Tag Archives: russia

Observations of an Expat – Russia: Chinese Vassal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Editor’s Note: This was submitted on 9th September but held back because of the death of the Queen.

Queen Elizabeth II

One of my other hats is leader of the local cub scout group. As such, an important part of my job is explaining the cub scout promise to incoming cubs. The second line was, until this week, “to uphold scout values and honour the Queen.” Now it will be “honour the King.”

But regardless, of the gender of Britain’s monarch, my explanation of the importance of that line will be the same. It is that the monarch is the physical repository of a thousand years of British history, tradition and laws. Many of these laws and traditions have spread all around the world and, by and large, have influenced it for the better. I tell my cubs that they are not pledging an allegiance to a person so much as to the unwritten constitution which the monarch represents. I believe this to be true. I wouldn’t tell my cubs so if I thought otherwise.

BUT Queen Elizabeth II was different. She did more than act as a constitutional repository. She did so in a way that demonstrated a selflessness and devotion to duty which set an example for every person in the United Kingdom and for hundreds of millions in the Commonwealth and beyond. She was working up until two days before her death. Queen Elizabeth II was loved and respected around the globe because she loved. Her reign was a link between Euro-centric imperial world with only 50 members in the United Nations to one with 193. Her first Prime Minister was a hero of the Boer War. Her last was seven years old when the Falklands Task Force set sail.

Viewed from the rose-tinted perspective of 70 years of hindsight, the world seemed a secure and certain place when Elizabeth Windsor was crowned Queen. But it was only seven years after the end of World War Two. Rationing was still in force. Britain was staggering under the burden of a huge war debt and an empire it could ill afford. Today it is recovering from the cost of a pandemic and facing mounting bills brought on by the withdrawal from the EU and a war in Ukraine. Since the time of Victoria the role of the British monarch has been to stand aloof from politics. To play the role of the rock of constancy in a sea of constantly shifting tides. Queen Elizabeth II played her part magnificently and has the established the template for King Charles III.

Ukraine

Volodomyr Zelensky and his generals have fooled me. More importantly, they have fooled Vladimir Putin and his generals. Everyone knew that the Ukrainians were planning a counter-offensive, if only to prove to their Western backers that they were worth the military aid and economic sacrifices. The riverside city of Kherson in Southeast Ukraine was expected to the main target of the counter-offensive. Ukrainian forces controlled or destroyed the main bridges across the Dnieper River. Putin rushed troops to the city and built up his forces in Crimea to the immediate south. But Zelensky’s men decided instead to focus their counter-offensive in the northeastern sector of Ukraine and the city of Kharkiv. In a single day the Ukrainians managed to break through Russian lines and regain several towns and villages in the Kharkiv region and 400 square kilometres of territory.

The Russians have grudgingly admitted the Ukrainian success.  While the Ukrainians were advancing US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was visiting Kyiv to announce another $2 billion in US aid. So far Washington has contributed $15.2 billion to Ukraine. Meanwhile, the British Ministry of Defence has reported that 15,000 Russian soldiers have died in Putin’s “special military operation.” That is the same as the official Moscow death toll for the Soviet Union’s ten-year war in Afghanistan (although the recognised unofficial figure is nearer 50,000).

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Observations of an expat: Gorby’s object lesson

Mikhail Gorbachev is an object lesson in the dangers inherent in moving a corrupt, highly-centralised autocratic government in which the individual is a servant of the party and state to a fairer and more open society in which the state is the servant of the people.

That is not to detract from Gorbachev’s greatness. His policies of perestroika and glasnost helped to bring an end to the Cold War. But it also opened the door to the rise of dangerous Russian nationalism and Vladimir Putin.

Gorbachev did not set out to topple the Soviet empire. He was a true believer who was convinced that communism was the path to political nirvana. His mentor was Mikhail Suslov whose primary role was to keep the Politburo on the ideological straight and narrow.

The problem was that the Soviet Union of the 1980s was not communist. It was a planned economy with the financial levers in the hands of the Party. But even more so, it was a corrupt, oppressive geriatric oligarchy with a rapidly failing economy that was unable to support its military establishment and political control of Eastern Europe.

The “Era of Stagnation” – As Gorbachev dubbed it – started in the mid-1970s under Leonid Brezhnev with a clampdown on human rights and emphasis on heavy industry and the military establishment. Soviet consumers were ignored. Between 1975-1985 the Soviet economy grew at a miserly average rate of 1.8 percent a year. The income of Soviet man dropped. Bribery, long queues and shortages were endemic. The state-controlled media and statistical bureau reported the exact opposite. Everyone knew they lied.

The exception to this economic plunge was the Party faithful. They were allowed to buy Western consumer goods in special hard currency shops and the Politburo were chauffeured from office luxurious dacha in Zil limousines.

When Brezhnev died in November 1982 there was a power struggle between the reformist wing led by Yuri Andropov and the old guard led by Konstantin Chernenko. Andropov won and then died 15 months later. Chernenko succeeded him only to die after just 13 months in the top job. The hierarchy swung back to the reformist wing and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev immediately announced that he wanted to improve living standards and political freedoms and was prepared to cut non-productive military expenditure to achieve those aims. His policies were summed up by the terms perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (political and social openness). The economy was decentralised, incentive schemes were introduced for workers and managers and state subsidies reduced along with Soviet aid to satellite countries. Nuclear arsenals were reduced and Soviet troops were pulled out of Afghanistan.

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Lib Dems react to the death of Mikhail Gorbachev

Lib Dems are giving their reactions to the death of Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev was one of the 20th century’s great statesmen. He gave the world hope, hope that is now threatened by Putin’s ambitions and aggression. Ed Davey said:

Mikhail Gorbachev brought hope to millions as he helped bring the Cold War to an end. His legacy of peace and openness stands in stark contrast to Putin’s regime.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

The nuclear reactor we should be worried about

Forget about Chernobyl. That was small fry worry. Focus instead on the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Zaporizhzhia  supplies half of Ukraine’s nuclear-generated electricity; is next door to the city of Enerhodar (pre-war population of 53,000) and sits alongside the Dnieper River which supplies the drinking water for millions in southeastern Ukraine and Crimea.

The nuclear facility was captured by Russia on 4 March during the Battle of Enerhodar. The power plant is being kept in operation with Ukrainian workers retained by the occupying Russians. But Putin’s forces have—according to US and Ukrainian sources—started using plant precincts as a base for artillery barrages.

The Ukrainians are firing back. On top of that, no one from the UN oversight organisation the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is making the regular visits that insure that all safety measures and checks are being followed. IAEA director Rafael Grossi this week told Associated Press “You have a catalogue of things happening that should never happen in a nuclear power plant.” Mr. Grossi is trying to negotiate access to Zaporizhzhia but to do that will require his inspectors passing through both Ukrainian and Russian lines. This is extremely dangerous for the inspectors and inordinately difficult to arrange.

 The fight to be UK Prime Minister

The British election campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party and the Premiership of the country this week slipped into high farce and sailed into choppy constitutional waters. Starting with the farce, favourite Liz Truss announced that she would cut public sector pay by about $10 billion by reducing the wages of out of London public sector workers.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

The sanctions gamble

Ukraine and Russia are engaged in a weapons war. The West in Russia are engaged in an economic war of attrition. The West’s main weapon is sanctions. Putin’s main weapons are European dependence on Russian oil and gas, food supplies to millions and the perceived decadence of Western populations. Europe had hoped to build up a reserve of stored gas supplies for the winter by importing as much Russian gas as possible until December. But Putin this week scuppered that plan by cutting piped exports by 80 percent. Germany has stopped lighting public buildings at night and has turned off the hot water in public sports centres. The price of energy is rocketing around the world, fuelling inflation and costing jobs.  There is a real prospect of energy rationing in Europe and possibly further afield. But what about Russia? Putin has admitted that Western sanctions are “a huge challenge.” The Mayor of Moscow has said the city has lost 200,000 jobs. Businesses have been forced to close and inflation in Russia is 16 percent. Analysts at Yale University this week reported that “imports have collapsed” and domestic production has come to a “complete standstill.” But here is the rub, Putin believes that Russians are tougher than their European and American counterparts. Western support for sanctions will collapse, Putin believes, when European and American consumers can no longer afford their long car journeys, overheated homes, exotic foods and multiple holidays. It’s a gamble. For both sides.

Pelosi visit threatens Xi’s position

US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping had a two-hour face to face in cyberspace this week. They discussed Ukraine, climate change and lifting some of the Trump era tariffs. But top of the list was Taiwan and the proposed trip to the disputed island by Speaker of the House of Representatives, 82-year-old Nancy Pelosi. The Chinese have vowed “resolute and forceful measures” if the visit goes ahead. The Ministry of Defense has threatened that the “Chinese military will never sit idly by.” In Taiwan, the authorities have been conducting air raid drills. At the heart of the problem is China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan and its stated willingness to use force to impose it. To date, however, Beijing’s emphasis has been on diplomatic pressure. It has successfully isolated the Taipei government by hounding other nations to break off relations and blocking Taiwan’s membership of international bodies. Anything that smacks of international recognition of Taiwan is strongly opposed by Beijing, and a visit by a high-profile American politician who is third in line to the presidency is extremely high profile—especially given Ms Pelosi’s strong anti-Beijing position. She has repeatedly attacked the Chinese Communist Party’s human rights record, entertained the Dalai Lama, unfurled a pro-democracy banner in Tiananmen Square and supported Hong Kong demonstrators. In short, she is not well-liked in Beijing.  But there are other problems related to President Xi’s position within the Chinese Communist Party. It is not strong at the moment. He is viewed by many as having badly managed the covid pandemic and China’s response to the war in Ukraine. In October the Party will hold its national congress at which Xi is expected to be voted a third term. It is important that the vote is a general acclamation rather than a mere majority vote. Failure to stand firm on Taiwan—added to covid and Ukraine—could undermine that.

The Brexit Conundrum

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Europe is burning sounds like the title of an apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster. Unfortunately it is an accurate newspaper headline as the continent this week sweltered in record temperatures.

In normally temperate Britain the thermometer topped 104 fahrenheit. In Spain it reached 109. Spontaneous fires were widespread. The London fire brigade reported its busiest day since the Blitz. Grass and forest fires broke out in France, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy. In Greece alone there were 390 forest fires in one week.

The high pressure system responsible for the heatwave is now over Poland and is expected to continue eastwards reaching China in August before eventually being cooled down by the Pacific waters. This follows record temperatures in the Middle East and South Asia and forest fires in California, the Pacific Northwest, Canada and Australia.

Climate change scientists say:  “Get used to it. This is a taste of things to come.”


Joe Biden – America’s 79-year-old president – has covid. It is not surprising. In fact it would be more surprising if he didn’t. Covid has dropped out of the US headlines but not off the health charts. As of Friday nearly a third of the American population – 91,767,460 – have had a confirmed case of coronavirus. 1,050,702 of them have died, including 592 of them this Wednesday alone.

America decided months ago to stop the mandatory wearing of face masks and social distancing and reduced pressure for vaccinations. They were going to learn to live with covid to save the economy. Since then the number of cases has risen dramatically.

The increase in coronavirus cases has not been confined to American shores. Other countries governments are also treating the pandemic as more or less done and dusted. But there have been significant increases in confirmed cases and deaths in Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, India, Greece, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore…. Someone obviously forgot to tell the virus that it was time to pack up.


There is no love lost between Japan and South Korea. In fact, there has been pretty much a hate-hate relationship ever since the Japanese warlord Toyatomi Hideyoshi raped and pillaged his way across the Korean peninsula in the 16th century.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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Tom Arms’ World Review

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

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

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

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

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

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Tom Arms’ World Review

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

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

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

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

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Tom Arms’ World Review – 29th May 2022

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

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

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

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

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Tom Arms’ World Review

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

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

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

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

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

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Tom Arms’ World Review: “Butchers of Bucha”

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Ukraine’s Chinese characteristics

Today’s FT headline reads “China offers role as peacemaker”. The article says more carefully “China signalled it was ready to play a role in finding a ceasefire in Ukraine…” But would it be a trusted impartial negotiator?

At the Olympic Games last month, Presidents Putin and Xi said that friendship between their countries had “no limits” and no “forbidden” areas of cooperation. Beijing has joined Moscow in opposing further NATO expansion.

Since then, even if Beijing has refused to term President Putin’s assault on Ukraine as an “invasion”, it has been profoundly uneasy about Russian recklessness.

Clearly this is because of China’s unequivocal stance on sovereignty and territorial integrity concerning Taiwan, used as an excuse as well to justify its claims in the South and East China Seas which they are asserting militarily.

Hence China’s abstentions at the UN Security Council twice on the invasion of Ukraine. And comments by China’s Foreign Policy Chief Wang Yi just before the invasion at the Munich Security Conference about the importance of maintaining territorial integrity “including Ukraine’s”.

China’s fence-sitting so far allows it to take advantage of the current situation where it can: the famous win-win situation quoted often by Chinese leaders which many interpret as China wanting to have it both or all ways.

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Davey: Use ‘oligarch tax’ to insulate the UK from Putin’s gas price spike

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey has called for an ‘oligarch tax’ to offset increased gas prices at a time when households are already facing a cost of living crisis.

The Liberal Democrats said this would ensure that Putin’s cronies and Russian energy companies foot the bill for any gas price spike following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The oligarch tax would comprise of two elements:

  • Freezing and beginning the process of seizing the assets of Putin’s cronies who have money and property in the UK, using Unexplained Wealth Orders.
  • A windfall tax on oil and gas superprofits, including those of Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom, whose trading arm is based in London. Gazprom recently announced a £179m dividend. This can then be used to reduce UK dependency on Russian gas.
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Absence of Gazprom and Rosneft from sanctions list is “elephant in the room”

Responding to the additional sanctions on Russian companies and individuals announced today by Boris Johnson, Liberal Democrat Leader and former Energy Secretary Ed Davey said:

The absence of Gazprom and Rosneft, part-owned by BP, in today’s sanctions list is the elephant in the room. The UK must do everything we can to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

Russia’s state-owned oil and gas giants stand to profit from this war and soaring prices. We must start treating Putin’s Russia like the rogue state it is and immediately cut off UK investment in these firms.

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Ukraine: Live thread on the political reaction

You know things are bad when you wake in the early hours and hear the announcement on the BBC World Service that it is to broadcast rolling news from 4am. There is almost no space for other news items other than the situation in Ukraine.

As in the early days of any war, reports are partial, sometimes confused, sometimes contradictory and sometimes downright lies. This is war in Europe and the full impact of the conflict cannot yet be predicted.

We will be adding reactions from Lib Dems to the conflict throughout the day.

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Ed Davey on Ukraine: Freeze and seize assets of all Putin’s cronies in UK

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Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey has today called on the government to freeze and begin seizing the assets of Putins’ cronies in the UK, as part of a tough package of measures responding to Russia sending troops into Ukraine.

It comes after Boris Johnson announced the government would be sanctioning just three Russian high net-worth individuals, falling way short of the number believed to be allied with Putin and holding assets in the UK.

Ed Davey has also backed a boycott of international sporting and cultural events hosted in Russia, starting with moving this year’s Champions League final from St Petersburg. The Liberal Democrats have written to the government asking them to prepare Wembley in the event of the final being moved.

Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey said:

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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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Davey: We need leaders who can act over energy supplies

Writing in today’s Times, Lib Dem leader Ed Davey says that Boris Johnson has spent much of the past two weeks shacked up in his parliamentary office pleading for his own skin. Meanwhile, one hundred thousand Russian troops have massed on Ukraine’s border threaten the largest military action in Europe since the Second World War. Telling the Tories they need to get a grip fast, he warns that the gas Russia supplies to Europe could fall by up to 30 per cent and that already high gas prices will treble or worse.

Liberal Democrats have called for a “Robin Hood tax” on the super-profits of oil and gas producers and traders, including Russian energy giant, Gazprom.

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Observations of an Expat: Ukraine and Geopolitics

Ukraine is now firmly on the East-West, US-Russian agenda. This is a victory for Vladimir Putin. He has proven that even though Russia’s GDP is $400 billion less than chaotic Italy it is still a Great Power who can flex its muscles and demand concessions from Super Power America.

But what are those concessions? Well the big one is, the US will not come to Ukraine’s aid with troops, missiles or drones if Russia attacks Ukraine.

That does not mean, however that President Joe Biden is giving Putin the green light to attack. No, he is threatening sanctions. And this time they appear to be more than the usual slap on the wrist.

The main threat is banning Russia from the Belgian-based SWIFT banking system which manages payments across international borders. This same sanction against Iran has resulted in a drop of 50 percent in their oil exports and 30 percent in their foreign trade.

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World Review: French elections, Barbados, Russian security pact, MI6 and abortion rights in America

The French Presidential elections are hotting up. Far-right candidate Eric Zemmour announced his candidacy this week. He is Euro-sceptic, virulently anti-immigrant and possibly the most anti-Semitic Jew in European politics. The 63-year-old journalist claims that he will save France from decadence and minorities that “oppress the majority.” Zemmour is neck and neck with seasoned extreme right campaigner Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally Party. Which means that the extreme-right vote is split. The left-wing parties are in disarray and have been effectively written off by the French media in the April presidential elections.

On Sunday, primary elections for the Gaullist-oriented Les Republicains ends. There are five candidates: Michel Barnier, Xavier Bertrand, Eric Ciotti, Philippe Juvin and Valerie Pecresse. In the past Les Republicains were described as centre right. But no longer. Emmanuel Macron has stolen those clothes, especially the economic threads. In response, all five Les Republicains candidates have moved to the right with anti-immigration and Eurosceptic policies. All of the above is good news for Macron, who is staunchly pro-European and staying aloof from the immigration debate. Not that he is popular. His approval ratings have slipped from a high of 48 percent in 2017 to under 20 percent. But he stands alone in the winning circle of the centre/centre right. At this moment the betting is on Macron to win as the last man standing.

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Observations of an Expat: Two Step… One Step

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is indulging in that well-known two step, one step diplomatic dance. That is two steps forward. One step back.

Sometimes he throws his fellow Europeans off balance by taking a third step and half a step back, or he may refuse to move from his new position.

He prods and pushes, establishing new boundaries both physical and political. Using strategies developed as a high-flying KGB agent, Putin simply denies everything. It is all Western “balderdash,” he claims.

Belarus is a Russian satellite. Its Soviet-style dictator Alexander Lukashenko would hardly dare breathe without first seeking the approval of his Moscow mentor.

One of Putin’s main aims is to destabilise the EU. And it is no secret that the issue of migrant refugees from the Islamic world is a divisive and destabilising issue. The East European Visegrad 4 (which include Poland) are especially against it. So Lukashenko sent agents off to Syria, Turkey and Iraq to recruit thousands of refugees to press against the Polish border fence.

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Observations of an Expat: Belarus and State Sponsored Human Trafficking

Up to 20,000 Middle Eastern refugees are stuck in a narrow strip of no-man’s land as winter descends upon them. To the west—the dreamed of destination—is a razor wire fence and armed Polish guards. To the east are tens of thousands of armed Belarussian troops to prevent them from going back into Belarus proper.

These refugees have paid thousands of dollars to the agents of Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko who are scouring the Middle East in search of displaced persons in search of a better life in Europe.

They collect their money. Tell them they are going to the promised land of Germany. The refugees are then put on flights to Minsk from Damascus, Dubai or Istanbul. In the Belarussian capital they are met by armed guards who herd them into lorries that transport them to the border with Poland, Latvia or Lithuania. They are unloaded and told to march west. That is when the dream becomes a nightmare.

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World Review: COP26, French fishing, Taiwan territory and Russian gas

COP26 finished its first week with a super abundance of world leaders making a plethora of pledges about climate change. Deforestation is to end (except maybe in Indonesia). More money is to be made available for green technology in developing countries. Eighteen countries (most of them small) have agreed to move away from coal generated energy. Now the leaders have flown home in their gas guzzling carbon emitting private jets and left it to officials to hammer out the devilish details and attempt to wring out concessions from the biggest polluters, mainly China and India who together are responsible for over a third of the planet’s carbon emissions. On the latter point they will have a tough job. India refuses to commit to climate change targets until 2070 which most climatologists reckon is much too little much too late. China, for its part, is continuing to build and export electricity stations powered by its massive coal reserves. Meanwhile, the Global Carbon Project reported that global carbon emissions are climbing back to pre-pandemic levels, with India rising by 12.6% and China by 4% between 2020 and 2021. The climate watchdogs predict that 2022 could see record levels of carbon emissions as air travel returns to pre-pandemic levels.

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World Review: Coups, budget, Brexit, hypersonic China, dictatorships and weaponizing energy

This year the world seems to be suffering from a pandemic of coups. Myanmar, Guinea, Mali, Chad Ethiopia (although technically it is a civil war) and now Sudan. There were also attempted coups in Madagascar and the Central African Republic. It is not surprising. The combined forces of covid-19, Jihadism and long-standing ethnic divisions are taking their toll and the first victims are almost always the poorest countries. Sudan is a prime example. The per capita income is just under $4,000 a year. It ranks 181 out of 225 countries in the wealth stakes. In Sudan’s case neither covid nor Jihadism appear to have played a direct role in the military power grab, although both contributed to general dissatisfaction. It seems, however, the prime driver was good old fashioned greed coupled with fear and a hunger for power. For the past two years the country had been in a political transitional period following the removal of Omar al-Bashiri. The military was gradually returning control to civilians, in particular to Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. But according to the military, problems arose when competing civilian politicians tried to develop individual power bases within the army, thus raising the spectre of civil war. Their argument carries little weight with either Washington or Brussels, both of whom have cut off aid to Sudan. The Western capitals are concerned about Sudanese developments because of the danger of the civil war in neighbouring Ethiopia spreading into a destabilised Sudan and the combined problems of the two countries destabilising the upper reaches of the Nile River basin and the Horn of Africa.

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Observations of an Expat: Russian Pivot

While the world public’s attention was focused on submarine rows between allies and the rising Chinese threat, Vladimir Putin was making disturbing diplomatic and political moves to change the security map on the European side of the Eurasian land mass.

The focus of Putin’s efforts is Belarus and the faltering regime of Alexander Lukashenko. Ever since his clearly fraudulent elections, “Europe’s last dictator” has suffered riots, demonstrations, defecting Belarussians and Western sanctions. All of this presents opportunities and problems for Vladimir Putin and headaches for everyone else. A Lukashenko/Putin summit plus a major military manoeuvre underscored both.

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Observations of an Expat: A Black Russian Sea

The landlocked 420,000 square mile Black Sea straddling the Europe Asia divide is fast becoming a maritime hotspot to rival the manmade islands of the South China Sea.

That is why this week the Russians buzzed the British warship HMS Defender, shot missiles into its path and then summoned the British Ambassador to the foreign ministry.

The British Type 45 frigate, said the Russians, had invaded Russian territorial waters. Wrong, said the British. Their ship could not possibly have been in Russian waters because it was off the coast of Crimea which was unilaterally annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. This annexation was not recognised by Britain or the rest of the world. Therefore, HMS Defender was in Ukrainian waters not Russian and was establishing its legitimate rights under international freedom of navigation law.

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Observations of an Expat: The Alex Problem

Often referred to as Europe’s last dictator, Belarussia’s Alexander Lukashenko can blatantly break international law with an act of air piracy and kidnapping because he thinks he can get away with it. He feels politically secure.

He feels secure because he has total backing from Russia’s Vladimir Putin who regards the maintenance of a pro-Russian Belarus as vital to Russia’s national interests. And because he knows that the rest of the world—especially the European Union—is frightened of stepping on the toes of the Russian bear.

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