State of the Union

Vladimir Putin, Christian Crusader?

In his Kremlin defense of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin, even before he began listing the battles where Russian blood had been shed on Crimean soil, spoke of an older deeper bond.

Crimea, said Putin, “is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.”

Russia is a Christian country, Putin was saying. This speech recalls last December’s address where the former KGB chief spoke of Russia as standing against a decadent West:

Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values. Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.

Heard any Western leader, say, Barack Obama, talk like that lately?

Indicting the “Bolsheviks” who gave away Crimea to Ukraine, Putin declared, “May God judge them.” What is going on here? With Marxism-Leninism a dead faith, Putin is saying the new ideological struggle is between a debauched West led by the United States and a traditionalist world Russia would be proud to lead. In the new war of beliefs, Putin is saying, it is Russia that is on God’s side. The West is Gomorrah.

Western leaders who compare Putin’s annexation of Crimea to Hitler’s Anschluss with Austria, who dismiss him as a “KGB thug,” who call him “the alleged thief, liar and murderer who rules Russia,” as Wall Street Journal‘s Holman Jenkins did, believe Putin’s claim to stand on higher moral ground is beyond blasphemous. Read More…

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Huawei Builds China’s Own Internet “Home-Field Advantage”

Last weekend, the New York Times and Der Spiegel reported that the NSA has been spying on and hacking into Chinese telecommunications company Huawei since 2009 according to documents released by Edward Snowden. The Chinese response has been swift and strident—high ranking officials condemned these actions and predictably called for an end to the espionage. This disclosure strains the already complicated relationship between the U.S. and China as both giants race to ensure their own economic growth and national security.

At the same time, China may be taking baby steps towards laying down underwater internet fiber optic cables similar to the infrastructure the NSA and British spy agency GHCQ have exploited, what the NSA called their “home-field advantage.” This tactic was among the first in a series of staggered revelations from Edward Snowden in June of 2013. Through a program called Tempora, GHCQ can store communication data for three days and can store metadata for up to 30, providing GHCQ with more metadata than the NSA’s program, with less oversight. This surveillance is conducted partly with assistance from private companies, known as “intercept partners.” It is also conducted without the companies’ knowledge, however, relying on geographic proximity and national familiarity to tap major cables and core internet switches. Now Huawei appears to be developing a similar “home-field advantage” for China. Its current scale is quite small, but Huawei intends to be “one of the top three in the industry.”

It has been well-established that Huawei’s leadership has ties to the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese Communist Party, and the Chinese government. The founder of Huawei, Ren Zhengfei was a PLA engineer, and Sun Yafang, a executive board member, previously worked at the Chinese spy agency, Ministry of State Security Communications Department. When Huawei was still a fledgling company, Sun provided Huawei with millions of dollars to keep it afloat. Since the 1990s, Huawei has repeatedly attempted to establish a foothold in the U.S. telecommunications market, with no success. The United States has remained wary of the Shenzhen-based company, and consistently thwarted Huawei’s efforts to break into the U.S. markets. Finally, at the end of 2013, Huawei announced its intention to seek other opportunities to expand. Huawei has repeatedly denied any significant ties to the Chinese military or government. Read More…

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What’s Happening in Egypt?

The turmoil and tension surrounding Ukraine has dominated the media as of late—and before that, war in Syria drove the news for many months. But a year ago Egypt was preeminent: the military overthrow of elected President Muhammed Morsi last summer brought both outrage and applause from various factions.

Now, Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the defense minister who led last summer’s takeover, is running for president. Sisi has been in charge since last year’s military takeover—this would just put a formal title to his rulership. New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick believes it’s likely, almost certain, he will win: “Several would-be candidates have declined to enter the presidential race, arguing that the support of the military and security services all but guaranteed Mr. Sisi’s election,” he writes.

Yahoo News reporters Maggie Michael and Lee Keath report that Sisi has surrounded himself with former President Hosni Mubarak’s circle of “politicians, technocrats and big businessmen,” suggesting his presidency would mark a return to the autocratic methods of bygone days.

But Financial Times reporter David Gardner believes Sisi will amass more power than Mubarak, for a few reasons: first, “he has tilted power away from the security services towards the army,” and has used the new constitution to bolster military power. Second, branding the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group and throwing 15,000 to 20,000 of its members into prison has solidified his political prospects. While Sisi may hang up his uniform, notes Gardner, he hasn’t given up its power. Read More…

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Taiwan’s Protests Could Mean Trouble With China

Taiwan, the semi-autonomous nation not known for making waves, is erupting over a trade pact with China. Last week, hundreds of student protesters occupied the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s unicameral legislative body, demonstrating against the Guomindang’s (KMT) unilateral passage of a service trade agreement signed last year. According to CNN, protesters successfully blocked riot police from the Legislative Yuan with chairs, and have been seated both in and outside the building, singing, chanting, and holding up signs. Police have since used force to clear the Legislative Yuan, with the prime minister saying that the students were “paralyz[ing] our administrative workings,” according to a New York Times report yesterday.

The pact’s passage breaks the KMT’s promise to collaborate with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), staving off an inevitable conflict with the opposition over the pact. The DPP’s longtime stance is rooted in advocating full Taiwanese independence and dissolving ties with China, with much of its energy expended attacking the KMT for colluding with China against local Taiwanese interests. One of the DPP party slogans is, “sell Taiwan”, implying that the KMT is a cowardly puppet government with no interest in advocating for Taiwanese independence.

The protests come at the tail of a long decline in popular opinion of Taiwanese president Ma Ying-Jeou, whose conciliatory stance with China has incited a slow-burning resentment among his political opponents, and has even caused those within his own party to distance themselves from him. Ma’s approval ratings have dropped close to the level of disgraced former DPP prime minister Chen Sui-bian, who was convicted of money laundering in 2009.

One possible outcome of these protests, especially if the trade pact is derailed, is that formal relations across the strait could begin to deteriorate. Damon Linker in The Week speculates that if China were to take Taiwan, it would herald the end of American expansionism in the region. He argues that in spite of written agreements to help Taiwan defend itself, the United States would be unlikely to join in such a war. American neutrality in a hegemon-underdog dispute would bespeak our weakening global image as the world’s national guard, in Linker’s view. While logically sound, this perspective overlooks one important aspect of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations: The United States’s ability to influence Taiwanese relations with China or in the international community was never very strong to begin with. Read More…

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Europe’s Bonds Begin to Fade

A week ago, in the St. George’s Hall in the Kremlin, Russia’s elite cheered and wept as Vladimir Putin announced the re-annexation of Crimea. Seven in 10 Russians approve of Putin’s rule. In Crimea, the Russian majority has not ceased celebrating. The re-conquest nears completion. In Eastern Ukraine, Russians have now begun to agitate for annexation by Moscow. Ukrainian nationalism, manifest in the anti-Russia coup in Kiev, has produced its inevitable reaction among Russians. While praising the Ukrainians who came out to Maidan to protest peacefully, Putin said that those behind the decisive events “resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup.” The Kremlin erupted in cheers.

But not only in Ukraine is ethnic nationalism surging.

“National Front Vote Stuns Hollande” was the headline on the Financial Times’ story about France’s municipal elections Sunday. Though the FN of Marine Le Pen, daughter of party founder Jean Marie Le Pen, did not field candidates in many cities, it won the mayoral race outright in Henin-Beaumont and ran first or second in a dozen medium-sized cities, qualifying for run-off elections on March 30. ”The National Front has arrived as a major independent force — a political force both at the national and local levels,” declared Le Pen.

No one is arguing the point. Indeed, a measure of panic has set in for the socialist party of Francois Hollande, which is calling on all parties to unite against FN candidates. In early polling for the May elections for the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the National Front is running close behind the UMP of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, and ahead of Hollande’s socialists. Begun as an anti-immigrant, anti-EU Party, the FN has broadened its base to issues like crime and unemployment.

But the most startling news on the nationalist front last week came in Venice and the Veneto region, where 89 percent of a large turnout in a non-binding referendum voted to secede from Italy and re-establish the Venetian republic that vanished in 1866. Exulted Luca Zaia of the separatist Northern League, “The will for secession is growing very strong. We are only at the Big Bang of the movement—but revolutions are born of hunger and we are now hungry. Venice can now escape.” The proposed “Repubblica Veneta” would embrace five million inhabitants of Veneto. Should it succeed in seceding, Lombardy and Trentino would likely follow, bringing about a partition of Italy. Sardinia is also reportedly looking for an exit.

In readying their referendum, Venetians journeyed to Scotland to observe preparations by the Scottish National Party for the vote this fall to sever the 1707 Act of Union with England. Also observing in Scotland were representatives of Catalonia who will hold a similar referendum this fall on secession from Spain. Basque Country secessionists were present in Scotland as well.

In a report published this weekend, “Europe on Trial,” a poll of 20,000 British commissioned by Lord Ashcroft of the Conservative Party found that Russia (before the Kiev-Crimea crisis) was viewed more favorably than either the EU or European Parliament. By 49-31, British think the costs of membership in the EU outweigh the benefits and they are now evenly divided, 41-41, on whether to get out of the union altogether.

Prime Minister David Cameron has set a vote on EU membership for 2017. Now it appears the Labour Party, seeing the unpopularity of the EU, may also be open to changing the EU treaty and a referendum on saying goodbye to Europe, should they take power in 2015.

Why is the EU under rising centrifugal pressure? Why do so many nations of Europe seem on the verge of breaking up? There is no single or simple explanation.

Venice and Northern Italy feel exploited. Why, they ask, should we subsidize a less industrious and lazier south that consumes tax revenues we raise here. Many northern Italians believe they have more in common with Swiss than Romans, Neapolitans, or Sicilians. Flanders feels the same about the Walloons in Belgium. Scots and Catalans believe they are a people with a culture, history and identity separate from the nations to which they belong.

Across Europe, there is a fear that the ethnic character of their countries and continent are being altered forever against the will of the people. Western Europeans are recoiling at the Bulgarians, Rumanians and gypsies arriving from Eastern Europe. Asylum seekers, economic refugees and migrants in the scores of thousands arrive annually on the Italian island of Lampedusa and in the Spanish Canaries. Early this month, the New York Times reported a surge of 80,000 African migrants headed for the tiny Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the Moroccan coast.

The goal these desperate people seek: the mother countries of the Old Continent and the wealthy welfare states of Northern Europe. What the children of Europe are rebelling against is what their fathers, paralyzed by political correctness, refused to prevent. It was predictable, it was predicted, and it has come to pass.

Patrick J. Buchanan is the author of Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? Copyright 2014 Creators.com.

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Why Finland’s Educational Model Is More Conservative Than Ours

Advocates of education reform have pointed to Finland consistently over the past few years, urging the U.S. to take note of its educational success. The country has “consistently performed among the top nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA),” writes Atlantic contributor Christine Gross-Loh, yet their system “break[s] a lot of the rules we take for granted.”

In her interview with Finnish Education Chief Krista Kiuru, Gross-Loh highlights many of Finland’s most successful policies, and contrasts them with U.S. education reform policy to great effect. Through the interview, several of Finland’s best educational measures (some with rather conservative values) stand out:

Encouraging the principle of subsidiarity

As part of a series of educational reforms in the 1970s and ’80s, Finland “shook the classrooms free from the last vestiges of top-down regulation,” wrote Smithsonian Magazine contributor LynNell Hancock in September 2011. ”Control over policies shifted to town councils. The national curriculum was distilled into broad guidelines.”

Additionally, Finland has eliminated mandated standardized testing, with one exception: the National Matriculation Exam, which all students take at the end of upper-secondary school (similar to an American high school). “Instead, the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves,” wrote Atlantic author Anu Partanen in December 2011. ”All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.”

“There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions,” writes Hancock. Because of this, Finnish educators are somewhat puzzled by the U.S. “fascination” with standardized testing—Louhivuori told Hancock such tests are “nonsense”: “We know much more about the children than these tests can tell us.”

Instead of requiring a state inspections, veteran teacher and principal Kari Louhivuori told Hancock, “Our incentives come from inside.” Teacher accountability and inspections are the responsibility of teachers and principals, not federal officials.

Hancock compared Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, in which states compete for federal dollars using tests and standards like Common Core, to Finland’s flexible, decentralized system. Helsinki principal Timo Heikkinen told Hancock, “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.” And indeed, the “human aspect” seems very important to Finnish education.

Focusing on the human element, rather than numbers

Teachers spend fewer hours at school and less time in classrooms than their American counterparts. Rather, they use this extra time to create curricula, assess students, and continue their own education. Children spend more time playing outside, and homework is minimal, according to Hancock. Read More…

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Russia’s Demographic Time Bomb

In the last stanza of “The Battle of Blenheim,” Robert Southey writes:

‘But what good came of it at last?’ Quoth little Peterkin.
‘Why, that I cannot tell,’ said he; ‘But ’twas a famous victory.’

What did it really matter? The poet was asking of the triumph of the Duke of Marlborough—”Who this great fight did win.” What brings back this poem about the transience of glory and folly of war—during this week’s struggle over whose flag will fly over Crimea—is a wall chart that just arrived from the UN.

“World Population 2012″ projects the population growth, or decline, of every country and continent, between now and 2050. Most deeply involved in Crimea’s crisis are Russia and Ukraine. Yet, looking at the UN numbers, there seems an element of absurdity in this confrontation that could lead to a shooting war.

Between 2012 and 2050, Ukraine, war or no war, will lose one-fourth of its population. Eleven to twelve million Ukrainians will vanish from the earth, a figure far higher than the highest estimate of the death toll of the horrific Holodomor of 1932-33. Russia will lose 22 million people, with her population falling below 121 million. Every month between now and 2050, close to 50,000 Russians will disappear. Some demographers believe the UN numbers to be optimistic. Indeed, this writer has seen projections far more dire.

Those who warn that Vladimir Putin is trying to reconstitute the Soviet Union might explain how this is going to be done as Russia loses 22 million people, while the former Soviet republics of Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan—together add 22 million people.

How often in history do nations with shrinking populations invade and annex those with surging populations?

When the UN was set up in 1945, Stalin wanted each of 15 Soviet republics given a seat in the General Assembly. He settled for three seats—for Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia, now Belarus. That was the core of the old Soviet Union. Yet, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine will lose together 35 million people by mid-century, a figure comparable to the human losses from four years of the Hitler-Stalin war and seven decades of Bolshevik rule.

Our War Party is demanding that we send military assistance and possibly troops to Poland, the Baltic republics and Rumania, and bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. This would mean America would fight Russia to defend them all, should another clash occur as in 2008 in Georgia and today in Crimea. Does this make sense—for any of us? Read More…

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Kunming Knife Attacks Point to Prolonged Ethnic Conflict

Chaos erupted on Saturday afternoon at a Kunming railway station, in the Yunnan province of southwestern China. Ten men and women carrying scimitars and meat cleavers descended on unsuspecting passengers, slicing and stabbing at random. Unreleased photos depict multiple victims lying in pools of their own blood. All told, 130 people were injured and 30 were killed. Four suspects were shot and killed at the scene; one is currently detained while recovering from injuries. It is believed that there are currently five suspects are still at large. There was a heightened security presence at both the Kunming railway station and in Beijing on Monday. President Xi Jinping harshly condemned these acts, which have been classified as acts of terrorism. A vigil was held on Sunday to honor the dead and wounded.

The attack was linked to Uighur separatists, who hail from the Xinjiang province in northwest China, directly north of Tibet. Tensions have flared between the Han Chinese and the Turkic Muslim ethnic groups in the region for the last several years, each conflict bringing severe government crackdowns. Because of tight restrictions on reporting, there is speculation as to whether the government has exaggerated the Uighur terrorism in order to justify the use of violence. But there does seem to be legitimate unrest that is swept under the rug.

As recently as last October, Uighur separatists claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Tiananmen Square. The square represents both the heart of Chinese power and dissidence—25 years ago the square was the site of mass student demonstrations advocating for democracy. A photo of the suicide bombing features a single pillar of smoke stretching in front of Tiananmen tower, where the portrait of Mao Zedong looks impassively on. It is not yet known if one or several groups carry out these acts of violence, or if these groups coordinate their efforts.

The Xinjiang region consists of 45 percent Uighurs, most of whom are Muslim, and 40 percent Han Chinese. The Han Chinese are the dominant ethnic group in China, making up 94 percent of the population. As China’s population rises, the Chinese government has facilitated moving some of the Han population further West, to the consternation of the local Uighur population.  The inhabitants of Xinjiang, a part of China heretofore known as an “autonomous region” consider the resettlement both a political and cultural imposition, and fear the loss of their culture by an ethnic hegemon.

Reports of armed attacks from Xinjiang began in 2008, when a woman detonated a bomb in protest of a prominent local businessman who died while in police custody. In 2009, multiple reports emerged of stabbings via hypodermic needles. Protesters took to the streets to display their disapproval with the ensuing investigation. Three years ago, 18 men took over a police station, shouting religious slogans and taking several hostages with knives and bombs. Fourteen of them were killed in a police confrontation.

The inherent opaqueness of such unrest is either incomplete or partially confirmed. In the midst of all the incomplete information, one fact remains clear: the unrest is no longer contained to a remote corner of China. The people responsible for committing this violence have brought the battle to the front and center of Chinese—and international—politics.


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Three Paths for Putin

Evpatoria, Crimea.Vlad Galenko / Shutterstock.com
Evpatoria, Crimea.Vlad Galenko / Shutterstock.com

Yesterday I outlined what I still think is Russia’s preferred outcome in Crimea, one in which the strongly pro-Russian peninsula remains part of a Ukraine that is effectively subservient to Russia’s interests, no matter who is in charge in Kiev. That’s one path for Putin, and it hardly means avoiding military force—the key point is what result Russia’s aiming at.

There are two other scenarios, however, in which a Crimea more or less formally connected with Russia would make sense from Moscow’s perspective. The first is a variation on what’s already been suggested, only instead of using a Ukrainian Crimea as leverage over Ukraine as a whole, Putin uses the example of a Crimea severed from Ukraine to warn the Ukrainians that unless they play ball the Russian way, Putin will do to eastern Ukraine what he has already done to the Crimean south. A Ukraine without Crimea would have less love of Moscow, but that might be compensated, in Putin’s eyes, by greater fear.

The other possibility is that Putin is acting from weakness—that is, he’s calculated that there’s no plausible outcome in Ukraine as a whole that favors Russian interests, so he’s going to detach Crimea to salvage what he can. In this case, it doesn’t matter if removing Crimea from Ukraine makes Ukraine as a whole less cooperative with Russia because there is no chance for cooperation in any event.

And what if Russia just takes all of Ukraine? That’s basically the original scenario without the subtlety, and it comes with a great many headaches, not only in terms of the effort necessary to subdue Ukraine and the penalties the West would impose, but administering a territory as economically enfeebled and politically unstable as Ukraine isn’t an attractive prospect. An independent but subservient Ukraine looks to be what fits Russia’s interests best. The question is how Crimea fits into that—and if the best outcome, from Moscow’s perspective, is impossible, then a separated Crimea might be what Putin settles for.

(Putin also has to contend with the possibility that events will get away from him, of course—that the Crimeans may be more Catholic than the pope, so to speak, and be more eager to leave Ukraine than Putin himself would desire. And escalations of violence can throw this calculating style of politics completely out the window. But when thinking about Russia’s objectives, it’s worth keeping the big picture in mind.)

p.s. Here’s what the Russian foreign ministry is saying. Ignore the framing about far-right dangers in Ukraine and note the general political demand Russia is making:

We are surprised that several European politicians have already sprung to support the announcement of presidential elections in Ukraine this May, although the agreement of the 21 February envisages that these elections should take place only after the completion of the constitutional reform. It is clear that for this reform to succeed all the Ukrainian political forces and all regions of the country must become its part, but its results should be approved by a nationwide referendum. We are convinced that it is necessary to fully take into account concerns of deputies of eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, the Crimea and Sevastopol, which were expressed at the conference in Kharkov on the 22 February.

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Why Russia Doesn’t Want Crimea

Some TV and Twitter commentators have begun to suggest an independent Crimea as a solution for the region’s troubles. That may or may not be what a majority of Crimeans would like to see—some prefer union with Russia; others are content to remain with Ukraine—but from Russia’s point of view an independent or Russian-annexed Crimea is hardly the most desirable thing. Russia’s primary interest in Crimea, basing rights, is already secure even with the peninsula as part of Ukraine. An independent Crimea gives Russia nothing that Russia doesn’t already have. And it would deprive Russia of an invaluable asset: a large bloc of ethnic Russians within the Ukrainian electorate.

This conflict is about Ukraine, not Crimea. Russia has far-reaching interests in its neighbor—everything from pipelines to a strategic and ideological buffer zone—that are complicated by the fall of Yanukovich and the coming to power of anti-Russian leaders in Kiev. The circumstances of Yanukovich’s fall (and practically speaking, he has fallen, even if he refuses to admit it) further loosen Russia’s grip. Thus the upheaval in Crimea is a bargaining chip, not an end in itself: it’s a way for Putin to make sure that Russian interests in Ukraine as a whole are accommodated as the country’s political future is worked out.

Keeping Ukraine intact serves Russian interests better than splitting the country into separate states, but obviously Russia wants Ukraine’s integrity to be preserved on Russia’s terms. So this is the space within which negotiations can be expected to take place. What settlement is possible that will give pro-Russian Ukrainians a strong hand, and perhaps disproportionate one, within a united Ukraine, while satisfying a critical mass of the forces that toppled Yanukovich? Russia and the EU both have considerable economic stakes in Ukraine as a stable thoroughfare, so as difficult as the situation certainly is, there’s plenty of weight on the side of a grand bargain. And given how corrupt Ukrainian politics is on all sides, one suspects that money will talk louder even than nationalism—though that’s never an absolutely sure bet.

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