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Caught Between Europe and a Hard Place: John Mraz, National Post, Jan. 31, 2014— As the violence in Ukraine escalates, and that country drifts closer to civil war, the world community is wondering how far Russian President Vladimir Putin might move to protect his interests in the second-largest former Soviet republic.
How Iran, Putin and Assad Outwitted America: David Keyes, The Daily Beast, Jan. 16, 2014 — Historians will look back at the present moment with astonishment that Iran so skillfully outwitted the West.
Terror Wave in Russia: Robert Spencer, Frontpage, Dec. 31, 2013 — There have now been three major jihad terror attacks in Russia in four days. The attacks are a grim reminder of how vulnerable crowded public places are worldwide to jihad mass murder — and an indication of what the United States could look like sooner or later.
Russia Can't Lose in Oil Deal With Iran: Tatiana Mitrova, Al-Monitor, Jan. 27, 2014
Terrorists, Putin and the Hubris of Sochi: L. Todd Wood, New York Post, Jan. 4, 2014
The Selling Out of Eastern Europe: George Jonas, National Post, Jan. 29, 2014
Women of the Gulag: From Stalin to Pussy Riot: Vladislav Davidzon, Tablet, Jan. 8, 2013
National Post, Jan. 31, 2014
As the violence in Ukraine escalates, and that country drifts closer to civil war, the world community is wondering how far Russian President Vladimir Putin might move to protect his interests in the second-largest former Soviet republic. Russia already is economically and politically entrenched across Ukraine. But should Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych, a Russian loyalist, begin to lose control of his own security services, will Putin’s troops be invited in to quell the unrest? And should that mobilization occur, what could the West do?
The current crisis may have taken the West by surprise. Yet it is merely an acute symptom of sectarian, ideological and economic divisions that have been growing within the country for years. The 2004 Orange Revolution shone some light on those domestic schisms, as did the underlying battle between Russia and the West to secure Ukraine as an ally. Western-friendly President Victor Yushchenko’s ultimate victory in that contest held out enormous promise, but his tenure ended in failure. His administration remained ineffectual and corrupt from start to finish, providing Yanukovych and his pro-Russian backers the opportunity to seize power in a compromised (if not outrightly fraudulent) election in 2010.
Since then, Yanukovych has aggravated divisions in Ukraine. He has imprisoned political opponents; illegally seized assets; and attempted to pass legislation that would silence his critics, by eliminating rights to assembly, free speech, and transparent media. When Yanukovych refused to sign a long-negotiated formal economic association with the European Union last year, breaking years of assurances to his citizenry, his true loyalties to Russia were exposed. Ukrainians took to the streets to protest this betrayal, whereupon activists and journalists were beaten, disappeared, arrested and even killed, while the Western world offered little more than rhetorical support for the oppressed. Why has the West remained so ineffectual in its response to Yanukovych’s tyranny?
Presumably, Yanukovych believes that in signing an economic accord with Russia in lieu of hooking his wagon to Brussels, he will not only reap the benefits of Putin’s largesse (including an offered $15-billion bailout, and dramatically reduced gas prices for his people), but also enjoy the protection that the Russian Federation can afford he and his oligarchs from international prosecution. Putin’s admonition of any future Western intercessions in Ukraine this week confirmed Putin’s apparent belief that Ukraine lies entirely within his country’s sphere of interest. But Ukraine is more complex than that. It is divided in all sorts of ways, and only part of the country can be said to be primarily sympathetic to Moscow.
Ukraine is a fractured country. Oligarchs, both pro-Western and pro-Russian, vie for the spoils of a still corruptible economic environment. Xenophobic, anti-Semitic ultra-nationalists compete for influence with liberal democrats. And the opposition ranks span the gamut of socialists, capitalists and anarchists. Yanukovych has, to date, taken advantage of the opposition’s divided nature, but he also has suffered defections from his own ranks, and has experienced resistance from elements within his military, his political backers, and even soccer clubs (essentially, groups of organized thugs) across Ukraine, many of whom hitherto had been staunch loyalists. He has tried to finesse the growing schisms by offering calculated concessions, hoping that these will serve to tamp down the domestic volatility. For now, he remains firmly entrenched in office, largely because of the implicit support — “threat” might be a better word — from Ukraine’s looming neighbor to the east.
Ukraine’s largest trading partner is Russia, which provides Ukraine with essential imports, especially natural gas. Russian gas also flows through Ukraine to needy European markets. Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, is a critical warm-water port on lease from Ukraine until 2042 — an arrangement that Putin would fight to keep by any means. There are also high symbolic stakes: Putin can ill-afford to be perceived as losing influence in the region, in part because this would bring him enormous shame among Russian nationalists at home.
What can be done to prevent Russia from bullying Ukraine? This week, Canada announced the imposition of travel bans on some Ukrainian diplomats and actors as a gesture of protest. With about 1.3-million Canadians identifying themselves as Ukrainian-Canadian, our government had to do something. But Canada has no real power in the area, and almost no economic relations with Ukraine itself. Whatever sanctions we impose are guaranteed to be virtually meaningless. In Europe, nervous governments, dependent upon Russian gas, weigh just how far they might go without compromising their energy supply. Economic sanctions against the Ukrainian state might, at the very least, compromise Western investments in that country; and, at worst, create an energy crisis if Moscow turns off the gas.
The United States has done little. Barack Obama understands that to confront Yanukovych is to confront Putin, whom he believes (rightly or wrongly) is needed at the table to resolve conflicts with Iran and Syria. Certainly, there seems to be no appetite in the West to intercede with boots on the ground should Russia be invited to secure Ukraine for Yanukovych.
The opposition in Ukraine understands that the window of opportunity for real democratic change is slender: Indeed, it may well close with the end of the Sochi Olympics. To keep the Olympic peace, Putin has been prudent, and Russia’s presence in Ukraine has been muted to date. However, when the Olympic torch is extinguished, Putin will be free to intercede as he sees fit, and military “assistance” is not off the table.
No matter Putin’s interventions going forward, the Ukrainian people, loyalist and opposition alike, must recognize that theirs is a divided country that must come together to preserve its autonomy. They must work through democratic means to find unity and tolerance notwithstanding their neighbours’ competing interests. Canada can and must promote and facilitate that dialogue by providing competent, neutral, non-Ukrainian observers and arbiters, as Canada has done when Ukrainians went to the polls in the past.
Should Russia or the Western world intercede aggressively on one camp’s behalf with emissaries from the Ukrainian or Russian diasporas, this might accelerate the path toward revolution or even civil war. Ukrainians must be encouraged to negotiate peace for themselves, by themselves, in internationally facilitated forums that guarantee a fair discourse. To ensure this process remains peaceful, the West must encourage Putin to keep as far from Kyiv as possible, using whatever means are available and necessary.
The West might also apply effective pressure by imposing economic sanctions on Ukrainian oligarchs with massive holdings in Europe and North America. (It is interesting to note that even pro-Russian oligarchs tend to avoid either investment or residence in Russia itself.) Those oligarchs, many of whom fund Yanukovych, provide the best available leverage for resetting Ukraine on a democratic path — as they might be persuaded to restrain Yanukovych so as to protect their own equity.
Even most pro-Russian Ukrainians have little wish to be under Russia’s thumb again. And even most pro-western Ukrainians, who properly seek to develop Ukraine’s economic potential through trade with the EU, likely recognize that they cannot entirely ignore the interests of the giant regional power that lives next door.
The goal must be to help guide Ukraine on a peaceful and democratic path that recognizes its position vis-à-vis both the EU and Russia. Canada can, and should, be part of that process.
The Daily Beast, Jan. 16, 2014
Historians will look back at the present moment with astonishment that Iran so skillfully outwitted the West. They will note the breathtaking naiveté of American and European officials who let a brutal theocracy undermine Western interests throughout the Middle East. At one of Iran’s most vulnerable moments, America threw the mullahs a life-line; an ill-conceived nuclear deal coupled with a complete inability to stop Syria, Iran’s closest ally, from continuing to slaughter en masse. Western diplomats speak optimistically of a deal with Syria in Geneva, while the region’s thugs use force of arms to impose their will.
[Jan. 16], Iran’s foreign minister, Mohamed Zarif, took a diplomatic victory lap as he arrived in Moscow to meet Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. Russia’s Foreign Ministry released this statement: “We intend to continue the expansion of mutually advantageous relations with Iran and interaction in the interest of regional stability and international security…We expect to strengthen positive trends in every sphere of Russia-Iran cooperation.”
Zarif’s mission to Moscow quells any lingering hopes that Russia can be seduced away from Syria or Iran. Putin has made a simple calculation: Assad will protect his interests better than anyone. Russia, in turn, has made it clear that it will prop up Syria’s tyrant and their Iranian backers at almost any cost. Zarif arrived in Moscow to expand cooperation with Russia and pay homage to his sugar daddy for making all of this possible. Iran, Syria and Russia appear to be the strong horses of the Middle East. Assad slaughters with impunity because he knows that no one will actually stop him. Russia knows it can get away with backing Syria and Iran, because who is ready to pay the price to stop it? American interests, meanwhile, are thwarted at every opportunity by Russia. Morality and fair play are not in Putin’s lexicon. Only power and money. The KGB veteran has never changed its stripes. Ask Sergei Magnitsky, a young tax lawyer, who died in Russian prison after uncovering massive corruption at the heart of Putin’s regime.
What is the West’s response to Russia’s expanding influence? To dither and appease. In 2012, I sat in an Istanbul hotel ominously named “Titanic,” as a senior European official told a delegation of Syrian opposition figures that Russia was distancing itself from Assad. The Russian government, he said, spoke increasingly of supporting “Syria” and mentioned Assad by name less and less. This, he said, was a very positive development. The Syrians looked at us dumbfounded. Russia, they said, is backing Assad without hesitation. Our families are being slaughtered, they pleaded, because of Russian arms and money. They were right. The hyper-nuanced linguistic interpretations of European diplo-speak were absurd. Putin’s support of Assad was clear as day.
Zarif’s visit to Russia comes days after a trip to Lebanon where he honored master Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh. Does a “moderate” pay homage to one of the most ruthless terrorists in modern history, a man who killed hundreds of Americans and Jews around the world? Is there anything Zarif could do to forfeit his credentials as a “moderate”? Apparently not. The Iranian government has mastered the art of deception. At a lunch I attended with Zarif during his New York charm offensive, the foreign minister sounded like a mix between Gandhi and Mother Teresa. In Zarif’s telling, there is quite simply no government on earth more dedicated to peace, freedom and equality than Iran.
Iran’s actual record tells a very different story. It is a brutal theocracy that imprisons bloggers, tortures dissidents and murders opposition. Zarif’s mask slipped momentarily when I asked him if he thought it was ironic that he enjoyed posting on Facebook when his government bans it in Iran. “Ha! Ha!” he laughed. “That’s life.”
If Iran was serious about peace, it would begin by ceasing its support for a mass murdering tyrant like Assad. At the recent Warsaw Dialogue for Democracy, I asked former president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Moaz Al Khatib, why Assad was still in power. “Because the Iranians want him to stay,” he answered immediately.
It is no surprise that Iran’s mullahs are gloating that they outwitted the West with the recent nuclear deal. They did. Our sincere and overwhelming desire for peace clouded a sober reading of Iran’s intentions. Iran’s political prisoners must have wept quietly in Evin prison’s dark torture chambers as they heard that the free world was rewarding their vicious rulers. If Iran was committed to human rights, as Zarif claimed to much fanfare during his New York charm offensive, it would begin by releasing the hundreds of jailed student leaders, dissidents and bloggers like Majid Tavakoli and Shiva Ahari.
In this Middle Eastern proxy war, it often seems that only one side is actually fighting. Russia is pouring massive sums of money and arms into Syria to prop up Assad. Iran has made it abundantly clear that it too supports the Syrian government. Yet for a decade prior, useful idiots in the West spoke of prying Assad out of Iran’s orbit. It is not too late to change course. America can begin by speaking clearly about the duplicity of Iran’s theocrats, the danger of Russia’s autocrats and the brutality of Syria’s dictator. A renewed push to support human rights and dissidents would do much to alter the balance of power in the Middle East. All dictatorships fear freedom, accountability and transparency. It is their Achilles heel. Russia, Syria and Iran are profoundly dangerous regimes, but it is equally true that they are inherently weak. No government which jails its critics can claim to be powerful. Peace and freedom can triumph in the end, if only we would stand up for our principles.
Frontpage Magazine, Dec. 31, 2013
There have now been three major jihad terror attacks in Russia in four days. The attacks are a grim reminder of how vulnerable crowded public places are worldwide to jihad mass murder — and an indication of what the United States could look like sooner or later. The latest round of jihad mass murder began last Friday, when jihadists murdered three people with a car bomb in Pyatigorsk in southern Russia. Then on Sunday, a jihad/martyrdom suicide bomber murdered sixteen people at the train station in Volgograd – the city that, as Stalingrad, was the bloody site of the turning point of World War II. Then on Monday, a jihadist murdered fourteen more people on a trolley bus in the same city.
These were by no means the first jihad strikes in Russia in recent years. In September 2004, Islamic jihadists under the command of Chechen jihad leader Shamil Basayev took 1,300 hostages at a school in Beslan, a town in the Russian Republic of North Ossetia; ultimately the jihadists murdered well over 300 people. Then in August 2009, jihadists claimed to have murdered over 24 people with a bomb at Siberia’s Sayno-Shushenskata hydro-electric plant in Siberia, although the Russian government claimed that there was no bomb at all, and that the explosion was an accident. On November 27, 2009, jihadists murdered 27 people with a bomb planted under the Nevsky Express train between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Then in March 2010, Islamic jihad/martyrdom suicide bombers murdered 39 people on the Moscow subway. In February 2011, another jihad/martyrdom suicide bomber murdered 36 people at Domodedovo International Airport in Moscow.
Another Chechen jihadist, Doku Umarov, the leader of a group that calls itself the Caucasus Emirate (Umarov styles himself the “Emir of the Caucasus”), told Russians in 2010: “I promise you that war will come to your streets and you will feel it in your lives, feel it on your own skin.” He later threatened that “more special operations” would soon follow, for “among us there are hundreds of brothers who are prepared to sacrifice themselves….We can at any time carry out operations where we want.” He warned the Russians again last July, exhorting Muslims to wage jihad warfare against the Russians for daring to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi on the Black Sea coast. Umarov said that Muslims should “use maximum force on the path of Allah to disrupt this Satanic dancing” – by which Patrick Swayze-evoking locution he referred to the Games. The Russians, he said, “plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on the territory of our land on the Black Sea, and we Mujahedeen are obliged not to permit that — using any methods allowed us by the almighty Allah.”
The Caucasus Emirate has not claimed responsibility for the jihad attacks this week, but given the threats Umarov has made against the Games, which are scheduled to begin February 6, it is understandable that suspicion has focused on this group. Vladimir Putin has tightened security, but Russian officials know that there is little he can do to prevent still more jihad terror. Alexei Filatov, whom Reuters describes as the “deputy head of the veterans’ association of the elite Alfa anti-terrorism unit,” observes: “We can expect more such attacks. The threat is greatest now because it is when terrorists can make the biggest impression. The security measures were beefed up long ago around Sochi, so terrorists will strike instead in these nearby cities like Volgograd.”
There is little doubt that Filatov is right: the area that requires protection is simply too vast, and the possible targets too many, to ensure that there will not be more jihad attacks in Volgograd or elsewhere. The situation is the same in the United States: while law enforcement agents so far have been able to stop most jihad plots from ever coming to murderous fruition, their luck is unlikely to hold – particularly since the Obama Administration has forbidden agencies to study Islam and jihad in connection with terrorism, thereby depriving them of the ability to understand the motives and goals of those who have vowed to destroy Western societies.
It is well within the realm of possibility, then, that sometime in the not-so-distant future, the United States could be the country that is reeling from three jihad attacks in four days, with an untold number of casualties. What is glaringly deficient, if not altogether absent, in both the Russian and American response to this reality is any serious attempt to prevent such attacks from being plotted in the first place. No one is challenging Muslim groups in the U.S. or Russia to reinterpret the Islamic texts and teachings that jihadists use to justify violence and supremacism, and to teach actively against the understanding of Islam that gives rise to such attacks…
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Russia Can't Lose in Oil Deal With Iran: Tatiana Mitrova, Al-Monitor, Jan. 27, 2014 —Following the news of the agreement reached between Iran and the world powers regarding the country's nuclear program, Reuters on Jan. 10 published unofficial information obtained from unnamed sources in Iran and Russia about a deal in the works to exchange Iranian oil for Russian goods.
Terrorists, Putin and the Hubris of Sochi: L. Todd Wood, New York Post, Jan. 4, 2014 —Last week, 34 people died after two bombs — one in a rail station, the other on a trolleybus — exploded in Volgograd. Terrorist attacks are, sadly, nothing new for Russia. But these murders had a particular motive behind them: Vladimir Putin’s arrogance.
The Selling Out of Eastern Europe: George Jonas, National Post, Jan. 29, 2014 —In a few days we will come to a doleful anniversary. Sixty-nine years will have passed since Yalta, the wartime summit of the “Big Three,” generally blamed for consigning Eastern Europe to the tender mercies of Stalin and his successors for the next 45 years.
Women of the Gulag: From Stalin to Pussy Riot: Vladislav Davidzon, Tablet, Jan. 8, 2013—Forty years ago this week, the YMCA-Press, then based in Paris and founded by White Russian emigrants, published Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to the collective horror of the civilized world.
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