Category Archives: Putin

Russia, Sanctions, The War, and Sifting for Truth

Given that I’m but a humble news aggregator-blogger, sifting for truth in the reams and sheafs of claims and counterclaims about the Ukraine War is a never-ending chore:

> Ukraine is winning! Nope-Russia is winning.

> Putin will use nukes any minute! Relax; he wouldn’t dare.

> The Ukraine war is really helping China. Fuggedit — the war is hurting  China.

Etc.

My apologies, but I have no answers for these. The questions don’t away, and  maybe some clarity will come in time. As telephone operators said when I was a kid looking for a phone number (YES, there were such persons, and they really did that), “Still checking. . . .”

Today’s query is maybe second-tier in the continuing parade of headlines, but it’s important enough: Are the sanctions on Russia really crippling its economy and strangling the invasion war effort?

It’s easy to find overblown rhetoric about them:

Forbes: “the worst-ever sanctions against the country. . . ”

Bloomberg: “Russia Sanctions Deal Economy Worst Hit Since Covid Pandemic”

CSMonitor: Russia may be the most sanctioned country ever.

And so on.

And so it also is with gauging the effect of sanctions, which were sold to the publics in the U.S. and Europe as a meaningful, potent alternative to an actual land war with Russia there. Is it so? Has it been?

The bad news first, from across the pond:

The Guardian — The rouble is soaring and Putin is stronger than ever – our sanctions have backfired

Energy prices are rocketing, inflation is soaring and millions are being starved of grain. . . .

Western sanctions against Russia are the most ill-conceived and counterproductive policy in recent international history.

Military aid to Ukraine is justified, but the economic war is ineffective against the regime in Moscow, and devastating for its unintended targets. World energy prices are rocketing, inflation is soaring, supply chains are chaotic and millions are being starved of gas, grain and fertiliser. Yet Vladimir Putin’s barbarity only escalates – as does his hold over his own people.

To criticise western sanctions is close to anathema. Defence analysts are dumb on the subject. Strategy thinktanks are silent. Britain’s putative leaders, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, compete in belligerent rhetoric, promising ever tougher sanctions without a word of purpose. Yet, hint at scepticism on the subject and you will be excoriated as “pro-Putin” and anti-Ukraine. Sanctions are the war cry of the west’s crusade.

The reality of sanctions on Russia is that they invite retaliation. Putin is free to freeze Europe this winter. He has slashed supply from major pipelines such as Nord Stream 1 by up to 80%. World oil prices have surged and eastern Europe’s flow of wheat and other foodstuffs to Africa and Asia has been all but suspended.

Britain’s domestic gas bills face tripling inside a year. The chief beneficiary is none other than Russia, whose energy exports to Asia have soared, driving its balance of payments into unprecedented surplus.

The rouble is one of the world’s strongest currencies this year, having strengthened since January by nearly 50%. Moscow’s overseas assets have been frozen and its oligarchs have relocated their yachts, but there is no sign that Putin cares. He has no electorate to worry him.

The interdependence of the world’s economies, so long seen as an instrument of peace, has been made a weapon of war. Politicians around the Nato table have been wisely cautious about escalating military aid to Ukraine. They understand military deterrence. Yet they appear total ingenues on economics. Here they all parrot Dr Strangelove. They want to bomb Russia’s economy “back to the stone age”.

I would be intrigued to know if any paper was ever submitted to Boris Johnson’s cabinet forecasting the likely outcome for Britain of Russian sanctions. The assumption seems to be that if trade embargos hurt they are working. As they do not directly kill people, they are somehow an acceptable form of aggression.

They are based on a neo-imperial assumption that western countries are entitled to order the world as they wish. They are enforced, if not through gunboats, then through capitalist muscle in a globalised economy. Since they are mostly imposed on small, weak states soon out of the headlines, their purpose has largely been of “feelgood” symbolism.

A rare student of this subject is the American economic historian Nicholas Mulder, who points out that more than 30 sanctions “wars” in the past 50 years have had minimal if not counterproductive impact. They are meant to “intimidate peoples into restraining their princes”. If anything they have had the opposite effect.

From Cuba to Korea, Myanmar to Iran, Venezuela to Russia, autocratic regimes have been entrenched, elites strengthened and freedoms crushed. Sanctions seem to instil stability and self-reliance on even their weakest victim. Almost all the world’s oldest dictatorships have benefited from western sanctions.

Moscow is neither small nor weak. Another observer, the Royal United Services Institute’s Russia expert Richard Connolly, has charted Putin’s response to the sanctions imposed on him since his 2014 seizure of Crimea and Donbas. Their objective was to change Russia’s course in those regions and deter further aggression. Their failure could hardly be more glaring.

Apologists excuse this as due to the embargos being too weak. The present ones, perhaps the toughest ever imposed on a major world power, may not be working yet, but will apparently work in time. They are said to be starving Russia of microchips and drone spares. They will soon have Putin begging for peace.

If Putin begs, it will be on the battlefield. At home, Connolly illustrates how Russia is “slowly adjusting to its new circumstances”. Sanctions have promoted trade with China, Iran and India. They have benefited “insiders connected to Putin and the ruling entourage, making huge profits from import substitution”.

McDonald’s locations across the country have been replaced by a Russian-owned chain called Vkusno & tochka (“Tasty and that’s it”). Of course the economy is weaker, but Putin is, if anything, stronger while sanctions are cohering a new economic realm across Asia, embracing an ever enhanced role for China. Was this forecast?

Meanwhile, the west and its peoples have been plunged into recession. Leadership has been shaken and insecurity spread in Britain, France, Italy and the US. Gas-starved Germany and Hungary are close to dancing to Putin’s tune. Living costs are escalating everywhere.

Yet still no one dares question sanctions. It is sacrilege to admit their failure or conceive retreat. The west has been enticed into the timeless irony of aggression. Eventually its most conspicuous victim is the aggressor. Perhaps, after all, we should stick to war.

  • Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

Hmmm. Haven’t worked; never worked anyway?
We’ll leave the past sanctions in the past. But some heavyweights in Foreign Policy magazine say, “rubbish and fiddlesticks” to Jenkins and his ilk. Rather, i these excerpts they insist:

Actually, the Russian Economy Is Imploding: Nine myths about the effects of sanctions and business retreats, debunked:

By , the Lester Crown professor in management practice and a senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management, and , the director of research at the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute.

JULY 22, 2022
Five months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there remains a startling lack of understanding by many Western policymakers and commentators of the economic dimensions of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion and what it has meant for Russia’s economic positioning both domestically and globally.

Far from being ineffective or disappointing, as many have argued, international sanctions and voluntary business retreats have exerted a devastating effect over Russia’s economy. The deteriorating economy has served as a powerful if underappreciated complement to the deteriorating political landscape facing Putin.

That these misunderstandings persist is not entirely surprising given the lack of available economic data. In fact, many of the excessively sanguine Russian economic analyses, forecasts, and projections that have proliferated in recent months share a crucial methodological flaw: These analyses draw most, if not all, of their underlying evidence from periodic economic releases by the Russian government itself. Numbers released by the Kremlin have long been held to be largely if not always credible, but there are certain problems.

First, the Kremlin’s economic releases are becoming increasingly cherry-picked—partial and incomplete, selectively tossing out unfavorable metrics. The Russian government has progressively withheld an increasing number of key statistics that, prior to the war, were updated on a monthly basis, including all foreign trade data. . . particularly with Europe; oil and gas monthly output data; commodity export quantities; capital inflows and outflows . . .[and much more].

Since the Kremlin stopped releasing updated numbers, constraining the availability of economic data . . . , many excessively rosy economic forecasts have irrationally extrapolated economic releases from the early days of the invasion, when sanctions. . .  had not taken full effect. Even those favorable statistics that have been released are dubious, given the political pressure the Kremlin has exerted to corrupt statistical integrity.

Mindful of the dangers of accepting Kremlin statistics at face value, our team of experts, using private Russian-language and direct data sources. . . have released one of the first comprehensive economic analyses measuring Russian current economic activity five months into the invasion. . . .

From our analysis, it becomes clear: Business retreats and sanctions are crushing the Russian economy in the short term and the long term. Based on our research, we are able to challenge nine widely held but misleading myths about Russia’s supposed economic resilience.

Myth 1: Russia can redirect its gas exports and sell to Asia in lieu of Europe.

This is one of Putin’s favorite and most misleading talking points, doubling down on a much-hyped pivot to the east. But natural gas is not a fungible export for Russia. Less than 10 percent of Russia’s gas capacity is liquefied natural gas, so Russian gas exports remain reliant on a system of fixed pipelines carrying piped gas.

The vast majority of Russia’s pipelines flow toward Europe; those pipelines, which originate in western Russia, are not connectable to a separate nascent network of pipelines that link Eastern Siberia to Asia. . . . Indeed, the 16.5 billion cubic meters of gas exported by Russia to China last year represented less than 10 percent of the 170 billion cubic meters of natural gas sent by Russia to Europe.

Long-planned Asian pipeline projects currently under construction are still years away from becoming operational, much less hastily initiated new projects, and financing of these costly gas pipeline projects also now puts Russia at a significant disadvantage.

Overall, Russia needs world markets far more than the world needs Russian supplies. . . . Indeed, the Russian state energy company Gazprom’s published data shows production is already down more than 35 percent year-on-year this month. For all Putin’s energy blackmail of Europe, he is doing so at significant financial cost to his own coffers.

Myth 2: Since oil is more fungible than gas, Putin can just sell more to Asia.

Russian oil exports now also reflect Putin’s diminished economic and geopolitical clout. Recognizing that Russia has nowhere else to turn, and mindful that they have more purchasing options than Russia has buyers, China and India are driving an unprecedented approximately $35 discount on Russian Urals oil purchases, even though the historical spread has never ranged beyond $5. . . . Furthermore, it takes Russian oil tankers an average of 35 days to reach East Asia, versus two to seven days to reach Europe, which is why historically only 39 percent of Russian oil has gone to Asia . . . .

This margin pressure is felt keenly by Russia, as it remains a relatively high-cost producer . . . with some of the highest break-evens of any producing country. . . . There is no doubt that, as many energy experts predicted, Russia is losing its status as an energy superpower, with an irrevocable deterioration in its strategic economic positioning as an erstwhile reliable supplier of commodities.

Myth 3: Russia is making up for lost Western businesses and imports by replacing them with imports from Asia.

Imports play an important role within Russia’s domestic economy, consisting of about 20 percent of Russian GDP, and, despite Putin’s bellicose delusions of total self-sufficiency, the country needs crucial inputs, parts, and technology from hesitant trade partners. Despite some lingering supply chain leakiness, Russian imports have collapsed by over 50 percent in recent months.

China has not moved into the Russian market to the extent that many feared; in fact. . . Chinese exports to Russia plummeted by more than 50 percent from the start of the year to April, falling from over $8.1 billion monthly to $3.8 billion. Considering China exports seven times as much to the United States than Russia, it appears that even Chinese companies are more concerned about running afoul of U.S. sanctions . . . reflecting Russia’s weak economic hand with its global trade partners.

Myth 4: Russian domestic consumption and consumer health remain strong.

Some of the sectors most dependent on international supply chains have been hit with debilitating inflation around 40-60 percent—on extremely low sales volumes. For example, foreign car sales in Russia fell by an average of 95 percent across major car companies, with sales ground to a complete halt.

Amid supply shortages, soaring prices, and fading consumer sentiment, it is hardly surprising that Russian Purchasing Managers’ Index readings—which capture how purchasing managers are viewing the economy—have plunged, particularly for new orders, alongside plunges in consumer spending and retail sales data by around 20 percent year-over-year. Other readings of high-frequency data such as e-commerce sales within Yandex and same-store traffic at retail sites across Moscow reinforce steep declines in consumer spending and sales, no matter what the Kremlin says.

Myth 5: Global businesses have not really pulled out of Russia, and business, capital, and talent flight from Russia are overstated.

Global businesses represent around 12 percent of Russia’s workforce (5 million workers), and. . . over 1,000 companies representing around 40 percent of Russia’s GDP have curtailed operations in the country, reversing three decades’ worth of foreign investment and buttressing unprecedented simultaneous capital and talent flight in a mass exodus of 500,000 individuals, many of whom are exactly the highly educated, technically skilled workers Russia cannot afford to lose. . . .

Myth 6: Putin is running a budget surplus thanks to high energy prices.

Russia is actually on pace to run a budget deficit this year equivalent to 2 percent of GDP, according to its own finance minister. . .thanks to Putin’s unsustainable spending spree; on top of dramatic increases in military spending, Putin is resorting to patently unsustainable, dramatic fiscal and monetary intervention, including a laundry list of Kremlin pet projects, all of which have contributed to the money supply nearly doubling in Russia since the invasion began. Putin’s reckless spending is clearly putting Kremlin finances under strain.

Myth 7: Putin has hundreds of billions of dollars in rainy day funds, so the Kremlin’s finances are unlikely to be strained anytime soon.

The most obvious challenge facing Putin’s rainy day funds is the fact that of his around $600 billion in foreign exchange reserves. . .  $300 billion is frozen and out of reach with allied countries across the United States, Europe, and Japan restricting access. There have been some calls to seize this $300 billion to finance the reconstruction of Ukraine.

Putin’s remaining foreign exchange reserves are decreasing at an alarming rate, by around $75 billion since the start of the war. . . .

Furthermore, although the finance ministry had planned to reinstate a long-standing Russian budgetary rule that surplus revenue from oil and gas sales should be channeled into the sovereign wealth fund, Putin axed this proposal . . . as Finance Minister Anton Siluanov floated the idea of withdrawing funds from the National Wealth Fund equivalent to a third of the entire fund to pay for this deficit this year. If Russia is running a budget deficit requiring the drawdown of a third of its sovereign wealth fund when oil and gas revenues are still relatively strong, all signs indicate a Kremlin that may be running out of money much faster than conventionally appreciated.

Myth 8: The ruble is the world’s strongest-performing currency this year.

One of Putin’s favorite propaganda talking points, the appreciation of the ruble is an artificial reflection of unprecedented, draconian capital control—which rank among the most restrictive of any in the world. The restrictions make it effectively impossible for any Russian to legally purchase dollars or even access a majority of their dollar deposits, while artificially inflating demand through forced purchases by major exporters—all of which remain largely in place today.

The official exchange rate is misleading, anyhow, as the ruble is, unsurprisingly, trading at dramatically diminished volumes compared to before the invasion on low liquidity. By many reports, much of this erstwhile trading has migrated to unofficial ruble black markets. Even the Bank of Russia has admitted that the exchange rate is a reflection more of government policies and a blunt expression of the country’s trade balance rather than freely tradeable liquid foreign exchange markets.

Myth 9: The implementation of sanctions and business retreats are now largely done, and no more economic pressure is needed.

Russia’s economy has been severely damaged, but the business retreats and sanctions applied against Russia are incomplete. Even with the deterioration in Russia’s exports positioning, it continues to draw too much oil and gas revenue from the sanctions carveout, which sustains Putin’s extravagant domestic spending and obfuscates structural economic weaknesses.

The Kyiv School of Economics and Yermak-McFaul International Working Group have led the way in proposing additional sanctions measures across individual sanctions, energy sanctions . . . . Looking ahead, there is no path out of economic oblivion for Russia as long as the allied countries remain unified in maintaining and increasing sanctions pressure against Russia.

Defeatist headlines arguing that Russia’s economy has bounced back are simply not factual—the facts are that, by any metric and on any level, the Russian economy is reeling, and now is not the time to step on the brakes.

So — which is right? Sanctions are a boomerang failure, hurting the West and U.S. as much as or more than Putin’s Russia? Or behind a propaganda smokescreen, they’re taking him and “his” economy down rapidly?

I hope it’s the latter, but the work of following the war’s impact within Russia and in the rest of the world is up to those of us who are trying to make sense of this turbulent, dangerous scene.

And what should we look for from  our own policymakers?

Maybe the wisest summary was this offhand remark by a supposedly canny business journal:

Forbes: What comes next is anybody’s guess.

 

 

Three-Part Thinkpiece: Putin, His War, And Ours?

Here are three analyses of how the Ukraine war is unfolding, especially from Vladimir Putin’s perspective.

The first is by Tatiana Stanovaya, a U. S.-based scholar who has observed Putin and tracked his thinking and actions for twenty years.

She argues, in sum, that Putin has a plan for conquering and absorbing/erasing Ukraine, and despite what seem to westerners like major setbacks he thinks the plan is working out fine, even if it may take a few more years to meet its goals. Along the way, he expects it to roll back NATO and promote the rise of a broader authoritarian world order, in which a renewed Russian empire will be a central player.

The second is by Simon Tisdall, a columnist for The Guardian in London. Tisdall has called repeatedly for escalation of NATO direct actions in the war, insisting that NATO governments have not faced up to the magnitude of actual peril facing them in Putin’s imperial drive.

And finally, we hear from Putin directly, in excerpts from his address to the Russian public on the eve of the invasion. (The complete official English text of this February 22 address, from the Kremlin website, is here.)

All these writers foresee a war that will be extended, and pose much risk of escalation and expansion. One, at least, openly calls for the latter. Two seem to agree that the impact of the war on NATO and many other countries, even if it stays non-nuclear, will be huge, and perhaps catastrophic. How should thoughtful and concerned readers respond?

New York Times: Putin Thinks He’s Winning

By Tatiana Stanovaya  —  July 18, 2022

Ms. Stanovaya is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She writes about Russian domestic politics and foreign policy.

Everything is going according to plan.

That’s the line from President Vladimir Putin. The war in Ukraine, in its fifth month and with no end in sight, may be grueling. But senior Kremlin officials keep repeating that Russia, gaining the upper hand in Ukraine’s east, will achieve all its goals.

That might seem hard to believe. After all, Russia has been forced to retreat from Kyiv, experienced several military reversals, faced sanctions on an unprecedented scale and been subjected to a chorus of international condemnation. To call such a litany of difficulties and outright failures a success may be to court the charge of propaganda, hypocrisy or even self-delusion.

But it’s what the Kremlin seems to believe. Over two decades I have closely followed Mr. Putin’s words, behavior and decisions, forming a comprehensive picture of the president’s calculations. Based on his public rhetoric and policy moves and informal discussions with insiders, I have been able to work out — as far as is possible — the contours of the Kremlin’s current thinking. What is very clear is that in late May, the Kremlin came to the firm conclusion that it is winning this conflict in the long run. And Mr. Putin, in contrast to the early chaotic months, now has a clear plan.

Consisting of three main dimensions, the plan is a kind of strategic Russian doll. Each aspect fits within another, amounting to a grand scheme that goes far beyond Ukraine yet centers on it. It may sound extremely fanciful, and it certainly reveals how divorced from reality — to put it mildly — Mr. Putin is. But it’s important for the West, whose response has wavered between confrontation and acquiescence, to understand the full scope of Mr. Putin’s hopes as it continues to assess its role in defending Ukraine against Russian aggression. Continue reading Three-Part Thinkpiece: Putin, His War, And Ours?

The Colors of Courage: Underground Russian War Protests:

Art of dissent: How Russians protest the war on Ukraine

They risk jail, stigma and fines. But Russian protesters are finding creative ways to get their message out.

Washington Post: By Robyn Dixon, Mary Ilyushina and Natalia Abbakumova — July 7, 2022

It was 4 a.m. on Moscow’s second ring road. Early light bathed the empty street.

Lyudmila Annenkova and Natalia Perova remember stepping out of a taxi, draped in blankets to hide white dresses splashed with red paint, like blood. They were terrified of arrest, they said, so they worked quickly.

They flung off the blankets, posed, held hands and gazed into a smartphone lens. Snap, snap, snap. Three photos and they fled. The images went viral on independent and activist Telegram channels and social media pages.

Russia’s antiwar movement has found creative ways to express dissent despite President Vladimir Putin’s hard line crackdown.

Protesters are arrested for crimes as trivial as holding up a blank sheet of paper, merely implying opposition to the war.

“You have about 30 seconds to show what you want and then you will be arrested,” said Annenkova, a photographer.

“We were very afraid. We had so much adrenaline,” Perova said.
The red splashes on white dresses symbolized the killings of innocent people, especially women and children. They held hands to send a message to Ukrainians “that we want to hold the hands of everyone who is there and who is in trouble now,” Annenkova said. Continue reading The Colors of Courage: Underground Russian War Protests:

Truth, War, & Ukraine War Crimes

“In war,” goes an old saying, “truth is the first casualty.”

Hmmmm. The chestnut seems accurate enough. And its relevance to the Ukraine war is direct: most Western reporters, scholars and analysts (including this blogger) have operated on a simple, Good Guy (Ukraine/Zelenskiy), vs Bad Guy (Putin/Russia) truth frame.  Ukrainian leaders have worked tirelessly and skillfully to maintain that, against Putin’s insistence they’re all Nazis.

But how close does this frame get to the truth? How much is propaganda? Is truth a casualty in this war too? How?

For that matter,  what about the saying itself —is it just some stray cliche among the multitude strewn across our public rhetoric? How old is it? Who coined it? What’s its track record?

That truth, it turns out, is not so simple. President John F. Kennedy cited it as having originated with the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, about 450 BC. Aeschylus supposedly wrote several score plays, but only a handful survive; they often deal with war, but none says that.

Presidential biographer Arthur Schlesinger, a big JFK fan, admitted that his idol had erred: “Kennedy enjoyed using quotations, and he kept a notebook containing noteworthy statements. Unfortunately, Kennedy somehow acquired the Aeschylus misattribution:

Some quotations he carried verbatim in his mind. Others he noted down. The loose-leaf notebook of 1945-46 contained propositions mistakenly assigned to Aeschylus (“In war, truth is the first casualty”) . . .

Oh well.

More or less contemporaneously, a world away from Aeschylus, the classic Chinese text The Art of War by Sun Tzu comes much closer: one of its key principles is that “All warfare is based on deception”. (We’ll skip the scholarly debates over whether Sun Tzu himself is a mythical figure; whatever, his book does exist, it’s old, and the saying does come close.) Continue reading Truth, War, & Ukraine War Crimes

Gas War In Europe: Bracing for a Russian Cutoff

New York Times – Europe, Facing Energy Shortages, Moves to Shore Up Providers

Berlin and Paris are preparing bailouts as Europe braces for further cuts to gas supplies next week and economists warn of a recession.

By Melissa Eddy and Stanley Reed — July 6, 2022

BERLIN — Leaders in Europe, facing their worst energy crisis in decades, are taking extraordinary steps to secure supplies for winter amid fears of fuel shortages and near-record electricity and natural gas prices.

In Berlin, lawmakers prepared to approve legislation that would pave the way for Germany to bail out the country’s largest importer of Russian gas. In Paris, the prime minister announced her government’s intention to take full control of France’s state-backed electric utility provider.

There are mounting fears that skyrocketing energy costs, driven by steadily diminishing Russian gas shipments, will force energy companies into collapse — a spiral that Germany’s energy minister has likened to the way the fall of Lehman Brothers triggered the global financial crisis in 2008.

“The scale of the crisis and risk of disruption and further price spikes is now so big that there is a sense in the major E.U. governments that it requires national bailouts,” said Henning Gloystein, a director at Eurasia Group, a political risk firm. “Private companies won’t be able to shoulder these costs.”

The disruption is being felt across the continent as countries including Austria, France and the Czech Republic try to find enough gas to fill their storage tanks before the temperatures drop — and, many fear, before Russia stops shipping gas altogether, possibly as soon as late July.

Continue reading Gas War In Europe: Bracing for a Russian Cutoff

Seven Years for Russian War Protester

The Guardian: Alexei Gorinov receives first long-term sentence under harsh laws introduced since Russian invasion

Pjotr Sauer — Fri 8 Jul 2022

A court in Moscow has sentenced an opposition councillor to seven years in jail for criticising Russia’s military actions in Ukraine, the first long-term prison sentence handed out under the new laws that restrict criticism of the war.

Alexei Gorinov, a deputy at Moscow’s Krasnoselsky district council and trained lawyer, was arrested in April on charges of spreading “knowingly false information” about the Russian army.

According to the authorities, Gorinov committed the offence when he and a fellow opposition deputy, Elena Kotenochkina, spoke out against the council’s proposal to hold a children’s drawing contest and a dancing festival despite the war in Ukraine, where Gorinov said “children were dying”.

“I believe all efforts of [Russian] civil society should be aimed only at stopping the war and withdrawing Russian troops from the territory of Ukraine,” Gorinov said during the work meeting, which was recorded on video and is available on YouTube.

The charges against Gorinov fall under a series of new laws that have been introduced since the start of Russia’s invasion.

Gorinov’s long sentence will be perceived as harsh even in the current political climate in Russia, where authorities have embarked on an unprecedented crackdown on civil society and opposition since the invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February.

Human rights groups will worry that Gorinov’s case will be the first in a string of rulings against anti-war figures who are awaiting trial.

At least 50 people face long-term prison sentences or steep fines for “knowingly spreading false information” about the military, while about 2,000 people have received smaller fines for criticising the war, according to a human rights group that tracks cases nationwide.

Throughout the hearings, Gorinov continued his staunch opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. During his sentencing on Friday, he held a sign that read “Do you still need this war?” while in his glass defendant’s cage.

“War, whatever synonym you call it, is the last, dirtiest, vile thing, unworthy of the title of a man,” Gorinov said. “I thought that Russia exhausted its limit on wars back in the 20th century. However, our present is Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel. [Scenes of reputed Russian war crimes.] Do these names mean something to you? You – the accusers – take an interest and do not say later that you did not know anything,” he added, referring to the three cities outside Kyiv where Russian troops are accused of committing war crimes.

Among those awaiting trial for spreading “false information” about Russia’s military is the prominent opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza and the St Petersburg-based artist Alexandra Skochilenko, who is accused of replacing supermarket price labels with messages protesting against Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine.

Sweden and Finland in NATO

By Gwynne Dyer — June 30, 2022

Another fifteen million people joined the NATO alliance on Tuesday. Finland and Sweden, formerly neutral countries but near to Russia, gave in to Turkish blackmail, and that cleared the way for them to join the western alliance. (Every NATO member, including Turkey, has a veto on new members joining.)

The circumstances were a bit squalid, since both Sweden and Finland abandoned their support for Turkey’s oppressed Kurdish minority in order to unblock their own path to NATO membership. Russia is not planning to invade them at the moment, but as soon as Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, both Scandinavian countries were knocking at NATO’s door.

They are small countries that Russia could eventually overwhelm by sheer numbers, but they are rich and the Finns, at least, reckon that their well-trained armed forces could make a Russian conquest slow and expensive. Since there was no good reason for Moscow to invade them, until last February that seemed to be enough. Then suddenly, it wasn’t.

The problem, although nobody mentions it out loud, is nuclear weapons. The two Baltic countries have no nukes of their own (although Sweden once considered getting them), and now President Vladimir Putin and his enablers hint at nuclear strikes every time anything goes wrong with his war against Ukraine.

The only way Finland and Sweden can get protection from Russian nuclear blackmail is to join NATO, three of whose members (the United States, Britain and France) have nuclear weapons of their own. Since all NATO members are obliged to protect any member under attack, that gives the Swedes and Finns a nuclear guarantee.

There have, of course, been the usual warnings from the usual sources that letting these two countries into NATO will make the Russians even more paranoid and therefore even more prone to attack their neighbours (although the latter part of that warning is never fully articulated). But this is sheer nonsense.

The Russians are indeed paranoid, but that is a state of being, not a response to some particular act they interpret as aggressive. They come by their paranoia honestly, in the sense that they have been invaded by the ‘A team’ of would-be world conquerors (the Mongols, Napoleon, Hitler) and live in a country with no ‘natural’ frontiers.

But it is paranoia, and it will be there whatever other people do. The Russians never really intended to conquer western Europe, but they did put their own puppets into power in all the eastern European countries and turn them into satellites after the Second World War. That was ‘defensive’ in their own minds, but it felt like aggression to everybody else.

Not only did the Russians impose their own Communist system on all these countries and cut them off entirely from the rest of Europe with the ‘Iron Curtain’. They ruthlessly crushed any revolts by the subject peoples – in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968 – and imprisoned or executed tens of thousands of people.

After forty years of Soviet military occupation, therefore, it was inevitable that those eastern European countries would seek shelter in an expanded NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And it was necessary for NATO to take those countries in, because otherwise they would have tried to build their own defences against Russia.

Historical might-have-beens are usually highly debatable, but it’s close to certain that if Poland had not been able to join NATO and come under its nuclear guarantee, it would have its own nuclear weapons by now. Given the country’s long history of subjugation and brutalisation by Russia, the Poles would have seen any other course as sheer madness.

Yes, all those countries joining NATO ‘provoked’ Moscow, but when you are dealing with a career paranoiac there is no choice. The fact is that at no time since 1945 have the Western powers had the military strength to invade Russia successfully on the ground. Since about 1960 they have not had the capacity to win a nuclear war against Russia either.

The Russians aren’t stupid. They are paranoid because of their history, but they can count. At one level they fully understand that NATO could not invade them because (a) it lacks the necessary superiority in conventional military forces (even after the recent demonstration of their own army’s parlous state), and (b) Russia has nuclear weapons.

So they have unreasonable fears, but they also know how to use the known fact of their paranoia to justify aggressive actions of their own. In the hands of a man like Vladimir Putin this can be a powerful diplomatic tool, and the only sensible way to counter it is to refuse to enter into that intellectual swamp at all.

Just stop psychologising about the Russians, and do whatever seems reasonable and necessary.

Francis & Ukraine: The Pope As Paralyzed Peacemaker

 

[NOTE: It appears that pope Francis yearns to help mediate an end to the Ukraine-Russian war. It also appears that a tangle of ecumenical, historical and political issues, in addition to the course of the fighting itself, is keeping him on the sidelines. The U. S. progressive Catholic paper describes the complex impasse below. Such reports can be of value to non-Catholics & non-religious readers concerned for peace too.]

National Catholic Reporter: Papal, ecumenical diplomacy appears unable to affect Russia’s war in Ukraine

WARSAW, POLAND — When representatives of the World Council of Churches debated the war in Ukraine in late June, few expected the historic ecumenical organization to bow to demands for Russia’s Orthodox Church to be excluded over its support of President Vladimir Putin’s bloody invasion.

Yet the deep acrimonies surrounding the ruinous conflict have raised questions about interfaith ties, as well as about the realistic chances of religious mediation.

“The Ukrainian and Russian governments have themselves kept the path to negotiation open – and there’s an even greater case for maintaining dialogue and not closing the channels between churches,” Pallottine Fr. Slawomir Pawlowski, an ecumenism expert at Poland’s Catholic University of Lublin, told NCR.

“But there’s also no doubt that talks and meetings can be exploited for propaganda, so attention must be paid to this as well,” he said.

The World Council of Churches’ central committee met in Geneva to set an agenda for the council’s upcoming plenary assembly, which opens in Karlsruhe, Germany, Aug. 31 under the theme “Reconciliation and Unity.”

There had been calls for the Russian Orthodox Church, usually a major World Council of Churches presence, to be barred because of the pro-war stance of its leader, Patriarch Kirill.

While condemning Russia’s “illegal and unjustifiable war,” however, the central committee declared itself open to Russian participation. The late summer plenary will now go ahead, with a 20-member Vatican observer group headed by Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity.

“War … is incompatible with God’s very nature and will for humanity and against our fundamental Christian and ecumenical principles,” said the committee, which represents 580 million Christians in 352 separate member-churches. The committee said it “rejects any misuse of religious language and authority to justify armed aggression.”

“We acknowledge and welcome the commitment of the Moscow Patriarchate … to engage in encounter and dialogue on the situation in Ukraine under the auspices” of the World Council of Churches, the committee said, adding, “Dialogue remains an obvious urgent necessity to address such a critical situation.”

Meanwhile, although Pope Francis pulled out of a planned June 14 meeting with Kirill in Jerusalem, the pope has said he still hopes to meet the Russian Orthodox leader when he visits Kazakhstan Sept. 14-15 for a world congress of religious leaders.

With the patriarch facing Western sanctions for backing the war, some observers wonder whether such top-level encounters can achieve anything, beyond fueling Moscow’s ruthless disinformation machine.

Continue reading Francis & Ukraine: The Pope As Paralyzed Peacemaker

Sweden & Finland Cleared to Join NATO; & Is Putin Now Winning In Ukraine?

Daily Mail, UK-Sweden and Finland are CLEARED to join NATO after negotiations with Turkey and ahead of Biden’s meeting with Erdogan on Wednesday

By EMILY GOODIN, SENIOR U.S. POLITICAL REPORTER IN MADRID FOR DAILYMAIL.COM — 28 June 2022

> The leaders of Turkey, Sweden and Finland have signed a trilateral agreement that will clear the way for the two Nordic states to join NATO
> NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the deal
‘I am pleased to announce we now have an agreement that paves the way for Finland and Sweden to join NATO,’ Stoltenberg said
> Turkey had objected to Finland and Sweden’s stance on Kurdish rebel groups that Turkey considers terrorists
> Biden meeting with Turkish president on Wednesday

The leaders of Turkey, Sweden and Finland have signed a trilateral agreement that will clear the way for the two Nordic states to join NATO and clears objections from Istanbul over the application.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the deal on Tuesday evening ahead of President Joe Biden’s scheduled meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday.

‘I am pleased to announce we now have an agreement that paves the way for Finland and Sweden to join NATO,’ Stoltenberg said.

Turkey, Finland and Sweden have signed a memorandum that addresses Turkey’s concerns, including around arms exports and the fight against terrorism,’ he added.

Details will be worked out over then next could of days but the deal comes as Europe faces its worst security crisis in decades in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Turkey, meanwhile, said it had ‘got what it wanted’ including ‘full cooperation… in the fight against’ the rebel groups.

‘Our joint memorandum underscores the commitment of Finland, Sweden and Türkiye to extend their full support against threats to each other’s security,’ Finish President Sauli Niinistö said in a statement.

President Biden spoke with Erdogan on Tuesday morning.

A senior administration official said that call was for the ‘president to be able to talk directly with President Erdogan about the membership application to Finland and Sweden and to encourage him to seize this moment and get this done.’

The official said Biden made the call at the request of Sweden and Finland.

The official spoke to reporters on Tuesday night to describe President Biden’s role in the process and asked for anonymity to speak frankly.

The official said President Biden didn’t want to get in the ‘middle’ of talks but wanted to put the weight on the scale at the end to get it done.

‘We have been very studious, and rejecting the idea that the United States was wanting to play broker. We did not think that would be productive,’ the official said.

The Biden administration sees the deal as a win.

‘This obviously, is just a powerful shot in the arm from the point of view of allied unity and also, you know, a historic moment for the Alliance to traditionally neutral countries, choosing to sign up to NATO and being welcomed by NATO,’ the senior administration official said.

 

Politico:  “Our joint memorandum underscores the commitment of Finland, Sweden and Türkiye to extend their full support against threats to each other’s security,” Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said in a statement. “Us becoming NATO allies will further strengthen this commitment.”

The deal has several components, the NATO chief said. Continue reading Sweden & Finland Cleared to Join NATO; & Is Putin Now Winning In Ukraine?

Think Pieces: Peaceniks Still Struggle With Ukraine War Support

NOTE: On a day off from the January 6 Committee hearings, it’s a suitable time to ponder the Ukraine war, and how it has scrambled long-held beliefs & positions for many people. Here are two perspectives: first, that of an internationally-noted public scholar, and the other from a writer who interviewed & wrote about many combat veterans who strongly opposed the U. S. War in Iraq, but now feel supportive of Ukraine’s resistance to Putin’s invasion.  Like the Ukraine war, these mostly inward struggles seem likely to  continue.

#1 – The Guardian: Ukraine
Pacifism is the wrong response to the war in Ukraine
Slavoj Žižek — Tue 21 Jun 2022

The least we owe Ukraine is full support, and to do this we need a stronger Nato

For me, John Lennon’s mega-hit Imagine was always a song popular for the wrong reasons. Imagine that “the world will live as one” is the best way to end in hell.

Those who cling to pacifism in the face of the Russian attack on Ukraine remain caught in their own version of “imagine”. Imagine a world in which tensions are no longer resolved through armed conflicts … Europe persisted in this world of “imagine”, ignoring the brutal reality outside its borders. Now it’s the time to awaken.

The dream of a quick Ukrainian victory, the repetition of the initial dream of a quick Russian victory, is over. In what looks more and more as a protracted stalemate, Russia is slowly progressing, and its ultimate goal is clearly stated. There is no longer any need to read between the lines when Putin compares himself with Peter the Great: “On the face of it, he was at war with Sweden taking something away from it … He was not taking away anything, he was returning … He was returning and reinforcing, that is what he was doing … Clearly, it fell to our lot to return and reinforce as well.”

More than focus on particular issues (is Russia really just “returning”, and to what?) we should read carefully Putin’s general justification of his claim: “In order to claim some kind of leadership – I am not even talking about global leadership, I mean leadership in any area – any country, any people, any ethnic group should ensure their sovereignty. Because there is no in-between, no intermediate state: either a country is sovereign, or it is a colony, no matter what the colonies are called.” Continue reading Think Pieces: Peaceniks Still Struggle With Ukraine War Support