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So when does cyber warfare cross the line?

The NSA thinks Russian hackers have infiltrated vast swaths of our vital infrastructure 

A destructive “Trojan Horse” malware program has penetrated the software that runs much of the nation’s critical infrastructure and is poised to cause an economic catastrophe, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

National Security sources told ABC News there is evidence that the malware was inserted by hackers believed to be sponsored by the Russian government, and is a very serious threat.

The hacked software is used to control complex industrial operations like oil and gas pipelines, power transmission grids, water distribution and filtration systems, wind turbines and even some nuclear plants. Shutting down or damaging any of these vital public utilities could severely impact hundreds of thousands of Americans.

It gets crazier

DHS sources told ABC News they think this is no random attack and they fear that the Russians have torn a page from the old, Cold War playbook, and have placed the malware in key U.S. systems as a threat, and/or as a deterrent to a U.S. cyber-attack on Russian systems – mutually assured destruction.

The hack became known to insiders last week when a DHS alert bulletin was issued by the agency’s Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team to its industry members. The bulletin said the “BlackEnergy” penetration recently had been detected by several companies.

DHS said “BlackEnergy” is the same malware that was used by a Russian cyber-espionage group dubbed “Sandworm” to target NATO and some energy and telecommunications companies in Europe earlier this year. “Analysis of the technical findings in the two reports shows linkages in the shared command and control infrastructure between the campaigns, suggesting both are part of a broader campaign by the same threat actor,” the DHS bulletin said.

3 IDF soldiers from the same unit kill themselves within weeks of the Gaza ceasefire

This is messed up

In the weeks after Israel and Hamas agreed to an open-ended ceasefire, three Israeli soldiers decided to end their lives with their own weapons. And what was especially striking about their suicides was that all served in the same unit, the Givati Brigade, which had a reputation for its ruthless ferocity, considerable bravery, and the use of Old Testament religiosity to justify the merciless operations of its commander, Colonel Ofer Winter.

So why did it happen?

A contributing factor, according to Staff Sergeant J., who served in the Givati Brigade in the middle of the last decade, and does not want to be named, is that secular Israelis are now avoiding the military or declining to continue after mandatory service. “Those who do continue feel a religious and political duty,” he says. This has been discussed as a concern by Israeli academics and analysts for years.

The staff sergeant said that when he was in the Givati Brigade in 2007 or so, it was “openly secular.” He recalls “there was a group who had come from the yeshiva,” but “often they were uncomfortable… they felt sidelined.” As secular Israelis left, however, the vacancies were filled by settlers, he said.

Could any of this, or some of this, or none of this have affected the decision of three Givati soldiers to take their own lives? The Daily Beast reached out to several post-traumatic stress disorder specialists for their analysis.

“It is strange that they hadn’t seen a mental-health counselor,” said Mooli Lahad, an Israeli psychiatrist and psychotrauma specialist with over three decades of experience. He was citing reports that the Givati soldiers hadn’t received treatment. “This isn’t common for the IDF,” he said.

Lahad stressed that suicide usually has to do with pre-existing issues, such as depression, and an accumulation of factors can lead to a sense of hopelessness, which counseling helps to prevent.

“Sometimes, if there is a particularly macho culture, seeking help for depression or PTSD is seen as showing weakness, which is discouraged,” Lahad said. “If there’s a commander who thinks God is whispering in his ear, this can make things even more difficult.”

The article also speaks of religious radicalization of the Israeli military due to the role of fundamentalist settlements. 

What happens to a countries maritime assets when it disappears beneath them?

From the Boston Globe

The president of the Pacific atoll nation of Kiribati, which averages only about 2 meters above sea level, has already spent millions of dollars to buy land in Fiji as a potential new home for his 100,000 people. As sea levels rise, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests, large ocean waves will increasingly taint the country’s groundwater and threaten its agriculture; Kiribati can expect to become at least partly uninhabitable long before seas rise enough to submerge it. Other island nations like the Maldives and Tuvalu face the same plight.

So far, the world’s attention has rightly focused on how much these places have to lose: their homes, their communities, their cultures, their vistas. But these countries have another, less visible set of assets at stake as they consider their survival—assets that won’t necessarily be lost, but which raise substantial questions. These are their large and valuable maritime zones.

Kiribati, like other island nations, controls hundreds of thousands of square miles of the ocean that surrounds it. Kiribati’s land area is about that of Kansas City, while the ocean territory it controls is larger than India. Within these “exclusive economic zones,” to use the UN term, island nations possess the power to regulate, tax, or disallow any economic activity, including mining or drilling for oil. The tuna fishing alone in the domain of Pacific island nations is worth an estimated $4 billion a year.

How to talk to terrorists

Terrorism can never be defeated by military means alone. But how do you go about negotiating with people who have blood on their hands? Britain’s chief broker of the Northern Ireland peace deal explains how it can – and must – be done (for a start, always shake hands)

In 1919, the British government had its first major encounter with terrorism, when the Irish Republican Army was established to drive the British out of Ireland. The government responded to the IRA’s acts of terror – which included the assassination of civilians as well as soldiers – with indiscriminate reprisals; these were met in turn by further escalation from the IRA. The prime minister, David Lloyd George, declared that the British government would never talk to the “murder gang”, as he described the IRA. But by 1920, it became clear to both sides that a military victory was impossible. Lloyd George secretly began to initiate contact with Michael Collins and other IRA leaders, using a relatively junior former customs official, Alfred Cope – who managed to open up a channel to the rebels and negotiate a ceasefire. This led to full-blown talks in Downing Street in 1921, and eventually to an agreement, albeit a flawed one that later unravelled.

Seventy-six years later, in December 1997, Tony Blair and I sat down in the same cabinet room in Downing Street with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness; the negotiating teams, from Sinn Féin and the British government, even sat on the same sides of the table as they had in 1921. On both occasions, the meeting was a big event. There were more TV cameras outside Downing Street than there had been on election day seven months earlier, and we were all nervous. Alastair Campbell had ordered the Christmas tree be removed from in front of the door of Number 10, so that there could be no pictures of terrorists in front of festive decorations.

In 1921, Frances Stevenson, Lloyd George’s secretary and mistress, said she had never seen the prime minister “so excited as he was before De Valera arrived. He kept walking in and out of my room and I could see he was working out the best way of dealing with Dev … He had a big map of the British empire hung on the wall in the cabinet room, with great blotches of red all over it. This was to impress on Dev the greatness of the British empire and the King.” In 1997, before we sat down Martin McGuinness tried to break the ice, and said: “So, this is where all the damage was done, then.” We thought this was a reference to the IRA attack on Downing Street in 1991, and I responded by saying “Yes, the IRA mortars landed in the garden behind you, and blew the windows in. My brother dragged John Major under the table and four overweight policemen came running in waving their revolvers.” McGuinness was horrified. “No, I didn’t mean that,” he said. “I meant this was where Irish Republicans gave everything away all those years ago.” As is so often the case, the terrorists had a better memory for what had gone before than the government. (I use the word “terrorist” here for the sake of simplicity, but it isn’t a particularly useful term to define a group – terror is a tactic employed by governments, groups, and individuals. I mean it to refer to non-state armed groups that use terror and enjoy significant political support.)

When it comes to terrorism, governments seem to suffer from a collective amnesia. All of our historical experience tells us that there can be no purely military solution to a political problem, and yet every time we confront a new terrorist group, we begin by insisting we will never talk to them. As Dick Cheney put it, “we don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it”. In fact, history suggests we don’t usually defeat them and we nearly always end up talking to them. Hugh Gaitskell, the former Labour leader, captured it best when he said: “All terrorists, at the invitation of the government, end up with drinks in the Dorchester.”

What is China Building in the South China Sea?

The BBC takes a look

At the beginning of this year, the Chinese presence in the Spratly Islands consisted of a handful of outposts, a collection of concrete blockhouses perched atop coral atolls.

Now it is building substantial new islands on five different reefs.

We are the first Western journalists to have seen some of this construction with our own eyes and to have documented it on camera.

On one of these new islands, perhaps Johnson South Reef, China seems to be preparing to build an air base with a concrete runway long enough for fighter jets to take off and land.
Plans published on the website of the China State Shipbuilding Corporation are thought to show the proposed design.

China’s island building is aimed at addressing a serious deficit.

Other countries that claim large chunks of the South China Sea – Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia – all control real islands.

But China came very late to this party and missed out on all the good real estate.

Beijing only took control of Johnson South Reef in 1988 after a bloody battle with Vietnam that left 70 Vietnamese sailors dead. Hanoi has never forgiven Beijing.
Since then China has shied away from direct military confrontation.

But now Beijing has decided it is time to move, to assert its claim and to back it up by creating new facts on the ground – a string of island bases and an unsinkable aircraft carrier, right in the middle of the South China Sea.

Harper isolated on NATO defence spending

From Jeffrey Simpson

Mr. Harper’s isolation could be read indirectly into the reporting of last week’s phone call between him and U.S. President Barack Obama. Whereas the Canadian “readout,” or report, of the conversation made no mention of defence spending, the White House reported that “the President stressed the agreement on increased defence investment in all areas is a top priority at the NATO summit.”

A “top American priority” is always to cajole NATO allies into spending more on defence. That priority is certainly not Mr. Harper’s. He has developed an ambivalent and somewhat contradictory attitude toward the military, and it toward him. The Prime Minister and his advisers and the top military brass circle each warily, harbouring their respective reservations about each other.

To put matters aphoristically, Mr. Harper’s government likes the idea of the military more than it likes the military itself.

The idea of the military means history, monuments, medals, ceremonies, parades and repeated rhetorical praise. The military itself means buying equipment, deploying it, dealing with veterans and wrestling with a budget that always seems to go up unless the political masters get tough.

The military has produced some nice headlines to an image-obsessed government, notably from the Afghanistan mission, but it has also delivered headaches and bad headlines, especially over procurement. Delays and problems have beset such purchases as the new generation of fighter aircraft, maritime helicopters, search and rescue aircraft, ships and some smaller gear.

For this government (as for previous ones), the military seems always set on a permanent “ask,” but for the military, this government like previous ones, promises more than it delivers and takes on missions that stretch the military’s means of delivery.

NATO not coming to Kiev’s rescue, regardless of Putin’s actions

This is exactly the news that Putin wants to hear

n an agenda-setting speech ahead of the crucial summit that begins Thursday in Wales, NATO deputy secretary general Alexander Vershbow said Russia’s military moves in Ukraine had created a new solidarity and resolve to defend the alliance’s borders. That new sense of purpose, he said, was reflected in a “Readiness Action Plan” that NATO leaders would announce this week, including the creation of a small “spearhead” force of several thousand troops that will be stationed in Eastern Europe and able to deploy to a crisis within 48 hours.

But, he made clear, that solidarity didn’t extend to non-member Ukraine, where NATO says Russian troops and tanks are now directly aiding rebels in the east of the country. Asked if there was any “red line” Mr. Putin could cross that would prompt NATO involvement in the country, Mr. Vershbow left no doubt that Ukraine would have to fight alone.

“I don’t see any red line that, if crossed, would lead to military engagement” in Ukraine, he told a “NATO after the Wales Summit” seminar hosted by Cardiff University. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will attend this week’s NATO meeting as a non-member observer.

“Ukraine understands that they’re not a beneficiary of an Article 5 [NATO collective defence] guarantee,” Mr. Vershbow told The Globe and Mail afterwards. “But I think we will show solidarity with Ukraine, meeting with Poroshenko. We’ll roll out some of the assistance that we’ve been working on for Ukraine… it may not be everything that everybody wants, but again NATO is not the only responder. The broad international message from NATO, from the EU, from other actors, hopefully will make a difference.”

Mr. Poroshenko asked last week that Ukraine be considered for full membership in NATO, but the request has been met with stony silence from the alliance, which is still seeking to avoid a direct military confrontation with Russia.

The EU, Canada and the United States have collectively imposed escalating sanctions on Russia in response to its actions in Ukraine. But while those measures are taking an economic toll – the Russian economy contracted in both June and July – they have not demonstrably affected the Kremlin’s behaviour.

So what is NATO to do?

Stephen Krasner, a former top U.S. State Department official, said the alliance should focus on providing the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, tiny former republics of the Soviet Union that joined NATO in 2004, with credible deterrent against any aggression. Mr. Putin has claimed the right to “defend” Russian-speakers abroad, and Estonia and Latvia have significant Russian-speaking populations.

“We can’t pretend we’re going to defend Ukraine, when we can’t do that,” said Prof. Krasner, who now teaches at Stanford University. But, he said, “there are real reasons for us to fight in the Baltic States.”

Why did the U.S. invade Iraq?

It was hubris

So what’s the best explanation for why America invaded Iraq? Hubris born of success. From Panama to the Gulf War to Bosnia to Kosovo, America spent the decade preceding 9/11 intervening successfully overseas. As a result, elites in both parties lost the fear of war they felt after Vietnam. In 1988 Reagan had been so afraid of another Vietnam that he refused to send ground troops to Panama. In 1990 John McCain had responded to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait by declaring, “If you get involved in a major ground war in the Saudi desert, I think [public] support will erode significantly … We cannot even contemplate, in my view, trading American blood for Iraqi blood.” In his emotional 1991 speech opposing the Gulf War, John Kerry had mentioned Vietnam 10 times. In his 2002 speech supporting the invasion of Iraq, by contrast, he mentioned Vietnam only once.

It wasn’t only military success that by 9/11 had eroded America’s caution. It was economic and ideological success, too. By 2001 the boom of the late 1990s had turned America’s budget deficit to surplus. For top Bush officials, the lesson was that just as America had overcome the deficits Reagan amassed while fighting the Cold War, America could easily overcome whatever temporary debt the Bushies incurred fighting the “war on terror.” As Dick Cheney declared during the run-up to Iraq, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.”

The final ingredient was ideological success. In the 1980s, before democratization swept across Eastern Europe, East Asia, and Latin America, prominent liberals and conservatives would have found the idea that democracy could take root in a country like Iraq utterly fanciful. As late as 1983, Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neoconservatism, was writing that “the traditions—political, religious, cultural—that shape Latin American thinking and behavior are such as to make it exceedingly difficult for the countries of Southern America to proceed along the [democratic] lines followed by Northern America and Western Europe.” By 2001, however, “neoconservatism” had been redefined by ideological optimists like Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, and Irving’s son, William, men shaped by the very democratic transformations that Irving Kristol had deemed impossible.

Obviously, it took 9/11 for the Bush administration to rally the public behind the Iraq war. But had the success of the 1990s not bred so much military, economic, and ideological overconfidence on both sides of the aisle, it’s unlikely they would have tried.

The key thing that has changed in the decade since America invaded Iraq is not Barack Obama’s election. It’s the collapse of American hubris. Far fewer people in either party now claim that America can easily topple and occupy distant lands. Far fewer believe we can conduct foreign policy as if “deficits don’t matter.” Far fewer believe that the peoples of the Middle East yearn for secular, liberal, pro-American democracies. That doesn’t mean the United States has stopped acting like a superpower. We’ve simply turned to methods that cost less money and fewer American lives.

It’s an old story. After Korea left the United States exhausted, Eisenhower told the CIA to overthrow leftist Third World governments because it could do so more cheaply than the Marines. When Richard Nixon could no longer sustain a large U.S. ground presence in Vietnam, he began bombing ferociously from the air. Now Obama has pulled U.S. ground troops from Iraq, is pulling them from Afghanistan, and is fighting al Qaeda with drones instead.

There’s nothing particularly glorious, or moral, about empire on the cheap. But at least war will no longer cost America so much money and so many young American lives. Maybe we’ve grown wiser over the last 10 years. Or maybe we’ve just lost the epic ambition that true tragedy requires.

The World Has Changed

And the United States finds itself between a rock and a hard place

Deep into this summer of global turmoil, with the United States once again seeking to steer the course of events in Iraq with precision-guided missiles, my thoughts have turned to the late historian Tony Judt. In a brief but brilliant essay written for The New Republic hours after the 9/11 attacks (not available online), Judt described gazing out his downtown-facing New York University office window that late summer morning to watch the 21st century begin.

The prevailing geopolitical dynamic of the coming century, he argued, would be disintegration.

And so it has been. Nearly 13 years later, the international order painstakingly constructed by the United States in the years following World War II has begun to crumble. That order survived and expanded its reach throughout the Cold War because both superpowers played by the traditional rules of international relations, despite the intensity of their ideological conflict. The U.S. and the Soviets were engaged in a national rivalry on an international scale, with nearly all the countries of the world compelled to join sides. And as the American side flourished, so, too, did the institutions it founded and funded throughout the West and in those regions of the developing world that joined the anti-Communist side of the Cold War.

It was partially inertia that led this order to persist and expand further for more than a decade following the collapse of the USSR. But by September 2001 (if not before), we had turned a corner into a new reality, one in which insurgent forces throughout the Middle East, northern Africa, and South Asia would attack key elements of the international order. Not laterally, as the Soviets once did and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is doing now in Ukraine, but from below, using the asymmetrical warfare of mass terrorism.

From al Qaeda to ISIS, these groups have had two main targets. One is America and its global leadership as expressed through international institutions (the U.N., IMF, World Bank, USAID, NGOs, etc.). Another is the nation-states created by the colonial powers after World War I, long ruled by autocrats and dictators who were sustained by those American-led international institutions.

The question is how the U.S. should respond to this challenge to the international order. To judge by our words and actions from 9/11 right down to President Obama’s latest statements and policies, we haven’t got a clue.

On one side are the neoconservatives. One might think that their identification with the Iraq War and the bloody, unpopular, nearly decade-long occupation that followed it would have discredited the neocons. But to judge by the influence they continue to exercise on Republicans and Democrats alike, it hasn’t.

There are at least two reasons. As military maximalists, the neocons are always able to respond to a failure by suggesting that things would have turned out better if only more force had been used. The problem, then, is never the policy itself but merely its insufficiently tough-minded execution. In this respect, neocon ideas are empirically unfalsifiable.

Then there’s the simplicity and coherence of the neocon reading of history — qualities that were on full display in Robert Kagan’s much-discussed cover story in The New Republic last May. The essay elegantly (and flatteringly) portrayed the U.S. as the singular guarantor of world order since the end of World War II. Without the ample use of American military might to impose and sustain that order, chaos would have reigned in the past — and will reign again in the future, if Barack Obama and his successor fail to fight it militarily. As events this summer have spun out of control from Kiev to Mosul, Kagan’s late-spring predictions have appeared to receive lightning-fast confirmation.

So is more active military engagement the answer? Can the United States use force to bring stability to Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and thereby prop up the crumbling international order?

Sure. All it would take is millions of troops and an occupation of indefinite duration. Think of George W. Bush’s Iraq surge times 10 — or 20.

Needless to say, America has neither the will nor the resources to attempt anything remotely like this. Especially because the occupied Muslim populations would be exceedingly unlikely to appreciate the humiliation of long-term occupation by a foreign, Western, Judeo-Christian power. Our very efforts to bring peace and order would fuel the very insurgency we’d be trying to combat. (This is of course precisely what happened in Iraq from 2003 to 2007.)

So what does a President do?

Unless we are willing to depose Maliki, reoccupy the country with hundreds of thousands of troops, impose order with overwhelming force, and accept the resulting casualties and blowback, the situation is exceedingly unlikely to improve in any serious way.

Short of that, we could of course focus on protecting Iraq’s Kurdish regions. But that might hasten the dissolution of the nation, leading to an increase in violence throughout the rest of the country. Renewed calls for outright Kurdish independence could also end up stirring unrest and violence in Kurdish areas just over the Turkish border.

One definition of tragedy is a situation in which there are no good options, in which every conceivable course of action — no less than the choice to do nothing at all — seems to make things worse or merely defer inevitable heartbreak and suffering.

Americans, incorrigibly optimistic, are famously averse to tragedy. Which means that we’re unlikely to respond well to the rapidly multiplying tragedies of our time.

But that doesn’t mean the tragedies can be waved away with bombs and good intentions.

So again tell me why invading Iraq and getting rid of an already isolated and neutered Saddam Hussein only to have him replaced by Al Qaeda 2.0 was a good idea?  This is all related to the incredibly flawed foreign policy (if we can call it that) of the W. administration and as bizarre as it is, the fulfillment of Osama Bin Laden’s goal in attacking the World Trade Centre.  According to CIA reports, he wanted to provoke a disproportionate response by the United States that would turn the Middle East against it militarily and domestically.  It’s too soon to tell but in some weird way, this could be happening.

When confronted with the problem, Gulf leaders often justify allowing their Salafi constituents to fund Syrian extremist groups by pointing back to what they see as a failed U.S. policy in Syria and a loss of credibility after President Obama reneged on his pledge to strike Assad after the regime used chemical weapons.

That’s what Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of Saudi intelligence since 2012 and former Saudi ambassador in Washington, reportedly told Secretary of State John Kerry when Kerry pressed him on Saudi financing of extremist groups earlier this year. Saudi Arabia has retaken a leadership role in past months guiding help to the Syrian armed rebels, displacing Qatar, which was seen as supporting some of the worst of the worst organizations on the ground.

ISIS has conquered an area the size of England

This is not a small insurgency, this is Osama Bin Laden’s dream when he attacked the World Trade Centre coming true

For America, Britain and the Western powers, the rise of Isis and the Caliphate is the ultimate disaster. Whatever they intended by their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and their efforts to get rid of Assad in Syria since 2011, it was not to see the creation of a jihadi state spanning northern Iraq and Syria run by a movement a hundred times bigger and much better organised than the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden. The war on terror for which civil liberties have been curtailed and hundreds of billions of dollars spent has failed miserably. The belief that Isis is interested only in ‘Muslim against Muslim’ struggles is another instance of wishful thinking: Isis has shown it will fight anybody who doesn’t adhere to its bigoted, puritanical and violent variant of Islam. Where Isis differs from al-Qaida is that it’s a well-run military organisation that is very careful in choosing its targets and the optimum moment to attack them.

Many in Baghdad hope the excesses of Isis – for example, blowing up mosques it deems shrines, like that of Younis (Jonah) in Mosul – will alienate the Sunnis. In the long term they may do just that, but opposing Isis is very dangerous and, for all its brutality, it has brought victory to a defeated and persecuted Sunni community. Even those Sunnis in Mosul who don’t like it are fearful of the return of a vengeful Shia-dominated Iraqi government. So far Baghdad’s response to its defeat has been to bomb Mosul and Tikrit randomly, leaving local people in no doubt about its indifference to their welfare or survival. The fear will not change even if Maliki is replaced by a more conciliatory prime minister. A Sunni in Mosul, writing just after a missile fired by government forces had exploded in the city, told me: ‘Maliki’s forces have already demolished the University of Tikrit. It has become havoc and rubble like all the city. If Maliki reaches us in Mosul he will kill its people or turn them into refugees. Pray for us.’ Such views are common, and make it less likely that Sunnis will rise up in opposition to Isis and its Caliphate. A new and terrifying state has been born.

CIA intelligence reports were very clear that Osama Bin Laden’s intent when attacking the World Trade Centre was to have the United States respond disproportionally in invading part of the Middle East (umm, Iraq) and have the radical elements of Islam rise up against the west.  It may have taken longer than he envisioned but this looks a lot what the CIA feared happening.

Iraqi Yazidis stranded on isolated mountaintop begin to die of thirst

An incredibly depressing story from the war in Iraq

Stranded on a barren mountaintop, thousands of minority Iraqis are faced with a bleak choice: descend and risk slaughter at the hands of the encircled Sunni extremists or sit tight and risk dying of thirst.

Humanitarian agencies said Tuesday that between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians remain trapped on Mount Sinjar since being driven out of surrounding villages and the town of Sinjar two days earlier. But the mountain that had looked like a refuge is becoming a graveyard for their children.

Unable to dig deep into the rocky mountainside, displaced families said they have buried young and elderly victims of the harsh conditions in shallow graves, their bodies covered with stones. Iraqi government planes attempted to airdrop bottled water to the mountain on Monday night but reached few of those marooned.

This is why Alberta never invaded Saskatchewan when it had the chance

The costs of taking over Crimea are more than Russia can afford

Rising prices and stagnating wages may make hundreds more Russians think twice about the government’s price tag of between 800 billion and 1 trillion rubles ($23-30 billion) for Crimea, and may come to pose the first real threat to Putin.

The Russian leader for now looks unassailable, with popularity ratings running at over 80 percent and his critics reluctant to speak out against him for fear of being labelled a traitor against the popular cause of building a Greater Russia.

Russian markets have bounced back, recovering all their losses since the start of the year to trade slightly higher, and some bankers are encouraging their clients to dive back into a market they say is undervalued.

But Russia’s economy, riddled with corruption and nepotism, is still weak and, increasingly isolated by Western sanctions, is for now teetering on the edge of recession.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine, an influx of Ukrainian refugees and the threat of further sanctions all hang over an economy, which the International Monetary Fund sees growing by just 0.2 percent this year. Russia’s central bank hopes for 0.4 percent and the Economy Ministry 0.5 percent growth.

After weeks of saying visa bans and asset freezes imposed by the European Union and United States against a number of firms and officials close to Putin could not harm the economy, Russian leaders are increasingly testy over the damage wrought if not by the current sanctions, then by the threat of more.

“In fact, we are dealing with a new offensive type of weapon,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said of the U.S. sanctions in an interview with the Kommersant daily.
Investment has all but dried up, forcing the government to dip into reserves meant for pensions to finance projects, and the government says it will sell a stake in Russia’s state-controlled oil company, Rosneft, to cover some of the costs of developing Crimea.

Finance Minister Anton Siluanov had to backtrack after coming under fire for saying that all the funds accumulated in Russia’s personal pension plans in 2014 had been spent on “anti-crisis measures” and on Crimea.

The next day, he said Russians “would lose nothing”, but stopped short of saying whether the sum of $8 billion would be returned to the personal pension plans.
While such measures may take a while to hurt the population, Karen Vartapetov, an analyst at Standard & Poor’s rating agency, said a more immediate danger was the stagnation of real disposable incomes, which show only 0.2 percent real growth (adjusted for inflation) this year.

“Zero growth of real disposable incomes against continuing growth of public sector pay indicates that salaries in the private sector and non-salary incomes are shrinking,” he said.
“The economy outside the public sector has been stagnating.”

On top of this, the Finance Ministry’s efforts to try to meet Putin’s demands to increase public sector pay, including proposing a new regional sales tax, mean that prices could rise further, putting pressure on stretched salaries.

In the major cities such as the capital Moscow and Russia’s second city of St Petersburg – where Putin faced street protests in the winter of 2011-12 that at times drew tens of thousands – core inflation running at an annual rate of more than seven percent has had little impact on a population largely wealthy enough to cover higher prices.

U.S. Initiative to Reduce Hunger and Poverty Effective, Report Shows

This is huge and really encouraging.

An Obama administration program set up to reduce chronic hunger and poverty has contributed to rising incomes for farmers around the world and helped save millions of people from starvation, according to a report released Monday by the United States Agency for International Development.

The program, Feed the Future, was started by the agency four years ago after a rapid rise in global food prices. It has helped more than seven million small farmers increase crop production and has provided nutritional foods to 12.5 million children in countries hit hard by drought, war or poor development, the report said.
In addition, the United States government received more than $160 million in private sector investment in 2013 to help farmers and small businesses increase their food production, the agency said, a 40 percent increase from 2012.

Dr. Rajiv Shah, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, said the report provided the first comprehensive look at the program’s effectiveness.
“We have real numbers for the first time,” Dr. Shah said, adding that the new data showed that the administration’s efforts to end extreme poverty were having some success.
The administration has made food security one of its top foreign policy priorities and has pledged billions of dollars in aid for agricultural development to help countries sustainably grow enough food to feed their people.

Feed the Future works with American universities including Texas A&M and Kansas State, which have provided agriculture research and technical help. Private companies such as Cargill, DuPont and Walmart have provided new types of seeds, fertilizer and equipment to farmers.

Gregory R. Page, executive chairman of the board of the Minnesota-based Cargill, said it was essential that private companies be involved in the Feed the Future program.
“Governments and development groups have been at this for years and it hasn’t worked,” he said. “The only way that this is going to succeed is if we treat agriculture production as a business, not as aid. Feed the Future is the perfect example of this.”

The program operates in 19 countries, mostly in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and has seen the greatest success in Senegal, Bangladesh and Honduras, the report found.

In Senegal, efforts financed by the United States helped the country reduce its dependence on food imports, particularly rice. The country’s rice imports fell more than 20 percent between 2008 and 2011.

Saving South Sudan

Vice Magazine dedicates and entire issue to the conflict in Sudan

Sudan was once home to a great civilization that was the most advanced in all of Africa—but centuries of colonialism and conflict, and a post-independence period ravaged by coups, dictatorships, and incompetent rule, mired Sudan in a series of never-ending wars. This timeline details how by 2013, the oil-rich, fertile nation was falling apart.

Canadian rhetoric makes no difference

The tough talk that has been coming out of Ottawa towards Moscow; it makes no difference at all.

The Conservative government’s tough rhetoric over Russia’s actions in Ukraine may play well to some voters domestically, but analysts doubt it will have any impact on curtailing Moscow’s policies in the region.

“I think the only people Putin’s going to pay any attention to, if he pays any attention at all, are going to be the United States and the European Union, above all Germany,” said Randall Hansen, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies.

“The United States, because it’s the global super power, and Germany because it’s a major importer of Russian gas, which on the one hand gives Putin leverage, and on the other hand, he’s also dependent on Germany.

“Canada doesn’t matter in this in the slightest. We can rant and yell and threaten. It will make no difference.”

He’s not alone

Piotr Dutkiewicz, a political science professor at Carleton and the former director of the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, said it’s relatively easy for the government to criticize because Canada doesn’t have extensive economic relations with Russia and there are no large Russian investments in Canada.

However, he notes that Canadian companies do have $3-billion worth of investment in Russia and the government should take that into consideration when speaking out.

“I think we should take a more balanced, I’m not saying uncritical, I’m saying more balanced position, taking into the equation Canadian interests in Russia,” Dutkiewicz said.

“If the Canadian government decides to be critical it should be critical, but at the same time we should watch what others are doing and how, by our criticisms, we’re really helping Ukraine.”

Dutkiewicz said that Canada is losing its reputation as a negotiator and instead is engaging in rhetoric stronger than that of the U.S., Germany or France.

“With their very heated rhetoric and no action we’re becoming a paper tiger in this process,” he said. “I really don’t like Canada to be seen as a paper tiger who is roaring without having any tools to implement its outrage.”

But the experts agreed that the government’s words have little to do with foreign policy.

“Harper and Baird, I think, are both principled democrats and have a principled commitment to liberal democracies such as Israel and a principled opposition to autocratic governments,” Hansen said. “But this is really about domestic politics. So they’re making a play to the Ukrainian community in Canada.