Two Films Show the Change in Russia's Warrior Culture

Two films, one made during the twilight years of the Soviet Union and the second during the Putin era, tell essentially the same story, but with striking differences in tone and style. The films offer a salient look at Russia's changing attitudes as Putinism took hold and the post-Cold War era faded into memory.

The plots are drawn from a turning point in Russian history, as young men are sent to fight in Afghanistan. The soldiers begin with a sense of purpose and a commitment to reshaping Afghanistan, a rugged country deeply steeped in tribal traditions and Islam. But the environment turns on them in the worst possible way. Afghanskiy Izlom (Afghan Breakdown), made in 1990 - a year after Soviet forces officially withdrew from the country - tells the story of the military unit sent to conduct mop-up operations toward the end of the war. At the outset of the story, the soldiers display a dedication to military duty and discipline. They function with a sense of purpose. As the action progresses, however, the violence of the war, and the anxiety felt by all over the fundamental changes altering the Soviet Union during the perestroika of 1986-1990, lead to a disintegration of unity and moral purpose.

Sadness and uncertainty prevail, and the movie's realistic action sequences don't stop it from mirroring the melancholy that defined the Soviet Union's attitude toward the consequences of this war: traumatized veterans, disabled military personnel with no access to treatment, billions spent on a war that led nowhere for a country facing an existential crisis, and the very idea of the socialist future left under threat. 

in the grand Soviet tradition of sad and dramatic endings, the lead character is shot in the back as he moves through ruins of yet another destroyed Afghan village - perhaps alluding to the film's critique of Soviet actions that over the course of a decade essentially failed to accomplish Moscow's original objectives.

Fifteen years later, a very different film portrayed the same war. Devaytaya Rota (Ninth Company) was a 2005 big-budget production that overly dramatized the events of January 1988. The film tells the story of the Airborne Guards Regiment as they defended a high point against Afghan mujahideen in the closing months of the war. In reality, the unit suffered relatively few causalities, but this film tells a different story. Its dramatic sequences show young Russian men facing almost certain death - the company is decimated in spectacular, bloody close-quarter fighting. Devyataya Rota moves the audience to tears as young soldiers' stories, wishes, desires, fears, and the friendships forged in fighting, culminate in massive battle sequences where their lives are snuffed out.

Rota's stark realism is shown most vividly approximately one hour through the film, when newly-minted Air Cavalry soldiers land at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan - the same base that Americans would use following their 2001 invasion. As soldiers disembark from the aircraft, newly demobilized Marines rush to fill its seats, eager to get home to the Soviet Union. One of the returnees grabs hold of one of the lead protagonists and gives him a safety amulet as a gift. As the aircraft rises toward the mountains that frame the base, a surface-to-air missile is launched by the Afghans, hitting the Russian aircraft broadside. The wounded plane turns about to land back at the base, only to burst into a fireball as it attempts to crash land.

Izlom was made at a time when Soviet society were breaking apart and law and order was breaking down. Government authority came under question, and history was critically re-examined. Rota shows the Afghan War in a far different light. Its young men rise above the conflict and its savagery through personal sacrifices, showcasing military discipline that eventually wins the battle.

If Izlom showed the Soviet Army as it approached its lowest ebb, then Rota is a signpost for the military Vladimir Putin desires for Russia - one imbued with a sense of purpose and personal commitment to finishing the mission. Rota's action sequences and musical scores mirror Hollywood productions such as Apocalypse Now and Hamburger Hill. The film was generally well received by Russian audiences, earning a respectable amount after the initial release. Izlom's protagonists were not hailed as heroes, but Rota's young soldiers were. This is the cultural advent of Putin's Russia - a nation that does not want to abandon its warriors to critique and forgetfulness and will gloss over actions taken in a conflict of questionable importance to the Soviet state. 

Why Congress Should Have Courage on Iran Deal

If a nuclear deal with Iran is reached tomorrow, or sometime next year, it is likely to face considerable skepticism in a divided and increasingly hawkish U.S. Congress. While any agreement reached between Iran, the United States and the P5+1 countries will not require Senate approval since it will not be a treaty, the deal can be undermined by a lack of Congressional support in the short term, and it will require Congressional endorsement and a lifting of sanctions later on. Opponents of any deal with Iran are adept at using visceral, fear-based arguments to question the very premises of diplomatic engagement with a country the United States has long been estranged from. To get beyond these shortsighted arguments and see a deal clearly, members of Congress need to put these negotiations in historical perspective and understand that it will require some political courage to take a step that will increase America's security in the long run.

The most vocal conservative opponents of any deal maintain that Iran is such a bad actor on international terrorism and human rights, and has such a long history of hostility toward the United States, that we simply should not engage with them. But they only need to look to their conservative predecessors, including heroes such as Ronald Reagan and practical politicians such as Bob Dole, to see the limitations of this attitude. Those staunch defenders of American security recognized that pursuing arms control with the Soviet Union was not an endorsement of Soviet behavior. They continued to confront the Soviet Union in other arenas around the globe and to criticize human rights abuses while working on arms control agreements on separate, parallel tracks. This smarter approach led to arms control agreements that helped defuse the most serious nuclear threats for decades. Reagan was initially vilified as a sellout to the Soviets by the most hardline elements of his party when he pursued the INF treaty in the late 1980s, but his accomplishments in promoting arms control are now seen as enduring part of his legacy. Arms control agreements did not result, of course, in a perfect and peaceful world, yet they left America better off than if caught in an unconstrained, perpetual nuclear arms race, and they created a political space in which the Cold War could safely wind down.

Senators of both parties were deeply skeptical of Soviet intentions, just as today's hawks are of Iranian intentions. Opponents of arms agreements were adamant that the Soviets could not be trusted, would not comply with an agreement, and were using the arms control process to dupe the United States into letting its nuclear guard down. Getting past these doubts required convincing Senators that strong verification regimes would be in place. On this point, Senator Dole was characteristically blunt during the 1987 INF treaty debate, simplifying Reagan's famous dictum, "Trust, but Verify," to his own mantra: "verification, verification, verification -that's the key." With strong verification processes in place, there was a gradual recognition that, despite some ups and downs, the Soviets were committed to compliance. This history enabled a more rational political discourse that led to passage of subsequent treaties up through the New Start treaty in 2010.

The current negotiations with Iran, intended to prevent the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons are, of course, much different than those with a power such as the Soviet Union that already possessed a huge nuclear arsenal. Yet many of the political considerations are similar.
In both cases, decades of hostility and mistrust presented an initial obstacle to even beginning negotiations. In the case of Iran, after 35 years of estrangement, bilateral talks between U.S. and Iranian diplomats have quickly become routine. This has facilitated negotiations, but has not yet built trust and has left negotiators operating in a field of uncertainty and risk. But as we saw in decades of engagement with the Soviets, the political courage to accept these risks, combined with practical efforts on verification, can lead to effective, enforceable agreements.

An intrusive inspections regime has already been in place for almost a year, under the interim Joint Plan of Action which halted Iran's program in return for limited changes in sanctions. Under a comprehensive deal, this kind of robust inspections regime will provide ample time to detect any broad resumption of a nuclear weapons program. No regime is foolproof, and certain violations of any agreement could be missed, but if there is a continuing effort to evade compliance it will be difficult to keep hidden, as years of successful intelligence gathering on Iran's program have demonstrated.

Conservative hardliners in Congress say they would support a deal if it guaranteed that Iran would never be able to build a nuclear weapon. This disingenuous claim ignores the fact that the Iranians already have the necessary knowledge to build a weapon. A good agreement can minimize the risks that Iran can clandestinely move toward building a nuclear weapon, and it can provide incentives for the Iranians to step back from the path toward nuclear arms. More thoughtful members of Congress recognize that without a deal Iran can resume activities that can lead to a nuclear weapon, leaving us with only two options: military action or dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran. Without a deal, the international sanctions regime will likely unravel, diminishing pressure on Iran to allow continued intrusive inspections. The world will be more dangerous and unstable in this scenario than it would be if there is a good, verifiable deal that still entails some uncertainties and risks. A little historical perspective can help spark the political courage needed now in Congress to back a deal which will make America safer and prevent an unnecessary war.

Germany's Neo Nazis Think a New Image Is What They Need

Hipsters, not skinheads. That's the image some of Germany's neo nazis apparently wish to adopt. According to one person interviewed, it's part of an effort to appear as less of a subculture. Vocativ has the full report.

 

Russia Works to Freeze Perceptions of Kiev

The military dimension of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine seems to have stabilized for now, with opposing fronts drawn with relative clarity in the Donbas. In the information war surrounding the conflict, meanwhile, the Kremlin is shifting up: To match the more or less frozen conflict, Moscow-aligned media is working to entrench a permanently negative view of Kiev's actions in the region - one that links to the shared history of ethnic Russians still sensitive to the memories of World War II.

A recent entry by the Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda illustrates this trend with a report from the small town of Gorlovka, outside Donetsk. According to the report, the Ukrainian military hit a residential building, instantly killing a young family of four people. The title of the article leaves no doubt on how to interpret the actions of the Ukrainian military: "Despicable Ukrainian death squads continue to kill children in Donbas."

The article cites similar tragedies and suggests that civilian deaths are of no concern to Kiev and its allies in the West:

"Last week, according to residents, a young woman and her daughter were killed by a shell ... There were many killings earlier as well. No one saw OSCE observers or the International Red Cross in Gorlovka, so Ukrainian propaganda ascribes such killings to the pro-Russian militia. It is easy to calculate where the artillery shells came from - Kiev is all too accustomed to Western observers and journalists not bothering to investigate such incidents."

The author says the killings were mere "drunken fun" by the Ukrainian military. He goes on to accuse Kiev of deliberately creating fear among the pro-Russian population of the country's eastern regions:

Another, more "humane" version for chaotic killings of civilians is that Kiev is trying to expel as much of the population of Novorossiya in order to clear this land for future settlers from Western parts of the country ... There will be more victims at the hands of Ukrainian military, and more kids will be killed by Ukrainian shells, because there is no one to stop and shame Kiev. The progressive Western public today sided with the sadists.

Meanwhile on Friday, the Parliament of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic was in session, and its chairman, Andrei Purgin, indicated that while hard times are ahead for the region, there is now turning back - the region will not again be part of Ukraine. Pugin:

"You need to finally realize and accept the fact that the desire of the people of our Republic for freedom, justice, and happiness is natural, inalienable and inviolable ... For the blood of our fellow countrymen, for their houses burned and torn down, for destroyed factories, mines, schools, hospitals - for all of that, you will incur inevitable responsibility as war criminals. We will never forget."

Solving Europe's Corporate Tax Hypocrisy

(AP photo)

Amid the furor of a tax avoidance scandal, the new chairman of the European Commission has come out in favor of a pan-European corporate tax. With public anger over corporate tax avoidance increasing, the idea may at last have legs - in large part, ironically, thanks to the chairman's former role.

"Jean-Claude Juncker favours a common corporate tax base and financial transaction tax", Margaritis Schinas, Juncker's spokesman, said Nov. 7, a day dominated on the European airwaves by reports of a corporate tax avoidance scandal.

In one of the most expansive news investigations ever undertaken, media organizations in 26 nations revealed that Luxembourg was the linchpin for tax rulings - in some quarters known as "comfort letters" - that helped companies secure billions of dollars in tax savings. Having served for 25 years as Luxembourg's prime minister and its finance minister, Jean-Claude Juncker's fingerprints are all over the scandal.

As he is wont to do, Juncker went on the offensive, throwing his support behind existing ideas for a pan-European common corporate tax base and a financial transaction tax.

The latter idea is gaining traction, but the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base plan is still a political non-starter: It faces profound political opposition by member states.

Economic war is alive and well

The European Union was created to prevent open conflict. Under the surface, though, economic wars between the member states rage on. Europe's smaller countries in particular are constantly jostling for the attention of companies they hope will bring jobs.

A number of impressive tax avoidance schemes have brought public embarrassment to a number of governments. Companies such as Starbucks and Google, but also government-owned organisations such as the Dutch national railways company Nederlandse Spoorwegen, have made use of morally odious bilateral tax treaties and tax rulings. This while any civilian caught avoiding the tax man faces often faces harsh sentences and public persecution.

Fiscal food industry

The origins of these tax schemes were benign: They were meant to draw jobs and investment. Those good intentions proved far too vulnerable to exploitation, however, and while it is increasingly clear that fiscal chicanery in exchange for jobs is a formula that no longer works, companies continue to expand their profits using constructs like the "Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich."

Public support for the fiscal arms race has rapidly waned since the onset of Europe's financial crisis, and governments have started to ask companies who use arcane fiscal constructs to explain their actions.

In response, some companies stop at oblique references to national tax laws and government agencies. Others use subtle threats in their lawyerly replies, for instance reminding governments of the number of jobs the firms have created for voters. It's a bit like Tony Soprano coming in to talk to you about the importance of proper protection because, you know, it would be a shame if something happened to your shop.

OneTax

If national corporate taxes are scrapped and replaced by a uniform European tax rate, the very reason for the fiscal arms race ceases to exist. Politicians who have thus far said that countries should compete on the quality of education and infrastructure can finally put their money where their mouth is and dispense with the shady tax breaks.

What's the World Scared Of?

While there's no shortage of things to worry about, a new survey from Pew Research has actually quantified what it is we fear. They've found (not suprisingly) that our fears depend very much on where we live.

If you live in the Middle East, religious and ethnic hatred tops your list. If you live in the United States and Europe, inequality keeps you up at night. In most of Asia, pollution looms large - though South Korea follows the United States and Europe in singling out inequality as a leading threat. Japan also breaks with the regional trend by worrying most about the spread of nuclear weapons.

In Africa, the spread of infectious diseases, especially HIV/AIDS, is public enemy number one - and this survey was taken before the Ebola outbreak became a global story, so we can only assume this fear has been compounded by recent events.

While the United States collectively sees inequality as the largest threat, there's a clear ideological breakdown to those results. Republicans were more likely to identify religious and ethnic hatreds as the top threat, while Democrats singled out inequality. Independents were slightly more likely to finger inequality as the top threat as well.

Pew found a similar dynamic at work in the United Kingdom, with conservatives more concerned about religious tensions than inequality. 

The Trade Deal Tokyo and Washington Need to Seal

 

Japan and the United States have the best opportunity to elevate our bilateral relationship in many years - by concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. The deal is about much more than expanding bilateral and regional trade, important as that is. The TPP stands to establish a new and enduring foundation for U.S.-Japan relations. The pact can guarantee Asia's future economic architecture and its trade rules, and it can cement our joint leadership at a time when regional economic competition is growing more intense and maintaining regional security is increasingly difficult.
 
There is much positive activity in the bilateral relationship. U.S. and Japanese companies from a wide variety of industries embark on new collaborative relationships on a daily basis. New defense guidelines are scheduled for completion this year; energy cooperation is moving forward, with the approval of new licenses to export U.S.-produced liquefied natural gas to Japan; and Washington has indicated its support for Japanese administration of the Senkaku Islands, as well as its willingness to help defend the isles under the U.S.-Japan security treaty. 
 
But for the benefits of geopolitical cooperation to take full form, we need a new economic framework that strengthens Japan's economy and regional leadership while firmly establishing the long-term commitment of the United States to Asia. The TPP is the centerpiece of any such framework.  
 
While Washington and Tokyo agree on most of the rules being negotiated in the pact, Japanese and U.S. negotiators are hobbled by disagreements over market access to the agricultural and automotive sectors. The impasse has created a rough patch in the bilateral relationship and is holding up the overall negotiations - an outcome in neither party's interest. 
 
The economic benefits of the TPP have been well documented.  Eliminating tariffs on agricultural and manufactured goods and non-tariff measures that hinder services trade through TPP will give a major boost to the participating economies. According to widely reported work by Peter Petri of Brandeis University, Japan stands to gain more than almost any other TPP economy - a $105 billion boost to GDP by 2025, and $125 billion if South Korea ultimately joins, as is likely. 
 
The TPP is essential to maximizing these gains, and to close the deal, Japan will have to take difficult steps - as will the United States. Japan must open its agricultural market. In return, its industrial exports will enjoy greater access to the TPP economies. Moreover, it will win stronger protections for its intellectual property and will benefit from new rules affecting investment, digital trade, competition with state-owned enterprises, customs and supply chains, government procurement, and other areas that will help Japanese companies compete in the TPP economies while fostering growth at home. 
 
A big, bold TPP agreement will do more than simply boost Japanese trade and competitiveness. It will send a clear signal to the world that Japan indeed "is back," as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe likes to say, and is dedicated to vital reforms. By demonstrating that it is prepared to open its markets with ambition equal to the other TPP economies, Japan will bolster its credibility on economic reform while strengthening its economic ties with countries across the Asia-Pacific. Most of all, a strong TPP agreement will strengthen Japan's geopolitical and economic relationship with the United States.    
 
Reaching an ambitious, high-standard and comprehensive agreement that opens markets fully and establishes 21st Century rules for trade is all the more necessary because of the geopolitical importance of the TPP.  Binding countries together under common and forward-leaning rules that emphasize the critical role of open markets, strong protections for IP, and the rule of law will not only create new commercial opportunities among the partners, but strengthen the bonds between - bonds based on shared values and a long-term vision for the region.    
  
Neighboring China is asserting its own regional strategic and economic visions with increasing vigor. China dominates trade in the region with its high demand for products and raw materials from other countries. Beijing is also increasingly exerting leadership through its investment, through regional trade negotiations such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and through initiatives such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Given the extent to which the United States and Japan rely on trade with China, securing an agreement in which we work together to set the highest possible rules and standards for Asia will lead to better results for both countries, but also for the other economies involved - including that of China, if and when Beijing is able to meet the high standards of the TPP. Equally important, the pact will leave the United States and Japan in better position to secure high-standard commitments from China to open its markets.
 
Given the huge importance of maintaining the strongest possible U.S.-Japan strategic relationship and of establishing a vibrant trans-Pacific economy, the TPP is an opportunity too great to miss. Failure would complicate U.S.-Japan relations, worsen foreign perceptions of Japan's economic reform efforts, and impact our shared values and vision in fostering mutually beneficial regional and global trading systems. This is the moment when leaders and politicians need to think strategically and exercise the political will to do what is in our collective national best interests. 
 
General James L. Jones (Ret) is former Supreme Allied Commander Europe and former U.S. National Security Adviser. 

Burning Putin in Effigy

Protests in London aside, looks like the real fun on Guy Fawkes Night happened in Lewes:

Adam Taylor at The Washington Post has more.

Eastern Ukraine's Lonely Election

Yesterday's U.S. midterm election was not the only participatory process full of emotion and controversy. Ukraine's breakaway Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), in the eastern, pro-Russia part of Ukraine, held elections and inaugurated its first President, Aleksandr Vladimirovich Zaharchenko. Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda sent two correspondents to the inauguration ceremony to get a feel for the festivities and to gauge the popular mood. Their report voices DPR defiance of the Western notion that the election and Donetsk's new leaders are illegitimate.

The inauguration was held at the Donetsk National Music and Drama Theater. According to reporters, it marked the first gathering of Donetsk's cultural and political elite over the past six months. According to the report, the ceremony was "militarily brief," the concert hall filled to capacity. Zaharchenko received an official document from DPR election officials designating him as head of "state."

Members of the Russian Duma attended the ceremony and spoke to the audience, seeking to lend a Russian imprimatur of legitimacy and an expression of Kremlin support for the process. Russian lawmaker Aleksei Zhuravlev said the following:

"Citizens of the People's Republic of Donetsk, colleagues and friends!   From our deputies, from the entire multinational Russian people, I would like to welcome the formation of the new state in the Donbas region. ... Aleksandr was entrusted with the young state. It is a huge responsibility, but I am confident that he will cope just fine - because you and the entire Russian world are standing behind him."

After Zaharchenko exited the stage, reporters noted that practically all military personnel left the concert hall as well.

"War started again - we can hear it from this concert hall."

Sorry EU, but Everything You Do Is Political Now

The premier "should have been notified earlier" about the budgetary adjustment from the European Union.

So ran a headline published yesterday in a major European daily, and it wasn't Times of London or the Telegraph. It was the Volkskrant, running an item from the main Dutch wire service, ANP. The prime minister in question was not David Cameron, but Dutch Premier Mark Rutte. The statement that fed the headline came from Eddy van Hijum, a Christian Democrat lawmaker, who wanted to know why Rutte had apparently learned only on Oct. 23 from his finance minister that the Netherlands will be made to dole out an additional €642 million.

In an irritated press statement in the aftermath of David Cameron's flash of indignation over Britain's own €2.1 billion bill, outgoing European Budget Commissioner Jacek Dominik urged against bringing politics into the mix: "It is a process that has never been contested in the past, I strongly warn against politicizing it now."

Dominik gave a detailed breakdown of how the budgetary adjustments are made and characterized UK complaints as an anomaly. For now, he's probably right, though Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem has demanded clearer insight into the numbers before the Netherlands pays. Still, a couple lawmakers from far-wing parties (the ANP article also cited a socialist parliamentarian) or mainstream parties that have struggled (Van Hilum's CDA) matter little on their own, and Rutte himself is the unlikeliest of figures to deliver a Cameron-style jeremiad at the European Council.

But Cameron was just the middleman for an exchange between the cold calculations of European institutions and the political heat of euroskeptics' ascent. Calling on the political elites of member states to not politicize predictable technocratic processes is pointless when the popular perception that those processes are oblique and unpredictable is itself a major political driver. As Germany plays the bad cop and the Italian EU presidency the good cop in dealing with an increasingly aloof United Kingdom, Europe's incoming commissioners must share a sense of discomfort. It probably isn't fair, but as their tenure begins they know that just about anything the EU does sets a stage for domestic political theater - and it won't stop at the English Channel.

UPDATED: Holland's Controversial 'Black Pete' Has His Day in Court

Photo: Alexander Bakker

Put these pictures in a time and place: Far-right activists dressing up in blackface. A political party hanging dolls on lampposts as a political statement. Interracial scuffles interrupting demonstrations. Televised discussions about whether it is okay for white people to dress up as people of African descent. Court cases and fiery debates in Parliament. Do these scenes depict South Africa in 1984? Mississippi, 1961? No. This is the Netherlands, year 2014.

On Nov. 12, the Dutch Council of State court will render its verdict in a case that has shaken Dutch society. At issue is whether the city of Amsterdam should withdraw its permit for the official annual entry celebration of Sinterklaas (another manifestation of Santa Claus) and his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes.

A little history: First mentioned in a book by Dutch writer Jan Schenkman in 1850, Zwarte Pieten are usually white people with their faces painted completely black. They are dressed in Renaissance attire, carry earrings and have big, red lips. They act as helpers to Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas), who personifies a Turkish bishop of 17 centuries ago. His image has through the years morphed into a non-religious patron saint of sorts for Dutch children.

Sinterklaas and his servants went on to national lore. Sinterklaasavond (Santa Claus-night) on Dec. 5 is celebrated in much the same way people in other parts of the world celebrate Christmas Eve - usually with lots of presents. Unsurprisingly, Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten are wildly popular among small children. Most adults in the Netherlands grew up with Sinterklaas evenings and have their own fond memories.

A vocal minority of several generations of immigrants, as well as political leftists, contends that Zwarte Piet is a racist stereotype. Considering the popularity of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet among small children, the figure's critics maintain that the Black Pete stereotype teaches kids at an early age that minorities are inferior to whites. The vast majority of the white Dutch population - especially young parents - strongly disagrees.

The debate has been simmering in Dutch society for the last two years, but it has reached a boiling point now. Leading politicians have tried to steer clear from the contentious issue, arguing that society itself should figure out a compromise.

This has been recognized by Zwarte Piet's opponents, who, after years of fruitlessly trying to change things through public debate and lobbying political parties, have now seized on Amsterdam's official permit for the celebratory entry of Sinterklaas at the end of November of this year. The opponents say want the permit annulled.

What they actually want, of course, goes far beyond the Amsterdam celebration: They want a court to establish that Black Pete is a racist figure. This would then open the door to the complete abolition of the figure under Dutch and European law - by going through the courts, opponents can sidestep politicians. A lower court agreed that Black Pete can be perceived as a "negative stereotype" and ordered Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard Van Der Laan to reconsider the permit, thereby effectively asking the mayor to make the final judgement. Unsurprisingly, the mayor kicked the ball back to the magistrature by appealing the lower court's ruling at the Council of State, the nation's highest governance court.

Pandora's Box of Identity Politics

The discussion surrounding Zwarte Piet strikes at the core of a deeper issue. Neo-Nazis, but also popular political parties such as the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, are using the opposition to Zwarte Piet as proof that a vocal immigrant minority is trying to force its will on the general populace. This has touched deep-rooted fears.

In essence, through this debate Zwarte Piet has become a symbol of a changing society. For years, many predominantly white Dutch have feared that the influx of immigrants and the processes of globalization are undermining their culture. These fears are decidedly not confined to the Netherlands: The storm of identity conflicts is raging almost everywhere on the European continent. Whether it's the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Sweden Democrats in Sweden, Fidesz in Hungary, Northern League in Italy or France's National Front, part of the popularity of these parties lies in their claim that they can stop change and somehow control life, the universe and everything.

Black Pete has become a straw man. Criticism of the figure is perceived as an attack on Dutch culture. Some have adopted the figure as a cause celebre, a way to warn against what they call the Islamization of society. This issue-hacking leads to bizarre manifestations, such as when Neo-Nazis dressed up as Zwarte Pieten to protest court proceedings on Oct. 16. During other demonstrations against Black Pete, minority protesters were physically attacked by white people who were clearly overcome by their emotions. Kind, highly educated and otherwise genteel young mothers turn into vicious cage fighters whenever Zwarte Piet is questioned in their presence.

The local Leefbaar Rotterdam party, currently part of the ruling coalition in the city, appended Zwarte Piet dolls to lampposts throughout the city center to protest what it calls the attack on the popular figure. During this year's municipal election campaign, Leefbaar Rotterdam was criticized for putting up posters saying that all people in Rotterdam must speak Dutch.

Meanwhile, customers of the leading supermarket chain in the Netherlands photographed themselves cutting up their customer loyalty cards at the shops. The reason: The chain issued a press release saying that it would also be selling Sinterklaas products without Zwarte Piet drawings on the wrapping. Thousands of customers turned to social media to voice their intent to boycott the company. On Facebook, a page was started calling for a national boycott. Meanwhile, well-known Dutch TV figures who had called for changes to Zwarte Piet's appearance have received anonymous death threats.

It remains to be seen whether the Council of State court will on Nov. 12 offer a qualitative statement on the Black Pete figure, as the opponents are seeking, or that it will find a way to refer the issue back to politicians to sort out.

UPDATE, Nov. 12: The Council of State has rendered its verdict in the appeal: the lower court should not have made qualitative statements on the Zwarte Piet figure. Thus the ball is now kicked back to the politicians and the anti-Zwarte Piet movement can start all over again.

Russia's Propaganda War Could Leave Lasting Divisions

Within any war, there is an associated information war, and the same holds true of the crisis in eastern Ukraine. Russia is concerned that despite the mess in the Donbas region, the rest of Ukraine is growing steadfast in its opposition to Moscow - and Ukraine's election results bear this out. Moscow therefore hopes to portray this conflict as an unnecessary, unfortunate folly propagated by "neo-nazis, ultra-nationalists, anti-Semites and agents of the West." Even before the vote, the ever more alarming portrayals of Ukrainian actions provided a telling indicator of the Kremlin's designs. 

On Oct. 23, Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda reported on a recently leaked video supposedly showing Ukrainian soldiers ready to abandon the front lines: "We wont climb inside any tents any longer! We will leave and head home - they wont be able to capture and prosecute all of us!" In the video, soldiers also complain about living conditions and food shortages on the front lines.

What happens to some of these soldiers when they do return - either legitimately or by desertion? KP's correspondent traveled to Kiev on Oct. 24 to read the mood of the people.

"They no longer romanticize Maidan. Hospitals are filled with boys who hide on the floor because they imagine they are under attack. They are quick to fight over careless words. These crippled youth returned to nowhere - no jobs, miniscule pensions..."

The same reporter spoke with Ukrainian journalists who sounded off on the war:

"First off, people in Kiev changed completely. It looks like the junta reprogrammed most Kievan citizens. People are ready to report you to the authorities for what they perceive are alternative points of view on the war. What you end up with is an alternative universe - without Russia, the Great Patriotic War (WWII), Russians - all that remains is Ukraine that is fighting for its freedom for many centuries..."

These are the expressions that prevail across Russian media as Moscow seeks to paint the war as Kiev's tragic mistake. Unfortunately, events may have already entrenched an emotional, divisive new code of conduct. KP's conversation with an ethnic Russia refugee from Donbas spells out the lasting damage.

"Anyone who fled immediately probably wont return - they will be perceived as strangers ... Russian people probably have some internal mechanism that has been activated. They now the world as "us" and "them." And you can no longer stop it."

Leung Hints at Forcefully Closing the Umbrella Revolution

Despite formal talks between government authorities and student protesters, the risk is growing that demonstrations in Hong Kong will be violently suppressed. Dozens have been injured thus far - possibly hundreds - and tensions between police and protesters are understandably running high. But rather than try to restore calm, Hong Kong chief executive C.Y. Leung made things worse in an interview with foreign media last week, signaling that force is not necessarily a last resort even as he asserted that "there could be a compromise."

Leung's comments were troubling in three important ways. First, in voicing concerns over the prospect of truly democratic elections, which he worried would grant Hong Kong's poorer residents too much influence, he signaled fear - perhaps for the first time since the protests began - of ceding power to the people. If Leung and the territory's tycoons do in fact see protesting students as a threat, then those leaders are more likely to see extreme actions as justifiable, even if they are regrettable.

In the interview, Leung also for the first time echoed Beijing's insistence that "foreign forces" are behind the street protests. "I didn't overhear it in a teahouse, and it's something that concerns us. It's something that we need to deal with." Leung may or may not actually believe this, but either way it provides an excuse to use force in ending the students' occupation of public areas. In Leung's fantasy world, countering the protesters is apparently not just about defending Beijing's preferred path for Hong Kong's political development - it's about resisting foreign intervention. And the young protesters that have taken to the streets are not fellow Hong Kongers, but are instead foreign agents or collaborators.

If police are being issued the "foreign forces" line, they are less likely to be reserved in their use of force. After all, they are now tasked not merely with enforcing the law, but with defending Hong Kong from a foreign threat. The students are no longer members of Hong Kong's youth, but are now a hostile "other" and may be treated as such.

Finally, in claiming that Hong Kong is "lucky" China has yet to intervene, Leung may already be attempting to manage the discourse surrounding a future crackdown. He can clear the streets while claiming he had to do so in order to avoid the possibility of something much worse: a Tiananmen-like bloodbath at the hands of the jackbooted People's Liberation Army or People's Armed Police.

Leung has set down his markers for what is possible: at best, vague hopes for an alteration of the makeup of Hong Kong's nominating committee; at worst, a forceful end to street protests.

Now, following weeks of deafening silence, perhaps it is time for U.S. President Barack Obama to set some markers of his own. He has yet to issue a single statement on the protests in Hong Kong, much to the pleasure of the communists in Beijing. But instead of fretting about the inconvenient timing of the demonstrations, which look like they will drag on through the APEC summit in the Chinese capital, the president could take advantage of the summit to throw his support behind Hong Kongers' democratic aspirations. He should make clear to Chinese President Xi Jinping that there will be a price to pay in the event of a crackdown, whether it comes at the hands of local or central authorities.

In particular, Obama should warn Xi that following a violent outcome, his first phone call will be to Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou, whom he will invite to visit the White House. Ma has offered full-throated support for Hong Kong's protesters and for the democratization of mainland China. The prospect of an Obama-Ma summit on how to achieve those ends would get China's attention and would demonstrate, for the first time, an American seriousness of purpose in responding to the crisis in Hong Kong.

Michael Mazza is a research fellow in Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

The Cyber Bridge to Improved India-U.S. Cooperation

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to have developed a strong rapport with U.S. President Barack Obama during his recent visit to Washington. In a Sept. 30 column for the Washington Post, the two leaders mapped out an ambitious agenda for increased collaboration on a number of issues. Bureaucrats in both countries now assume the responsibility of bringing that shared vision to life. 

One area particularly ripe for deeper engagement is cyber security - an emerging national security issue for both countries, and one in which the level and the scope of the threat is fast expanding.

India boasts the world's third-largest population of online users, and Indians' increasing reliance on the internet leaves the country increasingly vulnerable to cyber warfare. The threat comes from criminal hackers, terrorist networks, and nation-states conducting espionage or trying to disrupt critical infrastructure. Cyber warfare can take an enormous toll on commercial activity, military readiness, and public safety. Guarding against increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks has therefore become a focal point of Indian and U.S. national security strategy.  

India was among the biggest victims of GhostNet, a global cyber espionage campaign that targeted governmental, research and military organizations. Beyond this campaign, Chinese espionage likely wrought India's most serious cyber breaches, including the March 2013 hacking of India's Defense Research and Development Organization's computer systems. In June 2012, cyber attacks were reported on the systems of the Indian Navy's Eastern Command, which is responsible for maritime activities in the South China Sea. 

Further, the internet helps militant groups spread propaganda, communicate with one another, and recruit members. Washington and Delhi share this concern, but the Indian domestic terrorist group Indian Mujahideen (IM) is particularly adept at using social media to communicate and recruit. IM members reportedly use Facebook and other chat sites to exchange cryptic messages while relying on proxy internet providers and software to mask their locations.  

Overcoming Suspicions

While the U.S.-India engagement on cyber security issues stretches back more than a decade, concrete cooperation remains minimal. There are specific reasons for this. 

A 2006 spying scandal that involved U.S. and Indian officials participating in a cyber security forum dampened cooperation for several years. Indian officials have since remained highly suspicious of U.S. motives and believe that Washington will look for ways to exploit any cyber security cooperation for the purposes of its own intelligence gathering. 

A recently-published study by the Heritage Foundation and New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, titled Indo-U.S. Cooperation on Internet Governance and Cyber Security, argues that the growing challenges pertaining to global cyber security demand that India and the United States build a foundation of mutual trust and cooperation on intelligence and counterterrorism.  

The report highlights the need to expand Indo-U.S. cyber security dialogue to cover the international dimensions of the problem. The bilateral dialogue has so far focused narrowly on technical issues. The authors acknowledge, however, that the vast difference in cyber capabilities of both countries - as well as deep divisions within the United States over whether to pursue unilateral or multilateral approaches - hinder their ability to forge a consensus on international cyber norms and regulations. 

Dr. Raja Mohan, an Indian strategic thinker, notes the likely tension between India's tradition of favoring multilateralism and the imperative to build its domestic cyber security capabilities. In other words, Mohan writes, "India's national interests (on cyber security issues) may not be aligned with the collective positions of the South."

Another author of the report, Dr. Steven Bucci, Heritage's director of foreign and national security policy studies, makes a strong case for rejecting a regulatory approach. Instead, he recommends developing a legislative framework that "harnesses the power of U.S. and Indian industry and ingenuity, while safeguarding the freedoms and privacy of individual citizens." 

Building on Domestic Progress

India has begun to address its cyber security challenges in a serious way. The Indian government published its first ever National Cyber Security Policy in July 2013. The policy emphasizes research and development of indigenous security technology and enhanced public-private partnerships. It further encourages private organizations and companies to adopt more effective IT regulations and infrastructure that conform with international best practices, and it calls for developing a workforce of 500,000 cyber specialists over the next five years. 

To further boost cyber security, India recently set up the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre, responsible for protecting assets in sectors like defense, finance, energy and telecommunications. Still, U.S. spending on cyber security outstrips Indian spending by 100 times. 

The United States and India have much to gain from deepening their cooperation in cyber security. If both sides work to craft a unified approach to the challenges facing the cyber security world, it would signal that the digital leaders are ready to take on the responsibility to craft a more secure. yet more open, cyberspace. 

Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.

Overcoming Borders in Carpathian Europe

Passing through the Southern Carpathian Mountains to reach the Transylvanian Plateau, my thoughts wander back to the idea of Europa Karpat - "Europe of the Carpathians." The term itself came from a panel at the Economic Forum in Krynica to discuss deepened cooperation among the Carpathian states - Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, and Croatia. To me, Europa Karpat resonates with the word "borderlands," and the long road I'm charting through the region brings to mind the paths its countries have traveled toward a common destiny.

The Carpathians are a transitional zone where the ideas of West and East interlace. Cultural notions and material goods move through customs points in the mountains, while geography has made of this region a natural buffer zone for empires since antiquity - as it does now for the current world powers. These borderlands have an established function as a cultural intermediary. The villager on the other side of the mountain is never a complete stranger, though he may well be a foreigner. It follows to discuss how the EU membership of some countries in the region could be a catalyst for better connections, better cooperation. This is what was expected of the Visegrad Group and, to a certain extent, of the European Union's Eastern Partnership initiative. These efforts have mostly disappointed, but are the countries of Central Europe on a path to increased cooperation in the 21st century?

A landscape of change

We're on the road moving north, and it's impossible not to note the changing architectural styles of the villages. The gardens on the southern side of the mountains - expansive and open to the eyes of the passerby - are a marked contrast to the enclosed, gated spaces on the approach to the Transylvanian plateau. On the skylines farther north, the gothic roofs of Evangelical churches call and their Byzantine Orthodox counterparts respond. Here, the mountains express an embedded, natural tolerance that remains resilient. Is this the nature of the "Middle Europe," as the Germans (Zwischeneuropa) and the French (Europe Mediane) call it - the reflection in stone and steeple of an unrecognized shared fate of resilience?

The shared fate that built nations in the Carpathians is one of conflict and stretches back to the middle of the 19th Century, when the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires competed to draw the boundaries of their influence. Conflict and contrast, that is - as in most places, the national myths that eventually sketched state boundaries in Central Europe were drawn by the whatever separated "our group" from "their group." But in this region, the bluntness of West-East stereotypes leads each group to look down on neighbors with particular ferocity, viewing them as less developed and somewhat barbaric. Such views were imposed on these neighboring societies from the beginning - a historical streaming of the empires' heritage to the region.

Religious and class differences in lifestyle and mentality shaped the image of the Westerners in the eyes of the Easterners. For instance, the Byzantine Orthodox sees the Western Christian as secularised and shallow. In the eyes of the West, the Christian of the East is idolatrous, backward and superstitious. Europa Karpat is where these views shake hands. They form the basis for defining how Hungarians and Romanians, Hungarians and Serbians, Polish and Ukrainians, and Polish and Belorussians, perceive one another. 

Social stereotypes of the other grew to reflect national images of self. The Poles and the Hungarians think of themselves as aristocrats in contrast with the Slovaks, the Romanians, the Belorussians. The Czechs define themselves in relation to the Germans - they wished to build their nation on folk and middle-class traditions as well as on Bohemian traits, creating the image of a democratic and plebeian Czech nation. They are the bourgeois of the region. 

These class-based stereotypes oppose the peasant to the noble and the urban inhabitant to the villager. This vernacular interaction among social classes, with few exceptions, seems to define the historical behavior of countries in Central Europe, when dealing with one another or with outsiders. A contemporary example is the way Poland balances its foreign policy: between the "noble" Weimar Triangle (Germany-France-Poland), more of a public relations endeavour than anything, and the humbler Visegrad Group.

The Cold War redefined this interaction, at least for a time. These countries, and the social strata within them, shared similar destinies. The Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, for instance, left an indelible mark. For at least a generation, Central Europeans felt united against a common evil - Communism and the system erected around it - though it took different forms in each satellite. After the uniformity imposed by totalitarianism, a new model has emerged for nation-building in Central and Eastern Europe - one built around the individual, the citizen, and the concept of universal equality. It has served as a starting point in the transition toward democratic societies in which ethnically and culturally separate communities have rediscovered traditions and have grown a newfound respect for "the other." Democracy has thus crystalized Carpathian regionalism, adding another layer of history to the interactions among its peoples.

In the contemporary argot of the European Union, regionalization refers to coherence in economic development among nation states. In this sense, the countries in Central Europe - member states of the EU - have many reasons to enhance cooperation. We have seen some initiatives, mostly led by Poland, to speak with a common voice during debates in Brussels - debates on solving the European economic crisis and developing a European banking union.  

The new pivots for cooperation

The Ukraine crisis has the potential now to raise Central European cooperation to a new level. Defense policymakers in these countries, while still looking for U.S. patronage and guidance to manage the threats at their borders, are becoming more and more aware that their countries' defense is in their own hands. The geopolitical realities surrounding the evolution of the new Cold War will have a vernacular expression in the Carpathians. They may go further and create the solid basis that the countries in the borderlands of Central Europe needed for closer cooperation. 

Until the Ukraine crisis, discussions between these countries and their Western partners mostly addressed economic development. Threat assessment and more stringent mapping of energy sources are now the dominant topics. Indeed, energy is the pivot of the new Cold War, and it is no wonder that while Poland is calling for the creation of an energy union, Romania - the country least dependent on Russian gas in the region - is seeking to reform its energy sector through sustained investment. 

A Glimpse at Russia's Official View of Eastern Ukraine

Sergei Ivanov, Russia's presidential chief of staff and a former defense minister, gave an interview last week  to the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily in which he discussed Russia's current political, economic and military conditions. Given Ivanov's high standing in the Russian government, his statements directly reflect the presidential point of view - they can be directly attributed to President Vladimir Putin. And the use of one particularly potent term may reveal much about Russia's intentions toward Ukraine.

Ivanov mentioned the importance of creating a buffer zone between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels as a means for gradually achieving peace, and he played down Russia's role as an active player in the Ukrainian conflict:

On the map, there is a clear line that separates militias from the armed forces of Ukraine, which creates a buffer zone to allow OSCE observers to mediate. I am absolutely convinced that this will form at least some basis for a political dialogue. As long as people are shooting at each other, such dialogue is impossible. This is a necessary first step - you have to understand that I cannot guarantee anything. After all, Russia is not party to the conflict. This is a Ukrainian civil war.

Ivanov gave a sobering assessment of the current situation in Crimea. Answering the reporter's question on whether or not Russia should more actively support Novorossiya - a Russian term for the portions of eastern Ukraine currently embroiled in conflict with pro-Russian forces, Ivanov replied:

How else can we support such regions? We support them morally because we desire real democracy for those territories - not the so-called Ukrainian democracy - we want human rights to be respected. The West blames us for Crimea. But if the Crimeans did not resist the coup in Kiev and the arrival to power of nationalists and open russophobes - I repeat, russophobes - what would have happened there? A blood bath, perhaps even worse than what is happening today in Donbas.

Ivanov expressed hope that the fighting won't resume, and he added that if common sense prevails and a conclusive cease-fire is reached, Russia may act as a guarantor.

What stands out from this interview is Ivanov's official use of the term Novorossiya - an old Imperial name for Ukrainian territories where today a majority of the population speaks Russian. The term has been bandied about by pro-Russian forces and Russian nationalists who believe these areas should be part of the Russian Federation. But its use by so high an official as Ivanov cannot be a slip of the tongue. Rather, it is a reflection of Moscow's official policy toward Ukrainian regions that may eventually fall under official Russian control.

Obama's War on ISIS May Recycle Strategies That Have Already Failed

The stunning collapse of the Iraqi army, despite repeated assurances from U.S. military commanders that it was a competent fighting force, was a critical factor in enabling the Islamic State's startling advance in Iraq. The failure of the Iraqi army after years of training at the hands of the world's best military and a huge influx of U.S. cash should have given Washington pause.

So what's a beleaguered administration to do? According to David Ignatius, the White House is likely mulling over a variety of strategies that entail... training new fighting forces:

Accelerate the training of the Iraqi army and a new Sunni national guard. Hundreds of foreign trainers, drawn from the special forces of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Australia and other nations, will be working with the Iraqi military. A similar effort is needed for the Sunni guard. Plans call for three battalions of tribal fighters in Anbar and three more in Salahuddin province. U.S. officials believe a quick start for this program will boost morale among Sunni tribal leaders who say they’re ready to fight the extremists but lack the tools....

Speed the training of the moderate Free Syrian Army so it can battle the Islamic State’s militants. Easier said than done: The FSA is a ragtag force that must be rebuilt into a real rebel army with a solid command structure. Some officials argue for doubling the planned force to 10,000 and speeding completion of training camps in Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

What's maddening about the above is not simply that we have seen, first-hand, that this has already failed in Iraq, it's that the administration is sitting on a CIA study surveying decades of covert U.S. efforts to train and equip fighting forces around the world. According to the New York Times, the "still-classified review... concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground."

So despite having a fair amount of empirical evidence that training various groups of armed men will likely backfire, the administration is evidently still considering it as a serious option. 

The Solution to Syria's Crisis Starts at Turkey's Border

Turkey's parliament recently called for more forceful involvement in Syria, and observers are now looking for clues on how Turkey may change its role in the crisis south of the border. The focus has been on Turkey's function as a main transit route for Islamist radicals. However, any shift in Ankara's foreign policy should not prioritize border control or invasion. Ankara's most effective contribution to changing the course of events in Syria would be a strategic reassessment of how weapons are allowed to flow across Turkish borders to opposition groups in Syria.

During the day, border crossings between Syria and Turkey provide a vital lifeline to the masses still residing in opposition-held northern Syrian areas. Essential goods come in and out, and passport-holding Syrians are free to enter Turkey. The business carried out across Turkey's borders at night, however, is of a different character. After the crossings close for civilians, trucks loaded with weapons rumble through, loaded with cargoes meant to arm Syria's many opposition groups. The improper oversight of these deliveries is a key obstacle to the development of a coherent Syrian opposition.

To be clear, the deliveries are vital to the Syrian opposition. Without these weapons, an even larger segment of northern Syria's population would have to flee regime forces and the Islamic State fighters who are close to encircling Aleppo and capturing the important border crossing near Azaz. Yet Turkey's weapons supply policy is also contributing to the instability. It is arguably at the root of the Syrian nationalist opposition's disarray, and by extension Turkey's handling of the situation hinders any resolution to Syria's crisis. In so doing, there is an opportunity for NATO to become more engaged in Syria and therefore become an actor which can politically direct the opponents to Assad's rule.


Scrutinize Turkey's weapons supply role

Turkey's role as the key transit route for foreign fighters and arms was established at the outset of the Syrian civil war. Ankara figured that by helping arm the opposition, it could contribute to a relatively quick end to the conflict, and an Ankara-friendly government would take charge in Damascus. There were plenty of donors who wanted to contribute to the cause: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates supplied weapons to a variety of groups, while Western governments supplied medical aid and communications equipment. Each donor supported the groups they saw as more closely aligned with their interest. 

Three years on, Turkey's laissez-faire policy on weapons flows has failed miserably. Studies show that there are currently around 1,500 different opposition groups in Syria - and that number relates directly to the way weapons are distributed. A policy guided by strategy and implemented with the help of other NATO members would beget a coherent Syrian opposition - an absolutely central component to bringing the war to an end. This streamlining of supplies would be a top-down process, but it would be effective, since Syrian fighters are quite naturally drawn to groups that can supply them with weapons, training, food and a basic living standard. Military coherence, in other words, will result in a politically legitimate opposition movement.

Establish viable Syrian partners

Such a change could lessen the willingness of some donors to contribute, and Turkey would certainly reject some donations from Gulf states, meaning another power would have to step in to fill the void, unless the West wants to ensure an Assad or Islamic State victory. By implementing a policy of slow strangulating the extreme elements of the opposition, it would give Obama a golden ticket to establish a viable Syrian force that could counter Bashar al Assad's forces as well as the Islamic State.

Creating a viable opposition force in Syria is clearly in the West's interest. One of the main lessons we can draw from the U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations in Geneva is that Damascus does not take the opposition seriously.  It is not difficult to understand why. In front of them sat a group of people with little real sway over the movements of armed groups on the ground. Further, opposition forces pose little existential threat to the regime - at best they control parts of cities, but in most cases, they control suburbs. It is never a good idea to hold negotiations with the opposing parties on such unequal footing. Not only will negotiations not succeed under such circumstances - they might even worsen the situation.

The West has long complained that there is no viable partner on the ground that it can work with. No such partner is likely to emerge if the West continues to engage the opposition so casually. Building leadership is not complicated. It rests on simple questions: What gives a person authority? What factors contribute to a leader being effective and uncontested?

First of all, they need to be able to deliver to their soldiers. This means military supplies, but also food, clothing and shelter. They need to be able to win battles. For this to happen, leaders need a strategic understanding of how, where and when to fight. Further, they need to have the funds necessary to train their soldiers. 

Since the start of the uprising, the moderate opposition has been ever-changing mosaic of groups splitting apart and creating new coalitions. However, some opposition groups have maintained their rank and file soldiers and have thereby continue to gain strength. These have often been the Islamist forces such as Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusrah. Their coherence shows that consistency and effectiveness is possible. The disarray has been within the more secular and moderate groups, and this underlines the strong link between fluid lines of supply, and the lack of a strong moderate opposition. If supplies to moderates become consistent, we will see an organic emergence of pro-western leaders.

There is one element that western engagement will not inevitably produce: a strong non-sectarian political vision for a post-Assad Syria. However, by letting the current slapdash policy continue, we can be absolutely certain this will never happen. Through engagement, Washington's influence will rise. By not seriously engaging, it loses to more radical forces.

Move toward a political settlement

There is no clear path to victory for any of Syria's warring factions. A political settlement is the only possible solution to a crisis that both sides see as existential. However, a just and sustainable political settlement cannot be reached without a balance of power on the battlefield. An equilibrium of two forces, recognizing that no one can win an outright victory, would be the only basis for political talks between the opposition and the regime. Obama now wants to engage more forcefully in Syria. In so doing, he should address the key cause of the rise of ISIS, which is the increasingly failed state in Syria. In cooperation with Turkey and other NATO members, Obama should work to lay the foundations on which a political settlement can be built.

What does this mean for U.S. involvement? Washington needs to push Ankara to dramatically revise its policies and change the way its borders operate. The free flow of rebels and equipment into Syria has to stop. There needs to be strong border control, including in remote areas where most fighters cross. Beyond that, if the response to the new policy is disengagement by Gulf countries that supply opposition groups, Washington should assure Turkey that it will supply enough weapons and equipment for the opposition continue resisting the Assad regime. The goal should be to build up a nationalist opposition that is strong enough to threaten Assad's survival, only then will there be negotiations.

Elucidating Russia's Nascent Narrative on the Baltics

Russia's foreign policy establishment is undertaking a profound review of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This is not necessarily new - some level of internal debate and apportioning of blame has persisted for 24 years now - but recent Russian actions in Ukraine have emboldened those in the Kremlin who wish to "right the wrongs" of the fateful events of 1991. 

Starting in January 1991, and pressured by unrest in its constituent republics, the Soviet Union began to break apart. Lithuania is considered by many to have catalyzed that process. Peaceful civilian protests at the Vilnius Radio and Television headquarters and at the city's television transmission tower on Jan. 13, 1991, prompted heavy-handed suppression by the Soviet military. This in turn triggered more resistance by ethnic Lithuanians. All told, the clashes left 14 civilians dead and almost 1,000 more injured. 

Russia's post-Soviet narrative

Turning back to the present: Russia has turned up the pressure on on the Baltics, and there is widespread fear throughout the region that Moscow's threatening rhetoric matches the words that preceded its actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Among other moves, Moscow has placed Lithuania's commercial exports on its anti-EU sanctions list.

Against this backdrop, the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily this week interviewed author Vladislav Shved, whose book, roughly translated into English as "Lithuania against Russia and Alpha," recounts the fateful events of early 1991.

The sentiments expressed in the interview are a good barometer of how Lithuania's anti-Soviet resistance is seen in Russian policy circles - and what that could mean as Russia contemplates future actions in the post-Soviet space.

Shved recalls the rise of anti-Russian sentiment in Lithuania in the lead-up to 1991, drawing parallels with the attitudes of the Ukrainians who gathered at Maidan Square in Kiev at the end of 2013. 

"(Then Soviet premiere) Gorbachev thought that he would be accepted into the European house after he let go of the Baltics, and he turned a blind eye to what was happening there. He was a dilettante and did not know Russia's history. Tsarist Russia was hounded as much (by the West) as today Russia is!" 

The author alludes to the actions of the Soviet elite military detachments sent to pacify Lithuanians in 1991, and he notes ongoing Lithuanian parliamentary proceedings against former Soviet leaders: 

"Following instructions from Washington - and Lithuania is accustomed to working with such instructions - today's Lithuanian parliamentarians have decided that is is necessary to finish Russia off. Namely, it is necessary to prove that Russia is the successor of a criminal state. And when 79 former Soviet - and now Russian - citizens are judged and found to be war criminals (for their actions in storming the afore-mentioned TV tower), Lithuania will then be able to claim that Russia is the successor state to a criminal entity and must be held morally and financially responsible."

Shved hints that Lithuanian leaders orchestrated the actions that culminated in the storming of the tower:

"A hastily conducted independence referendum gathered less then 40 percent of support across Lithuania in 1991...The separatists tried to accelerate the course of events, because they knew that they wouldn't get two-thirds of the vote in an official referendum. They then staged a tragedy at the TV tower in order to assure Lithuanians that the Soviet regime is criminal. Events in January 1991 had to unfold in such a way as to come off as bloody as possible..."

Shved, who was part of the ruling Communist Party government in Lithuania until 1991, then outlines a list of territorial concessions granted Lithuania in the Soviet era. Noting with particular sharpness that Vilnius, the country's capital, was among those concessions, the author accuses contemporary Lithuanians of being ungrateful for their country's post-WWII reality.

Such rhetoric is hardly new, but in the context of rising tensions between Russian and Lithuania it is rather worrisome. The three Baltic nations are NATO and EU members, but Russia may have considerable leverage over Latvia and Estonia - in both countries, more than 25 percent of the population is ethnically Russian. The same cannot be said of Lithuania, which has a very small ethnic Russian minority, though it maintains extensive commercial contacts with the Russian Federation. In order to increase pressure on this small country, Russia has to establish a narrative that discredits Lithuania's post-independence achievements.

The Shved interview offers a glimpse at how Russia plans to do this: He points out the Soviet pasts of officials including Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and Supreme Council Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis, who, Shved points out, was a KGB informant before he was a Russophobe.

"Now the Lithuanian leadership is trying to completely neutralize its Soviet past, presenting it in dark colors in order to demonstrate its heroic role in breaking free of Soviet slavery."

This book could have come and gone, as have sundry similar litanies by former Soviet apparatchiks who wish 1991 never happened. But in 2014, the agitations of former Soviet officials such as Shved warrant a closer look. Elections in neighboring Latvia, for instance, recently brought to power a pro-Russian political party, and Balts are now left wondering whether their political future truly lies with the West, or will instead be sketched around an accommodation with Russia - however uncomfortable that may be.

Now For More Bad News: Global Economy Looks Increasingly Shaky

As if there wasn't enough to worry about on the global stage, the Brookings Institute is out with a new report showing that the global economy is looking increasingly shaky.

According to Brookings, the U.S. remains the only economy that is showing signs of health while growth "in China and other emerging markets appears to be losing momentum." The developed world looks no better, with major European economies like Germany, France and Italy "showing no signs of growth" while Japan's economy actively contracts. Brazil and Russia? Also slumping.

The only other major economy showing signs of life according to Brookings is India, which has seen a rebound in confidence following the appointment of a "reform-minded and credible" central bank governor. 

The bleak Brookings assessment was echoed by the IMF, which released a report this week with a similarly downbeat forecast, revising down global growth rates to 3.3 percent -- the same rate as last year. 

So what's weighing on the global economy? Geopolitical risks were cited by both the IMF and Brookings as a key factor along with deflationary worries, particularly in Europe. 

The IMF compiled this handy chart showing the chances of a recession across the major economic blocs. While no region pushes above the 50 percent mark, Europe looks uncomfortably close.