By Tom Arms
What a hoot. I mean, I nearly landed in the hospital with laughter split sides. Did Russia actually believe that US and British intelligence would launch a major cyber-attack on the American government in order to cast blame on Moscow?
To be fair to Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), he didn’t actually categorically blame the CIA, National Security Agency, MI6 and GCHQ for the December Solar Winds hack into US government departments and about 100 private companies. Naryshkin simply denied Russian culpability and claimed that the tactics were similar to those used by American and British intelligence. The careful intelligence-speak gives him wriggle room to deny the denial should that ever become necessary.
What we are talking about is what the intelligence world calls a “false flag” operation. The term dates back to at least the early days of the European empire when marauding pirates would hoist the flag of a friendly nation in order to close quarters with their prey before raising the skull and bones and opening a broadside. The same tactic was used by the British and French navies with great effect during the Napoleonic Wars.
In more modern times, Hitler—in order to aid his consolidation of Nazi power– falsely claimed that the 1933 Reichstag fire was a communist plot. The West does not have clean hands. In 1953 the CIA organised attacks on Iranian mosques and claimed they were communist-inspired as part of its attempt to overthrow Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadeq. Then there was Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections (denied, denied). And, of course, Donald Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
Russia is notorious for false flag operations. Or to use another term, lying. In the old Soviet days, Pravda (Russian for the truth) would regularly publish false stories about inflated production figures pushing the socialist heaven on earth towards a workers’ paradise. It is not surprising Vladimir Putin uses the tactics he learned as a KGB agent in defence of communism.
While Putin was a mere prime minister, a series of bomb attacks levelled several Moscow apartment blocks, resulting in the deaths of 293 people. Putin blamed rebel Chechens, used the blasts to increase attacks in Chechnya and then used his success in Chechnya to secure the presidency. A subsequent inquiry blamed Russia’s FSB (successor to the KGB) for the bombings.
Then there is the shooting down over Ukraine of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 which resulted in the deaths of all 298 people aboard. An independent inquiry determined that the plane was shot down by a Russian ground to air missile based in Russian-occupied Eastern Ukraine. Putin continues to deny this. He also denies that Russian troops invaded Eastern Ukraine in 2014.
The list of denied murders, bombings, invasions, attempted murders, hacks, and cyber-attacks goes on and on and…. A book could easily be written on the subject. Perhaps it has been. The point is, Vladimir Putin has form. He is like the boy who cried wolf and nobody believed when he finally told the truth.
But then Putin is not interested in truth, or even being believed. His goal is to undermine confidence in Western political institutions by sowing seeds of doubt and confusion. And there are plenty in the West who are willing to be his accomplices in their own pursuit of political and economic gain. Conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, has amassed a $10 million fortune by pedalling conspiracy-based lies such as the Democratic Party plotting a white genocide, pizzagate and the claims that the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Stoneman Douglas High School were false flag operations organised by the anti-gun lobby.
All of the above are obvious lies. But they do their job. As Mark Twain (or was it Churchill, Stalin or Jonathan Swift?) said: “A lie travels halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on.” In the era of 24/7 news and social media, overload lies now travel around the world several times while truth slumbers on. This is why Putin is in danger of being rushed to hospital with laughter-induced split sides.
At last a ceasefire. But not until acting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had reduced Hamas’s rocket manufacturing capability to a pile of smouldering twisted metal and brick dust. Hamas had tried smuggling ground to air missiles into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt. But they were too easily discovered and closed by the opposition. So they turned to Iranian expertise to develop a home-grown defence manufacturing industry. It worked. At the start of this latest spat, there were thousands of missiles launched from sites dotted around Gaza with ranges of between six and 120 miles. Netanyahu had to react quickly because of the ever-present threat that the conflict could rapidly escalate. Iran could join in from bases in Lebanon and Syria. The US would then be obliged to come to the aid of Israel. What would Russia do? How about Turkey? The Arab countries….? In fact, four rockets were fired from southern Lebanon, and they appear to have been a factor in Israel’s decision to cave into the growing international chorus for a ceasefire. But a military truce is only a tiny step towards resolving the underlying problems. That can only come with the implementation of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords and the implicit two-state solution. These were shelved in favour of Israeli hegemony by increasingly right-wing Likud governments which were emboldened most recently by the unquestioning support of Donald Trump. During this most recent clash Joe Biden has taken the traditional pro-Israeli line (“Israel has the right to defend itself”), but changing American demographics and a growing pro-Palestinian faction in the Democratic Party is shifting political parameters. It is also further polarising the parties with the Republicans embracing Trump’s sycophantic pro-Israeli position and the Democrats starting to question it.
The news that New York has moved their investigation of the Trump Organisation from a civil to a criminal case is no shock-horror story. Falsely manipulating property values to obtain loans and tax breaks—as the Trump Organisation is alleged to have done—is a fraud, which is a criminal offence. The bigger question is what effect will this have on the ex-president’s political future. It could go either way. True to form, Donald Trump was quick to brand the switch from the civil to the criminal legal system as part of a Democrat-organised “witch hunt” which puts it alongside the Mueller Inquiry, double impeachment and election “Big Lie”. At last count, 70% of Republicans believe him and the handful of Republican Congressmen and Senators prepared to oppose the ex-president are losing their jobs and being booed on the floor of the house by their party colleagues. But New York’s actions have moved the future of Donald Trump out of the political arena and into the courtroom. The fight now is not between Republicans and Democrats in Congress but between Trumpists and the independent judiciary, or Trump v. the constitution.
This week’s row over a UK/Australia free trade deal underscores the problems Britain faces in replacing EU markets. Before it joined the Common Market in 1973, British international trade was heavily based on post-imperial Commonwealth trade preferences. These—and the Commonwealth countries they supported– were abandoned when the responsibility for negotiating British trade deals was ceded to Brussels. Many of the Commonwealth countries were furious. One New Zealand diplomat prophetically told me at the time: “If things don’t work out with Europe don’t come crawling back to us. We don’t take kindly—and won’t forget– being kicked in the teeth by mother.” In the intervening half-century, they have formed new relationships. Mini-regional free trade zones have sprung up in the Caribbean, Africa and South Asia and the Pacific. Some of them have negotiated trade deals with the EU’s much larger market from which Britain has voluntarily excluded itself. Many of them now have production rules and regulations which vary markedly from Britain. In short, a return to an imperial past will be difficult—it not impossible to achieve. And, if they are negotiated, don’t expect them to favour a Britain desperate for a deal.
The sudden appearance of 8,000 migrants in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta is an object lesson in the dangers of tit for tat diplomacy. It goes like this: On 23 April the Spanish government announced that the President of Western Sahara’s Polisario Front was in Spain for Covid-19 treatment. The Moroccan government immediately warned of “consequences.” These came eight days later on 31 April when Morocco extended sanctuary to Catalan rebel leader Carlos Puigdemont. The Moroccan ambassador was then summoned to the Spanish foreign ministry to be told of Spanish “disgust”. This was quickly followed by a record 8,000 mainly Moroccan economic migrants flooding across the border into Ceuta while Moroccan border guards stood aside. Of course, there is a bit more history involved. The root cause is the disputed sovereignty of the former Spanish protectorate of Western Sahara and the Spanish North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Western Sahara is claimed by both Morocco and the indigenous Sahrawai people who, since Spain departed in 1976, have been represented by the Polisario Front. Between 1976 and 1986, the phosphate-rich desert territory was a bitter battleground. The Moroccan government tilted the demographic and political balance by in its favour by marching hundreds of thousands of Moroccans into Western Sahara (The Green March). Out of the current population of about 550,000, roughly two-thirds are now loyal ethnic Moroccans. Since 1986 there has been a ceasefire and endless and fruitless negotiations. Ceuta and Melilla are different. They have been Spanish since the 16th century and Moroccan national pride wants them back. King Hassan II draws parallels to his country’s claims to Spanish claims for Gibraltar and charges Madrid with diplomatic hypocrisy.
Population growth is always a big topic in China. For a start, there was the draconian one-child birth control policy from the 1970s until 2016. Some say it was a necessary evil as the Chinese population doubled from 500 million to 1 billion between 1949 and the introduction of the policy. Between 1976 and the introduction of the 2016 two-child policy it dropped to 40 per cent growth. Now there is a set of different population-related problems. For a start, the middle classes have discovered the economic benefits of small families. Between 2016 and 2020 the number of new births has fallen 15 per cent despite the relaxation of birth control restrictions. At the same time, the one-child years means that China now has one of the world’s oldest, non-working and expensive to support populations. It needs workers to produce income. Or, at least a new way of producing income. The fastest accepted route is to encourage immigration. Forget it. China allows only a limited number of short-term residency permits of high-value workers and attaining citizenship or long-term residency is a near impossibility. Only 452 foreign-born non-ethnic Chinese have been granted Chinese citizenship since 1949. The Chinese, are to be blunt, racist. Another alternative being floated by Beijing is raising the retirement age. China has one of the lowest ages for drawing a state pension—60 for men, 55 for women and 50 for civil servants. This is not likely to be a popular move. Then there is the possibility of increasing productivity. China is investing heavily in Artificial Intelligence industries in order to increase per capita production levels. Its impressive 21st-century growth rates are to date based on labour-intensive manufacturing industries which are threatened by new factories in cheaper countries as well as internal labour shortages. It must automate production or develop more high-end, high-value service industries. Whatever measures the Communist Party adopts must be designed to continue to deliver the consumer benefits of a growing economy in order to distract the people from the absence of political rights.