UK has a real arms sales problem on its hands

No. 10 Downing St (Credit: Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC - Ministry of Defense via Wikimedia)

No. 10 Downing St (Credit: Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC – Ministry of Defense via Wikimedia)

A parliamentary report has found that the British government has not revoked arms sale licenses to Russia in compliance with sanctions against the country following its annexation of Crimea, despite bold claims by the Cameron government.

This comes on the heels of detailed allegations that UK firms sold dual-use (military or police) weapons to Turkey immediately following the vicious 2013 crackdown by Turkish police in several cities, and it echoes revelations that, in 2012, the UK government knowingly approved exports of a key ingredient in Sarin gas to the sanctioned regime in Syria during the Civil War (which were only blocked by the EU).

Details on the new Russia report, according to The Guardian:

More than 200 licences to sell British weapons to Russia, including missile-launching equipment, are still in place despite David Cameron’s claim in the Commons on Monday that the government had imposed an absolute arms embargo against the country, according to a report by a cross-party group of MPs released on Wednesday.

A large number of British weapons and military components which the MPs say are still approved for Russia are contained in a hard-hitting report by four Commons committees scrutinising arms export controls.

Existing arms export licences for Russia cover equipment for launching and controlling missiles, components for military helicopters and surface-launched rockets, small arms ammunition, sniper rifles, body armour, and military communications equipment, the committee says. They also include licences for night sights for weapons, components for operating military aircraft in confined spaces, and surface-to-surface missiles.
Sir John Stanley, former Conservative defence secretary and chairman of the Commons arms control committees, said there was evidence that appeared to directly contradict the prime minister’s claim that he had already stopped all arms exports to Russia.
Stanley had already written to Philip Hammond, the new foreign secretary, asking him to explain why, according to official figures given to the MPs, of 285 current licences for Russia, only 34 had been suspended or revoked.

Why can’t David Cameron’s government get it together to halt British companies from selling weapons to governments they shouldn’t be doing business with, by law? Is it intentional negligence to keep the arms and money flowing?

On Syria, the laughable line from the government was that the system had worked. This time:

“We will not a grant a licence where there is a clear risk the equipment might be used for internal repression.”

So when exactly does it become clear that Russia or Syria might use weapons for internal repression? Or what about Turkey, literally right after it engaged in internal repression?

And what do we make of this accusation in the Russia report?

It says the most significant change in the government’s policy on arms exports over the past year is the dropping of the wording in the arms sales criteria that: “An export licence will not be issued if the arguments for doing so are outweighed … by concern that the goods might be used for internal repression”.

You know, in the sense, that that action is exactly the opposite of the supposed policy stated by the government spokesperson.

The United Kingdom is the 7th largest arms exporting country in the world by dollar value annually, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

When is a disputed territory not disputed anymore?

Obviously the simple answer to that question is a matter of when everyone officially agrees to stop disputing it, but that may never happen in some cases. So how do we balance the long-term geopolitical realities on the ground with the higher-level political concerns? That answer is not so easy.

Several weeks ago, I published a (disapproving) essay on National Geographic’s decision to transfer Crimea from Ukraine to Russia on its maps as soon as annexation occurred. Given the extremely contested circumstances surrounding the referendum to leave Ukraine, I felt this was overly hasty and risked reinforcing Russian claims without good reason, before the dust had even settled.

David Miller, a former Senior Editor at National Geographic, tweeted us his very compelling blog post on how (in the abstract, beyond National Geographic specifically) one makes a decision on how to map disputed territories, since it is indeed a bit subjective (as I had argued).

In “Crimea: A Map Controversy”, Miller notes the deep controversy over the referendum (held essentially at Russian gunpoint amid major boycotts), and then he lays out some factors to weigh deciding when it’s time to flip control on the map:

For accurate mapping of political sovereignty, the cartographer should consider four points: political claim, control of territory, international recognition of sovereignty, and time.

Let’s take them one at a time, as he does in the piece.

He observes that the governments of Ukraine and Russia both claim the territory. So it’s disputed, but anyone can dispute anything indefinitely, which means you have to look at the other factors.

He also observes that Russia must have military, political, and economic control of the region. It’s getting pretty close, but at the time National Geographic made its decision, the Ukrainian military hadn’t even evacuated the peninsula. It still hasn’t fully right now, I believe.

On the third point, he observes that there’s very little international recognition for this move and probably won’t be. Even Russian allies, such as Serbia, are hesitant to acknowledge the action for fear of de-legitimizing their own opposition to separatism and other neighborhood border disputes.

You rarely achieve resolution on all these points, but of course it’s about subjectively weighing them against each other before you color in the map.

Finally, the most subjective — and probably most important — factor to consider: time.

Time determines whether sovereignty is enduring or fleeting. Months or years may be necessary to judge a country’s claim and control of a region. For example, Morocco has claimed Western Sahara as a part of Morocco for decades, but its political control is limited and sovereignty is disputed. When Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in 1990, Iraqi sovereignty was disputed, and then it was overturned in 1991.

Outside the context of mapping, here’s another example that came to my mind on the issue of factoring in time: The U.S./U.N. abandoning its recognition of the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan as the “legitimate government” of mainland China, three decades after the ROC had lost control of the mainland to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Objectively, in that situation, there was no fundamental change on the ground or between the factions in 1979 that suddenly signaled that the PRC was more legitimate and permanent than it had been in, say, 1965. I’m sure certain political actions in the 1960s (such as the PRC’s brutal “Cultural Revolution”) probably didn’t help speed up U.S. recognition, but — other than Mao finally dying in 1976 — it probably wouldn’t have been any less arbitrary to normalize relations in 1960, 1965, 1972, etc.

All of which is to say sometimes in sovereignty disputes you really do just wait around to see how things play out and then one day you wake up and say to yourself “yeah, I think we better just accept this is the situation.”

That’s an definitely arbitrary and subjective solution, but at least giving a situation time ensures that it actually is going to remain that way rather than being reverse in a few more weeks. Crimea probably is going to remain Russian indefinitely and probably won’t be reversed back to Ukrainian control any time in the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to change the color on the map to match Russia’s the second the referendum ends.

Miller’s verdict:

At this time, Crimea should be shown as disputed territory, which is usually a gray color on National Geographic maps with no sovereignty color.

But I do encourage everyone to read the full post, as I have only drawn a few bites out here and there, and he is a far more qualified person to speak on this subject than I am.

Thanks for sending it our way! If other readers also have articles/essays on the matter, let us know, or post a comment.

How to respond to Russia (safely)

Arsenal Essay: This isn’t Neville Chamberlain in 1938. It’s the world NOT taking the bait of Serbian gunmen in 1914.
nato-logo-200The Crimea annexation has raised a crucial question: What is the world to do when a country with a large military and nuclear weapons decides to end a (voluntary, it turns out) period of non-aggression toward its neighbors?

For a while, the Soviet Union and Russia was so bogged down by the 1980s Afghanistan debacle and economic problems of the 1990s that it wasn’t in a strong position to intervene militarily in its European neighbors’ political affairs as it had once regularly done.

But by the mid-2000s, Russia’s military was back up and ready. The United States and the wider Western world appears to have mistakenly convinced itself that Russian non-intervention in Eastern Europe was due to universalizing of norms against such interference and some sort of implicit global check against it.

Putin doesn’t appear to feel bound by any of those norms, after all (though the United States has had an extremely iffy track record on that as well since 1999). For some time now I’ve been firmly in the camp that this has more to do with restoring the pre-1914 Russian Empire and little to do with restoring the USSR. I think Putin’s vision of Russia is a lot like the Russia that was a European power with an inferiority complex and a Peter the Great-inspired desperation for Europe’s respect but not its approval.

It also calls to mind the arrogant Russia that saw itself as the older brother (and divinely chosen leader) of all Slavs everywhere, whether they liked it or not — and the White Man’s Burden Leader of the near abroad (especially Central Asia, as we’ve seen flashes of again recently). We’ve seen the revived patronizing attitude of Russians who simply can’t comprehend why Ukraine wouldn’t want to be part of Russia again.

Of course — as I’ll return to later in this essay — that was the same “Older Brother Russia” with the largest land army in the world that invaded the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in response to an Austrian police action in Serbia following the Serbian assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 (and Serbia’s alleged refusal to hand over the terrorists).

Rather than the Slavic World-Tsar liberating the Yugo-Slavs (the Slavs of the South), it brought the world into a devastating war that collapsed four empires, including Russia’s.

But let us return to Putin’s neo-imperial Russia of today. The lack of Russian invasions in Eastern Europe in the past nine years — apart from the disputed circumstances of Georgia in 2008 — seems now to have been more out of the “goodness” of Putin’s heart than out of any real commitment to respecting the independence of the Federation’s neighbors.

Putin’s revelation is that the 1956 rules still apply no less than they did in 1956, when the Soviet Union violently invaded Hungary (an anti-NATO Warsaw Pact member) to preserve communist rule there, and NATO was forced to watch passively because it could not risk a nuclear war over the matter.

Does the current Russian leadership, like the Soviet leadership of 1956, have enough sense to realize that it can only get away with interventions in its “sphere of influence” or will he press his luck? At the end of the day, it’s at least partly a matter of voluntary forbearance, as to how far Russia pushes. But partly as the hawks are telling us, it’s also about whether NATO and the United States are a credible umbrella for NATO members in Eastern Europe. As in: Is NATO really prepared to honor its defense obligations to the Baltic Republics if Russia intervenes there too?

I don’t know for sure if we’d actually launch a war if Russia invaded Estonia, say, but I do know that the United States isn’t twiddling its thumbs either — and is working to make sure that doesn’t happen in the first place, so that we never have to find out. Contrary to Republican belief, President Obama has been taking strong measures to shore up NATO allies in Eastern Europe against Russian aggression. Here’s the New York Times on the moves:

Since President Vladimir V. Putin ordered troops to seize Crimea, Mr. Obama has become increasingly engaged, blitzing foreign leaders with telephone calls, imposing sanctions and speaking out more frequently.

To reassure nervous allies, he sent six extra F-15C Eagles to Lithuania and 12 F-16 fighter jets to Poland. Mr. Obama, who met here with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general, will further bolster defenses in Eastern Europe by rotating more ground and naval forces for exercises and training in Poland and the Baltic countries; update contingency planning; and increase the capacity of a NATO quick-response force.

“Putin just declared war on the European order and it’s demanding that the United States focus on Europe again as a security issue,” said Damon Wilson, a former national security aide to Mr. Bush and now executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. While some Republicans have pushed the president to be tougher, Mr. Wilson praised Mr. Obama’s response. “I don’t think I’ve seen the president more personally engaged on any foreign policy crisis in a concerted way as he has been on Ukraine.”

This might not do much to help or re-assure non-NATO members such as Ukraine, Moldova, or Sweden, but we haven’t ever legally bound ourselves to defend them in the event of a foreign attack. The administration is striking a balance by re-affirming our existing commitments and alliances without drawing us into fresh entanglements that risk a World War I-style avoidable meltdown into war between major powers.

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If Scotland secedes, UK can annex Hughesovka, Ukraine

Russian Federation troops may be massing on the border of the Russian-dominated Donetsk region of Ukraine, but snarky Ukrainian activists in the region’s capital city, with a mind toward history and an eye toward remaining free of Russia, have other ideas for their economically depressed region:

The industrial city of about 950,000 people on the Kalmius river was once known as Hughesovka or Yuzovka, after its Welsh founder John Hughes.

Hughes was an engineer, born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1814 or 1815. After building a successful shipbuilding and ironworks company in Britain, which was known primarily for developing armored plating for warships, he was invited 1868 by the imperial Russian government to buy a concession in eastern Ukraine to set up a metallurgy and rail-producing factory.

According to a 2010 BBC feature, “Hughes provided a hospital, schools, bath houses, tea rooms, a fire brigade and an Anglican church dedicated to the patron saints St George and St David.”

Satirizing the question posed in the very dubious recent referendum in Crimea, activists have pitched a self-determination referendum for the city of Donetsk, giving “voters” even more exciting options than merely joining Russia or remaining in Ukraine:

According to the Moscow Times, “more than 7,000 people had supported the proposal by Sunday, with an online poll showing about 61 percent of respondents favored accession to Britain, and another 16 percent favored ‘broad regional autonomy’ with English as an official language.”

More from that Moscow Times article:

The online appeal asked the people of Donetsk — “fellow Britons” — to seize the “decisive moment” and have their say on “where your children will live and what language they will speak.”
“For more than a century Russians have deceived us by saying that this is an indigenous Russian city, and Ukrainians — that it is Ukrainian,” the online appeal said.

The mock referendum’s slogan, according to a Google translation of a Russian-language site, is: “Glory to John Hughes and his town! God save the Queen!”

One of the banners circulating on social media promoting it looks like this:


Now might be a good time to make a bid for accession to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, due to the upcoming Scotland Independence Referendum, to be held this coming September.

Although all three major British political parties (Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats) have already banded together (with additional help from the European Union) to make it extremely unpalatable and economically suicidal for Scotland to vote for independence, I think Britain could also offer a spot to the city of Donetsk to further demonstrate to Scotland that it is eminently replaceable with another industrial area — and one that probably has a lower prevailing wage, which would help UK companies’ bottom lines.

Here’s to Hughesovka: the cheaper Eastern European replacement for Scotland.

Plus: If the Russian Empire is making a comeback on the Black Sea, it’s only right and sensible that the British Empire return to the region to counter growing Russian power.

The U.S. Congress has a Team Russia?

New York Times: “Kremlin Finds a Defender in Congress”

Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, is speaking up for Moscow with pride.

Dana-RohrabacherWow, there is so much to unpack in that article.

Now, for a start, Rep. Rohrabacher has always been a bit “unique” in his views and behavior — and the article spends some time on that. But he’s particularly delusional about the freedoms of the current, post-Communist version of the Russian Federation, as well as newly Russian-occupied Crimea:

“There have been dramatic reforms in Russia that are not being recognized by my colleagues,” he said. “The churches are full. There are opposition papers being distributed on every newsstand in Russia. You’ve got people demonstrating in the parks. You’ve got a much different Russia than it was under Communism, but you’ve got a lot of people who still can’t get over that Communism has fallen.”

What about Pussy Riot, the Russian protest group? Its members were jailed for criticizing Mr. Putin, released, then publicly flogged when they showed up at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

“Well, I don’t think that happens often,” Mr. Rohrabacher said with a shrug. “There are lots of people demonstrating in the streets of Russia who are perfectly free to do so.”

Yet, this isn’t limited to one foolish Republican: as the article notes, progressive Florida Democrat Alan Grayson is similarly eager to endorse the Crimea referendum as “a virtually bloodless transfer of power establishes self-determination for two million people…”

Which is such a laughable fiction that it makes me question everything I know about Rep. Grayson. (Is he just trying to be contrarian for the sake of it at this point?)

But I also strongly suspect Rohrabacher’s love of Putin’s Russia and support for the Crimea annexation is partially grounded in Vladimir Putin’s violent and militarized opposition to “Islamic terrorism” (in the form of Chechen persecution and other state terror campaigns in the predominantly Muslim northern Caucuses):

By last year, Mr. Rohrabacher was accompanying the action star Steven Seagal to Russia in search of a broader Islamist plot behind the Boston Marathon bombing. The actor and the congressman had often discussed “thwarting radical Islamic terrorism,” he explained.

Get to know a geopolitical flashpoint: Moldova

A Russian-dominated breakaway region of another former Soviet Republic, just up the river from the Black Sea and a short hop from Crimea, has formally requested the Russian Federation follow up on its Crimea annexation by doing the same there.

Although many Western observers initially thought the continuing buildup of Russian troops near Eastern Ukraine was intended for a possible invasion of Eastern Ukraine, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said today that he is worried it may in fact be the Russian Army positioning itself for another intervention on the other side of Ukraine and Crimea, in the Transdniestria region of Moldova.

A month ago I would have said that was nonsense — and it still feels strategically and logistically less likely than the Crimea takeover — but a month ago, few were expecting such a brazen seizure of Crimea by the Russian Federation. So with that in mind, I thought it would be a good time to expand upon my “Beginner’s Guide to the Post-Soviet ‘Near Abroad'” prepare some research on Transdniestria and Moldova.
The landlocked Eastern European country of Moldova is wedged between southwestern Ukraine and northeastern Romania. The predominant language is Moldovan, which is effectively the same language as Romanian and since 1989 has used the Roman alphabet instead of the Cyrillic alphabet (previously enforced by Moscow). The country has been independent since 1991 when the Soviet Union ended, but it changed hands and was carved up many times in the past 500 years. At various points, parts of the country were ruled by the Ottomans, the Romanians, the Lithuanians, the Polish, the Ukrainians, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union.

The borders have also changed quite a few times in that time and Moldova has struggled to find its geographical place in the region. Part of the country had long been a Russian Empire border zone (on the edge of Ukraine) and was absorbed into Soviet Ukraine and the Soviet Union right after World War I, when the Russian Empire collapsed and was replaced by the communist government. The rest of the country was part of Romania during the interwar years. After World War II, the parts of what are now Moldova today were fused together into a Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the smaller of the USSR’s member republics.

So, as you can imagine, by the end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s, things were pretty confusing and jumbled. There wasn’t a clearly defined national identity because there wasn’t even a clearly defined historical area or legacy of self-rule. It was possible that Moldova might even try to rejoin Romania, which has the most in common with the bulk of the country and had previously controlled it several times. After late 1989, when Romania’s totalitarian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu had been executed, it seemed to Moldovan nationalists like a good escape route from Soviet/Russian domination, which had not yet ended.

This plan, unfortunately, didn’t sit well with the longstanding Russian population from the other side of the Dniester River, the zone that had not been part of Romania during the interwar years (having been almost immediately brought into the Soviet Union by 1924). This was a place that had been a militarized frontier of the Russian Empire since 1793 and had suffered greatly under Axis-Romanian occupation during World War II — experiencing forced Romanianization and the murders of over 100,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews in Axis concentration camps built in the region.

This geographical area, the narrow strip of land between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border, effectively Moldova’s Russianized East Bank (and a few communities on the Moldovan side of the river), is known in English as the Trans-Dniester region or Transdniestria/Transnistria and other variants adapted from the Romanian point-of-reference to “the area across the Dniester.”

The bulk of the rest of Moldova, the Dniester’s West Bank, is the non-Russian-speaking area referred to as “Bessarabia” — which has changed hands far more often than Transdniestria. By the early 1990s, Transdniestria’s Russian population, despite now being separated from the Russian Soviet Federal Republic by the entirety of a newly independent Ukraine, still saw itself as the Western-most outpost of historical Russia, and felt very threatened by the pro-Romanian nationalism of the Moldovan independence movement that had broken the country away from the Soviet Union.

They promptly declared independence from Moldova as the USSR was breaking up and — after some initial skirmishes in the first politically chaotic months — the new Moldovan military tried to invade the Transdniestria region.

Below: The current flag of the breakaway region.

Complicating matters was the giant, heavily armed elephant in the room: The fact that the Soviet Union’s 14th Army had been stationed in eastern Moldova (Transdniestria) at the time of independence and was assigned to Russia, rather than Moldova, when the former Soviet states were divvying up the old USSR’s Army and Navy.
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National Geographic, Crimea, and the politics of geography

Above: Wikipedia’s map showing Crimea as part of Ukraine.

National Geographic, the venerable and often deeply controversial flagship organization of the American field of geography, has generated a new firestorm over its decision to start mapping Crimea as part of the Russian Federation following its illegal and fraudulent annexation of the peninsula. Other options would include marking it as “disputed” or still part of Ukraine. Nat Geo’s justification was that they “map the world as it is, not as people would like it to be.”

Whether or not the de facto status of Crimea is now that it is part of Russia, that’s a cop-out. And as someone who studied the history of geography at the University of Delaware’s nationally prominent Geography Department, I’d like to point out that this cop-out also conveniently absolves National Geographic of its role in the community and the world, one which has historically been both very important and very damaging (in many cases).
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