Tuesday 28 March 2017

Putin steps up attack in prep for US election

Diary

The bigger picture: A Syrian boy receives treatment at a hospital in the regime-held part of Aleppo last Thursday. Syrian state television said four children were killed by rebel rocket fire on a school in a western regime-held neighbourhood Photo: GEORGE OURFALIAN / AFP / Getty Images
The bigger picture: A Syrian boy receives treatment at a hospital in the regime-held part of Aleppo last Thursday. Syrian state television said four children were killed by rebel rocket fire on a school in a western regime-held neighbourhood Photo: GEORGE OURFALIAN / AFP / Getty Images

Fergal Keane

The American circus is so loud we are missing the real story. Consider that this week, the following has occurred: Vladimir Putin ordered the deployment of nuclear-capable missiles into the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast. With two NATO and EU states on either side - Poland to the west, Lithuania to the east - it is one of the most strategically significant pieces of territory in the world.

The Kremlin also announced it is seeking to reopen bases in Vietnam, Cuba and Egypt. Never mind that the governments in all three countries will not accede. It is Russian intent, and what it tells us about Mr Putin's state of mind, that is important.

Russian President Vladimir Putin Photo: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin Photo: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images

In Ukraine, pro-Russian rebels have stepped up attacks around the city of Mariupol, the last government stronghold in the way of a Russian land corridor to the Crimean peninsula.

Yes, remember: there is a war going on in Ukraine. Here - in the unvarnished language of the OSCE (Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe) monitors - is what happened in just a few hours: "The SMM camera in Shyrokyne (20km east of Mariupol) recorded, within four hours, 34 explosions…more than 238 bursts of anti-aircraft-gun… and 20 undetermined rocket-assisted projectiles…"

I know Shyrokyne. I went there to report on the deaths of two children killed in a rocket strike two years ago. They were among the early victims of the new confrontation between Russia and the West.

Villagers stood in an autumn graveyard while mortars landed in the fields beyond. But to continue with the drumbeats of the last week: the Russian bombing of Aleppo briefly slowed and then, in the words of local activists, began to rain down once more.

On the Western side, the CIA is apparently considering a major cyber strike against Russia. This is to repay Mr Putin for his hacking of the Democratic Party, among other cyber sins. The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, hinted at military options in Syria (though parliament has expressly voted against it, and the British people have no wish to become embroiled).

Not to leave the killing of civilians entirely to Putin and Assad, the West's allies - who use British and American bombs -slaughtered more than 100 people at a funeral in Yemen, and continue daily with air strikes and a blockade that has led to a severe humanitarian crisis.

While the American election increasingly resembles an extended edition of The Jerry Springer Show, global tension is rising to a point where the possibility of a serious miscalculation and confrontation between two nuclear-armed superpowers is more vivid than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Contrary to the propaganda of the conspiracy-glutted hard Left and its legions of useful idiots on social media, the United States, under Obama, is not readying the ground for World War Three.

His entire policy on Syria has been predicated on the principle that there are no good options, least of all military ones.

The CIA's attempts to create a 'moderate' army to confront Assad ended in malign failure, as so often in such cases.

Just watch poor old John Kerry's relentless humiliation at the hands of Sergei Lavrov. Kerry knows Obama has no intention of fighting a war to back up his 'red lines' in Syria. Likewise on Ukraine.

In Crimea, Russia grabbed the sovereign territory of a neighbouring state and got away with it. Putin then set his attack dogs loose in the Donbas.

Again the Kremlin propaganda machine swung into action, ably assisted by the usual suspects in the West, to characterise the Ukrainian state as a nest of fascists.

For the record, far-right fighters provided the backbone to government resistance in the east, and yes, there are plenty of deeply unpleasant characters in the employ of Ukraine's security services, not to mention the deep-rooted corruption at all levels of government.

I had a testy exchange with President Poroshenko about the far-right question when I interviewed him last year. Afterwards, his spokesman berated me for "swallowing Russian propaganda". But the government of Ukraine is not fascist. It is too divided, and often too incompetent, to be resolutely ideological in any direction.

The West bears some serious responsibility for what has gone wrong. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it acted like the Cold War had been won.

The triumphant march to Russia's borders might have reassured the likes of Lithuania and other victims of Soviet power, but it humiliated Russia.

Nobody won the Cold War. History did not come to an end. Rough beasts were merely slumbering and waiting their hour to come again.

Now they are stalking the old fault lines of confrontation in eastern Europe and the Middle East, and the West has no idea what to do. I don't go along with the complacent consensus that believes what we are witnessing is merely Russian sabre rattling.

The Russian leader is in a bind of his own making. He has understood Western weakness all too well and exploited it in Syria and Ukraine. Now he faces the possibility America will elect a president who knows this and is likely to sharply change US global policy.

The prospect of Hillary Clinton in the White House has unsettled him. Why else would he deploy such immense cyber resources, not to mention take the diplomatic risks, to intervene in the US election?

Putin could always count on the caution and restraint of Obama. Hillary is likely to be a much more troublesome adversary. Now, it is Putin who senses he is losing the strategic advantage.

This is the uncharted territory we are heading into. There is one substantial positive to take out of the past week. With the confirmation of Antonio Guterres as UN secretary general, there is a figure of real substance after the hapless Ban Ki-moon. There is a secretary general willing to be vigorous and vocal in the cause of peace. We will need him.

*******

War has been much on my mind. I spent the latter half of the week travelling by road from Serbia to Bavaria, across the Central European plain which witnessed the invasions of Huns, Ottomans, Nazis and Soviets.

I rose very early each morning to complete the final pages of a book I am writing on my grandparents - on both sides - and their role in the Irish Revolution.

Immersed in the detail of ambush and Civil War atrocity, I tried to picture how the world must have seemed to my grandmother Hannah Purtill, who married Bill Keane in the year the fighting ended.

The county of Kerry was traumatised. Comrades had turned on each other. The economic crisis was daunting. Across Europe, the seeds of new disaster were taking root in the aftermath of the Great War. Millions were being ethnically cleansed in the Balkans and Asia Minor.

I ended my journey in Berchtesgaden, the Alpine resort which was Hitler's vacation residence and sometime headquarters.

My mind flashed from Ireland in the time of war, to the Second World War to the present. In the end, we found a kind of peace on the island of Ireland. Hitler and fascism were defeated. These thoughts and the arrival of the UN's new boss, Antonio Guterres, brightened the journey home.

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