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Russian Democrats Offer Support in Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine, April 27th — As Vladimir Putin’s regime continues to foment unrest and stage armed provocations in eastern Ukraine, hundreds of prominent Russians—cultural and intellectual figures, civil society leaders, journalists, pro-democracy politicians—gathered here last week to express solidarity with the people of Ukraine and voice their support for a democratic and European future for both countries.

The forum, titled “Ukraine-Russia Dialogue,” was initiated by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, head of the Open Russia Foundation and, for more than a decade, Russia’s most prominent political prisoner. The event was intended, above all, to demonstrate that Putin’s unelected regime and Russian society are two very different things.

Thanks to All Kickstarter Donors

My Kickstarter project for Vietnam is now funded, so I'm officially going.

I have some prep work to do before I can head out and I still need my visa from the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington. Most likely I'll fly to Hanoi in June, spend some time there, then take the train down to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

I sent everyone a thank-you email, and I also want to thank my biggest donors here on the blog.

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David

In Eastern Ukraine, Terror from Pro-Kremlin Outsiders

For three years now, I’ve been providing a small scholarship to a little girl in the city of Druzhkivka (population: 65,000) in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk Province. Her mother, G, has sent me several brief on-the-ground reports of events in Druzhkivka (the translations below, from Ukrainian, are mine). They convey better than any analysis just what average Ukrainians are experiencing as a result of Vladimir Putin’s promotion of terrorism in eastern Ukraine.

Bands of outsiders have been terrorizing the city since February 22nd, the day after the triumph of the democratic Euro Revolution in Kyiv and the collapse of the criminal regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. On Saturday, April 12th, armed pro-Russian terrorists seized the Druzhkivka district administration building. Since then, the city has been at the mercy of the pro-Kremlin extremists.

Note a few important points.

Egypt's Jewish Problem

Egypt is by far the most anti-Semitic country I’ve ever visited. It’s off the charts even compared with the rest of the region.

Everyone who posseses even a passing familiarity with Egyptian politics knows this is a serious problem, but the reasons why aren’t as widely understood as they should be. The three main theories—that Egypt’s Jewish problem is a result of the Islamic religion, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and state propaganda to deflect anger away from the government—are partly correct, but they don’t adequately explain what’s actually happening. There are other deeper reasons that should be more widely known than they are.

Egyptian scholar Samuel Tadros, whose book Motherland Lost I reviewed last year for the Wall Street Journal, gets down to the nuts and bolts in The American Interest.

His essay is long and complex, so be sure to read the whole thing. Here is but a taste.

To understand the roots of anti-Semitism in the Arab world in general and Egypt in particular, we must look much deeper. We must explore both the crisis of modernity in the Arab world and the importation of European ideologies and ideas.

The crisis of modernity in the Arab world began with the sudden realization of the West’s advancement and the miserable state of Arabs and Muslims by comparison. Isolated for centuries from developments in Europe, Egyptians—first their rulers and intellectuals but later on the general population as well—were shocked to discover that the Frenchmen led by Napoleon who had landed on their shores were not the same Franks they had defeated during the Crusades. The shock of the discovery of Western technological, material, and military superiority shattered the existing political order and demanded a response. The initial approach of simply importing and copying Western technology proved inadequate, as the gap between Egypt and the West grew wider. Occupation by European powers only aggravated the crisis. The crisis revolved around two questions: What went wrong, as Bernard Lewis accurately framed it; and how can we catch up.

For a while, copying the West in practice and appearance carried the day. This was the triumphant moment for modernization, liberalism, and Westernization in Egypt. Ahmed Lutfi El Sayed formulated an Egyptian nationalism, and the struggle for independence from Britain united the nation. But cracks started to appear. Egypt never managed to catch up to the West; the West, represented in Britain, proved unwilling to uphold democratic and liberal values in Egypt; and most importantly modernization was tearing society apart with little to show for it. The introduction of mass education, industrialization, and urbanization was breaking up traditional society, while modern society had not yet been created. Thousands were coming to the cities in search of a better future only to be shocked by the lack of opportunities available to them. This was the generation of Nasser, a generation described in Egyptian historiography as “the new Effendis.” The last straw was Western disillusionment with the promises of liberal democracy and the rise of communist and, more importantly, fascist regimes in Europe.

[…]

The Nazi efforts had a lasting impact on Egypt. Nasser and his fellow officers belonged to those organizations and movements from the Muslim Brotherhood to Young Egypt that had collaborated with the Nazis and were greatly influenced by them during their formative years. Following the military coup in 1952, anti-Semitism moved from the state of appealing ideology to State-sponsored ideology. While some scholarly attention has been given to the role of German scientists in building the Egyptian rockets program, less attention has been given to the role of Nazi ideologues in shaping educational and propaganda efforts in Egypt. “In 1956, Nasser hired Johann von Leers, one of the Nazi regime’s leading anti-Semitic propagandists, to assist the Egyptian Ministry of Information in fashioning its own anti-Semitic and anti Zionist campaigns” (Herf, Nazi Propaganda).

[…]

Those hopeful that the Arab Spring would introduce a breath of fresh air in the region, and especially on the question of anti-Semitism, were soon mugged by reality. Instead of becoming less appealing, anti-Semitism has become the lingua franca of politics in Egypt. Faced with tremendous political, social, and economic upheaval, the Egyptian political class and the general population have found an answer in the Jewish conspiracy. Israel, Turkey, the United States, the European Union, and Qatar are all conspiring against Egypt, screams a self-proclaimed Egyptian liberal; the United States is working against Copts for the benefit of Jews, shouts a Coptic activist; the Brotherhood is implementing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, writes the newspaper of what was once Egypt’s flagship liberal party; Israel aims to divide Egypt into a number of smaller and weaker states, writes another; Brotherhood leaders are Masonic Jews proclaims a Sufi leader; no, it’s the coup that is working for the benefit of the Jews, declares the Brotherhood’s website. These are all symptoms of a decaying society.

Read the whole thing.

Skipping China, Obama Seeks to Reassure Asian Allies

President Obama is “wheels up” Tuesday, beginning an eight-day, four-nation visit to East Asia. The most notable aspect of the trip is not where he is going but where he is not. He is not going to China.

That’s a good thing because Washington in recent years has been paying far too much attention to Chinese autocrats and not enough to America’s five democratic allies and many friends in the region.

The president will meet three of the allies—Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines—and one friend—Malaysia—yet the week in Asia is all about a country that is neither, China. An expansionist China covets territories of all four nations, and it has been attempting to close off international waters, bringing itself into contention with an America that has defended freedom of navigation for more than two centuries.

Vladimir Putin's Next Move

If Vladimir Putin invades Poland, I’ll eat my hat.

It’s not going to happen.

Even so, American ground troops are being deployed there as a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. This is the West telling him STOP. He’s not going to invade a European Union or NATO state either way, but we’d end up sending a crazy-weak signal if all we did was collectively shrug.

Ukraine still isn’t in NATO, however, and probably never will be, so it’s still vulnerable. Putin can slice it and dice it all over again. The US won’t physically stop him for the same reason he won’t invade Poland. Nobody wants to blow up the world, especially not over this.

So Ukraine’s vulnerable. Pro-Russian militiamen are occupying dozens of government buildings, city halls, and police stations in the eastern part of the country where many ethnic Russians live. It’s hard to say for sure if Putin is egging these people on or if they’re acting on their own, envious of their cousins in Crimea who got to go “home” without moving. Either way, they’re serving Putin’s agenda.

By annexing Crimea, he proved to the world that he’s willing to mutilate Ukraine when it displeases him, which it very much did when it cast off his vassal, Viktor Yanukovych, in February.

He doesn’t need, and probably doesn’t want, to do it again. What he needs in Ukraine now is leverage, and the best way to get it is to hang another potential Russian invasion over Kiev like a Sword of Damocles.

Putin could take Eastern Ukraine, but it would do him no good. It’s the poorest part of the country and would turn into an instantaneous money pit for him, akin to the United States annexing Tijuana in Northern Mexico. He can’t possibly want that, not if he has any sense.

He’d lose all his leverage over Kiev. Even an unspoken threat of invasion, occupation, and annexation is enough to make Ukraine act with tremendous caution toward Moscow, but if Putin pulls the trigger, Kiev would have nothing left to lose.

And the odds that Ukraine, shorn of nearly all its ethnic Russians, would ever again elect a president who’s soft on Moscow would be virtually nil. Ukraine would slip from Putin’s sphere of influence so utterly that the only way he’d be able to get it back into his orbit would be by invading and conquering the whole country.

Never mind the price he’d pay internationally for that kind of stunt; invading and occupying the largest country in Europe would require more than a half-million troops and God-only-knows how much money. And for what purpose? Ukraine poses no national security threat whatsoever to Russia.

Still, a fight broke out with a pro-Russian militia in the far-eastern city of Sloyvansk yesterday, leaving at least three militiamen dead. The mayor is asking Putin to send peacekeepers, something the militiamen would almost certainly welcome. This sort of thing could easily get out of hand, especially if the pro-Russian militias decide to wreak as much havoc as possible to draw Putin in even if he’d rather stay home. Wars break out all the time that aren’t wanted or planned for.

It’s no big deal that Poland is asking for American ground troops. That’s just predictable, and prudent, geopolitical posturing. If Ukraine asks, though, that would be the time to start getting nervous.

The Ukraine Deal: Has Putin Realized He Overplayed His Hand?

Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula may have boosted his popularity, but that hasn’t prevented $64 billion from flowing out of the country since the beginning of 2014. “The capital outflow is a powerful statement about how the commercial sector feels about the situation,” said Finnish diplomat Jaakko Iloniemi, a former ambassador to Washington and now senior adviser to President Martti Ahtisaari.

Economic considerations may have been a factor in Thursday’s tentative deal in Geneva, even as Putin perhaps comes to the realization that he has “overplayed his hand,” Iloniemi said.

Iloniemi was in Washington this week to assess American thinking about the Ukraine crisis, having just visited Moscow for the same purpose. He said many Russian foreign policy specialists and intellectuals had expressed concern over Putin’s actions and intentions, but shared the Russian president’s view that European and American leadership lacked the toughness that would discourage him.

Kremlin 'Reforms' Usurp Local Elections, Self-Government

As the Russian Foreign Ministry continues to issue Orwellian statements demanding immediate “federalization” in Ukraine, the Kremlin is moving to dismantle what little remains of federalism and self-government in Russia. This week, the State Duma passed a bill that abolishes direct elections for mayors and legislative councils in 67 cities across the country, including 56 regional capitals. The leaders of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party who spearheaded the municipal “reform” did not even pretend to provide justification.

With federal and regional elections closely managed to avoid any surprises for the Kremlin, municipal polls remained the last opportunity for Russian citizens to express their views. In the past two years, the Kremlin faced a whole series of humiliating defeats in mayoral elections across Russia, including in Yaroslavl, Togliatti, Petrozavodsk, Yekaterinburg, and, just this month, Novosibirsk. It seems that the regime has had enough.

Mysterious Suicides in China's Leadership

A spate of suicides among officials in China has caught the country’s attention. Beijing’s censors have quickly moved to end speculation about the deaths, indicating the Communist Party’s sensitivity, but everyday people remain suspicious.

The body of Xu Yean, 58, of the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, was discovered on April 8th in his Beijing office. He was the fourth high-ranking official to take his own life in recent months. 

To Embargo or Not

It's impossible to visit and write about Cuba without mentioning the US embargo, so I wrote a piece about it for the print edition of World Affairs. It's available online now. Here's the first part.

Aside from the Arab boycott against Israel, American sanctions against Cuba have lasted longer than any other embargo in the modern era.

The sanctions were imposed in stages in the early 1960s after Fidel Castro began economic warfare against the United States by nationalizing private US property on the island. Cuban communism survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, so in 1993 the purpose of the embargo was modified by the Cuban Democracy Act, stating that it will not be lifted unless and until the government in Havana respects the “internationally accepted standards of human rights” and “democratic values.”

For years now, the embargo has appeared to me as outdated as it has been ineffective. The Chinese government, while less repressive nowadays than Cuba’s, likewise defies internationally accepted standards of human rights, yet it’s one of America’s biggest trading partners. And the embargo against Cuba gives the Castro regime the excuse it desperately needs for its citizens’ economic misery. As ever, it is all the fault of the Yanquis. Cuba’s people are poor not thanks to communism but because of America.

After spending a few weeks in Cuba in October and November, however, I came home feeling less certain that the embargo was an anachronism. The ailing Fidel Castro handed power to his less ideological brother Raúl a few years ago, and the regime finally realizes what has been obvious to everyone else for what seems like forever: communism is an epic failure. Change is at last on the horizon for the island, and there’s a chance that maybe—just maybe—the embargo might help it finally arrive.

*

“I fully support the embargo and the travel ban,” Cuban exile Valentin Prieto says, “and am on record calling for it to be tightened and given some real teeth instead of allowing it to remain the paper tiger it is. The United States of America is the bastion of democracy and liberty in the world. Not only should we not have normal relations with repressive regimes, it is our moral obligation to ensure, by whatever means possible save for military action, that we in no way promote, fund, assist, ignore, or legitimize said repressive regimes.”

Professor Alfred Cuzán at the University of West Florida offers a counterpoint. “One argument in support of keeping the embargo,” he says, “is that it gives the United States leverage to force the Castros to make liberalizing changes. I think that argument has some merit. And Cuba did confiscate and expropriate American property. But I don’t think the embargo is effective. The regime can still get whatever it wants from Canada, from Europe, and so on. The US embargo is something of a myth.”

He has a point. The United States is Cuba’s fifth-largest trading partner after Venezuela, China, Spain, and Brazil. Cuba gets more of its products from the United States even now than from Canada or Mexico. Sanctions are still in place—Cuba cannot buy everything, and it must pay in cash—but the embargo is hardly absolute.

The United States, however, purchases nothing from Cuba. Americans are for the most part prohibited by US law from traveling there. You can’t just buy a plane ticket to Havana and hang out on the beach. You have to go illegally through Mexico or book an expensive people-to-people tour through the mere handful of travel agents licensed to arrange such trips by the US Treasury Department. Journalists like me are exempt from these regulations, but I am still not allowed to buy Cuban rum or cigars and bring them back with me.

The embargo does harm the Cuban economy—after all, that’s the point—but the bankrupt communist system inflicts far more damage, and in any case the decision to break off economic relations was made not by the United States but by Fidel Castro.

“Cuba is ninety miles across the Florida Straits,” said Professor Cuzán, “and was increasingly integrated in the American market for a hundred years. Then Castro severed economic and commercial ties completely and shifted the entire economy toward the Soviet Union. That was insane. Then he tried to forge cultural ties with the Soviet Union and force Cubans to learn Russian. It was a crazy project and it ruined the country.”

Cuba isn’t yoked to Moscow any longer, now that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, but its economic system is still mostly communist. The government owns all major industries, including what in normal countries are small businesses like restaurants and bars, so the majority of Cubans work for the state. Salaries are capped at twenty dollars a month and supplemented with a ration card.

I asked a Cuban woman what she gets on that card. “Rice, beans, bread, eggs, cooking oil, and two pounds of chicken every couple of months. We used to get soap and detergent, but not anymore.”

Doctor and hospital visits are free, but Cuba never has enough medicine. I had to bring a whole bag full of supplies with me because even the simplest items like Band-Aids and antibiotics aren’t always available. Patients have to bring their own drugs, their own sheets, and even their own iodine—if they can find it—to the hospital with them.

Cuba is constantly short on food too. I was told in October that potatoes won’t be available again until January. That can’t be a result of the embargo. Cuba is a tropical island with excellent soil and a year-round growing season perfectly capable of producing its own potatoes. But the potato shortage is no surprise. I saw shockingly little agriculture in the countryside. Most fields are fallow. Those that still produce food are minuscule. Cows look like leather-wrapped skeletons. We have more and better agriculture in the Eastern Oregon desert, where the soil is poor, where only six inches of rain falls every year, and where the winters are long and shatteringly cold.

I heard no end of horror stories about soap shortages, both before and after I got there. A journalist friend of mine who visits Cuba semi-regularly brings little bars of hotel soap with him and hands them out to his interview subjects.

“They break down in tears when I give them soap,” he told me. “How often does that happen?” I said. “A hundred percent of the time,” he said.

Read the rest!

Putin’s Russia as a State Sponsor of Terrorism

Putin’s Russia has become what the US Department of State calls a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

Here’s how: After the Anschluss of Crimea, Putin had three options. He could invade all or parts of Ukraine, or hope that pro-Russian demonstrators would flood Ukraine’s streets and assert their “people power.” The first option has not been pursued, perhaps because it’s too risky. The second failed, as the vast majority of Ukraine’s southeastern citizens have remained indifferent or opposed to unification with Russia.

That left Putin with one remaining option: terrorism.

Here’s why Putin’s Russia qualifies as a state sponsor of terrorism. According to Section 2656f(d) of Title 22 of the United States Code:

(1) the term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country;

(2) the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents; and

Vietnam is Funded

I’ve raised the money I need to get to Vietnam later this spring. Thanks so much to everybody who pitched in on Kickstarter.

I owe everyone a personal thank-you, but I should wait until the 30-day period ends to make sure I don’t miss anyone.

Your regularly scheduled programming will resume shortly.

Trading Barbs with Putin

One of Ukraine’s richest oligarchs, Igor Kolomoisky, has just taken another rude poke at Russian President Vladimir Putin. And this time the Jewish Ukrainian businessman hasn’t just insulted Putin. By invoking Jewish support of Putin’s Ukrainian nationalist bogeyman—Stepan Bandera (1909–59)—Kolomoisky, who is president of the European Jewish Union and a leading Jewish philanthropist, has engaged in the ultimate provocation.

From Burgers to Banks, Russia Sanctions Start to Bite

Among the spate of unintended consequences of Vladimir Putin’s Crimean landgrab is the closure of the three highly popular McDonald’s outlets in the Black Sea peninsula—in Sebastopol, Simferopol, and Yalta, according to the Russia media. The 500 or so McDonald’s staff were given the choice of relocating to branches of the American fast food chain elsewhere in Ukraine, or accepting a severance package and not moving. Most of them opted to stay put, the reports say, doubtless in the expectation that the hamburgers would soon be sizzling again under Russian management, as affiliates of Russia’s own McDonald’s operation of more than 200 outlets (the one in Pushkin Square, in Moscow, has the distinction of being the world’s busiest).

More serious is the virtual disappearance from Crimea of the banking system as Ukrainian and foreign banks have closed their branches. PrivatBank, the largest bank in Ukraine, shuttered its 339 branches last month. But Russian banks are reluctant to step into the gap and establish a presence in the annexed territory for fear of being hit by future Western sanctions.

We’re at 70 Percent. Let’s Get to 100.

I’ve raised around 70 percent of the money I need to get to Vietnam later this spring, but I won’t get any of it unless the project is 100 percent funded.

I’d like to get this wrapped up as soon as possible so I can plan my trip properly and get the prep work taken care of. I’ve already started that process, but I don’t want to move ahead at full speed until I know for sure I can go.

So if you haven’t pitched in yet, let’s get this done.

The toughest part about completing a successful Kickstarter campaign is getting the word out. I can reach lots of people with my blog, Twitter, and Facebook, but it will help if I can reach even more. There are thousands of people out there who would pledge a little money if they knew this project existed.

A new Web site called Kickdriver will allow me to reward those of you who have blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts of your own if you tell your friends and followers what I’m up to. You can collect rewards from my past Kickstarter projects and even get complimentary electronic copies of my books that are for sale commercially.

It's easy. If you’re interested, sign up at Kickdriver and let’s get this done for our mutual benefit.

Most important, though, please pitch in if you haven’t already.

Thanks, everybody!

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