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2016: Year of Global Risk or Global Opportunity?

by John Brian Shannon | December 31, 2015

While my default mode is to proactively engage with vision, leadership, pragmatism and organization, in order to preempt or preclude situations that allow dangers to form and thence for risk to concern us — there is certainly a time to take stock, to measure our place in the world, and to put our perceptions to the test in order to assess future threats.

Each year-end presents a wonderful opportunity to do exactly that.

We must keep in mind that every problem on this planet is a human-caused problem — and because we’ve caused them — we can solve them if we choose.

Humans alone wrote the madcap play that we’re the actors in.

Will 2016 be the year of global risk, or of global opportunity?

Will 2016 be the year of global risk, or of global opportunity?

The Eternal Question: Should We Steer Our Ship by the Stars, or by the Sea?

1. We must remember that when viewed through the prism of American or European thought, we in the West cannot fully understand the Russian mindset.

Yes, the Russians look like us, they buy many of the same products, they may even vacation in similar locales. But it would be a big mistake to think they are us or think like us based on those superficial comparisons.

Their national experience since October 1917 couldn’t be more different than our own.

Although the Soviet Union was founded on revolution, their experience in WWII (for example) was much different than ours. The people of the USSR endured almost inconceivable suffering and millions more deaths happened on the Soviet front as compared to our side of things during WWII, and so consequently, their response to us during the Cold War and their evident bias to not only end the Cold War but to disband their entire bloc and rewrite their constitution, were shaped by those experiences.

Suffice to say that the worldview of everyday Russians and their leaders are significantly different from North Americans and Europeans.

If we base our policies and subsequent actions on a flawed interpretation of the Russian mindset we are likely to be enablers of dangerous situations, resulting in increased risk.

Therefore, everything Russia must be viewed not only from the American or European world viewpoint, but through the lens of the Russian leadership and of the citizens of that country.

And frankly, that hasn’t been done as well as it could and should have been done, since the days of Kissinger, Brzezinski and James A. Baker III.

Our #1 risk factor isn’t Russia, it’s our lack of understanding.

2. China is a large country that isn’t going anywhere. We’ll be dealing with China for many decades to come. And they’ll be dealing with us.

If anything, we should avoid conflicts with China — and instead of always trying to ‘put them in the wrong’ we should become their guide, their facilitator, their mentor, and always be trying to ‘put them in the right.’

Every day of the year, we humans are teaching other humans how to treat us.

If we teach China that we are all about hostility, they’ll learn that fighting us is the way to deal with us. If we constantly criticize China, they’ll condemn us in return. If we give China reason to fear, we all know that “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.”

It’s a great Star Wars line, isn’t it? Still, it’s just as true on Earth as it is in adventure movies.

To lower our risk with China, we need discipline. We need to be setting the bar, showing the way, shining the light, and using constructive criticism — praising publicly and criticizing privately.

In this way, we’ll be the Father, the Mentor, the Guide, the Explainer — and what we teach China about who we are, will tell them how to treat us.

If we teach China that use of force always works and that diplomacy doesn’t — we’ll be the worse off for it, and so will they.

Yet, it will have been us that wrote that madcap play.

Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy to Peking (Beijing) as it was then-called by the West, was a great start.

Smatterings of constructive engagement since, have been helpful (but only in a smattering kind of way).

And Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ may yet turn out to be, in retrospect, inspired — if handled correctly and properly followed-up. And the recent joint U.S.-China CO2 reduction plan seems to have added some amount of normalcy that has been otherwise lacking in that relationship.

Yet, the Windows of Lost Opportunity have been stupendous!

It’s a somewhat unmanaged relationship, with far too occasional bright moments of successful diplomacy.

Had the Sino-American relationship been handled proactively and correctly all along, the $1 Trillion dollar Apple success story would have represented only one of many similar stories. Perhaps a thousand similar success stories.

In reality, thus far, the relationship between China and the U.S. has been one of staggeringly huge, missed opportunities, and even worse, minor sabre-rattling.

Although China seems a willing partner and wants to engage, the same cannot be said of America. Europe is doing a little better, but only recently.

If China represents a risk to the West, it’s because we’ve been very busy with less important matters.

3. Except for the Western-inspired ‘Arab Spring’ the MENA region might have made some small amount of forward progress in the 2010-2020 timeframe.

I doubt anyone would suggest that citizens of the affected countries are any better off now, as compared to pre-Arab Spring.

Yet with the Iran nuclear deal secured and Israel now turning to domestic issues, the >1400-year-old chess game between Sunni Arabs and Shia Persians will continue as uneventfully as ever, I suspect, for many decades. (Lots of smoke, very rarely, any fire)

Containing ISIS and keeping Western nations safe from ISIS terror attacks would be best served by getting Western nation forces out of Syria (leaving the Syrian situation to the Syrian government and the Russians) and concentrate on increasing the coalition presence in Iraq, with plenty of assistance for Turkey, which has two problems: millions of refugees and a security threat on its southern flank.

4. The world (not just the U.S. and Europe) needs a dedicated (and properly funded) cybersecurity organization on par with INTERPOL, but geared to identifying and combatting cybercrime in realtime, and to offer all manner and levels of support to domestic agencies involved in countering cybercrime.

EXAMPLE: Whether that proposed anti-cybercrime organization is assisting a small town 5-person police department putting together its first anti-cybercrimes programme, or is assisting the Chief of the NYPD cybercrimes division to combat a cybercrime in progress, or briefing Homeland Security or the Pentagon (and other police and security organizations in other countries) it must meet those agencies and departments where they are and provide what they need in realtime.

If not, catastrophic failure will be the result.

The present situation just isn’t up to the forming threats. As well-intended as each department and agency’s efforts in this regard surely are, their capabilities are at least one order of magnitude less than what is required to defend us from cyberattacks against government and industry infrastructure and cybercrime that impacts private citizens.

By 2020, it might be two orders of magnitude short of reasonably preventing the most serious cyberattacks.

We spend money to insure our cars and trucks (in advance of mishap or misadventure) for good reason, because on an otherwise average morning, we might step outside to find that $50,000. of damage has occurred overnight to the $70,000. vehicle in our life.

A properly funded and properly overseen global anti-cybercrimes support centre would provide the ‘insurance’ we need to counter future cyberthreats.

TO SUMMARIZE: We live in a world of risks

However, that doesn’t mean that we have to play their game — after all, why play to our opponent’s strengths?

With the right vision (to preclude falling into ‘risk’ in the first place) and the right leadership (to put that vision into practice, or at the very least, turn-negatives-into-positives if things go awry) and by providing the proper support for those who negotiate or fight on our behalf — we can either change the game completely to better suit our strengths — or at the very least, lower our risk.

And that, my friends, is how to play the game of Risk and win, more often than not.


Related Article:

Does it matter what Ukrainian citizens want?

by John Brian Shannon | November 2, 2015

Some people in the West are making erroneous statements like this: “With Russia’s military invasion and annexation of Crimea, and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine…”

What? Russia didn’t militarily invade Crimea, more than 95% of the voters in Crimea voted in a referendum to rejoin Russia at at time when Ukraine’s economy and society was unraveling in even faster-motion-than-usual. All of it has been widely reported by every reputable news source in the world. On those points, there are no gray areas. They are facts.

Ukraine farmer's field

A girl gathers flowers of rapeseed (brassica napus) in a field some 300 km from Kiev prior to heavy rain on May 10, 2010. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY Image courtesy of Kyiv Post

Whenever Anything Goes Wrong: Blame Russia!

And it is a complete fairy-tale to portray that all of Ukraine’s historic problems are “subsequent” to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea (at the request of 97% of Crimean voters) or were somehow caused by Russia’s 2014 food aid convoys to the Ukrainian separatists (separatists have been operating there for several decades) in the eastern parts of the country.

Some are trying to make it all Russia’s fault retroactively and are carefully checking their calendars to find the first day of Vlad Putin’s presidency — because they’re sure that’s the day that all of Ukraine’s problems started. (Facepalm!)

Short History of Ukraine

Ukraine was never a self-sufficient country — not even during the time of Peter the Great nor at any time since. Czarist Russia and the USSR poured billions (trillions?) of roubles into Ukraine over a 300-year period in a failed attempt to stabilize that economy. And such stabilization only occurred for exactly as long as the massive subsidies were pouring into Ukraine.

Ukraine: Subsidized to the Hilt for 300-years

During the Cold War, the USSR spent more on subsidies to Ukraine than all of its satellite states combined. That stopped in 1991. Which is why, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has been in an economic tailspin. No other outcome was remotely possible.

Ukraine in Economic Free-fall Since the End of the Cold War

The economy, infrastructure and the level of social and other services provided to citizens by the government have since been in free-fall.

(Some) Western Politicians See Opportunity Rising in Allowing Ukraine to Dwindle

Of course, after the Cold War ended, some European politicians were deluded into thinking that Ukraine would eventually fall into their lap and then they could just waltz into the country and pick its bones, leaving the problem regions and problem people to the government of Ukraine to deal with.

Which is a fine idea if the EU had no soul. Let’s hope it does. We’ve already suffered through two world wars, let’s not make it a three-peat.

However, the Mindset of Westerners Have Become More Sophisticated Since the Cold War Ended

The world has become less naive since 1990 and the cherry-picking of Ukraine, and using that country’s economic distress in a way that works to beat up Vlad Putin to score cheap political points, isn’t going to work for long.

In this modern social media world no amount of government censorship of the traditional media can suppress citizen journalists (bloggers) or the thousands of non-journalist citizen tweeters or Facebook posters about the things they witness on the street.

The EU will not be carting away the best of Ukraine and leaving the problems to the Ukrainian government to solve via the World Bank, the IMF, or even the ADB.

Social Media as a ‘Check and Balance’ on Politics

Citizens nowadays are too informed, too activist, and too impatient to create a better world for everyone on the planet, to allow it to happen that way — and social media routinely travels faster than traditional (and sometimes censored) media.

Somebody Please Tell Western Politicians that the Cold War is Over

We need to scrap this Cold War mentality that persists in some capitals. The Cold War is over because the brightest minds in the world declared that it was over and that it wasn’t conducive to the best outcome for humanity.

We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

Those diplomatic and military giants upon whose shoulders we (should humbly) stand are the ones who brought an end to the Cold War, and less brilliant minds should not now (nor ever) be allowed to overturn their logical and profound vision.

We should be looking at Ukraine in the following way:

  • Ukraine was a state within Czarist Russia and later the USSR, for more than 300 years.
  • Due to the economic failure of the Soviet Union in 1990, it was forced to stop subsidizing Ukraine and the USSR allowed the country to leave the bloc.
  • Ukraine’s economy has been in various states of free-fall since then.
  • Allowing the West to cherry-pick Ukraine is not going to happen. Even considering it should be ‘far below’ the standards of any country.
  • Ukraine can’t survive without massive subsidies. It’s simply an economic reality.
  • Since 1990, the West has not stepped-up to heavily subsidize Ukraine — why would they now? And the fact is, they won’t, because all of Europe acting together couldn’t afford to pay Ukraine’s bills.
  • Had the West been showing TLC to Ukraine since 1990, and had it taken over the role of multi-billion euro per year benefactor since 1990, a very compelling moral and legal argument could’ve been made that Ukraine, had de facto, become a part of the West. I myself would’ve made the case for Ukraine’s accession to the EU and worked to convince Russia to forego any further claims on Ukraine!
  • But that didn’t happen. Therefore, the West has no moral nor legal right at all in regards to Ukraine. And is in no moral position nor does it have any legal right to lay claim to one square foot of Ukrainian soil — no matter how ‘anti-Putin’ some Western politicians are — as if that’s a qualifier of legitimacy of claim.
  • Crimean’s voted 97.1% to rejoin Russia and we should respect their democratic vote if we’re going to continue to pretend that we care about democratic values in other countries, not just our own.
  • Whichever eastern republics want to hold a referendum to rejoin Russia, they should not be interfered with. Democratic values must be respected. Not just in our own countries, but in all countries. If a majority of citizens there vote to rejoin Russia, so be it. That is well within their rights. No caterwauling allowed.

In summary

The West long ago gave up any moral or legal right to influence, obtain any part of, use, or gain from Ukraine’s present distress — by studiously neglecting to give any meaningful amount of TLC or economic assistance to the country during its time of prolonged economic trauma.

1. It’s clear that the Ukraine economy cannot survive without massive, external subsidies.
2. The West has missed its chance with Ukraine.
3. To Russia, and the voters of Ukraine and the voters of eastern Ukraine: Your move.
4. No sour grapes. We’ve had our chance since the end of the Cold War and we blew it.

Allowing Ukraine to dwindle for 2 1/2 decades and then swooping in at the last moment to cherry-pick the country and concomitantly attempt to embarrass Vlad Putin — is just not up to the world class standards of behavior that we expect from civilized nations.

Related Articles:

Syria: The Roots of Civil War

by John Brian Shannon | October 1, 2015

All war is brutal. Whether civil war, insurgency, guerrilla war, conventional or nuclear, all are brutal. And in war, no one weapon is worse than another. If you die or are injured by being blown to fragments by artillery, mines, barrel bombs or conventional bombs dropped by aircraft — you’re just as dead or injured as by machine-gun fire.

Too many commentators are trying to make negative political points about the Assad regime by citing Syria’s use of ‘barrel bombs’ — to convince us that those are the ultimate in inhuman and horrific weapons. As if getting killed by a ‘barrel bomb’ is somehow much worse than getting killed by a mine or by machine-gun fire.

Characterizing some bombs as ‘worse’ than other bombs, etc. takes our focus away from the underlying reasons for the conflict and how we might solve it.

Demonstrators chant slogans to support ISIS. Image by NBC News (AP File photo from June 16, 2014)

In this June 16, 2014 file photo, demonstrators chant slogans to support the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as they carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq. The al-Qaida breakaway group has seized much of northern Syria and huge tracts of neighboring Iraq formally declaring the creation of an Islamic state on Sunday, June 29, 2014 in the territory under its control. (AP Photo, File)

What we should be concentrating on is how many innocent people are getting killed or maimed, how many refugees are being created, and how many months will it take to solve the Syrian conflict

And as is always the case, military people are well supported by their organizations and get paid to engage in warfighting, while civilians are (obviously) vastly unprepared to deal with war.

Consequently, many of them do the intelligent thing and leave the conflict region when they are able. This puts huge strain on neighbouring nations as they struggle to accept millions of refugees. Turkey is on track to surpass 2 million by January, 2016 and other nations in the region have accepted hundreds of thousands.

Syria: The Path to Civil War

By using deductive reasoning, we can safely assume the civil war now raging inside Syria is due to the many anti-coalition fighters who fled the 2003-2011 Iraq War, once they realized they couldn’t beat the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

Such fighters were then able to live and operate virtually ignored in Syria (and Lebanon) as anti-coalition sentiment was running high in the region in the aftermath of the Shock and Awe invasion due to the Syrian people seeing only the results of, and hearing the accounts of, the Iraq War from fleeing Iraqi civilians.

A similar situation on a smaller scale occurred during the Arab Spring months.

Ergo, both the Iraq War and Arab Spring added to anti-Western sentiments in the region

This created a robust ISIS force practically out of thin air — with tacit support from Syrian citizens and the citizens of other nearby nations.

Reality Check:

  • Was there an ISIS before the Iraq War? No.
  • Was there an ISIS during the Iraq War from 2003-2011? No.
  • Was there an ISIS before the Arab Spring of 2010? No.
  • Was there an ISIS during the Arab Spring? No.

Therefore, the ISIS entity was born in ‘the Arab Street’ which is the name for the collage of meeting places where Arab peoples meet, sometime after the Iraq War of 2003-2011 and after the 2010 Arab Spring.

Religion has nothing to do with it

Just as religion had nothing to do with WWI, WWII, or any recent war, this isn’t a religious war although various sides will always try to employ religion (the Crusaders, Osama Bin Laden) or the occult (Hitler) to serve their own interests.

We should ignore the cant and focus on clear examples of criminal and terrorist behavior. Murkiness isn’t our ally in the fight against terrorism

Trying to charge a person in court for being too ‘religious’ is impossible — as there is no such criminal charge.

However, if a person kills 25 people in a criminal act (whatever their political or religious views) we can deal with it in the courts in a very clear manner, and it becomes a clearer ‘sell’ to citizens in the court of public opinion — who after all are the ones footing the bill for our military operations in Syria.

Focusing so much attention on such things as the types of bombs employed by any side and by overly focusing on the religious aspect, we remove our focus from the criminality of what ISIS or other fighters are actually doing in Syria, Iraq, and in the Kurdish territories.

(Although it must be said that the Kurds have their own terrorists and they too must be careful when pointing fingers at ISIS, as some Kurds have been at the terrorism game for decades)

I’ll grant you that the Syrian response to ISIS and other groups has been heavy-handed

But no more than Shock and Awe was to rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein.

We the West, created the conditions necessary for the creation of ISIS and other similar groups that left Iraq and the Arab Spring nations for Syria and Lebanon upon realizing they couldn’t match coalition firepower.

Now we are picking away at them piecemeal from the air, while the Russians have partnered with President Bashar Al-Assad to preserve the Syrian government with both the Russians and Syrians taking the fight to any group threatening the peace inside Syria until a sustainable cease-fire can be agreed.

If we attempt to exterminate all the ISIS fighters in Syria (with the Russians helping in regions of the country that we can’t access) we will simply drive ISIS fighters to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Egypt and into other Arab nations

Which will allow the West to claim that we’ve ‘won’ in Syria — in the same way we claim to have ‘won’ in Iraq.

Does anyone really think, for an instant, that Iraq is better off now than under Saddam Hussein?

It certainly isn’t. If you believe otherwise, I dare you to travel to any Iraqi city and proclaim it loudly in any public square. (And, by the way, it was nice knowing you)

If a massive (Iraq War style invasion) occurred in Syria today, many ISIS fighters would leave Syria, taking their tales to the people of each country in the region thereby gathering evermore pro-ISIS support and congealing centres of power across the MENA region.

Using military power to exterminate ISIS in Iraq and Syria means that we will set up a paradigm of continual ISIS movement and evermore ISIS recruiting in more countries

Therefore, although we can paint an “X” on certain ISIS members or groups, once we begin to ‘win’ against ISIS in Syria, they will just melt away to other nations gathering evermore support in every city they visit. Just as they did during the Iraq War.

That is not the path to victory against ISIS

In the case of highly mobile fighters and an ideology that we ‘enabled’ by attempting to exterminate ISIS in Iraq and Syria, we will simply help to grow the anti-Western sentiment throughout the Middle East.

The only path to solve the ISIS question is to use diplomacy to convince ISIS of the need for an ISIS homeland (a piece of very northwestern Iraq and very northeastern Syria) and that we are willing to help make that happen in exchange for laying down their arms.

ISIS presents a case where the more we fight (an ideology) the more members it will attract. And that is something the world doesn’t need.