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Ukraine: How To Avoid a War

9 April 2014

Ukraine: How To Avoid a War

On one hand, eastern Ukraine appears to be slipping out of the government’s control, as pro-Russian groups seize control of official buildings in big eastern cities like Donetsk and Luhansk and demand referendums on union with Russia. They almost certainly do not represent majority opinion in those cities, but the police stand aside and people who support Ukrainian unity are nervous about expressing their opinions in public.

On the other hand, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, has just announced that the EU, the United States, Ukraine and Russia will all meet somewhere in Europe next week to discuss ways of “de-escalating the situation in Ukraine.” That will be the first time that Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has agreed to meet with a representative of the Ukrainian government.

So is this crisis heading for a resolution or an explosion? It still depends on whether Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks that the annexation of Crimea is enough compensation for the humiliation he suffered when his ally in Kiev, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown by a popular revolution. And clearly Putin hasn’t yet decided that himself.

Rationality says take your winnings to the bank and quit the game while you’re ahead. Putin’s action has guaranteed that almost any imaginable Ukrainian government will be hostile for the foreseeable future, but the NATO countries will be willing to forget about Crimea after a while if he goes no further. Does he really want the United States, Germany, France and Britain as his enemies too?

Yet the temptation is there. Putin’s agents are everywhere in eastern Ukraine, he has 40,000 troops ready to go at a moment’s notice just across the frontier, and all the Russian navy’s amphibious assault ships are now in the Black Sea – he could grab the Ukrainian coast all the way west to Odessa at the same time. The Ukrainian army would fight, but could not hold out for more than a day or two, and NATO would not send troops. Why not do it?

There are lots of good reasons not to. Putin would face a protracted guerilla war in Ukraine (he would call it “terrorism”, of course). He would find himself in a new Cold War that Russia would lose much faster than it lost the last one: it has only half the population of the old Soviet Union, and now depends heavily on Western markets for its modest prosperity.

He would find new NATO military bases opening up in various countries on Russia’s borders that joined the alliance for safety’s sake, but have so far not allowed  foreign (i.e. American or German) troops to be based permanently on their soil out of consideration for Russian anxieties. He really shouldn’t even consider grabbing Ukraine, but he is a man with a very big chip on his shoulder.

So what sort of line should the Europeans, the Americans and the Ukrainians be taking with Russia next week? This is about hard power, so appeals to sweet reason are pointless. “Sanctions” are also irrelevant: this has now gone considerably beyond the point where gesture politics has any role to play. The economic and strategic prices that Russia would pay need to be big and they need to be stated clearly.

But at the same time, Russia’s own legitimate concerns have to be addressed, and the main one is its fear that Ukraine might some day join NATO. That requires a firm commitment that Ukraine will be strictly neutral, under international guarantee. Russia will also try to get a promise that Ukraine will be “federalised”, but that is none of its business and should be rejected.

In the meantime, the shambolic Ukrainian provisional government needs to get a grip: not one of its leading figures has even visited the east since the revolution. In particular, it needs to take control of the police in the east (whose commanders were mostly Yukanovych’s placemen), and restore the chain of command from Kiev to the local municipalities.

Then it will be relatively easy to take back the occupied government buildings without violence. Just stop all movement in or out, turn off the water, and wait. None of this stuff is rocket science, but it’s not being done, and so the situation gets steadily worse.

Finally, money. Russia, under relatively competent authoritarian rule, has a GDP per capita of about $14,000. Ukraine, after a quarter-century of incompetent and sporadic authoritarian rule, has less than a third of that: $4,000 per head. It helps that Russia has a lot of oil and gas, but the contrast is huge, and Ukrainians are aware of it – especially in the east.

Ukraine needs lots of money, in a hurry, to stay solvent while it holds an election (on 25 May) and sorts itself out politically. And if all that is done, then maybe Putin will settle for Crimea and put up with the prospect of having to live next door to a neutral but democratic Ukraine.

Otherwise, it’s going to get quite ugly.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“In the meantime…in the east”)

Israel: Nuclear Hypocrisy

12 February 2014

Israel: Nuclear Hypocrisy

When Mordechai Vanunu, a humble Israeli technician who worked for years at Israel’s secret nuclear site at Dimona, spilled the beans about Israel’s nuclear weapons in 1986, very bad things happened to him. He was lured from safety in England for an Italian holiday by a woman who was an Israeli secret agent, drugged and kidnapped from Italy by other Israeli agents, and imprisoned for eighteen years (eleven of them in solitary confinement).

When Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Israeli parliament, said last month that that Israel has both nuclear and chemical weapons (you know, like the nuclear weapons that Iran must not have and the chemical weapons that Syria must give up), nothing bad happened to him at all. He is protected by the Important Persons Act, the unwritten law that gets powerful and well-connected people off the hook in every country.

They didn’t even go after Burg when he said that Israel’s long-standing policy of “non-disclosure (never confirm or deny that it has nukes) was “outdated and childish.” But even ten years after Vanunu finished serving his long jail sentence, he is not allowed to leave Israel, go near any foreign embassy, airport or border crossing, or speak to any journalist or foreigner.

Vanunu defies the Israeli authorities and speaks to whomever he pleases, of course. But he really can’t get out of the country, though he desperately wants to leave, and his decision to live like a free man gives his watchers the pretext to yank his chain by arresting him whenever they feel like it.

The Israeli government’s excuse for all this is that he may still know secrets he might reveal, but that is nonsense. Vanunu hasn’t seen Dimona or talked to anybody in the Israeli nuclear weapons business for 30 years. What drives his tormentors is sheer vindictiveness, and he may well go on being punished for his defiance until he dies – while Avraham Burg lives out his life undisturbed and offers occasional pearls of wisdom to the public.

So here are the “secrets” that Vanunu and Burg revealed, in rather more detail than Burg chose to give and in a more up-to-date form than Vanunu could give from personal knowledge.

Israel has a minimum of eighty and a maximum of four hundred nuclear weapons, those limits being based on calculations of the amount of fissile material that it has enriched to weapons grade. The best guess is that the total is around two hundred warheads, most of them two-stage thermonuclear devices (hydrogen bombs).

At least some dozens are “tactical” weapons designed to be fired by 175 mm and 203 mm artillery pieces at ranges of 40-70 km. The remainder are meant to be delivered by missiles or aircraft, and Israel maintains a full “triad” of delivery systems: land-based missiles, sea-launched missiles, and aircraft.

The missiles are mostly Jericho II medium-range ballistic missiles, which can reach all of Europe and most of western Asia. Since 2008 Jericho III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) have also been entering service, with a range that would allow Israel to strike any inhabited point on the planet except some Pacific islands. Both can carry a one-megaton warhead.

Why such remarkably long ranges, when Israel’s avowed enemies are all relatively close to hand? One speculation is that this is meant to encourage caution in other nuclear states (Pakistan? North Korea?) that might at some future time be tempted to supply nuclear weapons to Israel’s near enemies.

The maritime leg of the triad is highly accurate cruise missiles that are launched from underwater by Israel’s German-built Dolphin-class submarines. These missiles constitute Israel’s “secure second-strike” capability, since it is extremely unlikely that even the most successful enemy surprise attack could locate and destroy the submarines. And finally, there are American-made F-15 and F-16 strike aircraft that can also carry nuclear bombs.

Israel probably tested its bomb in the southern Indian Ocean in 1979 in cooperation with apartheid South Africa, which was also developing nuclear weapons (subsequently dismantled) at that time. The test was carried out under cover of a storm to escape satellite surveillance, but a rift in the cloud cover revealed the characteristic double flash of a nuclear explosion to an American satellite, Vela 6911.

This was a violation of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, which forbids open-air nuclear tests, but the United States did not pursue the matter, presumably in order not to embarrass Israel.

The United States did not help Israel to develop nuclear weapons in the first place (France did that), and even now Washington does not really approve of Israel’s nukes, although it tolerates them in the interest of the broader alliance. But why, after all these years, does Israel still refuse to acknowledge that it has them?

The only plausible answer is: to avoid embarrassing the United States in ways that would make it restrict its arms exports to Israel. But realistically, how likely is that to happen? The US Congress will ensure that Israel goes on getting all the money and arms it wants no matter what it says about its nukes, and it is high time to end this ridiculous dance around the truth.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 12 and 13. (“Vanunu…it”; and “Israel…Israel”)

Syrian Peace Talks

19 January 2014

Syrian Peace Talks

By Gwynne Dyer

It would be interesting to know just what tidbits of information the US National Security Agency’s eavesdropping has turned up on United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. He certainly caved in very fast: on Sunday he invited Iran to join the long-delayed peace talks aimed at ending the three-year-old civil war in Syria; on Sunday evening the United States loudly objected, and on Monday he obediently uninvited Iran.

So the peace talks get underway in Switzerland this week after all, and the omens for peace are not that bad. Unless, of course, you were also hoping for the overthrow of the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad and the emergence of a democratic Syria, in which case the omens are positively awful.

The breakthrough may not happen at Geneva this week, but the Russians and the Americans are now on the same side (although the US cannot yet bring itself to say publicly that it is backing Assad). Moreover, some of the rebels are getting ready to change sides. It won’t be fast and it won’t be pretty, but there’s a decent chance that peace, in the shape of an Assad victory, will come to Syria within a year or two.

What has made this possible is the jihadis, the fanatical extremists of the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, who have frightened both the United States and a great many ordinary Syrians into seeing Assad’s regime as the lesser evil.

Two years ago, it still seemed possible that Assad could lose. The rebels had the support of the United States, Turkey and powerful Sunni Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and they still talked about a democratic, inclusive Syria. Assad’s only friends were Iran, Russia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

But then the jihadis showed up, alienating local people with their extreme version of sharia law and scaring the pants off the United States with their allegiance to al-Qaeda. It took the United States quite a while to admit to itself that it does not actually want Assad to fall if that means putting the jihadis in power, but it has finally grasped the concept.

The catalyst was the poison gas attacks in Damascus last August, which forced the US to threaten air strikes against the Assad regime (because it had already declared that the use of poison gas would cross a “red line”). However, President Obama was clearly reluctant to carry out his threat – and then the Russians came up with the idea that Assad could hand over all his chemical weapons instead.

Obama grabbed that lifeline and cancelled the air strikes. After that there was no longer any prospect of Western military intervention in the Syrian war, which meant that Assad was certain to survive, because the domestic rebels were never going to win it on their own.

More recently, a “war-within-the-war” has broken out among the rebels, with the secular groups fighting the jihadis and the jihadi groups fighting among themselves. So far in January more people have been killed in this internecine rebel war (over a thousand) than in the war against the regime. And the US and Russia are working on a deal that would swing most of the non-jihadi rebels over to the regime’s side.

General Salim Idris, the commander of the Free Syrian Army (the main non-jihadi force on the battlefield), said last month that he and his allies were dropping the demand that Assad must leave power before the Geneva meeting convened. Instead, they would be content for Assad to go at the end of the negotiation process, at which time the FSA’s forces would join with those of the regime in an offensive against the Islamists.

He was actually signalling that the Free Syrian Army is getting ready to change sides. There will have to be amnesties and financial rewards for those who change sides, of course, but these things are easily arranged. And Assad will not leave power “at the end of the negotiation process.”

The jihadis are not at Geneva this week, of course; just the Russians and the Americans, and the Assad regime and the Syrian National coalition (the Free Syrian Army’s political front), and a few odds and sods to make up the numbers. It is an ideal environment for the regime and the secular rebels to discuss quietly how they might make a deal, with their Russian and American big brothers in attendance to smooth the path.

The fighting in Syria will continue for many months, even if a joint front of the regime and the FSA is formed to drive out the foreign extremists and eliminate the native-born ones. In practice the end game will probably be even more ragged than that, with all sorts of local rebel groups trying to cut their own deals or holding out until the bitter end. But the final outcome has become clear, and it is no longer years away.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“The catalyst…on their own”)

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

EU Citizenship: The Gold Standard

2 January 2014

EU Citizenship: The Gold Standard

By Gwynne Dyer

New Year’s Eve is always loud in our part of London, but it quieted down after all the drunks eventually staggered off home – and to our astonishment, it stayed quiet all the next day. We waited and waited for the predicted hordes of Romanian and Bulgarian “benefit tourists” to throng our streets, stealing and begging and applying for Jobseekers’ Allowance (as the dole is now known). But they never showed up.

It’s enough to make you doubt the trustworthiness of the popular press. For months right-wing British politicians and their allies in the tabloid papers have been warning that on January 1st, when citizens of the Balkan countries that joined the European Union seven years ago finally got the right of free movement throughout the EU, Britain would be inundated by poor Romanians and Bulgarians.

The Conservative Party, which dominates Britain’s coalition government, rose to the occasion. Henceforward, the government announced, immigrants will be charged for emergency hospital treatment, and they will have to wait three months before applying for unemployment benefit.

Prime Minister David Cameron even suggested last month that the principle of free movement of EU citizens among the member countries should be changed to curb “mass populations movements” when new members join. It’s too late to impose that rule on Bulgarians and Romanians, who are already EU citizens, he said, but while they are free to come to Britain and look for a job, “There is not freedom to come and claim.”

This is the “benefit tourism” notion: that poor eastern Europeans will move to the United Kingdom not to get a job, but to live off the state, claiming unemployment pay, social housing, and other benefits that should be reserved for honest British workers. Even Cameron has had to admit that there is no “quantitative evidence” that this phenomenon actually exists. Nevertheless, he talks about it constantly as if it did.

But the whole thing is a charade, and Cameron’s “new” restrictions on immigrants don’t actually change anything. In practice, new immigrants to Britain already had to wait three months before gaining access to unemployment benefits, and it is not legally possible for Britain to charge EU citizens for medical care. The Conservative Party in Britain has just been churning out fake solutions to phantom problems.

It is doing so entirely to ward off the challenge from its emerging far-right rival, the anti-EU, anti-immigrant United Kingdom Independence Party, which has been poaching alarming numbers of right-wing Conservative voters. With an election due next year, Cameron is running scared, and has got into a “nastier-than-thou” bidding war with UKIP.

The anti-immigrant voters Cameron is pandering to will not change their minds when the predicted tidal wave of Balkan immigrants does not happen, nor will he change his story. He will simply claim that it was his emergency measures that stopped it. But this tempest in a teapot highlights the sheer power of the principle of free movement within the European Union. It is what makes EU citizenship the gold standard in terms of passports.

Like the United States and the Canadian province of Quebec, several EU countries offer fast-track residence permits to foreigners who will invest a large sum in the local economy: from $400,000 in Greece to $15 million in the United Kingdom. But they still actually have to live in the country in question for up to five years before getting their citizenship and passport, and the average jet-setter wants more for his money.

A US passport is no longer so desirable, because US tax and reporting requirements apply to American citizens no matter where they live in the world, and many countries impose tit-for-tat visa requirements in response to US border controls. Moreover, it’s getting easier to obtain an EU passport.

Last November Malta, the smallest EU member, announced a programme that skips the residence requirement and simply sells Maltese passports to “high-value” individuals who are willing to pay the government 650,000 euros ($885,000). It’s a quite reasonable price for a passport that confers the right to live and work almost anywhere in Europe and also offers a visa waiver for travel to the United States.

There was an outcry by offended Maltese patriots, but they were mollified when Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s government raised the price to 1.15 million euros ($1.6 million) a few days ago. So now we know the real value of an EU passport.

Who buys these passports? Mostly rich Chinese: 248 out of 318 residence permits issued by Lisbon in the past three months to people who invested 500,000 euros ($680,000) in Portuguese property went to Chinese nationals. And there is no shortage of potential customers: a Bank of China survey revealed that almost half of the Chinese citizens with assets worth more than 10 million yuan ($1.6 million) are considering moving abroad.

Any EU passport – Portuguese, Latvian, Irish, whatever – gives its holder the right to live anywhere, work anywhere, set up a business anywhere in a community of 28 countries with a total population of more than 500 million people. It is the principle of free movement that makes it so valuable, and no amount of protest by “Little Englanders” on the right of British politics is going to change that.

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

 

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 10 and 13. (“It is…UKIP”; “A US…passport”; and “Who…abroad”)