The Washington Post reports: Top diplomats on Thursday laid out a series of steps to tamp down violence and political unrest in Ukraine, even as Western officials publicly doubted Russia’s resolve to use its influence to help defuse the crisis in the former Soviet republic.
The potential diplomatic breakthrough, which the Russian foreign minister referred to as “a compromise, of sorts,” came after nearly seven hours of negotiations with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, the Ukrainian foreign minister and the European Union’s foreign policy chief.
Under the agreement, all parties, including separatists and their Russian backers, would stop violent and provocative acts, and all illegal groups would be disarmed. A joint statement made no mention of the presence of what the United States has said are 40,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders. But Kerry said it made clear that Russia is “absolutely prepared to begin to respond with respect to troops,” provided the terms of the agreement are observed.
In Washington, President Obama said Russia’s stated commitments were only the beginning of a process.
“My hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days, but I don’t think, given past performance, that we can count on that,” Obama said during a White House press conference. “We have to be prepared to potentially respond to what continue to be, you know, efforts of interference by the Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine.”
Obama threatened further economic sanctions and stressed American economic and diplomatic support for the Western-oriented government in Kiev. He ruled out a U.S. military response to help Ukraine fend off Russian incursions. [Continue reading...]
Alex Pasternack reports: The Kashagan oil field, located fifty miles offshore in western Kazakhstan’s Caspian Sea, takes its name from a 19th century poet and from the Kazakh word meaning “skittish” and “elusive.”
That’s one understated way to describe the oil that some of the world’s biggest companies are hoping to suck out of the Earth. In thirteen years, they’ve spent $50 billion, building islands and pipelines and digging deep, some two and a half miles below the surface, to reach a so-called supergiant oil field where sour crude is mixed with toxic gas at ungodly pressures. In industry circles, Kashagan has become a watchword for massive complexity and near impossibility, and adopted an unofficial motto: “cash all gone.”
Since geologists discovered the field in 2000, north of the also-massive Tengiz oil field, Kashagan remains the largest new oil deposit since the Prudhoe Bay field was found off Alaska in 1968. Estimates say that there are between 30 and 50 billion barrels (4.8 and 7.9 billion cubic meters) buried in a reservoir so complicated to plumb that only between four and 13 billion barrels are thought to be recoverable.
Even if the cost is five times that of a conventional oil development in Saudi Arabia, Kashagan alone could someday deliver as much as 1.2 million barrels per day; the US currently uses about 19 million barrels per day.
But thirteen years and $50 billion later, the global consortium operating Kashagan has produced almost no oil. [Continue reading...]
Wired reports: The Heartbleed bug crushed our faith in the secure web, but a world without the encryption software that Heartbleed exploited would be even worse. In fact, it’s time for the web to take a good hard look at a new idea: encryption everywhere.
Most major websites use either the SSL or TLS protocol to protect your password or credit card information as it travels between your browser and their servers. Whenever you see that a site is using HTTPS, as opposed to HTTP, you know that SSL/TLS is being used. But only a few sites — like Facebook and Gmail — actually use HTTPS to protect all of their traffic as opposed to just passwords and payment details.
Many security experts — including Google’s in-house search guru, Matt Cutts — think it’s time to bring this style of encryption to the entire web. That means secure connections to everything from your bank site to Wired.com to the online menu at your local pizza parlor.
Cutts runs Google’s web spam team. He helps the company tweak its search engine algorithms to prioritize certain sites over others. For example, the search engine prioritizes sites that load quickly, and penalizes sites that copy — or “scrape” — text from others.
If Cutts had his way, Google would prioritize sites that use HTTPS over those that don’t, he told blogger Barry Schwartz at a conference earlier this year. The change, if it were ever implemented, would likely spur an HTTPS stampede as web sites competed for better search rankings. [Continue reading...]
James Bruno writes: Working the Afghanistan account at the State Department in the late 1980s, I occasionally met the Russian muckraking journalist Artyom Borovik. Before he joined the vanguard of those agitating for change during glasnost, he had served as a Soviet diplomat. The son of a Novosti journalist posted to New York, Borovik spoke nearly unaccented English and excellent Spanish. He was as comfortable in an Afghan tea house as he was at a Manhattan Starbucks. Borovik, in short, was the cream of the crop of Russian youth from which the Foreign Ministry traditionally recruits its diplomats: urbane, multilingual, with elite educations and the skills to deftly navigate foreign societies.
Borovik died in 2000 in a still-unsolved Moscow plane accident days after producing a scathing article about an ascendant Russian politician, Vladimir Putin, who was about to become president. Borovik quoted Putin in an article as saying, “There are three ways to influence people: blackmail, vodka, and the threat to kill.”
Whether or not Putin has expanded his tools of persuasion, he’s got good help in the influence department. In the lead-up to four-way talks over Ukraine and Secretary of State Kerry’s consultations with European leaders this week, Russian ambassadors are using their many close connections with continental elites to press Putin’s case, to seek to stifle or limit economic sanctions and to foster divisions between Washington and its allies. In most cases these Russian envoys have spent the bulk of their diplomatic careers dealing with the countries to which they are posted and have extensive decades-long contacts with whom they can speak, often in the latters’ native languages. This gives them a decided edge.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is fairly typical. A graduate of the prestigious Moscow Institute for International Relations (known by its Russian acronym, MGIMO) and 42-year Foreign Ministry veteran, Lavrov speaks fluent English as well as Sinhalese, Dhiveli and French. A former U.S. ambassador who had dealt with Lavrov at the United Nations described him to me as disciplined, witty and charming, a diplomat so skilled “he runs rings around us in the multilateral sphere.”
Russia has always taken diplomacy and its diplomats seriously. America, on the other hand, does not. Of this country’s 28 diplomatic missions in NATO capitals (of which 26 are either currently filled by an ambassador or have nominees waiting to be confirmed), 16 are, or will be, headed by political appointees; only one ambassador to a major NATO ally, Turkey, is a career diplomat. Fourteen ambassadors got their jobs in return for raising big money for President Obama’s election campaigns, or worked as his aides. A conservative estimate of personal and bundled donations by these fundraisers is $20 million (based on figures from the New York Times, Federal Election Commission and AllGov). The U.S. ambassador to Belgium, a former Microsoft executive, bundled more than $4.3 million. [Continue reading...]
Timothy Garton Ash writes: Tell me your Ukraine and I will tell you who you are. The Ukrainian crisis is a political Rorschach test, not just for individuals but also for states. What it reveals to us is not encouraging for the west. It turns out that Vladimir Putin has more admirers around the world than you might expect for someone using a neo-Soviet combination of violence and the big lie to dismember a neighbouring sovereign state. When I say admirers, I don’t just mean the governments of Venezuela and Syria, two of his most vocal supporters. Russia’s strongman garners tacit support, and even some quiet plaudits, from some of the world’s most important emerging powers, starting with China and India.
During a recent visit to China I was frequently asked what was going on in Ukraine, and I kept asking in return about the Chinese attitude to it. Didn’t a country which has so consistently defended the principle of respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of existing states (be they the former Yugoslavia or Iraq), and which itself has a couple of prospective Crimeas (Tibet, Xinjiang), feel uneasy about Russia simply grabbing a chunk of a neighbouring country?
Well, came the reply, that was a slight concern, but Ukraine was a long way away – and, frankly speaking, the positives of the crisis outweighed the negatives for China. What’s more, the United States would have another strategic distraction (after al-Qaida, Afghanistan and Iraq) to hinder its “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, and divert its attention from China. And, cold-shouldered by the west, Russia would be more dependent on a good relationship with Beijing. As for Ukraine – which already sells China higher-grade military equipment than Russia has been willing to share with its great Asian ally – its new authorities had already quietly assured the Chinese authorities that Beijing’s failure to condemn the annexation of Crimea would not affect their future relations. What’s not to like in all that? [Continue reading...]
The Associated Press reports: For the first time, a former U.S. president has come out against the Keystone XL pipeline.
The ex-president in question is Jimmy Carter.
The 39th president joined a group of Nobel laureates to sign a letter urging the current commander-in-chief to reject the pipeline from Canada.
The letter tells Barack Obama that he stands on the brink of making a choice that will define his legacy on one of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced — climate change.
“History will reflect on this moment and it will be clear to our children and grandchildren if you made the right choice…. We urge you to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline,” the letter reads.
It says his decision will either signal a “dangerous commitment” to the status quo, or “bold leadership” that will inspire millions counting on him to do the right thing for the climate. [Continue reading...]
Barbara Slavin writes: More Syrians have died from lack of adequate medical care than from actual combat as the war grinds on into its fourth year, according to Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union’s commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response.
In an interview with Al-Monitor on April 11 in Washington, where she attended a coordination meeting at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) with other groups struggling to keep up with the spreading humanitarian consequences of the Syrian crisis, Georgieva said that “over 200,000 people have died because treatment is not available anymore in the collapsed health system of Syria.”
While Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has consolidated control over a significant part of territory, the country’s economy has fallen apart, the European commissioner said, and nearly half the population — almost 10 million people — need assistance.
Increasingly, aid workers are reporting cases of malnutrition and starvation, which make weakened populations even more vulnerable to diseases such as measles, Georgieva said. She said she recently visited the northern Kurdish section of Iraq, which is now home to some 230,000 Syrian refugees.
“A large proportion of them flee not because of the fighting,” she said, “but because their children are starving and they cannot access very basic necessities.” [Continue reading...]
David Wearing writes: The results of new research reported by the Guardian this week on young westerners who have travelled to Syria to fight in the civil war provide some fascinating insights into their motivations, their interactions with pro-jihadi communities online, and the groups they join when they arrive in the war zone.
According to researchers at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London, many of these young men are driven by what, in their minds, are humanitarian concerns for their co-religionists and the Syrian people. An article by George Monbiot comparing them to volunteers in the Spanish civil war was apparently very popular among these foreign fighters. But the fact that most volunteers (among whom the British are the largest contingent) appear to be joining the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), or Jabhat al-Nusra to a lesser extent, shows that far from helping the anti-Assad cause, they are probably helping him to stay in power, and imposing yet more suffering on the Syrian population. [Continue reading...]
Mashable reports: In what could be best described as a bizarre PR stunt, Edward Snowden made a surprise appearance on live TV to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin whether he spies on his citizens.
Snowden, who has received asylum in Russia, appeared during Putin’s annual call-in show on Russian TV on Thursday, during which Putin answered questions from the public. It’s unclear whether Snowden’s appearance was staged, but his question gave Putin a chance to poke at his favorite target: the United States.
“Does Russia store, intercept, or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals, and do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify a place in societies rather than subjects under surveillance?” Snowden asked Putin (see the full exchange in the video embedded below).
“Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent, a spy. I used to work for the intelligence service, we are going to talk one professional language,” Putin said, according to translation by state-run TV channel Russia Today. “We don’t have as much money as they have in the States and we don’t have these technical devices that they have in the States. Our special services, thank God, are strictly controlled by society and the law and regulated by the law.”
Russia clearly has means to “respond” to terrorists and criminals who use technology, Putin added, but doesn’t have “uncontrollable efforts like [in America].”
What Putin didn’t say, however, is that Russia actually boasts one of the most sophisticated surveillance systems in the world, described by some as “PRISM on steroids.” This system, known as SORM, practically gives the Federal Security Service (FSB) direct access to Internet servers and telecommunications providers, allowing the government to eavesdrop on all online and phone communications that go through their networks. [Continue reading...]
No doubt Edward Snowden’s most loyal supporters will find ways of putting a positive spin on his TV performance, but neither of two of the most obvious ways in which it can be interpreted cast him in a favorable light.
If Snowden thought that he was promoting political freedom inside Russia by giving Putin the opportunity to assert, unchallenged, his commitment to the protection of privacy, then Snowden’s naivety is staggering.
If on the other hand, Snowden was “invited” to ask his question with the understanding or expectation that this would result in some kind of quid pro quo — such as increasing the chance of him being offered permanent asylum — then he just demonstrated his willingness to function as a propaganda tool supporting Putin’s agenda.
Suppose the same question had been posed to Putin by the TV host. It would have merited no attention whatsoever. Of course Putin is going to cast his own security services as squeaky clean when the questioner has neither the opportunity, the means, or the motive to challenge the Russian president’s response.
There’s no question that Snowden’s appearance was a PR stunt. The question is: who instigated it?
In 2007, a new phenomenon reared its ugly head in Afghanistan. With two attacks that year and two more the next, it was first dubbed “green-on-blue violence,” and later the simpler, blunter “insider attack.” At one level, it couldn’t have been more straightforward. Afghan soldiers or policemen (or in a small number of cases Taliban infiltrators) would suddenly turn their weapons on their American or NATO mentors or allies and gun them down. Think of these “incidents” as early votes in the Afghan elections — not, as Lenin might once have had it, with their feet, but with their guns after spending time up close and personal with Americans or other Westerners. It was a phenomenon that only intensified, reaching its height in 2012 with 46 attacks that killed 60 allied soldiers before slowly dying down as American combat troops began to leave the country and far stricter controls were put in place on relations between Afghan, U.S., and allied forces in the field.
It has not, however, died out. Not quite. Not yet. In a uniquely grim version of an insider attack just two weeks ago, an Afghan police commander turned his gun on two western journalists, killing Pulitzer Prize-winning news photographer Anja Niedringhaus and wounding AP reporter Kathy Gannon. And even more recently, just after it was reported that a month had passed without an American death in a war zone for the first time since 2002, Army Specialist Ivan Lopez killed three fellow soldiers in an insider attack at Fort Hood, Texas.
With its hint of blowback, this is not, of course, a comparison anyone in the mainstream American media is likely to make. On the whole, we prefer not to think of our wars coming home. In reality, however, Lopez’s eight-minute shooting rampage with a pistol purchased at a local gun shop fits the definition of an “insider attack” quite well, as did the earlier Fort Hood massacre by an Army psychiatrist. Think of it as an unhinged form of American war coming home, and as a kind of blowback unique to our moment.
After all, name me another wartime period when, for whatever reason, two U.S. soldiers shot up the same base at different times, killing and wounding dozens of their fellow troops. There was, of course, the “fragging” of officers in Vietnam, but this is a new phenomenon, undoubtedly reflective of the disturbing path the U.S. has cut in the world, post-9/11. Thrown into the mix is a homegrown American culture of massacre and the lifting of barriers to the easy purchase of ever more effective weaponry. (If, in fact, you think about it for a moment, most of the mass killings in this country, generally by young men, whether in schools, movie theaters, shipyards, or elsewhere, are themselves a civilian version of “insider attacks.”)
Ironically, in 2011, the Obama administration launched a massive Insider Threat Program to train millions of government employees and contractors to look for signs in fellow workers of the urge to launch insider attacks. Unfortunately, the only kind of insider attacks administration officials could imagine were those attributed to whistleblowers and leakers. (Think: Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.) So, despite much official talk about dealing with the mental health of military men, women, and veterans, the military itself remains open to yet more insider attacks. After almost 13 years of failed wars in distant lands, think of us as living in Ameraqafghanica.
Today, TomDispatch regular Ann Jones, whose odyssey of a book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, captures the truly painful cost of these wars for America’s soldiers like no other, points out just what every commentator in this country has avoided writing about and every government and military official up to the president has avoided talking about, despite the massive coverage of the Fort Hood killings. Tom Engelhardt
How America’s wars came home with the troops
Up close, personal, and bloody
By Ann Jones
After an argument about a leave denied, Specialist Ivan Lopez pulled out a .45-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun and began a shooting spree at Fort Hood, America’s biggest stateside base, that left three soldiers dead and 16 wounded. When he did so, he also pulled America’s fading wars out of the closet. This time, a Fort Hood mass killing, the second in four and a half years, was committed by a man who was neither a religious nor a political “extremist.” He seems to have been merely one of America’s injured and troubled veterans who now number in the hundreds of thousands.
Some 2.6 million men and women have been dispatched, often repeatedly, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and according to a recent survey of veterans of those wars conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly one-third say that their mental health is worse than it was before they left, and nearly half say the same of their physical condition. Almost half say they give way to sudden outbursts of anger. Only 12% of the surveyed veterans claim they are now “better” mentally or physically than they were before they went to war.
The media coverage that followed Lopez’s rampage was, of course, 24/7 and there was much discussion of PTSD, the all-purpose (if little understood) label now used to explain just about anything unpleasant that happens to or is caused by current or former military men and women. Amid the barrage of coverage, however, something was missing: evidence that has been in plain sight for years of how the violence of America’s distant wars comes back to haunt the “homeland” as the troops return. In that context, Lopez’s killings, while on a scale not often matched, are one more marker on a bloody trail of death that leads from Iraq and Afghanistan into the American heartland, to bases and backyards nationwide. It’s a story with a body count that should not be ignored.
Al Jazeera reports: It’s not just your imagination: The influence of money in politics has indeed drowned out the voices of American voters, a new analysis shows, with runaway corporate lobbying and a lack of campaign finance reform to blame for giving much more political weight to the wealthy.
Researchers at Princeton University and Northwestern University compared the public’s influence on 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002, finding that more often than not, the interests of wealthy groups and individuals won out over the demands of the general public. For instance, when 80 percent of the public asked for a change of some sort, they got their way only about 43 percent of the time.
The study, its authors say, points to the overwhelming power of wealthy lobbying groups and individuals backing certain interests in American politics, and the marginalization of voters and public advocacy groups.
“I expected to find that ordinary Americans had a modest degree of influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups would serve to promote those interests,” Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton and a co-author of the study, wrote in an email to Al Jazeera.
“What we found instead was that ordinary Americans have virtually no influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups as a whole do not reliably side with the wishes of the average citizen.” [Continue reading...]
Time reports: By sending its military to quell the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, the government in Kiev may be setting itself up for a spectacular defeat, as neither its army nor its intelligence services are prepared for a confrontation with Russia
Like many of the leading men in Ukraine’s new military pecking order, Petr Mekhed wasn’t exactly ripe for the task of fending off a Russian invasion when he assumed the post of Deputy Defense Minister in February. His last tour of combat duty was about 30 years ago, during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, after which he reached the rank of colonel in the Red Army. When revolution in Ukraine broke out this winter, his wartime experience made him better equipped than most at defending the barricades of the Maidan protest camp in the center of Kiev. But it was not as useful in preparing him to lead his country into war. “For some issues I’ve had to sit down with a book and study up,” he says.
His conclusion so far is an unsettling one for Ukraine’s political leaders. If they want to find a way out of their conflict with Russia, which edged closer on Tuesday to military confrontation in the eastern region of Donetsk, they have only one way to do it, Mekhed says, and that is to negotiate. “We’ll never get anywhere through the use of military force,” he tells TIME. It would be much more effective to undercut Russia’s support for the local separatists by meeting them halfway, Mekhed suggests, with an offer of more autonomy for Ukraine’s eastern regions. “Our chances of saving Donetsk are now in the hands of our politicians and their ability to sit down with the people there and talk to them.” [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: There are important differences between Russia’s intervention in Crimea and the events unfolding this week in eastern Ukraine which suggest Moscow has adapted its Crimea playbook and may be pursuing a different outcome.
Unlike the Black Sea peninsula, where thousands of Russian troops were already based at ex-Soviet naval facilities leased from Ukraine, there is little clear evidence of Moscow deploying significant forces on the ground in the east of the country.
In eastern towns where armed, pro-Russian rebels have seized public buildings and raised the Russian flag, some gunmen identify themselves to journalists as “Russians” – but that says little about citizenship in Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine.
They appear to be irregulars. If adept at barricading town halls, they lack the elite kit and well-drilled bearing of forces in Crimea – some of whom identified themselves to Ukrainian soldiers as Russian troops, despite Moscow’s denials.
Reuters also reports: Separatists flew the Russian flag on armored vehicles taken from the Ukrainian army on Wednesday, humiliating a Kiev government operation to recapture eastern towns controlled by pro-Moscow partisans.
Six armored personnel carriers were driven into the rebel-held town of Slaviansk to waves and shouts of “Russia! Russia!”. It was not immediately clear whether they had been captured by rebels or handed over to them by Ukrainian deserters.
Another 15 armored troop carriers full of paratroops were surrounded and halted by a pro-Russian crowd at a town near an airbase. They were allowed to retreat only after the soldiers handed the firing pins from their rifles to a rebel commander.
The military setback leaves Kiev looking weak on the eve of a peace conference on Thursday, when its foreign minister will meet his Russian, U.S. and European counterparts in Geneva.
AMY GOODMAN: Who was tougher on corporate America, President Obama or President Bush?
MATT TAIBBI: Oh, Bush, hands down. And this is an important point to make, because if you go back to the early 2000s, think about all these high-profile cases: Adelphia, Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen. All of these companies were swept up by the Bush Justice Department. And what’s interesting about this is that you can see a progression. If you go back to the savings and loan crisis in the late ’80s, which was an enormous fraud problem, but it paled in comparison to the subprime mortgage crisis, we put about 800 people in jail during—in the aftermath of that crisis. You fast-forward 10 or 15 years to the accounting scandals, like Enron and Adelphia and Tyco, we went after the heads of some of those companies. It wasn’t as vigorous as the S&L prosecutions, but we at least did it. At least George Bush recognized the symbolic importance of showing ordinary Americans that justice is blind, right?
Fast-forward again to the next big crisis, and how many people have we got—have we actually put in jail? Zero. And this was a crisis that was much huger in scope than the S&L crisis or the accounting crisis. I mean, it wiped out 40 percent of the world’s wealth, and nobody went to jail, so that we’re now in a place where we don’t even recognize the importance of keeping up appearances when it comes to making things look equal.
The Associated Press reports: The United Nations will release a report this week certifying that Iran’s ability to make a nuclear bomb has been greatly reduced because it has diluted half of its material that can be turned most quickly into weapons-grade uranium, diplomats said Tuesday.
The move is part of Iran’s commitments under a deal with six world powers in effect since January that mandates some nuclear concessions on the part of Tehran in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions crippling its economy.
A key concern for the six was Iran’s stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium, which is only a technical step away from the 90-percent grade used to arm nuclear weapons. By late last year, Iran had already amassed almost enough of the 20-percent grade for one nuclear bomb, with further enrichment.
Under the agreement, Iran agreed to halt its 20-percent enrichment program and to turn half of its nearly 200-kilogram (440-pound) stockpile into oxide for reactor fuel. As well, it pledged to dilute the other half into low-enriched uranium. [Continue reading...]