Author Archives: Tom Arms

Tom Arms’ World Review

Russia and China

It took Vladimir Putin just nine days for Putin to go from his inauguration in the Kremlin to Zhongnanhai – the seat of China’s political power and the home of President Xi Jinping.

At the end of the two-day visit the “partnership without limits” had been elevated to one in which there are now “no forbidden areas of cooperation.”

The two countries – and the two leaders – are united in their common goal of dismantling the liberal Western political order that has dominated the world since 1945. Democracy, they are convinced, has had its day. It is time now for Sino-Russian orchestrated autocracy.

The current pivot of the Beijing-Moscow axis is the Ukraine War. This war presents both problems and opportunities for China. On the one hand, Russian failure would be regarded as a disaster. On the other, Xi Jinping is conscious of the need to prevent Sino-American relations from deteriorating too quickly. China is not ready to step into American shoes.

So, Xi Jinping exploits Russia to poke, needle and goad Washington. He talks of “no forbidden areas of cooperation” but then urges Putin to row back on the nuclear rhetoric. China has yet to recognise the Russian annexation of Luhansk and Donetsk and – so far—has refused to supply Russia with obvious weaponry. It buys more oil from Russia but is playing hardball on the Russian request for a gas pipeline that would replace revenues that Gazprom has lost in Europe.

China, has however, ignored Western sanctions against Russia. In 2022 Russian imports of Chinese machine tools grew by 120 percent and in 2023 they rose another 170 percent.

Machine tools are just one industrial category which Secretary of State Antony Blinken has complained loudly about as helping the Russian war effort. This equipment either has a hidden defense element or it is categorised as dual-use, which means it can be used for civilian or military purposes.

Other similar categories of Chinese exports have grown exponentially since Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border. Semi-conductor exports rose from $230 million in 2021 to £407 million in 2023. The machinery for making computer chips grew from $3.5 million to $180 million over the same period. Computer chips are essential for the conduct of high-tech 21st century warfare.

Russian oil

Russian oil and gas are financing Putin’s Ukraine War. So, this week, the Russian president had good news and bad news about his war coffers.

Oil revenues are up. Gas revenues are down.

Gazprom – the state gas monopoly – lost $6.9 billion in 2023. Its first annual loss since the bad old days of Russian financial chaos 20 years ago. The reason for the drop is Western sanctions and the closure of the gas pipelines Nordstream 1 and 2. Russian gas sales to Europe were down 55.6 percent. They will be even lower next year.

The picture provided by Rosneft – the Russian oil equivalent – is much rosier. Its profits were up a record 13 percent to $14.07 billion. The reason for its financial success were India, Putin’s friends in OPEC and the end of the pandemic.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has completely ignored Western sanctions and exploited Putin’s difficulties by buying huge quantities of oil at discounted prices, India then reaps a nice profit by selling the processed oil to third countries via the world market.

The OPEC countries meanwhile, have obliged President Putin by keeping oil production down and prices up. At the same time demand for energy has grown as the world economy recovers from the Covid pandemic.

But what about the coming year. Gazprom’s revenues are unlikely to rise. It takes time to build alternative destination pipelines and storage facilities. As for oil prices, demand is starting to fall. India has reached the limits of how much oil it can process and world economic growth is expected to drop to 2.7 percent in 2024 compared to 5.5 percent in 2022.

So, what Putin needs is a first class money manager to ensure that the maximum efficiency is squeezed out of every rouble. That is why he has appointed economist Andre Belousov as his new Minister for Defense.

Putin is his own commander-in-chief. He already has a Chief of Staff in the form of General Valery Gerasimov. What he needs is someone who can organise a defense budget that is now 6.7 percent of the country’s GDP before oil prices start to go the way of gas prices.

United States

In 1923, the US Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, was hauled before the courts for accepting a $350,000 bribe that allowed an oil company to drill in protected reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming.

This is the crux of the Teapot Dome Scandal which was recognised as America’s biggest political scandal until Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon.

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Observations of an Expat: Robert Fico – from sinner to saint to martyr

The man who shot Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico has inflicted major damage on the cause of liberalism.

Fico is a far-right populist who started his political life as a far-left populist. He supports Putin and opposes Zelensky. He is anti-immigrant, anti-vaxer, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim and hates journalists. While Fico is fighting for his life in a Bratislavan intensive care unit, far-right politicians in Slovakia and beyond are using his fate as a rallying cry.

In short, Robert Fico is a sinner who has been turned into a saint by an attempted assassination and may yet become a martyr.

When the Soviet Empire collapsed, Robert Fico was a staunch member of the Communist Party and when the first post-Soviet Czechoslovak parliament was elected he successfully ran as a candidate of the communist successor party.

But as the communists fell from favour, Fico jumped ship and in 1999 formed his own political vehicle – Direction Social Democracy (SMER-SD). Seven years later, his party won the most seats in Slovak Parliamentary elections and Fico became prime minister for the first time. He served again 2006 to 2010, 2012 to 2016, 2016 to 2018 and finally from 2023.

In 2018, Robert Fico resigned the premiership after mass demonstrations in protest against the murder of young investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée. A short spell in the political wilderness followed, but Fico’s career was saved by the Covid pandemic. He took an increasingly anti-lockdown, anti-vax position in direct opposition to the government’s policy. At one point his support for during an anti-lockdown demonstration resulted in his arrest.

In 2023 Fico was back in the prime minister’s chair at the head of a coalition which included the far-right Slovak National Party and the far-left Voice-Social Democracy (HLAS) Party. On the face of it, his political partners were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but in reality they shared an ultra-nationalist populist agenda with Fico’s SMER-SD.

Fico’s own views became increasingly far-right and ultra-nationalist. Same-sex marriages and adoptions by same-sex couple are “a perversion.” His views on immigration also follow the same line as other European nationalists:  We will not, said the prime minister “accept a single Muslim immigrant.”

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Russia

It was a week of military parades, trumpets, nuclear sabre-rattling and an inauguration in Russia this week.

It started with another threat from President Vladimir Putin when he announced on Monday the start of military exercises involving non-strategic nuclear weapons. This was in response to America releasing its $61 billion aid package to Ukraine, and the repetition of French President Emmanuel Macron’s threat to consider sending French troops to Ukraine.

Then there was Putin’s inauguration as he started his fifth term in office with a long walk past applauding crowds lining the red-carpeted corridors of the Kremlin. Putin’s first inauguration in 2000 was hailed as Russia’s transition to democracy. This one followed an election in which he “won” 87.5 percent of the vote while all his political opponents were either dead, in exile or in prison.

On Thursday it was the Victory Day Parade to mark the end of what the Russians call “The Great Patriotic War.” May Day was the big parade in Soviet days. May 9, was important, but it was not even a public holiday until 1965. Putin, has revived the celebration and elevated it to a collective remembrance resembling a religion.

One of the highlights of the parade is the march of the “Immortal Regiment” in which relatives troop past the reviewing stand holding aloft pictures of family members who died in the war. The scene is reminiscent of icons being carried in Russian Orthodox Church services. The 60th and 70th anniversaries of the war’s end (in 2005 and 2015) were the biggest public holidays in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the inauguration and Victory Day were marked by increased Russian bombardments and missile attacks as Russian troops tried to gain the military upper hand before the latest batch of Western military aid arrived.

Palestine

The two main Palestinian factions – Hamas and Fatah – hate each other almost as much as they do the Netanyahu government.

They have barely spoken since 2007 when Hamas won elections in Gaza and booted Fatah and the Palestinian Authority out of the seaside strip.

That is why it is significant that representatives from the two factions met recently in Moscow and Beijing. The Chinese meeting was especially interesting because Beijing is keen to project itself as Middle East peace broker as opposed to its characterization of the US as Middle East war monger.

The Chinese have already successfully brokered the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between regional rivalries Iran and Saudi Arabia. Shortly after that success, foreign minister Wang Yi wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offering to mediate in the decades-old Arab-Israel conflict. Netanyahu politely refused.

Brokering a rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas could be a diplomatic back door for Beijing to constructively inject itself into the Middle East conflict. It is generally agreed that the two-state solution is the logical solution to the conflict.

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Observations of an expat: The hip thigh bone theory of the world

It is time for a review of the hip thigh bone theory of the world. The theory is based on the 1920s African-American spiritual “Dem bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones.”

The ditty in turn was based on a Biblical passage in which a collection of dry bones reassemble themselves before the astonished eyes of the prophet Ezekiel.

The foot-tapping, hand-clapping tune is a roof raiser in evangelical churches around the world. It is also a popular song in young children’s anatomy classes.

For the purposes of this article, however, it is a perfect metaphor of how the rapidly shrinking and interconnected world has become increasingly dependent on its constituent parts (or bones) working together. Recognition of this interconnectability is becoming increasingly important as the world’s political leaders appear to be intent on disassembling the skeletons and protecting their constituent parts behind fast growing economic, political and – sometimes – physical walls.

Globalisation has become a dirty word. Forget the fact that it lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in the 1990s and early part of the 21st century. And that it ushered in decades of growth and low inflation. Substituted in its place is the mantra of “economic security” and “national interests.”

Also forget the fact that the new buzzwords totally ignore reality. Like it or not – that the world body politic has become totally interconnected. In fact, the bones that comprise the skeleton of our globe are not so much connected as fused  and then overlaid with a complex web of nerves, muscles, sinews, international political and trade organs, ligaments and a protective skin of military alliances. In fact, it seems, that the only thing missing from this political metaphor is a functioning brain.

The advantages of free trade are not new. They have been propounded for centuries. They are at the very core of the capitalist’s Bible, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and were later developed by David Ricardo who urged countries to exploit their “comparative advantage” through free trade.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Germany

Germany’s far-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party has problem in Thuringia. The East German Lander is an AfD stronghold, but their main candidate, MEP Maximilian Krah, has become a non-person.

The reason for his disappearance from the campaign for the European Parliament is the arrest of his aide Jian Guo on charges of spying for China. Krah himself, may not be above suspicion. He is known as one of the Asian giant’s biggest backers in the European Parliament.

The case of Jian Guo is only one of several scandals affecting AfD candidates for June’s European parliament elections. There have also been allegations that another AfD politician, Petr Byrstron, was paid $21,300 by a Russian disinformation network.

The ensuing political disgrace appears to be having effect on the electorate. In December, opinion polls showed the AfD with 23 percent of the national German vote. Another poll at the end of April showed them with the support of only 16 percent of the electorate.

In the meantime, Herr Krah’s name remains on the ballot in Thuringia. It has to. Once the parties submit their list of candidates then their names cannot be removed. Krah’s name is right at the top. But he is at the bottom of the list for speaking opportunities.

Gaza

Compromise appears to be in the air in the Hamas-Israel talks in Egypt. Israel is talking to negotiators about a six-week truce – possibly longer. Hamas is saying that it is looking at the latest proposals in a “positive light”.

So, what are the proposals? Specifics are a diplomatic secret. But what can be gleaned so far indicates that international pressure on Israel and Israeli pressure on Hamas is wringing concessions out of both sides.

A long truce will almost certainly mean the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge of total victory and the destruction of Hamas. But in return he wants to release of about 100 hostages which means that Hamas will have to relinquish their only bargaining chip.

The proposal currently on the table would call for a phased deal which American, Qatari and Egyptian mediators hope will lead to a permanent ceasefire.

The first phase would be the release of all female hostages in exchange for an undetermined number of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. Once the initial exchange is completed Israeli troops would withdraw from the coastal road in Gaza. This would facilitate the movement of humanitarian aid and allow displaced Palestinians to return to their homes in northern Gaza. Once northern Gaza is re-opened the remaining hostages would be released along with the remains of hostages who have died in captivity. Israel would also release another batch of Palestinian prisoners.

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Observations of an Expat: Campus Powder Keg

America has for years been a polarised powder keg waiting for the spark to ignite the fuse. It has come in the form of student protests against American support for Israel.

Protesters, counter-protesters and rent-a-mob have violently coalesced around the conflicting fates of Palestinians and the State of Israel.

As of Friday demonstrations have broken out on 140 college campuses in 45 states. More than 2,000 students have been arrested by police storming barricaded encampments and university buildings with riot gear.

President Joe Biden is trying to thread his way through the oft conflicting principles of freedom of speech and the rule of law. “There’s the right to protest but not the right to cause chaos,” he said. At the same time he is standing firm on his support for Israel while privately bemoaning the fact that he is not being given sufficient credit for pressuring the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The political result could be a November victory for Donald Trump as young people continue their Gaza protest by boycotting the polls and the older generation vote for the strong man politics of Trump.

But what do the protesters want? It varies. Some what the total destruction of Israel. Others are focused on a ceasefire and the two-state solution. Still others have been drawn to the barricades by the issue of free speech. Counter-protesters fear that Israel and Jews in general are facing the problems of the 1930s. Rent-a-mob just sees an advantage in chaos.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

United States of America

Here’s the problem facing the US Supreme Court: Should US presidents – in and out of office – have total or partial immunity from criminal prosecution for acts they committed while in the Oval Office?

Or does the failure to provide this blanket immunity expose past presidents to political vendettas by their successors or other political opponents?

Or would Donald Trump’s appeal for blanket immunity – in the words of Justice Elena Kagan – “turn the Oval Office into a sea of criminality.”

This week the Justices heard oral arguments from lawyers representing Trump on one side and Special Prosecutor Jack Smith on the other. The latter is attempting to bring the former president to trial for his role in the 6 January Capitol Hill riots.

The Justices will now go away and ponder the arguments and issue a decision several weeks from now. Court-watchers are split on what the decision is likely to be. Quite often one can determine the outcome from the questions the Justices ask. Not so, this time as the Justices are painfully aware of the impact of their decision on the actions of future presidents as well as those of Donald Jesus Trump.

Many observers think the Supreme Court will issue a split decision. This would please the Trump team as it would mean referral back to the lower courts and delay, delay, delay.

As the Justices ponder, they may consider the words of pamphleteer Thomas Paine, whose 1776 “Common Sense” had a major impact on the American War of Independence and the constitution which the Justices are sworn to protect. “Where,” wrote Paine, “is the King of America? In America the law is king. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other.”

United Kingdom and Rwanda

The British government has declared itself the final arbiter of reality. It has decreed that if it says that a country is safe then it is safe, regardless of whether it is or not.

Most everyone – except for the government of Rishi Sunak – agrees that Rwanda is not safe. Freedom House judges it as “not free”. Human Rights Watch says that protesting refugees have been fired on by Rwandan police. Others have simply disappeared. The Rwandan government is supporting the M23, a violent faction in the Democratic Republic of the Congo which has been accused of war crimes.

For all of these reasons – and others – the UK Supreme Court in November ruled that the Sunak’s plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was “unlawful” because Rwanda is not a safe country.

So the government passed a bill which decreed that Rwanda is safe and the UK Supreme Court cannot say otherwise if the UK government say it is. A clear blow to the traditional independence of the British judiciary and its much vaunted respect for the rule of law.

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Observations of an Expat: War is Expensive

The $61 billion in in military aid that the US Congress voted for Ukraine this week is in the nick of time. The Ukrainians were literally running out of bullets to hold back the Russian steamroller.

But war is expensive. How much bang can the Ukrainians get for their American bucks?

Let’s start with the workhorse of the battlefield – the humble 155 mm artillery shell and the Howitzers that fire them. For the past few months a steady stream of shells from North Korean and Russian munitions factories has meant that the Russians have been lobbing five times as many shells into the Ukrainian frontline than the Ukrainians have into the Russian.

It has been working. The Russians have gradually pushed forward all the way along the 620-mile front and have captured the town of Aadvika. But the release of the American aid means that the Ukrainians can now start firing back at an anticipated rate of 8,000 shells a day.

Each basic 155mm shell costs $3,000. The all-singing, all dancing precision-guided variety can set you back as much as $130,000 a shell. The Anglo-American built howitzer that fires them costs $4 million.

The howitzers have a range of up to 20 miles, which puts them near the front and in harm’s way. The popular HIMARS (the acronym for America’s High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) is deadly accurate up to 186 miles. This means its mobile launcher (cost $20 million each) can be fired from relative safety. But make each shot count. The missiles cost $434,000 each.

NATO has been reluctant to provide F-16 fighter jets (price $50 million plus approximately $4 million for each air-launched cruise missile). But the Americans have given the Ukrainians thousands of Avevex Phoenix ghost drones at $60,000 a drone. These can be used for reconnaissance or to carry a high explosive on suicide missions.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

United States of America

Self-inflicted cracks are starting to appear in the MAGA edifice. The two Republicans wielding the sledgehammers are Alabama’s conspiracy theorist Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene and, of course, Donald Trump himself.

The former president, has time and again, demonstrated a total disregard for the rule of law, or at least its application to his affairs. Next week the judge in his New York trial, Juan Merchan, will decide whether Trump is guilty of contempt of court for repeatedly breaching a gag order against his making comments about witnesses, jurors, the judge, the judge’s family or any court officials.

It is a legal courtesy for opposing legal teams to give a day or two’s advance notice of witnesses to give the lawyers time to prepare. The prosecution has asked the judge that they be allowed to withhold the information on the grounds that Trump is likely to issue intimidatory comments on his Truth Social platform. The judge has agreed.

Marjorie Taylor Greene – who has been dubbed “Vladimir Putin’s Envoy Extraordinaire to the US Congress” by Democrats and moderate Republicans – appears determined to totally destroy Republican credibility. Her main target is the $60 billion aid package for Ukraine which has been held up for months by far-right MAGA Republicans in the House of Representatives.

The package is expected to be approved this weekend. But Ms Greene is determined to make a last ditch effort to kill the aid bill with a series of outrageous amendments, including: No humanitarian aid for Gaza, withdrawal from NATO, no support for a two-state solution, and – best of all – a demand that any member of Congress who votes in favour of aid for Ukraine be conscripted into the Ukrainian army.

Ms Greene and the other members of the right-wing Freedom Caucus have managed to alienate moderate Republican congressman who are expected to cross the floor to vote with Democrats to pass the aid bill. Republican Congressman Derrick Van Orden said that he and his colleagues were “sick and tired” of being “bullied” and “blackmailed.”

Europe

America’s “cancel culture” came to Europe this week–and then cancelled itself.

Cancel culture, is a term used by mainly US conservatives to decry the efforts of liberals to block (or “cancel”) public appearances by right-wing speakers. The tactic has become especially popular American university campuses where left-wing student demonstrations have forced the cancellation of speeches by right-wingers.

Conservatives – quite rightly – see this as an attack on free speech.

This week the Edmund Burke Foundation, a conservative American think tank/pressure group, was hosting a conference of right-wing European luminaries in Brussels. Or at least, it was until it encountered the cancel culture of a series of Brussels mayors.

Trouble started the weekend before the event when one of the mayors of Brussels 19 districts decided that the Euro-sceptic foundation’s National Conservatism Conference would not be welcome in his district which included the EU institutions. He feared that the speakers’ anti-EU, anti-immigration and anti-LGBT views would attract violent counter demonstrations. So the venue was shifted to a building near the European Parliament where another district mayor turfed out the organisers.

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Observations of an Expat: Poor Bibi

Spare a thought for Bibi Netanyahu. He is caught between a rock and several hard places. He is fighting external wars against Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran; an internal war against his cabinet colleagues and a diplomatic one against the Biden Administration and most of the rest of the world, if not all of it.

The results of this complex picture could be Armageddon, stalemate or any one of the many in between scenarios.

While pondering the fate of the Israeli prime minister you may also want to consider all the other players who are dragging the world to the brink of a Middle Eastern abyss: President Joe Biden, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini and Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar. They are locked in a dangerous escalating tit for tat dance of death.

Within the Israeli cabinet there is a four-way tug-of-war between Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and War Cabinet Minister and Opposition Leader Benny Gantz. They all appear to hate and distrust each other.

According to sources, Gallant and Gantz have hardly spoken to each other since Benny Gantz beat out Yoav Gallant for the top military job ten years ago. Itamar Ben-Gvir is an ultra-Orthodox Jew who said Netanyahu should “go berserk” after Iran’s missile attack on Israel. He described Israel’s retaliatory attack on Iran’s third most populous city, Isfahan, as “lame.”

Gallant is not as extreme as Ben-Gvir, but not far off. Benny Gantz is the nearest thing to a dove that there is in the Israeli war cabinet. But even he is calling for the “total destruction” of Hamas. If elections were held today, Gantz would be prime minister.

All four men have conflicting views on a post-war Gaza. Netanyahu wants the army to take over. Gallant wants an ill-defined arrangement with the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority. Ben-Gvir is pushing for replacing the 2.2 million Gazan Palestinians with Israeli settlers and Benny Gantz is keeping his cards close to his chest, but hints at a politically slimmed down two-state solution.

Netanyahu, according to sources, deals with his rivals by ignoring them. All the major decisions since October 7 have been made by the prime minister without – or with the minimum – consultation.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Middle East

A quick round-up on Gaza, Israel, Iran, Yemen, Lebanon, America and everywhere else that is affected by the ongoing crisis in the Middle East.

President Biden’s “outrage” following the killings of World Central Kitchen aid workers resulted in an apology and two new aid routes: The Erez Crossing and the port of Ashdod in southern Israel. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that as a result 400 aid trucks went through to Gaza immediately after the presidential fury. UN officials said the figure was actually 223.

Disenchanted State Department officials – of which there are a growing number – say that …

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Observations of an Expat: Tyranny of the Majority

“Democracy,” Winston Churchill famously said, “is the worst form of government – except for all those other forms that have been tried.”

Then there is democracy unchained, or without the restraints of the rule of law and free speech.  Also known as “the tyranny of the majority” or the “will of the people” or, perhaps, “democracy flawed.”

These are elected governments with political leaders who have harnessed to their own pursuit of power a perceived threat to the majority, or a growing, vociferous and politically motivated minority.

There are far too many examples to choose from but let’s focus on Hungary, Russia, Israel, India and the US for starters.  In each of these countries, the leaders (or wannabe leader) have won the support of the majority of the population either through lies or by allying themselves with a social movement which promotes one section of society at the expense of another.

Technically speaking, Israel is a democracy with carefully monitored and oft-held elections. Its American supporters are keen to point out that it is the only democracy in the Middle East and this makes the Israelis their only rock-solid ally in the region.

Twenty percent of Israel’s voters are Arabs. As the occupying power, Israel is also responsible for two million Palestinians in Gaza and another two million on the West Bank – none of whom have a vote.  Their rights and concerns are totally ignored by Benjamin Netanyahu because his political base is conservative Orthodox Jews. The Israeli Supreme Court has attempted to protect Arab rights. As a result, Netanyahu is beavering away at dismantling the court and its powers.

Vladimir Putin was recently re-elected President of Russia with 87.5 percent of the vote. Such a large figure is of course suspect, but most observers accept that Putin would have won regardless. He has successfully portrayed himself as the only possible leader of a nation under attack from wicked, grasping Western enemies. His answer is that the best defense is a good offense which means the pursuit of Russian imperial ambitions.

Viktor Orban has cast himself in the role of anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic saviour of ethnic Hungarians and European Judeo-Christian values. “We must state,” said Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, “that Hungarians do not want to be diverse and do not want to be mixed; we do not want our own colour, traditions and national culture to be mixed with that of others.”

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Iran is unlikely to wreak a shattering vengeance for the Israeli attack on their diplomatic compound in Damascus. The attack killed Brigadier General Mohammed Reza Zahedi and seven others. General Zahedi led the Quds force, which is the overseas arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. He was credited with helping the October 7 Hamas attack.

On the surface, it would be logical to think that Tehran would respond with a tit for tat attack — perhaps a strike against an Israeli diplomatic mission.

But the experts think not this time. There are several reasons. The first is that Iran is in a poor position economically and politically to take Israel head-on. Years of sanctions have damaged the Iranian economy and the theocratic leaders face strong and growing domestic opposition to their repressive interpretation of the Koran and Sharia law.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini is quite happy to employ the Houthis and Hezbollah to keep poking at Israel and the US and their allies, but fears the result of a direct confrontation. At least until Iran has a nuclear weapon to deter a full-scale Israeli-American attack.

Another reason observers think Iran is holding back is because Tehran believes that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to escalate and expand the war. Iran thinks, according to sources, that more war is Netanyahu’s best chance of staying in power and of securing wavering American support. Limiting the scope of hostilities makes it more likely that Israeli elections will be held and Netanyahu will be voted out of office.

Meanwhile, the biggest threat to Netanyahu’s government appears to be coming not from Gaza, Iran, Joe Biden or the West Bank. It is from Israel’s Orthodox Jews.

This week the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that government subsidies for the Orthodox community must end and that Orthodox men and women — who have been exempt from conscription since 1948 — must be subject to the Israeli draft like everyone else.

Almost as soon the court made its ruling, Attorney-General Gali Beharav-Miara, wrote to the education and defense ministers telling them to cut off funding to the Yeshiva schools and start drafting the estimated 60,000 Orthodox Jews aged 18 to 26.

But Benjamin Netanyahu is hesitating. He relies on the support of two Orthodox parties — Shas and United Torah Judaism — to stay in office. Their leaders are threatening to walk out of the fragile coalition government if the Supreme Court’s ruling is enforced. At the same time, the secular parties in Netanyahu’s coalition have issued warnings that they will collapse the government if the prime minister does not enforce the ruling.

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Observations of an ex pat: Suspend arms shipments to Israel

Selling weapons to Israel is a breach of international law.

This is not my opinion. It is the judgement of 600 British legal eagles, including three former members of the UK Supreme Court. They have been joined by 130 parliamentarians and the three main Opposition parties have demanded a debate on the issue.

It is also the verdict of the governments of Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Japan and Spain. They have all suspended arms shipments to Israel.

All the above agree that Israel is breaking a number of international laws with its attacks on civilians in Gaza. Furthermore, that countries that supply the Israeli government with weapons are complicit in breaking those laws.

So what laws is Israel breaching? To start with there is Article 7 of the UN Arms Trade Treaty which “prohibits the export of arms where is an overriding risk that the weapons can be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

It is an international law which has been enforced by Britain in the past. In 2019 the British Court of Appeals used it to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia based on the Saudis indiscriminate bombing of Yemen.

There is also the 1948 Geneva Convention Against Genocide, which, ironically, was enacted as a response to the killing of 6 million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust. This convention prohibits “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group.” It goes on to describe the prohibited acts: “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group and deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the destruction of the group as a whole.”

The Israeli government and their supporters say that claims that they are breaching international law are “nonsense.” But, so far the Israeli Defence Force has caused the death of more than 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza and seriously injured 52,000 more. Eighty-five percent – 1.9 million people have had their homes destroyed by Israeli bombs. Gaza’s hospitals are medical rubble. Israel’s refusal to allow food and water into Gaza have created famine conditions. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that Gazans are “the highest number of people facing catastrophic hunger ever recorded.”

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Baltimore

The Baltimore Bridge disaster was more than a fatal human tragedy. It was a commercial and trading disaster which starts in Baltimore and ripples well beyond American shores.

But let’s start with Baltimore and its immediate environs. When the Singapore-flagged container ship Dali crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge it closed a major land and sea route in and out of a city which is one of America’s most important as well as one of its most socially-deprived.

The 1.6 mile long bridge crossed the Patapsco River which is the major sea channel in an out of the Port of Baltimore which in turn is a major exit and entry point for America’s vital car trade. That sea channel is now blocked. In 2023 the port handled 52.3 million tons worth $80 billion. It directly employed 15,000 people and indirectly supported another 139,000 jobs. This is in a city known as the heroin drug capital of America and where residents have a one and 20 chance of falling victim to violent crime. Powder keg Baltimore does not need thousands to be suddenly laid off work.

The bridge carried a major highway – Interstate 695 – as well as well as spanning the entrance to the port. I-295 is a major arterial road connecting New York, Washington DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Last year it carried nearly 12 million vehicles. As the Easter weekend descends on one of the most congested areas of America, hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks will be forced to travel hundreds of additional miles on roads ill-suited to carry the extra traffic.

The impact of the bridge disaster will be felt well beyond Baltimore. Eighty percent of the world’s trade moves by ship. It is called the “global supply chain” and when a link in that chain is broken it affects shipping movements across the world. And a major factor in the price of goods is the cost of transporting them.

In recent years the biggest impact on the global supply chain was caused by the covid pandemic. But other factors have been a drought which this month disrupted the Panama Canal; the six-day blockage in 2021 of the Suez Canal by the giant container ship Ever Given; naval battles in the Black Sea as a result of the Ukraine War and attacks by pro-Palestinian Houthis in the Red Sea.

The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge is one of a growing number of breaks in the increasingly fragile global supply chain which pushes up prices for us all.

Russia

Tajiks have lots of reason to hate Putin’s Russia. Tajiks attached to Islamic State-Khorashan even more so. They don’t need the Ukrainians, the CIA or MI6 to egg them on.

That is why there is universal scepticism towards Vladimir Putin’s allegation that the four Tajik terrorists who gunned down 130 people in Moscow’s Crocus City Hall theatre were acting in league with Ukrainian, British and American intelligence. The assertion is made more ludicrous by IS-K’s instant claim of responsibility.

It is unclear whether the terrorists were drawn from the estimated two million Tajiks living in Russia or if they come from Tajikistan or if they originated from Afghanistan where the Persian-speaking Tajiks make up 25 percent of the population. It is known that they are Muslims and that would be enough to turn them against Vladimir Putin.

Putin climbed to power on the back of genocidal war against the Muslims of Chechnya. It made him popular with ethnic Russians but a hate figure for the Central Asian Muslims who were once part of the Soviet empire and the Tsarist Russian Empire before that.

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Observations of an Expat: Ukraine: Bad or Worse

Too often the political choice is not between good and bad or moral or immoral. It is between bad and worse.

Ukraine’s President Vlodomyr Zelensky is facing just such a choice. And he must decide soon or sooner.

Eastern Europe’s bitter winter is coming to a close. The spring thaw and rains are turning the wheat fields into mudflats. But summer is coming and the ground will be hard, flat and ready for tanks.

It is strategic decision time. Does Zelensky abandon the counter-offensive hopes of last summer, withdraw to defensible positions and start digging trenches, laying minefields and constructing tank traps? If he does he will be building a man-made hard border that separates the Donetsk Region from the rest of Ukraine with physical obstacles and increases the possibility of the permanent loss of Eastern Ukraine to Russia.

If the Ukrainian leader does concentrate on strengthening his defences by summer, then he runs the risk of the Russian steamroller breaking through all the way to Kyiv.

His decision-making window is small and closing. By May the ground should be suitable for a tank attack. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu is reported to have 350-500,000 fresh troops ready to move into the front line. And Putin is expected to use his recent electoral victory to justify another mobilisation.

Zelensky made the decision to make a stand at the factory town of Avdiika. He lost. It cost the Russians an estimated 17,000 lives, but they have eliminated a Ukrainian foothold in the Donetsk Region and improved their position for a spring offensive. Ukraine’s battle for Avdiika was at the expense of building defensive fortifications elsewhere along the 600-mile front line.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

United States

The Ukraine aid bill is starting to inch its way through the American House of Representatives. Up until this week the $60 billion much-needed package has been blocked by Speaker Mike Johnson’s refusal to allow Congress a vote on the issue.

He also tied the aid bill (which also includes money for Israel and Taiwan) to tougher laws on immigration.

This has clearly been done in collusion with Donald Trump who opposes aid to Ukraine and wants to delay any agreement on immigration so that he can make it his key election issue.

Senate Republicans have already passed the Ukraine aid bill and have been piling the pressure on Speaker Johnson to allow a vote. This week he agreed. But with several huge caveats. For a start, aid to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan will be voted on separately. Next, he wants to change the wording of the legislation from “aid” to “loan” or possibly “lend-lease.”

Johnson also wants to explore the possibility of applying the profits from $300 billion of frozen Russian assets to the aid that Ukraine needs. This would involve something called the REPO Act or, The Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity for Ukraine Act which authorizes the President to seize Russian assets.

The problem with the REPO Act is that it specifies that the seized assets should be used for reconstruction. Ukraine needs money to fight. Reconstruction comes after the fighting.

There are other problems with Johnson’s apparent change of heart. To start with, separating out the different clauses and turning aid into a loan will seriously delay the bill. Next, because it is substantially changed the bill will have to go back to the Senate and, finally, both houses of Congress are about to start their 22-day Easter recess.

Mike Johnson’s change of heart may actually be a change of delaying tactics.

European Union

Meanwhile the Europeans are trying to fill the gap and smooth over their differences over Ukraine. The last few weeks have seen French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olof Scholz sniping at each other over who is more generous to the brave Ukrainians.

Macron talked about the possibility of sending troops to Ukraine and urged Scholz to provide Volodomyr Zelensky with long-range Taurus missiles. The more cautious Scholz delivered a firm “nein” to sending troops and ruled out the despatch of Taurus because German soldiers would be needed to operate the system. Scholz also pointed out that Germany was providing a lot more money than France and that if the French leader wanted to help Ukraine he should put his money where his mouth is.

Enter Donald Tusk, former European Commission president and current prime minister of Poland. He called a meeting of the leaders of the EU’s two biggest countries to smooth out difficulties that were threatening to derail EU support for Ukraine.

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Observations of an Expat: US Support for Israel Cracks

One of the rock solid, unwavering givens in the world’s diplomatic playbook has cracked – the 76-year-old bipartisan US support for Israel.

There will be repercussions for Israel, the United States, the Palestinians, Europe and the Middle East.

Since before 1948, support or opposition to Israel has been one of the world’s key political fault lines. Which side a government chose played a major role in determining their position on a host of other issues.

At the fulcrum of this fault line was support for successive Israeli governments from Republican and Democratic American administrations. More than $4 billion a year in military aid flows from Washington to Israel, and that is only the money that is known. Whenever Israel faced UN condemnation it could count on the American veto. And if it was attacked, America, supplied the latest weaponry. Israel was America’s only certain and democratic ally in the Middle East and Israel could not exist without America.

The public appearance of the crack was the Senate speech last week by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. He called on Israelis to vote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu out of office. And he implicitly warned that if the voters did not remove “Bibi” then American aid and political support was in jeopardy.

President Biden gave the Schumer speech the presidential seal of approval. It was, he said, “a good speech.” Republicans disagreed and the battle lines were drawn. Senate Minority leader accused Schumer of interfering in the democratic processes of a close ally. Donald Trump said that Jews who voted Democrat “hated Israel” and “hated their own religion.” Speaker of the House Mike Johnson said he would be inviting Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. This event is unlikely to happen because it requires the support of Chuck Schumer.

In a post-speech interview with the New York Times, Senator Schumer, said his disillusionment did not start with the war on Gaza. The impetus for him was the bromance between Trump and Bibi and the Trump-organised Abraham Accords which established diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab countries without any consideration for the Palestinians. Netanyahu, said Schumer, made the crack inevitable when he decided that his interests lay with Trump and the Republican Party at the expense of the Democrats.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Trump and Orban

It was the Trump-Orban love fest in Mar-a-lago last weekend. The Hungarian Prime Minister praised the ex-president as “the president of peace.” Trump went several steps further:  “There is nobody that’s better, smarter or a better leader than Viktor Orban,” he enthused.

President Joe Biden failed to agree with Trump’s assessment. He referred to Orban as a wannabe dictator, and attacked Trump for meeting him, let alone praising him.

Biden’s man in Hungary, Ambassador David Pressman, was even more undiplomatic in his language, which could herald a looming clash between the Biden Administration and Europe’s darling of the right-wing populists.

In a speech on Thursday to mark the 25th anniversary of Hungary’s joining NATO, Ambassador Pressman  warned the  Hungarian prime minister  that the US has lost patience with his embrace of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, attacks on the Biden Administration, his undermining of support for Ukraine, and his open advocacy of Trump’s return to the White House.

He said: “We cannot ignore it when the Speaker of Hungary’s National Assembly asserts that Putin’s war in Ukraine is actually led by the United States. We cannot ignore a sitting minister referring to the United States as a corpse whose nails continue to grow. We can neither understand nor accept the Prime Minister identifying the United States as a ‘top adversary’ …or his assertion that the United States government is trying to overthrow the Hungarian government—literally, to ‘defeat’ him.”

The ambassador called out Orbán’s “systematic takeover of independent media,” the use of government power to “provide favourable treatment for companies owned by party leaders or their families, in-laws, or old friends,” and laws defending “a single party’s effort to monopolize public discourse.”

Pressman added: “Hungary’s allies are warning Hungary of the dangers of its close and expanding relationship with Russia. If this is Hungary’s policy choice—and it has become increasingly clear that it is with the Foreign Minister’s sixth trip to Russia since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and with his next trip to Russia scheduled in two weeks, following his engagement with Russia’s Foreign Minister earlier this month, and the Prime Minister’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in China—we will have to decide how best to protect our security interests, which, as Allies, should be our collective security interests.”

Russia

It is presidential election weekend in Russia. The bookies favourite – surprise, surprise – is Vladimir Putin.

It is also just over two years since Russia invaded Ukraine, so the two combined events provide an excellent opportunity to assess how events and political thought processes have changed over the past two years.

The Putin regime has rebuilt every element of itself to adapt to a permanent state of war: in propaganda and everyday life, in the political model of unifying the behaviour of the elites and ordinary people, in the education and justice systems, and—crucially—in the economy.

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Observations of an Expat: The Schumer Speech

Senator Chuck Schumer is America’s senior American politician. He is also the Senate Majority Leader. So when attacks the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and calls for fresh elections to oust him, people sit up and take notice.

The left-wing of the Democratic Party love it, and it is doubtful that Schumer would have spoken without first clearing the speech with his close friend and political ally President Biden.

The Israeli government is furious. “Israel is not a banana republic,” it fumed. “Senator Schumer is expected to respect Israel’s elected government and not undermine it. This is always true and even more so in time of war.”

The Israelis words were echoed by ranking Senate Republican Mitch McConnell. As soon as Schumer sat down, McConnell jumped to his feet to rebut: “Israel is not a colony of America…. Only Israelis should have a say in who forms their government. Either we respect their decision or we disrespect their democracy.”

And therein lies the rub. With all its faults – and it has many – Israel is a vibrant democracy. Its oft-held general elections regularly achieve turnouts of between 60 to 70 percent. There is a lively free press and the public are free to take to the streets and demonstrate whenever—and they do, often. They also keep re-electing Netanyahu.

The latest opinion polls, are not, however, good news for the prime minister and his Likud Party. They show that Likud would drop thirteen Knesset seats from 33 to 20 if an election was held today. The big winner would be Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party who are expected to jump from 20 to 32 seats.

Gantz has called for a “two entity” solution to the Arab-Israeli problem. He has not, however, defined “entity” and so far has supported Netanyahu’s attacks on Gazans and refusal to accept a ceasefire. Israeli can no longer live alongside Hamas, he said, “this reality has to change.”

A Gantz government is unlikely to bring peace. This is because most Israelis are not in favour of the conditions that would create it.

For a start, to form a government, Gantz would need 61 out of the 120 Knesset seats. The problem is that – other than roughly 10 seats held by Israeli-Arab politicians—only one political party, Meretz, is wholly committed to the two-state solution. They currently have no Knesset seats and are projected to win only five if an election was held now. The centre-right Yesh Atid led by former TV anchor Yair Lapid, endorses talking with the Palestinians and an end to West Bank settlements. But it stops short of the two-state solution.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Keep your eye on Israeli politician Benny Gantz. He is currently the bookies’ favourite to be Israel’s next Prime Minister.

More importantly, he has hinted at a willingness to discuss the two-state solution.

This has put him in direct conflict with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the far-right coalition members of his government. They are totally opposed to the two-state solution which is being pushed by the US, Europe, the Arab world and virtually everyone except Netanyahu and Co.

Gantz’s political flexibility earned him an invitation to visit Washington where this week he met with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The visit was not cleared with Netanyahu who ordered Michael Herzog, Israel’s ambassador in Washington, to do everything possible to sabotage the Gantz visit.

And when the minister-without-portfolio returned he was told by Netanyahu that “Israel has only one prime minister.” That prime minister, it must be said, has yet to receive an invitation to visit the Biden White House.

Gantz is leader of the National Unity Party. Like so many Israeli politicians he came through the ranks of the military, eventually becoming army chief of staff in 2012. Then in 2018 he decided to turn his hand to politics and very quickly emerged as the main opposition figure to Netanyahu.

After the October 7 attack by Hamas, Netanyahu invited Gantz to join a national unity war cabinet, along with three other members of his party

Gantz accepted and is in full agreement with Netanyahu on the need for total victory over Hamas. But the two men part company over what happens next.

Netanyahu is adamant in his refusal to discuss a two-state solution or anything even remotely resembling a two=state solution.

But in 2020, Gantz told the Munich Security Conference: “Eventually we will find ourselves a two-entity solution in which we respect Palestinian sovereignty and governance but we will be respected for our security needs.”

Despite repeated questioning by journalists and others, Gantz refused to define “entity.” But position was clear enough to prompt far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich to describe Benny Gantz as the “weak link” in Israel’s war cabinet. This week Smotrich stood up in the Knesset and demanded that Gantz declare his opposition to the two-state solution. Gantz’s reply was a deafening silence.

Meanwhile the minister-without-portfolio continues to rise in the opinion polls and Netanyahu continues to fall. According to a poll this week by Israel’s Channel 10, voters believe that Netanyahu is prolonging the war for his own political ends. According to the poll, voters think that the prime minister knows that when the war ends he will unceremoniously be voted out of office and – without immunity from prosecution–face a series of long-standing corruption charges.

The Sudanese Civil War is a forgotten war. It shouldn’t be.

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Observations of an ex pat: Unthinkable

The European Union is preparing for what was unthinkable—American withdrawal from NATO.

They have been spurred into action not just by Donald Trump’s offer to Vladimir Putin to “do what you want” with any NATO member who fails to devote two percent of their GDP to defence.

No, Europeans detect 1—a growing undercurrent of isolationism; 2- an American perception that the biggest threat to their national interests lie in Asia; 3- that Americans feel that Europeans have taken advantage of American military largesse for too long and 4- Even the greatest military power in the history of the world can’t fight a two-front war in Asia and Europe.

None of the above concerns take into account the many benefits America derives from membership of NATO. And the fact is, that Americans, especially MAGA Republicans, are in no mood to listen.

That is why this week the EU launched its European Defense Industry Strategy. At the moment the US supplies about half of the armaments required by its European allies. If Europe is to stand alone then it needs an armaments industry to supplies its troops.

Launching the EDI Strategy, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called on EU members to spend at least half of their defense procurement budgets on European-produced weaponry.

To encourage national defense ministries to “buy European,” the commission is dangling a few carrots. For a start, they are offering to exempt ministries from paying VAT on EU-made guns and bullets.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

NATO

French President Emmanuel Macron set the cat among the NATO pigeons this week when he hinted that France just might – no stronger than might at this stage – send troops to Ukraine.

The suggestion was definitely on the table when 21 Western heads of state or government and six foreign ministers met in Paris this week. Polish President Andresz Duda confirmed it.

It was apparently raised by Macron and we know that the frontline Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania backed it. We also know that the British, American and Germans vetoed it – for the time being. Everyone else is keeping their cards close to their chests.

On two things the allies were agreed: Russia is stepping up its cyber and disinformation attacks and that some time in the next few years, according to Macron, “we have to be prepared for Russia to attack the (NATO) countries.”

Immediately following the Paris summit, President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state of the nation address in which he warned that any further NATO involvement in Ukraine “raises the real threat of a nuclear conflict that will mean the destruction of our civilisation.”

On a slightly less apocalyptic note, Putin said that he would be strengthening Russian forces on its Western flank which means recently annexed Eastern Ukraine, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and the Russian borders with the Baltic States and new NATO member Finland.

Ideally, NATO would avoid a head to head with Russia by providing Ukraine with the means to keep fighting. But Europe’s defense industries lack the capacity and America’s $60 billion military aid package is being blocked by MAGA Republicans.

One solution was voiced this week by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. She suggested using the $300 billion in frozen Russian assets to purchase weapons for Ukraine. The money had been earmarked for reconstruction purposes. But if Ukraine is defeated than there will be nothing to reconstruct.

Russia

Meanwhile, as of this writing, martyred Russian Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is being laid to rest in Moscow’s Borisovskoye Cemetery.

The funeral service was held in a Russian Orthodox Church near the Navalny home in southeast Moscow. A large crowd gathered outside the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God. As Navalny’s body was carried in and out of the church the crowd chanted “Navalny, Navalny” interspersed with “executioners, “executioners”

The church was surrounded by masked police guards who blocked several of Navalny’s closest allies still in Russia from entering the church. They also banned cameras and videos from the church, although Navalny’s supporters were able to broadcast much of the event on a You Tube channel which was watched by hundreds of thousands.

The state media did not report the funeral and the Kremlin, when asked to express condolences, refused to do so.

Navalny’s death is the most high profile and dramatic anti-dissident action by the Putin regime. But it is not the only one. This week 70-year-old Russian human rights activist Oleg Orlov was sentenced to two and a half years for criticising the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Orlov is best known as the co-chair of Memorial, a Russian human rights organisation which was one of three winners of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. In October he was fined $1,600 for an article in which the state said he “discredited” the army. Not enough, decreed Putin. So the verdict and sentence were cancelled and Orlov was this week placed on trial for the same crime and this time sent to prison.

Orlov and Navalny are only two of thousands of Russians who have dared to criticise Putin. Most of them have either joined Navalny in the grave or Orlov in prison.

United Kingdom

Islam is the new scapegoat of Europe. Actually, that is not accurate, fear of Islamisation has been around since before the Battle of Tours in 732.

But it appears to have reached a fresh apogee in Britain. And the rest of Europe’s far-right parties are no slouches in the Islamaphobic stakes.

Viktor Orban in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France, Gert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Swedish Democrats in Sweden…. They have all helped to move the anti-Islam dial and, in doing so, have infected the mainstream political parties.

In Britain it stayed on the distant fringes of the far-right for a long time. Parties such as the British National Party and English Defence League were associated with football hooliganism as much as Islamaphobia.

That started to change with the rise of UKIP and its successor party Reform. They have been gradually chipping away at the right-wing of the Conservative party with the result that the Tories have started to steal some of their anti-Islamic clothes in order to keep their voters.

This became all too apparent this week when Conservative Party Chairman Lee Anderson told the right-wing news channel GB News that the Muslim Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan was controlled by Islamists and that he had given the city away “to his mates.”

For working purposes, the term “Islamists” is generally interpreted as either Islamic extremists or Islamic fundamentalists. I personally know Sadiq Khan. Before I joined Liberal Democrats I had a brief flirtation with the Labour Party and deputised for Sadiq on two occasions when he was my constituency MP. He is almost as far from being an Islamic extremist as the Pope.

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Observations of an Expat: Middle East Movement

Finally, there appears to be a glimmer of progress on the Gaza front.

In the unlikely venue of a New York ice cream parlour, President Joe Biden, revealed this week that he is hopeful for a ceasefire by Monday.

And almost simultaneously, Muhammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, resigned to make way for a reorganised government for the West Bank and Gaza Strip which could provide an outside chance of leading to recognition of a State of Palestine.

The departure of Shtayyeh comes amidst a flurry of diplomatic meetings involving American, British, EU, and Arab state officials in Riyadh, Paris and Doha.

What appears to be emerging is an agreement for a “temporary” ceasefire of “some weeks” which would involve the release of all the remaining Israeli hostages; the freeing of an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners and a massive influx of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

That appears to be the bones of a short-term agreement. The long-term is more problematic because it involves a revival of the two-state solution and recognition of a reconstituted Palestinian Authority as a Palestinian state.

The idea was mooted back in January by British Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron as part of a carrot and stick approach that involved British support for Israel as the flip side of the diplomatic coin.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Alexei Navalny is dead.

His body lies in a prison morgue inside the Arctic Circle. It is generally accepted that he was murdered, or at the very least Vladimir Putin is responsible for his death by sentencing him to a frozen penal colony.

After days of standing at the prison gates, Navalny’s mother was finally allowed to see his body. But she has been denied permission to take it away for burial.

Instead she was told that she had to agree to agree to a secret burial at a hush-hush site. Otherwise, Lydmilia Navalny reported, “the authorities said they would do things to Alexei’s body.”

Putin is clearly afraid of Navalny the martyr. He is afraid that a public burial at an accessible site will become a focal point for those opposed to his corrupt oligarchical rule.

Navalny was not even cold on his morgue slab before the Russian media machine was trying to spin him out of the Russian story. The state-controlled news machine was late in reporting his death and its accounts were, at best perfunctory. There was no contextual information to explain why he was in prison and one commentator refused to use his first name.

From Putin himself there has been a deafening silence. This is unsurprising. In the past, the Russian president has refused to use the opposition leader’s name when directly asked about him at press conferences. He clearly hopes that the dearth of reports by the media will result in Navalny becoming a non-person as well as dead.

This maybe the case in Russia, but it isn’t working in the West. Navalny’s wife Yulia and their 23-year-old daughter Dasha have already been quick to pick up the baton. Navalny’s 15-year-old son Zahar is probably not far behind.

But will the West listen? Yulia made a major impact when she spoke at the recent Munich Security Conference and Dasha joined her mother in an emotional White House meeting with President Joe Biden.

But Biden and the Europeans were a receptive audience before Alexei’s death. The nut that needs to be cracked is the MAGA Republicans. When Trump was asked by Fox News to comment on Navalny’s death he refused to blame Putin and focused on linking Alexei’s death to his own legal problems. We are both persecuted victims of the state, he claimed. Trump added that Navalny should never have returned to Russia after being treated in a German hospital for novichok poisoning.

Navalny knew he would be sent to prison as soon as he returned. He explained the move by saying that he could not expect his followers to overcome fear of Putin’s rule if he did not himself demonstrate bravery by returning to certain imprisonment.

 

The world is divided on a ceasefire in Gaza. Political leaders in Europe, America, Japan and Australia are generally behind the proposal for a “temporary ceasefire,” the return of the hostages and a massive increase of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

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Observations of an ex pat: Space Wars

In the distant past, 1967 to be precise, world leaders hammered out something called “The Outer Space Treaty.”

It remains in effect, but for how long? And what would be the result of its disappearance from the international statute books?

The reason it may be overwhelmed by circumstances is that thousands of satellites have been launched into space since 1967. They have become an essential part of modern life.

They are vital weather satellites; GPS systems that direct are travels; link our mobile phones and banking business and they are the space-based links for the all-powerful worldwide web.

The satellites are also a formidable military tool, providing vital intelligence about troop dispositions which can be immediately transmitted to ground forces. American satellite intelligence is a vital part of Ukraine’s war effort.

All of this, means that the orbiting satellites are an important target in case of war. And at the moment, they are completely unprotected. If they can be quickly knocked out then your enemy’s economy would be instantly destroyed and its satellite eyes pulled from their space sockets.

But for such an instant attack to be effective it has to be big and instant. That probably means a nuclear bomb, or series of nuclear bombs or some other as yet unknown weapon of mass destruction.

The Outer Space Treaty forbids this. The prescient clause reads: “States shall not place nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other way.”

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Observations of an Expat: What does America get out of NATO?

Donald Trump is a transactional kinda guy. He is a businessman who measures success and failure in dollars and cents.

He works on the basis of if we do something for you then we expect tangible, easily measurable, rewards in return.

America does a lot for its European NATO allies. It protects it with 100,000-plus troops on 85 European bases. Its 5,000 nuclear warheads are an essential deterrent against the 6,000 Russian nuclear warheads.

In return, successive American administrations – not just Trump – have asked their European allies to spend two percent of their GDP on defence. Only a third do. America spends 3.6 percent of its GDP on its worldwide military establishment.

Trump – and a growing number of Republicans – think that NATO is a rotten deal for America. That the Europeans are financing their social welfare programmes off the back of the American defensive umbrella.

So what does America get out of NATO? Quite a lot actually.

Let’s start by looking at what upsets the MAGA crowd the most – the balance sheet. Roughly half of all Europe’s military equipment is American-made. That is worth $400 billion a year to US weapons manufacturers. Those manufacturers employ an estimated two million people.

The Biden Administration is pushing the Europeans to buy more American military hardware. The Europeans – led by the French – see the need to build up their own defense industries, spurred on by Trump’s anti-NATO rhetoric and the Republican congressmen’s blocking of military aid for Ukraine.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has kicked off his election campaign with a prayer. And it was a prayer in the most controversial ethno-religious setting that he could find, thus further strengthening his ethno-religious claim to be the standard bearer of Hindu Nationalism.

The setting was the consecration of a partially-constructed Hindu temple in the town of Ayodha. It was controversial because the temple is being built on the site of a 16th century Muslim mosque which was torn down by Hindu nationalist rioters in 1992.

The destruction of the mosque led to nationwide religious riots which left 2,000 dead, most of them Muslims.

The Hindus tore down the mosque because they believed that it was built on the birthplace of Lord Ram, the chief deity in the Hindu pantheon of gods.

Modi made it one of his key election pledges that a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Ram would be built on the site of the former mosque.

And to insure the maximum political return, Modi pulled out all the stops for the consecration of the temple and placed himself at centre stage. For a start, the Indian Prime Minister dressed in the saffron robes of a Hindu monk and publicly fasted for five days before the consecration.

Then he invited every possible Bollywood star, businessman and politician – except Muslims and the opposition Congress I Party – to the consecration.

A military helicopter was ordered to fly overheard during the consecration ceremony showering flower petals on the crowd. Modi, of course, led the prayers.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was immensely proud of the fact that the Indian constitution declared India a secular nation. Modi is doing his best to reverse that.

NATO

NATO this week launched its biggest European military manoeuvres since the end of the Cold War.

Codenamed Exercise Steadfast Defender it involves 91,000 service personnel from 31 NATO countries and Sweden. It is the first time Finland will be participating as a full member of the Alliance.

Sweden’s NATO membership was finally approved by Turkey this week and is expected to get the final nod from the Hungarian parliament next month.

Steadfast Defender is meant to demonstrate NATO – and especially American – commitment to the defense of Europe. It involves all three branches of the military – army, navy and air force – and will focus on moving troops as fast as possible into the new frontline states of Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Greece, Poland and Slovakia.

The Russians have lodged the usual protests, but more importantly they have used their bases in Kaliningrad to jam military GPS devices in the Baltic Region.

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Observations of an Expat: In a Potsdam hotel

Towards the end of last year a group of far-right German political leaders gathered in a country hotel on the outskirts of Potsdam.

They included key members of Germany’s Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) party including the personal aide to the party leader Alice Weidel.

The AfD is currently riding high in German opinion polls. It is number one in Germany’s five eastern Lander (states) and placing second or third in several Lander in the Western half.

The meeting was organised to hear a proposal from Austrian Martin Sellner, former leader of the Identitarian Movement. Sellner has been banned from Britain and the US. His Identitarian Movement is a proscribed organisation in Germany.

But the AfD politicians still wanted to hear his ideas, especially Sellner’s proposed “remigration” programme. The plan was simple: Should the AfD come to power it would forcibly deport to an unnamed North African country millions of “non-assimilated peoples” and asylum seekers, even if they had German citizenship or permanent residence visas. Sellner also suggested that people who campaigned against the measure could also be deported.

This is not the first time in German history that such a measure has been proposed. In June 1940 Adolf Eichmann persuaded Hitler that the SS should take over the French colony of Madagascar, turn into an SS-run police state, and deport Europe’s Jews to the island. The plan failed because of the wartime British naval blockade.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Surprise, Surprise, Benjamin Netanyahu is opposed to the two-state solution.

The Israeli Prime Minister has never made any secret that he believes that the only guarantee of Israeli security is Israeli control of Palestinian security. On Thursday he reiterated his position.

Any Palestinian state, Netanyahu argues, would be dedicated to the overthrow of the Israeli state. And even if they publicly committed themselves to peace, Netanyahu wouldn’t believe them.

The primary responsibility of every country is defence. Ipso facto, there can be no Palestinian state—according to Netanyahu.

Most of the rest of the world believes that there are basically three possible outcomes to the Arab-Israeli Crisis: The Israelis wipe out the Palestinians. The Palestinians wipe out the Israelis. Or the two sides somehow work out a modus operandi that allows the two groups to live side by side in peace.

The Biden Administration was hopeful that the experience of Gaza would show that the only long-term opportunity for peace is a political solution which involves a Palestinian state.

But Netanyahu appears unfazed by Gaza. He told a press conference this week that Israel must have security control over all land west of the River Jordan, which would include the territory of any future Palestinian state.

This is a necessary condition, and it conflicts with the idea of (Palestinian) sovereignty. What to do? I tell this truth to our American friends, and I also told them to stop the attempt to impose a reality on us that would harm Israel’s security.

John Kirby, the US National Security Adviser, replied: “Israel and the US see things differently.”

Donald Trump, on the other hand, sees the Middle East very much through Bibi eyes. His Abraham Accords were designed to circumvent the Palestinians and the two-state solution. Netanyahu’s continued intransigence could—at least in part—reflect his hope for a Trump victory in the November presidential elections.

A Trump Landslide?

Iowa was a Trump landslide. Or was it? Only 15 percent of the state’s 718,000 registered Republicans voted—the lowest turnout in years.

Why? There is no certain answer but here are a few possibles, starting with the MAGA camp: The weather was atrocious. Nobody in their right mind would risk leaving home to caucus in the sub-Arctic temperatures.

Also, the media named Trump the big margin winner before the caucusing started. Why bother risking frostbite to vote for one of the losers or even for the winner? Best stay warm.

Now, for the non-MAGA Republican perspective: We don’t want Trump, but none of the others can win, so why risk hypothermia for a wasted vote?

Everyone is an individual, even in Iowa. So chances are that there are 69,000 reasons why 85 percent of the state’s Republicans failed to caucus. But if that figure is extrapolated across America—then Trump is in trouble come the general election.

As any seasoned campaigner will tell you. The key to winning elections is to persuade as many as possible of your registered voters to get out and vote. Apathy can result in political disaster.

Taiwan

Conspicuous by its near silence in the aftermath of the Taiwanese elections is the voice of Chinese President Xi-jingping.

To briefly re-cap, the Chinese leader was loud in his election support for the Kuomintang but and condemnation for the incumbent Democratic People’s Party. This is because the KMT favoured closer relations with Mainland China based on the 1992 “one country two systems” concept. The DPP, on the other hand, is moving Taiwan closer to a quasi-sovereign independent state.

The DPP’s William Lai won the presidency, although the party has lost its majority in  parliament.

The US is in two-minds about the result. They want Taiwan in the democratic capitalist camp. But not necessarily as a sovereign Taiwan. This could provoke Beijing into a military solution which would drag in America’s Pacific-based Seventh Fleet.

So the State Department issued a rather anodyne statement which welcomed the fact that Taiwan held democratic elections, without focusing on the possible repercussions. Statements from Japan, the EU and NATO countries followed suit.

Beijing was, if anything, more anodyne, it has said virtually nothing about the election result itself. Instead it focused on the statements from the Western countries and basically said they had no right to make any comment because Taiwan is part of China. The diplomatic conversation then ended.

There could be lots of reasons for the Chinese not to take the argument further. There is no point. Xi is busy purging his military and party structures. The Chinese economy is sluggish. Or, he could be waiting for a Trump victory in November.

Is honour now satisfied in the Iran-Pakistan tit for tat missile exchanges?

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