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Articles on Russia after 2014
What Netanyahu and Putin have in common, part II
Shooting down civilian planes
The West and Russia
The Ukrainian crisis is three crises in one
Job well done, Putin
Why Putin is right again, and why he might lose again
Articles on Russia before 2014

  • (November 2014) What Netanyahu and Putin have in common, part II.
    (Continued from What Netanyahu and Putin have in common).
    By supporting the separatists in Ukraine, Putin has scared all of Russia's neighbors that have sizeable Russian-speaking minorities. (During a radio interview Lithuania's president Dalia Grybauskaite has described Russia as a "terrorist state"; Kazakhstan's president Nursultan Nazarbayev hinted at leaving the Eurasian Economic Union "if it threatens our independence" after Putin visited his country and declared "he created a state in a territory that had never had a state before"). Russia, of course, views its support of Ukrainian separatists as a humanitarian act, just like the West supported Kosovo's aspiration to independence from Serbia.
    Russia's support for the separatists has also prompted Russia's European customers to look elsewhere for oil and gas; and this crisis might have helped propel oil and gas production in the USA to near-record levels. (Russia, of course, sees it differently: the mess in Ukraine is caused by the West's indifference towards the legitimate aspirations of Russian-speaking Ukrainians).
    By supporting Assad in Syria, and by selling nuclear technology to Iran, Russia has alienated the entire Islamic world (except for Iran, of course). The perception is that, were Russia not involved, the civil war in Syria would have ended with Assad's fall and the establishment of some kind of federal republic, not with the expansion of ISIS; and the nuclear deal with Iran would have been achieved long ago. The two biggest strategic crises in the Middle East can easily be blamed on Russia. (Russia, of course, sees it otherwise: the mess in Iraq and Libya was caused by Western intervention).
    Putin signed a deal with China: Russia will sell huge amounts of oil and gas via new pipelines to be constructed. Many observers interpreted this move as a way for Putin to reduce Russia's dependence on European markets. The small print is not a detail, however: China will pay in yuan, not in dollars. This, again, can be read as Putin's attempt to reduce Western influence (in this case the world's main trading currency) on Russia's economy. But the net result of this deal is to admit Russia's inferiority to China and to treat Russia as the oil and gas provider to the Chinese economy; and this while trying to establish the yuan as the world's currency.
    Russia's border with China has never been safe, and how can it be now: Russia's vast Far East has a population of seven million people bordering with three Chinese northern provinces that are home to 100 million people, of which about five million are estimated as crossing the border daily to work in Russian territory (in 2004 Putin and then China's president Hu Jingtao settled all border disputes, but mostly favoring China's view of the disputes).
    The net result of Putin's foreign policy is the increasing isolation of Russia in international affairs plus a strengthening of China's hold on Russia's economy.
    Meanwhile, Israel, run by another egomaniac nationalist, keeps provoking the Palestinians and then massacring them at the first chance. (Of course, Israel views it differently: the Arabs cannot be trusted, Palestinians want to destroy Israel, the West would never accept the violence that erupts out of Gaza, Israel is just defending the rule of law). Israel is now widely despised in Europe, Russia, Asia, Africa and Latin America. Traditional allies such as Turkey have become hostile. Most of the intellectuals that admired Israel's science, literature and history (including me) have become disillusioned. Israel has one friend left, the USA, but only because the public opinion does not pay attention to Netanyahu's war crimes and to how Israel's policies harm the USA. I suspect that it is just a matter of time before the US public too turns against Israel's policies.
    The net result of Netanyahu's foreign policy is the increasing isolation of Israel in international affairs and the rising reputation of moderate Arab states such as Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Israel looks hopelessly like an antiquated (if not rogue and racist) state deeply entrenched in an antagonistic logic while Jordan and UAE look like modern cosmopolitan states increasingly integrated within the international community.
    Alas, both Netanyahu and Putin enjoy the support of their citizens. What happens next to Israel and Russia will be an emanation of those societies.
    (See also What Netanyahu and Putin have in common).
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (july 2014) Shooting down civilian planes. In September 1983 a fighter jet of the Soviet Union shot down Korean Airlines 007 that had violated Soviet air space killing 269 people. Whether this incident could have been prevented (it happened in the middle of the Cold War, after US president Ronald Reagan had initiated a massive arms race with the Soviet Union) is debatable. Tensions were high, the plane did violate Soviet space.
    In July 1988 a US warship, the Vincennes, shot down Iran Air 655. This was an unjustified act of terrorism because the plane was flying in Iranian airspace (over Iran's territorial waters in the Persian Gulf) and the US warship was thousands of kms away from the USA. All 290 on board, including 66 children, were killed. For a long time the USA covered up the real story: the captain of the ship, William C. Rogers III, was simply a racist psychopath who couldn't wait to kill Iranians. He is still alive and free.
    In retaliation for that tragedy, in December 1988 Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi ordered the bombing of Pan Am 103, which happened over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 243 passengers.
    Finally, in July 2014 Malaysian Airlines MH17 was shot down by a Russian missile operated by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 on board. All the evidence points to a tragic mistake by inexperienced "soldiers" armed with powerful weapons by the Russian government.
    These cases are all different. The Soviet incident was not a mistake: the plane was destroyed on purpose. But the Soviet Union had a justification: the plane had violated Soviet airspace (and to this day it is not clear why, with many conspiracy theories claiming that it was in fact a deliberate act of espionage).
    The Iranian incident was pure murder. Rogers should have been sent to Iran to be tried by an Iranian court for the murder of 290 people. There is no excuse for the USA.
    Ditto for the Lockerbie incident: Libya's dictator was personally guilty and should have prosecuted by an international court. Instead only some low level agents were arrested and only one convicted (and he claimed to be innocent until his last day).
    The USA is correct in blaming Russian president Vladimir Putin for the Ukrainian incident. He does bear an indirect responsibility: his rogue army of mercenaries cannot be trusted with sophisticated surface-to-air missiles. However, Putin did not order the downing. At best one can accuse the rebel leader of the Donetsk rebellion, a Russian agent who operates under the moniker of Igor Strelkov and who tweeted on Russian social media Vkontakte that he had shot down an Ukrainian military plane. However, by all accounts, even Strelkov (unlike Rogers and Gaddafi) did not mean to take down a civilian plane but thought that he was shooting down a military plane.
    Gaddafi is dead, but Rogers is still alive. Rogers should face trial in Iran for his actions. Putin should stop supporting Strelkov and apologize for his reckless support of the rebels. Strelkov should be tried at best for involuntary manslaughter.
    If all of these murder cases were put to rest in a proper way, it would prevent future incidents of the same kind.
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (may 2014) The West and Russia. There is a historical perspective that is often missing in analysis of contemporary Russia. Napoleon's France invaded Russia in the 19th century. Hitler's Germany invaded Russia in the 20th century. Both failed miserably. The British empire fought "the big game" with Russia in Central Asia and lost all of it. The Ottoman Empire fought many wars against Russia, but eventually disintegrated, replaced by the modern state of Turkey. Britain, France, Germany and Turkey have declined and are still military "powers" only because they are allied with the most powerful of all military powers, the USA. Their influence can still be felt here and there but overall they are not even remotely what they used to be. In fact, today's Germany is so pacifist that its weak army would not be able to stop a Russian invasion. Germany's "life insurance" is Poland: Russia would have to invade Poland first and that would not be easy. Therefore Russia's historical enemies are all much weaker in military terms. Russia, on the other hand, is still the second nuclear power in the world and still the largest country in the world. Based on today's forces, Russia would win all the wars that it lost in the last 500 years. But of course the Europeans would counter that the European Union as a whole still matters, and is as strong as Britain or France were back in the old days of the empires. This may be true when the European Union works, but recently the European Union has been an ungovernable mess that is struggling to keep itself together, and therefore has very little desire or power to solve crises elsewhere. If the majority of Ukrainian people voted in a referendum to join the European Union, it would be the European Union the one to back out. Turkey is even less of a threat. Turkey is the country which has the longest Black Sea coast, right across from Ukraine, and Turkey controls traffic in the Black Sea through the Bosphorus, but Turkey has its own internal problems (the Kurdish minority and a corruption scandal involving the prime minister himself) and at least one external one (the civil war in neighboring Syria). It is unthinkable that Turkey would close the Bosphorus (through which Russia ships arms to Syria's dictator and Turkey's enemy Assad, and through which three million barrels of oil transit every day).
    At the same time, Western Europe and Turkey have never been so dependent economically on Russia. Almost 40% of all European Union's natural gas imports come from Russia. The entire supply of natural gas in Finland and the Baltic states comes from Russia (100%). Eastern Europe is also heavily dependent on Russian gas. And the biggest importers (in absolute value) are Germany and Italy. Most eastern European countries (Bulgaria, Hungary, Czech republic, Slovakia, Ukraine itself) produce nuclear energy, but western European countries like Italy (that don't have any nuclear power) are at Russia's mercy. Turkey itself receives roughly 60% of its natural gas from Russia. When completed, the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (bringing Azerbaijani gas to the Balkans and Italy via Turkey) will alleviate the problem, but it will still be a trickle compared with the total that Russia ships to the West (Gazprom exports 158 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe and Turkey and it won't be until 2026 that the new pipeline will transport 30 billion cubic meters).
    Of course, the imbalance of power in Europe began with the end of World War II, when suddenly two of the winners (Britain and France) realized that their empires were disintegrating while the Soviet Union was becoming a nuclear superpower. But back then at least the western powers did not depend on Soviet gas and oil. In a sense, what is happening is a continuation of the decline of the west and of Turkey vis a vis with Russia.
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (may 2014) The Ukrainian crisis is three crises in one. July 28 will be the centennial of the start of World War I, and it would not be a good omen if it were celebrated while an Eastern European country falls into anarchy.
    There are no easy solutions to silly borders that separate people who speak the same language (and even the historical capital of a country from that country itself): eastern Ukraine speaks Russian, Kiev is where the Russian state was born.
    There is also no easy way to fix the mess that the Ukrainian themselves created. Most analyses forget to mention that the country has been run by corrupt and incompetent politicians since the fall of the Soviet Union, whether they were pro-Russia or pro-West. Had the country created a decent political class, everything would be easier, and the economy would be better. As it is, Ukraine is an absolute disaster. The average citizen has little motivation to be patriotic about a failed state that only falls from one corrupt leader to the next one.
    The current crisis started when public demonstrations caused the downfall of the democratically elected president. There is nobody (not even in Russia) who defends that scoundrel, but he was, nonetheless, the legitimate president. Justifying his overthrow by force was not the most responsible tactic by the West. What if Italian demonstrators had deposed Berlusconi, a man who been found guilty of several crimes by Italian courts? Would the West side with a new unelected improvised government?
    The crisis then got worse when Russia saw a golden opportunity to take back what Krushev had gifted Ukraine: Crimea. Krushev was considered one of the many communist dictators of a brutal totalitarian regime (the Soviet Union) until a few months ago, when his deed was hailed as irreversible by the West. Russia took back Crimea without firing a shot. Not a single person demonstrated against Russia in the streets of Crimean cities. It was embarrassing how out of touch with ordinary people the Western powers were.
    The crisis, however, is now continuing and expanding because of clear Russian manipulations. Putin is salivating like a dog who expect to find more meat where it found some. Eastern Ukraine speak Russian. Many there have never seen Kiev as a legitimate ruler. This feeling is certainly not as widespread as it was in Crimea, but, as mentioned, the average person has little reason to defend the legitimacy of corrupt Kiev politicians to rule over their towns. The motivation is missing altogether, regardless of whether those citizens of eastern Ukraine feel that they are Russian or Ukrainian: mostly, they are victims of 20 years of bad governments.
    The crisis has been amplified by the obvious factor that nobody wants to talk about: the decline of Western Europe. In older days, when Britain and France were still imperial powers, and Germany was an industrial powerhouse, and even small countries like Italy and Holland mattered internationally, Russia could not have annexed a region so easily. Today, instead, the European Union is mainly a very sick patient, possibly the only sick patient in the entire world, and it can hardly teach Russia how to do things, let alone punish Russia. Western Europe would freeze to death next winter if it dared challenge its main supplier of heating gas.
    What can stop the crisis is only Putin's realization that, in the long run, Russia will pay a price. The immediate price is already visible: NATO, that had lost a bit of credibility with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is suddenly popular again in the media of Eastern Europe. NATO has always been Putin's big obsession. Welcome to a world in which NATO will matter more, not less.
    Another immediate price that Russia is paying is obviously with the public opinion of several countries, starting with Ukraine itself (where those who feel Ukrainian probably feel more Ukrainian now than ever) and moving on to neighboring countries through Poland (historically a cousin of Ukraine) all the way to Serbia (where this crisis might be eroding the friendly feelings left by Russia's defense of Serbia during the Kosovo crisis). In the long run Russia is not making friends in Europe. Nowhere. Even Russia's close ally in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, might be wondering what this means for his own Russian-speaking country, which had never existed before the Soviet Union fell.
    Economically, Putin will pay only insofar as an economy that was already weakening will suffer from a flight of western capital. There are certainly many investors who feel that Russia is not the best place where to invest your money in 2014. However, Russia sits on such huge foreign reserves that it can comfortably live without Western investment, especially if it were offset by increased Chinese investment.
    A potentially huge price for Putin to pay is within his own Russian federation. There are a few million Chechens who are wondering why the Crimeans are entitled to choose their future and they are not. Chechnya fought two bloody independence wars against Russia. The second one was crushed by Putin himself. Nothing that happened in Ukraine so far compares with the bloodshed of Chechnya. If the turmoil by a few pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine is enough to justify redrawing the borders, then certainly the many anti-Russian separatists of Chechnya should be entitled to the independence that they demanded. It is just a matter of time before someone will attack Putin with his own logic. Putin might have just planted the seeds for the ultimate disintegration of Russia.
    So there are really three crises hidden in this turmoil: a crisis of Ukraine (a crisis mostly of corruption), a crisis of Western Europe (unable to play any significant role towards a country that would like to be a closer ally) and a brewing crisis in Russia (a federation of wildly different ethnic and religious peoples).
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (march 2014) Job well done, Putin. Dear president Putin, job well done in Crimea: under your leadership the people of Crimea have been able to determine their future and separate from Ukraine.
    Now we are all eagerly waiting for you to grant a referendum on independence to Chechnya, a region that has fought a bloody war to gain independence from Russia.
  • (march 2014) Why Putin is right again, and why he might lose again. Following months of unrest, the Ukrainian parliament switched sides and deposed president Victor Yanukovych, de facto ceding power to the leaders of the protests. The protesters have been widely depicted as pro-European as opposed to pro-Russian, but Victor Yanukovych was not popular with the Russian-speaking half of Ukraine either: he was a corrupt and inept politician who brought Ukraine close to bankruptcy while furnishing his presidential palace like a Renaissance king. There is little doubt that Putin himself disliked and despised Yanukovych. The protesters were simply fed up with bad government. Nonetheless, Yanukovych had won a fair and free election, and Putin correctly points out that his overthrow was illegitimate under international law. Had this happened in a Western country, or even an African country, probably the West would be sending troops to restore the legitimate government like it did in Mali. Because the deposed president had just moved Ukraine into the Russian orbit, the West defends the coup. Russia is obviously right in this analysis. The facts speak for themselves.
    Russia has an agreement with Ukraine to maintain its fleet in Crimea, which also happens to be a historical Russian place that was ceded in 1954 (exactly 60 years ago) to Ukraine when both Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union. It was a meaningless gift at the time, since the Soviet Union ruled both states, but, once the Soviet Union disintegrated, Crimea became an odd place: inhabited mostly by Russians, and physically controlled by Russian military ships, but technically part of Ukraine. Crimea is the most obvious ethnic mess, but there are Russian-majority towns all over southeastern Ukraine. Many of these Russian-speaking people never wanted to be part of the Ukraine and feel closer loyalty towards Russia. Now that "their" president has been deposed many of them may feel that they prefer to be Russians than Ukrainians. Putin is sending troops to Crimea to protect this Russia "minority" (actually almost half of the population). The West would do the same to defend any minority threatened by a coup, especially if that "minority" constitutes half of the population.
    The rest of the world also has to remember that Russia and its Christian religion (the Orthodox Church) were born in Kiev, which is now the capital of Ukraine. It is not easy to tell Russians that they have nothing to do with Ukraine: imagine how the French would feel if Paris had accidentally fallen under German or British rule.
    For many this is now a replay of what happened in Georgia in 2008 After a brief war against Georgia, Russia de facto annexed the Russian-speaking regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that welcomed such annexation. The West protested but it sounded very hypocritical to Russian ears: wasn't this the same West that helped Kosovo split from Serbia on the basis that the people of Kosovo don't want to be ruled by Serbia? Isn't this the same West that facilitated the breakdown of Sudan in north Sudan (mostly Muslim and anti-Western) and South Sudan (mostly Christian and pro-Western?) And isn't this the same USA that is currently negotiating the birth of a Palestinian state out of lands occupied by Israel? Does self-determination apply to everybody or only to friends of the West? If South Ossetia and Abkhazia openly want to be part of Russia and do not want to be part of Georgia, why force them to be part of Georgia? If Crimea and any other region of Ukraine wants to become part of Russia and do not want to be part of Ukraine, why force them to be part of Ukraine? The contradiction is even more evident in the case of former Soviet states, whose borders were decided by a totalitarian regime that never asked the opinion of the people. Paradoxically, the West is defending the decisions made by a totalitarian regime that the West fought against and called "the empire of evil". Apparently this empire of evil was right in assigning Crimea to Ukraine, according to the Western powers.
    The West doesn't seem to have any appetite for a referendum in Crimea. No surprise, since the West specializes in accepting the outcome of elections only when they favor the West (Hamas won in fair and free elections in Palestine, but no Western country recognizes its government). And this is the same West that right now is tacitly approving of the military dictatorship in Egypt that deposed and imprisoned the democratically elected president Morsi. Didn't Morsi get to power exactly the same way the new Ukrainian leadership got to power, through widespread street protests? Unlike the new Ukrainian government, Morsi also won a fair and free election, whereas the new Ukrainian government still has to prove that it represents the majority of the country. However, in Egypt's case we prefer the military dictatorship whereas in Ukraine we side with the protesters. Putin can easily prove the West's incoherence and hypocrisy to Russia's public opinion. The West's credibility in Russia is an at all-time low.
    Many wars have been fought over Crimea, a strategic outpost. In another odd coincidence, exactly 160 years ago in March 1854 Britain and France joined the Ottoman Empire against Russia in the "Crimean War". That war ended with Russia defeated and with its western vassal states increasingly independent.
    The situation in 2014 grants Russia the moral right to invade Russian-speaking regions in Ukraine and even annex them if they so desire. However, Russia should also realize that the price to pay is not so much hysterical sanctions imposed by the West (Russia is largely self-sufficient and Europe has much to lose from imposing sanctions), but the fact that the entire world is interpreting this crisis in the same way: the West is protecting protesters who overthrew a corrupt politician, whereas Russia is protecting the crook. This sounds eerily similar to what happened in Syria. In fact, some Syrian rebels have been photographed waving Ukrainian flags. If Putin was trying to depict the USA as the evil or at least dangerous force being tamed by good Russia, the annexation of Crimea and the split of Ukraine in half would almost certainly annihilate that perception (assuming that Syria hasn't already done irreversible damage to that narrative). Putin has to manoeuvre carefully so as to defend the right to self-determination for the Russian population of southeastern Ukraine without defending the deposed, widely unpopular president Yanukovych.
    Obviously Putin will lose on two other fronts too: this move will accelerate Europe's plans to reduce its dependency on Russian natural gas (especially if the USA lifts its restrictions on oil and gas exports), and this move will prompt Eastern European countries and the three Baltic countries to become even more integrated into NATO. Sweden is not a NATO member, but it is now more likely to join the alliance (it has immediately deployed troops in Gotland). And obviously the other half of Ukraine (the non-Russian one) has become even more anti-Russian than it already was. The consequences might even be felt as far as Central Asia: Kazakhstan, whose dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev has so far been a trusted comrade of Putin's, harbors a sizeable Russian-speaking community just like Ukraine, and might not feel too comfortable hearing that Putin reserves the right to intervene outside Russia's borders to "protect" Russian-speaking communities.
    The logical thing for the West to do, if it really wanted to act in the interest of the Ukrainian people and to defuse the tension, would be to encourage negotiations to redraw the borders between Russia and Ukraine. This would make Putin a winner at home (where almost every Russian sides with Crimea against the new Ukrainian government) while at the same time removing the main opposition to the new Ukrainian government, thus increasing the chances that Ukraine can exert full control on its territory and that the next elections are about good government and not ethnic/linguistic alliances.
    For anyone who wants to weaken Putin this would also be a magisterial move. There are a few million Russians who don't want to be Russian: the Chechens to start with. If the people of Crimea are allowed to decide in which country they should be (as Putin argues), then why shouldn't Chechens do the same? By defending Crimea's right to self-determination, Putin might be reopening a pandora's box in his own country.
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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    Articles on Russia before 2014

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TM, ®, Copyright © 2015 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.