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Climate Change: Documenting the Blindingly Obvious

31 March 2014

Climate Change: Documenting the Blindingly Obvious

If you want to go on eating regularly in a rapidly warming world, then live in a place that’s either high in latitude or high in altitude. Alternatively, be rich, because the rich never starve. But otherwise, prepare to be hungry.

That’s the real message of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on the impact of warming on human beings, released this week: the main impact is on the food supply. Of course, everybody who was paying attention has already known that for years, including the scientists. It’s just that scientists are professionally cautious, and will not say anything that they cannot prove beyond any shadow of a doubt.

An ordinary person will look out the back window and say that it’s raining. A scientist will feel obliged to look out the front window and make sure that it’s raining on the other side of the house too. (Cats do the same, although they are not scientists.)

Then he must consider the possibility that the drops that are falling on the window-pane are some other clear liquid, like vodka, and he must check that it’s not simply a back-projection onto the windows. Only then can he state with 95 percent confidence that it’s raining. (The other 5 percent allows for the possibility that he might just be hallucinating.)

The standards for evidence in science are much higher than they are in ordinary life, which is why it has taken the scientists on the IPCC so long to announce the same conclusion that any ordinary mortal who looked into the question would have reached five or ten years ago. (The scientists really knew it, too, of course, but they couldn’t yet prove it to the required standard.)

But the World Bank, for example, has long known approximately how much food production every major country will lose when the average global temperature is 2 degrees C higher. At least seven years ago it gave contracts to think tanks in every major capital to answer precisely that question.

What the think tanks told the World Bank was that India will lose 25 percent of its food production. China, I have been told by somebody who saw the report from the Beijing think tank, will lose a catastrophic 38 percent. But these results have never been published, because the governments concerned did not want such alarming numbers out in public and were able to restrain the World Bank from releasing them.

So, too, for example, the armed forces of many countries have been incorporating predictions of this sort into their scenarios of the future for at least five years. The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States and the British armed forces have been doing it openly, and I have seen strong indications that the Russian, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and Japanese armed forces are also doing so.

When you look at the scenarios in detail, they do not just predict serious food shortages in most tropical and sub-tropical countries (which account for about 70 percent of the world’s population). They predict waves of refugees fleeing from these countries, a proliferation of failed states in the sub-tropics, and even inter-state wars between countries that must share the same river system when there’s not enough water to go around.

That’s still farther than the IPCC is prepared to go, but to the military it’s as obvious as the nose on your face. As for what will happen to crop yields by 2050, assuming an average global temperature 3 degrees C higher by then, you have to go elsewhere for information. The military don’t plan that far ahead.

But the World Resources Institute published a map recently that estimated the losses country by country by 2050, and according to the WRI’s calculations they are really bad by then. Crop yields are down everywhere in the Middle East and the Mediterranean countries. In Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, they are down by 50 percent.

All of Africa is down except Lesotho, Rwanda and Kenya, which are all or mostly above 1,000 metres in altitude. Food production is down in almost all of South America except Chile, also very high, where it is up. Crop yields in North America are down too, except in Canada and a few US states right along the Canadian border. High latitude is even better than high altitude.

In Europe and Asia, latitude is decisive. Countries far away from the equator will still be doing well; countries even a bit closer to the equator get hammered.

Russia, Scandinavia, Germany and Poland will be producing more food than ever, but southern Europe including the Balkans and even France and Ukraine will have lost production. India, China, and all of South-East Asia will be sharply down, as will Australia – but Japan will be only a bit down and New Zealand will be sharply up. It pays to be an island, too.

But this is not a “mixed” result, in the sense that it all works out about even. The total population of all the countries where food production will be stable or higher in 2050 will be less than half a billion. At least eight-and-a-half or nine billion will live in countries where food production has fallen, sometimes very steeply. It will be a very hungry world.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 5.  (“An ordinary…standard”)

Ukraine After the Revolution

23 February 2014

Ukraine After the Revolution

From a Ukrainian point of view, the priority is not to throw their revolution away again like they did after the Orange Revolution ten years ago. But from everybody else’s point of view, the priority now is to avoid an irreparable breach between Russia and the West. One Cold War was enough.

The Yanukovych era is finished; the former president will not make another come-back. He has killed too many people, and the vulgar ostentation of his former palace (whose architect understandably chose to remain anonymous) has shocked Ukrainians even though they already knew he was deeply corrupt. Besides, Russia will not bet on this horse again.

On the other hand, the various opposition leaders will have great difficulty in deciding who leads their coalition, if indeed they can even agree on a coalition before the promised election on 25 May. But they’ll still win the election, because Yanukovych never allowed any plausible rivals to emerge in his pro-Russian Party of the Regions, and Russia will not be able to find and groom a suitable replacement in time.

This will frustrate people in the Russian-speaking east and south of the country, who did not take part in this revolution and do not share the desire of the Ukrainian-speaking half for closer ties with the European Union. They worry that free trade with the EU will threaten their jobs, and it will require much tact to reassure them that their interests will be protected. But they will not split the country: very few Ukrainians want to be part of Russia.

Who will emerge as Ukraine’s next leader? Yulia Tymoshenko, newly released from prison, is the obvious choice, and that would certainly ease matters on the Russian front. She got along reasonably well with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, when she was prime minister last time. But many Ukrainians who backed the revolution don’t trust her.

Tymoshenko is dogged by questions about how she got so rich after the Soviet Union collapsed, and she bears some of the blame for the chronic in-fighting that discredited Ukraine’s first attempt at running a democratic government after the Orange Revolution of 2004. None of the other potential candidates, however, is acceptable to Putin.

Then there is the wild card: what if Yanukovych goes on trial for ordering the killings, and the prosecutors get their hands on his secret communications with Putin? It would not serve justice well, but it would be better if Yanukovych and his leading henchmen make it safely into exile, having first destroyed all evidence of criminal acts that would implicate the Russian government.

The best that can be hoped for in the short run, therefore, is a cold peace between Kiev and Moscow, which means that the $15 billion Putin promised to lend Yanukovych’s regime will not now be forthcoming. But the money has to come from somewhere, and the only alternative is the West, probably in the shape of the International Monetary Fund.

It is not clear if the United States and the EU are willing to come up with that kind of money. If not, then the upheavals in Ukraine will resume in fairly short order. And in either case Putin will work to sabotage the attempt to entrench a strong democratic system with effective anti-corruption laws in Ukraine.

President Barack Obama can tell Putin that Ukraine is not a square on a Cold War chessboard, but the Russian president does see it as a zero-sum game, and in terms of his own purposes he is right. His pet project to restore the Soviet Union in a non-Communist version by creating a “Eurasian Union”, for example, dwindles to nothing but Russia and a bunch of Central Asian dictatorships if Ukraine isn’t a part of it.

More importantly, Putin does not want to have a large, prosperous and democratic country with strong EU ties on Russia’s own border. Especially if it is another Slavic country that also used to be part of the Soviet Union, and it got its democracy as the result of a largely non-violent revolution carried out in the main square of the capital city. The example would be very dangerous to his regime.

There’s no risk of that sort of thing happening on Red Square in Moscow at the moment, but Putin thinks long term. Russia will therefore continue to meddle in Ukraine in an attempt to abort such a dangerous outcome

Confronting Moscow directly over this sort of thing would be a mistake, and could lead us all down the path that ends in a new Cold War. Russians, for historical reasons, do not see themselves as “outsiders” in Ukraine (although most Ukrainians do), and they will react very badly to attempts to exclude them entirely.

The better and safer path is to support the Ukrainians with trade and aid, but leave it to them to deal with Russian interference in their politics. They are perfectly capable of doing this for themselves, and they can also prosper without joining either the European Union or NATO. But they do need a whopping great loan, right now.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“This will…Russia”; and “Then…government”)

Ukraine: Yanukovych’s Last Throw

19 February 2014

Ukraine: Yanukovych’s Last Throw?

When a government announces that it is going to launch an “anti-terror operation,” that generally means that it has decided to kill some people. That was what the police said at 6 pm local time Tuesday in Kiev, as they launched their assault on the protesters who have occupied the main square of the Ukrainian capital for eleven weeks – and sure enough, people started to die.

Other people had already died in clashes elsewhere in Kiev on Tuesday, including some policemen, and the more excitable observers have started speculating about the forcible imposition of a police state in Ukraine or even civil war. But the likeliest outcome is that the president will be forced out without a civil war.

President Viktor Yanukovych has not just had a bad two months; he has had a bad three years. He won the 2010 election narrowly but fairly, and ever since he has been trying to straddle the gap between Russia and the European Union. Both Moscow and Brussels have been courting Ukraine with trade-and-aid deals, and neither one was willing to let Yanukovych have it both ways.

Yet if he opted for either one, half the country was going to condemn him, for Ukrainians are split almost fifty-fifty between those (mostly Ukrainian-speakers in the west of the country) who want closer ties with the European Union and those (mostly Russian-speakers in the east and south) who want stronger links with Russia. Finally, in late November, he came down off the fence and chose Russia.

He did so because Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was offering a massive financial bail-out if he joined Moscow’s new “Eurasian Union”– and threatening to turn off the gas that keeps Ukraine’s economy functioning if he did not. He also did it because his own voters are mostly Russian-speakers in the east. But he didn’t do it happily, because he knew there would be a backlash.

What he didn’t reckon with is the strength and duration of the protests, and the fact that they would expand beyond the simple Brussels-or-Moscow issue to take in the massive corruption that has flourished under his government. (Yanukovych’s son Oleksandr, a dentist by training, has become one of the country’s richest men in just three years.) And now his back is against the wall.

For the first two months of the confrontation, the protests were mostly peaceful, the riot police were kept on a short leash most of the time (although five people were killed), and you would have taken an even-money bet that Yanukovych could ride it out. Then he made the error of passing severe anti-protest laws, some of the protesters (especially on the nationalist right) started to use violence, and he began to retreat.

Within a week he was repealing his new laws in parliament, and accepting the resignation of his hard-line prime minister. Then he was offering the opposition leaders places in a new cabinet (they refused), and granting amnesty to protesters who faced criminal charges. Then he proposed constitutional reforms that would reduce the power of the president – but on Tuesday he postponed the debate on those reforms in parliament.

That was when the killing started – in front of the parliament, not on “Euromaidan”, the main square that the protesters have held since late November – between the right-wing nationalists of Praviy Sektor and a pro-government crowd imported from eastern Ukraine.

The protesters claim that the government infiltrated agents provocateurs into their crowd to start the violence, and the police certainly fought alongside Yanukovych’s supporters in the street battles there. More than a dozen people were killed, including six police, but the fighting in front of parliament was over by mid-afternoon.

It might have stopped there, but Yanukovych decided to use this calamity as an excuse to clear Euromaidan by force, although there had been no fighting there. That was when the police announced that they were launching an “anti-terror operation,” and the main assault began around six in the evening. The death toll by morning was at least twenty-five, and the protesters still hold most of the square.

Even if the current truce collapses and they subsequently lose control of the Euromaidan, they will not give up now. What is happening in Ukraine is no longer a non-violent protest against a particular government policy. It is a revolution in which both sides are starting to see violence as legitimate, and Yanukovych’s problem is that most people in the capital, though they don’t approve of the violence, support the other side.

Yanukovych now has a lot of blood on his hands: if he loses this battle, he will end up in jail or in exile. Protesters are seizing control of city centres in western Ukraine, while his supporters in the east and south are not lifting a finger to help him. And the country’s most powerful oligarch (some would say king-maker), Rinat Akhmetov, has just declared that there are “no circumstances that would justify the use of force against peaceful citizens.”

Yanukovych has run out of options. It is hard to see him staying in office unless he turns Ukraine into a full-scale police state, and it’s not easy to see how he could make that stick. The opposition is probably going to win. Then they’ll have to figure out what they want, apart from an end to Yanukovych.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2, 12 and 13. (“Other…above”; and “Even…citizens”)

Ukraine Turns Violent

22 January 2014

Ukraine Turns Violent

By Gwynne Dyer

“The protest mood in Ukraine is at a higher temperature than ever before,” said Vitali Klitschko, the de facto leader of the anti-government protests that have filled central Kiev for the past two months, in an interview with the Guardian on Tuesday. “We only need a small spark for the situation to develop in a way that will be completely out of control for the authorities.”

It’s make-or-break time, because on Wednesday a raft of new laws came into effect that make almost everything the protesters have been doing illegal. The laws, which were rushed through the Ukrainian parliament last week on a show of hands, ban helmets, hard hats and masks at rallies, and impose fines and prison sentences for setting up unauthorised tents, stages or sound systems in public places.

They prescribe jail terms for anybody blockading public buildings, and make it a crime to “slander” public officials (whatever that means). You can also go to jail for handing out pamphlets, and you can get 15 years for being part of a “mass riot” (however the government chooses to define that).

If President Viktor Yanukovych’s government tries to enforce these laws on the tent city of protesters that has filled the “Maidan” (Independence Square) since late November, there will be something like civil war in the heart of the Ukrainian capital. He hasn’t done so yet, but mobile phone users near the violent clashes early Tuesday morning got text messages saying: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass riot.”

Yanukovych is getting desperate, because the protests are no longer just against his abrupt decision not to sign a treaty creating closer trade and political ties between Ukraine and the European Union, and to turn to Russia instead for loans ($15 billion) and discounted gas.

The protests have expanded to take in the dire state of the economy, Yanukovych’s ruthless political tactics, and the sudden wealth of the “Family” of officials and businessmen who support him.

So long as the conflict was about the EU-or-Russia issue, Yanukovych could count on the backing of the Russian-speaking half of the Ukrainian population, in the south and the heavily industrialised east of the country: many people there fear for their jobs if the Ukrainian economy integrates with the EU.

But the poverty and the corruption hurt everybody, whether they speak Ukrainian or Russian. Everybody can get together and protest about that.

Another worry for Yanukovych is the attitude of the oligarchs, the billionaire businessmen like Rinat Ahmetov, Viktor Pinchuk and Igor Kolomoisky who control a large share of the Ukrainian economy. They have not been politically neutered like the oligarchs in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and it’s striking that the televisions stations they own have been covering the demonstrations quite objectively.

The ultimate loyalty of the oligarchs is to their money, of course, but they seem to believe that in the long run their money is safer in EU countries, or at least in a Ukraine that conforms to EU legal standards. So they are not ecstatic about Yaukovych’s decision to turn away from the EU, and they are quite capable of turning away from him. Indeed, that’s exactly what they did during the Orange Revolution of 2004, and they could do it again.

So Yanukovych’s back is to the wall, and he has apparently decided that it’s worth gambling that he can clear the streets by force without triggering a confrontation that spreads far beyond the Maidan. And it will have to be done by force, because the protesters will not just fold their tents and creep off home.

The sudden lurch into violence on the streets on Sunday and Monday nights occurred in this context. The several hundred young men who attacked the riot police with pipes, chains and fire-bombs were originally thought to be “provocateurs” hired by the government to give it a justification for using violence on the mass of peaceful protesters, but lots of them were not.

The core group of fighters were members of a radical ultra-nationalist group called Right Sector that is both anti-Russian and anti-EU. It includes both Russian and Ukrainian speakers, and imagines it can use the current crisis to “destroy the skeleton state” and build a new state on the ruins. Things are indeed spinning out of control.

When Vitali Klitschko arrived on the scene to beg them to remain non-violent, he was attacked with a fire extinguisher – and thousands of ordinary protesters showed up to cheer the young thugs as they attacked the police. There is a serious potential for mass violence here, and that could lead to even worse things.

Viktor Yanukovych, for all his faults, is the legitimately elected president of Ukraine, and he has a majority in parliament. What if, facing overthrow in the streets, he called for “fraternal aid” from Russia to defend democracy in Ukraine?

What if the Russians, who are already claiming that it’s a Western plot – “We have information that much of this is being stimulated from abroad,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday – agree to send him police and military help?

It sounds far-fetched and it would be extremely stupid, but everybody is busily painting themselves into corners and there is a small but real possibility that it could happen. In which case, welcome to the Second Cold War.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 12. (“Another…again”; and “The core…control”)

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.