Author Archives: Tom Arms

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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How to help Ukraine, Part 3 – harness the children

I am proud to report that the Scout Group of which I am the Akela – First Wandsworth – raised £1,500 for the International Red Cross in just two hours.

A group of 8 to10-year-olds baked cookies, biscuits and cakes. Decorated them with the blue and yellow colours of Ukraine. Set up a table on Wandsworth Common. Raised the Ukrainian flag and produced homemade collecting tins and mobile phones for credit card payments.

They were mobbed. They were also enthused and motivated to do more. And they will.

The young people of this country are one of its most under-utilised charity resources. They may not have the cash but they have the energy and the smiling cherubic faces that pull the heart-strings of the Scroogest of Scrooges.

Our children want to help. They do not want to be talked down to or patronise. They want to do more than play computer games. They want to understand and be part of the world. Point them in the right direction. They will take off like willing rockets and grow to better persons because of it.

Of course, use discretion. They very young should continue be encouraged to continue to be protected from the real world by parents, grandparents and teachers. But when they start to read and listen to the news and talk among themselves they demand to be told more. And when there is a war they want to do more. Let them.

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Tom Arms’ World Review – 13 March 2022

Back in the halcyon days of the Cold War both sides accepted a nuclear strategy called Mutual Assured Destruction which was gifted with the appropriate acronym of MAD. It had a simple basis: Both sides (the West and the Soviet Union) possessed enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the other (and the rest of the world). Therefore it was in neither’s interest to use their nuclear weapons. As mad as MAD sounds, it worked. No nuclear weapons by either the US or Soviet Union, or Britain or France were used throughout the Cold War. There were some almost incidents, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Armageddon was always averted as a MAD sanity prevailed. However, the problem with MAD is that it is built on the premise that the leadership in Washington and Moscow is led by rational people. Now the people in the West are seriously concerned because of doubts about Putin’s sanity. Three years ago there was concern about the mental stability of Donald Trump who famously said: “I can’t understand. If we have nuclear weapons, why don’t we use them? It appears that there is a growing need for a failsafe chain of command among the nuclear powers to avoid the problems of hubris-driven mental instability leading to a disastrous button-pressing incident.

Russia, according to the White House, has prepared chemical weapons for use in Ukraine. Moscow claims that Ukraine has done the same. Ridiculous say both Washington and Kyiv. If the latter are to be believed then Putin is preparing a false flag operation whereby Russians claim they have been attacked by Ukrainian chemical weapons and respond with chemical guns blazing. But what chemical weapons? The Soviets at one time had the world’s largest biological and chemical weapons store. In fact, an estimated 65,000 were employed in the deadly business. Then along claim the 1973 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention which banned these instruments of mass destruction. At the time, Russia had nearly 40,000 tons of chemical weapons. In 2017 the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reported that Moscow had destroyed its “declared” weapons stock. Then came the 2018 Novichok attack in Salisbury on former GRU agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter followed by a similar murderous attempt in 2020 on Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. In 2021, the CIA reported that Russia was back in the chemical weapons business, or, it had never really left it. This week’s White House announcement about the spectre of Russian chemical weapons leaves an important unanswered question: Is Russian use of chemical weapons a red line for NATO? If not, why mention it?

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Observations of an expat – Ukraine: where are we going?

Putin has to go. But when and how? What will be the result of his Ukrainian failure in Russia and the rest of the world? How much damage will be inflicted on Ukraine and almost every other country before he is thrown out of the Kremlin?

Working on the assumption that the West will win (any other scenario is unthinkable), what will be the short, medium and long-term repercussions for the world?

The immediate consequence is Hell for Ukraine, pariah status and economic disaster for Russia and economic pain for everyone else.

Vladimir Putin expected Ukraine to fall into his lap like an over-ripe Slavic apple. It didn’t happen. They are fighting back with a fierce patriotism which has shocked the Russian president and won global admiration.

Most of the world has rallied around with the toughest sanctions since World War Two and tons of military hardware – but no troops and no planes for a no fly zone. Ukraine is not a member of NATO and the alliance is terrified of Ukraine escalating into World War III if NATO and Russian troops directly face each other.

So Ukraine is fighting on behalf of a Western Alliance of which it is not officially a member.  It is fighting a war which is the clearest cut case of good against evil since 1939. It is a war which has been 70 years in the waiting.

In the short term Volodomyr Zelensky’s brave army will probably lose militarily. The Russian army is too big. As I write this blog the tank column that has been inching its way towards Kyiv is fanning out through the surrounding forests for a major bombardment of the Ukrainian capital and Russian planes are increasing their attacks.

But a conventional Russian military victory would be a political disaster for Putin. His invasion has created a sense of Ukrainian nationalism which would lead to an insurgency war which would more than equal Moscow’s ten-year Afghan calamity, which in turn led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The economic war would continue and Russia would be forced to retreat behind an unsustainable Soviet-style Iron Curtain.

There are reports that Putin has seen the writing on the wall. He has allegedly fired eight generals and turned on his trusted FSB to accuse them of providing him with faulty intelligence which led to  his invasion order. The FSB is said to have responded by accusing their leader of creating a climate of fear so that reports were doctored to justify his political wish list rather than presenting evidential facts.

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Tom Arms World Review: Let’s start with Belarus

Let’s start with Belarus, key launch pad for the Russian invasion and now virtually no longer an independent state. Of course, it has been going that way for a few years and when the West imposed sanctions after the rigged 2020 elections dictator Alexander Lukashenko sold out to Putin’s rouble in order to stay financially afloat. However, the Belarussian leader retained a fig leaf of independence by continuing to refuse to allow Russian troops to be based on his country’s soil. Well, that has now ended with Belarus becoming a major launch pad for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On top of that, a constitutional referendum last weekend went a step further and approved a measure that allows Russian nuclear weapons to be based in Belarus. The country’s economic, defence and foreign policy is now dictated from Moscow and 80,150 square miles has been added to the Russian empire.

The European political chairs continue to rearrange themselves across the geopolitical map. Sweden has been neutral for 200 years. In the wake of the Russian invasion, opinion polls are for the first time shifting in favour of ending this long-held position and joining NATO. The powerful Social Democrats, however, remain opposed. Finland has been neutral since 1945. It has a 780-mile long border with Russia and a long history of conflicts with Moscow. Its government is on the cusp of announcing a referendum on NATO membership. The latest opinion polls show 53 percent for and 28 percent against. Both the Swedes and the Finns have been members of the EU since 1995 and have been in the forefront in supplying aid to Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has warned the two countries that joining the Western military alliance would result in “detrimental and military consequences.”

There is movement too in Eastern Europe where Putin’s three targets – Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia – have all issued statements saying they want to join the economic arm of the Western Alliance – the European Union. This would mean crossing another one of Putin’s oft-stated red lines. But membership involves more than just a “please may I join your club” request. The process usually takes years while the “candidate” countries adapt laws and regulations to Brussels requirements and jump through hoops related to democratic structures, human rights, an independent judiciary and anti-corruption measures. Ukraine’s request came during President Volodomyr Zelensky’s speech this week to the European Parliament. In a tidal wave of emotional support a raft of MEPs called for plucky Ukraine to be put on the fast track to membership. A coterie of French-led MPs, however, pointed out that – according to Transparency International – Ukraine is the second most corrupt country in Europe (Russia is the first). Moldova was spurred into action by a Lukashenko press conference in which the Belarussian dictator displayed a map which showed Moldova as the next target for invasion. There are already 1,500 Russian troops in Moldova based in the breakaway Russian-speaking Transnistra Province. As for Georgia, they have been expecting a full-scale Russian takeover since Putin’s tanks grabbed South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008.

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How to help Ukraine Part 2 – Knit a Jumper

You can do it. You can hit the Russians where it hurts—in their pockets. Russian oil and gas is still flowing westward. This is because a strict embargo would hurt Europeans as much, if not more, than the Russians. Europe has to keep producing and trading to become Ukraine’s arsenal for democracy.

So the East-West energy trade has been compartmentalised—for now, and the money being paid for Russian fossil fuels is being used to buy artillery shells that kill Ukrainians.

The continued energy trade smacks of political and economic common sense. But that does not mean that individuals—YOU—cannot use your own initiative to reduce Russia’s income from oil and gas sales.

Cut your energy consumption. Wear an extra sweater and maybe even a heavy woollen scarf indoors. Ask Aunt Agatha to quickly knit you a jumper in the bright sky blue and sunshine yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag. Then put it on and turn down the thermostat.

But there is more. Stop baths. Take showers. Even better, shower with a friend or reduce the number of your showers and increase your usage of deodorant. You can be certain that a million-plus Ukrainian refugees are not showering twice a day, and they won’t be seeing a bath tub for the foreseeable future.

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Observations of an expat: Putin’s Samson option

The Samson Option is a not widely known Armageddon-type Israeli nuclear strategy. The world is worried that Vladimir Putin will adopt it and adapt it to the current crisis.

The strategy is based on the dramatic suicide story of the Biblical strongman Samson.

Shorn of his locks, blinded and a prisoner of the Philistines, the once powerful Samson was brought in chains to the temple of his enemies. He appeared weak, but he retained enough of his strength to throw his chains around the temple pillars and pulled with all his might so that the walls and roof came crashing down, killing the Philistines – and Samson.

Translated into the 21st  century military terms, the Samson Option says that if the State of Israel is being overrun and about to cease to exist, the Israelis will use their nuclear arsenal of several hundred missiles and warheads to destroy the invading enemy – and themselves.

Israel’s Arab neighbours believe the threat and it has successfully deterred a serious attack ever since it became known that the Jewish state possessed nuclear weapons.

For Israel, the Samson Option is a last ditch deterrent defensive strategy. They do not intend to use nuclear weapons offensively.

Vladimir Putin’s adaptation is a different case. It has elements of defensiveness but it is linked to his military offensive in Ukraine (and possibly elsewhere in Eastern Europe). This strategy is made more dangerous by tough opposition in Ukraine and the world’s reaction to his invasion and by Putin’s terrifying statement: “if the world does not include Russia why should it exist.”

Additional anxiety is created by the fact that Putin, like so many dictators, has conflated his country’s national interests with his own survival. Furthermore, he sincerely believes in “Russia’s historic mission” to dominate Europe. Conversely, he is convinced that NATO and the EU are thwarting that “historic mission” and in doing so threatening the Russian state which must expand and dominate to survive.

The terrifying conundrum that the world faces is that Putin has placed himself and his country in a position where he must not fail. The West, however, must ensure that he does fail and, is seen to fail.

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How to help Ukraine

I am frustrated. I want to be on the Kyiv front line reporting the heroic defense of the city. I can’t. I am old and decrepit. But I – and whomever is reading this — can help in other ways. We can send money. We collect money. We can send clothes and supplies to refugees. We can support agencies helping to defend Ukraine and OUR democratic values. We can write to our MPs, Congressmen, Senators, community leaders and social media influencers expressing our opinions and calling on them to both prepare and act.

So to start with here is a selection of organisations helping Ukraine. There are others which you may already be aware of or have yet to be created. Please tell me of any by emailing me at [email protected] I will endeavour to dispatch regular updates.

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Tom Arms World Review: The global impact of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Russia’s attack has started a worldwide rearrangement of the political order. Old alliances need to be reinforced. Some will be reconsidered. New Alliances, treaties and trade deals will be made as governments decide where their vital interests lie—with the autocratic but advancing Russia or the the democratic but defensive America and Europe or in the narrowing neutral land somewhere in between. Washington and Moscow will declare: You are with us or against us. We are not entering Cold War Two. We are entering a significantly new warmed up war.

The World Economy

One of the first causes of concern is the economy. Governments cannot fight cold or hot wars without cash. The world economy as a whole has already been severely weakened by the pandemic. World stock markets—the source of equity finance– dislike instability and uncertainty. Ukraine has created both, and the markets around the world have plummeted. Energy prices have also climbed as Russia is the world’s largest supplier of natural gas and second largest producer of oil. Nearly half of continental Europe’s energy originates in Russia. Germany—the EU’s economic engine—is especially dependent on Russian fossil fuels. But Russia is also a large exporter of gold, nickel, and the other rare but important mineral element palladium. The black earth of Ukraine is Europe’s bread basket. World bread prices will rise. Governments will need to borrow more money which will drive up interest rates and inflation. There will be more investment by Russia, NATO and others in troop numbers, missile deployments, cyber warfare, space, and intelligence gathering. This means there will be less money for social welfare, civilian infrastructure projects and any other vote-winning projects. More resources to defend Europe means less to protect other regions from Jihadism or to fund foreign aid programmes. These are the sacrifices of which politicians speak.

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Observations of an expat: Putin’s disastrous time machine

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown the world back in time to a world order based on the dangerous dictum: might is right.

We have been pushed through the looking glass into a new world where laws and treaties are irrelevant and life and death decisions are made on the basis of blatant lies and where the morally bankrupt prevail.

Overshadowing this frightening reality is that Vladimir Putin has his finger on the button that controls the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

Facing this disaster scenario is an unprepared West. For years it has over-focused on the economic challenge of China while downplaying the more immediate threat of an increasingly bitter, autocratic, militaristic, nationalistic, messianic and possibly unhinged Vladimir Putin.

War with Russia was unthinkable. It defied common sense as the rest of the world understood it. Surely the threat of massive sanctions would force Russian business to control Putin. No, the Russian president sits at the apex of an unprincipled kleptocracy and has skilfully tied Russian business interests to his own extreme views.

Successive US administrations have not helped. George W. Bush unilaterally scrapped the ABM Treaty and turned a blind eye when Putin attacked Georgia. Obama over-pivoted towards Asia while his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed reset buttons with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

But worst of all was Donald Trump a self-confessed admirer of strongmen in general and Putin in particular. He pushed recognition of the Russian annexation of Crimea. As Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border this week Trump and his ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised Putin as a “genius.”

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World Review by Tom Arms

In this weekend’s World Review, LDV foreign correspondent Tom Arms looks at the forthcoming elections in Hungary and the ongoing elections in India. France is quitting Mali. Trump is not the only American politician being threatened by legal action. The Trump campaign has Hilary Clinton in her sights again.

Hungary’s beleaguered far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban looks to have a secret weapon up his sleeve for the Hungarian general election scheduled for 3 April—Donald Trump. Orban’s ruling Fidesz Party enjoys a two-thirds majority In the Hungarian Parliament and appeared set to win another sweeping victory in April. But then in October the country’s feuding opposition parties decided to unite under the leader of provincial mayor Peter Marki-Zay. To make matters worse, Mayor Marki-Zay is a conservative. That is, he is cut from the same right-wing cloth as Orban—just not as extreme.

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Problem of Russia and Ukraine or anywhere inextricably linked to China

Vladimir Putin would not be poised to crush Ukraine without the tacit support of President Xi Jinping. He received it when he was one of a handful of heads of state who graced the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics with their presence.

The statement that followed their meeting pledged mutual protection and stressed their common interests (Taiwan and Ukraine). But it fell short of a blanket approval for a Russian invasion.

China has too much to lose if Russia invades Ukraine and destabilises Europe and the US. It has spent many billions on its Belt/Road initiative linking Chinese factories to European markets. It wants those pesky Europeans to be able to buy Chinese goods. Beijing also holds over a trillion dollars in American debt. Full-throated support for a Russian invasion of Ukraine would hit the value of the dollar and devalue that debt.

The Chinese are an autocracy. They don’t like democracies. They see them as a threat to their interests, values and the all-embracing Chinese Communist Party. But at the same time their growing stake in the success of the economies of the democratic West dictates caution and a long-term approach.

China is a challenge to the West. It is not an immediate threat.

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Tom Arms’ World Review – Key players in the Ukraine crisis

Putin

Vladimir Putin must be as happy as a five-year-old who has just inherited a sweet shop. Statesman after stateswomen are trekking to Moscow to implore him not to plunge Europe into war by invading Ukraine. If the Russian leader’s intention was to put himself and Russia at the centre of the world stage then he has succeeded. At the top of this week’s visitors’ list was French President Emmanuel Macron who spent five hours talking geopolitics across a table the size of a football field. Macron was in Moscow with several hats: President of France, current President of the European Council, a rabid Europhile, and a candidate in the 2022 presidential elections. He needed results for the sake of European peace, EU unit and his campaign. At the post-summit it seemed as if Macronian diplomacy had worked. The French president said he had offered “concrete security guarantees” and Putin confirmed that they were worth exploring.” However, neither side was willing to elaborate on what the guarantees were and almost as soon as Macron was on the plane for Paris via Kiev, Putin was rattling his sabres again.

NATO splits?

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Observations of an ex pat: A bad special relationship

The Anglo-American special relationship is growing closer—but not for the right reasons.

It has been founded on shared values, history, legal structures, trade, military and intelligence links and an unwavering belief in the democratic institutions which underwrite all of the above.

Today the democratic cornerstone is being undermined by the actions of conservative-minded political parties in both countries– America’s Republican Party and Britain’s Conservative and Unionist Party.

They have veered away from the responsibilities of political stewardship to the naked pursuit of power at all costs and tied their fortunes to personalities rather than policies. Both parties have adopted standard bearers (Donald Trump in America and Boris Johnson in the UK) who have become inveterate liars and slanderers.

Of course, in America, everything is bigger and better. And in the case of Donald Trump and his falsehoods, the former president is definitely in the world beater category. According to analysts at the Washington Post, he issued more than 30,000 lies during his presidency. And, of course, there is the “Big Election Lie” with which he is attempting to undermine the electoral system.

Boris Johnson is no slouch in the falsification stakes. But he goes more for quality than quantity. His Brexit lies were notorious. And as Prime Minister he regularly stands before the dispatch box of the House of Commons and rolls out statistics which Britain’s own Office of National Statistics immediately denies. But, of course, his most recent big lie was that there were no parties at 10 Downing Street during covid lockdowns. The police are currently investigating 12 such incidents.

The problem is that under parliamentary rules, MPs cannot call another member of parliament a liar; at least not in the precincts of the Palace of Westminster. To do so is a grave offence and results in temporary expulsion of parliament. Ian Blackford, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party in the House of Commons, found this out to his cost.

Slander is also now a common tool of both party leaders. Boris Johnson recently stood in Parliament and accused Keir Starmer, Leader of the Opposition, of refusing to prosecute notorious celebrity paedophile Jimmy Saville. In both Parliament and Congress speakers are protected by absolute privilege which means that they can say whatever they want without fear of prosecution for libel or slander. The result was that Keir Starmer was cornered by an angry mob shouting “paedophile protector.”

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Observations of an expat: Revive Détente

Remember Détente? If you do you are definitely getting on in years. It was one of the diplomatic buzzwords of the 1970s and played a major role in reducing East-West tensions and, many say, helped bring about the end of the Cold War.

Well, if the world manages to avoid a war in Ukraine, it might be time to think about a revived Détente because the Russian problem did not end with the Cold War.

Détente was a Cold War process which found its diplomatic expression in the Helsinki Accords. This semi-legal agreement was signed in the Finnish capital in July 1975 by 33 European heads of government and the American president and Canadian prime minister.

I say semi-legal because it was not a formal treaty. That would have required parliamentary approval of all the signatory countries and there were many in America – and other NATO countries – who were unhappy with the accords. But despite the absence of a formal binding law, Helsinki carried significant moral diplomatic weight.

The main cause of American unhappiness was a clause which bound the participating countries to respect the existing borders and territorial integrity of all the countries in Europe. This was seen as a massive diplomatic coup for the Soviet Union because the West was saying that it would not attempt to push the Soviets out of the Baltic States, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Ukraine.

In short, the Helsinki Accords, appeared to accept de facto Soviet control of Eastern Europe. In return, the Soviets would stop threatening Western Europe and start talking with the US about limiting nuclear weapons.

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Tom Arms’ World Review – 30 January 2022

A new Justice

It is time to appoint another Justice to America’s Supreme Court.  The new vacancy has been created by the resignation of liberal 83-year-old Justice Stephen Breyer. President Joe Biden has responded by announcing that he will nominate the first-ever African-American woman to the court. But will she win the approval of the Senate which is split 50/50 but with the casting vote of Vice President Kamala Harris tipping it into the Democratic camp? It is not a foregone conclusion. If the Republicans stand firm on blocking Democratic presidential nominations (as they have done in the recent past) then Biden may chalk up another failure. It will take only one Democrat to break ranks. Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have proven that is an only too real possibility. If Biden does get his way then there are half a dozen top contenders: Keranji Brown Jackson, Leonora Kruger, Michelle Childs, Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, Eunice Lee and Sherrilyn Ifill. Some legislators have already taken issue with the president basing his decision on race and gender. But each of the likely candidates have impeccable liberal Democratic Party credentials. None of them, however, will change the political direction of the court. Donald Trump’s three appointments mean that there will continue to be twice as many conservatives as liberals on the Supreme Court.

Talking to Taiwan

Words spoken by top politicians matter, even if they are limited in number and confined to a few pleasantries at a public occasion. That is why Beijing has taken offence at a verbal exchange between Vice President Kamala Harris and her Taiwanese counterpart William Lai. The two exchanged words at the recent inauguration of Honduran President Ximara Castro. The White House said it was a brief conversation in which neither China or Taiwan were mentioned. In fact, they didn’t talk about anything in Asia. Instead, said the White House, Ms Harris briefly mentioned America’s immigration policy and its “root causes” strategy aimed at curbing migration from Central America. Taiwan’s Central News Agency was even more circumspect—“It was a simple greeting,” the agency reported. The brevity of the conversation was irrelevant complained Beijing. The fact is that the Number Two in America’s political hierarchy implicitly recognised the political existence of Taiwan. This is unacceptable to the Chinese. The cursory exchange was not an accident. It was almost certainly arranged well in advance and American diplomats would have pointed it out to reporters. It was meant to annoy Beijing—and keep them on their toes.

Northern Ireland Protocol

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Observations of an ex-pat: Ukrainian Light

There is a glimmer of light the end of the Ukrainian tunnel. The messages emanating from Moscow have shifted from unrestrained militant threats to militant threats with the occasional conciliatory murmur.

 

For a start, Moscow has agreed to continue negotiations. Most encouraging was an interview Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave to Russian radio stations on Friday. “If it depends on Russia,” he said, “then there will be no war. But we also won’t allow our interests to be rudely ignored, to be trampled.”

 

Of course, the only person whose opinion really matters is President Vladimir Putin, and he is the personification of Churchill’s definition of Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

 

Attempts to fathom the inner workings of the Russian leader’s mind seem destined to failure as one of his clear aims is to keep the US-led Western Alliance guessing and off-balance in order to constantly retain the initiative.

 

One possible guide to Putin’s thinking is the Russian media. The state broadcaster Russian TV (RTV) is sticking to a bellicose line. The Ukrainians are “Nazis” threatening to attack “peace-loving” Russian speakers in the Eastern part of Ukraine. Little is reported about the 125,000 troops on the Ukrainian border but when they are referred to, the commentators stress the Kremlin position that Moscow has the right to move its forces whenever and wherever it wants within Mother Russia.

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Tom Arms’ World Review: Ukraine, Afghanistan, Netanyahu

Will Russia invade Ukraine? Will it achieve its goals with a threatened invasion? What are Putin’s goals? Mixed signals shoot out from every quarter. Ukrainian President Vlodomyr Zelensky is urging his country to not panic and at the same time be prepared for the worst and calling on the West for more help. President Biden says a “minor incursion” would mean less sanctions. The White Hoyuse and State Department then said he didn’t mean what he said. Is Secretary of State Antony Blinken trying to persuade his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to accept a deal on nuclear force levels in return for a promise not to invade Ukraine? If so, how would NATO react to that? And what about the Germans and the rest of the EU? Will they support sanctions which could hurt them almost as much as the Russians? Will the Russians cut off Europe’s gas supplies or launch a cyber-attack if Europe joins America in fully-fledged sanctions against Russia? Finally, what is Putin planning? What are his aims? He has publicly stated that he wants to restore the Soviet empire. That he sees Ukraine as an integral part of greater Russia. That he wants legal guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO. Are these negotiating positions, non-negotiable policy objectives or worrying statements to keep the West divided and off-balance? Has Putin now gone so far that he can’t back down? Does the Russian president think that he has a window of opportunity to achieve geopolitical objectives in the wake of the Afghan withdrawal debacle, EU divisions, a weak Biden Administration, an energy crisis, the pandemic, partygate, French elections and Brexit? As tensions continue to rise these are all factors that are being considered by the political cost-benefit analysts in Moscow, Washington, Brussels, London, Paris, Berlin….

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Observations of an ex pat – Anglo Saxon Free Speech

The blizzard of alleged lies and tales of blackmail emanating from 10 Downing Street is truly disturbing. But they obscure even more alarming policy shifts which threaten longer-lasting effects than any fall-out from partygate.

Nearly the top of the list of the partially-buried problems are the threats to free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly and the freedom to protest.

Britain and America have led the way in establishing and protecting those rights. They insisted that they were written into the UN Charter and Germany’s post-war Basic Law and their example has inspired others around the world. Now both countries are heading the opposite direction. In the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Britain is ranked 33rd and the US is a dismal 44 out of 170 countries.

The blame for America’s poor ranking is laid almost exclusively at the door of ex-president Donald Trump and the Republican Party he has reshaped in his own image. Trump enabled and emboldened free press opponents by attacking the media as “enemies of the people” and branding criticism of his administration as “fake news.” With the Republicans likely to regain control of Congress in this year’s mid-term November elections, the media is preparing for a fresh onslaught.

In Britain, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have long-regarded the BBC as a hotbed of liberalism. They started their term in office by reducing the number of ministerial interviews on the world’s most respected news outlet. Then this week Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries announced that she was freezing government funding for the BBC.

On top of that, the beleaguered Johnson government’s proposed Police, Sentencing and Courts Bill will effectively ban traditional rights of free speech, demonstrations and protests by giving police the right to shut down any gathering that causes “serious disruption.” The government decides what is a “serious disruption.”

Politicians around the world and of every political persuasion have a love-hate relationship with the media and protesters. Those in power seek to curb freedom of speech because it exposes nefarious activities undertaken to retain power. Those seeking power recognise it as an essential tool for gaining power, only to jettison their support once it has served its purpose. The result has been a perpetual struggle between media, the government and vested interests.

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Tom Arms’ World Review: Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Justice at home and abroad, Sri Lanka

Ukraine

After a week of Ukrainian talks the question is whether Vladimir Putin is using negotiations to avoid war or create a pretext to start one. The communiques emerging from Geneva, Brussels and Vienna shed little light on the subject. They are peppered with insubstantial diplomatese phrases such as “frank,” “friendly” and “constructive.” Off the record, journalists are being told that chief US negotiator Wendy Sherman is offering to widen the talks with suggested discussions on missile deployments and other issues. The US is clearly trying to drag out talks in the hopes that protracted jaw, jaw will lead to reduced tensions. But on one issue the Americans and their NATO allies appear to be standing firm: They will not agree to a legally binding commitment to block Ukraine (and Georgia) from NATO membership. Putin has made it clear that Ukrainian enrolment in NATO is unacceptable. In fact, Putin has compared it to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The Russian leader has also denounced America’s strategic arms policies, blaming them from withdrawing from the ABM Treaty (true), INF (not true) and the Open Skies Agreement (not true). However, Putin is also adamant that he will not be bogged down in the “swamp” of protracted negotiations. His concern over lengthy talks is at least partly related to the fact that if he doesn’t move soon Russian tanks will become mired in the mud of a Ukrainian spring. If Putin does invade, Biden has threatened sanctions “like none he has ever seen.” These are likely to include locking Russia out of the international banking system and blocking the Nordstream2 gas pipeline.

Kazakhstan

It now appears that the uprising in Kazakhstan was more of an internal power struggle than a popular uprising. In the wake of the violence the head of, Kazakhstan’s security services, Karim Masimov, has been sacked and charged with treason. In addition, 81-year-old former president Nursultan Nazarbayev has been removed from the chairmanship of the nation’s powerful Security Council and his family has dropped from public view. Nazabaryev, who was an autocratic president for 25 years, hand-picked Kassim-Zhomart Tokayev as his successor. It had been assumed that the ex-president was still pulling the puppet strings and grooming his daughter for the presidency. Now it seems that the puppet has cut the strings and turned on his master. He also appears to have the blessing of Russia’s Vladimir Putin who still holds considerable sway in the former Soviet republic. Twenty-five percent of Kazakhstan’s 18 million citizens are ethnic Russian. Its gas pipelines all run to Russia, and 2,000 Russian troops were called in by Tokayev to protect Russian assets when the revolt started. After killing 164 protesters, arresting 10,000 and possibly neutering the Nazarbayev family and their supporters, Tokayev appears to be firmly back in control and the Russian troops are back in their barracks.

War criminals face justice

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Observations of an ex pat: Migration time bomb

The world is sitting on a migration and demographic time bomb. A perfect storm of environmental, economic, and demographic factors are combing with increased international instability to drive millions of people from the developing to the developed world.

An internationally coordinated response is required to deal with the problem that will not go away. It will just become worse. Instead growing xenophobia is constructing physical and bureaucratic dams that must eventually burst.

Ironically, the two sides of the cultural and geographic fence have complementary problems. There is a shortage of workers in the xenophobic developed world and a surplus in the developing world. Birth rates in Europe, the US and Japan are either failing to replace those who die or—at best—leading to a no population growth scenario.

Low population is accompanied by an ageing citizenry. The median age in most of the world’s rich countries is between 40 and 50. This puts increased pressure on health and social care services, pensions and young workers who have to support their elders.

The developed world is also bordering on, or actually suffering, labour shortages. If their countries’ fail to grow by increased birth rates than they must recruit immigrants in order to maintain productivity levels that can support ageing populations.

In contrast, improved healthcare has dramatically cut the infant mortality rates in the developing world. This means that the median age in most of Latin America is 27. In Africa it is 18. In the case of Niger the median age is 14.8 years. The underdeveloped economies of these countries are incapable of supporting their rapidly growing populations. Their young people are heading north to survive.

To complicate matters further climate change and war is increasing the number of displaced persons in the world. In 2016 there were 10.6 million DPs. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees the figure grew to 84 million in 2021, and that was before the Afghan crisis added several million more to the depressing and worrying total.

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Tom Arms’ World Review: Capitol anniversary, Kazakhstan, Turkey, EU/China

Capital Hill one year on

In his inaugural address President Joe Biden said he wanted to be a unifying figure. For the past year he has sought to do that by largely refraining from attacking Donald Trump and his “election lie” and by staying aloof from the congressional inquiry into the Capitol Hill Riots. This week he climbed off the fence and took off the gloves with this speech in the Rotunda at Capitol Hill. He accused his predecessor of “spreading a web of lies” that led to the 6 January assault. He lamented that the “threats to the constitution have not abated” since he took office and attacked Trump for caring more about his “bruised ego than the democracy or our constitution.” If Biden’s intention is to unite, his speech may have been a mistake. Staunch Republicans have denounced it and even the centre-right Wall Street Journal labelled it divisive.” Biden’s address coincides with the launch of a book entitled “How Civil Wars Start.” The author, American academic Barbara Walter, has spent years, studying civil wars around the world and has sadly concluded that America may be going down the same path as Egypt, Syria and the former Yugoslavia. Ms Walter says one of the main causes of civil war is politicians exploiting ethnic divisions for political gain. She points out that Republicans are appealing to Whites and Democrats to a coalition of ethnic minorities and the country could—based on the experience of other countries—she says that the US may be heading inexorably towards violent conflict. Can it be averted? Biden’s speech may have been divisive but could he afford to continue to ignore Trump’s outrageous claims on the anniversary of the Capitol Hill riots?  The situation has certainly not been helped by Trump’s rambling over the top response to the Biden speech.  Americans should dispense with the phrase “it can’t happen here” and start seriously thinking about how to stop a civil war happening.

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is currently discovering the cost of keeping the lid on dissent. Since independence from Moscow in December 1991 the government has blocked access to the internet, kept a tight rein on the traditional media, controlled the courts and organised elections which resulted with the government regularly winning 100 percent of the vote. After 25 years in office Nursultan Nazarbayev handpicked his successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in 2019 but retained power behind the scenes as chairman of the country’s Security Council. Since independence the country has enjoyed major economic growth as it exploited its vast oil, gas, goal and mineral resources. But the cash has not filtered down to the country’s 18 million people who inhabit a country the size of all pof Western Europe. Their average income is only $3,000 a year. The man and woman in the street, however, did enjoy a few perks such as a cap on the price of liquefied petroleum which is used to run most of the country’s vehicles. It was the lifting of that cap which provided the spark that blew the lid off the Kazakhstan pressure cooker this week. So far it has been reported that 26 protesters (President Tokayev labelled them “terrorists” and “bandits”) have been killed. More than a thousand have been injured and 400 hospitalised. Tokayev has ordered troops to shoot to kill future protesters. He has also called on his friend Vladimir Putin for 2,000 “peacekeeping” troops under their collective security treaty. Russia has a major stake in Kazakhstan. There is a large Russian-speaking minority; Russian military bases; major gas pipelines and the world’s largest—Russian-owned– satellite launching facility. The Russians are keen to see stability return to an important ally and were probably behind the decision to re-impose the price cap on LPG fuel for the next six months.

Turkey

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Observations of an ex pat – Ukraine Week

We are entering Ukraine Week. A series of meetings across Europe and at the highest level will probably determine whether 100,000 Russian troops will cross the border into Eastern Ukraine and ignite Europe’s greatest crisis since the end of the Cold War.

It started Friday with a Zoom meeting of NATO foreign ministers. On Monday Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin go head to head in Geneva. Next Wednesday NATO heads of government hold a summit in Brussels, and the following day, in Vienna, the 57 members of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meet in Vienna. The last event includes Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky who will discover just how far other countries will go to defend his nation’s sovereignty.

Conspicuous by its absence from these talks is the EU. The reason is that the issues are primarily security and military and the EU has no defence forces. It will, however, be heavily affected by any Putin-Biden pact and its diplomats will be flapping around the edges of Ukraine Week trying to make its collective voice heard.

So far Putin has done all the running. He annexed Crimea in 2014 and moved his “Green Men” into Eastern Ukraine. He has disrupted shipping in the Sea of Azov and Black Sea; threatened gas supplies to Western Europe and now has 100,000 troops camped out on the Ukrainian-Russian border.

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Observations of an Expat: Christmas Traditions

Tis the season. Eggnog, mulled wine, presents, Christmas trees, yule logs, Christmas cards, Midnight Mass, food, food and more food… The list goes on and on. The Holiday Season is one tradition after another.

In fact, you could call it the Tradition Season just as easily as the Christmas or Holiday Season. But when and where did the traditions start? Well, they came from all over the Western world and some of the Eastern. Some have deeply religious roots. Others tell a political story. Some are strictly secular money making operations.

There was a time when Christmas was banned. And then there is the controversy about the actual birthday. The Bible does not actually give a date for the birth of Jesus, but Biblical historians believe that references to shepherds sitting outdoors at night on hills indicates that it was in the spring.

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World Review: Begin Doctrine, Merkel exit, Macron boost and Biden democracy

It is called the Begin Doctrine. The main tenets are that Israel is the only country in the Middle East region allowed to have nuclear weapons and that it reserves the right to prevent by any means the possession of nuclear weapons by any other country in the region. The Begin Doctrine (named after Menahem Begin who introduced it) was used to justify its attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981. It is now being pulled out of the diplomatic cupboard and dusted off in preparation for a possible assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities. At the same time another final effort is being made In Vienna to revive the Iran Nuclear Accord that was torpedoed by Donald Trump. If it succeeds the Israelis may enforce the Begin Doctrine because they simply don’t trust the Iranians. If it fails the Israelis may enforce the Begin Doctrine because they don’t trust the Iranians. But there is a problem. Iran is not Iraq in 1981. It has a string of enrichment facilities spread throughout the country.

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