Tag Archives: Russia

How Trump walked into Putin’s web

Moscow, summer 1991. Mikhail Gorbachev is in power. Official relations with the west have softened, but the KGB still assumes all western embassy workers are spooks. The KGB agents assigned to them are easy to spot. They have a method. Sometimes they pursue targets on foot, sometimes in cars. The officers charged with keeping tabs on western diplomats are never subtle.

One of their specialities is breaking into Moscow apartments. The owners are always away, of course. The KGB leave a series of clues – stolen shoes, women’s tights knotted together, cigarette butts stomped out and left demonstratively on the floor. Or a surprise turd in the toilet, waiting in grim ambush. The message, crudely put, is this: we are the masters here! We can do what the fuck we please!

Leave a comment

Posted by on December 6, 2017 in Europe, North America


Tags: ,

What the Russian Revolution can teach us about the Middle East today

These days, uprisings should be studied with a cold eye and there’s a fine little exhibition on in Paris about the 1917 Russian revolution which casts a dark reflection on the Arab “awakening” we’ve all been observing in the Middle East. It’s an extraordinary display from the “revolution which changed the world”, including posters, photographs and – amazingly – some documents which show just how much the Mencheviks (and the Russian Provisional Government) and then the Bolsheviks tried to enlist the Muslim world – and the Armenians – in their destruction of the Romanov dynasty.

Leave a comment

Posted by on December 6, 2017 in Europe, Middle East


Tags: , ,

Syria war, Sochi peace

The main take-away of the trilateral, two hour-long Russia-Iran-Turkey summit in Sochi on the future of Syria was expressed by Russian President Vladimir Putin:

“The presidents of Iran and Turkey supported the initiative to convene an All-Syrian Congress for national dialogue in Syria. We agreed to hold this important event at the proper level and ensure the participation of representatives of different sectors of Syrian society.”

In practice, that means Russian, Iranian and Turkish foreign ministries and defense departments are tasked to “gather delegates from various political parties, internal and external opposition, ethnic and confessional groups at the negotiating table.”

Putin stressed that “in our common opinion, the success on the battlefield that brings closer the liberation of the whole of Syrian territory from the militants paves the way for a qualitatively new stage in the settlement of the crisis. I’m talking about the real prospects of achieving a long-term, comprehensive normalization in Syria, political adjustment in the post-conflict period.”

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 24, 2017 in Middle East


Tags: , , ,

US foreign policy in the Middle East doesn’t exist anymore

Time was when a mere statement from a secretary of state – let alone a US president – would have the phones jangling across the Middle East. The Reagans, Clintons, Bushes or Obamas of this world actually did have an effect on the region, albeit often malign, US leaders being poorly briefed and always in awe of Israel (not to mention its power to destroy political lives in Washington). But today, who is calling the shots across the old Ottoman Empire?

Well, just take a look at Putin and Assad and Erdogan and Sissi and Macron and Rouhani. These are the men who are currently holding the headlines, either declaring Isis dead or beaten or Syria “saved” or the Kurds “terrorists” or rescuing Prime Minister Saad Hariri from his hostage home in Saudi Arabia – although now we’ve all got to believe that he wasn’t detained and didn’t really intend to resign or did resign but doesn’t want to resign any more. And rather oddly, Mohamed bin Salman looks less and less influential, a Gulf Crown Prince whose attempts to destroy Yemen, Assad’s Syria, Qatar and Al Jazeera and even poor Lebanon look more and more like a child in a tantrum, throwing his toys around in an attempt to frighten the neighbours – including the one neighbour he will not fight, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 23, 2017 in Europe, Middle East, North America


Tags: , , ,

How Turkey, Iran, Russia and India are playing the New Silk Roads

Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani will hold a summit this Wednesday in Sochi to discuss Syria. Russia, Turkey and Iran are the three power players at the Astana negotiations — where multiple cease-fires, as hard to implement as they are, at least evolve, slowly but surely, towards the ultimate target — a political settlement.

A stable Syria is crucial to all parties involved in Eurasia integration. As Asia Times reported, China has made it clear that a pacified Syria will eventually become a hub of the New Silk Roads, known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — building on the previous business bonanza of legions of small traders commuting between Yiwu and the Levant.

Away from intractable war and peace issues, it’s even more enlightening to observe how Turkey, Iran and Russia are playing their overlapping versions of Eurasia economic integration and/or BRI-related business.

Much has to do with the energy/transportation connectivity between railway networks — and, further on the down the road, high-speed rail — and what I have described, since the early 2000s, as Pipelineistan.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 23, 2017 in Asia, Economy, Europe, Middle East


Tags: , , , , , ,

What Ever Happened to the Russian Revolution?

Russia is both a great, glorious country and an ongoing disaster. Just when you decide it is the one, it turns around and discloses the other. For a hundred years before 1917, it experienced wild disorders and political violence interspersed with periods of unquiet calm, meanwhile producing some of the world’s greatest literature and booming in population and helping to feed Europe. Then it leapt into a revolution unlike any the world had ever seen. Today, a hundred years afterward, we still don’t know quite what to make of that huge event. The Russians themselves aren’t too sure about its significance.

I used to tell people that I loved Russia, because I do. I think everybody has a country not their own that they’re powerfully drawn to; Russia is mine. I can’t explain the attraction, only observe its symptoms going back to childhood, such as listening over and over to Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” narrated by Peter Ustinov, when I was 6, or standing in the front yard at night as my father pointed out Sputnik crossing the sky. Now I’ve traveled enough in Russia that my affections are more complicated. I know that almost no conclusion I ever draw about it is likely to be right. The way to think about Russia is without thinking about it. I just try to love it and yield to it and go with it, while also paying vigilant attention—if that makes sense.

I first began traveling to Russia more than 24 years ago, and in 2010 I published Travels in Siberia, a book about trips I’d made to that far-flung region. With the fall of the Soviet Union, areas previously closed to travelers had opened up. During the 1990s and after, the pace of change in Russia cascaded. A harsh kind of capitalism grew; democracy came and mostly went. Then, two years ago, my son moved to the city of Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains, on the edge of Siberia, and he lives there now. I see I will never stop thinking about this country.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 14, 2017 in Europe


Tags: ,

Beware: this Russian cyber warfare threatens every democracy

Anyone in Europe and Britain worried about the state of US democracy should take time to watch the videos of this week’s congressional hearings over Russian online meddling in the 2016 presidential election. If the words “checks and balances” mean anything, this surely is it.

My favourite moment is when senator Dianne Feinstein leans into the microphone and says sternly to the Facebook, Twitter and Google representatives(whose evasive answers have exasperated her): “You don’t get it! This is a very big deal. What we’re talking about is cataclysmic. It is cyber warfare. A major foreign power with sophistication and ability got involved in our presidential election.”

We don’t yet know the full picture. In particular, we don’t know if Russian-promoted bots, trolls and online ads had an impact that in any way altered the outcome of the US election. At this stage, to claim they did may be crediting Vladimir Putin with more power than he actually wields. What emerged from the hearings is that Russia’s likeliest goal was to sow discord and confusion among citizens of the world’s most powerful democracy.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 5, 2017 in Europe, North America


Tags: ,

What the Bolsheviks Saw

Revolution is always a matter of time travel, an exercise of the imagination, a painstaking, desperate crafting of the ultimate counterfactual. Sometimes, it involves creating a revolutionary calendar, a rebooting of our origins. So it was for the prophet Muhammad when he established the ummah, beginning a calendar that makes this year of ours 1439, and from which point it is possible to imagine there is still hope. And so it was for the French Revolution, which chose to institute a Republican calendar, transforming 1792, the year of the founding of the Republic, into Year One, with the days and the months named after natural elements.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 5, 2017 in Europe


Tags: ,

Moscow Mueller

This week, Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller revealed the opening blows in his investigation into potential collusion between members of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and operatives working for or on behalf of Russia. On Monday, things kicked off with Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort turning himself in to the Justice Department after being indicted on 12 counts stemming from his financial dealings, including with pro-Russian Ukrainian entities. While the indictments allege a wide range of criminal activity, they do not cite anything related to the Trump campaign and Russia. In fact, the indictment overwhelmingly deals with shady deals Manafort allegedly made throughout an extended period of years before he joined the Trump campaign. But that, of course, does not mean Manafort is not implicated in potential attempts by Trump officials to work with Russian sources to obtain damaging information on Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, or other unknown offers from Russia to help Trump. The investigation has not provided the public of evidence of that, but it may well exist.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 4, 2017 in Europe, North America


Tags: ,

Vladimir Putin is positioning himself as the main player in the Middle East

After Israel’s victory in the 1973 Middle East war, Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko went on 22 October to see President Brezhnev at his dacha at Zavidovo just outside Moscow. The Israelis were not much interested in accepting a ceasefire set to begin the previous day, and, according to Anatoly Chernyaev, a Soviet official present at the talks, Brezhnev wanted to encourage the Israelis to keep the truce by offering a Soviet guarantee of Israel’s borders. Gromyko replied that the Arabs would take offence – but Brezhnev burst out that “we have been offering them (the Arabs) a sensible course of action for so many years. They wanted war and they are welcome to it … To hell with them.”

It was a view long shared by Soviet military officers. I recall the remaining anger of a former Soviet instructor in Yemen during the 1962-70 civil war, who, showing me Red Square one cold afternoon, made a remark almost as contemptuous as Brezhnev’s. “We helped to train the Arabs [against the monarchists] and they were useless and I think they should be on their own. Let someone else save them. Why should it be us all over again?”

Leave a comment

Posted by on October 20, 2017 in Europe, Middle East


Tags: ,