Lessons from Russia

A  film about a German film maker Werner Herzog meeting former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, has brought back to public attention some basic lessons from Russia. As the largest of the countries that used to make up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Russia was the economic and military mainstay of the Soviet bloc, with garrisons in a dozen different nations – Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Albania. But when it collapsed a series of blunders by the west that continued for nearly a decade and contributed to the current stand off we find ourselves in today with a revived Russian bear, hollowed out whatever ideological victory the west might have had.

I believe one of the biggest mistakes made since the Cold War ended was the abject failure to rehabilitate Russia and the other former U.S.S.R. members. The period from the end of 1991 when the U.S.S.R. formally dissolved after voting itself out of existence on Christmas Day that year to when Vladimir Putin, a former K.G.B. agent became President in 2000 was a time of ethnic, social and economic instability. Few in the west seemed aware of the changes – even less probably cared.

No effort was ever made to help Russia or its fellow former Soviet Republics with a transition to an economic system not reliant on 5 Year Plans that here almost always excessively ambitious. Subsequently massive job losses were announced across the board. Wages plummeted. An American volcanologist writing about colleagues around the world said that one of his Russian colleagues was reduced to $35 a month in income. The concepts introduced by the last Premier Mikhail Gorbachev were perestroika (openness) and glasnost (reforms)meant well and were absolutely necessary, but thanks in large part to the west rolling around in the victory over its eastern rival, they failed.

Nor was any effort made to address the fact that these countries, having just spent the better part of a human life under a totalitarian regime directed from Moscow and upheld by local puppets, did not understand democracy. No effort was spent on helping them build new institutions, removing the corruption that came with the Communist command-economy and teaching those that were trusted with the transformation of the institutions how to go about their jobs.

After the Cold War ended former Soviet Republics found themselves with abandoned military hardware and infrastructure that Russia could not afford to maintain. Literally rusting in ports in Archangel, Odessa, Sevastopol, Murmansk and others were Soviet warships whose crews were weeks or even months behind in being paid. Many of them had nuclear propulsion and some had nuclear weapons or the means to store nuclear weapons on board. The poor state of repair no doubt contributed to the Kursk submarine disaster in August 2000.

But perhaps the greatest cost to the west was political. Having failed to help with Russia’s rehabilitation it was now consigned to watching the rise of Mr Putin, whose vision of Russian greatness has only been matched by his cunning. Using divide and conquer tactics he has partially annexed the strategically important Crimea. He managed to build up Russia influence in Iran and Syria, prolonging the civil war in the latter and tacitly endorsing the anti-American sentiments of the former.

Now, the west wonder why Russia went down hill following the Cold War and why Mr Gorbachev, who is now 88 is issuing an old but familiar warning once more: demilitarize politics between the U.S. and Russia or else. The warning signs have been there all along, but in racing to think that Francis Fukuyama’s “End of history” thesis was somehow the future, we forgot the past.


No winners in Afghanistan peace agreement

Over the centuries and even millenia, Afghanistan has been subject to at least seven distinct periods of partial or complete occupation. The Persians, the Mongols, the Mughal’s, the Greeks, the British, Soviet Union and Americans have all invaded the country for one reason or another in the period between the 9th Century B.C. and the 21st Century A.D. Prior to the American invasion triggered by the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and – if the fourth hijacked flight had hit – the White House, all have similarly disappeared having temporarily altered a region of the world that few seem to have ever truly understood.

So how did this latest attempt to change the unchangeable Afghanistan come to this?

In 1979 the U.S.S.R. began what would turn into a 10 year incursion that only ended in 1989. It led to an anglo-American programme of support to an insurgency that following the invasion would go on to kill civilians indiscriminately. It was supported by a Texan Democrat called Charlie Wilson, whose lobbying lead to substantial C.I.A. interference in the country, and whose supply of small arms continued even after the Soviets withdrew and the insurgency had turned on the civilian population. The Soviet incursion killed about 95,000 Mujahideen combatants and killed at least 562,000 Afghan civilians, and involved the use of chemical weapons.

Following the departure of the U.S.S.R., which was in the late stages of collapsing, Afghanistan plunged into civil war which ended in 1996, and was then followed by the rise of the Taliban. This fundamentalist organization had no time for civilized ideals, particularly those of western origin. Education for girls was banned. Having access to television, radio and the internet all became criminal offences. Beer was banned, with the Taliban taking pride in showing tanks crushing beer crates. Only the most opaque clothing was permitted.

Even humanitarian N.G.O.’s were badly received, with those that had female staff coming in for particularly severe treatment. Which, is why, after two decades of progress, albeit fraught with danger, Afghans would be right to be worried about a return to Taliban like extremism.

There will be no winners in this. Not among the ordinary Afghani. Not in terms of socio-economic gain or liberties. Not in terms of developing a civilized nation.

Among the women, who under Taliban control, were subject to appalling violence, degrading restrictions on what they could/could not do; could/could not wear; could/could not go, the fear of what the future is will be palpable. Many will be scared for the future in a country where many still believe that a woman who is raped has somehow shamed her male family members, where adultery is punishable by death and where women have some of the least secure rights of any women in the world.

There will not be any geopolitical winners. The trillion dollars that have been wasted on this war could well have gone to any number of other much more useful projects in the Middle East that might have had some lasting positive impact for the countries in which they happened. Removing unexploded ordnance, assisting with the rebuild of infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, power, water and sewerage utilities all would have been much more helpful.

As for New Zealand, my position is unchanged. We have no purpose there and should get any military assets we might have in Afghanistan out. Any and all assistance to Afghanistan – like Iraq – should be strictly humanitarian and funnelled through organizations such as the Red Cross, or the Mines Advisory Group.

In a war that cost America a trillion dollars, there does not seem to have been much winning. Unless one is talking about the military industrial complex, which have done very well out of it.

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.