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Russian Victory in Syria

Two years ago this month, the Russian air force was sent in to save the tottering Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad from collapse. The air was thick with Western predictions that Moscow had made a dreadful mistake.

“These (Russian) military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more radicalisation and extremism,” said the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in a joint statement three days after the first Russian bombs fell. The evil, stupid Russians were backing Assad, they were bombing the wrong groups of fighters, they were bombing civilians, and they would end up trapped in an endless war.

Why didn’t the Russians listen to such expert advice, especially from the United States, which has more experience in losing wars in the Muslim world than anybody else? Nobody likes to be patronised, but the Russians didn’t get into a slanging match about it. They just kept quiet and carried on doing what they were doing.

Two years later, they have won. “All the conditions are in place for the final stage of defeating ISIS in Syria,” said General Alexander Lapin, the commander of the Russian army in Syria, and that is the simple truth. Only parts of the eastern cities of Raqqa and Deir-es-Zor remain under ISIS control, and both cities will fall before the end of the year.

It’s a bit tricky in the east of Syria, where Western, mostly US troops and their Kurdish and Arab allies are still in the game, so Deir-es-Zor, at least, will probably end up partitioned between the Syrian government and the Americans in the short run. But in the long run Assad gets it all back.

All that remains to do is reconquer the big enclave around Idlib in north-western Syria that is ruled by the al-Qaeda affiliate that used to be known as the Jabhat al-Nusra. (It has taken to changing its name every month or so in an attempt to disguise its origins.) But the Russian have promised to help Assad reconquer that territory too.

“The operation to destroy the fighters of the Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist groups on Syrian territory will continue until their complete and guaranteed destruction,” promised General Lapin last week. Taking down al-Nusra will be a major enterprise, but it is quite doable because the Islamist outfit’s former supporters in Turkey and Saudi Arabia have abandoned it.

Indeed, the Russian and Iranian effort to save Assad has been so successful that what once seemed impossible is becoming a reality: the whole country will be reunited under Assad’s rule.

Much of the population that falls back under his control will hate it, and it is far from clear what will happen to the six million Syrians who fled abroad during the war. Most were anti-Assad, and many will never go home. Losing a civil war is a bitter experience, but one way or another everyone will have to come to terms with that fact.

How did the Russians (and their Iranian allies, who provided most of the fighting strength on the ground) win the war in two years when the United States had fumbled unsuccessfully with the issue since 2011? By being cold-blooded realists, deciding which was the lesser evil (Assad), and then single-mindedly focussing on a military victory.

By 2015 it was absolutely clear that there were only two possible victors in the Syrian civil war: the brutal but secular and reasonably competent men of the Ba’ath Party that has ruled Syria for the past half-century, or the violent religious fanatics of Isis and al-Nusra.

So while the US, equally appalled by both parties, spent years trying to find or invent a third ‘moderate’ option that never existed, Russia and Iran just went flat out to save Assad. (The Syrian army was within months of collapse when the Russians intervened in 2015.) They have succeeded, and the US will eventually have to pick up its marbles and go home.

And do bear in mind, as you contemplate the Syrian tragedy, that there are degrees of iniquity. Neither the Russian nor the Iranian regime is a model of democratic virtue, but Syria’s Ba’ath Party is a great deal nastier, and there have certainly been times when its foreign saviours have had to hold their noses.

So do not exclude the possibility that the Russians might pressure the Ba’athists to change their leader once the fighting stops. Sending Bashar al-Assad into a safe and comfortable retirement at that point wouldn’t really change anything in Syria, but it would put Russia’s intervention in the war in a somewhat better light.

And what did Moscow get in return for its intervention? First and foremost, it prevented the emergence of an Islamist-ruled terrorist state quite close to Russia’s own southern borders. (The Russian population is around one-tenth Muslim.) But it also demonstrated that it can be a very useful ally for other regimes that run into trouble. Unlike you-know-who.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“Why…doing”; and “It’s…back”)

The Car Revolution

France and the United Kingdom recently announced that they will ban the sales of gasoline and diesel-engined cars from 2040. The lower house of the Dutch parliament has passed a law banning such sales from 2025. India says it will institute a similar ban by 2030.

China, the world’s largest producer of cars – 28 million vehicles last year, more than the United States, Japan and Germany combined – is also planning to declare a ban soon, but is still working on the cut-off date. And in November the European Commission is going to debate a minimum annual quota of electric vehicles (EVs) for all European car producers.

So if you were looking for a safe place for a long-term investment, would you choose the oil industry?

Just over half of the 98 million barrels of oil produced in the world each day goes directly to making gasoline, used almost exclusively in motor vehicles. Another 15 percent goes to make “distillate fuel oil”, of which at least half is diesel fuel. So around 58 percent of total world oil production is being used in vehicles now. There may be almost none in 35 years’ time.

That is certainly the intention of many governments. Britain, for example, is planning to allow only zero-emission vehicles on the road (apart form a few specially-licensed vintage cars) by 2050, only ten years after the ban on selling new cars with internal combustion engines comes into affect.

So the production of gasoline- or diesel-engined cars will already have collapsed by the late 2030s. In practice, if these deadlines are observed, the cars on sale will be almost entirely EVs by the mid-2030s. And what’s left of the oil industry will have a very different shape.

Countries that export most of their oil, like Russia and Saudi Arabia, will find their incomes crashing for two reasons: sheer lack of demand, and very low prices ($40 per barrel or less) due to the huge glut of productive capacity. There may also be follow-on political consequences.

Countries with some oil production of their own, like the United States and China, may simply stop importing oil entirely. (The United States will remain in the last ditch federally so long as Donald Trump is president – he’s even trying to revive the coal industry – but eight states have already signed an agreement to have 3.5 million zero-emissions vehicles on the road by 2025.)

All this is good news for the environment, and also for the health of people who live in large cities. (No wonder China is the leading EV producer in the world, with 40 percent of global production. Pollution is already making most of its cities almost uninhabitable.) But the revolution doesn’t end here: most, and eventually all of these EVs will be self-driving vehicles.

Driverless vehicles will end up being ownerless vehicles. They will become public utilities, summoned when they are required for the specific trip you have in mind at the moment. Urban car clubs and peer-to-peer rentals are one precurser of this phenomenon, Uber and Lyft in their different ways are another.

Privately owned cars are parked an average of 95 percent of the time. This figure varies little from one city or country to another, and illustrates why private car ownership will become a dispensable luxury. The difficulty in the past was gaining immediate access to a car for as long as you needed it at a reasonable cost, but the combination of the smart phone and the self-driving vehicle will solve that problem.

That, rather than a cheaper taxi service, is the real goal of Uber’s business model, but once reliable self-driving cars are widely available Uber will find itself deluged with competition. Private ownership will decline steeply, and the total number of cars on the road worldwide will eventually crash to perhaps one-quarter of the current number. After all, there are hardly ever more than a quarter of privately-owned cars on the road at the same time.

Buses and conventional taxis will virtually disappear, taking millions of driving jobs with them. (There are a million taxi, Uber and bus drivers in the United States alone.) Long-distance truckers and van drivers (another 3.5 million in the US) will also find work increasingly scarce: Daimler, Volvo, Uber and Baidu are already road-testing the first self-driving 18-wheelers.

Oh, and one more thing. About a quarter of the average central city in North America (less in Europe and Asia) is devoted to surface parking lots and multi-storey garages. They are part of the 95-percent-parked problem. The car doesn’t just take you downtown; it has to stay there the whole time you do, so it must find somewhere to park.

Once people realise that most of this land is now available for redevelopment, it will get a lot easier and cheaper to live downtown: less commuting, more community. Roll on the car revolution!
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Countries…2025″)

Kim Jong-Trump

“I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, Mr President, but I do say not more than ten or twenty million dead, depending on the breaks.” So said General ‘Buck’ Turgidson, urging the US president to carry out a nuclear first strike, in Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 film ‘Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.’

But nobody in Kubrick’s movie talked like Kim Jong-un (“American bastards would be not very happy with this gift sent on the July 4 anniversary,” he crowed, celebrating North Korea’s first successful test of an ICBM). They didn’t talk like Donald Trump either (“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”)

Kubrick’s film came out the year after the Cuban missile crisis, when the world went to the brink of nuclear war after the Soviet Union put nuclear missiles into Cuba to deter an American invasion. It was a terrifying time, but neither US President John F. Kennedy nor the Soviet leaders used violent language. They stayed calm, and carefully backed away from the brink.

So Kubrick’s fictional leaders had to stay sane too; only his generals and civilian strategic ‘experts’ were crazy. Anything else would have been too implausible even for a wild satire like ‘Strangelove’. Whereas now we live in different times.

Trump may not understand what his own words mean, but he is threatening to attack North Korea if it makes any more threats to the United States. That’s certainly how it will be translated into Korean. And Pyongyang will assume that the US attack will be nuclear, since it would be even crazier to attack a nuclear-armed country like North Korea using only conventional weapons.

Maybe the American and North Korean leaders are just two playground bullies yelling at each other, but even in their more grown-up advisers it sets up the the train of thought best described by strategic theorist Thomas Schelling: “He thinks we think he’ll attack; so he thinks we shall; so he will, so we must.” This is how people can talk themselves into launching a ‘pre-emptive’ or ‘preventive’ nuclear attack.

Is this where the world finds itself at the moment? ‘Fraid so. And although a nuclear war with North Korea at this point wouldn’t even muss America’s hair – the few North Korean ICBMs would probably go astray or be shot down before they reached the US – it could kill many millions of Koreans on both sides of the border.

A million or so Japanese might die as well (that would depend on the fallout), and a few tens of thousands of US soldiers in western Pacific bases (from targeted strikes). Indeed, as the scale of the potential disaster comes home to North Korean strategists, you can see them start to play with the idea of a “limited nuclear war.”

North Korean planners have announced that they are “carefully examining” a plan for a missile attack on the big US base on Guam. In that way they could “signal their resolve” in a crisis by only hitting one isolated American military target. Their hope would be that such a limited attack would not unleash an all-out US nuclear counter-attack that would level North Korea.

‘Limited’ nuclear war typically becomes a favourite topic whenever strategists realise that using their cherished nuclear weapons any other way means unimaginable levels of death and destruction. It has never been credible, because it assumes that people will remain severely rational and unemotional while under attack by nuclear weapons.

Thinking about limited nuclear war, while unrealistic, is evidence that the planners are starting to get really scared about an all-out nuclear war, which is just what you want them to be. Nevertheless, we are entering a particularly dangerous phase of the process, not least because the other two major nuclear powers in the world, China and Russia, both have land borders with North Korea. And neither of them loves or trusts the United States.

What “process” are we talking about here? The process of coming to an accommodation that lets North Korea keep a nuclear deterrent, while reassuring it that it will never have to use those weapons. Because that’s what these North Korean missiles and nuclear warheads are about: deterring an American attack aimed at changing the regime.

They couldn’t be about anything else. North Korea can never have enough missiles to attack the US or its local allies and survive: it would be national suicide. But it can have enough of them to carry out a “revenge from the grave” and impose unacceptable losses on the US if it attacks North Korea. Deterrence, as usual, is the name of the game.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson briefly said that the US was not seeking to change the North Korean regime last week, although he was almost immediately contradicted by President Trump. In the long run, however, that is the unpalatable but acceptable way out of this crisis. In fact, there is no other way out.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“Maybe…attack”; and “They…game”)

Poland: A Pause on the March to Autocracy

Zofia Romaszewska, now in her 80s, was jailed during the years of martial law in Poland in the early 1980s. She is a national hero for her human rights activities in the 1980s and is now one of President Andrzej Duda’s advisers. Last week she persuaded him to veto the government’s new laws on the courts.

She told him: “Mr President, I lived in a state (under Communist rule) where the prosecutor general had an unbelievably powerful position and could practically do anything. I would not like to go back to such a state.” And President Duda actually listened to her.

This came as a complete surprise, because Duda was a member of the ruling Law and Justice Party and is widely seen as a puppet of its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. On Monday, however, he rejected new laws giving the justice minister the power to fire judges he doesn’t like – including, potentially, the entire Supreme Court – and choose the new judges who take their places.

“As president I don’t feel this law would strengthen a sense of justice,” Duda said in a statement – or rather, an under-statement – on national television. His action has greatly encouraged the hundreds of thousands of people who have been demonstrating in cities all over Poland against the new laws, but there are still many who doubt his sincerity.

Poland is sharply divided between the populists, socially conservative, deeply Catholic, and ultra-nationalist, who form the present government, and the opposition whom they label “the system” or “the elite”. This system allegedly includes both the liberals who led Solidarity’s resistance to Communist rule, and the crypto-Communists who supposedly still exist and are now in league with the liberals.

The whole thing is a paranoid fantasy, but it has a firm hold on many people’s minds in a national culture that wallows in victimhood and self-pity. The Law and Justice government, elected in late 2015 with an absolute majority in parliament, denounces the opposition parties as corrupt traitors under foreign influence, and they in turn mistrust everything the
government says and does – including President Duda’s change of heart.

He’s just playing for time, they think. He’ll get the demonstrators to go home and then he’ll sign some slightly altered version of the laws stripping the judges of their independence. And maybe they are right. Nobody will know for sure until they see the government’s response to his veto.

This is not just about Poland. It is about whether the EU will tolerate an undemocratic government in its midst, and the evidence isn’t in yet.

As soon as it won office twenty months ago, the Law and Justice Party turned the state-owned broadcaster, previously politically neutral, into the propaganda arm of the ruling party. It also destroyed the independence of the civil service, replacing the professionals with its own party loyalists. But when it turned on the courts it started for face real push-back from the EU.

The EU is probably the only reason that the former Communist-ruled states of Eastern Europe almost all became democracies. They desperately wanted to be members of the EU as a safeguard against renewed Russian interference in their affairs – and the EU insists that all its members be democratic.

Not only that, but it carefully defines how democratic states should behave, and a basic principle is the separation of powers: the courts must not be under government control. When the Law and Justice Party introduced laws started taking away the judges’ independence, it ran head-on into the EU’s rules for membership.

Senior EU officials were openly talking about stripping Poland of its voting rights in the Council of Ministers (the closest thing to an EU government) until Duda said he would veto the new laws. If it turns out that he is only playing for time and will soon sign quite similar laws, the confrontation will resume – and the EU might even resort to financial measures against Poland.

Poland is by far the biggest beneficiary of transfers from the EU budget to poorer member countries: in the budgetary period 2014-2020, it is scheduled to get $96 billion. Some or all of that money might stop coming if Poland were no longer a member in good standing.

The Polish government cannot plausibly threaten to quit the European Union: 75 percent of Poles see EU membership as a vital counter-balance to the looming presence of Russia to their east. The EU holds all the best cards in this game, if it chooses to play them.
But will it?

That is not clear. The EU is not famous for its willingness to take bold action, and it would have to overcome the opposition of Hungary, another ex-Communist EU member that also has an authoritarian government (though a less extreme one). But the EU’s own cohesion would suffer if it did not defend its fundamental values, so if Duda is only fooling there may be a real showdown in a month or two.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“As soon…EU”; and “Poland…standing”)