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Obama and San Bernardino

On Sunday President Barack Obama spoke about a mass shooting in the United States for the seventeenth time in the past seven years. (There have actually been 335 mass shootings in the United States already this year, but he only does the big ones.) But this time Obama spoke from the Oval Office.

He’s only done that twice before, about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the end of combat operations in Iraq, both in 2010. The shooting in California killed fourteen people and wounded twenty-one, so it wasn’t even the biggest mass killing of his administration, but it got special treatment because it was a terrorist attack.

He needed to do that because you just have to say the word “terrorist” to send many Americans into a flat panic, and many American politicians into spasms of oratory overkill. A representative example was New Jersey Governor and would-be Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, who said: “We need to come to grips with the idea that we are in the midst of the next world war.”

The next world war? The last world war killed at least forty million people. The next one – the Third World War that we were waiting for when I was growing up – would have killed hundreds of millions, even if it didn’t cause a nuclear winter and kill billions. With due respect to the victims, the sixteen dead in San Bernardino do not add up to a new world war.

Neither do the 130 French (and a few foreigners) killed with guns and suicide bombs in Paris last month, nor the 224 Russians on the plane brought down over Egypt by a bomb at the end of October. Even in Europe, Islamist terrorism kills at the most hundreds per year; in America, it kills almost nobody.

Before this week, only sixteen Americans had been killed on home soil by Islamist terrorists in the past fourteen years (thirteen soldiers killed by US Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009, and three killed at the Boston Marathon in 2013). That’s an average (including the San Bernardino deaths) of two people per year killed in the United States by Muslim terrorists. .

So why didn’t Barack Obama finish his speech by pointing out that Americans are 170 times more likely to drown in the bath than to be killed by Islamist terrorists? Because no public figure in the United States is allowed to say that the terrorist threat is very small in the West generally, and utterly minuscule if you actually live in the United States.

You’re not allowed to say it because more than 6,000 American soldiers have been killed in two foreign wars that were justified by the 9/11 attacks (although Obama was bold enough to say plainly in his speech that those wars actually served the Islamists’ purposes).

And you’re not allowed to say it because almost three thousand Americans died on 9/11: that single attack fifteen years ago has permanently defined the scale of the terrorist threat in American minds, even though the likelihood that a comparable attack could be mounted today is extremely small. (In 2001, nobody was looking out for such an attack; now they are.)

On the one hand, we have a trillion-dollar “war on terror” defended by a US military and security establishment that has grown fat on the proceeds. On the other hand, we have a very small terrorist threat to the “homeland” against which, for the most part, that establishment’s efforts are irrelevant because the attackers are home-grown, self-radicalised lone wolves.

None of the three “Islamist” attacks over the past fourteen years was planned from abroad. All were carried out by US citizens or permanent residents. None of those people, so far as is known, was even in contact with organisations like al-Qaeda or Islamic State (although Tashfeen Malik pledged her allegiance to the latter on her Facebook page on her way to the massacre at the Inland Regional Centre in San Bernardino).

The Islamist extremists pose an existential threat to Syria and Iraq. They are a serious threat to the other Arab countries, and a rather more distant problem for other Muslim countries. For Western, Asian and African countries that do not have large Muslim populations, they are merely a strategic nuisance.

If any of those outside powers want to fight the Islamists on home ground (like the NATO countries and Russia, who are all now bombing Islamic State targets in Syria), then by all means do so. You might save the Syrians from a very unpleasant fate. But don’t imagine that this is necessary for your own defence.

Conversely, don’t worry that the bombing will cause terrorist attacks on you at home. Those attacks will happen no matter what the United States (to pick an example at random) is doing or not doing abroad. And a country that can blithely ignore 63 shooting attacks in its schools since the beginning of this year can manage to live with a small Islamist attack every few years too. “
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“You’re not…they are”)

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”)

Don’t Touch That Button!

“When people say they’re never going to use the (nuclear) deterrent,” said General Sir Nicholas Houghton, “I say you use the deterrent every second of every minute of every day. The purpose of the deterrent is you don’t have to use it because you effectively deter.”

You sort of know what he meant to say, although his syntax needs some work. But the general’s incoherence is forgiveable, because it is grounded in the greater incoherence of the strategy he is trying to defend: the notion of an independent British nuclear deterrent.

As Britain’s most senior serving military officer, Houghton went on the BBC last weekend to denounce the leader of the opposition, Labour’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn. Why? Because Corbyn had said he would never press the nuclear button in the (rather remote) contingency that he becomes prime minister after the 2020 election.

Indeed, Corbyn has said that he would like to get rid of Britain’s nuclear weapons entirely. “There are five declared nuclear weapon states in the world,” he told the BBC a month ago. “Three others have nuclear weapons. That is eight countries out of 192; one hundred and eighty-seven countries do not feel the need to have nuclear weapons to protect their security. Why should those five need them to protect their security?”

Now, there are a few errors and omissions in that statement. 192 minus eight is 184. The five “declared” countries – the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China – were already nuclear weapons powers before the Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1968, and their bombs were “grandfathered” by the treaty. They promised to get rid of them eventually, but half a century later “eventually” has still not arrived.

The four (not three) other nuclear weapons countries, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel, never signed the NPT because they all had powerful enemies. Just like the original five, they were all thinking in terms of sheer survival when they developed their first nuclear weapons.

But what Corbyn failed to mention (to the great disadvantage of his argument) was that six other countries either had nuclear weapons or were on the brink of getting them – but then turned around and walked away from them.

Brazil and Argentina frightened each other into a race to develop nuclear weapons under the ultra-nationalist military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s, but they didn’t really pose a threat to each other and the programmes were ditched by civilian governments in the 1990s. Both countries signed the NPT just before the century ended.

After the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan all wound up with ex-Soviet nuclear weapons on their soil. But they had no real enemies, so they all agreed to destroy them or give them back to Russia, the legal successor to the Soviet Union.

And South Africa developed nuclear weapons in the dying days of apartheid, fearing that Cuban and Russian military help to the “front-line states” of Africa might grow into an all-out military assault on the white-ruled state. After white minority rule ended peacefully in 1994, the new government led by Nelson Mandela quietly dismantled the six South African bombs.

Nobody developed nuclear weapons just to feel more powerful: they were all driven by fear of attack. And when that fear vanished, as it did for some countries, they promptly got out of the nuclear weapons business again. Logically, both Britain and France should now belong the latter group.

They both built their bombs just after the Second World War because they feared an overwhelmingly powerful conventional conventional attack on Western Europe by the Soviet Union, and didn’t trust the United States to use its own nuclear weapons to save them.

After the Soviet Union fell, they faced no threat that was even remotely comparable. They still don’t today. Yet they cling to their irrelevant nuclear weapons, presumably because they think that is what guarantees them a seat at the high table.

Maybe it does, but it is a very expensive way to keep a seat of such dubious value. The military forces that Britain actually uses from time to time are being hollowed out to maintain this ludicrous deterrent (which depends on missiles leased from the United States).

It wouldn’t transform the world if Britain got rid of its nukes, but it would be a down-payment on what all the declared nuclear powers said they would do when they signed the NPT. French nuclear disarmament would also be a good idea.

Like people who live on the slopes of a volcano that hasn’t erupted in seventy years, we have mostly forgotten the appalling danger that still looms over us. The Cold War ended thirty years ago but the weapons are still there, waiting for some fool or madman to press the button.

I know what you’re thinking: Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, and now it has a real enemy in Russia. So tell me: would you feel safer if Ukraine had nuclear weapons too? Would Ukrainians?

No. The stakes would be a hundred times higher, and we would have been living in a terrifying nightmare for the past two years.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 7, and 12. (“You…deterrent”; “But…them”; and “They…them”)

Russia Goes to War in Syria

It all happened very fast, in the end. On Monday Russian President Vladimir Putin was at the United Nations in New York saying that the United States was making “an enormous mistake” in not backing Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in his war against Islamist rebels, notably including “Islamic State” (or ISIS, as it used to be known).

On Tuesday the upper chamber of the Russian parliament unanimously voted to let President Putin use military force in Syria to fight “terrorism”, in response to a request from the Syrian government.

And on Wednesday morning the Russian warplanes started bombing rebel targets in Syria. Moscow gave the US embassy on Iraq one hour’s notice, requesting that US and “coalition” warplanes (which are also bombing Islamic State targets in Syria) to avoid the airspace where the Russian bombers were in action.

And Donald Trump, bless his heart, said “You know, Russia wants to get ISIS, right? We want to get ISIS. Russia is in Syria — maybe we should let them do it? Let them do it.”
And for once, Trump is right. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

If you want to stop ISIS, you have to do it with troops, and the only ground troops fighting ISIS in Syria are the Syrian army and the Kurds along the northern border with Turkey. But the US has been duped by Turkey into betraying the Kurds, and it will not use its airpower to help the Syrian army, which is now on the ropes.

That’s why Palmyra fell to Islamic State forces in May. Despite all the other American airstrikes against ISIS forces in Syria, it made not one to help the Syrian forces when they were desperately defending the historic city, and so they eventually had to retreat. It was more important to Washington not to be seen helping Assad than to save the city.

This is a fine moral position, as Assad’s regime is a deeply unattractive dictatorship. Indeed, the great majority of the 4 million Syrians who have fled the country were fleeing the regime’s violence, not that of ISIS. But if you don’t want the Islamist extremists to take over the country (and maybe Lebanon and Jordan as well), and you’re not willing to put troops on the ground yourself, who else would you help?

Washington’s fantasy solution to this problem has been to create a ‘third force’ of rebels who will somehow defeat Islamic State while diplomacy somehow removes Assad. But the other big rebel organisations in Syria, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, are also Islamists, little different from ISIS in their ideology and goals. In fact al-Nusra is a breakaway faction of ISIS, now affiliated with al-Qaeda. (Remember al-Qaeda? Chaps who did the 9/11 attacks?)

If Assad goes down, it is Islamic State, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham who will take over Syria, not the pathetic little band of fighters being trained by the United States in Turkey. In fact the first group of them to cross back into Syria were immediately annihilated by ISIS, who had probably been tipped off by America’s not very loyal ally, the Turkish government.

If the Russians believed that the United States was willing to do the heavy lifting needed to defeat the Islamists and save the Assad regime, they would probably be more than happy to stand back and let America do it. It was the American invasion of Iraq, after all, that created ISIS, and almost all of Islamic State’s leaders are veterans of the resistance in Iraq.

But Putin hears only high-minded rhetoric utterly detached from reality when he listens to Barack Obama. Russia has a large Muslim minority at home, and it is very much closer to the Middle East than the United States is. So if the Americans won’t do what is necessary, he will.

Putin does not make the same meaningless distinctions between Islamic State and the other Islamist groups that the United States insists on. The first Russian air strikes were on territory held by al-Nusra, not Islamic State. But the Russians will hit ISIS too. In fact, the first big operation will probably be an attack by a re-equipped Syrian army to retake Palmyra, heavily backed by Russian air power.

Putin has said that he will not commit Russian ground forces to combat in Syria, for the Russian public doesn’t want to see its soldiers involved in another war against Islamists after their miserable experience in Afghanistan in 1979-89. But the resolution in the Duma didn’t make any promises about that, and we may yet see Russian ground troops fighting in Syria too.

Whether Putin’s intervention will be enough to save Assad remains to be seen. The carping commments in the Western media about how he wants to distract attention from Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian civil war and restore Russia’s position as a great power are true enough – indeed, he is probably shutting down the fighting in Ukraine mainly to clear the decks for Syria – but that is not his primary motive.

He is just doing what needs to be done.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 13. (“If…will”; and “Putin has…too”)