Tag Archives: russia

Tom Arms’ World Review

Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palestine

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

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

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

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

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

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Germany

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

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

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

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

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

Gaza

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

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

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

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

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

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17 April 2024 – today’s press releases (part 2)

  • Lib Dem comment on Sadiq Khan’s latest pre-election pledge on women’s safety
  • McArthur welcomes assisted dying bill being assigned to health committee
  • “Cultural vandalism”- Welsh Lib Dems urge Welsh government to save National Museum
  • Cole-Hamilton urges SNP Government to deliver transparency on Russian land ownership
  • “Families are being cut off” -Welsh Lib Dems urge Welsh Gov to lift immigration status barriers on school grants

Lib Dem comment on Sadiq Khan’s latest pre-election pledge on women’s safety

Commenting on Sadiq Khan’s promise to fund a free, independent legal advice pilot service for survivors of rape and serious sexual offences, if re-elected, Liberal Democrat London mayoral candidate Rob Blackie said:

Under Sadiq Khan, the police are catching rapists and sexual offenders half as often as they did when he became Mayor in 2016. This is a scandal. But in last night’s debate the Mayor would not even say that he is sorry for this.

The Mayor’s plan does not promise to catch significantly more sexual offenders. It even includes policies that were promised last year.

McArthur welcomes assisted dying bill being assigned to health committee

Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur has welcomed the news that the Scottish Parliament’s health committee has been assigned as the lead committee for scrutinising his Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill.

The decision to assign a bill a lead committee is taken by the Scottish Parliament business bureau. The bill is also expected to be scrutinised by the Finance committee and Delegated Powers committee.

The committee will now decide how it wishes to proceed, which is likely to start with call for the submission of written evidence followed by oral evidence sessions with a wide range of witnesses and stakeholders, concluding with Mr McArthur, appearing before the committee.

The Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill was published on 28th March, alongside polling from Dignity in Dying showing strong support for assisted dying in every constituency and region of Scotland.

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Observations of an Expat: Tyranny of the Majority

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ukraine: are we absolutely sure we want a wider war? Part II

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It has become quite mainstream now to portray Russia as an evil regime, about to invade Western Europe, that needs to be defeated at any cost (i.e. nuclear war … even though some such advocates don’t understand that implication). Until recently this was seen as a fringe conspiracy theory.

Sure, Russia has a pretty appalling power structure with a lawless mafia-ised system clustered around the Presidency, with it’s tentacles around Europe, Mid East and Africa. It is also technologically advanced, especially in military and space spheres, and has vast natural resources, managed centrally. Russia is not Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. It is formidable, and limiting its ‘ethnic Russians’ propagandised mischief-making, (eg Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Donbass and the Baltic States), without getting to a counterproductive World War, requires a sophisticated carrot-and-stick approach.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Baltimore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia

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

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

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

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

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Tom Arms’ World Review

United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

European Union

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

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

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

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Russia’s frozen state assets must be used to rebuild Ukraine

On Thursday, at their summit in Brussels, EU leaders agreed in principle to commandeer most of the profits being generated from frozen Russian state assets to use in support of Ukraine.

This news follows last weekend’s Lib Dem Spring conference’s endorsement of an amendment to the “Liberal Values in A Dangerous World” motion, calling for legal ways to be found to access the estimated US$ 300 billion of the Russian state’s frozen sovereign assets – about half the total being held in the world – as reparations for Ukraine. The World Bank estimates that US$ 480 billion’s worth of damage has been done to Ukraine so far in Russia’s war of aggression.

EU leaders’ initial steps involve leaving the principal untouched for now and concentrating on accessing the profits being generated by the frozen state assets. The aim is to generate €3 billion this year, with the first tranche of €1 billion released to Ukraine by July. European Commission President von der Leyen wants to use it primarily to assist Ukraine’s defence of its country.

This perhaps rather hesitant start to the use of Russian state assets is part of ongoing efforts to find ways to access the funds in legal ways which also do not run high risks to the stability of the euro and have impact on the financial system. Most of the money is held in Belgium by Euroclear, the central securities depository, which will clearly need to be protected from Russian retaliation.

As European governments are struggling to support Ukraine financially, there is no realistic possibility of rebuilding Ukraine without using frozen Russian assets. The principle is clear to everyone: the aggressor must pay.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Trump and Orban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia

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

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

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

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Pan-European solidarity – shielding Ukraine from Russia’s desperation

As I contemplate the current state of the world, Russia relentlessly continues its barbaric bombardment of Ukraine, while, seemingly, the US Republicans play the fiddle as Ukraine burns. Reflecting on the past two years of this disastrous occupation of Ukraine, the initial unity and support pledged by the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and the European Union seem to falter. Certain elements in the United States and Europe, Hungary notably, lean towards a path of apathy and appeasement, potentially jeopardising any efforts to curb Putin’s hunger for rebuilding the Russian Empire.

With each passing day, Russia grows more desperate, seeking weaponry from the hermit kingdom of North Korea. Rumours circulate that Mr. Putin plans to visit North Korea post what is sarcastically referred to as “free and fair elections” in Russia. However, the stark reality is that the special operation in Ukraine has utterly failed, leaving Russia increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. Britain, in response, pledges a substantial £2.5 billion to support the war effort, and the French contemplate the deployment of European troops in Ukraine. A move that I fear might escalate tensions to the point of an all-out war with the Russian state.

My primary concern revolves around the potential re-election of a certain Donald Trump. As an isolationist leader with little interest in the safety of Europe unless a considerable price is paid, Europe can no longer rely on the United States. This realisation marks a sombre day for both European and British politics. In response, the European Union introduces the European Defence Industrial Strategy, outlining the aim to purchase 40% of defence equipment from Europe by 2030. Additionally, half of their defence procurement budget is to be allocated to products made within Europe.

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Cole-Hamilton to host Russian dissidents event in Scottish Parliament

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP will be hosting a visit from Russian dissident, Ekaterina Schulmann, in the Scottish Parliament following the death of Russian opposition politician, Alexei Navalny.

As a Russian dissident, Ekaterina has been labelled a foreign agent by the Kremlin which means she is unable to work in Russia. She is a high-profile lecturer, a columnist and gives expert commentary to the media. She is also an associate fellow of Chatham House and hosts a YouTube channel on which she commentates on Russian affairs to her 1.2 million subscribers.

On Wednesday, Ekaterina will be delivering a presentation to …

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Tom Arms’ World Review

NATO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

United Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lib Dems react to Alexei Navalny’s death

Lib Dems have been reacting to the shocking news of Alexei Navalny’s death.

Ed Davey said:

Horrified by reports of the death of Alexei Navalny – at the hands of Putin, no doubt.

Putin’s despicable methods might be to kill his enemies, but he will never kill the light of freedom and democracy which Navalny has stood for so courageously.

Scottish Lib Dem Leader Alex Cole-Hamilton attended a vigil last night at the Russian Consulate in Edinburgh:

It was a privilege to join Russian citizens outside the Consulate this evening in a vigil for the life of Alexei #Navalny, murdered by the Putin kleptocracy today. Their defiance and their desire to follow Navalny’s dream of a free and democratic Russia was inspiring.

This is nothing short of state sanctioned murder. Putin will never brook any form of opposition and Navalny presented so many young Russians with the hope of a future free from corruption and Tsarist fascism.

Putin is a despot and a war criminal.

Lib Dem Foreign Affairs spokesperson Layla Moran said:

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin must be delighted by the Gaza Crisis.

It ticks a number of Moscow’s foreign policy boxes. For a start, it distracts the world from his war crimes in Ukraine and allows him to point the blame finger at America’s absolute support for Israel.

Russia’s Middle East policy is complicated. It supports Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but Putin also has a close personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has used that relationship to stop Israel from sending weapons to Ukraine.

Russia has also refused to go along with most of the rest of the world in branding …

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Observations of an Expat: Pivotal Turkey

Turkey is emerging as a pivotal country in the Ukraine War. As the fighting on land grinds to a bloody stalemate, the importance of naval power has dramatically increased.

As far as Ukraine and Russia are concerned this means the Black Sea and the Bosphorus and Dardanelles that links the sea to the wider world.  Turkey has control over these straits through a series of conventions dating back to the early 19th century.

Unsurprisingly, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is using his position to extract every possible concession from the Russians, Ukrainians and NATO.

At the start of the war the naval balance weighed heavily in Russia’s favour. The Ukrainians had one warship stuck in the repair yard. Moscow, on the other had its Crimea-based Black Sea fleet of 40 surface ships and seven submarines.

Putin used his naval superiority to good advantage. A successful amphibious landing was staged at Mariupol and the Sea of Azov and Kerch Straits were closed to Ukrainian shipping. Odessa and other southern Ukrainian ports were effectively closed by a Russian blockade, bombardment and minefield.

Then the Ukrainians hit back with shore to ship missiles and drones. The first major victim was the fleet flagship, the cruiser Moskva. Then the bridge connecting Russia to Crimea was bombed and now Russian naval installations on Crimea are under bombardment.

Putin badly needs to reinforce his Black Sea naval forces with ships from the Pacific, Baltic and Mediterranean commands. But he can’t. And the reason for this takes us back to the 19th  and early 20th centuries and Moscow’s perennially unsuccessful efforts to gain control of the Dardanelles and Bosporus.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Donald Trump

Donald Trump will never see the inside of a prison. Neither will he be fitted for an orange onesie.

Not because he is innocent. Based on the evidence I have read to date, he is guilty as Hell. And I am sure a lot more will come out during the numerous trials he faces.

No, he will remain a free man for several reasons. One is that his lawyers will use every trick in their legal library to delay, delay, delay. They will appeal against the Washington venue for the trial there. They will also claim that the Washington judge is biased. The same with New York.

Their objections will be dismissed. But justice requires that they be heard and that takes time.

Next, there is the jury selection. One recent trial took several months to select the jury because they went through over a thousand potential jurors. In the case of Trump, the difficult is in finding 12 people in politically polarised America who do not have an opinion of the man and his election lie.

Even if a jury is selected, a venue is agreed for all four trials and impartial judges are found, there is a reasonable chance that a dedicated MAGA supporter will find their way onto a jury and block a guilty verdict.  Unanimous jury decisions are required in American trials. That is a high bar for the Trump prosecutors.

Let us suppose he is found guilty on a felony charge in a court by a jury somewhere in America. The verdict is then likely to outrage and activate his MAGA base to such an extent that Trump wins the 2024 election. If that happens he will simply pardon himself and his many co-conspirators. The case in Georgia will be more difficult because he can only give pardons for federal crimes and Georgia is a state crime. But his highly paid lawyers should be able to find a loophole.

If they don’t, there is the appeal process. If Trump is found guilty he will appeal. The appeal process can extend for years, possibly up to and beyond Donald Trump’s allotted time on this Earth.

Russian spies

Spies, spies, everywhere – especially the Russians. Which is not surprising. They had a huge spy network in Tsarist days. It was massive under the Soviets and, of course, Vladimir Putin was a KGB agent in East Germany.

There is also the fact that Russia is at war, oops, I mean conducting a “special military operation” (SMO) in Ukraine. The SMO means that Russia needs intelligence on who in NATO is supporting what, when, where, how and why in Ukraine. Also, who they can support to espouse the Russian cause, scatter seeds of division and discontent and maybe even overturn a government or two.

And finally, if the war escalates, how best to attack NATO.

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Observations of an expat: Enemy of my enemy

The well-worn phrase “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” has ancient roots.  It dates back 7,000 years to the Sanskrit literature of India’s Vedas. The Romans and the Koran adapted it to their political needs.

In Modern times it has been repeatedly applied. Possibly the most famous examples are Churchill and Stalin, and Mao and Nixon.

This weekend President Joe Biden will use the well-worn diplomatic axiom to try and persuade the leaders of South Korea and Japan that they should bury deep-rooted historical animosities to unite against the common enemies China, North Korea and Russia.

All three leaders will gather at Camp David on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They are expected to issue a communique agreeing to closer economic ties, intelligence sharing, a Tokyo-Seoul-Washington crisis hotline, a first ever joint statement of principles and trilateral military exercises.

What they will NOT do is agree to a formal treaty. Neither will Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida formally apologise for Japanese atrocities committed before and during World War two.

There are lots of good and obvious reasons for Japan and South Korea to be friends. Both of them are threatened by China and North Korea and, to a lesser extent Russia. From the US point of view there are 85,000 American troops costing an estimated $15 billion. Washington desperately wants Seoul and Tokyo to shoulder more of the burden.

The South Koreans and Japanese have the means to assume a bigger role but until recently have lacked the will. Japan is the world’s third largest economy and fourth largest military establishment. Fast-growing South Korea is not far behind, ranking 13th in the world GDP list and sixth on the size of its defense establishment.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Pakistan

Pakistan is sliding back into military rule. Actually, it never really left it. The military and its friends in the intelligence services have for decades been the puppet masters pulling the strings of successive nominally democratic governments. Quite often they don’t even bother with the veneer.

Imran Khan knew this. That is why he came to a modus vivendi with the army early in his premiership. Unfortunately for the cricketing star that arrangement did not last. He tired of both the orders and the corruption and decided to be his own man and clear the Augean Stables. Unfortunately he ended up being cleared out himself.

He is now languishing in gaol and barred from elected office. His crime was failing to report an estimated $600,000 in gifts from foreign dignitaries. It is an interesting crime. If properly enforced a large chunk of the Pakistani political establishment would be sharing Imran Khan’s jail cell.

Not satisfied with jailing their opponent, the military have also organised a postponement of elections. Under the Pakistani constitution, elections have to be held within 90 days of the dissolution of parliament. The Pakistani parliament was dissolved on Thursday, but new army-friendly Prime Minister Shebaz Sharif said elections would be “postponed for several months”. This was ostensibly because the electoral commission needed time to re-draw constituency boundaries following the acceptance of a census report just last week.

But before dissolution, the government did manage to rush through two bills increasing the powers of Pakistan’s omnipresent intelligence agencies. They can now search and arrest anyone they suspect of a “breach of official secrets”. Furthermore, anyone who reveals the identity of an intelligence agent will now be automatically sentenced to three years in prison.

Possibly in anticipation of this new law, 157 Pakistani political activists “disappeared” last month.

History control

George Orwell famously wrote in his book “1984”: “Who controls the past controls the future.”

The words are profound, wise, correct and often followed. Which is why we have two examples of history control this week. The first, perhaps not surprisingly, is out of Moscow. Vladimir Putin’s educationalists have rushed through a new secondary school textbook aimed at “educating” 16-18-year olds about the Ukrainian political facts of life.

The new “patriotic curriculum” declares that Ukraine is an “artificial state.” Russia launched its “special military operation” as part of a programme of “denazification and demilitarisation.” The goal of the West is to “destabilise Russia” and Moscow is “a victim of Western aggression and fighting for its very existence.”

On the other side of the world, in the sunshine state of Florida, we have another attempt to control the political debate through teaching. There the target is wokeism. To battle it, presidential hopeful Ron de Santis has employed the skills of Prager University to produce a series of history online and off-line videos.

Prager University is not a university. It is a conservative video production company run by conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager with the avowed intent of spreading conservative values to counter the “evil liberal elitist values” of most American universities. Its videos are completely unaccredited and disavowed by most serious educationalists.

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A leftist divorce

On February 26th, 2023, Labour MP John McDonnell addressed rumours that there was a split within the left after a difference of opinion between himself and former Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn on whether Ukraine should be armed to fight back against the russian invasion.

McDonnell denied this, claiming “an honest difference of opinion”. And what a difference; either provide firepower to a population facing a fascist invasion or choose neutrality and encourage the invaded country to accept annexation, deportation and genocide.

A breeding ground for division in the left is foreign policy. Most notably since the formation of the Stop the War Coalition (STWC) in 2001, individuals on the far-left have used the platform to voice their disagreement with what they view as the greatest evil on this earth; “Western (American) imperialism”.

There is, however, a problem; you cannot reach a peaceful settlement with an oppressor that refuses to recognise the basic human rights of the oppressed, something STWC ignores. This was the case in 2015, when Tariq Ali called for Western forces to “stand side-by-side with Assad and the russians”, despite Assad having used chemical weapons on his own people and russia by that point having carried out crimes against humanity in Chechnya, invaded Georgia and Moldova, and annexed Crimea.

There have always been, however, those on the left that are willing to put ideology to one side to fight the common enemy: totalitarianism. Whether the International Brigade that supported the Popular Front against Franco (before Stalin decided to torture and kill those that dared to believe in anything other than Stalinism) or social democrats across Europe working with neoconservatives and liberals in supporting NATO intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, there have been those on the left that support fighting against tyranny.

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Observations of an ex pat: Russian chickens

The Kremlin skies are turning black with the wings of chickens coming home to roost.

The Russian mutiny may have caught Putin and the rest of the world off guard, but its roots were there for all to see.

It is the direct result of hubris, decades of corruption, lies, autocracy and an over-reliance on uncontrolled non-state players.

Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin may have been exiled to Belarus but the problems raised by his largely unopposed march on Moscow are still there.

They start with the structure of the Russian military and government. Vladimir Putin has created a feudal edifice with a complex chain of command that rivals that of any medieval monarch.

If any of his nobles (aka oligarchs) looked as if they were accumulating too much power then he simply dismissed, exiled or murdered. Those who remained loyal were transformed from crooks and spies into billionaires.

This feudal structure extended to the military. The Wagner Group is not the only Russian private army. There are ten of them, including one which owes its loyalty to Army Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov and a praetorian guard for President Putin.

The divided army is the main reason that Prigozhin could successfully occupy the major Russian military depot at Rostov-on-Don and march to within 120 miles of Moscow. There are unconfirmed reports that he had the support of General Sergei Surovikin, commander of Russian forces at Rostov and in southern Ukraine and General Mikhail Mizintsev, better known as the “butcher of Mariupol.”

Surovikin is reported to be under arrest. The whereabouts of Mizintsev is unknown. Both men were praised by Prigozhin in his numerous social media rants along with Alexei Dyumin who must also now be under a cloud.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

United States

Did Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Joe Biden talk this week? On the surface it would seem they did not.

Blinken spent a constructive few days in Beijing repairing Sino-American relations, at least to the stage where the two sides were talking to each other even if they were failing to agree on very much.

Then, almost as soon as Blinken steps off the plane, his boss calls China’s President Xi Jinping a dictator. The Chinese foreign ministry immediately responded by attacking Biden’s comments as “blatant political provocation.”

The American president is well known for his foreign policy gaffes and when they occur the State Department jumps in to pour oil on troubled waters and restore diplomatic calm. Not this time.

The State Department spokesman said the following day: “We will continue to responsibly manage this relationship and maintain open lines of communications with the PRC. But that, of course, does not mean we will not be blunt about our differences.”

He added: “We have been very clear about the areas in which we disagree, including clear differences about the merits and demerits about democracies versus autocracies.”

It would appear that Blinken and Biden are playing a good cop, bad copy routine. This is partly for domestic consumption. US administrations aim for a bipartisan foreign policy, but that is difficult to achieve in the current polarised climate with China the whipping boy of the Republicans and an increasing number of Democrats.

Africa and Russia

Africa went to Moscow this week. It also went to Kyiv, but the most important and interesting leg of the trip was to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin.

Of course, it wasn’t all of Africa. It was the heads of government of Egypt, South Africa, Congo, Comoros and South Africa. The delegation was led by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa who has come under attack for refusing to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and allowing Vladimir Putin to visit South Africa in August despite a warrant for his arrest issued by the International Criminal Court.

The African leaders called the trip a “Peace Mission” and justified their involvement by the fact that their continent suffered a 30 million tonnes of grain shortfall in 2022 because of the war in Ukraine. They issued a ten-point plan which called for guaranteed grain supplies, an exchange of prisoners of war and the return of all children to their country of origin.

In Kyiv that had to run for air raid shelters during a missile attack and were told by President Zelensky that there could be no peace without Russian withdrawal.

In Moscow, President Putin told them that the grain deal could be cancelled altogether; that the “special military operation” would drag on and that the thousands of Ukrainian children taken to Russia were moved to protect them. In short, there was no joy for the Africans in either capital.

Back in South Africa, the trip has been branded a poorly conceived and badly executed effort to repair Ramaphosa’s tarnished image. The South Africans were especially humiliated when the plane carrying Ramaphosa, his advisers, journalists and 15 containers of weapons, was stopped at Warsaw Airport because it did not have the correct paperwork. The plane had to return to South Africa and start all over again.

Ukraine

Meanwhile, the Ukrainians are planning their own diplomatic offensive to back up their military counter-offensive.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Ukraine

The Ukrainian counter-offensive has begun. It has coincided with the at least partial collapse of the Nova Kakhovka Dam which has literally muddied the waters.

Ukraine’s generals are continuing to wrap their military plans in a dense fog of war. For weeks artillery barrages, drone strikes and the occasional incursive attack have been softening up the roughly 600-mile Russian defensive line. Then the attack started Tuesday with the war’s first night attacks on Wednesday and Thursday.

Given the length of the frontline, Russian troops are inevitably spread thinly. But at the same time they are well dug in. Moscow’s ground forces may be lacking but, according to the Royal United Services Institute, their army’s engineers are world class. They have constructed several lines of defense involving minefields, trenches, mini-fortresses and “dragon’s teeth” tank traps.

Ukraine’s main thrust appears to be aimed at the politically strategic town of Bakhmut and in the Zaporizhia Region. Detailed reports are being withheld but President Biden declared he was “optimistic” and Volodomyr Zelensky said he was in hourly contact with his generals.

There have been some reports that Ukrainian troops advanced a mile into the area around Bakhmut and a slightly greater distance near Zaporizhia. In the case of the latter, however, the Russians are believed to have beaten the Ukrainians back and regained most of the ground lost. It is too soon to declare any successes or failures by either side.

It is believed that the Ukrainian objective is to drive a 20-mile-wide corridor to either Melitopol or Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. This would sever the land bridge connecting Russia to the bulk of its forces in Crimea and, it is hoped at the very least, force Putin to the negotiating table.

According to Western experts, the apparent sabotage of the Nova Kakhovka Dam should be seen in the context of the Russian defensive effort. A sort of literal opposite of a scorched earth policy.

The road across the dam was one of the main intact links across the Dnieper River from Ukraine to the Russian-occupied eastern region. And the flooding downstream has tied up the Ukrainian military in rescuing thousands. It has also left 2,250 square miles of Ukrainian agricultural without vital irrigation water; poisoned drinking water with spilled sewage, oil and chemicals; and renewed fears about the safety of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant whose reactors were cooled by water from the reservoir created by the dam.

At the same time, however, the Russians have to deal with the problems of flooding on the eastern bank of the Dnieper. On top of that, the strategic Crimean Peninsula is almost completely dependent for drinking water on a canal which starts just north of the dam. This canal is running dry as reservoir levels drop.

Britain and China

Britain will host an AI summit – without China. This is one of the outcomes of this week’s Washington visit by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The exclusion and containment of China was one of the underlying themes that ran through the Biden-Sunak White House talks.

But first Artificial Intelligence. The summit will be held in London sometime in the autumn. It will involve all Western countries. Its purpose will be to establish international regulatory ground rules.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Ukraine

The ultimate Pyrrhic victory is the best way to describe the Russian capture of Bakhmut. The town has minimal strategic victory. It has cost 20,000-plus Russian lives and 50,000 casualties. Tens of thousands of artillery shells, missiles and drones have been expended. The siege has tied up Russian forces for months and left Putin’s army of a pile of rubble.

While the Russians have been throwing themselves against the Bakhmut brick wall, the Ukrainians have been taking delivery of hundreds of state-of-the-art tanks, training on F-16s, building up their drone arsenal and gathering forces for their counter offensive.

Exactly where that counter offensive will be aimed remains a top secret. A hint might be in this week’s cross-border raid on a military base in the Russian provide on Beogorod which is more or less right in the middle of Russian-Ukrainian border

The Ukrainians are not supposed to attack targets on Russian soil. This would seriously worry their Western backers who do not want to widen or escalate the conflict. So Volodomyr Zelensky’s government have denied any involvement in the attack.

In this denial they are helped by two Ukrainian paramilitary groups – Freedom of Russia and the Russian Volunteer Corps—who have both claimed credit for the operation. Both these groups say they have filled their ranks with Russians living in Eastern Ukraine and defectors from the Russian army. The declared aim of both is the overthrow of Vladimir Putin as well as an independent Ukraine.

In the shadowy world of paramilitaries it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, especially as both groups are based in the Russian-occupied Donbas Region. But Freedom of Russia is believed to be the largest of the two group with 1,000 armed men. They are also believed to surreptitiously receive training and weapons from the Ukrainian military, but operate independently.

The Russian Volunteer Corps has virtually no links with the government in Kyiv. This is because they and their leader Denis Nitikin are far-right White Supremacists who want to overthrow Zelensky as well as Putin because the Ukrainian leader is Jewish. They are Russian ultra-nationalists who want Moscow to concentrate on protecting ethnic Russians inside Russia’s existing borders.

Russia and China

The Sino-Soviet love fest continued this week with a meeting between the prime ministers of the two countries.

At the end of the two days of talks Moscow’s Mikhail Mishustin declared that due to “sensational pressure” from the West, Sino-Russian cooperation had reached an “unprecedented high.”

During his talks with Chinese counterpart Li Qiang, The Russian prime minister signed a series of agreements to bolster trade in services, agriculture and sporting links.  But conspicuous by its absence was a Chinese commitment to provide Russia with military support for its invasion of Ukraine.

Chinese President Xi Jinping believes that China is locked in an irreversible ideological battle with the West and that Russia is an essential partner if it has any chance of success. He and Vladimir Putin are as one as regards the strategic goal. But they differ on tactics.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

UK

The advisers to King Charles III have scored an own goal on the eve of his coronation.

The crowning of a new monarch is the obvious opportunity for the British public – and the Commonwealth – to re-examine their monarchical v republican sympathies. And the resultant opinion polls make grim reading for King Charles III and his “heirs and successors.”

A YouGov poll for the BBC this week showed that a majority of the British public – 58 percent – supported the monarchy. However, among 18-24 year olds the figure was only 32 percent.

King Charles is also head of the Commonwealth and head of state in 15 Commonwealth countries. A straw poll of the 15 indicates that almost all of them are likely to become republics during the coming reign. As for the head of the Commonwealth, that is an elected position and Charles had to campaign hard to succeed his mother in the role.

In the midst of this monarchical uncertainty, Buckingham Palace (or possibly the Archbishop of Canterbury) has dramatically changed a key part of the coronation ceremony and in doing so alienated millions. The king’s subjects watching the ceremony on television are being asked to stand and swear “that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty and to your heirs and successors, according to law, so help me God.”

I have no problem with this because I separate the person from the institution. To my mind the monarch is the physical repository of British history, tradition, culture and law. Swearing allegiance to him (or her) is a bit like Americans swearing allegiance to the Star Spangled Banner.

But most people fail to see this distinction, and the wording of the oath does not help.  They don’t go beyond the person, whose faults include committing adultery against the glamorous and much loved Diana. They may support the monarchy but not necessarily the monarch and resent being asked to do so.

France

France appears to have a self-image problem. It also has a problem with economic realities, political crises and their relationship with their president.

This week the annual May Day parade descended into riots which in turn led to accusations of heavy-handed police tactics. Another general strike (which probably means more riots) has been scheduled for 6 June.

The immediate cause of the general discontent is President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to a decree that raised the pension age from 62 to 64. The rise made was backed by sound economic reasoning and undermined by poor political logic and tactics.

The row over the pension age was the straw that broke the back of the French body politic. Voters have been disturbed for some time by Macron’s tendency to do what he thinks best with scant regard for the views of his fellow Frenchmen.

This week the French president has been on a countrywide tour to try to explain his pension policies. It is too little too late. Almost everywhere he has gone his speeches have been drowned out by the angry banging of pots and pans.

On top of that, a recent survey exposed an underlying French discontent with their lot in life.  The poll revealed that 67 percent believe that France ranks with the United States in social and economic inequality. The United States is 71st out of 169 countries with 169 being the least equal. France is 6th, just below the Scandinavians.

Discontent has political consequences. It feeds populist politicians who promise simple solutions to complex problems.  A poll last month by the Elabe Group for BFM TV revealed that if a presidential election was held then it would be won by Marine Le Pen, leader of the Far Right National Rally. She would, according to the survey, garner 55 percent of the vote compared to 45 percent for Macron.

Marine Le Pen has already announced that she will stand again for the presidency in 2027. Macron is constitutionally barred from standing for a third term. His greatest fear is that he will be known as the president who paved the way for Marine Le Pen entering the Elysee Palace.

Russia

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Tom Arms’ World Review

USA

America’s looking glass politics dominated the news agenda again this week. Donald Trump is not a perp. He is a victim. And he is exploiting his victimhood to the maximum political advantage.

The ex-president has re-galvanised his base with classic hyperbolic claims about Democratic witch hunts. The sad thing is that in the case of this week’s indictment – the first of a past or present American president – he may actually be right.

The office of District Attorney for South Manhattan is an elected one, and Alvin Bragg won the vote on the back of a promise to bring Donald Trump to trial and convict him. Lady Justice is portrayed blindfolded with her sword and balancing scales. She is not elected.

The law is meant to be based on precedent.  No man (or woman) should be protected by their political position but neither should their political position be the determining factor in their innocence or guilt.

Of course, Donald Trump, is more than prepared to play both sides of the legal coin. His 2016 campaign rallies were marked by the endless chant/rant of “Lock her up” related to Hillary Clinton’s use of private emails for government use. The demand was dropped as soon as Trump entered the White House.

Possibly the saddest aspect of Trump’s indictment is that DA Bragg’s case is the weakest against the ex-president. Secret documents at Mar-a-Lago, the January 6 riots and attempts to fix the Georgia election returns all look more promising. Legal eagles believe he can beat the rap on the Stormy Daniels case – if only on one of several technicalities. If Trump is acquitted then he could use that acquittal to fight off other legal challenges and ride the victimhood express all the way to the Republican Party nomination and possibly beyond.

China

Diplomats say interesting things sometimes. Fu Cong, Beijing’s ambassador to the EU was certainly in expansive and interesting mode when he spoke to the New York Times on the eve of the Macron/von de Leyen state visit to China.

At the top of President Emmanuel Macron’s agenda in Beijing was Ukraine. In fact, his feet had barely touched Chinese soil when he was telling Xi Jinping: “I am counting on you to bring Russia to its senses.”

France, America and the rest of the West are terrified that the Xi/Putin “friendship without limits” will eventually lead to Chinese weaponry supporting Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Ambassador Fu, however, dismissed the “limitless” phrase as “rhetoric.” He also pointed out that Beijing has refused to recognise the 2014 annexation of Crimea or the more recent Russian land grabs in the Donbas.

All of the above is true. It is also encouraging that a senior Chinese diplomat has gone on record to try and balance the debate. But friendship with Russia and Putin remains at or near the centre of Xi’s world strategy. To put it bluntly, Xi sees Russia as key to his plan of eroding the Western-oriented world order and replacing it with one that is more autocracy-friendly.

The Chinese president hinted at his big picture plan in his opening remarks to Macron’s visit when he said that China and France have the responsibility to transcend their differences “as the world undergoes proposed historical changes.”

To realise this plan, Xi wants to drive a wedge between European and American policymakers. To do this he is dangling the financial incentive of improved Sino-European trade links. That is why EU Commission President Ursula von de Leyen and an accompanying herd of French businessmen have been tacked onto Macron’s state visit.

The question remains whether the fine words that come out of the Macron/von de Leyen visit will be mere “rhetoric.”

Finland

Russia’s border with NATO is now 800-miles longer. Finland has ended decades of neutrality and joined the Western Alliance. Simultaneously it has changed its government.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

USA – Trump

I may have written too early and ill-advisedly when last week I predicted the political decline of Donald Trump.

His delayed indictment in the Stormy Daniels case has finally hit the newsstands and the ex-president is deftly using his victimhood to rally his political base. “This is,” he said “political persecution and election interference at the highest level in history.”

Clearly the man never studied the classics or medieval European history.

But this has not stopped the conspiracy theorists from flooding cyber space with outlandish claims and threats of civil war. Qanon was quick to tweet that Trump is waging a secret war “against a network of Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.” It added ominously: “We are ready when you are…Mr President.”

Trump’s opponents in the race for the Republican nomination – Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis – are also lining up behind the ex-president to condemn the indictment as a witch hunt. They are all afraid of alienating Trump’s political base.

But how big is that base? For a start, a significant proportion of Trump’s base in the 2016 and 2020 elections were White evangelical Christians. They comprise roughly a quarter of the American population and 80 percent of them voted for Trump.

However, a large proportion of the Evangelicals are one issue voters – abortion. They have won that battle with Trump’s Supreme Court nominees. They are unlikely to shift their allegiance to “socialist” Joe Biden but Trump’s apparent lack of morals could pull them towards one of the other Republican hopefuls, an independent third candidate or abstention.

That still leaves a sizable chunk of Trump supporters who have now been galvanised by their leader’s imminent arrest. Their reaction is the major unknown in American politics, and, following the Capitol Hill riots, potentially worrying. There may even be enough Trump supporters within the Republican Party to secure him the nomination. In fact, as of this week, he is 30 points ahead of his nearest challenger Ron DeSantis. But that could be the end of Trump’s political road. The country is hopelessly split between Republicans and Democrats. The balance lies with the roughly thirty percent of the voting population who are registered independents. They, and disenchanted evangelicals and moderate Republicans are unlikely to cast their vote for a felon, or even an alleged felon.

USA – guns

There are lots of reasons Americans have more guns than people – 395 million shooters for 336 million people.

There is the pioneer Wild West culture, Hollywood’s glorification of gun culture, personal and family protection, law enforcement, recreational target shooting, hunting and, of course, the pursuit of criminal objectives.

To my mind, the most worrying reason is protection of the individual from the government. This is one of the arguments by the National Rifle Association and politicians such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. It is a justification which dates back to the 1689 English Bill of Rights when citizens were guaranteed the right to carry guns as a defense against the imposition of a Catholic monarch.

This fear of “big government” using its power to deny Americans basic human rights was one of the reasons for the Second Amendment. They had, after all, just fought a revolution against a government which had blocked their liberties.

The problem for gun advocates is that society and politics has moved on from the 18th century. We have now had 240 years of American governments elected by universal franchise (except for women who did not secure the right to vote until 1920) to pass laws to protect them. If the gun lobby has a problem with lack of representation in federal government then it should use the legal instruments in the US constitution to amend it.

Instead its solution is more guns. Guns in schools. Guns in churches. Guns in shops and theatres and guns in homes. Following the latest school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee, there are new reasons. Shootings are not a gun problem. They are a mental health problem. There are also, it is being argued post-Nashville, now a transgender problem because the shooter was a transgender person.

Very few Americans dare to suggest that the guns themselves are the problem. This is because the Second Amendment has become a political sacred cow.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

UK

The appearance of ex-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson before the House of Commons Privileges Committee has echoes of the fate of Charles the First and James the Second.

Each of the above cases helped to establish the supremacy of parliament over the monarchy, or the executive.

The modern-day British Prime Minister straddles both institutions. They must be a member of parliament and command the support of a majority of the House of Commons. But at the same time they are officially appointed by the monarch to represent them in parliament. They are accountable to both institutions, but as the 1689 Bill of Rights makes clear, more accountable to parliament which is “supreme.”

But if parliament is expected to do its job properly, it must be able to rely on the information that is provided by the executive branch (i.e. government ministers, including the prime minister). For that reason it is vital that ministers – especially the prime minister – do not intentionally or recklessly mislead or lie to the House of Commons or House of Lords.

To do so, completely undermines the principle of the supremacy of parliament and rocks the foundations of the British constitution. That is why Boris Johnson is in deep political hot water. It is not that he broke Covid rules. It is that he appears to have lied to parliament about it.

Charles I lost his head for challenging the supremacy of parliament and James II was forced to abdicate and fled to France. Boris Johnson is unlikely to suffer either fate. The worst that could happen to him is be suspended from parliament which is the 21st century equivalent of decapitation.

Such a move could easily split the Conservative Party. Boris has a strong personal following and Conservatives and despite the current ascendancy of the extreme right, they are divided between anti-European libertarian ideologues and one-nation tax-cutting businessmen.

France

State visits are a big deal. They require months, sometimes years, of careful protocol-driven planning. That is why the last minute cancellation of a state visit is an even bigger deal.

Next week King Charles III was scheduled to make his first ever state visit. It was to be to France to restore the Entente Cordiale to its pre-Brexit cordiality. On Friday it was announced that the visit had been postponed

For a change, the dramatic shift in protocol had nothing to do with Britain’s post-Brexit positions on Northern Ireland, fishing, immigration, Australian submarines or a thousand other potential Anglo-French flashpoints. It had everything to do with violent demonstrations sweeping across France in the wake of President Emmanuel Macron’s decreed legislation to increase the French retirement age from 62 to 64.

The result of the presidential decree has been a wave of violence and strikes across France. Rubbish is piling up in the streets of Paris. The entrance to Bordeaux Town Hall was set alight. 903 fires were started in the capital on Thursday, 400 people were arrested and police used tear gas against the demonstrators.

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Observations of an expat: Adjusting the thermostat

European thermometers dropped this week. But generally speaking it has been a relatively mild winter and temperatures are starting to rise. This is good news for Ukraine. Good news for Europe. Bad news for Russia and great news for America.

Twelve months ago the Western Alliance was seriously worried that Europe’s reliance on Russian gas and oil would render it powerless to stand up to Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.

The outlook is now considerably brighter. Cash-strapped consumers turned down thermostats. Russian gas supplies have been cut by two-thirds. Nordstream pipelines have shut down (thank you saboteurs whomever you  may be). New storage facilities have been built for liquefied natural gas (LNG). The US has increased its shipments of LNG and Europe is moving faster towards renewable energy sources.

Glitches remain. Landlocked countries such as Austria, Hungary and Slovakia remain heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas and some 20 billion cubic metres (BCM) of Russian gas is still being pumped by pipeline into the EU. Ironically, the pipeline runs through Ukraine. Also, Europeans have increased purchases of Russian LNG, but moves are afoot to reverse that.

The bulk of Europe’s gas is now coming from America. Exports from the US are up 137 percent from a year ago. Companies such as Chevron and Exxon have stepped up fracking operations in Texas, Appalachia, New Mexico and Louisiana. They freeze the gas in terminals and then ship it to Europe. There it is transferred to either newly built storage facilities or specially adapted ships where it is returned to its gaseous state and piped to homes, power stations and factories.

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Observations of an expat: A Chinese peace

The Chinese Ukrainian peace kite is unlikely to remain aloft for long for several reasons:

  • Neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians are prepared – yet – to throw in the towel.
  • Vladimir Putin cannot afford failure.
  • Neither Ukraine nor its NATO backers can afford failure.
  • A Chinese brokered peace is unacceptable to the US because it increases Beijing’s position in the world at Washington’s expense.

However, both Volodomyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin will meet President Xiping, foreign minister Wang Yi and any other Chinese emissaries. Zelensky needs to be seen to be willing to talk to keep Beijing from supplying Putin with weapons and Putin must do the same to secure the weapons.

In one sense, the Chinese are the ideal peace brokers. Putin is the aggressor. He is the one who must be persuaded to stand down. The Chinese are the only ones with sufficient leverage over the Russian leader. The Turks have tried and failed. So have the Israelis. The US and its allies have ruled themselves out by supplying weapons to Ukraine.

In the best diplomatic traditions, Beijing’s 12-point proposal manages to annoy both sides in the conflict while at the same time projecting lofty aspirations with the minimum of detail.

The proposal calls for respecting sovereignty. Russia has clearly breached Ukraine’s sovereignty. Abandon the Cold War mentality. This is a state of mind for which both Russia and NATO could be blamed. Protect civilians and POWs. Great, and remember Bucha, Kharkhiv, Mariupol and Kherson. Resolve the humanitarian crisis, which has created 6.8 million Ukrainian refugees. Promote post-war reconstruction which so far is estimated to cost Ukraine $1 trillion. Stop threatening to use nuclear weapons; a threat which only Putin has used. And end unilateral sanctions which means sanctions not approved by the UN and would undermine Western sanctions against China.

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Irredentism: the greatest geopolitical threat of our time

Today, many countries around the world are nation-states: sovereign political entities in which one “nation” (a particular ethnic, cultural, or linguistic group) comprises a large majority of a country’s population. In a way, it does make sense; after all, it is easier to communicate with people who speak the same language as you. But some issues do arise: what about people groups who fall outside of the “nation”? What if members of your “nation” live outside of your country’s borders? Despots of all creeds have answered these questions with the same response: genocide and irredentism.

Irredentism is defined in the Free Dictionary as “a national policy advocating the acquisition of some region in another country because of common linguistic, cultural, historical, ethnic, or racial ties.”  This is a fair description of Russia’s and China’s “national policy” towards Ukraine (especially Crimea and the other Russian-majority areas of the country) and Taiwan, respectively. Putin has been loudly proclaiming the Russian people’s historical rights and interests in that country whilst denying that the Ukrainians even exist as a distinct people. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China is building up its military to potentially invade the island of Taiwan, which the Beijing government regards as a breakaway province.

Both geopolitical crises have the potential to spiral into a new global conflict, and this threat has historical precedence. Irredentism is the intersection between ethnonationalism and war, as irredentist movements can spiral from a “political talking point” to an invasion.

National unification appeals to people who oppose an irredentist regime, hence irredentism’s political usefulness to dictators. In Russia, for example, Putin’s popularity increased following the annexation of Crimea. Irredentist regimes thrive in an environment of perceived persecution, whether the Germans in the Sudetenland or Russians in the eastern and southern Ukraine, so the irredentist can claim that the invasion of a neighbouring country can be justified as “helping your own”.

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