Putin’s Spectacles of Strength and Security at Home and Abroad

op31-Russia-in-SyriaRamped-up attacks in northwestern Syria by Damascus and its ally Russia have claimed the lives of hundreds since late April. Photo courtesy of AFP and the National

At home and abroad, Russia is using chaos to create spectacles of strength and security
Faisal Al Yafai
The National
July 30, 2019

In two incidents, in the space of one week, the Kremlin has twice sought confrontation where none was needed.

On Tuesday last week, Russia’s fighter jets violated South Korean airspace for several minutes, resulting in a major diplomatic incident as Korean jets fired more than 300 warning shots.

Then, over the weekend in Moscow, thousands of protesters gathered for the second week in a row, sparked by a crude and unnecessary attempt by the municipality to bar independent candidates from the city’s council elections.

Police responded forcefully to the protests, arresting thousands, including Russia’s most high-profile opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, who was imprisoned before being taken to hospital for exposure to an unidentified chemical.

Both situations could have been avoided. Neither were accidents, either. The Kremlin is actively creating confrontations at home and abroad, hoping to find a role in solving the chaos it is sowing.

This was especially clear in the protests.

The spark for the demonstrations came from an unlikely source: a decision by the country’s electoral commission to not allow a series of independent opposition candidates to stand in September’s Moscow city elections. Independent registrations for the elections require several thousand signatures, a usually insurmountable obstacle. But, when two dozen opposition candidates managed it, the electoral commission simply refused to register them.

These elections, it should be noted, are not for the city’s mayoralty, an important position. Instead, they are for seats on the city council, a much smaller prize.

But, even on something that barely matters, the Kremlin is determined to show its power, and show it in a way that demonstrates overt and public contempt for the election process. It is that sense, that Russia’s government is willing to publicly violate the rules, which pushed so many to protest.

That desire to flex the country’s muscles was also on show last week.

In a murky incident, Russian planes flew without warning through airspace where Seoul requires foreign aircraft to provide air identification, and then further violated the country’s air space. South Korean jets tracked the military aircraft and a volley of warning shots were fired.

On the surface, it seems bizarre to provoke South Korea, a country with which Russia has maintained good relations. However, the East China Sea is heavily contested. It was only last month, after all, that Russian and US warships almost collided in the waters below where the incident took place.

Under Vladimir Putin’s two decades of leadership, the role of the Russian state has shrunk. Although he often harks back to the glory days of the Soviet Union, in fact, the Russian state today does substantially less for citizens than its predecessor. Most housing is owned by private companies and landlords.* The idea that the state would provide the “flat, car and dacha” of Soviet lore is long gone.

Instead, Mr. Putin offers security and spectacle. He creates an idea of a world in turmoil, which only his government is able to defend ordinary Russians from, and offers visible displays of the protection he provides.

The intervention in Syria amply demonstrates this. First, the necessity of intervention, of Russia’s forces fighting beyond their country’s borders to stop a threat to the homeland. Second, the spectacle of a train full of tanks and guns looted from the Syrian battlefield touring the length and breadth of Russia, often accompanied by Soviet war songs.

There is no room for subtlety, either. The train departed from Moscow on a military holiday and returned on May 8, Victory Day in Russia, which commemorates the end of the Soviet war against Nazi Germany.

Mr. Putin behaves similarly on a personal level. On the same day as the street protests in Moscow, he was filmed descending in a two-man submarine to the bottom of the Gulf of Finland. In doing so, he projected himself as a strongman politician, able to control the unstable forces of the world by pure brawn and daring.

The Putin state needs these spectacles and this chaos, whether on Russia’s streets or beyond them. They demonstrate to a watching world a Russia that is more than a regional power, one that is a global player, able to cause global incidents from Salisbury through Syria, and on to South Korea. They also demonstrate to the Russian public that only the state can keep them safe.

With a weakened economy, poor relations with the West, and a war in Syria that drags on without end, the Kremlin is setting up clashes to create a place for itself at home and abroad.

Yet there is a danger in manufacturing conflicts because they can easily escalate out of hand. Even small skirmishes have the potential to expand unpredictably.

There was, for example, no guarantee that the South Korean incident would have ended peacefully. One miscalculation by either side in the skies above the Korean Peninsula, and there could have been serious consequences.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Mr. Navalny has been taken ill and his doctors believe he could have been poisoned. What started as a minor attempt to exclude candidates from a meaningless election has escalated first into the biggest street protests the Russian capital had seen in years, and the world watching to see whether an opposition politician had been brazenly poisoned in custody.

That is the problem with chaos: once unleashed, it is difficult for anyone, even the Russian state, to bring under control.

* This is the only false note in an otherwise powerful, impeccable analysis. Given the extraordinarily high number of Russians who own their own flats and dachas, legacies of the post-perestroika giveaway privatization of the country’s housing stock and the late-Soviet period, respectively, it seems dubious to claim, as Mr. Yafai does here, that landlords and private companies own most of the housing in Russia. Maybe this would prove true if we looked carefully at ownership statistics, but I am nearly certain Mr. Yafai has not done that. // TRR

________________________________________________

UN reports 400,000 Syrians displaced since Idlib offensive started in April
Deutsche Welle
July 26, 2019

The UN says there has been a “dramatic escalation” in violence since Syrian forces started an operation to retake Idlib province. Human rights chief Michelle Bachelet regretted “international indifference.”

More than 400,000 people have been displaced in northwestern Syria since the start of a government offensive to retake the region in late April, the United Nations said Friday.

David Swanson from the UN’s humanitarian coordination office (OCHA) said more than 2,700 people have died during the “dramatic escalation” in violence in Idlib province.

Russia has been helping government forces loyal to President Bashar Assad with airstrikes, despite an international truce.

UN reports persistent pattern against civilians

UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet criticized “international indifference” at the number of civilians dying in attacks on schools, hospitals, and other civilian targets.

“These are civilian objects, and it seems highly unlikely, given the persistent pattern of such attacks, that they are all being hit by accident,” she said.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had registered 39 attacks on health facilities and at least 50 attacks on schools. More than 740 civilians have been killed in those strikes, it added.

Intentional attacks are war crimes

“Intentional attacks against civilians are war crimes, and those who have ordered them or carried them out are criminally responsible for their actions,” Bachelet said.

Forces loyal to Assad have retaken around two-thirds of Syria’s territory.

The country’s civil war has claimed the lives of more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it began in 2011.

Advertisements

Hafsa Sabr: Geneva or Bust

Refugees in Europe demonstrate in support of France and against ISIS terrorism. Photo by Hafsa Sabr. Courtesy of Maria José Ferreiro
Refugees in Europe demonstrate in support of France and against ISIS terrorism. Photo by Hafsa Sabr. Courtesy of Maria José Ferreiro

Geneva or Bust
antidotezine.com
January 28, 2016

AntiNote: Hafsa Sabr is a vital presence at the enormous, improvised, and barely survivable camp in Dunkirk, northern France. She has been instrumental both in coordinating with independent aid and solidarity organizations operating in the camp as well as in insurgent media work, filming conditions in camp and reporting day-to-day on activities and incidents there.

The following could be a model script for the dystopian road-trip movie of the future. Its hopeful, tragic anger not only fits the Antidote vibe, but it also reveals much about revered institutions and the real effects their often arbitrary decisions have on people. We have edited it lightly for clarity, and thank Hafsa for her kind permission to print it.

Geneva or Bust
23 January 2016
by Hafsa Sabr

We need to talk. Everyone asked us what we did in Switzerland. This is our answer.

One week ago we heard that the UN would make an urgent conference in Switzerland: A journalist from New York came with her team to film the miserable conditions in the camp. She also made interviews. Her video was supposed to be shown during the UN meeting!

At this moment we all thought that the UN could change the world, and would make huge decisions about the camps of Dunkirk and Calais.

On Tuesday morning we (Sarhang, Besh and I) prepared ourselves to go to Paris. We were in a hurry and positively excited, thinking about what we were going to say.

We had an invitation from the UN, and that’s right: Sarhang and Besh are refugees and they don’t have any passport or ID card, but according to international laws on humans rights after 1948, everyone is free to travel anywhere.

Anyway, in Paris we met the journalist, Dina. She organized the way to participate in the conference (the open forum “Immigration to Integration”) and talk, mainly about the jungle in Dunkirk and the more than three thousand refugees there—men, women and children, and babies of course.

In the train station the French police surrounded Sarhang and Besh. They said they could be potential terrorists! I told the police guy that the refugees ran away from ISIS; how can they be terrorists? After ten minutes of negotiations they let us go to take the train.

While we were in the train, the journalist told us that the UN warned the police! Because Sarhang and Besh don’t have any papers! And if they enter Swiss territory, some people who invited us will be fired from the their jobs. This is the UN.

We wanted to go back home! The UN canceled our invitation!

When we crossed the border from France into Switzerland, at the first train station the border police stopped us. They were looking for us! They put us in jail for almost six hours! We were interrogated! And one guy from the police told me, “I’m sorry, what I’m going to say might hurt you, but we received the order to focus on Arab people. We don’t distinguish between Kurdish or Amazigh.”

After a few hours they asked for a lot of money from us. They wanted 170 euros. Sarhang and Besh could not afford it, so they let them off it. We even showed them the paper of invitation, but they didn’t care…After that, they told us we were all free. On our way to the last train to go back to France, a woman and a man from the police team stopped me once again and told me to stay here, and to pay 480 euros in taxes!

Sarhang and Besh told the lady they would not go back to France without me. I warned the two police that I would not give one euro to them because this money in my wallet was not mine! This money was for the refugees! And in my religion it’s called amana, which means a trust! I was upset and crying. The police man was kind. He told us, “I know that, but it’s my boss’s orders…otherwise I’m so sorry for what’s happened to you.” We were disappointed about everything, and we went back to the police office.

I will stop here and go back to history, to the 1880s when the people of southern Europe ran away because of inequality and the dictatorial law of rich people. Many people sacrificed to get to a life with rights and safety. In 1908 the same thing happened in Europe with African people.

And now in 2016, in a period of modernity and technology: in power and politics, no one cares about people who fled because of war, even Kurdish people who are fighting ISIS.

Dina was in contact with UN staff to find a way to get us free of the Swiss border police. But after another five hours they fingerprinted Sarhang and Besh. Then the police started shouting among each other. And then they let us go. We were FREE. El hamdullilah.

We thanked the one kind policeman, he had tears in his eyes.

We returned by bus to Mulhouse, and we slept there; the day after, we took a train to Paris and from Paris to Dunkirk. We were “home.”

We had spent a lot of the money that the refugees raised to help Sarhang and Besh join the conference. But it’s the UN: everyone in the jungle was waiting for great news from Sarhang and Besh. Unfortunately, they didn’t have anything to say.

They had a last hope with the UN.
Just think about it: the UN made a conference about refugees in Dunkirk and Calais, but they didn’t let one refugee come to represent them.
Shame on them.

They called the cops! The UN.
I give up on humanity.

Please share this post as much as possible.

Sarhang, Besh and Hafsa