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Electrical separation

On Monday, the Lugansk Electricity Union, which provides electricity in Lugansk province in Ukraine, announced that it would no longer supply rebel-held areas of the province with power. According to the Union’s director, Vladimir Gritsai, this follows the receipt of instructions from Ukraine’s Fuel and Energy Minister Igor Nasalik.

The decision is just the latest step in the Ukrainian government’s efforts to blockade the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics (DPR & LPR). In March this year, the government confirmed that it would no longer purchase coal from the DPR and LPR. And last week, sources suggested that Ukraine might also stop buying coal from Russia, to prevent the Russians from exporting to Ukraine supplies which they had purchased from the DPR and LPR.

The strategy, in so far as there is one, appears to be to try to impoverish the rebel republics and undermine their leaderships’ legitimacy in the eyes of their people, hopefully thereby at some point persuading the people to abandon their rebellion. At the same time, the blockade imposes costs upon the Russian Federation, which might serve to persuade it to stop supporting the DPR and LPR.

If this is a conscious strategy rather than merely the product of domestic political pressures, most notably from the far right and the volunteer battalions, it isn’t very well thought out. For sure, the blockade is imposing costs on Russia, but it seems that those are costs which Russia is quite willing to bear. The Russian government announced today that if Ukraine did stop supplying electricity to Lugansk, it would step in to provide it instead.  The effect of Ukraine’s action will thus not be to assist the re-integration of the DPR and LPR into Ukraine, but rather to accelerate the process of their separation from Ukraine and their integration with Russia. As Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov put it, Ukraine’s action ‘is one more step on Ukraine’s path of tearing the territories away from itself.’

From the start of the crisis in Ukraine, the Russian government has shown a consistent preference for a solution which sees Donbass remain within Ukraine but with some form of autonomy. Russian leaders have repeatedly made it clear that this is only possible if the Ukrainian government negotiates a settlement directly with the rebels. Russian policy has in part been oriented towards coercing Ukraine into accepting this reality. This policy has, however, failed. Ukraine still refuses absolutely to speak to the DPR and LPR. This has placed Russia in an awkward position. It cannot abandon the rebels, both because that would be unacceptable to domestic public opinion and because it would mean losing whatever strategic leverage it still has over Ukraine. But supporting the DPR and LPR is expensive. The optimal policy thus involves supporting the republics, but keeping the costs low.

Because of this, it initially suited Russia to keep the rebels integrated as much as possible with Ukraine – if Ukraine could pay for pensions etc, and support the rebel economies by trading with them, Russia’s costs would be lower. The Ukrainian blockade has rendered this policy impractical. Russia has to step in to provide what the Ukrainians won’t. At the same time, it has become necessary to maximize the rebels’ own sources of income. This in turn has meant that it has become necessary to further sever economic ties with Ukraine by placing major industrial enterprises under so-called ‘external management’, stripping the Ukrainian owners’ of their management rights and forcing the enterprises to pay taxes to the DPR and LPR.

In this way, bit by bit, as a result of the Ukrainian blockade and the Russian and rebel responses to it, the DPR and LPR are turning into de-facto independent states without any substantial economic ties to Ukraine. The longer this goes on and the deeper the process the goes, the harder it will be to reverse it. As the process continues, a side effect will be that the state institutions of the DPR and LPR will become stronger. In an interview yesterday with Izvestiia, DPR leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko commented that,

There are natural problems in constructing a new state. In first place is the problem of personnel. And it’s not just a matter of many specialists having left the republic when combat operations were going on. Turning a region of a unitary state into an independent country requires a large number of new specialists. We are doing everything we can to prepare new personnel. We are opening educational institutions, and new faculties within existing institutions in those subjects which are needed in the management of the state and the national economy. And so we are resolving this problem, albeit not quickly.

As time goes on, Ukraine and everybody else will find that they are no longer dealing with a rebellion but with fully fledged state formations. This will inevitably change the political dynamic as the new states will demand recognition as such, if not de jure then at least de facto. As Zakharchenko told Izvestiia, when asked if he would accept reintegration in Ukraine on the basis of federalization:

That train has already left the station. We were willing to speak to Kiev about federalization in spring 2014 until Kiev began to shoot us from tanks, guns, and combat aircraft. Now we are willing to engage in dialogue with Ukraine only on the basis of equal rights, as an independent state. … Perhaps, as an independent state we will be willing to negotiate with Ukraine about co-existence on a confederal basis. But this will only be possible once not only those in power in Kiev, but the entire ruling elite, is changed.

In January 2015, I remarked that:

Kiev is now pinning its hopes on turning its own territory into a zone of good government and prosperity while blockading the DPR and LPR so that they face economic and social collapse, thereby in the long term convincing the population of Eastern Ukraine to rejoin the rest of the country. Should the leaders of the DPR and LPR succeed in consolidating their republics, this strategy will fail.

Two years later, we can conclude that this strategy has indeed failed. Indeed, it has been thoroughly counterproductive, as the policy of blockade has actually encouraged and enabled the process of state consolidation. It has also given the rebels’ Russian backers no option other than to promote total independence. Things are now so far gone that there is almost certainly no way back. The DPR and LPR will complete the process of state formation and their economies will become fully integrated with that of the Russian Federation, while both entities will remain officially unrecognized. This isn’t what anybody wants, and it is a thoroughly unsatisfactory outcome. But I no longer see how it can be avoided. Rather than pursuing futile dreams of re-integration with Ukraine via the Minsk process, it would make more sense, therefore, for all concerned to recognize this reality (even if only in private) and to focus instead on how to bring about a lasting ceasefire, so that both Ukraine and its lost territories can go their separate ways in peace.

Goats and boats

Several times in the past, I have drawn attention to the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko, who audits the $117 billion the United States has spent on economic and humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. His reports are a catalogue of waste and incompetence on a quite staggering scale. Among other things, he uncovered the stories of how the US spent $6 million airlifting 9 Italian goats to Afganistan; spent $486 million buying aircraft for the Afghan airforce which were so dangerous to fly that they were never used and ended up being turned into $32,000 of scrap metal; built an entirely unused 64,000 square foot command centre at a cost of $34 million ; spent $150 million building luxury villas to lodge staff of its economic development office; and expended $3 million on building a navy for landlocked Afghanistan, but never actually delivered the boats. Unfortunately, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg, a small part of a chronicle of folly which boggles the mind.

I cannot recommend SIGAR’s reports enough to anybody wanting to understand why America’s campaign to stabilize Afghanistan (and by extension, many other places) is failing. Sopko is in some ways the storyteller of our time, reaching to the heart of the rot in the West’s international policy. Yesterday, he gave a public lecture at the University of Ottawa and provided a number of valuable insights. Below is a brief summary of what he said.

  • The situation in Afghanistan is not getting any better. Afghan security forces are ‘playing a deadly game of whack-a-mole’. They have little mobility or capacity for offensive operations. All they can do ‘is retake major areas after they fall’. They are ‘unable or unwilling to take the fight to the Taleban.’
  • The root of the problem is an ‘insidious combination of poor leadership and corruption.’
  • ‘The donor community contributed mightily to the corruption problem’ by putting in ‘too much money too fast in too small a country’ without considering local conditions. ‘The United States and other donor nations contributed enormously to the corruption explosion in Afghanistan.’
  • The Taleban have stopped providing supplies to many of their troops and instead told their commanders to buy the supplies from the Afghan army because it is cheaper! ‘Fully 50% of the fuel purchased for the Afghans never reaches the intended recipient.’ ‘At the end of the US supply chain in Afghanistan is the Taleban.’
  • ‘The US has spent $8.5 billion in Afghanistan to fight narcotics. Unfortunately, we have little to show for it.’ ‘Afghanistan is continuing to grow poppies at near record levels’, providing the Taleban with the majority of its revenues.
  • The Afghan state is not financially sustainable. Its revenue from domestic sources is a mere $2 billion a year, whereas it spends $4 billion a year on non-security expenditures and $4-6 billion on security. The difference comes from foreign donors. Meanwhile, the state lacks the capacity to manage large sums of money, and once that money is given to Afghans, it ‘becomes incredibly hard to follow’. ‘It may take decades for the Afghan government to achieve success and military and financial sustainability’. ‘Future prospects look bleak.’

Sopko concluded his lecture by saying that ‘It’s been amazing to me how little common sense has been used in our reconstruction effort’. ‘If we don’t change how we do things’, he said, ‘we will almost certainly fail in Afghanistan. … If we keep doing what we did the last 15 years, we’re going to get run over.’

Putting this all together, it seems to me that the basic problem is this:

To fight the Taleban, Western countries have created a huge Afghan military and security system, which is far beyond what Afghanistan can afford. Also, in an effort to bring ‘good governance’, economic development, human rights, and all the rest of it, in the hope that all this will contribute to defeating the insurgency, we have constructed an Afghan state with a large volume of social commitments which again it cannot afford. To make up the massive budget deficit, we have pumped billions of dollars into the country, thereby creating the conditions for corruption on a gigantic scale. This has then fatally undermined the legitimacy and competence of the state we are trying to support.

It’s a sort of vicious circle, or a Catch 22 situation. If we stop supporting the Afghan state, it will collapse. But supporting it on the scale it needs to survive pretty much guarantees that it will fail.

Sopko refused to make any policy recommendations, saying that as an auditor that’s not his job. Personally, I can’t listen to what he says or read his numerous reports, and feel any optimism that we are capable of finding a good way out of this mess. Frankly, we are way too incompetent. On the whole, rather than continuing to invest to recover sunken costs, it probably makes more sense to cut our losses and admit defeat.

Blowback

Speaking about the explosion which killed 11 people in St Petersburg on Monday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that ‘media speculations that the terrorist attack is revenge against Russia for our policy in Syria … are cynical and mean.’ Lavrov’s comment is similar to those made by various Western politicians and political commentators in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in their countries. They have denied that the attacks were ‘blowback’ resulting from military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. They have claimed also that the imputation of blowback somehow justifies or excuses terrorism, and thus should not be made.

This is a poor argument. Explaining is not the same as justifying. Anti-terrorism policy must be judged by whether it is likely to increase or decrease terrorism, not by whether one thinks the terrorists’ reaction to the policy is justified. So if the policy consists of bombing people in other countries in order to kill terrorists there, but the foreseeable side effect is that you radicalize some people who live in your own country and they then bomb you there, then your anti-terrorism policy is a bad policy. It is counterproductive.

I have no idea whether the attack in St Petersburg was blowback from Russia’s military campaign in Syria, but it’s a possibility which deserves serious consideration and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand because it’s politically inconvenient. Generally speaking I see no evidence that military intervention in the Middle East or Central Asia has done anything to make the intervening countries more secure. And that applies not only to Western countries, but also to Russia.

April Calendar

It is now 1 April, and here in Ottawa, Winter is making a determined last ditch stand against Spring, blanketing us last night with yet another layer of snow. But its days are numbered. Or so we hope.

Meanwhile, this month’s picture from my Soviet poster calendar shows a 1929 poster by Vladimir and Georgii Sternberg for Buster Keaton’s ‘The General’. Georgii died in a motorcycle accident in 1933. Vladimir lived till 1982.

calendarapr

Not so rebellious youth

Russia’s problem, says a common meme, is the survival of Soviet modes of thought among the ‘Sovoks’ and ‘vatniki’ who make up the mass of the population, especially those born in the Soviet Union. Given time, a new generation will grow up with a different mentality – more liberal, more Western, more democratic. At that point, Russia will finally complete its transition into a truly European society.

With this in mind, pundits have leapt upon the observation that last Sunday’s protests in Russia contained a large number of young people. ‘Putin’s romance with the nation is coming to an end’, wrote Yevgenia Albats in the Washington Post, adding that:

For the first time, a generation that was born after the fall of the Soviet Union – a generation that has no personal experience of totalitarian rule – came out to demonstrate. This generation doesn’t watch the Russian propaganda channels that tell of the great Putin and the horrible West. Its members live on social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Vkontakte and YouTube. … What we are seeing now is that young people born after the end of the Soviet Union have reached an age when they want to influence politics in the country. … we suddenly have cause for hope. On March 26, the future of Russia showed itself on the streets of cities across the nation.

Continue reading Not so rebellious youth

Arrests and accountability

Anti-corruption protests took place in multiple Russian cities on Sunday. In many cases, the protests lacked official sanction, and thus ran afoul of the law. According to one press report:

Police arrested roughly 900 people in incidents during the weekend. … The Russian Civil Liberties Association denounced the mass arrests, saying they were illegal and unconstitutional because police did not have reasonable grounds to believe that everyone they detained had committed a crime or was about to do so.

“To us, it’s abhorrent that we would be arresting more than 900 people to find maybe 50 or 100 … vandals. This makes no sense. It’s a fundamental breach of Russian law to have done that,” said the organization’s general counsel.

… The arrest figure of more than 900 people includes only those who were taken to the detention centre, not those who were temporarily detained by police. Most people were released without being charged.

… Igor Ivanov, who said he’d been detained for about 18 hours, said he had just stopped by to check things out when he was arrested on Sunday.

Wearing dark jeans, a dark t-shirt and no shoes, Mr. Ivanov said he was arrested for obstruction of police, but that he was released without charge. He said he suspects he was arrested for wearing a bandana, but said it was on his head, not his face.

He described the inside of the detention centre as “cages” resembling animal kennels, fitting as many as 20 people into the larger ones.

A 15-year-old boy, dressed in an oversized orange t-shirt and cargo pants, said he was arrested Saturday night and held for 33 hours. The teen said that he was only there to watch the protest.

“They surrounded us and told us to leave,” he said, “but how was I supposed to read the situation?” He said police never once told them how to leave or when the last warning would be before arresting him. He was initially arrested for obstructing the police, he said, but released without being charged.

Questions were raised Monday about the way police handled a group of several hundred protesters and innocent bystanders at an intersection on Sunday evening. The group was boxed in by riot police for at least three hours in the soaking rain. After several were arrested, the rest were finally allowed to leave at about 10 p.m.

………..

None of the above is true. I have switched the words Russia and Canada. The description is actually about the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010. A subsequent official investigation into the events surrounding the Toronto protests concluded that the ‘police violated civil rights, detained people illegally, and used excessive force’. A disciplinary hearing also found the police officer in charge guilty of ‘discreditable conduct and unnecessary exercise of authority’.

As might be expected, the arrest of about 900 protestors in Moscow on Sunday is being used to paint the Russian authorities as particularly authoritarian. This accusation is missing the point. Mass arrests of protestors aren’t a uniquely Russian phenomenon. New York police arrested 700 Occupy Wall Street protestors on Brooklyn Bridge in 2011. And in May 2012, police in Montreal arrested 500 people during student protests. Any powerful civil authority facing what it believes are illegal protests is likely to respond in such a manner. In this sense, the Russian example is not unusual.

The difference between Russia and countries like Canada lies in something else. The excessive use of police powers in Toronto led to an official investigation and a reprimand for the officer responsible. There was a system to hold the powers that be to account. By contrast, if any Russian police overstepped their authority on Sunday, it’s relatively unlikely that anybody will be able to do anything about it. Accountability is the bedrock of a democratic order, and the system of accountability in Russia is weak. This is a major failing and it cuts to the heart of Russia’s democratic deficit. But by themselves, the arrests of the protestors this Sunday prove very little.

#$@&%*!

There are times when I near the point of total despair. This week’s Congressional hearings into alleged Russian interference in the American presidential election are such a moment.

Answering questions about Russia, FBI Director James Comey said the following:

He [Putin] hated Secretary Clinton so much that the flip side of that coin was that he had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much.

They engaged in a multifaceted campaign to undermine our democracy.

They were unusually loud in their intervention. It’s almost as if they didn’t care that we knew, that they wanted us to see what they were doing.

Their number one mission is to undermine the credibility of our entire democracy enterprise of this nation.

They’ll be back. They’ll be back, in 2020. They may be back in 2018.

Also, in response to the question ‘Would they like to see more Brexits?’, Comey said ‘Yes.’

These statements were described by the BBC as ‘things the FBI knows about Russia’. Note the use of the word ‘knows’. In a previous post, I pointed out the need to differentiate between fact and opinion. In his evidence to Congress, Comey didn’t say that these things were his opinion. He stated them as facts, as things he ‘knows’. Putin ‘hated’ Clinton; Russians’ mission ‘is’ to undermine American democracy; ‘Yes’, they do want more Brexits, etc.

But what evidence did Comey produce to support what he was saying? None. These were opinions, masquerading as facts, not actual facts. So the question which then arises is whether Comey’s opinions on Russia are ones we should trust.

The organization he heads – the FBI – is an internal policy agency. It isn’t its job to analyze Russia, Russian politics, or Russian politicians, nor does it have the expertise to do so. It doesn’t know what’s going on inside Vladimir Putin’s head; it doesn’t have an inside line to what Russians are thinking about their ‘mission’ and whether they want to undermine American democracy; it doesn’t have any particular knowledge about what Russia’s leaders think about Brexit.

Simply put, unless  he has been spending the last few years learning Russian, speaking to Russians, interrogating Putin and his ministers, reading Putin’s speeches, analyzing what well-researched publications have to say on the subject, and the like (which of course he hasn’t), Comey isn’t qualified to make judgments of these sorts. And he certainly isn’t entitled to present them as definite facts.

Nor are his Congressional interrogators any better.

Take this exchange between Comey and Representative Jackie Speier (who had previously called Igor Sechin ‘CEO of the Russian gas giant, Rosneft’):

Speier: Do you know anything about Gazprom, Director?

Comey: I don’t.

Speier: Well, it’s a – it’s an oil company.

#$@&%*!

#$@&%*!

It’s RosNEFT stupid! It’s GAZprom!

And what about Comey? One minute he’s telling us with 100% confidence that he knows exactly what they’re thinking in the Kremlin, something which even the most seasoned Kremlinologists would have to admit they don’t have the faintest clue about, and the next he’s admitting that he doesn’t even know what Gazprom is.

#$@&%*!  – He doesn’t know what Gazprom is!!! But yet, he ‘knows’ Moscow’s innermost secret plans!

These guys are clowns. They are beyond ignorant, because they are ignorant even of their own ignorance.

#$@&%*!

#$@&%*!

#$@&%*!

#$@&%*!

Nobody should take these hearings in the slightest bit seriously.