Monday, August 3, 2009

The Space Race and Russia: a History of Undisclosed Failures

My favorite songwriter from the University of (Leftist) Leeds has graced us with an engaging and newsworthy article worthy of a Pulitzer. Englishman Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey writes on the recent fortieth anniversary (July 19th) of the American landing on the Moon and its miniscule impact in comparison to Russia’s longstanding and venerable record. He writes that Russia’s reputation has suffered an international smear campaign, referencing the ‘defeat’ of the USSR’s space program as nonsensical.

How can the Soviet program have been defeated when the United States currently relies on Russian space vehicles for entry into space? And who will continue to bring people and cargo to the ISS after 2010? Bancroft-Hinchey may not be a Russian, but he understands a historical Russian pretext: that Mother Russia endured Mongol invasions for two centuries so Western Europe could flourish and develop faster than their eastern brethren. The same concept continues to be applied today. How can NASA survive in space unless Russia assists it?

Russia has clearly bore the brunt of space endeavors. As if every Soviet accomplishment in space needs to be noted, Pravda’s star writer writes a litany of firsts. These include the launching of the first satellite (Sputnik, 1957), the first animal in space (Laika, 1957), the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin, 1961), the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova, 1963), and the first space station (Salyut, 1971). These were indeed firsts for humankind. However, Russia’s historical record is riddled with inaccuracies and little-known details that are best left unmentioned in Russia’s textbooks.

Sputnik might not have left ‘the American people so psychologically vulnerable’, as Eisenhower put it, if they knew the circumstances around its construction. Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, American engineers, had supplied the Soviets with military secrets for years before they defected to the Soviet Union in 1950. The information they provided helped construct the first artificial satellite and build a new arena for the Soviets to prove that they plainly did not have an inferiority complex. Additionally, Laika the dog, the first animal in space, did not survive in space for nearly two weeks, but was dead on arrival.

The permanent member of Pravda’s editorial staff tactlessly suggests that the United States engineered the Moon landing. While Bancroft-Hinchey’s claim is laughable, it is nevertheless hackneyed, having been postulated many times before. American conspiracy theorists, probably at the insistence of a Soviet active measures campaign, continue to doubt the lunar landing. Never mind the fact that there were five consecutive landings after this one. However, this conspiracy ranks alongside some of the more unusual (proven) Soviet insults, including the U.S. military invented the AIDS virus to infect Third World countries and American parents adopt foreign children to harvest their ‘baby parts.’ Bancroft-Hinchey serves two purposes in life: to promulgate Russian propaganda and continue to excuse past grievances against the noble Soviet Union. If Pravda and The X-Files had an illegitimate child, he would be that unfortunate offspring striving to work farther from the truth.

Space exploration in the 21st century is a microcosm for its quarry: vast and empty. With President Obama’s ambiguous stance on space, the future of NASA is unknown. The Constellation program and its new launch vehicle and spacecraft (Orion) might not go into effect for years now and space funding may be significantly slashed. The American people will have to wait until a solidified plan is implemented, if at all. Meanwhile, Russia maintains that she has no intentions of a lunar mission with Mars shining brighter. Indeed, we can all assume that in the post-Soviet age, Mars just might be that better shade of propaganda-red for Russia to pursue.

Russian Military Chorus Belittles Europe's Energy Dependence

Moscow's Military District is known for much more than ensuring public order. Their ensemble of Slavic singers apparently can carry quite a tune for audiences. One recent song showcases the insinuations of Russia's foreign policy. Their musings of the challenges to come are both captivating and alarming for the contiguous countries and those affected by Russia's energy monopoly.

The song begins with the question of Ukraine's eventual entry into NATO. Russia's response? Cutting the gas for all of Ukraine. While the audience cackled, they most likely were recalling Gazprom, the Russian energy monopoly cut off supplies of natural gas to Ukraine after a payment deadline expired in January. Relations have been icy ever since Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004 launched the pro-Western career of President Viktor Yushchenko. Since then, Putin's relationship with its neighbor has deteriorated and continues to do so.

The next stanza details the recurrent everyday problems of Europe. It says that American Special Forces are already there, implying it is Europe's prerogative to have them there. Russia's military is not distressed, however, as its prescriptive policy calls for the gas to be cut for Europe too.

The singers state that the Belorussians are the only normal, peaceful people. They make this claim because the neighboring country drink's vodka to their health. Russia and Belarus continue to maintain an amiable relationship in the post-Soviet sphere. As a memorial to their infatuation of all things Soviet, Belarus has even kept its name for their secret service: the KGB. Belarus continues to rely on Russia for virtually all of its natural resources, enduring the politically compatible relations between Putin and Lukashenko.

The piece continues in Russia's desire to lead the long list of European countries; a fact demonstrated by it's frustration of having been denied the number one spot. Russia's Napoleon complex made itself evident in the innate necessity to be considered significant after the culmination of the Soviet Union. This explains the reasoning behind others allowing it to become member to the G-8, partner with NATO, and maintaining its chair on the UN Security Council. With an out-of-touch military that desperately needs to modernize and its economic difficulties, Russia will always seek ways of seeming important, if only outwardly.

The chorus of the song repeats the following line: "...and suddenly a shade of smile will touch your eyes, and the good mood will never leave you." Indeed, this verse seems to acknowledge that Russians will always be cognizant of and appreciate their energy power over Europe. This mocking will no doubt continue to surface in both Russian concert halls and inside Kremlin walls.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Mutiny at Georgian Base Averted

In what officials have called a small mutiny with links to Russia, the Georgian military averted what would have been an embarrassing crisis just a day ahead of joint Georgian-NATO exercises. Exactly what was the link to Russia remains to be seen, but it would not be surprising to discover that Russia planned a little bit of cross-voennaya dezinformatsiya (military disinformation), a mode of operational maskirovka.

While usually consisting of false information about one's OWN troops, it is now possible that Russia is trying to seed deliberate disinformation among its neighbor's troops for the purpose of deceiving them and NATO allies in a vain attempt to discredit the exercises only miles away from Tbilisi.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Georgian Song Mocking Putin to Compete in Eurovision Contest in Moscow

Georgia's official entry for the 2009 Eurovision song contest is making more headlines than it anticipated. The country selected We Don't Wanna Put In by Stefan & 3G out of ten entries from a combination of televoting and an expert jury. Due to compete in Moscow between 12 and 16 May 2009 at the Olympic Indoor Arena, the song has upset some in Russia, notably Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, himself.

Some have called the disco-funk song a play on words of Putin's name. Dmitry Peskov, spokesman of the PM, commented that "...if it is really so, we should only regret that the contestants from Georgia[,] instead of concentrating on the art, use such a popular contest in Europe for demonstrating their pseudo-political ambitions, or - simply speaking - their hooliganism." This slur is likely to follow the group when they enter the Russian capital.

While some claim that it could fall foul of Eurovision's rule against political content in entries, a spokeswoman for Georgian Public Broadcasting (GPB), who are organising the country's Eurovision bid, told Reuters: "This song is not about politics, it has nothing to do with politics and politicians." Lyrically, the song's political references are minimal, if not nonexistent. Some target words might include "the negative move/It's killing the groove," but nothing more to indicate that it is directed at Russia.

The song's acclamation came about after the August 2008 Russian-Georgian War, in which Russia successfully invaded parts of Georgia, eventually recognizing the sovereignty of the two de-facto Georgian territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Although members of Stefane & 3G initially did not conceal their entry's political context, on February 20, Kristine Imedadze, one of the singers in the band. While Stefane Mgebrishvili, another member, publicly acknowledged the title reference to the Russian PM, the group is now eschewing any abhorrent assertions.

This move, however it is derived, is largely astute on the group's part. Reception to Georgian nationals ever since the 2004 Rose Revolution has been inimical, but now more than ever in light of the recent war. The largely Russian audience to attend Eurovision this May is not likely to be jumping up and getting into the groove when the song is played. If anything, the safety of the group members might be of more concern, especially now, considering Putin's disapproval of such hooliganism. Despite their best efforts at mitigating the political examination for their song, Stefan & 3G will no doubt be attracting more attention in the time up to the contest.

Eurovision is the annual competition held by member-countries of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Joined by Stefane Mgebrishvili, the trio 3G consists of Nini Badurashvili, Tako Gachechiladze and Kristine Imedadze.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Russia to Build a Berlin Wall in Georgia?

Several reports have shown up on Georgian news sites concerning the possibility of Russia constructing walls around Abkhazia and South Ossetia. InterPressNews and The Georgian Times both speculated that the building of the walls would aim to prevent the local populations and stationed Russian soldiers from fleeing to Georgian territory. Three days later, Mikheil Saakashvili stated at Parliament that Russia was planning to build a wall in Abkhazia.

The reports coincide with the recent case of Junior Sgt. Aleksandr Glukhov, who fled the Russian-occupied Tskhinvali region and sought asylum in Georgia. While predominantly Russian news agencies maintain that the 21- year-old Russian conscript was subjected to psychological pressure or threats, the international case has largely fallen quiet.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has stated that it is unaware of any plans for the construction of a fence on South Ossetia’s border with Georgia. However, the ministry also said that the government of South Ossetia would have the right to erect an infrastructure on its border with adjacent states for national security reasons. Russian statements on the creation of a wall on the Abkhazian border with Georgia remain nonexistent for the time being.

The assertions on the Russian side evoke the same made by East German officials in 1961. That year, GDR Chairman Walter Ulbricht categorically stated in an international press conference that “No one has the intention of erecting a wall!” Two months later, a wall was constructed separating East Germany from West Germany for more than a quarter-century. November 9th of this year marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Lamentable though it may be, but it appears that its anniversary might signal the beginning of a new Wall in Georgia for years to come.

Why Nurture Russia's Illusions?

One of the best articles I've read on the current analysis of US-Russian relations and Russia's status quo: their intentions, objectives, and prospects. Perfect for anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Eurasian affairs.


Barack Obama wants to make friends with Russia, "press the reset button" as his Veep proposed the other day.

Sounds familiar. Bill Clinton bear hugged Boris Yeltsin and George W. Bush peered into successor Vladimir Putin's soul. Yet relations haven't been this bad since Konstantin Chernenko's days at the Kremlin.

So what? America is on a roll in Eurasia. Democracy, open markets and stability spread across the region in the Clinton and Bush eras. From Estonia to Georgia to Macedonia, free people want to join the West.

At every step of the way, Russia sought to undermine this great post-Cold War project. Grant that the Kremlin acts in defense of its perceived interests but so should the U.S., and continue down this same path.

Here Foggy Bottom's finest chime in: Yes, but imagine a world with a friendly Russia, able to help us, say, stop Iran's atomic bomb program. So let's not push so hard to deploy anti-Iran missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic that Russia hates -- use, if necessary, the excuse that costs and feasibility require further study. Back off on closer NATO ties for Ukraine and Georgia. Make Russia feel important and consulted. Joe Biden sketched out this sort of bargain at last weekend's Munich security conference.

The conceit is we can win the Kremlin over by modifying our behavior. Before Mr. Obama tries, he should be aware of recent history. On missile defense, American diplomats spent as much time negotiating with Russia as with the Central Europeans, offering Moscow the chance to join in. Nothing came of it. On Kosovo independence and Iran sanctions, Russia blocked the West at the U.N.

Last spring, NATO snubbed Georgia and Ukraine in a signal of good will to Mr. Putin. The day after, Mr. Putin privately told Mr. Bush that Ukraine wasn't "a real country" and belonged in the Russian fold. Five months later, Russia invaded Georgia and de facto annexed its breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Mr. Obama may be tempted to think Russia can be won over. After all, they would seem to need America (short for the West) far more than America needs Russia. We're not the enemy. Russia's real strategic challenges are in the East: China looks ravenously at the vast, mineral-rich, lightly populated Siberian steppe cut off from Moscow (to this day, you can't drive across Russia). And to the South: The arc of Islamic extremism, starting with a possibly nuclear Iran, a competitor for Caspian energy and influence.

And as Mr. Putin discovers each day his economy sinks further, Russia failed to take advantage of sky-high oil prices to diversify away from energy. It sells nothing of value to the world aside from gas, oil and second-rate weapons. Its infrastructure is decaying and its population in decline.

A Kremlin leader with a long-term view would see these grave threats to Russia's future and rush to build a close partnership with the West. But the interests of Mr. Putin and his small, thuggish, authoritarian clique don't necessarily coincide with that of Russia.

The Obama magic dust doesn't seem to work on a regime defined and legitimized by its deep dislike for America. Dmitry Medvedev, the Putin underling in the president's office, moved the state of the nation address to the day after the American election to spin the outcome for the domestic audience. The U.S., he said into the winds of pro-American sentiment sweeping across the world in the wake of the Obama win, was "selfish . . . mistaken, egotistical and sometime simply dangerous."

The Kremlin then welcomed Mr. Obama into the White House with the administration's first serious foreign policy headache. Taking $2 billion from its fast-depleting reserves, Russia bullied and bribed Kyrgyzstan to close a U.S. military airfield, the main transport hub for supplies going into Afghanistan. Russia's desire for a "sphere of influence" trumps the threat of resurgent extreme Islamism in its southern underbelly.

The thinking here is Cold War porridge. But the Russians were never offered a new narrative. Mikhail Gorbachev's idea of a "European family" and Yeltsin's reforms foundered. Mr. Putin went back to a familiar recipe: Russia, empire-builder and scourge of the West.

A Cold War mentality lingers in America, too. A foreign policy caste rich in Sovietologists by habit overstates Russia's importance. The embassy in Moscow is huge; bilateral meetings inevitably become "summits," like in the old days.

Mr. Obama's fresh start is a good time for a reality check. The U.S. can work with Russia, seen in its proper place. To even suggest that the Russians have a special say over the fate of a Ukraine or our alliance with the Czechs lets Mr. Putin nurture the illusion of supposed greatness, and helps him hang on to power.

Ultimately it's up to the Russians to decide to be friends. One day, someone in the Kremlin will have to confront a hard choice: Does an isolated and dysfunctional Russia want to modernize and join up with the West, look toward China, or continue its slow decline? Until then, Mr. Obama better stock up on aspirin and dampen his and our expectations about Russia.

Georgia wants Abkhazia to be 'weapons-free' zone - minister

10/02/2009 15:11 TBILISI, February 10 (RIA Novosti) - Georgia is to demand that Abkhazia be declared an armaments-free zone, a Georgian minister said on Tuesday.

Russia and Abkhazia have agreed to open one military base in Gudauta, in the west of Abkhazia, and to establish a Russian Black Sea Fleet base in the coastal town of Ochamchira. No official documents have been signed, however.

"As for the deployment of Russian military bases in Abkhazia, Georgia will demand that Abkhazia be proclaimed a weapons-free zone, and that international police forces be deployed there," Temur Iakobashvili, the Georgian state minister on issues of reintegration, said.

Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states last year on August 26, two weeks after the end of a five-day military operation to "force Georgia to peace" which began when Georgian forces launched an attack on South Ossetia to try and regain control of the region.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia split from Georgia in the early 1990s, and most residents of both republics have had Russian citizenship for a number of years.

The chief of the Russian General Staff, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, said in November that the Russian military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be fully staffed with 3,700 personnel each by the end of 2009.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

No More Brotherhood Between Ukraine and Russia

Good for Ohryzko and the much-needed official statement on the state of historic and cultural relations between Ukraine and Russia from the Kyiv Post.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko thinks that the period of "brotherhood and the unity of Slavic people" has been gone for a long time in Russia-Ukraine relations.

"The time has come to get rid of stereotypes and stamps of brotherhood, historic unity and other things. We are the two sovereign states and we should build our relations on the basis of the international law," Ohryzko said at a news conference in Kyiv on Monday.

"When one speaks about the Slavic unity, an interesting question arises: how many Slavic countries are NATO members and how many are not," the minister said.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry can take "no red lines and no distribution of continents at the guidance of certain leaders" in the international security issue, the minister said.

"Each state has the right to choose its national security," Ohryzko said.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Espionage Scandal: US Father and Son Charged With Spying for Russia

The following is an abridged version of an original article from KVAL news station in Eugene, Oregon. Matthew Olsen, acting assistant attorney general for national security, summarizes it best when he said that "These charges underscore the continuing threat posed by foreign intelligence services and should send a clear message to others who would consider selling out their country for money."

EUGENE, Ore. -- A 24-year-old Eugene man faces federal charges he traveled the globe to get money from Russian spies and disperse the money to family members at the direction of his father, a former CIA spy and Chief of Station in Bucharest, Romania, imprisoned in Oregon since 1997 for espionage.

Nathaniel James Nicholson, 24, of Eugene, Ore., and his father, Harold James Nicholson, 58, who is incarcerated at a federal prison in Sheridan, Ore., face arraignment Thursday on two counts of conspiracy, one count of acting as agents of a foreign government and four counts of money laundering, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The federal charges announced Thursday allege the son met with the father in prison on several occasion to obtain information with the intent to then meet with representatives of the Russian Federation.

The indictment alleges the son then brought the money, paid by the Russian Federation for the father's past espionage activities, back to Oregon to disperse to family members at his father's direction.

The two were scheduled to be arraigned Thursday in Portland at 1:30 p.m.

The indictment says Harold Nicholson, who pleaded guilty in 1997 after being paid $300,000 to pass secrets to the Russians, wanted to receive additional payments for his work, and used his son as a go-between.

Officials charged that Nathaniel Nicholson collected another $35,593 in a series of recent trips to meet Russians in San Francisco, Mexico City, Lima, and even a T.G.I. Friday's restaurant in Cyprus in December.

On each return trip to the United States, the messenger son would declare less than $10,000 in cash to avoid federal law requiring him to disclose the source of the money, authorities said.

Harold Nicholson is currently serving a 23-year prison term in Sheridan after pleading guilty to conspiring to commit espionage. As a trainer of CIA personnel, authorities say he gave the Russians the identities of the young CIA recruits he was training, and the identities of other high-level CIA officers.

According to the new indictment, the Russians still thought Harold Nicholson might be able to give them valuable information — specifically, how he had been discovered and how much the investigators had learned about Russian spying.

The father told his son he was due a "pension" for his past work for the Russians, and even dropped hints that he would like to live in Russia when he was freed. To that end, investigators say, he once relayed his age, height, weight, and other relevant personal data that would be required for a Russian visa.

Georgian PM Mgaloblishvili Resigns; Saakashvili Nominates Nika Gilauri

Grigol Mgaloblishvili has resigned his post as prime minister citing deterioration of his health condition. At a special press conference, he said that he must continue intensive treatment for two more months. Mgaloblishvili had been in Germany for most of January undergoing medical examination for kidney problems.

The former prime minister said that "Today, Georgia can not afford itself a prime minister, who can not be in usual working mode for three months. The country needs the cabinet and the Prime Minister capable of working round-the-clock." Mgaloblishvili reiterated his desire to serve the country on any position after his treatment. "In any capacity, I will stay in [the] Georgian state and people's service. We will do everything, with the president and our friends, to accomplish the plans we have aimed together," he said. Mgaloblishvili was Mikheil Saakashvili's fourth PM in his five-year term.

Saakashvili has followed Mgaloblishvili's nomination of deputy premier and finance minister Nika Gilauri as new prime minister. The Georgian president said that there would be no more changes to the cabinet, which will face a confidence vote in Georgian Parliament.

Unlike Mgaloblishvili, who had little political experience except his post as Ambassador to Turkey, Gilauri is the longest-standing government member, serving as both an energy and later a finance minister since February 2004. Saakashvili has expressed his confidence in the prime minister-designate, relaying that he will first have to tackle the country's medical insurance system.