Sunday, August 31, 2008

What is going on in Mexico ?

Unlike conventional wars between nations, the "drugs war" in Mexico seems to have attracted relatively little international coverage. However the level of violence that has caused around 2,700 deaths this year alone is really extraordinary.

Some the tactics adopted by the drugs gangs are beginning to resemble the Iraqi insurgency with such horrors as mass beheadings. In fact the level of kidnapping is apparently now worse than Iraq.

My knowledge of Mexico is very limited although I did once hop accross the border during a visit with a friend to California. This was in 2002 and we took a bus from San Diego to Tijuana. Perhaps as two naive Brits we were blissfully unaware of all that was going on. Tijuana was certainly a bit dubious but during the daylight hours we visited seemed no worse than a number of other places where local traders try to sell their wares to tourists. We were aware there was a seedier side to the place but apart from a few tourist shops and an internet cafe that doubled as a dentist we didn't go in anywhere. Satisfied with a brief but presumably unrepresentative glimpse of Mexico we got the bus back, waiting several hours to cross the US border with security apparently being higher than normal on what was the 6-month anniversary of September 11th, 2001.

I don't know if we were just lucky or if things really have got a lot worse in 6 years.

Here is a side of Tijuana I didn't see on my brief visit.

Recent goings on in Mexico really seem dreadful and ordinary people have to live their lives in the midst of this. Even from a cold-blooded criminal perspective the level of violence seems utterly bewildering and I am struggling to understand what is going on there. Understandably it seems ordinary Mexicans are desperate for this to stop.

South Ossetian views

Here are two youtube videos for readers to judge for themselves.

The first purports to show Georgian troops attacking Tskhinvali before the Russians arrived. The APCs certainly have Georgian markings and the apparent pot shots taken at an unarmed shepherd are disturbing.

The second is a Fox News interview with two Ossetian Americans, a 12-year old girl and her aunt who were in South Ossetia, visiting from San Francisco when the Georgian troops attacked. Some criticism has been aimed at Fox News for "interrupting" this interview with a commercial break. I am not sure if that is too valid. They girl and her Aunt had their say and an articulate South Ossetian perspective is more than many other channels have shown, CNN and BBC to name two.

That doesn't mean I don't think ordinary Georgians have suffered greatly in this and have probably suffered the most over the course of the conflict. The reason I am not specifically showing Georgian suffering here is that it has received far more coverage in the mainstream media. There has been suffering on all sides. This is a very troubled area and the line between Ossetian and Georgian is a bit blurred. I did not know until very recently that Joseph Stalin had an Ossetian Father and a Georgian mother. Clearly this is a troubled and fiery region.

Taste of Autumn

It seems a little unfair, after such a poor summer, but there is no denying that there are hints of autumn now appearing.

This morning London was covered in fog. That has now cleared but it promises to be a wet and stormy day. I suppose we shouldn't moan too much as yesterday was quite hot and sunny.

However tomorrow is the start of September and orange and brown leaves can already be seen. There is a slight nip in the air and a smell of autumn all around.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Russia: Biting Off more than we can chew (and agreeing when to bite)

The ruins of Tskhinvali after Russia and Georgia fought over this town. The West in general has quite a lot on its plate already before having to bail out President Saakashvili for his rather rash expedition here.

Since the conflict between Russia and Georgia started a few weeks ago, many commentators (both those I genuinely respect and some "others"!) have written or spoken of the potential for a "new cold war" and the need to challenge Russia in it current tendencies.

Before I start to question the overall prevailing wisdom on Russia, I should declare my interests:

1) I have just returned from a week in Moscow where the accounts given on Russian TV and on English speaking but Russian sponsored news outlets give an account of recent events that is almost unrecognisable from the general "BBC/CNN" version of events we have in the west.

2) My wife is Russian by nationality but has Ukrainian parents and a Russian uncle and many Russian friends. Her family and friends demonstrate the reality of what happens when a big country splits into smaller component parts. Real people get stuck on all sides the new borders and calling everyone one side of new border "Russian" and everyone the other side of the side of a new border "Ukrainian" is extremely arbitrary and belies the more complex reality millions of families who are scattered either side of a new border. The same would be true of the UK if it were to split tomorrow. After all, some of the most powerful people who rule over a majority English population are Scottish and Welsh and many English would remain in an independent Scotland. Many other families have both Scottish and English parts.

This introduction is necessary as I realise with that combination of family background I will certainly offend someone reasonably close to me !(in the unlikely event they read this).

Firstly to the recent events themselves. My understanding from reading a variety of different accounts is that Georgia fired the initial artillery rounds and rockets onto the South Ossettian capital, Tskhinvali. To balance that I should also note that South Ossetian separatists, to some extent sponsored by Russia had been provoking the Georgian authorities for a long time. It is also true that the fact that most of South Ossetia has Russian passports is a little more than a goodwill gesture from Russia to a people who identify more closely with Moscow than Tbilisi. Prime Minister Putin is widely known to loathe Georgian President Saakashvili and giving Russian passports to people within the borders of Georgia was probably an effective way of annoying Saakashvili.

That said, my personal conclusion is that Georgia's response to Russian backed provocation was disproportionate. What is shown less frequently on Western TV is that the South Ossetian capital was extremely heavily damaged by Georgian weaponry. Once that happened it was unrealistic to not expect Russian to retaliate.

The brief occupation of large parts of Georgia was about demonstrating power over a much smaller neighbour. At a basic level a large country dominating a small country is not very appealing. Russia also worked on "degrading" Georgia's military by sinking boats, blowing up army bases and carting away weaponry. Again this is not appealing but I would suggest a reality of war. If Russia had walked past an army base without damaging it, it would have been a first in the history of military occupation.

There were however extremely unsavoury and non-standard elements to the Russian backed forces. These were mainly South Ossetian militia who burned down some Georgian villages and allegedly killed some villagers. I say "allegedly" as although I have read accounts from witnesses as far as I know these have not been verified by western media.

The Caucasus themselves are an extremely troubled area. Chechnya is nearby and Russians have suffered at the hands of Chechen terrorists, their own in-house Islamic militants. Bordering South Ossetia, North Ossetia includes the town of Beslan where 300 Russian children died at the hands of terrorists and a bodged rescue mission in 2004. Therefore the Caucasus are not tranquil Surrey and the average Russian could be forgiven for having a jaded view of goings on there.

However I do acknowledge the reality that Russia is trying to extend its influence beyond its internationally recognised borders. In addition to the Georgian breakaway areas, this includes the Crimea (it was rather arbitrarily made part of SSR Ukraine in 1954 having previously been part of Russia), Transdniester in Moldova and potentially the areas with majority Russian populations in the Baltic states, notably Latvia.

These are all likely areas of contention in the coming months and years for two reasons:

1) The majority population in these areas feel more Russian than part of the state they are currently in
2) It suits Russia to destabilise these states and extend its influence.

The two points are intertwined and while the Western media stresses 2), this would not be possible without 1).

So, back to "biting off more than we can chew". While it is laudable to talk of defending small states, it is as someone I don't often quote once said "time to get real".

The reality is Russia cannot be fought out of the areas it currently occupies in the internationally recognised borders of Georgia. While Russia sheds no tears about destabilising Georgia the other reality is there are many people in these areas who welcome Russia. The same would be true in Crimea, Transdniester and part of Latvia.

The same would most certainly not be true in Poland where Russia would be unwelcome by anybody. This brings us to a term much over-used in the Georgia conflict; "red lines". Russia was said to have crossed many red lines in Georgia. These red lines turned out to be rather meaningless as nothing happened when they were crossed, least of all to Russia.

So it is time for the West to agree some "real red lines", lines that Russia knows it cannot cross without provoking a united Western response and not a series of PR related trips by political leaders new (Sarkozy) and aspiring (Cameron).

The reason for this less than idealistic approach is "getting real". It is not "getting real" to demand Russia leaves South Ossetia today. The only real power that could cause that, the US, is more than busy in Iraq and Afghanistan. While we hardly dare to say it too loud, Iraq seems to be getting better but Afghanistan and potentially Pakistan is getting worse. Benazir Bhutto's widower said yesterday the world should acknowledge it is loosing the war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This needs addressing and addressing urgently. Pakistan's frontier province faces large number of Al Qaeda foreign fighters including Arabs, Uzbeks and Chechens. Last week 10 French commandos were killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, a big loss for France and the casualties of all countries in Afghanistan continue to mount.

Last week in Sochi, Russian President Medvedev, isolated by Western criticism, met with Syrian President Assad in Sochi to discuss military cooperation. There are big dangers here of an isolated Russia making new "friends" with countries such as Iran and Syria. While this hardly puts Russia in good light, how much worse it will be for the West to face Islamic extremists, rogue states and a nuclear superpower in an unholy alliance.

This may seem far fetched and it is clear that would be a fragile alliance. However it seems an unnecessary risk from the west choosing to wage war on too many fronts.

My view is that Russia and the West have more in common than divides them. For one, Russia and the West both face Islamic extremism at home and abroad. Chechen militants would be equally happy to set off bombs in Moscow or at US bases in Afghanistan. On my visit to Russia last week, not once was I faced with negative sentiment. I think a visit to some Islamic countries would be rather different. There is no real appetite for a big conflict with the West in Russia. The West needs Russian oil and gas but Russia needs Western revenue in return.
Russians do feel there are some double standards however. Foremost amongst these double standards is Kosovo. Kosovo was historically integral to the Serbian state, an ally of Russia. Despite allocations of attrocities such as organ harvesting and former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton warning of the dangers of Kosovan independence (including Islamic extremism in Europe), the West chose to recognise the independence this year. To now object to the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia seems inconsistent to say the least.

The difficult lesson which many may not agree with is that the borders of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic do not always make the logical international borders of the Russian Federation. There are two ways of dealing with this:

1) Accept that some "adjustments" will be made in the coming years but only tolerate this in areas where majority Russian populations exist.
2) Strengthen Western military to such an extent that it can both fight the war on Terror and pose a meaningful threat to Russian expansion.

At all costs avoid hollow threats as these both antagonise Russia but do not help its near neighbours. This is the worst of all worlds and is what has happened in the last few weeks.

Finally, accepting that "we are where we are", the West needs to agree meaningful "red lines" over which Russia must not cross without receiving a meaningful military threat. One obvious red line is the Polish border.

Whatever the agreements and disagreements on this, a key point is the need to "get real". In the real world military force can still change realities and such force can come from all sides. The need for a strong military to defend our freedoms and those of our allies is vital. Anyone who feels in the least bit concerned by recent events should be supporting a stronger military than we currently have. While I caution against biting off more than we can chew, it would be useful to have some teeth in the first place. It would also be more than useful that the West agree at what point Russia can expect to be bitten rather than the meaningless barking of recent weeks. My own view is that in the current world order, with plenty of conflicts ongoing, a major exercise to "defend" areas of majority Russian population in Russia's near neighbours is unrealistic and unwise.
The sad reality maybe that just as the world needs it more, the US lead by President Obama will turn away from military reality and opt for "smiling diplomacy" and hollow words instead. I suspect Obama has a few supporters in the Russian army.....
The main hope from recent events is more people will be awoken to the reality of the world and the need for adequate armed forces to defend that which we value. If we don't we should not be surprised when someone with such forces takes what we value for themselves. Focusing on adequate defence requirements and concluding the war on terror is probably a great priority than starting an adventure in Caucasus.
Russia can be made to see reason but it will need clear agreement on where the "red lines" are first and a certainty that force is available to defend the red lines in future.
UPDATE 31st August. For those who are interested in this subject, Joanie at Allegiance and Duty Betrayed kindly posted this article on her excellent blog. It received a range of comments and responses that certainly gave me cause for thought and may be of interest to others. It can be seen here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

In "Imperial Moscow"

I am currently on a work related trip to Moscow. While this is a very topical place to be right now, time precludes putting too many thoughts to paper for the moment. Below are a few "snaps" I took with my mobile phone. Moscow is hot and humid right now so there is no danger of the snow at least one person in London told me to look out for :-)

On a humid August evening in Moscow Russian policemen, of various sizes and shapes, guard access to Red Square waiting for a "VIP" to leave the Kremlin. The domes of St. Basils cathedral dominate the background.

The yellow sun blazes over Red Square, Moscow

Red Square after dark.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

You have to wonder about the President of Georgia

The man who just last week ordered an artillery and rocket assault on a largely civilian but rebel province of his country has done quite well in terms of global sympathy. Nicolas Sarkozy, Condoleezza Rice and David Cameron (no less!) have all made the pilgramage to Tiblisi this week.

Of course the level of Russian response has been highly questionable and the thuggish elements of South Ossettian militia and Chechen fighters have done no favours for Russia's international image. I still maintain, unless or until someone can prove to me otherwise, that in the face of an artillery assault on their rebelious allies, Russia was obliged to react with force in some way.

I intend to write more fully on this shortly and would welcome contrary views. However so far I am not too impressed by the partiality of the mainstream media.

Below is a short clip that shows the President of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, eating his tie! It is from the BBC in London and not some Russian propoganda agency so it would seem authentic. You have to wonder....

Eclipse Tonight

Depending on if the clouds ever clear it should be possible to see a partial lunar eclipse tonight, in London and much of the world.

I could find disappointingly little on UK websites but it is described here on an Irish website.
Somewhat ominously, in view of recent events in the Caucuses and elsewhere, if the moon is visible it may appear blood red.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Inconsistent and Disproportionate- the oily road to South Ossetia

Whatever the many disagreements it is possible to have about South Ossetia and the conflict between Georgia and Russia, most people would have to agree that it is a sorry mess.

While not being an apologist for the Kremlin, the trigger for this episode seems to have been a Georgian attack on its South Ossetian minority. While this follows years of dispute and months of escalating tension, the Georgian use of artillery and rockets against a civilian town seems to have been disproportionate and rash.

It was disproportionate because civilians rather than Russian soldiers seem to have been the main victims. If the figures of 1,500 to 2,000 South Ossetians being killed are correct, then this was an equivalent of a Russian 9/11. It was rash as in the face of such provocation it seems inconceivable that Russia would not have counter-attacked.

Russia in turn is now portrayed as the attacker. This is inconsistent as when the US and Israel retaliate against those who kill their people, this is not portrayed as attack. Russia's response is in turn seen as disproportionate, at least by the country that gave the world "Shock and Awe".

This inconsistency is unlikely to go unnoticed in Russia. Or rather as Georgian troops return from Iraq, Russia is unlikely to take lectures about not retaliating for attacks.

However even from a Russian perspective the goals of this exercise seem vague. It is possible for them to occupy the whole of Georgia but they seem reluctant to do this. They could reduce Georgia to ruins as "punishment". This is a possibility and becomes more likely as the fighting goes on. It is however difficult to understand what the point in that is.

What is more certain is there is little help Georgia can count on. It took the first step but now seems destined to suffer the consequences. Russia is too strong to be challenged "in its own back yard" by an America engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan and apparently eager to leave the former. Britain is over stretched and in any case too small to make a difference alone. There are no other European forces of note, with the possible exception of France and it seems improbable France would started action in the Caucuses. In summary Russia seems able to do what it likes and everyone who drives cars and heats their homes can fund the Russian attack through the oil and gas they buy.

This is the disturbing reality of the balance of power in the world. It was coming to this but Georgia's rash action just got us there a little quicker along with the recognition of Kosovo as independent and the inconsistent treatments handed out in the Balkans.

The main lesson of this episode is that armed forces will always matter in this world. We may feel cocooned in our city and live a life of work, leisure and shopping. However in the real world freedom is only as certain as the forces who exist to defend it. With Europe's feeble forces and America's tired and overstretched army, the reality is that others can move into the fill the vacuum.

Friday, August 08, 2008

8/8/08 Meanwhile not in China......

Russia and Georgia seem to be at war.

It is not realistic or reasonable to expect a military superpower to let its citizens be killed by an external force as seems to have happened to Russians in South Ossetia, the disputed region of Georgia.

In terms of timing the Chinese see today (8/8/08) as a lucky day. It is potentially lucky for Russia as they have two weeks to do whatever they want in Georgia while the world's media is watching races in Beijing. If Russia releases its might it would seem Georgia doesn't stand a chance. For peace in that region we can only hope that both sides show restraint.

However in reality Russia may want to use this opportunity to prove its strength. The list of complaints from Russia over the last decade is long from the loss of its satellite republics, NATO expansion to its borders and even the recent attempt to shift the loyalities of its Balkan ally Serbia.

The recent developments conceal the underlying currents in that Russia has the force, the wealth and most importantly the oil to dominate more than it has until recently.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A thoroughly nasty tale of commuting to work in London

How awful this tale was today.

A woman was commuting to work by train and challenged two men for smoking on the station platform. The result was she ended up on the track narrowly missing electrocution and fortunate to escape with just a broken wrist.

It is not at all typical of a normal trip into work but is symptomatic of the everyday aggression and nastiness that seems to build up amongst people commuting into the capital.

One day we may retire to the country !

Outside the Bird's Nest

A group of pro-Tibetan British and American protestors in Beijing today:

Beijing 2008: Bombs, Earthquakes, Typhoons, Smog, Protests and a bit of sport too......

The 2008 Olympics were always destined for controversy.

The location, a capital of a nation with a brutal communist past that has metamorphosed into a capitalist based superpower without apparent need for apologies or political freedom, raises concerns amongst many.

However, something I have become increasingly aware of over the last few months is these concerns are far from universal. Many are happy to let bygones (the deaths of 70 million to name one bygone) be bygones. Firstly the present generation of Chinese are immensely proud of hosting the Games and I guess this is something that is not wrong in itself. Secondly the International Olympic Committee and their allies want the Games to succeed and anything that threatens that are nothing but "inconvenient truths". Thirdly the cocktail of apathy and ignorance that seems to stupefy most of us, most of the time is not to be under-estimated. While some know that "bad things happened in China", some do not and many more do not want to be troubled by such thoughts anyway. Let not the deaths of tens of millions in the last 60 years get in the way of a good sporting event today !

While bushy haired Serbs get carted off to the Hague to face "justice" over a civil war in where horrors were committed by all sides, no Chinese will ever face the same "justice" (however that is defined) for the misdeeds inflicted on the Citizens of the People's Republic of China. China is just too rich, powerful and sensitive to bother with Debating Society notions of human rights abuses, torture and the rest.

So the Olympics are going ahead. Yet the voices of freedom will not be completely silenced. The earth itself seems to be protesting with an earthquake in Sichuan yesterday and typhoons in Hong Kong and Macau today. The smog of Beijing has returned for now until the chemical marvels of cloud seeding kick in again. Today protests reached Beijing. Two crazy but brave Brits and two crazy but brave Americans unfurled a "Free Tibet" banner outside the Birds Nest stadium. A far more nasty and sinister protest is surfacing in the wild west of China with Muslim Turkic brutally murdering 16 policemen.

The Olympics should on balance however "pass off" ok. There are 100,000 soldiers said to be on stand by in Beijing with anti-aircraft weaponry protecting all the key sites. Sometime in the next few weeks some sport will happen too, some medals will be won and some pleasure shared.

Let not all of us, whether watching or not, forget all that has gone before and all that is still to come in this vast and fascinating country of China.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Domestic Gas Prices: Time for a cold shower ?

This week saw the announcement that British Gas is raising its prices an incredible 35 %.

Time for cold showers, I say. I remain a minority voice in my household :-)

A quick search of the web showed this article extolling the benefits of cold showers. As this week has been sometimes hot and almost continually humid, it seems ideal weather to experiment with this. My verdict: they can be particularly refreshing and invigorating. That may however be a different story in November !

However that is my suggestion for the nation to save a massive amount of gas and teach British Gas a lesson at the same time !