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Ukraine Election

Unlike comedian Alec Baldwin, who is famous for his impersonation of President Trump on Saturday Night Live, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is famous for playing the anti-president, an accidental hero who sweeps into the presidency of Ukraine and cleans up all the corruption. He used to play it for laughs, and now he’s playing it for real.

Zelensky is now leading in the opinion polls for the Ukrainian election on Sunday with 25% of the vote, well ahead of incumbent president Petro Poroshenko (12%) and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko (18%). (She’s the one who used to wear her hair in braids wound up around her head.)

The other third of the voters are currently divided between 36 other presidential candidates who will be eliminated in Sunday’s vote, which will also decide whether Poroshenko or Tymoshenko goes up against Zelensky in the two-person run-off three weeks later. Baldwin will never be the US president, but there’s a good chance that Zelensky will be the Ukrainian president.

What a heart-warming story, I hear you murmur. Humble comedian plays even humbler high-school history teacher Vasyl Holoborodko, whose classroom diatribe against the corruption of Ukrainian politics is secretly filmed by a student. It goes viral on the internet, and humble teacher is instantly elevated into the presidency by a grateful public.

The story gets even better. In real life, ‘Servant of the People’, the TV show about the teacher-turned-president, plays on the country’s biggest television channel, 1+1, and is a nationwide hit. Then the guy playing the teacher, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, decides that he has a chance of working the same miracle in real life. So he puts himself up for the presidency, and lo! The public agrees.

This is not art imitating life; it is life imitating art. But if you are a nasty old cynic who suspects the worst about people’s motives, then you are probably right, at least in this case. Zelensky is not just a simple comic who got lucky.

A little background. Ukraine is one of the less fortunate post-Soviet countries, with ageing heavy industries, few natural resources, and barely a third of Russia’s per capita income (in terms of purchasing power parity). It has been mired in a low-intensity war with Russian proxies in its eastern provinces for the past five years, and has lost Crimea to Russia for good.

You might think that, in these circumstances, political debate would concentrate on ending the war and raising popular living standards, but the war is barely mentioned and the main economic debate is about ‘corruption’.

That debate would make sense if it was really about cleaning up an extremely corrupt political system dominated by the ‘oligarchs’ (who also control most of the media). In practice, it is mainly a struggle between rival oligarchs, using accusations of corruption to target each other when in fact they are all corrupt almost by definition.

Poroshenko, a leading oligarch who won the election after the 2014 revolution, was at daggers drawn with Ihor Kolomoysky, the second-richest man in Ukraine, from the beginning of his presidency. In 2016 he nationalised Kolomoysky’s PrivatBank, the largest bank in the country, and Kolomoysky went into self-imposed exile in Israel while fighting Poroshenko’s actions in the courts and the media.

It was at this time that Kolomoysky and Volodymyr Zelensky, already a successful comedian with his own production company, began developing the TV series about the accidental president, and it went on air on Kolomoysky’s 1+1 channel two years ago. It was an instant runaway hit, and now Zelensky is the leading candidate for the real presidency.

Is Zelensky just a stalking horse behind which Kolomoysky can take control of Ukraine away from Poroshenko? Not necessarily. The two men may have a pragmatic alliance but their own separate agendas. But it is noteworthy that Zelensky showed up at Kolomoysky’s birthday party last year and was introduced as “our president”.

That large numbers of Ukrainians should fall for a fake maverick (who doesn’t even offer much in the way of concrete policies) is a measure of their disappointment with the status quo of rule by oligarchs behind a facade of democracy. Russia’s relative prosperity is mostly due to its oil, but it also owes much to the fact that Vladimir Putin has brought its oligarchs under control. In Ukraine, their rivalries still dominate everything.

There is not much reason to believe that Ukraine will finally turn the corner in this election and escape from the miseries and failures of its first three decades of independence. On the other hand, it’s not getting any worse either, and for the moment the war in the east seems encysted and confined. Hope dies last, and maybe Zelensky will surprise us.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“That…everything”)

Kim-Trump Summit 2019

On a scale of one to ten, what are the chances that the meeting between Chairman Kim Jong-Un and President Donald Trump in Vietnam on 27-28 February (or any subsequent meeting) will end with a clear and irreversible commitment to the ‘denuclearisation’ of North Korea? Zero.

What are the chances that this summit (plus lots of further negotiations) could substantially reduce the threat of war between the two participants in this week’s meeting in Hanoi, and also between the two states in the Korean peninsula? Quite good, actually.

Kim Jong-Un, and his father and grandfather before him, have devoted enormous time and money to providing North Korea with an effective nuclear deterrent against the United States, which requires the ability to strike the American homeland. He may make all sorts of other deals, but he will never give that up.

North Korea doesn’t need to match US nuclear capabilities – the ability to deliver only a few nuclear weapons on American soil would be a sufficient deterrent – but Kim will be well aware of what happened to Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, heads of state who both died precisely because they didn’t have nuclear weapons.

There is no deal available that would protect North Korea from US nuclear weapons, since they can reach the North directly from the United States. No amount of local disarmament – the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea, even the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from all of East Asia – could change that reality, and the United States is not planning to abolish its strategic nuclear deterrent.

The only safe road to the future, therefore, is a political deal that greatly reduces tensions between the two countries while acknowledging that a state of MUTUAL nuclear deterrence will henceforward prevail between them.

Mutual deterrence is what has now obtained for a long time between the United States and its two peer rivals, Russia and China. The huge asymmetry between the power of the US and North Korea does not lead to a different conclusion. Nuclear weapons are the great leveller: in practical terms, just a few are enough to deter, even if the other side has hundreds of times as many (which the United States does).

It’s going to be a long negotiating process, because few Americans are ready yet to accept that this is the logic of the situation. Many would even reject it on the grounds that Kim Jong-Un is crazy and might make a first strike against the United States, although there is no evidence to support that belief. Being a cruel dictator is not at all the same as being suicidal, and a nuclear attack on the United States would be suicide.

Trump almost certainly does not understand that the only successful outcome of this negotiation must be mutual deterrence. Indeed, most senior American officials, although far wiser and better informed than Trump, still do not accept that fact. But they will probably get there in the end, and the negotiations will lead them along the path.

That’s why Trump’s fulsome praise of the North Korean leader, however naive – “He wrote me beautiful letters and we fell in love” – is actually helpful. So is the vagueness on all the hard questions that marked the first Kim-Trump summit last June, and will doubtless mark this one as well.

Equally useful is South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s parallel initiative to get a North Korean-South Korean detente underway. Cross-border trade and travel, the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Park (where South Korean industries were producing goods using hundreds of thousands of North Korean workers), and direct meetings between Moon and Kim (three in the past year) all help to build confidence about a peaceful future.

A much better relationship, not unilateral North Korean nuclear disarmament, is the right goal to aim for. The kind of concessions that could help include a gradual relaxation of the sanctions that stifle the North Korean economy and a formal peace treaty ending the 1950-53 Korean War, perhaps in return for very big cuts in North Korea’s huge conventional army (twice the size of South Korea’s, in a country with half the population).

Later on, there could be talks about permanently capping the number of North Korean nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles (which is still in the dozens, not the thousands), in return for withdrawing some or all of the US troops from South Korea. But leave that stuff for now and just work on confidence-building measures.

Holding this summit in Vietnam was a good move, since it will show Kim a country that has built a prosperous economy without ceasing to be a Communist-ruled dictatorship. He will be much more flexible if he believes (rightly or wrongly) that he can open up the North Korean economy without being overthrown.

And there’s no need to work on building up Donald Trump’s confidence.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“That’s…future”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Venezuela: ‘Let Trump Be Trump’

The decision to promote Juan Guaidó as a rival president to Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela was clearly made in Washington, not in Caracas. The speed with which US allies in the Americas and western Europe recognised Guaidó’s claim on 23 January to be the legitimate president of Venezuela would not have been possible without a lot of prior coordination – and a lot of pressure by the Trump administration.

It’s no surprise that right-wing governments in Latin American countries like Colombia and Brazil are going along with a US attempt to overthrow a left-wing regime. (The support of Brazil’s new neo-fascist president, Jair Bolsonaro, was a foregone conclusion.) But it’s shocking when Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Spain also back this sort of intervention in another country’s internal affairs.

Maduro’s government does not deserve to survive. It has run the country’s economy into the ground, its ‘re-election’ last year was the product of a ruthlessly rigged vote, and three million Venezuelans (10% of the population) have fled abroad. But this is a problem for Venezuelans to solve, not foreigners, and least of all Americans.

There is a long, bad history of American attempts to overthrow left-wing governments in Latin America. Some of them, like Cuba (1960), Nicaragua (1981) and Venezuela (2002), were against regimes born in revolutions; others, like Brazil (1964), Chile (1973) and Argentina (1976), were against democratically elected governments. It made no difference to Washington.

It used to make a difference to Washington’s allies in Europe and North America, however. They were all in favour of democracy, but not ‘democracy’ delivered by American guns. They also fretted that these US interventions were all made in defiance of international law as embodied in the charter of the United Nations. It was American exceptionalism run wild: Maduro is historically quite right to talk of the “gringo empire”.

Now the Europeans and the Canadians are willing to back an intervention of the same sort in Venezuela, which is very hard to explain. Recognising a rival president as legitimate (on very flimsy grounds) opens the way to supplying his alternative regime with money and weapons, and thence to civil war in Venezuela.

It also creates the preconditions for direct US military intervention in Venezuela, and sure enough US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was soon saying that “all options are on the table.” As everybody knows, that’s US government diplomatic-speak for “we may invade you.” So will they?

You’d think that senior American military officers and government officials would have figured out by now that this is not a great option. Overthrowing governments they disliked by military force didn’t work out so well in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, so why would they think that doing it in Venezuela would work out any better? Even invasions undertaken with good intentions generally end in tears.

But hang on. Almost all the ‘adults in the room’ in the Trump administration have quit or been fired by now, and the second-raters and nonentities who replaced them have no feel for how these things work. Would any competent and well-informed US administration be toying publicly with the notion of attacking Iran? (“Options on the table” again.)

Invading Venezuela would not be as stupid as attacking Iran, but there would certainly be an armed resistance, and even Venezuelan patriots who despise Maduro would be tempted to become part of it: foreign armies of occupation almost always end up being hated. Cuba, Russia and perhaps even China would help the resistance with money, and perhaps with arms (although there are quite enough of those in Venezuela already).

This is a dangerous game, and it is hard to believe that sensible governments like those in France, Spain and Canada really think encouraging Juan Guaidó to claim that he is president of Venezuela on the grounds that he is president of the legislature is a good idea.

Maybe they are so frightened of Donald Trump that they feel compelled to go along with his hare-brained scheme, but that seems unlikely.

Trump is not that frightening once you have worked out that he will settle for even the slightest symbolic concession and claim it as an historic victory. The Mexicans and the Canadians both exploited that fact in the NAFTA renegotiation, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is about to do it again in his second ‘summit’ with Trump, and in due course China will do it over the alleged China-US ‘trade war’ too.

The darker possibility is that America’s NATO allies are afraid that he is going to drag them into a war with Iran, and are willing to contemplate the risk that he may stumble into a war in Venezuela instead. After all, it would do less damage – except to the Venezuelans, of course.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Maybe…too”)

Ukraine: No Big War

The Russian-Ukrainian naval clash in the Black Sea is not going to end up in a world war. Ukraine would love to be part of NATO, but the existing members won’t let it join. Why? Precisely because that might drag them into a war with Russia.

Russia doesn’t have any real military alliances either. Various countries sympathise with either Ukraine or Russia, but none of them have obligations to send military help, and they are not going to volunteer.

Secondly, there’s not even going to be a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine because Ukraine would lose. Russia has more than three times the population and its economy is ten times bigger. The Russian armed forces are far bigger and vastly better armed. No sane Ukrainian would choose an all-out war with Russia regardless of the provocation.

The Russians obviously have more options, but conquering Ukraine is probably the furthest thing from their minds. It has no resources they need, and if they occupied the country they would certainly face an ugly and prolonged guerilla war of resistance. They have nothing to gain.

They actually have a lot to lose, because a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would trigger a Western reaction that would come close to bankrupting Russia. NATO would conclude that this was the first step in President Vladimir Putin’s plan to reconquer all of the former Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, and start re-arming in a very big way. The Russians would go broke if they tried to keep up.

They did go broke trying to keep up with Western military spending back in the Cold War, and in the end the entire Communist system collapsed. Russia is now a largely de-industrialised country with half the population of the old Soviet Union, and the collapse would come a lot faster – probably sweeping Putin away with it. He knows that, because he lived through the collapse last time.

So what we have here is really just a local crisis. The Russians started it in order to make a specific local gain, and they know that they can win. They will not face major Western retaliation because it’s just not a big enough issue.

The actual clash on Sunday saw three Ukrainians injured, 29 others arrested, and three Ukrainian navy ships boarded and seized. The ships were trying to pass through a Russian-controlled strait from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, a relatively shallow body of water (maximum depth 14 metres) that is about the size of Switzerland.

Until the Russians took Crimea from Ukraine four years ago, the strait had Russian territory on one side and Ukrainian territory on the other. A treaty signed in 2003 said that
both countries had free access to the Sea of Azov and their respective ports along its coasts, no permission needed.

In 2014, however, Russia infiltrated troops into Crimea who pretended to be a new local militia. They took control of the entire peninsula and its two million people, staged a referendum on whether it should become part of Russia, and won it. The Ukrainian government protested, but it didn’t have the troops or the nerve to resist the takeover by force.

Russia tried to justify its action by pointing out that the great majority of the people in Crimea spoke Russian, not Ukrainian, and that it has been part of Russia for centuries until a Soviet leader with strong Ukrainian connections handed it over to Ukraine in 1954.

International law does not accept border changes imposed by force as legitimate, and Russia has been under severe Western sanctions on trade ever since it annexed Crimea. Its economy is in serious trouble, but the annexation was immensely popular in both Russia and Crimea, and Putin will not reverse it.

Since there was no land connection between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, Putin decided to build an 18-kilometre bridge joining the two sides of the Strait of Kerch. By a happy coincidence, that would also give him the ability to control or even block shipping trying to get to Ukrainian ports on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov.

The bridge is now open, and Putin is exercising that option. The Ukrainians tried to send their (rather small) warships through to show that the treaty of free passage signed in 2003 still applies.

The Russians didn’t actually deny that, but said that they were closing the strait temporarily for operational reasons. The Ukrainian warships pushed on, and the Russians attacked them.

The Russians are legally in the wrong, but they are going to win this one because Ukraine had almost no navy left and nobody wants a bigger war. Ukraine has imposed martial law in areas that border on Russia for the next 30 days, but that’s mainly window dressing. There may be further sanctions against Russia, but that’s as far as it goes.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“They did…time”; and “Russia…1954″)