International Tension

There have been two situations on the international scene lately that have the potential to bring the close of 2018 into the likelihood of a serious deterioration in international peace and prosperity, although the first is probably going to be put to one side after more arm-waving and pontificating. This one involves three Ukrainian naval vessels trying to get from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, and in particular to their port of Mariupol, the port for south east Ukraine. These vessels were stopped, some by ramming, and arrested by the Russian coastguard, possibly the navy, and FSB officers. The incident occurred at a place that would be within the territorial waters of Russia, although Ukraine does not recognize Crimea as being part of Russia, which would alter the argument. Ukraine states that it started just outside such territorial waters, but has not provided accurate and detailed coordinates and in any case the Ukrainian ships proceeded into clear territorial waters. There is apparently a 2003 agreement that the Kerch Strait is a shared waterway, which allows free passage.

This has created the usual heat and not much light. Time magazine had an opinion by retired US Admiral Stavridis that makes a number of interesting statements. The first is that Putin more or less engineered this because the Mueller investigation is “coming to a head” (really?) and there was a need for the US to persuade its allies to take a firmer stand with Russia. (How does the second follow from the first?) Also the US should bolster Ukrainian defence, presumably to make Putin regret engineering this. Leave aside the bluster, notice anything? The Ukrainian ships had to enter the waters around the Kerch strait, so Ukraine controlled the timing. That makes it difficult for Putin to have engineered it. A further statement was that Russia needed to secure communications and control this Strait “to truly consolidate Crimea”. Needless to say, what is missing from this article is the fact that Russia has secured communication by building a bridge across the Strait. Access to the Sea of Azov requires passing under the bridge, which involves a relatively narrow piece of waterway. As an Admiral, he should know something about ship handling. Do you want two ships coming head-on into a very narrow choke-point? The Russians argue that anyone can pass through, but they must register the intention so that traffic control can be maintained. That seems reasonable to me. The Ukrainian sailors apparently have said they did not register, and they were ordered to ignore Russian controls. Form your own opinion, but it seems to me that Ukraine was deliberately trying to prod Russia. Why? Well, one theory is that Ukrainian elections are due in a few months, Poroshenko currently would be lucky to get 25% of the vote, so why not generate a foreign crisis? The significant point about this, for me, is the US position as stated by this Admiral: what is stated is at best half-truths, and the really important information is left out.

The second incident was that Meng Wanzhou, the Chief Financial Officer of Huawei, has been arrested at Vancouver airport in order that she be extradited to the US to face unspecified crimes, but ones that probably relate to the fact that Huawei is selling telecommunications equipment to Iran. That is about all we know for sure, but apparently John Bolton knew this could occur in advance and presumably approved of it.

Going back a bit, a number of countries signed a deal with Iran that they would trade with it if Iran agreed not to proceed with the development of nuclear weapons. The US then pulled out of the deal, seemingly on the basis  that Trump believes that if when a deal has been struck, if he then pulls out at some future random time he can add more concessions to make a new deal more favourable to himself. Iran has refused Trump’s rhetoric, which is basically to side with Saudi Arabia against Iran. So the US imposed sanctions against Iran, and has stated it will sanction anyone else who deals with Iran. A number of other signatories did not impose sanctions when Iran has seemingly complied with the deal. The EU has stated that the EU will continue to trade with Iran as long as it maintains its part of the nuclear weapons deal. Thus the usual explanation for Meng’s arrest is that Huawei is breaking US sanctions by supplying to Iran. If this is so, does this not introduce a rather ugly precedent?

Thus we have the situation where if another country continues with a deal that the US joined, but then arbitrarily pulled out of, then the US requires the other countries to follow the US dictates, and if they do not, the US will arrest their citizens. That makes the president of the US almost able to dictate to the rest of the world.

Huawei is having a bad time, thanks to the US. A number of countries have been told by the US they should not implement Huawei 5G technology for undefined security reasons. As far as security goes, why does the US feel its technology is so secure? If it is secure, why are various politicians making continual assertions of election hacking? As it happens Huawei 5G technology appears to be more advanced than any US technology in telecommunications, and this has the ugly theme of if you can’t compete fairly, you will bully the opposition. This to me is the misuse of power. However, China is not really a country that will bow down to bullying. Apparently China had made concessions to Trump to buy more US exports before they knew about this arrest. What is the bet this won’t go ahead? But worse than that, by what right do you arrest a citizen of another country who is following the law of the country they live in just because (a) that country is in a spat with the US, and (b) the person was apparently in a transit lounge. A person cannot follow two contradictory laws, so why does the US think its Presidential edicts prevail everywhere?

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Fragmenting Nations

One of the more interesting questions that have arisen lately is should a region of a country have the right to break away from the country and be independent, and if so, what are the obligations of the participants? The classic way of breaking away is to have a war. The US got its independence from Britain that way, as did Eire. Does nationhood depend on “might makes right?” It can, but surely there are other ways.

It certainly helped Kosovo, and Kosovo is of interest because it was effectively US air power and NATO forces that won the war. Clinton described the activity as “upholding our values, protecting our interests, and advancing the cause of peace”. Strictly speaking, this action had no UN Security Council approval, therefore it could be regarded as illegal, and it was described as illegal but justified. Whether the Serbs would agree is another matter, and it then becomes interesting that violating the law is fine as long as you think it is justified. Who says so? The guys with the most guns?

The background to Kosovo is of interest. Some in Kosovo wanted independence, particularly those of Albanian origin, and apparently things got out of hand when the Kosovo Liberation Army made four attacks on Serbian security people. The Serbians soon began calling the KLA terrorists (and since they carried out sneak murders, that is probably fair) while the Albanians saw them as “freedom fighters”. Up until 1998, the US government described the KLA as a terrorist group, but suddenly it changed its mind and used NATO to intervene. End of Kosovo Serbians’ hopes. US intervention had another effect: it took the Monica Lewinsky affair off the news table for President Clinton. The US used cluster bombs, and did serious damage and caused considerable civilian casualties, including to Albanians in Kosovo, but the net result was that Kosovo apparently has declared independence. However, not everyone recognizes this, and it remains to some extent under UN administration.

It would seem fair for a split if those leaving did so by winning a referendum that was fairly executed. Scotland had such a vote and decided to stay, so the issue does not arise, however I believe had the vote been yes, London would have agreed. Of course this raises the question that if they keep having votes, sooner or later they will get one result to leave, and that would be irreversible. So maybe there has to be a limit to the number or spacing of referenda.

However, votes can also be rigged in favour of some end. The vote to have a separate Kurdistan would probably win for the Kurds, but would they take Kirkuk? To make sure they would, when the Iraqi army fled from ISIS, a large number of Kurds poured into Kirkuk, and so I guess they would win a vote. But if you pour in the appropriate number of extras to win the vote, is that the right way to go? My guess is no. Then the question is, is the vote fair? When Crimea seceded from Ukraine and joined Russia, this was done with a clear majority vote favouring it, but the Russians had poured in a number of soldiers and they ran the voting system, and as a consequence a number of people do not believe it was fair. My guess is, it probably was because there were a lot of people of Russian descent there, but we cannot be sure. In Crimea, it probably was a case of “might makes right”, but if the Russian military did not come in, the Ukrainians had the might, and as can be seen in eastern Ukraine, they are prepared to use it.

Suppose we look at Catalonia. There have been widespread claims that Catalonia should be independent from Spain, and they held a referendum, which gained 90% in favour. So that is clear evidence, right? Maybe not. Spain declared the referendum illegal and sent in riot police. Those not in favour of independence may well have considered the vote illegal, and they wanted no part in it. It now turns out that only about 40% of those eligible to vote participated, so maybe this was not as conclusive as the enthusiasts claim.

The next question is, why do people want independence? Presumably because they feel they would be better off independent. The Catalans apparently are net donors (tax paid less benefits) to Madrid of about 10 billion euros. However, this might be a little misleading because there are a number of Head Offices of Spanish companies in Barcelona, so company tax from all activities in Spain would be paid from Barcelona. If Barcelona were in a separate country, presumably the activities from Spain would remain taxed by Spain. In Scotland’s case, one can’t help wondering whether the politicians had their eyes on the North Sea oil revenues. In my opinion, in such a breakup, existing royalties and such should be divided between the original members based on population, in which case the returns would be a lot less.

That leaves the Lukansk, Donbass and Donetz oblasts in Eastern Ukraine. Should they have independence? A lot of opinions in the West say yes; territorial integrity should outweigh grumpy citizens. In this case, Western Ukraine has quite different objectives; they want to join the EU while the East wants closer ties with Russia. Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of this, in my opinion there has been enough shelling and bombing of these oblasts that the citizens there will not accept the Western domination. The West complains about Russian intervention that has helped the Eastern Ukrainians. In doing so, they conveniently forget Kosovo. Also, it is now very doubtful Ukraine could join the EU, and if they did, they would find EU financial impositions on Ukraine would make Greece look somewhat attractive. My guess is, Germany would not be willing to carry an even bigger load.

So, what are the conditions for breaking up? I rather fancy there is no recipe. The various places have to find their own salvation. Nothing could be worse, however, than encouraging a breakup, and leaving one part without adequate resources, or encouraging them, and then walking away after the event.

The Ukrainian crisis

One of the issues I have put in the backgrounds of my ebook novels is governance. Thus Puppeteer was set in a failing over-leveraged democracy under siege from terrorism, Troubles involved emerging from anarchy, and how governance gets reborn, and not necessarily in the best interests of the average citizen. Thinking about the current problems in the Ukraine got me thinking about this problem. In some ways, there are similarities between what I wrote about in Troubles and what is happening in the Ukraine. We had a corrupt government there that collapsed, but rather than a period of anarchy, a government has emerged, but one based on might rather than right. Then, those in the Eastern Ukraine do not want what the West has to offer, and just as in Troubles, there is a massive force nearby. Perhaps I am taking this a little too far, because the Ukraine is not quite in such a dire situation, but . . .

One similarity with the characters in Troubles is that almost certainly none of the key players know enough about the other players, which makes for an extremely difficult situation. What do we know? The revolution was almost certainly carried out by average citizens who had had enough of Yanukovich’s corruption, however if we believe the BBC Newsnight, it did not stay that way. The revolution was somewhat taken over opportunistically by right wing militants of the Svoboda party, also known as the Social-National Party. A BBC program had one such right-winger saying that their policy was to eliminate Jews and Russians from the Ukraine by sending them elsewhere. In this context, they were wearing a Wolfsangel symbol that was also used by the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, and some western Ukrainians fought in SS divisions. Irrespective of how much of such extreme policies would be in a future Ukrainian government policy, the Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east would have to be nervous. Add to that, consider the city of Kharkhov, which may have been one of the most fought-over cities in WW II, as it changed hands several times, all of them bloody battles. The third battle for Kharkhov may have been one of the greatest displays of strategic brilliance in that war as von Manstein did the near-impossible, but I doubt the Russian citizens appreciated that, nor would they be overly enthused to know of the help given to the Germans by the western Ukrainians. Since Das Reich took a prominent role in the third battle for Kharkov, the current use of the Wolfsangel by some Western Ukrainians can only be considered provocative at best.

The next question would be, faced with this, what would Putin do? Again, some background. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, countries like Poland and Lithuania promptly joined NATO. Further, despite previous agreements to the contrary, the US set up “missile defence systems” in these countries, ostensibly to defend against Iranian missiles. Russia not unnaturally considered these to be aimed at it, while the US seemed to think Russia should not be concerned in the slightest. In this context, recall what the US thought about missiles placed in Cuba, which is far further away from the US than Lithuania is to Russia. Are the missiles purely defensive? Who knows?

The first thing Putin did was to recover Crimea, which had been part of Russia until Khrushchev, a Ukrainian, transferred it to the Ukraine in the 1950s for administrative convenience. For Russia, however, it is its only seaport going towards the south. To lose that as a naval base would have been unacceptable, even though, from a strategic point of view, it really is not very effective. What about eastern Ukraine? It seems to me that Putin would be expected to have two primary objectives. The first would be to ensure that Russian-speaking citizens were not subjected to right-wing purges. The second would be to ensure that NATO did not dump more missiles on its borders. Are these so unreasonable?

Which gets to the next question, why is the US and NATO so interested in supporting a fascist coup? Yes, they will have elections, but elections there are unlikely to be truly honest because the only two parties sufficiently active in Kiev right now seem to be right wing and more right wing. If the US is a disinterested spectator, why was the head of the CIA in Kiev? More to the point, what sort of incompetence led to his being shown up being there? So far there is no sign that Russia wants to annex the east, and from a strategic point of view, it would probably be undesirable to do so, irrespective of what the West wants. Russia’s second most desirable outcome, and the most desirable of the “likely to be realized” is for partition. Which raises the question, why is the West so against partition? Scotland is about to have a referendum to see whether it wishes to secede, and nobody is too worried about this. Why cannot another group secede when they do not speak the same language, and they want no part of what the other half wants? Because the industrial strength lies in the east? Make no mistake about it, if the east is forced to join the EU, its industries will be history, because they cannot compete on even ground against the technical might of Germany.

Then again, do any of the Ukrainians know what is in store for them? Going west means they will be subjected to IMF economic stringency, and of course, the first twelve billion dollars of aid has to go to Russia to pay the arrears on their gas bill. They should look at Greece, and see if they really want that. Which brings us back to the east. Suppose they do not want that? Should they be forced to? What do you think? My guess is, as in Troubles, the average citizen will get no effective voice.