United States political leaders bluster, but Russia continues to be unmoved by their protestations over its annexation of Crimea and the massing of troops along Ukraine’s border. Long having believed itself the world’s only superpower, the US is now being delivered a lesson in real politik, if not humility.
Estonia, which has a large Russian population, has hit back against Russia, saying the West should freeze all Russian bank accounts … for what little that would appear to do. Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves says that what is most threatening about Russia’s behaviour is that "the old rules don’t apply". Since Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, he says, it has been clear that Putin would ignore guarantees of territorial sovereignty that conflicted with Russia’s sense of national interest.
Despite US President Barack Obama claiming that Russia’s seizure of Crimea is a sign of weakness rather than strength, US commentators, such as Stratfor’s George Friedman, believe the US is now headed towards direct confrontation with an increasingly assertive Russia. Assuming the US continues to believe that it is the world’s remaining superpower, and not one that has to negotiate, this may be correct.
There are now real concerns that, having established the precedent of "protecting" Russian speakers in former Soviet satellite states, it may move to annex further regions. Despite some commentary suggesting that Russia’s assertiveness is solely Putin’s doing, in fact it represents the wholesale reorientation of Russian politics towards a dominant conservative nationalist paradigm.
To illustrate, Deputy Speaker of Russia’s Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, bluntly says that the south-east of Ukraine be re-incorporated into Russia. Yet Zhirinovsky is the head of the inappropriately named Liberal Democratic Party, rather than Putin’s United Russia Party.
Within Russia, there is strong support for asserting Russia’s "return to greatness". According to Irina Yarovaya, a prominent member of the Duma's security committee: "Any person whatsoever who criticises the policies of the Russian authorities in Crimea becomes thereby an enemy of the fatherland."
Criticism of Msocow’s policies or Putin himself is no longer tolerated. Leading Moscow academic Professor Andrei Zubov was recently sacked from the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations for comparing Moscow's actions in Ukraine with Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938. In a parallel move, a number of critical websites have also been closed.
As if to illustrate the parallels between Russia’s former and current oligarchies, and the shift from one strong leader to another, Russia’s Orthodox Church Press has recently released its 2014 calendar featuring none other than the infamous Joseph Stalin. One analyst noted: "As Stalin would say 'this is not mere chance, Comrades'."
In large part, what appears to be missing from the West’s expressions of moral outrage over Russia’s perceived expansionism is that they are not presenting the world as it is, but rather as they would like it to be. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a moment of deep reflection for Russia, but the West’s triumphalism did not mean that Russia had disappeared. It many respects, it remains powerful, perhaps almost as much as it has earlier been.
Similarly, the rise of China as an economic and strategic power -- and the US' Asia "pivot" recognising that -- has added a third key player to the global balance of power. With the US economically and strategically weakened, perceptions of its pre-eminence and ability to shift global events are increasingly doubtful.
The Cold War era was characterised by two superpowers, and the post-Cold War era by just one. But, in the wake of the US’ ill-advised adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the world increasingly appears as tri-polar. No one now seriously questions that China is a global player and that Russia can act, more or less, with impunity in areas it claims to be in its sphere of influence, tends to confirm this fundamental global strategic shift.
As the United States and its allies -- including Australia -- move closer to intervening in the Syrian civil war, more questions are emerging over the chemical weapons attack which is the pretext for that intervention. Challenging questions are being asked about the motive behind the attack, as well as the consequences of a response to it.
The US has been reluctant to intervene in the Syrian conflict, yet drawn a "red line" which, if crossed, would trigger an intervention. The question now being asked is why Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad would unnecessarily provoke the US into a response?
Assad knew that, once publicly committed, the US could not back down from its threat to intervene. For US President Barack Obama to make such a threat and then not carry it through would weaken its international status and prompt further possible tests of its strategic resolve.
The evidence, too, is that despite the huge cost in civilian lives, the Assad regime is at least holding its own in the civil war and has made recent gains. These gains have been largely due to logistical support from Russia, China and Iran, and the intervention of Hezbollah fighters from neighbouring Lebanon.
This, then, begs the questions of why it would resort to using chemical weapons when there is no pressing need to do so, and especially knowing it would engender an external military response?
The Assad regime being evil is a morally satisfying but intellectually bereft answer to this question that does not transcend reasonable -- and growing -- doubt. It is certain that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, but that is the extent of the facts.
It is possible that the order for Assad regime forces to use its chemical weapons did not come from Assad himself. A rogue commander could have used the weapons, for reasons that can only be guessed at.
But looking at who has most to gain from such an attack, suspicion falls less on the Assad regime and more on the faltering anti-Assad rebellion. External intervention could, at least initially, tip the balance of power in Syria’s civil war in favour of the anti-Assad forces.
The Assad regime's reluctance and delay in allowing in UN weapons inspectors has not helped allay suspicion that the chemical weapons attach was a deliberate act. However, had a local commander given the order, Assad would have been aware of the likely consequences and thus attempted to delay formal investigations in order to allow signs of the chemicals to dissipate.
Of the two main opposition groupings, the more secular (and Western-supported) Free Syrian Army has struggled and has the most to gain from external intervention. The Saudi and Qatar-backed and Al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front and the Syrian Islamic Front, though, would also benefit from external intervention. If intervention helped topple the Assad regime, it would ease the way towards them establishing an Islamist state.
While there is no evidence that either of these two somewhat disparate groupings are responsible for the chemical attack, one is clearly desperate and the other has, during the civil war, demonstrated its own lack of moral compunction. The hard evidence, then, beyond the simple fact of an attack, remains ambiguous.
Apart from the formal legality of a direct external intervention, careful consideration is being given to how much evidence will be needed to launch a US-led attack. There appears little ulterior reason for the US to want to intervene in the Syrian civil war, given that it is only likely to further stir up the hornets’ nest.
The US is being drawn into the Syrian civil war in a seemingly mechanistic way. Yet there remains no hard evidence as to who was the perpetrator of the chemical attack. This level of uncertainty has echoes similar to that of Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction", and the continuing disaster that remains what is left of the Iraqi state.
For the past six weeks a high-level US team has been in Pakistan trying to negotiate a resumption of the convoys which travel through the country and provide Coalition forces in Afghanistan with about 30% of their non-lethal supplies.
Pakistan decided unilaterally to stop the convoys following the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border post by Coalition fighter planes in November last year.
One of the major sticking points in the negotiations is the fee Pakistan wants to impose on each container truck travelling through the country. Prior to the halt, Islamabad used to charge US$250 per truck; they are now asking for $3000.
The deep freeze