Sayonara . . .

The shifts in geopolitical alignments haven’t slowed, nor has the broad direction of movement changed. China and Russia’s gravitational pull is slowly drawing in a disparate group of nations, all in their different ways eager to lessen US influence.

If America won’t cede its post-Soviet hyperpower status and accept a more balanced and complex world, it’s likely to be a troubled decade or two. With their foreign policy heavily driven by desire and politics rather than reality, it’s not easy to be particularly hopeful.

And then there’s the economic storm clouds massing just over the horizon: gross overindebtedness; persistent imbalances; central banks and governments fighting symptoms rather than causes; looming demographic shifts; and so on ad nauseam.

Interesting times, certainly.

As for me, I haven’t felt any desire lately to comment on these developments, fascinating though they are. Whether that will change any time soon, I don’t know. So, for the moment, sayonara.

‘School lessons and shelling forge new identity in east Ukraine’ | FT.com

It’s refreshing to see some genuine reportage about Ukraine appearing in mainstream western media.

While some may see this week’s Minsk memorandum, which calls for a ceasefire in east Ukraine and the eventual re-establishment of national borders, as the first step towards the DPR’s disbandment, there are few signs in the region of a rebel leadership preparing to relinquish control — or a society that wants them to.

After a months-long siege that has destroyed local infrastructure, and left the population under the near-constant percussion of artillery, a new sense of regional identity has taken hold in Donetsk. Though some of it is being transmitted through top-down initiatives such as Ms Prussova’s class, much of it has come through the Ukrainian army’s shelling, which has turned many formerly pro-Ukrainian locals against Kiev.

Courtney Weaver’s piece for the FT included this sad but amusing quote from a previously pro-Ukrainian 20-year-old student Continue reading

Merkel and Hollande in Moscow

The tragedy in Ukraine grinds on. After the comparatively peaceful period ushered in by the Minsk agreement in September, renewed fighting has broken out in recent weeks. Russia is copping most of the blame with the US (and more aggressive European players) considering sizeable arms transfers to Ukraine.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. In (most) western eyes, Russia is ipso facto guilty. That Ukraine has failed to honour their side of the Minsk agreement is never mentioned. The obligations, it seems, are entirely one-sided.

At any rate, the more important (or at least intriguing) news is that Merkel and Hollande are in Moscow this weekend. They arrived on Friday night, direct from Kiev, and went straight to the Kremlin where they remained closeted with Putin for an initial five hours. Media were not welcome; apparently photographers were allowed in for about 30 seconds and not a word was spoken.

German Chancellor Merkel gets into a car upon her arrival at Moscow's Vnukovo airport

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gets into a car upon her arrival at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport February 6, 2015. (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin) – Courtesy RT

What does this all mean? Continue reading

“Inside Isis: The first Western journalist ever given access to the Islamic State”

Jürgen Todenhöfer, 74, is a renowned German journalist and publicist who travelled through Turkey to Mosul, the largest city occupied by Isis, after months of negotiations with the group’s leaders.

He plans to publish a summary of his “10 days in the Islamic State” on Monday, but in interviews with German-language media outlets has revealed his first impressions of what life is like under Isis.

For those of us viewing these developments from a great distance, it’s a confusing time.

On the one hand, the battle over Kobane seems stalemated. It’s being progressively destroyed but neither the Kurds nor the IS have yet been able to gain a clear upper hand. Given this was a target of choice for the IS, just now that looks a little like a defeat.

On the other, they seem to be consolidating their hold on vast tracts of Iraq and Syria. And, if Todenhöfer is to be believed, viewed by many as saviours or liberators.

Once within Isis territory, Todenhöfer said his strongest impression was “that Isis is much stronger than we think here”. He said it now has “dimensions larger than the UK”, and is supported by “an almost ecstatic enthusiasm that I have never encountered in any other warzone”.

“Each day, hundreds of willing fighters arrive from all over the world,” he told tz. “For me it is incomprehensible.”

Ultimately, its “success” will probably rest more on its administrative capabilities than its military prowess. If it can consolidate military gains and turn conquered territory into a comparatively safe, supportive hinterland, almost anything becomes possible. If it can’t, in time the whole thing will probably unravel.

via Inside Isis: The first Western journalist ever given access to the ‘Islamic State’ Jurgen Todenhofer has just returned – and this is what he discovered –  The Independent

Update: CNN interview with Todenhöfer.

(h/t FB Ali)

Looking in the mirror

In a recent interview, Karen Armstrong was asked: “So, when we in the West talk about religion as the cause of this violence, how much are we letting ourselves off the hook, and using religion as a way to ignore our role in the roots of this violence?”

We’re in danger of making a scapegoat of things, and not looking at our own part in this. When we look at these states and say, “Why can’t they get their act together? Why can’t they see that secularism is the better way? Why are they so in thrall to this benighted religion of theirs? What savages they are,” and so on, we’ve forgotten to see our implication in their histories.

We came to modernity under our own steam. It was our creation. It had two characteristics. One of these was independence — your Declaration of Independence is a typical modernizing document. And you have thinkers and scientists demanding free thought and independent thinking. This was essential to our modernity. But in the Middle East, in the colonized countries, modernity was a colonial subjection, not independence.

Without a sense of independence and a driving force for innovation, however many skyscrapers and fighter jets you may possess, and computers and technological gadgets, without these qualities you don’t really have the modern spirit. That modern spirit is almost impossible to acquire in countries where modernity has been imposed from outside.

Instead, modernity is seen as a threat, a further humiliation. Continue reading

Putin interview with German TV

In an interview with German TV channel ARD on November 13, Putin expressed cautious optimism about Ukraine’s future before adding:

You know, there is only one thing that is missing. I believe, what is missing is the understanding that in order to be successful, stable and prosperous, the people who live on this territory, regardless of the language they speak (Hungarian, Russian, Ukrainian or Polish), must feel that this territory is their homeland. To achieve that they must feel that they can realise their potential here as well as in any other territories and possibly even better to some extent. That is why I do not understand the unwillingness of some political forces in Ukraine to even hear about the possibility of federalisation.

Pushed by Hubert Seipel about whether Russia “can do more” to rein in the separatists, Putin eventually went back to what he sees as “the essence of the problem”. Continue reading

Satellite images shed light on the impact of the Syrian conflict

In recent years darkness has enveloped Syria, not only metaphorically but also literally.

TRES-35-18-Syrian-night-light-fig.1

The results indicate that night-time light and lit area in Syria declined by about 74% and 73%, respectively, between March 2011 and February 2014. In 12 of 14 provinces, night-time light declined by >60%. Damascus and Quneitra are the exceptions, with night-time light having declined only by about 35%. Notably, the number of internally displaced persons IDPs of each province shows a linear correlation with night-time light loss, with an R2 value of 0.52. [ . . . ] These findings lend support to the hypothesis that night-time light can be a useful source for monitoring humanitarian crises such as that unfolding in Syria.

via Satellite images shed light on the impact of the Syrian conflict (h/t Colonel Cassad)