Posts Tagged ‘security’

Ukraine Crisis: Crimea polls open

March 16, 2014

Voting has begun in the Crimean referendum to decide if the region leaves the Ukraine to become part of Russia. The referendum has already been dismissed as illegitimate by President Obama

A crucial referendum on either becoming an integral part of Russia or staying within Ukraine on conditions of wide autonomy has kicked off in the Republic of Crimea despite international condemnation and pressure from Kiev.

The polling stations of 27 regional Crimea election commissions  are going to be open all day long, starting from 8am till 8pm  (0600 GMT- 1800 GMT). Up to 1.5 million – this is the number of  ballots printed for the referendum – Crimea citizens are expected  come to cast their votes in favor of independence or against it.

Some 10,000 members of the Crimean military recently formed from  self-defense squads, and over 5,000 police officers are ensuring  the referendum goes smoothly.

Election commission officials take part in the preparations for a referendum at the polling station in the Crimean town of Simferopol March 15, 2014. (Reuters / Vasily Fedosenko)Election commission officials take part in the preparations for a referendum at the polling station in the Crimean town of Simferopol March 15, 2014. (Reuters / Vasily Fedosenko)

Crimean authorities have reported about 135 registered  international observers have arrived from 23 countries, including  Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy,  Latvia and Poland. Members of the EU and national European  parliaments, international law experts and human rights activists  together with 1,240 local observers are monitoring the voting at  ballot stations. Mass media in the peninsula is represented by  623 accredited journalists from 169 international media outlets.

After a power grab took place in capital Kiev on February 22,  Ukraine’s legitimate President Viktor Yanukovich had to flee from  his residence fearing for his life. The parliament of the Crimea  autonomy, where about 60 percent of the residents are ethnic  Russians, did not acknowledge the coup-imposed government in Kiev  as legitimate and took the decision to dissociate from Ukraine.

On March 11 the parliament of the Crimea autonomy adopted a  declaration of independence from Ukraine, opening way for the   referendum on March 16.

The referendum in Crimea was preceded with numerous provocations  on the peninsula and threats coming from the capital Kiev and  western politicians.

Since the moment Crimea set date for independence referendum,  official Kiev has been claiming that all actions of the Crimea  authorities are illegitimate, disregarding the international  practice of referendums.

On Saturday Ukraine’s parliament made the last desperate gesture  to prevent the referendum, voting to dismiss the Crimean Supreme  Council.


By and
The Guardian

Alec Luhn in Moscow says that Russian state television is reporting a huge turnout for Crimean referendum and “no armed men” at the polling stations.

State news agency Interfax is quoting observer Enrique Ravello, a well-known  nationalist deputy in Spain’s parliament, as saying he’s seen an  “unprecedented turnout” in Crimea. “There’s no coercion, pressure on  people. The referendum is being held peacefully, freely and openly.”

According to polling by German research group GfK, 70% of Crimeans who want to participate in the referendum plan to vote to join Russia, while only 11% plan to vote to remain part of Ukraine.

The Crimean referendum website was down on Sunday.  Previously, organisers said the site underwent a DDoS hacker attack  originating in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne in the United States.

St. Petersburg has closed down its main street for an  automobile rally in support of the Crimean referendum organized by  conservative parties. Yesterday, Moscow saw huge competing  rallies for and against Russian intervention in Ukraine. At least 10,000 people took part in an anti-intervention, anti-Putin rally, at the end  of which was read a resolution calling for the withdrawal of Russian  troops from Crimea and the end of Russian interference in Ukraine’s  internal affairs.

Live feed:

Pro-Russian Cossack volunteers take part in an oath-taking ceremony in Sevastopol, on March 15, 2014 (AFP Photo/Viktor Drachev)

Russia Today: People in Donetsk, Other Eastern Ukraine Cities Protest Against Self-Proclaimed Government in Kiev, Trend Toward Pro-Russia

March 7, 2014

Protests against the self-proclaimed government in Kiev continue in eastern regions of Ukraine. Thousands-strong gatherings in Donetsk and Lugansk are rallying in support of the Russian language and holding a referendum on the federalization of Ukraine.

In Donetsk, the city that once used to be the stronghold of the  ousted President Viktor Yanukovich, people are protesting against the new governor appointed  by Kiev last Sunday.

The appointee is Ukrainian oligarch, billionaire Sergey Taruta,  the owner of ISD, one of the biggest mining and smelting  companies in the world, he also owns the Donetsk-based Metallurg  Football Club.

The oligarch governor failed to come to Donetsk immediately after  the appointment, so demonstrators have chosen a “people’s  governor” of their own, the leader of the ‘National levy’ Pavel  Gubarev advocating setting a referendum that might ask the  citizens of Donetsk region about reunification with Russia. The   ‘National levy’ also started collecting signatures to conduct  referendum on allegiance of the region.

During this week the regional administration building in Donetsk  changed hands many times, with either the ‘National levy’ or  pro-Kiev forces declaring capture of the authority headquarters.

Several videos allegedly made in downtown Donetsk on March 5  exposed that armed pro-Kiev forces had come to Donetsk, as a  group of unidentified men in military outfits and equipped with  Russian AK assault rifles and American М4А1 carbines were  securing protection of some pro-Kiev activists amidst  anti-government popular protests.


Later, Rossiya 1 TV channel made an assumption that these people  could be from a group of several hundred mercenaries that  allegedly arrived to Kiev recently. Rossiya 1 1 maintained that  mercenaries work for the notorious Academi (formerly known as  Blackwater and Xe Services), a privately owned American security  services provider that employ over 20,000 guns for hire.

Still from YouTube video/alekxStill from YouTube video/alekx


But even the appearance of mercenaries in the center of Donetsk  did not stop the citizens from protesting against self-proclaimed  government in Kiev.

Early Thursday morning a special group of the Security Service of  Ukraine (SSU) that arrived from Kiev conducted a hit-and-run  operation and arrested Pavel Gubarev on charges of an attempt of  power seizure, an exactly the same accusation used by the  opposition leader against the self-proclaimed government in Kiev.

According to the ‘National levy’ webpage on Facebook, Gubarev was  convoyed to the capital Kiev. Police also put under arrest  several dozens of activists.

The same day, Governor Taruta arrived to Donetsk and held a  meeting with region’s new police chief also appointed by Kiev.

Yet late at night citizens of Donetsk attempted to storm local  headquarters of SSU, demanding to release their leader. They also  managed to stop and topple prison truck carrying unknown number  of arrested activists.

When top-ranked police and internal troop officers came out to  the people, they were heckled with jibes like, “Do you  remember those you’re protecting? Those who mistreated you in  Kiev?” reported Komsomolskaya Pravda.

After pondering for some time police opted to free the detained  activists which immediately joined the protesters.

A new stage of anti-Kiev rally is appointed for Friday afternoon,  maintains the ‘National levy’ website.

In Lugansk, another regional center in eastern Ukraine, a  thousands-strong rally waving Russian flags and chanting “Russia!  Ukraine! Belarus! Together!” elected a “people’s governor” of  their own, the leader of the local ‘Lugansk guards’ militia,  Aleksandr Kharitonov. Members of the guards have already repelled  an armed assault force from Kiev that attempted to seize local  power institutions in the city on February 20 and currently  continue to stand against the attackers from Kiev’s Maidan.

Because the local prosecutor’s office never bothered to launch a  criminal investigation into the attempted power seizure by the  armed militants from Kiev, the citizens of Lugansk now put their  trust in vigilante groups rather than police.

All attempts to gather in Lugansk a significant nationalist rally  similar to Maidan in Kiev have failed, largely because they  looked increasingly pale in comparison with massive  anti-government demonstration rallying in the center of the city.

In other regional centers of Ukraine, such as country’s  second-largest city of Kharkov, anti-government protests were of  a much smaller scale, perhaps also due to the heavy presence of  the riot police at rally sites.

Riot police stand guard in front of a regional government building as pro-Russian demonstrators take part in a rally in Kharkov March 5, 2014. (Reuters)Riot police stand guard in front of a regional government building as pro-Russian demonstrators take part in a rally in Kharkov March 5, 2014. (Reuters)

Ukraine: U.S. Engages in Only Very Tenuous Sabre Rattling

March 6, 2014


Reuters/Tony Gentile

Reuters/Tony Gentile

Under the pretext of “deterring Russian aggression” in Ukraine, the US Defense Department has announced plans to add several fighter jets to US aircraft squadrons based near Russian borders, in a move to embolden the Baltic states and Poland.

Following NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen  announcement that alliance officials would put “the entire  range of NATO-Russia cooperation under review,” Pentagon  head, Chuck Hagel, outlined plans on Wednesday to broaden  military cooperation with Poland and the Baltic states, without  elaborating on the details.

An unnamed source told Reuters that the Pentagon plans to send  six additional F-15 fighter jets, and a Boeing KC-135 refueling  Stratotanker, to beef up the squadron of four F-15 currently  flying air patrols over the Baltic states. NATO has been carrying  out patrols in the Baltic states for the last 10 years.

In Poland the US Air Force has a training squadron of F-16  fighters and Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport planes, and the  same source said that more aircrafts might be added there.

Washington is accusing Moscow of deploying troops to the  Ukrainian region of Crimea and has already called off all planned  exercises and training with the Russian military in protest.

It should be noted that according to a Russian-Ukrainian treaty  signed in 2010, Moscow has an agreed and constant military  presence in the Crimean peninsula. Russia pays Ukraine $97.75 million annually for use of the  naval base in Sevastopol. The treaty underpins Russia’s right to  bolster personnel in the Crimea to up to 25,000 troops.

Earlier this week, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine  would take place only as a “last resort.”

“If we see this lawlessness starting in eastern regions, if  the people ask us for help – in addition to a plea from a  legitimate president, which we already have – then we reserve the  right to use all the means we possess to protect those citizens.  And we consider it quite legitimate,” he said.

Last week Russia’s Federation Council unanimously approved President Vladimir Putin’s request to use  Russian military forces in Ukraine if civil rights of the Russian  minority in the country are violated.

Western capitals remain skeptical of Moscow’s policy and continue  to blame Russia of “military intervention” in Ukraine.

“This morning the Defense Department is pursuing measures to  support our allies,” Hagel told American lawmakers,  specifying that this will include expansion of aviation training  in Poland and deployment of additional US aircraft for patrol  missions in the skies above Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

It is “time for all of us to stand with Ukrainian people in  support of their territorial integrity,” Hagel told the  Senate Armed Services Committee.

The general dismissed Moscow’s assertion that Russian troops are  not deployed in the Crimea peninsula in Ukraine and called to   “deter further Russian aggression.”

Hagel also said that the head of the US European Command, General  Philip Breedlove, also planned to hold consultations with central  and eastern European defense chiefs.

  ‘Deterring Russian aggression’

After Crimea’s self-defense forces took control of the peninsula,  Poland requested a NATO emergency meeting under the pretext of   ‘Article 4’, which empowers any NATO member to request  consultations if it believes its security, independence or  territorial integrity are under threat.

“Regardless of the limited trust the world and Poland have to  words spoken in Moscow, it must be said that we treat some of  President Putin’s remarks as proof that pressure … to stop a  brutal intervention, a paramilitary intervention in Crimea is  working,” the Polish prime minister said last Tuesday,  urging Russia to “abandon its aggressive plans toward  Ukraine.”

This statement was made after Russian President Vladimir Putin  accused Poland and Lithuania of inciting protests in the capital  of Ukraine, and training the protesters who battled against  police forces in Kiev.

Ukraine is not a NATO member country, yet the recent developments  in Ukraine caused Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to make  a statement that NATO plans to “intensify our  partnership” and “strengthen our cooperation” with  Ukraine in order to “support democratic reforms.”

Russia’s NATO envoy, Aleksandr Grushko, told reporters “that  NATO still has a double standard policy” and that “Cold  War stereotypes are still applied towards Russia.”

“Ukraine cannot join NATO because the West realizes what  Kiev’s NATO membership would mean for Russia,” noted Deputy  Foreign Minister Vasily Nebenzya.


Obama Administration Proposes To Cut The U.S. Army To Pre-World War Two Levels

February 24, 2014
  • Proposed change may include scheduled drop of troops from 570,000 post-9/11 to between 440,000 and 450,000
  • Would be the smallest army since 1940
  • Budget cuts could mean higher casualties and a longer time for success if the US army had to handle two military campaigns at the same time again
  • Also expected are reduced housing allowances, increased health-care premiums, and limited pay raises

By Zoe Szathmary

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected to propose reducing the US Army to its smallest size since before World War Two on Monday.

Hagel’s proposal is expected to feature a scheduled drop of troops from 570,000 post-9/11 to between 440,000 and 450,000, according to a piece in The New York Times. This would be the smallest army since 1940.

It says that the expected proposal is based around both spending concerns — as well as President Obama’s promises to end two different long-term military campaigns.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks at a news conference at the Pentagon in this October file photo

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks at a news conference at the Pentagon in this October file photo

Hagel, seen here getting out of a helicopter, is expected to present extensive budget cuts on Monday

Hagel, seen here getting out of a helicopter, is expected to present extensive budget cuts on Monday

The changes, however, are expected to come with a possibly steep cost. Officials told the paper that budget cuts could mean higher casualties and a longer time for success if the US army had to handle two campaigns again.



Under the changes, the US army would be able to defeat any enemy but would be too small for long-term foreign occupation.

Hagel is also expected to propose the elimination of Air Force A-10 attack aircraft, according to paper. The budget, however, reportedly will have money for the F-35 warplane.

Hagel is expected to propose the elimination of Air Force A-10 attack aircraft, like the one seen in this file photo

Hagel is expected to propose the elimination of Air Force A-10 attack aircraft, like the one seen in this file photo

The budget, however, is expected to have money for the F-35 warplane, like the one seen in this file photo

The budget, however, is expected to have money for the F-35 warplane, like the one seen in this file photo


Despite the plane’s reported support from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both Congress members and the National Guard Association are expected to attack Hagel’s proposed changes, the paper says. It also suggests that both state governors and those with an interest in Navy shipbuilding may voice their concerns.

Hagel’s new budget, however, is expected to protect money for both Special Ops forces and cyberwarfare, the Times said. The US Army will be ‘capable’ and ‘trained,’ an anonymous source said to the paper.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that the proposal is expected to reduce housing allowances, increase health-care premiums, and limit pay raises.

CBS News adds that it will also suggest slashing subsidies for groceries to veterans, service members and their families.

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US military plans steep cutbacks, roils ranks

February 24, 2014

Reuters / Erik De Castro

Reuters / Erik De Castro

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s reported plan to scale back the US Army to its smallest numbers since World War II, as well as slashing pay and perks for service personnel, promises to be an uphill battle in Congress.

After more than a decade of fighting two protracted wars in Iraq  and Afghanistan, the US military is showing some wear and tear,  at least on the budgetary front. In an effort to adhere to  President Obama’s pledge of scaling back military operations  abroad, compounded by the grim reality of austerity measures  following years of prodigious spending, the epoch of expensive US  overseas military occupations appears to have waned, according to  the New York Times.

The Pentagon envisions a leaner fighting machine that will still  be able to win wars, but without the massive military footprint  now stamped across much of the planet. Indeed, the traditional  foot soldiers of the Army and Marines appear to be taking a  backseat to a military more streamlined for naval operations.

While the US Navy will be allowed to keep its 11 aircraft carrier  fleets, the other forces will take it on the chin in terms of  overall troop strength. The US Army, which went from a  post-September 11 high of 570,000 troops to 490,000 today, will  continue to drop to between 440,000 and 450,000 under Hagel’s  proposal, which was leaked to the Times by anonymous Pentagon  officials.

This would reduce the troop strength of the US Army to its lowest  level since 1940.

An A-10C Thunderbolt II (Reuters / Joely Santiago)An A-10C Thunderbolt II (Reuters / Joely Santiago)

Meanwhile, a number of weapon systems deemed impractical by  today’s military realities are expected to be axed from the  budget.

Among the military hardware set for retirement is the Air Force  A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft, designed for destroying  tanks in Western Europe at the height of the Cold War, as well as  the U-2 spy plane, which is being replaced by the aerial drone  Global Hawk.

At the same time, expenditures set aside for Special Operations  and cyber warfare will not be affected by the cuts.

“You have to always keep your institution prepared, but you  can’t carry a large land-war Defense Department when there is no  large land war,” one senior Pentagon official told the US  daily.

“We’re still going to have a very significant-sized  Army,” the official added. “But it’s going to be agile.  It will be capable. It will be modern. It will be trained.”

In its effort to balance its books while still fielding a  battle-worthy fighting force, unpopular personnel cuts also will  be an inevitable part of the trimming process.

The proposed spending overhaul is intended to conform with the  Bipartisan Budget Act – agreed upon by President Obama and  Congress in December – that places a cap on military spending at  around $496 billion for fiscal year 2015.

Hagel is expected to recommend imposing limits on military pay  raises, a higher deductible for medical benefits and reductions  in tax-free housing allowances to free up billions of dollars  from the defense budget.

U-2 spy plane (AFP Photo / US Air Force)U-2 spy plane (AFP Photo / US Air Force)

The cutbacks will also include a one-year freeze on pay raises  for top military brass, as well as reducing the $1.4 billion  direct subsidies set aside for military families when purchasing  groceries from commissaries.

“This is a real uphill battle with Congress,” Mieke  Eoyang, director of the National Security Program at Third Way, a  Washington think-tank, told Fox News.

“God bless [Hagel] for trying to get a handle on these  costs,” she said. “But in this political environment, in  an election year, it’s going to be hard for members of Congress  to accept anything that’s viewed as taking benefits away from  troops.”  


Military brass say they are not oblivious to the unpopularity of  the cuts but see no choice given the decline in military  spending.

“Personnel costs reflect some 50 percent of the Pentagon  budget and cannot be exempted in the context of the significant  cuts the department is facing,” Department spokesman John  Kirby told the Times. “Secretary Hagel has been clear that,  while we do not want to, we ultimately must slow the growth of  military pay and compensation.”

Iran Developing Indigenous Air Defense System “Superior to Russia’s S-300″

February 17, 2014


S-300 PMU-1 anti-aircraft missile launches (AFP Photo / Costas Metaxakis)

S-300 PMU-1 anti-aircraft missile launches (AFP Photo / Costas Metaxakis)

Iran’s top air defense commander has announced that the country will launch its Bavar-373 (‘Belief-373’) missile defense system, Iran’s version of Russia’s S-300 long-range system, in the next two years.

Technical problems hampering construction of Bavar-373 have been  resolved, and development and construction of the sophisticated  anti-missile defense system would be completed by the end of  Iran’s Fifth Five-Year Development Plan (2010-2015), Brigadier  General Farzad Esmaili told the Fars news agency Saturday.


The Iranian commander revealed Iran’s high expectations for the  system.

“We hope to witness a very good system with higher  capabilities than the (Russian) S-300 in our air defense  structure by the end of the [Development] Plan,” he said.

“The indigenized system will be more powerful than S-300  missile system.”      In May, another high-ranking military commander Farhad Amiri said  Iran would soon unveil its domestically produced long-range  air-defense missile system.
Earlier Tehran hoped to complete the system by March 2014.

The Russian S-300 version of the missile shield can track about  100 in-air objects simultaneously, destroying some of them.

According to Tehran, the Iranian model has a higher targeting  capability “among its other optimized features.”

Iran has been forced to domestically design and build its own  defense system after a contract to purchase five Russian S-300  missile defense systems fell through in 2010 due to UN-imposed  sanctions over the country’s nuclear program.

Although Iran says its nuclear research is for peaceful civilian  purposes, some countries fear the country is attempting to build  a nuclear weapon.

After a number of international deliberations on the issue,  negotiators appear to be making some progress on reaching nuclear  deal with Tehran.

In November, Iran agreed to halt its most sensitive nuclear work  for six months in return for sanctions relief worth as much as $7  billion.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet EU  foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Monday in Vienna. The  following day, diplomats from China, France, Germany, Russia, the  UK and US, members of the so-called P5+1, convene meetings with  their counterparts from Iran.

Dozens of corporations have paid visits to the country since  President Hassan Rouhani was elected to office in August,  bringing an end to the rule by hardliner ex-president Mahmoud  Ahmadinejad.
Access to the Iranian market, however, may still be a long way  off.

China’s New Submarines, Missiles Able to “Easily” Strike Hawaii, Alaska — Also Probably Western Portions of CONUS — From East Asian waters

February 8, 2014


AFP Photo / Guang Niu

Above: Russia today used this photo in its report. This is not a Jin Class submarine.  Our photos of the Type 094 Jin Class are below.  AFP Photo / Guang Niu

The Chinese are preparing to deploy submarines armed with nuclear missiles that will patrol the northern Pacific Ocean and come within range of at least two US states, according to a new report from the US Navy.

The US Naval Institute (USNI) reported that the People’s  Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has tapped the Jin-class nuclear  ballistic submarines to begin patrols in 2014. The subs will  carry intercontinental range missiles that are thought to have a  range of no less than 14,000 kilometers (8,699 miles) and can  deliver a single or multiple warheads.

With a range in excess of 4,000 [nautical miles], the JL-2  submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM), will enable the JIN  to strike Hawaii, Alaska and possibly western portions of CONUS  from East Asian waters,” Office of Naval Intelligence  Officer Jesse Karotkin wrote in his testimony last month to the  US China Economic Security Review Commission.

The new Jin-class Type 094 submarines are a technological marvel  when compared to the Type 092 class that the PLAN has  traditionally relied upon. Weighing 11,000 tons when fully  submerged, the Navy sees this development as proof that the  Chinese “want to get more on par with Western  countries.”

The three JIN [ballistic missile submarines] currently in  service would be insufficient to maintain a constant at-sea  presence for extended periods of time, but if the PLA Navy builds  five units as some sources suggest, a continuous peacetime  presence may become a viable option for the PLAN,” Karotkin  noted.

Karotkin explained in his report that a number of factors have  forced China to modernize its Navy, which now has more than 60  submarines, 55 medium and large amphibious ships, roughly 77  principal surface ships, and nearly 100 other small craft.

At the dawn of the 21st Century, the People’s Liberation  Army Navy remained a largely littoral force. Though China’s  maritime interests were rapidly changing, the vast majority of  its naval platforms offered very limited capability and  endurance, particularly in blue water. Over the past 15 years the  PLAN has carried out an ambitious modernization effort, resulting  in a more technologically advanced and flexible force,” he  wrote, as quoted by

“This transformation is evident not only in the PLAN’s gulf  of Aden counter-piracy presence, which is now in its sixth year,  but also in the navy’s more advanced regional operations and  exercises. In contrast to its narrow focus a decade ago, the PLAN  is evolving to meet a wide range of missions including conflict  with Taiwan, enforcement of maritime claims, protection of  economic interests, as well as counter-piracy and humanitarian  missions.”

China also proved it has updated other military forces last month  when, according to the Pentagon, the PLAN flight-tested a  hypersonic missile delivery vehicle capable of penetrating any  existing defense system with nuclear warheads. The weapon is one  that experts have hailed as a game-changer for its ability to hit  a target with a nuclear warhead before defense systems can react.

The Pentagon confirmed to the Washington Free Beacon that the  test flight had taken place but offered no further explanation.  The US is the only country in the world known to have such a  weapon in its arsenal.

“We routinely monitor foreign defense activities and we are  aware of the test,” a spokesman said.

Jin Class submarine with ICBM hatches open


The Type 094 (Jin-class) is the second generation of the Chinese navy nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) to replace the type 092 (Xia-class) SSBN


China has flight-tested a  hypersonic missile delivery vehicle capable of penetrating any  existing defense system with nuclear warheads


The Return of China’s Small-Stick Diplomacy in South China Sea
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

What If Russia Hosted The Olympics and Nobody Came?

February 6, 2014
  • Thursday marked the Olympic debut of slopestyle – a snowboarding event
  • Nearly all of the spectators who showed up for the first event of the Sochi Olympics were Russian
  • Two big stars – including American Shaun White – pulled out of the event after the jumps were labeled ‘too dangerous’
  • First event to begin before the Opening Ceremony in 30 years

By Michael Zennie and Reuters and Associated Press

The Olympic debut of slopestyle – a snowboarding event that has competitors performing breathtaking tricks – kicked off today in front of a nearly empty stadium.

The spectators who did attend were nearly all Russian – raising questions over whether security threats, human rights questions and the trickle of Sochi horror stories will keep the world away from the Olympics.

There were large pockets of empty seats during portions of men’s and women’s qualifying on Thursday, particularly near the beginning and end of the seven-hour session.

Anybody there? The stadium for the Sochi Olympics' debut event was almost entirely empty on Thursday - a discouraging start to a Winter Games already plagued with problems

Anybody there? The stadium for the Sochi Olympics’ debut event was almost entirely empty on Thursday – a discouraging start to a Winter Games already plagued with problems

The event was before the official opening ceremony on Friday, but the turnout was nonetheless discouraging for athletes

The event was before the official opening ceremony on Friday, but the turnout was nonetheless discouraging for athletes

The weather wasn’t to blame. Conditions were perfect with sunny skies, warm temperatures and not even the hint of a breeze.

And, despite controversy after two competitors were injured, on jumps that were deemed ‘too dangerous,’ the course wasn’t to blame, either. After days of tweaks, the jumps were tame enough for eight riders to post scores in the 90s – very strong performances.

Thursday’s slopestyle qualifying courses marked the first Olympic competition has been held before the winter Games opening ceremony in 30 years.

The crowd appeared to be largely Russian. The biggest cheers were reserved for Russian Alexey Sobolev even though he finished 10th out of 15 riders during his qualifying heat.



As the competition began, much of the focus had been on athlete safety. However, most athletes came away unscathed at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.

All eyes were on the course following Wednesday’s withdrawal of American Shaun White, citing safety concerns, and the frightening crash that left Norway medal hope Torstein Horgmo with a broken collarbone.

But if any of the snowboarders were holding anything back on the sport’s Olympic debut they did not show it, as they launched themselves spinning through the air to impress the judges.

Thursday marked the Olympic debut of the sport - slopestyle - though some of snowboarding's biggest stars have pulled out after deeming the course 'too dangerous.' American Karly Shorr is pictured

Thursday marked the Olympic debut of the sport – slopestyle – though some of snowboarding’s biggest stars have pulled out after deeming the course ‘too dangerous.’ American Karly Shorr is pictured


Australian Scotty James was left clutching his ribs after a heavy fall, and Norway’s Kjersti Buaas had to seek medical attention following a wipeout on her final run in the womens second heat.

But overall, competitors were pleased with the course.

‘It’s demanding, but it works. It’s not a bad course,’ Norway’s Torgeir Bergrem, who slipped in both runs, told Reuters in the finish zone

‘They’re not the most “poppy” jumps – we’re used to getting a little help with our tricks – but you have to do everything on your own here, so I guess that’s the main difference that people are struggling with.’

Bergrem said that doubts over course safety expressed earlier in the week had been dealt with after organizers trimmed the height of some of the jumps.

‘It’s not dangerous at all, it’s a regular course,’ he said.

The opening ceremony is not until Friday, but the sparse attendance does not bode well for the Sochi games

The opening ceremony is not until Friday, but the sparse attendance does not bode well for the Sochi games


Nearly everyone in the stands was Russian, according to reports - raising questions about whether the world is willing to come to Sochi

Nearly everyone in the stands was Russian, according to reports – raising questions about whether the world is willing to come to Sochi


‘The jumps are regular size, the rails are good, it’s fine.’

Games officials had been racing to complete preparations in time but as Britain’s Billy Morgan took off to give slopestyle its official debut, volunteers were still hammering poles into the ground to secure crash barriers.

Morgan was so focused on his run that he was not even aware he was about to make snowboarding history.

‘It was pretty cool, I didn’t realize until one of the other athletes told me at the top,’ he told reporters.

‘I didn’t think about it until the last minute. I had fun and it was really good.’

Cheered on by a crowd well short of capacity, the riders grabbed the sport’s Olympic opportunity with both hands, posing for photographs and signing autographs for fans.

Eight automatic spots in both the men’s and women’s final were up for grabs on Thursday, with the second heats delivering the day’s most breathtaking action.

Austria’s Anna Gasser showed no signs of nerves as she put in a sizzling run to score 95.50 to book her place in the final.

‘I was so nervous, I’ve never been that nervous in my life before. I’m straight to the finals, that’s the best thing I could wish for,’ she said with a beaming smile.

‘It’s the Olympics, and back home it’s the first time it (slopestyle) is on TV back home, so I knew all my friends were watching.’

In the second heat of the men’s competition, Canada’s Maxence Parrot came out on top after a frenzied second run which saw the lead change hands several times.

The men’s final is on Saturday and the women’s the following day.
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Putin Wanted The Sochi Olympics To Proclaim The Self-Evident Triumph of Russia’s Will — But He Faces an Avalanche of Criticism Instead

February 6, 2014


Russia has started its downward slide.


The New York Times


President Vladimir V. Putin delivered remarks ahead of the opening of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Pascal Le Segretain/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

MOSCOW — When President Vladimir V. Putin delivered Russia’s successful pitch to host the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi — in English, and a smattering of French, no less — he declared it an international validation of the Russia that emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union.

“It is, beyond any doubt, a judgment on our country,” he said then, nearly seven years ago.

Now, as the first events begin, the Games have for Mr. Putin and his allies become a self-evident triumph of Russia’s will. The avalanche of criticism that has already fallen, from minor complaints about ill-prepared hotels and stray dogs to grave concerns about the costs, security and human rights, is brushed away like snowflakes from a winter coat.

“Its realization is already a huge win for our country,” Dmitri N. Kozak, a deputy prime minister and one of Mr. Putin’s longest-standing aides, said in Sochi on Thursday. He went on to use a phrase attributed to Catherine the Great when she intervened to halt the court-martial of a general who had stormed an Ottoman fortress without orders in the 18th century:

“Victors are not judged.”

For Mr. Putin’s critics, inside and outside Russia, a reckoning looms nonetheless. What was once supposed to be a crowning moment for Russia and Mr. Putin himself, they say, is now awkwardly coinciding with a significant slowdown in Russia’s economy, raising questions about whether the $50 billion or so spent on Sochi might better have been invested elsewhere.

Despite relatively high oil prices that have driven Russia’s recovery for most of Mr. Putin’s time in power, the Kremlin has already signaled that it would have to cut spending to make up for projected shortfalls in revenue, caused by an erosion of most other commodity prices and a dearth of new foreign investment.

Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, argued that the International Olympic Committee awarded the games to Sochi — over Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea — at a time when Mr. Putin was at the zenith of his powers in his second term but when the verdict on his legacy remained an open one. Many had been critical of his authoritarian instincts after he rose to power — including the tightening of news media and political freedoms and the brutal war in Chechnya — but Russia had indisputably recovered from the chaos of the 1990s.

“At that time, Russia was ‘rising from its knees,’” Ms. Shevtsova wrote in an essay on the center’s website, “whereas now — in 2014 —– Russia has started its downward slide.”

The stalling of the economy, despite the stimulus of Olympian spending, has raised worries about popular unrest directed at the Kremlin and a tightening of political freedoms in response once the Games are over.

Growth last year slowed to 1.3 percent, the lowest in a decade except for during the global recession in 2009, even as other major economies showed signs of recovery. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently called for urgent changes in labor policies, productivity and a government and legal bureaucracy that now stifle development — all long promised but not enacted.

“Structural reforms to improve the business climate are key to raising potential growth and economic resilience,” the organization wrote in its survey of Russia’s economy last month. “As energy prices stagnate and labor and capital become fully utilized, growth is falling behind pre-crisis rates. Making the economy stronger, more balanced, and less dependent on rents from national resource extraction is therefore a key challenge.”

The sheer cost of the games has suddenly become a liability even in a political system that allows little room for public debate about the wisdom of government spending.

“It is about a lost chance,” said Aleksei A. Navalny, whose Foundation for the Fight Against Corruption recently published an interactive website charting what critics have called excessive waste and corruption in the construction of the Olympic facilities. “It is about what Russia could have done with this money. We could have had a new industrialization along the same lines as the industrialization under Stalin.”

Instead, he added, “It’s just one crazy little czar who chose to throw money right and left in some kind of madness.”

Russia is not about to collapse. Nor does Mr. Putin’s rule face any foreseeable challenge, something even a determined critic like Mr. Navalny acknowledged. Mr. Putin’s approval rating, bolstered by lavishly positive coverage on state television, remains as high as when he first came to office.

Hosting the Olympics, however, seems to have lost some of the luster officials expected for Russia’s prestige at home and abroad, much to the frustration of Mr. Putin’s supporters.

The Olympics have refocused international attention on the hard-line policies Mr. Putin’s government has pursued since he returned to the presidency in 2012 after a four-year interregnum as prime minister and prompted calls for protests and even boycotts.

The list is long: Russia’s support for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and its efforts to keep Ukraine out of the orbit of the European Union; its prosecution of political opponents, real and perceived; its restrictions on foreign adoptions, and the passage of a law last year prohibiting “homosexual propaganda” aimed at children; even its most recent campaign to choke off the only independent television news channel on the pretext of questioning the Soviet Union’s victory following the Siege of Leningrad, which ended 70 years ago.

“The Games are supposed to be outside of politics,” Aleksandr D. Zhukov, the deputy speaker of the lower house of Parliament and the chairman of the Russian Olympic Committee, said in a recent interview. “Those who try to pin some political tails on them are just being undignified.”

To many officials here, criticism of the Games has a pernicious undertow of Western hostility toward Russia, intended to deny the country its rightful place in the world order. It is a sentiment that shapes Russia’s foreign policy, especially toward the United States.

“I once heard a very good explanation from a very wise person about why we will never be able to explain ourselves completely in such a way that everyone will like us,” the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said in a lengthy interview with the newspaper Kommersant this week. Presumably he meant Mr. Putin himself.

“This wise person said, ‘Do you know when everyone will love us and cease to criticize us and so on, including criticizing us for no reason?’” Mr. Peskov said. “And I asked, ‘When?’ And he said, ‘When we dissolve our army, when we concede all our natural resources to them as a concession and when we sell all our land to Western investors. That’s when they’ll cease to criticize us.’”

Mr. Putin, for his part, has presided over the final preparations in Sochi seemingly impervious to the flurry of rebukes, from trivial mockery of the state of Russia’s hospitality industry to searing criticism from groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which has already declared two environmentalists arrested this week as the Olympics’ first prisoners of conscience.

He met with the presidents of Tajikistan and China on Thursday, the first of a series of meetings with heads of state that will happen on the margins of the Games.

“We have strong memories of the emotional, uplifting enthusiasm we felt during the 1980 Moscow Olympics,” Mr. Putin said, again in English, when he opened the 126th session of the International Olympic Committee on Tuesday, omitting any reference to the United States-led boycott that marred those Games. “And we feel truly joyful and positive because the mighty, inspiring spirit of the Olympic Games is once against returning to our nation.”

President Obama and the leaders of France, Germany and Britain may have declined to attend the Games, but they will end up in Sochi soon regardless. Russia will be the host of this year’s Group of 8 summit, and Mr. Putin has decided to hold it there.

Patrick Reevell contributed reporting from Moscow,  and Nikolay Khalip from Sochi.

Taliban talks: What is Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai really up to?

February 6, 2014
Afghan President Hamid Karzai (AFP Photo / Johannes Eisele)Afghan President Hamid Karzai (AFP Photo / Johannes Eisele)

By Pepe Escobar

Whatever one’s judgment of sartorially immaculate crypto-American puppet Afghan President Hamid Karzai, he’s not a fool.

So now the word is out, via his spokesman Aimal Fazi, that Karzai  envoys have been negotiating in Dubai with the Afghan Taliban. And Karzai, on top of it, is boldly  encouraging Washington to join the party. Otherwise, he won’t  sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) – the key plot line in  the Hindu Kush’s favorite geopolitical soap opera for over a year  now.

Let’s try to break this mess down succinctly.

On one side we have the Obama administration dying to exit  Afghanistan, but with the Pentagon adamant on keeping boots on  the ground and at least some well-located pearls in its vast  Empire of Bases.

On the other we have a US puppet who needs to think about his  future after whatever form the American exit takes; otherwise the  Taliban may grill him like a live kebab.

And in the middle, just merrily watching the proceedings, we have  the Afghan Taliban, which will inevitably make a killing –   literally and otherwise – whichever way the Hindu Kush winds  blow.

Mullah Omar in da house

This running comedy includes plot twists worthy of the TV show  Homeland. The Obama administration even tried to negotiate with  the Taliban in Qatar; by June last year, failure was evident. At  the time, Karzai angrily denounced it.

Now it’s his turn – complete with his added American enticement.  Plus the hugely popular demand that the Obama administration  abandon its modus operandi of repeatedly targeting Afghan  villages in the drone war – with loads of “collateral  damage.”

Two former Taliban fighters carry their weapons during a handover as they join a government peace and reconciliation process at a ceremony in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province on January 11, 2014. (AFP Photo / Noorullah Shirzada) Two former Taliban fighters carry their weapons during a handover as they join a government peace and reconciliation process at a ceremony in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province on January 11, 2014. (AFP Photo / Noorullah Shirzada)


One may imagine the roars of laughter of Taliban supremo Mullah  Omar at his secret refuge, possibly in Quetta – so secret that  the NSA has never intercepted anything in or out of it.

Omar and his mullahs may – or may not – hold the pleasure of  playing Karzai like a violin, lots of sophisticated Pashtun  subterfuge included. Still, any way they play, they can’t lose.  They know that as much as Karzai badly needs to buy some  protection, Mob-style, he may also insert them – in a totally  legit way – inside the Afghan political scene. What’s not to  like?

The Obama administration, as usual, is puzzled. The official spin   – playing like a scratched CD – is about “fighting  Al-Qaeda.” It’s not. Al-Qaeda has been non-existent in  Afghanistan for years. The fight is against the Taliban. Now, not  only we’re sort of kicking ourselves out, but we also need to  talk to them?

The point is everybody needs a deal with everybody else. Karzai  well knows he needs to cut a deal with the Taliban; otherwise his  successor, to be chosen in next April’s elections, will be  crushed by them.

Karzai also knows that crucial strategic/intelligence sectors in  Pakistan support the Afghan Taliban, even as the Obama  administration has advertised a current strategic dialog with  Pakistan. Any progress with that with drones in and out of  Afghanistan continuing to strike the tribal areas in Pakistan is  an absolute no-no.

The Obama administration now even faces the possibility of a  double defeat; no SOFA in Afghanistan – because Karzai or his  successor won’t sign it – implying no US troops whatsoever  staying beyond the end of 2014; and on top of it being forced to  talk to the Taliban.

The privileged spectators of this whole mess are regional powers  Russia, China, Iran and India. They are also well aware that  things will never get better in Islamabad with the Americans  still ensconced in their bases in Afghanistan.

Reuters / Andrew BurtonReuters / Andrew Burton


What they certainly don’t want – except Delhi – is any remaining  US/NATO deployment in Afghanistan. Especially because they know  the next step would be the Obama administration – not to mention  a possible, future, hawkish Hillary Clinton administration –   deploying the US missile defense system in the Hindu Kush, a  cataclysmic move in the New Great Game in Eurasia if there ever  was one.

So all’s still at play in Afghanistan – depending on the results  of the April elections. The Taliban, as a fighting force, remains  powerful, but as an electoral force it won’t be going anywhere.  Karzai’s game implies a big play for some sort of ceremonial role  after the supposed American drawdown – as in politically  legitimizing the Taliban. Still the Taliban holds the privilege  of choosing either to be led down this road, or do it in its own  hardcore way.

Remember that pipeline?

Now compare the process in Afghanistan with the one across the  border, where the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) are considering talking  with the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (the offer was  Sharif’s).

The key condition is for the government to “implement the  constitution, which has been violated,” according to famous  maulana Samiul Haq, whose madrassa near Peshawar – dubbed ‘the  Taliban Harvard’ – has been educating them since the early 1990s.

Haq insists Sharif should renounce “the foreign war” –   as in no more collaboration with the Americans. And Sharia law  should be enforced immediately.

So negotiating with the Pakistani Taliban may result in Islamabad  coping with significantly less, or even no, bombings. At the same  time that implies the Pakistani Taliban further being able to  project soft power right inside the Pakistani mainstream. For the  Sharif government, it’s a risk worth taking.

As Sharif is about to talk to the TTP while Karzai is already  talking to the Afghan chapter, Washington risks being left  talking to itself. And ruminating on those long gone days of the  second Clinton administration, when all that it took to mollify  the Taliban was to give them a cut of that perennial pipe dream,  the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) gas pipeline.

No deal was cut, and the rest was, is and will remain the  ultimate, lethal Hindu Kush tragicomedy.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times/Hong Kong, an analyst for RT and TomDispatch, and a frequent contributor to websites and radio shows ranging from the US to East Asia.


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