War on religion – Western style

Amid the flurry of news surrounding Sochi and Ukraine, one overlooked diplomatic spat between Russia and the US has been particularly revealing.

Pussy Riot member
Pussy Riot member

When asked about members of Pussy Riot meeting with the US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin responded with sarcastic incredulity that Power didn’t join the band.

“I would expect her to invite them to perform at the National Cathedral in Washington,” he said. “Maybe they could arrange a world tour for them, you know.”

“St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, then maybe in Mecca in Saudi Arabia, ending up with a gala concert at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. So if Ambassador Power fell short I would be disappointed,” Churkin said.

The crime Pussy Riot was charged with was “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” because of their choice of a Russian cathedral as a venue for their protest.

Pussy Riot in action at cathedral

This point is often overlooked in the West. Vladimir Putin’s obviously corruption doesn’t detract from what may well be a very sincere desire to ‘defend’ a traditional order against what he sees as an encroaching Western amorality. It is easy for the West to dismiss Putin’s hard line as an excuse to show he is a tough guy. But a regime can crack down anyone. There is a reason why Russia’s leader wants defend a religion and a church.

To date, I don’t see the emerging great power struggle as a battle of beliefs. But if, over time, such an ideological war emerges, this defense of traditional decency may well be one of the strains we would likely see. It’s easy to imagine how a desire to defend an older order could be a common cause among anti-Western nations.

Path of Chinese navy ships passing near Australia, Indonesia on visit to Indian Ocean


In a move that would make fabled Chinese explorer Zheng He proud, the Chinese navy has ventured into the Indian Ocean for exercises, passing through Indonesia on the way.

This is an approximate map of the path taken by People’s Liberation Navy ships Changbaishan, Wuhan and Haikou taken in late January 2014. The landmass at the bottom right is Australia.

The path is based on information from the Associated Press and the Australia-based thinktank, the Lowy Interpreter.

Any fear in the wake of this unannounced visit to the neighborhood will certainly build the case for a more capable Australian submarine fleet. US foreign policy realist John Mearsheimer laid out this scenario in 2010 in an article for the UK Spectator.


Ukraine crisis — five issues behind it

The crisis in Ukraine has dragged on for more than two months now, with Russia, the EU, Germany and the US all weighing in. The list below attempts to explain what’s at stake and why countries as far away as the US have an interest in the outcome of the struggle.

1) Putin’s power: It’s a test of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s ability to maintain his country’s sphere of influence two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union. Ukraine, a former Soviet state, is a crucial buffer for Russia, which, given the history of invasions, is and will remain a highly sensitive issue. Russian deaths during WWII alone were a staggering 21-28,000,000 – much higher than elsewhere.

2) Russia v Europe: Ukraine is a tug of war between Russia and Europe, particularly Germany. Relations between Germany and Russia have been rocky over a number of issues in recent times including the fate of artwork seized by the Russians at the end of WWII. But Russian-German relations probably hit a low point when outgoing German FM Guido Westerwelle took it upon himself to visit the protesters days before his term was finished. Again, history is everything between the countries. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin asked rhetorically what the EU would do if the Russians sent their foreign minister to Greece or Cyprus during the recent crises there? Germany, after the Snowden revelations, is reportedly considering a more activist foreign policy. Given Germany’s place at the geographic and political center of Europe, as well as its 20th century history, more tension in this area is possible.

3) Russia v US: Ukraine is a test between the US and Russia, whose relationship has been sliding steadily downward for years.  Setting aside human rights issues, diplomatic spats and one Edward J. Snowden, the whole concept of a European missile shield is received as a sign of American aggression in Russia. Ex-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said Putin would probably see any toppling of the current Ukraine government as a “dress rehearsal” for regime change in Moscow – although you would have to think the US may have learned its lesson with regime change as a policy for now. Nonetheless, a recent report concluded that Russia violated an anti-nuclear missile treaty considered the bedrock of post-Cold War nuclear non-competition. US Senator John McCain visited protesters in Independence Square.

4) Economics: One of the fallouts of the shale gas revolution (involving fracking) is that it has undercut the leverage Russia’s rich gas and oil reserves had given it in the past. In 2006 and 2009 Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine during negotiations and Moscow has expected to rely on this cudgel to create a regional order in its own favor. As the Economist notes: “The shale revolution is changing the balance of power between the Russian bear and its European customers. In the past Russia was so confident of its producer power that it felt able to bully clients.” This economic shift is leaving Russia feeling vulnerable. Further, Russia’s poor transition from the state-controlled Soviet economy to a market economy has seen insiders and oligarchs take advantages that have crippled the entrepreneurial class, which has further damaged its prospects. It’s not clear Russia has a plan in place for an economic revival. A history of using hard power and coercion (cutting off gas supplies to neighbors) may mean Russia opts to use more hard-power in the future. Also, while China and Russia collaborate on security issues, competition for economic influence in Central Asia will only grow between the two powers.

5) Civil war: There is a chance a civil war could erupt in Ukraine, with opposing sides receiving direct or indirect support from Russia and the West. Ukrainians in the East are politically close to Russia. “The Western areas of the country (which include Kiev) are strongly anti-Russia and heavily favor European integration,” writes Daniel Lewin of the USC Annenberg site neontommy.”These eastern regions have, to this point, been relatively quiet (they have nothing to protest against given the administration’s current pro-Russian tilt) but if it begins to look as if the protestors in Kiev are going to succeed at removing [Ukraine President Viktor] Yanuovych from power and replacing him with a pro-European leader you can expect that level of inactivity to change dramatically.”