Lessons From Russia and the former Soviet Republics


On 25 December 1991, after 74 years, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics voted itself out of existence. In doing so an empire that spanned from Poland to the Pacific Ocean, from Iran to the Arctic Circle broke up into 16 separate nations. 250 million people had to begin to learn a whole new way of life where they found themselves in charge of their own socio-economic destiny, grappling with geopolitical challenges that just a few years earlier, most people would have said would not happen.

But the post-Cold War rehabilitation that one might have thought that the western powers would help with, having spent most of a century trying to destroy it, does not seem to have materialized. Nothing was done to help stabilize an economy used to the command format, the five year plans that kept resulting in overly ambitious targets not being met and factory machinery not being retooled or repaired in time. Far from accepting the economic rot that had set in, the U.S.S.R. was kicked to touch by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant reactor meltdown by exposing the inflexible nature of the state, the corruption indulged in to keep or maintain individual power.

From Ukraine and Moldova to Tajikistan, the Soviet republics were littered with the detritus of the Soviet involvement in the biggest arms race of all time.  Warships and submarines lay rusting, unmaintained at ports such as Sevastopol, Odessa, Murmansk, Archangel, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and others. Thousands of nuclear weapons were unprotected across the republics. No need for them existed in the early 1990’s with the hope that the world had somehow moved on from communism and that long term disarmament would become a thing. Thus no one should be surprised that the submarine Kursk had a catastrophic accident shortly after Mr Putin took office.

The same countries found themselves struggling with a smorgasbord of socio-environmental; socio-economic and socio-political issues.The devaluation of the rouble had rendered it just about useless; empty shop shelves became a common appearance; in the U.S.S.R. military establishment literally hundreds of thousands of people who had soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines quickly became redundant. The reforms ushered in by Mr Gorbachev may have delighted the west, but they angered political hardliners perhaps inspired by Josef Stalin’s concept of “towards the inevitable conflict”. This supported the idea where eventually some sort of confrontation between the east and the west would happen.

Yet nearly 30 years later from the collapse of the U.S.S.R, the west and Russia are no closer to a long lasting peaceful solution than they were in 1945. And yet, we in the west wonder how and why Russia came to be like it currently is: a semi-authoritarian state beset by corruption. A nation with poor regard for human rights, with ambitious leaders who see a role for growing Russian influence in this part of the world, Russia is in danger of repeating the reign of Tsar Nicholas II.

 

 

New Zealand has no place in Iraq


With the attacks by Iran on U.S. targets in Iraq, it is time to question whether New Zealand should have military assets in the region.

Some people say that we were formally asked to be there. So we were, but that fails to acknowledge the simple fact of the matter that New Zealand has no business in Middle East conflicts unless it is part of a United Nations sanctioned operation.

New Zealand should withdraw its troops from Iraq forthwith. There are better places that they can could go – if they really need to be in the Middle East, they should be part of one of the numerous operations in adjacent countries. Whilst it is noted that Iraq has such a mission itself, it is also noted Iraq has just voted to end the military presence of all foreign troops in the country. New Zealand would do well to recognize that.

When Iraq was invaded, the United States despite claims to the contrary, never had a real plan for putting the country back together. It was well known Iraq was at high risk of falling apart along sectarian lines, which would involve the major Sunni, Shia and Shiite sects fighting among themselves. And fight they did. Those lines in the sand drawn by diplomats with probably little understanding of or care for the ethnic geography of the region in 1916 cut straight across ethnic boundaries, and were brutally enforced by British and French forces.

Iran has also had a turbulent 100 years with both western and Soviet interference, which such large numbers massacred in the 1910’s by the Ottoman Empire. In the years prior to the Iran-Iraq War the Shah was toppled in Iran, which up to that point had been a somewhat forward looking nation. The  Women were not restricted in what they could wear, do for jobs or for a social life. The Iranian Revolution saw many of those rights lost. It also saw a significant hardening of Iranian U.S. relations, which further deteriorated with the Iranian hostage crisis in Tehran, and was followed by the Iran-Iraq war where it was known that Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons against Iranian targets. Then the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger plane killing all 290 on board, which the U.S. refused to apologize for, though compensation was paid.

It is easy to over simplify the complex web of geopolitical relations in the Middle East. Because of that, the simplistic idea that New Zealand is working to help the U.S. ensure terrorism ends in the Middle East ignores for example the various militant groups that are active – al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Houthi’s, the Iranian Republican Guard Corps, Islamic State among others. It ignores who is funding/arming them and what those nations are trying to get out of doing so. It ignores the ambitions of groups like the Kurds who were promised statehood at some point in the past only for it to be reversed. It ignores the wider U.S.-Russian rivalry where proxies in the region fight wars on their behalf.

Also, given the influences that the U.S. agenda of ending terrorism has been highly suspect for some time now, which New Zealand should recognize, it is also a moral question of whether we should be there.

I say not.

 

A proxy war New Zealand does not need


A proxy war is normally a war fought by small actors on behalf of bigger actors. As such, there is a war between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a client state of America, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is a client state of Russia. As client states, they receive aid from their more powerful mate.

Neither Russia or America want the other to gain absolute control in the Middle East. This is a cross roads region between the Asian, North African and European continents. Both need the oil that comes with these nations, and both are propping up dictatorships who care nothing for the supposed Western influence of human rights.

Both America and Russia are guilty of arming war criminals. They will deny it as this is a very heavy allegation to make, but American and British cluster bombs have been dropped by Saudi Arabia on Yemeni schools, hospitals and homes. And irrefutable evidence of these events has been found by Amnesty International.

Russia has blood on its hands from supporting the regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria. It has vetoed numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions trying to hold Mr al Assad to account. Russia has also steadfastly stood up for Iran in the same way America has for Israel. It has vetoed U.N. resolutions against Iran. It has ignored Iran’s abomination of a record on women’s rights. Were a war to start between the two I expect Russia will respond militarily to a direct attack on Iran, at which point the stakes rise by orders of magnitude. So too does the risk.

Has the U.S./Israel /Saudi Arabia thought about this? I am not sure that they have.

Iran, perhaps under the Russian umbrella may think it is safe and that the United States would not strike. Perhaps true, but I think Israel would. It struck Saddam Hussein by knocking out his Osirak reactor; it struck Syria several years ago. What would happen if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to bomb the entire Iranian nuclear programme and any military installations deemed to be strategic back into the stone age?

But there is another country involved. Turkey. Over the decades Turkey has maintained an increasingly hard line against its Kurdish minority. As a result some Kurdish groups such as the P.K.K. have been labelled terrorist groups. Turkey is in a unique position. It is friendly to Russia and – to a decreasing extent – the United States. It has hosted N.A.T.O. forces during various operations, including the 1991 Gulf War and the U.S. used to have missiles there, which were removed after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Recently the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become more authoritarian and survived an attempted coup in 2016 that led to a massive crack down against the intelligentsia and activist groups.

But in the last few months that has taken on a new dimension with Turkey acquiring advanced Russian S-400 anti aircraft missiles and is talking to Moscow about participating in its 5th Generation combat aircraft programme. This has led to a sharp and possibly long lasting deterioration in its relationship with N.A.T.O. and the United States, which has cut Turkey out of the F-35 fighter programme.

And then, last week it started a military operation against Kurdish forces who had been participating in the war against I.S.I.S. after the Americans downgraded their forces in northern Syria. In an already complicated geopolitical mess, this was something totally unnecessary on Turkey’s part and that of Washington.

And all it achieves is the diminishing of the prospects for a lasting peace in a region that has been nearly continuously wracked by some sort of conflict since October 2001. It is not a conflict New Zealand needs to be a part of. It is not one we will gain anything from and definitely one we should be actively pushing towards the peace negotiations table.

 

Ministers hiding from the truth?


I have been watching the Chernobyl miniseries, which is based on the 1986 meltdown of Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine, when it was part of the former U.S.S.R. Constantly coming out of the series is the determination of the Communist government to cover up the disaster even though the scale of it makes that impossible, even though the radioactive cloud drifting across Europe has been detected in multiple countries.

The lack of transparency and the corruption within the Communist system was a major contributor to its eventual downfall in 1989. It took their ineptness at Chernobyl in a rigid system hell bent on preservation at all cost including locking up those who knew too much to start its unravelling.

Midway through its first term in office, the number of inept Ministers in the Labour-led Government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is startling. And as National looks at the 2020 election as a chance to take back the Beehive, we see them shying away from taking questions. We see them ducking behind the public service officials who are meant to keep them up to speed.

Fortunately New Zealand could not be more different from the Cold War era U.S.S.R. It is a nation that enjoys very high ratings with Transparency International, which focuses on the accountability of elected officials, the ability to obtain information and the freedom of the press. Using a scale of 1-100 where 100 is completely transparent, T.I. have graded countries around the world. The current rating is 2. Only Denmark has a higher score. However, both countries have slipped from a ratings a few years ago in the very low 90’s. Last year New Zealand topped the list at 89 and in 2016, 90. Russia and Ukraine by contrast only scored 29 in 2018.

Whilst this is still a very good score for New Zealand and one worth celebrating, at the same time the gradual downwards drift needs correcting. New Zealand continues to maintain a somewhat laissez faire approach to oversight of its authorities and there is room for improvement in terms of having a watchdog overseeing the Privacy Commission and Human Rights Commission, among others who have been dogged in recent years by conduct completely unbecoming of such important bodies.

Recently we have seen the sort of activity that might be behind the gradual downwards drift in our score. At Chernobyl we saw nuclear scientists trying to persuade Communist officials more intent on saving their own skin and the system they worked under about the grave threat Chernobyl posed. They were constantly monitored, threatened and on occasion, even detained. It would lead the chief scientist Valery Legasov to take his own life, rocking the Communist apparatus in a way even the hardliners struggled to ignore.

In New Zealand we have seen Ministers ducking for cover. Phil Twyford is the prime example, as a man who knows Kiwi Build is a failure but instead of being upfront and saying so has retreated from interviews about it. A second example is Shane Jones. What was he doing lobbying Minister of Immigration on behalf of Stan Semenoff and the transport company he owns so they could get accredited employer status and employ Filipino workers? And a third will be the Minister of Immigration himself and the Karl Sroubek snafu where a Czech man wanted by Czech Republic authorities fled to New Zealand, claiming he would die if he went back to the Republic.

So far none of them come close to matching the ineptness of Comrade Dyatlov who had control of Reactor No. 4 on that fatal night. Nor do the consequences involve the threat of getting the KGB involved. But they do involve massive loss of personal reputation. They do raise questions about how in control of her Government Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern really is, and a failure to improve might be the downfall of this Labour-led Government just as Chernobyl probably caused the downfall of Communism.

 

Little appetite for war against Iran


Ever since the United States pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal the risk of a war between the two nations has increased. Ayatollah Khamenei began to increase the rhetoric against the United States, saying how it wanted war. President Donald Trump believed that the deal was fundamentally flawed from the start, and at the behest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who believed it compromised Israeli national security, withdrew from it. Initially Iran said it would continue to comply with it in full. But when it was revealed that the other powers signatory to the agreement were not complying with their end of the deal in full, Tehran immediately said that should they not resume within 60 days it would withdraw.

Which is precisely what Mr Netanyahu and Mr Trump wanted. But now with the war hawks attempting to ratchet up the drum beat of war to another level, it is time to look at why the hawks could be in for a brutal surprise should Iran and the United States come to military blows.

There is a distinct difference though between the Iraq War and how any war against Iran in terms of the support that the United States has. Whilst many nations friendly to America expressed considerable reservations or expressed condemnation of its 2003 invasion of Iraq, it did have the support of a few nations. They included the United Kingdom, Spain, Australia, the Netherlands, Iceland, Portugal, Japan and South Korea, along with a number of eastern European, central Asian and Latin American countries.

In many respects the United States and Israel would be facing a very different foe to the demoralized Iraq that was invaded in 2003. Among the primary reasons:

  • Iran has not suffered a major conflict since the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988 and has rebuilt
  • Iraq’s military was severely depleted, badly trained, paid and resourced – much of its equipment was useless for lack of parts, ammunition
  • Iran has significant powerful allies including Syria and Russia
  • Its compliance with the nuclear deal means the grounds for military action based on a grave and present threat are non-existent, which American allies generally recognize
  • International support for a war against Iran is almost non-existent
  • Much of the promotion of a hard line against Iran has more to do with bolstering the military industrial complex and certain politicians than achieving any real good
  • The risk of an Iran-U.S./Israel conflict becoming a direct clash between the U.S. and Russia is real

Iran is suffering under heavy American sanctions and diplomatic pressure on other countries to stop buying Iranian oil. However several nations including South Korea still do so. It has refused to have anything to do with the petro-dollar and some are suggesting it might be investing in crypto-currency such as Bitcoin.

None of this is to say that the Iranian Government or the Ayatollahs are saints. They are not. Iran has one of the most appalling records of any nation in the Middle East when it comes to womens rights, the death penalty, torture, arbitrary detention and extra-judicial killings. Human rights activists such as Nasrin Sotoudeh are regularly imprisoned without justification, and almost always on trumped up charges such as posing a threat to the Islamic Republic

Nor is it to say that Iran respects its neighbours. During the Iraqi sectarian violence following the U.S. invasion in 2003 it armed militias to destablize the country and disrupt the attempt to restore the country. It arms Hezbollah militants fighting against Israel, by supplying them with Qassam and Katyusha rockets, drones and small arms. It point blank refuses to recognize the state of Israel in any form. Iran may have interfered in the Afghanistan war and its chief regional rival is Saudi Arabia.

But if we take all of this and acknowledge the willingness of Russia to exercise veto powers when U.N. Resolutions against Iran are proposed, the extent to which Russia has enabled Hezbollah to be armed, and so forth, it is clear Russia has a significant stake in Iran’s well being.

To the extent it could be compared with America’s in Israel.