Author Archives: Tom Arms

Tom Arms’ World Review

France and Germany

The Franco-German alliance is wobbling. As if to emphasise the problem, this past weekend the entire German cabinet decamped to Versailles in an attempt to improve relations.

The relationship between Paris and Berlin is one of the cornerstones of the European Union. It has been held since 1960 when Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer ended a century of war and suspicion at Reims Cathedral.

Some of the current problems can be attributed to the egos of Macron and Scholz. President Macron makes no secret of his desire to lead Europe. Unfortunately the French economy does not match its president’s ambitions. At the same time the rather colourless Chancellor Olof Scholz is having difficulty filling the over-sized shoes of his predecessor Angela Merkel.

The personal relationship between the two leaders is complicated by important policy differences over China, Ukraine, Russia and energy. Scholz encourages trade with China. Macron is more diffident. The French president also wanted the German Chancellor’s recent visit to Beijing to be a joint Franco-German affair. Scholz refused.

On energy, the French are annoyed that the Germans failed to foresee the problems of dependence Russian oil and gas and remain reluctant to build nuclear power plants. About 70 percent of French energy is nuclear while in Germany it is only 12 percent.

Then there is Ukraine. The French – along with most of the rest of France and Germany’s allies – are annoyed that almost every scrap of German military and economic aid has to be dragged out of the Scholz government. When it comes the aid is often generous, but the “frank discussions” that precede it are causing friction.

India

Don’t mess with the BBC. That should have been the message that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi heeded before trying to ban a documentary attacking him.  The BBC has 22,000 staff, 192 million radio listeners, 294 million television  viewers, the world’s most visited news website. Distribution deals with television networks around the world, and the most trusted brand in world journalism.

None of the above, however, stopped Modi from banning a two-part documentary entitled “India: the Modi Question” from being shown or distributed in India.

The documentary was not Modi friendly. In fact, it was extremely unfriendly The programme strongly implied that Modi climbed to power on the back of divisive Hindu nationalism. Also that while Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 he stood aside and allowed Hindu rioters to massacre 1,000 Muslims . That was part one. In Part two, the documentary accused Modi of trying to disenfranchise the Muslim minority; suppressing freedom of speech, assembly and the press, intimidating his political opponents and moving the world’s largest democracy towards an authoritarian Hindu state.

So, the programme was not re-broadcast on Indian television. But the ban was reported in the Indian press. The resultant publicity meant that  tens of millions viewed it on the internet and at special showings at Indian universities. And as they watched the viewers would have asked: If it isn’t true why has Modi banned it? Of what is he frightened? And finally they thought: the BBC is usually reliable.

The documentary ended with a diplomat saying that the Western world is turning a blind eye to Modi’s political excesses. He said that India was too important as an economy and a counterweight to Chinese influence in Asia.

Doomsday Clock

The Doomsday Clock this week moved to 90 seconds to midnight. This is the closest it has ever been to nuclear Armageddon. The minute hand has been moved to its news dangerous position mainly because of the war in Ukraine.

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Observations of an expat: Ukraine tanks conundrum

Supplying tanks to Ukraine is not as simple a matter as it may appear at first glance.

It is an issue that is interwoven with competing and overlapping problems of military strategy, political pitfalls, German guilt, Russian nationalism and expansionist ambitions, Ukrainian self-determination, nuclear blackmail, the long-term prospects for peace in Eastern Europe and the age-old battle of good versus evil.

The solution to send perhaps a total of 200 tanks from various NATO countries to Zelensky’s army is insufficient to satisfy the Ukrainians and more than enough to fuel the Russian propaganda machine.

Ukraine is flat tank country. Ukraine wants NATO tanks – especially the German Leopards – to launch a counter-offensive to regain territory.

NATO initially rushed to Ukraine’s aid with defensive equipment; primarily anti-tank and anti-missile weaponry to stop the massive Russian tank attack from Belarus and to blunt Russian artillery barrages.

It worked. In fact, better than expected. So much so that Volodomyr Zelensky appears determined to build on his success to drive the Russians out of all the territory which Ukraine has lost since 2014 (and Russia has annexed) including Crimea.

This would seem quite reasonable as international law is quite-rightly wedded to the principle of self-determination and in 1994 Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders and its territorial integrity in return for Ukraine relinquishing its nuclear weapons and signing the nuclear non- proliferation treaty.

But Eastern Ukraine is predominantly Russian-speaking. The majority of its inhabitants have traditionally looked east to Moscow. As for Crimea, it has been Russian since 1783 and one of Moscow’s most important naval centres.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Ukraine

Ukraine is tank country. It is part of the flat and fertile North European plain which stretches from the Urals to the North Sea. That very same corridor has throughout history doubled as a military highway for invading armies head East or West.

This geopolitical fact is why Russia started the Ukraine War with a massive arsenal of 10,000 tanks and Ukraine had 2,500.  Since the fighting started nearly a year ago, the Russians have lost about 1,500 of their tanks. But relatively speaking to the initial size of their forces, the Ukrainians have fared worse with a loss of about a quarter of their tanks.

The Ukrainian losses on the tank battlefield, coupled with the importance of armour in the flat terrain, is the reason why Vlodomyr Zelensky is pleading with NATO for more armour.

The three countries that have tanks to spare are the US, Germany and Poland. The UK and France decided ten years ago that another North European war was unlikely and ran down their tank forces. France has only 200 main battle tanks and the UK about 220.

The US is well short of the Russians at 6,612 tanks, but if you add Germany’s 2,761 Leopard tanks and Poland’s fast-growing arsenal, the Ukrainians could match Russia tank for tank.

The problem is that the Germans are reluctant to be seen to escalate the conflict and the Biden Administration needs a strong European (which in this case means German) commitment to justify sending state of the art M1 Abrams tanks.

This leaves Poland, with some help from Finland and the Baltic states, to fill the yawning gap in Ukrainian armoured battalions. In the meantime, Ukraine is preparing for Russia’s inevitable tank-led spring offensive.

New Zealand

Jacinda Adern, has voluntarily, out of the blue, resigned. The prime minister of tiny New Zealand is one of the most respected international figures. She successfully introduced strict gun laws after the Christchurch mosque shooting left 51 dead; led her Labour Party to an historic landslide victory and organised one of the few successful containments of the covid virus. But Ms Adern has decided her work is done and is stepping down.

Now compare the New Zealand leader to other Western politicians who are prepared to lie, cheat and twist the law to cling to power. Britain’s Boris Johnson and America’s Donald Trump immediately spring to mind. Trump with his unfounded claim that he won the 2020 presidential election and Boris with who claimed ignorance of Downing Street parties during the covid lockdown. Ms Adern led by example when she was in office and she is doing same with her departure and is being praised for doing so. Politicians who are concerned about their legacies should take note.

USA

The moral high ground is where every politician wants to be. Donald Trump has never managed more than a foot or two up the mountain and his failure to climb higher was a factor in his 2020 electoral defeat at the hands of “relatively honest” Joe Biden. Now, Biden has suffered a major downhill slide: classified documents have been found where they should not be – in his office and even his garage.  Their discovery has inevitably been compared to the discovery of classified material in Trump’s Mar-a-lago home and led to another special counsel investigation of another president.

However, document-gate does not appear to have adversely impacted on Biden’s popularity. His approval ratings have actually gone up this month from 38 to 44 percent.  Pundits believe that the voters are inured to moral shortcomings but have been impressed that the US is enjoying record unemployment, lower inflation and impressed by the Democrats’ performance in the mid-term elections.

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Observations of an expat: Shrinking China

China is shrinking. India is growing. Sometime this year the sub-continental nation will usurp China as the most populous country on earth.

This and a number of other ineluctable facts will have a profound impact on China, India, Asia and the rest of the world.

Every economy needs workers to produce goods and services.  The more workers – especially relatively cheap ones – the faster a country’s GDP grows.

There are other factors at play. China’s pensioner population is rapidly growing. The proportion of retirees has expanded from 37.12 percent in 2010 to 44.14 percent in 2020 which means fewer workers and .greater social care costs. India, by comparison has an average age of 29.

Then there is covid. Xi Jinping’s decision to end his zero covid policy has let loose the deadly virus at the same time as hundreds of millions are travelling for Chinese New Year. To make matters worse most of the travellers are young people going from covid-infected cities to visit vulnerable elderly relatives in the less affected rural areas.

According to the University of Beijing, 900 million Chinese have been infected with the covid virus. The exact fatality figure is a government-protected secret. But it is known that healthcare services have been stretched beyond breaking point.

The pandemic has forced the closure of many Chinese production facilities and this year growth is expected to be only 3.2 percent. This is higher than the US, EU and the world average, but China starts from a lower base and the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power is built on ever-improving living standards. The World Bank is predicting 6.9 percent economic growth in rival India.

Beijing’s mounting domestic problems – short and long-term – will force the Chinese Communist Party to focus its attention on internal issues. These means fewer foreign adventures and an effort to stabilise relations with the US, Europe, Japan and elsewhere. A recent visit by German Chancellor Olof Scholz was seen as a big win for the EU and other visits are planned by French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

United States

The Kevin McCarthy election fiasco will have far-reaching consequences for Speaker McCarthy, Donald Trump, the Republican Party, the conduct of US government and the rest of the world. Let’s start with Mr. Trump. He endorsed Mr McCarthy. The “Never Kevins” in the far-right Republican Freedom Caucus ignored him. The voters ignored his key endorsements in the mid-term elections. Trump’s star is still in the firmament, but on the wane.

Now for the Republican Party. The battle to secure McCarthy’s election exposed a split. A small group of 20 right-wing extremists were able to delay and nearly blocked the election of Kevin McCarthy against the wishes of 202 of their party colleagues. They have also wrung key concessions out of the Speaker. The Freedom Caucus have discovered power. They will use it.

What are these concessions and what impact will their implementation have? First of all, if any one member of Congress does not like something that Speaker McCarthy has done they can table a vote to remove him. At the very least, this has the potential to seriously disrupt and delay congressional business. .  This means that McCarthy will be much more politically circumspect then he might have been otherwise.

Next, the Speaker has agreed to give more time to debate and amend legislation on the floor of the house. The Freedom Caucus are also known as “Disrupters” and they are particularly keen on disrupting or blocking any spending bills, especially those related to Ukraine and foreign aid. And if it means stopping the machinery of government, then, according to Freedom Caucus members, so be it.

France

The British NHS is not the only European health service with problems. The French are also wringing their medical hands. The problem? Not enough staff and – as in Britain – the looming threat of strikes. As the New Year dawned some Paris hospitals reported 90 percent of staff reported sick in protest at working conditions. The country’s second largest health union has called for an “unlimited walkout” of nurses followed by a strike by GPs.

President Emmanuel Macron is throwing money at the problem but so far it is not working. Forty percent of French nurses are planning to leave the profession this year despite an extra $10 billion wage package.  Wannabe doctors are being offered a $50,000 golden handshake to enter the profession.

The French desperately needs them. Rural areas are especially short of medical staff, some communities have been without a doctor’s surgery for several years and the situation is only likely to worsen as about half of the French doctors are over 55 and fast approaching retirement age.

UK

There is a stand-out villain in Prince Harry’s book “Spare” – the press, especially Britain’s tabloid newspapers. I, in common with most of the public, have some sympathy and understanding with Harry’s views especially as one of the worst elements of the tabloids – the paparazzi played a major part in his mother’s death.

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Observations of an expat: Latin Fandango

South America is in a mess. The problems stretch from Patagonia to Cartagena and further north into Central America and Mexico.

Almost everywhere there is violence, political instability and economic problems.

The main spotlight has been shone on Brazil. The Portuguese-speaking nation is the economic giant of South America. Its GDP is four times the next largest Latin economy and the eighth largest in the world. Brazil has tremendous potential and political problems.

It is deeply divided after left-winger Luiz Inacio da Silva (aka Lula) narrowly defeated right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro in October elections.

Bolsonaro and his supporters has claimed the elections were rigged and demanded a re-run. Thousands of Bolsonaristas (as they are called) stormed government offices in the capital Brasilia including Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace. 1,200 have been arrested.

But the real problem is not the validity of the elections but the deep divide between Brazil’s political left and right. Conservatives, which include the military, police, middle classes and growing Christian evangelical movement, view Lula as a crypto-communist set on destroying Brazilian democracy and taking their country down the path of Cuba or Venezuela. Bolsonaro’s opponents worry that he will return Brazil to a military dictatorship.

To the south, Argentina is suffering another bout of Peronism and a division at the top of the country’s political structure. President Alberto Fernandez and Vice-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner simply don’t speak to each other. On top of that, Ms Kirchner has been convicted of fraud totalling $1 billion.

The resultant political vacuum and distractions at the top of the Argentine political tree, coupled with Peronism’s irresponsible spending has left the country with a crippling debt and 100 percent inflation rate. Thirty-seven percent of the country live below the poverty line.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Qatar

As the World Cup draws to a close, host nation Qatar is being implicated in yet another scandal. This one involves allegedly bribing key figures in the European Parliament.

It is widely accepted that super-rich Qatar secured the World Cup with cash payments to FIFA board members. Now it is alleged that they tried to obtain preferential visa treatment for their citizens with a few selected bribes. The main target of the Qataris is alleged to be European Parliament Vice President Eva Kalli. She has been arrested on charges of money laundering, corruption and belonging to a criminal organisation. The Greek MEP has denied all charges but has been stripped of her vice-presidency and her assets have been frozen. She remains, however, an MEP.

Qatar’s representation to the EU issued a statement “categorically” rejecting “any attempts to associate the State of Qatar” with the scandal. The European Parliament thinks otherwise and has postponed indefinitely the vote that would have allowed Qatari citizens to be issued with automatic three-month visas on arrival at EU airports. The problem with the Qataris is that they have form and money to splash out. Their and oil gas-fed Sovereign Wealth Fund guarantees a per capita income of $61,276.

Russia

One of the main aims of Western sanctions against Russia is to deprive Moscow of technology needed for Putin’s military machine. This is especially the case with advanced semi-conductors, aka computer chips.

According to the US Department of Commerce, the sanctions have resulted in a 70 percent reduction in Russian imports of this vital technology. Not so says Reuters News Agency and the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). If anything, they claim, Russia is receiving more computer chips and other advanced technology than ever before. In April, according to Reuters and RUSI, Russia recorded received $34 million in advanced technology from Western companies. In October 2022 the figure rose to $87.96 million.

Overall, at least $2.6 billion in advanced technology from US and European companies has ended up in Russia since the start of the Ukraine War. They include equipment from Intel Corp., Advanced Micro Devices and Texas Instruments. There is no question of these companies selling their goods directly to Russia. The equipment is being bought by middlemen based mainly in Turkey and Hong Kong who are then marking up the price and selling the technology to Russia. One company, Azu Industries, which has offices in Germany and Turkey, is alleged to have profited to the tune of $26 million since the start of the war.

India and China

Back in colonial times -July 1914 to be precise – British diplomats sat down with Tibetan diplomats to negotiate the border between India and Tibet (also known as the Line of Actual Control or LAC). Also present was a Chinese diplomat who stormed out of the meeting after protesting that Tibet had no right to negotiate any treaties because it was part of China.

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Observations of an expat: Elected Autocrats

There is a new descriptive term that is entering the political lexicon – Elected Autocrats.

The European Parliament recently used the term to describe Hungary’s Viktor Orban when it suspended EU payments to the country.

It can also be applied to Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There are a few Asian and African leaders that also come under this heading and there are signs that it is creeping into Western democracies.

An Elected Autocrat is an elected political leader who was most likely voted into office in free elections, and then used their power to consolidate their position and build a political structure that insures they are re-elected in subsequent ballots.

The goal of an Elected Autocrat has nothing to do with preserving the rule of law. It bears no resemblance to the protection of individual rights or the state’s constitution. Their aim is simply reconfiguring political structures so that they gain a monopoly of power.

Putin was first elected President in 2000. At the time there was a free press and a relatively speaking active opposition. The independence of the Russian judiciary has always been questionable.

The judiciary is now firmly under Putin’s control. Opposition media outlets have either been closed down or are controlled by the state or Putin’s oligarchical cronies. Opposition leaders have been murdered or imprisoned. Alexei Navalny is currently serving a nine-year prison sentence. Another opposition figure Ilya Yashin was this week imprisoned for two and a half years for daring to tell the truth about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Turkey is a NATO member and nominally democratic country. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has moved from mayor of Istanbul to Prime Minister to President. Along the way he rewrote the constitution to consolidate power in presidential hands.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Ukraine

Drones are playing an increasingly important role in the Ukraine War, especially on the Ukrainian side. Russia may have more ships, men, missiles and tanks. But the Ukrainians are proving masters at producing drones to counter them.

At sea they have pioneered the development and use of naval drones which have successfully attacked Russian ships and shore side storage depots at the Russian naval base of Sevastopol. The drones are equipped with a souped-up jet ski engine; a camera in the bow and one amidships, a satellite dish and 200 kg of high explosives. They are operated by a “captain” sitting hundreds of miles in a bunker with a joystick not dissimilar to the one he used aged 10 in the local video arcade.

Each naval drone costs about $250,000 and the Ukrainians plan to have another 100 produced early in 2023. In the air, the Ukrainians have remodelled Tupolev TU-141 reconnaissance drones left over from the Soviet era. They have simply fitted the Russian-made drone with high explosives. The aerial drones were used this week to target Russian airfields from which the Russians were launching crippling attacks on Ukraine’s power grid.

But there is a political problem with the Ukrainian air drone counter attacks. The airbases are inside Russia and NATO is keen to geographically contain conflict to Ukrainian soil so that it does not escalate into a World War Three. It has therefore limited the range of the weapons it has supplied to Ukraine. But the aerial drones used this week were from Ukraine – not NATO. So, it could be argued that Kyiv is sticking to the approved script. But to be on the diplomatic safe side, the Ukrainians are refusing to confirm or deny responsibility for the attacks. No one, however, thinks it could be anyone else.

Germany

Several disturbing – and so far not fully discussed – revelations have emerged from this week’s crushing of an alleged German coup plot. Briefly, leaders of far-right terrorist group known as the Reich Citizens Movement were arrested for plotting to storm the Reichstag (German parliament), overthrow the government, return Germany to is pre-World War I Imperial government, and install a German aristocrat businessman as Kaiser Heinrich XIII.

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Observations of an Expat: Multi-dimensional Nuclear Chess

Nuclear arms negotiators talk wistfully about the happy bilateral nuclear arms talks of the Cold War era. They were a dream compared to the multilateral nightmare that confronts today’s diplomats.

Putin is moving the nuclear goalposts with his threats of tactical nukes. The Ukraine War threatens to escalate. The ABM and INF Treaties are no more. Renewed START talks have failed to start. Rogue North Korea has joined the nuclear club. Iran is on the cusp of following suit. And finally, China is threatening to become a strategic nuclear power to rival Russia and the US.

The Chinese dimension of this multi-dimensional chess game is the most worrying. The Chinese have maintained a minimal nuclear arsenal since their first test explosion in 1964. Their policy has been to have just enough nuclear weapons to deter an attack. At the last count that was about 340. This would give China a slight numerical edge on Britain and France but way behind giants Russia and America.

But that is changing under Xi Jinping. His goal is nuclear parity with Russia and the US. Nuclear equivalence, he argues, is a 21st century prerequisite for respect which is an essential currency for international trade and political negotiations. It is believed that he wants 1,500 deployed Chinese nuclear weapons which would put Beijing on a par with America’s 1,644  deployments and Russia’s 1,588.

But Xi’s race to the top nuclear table is in danger of sparking off a nuclear arms race which would be far more dangerous and complex than that of the Cold War years.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

China

China’s President Xi Jinping is in the traditional dead end political alley. Mass demonstrations and protests have prompted suggestions from government sources that Beijing is on the cusp of seriously relaxing its zero-covid strategy. But health officials reckon that if he does it could result in 680,000 deaths before the end of winter, according modellers at The Economist.

On the other hand, if Xi fails to relax his Orwellian approach to dealing with the pandemic then the economy and quality of life will seriously suffer and more protests, riots and demonstrations will follow. This will undermine Xi’s claims that only he and the Chinese Communist Party can deliver prosperity and stability.

Xi’s current problems also threaten Chinese claims that their political model is better-equipped to deal with problems than the corrupt West. Xi has only himself to blame for his difficulties. He has insisted on using Chinese-made vaccines instead of the more effective Western alternatives and failed to thoroughly vaccinate the elderly who are more likely to contract the disease and require the greatest care when they do so, thus leaving himself with the unpalatable choice of mass lockdown or mass infection.

Ukraine

President Joe Biden followed up the visit to French President of Emmanuel Macron with half an olive branch to Vladimir Putin: “I’ll meet and talk with you if you are prepared to discuss ending the war in Ukraine.”

Sure, replied Putin, as long as the end is on my terms. That, of course, would mean surrender and defeat for Ukraine and its Western supporters and just demonstrates that Putin has left himself with only two options – total defeat or total victory. The former seems the most likely at the moment.

Neither NATO nor the Ukrainian people show any signs of cracking and China appears to becoming increasingly disillusioned with their Kremlin ally. But more importantly, so are the Russian people.

According to Meduza, an independent Russian investigative news website, a recent Russian government survey showed that support for the “special military operation” has plummeted from 57 percent in July to 25 percent last month. The big drop is blamed almost entirely on Putin’s decision to send another 300,000 Russian men to the Ukrainian front. The returning body bags (6,000-plus according to the Russians and 25,000-plus according to the British Ministry of Defense) are having an impact. But there is no sign of a Russian let-up. This week Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that military spending would increase by 50 percent next year from four to six percent of GDP.

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Observations of an expat: Phew! – or Not

Phew! Europe now has enough gas to see it through the winter and energy prices are starting to drop. Employment is more or less stable. Interest rates and inflation appear to be plateauing. The Ukraine War is settling in for the winter. NATO and the EU are united against Putin who shows signs of starting to unravel and Christmas is a coming.

Now, inhale and draw that sigh of relief back in. All the above is a temporary reprieve. Another metaphor could be the eye of the storm or false dawn.

The Ukraine War still rumbles on and millions of Ukrainians are without power and water this winter. The threat of dangerous escalation is a constant concern.

The EU and Britain appear to have more or less weaned themselves off Russian gas, but only for the coming winter and at a cost which – combined with Covid and inflation – are likely to hamstring European economies for years to come.

The total cost of the pandemic bill is only just starting to be totted up – and it is staggering. The direct cost to the UK government is reckoned to be in the region of $450 billion, according to the National Audit Office. But that is nothing compared to what the RND (Germany’s spending watchdog) reports was spent by state and Federal German governments –  $1.8 trillion. On top of that there is the $800 billion EU Covid Recovery Programme.

On energy, an estimated $600 billion, has spent by EU governments on subsidising energy prices, according to the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel.

Then we come to the war in Ukraine.  Back in July President Volodomyr Zelensky estimated that it would cost $750 billion to rebuild his country. Then there are the current ongoing costs for humanitarian, economic and military aid which has so far easily exceeded $10 billion for the EU and UK. And, to paraphrase the American Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones, the Russians and Ukrainians appear to have just begun to fight.

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Tom Arms’ World Review: COP 27, Poland, China, Trump, Population, UK Budget

The message from COP 27

I am writing this on Friday afternoon, a few hours before the COP 27 in Sharm el-Sheikh is due to produce its final communique. The outlook is bad.

Yesterday the EU Climate Policy Chief, Frans Timmerman, said the first draft “left a lot to be desired.” The same day a joint delegation from Canada, the EU and UK went to see COP president Sameh Shankry to tell him to “fill the gaps.”

The two main sticking points are a renewed commitment to the 1.5 degree rise in global temperature which was agreed at Glasgow, and the establishment of a “Loss and Damage Fund”.

The former looks achievable but without any serious teeth. The latter is more problematic.

The fund would be financed by the wealthy countries to compensate developing countries for climate change damage caused by historic emissions and to help pay for a switch to renewable sources. The US, in particular is concerned that the current proposed structure would expose America to limitless liability. One bit of good news is that the world’s top two polluters—China and America—are talking to each other again. US climate tsar John Kerry met with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zenhua, and at the G20 summit in Bali Joe Biden and Xi Jinping agreed to liase more on the issue of global warming.

Accidental war is a real danger

A missile killed two people this week in the Polish village of Przewdow and the world held its breath. Had a NATO country been attacked by Russia? Was this the start of World War Three?

The Polish military was put on high alert. President Biden was roused from his bed in Bali and a hurried meeting was held of first NATO heads of government at the G20 and then the G20 leaders themselves (minus Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov).

Then everyone exhaled.

The missile was “most likely” a Ukrainian S-300 surface-to-air missile that had gone astray. The Ukrainians denied responsibility (they, of course, have a vested interest in blaming Russia). The Russian Ministry of Defence said that none of its missiles had gone further than 20 miles from the Polish-Ukrainian border. Whomever was responsible, it was clear that the attack was unintentional. But accidents have caused wars in the past. In 1925 Greece and Bulgaria went to war after a Greek soldier inadvertently chased a runaway dog across the border into Bulgaria. Accidental war is a real danger.

Who holds the power in China?

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Observations of an ex pat: Putin has rewritten the nuclear playbook

Putin has rewritten the nuclear playbook and the world is a more dangerous place for it.

The reason? Because if one nuclear power changes their rules then the others have to reconsider theirs, and Putin has changed the rule book to make the use of nukes more likely.

Nuclear weapons in the past have been classified as a defensive weapon. Their purpose was to deter an enemy attack rather than to launch one.

Some countries—mainly China and India—have adopted a “No First Use” policy which means they will only use their nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack from another power. Beijing has a proposed a No First Use agreement with the US and been rejected.

The US, UK and France (the three nuclear NATO countries) have gone for the “Flexible Response” doctrine which means they will fire their missiles if faced with losing in the face of an overwhelming conventional weapons attack. This is more or less the policy of Pakistan, Israel (which refuses to admit to ownership of a nuclear arsenal) and even North Korea.

Barack Obama considered switching to a No First Use policy but was talked out of it by European allies who feared that it left them vulnerable to a conventional weapons attack from the large Russian army.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 pledged No First Use. The sincerity of the promise was questioned at the time and it was dropped in 1993 by the Russian successor state. Boris Yeltsin felt at the time that the deterioration of conventional weapons dictated greater reliance on the nuclear arsenal.

Then in 2020 came the Russian Presidential Executive Order on Nuclear Deterrence which made it clear that Russia reserved the right to use nuclear weapons to protect what it decided was its territory. This obviously includes the bits of Ukraine which it has annexed since 2014.

Putin has turned his nuclear arsenal from a purely defensive weapon into an offensive weapon by threatening to use them as part of a conventional weapons war for territorial gain.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Ukraine

The Ukrainians are advancing – slowly. They don’t trust the Russians. Vladimir Putin has given his troops the order to abandon the western half of the key city of Kherson. Civilians and medical staff have been evacuated from both the eastern and western halves of the city divided by the river Dnieper.

But the Ukrainians are not rushing in to fill the vacuum. They are concerned that the Russians have covered their retreat with land mines and other explosives and have trained their artillery on the deserted streets. Furthermore, that they are preparing for deadly street-to-street, house-to-house fighting in the eastern half of the city.

In the meantime, the Kremlin rumour mill continues to churn out stories about the imminent overthrow of President Putin. The left anti-war wants peace and an end to the war while the right nationalist wing is demanding that more resources – including, if necessary, tactical nuclear weapons, be thrown into the fight. The latest opinion polls, however, show that 78 percent continue to support Putin personally, although support for the war is slipping.

2022 World Cup

Someone should have warned the Qataris about being careful about what you wish for before they started bribing officials to secure the 2022 World Cup. The sporting event is second only to the Olympics in the pantheon of international sporting events and usually brings economic and political benefits to the host country.

In the case of Qatar’s ruling al-Thani family, they are spending $30 billion on hosting the football event. This involves building half a dozen stadiums, roads, a state-of-the-art metro and a number of hotels. They can afford it. Qatar is the smallest nation ever to host the World Cup, but it is among the top ten wealthiest in the world. The per capita income of the oil and gas-rich Gulf emirate is $61,000 a year and it has a sovereign wealth fund of $450 billion. It can afford to show off its wealth.

But at the same time, it would rather not have the spotlight turned on its human rights record – especially as regards migrant labour and LGBTQ rights. Tens of thousands of construction workers were recruited from South Asia to build the World Cup infrastructure. They worked in searing heat, were paid abysmally low wages and lived in squalid dormitory conditions. If they wanted to return home they had to apply for an exit visa which was rarely granted. The Guardian reported that 6,500 of them died. This figure been disputed, but the newspaper says it is based on reports from South Asian embassies in Qatar.

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Observations of an expat – Mid-term winner

Trump lost. Biden did not win. Democracy did. But Slow Joe may have damaged his 2024 options by securing democracy a place on the mid-term ballot.

At the same time, if President Biden takes the statesmanlike position and declares that he not a candidate for the 2024 election, then he is more likely to have a working relationship with a Republican-controlled Congress for his final two years.

He also ensures his place in history as the man who saw off the threat to American democracy as opposed to the 80-plus-year-old who clung to power past his sell by date.

But back to the loser. Donald Trump was not officially on the ballot. But he did everything possible to make the 2022 mid-term elections about him and his lies that the 2020 presidential elections were stolen from him in a massive fraud.

He refused to concede defeat and denied the validity of the American electoral process which is the foundation stone of the country’s democratic system.

He enthusiastically endorsed hundreds of candidates. Many were underqualified but they all shared the common platform of accepting his big election lie.

These candidates were overwhelmingly supported by Republicans in state primaries. Then they were either rejected, or barely scraped home, when their names were put to the public at large.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

COP27

Egypt’s Red Sea resort Sharm el-Sheikh is busily preparing for an invasion of Earth’s political leaders, their extensive entourages and the world’s media. They are not descending on the tourist spot for its sun and sand but for yet another climate change conference.

It will be a difficult one. Last year’s Glasgow get-together committed the developed to providing $1 trillion to wean the developing world off fossil fuels. That was before the Ukraine War and its accompanying energy and cost of living crisis. The money that was earmarked for solar and wind farms in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia is now being spent on higher oil prices and state of the art weaponry for Ukraine. Even more money will be required to rebuild Ukraine.

On top of that, the preachy developed world is shelving many of its green projects in favour of quick fix fossil fuels to replace Russian natural gas. All of which means that it will become increasingly difficult and expensive to stick to the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees centigrade. This is a difficult to swallow reality, but world leaders may have to switch the climate change emphasis from prevention to adaptability while at the same time trying to limit temperature rises as much as possible.

Putin

Putin is retreating. And it is a big retreat.

Crucial to his war aims is the strategic city of Kherson. It controls access to Russian-held Crimea by land and by the Dnieper River. The river is also a main source of irrigation and drinking water for the province that Russia annexed in 2014. This week the Russian President publicly announced the evacuation of civilians from Kherson. “It is too dangerous for them to remain,” he said. Military medical units have also evacuated and some fighting units have abandoned their foothold on the river’s west bank. Ukrainian victory in Kherson is not yet a foregone conclusion and some defense experts are predicting fierce house to house fighting in the near future.  But the prospects look good for a successful Ukrainian offensive.

Putin’s Kherson problems top another bad week for him in Ukraine. It started with him pulling out of the deal to allow much-needed grain-laden Ukrainian ships out of their ports. The pull-out was in response to an alleged British-organised attack on Russian ships in the Black Sea. Within days he was forced to reverse his position under international pressure and the refusal of Turkey and the UN deal brokers to support him.

Meanwhile, the Russians continue to bomb electricity and water supplies. Ukrainian teams are working around the clock to keep the country’s electricity grid running, but despite their efforts, 4.5 million Ukrainians are said to be without power as winter approaches. An increasing number of the artillery shells are coming from fellow rogue state North Korea which this week raised tensions by despatching 180 warplanes to buzz the border area with South Korea.

China

China is, of course, crucial to international efforts to apply pressure on Russia and North Korea to behave. This week German Chancellor Olof Scholz secured a diplomatic coup in persuading Chinese President Xi Jinping to publicly condemn “the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.” The condemnation came in the joint communique at the end of Scholz’s one-day visit to Beijing. Xi refused to allow the communique to mention either Vladimir Putin or Russia by name, but, as Scholz said in the follow-up press conference, the inference was clear.

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Observations of an expat: Unlikely hero

Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro is on the cusp of being an unexpected champion of democracy – albeit an extremely reluctant one.

As of this writing he is yet to utter that nasty four letter word preceded by the first person pronoun – “I lost”.

Nor has he graciously offered best wishes to his opponent. But, most important of all, he has not claimed – as expected – a false victory, branded the results “fake” or called on his military friends to stage a coup.

He has privately told leading politicians that he accepts that he lost; ordered his staff to work with Lula’s transition team for a peaceful and efficient handover of power and asked his supporters who have been blocking roads to go home.

The Trump of the Tropics has done a thousand times more than his North American political namesake to protect the sanctity of the ballot box which is the foundation stone of any democratic system of government.

Meanwhile, in the United States, some 400 election deniers for state or federal office are on the ballot in the mid-term 8 November elections. Many of these Republicans (yes, they are all Republicans) follow the example set  by their leader Donald Trump and say that if they personally lose it will be because of a fraudulent voting system.

Let’s make it clear. Reports of fake American elections are fake news designed to undermine the democratic process so that a group of politicians can illegally grab power.

Furthermore, that the forthcoming mid-term elections are one of the most important in American history. Many of the 400-plus election deniers are standing for state offices which control the electoral machinery. They have made it clear that if elected they see their job as ensuring the election of like-minded candidates.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

China

We will probably never know the reason for the removal of Hu Jintao from the recent Chinese People’s Party Congress. Was it the result of the medical problems of a confused old man? Or was it a crude attempt by Xi Jinping to emphasise that he is now totally in charge?

79-year-old Hu was Xi’s immediate predecessor. His administration was known for corruption, market reforms and greater political freedom; all of which are being suppressed by Xi. There must have been some discomfort among the party grandees about Xi amending the constitution to allow himself to serve a third (and probably fourth, fifth…) term as party leader and president.

Publicly humiliating Hu could have been his way of warning off potential critics. There aren’t many left in the upper reaches of the Chinese Communist Party. Xi has used the party congress to eliminate rivals and confirm acolytes. Good for Xi but bad for the world. Having the world’s most powerful dictator surrounded by Yes Men is not good news.

Franco-German Alliance

The Franco-German Alliance has been at the heart of peace in Europe since 1962 when Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle buried a century of brutal animosity in a service at Reims Cathedral.  But what has been termed the “engine room of the EU” is now showing signs of stalling in the face of the energy crisis, the Ukraine War and relations with America.

French President Emmanuel Macron is pushing for an EU-wide agreement to cap gas prices and share resources. Such a move was approved in principle at a recent EU summit but Germany’s Olof Scholz is dragging German feet on agreeing the details. At the same time, the Germans have been using their buying power to secure gas supplies at the expense of less well-off EU members. So far the Germans have filled about 90 percent of their storage capacity while countries such as Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are struggling.

There are also differences over defense and how military and economic aid should be directed towards Ukraine. The Germans are keen to use Ukraine to tie Washington closer to the defense of Europe. France sees the war as an opportunity to increase European defense cooperation and are angry at the Germans’ cancellation of Franco-German projects involving a new generation of fighter aircraft and battle tanks. Scholz and Macron were keen to smile for the cameras and minimise their differences at their most recent meeting, but they also postponed a 26 October regular Franco-German ministerial conference until “sometime in January.”

US and Ukraine

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Observations of an expat: elephants and grass

When the elephants fight it is the grass that suffers. So goes the ancient proverb of Kenya’s Kikuyu tribe. And at the moment, the adage is particularly apt.

The war in Ukraine is creating an energy and food crisis. This is combined with the effects of climate change, recession and the continuing effects of the Covid pandemic. The world is in the thick of a perfect political and economic storm of global proportions.

Within the developed world, allies are starting to bicker as rich countries use their buying power to outbid their less well-off neighbours in order to hoard dwindling resources.

Money allocated for the welfare of people at home and abroad has been redirected to pay for the wasteful costs of war.  $350 billion has been set aside for rebuilding ravaged Ukraine.

Meanwhile drought, famine and war are ravaging the Horn of Africa. In Kenya the UN reports that 4 million people are “food insecure.” In Ethiopia the fifth drought season in succession is exacerbated by a civil war. And in Somalia Islamic fundamentalists and drought are estimated by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to have displaced 6 million people.

On the other side of Africa, desertification in Mali, Niger and northern Nigeria is forcing farmers off the land and providing fertile recruiting conditions for Boko Haram.  Nigeria is also suffering from recent floods which destroyed 175,000 acres of farmland and displaced 1.4 million people.

Africa is not the only continent to suffer. It will take Pakistan years to recover from its recent floods. A quarter of the farmland was lost in a country where a quarter of the country’s national income is dependent on the agricultural industry. The total damage will exceed $40 billion or about one-sixth of the country’s GDP.

In the meantime, Western countries are borrowing heavily to finance subsidising energy price. This is on top of record borrowing related to the Covid pandemic. The World Bank and IMF have declared their financial policies “unsustainable.”

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Ukraine

Good news/bad news on the Ukraine front.

Good news is that Ukrainian military are now making progress. It is also good news that Vladimir Putin has declared martial law in the parts of Ukraine he recently annexed and imposed lesser but still severe restrictions on other parts of Russia. The crackdown is a sure sign of lack of public support.

Bad news that the Russians have started bombing Ukrainian power generating and water pumping stations. So far about a third of the country has lost power. It will be a dark, cold winter for Ukrainians who may also lose water supplies.

Good news on the economic front. The Ukrainian economy is actually growing. This is mainly due to a stable banking system backed up by $23 billion in Western loans to secure currency reserves. But the loans would have been ineffective if the Ukrainians had not cleaned up their banking system which a few years ago was one of the most corrupt in Europe.

European Union

Good and Bad News also on the EU front. They are having another summit as I write this and at the top of the agenda will be how Europe can weather the energy crisis. The bad news is that the European Council has to discuss this issue because the richer countries are bowing to domestic demands to outbid the poorer EU countries for gas and oil supplies. The good news is that they are at least discussing the problem.

Other bad news is that it appears that Iran is involving itself in Ukraine on the Russian side. The drones attacking Ukrainian power stations were made in Iran and there are reports that Tehran is also supplying Russia with trainers and surface to air missiles. The Iranians publicly disapprove of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but, more importantly, they hate America.

France

President Emmanuel Macron had developed a reputation for being more interested in locating Putin’s golden exit ramp than prosecuting the war. As such he was not Volodomyr Zelensky’s most popular Western leader. That perception is changing. This week France announced that they were sending a quarter of their high-tech Caesar cannon to Ukraine. They also announced training facilities for 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers and the dispatch of French anti-aircraft systems and radar. The French still lag well behind the British and Germans, but they are now committing themselves to increased military backing for Ukraine.

Italy

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Observations of an expat: Brexit is back

Britain’s political classes have finally recognised the elephant in the room. It is now safe again to utter the B-word.

Brexit was embraced (narrowly) first in the 2016 referendum and then again in the 2017 general election.

Political leaders decided that the issue was decided and to press for a return to the EU would damage electoral chances.

The Labour Party decided to work on the basis of trying to achieve the best of a bad job. The Liberal Democrats, who had led the charge against Brexit, remain committed to EU membership as a “long-term aim” but have shelved it for the short and medium term.

But then they had not foreseen the logical consequence of Brexit—the disastrous mini-premiership of Liz Truss.

They should have. Truss clearly stated her plans in her campaign for the Conservative Party leadership. And before that it was outlined in detail in the 2012 book “Britannia Unchained” written by Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng along with Chris Skidmore, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab – all ministers in Boris Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” government.

Truss has repeatedly stated that Britain is a “bloated state with high taxes and excessive regulation” and that the country’s workers are “among the worst idlers in the world” Her solution—and that of the libertarian right-wing of the Conservative Party—was cut taxes, throw out regulations, reduce public spending, and establish tax-free enterprise zones to attract foreign companies. Controlling immigration was not a core policy. It was a useful sidecar bandwagon which could be used to attract voters.

None of the above could be done as members of the European Union. Brussels is a maze of regulations designed to protect workers’ rights, the environment, consumer rights, freedom of movement and competition between member states and their companies.

The only way for the libertarian Tories to achieve their aims was by “taking back control” from Brussels.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Putin’s hold on power

Vladimir Putin’s hold on power must be slipping away. But which Kremlin insider might replace him? Well, according to the constitution, the Prime minister – who is Mikhail Mishustin – is meant to succeed the president if he has to suddenly resign or is incapacitated. Mishustin has been responsible for the dealing with the economy which is reeling from sanctions. He has done a reasonable job and is in the front rank of successors, but not regarded as a number one possibility.

That could be Nikolai Patrushev, former head of Russian intelligence organisation the FSB. He is known to be a hard-line ultranationalist. Another hardliner is Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov who has been publicly urging the Russian president to use tactical nuclear weapons. Also in the running is Mikhail Mizintsev, another hardliner who is known as the “butcher of Mariupol” and has recently been brought back from the front to be Deputy Minister of Defense. Dmitry Medvedev kept the presidential chair warm for four years from 2008 while Putin sorted out the constitution. He is another possible and recently warned that Putin “is not bluffing” about nuclear weapons. There are several more potential usurpers in the Kremlin wings. At the moment they all have one thing in common—they are ultra-nationalist right-wingers committed to the war in Ukraine.

China

Public protests involving banners, smoke and loud hailers are rare in China. They are virtually unheard of on the eve of a Chinese Communist Party Congress. The reason is that they can be life-threatening for the protesters.

But that did not stop two brave souls from unfurling banners from an overpass. One read: “Let us strike from schools and from work and remove the dictator Xi Jinping.” The other focused on Xi’s unpopular Zero Covid strategy and said: “No restrictions. We want freedom. No Lies. We want dignity.” The protesters were quickly surrounded by police and carted off, but videos quickly made it onto social media. China’s censors meant they were just as quickly erased from the local internet, but not before they could be reposted for the rest of the world to see. The protests are a huge embarrassment for Xi who is expected to be confirmed as president for a third term by the 2,500 delegates gathering in Beijing on Sunday. The fact that the men were willing to risk – quite possibly sacrifice – their lives for their protest indicates the depth of opposition to Xi Jinping.

Donald Trump

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Observations of an expat: Tactical Nukes

The problem with great power is that using it is too often an abuse of power and if you abuse it, you lose it.

This is especially true of nuclear power as Vladimir Putin may soon discover.

The Russian President has been rattling his nuclear sabres since before his February invasion of Ukraine. He hopes that rattling alone will be enough to bring the West to heel.

This appears to be another of his miscalculations, leaving him with two unpalatable choices: put up or shut up.

If he decides to put up (i.e. use nuclear weapons) then there are a number of options available to him. To start with he will probably start at the bottom of the nuclear leader, that is with tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons. He has a wide range of such weapons to choose from.

The explosive yield of Russia’s tactical nukes ranges from 10 times that of the Hiroshima atomic bomb to less than 0.3 percent of the 1945 explosion. They can be delivered by missile, artillery, landmines, drones, bombers, mortars, even recoilless smooth-bore rifles.

There are different types of explosions. There is the air burst which was used over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This bomb explodes in the air above the target. The force of the explosion destroys people and property on the ground but the effects of radiation are minimised.

A ground burst maximises radiation damage because it irradiates the ground which it hits and throws thousands of tons of dirt and rubble into the atmosphere where air currents can move it hundreds of miles from the bomb site.

A neutron bomb, also known as the capitalist bomb, explodes in the air and kills people within its range but leaves property intact.

Russia has about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons. NATO used to have a massive Cold War superiority of tens of thousands but now only has about 100.

The reason for its former superiority is that NATO relied on tactical nuclear weapons to slow down a Soviet attack in order to give time for American troops to be rushed across the Atlantic.

Then the Cold War ended and there was a concern that the weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists so NATO tactical nuclear weapons were dismantled. The Russians returned their tactical weapons to storage depots but did not dismantle them.

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Tom Arms’ World Review: Russian setbacks, Ukraine, North Korea, Saudi, Trussonomics, Hurricanes

Setbacks for Russia

The Chinese, according to senior diplomatic sources, have told Vladimir Putin that they will not support his use of nuclear weapons. This is unsurprising given that Beijing used a recent UN meeting to reaffirm its long-standing policy of “assured retaliation” which basically means no first use and no support for first use of nuclear weapon by other countries.

The Chinese position is one of a series of mounting Russian diplomatic setbacks that are running alongside a series of battlefield defeats.

On Friday there was a Cold War echo when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to jailed Belarussian activist Alex Byalyatski, banned Russian dissident organisation Memorial and Ukraine’s Centre for Civil Liberties. The award was clearly meant to undermine Putin.

Meanwhile 44 European heads of government (all of them except Belarus and Russia) met in Prague to present a united Euro-front against Russia.

At the same time, NATO defence ministers gathered in Brussels with arms manufacturers to discuss beefing up assembly lines.

And finally, because success breeds success, the US Congress voted another $542 million in economic and military aid to Ukraine.

Signalling success in Ukraine

NATO’s investment in Ukraine is starting to pay intelligence dividends. Any war scenario provides opportunities for testing equipment and ideas as well as learning about the strengths and weaknesses of the warring parties.

European military chiefs learned the rudiments of trench warfare during the American Civil War. There are also coups from captured equipment such as the T-90M tank which I wrote about last week. But of even greater significance is Ukrainian success in the signals war.

Modern warfare depends hugely on the ability of a warring state to 1- send and receive signals 2- block homing signals from the opposition’s guided missile and artillery systems and 3- deploy effective homing signals so that your ordnance reaches its target. The NATO equipment supplied to Ukraine is scoring high marks on all three. This is playing a major role in hobbling the Russian military and providing NATO with vital battlefield SIGINT (signal intelligence).

Attention Seeking Kim Jon-Un

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Observations of an ex pat: China Peak

History may well record the 2022 Chinese Communist Party Congress which starts next week as the Party’s peak.

It is certainly the apex for Xi Jinping who has climbed the greased pole to become the only Chinese leader since Mao to serve more than ten years in the top job.

China itself now has the second largest economy, army, air force and navy on the planet. It also has the largest population.

Beijing also has the world’s largest foreign aid budget and has invested trillions of dollars in foreign infrastructure projects for its belt/road initiative.

A third of the world’s goods are manufactured in China.

China is a super power and the Communist Party can claim credit for most of the country’s success. It united a country destroyed by ruthless colonialism, invasion and civil war and wiped out the stain of what the Chinese refer to as “the century of humiliation.”

But in the years to come the Chinese may well refer to the first quarter of the 21st century as the halcyon days for there are signs that the Communist Party is laying the foundations for serious problems for the future.

Xi Jinping, who will be crowned next week as China’s second “Great Helmsman” can claim both the success and the blame. He has substantially reduced corruption, boosted GDP, increased the military and turned China into a showcase alternative to Western democracy.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

UK

The freshly minted British Conservative government of Liz Truss is on the ropes. They have only themselves to blame. The “mini-budget” of Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng has plunged the economy into a downward spiral. The pound is plummeting. Interest rates are rocketing. People are literally on the cusp of losing their homes, and the problems of the world’s fifth largest economy is having a knock-on effect around the world.

The Opposition Labour Party has soared to a 20-point lead in the opinion polls. The Truss-Kwarteng policy of borrowing billions to cut taxes in the middle of a recession has been totally rejected by the markets. One reason for the traders’ emphatic thumbs down is Kwarteng’s refusal to support his budget with an assessment by the independent Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR). Such support is usually a pre-requisite for any budget announcement. The market has interpreted its absence as a sign that the chancellor knew that the OBR would refuse its seal of approval.

Well, now the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee, has demanded that Kwarteng organise a retrospective OBR report by the end of October at the latest – and, if the OBR report is as scathing as the statements emitting from the corridors of the Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund – amend the budget accordingly. In the meantime, the Truss-Kwarteng duo are doing what every politician does these days when caught in a mess of their own making – doubling down and blaming someone else. In this case Ms Truss has hummed and hahed through a series dramatically misjudged local radio interviews. Putin, Ukraine, covid and world energy prices – everything except Brexit – were blamed for the reaction to the budget. But the fact is every other developed country has the same problems (except self-inflicted Brexit) and they have succeeded in propping up their troubled economies. The markets, therefore, have decided that Britain’s problems can be ascribed to political competence.

Baltic

Who blew up the Baltic Sea gas pipe lines on Tuesday? And who is the legal victim? It is almost universally agreed that the explosions were sabotage that involved a state military operation. But which state? Officially neither the Russians nor NATO are pointing a finger, but both are implying that the other is responsible. Sweden said it detected Russian submarines and surface vessels in the sabotage area shortly before the explosions. Russia retorted with a claim that there were even more NATO naval forces in the neighbourhood. Furthermore, the UN Security Council meeting to discuss the issue has been called by Moscow.

The identity of the attacker is important because the attack occurred in Danish territorial waters which means that it can be construed as an attack on a NATO member. On the other hand, it was an attack on Russian property and so Moscow might be able to claim that it was a NATO attack against them. It is quite possible that we will never know who was responsible because revealing the identity would further escalate the Ukraine War.

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Observations of an Expat – Russia: Chinese Vassal

Russia’s dependence on Chinese markets, sanctions busting finance and political support is turning it into a vassal of Beijing.

The bromance between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin was unbalanced to begin with. The Chinese economy and population are ten times that of Russia.

Russia is a primary commodity producing country which makes it more susceptible to the economic winds of change should its raw products – mainly grain, gold, oil and gas – drop. China, on the other hand has emerged as an advanced, complex economy which is far more dependent on good relations with its Western markets than on relations with Russia.

The only arena in which the Russians have been perceived to have the upper-hand in the Sino-Russian relationship is in the defense arena. But now that is on the wane. Putin’s litany of Ukrainian failures has severely damaged Russia’s reputation for military prowess.

Nuclear weaponry is the only arena in which Moscow retains an overwhelming advantage with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. But rest assured that the Chinese are just as worried as everyone else about Putin’s threats to use nukes, and is applying the maximum political pressure to deter him. They will gain nothing and lose everything by allying themselves with a country that uses nuclear weapons to illegally annex another country’s territory.

The one thing holding the Xi and Vladimir together is their mutual suspicion/hatred of the West coupled with a firm belief that the days of Western liberal democracy are numbered and the rise of firm autocratic governments is inevitable. For that reason, China is unlikely to ditch Russia, but it will extract a hefty price for its support.

The question is: What is the price? For a start, Russian oil and gas. Since the 1980s most of Moscow’s energy exports have headed west to Europe. Russia is already redirecting 76 percent of its oil which formerly went to Western Europe. China has upped its annual Russian oil imports by 135,000 barrels daily. But the Chinese – like the Indians – are being offered discount prices to keep them on board. China will demand that they pay even less, and if Russia continues to lock itself out of Western markets than the law of supply and demand will support their case.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Mahsa Amin’s death

They are burning their headscarves and police cars in Iran. Persian women are fighting back against the mullahs’ morality police. The catalyst for their anger is the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amin. The Iranian authorities claim she died of a pre-existing heart condition. Rubbish, say her family, there was nothing wrong with her heart. She died, they claim, because she was beaten in the police van on the way to the station. Ms Amin was arrested because she was wearing her hijab or head scarf improperly. That is common offence which the morality police monitor along with the wearing of tight trousers and leggings, holding hands or kissing in public.

Iran is not the only Muslim country with morality police. Afghanistan has probably the most severe. Iran probably holds the number two slot. Others include Nigeria, Sudan and Malaysia. Then there is Saudi Arabia where the ruling family’s adoption of Islam’s strict Wahhabi sect led to the establishment of the notorious Committee for the Protection of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Better known among Saudis as simply “The Committee.” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, however, has been circumscribing the morality police to the point of near extinction. The backlash in Iran may force the Mullahs to follow suit which can only undermine their wider claim to political legitimacy.

Another lurch to the right in Europe

Europe is taking another lurch to the right. This month two national parties with links to a fascist past have either come to power or are poised to do so.

Sweden has been known as Europe’s most tolerant country towards cultural diversity. But this month the rabid anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats emerged as the second largest party and is forming a government with the centre-right Moderates.

In a disturbing echo of Donald Trump, party leader Jimmie Akesson declared it was time to “Make Sweden Great Again.”

Georgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy has an equally upsetting motto which links her party to its fascist past—“God, family and fatherland.” Ms Meloni is expected to emerge as Italy’s prime minister after Sunday’s vote. Her party is Eurosceptic, anti-immigration, anti-gay, anti-abortion and has expressed doubts about NATO membership.

Italy and Sweden join Hungary, Britain, Czech Republic, Slovakia Austria and others who have lurched rightwards. There are differences between them but the one common element is the disturbing trend to portray their country as a victim.

Iceland

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Observations of an ex pat: Blink

Vladimir Putin is daring the West to blink first.

It is the second time since 1945 that the nuclear super powers have been dragged to the brink of the abyss.

In October 1963 it was the Americans who felt threatened. Soviet missiles were moving into their backyard. This time it is the Russians. No US nuclear weapons are being sent to Ukraine, but Russia claims that Washington is using Ukraine as its proxy to—using Putin’s words—“destroy Russia.” But that is where the reverse parallels end. Ukraine is no Cuba. It is more dangerous.

For a start Putin is not Khrushchev. The Soviet system had many faults. It made no pretence of being democratic and its stated aim was the overthrow of Western capitalism. But one of its strengths was that, in 1963 at least, the Politburo was more of a collective leadership than it is today. There was a party leader, but there were others behind him who held significant influence and could replace him in a peaceful transition. In fact, that is exactly what happened.

Putin is an elected dictator. His stranglehold of the media, the judiciary and the electoral commission casts a huge shadow over the Russian ballot box.

Once elected, Putin’s power is far greater than that of his post-Stalinist Soviet successors. He maintains and dispenses that power with a system that combines old-style feudal fealty with kleptocracy masked by religiously-fuelled populist nationalism. And because Putin is elected he has greater domestic political legitimacy than his Soviet predecessors.

This legitimacy, however, has a price—success. If the Russian President fails to deliver he can be removed more easily than the old communist leaders. And because there is no obvious successor or mechanism for finding one, Putin is more likely to resort to drastic measures to stay in power.

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