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Video of Russian Lt. Colonel in Ukraine not Quite the Smoking Gun

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Will this turn out to be the smoking gun?

Feelings are running high about Russia’s campaign of pressure and destabilization in Ukraine.

Will this turn out to be the smoking gun?

And perhaps not surprisingly foreign journalists and pundits sympathetic to Kyiv are eager to pounce on anything which appears to offer proof about the much-discussed but surprisingly elusive direct Russian role. As a result, sometimes pictorial or video evidence is being taken at face value when it needed a little more cautious scrutiny: witness the video purportedly of Russian soldiers in Ukraine being blocked by plucky Ukrainians, which turned out to be Ukrainian troops being harangued by ethnic Russian militants. (The uniforms were a give-away then.)

The latest “smoking gun” is a video in which a man in Russian camouflage introduces himself to the defecting Horlivka police as a lt. colonel in the Russian army and introduces them to their new chief. So far, so straightforwardly damning. However, while this may appear to the holy grail of proof, I’m afraid that I think it ought to be taken with some caution.

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How the Middle East Peace Process went ‘Poof’

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Secretary of State John Kerry appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations committee

Poor John Kerry. This week he emitted a sound that was more expressive than pages of diplomatic babble.

Secretary of State John Kerry appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations committee

In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations committee he explained how the actions of the Israeli government had torpedoed the “peace process.” They broke their obligation to release Palestinian prisoners, and at the same time announced the enlargement of more settlements in East Jerusalem. The peace efforts went “poof.”

“Poof” is the sound of air escaping a balloon. It is a good expression, because the “peace process” was from the very beginning nothing more than a balloon full of hot air. An exercise in make-believe. John Kerry cannot be blamed. He took the whole thing seriously. He is an earnest politician, who tried very very hard to make peace between Israel and Palestine. We should be grateful for his efforts. The trouble is that Kerry had not the slightest idea of what he was getting himself into.

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The Poverty Incentive: Making the Poor Carry the Refugee Can

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Asylum seekers in Australia. Photo: Sharon Tisdale

The poorer you are, the more likely you need to shoulder more.

Asylum seekers in Australia. Photo: Sharon Tisdale

This axiomatic rule of social intercourse, engagement and daily living is simple and brutal enough: the poor shall hold, conserve, preserve. The rich will thrive on that principle and forge ahead on backs, shoulders and general supports. History is replete with that principle: tithes, feudalism, taxes, excises, tariffs, the consumer tax provide the sweet rescue for the wealthily insecure. It is not those who have who must give – they, rather, demand that those who don’t have take their place in answering the question.

States follow that guiding rule as well. The wealthy are the psychological wrecks who need comfort, a regular dosage of security pills to reassure them that their earnings, however gained, need shoring up against others who may want a share.

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An Open Letter to Aung San Suu Kyi

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Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: Claude TRUONG-NGOC

“Muslims have been targeted, but also Buddhists have been subjected to violence. But there’s fear on both sides and this is what is leading to all these troubles and we would like the world to understand: that the reaction of the Buddhists is also based on fear.” – Aung San Suu Kyi

Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: Claude TRUONG-NGOC

Dear Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi,

Thanks in part to the Internet, I have the luxury of writing this open letter to you.

Last month, at the third Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), you met with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. Both of you discussed various issues, such as the importance of providing micro-loans to rural women and drug trafficking in the region. It was encouraging to hear that steps are being taken for the betterment of the entire region.

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How to Read Vladimir Putin

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Putin is a statist who wants to safeguard a strong and great Russia. Photo: AFP

It was the sinking of the Russian submarine, the Kursk, in 2000 that first prompted Vladimir Putin to reveal critical elements of his personality to the world.

Putin is a statist who wants to safeguard a strong and great Russia. Photo: AFP

Since then, the Western media have generally characterised him as a heartless bully bent on challenging the West. While various Western experts claim to have insight into Putin’s thinking, in reality, few do. A big part of the reason is that so few view Putin through the prism of his upbringing, and Russian history, which is critical to getting Putin right.

By Western standards, he came from nothing. Excelling at judo presented Putin with his first opportunity to become something more than an average kid living in communal housing. During his martial arts training, he became more reactionary and disciplined. He calculated manoeuvres on the mat, waiting patiently to take an opponent down, which made his mind more focused and goal-oriented. Like so many Russians raised during the Soviet era, Putin was driven by opportunity, which is not the same as greed, but rather, a survival instinct.

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Keep Your Friends Close, But Your Enemies Closer

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President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Mexico, June 18, 2012. Pete Souza/White House

This old cliché is still apropos in President Barrack Obama’s saber-rattling standoff with President Vladimir Putin.

President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Mexico, June 18, 2012. Pete Souza/White House

In Europe last week Mr. Obama said that Russia was a declining “regional power.” In seizing Crimea, Mr. Putin was expanding Russia’s influence over Ukraine–part of the lost former Soviet Empire–was the inference. I am sure Mr. Putin is still fuming over those remarks. For the U.S. the annexation of Crimea is not a national security threat as was the Cold War era. Containing Russia’s further incursion into Ukraine is important however the most pressing foreign security issues are the control of Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s chemical stockpile. Mr. Putin is the key to both issues.

Mr. Obama needs to spend time with Mr. Putin, to better understand his goals–at least his thinking. The Crimea takeover could have been averted. Reversing its integration into the Russian Empire probably will not happen. Western allies wringing their hands and seeking punishing sanctions will not change the takeover. What we don’t want to do is push Mr. Putin into annexing Ukraine. This would begin a more regional conflict and draw in neighboring countries.

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Afghanistan’s Day of Truth

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Afghan women register to vote during a meeting in the Tarnek Wa Jaldek district in Zabul province, Afghanistan, Sept. 18, 2013

Thomas Paine once quipped that “The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.” In a similar vein, a nation once awakened politically cannot revert back to dormancy.

Afghan women register to vote during a meeting in the Tarnek Wa Jaldek district in Zabul province, Afghanistan, Sept. 18, 2013

Despite decades of war and ravage, Afghanistan, while still continuing to suffer from all sorts of injustices, afflictions, and violence, is on the march toward democratization. Yesterday – April 5, 2014 – the country convulsed with exhilaration and jubilance, as millions of Afghans sallied toward the polling stations to elect their new president.

The current situation cannot be disregarded: the country is still swelling with uncertainty, owing to the American troops’ exodus later this year. However, the enthusiasm, the excitement, and the alacrity of Afghans to show up at the polls in the face of personal dangers furnish me with hope for a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous Afghanistan. From all across the country, men and women, old and young came out to perform their civic duty and vote for their favorite candidate.

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Mr. Putin’s Picnic in the Crimea

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Russian soldier during the crisis in Crimea

Very little can be said or should be said about the Russian annexation of the Crimea.

Russian soldier during the crisis in Crimea

The West, in total, handed the parcel over to the Russian President like a Boxing Day gift. I will not endeavor to call it appeasement. (That is the task of my more realist and conservative colleagues.) What I will say is that the United States facilitated the move by illustrating weakness. Not since the end of World War II or the end of the Cold War has the United States advertised disarmament in the manner of the Obama administration. This was punctuated by the declaration that a military response was not an option. In this regard, Vladimir Putin was and is free to take as many pieces of his Western European neighbors as he likes.

Liberal International Relations theorists will dispute this claim. They will argue complex interdependence will keep the Russian Bear at bay. Yet, the Russians took hold of the eastern part of the Ukraine in a matter of days. Interdependence works both ways. It is clear that the European Union lacks the moxy to implement effective sanctions. This assumes that sanctions will even work. In the meantime, Secretary of State John Kerry will run around Europe, pimping American power to the highest bidder, attempting to keep the U.S. fingers in the dam. It isn’t surprising that Kerry has not gotten much from his travels other than some out of date peanuts and a passenger’s pillow. The “interdependence” is asymmetrical in nature because of Russia’s stakes: natural gas and oil.

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Armenian Insecurity and the #SaveKessab Campaign

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Following heavy fighting in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Palestinian refugees line up to receive food aid from UN workers. Photo: ONU Brasil

In what was an inadvertent statement on the sad state of news, it took a tweet from Kim Kardashian (no intro needed) for the #SaveKessab movement to garner some real attention.

Following heavy fighting in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Palestinian refugees line up to receive food aid from UN workers. Photo: ONU Brasil

The hashtag is in reference to Kessab, Syria where on March 21 rebel groups took over and forced the majority of the city’s 2,000 Armenians living in the city to flee to Latakia city, some 57 km away. Early on, there were reports of Armenians being killed and Armenian churches being vandalized.

However, the reports have yet to be verified, despite protests from Armenians, both inside and outside of Syria, who have demanded investigations on the happenings in Kessab. This is also not the first time that Armenians have been forced to flee during the Syrian civil war. Aleppo, Syria, a relative melting pot for the country’s minorities, was on the front lines of battles between pro-Assad and rebel forces and included a significant Armenian population. There, an estimated 10,000 Armenians fled and churches were destroyed.

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Russia’s Takeover of Crimea Needs Careful Action

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President Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk of Ukraine in the Oval Office, March 12, 2014. Pete Souza/White House

On Friday March 21 President Vladimir Putin signed the annexation treaty making Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea region a part of Russia.

President Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk of Ukraine in the Oval Office, March 12, 2014. Pete Souza/White House

The port city of Sevastopol on the Black Sea, home to Russia’s naval fleet in the region, was included. Russia flexing its muscle in Crimea was reminiscent of the World War II Stalin era. It was in 1944 that the minority Muslim Tatar’s were deported from Crimea, and shipped off to the Urals. Stalin had accused them of collaborating with the Nazis. Thousands of Tatars died along the way. Ironically male Tatars were serving in the Soviet army at the time. Upon their return home they found their families gone.

As the Cold War was ending in 1989 the exiled Tatars were allowed to return to their ancestral homes in Crimea. Many of the 250,000 Tatars living in the region still remember vividly being expelled from Crimea by the Soviets. They see Putin as Stalin’s protégé, and fear for the future. A number of Tatar’s have joined the ranks of the Islamist rebels fighting in Syria, attempting to oust President Bashar al-Assad, who Putin supports.

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A Kuffiya for Tony Benn, the British Warrior Who ‘Matured with Age’

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Tony Benn

Long before the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment campaign inched slowly from the fringes of global solidarity with Palestinians to take center stage, Tony Benn had been advocating a boycott of Israel with unrestricted conviction, for years.

Tony Benn

“Britain should offer its support for this strategy by stopping all arms sales to Israel, introducing trade sanctions and a ban on all investment there together with a boycott of Israeli goods here and make it a condition for the lifting of these measures that Israel complies with these demands at once,” Benn wrote in his blog on April 19, 2002, under the title “A STATE OF PALESTINE NOW.” The ‘strategy’ of which Ben spoke was for Arafat to declare a state, and for ‘friendly nations’ to recognize it.

Yes, the title was all in caps. It was as if Benn, a principled British left wing politician, had wanted to loudly accentuate his insistence that the Palestinian people deserved their rights, freedom and sovereignty. He was as bold and courageous as any man or woman of true values and principles should always be. He remained uncompromising in matters of human rights and justice. This international warrior left a challenging space to fill when he passed away at the age of 88, on Thursday, March 13.

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Ukraine is not America’s Backyard

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Pro-Putin rally in Moscow. Eugeniy Biyatov/RIA Novosti

It is important to understand the stakes and Russia’s determination to move forward in the Crimea.

Pro-Putin rally in Moscow. Eugeniy Biyatov/RIA Novosti

I think the West is gravely miscalculating Russia because Vladimir Putin views Ukraine as vital to its security. For the Russian Federation, an independent Ukraine is a source of extreme unease because it is an historical path of invasion, the soft underbelly of Russia. Ukraine is a place that armies can live off the harvests and stay warm in the depths of Russian winter. The world saw how mild it is by the Black Sea during the Sochi Olympics. Where else in Russia were temperatures balmy?

Ukraine is a place with a huge coastline – 2300 miles of it, 300 miles longer than America’s Atlantic coast. Invading armies can be supplied by sea quite easily. No other Russian region except Saint Petersburg and Vladivostok has this feature. Ukraine has many port facilities. It is where Russia’s main fleet is berthed. And Ukraine is the 3rd leading exporter of grain. When Europe overtly pulled Ukraine into its orbit, Russian unease became grim resolve. Russia cannot and will not allow Ukraine to escape its control and become part of Europe. To do so is, in Russian eyes, tantamount to national suicide.

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Remembering Tony Benn

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Tony Benn in 2005. Photo: Richard Edkins

Tony Benn’s passing saddened and concentrated my mind. His was the voice that resonated with (a much younger version of) me most powerfully immediately after I moved to England in 1978.

Tony Benn in 2005. Photo: Richard Edkins

I was attracted instantly to the combination of: his commitment to the progressive history and potential of British Parliamentarianism, his passionate anti-imperialist pacifism, his relentless socialist critique of capitalism, and his stupendous eloquence. But there was something beyond that: He stood opposite Mrs. Margaret Thatcher as one of the few members of the opposition interested in, and capable of, conviction politics. In an age of increasing spin, Tony Benn was solid in his support of political causes independently of political expediency. He was a rock rather than a weathercock.

Tony Benn’s was a disturbing voice on Europe. Unlike his colleague on the Labour Left (and my good friend) Stuart Holland, Benn was deeply sceptical of Brussels and of the whole European Union enterprise. He opposed Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community and maintained what might be called a Euro-sceptic stance throughout his political life. But, and this is crucial, his Euro-scepticism was based on radical solidarity with the people of Europe, as opposed to UKIP’s xenophobia or the Tories’ thinly disguised superiority complex. He believed that Brussels was a fundamentally anti-democratic set of institutions whose increasing power would be detrimental to the interests of Europe’s peoples. Recent developments, I fear, suggest that Tony Benn’s left-wing assessment was on history’s right side.

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Open Letter to Alex Salmond

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Pictured: Alex Salmond. Source: Scottish Government

Dear Mr. Salmond,

I am writing to urge you to reconsider your strategy of binding the campaign for an independent Scotland to sterling’s mast. I do this in my twin capacity as a supporter of the Scottish people’s aspiration for statehood and a Greek economist with bitter experiences of an ill-conceived currency union.

Pictured: Alex Salmond. Source: Scottish Government

The vast majority of the English establishment that oppose Scotland’s bid for independence have also opposed Britain’s membership of the Eurozone on the basis of a simple argument: that there is no nation-state to back the euro up (correct) and that no European institutions can/should develop to play that role (incorrect). What England’s governing Euro-sceptics seem to miss is that, if no currency can serve the interests of a multi-national state, then either Scotland ought to issue its own currency forthwith or the Scots do not qualify as a bona fide nation.

The SNP’s decision to demand Scotland’s continued membership of the Sterling Zone is a missed opportunity to turn against Mr. Cameron his own Burkean argument. To say to him: “If you are right about the Eurozone, then we have a moral duty to make Scotland independent of London and immediately to issue a Scottish currency. Unless, of course, Mr. Cameron you do not think that the Scots are a ‘legit’ nation. Which of the two is it Prime Minister?” By petitioning, instead, for the ‘right’ to stay in the Sterling Zone, you are sacrificing a splendid opportunity to unveil the English establishment’s contempt for Scottish nationhood and to fire up independently minded Scots prior to the referendum.

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Vladimir in Love

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President Barack Obama during a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Pete Souza/White House

Russian president Vladimir Putin does have a soft spot: Mother Russia. The West continues to have a knee-jerk reaction of vilifying and demonizing the man. This is a huge disservice to the American people and Western world. If we continue to judge him based on assumptions, how will we ever understand the man behind Russia?

President Barack Obama during a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Pete Souza/White House

KGB. Those three letters seem to define Putin’s entire existent. Yes, he spent 16 years as a KGB officer, including working in Dresden when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. However, Putin’s personality—a cross between strategic and reactionary—originates from the sport of judo. As a child, he began in the sport; he practiced hard and earned the title of judo master. This sport requires strict discipline. Unlike the other martial arts, it’s seen as street fighting. One opponent makes a move, and the other must react quickly and strategically. There’s grappling, hair pulling, tugging; it’s not for the faint of heart. In other words, to excel in judo, one must be tough, resilient, strategic, and reactionary at the same time. Sound like someone we know?

Of course, all judo masters don’t act the way Putin does. That’s where the KGB comes in. The training is intense. Showers set to the exact temperature and learning how to imitate others’ facial expresses and gestures in order to break them down is just a taste of how KGB officers are trained. Training plus sixteen years in the field, combined with judo, turned Putin into a super disciplined human being. Like a robot.

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