19 April, 2022

Ukraine: Tankie Logic

1.The USA and NATO are bad.

2. The USA and NATO oppose Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

3. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is therefore good.

1. NATO is bad.

2. The Ukrainian government wants to join NATO

3. The Ukrainian government is therefore bad.

4. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is therefore good.

1. The USSR was good.

2. Vladimir Putin's regime is the heir to the USSR.

3. Vladimir Putin's regime is therefore good.

4. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is therefore good.

1. The USA has invaded various countries around the world.

2. Russia is therefore allowed invade any country it likes.

3. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is therefore good.

1. Ukraine had applied to join NATO.

2. Ukraine applying to join NATO made many Russians sad.

3. Russians should never be sad.

4. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is therefore good.

1. There are some fascists in Ukraine.

2. Any country is entitled to invade any other country if there are fascists in it.

3. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is therefore good.

1. People in Ukraine are actually Russians, even if some of them speak a funny language.

2. Ukraine is not a real country but a region of Russia.

3. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is therefore good.

1. Big countries are allowed to invade their neighbours whenever they like.

2. Russia is a big country.

3. Ukraine neighbours Russia.

4. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is therefore good.

1. The media is currently reporting that Russian forces have committed atrocities in Ukraine.

2. However, the media lied about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction.

3. The media is therefore lying about atrocities committed by Russian forces in Ukraine.

4. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is therefore good.

1. Bad things are happening in various places in the world.

2. People are not doing anything about these bad things.

3. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is therefore good.


Iranian poster (University of Chicago Library: "The Graphics of Revolution and War: Iranian Poster Arts")

No to war, no to NATO (BBC: "Russia urges Montenegro to hold referendum on Nato")

May Day Parade (Independent: "Trump says he's 'thinking about' attending Russia's May Day parade")

US troops in Iraq (Al Jazeera: "Invasion of Iraq: The original sin of the 21st century")

Sad Vladimir Putin (CNN: "Putin presents a profound threat to peace in Europe as 'drumbeat of war' sounds on Russia-Ukraine border")

Putin rides with the Night Wolves (Time: "Putin's Favorite Biker Gang Gets Millions of Rubles to Put on Kids' Show")

Map popular with the “Ukraine is not real” crowd. (Big Think: "Ukraine: made by Lenin, unmade by Putin?")

1912 newspaper cartoon illustrating the Monroe Doctrine (Wikipedia: "Sphere of Influence")

"45 Minutes from Attack" (Working Class History, Facebook)

Pro-Palestinian protesters in Istanbul (News 18: "Mum on Plight of Uighurs, Rohingyas, Why OIC's Outburst Against India's Citizenship Law Reeks of Hypocrisy")

12 March, 2022

How is this going to end?

I don't know how this is going to end. I am writing this to think through possible scenarios and the possible outcomes that might result from them.

Scenario 1: Ukraine collapses

While Putin's invasion of Ukraine has been an embarrassing shambles, Russia has vast reserves of men and stuff to throw into the war. They retain considerable advantages in air power and missiles. If they stick to the brutal tactics they used in Chechnya and Syria (bomb and shell enemy cities until nothing but rubble remains) then there is a good chance that the outnumbered Ukrainian forces will eventually crack. Then Kyiv will fall and Russian forces will overrun the country. In the chaos Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders might find themselves captured or even killed by Russian death squads.

But I don't think this ends it. While Ukraine remains under occupation the West is not going to lift sanctions on Russia, so the atmosphere of tension will remain. And the level of resistance the Ukrainians have shown to the invaders suggests that they will not meekly accept the occupation of their country. Any quisling regime the Russians put in place will rule only so long as the occupiers' guns are pointing at the populace.

And the Russians may even find themselves faced with an ongoing partisan war. If the West supports a resistance movement then Putin may be tempted to strike across the border into Poland or Romania (or wherever material aid to the rebels is being routed from). They are both NATO countries, so that would mean a wider war, one which could easily escalate into a nuclear exchange.

Even if there is no significant armed resistance to the occupation, Putin's situation remains very problematic. Western sanctions strangle Russia's economy, degrading his ability to keep his armed forces functional and also driving unrest against his regime. Might he be tempted towards some kind of nuclear display in an attempt to cajole the West into a return to normal trading?

Scenario 2: Russia collapses

By any objective measure Russia's invasion of Ukraine has gone very badly. Many expected a swift victory but instead Russian forces have struggled to make gains and suffered heavy casualties. Meanwhile the Ukrainians have performed far better than many expected. And now arms from the West (anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles in particular) are flowing into the country. What if the military balance were to decisively shift in the Ukrainians favour? Then they might counterattack against the invaders, pushing the Russians back towards their borders. Rather than throw their lives away for nothing, Russian troops then start to flee, with a general rout ensuing. The scale of the military disaster cannot be hidden from a Russian people already reeling from the sanctions-induced economic collapse. Putin faces an eruption of unrest and increasingly finds himself under siege from his own people.

This in many ways is the most appealing scenario, but it is not without its dangers. Russia is after all a nuclear power. Generally people assume that nuclear weapons will only be used when the countries possessing them face an existential threat (e.g. invasion or nuclear attack). Defeat in Ukraine would not threaten the future existence of Russia, but it would I think be an existential threat to Putin himself, who could realistically fear that failure in Ukraine would lead to his overthrow and possibly his delivery to an international tribunal by a new Russian regime anxious to see an end to the West's sanctions. So might he be tempted to order a nuclear strike to either stave off defeat in Ukraine or trigger a Götterdämmerung that brings everyone else down with him.

If Putin were to order a nuclear attack, would his orders be obeyed? Maybe that would be the moment the spell snaps and he finds himself hustled into early retirement. Or perhaps a mushroom cloud rises over Kyiv while the West struggles with a response even as Sergei Lavrov denies that the nuclear explosion had anything to do with Russia.

Scenario 3: On and on and on

But what if no one wins the war and it just keeps going on? Russia maybe captures some more cities after flattening them but the Ukrainians keep fighting back against them. Death and destruction continue to rage across the country as Russian conscripts, Ukrainian soldiers and innocent civilians see no end to their suffering. But while all this is happening the economic war continues, with the Russian economy collapsing in the face of the West's sanctions. The West suffers too as energy prices rocket but with more diverse economies they have more capacity to endure.

This could go on for a while (years even). It might turn into scenario 2 eventually, as economic crisis makes it harder for Putin to keep his army going in Ukraine while continuing casualties and sanctions make the Russian home front increasingly restive. Or perhaps support from China allows Putin to keep his army in the field, effectively transforming Russia into a giant North Korea.

What do you think?

Which of these scenarios seems the most credible? And do you seem them developing in the same way I do?


Russian tanks (U.S. Mission to the OSCE: "The Situation in and around Ukraine, including the Recent Non-Compliance with OSCE Commitments")

A burning vehicle and a sad Putin (Metro: "Putin 'sacks eight generals' in anger at slow progress in Ukraine invasion")

Civilians fleeing (BBC: "Images of people fleeing the town of Irpin, close to Kyiv")

Map (BBC: "Battle for Mykolaiv: 'We are winning this fight, but not this war' ")

12 July, 2015

Three Greek questions

1. What do you think the government of Greece should do?
2. Why do you think this would be better for Greece than other courses of action?
3. What do you think would happen if the Greek government followed your course of action?

image source (Guardian)

07 May, 2014

The Fall of Dien Bien Phu

60 years ago today the last French defenders of Dien Bien Phu were overrun by Vietnamese rebels. This was in the first Indochina War, when Vietnamese communists were fighting to free their country from colonial rule. The fall of Dien Bien Phu hastened the departure of French forces from Vietnam and the establishment of a communist regime in the north of the country.

Dien Bien Phu was an odd location for the decisive battle that would end a war. It was located far from major population centres in the north west of Vietnam, near the border with Laos. It only became the site of a major battle because the French chose to send a large force there. By 1953 their position in Indochina was deteriorating. The French commander, General Henri Navarre, decided to establish a fortified base in Dien Bien Phu for two reasons. Firstly, the hope was that a strong force there would be able to block the supply of arms from China through Vietnam to communist rebels in Laos. The more ambitious hope, though, was that the Vietnamese rebels would choose to deploy a large force to attack Dien Bien Phu, a force that could then be destroyed by the better armed and trained French forces.

Dien Bien Phu was so remote that it could only be supplied from the air, but this was not seen as a problem. There was an old airstrip there from the Second World War that the French would be able to use to fly in supplies and evacuate the wounded. French paratroopers secured the runway on the 20th November 1953 and then more troops and heavy equipment were flown in, including a number of light tanks. A series of forts were established in the surrounding area. The French commander at Dien Bien Phu was Colonel de Castries, a French cavalry commander who looked forward to the showdown with the Vietnamese rebels. All told he had some 16,000 men under him.

The political leader of the rebels was the famous Ho Chi Minh, but the military commander was Vo Nguyen Giap. Giap decided to accept the challenge posed by Dien Bien Phu and moved a 50,000 strong force to invest the defenders. By the end of January the first clashes between the two armies had occurred, but it was only on the 13th of March that the battle erupted in earnest. The rebels had dug in artillery in bunkers overlooking one of the French forts. After a devastating bombardment the Vietnamese stormed the fort with a mass infantry assault. The French artillery commander was so shocked by his inability to counter the Vietnamese guns that he blew himself up with a hand grenade.

On the next day the rebels overran another fort in the same manner as the first Now they could pore artillery fire down on the airstrip, rendering it useless for the French defenders. The French could still haphazardly receive supplies dropped by parachute, but there was no way out for their wounded. The garrison was now trapped.

Thereafter the battle progressed more like something from the First World War than the kind of mobile fighting the French had hoped for. Shelling and infantry assaults gradually forced the French back into an ever smaller area. The fighting was not all one-sided - in bold counter-attacks the defenders sometimes recovered lost positions. The suffering on both sides was horrendous. But without use of the runway for the French there could only be one eventual outcome.

As the situation became more desperate, the United States stepped up its material aid for the French in Indochina, but avoided overt direct involvement. There were some in leadership positions who wanted to commit significant American forces to help the French; there are even suggestions that the Americans proposed to use nuclear weapons to break the siege or to give them to the French for this, but this has never been definitively established. In the end those who favoured non-intervention won out, and the Americans left Dien Bien Phu to its fate.

The end came on the 7th of May. By then the French defenders were shattered and isolated. Giap ordered an all-out attack to bring the battle to an end. In his last radio broadcast to his commander, de Castries recounted the desperate situation in which the garrison found itself and was ordered to fight on till the very end. By nightfall the battle was over, with all the French positions overrun. The surviving defenders were led off into captivity.
As well as the captured male soldiers, the French prisoners included one French woman, the nurse Geneviève de Galard, who had been trapped when the runway became unusable. Also captured were the Algerian and Vietnamese women who worked in the two bordels mobiles de campagne serving the garrison. Some 3,290 French troops were eventually repatriated, together with Ms de Galard. The Vietnamese sex workers were apparently sent off somewhere for re-education. The eventual fate of the Vietnamese loyalists who fought on the French side is mysterious.

For the Vietnamese the battle was a triumph, albeit one bought at terrible cost. The rebels had gone in a few short years from waging a guerrilla war to being able to take on a first world army in conventional battle. For France, Dien Bien Phu was a disaster. They had chosen the ground and invited the rebels to fight them and then had been comprehensively defeated. But the defeat did not end France's colonial pretensions. While the French were soon after to quit Indochina, the debacle hardened the resolve of the military to fight on against the nationalist rebels in Algeria, in the hope that some kind of victory there would restore their honour.

By coincidence, a conference to end the Indochina War opened in Geneva the day after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. The conference saw Vietnam partitioned into a northern zone under Ho Chi Minh and southern Republic of Vietnam supported by France (and subsequently the USA). Elections in 1956 were meant to reunite the two parts of the country, though events unfolded otherwise.


The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (Wikipedia)

Dien Bien Phu: Did the US offer France an A-bomb? (BBC News)

The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (BBC Radio 4 documentary)

22 May, 2013

The Butcher of Buenos Aires

Jorge Rafaél Videla has died. Mr Videla led a military regime in Argentina from the 1976 coup until he handed over power to one of his army colleagues in 1981. He presided over a bloodbath that saw up to 30,000 people murdered in an episode known as the Dirty War.

Calling something a war, even a "dirty" war implies that it is a struggle with at least two sides. In Argentina that would be a bit misleading. Before Videla and his gang took over Argentina, the country was indeed in a state of near civil war. Leftist guerrillas had embarked on an armed revolutionary struggle and the state security apparatus responded in kind; levels of violence escalated alarmingly. Then in 1976 Videla, the army's commander in chief, overthrew the civilian government of President Isabél Peron and gave his uniformed pals a completely free hand to crush the insurgents.

"As many people as is necessary will die in Argentina to protect the hemisphere from the international communist conspiracy", Mr Videla had said in 1975. Once in power, he proved as good as his word. The armed forces instituted a reign of terror against the actual guerrillas, but they also targeted anyone who might be assisting them or who had dangerous left wing ideas or who just looked funny. The regime moved beyond combating the rebels (who were soon crushed) to trying to exterminate Argentina's left.

To make it harder for friends and relatives of the murdered to bring troubling court cases against the regime, Videla's cronies made their victims disappear. One trick was to drug captives and then throw them out of airplanes into the south Atlantic. On the off-chance that any of the corpses were washed ashore, the drugged victims were stripped naked to remove anything that might identify them.

Videla and his accomplices were amnestied during Argentina's transition to democracy, but gradually the law caught up with him. In 1998 he was forced to stand trial for the "appropriation of minors" - the kidnapping of the children of the disappeared for illegal adoption by army officers and others sympathetic to the military regime. Then in 2007 the general Dirty War amnesty was overthrown by the courts; in 2010 he received a life sentence for the torture and murder of 31 victims of the military regime. He died in prison.

It is easy to focus on sinister figures like Videla and reduce their victims to a faceless mass - with 30,000 people killed by Videla, it can be hard to remember that they all had names, friends, a life, ambitions and dreams that were brutally cut short. El Proyecto Desaparecidos attempts to humanise this victims, posting photographs and brief biographies of the killed.

One of the more heartbreaking parts of El Proyecto Desaparecidos' website is the Wall of Memory - face after face of those killed by Argentina's army, with links to a summary of their life and what is known of their fate.

Some random victims:

Silvia de Raffaelli de Parejo - 28 years old when she was abducted from her home and never seen again.

Alicia Eguren de Cooke - a writer, poet and political activist who was 52 years old when she was thrown from a helicopter into the River Plate.

Juan Carlos Galván - a 24 years old artist who taken from his widowed mother's home and never seen again.

Oscar Luis Hodola & Sirena Acuña - 28 and 26 when they were taken away from their son.


Jorge Rafaél Videla obituary (Guardian)

Argentina ex-military leader Jorge Rafael Videla dies (BBC)

Painful search for Argentina's disappeared (BBC)

Argentina marks 'Night of the Pencils' (BBC) An account of the abduction, torture and murder of left wing secondary school students.

Project Disappeared (in English)

El Proyecto Desaparecidos (in Spanish)

The Wall of Memory

06 May, 2013


In 2011, when the civil war there was only starting, I posted a three-part history of Syria. It may still be of interest to those curious as to how that country has reached its current sorry state.

Part 1 - Before the Assads
Part 2 - The Hafez al-Assad years
Part 3 - Bashir al-Assad

10 March, 2013

By their friends shall ye know them?

I hope to write at some length about Hugo Chavez, but may never get round to it. In the meantime, here is a photograph of the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran standing beside his coffin.