Author Archives: Tom Arms

Tom Arms’ World Review

A diplomatic truism is that some conflicts are insoluble. They are, however, manageable. Although the consequences of doing nothing or mismanagement can spell disaster. The Arab-Israeli conflict falls neatly into the above category.

President Joe Biden obviously came to this conclusion before stepping on the plane for his tour of the Middle East this week. A succession of American administrations – except Trump’s – has paid homage to the two-state solution. Biden reiterated the pre-Trump position, but not as forcefully as his predecessors. Part of the reason is that there was little point as his Israeli counterpart, Yasir Lapid, is merely a caretaker prime minister while the Jewish state struggles through another political crisis. As for the Palestinians, they are hopelessly divided between Hamas in Gaza who are a designated terrorist organisation and the PLO’s Mahmoud Abbas who, at 86, makes Biden look like the proverbial spring chicken. The result is that the two-state solution has been moved from the backburner to refrigerator.

Instead the US administration is focusing on maintaining relations with Israel and trying to draw other allies – mainly Saudi Arabia but also the United Arab Emirates and Qatar – into closer relations with Israel. To help with the first point, Biden has toughened his stand on Iran and the threat of nuclear weapons. One thing that all Israeli parties agree on is that Iran represents an existential threat. Biden has agreed that he will do whatever is necessary to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The second issue is more, problematic, especially as regards Saudi Arabia. There is no love lost between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and Biden and the wider Democratic Party. Clearly a problem that needs managing.


Ukrainian military commanders are cock-a-hoop. The military equipment and training provided by the West are starting to work, especially the shoot and scoot American High Mobility Rocket Systems (HIMARS). The GPS-guided precision artillery have to date knocked out 19 forward-based Russian ammunition dumps.

The Ukrainians are now talking about a major counter-offensive involving hundreds of thousands of ground troops to retake territories lost in the Donbas Region. There are, however, problems. HIMARS rockets are accurate and effective, but they are also expensive and have to be used sparingly. So far the US has supplied eight launchers. Another four are on the way. The other problem is that their range is limited to 50 miles. As the Ukrainians advance, the Russians could simply stage a tactical retreat and still control a significant slice of Eastern Ukraine. Washington could supply Ukraine with precision weaponry with a range of 500 miles. These would be a war-winner but would mean that Ukraine could strike targets inside Russia which means escalation with disastrous consequences.


Meanwhile there appears to be the possibility of some movement on the movement of grain out of Ukraine. Between them, Russia and Ukraine account for 21-28 percent of the world’s grain supplies and 40 percent of this vital food for the inherently unstable North Africa and Middle East. A big chunk of that grain is – more than 20 million tonnes – trapped in Ukrainian siloes, unable to reach hungry world markets because of a Russian naval blockade. This week saw talks in Istanbul involving Ukrainian, UN, Russian and Turkish negotiators. They ended with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar promising a signed deal next week. Moscow and Kyiv have said nothing.

There are several sticking points. For a start the Ukrainians have mined the approaches to their ports to prevent a Russian amphibious landing and the Russians have imposed a naval blockade to stop the import of weapons. Going into this week’s talks Moscow demanded the right to inspect incoming ships for weapons. The Ukrainians said no. The Ukrainians, for their part insisted on grain carriers being escorted by convoys of friendly ships. That is a possibility and Turkey may play a role here.

A further complication, however, is that the exports would include Russian grain which Ukrainians assert has been stolen from land occupied by the Russians since their 24 February invasion.  Not surprisingly, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said: “There is still a way to go.”

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Observations of an expat: cold winter cometh

Enjoy the summer sun while you can. It is going to be a c-c-cold winter – literally and metaphorically.

Just about every corner of the globe will be affected. The US perhaps less than many. Europe more than most. But Inflation fuelled by energy shortages will affect almost every one. The rare exceptions will be those living in mud huts heated by gathered wood and financed by a barter economy.

The major cause is the Ukraine war, European reliance on Russian energy and Vladimir Putin’s willingness to use it as a weapon. But there are other factors: Grain and general food shortages caused by the war, slow recovery from a lingering pandemic, supply chain bottlenecks, inflation and rising interest rates to control it and political instability which is both the cause and effect of the above.

On 26 July the EU will hold a European energy summit to thrash out a coordinated response to the crisis. Failure to do so will damage the unity of the world’s biggest trading bloc with knock-on effects everywhere else.

On the agenda are increased development of green energy and boosted production of European oil and dirty coal to fill the gap. Also to be discussed will be coordinated purchases of Liquefied Natural Gas and the building of more gas storage facilities, the strength of the Euro, more help for Ukraine, holding the line against Russia, food inflation and, dare I say it, rationing. All of the above are inextricably linked.

The threat of a Russian gas blackmail has been hanging over Europe since before Putin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine on 24 February. The Reagan Administration issued warnings about it 40 years ago. Moscow supplies 25 percent of Europe’s gas. This week the main supplier – Gazprom – shut down Nordstream 1, the main gas pipeline from Russia to Europe. They claimed that the halt was for “maintenance purposes” but everyone knows that the shutdown is a thinly veiled threat.

Europeans have been actively hoarding gas supplies in storage facilities in preparation for the winter to come. German economists reckon that if they increase stocks to 80 percent of capacity by November then there will be enough for winter. Before the heatwave struck supplies were at 60 percent capacity. Now they are dropping as sweltering consumers switch on their air conditioning.

Germany has other energy problems. Consumer gas prices have been subsidised for years with an unrealistic price cap that at the moment reduces the household price by more than a third of the market price. This is unsustainable but politically difficult to change so the government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz is tiptoeing around the subject of gas rationing.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Shinzo Abe – Japan’s longest-serving prime minister who was assassinated on Friday – was best known for three things: His tough anti-Chinese stance; his efforts to beef up Japan’s military and Abenomics.

The first secured him the ire of Beijing which he wore as a badge of honour. Of course, as soon as the news of the shooting crossed the East China Sea, the official Chinese line was shock, horror and dismay. But on social media Chinese nationalists were busy expressing their glee. One of the reasons for the Chinese dislike of Abe was his skewed view of history and pro-defense policies. On the former, Abe – in common with many other Japanese politicians – denied, ignored or underplayed his country’s atrocities during World War II. The Chinese retain bitter memories of the Japanese occupation of most of their country in the 1930s and during World War Two. They welcomed the constitutional post-war curbs on the Japanese defense forces which banned the Japanese from using war “as a means of settling disputes.”

Abe, a staunch nationalist, wanted to re-write the constitution and increase defense spending from one to two percent of the GDP.  This policy has the support of Western governments who regard the restrictions on the world’s third largest economy as a post-war anomaly. Defense spending is a major issue in the current election.

Shinzo Abe was one of the many world leaders who lent their name to an economic theory. Abenomics combined monetary easing by the central bank with increased government spending and structural reform. Its purpose was to end decades of economic stagnation. Abenomics had some success but not as much as Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party hoped. Like all politicians, Shinzo Abe enjoyed successes and suffered failures. But his greatest achievement was to be the tough man of Japanese politics at a time when the Japanese required a stiff political backbone.

Vladimir Putin was blunt: We have just begun to fight, he told Russian parliamentary leaders this week. He then went on to blame the “collaborative West” for starting the war in Ukraine. It was the result, he claimed of a 2014 Western-supported military coup which ousted a pro-Russian government and launched a “genocide” in the Donbas Region.

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Observations of an expat: Boris

The rules, the law, other people… they were of little or no concern to Boris Johnson. At least not until this week when his contempt for parliamentary convention, constitutional law and common decency resulted in his being dragged kicking and screaming to the exit door of 10 Downing Street.

Boris Johnson’s lack of moral fibre has wreaked havoc on Britain’s unwritten constitution; the social contract between rulers and ruled; Britain’s position in the world and the country’s finances. The Conservative Party has been mortally wounded by the decision to elect him Party leader and to stand by him for three scandal-riven years.

He won them votes with his unruly mop of hair, boyish charm and extraordinary skill with the spoken and written word. But winning votes is only part of the job. A Prime Minister needs to be able to govern. Boris Johnson’s incompetence, laziness and skewed moral compass made him unfit for the tenancy of Downing Street.

The success of the British parliamentary system relies heavily on the “Good Chap” theory of Government. Politicians are expected to act with honesty and integrity. If they are caught in a lie – especially a lie to parliament – they have to be relied upon to do the honourable thing and resign.

This is not the law. It is a parliamentary convention which has been observed for centuries. But Boris is not a good chap. He is a bad chap. He cares not one jot for parliamentary convention. Parliament – as far as Boris was concerned – was an obstacle to be overcome rather than a political tool to be used.

For the past 50 years successive British prime ministers have tried to shift their role from that of  “First Among Equals” in a cabinet of high-achieving individuals to a more presidential type of government. This meant circumventing parliament as much and as often as possible. Boris embraced this trend with vigour and disastrous consequences.

It started with British membership of the EU. His lies narrowly swung the British behind Brexit. But then when parliament balked at the terms he negotiated with Brussels he illegally attempted to prorogue the legislature. That was followed by effectively booting 21 rebel conservative MPs out parliament, thus ensuring that his post 2019-election majority would be comprised mostly of fawning acolytes.

The cabinet he appointed has – with a few exceptions – been chosen not on the basis of competence but on personal loyalty to Boris Johnson. It is generally regarded as one of the most – if not the most – mediocre cabinet in British history.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

So we know that abortion is now, or is about to be, illegal in about half of the American states. But what about the rest of the world? And what affect is the Supreme Court decision having elsewhere?

In Brazil at the moment abortions are allowed in cases of rape and incest. Populist right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro has used the overturning of Roe v Wade to call for a total ban. At the same time, other countries have condemned the ruling. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it a “major step backwards.” Almost simultaneous with the Supreme Court decision, Germany scrapped a Nazi-era law that bans doctors from offering information about abortion procedures. Spain took steps to remove parental consent for 16-17 year olds. French legislators proposed a bill to make abortion a constitutional right and the Dutch voted to abolish a mandatory five-day wait for women seeking an abortion. Within the EU only Malta has a total ban on abortion. Poland is the next strictest country on abortion laws. It allows pregnancy terminations in cases of rape, incest and when the mother’s life is threatened. Generally, abortion has become accepted as a woman’s right in all but 37 out of 195 countries in the world.

The Ukraine War is sucking ammo dumps dry. The Russians are the worst hit. A tough Ukrainian defense has forced them to resort to blanket artillery barrages. They started with high precision missiles and by mid-May had fired off an estimated 2,200 of them. They are not cheap. Each cruise missile costs $1.9 million. They also take time to build and involve semi-conductors and transistors which are unavailable in Russia. Moscow’s now depleted precision munitions means that it is using more low precision artillery shells – about 20,000 a day – which increases the collateral damage. Tanks are another problem. The Ukrainians have been particularly adept at knocking out Russia’s tanks. So far the kill rate has topped a thousand. Each tank costs about $4 million and takes a minimum of three months to build.

But the other side – Ukraine and its Western backers – is also having problems. Kyiv didn’t have much to start with and most of it was out of date Soviet-era Russian-produced weaponry. It now has to rely on NATO defense equipment which they do not know how to use. So they have to be trained which takes time. Britain has taken a key role in training Ukrainian troops. But NATO is also running short of weapons to send Ukraine, especially the Europeans who have been particularly generous. Poland for instance, has given a quarter of its tanks to the Ukrainian army. Britain has donated about a third of its highly-effective Starstreak anti-tank missile systems and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is pleading the special case argument to increase defence spending to 2.5 percent of GDP.

Germany, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia have seriously depleted their weapons stocks. One of the reasons that the NATO summit agreed to a near ten-fold increase in troop and weapons levels in the Baltic region is because the defense cupboards in that region are heading towards bare. US ammo dumps are also taking a hit. Ukrainians have made good use of American-made Javelin missiles. Seven thousand of them – roughly a third of the total US stock of Javelins – has been sent to Ukraine. The American armaments industry produces an estimated 1,500 Javelin missiles a year. But the US has other similar systems and the industrial capacity to expand production. In a war of attrition, the West is much better placed then Russia. The next question is: Does it have the political will?

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Observations of an expat: unholy alliance

The unholy alliance of the Christian Right and the Republican Party has conquered its Everest with the end of abortion in most of America.

It still has other political mountains to climb: Same-sex marriage, gay rights, equal rights, Christian nationalism, creationism, contraception, sex education, political correctness, gambling, pornography, Sunday trading…

But Roe v Wade was top target. It was the emotively totemic issue that united hardline conservative Republicans and Evangelicals and differentiated them from the rest of the country.

The alliance, however, may now be facing the downward slope. A poll taken just after the Supreme Court decision showed that 59 percent of Americans support abortion and 58 percent now want a federal law making abortion available nationwide.

The unholy alliance’s victory shows what religious fervour linked with political organisation can achieve. But the majority has learned the hard lesson of complacency associated with defending the status quo. They have been galvanised, are removing the gloves and have electoral numbers on their side.

America has a long history of mixing politics and religion. New England was founded by religious dissidents who sought to breakaway from establishment Church of England and for a long time set up their own theocracy in America. The US constitution was seen as a triumph of rationalism, the summit of the Age of Reason and a victory over the religious superstition of the medieval world.

For about 100 years enlightened reasoning – with exceptions – reigned largely supreme within the American corridors of power. Then along came Darwin and the church split between the fundamentalists who dismissed evolution as heresy and those who reluctantly accepted it as the logical fruit of science.

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Tom Arms’ World Review 19 June 2022

Cheeseburgers and cars without seatbelts

Big Macs are a thing of the past for Muscovites.  McDonald’s—along with 400 other Western businesses—shut down their Russian operations as part of sanctions against Putin’s War in Ukraine. But the Russians have come with an answer. They have simply taken over the McDonald’s outlets and handed them to oligarch Alexander Gorvov. The golden arches have been pulled down and Coca-Cola and Big Macs are off the menu. But there is some consolation for Russian carnivores– a double cheeseburger is 30 roubles cheaper. However, the rebranding of McDonalds does not mean that sanctions are failing. For example, this week the Russians launched what wags are calling the “anti-sanctions car”. Because of Western sanctions Russian car maker Lada cannot import key components. So the new Lada is without seat belts, air bags, an anti-lock braking system or electronic stability control. It is, however, cheaper. Set against these inconveniences is the fact that Russian oil and gas exports have provided the regime with a $26 billion trade surplus in the first five months of this year. However, at the same time, economists believe that sanctions will start to bite by the end of the year and Russian GDP will have shrunk by ten percent.  If this happens then Muscovites may not be able to afford cheap cheeseburgers or cheap cars

Resistance in Ukraine

Winston Churchill called it the Special Operations Executive and ordered it to “set Nazi-occupied Europe alight.” Eighty years later Volodomyr Zelensky has created the Special Operations Forces (SSO) and ordered it to set Russian occupied Ukraine alight. They are doing just that. They are responsible for dozens of attacks on Russian airbases and have blown up railway tracks, bridges and radar stations. Eight Russian soldiers died from poison pies baked and distributed by a little old lady. She was an SSO operative.  So far, the Ukrainian resistance has claimed the lives of more than 150 Russian soldiers, and as the war in the south and east heats up so does the SSO-organised resistance. They are even reputed to be responsible for mysterious fires at military facilities across the border in Russia.

Rivers are one of the world’s most effective natural barriers, especially in war torn Ukraine. The current 60-mile long frontline is dominated by the Siversky Donets River. The Russians have to cross it to control the Eastern Donbas Region. Ukrainian civilians trapped by Russian artillery have to cross it to reach safety and Ukrainian soldiers have to cross it in the opposite direction to fight the Russians. Key to control of the river is mastery of the city of Sieverodonetsk which is currently the scene of street fighting and heavy Russian bombardment. 500 civilians—including 40 children—are trapped in the city’s Azot Chemical factory. The Stalinist era plant is well stocked with food, medical supplies and a labyrinthine network of tunnels; much the same as the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol. The roughly 700 defenders of Mariupol have disappeared into Russia, and a similar fate probably awaits the soldiers and civilians in Sieverodonetsk.  Diplomats, however, are trying to organise their rescue out of the city and across the Siversky Donets River and to Sieverodonetsk’s sister city of Lysychansk. With the river between the city and the Russian forces, Lysychansk will be easier to defend.

Boris Johnson in trouble

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Observations of an ex pat: I am an immigrant

I am an immigrant. I emigrated from the United States to the United Kingdom on the 12th December 1971.

I had studied for a year in Britain 18 months before and fell in love with the country and one of its citizens and moved back despite the dreary weather and traffic jams.

I did not flee a Middle Eastern, African, Central Asian or East European War. I did not turf up at Heathrow claiming political persecution or risk crossing the English Channel in an inflatable raft. Neither was I escaping a life of poverty in an African mud hut. In fact, if I had stayed in America I would probably be enjoying a comfortable country club existence.

Nevertheless, I feel an affinity with Africans, Asians, Hispanics, or any person from any race or country who left their homeland to seek a new life. It is not easy to leave the safety net of cultural familiarity, family and friends.

If you are born to a country your acceptance is automatic. As an immigrant you have to constantly prove your worth and justify your decision to uproot your entire life and start afresh.

I feel I have succeeded. I started an international news agency which launched the careers of well over a hundred journalists. My children are all a credit to me as are the 200 boys and girls—many of them now young men and women– who have passed through my scout group over the past 20 years.

I am not boasting. In fact, I don’t regard myself as particularly unusual. Immigrants in every country have outstanding records of contributing to their adopted homelands.

Think about it, by their very nature immigrants have proven through their actions that they are risk takers. They are adventurers. They are focused, determined and prepared to work hard to achieve their aims. Such people are assets to any community lucky enough to have them.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Nine weeks. This is how much time – according to the International Grain Council – that the world has before the Ukraine War sets the world on an unalterable course towards world famine. This is because in nine weeks Ukrainian farmers will start harvesting the winter grain crop and start moving it to portside harbours to be shipped out via the Black Sea. The problem is that those silos are already filled with 200 million tons of grain from the previous harvest because of the Russian naval blockade and destruction of Mariupol. If that grain is not moved – and moved quickly – the winter harvest will simply rot in the fields and the same fate awaits the Ukrainian autumn harvest and every subsequent harvest until the silos are emptied and the blockade lifted.

On top of that, Western sanctions are blocking the export of Russian grain. Between them, Ukraine and Russia, account for 20 percent of the world’s grain production. They also contribute mightily to the global stores of rapeseed oil, sunflower seeds and oil, barley and (with Belarus) potash for fertiliser. Africa and the Middle East obtain 40 percent of their grain from Ukraine and Russia – 95 percent of it shipped via the Black Sea.  The UN is desperately trying to negotiate a naval corridor to rescue the grain. Turkey is also trying to mediate and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was in Ankara this week to discuss the problem. But a diplomatic solution seems unlikely. Russia refuses to cooperate until Western sanctions are lifted. Ukraine accuses Moscow of stealing its grain and Moscow says the responsibility for clearing the mines it laid blocking the harbours is Ukraine’s responsibility. Until those issues are resolved the grain stays in the silos and the harvest in the fields.

During Cold War One the US and Soviet Union flexed their economic muscle to compete for economic influence in the developing world. America – with its deeper pockets – won. Now the battle is between Washington and Beijing and the economically powerful Chinese are pulling ahead. They are now the number one trading partner for most countries in Africa and Asia. But most worrying for the US is the growth of Chinese investment and trade in what it regards as its backyard – Latin America. Between 2002 and 2019, China’s trade with Latin America and the Caribbean grew from $18 billion to $316 billion. China is now the number one trading partner with every major Latin American country except Mexico. With this trade comes political power and influence.

Chinese success was the driving force behind President Joe Biden’s decision to call this week’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles but the gathering was not the success he had hoped for. Various initiatives were discussed: a new development bank, training for 500,000 health workers; a food security programme and a “climate partnership.” But the US only invited what it regarded as democratic governments to the summit which excluded Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. This angered many of the other attendees (including neighbouring Mexico) who registered their displeasure by sending their foreign ministers instead of the head of government as requested. As the US Congress pores over the details of any Latin American programme there will doubtless be strings attached to any trade or aid deals. This is in stark contrast with the Chinese. They are interested in only in the money, markets and access to strategic raw materials. The governments with which they deal are free to champion or suppress human rights without comment or interference from Beijing – for now.

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Observations of an expat: US Elections and 6 January

American Democrats have set up giant screens across key locations. Free ice cream is on offer and major political revelations are promised.

Bennie Thompson, committee chairperson, has already accused ex-President Donald Trump of an “attempted coup.”

The Congressional committee investigating the 6 January Capitol Hill Riots is going public – in a big way. Trump and his army of supporters have dismissed the committee’s hearings as a “political hoax.”

The first carefully choreographed hearings started on Thursday night. More are planned next week and later in the month. CBS, NBC and ABC are broadcasting the hearings live. Fox News will not. Republican spin …

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Tom Arms’ World Review – 29th May 2022

The 27 EU heads of government are meeting in Brussels next week to supposedly confirm plans to stop imports of Russian oil and gas. It may not happen. Decisions have to be unanimous. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has signalled that he will block the move.

Hungary is dependent on Russian fossil fuels for 100 percent of its energy needs. These can only be delivered by pipelines because Hungary is landlocked. All the pipelines run from Russia. The other EU countries have offered to give Hungary a two-year grace period to find alternative sources. But Orban maintains that he has no alternatives and that stopping imports of Russian gas would destroy the Hungarian economy.

At the same time, the newly re-elected Hungarian leader has used the war in Ukraine to declare a state of emergency which allows him to effectively rule by decree.  Orban claims that the Ukraine war “represents a constant threat to Hungary.” He has already used his new powers to impose fresh taxes to finance an increase in defence spending. Many fear that Orban will abuse the state of emergency to bypass parliament and suppress critics. He is already under attack from Brussels for damaging Hungary’s democratic institutions and the EU is threatening to withhold development funds because of that and allegations of corruption. Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt tweeted: “Hungary was already no longer free, now it is no longer a democracy”.

With all this talk about Taiwan and ambiguous or clear US policies on the issue of whether or not to defend the island, one thing has been slightly overlooked – chips. To be precise advanced semi-conductor computer chips. Taiwan produces 92 percent of the world’s advanced semi-conductor computer chips. The remaining eight percent come from South Korea. These tiny electrical conductors are to technology what oil and gas are to industry and transport. Without them our computer-dependent world would come to a sudden halt.

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Observations of an expat: gun control v. tyranny

Chiselled on the wall of the entrance lobby of the National Rifle Association are the words: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

This, claims the gun lobby is the Second Amendment of the US constitution. It is not. The oft-quoted right to bear arms clause is preceded by the words “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right….”

Should the amendment be read in its entirety with the second half contingent on the first? Or has the need for a citizens’ militia become redundant in the modern age and therefore only the second half remains relevant?

The NRA is in no doubt. It only every quotes the second half. All references to militias are conspicuous by their absence.

But why do Americans need guns? Conservatives say it is to protect themselves and their families from bad people with guns. Liberals reply: then take the guns away from the baddies as well as the goodies so no one can shoot. It is a policy that has worked in Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other developed countries.

American conservatives retort with what may be the real reason for hanging onto their firearms: Individual gun ownership is the ultimate defence against tyranny – the tyranny of anarchy and the tyranny of overbearing government.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz – one of the most prominent supporters of the NRA and a major beneficiary of the gun lobby’s largesse – was crystal clear on the tyranny issue when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. He wrote in his campaign literature:

“The Second Amendment isn’t just for protecting hunting rights, and it’s not only to safeguard your right to target practice. It’s a constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny – for the protection of liberty.”

But from whence does this need for weapons as protection against tyranny come? The answer is Britain.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Sweden and Finland want to join NATO. Vladimir Putin has reversed himself and reluctantly said that membership of the Alliance by the two Nordic countries posed “no threat”.  A seamless Swedish-Finnish application seemed certain.

Wait, the diplomats forgot about the perennial thorn in NATO’s Southern flank- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. An application to join NATO requires the approval of all 30 members and President Erdogan has threatened a Turkish block. His reason? He is angry because Sweden and Norway give asylum to members of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) which he is trying to wipe out. Sweden and Finland also imposed sanctions against Turkey when Erdogan ordered his troops into Northern Syria in 2016 (they are still there).

At the top of the list of criteria for NATO membership, is, according to the US State Department, a commitment “to uphold democracy, including tolerance for diversity.” On that basis, Erdogan’s Turkey would fail membership requirements. Since the attempted 2016 coup, Erdogan has jailed nearly 80,000 judges, military officers, civil servants, police, teachers and journalists. 130 media organisations have been closed. Homosexuality is banned and Erdogan has announced plans to reinstate the death penalty. There is, of course, no question of booting Turkey out of the Alliance. It is the strategic bridge between Europe and Asia and at the moment prevents Russian ships from sailing through the Dardanelles to join the war in Ukraine. Realpolitik trumps human rights.

But should Erdogan be allowed to prevent solidly democratic countries from joining NATO? The British government have indicated a possible workaround if Erdogan refuses to change his mind. It has signed a separate “mutual assistance” treaty with Norway and Sweden. If other NATO countries followed suit then the Turkish veto would be irrelevant.

The shooting in a Buffalo supermarket which left ten African-Americans dead is not an isolated incident. According to a report by the respected Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) 67 percent of the domestic terror incidents recorded in 2020 were organised by far-right and white supremacist groups. Many of those who stormed Capitol Hill were White supremacists. FBI Director Christopher Wray described White Supremacy as a “significant and pervasive threat” to the US. President Biden called it a “poison running through the body politic.”

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Observations of an expat: Xi in Trouble

“We do things better than the West,” is the oft-chanted mantra of the Chinese leadership.

And since Covid emerged from Wuhan the authorities have proudly pointed to their handling of the pandemic as proof of the superiority of the Chinese system as infections and deaths soared in Europe and America while China’s Zero Covid Policy seemed to be keeping a lid on the virus.

That is changing, and the change is threatening President Xi Jinping’s hold on power.

Xi’s problem is that his Zero Covid Policy is making Chinese people think that his cure is worse than the disease.

The policy involves complete lockdown to prevent the spread of infection. In Shanghai recently that meant that China’s commercial hub and the world’s busiest port was shut down.  All 27 million residents were barred from leaving their homes except for medical emergencies.

Babies were separated from their parents. People could not go to the shops to buy food and officials locked people inside their homes. Food and medical supplies were rationed. They were meant to be delivered but too often never appeared.

Shanghai is China’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan city. Its citizens are used to the trappings of Chinese economic success and enjoy a relatively free lifestyle. They objected to the lockdown and the policy behind it.

The Communist Party censored the objections but tech-savvy residents managed to circumvent the Great Firewall of China to post videos on Western social media of people banging pots and pans in protest and displaying banners which read: “I want my freedom back.”

Shanghai is beginning to return to normal, but Beijing and its 22 million inhabitants is heading for the zero policy lockdown. So far this year 373 million Chinese have suffered severe lockdown measures.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

The Irish question has bedevilled British, European and American politics since… well, forever. It played a role in the Council of Whitby in 664. In 1169 England’s Norman rulers invaded and started centuries of direct conflict.

All this was supposed to end with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Well two events this week have brought it back from a shallow grave: The emergence of Sinn Fein as the largest party on both sides of the border and British refusal to accept the Northern Ireland protocol. The two political incidents have also brought the possibility of a united Ireland a giant step closer. Sinn Fein is totally committed to a referendum in the north on a united Ireland. The long-term stranglehold of the Protestants on the politics of the six northern counties has been a major stumbling block. That has ended.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is also pushing the two halves together. It has tied Northern Ireland economically to the EU and the southern part of the island and weakened trading ties with Britain. The Protestants are, of course, opposed to the protocol. The conservative Boris Johnson government is trying to reverse it because of their traditional links to Protestant parties and commitment to a divided island.  But the Protestant establishment – in the form of the Democratic Unionist Party – is no longer in the majority. And the majority of Northern Irish voters see their future in Europe and that means linked with the Republic of Ireland. But they still have to contend with die-hard Protestants, who, if they cannot win at the ballot box, could easily turn to the terrorist tactics of their IRA counterparts.

Britain was the driving force behind the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1949. It pushed for the alliance to quickly admit former Warsaw Pact members in the 1990s and has taken the lead in arming Ukraine. This week British PM Boris Johnson was in Sweden and Finland to sign “mutual assistance” treaties with Sweden and Finland. The three countries are now pledged to come to each other’s aid in the event of a crisis. The treaties are a symbolic first step towards full-fledged Swedish and Finnish membership of NATO which is expected to be finalised at next month’s heads of government summit.

Vladimir Putin is furious and has promised retaliation. NATO expansion, Putin has repeatedly asserted, is one of the main reasons for his invasion of Ukraine.  But for Sweden and Finland, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is THE reason for their decision to end 200 years of neutrality for the Swedes and 67 years for the Finns.

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Observations of an expat: Australia’s King Coal  

Australians are one of the worst-hit victims of climate change, and their government’s policies are having a detrimental impact on them and rest of the world.

Federal elections scheduled for next weekend will do little to save the situation.  The two major parties appear united in putting financial gain before survival.

Climatologists predict that temperatures Down Under are set to rise by nearly 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. The bushfire season is already nine months long and the flames have so far destroyed 14.6 million acres – territory roughly equal to twice the size of Pennsylvania.

One in six of the country’s wildlife face extinction in the next few years, according to the WWF and the vital coral banks of the Great Barrier Reef are being bleached white by rising sea temperatures.

But despite these apocalyptic facts and figures both the Australian Labour Party and the ruling coalition of the Liberal and National Party remain committed to protecting the dirtiest, most polluting, fossil fuel of them all – coal.

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal – 427 million tons. The fossil fuel is also Australia’s biggest export and 50,000 jobs rely on it.

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World Review: Strange bedfellows in France, Ukraine, Roe v. Wade and Belarus

French politics have been thrown into confusion with an unprecedented “Stop Macron” alliance of the left for next month’s parliamentary elections. The  concordat has been forged by France’s elder statesman of the Left, Jean-luc Melenchon who just missed being included in last month’s presidential run-offs. He has persuaded the Communists, Greens and Socialists to join his France Insoumise (LFI, France Unbowed), to stop Macron’s pro-business, pro-EU legislative agenda. But Melenchon’s pre-election coalition does not spell a foregone victorious conclusion for the French Left. The latest opinion polls show a three-way split between the left-wing alliance, Macron’s La Republique en Marche and the right of centre conservatives and Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally.

The Socialists and Melenchon make strange bedfellows with opposing views on the EU and NATO membership. They do, however, agree on the bread and butter issues of lowering the retirement age, raising the minimum age and capping prices on essential products. On the other end of the political spectrum, it is uncertain whether the Republicans will support Macron or Le Pen in the new National Assembly. The political map is further complicated by France’s two-round electoral assembly which appears to give Macron’s party a slight advantage in the run-off vote on 19 June. The only thing that is clear at the moment is that the National Assembly elections are making life complicated for the newly re-elected President Emmanuel Macron and the results may make his second term very difficult.

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Observations of an Expat: Biden Pivots Back

President Joe Biden is attempting a pivot back to Asia. After months of being forced by Ukraine to re-focus on Europe, the American president is organising an Asian month and his first presidential trip to the region.

It starts next week with a US-hosted summit of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) leaders on 12-13 May and ends with visits to South Korea and Japan on 20-24 May and finally, a “Quad” summit in Tokyo on 24 May.

The trips to Seoul and Tokyo are an opportunity for President Biden to hold his first face-to-face meetings with Asia’s new diplomatic kids on the block—South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Elon Musk is a brilliant entrepreneur and the world’s richest man. He also has a gargantuan ego, mercurial personality and thinks big. Tesla was developed to create a carbon-free planet. Space X is designed to give humanity a Martian bolthole in case we fail on Earth. His takeover of Twitter is, in his words, the result of a “strong intuitive sense that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important for the future of civilisation.”

Musk is a free speech absolutist. He is opposed to Twitter’s banning of Donald Trump but would be likely to countenance suspension. This brings the mercurial Musk into conflict with most of the EU governments, Britain and India. They have either introduced or are planning legislation to force social media to police their sites to prevent hate speech, conspiracy theories and outright lies such as Trump’s claim that he won the 2020 presidential election.  How this will resolve itself will be watched very carefully by all the other social media players because, based on past performance, Musk is not the sort of person to quietly accept government interference.

With the French presidential elections and the war of Ukraine grabbing the headlines you might have missed an important election result in the Balkan state of Slovenia. It was billed as a “referendum on democracy” and democracy won. On one side of the political ring was incumbent Prime Minister Janez Jansa. He is a Trump-loving ally of Hungary’s right-wing populist leader Viktor Orban. According to Freedom House his latest two-year tenure (he had been elected PM twice before), has been marked by Slovenia suffering the sharpest decline in Democratic institutions and values of any country in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Jansa repeatedly attacked the judiciary and the media whom he called “liars” and “presstitutes”.

Facing Jansa was 55-year-old former Fulbright scholar Robert Golob.  He is businessman who created the state-owned energy company GEN-1 and has limited political experience as a city councillor and former State Secretary at the Ministry of Economics. In January he created the Freedom Party to contest the April elections. The result was a resounding victory. The Freedom Party won 34.5 percent of the vote compared to 23.6 percent for Jansa’s Slovenian Democratic Party. The turnout was also encouraging. 71 percent of Slovenia’s 1.7m voters cast their ballots compared to 51 percent in elections two years ago. The increase in voter turnout has been attributed to Golob persuading young people to vote – a possible lesson for other politicians seeking to remove far right populists from elected office.

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Observations of an Expat: Crossing the Ukrainian Rubicon

America this week crossed its Ukrainian Rubicon.

It took a while. And with good reason. US foreign policy was badly burned by operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East. It could not afford another expensive failure.

That’s not to say that the Biden Administration failed to support Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion. It froze the oligarchs’ assets, imposed sanctions, dispatched 100,000 US troops to Europe and provided $14 billion in military and humanitarian aid.

But at the same time, President Biden, was ultra-careful not to prod the Russian bear into a World War Three. There were to be no NATO boots on Ukrainian soil and a close watch was kept on any weapons provided to the Ukrainian military.

NATO forces will still keep out of Ukraine, but the flow and type of weapons is being substantially upgraded. On Thursday the president announced that he wants Congressional approval for a further $33 billion for Ukraine. $20 billion in the form of military aid; $8.5 billion in economic aid and $3 billion in humanitarian aid. A pro-Ukraine Congress will almost certainly approve the package.

The president also wants to liquidate the $1 billion-plus in oligarchs’ frozen assets to help offset the cost of the Ukraine war. This may not be much in comparison to the global total, but if Europe follows suit they will add an estimated $30 billion to the pot.

Biden’s announcement followed a trip to Kyiv by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, which in turn was followed by a meeting at America’s Ramstein Air Base in Germany of more than 40 countries who pledged to support Ukraine. The usually soft-spoken low profile Lloyd Austin was loud in his condemnation of Vladimir Putin and his support for Volodomyr Zelensky.

“We will not allow Putin to win,” said Austin, and it was clear from his comments and those of Antony Blinken that in supporting Ukraine the US believed it was backing good against evil and was on the right side of history. “Russia,” said the American Defence Secretary, “is waging a war of choice to indulge the ambitions of one man. Ukraine is fighting a war of necessity to defend its democracy, its sovereignty and its citizens.”

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Tom Arms’ World Review

The Russians have changed generals as well as shifting the focus of their attack from the north to the east and south. The new man is Lt. General Alexander Dvornikov, aka “the butcher”, a title he earned for his merciless bombardments in the Second Chechen War and Syria. In the first he levelled Grozny and the second left Aleppo a smouldering ruin whose streets were littered with the bodies of civilians. General Dvornikov is wanted for alleged war crimes in Syria and has been blacklisted by the EU.  Vladimir Putin has awarded him with the Hero of Russia medal.

Dvornikov’s appointment also signals a change in strategy. Previously, daily operations were directed from military headquarters in Moscow. Dvornikov, who has been in Eastern Ukraine for the past two years, is expected to have much more control. His experience is with mechanised artillery units and the terrain of Eastern Ukraine is more suited to his tactics. The north and west of the country is heavily-forested. The south and east is the breadbasket of Europe with wide open plains resembling the American Midwest. His problem is that the Ukrainian military have prepared for his attack with trenches and anti-tank traps. He should also bear in mind that being a general in the Russian army is a dangerous job. The Ukrainians have killed eight so far.

Meanwhile, back on the home front, Vladimir Putin is resorting to the tactics of the man whom he has repeatedly said he admires – Joseph Stalin. The Soviet dictator used a combination of fear, the media, the police and repression to ensure adherence to his policies. Putin is doing the same. The enemy, according to Putin and Russian television, is no longer Neo-Nazis in Kyiv. It is the West “attempting to destroy Mother Russia.” Ukrainians are no longer fellow Slavs awaiting liberation, they are “traitors who deserve only to be ground into the dust.”

Also guilty of treason, is anyone who disseminates “fake news” about the “special military operation” in Ukraine (“fake news” is defined as anything other than news that originates in the Kremlin). So far 15,000 people have been arrested for refusing to toe the Putin line. They face up to 15 years in prison.  To further keep the lid on the dissidents, authorities are encouraging family, neighbours and friends to inform on each other – another Stalinist tactic.

For the moment the strategy is working. Vladimir Putin appears to have the overwhelming support of the Russian public. This may change with a worsening of the economic situation. When Western sanctions were initially imposed the rouble nose-dived and overnight the savings of millions of Russians were wiped out. Since then the central bank has intervened, buying roubles from its reserves. This has blunted the effect of the sanctions and stabilised the currency, but the head of the central bank, Elvira Nabiullina, has warned that this policy is unsustainable beyond the short term. But no matter, President Putin, has decided he wants a result by the 9th of May, the anniversary of the end of World War Two, which means that eastern Ukraine can expect a rough next few weeks.

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Observations of an expat: France – Nationalism v Supra-nationalism

The French troop to the polls this Sunday to decide whether they want to turn the clock back to 19th century nationalism with a dash of racism, or opt for European supra-nationalism.

Of course, very few French voters see the choice in those terms. Like most everyone everywhere, they are less concerned with big picture politics and more concerned with their pocket books and the spectre of the unknown.

But like it or not, the outcome of the French elections will have a major impact on the big issues in France and – because of France’s international role – the rest of the world.

The choice is clear: a vote for Marine Le Pen is a vote for 19th century nationalism. Support for incumbent Emmanuel Macron is a vote for the continuing trend towards supra-nationalism and a united Europe.

Since the end of World War Two, the world has been moving towards regionalisation, globalism and free trade. The European Coal and Steel Community, followed by the Common Market, followed by the EU has been the world’s most successful political expression of that trend. The founders’ aims have been achieved: to bind together the political and economic structures of the European nations so that war becomes “unthinkable and materially impossible.”

The price of this peace and prosperity has been curbs on national sovereignty. A majority of the British people couldn’t stomach it. They also felt that their national identity was threatened. The result was Brexit. Marine Le Pen represents a slice of the French electorate who would favour a Frexit for the same reasons.

The leader of National Rally pushed for a British-style referendum in the 2017 presidential race. She lost that badly and so this time around she watered down her Euro-scepticism. Instead she has proposed everything short of Frexit – withdrawal from the Schengen Agreement, the primacy of French law over the EU, and French state subsidies in contravention of EU regulations. All of which would put France on an early collision course with Brussels and create the conditions for Frexit.

Marine le Pen also dislikes NATO which has been dubbed the most successful military alliance in history. She wants to pull her country out of the integrated military structure. France, she says, should “no longer be caught up in conflicts that are not ours.”

Which brings us to Ukraine, Russia and Ms Le Pen’s relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. In common with most far-right politicians, the leader of National Rally is an admirer of strong autocratic rulers and you don’t get much stronger or more autocratic than Putin. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she has backed away from her support of the Russian leader, but other Western leaders are worried that she would be a weak link in a so far united front against Moscow.

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Tom Arms’ World Review: “Butchers of Bucha”

Here’s a good one: In the wake of the Bucha massacres, a Russia Today commentator opined this week that the dead Ukrainians littering the street were killed by British intelligence because Bucha sounds like butcher in English. This made it easier, he continued, for British newspapers to write headlines such as the “Butchers of Bucha.”

How SIS and/or British troops managed to sneak undetected into Bucha, blow up homes, tanks and roads and kill the inhabitants is left unexplained. But that is of no consequence.  The problem is that too many Russians believe him. In fact, what passes for a reasonably independent opinion poll in Russia this week showed that 80 percent of the population accept the Kremlin version of events. A big part of this support is because the Russian people are denied access to news reports produced from outside Russia.

But this is only part of the story. Putin knows that domestic support is essential for success in Ukraine and he has been laying down the foundational lies since 2007—perhaps even before. These included: Ukraine is governed by Nazis. NATO is threatening to overrun Russia. Russian culture is under threat from the West. Russia is being denied its rightful place as a great power. With this firm propaganda bedrock in place – and total state control of the media – it becomes easier for the Russian public to swallow the inevitable mountain of lies that follow.

It is unsurprising that Russian soldiers are being accused of violent war crimes. Violence begets violence and Russia, according to their own statistics, is a violent society. Russian police have reported that one in four Russian households have suffered domestic violence at some point. The figures are considered a major embarrassment, so much so that the Duma recently voted to massage the statistics by decriminalising several categories of domestic violence in an attempt to improve the national image.

The roots of the problem are directly linked to chronic national alcoholism.  Twenty-five percent of Russian men die before the age of 55 alcohol-related diseases. On average, each Russian downs 1,500 shots of vodka a year. Various governments over the years have tried to curb Russians’ love affair with the bottle. The latest attempt was in 2010 when President Dmitri Medvedev introduced a minimum charge of $3 a bottle of vodka and banned drinking and driving. The legislation, however, appears to have little effect on drinking habits and recently the Kremlin gave into public pressure and amended the drink driving law to allow “one for the road.”

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Observations of an expat: Amazing Ukraine

It is incredible what the Ukrainian army has achieved. If NATO answers the Ukrainian foreign minister’s call for “weapons, weapons and weapons” then Vladimir Putin is almost certain to suffer the most humiliating of humiliating defeats.

A few facts and figures: Ukraine’s defence budget is $5.4 billion. Russia’s is $61.7 billion. Russia has five times as many active military personnel as Ukraine; six times as many tanks and artillery, four times as many armoured vehicles; 13 times as many aircraft and more than ten times as many ships.

The line-up in Ukraine resembles the Biblical David and Goliath tale and with the same result.

The reason is that wars are not always decided on the simple issue of numbers and types of guns. There are any number of other unquantifiable factors that are thrown into the messy mix and can determine the outcome of battle.

For a start there is the undeniable question of justice. Right v. wrong. Good v. Evil. There is no doubt that in the opinion of the overwhelming proportion of the world’s population that Ukraine stands on right side of the equation and Russia on the wrong.

That has been underscored by this week’s vote in New York to remove Russia from the UN Human Rights Commission by a shattering majority of 93 votes to 24 with 58 abstentions. To remove a permanent member of the Security Council from an important UN body is a major international political statement which must reinforce the resolve of every Ukrainian fighter preparing to repel the anticipated Russian offensive in the East.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

The jury is out on the value of French President Emmanuel Macron’s numerous and lengthy telephone/zoom/face to face talks Vladimir Putin.

Some diplomats claim that he is providing a valuable role in keeping open the lines of communication between NATO and the Kremlin. Others maintain that his talks have given Putin a totally undeserved credibility. Either way, the Vlad-Emmanuel chats do not appear to have had a great impact Macron’s re-election hopes as the French presidential campaign swings towards the final week before the first round on 10 April.

Macron has been the favourite for the past six months, but this week he dropped a percentage point from 28 to 27 percent of the expected first round vote and his chief rival Marine Le Pen climbed from 18 percent to 20. Pollsters, however, still give the incumbent the advantage in the 24 April second round, but it has narrowed to 52-53 percent of the vote.

Right-winger Ms Le Pen has clearly had some success in de-demonising her National Rally Party. She has been helped by the candidacy of the extreme right-winger Eric Zemmour who wants to deport 100,000 Muslims a year. Ms Le Pen has successfully shifted the focus of her campaign from the traditional issue of immigration to the cost of living crisis. This has put her in a position to pick up second round votes from the left of the French political spectrum with her economic policy and votes from the right with her slightly more acceptable anti-immigration policies.

However, Macron has also had some recent successes. In January, the French economy has its biggest every monthly jump as it bounced back from the pandemic and he has managed to reduce unemployment to 7.4 percent.

Reports emanating from Britain’s MI6 and GCHQ and America’s CIA and National Security Agency are in total agreement – Putin goofed. He completely miscalculated the resolve of the Ukrainian people and the Western Alliance and the ability of his own military forces. But according to the spy chiefs, it gets even worse. The Russian president has surrounded himself with advisers who are terrified of telling him the truth. The result is that his decision to invade was made on the basis of intelligence which fitted the prejudices and political beliefs of Putin rather than the facts.

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Observations of an expat: more global moves

The Ukraine War continues to create tectonic shifts on the global diplomatic scene.  This week it has helped Beijing stake its claim to Afghanistan and Central Asia as a Chinese sphere of influence.

Also in Asia, New Delhi has become the centre of diplomatic ferment as East and West bid for support from the South Asian giant.

At the same time, the EU has ditched its “talk about trade only” policy with China to join the US in pressuring Xi Jinping to come out against the war.

In the meantime, Putin has turned the energy screws on Europe by demanding that they pay for his gas in roubles in order to support the sanctions-damaged currency.

The move has been welcomed by Beijing who think that the Western alliance will collapse in the face of the energy crisis. The EU and US however, remain united in demanding that China must not help Russia circumvent sanctions, climb off its rickety fence, act like a responsible global power with a stake in the world order, and pressure Putin to stop the killing in Ukraine.

But let’s start first in Afghanistan and central Asia where China has organised a multilateral initiative to stake its claim to replace the US as the major foreign power in Central Asia following the American retreat.

The diplomatic manoeuvrings started last week with a visit to Kabul by Chinese delegation led by Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The acting Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi described his guests as “the most important high-level delegation received by Afghanistan.”

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Tom Arms’ World Review – 27 March 2022

Fifteen thousand US troops have been either sent from America or re-deployed to NATO’s Eastern blank in Poland, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria. The total number of American soldiers now based in Europe is 90,000. But before NATO supporters become too excited by this show of martial resolve, it should be noted that at the height of the Cold War in 1960, when the Berlin Wall was built, there were 400,000 American soldiers in Europe spread across 100 sites. One should also remember that NATO has a border with Russia in the Arctic region as well as in Eastern Europe. Until 1999, Norway was the only NATO ally with a land border with Russia. Military planners are working on this strategic fact next week with a military manoeuvre in Norway dubbed “Cold Response”. The military exercise involves 30,000 troops from 27 countries, including 3,000 US marines. These exercises are meant to be held every other year, but because of reluctance from the Trump Administration and Covid, they have not taken place since 2014. This is a pity, because Norway is one of the most strategically placed NATO countries. During World War Two, its long North Atlantic coastline dotted with sheltered fjords, provided Hitler’s navy with a forward base from which to terrorise Allied shipping in the North Atlantic.

In the meantime, Ukrainian Volodomyr Zelensky is pleading for more weapons. The Biden Administration has responded this week by despatching another 2,000 Javelin anti-tank missiles and 2,000 shoulder-launched Javelin launchers, Another 15,000 anti-tank and surface to air missiles are being provided by other European countries, mainly the UK and Sweden. The EU meanwhile has upped its spending on military equipment for Ukraine to $1 billion. Ukraine will need every penny of it. The British and American arms manufacturers are not giving away their equipment. They are selling it, and just one Javelin missile costs $175,000 whether it hits or misses its Russian target.

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Observations of an expat: Bread

Worried about energy prices? Well, you should start worrying more about the empty bread bin.

Twenty-nine percent of the world’s grain comes from Ukraine and Russia.

Russia, Belarus and Ukraine have banned the export of all grains as a direct consequence of Putin’s War. And, because of our interconnected world, when there is a shortage of one type of grain it has a ripple effect on every other.

Commodity brokers are now predicting shortages and high prices not just for wheat but also for rice, millet, rye, maize, barley, oats and sorghum. This is on top of a 50 percent increase in prices in just six months caused by a 20 percent lower than usual harvest because of climate change issues.

Then there is the impact that less grain will have on livestock production as just about every farm animal needs commercially produced grain. Everything from chicken nuggets to fillet steak is going up.

Vegans and vegetarians will be no better off. Add to the above scenario that all grain and vegetable crops are likely to be hit by a lack of fertiliser as 18 percent of the world’s potash comes from Belarus. That means lower yields and higher prices for everything that grows in the ground.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

The world’s television cameras have shifted to the tragedy of Ukraine. But that does not mean that the problems elsewhere have disappeared. If anything they have worsened as the money and attention has shifted to the danger of a European, East-West war. There are now 89 million displaced people in the world. The greatest number ever in history. Here’s a very brief summary of some of the worst:

Syria celebrated (if that is the correct word) the 11th anniversary of the start of its civil war this week (15 March). It has, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the dubious distinction of being the centre of the world’s largest displacement of people. The death toll is estimated at 500,000. Six million are internally displaced and five million have fled the country. The biggest number of refugees are in Turkey – 3.7 million. The UNHCR reports that it has only received seven percent of the $465 million it needs for 2022 to provide basic food and shelter. One of the hardest hit areas is Northern Syria where 1.5 million people are living in snow-covered tents spread over 1,489 separate camps. The problems are not confined to the areas where refugees have fled. In about 100 villages in the government-controlled Aleppo region the people are suffering from the absence of drinking water. Possibly the only good news in Syria is that some of Assad’s soldiers are being diverted to Ukraine to help the Russians and the Russians may be unable to provide the assistance to Assad that they have contributed to date.

The Ethiopian war between the government of Abiy Ahmed and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front continues to rage out of the spotlight. So far it is estimated that there are 1.7 million internally displaced people and 500,000 in refugee camps in Sudan. The war has also spread to the Amhar region as the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front attempted to march through that territory to attack Addis Ababa.  Because of a blockade by federal forces no food or medical aid has been delivered to Tigray Province since mid-December. Three-quarters of Tigray’s health facilities have been destroyed. Forget about covid jabs. Both sides are reported to be guilty of rape and murder and have been burning crops, slaughtering livestock and destroying grain stocks. The result is famine. The director-general of the World Health Organisation Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (himself an Ethiopian) has described the situation as “catastrophic.”

The BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson has described the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan as the “destruction of a nation.” Before the Taliban victory 80 percent of the Afghanistan’s budget was derived from foreign aid – mainly from the US. But a humiliated and angry Washington has frozen $10 billion of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves, $7 billion of which is directly held in the Federal Reserve Bank. There is talk of half of it being released for humanitarian relief with the rest going to the victims of the 9/11 attack. The Afghan people certainly need the relief. Roughly 85 percent of a population of 38.4 million are facing starvation. Unemployment is up. Food Prices are up. The Afghan currency is plummeting. Because they are malnourished, there is a measles epidemic among the children. Covid is rampant. The UN has asked for $4.4 billion for basic foodstuffs. By the beginning of March $1.4 billion has been raised.

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Observations of an expat: crunch meeting

Next Thursday and probably Friday and possibly the weekend – will be one of the most important dates in world history. NATO and EU leaders meeting in Brussels will decide – or not to decide – what to do in Ukraine.

Ukraine will then decide whether to continue fighting and how. Ditto Vladimir Putin.

Australia, Japan and South Korea’s foreign and defence policies will be dramatically affected. China may come off its rickety fence. India and the OPEC countries will have to make big decisions under heavy pressure from both sides of the warring coin.

International markets – stock markets, commodity markets, oil and gas markets—will either plunge or soar at the news from Brussels.

The world will wait to hear whether we have moved a giant step closer to nuclear Armageddon or inched away from it.

The variations are endless and each has known and unknown consequences. With the threat of nuclear war hanging over every decision, the room for error is nil.

If Vladimir Putin did not possess the world’s largest nuclear arsenal then the answer would be relatively easy: Attack and drive the Russians out. But he does, and he has threatened to use them. The question then arises: Is Putin Bluffing?

More to the point, can the Western Alliance afford to risk the possibility that he is not bluffing?

If he is not bluffing then there is an accepted three-stage nuclear escalation with a pause after the first two to give either side an opportunity to back off: battlefield nuclear weapons which would probably be confined to Ukraine; Intermediate-range nuclear weapons which would be confined to European targets and, then of course, strategic systems which would involve hitting the US.

Putin, however, refuses to play by the rules. He may go straight for American targets, which is why Joe Biden will block anything that could lead to a nuclear exchange.

So the option of committing NATO troops to Ukraine is off the table because Putin has threatened to respond with the nuclear option. That is, it is off the table for now.

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