At the UN, Poroshenko 1, Putin 0

Not that speeches delivered at the United Nations General Assembly matter, but, if they did, Vladimir Putin’s would have garnered him a failing grade, while Petro Poroshenko’s would have been in the A range.

Putin said his usual bromides about the importance of the UN and international institutions, conveniently forgetting his violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the 1978 Helsinki Accords. He praised state sovereignty, while ignoring his invasions of Georgia and Ukraine and occupation of eastern Moldova. He condemned terrorism, while promoting it in Ukraine. It takes real chutzpah to make the following claims:

Russia stands ready to work together with its partners on the basis of full consensus, but we consider the attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the United Nations as extremely dangerous. They could lead to a collapse of the entire architecture of international organizations, and then indeed there would be no other rules left but the rule of force.

The Baltic Defense Bubble

Last week, General Philip Breedlove—the supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe, and thus NATO’s top military officer—warned that Russia is building up a defensive bubble in the Mediterranean. Breedlove’s statement got plenty of attention, but what’s more worrisome is news that has received close to no attention: Russia is building a defensive bubble in the Baltic Sea as well.

A defensive bubble—A2/AD in military speak, which stands for anti-access/area denial—is a combination of long-range missiles and sensors that makes it hard or even impossible for enemy airplanes and ships to approach their target. With the sensors and missiles having a range of up to 2,500 kilometers from the coast where they’re based, the equipment is very long-range indeed.

As the Swedish Defense Research Agency, FOI, points out in a new report, China is actively improving its A2/AD capabilities, which—considering the equipment’s long range—poses serious challenges for the United States in Southeast Asia, in addition to raising concerns about Chinese sales of bubble components to rogue nations. Even rudimentary bubbles would make a quick air war like the Gulf War much harder.

China Imposes New Capital Controls

The State Administration of Foreign Exchange, China’s foreign exchange regulator, has imposed annual limitations on cash withdrawals outside China on China UnionPay bank cards, the Wall Street Journal learned on Tuesday. The limitations are reportedly contained in a circular SAFE, as the regulator is known, sent to banks.

Cardholders, under the new rules, may withdraw a maximum 50,000 yuan ($7,854) in the last three months of this year and a maximum 100,000 yuan next year.

Because UnionPay processes virtually all card transactions in China, the new limits apply to all Chinese credit and bank cards. Beijing already imposes a 10,000-yuan daily limit on withdrawals.

And why should the rest of the world care about how much money a holder of a Chinese credit card can get from an ATM in, say, New York? The new rules could be the first in a series of measures leading to draconian prohibitions of transfers of money from China.

Draconian prohibitions, in turn, could spark a global panic.

China Intercepts US Aircraft Over Yellow Sea in Dangerous Maneuver

On September 15th, a Chinese military jet intercepted a US Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft over the Yellow Sea, about 80 miles east of China’s northern Shandong Peninsula. The Chinese jet crossed the nose of the American plane, passing within 500 feet, a dangerous maneuver.

The US regularly conducts surveillance flights over international water along China’s coast, airspace that Beijing wrongly claims to be its own. As a result, there has been a series of Chinese intercepts of these flights.

“One of the maneuvers conducted by the Chinese aircraft during this intercept was perceived as unsafe by the RC-135 air crew and at this point, right now, there’s no indication this was a near collision, but the report that came back was that the plane operated in an unsafe fashion,” said Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook last week.

Submarine Intruders on Sweden’s Coastline

The Kremlin had ridiculed the Swedish Navy’s futile efforts trying to locate a suspected submarine off the coast of Stockholm, the capital, last fall. Last week the long-anticipated report on the intruder arrived: “beyond every reasonable doubt” it was a submarine, the Swedish Armed Forces reported.

Ignoring Human Rights in Azerbaijan

Last December, I wrote here about Khadija Ismayilova, a reporter jailed in retaliation for her reporting about official corruption in the oil rich dictatorship of Azerbaijan. From jail, Ismayilova had written an unflinching but cheerful New Year’s greeting to her friends while the government was bringing a case against her for the bizarre charge of “inciting suicide.” Without regret or self-pity, she wrote: “Yes, there is a price to pay,” she wrote at the time. “But it is worth it!” Now, the regime is making Ismayilova pay a higher price. On September 1st, she was sentenced to seven and one half years in prison.

The Iraq of Latin America

Mexico is more like Iraq than any other country in the Western Hemisphere with the possible exception of Haiti. A bewilderingly multifaceted armed conflict has been raging since 2007 between more than a dozen militarized drug cartels, the federal government and a smorgasbord of citizen’s militias.

The Mexican mafia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Soviet Proxy during the Cold War that remains on the list of international terrorist organizations, back some of the cartels, and according to the Tucson Police Department, even Hezbollah has gotten involved.

The cartels are bribing and corrupting so many government officials that the state fights them only occasionally and only in certain places, leaving citizens at the mercy of murderous criminal enterprises that don’t flinch at even ISIS levels of brutality.

A few years ago, for instance, goons from one of the cartels in the resort city of Acapulco demanded elementary school teachers cough up fifty percent of their salaries or the schools would be attacked. They left a sack of five severed heads out front on the sidewalk to show they weren’t screwing around.

The Mexican Drug War has killed more than 100,000 people in the last eight years. Think about that. That’s twice as many as the number of American killed during the Vietnam War. The conflict even occasionally spills over the border into the United States.

No one could cover all this in a single article or even a feature-length film. In a book, perhaps, but it would be as mind-bogglingly complex as Jason Stearn’s Dancing in the Glory of Monsters about the impossibly tortured great war in the Congo.

Matthew Heineman covers a piece of it, though, in his searing new documentary Cartel Land, produced by Katherine Bigelow of Zero Dark Thirty fame. He embeds with militia leaders in both Mexico and the United States—Dr. Jose Mireles in the state of Michoacan, and Tim Foley in Arizona—and follows them on patrol and into battle.

Dr. Mireles leads the local Grupo de Autodefensa, a citizen’s militia that rose up to fight the Knight’s Templar cartel, a ghastly mafia/terrorist hybrid, after it took over the small city of Tepalcatepec an hour or so south of Guadalajara.

“What would you do?” Dr. Mireles says when asked why a medical doctor is moonlighting as a militia commander. “Wait for when they come to you? Or defend yourself?”

Heineman even manages to interview some of the cartel members. “We are the meth cooks,” a masked man says on screen. “We know we do harm. But what are we going to do? We come from poverty.”

Foley, meanwhile, leads the Arizona Border Recon, a vigilante group that hunts drug smugglers and human traffickers on the American side of the border. “It’s the cartels,” he says on the safer side of the line in America. “They’re the ones terrorizing their own country, and now they’re starting to do it over here.”

Cartel Land is a mostly political tale in America’s back yard punctuated with heart-stopping scenes of battle we associate more with war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq than where millions of us like to go on vacation. Most of it focuses on Michoacan’s autodefensas, a militia movement that starts out surprisingly civic-minded considering the fact that it’s…a militia. “When the government can’t provide basic security for its people,” Dr. Mireles says, “we take up arms.”

The story on the American side is, by contrast, a bit on the dull side. Heineman seems to know it, too, so most of the screen time is down there in Mexico. The American “militia” isn’t really even a militia, at least not in the Mexican sense of the word, and certainly not in the Iraqi sense of the word. The only thing Foley’s crew really has in common with Mireles’ autodefensas is that the drug cartels are the enemy.

The Arizona Border Recon is filling an American Border Patrol gap rather than liberating conquered cities. They’re not fighting pitched battles. They’re just wandering around in the no-man’s land of the desert and making occasional citizen’s arrests.

Dr. José Mireles, on the other hand, actually liberates cities. That’s how bad it is in some parts of Mexico. The government sits on its ass while entire cities need to be liberated from armies of killers.

The first time we see the Mexican government, the army rolls into town and disarms not the cartel members but the citizen autodefensas. Furious residents chase the army away and ensure the militia gets its guns back.

In another town, though, the autodefensas are met with an icy chill. A huge throng of concerned citizens gathers in the town square and insists that the state should have a monopoly on the use of force, that unaccountable militiamen could all too easily become the very monsters they’re fighting against.

It’s an interesting moment, and it’s initially not obvious who we should side with. So many state officials have been bought off by cartel money that the government won’t do its job. The government at times even facilitates the cartels. The concerned citizens are surely right on general principle, but Mexico is a place where foxes guard the henhouse. What are regular people supposed to do? Just sit there and take it?

The autodefensas, however, lose their moral authority over time. Dr. José Mireles is shoved aside by his bodyguard, a fat man with a beard known as “Papa Smurf,” who lacks Mireles’ civic-minded decency. “We can’t become the criminals we are fighting against,” Dr. Mireles warns Papa Smurf, but to no avail. Under new leadership, the autodefensas begin running roughshod over people.

Papa Smurf initially hated the cartels for the same reasons as everyone else, but he likes power a little too much. It’s an old story. It predates even antiquity.

Mireles flees and Papa Smurf agrees to transform the autodefensas into a deputized wing of the state security apparatus. That’s exactly what should have happened, in theory. In a better world, in a better Mexico, militias would be either disarmed or integrated into the government. The state really does need a monopoly on the use of force. We’ve all seen what happens in countries elsewhere in the world—Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo—where military power is dispersed among various factions.

There’s a moment of hope, then, when the autodefensas become part of the government The problem is that nothing else changes beforehand. The state is as corrupted by cartel money as ever. And now the autodefensas—led by a Papa Smurf drunk on his own newfound power—have become a part of that corrupt state.

Cartel Land ends on a note that’s positively Middle Eastern in its bleakness. The cartel-government hybrid swallows the citizens’ movement as if it’s the Borg. The deputized autodefensas are now working with rather than against the cartels while Dr. Mireles languishes in prison on weapons charges.

It’s clear as glass by the end that Mexico is no more prepared to emerge from its quagmire of crookedness, crime, armed conflict and poverty than it was when I was a kid. Yet somehow, despite it all, the enormous tourism industry is still flourishing.

You can still go down there on holiday if you want, but don’t watch Cartel Land on the plane, and don’t take the kids.

Outspoken Russian Lawmaker Expelled for Truth

In the tightly controlled and airproof “vertical of power” that is Vladimir Putin’s Russia, even a handful of dissenting voices in legislative institutions—especially when they are loud and persistent—can present a serious threat to the system. Such was the voice of the late Boris Nemtsov, who, during his short time in the Yaroslavl Regional Duma, successfully challenged official corruption and put the authorities on the defensive. Such is the voice of Lev Shlosberg, a regional lawmaker in Pskov, who has been a constant thorn in the side of the regime with his refusal to stay silent over its power abuses.

World Affairs Welcomes Vladimir Kara-Murza's Return

Undeterred and Defiant, Vladimir Kara-Murza Returns

We at World Affairs are very pleased to announce that our friend and colleague, Vladimir Kara-Murza, has returned to his weekly blog after prevailing through the enormous challenges of recent months. We are most grateful that he is safe, healthy, among loved ones, and ready to resume his important work to help bring freedom and justice to Russia and expose those preventing it.

— James S. Denton, Publisher and Editor

Putin’s Misguided Move in Syria

Russia’s incompetent bully of a leader, Vladimir Putin, has just committed his latest blunder. He’s decided to prop up the dying Assad regime with weapons and soldiers. Good luck! The USSR’s fiasco in Afghanistan and America’s in Iraq have clearly failed to deter the Kremlin’s serial bumbler from committing his latest strategic mistake.

The mortar shell that struck Russia’s embassy compound in Damascus on September 20th is a foretaste of things to come. As Russian troops intervene in greater numbers—as they surely will in order to prop up a doomed regime—Russian casualties will mount. Eventually, ISIS will engage in its usual barbarism and beheaded Russian soldiers will appear on television. At that point, Western commentators, who’ve mostly interpreted Putin’s intervention as a devilishly clever move, will start saying that Russia stumbled into a conflict it cannot win.

Putin watchers shouldn’t be surprised by the Russian dictator’s latest blunder.

Timid on Tibet

On September 3rd, the world watched with fascination and at least a little trepidation as China marked the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender during World War II with a parade of troops and military hardware. The next day, the Pentagon acknowledged Chinese naval warships had entered US territorial waters in the Bering Strait. It was not a subtle message, even if Xi Jinping, dressed in a black Mao suit, did use the word peace more than a dozen times in his speech to mark the occasion.

The Fool, Russia, and Ukraine

With The Fool (Durak), 34-year-old Russian film director Yuri Bykov has officially become his country’s Cassandra.

The New York Times says the film is about corruption in a squalid Russia. Bykov’s 2014 film is about much more than that. The Fool is an obvious allegory of the rottenness—and coming collapse—of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The Clarion Call of ISIS

British Muslims are losing the war against ISIS. So says Sunny Hundal in a new essay in Quartz magazine.

“For the vast majority of Muslims who disdain its ideology,” he writes, “the challenge that [ISIS] presents to them is deadlier and far more difficult because they are caught in a pincer movement: with public and government suspicion on one side, and a seductive and supposedly empowering ideology on the other.”

According to the FBI, around 200 American Muslims have left the United States to join ISIS. And according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 600-700 British Muslims have left the United Kingdom just this year alone. The grand total of British Muslims running off to join ISIS is well over 1,000.

Compared to just 200 Americans.

The number of Muslims in each country is almost identical at roughly 2.7 million apiece. So British Muslims at least five times more likely to join ISIS than American Muslims.

Why? For at least three reasons. As Hundal notes, two ideas have been bouncing around in the British Muslim community for years—that Muslims should travel abroad to defend their fellow Muslims when necessary and to strive for a caliphate—an Islamic government—if and whenever possible.

American Muslims don’t find these ideas quite so compelling, and I suspect that’s for reason number three: The United States is a nation of immigrants. A foreign-born person can become American in a way that he or she simply can’t become English or Scottish or Welsh or French or German or anything else except maybe Canadian. National identities in the United States and Canada are based far less on ethnicity and religion than in the old world, where national identities have much longer histories that stretch back hundreds and sometimes even thousands of years.

Assimilating into mainstream American culture isn’t easy, but there’s a well-worn path trod by nearly every family in this country. The process itself is part of our identity.

Both British and American Muslims are more likely to join ISIS than Al Qaeda. Which isn’t the least bit surprising. Al Qaeda does nothing but kill people. Its record is naught but destruction.

But ISIS has actually built something. It’s appalling, of course. The Islamic state is a blood-soaked totalitarian prison. But so was the Soviet Union, and it, too, inspired huge numbers of people all over the world to take up arms and violently create knock-offs, from Cuba and Vietnam to South Yemen and even Somalia and Ethiopia.

We should never underestimate the appeal of a utopian fantasy in the human psyche even if it is drenched in blood.

Some people who find these utopias stirring deny that they’re drenched in blood. Others make excuses. (You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.) Still others are attracted to these ideas and places because they’re drenched in blood. Jihadi John, the Kuwait-British man who beheaded a string of jumpsuit-clad journalists and aid workers on camera, is clearly some kind of psychopath. So are the ISIS fighters who serially rape their captured “war brides.” So is Lisa Borch, the 15-year old Danish girl who fell in love with an Islamist extremist and stabbed her mother to death with a kitchen knife.

There’s an upside to the exodus, I suppose. Britain and the United States are better off without these people. If they didn’t run off to Syria, they’d be living down the street. We’d have fewer Jihadi Johns and more Lisa Borchs.

Syria sure as hell isn’t better off with these people as “immigrants,” but they’ll eventually die there when the Islamic State, like every other monstrous utopian entity, either destroys itself from within or is destroyed from without by fed-up outsiders.

When it finally happens, whether it’s next year or two decades from now, the British and American Muslim communities will be, on average, a little more politically moderate and sane than they are now. 

China Official Creates Controversy in Hong Kong

Tuesday, Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s chief executive, lent support to controversial remarks made Saturday by China’s top official in Hong Kong. Zhang Xiaoming, head of Beijing’s Liaison Office, precipitated a new controversy over the weekend with comments about the supremacy of the powers of the city’s top political official.

Zhang said the CE, as the chief executive is sometimes called, has “a special legal position which overrides administrative, legislative, and judicial organs.”

Beijing, in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, promised Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” until 2047. The city has been a special administrative region of the People’s Republic since 1997.

Ukrainians Impatient With Pace of Reforms

Ukrainians are angry. The standard refrains are that there are no reforms and that Ukraine is worse off than it used to be.

Such deep-seated anger was at the root of the violent demonstration at the Parliament a few weeks ago. Most commentators focused on the violence and its implications for Ukraine’s democracy. In fact, despite the Western media’s bizarre infatuation with Ukraine’s radical right, it is tiny and poses no threat to the system.

Far more worrisome is the widespread popular anger and growing popular radicalism.

Angry people who make radical demands—of the we-want-everything-immediately variety—and mistrust their leaders make for illegitimate and unstable rule. At some point, illegitimate and unstable rule can crumble. If Ukraine ever comes unglued, it’ll be because popular anger produced a third Maidan that destroyed Ukraine’s fledgling institutions and either created chaos or brought radicals to power. All Ukrainians would lose. Vladimir Putin would win.


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