Opinion

The Great Debate

Russians love their children, too – but that alone won’t stop a nuclear war

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Back when most of today’s Western decision-makers were in college, Sting had a hit song with “Russians.” It began:

In Europe and America, there’s a growing feeling of hysteria
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets
Mr. Khrushchev said we will bury you
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
It would be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too

It sometimes seems that most Western analysis of Russia has the sophistication of this song.

The simplicity of the idea that all humans are essentially the same, and that a common understanding is thus always within reach, is seductive. Its appeal stems from the fact that few things are harder than knowing someone whose views of the world are profoundly different from yours. This is why it has been so difficult for a veritable army of Western experts to explain or predict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behavior.

Since Russia annexed Crimea in March, a narrative has emerged in the West that seems to provide a basis for understanding and negotiating with Putin. According to it, Russia is pursuing its strategic interest in keeping Ukraine unallied with the West  because it needs a “buffer zone” between itself and members of North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Some analysts have gone so far as to essentially blame the entire crisis on the West, which, so goes the narrative, ignored Russia for too long. NATO bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 without so much as paying lip service to bringing Russia in on the decision. It expanded in 2004 to include three Baltic states that border Russia, disregarding Russia’s express opposition. And when the West reached for Ukraine, the sleeping bear had finally had enough and so it reared up.

Finding hell in Syria’s Qusayr

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Click picture for a gallery of James Palmer’s photographs

In the summer of 2012, I spent three weeks in the besieged Syrian town of Qusayr working as a freelance photographer and writer with a group of young anti-Assad activists in a second-floor apartment next door to a field hospital. Regardless of whether I was working or sleeping, I raced downstairs to shoot photos whenever I thought heard casualties arrive.

The shelling victims often arrived from the countryside plastered in earth and crumpled along the backs of pickup trucks. They were often working in a field when the shell hit and the layers of dirt on them were often so thick you could barely see their faces. One day I saw a small girl who appeared less than 10 draped with soil and speckled with blood. She refused the nurses’ pleas to lie down and kept sitting upright to view the grey, motionless body of the man on the table next to her who appeared drained of his last drop of blood. After every glance she cast upon the corpse, she turned back toward me and screamed louder.

Despite such cries, the most haunting sound in Qusayr was the chopping whirl of the propellers atop a Syrian military helicopter gunship. They echoed over the town nearly every morning after sunrise during my stay.

Crossing paths with James Foley in Syria’s desperate war

PzxkuFKh30zIFwrseFS7uQ-ljcnLRdu59URJQOlVX94.jpg Click the image for a full gallery of James Palmer’s photographs from Syria. I prefer to work alone because I’ve found from past experience it’s just easier.

Still, it was hard not to cross paths with other journalists in Syria in the late summer and fall of 2012, where you were free to roam without government restrictions.

I first saw James Foley – whom the Islamic State executed last week — at a demonstration in Aleppo, a rebel stronghold. He was standing perfectly straight and steadily holding his camera as he filmed a handful of men dancing while drums were pounded and scores of people sang.

He arrived at the ad hoc police station another day seeking an interview with one of the leaders there while I was shooting photos. We shook hands and introduced ourselves then returned to our work. Apparently, neither of us could afford the time to chat.

Putin’s Ukraine invasion threat is more than a bluff — but not his preference

A Ukrainian serviceman uses a pair of binoculars as he guards a checkpoint near the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve

Ukrainian troops have made huge headway routing the separatists in the east. They are in the process of choking off the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, to which many of the separatists have retreated. The Ukrainian military appears primed to besiege the cities. As Ukraine has gained, Putin has prepared Russia for invasion: as of Monday, Ukraine says there are 45,000 combat-ready troops are amassed at the border. The chance that Russia invades is certainly going up.

But it’s still Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Plan B. Here’s why that’s the case … and what could change his mind.

At all costs, Vladimir Putin wants to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit. That requires two guarantees: 1) that Russian influence over southeast Ukraine will remain intact, and 2) that Russia has a de facto veto over Ukrainian NATO membership. The way he gets these guarantees is through deep federalization, where Ukraine’s eastern regions can set their own foreign economic policy and veto approaches to NATO. Of course, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is completely unwilling and unable to concede this. So Putin can get it the hard way (intervention), or the harder way (invasion).

Clashes with Russia point to globalization’s end

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As the European Union and the United States ramp up their sanctions on Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s plans for retaliation seem to include an attack on McDonald’s. There could not be a more powerful symbol that geopolitics is increasingly undoing the globalization of the world economy.

The burger chain was celebrated in the 1990s by the journalist Thomas Friedman’s “Golden Arches theory of conflict prevention,” which argued that the spread of McDonald’s around the world would bring an end to war. But almost 25 years after a McDonald’s restaurant opened in Moscow, it seems that deep interdependence has not ended conflict between great powers – it has merely provided a new battlefield for it.

As in any relationship that turns sour, many of the things that initially tie the parties together are now being used to drive them apart. For the past two decades we have heard that the world is becoming a global village because of the breadth and depth of its trading and investment links, its nascent global governance and the networks of the information age. But those forces for interdependence are degenerating into their opposite; we could call it the three faces of ‘splinterdependence’:

from John Lloyd:

Could Vladimir Putin give peace a chance in Ukraine and beyond?

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What would it take for Russia to walk a way from violence and seek peaceful coexistence with its neighbors? It's certainly hard to see a way out right now.

The dogs of war in the east have been let slip again. On Monday, Petro Poroshenko, the recently elected Ukrainian president, said a 10-day unilateral truce with the separatist, pro-Russian forces in the eastern part of his country had ended: Force would now be required to “free our lands.”

Ukrainian units were moved in to try to bring the cities and areas controlled by the heavily armed separatists under control. By Tuesday morning, the Ukrainian military was reporting air and artillery strikes.

from Mark Leonard:

Decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East could make for some strange bedfellows

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Thirty-five years ago Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran chanting “death to America.” But today Iran wants to work with the United States to stabilize Iraq while negotiating a deal on its nuclear program. The journey from death threats to diplomacy is both a triumph of U.S. statecraft and a symbol of its declining power.

When I spoke to thinkers, politicians and business people on a recent trip to Tehran, I was struck by the strong consensus that America’s hegemony in the Middle East and in global affairs is giving way to a multipolar order in which power is more widely shared and where its nature is changing. Not long ago, they said, the United States bestrode the Middle East as a unipolar power, the main source of order and disorder, the biggest consumer of hydrocarbons and the most active military power. It was not for nothing that it was nicknamed the “Great Satan.” But today the United States is but one of many players in the region’s security struggles, and its purchases of oil are eclipsed by China’s.

The real Great Satan for today’s Iran is Saudi Arabia. As Nasser Hadian, a professor at Tehran University, explained to me in an interview last week: “It is the Saudis who are challenging us almost everywhere – increasing their oil output and bringing down the prices; forming a GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) oriented against Iran; challenging us in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon, in Syria and building infrastructure inside Iran.”

Iraq, America and hired guns

Here is a summary of America’s future role in Iraq, in the words of President Barack Obama: “Our commitment is changing — from a military effort led by our soldiers to a diplomatic effort led by our diplomats.”

And here is a note of caution about that promised change: “Current planning for transitioning vital functions in Iraq from the Department of Defense to the Department of State is not adequate for effective coordination of billions of dollars in new contracting, and risks both financial waste and undermining U.S. policy objectives.”

Obama’s statement came in an Aug. 2 speech in which he confirmed that by the end of this month, America’s combat role would end. The 50,000 American soldiers remaining in Iraq (down from a peak of almost 170,000) would advise, train and support Iraqi security forces. By the end of next year, the last U.S. soldier would come home.

from The Great Debate UK:

Following the aid money with Linda Polman

As political leaders wrangle over how best to deal with warring factions in hot spots around the world, enclaves of humanitarian aid workers grapple with how best to help innocent victims of violence.

Author and journalist Linda Polman proposes in "War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times" that since the end of the Cold War, there is much more at stake than the simple distribution of billions of dollars in aid money each year to fix crisis situations. Aid agencies relegated in the past to the peripheries of war zones and refugee camps now play a very different role.

An estimated 37,000 international non-governmental organisations follow the flow of aid money and compete with each other for billions of dollars, Polman writes, reporting that Organisation of Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) donor countries contribute $120 billion (84 billion pounds) a year for developmental cooperation and an estimated $11.2 billion for emergency humanitarian relief. Some $6 billion a year is channeled into humanitarian aid out of the combined tax revenues of the world's richest countries, she says.

The Underwear Bomber and the war of ideas

- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -

Who is winning the war of ideas between the West and al Qaeda’s hate-driven version of  Islam?

It is a question that merits asking again after a  23-year-old Western-educated Nigerian of privileged background, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted to murder almost 300 people by bringing down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day with  explosives sewn into the crotch of his underpants.

The administration of President Barack Obama, averse to the bellicose language of George W. Bush, has virtually dropped the  phrase “war of ideas.” But that doesn’t mean it has ended. Or that Obama’s plea, in his Cairo speech this summer, for a new  beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world  has swayed the disciples of Osama bin Laden, whose 1998 fatwa  (religious ruling) against “Jews and Crusaders” remains the  extremists’ guiding principle.

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