Russia: Two Against The World


November 19, 2011: Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan have agreed to establish a free-trade union over the next four years. Russia denied that it is trying to rebuild the Soviet Union (which was itself a Russian empire that had taken several centuries to create). But the 14 nations that were created from the dissolution of the Soviet Union left a lot of trade links that were now encumbered by national politics, tariffs and all sorts of obstacles that hurt the economies of all concerned. While this union makes economic sense, many Russians make no secret of wanting to get their empire back, and this makes the neighbors, who used to be part of that empire, nervous.

Russia continues to back dictatorships in places like Syria, Libya and Iran. Russia is not happy with the demise of the Kaddafi tyranny in Libya. While backing  democracy in Syria and calling for the government there to stop slaughtering its own people, Russia opposes pressure for the Assad dictatorship to step down. Despite increasing evidence that Iran is building nuclear weapons and backing terrorism worldwide, Russia supports the religious dictatorship there.

What is this fondness for tyranny in a country that is supposed to be a democracy? It's all about needing an enemy, and providing a distraction for domestic politics. Neighbor China has the same needs, and is an ally with Russia in supporting the same tyrants, for many of the same reasons. This kind of loyalty arises from several causes. First, there is the need to stick it to the West. The Cold War may be over, but not the antagonism of Russian and Chinese leaders towards those Western upstarts. This is a centuries old antagonism. Both China and Russia resent the Western cultural, economic and military power that led to the decline in Chinese and Russian influence in the world. Secondly, the support for Iran, Syria, Libya and other despotisms is also a way of gaining profitable commercial links with those nations (a source of raw materials, and arms and industrial sales.) Neither China nor Russia sees the terrorist links of their tyrant clients as a major liability. In fact, the connection with terrorist sponsoring states is a form of immunity from some terrorist activity.

A new international survey found that Russian and Chinese companies are the most likely to use bribes when trying to obtain sales, or anything else. China and Russia are among the most corrupt nations on the planet.

November 17, 2011: Tajikistan backed off in an extortion attempt against a Russian air freight company. Two foreign pilots (a Russian and Estonian) will be released from jail, after Tajikistan recently sentenced them to eight years in prison for smuggling. The charge was bogus, and the Russian government countered by starting to expel thousands of illegal Tajik migrants to Russia (who send home millions of dollars a year.)

November 16, 2011: Two decades after the Cold War ended, Russia has finally moved to recycle 10 million tons of obsolete weapons. The stuff, mostly armored vehicles, ships and aircraft, will be taken apart and sold as scrap metal. Several million tons of ammunition will be carefully taken apart, and the explosives safely disposed of.  In the last two decades, Russia had spent over half a billion dollars in trying to maintain this junk, just in case.

November 13, 2011:  Russia will continue shipping weapons to Syria, despite the growing unrest there. As long as Syria can guarantee the safety of Russian ships and aircraft carrying the goods, and the stuff is paid for, deliveries will continue.

November 11, 2011: Russia reiterated its claim to most of the Arctic Ocean (where a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil may be). Russia is seeking backing (in the UN and elsewhere) for the novel claim that a 2,000 kilometer long underwater mountain range, that begins off the Russian coast, gives Russia control of all the underwater territory in or near this submerged terrain. Other nations bordering the Arctic oppose this claim.

November 7, 2011: In St Petersburg, Russia hosts a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This is a regional security forum founded in Shanghai in 2001 by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and China. The main purpose of the SCO was originally fighting Islamic terrorism. Russia, however, hopes to build the SCO into a counterbalance against NATO. SCO members conduct joint military exercises, mostly for show. They also share intel on terrorists, which is often useful. Iran, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mongolia and Turkey also want to join the SCO. These nations are allowed to send observers to meetings.

November 3, 2011: Former Russian Air Force officer Viktor Bout was convicted of terrorism in an American court, three years after he was arrested in Thailand. Last year, after numerous court battles, judges in Thailand ordered Russian gunrunner Viktor Bout extradited to the United States. Russia tried to halt the process, fearing what Bout might say to American prosecutors about Russian government involvement in many illegal arms deals in the last two decades. Bout was the major exporter of illegal weapons since the early 1990s. Russian officials were bribed, or persuaded by their own government, to look the other way as Bout sold Cold War surplus weapons to anyone who could pay.

November 2, 2011:  The U.S. has again accused Russia and China of carrying out, sponsoring or just tolerating enormous Internet based espionage operations in the West. Large quantities of commercial, military and government data have been stolen. China and Russia deny it all. Britain, and other Western nations, agree with the American accusations, and often make their own when hit by a particularly heavy Internet based attack.

October 31, 2011: The American FBI released video of their surveillance of Russian spies (arrested and exchanged last year) who were operating in the United States. This was yet another embarrassment for Russian intelligence agencies. These vids showed the ten Russians who had, for the last decade, been trying to pass themselves off as Americans, and operate as "illegals" (spies without diplomatic cover and protection). The FBI caught on to this bunch early on, and was watching them for years, trying to obtain more information on how Russian espionage operated in the United States. The FBI finally arrested these ten when it became apparent that the Russians had detected that they were being watched.

The FBI was puzzled by how little useful information these ten were able to obtain. As far as the FBI could tell, these ten spies never obtained anything important. Moreover, the ten agents were not very professional, or effective. That may be why the Russians were eager to get them back, and avoid a trial in the United States.  Russian state media said very little about the spy swap. The spy exchange was organized in less than a month, with the U.S. eager to get four valuable people back, and Russia equally intent on getting its ten embarrassing spies out of the news.

It's unclear why Russia undertook such an inept operation. There are indications that many other Russian espionage operations are similarly sloppy (and will be revealed when arrests are made). This is in sharp contrast to the Cold War when, after it was over, it was revealed that the Russians were much better at the spy game than their Western counterparts. But those super spies appear to have moved on to more lucrative work in the civilian sector, or the government. In any event, the past masters are no longer running the show. Its amateur hour now and the Russians would rather not talk about it, or have anyone see videos of their overseas spies in action.

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