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Iran’s Election

The six-week campaign is over, and 55 million Iranians will vote in the first round of the presidential election on Friday. Or rather, most of those 55 million people will vote, but many will not, because there is great disillusionment with President Hassan Rouhani’s promises to improve the economy – and therefore also with the international treaty on curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions that was supposed to bring back prosperity.

Donald Trump (who calls the treaty “one of the worst deals ever signed”) is not alone in seeing it as a failure. Although Rouhani’s main challenger in this election, hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, does not formally reject the deal, his whole campaign is focussed on the fact that the end of foreign economic sanctions did not bring Iranians the rapid economic relief that Rouhani had promised

Iran has a big, middle-income economy with a large industralised sector, but largely because of those sanctions it has been in the doldrums for the past decade. Incomes have stagnated or fallen, youth unemployment is 26 percent, and many people have lost faith in Rouhani.

Forty-three per cent of Iranians “strongly approved” of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA), as the deal is called, when it was signed two years ago. Now only 21 per cent “strongly approve”. Yet nothing has actually changed with the deal. Rouhani’s problem is that nothing much has changed in the economy either.

The Western partners in the JCPOA, the so-called “Five plus One” (the United States, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union) have been slow to remove the sanctions, mainly because of foot-dragging in Washington – although the US government was quick enough to grant a waiver when Boeing wanted to sign a $16.6 deal to sell 80 passenger aircraft to Iran Air last December.

The bigger problem for Iran is that major international banks have been reluctant to re-engage with Iran because they fear being caught out if the US reneges on the deal and reimposes sanctions. So the Iranian economy continues to bump along the bottom, and a lot of people who voted for Rouhani last time say they will sit this election out.

Ebrahim Raisi is capitalising on this disillusionment by running a populist campaign promising “work and dignity”. He is thought to have the tacit backing of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the final authority in Iran’s peculiar blend of democracy and theocracy.

Khamenei has not given his public backing to any candidate in this election (there are also two less well-known candidates running for the presidency). It is generally assumed, however, that he supports Raisi, who is best known as one of the four Islamic judges who ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.

As a result, Raisi is doing well with his target audiences, the poor, the devout and the ill-educated. If they turn out to vote in large numbers, while more urban, more sophisticated voters express their disappointment with Rouhani’s failure to work miracles by staying home, it is entirely possible that he will beat Rouhani and become the next president.

This would plunge the country’s relations with the West back into the deep freeze, but Raisi says he doesn’t care about that: Iran doesn’t need outside help, and his goal is to restore the values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But it certainly wouldn’t improve Iran’s prospects for prosperity, or the entire region’s prospects for peace.

Rouhani is trapped between two fires in this election. At home he faces a conservative backlash that condemns his opening to the West and (implicitly) his nuclear deal. And on election day the voters who might come out to support him are likely to hear Donald Trump just across the Gulf in Saudi Arabia, spouting anti-Iranian rhetoric to a summit meeting of Arab countries.

It’s not just Trump. Hillary Clinton, while giving the nuclear deal her tepid approval, was just as negative about Iran in general, and Barack Obama regularly recited the misleading mantra about Iran being the “leading state sponsor of terrorism”. As did his predecessors in the US presidency all the way back to Ronald Reagan.

Iran is no worse than many of America’s allies in the region (and better than some) in its treatment of its own citizens. It is no more prone to interfering in its neighbours than they are. Yet it is routinely treated by US administrations of both parties as a rogue state that poses a huge and unique threat to the peace of the Middle East. Why?

Because it defied the United States and got away with it. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 overthrew Washington’s puppet ruler, the Shah of Iran, and just as in the case of Castro’s revolution in Cuba, the United States has never forgiven it for that crime. Whereas by now Iranians have more or less forgiven the US for the CIA-backed coup in 1953 that destroyed Iranian democracy and gave the Shah supreme power in the first place.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“The Western…out”)

Peak Putin?

The crowds of protesters in Moscow and other Russian cities were far bigger the last time, in 2011-2012. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was so intoxicated by the forty or fifty thousand citizens who demonstrated in Moscow against Vladimir Putin’s rule that he boasted: “I see enough people here to take the Kremlin…right now, but we are peaceful people and won’t do that just yet.”

It was a delusional thing to say even then. Five years later, the crowds joining the protests against official corruption on Sunday were in the hundreds or the low thousands in most Russian cities. Even in Moscow’s Pushkin Square they probably did not number more than ten thousand – and Navalny himself was arrested on his way to the square. At home, Putin reigns supreme, with approval ratings around the 80 percent level.

He’s not doing too badly abroad, either. On Friday he met with Marine Le Pen, the leading candidate in France’s presidential election next month and Putin’s favourite Western leader after Donald Trump. She supported Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from the start, and promises to work for an end of European Union sanctions against Russia if she becomes president of France this spring.

That promise might be hard to keep, since she would also be busy organising a referendum on withdrawing France from the EU, but Putin replied “I know that you represent a European political force that is growing quickly.” It certainly is: the Brexiteers in Britain have already won their referendum on leaving, and the EU would probably not survive the departure of two of its three biggest members.

Without the EU, there would be no powerful counterpoise to Russia in Europe, and the election of Donald Trump has already put an admirer of Putin in the White House. Moreover, Russia is now the dominant outside power in the Middle East for the first time since the 1960s, and it has achieved that position at a far lower cost in blood and treasure than the United States paid in 2001-2015.

Putin is undeniably a master manipulator both at home and abroad, and he has good reason to be pleased with his accomplishments. And yet….

Putin has played a weak hand internationally with great skill, but Russia really is weak. Its economy is smaller than Italy’s, and apart from defence industry the country is largely de-industrialised. (Have you ever bought anything made in Russia?)

Only oil and gas exports give Moscow the cash to play the great power game at all, and the collapse of oil prices has put Moscow on a starvation diet. The relatively low-cost intervention in Syria has brought Moscow high diplomatic returns in the short term, but Putin lacks the resources to play a major role in rebuilding post-war Syria, so Russia’s influence in the region is bound to fade as time passes.

Even in Europe, Russia’s posture is essentially defensive, if only because it could not afford to hold up its end of a new Cold War. Putin has effectively neutralised the pro-Western government of Ukraine by seizing Crimea and sponsoring a separatist war in two eastern provinces, but he won’t go any farther even with Trump in the White House.

Putin’s real vulnerability is at home. His popular support has held up well despite three years of economic decline because of falling oil income, and it may even carry him safely through next year’s presidential election. But there is no reason to believe that oil revenues are going to recover in the near future.

Even Russia’s cooperation with the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries in cutting oil production to get the price back up caused only a modest and brief upward tick in world oil prices. Now they are back down where they were three months ago.

There is great over-capacity in the world’s oil industry, and it’s entirely possible that Russians face two or three more years of declining incomes (from a base that was never all that high). Many Russians are still grateful to Putin for ending the decade of chaos and acute poverty after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but for half the population that is ancient history.

It is the young whom Putin must fear, because they are less impressed by hollow foreign triumphs in places they don’t care about, and more unhappy about an economic future that leaves most of them bumping along the bottom. He has had a long run in power – seventeen years and counting – but his future is probably a lot shorter than his past.

In fact, Russia may be at peak Putin right now, with only mounting troubles in his future. The crowds were smaller this time than last, but they were not just in the big cities. When there are protests in places like Chita and Barnaul, you know that a lot of people are running out of patience.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“Even…House”; and “Even…ago”)

The (Very) Slow Death of Islamic State

“Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to expect zero civilian casualties in armed conflict,” said US Army Col. John L. Dorrian, the spokesperson of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve. (Where do they get these ridiculous code-names?)

The CJTF/OIR is the US-led international force that was created to defeat Islamic State, but Dorrian was talking in particular about the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, captured by the forces of Islamic State more than two years ago. There are still at least 650,000 civilians in the IS-controlled part of Mosul, and when the Iraqi army retakes it a lot of them will be killed or injured.

Col. Dorrian was just trying to “manage expectations”, as they say, but he needn’t have worried. As many civilians will probably be killed during the reconquest of Mosul as died in the Syrian army’s reconquest of eastern Aleppo in December, but it won’t get as much media attention – mainly because Islamic State is not as subtle as the Nusra Front, the rival Islamist organisation that dominated eastern Aleppo.

The Nusra Front, now rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Conquest of Syria Front) to disguise its allegiance to al-Qaeda, was clever enough to let little girls blog about the horrors of the siege of Aleppo, and the Western media obligingly ran it all without question. It was a holocaust, they reported, committed by the evil army of that wicked Bashar al-Assad.

The Western media won’t be saying that sort of thing about the inevitable deaths of innocent civilians during the retaking of Mosul, because the West supports the Iraqi army. In any case, Islamic State is probably too rigid to allow that kind of blog.

The Iraqi army’s attempt to take the city of Mosul back from Islamic State has already lasted almost as long as the siege of Stalingrad. So far, it has only managed to clear the suburbs on the east bank of the Tigris river, and civilian deaths have only been in the hundreds.

This week it began its assault on the main part of the city, which lies on the west bank. It may fight its way in to the core of the old city in another month or two, but street-fighting eats up armies, and the streets of the old city are narrow and twisting. The casualties will be high among both soldiers and civilians, and it is unlikely that the operation will end until April or May.

It may not even end in a decisive victory for the goverment forces. There are around 100,000 men in the force besieging Mosul, but most of them are Kurdish militia and “Popular Mobilisation Units” of the Iraqi Army that must not be allowed to enter the city proper. They are either the wrong ethnicity (Kurds) or the wrong religion (Shias) to send into an Arab and Sunni city.

What’s left is the Iraqi regular army, probably no more than 30-40,000 strong around Mosul, and in particular the elite units of the Counter Terrorism Service who have borne the brunt of the fighting. Some of the CTS units have already suffered 50 percent casualties (killed and wounded), and overall Iraqi casualties are at least 5,000 before the final battle has even begun.

Let us be optimistic and assume that Mosul will ultimately fall. That would put an end to the Iraqi half of what used to be called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but what happens to the Syrian part of Islamic State is still very much up in the air.

It was losing territory to the Syrian Kurds, whose army was advancing steadily on the IS capital at Raqqa in eastern Syria. The Syrian Kurds have done so well because they had US air support on call at all times. Indeed, the Kurds were America’s main ally in the Syrian civil war, and the only major ground force (apart from the Syrian army) that was actively fighting Islamic State.

But now all that is at risk because Turkey, which has been the main support of the Syrian rebels for years, has switched sides. It sees a semi-independent Kurdish state in northern Syria as a bigger threat to its territorial integrity than either IS or the Assad regime in Damascus. And it appears to have made a deal with Russia that will give it a free hand to destroy the Syrian Kurds.

It is not clear whether the Turkish army can actually do that without taking very large casualties, but it’s probably going to try. This means that the United States will have to choose between its ally of the past four years, the Syrian Kurdish army, and its faithless NATO ally, Turkey. It will probably choose Turkey, because it is more important, and abandon the Kurds to their fate.

The Kurds are used to being betrayed, so they won’t even be surprised. But it does mean that destroying Islamic State in Syria will have to wait for a while.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“It may…begun”)

Everybody Take a Valium

When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, he took more than half a million troops with him, and he still lost. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he used four million troops, but he lost too. And now the United States has deployed just one thousand American into Poland.

So did the Russians giggle and snort at this pathetic display of American “resolve”? Of course not. They pretended to be horrified by it.

“We perceive it as a threat,” said Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman. “These actions threaten our interests, our security, especially as it concerns a third party building up its military presence near our borders. (The United States) is not even a European state.”

The Russians have not suddenly caught a severe case of timidity. They know perfectly well this handful of American troops poses no danger to them. But building up the American “threat” helps to mobilise popular support for Putin – and he will be even more popular when Donald Trump enters the White House and makes a “deal” with Putin that ends this alleged threat.

Pantomime threats like this are a standard part of international politics, and should not be seen as a cause for panic. It is also quite normal for great powers to bury an inconvenient dispute and move on, as Trump will probably do with Putin after he takes office. As long as Trump does not formally recognise Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, international law will survive. Indeed, it would survive, perhaps limping a little, even if he did.

As Trump’s inauguration looms, there is great panic among American commentators and strategic analysts (and quite a lot of people elsewhere) about the grave danger that the ignorant and impulsive Trump will pose to world peace, but this ignores two important facts.

One is that the other world leaders he is dealing with will still be grown-ups. The other is that the real US government – the tens of thousands of senior civil servants and military officers who actually make the machine work – are people with a lot of real-life experience, and they instinctively resist extreme policies and grand visions.

Even Trump’s most radical ideas, like threatening to end America’s 45-year-old “One China” policy – and implicitly, therefore, to recognise the independence of Taiwan – will only destabilise the international order if OTHER national leaders are panicked by his demands. In most cases, they will not be. (Indeed, many of them are already taking up meditation or practicing deep breathing in preparation for having to deal with him.)

None of this guarantees that Trump will not blunder into a big international crisis or a major war during his term, but the chances of his doing so are relatively low – maybe as low as one-in-ten. You wouldn’t freely choose to live with this level of risk, but people did live with it for decades during the Cold War, and they survived it.

As for the ‘Manchurian Candidate’ nonsense: while Trump may have had significant Russian help of one sort or another during his election campaign, he is almost certainly not an ‘agent of influence’ for Moscow. The intelligence report by a British ex-spy that is causing such a fuss is actually TOO detailed: senior Russian officials do not give that much away to each other, let alone to Western spies or the Russians who work for them.

Even if the lurid accounts of Trump’s alleged sexual games with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel were backed by Russian-held film of the event, Moscow could never blackmail Trump with a threat to make it public. He would know that it was a bluff, because Putin’s rational strategy must be to put and keep Trump in power, not to discredit him.

The real cost of the leaked allegations for Trump is domestic, it is high, and he has already paid it. He can indignantly deny the story until his thumbs are sore, and he may actually be telling the truth, but mud sticks. People think of him as the sort of man of whom it MIGHT be true, and so the ‘lentil and chickpea’ jokes will not stop. He has suffered grave and lasting reputational damage even among his own supporters.

Many people will be very frightened about the future when Trump swears the oath of office on Friday. They are certainly right to be concerned, and the economic damage may be very bad, but the risk of war, even with China, is probably lower than they fear.

Back in 1976, when the Quebec separatists won an election for the first time, English-Canadians were terrified, and the anglophone minority in Quebec itself saw it as the apocalypse. It was only six years, after all, since there had been dramatic terrorist attacks in Quebec by a different brand of separatists. But cartoonist Aislin (Terry Mosher) in the Montreal Gazette had the right idea.

It just showed a close-up of the separatist leader, René Lévesque, smoking his usual cigarette and telling the entire country: “OK, everybody take a Valium.” It was better advice than even he knew: Quebec never left and the heavens never fell.

We need Aislin again.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Even…supporters”)