2019-20, and it may never be built at all. But the old game of nuclear one-upmanship goes on even though the two countries are no longer really enemies. It is pointless and potentially very dangerous, and President Obama might usefully spend the last of his political capital putting an end to it.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“The text…time”; and “Back…grave”)

Ukraine: Peace at Last?

The current ceasefire in the war in eastern Ukraine, the so-called Minsk-2 agreement, was signed last February, but they never actually ceased firing. At least a thousand more people have been killed in the fighting since then, and on one night last month (14 August) the monitors of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe recorded 175 separate ceasefire violations.

On a visit to Kiev that week, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that the conflict was “still red-hot” and that he could not see an end to the fighting “any time soon.” As late as 11 September Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was condemning Russia’s “neo-imperial aggression” in eastern Ukraine, where an estimated 9,000 Russian soldiers are on the ground in support of the breakaway provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.

But then the music changed. When the annual Yalta European Strategy (YES) forum opened in Kiev on 12 September, Poroshenko announced that the previous night had been the first in the whole conflict with no shelling. “This is not the end of the war,” he said, “but instead a change in tactics.”

Maybe that’s all it is, but if it stops the shooting, that would certainly be a step in the right direction. And by and large the shooting really has stopped in the past two weeks, although there is no sign yet that Russian troops are leaving Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.

Poroshenko claims that the shift in Russian tactics is merely a switch from military offensives in the east to political attacks intended to destabilise Ukraine “from the inside.” He was presumably referring to a grenade attack outside the parliament building in Kiev on 31 August that killed three soldiers and wounded more than one hundred people. But it’s very unlikely that Russia was behind it, and Poroshenko should know that.

The demonstrators outside the parliament were from various extremist right-wing nationalist parties. Moreover, the proposed law they were protesting against was one that would change the constitution and give greater autonomy to the regions now held by the separatists. It’s clear why Ukraininan ultra-nationalists would want to stop that, but why would Russia want to stop it?

It was really Russian President Vladimir Putin who took the initiative to stop the fighting, although it was his local allies declared that they would observe a complete ceasefire from 1 September. Since the better-armed rebels, with Russian support when necessary, have consistently outfought Ukraine’s ill-trained forces – all the changes in the front line since the ceasefire have been rebel gains from Ukraine – it was the rebels who had to move first.

They moved because Moscow has decided to freeze the conflict, which has now served its main purpose of saving Putin’s face. He was deeply embarrassed when the Ukrainians overthrew the pro-Russian president in Kiev eighteen months ago. His illegal annexation of Crimea, like his encouragement and military support for the rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk, was partly motivated by his need to restore his political position in Russia.

Having “lost” Ukraine, Putin also needed to ensure that it didn’t become a base for Western influence, and maybe even NATO troops, on Russia’s southern border. The best way of doing that was to ensnare the new government in Kiev in a chronic low-level conflict with Russia that would cripple Ukraine’s economy and make Western governments very nervous about getting too close to it.

Those goals are now accomplished. Ukraine has effectively lost three provinces (all with Russian-speaking majorities), and a permanent military stalemate between Kiev and its rebel-held provinces means that the likelihood of its ever joining the European Union or NATO is approximately zero. There is no need for further shooting, and Russia does have other fish to fry.

Right through the conflict in Ukraine, Moscow has avoided doing other things that would alienate the West. It went on providing essential transit facilities for the American troops withdrawing from Afghanistan. It cooperated with the West in the negotiations that led to the agreement on limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It continues to transport Western astronauts to the International Space Station, since they have no transport of their own.

Putin never wanted a “new Cold War” that Russia would surely lose. The cost of the old Cold War broke the Soviet Union, and Putin’s Russia is much weaker. He just wanted to limit the options of a hostile Ukraine. Now that he has succeeded it’s time to freeze the situation – and both Poroshenko and his Western supporters have tacitly accepted that this is the least bad outcome.

They took a poll of the assembled experts at the end of the YES conference earlier this month, asking what they thought Ukraine would look like three years from now. 53 percent of the Ukrainian participants, and 58 percent of the international guests, believed that it would see economic growth and stabilisation despite a contained, “frozen” conflict in the east.

Only 3 percent of each group believed that it would see “economic decline, destabilization, and a further loss of territory.” So move along, please, sir. There’s nothing more to see here.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Poroshenko…it”)