Category Archives: Ukraine

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.

 

 

War Notes: Russian Jewish Community facing “dark clouds” over Ukraine war

Moscow’s ex-chief rabbi warns of ‘dark clouds’ for Russian Jews

Issued on:


Jerusalem (AFP) –
Moscow’s former chief rabbi now living in exile in Israel warned Thursday of “dark clouds on the horizon” for Russian Jews, as ties between the two countries deteriorate over the Ukraine war.

Pinchas Goldschmidt, who left Russia in March over opposition to the conflict, told reporters that “the Jewish community was pressured… to openly support the war. Our community did not support the war.”

“The situation is worrying” and there are “many dark clouds on the horizon” for Russian Jews, he said, adding that their “security and future… is dependent on Israel-Russia relations”.

Israel has been trying to walk a cautious line in order to maintain ties with Moscow — seen as crucial to preserving the Jewish state’s ability to carry out air strikes in neighbouring Syria, where Russian forces are present.

“Right now, it would be impossible for me to return,” the Swiss-born rabbi told an online briefing, adding: “If I would have (remained) the chief rabbi of Moscow, I wouldn’t be able to speak out openly without endangering my community.”

“I decided to stay in exile until the political situation will change.”

Following the February 24 invasion, then Israeli premier Naftali Bennett withheld criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions and stressed the need for close ties with Moscow.

But Bennett’s successor Yair Lapid has condemned the Russian invasion.

Analysts say Lapid’s rhetoric has partly driven Moscow’s move to close the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency, which processes the immigration of Jews from the diaspora to Israel.

Lapid has warned Moscow that the closure would be a “serious event” threatening bilateral ties.

The Kremlin has said the move should not be “politicised”, calling it a purely legal matter.

According to the Jewish Agency, 16,000 Russian Jews have immigrated to Israel since the invasion began.

‘Fear of rising anti-Semitism’

Goldschmidt estimated that more than 30,000 other dual passport holders had left Russia for Israel since February 24.

Jews were leaving Russia in high numbers partly over fears of a new “Iron Curtain — that one day (it) will be impossible to leave”, the rabbi said, articulating what he described as concern among Jews that Putin’s government could ban outbound travel.

He said Moscow’s moves against the Jewish Agency, among other incidents, had fostered “fear of rising anti-Semitism”.

Some experts have attributed Russia’s threats against the agency as part of an attempt to slow mass emigration.

“If Russia wants to stop the brain drain of its best scientists and creative class, the best way to do this is not by closing the Jewish Agency, but by stopping this war,” Goldschmidt said.

At a preliminary hearing on Thursday, a Moscow court set an August 19 trial date for the Russian justice ministry’s case against the agency, which has been accused of unspecified legal violations.

The Jewish Agency began working in Russia in 1989.

More than one million of Israel’s 9.4 million residents today have roots in the former Soviet Union.

Benched: Ukraine’s Oligarchs Are Waiting for a Break

The Guardian: How the war has robbed Ukraine’s oligarchs of political influence
Analysis: Five months since Russia’s invasion started, Ukraine’s wealthiest have gone quiet – but for how long?

Isobel Koshiw in Kyiv — Sat 23 Jul 2022

Ukraine’s richest people, known in the country as oligarchs, are used to dominating political and economic life. But in the five months since Russia’s full-scale invasion started, they have gone quiet.

Political analysts and experts attribute this loss of influence to the fact that oligarchs and their businesses – like all Ukrainian citizens – need protection in the form of the military and diplomacy, state functions they have no control over.

Mykyta Poturyaev, an MP and former election campaign adviser to several Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians including the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said oligarchs are in the unusual position of not being able to influence the country at the moment.

“Unlike in 2014, when [Ukrainian oligarch Ihor] Kolomoisky, for instance, was involved in defending Dnipropetrovsk region, there is someone to do that now – the state, the regional administration,” Poturyaev said.

The war has seemingly enabled Zelenskiy to become the first Ukrainian president to sideline the oligarchs, who have traditionally competed to control the country’s political leadership.

But analysts say that only once the war is over will it be clear if Ukraine’s oligarchic era has ended or if the oligarchs will try to regain their influence. Continue reading Benched: Ukraine’s Oligarchs Are Waiting for a Break

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:

Quotes for Tuesday: supreme hypocrisy, hanging on too long, Gas & (as usual) Guns . . .

New York Times: In its joint dissent [from the supreme court decision to overthrow Roe] in Dobbs, the court’s three-member liberal wing wrote, “Either the mass of the majority’s opinion is hypocrisy, or additional constitutional rights are under threat. It is one or the other.”
Actually, it’s worse than that. It’s both.

— Harry Litman, Harry Litman, UCLA law professor, former U.S. attorney and deputy assistant attorney general

Michelle Goldberg: As a recent New York Times/Siena College poll found, 64 percent of Democrats want a different presidential nominee in 2024. Those Democrats cite Biden’s age more than any other factor, though job performance is close behind. Their concern isn’t surprising. . . .
There’s a problem here that goes beyond a shortage of presidential speeches and media appearances, or even Biden himself. We are ruled by a gerontocracy. Biden is 79. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is 82. The House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, is 83. The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, is 71. Often, it’s not clear if they grasp how broken this country is.

They built their careers in institutions that worked, more or less, and they seem to expect them to start working again. They give every impression of seeing this moment, when the gears of government have seized and one party openly schemes against democracy, as an interregnum rather than a tipping point. . . .

If there’s one consolation in Biden’s age, it’s that he can step aside without conceding failure. There’s no shame in not running for president in your 80s. He emerged from semiretirement to save the country from a second Trump term, and for that we all owe him a great debt. But now we need someone who can stand up to the still-roiling forces of Trumpism.

There are plenty of possibilities: . . . Biden said, during the 2020 campaign, that he wanted to be a “bridge” to a new generation of Democrats. Soon it will be time to cross it.
—- Michelle Goldberg, New York Times

Bloomberg: A year into Russia manipulating European gas supplies, the market is finally convinced that Moscow will continue to do so, and perhaps with greater intensity.

The first test comes in the next two weeks. The Nord Stream 1 pipeline, the most important gas link between Russia and the European Union, undergoes annual maintenance from July 11 to July 21. Berlin fears that Moscow will find an excuse to keep it closed for good, cutting gas supplies to Germany completely. After all that Moscow has done, the German government is right to be concerned.

Yet, Russia may want to keep some gas flowing to preserve its long-term leverage. From a game-theory point of view, that makes sense. Once Russia stops shipments completely, it can no longer apply pressure. Tactically, Moscow is likely to keep some gas moving, retaining the option of cutting or slowing flows whenever it chooses.

The Guardian: The US president was delivering a speech on the South Lawn on Monday when he was interrupted by Manuel Oliver, whose 17-year-old son, Joaquin, was among 14 students and three staff members killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.

“We have to do more than that!” Oliver shouted, among other remarks, while standing up and wearing dark sunglasses, grey beard and purple jacket.

At first Biden told him, “Sit down, you’ll hear what I have to say,” but then the president relented and said, “Let him talk, let him talk, OK?”

By then, however, security had already stepped in to take Oliver away.

Earlier on Monday, Oliver had made clear that he objected to the event being billed as a celebration in the aftermath of a mass shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on 24 May.

He wrote on Twitter: “The word CELEBRATION has no space in a society that saw 19 kids massacred just a month ago.”

The confrontation underlined simmering frustration with Biden, accused of failing to meet the moment not only on guns but abortion, climate and other issues. . . .

The White House gave Biden an opportunity to respond to the critics by showcasing the first major federal gun safety bill in three decades, which he signed into law last month. He was joined in bright summer sunshine by survivors and family members of those slain during mass shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tucson, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Santa Fe, Uvalde, Buffalo, Highland Park and others. . . .

man in sunglasses points finger
Manuel Oliver interrupts Biden on the White House’s South Lawn. Photograph: Shawn Thew/UPI/Rex/Shutterstock

But the scale of the challenge was laid bare when, just 16 days after the law took effect, a gunman in Highland Park, Illinois, killed seven people and wounded more than 30 others at an Independence Day parade, fueling the discontent of Oliver and other activists who want to see Biden move faster and further.

Biden hailed the law as “real progress” and said “lives will be saved today and tomorrow because of this” but acknowledged that “more has to be done”. He said: “It matters, it matters, but it’s not enough and we all know that.”. . . .

“We are living in a country awash in weapons of war,” Biden said with palpable anger. “Guns are the number one killer of children in the United States, more than car accidents, more than cancer.”

He earned applause as he insisted that the second amendment to the federal constitution, which protects the right to bear arms, should not supersede others.

Among the hundreds of guests on the south lawn were a bipartisan group of senators who crafted and supported the legislation, as well as local-level officials including the Illinois governor, JB Pritzker, and Highland Park mayor, Nancy Rotering.

But the director of the campaign group Guns Down America, Igor Volsky, wasn’t wholly impressed by the White House’s framing of the gathering.

Volsky told the Associated Press news agency: “There’s simply not much to celebrate here. It’s historic, but it’s also the very bare minimum of what Congress should do.

“And as we were reminded by the shooting on July fourth, and there’s so many other gun deaths that have occurred since then. The crisis of gun violence is just far more urgent.”

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.

AFSC Restructure Update: Hurry Up — And Wait

AFSC & Restructuring, Cont.:

A quick recap: In early January 2022, we posted a report on an attempted uprising at AFSC, led by former staffer Lucy Duncan, intended to torpedo a proposed 2021 restructuring. The restructure  was meant to carry out a strategic plan adopted in October 2020, and a draft had been debated and stalled for over a year. We were told the restructure was set to be presented for final approval to the national AFSC Board in April 2022.

There was much apocalyptic talk about the restructuring scheme as portending widespread layoffs, the imposition of an iron fist top-down corporate style of governance, etc. The wringing of hands produced some long Zoom calls, and Duncan was fired.

As a delaying tactic, though, the kerfuffle succeeded: April passed with no action by the Board.  We reported then that the updated target for Board consideration was its meeting scheduled for June 10-12 2022.

Late in June,  AFSC senior staffer Hector Cortez advised us that the June Board meeting did happen on schedule, and the Board did approve an initial piece of the latest revised Restructure plan.

But the Board action was a rather small bite out of a big restructuring apple. It approved creation of a single, grandiloquently titled new executive post, that of an Associate General Secretary to head a new Division for Global Cohesion. Here’s the official ask:

A proposal for the creation of a new Global Cohesion Division [revolving around several specialized “hubs,” was to be presented] to the Board of Directors in June, as well as the framework for its leadership. We are proposing the creation of an Associate General Secretary role to head the Division for Global Cohesion. This will be the only item requiring Board approval. This proposal was developed by the Working Group on Global Collaboration – a diverse group of twenty-one staff from across the organization who have met weekly since November 2021.

The new executive will deal with the international work. The rest of the restructuring plan — involving the U.S.-based offices and programs, the bulk of AFSC’s labors and most of its staff, remains very much “under discussion.”

And when AFSC talks about discussion, they mean discussion. A twenty-page Leadership Team update about it is full of such jargon, e.g. (emphasis added):

–We are particularly grateful to the many working groups that convened throughout winter and spring 2022, and their tireless efforts to ensure that the proposals and recommendations contained here and below reflect the best ideas from the full spectrum of staff perspectives.

–On Wednesday, June 1st, the General Secretary met with the US W[orking] G[roup] to begin exploring a path forward for continued work on the US Proposal. [T]he group looked at holding regular consultations between the USWG, General Secretary, and additional members of the Leadership Team. The central theme of the meeting was to come to agreement on next steps for discussion, so the opportunity to substantively discuss specific elements of the US restructure will occur in upcoming conversations.

— It is important that these [new] hubs not be perceived as “Philadelphia”, but be seen as global AFSC structures that are in place to give equal voice and support to all parts of the organization and to build connections/provide support across divisions. . . .

— Organizing and facilitating regular conferences, issue-based convenings, and other events (both internal and external) to enhance learning and shared impact.

— Supporting and encouraging staff and program exchanges/learning, site visits, delegations, etc. to build understanding, cross program fertilization, and shared identity.

— These hubs should be built through a participatory process led by collaborative teams of key stakeholders including program staff from across the organization, rooted in their needs and experience. At least six months should be allowed for the hub building process.

And so forth. Further, this is focused only on the international programs.

As for the U. S.-based projects, the leadership memo is very vague, except for a repeated emphasis on more discussion/consultation. Here’s one summary chart:

 

This chart is already outdated; the calendar of discussion is now pushed out to October, and the track record suggests it could well extend beyond that. What the 20-page outline quaintly calls the “new Strategic Plan” will be two years old by then, with most of it still waiting to be unwrapped. The initial phase of the new Global Cohesion “hub-building,” is expected to take at least “six months.” (Six months from, when?)

Will the new Associate General Secretary for Global Coherence (whose salary, by the way, is set at $135,000) be named by October? And will any revamp of the U.S. programs and structures be yet in sight? The memo is equivocal, except about the need for discussion:

— As proposal development advances, there are elements of the US structure that require more and deeper consultation, to ensure the proposal results in a truly collaborative co-design. . . .

— [Leadership supports] The creation of a US Programs Council (composed of thematic group leads, regional leadership, AGS US, US Programs Director, and representatives from OPPA, PMEL and administrative staff) that serves as a decision-making, consultative and information-sharing body focused on the integration, support and resourcing of work within the US Programs Portfolio.

— Over the next several weeks, the group will continue to refine and further develop the proposal, and begin deeper exploration and discernment around issues related to program-based (thematic) planning and budgeting, budget sustainability, roles and responsibilities of thematic and regional leadership, reporting relationships and decision making. . . .

–We recognize the importance of ensuring that essential voices are at the table to participate in decision-making. It is likely that new leadership groups and subgroups will need to be created to inform and support organizational functions. . . . Restructuring conversations are never without their difficulties, and we recognize that this process has not been easy. At the same time, we recognize this moment as one rich with opportunity . . . .

Difficulties? Which to my ears, means more plainly that any hard decisions have yet to be made. Are they any closer? Further, the restructuring “moment” described here seems to be most richly endowed with opportunities for more conversation, consultation, convenings, discernment, exploration, feedback, and yada yada, all of which equal more delay. The January uprising raised the specter that internal AFSC practices could be shaken up and maybe even –good grief — changed, and Duncan’s appeal was determined to squash that. It said

We call on other Quakers to call for a cessation of the planned restructure, an external evaluation of the Senior Leadership Team and a searching, well facilitated internal conversation about how this process proceeded so far despite widespread opposition and how the organization can heal and move forward collectively, honoring all voices especially those most impacted by the issues upon which AFSC focuses.

So the January uprising has succeeded in delaying any actual major changes for half year, with many more months of the same on the horizon. Lucy Duncan lost her personal battle, but she and her supporters appear to be winning the war.

By contrast, one section of the June  leadership memo, which seemed to ring with the voice of General Secretary Joyce Aljouny, talked turkey about money:

COSTING TOWARD SUSTAINABILITY: . . . For the past four years we have worked diligently to break the cycle of deficit spending and depleting our reserves. We have not only produced balanced budgets, but have achieved surpluses that have rebuilt our reserves to a healthy level. . . .

The Leadership Team remains committed to all of the above, and to collaboration with the Board Treasurer and the Stewardship Committee to ensure sustainability. The costs of additional positions due to restructuring will be slowly incorporated as we continue the careful budgeting process that ensures our strategic vision is implemented and programs are strengthened. . . .

As we build budgets, we are committed to implementing multi-year budgets with realistic assumptions and projections, and monitoring strategies for economic conditions, including downturns in the economy, and monitoring program, organizational and staff spending to ensure continued sustainability. . . .

Here I detect echoes of the hard years of AFSC, when it was forced into several rounds of painful layoffs, which appear to have been due in part to sloppy and improvident financial management. Maintaining such no-nonsense fiscal discipline is likely AFSC’s best chance for long-term survival. The memo even promises no layoffs, and continued COLA raises.

But while these job and pay pledges are doubtless sincere, one hopes the staff realizes they are also unavoidably contingent. For instance, however much of AFSC’s surpluses were invested in stocks, their value has likely diminished by more than 20 per cent this spring, with no end in sight to the market turmoil. Such deep declines could eventually make a hash of leadership promises to avoid layoffs or salary freezes, no matter how fervently made. Just sayin’.

Finally, two other items went almost entirely unmentioned in the 20 page leadership memo: the first was the war in Ukraine. One would not  know from this 20-page document whether AFSC had even noticed that since its little uprising in January, and the subsequent marathon of internal parleys and rigmarole, the biggest war in Europe since 1945 had made refugees of 14 million Ukrainians, pushed the U. S. and Russia to the edge of nuclear confrontation, ballooned the Pentagon war budget, expanded NATO and resurrected the Cold War. The Ukraine war was referred to only in a brief passing reference to its possible impact on AFSC’s fundraising from European sources.

The other missing item was Quakerism. The Leadership Team would doubtless object, pointing out that it was indeed included in their June Memo. Yes; and here is the nub of what was said:

Finally, we are committed to bolstering AFSC’s relationship with the Quaker community explicitly in many places of this structure; but all our initiatives are encouraged to keep Quaker engagement in mind. . . .

There was a bit more to it; but placement, and the word “Finally” were giveaways: this was the very last specific item mentioned in the 17 pages of the memo’s main text; it made clear that “Quaker relations” will continue to dangle at the very bottom of the priority list, tucked into AFSC’s work for “Advancement,” which deals with promotion and fundraising. That may sound like “engagement” to the authors; but it looks like more empty hype from outside.

Indeed, much the same can be said of this whole interminable restructuring enterprise. What difference will it make to the world? What difference will it make to actual Quakers? My answer: very little.

In fact, those are questions on which there’s very little interest remaining for even superficial discussion/consultation/feedback, etc.

And maybe that’s just as well.