Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Kremlin's If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em Social Media Strategy

Russia recently surpassed Germany as the European country with the most internet users.  While this could be taken as a positive sign of Russia's modernity and development from the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, it's doubtful that the folks in the Kremlin are viewing it that way.

Part of the reason for the growth of internet users in Russia is that the internet is the one form of mass media not under tight de facto control by the state.  That's also the reason why the internet has played a large role in organizing the political opposition to Vladimir Putin during the past year; Alexei Navalny  for one has risen to national stature based on his blog, which freely criticizes the Putin administration.

Seeing that they missed the boat on setting up a web-filtering system like China's Great Firewall, the Kremlin is taking a new tack: they'll try to beat the opposition at their own social media game.  Last week, Kremlin officials announced that they would be launching their own, as yet unnamed, government-run social networking site for Russia, set up along the lines of Facebook. Officials have high hopes for the new networking site and say that private capital will be used to develop the web project.

But Russia already has its own privately-run Facebook clones: Vkontakte (“In Contact”) and Odnoklassniki (“Our Class”), the former of which bears an amazing resemblance to Facebook.  Since these social networks already exist, along with an official Russian-language option for Facebook as well, critics wonder why anyone would join a government-run social networking site, especially since it is reasonable to assume that the government would be monitoring content on the site and would likely take a dim view of any critique of the government.

“If the government creates some form of social network, then people will not join it,” said Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia's security services and the internet in an article in The Guardian. “It is not realistic.”
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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Why Russia Loves Syria

Even though the international community has largely turned against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over his government's brutal response to internal dissent, Russia has remained a staunch supporter of the Middle Eastern state.  In my latest post over at The Mantle, I take a look at the why of Russia's backing for Syria.  Rather than just outright anti-Western stubborness by Vladimir Putin, Russian support for Syria is driven by some unexpected factors like religion and a desire to cling to the remnants of their once glorious Soviet past. 
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Friday, June 15, 2012

Spies On The Catwalk

I normally steer clear of NBC's Today show, I just find their patented mix of inane chatter and pop culture nonsense really annoying first thing in the morning, but a tip of the hat to Today for posting this story about everyone's favorite “secret” agent, Anna Chapman.

After a period of being out of the public spotlight, Ms. Chapman turned up modeling a gown at a fashion show in Antalya, Turkey.  According to the AP Chapman was “clad in a stunning red-and-black print gown at the Dosso Dossi show,” but why take the AP's word for it?

Chapman continued to turn her supposed failed career as a spy to her advantage, walking down the runway with two men dressed like secret agents, or at least as secret agents would dress in a work by Ian Fleming.  According to the show's organizers, Chapman's appearance fee was donated to the charitable foundation she has established, which works with children with poor eyesight.   
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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Pilot Likely Cause In Russia's Superjet Crash

Officials in Indonesia managed to recover the black box from the Sukhoi Superjet 100 that crashed into a mountain while on a demonstration flight last month and the data recovered is pointing to pilot error as the cause of the crash that killed all 45 aboard.

The word “error” might be a little misleading; fragments of conversation point towards the crash being the result of test pilot Alexander Yablontsev's attempt to show off the abilities of the Superjet to the dignitaries onboard.  The Superjet was on a six-nation tour of Asia to drum up sales for the first newly-designed passenger jet to come out of Russia since the end of the Soviet Union.  While flying across the rugged, mountainous interior of Java, Indonesia, the Superjet encountered a thunderstorm.  Rather than trying to fly above the weather, Yablontsev instead requested that flight controllers allow him to descend to 1,800 meters; Indonesian flight controllers approved this odd request and moments later the Superjet flew into the side of a mountain.  This decision has led to speculation that Yablontsev was somehow trying to show off the handling of the Superjet, not realizing that there were mountains in his flight path. 

This theory seems partially confirmed by a snippet of recording from the black box just before the crash.  According to a report in Russia’s Moskovsky Komsomolets, after Yablontsev made his course adjustment, a crewmember is heard to say something along the lines of: “commander, we can't go there, there's a mountain,” though the paper did not provide a direct quotation.

This is both good and bad news for the Russian aviation industry.  On the plus side, it is proof that there is nothing mechanically wrong with the Sukhoi Superjet; the project on which Russia has basically bet the entire future of their domestic civilian aviation industry.  But on the downside, Yablontsev's reckless decision to descend to a lower altitude while in a storm over unfamiliar terrain will do nothing to improve confidence in Russian aviation, which already has a reputation for lax safety procedures and has suffered a series high-profile crashes in recent years including one that have killed Polish President Lech KaczyƄski and his diplomatic party and another that killed the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team.
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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

African Nations Calling For Intervention in Mali

In case you were wondering where the world's next armed conflict will be, the West African nation of Mali is looking like a good candidate. 

Members of ECOWAS, the Economic Community Of West African States, is building support for a resolution they will present to the United Nations Security Council requesting an armed force be deployed to the northern part of Mali to combat a growing Islamist movement that ECOWAS says could destabilize the entire region.

Map of Mali
“It is not just a threat for the region, but the world,” said President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger and the man leading the charge on ECOWAS' appeal to the UN.  Issoufou called Mali a potential “West African Afghanistan”, alleging that terror groups from Afghanistan and Pakistan are recuriting among young Islamic militiamen in northern Mali, adding that: “it is an international threat that needs an international response so this is why we have decided to take this to the Security Council.”

Mali, once held up as a model of stability in Africa, has suffered a bizarre and sudden collapse in recent months.  Mali's problems were kicked off in March when a group of army officers overthrew the government of democratically-elected President Amadou Toumani Toure over, what the army guys thought, was Toure's mishandling of an ongoing uprising by Tuareg tribesmen in the north of the country.  The Tuaregs were once the favored mercinaries of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.  When the Gadhafi regime fell, thousands of well-trained, well-armed Tuaregs flooded back into their native Mali and began causing trouble.  The coup plotters claimed that Pres. Toure was not giving them the material and support they needed to effectively fight the Tuaregs.

But it quickly became clear that the coup plotters had no grand plan for governing and Mali fell into chaos, which, ironically, allowed the Tuaregs to launch a major offensive and seize half of Mali.  A power-sharing agreement ended the coup crisis, but the problems with the newly empowered Tuaregs remains; now they are pushing for the creation of an Islamic state carved out of northern Mali.

This is too much for ECOWAS, which claims that the only way to stop the Tuaregs and their Islamist supporters now would be through an international military force.  ECOWAS hopes that the bulk of the support for any UNSC-mandated mission will come from the United States and France.  French President Francois Hollande has stated that France would be ready to support such a mission if it receives the Security Council's blessing.  No word from the US about their possible support for the ECOWAS proposal.
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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

India, US Set To Square Off On Iran Sanctions

The next move in the ongoing geopolitical chess match between the United States and Iran is set to take place this Wednesday when US officials will try once again to get their Indian counterparts onboard with the “crippling” sanctions regime championed by the US.

India's continuing purchase of Iranian crude oil remains a major impediment to the “crippling” part of those sanctions.  By cutting Iran off from the global crude oil markets, the United States is hoping to put enough pressure on Iran to get them to give up their nuclear research program (folks in Washington also really, really hope that the sanctions will lead to the unlikely event of the Iranians overthrowing their government due to the negative impact a lack of oil sales will have on their economy).  While the European Union is phasing in a ban on Iranian oil, plenty of Iranian crude is flowing to China and India; making the sanctions painful, but survivable, at least in the short-to-medium term.

Even the optimists in Washington will admit they can apply little leverage to get China to abandon their Iranian oil purchases, but they hope that India could be swayed.  So far India has maintained that they need to continue to buy Iranian oil since many Indian refineries are configured to process specific types of crude that come out of Iran and that there aren't substitute volumes readily available on the global market.  India has also questioned the validity of the US sanctions since they are not backed by the United Nations.

According to the Indian publication Business Today, Wednesday's meeting is likely to focus on the US suggesting that American shale gas could be a substitute for Iranian crude oil.  This is interesting for a couple of reasons: first we're talking about replacing oil with natural gas, which would mean a massive restructuring of India's energy mix – a drastic shift away from crude oil products to natural gas (using natural gas as a vehicle fuel for example, instead of gasoline); and since the US currently lacks a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export infrastructure, it would be a number of years, at least, before large volumes of US shale gas could be heading to India in a best-case scenario.  How India would get by in the meanwhile without Iranian crude oil imports is an open question.

If accurate, the Business Today report points at American officials desperate to get their Indian allies onside with the Iranian sanctions regime.  According to the sanctions passed by the US Congress, the United States could levy penalties against any country trading with Iran in violation of our sanctions, and while it is hard to imagine the United States fracturing diplomatic relations with India with such an action, it is also clear that as long as India (and China) keep importing Iranian oil, it is highly unlikely that the sanctions will have the desired effect.

Stay tuned for Wednesday's meeting.
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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Cuba's Oil Hopes Coming Up Dry

The announcement last year of a potentially vast oil reserve off the coast of Cuba looked like a game-changer for the impoverished island nation, but Cuba's hopes suffered another blow last week as a test well came up dry.  Now Spanish oil firm Repsol said it is likely that they will withdraw from the hunt for Cuban oil, potentially giving up their stake in an reserve that could contain 20 billion barrels of oil.

But finding such a reserve in deep ocean waters can be a formidable challenge.  Repsol spent an estimated $100 million drilling their test well.  While dry wells are a common occurrence in oil prospecting, Repsol has apparently decided the likelihood of hitting oil with a future well did not justify a further expense.  This leaves Indonesia's Petronas as the only company actively prospecting for oil off the coast of Cuba; the results from their test well are expected in July.

Cuba had high hopes for the oil deposits identified in their coastal waters.  Oil taken from the offshore deposits could make Cuba energy independent, with enough then left over to transform Cuba into an oil exporting nation.  Oil exports would give the Cuban government of Raul Castro an effective tool in fighting the embargo levied against Cuba for the past half-century by the United States, as well as providing a large source of revenue for Cuba's state-run economy.  But with the global hunt for oil having success in locations around the world (with many of those places being in Africa) and techniques like hydrofracking making known, but previously not exploited, reserves profitable, there seems to be less incentive for international oil companies to hunt of elusive deposits of crude off the coast of Cuba.  At the same time, Cuba's domestic petroleum industry does not have the resources or expertise to drill in the deepwater themselves, leaving the Cuban government's oil plans on the edge of failure.
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Friday, June 8, 2012

Is Canada Turning Into The United States?

Jokes about the similarity of the two countries have gone on for decades, but some recent moves by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper do beg the question: is Canada turning into the United States?

Environmental and civil rights groups in Canada are up in arms over new proposals from Harper to reform the regulations that manage Canada's natural resources.  The Harper government says that the reforms are meant to reduce redundancy and streamline the approval process for projects in Canada's energy sector, which will benefit all Canadians through lower energy prices and increased exports; environmentalists say the changes are just meant to remove environmental protections, particularly those blocking the expansion of Oil Sands operations in Alberta.  Harper's plan will have the largest impact on a proposed pipeline that will run west from the Oil Sands region through British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, where tankers can be loaded with the heavy Oil Sands bitumen for shipment to China.  Currently, the pipeline route would have to be evaluated for its environmental impact on each watershed it will cross, and there are many of them in British Columbia; the Harper proposal would mandate that environmental approval would only need to be sought where the pipeline crossed an “official” watershed, a far smaller number.

Harper is presenting this as a net good for Canada: increased exports that will boost the Canadian economy, more jobs and more domestic energy security; opponents say that it is a massive handout to Big Oil and that environmentally sensitive, though not federally-protected, lands will be destroyed by the pipeline.  The Harper government is also putting Canadian environmental groups under closer scrutiny.  Officially, the closer look is meant to uncover donations from foreign sources, which in many cases would be a violation of Canadian law; but again, opponents say that the official story is merely a smokescreen and that the investigations are simply an attempt to silence groups opposed to Harper's policies. 

These investigations come on the heels of a new law passed in Quebec that gives authorities the power to block public demonstrations.  The law follows weeks of street protests by college-aged youth in Quebec protesting hikes in the tuition at provincial universities.  Again, the government and civil libertarians take differing views of the new law: authorities in Quebec say that the law will only be employed in extreme circumstances, noting that the tuition protests have dragged on for weeks, with the protestors refusing to compromise on a proposed deal regarding tuition and that the continuing protests are having a negative impact on the economy in a number of Quebec's cities; civil rights groups though see the new law as nothing more than an attempt to limit the public's right to free speech and assembly and to eliminate dissent.

Meanwhile, Canada is also flexing its military muscles.  Canada is sending 1,400 military personnel, along with five ships and a submarine, to participate in the biannual “Rim of The Pacific” military exercise; all at a time, Toronto's Globe and Mail notes, when the Canada's Defense Department is cutting back on its overall budget.  Canada is also in negotiations for a place in southeastern Asia to host a military “hub” as they're calling it.  The hub would be a way for Canada to have a military presence in a region that is rapidly growing in economic and strategic importance; a likely candidate is reported to be a small port facility next to an airfield in Singapore. Canada's Defense Minister Peter MacKay said that the hub would signal “Canada's intention to reassert our credentials in the Pacific.”

MacKay's announcement followed on the heels of a statement by his opposite number in America, Leon Panetta that the United States was planning to base 60% of its naval forces in the Pacific by 2020. But when you pair Canada's desire for their own slice of the military pie in southeast Asia with Harper's pro-business, and according to critics anti-environmental, energy policy, and new laws that are having a chilling effect on public protests that employ some of the same strategies as the PATRIOT Act, you're seeing policies coming out of the Canadian government that are looking very American.
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